Tornmile: Part 50

Tornmile
Part L: The Golden Hawk

Mishak pushed the girl ahead of him out into the large square that sprawled before the mansions of the city’s Northern district. The bland name belay the expense of the buildings and the nobility that lived there, but now was not a time for musing on the vanity of the mapmakers, even if the name was deliberately bland to show how rich the district was. The girl stumbled a bit, shooting a look of anger over her shoulders at Mishak, who raised his blade to keep her from any silly decisions.

They were separated from the others, an attempt to avoid the eyes of the City Watch, who would have questions for men moving others at knife point through the city at night. Mishak had even eschewed tying the girl up; she knew he could outrun her and he kept his blade close. It was the axe at his hip rather than the knife in his hand that drew her eye. She saw it first when they had been with the others. Looks were exchanged between her and the spy, speaking of some understanding being silently reached. Mishak had slipped the knife away and rested a hand firmly on the axe haft, Her eyes had widened and she’d forgotten for a moment to show him hatred. There was only fear. He wondered if it was to do with their present situation or something else. It didn’t matter all that much.

Now all that was needed was the knife; she knew the axe was there and it had kept her from attempting to escape so far. Lochan’s suggestion that they approach the house from different directions was a decent one. It avoided the Watch’s eyes more easily and it presented the prisoners from scheming too closely. Added to that, it got Lochan away from Mishak and Mishak was happy with that. The man had played his part in the deception well enough, but it had not sat well with him that Mishak’s plan had worked so well. He had been doubly gruff afterwards. Mishak did not like him it at all, and he could tell that the feeling was mutual.

The grand square was deserted, which had the same wrongness to it as a forest without birdsong or the snuffling of nocturnal creatures. The squares were always busy with servants doing their master’s bidding or the rich returning from state business or feasts. Something or somebody had kept people indoors and Mishak didn’t think it was Ferrer. He would operate in secret; the square looking as it always did on a night like this would keep the Watch happy and not push them to look at things closer, especially when they could complete their rounds and get out of the rain. Thunder rolled overhead, but there was still no bolt of lightning to illuminate the overcast night. It would come in time.

The sound of footsteps made Mishak freeze, peering into the darkness. He could vaguely make out the shape of two men patrolling the edge of the square. They could be Ferrer’s men or they could be City Watch. He ducked into the shadow of a building, pressing himself into the shop doorway and called the girl to him. She frowned, obviously wondering what he was doing. Bloody girl. If she sees the Watch it’s over and back to the rope.

Mishak swirled out of the doorway, wrapped an arm around her middle and lifted her from the ground, bounding back into the shadows. He pushed her into the doorway, holding her against the door with a hand over her mouth.

“When I say ‘move’, you move or it’s the axe and an open throat.”

Unable to speak from under his hand, she nodded slowly and deliberately. There wasn’t anger in her eyes now. It wasn’t fear either. It was something else, something that he couldn’t put his finger on. He frowned at her and then peered out into the square. The men were closer, but still not visible enough to see who they were. They carried a lantern, but it was hooded against the wind. Giving the girl a warning look, he raised his fingers to his lips. She nodded again. Slowly, he dropped his hand from her mouth so that he could rest it on the axe, loosening the loop that held it. If they were seen, he would be ready.

Caught up in preparation for the kill as he was, it took him a few seconds to realise that the girl’s hand was on his thigh. He looked at her and she was looking back, eyes fixed on his own through the darkness. Her hand went higher.

“You’re very strong,” she whispered in what she evidently imagined was a seductive tone, “I’ve always liked that in a man.”

He caught her hand as it moved across from his thigh and pulled it away.

“It won’t help,” he said, “For one, you’re too young.”

“It was worth a try,” she shrugged, and sank back into the darkness, still and silent.

Mishak nodded. He didn’t blame her for wanting to escape, but he didn’t want her to succeed either. Besides, there wasn’t a girl that could hold a candle to Marthe. He wondered whether she was at Eloi’s bedside still, or whether she too was huddled in a doorway waiting for the Watch to pass. The men had moved closer now, their lantern never deviating from the path ahead of them, and before long they were gone, footsteps retreating until they were drowned out by thunder.

Mishak waited a little longer and then tugged at the girl’s sleeve to get her out into the night. The cloth was damp under his skin – soaked with rain, just as his own clothes were. She had no coat, though, like he had and he realised that she was shivering. Soaked to the skin in the night air, he was not surprised. He pulled his coat off and handed it to her.

“Put it on,” he said, “You’re cold.”

She ignored him and started off down the street, a slow trudge through the rain, but defiant against Mishak. He moved after her, catching her up and taking her by the sleeve.

“Put it on,” he said, more a growl this time.

“I don’t want it. I don’t want anything from you.”

“What’s your name?”

He wasn’t sure why he’d asked, but the question was out now. From the look on the girl’s face she was thinking the same thing. She frowned at him for a moment as if trying to work out what game he was playing and what the next move would be. He opened his mouth to insist that she put on the coat, but she spoke first.

“Léa,” she said in a soft voice he had not heard her use before, “my name is Léa.”

“Mishak,” he said, introducing himself. “Now, listen, Léa. I know you don’t want anything from me and I don’t blame you. But my boss says to keep you all from harm, and I reckon preventing you catching the blueskin fever counts. And if it does and you don’t take the coat, you’ll die and so will I, so take the bloody coat.”

She looked at him suspiciously for a moment and then took the coat from him. It was wet too, but the moisture had not yet penetrated the lining. It was a good coat. She nodded gratefully as she pulled it on, grateful for the warmth of it if nothing else. Mishak’s shirt began to soak in the rain, so he hurried her across the square towards the mansion.

“Mishak, Mishak, Mishak,” she said and he looked at her, but she was merely muttering under her breath, as if committing it to memory.

They moved towards the mansion that Ferrer had indicated; the one belonging to Lord Astur. Mishak remembered him from the Regency Council. His symbol was the golden hawk and that’s what he had been when he was younger by all accounts: a soldier covered in glory, with sharp eyes and a sharper talons. Even his face resembled the creature he had as his sigil. Mishak remembered him as bold eyed and strong willed, but fair minded – one of the better sort of lord that Minham had done business with. Lord Astur was not given to petty squabbles over power and that, Mishak thought, was what ensured he always had power.

They skirted the wall of the building, ducking beneath the windows and staying clear of the front doors, which were overlooked by a guard post. He knew that there was a stables at the back, since he had been in it, holding Minham’s horse for him. It was a temperamental beast at the best of times, but that day it had refused to be stabled, so Mishak stood in the rain, resenting the animal’s stubbornness and waiting for his master’s business to be done.

The girl suddenly stopped dead.

“Mishak. You’re Mishak the Stamm. You killed Lord Minham.”

So she was not memorising, but trying to remember. He had supposed that the news would be all over the city, and cursed himself for not giving a false name. He would have to be more careful in the future.

“Not me,” he said, conversationally, as though the name meant nothing to him.

“It is you. I know it is.”

She folded her arms and looked down at him.

“Look,” Mishak said, trying to hold on to a reasonable tone. The girl reminded him of that bloody horse. “If I was a convicted murderer, then shouldn’t you be a bit more careful of your own skin?”

“Your boss didn’t want me harmed, so that threat doesn’t work. Besides, I can see the brand through your shirt.”

He looked down at the once white material, which had been turned see through by the rain. Sure enough, there was the branded M that marked him as a murderer. He could also see the crescent shaped scar that Marthe had given him when she removed the silver arrowhead.

“Fine,” he said, grabbing her and moving her forward, “it is me. But I didn’t kill him, whatever the Justiciars and the heralds say.”

She scoffed at him and the hatred flared again her eyes; she didn’t believe him and he knew there was no point wasting breath to try to convince her. Instead, he pushed her forward towards the stable gate, eager to pass her on to Ferrer and be done with it.

The stable yard was full of people; some were Ferrer’s men, those of Lochan’s party as well as those that Ferrer had gone on to meet, but others wore tunics bearing the winged axe of Lord Perun. Why were they there? Mishak headed towards Lochan, keeping Léa by his side, one hand around her upper arm.

“Took your time,” Lochan said in his gruff voice, one eye fixed on Mishak.

“Had to avoid the guard,” he said in return.

Lochan grunted and then turned away, heading towards the building. The men of his party followed him with their prisoners and Mishak fell into step, still clutching Léa tightly to him. They moved passed other prisoners held by other parties – they looked to be servants of Lord Astur, many of them wore the livery of the golden hawk. Léa looked at them and whispered a shocked “no”, but then they passed into the building.

The corridors were unlit save for the occasional standlamp, which meant they walked slowly through the dark halls. Ferrer was waiting in the main entrance hall, a group of his toughs with him. He saw Lochan and gestured him forwards.

“You got them all?” Ferrer asked, his voice low.

“Yes, Mr Ferrer,” Lochan said, “No trouble.”

Ferrer nodded and then moved away from the staircase, the group of toughs following him. Lochan followed and Mishak too, still holding Léa. He wondered what they wanted with them and what would happen to them when Rose returned from the cathedral, but no one spoke. They walked in silence until they came to some large doors, curved at the top, and processed inside.

There were more of Lord Perun’s retainers in this room, which was a wide dining room, with three tables laid out as if for a feast. Lord Astur was there, being restrained by the retainers, his dark eyes flicking from one to the other. Even like this he was every inch the hawk, every inch defiant. Lord Perun was there too, lording it over Astur as the prisoners were brought in.

“Your lordship,” Ferrer said, with an elaborate bow, “we captured these people as instructed. The one you wanted was among them as you said he would be.”

Mishak looked towards the spy and the old man, wondering why they would be important to a member of the Regency Council. Then a hand clamped over his mouth and his arm was twisted up behind his back. He swivelled slightly, trying to resist, but it was Lochan who held him, pushing the arm upwards till Mishak feared it would snap. He had no choice but to go still.

“You see, Lord Astur, your treason is revealed. You have been harbouring Minham’s murderer since you freed him from the dungeons. Minham’s murder was done at your command. Will you not now admit your sins?”

Astur let out a hollow laugh.

“To what end? You have decided that I am guilty because it suits your own sins, not because of mine.”

“I will not be insulted by a traitor,” Perun said, backhanding Astur across the face.

Astur nearly fell but was caught by those restraining him. There was a calmness about him as he spat blood from his mouth and righted himself, dark eyes fixed on Perun.

“I accept,” he said, his voice even.

“You will admit your treason?”

“No,” Astur laughed, “you challenged me in the old way. I accept your challenge.”

“There was no challenge,” Perun said, faltering a little.

“You fear to face me, perhaps?”

The accusation of cowardice shook Perun; he said no more, but drew his sword and gestured for his men to release Astur. One of them thrust a sword at him, which he took with a nod of thanks, which startled the man. He stepped back not knowing which way to look. There was a brief moment where Lord Astur examined the blade, feeling its balance, and then he set himself for Perun’s attack.

Mishak had never seen a duel like it. He had sat by the ring day after day as he master watched others in the festivals, and he had seen some of the best fighters that the realms had to offer. He had on more than one occasion watched Lord Astur’s son fight and thought that he would never see a duellist as skilled. Lord Astur himself was not a duellist – he was a magician. The blade snaked first one way and then the other, all his movements were fluid. Perun was an able swordsman, but he was pressed to the defence almost immediately and never recovered from it. Mishak watched in wonder, forgetting his own predicament, even with Lochan’s hand over his mouth and breath upon his neck.

Astur’s blade went left and Perun moved to parry, but the Astur’s attack was a feint and he switched from one form to another without a second between, his blade striking Perun across the chest. The blow was not a weak one, but Astur kept the worst of it, pulling the stroke at the last minute. He was not trying to kill his opponent. Perun stumbled backwards and Astur did not waste the time. He grabbed up Perun’s sword and tossed it towards the spy, who had positioned himself to trip the man restraining him, taking advantage of everyone’s eyes on the sword fight. Throwing the man aside, the spy took the sword from the air and chopped down the man holding the old man, Rose’s father.

Mishak took the opportunity, biting hard onto Lochan’s finger, and pushing himself backwards at the same time. The move paid off; Lochan’s grip slackened and they both tumbled backwards, Mishak landing on top of the man, and driving the wind from him. In seconds, Mishak was on his feet again and the Stammish axe was in his hands. He barrelled towards the man holding Léa, who flung the girl aside and fumbled for his sword. Mishak swung the axe down and severed the man’s arm at the elbow.

All was confusion: Ferrer’s men tried to fight with the spy, but he was an accomplished soldier rather than a brawler, and he cut swathes through them. Mishak moved forwards, pulling Léa up by the back of her dress.

“This way,” Lord Astur called.

He was fighting his way through Perun’s men, though Mishak noticed that the man who had given him the sword had torn off his livery and joined Astur’s side. The spy grabbed hold of the old man and Mishak grabbed Léa and they ran towards Lord Astur, who shoved the guards aside. The spy knew where he was going, it seemed, as he made for the fireplace, turning a statue of a golden hawk there. A hidden door opened to reveal a passageway, and the spy pushed the man inside yelling for him to run as fast as he could down it. Mishak pushed Léa ahead of him and she too ran down the passageway.

“Go with them,” Mishak said to the spy and Lord Perun’s man, “they need protecting.”

They hesitated for a moment, watching the crowd advancing towards them, but Lord Astur nodded and the spy took that as an order, disappearing into the tunnel and pulling the retainer with him. Mishak turned to face them, just the two of them against the horde. He was suddenly struck by understanding of his father’s position – a Stammish warrior saved by the actions of a Tornmilian noble.

“Are you with me?” Lord Astur asked, sword in hand.

“I bind myself to you,” Mishak said, remembering the old words, “and my line to you. I, Mishak, son of Miska, of the Smrtritter stamme pledge it in front of the Gods until this debt has been repaid.”

Lord Astur nodded, taking Mishak’s hand in the Tornmilian fashion and then they turned to face the horde. It would not be a long fight, Mishak knew that, but every moment bought time for those fleeing. It would be senseless to flee with them – Perun and his men knew how to open the tunnel. Every moment was time for them to get away, to warn others if they could.

Mishak could not say how long the fight lasted. It seemed to be hours, yet it could only have been a couple of minutes. The men swarmed around the top table, swinging clubs and cudgels, short swords and knives. Mishak wished he’d kept his coat – all his spare knives were in it. He fought with the axe and with short sword, cutting left and right, trying to keep men from Lord Astur’s undefended left. Lord Astur cut men down as they came, seemingly unbeatable, but Ferrer has drawn a bow and loosed a shaft into Astur’s chest. The man stumbled a little and kept fighting, but a sword took him in the stomach. Mishak cut the man down and the next one after that, roaring his defiance in Stammish, the hall echoing with his cries. Then an arrow took in the leg and he fell.

“No more.”

It had been Ferrer’s command and it was obeyed by all, even Perun’s men. They backed away from Mishak and Lord Astur, who stumbled forward and slumped into a chair.

“What now?” Lochan asked, looming over Ferrer’s shoulder.

“Leave his lordship there – all the better for the trap.”

“And the Stamm?”

“Take him into the square and hang him.”

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