There were three ships anchored out in the bay that Tam saw. It seemed odd to him that there should be three all arriving in Alauria at once, but he was no sailor. Maybe that was just the way the weather had worked out for them. He noticed there were a number of boats on their way in to the shore. He wondered how many held goods and how many held sailors, eager to be ashore after who knew how long.
As the boats grew closer he noticed that they all seemed to be occupied, and not by any kind of sailors or merchants he recognized. There were still a ways out but, from what he could see, they looked more like monks or some kind of aesthetics than anything else. It looked like they were wearing dark hooded robes; their cowls drawn up, their faces hidden. They had to be sweltering; even on the coast, the Alaurian heat was intense.
He tried to think of any monasteries that traded, there were some to the north but that seemed a fair distance to come to Alauria. Surely there were places nearer.
Curious now, he leaned against the sea wall and watched the boats as they pulled in to the docks. There were at least ten to each boat, most of which began to disembark. Two remained, and began rowing their boats back toward the ships out in the bay.
The dock master seemed to be unsure what to make of them at first, he looked like he was trying to group them together. Which was futile since there was close to fifty of them now, crowding him and his assistants back. Judging by the way he was waving his hands about, he was either having difficulty understanding them or he didn’t like whatever they had to say.
It happened quickly, enough that Tam wasn’t sure for a second what he’d actually seen. It looked like the monk, or whatever he was, that had been elected spokesman put his hand on the dock master’s shoulder as if to draw him closer. He saw the man’s other hand come up, moving without hesitation, passing in a short tight arc. The dock master fell to his knees, hands going up to his throat.
Even though there were a half dozen or so people closer than Tam, it seemed like none of them had seen what he had and that only served to make him doubt himself. Just for a moment, but it was enough to stop him from raising an alarm until it was too late for them.
As one, the monks cast aside their hooded robes and rushed the other people on the docks. They were almost naked underneath, save for ragged-looking loin cloths. Their skin was terribly pale; fish-belly white, save for the scar tissue that seemed to decorate their bodies. They carried an assortment of weapons, ranging from knives to axes and they set about their victims with a ferocity that shocked Tam. He saw two men go down in the first moments, large ragged wounds in their chests, courtesy of a pair of double headed axes, swung hard. A woman was grabbed, her throat cut even as she started to scream. He saw the one who had cut her thrust his face into the wound, coating his face in the blood as it pumped from her torn flesh.
Others beside him had seen what was going on. Screams and cries of alarm were beginning, others were already running in fear. The attackers were spreading out, cutting down anyone in their way; no hesitation, no mercy. He saw two of them attacking a pair of real sailors. The men had been quick enough to grab some makeshift weapons and were doing their best to fend the attackers off. He saw one of them duck below a wild swipe from the lead attacker, then strike back with an iron hook, sinking it into the other man’s neck, just about the shoulder. The two of them spun and Tam realized that the wounded man had ahold of the sailor’s arm, holding it to him, prevent the hook from being pulled free. Blood was pouring down the man’s chest from the wound but he showed no signs of weakening. Instead he grappled with the sailer, craning his neck, teeth snapping at the man’s face. He tore away part of the man’s cheek before the other attacker slammed a sword into the sailor’s back and both of them collapsed to the ground. The surviving attacker made no effort to assist his fallen comrade. He just turned and went in search of another victim.
Tam swore, grabbed his pack and staff. What in the twelve hells was he going to do? He did the only thing that made sense. He ran.
In less than two hours, the invaders had taken the city.
The majority of Belshamir’s inhabitants were either dead or had fled. The rest of the invaders had seemed as implacable as the pair Tam had seen fighting those sailors. Even the women, and Tam had seen a few among them, just as naked & scarred. Just as ferocious.
If there were others still alive within the city, then they were like Tam, in hiding. He could have fled out into the desert like many of the others, but he’d considered that just a temporary salvation. He had no experience with the desert save a visit to Belshamir years ago and he hadn’t been prepared to bet on the other survivors being willing to assist any more strangers.
He hoped whoever had been in charge of the defence of the city had the sense to send out messenger birds. They had to have seen the point where it became obvious that the city was doomed. But even if they had, how long before anyone would be able to respond, assuming they were willing. The nearest place of any size was at least a hundred miles along the coast and that was mainly a fishing market. The next with any kind of military presence was on the other side of Kaliman desert.
He’d stayed out of sight mainly be sticking to the rooftops, grateful that the majority of buildings were clustered tightly together and that the sloping roofs he was used to were rare here. Still, he was careful to be as quiet as he could and stay low. Save for the odd washing line, there wasn’t much to keep him from sight if one of them was to look up at the wrong moment. He was hoping that he could make it to nightfall.
He’d had hope that the city’s soldiers might be able to fight the invaders off. The hand to hand fighting had gone much the same as the fighting he’d witnessed earlier; the soldiers had been unprepared to deal with an enemy that seemed to have little sense of self-preservation. But when they’d pulled back and began employing archers, he’d thought the tide of the battle was about to turn. But he, and the soldiers had under-estimated the invaders again. They lost plenty of their number in the first moments, then they’d simply seized the bodies of the fallen, both their own and their victims and began using them as shields. The archers hadn’t changed their tactics as quickly and had been overrun. That had been the end of any organized resistance.
He’d spent most of the time since the invasion had started, watching events through his spyglass. He did his best to ignore the screams that still drifted up to him occasionally, telling himself that, even if he had tried to come to anyone’s assistance; all that would be accomplished would be his death as well as theirs. Still, there was that persistent voice at the back of his mind telling him he should do more. He forced himself to watch, cataloguing his future nightmares.
The city stank. Some of the bodies had been burned, but most had been left where they fell. The desert heat was already causing them to bloat, swelling with putrefaction. The stench warred with the sickly sweet smell of burning meat from the bodies of their own that had been placed on a pyre before the Governor’s mansion.
Tam winced at the memory of the Governor. He’d seen the man dragged from the mansion, his fine robes torn and bloody. He seemed unhurt, apart from bruising, although that hadn’t lasted. The invaders had brought him out into the mansion’s open square. Four of them had taken ropes, tied them to wrists and ankles and stretched him out, spread-eagled against the rough stone. More of the invaders; not all, since he could still see packs of them roving the streets, clustered into the square, watching intently.
One of them had approached the prostrate man, a knife, already slick with blood, in his hand. He cut away the remains of the man’s robes, stripping him naked. Tam could see him trying to struggle but the ropes were being held taut. The one holding the knife turned to those watching and called out something indistinct. The others answered, a ragged response rippling through them. Then the chant began; quiet at first but growing as more picked up the rhythm and fell into unison. It raised the hairs on the back of Tam’s neck.
Seemingly satisfied, the one with the knife leaned over the man, knife working. The prisoner’s screams mingled with the chant, making it even more unsettling. Blood began to pool under him, spreading out bright against the dusty stones. The screaming began to falter, the man must be weakening.
Suddenly the one with the knife turned away, facing the rest of his people, one gore sheathed fist raised high. Tam thought he was holding something, but even with his glass, the distance was too great for him to make it out. The chanting reached a crescendo, peaking as the one with the knife lowered whatever was in his hand, bringing it to his mouth. He looked like he was eating something, and eating it with every sign of relish. He seemed like he was in the grip of some kind of euphoria and Tam shuddered at the expression on the scarred face. He thought he caught something else being called out but it was lost as, with a roar, the watchers all rushed forward, pushing and shoving in their attempts to get at the dead governor. They swarmed over the body and Tam looked away before the urge to vomit overcame him.
He rolled over onto his back, staring up at the perfect blue sky, trying to think about anything save what he’d just witnessed. Far better if the man had been killed in the fighting, rather than being subject to that. He made the decision that, if it came to it, he would make them kill him rather than be taken alive.
Thoughts of everything he’d seen kept edging into his mind. It was like something out of some of the darker stories he’d read back at the Lyceum, the ones in the most ancient histories. Not the sort of thing he could tell in a taproom, not if he wanted to keep whatever he was getting in trade, but not the kind of thing that was easily forgotten either. Even that last ritual seemed in some way familiar. He pushed the thoughts away from him. If he had to think on that, let it be once he was far from this place.
They’d taken Belshamir, there was no doubt of that but, so far, they hadn’t shown any indications of securing the city. The gates that people had fled through were still standing open, not that it really mattered. There was nothing but sand for miles that way. The main way in or out of Belshamir was from the docks but he’d already seen more boats coming in from those ships out in the bay, no doubt bringing more invaders with them. How many of these people could those ships hold? Surely not more than a couple of hundred each. He chided himself, thinking of the damage just the first fifty had done. With five hundred or more, they could even be a threat to half the Imperial army.
He surveyed the docks carefully. If he wasn’t going into the desert, then the ocean was the only way he could go. He was no sailor, but at least he’d spent a little bit of time at sea, enough that he thought he could make a decent attempt at it. If he could find a boat.
He spied a few fishing doreys toward one end; some with sails, some without. He wasn’t sure he could handle the sails but it was a better bet for getting him away from here as quickly as possible. He made a careful note of where they were, trying to work out the quickest way of getting there.
There was a woman’s scream close by and he pulled himself away from the roof’s edge quickly. The cries persisted, and he heard the sound of blows, continuing until the screams turned to sobs. He closed his eyes, trying not to imagine the woman stretched out and sacrificed like the governor.
He spent the next few hours dozing fitfully, waiting for dark. It was an uneasy rest. He was too nervous about being found to make sleep possible and the smallest sound brought him to a startled wariness. When night did come, he gave thanks that the moons were at their lowest points, leaving as much in shadow as in light.
He made his way back to the ground, staying as close to the buildings as possible. He moved from one patch of shadow to the next, listening intently for any sound.
He realized the flaw in his plan when he reached the last street before the docks. From there he had to get across the street, down the steps in the seawall and along the dock to the boats; all out in the open. He stopped, crouching down, making himself as small as possible as he studied the area. There was no sight or sound of anyone, not even one of the stray cats always tended to prowl areas like this. He counted minutes in his head, motionless. Then when he was sure that there were no patrols, he raised himself and sprinted as fast as he could.
He almost didn’t see the body until it was too late. In the darkness, he couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman but a corpse had been left on the steps. He was going too fast to avoid it completely and he tried to jump over. He landed heavily, his ankle rolling under the impact and sending a blaze of pain shooting up his leg. Worse, the sudden pain caused him to lose his grip on his staff. It flew from his grip, the wood clattering against the ground. Tam cursed, hobbling to retrieve it. He was bending down to retrieve it, fingers curling about the wood, when he caught a flash of motion off to his side. The man slammed into him, bowling him over. He tasted blood in his mouth as his teeth clacked together sharply.
He held on to the staff, trying to twist it, keep it between him and his attacker. He felt ragged nails tear at his cheek, felt the blood warm against his face. The hands scrabble lower, trying for his throat. He thrashed, thumping the heavy wood of the staff into his attacker’s side. He heard a grunt and repeated the blow, trying to roll the man off him. He pushed himself up, ignoring the pains from his cheek and ankle. He spun the stuff quickly, smoothly; striking hard and fast. Once to the back, then the chest, then the nape of the neck. The man snarled and tried to kick at his legs.
Tam gripped the staff with both hands and thrust it forward like a spear. He’d meant to hit the man between his eyes, but he was already rising. The strike caught him throat and Tam would swear he heard a crunch as the man’s windpipe collapsed. The man gasped, struggling to breathe. Tam stepped back quickly as the man reached for him, determined to get one last attack in. With a choking gurgle, the man slowly crumpled to the ground.
Part of Tam’s mind was yammering at him to keep moving but something else took control of him. He approached the man’s body carefully, poking at it with his staff. No reaction. Swallowing his disgust, he prodded the man’s belly, hard. Still nothing.
Without buildings to shadows the place, the light was better here and Tam took a moment to examine the man. As pale as any of the others he’d seen. There were a series of scars, most over the chest, but there were some on arms, legs, even the face. Some looked random, the results of fighting no doubt. But others, especially those over the cheek bones, seemed too symmetrical, too uniform to be anything other than deliberate. He wondered uneasily if they were self-inflicted.
He shook himself, remembering where he was, what he had to do. He glanced around but there was no sign of anyone. He ran for the fishing boats.
He passed the first two he came to, heading directly for closest with a sail. He rejected that one, there was an inch or two of water laying in the bottom. The next was clear though, and he tossed his pack and staff into the boat. He was about to climb in himself, but he paused, trying to think. He retraced his steps to the first pair of boats, hauling a pair of oars from one and bringing them back to his commandeered vessel. He worked the painter loose, stepping quickly into the boat and pushing away from the dock.
It took him a few minutes to organize the oars and find his rhythm but once he had, he started making progress out into the bay. He hoped there were no watchers left on board the invaders ships there and he did his best to stay as far from their anchor points and still avoid the shoals. And then he was out in the open sea.
He spat, watching as the breeze caught it. He stood, feeling the boat shifting under him and he clung to the mast for a moment, fearful of falling overboard. He managed to unfurl the small sail and the wind caught it, the boat picking up speed. He checked his pack; some of his food had been squashed in the fight but the majority of it was still in decent shape. He had a canteen of water, still three-quarters full. He’d have to make it all last as long as possible.
He relaxed for the first time in hours, laying back and letting the wind carry him along.