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[Darkblade 00.1] - The Blood Price

Dan Abnett



  Darkblade 00.1

  Dan Abnett & Mike Lee

  (An Undead Scan v1.5)

  A forest of black oak masts shifted and swayed in the bitter wind blowing from the Sea of Malice, causing the druchii sailors to hunch their shoulders and curse the Dragons Below as they went about their work. Captains bellowed between the gusts and leather lashes cracked. Slaves struggled beneath the weight of crates, baskets and canvas sacks, staggering up shifting gangplanks to unload their burdens in the black holds of sleek-hulled raiding ships. The docks at Clar Karond, City of Ships, bustled like an ant hive as the corsairs of Naggaroth made ready for sea.

  At the far end of the docks a captain of the city guard nosed his black warhorse into the chaotic crowds, hissing curses and laying about with his cudgel to clear a path through the bedlam. A half-dozen guardsmen walked their mounts behind his, glaring and shouting at the cursing tradesmen and the rough-voiced merchants as they made a path for the black-armoured highborn in their midst.

  Malus of Hag Graef slumped forward in the saddle, bound hands clasped to the rim of the high cantle, and gritted his teeth against the savage pounding in his skull. The reins dangled loosely in his fingers as he let his borrowed horse follow its fellows through the crowd. The inside of his mouth tasted like boot leather and his bones felt like they’d been pulled out through his ears, smashed to jagged bits and poured back in again. Every sound was like a dagger thrust between his eyes. As his escort ploughed their way across the dockyard he fought to keep his stomach in its proper place and swore to every god he could think of that he would never touch another drop of wine for the rest of his miserable life.

  His escort shouldered its way across the traders’ square and along the granite quays, passing one rakish vessel after another. Each ship crawled with dark-robed sailors working feverishly underneath the baleful gaze of their captain and his mates. Though the first day of spring was still a week away, it was a two-week journey to the Slavers’ Straits in the north, and the corsair captains planned to be there the moment the narrow passages were free of ice and open to the ocean beyond. The first ships out would be the first ships to reach the rich coasts of the Old World, and to them would go the choicest spoils. A druchii slave raider had barely five months out of each year to make his fortune, and the competition for flesh and plunder was merciless and often lethal.

  Down the long line of ships they went, until Malus began to wonder if the guard captain meant to drive his escort off the stone pier and into the icy waves. Finally, near the very end of the quay, the captain gave a satisfied grunt and reined in beside the gangplank of a black-hulled raider that rolled and creaked uneasily against its mooring ropes. Unlike the other ships at dock, there were no long lines of slaves labouring up to its deck. Members of the ship’s crew hung like crows in the nets and rigging, studying the guardsmen with sullen interest. Standing on the dock just a few feet from the gangplank waited a solitary druchii knight, his patched cloak flapping fitfully against his armoured legs. The knight raised his pointed chin in greeting as the guard captain reined in. There was a sombre cast to his youthful features, and his black hair was drawn back in an unadorned braid. A silver steel hadrilkar gleamed about his neck, worked with the sigil of a nauglir.

  “And who are you, then?” the guard captain growled into the gusting wind. His breeches and cloak were stiff with salt spray, and his plate armour was speckled with rust.

  The proud knight would have bristled at the captain’s tone. “Silar Thornblood, of Hag Graef—”

  “So I thought,” the captain said with a sharp nod. He jerked his thumb at Malus. “This here is your man. His father paid good coin to see he got on board.” The captain turned to one of his men. “Cut his bonds.”

  One of the guardsmen slid from his saddle, a dagger gleaming dully in his hand. Malus held out his bound wrists with a baleful glare, but the guardsman paid the highborn no mind. The leather straps parted with an expert jerk of the blade, and then a strong hand pulled Malus firmly from the saddle. The highborn managed barely a single step before a sharp flare of pain in his thigh brought him to his knees.

  The captain twisted in his saddle and reached back for a bundle of saddle bags. “The young master made the acquaintance of most of the lower taverns last night,” he said, tugging at the binding straps. “Cheated at dice, started a fight with a gang of sailors and damned near gave us the slip. He’d made it through the city gate and was a half-mile back to Hag Graef when we caught up to him.” The captain tugged the bags free and dropped them beside Malus with a weighty thud.

  Silar’s dark eyes widened in shock as the captain’s words sank in. “This is outrageous!” he snarled. “You lowborn thugs can’t treat a highborn in this fashion!”

  The captain’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve got my orders, young sir,” he growled. “And your master put a knife in two of my men when we tried to turn him back to Clar Karond.” He glared down at Malus. “So here he is. Now he’s your problem.”

  With a nod to his men, the captain nudged his horse around and headed off down the pier without a backwards glance. Silar stared helplessly after them, one hand still gripping the hilt of his sword.

  “If you’re going to challenge them, be my guest,” Malus said darkly. “But don’t expect any thanks from my father if you do.”

  The highborn’s voice brought Silar’s head around. “Your father’s thanks? What has that to do with anything? I’m your sworn man—”

  Malus cut him off with a bark of laughter. “Bought and paid for by Lurhan of Hag Graef,” he snapped.

  The young knight stiffened. “A highborn embarking on his hakseer-cruise ought to have a retinue attending him,” he replied. “Your father wishes—”

  “Do not presume to tell me what my father wishes,” Malus shot back. “You’re here because no self-respecting highborn back home would swear himself willingly to my service, and it would reflect badly upon Lurhan if I went on this cruise alone.” He shot a bitter look at the young knight. “The Vaulkhar of Hag Graef must think of his image, after all. Now help me up, damn you!”

  Silar’s jaw bunched angrily at the highborn’s tone, but the young knight leapt to obey. With an awkward heave and a clatter of armour he pulled his new master to his feet. The two druchii were of a similar age, both at the cusp of adulthood, though Silar stood a head taller than Malus and was broader across the shoulders. The retainer’s articulated plate armour was old and plain but well cared-for, its surface burnished and gleaming, and his twin swords were unadorned and functional.

  Grimacing in pain, Malus eyed the young knight up and down. “Whose wargear is that? Your grandfather’s?”

  “As a matter of fact, it is,” Silar answered sharply. “They aren’t much, but they’ve seen their share of battles. Can my lord say the same for his?”

  Malus glanced down at his own harness. The armour was expertly made but likewise devoid of ornamentation, its edges still gleaming with oil from the armourers’ shop. “Like you, my wargear was provided for,” he muttered. Silar made to reply, but the highborn cut him off with a raised hand. “Enough, Silar. My head is pounding and my guts are tied in knots. Neither one of us wants to be here, so let’s just call a truce and try to get through this damned cruise without killing each other, all right?”

  “As my lord wishes,” Silar replied coldly.

  “Fine,” Malus said, and as Silar turned to gather up the highborn’s saddlebags the highborn quietly resolved to kill the young knight just as soon as he possibly could. Lurhan probably told you to wait until we were well out to sea before slitting my throat, Malus thought grimly. Or perhaps one of
my brothers promised you a bag of gold to slip some poison into my food.

  While the young knight struggled with his and his master’s possessions, Malus took a few tentative steps with his right leg. The muscles were still weak and ached down to the bone, but he forced himself to remain upright.

  Silar eyed the highborn’s halting movements and frowned. “Are you hurt?” he asked. “Did the guardsmen beat you?”

  “Oh, most assuredly,” Malus answered, “but this was a going-away present from one of my siblings, I think. Someone slipped a rock adder into my wardrobe yesterday morning. Fortunately it bit both my body-servants first before it got to me, so it had little venom left.”

  “Ah. I see,” Silar replied. “Will you need help climbing the gangway?”

  “Don’t be stupid,” Malus hissed, turning his back on the retainer and eyeing the long gangplank balefully. Then, setting his jaw, he started upward.

  By the time Malus reached the deck of the corsair the crew had passed word of his coming back to the ship’s master, who arrived to greet the highborn at the rail.

  Hethan Gul was sleek as an eel in a fine black kheitan of human hide and a shirt of expensive chainmail. His robes were of thick wool, and his high boots were supple leather, too new to be stained with sea salt and tar. Rings glittered on his scarred fingers, and a single, heavy cutlass hung from a studded leather belt.

  “Welcome aboard the Manticore,” he said smoothly, his thin lips pulling back to reveal a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. Gul bowed low, causing the weak sunlight to glint on the gold bands that secured his corsair’s topknot. The long tail of hair was streaked with grey. “We are honoured to have been chosen for your proving cruise, young lord.”

  Malus paused at the rail, surveying the deck and the assembled crew. Sailors wearing faded robes and kheitans of orc or human hide climbed nimbly up the raider’s ice-coated lines or busied themselves stowing the last crates of provisions into the Manticore’s forward hold. Blackened mail covered their chests and upper arms, and their wide belts bristled with a vicious assortment of knives, cudgels and heavy, single-edged swords. Their faces were lean and weathered, scarred from long years prowling the sea lanes, and they studied the highborn with cold, predatory stares.

  The ship was an old one, as far as he could tell, but the lines and fittings were new, as well as the deep, red sails furled overhead. New weapons shone in notched wooden racks set at intervals along the length of the ship, and the reaper bolt throwers fore and aft showed signs of recent installation. Likewise, the cluster of officers at Gul’s shoulder wore armour and weapons as freshly minted as the highborn’s own.

  “Quite a lavish honour indeed,” Malus growled. “I see my father spared no expense to refit your ship, captain.”

  The corsair’s golden grin widened. “Of course, young lord. No son of Lurhan should put to sea without the best that Clar Karond can offer. But you must not call me captain,” he said. “From the moment you set foot upon this deck, that title belongs to you. You will refer to me as Master Gul, and I will be at your service in all things.”

  Malus’ gaze sank to the scarred planking on the other side of the ship’s rail. One more step and there was no turning back, he thought. He wouldn’t be able to back out of the cruise without appearing weak, and he’d sooner die that give his family that satisfaction.

  Of course, once he stepped onto the Manticore he’d be as good as dead anyway. Up until now, Malus’ entire world had been the tall spires of Hag Graef, never far from the distant but watchful eyes of his mother Eldire. The hakseer-cruise, a right of passage for all druchii highborn, was his father’s first and best chance to have him killed without fear of repercussion from his sorceress concubine.

  Still, he thought, better dead and bold than dead and weak. Gritting his teeth, he stepped down onto the oaken deck.

  “Excellent,” Gul murmured, nodding to himself. He turned to the assembled crew. “Hark, sea ravens! The sea calls, and your captain heeds her summons! Malus, the young son of Lurhan commands you. May he guide us to a red tide of gold and glory!”

  “Gold and glory!” the crew shouted as one. Gul turned to Malus and grinned. “Your success is assured, young lord,” he whispered. “Have no fear of that. I know just where to go for you to reap a fine fortune in gold and slaves.”

  “Of that I have no doubt,” Malus replied, “since a third of the plunder goes to you and the crew.” The highborn wondered who would get his share if he died on the long voyage. Would it go to Lurhan instead? It wouldn’t surprise him one bit.

  Gul indicated a trio of nearby corsairs with a sweep of his arm. “Captain, your ship’s officers stand ready to pay their respects.”

  “Let’s get on with it then,” the highborn replied, gesturing impatiently to the officers.

  Each druchii stepped forward in turn and knelt before Malus. First came Shebyl, the ship’s navigator, a thickset, pox-scarred corsair with bright, rodent-like eyes. Next came the ship’s second officer, a square shouldered, fierce-looking raider named Amaleth. He muttered the proper words of allegiance, but his gaze was direct and challenging.

  Malus was surprised to find that the last of the three was female. She was tall and fit, her skin made dusky by months of life at sea. Fine, pale battle scars cross-hatched her high cheeks. Her dark hair was pulled back in dozens of fine braids and bound up in a corsair’s topknot. The worn hilts of a pair of highborn swords rested at her hip.

  “Lhunara Ithil, first mate of the Manticore,” she said in a husky voice as she sank to one knee. “Through wind and storm, red rain and splintered shields, I will serve thee, captain. Lead, and I will follow.”

  The highborn’s eyes widened at the sight of her. Perhaps this voyage wouldn’t be entirely unpleasant after all. “Perhaps I’ll lead you to my cabin and keep you there,” he said with a predatory grin.

  Howls and hisses of laughter rose from the assembled crew. Lhunara looked up at the highborn with a broad smile, her eyes gleaming. She rose to her feet in a fluid motion and punched Malus full in the face. The highborn’s feet flew in the air and he hit the deck with a tremendous crash.

  “Try it and I’ll feed your guts to the gulls,” she said, still smiling.

  There was a hiss of steel and Silar leapt onto the deck, sword in hand. With a startled shout, Gul leapt between the young knight and the first mate. “Stay your hand, young lord!” he said to Silar. “You’re aboard ship now, not at a highborn court. She was well within her rights to reply as she did.”

  But Silar refused to yield. “What would you have me do, my lord?” he said to Malus.

  For a moment, Malus was sorely tempted to turn Silar loose on the first mate. Lhunara was a bit older than the young knight and looked like she knew how to use those swords she carried. He could certainly vouch for the strength of her hands, he thought, wiping blood from his chin. At worst, he would be rid of Lurhan’s hired man. After a moment’s thought, however, he shook his head. “Put away your sword,” he told Silar. “I’ll not go stirring up a feud among the crew.”

  “Well said, captain,” Gul said quickly, bending to help Malus to his feet. Lhunara gave Silar a disdainful look before turning on her heel and striding away, snapping orders to the ship’s crew as she went.

  “All is in readiness,” Gul continued as he pulled the highborn to his feet. “The crew was at work all night long to ready Manticore for sea. If we’re to find the best pickings for you, it’s crucial we cast off and make for the straits as soon as possible.” The gold-toothed corsair’s unctuous expression faltered a little, and he looked over the rail at the empty pier. “Ah, has my young lord arrived earlier than planned? Normally one’s father and mother are present to commemorate the occasion. Why, it is well-known that Lurhan sent his eldest sons on their first cruises with great fanfare—”

  Malus spat a stream of red over the rail. “There will be no fanfare, Master Gul,” he snapped. “My father has done what he must to protect his reputation, and t
hat’s as far as his regard for me extends.”

  “I… see,” Gul replied thoughtfully. “Do you wish to give the order to depart then?”

  The highborn turned about and scowled at the complicated array of rope, tackle, mast and sail. “Master Gul, I know that those upright poles are masts, and the cloth bundles up there are sails. I know I’m standing on a deck, and I assume there’s an anchor around here somewhere, but I wouldn’t know where to look for it. That is the sum total of my knowledge of sailing,” he said. Malus waved his hand dismissively at Gul. “You’re the ship’s master. Get us out of here.”

  If Gul was appalled at his captain’s utter lack of skill, he gave no sign of it. If anything, his grin only broadened further. “Of course, sir,” he said, bowing once again. “Leave everything to me. You are in good hands aboard the Manticore.”

  “Oh, I have no doubt of that,” Malus replied sourly. “I’m going below. Wake me when we get to Bretonnia.”

  Slate-coloured waves crashed against the Manticore’s sleek hull, spraying icy water along the deck. Near the forward citadel deck a group of corsairs huddled together in their sealskin cloaks and crouched low next to the wooden bulkhead.

  The three dice clattered across the damp planks and rebounded from the bulkhead, showing a trio of sharpened bones: the horns, a losing toss. “Damnation!” Malus hissed angrily, and the sailors covering him from the elements chuckled and hissed their amusement. Grimy hands reached down and plucked coins out of the highborn’s winnings. “Another go,” Malus grumbled. “All this damned pitching and heaving is souring the dice.”

  Some of the corsairs shifted about on their heels and grumbled. One of the men, a one-eyed druchii with half a nose, ducked his head fearfully. “Most of us have to stand watch, dread lord…”

  “Not if I say otherwise!” Malus snapped. “We’ll go until I say we stop, and that’s an order!”

  The corsairs looked to one another and shrugged. Coins were pressed to the deck, and Malus picked up the dice. There were definite advantages to being the captain, he thought.