Tornmile: Part 15
Part XV: A Stitch in Time
Mishak’s eyes opened in the darkness, eyelids blinking, trying to force his eyes to focus on the shapes in the room. There was a room, at least he thought there was, and it troubled him that he couldn’t make out anything in front of him. His limbs felt heavy – the effort of moving them would be too much – and his head felt like it had been stuffed with straw. He managed to lift his head a small amount, though the strain cost him; he coughed and spluttered, sucking air in as hard as he could, struggling to breathe. His shoulder burned.
Gradually the darkness of the room dissolved into mere grey hues and Mishak could make out the walls and the floorboards. Both were old, crumbling, ridden with woodworm. The whole room could collapse at any moment from the look of it, but there were no ominous creaking noises, no sounds of strain and tension in the timbers. The whole room was silent as the grave. His limbs were still heavy though and he could not see what he was lying on; it seemed hard to lie on and yet soft to his skin. It was odd. Not frightening, exactly, but odd.
He called out, a vague sound echoing of the walls, but his throat seemed paralysed and his mouth was unable to aid him in forming words. It was enough of a sound, though, to summon someone to him. Eloi should have been in the room too, and Josse was only in the room next door. He tried to call again, shaping their names in his mind before opening his mouth, but the sound that came out was feebler than before.
There was no response and Mishak was forced to admit that he was alone. Had they gone to join Ferrer early and left him? The door swung open allowing a silvery light into the room, shafts of it falling on the cracked floorboards. The room he was in seemed more part of a shack than the building on the corner of the yard – the walls were wooden, not brick. There was no pallet on the floor; the bed he was in took up much of the centre of the room, raised on a step. There were no windows and no other furniture.
There was a fox, though. It sat just inside the door, golden eyes staring at him, its red and white coat marked with flashes of mud. It paws were dark contrasting with the white chest and underside, and the flash of white that marked the end of its tail. There was something familiar about it, something that he could not put his finger on. Slowly, it raised itself onto its paws and moved silently over to the bed, leaping up to stand beside him. Its jaws were open, teeth bared, coming towards him. He thought it was aiming for his neck and fought his body to try to strike it, but his arm would not move. The teeth tore into the flesh at his shoulder and felt the gush of blood, hot on his skin, blood flecked with silver. Pain lanced through him, but the fox did not stop, licking at the wound, tasting his blood.
Two wolves, one a dappled grey, the other much darker and with a scarred muzzle, came through the open door and watched. He knew they had come to eat him, to devour his soul. Death, in the form of a wolf, had caught him. He screamed in the darkness, howling in pain, fear and fury. The wolves raised their heads to the ceiling and joined their voices to his own. It was hard to believe that there were just the two of them; their cries seemed like those of a pack thousands strong, surrounding the step on which the bed sat. Oddly, the sound cheered him and he felt the fear dissipate like smoke. The pain in his shoulder was gone and the blood flow stemmed. The fox raised its muzzle, stained with blood – his blood – and added a small cry to that of the wolves. He felt better, much better.
The heaviness drained from him, his limbs light now; lighter than they had ever been. He thought he would lift from the bed and float away, but instead he swung his legs out from the bed and placed them gently onto the floor. The floorboards were rough under his bare feet. Rising, he started towards the door, the fox following at his heels. The wolves moved to the threshold, standing either side of the door like silent sentries. Silver light filled the doorway. He hesitated briefly and then moved into the light, the wolves falling into step behind him.
The touch of wood under his feet was gone, replaced by soft grass and the squelch of mud after light rain. The wind whispered in the trees that surrounded him, carrying the smell of leaves and rain to his nostrils. Moonlight fell like arrows through the gaps in the thick canopy and his companions’ eyes gleamed in the darkness. He was glad they were with him. Behind him the shack began to collapse, ruined timbers giving way, the wood rotting into the earth in a matter of minutes, returning to the soil that had once given it life.
“Forwards, then,” he said.
His companions nodded their heads and as one they moved forwards, their feet making no sound on the ground. He moved with them, conscious of the noise he made by comparison and of the sound of his heart beating in his chest. Owls hooted in the tree tops and unseen animals snuffled and rustled through the undergrowth. What is this place? It looked like no place he had ever been before, but he walked on regardless, running fingers across the bark of trees and feeling brambles tug at the rough clothes he wore.
Eventually, the trees began to thin and moonlight shone more thoroughly on the grass floor. Far in the distance he could see it gleaming on the glassy surface of a lake, almost wide enough to be mistaken for the sea. At the edge of the lake he could see a woman bending as if she were listening to something below the water’s surface. He didn’t know who she was, but he wanted to speak with her, see if she knew where they were and how he had come to be here.
“Hello?” he called, raising his voice so that it would travel to her despite the distance between them. She made response. She did not even move, as if she hadn’t heard him at all. He tried again, yelling this time, but again she did not respond. He began to move towards her, but he had taken no more than a few steps when he felt the jaws of wolves clench around his wrists, not biting, but holding him firmly. The fox sat down in front of him, holding a paw up to call him to a halt.
“Who is she?” he asked the fox. It shook its head and raised its tail off the ground.
“I need to talk to her,” he implored the fox, desperation in his voice. He didn’t know who she was and yet something pulled him towards her.
Yes. But not now.
The words arrived in his head without the fox speaking or opening its mouth as if it could talk and yet he knew that it was the fox that had sent the words. It was female, a vixen and she raised her eyes to meet his own and in that instant he knew her. There was no name to put to the vulpine mask, but a collection of feelings in the back of his mind that told him who she was and that he should put his faith in her.
He turned away from the woman by the lake, leaving her to listen to whatever was below the rippled surface, and the wolves relinquished their grip on his wrists. They left small indents where their teeth had pressed against his flesh, but they did not hurt, disappearing as he rubbed at them. He surveyed the forest; it was wide and a number of paths led off from where he stood, but he knew only the one which he taken to get here.
“Where do I go?” he asked the vixen.
Follow to the fires.
“What fires?” he asked, but she was already bounding away into the trees, running as if the hounds had her scent. He darted after her, the wolves following him, keeping to his heels as they ran. The wind whipped his face, making his eyes and cheeks sting, bringing the scent of pines and deep earth. There were other animals too; deer, badgers, voles and mice, all moving in the darkness beneath the trees. He plunged onwards, chasing the flash of white that marked the vixen’s tail.
Ahead of that small white flash, he could see flickering glows half-glimpsed between the shadowy shapes of tree trunks. They must be approaching the fires, but the vixen did not slow, only leapt forward, finding a new turn of speed. He followed, unsure of where the chase was leading, but the wolves at his heels made him feel that he was protected from harm. As they got nearer, he could make out the edge of a clearing, ringed with twelve fires all equally spaced. There was something in the centre of the clearing, but he could not make out what it was – the glare of the flames danced on his retinas, ruining his night vision. At last they were in front of one of the fires, the flames rising well above his own height, but flickering only. He could barely feel the heat of it. The wolves eyed it with suspicion, wary of going to close. The vixen sat next to it, beckoning him with a paw.
Pass through the flames and enter the circle.
“I’ll be burnt alive,” Mishak said, frowning. The heat might not feel much, but the flames would engulf him as soon as he stepped inside.
Pass through the flames and enter the circle. It cannot touch you.
“What about you? Are you allowed beyond the flames?”
Pass through the flames and enter the circle. It cannot touch you. We will follow.
He stepped towards it, cautiously, hearing the wolves yelp behind him as his foot touched the edge of the fire. It did not burn his feet, though he could feel the flames moving over his skin. A little more confidently, he took a step inside the fire. Lights danced in front of his eyes and his heart froze in his chest, but he could still feel no heat. He couldn’t see what lay beyond or what lay behind. All were flames. He pushed onwards, hurrying to regain his sight of the world, and emerged into a wide clearing at the centre of which stood a wide tree stump, an axe embedded in its flat top.
He approached cautiously, looking behind to make sure that the vixen and the two wolves followed him through the flames. They did – the wolves darting through it as fast as they could and rolling themselves in the mud when they emerged. The vixen followed, seeming to glow in the fire with a golden light. She walked as if there was nothing odd about it, as if she were born in the flames. He turned to look at the stump and the axe.
The stump was wide and many ringed; the ruins of what had once been a mighty oak. The axe’s haft was made of a dark wood, almost black to Mishak’s eyes, but with a blade that gleamed in the light from the fires and the moon. Words had been burned into the outer ring of the stump: ‘Conquer or die. Conquer or the whole world dies.’
The vixen and the wolves seemed to have spoken together. The effect was different from the vixen speaking alone, as if harmonies had been added to a melody. He reached for the axe handle and felt his hand close around smooth wood. Silver lines like forks of lighting erupted in the haft where he touched it, running towards the blade as if striking the metal. As if it were not held at all, the blade came free and he held it aloft. The fires at the edge of the ring were sucked towards the stump, forming into one great blaze at the centre of the clearing.
The vixen barked in the night and the wolves tossed their heads back and howled as loudly as they could. From around the clearing came answering calls – thousands of wolves howling, weaving their voices in harmony. Mishak could just make out pairs of golden eyes appearing at the edge of the clearing. Flames danced in his head and then his eyes went black.
“He’s coming round.”
Mishak’s shoulder ached and it seemed a challenge to open his eyes. Even when he did manage it, it made little difference; his vision was blurry. He could make out a shape sitting beside him and two other shapes looming beyond, but what they were he couldn’t say.
“Where am I?” he asked. It hurt his voice to speak.
“In the safe house,” Marthe said, “and in recovery. You had a piece of silver in your shoulder, beneath the collar bone. The wound had become infected. You fainted before you go to your room. I was forced to take it out.”
“After waking the whole house,” Josse grumbled to no one in particular.
“You cut me open?” Mishak asked.
“Yes. I found this.”
Marthe held her hand up, rolling the silver arrowhead between her thumb and forefinger. Flecks of red covered her fingers. He looked down at his chest; Marthe had cut through the puckered flesh that his mother had given him with the brand to remove the silver arrowhead. A curving line of stitches now covered much of where that brand mark had been, holding the flesh together. Marthe leant over and placed a wad of fabric over the wound. Eloi stood ready with bandages.
“You’re lucky,” she said.
“If you hadn’t have fainted when you did, we wouldn’t have known what was wrong. If you went to sleep in that condition, I don’t think you would have woken up.”
“Conquer or die,” he said, “conquer or die.”