GREYFALL

Book one:

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*


PROLOGUE


A battle raged within the mess deck.

Drunken men clashed bottles and cups as they filled the musky room with their shouts. Their ragged tunics and unruly beards were wet with wine, and their eyes were glazed and distant. Some argued and brawled over spilled drinks while wiser men sang old songs of the black ocean.

Peleus cringed against the chaotic noise. He leaned back in his seat and took a long drink from his cup. The rum miraculously soothed his mind and drowned the obnoxious noise around him, like an elixir curing a sickened man of fever.

Each night was the same. When the crescent moon rose to command the night the seadogs all piled into the mess deck. Within moments their gullets were filled with mead and rum, and they'd mull around in utter bliss until dawn came again.

"Careful," Beor Tussel said as he watched Peleus finish the rum. He was a rather large man with a stern face and a short brown beard, and his dark eyes were already glazed from too much rum. He wore a leather tunic with blue trim, and his longsword rested in its scabbard at his side. Peleus had seldom seen him without the blade. "The night is still young, my friend."

"They're giving me a headache," Peleus said as he sneered at the rambunctious crowd. "Damn them all."

"Bah!" Beor bellowed as he slammed a hand on the table. "After a day of hard labor they deserve to spend the night drunk and carefree." He looked to a small deckhand boy as he moved through the clumsy men. "Lad! Bring us two more cups of rum, and leave the bottle!"

The deckhand nodded timidly as he passed by their table. He was a young lad of maybe twelve or thirteen, and he looked as if he would jump out of his own skin in fright at any moment.

"Hurry back," Beor said as he tossed the lad a silver wyron. The boy caught the coin with a shaky hand and quickly placed it in his pocket. He scurried away from the pack of wild men, towards the far off galley.

"I didn't know you could carry your own weight in rum, my friend," Beor said to Peleus as he glanced at the empty cups on the table.

"There's a lot you don't know about me."

Beor leaned forward. "I know that your coin purse is as empty as your cup, so you'll be in quite a predicament when the cook comes to collect his pay."

"I thought you were paying for the drinks?"

"I'll bloody well pay for my own," Beor shot back.

Peleus laughed. The action felt foreign to him, as if he hadn't shared in a laugh in years.

"I grew up with men like these," Beor said as he watched the ship's crew. "They're nothing more than thieves, scoundrels, and brigands. They all probably grew up in the slums of some far off city, stealing from the highborn nobles and envying the poverty of the lowborn workers." His eyes grew distant, as if some old memory had clouded his sight. "By the goddess I'd still be one of them if not for your lord father."

"You're depressing me," Peleus said as he ran a hand through his black hair. "I came down here for rum and bliss, not sob stories and guilt."

"Aye, aye." Beor sighed. They watched as the young lad appeared once again from the galley. He held a tray brimming with beverages, and he moved deftly through the rough crowd.

Peleus pitied the deckhand. He knew the boy had no future. If the smuggler's didn't cut his throat in the dark of night for stealing loaves of bread from the kitchens then he would grow up to become a man void of honor and dignity. He would travel the lands of Aria without love or family or purpose, and not even the heretic gods could save him from his shame.

"How's Selena faring?" Beor asked as they waited for the boy to reach them. His words jarred Peleus free from the depths of his mind.

"Worse I'm afraid," Peleus answered. "Her fever refuses to go down and 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 baby. Have you decided on a name yet?"

"No."

"If it's a boy then I'd be honored if you named him Beor." He gave Peleus a sly grin.

"Naming him Beor would be a curse he could never be rid of."

Beor laughed heartily. "Your words wound me. As for mine, I see that 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 squeezed at his chest, and he felt vulnerable without the steel of his armor protecting him. He had spent too many years within the warmth of his armor.

"Selena insisted upon it," Peleus said. "She feared that one day the ship would shake too violently and she would find me drowning in the Aruthain because of the 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 under my tunic."

The deckhand finally reached their table and gave a slight bow, a tray cluttered with cups, bottles, and bowls held tightly in his hands. They watched the boy with keen eyes as he placed a pair of cups brimming with rum onto their table.

Suddenly a drunken sailor fell from his chair and struck the deckhand on the back with a flailing hand. The lad shouted in surprise and dropped the tray, sending a bottle of mead crashing onto the table. Peleus flinched as the golden liquid splashed across his tunic. He lifted his eyes to glare at the boy, his blood burning with anger.

"I-I'm terribly s-sorry," said the lad as he fell to his knees.

Peleus slammed his fists on the table and stood. In an instant the mess deck was silent; all eyes were on the soldier. He glanced around the room, admiring the looks of fear and nervousness that adorned the crew's faces. Their eyes all seemed to drop to the ornate longsword that rested at his side.

Peleus grabbed the drunken sailor by the shirt and lifted him to his feet. The stench of rum seemed to rise from his mouth and nose, and Peleus gave him a disgusted look. "You're paying for our drinks."

The sailor nodded repeatedly. Peleus let him go, and he quickly scampered back to his table. He snatched an unopened bottle of rum from a nearby table and took his seat. A few moments passed, and the mess deck returned to its undignified form. The confrontation was soon forgotten, and the memories were washed away with plentiful mead and rum.

"You shouldn't draw attention to yourself," Beor said as he watched Peleus pop open the bottle. "If any of these men learn who you truly are then we'll never leave this ship alive."

"I do not fear these men, and I do not fear death." Peleus lifted the bottle to his lips.

"But how many of them can you cut down before you're overwhelmed?"

"I killed thirty-three men on the Burning Fields. All of those men were soldiers: born and bred to murder, pillage, and conquer. But these fools," Peleus gestured to the other tables, "are nothing but dust beneath my feet. One hundred of these ruffians couldn't equal one of the soldiers I felled at Ostell."

"You sound as if you're proud of your feats on the battlefield," Beor said as he scratched at his beard.

"War is life," Peleus replied. "Should we not be grateful that we still live?"

"Yes," Beor answered. He sighed. "But we aren't truly living if our days are filled with regret."

Peleus was silent. He looked at the bottle in his hand, and his mind wandered. "When I am long dead and turned to ash, only my feats will remain on the pages of the histories. It's better for me to just accept that fact rather than deny it."

"Will you accept it when the pages remember you as the man who betrayed his own king?"

A chill slid down the Peleus's spine. He looked to Beor. "He was not my king."

A sailor across the room gave a horrid shout and stood. He held his tankard away from him in disgust. "The bloody bastard pissed in my drink!"

The sailor slowly tipped the tankard over, and sure enough a stream of golden urine fell to the floor. The entire mess deck was filled with uncontrollable laughter as his comrades pointed at the liquid.

"I had already drunk half of it before I even noticed!" the sailor turned to the plump cook who stood in the galley. "To grimnir with ye, mate!"

"A toast!" shouted another ruffian as he grabbed the sailor by the shoulder and laughed. "A toast to my piss-drinkin' brother Halborn!" He was rewarded with a myriad of shouts and clashing tankards.

"Most of ye know Halborn, and Halborn knows most of ye," the man said between swigs. "Most of ye know what happened to Smiley Alfnir a few days ago." There was another burst of cheers and shouts. Peleus's mind seemed to catch fire at the noise.

"What kind of seaman doesn't know how to swim?" the man asked his crewmates. The mess deck exploded with laughter as they dishonored their deceased comrade.

"Well," the man said, "the cap'n has seen fit to make old Halborn here First Mate!"

"A toast!" shouted the crowd of drunks. "To First Mate Halborn!"

There were clinks and claps and a few shattered bottles before the room was calm again.

"This is quite the interesting crew." Beor Tussel chuckled.

"They all share in the bliss of ignorance," Peleus said.

"And speaking of the captain," said Beor as he filled his cup, "I spoke with him a short while ago. He assured me that the ship isn't being shadowed."

"Odd," Peleus replied. "I would have expected Sigmund to send The Kraken and his entire fleet after us. He would not allow his daughter and the King Killer to vanish so easily."

"Maybe the Baalthors have drawn his full attention," Beor said. "Maybe he's too busy to bother with us."

"Maybe . . ."

"The captain seems like a man who's spent his life avoiding slavers and Greycloaks. If we are being tailed, he'd warn us in time for us to abandon ship."

"Do you trust him?"

"I know his kind," Beor answered. "He's a smuggler commanding a crew of brigands and cutthroats. His loyalty is bought with coin, not honor."

"Then that could prove problematic."

"Aye, very. But we shouldn't have anything to worry about. As long as you keep your head down then we'll be able to reach Irel in one piece."

Peleus scoffed as the sailors began to hum and tap rhythmically on their cups.

"By the goddess," Beor groaned as the crew began to sing in hearty voices. Peleus cringed again. It was a song he had never heard before:

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!

The crew laughed and danced around the tables. A man who fancied himself a minstrel took out his flute and began to play along.

"At least the drunken buffoons understand the simple things in life," Peleus said as he eyed the rambunctious men. They sang the song again, and the soldier turned to find Beor tapping to the beat. Peleus looked at him with disappointment before drinking from his cup.

"I believe I've had my fill for the night," Peleus said as he stood. "Until tomorrow, my friend."

"I think I'll stay here for now," Beor said as he leaned back in his chair. "The night is still young and the rum keeps getting tastier. Tell Selena I said good night."

Peleus Asharii nodded and retreated from the ruckus of the mess deck. His stomach seemed to churn with the ship as he made his way through the cluttered corridors. Pale moonlight shot like spears through the small cracks and splinters in the ceiling above.

He reached the stairs leading to the upper deck and decided to take a gander at the ocean. The stars were beaming down on him from the sea of black above, and he climbed the stairs as if to greet them.

He emerged into the night, and quickly felt his body shiver from the cold winds. The deck was vacant, and the calm squalls danced over the wool of the sails. Ropes croaked and swayed around him, and Peleus stumbled towards the bow.

When he had reached the front of the ship he looked to the north. Grey clouds hovered amidst the sky off in the distance, and he could scarcely hear the crack of far lightning. The Ashariian stood at the bow for what seemed like an eternity. He was surrounded by the murky waters of the Aruthain, and the salty air kissed at his cheeks. It had been years since he had last laid eyes on the oceans of Eos. Seasickness soon came to haunt him again, and he leaned over the side of the ship to vomit.

"Being out in the ocean makes you uneasy?"

The captain of the Dawn Courtesan smiled at Peleus as he came to his side, the black fur of his cloak riding the gusts of the night. His blue tunic barely covered the fat of his stomach, and the rancid stench of meat and rum was thick on his breath.

Peleus looked away from the arrogant man. He could tell by the man's posture that he held himself in high esteem. "Ships frighten me. They are nothing but small twigs drifting amidst an endless ocean. If a strong wave were to come and tip the twig over, then it would be lost for all time."

"You'll get used to it. Those thoughts will soon fade from your mind." The captain stroked his nicely kempt beard. "When I was young it took me nearly a fortnight to set foot on the deck without emptying my stomach."

The Ashariian glanced up at the stars again. 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."

"Mudd," he lied.

"Rorik Feldarin." He offered Peleus his hand. Moments passed before Rorik realized that the soldier had no interest in shaking his grimy hand.

Rorik raised an eyebrow, lowered his hand, and gave a shallow cough. "And the pregnant woman . . . does she have a name?"

"I paid you to give us safe passage to Irel, not to ask questions."

"My apologies," Rorik replied as he held up his hands. "My curiosity tends to get the better of me."

"Your crew has been eyeing her more than they should. If it continues I will rip their eyes from their skulls."

"My crew has no interest in manners, I'm afraid. They've been surrounded by the waves for months on end, and it's been quite a while since they've seen a beautiful lady."

The Ashariian was not amused. He eyed the distant clouds as they covered the northern waters, and flinched when bright flashes filled the sky.

"The northern storms are being kept at bay. It seems as if Grimmjolnir himself watches over our voyage." Rorik Feldarin peered at the clouds.

"This is no blessing from the gods. Only fools would believe in such miracles."

"Aye, but is it so foolish to have faith in miracles?"

"I'd rather keep what little faith I have left in the steel of my blade and the darkness in my heart," Peleus answered, his voice cold.

"You speak as though you have no faith at all," Rorik replied. "Have the gods truly robbed you of hope?"

"I have hope," Peleus said. "I have hope that my unborn child will live to see his first winter. I have hope that my wife will live in peace and prosperity without the armies of the gods chasing at her heels."

"Ah, but without miracles, those hopes can never be achieved."

The soldier looked back to the stout man. "Have you only come here to play mind games with me?"

"The mind is the strongest sword you will ever have. It's best to keep it sharp and clean." The captain smiled.

"How much longer until we reach the Ebony Isles?" Peleus asked the smuggler.

"Two days, maybe three." Rorik gave a labored sigh. "It won't be long before you gaze upon the white shores of Irel."

The soldier only nodded.

"Are you becoming impatient?"

"My wife cannot wait another day," Peleus told him. "The child is near."

"Ah. You fear that your child will be born on this ship, don't you?"

There was no reply. The wind howled as it swept across the wooden ship.

A smile grew on Rorik's face. "It's a blessing, my friend, to be born in the ocean."

"Were you born upon these waters?"

"Aye, and the same can be said for my entire crew. The Aruthain calls to us. We can feel its motions in our blood. We can hear the songs of the wind with our ears. 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 the water to ripple.

"It's a beautiful home."

Rorik Feldarin placed a hand on the railing. "All life blossoms forth from the crystal waters, and the Rhy-Maidens honor those who have been birthed upon the waves. When we die the Maidens collect our souls and bring us down into the depths of the oceans, to feast until the end of time in the Halls of Atluniss."

"Do all Frostborn folk believe that?"

Rorik laughed, a notion that caught Peleus off-guard. "Only islanders and old seadogs like me who don't know any better."

Rorik gave Peleus a soft pat on the shoulder before taking his leave. The soldier watched him as he wobbled across the deck, whistling a jolly tune as he went.

"Bloody idiot," Peleus thought aloud as he turned from the bow and retreated below deck.

He passed by the slumbering crew and the restless drunks as he made his way through the corridors. When he had come to the cabin where his beloved awaited, he quickly unlocked the door, slipped inside, and locked it shut behind him. He cursed as he stumbled through the dark room, his boot slamming against an unseen stool.

"I was beginning to doubt that you would return."

Peleus smiled at the sound of the soft voice. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, my love." There came the sound of rustling blankets, and Peleus felt the warmth of Selena's body as she embraced him.

"I missed you," she said to him as he kissed her neck.

"And I you," he confessed to her.

She helped him remove his tunic and lift the mesh of chainmail from his chest. When they had finished he followed her to their small cot, and they held each other close as the blankets covered them. Peleus gazed into her hazel eyes, his mind overwhelmed with the love he felt for her.

"How are you feeling?" he asked her.

"I grow weaker with every passing sun. The baby is near, Peleus; I can feel it kick within me. Are you excited?" She ran her fingers through his dark hair.

"Of course. I've always wanted to be a father. When I was an enlisted man I would often dream of coming back to Aerok and finding a son standing in the gates; waiting for me."

"I hope it is a girl." She kissed him on the nose.

"What? Why?"

"Because I'd rather have a beautiful, sweet girl than a clumsy, troublesome boy."

Peleus chuckled. "He would take after his father. I was quite the troublemaker when I was but a young prince."

"You still are," Selena replied as she looked into his storm-blue eyes.

He gave a smile, but it was gone in moments.

"What troubles you, my love?" she asked him.

He turned from her. He knew it was best to say nothing, but he couldn't keep the truth from her any longer. "This is not what I wanted," he said. "This is not how things should be."

"What do you mean?"

Peleus turned back and allowed his eyes to become lost in hers again. "I promised you that I would keep you safe. Do you remember that promise?"

"Of course. You promised that so long as the stars shined like torches above the realm, you would never leave my side."

He swallowed. "I fear that I am dishonoring that promise."

"No," Selena said as she moved closer to him. "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. I have forced you to abandon your family and sail to the edge of the realm. I have shamed you."

Selena placed soft hands on his cheeks. "I feel no shame, my love. I do what I must because I love you," she lowered a hand to her belly, "and I love our child."

Peleus shook his head. "Our child deserves more than this."

"Our child deserves a father and a mother, and it will have both. We will make it through this, Peleus."

He exhaled slowly, allowing his doubts and fears to slip from his mind.

"All right." He kissed her on the brow. "He'll have an uncle too if Beor has a say in the matter. He's as excited for this child as we are."

"Beor will make a perfect uncle," Selena said with a smile, "as long as he's not drunk."

"Then that will be a problem," Peleus told her. "He's always drunk."

Her smile grew wider. "Your eyes are drooping. Get some sleep, my love, you will need it."

He gave her a nod and allowed his eyes to close. Sleep came for them both shortly after, and his dreams were filled with comforting sights.

The days began to meld and blend like some unclear blur. Each sunrise was filled with the shouts of working sailors, and each dusk brought with it another night of songs, cheers, and rum within the mess deck.

Peleus knew that with every passing day they came ever closer to the Ebony Isles, yet his unease still grew.

Night came like a fog upon the realm. The gulls soon fluttered away from the lone ship, and the curious fish ebbed off as well. Peleus found himself within the mess deck once more; his hand wrapped firmly around a fresh cup of mead.

"I don't trust these men," Peleus told Beor as they sat at their usual table. "I find them loitering outside of my cabin every day at sunset. They mean to catch a glimpse of Selena."

"Tread carefully, my friend," the Velhiir soldier said. "These men are wild and easily swayed by corrupt desires. I fear that if you leave Selena alone for too long, you will find them upon her."

The thought was more than Peleus could bear, and he soon found himself departing from Beor and heading back towards his cabin. He opened the wood door and found his cabin filled with parchment and books. Drawings lay scattered across the room, and Selena was busy scribbling on a page as she sat on the far cot. She looked up at him and smiled, and Peleus could see the splotches of ink that covered her green gown.

"What is all of this?" he asked her as he shut the door. He picked up a scrap of parchment near his foot and observed the elaborately detailed ship that was drawn on it.

Selena gave him a scornful look. "Well you've kept me locked in here like your prisoner, and I grew bored rather quickly. I decided to spend the day drawing pictures of places and things that I miss seeing."

"I can tell . . ." Peleus said as he walked about the room. There were pictures of flowers and mice and swords, and he even found one crude drawing of Rorik.

"You drew High Duxtus Halmott?" he asked as he picked up another page. "Back in Ostell you would always tell me how much you hated that fat old man!"

Selena crossed her arms. "I didn't hate him . . . I just hated his smug attitude . . . and his false honor . . . and his face."

Peleus turned to her. "Selena."

"Oh shut up and give me that!" She snatched the drawing from him.

Peleus continued to rummage through her collection of art. He soon found a picture of a black city nestled upon a narrow shoreline, with a gray ocean swallowing the sun. "What is this a picture of?"

Selena came to his side to observe the picture. "Highloft. Remember the day we first set sail, and the blue jay came out of nowhere and sat atop the mast?"

"Yes. I remember now."

"I took it as a sign that the goddess was watching over us."

He remained silent. He did not believe in his wife's goddess, but he was humble enough to keep that fact to himself.

"You didn't draw your home," said Peleus. "You didn't draw Ostell."

Selena's smile faded and she ran a hand through her auburn hair. "I don't want to be reminded of that place. The good memories are all but tainted."

Peleus swallowed hard and placed the pictures back on the cot. Did she still blame him for killing her father? The man had turned into a maniacal king; the deed had to be done.

It was not often that Peleus thought of Selena's lord father. He had been a heretic and a fiend; a high king who valued honor and duty over the lives of his friends and children. Peleus had taken great pleasure in sending Ausvendiir into his heart.

To their surprise a white seagull suddenly flew up to the open windowsill and sat perched atop the wood. It cocked its head and rustled its feathers with a yellow talon.

Selena gasped excitedly at the sight. "Peleus look!"

Peleus placed a hand over her mouth quickly. "Stop being so loud or you'll scare it off. Grab a quill and paper. Hurry!"

She nodded and scrambled around the room for a fresh sheet of parchment and a quill. Within moments she began to draw the bird, taking care not to alarm it in any way. Minutes passed, and the bird grew bored. It cawed, spread its wings, and flew off into the wind.

"I didn't get to finish the drawing!" Selena huffed as she stood.

"Leave some cheese on the windowsill and it will be back again."

"Where do you think it came from?" she asked. "We're days away from the shores of Aria."

"It must be following the ship. The crew often leaves scraps of rotting food on the floorboards. Help me take off this damned tunic."

She came to his side and helped him remove the thick tunic. "So did you talk to the captain yet?" she asked.

"Aye."

"And what did he say?"

"Too much." Peleus sighed. "That man's been at in the water a lot longer than he should. He's starting to lose his mind."

"Stop it. Rorik is a kind man with a gentle heart. He was the only man who agreed to take us to the Ebony Isles."

"He only agreed because I paid him," Peleus shot back. "Men like him only care about profit."

This fact was made more evident the next day, when Rorik Feldarin attempted to persuade Peleus into joining him in a game of Silver Blood; with higher wages of course. Peleus refused, but that did not stop the captain from pestering him about it for the remainder of the day.

After a quiet evening of songs and merriment, Peleus found a trio of men peeking through the keyhole of his cabin. The Ashariian soldier quickly drew Ausvendiir from its scabbard and neared the men. There was rage in his mind, and he was determined to fill the corridor with their blood. He was stopped suddenly by Beor, who took the longsword from his hand and placed it back in its scabbard.

"I'll find you!" Peleus shouted as the ruffians turned and fled like whipped hares. "I'll kill all of you!"

"They know you will," Beor said to the soldier. "They won't trouble you again."

Night soon fell. The ship grew quiet, and the air was thick with tension. There were whispers amongst the crew as the soldier passed by, and he could always feel their eyes upon him. Peleus hastily returned to his cabin and climbed back into his cot with his beloved.

"Memories rise and fade within the tides of time, yet our love will never be forgotten." He embraced her tight.

Throughout the night the sounds of feet could be heard beyond the door, and Peleus became uneasy. Sleep would not come to comfort him.

He spent the cold night sitting by the foot of the small cot. Selena dreamed silently within the sheets above. Ausvendiir lay across Peleus's lap as he cleaned the blade for the umpteenth time, sliding a wet cloth slowly across the steel.

He hated the longsword with all his heart. It was a bitter curse, and yet he dared not part with it. The blade was a burden he chose to bear; a reminder of the sins he had committed. The longsword was once held by generations of north-born kings, but now it rested in the lap of a man with no honor; a prince with no throne or hope.

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 the north, by the great bladesmith Ausdor Blackborn. High Steel was used to mold the blade itself. The steel seemed to ripple and glisten when the light touched it, and legend warned that no metal short of fausidium could splinter the mighty blade. The hilt and crossguard were crafted from the bones of a great wyvern, and the pommel was carved to resemble the tusk of a fierce boar; the symbol of the northern kingdoms.

"Have you no shame?" the high king had asked, all those years ago, when 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 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 will die too, and the burning traitors will come to eat your flesh when you enter through the gates of grimnir!"

Peleus sprang 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 his appearance on their ship. Rumors spread like wildfire below the decks, and Peleus feared that soon they would burn him alive.

"There's talk of mutiny amongst the men," Rorik Feldarin said as Peleus stepped into the captain's cabin.

"Mutiny aboard a ship filled with smugglers and cutthroats? Preposterous."

"Aye," Rorik replied as he poured the Ashariian soldier a cup of wine. "And mutiny is bad for both of us."

"How so?" he took a seat before the desk between them.

"Because of that," the captain replied as he pointed a plump finger at the red headband tied around Peleus's left shoulder. "One of the men has seen that symbol somewhere; in a tome I believe he said. 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 took a long drink from the cup. He had decided against hiding the headband from prying eyes. He never suspected that a lowborn smuggler would be able to identify the ancient heraldry.

"These men are wild, but not stupid. If they are convinced by these rumors that you are one of the Asharii, then they will attempt to take your life; and mine as well for harboring you aboard the Dawn Courtesan. I fear they may even threaten your companion and the woman-"

Peleus lunged forward and grabbed the fat man by the collar. He lifted him into the air and dragged his screaming form across the desk.

"They will not touch her," Peleus said as he glared into Rorik's watery eyes. "If they lay a single hand upon her then I will kill everyone bastard on this vessel."

"O-of that I have n-no doubt. P-please!"

Peleus released him. Rorik regained his composure and grabbed for the bottle of wine with shaky hands.

"What needs to be done to prevent this mutiny?" the soldier asked as he took his seat once more.

"I don't know. I fear if I confront the crew with this knowledge then they will see it as a challenge and hang me from the mast." Rorik drank from the bottle.

"Your crew lacks loyalty."

"I've known these men for many winters, and I know with certainty that I could never gain their loyalty."

"Then you're a dead man walking," Peleus said as he stood to take his leave.

"I'm afraid the same can be said for you," Rorik shot back.

Peleus Asharii gave the captain a wicked grin. "You have no idea."

He left the captain's cabin and made his way below deck. He was stopped by three burly men as they blocked his path; each wearing grisly looks on their mangled faces. Peleus eyed the men suspiciously, and his hand slowly fell to the hilt of his longsword.

"Where'd ye git that headband?" a man with crooked teeth and a lazy eye asked as he pointed towards the soldier.

"It was a gift."

"Nay," the man replied, "that isn't a gift. That's a curse."

"I've seen that symbol before," a second man said, "many winters ago. It's an old Ashariian sigil."

"Now what would an Ashariian be doing all the way out here in the Aruthain?" the man with the crooked teeth asked.

"That is of no concern of yours."

"Ah, but it is." The man with the crooked teeth took a step forward, prompting his cohorts to do the same. "Ye come onto our ship bearing a headband like that and expect us to keep well enough away?"

"I've heard the stories regarding that headband," a crewman with a wild beard and a rancid odor said. "They say seven men who fancy themselves the greatest swordsmen in all of Eos wear headbands like those. They say that there's a hefty price on each of those men's heads as well. What did they call those men, Bulrik?"

"The Seven Sons of the Asharii." The man with the crooked teeth spat again.

"I am no son of the Asharii," Peleus lied.

"How come ye lock yer cabin door whenever ye leave?" the third man asked. "Are ye afraid we'll sneak into yer room and pay that little lass of yers a visit?"

"I've seen her," said Bulrik. "She looks like she could use a good fuck."

Peleus unsheathed Ausvendiir, hoping to intimidate the men into fleeing. Instead, the cutthroats snarled began to step towards the lone soldier with fists clenched.

With sudden speed Peleus whipped his arm through the air and felt the sword's pommel smash into Bulrik's chin. Bulrik's jaw was shattered with a sickening crunch, and he fell screaming to the cold floor. Peleus spun towards the second man and sent his fist into his gut. The man doubled over, gagged, and dropped to the floor as well. With a vicious kick Peleus sent the third man careening backwards and into a pile of barrels, his nose shattered and bleeding. The dazed cutthroat slumped to the floor to join his cohorts.

When all three men had been dealt with, Peleus sheathed his sword and stepped over their dazed forms. "You should learn to tame your tongues," he said as he walked away, "and your suspicions."

He left the men as they were and made for the far galley. He found Beor sitting at their usual table within the mess deck as predicted.

"It seems we've overstayed our welcome," Peleus told Beor Tussel as he took a seat beside him. He looked about the room, and was not surprised to learn that all of the crewmen were glaring at them.

"We were never welcome aboard this damned vessel. Even the rats spit as I pass by," Beor replied.

"The captain suspects mutiny. I fear our lives will be threatened tonight."

"I'll pay you a thousand wyrons if you can name one time when our lives weren't threatened."

"If things bode ill and I am unable to protect my wife and child, then I want you to take them to the boats and row for Irel. You've been like a brother to me for ten years Beor, and I trust only you with their lives."

Beor looked to him for a long moment before offering him his hand. Peleus clasped it tightly.

"With the Dead Goddess and the ancestors of my lineage as my witnesses, I swear to you this oath: no man shall ever harm your wife or your child, and I will see them safe no matter what the cost."

Peleus gave a nod of content. "I will sing praises of your kindness within the Halls of Val'Sigg."

They sat in silence, each soldier's mind filled with troublesome thoughts. An ominous tension began to fill the air. The crewmen's faces became masked by some unseen shadow. A deep hum echoed through the room as they began to sing 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 they stood and left the mess deck. There was nothing but solemn silence in their wake.

"It seems we have sealed our own fates," Beor said as he placed a hand on the pommel of his sword.

"You've heard the song before?" Peleus asked him.

"Aye," he answered quickly. "It's a song as old as Eos itself." He looked to Peleus, his eyes clouded with unease. "It is a song to be sung to soldiers who have fallen in battle."

Peleus stood and glanced around the galley. He was too prideful to admit that he too was growing uneasy, but his face betrayed his feelings. He gave Beor Tussel a soft pat on the shoulder. "Remember your training and keep your wits about you. I fear the night will be longer than any that have come before it."

The Velhiir soldier nodded in agreement and Peleus turned to take his leave. He moved with haste through the narrow corridors, the leering eyes of crewmen and vermin always upon him. He let out a labored breath when he reached his cabin and locked the door behind him.

"I'm afraid," Peleus said to his beloved as she ran her fingers through his hair. Ausvendiir was placed against the side of the cot, and the soldier could not look away from the blade. He knew he would need it soon.

"Don't be," Selena said to him as she held him tight. "I am here with you."

"I'm afraid that I will fail, and that you will be taken from me. I'm afraid that my child will never live to see the light of day."

Selena was quiet for a time. When at last she spoke, her words were soft and kind. "You're only a man, my love, yet you have done what most men could never do. You have sacrificed so much to protect what you cherished the most in life, 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." She held him tighter than she ever had, and there they waited for night to claim them.

When dusk finally came, an eerie tension shrouded the ship like a mist. The creaking of the wood became louder as the ship dipped and swayed. The sound of racing footsteps could be heard all around, and Peleus could do little to calm his fear.

There was a sudden scream, and Peleus Asharii watched in horror as his wife fell to the floor. The ship was filled with her cries as blood began to flow from between her legs, ruining her gown and spilling onto the floorboards.

Peleus was frozen by terror as he watched her writhe and convulse. His mind was overwhelmed with panic, and he struggled to muster the courage to help the one he loved.

With renewed vigor he quickly helped her onto the cot and shouted for Beor. Within moments there was a vicious banging on the door, and the Ashariian soldier swung it open to let his comrade inside.

"What's going on?" Beor asked, his voice frantic. "What's wrong with her?"

"The baby is coming," Peleus told him quickly. "Go! Find me the physician!"

"This is a smuggler's ship! There is no physician!" Beor replied. His voice was loud and frantic. Peleus could feel the world itself fall upon his heart.

"My love," Selena said as she gripped his arm. "I can do this."

He could do nothing but look at her. At last he nodded, and she screamed again. Peleus sat by his wife's side as she screamed and pushed, his right hand gripped tightly in hers. Pure terror strangled his heart. The cabin floor had become reddened by blood as Selena pushed with all of her might. Beor sat at her side, using the torn blankets to clean her body.

Suddenly the wooden door was assaulted with loud bangs, and Peleus turned to face it. He knew the evil that was thrashing upon the door, and he knew the price if he failed to vanquish it.

"Come and face death, son of the Asharii!"

A knot began to form in the back of Peleus's throat. He looked back to Selena, and then to Beor. "Remember your oath, my friend."

Beor moved to retrieve Ausvendiir and quickly shoved it into Peleus's hands. "I won't."

The Ashariian soldier swung open the door and stepped into the corridor beyond. Before him stood nine crewmates armed with pikes, dirks, and axes. They glared at him with wild eyes; each prepared to take his life and collect the enormous bounty.

"The baby's not coming out," Selena said from within the cabin. Her breaths were ragged and her voice was hoarse. "Beor . . . you'll have to cut me open . . ."

Peleus's eyes widened as he heard Selena's words. He kept himself from looking back. One by one the men charged the soldier, bloodlust clouding their judgment. Peleus lifted his sword and battered away a clumsy thrust from the nearest crewmate. With a quick spin the Ashariian plunged his blade deep into the man's chest, and the crewmate fell in a torrent of blood as another rushed forward to take his place. Peleus lunged forward and brought his sword down in a flash of blood and steel; dismembering the crewman from shoulder to waist.

There was a horrid scream as Selena fought to give birth to Peleus's child, and for a moment the soldier was frozen by dread.

A third ruffian ran forward to join the fray. This one was skilled with the rusted sword he wielded, and Peleus found himself hard pressed to keep the man at bay. Their blades hissed and screeched as they clashed in a shower of sparks and chipped metal. When the ruffian made a weak thrust towards Peleus's heart, the Ashariian deftly evaded the blow and severed the ruffian's sword-hand at the wrist.

The ruffian gave a shrill scream and fell to his knees, tears flowing down his cheeks as he looked to Peleus. "Please," he said with hands trembling, "have mercy."

Peleus slashed his blade across the man's throat, and he said no more. The soldier kicked the body away and stepped forward to greet the oncoming attackers. A rather dimwitted man was quickly eviscerated by the Ashariian soldier, and his charging comrade was decapitated in a haze of crimson mere moments later. The two bodies fell in heaps to the ground, and Peleus wiped their blood from his face. He stood amidst the puddles of gore and blood; sword soaking with crimson death. The remaining assailants began to back away from the soldier, their eyes filled with growing fear. They had no desire to be killed by the bloodthirsty menace.

An infant's cry filled the corridors. The world was quiet and all was still.

Peleus looked back to the cabin, and saw his newborn son with his own eyes. The boy looked like a pale ball with tiny hands and legs. The babe cried and flailed at the cold air with grasping fingers, and Peleus smiled as he beheld his only son.

A sudden flush of pain seared like fire within him. Peleus blinked rapidly in surprise, and he lowered his eyes to the blade that protruded from his chest. Blood covered the rusted iron and fell in rivulets onto the floor.

"Peleus!" Beor stepped near him, but he knew he could not help. He could not leave the newborn babe alone.

"It's all right," Peleus said as he took a step towards the cabin. The blade slowly began to slide free, and he grimaced as he placed a hand on his chest. "Remember your . . . oath . . . the child is more important than me."

"What will you name him?" Beor asked as he held the babe.

Peleus fell to his knees and blinked. His eyes were trapped on the lifeless body of Selena; her stomach and legs covered in cascading blood. There was another burst of pain as he was stabbed in the back again, and Peleus struggled to keep himself from falling to the floor. "I don't know . . ."

"What of Dvalin?" Beor asked him as he cradled the child. Peleus swallowed as he watched Beor slide a woolen blanket over Selena's body.

"Dvalin?" Peleus grimaced as another jolt of fire erupted through him. "No . . . I don't want to name him after my father . . ."

When the last of his strength had left him he allowed his body to fall. His eyes became heavy, and each breath was a battle of its own.

"We'll name him . . . after hers . . . Pellegrin . . . it's . . . beautiful . . ."

He was not angered or distressed at the idea of dying. The thought of being at peace was strangely comforting, for he would receive a freedom he had thought unobtainable in his life. The debt would soon be paid, and he would finally be at rest.

He could feel the life leaving his aching bones, and the soldier released his final breath. Peleus Asharii could feel the gentle sway of the ship once more, until even that faded, and guttered, and died.