“Another Day in Paradise”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Nathanius undid the hood of his coat, damning the irony that one could overheat on a frozen beach. The round-up had gone okay, all things considered, although the weather had taken a sour turn shortly after the landfall began. Only a few boats made it. They managed to capture eighteen. It would have been twenty, but two of the larger men had resisted and run afoul of Krodyn’s blades. They left them on the beach for the wolves.
Now the elf patrolled the long line of captives menacingly. They trudged with resignation, captives before and now captives again, to Misery. The chains that held them left deep trenches in the snow. Horace dragged the first. Their new recruit carried the second.
They’d left the bindings on his hands. It wasn’t often that prisoners arrived on the continent still tied, and there was usually a good reason. For this man it was strangely difficult to determine. Nathanius had a gift for reading people. It was usually simple to spot the tell-tale dispassionate stare of a serial killer, or barely repressed frenzy of a madman. This one had a smile on his face, calm and practiced. It revealed nothing, except that he had no fear.
A war hero, perhaps.
Or a king.
No, too young for a king.
There was no telling, and for the moment he had other concerns. He glanced to his left at the woman. They didn’t get women often, and elvish women even less. She was worth a fortune, as much as he disdained to think along such disgraceful lines. Poole would have her packaged in silk and shipped off to his bosses in Selapak faster than you could say margin of profit.
Nathanius frowned. Shame punched him in the gut. She was beautiful and he could see the spark of intellect in her eyes. She was better than the line of work for which she was destined.
So far she hadn’t said a word. He moved to walk beside her.
“It’ll be alright,” he said.
He could tell she didn’t believe him. Her expression was utterly without hope. Maybe that was for the best.
Krodyn sidled up to her.
“Looks like it’s our lucky night.”
Nathanius shoved him. Krodyn glared at him and frowned.
“You think she’s yours?”
“She’s neither of ours.”
The thin elf laughed.
“So you’re playing hero?”
He turned to the woman.
“He can’t protect you.”
Nathanius shoved him again, this time hard. Krodyn stumbled back and fell into the snow. He rolled to his feet and drew his blades. Nathanius gripped his axe.
“Back off. One mark on her and Kurdak will flay you bare.”
Krodyn growled and dusted himself off, sheathing his knives. They walked on.
Misery was a shanty town, run-down and improvised, with little to distinguish it from the driftwood the slaves gathered for the fires. Its only saving grace was a huge glacial boulder that sat in the middle of the cove that sheltered it, stopping the wind. It stank of rendered tallow and pickling brine, and the only structure in the place with a proper roof, the longhouse, reeked of rotting meat and excrement. Nathanius shivered as they passed behind the rock, grateful to be out of the gale. He could only imagine how the captives felt.
Misery had no walls. They didn’t need them. The cold was more than enough to keep the captives in line, that and the fact that there was barely enough food on the coast to stay alive, let alone provision a journey. Those foolish enough to attempt escape either returned before the first night or froze to death a few miles from the settlement.
Kurdak kept his vigil in the longhouse. He rarely slept. He was always worried one of his bodyguards would try to kill him and take over. He kept himself awake by drinking tea made from the bark of a tree that grew on the coastal slopes, a kind of wooly pine the natives called “Auk.”
He noted a line of wagons parked outside, stretching up the trail toward the pass. Poole was already here. It looked like they’d already finished loading the trade goods Kurdak planned to send inland.
All but the slaves.
The first task was to get the new blood into some decent coats, the one perk of their capture. You were no good to Macara if you froze. They stored the parkas in the longhouse, along with all the other supplies. Kurdak kept his hands on everything, and anything of real value he kept in locked in a hole at the back of his “chamber,” an alcove built off the main room, concealed by a bear skin. The rest of them slept on pallets in the dirt.
Kurdak was sitting atop his usual chair by the fire. It wasn’t a throne. He couldn’t afford a throne. Poole stood behind him, warming his hands.
Kurdak slurped down his tea. He was a stocky man, thick like a tree trunk and just as hard, despite his age. He was also missing an arm at the shoulder, the result of some punishment long in the past, before he came to exile. He had to be in his fifties now. It was a miracle he was still alive. Maybe the salt air had pickled him.
Still, in the end it was only a matter of time. There would be blood one day, or one night. One of the guards would slay the old brute and the camp would descend into chaos. Nathanius only hoped that by the time either happened he would be long gone.
Poole turned to face them as the slaves began to shuffle in, a picture entirely different than the grizzled old man on the chair. First, he had all his limbs; also his clothes were clean, his hair was trimmed, and his beard showed only a few days’ growth, just enough time to make it down from the guild post at the top of the pass.
Nathanius drew up in front of him.
Poole raised an eyebrow.
“The wind picked up and the boats foundered. There was nothing we could do.”
His master frowned.
“Fine. Get them dressed.”
Horace and Krodyn began to distribute the coats. Nathanius paused.
“There’s something else.”
He took a step aside, revealing the woman. The old man’s eyes brightened. He hefted himself up from his seat.
He approached, removing his glove to run his hand slowly down her arm. She kept perfectly still. Her face was stoic and her eyes were fixed on an invisible point across the room.
Poole came around to stand in front of her.
“Have you ever been with a man?” he asked.
Her eyes flicked to him. He stared at her, regarding her like a curator appraising a statue.
“Answer,” he said.
She nodded slowly.
He clucked his tongue in his cheek.
“Shame. Let me see your teeth.”
She set her mouth in a line.
Poole grabbed her by the hair.
Nathanius’ stomach turned. The slaver yanked back and used his other hand to force open her mouth. A moment later he drew back.
A tear rolled down her cheek.
Poole spoke over his shoulder.
“I’ll take her. You can keep the others.”
Kurdak was surprised.
“All of them?”
Poole turned and drew a letter from his jacket. Nathanius’ eyes fixed on it. Paper was rare on the continent. The only mill he knew of was in Selapak. No good news could come from there.
“All but one.”
“Yes, of course.”
The slaves were in their coats now, waiting for instructions. Kurdak turned to Krodyn and Horace.
“Put them with the others.”
Nathanius turned to leave. That was that. He stole a final glance at the woman, silently wishing her luck.
Kurdak’s hand landed on his shoulder.
He stopped. Horace and Krodyn turned around. Kurdak scowled at them.
Nathanius turned to Kurdak.
“What’s going on?”
Poole held up the paper.
“Your friends in Selapak sold your debt to Macara.”
Nathanius’ eyes widened, even as Kurdak’s guards slowly began to circle.
“I can pay it,” he blurted out. “I have a stake built up here.”
Poole shook his head.
“I’ve already accounted for the money Kurdak has been keeping for you. It’s not enough.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“That’s not possible.”
“I’m afraid it is. The Jaspers have been tracking your interest. Your debt has nearly doubled in your absence.”
He’d only been in Misery for ten months. The math didn’t add up.
“Three for two, monthly.”
“I don’t make the rules. It’s a shame you didn’t have better luck this evening. You might have spared your life.”
Nathanius couldn’t believe his ears. He slumped to the floor. Poole went back to the fire, waving to the guards.
Nathanius looked up at the woman. She regarded him silently as they took his weapons and tied his hands. She wore an expression of neither judgment nor pity. He was almost driven to laugh.
What a cruel penance it was.
They hauled him away.
Ellyn kept her mouth shut. She didn’t feel sorry for him. He was a slaver. He deserved whatever he had coming. The thin elf had been right. He couldn’t protect her.
The man in the good coat came over and sat her down by the fire. It felt good to be warm again. The comfort sickened her. He sat down.
“Can you cook?”
She nodded again.
“That’s good. It’ll put you in a good home. There’s no need to be scared.”
His tone suggested he was trying to reassure her. Inwardly, she sneered at his attitude. She’d been around enough nobles to be able to tell when someone was lying. He had the same look in his eye as her old master at the end. She was a product, a servant.
The other man came over.
“What will you do with her?”
“Take her back to the Notch and then send her on to Selapak. She’ll fetch a good price, even if she is damaged.”
The gruff man sat down.
Good coat nodded.
“They cut her tongue out and cauterized it, but there’s no sign of an infection. She’ll live, which is good news for us.”
He stood up and headed for the door. The gruff man called after him.
“You’re not staying here?”
Good coat shook his head.
“I’ll sleep in my wagon. It’s cleaner.”
The first man growled.
“When do you leave?”
“And the woman?”
“There’s nothing to spoil. You can have her until dawn.”
The gruff man looked at her. The look in his eye was disgusting as he spoke.
“Come with me.”
He led her to his bed. She slowed her steps as they approached. The old man sat down on the edge.
“Have a seat. Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”
She gritted her teeth. The man stood back up, took her by the shoulders, and set her down.
He took off his coat and began to unbutton his filthy shirt. Her stomach turned.
“You don’t talk much, do you? I can’t say I blame you.”
Her mind raced through every ill-fated encounter she’d ever had at court. Around the estate, ducking authority figures with wandering hands had been practically a daily routine. Of course here, her usual finesse probably wouldn’t be effective. She’d have to try something drastic.
She grabbed his collar and kissed him full on the mouth. His breath smelled and tasted like fish. She suppressed a gag.
“Now, that’s more like it!”
He came at her. She retreated across the bed and put a hand out to stop him. He raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“What is it? Don’t tease me young lady.”
Here goes nothing.
She made a motion like drinking wine from a glass, praying he had something tucked away stronger than water. He tilted his head.
“Something to drink?”
He smiled, showing a twisted row of blackened teeth.
“I have just the thing.”
He picked up his coat and went to the back of the alcove, fumbling in the pockets. There was a little door in the wall behind the bed. He a produced a key and unlocked it. He retrieved a broad glass bottle of amber liquid from inside.
The key returned to his coat. He poured the drinks and handed her a glass.
“Every once in a while a merchant vessel gets caught in the tide and ends up on the coast. They often carry whiskey. I keep it.”
He sipped. Ellyn smiled and drank hers down. It burned in her mouth and throat and stung her tongue, which had not yet fully healed. Not wishing to be outdone, the gruff man finished his own and poured them each another. She swallowed it too, and so did he. She smiled as he poured the third round. This time she sipped.
“Have as much as you like,” he said, grinning. “There’s more where this came from.”
Ellyn shone her most beaming smile.
Counting on it.
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