1. The Galleys of Mhurga
Jostled from sleep by the bang of a fist against the beechwood oar that pillowed his head, Haldeth started upright, muscles tensed reflexively. But the command he expected never came; no guttural shout followed to transform the night into a misery of hardship, rowing against endless ranks of sea swells. By the dim fall of moonlight through the aft oar ports, Haldeth surveyed the lower deck of the galley Nallga. Every slave remained hunched and still over his loom, but one. The blow which roused him had not arisen from his Mhurgai masters, but from his own benchmate, in a useless fit of rage.
Annoyed himself, Haldeth forgot tact. “Mind your temper!” he whispered urgently.
The man at his side looked up. Confronted by gray eyes and a face which held no trace of laughter or compassion, Haldeth felt his breath catch in his throat. Gooseflesh chilled his skin. Although the air was tropical and mild, he shivered and glanced aside, reminded of the first night his benchmate had been dragged on board. As a battered, soot‑streaked captive not yet past his seventeenth summer, that savage look had been with him then, graven upon young features by the atrocities of the Mhurgai who routinely pillaged and burned towns on the shores of Illantyr. But who he was, and what family he had owned before he was chained for the oar, Haldeth never knew. The boy had grown to manhood in stony silence.
The Mhurgai called him Darjir, sullen one, for the flat, unflinching glare he returned when anyone addressed him. No man heard him speak, even through three years of abuse on Nallga’s lower deck. Haldeth believed him insane.
The cruelty of the Mhurgai could drive the strongest mind to madness, Haldeth well knew. Soured by bitter memories, he shifted a foot cramped by the bite of the galley’s floorboards. Even now, he suffered nightmares of his wife and two daughters; they had been butchered before his eyes the day his own freedom was lost. Daily, he cursed the smith’s constitution which bound him to life and health, for other than hair turned prematurely white, seven years as a galley slave had changed him little. Haldeth envied Darjir’s witlessness. Better to feel nothing than to endure the ache of grief and hatred, helplessly chained.
Sleep alone afforded respite. Determined to take full advantage of the hours Nallga would remain at anchor, Haldeth leaned once more across the oar and settled his head on crossed wrists. Darjir’s eyes followed him restlessly, luminous as coins in the moonlight.
“Neth Everlasting!” Haldeth lifted a resentful fist to emphasize his meaning, since words were wasted effort on a man never heard to utter an intelligent sound. “Bother somebody else, will you? I’ve had enough.”
Darjir flexed callused fingers against the oar. Then he lifted his head and spoke with sudden, startling clarity. “I’m going to get off this hulk.” His tone cut like the wind’s edge in winter.
Haldeth gasped. Shocked, he took a moment to react. No man escaped the bench of a Mhurgai galley alive. Attempts earned agonizing punishment, and since by custom the fate of the offender would be shared by the slaves surrounding him, a man dared not trust his fellows. Through three centuries of marauding, the Mhurgai held no record of slave mutiny; Nallga made an unlikely choice for exception. Caught by an involuntary shudder, Haldeth shook his head. “Be still!”
Darjir moved his ankle. A dissonant rattle of chain destroyed the night silence. “I’ve had enough.”
“Quiet, fool!” Haldeth felt fear, cold as the touch of bare steel against his neck. “The forward oarsman will kick in your ribs if he wakes and hears you.”
“I was named Korendir. And I’m getting off.” The words left no chink for argument.
Haldeth abandoned the attempt. Nervously, he surveyed the forms of the surrounding slaves for any trace of movement. But the lower deck remained peacefully undisturbed, quiet but for the lap of water against the hull. Prompted by reckless impulse, Haldeth met Korendir’s gaze.
“I’m with you.” The steadiness of his voice amazed him. “I’d prefer the knife found me guilty.”
Korendir’s bearded features split into a slow, ill-practiced smile which left the flint in his eyes unsoftened. “I thought you might.”
Haldeth bent once more over his oar, but sleep would not come. Years of suffering had inured him to his fate; he knew in his heart that Korendir’s proposition was nothing but desperate folly. Sweat sprang along his naked back. No mercy would be shown should their plot be discovered; and even if they managed to escape their chains, the Mhurgai collared their slaves with iron. The sea made an infallible warden. Reminded by the slap of waves against the hull, Haldeth hoped the water would claim his life. The knives of a Mhurga seaman never killed. They crippled.
“Bhakka! Bhakka!” Nallga’s mate shouted the call to rise from the companionway ladder.
Haldeth roused from an unpleasant dream and knuckled gummed eyelids. Dawn purpled the calm of the harbor beyond the oarport; in the half-light of the lower deck, the unkempt compliment of Nallga’s slaves stirred and stretched. The mate strode aft, thick hands striking the back of any man slow to lift his head. Swarthy, round-shouldered, and short, the officer wore no shirt. Scarlet pantaloons were bound at his waist with gemstudded, woven gold; a whip and a cutlass hung in shoulder scabbards from crossbelts on his chest, companioned by a brace of throwing knives and a chased dagger.
Haldeth shifted uneasily. Mhurgai sported weapons like women wore jewelry, even to the four-inch skewers which decorated their earlobes. Conscious of damp palms and a hollow stomach, the ex-smith cursed his impetuous pact with Korendir the night before. Surely as steel would rust, the plan could only lead to grief.
The mate strutted like a fighting cock down the gangway and glowered over the double rows of captives. “Out oars!”
Haldeth moved at his order, one with a hundred men who unshipped fifty oars counterweighted with lead and held them poised over the sea. A deep rumble sounded overhead, and shadow striped the oarports as the upperdeck slaves followed suit.
With a drumbeat to set the speed the shafts dipped, shearing Nallga ahead against the tide. Chain rattled in the hawse as the deck crew raised anchor, but whether the galley left port for plunder or commerce, Haldeth could not guess. He bent his back to the oar, flawlessly coordinated with the man at his side. Korendir’s face remained as expressionless as ever beneath his tangled bronze hair. Except for the memory of his given name, the plot and the promise exchanged in the night might have been hallucination caused by too many years of confinement.
By noon, the air below decks became humid and close. Sweat traced the bodies of the rowers, and the waterboy made rounds with bucket, mug, and a sack of dry biscuit. Haldeth chewed his portion, resentfully watching the mate dine on salt pork, beer, fresh bread, and grapes, provisioned at Nallga’s last port. Though the man’s eyelids drooped, his ear remained tuned to the oar stroke; not even the lethargy of a full stomach would lighten his whiphand if he caught a lagging slave.
Korendir paid him little mind. He pulled his end of the oar one-handed and flicked weevils from his biscuit with a cracked thumbnail. Though bugs invariably infested the entire lump of hardtack, he never overlooked one. Haldeth endured the extra weight of the loom without complaint. Bored to the edge of contempt by Korendir’s fussy habit, he nearly missed the discrepancy even as it happened: his benchmate passed up an obvious cluster of insects and raised the biscuit to his mouth.
Korendir tasted the mistake the moment he bit down. He choked, and with a swift, thoughtless gesture, thrust his face through the oarport to spit over the gunwale.
Haldeth tightened his grip on the loom. Should a wave dislodge the oar from its rowlock, Korendir risked his neck and head to a hundred and twenty pounds of leaded beech shoved by water with an eight-yard mechanical advantage. Haldeth cursed and leaned anxiously into the next stroke. More than once he had seen slaves killed by such carelessness.
Korendir ignored the danger. He emptied his mouth with unhurried calm, then executed a pitched imitation of the captain’s gruff voice. “Alhar!” Deflected by water, the shout seemed to issue from abovedecks. “Get topside, thou son of a lice-ridden camel tender!”
The mate flinched. His sallow features suffused with rage, and weapons, mustache, and tasseled pigtail quivered as he sprang to his feet and stamped the length of the gangway. Haldeth felt his heart pound within his breast. But the mate passed without glancing aside, even as Korendir withdrew from the oarport, stupidly intent on his biscuit.
“Great Neth,” murmured Haldeth. Perspiration threaded his temples. The Mhurgai language was not a tongue readily mastered by foreigners; Korendir’s ruse indicated painstaking forethought. Yet however well planned his intentions, Haldeth perceived no advantage to be gained through a trick upon the mate. The man was notoriously bad tempered; his unpleasant mood would shortly be vented upon the hapless backs of the slaves.
Korendir finished his meal. He licked his fingers and returned his hand to the oar, apparently unruffled by the raised voices abovedecks. Between strokes, Haldeth caught fragments of the mate’s protest, clipped short by a bitten phrase of denial; the captain had summoned no one on deck, far less attached insult to such an order. He dismissed the mate amid startled laughter from the crew. Since gossip thrived on shipboard as nowhere else, the unfortunate officer immediately became the butt of spirited chaffing. Haldeth knew even the waterboy would smile at the mate’s idiocy before the incident was forgotten.
Shortly, the red-faced and furious mate stamped down the companionway. Braced for trouble, Haldeth glanced at his benchmate. Korendir never flicked a muscle. His mouth described as grim a line as ever in the past, even when the mate ordered double speed from the rowers with vengeful disregard for the heat.
The drumbeat quickened. Nallga’s oars slashed into the water. Waves creamed into spray beneath her dragon figurehead as the full complement of her two hundred slaves bent to increase stroke. Faster paces were normally maintained only to keep the slaves in battle trim; today, the drill extended unreasonably long. Soon the most seasoned palms split, blistered and raw, each stroke become a separate labor of endurance. Blood pounded in Haldeth’s ears, cut periodically by the crack of a lash as the mate laid his whip across some unfortunate laggard’s back. With lungs aching and eyes stung blind with sweat, he reflected that Korendir’s fellow captives would pound the life from his body should they discover him responsible for the mate’s ugly mood. Yet the man himself bore the agonies of exertion with impassive lack of regret.
The mate’s fury did not abate until the waterboy arrived with the evening’s rations. Sensible enough to recall that unfed slaves made slow passage, the officer restored his whip to his belt and at last slackened the pace. Beaten with exhaustion, Haldeth dropped his head on crossed wrists. Since the evening meal was more lavish than that served at midday, the slaves ate in shifts, permitted use of both hands. But like Haldeth, most of the men were far too winded to eat. Still irritable, the mate paced the gangway, urging them to haste with his whipstock until the night officer reported for duty. Soon after he called the order for rest, heavy sleep claimed the entire lower deck.
Nallga held course under reduced speed, driven by her upper oars. Midnight would bring a reversal, the lower oarsmen resuming work while the slaves above slept until dawn. The wind blew steadily off the starboard quarter, and the galley’s single, square sail curved against a zenith bright with tropical constellations. Mhurga’s fleet plied south in winter, to avoid the cold, storm-ridden waters of their native latitude. In expectation of mild seas and fair sky, the captain retired below, which left the quartermaster the only officer awake on deck. Phosphorescence plumed like smoke beneath the galley’s keep. The lisp of her wake astern described a rare interval of peace between the frailty of wood and sinew, and the ruthless demands of the ocean.
“Bhakka! Out oars! Reverse stroke!” The shout disrupted the night like a warcry, its bitten, authoritative tones unmistakably the mate’s.
The lower deck oars ran out with a rumble. Dry blades lapped into water, muscled by a hundred rudely wakened slaves. Entrenched in the long-established rhythm of forward stroke, the exhausted upperdeck rowers adapted sluggishly to the change. Chaos resulted.
Slammed by the conflicting thrust of her oars, Nallga slewed. Crewmen crashed like puppets against bulkheat and rail. The sail backwinded with a bang which tore through boltrope and sheet. Canvas thundered untamed aloft while the oars crossed and snarled, slapped aside by the swell. Leaded beech punched the ribcages of some rowers with bone-snapping force, and a barrage of agonized screams arose from the benches.
“Oars in! Quartermaster, hard aport!”
Nallga’s captain pounded up the companionway, still naked from his berth. His hand clutched a bleeding shoulder, and his face was purpled with outrage above his broad chest.
“Send the mate on deck!” he bellowed to the nearest seaman. While the galley rounded to windward, he turned on the quartermaster and shouted over the crack of wind-whipped canvas. “What in Zhaird’s blackest pit provoked that nullard’s act of stupidity?”
The quartermaster had no answer. Nallga rocked gently, her bow pointed to windward. A stricken groan from the benches recalled the captain to his responsibilities. He issued rapid orders. Hands ran aloft to subdue the mainsail and assess damage. Escorted by the heavily armed bulk of the ship’s marshal, the healer made rounds of the slave benches to tend the injured. His task took the better part of the night.
The mate spent an unpleasant interval in the captain’s cabin. He insisted he had been asleep in his hammock at the time the shout disrupted Nallga’s course, but repeated denials only made him look silly.
“Thou hast made a fool of thyself.” The captain gestured crossly. “No crew respects an officer whose behavior lacks logic. Perhaps rest will restore thy reason. Zhaird’s hells, it had better. This vessel cannot afford another of thy mistakes.”
Nallga resumed headway at daybreak. Crewmen labored over her sail with rigging knives and needles, and the oar banks stood gapped where injuries laid up several rowers. Seven looms had snapped off at the rowlock; replacements were fitted from a store of spares, and the broken ends stacked behind the lower deck companionway, their lead-spliced handles saved for salvage. Slowly the galley regained her trim, while fore and aft her crewmen whispered that the mate had lost his honor. Perhaps, they said, he had been cursed with madness, and their thoughts strayed often from their work.
Haldeth bent to the rhythm of the oar and furtively studied the emotionless man by his side. Last night’s call for reverse stroke had roused him from deep sleep. With reflexes ingrained through years of obedience, he had run the loom half out before his benchmate stopped it with his fists.
“Wait.” Korendir fumbled his end of the oar and seemingly by chance the blade splashed short of its full sweep. In the following second, the reverse stroke of the lower deck tangled with the entrenched beat of the upper, with disastrous results. The mate had issued no order, Haldeth perceived at once. The voice and words had been delivered with diabolical skill by the one man who would be least suspected: the Darjir named by the Mhurgai never spoke, far less rendered pitched imitations of his masters. Now, Haldeth watched the same oar rise, dripping from the sea. He concluded his thought grimly. If a man sought to undermine the mate’s authority, no method could be better. Except Korendir’s wayward performance had left two slaves dead from punctured lungs; six others gained multiple broken ribs, and their moans of pain could be heard as the day wore on.
“The dead no longer suffer,” Korendir whispered in reply to Haldeth’s silence. “And shattered bones are a small price to pay for freedom.”
His words held a ringing arrogance which allowed no grace for reply. Haldeth did not try. Either Korendir was a madman with a taste for cruelty, or he knew explicitly what he was doing; his implied intent was to release every slave on Nallga’s benches. Haldeth splashed the oar into the swell with bitter anger. More likely his benchmate would earn them all the cold taste of the knife.
Nallga entered the tiny harbor of Kahille Island late that afternoon. Mhurgai ships often anchored there, for springs flowed like silver down the islet’s mountain slopes. Most southern archipelagoes relied on rain cisterns for fresh water; controlled by a water-broker, the price came dear. But Kahillans were too unsophisticated to levy a fee, and free water made their harbor a popular port.
Nallga moored inside the barrier reef, and instantly became the target of a flotilla of native ventors in dugouts. Reduced swell offset their nuisance; casks made awkward handling, and the captain wished the loading accomplished as smoothly as possible. The Kahillans did not concern him. A culture without knowledge of metal could traffic no weapons with the slaves, and any guard spared for security left one less man for work.
On the lower deck, Haldeth lounged at ease, grateful for the respite. An unfamiliar deckhand stood watch. Seated on the gangway enjoying a basket of fruit, the man was tolerant of contact between the slaves and the Kahillan merchants. One bold wretch had managed to wheedle himself a bunch of grapes, but the officer was too busy eating to intervene.
Korendir leaned across the shaft of his oar with his head cradled on folded arms. To an inboard eye, he appeared asleep. Haldeth knew he was not. A Kahillan dugout drifted close to the galley’s side, all but moored beneath his oarport. The occupants sat with upturned faces watching a humorous mime as Korendir pretended to hunt lice in his beard. By periodic stretching, Haldeth caught the gist of the performance. The sham puzzled him until he noticed the Kahillan men were clean-shaven. For a people without knives or steel, the fact was a telling oddity.
Evidently Korendir intended to exploit the implications if he could. A final, furious round of scratching raised applause from his audience. The men in the dugout pushed off. Chattering and laughing as if they shared a fine joke, they unshipped paddles and executed a graceful stroke. As the canoe slipped out of sight beneath Nallga’s counter, Korendir shut his eyes and drowsed in earnest. Presently, Haldeth did likewise.
“Baja!” cried a smiling native in accented imitation of the Mhurgai call to rise.
Haldeth opened his eyes in time to see Korendir lift his head and peer cautiously through the oarport. Balanced precariously on tiptoe in the stern of his dugout, a Kahillan man stood with his paddle extended above his head. Lashed to the end was a small wooden box. Korendir squeezed both shoulders through the oarport to reach it. Untying the knots on the waving blade took him an imprudent amount of time.
Haldeth cast a nervous glance at the watch and observed that the sight of a slave straining through an open oarport did not pass unnoticed. The officer spat grape skins onto the deck and shouted a guttural warning.
Korendir ignored him. With an irritable frown, the deckhand rose and unslung his whip.
Haldeth kicked his benchmate’s ankle, imploring prudence. But with the final knot nearly undone, Korendir refused to relinquish his prize. The string fell loose, just as the deckhand strode the length of the gangway and uncoiled his lash. Korendir started to unwedge his shoulders from the oarport, but the deckhand moved first. Seven supple feet of braid struck, splitting through muscled flesh.
Korendir recoiled and skinned his collarbone on the oarport. Silent and sullen, he straightened. Gripping his oar with both hands, he lifted gray eyes and glared at the deckhand. The insolence earned him the whip-butt across the face in a blow that left him reeling.
“Mind thy manners,” snapped the officer. But the slave’s cold gaze left him strangely unsettled. He blotted sweat from his lip and sauntered back to his seat.
The instant the officer’s back was turned, Haldeth caught his friend’s shoulder and whispered, “Was that necessary?”
Korendir shifted his hand, surreptitiously exposing the corner of a small wooden box. Kahillan shaving tools were bound to be inside, and if his brief act of defiance had distracted the deckhand from noticing, Korendir considered the price worthwhile. One bruised eyelid dipped into a wink as he tucked his prize under his loincloth. Curled once more over his oarshaft, he ignored the flies which lit upon his opened back with impressive single-mindedness, and presently fell asleep.
In the dark, still hours after midnight, Korendir examined his contraband. Haldeth craned his neck to see over his companion’s shoulder as the box fell open. The contents were immediately disappointing. By the wan light through the oarport, Haldeth discovered that Kahillans removed their beards with slivers of sharpened shell, each imbedded in a layer of pitch to preserve their fragile edges. A slot to one side contained a well-used whetstone.
“Neth,” said Haldeth. Disgust thinned his habitual caution. “Those things are worthless.”
Korendir lifted his head. “They’re precisely what I expected,” he said mildly.
But Haldeth remained too irritable to demand any explanation. Angered that he had permitted himself any hope at all, he hunched at the far end of the oar shaft and sleeplessly waited for dawn.
The dishonored mate resumed duty the following day. His jaw was clenched, and his strut more pronounced as he relieved the officer on the gangway. Interpreting the signs as fishermen read weather, Haldeth knew the man’s temper would be short. No slave needed Korendir’s crusted back to remind him how readily the Mhurgai whip might fall. All orders on the lower deck were obeyed as though the rowers sat balanced on eggshells.
Nallga cleared the barrier reef just after sunrise. Driven by both banks of oars, she thrust through the swells under a stiff breeze, her forward slaves drenched in spray.
Accustomed to the shudder of planking against heavy waves, Haldeth rowed, preoccupied by thought. Korendir’s exchange with the Kahillan natives had been outright recklessness. Certain the mate would discover the contraband, Haldeth worried. Sharpened shells were no match for Mhurgai steel. Korendir was crazy to believe in them.
Scarcely an hour beyond the barrier reef, Haldeth noticed cold water wetting his feet. He glanced downward, immediately suspicious of a leak. Nallga was clinker-built, her strakes lashed through eyes on the ribs with tarred cord; one of the lines had given way, and seawater welled between the floorboards with each roll of the hull.
Haldeth swore. Korendir had surely been at work with his shells; the line showed no trace of chafing previously. And with the mate’s competency questioned by the entire crew, now was the worst time to discover hull failure. Yet Haldeth had no choice. Refusal to report a leak carried worse penalty than the whip. Reluctantly, he raised his voice.
“Zhaird’s hells,” snapped the mate. “How did that happen?” Surly and impatient, he rang the brass bell to summon the ship’s marshal since no Mhurga seaman ever walked among the slaves without an armed escort to cover his back.
The mate strode down the gangway to Haldeth’s bench. Even where he stood he saw the water sluicing through the floorboards. The cause was certainly minor, and in his present vicious mood, the protocol which demanded he wait for assistance rankled. The moment the marshal’s weaponed bulk loomed above the companionway, the mate barked orders to hold stroke. Then he stepped down between the slave benches.
Haldeth relinquished his oar and moved clear. Left to tend the loom alone, Korendir stared through the oarport as if unaware that an officer had arrived to inspect the leak.
The mate muttered an insult and added a curt gesture for Darjir to move his feet. Korendir complied without haste. He fixed intent gray eyes on the mate and appeared not to notice the foam-laced swell which rose beneath the poised blade of his oar. The sucking smack of impact tore the shaft free of his grip. The high end of the loom rose in a neat arc and struck the mate on the side of the head.
Haldeth cried out in alarm as pounds of leaded beech thumped into skull. The officer toppled like a felled tree. His weapons clattered over the wood of slave bench, rib, and floorboard. Korendir controlled the shaft with a one-handed motion and swiftly bent over the fallen body of the mate.
Haldeth trembled uncontrollably. A man four years at the oar could never have misjudged the swell; Korendir’s act surely had been deliberate. The marshal had witnessed its entirety, and his muscled, gut-round figure now pounded the length of the gangway. Both huge fists contained knives.
Fear closed Haldeth’s throat and sealed the breath within his lungs. Only divine intervention would spare him from hamstringing, and as he knew the Mhurgai, he would be lucky to escape that lightly. He remembered the mate’s knife too late; the marshal’s lumbering charge had already carried him aft. Haldeth found himself throttled by a hairy wrist, while ten inches of bare steel pricked his exposed back.
“Get back!” commanded the marshal. He spoke past Haldeth.
Instantly obedient, Korendir straightened. He withdrew his hands, which surprisingly held no weapon, but instead had supported the mate’s shoulder to hold him clear of the bilge. Salt water welled beneath the floorboards, lifting plumes of blood from the man’s split scalp. His tasseled braid was already sodden scarlet and his body lay ominously still.
Korendir shrugged, artfully emphasizing empty hands. The marshal snorted in disgust, but his death grip on Haldeth relaxed slightly.
“Zhaird’s own fool, thou art, to have made such a move,” he muttered to the unconscious mate. Then he fixed unfriendly eyes on Korendir. “Ship that oar, slave, and make certain it causes no further mischief.”
The marshal raised his voice and summoned Nallga’s healer. The man arrived, accompanied by a brace of deckhands who removed the mate from the bilge under the vigilant eyes of the marshal. After a brief examination, the healer stood up and pronounced the mate dead. He accompanied his prognosis with a clipped gesture toward Haldeth and Korendir.
“Those slaves should both suffer punishment.”
The marshal crossed his arms over his belted chest and spat on the deck. “I think not,” he said. “Why ruin two fine strong backs? The mate’s own carelessness earned his death. I saw. No hand held the oar which struck Alhar down. Any fool who thinks himself clever enough to walk alone on a slave deck well deserves a split skull.”
“The captain must decide,” retorted the healer. “I doubt the injury to Alhar was an accident.”
The marshal shrugged. He extended a hand for the healer’s satchel and helped the man back onto the gangway. A crewman arrived to replace the departed mate, and both officers retired abovedecks.
Interrupted at breakfast by news of Alhar’s misfortune, the captain heard the marshal’s account through without comment. But when the healer insisted the slaves be tortured in retribution, Nallga’s commander spared no patience for tact.
“Zhaird’s hells, I’m well rid of that incompetent excuse of a mate!”
The healer frowned. “That’s a dishonorable way to account for an officer who was murdered in thy service.”
The captain’s face went white. “Alhar’s weapons were not touched.” He qualified with menacing clarity. “Slaves who kill usually have courage enough afterward to strike a blow in self-defense. We’re short-oared enough without wasting the morning carving sheep.”
The captain sized the healer up in a manner that withered the reply in the man’s throat.
“Get thee gone from here,” he finished. “Quickly, or I’ll teach thee the meaning of insubordination with a rope on the end of a yardarm.”
The healer backed through the doorway, his satchel forgotten in his haste. The captain booted it out of the cabin with such violence that the medicine flasks shattered within. With no pause for apology, he rounded on the marshal.
“Clear that oar and get the joiner to work on the leak. Lock the slaves in the sail room, and don’t trouble me again concerning the matter.”
Confined in the semi-darkness of the sail room, Haldeth shivered as the sweat chilled on his body. The stroke of the upperdeck oars rumbled through the bulkhead at his back, and he breathed air thickened with the smell of mildewed canvas. The new location held nothing by way of advantage. Stout chain secured him to the ring set in the hatch grating, and a guard stood watch beyond the companionway. The man would not sleep at his post; every sailhand down to the waterboy had suffered repercussions from the captain’s foul mood. Haldeth found no comfort knowing that blame rested on the slaves whose oar had caused Alhar’s death.
As though sensing his companion’s thoughts, Korendir whispered from the shadow, “I never promised there wouldn’t be risk.”
Haldeth’s temper flared. “What have you gained us but misery? You’ve seen what happens to those who earn the disfavor of the Mhurgai. How long do you think it will take you to break, when they strip your back raw because you moved to swat a fly?”
“Be still!” snapped Korendir. “I never act without purpose.”
Haldeth felt his wrist gripped, and a warm object pressed against his palm. He raised it toward the dull streak of daylight which fell through a crack in the hatch grating, clued by the pungent scent of pine before his eyes confirmed. Korendir had passed him the pitch which once had lined the Kahillan box. Deeply pressed in the surface was an impression of the leg-iron key, surely purloined from the ring at the mate’s belt during the confused moment while the marshal had raced the length of the gangway.
Sobered into reflection, Haldeth returned the pitch. Over the stroke of Nallga’s oars, he heard the whispered scrape of a whetstone grinding shell, and in darkness, Korendir’s slow smile could almost be felt.
“I’ll have you a copy,” he said softly. “Wooden, but good enough, since the marshal so kindly oiled the locks.”
Haldeth suppressed a mad urge to laugh. Under normal conditions, the leg-irons were frozen with rust. But the marshal had nearly bent his key while unlocking the slaves for transfer to the sail room. In an irritable fit of efficiency, he had commanded a deckhand to work the slide bars with oil, then inspected the job personally to ascertain the work was done well. For the first time, Haldeth entertained the belief that escape might be possible.
He touched his companion’s arm. “Let me help. I can sharpen while you carve.”
Korendir passed the whetstone and the duller of his two shells, then resumed work in silence. The joiner would repair the leak in under an hour, and the duplicate key had to be completed before the marshal returned to fetch them back to the oar.
© Janny Wurts