Tornmile: Part 8
Part VIII: Running with Wolves
Mishak sat in his cell looking blankly at the wall and idly scratching the skin beneath which a small silver arrowhead still lay. He could not tell by the dim light this cell afforded, even in board daylight, whether the wound had grown redder since he had last looked at it. It itched ferociously, but there was nothing he could do about it, sealed as it was. He wondered if infection was setting in and whether it would kill him before the hangman had his turn.
The lawyer had returned with news of the trial. Mishak thought it was ridiculous that he was not allowed by rule of law to be present at his own trial unless it was commanded by the judge himself. In Stammland all criminals heard what their accusers said about them and all defended themselves; at least, that’s how it was done amongst the Smrt. Mishak couldn’t imagine the Krevtanzer being so civilised. There were no lawyers amongst the Smrt either; if words were not enough to persuade the Chieftan, who sat in judgement in important disputes, then there would be a challenge and the gods would demonstrate who the party in the right was by bringing victory to that person. Perhaps it was more brutal than the lawyer and his trade, but it was more honest.
Mishak had been found guilty, not only of the murder of Minham and the two guards, but also treason, since Minham had received the consent of the Council of Nobles only that evening to become the King’s Regent. He was not quite sure how they could hang him twice, but he supposed it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t feel anything after the first drop.
He had already been stripped to the waist in readiness, despite the fact that the gallows were still under construction and that he would not mount the scaffold until dawn on the next day at the earliest. The prison guards were nothing if not efficient and he had been brought to this cell because it was closer to the Door of the Condemned, through which all those who were sentenced to death passed. A crowd would father outside that door, cut into the rock beneath the market place, ready to hurl abuse and stones at those destined for a gallows’ jig.
Under the terms negotiated with the Stamme when Stammland had become a part of the Tornmilian Empire, Mishak was supposed to be able to be killed according to the customs of his people, rather than by the rope. That would mean an axe to the neck or being torn apart by horses. Neither was particularly appealing. In any case, he hadn’t been offered the choice; rules like that one tended to get forgotten the further away from Stammland you got. Few in the city of Tornmile would care whether a murderer was given a choice in how they died. Mishak certainly didn’t care; whatever way you looked at it he would be killed. The method was immaterial. ‘Ways of dying are like a pack of wolves chasing you in a forest,’ his father used to say, ‘you don’t know which will catch you, but you cannot outrun them all.’ Mishak hadn’t pressed for his right to die like a Stamm.
He was not one now anyway. In the eyes of Tornmilian law he was, of course, but the Tornmilians had as much idea about what a Stamm was as they had about how to defeat the armies of Abboral. What his mother had done to him had stripped him of his status within the tribe. She had denied him as part of her family and marked him as Vucari. Turnskin; that was what it meant in the Tornmilian tongue, but Mishak doubted if they would fully understand the term. A Vucari was not just a traitor, but a monster, inhuman – a shapeshifter, a friend to wolves. It was said that the first Vucari had been wolves who longed to be men and the gods had pitied them enough to transform their shapes. But they could not transform their natures and the Vucari remained animalistic, driven by greed, lust, violence, and evil. Seeing what they had done, the gods looked to destroy the Vucari, so their pack separated, hiding amongst humans and wolves alike, breeding with them and passing on their ability to change their form. Only silver and ash could bind them to one form or the other, and until they were bound they could not be killed by any human weapon. If a Stamm saw the mark on his left shoulder and knew how he had come by it, he would be killed. His mother had made him an exile from his people.
The door to his cell swung open, interrupting his thoughts. In the corridor he could see two other men with a small of escort of guards. These men, too, had been stripped to the waist and were bound together by chains running from irons on the ankles and wrists. Behind them they dragged spare irons; room for Mishak. The guard didn’t speak to him, merely came into the cell, heaved Mishak up by his underarms and marched him to the line.
“Where are we going?” Mishak asked.
“Branding,” the man in front said, turning his head to look over his shoulder. A guard clapped him around the back of the head and ordered him to silence.
The first guard attached irons to Mishak’s wrists and ankles, joining him to the other prisoners. When they were fitted, the small column moved off, a guard leading the way. At least it would not be the crowd and the short drop. Not yet. He had prepared himself for the jeering of the crowd, but nothing could prepare him for the rope.
He tried to push thoughts of the gallows aside, concentrating on the men in front of him. Both were tall Tornmilians, scars on their hands, faces, and torsos. They had intricate tattoos on their arms, backs, and chests. They looked alike and Mishak wondered if they were brothers. Either way they did not look like men resigned to their fate, but he supposed that men like that never did.
When they reached the studded door that Mishak knew to be the torture chamber, where his lawyer had prepared his defence and his mother had damned him, the guard ordered a halt. The door was opened and they were led into the hot room, lined up against the back wall. The furnace burned hotter than when he had last been here, numerous brands nestling amongst the coals. Clearly they had not been the only prisoners in this room today. Working the bellows to keep the furnace hot was a man in military uniform, his hair greying, and though he looked like he had once been a formidable opponent, he now looked sickly; too ill for any duty but this. He looked over the men without expression and took a parchment from the guard, reading it over. Once he was done, he nodded and tossed the parchment into the flames. Mishak watched it curl and blacken until it collapsed into ashes.
They sickly soldier withdrew a brand from the furnace. The end was worked into the shape of an ‘M’, glowing orange with the heat. He came forwards and two guards took hold of Mishak’s arms, holding him fast. He had no time to cry out as the metal was pressed to his right shoulder. There was an all too familiar heat, followed by pain, and then an icy numbness as the feeling was burnt away. The brand was withdrawn, leaving the impression of its shape on Mishak’s skin. A pefect ‘M’ was burned into his shoulder, just below the collar bone. The soldier returned the brand to the coals and looked at the mark he had made on Mishak’s flesh. Tapping two fingers to the wound Mishak’s mother had left, which sent a stab of pain through Mishak’s chest, the soldier smiled.
“You match,” he said, and then laughed, repeating the joke to himself, before the laughter broke into a fit of coughing. Mishak frowned at him, but the man was bent almost double, his hacking cough echoing off the chamber walls. A guard offered the man water, which he took and drank deeply. The coughing ended and he returned to the brands, withdrawing the ‘M’ once more. Then end glowed orange as he approached the second man in line.
As he brought the brand forward, though, the man jerked free of the guards holding him enough to lean aside. The brand passed the man’s shoulder and pressed into the cheek of the guard, burning into his flesh. He screamed and the soldier dropped the brand, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Mishak was dragged sideways as the two men moved, turning to attack the guards, wrapping their chains around their hands to make the blows more vicious. The guards drew swords to defend themselves, but the two men smiled at them, smiles of death, and came on anyway. Mishak followed their example; chained to them as he was he could fight or die. This death was one he could outrun. A guard came at him, sword raised, intending to use it as a threat to stop him rather than run him through. Mishak span chains around the blade and pulled it aside, wrenching the blade from the man’s grip. It hung loosely between the chains and Mishak took the handle, stabbing the guard in the thigh. The man sank to his knees, grabbing the wound; it would not kill but it would stop him fighting.
Mishak was pulled sideways as the two men moved, fighting in tandem. They had incapacitated the other guards with swift blows to heads. One had a gash in his forearm but seemed not to notice the blood. He caught the guard’s sword arm and delivered a blow to the man’s face. Mishak heard a bone crack and blood gushed from the guard’s nose. The prisoner did not stop at the punch, though; he took the guard’s head in his hands and brought his forehead down on the man’s broken nose. The guard’s eyes rolled up in his head and he fell to the ground, blood still streaming down his cheek.
Mishak looked at the guards on the floor, beaten by two men in chains. He was dragged forward as the prisoners moved to the furnace, making room amongst the brands to place the chains in the coals. After a short time, they pulled the chains out, now glowing hot, and struck at them with the branding irons until the links came apart. They pulled the chains free of their wrists and ankles and then pulled the pins from their irons. Mishak, freed of the chains too, placed the sword on the edge of the furnace and removed his irons. He was glad to be free to move again.
“Kill the Stamm,” the larger of the two men said, turning away to check the corridor for guards. His companion, who had spoken to Mishak earlier, looked him up and down. Mishak reached behind himself, hoping to close his hands on the sword handle. He knew that it would do little good though – swords had not helped the guards.
“Josse, he could be useful,” the second man said, “word is he killed Lord Minham and two guards in cold blood.”
Josse made a noise in his throat and looked back at Mishak. He nodded slightly and then moved to the guard Mishak had stabbed and placed his hands on the side of the guard’s head.
“Well, Lord-killer,” he said, “looks like this is your lucky day. Me and my brother, Eloi, here are escaping. Our employer’s arranged it. You help us you can come with us. You try to stop us, we kill you. Deal?”
Mishak didn’t need to think too hard. Keep running from the wolves whilst you can.
“Deal,” he said.
Josse nodded and twisted the guard’s neck to the left. Mishak grimaced as he heard the man’s neck snap. The body slumped to the floor. Maybe the rope would have been better, but there was no use stopping with the wolves at your heels.