A Cumbuck’s Tale, Ch. 05
Chapter 5 – Love and Loathing
“Fire on the water!”
The barque was a day past Konop, headed down river toward Merath to pick up a cargo. Ralen and Cam had retreated to the fore cabin after setting the watch, though they had not immediately slept. Ralen kept strictly to his code about no sex on the boat, but he enjoyed acts of service, calling upon Cam to bathe him or stroke the tension from his neck and shoulders, after which he’d pull Cam into his arms until they both fell asleep, their bodies and breaths mingling. They were so entwined in sleep when Meuk raised the alarm. Like all river men they slept in clothing they could work in, and the two ran out to see where Meuk pointed. Not far downstream from them, across the dark span of the Dazun, orange light glowed and danced.
Save only for flood, fire was the most feared of dangers for a boatman. Wooden vessels, their planks tarred to keep out water, burned more easily than they sank. Some cargoes burned even more fiercely. The boat ahead of them, flames visible as they drew near, was not a heavy cargo barge but a small open schooner of a kind often used to convey merchant goods or passengers between towns. The air was filled with the cracks of fire fiercely burning upon the deck and the screams of terrified animals. More horrible still were human screams from below.
“Get me some hooks!” Ralen shouted. His second, Partas, ran up dragging coils of heavy rope with grappling hooks on the end, used to haul in derelicts or corpses. Ralen and Partas quickly tossed the hooks over the side of the schooner and Cam joined the other men in hauling on the line as the helmbok turned to bring their boat closer to the burning vessel.
“What if we catch fire, too?” Cam asked urgently. He helped Ralen lash the line fast.
“That’s your job now, rabbit,” the big Staubaun said. He reached into one of the deck boxes and hauled out an axe, which he thrust into Cam’s hands. The dark metal head glinted in the light from the roaring flames now just yards from their vessel. “Fire gets too close, or starts up the ropes, you cut us loose. Got it? Cut the line.”
Without waiting for Cam to answer, Ralen leaped for the side and crossed over the plank the other men had laid. Three of them crossed, dark against the glow.
Cam wanted to cover his ears against the screams. The nightmarish shapes of animals thrashed on the decks, most in crude cages, or collared and secured by lines, some already on fire themselves. A smell of charring flesh mingled with the acrid stink of burning wood. He heard the thunks of axes being wielded on the other boat, shouts from the men he knew, Partas and Meuk, but not from Ralen. Where was he? He turned his head for just a moment from the heat of the flames upon his face. The fire was growing hotter. Some of the human screams ceased, then they all did.
From the deck of the schooner Partas and Meuk were tossing lines over to the barque, the remaining crew scrambling to catch them, securing the lines to the sides. Then the men on the burning boat commenced throwing live animals over the side, into the black and orange water. Small pigs in crates. Goats tied to ropes. A calf. They crossed over the plank again, each bearing a thrashing goat in his arms.
“Where’s Ralen?” Cam shouted. Partas coughed and pointed back to the burning boat. But there was no Ralen to be seen, only flames growing hotter and higher. Fire licked the lines now, spreading fast. Sparks the size of birds flew about the vessel.
“Cut the line!” someone shouted.
“Wait! Ralen’s not off!” Meuk cried.
Cam would not have cut the line had they all wanted it. He ducked involuntarily as part of the schooner’s deck collapsed, sending a fountain of sparks high into the air. Several embers landed on the barque’s deck, where the crew quickly found them and put them out. Shouts to cut the line renewed. All feared that they would now catch fire themselves.
“Go to hell!” Cam shouted back at them. Partas loomed at his side, growing nervous but not yet shouting either.
Then they both saw the familiar large man silhouetted against the flames, running for the plank. He bore a human shape, small and pale, in his arms. The boats had shifted in the current and the plank with it, but he ran onto the bridge, using it to leap for the barque. His crewmen grabbed him as the plank slipped and, right as they pulled him onto the barque, fell. In that same moment, wielding the axe with all his muscle, Cam cleaved the first line and, running to the second, cleaved that also. Using stout poles, the crew pushed the burning hulk of the derelict away. Men hauled up pails of water to chase down embers and every trace of smoke. They would do so for hours and be on alert well into the next day. A few more animals, secured to the lines Partas and Meuk had tossed over and swimming as best they could next to the boat, were quickly hauled on board.
Ralen, skin reddened by the fire and with some canlı bahis of his hair singed, for Cam could smell it, lowered his burden to the deck and immediately dropped to his knees beside it. He was coughing, but not yet ready to tend to himself. Cam joined him and helped brush back strands of dark hair from the face of a young Kheld woman who looked to be roughly the same age as him. The face had only a few blemishes, but the body, naked and thin, showed bruises and burns, especially her hands and arms, both blistered to hell. His stomach wrenched, however, when he saw that one leg was even worse, the slender ankle and foot black and bubbling with blood. A blackened metal shackle was bolted to her ankle, the severed rope to which it had been attached still smoking. She wasn’t quite conscious, all twitching and whimpering.
“Hells, Ralen,” Cam said. He looked up horrified into the Staubaun man’s intent, purposeful eyes.
“Take her to our cabin, Cam. We’ll do for her best we can.” He broke out coughing again. Partas handed Ralen a cup of water, which the leader drank gratefully. The men, who had come over, looked at the girl and shook their heads, both at her wounds and the sight itself.
“Damn slavers,” one muttered.
With the help of One-Handed Brasco, Cam gathered up the girl, who weighed hardly anything, and carried her to the cabin. It had but the one bed and they laid her on it. Cam lit the lamps and saw at once that she needed more help than he could give. Some of the burns weren’t too bad, except those on her arms, which were bad enough, all blisters and swelling—but the leg was a nightmare. Red flesh exposed by the char bled and wept about the ugly metal shackle. The only good thing proved to be that the burn was less than it looked at first glance, mostly the top of the foot and only part up the leg. He found a sheet and covered her torso and thighs, concealing her nakedness. His handling, gentle as it was, stirred her and she wailed and contracted her limbs in pain.
“It’s all right now,” he said. “You’re on our boat.”
At the sound of his voice speaking Khelda to her, the girl ceased to struggle and stared at him as if she could hardly believe it. “You’re Kheld,” she whispered.
He nodded. “I’m Cam. What’s your name?”
He smiled. Tegwyna meant ‘little pretty one’. “Well, you’re safe now, Tegwyna. We’ll treat you good, see. Get you to a healer.”
“Maegda . . . Angharid, where are they?”
There had been others? If so, they had burned to death on the schooner. No other people had been taken from it. Cam found he could not tell her that. “I don’t rightly know. I’ll find out. But you have to rest.”
“Hurts . . . hurts so much.” She stiffened and fought him, and it was all he could do to keep her from clawing at her ankle.
He knew where Ralen kept the elfshod—used when men were bad hurt, or had a tooth gone whole rotten that needed pulling. Ralen kept the potion in the cabin locker, away from the men who might use it up in place of spirits. Ralen had even taught him how to measure a dose that would put a body to sleep but not stop breath. He fetched it quick and, cradling Tegwyna’s head, poured the infusion to her lips so she could sip it. “This will help you. Do you good.”
She downed what she could and turned her face to his shoulder while he cradled her awkwardly. Her tears soaked through his shirt. “So bad. It=s been so bad . . . the bad man . . . suck for water . . . suck forever. We scream and no one comes. They won’t stop screaming.”
“Ssshhhh.” Keeping his hand on her matted brown hair, he tried to calm her. He put the bottle on the table and replaced the stopper before stuffing it in his pocket, where it would be safe from falling. One never knew if a boat would rock on the river. All it took was a half-sunk log or a sudden change in the current.
“Saw them . . . on fire. Shining dancing girls . . .” Her big blue eyes filled with horror and he could see her slipping from him. “Take us . . . to the High-Hole.”
Cam knew where she meant. Neuberland Khelds called Dazunor-Rannuli the High Hole, short for High Holy, after one of the names they had learned upon first encountering the Rill town. He heard the wood door creak open and turned to see Ralen. The Staubaun had smudges on every part of him, and burns on his boots and leggings. Cam didn’t doubt for a minute the man had gone through fire to pull Tegwyna from the schooner’s burning cabin.
“Her name’s Tegwyna,” he said as Ralen came to kneel by the bed beside him. “I gave her something.”
Tegwyna’s gaze fluttered open and fixed on Ralen. Her eyes widened then and her mouth moved in terror. “Ay! A Lord . . . no, Mother, oh no . . . Angharid! Angharid! Help us!”
Cam bent over her again, placing his body between her and that of Ralen, who quietly moved to the other side of the room and the bench under the cabin’s sole window, where he would be out of the girl’s line of sight. There he waited and watched Cam calm the girl until she again bahis siteleri seemed to fall into slumber.
“I think she’ll sleep now,” Cam said, coming to join him. He kept his voice low. “Guess she doesn’t like Staubauns.”
Ralen grimaced wryly.
“What about you?” Cam asked, checking over the big man’s hands, his face, the exposed parts of his body. Seeing burns, he reached into the nearby locker for a jar of salve and began applying the soothing ointment to Ralen’s hands. “How could you run right into that?”
“I heard the girl’s screams. Can’t just let a soul die that way without trying to get them out of it.” He winced at Cam’s touch on the tender knuckles of his left hand, where the skin was tight and red. After another glance to see that Tegwyna was asleep for certain, he leaned forward and said, still in a low voice. “There were three of them. Three girls tied in the cabin. Two were already burning. She wasn’t. Smart little thing tore her clothes off. Clothes catch fire faster than skin. I couldn’t help the others. I used my dagger to cut the rope and was able to pull her away. Just before the floor gave way.”
“Bastards! Someone just left them there. Them and the animals.”
“The damn crew jumped even before we boarded. We turned the boat around after, hoisted some sail, went back to see if we could find them. We hauled one man out of the water. The slaver.”
Alarmed, Cam looked to the girl, then back to him. “Does he know she’s here?”
Ralen nodded. “He asked what we’d salvaged, I told him. He’s half-drowned himself, cursing his crew.”
“Not half as much as I’m cursing him about now.” Cam felt nothing but disgust at the idea of sharing the boat with such a creature. Khelds abhorred Staubaun slavers, a breed that preyed upon their kind for the lowest purposes. “He was going to sell the girls in Dazunor-Rannuli.”
“What he does on the river is not my business. Neither is it yours,” Ralen reminded him, his eyes river-cold. Seeing Cam’s hurt, he relented. “But I won’t allow suffering. We’ll see the girl to a healer. There’s a stiff west wind tonight. We’ll make Konop by morning.”
Doing so would set them at least a day back from their arrival at Merath but the pirate was willing to do it to help the girl, a poor thing toward whom he had no obligation at all. Cam weakly returned the smile, grateful for Ralen’s kindness. If kindness it was, with the slaver also on board. “Then that’s the second best thing of the day,” he said.
“Is it? What is first?”
“Seeing you come out of that fire.”
* * * *
Eubuleus the slaver was a prosperous trader along the Upper Dazun. His three-mast schooner had plied the larger ports of the Gobba frontier, particularly the capital of Bayserba and the farming towns of Annech, with occasional forays to the Kyredon frontier. Although he dealt mostly in such goods as peddlers would trade in small towns, he found slaves to be lucrative and there were always a few in his inventory for return voyages. Dazunor-Rannuli’s wealthy sybarites had endless appetites for pleasure and Neuberland had a seemingly endless supply of fresh young Khelds to suit their tastes. He found it no more wrong to snatch a few Khelds from the fields than he found it wrong to take a few fish from the river. For the most part, neither did most Staubaun traders, so he did not foresee any trouble from Ralen about his activities. All the less when he saw the youth Ralen brought to the deck for the next morning’s breakfast.
“Now there’s a beauty,” he said, breaking his bread over a pewter plate, all the while assessing Cam with calculating dark eyes. The crew all sat together, sharing from the same loaf. “Cumbuck, is he?”
“Mine, not yours,” Ralen reminded him, with a warning glare.
“No, no, of course. But I know a man in Dazunor-Rannuli . . . well, the price would be more than you might imagine.” Seeing that neither Ralen nor any of the men seemed interested in his dangling offer, Eubuleus brought up a more important issue needing discussion. “Of course, the real thing I need is to be taken to a more populous location, a reasonable town. Merath, perhaps, or even Dazunor-Rannuli if you would be going so far.”
Ralen gazed at him calmly. “Do we look like a passenger vessel? We don’t have room. I want my cabin back.” He hadn’t liked sleeping on the floor.
“We don’t need room. Just a spot on the deck, the smallest of spots to be sure. I’ll sell the beasts in Konop, give you good gold for the passage. There are plenty of boats up and down the river, of course, but not many stop here, you see.” The town, a trade port for provincial farmers, lined the river bank prettily. A few barges but not much else crowded the wharf. “I need to get down river before people find the burned remains of my boat and start thinking I am dead.” He licked his lips nervously, drawing attention to their fullness.
“Sell the girl in Konop, too, and I might think about it.”
“With fresh burns? All weeping and pain? I’ll get nothing bahis şirketleri for her there.” Eubuleus looked offended. “In the big cities, there’s a market for pretty cunts like her, even the way she is. I could clear some profit, at least. She’s a cumslut, of course, and would do better in a large city where she could find work. Konop hasn’t so much as a slophouse.”
Cam stared at the man, his stomach turning. He had seen enough of the North’s big Staubaun cities by now to know the market of which Eubuleus spoke: beggars, many grotesquely mutilated, working for cruel masters, and crippled whores pandering to the lowest tastes of a population sunk in decadence. And he had heard of slophouses, female versions of the sucking Fence. If pretty Tegwyna was a cumslut, he looked upon the monster who had made her that way. Eubuleus was no better than Penargos, and he was way worse than Ralen.
“Make him leave her in Konop,” he urged to Ralen. “Better yet, have someone to take her across the river.”
Ralen frowned at his having spoken out. The slaver merely smirked.
“They stick together, don’t they?” Eubuleus observed. “Never to be trusted.” He shrugged when he again did not provoke a response. “You know I’m right about the slophouse. The town’s too small to have one.”
Cam was with Tegwyna when the slaver came for her. He had spent an hour washing her best he could, especially her long hair. Combing out the tangles had taken the longest part and he thought there might just be as much hair on the floor as on her head, for he had cut it as well to get rid of some of the worst of it. She had smiled when he told her he thought she looked pretty, but it was only the truth. She had a sweet face, just like his sisters and other young Khelds he had known, with pale freckles across the nose, and a generous mouth that looked like it would rather laugh than frown. His heart had lurched for her. He knew why when Eubuleus walked in. He watched her eyes grow wide with horror, her realization that her captivity, which she had thought over, was not.
By then, he knew that she and her friends had been snatched by Eubuleus’ men, all three at once, while washing clothes at the river. The girls had been spared rape only because they were virgins and virgin girls were highly prized by Dazunor-Rannuli’s jaded aristocracy. Eubuleus himself had boasted of how he had fuck-tamed each pretty girl orally, forcing them to suck plenty of Staubaun cock, ensuring that they would willingly accommodate their new masters when he sold them in Dazunor-Rannuli. “For what more can a Lord ask than a sweet dark-haired girl hungry for his juices, who cries out with joy as he pierces her virgin flower?”
The healer in Konop was an Aletris of the Stol Dorma and did not want to treat a Kheld slave, even a clean one. In the end, however, the slaver, who had rescued his gold if not his goods by floating the chest on a nest of planks until he was rescued, paid the woman enough coin to sway her sensibilities. It took a smith from the town an hour to saw off the hasp of the manacle so that it could be pried open from around the swollen, oozing flesh of Tegwyna’s ankle. Debriding the girl’s burns, the healer wrapped the ankle and foot with gauze soaked in the juice of the curu plant, which she said would cool the tissue and prompt it to heal. She applied a salve of the same plant to the burns on Tegwyna’s hands, which the girl had used to try to put out the flames on her leg. She then sold the slaver elfshod and bandages, along with a potion to help the poor girl sleep. “She watched her friends burn alive. You imagine the nightmares,” the unhappy healer snapped at the protesting man.
Once back on the barque, Tegwyna slept. The slaver had hobbled her again, this time by tying her good ankle securely to the one end of the bed and one of her wrists to the other. That Ralen had sturdy hardware in place for just such measures reminded Cam that he belonged after all to a man who sometimes trafficked in humans. When the slaver went back with his livestock into town, Cam checked on the girl from time to time. To his dismay, Tegwyna only cried and barely wanted to talk with him.
“You’re just a slave, too,” she whispered, shaking her head so that her dark brown hair moved like shining water to obscure her face. She had not even asked if her conclusion were true. He raged and snarled against the rest of the crew when they said the most harmless things to him after, until by afternoon they left him alone.
The slaver returned, his goods gone. He gave a portion of his meager proceeds to the crew for having saved the beasts and also for having erected a tarp and privacy screen of planks upon a portion of the deck. Ralen conceded that the girl could not be sold in Konop and agreed to let the slaver transport her on his boat as far as Merath. Cam hated that decision. He hated that Staubauns would refuse to care for a poor burned girl just because she was Kheld and a slave, and he hated Eubuleus’ too frequent looks in his direction, looks that weighed his value and what it might cost to get him. The slaver and the girl were moved out of Ralen’s cabin and onto the deck, and that night at least Ralen and Cam got a good night’s sleep.