Here's my seventh post in my epic fantasy series, The Heart of the Thief. This is the entirety of chapter three, during which our protagonists Cassilda and the Thief find themselves on a ship sailing to the ancient land of Archaea, rumored to be the land of the dead. Let's just say they don't quite make it there (thanks, barbarian raiders.) Click here to get caught up.
The Thief awakens and immediately knows that he is at sea. The cabin is dark, but he feels the rocking motion of the waves, smells the salt air, hears the distant squawking of gulls flying low on strong winds. It takes his eyes only seconds to adjust to the lack of light, and then he sees her, sitting cross-legged on a chair, no longer a courtesan, but quite obviously a sorceress by her bearing and the strong aura of power radiating from her being like heat from a hot coal. She wears long black boots and leather pants with a green vest; a golden snake slithers up her right arm, its eyes glowing emeralds. Does she know I can see her wonders the Thief. By the way she stares, he knows she can see him.
“What do you remember?” asks Cassilda in the darkness.
A choice between hearts. That's all he can recall, besides the pain.
“Nothing,” he says.
“I found you in there, Thief, huddled in a corner, cradling the Heart of Rankar like a newborn babe. You did what cannot be done, as the oracle said. Only the elite of the Priesthood can enter the lower temple and gaze upon the Heart. You bypassed their enchantments, circumvented their traps, navigated the maze. You remember nothing? I understand keeping the secrets of one's trade, but really, Mr. Thief, your silence is unacceptable. You must tell me everything,” demands Cassilda.
“You have it, don't you,” he asks.
“Of course. There, by your beside, is a purse containing five-hundred sovereigns. That's what the old wizard promised you, right? We'll drop you off in Roche Harbor. It'll be a few days yet.”
“What am I to do with five-hundred sovereigns in Roche Harbor? I don't live or work there, courtesan. I want what I stole,” the Thief says, getting out of bed, steadying himself on a beam as the ship sways.
“Stole? For all we know, you simply found it lying on the ground with a big, pretty bow wrapped around it. What would you do with it, anyway? You can't sell the Heart of Rankar. It's truly priceless. It's the sort of thing you start a war over.”
“I'll take it to the Galvanians,” says the Thief.
“And they'll hang you and send it back to the Capetians. Did you really fall for Dazbog's ruse? The Galvanians have no use for religious artifacts. They have a plague to deal with as well as the beginnings of an economic collapse. Mindless propaganda to keep the masses in line. Huddle behind the big, strong shield of the Duke. Never mind the squalor of your lives, the inescapable poverty, the scourge of serfdom. No, that old wizard had something else planned. Who knows? It doesn't matter.” She sighs, snapping her fingers. A green flame appears before her, heatless, a shivering, writhing star. The Thief steps back, shielding his eyes.
“I am in debt to you, master Thief. You know some hidden sorcery, and obviously luck follows you around like a beaten dog. Five-hundred sovereigns is all I can offer you. You are but a minor player in this journey. Though you are simple, I will be sorry to see you go.”
He leans over, lifts the purse, feeling the small fortune in his hands. A pittance for the heart of a god. No, this was not enough. Whisked away from his homeland, lied to, robbed of his prize—he couldn't let such things go. Not the Thief.
“Can you read my mind, courtesan?” he whispers.
“I am no courtesan, as you well know. As for your question, I find it's in my best interests to let my powers remain ambiguous, though it takes no skill in magic to guess what you're thinking. I'm sorry, Thief. I'm sorry for Dempsey, the poor clueless sod. I'm even sorry for those mutants that I barbequed. That's the way the world is. People died because I wanted something. Want isn't even the right word. Need doesn't begin to cover it. I have my reasons, and I assure you, they are very good. But you don't need to know this. The thing about sorceresses is that they're not bound by conventions or etiquette. I don't have to tell you anything, you see. I shan't see you again.”
The green star disappears in a brief supernova, scattering light like tendrils of melting fire. The Thief steps back and shades his eyes. When he can see again, she is no longer there.
“You're the witch's lad,” says a one-eyed sailor with a pipe jutting from his lips as the Thief walks the deck. A motley crew of leathery men stripped to the waist and covered with fractal tattoos roam about, lean and taut, swearing in foreign tongues. Ocean all around, endlessly blue, with an infinite, stretching sky—he has never seen such a sky—accompanied by the strong odor of raw fish and salt. The sun feels stronger out here, burns hotter and brighter. He'd never been on a ship, never even left the general sprawl of his city, and now, baking in the ocean clime, he wonders why he has led such an isolated life.
“She's an ornery one, eh?” says the sailor. Like the others, his tattoos repeat in intricate geometric patterns.
“She has something of mine,” replies the Thief. He takes a seat next to the sailor, places his hand over his eyes. The endless horizon shimmers like an uncertain future.
“Your heart, right? Lemme tell you something. You don't wanna love a witch. Beauty comes at a price. Under the skin, they ain't at all what they seem. Knew a fella who slept with one. Said she had red hair and blue eyes and tits as big as your head. Lit a candle in the night so that he could use the pot. Saw her face in the light an' he dropped the candle, let out a scream like a little girl. Said it was like a skull was looking back at him. Let her have it, sir, your heart that is. You'll grow a new one.”
“Your tattoos. You all have them,” says the Thief.
“You like em? All of Archaea have them. We have our own shapes and patterns passed down from when the gods still roamed the world.”
“What do they mean?” asks the Thief.
“Buggered if I know. Does everything have to mean something?”
“No,” says the Thief, looking back towards the cabin.
“There ain't any meaning to any of it,” says the sailor suddenly, standing up. “Don't talk about your witchy friend to the others. They don't know. Superstitious lot.”
“You the captain?” asks the Thief.
“First mate. I saw you come aboard. It was like you was put together by the air. Came into being bit by bit.”
“She must've teleported us to the ship.”
“Aye, and you clutched something in your arms which the witch pried from you, and you offered little protest. I helped carry you below deck. You're a heavy fella, and you was muttering something about having to choose between hearts.” The sailor takes his pipe from his mouth and stares out at the sea. “There really ain't much choosing in it, is there? Things happen they way they do. There's work that needs tending to. I take my leave.”
The Thief watches him go, silently amused. A bow-legged cyclops giving love advice regarding witches. There was humor there, somewhere, but the feeling soon leaves him. There was the depressing matter of his stolen property, and he didn't mean to leave the ship until he possessed the Heart. He had little experience dealing with sorceresses, Dazbog being the only magician he'd ever known, and he only stole things for the old wizard, not from him. She's beyond you, burglar. Indeed, he didn't know what to do. Cassilda's powers eclipsed his imagination, and it was likely that she kept the Heart on her. His pickpocketing days were long ago, and to pickpocket a sorceress...well, it was probably impossible. I was never that great of a pickpocket anyway.
Some of the sailors rig fishing lines over the side; one baits a giant hook with a rotten chunk of flesh. Their skin is tanned a deep bronze, cooked and dried free of fat by the hot sun, which shines its heat on the Thief, causing him to raise his hood. Off the port side there is the faintest suggestion of land on the horizon.
Even if he did manage to steal the Heart again, how would he escape with it? He wouldn't get far in a stolen boat—the sailors seemed to be afraid of Cassilda, and would likely do her bidding—though the shore wasn't too far off. You could cut your losses he thinks. When Giles and Victorian made off with most of Lady Hearst's jewelry, leaving him with a mere pittance, he hadn't sought revenge, though he meant to find the both of them, someday. But the heart of a god is not equivalent to some doughy lady's precious stones. He suddenly thinks of the mark given to him in that ancient dungeon, imprinted atop his brand. When you deny oneself, others see nothing. Why the dying man had given him the gift, he didn't know. He thought about it often, usually at random, especially when he was thinking hard about other things. I owe everything to chance, maybe even the Heart. Though he could not fathom how he had stolen it, it didn't matter. There was no letting go.
He notices the two fishing sailors pointing at something in the distance and decides to approach them. They are both small, muscular men with shaved heads and ragged black beards that curl like sheep's wool. One has a bright green tattoo of a dragon on his right shoulder, a toothy creature spouting flames.
“What do you see, dragon?” he asks. The man turns and gives him a dispassionate glance. There is a small scar on his forehead likely caused by a knife.
“Barbarosie,” he says. “They've been following us.”
“I see nothing,” replies the Thief.
“You have landlubber's eyes. I can see the blood color of their sails.”
“What are we going to do about them?” asks the Thief.
“They will either catch us or not,” says the sailor.
“What do you think?” asks the Thief.
“I think they will catch us,” says the other sailor. “Barbarosie have fast ships.”
“You don't seem too concerned about it,” says the Thief.
“What can I do about it? I have no control over the wind.”
“You don't fear death?” asks the Thief.
“No man from Archaea fears dying, for we are all dead men walking. The world grows weary and the sun fades. Look up at the sky. Can you not feel the lessening of its rays? When its fires die, darkness will swallow everything.”
“I knew a wizard that told a similar tale. What will we do when these Barbarosie overtake us? Will they rob us? Shackle us and sell us into slavery? Or will they leave us dead and sinking into the sea?” Squinting, the Thief peers in the direction the sailors were staring, and still sees nothing.
“It is no good to fight Barbarosie,” says the first sailor. “If they catch us you will see.”
“You ask too many questions. Are all Capetians so curious?” asks the other sailor.
“Are all men from Archaea dullards?” snarls the Thief, turning away from them. Their nonchalance regarding the approaching barbarians annoyed him, and if they were going to be boarded, he would rather do something about it than submit his fate to fortune. She'll be in the cabin, haughty sorceress he thinks, walking across the deck, ignoring the sailors who stare at the sea like statues, impartial observers to their own destinies. “Cassilda!” he shouts, reaching his hands towards the double doors, yet before he can thrust them open, an arc of electricity strikes his chest, knocking him off of his feet. A few of the sailors turn and laugh, saying words in their own tongue, watching as the Thief remains on his back, the odor of burnt hair lingering in the air. “Witch!” he spits, the taste of iron in his mouth.
“Did you not see the sign?” leers a mostly toothless sailor. “It says do not disturb.”
“I don't give a damn about any sign! She can deal with the marauders! We don't have to sit on our hands and roll the dice. She could sink their ships with a snap of her fingers!” shouts the Thief.
“Barbarosie are not kind to witches,” says the sailor. “It would be best for her to remain silent.”
“Oh really? What do they do to women that they find? I'm sure they extend them the proper courtesies.”
“A rape is better than a death,” says another sailor before pointing toward the sea. “Their karvi are pulling away from the drekkar. They have spotted us. There is no hope of escape now.”
“Do not cause trouble with the Barbarosie,” says the sailor with the dragon tattoo, hovering over the Thief. In his hands is a filleting knife, resembling the fang of some aquatic creature. “If you do not agree, we will throw you over.”
“Where is the captain? I will speak with him,” says the Thief, ignoring the threat.
“Men of the Shimmering Isles have no captain,” says another. “We speak with one voice.”
He sees them, finally, for what they really are, staring at the speaker, mentally removing his tattoos and scars, and then doing the same with the next, and the next, until one man remains, free of distinguishing marks, an unremarkable creature, really, having a plain peasant countenance and the marble eyes of soulless domestication. There is no such thing as an Archaean man says a voice from his childhood, coming from boys huddled around a fire. There were many far-off lands, fantastical places that spawned wild rumor and fantasy, and he had disregarded much of it, yet he suddenly remembered one of the myths of the Shimmering Isles—that the men from that misty, isolated region all wore the same face and saw through the same pair of eyes.
“The first mate, then. The one-eyed fellow. Where is he?”
None of them answer. Two of them come over and seize his shoulders, pulling him to his feet. In his chest where the arc struck there seems to be a smoldering wound that throbs and steams. The men are strong, with round shoulders and iron grips, and he offers no resistance as they bind him to the mast. As they tie him he tries to look in their eyes, attempting to see some evidence of communication, of telepathic ability, for no command was given, no audible verdict suddenly reached. Yet here I am. Cassilda's doors remain closed, and the men return to staring at the sea, awaiting their red-flagged pursuers. Their ships come into view quicker than he would've thought, dragon-prowed vessels, bearing rugged men draped in bear skins and animal skulls, who howl into the wind and wave spiked clubs and bastard swords stolen from their vanquished enemies. The Archaeans stand silently as hooks are thrown from the karvi and men climb up the sides of their ship, and even after the first barbarian aboard slits the throat of the first sailor he meets, they do not stir. The Thief can smell them, even from a distance—the iron scent of blood, the stench of sweat and unwashed bodies, a rotten odor of foul mead—all of these mingle to create a malodorous perfume that assaults his nostrils. Surely Cassilda can smell them and hear the ruckus.
“You shivering men all look like you spawned from the same whore,” yells a massive barbarian with red hair. He seizes the closest sailor by the throat and lifts him into the air, eyes bulging, great axe hanging loosely in his free hand. “Where is your precious cargo? Tell me it is more than stinking fish and watered-down mead. Who is the leader here? That's right, you have no leaders because you shivering men are all empty vessels more akin to rocks than human beings.” Visibly annoyed, he tosses the sailor into his fellows and prowls the deck, cutting into cargo and overturning tackle boxes, making his way toward Cassilda's cabin. “Not there,” murmurs one of the sailors, but the red-headed monster continues, undeterred, waving at two of his comrades to come forth and aid in the inspection of the cabin. One of these men takes the lead, a tall, raven-haired youth with a jagged face—the Thief manages to hear the chief call him Josun—and it is he who first reaches for the handles and receives a green bolt of electricity in his chest. “Witchcraft!” shouts the chief, turning to the Archaeans. “You are harboring a witch! The penalty for such malfeasance is death! Coriver, go forth and fetch the shackles. Bring the potions so that we may dissolve this unholy barrier and destroy that which lies in wait. What madness is this, shivering men? We have raided few of your vessels and killed little of your number over the years, and how are we rewarded for our mercy? With your harboring of witches! Vile magic is to blame for the state of our world. No longer shall you be considered our friends. This boat shall sink with all of you on board, after we extract the witch and dispose of it as is proper.”
“You are harsh, Terran,” says Josun, climbing to his feet. “These men may be bewitched and harbored the creature not of their own accord.”
“Josun tenderheart, you dishonor your father when you speak such nonsense,” says Terran, shaking his head and pointing to the Archaeans, standing quietly. “These are not men; these are sheep awaiting the slaughter. Do they protest their fate? The shivering men are passive and do not try to change their destiny. We can do what we please with them, as you would do with an animal. Now see to that man there tied to the mast. More he may know about this witch, for he looks a roguish type.”
Josun crosses the deck and approaches the Thief, measuring him with a steely-eyed stare. Like all the barbarians, this raven-haired youth is muscular, with shoulders like boulders and a neck like a tree trunk. Quickly he removes a knife and cuts the Thief's bonds in one swift movement.
“Much appreciated, Barbarosie,” says the Thief, feeling his hands. “What can I do for you?”
“Move,” says Josun, pointing the knife at his belly.
“As you wish, Barbarosie,” replies the Thief, marching ahead. “I am a stranger in a strange land.”
“No one cares,” says Josun, giving him a good push. He comes to a stop against the chest of the red-bearded giant, who seizes him by the chin, a scrutinizing expression coming over his wide, battle-scarred visage.
“Who are you, black man?” he asks, squinting as though trying to see the dye in the Thief's pores.
“I am the Thief,” says the Thief, simply.
“The Thief? Not a Thief?” asks Terran.
“There is no other of my ilk in this world,” he replies, without a trace of hyperbole.
“Is that right?” says Terran, his monstrously broad face breaking into an enormous grin. “What deeds of renown has one committed to earn such a haughty moniker?”
“I am guilty of robbing the Valientice vault of a fortune of over five-thousand sovereigns. I also orchestrated the grand heist of the Royal Bank, during which my party took the heirloom jewels of Rothenbergs and the Bertrands. I stole myself from the Duke's dungeons, an incomparable feat, for no one ever escapes from that dismal place. My greatest accomplishment, however, is not yet widely known. It is likely that you shall hear of it someday.”
“You sound like a man who has written his own epitaph,” replies Terran. “The problem with thieves is that they are all tell and no show. If I ask Josun here to display his martial prowess, he will dutifully comply. If I ask you to display your talents, you cannot, for thievery depends on guile and guile is impossible when one is expecting it. We have no use for thieves in my tribe. Your life will depend on what you tell us about the witchery on this ship. What do you know of it?”
“Your suspicions are right. There is a witch in that cabin, of foul-temper, though beautiful. A strong hand is what she needs,” suggests the Thief.
“The slavers pay well for witches,” says Coriver, who has just returned aboard with a pair of shackles across his shoulder and a greenish bottle held in his hands.
“She has something that belongs to me,” says the Thief. “An organ of a dear acquaintance that she foolishly believes has magical properties. Let me to keep it and I will help you. If you break her protective spell and then march in there and try to wrestle her into submission, it will not go well for you. A softer touch is needed. A thief's touch.”
The barbarians exchange impenetrable looks impossible for any outsider to read. Josun says something to Terran, a series of high-pitched warbling that the Thief interprets as their native language, while Coriver plays with the shackles, club-like hands fingering the enchanted metal lovingly. Likely made of lead thinks the Thief, for the barbarians seems to know what they are doing. Yet Cassilda will be a surprise. He had already made up his mind what to do about her, though something tugs at his heartstrings, an odd feeling that he can't quite describe, being entirely unaccustomed to it. He had lived a selfish life, one devoted to survival by way of hedonism, a life uncomplicated with complex yearnings and now, waylaid on the sea and under the threat of death, seemed like a damned foolish time to be rethinking one's principals. Guilt can be buried with wine; unrequited love with the embrace of another. It's all interchangeable he thinks because nothing matters. With that last thought, gooseflesh prickles his skin. Does he believe it? It is essential to say one thing and then think another.
Terran slaps him on the back, says something in his barbarous tongue, and puts the shackles in his hands, motioning toward the door. He watches as Coriver tosses the mysterious contents of the green bottle across its threshold, resulting in a snap of static and a brief cloud of smoke. Go he hears in his ears, so he complies, still half-expecting an arc of electricity to come forth, hurled out of nothingness, but the bolt does not come; suddenly he is in the cabin, looking across the small room at Cassilda, the powerful sorceress, asleep in bed—snoring even!— oblivious to the ruckus outside. She is beautiful lying supine, her chestnut hair draped across her shoulders in flowing, wavy locks, her oval face like a carving of Astarte, goddess of love, perfectly symmetrical, with high cheekbones and plump crimson lips. Captivated by the striking beauty, the Thief stands dumb, hands at his sides, eyes watching the rise and fall of her breasts as they move opposite the rocking motion of the ship. Perfect Cassilda is—too perfect, of course—her appearance looking more refined since he last saw her only hours before, the sorceress having since tweaked the finer features of her visage with magical spells, a practice not without controversy. Yet he doesn't know this; he doesn't know that sorceresses and wizards often appear differently to different people, their spells modifying a nose, a brow line, or even the color of their eyes to fit the viewer's personal aesthetics. All he knows is that Cassilda is almost unbearably beautiful at this moment, and his intention to betray her and take the Heart and sate his revenge disappears in almost an instant. It happens so suddenly that he is left with a mysterious feeling of loss, as though a piece of him has as been stolen. He reaches out a hand, murmurs her name, and then clutches his head as something heavy and hard crashes against his skull, driving him to his knees. As he falls, he sees Terran push past and roughly grab Cassilda's wrists, locking the shackles around her. Emerald eyes lash open, fury brewing beneath them, yet she can do nothing as the brute hauls her to her feet. For a second the Thief thinks he sees that beautiful visage waver; it's as though the lines that make up her face shift and bend momentarily before correcting themselves. Up someone says; as he rises, they push and prod, rolling the man like a barrel of wine. They throw Cassilda into a karvi with Terran, while the Thief is left on his side as they pour oil on the deck, dousing the Archaeans as well, laughing their hearty guffaws and heaping curses on the quiet tattooed sailors, who seem serene and resigned. When the torches are thrown, he doesn't hear any screams, only the crackling sounds of the flames. Death; the word crawls out of the heat with chard limbs and sloughed skin, yet someone kicks him in the stomach, rolling the Thief toward the ocean and breaking his paralysis. Before he falls into the sea, he catches a glimpse of a one-eyed man standing on the burning vessel, a pipe seemingly jutting from his mouth, hand extended, as though to say goodbye and good luck.