Tornmile: Part 2
Part II: An Unwanted Surprise
“Watch where you’re going, you bloody fool!”
The trader’s shout rang in Mishak’s ears, but he only held up a hand in apology as he raced on through the streets of Tornmile. Although it was still early – the light of dawn was only just striking the top of the Spire – he was late. Very late. I will kill my bloody mother! he thought as he leaped a crate standing outside the blacksmith’s. The heat of the forge streamed out of the door, warming Mishak’s arms as he swept by in the cold morning. Why didn’t I become a blacksmith? As he raced away from the refreshing warmth, he cursed his mother some more.
If he was honest with himself, he had been expecting it. Since his father died, she had become impatient, sitting in his house all day in her voluminous black mourning dresses, plotting and scheming with the other women on their street. He’d come down to breakfast at a reasonable hour, leaving himself plenty of time for a casual wander up to the Spire and to supplement the gruel that his mother called porridge with some fruit from the market and a fresh baked loaf from the baker. There was no gruel today however. He’d been pleasantly surprised to wake with the smell of fresh bread in his nostrils, bounding down the stairs and into the small kitchen. His mother had her back to him, fussing over making tea in a pot.
“What’s the occasion?” he asked, a grin spreading across his face.
“Comb your hair!” she responded immediately without turning round, “we’ve got guests.”
“At this hour?” he asked, flattening his hair with his hands and checking it in the back of a spoon, “who?”
She did not reply, so he left her fussing over the arrangements and went into the living room. A table took up most of the space; large, round, and definitely not owned by his mother. She must have borrowed it from one of the neighbours. It was laid for a breakfast, which Mishak assumed could only be to honour some visiting royalty, since his mother had spared no expense in preparing this breakfast. At the table sat a grumpy looking woman, who must have been twice his mother’s age at least, and a young woman with blotchy skin and mousy hair.
“Oh,” he said, seeing them, “hello.”
“Hello,” the young woman replied, enthusiastically. Her voice was breathy, as if she could manage no more than a whisper.
Misha frowned slightly and excused himself from the two women, returning to the kitchen. He had an inkling of what was happening, but as he made his way down the short corridor he prayed fervently that he was mistaken.
“Mother,” he said, “what exactly is going on?”
“I told you; we’ve got guests.”
“I can see that. Why?”
She continued spooning sugar into a bowl and feigned not to hear his question.
“She’s pretty, don’t you think?”
I knew it! His heart sank in his chest. Why couldn’t she just leave him alone? Now he would be forced to sit next to her, make polite conversation, and pretend he shared his mother’s appraisal of the girl’s beauty. He didn’t. It wasn’t that she was ugly, as such, she just wasn’t pretty.
“Which one?” Mishak asked, sarcastically, taking a piece of bread from one of the plates in front of him. His mother slapped it from his hand before he could bite into it.
“Don’t talk to me like that. You know very well who I mean. Her name is Petia, her father was a saddler, very well respected, and she just turned nineteen.”
“Mother…” he began.
“Don’t you ‘mother’ me. You’re not getting any younger. By the time my father was your age he’d had two wives, four sons, and three daughters. It’s time you thought about settling down.”
“I don’t want to settle down; I’m perfectly happy unsettled.”
“That is as maybe,” she said, giving him an appraising look, “but I am not. You need a wife.”
“Fine, but why not one that’s actually pretty?”
“She is pretty. Prettier than you anyway and that’s all that matters.”
“Mother, I don’t want to…”
She leaned across the table and gripped his cheeks in her hands. It always struck him when she did this how surprisingly strong she was. Her blue eyes were ice.
“The Smrt need sons,” she said.
That was the end of the argument. He went into the living room, sat down at the table, and made as polite a conversation as he could under duress. He tried to excuse himself after finishing every cup of tea so that he could leave for work, but his mother assured him he would have plenty of time and commented to their guests about how eager and hardworking he was. Petia smiled at him throughout; the old woman’s expression did not change. He supposed she was pretty really and seemed very keen on him. Not that it mattered; his mother would almost certainly make any arrangements without his involvement.
Now he was running late and running hard in order to avoid a tongue lashing, or worse, a real lashing, from his lordship. Bloody mother! Bloody Smrt! he thought bitterly as he tore through the streets, trying to navigate through the crowds of early risers that filled the streets. Why did she always have to bring the Smrt into it? The Smrtritter were his parent’s tribe, one of many back in Stammland, long since subjugated by the Tornmilian Empire. Most of the Stamme had accepted Tornmilian rule – the others had been put to the sword. The Stamme’s warriors had joined the Tornmilian forces as native auxiliaries and the Empire had marched on. So had time. No one in Tornmile cared about the Smrtritter, or even knew that they existed. To them there was no difference between a Smrtritter and a Vitrlaufer; they were all just ‘Stamms’. Stamms from Stammland.
Mishak’s father had fought for the Tornmilian army in countless engagements. In one of those engagements, hard pressed by the enemy, he had been saved from certain death by the son of a Tornmilian lord. To keep his honour, Mishak’s father swore a life-oath; he swore that his family would never to stop serving the man who had saved him until that man died of natural causes or the debt was repaid. His father’s honour had brought the family to Tornmile when Mishak was still a child at his mother’s breast and now, years later, he served the man who had saved his father. Tied by honour. Bound by the Smrt warriors’ code. Bloody stupid Smrt!
He swore aloud in Stammish – swear words were the only words he spoke now in his native tongue; both he and his mother had stopped speaking Stammish when his father died. He spoke Tornmilian at work, Tornmilian at home, but he swore in Stammish when he was furious. Another opportunity to unleash a string of foreign profanities presented itself as he slipped outside a butcher’s shop and fell into a pool of water sluiced from the abattoir. Pig’s blood soaked into his servant’s coat and covered his arms. The butcher stood laughing a meaty, rumbling laugh. There was no time to remonstrate now though; sunlight was sparkling on the Spire. Soon it would rouse his lordship and he would want his servant with his breakfast. He hurtled at full tilt through the market place and sped into the Spire through the servants’ entrance, ascending the stairs two at a time.
He reached the kitchens and stood for a moment, clutching his knees, trying to breathe out the stitch in his side. When it receded into a dull ache, he picked up the breakfast which the cook had placed on the tray as usual, and equally as usual had subsequently gone off for a snooze in the store cupboard. Mishak limped along as fast as he could to his lordship’s bedroom. There were no guards on the door. Mishak sighed and let his shoulders slump. If there were no guards then his lordship was already up and about – possibly gone to the Chamber already. If that was the case, Mishak was for a very long jump off a very short plank. He knocked gently on the bedroom door. There was no reply, so he entered, intent on tidying the room as quickly as possible for when his lordship returned.
The crash of the breakfast tray as it hit the stone flagstones reverberating around the room was the first indication to Mishak that he had let it drop. He made no reaction to the noise of it though, stuck staring at the scene in the room before him. Blood, thick and dark, covered the floor. To one side of the door lay a guard; stomach slashed open, entrails protruding from the wound. Four severed fingers lay in a pool of blood just in front of Mishak’s boots, mixed now with the nuts and fruits from his lordship’s breakfast. By the foot of the bed another guard sprawled, a spear protruding from his back, point driven firmly in. Most unfathomable of all, his lordship lay dead in his blankets, sheets stained scarlet, his face set in a horrified rictus.
Vice-like hands gripped his upper arms and he heard vague sounds of raised voices asking questions, yelling instructions and insults, but none of it registered in his brain. His cheeks were wet and he could taste salt. He looked at Lord Minham, at his face contorted with fear, soaked in his own blood, which still dripped from the sheets in fat globules into a black pool on the floor. He had failed to keep the life-oath. He had dishonoured the Smrt.
“I’m sorry, father,” he said in Stammish as the guards dragged him away.