Tornmile: Part 18
Part XVIII: Work To Be Done
Johreel checked the flaps on the saddle bags and adjusted the fastenings to ensure that nothing would be lost if he rode the horse at high speed across broken ground. He had packed lightly but with enough provision that he wouldn’t have to stop too often if he had quarry to pursue. Fortunately what Tornmilian steeds lacked in speed they made up for in constitution; they could carry larger loads than their swifter Abboralan cousins. The weight would slow him down, but it was unlikely that an escaped prisoner would find better horses than the Assassins, even where he could find one at all. Johreel hoped this Mishak was stupid enough to try to steal a horse – he might end up languishing in a prison cell, which would make Johreel’s strike all the easier.
Finally satisfied with the packing of the horse, Johreel pulled himself into the saddle and urged the horse forward with a quick dig in the ribs. Riding a horse meant avoiding the climb through the cliffs, but with his hand still not fully healed that mattered little. He steered the horse towards the gate and raised a hand to the guard above to open it. The door began to swing slowly open, wood creaking in iron hinges. Johreel waited, soothing the horse’s impatience to be off along with his own.
When the gate had opened enough for Johreel to move through, he urged the horse forwards once more, a gentle walk rather than the run the horse wanted. It would be suspicious to have seen looked at the records, particularly those records, and then disappear off on a horse at high speed, even with the contract in his hand. A cry from behind made him glance over his shoulder. An Assassin was waving to him from the back of the courtyard, leading a horse similar to his own, similarly laden, and moving towards him. He reined his own horse to a standstill, but did not dismount or turn around. Let the man catch up if he wants me.
“I’ve been sent to help you in your contract, Dagger Johreel,” the man said, the high voice familiar to him. It was the Assassin from the Records Room.
“The Magister said that two sets of eyes are better than one. I didn’t ask for any more information than that.”
Johreel nodded. It made sense to have an extra set of eyes and ears with him, and another person would be useful in beating the quarry into a trap. He could not help but feel put out, however. The Magister had very rarely asked him to work with another Assassin. Occasionally, he would be asked to supervise a Recruit on a mission or show a Recruit the ways of the Assassin, but it was rare that he would work with another in Tornmile. Still, there was always a use for another person. He tried to push away resentment and worry that this Assassin was a plant; someone who knew what records he had asked for and had seen the Magister. Paranoia. It killed Assassins as often as it saved them.
He waited until the Assassin had mounted and then urged his own horse forwards, passing through the gates which were now fully open. The path sloped away to their left, and Johreel turned his horse that way, not bothering to give the Assassin an order to follow him. He was in charge of the mission and Assassins knew when to follow and when to lead. Even so, Johreel did glance over his shoulder to check the Assassin was still with him.
“Where are we heading for, Dagger Johreel?” the man asked in his high voice on seeing Johreel looking back.
“Did the Magister not explain the contract to you?” Johreel asked in turn, keeping his horse at a steady pace as they made their way down the track. The Assassin moved his horse forward in line with Johreel’s.
“No,” he said, “truth to tell, I haven’t spoken to the Magister. Sword Serkan asked me what contracts you were looking through and then ordered me, on the Magister’s behalf, to come along to help you. I’ve been on very few missions myself; there was an accident on my last mission. I’ve been out of the Magister’s favour.”
Johreel ducked to open the flap on the saddlebags by his right leg as if the contract were in there rather than tucked into his boot. The move gave him time to think. Serkan had been checking up on his reading materials, but that was not unlike the man. The two were rivals, even more acutely since Johreel’s promotion. The man below you was often the man who would kill you and take your position. Johreel had a reputation as the Devil Child, which Serkan would be all too aware of. That said, the Magister was not above testing him, as the last Assassin that had been sent to him had proven. Could this Assassin be another of the Magister’s tests? How long would it be until he failed?
“What’s your name?” Johreel asked, handing the contract to the Assassin.
“Seren,” he replied, taking the contract and reading it whilst guiding the horse down the track.
Johreel nodded and went back to his own thoughts. Was Seren here to keep an eye on his activities? He could not be sure. If the Sword was interested in what Johreel was doing then perhaps, but if Seren was out of the Magister’s favour then it was unlikely that the Magister would trust him. However, a person out of favour might be willing to do more to get back into favour than someone who already enjoyed favour. The problem was a knotted cord tightening around his neck. Each time he undid a knot it allowed the noose to slip tighter.
“Where do we start first, Dagger?”
Seren was holding the contract out to Johreel, an eager look on his weak jawed face. Eagerness was understandable, particularly if the Assassin had been stuck in the Records Room for a long time. Johreel remembered the thrill of his first contracts. He wondered what had gone wrong on Seren’s that had lost the Assassin favour with the Magister.
“We’ll start at the prison under the Spire, or with the guards at least. Someone will have had to pay the price for letting a convict escape and likely will be in the need of some coin. Besides, ordinary men tend to drown their sorrows when they’ve had bad news and drunk men talk more.”
“We don’t have any other leads?”
Seren asked the question with a touch of disbelief. Johreel shook his head, but did not answer further than that, concentrating on turning the horse to the path. The zig-zag slopes were not steep, but there was always the chance that the horse might stumble too near the edge and crush a rider in the fall. Besides, there was little to say. Most contracts came with more specific instructions, but this was not like most contracts. Quite why there was need of killing an escaped convict, Johreel did not know, but it was likely that a high lord had paid for the contract. It was just as likely that a different high lord had facilitated the Stamm’s escape. Rivalry amongst the nobility often stretched into actions that seemed odd to ordinary men.
The rest of the journey down the slope was made in silence. Seren was a good rider, for someone from the Empire anyway, steering the horse effortlessly and confidently down the slopes, holding the reins only in one hand. Johreel sized the man up. As far as he could see, Seren was carrying two swords, one worn at the hip, the other tucked under the saddlebags. That smacked more of a soldier than an Assassin, but some found military discipline too restrictive and joined the order. Old habits die hard. Seren also carried a pair of small crossbows, the stocks of which could just be seen sticking out of the saddlebags. The bolts were probably in bags on the other side of the horse. Johreel reckoned that there were two knives in each of the man’s boots, and one in each sleeve. That was good. The man was prepared for unexpected dangers.
Once they had reached the bottom of the slope, Johreel cast a glance back towards the Crucible, standing high on the promontory. The long road up looked forbidding; he hoped he would be able to return soon, ready for another contract. Seren was looking back too and Johreel wondered if the man was thinking the same. Too long out of the field might have made a man eager for the comforts of home, such as they were at the Crucible. They both turned their attentions back towards the road ahead, and spurred their horses forward at a steady run.
The road to the city was not a long way, though it wound through some of the outlying farms. Johreel and Seren road past people working in the fields, few of whom did more than cast the riders a glance before returning to their work. Children with dirty faces and bare feet ran after their horses, shouting and laughing. Johreel tried to ignore them, but Seren gave them dark looks if they go too close, spurring his horse to go faster. Neither discouraged the children, who were used to soldiers riding through their villages, returning home from outposts and exercises in the countryside beyond the city. Were their parents worried about the fall of Lapion and the crumbling of the Empire? Johreel suspected not. As long as they had fields to till and crops to harvest, they would keep doing both, until war was on their doorsteps. Johreel did not need to worry. No one brought war against the Assassins; it would be one no army could win.
As the farms grew closer together, a sign that they were approaching the city, the sun began to sink below the horizon casting an orange glow across the land. The dark shapes of the city’s walls and the Spire reaching to the sky were lit from behind.
“The sunset makes it look like it’s on fire,” Seren said, looking towards the city.
Johreel could see what the man meant. The way the orange glow glinted off the roofs of buildings, and covered the tops of the wall in a combination of molten gold and deep shadow did make it seem as though flames had sprung up in the city.
“It better not be or they’ll be no leads to find this Stamm and finish the contract,” Johreel said.
The contract was all that mattered – all that mattered for now anyway. There were twists and turns to being the Dagger and there were things that he would have to learn quickly or die in the process. He rubbed unconsciously at his wounded hand, trying to soothe away the pain; he needed to be more than physically fit if he was to survive in his role long. Being physically fit would be a start. He noticed Seren looking at him out of the corner of his eye; the man was looking directly ahead, apparently still captivated by the sunset behind the city, but the dark pupils in the centre of those piercing eyes flicked towards Johreel’s hands on the reins one too many times. Johreel forced himself to let his injured hand go, taking the reins in his good hand, and pulling a waterskin from his saddlebags with the other. It hurt, but the water was cool in his mouth and very welcome after time in the saddle. He was showing that even with the splint, even with the pain, the hand was still functional. He would not be thought weak. He would not be thought an easy target. The boy had learnt this with a dagger in the throat. Since the Magister had asked Seren to come along on this wild hunt, Johreel could not give him the same lesson. Not straight away, anyway.
They pulled their horses into a walk as they approached the gates, most of the traffic made up of farmers leaving the city, coming from markets and meetings to return to their farmhouses, roaring fires, and home cooking. Johreel navigated his way forward, the heavy Tornmilian horse forging a path between those on foot, but nimble enough to sidestep carts and wagons carrying unsold produce.
“Aren’t the people hungry?” Seren asked as a cart filled with carrots, potatoes, and lettuces rolled past them.
“Of course,” Johreel replied, “but that doesn’t mean they can afford the prices. Competition has been down since the ports of the Empire started to fall. Too many refugees with not enough gold in their pockets. The farmers will begin to feel the strain soon, and they might stop coming to market entirely. But don’t worry; they’ll still be work for people like us.”
There was always work for Assassins. Desperate times call for desperate measures; minor nobles might pool their resources to rid themselves of their overlords, guilds might want a regime more favourable to their profits, enemy commanders might think it simpler to remove those in power before they begin a wholesale attack, though Johreel had to admit that the last was unlikely. Armies marched with their own assassins and rarely had dealings with the order. More than once that sort of man had tried to murder the Magister. More than once they had died trying.
“Oh yes,” Johreel said, as they rode unchallenged through the gates of the city, “there’s always work for people like us and so much work to be done. Let’s begin.”
He urged his horse forward, knowing that Seren would be following eagerly, and headed for the Spire.