Tornmile: Part 52
Part LII: Out of the Frying Pan
Seren felt the rock scrape against her back, tearing her tunic and biting into her flesh. The impact of the water had separated her from Johreel and though she twisted to look for him, silt kicked up from the seabed obscured her vision. The undertow pulled at her, bringing her away from the rocks, and she let it carry her, weak as it was. She needed to get away from the cliff, so that those above wouldn’t be able to follow her. Arrows could come pouring down from the Crucible at any second and the cover of the water was little protection. With her hands still bound, she kicked her legs to drive herself forward, her body undulating in the water. She had always been a strong swimmer; she had learned from her father when she was still a child. They would go down to the straits that separated the two halves of Moreana and they would swim along the shoreline, exploring the cliffs and caves as they went.
She swam for as long as she was able before she surfaced, hoping that Johreel would find her even through the silt, but he did not. Her head broke the surface and she breathed greedily at the air, casting about to see where she was. She had come further down the coast than she had imagined, though the Crucible was still visible on its clifftop height behind her. Sharp eyes might pick her out, but it was unlikely. The sea sent waves across her, pushing towards the rocks of the cliffs, so she struck on. The effort was tiring, especially after the interrogation. She could not feel the pain of it yet – her body was full of adrenaline and driving her onwards – but the dull feeling at the back of her mind told her that she would feel that pain soon. For now, it held off and she swam on.
Finally, as the cliffs started to turn back on themselves, she reached the point of exhaustion, where her muscles screamed at her to rest. She made towards the shore, where there was a small cove and a wide sandy beach. There were wrecks of boats here, like the skeletons of great sea creatures left to die on the sand. Seaweed clung to the timbers, hanging like cobwebs. Men had died here, she could feel it. She crossed the sand, attempting to scrub her footprints as she went to obscure her trail – you could never be too careful when fleeing the Order. The beach ended in rock face, but there was an opening into a cave, which had been forged by the sea and widened by men. Smugglers had seemingly used this cove before the Assassins had taken over the Crucible. They had not been back since, or if they had, they were dead. Still, a selection of their wares still remained – a few barrels and crates stacked against the side of the cave.
She worked the ropes around her wrists against a protruding nail and managed to loosen the bonds enough to remove them. Blood flowed back to her hands, making them tingle and throb with pain. She tried to ignore it, to force away, worried that this small pain would bring with it the larger pain that was still held at bay. She focused on investigating the crates. Some were empty and others contained foodstuffs long since spoiled, but there were clothes in another and a few belts of cracked leather. She hastened to remove her clothes, feeling the prickle of the wind on her bare, wet skin, and then pulled on some trousers and a tunic in a dull brown. The material was not as fine as her Assassin’s clothes, but they were dry and that revived her spirits. She used some of the other clothes to dry her hair as best she could and then looked through the remaining crates. There was little in them – more clothes and a few bottles of wine that smelled of vinegar. She did find a belt with a short bladed knife with a horn handle tucked into the scabbard, which she put on, and a knapsack. She filled this with a travelling cloak and her Assassin’s tunic, wrung out and wrapped in other clothes.
The cave had a passageway that led up to the top of the cliffs, which she followed, cautious of coming out into the open. As she walked, her ribs began to ache, the first sign that the pain of the interrogation was returning. She moved faster, towards the trees that covered the slope from the heights and ducked into their cover. Her left side began to hurt more painfully, so she clutched it as she walked through the trees, the soil sticking to her wet boots. Ahead, she heard digging and paused, hovering in the shadow of a tree. She drew the knife from her belt and made her way forwards. She moved quietly, making no more noise than a mouse.
Beneath a great oak tree Johreel stood, digging. He was stripped to the waist, the muscles in his back rippling as he worked. His tunic hung over a tree branch, dripping into a muddy pool beneath, and his belt with many pouches attached to it was hanging beside it.
“There’s pain remedy in the third pouch from the buckle end,” he said, pausing in his work but not turning around.
She didn’t ask how he knew it was her. He knew the step of everyone he had dealings with and even a stalking lion couldn’t creep up on Johreel. She took the remedy from the pouch, pulled the stopper, and sat down on the ground to drink and wait for it to take effect. Johreel stopped digging and stooped to pull a long strongbox from the ground. He opened it and took out a long case containing his bow, his long curved sword, and some spare clothes. To her surprise, he also retrieved some clothes of her own that she had thought locked in her closet.
“What do we do now? Where will we go?” she asked him, feeling lightheaded from the remedy.
“It doesn’t matter. The Order is everywhere and they will want us dead. They will hunt us. They will hound us. They will find us.”
He pulled out her swords and knives, which she had last seen hidden in a secret cache under the floorboards, and tossed them to her.
“And we will be ready.”
Mishak was bundled into the courtyard by Lochan and a few of Ferrer’s men, with four others in Perun’s livery providing an escort. Briefly, Mishak thought about trying to escape, but as he pressed his legs to the floor to push backwards, pain shot from the arrow wound in his thigh and he stumbled, falling. Lochan seized him by the back of his tunic and pulled him back up.
“You,” he said, pointing to one of Perun’s men, “sort out his wound. I don’t want him passing out before he hangs. I want to see him struggle.”
The man sighed and passed his spear to one of his own before looking at the arrow in Mishak’s leg. He twisted it suddenly and Mishak roared in pain, and then it was gone and the man was binding the wound with strips of cloth. He tucked the arrow through Mishak’s belt and then took up his place with his retinue, reclaiming the spear from his fellow.
In front of Lord Astur’s mansion was a large oak tree, which Lochan made for. One of Ferrer’s men tested the branches for their strength and nodded, seemingly satisfied. Another had been trying a noose, which he threw over Mishak’s head, tossing the other end over the bough. Mishak thought they were taking their time. He wished they’d hurried up: waiting to die was by far the worst thing, worse than dying. The wolves have caught me, Father. I’m coming to see you again. Surely, the Gods would allow that. He was dying a criminal’s death, but the Gods knew he was innocent. They’d see that. Then he thought of Minham and the broken life oath, he thought of the life oath he’d given Lord Astur. He’d broken that too; Lord Astur still lived and Mishak couldn’t protect him. He would die soon too. Perhaps the Gods would not be merciful, perhaps they would punish him. No more than I deserve.
“Any last words, Stamm?” Lochan said.
Mishak flicked his eyes open. They were finally ready.
“Lochan White-Eye, may the Gods curse you and all who spring from you. May the Gods take everything from you and then make you die screaming.”
Lochan smiled – it was a horrendous sight. He glanced upwards as if checking that the Gods weren’t going to kill him then and there, but the smile never left his face. Lochan had no concern for the Gods and their punishments. Mishak glanced at the rope. More fool him.
The next part was harder. Apart from what would happen after the rope went taut and he was lifted into the air to slowly die, after whether the Gods would be merciful or send him to the Corpse Shore, it was the only thing on his mind.
“Yes, tell Marthe… Tell Marthe ‘Milieje te’. Wieland will know what it means.”
He closed his eyes and waited for the rope to go taut. It didn’t. There was the sound of movement, though, and Mishak clenched. Do it. Just do it.
“Why not tell me yourself, Lord-killer?”
His eyes snapped open. Marthe’s short, fierce figure stood before him, her face drawn in a slight frown. Her hands were by her side, almost gripping her skirts. She seemed poised. He was reminded of the night that Minham’s murderer had infiltrated their safe house. Quite the fox. Behind her, Josse and Eloi stood, both as physically imposing as ever. Mishak was glad to see Eloi on his feet; he had a bandage around his head, but he looked as healthy as ever. Wieland came running up.
“Lochan, Mr Ferrer wants to see you, and Lord Perun wants his men back.”
Perun’s men left immediately, but Lochan hung back.
“I’m hanging the Stamm.”
“He says he wants you. I’m sure these men can handle one rope.”
Lochan bit back a retort, glared at his men, and then sloped off into the mansion. Wieland stayed behind, hand resting on his hammer. Tucked into his belt was the Stammish axe that he had given to Mishak. It’s in good hands.
“So, what did you want to tell me?” Marthe asked, tapping her foot.
“Milieje te,” Mishak said.
“I love you.”
She nodded and then threw a knife into the throat of the man holding the rope. Josse grabbed the man nearest to him and snapped his neck, much like he had done to the guard in the prison. Wieland’s hammer was in his hand and caving in the skull of the man in front of him.
“I love you too, Lord-killer,” Marthe said, taking the rope from his neck and kissing him, “Now let’s get out of here.”
Brielle hurried down the passageway, horrified by what she had just seen. She had only spoken to Lord Astur once, but he had been a kind man and he had never once worried about her presence in his home. He had even talked to Darian about them getting engaged. She thought of how happy she had been only an hour ago, newly sworn into the knightly order and going to become Darian’s wife. All that had been snatched away by Ferrer and Lord Perun’s treachery.
She understood it; that is what cut her to the bone. She understood why Perun had thrown his lot in with Ferrer: Lord Astur had been a powerful man, one of the highest lords in the land, and Perun would always be lower than him. Even if Lord Astur were to die, Darian would take his place – himself a renowned swordsman and fair minded. People would like him, which would keep him in power and his lady was to become Kingsworn, part of a prestigious knightly order, by command of the King himself. Not only would her position make her respected and trusted, it would give her the ear of a king who already held her in his favour. Lord Allerion was old and wouldn’t live forever and Lord Bayart would never lose his position, bound as he was to the King’s line by blood. If Yurian V died childless, Lord Bayart was next in line for the throne, so long as the Regency Council agreed. If that happened, Astur would be the highest lordship. Perun would remain twelfth, only on the Council because Minham had been murdered and all the other lords, Bayart excepted, had shifted up one.
She could see it all and see that Perun’s course was to drive the Astur’s out completely, to accuse them of treason, and thereby to destroy the name forever; and Perun, the lord who exposed a high ranking traitor, would be rewarded favour. Perhaps he would even rise to have Lord Astur’s chair. It all made perfect sense, but she hated him for it all the same.
They ran on through the passageway, which meandered back and forth, deeper and deeper into the earth. She listened hard as she ran, wondering whether the horde had followed them into the passageway yet. Darian had cut the cords that made the door work, but brute force might prevail against the stone eventually. She glanced out her shoulder, but Darian wasn’t looking up. He had said nothing since the door had closed. It’s my fault. She couldn’t shake that feeling, even though she knew that Perun’s complicity had been the key to the attacks. It was her, though, that had involved Darian in Ferrer’s business, who had brought danger to the family through her presence. Ferrer had wanted her and he had no compunction about going through others to get her.
That chance meeting with Darian on the night the King’s Arms burned to the ground had always seemed like destiny – bringing her the flame of hope out of the darkness, for she had found a good man, a man to love. He loved her as well; she would not be spurned or used and cast aside. She would be his wife. But now that meeting soured for that had been the moment that lead to Lucian’s death. She could see it now, his face twisted in agony, sweat-soaked hair twisted about his face until he died; and she knew that she was feeling a tenth of he had felt. She knew that Darian would be feeling exactly that.
The passageway ran on for some time, now at a constant level and a large straight. They came to some doors made of thick wood, placed across the tunnel and Brielle ground to a halt, holding her knees and relishing the brief respite from the rush away from the dining hall. Darian stepped to the door and unlocked it with a small silver key, pushing the doors aside and stepping beyond. Brielle followed, closing the doors behind. Darian locked them and then brought a bar down from the side of the passageway to block the doors. Without a word, he turned to move on.
“Darian,” Brielle said, softly, reaching for his hand.
He stopped as she touched him, but he didn’t turn back to her. He just stood there, her hand held loosely in his own.
“Darian, I’m sorry.”
And then it began – his shoulders heaved, rising and falling as he broke down, tears pouring from his eyes, rolling down his cheeks, and splashing to the floor. He was speaking, but the words were lost between the wracking sobs. She drew him towards her, cradling him in his arms, the tears soaking into her dress. There was something reassuring about holding him as he cried; he didn’t blame her. That was it, that as the worry she had been hiding from since they had gained the safety of the tunnel. He had every right to, but he didn’t. She could feel it in the way he clung to her. She sighed with relief and realised that she, too, was crying.
“We should keep morning,” she said, when his sobs had subsided, “find the others, make for the estates.”
“No,” he managed, rising from her shoulder, “they’ll go to the estates and seize them next. There won’t be time for us to get there.”
“We have to warn them.”
“Yes,” he said, “we will. Once we find the others, I’ll send word.”
“Darian. This is my fault. If I hadn’t met you, if you hadn’t take me in –”
He pressed himself to her, kissing her to stop the flow of words.
“No. This was not your doing. It was Ferrer and Perun. No one else.”
“If you’re sure…you can send me away or…I don’t know.”
“I could never send you away. You’re my family now – you will be my wife and together we will show these bastards that the Asturs will not be defeated. My ancestors rode with Siarl the Great and I’m damned if I will let my house be ground into the dust by a petty thug and a man without honour.”
“We fight then?”
“We fight,” Darian said, nodding, “and they die.”
END OF BOOK ONE
TORNMILE WILL RETURN