The world was shaking.
Pellegrin's body flailed and jostled as the realm moved about. Each tremor sent fresh bursts of pain through his mind, and his head rocked back and forth as if his neck had turned to mush. His body was limp and riddled with aching pain, and his mind buzzed as if a swarm of bees were trapped inside. Foggy memories were soon restored to recollection, and Pellegrin knew that he was in danger.
There was a loud crack and the wagon slammed onto the ground. Pellegrin's mind swelled as he was jerked about violently. He peeled open his eyes and cursed as the daylight flashed across his vision. When the white haze began to fade he turned his head and looked about.
The sun was beginning to fall from the sky, and the faintest grey of night clashed with the red day. The blue was cluttered with growing storm clouds and the winds hissed through the withered trees. Pellegrin could see a winding, dirt trail stretching through the sparse woods around him. There were no songbirds or crows sitting in the trees, and dark shadows began to grow beneath the branches.
Pellegrin was sitting aboard a wooden wagon, his hands bound with thick rope and resting in his lap. His fingers were bruised and there were small cuts on his arms. The makeshift sling was still snug around his broken arm, and his tunic had been reduced to shreds and pieces. Dried dirt covered his cheeks and his hair, and he smelled of wet leaves.
Three men garbed in mismatched tunics sat in the wagon around him, faces sullen and eyes filled with dread. They were not wearing boots on their grimy feet, and the odor of dung and sweat covered them like a shroud. They had wild beards and long hair matted with mud and sand. Pellegrin swallowed his unease as he watched the silent men, and he could almost feel the hopelessness that emanated from their frail bodies.
To the left of Pellegrin sat a little girl of no more than seven. Her black hair had been ripped and cut, and her gown was covered in mud and sand. She wept as she wriggled her hands around, the tight rope causing her frail wrists to become red with blood. Pellegrin's heart was crushed as he saw the fear within her dark eyes.
He looked to the front. Ahead of the wagon were twelve battered men, their backs turned to Pellegrin as they stood in two rows. They were nude and shivering, and an iron harness was wrapped tightly upon each man's shoulders. A tight rope travelled from each leading man and down the ranks until it was tied snug to the front of the wagon. The men whimpered and prayed as they stood in place, occasionally looking back to stare enviously at the men in the wagon. Whether they envied their clothes or the fact that they were sitting, Pellegrin did not know.
Pellegrin's fear overcame him and he began to panic. He squirmed and shuffled as he tried to free his arms and run away from the wagon and the solemn men. The men didn't even lift their eyes to look at him as he cursed and rose to his feet.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Pellegrin turned to the back of the wagon and froze. Standing below him was the one-eyed man who had found him in the forest. A grisly hand gripped the hilt of his bastard sword; threatening to wrench the iron free at any moment to cleave the boy in two.
"Sit down," the man said. Pellegrin did as he bade. He glanced at the captured men and the girl and noticed the look of absolute terror that adorned their faces as they watched the one-eyed man. "Do you see that man over there?" he turned and pointed with a three-fingered hand towards a lone pine tree that stood over a small ridge. A man in a black cloak was squatting by the tree, his plump face contorted in pain as he relieved himself. One of his eyes was blue and the other green, and his arms and legs were as skinny as twigs. A leather quiver was strapped around his chest, and a longbow leaned against the bark of the tree beside him.
"That's Little Samseus," the one-eyed man said, his voice cracking. "He's a bloody good shot. I've seen him send an arrow into a stag's balls a hundred paces away with his longbow." He placed a hand on the wagon and drew closer to Pellegrin that he could smell the rum on his breath. "If you try to make a run for it, he'll send an arrow through your ass and out the other side. Are we clear?"
Pellegrin nodded timidly. The one-eyed man scratched at his beard and lowered to sit on the edge of the wagon with his back towards Pellegrin. The men seated around him whimpered like whipped pups and clumped together in an attempt to get as far away from the cloaked man as possible. Pellegrin began to wonder where the man's liarbird had gone; he could not see it perched around the wagon or flying overhead.
"One of the spokes has cracked," said a third man as he walked towards the one-eyed man. He too was wearing a cloak, and an iron axe was strapped to his side. He was far younger than the one-eyed man and Little Samseus, with long golden hair and striking blue eyes. A horrid scar stretched from his neck to his forehead, and he smiled wide as if everything in the realm was pure and just. "I told you we should've taken the pass through the Winterwood. This trail is filled with hidden stones and rocks."
"Vargrs and threshers have claimed the pass for their own," the one-eyed man replied. "We wouldn't have gotten through without losing at least five or six of the slaves."
"And what will we do when the wheel breaks?" the golden-haired man asked. "If we don't make it to the coast soon then none of these slaves will survive the night."
"You whine like a bitch in heat." The one-eyed man crossed his arms. "I took you for a man who I could trust to get the job done without complaining. Was I wrong, Dillion Anghart? Should I put you in a harness and whip you while you pull the wagon instead of the thralls?"
"No," Dillion answered quickly. Pellegrin could see the unease grow in his eyes.
"Get the drove moving again," the one-eyed man instructed as he stood and stretched. "If we do not reach the coast before nightfall then I will skin you alive and eat your flesh for supper."
Dillion Anghart swallowed, nodded, and moved to the front of the wagon. Little Samseus came running down to the trail and the wagon, his britches wrapped around his ankles and his eyes wide with fear. He gasped loudly, ran back to the tree, grabbed the longbow, and ran back towards the wagon. He stopped when he reached the one-eyed man and pointed back towards the pine tree with a shaky hand.
"What are you going on about?" the one-eyed man asked him as he waved his arms and jumped about.
"Forgive him, Ryder," Dillion said as he turned to him. "He hasn't been the same since Joril the Black took his tongue. He gets spooked by his own shadow sometimes."
Ryder sneered at Little Samseus and went to take his place at the front of the wagon beside Dillion. Little Samseus chuckled and twitched as he stared at Pellegrin and the slaves. While the others slaves avoided his gaze Pellegrin did not, and Little Samseus frowned before running off to sit with the two slavers.
"Move it, you broken bastards!" Dillion shouted to the rows of naked slaves beyond the wagon. He retrieved a black whip from the seat and lashed the men until their backs were bruised and bloodied. Pellegrin's body shook as the wagon was lurched forward again; driven forward by a band of soulless men.
Pellegrin could not avert his gaze from the three slavers. They were the men who had attacked him and beaten him to unconsciousness, and now they were wheeling him through some unknown land with a myriad of tormented men. He blamed himself for being so careless and stupid, and he cursed the fates for bringing him such horrid misfortune.
Dillion Anghart whistled a jolly tune as the wagon moved down the dirt road. The wheels creaked and the boards squeaked as it went, and Pellegrin cringed in pain whenever they bumped over a small rock or stone. The forest was growing thicker around them and night would soon fall. Pellegrin was not confident with his odds of surviving through the night. If he tried to escape the slavers would shoot him down, and if he did manage to run from them the vargrs would find him before dawn.
Pellegrin straightened his back and looked to the man sitting ahead of him. He was an old man with silvery hair and a crooked nose. His eyes were sullen and black, and his skin was grayish in tone and covered in runic brandings and markings. Pellegrin could tell from the markings that the man was a Dyrvalii deserter; a man who had fled from the frostlands of the south to join the more civilized peoples of the northern kingdoms. Pellegrin had heard exaggerated stories about the Shadowborn. They were always described as men tall as trees, with fiery runes across their skin and teeth like fangs.
"What is your name?" Pellegrin asked the man as he leaned forward. The Dyrvalii turned his head and ignored him. He lifted his hands to his mouth and began to bite at his fingernails. "Can you not hear me?"
"We aren't supposed to talk," the man said, his voice low. He cocked his head to the side to make sure that the slavers had not heard him. "They cut off Breneus's tongue when he pleaded for mercy. They sliced off Marik's hand when he wouldn't stop crying." He wheezed and coughed and shook his head. "We aren't supposed to talk."
Pellegrin needed to know more. "What's going on? Who are those men?"
The man scratched at a black scab that sat on the back of his head. "Slavers. Men sworn to the Crimson Brotherhood. Ryder Redd and his underlings." He quickly looked away. "We aren't supposed to talk. They'll take our tongues and our teeth."
Pellegrin eyed the slavers. Little Samseus was giggling as he fidgeted with the string on the longbow, and Ryder was busy emptying a flagon of wine into his gullet. Dillion continued to whistle and hum as he swung his legs below the wagon, smiling as he watched the six slaves pull the cart forward.
"My name is Pellegrin," he told the man. "I come from Windrun. Have you heard of it?"
The man lifted his head and gasped. "Windrun . . . You're a long way from home, boy. Windrun is three leagues south from here. It sits on the high cliffs, far away from the horrors of the northern deep." Pellegrin's stomach began to twist. Three leagues was a long way indeed. "I was once called Wyllnir . . . yes . . . that was my name . . . before."
"Where are they taking us?" Pellegrin asked Wyllnir.
Wyllnir grabbed his head and began to sob. Pellegrin was saddened by the man, for he knew that his soul was truly shattered. "Skullduggery City. That's what the Frostborn call it. Tor Boradesh. The Dark Deep. Betrayer . . . save me . . ."
Pellegrin's heart skipped a beat. He had heard of Tor Boradesh before. It was a city of dark corruptions that sat on the northern shores of Irel. Several winters ago a group of cloaked men had arrived in Windrun and demanded to speak with the thane. When Borris came to meet them they warned him of a Dyrvalii slave who had managed to slip through the gates of Tor Boradesh and escape into the Winterwood. They had spent the next few days scouring through the village for the slave, and when they had finally found him hiding in a mound of dung in the pig sties they dragged him to the statue of Shaela and took his head.
"Why have they taken us?" he asked as the wagon passed through a small curve in the road. Leaves lay in large piles through the road, and Dillion shouted in dismay as the slaves pulling the cart tripped and fell over unseen stones and sticks.
"Foreigners . . ." Wyllnir said, his voice weak. "We're all foreigners . . . Dyrvalii, Ashariian, and Suormen. We aren't welcome here. We weren't born on the Ebony Isles. We were not made from frost and ice."
Pellegrin leaned back again. The man's words confused him. He was no foreigner; he had lived on Irel since he was born. There had been a misunderstanding, and Pellegrin risked confronting Ryder and his cohorts about it.
"I am no foreigner," Pellegrin said, his voice loud so that the slavers could hear his words. They looked back to him, grim smiles on their faces. "I have lived on Irel since I was a babe. I am born from the bitter cold and the snow just like you."
"Are you now?" Ryder asked. He grabbed Dillion's shoulder and chuckled. "Look, lad, look. The scum thinks he's Frostborn." He laughed, as did Dillion.
"The goddess shuns those who commit crimes against their countrymen," Pellegrin shouted to them. "She will cast you down to grimnir with all the rest."
"The goddess does not care for Ashariians, boy," Ryder replied, his voice cruel. "And neither do I. If you speak again then I will rip out your heart and feed it to the slaves."
"What if he is Velhiir, Ryder?" Dillion Anghart asked. "What if the goddess is ashamed of us?"
"He's Rimborn," Ryder Redd replied. "His eyes are storm-blue." He drew his bastard sword and pointed it towards the boy. Pellegrin tensed as he minded the point. "And only an Ashariian would be stupid enough to wear a headband bearing the black gryphon."
Pellegrin wanted to protest, but he remained silent. It was best to stay quiet and keep his tongue.
"All men who aren't Frostborn are savages and heretics," Ryder said as he sheathed the bastard sword. He grabbed the whip from Dillion's hands and lashed the slaves. They screamed as the flesh was torn from their backs and increased their pace. "All men are slaves."
Wyllnir whimpered like a dog as he cradled his head in his lap. Pellegrin averted his eyes from him. He needed to keep hoping. He would not fall like the men around him.
Ryder gave a sudden shout as the wagon shook and lurched. Pellegrin yelped as the small girl ran across the wagon and leapt off the back. His spirits soared as he watched the girl race across the road, towards the dark trees and freedom. Her bare feet shuffled through the brown leaves as she went.
Pellegrin whirled around towards the slavers. Little Samseus was the only one who was watching the girl as she ran off, his eyes wide with fear. He removed an arrow from his quiver and fumbled as he fitted it on the bowstring. The slaves wailed and cried in distress as he lifted the bow and drew back the string. Pellegrin prayed to the goddess that he would miss.
Ryder Redd lifted a hand and lowered Little Samseus's bow, surprising them all. "Not yet. Let her reach the forest. I want her to feel the warmth of hope before you take it from her."
Little Samseus nodded sheepishly and watched as the girl slipped into the trees, her black hair melding with the shadows. Pellegrin peered into the forest and could barely see the silhouette of the girl as she stumbled over a log.
"Aleah!" a frail and sickly slave shouted to the girl was she fled. Tears fell from his cheeks. He quickly turned to Ryder Redd and Little Samseus, desperation in his bulging eyes. "Please! She is just a girl! She is just my only daughter! Let her live!"
Ryder disregarded the man. "Don't miss," he said to Little Samseus.
Little Samseus inhaled deeply, raised his bow, and drew back the string once more. The iron arrowhead dull and rusted, but Pellegrin knew that it was still lethal. With a sickening crack the bowstring was released and the arrow hissed through the air. Falling leaves were sent drifting away the arrow flew into the forest and tore through the girl's back with a resounding thud. The small girl didn't make a sound as she was sent hurling into the air. Her head smacked into an oak tree, and blood spilled from her back as she slumped to the ground. She did not move again.
Ryder Redd patted Little Samseus on the back and rose to his feet. He stepped over the railing as the wagon moved ever onward. The cloaked slaver sighed as he sat in the same spot where the girl had been moments ago.
"You told me she wouldn't run," he said to the sickly father seated in front of him. The man moaned and held his head, and his mind was stricken with grief from the death of his only daughter.
"The fear . . ." he said slowly, his voice a mere whisper. "The fear took her . . ."
Ryder continued to frown. "You swore to me that you would keep her from running. Now I have lost precious gold because of you. Highborn lords and nobles would have paid handsomely for an Arundel virgin who had yet to flower. I cannot make money off of a dead slave."
"You didn't need to kill her," the man said between sobs. "You could've taken an arm-"
Ryder lifted a hand and slapped the man hard across the cheek. The sickly man cried out as clutched at his bruised face. "To run is to die. There are no exceptions. That is the way of things. You have failed her as a father, and now you have failed me."
"Please," the man said. "You have taken everything from me. Have mercy . . ."
Ryder shook his head and stood. "When we reach Tor Boradesh you will be sold for ten wyrons to Frellic Drakon. Have you heard of him?"
"No . . ."
Ryder grinned. "He is a man who despises the Shadowborn folk. For decades he's made his living buying Dyrvalii slaves and sending them to the Skull Keep. You will go there as well, and that is where you will die. They will cut off your fingers one by one and your toes as well. They will burn your cock and balls to ash and rip out your eyeballs. They will strip you nude and leave you for the vargrs and the wolves. Maybe they will show you mercy."
Ryder Redd chuckled as he crossed over the railing to sit beside Little Samseus and Dillion again. He tapped a finger on the wood as the cart continued to pass through the silent forest. The day wore on, and the only sounds that could be heard were coming from the rattling of the cart and the wheels. The shadows of the trees washed over them as the sun continued to fall through the air. Storm clouds roiled in the grey, and distant crows flew off for shelter.
The road led them to the edge of the vast woods. Pellegrin could see distant cliffs and bluffs to the north. To the east, pass mounds of black dirt and thorns stretched the jagged coastline. The Aruthain leapt forward to kiss the rocks every so often, and an ominous mist clung to the surface of the water. The Winterwood claimed dominion over the west, passing over spires of rock and ravines as it led farther inland. Pellegrin knew that somewhere behind them, somewhere south, stood Windrun and the safety it entailed. But that was a long ways away.
"I grow tired of hearing this damned cart moan and whine," Ryder said as he banged a fist against the wood. He looked back to Pellegrin and the others and pointed to the short, scrawny man who sat beside Wyllnir. "What is your name, Suormen?"
The scrawny man flinched and nodded. His left eye was blackened and bruised, and one of his fingers had been broken. He wore a red tunic and a matching hat over his golden hair. "Seylos fol'Eshara, my lord."
"My lord!" Ryder exclaimed in delight. "I believe that's the first time I've ever been addressed as Lord!" he laughed, as did Dillion and Little Samseus. Ryder wiped his face and turned back to the Suormen slave. "You were a minstrel once, were you not?"
"Yes," Seylos said quickly. "I was a member of the Salted Singers. We were a troupe of Suormen bards and minstrels who travelled all across Eos singing for kings, lords, and Myrkdrasils. Men have enjoyed my singing from Grimnos to the Spires."
"Good," Ryder said. "Sing me a song, minstrel."
Seylos swallowed his fear and nodded. "What kind of song would you like me to sing, my lord?"
"Sing a funny one," Dillion Anghart shouted from the front. "I love to laugh!"
"As you wish," the minstrel replied. He coughed, rubbed his throat, and straightened his back. He sang in a voice that was both chilling and lovely, and Pellegrin found himself entranced by the song:
There once was a boy who was craven and coy and he wished for vast riches and gold
He wanted a throne and a crown and a home all until he was wrinkled and old
So he travelled the land with a sword in hand till he came to a small little town
The shutters were closed and the crops were disposed and the place looked like it was rundown
The folk spoke of a wyrm who was guarding a berm that was filled with tall corn and wheat
The boy gave a shout and then swiftly set out to shame the wyrm with a swift defeat
He crossed through the grass picking thorns from his ass as he cut at the wind with his sword
At first he was lost then he looked towards the frost and then shrieked when the far wyvern roared
Iceborn was he he would not run lightly so he charged up the small berm at the beast
It shrieked and it screamed and its teeth were agleam as they longed to enjoy their next feast
The boy he meant well but he was only twelve and he fought with the skill of a klutz
The wyrm gave a start and then ripped out his heart and he splattered the berm with his guts
And so the boy died the folk knew he had tried and back to the berm the wyrm withdrew
This tale is true and so I will tell you don't go biting off more than you can chew
When Seylos was done he lowered his head again. An odd silence filled the air, and all eyes were upon Ryder and his slavers. The one-eyed man laughed and clapped, and the minstrel's eyes widened in bewilderment.
"An excellent song," Ryder Redd exclaimed. "You have a wondrous voice, minstrel."
"T-thank you, my lord," Seylos replied. Ryder nodded and glanced about the wagon. His eyes fell on Pellegrin, and he soon noticed that the boy was glaring at him. Their eyes met and Pellegrin did not break contact.
"Would you like to say something, lad?" Ryder asked him, clearly amused.
Pellegrin risked answering: "May I speak without losing my tongue?"
"It depends on what you have to say."
"I am no foreigner," Pellegrin said. "I should be free to do as I please."
Ryder Redd snorted and stretched his arms. "Don't take it personally, lad. The goddess blessed the Velhiir with the lands of the west, and in return we must keep them pure from stragglers and deserters like you."
"I am no deserter!" Pellegrin shouted, his voice causing the wood to vibrate. "I am Frostborn, same as you! I've spent my entire life in Windrun!"
Ryder's eyes burned with hate. His expression sent chills through Pellegrin's veins, and he feared that the man would stand and attack him. "Then the people of Windrun have disgraced the goddess's wishes by harboring you. You share the Ashariian blood. You are Rimborn: molded from the clouds and the wind. I can see it in your eyes." Ryder paused. He closed his eyes and was silent for a few moments. When he opened them again the fire in his eyes had faded away. "You and me are nothing alike, lad. Your race has tried to lay claim over the oceans of Eos for centuries. Your kind has warred with mine since the Schism. Only those of frost can rightfully seek refuge in the western lands."
"So you capture innocent people and force them into slavery and expect the goddess to grant you a seat in the halls of Atluniss?" Pellegrin asked him.
"Do not speak as if she is your goddess as well, Ashariian!" Ryder yelled, causing Pellegrin's heart to freeze. The slaves cowered in fear around him. "Your race abandoned Shaela thousands of years ago, and she will never embrace such filth again. You were born a godless pup and you will die a godless man." He blinked and struggled to regain his composure. Dillion eyed him cautiously. "We have helped to cleanse the Isles of foreign savages since the dawn of our race. These lands are ours to govern, and we shall keep them pure."
Pellegrin knew when to remain silent. The wagon moved on and the conversation was soon forgotten. Pellegrin was left confused and stricken by uncertainty. He had been raised in the warmth of the goddess since he was a babe. He had lived alongside the Frostborn folk of Windrun for seventeen winters, and not once had someone accused him of not sharing in their ancient blood. He was Velhiir. He was Frostborn. Ryder Redd was a liar.
Pellegrin waited for night to come. Only then, in the cover of darkness, could his attempt his escape. He would be near impossible to find in the forest when night fell. The slavers had no torches, and they would not risk leaving the other slaves behind while they ventured off and into the Winterwood. He could cut his bonds on a sharp rock and be halfway to Illthain before dawn.
Pellegrin's plans of escape were shattered when the wagon overcame a steep hill and they came towards the Lonely Lagoon. The Winterwood backed away and became sparse as the cart neared the bluffs ahead. The trail slithered and twisted along the cliffs and into the lagoon, and Pellegrin's blood ran cold as he stared at the city before him.
Tor Boradesh was a city of beauty and horror. It was built within a large lagoon nestled betwixt the high cliffs of the north. Black bridges formed from wood and rope stretched over the water and connected with the piers and wharfs that stood above the bay. Knarrs and longboats were moored to the wharfs, while larger vessels clad in shadow stood ominously beyond the lagoon. The docks appeared as if they had been constructed from broken ships and weathered rope.
The buildings were low and clumped together over the steep cliffs and ridges. They stood at awkward angles and in unsettling places. Small trails and roads ran along the narrow paths. A statue of a direspider pouncing on a thresher had been carved into the highest cliff above the city.
Hundreds of thralls were scattered across the roads and the piers. Their faces were stricken with grief and their bodies were unnaturally thin. Some formed lines and shouted as they moored knarrs while other carried heavy crates and barrels through the trails. All were covered in fetters and chains, and none had been given clothes to comfort them from the cold. Men with cloaks and whips stood vigilant as they watched the husks trudge about.
"Feels good to be back," Ryder Redd said with delight as the thralls carried them towards the wood gates. They were met by three guardsmen dressed in rusted hauberks who gave the one-eyed man a wave and a nod before opening the spiked gate. "What do you say we stop by the Rowdy Rooster, have a big supper and some drinks, and then tumble around with some whores from the lower brothel, eh?"
"Only if you're paying," Dillion replied as he cracked the whip and led the wagon into the city. Pellegrin swallowed his unease as the cart passed through the grime and the mud that covered the roads. Vicious dogs bayed and snarled at them, some even nearing the slaves in harnesses and biting at their feet. The slavers laughed as the men panicked.
Soon bodies began to line the roads, and Pellegrin was assaulted by their horrid odors. Men, women, and children were nailed to splintered pieces of wood and placed along the trails. Some had been killed by starvation while others were gutted and burned. Their eyes were still open, and they stared blankly ahead.
"I showed the Arundel girl mercy," Ryder said as he turned back to the slaves in the cart. He pointed to the people nailed to the stakes, "this was their punishment for trying to escape. I saved her from suffering this same fate." He chuckled and spun back around. Pellegrin watched as a dark crow landed on a stake and began to peck at a dead women's eye.
They were taken to an enclosed area surrounded by walls made of black logs. A crowd of highborn men and slavers awaited them as the cart came to a stop. A man garbed in a bright tunic of yellow cloth and silk laughed as he waved at the slaves. Gold rings adorned his fat fingers and a cloak of white fur was wrapped around his shoulders.
A large man, almost as large as the brute, stood beside the fat nobleman. He wore a set of iron armor and a spiked helm. A hefty battleaxe was held in his hands and he glared at the cart with black eyes.
"End of the road!" Ryder said as he jumped down from the cart. Six guardsmen rushed to the wagon and began unhooking the thralls from their harnesses. They placed the men in fetters and led them away.
"Welcome home, little brother," the fat nobleman said as he scurried across the mud and grabbed Ryder's shoulder. His smile was crooked and wide. "I can see that your hunt through the Winterwood was a resounding success!"
"Aye," Ryder said as he motioned for the guardsmen to collect the slaves in the cart. "Did you miss me, Rathias?"
"Bah!" Rathias Redd bellowed. He motioned for a nearby guardsmen to come forward. The man did, and Ryder grinned as he noticed the liarbird perched on his shoulder. The bird had been given a red scarf to wear over its neck. "Your damned bird arrived before you did. Quickly, take him! He's done nothing but peck at my supper and shit on my shoes!"
Ryder chuckled and took the liarbird. It squawked and cocked its head to the side as it sat on his shoulder. "Have we come in time for the auction?"
"Do not fret, my brother, all is well!" Rathias led Ryder, Dillion, and Little Samseus toward the crowd of men who stood before a wooden platform. The ironclad guardsmen grabbed the slaves and threw them from the cart one by one. Pellegrin cursed and kicked as a man hurled him into the air, and he let loose a blood-curdling scream when he landed on his broken arm.
"When I told them you would be arriving before dawn, most of the interested buyers quickly agreed to stay in Tor Boradesh for the auction. They are so excited to see what wondrous slaves you have managed to find hiding throughout Irel and Skyrise," Rathias Redd said to his brother as the slaves were led to the platform. Pellegrin wiped the tears from his eyes as he was dragged along with the others. "It seems your reputation has travelled far."
"I pray it does not reach the ears of those who wish me harm," Ryder said as he took a flagon of wine from a nearby slaver. "I'd hate to wake up and find one of Stratus's duxtusi standing at the foot of my bed."
"Bah!" Rathias shook his head. "Stratus is a ghost of the man he once was. You have nothing to fear from him. Now come, come! Let us begin the auction!"
The noblemen and slavers clapped and smiled as the slaves were placed into lines before the platform. Pellegrin was placed behind Wyllnir, who had his hands clasped together as he prayed to his Betrayer. Ryder took a seat at a long table beside his brother. Dillion and Little Samseus chuckled as they joined him and began to devour the fruits and meat before them.
Rathias waved towards the crowd of men, "will the buyers please step forth and identify themselves!"
The first to step forward was a short man with a white beard that nearly reached his knees. He was bald and his brow shined like a star amidst the torchlight. His nose was hooked and his eyes were harsh.
"I am Aderyn Blackbriar," the bald man said, "bastard brother to the Thane of Tor Boradesh. I have served as the ambassador for the Fyroks for near twenty years, and I am here today to purchase new soldiers on their behalf. We need more men if we are to continue raiding the Spikes."
"A brother of the Fyroks and the thane is always welcomed here," Rathias said. "Come! Join me at my table! Eat with me!"
Aderyn bowed and wobbled to the table. A second man stepped forward and bowed. He was tall and broad and strong, with high shoulders, a chiseled chin, and eyes like steel.
"I am Dagnor Seawood, son of Dagdos. I am here on behalf of Lord Roduin and the Sundered Swords." Dagnor turned back and waved for his escorts to come forth. They came with haste, and the crowd gasped in awe as they led a Dyrvalii man towards the platform. He was at least seven feet tall, with intricate, tribal brandings running along every inch of his grey body. Chains had been placed on his neck, hands, and feet, yet Pellegrin feared that he still had the strength to break the iron and set upon the slavers with a vengeance.
"I have brought this deserter as a peace offering," Dagnor Seawood said. "Lord Roduin hopes that you will appreciate his generosity."
"What a splendid specimen!" Rathias said as he stood and inspected the Dyrvalii prisoner. The large warrior snarled and growled as Rathias tried to touch him. "I will envy the man who buys such a magnificent thrall!"
It took some time for the crowd to settle again. Pellegrin and the other slaves stood in silence as several men stepped forward to introduce themselves and their lords. Pellegrin hated every one of them, and he wished for the power to raze the entire city to the ground.
When the introductions were over, the auction began. The buyers sat at the long table as the guardsmen observed the slaves. Pellegrin avoided their eyes, for he did not wish to be picked first. Moments passed and no one spoke, and Pellegrin looked down to find that a golden stream was falling down Wyllnir's leg.
A guardsman pointed to Seylos and his comrades quickly subdued the minstrel.
"No!" Seylos screamed as they dragged him to the platform. "No! Please!" Pellegrin looked away as they placed the minstrel on the platform. Would he be picked next?
"Who is he?" Rathias asked his brother as he bit into a slice of ham.
"His name is Seylos fol'Eshara," Ryder replied. "He is a Suormen minstrel. He has a lovely voice."
"Another minstrel . . ." Rathias scratched his brow. He looked to Seylos, who mouthed an inaudible prayer as he shook from the cold. "You know I despise minstrels, brother."
"I do," Ryder said, "but a slave is a slave. Someone may buy him."
"Who would want to buy a husk like this," Rathias shouted as he stood and pointed to Seylos. "He looks as if he might piss all over my platform!"
The mass of buyers and slavers snickered and chuckled. Seylos continued to shake, his eyes glancing around at the cruel faces below him.
"My brother is right," Rathias said as he turned to his comrades, "a slave is a slave. Who will buy him? Who will relieve me of yet another Suormen singer?"
"I'm afraid it will not be me," Dagnor said. "Lord Roduin has told me to refrain from wasting his precious wyrons on more bards and minstrels. The last one he bought from you lost his mind and fucked his greyhound bitch in the cold of night."
The slaver's words caused the other men to burst into cackling laughter. Rathias held his sides as he chuckled heartily, and the only slaver to remain silent was Ryder.
"And what of you, Aderyn Blackbriar," Rathias asked when the laughter had died down. "Will you not pay fifteen wyrons for this . . . charming bard? He still has all his fingers and his tongue! I bet if you place a lute in his hands he can sing you all of the known ballads from Aerok down to Grimnos!"
"His skills would be wasted if I were to buy him," Aderyn replied. "The Fyroks do not need craven singers. We need men for the raids and nothing more."
Rathias merely nodded in agreement. He looked to the others. "Is there no one else? Will none of you offer to buy this sniveling slave?"
There was no verbal reply. The slavers sneered and shook their heads and spat on the dirt. Rathias sighed and lowered into his seat again. "This is most troubling. If I cannot sell the minstrel then he is of no use to me."
"A worthless slave is a dead slave," Ryder said to his brother as he crossed his arms.
Rathias lifted his head and smiled at Seylos. "Tell me minstrel: would you rather be free or enslaved?"
Seylos's face was clouded with confusion. He glanced at the buyers and then back to Rathias. "I-I don't understand . . . my lord . . ."
Rathias pointed to the far gates, "freedom?" His fingers moved to the crowd of slavers, "or enslavement? What is your choice?"
Seylos hesitated before speaking: "F-freedom . . . my lord."
Rathias laughed heartily and clapped his hands. "Freedom it is! Nillnidas, would you please give this poor man the freedom he so desires!"
The bulky man with the battleaxe nodded and stepped onto the platform. Seylos's eyes widened in terror as Nillnidas threw him to the ground.
"No!" Seylos shouted in a hoarse voice as Nillnidas raised his axe. The minstrel cried and crawled away from Nillnidas and death. The slavers filled the air with uproarious laughter and Nillnidas neared the minstrel again. He stomped the frail Suormen to the ground and held him there with an armored foot. Without a sound the axe dropped from the air and Seylos's screams came to a sudden stop. Pellegrin flinched as the minstrel's head rolled across the platform and fell to the mud. Nillnidas wiped his blade on the minstrel's tunic before kicking his body down as well.
"Only death grants true freedom," Rathias shouted as the guardsmen disposed of the body and the blood. "Only a slave who chooses life and thralldom in his heart can be of use to us." He grabbed a ripe apple from the table. "Pick the next slave."
The guardsmen wasted no time choosing the next prisoner. They were eager to see more bloodshed. They grabbed the large Dyrvalii man and attempted to lead him to the platform. He roared like a beast and shoved them all away. They drew swords as the slavers laughed. The hulking man merely grunted and began the walk to the platform.
"And who is this astounding specimen?" Rathias asked as he admired the Dyrvalii.
Dagnor stepped forward to answer him. "A Shadowborn soldier we found marooned on the southern inlets. He nearly beat Cullis to death before we placed the chains and fetters on him."
"Does he have a name?" Rathias asked.
"If he does, he will not speak it. He knows when to be silent it seems," Dagnor said.
Rathias nodded slowly. He could not take his eyes off of the prisoner. "Tell me, Dyrvalii, what do you choose: Slavery or freedom?"
The large prisoner sneered and continued to hold his head high. "Duin vos ro'heim." His words caused the crowd to erupt in nervous murmurs and whispers, and the grin on Rathias's face withered and died.
"Death before thralldom," Ryder translated as he crossed his arms. "Those are the words of the Greycloaks."
Rathias leaned forward, clearly suspicious. "I didn't know they accepted Dyrvalii savages into the Grey Republic. Has Stratus become so desperate to find men to fight in his war that he turns to the barbarians of the south?"
"I do not serve King Stratus," the Dyrvalii said, his voice loud. "I serve Myrkdrasil Nargiss fol'Sassorian of sa'Shadiss. Stratus travelled south two winters ago to seek the aid of my chieftain. He promised Nargiss gold and glory if he would help him protect the southern shores from the Val'Sigai. We swore the Grey Oath before the shrines of Shaela on the eve of battle."
Rathias's grin returned. "And how is it that an honorable Greycloak savage has become nothing more than a lifeless slave?"
"I was in the Battle for the Spikes a month ago. Stratus had given my fjorn large warships to sail over the ice water and steel to wield. We met the Arundels in the Aruthain and I watched as they burned my sworn-brothers and the fleet with swarms of burning arrows. The Kraken killed my chieftain and left me for dead on a small cluster of rocks amidst the burned bodies and the rubble. A few nights later, when I was sure that death would finally come to me, the seadogs of the Sundered Swords found me and took me here."
Rathias turned to Dagnor Seawood and applauded. "Excellent strategy, my friend! I would have never thought of capturing Greycloak prisoners who were abandoned by their kings and throwing them into slavery."
Dagnor bowed. "Soldiers make the best of slaves. By the time they leave the battlefield they're already thralls to despair. They're walking husks that only need a whip cracking at their backs to give them purpose."
Rathias smiled in agreement. "It's ironic, I must say." He looked back to the Dyrvalii. "As a Greycloak you lived to fight against the chains of the Val'Sigai, yet here you sand: bound in chains by men who share the same blood as those who fought for freedom beside you at the Spikes."
The prisoner showed no signs of distress or emotion. Pellegrin wondered how he was able to keep his calm in the face of death. "You may share the blood of my allies, but you are not their equals. You are Cold Men; pups born from tainted frost and corrupted ice. Stratus fights for independence and peace while men like you hide in the shadows and pick at the scraps."
His words had offended Rathias Redd, and his smile was gone once again. "So is that it then? Have you made your choice?"
"Duin vos ro'heim," the prisoner said, his voice echoing through the area. With a look of distaste he drew back his head and spat at the fat slaver. A hail of saliva splashed across the man's face, and he gagged and sputtered as he furiously wiped it all away.
"Kill him!" Rathias yelled. "Kill him now and be done with it!" The guardsmen drew bastard swords and axes and jumped onto the platform, eager to rip apart the prisoner's flesh.
They plunged their blades deep into his flesh, sending rivulets of crimson splashing into the cold wind. Three swords pierced his gut, an axe sank into his left shoulder, and an iron dirk opened his throat. He was dead before his body could even fall to the floor.
The crowd whispered and muttered again, and Pellegrin could see the disdain on their faces. Rathias was losing his merchandise, his buyers, and his business.
"These men came here for an auction," Ryder said to his brother. "They did not come to watch you kill valuable slaves. Enough with your morbid questions."
"Aye," Rathias replied as he wiped the sweat from his brow. He motioned for the guardsmen to pick the next slave.
The guardsmen looked through the line with keen eyes, and Pellegrin could hear Wyllnir whimper as they inspected him. Suddenly Pellegrin was seized by the shoulders and thrown forward. His heart began to race as the slavers led him to the platform. His mind was filled with panicked thoughts as he tried to formulate an escape plan.
He climbed the wooden stairs and stepped onto the platform. Blood covered the floor and fell through the cracks below. The guardsmen stood Pellegrin in the center of the platform, and all eyes were on him. He tried to keep calm. He tried to keep from soiling his pants like Wyllnir had.
He looked to the table, then to the crowd, then to the wood gates that stood far off within the dark of night. He knew that his odds of escaping from the auction were slim, and he knew that his odds of reaching the gates and the woods beyond were even slimmer. He was trapped.
"Where did you find this one?" Rathias asked his brother.
"He was stumbling through the northern woods when we came across him," Ryder answered. "I never cared to ask him his name, but he's an Ashariian. It will take some time for his arm to heal, but when it does he should be of some use. Rimborn slaves are always able to work harder than others."
Rathias scratched the stubble on his chin and gave a troubled look. "He's a burden that no one will want to bear. I wouldn't buy him." He turned back to the crowd of slavers and noblemen. "What about you? Will any of you give up your hard-earned wyrons to pay for a broken boy?" There was no answer.
"Is there no one who would buy him?" Rathias asked as he stood and paced around the mud. "He still has one good hand! He could scrape pig shit from the ground! He could rub your cock in the cold of night!" The crowd laughed and shouted snide remarks back at the fat slaver. Pellegrin could barely resist the urge to jump down from the platform and strangle the pompous man with his bonds.
"Fifty wyrons!" Rathias shouted. The crowd was not pleased with his price. "Twenty! Ten!"
"I'll take him."
The laughing ceased. The crowd was silenced by the sudden voice. They looked around for the man who had spoken, their eyes wide with shock. Rathias's cheeks flushed red and he clenched his fists.
"Who said that?" he asked. "Show yourself!"
A single man broke free from the crowd and kneeled before Rathias. He was a man who had no doubt seen more than forty winters in his life. His skin was pale and his eyes were a deep blue. Black hair covered his brow and reached the nape of his neck. His face was stern with pride and age, and a jagged scar ran across his left eye. He wore a black tunic underneath a cloak of wolf's fur. A longsword rested in an ornate scabbard at his waist.
Rathias eyed the man suspiciously. "And who are you?"
"An interested buyer," the man answered as he stood. "I will buy the Ashariian boy. Name your price."
Rathias was taken aback by the man's request. He glanced at his brother and the slavers before addressing the man again. "I'm curious as to why a wayward swornsword would pay so much for an Ashariian bastard?"
The cloaked man grinned. "My business is my own. Name your price and let us be done with it."
Pellegrin did not know what to think of the man. He did not know why he was so interested in acquiring him. He was broken and shattered, with nothing to his name but a headband and a far off liarbird.
Rathias paced around the platform. Pellegrin could easily tell that he was a man swayed by money more than anything else, and he knew that the slaver would inevitably give in to his insatiable greed for wealth.
"Very well," Rathias said. "My price is one hundred and fifty wyrons. You must double that if we are to make a deal."
"A troubling price," the cloaked man said. His voice was low and filled with unease. "With three hundred wyrons I could buy more than twenty slaves."
Rathias's smile returned. "Do we have a deal, swornsword?"
"We do," the man answered quickly, surprising the slaver. He retrieved two coin pouches from his belt and tossed them to Rathias Redd. Rathias was left speechless as the guardsmen cut Pellegrin's bonds and led him towards his new master.
"Come boy," the swornsword said as he left the auction grounds. "Let us leave these men to their work."
Pellegrin followed him. He did not know why. There were no thoughts of escape in his mind; only a growing desire to be as far away from the demented slavers as he could. The swornsword looked back at him from time to time to make sure he had not run off. Pellegrin did not know whether to thank the man or curse him. He was a stranger who now had complete control over Pellegrin's life.
Pellegrin risked glancing back at the platform. He watched as the man who had to watch his own daughter die climbed the stairs and stood before the crowd. Pellegrin felt a sudden chill slide down his spine. Rathias would not listen to his brother again. He would ask the failed father his haunting question, and Pellegrin did not know what he would choose.