I recently finished the second draft of a story I’m working on, and I decided to share it online. I’m sharing one chapter at a time, and the story is about 487,000 words right now (roughly 5 paperback novels in length, give or take), so this will take awhile.
I estimate that 2nd draft is about 80% of the way there, story-wise; but 80% is not 100%. This chapter might show up in the final story completely unchanged. It might show up with minor changes, or heavy revisions; or might be cut from the final draft completely. If it does remain, it might be in a new place in the story or the same place.
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Iliar spent the whole day trying to escape.
First he tried the portholes. He had grown up around ships, had seen portholes on galleys that were two feet wide–plenty of space for a man to crawl through and escape. These portholes weren’t like that; they were just a tiny bore in the side of the hull, barely big enough to fit his fist through. Like the ship had been designed for holding slaves so miserable that they’d take their chances in the open water rather than staying below decks.
Still, he tried. He pushed his hand in and tried to gouge out chunks of the wet wood, trying to make the hole larger. Growing up with a woodcarver, he had seen that some wet wood was soft enough to gouge or peel off. Maybe if he could widen it a little, enough to fit something bigger in, he could widen it the rest of the way.
His fingernails scraped on the wet wood though, and after awhile of clawing and gouging at the wood he hadn’t made it any bigger.
He dug his fingers into the wooden rim around the porthole, digging his nails into the crack between rim and hull as he tried to tug it off. Maybe the wood underneath would be rotted and easier to punch through or dig out. His nails tore and he swore. He dug the tips of his fingers into the rim and pulled, and his grip slipped and he fell back into the man he shared an oar with.
The big man didn’t even notice. He just kept rowing, knocking Iliar off of him with the motion of his arms.
Iliar stepped back from the porthole, considering. He couldn’t widen it; the ship was old and creaky and water-worn, and should be falling apart by now; but the wood itself was tight as if it was newly made.
He turned to his oar, considering. But that was a problem too. The oarlock was metal, and it looked green with rust but it had held his oar securely in place for Gods alone knew how long. He tugged on the oar experimentally, but it didn’t budge.
The gap in the hull where the oar extended…that might fit him. It was narrow, too narrow for a man; but it was better than the porthole.
Iliar knew most galleys carried longboats to ferry passengers to shore. But the longboat was surely on the deck, and he didn’t want to risk those two sorcerers finding out about what he was doing.
Besides, he had never been to the main deck. It could have two men or thirty soldiers for all he knew. No, a longboat would be nice but he’d take his chances floating in the ocean over staying here another day.
He knelt down, and the cold water that always sloshed over the below decks soaked the knees of his breeches; and tried to wriggle into the gap that the oars fit into. But it was too small, and when he tried to dig at the wood it was as hard as white oak after it had been rotated over a fire. He tore up his hands gouging at the wood, but not so much as a splinter peeled off.
He swore and stood up, fighting the weight of despair that threatened to push him down again. This was impossible. The reason no-one ever left the ship wasn’t just that everyone was as good as dead but still rowing; it was that the ship was impregnable. The lower docks had been designed to keep people in, and a hundred years of sea-spray and wear hadn’t been enough to crack those defenses.
Second meal found him sitting back on his oar, dutifully rowing as his mind whirled. He took a break with the others to eat their meal–bright red and yellow apples and pears, leafy green vegetables, and enough meat to feed a family back home for each of them. He devoured the whole of it, just like his companions did.
As he ate, he tried to think; but he kept getting distracted by the flavors. The sweet juices of the fruit exploded in his mouth, and the meat was lean and savory and lightly spiced and salted. The vegetables were bitter but crisp.
He had never noticed the tastes before, not since that first year. He had been too tired, too numb, to notice anything. But now as he licked the sweet juices off his fingers, he wondered.
They were slaves. And they weren’t even being sold; Iliar had long since lost track of how long he’d been on this ship, but they’d never gone into port except to resupply and the slaves had never been let above decks. All they did was row, day after day. Why? Why were they fed so Gods-be-damned well, if they were just going to live out their lives on this miserable ship?
For that matter, where were they rowing? And why did they stop so much, enforced breaks to stretch and rest their aching muscles between shifts?
He had read of accounts of slaves when he was a boy. It was a barbaric practice, selling slaves; but he had been fascinated all the same, dreaming of teaming up with Papa and his friends to raid one of the big galleys and free every man and woman inside.
Only…the slaves he had read about had all been chained, and he wasn’t. They were worked to collapse or else kept huddled belowdecks with barely room to move between them; and they were fed scraps from the sailors’ meals if that. Cold water and bread and some cheese, once a day if they were lucky.
What in the Gods’ names was going on on this ship? Why were there only men aboard, and why had all of them been taken as children or young men? Why didn’t any of them age past maturity; time had blurred for him, but he felt like they had to have been on here longer than a few years or even a few decades. And, why were they fed and watered so well?
His eyes lifted to the deck above him. He would find answers there, if there were any to be found. More important, he might find a way off this Gods-be-damned ship.
After second meal, Iliar walked the whole of the deck, back and forth, looking for a weakness. Anything he could exploit to escape. But though the wood creaked, though water sloshed between the rowing benches and sea spray splashed in through the portholes, every inch of the wood was as tight as aged oak.
Iliar sank onto his bench, picking up an oar just for something to do. There was no way off.
Except for the main deck. There had to be a longboat up there. Even if there wasn’t, once he got to open air he could jump off the side of the ship.
Open water was a death sentence for sailors, but he would take his chances over the risk of falling back into that catatonic half-sleep and never waking up again.
The whole time he had been exploring the deck, his crewmates never moved. They just kept rowing, not budging to let him pass but barely noticing if he leaned over them. Once he had lost his balance on a sudden swell and pitched into a man. The other man didn’t say anything, just peered ahead with those dead eyes and kept rowing. Even the moment Iliar was draped over the other man’s muscled arm, the other man barely seemed to notice.
Iliar shivered. That was what awaited him if he didn’t get off this ship again. He didn’t know where his strange energy, his strange awareness, had come from; all he knew was that, if it had only come on him once in the past Gods-alone-knew-how-long that he had been on this ship, than it was probably fleeting. If he didn’t get off the ship before it faded, than it might never come back.
He sat down at his oar again and tried to make a plan for going above decks.
A short time later he realized it was useless. He had never been on the main deck, and he had no idea what to prepare for. He had no weapons and no way to make one–his oar was anchored into the oarlock, and it was too massive even for his muscled body to snap the haft off. He had no idea what was going on on this ship, no idea where he was–he hadn’t seen land through any of the portholes today, just endless blue ocean waves stretching into the horizon–and no way to know what awaited him up above.
He growled. Whatever waited up above, it had to be better than this. And even if he died, what of it? He had heard stories of the Hellscape, but he would rather face that than fall back into the stupor of the waking dead.
He stood up from his oar and wriggled past his muscled companion–the man hadn’t reacted all day to having to row an entire oar solo, had just put his back into it like he always did–and stepped into the isle between benches. To either side big, muscular, bare-chested men rowed in unison in the gloom. Iliar shivered.
He walked to the stairs, eyes adjusted to the near-dark they spent every moment in, bare feet splashing in puddles of stagnant water. One level above was the hammocks, empty now; and where they ate their meals. A level above that….
He climbed the stairs, wincing at every creak and every slap of bare foot on wet wood; until his head bumped into something. The trapdoor to the upper deck. He put his hands on the doors, braced himself as best he could on the steep stairs, and threw the two trapdoors open.
Sunlight burned into his eyes, hot and bright. He swore and closed his eyes, then leapt onto the main deck blinking furiously.
He shaded his eyes with one hand, gasping at the pain; and heard a sharp intake of breath from nearby.
His vision cleared, and he saw the top deck of the ship–and two people on deck. Men shrouded in dark cloaks. With hoods pulled up over their faces, even in the harsh sunlight. One of them was close to him, barely a few feet away; it was from him that Iliar had heard the indrawn breath.
Iliar saw the longboat secured to the deck with ropes twenty feet away. Saw the wooden railing, that he could jump over and into open water.
Saw them and didn’t care. His vision pulsed red as he remembered Rorin collapsing to the ground, aging before Iliar’s eyes. Remembered watching the life leave those strong green eyes and his features tighten into a skull.
Realized that, for the first time in the Gods alone knew how long, he was face to face with his father’s killers.
And Iliar threw his plans off the side of the ship and charged the nearest man.
The man backed away a little, raising his hands; but not like he was worried.
“Where did you wander up from?” he asked. “Lunch already happened, and dinner’s not for a few hours yet. Get below and get back on your oar.”
He looked over Iliar’s shoulder at his companion. “Why is one of them loose?”
Then he looked at Iliar, and seemed to really see him. The alertness to Iliar’s eyes. The fact that Iliar was running at him, growling and screaming; not staggering blankly from deck to deck.
“Oh shit! Ke’lal, we captured a mage!”
He backed away frantically now, eyes wide; and Iliar crashed into him. Iliar’s massive body, honed and muscled from years or decades or centuries on those oars, bore the other man’s to the ground; and his head crashed into the wooden planks with a thunk.
Iliar didn’t wait. He was straddling the man somehow, and he drew back his huge arm and punched the man in the face. Blood spurted all over Iliar’s hand, hot and wet. Iliar drew back his arm to do it again, and again. To murder this man as this man and his companion had murdered Papa.
All thoughts of escape were gone. Iliar let out an animalistic snarl as he smashed his fist into the man’s head again.
Then suddenly it was like all the energy was flooding out of him. Like he was a bucket that had sprung a leak. Iliar’s gaze fuzzed at the edges, and then he was spiralling down, down into blackness.
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