"Guh," Shaun breathed, and it was all he could hear. "Guh," he had to lean forward to keep from choking.
He still did not understand how this had happened. He had seen dragon mounts for nobles treated as nothing more than glorified horses. They were used as muscle-power and military tools – beasts of burden. His mind was reeling. What did he not know? Were the boarders masters or slaves? Men did not work for dragons, dragons worked for men.
And the man about to kill Shaun didn't look pleased with himself. He didn't look anything at all. Shaun was somewhat irritated that his death didn't even merit an emotion. His world suddenly felt very small, indeed. Nothing mattered beyond the salt in his wounds and the man with the bland expression.
But his world wasn't that small. There was Felix, too, down in the hold. And quiet, sensible Gammon likely dead or dying. There was Bos, who never found that wife of his. The loss of the Moonshell would be a disaster for Farwater, but only economically. Save for a handful of the men, they were all transients. Bachelors, lone bulls, loose and wayward. No one would cry overmuch for their deaths.
He shouldn't have left Dunwin. He should have stayed, where people had known and loved him, where he had been closer to being someone he liked. He didn't even know if Shella had that kid. He had left as soon as he saw his future taking shape. Now there was no time to make amends, and there was real shame in that.
Someone shouted in Taborish and the boarder's attention broke, looking over his shoulder for the source. Shaun kept his eyes on him. The man hadn't even bothered with a disguise – he wore an Islander's traditional robe, the sleeves rolled to his elbows revealing patterned forearms. Intricate armor spanned his chest, neck, and shoulders. It was made of dragon scales, and shone like the sun seen from deep under water. Another call came from that other language, broken and desperate. Shaun glanced away in time to see that Jurly was its source, and when he looked back at the man who was to kill him he saw Gammon running him through.
Shaun didn't move or scramble for cover, just stared at the fallen man. It wasn't much later that he was being heaved up by the armpits. Gammon's broad face and Jurly's pinched one filled his vision. Gammon said something garbled and snapped his fingers in front of Shaun's face several times. He tried to swat him away.
Gammon snorted and said, "He'll do. Find Bos and take him to the gig."
Shaun balked as Jurly tried to lead him away. The gig? He whirled on Gammon, nearly falling again. "I'll not be on that boat," he said. "I can't." He'd broken a man's wrist for trying to do the same.
"D'you have a death wish?"
"No," he said slowly. "No, I don't."
"Then you're on the gig." He exchanged a look with Jurly, and Shaun felt something sharp pressed against his side. Again. "You've no choice in the matter, Shaunko. This is not your decision to make."
Shaun laughed, and damn did it hurt. "Are you saving me, man? Is that what this is?"
Gammon looked grave. "It is."
He didn't answer, just nodded to Jurly who was not committed to his role as bully. Shaun knew they wouldn't stab him if they were trying to save him, and they wouldn't tie him up in case he needed to protect himself. He wrenched away easily and made for the companionway. He'd kill every hatchling he could find. He'd set them on fire. He'd –
Hands were on him again, wrapping under his arms. Hands locked behind his head and he tried to lurch away, but was pulled down and back. He was led, despite his threats and his attempts at violence, across the deck. Men pressed close, but no one offered a challenge. The Tabormen were focused on the worms, they emerged onto the deck with one tucked beneath each arm, and the serge dove and dove.
When the gig came in sight, he felt sick. He knew he wasn't the captain. That he wasn't meant to go down with the ship. But it hurt. It hurt to leave it all behind. To have it taken.
The knots were nearly undone and men stood with grappling poles, trying to lower the boat into the sea. Which, to Shaun, did not look notably safer than the ship. He balked again as they led him to the edge.
"He's lost his wits," a man said. "He'll get us all killed."
Someone hit the speaker and said, "Just get him on the fucking boat, Tittle."
Shaun was close enough to him to hear him grumble, "I'll get him on the fucking boat." So Shaun elbowed him in the stomach before he could try. Tittle coughed and fell back. Then there were more hands, threatening to pitch him headfirst into the gig.
Another man came in close and hissed in his ear, "Shaun, stop. Just get in."
He hadn't done nearly enough. Things were unfinished when he could still finish them. But he didn't know what they were. He wanted to throw everyone off, dash back, but to what? To do what? There had to be something.
There wasn't. He was dropped into the gig and there were more hands. He pulled against them, escaping some only to have others latch on. He heard a man scream and fall overboard.
He stopped. Men shifted, distracted and yelling after the man caught in the angry waves. Shaun sat up and no one held him. He unstrapped his sword and stood. He sighted the man as he struggled to keep his head above water, and dove in himself. He fell a long ways before meeting sea.
It was cold. He had to focus, focus all his attention on his task, focus on controlling his limbs, focus on his breathing. He didn't mind at all. If he didn't find the man fast, he would be dead. Even if he got him back, the cold could still have him. A wave broke over his head and unbound his hair. He still had the man in his sight, though. He couldn't lose him for a moment or he'd never find him again.
Shaun shouted, but didn't hold out hope. He couldn't go back to the gig, to the men that thought they were saving him, after killing one of their number. He didn't even know who it was. "Halloo!" he shouted again.
He heard it. A faint, faint return howl. Shaun made for it, and the man never stopped yelling. The sea rose underneath Shaun, so he could see quite far as the water dipped before him, and he saw the man. He was hardly visible, just a difference in texture. The man saw him too and laughed, swallowing water and coughing. Shaun swam hard. His body burning despite the cold. Hold on, he thought and, stay there, stay there. He was an armspan away, then he wasn't and he had him. He apologized as he maneuvered him onto his back. He apologized until he had no breath to spare. He knew the man, Shaun sometimes joined his group when they went ashore. Hiram.
Hiram was a weak swimmer. He was also slight and the cold was taking its toll. Shaun swam faster, but found it difficult to breathe. His nose had started bleeding again.
"You have to move, Hiram," he said. He kept urging the man to kick, move, anything at all so the cold wouldn't take too deep a root. "We're almost there."
And they were, Shaun could see the shaded lanterns the crew shined out over the water. The gig was lowered now, the cord cut. He shouted and lights flared. A line was cast into the water, but it was far too short. The next was closer and the last one Hiram was able to grab. Shaun tied the line about the man's waist and clung to him as they were pulled in.
There were more hands, but he went to them willingly this time. They pulled him aboard and he collapsed. Coats and blankets were piled onto them, men were arguing. The lights were smothered and Shaun was glad. He hung his head and wept.
He pretended to sleep for a long time, until he couldn't anymore. The men were quiet. There was one hooded lantern to serve as light, and the flame burned low. He sat feeling his broken nose, fingering the new shape of it. New and exciting. He snapped it back with a jerk and whimpered just loud enough to wake the man next to him. He could taste blood again. He was getting tired of the taste of his own blood. Panting, he looked up at the sky. It looked like a blanket.
Shaun rose, crouching, and made for the nearest oarsman. There were men sprawled everywhere; crying, sleeping, staring. Eyes were on him as he moved, he could feel them like an itch.
He reached the oarsman and touched his shoulder. The man was gaunt; he looked up at Shaun through hooded eyes. He said nothing, and continued to row.
"Please," Shaun said.
The oarsman just shook his head, over and over, to the pace of his rowing.
Shaun turned, and made for the other rower. He looked like he was lagging, but Shaun could have been imagining it. He placed a hand on the man's back, "It's time to switch, man. I'll take it." The man's shoulders slumped, but he didn't offer a word against him. They exchanged places, and Shaun took up the rowing. The man shuffled off without looking back.
The pull of his muscles felt like divinity. The bite of the sea and the tempered silence of the men reminded him that he lived still. Against all odds, and despite himself, he was alive.
He rowed, knowing they made little progress.
"Is that smoke?" someone asked, standing.
Other men turned to look, but Shaun didn't care, he kept rowing. He didn't realize he was the only one rowing until Gammon set a hand over his.
"Enough for now, Shaunko. We need to rest. We need to decide what to do."
He stopped his rowing, but didn't turn. He stared down at the empty space beneath the bench in front of him. His face throbbed and the skin across his palms was cracked and bleeding. He straightened back and rolled his shoulders. "What are our options?" he finally said.
The rower on the bench in front of Shaun moved and Gammon took his place, sitting backwards on it. "Well," he said, and paused. His eyes scanned the crew, who were all looking at something Shaun had his back toward. "Well, our options are going to Blackwell or… not. Some want no dealings with the man."
Shaun frowned, "He should know."
"Aye, but Farwater's done us no favors."
"Gave us a job, yeah? A terrible one, but a job."
Gammon was silent, his impassive face revealed nothing. He might have been considering what he had said, or been preparing to punch him. Shaun could never tell. Eventually the man nodded, "You're right, of course. I just wanted to know if you'd found your sense."
He snorted, "Never been accused of being sensible before."
"I said you'd found your sense, not that you were sensible." Gammon smiled, or rather, his lips twitched.
Shaun muttered something uncharitable, and finally looked back. On the lightening horizon was one bright point. If he strained his ears, he thought he could hear the men of Moonshell.