On the other side of the fire stood twenty-two ghosts.
Bloodfang did not count that many. He could not count that many. They overlapped too thickly, and the firelight reflected and spread through them like firelight in fog. But Bloodfang always knew the number of the dead who traveled with him, and he could make out Mad Gnasher, and his mother, and his brother, Little Fang, clearly among them.
The last time he had seen them so clearly he had been in the lowland jungles of Tezzerak, laid flat in delirium for three days as the poison from a Shade-Elf's arrow worked its way through him.
He spat into the fire and closed his eyes. The gash in his arm gave another pulse of pain, but even its constant burning had faded in the black sweep of fever that had followed the wound.
When he opened his eyes, Redhand Shattersword stood clearly behind Mad Gnasher, the wide curves of his helmet's horns giving him the silhouette of a forest demon.
Bloodfang was dying, but this wasn't how he wanted to die.
He could smell, faintly, salt. After a twelve days walk, he was finally close to the sea.
The ghosts stared back at him, their silver eyes still silver even through the flames. He'd heard once that ghosts hated salt, from a one-eyed sergeant who liked long ballads.
It didn't seem to be true, like most of the sergeant's songs.
Bloodfang staggered to his feet. Morning was far away, but he didn't know if he would be conscious to see it. There might be a village closer to the coast, where there might be a hedge-witch who had not been conscripted and had the herbs and talent to help. The bottom of Bloodfang's sack was filled with gold and silver; he could pay, if he could find someone.
That had been the problem. Even this far east, where the war had only passed as a shadow, the villages were abandoned, the fields fallow.
He could ask Whitetongue for help. But the moon was half full. It would be near two weeks til it was Whitetongue's night, and even if he answered, Bloodfang wasn't sure he had anything left to give.
He started walking again, leaving the fire still flickering behind him. It was a damp autumn, and there was nothing in those empty hills to burn.
The ghosts followed. His death was still somewhere ahead.
Cliffs rose on either side of him. Ahead of him glimmered the sea. He turned and saw more cliffs. How had he gotten here?
He swayed. The dark sky over the horizon was beginning to peel back, and the last few hours in Bloodfang's memory were dim fragments. He must have followed a path down to this cove, but he couldn't recall even that much. He felt like he was burning. Even when he staggered a few paces into the cold sea, he burned. He started to cough, an awful, rattling cough.
The ghosts watched on calmly.
He rounded on them, waving his good arm.
"Say something!" he shouted. He choked on the words and coughed harder.
"Say something!" he gasped. "Damn you! Help me!"
He could see each of them outlined clearly now, standing in ragged ranks. Little Fang looked up at their mother, almost a pleading look, but she gestured at him to stay still.
"Please," said Bloodfang softly. They knew he couldn't die like this.
Mad Gnasher stepped forward, her long braids twisting in an unseen wind. Even in death, she leaned on her walking stick.
Bloodfang closed his eyes. He thought about apologizing, but it would have done no good.
Mad Gnasher thumped him hard on the head.
His eyes snapped open. For a second, his annoyance drowned out his pain. Mad Gnasher scowled at him, and then pointed down the length of the beach with her staff. Bloodfang’s eyes followed. He saw it, then: a small, white shape, darting in and out of the waves as they swept up and down the beach, but moving ever closer towards him. It was glowing, as Mad Gnasher and the rest of his ghosts glowed, but it shone even more brightly. It had to be another ghost. As it came nearer, he saw that it was in the shape of a cat.
The cat came to a halt beside him and then butted its head against his leg. It looked up at him expectantly. It stood lightly on the water.
“All right,” he said, looking at the cat. “All right. Not yet.”
The cat took off, back the way it came. Stumbling and swearing, Bloodfang followed. Waves of black shuttled back and forth across his vision, and his festering arm lanced redly with pain. The blood in his ears pounded to match the surf.
The tide was low, and the cat wended a path along the bottom of the cliff, across smooth stone that would be covered when the tide was higher.
The cat came finally to a dark opening in the cliff – a cave. It darted inside, and Bloodfang staggered after, his chest heaving with the effort just to keep up. The ghosts trailed in behind him, shifting like banners on a battlefield. The cave was surprisingly deep, and it held its silence tightly. It was unlikely to flood completely even at high tide.
Floating in a pool in the middle was a small ship about thirty feet in length, not including its long bowsprit, and made of dark wood. Its white sails were slack, and it was anchored by a faintly gleaming silver chain.
The cat leapt onto the chain and ran up it to the boat. Standing on the prow, it meowed down to Bloodfang.
He looked up at it, and then, because he had no more options, he walked into the pool of water; it was only waist-deep. Grunting, he pulled himself onto the ship with his good arm. He collapsed to his knees once he reached the deck. His breath rattled in his throat. For a moment, he couldn't see anything, just gray exhaustion. He wanted to lie down, not even for very long, just long enough to catch his breath.
His ghosts covered the ship. They stood or sat on every available surface; Big Knife and Stonejaw had even scaled the mast. Their forms twisted and shifted, dancing shadows in the silver light.
Bloodfang pushed the thought of lying down away, and, slowly, he stood and looked around. There was only one cabin on the boat, and propped up against it was a fully armored knight. Their armor shone like the anchoring chain.
The knight didn’t stir. They were slumped forward. A shining, jeweled sword lay across their lap, and nestled against their thigh was the skeleton of a small cat. Its bones were clean and intact. Bloodfang looked up at the ghost cat, perched on the railing and delicately cleaning its front paw. As it must once have done in life.
“I need help,” he told the knight, even as he knew the knight was already dead.
The knight, as expected, did not reply. But maybe there was something in the cabin that could help. Bloodfang took another step forward - and collapsed once more. His knees hit the deck with a shuddering thud. He would have to crawl.
“Stars, you are in bad shape,” said a voice suddenly. It did not come from the knight. Bloodfang didn’t know where it came from. Maybe it was Whitetongue, come to collect, or maybe it was one of the ghosts, or maybe the voice had just come from deep within himself.
But it didn't sound like anyone he knew.
“Who – ” he started to ask, but another wave of black passed across the vision, deeper and longer than the previous waves.
His legs gave out entirely, and as he pitched forward, the ghosts of his clan rushed to consume him.
Bloodfang drifted in and out of consciousness. Once, he thought he saw a young man kneel beside him and deftly unwind the crude bandages from his arm. The man's hand glowed with a soft, white radiance. He passed it over Bloodfang’s arm.
"Thank you," said Bloodfang in his delirium, but the man did not reply.
Darkness came again.
He woke to the sound of waves against the ship. His arm still hurt, but it was the pain of healing, not of infection, and his head felt clear of fever. He sat up and licked his lips. His mouth was dry. The knight still sat across from him, slumped over, their sword across their knees.
He saw no one else, just the cat, now perched on a coil of ropes. Whoever had spoken to him – and Bloodfang was now certain someone had spoken to him – was hiding. Likely the same person who had healed him.
He stepped past the knight and into the single cabin. The cat followed him, batting playfully at his heels.
The room was dark and smelled faintly sweet. A neatly made bed took up most of it, and hanging above the bed was a large religious symbol, in the shape of a silver seven-pointed star. A map of the southern continent was tacked to the opposite wall, and a few chests of dark wood made up the rest of the room. There was no one inside.
Bloodfang stepped back out. The cave was dark, illuminated only faintly by the chain. The mouth of the cave was a faint gray shape that spoke of morning. He had either been out for less than a couple hours, or he had missed an entire day. Maybe more.
The only sounds in the cave were the lap of water against the ship and the insistent drip of water from its roof, like a muttering madman. Beyond that was only silence. The ship didn't even creak as Bloodfang walked across it. The cave wasn't musty; the sea took care of that, so it smelled like salt and wet rock. But there was an empty watchfulness to it all the same, like the feeling of a battlefield at night, when the dead have been carried away.
Curiously, he looked at the knight.
"I’m too late to save him, if that’s why you brought me here," he told the cat.
The cat flicked its tail in response and meowed. There was still no sign of the speaker nor the man who had healed Bloodfang.
Bloodfang shrugged and approached the knight. Tentatively, he reached forward to push the visor up.
"I wouldn't," said the voice, very near him.
Bloodfang turned swiftly. He reached for his maul and stopped himself, took out his one-handed short sword instead. No one.
"Sorcery," he hissed. His mother had been a sorceress. It hadn't done her much good when the time had come to need it.
"Not quite," said the voice, close enough it could have been coming from inside Bloodfang's own skull.
“Whatever you are, show yourself.”
“I don’t think you understand,” said the voice, and, yes, it was speaking directly into Bloodfang’s mind, but not in the same way Whitetongue spoke into his mind. “I already am.”
The boards of the ship lurched beneath his feet; the sails shook themselves out.
Bloodfang, who had seen much, had never seen a speaking ship. It was a higher order of magic than he liked to deal with.
"Oh," he said. But he kept his sword up.
"You’re not going to be able to do much damage with that. You might as well put it away."
There was an expectant pause. With a scowl, Bloodfang sheathed his sword. He tried to think what could kill a ship and only came up with fire. He could probably jump overboard and escape, if it came to that.
“Much better,” said the ship approvingly. “I’m glad you’re awake. I was worried there was about to be yet another corpse on me.”
"Another corpse? Besides the cat?" Bloodfang spoke out loud; he didn't want to invite the ship into his mind any more than he already had. He pointed at the knight. "Are you sure they're dead? Someone healed my arm."
The ship creaked indignantly. "Yes, I'm sure. I've been stuck with him long enough to know. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t anyone. I would have seen them."
Bloodfang looked at his arm. It was, as he remembered, freshly bandaged. The skin around it looked less inflamed, and the wound itched, the way healing wounds do.
"Then did you do it?"
"You must have done it yourself. I don’t exactly have hands, if you haven’t noticed."
"Did you see me doing it? I just got up from dying and healed my arm?"
"You must have," repeated the ship, though it sounded - or felt - less sure.
"But you didn’t see me." Bloodfang grinned. He'd never talked to a ship before, and now he was winning arguments against one.
There was a peevish silence.
"Maybe you were asleep," said Bloodfang, conciliatory now that he thought he'd won. "Do you sleep?"
There was another silence, but this felt more thoughtful.
"I suppose I must," said the ship. "I've just never noticed it. There hasn’t really been anything to notice. Until now."
"Mm," said Bloodfang.
He flexed his arm carefully and looked around once more. The cat was cuddled up against the knight, now, on the opposite side from its own skeleton. The tide had come in as Bloodfang healed, and the ship bobbed on high water, kept from being pulled out to sea only by the silver anchor. He tugged on the chain curiously.
"Why are you docked here?" he asked. "Where are you headed?"
"Past tense, I’m afraid," lamented the ship. "Why was I docked here? Where was I headed? Why? Because Elustrel ordered it. Where? Palladium."
Palladium, Bloodfang knew, was a free city, located on the other side of a narrow channel before the channel widened into an endless ocean. It was, perhaps, three or four days of sailing away, enough time for his arm to finish healing completely.
There would be plenty of opportunities in Palladium, he thought. The ship, for all it was some product of sorcery, seemed friendly, even it was quarrelsome. And he had no better options.
"Why Palladium?" he asked.
In his head, he felt the suggestion of a rueful smile.
"I don’t know."
"Sorcery," said Bloodfang again. He looked out, where the mouth of the cave was growing brighter.
"How long have you been here?" he asked.
"I don’t know," said the ship. It didn't sound resentful, just defeated. "A very long time."
Long enough, thought Bloodfang, for time to strip the cat’s bones clean, though the ship and the knight’s armor showed no sign of wear.
"Then whoever left you won’t mind if I take you," he said, and he pulled the anchor up.
The ship shook with its laughter. Its sails fluttered.
"No," it said. "They probably won’t. Stars, I'm sick of this cave."
The tide took them out, into the gray-gold dawn.
It took Bloodfang the better part of an hour to get to know the workings of the ship, and the ship spent most of that time haughtily instructing him. Its tones were the same tones as human nobility, but, unlike most human nobility Bloodfang had encountered, the ship at least seemed to know what it was doing.
He found a small chest of provisions in the cabin, sealed and preserved by a powerful magic: three skins of dark wine, four loaves of dense, dark bread, a pouch of smooth, salted almonds, a basket filled with jewel-like golden discs of dried peach, sweet figs, and small, fragrant oranges, and a block of a white, sharp, hard cheese that broke like crystals in his mouth and then seemed to melt. Whoever had meant to sail this ship had intended to eat well. This could last him maybe five or six days.
“No meat,” he said, after he’d taken stock.
“That’s what the fishing tackle is for,” said the ship. “You have to earn your meat. And, really, meat is overrated. You don’t need that much of it.”
Bloodfang hid his grin.
“How would you know?”
“Oh, shut up.”
Bloodfang threw back his head and laughed.
Content that his next few days were sorted, he set up a fishing line and sat down. The ship could mostly handle itself, and, in any case, seemed magically bound towards Palladium no matter what Bloodfang did.
The ghost cat uncurled itself from the knight and came over to him. It leapt onto his lap, and brought with it a touch of cold. In the rich light of day, and with his arm healing, Bloodfang’s ghosts had dissipated. The cat still shone.
"What's her name?" he asked the ship.
He could feel the warmth in his mind as the ship responded.
“Penelope,” repeated Bloodfang. He tried to pat her head, and his hand passed through. Whatever solid mass she had possessed at their meeting was gone. It made sense; Bloodfang was much further from death. “And yours?"
"Ah," said the ship. There was a pause. "I was called the Eagle."
"And the knight’s?"
There was another, longer pause. Bloodfang briefly thought about stripping the knight of his armor and valuables and tossing what remained of his body overboard. But he didn’t think the ship would let him, even if it seemed to be struggling to recall the name.
“You know, I can’t remember. You might have liked him, though. He was half-human, too."
"The other half?"
Bloodfang spat, and the Eagle shook again with its laughter.
“And what should I call you?” it asked, once the laughter subsided.
“Bloodfang Bonebreaker,” said Bloodfang.
“Of course it is. Thrice-forsaken orcs.”
Bloodfang puffed his chest up proudly. He liked his name. But a question occurred to him.
“How can you tell I’m an orc – a half-orc? You don’t have eyes.”
“I just can,” said the ship airily. It was, Bloodfang thought, the kind of dismissive airiness that covered for the fact the speaker didn’t know the answer. “Just like I can tell you’re not alone.”
"You can see them?"
That startled him. No one, even when they had shone at their brightest and he had been closest to his death, had ever been able to see them.
"Of course I can’t see them, Fang. I don't have any eyes."
Bloodfang laughed in spite of himself.
"You can see them same as you see me, I mean."
"I can sense them, though not exactly as I sense you, or even Penelope. They're fainter. They're not here willingly, like Pen is."
"No, they wouldn't be."
There was an expectant silence. Bloodfang did not fill it.
“Oh, come now,” said the Eagle crossly. “Who, exactly, am I going to tell your deep dark secret to? Penelope?”
“Anyone who comes aboard.”
“I would never!”
Bloodfang smiled - the Eagle was easy to rile - but his smile faded quickly. He looked at the backs of his hands. Tattoos of his clan covered them, and the tattoos flooded upward, to his shoulders. On the inside of his healing arm, just below the elbow’s crease, was a crescent moon, drawn at the crescent's thinnest, before the moon turned its back entirely. It was the symbol of his god.
That one still burned sometimes.
“They’re the ghosts of my clan. When we die, we must die in battle, or else our souls end up in a place of torment.”
“Stars, I always forget how thrice-blessed bleak orcs are.”
“There are ways around it.” Bloodfang tilted his head back and closed his eyes. Autumn was late in arriving to the coast. The sun was warm on his face, and a stiff breeze blew through his hair. He had unbound it to comb it out. In his mind, he sensed the ship perk up with curiosity.
“The sick and the old, when their time comes, they’ll pick up their sword again, and it is the chief’s responsibility to kill them.”
Most orcs didn't live long enough to need it. Bloodfang had only seen it required of Redhand three times. It was a solemn ceremony, usually over quickly, and when the dead had been sent on to their reward, the rest of the clan took their body to a high point in the mountains and left it there for the vultures, to be eaten just as if they'd died in a true battle.
Redhand likely would have needed to send off Mad Gnasher, but death had had other plans for all of them. And when the responsibility fell to Bloodfang, she had raised her hand in her final gesture and stopped him.
He could feel the Eagle’s attention rapt upon him, waiting for more.
"So… your clan didn't die that way. Did they?"
“And you weren't?”
“I was, but I was too strong for it to kill me."
“That’s lucky for you, at least.”
“It wasn’t luck.”
He hesitated. He had never told anyone what he had done. But he was only speaking to a ship, a ship who could have no knowledge of the gods, a ship that already knew who traveled with him.
“I made a deal with one of our gods, Cutter Whitetongue. I made two deals. Once, when I was very young, to be stronger than any one in my clan, and, in return, anyone I kill without a godmark is Whitetongue’s to reap. The second, that if I die an honorable death, my clan’s spirits will follow me into the Bright Lands.”
“That’s all this Cutter Whitetongue wants? For you to die honorably?”
"And all you need to do is die in battle? That seems relatively simple."
Bloodfang shook his head.
"No, that’s all that’s required to reach the Bright Lands. A truly honorable death is to die, face to face, in physical combat with your foe. An arrow isn’t enough. A sorcerer’s bolt isn’t enough. A fever from your wounds is not enough. Whoever kills you has to be close enough to hear you die. And if you die like that, you’re left a seat at the High Table in the Bright Lands, and you will help lead the armies of the dead in the final battle, when Grimfire takes vengeance on the gods of men and elves for casting him out.”
Bloodfang paused. He opened his eyes, as if that could clear the memories from is mind. He looked up into the bright, hard blue of the sky and thought about the gods. He had been fifteen when he'd made his first deal, old enough to be aware he was weak compared to his cousins, young enough that he had still cared. He had reveled in the strength his deal had brought him.
“At least, that’s what our gods tell us. I gave my chance of a seat to Cutter Whitetongue, so that my clan could have the chance to follow me."
"And you've just... taken your time getting around to it? I can't say I blame you."
Bloodfang shook his head again.
"No one’s been strong enough to kill me."
The Eagle was silent. So was Bloodfang. The sea murmured, and shrieking birds wheeled above them. Penelope stretched in his lap, flexing her paws.
"It's a funny way of viewing honor, though," said the Eagle eventually.
Bloodfang snorted. "And what would dying for honor mean to you?"
"To die for something important – a person, a country, an idea."
"Why? All those things will die anyway."
"Ideas don't," said the Eagle, almost snappish. "What is right never dies. And besides," the ship's voice turned crafty, "you're dying for someone, for some people, in a way."
"What do you know," Bloodfang demanded with a growl, "about honor? About love? About life or death, ship? You have no blood to spill."
There was an offended silence.
“I do have feelings though.”
Bloodfang stood up and shook his head; Penelope mewled, offended. He wanted to walk away from this conversation. But there was nowhere for him to go. He paced the length of the deck and then back again. He could feel the ship watching him, wary.
"How did he die?" he said, gesturing at the knight as he passed him. "Was it honorable?"
“No," said the Eagle, contemplative. "I don’t think it was.”
The Eagle was quiet for most of the rest of the day, speaking only when necessary to direct Bloodfang in some way. Bloodfang, for his part, said nothing, just watched the coast. It was craggy and wild, a breeding ground for pirates even in peaceful times, and times were not peaceful. But he saw nothing all the day, just colonies of sea-birds and an occasional lonesome farmstead or crumbling set of ruins, high on a black cliff.
The sun slid beneath the horizon. They continued along the coast, following, Bloodfang saw with amusement as the stars came out, the curve of the Great Eagle’s wing, which always pointed to the southern star.
Bloodfang thought about stepping over the knight and into the cabin to sleep, but the sea air was pleasantly cool on his face and the stars were bright and perfect, a white pour of them glimmering across the center of the sky. He knew he would be more comfortable sleeping on his fur cloak and bedroll on the deck than in a bed.
He laid down as the moon rose, a little thinner than it had been the night before. Penelope joined him, curling against his side. She had spent the day racing back and forth across the ship and meowing hopefully every time Bloodfang had reeled in a fish. Some things, it seemed, did not disappear even in death.
"Fang?" The Eagle’s voice was tentative.
"Mm?" Bloodfang opened his eyes.
"Who is Cutter Whitetongue anyway? I know he’s your god, but I’ve never heard of him."
"What men don’t know about orcs is the stuff of sagas.” Bloodfang paused. “He’s our god of fire and strategy and stories. And tricks. Some say he’s a half-orc himself. That’s why he’ll deal with us when others won’t. "
“A trickster god? Oh. Fang.”
Bloodfang smiled without amusement.
"I thought orcs didn't even like tricks."
“We don't. But I was young. I wanted to be strong. He was the only god who would have anything to do with me. And then I was young and desperate.”
The ship's boards creaked, a strangely thoughtful sound.
“It’s odd that a trickster god would require an honorable death on the battlefield.”
“That’s the joke.”
Disbelief poured into the ship’s silence. Bloodfang shrugged it off. Only one of them had ever spoken to Cutter Whitetongue.
“Could you get a better god? They do exist.”
Bloodfang laughed. "Are you trying to convert me? What god do ships worship?”
“I am offering a potential solution, Fang. For all you’re not able to appreciate it. And I worship Elustrel. I mentioned her before.”
All Bloodfang knew of Elustrel was that she was a human god. He closed his eyes again. It was peaceful, to drowse on the rocking ship, and talk about the gods into the darkness.
“What is she like?”
The Eagle’s voice grew passionate.
“Elustrel is the goddess of the stars, of divine wisdom, of guidance and compassion. She smiles upon travelers, new mothers, and anyone about to cross a boundary. Her high-priestess serves as the Left Hand of the Emperor, as a constant reminder to rule with an eye towards peace. She places the Seven-Starred Crown on the Emperor’s head at coronation. Her holy knights are the personal guards of the Imperial family. Each represents one of the seven great constellations. They – ”
“So she’s important,” interrupted Bloodfang. She hadn’t seemed it among the humans he had known, who tended, in his experience, to worship a motley assortment of sun gods and soldier gods and goddesses of the field.
“She’s the most important! She’s the White Lady! She put the stars in the sky so mortals could navigate by them, so that there would be light even when the moon is new!”
“Impressive. What’s she planning on doing about cloud-cover?”
“You – ” The ship laughed, shaking beneath Bloodfang’s body. “Go to sleep, tusker. I won’t let you drown in the night, even if you deserve it.”
Smiling, Bloodfang slept.
When he woke, the sun was higher in the sky then he expected. It threw its golden light across a calm sea. He was drowsy and content in its warmth. But something had occurred to him in the night, and he wanted to speak to the Eagle about it.
“Are you,” he started to ask, and then paused. He wasn’t sure what word to use next. Awake?
“I’m still here, yes,” came the reply.
Bloodfang nodded and sat up. He rolled up his bedding, thinking through his words.
“Your goddess, Elustrel, she’s an Imperial goddess?”
“She’s for everyone,” said the Eagle crossly. “But, yes. I suppose she’s particularly associated with the Laeidian Dynasty.”
“Then you know,” said Bloodfang calmly, “that Laeidinium has fallen?”
There was a long pause.
The Siege of Laeidinium had lasted a year. On the wide plains outside the city, the armies of man had crashed together like the ocean's surf, and piss and blood had turned the fertile earth to mud. Autumn came for a second year, and there wouldn't be enough food for the people to last the winter. Laeidinium's fabled walls were breached, its palaces sacked, its wide streets burned, and its boy-emperor set to the sword.
Bloodfang had helped loot the merchants' quarter.
“No,” said the Eagle, a denial, not a response.
“I was there,” said Bloodfang. He looked at his sack, its bottom lined with spoils. He did not need to have spoken, he knew. But he never thought lying worth it.
“Who – who did it fall to?”
“Kannis,” said Bloodfang. It was Emperor Kannis now, he supposed. “The new capital will be in Ramcastle, where his lands are.”
“Kannis? Of Ramcastle? But he’s – he’s only just taken over his father’s position! Kannis marched against Emperor Ealdred?”
“No,” said Bloodfang. “Ealdred’s grandson. Ashred.”
“Emperor Ealdred has no – ” The ship stopped. When it spoke again, its voice was grim. “I’m beginning to understand that I was in that thrice-forsaken cave for longer than I thought. Who was Ashred’s father?”
“You don’t know?” said Bloodfang, surprised. And no, if the Eagle still though Ealdred ruled the human lands, he wouldn't know. “Kannis is – was – Ashred’s father. Ashred's mother was the empress. Uh.” It took Bloodfang a moment to remember her name, though he knew it would be the Eagle's next question. “Caelwyn.”
“Caelwyn? But she's a child! And third – no. It's been years. I see that. How old when she passed?”
Bloodfang truly had no idea. He had been in Tezzerak then.
“Old enough to have a ten-year-old child.”
“She was a sweet girl," said the ship, after a pause. "Her brothers – I liked her brothers, too.”
“You knew them?”
“I suppose I did. I think... I was theirs.”
It would certainly explain the richness of the ship. If Bloodfang could any more feel fear, he would have felt it then, sliding over him like a dark cloud at the prospect he had stolen an Imperial ship. A magical Imperial ship.
But there was a new Imperial line now. Kannis likely had no idea the Eagle existed. It had been hidden for so long.
“You said Ashred was ten?” the Eagle asked. “Why – how could a man march against his own child? Kannis – I can’t say I liked him. But that’s monstrous.”
Bloodfang shrugged with his good shoulder. “Caelwyn exiled her husband. I don’t know why. After she died, Kannis claimed Ashred was a bastard and had no right to the throne.”
The ship made a distinctly aggrieved noise.
“Even if that were true – and from what you've said, I'm suspicious – the crown should have gone to the next legitimate blood heir! Not some interloper!”
Bloodfang shrugged again. He was reaching the limits of his knowledge, and he still had not admitted to the Eagle what he had meant to. The machinations of the Imperial family were distant and uninteresting to him. Kannis' gold had been good, and that had been enough for the North Company.
He did feel a little bad about Ashred, but children died all the time. Few lived as finely beforehand. Little Fang had not yet reached his eighth year when he died.
“Stars. And Elustrel's temple? Does it still stand?”
“All the temples were destroyed,” said Bloodfang.
The ship cried out, a wordless, anguished noise.
“The gods cannot be pleased,” it said, and it sounded like a prayer. Bloodfang was familiar with that kind of prayer, though it had been a long time since he’d practiced it.
“If the gods cared about mortals beyond entertainment, the world would be very different.”
The ship's anger lashed across Bloodfang's mind, and Bloodfang winced in pain.
“Not all gods are as bad as yours!”
“I won't be lectured on philosophy by a speaking ship,” snapped Bloodfang.
“Why not?” There was laughter in the Eagle’s voice, but it was the sudden laughter of hysteria. “It’s clear now I'm much older than you, Fang. I must be wiser.”
“How long,” asked Bloodfang calmly, “then, do you think it has been?”
“By your telling?" The deck rolled as the ship shuddered. Bloodfang caught his balance against the mast. "At least twenty years, I should say. Maybe thirty. A civil war. I can't believe it. The world was at peace when last – last I remember.”
Bloodfang knew enough about the circumstances of his birth near thirty years ago to know that the Eagle was either lying or ignorant. He said nothing. He assumed ignorance. Bloodfang had been born and grown up far from the sea, high in the Irongard Mountains. There would be no reason for the Eagle to know of the violence on the edges of the Empire’s lands, even if it had been an Imperial toy.
“You said you were there. Under what banner?” said the Eagle. The hysteria was gone from its voice.
Bloodfang grimaced. Here, at last, was what he had been determined to say, and he found he had no appetite to say it.
“I fought with North Company. A free company, contracted to Kannis.”
After Laeidinium fell, and the back of the Imperial army broken, Commander Jein had been given a duchy. She had offered her mercenaries the option of staying on as her bannermen or taking their share of the loot and leaving.
Bloodfang left, and began his long walk to the sea, where he’d heard that pirates lurked among the grottoes and strange women pulled themselves from the dazzling foam, where he thought he could find his death.
Nine days later, he was attacked by Imperial deserters and nearly did.
“A free company?” The boards beneath Bloodfang bucked furiously, nearly driving him off his feet. Penelope, who had spent the conversation investigating Bloodfang’s fishing tackle, leapt a foot in the air and onto the knight.
The Eagle was laughing, but this was a violent laughter.
“You mean mercenaries. You were a mercenary.”
“What honor in that?” demanded the Eagle. “What honor in having your loyalty bought? You fought for him! For the interloper!”
“They built you very loyal, didn't they?”
"And apparently you were born grasping!" shouted the Eagle. Bloodfang clapped his hands over his ears, but the pain was inside his head. “I suppose selling your sword is no jump once you’ve sold your soul!”
Bloodfang flared into anger. He slammed a fist against the mast.
"Who do you think poisoned my clan? Who defiled our river? Why do you think I’m a half-orc? Who do you think my father is? Imperial soldiers! And now your human empire destroys itself – good! Why should I care? I fought to die! Killing your emperor's soldiers was a bonus!"
The Eagle said nothing. It seemed, in fact, to withdraw entirely. A total silence filled Bloodfang’s head. He had not realized, until then, how the ship itself seemed to breathe. Penelope disappeared, too, though whether it was the way his clan’s ghosts disappeared or if she were merely hiding, Bloodfang couldn't tell.
Bloodfang was silent, suddenly wary. He didn’t think being dumped into the sea and drowned by an angry ship would count as an honorable death. It would be a very long swim to the shore.
After a long, long moment, the Eagle spoke again. Its voice was tight with a contained fury, and the sails snapped with displeasure.
“The Marchlords know they’re supposed to control their men, and the Imperial troops are trained to have better discipline than that. What you’ve said is unacceptable behavior. If Emperor Ealdred had known – ”
Bloodfang sunk to the floor and pressed his palms against the warms board of the ship. It was the only way he could think to calm it.
“He would have done nothing,” said Bloodfang. “All humans hate orcs.”
“They’re not all so bad as that!”
Bloodfang patted the Eagle. “I think you were built to be better than those of us with two-legs, ship.”
“No,” said the Eagle firmly. “It has nothing to do with how we’re born or made. It’s what we do. We each make our own choices. How else could the gods judge us fairly?”
“Can’t say,” said Bloodfang, though he knew the gods did not judge fairly, if they cared enough to judge at all. “I’m not clanpriest.”
There was a pause. The ship's sail shook, like a dog that's just come out of the water. Some of the humor crept back into the Eagle’s voice.
“Technically, Fang, I think you are.”
Bloodfang smiled faintly, surprised by his own sense of relief, not just that the Eagle had decided against throwing him overboard, but also that the Eagle had decided ro forgive him. He gave the ship another pat and stood. He looked out across a green-glass sea. Towering clouds swept the distant sky. He breathed deep and smelled only the metallic sea and clean air, and he heard only the minor, disgruntled creaking of the ship. It was a far cry from the tent city of the siege, where the smell of smoke and shit and the cries of wounded soldiers had marked his days.
From beneath a pile of rope, Penelope crept out. She chirped a question.
“Yes,” Bloodfang told her, “we’re done arguing.”
The ship swelled with its sigh.
“We are,” it agreed. “There’s no reason you should care about the Empire’s internecine squabbling. So. I have to ask, why even bring it up in the first place?”
Bloodfang began to set up his fishing line for the day. It gave him time to think. A ship was easy to talk to. This ship was easy to talk to. This ship, perhaps, could be a friend.
“I’m sworn to Cutter Whitetongue,” he said finally. “But I do not want to be like him. I won’t lie to you, and it would have felt too much like a lie to say nothing.”
“Well,” said the Eagle. “Perhaps our ideas of honor aren’t so different after all.”
The day moved peacefully on. Bloodfang checked his bandages and saw that his wound was almost completely. He would have full use of his arm again soon. Wonderingly, he looked at the knight. Had he healed him? Who else could it have been?
He crouched down to examine the knight more closely. His position was as slumped as it had been when Bloodfang first boarded. His armor was covered in a curling latticework that to an elf or man would have looked beautiful, but to Bloodfang there was no sense in the impractical, curling shapes. But the knight was wearing a signet ring over his gloved hand. It bore the seal of an eagle.
“Your name,” said the Eagle, suddenly, breaking Bloodfang’s concentration. “I’ve been thinking about it. Were you named Bloodfang Bonebreaker? It's very, ah, evocative.”
“I chose it.” Bloodfang moved away from the knight and went to check on his fishing lines. The knight would remain a mystery for now. He didn't think the Eagle would appreciate the close investigation. Maybe the knight had been its captain. “We all choose our name when we come of age."
"Which is when?"
He could have sworn the ship snorted.
“So that explains it.”
“Why all orc names are so ridiculous. 'Bloodfang Bonebreaker.' Really. I once knew an orc named Skullcrusher Boom.”
“Skullcrusher Boom is a great hero among my people.”
“Of course she is – oh, you're taking the piss.”
Bloodfang grinned. At thirteen, his name had been aspirational.
“We like powerful names, but they’re not all violent. My mother called herself Kestrel Windspeaker. She walked with the storms.”
“What do they call you before you're thirteen? Are you all just, ‘You! Child!’?”
“My mother had her own name for me, but most of the clan just called me halfborn or bastard.”
“And these are the people whose souls you're trying to save?" asked the Eagle, scandalized.
“They were good to me. Most clans eat their halfborns.”
“Stars, what a sav – I mean. Why didn't they eat you?”
“My mother didn't want them to, and Mad Gnasher told them not to.”
They had been good to him, once they'd accepted him. Big Knife had been patient when Bloodfang wasn't able to keep up, and Stonejaw had taught him how to hunt and track so well that his comparative weakness was erased, at least when it came to stalking a herd of deer through the pine-scented passes of their home. And Mad Gnasher had made him sit beside her at the fire, every evening, and forced him to memorize their clan's history.
"I'm not going to be like you," he had told her, not long before his first deal. "Drooling on myself by the fire! Telling stories! I'm going to be the chief one day!"
She'd thumped him on the head in response.
The Eagle hummed. “I'm not usually for listening to people with the word "mad" in their name, but I can't say I'm upset it happened in this case.”
“Mad Gnasher was mad because she could see the past and the future.”
The ship was startled. Bloodfang could feel it in the way his own heartbeat picked up.
“I – I used to know someone like that. He wasn’t mad though.”
“It takes time. Gnasher wasn’t always mad, and even when she was, she wasn't mad all the time.”
“Pleasant thought. Did she see anything for you? She must have, if she told your clan not to eat you.”
Bloodfang looked out over the sea. They had drifted from the coast and he could see no land on either side no matter where he looked.
"And she didn't give you any hints, did she?" The Eagle sighed. "They never do."
“She only ever said I wasn't alone.”
“That seems like a good thing, no?” said the Eagle, with a light, careful voice.
Bloodfang looked at the knight, at Penelope’s skeleton still huddled against him. Did it matter for either that the other had been there? It seemed unlikely. It had not mattered to the clan that they had all died together, the first death and the last separated only by the morning shift of the sun.
By the time Bloodfang had realized what was happening and that he alone might survive, it had been too late for most of the clan. He had given a sword to those who could still hold one and killed them as swiftly as he could, except for Mad Gnasher, who had refused him, and Little Fang, who he could not bring himself to.
After, he had collapsed. He was too strong for the poison to kill him swiftly, but not strong enough to shake it off completely. He sobbed and moaned in his mother's hut for three nights, and on the third, his fever broke, and Cutter Whitetongue came to him for a second time, Whitetongue with his missing hands and his skinny grin, and the ghost of every clan member Bloodfang had not managed to give an honorable death.
There was a sort of throat-clearing effect. The ship was chatty. It was clearly feeling the effects of its years of solitude. Or maybe it had always been chatty, though that seemed like an odd design.
“What did your mother call you?”
“Ah, sorry, ship. That's powerful magic, and I don’t trust the sorcery of whoever built you.”
“I swear I’d never tell! I’d even swear on the White Lady.”
Bloodfang shook his head, but he smiled, too.
“What will you do when we reach Palladium?” he asked, because he didn’t want their conversation to end either. He was sick of silence and sick of memories and sick of ghosts.
“Oh. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’m sure once I’m there I’ll remember whatever it is I’m supposed to do next.”
Bloodfang pointed at the knight. “What do you think he wanted you to do?”
Once again, Bloodfang felt the impression of a rueful smile.
“I think he wanted me to wait. I just wish I knew for what.”
That evening, Bloodfang cleaned and sharpen his weapons. It was rare he had the time and peace to do it properly, and tomorrow would be their last full day before they docked in Palladium.
And then he would do what? he asked himself. His discharge papers from the North Company would be recommendation enough to any mercenary outfit he could find there, or any merchant with deep pockets and a need for someone to help guard the caravans that traveled from Palladium into the continent’s deep interior.
No joy filled Bloodfang at the prospect. He was, he realized, getting tired of killing only for the hope of dying. When he was young, he had fought to prove his strength and protect his clan. After, he had fought because he’d hoped his death would be swift and his vengeance swifter. Now, he fought because it was the only thing he could do.
The fucking ship had gotten into his head. Having something to die for wouldn’t make a better death, but maybe it would make a better life.
But he had nothing worth living for either.
Perhaps whatever the Eagle was hoping for in Palladium wouldn’t be there. Bloodfang and the Eagle could continue to sail together. It would take time for Kannis to re-establish control of the coast, and the pirates that already prowled the channel would multiply, grow vicious. The Eagle wouldn’t be willing to join them, but he might enjoy fighting them.
The Eagle's voice sliced through his thoughts like sunlight through the parting clouds.
"What is it?" he asked.
Bloodfang got up and looked. Swimming alongside the ship were dozens of dolphins. Their sleek shapes broke the silver surface of the water and then plunged back in. The sky behind them was lilac, twilit, and the dolphins were dark silhouettes as they rose and fell and rose again.
Bloodfang leaned against the railing and stared.
“What is this?” he said, and surprised himself by laughing, loud and joyfully. “Did you do this?”
He could feel the Eagle’s smile in response.
“I’ve always had a way with animals,” it said smugly.
Bloodfang laughed again, and the Eagle laughed, too.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The dolphins swam beside them for a very long time. They flowed gracefully beneath the waves. They raced each other and seemed to dare each other, to come close to the ship, to leap higher. The sounds they made were high and giddy, and their gleaming, pebble-smooth skin reflected the violet sky. In that cool, salt-sweet evening, the dolphins streaming alongside them and the Eagle’s railing solid beneath his hands, Bloodfang could have gladly lived forever.
That night, he dreamt he was back in the sea cave. Mad Gnasher stood beside him. It had been a long time since any of his clan had entered his dreams.
"What is it?" he asked her.
She put a finger to her lip and pointed. He turned and saw that the Eagle floated in the central pool, anchored once more with a silver chain. But there was no knight and no Penelope. Instead, a human man stood at the bow.
He was dressed in silver-trimmed white and a silver circlet was on his head. He must have been a priest or a mage, and a high-ranking one, or else he could not have kept his white clothing so clean. He had the look of a powerfully built man just starting to go to seed. His eyes were downcast, his expression melancholy.
"You're lucky Prince Neath had business at Wendmouth," said a voice. It was familiar.
The man started and looked down. Another man stepped into the cave, dressed in shining armor. A small black cat trotted at his side. Penelope.
So he was not a man, Bloodfang realized. He was the half-elf.
"Am I?" said the man. He was smiling now, but lines of tension framed his face.
"You are," said the knight. "This is cursed far from Laeidinium for a lover's tryst, Evra."
The man – Evra – raised his eyebrows.
"You come, Sir Paladin, when your goddess calls."
The knight paused at the bottom of the gangplank and took his helmet off. His back was turned to Bloodfang, so Bloodfang could not see his face, only the coil of his braid.
"Yes, but it helps that Her speaker is so handsome," said the knight.
Evra laughed softly and held his hand out. The knight walked up and took it. Penelope twined through his legs and then darted off, into the darkness.
"I've missed you," said Evra.
"Then you should return to the capital. That seems like the obvious solution to me."
The knight kissed Evra then. Evra, palming his face, kissed back. It went on for longer than Bloodfang expected. He looked to Mad Gnasher, who grinned her toothless grin and gestured at him to keep watching.
The two finally drew apart. Evra's face was flushed.
"I've been busy," said Evra. His voice was almost too soft to hear, and Bloodfang was sure he only heard it through the peculiar magic of the dream. "There's been a lot I've had to prepare for."
"More visions?" asked the knight. "Of what?"
Evra gestured at the ship.
"This, and you. I've had it built for you."
"Oh?" The knight's head turned side to side, and Bloodfang glimpsed his profile, just the curve of his cheek and point of his chin and line of his jaw. "Thank you. It's lovely. But, ah, what exactly am I supposed to do with it?"
"I've seen it in the port at Palladium."
"Wonderful. I hear Palladium is lovely this time of year. When do we leave?"
Evra did not answer. He cupped the knight's face, so that Bloodfang could no longer even glimpse his profile.
"It's not fair that you still look so young," said Evra
The knight laughed, a rippling, warm laugh. That was familiar, too.
"Are you worried I'm going to leave you for someone younger? You shouldn’t. I like your gray," and Bloodfang watched as the knight's hand rose to brush Evra's temple. "It makes you look dignified."
"No," said Evra. There was a sudden, deep sadness in his voice. "Tycho, please remember that I love you."
"Evra, what's wrong?" said the knight – Tycho? He sounded alarmed.
Evra took a step back.
"I always knew you would outlive me," he said. "I just didn't think it would be by so much."
"What – "
A blast of white magic burst from Evra’s hands and slammed into Tycho. The knight's body hit the railing of the ship, and he fell in a heap to the floor.
Bloodfang jerked forward, his hand on his sword. But there was nothing he could do. It was a dream. Evra pushed the knight's body against the cabin and placed the helmet back on his head. His body blocked Tycho’s face from view.
With a yowl, Penelope shot out from the darkness. She stood in front of Tycho and hissed.
"You should come with me," said Evra. His voice cracked as he spoke. "Tycho wouldn't want you to stay here."
He reached down to pick her up, but she screamed and swiped at his hands, drawing blood.
"Thrice-forsaken cat," he snapped, jerking back. He scowled at his bleeding hand, and then his expression softened as he looked at Tycho. "Fine. Then keep him company.
Evra made a sign in the air – a seven-pointed star, to match the one that hung in the cabin. It shimmered and then floated gently down and disappeared into Tycho's body. Then, he touched an amulet that hung at his throat. Another star. He spoke quietly into the darkness.
"You shouldn't have asked this of me."
There was no answer. Bloodfang didn't think he expected one. The gods were usually quiet at moments like this.
Evra turned and disembarked. He did not look back. On the ship, Penelope stood, back arched, until the echo of Evra's footsteps died away. Then she relaxed and butted her head against Tycho’s leg. He didn’t – could not – respond. Meowing worriedly, Penelope climbed into his lap and settled there.
Bloodfang woke with a gasp. The sky was white with dawn.
"Are you all right?" asked the Eagle, alarmed. "Fang - "
"Tycho," said Bloodfang. He shoved off his cloak and scrabbled out of his bedroll, heart thumping from the memory of his dream. He still half-felt as if he were in the cave. "Is that your name? Tycho?"
No response, and then, the boards of the ship began to shake, but not with laughter, not with fury.
The Eagle was trembling.
“Where did you hear that name?” demanded the Eagle. And, yes, that was the voice Bloodfang had heard in his dream. That was the knight’s voice. Tycho’s voice.
“Mad Gnasher showed me what happened,” he said. He looked at the crumpled form of the knight. “That’s you, isn’t it? You’re Tycho. You're - ” The man in the dream, Evra, had called him a paladin. "You're a paladin. Or you were."
“I don’t – ” The Eagle’s voice faltered. “I don’t remember.”
“What do you remember? What is the first thing you remember?” asked Bloodfang.
Did the Eagle have any memory of who it used to be? Or had the years stripped that from him? Bloodfang felt faintly sick. Evra had played a dirty trick.
“I don’t – I remember. It was dark in that cave. It was dark for a long, long time, Fang. It was just me and Penelope.”
The ship continued to shake. Bloodfang began to worry it might shake itself apart. But he pressed on. He had seen the ship separate from the knight, and he thought the ship would hold even if Tycho no longer had to speak through it.
“Before that. You remember Ealdred. You remember his children. You remember Cutter-damned Skullcrusher Boom. You must remember something else. What’s the first thing you remember? I - I remember my mother, teaching me how to gut a fish.”
There was a long, and terrible pause. Bloodfang looked at the knight in anticipation.
The Eagle spoke, and as it spoke, its sails snapped and fluttered as if they were in a gale. Its voice was an awful groan. Bloodfang remained kneeling on the ground.
“I was hiding under a staircase with one of the other sworn. We’d just – we’d broken something. The Dawnwatcher’s telescope. They made Loren leave after that, but they couldn’t make me leave. There wasn’t anywhere for me to go.”
And then the sails went slack, and a nothingness unlike anything he'd ever known pressed in against Bloodfang’s mind, like when a storm sucked the air from a room.
“Tycho?” he said uncertainly. “Eagle?”
The ship was silent, and the knight was still. Penelope emerged from her hiding place and gave Bloodfang a long look.
“I didn’t know,” he told her, rattled. “I thought it would fix things.”
Quietly, he was relieved she hadn’t disappeared as well.
The wind picked up and filled the sails. The ship kept sailing, its path, presumably, still towards Palladium. Bloodfang sunk forward, onto his forearms, and pressed his forehead against the deck. There was nothing he could do now but hope.
Nothing happened for the rest of the day, nor the half of the night Bloodfang stayed up, still waiting. He eventually drifted into a tense and miserable sleep, where shadows without forms crossed his dreams.
Penelope’s yowl woke him up. He jerked awake, and his hand found his sword immediately. Fire bloomed at the prow of the ship. Bloodfang leapt to his feet. Beyond the flames, Bloodfang could make out the dim shape of another ship, approaching. A flaming arrow shot out from and struck the Eagle’s prow with a heavy thunk, adding to what must have been its twin.
“Fuck,” said Bloodfang.
He dropped his sword, and readied his maul instead. His arm had recovered enough to use it. The pirates would want to board before the ship sunk, to loot. Bloodfang would kill them then. He crouched down, beside the knight, trying to make himself a smaller target from arrows. He wasn’t worried about Tycho now.
The pirate ship was twice the size of the Eagle. It loomed in the dark as it finally pulled alongside, carefully avoiding the flames. Bloodfang could make out the muffled splash of oars as it moved. Four men leapt down – more, thought Bloodfang, and there would not have been room for any of them to maneuver.
He dispatched two quickly, knocking both in the chest and sending them overboard. The remaining two were more careful. They circled him. One, he saw, was a half-orc like him. He grinned at him, and then rushed forward with a reckless yell. Bloodfang’s maul caught the other’s half-orc’s sword and shattered it, and then his maul kept going to catch the pirate in the face.
Headless, the corpse toppled over into the waves. Maybe one day Bloodfang would meet him in the Bright Lands.
Bloodfang stepped aside quickly as the final pirate swung at him from behind. The pirate’s sword slammed into the railing, splintering the dark wood. Bloodfang howled in rage, and, before the pirate could pull his sword out, he broke the pirate’s back.
“Who else?” he roared at the pirate ship. He spread his arms wide. He had no fear of being shot at this angle. He had no fear at all. Behind him, he could feel the beating heat of the fire. It wouldn’t be long before the sails caught, too.
“Who else?” he bellowed again, and he shook his maul at the smoke-dark sky.
Above him, he heard the chatter of an unfamiliar tongue, and then, a single figure leapt down. Bloodfang gave the pirate only enough time to straighten up before he was on him with a shout. But this pirate’s sword was better made than his fellow’s had been. His blade caught the shaft of the maul, just beneath the hammer’s head. With a vicious wrench of his arms, he almost managed to pull it from Bloodfang’s hands. Bloodfang pulled back the maul back quickly, but the momentum sent his body forward, into closer range where the pirate’s sword had the advantage. The pirate was quick and he slashed forward, drawing a long, but shallow, cut across Bloodfang’s chest.
Bloodfang found his balance and stepped back. He held his maul in front of him, forcing the pirate to keep his distance. They circled each other. Bloodfang smiled madly. Sweat dripped down his face and back. He studied the pirate. He was human, with short-cropped hair and hard eyes. The lower half of his face was a mass of scars. So he had not always been so quick.
With a burst of speed, Bloodfang struck, but the pirate darted out of range and laughed.
“Too big for a small ship,” said the pirate, with a gesture at the maul. He spoke with a heavy, guttural accent.
“Cutter take you, scum,” spat Bloodfang and he swung again.
He caught the pirate with only a glancing blow on the shoulder but it was enough to make him drop his sword. Snarling with victory, Bloodfang moved to finish, but the pirate – with unnatural speed – cut in towards Bloodfang. A new blade flashed in his hand, and he slammed his dagger into the meat of Bloodfang’s upper arm, where he still wore the bandages. Pain electrocuted him. For less than a second, his grip slackened. It was enough. The pirate tore the maul from his hands and with a grunt of effort, tossed it into the sea.
“I’ll kill you!” screamed Bloodfang.
He grabbed for the pirate’s throat, but the man ducked beneath his arms and slammed his heel into Bloodfang’s leg, just above the knee. Bloodfang buckled forward and he saw the man’s dagger swing up. He saw his death come towards him.
The silver point of a sword erupted from the pirate’s throat. His dagger fell, and his last words were a gurgle. The sword withdrew. The body dropped.
Standing over the pirate, all in gleaming silver but for the dark blood on his sword, was the knight. Was Tycho.
“You got up,” said Bloodfang, in simple wonder. He fell to his knees.
Tycho nodded. And then he stepped backwards and collapsed.
“No!” yelled Bloodfang. He scrambled forward on his hands and knees, over the pirate's body, but Tycho was completely still.
“I’m sorry!” said a familiar voice into Bloodfang’s mind. Bloodfang swore with relief. “I’m sorry I left! I couldn’t – I had to remember everything, but right now I can’t be me and be the ship! And I need to keep the ship from totally catching fire at the moment!”
“Fuck, that’s right.” Bloodfang stood hastily.
The flames licked down the ship, bright and devouring. Bloodfang rushed towards and tried to beat the fire out, but the heat drove him back.
"Leave it!" ordered the Eagle. "Leave the ship! Take me!"
“I can’t! He – you’ll be too heavy! It’s the armor!” Bloodfang tore his fur cloak from his back and tossed it against the flames, attempting to beat them down. But the fire tore the cloak from his hands and consumed it. He was driven back once again. Distantly, he was aware of the pirate ship moving away. The fire had become too dangerous for them to stay near.
“Just do it! Trust me!”
Shuddering, he ran to the knight and hauled him up. He wasn’t as heavy as Bloodfang had feared. The armor must have been as magical as everything else on the ship, but it would still be difficult to bring him to shore.
He climbed onto the railing, Tycho slung over his shoulder. The fire reflected red and orange and white against the black shine of the water. Distantly, Bloodfang made out an even blacker bulk that meant land. Around him, the forms of his clan began to flicker into view. They stood around him, covering the length of the ship entirely, standing even among the flames, all of them gazing towards the shore.
If he drowned, none of them would be spared. If he burned, none of them would be spared.
The water was shockingly cold. He froze and then sunk beneath his and Tycho’s combined weight. A wave overtook them, and the water filled his nose, his mouth. The salt in it burned in his wounds. Spirits swirled around him; their gray light refracted against each other, dizzying him. Still, he kicked desperately for the surface. He would not die like this.
He broke through with a gasp, still holding Tycho tightly. The Eagle burned behind them, some ten yards. He sucked down air and trod water for a moment, watched in horror as the sails finally caught.
“You have to go!” said the Eagle. “I mean it!”
Bloodfang felt a hard shove against his mind, nearly knocking him beneath the waves once more. He took one last look and then started moving. He swam until he could no longer feel the Eagle’s presence, and then he kept swimming. The clan traveled with him, some ahead, some beside, so luminous as to shame the stars. Slowly, though, as land grew closer, they began to disappear, until only his mother walked the waves ahead of him. She was leading him to shore.
His feet hit earth. The sand shifted beneath his feet, and seaweed wrapped around his legs, like grasping hands. But he was able to throw Tycho over his shoulder again and carry him the rest of the way. The knight had not stirred since his collapse. Bloodfang’s stomach was a stone of fear. He had not abandoned the Eagle and carried Tycho all this way to lose both.
He made it past the furthest lapping of the waves and laid Tycho’s body on the beach. He fell to his knees in the sand beside him. The air was blessedly warm and dry.
“He’ll live,” said his mother. She touched the top of his head, and he stared up at her in shock. He had never heard any of his clan’s ghosts speak. But this was his mother, speaking, her voice coming to him from a decade past. He had forgotten what her voice sounded like.
She pushed the hair from his face.
“He’ll live,” she repeated. “For now. So will you, Cub. Enjoy it more.”
“I can’t,” he said, but she was already fading. He was alone on the beach, with only Tycho’s body beside him.
Tycho shot up with a gasp. He began to cough loudly, and the sound rattled horribly from inside his helmet.
“Cutter – hold still,” said Bloodfang.
Rather than see if Tycho would listen, he held him still with one hand placed firmly on the shoulder. Carefully, almost tenderly, he pulled the helmet off. He tossed it to the ground.
Tycho kept coughing, but, he seemed to breathe a little easier. He gripped Bloodfang’s forearm. They knelt in the sand together like that, one of Bloodfang’s hands on Tycho’s shoulder, and his arm caught by Tycho’s hand, Bloodfang’s other hand half-resting against Tycho’s face. Soon, the coughing turned to deep, ragged gasps, and then that to a calm and steady breathing, though Tycho still seemed dazed.
Bloodfang studied his face. Even in the darkness, Bloodfang could tell Tycho’s eyes were very dark. He seemed young, though the elven blood made it hard to tell. He remembered Evra’s words from his dream – not fair that he should still look so young. He was handsome, by human standards. He could have been carved from stone.
It was the same face as the man who had healed him. Bloodfang could only wonder at the magic that had let his spirit work.
“Are you all right?” Bloodfang asked.
“Yes,” said Tycho. He sounded as he had in Bloodfang’s dream. He sounded like the Eagle. He looked up and his eyes finally seemed to focus. “Stars! Fang? Is that you? You’re even uglier than I thought you would be!”
With a laugh, Bloodfang let go and settled back.
“How ugly did you think I’d be?”
“Oh, ferociously ugly. Soul-shatteringly ugly. The kind of ugly that makes maidens faint and men flee.”
“That’s me,” said Bloodfang.
He watched Tycho closely, but Tycho was no longer looking at him. He was looking at his hands, at his chest, at the beach and the ocean, and the sky. His expression was lit with joy. And then he looked at Bloodfang again and beamed.
“Bloodfang Bonebreaker! I never realized how hard that was to actually say. And I’m Tycho Barre, the Eagle.”
He offered his hand, an introduction. Bloodfang took it, and they shook.
A silver shape burst from the waters with a wail. Tycho and Bloodfang both jerked back in surprise. Bloodfang's hand went instinctively to a weapon he no longer carried.
He didn't need it. Penelope landed between them.
“Pen!” cried Tycho. The cat leapt into his arms, and he held her to his chest as if she were still alive. “Oh, Pen, I was so worried you wouldn’t be able to leave the ship.”
Penelope purred loudly in response. Bloodfang found himself smiling.
“You almost died, didn't you?” said Tycho quietly.
It took Bloodfang a second to realize he was speaking to him. He was so sunk into his relief.
"Yes," he said, once he'd turned over Tycho's question in his mind. He didn't the pirate would have missed.
“Would it have counted?”
“Are you upset?”
“No,” said Bloodfang immediately. He wasn’t. He looked out at the sea, where the ship was a bright, still burning shape. “You would have died, too, wouldn’t you? If I hadn’t gotten you ashore?”
“Probably.” Tycho grinned. “Almost definitely.”
“So. I didn’t want that. Though.” Bloodfang made a face. “I already think I liked you better as a ship.”
Tycho threw his head back and laughed. It was the same full, rich laughter Bloodfang had heard from the ship. That, most of all, set his heart to rest. This was his friend.
“I can’t thank you enough,” said Tycho softly. “You helped me remember.”
"I'm sorry," said Bloodfang. "I know you trusted in your goddess."
"What are you talking about?" Tycho’s eyes were suddenly wide and bright, and they gave a feverish cast to his face.
“She turned you into a ship.”
Tycho cut him off with a sharp gesture.
"Fang! Don't you see? She spared me. She saw what was to come and gave Evra a way to spare me. Our high temple has been sacked. No doubt there are still some of us – the priestly order, at least. But the holy guard? They would have died to a person. They must have died to a person. No. I've been spared for something bigger."
Bloodfang looked at him uneasily. That had not been how things had seemed to play out to him. And the ship, after all, had not made it to dock in Palladium. The future had changed already.
"Your Evra," he said, because he did not believe he could dissuade Tycho even if he did mention his doubts. "Do you think he's still alive?"
Tycho looked at Penelope, still cradled in his arms.
"I don't know. Even if he is, he would be very old by now." He smiled, soft and rueful, and his eyelashes hid his eyes. “Besides, as you said, he probably went mad.”
"Yes," said Bloodfang, and he did not know what to do with the sudden strange tightness in his chest.
"Yes,” echoed Tycho, and the silence between them lingered. Then Tycho squared his shoulders and his expression firmed. “But that’s not important now. We can continue to Palladium on foot. We shouldn’t be far.”
He placed Penelope gently on the ground and stood. Water poured from his armor, but he seemed not to notice. Bloodfang didn’t move. The wounds on his chest and arm throbbed, his muscles were sore, he had no weapons, and he had not slept. It was late enough that the vivid dark of night had begun to leach away into the day. Above him, Tycho shone like the breaching sun.
“Come on, Fang,” said Tycho. He offered his hand. “I have two legs and a mission from the gods. What do you say? Plenty of opportunities for an honorable death.”
He smiled down at Bloodfang, but behind his smile Bloodfang sensed a hesitation. Tycho didn’t know how he would respond. It was a fair concern. Bloodfang had no sympathy for a holy mission, especially not one on behalf of the Empire, and time and violence had burned the need for glory from him.
But, he liked Tycho, even if he were a zealot and a half-elf. He wouldn’t mind traveling with him for a while longer.
Maybe Tycho could be worth living for.
He pushed away the pain and exhaustion.
“Plenty of opportunities?” said Bloodfang. He took Tycho’s offered hand and pulled himself up. To his surprise, Tycho was strong enough to not lose his balance. “Then lead the way.”
Tycho’s answering smile was dazzling.
Together, they walked off into the dawn, their deaths still somewhere ahead.