King of the Bastards (Excerpt)16 min read
Misty New World
ROGAN KEPT HIS EYES CLOSED, LISTENING TO THE SEAGULLS shrieking above, feeling the ruined vessel rock gently on the waves. Then he knew no more, until—
“Uncle,” Javan shouted with exuberance. “We live still!”
Rogan lay adhered to the hull in a dried circle of blood, seawater, and sweat. The ocean lapped against the shattered craft, and the prolonged rhythm had lulled him to sleep. Rubbing his eyes and scratching at his salt-hardened beard, Rogan raised his head and blinked. He licked his sun-blistered lips and winced, grinning at the pain.
“You’re a brilliant advisor after all, Javan. It’s not a wonder I brought you along to interpret and counsel me. Of course we still live.”
Javan’s ears turned red. Feeling silly for his comment, he pointed.
“But look, sire.”
Then he jumped into the blue-green water, which Rogan realized was free of blood and bodies.
“Javan? What madness has seized you?”
The brash action startled Rogan, and he arose quickly to see what had inspired his nephew’s folly. Javan hopped in waist deep water, gesturing at the brown sandy beach nearby.
“We made it, sire.” The boy laughed, splashing playfully. “Wodan is merciful. Rhiannon is just.”
Rogan chewed salt from his mustache and stared at the shore. He slid into the cool water, his muscles aching, his wounds burning.
“Wodan is merciful? Mule shit. Wodan is a bitch’s son with a bad sense of humor, boy. I may pray to your goddess, Rhiannon, before this day is out, instead.”
Javan splashed again, then sank beneath the waves and emerged, spraying a mouthful of water.
“Javan, you’re acting like a child. Do you still suckle at your mother’s tit?”
The younger man ignored Rogan’s sarcastic jab. His happiness to have survived the ordeal was etched in his expression.
“Sire, I know that you have cheated death many times in your life. It’s an old cloak for you to discard, slipping out of the shadows of the afterlife. But this was my first true test. I hope this is the only time I must dodge such a foe.”
“I’ve never cheated death, lad. I’ve only escaped him for a time.”
“Still, I hope to never have to do the same again.”
“All men meet death sooner or later, Javan. The trick is to bend him to your will. That’s what I have always done. Nothing more. But my will is strong.”
They waded ashore and collapsed in the warm, sun-baked sand. It stuck to their wounds and their raw skin, scratching and scraping—but neither had ever felt something more luxuriant. Gulls darted across the beach, their beaks snapping at small, scuttling crabs. Scrub grass swayed in the breeze and bleached driftwood dotted the dunes. Further inland, a dense forest walled off an immense series of mist-enshrouded mountains. The blue sky brushed against the mountaintops.
Rogan gazed up at the dwarfing spectacle.
Aye, my will is strong, he thought. But death only can be bent over so many times. And as I get slower, his pace stays the same. Eventually, death comes for all.
They sat in silence for a while, each lost in thought. The surf’s lullaby washed over them.
“It is beautiful, this land,” Javan breathed, spellbound. “The greenery is like an ocean itself. Look at the shafts of light from the sky, how they crease the mists wreathing the mountaintops.”
Rogan nodded. “It almost makes one believe in the gods, eh?”
Javan frowned, ignoring his uncle’s blasphemous words. “Look how far the coast goes on.”
Rogan stretched, his sword dangling over his bare thigh. His blue eyes looked both ways and then back at the bireme’s carcass.
“I’d kill for even a gelding mount now. Damned trees are probably full of Troglodytes like in the Pryten wilderness.”
“Oh, I doubt that, sire.”
“At least that cursed bird no longer hangs over us.”
Javan gazed upward, shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare.
“Do you really think that thing had some importance to our plight?”
“Yes,” Rogan spat. “By the ass of the goddess, it was unnatural, and I felt the darkness in my bones. Think, lad. It was far too easy for them to find us in the middle of this unexplored and uncharted land. That last warrior, Karza—”
“The one who claimed to be your son?”
Rogan’s face tightened. “He boasted of aide from the dark lord, Damballah. By Wodan and Rhiannon, they invoked Damballah.”
Javan stood up, brushed the sand from his skin, and walked farther ashore. Rogan remained on the ground, letting the tide lap at him.
“Sire, I’ve heard of this god of the black peoples, and read of him. I know you encountered their wizards before, when Rohain was abducted years ago.”
“He ain’t the god ya wanna fuck with.”
“But I’ve never heard of Damballah making an actual appearance, except in the minds of the dark folk.”
“Or in the nightmares of those in the north.” Rogan took a deep breath. “I have dreamt of dark Damballah and the evil shade over Albion even now, on that blood-strewn deck, whilst you kept watch. This Karac, my bastard son they spoke of, is a true barbarian fighter. This wasn’t the first I’d heard his name, though it was indeed news that he sprang from my loins. They say he is far more apt to the ways of war and bloodletting than most men. Perhaps even more than…” Rogan’s voice faded, never saying the word—Rohain.
“My father and many others trained Rohain well, sire. Truly, this is a fancy story made up by these fools.”
Rogan closed his eyes, lost in a fleeting vision.
“But I saw it in my dreams, how Karac planned it all, how he and his followers overthrew the palace by posing as slaves and teamsters.” The old man’s eyes popped open. “Perhaps it’s all a nightmare brought on by my fear, aye? Let us try and ground her.”
Javan gave him a confused look. “What?”
“That forest that so enthralls you isn’t our most pressing matter, Javan. We must make camp. When we don’t return, our friends in Olmek-Tikal may come to our aid. At the very least, they shall send a search party to find news of their missing loved ones. Let us try and flip this damaged hulk over. Perhaps we can ground her well and take shelter in her belly for the night.”
This task was easier said than done. Leading the damaged vessel to shore was a great labor even in the shallow water, but flipping it over proved impossible, despite Rogan’s strength. They dragged the long ship only a few feet before the ruined mast pole and other materials underneath sank into the wet sand.
Out of breath, Rogan fell on the dry part of the beach. As the breeze washed over them, he said, “The damned sea will take her back with the tides.”
“Perhaps it will be shoved further ashore by the tides or sink in deeper, sire.”
“Always looking on the dazzling side, eh, lad?” Rogan grinned.
“Well, Rhiannon is a god of light.”
Rogan waved him off and looked to the mountains. “What manner of land is this, I wonder? Southern Olmek-Tikal was all full of swamps, marshes and alligators when we sailed along its coast last year.”
“Not an enjoyable journey, if my mind is sharp, sire.” Javan’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I’ve no desire to repeat it.”
“Since I saved you from quicksand on two different occasions, I can see why. This northern land looks much like the Corinthian mountains, does it not?”
“Indeed. It reminded me of them, too, Uncle. Such gigantic pines; they’d make an artist randy.”
“Damned if I forgot my paints,” Rogan grunted. “Still, scavenge what you can from the beach. It looks as though the seas don’t want items that went to the bottom. We will need all we can if there is life here.”
“Surely the cache of weapons in the rear chamber is intact? If I swim under the ship, perhaps I can retrieve them.”
Approving this idea, Rogan waded back into the water, and waited. Piece by piece Javan retrieved armor and weapons from the rear of the boat, which was still underwater. The youth then tossed them to Rogan, who carried each item to shore. He was stunned at how many times Javan dived and returned with knives or swords.
At last, Rogan called, “Do you need to breathe, boy?”
Javan winked and dove again. This time he returned with a blade in his teeth and a round shield in his left hand. In his right hand was a bottle of wine. Rogan grabbed the bottle and his perpetual scowl gave way to a slight smile.
“You see?” Javan laughed. “Just what we needed.”
Rogan unsealed the canister of wine and said, “We? Dive again for your own.” He waited until the youth was underwater, and then mumbled, “I swear, the boy is half fish.”
They carried the weapons and water flasks up the beach. Rogan drank deeply from the wine while Javan heaped the weapons in a grassy area out of the reach of the surf.
Rogan sat down and looked back at the water. The alcohol coursed through his veins, easing his pain.
Javan pointed at the sea birds and crabs. “At least there is wildlife in abundance. And I found a fishing rod amidst the weapons.”
“Wonderful. So we’ll not starve right away.”
Rogan squinted at the sky. In the distance, he thought he saw the bat-winged bird again, but when he blinked it was gone. He cursed his fading senses, disregarding it as a trick of his mind, brought on by exhaustion and the wine.
“We will only have to survive a brief time, sire. Surely, you are correct and others from the southern part of Olmek-Tikal will search for us when we do not return!”
Rogan shrugged, nostrils testing the sea air. “Probably. If they find us it’ll be a miracle all in itself. We traveled a long way. They may give up in despair before ever reaching this point.”
“The natives in Olmek-Tikal practically worship you,” Javan reminded him. “They would not desert you any more than I would.”
Brooding, Rogan drank more wine. “Perhaps. We’ll just have to wait and see. They may be happy to be rid of their white king. Bah—I’ve grown tired of such primitive ignorance, anyway. I came here for adventure, not to be a god to a pack of red-skinned farmers and fishermen.”
“They will send others if we do not return, sire. I am positive.”
Rogan spat, eyes to the ocean.
Javan paused. “Uncle, may I speak freely?”
Rogan rinsed his mouth with wine, and spat it onto the sand.
“I feel that your mind is on what Karza said was transpiring in Albion.”
“Damned genius, you are. Of course, boy. The thought that my eldest son is dead and my kin suffer under the damned heel of southern invaders—by Wodan…that’s hard to swallow. How could bright Albion fall so? It isn’t as if they could sneak up with legions of troops.” Eyes closed, he saw the dream images of the black teamsters by the grand palace in Albion and his joints ached anew.
Javan took up a bow and a single arrow. “But sire, even if we turned the bireme back over we could hardly sail back to the port of Argos in her. She barely floats, after the assault from both the creature and the corsairs. Such open seas would swamp us. It is a gift from above that we survived the night swells.”
Rogan again gazed to the sky. “That’s why we hugged the continent and rode it out slow to land. Woe as I am to admit it, our foes found us, half a world away, with the power of Damballah. There’s no other explanation.”
Javan stooped, smelling a patch of flowers blooming from a dune. “The bird-thing was an eye in the sky for a wizard?”
“You certainly have no love for magic.”
“Stupid men allow their fears to be made large by wizards, Javan. Consider our companions from Olmek-Tikal. They took beating hearts out of living men for their gods.”
“Until we stopped them,” Javan said, “and taught them another way.”
“I think all wizards tend to cavort with minions in darkness because no woman will have them.”
Javan laughed at the jest. “That doesn’t make them any less powerful.”
“True. But they bleed just like any other man. I wonder about that bird we saw. It was unnatural—but not an illusion or some parlor trick. It looked like the stone idols of Damballah I saw as a younger man. And Karza said it served them.”
Javan cleared his throat, inspecting the leaves of a squat bush. A swarm of angry gnats arose from the branches and pestered him. His uncle’s words weighed heavily on him. Would they be forgotten, abandoned here on this forsaken beach?
“I hope the Olmek-Tikalize sailors come after us. If they do not…”
He choked down the words, not wanting his voice to betray the fear he felt inside.
“Welcome home, Javan,” Rogan swept his hand toward the forest. “I bet that when Thyssen sent you along for maturing, he never dreamed that you’d be shipwrecked with his old king, eh?”
Javan shrugged and drew the string of his bow back. With one shot, he struck a swooping ivory-colored seagull. Squawking, it flopped in the water, and the young man ran into the surf to retrieve his prize, carefully avoiding the body parts of their fellow sailors that were beginning to wash ashore.
“At least you aren’t skittish,” Rogan hollered. “That surf is now thick with pieces of our foes or friends. Look how the sand is littered with their limbs, in just the brief time we’ve been ashore. We can’t stay here the night, this will soon smell worse than ass.”
Emerging from the water, Javan said, “Sire, I think you complimented me.”
Rogan smiled. “Engrave it in stone, boy. It may be my only testament in such a manner to you.”
A sudden gust of wind blasted off the ocean. Beyond the trees, they heard a deep growl. It didn’t sound human. It did sound hungry. Exchanging glances, both men took to the bushes and hid, waiting.
Out of the trees lumbered a gigantic black bear. As the sea gave up the fruits of their awful triumph over the corsairs, the grisly bits of humanity along the shoreline tempted the animal. It sniffed the air and slowly padded onto the beach, devouring morsels here and there.
“What a beast,” Rogan whispered. Javan had to strain to hear him. “This animal may be just what we need.”
“What say you, sire?”
“Look to that mountain range. Such conditions remind me of the peaks south of Turana, not just Corithina. I would guess the temperature drops here at night and in the higher elevations.”
“That is logical.”
“Of course, it’s damned logical. That bear’s coat is thicker than the current late summer season in Albion. Perhaps we are farther north than we thought. He grows it not for a coming winter, but for everyday warmth. Since the sea has stripped us down to our loins, the choice is obvious. We must take him for his hide. It will keep us warm.”
The bear raised its head, and looked around. Then it continued rooting. Its snout was crimson, and its long, pink tongue licked at the droplets of blood.
“How long since you last slain a bear single-handed, sire?”
Rogan shrugged. “I cannot recall. But I’m not hollowed out just yet. Besides, I have you along. Why should I fear him with your bow at my side?”
Javan breathed a heavy sigh and prepared. “I appreciate your faith, sire.”
“Use the heavy arrows Karza’s warriors had.” Rogan rooted in the pile of weapons. “The forked heads are a work of savage art. Those pricks knew what they were doing.”
“As you command.”
“We have collected enough of those from the stray quivers on the beach. Wodan knows what else will vomit onto the shore over time. With a good chance we can pierce a lung in that hulk.”
“I will do my best, lord.”
“Keep firing if he doesn’t go down.” Rogan squeezed the handle of a double-headed battle-axe they’d retrieved from the bireme’s mooring links. “I shall do the rest.”
Javan mumbled a prayer to Rhiannon and stealthily positioned himself farther down the line of bushes. Rogan ran down the beach in the open for a few yards. The bear looked up from a rib cage that had washed ashore. It spied the old man clearly, but made no effort to follow. It had no fear, and no desire to hunt, since easier pickings lay at its feet. Instead, the beast lowered its snout and continued licking the scraps of organs and tissue still clinging to the bones.
Javan fired the first of his arrows into the bear’s side. The beast grunted, and then roared. Quickly, Javan drew from the quiver on his back and fired three more times, striking the creature in the side, close to the front quarters, and then the low-hanging belly. He expected the bear to drop, but instead, it stood firm.
Rogan loped further out onto the sand with the smooth ease of a tiger and fired his own long bow twice. The first shot missed, but the second arrow struck the bear deep in the other flank. The beast rose up, teeth bared as it howled. Thick flecks of foamy saliva dropped from its jowls.
Feet planted, Rogan let the bow slide from his fingers, and drew back, hefting the double-edged battle-axe. He roared in answer to the bear’s challenge. The animal paused, uncertain of what it faced. Grunting hard, Rogan flung the heavy axe with all of his might. The weapon tumbled end over end, and buried itself under the beast’s open maw, cleaving its jaws.
Staggering, the bear rocked back and forth on unsteady paws, but still refused to fall. Rogan drew his broadsword and charged low, like a bull. The mortally wounded animal tried to roar, but only a weak gurgle issued from its throat. Rogan avoided the desperate claws and stabbed his blade into the bear’s abdomen. Going to all fours, the beast lurched a few steps, handle of the axe impacting on the ground, driving the blade in farther. It shuddered before collapsing. Rogan danced away again, inadvertently stomping on the leg of some partially eaten shark victim.
The bear shook, and then moved no more.
Rogan dropped to his knees and then rolled onto his buttocks beside it. He greedily sucked the salty air into his burning lungs.
Javan ran up, whooping in joy. “I think that axe head found its brain!”
Rogan eyed the boy and said, “I suppose you expect me to gut and clean him as well?”
Javan smiled. “It is your kill, Uncle.”
“I’ll clout you for that,” Rogan promised. “But first I must rest.”
It took them the rest of the day to skin and clean the bear, and it was dusk by the time they were finished. They washed their hands in the ocean, cleaning them of the sticky blood. They moved on down the way a piece, and then Javan started a fire behind a dune to prepare dinner. The meat gleaned from the kill ran tough and gamy. Gulls darted over their heads, begging for scraps. Rogan growled at them, and the shrieking scavengers fled into the night.
As they ate, Javan eyed the skeleton of the bireme in the distance.
“I was correct, sire. The ship is deeper in the sand now and will not be sucked out to sea.”
“If we ever see Albion again,” Rogan said around a mouthful of half-cooked bear flesh, “I shall have Rohain give you a medal. After we’ve defeated my bastard son’s plot against him, of course.”
“We will get back, sire. Some way, somehow, we will.”
Rogan shrugged, sucking the marrow from a bone. “Perhaps my destiny is to die here.”
“Banish such thoughts, sire!”
The fire popped, sending a brief shower of burning embers into the night sky.
“If it is my time to die, you get to watch. Your father would say it is a grand joke of fate, eh?”
Javan tilted his head to one side. “My father would never give in to fate.”
Rogan nodded, thinking on old Thyssen, and their adventures as revolutionaries. His smile was faint. Old ghosts danced in the flickering firelight. The night of a thousand knives. The whore with three breasts and the secret she’d told in the dark.
“True. You are young. You have space in your gut for fighting fate. My belly has wrestled that demon-whore for eons. She is a tireless bitch and I grow weary of her.”
“I am not ready to die.”
“No man ever is,” Rogan replied. “Yes, you can cheat death, but you can never be ready for it. Think of Wagnar and Harkon. Or Captain Huxira—old as he was, I dare say he was not ready to die. When death comes, it comes. All that you can do is to meet it.”
The fire crackled again. A second later, a twig snapped in response. Both men were instantly on their feet. The hair on Javan’s arms stood up. Rogan tensed, alert and ready for whatever new danger lay in store.
Javan pointed to the bushes, suddenly alive with creeping shadows.
The shadows detached themselves from the bushes, and a group of humans stepped forward, just outside the circle of light. They were slender, clad in tan loincloths and deerskin cloaks. The strangers carried wooden staffs with tied stone spearheads, and several sported bows of a style that neither Rogan nor Javan had ever seen before. The flames flickered off their dense, ruddy complexions and red-tinged skin. Their obsidian hair shone in the moonlight as if their flat manes were slick and wet.
“Javan,” Rogan ordered, “your bow.”
But the weapon was already in the boy’s hands.
Silently, the group stepped into the dying firelight. A few of the natives bore odd deformities; elongated heads, misshapen ears, one limb longer than another, even bizarre double noses. None made a move to attack. They seemed docile and curious. None of them spoke.
Another figure emerged, dressed in the skins of a gray wolf, the snout and muzzle still intact over his wrinkled forehead. The wolf-man’s eyes glistened in the darkness, and Rogan surmised that his difference in dress made him a leader of some sort.
The odd individual held out his arms, showing the two strangers what he held: The gray, ropy intestines of the dead bear. Flies buzzed around them.
Javan’s nose wrinkled in disgust at the slaughterhouse stench wafting off the guts. Slowly, he raised his bow, counting their numbers and wondering about the strength and reach of their spears.
Rogan drew his broadsword, gripping the handle so tightly that his sunburned knuckles turned white.
“Speak to me again of fate, when we are done here.”
The moon rose higher, bathing them in its cold light. Another log popped on the fire, sending more embers spiraling into the air. Nobody moved. Somewhere in the darkness, a whippoorwill cried out.
When he was a child, Javan’s nursemaid had told him that when one heard the song of a whippoorwill, it meant that someone was about to die. Rogan’s words rang in his head.
When death comes, it comes. All that you can do is to meet it.
As the wolf-headed leader stepped closer, Javan shivered.
Rogan thought of home, and his children.