Pillage and Plunder

Coastal Road South of Black Rock


His mood is already sour.

It had been almost half a turn, and he could feel the seconds ticking by louder than ever. Slower than ever. The parchment feels hot between his fingers, as if it might burn him just by existing. Eat him alive just from the barest of contact. The figures scrawled across the torn paper, discolored by time and circlets of dried moisture, blur together, but he doesn’t need to read it. By now, every curve of every letter of every word is imprinted in his memory. Seared there. One more scar to add to the many.

It has been a long time, but I fear this can’t wait any longer.
The healers haven’t given me good news. I need to see you again. Do you remember Sulwyn’s place? Please hurry.

Looking back at it now, every line down to the punctuation felt suspicious, forced, atypical. Wyaytt never wrote him. There was no doubt his brother was ashamed of the man Kaellian had become. He would have sooner died in secret then admitted to him that his health was failing. Yet impulsion won, as it always did with him. It alone had driven him back North to fumble for a goodbye that needn’t have been said. He hadn’t wanted to lose him too without some form of…. closure. It would be letting go of the one last thread of humanity in some way related to him, that bit of a conscience that kept him in some way grounded. His brother was good. The man had always been good, had always chosen the right path in the worst of situations, whereas he- Kaellian- had always been not quite good enough.

And the man he wanted dead had used the last thing he had against him. For a decade, he fought to quell his bloodlust. For a decade- though it felt like centuries more- he’d committed so many of his deviant acts to vengeance. Of wanting to make a single man pay.

Now there were two.

The call from one of his men set on lookout interrupted the spiral he’d fallen into so smoothly, he hadn’t even felt the first slippery turn.

The hoofbeats, loud against the well-worn dirt path hardened and cracked into miniature fissures by the summer rains, sounded distant but approaching quickly enough. Kaellian shifts against the massive downed tree he’d been leaning into. Deft, calloused fingers fold the letter over onto itself, following crevasses worn into the paper creased so many times that a hole had formed at its center fold. He tucked it away into the hidden pocket at his chest, behind the stained-glass amber flask that laid over his heart.

A cruel smile finds its way onto his face as he straightens. Silver-ring’d fingers pull the black cloth up over his mouth and nose. His ebon hair had grown too-long now, the wayward strands over his brow nearly laying across his cold, distant eyes that claim the hues of the deepest sea.

“Get into position, mates. It seems the fun is about to begin.”

Autumn is a thing of beauty. The trees are rich in color, even here so far south. Rukbat casts long shadows from the ancient trunks that stand as towers all around them across the narrow road some ways south of Black Rock. The evening’s warm golden light, filters through the old forest in long bars that grow more and more dim as night creeps closer. It contrasts with the cooled breeze, chilly enough as darkness draws nearer that it may have come from the very southern-most reaches of the Azov herself.

The fauna is just sparse enough to allow an adult man to move in relative ease, but too dense to see the coastal cliffs that drop off into the sea no more than a klick from where they’d gathered. This particular road, well traveled, dips closer to one of those places one didn’t venture near alone. It also was one that had a long stretch between minor holdings or taverns of less ill-repute, forcing its travelers to carry more on them.

A prime spot for thieves.

Kaellian’s men were peppered across the landscape, melting into the treeline at an angle that left them mostly visible to him as he stood in the middle of the road, but not the on-comers from the southeast. He could see the gleam of the swords and daggers drawn ready at their sides. Few shuffle slightly, restless.

The last leg at sea had procured them little bounty, and his quartermaster had urged him to make up the difference in some way- either by means of his own pockets, or find a place to pillage. He’d be damned to dig into his own cache. But for the latter, he had hesitated. Hesitation fostered doubt. Doubt in him would be a plague that would ruin him if he wasn’t careful- it would bring about mutiny if he showed too light a hand just because of how close to Xanadu they’d come again for repairs on the Black. He’d been hard on her these past few months, traveling rough seas at too fast a klick and ignoring the warnings of his men. He’d cracked her below the Devil’s Line this time, run up on some rocks in pursuit of a ship baring that flag. Eliam’s flag.

One man had complained of him being careless. He’d hung by a rope to seal the crack with wax from sunrise to sunset, his skin made raw by sunburn and seaspray.

The runnerbeasts heavied by bulky saddlebags and satchels secured in rolls over their haunches, and one hauling a small cart, turn the bend at a trot, shying abruptly to a halt as they come within a half dragonslength of the band. Curses swarm from the mouths of their riders, comprehension coming slower to the humans than to the beasts. Their ears pin, heads high, hooves stamped nervously as they sense what the men on their backs do not.

Predators surround them in the likes of starving felines, slinking, stalking amidst the dark in their periphery, with nigh palpable malicious intent.

The riders kick their heels into their sides as hard as they can, in a mixture of desperation and frustration. The runners turn in half circles with shortened strides, kicking up dust clouds about their legs, reigned too hard, and too fearful to do as commanded. One bucks upwards, the plump sandy-haired boy who can’t be more than in his mid teens just barely able to hang on, and jarred askew in his saddle on the hard return to the ground.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” Kaellian calls over the ruckus of fitful neighing, pitched complaining of wagon wheels, and confused shouting, raising his accented voice only just-enough. Silence crashes over them with the force of a storm-tossed wave. Only the sound of creaking leather as one runner tosses its head pierces the curtain. The captain’s arms spread in a gesture that would be welcoming except that his cutlass is swept along with it. “Pardon skipping the formalities, but I would like to offer you a deal.”

“What do you want!”
“Fuck off!”
“We wouldn’t make deals with the likes of you!”

The cries all blurted out at once blend together, and ramble on longer than Kaellian cares to hear. He raises his black-wrapped left hand with one finger up in a discouraging, condescending motion, ”Now now, lads. I can be a very.. understanding man, you see. Unless, of course, you make this difficult. We wouldn’t want this to get-” He lets the potential conclusion stew, fester in their minds before he finishes simply with, “messy.”

As if summoned by those words, the shadows of the trees become men, a cacophony of sinister chuckling a low rumble that almost disguises the soft crunching of their steps. Some light torches as they near, the fire flickering as hellish dancing sprites in the whitened eyes of the runners. They had the travelers surrounded- the young holders had been defeated the moment they took that bend in the road, and the realization of that drained all their faces of color. Even more evident, his crew clearly want this situation to take a gorey turn. Crave it. Lust for it. There is a strong chance not even he could curb them all, and he often didn’t care to.

Dead men tell no tales, afterall.

No one moves. An older boy, perhaps of twenty turns, dark eyes and plentiful freckles, mutters something the captain can’t hear. His friend just beside him, now clustered so close as the runners prance anxiously in their alarm, hisses a reply bittered, furious- he may have just condemned them all.

“As you wish.” It’s too calm, almost bored in the drawl of his gravel-touched accent.

The pirate crew surges forwards, three to four reaching up to each and ripping them from their saddles. Two gather at the sides of the cart and detach it from its beast that erupts into a full canter the second it’s freed, breaking from the group to vanish into the woods.

Screams of horror. Begging, pleading cries. Raucous laughter echoing blunt bodies hitting the ground, being dragged or struck or bound. It is a song he is all too familiar. Kaellian joins the fray, but there’s no fighting to be had. Not for him. Their victims had caved under the first blows, and by the time his nonchalant stride brings him to see what their pillaging won them, his crew recedes like the tides before him. The five travelers are forced down onto their knees, hands tied behind their back. Each has at least one of his crew gripping their shoulders to keep them in place for him. Gazes already surrounded by reds, purples, blues, accented by lips puffy and dribbling red watch him, are riveted on him, in hate, fear, revulsion.

Kaellian pauses in front of the second traveler, his cutlass lifted until the blade-tip touches the gaunt man’s chin and tips it up towards him. His mouth opens, as if to say some clever words, but shuts again, in a clenching of his jaw as his eyes passes over the others. Searching.



They missed one.

“You sorry excuses for slimey bilge rats rent with scurvy and not even bloody good enough for me to keelhaul.” Kaellian’s head drops slightly in a temper barely restrained, his volume sunken, his tone growled. “Can I not entrust you with one simple task.” Whatever glory his men already derived from their successes shrivels, shrinks as they do, leaving a wider berth around the captain than they’d already given.

Find him.

In the quiet that hushed them, the rustling of the underbrush is heard not far away. The sandy-haired boy who must have hidden beneath the wagon during the raid flees in panic, tumbling loudly over roots and rocks, only to pick himself up again in his frantic escape. For as clumsy as he is, he makes good distance in little time. A few men fall away from Kaellian’s flank to begin the chase. And he, well, his grin returns crookedly, not touching the edges of those kohl-rimmed eyes darkened in waves churned by storm and an abyss leagues-deep.

The cutlass’ end falls away from the traveler he stands in front of, with a small sliver of red left behind, traced down from chin to throat. “Tie them to the wagon and break the wheels. Perhaps if their cowardly friend returns, he can set them free before the local creatures decide their fate for them.” That is, of course, if his men don’t catch him first, but that’s left for them to figure out.

While one whimpers pitifully, and another shivers in silence with a tear-streaked face and wetted pants, some manage to sputter out their final insolent words;
“You can’t do this!” - “You- you monster!”

The muscles of his jaw flex, the edge of his nasty grin fades faintly as an ill- humored chuckle interlaces his words, breathy and born from deep in his chest. “Almost, lad. Almost.” It’s a synonym he considers for himself, of course, but one that instantly gets under his skin. Kaellian leans in towards him, a hair's breadth from being nose to nose, “Pirate.”

When he straightens again, his crew had already started on his command, and their jovial chatter rises with their energy, a momentum that picks up quickly in a drunken and celebratory fervor. They’d already unpacked the runners’ bags, and had begun on the wagon. Kaellian reaches over the wooden side, hefting a heavy bag from its bowels. They disperse back into the woods towards the coastline, far enough that they can only-just still hear the screams for help left in their wake, slowly growing further and farther between, weaker and more desolate as the moons climb higher above them.

His men return empty-handed from the pursuit of the holder boy, and avoid their captain’s direct gaze with effort, sitting at the far end of the campfire. They share a round of a bottle of wine pilfered from the lot of their plunder, then join in the emptying and organization. Kaellian has no disillusion that many of the smaller prizes will end up in their pockets, even with his quartermaster flitting around trying to jot in hurried scrawl items and numbers. He takes to the bag he’d collected, untying the straps that bind it to reveal its contents to the dim firelight that plays with the night’s edge where they meet.

He grimaces suddenly, dropping the bag’s mouth to meet his left hand with his right. He can only make it so subtle, so hidden as he clasps it low and close to himself. A twinge of his scarred hand sends a sharp, furious pain lancing up his arm. It throbs when it starts to pass, the breath he had been holding released in a shuddered exhale. He can’t suppress the trembling that comes in aftershocks as he reaches for his flask nestled next to his brother’s note. Always there. Always just as close to his skin as this remnant of both his punishment, and his revenge.

The taste of rum is as close to a remedy to his illness as he’s found, and he savors the warmth. It isn’t quite comfort, but it’s an imitation that smoothes over the sharpest ends that threaten to flay him open for all the world to see.

Eventually, steadied, he looks down to the loot nestled between his legs where he is seated on a downed and rotting log. The flames’ glow catches on something peculiar. Something which makes the whole of him take pause, and furrow his brow.

“Bloody hell.” He whispers to himself, “Would you look at that.”

Kaellian plucks a brilliant white cord set so-gently, so reverently, atop neatly folded tunics and trousers. Leaning forward to rest an elbow on his thigh and twine the knot through his fingers, he examines it. Considers it in different angles in front of the fire. The silver and crimson of blood rings glint in the whispers of the nightmares of their stories as those fingers wrap slowly, tightly around it.

“Listen up.”

He needn’t wait long for quiet to blanket his audience once more. It’s an intense expectation, where the one or two men who keep talking in ignorance of everyone else’s lull in merriment are elbowed hard by their fellows to shut them up before consequences befall them all.

“Enjoy yourselves tonight, men, for our next adventure is going to be a little.. different.” The knot disappears in his clenched palm. Sea blue eyes drift over the crew, lingering on no particular face. Not seeing any singular one. He’s lost to his thoughts. He huffs a breath of an abbreviated, ominous laugh.

This changed everything.

“We sail at dawn.”

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