Chapter Seven: The Merple Mountains



by

Josie Beaudoin







The guard came towards Jasper with a neck ring in his hands. As Xamurra had done before him, Jasper grabbed the collar from the man and put it around his neck with his own hands. The guard passed the chain through and locked it into place, then moved on to the next prisoner.

I did it to myself, Jasper thought. I chose it. It’s not against my will, so it’s not slavery. God, we’ll cleanse ourselves after this is over, but we must live through it first. Morgan isn’t home yet! But he was shaking with humiliation, and his cheeks were wet.

When all the Ria were shackled together at the neck in two lines they were moved out of the pen and into the backs of two carts. Kemen, bound at the neck with all the others, could see by the torchlight that the strange, hairy beasts pulling the carts were not horses. He could not identify them. The driver hupped them into motion like any horses, though, and they all headed off into the darkness of an unseen road.

Soon the carts began to tilt backwards, and Kemen realized they were heading uphill, winding back and forth up into the mountains they had seen from the ship. There was absolutely no scent of the sea, and he would have bet there would be no sighting it when the sun rose. He was correct. Dawn found them rolling through forested mountains, a steep hill to their left and a sharp drop on the right. With dawn several of the Ria began to weep aloud to see no water and no ship.

“They cannot force you to do anything against your will,” Jasper reminded the Rians in the cart with him. “You don’t have to do anything. It’s your choice. You have the power.”

“Captain, it doesn’t work,” Bartok said. “We’ve got chains on us, we’re slaves. We’ve become abominations, we’ve become non-Rian, and nothing you say can change that.” The huge man was shaking with rage, his face pale with anger and fear.

“Do you plan to stay here?” Jasper asked.

Bartok dropped his head to hide the tears.

“Well I certainly don’t,” said Jasper. “I’m getting back to the ship and sailing to Krisadon. I’ll miss you if you don’t join us. I’ve got work to do, and this little expedition is cutting time out of my schedule. It’s annoying, but nothing more. Have faith, Bartok. God won’t leave us here. We’ve got a few tricks to play on these monsters yet. Don’t forget we have Galen with us, as well as Kemen.”

“They already know about Galen. They took him out fast once they figured it out.”

“And if they were going to kill him they would have already. They can’t keep him unconscious forever, and when he wakes up he’ll be very useful. Bartok, don’t crack on me.”

The others in the cart were following the conversation closely.

“Captain,” said Thele, “what can we do? They’ve turned us into animals.”

“Then we act like animals. Sly, sneaky, wild animals. Or did they turn you into a cow?”

“N-no, sir,” Thele said. “Not a cow. I’m... I’m a...”

“A Djanaran tiger, perhaps? How about an Avysh wolf?”

“I’m not so sure I’m--”

“Well I am. I’m a wolf.” Jasper grinned, showing his teeth.

“You,” Bartok said with a hint of his old self, “are an octopus. You’re smarter than anyone has a right to be, and you’re impossible to hold on to.”

“And name me one person who ever managed to make a slave of an octopus.”

Bartok sighed. There was just no point in arguing with the captain.

By midafternoon they reached a compound that sprawled on the flat-ish top of the mountain they were climbing. Gates opened at let them in, then closed ominously behind them. They had arrived.

The prisoners were all unloaded from the carts, and Jasper was relieved to see Galen was in fact with them, heavily guarded in a cart to himself. One of his guards carried a small child in his lap and a knife in one hand. There was blood on the child’s arm, but it was dried and flaking off. Galen was behaving himself.

Jasper caught Galen’s eyes through the crowd, and nodded to him. Galen appeared to be heavily drugged, and the child hostage was clearly effective at keeping him in line. He glanced at the captain, recognized him, and let his glance slide away without interest.

They were unloaded in a wide, cobbled courtyard surrounded by high walls. The carts, pulled by the strange beasts, rolled off, presumably toward a stable, and the humans were led through another gate which let into a marble tiled hallway which led to another open courtyard, much smaller than the first. Here was a fine garden, with a fountain and a wide green chaise on which lay an immensely fat man puffing on a water pipe.

“Twenty, sir,” one of the guardsmen said.

The fat man set aside his pipe and coughed.

“Are those Ria?”

“Yes, sir, some of them.”

“How do I know they won’t just commit suicide? I suppose I’ll keep the pale ones, but the dark ones you can just get rid of. They’re too much work to break. I don’t want dark Rian slaves, they’re no good. Take them all away and bring them back when they’re clean.”

“Yes, sir.”

They were led through a doorway and down some stairs to an open-air bath with high walls. “Bathe, don’t climb,” they were told. “The drop is about a hundred feet here.”

One by one the collars were removed and the prisoners and slaves stepped out of their clothing and into the natural stone pool. They were scrubbed by slave women with rough-bristled brushes until the paler Ria were red with it. One of the Rian women was sick in the water, and one of the guards, now carrying bastinadas, hit her hard. They drained the tub and re-filled it. Once everyone was clean they were dried off and oiled, their hair brushed and styled. Then everyone was marched naked back to the garden enclosure.

“Sir?”

“What is it?” the master said in a peeved voice.

“They’re clean now.”

“Oh. Bring them back in.”

“You should know, sir, one of the Ria is a magician. This one,” and he brought forth Galen. “He won’t speak, though.”

“He doesn’t know Zamburrhan,” Jasper spoke up.

One of the guards behind him whacked him with the baton.

“Slaves don’t speak unasked!”

“Oh be quiet,” said the man on the sofa. “I’m asking. You’re telling me he’s a Rian who doesn’t speak Zamburrhan?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m telling you,” Jasper said.

“Sir!” the guard whacked him with the stick again.

“S-sir,” Jasper added, putting a quaver in his voice.

“Well what use is he, then? How can I command a magician if I can’t tell him what to do? You speak his language?”

“Me sir? No. But he does.” Jasper pointed to Thele standing beside him as dark as his Zamburrhan ancestors.

“You’re lying. All Ria speak all the tongues of man.”

“A common misconception, sir,” Jasper said quickly. “Very common. Not even our captain speaks every language.”

“Speak to him for me,” the fat man wheezed to Thele.

“Certainly, s-sir,” Thele said. “What would you like me to say, sir?”

“Tell him I’ll kill that child if he disobeys, and then order him to... oh I don’t know... levitate that statue there, but don’t drop it!”

Thele turned to Galen who was still unfocussed and spoke to him. Galen looked at the statue, which wobbled a little, but did not float. He frowned, then muttered an answer back.

“He says please don’t hurt the child, but he can’t concentrate right now,” Thele reported. “He’s been drugged.”

“Is this true?”

“Sir, we had to drug him to keep him from attacking us. It seems to be wearing off, but yes, we drugged him last night before we set out. I promise you, he’s a magician. Either that or the grass caught fire all by itself right where we were standing and only went out when we knocked him out.”

“No, I saw the statue move. We’ll try again when his head clears. I want you to chain him to the little girl on one side and the translator on the other side. You,” he said, looking at Thele, “make sure he understands that if he refuses an order the girl will be hurt and that it’ll be his fault.”

Thele, in the midst of being locked in beautiful gilded shackles, passed the message reluctantly to the Erlayan. Galen nodded his understanding, his big, mournful brown eyes looking down at the little girl chained to his right arm.

“What’s your name, little one?” he asked.

“‘Vmaa,’” Thele answered. “It’s a kind of tree whose branches droop down.”

“Like a willow tree?”

“Close enough. It’s similar, at least.”

“Tell her it’s a very beautiful name, would you?”

Thele dutifully translated, and the girl giggled.

“I have pretty chains,” she said. Galen and Thele winced.

“Yes, they’re very pretty,” Galen replied, “but they’re still heavy.”

“But now I don’t have to wash dishes,” she insisted. “I like them!”

The three were taken from the courtyard and led to a plain room with a large, comfortable bed and nothing else. The window was on a sheer wall with a drop like the bath chamber had. They were locked in, and the guards’ footsteps receded into the distance and were lost. Thele began to weep again.

“They’re not going to hurt us,” Galen said.

“We’re slaves!” Thele said. “That’s worse than death. We’re unclean, unholy, un-”

“Unharmed,” Galen said. “And unless I’ve very much mistaken, we won’t be here for long. You’ve known Jasper longer than I have, you’ve sailed with him for years. Now think: do you really believe he’s going to accept this and just give up? Be a slave for the rest of his life? Not a chance. Not the Jasper I know. All we need to do is wait, and keep our eyes open for his signal.”

The little speech soothed Thele a bit, and he looked at Galen quizzically.

“You’re not drugged,” he said.

“I was. I didn’t like it, so I encouraged it to wear off very fast. I’m going to play weak, though. Don’t let on, alright? I’ll light fires from here to forever, but any beginner can do that, and it’s the only spell they’ve seen me work successfully. Let’s let them keep thinking it’s the best I can do.”

Galen sat on the bed, and the others had of course to follow.

“I wonder what this room is used for,” Galen asked. “It’s too bare to be guest quarters, but the bed is a bit large for slave quarters.”

“It’s a breeding room,” Thele told him miserably. “This man is a slave breeder. I rather imagine they’ll be putting the captain, Bartok and Manty in a room like this as well. God, it makes me sick just thinking about it. He ‘only wants the pale ones.’ I guess they’re a novelty here. Do you realize he saved my life? I’d be with the others right now being beheaded and tossed down this wall if he hadn’t named me as your translator.”

Galen nodded.

“You don’t seem very grateful to be alive,” he said.

“As a slave? Why should I be?”

“Because we’re not staying,” Galen repeated. “This is temporary. Have you not been listening to a thing Jasper’s said?”

“What if he’s wrong? What if we can’t escape?”

Galen sighed.

“I could burn through these shackles without singing a hair on your wrist,” he told the panicky Rian. “Then float you out the window safely to the ground. I’m playing weak, remember? Believe me, we’re not staying.”

“Let’s do that right now!”

“I’m not leaving without the others,” Galen said. “Would you leave them enslaved? They’d probably be whipped and abused for it, too. Not a chance. We behave ourselves and wait for the captain’s word. Then we go. Simple as that.

“In the meantime, I think it’s time for me to get some rest. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a very hard day, and whatever they gave me didn’t do me much good.”

Throughout the conversation between the two men, Vmaa, the little willow tree, sat and listened without comprehension to the strange language. She liked the room. The walls and floor were clean, and the bed was comfortable. She had never slept on a bed before, and was pretty sure the men would allow her to because of the shackle. It was so pretty. The cuts on her arms were almost healed, which was pretty quick, but she did not find that odd, merely pleasant. She snuggled over close to the stranger she was chained to, and put her head in his lap while the two of them talked of things she couldn’t imagine, in a language she did not know.

Jasper saw Thele and Galen being led away with the little hostage girl with mixed feelings: horror and something akin to relief. His crew was being decimated, and he had only been able to save one. From two longboats, only a handful now survived: the two Landers, Thele, Manty, Bartok, Jasper himself, and two others, Alela and Lidi, Ria whose skin was even darker than the Zamburrhans, with wide noses and curly hair. They, too, were novel. Eight left out of twelve. One dead on the beach and the other three killed and thrown out like so much garbage. Jasper found that he could not stop the constant seeping of tears on his otherwise closed face.

The slaver had them poked and prodded, his physician examining them until he was satisfied as to their health. Through it all he wheezed and coughed while puffing on his pipe. When he was done, they were led into separate rooms - Alelea and Lidi in one, the rest in another.

“Well, folks,” Jasper said when the door closed behind them, “I don’t know about any of you, but I have no intention of breeding tonight. Who’s sleeping on the floor?”

“Hey, if you boys want to breed that’s fine, just leave me out,” Manty said.

As attempts to lighten the horror with humour went, it failed miserably. The four of them, even Kemen, gave in to weeping their fate and that of their companions.

“I had a slave under my roof,” Bartok shuddered, “but I never imagined I would be one myself. A curse on my own skin, I wish I’d been killed instead of this!”

“Never wish that,” Jasper said, pulling himself together. “God has ways of granting wishes. We’re getting out of here. Sop up the bilge and let’s get busy planning. Now here’s what we need to do...”

The next day was more humiliating than any the Ria had experienced before. They managed to get through it, with many beatings and tears, and gather the information they needed, but it was a close thing.

Galen was kept in the main courtyard with the slaver all day, lighting fires and moving small objects around the area. Anything more complex he claimed complete ignorance of, much to his new master’s annoyance. His levitation was wobbly at best, and he nearly broke a statue setting it down, but he managed to get through the day without getting his Willow, as he thought of her, hurt.

For her part, Vmaa was delighted with Galen’s tricks, and would join their master, he ordering and she begging him to do more, again, move something larger, set another fire. Galen, feigning exhaustion, required frequent rests, during which he probed at the slaver’s health with his Vada, seeking out weaknesses in body and mind. The man was too large to stand, and spent nearly all his time in the courtyard, only leaving when carried by a crew of strong slaves. Galen wondered with horror if he would be expected eventually to life the bulk with his magics. By midafternoon when the Ria were brought in again, he had his plan.

Galen had just finished making a simple trick look nearly too difficult to do when the Ria shuffled into the courtyard. They were not in great shape. Bartok in particular had been harshly beaten. Kemen and Manty showed the fewest bruises.

“Well,” Galen said, panting in make-believe exhaustion, “I guess there’ll be no better time than this. Thele, tell the great master over there that I have something to say. Everyone, stay sharp. This could be rough.”

“Galen, we-” Jasper cut off, remembering that Thele was supposed to be the only other one who could speak Avysh.

“Nevermind if you have a plan. I’m going to kill him right now. We can escape when he’s dead, alright?”

“What is he saying?” the master demanded with a wheeze. “You’re supposed to be translating, not conspiring. Talk to me, and only to me!”

“Master, I’m so very sorry,” Thele said. “The magician says that he is exhausted, but has something he wishes to tell you. He wonders if you will hear him out.”

“You tell him that as a magician he’s a pathetic waste. What does he want?”

Galen spoke for a few moments. Thele listened carefully, then paled.

“Don’t hold back,” Galen said. “This is going to work. Just stay calm.”

Thele nodded, and turned back to the enormous man before them.

“These are his words, Master,” he said. “Not mine. I am only telling you-”

“What he says, I know that. Speak.”

“Well, Master, he says ‘Respectfully, sir, you are a coward and an ass, a disgusting example of the human race and a disgrace to your people.’”

The slave owner’s eyes bulged, and he coughed and hacked up gobbets of black-ish phlegm from his lungs. The guards moved in with their batons and whips to stop them.

“Stop!” Jasper commanded, and such was the power in his voice that they did so in some surprise. “Let them speak. He ordered them to speak.”

Galen continued to feed Thele insults which he translated as best he could. Some of them did not translate, and at length Thele began making up his own while Galen kept a running patter in the background in his low, quiet voice, never rising, never an ounce of emotion in it. As the verbal abuse went on, the fat man grew more and more agitated, choking and unable to issue commands to his guards, who stood around uneasily, shifting from one foot to another and uncertain just what to do. Vmaa cringed at the words and tugged on Galen’s wrist to make him stop, but the words droned on and on, each insult worse than the last.

Unable to speak, barely able to breathe, the slaver made one last attempt to silence the insolent slaves. He made a heroic lunge forward, trying to climb to his feet, but was unable to lift the huge mass of his body from the chaise. Instead he fell forward, his bulk sprawled on the smooth marble floor of the courtyard, and now blood poured from his nose. He continued to cough and choke, thrashing helplessly on the ground in front of them.

It seemed like a long time, and Thele was reduced to repeating some of his insults, before the pile of flesh stopped quivering and lay still. In the silence that followed, Jasper spoke again.

“Who here wishes he were alive?” he asked.

No one said a thing.

“Who here mourns him?”

No one spoke up.

“Who here wishes to leave?”

There was a murmur and commotion in the courtyard, from slaves and guards alike. Someone produced a ring of keys and began removing collars and shackles. Even little Vmaa, once her initial shock wore off and her shackle was removed, danced around and around Galen, hugging him and showering his hands with grateful kisses.

“Well, Galen,” Jasper said, coming up to his Lander companion and pulling on some clothes, “you’ve just made my job infinitely easier. There are still some people here who are loyal to that lump of fat there, but only a few. I think we should be able to round them up and keep them quiet while we leave. You’ve saved me a ton of work - literally!”

“He only needed a nudge,” Galen said, accepting a bundle of clothes for himself. “He was on the verge of death already. Thank you.”

“What do we do now?” Vmaa asked.

“We’re leaving,” Thele told her. “Would you like to come with us, or would you like to stay? Do you have family here?”

“Family?” she asked.

“Is your mother here?”

“No mother, not for years,” she answered.

“Would you like to come with us?”

“Oh yes, yes please!”

And so they left, after Manty and Alelea showered Galen with more kisses than he was strictly comfortable with. The guards and released slaves rounded up the few loyal members of the staff and helped hitch a pair of waggons to the strange wooly pack animals. Galen found out they were called ‘llamas,’ and were much stronger than they looked.

“They pulled us all the way up here, they must be strong,” he said.

“Come on, let’s get back to the ship before Emmy decides to come up here after us,” Jasper hollered from the front of the first waggon. They jostled their way out of the courtyard and down the winding mountain road. They went accompanied by some guards Galen found trustworthy, to explain to their comrades still at the camp about the slave master’s death. It would not make a huge dent in their business. There were always other buyers.

The Ria split off from the slavers before the camp and headed back to the shore on foot. With Galen and Kemen’s expertise, they found their way back quickly and without incident. Moments after they broke from the woods they were spotted, and moments after that recognized with great cheering and hallooing from the ship. Soon they were all back aboard, a nervous Vmaa clinging to Galen. The Ria were boisterous and in high spirits to have their people back, though many wept to hear of the death of three of their companions.

They filled their few remaining water casks one last time, the Ria cleansed themselves of the slavery stigma and raised anchor, sailing with all speed to the north.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Jasper, I’m sure there are dozens of fun things you want to do now that you’re back, but believe me, this is more important.” Morgan cornered his brother who was surrounded by his crew and getting happily drunk.

“Morgan, right now? I was just telling how Galen insulted that man to death.”

“Yes now, I think you’ll want to know about this right away. Will you come below with me?”

“Is this about Brand? Because I plan to get good and mad later. He can wait.”

“It’s not about Brand. Please.”

With a sigh Jasper untangled himself from a pair of Rian women and heaved himself up from his seat. Morgan offered to steady him with one arm and they made their way to the hold. Down the stairs and after, they found themselves outside the door of Jasper’s cabin.

“When you get inside, remember to be quiet,” Morgan cautioned him.

“What in the world?”

“Just go in, you’ll see.”

Jasper opened his cabin door carefully and peeked inside. At first he saw nothing strange, so he stepped into the room. The curtains and shutters were closed, and it was lit by only one lamp, which sat on the table. Morgan picked up the lamp and led his brother over to the bed. Paige lay in the bed, very tired but not asleep. In her arms was a blanket. In the blanket was a baby.

Jasper blinked. Then he dropped to his knees.

“Her name is Reina,” Paige said in a soft, voice, full of wonder. “She was born yestreday while you were gone. Ruby says she’s perfectly healthy, a normal baby. Except for the part where she’s the most beautiful thing in the world, that is.”

“Paige, I- congratulations,” Jasper whispered. He lifted a corner of the blanket and took a quick peek at the child. “She is beautiful, just like her mother.”

“Actually, she hardly looks like me at all. She takes after her...”

“After her father,” Morgan said grimly. “But it looks better on her.”

Jasper had to stop for a moment and think who the father was. Of course. Laric.

“I’ve never had the... I never saw him,” Jasper said. “So I’ll take your word for it. She is a beautiful child, though, Paige. You should be proud.”

“I am. I’m also glad you’re back safely. Now go on, get back to your drunken revelry. You deserve it.”

“A new Rian child in the world. Wait ‘til I tell the others!”

“Um, Jasper? Most of the ship already knows. Besides, she’s not Rian, she’s like me - from Krisadon!”

“She was born at sea, Dear Heart. That makes her Rian, regardless of her parentage. She is a Child of Tschari, the ocean, she is a Ria.”

“She is a child of me, and me is tired,” Paige said. “Go enjoy your party, Jasper. I need to get some rest. Take Morgan with you, I don’t need his hovering constantly. I have Ashia for that, and she does a great job.”

Jasper grinned.

“Come on, brother,” he said. “You showed me what was ‘more important than partying’ - which you were right, by the way - and now we’ll just leave the women to their business. Doesn’t matter whether it’s at sea or on land, women and babies are out of our circle. Best we mind our own business and let the mother give the orders. It’s as it should be.”

“But if she needs me-”

“You’re no further than a ship’s length away. Really, leave women alone when they’re having babies. Look, she’s nearly asleep already.”

They closed the door behind them with a ‘snick’ and started fore. Morgan took Jasper by the arm and stopped him.

“This is serious,” he said, “doesn’t it bother you? Have you really thought about it?”

“Thought about what? Morgan, women have been having babies for thousands of years. They’ve pretty much got the knack of it down by now.”

“Not babies in general,” Morgan said. “This baby.”

“What about her? That she’s the Enemy’s child? Morgan, you know that doesn’t matter to the Ria - only the mother matters. I’m sure it’s got to be uncomfortable for you, of course, but try to be happy that everyone is alive and healthy.”

“It’s not that. I’ve been dealing with the fact of him since the child was conceived. It’s my sister’s child, and I can live with that. In fact, I love Reina fiercely. What bothers me is that she’s a girl.”

“What? You were hoping for a boy? Why?”

“I wasn’t hoping, I was assuming. Laric only has sons.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. He only has sons. There is no record anywhere of him ever siring a girl. In fact, there are writings of his that lament that very fact. Oh they’re very carefully couched as boasting of all his sons, but it’s clear he’s never had a daughter before. He doesn’t have children often, and when he does they’re always male. Reina is something without precedent. I’d say that warrants a little concern.”

Jasper shrugged.

“You worry too much, brother,” he said. “If he had that many sons, the odds had to give out eventually. Reina’s a healthy, normal baby who happens to be a girl. Why don’t you come up and get drunk with me? I was a slave this morning, and you’re worried about a little girl? I’d say she’s cause to celebrate! You’re an uncle! Come to think of it, so am I, in an adopted sort of way.”

“It’s not that simple, Jasper,” Morgan tried again.

“Then we make it that simple, just for today, alright? There’s plenty of time to worry later. For instance, I intend to have very cross words with your cousin, but tonight I’m going to be happy and relax and have fun.”

Morgan sighed. Jasper was in no mood to hear the possibilities such an odd birth presaged. At last he gave in to the inevitable and joined his brother up on deck getting drunk. Jasper was right - it beat the alternatives.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Her name was Mjarni, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world. He’d thought her lovely in the first moment he saw her, though he could not have said why. Her face and figure were notable for neither their plainness nor perfection, yet there was something in the way she held herself that immediately caught and held his attention and breath. And when she turned her gaze to him, he thought he would die.

Mjarni was a strong, independent woman who never deferred to her powerful grandfather, the man who’d taken him on as apprentice. He’d travelled far to reach his apprentice’s home, too. The young man had duties and responsibilities to the people of his village that would never allow him to leave, so the old man and his nomadic family came to his remote town to teach him instead.

Baqeas was an apprentice magician. He found the Vada on his own and was accepted as an apprentice by a wandering mage. While his teacher was not in the village Baqeas earned his living as a skald. He fell in love with a young woman named Mjarni. Now a skald in those days was a much-respected member of a community, not like the minstrels and musicians of today but more like a bard. They kept the history of the peoples, taught the children and kept boredom and madness at bay curing the long winters. Because of this, Mjarni’s parents were more than happy, more than willing to give their daughter’s hand in marriage to the town’s skald. Also, she was very much in love with him.

Baqeas and Mjarni’s marriage was a joyful event for the whole town. He was a talented skald and well on his way to becoming a great magician. His master admitted that he had never encountered a stronger wizard. Mjarni was both very beautiful and very devoted to her husband. There was no reason to suspect that their future would be anything buy idyllic.

Their family grew over the next few years. One day Mjarni announced she was carrying her fourth child. The news was greeted as joyfully as had been word of the first three.

All was well until the time came for her to be delivered of the child. Though Baqeas tried all his power and skill to help them both, after two days of labour the child was dead. Then Mjarni begged him to let her die with it, but he would not give up. In his desperation to save his wife, he cut the stillborn from her womb. It was thus that his only daughter entered the world. But Mjarni could not be saved. Her labour had gone too long, and she had lost too much blood. By the fourth day after the surgery, she was dead.

When Mjarni died Baqeas’s grief was so deep he could not speak. The village women took her body and the baby’s to be cleaned and prepared for the cremation. When the requisite three days had gone by the entire town gathered for the funeral. Red-eyed and dishevelled, Baqeas stood before the pyre in a stupor or as though entranced. As the elder approached with the torch, Baqeas seemed to awaken. He looked around him, then at the pyre where the first flames were beginning to lick about the platform.

Suddenly panic-stricken, Baqeas ran forward screaming “No! Mjarni!” He leapt up on the pyre and took her in his arms. Then lifting her up he leapt down from the platform. Cradling her gently he strode defiantly out of the town centre and disappeared into the black night. No one dared follow him.

Baqeas walked through the darkness with Mjarni unmoving in his arms. The night was dark and moonless, with the cold unfeeling stars dancing overhead. It was too cold to snow, but he did not feel it. The only cold he felt was what lay in his arms, the stillness of his wife’s lifeless body. That cold was wrong. There was no snow on the broken stony ground to brighten the night, but Baqeas needed no light.

What he needed to do had to be done alone. He knew that his feet left no trail for anyone to follow. And from the looks on their faces as he was leaving he knew no one would try anyway. Effortlessly his feet guided him on a path he knew oh, so well. As he neared the river he turned left, following it downstream on its way to the ocean bay far to the west. The wind flung stinging pellets of ice up at him from the ground, and he closed his eyes against them. He didn’t need to see to find his way. His ears told him when he had reached the spot. The hard chattering of the boulder-strewn shallow and swift waters quieted into a gentle susurration and the wind died down. Baqeas opened his eyes. They were here.

Baqeas knew the hollow had been carved into the landscape by the river. He knew the stone here was softer than the rest of the area, allowing the water to eat away at it. Over thousands of years it had created this little sheltered corner of the world where the water ran deep and slow, the few trees grew taller than a man, and the wind seldom reached its prying fingers down collars. He knew all this because his master had instructed him in such matters, that he might better understand. Understanding is power, boy, the old man had told him again and again. You cannot control what you do not comprehend.

Mjarni had neither known nor cared how the valley had been made. To her the dell was a miraculous oasis both in the harsh landscape and in their harsh lives. Though it was hardly to be called a secret place, still it was their special place, a place where they could be alone and shut out the world. And it was here that he brought her tonight, to be alone and do what he must.

Lowering her passive form gently to the ground, Baqeas arranged her limbs and brushed a strand of hair from her face. She was perfect. She always had been. Almost he wept, but with a great force of will kept the tears behind his eyes, the sobs clenched silent in his throat. Grief would not help him in the task he set before himself tonight. Taking a deep breath and clearing his mind, he stripped down to the waist and sat down by her right side.

Palms turned up to the sky, his eyes shut in concentration, Baqeas dropped his head until his chin rested on his chest. His long black hair covered and hid his face and flowed down his back. Down into his own soul he fell, tumbling into the void her death had left in his heart, colder than the winter night around him. Then gathering his strength, buoyed by his pain, he launched out of his body and into the unknown. If she was out there, he would find her.

For a timeless moment there was nothing. He could neither breath nor could he move freely. Like he was under water. Just as he thought his lungs would burst, he felt himself thrust from behind through a black barrier and found himself standing in a close and muffled crowd like a child pushing through a crowd of adults, unable to see anything clearly or hear what is being said.

Then he saw her. Floating in front of him in a cloud of blood was his daughter, just as he’d seen her when he pulled her still form from Mjarni’s rounded belly. He stopped, rooted to the spot in bemused horror. He realized that he had never even had the chance, had never taken the time to look at the child so worried had he been for her mother.

Suddenly the infant’s eyes snapped open and fixed on his, blue to blue. He screamed and stumbled backwards, tripped and slewed ‘round crazily (drunkenly). All around him, pressing in on every side, rank upon rank as far as he could see were the dead: the old, the battle-slain, the sickly and weak, shuffling along in a kind of somnolent daze.

“You don’t belong here,” a voice behind him accused. “You must leave at once and never return.”

He turned to look, already knowing the sweet little-girl voice had come from his daughter. He shook his head, denying her words, and beads of sweat flew from his face and hair, striking those who stood by watching and listening in silence. As if awakened by this (baptism) they clutched at his clothes, held his arms and legs immobile while the child drew nearer, menacing. Beyond his daughter in the crowd he saw Mjarni walking away, her back to him. Wrenching himself from the grip of his captors he sprang after her. Coming up behind her and taking her by the arm he spun her around to face him.

Mjarni’s face was more beautiful than he had ever seen it. Seeming to be the innocent young bride and the confident helpmeet and mother of their children, he saw innocent wonder mixed with a deep understanding of sorrow. Faint lines of worry and pain were etched in her face. When she recognized him she looked first surprised, then deeply grieved.

“Do you follow me so soon, my love?” she asked in a quiet, sorrowful voice.

He gave himself no time to think. Instead he held out his hand to her and she took it in her own.

“Come with me, Mjarni,” he said in urgent and commanding tones.

Smiling, trusting, she walked with him, and when he broke into a run so did she. She laughed, seeming to catch his urgency but not understanding it.

“Where are we going?”

He gave no answer but only quickened his pace, weaving them through the crowd (as he tried to elude) trying to escape their pursuers. Pushing his way through the shuffling masses of walking dead he came at last to the black nothingness he’d come through before.

It was here that Mjarni hesitated for a moment and made as if to draw back. “We can’t go there, my love,” she whispered, her eyes wide with fear. “We can’t get back if we go that way.”

“No, don’t stop to think, just follow me. Trust me. We can do this!” Looking at her, he saw a commotion behind her as the hunters neared. “If you ever loved me, Mjarni, follow me now.”

Hesitant but still trusting, she once more put her hand in his. He leaned forward and kissed her brow. She nodded and closed her eyes, gulping.

At once he turned and plunged into the blackness. He felt her hand clutching his in desperation, and he squeezed it to try and calm her fear. The pressure and breathlessness was worse than before, but he felt no fear now, only elation. She was with him now, and everything would be right again. The nightmare was nearly over.

Timelessness engulfed them for awhile, and they drifted. Then Baqeas heard a sound like tearing flesh and a scream ripped through him. He felt a sharp pain in his knee and realized it was a rock on the ground where he was sitting. He was back in his body, the cold piercing him like knives while the sweat rolled down his face evaporating in a steam around him.

He heard a gasp and opened his eyes. Mjarni’s body lay as before, but her right hand was closed tight around his left. Almost afraid to move, he bent down and kissed her. The lips were cold and dead. There was no breath. The despair opened its maw to swallow him whole and he gave himself up to it. He sat there cradling her lifeless body, weeping and rocking.

Then she woke up.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Brand woke with a start. The hatch over his head opened and he was hauled out of the miserable, dank hole by the armpits. Not allowed to walk, he was then dragged up the stairs and into the painfully bright daylight. The salty breeze was fresh and clean compared to the thick pungence of the bilge.

“Well I’m back,” Jasper said as Brand was dragged before him, “and I’m none too happy with you. Do you have anything at all to say in your defense before I pass judgement?”

“You have no right to pass judgement on me,” Brand said. “You are no one. I demand that you return me to Erlaya.”

“Brand, four of my crew are dead because of your actions. My crew. My people. Do you understand that? You killed four people. You are a murderer. You’re extremely lucky I didn’t have you thrown overboard the day you contaminated the water.”

“No one died at my hand!”

“I didn’t say they did. They died because they were forced to go ashore in search of fresh water because somebody contaminated our supply. If you had waited, we would have come to a city before our water ran out, and we could have re-filled our barrels like civilized human beings. I would even have considered letting you step ashore - briefly. Do you see that on the horizon? A city. We would have reached it within two days, and we had water for six more days.

“You will not set foot in that city, Brand. Before long you will not be able to walk back down those stairs, and my men will once again have to carry you. In the meantime your cousins will be free to wander about. Perhaps Paige will buy you a souvenir, though I’m going to give you a better one.

“I want you to know that I am being gentle on you. I shall visit only the first part of the Rian punishment for murder upon you because of your ignorance and simplicity, and because your cousins have begged for your life. It is not our policy to spare the lives of murderers, Brand, but we will in your special case because of your family. Understand that there is no other reason. If you repeat this, if you break our laws again, then Morgan will not be able to protect you.”

While Jasper spoke Brand was stripped to the waist, dragged to the mainmast and tied with his arms around it so that he could see nothing but the wood in front of him and, turning his head, the grim Ria standing on either side.

“Understand that you earned this through your own actions,” Jasper said again, and then the whip struck him, hard.

The first blow hurt immensely, but it did not break the skin. Brand heard footsteps behind him, and Bartok spoke.

“I loved her,” he said, “and you killed her.” The whip struck again, much harder, and Brand felt blood begin to trickle down his back. Several of the Ria whistled or murmured in appreciation. Then more footsteps could be heard as Bartok stepped back and handed the whip to Thele.

“I was nearly killed,” Thele said, and the whip spoke again. He handed the whip to Manty.

“I was nearly raped,” she said, and again the whip cracked across his bare skin before being given to the next in line. Every Rian aboard the ship took a turn, and laid one stipe across Brand’s back. Some spoke of the departed, others said nothing. The children were saved for last. Their blows were awkward and clumsy, and would have had little effect had they been administered earlier.

Brand did not take his beating in silence, or with humility. Throughout the ordeal he screamed in pain and outrage, spitting insults and threats at his assailants through blood-flecked lips. When the last child had finished and the scourging was over, Brand was untied, and he slumped to the deck with a fresh scream of pain. The two men who had taken him from the bilge now dragged his nearly limp form below to Ruby’s cabin where she would heal him. Not for Brand the keel-haul, not for Brand the bait dragging, not for Brand the teeth of the shark. Only the whipping, and then the healing. The Ria had showed mercy.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“So tell me what you did ashore,” Morgan said. Brand was in Ruby’s cabin being stitched back together, and he spoke attempting to drown out the cries of pain from his obstinate cousin. “Jasper goes on and on about you insulting a man to death, but I suspect there must be more to it than that. What magics did you use?”

“Well I had no ingredients for spells, Sir,” Galen said uneasily. The Landers had not participated in the punishment, but apart from Paige they had all been made to watch it. “It was all just wizardry. I set a few fires, levitated a few items, and felt out his health to see what would be the most effective way of killing him. Really, it wasn’t that difficult. His body was ready to give out. If you’d seen him, you’d understand. All it took was a few insults and a tiny push to his lungs, and he was doomed. Of course I kept swearing to cover up the magics and make it look like it was just the words, but you’re right, there was a slight nudge.”

“How do you do that, exactly?”

“Do what, Master?”

“Everyone uses their magic differently. You have a healer’s touch, it’s clear. You’ve also just shown how dangerous a healer can be when the need arises. I probably couldn’t have done that to him if I had all my powers back, because I’m just not a healer. I just wondered what it feels like, how you do that.”

“I don’t know, I just do it.”

Morgan sighed.

“I figured as much. It’s not something you do consciously, it just comes to you. I was the same way with illusions... I could walk unseen through a crowded room if I needed to, which was purely impossible without magics. I was never good at blocking out other people, though. I could make them ignore me, but I could never ignore them. Just like Brand, I suppose.”

“You were never alone, but never one of them.”

“Just leave it alone, Galen. I shouldn’t have brought it up. My point was, good job. You played to your strengths and got everyone out of there.”

“Not everyone.”

“Most of them. You’re right, you can never save all of them, and if you try, you’re likely to end up killing more than you save. It’s a hard fact, but one a Shield or a King must face if they’re going to wage a successful war. You did the right thing.”

“That would be more comforting if there weren’t four dead Ria back there.”

“I know.”

They let the matter sit between them awhile.

“Galen, will you try again?” Morgan asked. “If we can find someone, a suitable donor, will you try again?”

“The transfer? You know I will, Master, gladly.”

“I don’t understand why it doesn’t work. I wish I knew what he did to me that makes it not work.”

“I don’t sense anything blocking you,” Galen said.

“So you’ve said. Then again, maybe you do and don’t know it.”

“Should we consult with Ruby, do you think?”

“I think it might be time we do.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“You’re a pathetic healer, you know,” Brand said. He lay on his stomache, his back covered with a soft white sheet. “The Ya’Sret would have me healed by now without a single scar on my back.”

“I don’t want you healed without a scar,” Ruby said coldly. “I just want you to live through this, nothing more. You’re here to suffer, young man.”

“You were kinder to me before,” he said.

“You hadn’t killed four of my people before.”

“I’ve killed hundreds of people, and much more directly than this was. I am the Sutari Erris, and I do as I please.”

“You are the Shield’s kinsman, and tolerated because of that, and you do as you are told or else this will be repeated. The Captain has made it clear that if you commit another capital offense you will not be spared.”

“Perhaps I should read up on Rian law. I wouldn’t want to do something innocuous and be thrown overboard for it.” Sarcasm dripped from Brand’s voice, but Ruby ignored it.

“It couldn’t hurt. Would you like me to recite it?”

“What, you don’t have law books? Is this like your one pathetic little god, you have one pathetic little law?”

“Our laws are simple,” Ruby agreed. “That way they’re easier to obey. As for God, you are incapable of understanding, and so we will not discuss Her. Now listen:

“You shall not break your given word. You shall not murder My children. You shall not rape. You shall protect thy children. You shall not keep nor abide slaves. You shall n–”

“Is that why you freed that slave? She still obeys, you know. She’ll always be a slave, no matter what you call her. It’s what she is.”

“Ashia is a free woman, and you would do well to remember that,” Ruby said. “Would you like to hear the rest of the law, or is that enough for you to digest while you lie here?”

“I didn’t murder anyone, let alone children, and I don’t see why I should be subjected to this even if I had. I am a Sutari, and the laws of man do not apply to me!”

“These are not the laws of man, they are the laws set down by God, and as long as you are on this ship you will abide by them or pay the penalty. You endangered our children, and led four of God’s children to their deaths by your actions. You are very lucky the Shield intervened on your behalf or we would not be having this conversation even now. Four good Ria are dead because you decided to... forgive me, but why exactly did you decide to do that?”

“To force the ship to land, of course. The captain said he wouldn’t land, and I wished to go ashore.”

“Well you accomplished half of your wish, but not, I suspect, the part that mattered most to you. Now you’ll be lucky if he lets you go ashore at all for the rest of this voyage.”

“His reaction is entirely out of proportion,” Brand said. “There was plenty of fresh water, and everything turned out fine.”

There was no answer but the clicking of the door.














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