Wergild: Chapter One: The Straits of Shargon
Chapter One of a complete Eberron Novel: Orgok, a Hobgoblin Marshal, and Brig, a Dwarven Artificer, find themselves fighting for their lives on a slave galley.
Chapter 1: The Straits of Shargon
The night air was hot and thick with the mists from the ocean. The stiff wind only stirred the mist, unable break it. Orgok lolled on his rowing bench, rocked into sedation by the rhythmic rolling of the galley, the sound of the waves lapping the side of the ship, and his fatigue. He reached up to swat the mosquito feeding on his cheek, only to find his hand restrained by the shackle and chain. He blew upward against his cheek, hoping the bug would go away. Luck would not be so kind. He tried to pull slack from the chain, finally able to rub the spot where the parasite had just fed.
He rolled his shoulders, hoping to work out the knots in his muscles. He’d been forced to pick up the slack all day from his diminutive oar partner, and was himself no plough horse. In fact, through his long months of labor, he’d wasted to the point of being wiry. His skin had faded from its customary ochre to a paler mustard yellow, from months of working the night shift in the oar banks on the galley. Even the darker patches of brown were fading to a lighter shade. His reddish sideburns were long enough to pull into tails now, and the hair on his head, usually cut to regulation pinky’s width, had grown to an unmanageable four inches. He looked more like a hobgoblin from the undermountains than his own sun-darkened plains tribe.
His yellow eyes traced the chain through the lock connecting it to the central chain in the aisle and back to the wretched creature partnered with him. It would be his luck to be chained to the only scrawny dwarf he’d ever seen. The dwarf’s chest was not the large barrel chest he was accustomed to seeing in dwarves, but rather small, made to seem more so because of the pot belly under it. How a slave managed to maintain a pot belly was a real mystery to Orgok. The dwarf’s legs were thin as well, with protruding knobby kneecaps. His feet were much squarer than Orgok was accustomed to seeing on other races. The only place where muscle seemed to collect on the dwarf was the forearms, which were strangely out of proportion to the rest of him. The dwarf’s square head was interrupted mid-face by a bulbous nose. Bushy black eyebrows obscured the deep inset eyes. While his facial hair flowed thick from the sideburns to chin, the crown of his head was bald, with only a short-cropped band of hair running around the back of his head. Like himself, the dwarf was only wearing a long tunic of rough weave which came to mid thigh, and a piece of bailing twine for a belt.
He glanced up the catwalk to the front where the percussionist napped, with legs still wrapped around the post, and mallet resting atop it. He turned to look backward, where the task master slumped with his arms crossed, snoring slightly. The cruel barbed whip as ever clenched in the bastard’s hand.
Orgok reached down and flicked the chain, sending a wave through it which slapped the dwarf’s chest, just catching the tip of his nose.
“You’d better do more tomorrow,” he warned the dwarf.
“Or I’ll make sure the next time I flick this chain, it’ll be around your throat,” Orgok threatened.
He bared his long yellow teeth to make his point.
The dwarf smiled, showing his own well arranged square teeth.
“You got good teeth,” the dwarf said, chuckling lightly.
Orgok shook his head slightly. He’d been shackled to the dwarf for a week, and in that time, the dwarf’s seemingly cheerful mood had not dampened. That had earned a grudging admiration, occasionally replaced with a dark desire to hang him by his own entrails.
Suddenly, something large splashed in the water, beyond the sweeps of the ship. For a moment, Orgok closed his eyes, and imagined it was a huge suicidal fish, trying to leap into his mouth. He swallowed the saliva that had accompanied his fantasy. His eyes snapped open when something bumped against the bottom of the boat, something large.
He sat upright, now fully awake. A cold chill ran down his arms from the soft scratching sounds against the outside of the boat, along the waterline. The sound was like a squirrel skittering on a tree trunk, only larger. His heart raced, and he pushed his nosy oaring partner out of the way as he moved for a look.
Suddenly, a horrible visage appeared only feet away, just outside the ship. Orgok saw the elongated face, covered in scales, with wicked teeth like a barracuda. Its huge eyes were black. The head was lined with translucent fins, splayed out in anger.
“Sea devils!” the dwarf cried.
Orgok pushed the dwarf down into a sitting position on the bench, as the wicked claws of the sea devil raked the timber of the oar port. The other prisoners on the oar deck were awakening, and their shouts and screams created a cacophony.
Orgok grabbed his chain with both hands and yanked it to get slack, then thrust himself toward the strakes of the ship, ramming his foot into the face of the dagger toothed creature just outside. His heal pummeled the side of the fish man’s head. Nictitating membranes slid over its large black eyes. It shook its head and hissed something in a foul sounding tongue.
Orgok looked around desperately for any means of escape. The taskmaster was on his feet and headed fore. Orgok made a lunge for his key ring as the taskmaster passed, and snagged it. In the darkness, Orgok’s keen eyes would give him an advantage. The task master cursed, paused, but then bolted on forward. Of course the whip master wouldn’t want to face real armed adversaries.
The sea devil was beginning to make another attempt at entry into the ship, and Orgok found it difficult to get a key in a lock with a dwarf trying to climb over him. The dwarf was struggling, and losing badly in a wrestling match against the intruding monster.
“Do you mind?” Orgok shouted.
“Get this thing off me,” the dwarf shouted frantically.
Orgok slid to the side, and the dwarf fell onto the bench, with the sea devil on top of him. It rippled with muscles hidden just under its sleek scaled hide. It was generally humanoid in shape, about Orgok’s height, and easily outweighed him by fifty pounds. Its muscular tail flipped, splashing a spray of salt water over everything. Fins crested its spine, as well as the back of its forearms and legs. It wore weapons on a bandoleer, something like a crossbow, and a jagged dagger made of stone or coral.
Finding a way to attack it hand to hand was difficult, since it was covered in spiky fins, and thrashed too much for a clear shot at an opening. Orgok flicked the chain expertly, coiling it twice around the beast’s neck, and pulling with all his might. It responded with a deep, throaty growl, and wheeled its clawed hands toward him. It began snapping, snarling and clawing wildly. The claws raked across Orgok’s face, and he could feel hot blood rolling down his cheeks. He straddled the beast, which now faced him, trying to pin it, but it bucked like a wild mule. Its teeth clamped onto his forearm and shook. Orgok screamed his rage, and with his free hand, retrieved the sea devil’s dagger. He thrust down into the creature’s chest, but its slick body and tough scales turned the blade aside.
The dwarf fought with the lock, occasionally glancing up to avoid other fights surrounding him.
The teeth of the sea devil held Orgok’s arm in place, and limited his freedom of movement. Finally, Orgok leaned in, putting his weight on that arm, driving it even farther back into the creature’s mouth, prying the toothy jaws apart. With his free hand, he jammed the dagger into the eye of the beast. Dark fluid flowed from the wound, and after several moments of jerking, the beast fell still.
Orgok pulled his arm out of the jaws, opening and closing his hand to ensure nothing vital had been severed.
The dwarf ducked as another sea devil pounced overhead toward an unfortunate prisoner. Finally, he sprang the lock, detaching the chain from the main. Unfortunately, he and his oar mate were still chained together, and their manacles were sealed with a rivet. He glanced overhead, as the glow of fire shown through the deck grating. The ship was burning.
“We need to get out of here,” he shouted to the hobgoblin shackled to him.
“Thanks. Like I hadn’t noticed that,” Orgok returned.
The oar deck was teeming with sea devils, fighting with frantic slaves. Blood flowed deep along the deck boards. He peered out beyond the sweeps, and caught sight of a ship’s boat through the thick fog. It was probably being launched to save some officer’s butt.
“There,” he screamed, pointing toward the small craft.
“What, swim?” the dwarf asked, in something akin to terror.
“Yes, swim,” Orgok said, tossing the sea devil’s crossbow to the dwarf.
He then grabbed the diminutive man under the arms and shoved him out of the boat. The chain connecting the two of them rattled across the gunwale as it slid into the water. Orgok gave a final look at the slave galley and leapt into the water after the dwarf.
He regretted it the moment he hit the water. The dwarf, only a yard or so ahead was flailing and sputtering. Worse, Orgok saw the fin of a passing shark, and knew that there were other sea devils under the surface waiting for crewmen to abandon ship. He could feel the sting of saltwater in the wounds of his arm, and wondered how much time they had before the sharks came to feed.
“Come on, dwarf, just a few yards to the dingy,” he encouraged.
“The name’s Brig,” the dwarf panted.
He spat water at the end of the sentence, but managed to come up for another breath.
Orgok had been chained next to this dwarf for weeks, but hadn’t ever bothered to ask his name. Now, his survival might depend on the survival of the dwarf. It certainly changed things. He heaved forward toward the edge of the waiting ship’s boat, feeling as thought he was dragging the dwarf along. In fact, he was. It was all the dwarf could do to keep his head above water, even in the more buoyant saltwater of the Straits of Shargon.
There was a young officer in the ship’s launch, catching bundles of emergency supplies thrown from someone aboard the galley. As Orgok approached, the ensign took notice. The youth, a human that couldn’t be more than fifteen years old, grabbed a harpoon to fend him off.
Orgok heaved Brig up to the gunwales of the launch, and prepared to fight the young human. To his utter amazement, the youth thrust unerringly, piercing through his shoulder and catching the barb in his flesh. Orgok’s scream was cut short as he submerged into the black water. Under the waves, he could see the frenzied schooling of the sea devils and their sharks. And he could see they were coming toward him.
He suddenly felt the pull of the harpoon, dragging him back to the surface. When he finally came back into the night air, it was the dwarf holding the harpoon shaft. Orgok caught his arms over the edge of the boat, as the dwarf looked at the wound on his shoulder. The ensign lay on the deck of the boat, apparently dead. A crossbow bolt stuck from his chest.
“Reload the crossbow,” he managed through gasps.
“Reload the crossbow. We’re about to have visitors,” Orgok managed, swinging his leg over the edge of the boat.
Brig frantically winched the crossbow, while Orgok felt around the wound, hoping to find an easy way to remove the harpoon head. The dwarf paused and cursed, realizing that he had no more bolts for the crossbow.
He watched the water as the churning black mass of waves revealed the sea devils just below the surface. There seemed to be at least a score circling their little craft. He softly sat down the crossbow, and picked up another harpoon.
“Wonderful. Just wonderful,” Orgok spat.
He watched as the dwarf first plucked a few stray hairs from the cuff of the ensign’s boot then began to stare intently at the harpoon, rubbing his hands on it, almost caressing it.
A small crackling electric spark danced on the head of the harpoon, then another, and another. Soon, the entire head was alive with hot hissing sparks of electricity.
The dwarf held the weapon at the ready.
“Get us under way,” Brig demanded.
Knowing no easier way, Orgok braced himself, and rammed the shaft of the harpoon through his flesh, drawing the bloody weapon out the other side. The harpoon clattered to the floor of the vessel, coming to rest next to the dead ensign. Orgok grabbed the corpse, paused to unfasten the belt, and rolled the still form overboard. A split second later, the water erupted with churning as the sea devils fed.
The little boat began to rock furiously, and the dwarf drove the head of the harpoon into the water. Blue light shown from beneath them, and electricity crackled across the surface. The water went still, and Orgok took the opportunity to start fixing the small mast.
He heaved the ropes with all the speed he could muster, reminded at every motion of his injuries. He hoisted the small triangular sail, and slid to the aft of the ship, taking the rudder and the boom stay. The little boat began to move slowly at first then started picking up speed in the fair wind.
Out of the darkness, a monstrous fin slid past their boat. The fin was taller than a grown man, and the little boat was tossed in the wake of the monstrous megalodon. Brig turned to watch as the great monster reared its head, biting the ram and front portion off of the galley.
“The Devourer,” Orgok whispered in terror.
Soon, the mists swallowed up the scene of carnage, and the two survivors were left with only the sound of the ocean, and the occasional scream echoing from afar. The eerie red glow from the fire aboard the galley faded, leaving the two in the vast sea of mists.
Orgok made fast the line to the sail, and dug into a small coin purse on the ensign’s belt. He held a silver coin up in the gloom, and kissed it.
“Thank you, Olladra!” he cried, and tossed the coin backward over his shoulder.
It splashed into the straits with a soft plunk.
Orgok looked at the dwarf, still holding the harpoon at ready.
“So, you’re not completely worthless after all.”
The dwarf smiled.
“Looks like you got pretty banged up. You gonna be alright?” he asked, eyeing Orgok’s wounds.
“I’ll be fine… in a few days. Sea Devils don’t have venomous bites or anything.”
“We don’t have sea devils or sea anything, in the Holds. Never seen anything like that before, that’s for sure,” Brig said, finally easing his grip on the harpoon.
“Me either. I’d only heard of them. But, when I saw them, I knew exactly what they were.”
Orgok paused, looking over his comrade.
“I didn’t know dwarves ever became magicians.”
Brig smiled again.
“I didn’t know hobgoblins ever became fish bait.”
Orgok pulled a crooked grin. The world around them was filled with the sound of wind and waves. Even with their eyes as keenly adjusted to the darkness as they were, neither could see much more than fifty feet in any direction, thanks to the mists. Brig finally broke the silence.
“Shouldn’t we make for shore?”
“Once we’ve gotten some distance. I’m not even sure where the shore is, but I’ll turn to port in a bit. Right now, I want to use all the wind I can get to take us away from that attack. I figure they’ll be too busy with all those other folks, and looting or whatnot, to come looking for us very quickly. I’m not sure I’ll be able to say exactly where land is till dawn, though.”
“I’d really like to get to shore as soon as possible,” Brig persisted.
“What’s your hurry?”
“I hate water. And I’m probably going to get sick from it pretty soon.”
Orgok nodded, and turned the vessel to port.
“We might get to shore in half an hour. Maybe two hours. Maybe we’re going the wrong way, and we’ll find ourselves in the middle of the ocean at dawn.”
Brig smiled wearily.
Silence fell between them, and Brig turned his attention to the provisions. The bundles contained dried foodstuffs, water skins, a light but flimsy looking tin pan, rope, hammocks, cloaks, flint, steel, and various other supplies. The belt of the ensign had a good cutlass and a dagger. Brig examined the manacle on his right hand. The rivet holding it shut would not yield to any of the tools he had here. He shook his head and sighed.
“So, what crime put you on that slave galley?” Orgok asked.
Brig smiled up at him.
“I was working for the kingdom of Cyre at the end of the Last War. I mended the warforged on the front. Then, the mists came, and I was forced to flee into enemy territory, into Breland. I spent a year in the dungeons, and another few doing road repair. Somehow, I became unofficial property of house Orien. When they were done with me doing the roads, I was shipped down here to be put to work as an oarsman.”
“You were a prisoner of war? You should have been released when the war was over.”
“Released to where? There is no Cyre anymore,” Brig said sadly, but clearly.
Brig pulled a loaf of unleavened bread from the food, tore it in half, and passed half to Orgok. The hobgoblin inhaled the scent.
“Officer food,” he said, before taking a bite.
Brig smiled again. He took small bites of the bread. He didn’t fear the supplies running out, but more that eating would make his stomach start rolling along with the sea. The spinning nausea encroached just thinking about it, and he stared off into the darkness, hoping to ease the sensation. The attempt failed. He breathed deeply a few times, and finally got hold of his guts. He shook his head, seeing the look on Orgok’s face. He swallowed the stomach acid in his mouth and focused on other matters.
“What put you on that galley?”
Orgok’s eyes fell to the bloodstained deck of the launch. He sucked in a deep breath of the misty ocean air and exhaled.
“I am Orgok, of Mreesh’nok clan, part of the Ghaal’dar tribe. We are a long line of soldiers. I studied in the great war houses. I was training to become a troop commander by the finest war marshals of the Gathering Stone War College. My first assignment came when the Mreesh’nok warriors were contracted through the Blademarks of house Deneith. We were hired to sack Castle Otharaunt in Aundair.
“Fifty fighting warriors marched to Sterngate. We were loaded onto freight carts on the lightning rail, and shipped to the city of Passage. From there, we were sent by sailing vessel to the Eldeen Bay. We were ordered to disembark and form up on the coast several miles East of Castle Otharaunt.
“The next day, we stormed the Castle. Someone among their number had sent the castle garrison to assist another stronghold, and in their absence, we overtook the castle, held by only a skeleton defense, and a few brave servants. Little did we know that a member of house Orien was nearby with a unit of his soldiers. They swept in, and liberated the castle, killing most of our men. What should have been an easy victory turned into a slaughter. Our men were armed for close fighting, and the Orien men were two score longbow men. Our armor was too heavy to allow us to make chase, and our javelins were no match for their superior range.
“Thirty eight of our men died on the battlefield. The rest of us were sent south, on slave details. Starved, beaten and left to the elements, the remaining dozen of us died over the past two years. I am the last.”
Brig’s face was set with grim understanding. His own time as a slave had been fairly comfortable. Orgok’s had been a slow hell. The Dwarf rolled onto his belly at the bow of the little boat, and gave in to the sea sickness.
Time passed. Brig couldn’t be certain if it had been an hour or not, but the mists began to break up, and finally, the dark outline of land appeared. He could hear the sound of the waves breaking as they approached shore.
“Oh, thank Onatar,” he whispered.
Orgok managed to beach the vessel smoothly, riding a wave to shore. Sand and fragments of broken seashell ground against the keel of the boat. Moments later, he hopped over the edge, and grabbed the tow rope. He paused as Brig looked up at him from the bow.
“Well, are you going to help, or just sit there with lunch in your beard?”
Brig frowned, running his hands through his beard hair. He slid off the nose of the vessel, and touched down on the wet sand. The tide rushed across his bare calves. He chuckled at the sensation of sand slipping out from under his feet as the tide receded.
The pair labored to pull the little boat to the tree line, some fifteen yards away.