By: The Birch Twins
I watched the gnarled hand pour the wine. He licked his lips and concentrated on pouring, his brow furrowed. My stomach heaved. Whether it was due the ship pitching on the seas, or the smell of my seafaring companion, I knew not which. His beady bloodshot eyes regarded me closely.
“Drink up, wench,” he said offering a cup to me as the ship heaved again, “an honored guest ye be.”
I took the cup from the offered hand, closing my ears to the groans coming from the hold beyond me.
“And yet, I said, the wine spilling from a slight tremor in my hand, “my companion sits in chains at the oars.”
He looked up, and I watched the smile drain from his face.
“Best not put upon me hospitality, wench,” he said, suddenly showing me a row of yellowed blackened teeth as the ship rolled again, prompting more cries form the ship beyond, “lest ye be chained at the mast as me bonny ships new figurehead.”
I remained silent and sipped the wine. We had been taken captive just north of Atha Cliath in the western lowlands. Shepherded aboard ‘Bonny Lass of the Highlands,’ Skarr had been clapped in irons and taken below with the rest of the slaves. To my dismay, I had thus spent the majority of my time in a guest cabin, and though secured and clearly prisoner, my slavery thus far had been one of relative comfort and luxury.
He sneered at me again through blackened teeth, and I wondered if this was where the slavers demanded payment for my gentle treatment thus far.
“Drink up,” he said, his anger forgotten, “there be no sense in angering a witch. Ye’ll not be harmed.”
I almost pointed out that, while I resembled a witch of the Rahassa desert lands, what with my dark skin and coarse woven fabrics, I was in fact a mere apprentice apothecary, whose skill with magic was decidedly meager. But I remained quiet. He somehow seemed nervous around me, as many empire dwellers were around those who they suspected had the power of the elementals.
“I’m not angry,” I said sipping my wine and trying to meet his gaze, “My treatment has been acceptable so far.”
“That of my companion however…”
The smile faded.
“The Norther bitch is chained at the oars with the rest of her filth,” he said, “speak not of her again, lest this cordial chat turn sour.”
The crack of a whip, followed by a cry prompted me to action.
“You claim to want cordiality,” I said, “and yet you chain and whip my companion at an oar. I may yet show you my fury.”
I had said too much, and I knew it. Not entirely convinced by my threat, he grabbed me across the table by my scarf and pulled me towards him. I saw the fist move, and closed my eyes as it connected with my face. Then the table was upturned and I was thrown to the floor. I felt his boot in my side, and crumpled in pain. As I attempted to shield myself from further blows, I was suddenly dragged to my feet, and through the door into the slave galley.
I twisted in his grip, but he held me firm.
“The Norther bitch,” he shouted to the bosun, and pointing to my companion sat chained to her oar with the rest of the two dozen slaves, “warm the bitch’s shoulders, will ye.”
“Aye Captain,” he replied, nodding curtly. The bosun sheathed his cutlass and unfurled his whip. I squirmed, but could not move. I heard the whip crack through the air, and heard a clank of chain of Skarr tried to move out of its way. Chained to the floor of the ship, she could not, and it dug a red weal into her flesh. Again the whip came down through the air, and Skarr’s fettered companions ducked as blow after blow landed on her back, lacing her skin with fiery red marks. I heard her grunt in pain as the quartermaster whipped her again.
Eventually, the Captain signaled for the whipping to stop, and, holding me by the scruff of the neck, twisted me in his grip.
“Now, he said smiling that yellow toothed smile again, “best to keep this cordial and all genteel. Threatening poor working men brings out the worst in us. The Bosun here takes pride in being able to cleave flesh from bone with that whip. Next time I may ask him to be a little less gentle.”
I nodded my understanding.
“Back to your cabin, me beautiful.”
He walked with me back to my cabin. I looked down at my feet and ignored the leering glances of the crew, and the fearful looks of the chained Norther slaves as they clanked about their work, shackles riveted about their ankles.
“See,” he said, as we reached my cabin, “life’s better when we’re all pleasant like.”
“If you say so,” I said flinching as he reached a hand under my skirts, “I don’t think you should touch me there”
“I didn’t ask,” he said roughly as his gnarled hand explored further up my thigh.
“No,” I said shouting, as I felt his probing fingers on me, “I don’t…”
His fingers found their target, and, buckling slightly, I brought my hand up and gave the man a stinging slap that left a bright red handprint across his face.
“Ye’ll be sorry, he growled, grabbing me by the hair.
I awoke to a throbbing pain that started in my head and travelled all down my body. I attempted to move, but found I could not. Through closed eyes, I could hear the cries of men, and at first I thought they had chained me to an oar like they had Skarr, but it seemed they had not. I opened one eye. I was indeed in the hold, and mercifully quite close to my warrior companion. But I had been secured inside a very close fitting iron cage, and could barely move a single inch.
“Told ye,” said the Captain touching the bars of my tight fitting prison, “I warned ye that ye’d be me new figurehead, chained to the mast. Me crew were afear’d that ye’d be angered, and witch ye’re way out of this.”
He laughed and walked away.
“Seems like I overestimated your witchery. Let’s see how long you last as ships figurehead before the crows have your eyes.”
So they’d realized that I was no witch, and was a mere apprentice apothecary. I looked at Skarr, but she dolefully rowed with her oar, her chains clanking, her head down and her gaze cast to the floor. I wondered if this was our undoing, that we were destined to die her on a slave ship bound for divines only knew where.
“Ikkara,” said Skarr quietly, in a voice almost too quiet to hear.”
I watched her intently, but her gaze remained fixed to the floor.
“Ikara vashar,” she said, raising her head to regard the Captain, “Malakai Ikara Vashar.”
He stopped his pacing, and strode, smiling, to where he sat chained at her oar.
“What was that, my pretty?”
She looked up at him, her face a mask of pent up fury and aggression,
“Malakai Ikara Vashar Ikar,” she spat attempting to rise, though her chains held her fast.
“Mr Bosun,” he said laughing, “the wench here needs to feel your bonny whip again. Take her from the line and show the lady her bones.”
“No,” I screamed, struggling in my cage. But I was held firm, and couldn’t move. The bosun struck Skarr a heavy blow across the back of the head, before releasing her from the oar. Three of them dragged her bodily in her chains from the oar, and to the steps that led onto the deck.
“Take her to the deck,” said the Captain, “strip the bitches skin. See if that stays her tongue from her filthy Norther curses.”
“Malakai Ikara Vashar Ikar,” she said again.
The Captain evidently did not know what he words meant, and he strode over to her and struck her full in the face.
“Malakai Ikara Vashar Ikar,” she said, collapsing in a clank of chains and coughing slightly.
The men laughed. I watched a faint smile play across Skarr’s eyes for a second. Maybe their laughter would make their deaths easier, but I doubted it. The Captain grabbed her shoulder to lift her from the floor, but in a heartbeat she had seized his boot knife and plunged it in the man’s ankle, twisting the blade savagely. He cried out and dropped, and instantly, she had the chain connecting her wrists about his throat, and twisted.
He cried out, and the bosun withdrew the scimitar he carried, bringing it down in what might have been a death blow, had he not been dealing with an experienced, battle hardened Norther warrior. But he was. Skarr pivoted and thrust the body of the screaming Captain to shield the blow. The Bosun’s blade buried itself in the Captain’s skull, severing his head almost in two. Skarr turned her face to shield her eyes from the blood, and backed away as the blade came down again. The bosun screamed for help, and the feet of more men could be heard.
“Malakai Ikara Vashar Ikar,” screamed Skarr, rising, and more feet could be head from outside as the other Norther slaves took up arms. The door to the hold was flung open and men and slaves thundered downstairs. The chained Norther slaves, enraged, thundered into the hold, vastly outnumbering the slavers that held them, and trampled their surprised captors. I squirmed helplessly in my cage as Skarr fought to free her wrists with a small key she had plundered from the Captain’s belt.
I saw a flash of purple steel, and suddenly I knew she had her Doomsayer in her grip, the greatsword that she carried. It was like a weightless dance, the blade seemingly light as a feather as it spun in her wrist, severing feet, hands and heads. The ship pitched again, but the Northers were free now and had all the power of a mighty crashing sea, an unstoppable wave of red slaughter. I saw them as they truly were, that glorious race of warriors. I saw the doomed men of Raglan Crag, fighting to the last breath. I saw the raped and beaten fisher women of Galway Fell cutting the throats of their captors even as they burned to death. I saw the children of Aisling Gil murder their Imperial overlords with sharpened sticks as they were carried off from their villages. ‘We sing our deaths, for brave and doomed all are we’, or so said the song of the warrior, carved high in the Jerraldor mountains. Nothing would stand in the way of this race of Norther men and women when they were enraged to battle, and despite my Rahassa genteelness and practiced politeness, I felt a stirring within me. True, Rahassa desert folks and these Norther people of the high fells had long had affinities and closeness, and for the first time, I felt it within me at this moment. My body began to tingle with excitement as the battle in the tight hold raged, the unattended ship pitching and tossing. I flexed my muscles, but my cage held me fast. I watched battles roll in my mind. Pitched fighting as the walls of Valdus, that jewel city of the Norther people, were smashed to flinders and burned. The thunder of the war drums as a hundred thousand Northers poured from the mountains and across the land. I felt it all as they did. For the first time in my travels with Skarr, I knew what her cry of ‘Malakai Ikara Vashar Ikar’ meant. I understood the call to arms. Just as generations of Rahassa witches had accompanied Norther warriors into battle, so they would now again.
I felt my body begin to tingle again, stronger this time, and my eyes closed. I began to hear my heart beating, and held my breath against the loud thump of the rhythm in my head. The beat pounded, and as my breathing stopped, I felt the world suddenly stop spinning on its axis, and the world held its breath. Standing there in the dark, I held out my hands, suddenly flinging my arms apart.
Then…water. Masses of it, and I was out of my trance, and my cage too for that matter, and flailing in the water as our slave ship sunk around us. Men cried out, and screamed. Then blackness.
I awoke on a shore. I did not know how much time had passed. I felt a hand upon me, an, awakening, saw it belonged to one of the former Norther slaves. His head was bandaged with a bloody rag, but he smiled.
“The witch decided to join the fight,” he said smiling, “shame she had to blow the ship apart.”
He helped me to my feet, and I wandered along the coastline. The rain drove down upon us, and battered the rocks and sand. Several survivors sheltered among the wreckage of the smashed ship. They huddled around campfires. Some shrunk back in fear when they saw me, and some beckoned me towards them. But I ignored them all. Of my companion, there was no sign. I walked further, and to the other side of the small cove. Something purple glinted in the sun, and I knew it was Doomsayer. There it lay, discarded on the sand. Looking around, I caught sight of something caught on the rocks and I hurried over to it. It was Skarr, her body wedged between rocks as the waves lapped gently over her. Hauling her onto the sand, I stared at her lifeless, blood-streaked face, sand and dirt staining her blonde bedraggled hair. I knew that she was dead. I knelt at her body. The very first time I had found power within me, which my elders had predicted someday I would, was the last day I would spend with her. They had known her as Cock of the North, as Skarr. They had known her as a warrior, a fighter. A rude, brusque barbarian, with a penchant for strong ale and dirty songs. I had known her as Justine, the only daughter of Gustaavus. I knew her innocence, and her delight and passion when we had lain together for the first time. I knew her fear for the concept of growing old with me, and the changes that such events would have eventually brought to our lives as traveling vagabonds. I rested my head upon her stomach, and closed my eyes.
“If you must sleep,” she said, “then do not rest your head on me.”
I rose, startled. Her eyes were open, and though weak, she was alive.
“I thought you were dead…”
“Your skill as a doctor is as poor as your skill as a mage, Dushka,” she said reaching for a small rock, “and let us not speak of your lack of prowess as a witch.”
“I got out of the cage, didn’t I,” I asked, helping her to smash her shackles with the rock, “if I’m honest it was the first time I’ve ever felt…”
“You will not feel it again,” she said sharply, removing the last of her battered restraints, “or you will feel my hand. Is that understood, Dushka?”
I nodded, rising, and helped her up.
“All the same,” I said surveying the carnage and wreckage around us, “you have to admit that it’s a useful weapon to have.”
“I recall as a young whelp,” she said as we walked to one of the camps, “the story of Jonviir the unwise.”
“Wasn’t he the Norther artificer who invented the throwing bomb?”
“The very same. Jonviir one day decided that a huge throwing bomb would cause more carnage that his small sized throwing bombs. And so, Dushka, he created a huge one the size of a small anvil.”
“Didn’t Jonviir the unwise blow himself up in his laboratory in the city of Yarn back in the second era?”
“Indeed Dushka,” replied Skarr as we found a camp, “the throwing bomb proved too heavy to throw very far, and before he could get clear, it ignited his gunpowder store and blew him and his laboratory to flinders. No doubt, it seemed like a useful weapon to have.”
“It was his treatment of you,” I said, “and your words. They…they spoke to me.”
“Just as they should,” she said, sitting down and preparing for my healing magic.
“And that captain,” I continued, “he…he tried to touch me…”
“Hmm,” replied Skarr grunting at the touch of my cold hands, “did you inform him that the only one allowed to touch you there is me?”
“That’s how I ended up in the cage in the first place.”
“Then all is well,” she said closing her eyes, “we shall make a fighter out of you yet, little Dushka.”
I continued to heal her, and felt the relaxed rhythm of her body under my hands. Despite her brusqueness, I knew how to make her tingle, and squeak with surprise upon occasion. It was a useful distraction for what was in the back of my mind. For today had been the first time that the Rahassa witch in me had manifested itself. I had to admit the sheer destructive power of my abilities both frightened and enthralled me. And, though I did not yet know, it, these abilities were soon to be tested to their fullest extent.