The ship crested the swell. Cadoc’s guts lurched as the prow dipped. His knuckles went white as he gripped the railing, fingernails digging into the sodden timber. He gasped down cold air, gagging at the stink of pitch and rotting wood as the prow cut into the swirling, black water. Cadoc flinched at the cold splash of sea spray. He licked his lips, tasting salt, and fought to keep the contents of his stomach down.
Someone retched, the gut-churning sound carried over the howling wind and creaking timbers. Cadoc glanced along the railing, his eyes squinting against the rain and spray as he sought out the unfortunate soul. A figure leaned over the side, kneeling lest he was pitched overboard in the swells. He was sure it was one of his men, not one of the sailors, but he couldn’t make out who.
Strange how even the toughest bastard could become a lumbering wretch when out of his element. Not that he blamed him or the others of his company stricken by seasickness. They were born in the mountains, and most had never seen the sea, much less crossed it, before taking service with Cadoc. The crossing would have tested even the hardest of men — and his lads had fought with tooth and nail in another man’s war for close to a year.
A year, he mused. What a fucking waste of time and men.
The Oskoi had been theirs for the taking, but the Venyk had cocked up every siege and every pitched battle. All because their shit-eating priests held more sway in military matters than their generals. It was a miracle any of them escaped.
Cadoc’s jaw tightened as he squinted into the darkness of the horizon. A memory nagged at the corner of his mind, one he’d tried to forget. His brother had warned him against this folly, running off to fight with the Venyk in their religious war. Yet Cadoc was blinded by his pursuit of glory and riches. He saw that now, but the price of wisdom had been paid for with the blood of other men.
Yet, his brother wasn’t entirely justified in his hatred of the Venyk. They weren’t all useless, self-serving zealots. Cadoc had enlisted under the command of Duke Artur Kasparu. He was a good man and a capable leader, as devoted to his men as Cadoc was to his own. Cadoc doubted he would have escaped from Antios were it not for Kasparu’s bravery. The city was the last toehold the Venyk Kingdom held in the Oskoi Confederacy. Cadoc, his men, and two thousand Venyk soldiers had fallen back behind its walls after the Oskoi counteroffensive had routed half the invading Venyk army. A desperate three-month siege followed and then, just like that, the city fell. Cadoc still didn’t really know what happened — not that it mattered. Cadoc and his men had made their escape, in no small part thanks to the young duke. Together they had fought their way to the docks and commandeered a ship, but in the confusion that followed Kasparu had vanished — no doubt doing something heroic in the end.
Heroic and stupid, Cadoc snorted, this goddamned holy war had created a mountain of dead. Heroes, patriots, fools, zealots, lovers, opportunists, soldiers of fortune and innocents, he’d seen them all fall by the thousands. Rotting meat for crows and dogs. Cadoc cleared his throat and spat into the swirling water. “Fuck all gods and priests!”
Lightning flashed, tearing the sky apart, the forked tongue of some god angered by Cadoc’s contempt. The brief light revealed a turbulent sea, pelted by sheets of rain, before winking into darkness. Thunder rumbled, the sound hollow and distant.
A gruff voice cursed aloud as unsteady feet shuffled over the treacherous deck. Cadoc turned, blinking away the residual glare of the lightning strike. His sergeant, Fersin, loomed out of the driving rain. The burly man clung from one rope to another, his feet uneasy in the rolling swells. His face was pale and drawn, and Cadoc guessed he’d been the one puking over the side only moments before.
“The men are fed?” asked Cadoc.
Fersin scowled. “Don’t talk to me about food, man. Not one in five kept anything down. Stinks to high heaven down there. Turns a man’s guts.”
Cadoc gave a crooked smile and swept his gaze slowly out to sea. “Why do you think I came up here?”
The sergeant hunkered down beside Cadoc, sheltering in the lee of the gunwale. “We lost Rhisiart.”
Cadoc swore, his smile giving way to a scowl as he fell silent for several moments. The ship dipped into a trough. His stomach lurched, and he swallowed hard, grimacing as his throat burned with bile. He reached into his cloak, retrieved his flask and took a swig. The brandy burned his raw throat but warmed his belly. He offered Fersin the flask, who took it with a grateful nod.
Cadoc watched Fersin drink before looking back out to sea. “We'll reach landfall come morning. Let us attend to him then.” He cleared his throat and spat a ball of phlegm overboard. “We’ll build a proper pyre for him from the timbers of this fucking tub.”
Fersin nodded, handing back the flask. “Captain…”
Cadoc turned, detecting his sergeant’s note of hesitancy.
“Some of the men want it done tonight.”
“We can’t cremate him onboard. What difference does one night make?”
Fersin raised a stubby finger, pointing to the heavens. “It's a new moon…it's not right, leaving a man…”
Fersin’s words trailed off. Cadoc read the mix of unease and embarrassment. Not known for his piety, Cadoc didn’t tolerate superstition in his men — particularly when it flew in the face of practicality. He brooded on Fersin’s words, then snapped his head around suddenly, frowning at the sergeant. “What did you say?”
Fersin flinched. “They're gods-fearing men, Captain. A man's soul shouldn't wander during a new moon. You know that.”
“New moon,” Cadoc echoed softly, too quiet for the sergeant to hear. He looked upwards. The sky swirled like a cauldron simmering as it came off the boil. The worst of the storm was passing, its fury abating as the wind blew it westwards towards Skelgard — their destination. Cadoc reached up, his cold fingers gripping a sodden length of rigging. He heaved himself to his feet. “You're certain?”
Fersin gave a puzzled look. “About what?”
“The new moon. I lost track of the days myself.”
Fersin stood up, keeping one hand on the railing as he shrugged. “Aye, certain as I can be. Yestin’s kept count. You know what he’s like with his numbers and portends.”
A sudden fear gnawed at Cadoc as he realised he had lost count of the months, not merely the days. How long had it been? Months? A year? By the gods, it was winter again. In the warm southern lands, there had been little to mark the passing seasons.
I must take account, thought Cadoc as his hand flew to his side. His fingers clawed at empty air where his sword should have been. He clenched his fist, his back stiff. Then he remembered, he had wrapped the blade in oiled cloth and stowed it below decks less than a day into the crossing.
“Captain, you all right?”
Cadoc pried open his fist and looked down at his empty hand. He turned and squinted at Fersin, slowly nodding. “I’m fine. What have you done with Rhisiart?”
Fersin motioned downwards indicating the hold. Cadoc nodded and patted Fersin on the shoulder. “Go on. I’ll follow you down.”
The sergeant staggered off into the rain and spray. Cadoc stared after him wondering absently how he could have lost track of time so thoroughly. His fate was bound by time, yet war had provided ample reasons to forget. He’d known the thrill of early victory and nights spent in the company of exotic women, their favours paid for with looted coin. The warm sun of Oskana was half a world away from the frozen mountain where he had signed the Bwgal’s contract with his own blood.
How could I forget?
The truth, Cadoc knew, was simple — he didn’t want to remember. Early on he’d almost managed to convince himself it was a bad dream. Then when the Oskoi regrouped and fought back, he’d been too busy staying alive to think. Yet, all that lay behind him now and with the war at his back, and his homeland ahead, he was free to contemplate the past — whether he wanted to or not.
A gust of freezing wind swept over the ship’s deck. Cadoc blinked against the stinging cold, his vision blurring. He cast one final look at the tumultuous sea, then he turned and followed Fersin into the belly of the ship.
Cadoc swore as he hit his head on a beam of the low ceiling. The ship’s hold was dank and poorly lit. His nostrils flared at the reek of vomit, both stale and fresh, that permeated the air. The ship’s timbers creaked and groaned, far louder than above. Light and shadows danced in nauseating flashes as two lanterns swung from the ceiling.
His men lay about like pigs packed in a filthy sty as the ship rode out the last of the storm’s anger. They were a miserable, exhausted and subdued bunch, half of them carrying wounds inflicted during the escape from Antios. A few sat together in quiet conversation, playing cards with little enthusiasm. Those with strong stomachs and healthy appetites ate the remains of the stew from wooden bowls while those less fortunate groaned as they puked into overflowing buckets — or into the bowls in which their dinner had been served. Only the ship’s crew took the storm in their strides with several catching what sleep they could in hammocks suspended from the ceiling, snoring peacefully as they swayed liked babes in a cradle.
A few of the men looked up at his approach. He cocked a half-smile, nodding as he swept his gaze across the faces of his men. He stepped into their midst, following his sergeant, but stopped and patted one of the younger men on the shoulder. The youth looked dejected, exhausted and pale, even in the orange glow of the lanterns. “You all right, lad?”
The youth looked up with wearied eyes, dark bags betraying fatigue and desolation that went far beyond worry. The lad wasn’t much older than twenty, a mere boy when they left, fleet of foot and full of grand hopes of victory and riches. There was no mistaking the man that stared at him now. “I’ll be better once we’re home, Captain.”
Cadoc gave an understanding nod. “We’ll make landfall tomorrow,” he promised. “I’ll see us home before the next moon.”
The lad’s eyes were bright with hope, yet his shoulders sagged with weariness. “They’ll welcome us, won’t they, Captain? I mean, we’re heroes, right?”
Cadoc forced his lips into a smile. “Aye, they’ll sing songs about us.”
There was a snort of laughter, and Rhys shouted up from against a bulkhead, “And Morwid’s sisters will line up to ride your cock.”
Morwid raised his head and leered, his missing teeth like gaps in a row of gravestones. “Aye, line up they will, right behind your mother. Lad, old Rhys’ mam made me a man, six times in one night.”
A ripple of tired laughter rumbled around the hold. Cadoc grinned in genuine amusement — and relief — silently thankful that Morwid and Rhys’ constant banter had lightened the mood. He patted the lad’s shoulder again and turned quickly, lest his false bravado crack. In truth, he had no idea what awaited them, but he knew his estranged brother wouldn’t be laying on a festival.
Fersin beckoned him, and Cadoc hastened as much as the crowded confines permitted. A casual sweep of the hold failed to identify where Rhisiart lay. His eyes met Fersin’s, and he lowered his voice. “Where is Rhisiart?
Fersin pointed back toward the ship’s aft. “This way.”
Cadoc followed, mindful of where he trod in the tangle of men, his hand pressed against the ceiling for balance. The sergeant led him to the aft hold where the ship’s victuals were stowed in crates and barrels. Rhisiart lay between two barrels, a means to keep his body from rolling. He was covered with a blanket, woven in an Oskan pattern. The covering did little to hide the smell of gangrene.
“Given the men’s feelings, I stashed him here. Was I right?”
Cadoc nodded. “You did well.” He paused and lowered his voice. “They seem quiet for now, least those with sea legs.”
Fersin’s brow knotted. “They weren’t half an hour ago.”
Cadoc nodded. He understood how quickly arguments could flare when men were on edge. “You spoke to them?”
“Aye, talk fast I did, and I shook my fist at Rhys for stirring the pot, the little bastard. He got a few of them riled up enough to shed blood.”
Cadoc clenched his jaw, fighting back his irritation. While he didn’t doubt Fersin, less than half a dozen of his men were in any shape to start trouble; nevertheless, his sergeant’s words irked him. “You should have come for me sooner.”
Fersin folded his arms across his chest, scowling. “I did. I had to puke over the side.”
Cadoc sighed. “Sorry, old friend. What did you tell them?”
The tension eased from Fersin’s muscular shoulders. “I said, you’d know what to do to, nothing more.”
Cadoc almost snorted. It had been a long time since he’d felt in control of his destiny, let alone anyone else’s. The trick though, he’d learnt, was to never hesitate, least that way you looked like you knew what you were doing.
He turned from Fersin, his gaze drifting down at Rhisiart. He squatted beside the man’s covered body and reached out to uncover his face. Yet, hesitation stayed his hand. This never got easier. No matter how many brothers at arms he farewelled, looking upon their dead eyes filled him with remorse. Here was a man, like many before, he’d convinced to leave home and hearth for a price that seemed pitiful next to the life of a man. A small part of him welcomed the pain, even relished it, for it meant he still possessed enough humanity to care.
Gods man, just do it.
His fingers grasped the coarse cloth, and he pulled back the blanket from the dead man's face. Rhisiart’s lifeless eyes stared back through half-closed slits. His face was pallid and waxen, his expression while not quite serene, suggested he’d found peace in death.
“You didn’t have coins to pay the Keeper?” asked Cadoc in mild reproach.
Fersin was silent for a long moment before answering. “No, not that…I…”
The man’s words caught in his throat. His shadow swayed as he shifted his weight from one leg to another, avoiding Cadoc’s gaze as the captain looked up. The sudden nervous energy reminded Cadoc of a woman, too uptight to lift her skirts when she needed to piss. He understood his sergeant’s discomfort, and while it irritated him, there was no point rebuking the man. Rhisiart’s death had not come cleanly, and thus it stained his spirit. Touching him invited ill fortune — or worse. Could he really blame his men for wanting to see Rhisiart committed to the next world?
“My burden,” said Cadoc, half in a whisper.
Cadoc waved the question away, biting his tongue lest his irritation get the better of him. He wondered at the source and intensity of his feelings, blaming superstition. It wasn’t that he lacked faith, but rather his sense of anger and guilt having lost a man under his command made the notion seem trivial. He would miss Rhisiart. The man had been a good soldier — loyal, dependable and level-headed even under the toughest of circumstances. Smart and principled too, Rhisiart had been the first in Cadoc’s company to learn the Oskan speech, and he dealt fairly with the enemy, never indulging in some of the more vulgar obscenities of war.
“My burden,” Cadoc repeated as he dug into the pouch at his belt, fished out two mismatched silver coins, and pressed them onto Rhisiart’s lifeless eyes. He covered the body once more and rose to his feet, facing his sergeant. The man wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Here he died,” said Cadoc after an uncomfortable moment. “Let the gods of the deep guide him to his ancestors’ hall.”
The sergeant met his eyes, at last, a flicker of alarm on his face. “You mean to bury him at sea?”
“What choice do we have?”
The sergeant’s brow furrowed. “That is not our way.”
“It will have to be!” Cadoc snapped, his face flushing in anger.
Fersin stepped back, eyes widening in fear.
Cadoc sighed, regretting the outburst. He made an effort to soften his expression and tone as he said, “We’ve neither priest nor the means to commit his soul by flame.”
Fersin opened his mouth, and Cadoc crossed his arms, sensing the looming argument. None came, and after a moment, the sergeant’s shoulders slumped, and he sighed, his head nodding in agreement. “Now?”
Cadoc shook his head. “No. We’ll wait another hour. I’ll not toss a man to a violent sea.”
Fersin glanced down at the body. “Another soul lost. I trust it’s the last.”
“The gods thirst,” Cadoc said, and the hairs on his neck rose.
Fersin didn’t respond. Cadoc looked up and caught the sergeant eying him speculatively. An awkward moment passed before Cadoc turned away as though to look upon Rhisiart. He clenched his fists hard against his chest willing them to stop trembling. He’d almost said it. Almost revealed his secret.
The gods thirst.
The memory of that sibilant voice made his balls shrink.
Fersin wasn’t stupid, he’d known something was different when Cadoc climbed down from that frozen mountain.
“Get some volunteers,” said Cadoc, his voice thick. “We’ll send him off with what little honour we can muster.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Fersin, and the man turned on his heel and departed the hold.
Cadoc watched him go, briefly wondering at the life awaiting them all when they returned home. How would they adjust to peace? Was it enough to plough fields and raise children? Perhaps those with wives and families would fare the best — at least that was his hope. Not that he had either. Such a life had been his brother’s lot, not his own.
Cadoc felt a momentary flash of anger. A year of his life was gone, wasted in bloody pursuit of fame and fortune, and the chance to step beyond the shadow of his grandfather’s legend. He glanced down at Rhisiart. Had the men he’d lost been part of the price he owed?
The price demanded by a hungry god.
Cadoc shuddered, his skin prickling with a cold sweat. The bwgal’s voice rustled through his memory like the wind through a field of dry grass.
One hundred souls.