Rhyden awoke to the faint, amber glow of new morning sunlight, and a young boy sleeping next to him. There was something heavy covering his body, a pile of thick blankets and furs that tickled against his throat and chin, enfolding him in warmth. The boy lay with his face so near that Rhyden could feel the soft press of his breath against him. The boy’s small, gloved hands were draped against Rhyden’s, his fingers gently folded between Rhyden’s own.
Where am I?
Rhyden blinked dazedly, feeling the clouds and haze of sleep lifting from his mind. He struggled to figure out where he was, what had happened to him, but the events of the last twelve hours seemed completely obliterated from his mind. The last memory he could recall in full was sitting in a longboat with Aedhir, leaving the a’Maorga, and rowing across Lunan Bay toward the wharfs and piers of Capua.
Where is Aedhir?
"Aedhir…" he said, his voice escaping his throat in a hoarse, damaged croak. He tried to raise his head, to move, stretching his long legs beneath the blankets. "Aedhir…where…where are you?"
The child murmured softly in his sleep at the sound of Rhyden’s quiet voice, and Rhyden’s breath drew still, his eyes widening in alarm. The boy did not rouse, however; he settled himself comfortably, his eyes closed, his murmurs fading.
Rhyden moved his arms and frowned to discover that his wrists were bound together with thick, knotted ligatures.
What in the duchan…?
Rhyden moved his hands experimentally; the ropes offered little wriggle room, and he could feel the coarse fibers cutting into his flesh. Whatever had happened to him, wherever he was, the presence of those ropes¯and the seeming absence of Aedhir¯did not bode well, and his frown deepened.
He slipped his hands away from the boy’s without stirring him. I know him, Rhyden thought, his confusion only mounting. He recognized the child’s face, his golden complexion like aged parchment and softly rounded features; the unusual, flattened appearance of his nose and bowed curves of his mouth. I have seen him before, standing on the deck of the a’Maorga. I saw him in a dream…a vision…
The boy was no vision now. Rhyden shifted his weight slowly, deliberately beneath the blankets, shrugging his shoulder and forcing his right elbow beneath him somewhat. He used his arm and shoulder as a fulcrum and pushed with his legs, propping himself up. His hand swam and he lowered his face, closing his eyes and groaning softly as a wave of uncertain vertigo waxed and waned.
What has happened to me? Where is Aedhir?
All at once, a peculiar realization occurred to him, and Rhyden opened his eyes, startled and puzzled. Every morning of every day of his entire adult life, he had sat up to feel the heavy, disheveled weight of his hair draping over his shoulders and into his face. If he happened to have laid upon its long sheaf in his sleep, he would feel the gentle strain against the crown of his head as he rolled over, his hips pinning his hair beneath him. He did not feel these things now; he felt cold air against the back of his neck. The blankets had shifted, drooping down to the middle of his back, and he could feel this same bitter air against his shoulders, his chest. He looked down at himself, bewildered, and realized two things simultaneously: he was naked
and his hair was gone. It was not simply draped down his back, out of sight. It was gone; its familiar and comforting weight and warmth completely vanished. It had been cut at the nape of his neck and he could feel the shorn tips brushing against his cheeks as it drooped down from the crown of his forehead across his brow.
"Hoah…!" Rhyden gasped, sitting upright, jerking his legs about in surprise and alarm. His hands darted instinctively for his head, his hair and his knees struck the boy in front of him unintentionally.
The boy’s eyes flew wide as he jumped from sleep to awake in one abrupt, startled moment. He sat up, his eyes enormous as he scuttled backwards, scrambling away from Rhyden. His sudden movement frightened Rhyden anew and he jerked again, recoiling, his legs tangling in the blankets.
"Hoah¯!" he gasped again, staring at the boy. He groped against the side of his cheek, brushing through the cropped remnants of his hair. They cut my hair, he thought, horrified and angry, although he had no idea who they might be. Those rot bastards…someone cut my bloody damn hair!
"You are awake," the boy said, breathless with sleepy disorientation and fright. He inched back all the more, pushing against the ground with the heels of his large, cumbersome boots.
"Who are you?" Rhyden said. His mouth felt thick and dry, as though he had spent the night through with wool fleece crammed between his cheeks. He struggled against his bindings, trying to move his hands. "Where the bloody duchan am I and what have you done with my friend? Where is Aedhir?"
The boy blinked at him. Rhyden realized that the two of them had slept beneath some sort of canopy, a broad swatch of hide stretched over them. The boy had scooted himself beyond the proscenium of the canopy’s overhanging shadows and past the child’s shoulders, Rhyden could see the belly of a longboat lined with benches, a solitary mast rising from the center. He could see people sleeping on the benches, or moving slowly about; his keen ears caught the sounds of a large sail snapping quietly as it found a current of breeze. Beyond the sides of the boat, he saw the open expanse of sea; he could feel the motion of the water as the boat cleaved a steady path across it and his heart seized with bright panic.
The sea? Mother Above, I am on a boat out on the sea!
"No," he whispered, shaking his head, his eyes widening in horrified realization. "No, no, you…you cannot…" He stared at the boy, stricken. "Where are you taking me? What have you done to my friend?"
"Please," the boy whimpered, frightened. There were people walking toward him, alerted by the child’s fear, his backpedaling. The boy glanced over his shoulder. "Yeb, please! He is awake!"
A man knelt beside the boy, peering beneath the canopy at Rhyden, and Rhyden recognized him¯the memory of his face, his smile, the yellow vest he wore lashed about his robe flooded back to him in sudden, staggering clarity.
You are not from Capua, the man had told him on the waterfront, brushing his fingertips through Rhyden’s long hair to reveal the Elfin point of his ear.
"Do not be frightened," the man said to Rhyden, reaching out with his hand. His face was set in a gentle, kindly expression, his voice soft and soothing but Rhyden recoiled from him.
"Do not touch me¯ow, bloody damn it!" Rhyden winced as his shoulders, the back of his head slammed painfully against the tapered beams of the stern corner.
The man moved slowly forward, keeping his hand extended, his smile reassuring. "My name is Yeb Oyugundei. Please do not be frightened."
"Keep away from me," Rhyden said, shrinking against the side of the boat. When Yeb made no effort to stop in his advance, Rhyden stood without thinking, stumbling backwards, reacting purely out of reflexive alarm. The cap of his head, his shoulders caught the tarp overhead, ripping it loose of its moorings and sending the hide collapsing down. He yelped, floundering as it enfolded him.
He staggered blindly forward and felt his knees collide solidly with Yeb Oyugundei’s shoulder and skull. Yeb uttered a sharp cry as Rhyden tripped over him, and then Rhyden fell gracelessly, dragging the canopy with him, his chin plowing sharply against the floor of the boat. His back teeth clamped mightily against his tongue with the impact, drawing blood. Rhyden flapped his bound arms, shrugging his shoulders and struggling wildly to get the canopy off of him as he stumbled to his feet. He managed to shove the hide tarp away and staggered back clumsily, his eyes wide with fright and alarm. The deck of the longboat was filled with men¯more than a dozen of them¯all of them armed and approaching, their eyes filled with panic, their hands falling against the hilts of daggers and swords.
"Keep away from me!" Rhyden shouted, nearly tripping and falling again over the folds of canopy beneath his feet. He felt someone suddenly grasp his shoulders firmly from behind, and he reacted swiftly, instinctively. He reached up with his bound hands, seizing the man behind him by the wrists. He swung his elbows to his right, wrenching the man’s shoulder at an abrupt, excruciating angle; Rhyden heard him cry out, his voice sharp and filled with startled pain. Rhyden folded at the waist, his knees buckling as he threw the man over his shoulder, sending him sprawling across the nearest bench, splintering the wood with the impact of his weight.
Rhyden stumbled again, pressing himself into the corner of the stern. The man who had attacked him had been manning a rudimentary sort of rudder here; from Rhyden’s fleeting glance, it looked more like an oversized oar than anything else.
"Keep away from me!" he cried again, as the others drew to hesitant, wary halts. Some went to their injured friend’s aid; the man lay on the floor, moaning softly, cradling his hurt arm against his belly and writhing.
Rhyden tasted blood in his mouth from where he had bit his tongue and spat, grimacing. He spared a swift, sweeping glance at the horizon and saw that the boat sailed along a distant shoreline to the right, much too far away to reach by swimming, especially bound and naked, and in the likely icy water. On the left, there was nothing but the broad span of the sun-dappled sea. There was no sign of Lunan Bay, or the a’Maorga, and he had learned enough from Aedhir, from looking at the Captain’s maps and charts to know that if the land was to the right, the ocean to the left, it meant they were sailing north, following the Ionium wind and sea currents away from Capua. He gasped, dismayed and terrified anew.
"Where are you taking me?" he shouted at the men, closing his hands into defiant, furious fists. "Where is my bloody damn ship, you bastards? Where is my friend, Aedhir? What have you done to him?"
One of them stepped forward, a tall, broad-shouldered man about Rhyden’s age. His long, black hair had been shaved along the contours of his temples, gathering at the base of his neck in a thick plait. He bore a sword between his fists, a long, curved blade that widened into a broad, angled tip. It was an intimidating weapon, and Rhyden drew back, squaring his shoulders and meeting the man’s stern gaze.
"Get down on your knees, Elf," the man said to him.
"No," Rhyden said.
The furrow between the man’s brows deepened. "I said get down on your knees. No one here wishes to harm you. Do not make us."
"Toghrul¯no!" cried a loud, anguished voice. The boy who had been sleeping beside Rhyden darted out from beneath the canopy that had fallen atop him. He rushed between the man and Rhyden, holding out his hands in desperate implore. "No, no, Toghrul, please! Please do not hurt him!"
"Temuchin, get away from him," the man, Toghrul said, his expression stricken. The tip of the sword wavered as he held out one hand, reaching for the boy. "He is dangerous."
"No," the boy said, shaking his head, his voice choked with tears. He turned and looked at Rhyden over his shoulder, his eyes wide and frightened. "No, Toghrul, please do not hurt him! He does not understand! Please¯you are frightening him!"
"Temuchin, step away from the Elf right now," said a woman, shouldering and shoving her way through the men. She was petite in stature, and beautiful. Like the others, she had golden skin, almond-shaped eyes, a short, flat nose and dark hair. Like the boy and the man, Yeb Oyugundei, she seemed distantly familiar to Rhyden.
The woman placed her gloved hand against the man, Toghrul’s, and he deferred to her, lowering the sword. She looked at the boy. "I said now, Temu. No one is going to hurt him. Come here with me."
The boy glanced again at Rhyden, stricken, tears spilling down his cheeks. "Please," he whimpered at Rhyden. "Please, it…it is alright. Please…!"
"Temuchin!" the woman snapped sharply, and the boy scampered over to her, shying behind her, clutching against her heavy, fur-lined robe with his gloved fingertips.
"Who are you?" Rhyden said. The woman turned to Rhyden and he swung his bound hands in a broad arc, indicating the deck of unfamiliar men. "Who are you people? Where is my friend? What have you done to Aedhir?"
The woman’s thin brows narrowed slightly she met Rhyden’s eyes. "I am Aigiarn Chinuajin," she said. "And these are my people, the Oirat."
Oirat. The word was familiar to him, as well and he remembered Aedhir mentioning it. He and Aedhir had left the waterfront together after meeting Yeb Oyugundei, and they had gone to a pub in Capua.
How could I have forgotten this? he thought, confused and dismayed.
He was an Oirat, Aedhir had told him, meaning Yeb. A vagabond people…a worthless race. Those are the southern tribes, steppe nomads, barbarians…nothing but beggars and thieves. They refuse to acknowledge the Torachan empire and live like dogs out in the mountains and wilderlands. They are considered enemies to the empire, renegades.
"We do not know this man you speak of, your friend," Aigiarn Chinuajin told him. "We have done nothing to him. We do not know where he is."
"My name is Rhyden Fabhcun," Rhyden said. "I am the ambassador to Cneas, in Torach for the realm of Tiralainn. I sailed to Capua aboard a merchant frigate under the command of Captain Aedhir Fainne, of the Tiralainn Crown Navy. I do not know how I have come to be here, but Captain Fainne will be looking for me. He will send word to our King that I am missing¯and to Cneas. You must take me back to Capua at once. If you keep me here, it is against my will, and will be construed as an act of war by my King."
The woman arched her brow at him. "You have just assaulted one of my people. I might construe that as an act of war, as well."
He blinked at her, startled by her reply. "Turn this boat around."
"And if I will not?" she asked. "What will you do? Jump into the sea and swim for shore? The water is like ice and you are bound and unclothed. You would be dead in moments. I do not think you would be so foolish. Would you fight us all? Again, you are bound and we are armed. I do not think you would be that foolish, either. You do not have many options, Rhyden Fabhcun."
She stepped toward him. She wore a sword and knife against her hip, but made no move for either weapon. She presented her hands to him, her empty palms extended, holding his gaze fast. "Get down on your knees."
He remembered her face. He had dim, disturbing, hazy memories of being someplace loud and cold; the fetid smell of the air, a mingling of sweat, fear, urine and despair had filled his nose, and voices had rang about him in a confusing, cacophonous din. He remembered looking down at her from some sort of elevated platform. He had been bewildered and frightened, and she had gazed kindly at him, her brows lifted as though with pity.
She stepped closer to him. "Get down on your knees," she said again. "You are confused, I know. Give me the chance. I will explain to you."
"Keep away from me," he said, shying back.
"I will not hurt you," she said.
"I do not believe you."
"I give you my oath that I will not," she said.
"I do not believe that, either."
She raised her brow again, standing before him. "Have you any choice?"
He stared at her, dismayed. No, he thought. No, I do not. He lowered himself slowly to his knees, and she knelt with him, holding his gaze the entire time. Without averting her eyes, Aigiarn reached for her knife, curling her fingers against the elaborately carved bone hilt. She drew the broad blade loose from its sheath, and Rhyden flinched at the wink of sunlight off of the steel. "Do not," he said, and he seized her wrist firmly between his hands.
"Aigiarn…!" Toghrul said from behind her, his voice sharp with alarm. He darted forward, leveling his sword again.
"It is alright, Toghrul," Aigiarn said, glancing over her shoulder and giving the man pause. He stared at her, his sword still poised, his expression stricken and uncertain. "Step back. It is alright."
Toghrul lowered the broad edge of his blade. He stared at Rhyden, an undisguised threat gleaming in his dark eyes, proffered in his furrowed brows: If you harm her, I will kill you.
Aigiarn looked at Rhyden once more. "I will not hurt you," she said again, quietly. She tried to draw her hand away from his grasp and after a moment, Rhyden relented, opening his fingers and releasing her. She slipped the edge of the blade against the bindings and began to cut them loose, sawing her dagger through the thick ropes.
"Nakhu, Ashir, help bugu Yeb up," she said, addressing the men behind her without looking away from Rhyden. "Set that canopy back in place. Bektair, find me a del and some leggings that Rhyden Fabhcun might clothe himself. See if we have any gloves and gutal to fit him. Sacha, bring me a waterskin. I am certain he is thirsty."
The last of the ropes snapped free against her blade, dropping to the floor by Rhyden’s knees. He moved his hands slowly as she raised her hips, sheathing the knife once more, and he rubbed the chafed, scraped portions of his wrists gingerly. He watched her warily as she stood, walking toward the fallen canopy. She shoved part of it aside, finding a fur blanket beneath its folds. She took it in hand and brought it to him.
"Thank you," he said softly, accepting the blanket, drawing it about his shoulders.
Aigiarn nodded. "You are welcome."