Derin felt as though the key tucked beneath his belt was burning a hole through the remnants of his shirt and into his belly. He eased backwards into a more comfortable position and adjusted the shackles around his ankles as he glanced upwards towards the hatch. He could hear the voices of several deck-hands as they discussed their coming shore leave. It was muted, but he could make out some words here and there, and laughter trickled down from time to time. The boasting of raucous men, joking amongst themselves. He wished the midnight hour would come more swiftly. Still, there was time left until he would use the key, time that he should spend working on covering any of the possibilities that could go wrong. Of which there are a multitude, he reminded himself.
The day had passed uneventful. At his behest, Jerion had rested, although Derin could tell it was restless at best, full of dark thoughts. It was hard to find any peace in these conditions, with the constant stench of human filth permeating the air combining with the groans of the slaves. Derin had no doubt someone had died down in the depths of the hold sometime in the morning hours, but no one had bothered to unshackle the body yet, more than likely to avoid the risk of the body floating into the harbor once dumped overboard.
Their vessel had long since ceased to move. True to the guard’s prediction the captain had ordered the ship to anchor for the evening. The sound of the anchor’s chain unwinding as it sank beneath the water had echoed through the hull of the ship like some giant grinding its teeth against the wood. It was strangely unsettling, the absence of movement. The waves of the open sea were behind them, and the boat moved only with the gentle rocking of the waters off-shore, the anchor beneath keeping them firmly in place. Derin had grown accustomed to the pitching of the deck beneath him, and while he was no sure-footed sailor, he had at least learned how to best adjust to the movements of the ship in order to avoid serious harm from the shackles around his wrists and ankles. And how to catch a few moment’s sleep when he could.
Their second round of water was hours past, and his throat felt as though it had been permanently parched for what he remembered of his adult life. His skin itched, and he longed for a bath with lilac petals or perhaps lavender. His teeth felt corroded, as though there were an inch of slime and grit covering them, and he wondered if a thorough cleaning would ever get the taste out of his mouth, or the stench out of his nose. His clothing was long since ruined, nothing more than tattered remains of what had previously been reasonably fair court attire. The whole outfit stank of his sweat and urine, and while he had tried his best to avoid soiling himself, it was impossible in these conditions. It brought literal tears to his eyes when he thought of how depraved he must appear, but one look around helped steel his resolve. Especially when he looked at Jerion.
The prince was holding his own. Derin had been fearful that the man would succumb to the pressure, but his face was calm today, peaceful. He had kept his answers short when queried by Derin, replying with merely one word answers or a tight smile. It reminded him slightly of Thorn, although that memory was still too fresh to be allowed much more than a moment’s thought. Thorn had been a good man, but he had lacked motivation, something that Jerion seemed to have a firm grasp on. Despite the chains that kept his body bound to the deck there was an air of royalty around him, although Derin wondered if that might be his own imagination, knowing as he did who the man really was. Still, it was good to see him in such spirits. Yesterday he had been unsure if the prince would be able to cope with the pressure, but apparently the idea of escape was enough to bring him out of his state of misery.
Derin wondered what the prince felt. To him, the filthy side of humanity had always been a given. There were no slaves in Finglis Mirror, and he was still discomforted by the sight of chained men, but he had grown up in the streets of the city, and was well aware of the darkest depths of men’s souls. Deeds performed in the dark of night, when no one else was watching. Men who paid coin to have other men – or even women – slain, simply so they would not have the blood upon their own hands, as if that would somehow absolve their conscience. He was used to seeing the darker side of humanity. Men who robbed other men so they could fill their hungry bellies, or those who would murder you in the depths of an alley simply to take the shoes from your feet. It was why he had aspired to become a Blackbird all those years ago, because they were more than just thieves. Petty theft was impulsive. To kill a man simply to wear his clothing made you no better than a beast of the forest, but to have a purpose beyond the impulses of the flesh, that was something entirely different.
He had killed before. Twice. The first had been an accident, a slip of the knife when all he had meant to do was scare the man with a blade. But he had not anticipated the man panicking and bolting for the door, and the knife had cut the man’s throat wide. He could still remember that moment of shock at feeling warm blood on his hand, and hearing the wet gasps as the man’s hands clutched at his knees, his body slowly sliding down until it came to a rest on the floor, a twitching mass of flesh. It had reminded him of how fragile life really is.
The second time had been for money. He had done it to prove to himself that he was not frightened of death, that he was willing to do whatever it took to succeed. The killing had not been sanctioned by the Blackbirds. He had no doubt that the organization would kill when necessary, but this death had been anything but. It had been murder, pure and simple, and only for revenge. The woman had been stunningly beautiful, and her coin had weighed heavy in his purse, as had the thought of her lips pressed against his neck when she whispered her request. Derin had puzzled long over why she had paid for the killing of a man of such influential position, but it had come at a time in his life when the coin had mattered more to him than the reasons why and he had carried out the deed, no matter how unpleasant. It had been easy, and while the stains may have washed away with soap and water, he could still feel the sticky, wet blood on his hands, and the way the knife had twisted in his grasp when he had plunged it into the man’s liver.
Derin knew he was not a saint, but it did not bother him. It was who he was, and he was not a man to regret his past, for it was what made him who he was today. Still, he disliked killing, and had avoided such jobs since then. It was the darker side of humanity, darker even than the streets. Survival was one thing, but killing for the sheer pleasure of it was something that he could not understand. Much like he could not understand the need to chain another man, or to brand their flesh and call them property, such as the slaves that surrounded them. He had never been rich, but he had earned every copper he had ever had in his purse, although there were those who would likely argue that the earning was not exactly legitimate. Still, he believed in a man being able to earn with his own two hands enough to provide for himself, to strive for something better. Was that not human, to aspire, to dream, to hope? If a man was reduced to nothing but chains and a forced reality, what was he? The answer is all around you, he thought to himself. A grim reality, for certain.
The absence of sound from the deck above brought him out of his silent musing. It was past the midnight hour, by his reckoning, which meant the time for their escape was drawing near. He cast a slow, careful look around him as best he could in the darkness of the hold. It was hard to see anything beyond a few feet away unless the moon happened to be shining directly above the hatch, which it was not at present. Which is a good thing, he reminded himself. The cover of darkness would help their escape. He moved his chains gently to one side and the other, checking to see if any of the closer slaves around him were awake. They did not appear to give notice. He was fairly certain these men were so reserved to their fate that they would never even notice Jerion and himself as they made their way, but it would be incredibly reckless to take any unnecessary chances. Once he was satisfied they appeared to be asleep, or simply too far gone to care, he pulled the key out of his belt and inserted it into his wrist shackles.
The key fit, but it was not perfect. The metal inside of the lock screeched as he turned the key, loud enough that he paused and gave a cautious look around to see if anyone had noticed. None of the other slaves appeared to be paying attention as near as he could tell in the darkness, and against the lapping of the waves and the gentle creaking of the ship it was unlikely anyone up top had heard as well. Still, he waited a few more moments to be sure before he finished turning the key. The lock opened with a soft snick. He slid his wrists out and undid his ankles.
He could not stand at first. His muscles were stiff from lack of movement and it was several minutes before he could do much more than gently stretch his legs out and massage his arms. He was cramped in several places, but it would pass. He had often spent many hours cooped up in a closet or otherwise on various hideaway tasks as a Runner and this was no different, although the duration had been of greater length. It was exactly for this reason that he was undoing their chains now, even though there were at least two more hours until their time of departure. They would need that time to let their bodies acclimate to the newfound freedom after so many days in chains.
Derin wished he had a knife. He felt naked and exposed as he was, with only the rags on his back and the key in his hand. If any of the slaves should awake and cause a scene it would be the death of them both. The slave first, because Derin would choke the life from the man just before the guards made their way down, and himself second, because he would not let the guards take him without a fight. He checked once more the slaves around him to see if any had noticed his freedom, but all was quiet. He made his way over to Jerion, hunched over on his hands and knees.
The prince was awake. His eyes widened briefly in surprise as he saw Derin creeping out of the darkness. Derin wondered how he appeared, crawling out of the shadows, the only color visible the whites of his eyes. The prince’s shoulders sagged in relief as he realized who it was. “You nearly scared what little life is left in me out of my body,” he whispered softly. Derin raised his hand to his lips and motioned for silence. Now was not the time for idle chatter.
The prince’s shackles were much easier, and opened with barely a sound. Derin leaned close to Jerion. “Take a few minutes and let your body adjust. There will be some pain as your muscles get used to freedom again, but it will pass. And try not to make any noise.”
Jerion nodded his head. Derin saw his eyes widen in surprise as the man stretched his legs out and no doubt felt icy shards of pain stabbing into his muscles. To his credit, the prince did not utter a sound, merely tightened his mouth and endured.
The waiting until the second hour of the morning was near agony. Derin was no stranger to long-hours of cramped conditions from his years as a Runner, but this was the first time in his life where he had been in a situation that was so viscerally centered around life and death. The stench of the hold reminded him of how desperate their situation really was. They either escaped tonight, or they were doomed to a life of slavery. The ship would take them to Sunaria, and they would waste away within the hold over the months-long voyage, becoming like the rest of the humans who were chained here. He held that thought close to him as he continued stretching his legs.
It was impossible to tell exactly when the second hour had arrived, but Derin had spent enough sessions waiting through the night that he was sure it was close. They made their way across to the hatch, padding silently on their bare feet. The ship rocked gently beneath them, a far cry from the wild pitching of the previous days when they had been upon the open water. As they neared the hatch it suddenly dawned on him that he had failed to ask Jerion one of the most important questions of all. “Can you swim,” he whispered suddenly to the prince.
He caught the flash of teeth as Jerion grinned. “Tonight, I could bend steel with my bare hands.”
True enough. Derin could feel the adrenaline begin to course through his veins as they reached the hatch. He reached up to check the lock, but it was undone; their friend was likely already on watch then. Strange, that he had not noticed the man stopping to unlock it. Still, he and Jerion had been busy below with other matters on their minds, and the fellow was a Blackbird, after all. He had likely been trained as well as Derin had.
Derin motioned for Jerion to hold while he slowly raised the hatch a few inches, trying desperately to move it slowly enough to avoid the creak of the hinges, and brought his eyes up to the level of the deck. It was dark, and there were only two lanterns lit on the deck, fore and aft. Neither illuminated as far as the hatch. He scanned in each direction, but saw nothing. He waited several moments and a man came into few, slowly pacing the edge of the deck, moving from the front of the ship to the back. He did not appear to be looking in their direction. Derin waited until he had passed, then he pushed open the hatch and crawled out on to the deck. He held it open for Jerion, closing it after the man had clambered out as well. Derin pointed to the man heading towards the back of the ship. Jerion nodded his understanding.
Derin wished for a knife, not for the first time. His heart was racing in his chest, thundering in his ears so loudly that he could barely hear the sound of the waves lapping up against the hull of the ship. The air was blessedly clean out here, and he breathed deep as he motioned Jerion over to him and crept towards the edge of the ship ahead of them, in the center where the two lanterns did not illuminate. He could see none but the guard, who had now reached the rear of the ship and had paused. Derin scanned for something to help them over the edge, finally locating a partially coiled rope that was trailing over the edge of the vessel into the darkness below. He pointed it out to Jerion, and let the prince scramble over the side.
The guard at the rear of the vessel had turned and was coming towards them. Derin grit his teeth as the man walked. If he looked up now, it would all be over. He waited for the prince to make his way down a bit more, then heaved himself over the edge and let himself down along the rope a few feet. It creaked slightly under their weight, rubbing against the wood railing. He paused, waiting to see if the man above had heard. The man’s footsteps were quiet, but Derin could make them out as they continued past. He heaved a sigh of relief.
He gasped slightly as he let his body slide into the sea. The water was cold, but it was refreshing after all those days in the hold without a proper bath. For the first time, Derin realized just how foul the both of them had become in the past days. It had been impossible to get a close look at Jerion with the darkness of the hold, but by the feel of his own face they were both bearded and grimed, and likely had the stench of the sewers about them.
They both clung to the rope like wet rats. Derin could see the lights of the harbor off in the distance, but it was a long way off. He had a sudden doubt. The distance was great; he had never swam such before, and he was far weakened from the lack of nourishment. And the water was cold. They spent a few minutes letting their bodies adjust, both of them hanging onto the rope and gazing towards the harbor, and their freedom.
“What do you think,” Derin asked Jerion, trying to keep his teeth from chattering. It was hard to keep the fear from his voice. It had all seemed so simple when they were in the hold. Now that they were in the water, the thought of all that sea beneath him was making him sick to his stomach, and terrified.
Jerion did not answer for a moment, judging the distance. “I would say a good thirty minute swim,” he replied finally.
Derin found himself shivering, not only from the cold. “Maybe I should see if we can find something to use to float with,” he said to Jerion. Surely there was a piece of wood or something they could use to help them along.
Jerion shook his head. “If we go back up on that deck we run the risk of being discovered.” The prince contorted oddly, one hand hanging on the rope while the other reached underwater.
“What are you doing?” This was no time for cramps. Derin’s own had long since passed, but the water’s chill was beginning to make his muscles ache.
“Strip your clothes off,” the prince replied. “They will only weight you down.”
Derin had not thought of that. He quickly stripped as best he could under the water, ducking his head under briefly as he struggled with his breeches and a small wave overtook him. He sputtered slightly as he came back up, only to find the prince was nowhere to be seen. He felt his heart race slightly before he saw the man several yards out, swimming for the shore.
There was a moment of panic as he let go of the rope and started swimming. He had never cared for deep water. Just traversing the docks in the dead of night had been an issue for him in the past. The thought of all that emptiness beneath him was terrifying. He could feel his heart racing, but it was either swim for the shore or return to the ship and remain in captivity. He set his eyes on the lights of the town and swam after Jerion.
The water was cold, but he swam as best he could. It was almost immediately evident that the prince was a far stronger swimmer. He had likely spent hours of his days in the private lakes and pools belonging to the Royal family. Derin himself had only spent a few days out of the year at the water; his life on the streets had been far too busy for such luxuries as water leisure. Still, he had learned from an early age how to swim, although not for long periods of time and usually only on the hottest days of the year.
Time passed agonizingly slowly. He was unsure of the distance they had come so far, but his arms were on fire, and his lungs were burning with the constant breathing. It felt as though he had been swimming for hours. He could no longer see Jerion, but he could make out the glow of the lanterns along the edge of the docks as they periodically came into view above the tops of the waves. He could not tell how much further they were. Derin’s chest heaved as he tried to keep his head above water, and enough air in his lungs, while trying to avoid catching a mouthful of water. He no longer had any doubts as to his capabilities as a swimmer. It was one thing to play around in the shallow waters of the harbor, with little to no waves and nothing but calmness and serenity, and quite another to have the murky waters of the deep beneath him, his body a tiny floating particle on the great surface of the water, heaved to the top of each wave and back down again as if he were nothing more than an insect floating along. He sucked in another lungful of air, and struggled not to cough as he caught a few droplets of spray.
Derin swam as hard as he could, as if the world rested on his shoulders, and he were the only man left standing still capable of holding it up. There was a moment of panic as something caught the corner of his eye. A sea monster? He gulped a mouthful of air and paddled harder, then sucked in half a lungful of water. His body contorted as he coughed, and he felt the water suddenly rushing in over his head. He coughed, sputtered, tried to claw his way towards the surface, towards the dim light of the torches. His fingers sliced through the water as his head broke the surface and he gasped, his lungs and throat on fire from the salt water, but he was pushed under again. His arms suddenly felt as though they were weighted down with lead, and he felt himself sinking.
A shadow crossed the surface above him as he felt his mind wandering free. Derin knew he should pull himself towards the surface, should swim, but his arms and legs could not move, would not move. He knew the water would kill him if he breathed it in, but his lungs were burning, icy tendrils of pain that crawled through his chest and clutched at his heart. Suddenly the shadow was back, and Jerion was there, his hands clutching at Derin’s shoulder, dragging him towards the surface.
“Stop flailing about!” The prince’s voice was raised in a hiss, and it snapped Derin back to reality. He was struggling in the prince’s grasp, his arms and legs trying to paddle wildly. “Relax, man!” The prince’s hand was around the scruff of Derin’s neck, and Jerion shook him like a small puppy. “You are only making it worse. Just relax. Your body will float.”
It was difficult. His heart was beating wildly and he was panting as if he’d just run a mile. All around him were the waves, and the water. One of Jerion’s hands was underneath his arm now, helping to keep him afloat, while the other was casually moving through the water, back and forth. The prince seemed to be floating with ease.
“There, you see?” He caught the gleam of Jerion’s teeth as the man smiled. Derin tried to mimic the prince’s motions. His arms and legs still burned, but his heart was slowing, and he felt slightly buoyant.
“What magic is this,” he sputtered as he clung to the other man with his free hand.
“No magic,” Jerion replied, spitting out a mouthful of water. “The salt of the sea helps you float. As long as you don’t panic, you can swim for hours without fear of sinking. Here, just move your arms like you are doing now, and your legs like so,” the prince gestured with his free hand, using two fingers to mime his legs. “Try it.”
His hand did not want to let go of Jerion’s shoulders. The thought of all that water beneath him, and sinking again beneath the waves, was simply too much. He shook his head. “I can’t,” he replied breathlessly.
The prince nodded. “Alright. We’ll go slow. Look,” he jerked his head in the direction of the shore. “We are nearly there.”
Indeed, the lights of the harbor could not be much more than a few hundred yards at most. He let Jerion guide him towards the harbor, one hand on the man’s back as they went. Finally, he felt his strength return, and he released the prince and used both of his arms to swim, pulling himself along towards the shore. Jerion led, his lean body cutting through the water.
The feel of rock and sand beneath his feet startled Derin, enough so that he yelped when his knee grazed across a rock. They had landed around thirty feet from the furthest docks, on a small stretch of sand and pebbles. As soon as his body was free of the water, Derin collapsed on the ground, uncaring of his naked state. He closed his eyes and sucked in air. Hey lay with his eyes shut for several minutes, listening to the lapping of the waves against the shore, the sounds of the docks nearby creaking slightly with the motion, and the beating of his own heart as it slowed. The fire slowly faded from his limbs, and he opened his eyes to find Jerion staring off towards the town.
Derin felt unmanned. He had never relied on another individual in his entire life, always making his own way with his own two hands and his own wit and cunning. To be in a position where he was completely helpless was so foreign to him that he had never dreamed it possible, but there it was; it had happened. He had been so certain regarding the ease of their escape that he had never considered the stretch of water between them and the land. He was suddenly furious with himself for letting such an obvious obstacle escape his notice, and for having to rely on someone else’s strength to get through. It was shameful, and weak.
“What do you think they will do when they find we escaped?” The prince’s voice brought him back from his self-loathing. The man was on his haunches, his head turned over his shoulder to address Derin. He was well muscled and lean; there was little fat on his frame. Derin averted his eyes, before the prince thought he was admiring and got the wrong impression. He was not that kind of a man. Instead, he directed his gaze towards the harbor town a short distance away, the nearest buildings barely illuminated with the dock lights.
“I’m not sure.” Slavery was not a common practice on the Islands, only in Sunaria. And while Derin had caught a few glimpses of Sunarian men aboard the ship, there were equally as many Islanders and Lucimians, which meant that more than likely the slaver vessel was simply that, without any political affiliations. However, the circumstances were such that he was unsure. “It all depends on if they know who you are, and who hired them to transport us.”
The prince stood, nodding as he did so. “You expect a ransom, then?” It was less of a question, and more of a statement.
Derin grunted slightly as he gathered his strength and stood. “I must admit that I am still puzzled by a few things. I am fairly sure the first ship knew who we were simply because of the care taken to insure no bodily harm. They kept us drugged, and trussed up, but they fed us and caused us no bodily harm. This ship, though,” he spat in the sand at the thought, wishing he had a knife for the captain’s belly. That was one man he’d kill, pure and simple, without regret. “I cannot know. If they knew who you were, then they likely threw you in there to break you.”
“But we still do not know anything for certain, do we.” This time it was absolutely a statement.
“No.” Derin looked towards the lights. The tavern waited, and there were Blackbirds in this town. Men who could help. “But I intended to find some answers.” He pushed the thought of the sea behind him. He was at home in towns, in cities, in the dark streets and back alleys. This was his world, and while the Islands were a new experience, towns and cities were the same no matter what country they called home. There was one small problem, however, and he found some of his humor returning as he pointed at his own naked flesh. “We’ll want some clothing first, I’m afraid. No one listens well to a naked man.”
He estimated there was only a few hours till dawn, and they needed to be sheltered away by that point. There was no telling if the slaver ship would send out a patrol looking for them, or if they would consider them collateral damage, much like the dead ones thrown overboard every few days. It remained to be determined, and all hinged on if they knew who Jerion was.
A town is a town, he had heard it said, and it was truth. Derin assumed the lead once again, and Jerion followed without question. The streets were empty of people at this hour, although a few laughs and shouts could be heard dimly, the drunken laughter and raised voices of the late night tavern crowds who did not realize it was well on its way to early morning. Instead of the cobbled streets he was used to in Finglis Mirror, these streets were hard-packed dirt and rock, and the smell of strange spices was on the air. But clothing lines were stretched between buildings just as in Finglis Mirror, and they soon found a few pieces that looked as though they would fit.
It was odd fashion, and definitely Island attire. Loose, flowing pants that were laced up with a single cloth cord around the waist, and soft linin shirts that hung loosely from their shoulders. The prince finally spoke as Derin was pulling the shirt over his head. “You are a Blackbird, then?”
Derin finished pulling the shirt over his head. So, the prince had finally noticed the tattoo on his chest. It was his symbol of pride, but he also knew it was unwise to flaunt it. He nodded as he adjusted the shirt and tucked it into the waist of his breeches. “Indeed I am. And you have reminded me that I promised you some answers when we had the time. Firstly, an introduction is in order. I am Derin.” He gave a mock bow. “Better known as Ameth.” The prince frowned at Derin’s bow, but Derin did not care if the man’s pride had been offended. It was meant as a joke and should be taken as such. “The shortest version,” he continued as he glanced around to be sure that no one had seen them. “Is that I was assigned to watch you during the coronation festival.”
“By whom?” There was incredulousness in the prince’s tone of voice. “I mean no disrespect, but your organization is not exactly known for credibility when it comes to upholding the law, and I know of none who would trust your kind within the palace.”
He’s not as smart as he thinks. The thought brought a small smile to Derin’s face. The man had portrayed great intelligence over the days he had known him, and was not a dolt, not in any sense of the word. But there was still some naiveté to his nature, things which he took for granted, the result of his status and station. “Your father had a few secrets of his own,” he suggested slyly. After all, it had been the King who had come to the Raven in the first place.
“Surely not!” The prince’s voice was full of disbelief. His voice was muffled slightly as he pulled a shirt over his head. “That is why we have the Royal Guard and the….”Jerion’s voice trailed off.
“Yes, I see you remembered the Royal Guard fighting amongst themselves.” Derin looked around for some shoes, but no luck. Those would likely all be inside, and they needed to get to the tavern before daybreak, and into the safety of the Blackbirds, just in case the slaver ship sent out patrols looking for them. “The world isn’t as pretty and safe as you once believed, is it?”
“Do not mock me,” the prince retorted, his voice angry, and raising slightly. Derin motioned with his hands for the man to quiet down.
“I’m not mocking you,” Derin said. No one appeared to have heard them, but he headed off down a side street in any case, just to be sure. He did not look to see if the prince was following him, but spoke low over his shoulder. “Simply stating a fact. I think we’ve already determined that your palace wasn’t as safe as everyone believed, nor are we Blackbirds simply thieves.” No, the group was much more than that, as even Derin himself was coming to find. It was amazing, actually. He had known their reach was far, but to find them on a slaver ship, and even here on the Islands, was beyond his wildest dreams.
They moved through the streets with silence after that, looking for a sign that fit the tavern description that their friend on the ship had given them the night before. Derin was unsure of the prince’s thoughts, but his own mind was turning with the possibilities. They needed rest, first of all, and a real bath. He would want a shave, and then some answers. He was slightly nervous about the newness of the town around them, but he had grown up on the streets, and although these were slightly different, with new sounds and smells and turnings, they were still streets nonetheless, and eventually they wound down to the waterfront, where they finally found the tavern that had been described to them.
The sign was tacked on the right side of the door and depicted a lobster, the faded red paint chipped in several places, revealing the wood beneath in the soft glow of the single lantern that hung atop the door. Derin glanced in the window as they passed, but he could not make out more than two or three people at the tables, their heads bowed over the tables, a few candles dimly illuminating the place in the wee hours of the morning. He took a deep breath and steeled his nerves as he cast a final glance around behind them, and they entered.
Follow the ongoing story so far…