Tornmile: Part 1
Part I: The Ascent of A Man
A pale crescent moon appeared briefly through the clouds and shone a serene silver light down on the cobbled streets and deserted stalls in the market place of the city of Tornmile. At one point these markets had been filled, even at night, with traders from every city in the empire, hawking their wares, local and exotic, to anyone who would buy. Now, however, the traders had stopped coming as the empire crumbled back into the dust it had come from. Refugees from the destruction of far away cities were crammed into temporary shelters formed of the unused traders’ stalls. They slept uneasily on the cobbles beneath the shadow of the Tornmile Spire, which stood at the centre of the city, piercing the sky with its dark bulk. Within its walls all the business of state was conducted; the Chamber of Governance sat at the very heart of the Spire, where the lords argued back and forth in front of a king no longer sensible to the demands of the realm. The lords claimed regency and ruled in his stead, but that had done little to prevent the destruction of the replica Spires that had once stood in every city in the Tornmilian Empire.
The figure slowly ascending the outside of the Spire cared little for politics, though he knew it was in many ways central to his work. Not that an exiled butcher’s son not native to the streets of Tornmile would be allowed to negotiate the messy world of politics, except in his present capacity, even if he had the slightest interest in doing so. Politics was the purview of the lords, it was said. The only thing currently in Johreel’s purview was the climb, which was more than usually challenging. A strong wind whipped around the edge of the Spire, threatening to free the small hooks in his gloves and on his boot soles from the ancient stone. The climb had been a long one; that descent would be much quicker.
He remembered the climbs he had enjoyed so much as a child. In his native land of Abboral where the sun always beat down and the soil needed to be irrigated to keep it from the sands. The ancients had built temples to their gods deep in the desert and, though the ancients had gone, the temples remained, unused, their majesty blasted by the elements and the coarse grains in the wind. He had gone many times to climb these structures – the stepped pyramids, the smooth columns, the statues of kings long buried. He had never been afraid of heights, even after he had slipped from the upraised arm of a statue and broken his arm. It still tingled in cold weather where the bone had been set.
It had been a long time since he had climbed the temples to the old gods amidst the ever shifting sands. Many years since he had walked from the desert to the township bearing his cousin’s body, his hands and face slick with tears, sweat, and blood. So much blood. He had gone to climb as he did every day he was freed from the stricture of schooling. He had only brought Kamahl because he did not believe that there were buildings in the desert. They had made a bet, forbidden by the rule of their parents, but they had done so. The punishment that God wrought for his minor infidelity was too great.
It had happened whilst he was climbing. Kamahl had never been much of a climber, but he had ascended the stepped pyramid at Johreel’s side, and then rested on the raised stone in the centre. Johreel had not needed a rest after the easy climb that the stepped pyramid presented and so he had eagerly started to climb one of the four towers that rose up around the raised stone. When he had reached the stone sphere at the tower’s summit, he pulled himself up and crouched on the sphere. He looked down to see if Kamahl was watching him or if he was sulking about his lost bet. Kamahl was not doing either. Johreel remembered the way his heart had seemed to stop as he saw Kamahl held down by four hulking men in dark blue robes. Their hair was uncut and matted, beards untrimmed. Between them a wizened man stood in scarlet, a waved blade dagger held aloft. He seemed to be chanting quietly.
The scream that Kamahl had unleashed when the dagger pierced his chest haunted Johreel even now, as did the sight of the wizened man, hands bathed in gore, holding Kamahl’s heart aloft to the sun before biting into it. Blood ran down his wrinkled chin. Johreel had hidden himself by dropping behind the stone sphere and clinging to the column, stone pressing against his sweat slick skin. How long he had waited in that position, he did not know, but when his arms ached so much that he had a choice of climbing down or falling, he had done the former. The sun had been beginning to sink beneath the horizon. Cautiously moving around the base of the tower, he saw that the men had gone. Kamahl lay there, unmoving, in a pool of his own blood, a hole in his chest. Johreel took the body and made his way, half comatose, to his parents.
The ruins were searched thoroughly by the Sultan’s men. Johreel had watched them from the top of the stepped pyramid, covering the ruins like ants, combing every inch; they checked every crevice, every cranny, and every chamber. All they found was the tombs of dead kings of the ancients. Even Kamahl’s blood had gone – not a stain remained on the pyramid’s centre stone. The mutterings began then; Johreel had killed his cousin and stolen his heart. People started to avoid him and his family and called him “devil child” behind his back. His family’s shame was great.
So much so that when he had finished a period of apprenticeship at his father’s butcher’s shop he could not get a position with another butcher, nor a permit to trade for himself. He could not even join the army to court death in the Sultan’s wars. Left with few choices, he took a ship to the Empire to seek work where no one looked at him crooked in the street. He had no success here either; people looked at him crooked, not because of Kamahl, but because he was foreign. No butcher would take him and he could not set up his own shop. He took work with the only people that would have him – the Assassins’ Guild – and put his butcher’s knife to other uses. The Assassins took anyone who could undertake the training, anyone who could stomach the trade, and they found many uses for Johreel’s exceptional climbing ability. Now, years later, he worked in the capital, only the most important jobs, and only the longest climbs. But for all his successes, every time he climbed he thought of Kamahl.
As he reached a solitary window near the top of the Spire, he pushed away thoughts of Kamahl and the desert, and turned his attention to his orders. He pulled himself onto the window ledge and then dropped into the room behind heavy velvet curtains. Johreel twitched them aside and crept through the dark room, trusting his catlike movement and the thick carpets to keep his footsteps silent. He approached the wooden door and opened it a crack so that he could peer into the torch lit corridor behind.
Two guards stood either side of a door further down the corridor, backs straight and looking this way and that for signs of intruders. Johreel reached into a pouch and withdrew a tiny pouch filled with black powdered grains. As far as he knew, no other Assassin used the black grains that were so common in his own country. Laying his palm flat he flicked the pouch with his other hand. It sailed through the crack in the door, over the heads of the guards, and impacted against the wall at the end of the corridor. As it did so, it gave out a tiny explosion; the guards’ heads turned towards the noise, confused, and then they walked over to investigate, spears at the ready.
The distraction had done its job. Johreel moved swiftly, crossing the corridor and letting himself through the door that the guards had been protecting. He closed it behind him just as he heard them moving back to their posts, evidently satisfied that there was no one lurking in the corridor, perhaps still a little puzzled by the noise. He put the guards from his mind and moved silently over to the four poster bed that dominated the room. The hangings had been drawn and deep, rumbling snores came from within. Johreel pulled the curtains aside gently, being careful not to wake the sleeper prematurely.
The man in the bed was middle aged; his hair and cropped beard had silver streaks, but he face was relatively free from lines. Johreel did not waste time assessing the man’s appearance though. Carefully, he raised himself onto the bed and took the man’s throat in his hand. As he did so the man awoke with a jump, but could not squeeze the air from his lungs to scream as he looked up into Johreel’s veiled face.
“Lord Minham,” Johreel said in a fierce whisper, “you have been chosen.”
There was a flash of silver as Johreel pulled his long, curved knife from its sheath. He drove the blade into Minham’s abdomen, sliding it under the man’s ribs, and then pulled it free. Blood spread through the fabric of the man’s nightshirt, the clean white linen turned to a deep scarlet. The man began to convulse and soon after his limbs became limp. In a short time he would stop breathing altogether. Najhayya venom. No other Assassin used this either, but Johreel suspected it was because they had never seen the serpent strike a man’s heel from a crevice in the rocks. Usually It took a day or so for a man to die from a bite, but there was far more venom in the paste that covered Johreel’s blades.
Seconds later, Minham stopped convulsing and a small gurgle escaped his throat between Johreel’s fingers. All that remained was to leave the scene. He was reaching for the pouch in which he kept his black grain distractions when the door burst open suddenly. The two guards rushed in, seeing Minham covered in blood on the bed, and Johreel with a knife still in his hand. How had they known?
The first guard lowered his spear and rushed towards Johreel, aiming to run him through. Johreel turned the point of the spear aside with his own blade, kicked the guard in the back of the knee and span on the spot in time to avoid the second guard’s spear, which ran through his companion’s back instead. Dropping his spear, the guard tried to draw a sword, but Johreel moved too quickly for him, slicing the fingers from the man’s hand and cutting into the wood that formed the sword’s hilt. The man staggered backwards and slumped against the wall, clutching his injured hand.
“Who are you?” he asked incredulously.
“Don’t you know me?” Johreel asked as he stepped calmly up to the guard and slit his stomach open with his blade, “I am the devil child.”