Tornmile: Part 51

Tornmile
Part LI: The Poison in the Cup

Johreel whipped past the outer marker and saw the red scarf there as he had expected: the Magister had returned and Seren had been able to leave the marker. He wondered whether she was really in danger, but the surgeon had been adamant and the subject was amusing to him. Of course, Johreel had calmly left the blacksmith’s home, not wanting to show his concern for Seren’s wellbeing, though he suspected that they knew his weaknesses already. Once he was out of sight of the forge, though, he had broken into a run before reaching the horse and racing back to the Crucible as fast as it would go.

He turned towards the building, sat high up on the clifftop, and spurred the horse onwards, the ground rising on the zigzag path that lead to the Crucible. He felt eyes on him once more and he knew that at any time death could leap out and take him, if he had already been declared a traitor. He kept one of his blades in his hand and the dagger pin visible on his chest and tried to keep going as fast as he could. His heart thumped in his chest, twisting this way and that in the saddle to pinpoint the unseen watchers, convinced that every moment would be his last.

He made it to the Crucible untouched, however, and rode the horse into the courtyard. A Recruit came towards him to take the horse and Johreel eyed him with suspicion, trying to push down the desire to run. The Recruit stepped carefully, not wanting to annoy his superior, and gingerly took the horse’s reins to lead it away.

“Where is the Magister? Has he yet returned?”

Johreel knew that he had, of course, but that did not mean he wanted to broadcast the fact. Much turned on what you said among Assassins. Too much. The Recruit baulked under Johreel’s stare, but he managed to whisper that the Magister was in the Great Hall overseeing the ceremony. Johreel set off immediately, the sword Durandal in his hand. The ceremony, the only ceremony, was that of promotion from Recruit to Assassin, where the Recruits took their oaths to the Order. Johreel remembered every moment of that day, every face he had seen, every word he had spoken. Oaths that were his guiding tenets, oaths that the Magister and his men had forgotten.

He walked through deserted corridors – many of the Assassins would be at the Great Hall as witness to the oaths and the Recruits themselves would be there, if they were to be raised. Those that were not yet ready for the title of Assassin would keep firmly away. To hear the oaths spoken aloud before you had taken them yourself was punishable by death. An old law, but one that all members of the Order kept to. Johreel would have preferred to be here with proof of the Magister’s treason on any other day. His heart was still thumping in his chest and his footfalls echoed down the empty corridors. The Crucible was eerie when it was this still.

Turning aside from the Great Hall’s main entrance, he walked down the corridor alongside and then took the flight of steps that would lead to the balcony. The Magister would be there to oversee the events. Serkan too, perhaps. Johreel paused at the door, steadying himself, and then walked in, his steps controlled and his face neutral.

The Magister was alone, looking down into the hall, where thirty Recruits stood. They were looking towards him, about to speak their oaths. Johreel crossed to the Magister’s side and looked down. He recognised some of the Recruits as those who had been shadowing the Magister and Serkan for Seren. He could feel the old man’s eyes on him as he stood there, but he made no sign that he had noticed Johreel. A chill settled over Johreel’s heart, the kind that he had felt on the day that Kamahl had been murdered. There was little to fear, here, though. It was forbidden to spill blood in the Great Hall.

Questions raced through Johreel’s mind. Did the Magister know that Johreel had turned traitor? Did he know that the sword held mock-loosely at Johreel’s side was the prize for which Minham, Seppo, and Remiel had died? Where was Seren? Had she been killed already? He would have expected the Magister to take part in the torturing of her, but perhaps he had left it to Serkan. She could have been cut into pieces already and thrown into the sea.

“My life is over. I have left it behind. I have become death; the blade in the shadows, the poison in the cup. My soul will ride into the night. It will howl on the wind. My body and my blood are bound to the Order. I will never betray its secrets. I live only to serve. I live only to kill. I am an Assassin.”

The Recruits’ voices echoed around the Great Hall as they made their oaths in unison. Johreel spoke the words in his head along with them, remembering the night when he had been stood below looking up at the Magister. He had looked younger then; there had been less silver in his hair and beard and the eyes were less dark. Was it the betrayal that had done that to him or just the age? Johreel could not tell. It had only been chance that he had been here that night at all.

He had been brought along on a contract by Aina, one of the best Assassins in Moreana sanctuary. They had been sent to kill a ship’s captain. They had stowed away and waited for a moment to strike, which had only come when the ship reached Tornmile. Things had gone badly – Aina had been exposed and a fight with the crew ensued. Aina was badly hurt, but Johreel fought them all. He killed them all and finished the contract. Then he brought Aina to the Crucible to see a surgeon. There had been no point; she had died on the ship. Once more Johreel was bloodied and tired, carrying a dead body in his arms. He had told the Warden what had happened and the Warden told the Dagger. He brought it before the Magister, who had ordered Johreel promoted to Assassin. He took the oaths that night, still covered in blood, almost falling asleep as he said the words. He had slept and the next day he had returned to Moreana as an Assassin.

“You seem troubled, Dagger.”

Johreel had not noticed that the ceremony was complete, he had been lost in his memories. He was doing that too often lately. He looked the Magister in the eyes, knowing he was a traitor, knowing that he had betrayed the Order.

“I was thinking about Aina and my oaths,” Johreel said.

The Magister nodded, almost to himself rather than as a response to Johreel, and then turned to watch the newly promoted Assassins proceed out of the Great Hall. He seemed lost in his own thoughts for a moment and Johreel wondered whether he, too, was remembering taking his oaths.

“Walk with me, my Dagger,” he said after a time.

Johreel nodded and they set off, down the flight of stairs to the main corridor and from them up the winding staircases. Johreel assumed they were going to the Magister’s quarters, but the Magister kept climbing the stairs and did not even look at the turning that lead to his study. Johreel had never been this high in the Crucible before – he doubted that anyone had. They were getting closer and closer to the great domed roof, when at last, the Magister turned aside and stepped into a small corridor.

Johreel followed, wondering whether this was some form of ploy to get him away from any other Assassins, but the Magister did not have to be underhand in his dealings with those he commanded. He could have Johreel imprisoned, even killed, and likely no one would question it. The Magister had reached a door at the far end of the corridor, and Johreel caught up to him as he touched the handle.

“I know,” Johreel said.

The Magister gestured to the sword in Johreel’s hand.

“Of course.”

“Where is she?”

The Magister did not respond this time. He pulled the door open and stepped inside. Johreel followed, wary, taking each step deliberately. He made sure that the Magister was ahead of him and turned to check that there was no one behind him. The corridor was empty. The room ahead was not. Serkan was there, along with three other Assassins that Johreel did not recognise, all with weapons drawn. They were not facing Johreel, though, they were facing Seren. She was stood at the edge of the room where five archways opened to the outside. Her feet were only just on the ledge and her hands were bound in front of her. Her lip had been split and there was a purple bruise across her left cheek and a cut across her forehead. Her head hung to her chest.

“What is the meaning of this?” Johreel asked, moving forwards.

“She is a traitor, Dagger,” said one of the three Assassins.

“A traitor? How so?”

“An interesting story,” the Magister said, “Several Recruits have come to me to say that Assassin Seren approached them to tail the Sword, me, and you and to set traps for us.”

“More trainer than traitor, surely?” Johreel asked a little sarcastically, losing his calmness for a moment. He noted in his head the names of the Recruits she had been using. There were lessons he needed to teach them now.

“Perhaps that would be so, except she admitted that she was spying on Sword Serkan and me,” the Magister said, his voice even.

They had tortured her, then. He was not sure how. Physically she seemed unhurt, but the Magister had ways of torturing that didn’t involve the administering of physical pain.

“Sword Serkan, remind me if you would what the penalty is for spying against the Order?”

“Death,” Serkan said. He sounded almost bored.

“And what is the penalty for spying on a traitor to the Order?”

Serkan’s eyes widened and he clenched his teeth – he had not been expecting an accusation and he had let his anger get the better of him. Underneath the calm exterior he was on edge. I can use that.

“Are you suggesting that I am a traitor?” he asked, managing to keep the majority of his anger from his words.

“No.”

Johreel paused to allow Serkan to feel foolish for losing control so easily.

“I’m suggesting that the Magister is.”

All three Assassins levelled their blades at him, but it was Serkan who acted first, slamming a fist into Johreel’s face. The blow was forceful and Johreel was forced onto one knee. He could feel blood in his mouth, taste it on his tongue. It seemed a fitting beginning to proceedings. The Magister clapped his hands together before Serkan could land another blow, and the Sword stepped back. Calmly, Johreel stood, and spat blood onto the floor.

“Lord Minham, Seppo the blacksmith, Remiel the librarian, and Mishak the Stamm,” Johreel said, looking directly at the Magister, “all four contracts given to me by you. They were all connected by this.”

He drew Durandal from its scabbard and held it aloft.

“Durandal, it is called. It was the sword of King Siarl the Great. It was in Lord Minham’s possession – he collected fine swords, but he did not know what he had until he sent it to Seppo the blacksmith. It was he who identified it as an ancient relic. I was sent to kill them both, sent to clear the path for the Magister to take this sword. Then I was sent to kill Remiel, an expert in ancient relics, so that no one would be able to identify the sword if it was produced. Later, Mishak the Stamm, former servant of Lord Minham. Blamed for his lordship’s murder and sentenced to death. He escaped from prison and fled. I was sent to kill him so that he could not identify the sword as Lord Minham’s if the time came. I found the sword guarded by three of our Order in the former home of the same blacksmith I killed. The surgeon admitted that he was keeping this sword safe for the Magister. I do not know what you intended with the blade, but you have broken the oaths of this Order and used your powers for your own ends. You are the traitor, not Assassin Seren.”

The Magister clapped his hands slowly, applauding, although there was no sense that he meant it genuinely.

“A fine speech, Dagger Johreel, but I know nothing of these men. I have never issued a contract for their deaths. Those contracts were written by another, forged in my hand, and then the records were amended by another. These two persons have been working closely together, guarding one another, meeting secretly. And now, here one of them stands, a confessed traitor, and the other with the only evidence of treason in his hands and from his mouth.”

Assassins came pouring into the room behind Johreel, at least a hundred men pressing in from the corridor, their footfalls soft on the stonework. They were all armed and ready to fight. Johreel could feel his heart thumping against his chest. He had played his hand and it had not been a winning one. God hates gambling. He circled around so that he was in front of Seren, holding Durandal ready. Behind him he could hear the distant sound of the sea crashing against the rocks of the cliff.

“You are declared traitor and cast out of your position and the Order. I sentence you to die. Now.”

The three Assassins that had heard everything came forward first, each baring a sword. Johreel ducked aside, allowing one of them to catch his blade on the stonework, and then parried the other two. A quick riposte found the artery in a thigh and one of them was down. More came forward and Johreel cut left and right, parrying blows and trying to gain the upper hand. He knew that it was futile – even with his skill he could not take all of them at once. The blade sang in his hands, though, and he determined to resist as long as possible. It was so well balanced, so well made. The edge was keen and the slightest of touches cut through flesh as if it were nothing but air. Assassins fell all around him, but he took cuts to the arms, legs, and chest, and he knew that eventually one would be more than a scratch. Serkan had entered the fray now, pushing others aside to get to Johreel. He ordered everybody back.

Johreel wiped the sweat from his eyes and faced his rival. He feinted left and cut right, but Serkan was quicker than he had expected, knocking the blow aside and forcing Johreel to duck to avoid the riposte. The Assassins formed themselves into a semi-circle around the fighting pair, with the Magister in the middle. Serkan came at him hard, and Johreel parried a wild blow, high above his head. It had been a feint; Serkan jabbed a dagger into Johreel’s thigh and kicked him backwards. Waves of pain shot through him, doubling as he pulled the dagger free and threw it at Serkan. It missed – the throw had been uncontrolled – but it took one of the Assassins in the chest. Serkan laughed and came forwards, sweeping his blade down. Johreel brought Durandal up to block the stroke. There was a deafening ring of steel on steel and then the blade of Durandal gave way, snapping in two under the force of Serkan’s blow. Johreel stared at the half sword in horror – it was meant to be unbreakable. Serkan’s laughter doubled and he waited, wanting Johreel to stand and face him with only half a sword.

Johreel struggled to his feet, picking the end piece of Durandal up and placing it behind his belt. He thought about drawing one of his curved daggers, but they would be little use against Serkan. In any case, Johreel could hardly stand. Blood, hot and sticky, ran down his leg from the wound in his thigh. He edged backwards towards Seren, towards the ledge. He put his free hand around her waist, pulling her into him. It was over.

“My soul will ride into the night,” he said, voice barely more than a whisper, “it will howl on the wind.”

Then he jumped from the ledge, Seren clutched to him, and only the rocks and sea below.

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