Tornmile: Part 33
Part XXXIII: Shadows of the Past
Mishak moved through the trees listening to the sounds of the forest; somewhere above him the leaves rustled as a bird flexed its wings and further away he could hear the snuffle of some creature in the undergrowth. He puzzled over what it could be. A badger? No, it was still light, far too early for a badger to be moving. Something else then, something smaller. His mind wandered away from the creature, walking its own path. He allowed it to do so, not concentrating on anything. He peered at a beetle crawling up the bark of a nearby tree and watched in wonder as the casing on its back flicked open and tiny wings beat to lift it uncertainly into the air. He watched it fly to another tree and smiled to himself.
The air was cool under the canopy: the sun’s hot rays were warded off by the foliage, though here and there a spear of light fell from the heavens. Whenever he passed through one of these he was briefly warmed to the bone and tiny dapples spread themselves over the bracken covered earth as the light bounced off the axe at his belt. It hung through a loop there, the stout haft made of a dark wood that seemed almost to suck the light from the surroundings. It was comfortable at his hip. With his eyes he traced the forks in the wood where lightning appeared when he gripped the haft. They were not there now, but they would come again when needed, snaking their way along the haft to touch the metal of the axe’s head. The edge of the axe was razor sharp: a deadly weapon. It was called Erobern, which was ‘conquer’ in the tongue of the Smrt.
“Conquer or die,” he said to himself, “conquer or die.”
Up ahead he could hear movement again, but this was not the shuffling and snuffling of animals in the forest. They were more human noises – the sound of booted feet breaking fallen twigs and pushing past branches and briars. He loosened Erobern in its loop, but didn’t take the axe from his belt. It was probably one of the Smrt coming with a message. Though, he conceded, they generally announced their presence before they got so close.
Mishak pushed himself close to a tree, leaning his back against the rough bark. If the person were a friend he could simply step forward and be acknowledged – if they were not then their eyes would not necessarily pick him out against the colour of the tree. His clothes were streaked with signs of travel and they had been made for hunting, so they were shades of brown and green. A casual glance would miss him if he did not move and the lack of sunlight would help him remain concealed.
Before long, the person approached – they were clearly moving at speed. Mishak could hear heavy breaths and heavier footfalls. The person was running. Mishak withdrew Erobern from its loop, and held it firmly in his hand, allowing the blade to rest by his foot. He would be ready for whatever came through the trees. He could feel the haft hum slightly and knew that the lightning was beginning to form. Wait, yet, he thought and the hum slowed. Just a little longer.
A man plunged through the trees towards Mishak. He wore hide trimmed with fur and had two bags slung over his shoulders. There were tears in his clothes where briars had clutched at him as he passed, and more than one cut was visible on his bare arms. He looked behind him as he ran; Mishak could not see his face, but it was clear that he was in his middle years. The long, lank hair had flashes of grey in it, as did his beard. He kept running, still looking behind him, and then there was a thud and crack. An arrow had come from behind the man, though Mishak could not see who had fired it. It had passed through the man’s right knee, bringing him tumbling to the ground. He sprawled onto the leaf strewn floor, and then tried to raise himself once more.
It was then that Mishak saw his face. It was his father. For a moment his mind reeled, screaming that his father was dead and could not be here, but the evidence of his eyes screamed back at him. He was younger than he had been when he had died, but not much. It was as if Mishak’s childhood memories had been made flesh in front of him. Casting aside the caution and protection of the tree and the undergrowth, Mishak darted forward to take his father’s arm.
“Who is it?” he asked as he hauled his father to his feet and flung the man’s arm around his neck.
His father looked at him and for a moment there was only relief on his face. Then, recognition followed and his eyes widened in fear. He began pushing Mishak away, beating his hands from about him and casting glances over his shoulder.
“Priech!” he shouted, trying to stand on his wounded leg and fight Mishak off at the same time. Mishak reeled backwards, keeping himself from his father’s blows. His father struggled to stand.
“What do you mean? Why do you want me away?” Mishak said, scanning the trees for any sign of a pursuer and then moving towards his father once more, “You know me: I am your son.”
A second arrow flew from between the trees, this time striking through his father’s back. There was a sound like stone hitting a waterlogged sack and the point of the arrow forced its way through his father’s chest, sticking out from his shoulder. His father’s breath came in wheezes that spoke of a punctured lung. The arrow head glinted in a shaft of light. Everything around the arrow’s shaft began to turn black. Mishak ran forwards and grabbed at his father, supporting the man’s weight, not letting him fall. Mishak’s father unclasped the bags around his shoulders and forced them into Mishak’s hands.
“Bezyet, mi dita,” he said, softly, as blood began to trickle from the corner of his mouth. Mishak shook his head, trying to fight back the tears that had begun to prickle in the corners of his eyes. Mishak’s father wept openly. He gripped Mishak’s face in his hands and nodded. The blackness crept up his father’s neck. Mishak’s father let his hands fall and repeated his words in Tornmilian: “Run, my child.”
Then, he slipped from Mishak’s grasp and fell lifeless to the floor. He lay sprawled on his back, where the blackness that had started from his shoulder consumed him, turning him to a shadow that crumbled into dust and blew away on the wind. Mishak looked up. In the trees there was a figure and the glint of an arrowhead nocked to his bow. Mishak gripped his axe. Now.
The lightning erupted in a flash across the dark haft, spreading down to the axe head. It shone from the silver metal, illuminated the area around. Mishak pushed as hard as he could from the ground and sprinted towards the bowman in the trees. He knew that there would be an arrow loosed any second, but he didn’t care. The bowman had killed his father and there was nothing else but vengeance. Honour demanded it. The honour of the Smrt. The honour of his father.
He felt the impact as the arrow hit him, digging between his lowest two ribs. The pain would have been unbearable if he could feel it. He couldn’t: he floated in a void, spurred on by anger and grief, and kept running, raising Erobern in both hands ready to strike as soon as he could. The bowman was reaching for another arrow, fitting the nock to the string, drawing the string back to his cheek. All was done with precision, without panic. Mishak screamed: there were no words, just incomprehensible sounds strung together. The axe head started to come down. The bowstring twanged as it was loosed. Mishak felt the earth receive him as he fell backwards, clutching at the shaft that pierced his throat. The lightning on Erobern’s haft faded and died. Mishak closed his eyes.
“Mi lyto, otec.”
“If you’re going to fall asleep, then perhaps you should sit in the cart?”
Mishak dug his boots into the foot rest and allowed Marthe’s hand to push him back against the driver’s seat so that he wouldn’t fall into the road. Once he was seated securely once again, he shook his head and rubbed at his eyes. They itched to be closed again, but the images replaying in his mind screamed for them to stay open.
“Sorry,” he said to Marthe, who was looking at him out of the corner of her eyes, “I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Something on your mind?”
“Many things. Too much, perhaps,” he said, and tried to push aside the riot of colour: green of a forest, silver of an arrowhead, red of blood and all around it a defined black that would not leave his thoughts.
“Anything you want to share?” Marthe asked.
She seemed genuinely concerned, but Mishak shook his head. He had not forgotten her laughter the previous night. She did not seem to want to mock him this morning and though he could not bring himself to be angry with her, he was far from happy. What had been so funny anyway? That was what he could not work out. It played on his mind, nagged at him as if he should know the answer.
“How long till we’re there?” he asked, trying to focus on the task in hand.
They had left the safe house this morning, intent on proceeding to Ferrer’s main compound, which was located in the Tanneries. Mishak had never had much cause to be on that side of the city and the streets looked unfamiliar as they passed through them now. He glanced inside the cart, where Josse sat tending to Eloi’s wounds. The younger of the two had still not woken and his breathing was still shallow. That was part of the reason for the move – Ferrer would have people with better healing skills than any they had and he might well go to the length of paying a doctor to come if he thought it worth it. Eloi was good for Mr Ferrer’s business, Josse had said, Mr Ferrer will remember that. Mishak felt that Josse’s words sounded as much a threat as a conviction, but as long as Eloi made a full recovery, Mishak was not complaining.
“Not too long. It’s only a few streets away.”
Mishak’s attention turned to the other things inside the cart. On one side of Eloi was a headless Vitelian, known as Straton, and on the other a minor Tornmilian noble called Abelard, his throat ruptured and ruined. They were the other reason for leaving the safe house: it did not feel all that safe anymore. Not only had Straton found them and with Abelard attacked them, nearly killing all of them in the process, but also the Assassin had found them. It would not have been wise to linger in that place any longer: better to relocate to somewhere a little safer. Ferrer’s complex was apparently heavily guarded. Mishak never wanted to see that Assassin again. He was not sure he would be lucky enough to survive twice. Going by the pain in his side, he was not certain that he would survive once yet.
“What will we do with them?” Mishak said, quietly, jerking his head in the direction of the bodies.
“Don’t worry,” Marthe said, “Mr Ferrer will take care of everything. They’re not worth the effort of burying anyway.”
Mishak nodded. That was certainly true. He was uneasy about their cargo, though, in broad daylight, though he tried to keep it from showing. One city guardsman to get curious about their load and Mishak would be back where he began – in a cell waiting for the rope. He reached up and itched at the M brand on his collar bone. Marked for life as a murderer. He could never escape it now. If anyone in Tornmile or any part of the Empire saw that brand then he would be strung from the nearest branch that would hold his weight.
“It is not who you are.”
Marthe’s hand took hold of his own and moved it back to his side, away from the brand. She had stopped the cart on the side of the street, where a sort of tunnel opened into the side of a building. There was a gate further inside, which was firmly closed. She looked him directly in the eyes and raised her eyebrows for a response.
“Who am I then?”
“You are Mishak, son of Miska of the Smrtritter,” she said, stumbling over the Stammish words that she had only heard once, “and you are my Lord-killer. More than that is up to you, but don’t let those fools who branded you and would have killed you because you are a servant and a Stamm tell you what you ought to be. You should be glad to be an outcast in their society, just as I am.”
Mishak nodded and felt the trace of a smile come to his lips.
“Who are you?” she asked, encouragingly.
“I am Mishak, son of Miska of the Smrtritter.”
“And?” she pressed, raising her eyebrows again.
“And I am your Lord-killer.”