Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 02

 Chapter 2


 The night held nothing but terror and blood.

Lying dead-still next to a broken piece of wall in the eastern quarter of Trebizond, Mario Calchetti counted his time in heartbeats. He prayed. The knife-slash on his left forearm bled weakly. This ruin offered scant hiding places. They’d find him. And what chance did he have? They were plainly expert killers.

He wondered if they were Baitini; they’d had that sort of skill, that quickness, that lethality. But what would the religious fanatics want with a seaman like him? They didn’t kill ordinary people. Lords and viziers were their usual targets.

But whoever they were, they’d killed Tomaso as easily as a man might butcher a hog, and the too quickly for either of them to call for help. Mario had only escaped because it had been quite narrow on the stair, and Tomaso’s falling body had impeded the killer. Mario had jumped the stair-rail and run; then, dived into this ruin. They had run past…but now one of them had come back.

Mario caught the gleam of a knife-blade in the moonlight as the man moved, catlike, searching. Maybe, Mario thought, it would have been better to drown like the rest of the crew. But he and Tomaso had survived that; clung to wreckage, and been washed up and walked to safety along the coast. Trebizond had seemed, at last, a place of refuge. The gate-guard had let them in, and they’d been climbing the stairs, arguing about just who they needed to go to see to report the ship lost — and then these two killers had accosted them. Never gave them a chance to tell anyone in authority what had happened.

In a ruined building in Trebizond on the coast of the Black Sea, where the caravans from the east met the trade-convoys of the west, someone said: “I’m Baitini. You can’t escape me. Come out and I will make your death a quick and merciful one.” The assassin spoke conversationally, as if he was merely inviting his quarry for a drink.

Mario pressed his bulk harder against the remaining bit of masonry, trying to will the deep shadow still darker. He was a big, solid man, an oarsman, and there wasn’t much shadow. His attempt to hide more effectively betrayed him. A piece of the fallen brickwork shifted under him and something cracked. The killer, standing like a questing hound, turned upward toward his hiding place, a flash of teeth in the moonlight. He came stalking forward, knife ready.

Mario was terrified. He was a big man, and strong, but still just a sailor. Tavern brawls were what he was accustomed to, not this sort of cold-blooded murder.

He didn’t even try for his own knife. He just grabbed a lump of masonry, intending to fling it and run, praying this would buy him a few more moments of life. It was a couple of bricks, still roughly mortared together. Mario had big hands, and huge shoulders from rowing. He flung the broken bricks with hysterical strength. Too late, the knife man managed only to raise an arm to ward it off and tried to move aside. But it was a nearly impossible missile to stop, and he actually moved into its path. It knocked him down.

Mario grabbed a second, even larger piece of angular mortar, and flung it two handed at his attacker. He didn’t miss this time, either. Staggering forward with a broken column base, he brought it down on the fallen killer’s head, with all the strength he could muster. And then he ran.

He didn’t look back to see if the assassin got up, or not. Or whether there was anyone else. The Hypatian cloister was ahead, the chapel door was open, and, as he could run no more, he blundered in. He joined those kneeling, and bowed his head very low, and automatically murmured a prayer. There were too many people for the attackers to come here, surely? He prayed again; very devoutly and very nervously, because he knew that this was only a temporary sanctuary.

He was so nervous about it, that he hung back for too long. Before he quite realized it, most of the celebrants had left in groups, hastily heading for homes, for Trebizond was an anxious place these days. And now here he was alone.

The Baitini had no respect for sanctuary, or the religion of others. All who were not of their sect were worthless unbelievers in their eyes. Mario, his eyes wild, looked at the small Hypatian sibling who had approached him. “My son, is there something you need?” the little man asked.

“Brother…I can’t leave. They…they tried to kill me.” He wasn’t sure why he stammered this. There was no way a few unworldly siblings could protect him.

For an answer the Hypatian swung the door closed and slid the heavy bar across. Such a thing would have been odd in other places, but religious feuds were common here. There were those who resented the traders, and anyway, if there was nothing else for you to fight about, there was always religion.

“Who are they and why are they trying to kill you?” asked the Hypatian sibling calmly, turning back towards him.

“I don’t know. They say they’re Baitini assassins. And I’ve never done anything to anyone. But they killed Tomaso, God rest his soul, and they’re trying to kill me. The one cut me.” He held out his arm.

The Hypatian examined the cut. “I think I need to treat that.”

“It’s little more than a scratch, Brother, and yet it burns still. Hurts like…well it’s very painful.”

“It’s a scratch that confirms your story, my friend. Look at the edges of the cut. That blade was dipped in adder-venom. Look at the weal, and the way it has eaten at your flesh. They do that, the Baitini. That way, even if the blade misses something vital, the shock usually kills.”

Mario blinked at his arm. “He’d stabbed Tomaso with the knife already…but why us? We’re just sailors.” He began to shake.

The little Hypatian led him back towards the sacristy. “That sect needs no reason that we ordinary mortals can understand. Come. The wound must be cleaned and treated. It’s unlikely that there was enough poison to kill you, or you’d be dead already. What ship did you come off? Have you got companions that I can get to escort you back to her?”

Mario laughed bitterly. “They’re food for the fishes, brother. We were attacked and they sank our ship. Tomaso and I were the only ones who got away. Those who attacked us were harpooning men in the water like porgies in a fish-trap. We’d come to bear the news and then this happened.”

They stopped in a little stone-walled room next to the chapel, a room that smelled of herbs and other things Mario couldn’t identify. There were lots of bottles and jars, a good, bright lantern, a basin and a pitcher. Mario remembered that the Hypatians were healers too. It looked as if this room was in use often. The Hypatian washed the cut with some spirits of wine. It burned like cleansing fire. “And who did you tell this news to, brother?”

Mario felt all at sea. “Well, I told the gate-guards, but no one else yet. Tomaso and I were trying to work out who to tell. We’re just sailors. I thought Milor’ Callaro…”

“It should be told to the Venetian Podesta. He will send word of it to the sultan.” The sibling paused delicately. “Who was it that attacked your vessel?”