Tornmile: Part 27
Part XXVII: Fox & Dagger
There was silence after the man’s pronouncement, but Mishak could feel Marthe shift slightly behind him. The wound in his side ached and he thought that Marthe’s stitching might have come undone again. She hadn’t been pleased that the stitches on his shoulder had pulled free and though mending them again was always painful, he couldn’t help but feel that she pulled the threads with more force than was necessary. Her touch had been light in comparison though and now she knelt to his side, dagger raised to defend him.
“Just try,” Marthe hissed, “we will see who is adept.”
The man stood in the room with the bodies of Abelard and Straton, but seemed to take no interest at all in the corpses near his feet. He stood perfectly rigidly, almost like a statue, though he moved with swiftness that even Marthe couldn’t hope to match. The light spilling from the main room of the safe house illuminated a face that would not look out of place on a hawk. His eyes were dark, pools in which light seemed to vanish. He was clad all in black with black leather pouches arrayed around his waist. Mishak knew that there were daggers tucked behind the man’s belt and he held a short sword in his hands, but he wondered whether those were all the man carried. He had not come in like Abelard; if Mishak hadn’t have been coming to check on Eloi and noticed the door ajar then the man would’ve gone undetected. He seemed to know it too.
“I said I had been sent to kill you,” he said, his speech accented, but his voice calm, “I did not say that I was going to.”
“What do you want then?” Mishak asked, “And who sent you?”
“A group of people who sent me to kill before. They sent me to kill three different people all with the same connection, and now you, a servant to one of them. That is a pattern may be nothing more than coincidence. If it is, then you are the end of the chain.”
“What are you talking about?” Marthe put in angrily.
She had not moved since he had first fallen, but all that time she had been like a coiled spring. She was ready to strike. But that did not interest Mishak much now; he had other concerns to deal with. This man had been sent to kill three people, one of whom Mishak was servant to. That could mean only one man. If that was correct, then this man stood before him was the reason that Mishak had been arrested, his name dishonoured, his father’s memory slighted, his mother had abandoned him, called him traitor and Vucari, and he had ended up in this safe house with multiple wounds.
“You killed Lord Minham?” Mishak asked, his voice quiet.
It took him no time at all to get from the floor to his feet, snatching the dagger from Marthe’s hand and moving towards the man with pure fury in his veins. This man was responsible for his present misfortune. He had killed the man that Mishak had served, had liked as a master, and he would pay for it. Mishak leapt aiming to ram the dagger home into the man’s shoulder – some sense told him that if he was killed, Mishak’s freedom went with him. Alive he could admit to his crimes and Mishak’s name would be cleared. He swung his arm down towards the man, who had not moved, and then he saw the man’s eyes. He was not worried, but worse than that, he was not surprised.
The short sword spun in the man’s hand, knocking the dagger out of Mishak’s hand and causing it to fly into a beam in the ceiling, where it stuck, vibrating for a moment before staying still. The man’s other hand reached out and caught Mishak by the front of his tunic; Mishak’s momentum pushed against the strength in the man’s arm, but it was unmoveable. Mishak felt his legs beneath him give way, his feet scrabbling for purchase on the floorboards. They found none and he fell backwards, stopped only by the man’s hand gripping his tunic. The blade came to rest inches above Mishak’s throat, dissuading him from trying to free himself.
“Let him go!”
That was Marthe’s voice. He could see her upside down, her hair standing a little wildly about her face, but she stood with a straight back and another dagger in her small hands, pointed directly towards the man. How many daggers has she got in that dress?
“As you wish,” the man said, pleasantly, unfazed by the attack or the new dagger pointed at him.
He withdrew the blade and lowered Mishak a little so that the drop to the floor was not so hard and then moved past him towards Marthe. She kept her eyes on him, flicking them now and then towards Mishak on the floor, following the man with the dagger as he moved towards her.
“Don’t!” Mishak warned.
The man turned and gave him a look of utter condescension, but he rammed the point of the short sword into the wood and moved on, leaving it quivering in the floor. He stopped walking when he was inches from the end of Marthe’s dagger, looking down at her with what Mishak presumed was admiration. The man’s hawk face was a stone mask most of the time – impossible to read, but there was a light in his eyes now.
“You are not afraid,” he said to Marthe, “you are not trembling.”
“You’re not very frightening,” she retorted.
Mishak didn’t understand how the man could stand that close to her and not feel those words. Her voice was like the keen edge of a blade. He did not look worried though, in fact he laughed. It was an odd sort of laugh and only lasted for a moment. It was as if the man had not laughed before and was finding his way. Mishak watched as he nodded.
“You would kill me without regret,” he said. It was not a question.
“Stop threatening my Lord-killer and I won’t have to.”
“Oh, yes,” the man said, so quietly he could have been speaking to himself, “quite the fox.”
The fox. Images swam in Mishak’s head – a woman by a lake and a fox preventing him from moving, her paws on his shoulders. A dream? There was more to it, tucked away behind his head but he could not see what it was, and it hardly seemed important now. Except it was an odd thing to say to a person, and it nagged at him. Marthe narrowed her eyes, unsure whether she was being complimented or insulted, but liking neither option better. The man did not seem to notice though, he had turned back to address Mishak.
“Perhaps we can continue our conversation in the light?” he said, gesturing towards the door.
Clambering to his feet, Mishak nodded. If the man wanted to talk, let him talk. There were two of them and only one of him. The man was fast, but only when he expected attack. Mishak would not give him the benefit of knowing he was going to strike next time. The man strode out of the darkened room and into the main one beyond. Mishak grasped the short sword and pulled it free of the floorboard, tucking it behind his belt. Marthe gradually lowered her arm and slid the dagger into her sleeve.
“What did he mean by ‘the fox’?” she asked in a whisper as Mishak came close to her.
“I don’t know. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m just terrified.”
“You don’t look terrified,” Mishak said, taken aback, “you don’t sound terrified.”
She frowned at him and grabbed his free hand, dragging it to her chest, placing it down just below her collar bone. Her skin was warm and delicate, but coming from beneath he could feel her heart beating. There were barely breaks between beats and he was surprised her small frame was able to contain something so loud.
“It will be all right,” he said.
He tried to put as much belief into it as possible. It sounded convincing, though he was not at all sure that it would be all right. Her hand touched his again, holding it against her chest, and she looked him directly in the eyes. Once more her beauty seemed to overtake him, pushing aside all other thoughts, all other worries. She smiled a little.
“We ought not to keep our guest waiting.”
He nodded, looking away from her, unsure whether what he had seen in her eyes was really there. I’m kidding myself. He started to move away, to go into the other room, but she still had hold of his hand. Her heart still danced its manic dance beneath her skin. She guided his hand away from her chest, holding it in both of hers for a moment, before letting it go entirely. The feel of her skin on his remained though and he took confidence from it, allowing himself to move into the room with a stride. His side ached furiously but he could feel not wetness there that might indicate bleeding. Perhaps the stitches had held.
The man was sat crossed legged in a chair by the fire; the one in which Mishak had been sat when Abelard had come in. How fitting. He had clearly organised the furniture so that they would all be facing one another, since two chairs sat opposite his and his own was turned out towards the room so that no one had a need to get behind him. He had his eyes closed, but they flicked open as soon as Mishak and Marthe entered and he gestured for them to take the chairs. Approaching with caution, and careful to make sure the short sword was ready, Mishak moved over and took a seat. Marthe was right behind him, though she perched on the edge of her chair, still every inch the coiled spring.
“As I was saying,” the man said, “I have been ordered to kill four people, all who share a connection.”
Anger flared in Mishak again as he thought of Minham, dead in his blankets, soaked in blood, and the guards that had died with him, one with a spear through the chest and the other disembowelled. He shifted on his seat and the man stopped talking for a moment. Marthe shook her head almost imperceptibly, but he had no intention of attacking the man again. Not yet, anyway.
“The connection is larger, though, than a lord. There is a sword that connects them all, a legendary item that has been called Durandal. Have you heard of it?”
“The sword of Siarl the Great?” Marthe said, and there was an essence of scoff in her voice.
“That is the one to which I refer,” the man said, politely ignoring the scoff, “have you heard of it, Mishak the Stamm?”
“I’ve heard of Siarl,” he said, “and that he had a magic sword. But that’s just a story, isn’t it?”
“It may well be, but why should the story not be true?” the man said, his face not showing an ounce of humour. Mishak could hardly believe the man was serious.
“What has it go to do with Mishak?” Marthe asked.
Mishak frowned; that was the first time she had used his proper name.
“There are three dead men who think that it has much to do with him,” the man responded, “a blacksmith in Tubal knew of it and that Lord Minham had it. A librarian here in the city, a well respected scholar by the name of Remiel, he also knew about the blade. Why did he have to die?”
“Because you killed him,” Mishak said.
“I did as I was instructed – be thankful that I am not doing so now. I am just the Dagger, not the arm that swung it. Three people are dead because of that sword, and you are next in line.”
“I don’t know anything about a sword,” Mishak said, “His Lordship owned many swords – some antiques, some new.”
Mishak tried to think if there had been any special swords in Lord Minham’s collection, but he could not recall them ever being spoken of. His Lordship discussed his weapons with those who knew about them, and that was not Mishak. He knew how to fight, of course, but a servant had other duties in peace time.
“New acquisitions were always sent to a blacksmith outside the city, it may have been the one at Tubal,” Mishak added.
“His name was Seppo.”
“Yes, that was him.”
“Then I was right to suspect a connection,” the man said, “which means that you being chosen was also no coincidence, nor was it a desire to keep you from endangering the people who swing the dagger following your escape. They fear you know of Durandal.”
“And what does that mean?” Mishak asked.
The man sat forward in his seat, his dark eyes boring a hole into Mishak’s head. There was a kind of light in the eyes now, perhaps an excitement or fury, Mishak couldn’t tell which, but he could not look away. The man reached behind his belt and pulled out a long, curved dagger, the blade of which seem to shimmer in the firelight.
“It means that you have to die.”