The ring of eman vath, p.23
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.23

           Hal Emerson
 
They returned a long time later – A day? Three days? – and took him and the others out again. They unlocked the chains that bound their feet so that they could walk more freely, and pushed them back into the corridor. They met with more captives outside, though none of them spoke in greeting. The men of the silver skull walked up and down beside them with whips and rods, striking any who dallied. The captives were pushed through the long halls and corridors of new-built wood that still smelled like fresh-cut pine and cypress, and then out into the open air.

  It was morning. The mist and fog were thick, so thick that they lay over the island like a blanket and repelled the sun’s light. Samson, slowly regaining his wits, looked at the other captives nearest him; the pounding in his head receded enough to allow for thought, however stunted.

  He knew immediately, though the thought was dull and sluggish, that the other captives were from all across the land of Aeon: they had skin that ranged from the pale white of old Caelron stock to the dark hue of Archipelagans, none of whom, Samson was relieved to see, were men he recognized from Gol.

  None of them were women, either – that much was certain and easy to tell. He realized too that this group was smaller than the group he’d come with, and that many of the men looked, if not healthy, at least alive and strong. They were all tall, some even taller than him, and many looked as though they’d put up a hell of a fight in being taken: several had serious wounds that looked newly healed.

  There was no sign of that fight in them now.

  They marched out into the forest, over rocky terrain that cut their bare feet, and by the time they’d walked several miles, even Samson’s sea-hardened soles were red and raw. When they finally did stop, he wished that they had continued walking. With simple instruction and the threat of whips and cudgels should they talk, they were set to work felling the huge trees of the isle’s deciduous forest.

  Samson didn’t know how long he spent there. The mist kept the sun away, and washed everything in a cold, endless gray light. They were fed – gruel that was barely better than nothing – and watered, and all the while forced to continue on. Samson kept up with the work, but his mind was blank. He acted and reacted, but the horror of the situation made it impossible to contemplate fully.

  Finally, his hands raw and blistered by the heavy wood of the axe he’d been wielding and his limbs shaking with fatigue, he and the others were led back to the fortress through the falling night. They were fed and watered once more – gruel again, but this time Samson ate it eagerly – and thrown back into their cells.

  The next day was the same, and so too the day after that. In fact, time seemed to have stalled and stuck in place: that first day seemed simply to repeat itself, over and over again. Soon, Samson had lost all track of time, and he knew only the freezing cold of night and the painful labor of day. All of his effort went into the bone-breaking work in order to avoid the whips and cudgels; and when he was returned to his cell to sleep at night, he wept silently, aching and shivering.

  Days passed into weeks and nothing changed. He hoped at first for rescue, hoped that the Great Ships that Prince Rewlyn had promised would come and break the power of his captors, but it never happened. As he lay in his cell at night, trying to find sleep though his whole body ached and throbbed no matter how he turned or lay or curled up on his filthy patch of straw, he clutched desperately at that hope, telling himself that the possibility was real, that it truly did exist. But with every day that slipped by, with each hour of breaking rocks and cutting trees and hauling wood, the hope receded, like the sun setting inescapably over the horizon.

  The only change of any kind was that the pain in his head lessened with each successive day. Soon it was gone for good, and his thoughts, though fogged by fatigue and despair, were mostly lucid. He noticed changes outside of himself: that the season was changing from deep winter with the pelting rains, stinging hail, and consuming fog, to a lighter air that signaled spring; he noticed that the slaves were being forced to work steadily up the mountain, cutting trees as they went; and he noticed that the men he worked with were broken, body and spirit.

  It was this last that most affected him. He could bear his own punishment – he was young and strong, and his body could take the beatings. But some of the others were older – even by a few years – and if they slowed or stopped or faltered, they were whipped back to work with merciless cruelty. Those who couldn’t be goaded, though – those who had faltered out of such extreme exhaustion that they had no energy left to force their limbs to move – were beaten bloody and then cast aside, where they lay, dead or dying, until someone came to drag them away.

  Samson watched this when it happened, for it happened at least once a day. It seemed important that he watch it, even if no one else did. It seemed important that someone witness the dying – that someone witness these poor men’s last moments.

  Something deep and strong began to fill him. And every time he saw a man beaten to death by one of their captors – by Scarred Face, the one who smiled as he did it; by Funny Boy, the one who laughed; by Stone, the one who hacked at flesh the way the captives hacked at tree wood – he felt it fill him even more. It was an ugly, red, pulsating thing – a formless entity that pushed out from the center of his stomach and consumed him inch by inch, feeding on him as it gave him strength.

  He’d been empty since his brother’s death. He hadn’t been able to admit it – had tried actively to hide it, in fact – but looking back now, he couldn’t keep it from himself. The endlessly repetitive work forced him into an uncomfortable state of self-reflection, and though he was careful to track the movements of his captors, he had time for musings such as he never had before. He examined himself and that emptiness, and this new thing growing inside him, as if they were strange rocks he had come upon on a distant shore. It was something harder than hope, something sharper than anger, and something deeper than both.

  Solom’s death had begun it. It had eaten away the innocence of the boy he’d been – an innocence that had survived even the death of his father. His father’s death had been horrible, but it had made sense. It had fit into the framework of his life, and so he had been able to deal with it and process it. His father had died as many others had died – on the open sea. A hard death, but a good death – a sailor’s death and a fisherman’s death, and the death his father no doubt would have wanted. A death earned by a life of hard work doing what a man was meant to do: fighting the elements, pushing beyond the body’s limits, bringing home food and profit from dangerous shores.

  But Solom’s death had been a useless death.

  The thought of it plagued him. There was no one to talk to – the isolation, even among hundreds of slaves, was absolute – and the only path for Samson’s mind to turn was inwards.

  He was strong and growing stronger, but what was the point?

  He was tall and growing taller, but what was the point?

  His brother was dead, and what was the point?

  He was enslaved, and what was the point of fighting?

  His brother had died and he’d led Longrider north to fight those responsible, confident he and the others would stop the raids – that the Archipelagans together could rise up and defeat the invaders. And so he’d fought and killed and fought still more. And nothing was different. The men of the silver skull, the men who called themselves the Varanathi, still rode the Sea, and his brother was dead, and he was enslaved, and there were hundreds more silver-skulled monsters waiting to take the place of those he’d sent to the bottom of the sea.

  He lived, and there was no point to it.

  A man beside him faltered, stumbled, and fell.

  Surprised, Samson only had a chance to look down, to feel the extra weight on the chains that bound them together, before a shout went up.

  “Move!” called Stone. His heavy fist slammed into Samson’s side even as Samson tried to obey; pain flared in a sharp burst and he stifled a grunt.

  “Get up,” Stone said, standing ove
r the fallen man. The man tried to obey, and as he struggled he turned enough for Samson to see his face: it was screwed up in pain, and he was clutching his chest as though trying to rip through the skin. The tendons in his neck stood out like high-tension ropes, and his uneven teeth were bared in a grimace of shock, pain, and terror.

  “Get up,” Stone repeated. His face was blank and impassive, as if he were watching a machine of some kind that refused to work properly. The man tired again to obey, but his left arm shook and refused to lock, and so he fell back, a moan escaping through his clenched teeth. His eyes rolled up in his head, and his lips began to take on a bluish tinge, as though he couldn’t breathe. Still he tried to obey: he pushed himself against the rock that they’d been working to uproot, trying to lever himself to his feet, but that didn’t work either. None of it was any use. The strength of his body had failed simply him.

  Stone raised his arm dispassionately and brought down the whip.

  The crack echoed through the deadly silence, shattering into a thousand pieces. Every captive in the area flinched, and the motion broke Samson from his stupor. Something cleared from in front of his eyes, and he looked over at his captors. He saw Funny Boy and Scarred Face coming closer with a number of others behind them. Funny Boy was watching eagerly, his black clothing matched by the black pits of his eyes; Scarred Face was watching the other captives, scowling at them as though their very existence were a personal slight against him.

  The whip cracked again, and the man bellowed in pain.

  “Stand,” Stone repeated, his voice still devoid of emotion.

  The other captives were all watching now, horrified. None of the Varanathi seemed keen to force them to resume work; instead, they were looking between them and the fallen man with smirks and sneers.

  That ugly red entity in Samson’s gut began to burn with a low, steady heat.

  The whip cracked again: this time it hit the man’s shoulder, ripping clean through the bare skin and drawing blood that began to flow down the man’s right arm. He was still trying to stand and still failing. There were tears rolling down his face now – tears of panic and fear and desperation.

  Samson fought to keep himself from crying out.

  “Stand,” Stone said again, the word exactly the same in cadence and inflection as before. His thick, muscled forearms stood out in stark contrast to the downed man’s withered limbs.

  The whip cracked again, and the man fell to the ground completely.

  Samson took a step forward before he knew what was happening.

  Don’t! screamed a voice inside his head. Don’t! There’s nothing you can do!

  He stopped, but not in time. Funny Boy and Scarred Face had just come even with him and the others in the group, and they both saw him move. Funny Boy came to him first. He grabbed Samson by his long hair and wrenched his head back so that his knees buckled and it was hard to breathe.

  “You want to help, do you?” he hissed. His black eyes were bright with the light of killing, and his ever-present sneer was fixed hungrily upon Samson’s face. “You want to help?”

  He tittered a high, girlish laugh that made Samson’s teeth ache and his skin crawl. “No, no, no,” Funny Boy said, waggling a finger before his face, “you can’t help. In fact, let’s have you watch.”

  Samson found himself suddenly inches away from the body of the dying man, held in place by the iron grip of his captor. The man’s struggles were growing weaker and weaker. His left arm was flopping around uselessly, as though it had no muscles, and his right hand was clutching at his heart.

  “What?” Funny Boy hissed in Samson’s ear, holding his head so that he couldn’t move an inch. “Isn’t this what you wanted? To be closer?”

  Stone raised the whip and brought it cracking down once more, only just missing the tip of Samson’s nose. That final lash hit the man’s eye, and the hand holding his chest flew to his face as blood gushed freely. His body gave a final convulsive twist, and he shuddered, arched up as though he might simply fly away, and then fell to the ground and moved no more.

  Ringing filled Samson’s ears as the body fell, and his vision narrowed in on the mutilated face. Funny Boy was wrenching him back, pulling him to his feet as he cackled, but somehow in all that time – it felt like years – Samson could only see the ruined eye staring up at him.

  He’d never been that close before. He’d never seen…

  Never seen what? This is what happens every day.

  The voice pounded against him, forcing out the last of his hope.

  There’s no point in being here. One day – maybe years from now – you’ll die too. You’ll be beaten, and you’ll fall, and no one will save you either.

  Shame washed over him in heavy, successive waves; each breath he took submerged him further, and the sound of the world around him faded away until it was nothing more than a dull throbbing in his head.

  He’d just stood there. He’d watched a man beg for help, watched him die, and done nothing.

  “Keep moving,” said Funny Boy with a wide grin that dared him to disobey. His black eyes were blazing as though the death had kindled a fire there.

  “No.”

  A deadly silence fell on the clearing. Funny Boy’s smile deepened, and Stone raised the whip.

  They’d been working that day on the upper slope of the island, and the time it took them to drag him back to his cell, fighting as he did, was considerable. The lash whipped him with every step, and he roared at them and it like a wild beast. Even later that night, after he’d been forced into his cell and tied down, he had only small flashes of recollection of what had happened. He remembered breaking free at one point and slamming his fist into Funny Boy’s smile, knocking out several teeth. He remembered Stone smashing him in the ribs with his club, having discarded the whip once it was clear it was having no effect. He remembered the looks on the faces of the other captives as he fought, tooth and nail, against every black-clothed body that had thrown itself against him, like waves crashing against a rock. And every breath he took as they forced him down beneath the ground, every flash of pain and every beat of his still-living heart, was a shout of raging defiance.

  By the time they finally managed to throw him in his cell, he had bruised and bloodied a dozen armed men, and given Funny Boy a broken jaw to go with his missing teeth. And the only thing that had sunk in – the only bit of speech he’d heard – was what the cellblock guard had hissed in his ear:

  “You’re a dead man, Islander. Tomorrow you’ll swing.”

  As darkness closed in on him, Samson felt a swelling in his chest that had nothing to do with pain, and he knew that he would fight back against them with every ounce of strength no matter what they did next. He would fight them with every step he took up to the gibbet if that was where he was truly bound.

  The swelling in his chest continued, pushing away the pain.

  His death would have a point, even if just for him.

 
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