“Here’s your grub, kin killer.”
“Are you really going to use that name every single time?”
In the bowels of his ship, Cadogan Blackwater, the so-called kin killer, sat in his cage, hands bound behind his back, and watched the guard push his meal through the bars. A bowl of salt pork in broth, topped with a biscuit. The boat lurched. So did the bowl, spilling broth.
“Fucking hell, man,” Cadogan cursed. “I need that water. Those biscuits are like rocks, you know.”
“Not my problem, kin killer.”
Cadogan shoved himself to his feet. The top of his head brushed the top of the cage. “Would you unbind my hands, at least? I’m not a dog. Let me eat like a man.”
If the guard made any motion, formed any expression at all, Cadogan couldn’t see it. A single lamp lit the packed hold, leaving most in shadow. “You ask every time. The answer is still no.” Having nearly forgotten to say it, he added, “Kin killer.”
Cadogan leaned against the bars, trying to get a look at the man. It wasn’t necessary, Cadogan already knew him well. He wanted to look him in the eye. His name was Martin, a sailor who served under him before he’d been thrown in a cage. Martin had been a friend. “Honestly, you’re still calling me that?” Cadogan asked. “You don’t really believe I killed him. You know me better than that.”
“I believe it,” Martin said. He was a young man and spoke as if had a mouthful of marbles. “That’s what you lords do. You shiv each other for rank. They say you killed your brother, so I say you did.”
Cadogan laid his forehead against the bars. “Come on, man. What would I get out of that? What would I gain from killing him?”
“I don’t know. Land. Title. Lordly shit. You’re the lord here, you tell me.”
“Land?” Cadogan asked, laughing. “This is my land, man. This ship. And my title? Captain.”
“Eat your food and shut up, kin killer.”
“Look, I get it,” Cadogan said. “The tide’s changed. I was a nobleman. It’s your job to hate noblemen. Now I’m in a cage and you can treat me however you like without punishment. You want to get your lashings in. I understand. I do. But we’re friends, Martin. You have to believe me.”
“I don’t have to do anything.”
“I saved your life once. Didn’t I? That big fuckin’ beast snatched you off the deck. I got you back. Didn’t it?”
“Aye,” Martin said. “You did. Still killed your brother, though.”
“Why would I go through all the trouble of saving your life then turn around and kill my own blood?” Cadogan asked. “And how many sailors died on my watch in all the years we sailed together?”
“A few,” Cadogan echoed. “Aye, a few. How many on all the ships that sail in these waters come back to tell the tale?”
“Aye. A few. I kept most of you alive. Because you’re not just men to me, Martin. You’re my crew. You’re my mates. If I care that much about you lot, what makes you think I didn’t care that much about my own blood?”
“Alright,” Martin said. “Let’s say you didn’t kill your brother. Who did, then?”
Cadogan chuckled, shifting to lean against the side of his cage instead. “Great cock of Khalin, can you believe you’re the first person to ask me that? Not a damned soul saw me do a thing, they just locked me in chains and shipped me off without a word.”
“Well, who did it?”
“My sister did it.”
“Lady Hawthorne?” Martin asked. His tone was clear: he did not believe. “What a load of shite. Story says she’s too kind to even gut a fish.”
“You said it yourself just before, man. Nobles are always looking to stab each other in the back. You have to be good at the game to pull it off. Of course you think my sister’s a kindly beauty. That’s what she wants. She’s a killer, mate.”
“So why are you here and not her?”
“She set me up. My brother was the heir of Blackwater. I was second in line. She was third. Hawthorne slit his fucking throat and blamed me. Hells, I wasn’t ashore for more than a day before his death. Do you honestly think I even saw my brother yet? Name one sailor that goes home in his first day back. Go on,” Cadogan urged. “Tell me, where were you our first day ashore?”
“Aye. You and I, both.”
“I didn’t see you there.”
“Of course you didn’t. I’m a noble,” Cadogan said. “Nobles use the back door, man.”
“What girl were you with, then?”
“Hells,” Martin cursed. He seemed in awe. “Lorna? Shit. If you were still captain, I’d raise my cap to you. She’s a picky one, I been trying to get her for years.”
“I told them to ask her,” Cadogan said. “But it’s like I told you, they didn’t care what I said. Hawthorne threw me in irons as fast as she could. She wanted me gone before the truth spread.”
“Why didn’t she just — shit,” Martin cursed. The ship lurched, sending them into a stumble. Martina’s sea legs caught him, but Cadogan was thrown against his cage. His meal was overturned, spilling pork and broth. Martin strode back to the cage, but it was like walking uphill. He gripped the cage and braced. The ship crested its wave and crashed back down, momentarily airborne.
“We never took waves like that when you were at the helm,” Martin said. “I’ll give you that much.”
“We’ve killed serpents that didn’t toss us like that.” Cadogan sank to the ground. Standing didn’t seem wise anymore. Not without the use of his arms, anyway. “Who’d they make captain of this fine lady?”
Cadogan already knew, but he’s gotten Martin to talk and wanted it to stay that way.
“Lord Brighton. Lord Captain Brighton, I guess.”
“Brighton.” Cadogan barked a laugh. “Brighton’s a ledger, not a sailor. He doesn’t know shit from shite about sailing. He only knows what a ship looks like when it’s in port. And Lord Captain? He makes you call him Lord Captain?”
“Aye. It’s a lashing if we don’t.”
“I outranked him ten times over and I never once made you lot call me Lord Captain.”
“True enough.” Martin waited a beat before he asked, “Why is that?”
“Captain is my title.” Cadogan shrugged. “This ship is my land. No lords. No kings. Good men doing what we must.”
“You were a good captain, captain.”
“Can I have my hands?”
“Aye. Turn around.”
Cadogan turned. Martin untied his hands.
“I ought to go topside now,” Martin said. “The Lord Captain will give me a lashing already, I’m sure. Not supposed to dally with you.”
“You go on,” Cadogan said. “You’ve given a framed man a bit of dignity. I’d take the lashings for you if I could.”
Martin walked away. Cadogan listened to the footsteps, scooping his meal off of the bottom of his cage. The footsteps fell silent. In the darkness, Cadogan didn’t bother masking his grin. Martin returned and spoke at a whisper. “I’m surprised.”
“I thought you’d try to kill me when I untied you,” he said. “Or maybe talk me into mutiny. Why didn’t you?”
“You didn’t put me in here and I’m no murderer. Spilling a friend’s blood would be murder. And mutiny? I’m a prisoner, not a sailor. Not anymore.”
Martin said no more and went topside.
Cadogan languished in his cage for days more without another word from anyone. No one seemed to notice he had his hands back when they delivered his meals. Martin only came occasionally, Lord Captain Brighton apparently neglecting to assign someone to the task properly. The men who came never said a word. He kept count of the days in his head, trying to gauge where they were at sea by numbers. After a month of it, he concluded it was a useless exercise. As he’d told Martin, Brighton didn’t know shit from shite. Cadogan knew how long it took his ship to cross the sea with himself at the helm. Brighton would take longer and significantly so.
Cadogan spent his days alone with his thoughts. There was nothing he hated more than his own thoughts. He considered them poison, the baggage of being raised among nobles, reminders of rank, hierarchy, titles, and service.
He was born the second son of Dovan Blackwater, lord of their namesake, the island fortress of Fort Blackwater off Khalino’s northern shore. The family of Blackwater served Count Highwatch of Highwatch County, who in turn served Duke Daegal Seaborne, lord of Storm’s Shore, miraculously escaping the curse of being named after a pile of rocks and mud. Even the Seabornes served a high power in the king-in-waiting, Archduke Aliser, who then served their god, Khalin, namesake of Khalino. And there were those below the Blackwaters, men like Lord Brighton, who had little to no land, their titles a courtesy or a reward for a good deed.
Caged and eastbound, Cadogan cared little for it, wishing his mind would stop playing the sequence over and over again in his mind. He had to memorize it all as a child and his father taught him his place in it. As second son, he could claim no land. His duty was to the heir, his brother. Cadogan’s fate was to sail, defend the realm against raiders, and hunt down demons of the sea to secure passage east. East, to the sands where, regardless of their own desires, hundreds of thousands of men and women fought and bled and died in Khalin’s holy war against the demon hordes. Demon hordes who dwelled in land of no value to anyone, where only the places known as the Oases could support any life at all, the Oases which were part of another nation, a nation they did not seek to conquer. It was madness. All of it. But Cadogan needed only to sail and battle the rare beast of the seas, a task at which he proved proficient. He never needed to actually set foot in the east. For that, he was ever thankful.
But Cadogan’s brother bled out from a slit throat, Cadogan was in a cage, and Hawthorne was made heir. His days of sailing were over. She damned him to a lifetime of fighting in Khalin’s war. Once he arrived in Storm’s Shore’s eastern holdings, he doubted he’d ever lay eyes on the sea again. Only sand, blood, and the shit of dying men.
His hands free, Cadogan found new ways to distract himself from thoughts of nobility and murder, but they inspired loathing all the same. He discovered the greasy, filthy mop that’d become of his hair, and the unkempt whiskers of his face. Even at sea, he’d always tried to keep himself clean. He and his crew had a reputation for it. They could cross the sea faster than anyone else and were the only ones who stepped ashore smelling like something other than their own sweat and piss. It was a damned ocean with enough water to bathe the world, yet most didn’t bother.
Some two weeks after his conversation with Martin, another sailor broke the silence.
“Oi,” the man whispered, sliding Cadogan’s meal into the cage. Cadogan couldn’t see his face, just as he couldn’t see Martin’s own, but he knew the voice. His name was Conlin. He was only sixteen years old. Tomlin continued to whisper. “I’ve been waiting for my turn down here for weeks. Is it true Lady Hawthorne killed your brother?”
The ship lurched, and even in the hold, Cadogan could hear pouring ran pounding against the deck above. Waves crashed against the hull. Cadogan had heard the thunder hours before, the barest hint of a storm in the distance. It had only grown louder and more frequent. Brighton had chosen to take them straight through it.
“Aye,” Cadogan said. The word made his voice crack. He took a drink of pork broth to wet his throat. “Aye, she did. Who told you that?”
“Martin told me. Word’s getting around, too. You were good to us, captain. We know you wouldn’t have killed your own kin. Still, I’m surprised it was Lady Hawthorne. Pretty thing like that cut a man’s throat?”
“Watch it,” Cadogan warned. “She’s still my sister. I’ve heard enough boyhood fantasies from you lot.”
Conlin laughed. “Aye, I’m sure you have. Anyway, I just wanted you to know. We believe you. Those of us that were yours, anyway. Brighton brought some of his own sailors. They’ve got more than we do. Weren’t for them, we might have thrown Brighton overboard by now.”
Cadogan leaned against the front bars of the cage. He spoke as softly as he could manage, forcing Conlin to move in close to hear him. “That’s dangerous talk, man. Mutiny is an execution. You know that.”
“I know. We all know. Martin told us what you said about Brighton, too. Man doesn’t know shit about shite. It’s true. He’s taking us right through this storm because he wants to save time all of a sudden. Problem is he knew this ship crosses the sea in two months. Bastard thought the ship did that all by itself. Doesn’t understand we did that. You and your crew. Him and his boys can’t figure out how. We’ve been at sea two months and we’re nowhere close to port. He couldn’t find the wind if it pissed in his eye.”
“Just keep your head down,” Cadogan said. “Get east, get home, and go back to your parents. Fuck the sea, Conlin, and fuck the east.”
“No,” he said. “Fuck Brighton. If we don’t get you on the wheel, we’re going to die.”
Cadogan’s heart joined the cacophony of thunder, pounding against his ribs. He licked his lips, mouth dry. “What are you saying, Conlin?”
A key splashed into his bowl of pork and broth. Adrenaline shot up Cadogan’s spine.
“Captain,” Conlin said. He left without another word.
Cadogan snatched the key in one hand and with the other, stuffed his mouth with pork. He popped the lock of his cage and threw the door wide, storming out into the hold. He ran through the rolling ship, skilled sea legs unaffected by his long imprisonment. Cadogan tore through the ship’s cargo, searching for what he knew would be there somewhere: weapons and armor for the men fighting in the east. He found leather tunics and trousers and pulled them on in a frenzy, foregoing the crates of chain. He took a broadsword from an open crate and used it as a crowbar to pry the lid off of another, revealing a shipment of daggers. He threw the sword down and took a pair of the smaller weapons.
His bare feet pounded against the floorboards, running for the ladder ahead. The hatch above was open. He ascended and vaulted up to the living quarters, ready to kill. There was no one. All on deck. The rain was louder, a constant torrential roar. He turned and ran for the stairs leading up, ducking his head beneath the bundles of netting hanging from the ceiling, the crew’s personal effects swaying with every lurching motion of the ship. He pounded up the stairs and exploded out the doors, out onto the deck.
The rain was deafening, hitting the deck in sheets. Wind buffeted the sails. Lightning formed a constant, shifting spider’s web in the sky, lashing the sea in endless flashes. Each flash illuminated waterspouts in the distance, making them seem alive. Men were bucketing water overboard, but for every bucket spilt, the sky added two more. Cadogan barely heard Brighton’s voice from the stern deck above and behind, rough and hoarse. The man screamed orders, but the words were stolen by the wind.
Cadogan didn’t know if anyone had noticed him or not. It didn’t matter. His blood felt as if it boiled, adrenaline setting his veins aflame. He swung around a railing and took the stairs to the stern two at a time. Halfway up, he saw Brighton, fat and bald. Brighton saw him, too, filthy and full of lust for blood.
Bald. Cadogan laughed at the realization, the humor cutting through the fury. The storm had stolen his hat.
Brighton released the wheel to draw his saber, struggling to do so, even with both hands. The wheel spun out of control, the ship jerking in the wrong direction, tossed with the wind. The Lord Captain fell back with the motion, tripping over his own feet. He slid across the slick deck, the ship rearing up like a bucking horse. Cadogan used the momentum to drive forward, grasping a spoke of the wheel even as he continued to grip both daggers. He braced and pulled hard on the wheel, righting the ship as if jerking on that horse’s reins, refusing to bend knee to the beast.
“It’s the captain!” Cadogan heard the shout from below. “Captain Blackwater!”
“Kill him!” Brighton screamed. “Kill him, damn you!”
Cadogan laughed into the wind, his hands on the wheel the most beautiful sensation he’d ever known. Water sluiced down his face. The waterspouts loomed in the distance, throwing the sea into the sky. Below, a pair of sailors rushed toward the stern deck. Two others abandoned their buckets and cut them down. The deck erupted into war, men fighting each other tooth and nail. Some brandished swords and knives, crossing steel and drawing blood. Others had nothing more than the ship itself, strangling men with rope or beating them with wet and heavy nets.
Cadogan heard Brighton’s footfalls behind him. He threw himself down and to the left, dragging the wheel down with him, ducking beneath the stroke of a saber. The ship leaned low to one side, dipping toward the sea, threatening to capsize. Cadogan released the wheel, allowing it to snap back in the other direction. He whirled to face Brighton, the man careening back and forth in an attempt to keep his feet. Cadogan sank a dagger into the fat man’s belly and danced back to the wheel, holding it steady. Brighton, oblivious to his wound, took advantage of the steadying ship and pressed in again. Cadogan released the wheel and lunged right, out of Brighton’s path. He let the fat man fall against the wheel, blood pouring from his gut to mingle with the rain. Cadogan moved behind him and slit Brighton’s throat, just as he’d slit his brother’s throat. He let the fat man sink to the deck before taking the wheel again.
“Brighton is dead!” Cadogan called over the rain. His voice carried over the wind and the rain, shouting at sea more natural to him than normal speech. “I’m your captain now. If you want any hope in Hell of living to see tomorrow, get back to work. You can spill all the blood you want when we’re out of the storm.”
Cadogan stuck his daggers into Brighton’s body for safekeeping and whiteknuckled the wheel, trying to bring the ship about. He wouldn’t voice it to the men, loyalists or not, but he knew well there was no escaping the storm. The wind was pushing them toward the spouts, and once there, there was no escaping. He turned them to face the wind and cried, “Reef the sails!”
“We’ll fall into the spouts!” Someone cried. Not a voice he recognized.
“Reef the sodding sails!” He called back. “Reef and row!”
The wind made the task difficult, but the sails were dragged to their beams in short order, men working ropes and scaling netting like spiders. With the sails reefed, the ship seemed like a skeleton, a rib cage bare of meat and skin. The sailors rushed port and starboard in equal numbers, gathering oars and thrusting them through rowlocks.
Cadogan wiped water from his face, but the wind put it all right back. “Row for glory and pray to the sea,” he yelled. “We live or die by her grace, lads.”
“Land?” He yelled. “Where the fuck are we?”
“Brighton knows!” Martin’s voice.
“Brighton knows,” Cadogan laughed. “I like that. I think I’ll use it from now on. How far to land?”
“Land or ship, which is it?”
“Land starboard, ship to port. Northmen, sir!”
Cadogan swiveled his head back and forth, starboard and port. What the man saw as land was barely a speck on the horizon, a jagged little island. The ship was a Northman longship, the raiders he’d faced so often along Khalino’s northern coast.
“What are they doing here, sir? We’ve been two months southeast.”
“Brighton knows,” Cadogan said. He watched the raiders through the rain and mist. It seemed they had the same idea, sails reefed and rowing for their lives. Their efforts didn’t help them at all. A waterspout cut across the surface like a predator, swallowing them whole.
The world turned white and a great crack of thunder deafened Cadogan to the wind. He hit the deck, stupefied. His chest tightened, his heart skipping a few beats before starting again, arrhythmic. He crawled to his knees and looked out over the deck to see the mainmast tumbling down, smoldering splinters of wood scattered across the ship. The sails burned despite the rain.
“Get sand on those sails!” He cried. Even he couldn’t hear his voice. No one below answered his call.
Cadogan stumbled from the stern, legs rattled by the shock. He fell down the stairs, but forced himself up once he hit the deck below, searching for the buckets of sand he knew should be there. Sand was the only way to combat fires started by Northman arrows, mere water no answer for burning oil and pitch. Cadogan hoped it would aid against smoldering remains of a lightning strike, too.
He found no sand. Brighton wasn’t only a fool at the helm, he was a fool in war. No doubt he’d chosen his own quartermaster, ejecting the man that’d served Cadogan for years, and the quartermaster was as much a fool as Brighton himself.
Cadogan sat against the bulwark. Deaf, tired, and burnt, he looked out across the deck at dead men, burning sails, and a waterspout on the hunt.
He always hated sailing.
No matter the number of your years, whether they be measured in decades, centuries, or millennia, all moments are of equal measure. It is the folly of humanity to believe time carries more or less worth to the elvish. Likewise, it is the folly of the elvish to treat the passage of time with leisure. Every moment is as long as the one that came before and the one that comes after, each of them as important as any other. It is a foolishness not to consider how all are spent.
Time, once passed, cannot be reclaimed. Though events may slip from our own minds, each is written into the fabric of the world, never to be truly forgotten. It must be considered, then, what value our actions hold. Is it a good thing that we do, or an evil thing? Evils committed will not fade, their weight will become no less severe in the passing of days or years. It is a thing you will bear for as long as you are, an action equal in significance to any prior or future good. If an action cannot be given either title, good or evil, then it is of no value to you nor to the world’s whole, a wasted moment forever lost. Leisure is an ignorance of the value of things. All that is alive must one day die. If you are laid prostrate before the gates to the beyond, tasked to weigh the worth of your time, would it be found lacking?
It would be wrong to encourage acts of evil, we would possess paradise in its absence, but even evil holds more value than leisure. Evil stokes the fires of good, spurring good men to good actions. Leisure serves no purpose but to encourage its own repetition. At this, leisure is efficient. Should we be at rest in this moment, we will surely wish to be at rest in the next. If there comes a day where our moments of leisure outweigh the good or the evil, the world will not lament our losses. Only we will lament and we will be deserving of that fate.
With Tommy in tow, Jonah stepped out into the dusty town of Dayton, the namesake of the Dayton Flats. Folk came to the town in droves for the powder mines long before anyone had bothered to give the place a name, but when the powder ran dry, most moved on to lands where the mines were fresh and the trees were tall, though some stayed for the silver.
The suns rode high in the sky, and Jonah leaned his hat forward to keep the glare from his eyes. Tommy traded in his empty threats for cries of mercy, but the Peacemaker paid him no mind, treading onward down the roads of Dayton with a ringing of spurs. Folk moved through the roads, going about their business slow and lethargic in the noon heat. The town never really came alive until the evening cooled the land.
After a time, Tommy fell silent completely, and awhile after that, a young boy called out to Jonah. “Excuse me! I have a question!”
The Peacemaker looked to the boy, maybe ten years old, clothes crisp and clean. He stood with a yellow-haired girl about his age in a blue dress beneath the awning of the general store. Jonah leaned his head back, brow ruffled. “Ain’t you two supposed to be in school?”
The girl spoke. “We’re not from here.”
“Yeah?” He asked. “Where you from, then?”
“We’re going to Oak Creek,” the boy answered, some excitement on his voice.
“You and everybody else,” Jonah laughed, keeping his grip on Tommy’s chains. “Go on, ask your question. It’s quick, I hope.”
“Why do vultures fly in circles?” The girl asked.
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I’ve set most of my old posts on this blog to private, including the chapters of Neva Cora that were once posted here. I’ve rewritten everything that had been posted, and in my opinion, my style has changed enough that I no longer felt comfortable having them available. My first draft of the full story is now done and it’s in the hands of a pair of beta readers. Before I even attempt publication, I’ll be going through a few stages of that — beta readers, fix issues based on feedback, kick it off to new beta readers until I reach the point where I’m satisfied with the work. In other words, it’s going to be awhile yet before I have a final product, but the first draft is done and I think that’s most of the work. We’ll see if that proves to be true.
I haven’t decided what I want to work on in the meantime. I might move on to drafting the next book in that series, or I might take a break from it and put more work into that Peacemaker concept.
One thing I do need to keep in mind is the fact that if I go the self-publishing route, I need to commission cover art. If you know any artists that do that kind of work, do let me know. I’m not looking to hire someone right now, but I am shopping around well in advance.
Neva Cora is in the middle of its first full editing pass, but I needed to take a bit of a break from looking at it after working on it for so damn long. To work on something wildly different for awhile, I jammed out this passage for a potential Wild West-inspired story in about 10-15 minutes. The idea for the setting is that it’s Not America, much in the way most fantasy is set in Not Europe. The western frontier is effectively America’s equivalent of that era, or as close to it as a country so young can get, so it held some allure for me.
Enjoy it, or don’t! There isn’t much plot here, just me jamming on an idea and seeing if I have the chops to take on such a setting.