The ring of eman vath, p.22
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.22

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Seventeen: The Northern Isles

  Samson did not again see daylight for the better part of three weeks.

  He emerged into consciousness only briefly during the voyage. The Black Ship was badly beaten, and it barely rode out the storm. Samson missed the struggle, though: the blow to his head combined with weeks of exhaustion put him in a sleep approaching death.

  When he did wake, it was to the worst smelled he’d ever experienced. It was burnt flesh and decay, so sickening he almost retched. His eyes snapped open, and he rolled over onto his side, dry-heaving.

  He was below deck somewhere, he knew that immediately. What little light there was came from above and behind him, but when he tried to turn and look, his head throbbed horribly and sent a wave of pain down his spine as a hard fist of nausea slammed into the pit of his stomach. He gasped and looked back down, the way he had woken, and when his vision cleared he saw that heavy iron manacles chained his hands together. His clothing was gone and all he’d been left with was a thin flap of cloth wrapped around his waist and upper legs. Salty grime covered him, and it was clear he had not been washed since the night they’d taken him.

  He heard the echo of other chains shifting and clinking all around him, and so he lifted his head again, inch by inch lest he suffer from the same horrible pain again. In front of him a bare wooden bulkhead, on which the only ornament was a solid iron ring through which dozens of chains had been looped – chains so thick that individual links were the size of a man’s arm. He heard noise from behind him, words he didn’t understand, and then something was pulled down over his head. He struggled as best he could, but it was useless. Still, he pushed against his assailant, until a heavy thud resounded through the back of his skull, bringing back the pain and darkness.

  He woke intermittently to people feeding him – people who were naked save for ragged loincloths and black iron manacles pinching their hands, feet, and necks. Whatever they were feeding him tasted vile, and he tried to spit it out but they wouldn’t let him: they forced his jaw open and poured more in so that the only thing he could do was swallow. They spoke to him in encouraging tones, but he couldn’t understand the words. He fell into darkness again.

  When next he woke, he was in chains again, and this time bound at neck and feet as well. Smell was once again the first sensation to come back in full force: it assaulted him like a physical blow, almost knocking him back into unconsciousness with its raw, animal might. He shuddered and looked up and around, blinking to clear his eyes.

  Row upon row of men, naked save for loincloths, were packed into the below-levels of the ship on which they sailed. Samson’s space was at the farthest end of what looked like a cargo hold, and there were others around him that looked as if they’d been injured or otherwise needed care. It was by far the most spacious part of the hold: those closest to the walls were piled nearly on top of each other, shoved into thin shelves and chained in place. More than one of them looked like they might have died and no one had noticed.

  “STAND!”

  The roar of sound was accompanied by a slash of light on the far side of the space. The beam was bright in the dark netherworld into which Samson and the others had been thrown; so bright that those nearest it cried out and recoiled as if burned. Samson too was forced to turn his head away, despite his position at the opposite end of the hold. He couldn’t help it: it was like looking into the sun.

  Men emerged from the slash of light, descending in a rush. They were dressed in black, with cloths tied over their noses and mouths, and they bore heavy cudgels that looked well-worn with use.

  Another man appeared behind them, a man in shining silver armor covered by a long black cloak. He was holding a cloth to his mouth but had not tied it in place, and his long chestnut hair fell down the back of his head in a spray of handsome curls. He lowered the cloth long enough to reveal a sneering, haughty mouth, and then he said something to a smaller, brutal-looking man behind him. The armored man turned to go, and the second one strode forward; he was scarred, and looked made of solid muscle, as though any last trace of fat had been bled out of him.

  “STAND!” he roared again.

  There came a cacophonous shifting and clanking of chains as those able to obey did so. Samson swayed as he tried to follow suit, but pain reached out and clamped his head in a vise-like grip. He staggered and let out a sound that was half moan and half grunt. His knees would not lock; he was about to fall…

  A strong pair of hands caught him, and he turned in time to see a face he thought he’d dreamed: a man with a ragged cloth tied over his wide nose and mouth, clad only in a loincloth, and chained beside him among the other wounded.

  There was more noise from the front of the hold, and then shouting from the others. Men were being pulled from their places, unchained from the walls and led up through the stairs into the shaft of golden light with shouts and blows.

  “Go with them – do not resist,” hissed a voice in Samson’s ear.

  He turned and saw the black eyes of the man who’d saved him blazing out from above the protective cloth. The man’s accent was strange, and it was clear he was no Islander. His voice was clipped and fast, precise, unlike anything Samson had ever heard before.

  “Go,” the man said. “Go – now – do not look at me!”

  He tore his eyes away, and though the man kept a strong hand on him to help him stand, they in no other way acknowledged each other. The men in the black leather armor pulled them all out of the hold, one by one, only pausing to uncouple those men who had died on their shelves. The bodies were left where they lay.

  When they reached Samson, his breathing had turned ragged as he tried to control the pain. His head was throbbing violently, and it took everything in him not to be sick on the men who pulled him roughly forward. They thrust him toward the staircase with their cudgels, and he ascended, blinded by the flood of light.

  He emerged on a crowded deck, and the sight of it brought the battle between Desecration and Longrider crashing back in on him. There were the two braziers, now burned down to banked coals, fore and aft; there were the masts, one shorn off clean but the other whole; and there, standing beside the railing, was the man in the bone mask, watching the captives.

  Samson and the others were forced forward, pulled along by the chains that connected them each to other in a long line, right past Solom’s murderer; but either the man had forgotten him, or Samson was unrecognizable in his bruised and bloody state, for the green eyes slid past him without stopping.

  Before Samson could think to throw himself at the man, or to cry out, or to do anything at all, he was forced down the gangplank to the dock, and as his bare feet hit the waterlogged wood, he stumbled forward and looked up.

  They had landed on an island cloaked almost entirely in mist. The sun was directly overhead, and it was this and only this that had dissipated the fog enough to reveal the contours of the landscape. The isle stretched up thousands of feet at its apex in a huge rocky crag, and also stretched out far to either side, the tapered ends cloaked and hidden in mist. Samson couldn’t have said how he knew it was an island, but somehow he did. It was a feeling – the feel of a man from the Archipelago who’d only ever set foot on the mainland once.

  There was a fortress at the base of the mountain – a squat, far-flung structure that loomed menacingly beside a river that led from the mountain to the sea. It was constructed of freshly hewn wood, and the edges of it were still undone – huge scaffolds had been erected there, and it looked as though whole sections of the mountain had been excavated and moved to make way for the expansion.

  He found his eyes drawn away from the fortress to the huge forest of stumps along the upper ridges of the island. He had seen such patches before: trees, cut down by the hundreds, were being harvested. He looked around the harbor in which they’d landed and found, among a dozen Black Ships, a score of half-built hulls under furious construction.

  His observations were cut short, tho
ugh, when he was unceremoniously shoved forward. He stumbled after the man in front of him, trying to keep his balance, and was forced to once again fend off an overwhelming wave of nausea. He kept his head down save for sidelong glances now and then. He saw men throwing dice and playing cards, heavily dowsed in drink; women in little more than strips of cloth, chained to stakes outside wooden buildings that offered the service of their bodies; and bare-chested men with cudgels fighting in a ring while others cheered and placed bets.

  Goaded inexorably forward, the chained captives were marched toward the fortress, and as the sun left its zenith and descended toward the distant side of the island, the huge structure seemed to grow in power and menace. It rose from the rocky ground above the lower town in layers of stone and new-cut lumber. The road that went up to it was newly blazed, that much was clear: there were still holes where boulders had been uprooted and trees cut away.

  They crossed an invisible dividing line, and the chaos of the docks changed to the formal air of a military encampment. The soldiers that passed them were all in various shades of black with traces of silver. The cut of the armor and the clothing varied dramatically, but the one unifying feature was a silver skull sewn on every left breast – the same grinning terror that looked down on them from flags flown atop the fortress.

  The captives were led then down into the earth through a heavily guarded door below the fortress. Dirt tunnels became stone-lined passageways that branched out in various directions beneath the roots of the mountain. They passed scores of cells – hundreds even – and the air was thick with the stench of unwashed bodies. Not only men were held captive there, but women and children as well.

  The captors with their silver skulls began to separate out the captives, laying about them unnecessarily with their cudgels to force them into various cells. The group began to dwindle as they continued on their way, still deeper into the mountain’s underground. Samson was one of the last dozen to be separated out. They threw him in a cell that was thinly padded with a filthy layer of straw, deep in the bowels of the fortress. There was food there – thick gray gruel and water that rats had been at – and nothing else.

  He watched them place the rest of the captives in their cells, watched them turn to go. They slammed a heavy wooden door at the end of the cellblock, taking their torches with them and leaving him in darkness save for a single flicking lantern set in a metal bracket on the wall.

  Stunned, he sat in his cell, trying and failing to ward off despair.

 
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