Tornmile: Part 4
Part IV: By Any Other Name
A cheerful sun tickled the undersides of fluffy white clouds and sparkled in every colour of the rainbow on the surface of a lake with water clear as crystal. The earth was hot beneath Brielle’s bare feet and her light, floating dress brushed softly against her legs. She stepped out of the shade of the forest tentatively, rejoicing at the coolness of the wet grass. She did not know where she was or how she had come to be here; she didn’t recognise the lake or the great mountains beyond it, and there was no obvious landmark to aid her. It was peaceful; the only sounds that reached her ear were the gentle drone of a bee collecting pollen from a wild flower to her left and far off birdsong.
She started confidently towards the lake, imagining what the tranquil water would feel like on her skin. She longed for that smooth caress and walked more quickly to reach the bank around the edge of the lake. She sat down and allowed her legs to dangle into the water. It was cool, refreshing, pure. Lying back on the bank, Brielle watched the clouds drift lazily by and tried to see shapes in them the same way she had done with Caiden when they were children. The memory of it seemed to fill her entire body with light, as if the sun’s warmth she could feel on her face and arms had passed into her. Her heart felt light, untroubled, pure.
A branch snapped behind her and she sat bolt upright, startling a fallow deer that had come to graze by the water’s edge. She watched its graceful flight, tufted tail flashing white danger. Brielle’s heart raced with it from the shock, until the deer passed into the woods and was lost from view. Leaning forward, Brielle cupper her hands and lifted some water to her mouth. It was crisp; a blissful taste. She splashed more onto her face and then watched the ripples move out across the lake’s smooth mirrored surface. When they had disappeared and the water was still once more, she closed her eyes and turned her face towards the sun.
The birdsong grew louder and all other noises seemed to cease. The drone of the bee was gone, replaced by a pleasant melody, which Brielle joined in with, humming softly to herself. Other voices joined her own; she opened her eyes and saw a chorus of beautiful women with golden hair and quicksilver tails like those of fishes, humming beneath the water. They had pearls woven into their hair and their eyes were like stars reflected in the water. Their voices were soothing, spreading through her like ripples, and she stopped her humming to hear them better. As she did so, they turned their melody into a song.
“Come to find us before the day.
One will come to show the way.
One will come to guard the two.
From the deep we sing to you.”
They wove the lines around each other, repeating them in alongside one another in rich, complex harmonies. Then, as suddenly as they had started, they finished their song and retreated towards the centre of the lake, backing away from her, humming that first melody all the while. Brielle watched them go and felt a sadness wash over her mingled with the same longing she had felt when she first saw the lake. Her sorrow did not last long though; as the voices were lost beneath the water’s surface, the tranquillity of the place returned, bringing with it the soporific drone of the bee and the distant birdsong. Brielle lay her head down on the bank and fell into a sleep, gentle, restful, pure.
Brielle jerked awake, blankets tangled around, which she fought with momentarily disorientated in the darkness of her room. Struggling free of the blankets, she crossed to the washstand and poured some water into the bowl. She splashed some of it across her face and experienced the strangest sensation. I’ve seen this before. Image of a lake and mountains flashed in the corners of her mind, but she could not place them. It did not look like any place she had been or even somewhere she might have seen in a painting or a tapestry, and yet the feeling of cool, wet grass on her skin pressed itself upon her. A fragment of a song came with it: “Come to find us before the day.” It was not a part of any song she had heard. “Before the day.” Before what day? She tried to focus her mind on the line, screwing her eyes tightly shut, but the more she concentrated the more it clung to the shadows. She gave up in frustration, crossed to the window, and threw open the shutters.
Her room was at the top of the inn a part of a converted attic, higher than most of the surrounding buildings. The largest rooms in the King’s Arms were given to customers – not that she had any of those – so her room was a little cramped, a fact no helped by the sloping roof. She looked out at the city. The orange glow of lamp lights still shone from the windows of the Spire, despite the lateness of the hour. Brielle could not recall a time when there hadn’t been torches lit there long into the night.
Noises from the streets below filtered up to her – the distant rumble of a cart, the horse’s hooves clipping smartly on the cobbles, the barking of stray dogs, and the occasional shout of someone in the maze of streets. She couldn’t hear her father’s snores from the next room and assumed that he must still be drinking; he had gone out in the late afternoon and not returned before she’d gone to bed. Morning always found him back in his blankets, wine-soaked and oblivious to the rising sun. She sighed to herself and sat on the sill looking at the crescent moon and the star shining brightly in the velvet black sky. They were a beautiful sight. All thoughts were driven from her mind; she felt at peace.
A scraping noise from below interrupted her tranquillity. She cursed her father; she imagined him half-opening, half-collapsing into the door, causing the wood to scrape against the flagstones. Before long he would be singing himself up to his room, or, if it had been a particularly heavy night, he would pass out on one of the wooden benches in the common room. She listened for the scrape of the door being closed, but it did not come. Crossing the room, stamping unnecessarily as she did so, Brielle pulled a dress over her head and laced it quickly. She unlatched her door and headed for the stairs, expecting to find her father sprawled on the flagstones, face bloodied from the impact with the stone. It would be an hour at least to clean him up and put him in his blankets. She fervently hoped that he had not vomited everywhere again.
As she descended the stairs, head full of image of the mess she would have to clean up, she heard a hissing voice in the darkness below her. She paused, frowning and listening. Her father never hissed. He sang and swore, or sometimes both, but always in full voice. Nev, the most likely companion to her father this late at night, had a voice too deep to allow him to hiss, and, in any case, she would recognise the strange collections of sounds that formed his native speech. If not those two, then who?
She carried on down the stairs, cautious of making too much noise, and heard the hissing voice again, catching the last part of what was being said: “…for the girl.” It sounded like an instruction; footsteps followed. She crept to the bottom of the stairs, avoiding the bottom step, which creaked loudly when it was stepped on. The door to the kitchen was slightly ajar, and a soft light came from inside. She crouched low as the door began to swing open and moved into the space behind the stairs. Through the small gap she saw a man emerge from the kitchen – he was tall, thick set, with cropped hair and a scarf pulled up across his face. He carried a bullseye lantern, which sent a beam of light ahead of him allowing him to see, but not be clearly seen. Brielle held her breath as he started up the stairs and held it for as long as she could. The stairs creaked when he reached the second storey, then went silent. Brielle assumed he was checking the rooms for hire for guests.
She crept out from her hiding place and ran crouched into the common room, hiding herself behind the bar. No shouts or sound of movement followed her, so she paused and reached up for the cudgel, the thick handle bound in stiff leather reassuring in her hand. Cautiously she moved aside the bottom of the curtain separating the kitchen and the bar and peered into the room. Two more bullseye lanterns stood on the kitchen table, pointing at opposite walls. They gave enough light to see by, but did not fully illuminate the room. A second man, similar in build to the first, sat on the counter by the door, picking at his fingernails with a short knife. He would see her as soon as she entered the room, which would lose her the advantage of surprise, and though the cudgel was superior to the knife in single combat, he could more readily throw his weapon and cause her serious injury. It was not worth the risk. Let’s even the odds.
Retreating into the shadows of the common room, she made her way back to the stairs and began to climb them one at a time. She grasped the cudgel firmly in her right hand and felt her way with her left. She knew the corridors of the inn even in complete darkness, but the presence of interlopers and the need to be as quiet as possible unsettled her. Blood pounded in her ears and she felt queasy.
When she reached the second storey she could see the bullseye lantern standing at the end of the corridor, light pointing into the smallest room at the back of the inn. On a clear day, you could see the forest covered mountains in the far distance from that room, but it was also cramped and prone to damp in bad weather. Brielle approached the lantern silently, taking care to stay out of the beam. She halted to the right of the door, where the light shining into the man’s eyes as he left the room would render her all the more invisible. She could hear him moving about and raised the cudgel in readiness. As he stepped through the door she swung the cudgel with both hands and heard a thud as it connected with his body, catching him in the throat. He reeled backwards, falling to the floor, gasping for breath but unable to make a sound. A second, less forceful, blow to the temple sent him into unconsciousness. With difficulty, Brielle dragged his large frame to the window, opened the shutters, and heaved him up by his legs. She pushed him as hard as she could and he began to slide, disappearing from view. She heard the snapping of branches from below as he crashed through the bushes into the ground.
Brielle took up the man’s lantern and made her way back to the bottom of the stairs, cudgel raised against the appearance of the man with the knife. At the foot of the stairs, she stopped, concealing herself once more in the space behind them. Extinguishing the wick, she launched the lantern into the common room, where it clattered noisily across the floor. She moved to the kitchen and slipped into the room behind the man with the knife, who was shining one of the other lanterns into the common room trying to find the source of the noise. Brielle struck him across the back of the head and he fell to the floor. She prodded him tentatively in the back, but he didn’t respond; he was out cold. She smiled to herself and laid the cudgel aside to grab the man’s legs.
A fearsome blow caught her across the back of the knees. Her legs buckled, giving way, and she fell to her knees. Strong arms caught her arms, dragged her back to her feet, but held her fast. She turned her head and saw a white eye and a puckered scar.
“Evening, missy,” White-Eye snarled, dragging her to her feet and out into the backyard. A pack of men stood there, all with their hair slicked back, jeering smiles on their faces. One of them was tending to the man Brielle had dropped through the window, and White-Eye ordered another to fetch the knife carrier from the common room. Then he pushed Brielle in the small of the back and she stumbled forward towards the pack. Several of the grabbed her, pinioning her arms, her struggles wasted against their strength. White-Eye leaned close to her.
“Hold still, missy,” he leered.
She spat in his face. The leer disappeared and he slapped her across the face with the back of his hand. Her eyes watered as the pain blossomed in her cheek; there was the iron taste of blood in her mouth. She spat again, sending blood and spittle into his jeering face. The leer dropped once more, this time replaced with a look of fury; he grabbed her by the throat and squeezed a little. She struggled against the hands clamping her arms, but she could not get free.
“We were just going to bring you to the boss,” he said, “but for that we’re going to show you what happens to people who don’t pay up. Light the torches!”
His bellowed order was met with a howl of approval. Wood soaked in pitch was lit from lanterns; torches flickered into life. One of the men handed one to White-Eye. He brought it close to Brielle’s face. The heat made her eyes water again and the smoke burned her nostrils. She kept her eyes fixed on it. With a growl, he hurled it onto the roof of the inn. A cheer went up from the men and one or two of them threw torches after his. Some threw torches through the inn’s windows and others took theirs into the cellar, coming back with bottles of mead and casks of ale.
“No!” Brielle managed to squeeze out, despite White-Eye’s hand on her throat.
“Cheer up, missy,” he said, “you’re going to be an example to others.”
The roof had begun to smoke a little; grey plumes spiralled into the night sky. There was a sound like a rumble of thunder as the brandy in the cellar caught light and then flames leapt from the building, yellow tongues licking the brickwork from the windows. Brielle watched in horror, tears stinging her eyes and blurring her vision.
“You’ll pay for this,” she said to White-Eye, “I’ll find you and make you pay!”
“Only if the boss leaves you in a state where you’re able to,” he countered. “Bring her away, boys!”
She was pushed forward, one of the men taking her slender wrists in his meaty fist and putting his tree trunk of an arm around her neck. She was forced to walk on her toes, his sweaty body pushed uncomfortably against her own. Her eyes were blurry with tears, which she forced back, willing herself to stop crying. Tears would not help her now.
Brielle could feel the man’s breath on her neck as they moved into the small alleyway. It was not all that wide so they walked in single file with White-Eye leading and Brielle’s captor bringing up the rear. Seeing her chance, she grabbed the man’s arm and lifted herself enough to strike the man in front of her on the back of the knee. He stumbled forward into the man in front knocking them both to the ground. Brielle jerked her head back sharply, catching her captor on the nose. She could feel hot blood splatter onto her head and neck. His grip loosened. She bit his forearm as hard as she could, sinking her teeth into his flesh until he relinquished his hold completely. Ducking under his other arm, she raced away from them, bare feet pounding painfully on the packed earth and gravel of the alleyway.
A scramble behind her made her pick up the pace. They would be beginning to chase her, clambering over the men she had felled to speed after her. She darted down another alleyway to her left, narrowly avoiding some broken crates, and sped towards the street that the alleyway opened out onto. There were loud footfalls behind her; she turned to see how close they were to her. There was a loud thud as she collided with something muscular, her legs dropped from under her, and she hit her head on the floor. A horse whinnied and a voice called for it to stop.
“Are you all right?” a man’s voice asked.
“Wha-?” she managed. She tried to sit up but it made her head spin and her vision blurry.
“Are you all right?” the voice repeated. It was a man’s voice, she was sure of that, and he seemed genuinely concerned. He didn’t sound like the sort of person to work for scum like Dunstan Ferrer, but she stayed on her guard.
“I’m all right,” she said, “I think.”
Her vision was returning to normal, though her head still ached when she sat up and a feeling of nausea settled in her stomach. The man was kneeling beside her, a look of concern on his stubble-jawed face. Behind him two horses were tethered to a small curricle. Oil lamps hung on gilt stands at either end of the driver’s seat cast a yellow light over the street.
“I think I’d better take you to my doctor, in any case,” he said, “you were hit quite hard.”
She could hear people running in the alleyway behind her and threats carried to her ear. She was sure White-Eye’s voice was amongst them. Precipice in front, wolves behind. At least he’s offering help.
“All right,” she said, “help me up.”
He lifted her bodily from the floor and carried her to the carriage, setting her down gently on the seat, which was padded and covered in soft velvet. He stepped up into the driver’s seat and took hold of the reins.
“My name’s Darian,” he said, “what’s yours?”
Brielle didn’t answer immediately, wiping the blood from her hair and neck where she had broken her captor’s nose and feigning that she had not heard. She didn’t want to give her name; the men chasing her would not give up just because she had got away. If Dunstan Ferrer had decided to make an example of her, he would stop at nothing to find her. Besides, even for all his promise of help, he was still a stranger on the street in the middle of the night. She searched for a name to use instead of her own and her brother’s last words to her came unbidden into her mind.
“Rose,” she said at last, “call me Rose.”