Clouds rolled in, casting the Realm in deep shadows. The last sun dipped into the ocean. They pushed away from the shore on an unlit boat painted black as pitch. The sea was calm enough for Alana to steer the rudder and Roark to row without hindrance until they drifted into the current behind the larger ship.
At twenty-five paces, they dove into the water with a length of rope. As instructed, Roark carefully tethered the rowboat to the stern. Alana edged along the wooden hull. Wearing spiked gloves, she climbed to the upper deck.
Goddess, it stinks. A horrid mix of feces, bodily odors, vomit, blood and greasy pottage filled her nostrils. Over the hatchway stood the overseer holding a scourge of nine twisted thongs. His ill-fitted, ragged clothes looked as if they might rip any moment. His white hair was cropped short, but unwashed and ashy patches of skin flaked off his knees and elbows. She might have felt pity. However, a slave’s moan sang out into the air; the overseer hit his whip upon the grating. His eyes expressed eagerness to apply it upon the flesh of his victims.
Alana’s deceased aunt reminded her conscience, “We don’t kill for vengeance, Alana Mira Eyreid.” But her mentor was dead; she was the Guild Master now.
Alana slid to the deck, removed her metal spikes, hid them in a lifeboat and waited for Roark’s signal. He slipped aft to find the purser. Alana crawled into the captain’s night compartment — a dank, private room one deck below.
In the dim twilight, Alana observed an emaciated Fairsinge woman loosely chained to the wall. Her neck was restrained by a tight iron collar. Her once smooth white cheek branded and ebony hair cropped to her scalp. Upon closer inspection, her body did not look as fully formed as a woman’s, but Alana did not know if that was malnutrition or age. Her eyes were crusted with dried tears, and her reddened nose had left a trail of snot to her mouth.
Knowing the sheer stupidity of such an action, Alana knelt before her and pulled off her face mask and exposed her three-pointed ear.
A hint of life came back into the girl’s eyes.
“You must be quiet and hide.”
The girl mumbled and nodded in agreement.
Alana picked the lock. Once freed, the girl scampered to the far corner and pressed her branded face into her hands.
Replacing her mask, Alana glanced in the dirty mirror to ensure her auburn and silver hair was still covered.
As her dossier said was his habit, at eight bells, the captain entered alone. He undressed. Ribs and knobby joints were stretched across his mottled flesh.
He pulled at the girl’s chain. Holding the other end, Alana leapt from the shadows.
His last words were: “What in the devil?”
She tackled him and clamped his ankle in the iron, then shoved a dirty sock in his mouth. Alana could have killed him quickly. Instead, she pierced one lung and let him gasp.
Alana knelt on his chest and whispered, “You should not brag you don’t pay your debts, Captain. The Guild does not allow malingerers to engage in Interrealm travel. It’s bad for business.”
Alana grabbed his wrist and, using her saber, chopped off his hand which she placed in a tarred sack on her belt. Bleeding and gasping, the captain clutched his stump closer to his chest as she stood.
She opened his desk and found a small box of coin, though not nearly the amount needed for the debt. She opened the ledger. Damn me to the lowest Realm!
Her dossier had suggested the northernmost port in Daouail would be the ship’s first stop for the arena trade. Unfortunately, the ship landed in Dynion’s Port Denwort where several children, aged ten to thirteen, had been sold as house slaves. She pressed her hand to the ledger. Unsure if she would ever be able to right the wrong, she ripped out the page and shoved it in her emergency sack.
She unlocked the captain’s sea chest and dug for money and other valuables. She found a vial of perfume from the Fairhdel province of the same name, but little else.
“No wonder they made an early stop. The ne’er do well probably holds a debt in every Realm.” May he be resurrected as a toad.
Alana threw the branded girl a linen shirt from the chest and a wool blanket off the captain’s berth. The girl didn’t respond, even as the fabric landed on her.
Pressing her finger to the girl’s lips, Alana tried to prod her out of the corner. The girl was frozen. Alana put the linen shirt over her head and covered her in the woolen blanket. She still didn’t budge.
Alana stomped on the captain’s torso. She punctured his other lung and scabbarded her blade. With the hope his gasping was gratifying to the girl, Alana hoisted her up in her arms. In seconds, the dead weight aggrieved her aging shoulders, but she crept up the ladder and sternwards to the first of the four lifeboats without fail.
“Hide here until we free the others.”
Shivering, the girl lay at the bottom of the boat, covered in the woolen blanket.
Moving silently, Alana redrew her saber and slid behind the overseer. Seeking a faster death than the one she gave the captain, she stabbed him in the jugular. Blood sprayed onto the decking. Below the wretched creatures — elfkin, human, and dwarves — shouted, clapped their hands, and shook on the metal grating as he collapsed.
Approaching footsteps. Four sailors raced towards her with clubs and ropes, ready to beat back any slave uprising. They did not expect a Guild War Ender. Alana’s saber twirled towards her first opponent, the telchine sailor. She cut towards hir chest, seeking the earthen heart. She found her mark. The telchine crumbled back to the clay from which sie was formed. Alana always found the sort of clean, yet ostentatious death throe of the telchine, gnomes, giants, and dwarves particularly satisfying.
A rope slashed across her forearm, ripping the weave away. Ignoring the pain, she drew her offhand dagger and rotated towards the next sailor, a human. Her first cut was smooth as it sliced the flesh of his arm, the second hit an artery, spraying more blood on the deck and his earthen colleagues.
Roark appeared from the shadows, the head of the purser held high. He threw it to the surviving sailors who stepped back from the sight.
Alana did not pity them. Her two blades struck their flesh; the sailors fell quickly. Blood and earth spread across the decks.
Grabbing the keys off the overseer, she unlatched the first hold. A young man pushed on the grating from below as she undid the chains. His face was hidden by a long, tangled mane of black hair, but he wore no beard, not even fuzz. He was at the edge of adulthood, his shoulders still slender, but with the promise of muscularity. Though he spent months in chains, he was not faded, his posture was still erect. No doubt bound for the arena.
The slaves made a wild scramble to the weather deck. They reached towards the sky, embracing their freedom as if it were a physical entity. Alana noticed the young man again, searching the crowd. “Ma! Kian!” he called.
She threw the young man the keys to the lower holds. “There are more below!”
He raced down the ladder.
Alana signaled Roark to prepare lifeboats and went below to where weaker slaves were kept. While those bound for the games were kept healthy, less valuable slaves were so emaciated they could barely stand.
Many hung their heads in hopeless dejection; mothers lay unmoving, cradling babes covered in filth. A closer look revealed these children were already dead or dying.
The young man she had given the keys wept over a middle-aged woman’s corpse.
“We must move quickly.”
“My mother …” He stared at the corpse with red-rimmed eyes.
Alana took the keys and unlocked the chains. “I’m sorry for your loss, but get those who still hold life. Once safe, we mourn the dead.”
Withered women struggled to rise and climb to the upper deck still clutching dead offspring.
The young man didn’t move. “I can’t leave her here. I can’t leave my brother.”
“What’s your name?” Alana asked.
“Eohan, Son of Aedell.”
“Eohan, would Aedell want you to die with her corpse when I abandon this ship to the depths?”
The youth sniffed. “No.”
“It would bring your mother honor to know her son saved these other mothers. Get them to the lifeboats.”
“Lifeboats.” As if the young man came out of a daze, Eohan leapt to his feet and unchained the nearest woman who clasped her dead baby. The woman moaned as he cradled her in his arms and tore out of the hold.
Alana grabbed another woman unable to walk and carried her to Roark who organized the five lifeboats and lowered them one by one into the sea.
She was proud her nephew had the good sense to organize each boat with a mix of healthy survivors and weakened ones. Some slaves dove into the sea and grasped the sides of the boats and other survivors, unwilling to be separated from their families again, clasped each other. Just as well, there wasn’t enough room on the lifeboats anyway.
Four more trips to the bowels of the ship, before she and Eohan were able to save all of the survivors. Every bunk, every corner, every chain, Eohan shouted, “Kian, Kian!”
Once the last survivor was out, Alana grabbed his arm before he went below again.
“We have to go!”
“My brother … He’s a kid!”
“Children were sold in the last port, if you ever want to see him again we must go!”
He glanced toward the hatch.
Alana grabbed an oil lantern off its hook and smashed it across the deck.
The boy didn’t move, but screamed, “Kian!”
Alana almost left Eohan to the flames, but heard Alana Mira! Somewhere deep in her mind, through the smoke, she witnessed an adult version of Eohan tossing a squealing auburn-haired child into the air and catching her.
Damn it. The boy was destined to become a man. A man with a child.
The vision of the child turned to face her. The resemblance to Roark was unmistakable, but she saw something else deep within the blue eyes. Something wild and violent. She was unsure if her vision was literal or figurative representations, but somehow Eohan was bound to the future of House Eyreid. Damn me to the lowest Realm!
“Ki–!” Eohan choked as smoke filled his lungs.
Flames rolled closer to them, eating the decking.
Alana rammed her left index and middle finger into a pressure point deep within the boy’s shoulder and gripped his ear with her right hand. “Move.”