Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
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.
It was always so cold here.
The wind drove it into you, carrying with it the salt and wet of the southern sea. It sapped the vigour from your limbs and the strength from your bones, and night after night; day after day it was always the same. Cold.
Nathanius took up his bowl, carved from a worn piece of driftwood by some poor soul long before he had arrived. He had it on loan from the shore boss, Kurdak. Nathanius chuckled. The old bastard never gave anything away.
The contents smelled like seawater and putrefying fish. Kurdak called it “fermented.” Hah. Just another word for rotten. Nathanius gagged as he spooned it reluctantly it into his mouth.
He hated it here. It was worse than Selapak, and he’d hated Selapak as well. Everything on this blasted continent was detestable. He wanted to be back in his home by the Sea of Capran, where the breeze was warm and laden with the sweet smell of the spice and fruit of the dockside markets.
Funny, at the time he’d always found the odour to be obnoxious. Too fragrant. Now he longed for it like a husband-sailor for his wife across the sea.
The cabin was made from driftwood. Through the holes in the walls Nathanius could see the black expanse of the ocean. There was no moon tonight, but nevertheless the dim canopy of stars revealed the shadowy outlines of the evening’s looming task.
At least, they revealed them to him.
His eyes were only half-elven, but nonetheless they could make out detail in even the barest light. They were probably the only reason he wasn’t bedded down in chains with the rest of Kurdak’s slaves. Unlike them, he could see the ships in the dark.
They slipped across the horizon like a line of ants along the crest of a fallen log. Soon they would dismiss their cargo and the tide would carry it to shore.
A band of seaweed, hanging in the wind, drew his attention. He frowned. He could also see the banners on the beach. They were closer than before.
They were more like totems than flags, made from driftwood, stone, and coral; put in place as a challenge by a monstrous race of half-fish people the natives called the Sval. They raided the coastlines, but they rarely came near the settlement. Still though, he couldn’t help but notice that every night the tall posts protruding from the sea ice and rock advanced, inch by inch; yard by yard toward the shore.
It couldn’t be helped. He leaned down and jostled his comrades awake: Horace and Gart, a couple of humans from Gelande, and Krodyn, a Sylarean like himself. The humans weren’t much at first glance, thick browed and beer-gutted, but they were cleverer than they looked. They’d been sent here for brigandage, but not before they’d managed to rob the crown of over twenty thousand pieces of gold and silver. They’d outrun the law for more than a year, robbing tax collectors so no one would fink.
Nathanius smiled. Wish he’d thought of that.
Horace grumbled and turned over. Krodyn heard the noise from his chair in the corner and quietly roused himself. He was an elf, and a full elf unlike Nathanius. He’d been exiled for murder. He never said how many he’d killed, but from the slip of his knives and the darkness in his eyes, the answer was probably bloodier than Nathanius cared to know. He got to his feet, moving like smoke drawn up a flue.
“How long?” he asked.
Nathanius turned back to the gap in the wall.
Krodyn kicked Horace hard in the ribs.
“And wake up Gart.”
The man grumbled and sat up, rubbing his eyes and massaging his jaw with a bear-sized palm.
Horace put out a hand and shook his partner. He didn’t move.
“Anyone know where he keeps his coin?”
Horace stood up. He looked like a barrel with legs.
“In the boss’s bolt hole like everyone else.”
Krodyn clucked his tongue in his cheek.
Nathanius shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter.”
They gathered their things from the floor: axes and rope, and a few worn blankets. Horace scratched himself.
“We’ll need another man.”
Nathanius went to the door and drew the skin aside. The freezing wind stung him in the face like a whip. He squinted at the sea. Krodyn joined him and extended an arm, pointing.
“I see them.”
A cluster of shapes had detached from the ships on the horizon. They were coming in fast with the tide. There was no time to get help from the long house. Nathanius spoke over his shoulder.
“We’ll make it work. Horace, carry the chains.”
“Both of them?”
The thick man growled and hefted up a pair of long iron chains from the floor. He grunted. Nathanius turned back to the door and frowned. He hated this job.
“Come on,” he said, pulling his mask up over his face. “If we’re lucky we’ll find someone we can use.”
Ellyn shivered, doing her best not to whimper, or cry which would be even worse. Her skin was rock hard, her hair was slicked and frozen, and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t stop herself shaking from the cold. At least she couldn’t feel the bruises anymore, or cuts she’d suffered at the hands of her captors.
She wasn’t meant for this.
How had it gone so far?
She slumped. It didn’t matter now. There was no going back. Exile to Kalkonu was irreversible. She would never again enjoy the comforts of her home. She would never drink wine, or eat spiced figs, or play music by a warm, inviting sea. She would never see her parents again.
And she would never sing.
The wound still ached in her mouth. They’d left enough for her to talk, but her voice was muddled and it stung every time she spoke. A single tear escaped onto her cheek before she caught herself and coughed to hide it. She looked around to see if anyone had noticed.
He was staring at her from across the crowded dinghy: tall, long-limbed, and dark-skinned. A human. His face was sharply featured and reminded her of an elf, but his build was too broad, his ears were round, and he lacked the ridge of the nose that identified her people. Long black hair fell across his brow and over his shoulders.
He was the only one in the boat still tied up, bound hand and foot with thick cords. He nodded at her and put a finger to his mouth.
The boat struck a rock and pitched, shipping black water over the side. Ellyn gasped in a breath and fell out of her seat to the floor. The surf was even colder than the freezing air. A fat man fell on top of her, striking his head against the rail. He went limp. It took all her strength to heave him off.
The shore rose up out of the ocean like a stone monolith, covered in ice and blanketed with thick freezing clouds. Her eyes caught a glimmer of light to the west along the beach.
Fires meant a settlement. They were probably her only chance. The guards on the ship had stripped her of everything, including her clothes. She had only a sack to cover her body, and lacked the knowledge to build a fire. If she couldn’t find a warm place to shelter she would freeze to death within hours.
She looked back at the human with the long hair. The jolt hadn’t moved him at all. He shrugged and stared back. Friendly? Perhaps, but she couldn’t help but wonder why he was still restrained. Looks could be deceiving. The boat was full of cold-blooded killers. None of them were restrained. What made this man so different? Was he somehow more dangerous?
It didn’t matter. It wouldn’t do any good to ask for help, and she didn’t want it anyway. Ellyn clenched her teeth, still tasting the iron tang of her own blood. If she had learned anything from the past six months, it was that she couldn’t trust anyone. Her only hope was to make a mad dash to the lights on the shore. Maybe there she could fend for herself.
It was the only way, now.
The boats were coming in, but the coastline was peppered with jagged ice and rock. Most of them would founder, dumping their occupants into the freezing water. Barely half would make it to the shore.
Nathanius gripped his axe and glanced at Horace and Krodyn. The three of them would be responsible for rounding up the survivors. They would take them to Misery, Kurdak’s home. It was aptly named. Once there they would be sorted. The weakest would remain with Kurdak and serve as his slaves: fishing, hunting, and labouring to maintain his molehill of a settlement. The strongest would be loaded onto wagons and taken inland by Overseer Poole, the local rep from Macara. The slavers paid well for new blood.
Nathanius spat on the ice. It was a stinking business, but there was no choice. He had to take part. It was that or become a slave himself. He could not go back to Selapak.
He turned to Krodyn.
“Grab the stronger men first, and don’t wound them too badly.”
The narrow elf drew his long knives.
“I know the rules.”
The barrel-shaped man thumped the butt of his axe against his palm and growled.
“The chains are laid out, but we’ll have to pick someone to drag the second line.”
Nathanius turned back to the boats. They were close. At this distance he could see the people. He could see their faces. Cold. Freezing. Frightened. Angry. He swore to himself that this would be the last time.
He swore that every time.
It was a forlorn oath. Someday it would be true. Kurdak withheld the pay of his employees until they left, just in case they died. It made it hard to remember how much you’d earned, but Nathanius was sure he was owed nearly a hundred pearls now. He preferred pearls. They were universal currency. Soon he would have enough to head inland and repay his debts, and then…who knows. Maybe he would be able to atone for all this.
“Get ready,” he said.
His companions moved forward invisibly. They held no torches. The torches were positioned further away as a distraction. The prisoners would be taken completely by surprise. Most would surrender immediately. Just reaching the shore was harrowing enough. Some would fight, but they had no weapons. They would give up quickly enough once they’d been bloodied.
The first boat crashed on the shore. The people staggered out of the surf into the waiting arms of Horace and Krodyn. It was a lively group. A fight broke out. Nathanius grimaced and brought out his axe.
This would be the last time.
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