You came to surrounded by blackness and bubbles. You tried to take a breath and swallowed a lungful of salt. By the time you figured out that you were underwater, you were scrambling to unbuckle your armor.
Your chest burned with the need to breathe. Your head felt light, weighing less and less as you struggled underwater. But you tore off what buckles you could reach. You saw your breastplate cutting a path into the depths, and soon your greaves. Water spilled into your nose and ears as yo thrashed. You reached for a sword belt that was not there. Did you ever have a sword? Who knows?
When you had cast off enough weight, you swam up. Your heart rattled your ribcage.
You broke the surface of the water and gulped in precious air. You doubted you’d ever taken a longer breath in your life. Your chest ached and felt frozen from the sheer amount of cold air you sucked in. You swam to the cliffside and clung to it. You decided that the Nailed God must have some use for you yet.
It hurt to breathe and your rib cage felt bruised. You learned to time your breaths against the waves that insistently shoved you further against the rocks.
You managed to crawl, shivering, onto a ridge of stone as long as you were, scattered with seashells. You were lucky to be alive.
Not that you felt that way.
Your throat was raw and stinging. A piece of you wanted to stop breathing from the sheer pain of it. You hunched, shivering, and hugged the rock that had saved your life. You felt a fool, hugging a scrap of stone. Your eyes burned with a need to cry, but you could couldn’t. It felt like the salt water had dried them up. Your skin was nearly bright pink.
Then you heard voices above you.
“See anything?” one of them asked. Your heart was throbbing in your neck. You pushed yourself as close to the rock as you dared to go without scraping the shells about. You didn’t dare to make a noise. You even stopped breathing.
“Got to be dead.” it was another voice. “Probably bashed her brains on the rocks. The Devils have taken her, no doubt.”
“The Queen wants a body.”
“Then let the Queen fish for it. Or Uthrik. He’s the one who let the crazed bastard fall.”
There was a third voice, then. “And which one will you be telling to take a dive first? Ava or the Queen?”
The other two chuckled. “The giant is making his way here. Thinks he can demolish our army while we yet linger.”
“Then what time do we have to combe for corpses?”
You heard them marching off. They spoke of rumors they heard. Different men on the march to this place. Someone said that this man named Uthrik told him some great king was coming.
“He did not! You’ve never said a word to him…” another said. Their voices faded as they make their way back to their warships.
You let out a shuddering breath. You hugged the rock again. It was all you had. How lonely is the man who hugs a slab of stone and says, “Oh, rock. You understand me.”
The warship would be leaving and a giant would be coming soon. You had two options: wait for the tide or find a way south.
You remembered earlier that night. How the woman had kicked your brother’s head as he lay on the ground, staring into empty space without blinking. How her brute had cut his throat. Were you two messengers for this giant? You couldn’t remember.
You curled your fist around the rock and climbed, promising to take revenge on the woman and her brute that you could hardly remember. And all other enemies besides. How exactly you were going to take that vengeance was not yet fully formed in your head. You had not even a club. What would you do when you found your enemies? Bleed on them? Did you think that they’d slip on your blood and dash their brains on the floor? I’d love to know.
You would avenge your brother. You swore it again as you climbed. The waves were lapping at you like a too-insistent lover; making the rocks wet and slippery.
Shivering and aching you climbed. Maybe you finally managed to cry, but your cheeks were so numb that you couldn’t quite tell. You climbed, climbed, climbed.
Then you hauled yourself onto dry land for a moment and rolled onto your back to catch your breath.
You had no knowledge of Kings or armies, but the way the men had spoken of it, hardened tough-sounding men–you assumed they were something to be feared. You wanted no part in it, so you wandered north into the Kingdom of Cayyor. You walked for hours with no idea where you were headed or where you would end up.
You told yourself that you did not mind the white-heats across the valley you travelled. You would be molded by it, you told yourself, as a sword is molded by the forge-fires.
Of course, leave a sword in the forge fires too long and it snaps. But to be fair, I’m sure you didn’t know that at the time. Forgetting is your best talent.
You followed the smell of brine, staggering under the beating the sea had dealt you. Like the waves were a procurer and you owed them money. Mayhaps that beating are the source of your empty, empty head. How can you be sure when you started writing this? Are you missing pages?
You could not see more than an arm’s reach ahead of yourself due to the dark creeping in all about you. You reached out to steady yourself and caught your balance, steadying your breaths in tandem with the waves lapping the shoreline.
You closed your hand around a nearby pole and saw that there was a village nearby. A coastal town with a floor made entirely of wooden floorboards. You saw a downed ship out in the harbor, with pieces of it raised above water like many small islands, and masts raised like an obscene gesture.
That ship had been raided, you guessed, to form the floor of this place.
The planks that covered the village were slightly soft with thick clefts of seaweed sprouting between the cracks. It mushed under your feet, waterlogged. You stumbled across the threshold and then came to your feet, laughing out of the luck you had to find civilization so soon, and set off to explore the territory.
You found first a bald woman, bare breasted with a floral-patterned dress that reached her ankles. She wore a delicate scrap of linen over her head. A spear rested beside the tavern she leaned on like a comrade beside her. “Welcome, traveler,” she said, “to Plankytown. Have you any business hereabout?”
“Not business,” You huffed, “Just a drink. Please.” You wanted to forget about the brother whose name was already slipping from your mind. About the raven-haired woman and her brute. About everything.
“A drinker with a sword at her hip,” the woman said. The spear was resting beside her, and then in her hand between blinks. It was now pointed so close to your throat that you were afraid to gulp. “You’ll hurt yourself, little girl.”
“Wary of strangers, I see.” You raised your hands as you approached. “Call me Carth.” You extended it for the woman.
“Khalee,” she said, shaking your hand.
“Is there anyone else here in Plankytown?”
“They’re dead or fled,” said Khalee. “We don’t chance strangers around here. Not since the Great Interregnum began. The giant Crom-cil-Orm has forced many who once lived here to serve the House of Orm. Though Orm’s parent House of Maugrim, plus the Houses of Em and Ath come through to kill us every once in a while. I’m the only one left to protect the old and the elderly who still live here.”
“The Lord of the House of Orm–he owns an army of Housemen, yes? He’s the one who took your people?”
“Not just any Lord. A giant. And his Housemen have stolen the craven’s clothes of the pale southrons. He’s adopted their tactics. They come raiding here from time to time when they need supplies. Most old folks who still live here saw you coming and they assumed you were a scout. A stranger. They won’t come out for you. They won’t come out for anyone they don’t know.”
You bit back a smirk. “It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve given you my name. Can’t say we’re strangers, can we?” You gestured to your hip, displaying the lack of any apparent weapons. “Do I look threatening? Truly?”
Khalee looked away, almost bashful.
“Now, about that drink…”
* * *
The beer was a froth of corn and malt and yeast and water. You savored the drink, your throat working as you finished it without pausing for breath; beads of foam slicking down your gullet.
You set the wooden cup down on the small round table. Khalee was watching you from across the tavern. You inspected the walls and found barnacles clustered onto them, grouped in sizes like white turtle shells, patching the wooden frame like quiltwork.
You looked to Khalee, a question etched onto your face. But before you could noise it, Khalee spoke.
“Two years ago, when the death of King Lamorak Maugrim was looming and the Interregnum War was on the horizon, a scout belonging to the House of Maugrim came here and angered the Restless Dead through some vile sorceries. The King’s Ser drowned a man on the docks in a drunken scuffle, elsewise, and then tried to flee on a trading galley. The Restless Dead sank it off the coast before they returned to their Never.
You wiped your mouth with the back of your hand. You did not understand what she spoke of. “The Restless Dead?”
“Gray Spirits. Giants once belonged to the Never, before folk took them out and bred them. I hear there’s a gray sludge that some use that comes from a river in the Never. Look out for gray folk. They’ll mean you ill.”
“And what of this?” You gestured to the ship’s hulls that now walled you two in. “Is this the same ship?”
“One year later a new traveler came, wearing a cloak with a single eye sewn onto the back. She claimed to be a patron of the Restless Dead. She had gray eyes.”
“What happened? Did they use some magic?”
“She opened her third eye. The one on the cloak.”
“Did she now?”
“She did,” Khalee grinned. “She summoned the Restless Dead to scavenge the sea-floor for sunken vessels, and they built Plankytown as it is known today. I remember the sight of that murderer’s corpse being dragged into the Never when they came for him that second time.” Khalee sat herself across from you. She’d brought a pitcher of beer with her and refilled your cup. “The woman–the one one with the third eye on her cloak. She didn’t stay long…will you?”
“I’ve no eye on my cloak.”
“No…” she cupped her hand along your cheek. “But you’ve got some Never inside you. You should see your reflection. You look like you shouldn’t be alive. Someone must be looking out for you. If it’s not the Restless Dead that keep you alive, then who?”
You smiled gently. “No,” you said. “I have no part in the games of these Restless Dead. I’m sorry.”
“Do not be sorry. My offer still stands if you’d like to stay. I could use some help with the elderly,” Khalee muttered.
“I’m not adventurer looking for trouble. I’m a refugee, chased by it. I cannot abide friends or shelter. Not anymore.” You would not let this Khalee have her throat torn open and her corpse kicked.
Khalee turned the cup in her hands, and then spat into it, a long, thin line of saliva falling into the froth with a plop. She handed the cup to you. “I’ll be your friend,” she said.
“You have an ill look about you. You’ve seen something, haven’t you, girl? I would amend that. I would like to help.”
You nodded your assent and spat into the drink. You swallowed a mouthful and handed it back to Khalee, and she drank a gulp herself.
“We are kin now, Carth. Go as you will, and know you will have one friend with you, always. Send my regards to the Restless Dead, should you ever meet them.”
* * *
You left Plankytown that night. The wind chafed your flesh as your returned to the wild. Even a bastard like you who could stumble her way across the land will sometimes take a true tumble as you did then.
You did not—perhaps could not—get up, at first. Instead you wept. You wept for a long while, tears streaming, and the wind drying them on your cheeks.