Samantha Henderson


Chapter One



The midday sun blazed white in a cloudless sky as they threw the last bodies over the side. Gareth Jadaren wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and lashed a heavy, flat-stone ballast from the merchantman between a woman’s ankles with a strip of leather. The woman lay on her back, her face oddly placid considering the bone-deep slash across her throat. Her unblinking eyes seemed to be contemplating the blue sky, ignoring Gareth’s fumbling between her feet.

Acutely aware of Helgre behind him, Gareth concentrated on his work. With a grunt, he tightened the last knot. The leather, like his hands, was sticky with blood.

“Check her pockets,” said Helgre.

Gareth obeyed, wiping his hands on the woman’s leggings before gingerly dipping his fingers into the pockets roughly stitched into the fabric at the hips. There was nothing there, but, beneath the thin linen of the blood-soaked shirt, Gareth found a small leather pouch, the strap that had secured it around its owner’s neck severed by the same blow that had ended the woman’s life. Helgre extended her hand over his shoulder, and Gareth placed the sticky pouch on her palm. He didn’t look at her but heard the clink of a few coins as she opened it.

“Over the side with her,” she said, and he heard her walk away, likely enough to rejoin Ping at the helm. He shivered. Helgre’s voice was beautiful, a singer’s voice, deep and clear as the sound of temple bells. It was hard to reconcile such a voice with the brutality of the woman who possessed it.

And never, not even on warm summer evenings when the stars were scattered thick in the sky, the lanterns glowed golden on the deck, and the crew, forgetting their harsh profession, sang the songs of many lands, not even then had Gareth ever heard Helgre sing.

Gareth quickly tugged the wet red fabric of the woman’s shirt over her exposed breast. He didn’t want to drag her over the deck, but he was worried that the deeply bisected neck would give way and the head fall off if he picked her up in his arms. As carefully as he could, he lifted the body by the feet and pulled it over the deck, trying not to let the dead sailor bump against the boards. There was a great pool of semi-congealed blood where her body had lain, and a scarlet smear followed as he dragged her, as if pointing him out to any gods overhead. Gareth swallowed nervously, although he had not been the one to cut the sailor’s throat.

He’d done enough under Ping’s command to earn condemnation.

A space was notched into the railing around the deck, with a hinged door that could be opened and shut for ease of loading and unloading. Another of the Orcsblood crew helped Gareth roll the body to the edge. Below them in the pink-tinged water, sea creatures thrashed, fighting for a mouthful of the unexpected feast the pirates’ raid on the merchantman had created.

Gareth swallowed hard as he shoved the corpse clear of the ship. Limp-jointed as a doll, the woman fell, hit the churning water, and was tugged under the surface in a flash of silver scales and teeth. Almost unconsciously, he muttered a prayer half-remembered from his childhood. As he raised his head, his eyes met those of the other crewman, who had only recently joined Ping’s crew. Ivor was his name, he recalled-a well-built, dusky man from Turmish, with the muscles of a dockworker.

Sweat prickled cold on Gareth’s body. Ping didn’t tolerate sentimentality in his crew.

Ivor held his gaze a few seconds and nodded once. Gareth relaxed.

They both looked at the merchant ship lashed to the Orcsblood’s side, her decks smeared with the blood of her defenders and dotted here and there with the fallen. Movement down the side attracted Gareth’s attention, and he saw Helgre grab a rope and swing from the Orcsblood’s deck to the other, landing lightly with a skill born of years of experience. She drew a long knife from her belt and prowled the silent deck, examining the bodies for any sign of life. As he watched, she bent over one twisted form. Her knife flashed in the sun, and Gareth fancied he heard an agonized groan from the man at her feet.

She glanced their way, and both Gareth and Ivor instinctively backed away from the side, looking away from her and up into the half-furled sails of the merchantman.

“Nice lines,” said Ivor. “It’s a pity she’s to burn.”

“Agreed,” returned Gareth, with more feeling than he intended.

He was beginning to regret signing on to the Orcsblood. It seemed a good idea at the time-bad luck and worse timing had wiped out his profits on the goods he’d brought from Turmish to sell in Mulmaster. Everybody had been willing to pay fair coin, but unfortunately not for the goods he offered. So, when he was bereft of everything but a change of clothes, a fair sword, and a better dagger, Ping’s bargain, put forward over the greasy and pocked wooden table in an ill-lit and sour-smelling tavern in the insalubrious district of Mulmaster, sounded appealing.

He would have a fair share in all the booty and a head start if he decided to leave.

“You’ll understand that in my business an encounter with a … former colleague, shall we say … could be embarrassing, on either side,” the pirate said, his grin showing an impressive expanse of ivory teeth that looked as if they’d been filed to points. “Especially if a former member of my jolly crew had decided to ally himself-or herself-with more or less law-abiding associates. Should we part ways, it’s better we don’t meet again.”

It sounded reasonable, and the offer of a life sweeter than a slave’s, if not as honest, was too good to refuse. Gareth was a realist and had lived a bandit’s life before this. He resigned himself to piracy aboard the Orcsblood, even when he met Helgre. Ping’s second-in-command greeted him pleasantly enough, but no warmth reached her penetrating gray eyes. It was the cold expression in those eyes that chilled Gareth, not the vicious, long-healed slash that marred the left side of her face from eyebrow to chin, twisting the corner of her mouth into a one-sided smile.

Nevertheless, he had left childish ideals in childhood, and serving under a killer was better than starving virtuously, or rotting in prison for debt.

But Ping’s practice of destroying ships and slaughtering any potential witnesses sickened even Gareth’s sensibilities, and he soon suspected anyone who chose to leave Ping’s crew was not in fact given a fair “head start” but disappeared, likely with a slit throat, in the wake of the Orcsblood in the middle of the night. He’d made discreet inquiries, but the other members of the crew were reticent on the subject.

Someone struck him lightly on the shoulder, and he turned to see Din, a tall, thin-faced easterner who had signed on shortly before Gareth. He grinned and held out a bucket. His naturally pale skin had burned, then browned, in the months they’d spent on the Orcsblood, and he didn’t seem at all disconcerted by the slaughter of the merchantman’s crew or passengers.

“Ping says to sluice down the decks before we unload,” he said as Gareth took the bucket. “Clean decks for clean cargo.”

Gareth nodded and lowered the bucket over the side on its rope, avoiding the pink stain where the bodies had been dumped. The waters were quieter now, the victims of Ping’s ferocity sunk to the bottom and the scavengers’ hunger sated for now. Ivor found another bucket and did likewise, and together they had the deck clean of blood in a short time.

It was late afternoon before they had the cargo-silks from Imaskar and a load of exotic woods-piled on deck. The shipwright had already scavenged anything he could use from the merchantman, and now thick black coils of smoke rose from the hapless ship as she was cut free of the Orcsblood. A breeze was freshening, and crew clambered like spiders in the sheets above, for Ping wanted to be long gone before the smoke from the burning ship attracted undue attention.

Others unpacked the crates while Ping and Helgre examined the goods. The crew was cheerful. The slaughter was over, and there would be a generous bonus for all when Ping sold the booty to his contacts on the north shores

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