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Spirit's Shadow Chapter 2

CHAPTER 2

Two days later the boat was again assaulted by wind and rain. Rad had been a near constant presence in their cabin, and Aethan was not inclined to ask the boy to leave. He had been a comfort during the previous day and indeed helped Aethan to ride out the storm with his experience. For as silly as it sounded to sway with the boat, it helped more than a little and the ginger tea was an impressive remedy.

“How are you securing extra rations?” Aethan asked Logan as he closed the door and set a trencher upon the table.

“How else?” Logan asked, patting his jingling pocket.

“I’m not hungry,” Aethan said. “Rad brought me dinner an hour ago.” He smiled to the boy across the table.

Logan shrugged and picked up the plate and began eating. “I’m not wasting my money. I’ve never paid so much for boiled potatoes and a hunk of salted fish in my life.” He gestured at Aethan with his spoon. “And I’ve stayed in some pretty expensive inns. The cooks on this ship are akin to pirates.”

Aethan winked to Rad, but the boy just looked pale.

Next morning, the sky was clear and land was still nowhere in sight. Aethan, gaining his sea legs after what might have been the sickest he had ever been in his life, found his spirits higher as he walked the deck, absorbing some sunlight at last.

Something about the salt air and spray breathed life and strength into his weak body. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine the wind whipping through his hair, not in the middle of the ocean, but on the northern beaches of Andruain.

When Aethan was young, his father, King Ulrick took him fishing there with his older brother, and the fostered boys. Endless miles of craggy shoreline made it a challenge to reach the water, but for those boys who could, the fishing was unparalleled.

A commotion drew Aethan from his memories. Two sailors were shouting at each other one second, and went to blows the next. The short stocky one swung first, catching a tall, bald fellow under the chin. Within the blink of an eye, the crew was gathering around. A couple men threw fists of their own, but most were pulling the fighting men apart.

An officer with dark hair and graying temples stepped forward to break up the fight. The sailors scattered like cockroaches.

Aethan, and the few other men milling around, had an enviable seat for the following trial, whereby the officer found a total of six men guilty of brawling and sentenced them to a loss of their daily ration of beer.

“They’re lucky,” said a boy standing nearby. He was speaking to another young man who Aethan almost mistook for Rad.

“If Admiral Orwain had seen it, they’d have been flogged, the lot of ‘em. Even the ones what weren’t guilty of doing nothing wrong,” said the one that resembled Aethan’s friend.

Corporal punishment had always been a part of the law in Andruain, but the thought of watching men whipped for a fist fight did not set well with Aethan. He had spent enough time in the mercenary guild to know that sharing close quarters for months on end was enough to turn an otherwise stable man hot-headed.

“They’ll be missing that beer when they have to wash down maggoty biscuits tonight,” one of the boys laughed, as Aethan headed below deck again.

Just as he started to descend the steps, Rad rushed up, running headlong into Aethan. Without so much as an “Excuse me,” the boy darted to the railing and hung his head over the side of the ship.

Aethan went after his young friend, arriving just in time to watch the boy lose his lunch to the sea. He turned his back.

Rad leaned on the rail, his arms hanging limply.

“You okay?” Aethan asked.

“Fine,” the boy replied, his words barely audible.

Aethan took his waterskin from around his neck and handed it to the boy. “Here. It’s full of stale beer, but I wouldn’t consider it a waste if you wanted to swill with it. It’s not good for much else.”

Without looking up into Aethan’s eyes, the boy took the offered beer and rinsed his mouth.

Aethan felt pity for the boy who was so proud of his seaworthiness. Even more so when the two other young men passed and said, “Keep your chin up Rad. We’re almost to port.”

Rad collapsed in a heap against the rail as the crewmen returned to their duties, the short trial over.

When the boy tipped the waterskin back, his sleeve fell slightly, revealing fresh red marks upon both wrists.

“Keep it,” Aethan said steadily, eying the boy. “I’m back to my cabin.” He set his hand gently on Rad’s shoulder. “If you want to come by later, I want you to know the door is always open to you.”

The boy silently nodded and took another swig of beer.

Logan was alone with a map when Aethan entered.
“I think I have our route charted,” Logan said, scribbling some words on the map’s corner. “If we land in this port, there appears to be a main road leading to the southern part of the island. Perhaps we could even find a caravan making the trip south with their new wares. It would save us having to travel alone.”
“But would we want the sort of attention the first new supplies of the year will attract?”
Logan thought about it a moment, his eyes turning to the ceiling as he scratched the two week’s growth on his chin. “Probably not. Alright, we travel alone then. Good call.”

“Don’t misunderstand,” Aethan said. “I am not familiar with Kenaz at all, but I think a caravan might be cumbersome and the chance is there for it to be raided. I don’t think letting people know what you are is desirable even in an emergency.”

Logan winked, smiling. “You know I’m an amateur with a sword, right?”

Aethan rolled his eyes. “No shifting. Not unless it’s to save your life… or mine.”

Aethan took off his clothes and set them in the bowl of water to wash. “Pass the salt.”

As he scrubbed the dingy linen he said, “Do you think that’s what has the crew on edge?”

“What?” Logan asked from his map. “The sight of you in your underpants, washing your clothes in a bowl? It certainly has me on edge.”

Aethan shot him a dark glance as he wrung out his trousers. “Get a grip man,” he said. “If you need me to leave while you miss your wife in private, just say so.”

Logan chuckled and shook his head.

“I meant the goods on board. This cargo is significantly more valuable because it’s the first ship to Kenaz. I’ve heard the waters between Andruain and Kenaz are full of pirates. Could that be why the men are so jumpy?”

“I suppose so,” Logan said. “But there are whispers of mutiny on board.”

“You’ve heard men talking about mutiny?” The thought of being caught on board a ship about to be pitched into chaos only unsettled him more.

“I see people’s auras, Aethan, remember? I know what discord dwells aboard this vessel.”

“F ucking perfect!” Aethan hung his trousers and shirt over the ropes supporting his bed. “Is it too much to ask for one smooth road in my life? Must everything be worse than it seems at every turn?”

“Stop being melodramatic. We walk the path laid before us. If there’s a hole in the road, we go around. The key here is to not make waves.”

“And if the sailors mutiny? What do we do then?”

Logan shrugged. “We ride to port as passengers. We are not officers. What have we to fear?”

“How can you sound so unconcerned?”

“Because the most they’ll do is rob us of our coins, we haven’t anything of value.”

“Except the sword,” Aethan whispered, pointing to the wrapped leather scabbard.

Logan pursed his lips in a frown. “Next to a pile of silver and grain, no one wants a beat up old sword.”

Perhaps sensing Aethan’s agitation, Logan said, “If this ship finds itself under new management, we can swing to whichever side wins. But until then, we keep our heads down. There’s no sense rocking the boat, pardon the pun. Whatever your personal feelings, you are not king here.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, whatever your personal feelings are, you keep your mouth shut and don’t make matters worse for us, or your young friend.”

“Rad?” Aethan asked. “What about him?”

“You can’t fight every battle, Aethan. Even if you want to.”

Reflecting on Logan’s words, Aethan pulled his boots over and began cleaning the leather with the leftover water. With the ability to see auras, Logan surely saw something in the boy that Aethan had missed. He was just pondering what it could be, when a soft knock sounded at the door.

Casting a sidelong glance at the smug werewolf, Aethan called for Rad to enter.

The boy slipped in and leaned against the door, looking visibly shaken.

Aethan rose from his chair, dropping his boot on the floor. “What happened?”

After eying Aethan in his underwear, the boy turned to leave.

“Where did you go, you little wretch?” roared a voice in the hallway.

Rad paused, his hand on the door knob.

Aethan reached him in three long strides and pulled him by the shoulder away from the door.

“Who is that?” he demanded, turning the boy to face him. Frightened tears stood in Rad’s eyes.

As if on cue, an officer in dark uniform pushed his way in the door. When he beheld the scene, he stopped in his tracks. His mouth dropped open and then closed with a click. His dark eyes went from Aethan to Logan and settled on Rad.

“What are you doing in here, boy?”

“Seeing to my duties, Lieutenant. Ship doc gives me tea for the sick passengers.”

The officer’s eyes narrowed and he searched Rad’s face. “Where’s the tea then?”

Thinking quickly, Aethan grabbed an empty mug off the table where he’d left it the previous night. Handing it to the boy he said, “I already drank it, thanks.” He faced the Lieutenant. “It really does work wonders, you know.”

The officer’s face grew red, a stark contrast to his blue uniform. “Get back to your duties,” he growled to Rad, though his eyes never left Aethan’s.

The former prince glared back, not one to back down from a challenge asserted by any man.

Rad hurried from the room, leaving Aethan wondering what had just happened, and the officer followed.

When the door closed, Aethan locked it. He turned back to Logan. “You know what that was about?”

Logan rubbed his left eye with his first two fingers. “I have a few guesses, but your friend needs to be careful. With the tenuous conditions of this fragmenting government, and the division between officers and sailors becoming strained, I’d say your friend ought to pay more attention to his duties and less to you.”

Remembering the aforementioned floggings, Aethan couldn’t bury his concern for his friend. Taking down his wet trousers he said, “Perhaps I should go check on him.”

“Perhaps you should worry about your own problems,” Logan suggested sternly. “Leave him alone. You don’t need to draw attention to yourself. Do you need me to remind you that Arkken would have every bounty hunter in Andruain waiting for your return if he knew you lived?”

Dejected, Aethan hung his trousers back up and crawled into his hammock. Logan was right, attention was a bad thing, and the less people knew about him the better. He would do better to break off his association with the boy, especially since their mission was a dangerous one, and with his father being a jarl, he didn’t need Rad running home with any descriptions which might indicate who Aethan was.

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Caged Maiden
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