Tornmile: Part 48

Tornmile
Part XLVIII: A Pair of Damsels

Mishak and Wieland emerged from the The Old Wreck into the dark street. The air smelled of the recent rain, though no more than a steady trickle still fell from the sky. Mishak turned his coat collar up against it and wondered how the smith managed without a coat at all. Wieland was looking up at the clouds, which obscured the moon, meaning the only light in the street came from the lamps inside the inn. The cobbles glistened in the orange glow.

“The rain will get heavier again before long,” Wieland said, setting off towards the edge of the inn where an alley would lead them back towards the Tanneries, “this shower’s just a brief respite.”

Mishak nodded and pulled his coat closer, listening to the distant thunder, which was little more than a dull rumble. Their boots splashed on the cobbles as they walked and Mishak was glad when they reached the packed earth of the alleyway running beside the inn. The building’s roof extended out, keeping the rain from their heads and the earth beneath their foot was dry. The rain fell in a constant patter above them and fell like a waterfall from the sun’s roof into the yards of the shops adjacent. They walked unhurriedly, Mishak matching his pace to Wieland’s; the smith didn’t mind the rain, however heavy.

As they passed the yard to inn’s stable, Mishak heard a cry. It was brief, but high, as if someone had called for help but been silenced.

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Wieland said, turning back to look at Mishak, who had stopped in the centre of the alley.

“That cry. Like a scream, but cut short.”

“No.”

Mishak moved towards the stableyard gate and then hesitated. Had it been a scream? He turned to Wieland.

“You really didn’t hear anything?”

“Only the rain.”

Mishak paused, but couldn’t walk away. He had to know if he’d been right. If someone had called, he couldn’t leave them alone. Gently he pushed the door to the stableyard open and walked into the courtyard beyond. The stable stalls stood opposite, all of them closed for the night. To the left stood the main gates to the yard, through which customers would ride to get to the inn from the road. All was quiet; the gates stood open, but there was no one in the yard.

“I said it was nothing, didn’t I?” Wieland said from behind Mishak.

The door to the inn suddenly swung open and Mishak looked towards it. There was no on there; clearly it had been left ajar by someone. Light from within the inn spilled across the courtyard and Mishak glanced back at the noise. A platter lay on the cobbles, bread, cheese and apples littering the ground around it. Leaving Wieland by the gate, muttering to himself, Mishak crossed to the fallen platter and looked towards the inn to see if someone would come to clean the mess.

No one did, but one of the stable doors flew open and the serving girl, Lydie, came running out, stumbling across the cobbles, clutching her dress to herself. She was looking over her shoulder and did not see Mishak before she collided with him. The impact knocked him backwards, but he managed to hold her upright.

“What’s happening?” he asked her.

“He tried to…he’s…”

It was all she could manage before she buried her head into his shoulder, weeping. Seconds later, the merchant guard who had been mauling Lydie in the inn emerged from the stable, a livid red mark across his cheek. He saw Mishak with Lydie and smirked.

“You have to wait your turn, Stamm. I haven’t had mine and my men are after me.”

“No one will be having a turn on her. She’s a serving maid, not a whore.”

The merchant guard tossed his head back and laughed. Though he wore no uniform, he wore a red sash around one arm to mark him as a captain of the group and he had a pin brooch at his shoulder of a gold disc with initials set into it in precious stones, which indicated his employer. It was not an insignia that Mishak recognised; it was unlikely his master was highly thought of in the city or, at least, not by the clerks of the Spire. That was borne out by the stable as his accommodation rather than a room at the inn.

“Oh, that’s all right,” the captain said, still laughing, “I wasn’t going to pay her.”

Mishak took a few steps back and seated Lydie on the step of the inn’s back door, therefore exposing the Stammish axe at his belt.

“Walk away, close the door, and don’t come out till morning. Then you leave with your master. You touch this girl or any girl and it’ll be the last thing you do.”

“You Stamms,” the captain said, shaking his head, “so quick to start but slow on numbers.”

He whistled and four others came out from the stable, all with swords at their hips. One handed a drawn sword to the captain and then they began to advance.

“See, there’s five of us and one of you. So what now, Stamm?”

“I’m not a Stamm,” he said quietly, drawing the battle axe from his belt, “I am Mishak, son of Miska of the Smrtritter stamme, and there’s not one of us, but two.”

How Wieland managed to move so quietly, Mishak couldn’t say, but the smith had reached the rearmost man as Mishak spoke and struck immediately afterwards, the heavy head of his hammer catching the man in the side of the head. There was a loud crack, like a peal of thunder, and the man went down. One of his companion’s followed, taking Wieland’s backhand to the chest and sprawling across the cobbles.

Mishak surged forwards, swinging the axe up from the floor towards the captain’s chest. The captain brought his sword down to block and the steel grated as the blades connected. Neither could gain the upper hand though. The man to the captain’s left drew his blade and moved forward to swing at Mishak, raising the blade high. Deftly, Mishak drew a knife from his belt and drove it into the man’s open mouth, feeling it scrape as it pushed through the man’s neck.

The man grabbed Mishak’s arm, unbelieving, and then started to fall, his body going limp and dragging Mishak down with him. Mishak stumbled, his hand slipping free of his axe and he fell hard against the stones, the wind driven from his chest. He looked towards Wieland, hoping he was ready to help, but the smith was fighting the man to the captain’s right and had not noticed Mishak’s fall.

The captain smiled and came forwards, ready to finish what he had begun. Suddenly there was a whirl of skirts and Mishak briefly thought Marthe had appeared from nowhere, but it was Lydie who had moved, grabbing Mishak’s axe and standing between him and the captain. The captain smiled, disarming her with a lazy swipe of his sword and then brought the blade back to cut the straps of her dress, nicking the skin beneath. Lydie squealed and clutched her hands to her chest and the captain pushed the sword to her neck.

“Not the place I wanted to stick you,” he said, “but it’ll have to do.”

His smile disappeared as someone grabbed him from behind. Mishak thought it was a man, but he wore a hood, which obscured his face.

“That’s no way to speak to a lady,” the hooded man said.

Then there was a flash of silver and the hooded man sliced the captain’s throat; blood spewed out, slickening the cobbles. A crunch followed as Wieland brought his hammer down on the last man’s skull, killing him instantly. Mishak got to his feet and retrieved his axe and knife.

“Are you all right?” he asked Lydie.

She looked down at the captain, who lay face down in a pool of his own blood, and nodded.

“Go inside and change. Tell them the guards fought over you and killed each other.”

She nodded again and turned towards the door. She hesitated, then turned back and stood on her tiptoes to kiss Mishak on the cheek.

“I won’t forget this.”

Then she turned away and strode into the inn without a backward glance. Mishak watched her go, hoping that she would be all right and he forced down the urge to go after her and see that she was. Instead, he looked to the hooded stranger.

“Lucky for me that you dropped by: you have my thanks.”

“Thought I’d find Wieland here,” Dunstan Ferrer said, pulling the hood back and shrugging. “But I’m glad to be able to help.”

“What is it you wanted of me, Mr Ferrer,” Wieland asked, wiping the head of his hammer with a rag.

“We found where Rose is and we know where her friends are. I’ve come with a job for you. You, too, Mishak, if you’re interested.”

Mishak looked at the man for a long time, glanced at Wieland, and then nodded.

“Good. Let’s go then.”

Ferrer started off for the stable gates and turned into the street to head towards the Spire. Wieland and Mishak followed, Mishak thanking the smith for his involvement in the fight and the smith waving the thanks away. They walked after Ferrer, who said no more about what the job was, keeping his own counsel. The streets were deserted, it now being very late, and the lack of light made both Mishak wary of who might be lurking in the shadows. Wieland did not seem worried, but then his size should have deterred even the most dedicated cutpurse and his lack of coat made him seem like he could not afford one rather than that he opted not to wear one. A man who couldn’t afford a coat to keep him dry in the rain was not worth mugging. Ferrer walked like he owned the night and it crossed Mishak’s mind that with the number of cutpurses Ferrer employed, he might just do that.

They had just come within the shadow of the Spire, when Ferrer turned away towards the north. Mishak breathed a sigh of relief. There was always the chance that the guards at the Spire would recognise Minham’s former servant and he had no desire to spend the rest of the night in a cell awaiting the rope, even if it would be relatively dry. The rain continued to fall.

When they were a street from the cathedral, Ferrer moved into an alleyway under the overhang of a second storey. Pleased to be out of the rain, Mishak hurried forward, and Wieland followed on behind. There were some men already assembled there, leaning against the wall. As Ferrer approached, one of them – a man with a scar across his cheek and forehead and the eye beneath it white – kicked his companions until they stood up straight to receive Ferrer.

“Right,” Ferrer said, once they had all assembled, “Rose is attending the cathedral tonight, and some of her friends are with her, waiting outside. What we’re going to do is take her friends away, then we’re going to head over to Lord Astur’s mansion to await Rose and Sir Darian’s return.”

“We’re kidnapping them?” Mishak asked. The other men shuffled away from him.

“I want her to be as unprotected as possible, so we can get to her without going through everyone else,” Ferrer said, simply, “I don’t want anyone killed when you take them.”

Mishak nodded; he wasn’t sure that he agreed with what Rose had done, but that didn’t mean innocents had to suffer.

“And make sure none of them get away this time, Lochan.”

He was addressing the man with the white eye, who growled a little under his breath, but nodded. One of the men beside him smirked a little, but dropped it away as Lochan turned to look at him. Clearly they took their orders from him.

“Right, you’re looking for a young girl around fifteen summers, an old man, and that spy we took a while back. Watch out for him, because he’s a fighter. There might be others with them, so take anyone you see there. Lochan’s in charge. I’ll go to sort out the others at the mansion. Wieland, you’re with me. Mishak with Lochan.”

Mishak shook Wieland by the hand in the stamme fashion, and regretted that he wouldn’t be here. There was something reassuring about having the smith there to watch his back. It wasn’t just his size, though that was useful. Wieland and Ferrer moved out into the night and Mishak watched them go, until Lochan gave them the order to move forward.

They walked into the next street, which was more like a square than anything. The tall towers of the cathedral rose above the road and a small fountain stood in the middle of the street. Rain splashed against the water in the fountain, joining the water pouring from the statues of cup-bearing messengers of the Emperor of Heaven in the centre. Lochan lead them on, towards the cathedral steps.

The main doors to the cathedral were open, the huge arched oak pushed aside to allow access to the vestibule at the front of the building. The portico was carved with images of various holy men and other such figures, as well as signifiers of the glory of the Tornmilian god. It was a far cry from the wood groves of the stamme and Mishak found it too solid, too emotionless. Not the natural stone as the gods had laid it down, but the workings and creation of men. The carvings were intricate and Mishak could appreciate it, but not how it was supposed to represent the god it had been built to worship.

Beyond the first set of doors was another similar set, only a little shorter. These were shut; the cathedral was only open to everyone in the daylight hours. It was unusual for anyone to have to wait in the vestibule, though there were several ceremonies that might demand it. Mishak could not remember them all – he had never paid much attention to the religious matters of his former master and Minham for his part had never pushed Mishak to give up the gods of his ancestors.

In the vestibule was a small group of people, sat on benches outside the inner doors, and illuminated by torches hung from brackets on the wall. The young girl was immediately obvious, sat at the end of the bench closest the door, wearing a woollen dress that looked tawdry in its current surroundings.

“Right,” Lochan said, “there they are. Let’s rush them and capture them.”

“Wait,” Mishak said, pulling them aside so that they were less visible to the group inside.

“What is it, Stamm?”

“If we rush them, they’ll know something’s amiss. They’ll try to defend themselves or run and either some will get away or some will get hurt. If people get hurt, the others will fight harder and then people might die. Mr Ferrer said he wanted nobody hurt. We can’t just rush in and start swinging.”

The man with scar came up close to Mishak. He was a good head taller, and his teeth barely unclenched for him to speak. Mishak reached towards his axe, but didn’t draw it. There was throwing a bone to a dangerous dog and there was kicking it in the stomach.

“Got a better idea have you?”

Mishak looked up and down the street. A cart somewhere rumbled along the cobbled streets and there was a curricle with two horses hitched to a post a little way along.

“Yes. I have. You five,” he said, pointing to half of the men, “you wait here. Make sure no one leaves the cathedral and gets away. The rest of you come with Lochan and I. There’s a shrine inside the cathedral vestibule that travellers sometimes use when they return. We’ll pretend we’re going there. I’m a Stammish merchant, Lochan’s my guard captain. The rest of you are guards, looking to pray thanks for a safe return home. Understood?”

All of the men turned from Mishak to Lochan, who hesitated before nodding. His acceptance was enough to guarantee everyone else’s though. They headed towards the vestibule as Mishak had said and inside.

Their entrance caused the group to look round. The young girl was there, as was the old man, and one with bandages and cuts who was probably the spy. His hand went to the short sword at his waist, but it was more reflex than anything. Mishak thought the man might well be a Stamm, though he dressed in the Tornmilian fashion. It was he that Mishak approached, Lochan in tow.

“Good evening,” Mishak said, inclining his head.

“Evening,” the man said in return.

He was trying not to be impolite, whilst also being wary of the strangers. He eyed the other men with suspicion, but they put on a good act of processing to the shrine and offering up prayers. Mishak thought that it could well be genuine on their part. They were all from the city itself and it was a shrine to their god. Seeing the men praying, though, caused the spy to loosen his suspicion and his hand came away from the short sword.

“Travelled far?”

“From Coningsbur,” Mishak said, “A long journey and I would like my bed, but the men won’t rest without making their prayers first.”

“With respect, sir,” Lochan said in a manner that didn’t indicate any respect and that the sentence chafed entirely, “our ways are ours and we stick by them.”

“Men should be allowed their prayers,” the spy said.

The men, either finished with their prayers or tired of the pretence came back towards the Mishak and Lochan. The spy turned away. It was time.

“Ready?” Mishak said to the men.

“Now!” Lochan followed, and he kicked the spy’s knee from behind, causing the man to go down.

The men rushed forward and grabbed hold of the old man, who made little effort to resist, once he had seen that the spy had been taken so easily. The girl, though, reacted as fast as lightning; she leap aside of one man who went to restrain her, slapped another aside, and ran for the doors. Mishak went after her, hoping that the men outside had stuck to their cordon.

They had, and they ran up the stairs towards her. Mishak slowed, allowing them the satisfaction of claiming her – their involvement would have seemed small otherwise. He was surprised, though, when the girl stopped and turned back on herself, running back up the stairs away from them and to the side of the doors, hoping to get through the gap between the stairs and the doors and disappear around the side of the building. Mishak sped after her, outstripping the other men, and tripping her before she could get too far.

She stumbled, ran a few more paces, and then hit the floor, calling out softly as she did so. It was not a hard fall, and he didn’t think she’d be injured, but he was more concerned that she might get up and keep running, so he flung himself forward and pushed a knee into the small of her back, drawing a knife in the process. There was still blood on it and he put it next to her head where she could see it.

“I’ve already killed someone tonight, you don’t want me to make it two, do you?”

She stopped struggling and the men caught up, bringing rope to bind her with. Lochan came out of the cathedral with the other prisoners and ordered them all on to the mansion. Mishak took control of the girl, not trusting the others to treat her as well as he would, especially if she tried to escape.

“Just do as we say and you won’t get hurt,” he said to her softly.

She turned and spat at him. There was so much hate in her eyes. Mishak could hardly blame her, but he pushed her in the back anyway.

“Move!”

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