“Brine and Blood”
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 turned just in time to see a Sval warrior twice his height bring up a spear. He yelped and dodged to the side, scrambling away. The spear impacted in the dirt, crunching against the stony ground. A moment later a long javelin tipped with a fragment of jagged coral imbedded an inch from his head. He didn’t even see where it had come from.
This wasn’t his kind of fight. He preferred his fights in a boxing ring, viewed from the stands. If pressed, he preferred his opponents to be smaller than he was, unarmed, outnumbered, and possibly blindfolded. The Sval were attacking in force. There were dozens of them, armed with stone and coral spears and shields made from wood and shark skin. They easily outnumbered Misery’s beleaguered defenders.
Asterious seemed fine with it.
He closed in on the looming warrior, whirling his long chain around in a slicing arc. It smacked into the creature’s shield: once, twice, three times. The fourth time he brought the weapon around he swung low. It wrapped around the foot of the Sval. He yanked and the warrior fell backwards into the snow. Asterious dashed in and grabbed the spear out of its hands. He spun it around and plunged the jagged point into the creature’s abdomen. It howled a gurgling scream. Three more heard the sound and charged toward them.
Ellyn hauled Nathanius to his feet and shouted.
They ran, making their way back around the edge of the compound. It was chaos. Man and beast hurled themselves at each other as Kurdak and his guards fought for their lives. The fish men were dragging the wounded defenders into the sea, where a feeding frenzy of coastal reef sharks, pets of the Sval, had already begun to churn the waters red.
Nathanius saw Horace stagger and fall, pierced by the spears of two huge warriors. They stepped on him and twisted their weapons before yanking them out to move on. His hot blood steamed on the ice. Nathanius looked away. If there was one constant on the cruel subcontinent, it was that nothing could be made to last; if there was a second, it was death. Misery was no exception.
But they couldn’t just run. It wasn’t enough to run. They needed supplies; otherwise they would gain their freedom for only as much time as it took for them to freeze or starve to death.
The shed was only a few dozen yards away, just beyond the edge of the buildings on the inland side of the camp. It would contain food, spare clothing, and sleds. If the defenders held out a few minutes longer, they would buy them enough time for them to load one up and run like hell.
Asterious took the lead, which was fine as far as Nathanius was concerned. As it turned out the stranger from Gondavol—wherever that was—wasn’t all talk after all, although he was crazy. He’d already killed three Sval warriors with the chain. One of them he’d wrapped around the neck with a whip-like motion that Nathanius couldn’t replicate if he lived to be a hundred. Bracing himself against the ground, Asterious had yanked with both arms, snapping its spine, and now he had a spear on top of that.
He was a killing machine, and Nathanius no longer had any trouble understanding why the guards on the boat had left his bindings in place.
“They’re following us!” he called forward.
Asterious looked back. Their path had taken them between two long buildings. He kept running. They followed. The three warriors thundered after them as they rounded the corner.
He wrapped the chain around his arm and hefted up his spear in both hands.
“Here. Get behind me and stay quiet.”
Nathanius did as he was told, as did Ellyn. He tightened his grip on the chain in his hands. He knew he couldn’t use it, but maybe he could distract them somehow.
He felt Ellyn holding onto his shoulder. Her hands were trembling. He whispered back to her.
“It’ll be alright.”
“I don’t need your protection.”
“Then what were you doing?”
She raised an eyebrow, a kind of comic superiority creeping across her face in a lopsided smile.
“I was planning on using you as a shield.”
Asterious turned back to them.
They shut up.
The first of the Sval came running around the corner.
Asterious drove into him as hard as he could. The spear broke through the monster’s shield and pierced into its chest. Blue blood spurted. Asterious let go of the weapon and kicked the creature away as the second came charging in. Its spear came down in a huge downward arc, with all eight feet of the beast behind it. Asterious dodged and caught the point with a twist of chain, ensnaring the shaft. He grunted and pulled. The two of them lost their balance and rolled off into the snow.
Nathanius turned to the sound of a guttural roar. The third Sval rushed toward him, shield up, spear down, and point forward. Nathanius’ heart pounded in his ears. Ellyn screamed and backed away. Nathanius whirled up the chain and swung it over his head in a circle, shouting at the top of his lungs.
The creature hesitated and brought up his shield, anticipating a strike. Nathanius just kept shouting and swinging the chain, glancing to the side as he watched Asterious and the other creature struggle in the dirt. He didn’t know who was winning.
The third Sval’s spear came darting in. Nathanius jumped back, slamming into Ellyn. They both fell over backwards. The spear point missed his belly by inches. The enemy loomed over them. Nathanius threw the chain at its chest. The Sval shrugged it off and raised its spear high over its head.
Nathanius’ eyes widened. His life flashed before his eyes.
A blossom of blue blood burst from the creature’s chest, along with the stone tip of a jagged spear point. The spray struck him full in the face. He flinched and shut his eyes tight. The blood was cold and smelled like sour brine. The Sval crumpled to the ground.
Asterious stood behind it.
He pulled his spear from the creature.
“We should keep moving.”
Nathanius wiped his face and helped Ellyn up. She took his hand grudgingly.
“Don’t mention it.”
“You make a pretty good shield.”
Asterious smiled. He was covered in blood.
“I told you the chain would be scary.”
Nathanius rolled his eyes.
They hustled on to the shed. It was a squat, square structure with thick walls made from stone piled against driftwood to keep out the animals. The sounds of the battle still rang in their ears, not nearly as far away as they would like. They only had a few minutes before the Sval overpowered the occupants of Misery and came through the settlement. Ellyn fumbled with the key. Nathanius stood behind her.
“There are tools inside, and supplies. We should be able to find everything we need.”
The door swung open. Asterious dashed in.
“The slaves use them to cut wood for the fires.”
Asterious picked up two, leaving the spear and the chain.
“Are there any swords?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“Shame. I’m a lot better with swords.”
“I’d say you’re good enough as you are.”
Ellyn went in and tipped a sled onto the floor. She started piling food on it. Salted fish, dried bear and wolf meat, and blocks of seal blubber, all wrapped in oil-treated animal hides. She looked up at Asterious.
“Where’d you learn to fight like that?”
He helped her load.
“Lots of places.”
Nathanius grabbed a rope and tied it to the sled.
“Did you fight in the war?”
“Which one? The ‘Capran’ one?”
“You know another?”
Now it was Asterious’ turn to laugh. Nathanius raised an eyebrow.
He shook his head.
The two of them hauled the sled out the door. Nathanius strained against the rope. It was heavy, but they would need the food to get where they were going. The fort at the notch was only a short trip up the coastal slope, but once they arrived they would need valuables for trade, food and supplies to barter passage to Selapak.
“There aren’t any tents. We’ll have to build shelters along the w—”
He stopped. There was a knife at his throat.
“Going somewhere?” he asked.
Asterious turned, gripping his weapons. Nathanius spoke over his shoulder.
“Dead. Where’s your woman?”
“Gone. She ran when the fighting started.”
The elf clucked his tongue in his cheek.
“That’s a shame…for you. I might have let you trade her for your life.”
He bought it. Nathanius couldn’t see for sure, but Ellyn was still in the shed. It was a miracle Krodyn hadn’t seen her enter. He had to keep talking.
“Kill me and that man is going to take you apart.”
He bobbed his head at Asterious.
“He knows you that well, does he? Fast loyalty. I wonder how far it goes.”
He shifted his gaze to Asterious.
“What do you say? Want to join up with me? The two of us could go far.”
He didn’t answer. Nathanius kept talking.
“You should leave. There are plenty of supplies. If we hurry we can all get out of here.”
“I don’t take orders from you anymore, and I am so sick of your know-it-all bullshit.”
His knife pressed against the skin of Nathanius’ neck. The blade stung as it drew a thin line of blood. Nathanius winced. Krodyn whispered in his ear.
“Did I ever tell you how many people I’d killed?”
Nathanius kept still.
Krodyn leaned in close. His voice was soft and his breath hot.
“Only one, but I enjoyed it almost as I’m going to enjoy thi—”
His words stopped, truncated by a wet, quiet thump. Nathanius froze. He waited. Something warm dripped onto his neck. He saw Asterious relax and nod. He turned around slowly.
The short, carved handle of a hatchet protruded from the back of the thin elf’s head. The blade was buried in his skull. His arms dropped. His two knives clattered to the ground and he slumped into the snow. Dead.
Ellyn stood behind him.
Her eyes were wide open. A spray of blood had spattered across her face. As the dead man fell to the ground her hands began to shake. Nathanius ran to her.
“Are you alright?”
She nodded haltingly.
“Here, sit on the sled.”
He motioned to Asterious.
“Help me. Let’s get going.”
Ellyn started to kneel, but steadied herself.
“No, I can walk.”
Nathanius turned to her.
She nodded again, forcing a gag back into her throat. Nathanius picked up Krodyn’s knives and stuck them in his belt and pulled the axe out of his head. He threw it onto the sled and picked up the rope. The sounds of the battle were dying down. The Sval would be coming any second.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get going.”
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