Tornmile: Part 25
Part XXV: The End of the Chase
Johreel strode across the rooftops that encircled the small courtyard, keeping his profile low. He had discarded the cloak once his work with Ferrer’s men was done, returning to the cowl made from fabric woven around his head. It left a veil which he could pull across his face so that all that was left visible were his eyes. The cutpurse had also been discarded. Once the first three safe houses proved to be in the place that he had said they would be Johreel slid one of his curved knifes under the man’s rib, finding his heart and killing him instantly. Since then, Johreel had visited two other buildings, but hadn’t found a Stamm in any of them. There were three more left to check and night was fast disappearing. He needed to get back to The Shieldmaiden and let Seren know that the job was done before sunrise.
The safe house was in the corner of the courtyard, out of view of the entrance from the road, and confined to four small rooms on the ground floor. There was the faint hint of light behind the building’s shutters, which encouraged Johreel to press onwards. He crossed to the edge of a small alleyway and then dropped down close to the building. There were two entrances – one that lead into the main room of the safe house and another that lead into the kitchen. The second would give him the best chance of remaining undetected on entry, but the first would place him closer to the other rooms, where the Stamm and his two companions were likely to be sleeping if they were here.
Listening at the kitchen door, he heard muffled voices. The occupants were clearly still awake. Johreel listened for a moment, thinking that it might be better to investigate the other safe houses, giving the occupants of this one time to retire to bed. Walking into a room where Ferrer’s men were awake would be akin to suicide, going by their reputation. The Stamm was an unknown quantity; he had been Minham’s servant, which suggested that he was not a military man, but the Stamms had a reputation for being fierce warriors. From what he had gathered from the crowds of Tornmile, the Stamm had also been Minham’s only servant and that made him just as likely to be a personal bodyguard in addition to his other duties. Ideally, he would deal with the Stamm uninterrupted.
Some sense prevented him leaving though – the safe houses were scattered all over the city, and this was the furthest from his starting point and the inn in which Seren was sleeping. If he left now, he would have to return later and that would make the journey all the longer, risking him being missed. If Seren was a spy for Serkan or a test from the Magister, he could not afford to be missed. Instead, he waited, crouching just outside the kitchen door. Almost unconsciously, he checked his pouches and weapons belt to make sure that all his equipment was still in place. He knew that it would be – he was meticulous in preparation.
After a short time Johreel realised that the sound of voices had stopped and that he was alone in the silent night. He reached up and tried the kitchen door, expecting it to be locked. His expectations were met and he was forced to retrieve the tools from his pouch to pick the lock. Scrapes along the metal of the lock indicated that it had been picked before and recently at that. Johreel paused in his work and constructed a list of possibilities for who had wanted access to this safe house without the occupants’ permission. Seren’s name was at the top of it. He wondered if she would have been so clumsy in picking a lock to leave such obvious indicators that it had been done, but pushed the thought aside as the lock slid open.
Moving inside, he kept low, stalking forwards towards a door that connected to the main room. The kitchen was small; a narrow corridor ran from door to door and a table took up the space in front of the fireplace. A rusty spit ran above the fireplace and ashes filled the grate, though they were not fresh enough to be called embers. The dark shapes of grain bags and fresh meat could be seen on the table, but the only light in the room came from under the door. Johreel inched forwards, his feet making no sound on the flagstones. Once again he listened at the door, but he could hear no sounds from the room beyond.
He eased the door open, checking its movement as the hinges squeaked. He knew that it sounded much louder to him because he wanted it to stop – to those inside it would be an innocuous noise and easily ignored. There were lamps lit in the main room, causing Johreel to pause with the door slightly ajar to allow his vision to adjust to the sudden light. He had become used to moving in near complete darkness; the light would be a change. It would not be a particularly welcome one. Darkness was an ally in all his work. Light made investigations easier, of course, if all that you wanted was to see the evidence in front of you, but it was no use if you wanted the element of surprise. Johreel was used to almost all eventualities, of course. He stood up and pressed himself to the wall in the small space to the side of the door and then pushed the door open. Taking one of his daggers from his belt, he used the blade as a mirror to scan as much of the small room as he could. It was empty.
Returning to his crouching position, he moved slowly into the room. On the bare floorboards in front of the door there was a deep stain. It made the boards dark and slightly wet, glistening in the light from the oil lamps hanging from the walls. Blood. Had Seren been here already? To his left there was a threadbare armchair stood over deep scuff marks in the floorboards. There had been a struggle. Beyond the chair, lying on cushions on the floor, was a man. Taking pains to avoid the wet stain and to keep his footfalls as silent as possible, Johreel moved over to him. He was unconscious, rather than sleeping, as far as Johreel could tell. He was also dark haired with a slight olive colour to his skin, which meant that he was Tornmilian rather than Stammish. This wasn’t the man he had been sent to kill. The man’s face was clean, although deep purple bruises around his jaw and eye sockets showed he had been beaten recently, and there was still blood matted in his hair from a serious head wound. Who did this? It did not seem like Seren’s work; she may have decided to leave the others alive and only kill the Stamm, lying this man here to avoid him being seen from outside, but there seemed no reason to have washed his face.
The man was no threat, though, even if he regained consciousness – his injuries were too severe. Since Johreel could not say the same for the Stamm or the other of Ferrer’s men, he moved quickly across the room and listened at the left hand of the two doors. There were no sounds from within; Johreel eased the door open. The room was dark, illuminated only by the strip of light from the main room, in the middle of which stood Johreel’s grey shadow. The light struck dusty floorboards and a pallet bed to one side of the room, the faintest hint of blue glinting in the darkness. Johreel moved inside, moving a hand to one of the curved knives at his belt.
As he moved left out of the path of the light, he saw that the blue glint he had seen came from an open eye. There was not a matching eye in the other socket of the head. The skin around the socket was a mass of purple and black bruise, but the entire eye was gone, deep cuts in the brow showing where a knife had been rammed into it. Johreel narrowed his eyes. The man was not a Stamm: more likely he was from Lapion or another of the Vitelian cities.
He was not the only corpse on the pallet either. Next to him was another man – his clothes clearly marked him as a rich man and his hair marked him as Tornmilian. A dark stain covered the front of his tunic and dark blood had dried on the right side of his face and in his hair. His throat had been torn apart; a large jagged tear had severed the man’s jugular. Johreel thought the blow had come from behind, taking the man by surprise. It would have been messy – blood pouring from the wound. Johreel thought about the dark stain on the floor of the main room. That was where it had happened.
A shadow fell across the door, causing Johreel to pause, slowly drawing the curved dagger, trying to keep the blade from the light. A man was standing in the doorway. Johreel could not make out his face with the light shining from behind him, but the lamplight ran like fire along the blade of the short sword in his hands.
“The last people who came in uninvited didn’t last long,” the man said.
Johreel rose from his crouched position; there was no sense in feigning stealth when he had already been discovered. Besides which, the man’s accent intrigued him – he sounded Tornmilian, but there was something more to the accent which Johreel wanted to place. He looked the man up and down.
“They seem to have left their mark,” he said, “a wound to the left of your abdomen has been recently dressed.”
The man shifted, bending away from the left and stopping abruptly. The blade raised slightly towards Johreel, but the man didn’t move towards him.
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“It is obvious from the way that you are standing.”
The man shifted slightly and raised the sword so that the point was towards Johreel, but the man did not move forwards into the room. Johreel kept his curved dagger by his side, the blade flat against his thigh so that as little of the metal as possible faced the door.
“You are not from these shores at a guess,” the man said, “are you another of Abelard’s hired muscle?”
It was a long sentence – Johreel listened intently to the words and was pleased to hear the deviation from Tornmilian that he had heard before more correctly.
“I never had the pleasure of meeting these two,” Johreel said, “and you are quite correct that I am from elsewhere. The same for you, too, Mishak the Stamm.”
The man stormed forward, raising the blade further and stopping with it hovering an inch in front of Johreel’s throat.
“How do you know my name?!” he demanded, his voice echoing in the room.
There was the swish of skirts behind the Stamm and Johreel looked over his shoulder to see the shape of a woman in the doorway. She was just a little shorter than the Stamm and her hair was tousled. She did not come into the room, but stayed leaning causally on the frame. Johreel was more concerned about her, the small shape in the doorway, than the Stamm with his short sword at Johreel’s throat. She looked like a fox watching a mouse.
“Another of Abelard’s creatures, Lord-killer?” she said. Her voice was like silk; she was no Stamm.
“I don’t know,” the Stamm said, turning his head to talk over his shoulder, “I don’t think so, but I don’t think he dropped in for supper.”
Johreel whipped his hand around, knocking the blade aside and seizing the hand that held it. One turn was enough to shake the blade free and a swift kick was enough to send the Stamm sprawling backwards, clutching at the wound in his side. Johreel span the blade in his hand and pointed it at the floor. The woman drew a dagger from the sleeve of her dress, but she only advanced as far as the Stamm, kneeling behind him, her free hand grasping his arm and preparing to pull him backwards through the door.
“A strange epithet that – ‘Lord-killer’,” Johreel said, “but perhaps you ought to leave the sword play to those who are more adept?”
Johreel took a step closer to the pair of them. The woman raised her dagger warningly, but Johreel smiled and stopped his advance. She did not lower the dagger though and in the small amount of light her eyes seemed to blaze. Oh yes. Definitely a fox.
“You are Mishak the Stamm, previously employed by Lord Minham and wrongly accused of his murder,” Johreel said, switching the majority of his attention to the Stamm on the floor.
“Yes. Who are you and what do you want?”
“I am the Devil Child and I have been sent to kill you.”