The damp cavern smelled like unwashed clothes and rotting vegetables. The dank, musty air clogged my nostrils and a sour taste filled my mouth, although that could have been something to do with the ale I’d drunk the night before.
Still, I disliked the place intensely. The occasional lantern hung from a nail embedded in the rock did little to banish the salty darkness. We’d already been attacked by giant spiders and slimy cave grubs, and I was jumpy as a skelk on a hot tin roof.
I crouched in front of a large boulder and looked over my shoulder at Ellen Kiel behind me.
“I can’t believe people actually live in places like this,” I said savagely.
Christof dropped to his haunches beside her, and his white teeth gleamed in the darkness. “Scared of the dark, Freya?”
“No,” I said, although I was. I was a creature made for the light, for daytime and summer and the rays of the sun bringing flowers to bloom. I’d hated gloomy Orr with a passion, and although I had used that hate to fuel my desire to wipe out the Risen, and I had fought there for several years until Rudi died, I can honestly say I’d never been so relieved when I finally returned to Timberline Falls, out of the smell of decay and death.
“Let’s go,” Ellen said, and so, grumbling under my breath, I rose and we pressed forward further into the cavern.
Ellen’s spies had assured her my stolen sword was being held by a pirate captain called Crispin Redbeard. Apparently he lived a life of drunkenness and debauchery deep in the caves in Bloodtide Coast with his motley crew, and barely ventured out of the darkness nowadays, preferring to delegate his work and run the operation from the bottom of a rum bottle. He had a slew of children and young people who stole for him and did his bidding, and it was a group of these who had stolen my sword.
“He has no idea of the true value of the weapon,” Ellen had reassured me. I half agreed. I believed that Redbeard would probably not know it had belonged to Rytlock and was therefore the legendary Sohothin, but it was still a thing of beauty, and he would no doubt be well aware it would fetch a good price.
We crept forward, Ellen, Christof and I, and behind us the small group of warriors including Skylar, Aisling and Jeger moved with us. I was glad of their presence. I felt more and more uneasy with every step into these dismal caverns.
I rested a hand on the rock as we walked, then recoiled to find it slimy and wiped my hand on my breeches. Disgust and anger welled inside me, and my heart pounded. I hated this pirate captain, and I hadn’t even met him yet.
Ellen put a restraining hand on my upper arm and pressed a finger to her lips. We all sank down again, and I strained my ears to try and catch what she had heard.
Strains of singing filtered through the inky darkness. And, way off in the distance, raucous laughter.
We moved forwards again, more cautiously this time. Ellen had made it clear that this was a salvage operation. We were to go in, retrieve the sword and get out again with as little fuss as possible. Ellen didn’t have the manpower to take on the pirates, and besides, her phrase was “Better the daemon you know…” She and Redbeard had continued their dance for many years now, and each understood the other. Redbeard would keep his petty theft contained to Lion’s Arch and the waters in northern Bloodtide Coast and, for the most part, Ellen would leave him alone. That way, he stopped other, more violent pirates from coming into his territory, saving Ellen from fighting a war on her southern boundaries. The mugging of a few tourists and the occasional burglary were a small price to pay for general peace, she’d said.
I didn’t agree and would gladly have taken Christof’s flamethrower to the place and burned it to the ground, but this wasn’t my call and so I’d just listened and nodded as if I understood. Christof had caught my eye and frowned as if he knew my true thoughts, but still, I’d kept them to myself. Get the sword back and deliver it to Fort Marriner, retrieve my staff, and then I could return to my home, I thought. I had begun to long for it as never before. You’re getting old, I told myself with some amusement. Me, longing for hearth and home? Rudi would have laughed out loud.
We turned a corner and I bumped straight into a pirate obviously stationed there as a guard. She exclaimed and struggled to pull out her sword, but clearly she hadn’t been expecting visitors. As I turned and pushed her against the wall, I could smell her breath—sharp with rum—mingled with the odour of her unwashed body. Her straggly brown hair tumbled around her shoulders as her hat fell to the floor, and when her lips drew back in a snarl, they exposed blackened, rotted teeth.
With one forearm pressed against her throat holding her there, I drew the dagger at my hip, preparing to thrust it between her ribs. Christof was quicker though, and before I could protest, he sent her a right hook across the face that knocked her out cold.
I let her slump to the floor and glared at him. “I had her,” I snapped.
“We’re not at war,” he admonished, bending to tie her hands behind her back with some old rope. “Not everyone has to die, Freya.”
“Who are you, my mother?”
“Quiet,” Ellen hissed. She’d moved forward to the edge of the tiny cave we stood in and was looking across the huge cavern.
I moved forwards to stand with her, and looked with astonishment at the view. The cavern seemed to stretch for miles. Clearly, at some point there had been access to the sea, because the centre of what could only be termed a city was formed around the wreckage of a huge, beautiful ship. Wooden walkways were strung across the cavern like spider’s threads, and numerous buildings clustered around central open spaces that looked like market places.
It was not what I had expected at all. I’d anticipated a small, filthy hideout with bedraggled men huddled around a tiny log fire. Not this…complete society. The state of the pirate who now lay on the floor with hands bound told me maybe it wasn’t as civilised as it liked to think it was, but still, I understood Ellen’s reluctance to mount a full attack on Redbeard. It would take an army to bring down a place such as this.
“Follow me,” Ellen said, and she walked forwards, keeping in the shadows of the cavern’s sides.
I followed, the others trailing behind me. Bats circled way above our heads and insects skittered across the floor. Small lanterns cast weak pools of amber light across the sandy rock. The smell of sea salt was stronger here, overriding the musty damp smell of the caves.
I sensed Ellen had been here before, because she seemed to know her way around. She led us beneath the wooden steps leading to the city, and down into the storage areas. Huge barrels, of rum I presumed, were stacked five or six high, along with numerous wooden boxes, probably containing stolen items pilfered from the populace of Lion’s Arch.
I’d never stolen anything in my life. My parents had brought me up to believe you should work for what you wanted, and the idea of taking something that wasn’t mine abhorred me. The thought that these men and women had taken the hard-earned living from genuine, honest people made my stomach boil and acid rise in my throat.
Was Sohothin hidden in one of these boxes? Or had it already been sold on? I looked over at Ellen, who beckoned me deeper beneath the pirates’ lair. Did she know where it was exactly, or was she just guessing?
We crept beneath the overhanging wooden houses, the sound of singing and laughter growing louder as we neared the centre of the cavern. Our movements grew slower and more cautious, and I could see my concern reflected in the faces of the others around me. I did not like the feeling of being hemmed in, of having no escape route. It went against all my instincts as a soldier, and I had to fight hard against the urge to flee.
Ellen held up a hand, and we all stopped. She glanced at me, then gestured to a small hut with a closed door. The sword—it must be in there.
We crept towards it. I stood on one side, Ellen on the other, and she reached out and rested a hand on it.
At that moment, a bellow rang throughout the cavern, loud enough to make me duck. We’d been spotted, and a rattle of feet on the wood above us announced that the other pirates were not so drunk that they were unable to defend their precious loot.
Ellen swore and tried to open the door, but it was locked. Christof cursed and put his shoulder to the wood; it gave with a crack as the hinges buckled, and he half-fell into the small shed. I clambered in over him, but it only took a glance for me to see we had been duped. The shed was empty, a home only for scuttling crabs and piles of sand.
The two of us scrambled out, only to see pirates pouring down the steps towards our small group. Aisling, Skylar, Jeger and Ellen’s soldiers had all drawn their weapons, but it didn’t take a master tactician to see we were hugely outnumbered. Even I—who hated surrender and would only retreat in the face of overwhelming defeat—could see it would be pointless to fight.
Ellen met my gaze, met Christof’s, then gave the command to stand down.
We all lowered our weapons and watched as a man walked down the steps towards us. He was incredibly tall for a man, broad-shouldered and would probably have been good looking in his youth, although his upper face was pockmarked and one eye was now missing. The lower half of his face was covered with a bushy red beard.
He walked slowly forwards, passing through the soldiers and barely giving them a second glance. He stopped in front of Ellen and raised an eyebrow; she just lifted her chin in response. He continued on towards the shed and stood in front of it, looking at the broken door. Then he turned to me.
“You dare to walk into my caverns, knock out one of my guards, and then have the nerve to destroy my property,” he said, his voice low and guttural. He stepped closer. His face barely reached my chin, but it didn’t look like it bothered him. His beard was flecked with food, and his one eye was slightly bloodshot. Still, it held an icy gleam as he said, “What do you have to say for yourself?”
I glanced at the door, at a wary Christof, at the watchful Ellen, then back at Crispin Redbeard.
“Oops?” I suggested.
Edited by Jalinar