Two months on the sea had not done any good to Owen Polare. Though he had been working as he had since he was a young journeyman as a very successful sea-faring merchant, pushing across the white crests of the Larose Sea caused him to succumb to reoccurring fits of nausea that proved impossible to overcome.
"Captain!" he shouted between gasps of air, hunched over the railing of the Harbiner, "how many more days until we reach the port?"
The Captain, Jarhal, a lean, muscular man of forty, stilled the helm, tightening a leather thong around one of the protruding prongs of the wheel to a wooden post behind it. He walked heavily, his boots thudding against the thick planks of the deck. "Only another week, Owen. Then you'll be off this ship that you seem to hate so much."
"Another damn week," he muttered under his breath. "I don't hate this ship, Captain. I just hate the ocean. How many times I've crossed it—probably the same path as the one we took this trip—and I can't seem to stomach the throes of these damn waves!"
"We've got a few herbs left down in the stash boxes; perhaps we've got something to rid you of your stomach sickness." Jarhal was beside him now, staring off into the vast blue that surrounded them.
"Oh, if any herb could cure me of this, then I'd take the whole lot."
The other gave a chuckle. "That would only make you more sick, my good merchant." His words had a sarcastic turn to them.
He and Owen had been friends for ten years hence. Often, the merchant bartered for passage across the ocean, back and forth, between the nine lands and the less vibrant further west, near the supposed edge of the world.
A rather urgent call of his name sent the Captain turning on a fast heel, heading back to another shipmate across the deck. Owen tried to distinguish the words, or at least some of them, but the man kept his voice to a scratchy whisper, completely inaudible over the crash of the waves and the creaking of the boards. His curiosity leapt again when the Captain made a hard glance to his cabin, leaning back so as to see around the masts obscuring his vision.
With a short nod of his head and a loud, 'Thank you,' to the mate, Jarhal turned and swiftly stalked over to Owen, resting a hand on his shoulder. "There is a problem with the boy."
Instantly, the merchant's gaze spun to meet him, his eye twitching. "A problem?" His voice was dark, but his complexion pale.
"Yes, I would like you to come with me."
Owen gave an affirmative nod, feeling suddenly ridden of the nausea begotten of the ocean, but given anew by the worry of the boy.
This boy was determined as precious cargo upon the Harbinger, and allowed to stay in the Captain's Cabin wrapped in a blanket situated on a low cot that was bolted to the planks. Galahan, the boy's name was. He had come into the merchant's possession as a slave whose master was more than eager to sell him for merely a gold nugget—of small worth. The slave master claimed the boy to be a host of bad luck. But, the merchant, Owen Polare, the generally kind man he took note to be, had no belief in luck of any kind, or in slavery, an extremely cruel thing to do to another person, let alone a boy as young as Galahan.
Owen, having a good heart as he always had, could not bear to see the boy under such harsh control, and adopted him into exclusive care under his own arm. Of course, he felt no other thing could be done but to bring the boy along with him to the Nine Lands. However, he suspected a strange uncanny fear of the continent in the child's mind when the boy screamed in fear upon the mention of the words, 'Ara Lei.' Surely, the boy had never been there before, having only been a boy of no more than ten or eleven, possibly even younger, and the mystery escalated.
But, the boy grew quite in time, and the Captain, being as good a friend to the merchant as he was, offered to give Galahan passage and even a spot to sleep in within his own quarters. The boy hadn't had any more fits or fears about traveling to Ara Lei, though he was rather distant. At dinners aboard the ship, he ate little and spoke even less. His eye contact with the others was minimal, and before long, the shipmates began to talk amongst themselves about the poor, unfortunate child. But, his withdrawal was, of course, reasonable; the boy had been adopted by a man he had known for only a few minutes beforehand.
However, one should think that the child would be a great deal happier having been rid of the slavery that was his life for however long.
"Yes, Galahan? What's the matter?" he asked as he entered the Captain's Cabin.
Galahan sat curled into a tight ball in the corner, whimpering, whispering things that no one could make out, praying perhaps. The boy's head was drenched with sweat, though the hair reached only down to his chin, hardly enough to dampen as much as it did in the comfortable weather. His clothes were also wet, especially around the neck.
At once he unleashed an unearthly scream, as though someone had just run him through with a spear. All the men in the room, even the Captain, recoiled, hiding their faces with their hands.
"What is the matter, boy?" Owen asked.
"He'd been doing this for a few minutes now; this is about the third time he screamed like that, though," a shipmate said off to the side.
Galahan pushed back further and further into the corner with his feet and open palms, as though expecting the walls to budge with enough applied pressure. The whimpers grew louder with each effort.
"What's the matter? Galahan, can you hear me?" The merchant slowly walked over to the boy, his arms out before him in a comforting gesture.
As though he hadn't spoken at all, or else the words hadn't registered in his mind, he continued to press into the wooden walls.
"Stop it or you'll hurt yourself!" the Captain shouted, and the merchant waved a hand behind his back signaling the men to keep quiet.
Slowly, he crept up to Galahan. The boy had his eyes squeezed shut as though trying to vacate a horrid picture from his mind. With every turn of his head, sweat dripped off of the tips of his hair and onto the planks.
Gently, the merchant extended a hand and rested it on the child's shoulder. Instantly, as if snapping out of a trance, the boy stopped, his eyes suddenly wide, taking in as much light as he could.
"It's alright, boy. What happened?"
Gradually, the boy's breathing slowed to a calm rhythm. The boy didn't answer, but let his jaw hang loose. His arms rested limply against his sides. He looked around at the other men in the room as an infant would in a crowded place. His face was unreadable, but his eyes still carried the essence of fear. However, despite this, the boy seemed perfectly calm with the merchant's hand on his shoulder.
After a minute or so passed, and no other man spoke a word, Owen raised his arm signaling the other men to leave. The door clanged shut; the men had left—they were alone.
He spoke again, in the most calming voice he could muster. "What was the matter?"
For a while, the boy's jaw only quivered as though he made an effort to make his mouth move, but still too weak to make the movement. Then, he spoke, and his voice was filled with so much fear that, though his body's tremors stopped, his voice continued to do so.
"Why are we going to the Nine Lands?"
Owen struggled not to allow the confusion that took him to be expressed on his face. The only way to calm a terrified child was to act as strong as possible. "Galahan, I'm a merchant. I travel from place to place, selling things, buying things. It's how I make my living, how I survive."
"How do you know you will survive there?"
This time, he lost the struggle, and his eyebrows furrowed thoughtfully, somewhat fearfully. "Why wouldn't I survive? We just travel to a few port cities and sell things, buy other merchandise, and leave. There will be no trouble."
"No. It does not matter what you do in life. You could be a merchant or a cobbler or a baker. There is a new evil there from which no one can escape. This evil will spread through the entire land. It will be a battle of gods—of good and bad."
The merchant felt as though he were stabbed in the foot and unable to reach it. There was a pain in him now, that a boy could know these things—if he did not know them, it must have induced significant agony to dream them up—and somewhere, though he refused to believe it, of fear of the land, himself. He yearned to ask, 'What kind of evil? What battle of gods?' but he decided it a better choice to change the subject, to lift these fears from the troubled boy's mind.
"Did someone say the words to you? You know, the two other words for the Nine Lands?"
Immediately, the boy stiffened, the hair on his arms rising. "Don't say those words! Don't say them!"
"I won't, I won't," he comforted, bringing the boy into an embrace with both of his arms.
"Don't do it; it gives me nightmares when I'm awake. I see things, such awful things! No person should see them."
He hushed the boy, continuing to offer his comfort with the embrace. "Did somebody say them to you, though?"
The boy fell silent for a bit, during which time he coughed and sniffled once, trying to return his breathing to a completely normal rate. "Yes."
"Yes, the short one."
"Alright," the merchant said, loosening his embrace and backing slightly away. "Will you be alright in here for a few minutes while I go talk to the other men aboard? I'm going to make sure they don't frighten you ever again."
The boy nodded and crawled back over to his bed, slipping under the covers, and pulling his knees tight to his chest.
"Are you awake?"
Galahan turned over, his eyes adjusting to the light of the room, having been shut for so long. Owen, the kind merchant who bought him from his shackles, stood in the doorway, peering over at him.
"Yes; I never fell asleep," the boy said, rubbing his eyes. "Just resting is all."
"I see," the man in the doorway said, walking over to him. "I talked to the men." He knelt down close to the boy, and speaking with a light voice, said, "They know now how to act around you. They won't mention that place anymore."
"Thank you," the boy said, still unable to make eye contact with the foreign face. It was not that he had no trust in the merchant, but more that all of the older people around him for years had only wanted to inflict pain upon him.
"Can we talk about something?"
The voice was kinder than before, and had the boy been older, he would have expected the sensitive subject that was about to arise. But, being a boy of ten years, as he was, he welcomed the matter openly. "Sure."
"I don't mean for this to sound rude and intrusive, and if you don't want to answer, then you don't have to. I'm just wondering." The merchant's eyes remained on him, a sign of honesty in a man. "How long were you in slavery?"
His face perplexed for a moment, as if in thought, but he answered shortly. "Three years."
"Always with the same man?"
"My master was always the man that you bought me from, yes."
"How did you end up there?"
Again, the boy grew thoughtful, perhaps even feeling a spike of pain on the subject, from the looks of his face, but he answered. "I lived with my mother and father on an island off the coast, only with a few other people. The man that enslaved me killed my parents when he found them and took me. I have no idea why he did that, but he did either way."
The boy's voice grew troubled on the account of his mother and father, and Owen offered a comforting rub on the back. "Don't talk about them if it hurts you. I'm sorry I asked."
"No, it's alright. It's a good thing I didn't have any brothers or sisters or who knows what he would have done to them." The smile he used then was obviously a forced one.
"When I took you from him, he told me that you were the 'host of bad luck.' What did he mean, do you know?"
For the first time, Galahan's eyes met Owen's, showing a change in what he felt of the subject. "Half of his cattle died the second year that he had me. He tried selling me to every other merchant and slave driver that he passed, but none of them would buy me until you came along. You saved me."
The room was silent for a moment or two, during which time only the creaking of the boat and the faint crashing of the waves on the hull could be heard. In a way, it was soothing, but in another, it was far from it.
"You're not going to…make me work…are you?" Galahan's voice was little, fearful.
Owen turned the boy to look into his eyes at a start. "Of course not! I would never do that. The reason I bought you from him was because I couldn't stand to see you in shackles. It's an awful thing to do to a person!"
"Do you promise?"
Owen smiled comfortingly at the boy. "Yes."
"Say, 'I promise I will not make you a slave."
He chuckled. "I promise I will not make you a slave," he said with extra emphasis on the, 'promise.' Of course, he meant this with all his heart. He never understood how anyone could do that to a person of any age.
"Thank you," Galahan said, embracing the merchant in a tight hug, a smile on his face.
Finally, the boy found peace.