THE SOVEREIGN SWORD
"For the sons and daughters of Eos, who wouldn't leave me the hell alone until I told their story."
*A link to the maps of Aria can be found on my profile page*
*Foreword: I have decided to put the final version of the prologue here, so old and new readers can experience the best of my writing skills. Hopefully this version will appear in the final product. Thank you all for your time and support, and I hope you enjoy!*
When red day turned to black dusk, murderers, rapists, thieves, and brigands all joined together for a night of merriment within the mess deck. As the dark waters rocked the ship they'd drink their troubles away, eager for a blissful respite.
The seadogs were all corrupt men, driven by the desires of the weak. Most were fugitives who had once fled the Velhiir kingdoms, choosing life instead of honorable execution. Others were outcasts and bastards, forced to resort to a life of servitude aboard the Dawn Courtesan.
Every night they would scramble down into the mess deck, to spend the night drinking old rum and singing songs of the ocean. They were loud, obnoxious, and filthy. They all had rough beards and glazed eyes, their tunics smelling of sweat and sea salt.
Peleus Asharii had grown to despise them over the course of their voyage. He wanted nothing more than to brandishAusvendiir and unleash his rage upon the drunken men. He could almost see their blood spraying across the floorboards, and hear the hiss of his blade as it tore through flesh and bone.
Peleus's temper grew with each passing day, but he knew his suffering would soon be at an end. Within a few days theDawn Courtesan would reach the shores of Irel, and he would be free. He needed only to endure the days that remained.
"Relax, my friend," Beor Tussel told him, chuckling. He was a large man with a stern face and a beard that stretched from ear to ear. He wore a leather tunic with blue trim, and his longsword sat at his side. Peleus had seldom seen him without the blade. "You look red as a beet. You mustn't let your anger get the better of you."
"They're giving me a headache," Peleus said. "Damn them all."
"Bah!" Beor bellowed. "After a day of hard labor they deserve to spend the night drunk and carefree." He turned to the slave girl who was struggling to move through the crowd, her eyes fearful. "Girl! Bring us more rum, and leave the bottle!"
"As you command," The slave said nervously. She was a girl of no more twelve years old, and she looked as if she would jump out of her own skin in fright at any moment. She hurriedly scampered back into the galley, to retrieve another batch of drinks and bread.
He assumed she was sold to the captain of the Dawn Courtesan when she was little. During the day he would see her cleaning the decks and the galley, and at night he'd hear her screams as the seadogs took turns raping her.
"I didn't know you could carry your own weight in rum, my friend," Beor said, drawing Peleus's attention.
"There's a lot you don't know about me."
Beor leaned forward. "I know your coin purse is as empty as your tankard, and you'll be in quite a predicament when the cook comes to collect his pay."
"I thought you were paying for the drinks?" Peleus asked.
"I'll bloody well pay for my own!"
Peleus chuckled. The action felt foreign to him, as if he hadn't done so in years.
"I grew up with men like these," Beor said as he observed the crew. "Did you know that?"
"They're nothing more than vermin," Beor said, "All of them. They most likely grew up in the slums of some far off city, envying the highborn nobles and fighting over the scraps they left behind. I'd still be one of them if not for your lord father."
"You're depressing me," Peleus said irritably. "I came down here for rum and bliss, not sob stories and guilt."
Beor sighed in defeat. "Fair enough. How is Selena faring?"
"She's getting worse," Peleus answered. "Her fever refuses to go down. I fear the baby will come sooner than expected."
"All will be fine," said Beor. "When we reach Irel we'll find a nursemaid willing to deliver the babe. Have you decided on a name yet?"
"I would suggest naming him Beor," the soldier said. "It is a marvelous name."
Peleus grinned. "Naming him Beor would be a curse he could never be rid of."
Beor guffawed. "Your words wound me, my friend! Believe me, we will speak more of this when the time comes!" He leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. "I see you finally took my advice and scrapped your armor for something a bit more . . . comfortable."
Peleus glanced down at his red tunic. It was too small and tight around his chest. He felt vulnerable without his plated armor protecting him. He had spent too many years garbed in the crimson steel, and he felt queer without it.
"Selena insisted upon it," Peleus said. "She feared one day the ship would shake too violently, and the crew would find me drowning in the Aruthain; weighed down by my own armor. In my opinion it's a risk I'm willing to take. I don't trust these men enough to be seen without at least a hauberk upon my chest."
The slave girl returned and placed an unopened bottle of rum onto their table. Next she gave them plates filled with hot bread and butter, and they thanked her generously.
"For your troubles," Peleus said, handing her a silver wyron. "Take it."
"Goddess bless you," she said, taking the coin and burying it in her pocket.
As she turned to leave, a drunken crewman grabbed her by the arm and pulled her close. "Come here, precious," he said, his words slurred. She whimpered as he touched her breasts, chuckling to himself. "Our drinks should come with some entertainment, shouldn't they darling?"
"That's enough," Peleus said, his voice echoing through the room. In an instant the deck fell silent, and all eyes were cast upon him.
"Did ye say something?" the man asked angrily. He lifted his tunic to reveal a curved knife at his waist. "I didn't quite hear ye."
"I said leave her be," said Peleus. He stood, a hand resting upon the pommel of Ausvendiir. The seadogs around him began to back away, fearing the sword at his side and the fire in his eyes. "If you lay another hand on her I will cleave it off."
His threat did not go unheard. The man shoved the girl away, not wanting to feel Ausvendiir's sting. The slave ran frantically back toward the galley.
Peleus sat down again, and within moments the conflict was all but forgotten. The seadogs continued to dance and drink and sing, and Peleus did his best to drown them out.
"You shouldn't draw attention to yourself," Beor said.
"I don't care," he said. "These men do not frighten me."
"They should," said Beor. "If any of them learn who you truly are, then we'll never leave this ship alive."
"Even if they do learn, they cannot best me. I felled thirty-three men on the Burning Fields. Do you remember?"
"I do," Beor answered.
"All of those men were true warriors: born to murder and conquer. But these fools," he eyed the vermin around them, "are nothing but children with play swords. A hundred of these ruffians could not equal one of the soldiers I killed at Ostell."
"You sound quite proud of your reputation for killing soldiers," said Beor.
"Should I not be?" Peleus asked him. "War is life. In these dark days, only the strong survive."
"There was a time, long ago, when you thought differently," said Beor. " There was a time when you would rather save a life than take it."
"That time has long passed," Peleus said coldly. "What's done is done, and I grow tired of discussing these things. Tell me: have you heard any news from the captain?"
"Aye," said Beor. "I spoke with him a short while ago. He assured me the ship isn't being shadowed."
"Odd," Peleus said. "I would have expected Sigmund to send the Kraken after us long ago. He would not have allowed his sister and the King-killer to vanish so easily."
"Maybe the Baalthors have drawn his full attention," Beor suggested. "Maybe he's too busy to bother with us."
"Nonetheless, the captain is a man who has spent his life avoiding slavers and Greycloaks. If we were truly being followed, he'd be the first to know of it."
"Do you trust him?" Peleus asked.
"I know his kind. He's a smuggler commanding a crew of cutthroats. His loyalty is bought with coin, not honor."
Peleus frowned. "That could prove problematic for us."
"Aye," Beor agreed, "it could."
Across the room, the seadogs were becoming louder. They slammed their tankards and stomped their feet as other hummed melodious tunes. With deep voices they began to sing:
I once bought an Ashariian whore
And I paid her with wyrons galore
She said I would need to give more
So I gave her the tip of my sword!
"A pleasant piece, I must admit," Beor said when the song was over.
"I believe I've had my fill for the night," said Peleus. He rose to his feet. "And I can't be bothered to hear another one of their horrid songs."
"I think I'll stay here for now," Beor said. He grabbed the bottle of rum and took a long swig. "I'm almost certain they'll sing of Velhiir whores next, and I'd love to hear. Tell Selena I'll come visit her soon enough."
Peleus nodded and took his leave. He exited the mess deck and made his way through the narrow quarters, grateful to be away from the rambunctious men. The dank corridors were calm and quiet, and for once he could hear the gentle waves.
He came to the stairs leading up toward the main deck and decided to take a gander at the ocean. He emerged into the night, and shivered from the bitter cold. The deck was vacant, and the cool breeze swept over the floorboards.
High above, grey clouds hovered amidst the sky, and he could scarcely hear the crack of far lightning. The dark waters of the Aruthain could be seen in all directions. Peleus's stomach began to twist and turn, and he leaned over the railing to vomit into the ocean.
"Does being out in the ocean always make you uneasy?" asked the captain of the Dawn Courtesan as he strode along the deck. He was a bulbous man, with a pudgy nose and a thick beard. His blue tunic barely covered the fat of his stomach, and the stench of ale was thick on his breath.
"Ships frighten me," Peleus told him. "They are nothing but planks of wood drifting amidst the water. If a strong wave were to come and tip the planks over, they'd be lost for all time."
"You mustn't think like that," said the captain. "It will only make things worse for you."
"It can't be helped."
There was silence as they admired the glistening waves and the pale moon. It truly was a beautiful night.
"I never did ask you your name," the captain said. "We left the harbor in such a hurry that it never even crossed my mind."
"Arymus," he lied. The name was a guise he had chosen since his flight from Nossor.
"Rorik Feldarin," said the captain, holding out his hand. Peleus had no interest in shaking it.
After a long moment, Rorik withdrew his hand. "And the pregnant woman? Does she have a name?"
"I paid you to give us safe passage to Irel," said Peleus irritably, "not to ask questions."
"My apologies," said Rorik. "My curiosity tends to get the better of me."
"Your crew has been admiring her more than they should as of late," Peleus told him. "If it continues, I will be forced to put a stop to it myself."
"My men have no interest in manners, I'm afraid. We've been sailing about for days on end, and it's been quite a while since they've seen a highborn lady."
"Nonetheless, I have warned you," Peleus said. "If they do not behave, their deaths will be on your head."
Rorik sighed heavily. "So be it."
"How much longer until we reach the Ebony Isles?" Peleus asked. He had expected the journey to only last a few days. They had spent ten days sailing across the Aruthain, and Peleus was curious as to why.
Rorik scratched his beard. "Two days, maybe three. Are you becoming impatient?"
"My wife cannot wait any longer," Peleus told him. "The child is near."
"I see," Rorik said. "Do you fear your child will be born aboard this ship?"
Peleus did not answer him. The wind howled as it swept across the deck.
"It's a blessing to be born on the ocean," said Rorik. "I myself was, and so were many others aboard this ship. The Aruthain calls to us. We can feel its motions in our blood. We can hear the songs of the wind. To us, the ocean is our home."
The waves continued to smash against the hull. Fish with scales like glistening crystals leapt from the water in small packs and fell back down into the depths. Their fins skimmed along the surface, creating white strands that curved over the ocean and caused it to ripple.
"It's a beautiful home," said Peleus.
Rorik rested his hands on the railing. "The Rhy-maidens honor those who were born upon the waves. When they die the maidens collect their souls and bring them down into the Deep Depths, to feast with the goddess in the Halls of Atluniss."
"Do all Frostborn folk believe that?" Peleus asked. The Velhiir were an intriguing race of men, who chose to follow a fallen goddess instead of those who still walked the lands. As an Ashariian, one of the Godless Men, Peleus cared little for the gods, be they living or dead. His people believed in swords and shields, not miracles and prayers.
"Aye," said Rorik, "because it is the truth. But I can see why you would ask. Your kinfolk are not known for putting their faith in gods anymore."
"My kinfolk?" Peleus asked, bewildered. Had the captain learned who he was so easily?
"You are clearly not Velhiir," Rorik said. "You were not born from frost and ice. You are an Ashariian, and highborn from the looks of it. I can see it in your eyes."
Peleus could feel his heartbeat quicken. "Is it so easy to tell?"
"Only when you know what to look for," said Rorik. "I doubt the others have noticed it yet."
"Let's hope they never do," said Peleus. "For their sake, and yours."
Rorik released a heavy sigh. "I don't know who you are or what you want, and I honestly couldn't care less. For the right price I offer passage to any who seek it, be they fugitives, murderers, or King-killers. You may keep your secrets, Ashariian, for I know once our business is done I will never see you again."
"I intend to," Peleus told him. "Will that be all, captain?"
"It will," answered Rorik. "It was a pleasure, Arymus." He gave Peleus a slight bow before heading back toward his quarters, whistling a jolly tune as he went.
Peleus took one final look at the stars before retreating below deck. He was weary and eager to be with his beloved again. He found her waiting for him within the warmth of their cabin, and he slipped inside before locking the door behind him. The room was dark and the windows drawn, causing him great pain as he stumbled toward the far cot.
"You've kept me waiting for quite some time," his beloved said as he drew near.
Peleus couldn't help but smile. "I know, my love. I'm sorry."
He could hear the rustling of blankets, before feeling the warmth of Selena's body as she held him tight. He reveled in the softness of her skin, and the heat of her lips.
"I missed you," she said, kissing his neck.
"And I you," he said. "How are you feeling?"
"I've been better," she answered, helping him undress. "The baby is coming, Peleus; I can feel it kick within me. Are you excited?"
"Yes," Peleus said, "because I know it is a boy. I dream of him every night."
"Then your dreams have fooled you," Selena said. "I know it is a girl. I can feel the fire that burns within her every day."
"We will see soon enough."
She kissed him lightly. "Yes we will."
Together they fell onto the cot, and wrapped themselves within a cocoon of wool blankets. Peleus lay his head upon her belly, feeling their unborn child move ever so slightly.
"What troubles you, my love?" Selena asked him.
Peleus knew it was best to say nothing, but he couldn't keep the truth from her any longer. "This is not what I wanted. This is not how things should be."
"What do you mean?"
Peleus met her gaze. "Long ago, I promised I would keep you safe. Do you remember?"
"Yes," Selena said. "You promised that so long as the stars shone like torches above the realm, you would never leave my side."
"I fear I am dishonoring that promise."
"No," she said sternly. "Don't say such things. Your love for me has never faltered. I have felt no fear since we were bonded as one."
"I have forced you to flee your own country," said Peleus. "I have forced you to abandon your family and sail to the edge of the realm. I have shamed you."
It was true. Ever since their escape from Ostell he wondered if she blamed him for killing her father? The man had turned into a maniacal king; the deed had to be done.
It was not often Peleus thought of her father. He had been a heretic and a fiend; a high king who had valued honor over the lives of his own children. Peleus had taken great pleasure in plunging Ausvendiir, the king's own sword, through his heart.
Selena gave him a long, tender kiss. "I feel no shame," she said. "I do what I must because I love you," she placed his hand on her belly, "and I love our child."
"Our child deserves more than this," he told her.
"Our child deserves a father and a mother, and it will have both. We will make it through this."
"You're right," Peleus said. "That is all that matters, for now."
"We must endure, my love," said Selena. "If we do not, then our child will never survive. Now get some sleep. Your eyes are drooping."
She was right. Peleus allowed his eyes to close. He was fast asleep shortly after, his dreams filled with memories of home.
The following days melded together like an unclear blur. Each sunrise was filled with the shouts of the crewmen as they tended to their duties, and each dusk brought with it another night of songs, stories, and drinks within the mess deck.
"I don't trust these men," Peleus told Beor. They were sitting at their usual table, enjoying a meal of salted pork and ale. "I find them stalking outside my cabin every day. They mean to catch a glimpse of Selena."
"Tread carefully, my friend," said Beor. "These men are wild and easily swayed by pleasurable desires. I fear if you leave her alone for too long, you will find them upon her."
The thought was more than Peleus could bear. After finishing their meal the two soldiers left with haste, leaving the seadogs to their raucous affairs. When they came into the corridor leading back to their cabins, they froze.
Hung along the far post was the slave girl. She was naked, and her eyes were dull and lifeless. Her throat had been opened several times, revealing the pink flesh within. Her hands were raised above her head and nailed to the wood, and a message had been carved in blood across her chest:
I touched her
Peleus did not sleep that night. He knew he was the cause of the slave girl's death. If he had not defended her, she would still be alive. She was truly innocent; another victim of Peleus's brashness.
He decided to cut her down and wrap her in linen, before dropping her into the ocean. He remembered what Rorik had told him about the Rhy-maidens and the Halls of Atluniss, and for once he hoped the legends were true.
He spent the rest of the night sitting at the foot of the cot, with Ausvendiir laying across his lap. He cleaned the blade for the umpteenth time, trying to keep himself occupied.
Ausvendiir, The Betrayer, was a cursed blade, yet he dared not part with it. It was a burden he chose to bear; a reminder of the sins he had committed. North-born kings had wielded it for countless generations, but now it was in the hands of a man with no honor; a prince with no throne.
Still, he could not deny the beauty of the sword. Legends spoke of it being forged nearly a thousand years ago in the fires of Fauspell, by the great bladesmith Ausdor Blackborn. High Steel had been used to mold the blade itself. The steel seemed to ripple and glisten when the light touched it. The hilt and crossguard were crafted from ancient wyrmbone, and the pommel was carved to resemble the head of a fierce wyvern.
He could easily recall the day he first held the sword. It had been dusk, and all around him was fire and death. Blood filled the waters around the Castle Tair'osstoss, and Ostell was in ruin. Markus Baalthor had led his host of five thousand straight through the Old Gates, alongside his renowned sons, Aedan and Stratus. Peleus had ridden with them, garbed from head to toe in glinted crimson armor.
Peleus had killed countless men that day. He could only remember the hatred that bore him as he cut soldiers to ribbon. To him they were heretic savages, sworn to a mad king who betrayed his heritage and bent the knee to Agis, the God Who Walked Amongst Men.
After the seize, when the armies of Velhiriim and her allies had conquered much of the North, Peleus ran for the Great Hall, where he knew his beloved would be held. Instead he found King Pellegrin, groveling on his knees before the Godking.
"Have you no shame?" the high king had asked him, all those years ago, before Peleus had thrust the sword deep into his chest. The memories were still vivid, and the small cabin morphed into the burning throne room he swore to never return to. "Have you no honor? I spent my entire life earning the right to wield that very blade, yet here you stand, defying both gods and men and wielding a power you cannot comprehend! I may die here, Son of the Spire, but my vengeance does not. Soon you too will die, and the burning traitors will come to eat your flesh when you enter through the gates of grimnir!"
Peleus leapt to his feet and struggled to catch his breath. The cabin was as it once was, and his beloved lay sleeping a few feet away. Sweat covered his brow, and he allowed his heart to calm again. When all was still, Peleus sat once more and closed his eyes. He shoved the memories from his mind; allowed the darkness to slip back into the void of his heart. He did not wish for the ghosts of the past to haunt him again.
The next morning brought with it a cruel realization: the crew was becoming restless. When they were sober enough to think they began to question Peleus's presence on their ship. Rumors spread like wildfire below the decks, and Peleus feared that soon they would burn him alive.
"Ah, Arymus," Rorik said as Peleus stepped into the captain's cabin. "I was afraid you would not come. Please, sit. There is something we must discuss."
Peleus obeyed, and the captain poured him a cup of wine. "What is there to discuss?"
"There is talk of mutiny amongst the men," said Rorik. He poured a drink for himself.
Peleus guffawed. "Mutiny aboard a ship filled with smugglers and cutthroats? Preposterous."
"Aye," said Rorik. "Mutiny is bad for both of us."
"How so?" asked Peleus.
"Because of that," said Rorik as he pointed toward the red headband tied around Peleus's left shoulder. "One of the men has seen that symbol before. It is the mark of the seven heirs of the Asharii, and it brands you as one of the most notorious men in all of Eos."
Peleus said nothing. He had long ago decided against hiding the headband from prying eyes. He wore the sigil of the black gryphon with pride, as it was meant to be. It was a memento of the home he left so very long ago, and the life he had given up for the spoils of war.
"These men are wild, Arymus," said Rorik, "and desperate. The Seven Sons of the Asharii have bounties of over five thousand wyrons on their heads, and if they suspect you are one of them they will stop at nothing to kill you. I have no doubt they'd kill me as well, for offering you passage aboard their ship."
"Let them try," Peleus said. "I would gladly kill every last one of them."
"I know you would," Rorik said, "but I'm afraid I cannot allow that."
"Are you foolish enough to stop me?" Peleus threatened.
"Of course not!" Rorik bellowed. "A businessman with no workers is no businessman at all. If there is a way to remedy these thoughts of mutiny without casualties, then I would gladly find it."
"There was a way," Peleus said, standing. "But it has long been lost. Your crew lacks loyalty, and they lack a captain with the courage to punish them when they do wrong. It seems business has taken a turn for the worst, my friend, and now you are a dead man walking."
Rorik chuckled and poured himself another drink. "Then that makes two of us."
Peleus had heard enough. He left the captain to his worries, and made his way below deck. As he strode through the corridors, he began to hear footsteps behind him. He stopped, drew Ausvendiir, and waited. At the sight of the glistening steel his followers quickly dispersed, leaving him alone again.
Peleus sheathed his sword and pressed on. He found Beor sitting at their usual table within the mess deck as predicted.
"It seems we've overstayed our welcome," Peleus told Beor as he sat beside him. He glanced around the room, and was not surprised to find all the crewmen glaring at them.
"We were never welcome aboard this damned vessel," grumbled Beor. "Even the rats spit as I pass by."
"The captain suspects mutiny," said Peleus. "I fear our lives will be threatened tonight. If things bode ill and I am unable to protect my wife, I want you to keep her safe. I trust only you with her life."
Beor offering him his hand, and Peleus clasped it tightly. "With the Dead Goddess as my witness, I swear you this oath: no man shall ever harm your wife or unborn child, and I will see them safe no matter what the cost."
Peleus gave a nod of content. He knew Beor would not fail him. "Thank you, my friend."
They sat in silence, their minds filled with tense thoughts. Suddenly the crewmen began to hum deeply, their faces shadowed. An eerie tension fell over the room, and they sang a chilling requiem for the two soldiers:
Only when my sword is all but shattered
Only when my soul is crushed
Only when my shield is all but splintered
Only when my heartbeat fades
Only when the frost has come to claim me
Will I fall and rise in death
When their song was done the crewmen exited the mess deck, leaving a solemn silence in their wake.
"It seems we have sealed our own fates," Beor said, frowning.
"You've heard the song before?" Peleus asked.
"Aye. It is a song to be sung to soldiers who have fallen in battle." He crossed his arms. "It is strange though. Normally the song is sung after the bloodshed, not before it."
Peleus stood, quickly growing uneasy. He gave Beor a soft pat on the shoulder. "Remember your training and keep your wits about you. I fear this night will be much longer than those that have come before."
Beor nodded, and Peleus left him to prepare. He moved with haste through the narrow corridors, the leering eyes of the crew always upon him. He reached his cabin and locked the door behind him. Selena embraced him, and he sighed in relief.
He told her of the looming danger. He told her of his conversation with Rorik, and the eerie song the crewmen had sang. When he had finished he drew Ausvendiir and placed it beside the door. He knew he would need it soon.
"Don't be afraid, my love," Selena said as she held him close. "I am here with you."
"I'm afraid I will fail," Peleus said, "and you will be taken from me. I'm afraid my child will never live to see the light of day."
"You are only a man," Selena said softly, "yet you have done what most men could never do. You have sacrificed so much to protect what you cherish, and for that you will be remembered. If we should die today then so be it; I do not fear death. But our child will live on. It will bear our name and carry our love in its heart."
Peleus kissed her passionately. He loved her now more than ever before. He held her close and never wanted to let go. He would mercilessly kill any who dared separate him from her, for she was all he lived for.
When evenfall came, a dark tension fell over the ship like a shroud. The Dawn Courtesan swayed and jostled as fierce waves crashed into it. The sound of cracking wood could be heard all around, and Peleus could do little to calm his anxiety.
Peleus bided his time. He had insisted upon wearing his crimson armor, so Selena had helped him into it. He was comforted by the plated steel. The armor was like a second layer of skin for him, one he could not live without.
Suddenly Selena let out a blood-curdling scream, and Peleus Asharii watched in horror as she fell to the floor. She cried in agony as blood began to flow from between her legs, drenching her gown and spilling onto the floorboards.
Peleus ran to her side, his heart filled with dismay. Selena began to writhe in pain, tears welling in her eyes. He knew he needed to help her, but he did not know how. Panicking, he shouted for Beor. Within moments there was a vicious banging on the door, and he swung it open to let his comrade inside.
"What's going on?" Beor asked frantically. "What's wrong with her?"
"The baby is coming," said Peleus. "Someone needs to deliver it."
"I'm afraid I have no experience—"
"Then fetch me someone who does!" Peleus shouted in panic.
"And who will I fetch?" Beor shouted back. "The bastard who cut open a slave girl's throat? The drunken captain who doesn't know his cock from—"
"Enough!" screamed Selena. They fell silent. She placed a hand on Peleus's cheek. "I can do this. You must trust me."
Peleus nodded, his heart in ruin. She screamed again, and he felt utterly powerless.
He sat by her side as she shook in pain. The floorboards became red with blood as Selena pushed with all of her might. Beor was close at hand, using the torn blankets to clean her body.
Suddenly the door began to shake violently, as unseen assailants tried to break their way in. A chill slid down Peleus's spine. He knew what awaited him beyond the door, and he knew the price if he failed to defeat it.
"Come and face death, Son of the Asharii!" came a muffled shout from outside the cabin.
"We've run out of time," Peleus said to Beor. He quickly retrieved Ausvendiir and made for the door. "Stay by her side and I'll drive them off."
"May the goddess be with you, my friend," Beor said, his voice grim.
"And you as well," Peleus said. "Remember your oath."
With that the Ashariian swung open the door and stepped into the corridor beyond. Before him stood nine crewmen armed with dented swords, pikes, dirks, and axes. Their eyes were filled with feral hate.
"I can't push the baby out," he heard Selena say hoarsely. from within the cabin. Her breaths were becoming ragged. "Beor . . . you'll have to cut me open . . ."
Peleus kept himself from looking back. One by one the crewmen charged him, bloodlust clouding their minds. Peleus lifted his sword and battered away a clumsy thrust from the nearest crewman. With a quick spin the Ashariian plunged his blade deep into the man's chest, and he fell in a stream of blood.
Within moments another rushed forward to take his place. Peleus lunged and brought his sword down in a flash of blood and steel; dismembering the crewman from shoulder to waist.
Selena screamed in horror within the cabin. Peleus wanted to drop his sword and rush back to her, to wipe her tears and shower her with love. But he knew he could not. He needed to focus, trust, and endure.
A third crewman confronted Peleus. He wielded a rusted shortsword with relative skill, and Peleus was hard pressed to keep him at bay. Their blades clashed over and over again, hissing and screeching with each blow.
When the crewman made a desperate jab toward Peleus's heart, the Ashariian deftly evaded and severed the man's sword-hand at the wrist. The man gave a shrill scream and fell to his knees, tears rushing down his face. "Please," he said, trembling, "have mercy."
Peleus cleaved his blade through the man's throat, and he said no more. The Ashariian kicked the man's body away and stepped forward to greet another assailant.
A fourth crewman was quickly eviscerated by the Ashariian soldier, and his charging comrade was decapitated in a flash of crimson. The two bodies fell in bloodied heaps, and Peleus wiped the grime from his face.
Again and again his sword fell, until nine bodies lay at his feet. He pointed his sword at the rest, dried blood masking his face. He knew no fear, and if they moved to confront him, he would show them no mercy. The remaining crewmen began to back away from him, their eyes filled with terror.
An infant's cries echoed through the narrow corridor.
Peleus looked back, and saw his newborn son for the first time. The babe was small and pale, with tiny limbs that swung in the air. Peleus smiled at the sight of his only child, overcome with joy.
Then he saw her. Selena lay unmoving, her eyes distant. Her belly had been torn apart, and she was engulfed in a puddle of blood. A fear unlike any he'd felt before overtook Peleus, and he screamed her name as loud as he could.
Then a sudden pain rushed through him, as if his chest had been set ablaze. Peleus looked down to find a shimmering blade protruding from his breastplate. Blood seeped forth and covered the steel, before dropping to the floorboards.
"Peleus!" Beor shouted, the newborn cradled in his hands.
"It's all right," Peleus said as he took a step toward the cabin. The blade slid free, and he grimaced. He reached out to his oldest friend. "Remember . . . your oath . . . the child is more important."
Peleus fell to his knees. He stared at the lifeless body of Selena; her body covered in blood. There was another flash of pain as he was stabbed yet again, and Peleus struggled to keep himself from falling to the floor.
He watched Beor as he placed a woolen blanket over Selena's body, and held the babe close to his chest. He knew then that he would keep his oath, and for that Peleus was grateful.
A rising heat ran through his body, and he found it oddly comforting. It numbed his pain and took form in his mind, until it became a burning thought that needed to be spoken. "Name him . . . after Selena's father. . . Pellegrin . . . it's perfect . . ."
The warmth left him. When the last of his strength had faded away Peleus allowed his body to fall. His eyes became heavy, and each breath was a battle of its own.
He was not angered or distressed at the idea of dying. The thought of being at peace was strangely appealing, for he would receive a freedom that was unobtainable in life. His debt would soon be paid, and he would finally be at rest.
And so he surrendered his soul. Death was a foe he could never defeat, and he released his final breath. Peleus Asharii could feel the gentle sway of the ship once more, until even that faded, and guttered, and died.