The ship crested the swell. Cadoc's guts lurched as the prow dipped. His knuckles went white as he gripped the railing, fingernails digging into the sodden timber. He gasped down cold air, gagging at the stink of pitch and rotting wood as the prow cut into the swirling, black water. Cadoc flinched at the cold splash of sea spray. He licked his lips, tasting salt, and fought to keep the contents of his stomach down.
Someone retched, the gut-churning sound carried over the howling wind and creaking timbers. Cadoc glanced along the railing, his eyes squinting against the rain and spray as he sought out the unfortunate soul. A figure leaned over the side, kneeling lest he was pitched overboard in the swells. He was sure it was one of his men, not one of the sailors, but he couldn't make out who.
Strange how even the toughest bastard could become a lumbering wretch when out of his element. Not that he blamed him or the others of his company stricken by seasickness. They were born in the mountains, and most had never seen the sea, much less crossed it, before taking service with Cadoc. The crossing would have tested even the hardest of men – and his lads had fought with tooth and nail in another man's war for close to a year.
A year, he mused. What a fucking waste of time and men.
The Oskoi had been theirs for the taking, but the Venyk had cocked up every siege and every pitched battle. All because their shit-eating priests held more sway in military matters than their generals. It was a miracle any of them escaped.
Cadoc's jaw tightened as he squinted into the darkness of the horizon. A memory nagged at the corner of his mind, one he'd tried to forget. His brother had warned him against this folly, running off to fight with the Venyk in their religious war. Yet Cadoc was blinded by his pursuit of glory and riches. He saw that now, but the price of wisdom had been paid for with the blood of other men.
Yet, his brother wasn't entirely justified in his hatred of the Venyk. They weren't all useless, self-serving zealots. Cadoc had enlisted under the command of Duke Artur Kasparu. He was a good man and a capable leader, as devoted to his men as Cadoc was to his own. Cadoc doubted he would have escaped from Antios were it not for Kasparu's bravery. The city was the last toehold the Venyk Kingdom held in the Oskoi Confederacy. Cadoc, his men, and two thousand Venyk soldiers had fallen back behind its walls after the Oskoi counteroffensive had routed half the invading Venyk army. A desperate three-month siege followed and then, just like that, the city fell. Cadoc still didn't really know what happened – not that it mattered. Cadoc and his men had made their escape, in no small part thanks to the young duke. Together they had fought their way to the docks and commandeered a ship, but in the confusion that followed Kasparu had vanished – no doubt doing something heroic in the end.
Heroic and stupid, Cadoc snorted, this goddamned holy war had created a mountain of dead. Heroes, patriots, fools, zealots, lovers, opportunists, soldiers of fortune and innocents, he'd seen them all fall by the thousands. Rotting meat for crows and dogs. Cadoc cleared his throat and spat into the swirling water. "Fuck all you gods!"
Lightning flashed, tearing the sky apart, the forked tongue of some god angered by Cadoc's contempt. The brief light revealed a turbulent sea, pelted by sheets of rain, before winking into darkness. Thunder rumbled, the sound hollow and distant.
A gruff voice cursed aloud as unsteady feet shuffled over the treacherous deck. Cadoc turned, blinking away the residual glare of the lightning strike. His sergeant, Fersin, loomed out of the driving rain. The burly man clung from one rope to another, his feet uneasy in the rolling swells. His face was pale and drawn, and Cadoc guessed he'd been the one puking over the side only moments before.
"The men are fed?" asked Cadoc.
Fersin scowled. "Don't talk to me about food, man. Not one in five kept anything down. Stinks to high heaven down there. Turns a man's guts."
Cadoc gave a crooked smile and swept his gaze slowly out to sea. "Why do you think I came up here?"
The sergeant hunkered down beside Cadoc, sheltering in the lee of the gunwale. "We lost Rhisiart."
Cadoc swore, his smile giving way to a scowl as he fell silent for several moments. The ship dipped into a trough. His stomach lurched, and he swallowed hard, grimacing as his throat burned with bile. He reached into his cloak, retrieved his flask and took a swig. The brandy burned his raw throat but warmed his belly. He offered Fersin the flask, who took it with a grateful nod.
Cadoc watched Fersin drink before looking back out to sea. "We’ll reach landfall come morning. Let us attend to him then." He cleared his throat and spat a ball of phlegm overboard. "We'll build a proper pyre for him from the timbers of this fucking tub."
Fersin nodded, handing back the flask. "Captain…"
Cadoc turned, detecting his sergeant's note of hesitancy.
"Some of the men want it done tonight."
"We can't cremate him onboard. What difference does one night make?"
Fersin raised a stubby finger, pointing to the heavens. "It’s a new moon…it’s not right, leaving a man…"
Fersin's words trailed off. Cadoc read the mix of unease and embarrassment. Not known for his piety, Cadoc didn't tolerate superstition in his men – particularly when it flew in the face of practicality. He brooded on Fersin's words, then snapped his head around suddenly, frowning at the sergeant. "What did you say?"
Fersin flinched. "They’re gods-fearing men, Captain. A man’s soul shouldn’t wander during a new moon. You know that."
"New moon," Cadoc echoed softly, too quiet for the sergeant to hear. He looked upwards. The sky swirled like a cauldron simmering as it came off the boil. The worst of the storm was passing, its fury abating as the wind blew it westwards towards Skelgard – their destination. Cadoc reached up, his cold fingers gripping a sodden length of rigging. He heaved himself to his feet. "You’re certain?"
Fersin gave a puzzled look. "About what?"
"The new moon. I lost track of the days myself."
Fersin stood up, keeping one hand on the railing as he shrugged. "Aye, certain as I can be. Yestin's kept count. You know what he's like with his numbers and portends."
A sudden fear gnawed at Cadoc as he realised he had lost count of the months, not merely the days. How long had it been? Months? A year? By the gods, it was winter again. In the warm southern lands, there had been little to mark the passing seasons.
I must take account, thought Cadoc as his hand flew to his side. His fingers clawed at empty air where his sword should have been. He clenched his fist, his back stiff. Then he remembered, he had wrapped the blade in oiled cloth and stowed it below decks less than a day into the crossing.
"Captain, you all right?"
Cadoc pried open his fist and looked down at his empty hand. He turned and squinted at Fersin, slowly nodding. "I'm fine. What have you done with Rhisiart?"
Fersin motioned downwards indicating the hold. Cadoc nodded and patted Fersin on the shoulder. "Go on. I'll follow you down."
The sergeant staggered off into the rain and spray. Cadoc stared after him wondering absently how he could have lost track of time so thoroughly. His fate was bound by time, yet war had provided ample reasons to forget. He'd known the thrill of early victory and nights spent in the company of exotic women, their favours paid for with looted coin. The warm sun of Oskana was half a world away from the frozen mountain where he had signed the Bwgal's contract with his own blood.
How could I forget?
The truth, Cadoc knew, was simple – he didn't want to remember. Early on he'd almost managed to convince himself it was a bad dream. Then when the Oskoi regrouped and fought back, he'd been too busy staying alive to think. Yet, all that lay behind him now and with the war at his back, and his homeland ahead, he was free to contemplate the past – whether he wanted to or not.
A gust of freezing wind swept over the ship's deck. Cadoc blinked against the stinging cold, his vision blurring. He cast one final look at the tumultuous sea, then he turned and followed Fersin into the belly of the ship.