Tornmile: Part 14
Part XIV: Thicker Than Water
Mishak could not remember falling asleep but he jerked awake as the cart came to a standstill, the horse snorting and stamping in the harness. His neck was sore and his eyes were heavy, but he forced himself to lean forward. Eloi and Josse had already dismounted and were hurrying into a building at the corner of a small yard, whilst Marthe attended to the horse. Mishak shook himself to try to rid the leaden feeling from his limbs, but it had little effect. He had not slept properly since his arrest and now his body was trying to cling to rest. He had to crawl to the edge of the cart and drop down, leaning against the wooden frame and hoping the night air would revive him.
“Here,” said Marthe, appearing beside him with a proffered waterskin and without so much as sound, “drink this.”
“What is it? Wine?” he asked, taking the skin and sniffing at it.
“No, it’s water,” she said, “it’ll help.”
He put the skin to his lips and drank. The water was cool, but refreshing, and was a good deal cleaner than what little he had been given in the prisons. His body revelled in the crisp liquid, and it was only now that he realised how much he had missed it. The tiredness dropped from him as it trickled down his throat, and he stood straighter before pouring a little over his head. It made him shiver, but he was more awake than he had been in days.
“Thank you,” he said to Marthe, handing the skin back to her.
“Better?” she asked with a laugh as crisp as the water, as he pushed his wet hair from his eyes.
“Much,” he said, laughing as well. It felt good to laugh, like sunrise appearing over the hills to banish the darkness from the land.
“We better go in,” she said, “we don’t want any unfriendly eyes on us.”
A cloud moved over that sun at her words and he took stock of his position. He was a branded murderer and now an escaped convict, his own mother had betrayed him and left him to hang, and he could never go home again. The sun seemed dim again now, but he was glad it was there, dim or not. His shoulder itched and he reached to scratch it as he and Marthe walked towards the building.
“What happened to your shoulder?”
“You scratch it all the time, what happened to it?”
“Oh, nothing,” he lied, “just a bad habit.”
She narrowed her eyes, but said nothing, and they passed into the building in silence. Inside was a small room, which occupied the corner of the building. There were two doors on left hand side, but they were closed so Mishak could not see where they led. There were a few battered old armchairs and a dining table with wooden benches, the dark wood of which was stained and pitted. Large rugs had been thrown across the stone paved floor, worn almost threadbare with age and use.
Mishak’s sun broke through the clouds a little; it was a palace after the deprivation of the prison cell. Josse knelt on the floor in front of the fireplace, starting a fire in the grate, whilst Eloi searched through the woodpile for decent wood. He shook a spider from a log before handing it to Josse, who placed it on the nascent fire. Mishak sat in one of the chairs, watching the brothers work, and wondered if there was anything he could do, but Marthe sat in a chair near to him and he reasoned that there probably wasn’t.
Before long there was a fire burning merrily in the grate, casting flickering shadows and light around the room, turning the grey brick to a dancing orange. Josse organised the sleeping arrangements, putting Eloi with Marthe in the room with two beds, and Mishak and himself in the other room, which had only pallets to sleep on. Mishak didn’t mind – anything was better than the bed at the prisons; it felt good enough to be free from that place that a pallet on the floor would be a feather bed. Eloi changed the arrangements by taking the pallet bed, which Mishak was a little pleased with; Josse did not seem to like him at all, whereas Eloi did. Their lots settled the brothers retired to bed, leaving Marthe and Mishak with the fire.
It gave out a lot of heat; clearly Josse had built a number of fires in his time. Mishak was not sure he could have made as good a fire as that with the selection of logs they had and fire building was one of his primary duties under Lord Minham. He sighed heavily; Minham was dead and he had vowed to find whoever had done it, but that had been before the betrayal, before he had been left to dance on the gallows by his mother. His shoulder seared at the thought of her and he rose to itch it. The skin was hot to the touch. Clearly the fire was hotter than he thought. He stared into the flames and wondered what to do next.
“What are you thinking, Lord-killer?” Marthe asked, softly. She sat with her legs tucked under herself, as if she was curling into a ball like a cat, but her eyes were bright in the firelight and she did not show any sign of being sleepy.
“I was just wondering what I am going to do when I leave here,” he said, “Whether I should follow you all to join this Mr Ferrer or do something else. My employer is dead and everyone believes I killed him. I have no family to go to and I couldn’t apply anywhere to be a lord’s servant, which is what I’m used to, because no one would fail to recognise Minham’s servant. I’d be turned in quicker than I could blink. Even if I wasn’t, all it would take is one slip and they’d see the brand they put on me and I’d be back in prison waiting for the rope to tighten around my neck.”
“Hard times call for hard measures,” Marthe said, “as my mother used to say. Ferrer’s not a good man, I suppose; he is a criminal by the law’s standard, but no more so than any lord I’ve known. Perhaps his line of work would be more what you’re used to. Or perhaps what you’re used to is not what you’re supposed to do.”
“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. I worked for Lord Minham because my father swore a life-oath to him. In a way that’s broken now he’s dead, but I should have been there to defend him with my life. That was what my father pledged to do and pledged his family to when he died.”
“My father pledged me to work for a lady in a manor not far from our village. It was a big manor with a grand hall and large gardens. I knew nothing of how to serve a lady, a lord’s daughter as it happens, but she was kind to me and taught me what to do. She even taught me my letters. She was very patient with me. The work was easy enough and I had some free time now and then to spend by myself. I used to go into the orchards and read books – my lady would lend them to me. I made friends with the other maids in the household and with some of the other servants who worked in the grounds or in the house. When my lady went away to school my duties were changed so that I would serve her father whilst she was gone – she was not allowed a maid at school. He was not a cruel man, but he wanted more services from me than I was willing to give. One day he found me reading in the orchard and tried to take those services by force. There were gardeners in the orchards and apple pickers and all sorts of people who must have heard me screaming. Only two came to my aid; others saw what was happening and ran away. They pulled him off me before he could do what he wanted and they stood between him and me. He blustered and ordered and swore, but they would not budge, so he went back up to the manor.”
Mishak was surprised by the crackling of a log on the fire – all sounds seemed to have ceased when she had begun to talk and now that she had stopped the world seemed very loud around him. She was looking into the fire, hugging her knees to her chest, and he wondered if there was more to the story that she didn’t wish to tell. He wrestled with anger towards the lord he had never met and he could feel the beginnings of tears in his eyes. He racked his brains for words of comfort, but before he could say anything, she started speaking again.
“Josse and Eloi saved me that day at their own expense: the lord had them brought before a court, overseen by a higher noble. He wanted them executed for laying hands on a lord. I couldn’t tell what had happened to me; it was a serious charge, but no one would believe me over a lord. I couldn’t let them die for me though. They had saved me and I wanted to return the favour. So I lied to the court that they were my brothers, that they had misunderstood what was happening in the orchard and had valiantly, but mistakenly, come to my defence. As no one bothered learning the families of servants, no one could contradict me. The lord in charge of the court was swayed a little. He said it was noble of them to act with such affection for a family member but that it was still a crime to assault their liege-lord in such a fashion. He did not grant the lord’s wish and have them executed, but he couldn’t let them go without any punishment at all. He sentenced one of them, of their own choosing, to go into the village stocks for three days, after which they were both to leave the area forever. Eloi chose the stocks. Josse came to find me and take me away, if I wanted to go. I was sad to leave without seeing my mistress again, but I knew that I would not be safe in that house, the more so since my protectors would be gone and I could not rely on anyone else to help me. I agreed to leave with them once Eloi had been released. We left the manor in the middle of the night and I have not looked back since. My father pledged me to that position, but Josse and Eloi are my family now. What we are told to do is not necessarily what we should do, that’s what I learned at that manor. Perhaps that’s something worth thinking about, Mishak Lord-killer.”
Mishak nodded. He was not sure he could have spoken if he had tried – his throat felt full, like he was halfway through swallowing. Marthe uncurled herself from the chair and stood up, stretching her arms above her head and yawning a little. Mishak watched her; the light of the flames in the grate flickering in her hair. She was beautiful. She frowned at him and tilted her head to the side.
“What’s the matter, Lord-killer? Have you never seen a woman yawn before?”
“No, I was just thinking about what you said, that’s all.”
“Good. Think on it, but don’t keep yourself from sleep. I’m sure you’re tired after the prisons.”
He nodded again, cursing himself for not telling her the truth. Gods, but how could I? What if she did not like it and told Josse and Eloi? Eloi had been defensive of her even when he asked an innocent question and he thought that even the man’s friendly nature might change if Marthe complained. But she was beautiful; there was no doubt about that. Beautiful and intelligent. He watched her as she walked from the room, closing the door to the bedroom with a soft click.
“Goodnight,” he said, but he doubted that she would hear him.
He gave the door one last look before rising from the chair and moving towards the door to find his own blankets. He had not realised how tired he was until he stood up. His head spun slightly with the tiredness and his legs felt heavier than they had even in the cart. He moved slowly towards the door, clutching the furniture for support. His shoulder felt as if it had caught fire from the orange glow on the walls and he reached a hand up to scratch at it. Flames danced in his head and then his eyes went black.