Tornmile: Part 44
Part XLIV: Honourable Scum
Mishak tapped his mug on the ring stained bar to call for a refill and waited for the serving girl to get to him. She was a pretty young woman with dark hair falling about her face in waves, tousled and wild in places. Her eyes were light – mostly grey, but in places a cool blue. Mishak paid her little mind. He had come here to forget things not to stare at the women. Other men were not so blinded by their troubles and Mishak had to wait while the serving maid attempted to free herself from the clutches of a merchant’s guard, who had hair the colour of sand and a short white scar across a face that women would describe as handsome. Mishak scowled and turned away, looking into the mug, where a small amount of ale pooled around the sides.
Like Noak’s blood. Mishak shifted on the stool to move his boots under it. He fought the urge to look down at the small ring around them that marked the bloodstain. He’d scrubbed at them with all his might, but the mark was still visible on the leather. Getting bloodstains out had always been one of his least favourite tasks as Minham’s servant and the lord’s death had not changed that. Even the rain, which fell evenly from the sky and rattled against the inn’s windows, did little to help Mishak’s mood. The squelch as he walked was just another reminder of the afternoon that he didn’t need.
More ale, that’s what I need. He glanced across at the serving girl, who had just managed to extricate herself from the merchant’s guard. The man leered at her and gave her a solid pat on the backside as she walked away. Mishak leaned away from his mug, allowing her to pour his ale. He didn’t want her to think that he was like the merchant’s guard. He fumbled in his pockets and tossed some coin on the tray she was carrying; he didn’t check to see how much was there. The money had belonged to Noak and Mishak felt like it was burning a hole in his pocket. The sooner he could get rid of it the better. The coin was enough for her to set a jug of ale down beside his mug and beam at him as she thanked him. She had a pretty smile.
“What’s your name?” Mishak asked, surprising himself by speaking.
“Don’t you get sick of the men mauling you?”
“They tip better that way,” she said, shrugging, “and there’s always Dolf if I need him.”
She pointed at the burly man who stood by the door. His hair, wild and uncut, stood back from his head like a lion’s mane, brushing the ceiling beams. He was head and shoulders taller than Mishak and had to look down as he surveyed the room for signs of trouble. Mishak noticed that his gaze, limited by the bruising that half-closed one of his eyes, lingered on the merchant guard and his friends. He brushed the handle of two cudgels, one each side of his belt, with fingers that looked like miniature replicas of the clubs. The knuckles on both hands were sunken in and he had no front teeth at all. His nose was bent and misshapen from repeated breaking. Mishak wondered if the inn was named The Old Wreck after its doorkeeper. He said nothing more to Lydie, merely nodded his understanding; she was safe enough with Dolf around. She smiled again and moved off to fill other mugs. Mishak turned back to the ale in front of him.
Drinking on a dead man’s coin. Mishak took a swallow of the ale and was glad that it was half-decent. He’d hate to be using Noak’s coin for something close to muddy water. Not that Mishak really cared what the ale was like. He’d chosen this inn because it was far away from the safe house and the Tanneries, which meant it was far away from Ferrer. It was also a decent distance from the inns frequented by the soldiers and City Guard, so there was less chance that he’d be recognised as Minham’s servant, though it would just cap the day off if he was arrested. He looked left and right, but no one seemed to be paying him any attention, an effect brought about by the combination of drinking alone and the axe in a loop at his belt. He was glad of that. He’d seen enough men killed for one day.
As he drained the mug, he toyed with the idea of not returning to the Tanneries at all, of keeping away from Ferrer and leaving the city altogether. He had nowhere to go though; the Assassin had made him an outcast in the city of his raising and his own mother had made him an outcast amongst his own people. No. I’m Mishak, son of Miska of the Smrtritter. My father passed his honour on to me and I carry it still. Minham had died, true, but Mishak wouldn’t have prevented it even if he had been there – the two guards were proof of that. Mishak was no match for the Assassin and the man would simply have stepped over Mishak’s corpse and killed Minham anyway. That might have been better all things considered.
He topped the mug up with more of the dark ale and sighed to himself. His death would have been meaningless, even if it had meant that he would have fulfilled the life oath. There was something larger behind the death of Minham, but not something that Mishak was able to do anything about. He was a fugitive from the law and had no doubt been declared wolfshead. Anyone could kill him and it wouldn’t be murder. Had Noak been wolfshead? He hadn’t considered that, but did it matter anyway? The law judged people based on what they thought, not necessarily what was. It was all too confusing to think about and he drank deeply, pushing the thoughts aside.
That allowed thoughts of Marthe to creep in. She was the real reason he couldn’t leave. Not unless she would come with him anyway, and he doubted that she would. For one, he had no plan about what to do and no idea where they would go, which was hardly a tempting offer for anyone. She would also want to stay with Josse and Eloi, who were both loyal to Ferrer, and if he could not persuade Marthe to come away, he stood no chance with the two brothers. Why were they loyal to Ferrer, a man who killed whoever he wanted and burned houses and businesses for profit? He had given them all shelter when Abelard’s retribution followed them to the city, but what difference was there between a lord’s demands and Ferrer’s expectation of obedience? It nagged at him and he couldn’t drive it away.
“Thought I’d find you here.”
Mishak looked up from his cup of ale as Wieland, the smith from the compound, sat down on a stool at the bar. One of the other serving girls – this one with brown hair and dark eyes – came over with another jug of ale and a mug for Wieland. She smiled at him, more than just a smile for a tip. Apparently, he was a regular here.
“Why is that then?” Mishak asked when the girl had taken Wieland’s coin and gone off to serve another customer.
“Furthest place from the compound,” Wieland said, taking a swallow of the ale, “I come here when I’ve had a long day at the forge. I find that the walk refreshes me and the ale’s good here. Not as good as you get with the stamme, of course, but that goes without saying.”
Wieland did not looked refreshed. Soaked would be a better word. He wore a dark brown coat open over a tan shirt and black breeches tucked into brown leather boots. All of them were soaked through, clinging to his skin in places. He seemed not to notice it or the rainwater dripping from his messy black hair and running off the head of a thick smith’s hammer tucked into his belt. He drank from his mug and nodded to Dolf, who nodded back respectfully. Wieland with his thick arms and calloused hands might give Dolf something to worry about, but the doorkeep didn’t look worried.
“He’s a murdering bastard,” Mishak said, drinking down a mug and pouring more ale.
Wieland raised an eyebrow at the outburst, but Mishak didn’t need to explain that the ‘he’ meant Ferrer.
“You won’t hear an argument to the contrary out of me,” Wieland said, setting his mug down.
“Then why do you work for him?”
“Only person who’d have me,” Wieland shrugged, “and he pays well for what I do.”
Mishak ran a thumb along the blade of the axe at his side and looked at Wieland incredulous.
“This is the best axe I ever saw, better even than the one my father carried. Why would Ferrer be the only one to hire you?”
Wieland sighed through his nostrils, a sound like a dragon’s breath in the stories Mishak’s mother used to tell him at nights. Then the smith picked up the mug and drank a little, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I didn’t want to leave the Zelezbissen,” he said with deep regret, “but there was a woman who didn’t feel for me what I felt for her. Things got difficult and I worried that there’d be bloodshed, that maybe she’d get hurt in it. I couldn’t have that, so I packed my tools and I made for the nearest city. Coningsbur isn’t a huge place, but it’s got a few different forges there and for a while I made a bit of easy money working wherever would have me for a day or so. But, it wasn’t far enough from the Zelezbissen and I longed to go back for the woman. Clara, her name was. Beautiful.”
He paused for a moment, peering into the mug as if her face was reflected in the surface. Mishak understood how it felt to love someone without hope of them returning that love and didn’t press him to go on. Wieland tossed back the ale and shook his head softly.
“So, I left Stammland as these Tornmilians like to call it and thought to lose myself in the pearl of the Empire, Tornmile itself. When I got here I tried working a few places in the same way, but none of them were pleased about it and I got no more than a day’s work at each forge in the city, before I couldn’t get any more work. They all looked at me like I was going to steal the tools and make off with the takings the moment their back was turned. They were suspicious because I’m a Stamm. Good for fighting in their armies, but not for working in their city.
I was too old to be an apprentice and show them what I could do, so I thought to the Corpse Shore with them all and I’d start my own forge. I used all my coin to get the forge up and running, but that didn’t matter because I thought I’d be making money faster than I could make horseshoes, but it wasn’t that way. No one would buy from me, some wouldn’t even trade me the raw materials. No one was interested in my wares. I didn’t sell a damn thing the first two months I was here.
Then the Smithing Guild came calling and said I had to pay to be a member if I wanted to keep the forge. Well, they didn’t phrase it that way, but that’s what they meant. I refused to pay, so they hired some thugs to come and persuade me. They were Ferrer’s men. Things turned ugly and soon I was setting about them with my hammer, driving them out of the shop. One of them cut me across the back of the leg. Gods, but that hurt. Sometimes I still wake from dreaming about that, like someone’s put a brand across my flesh. Anyway, I was down and losing blood. Ferrer comes in – don’t know why he was there, maybe he was checking up on his men – and he sees me on the floor. He knows I’ll die from the bleeding and he won’t get hired by the Guild again. He’s angry with the man who cut me, but the thug doesn’t see it, because Ferrer’s quiet as a mouse. The thug makes a joke or says something to Ferrer, it’s all a bit hazy, and Ferrer picks up the nearest weapon – one of my short swords from the display rack and cuts the thug open from neck to ribcage.
I think that’s it, that he’ll kill me too and have done with it, but Ferrer just stands there swinging this sword to and fro, testing the balance. ‘This is a good sword,’ he says, and he gets me to a doctor. I pass out on the way. I come round to a leg that doesn’t move how it used to and an offer of a job, well paid and well provisioned. Didn’t seem much point turning it down.”
Wieland sighed to himself and poured out the remaining ale in his jug, picking up the mug and bringing it to his lips. He drank deeply and then set the mug down on the bar, cradling it idly between his thick fingers.
“So, I know exactly what you think about Ferrer and I don’t disagree. The man’s a criminal, a murderer, and many other things. But he was willing to give me a chance at doing what I’m good at, no matter where I was from. I’m grateful for that.”
“Is that enough, though? He wanted me to kill Noak in cold blood for making a mistake and he threatened to kill me when I refused.”
“Way I heard it, Noak let someone get into the safe house and kill the rest of Ferrer’s men inside. What would the Smrt do with a watchman that allowed a Krevtanzer in to kill five of your best fighters?”
“They wouldn’t do anything,” Mishak said, “The watchman would open his stomach to preserve his honour.”
“Yes, but Noak didn’t have any honour, even by Tornmilian standards. Most of Ferrer’s men would let someone have the chance to hand over what they’ve got and then let them go. Noak’s favourite trick was to creep on people walking the streets at night and stab them in the back, because they can’t refuse if they’re dead and they won’t get a chance to fight him. He was a coward, a thief, and a murderer. No one’s going to mourn him.”
“So what’s the difference between him and Ferrer?”
“Ferrer’ll warn you before he kills you, he’ll look you in the eyes whilst he does it, and he’ll make sure any family you had are given a bit of money to keep them from starving. He’s scum, but he’s honourable scum.”
Wieland tapped the bar to call for more ale and the serving girl was with him in moments, with refills for Mishak and the smith.
“So cheer up,” Wieland said, “drink up, and let’s talk about something a bit happier.”