The ship bucked beneath Shaun like an agitated horse, knocking him flat on his back. Somewhere far off, someone screamed – full of hatred, rage, and made worse by its ineffectiveness. Shaun scrambled on his hands and knees, lurching for cover.
The rain flew in sideways, blinding the crew, flooding the main deck. "Drekin!" he heard the old Vossen man yell until his voice was swallowed by a roll of thunder. Everyone threw themselves onto the deck as a huge shadow cut downward. The dragon tucked her wings and plucked one man that was too slow to take refuge. The monster tore through rigging and splintered the foremast. Shaun only heard the man's outraged cry for an instant before the dragon snapped her powerful wings and took them both into the storm. Curses followed in her wake, sobs issued from the hardiest of men. Shaun only found himself numb.
Captain Grint was long dead, and the lack of leadership had rendered the crew a headless creature, flailing as its lifeblood washed away. No other man in the chain of command had come forward. But who would want to claim this mess, anyways?
When he had arrived at Farwater, it had been for adventure. He came for the jobs filled only by the strong and young and foolish. He had not expected to die, which was an arrogant thought, he was realizing. But it had the express job of keeping him alive.
Looking over, he saw one of his crewmates splayed on his back, his leg was mangled, and his chest crushed. The man talked about how his clothes were wet, his dinner would be wet, his blankets would be wet. His sentences punctuated by high-pitched wheezing. He did not seem at all concerned about his broken ribs. It took several minutes, but he grew quiet. They locked eyes for just a moment before the man exhaled wetly and died.
Shaun crawled closer to the man, pulled out his pockets. Three gerets, two bone hooks, a wood charm, and a small knife – that was all the man had to his name, whatever it had been. He was torn between throwing the charm away and wearing it himself. It could be bad luck to wear a dead man's talisman. But it could also be bad luck to leave it. He held it hard, until its edges bit into his palm.
He couldn't think. He looked at the dead man and wondered at the fact that he already looked dead. It was too fast. Shaun moved his hands to the back of his neck and screamed into the deck. He balanced the whole of his weight on his forehead and the balls of his feet, arching his body upward. His vision darkened at the edges until he quieted, taking in a shaky breath. There was so much water that he might as well have been drowning.
He knew he should have been fighting. He was the largest man on the ship and one of the few with a sword on his back. He had been hired as a crewmate, but eventually came to be one of the guards. The Bosun's first mate, Captain Grint's enforcer, the thug. Even then, he mostly intimidated - using his size to scare off the less committed challengers. But what was his size now, compared with these creatures? What could he do but wait to be plucked from the deck?
Eventually he slumped down, exhausted, and the sounds he had kept at bay with his screams came rushing back. With his ear against the deck, the pounding footsteps were as loud as the thunder. He smiled mirthlessly to himself. How intimidating would he be now that he had thrown a fit like a child?
He rolled over to stare up at the ruined sails. He watched as several other men were hoisted away, numbly recounting their names as they flew above him. Rodney struggled until the dragon had to fix its grip, gutting him in the process. He died with slimy bands about his ankles. Curtis stared at the receding ship and made no move to escape. Shaun figured the young man was too stunned to think. He knew that feeling all too well.
He witnessed five more men stolen by the dragon serge, and still the thought of moving was not considered. Until he felt a foot prod his side. It was what he needed, and he snapped out of himself. He wasn't one for mulling overlong or overmuch, but he was used to following orders. The lack had him just as lost as the dragon's attack.
He only needed to survive this night, and then he would leave Farwater and the dragon's damn mountains.
"Get up, they're circling around," Felix said.
Slowly, Shaun unwound his hands and pushed himself up. His eyes were certain to be red and the corners of his mouth felt like they had split. His skull felt too heavy for his neck and his forehead felt raw. He almost toppled back over. Everything felt too heavy. He lifted his hand and looked at the dead man's charm – it was a flaming goblet, fairly made on common stone. He loosened the leather band and tied it about his neck.
"Move," Felix said, hauling Shaun to his feet.
"I'm fine," he said, even though he wasn't asked. He shrugged off Felix's hand and turned to look at his friend, daring him to say anything. "Where are we going?"
Felix grinned, a sideways affair that crinkled his face like an old gran. One hand held a soaking, flapping hat to the top of his head. "The one place the dragons won't rip apart."
Shaun frowned, but followed his friend as he wove across the deck. His toes dragged, his feet unwilling accomplices in this whole walking endeavor. Felix waited for him, fidgeting, his head whirling on his scrawny neck. When Shaun reached him, they went down the companionway and into the lower deck.
The appearance of Felix heartened Shaun. He was a quick man, talking circles around those with slower minds and heavy tongues. When Shaun was hired he had become a favorite target of Felix's, and was mocked without his even knowing. He had mistaken Felix's smug smile for friendliness. The day he realized he was the butt of the joke, he pummeled the small man until he couldn't see. They'd come to an understanding after that.
When they entered the lower deck it was dark and creaking. Felix lit a lantern to reveal the men who had taken shelter, and Shaun felt a bit of shame that he was joining their ranks.
He'd never been one to be burdened with the lesser fears. When he was younger, he used to climb sheer walls of rock with only a satchel over his shoulder, collecting eggs and crabs that were tucked away in the stone. He'd had mother birds peck at his head as he desperately hung to the cliff. That was the only comparable experience he had to this, and it seemed a trivial wrath compared with the dragons. Because once the serge realized they would never get what they wanted, they would make sure the ship was destroyed. There would be no escaping.
Especially from the hold, which was where they were headed. It held the ship's spoils, the whole reason they ventured into the Eldur Mountains. It was the most precious commodity in the kingdom.
The two men stepped through a door and found themselves surrounded by gemstone eyes.
Felix sat with a lantern between his knees. One of the little dragons focused on him, the reptilian features carved from stone. Shaun shivered and crossed his arms, wedging his hands into his armpits.
"This can't be your plan." The screams could still be heard from the above. It was at odds with the relative silence of the hold - the suspended, listening quality. "This doesn't guarantee anything save our cowardice."
His friend didn't answer, and Shaun turned his back to him. His mind was beginning to reel again. They were surrounded by dozens and dozens of restless hatchlings. Their presence and the calls from outside were making them uneasy. Several made stifled noises through their snouts, others pulled against the restraints. Shaun wanted to scream at them all, tell them to shut up so that he could hear himself think.
Could the mothers sense their hatchlings' closeness? Shaun cringed as another roar filled the air. What was the point in keeping their cargo now? The entire venture was compromised. He surely wasn't willing to give up his life because King Sownbreath wanted more mounts for his Flight.
He could feel the wave of panic rising again, and he swallowed several times before he could use his voice. "We should take one up to the deck."
Felix's only answer was to stare at the light.
"They know they're here," Shaun said, striding past the hatchlings. On each dragon's neck iron bands were clasped, too thick for a man to break. A heavy chain ran through each band, tying down an entire row of the creatures. Their legs were left unbound and their claws cut short. A strong leather strap tied down their wings. They were the most carefully restrained part, the woven leather almost artful. For what was the value of a dragon that could not fly?
One of the men who had a pair of keys to the hatchlings had been on the main deck. Shaun had seen the purser fall from the ship and into the rough waters. He knew him only as a notorious card cheat. He half-suspected someone had taken the opportunity to be rid of him. The purser's assistant hadn't been seen since the attack began, and Captain Grint was dead, his body somewhere on the deck. That was his best chance at getting a set of keys. He balked at the thought of going back up. The Quartermaster, Lugh, had a set, but he hadn't been seen either. Most likely he was dead, too.
"Everyone's dead," he whispered. He wondered how many of the original hundred and fifty crew members were still living.
He eyed one of the dragons. Surely he could slip one out. One hatchling to make them hesitate. He nearly managed to convince himself that he didn't need the keys, but did admit that he was mostly stalling. Being dry and safe were attractive qualities. It was like being wrapped in a warm bed on a cold morning. He couldn't stay here long or he'd never leave.
He knelt beside a small female, trying to ignore her attention. He could fit two fingers between her neck and the shackle. She trilled uncertainly and tried to move away from his touch. Shaun hushed her, fully knowing she wouldn't understand. I'll take you back, he thought, Your hive will be happy to see you. Less murderous.
"Then you can tell them how nice we are, how we set you free. Fed you fish," he whispered to the hatchling as he worked the chain. He fiddled with it until the little female shifted in discomfort.
"Those aren't coming off," Felix said from across the hold. His voice was out of place in the makeshift nest.
Shaun reeled around to face him. "So what would you do? They won't leave this ship in one piece."
"I didn't come down here to stop anything from happening," his level voice seemed to deaden the air in the room.
"Then why did you save me? Just to die out of the rain?"
"We're going to die, Shaun. The only thing I can control is the manner of my death."
"Felix – "
"-You want to die doing something, go right ahead. You'll still scream and shit yourself like a babe." His smile ran ragged across his face. "All Mina will know was that I died on the job. For her. That's enough for me."
"You're not dead yet." Shaun said it without much conviction.
He found, though, that he could not leave him with much else – it would be too falsely hopeful, especially considering the last ten minutes of his life. With a sigh, he dropped his hand, his knuckles dragging against the floor. He leaned away from the creature and scanned the room. If he could find the runt of the lot, maybe he could free it.
He did not really believe he would live through the night. Unlike his friend, though, he did care about the manner of his death. As soon as he had entered the silence of the hold, he knew the he couldn't stay. He knelt down beside Felix and held out his hand.
"What?" Felix snapped. "What do you want?"
Shaun inclined his head, "The lantern. Just for a minute."
Without meeting his eyes, he passed it over.
Shaun stood and wove his way through the mass of hatchlings, trying to keep his shoulders low and relaxed. Men don't even have the decency to die alone, he thought, lifting the lantern high.