Soren tossed and turned; as he slept nightmares haunted him. He dreamt of the great waves which rocked his ship, the lightning that struck the water all around him. His mates’ cries for help. He cried their names, but they didn’t seem to hear him. As a bolt of lightning struck the mast of his ship, he awoke with a start.
The light of a crackling fire lit the room. It was dim, but it was enough that he could see what was just in front of him. A face stared down at him as he attempted to get his bearings.
The face was beautiful and belonged to a woman, a northerner by the looks of it. What she would be doing so far south as the Sea of Stones, he was uncertain. Curly red hair, like autumn leaves, framed her pale face – dotted with freckles. Between her emerald eyes was a small button nose, with pencil thin lips and a rounded jaw. She wore a ragged burlap dress, which hung low on her chest; Soren found that enjoyable, though it certainly would have been better if she had more to show off.
“You’re awake!” she cried as he sat up on the straw mattress, a toothy grin spreading across her face. Her teeth were certainly in much better condition than most of the tavern wenches Soren knew in Ingaard.
His ribs were certainly bruised, and his arm didn’t feel too good either – lucky it wasn’t his sword arm, in case the woman sitting over him wasn’t as friendly as she appeared. Not that he had a sword with him. He’d stored his below deck when he went to man the crow’s nest. The charm that captain Delmore gave him still clung to his neck, cold on his chest.
He was in a small hovel, made up of a single floor where he could see a dining table opposite the hearth from the bed where he lay. Another bed sat a few feet away, currently unoccupied, and a chair had clearly been stolen from the table for the woman watching him to sit in.
“I found you on the shore nearly three days ago,” she said, frowning slightly, “you’ve been asleep ever since – though you’ve certainly been active, what with your tossing and turning and calling out names in your sleep: Delmore, Tyrell, Ambrigon, …”
“My mates,” Soren interrupted as he groaned. Perhaps his rib was a bit more than bruised.
The woman reclaimed her beaming face as he spoke.
“We were caught in a storm.” Soren rubbed his forehead, another thing to add to his list of pains. “Last I remember, I was thrown from the crow’s nest when lightning struck the mast. Then everything went black.”
She frowned once again as her face downcast. “There was a wreckage on the shore where I found you, and bodies scattered on the beach. You were the only one still breathing.”
Soren quickly put his fist to his mouth, biting down on his thumb knuckle – a habit Tyrell tried hard and in vain to break him of. “So, no one else survived.”
The woman shook her head. “I’m sorry. But you’re certainly welcome to go down to the shore and check for yourself – or at least bury your friends.”
Soren nodded as he shifted, placing his back to the wall so that he no longer had to hold himself up. “The name’s Soren, by the way.”
Soren chuckled. “A Shelezar name for a Kapfian beauty – a perversion if ever there was one.”
Aryia pouted. “It was a name given to me by the people of the town. I’m told it means ‘song.'”
Soren smiled wider, baring his yellowed teeth – one of many ugly parts of him, at least in his mind. “You are not the perversion here, Aryia, but to assign a name from such an ugly culture to a beauty such as yourself.”
Aryia craned her head to the side. “Are you not Shelezar?”
Soren’s smile became uncomfortable. “That I am.” His appearance was as Shelezar as could be: lightly curled brown hair, like a mop soaked in mud placed atop his head, skin that was too dark to turn his blemishes to beauty marks but too light to hide them, and a pointed nose and jaw. The only part of himself he liked were his eyes – a beautifully dark brown, like rich chocolate.
“Tell me, where are we?”
Aryia took on a curious smile. “How do you mean?”
“What land, what kingdom, village, town, city, whatever?”
“Well, I suppose we’re in Ortus.”
Soren drooped his brows. “We’re in a place called ‘sunrise?'”
Aryia shrugged. “I suppose so.”
“Alright, well, which region are we in? Shelez? Mikron?” He paused for a moment. “Felsheth?”
Aryia furrowed her brow in confusion as she shifted in her seat. “I’m not familiar.”
Soren squinted at her. “You’re not familiar with your own land?”
“Ortus and Zapad are all I know – they are the only villages on this island. Well, only human villages, I suppose.”
Soren bit his thumb knuckle again before swinging his legs out from under his covers to sit upright on the bed, facing her. He worried for a moment as it seemed she’d undressed the rest of him – a normal thing when you find a drenched man, he supposed – but was relieved upon realizing she’d left him his drawers, and, with them, his dignity. It was then he noticed his tunic, breeches, and boots drying by the fire, with his cuirass lying on the ground next to them.
He let out a sigh as he stood up and started wandering the room, limping due to pain in his knee. He fidgeted with the herbs and meats that hung from the rafters and scanned the house once more. “Why is it you have two beds? Does someone else live here with you?”
Aryia bit her lip as she stared at the fireplace. “No, it’s only me.” She rested her arms on the back of her chair as she leaned against it. “My mother died when I was a babe, and my father disappeared almost a year ago on a hunt in the forest to the west. They say orks got him – or worse. So now I just live here. Me and my garden outside, keeping me well-fed enough, I suppose. Speaking of food, would you like something to eat? I’ve been making a little extra soup each day since I found you, hoping you would wake up, and I’ve mainly been feeding it to the mutt each morning. But I’ve still got some if you’d like – a bit cold, mind you – and I can’t imagine you aren’t hungry.”
Soren ran his hand over the top of one of the two chairs that still sat at the dining table before smiling at her. “That I am.”
She grabbed the pot, which sat in the corner of the small house, and lugged it over to the table before filling two bowls with soup. It seemed she had certainly made far more than enough for two people. She happily sat down and started bringing a spoonful of soup to her mouth when Soren’s calloused hand touched her arm.
“Do you not bless your food before you eat it?”
Aryia shrugged. “Why would I?”
Soren squinted at her as he craned his head a bit before answering with a bit of a stammer. “To appease the gods, that they would let it nourish you.”
Aryia shrugged once again. “It nourishes me just fine.”
Soren smiled softly as he pulled his hand away. “Humor me.”
Aryia dropped her spoon in her bowl as she watched Soren close his eyes, bow his head, and put his hands, palm-up, on the table.
“Oh, great Tyrus, may you bless this bounty, that the subsequent crop may be plenty. Oh, great Imya, may you bless this cook, that she may be protected by your watchful eye. Oh, great Golaan, may you bless this food, that it would nourish us and give us strength for tomorrow. So let it be said, so let it be done. Gods be praised.”
Soren nodded before lifting his head to see Aryia watching him curiously.
“Do you know nothing of the world? Nothing of the lands, nothing of the gods? Nothing at all?”
Aryia shrugged as she quickly put a spoon of soup in her mouth.
Soren shook his head as he did the same, muttering before each bite entered his mouth.
“What are you doing?”
Soren looked up from his bowl. “If blessing a whole meal is beneficial, how much more must be blessing each bite?”
Aryia stared at him in bewilderment before shaking her head and continuing to eat her soup as fast as she could.
“What’s in this anyway?” Soren asked as he chewed.
“Vegetables and spices from my garden and pigeon from Madam Leondrea’s most recent hunt.”
“It’s very good.”
“Why, thank you.”
The two sat in silence, save for Soren continuing to pray over his food, before Aryia interrupted one of his prayers.
“So, where are you from? Or, rather, I suppose, what are you from?”
Soren paused and set his spoon in his bowl. “How do you mean?”
“Well,” Aryia began, “father always said that many people ask where a man is from, but all too few ask what he is from. What has happened in his life to lead him to where he is.”
“Ah.” Soren nodded as he wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin Aryia had placed next to his bowl. “Well, I suppose I came from a good childhood. My parents were nobles, I was of noble birth, born with mountains of coin to my name. But it wasn’t for me.
“As I grew, I watched as the other nobles around me became more greedy as their pockets became more filled with gold. There came a time where I had a choice – go down the path they were on, or find my own.” Soren nodded. “I decided to find my own.
“I left my house, not a coin in my pocket and made my way to the docks for honest work. That was when I met Tyrell – he was a member of the crew I’d now call my family, see.” Soren laughed and smiled as he spoke before his current circumstances crept into his mind. “We were a merchant ship. This must have been my thousandth voyage across the Sea of Stones” – an exaggeration, of course – “just as routine as any other. At least, it seemed that way.”
“You must have been on many adventures – surely your work was more than just sailing back and forth?”
“Aye,” Soren chortled, “A great many beasts we fought on the seas – some weren’t even men. And occasionally we took on the odd job or two.” He went on to recount his time hunting a goat-sucker in northern Mikron. A great and fearsome beast, he claimed. The woman needn’t know that it turned out to simply be an infestation of thumb-sized mosquitoes on the farm that the crew fled from in terror upon seeing, taking their advance with them.
He also told stories that were decidedly less exaggerated: the time they fought off a giant squid that nearly took down the ship (though it was perhaps not as large as he made it out to be), the time they fought off an entire ork horde that was attacking a small village under the dominion of Ingaard (alongside the village’s own militia and a detail of knights), and – the only story he told as it happened – the time their first captain died, when Delmore became first mate. The story no one would believe, because the creature they fought didn’t exist – certainly not anymore.
It was the story of when Soren fought off a dragon – alongside their old captain, Ishmere. The two of them had stayed back so the rest of the crew could escape. When everyone else was on the boat, the two of them ran for the last remaining dinghy. Soren jumped in and turned to help Ishmere step inside, but he – and the dragon – were gone. He later learned that when Ishmere told him to run for it, he stayed to fight the dragon. He was devoured in a single bite before the dragon flew off. No body remained. Nothing to bury and nothing to remember him by.
Soren watched a tear fall into his soup as he finished his story and he placed the spoon carefully in the bowl. He didn’t feel much like eating anymore.
“I sleep in that bed?” He gestured to the one he’d woken up in an hour or so prior.
Aryia nodded solemnly as compassion twisted her face into an expression of sadness.
Soren’s sleep was restless, haunted by nightmares of that stormy night which separated him from his crew. He once again called out to them, only for none of them to respond.
He awoke, feeling even more tired than he was when his head first hit the pillow. But he was ready for whatever the day would throw at him. And, evidently, the first thing the day would throw at him was eggs and bacon.
He rolled over to see strips of bacon lain over the metal rod hung over the fire and a skillet set next to the fire with four eggs frying on top.
“This is the last of the bacon that Gar’nesh cut from the boar the madam killed a few days back. A special treat for waking up.”
She took the bacon from the fire and scooped two eggs onto a plate, sprinkling the eggs with salt before carrying it to him.
“Are you planning to go visit the shore today?”
Soren sat up as he took the plate from her hand. His body still hurt. “Of course. If for no other reason than to bury my mates.”
She put bacon and an egg on her own plate before sitting down at the foot end of his bed.
“Tell me about your captain.” She took a bite of bacon. “Unless you don’t want to.”
“No,” Soren replied, “I mean, yes, I can. I suppose it may be good for me.” He began eating as he told her of Delmore. “He always fought as if he was the last bastion of humanity … never went anywhere without his good luck charm – always seemed to keep him out of danger … prayed before every voyage, every meal, everything he did, always to the same god, no matter the circumstance – Imya the Watcher.”
As they finished eating, Soren set his plate down on the bed before putting on his clothes, which Aryia had folded and neatly placed on the chair next to his bed. He wore light-colored breeches, with a blue tunic under a leather cuirass, and cavalier boots, which he buckled to go up to his knees. As soon as he finished getting dressed, he made his way to the door.
“Is that his?” Aryia asked as he started to duck through the doorway.
He stopped and turned around. “Is what whose?”
“The charm around your neck. Was that captain Delmore’s? His good luck charm, I mean. You clutched it in your hand when you prayed to Imya last night.”
Soren held the small symbol in his hand. “That it is.”
“Another round for me and my comrades!” Soren shouted as he planted a firm slap on the rear of the poor tavern wench passing by. He then thrust his current mug of ale in the air. “To another joyous voyage!” He’d forgotten that she’d just delivered another pint for each sailor at the table.
“Here, here!” The rest of the crew shouted, followed by laughter as they drunkenly sung the anthem of Ingaard to the best of their ability. The best of their ability, of course, meaning that it was far from anything that could be considered a tune and each of them sung different verses, all in the wrong order.
After they each sung through two verses, the captain stood on his chair, quieting the crew down with the wave of his hand. To the crew, he was standing just fine, to the rest of the tavern, his standing on the chair was most definitely a safety hazard.
“We have received a job!”
The crew began shouting again, but quickly quieted as the captain waved his hand once more.
“It’s a pretty basic job! We take the boxes! We put ’em on the boat! We go over to Mikron!”
At his last statement, the one Mikri in the crew shouted ‘boo’, followed by the rest of the crew.
The captain waved his hand once more. “Now, now, they’re our neighbors. We get some pretty good pay from this, I hear.” He paused for a moment, scanning the crew before shouting, “So let’s do it good!”
The crew shouted with glee as the captain climbed down off the chair. They banged their mugs against each other once more, probably spilling more ale on the ground than they would drink for the rest of the night – well, assuming the tavern wench hadn’t just switched the beer out with water. It was certainly a possibility.
After a few more rounds of probably-water (on account of the crew sobering down a bit before leaving), the crew made their way back to the ship, a few mates with wenches in tow, to sleep before overseeing the loading of the cargo the next morning.
As Soren lay down on his cot, staring at the one above, Delmore sat down on a stool beside him, holding his good luck charm in his hand.
“I need to tell you something, Soren. As first mate.”
Soren looked at Delmore with his eyes alone as the giggles of a tavern wench sounded through the grate to the deck above.
“This is no ordinary job. What we’re going to be transportin’ is far more important than anythin’ we’ve done before. The guildmaster says even the gods may fight against us.”
Soren sat up on his cot. “Then why would we take the job?”
“Because the one god who matters is on our side.” Delmore grabbed Soren’s hand and kissed the symbol of Imya before placing it in Soren’s palm. “Imya tells me you’ll need this. That it’ll do you a good deal more good than it’ll do me. I’m trustin’ you with this, Soren. Tell no one. Don’t even mention it in your prayers tonight.”
After a half-hour’s walk, the wreckage came into view. Bodies and driftwood were scattered everywhere. Broken boxes. Barrels. A rare few pieces of cargo were intact. He thought it strange that so much wreckage would make it to the island. When the lightning struck the mast, there was no land in sight. The entire ship should have sunk to the bottom of the sea. But instead, it washed up here.
Soren began searching through the bodies. Hoping. Praying.
Larius was the first body he found, notable by his red hair and the scar that traced down from his forehead to his waist. Never liked to wear a shirt, that one. Thought he’d snag more women that way.
Then there was Ambrigon. Big fellow, with hair that reached halfway down his back and a beard to match. He was the crew’s cook – always gave himself extra helpings, not that anyone cared.
Nishon. The one Mikri in the crew. Everyone in the crew hated their own homelands, not that they would let anyone outside the crew know it (unless they got particularly drunk). His dark skin glistened as the sun reflected off the seawater that covered him.
Several bodies later and he finally located Delmore. The rat nest that he usually kept under a cloth cap was able to roam free, and his usually well-kept beard was damp and scraggly, braided with seaweed. It was as he saw the captain’s wooden smile that he fell to his knees, letting out a cry that echoed across the waves.
Tears streamed down his face. They would have soaked the sand beneath him if it had not already been soaked by the tide.
Aryia knelt down beside him, placing a hand on his shoulder, which he promptly shook away.
“It’s – my fault,” he sobbed, clutching his stomach. “They’re all dead and it’s all my fault.”
“But how can it be?”
“Delmore charged me to mention nothing to the gods in my nightly prayers that we had a special cargo in our hold. He said that we would be fighting even the gods to have it delivered. I thought it would be a good idea to pray to the god of travel, to ask him for guidance, so I did. And it’s all my fault!”
He punched the sand and fell onto the body of his captain, continuing to sob. He continued in a similar manner for nearly an hour before regaining his composure.
He continued looking through the bodies. All the crew was accounted for, except one. With Aryia’s help, he built funeral pyres for the crew. As the tinder began to burn, he stepped away, watching his comrades bodies burn, offered up to the unnamed god, keeper of the dead.
“I need to get off this island,” he said as he fastened Delmore’s sheath around his waist. “I need to find Tyrell and the cargo. And I need to deliver it – whatever it is.” He wiped tears from his eyes as he watched the pyre turn to a blaze. “I will see my crew’s last job through.”