Before the Bitter Sea
The ship loomed over Esra, a hulking black shape against the starless sky.
With its sails furled, it seemed a beast at rest, only waiting to be set free upon the open sea. Once unleashed, the ship would carry the refugees to safety—far from this land where they had suffered under the rule of God King for so long.
But it would take Esra’s father from him, too.
For the passengers, the journey meant freedom. But for Esra, it meant loss.
This was how it had always been. For as long as he could remember, strangers would come to his father’s village from all over Fomoria, bundled in rags, all their worldly possessions on their back. Esra’s people would feed them, clothe them, and prepare them for a new life. Later, they would set sail across the ocean, to the safety of the Continent.
Esra’s gentle heart went out to them. He did not fully understand what they ran from, but it must have been horrible if it made them come to this.
And always, Esra’s father, Marten, would accompany them on the journey. Although Esra was only eight summers, he understood that this was the way.
“Your father is a hero,” one refugee had said to Esra, his cold wrinkled hands clutching at the small boy’s with a broken sort of desperation. Esra nodded, smiling, as his small fingers were squeezed gratefully.
At his reaction, the old man’s weathered face broke into a beaming smile.
I must be brave for them, Esra thought, and tried to quash his childish fears.
The orange flame of the torches whipped in the sea breeze, sometimes guttering, but never going out. They cast flickering shadows over the hull, and glimmered dimly over the ripples of the ink-black ocean. Clouds had smothered out the stars, blanketing the night in darkness. Black stretched out as far as the eye could see. There was no horizon.
Young Esra suppressed a shiver.
From the deck, the refugees looked down at the villagers gathered by the pier, their faces lit by torches. Then they looked up and beyond, to commit to memory the dark land they were leaving behind forever. This view would be the last glimpse of their homeland.
A strong gloved hand landed on his thin shoulder, squeezed. Esra raised his head to meet the dark gaze of his father. The village leader had dressed well for the sea voyage that was to come, and the sight of him prepared to leave him made Esra’s eyes prick with tears, despite his promise to himself that he would be brave.
His father noticed. “You must stay strong, Esra. As my son, you represent me while I am away.”
“Yes, father,” Esra whispered, and he wiped his eyes on his scarf.
* * *
“But where do they go?” Esra had asked his best friend, Kian.
Kian was a few years older than him, and possessed a vast worldliness to Esra’s young eyes. For every question that came to Esra’s curious mind, Kian had an answer. He was tall for his age, and russet-haired, with a sly smile and cheery disposition.
“To the Continent,” Kian answered, “where they will be safe from Balor’s slimy reach!” He wiggled his fingers at Esra threateningly, making the boy flinch back and squeal with laughter.
On that golden autumn morning, the boys sat together on a grassy outlook that let them see the village sprawl beneath them, small and remote against the vast blue-grey ocean. The gentle breeze swept over them, bringing with it the fresh scent of the sea.
Esra leant his head on Kian’s shoulder. Because they were alone, the older boy wouldn’t shrug him off. “Why must they go to the Continent?”
“They need to escape, of course.” Kian’s eyes glinted. “Most people on Fomoria are hoodwinked, Esra. A long time ago, a giant beast rose from the sea. He enslaved the humans, and made himself their God King. To terrorise us, he conjured an army of black knights, who rode on dragons. The knights are half-seabeast, drink blood, and if they catch you…”
Esra yelped as Kian tackled him to the grass in a billow of crisp autumn leaves. The older boy pinned Esra’s wrists to the ground, and pressed their faces close together, baring his teeth.
“—They eat you!”
“Kian!” Esra wailed, wriggling. Being restrained always set his heart thudding. He was a scrawny boy, with little strength, and Kian was much bigger than him. “Get off me!”
Kian did, eventually, but not without making Esra beg.
* * *
The village even harboured fae folk a few times: those frighteningly beautiful creatures that had taken Esra’s breath away to look upon.
The fae lived in the secret places at the edges of mankind’s knowledge, where most feared to tread. From river-way to forest, mountain to glen, they moved in subtle shadow, always avoiding the God King’s reach, for he was their ancient enemy.
Centuries back, the fae had ruled over these lands. They had been kings and queens. And the seabeast’s kind were banished beneath the waves, forced to look jealously upon the lands they once walked freely.
“Few men have laid eyes on a fae,” his father told him. Esra, then thirteen summers, had been gawping at the tall, ethereal creatures around the fireplace with a childlike wonder, unable to take his eyes off them; their long pointed ears, colourful clothing, and delicately pointed teeth. They could speak the language of men, but they had their own words too, and the sound of their talk was as music to Esra’s young ears. Their eyes were like jewels, bright greens, blues and yellows…
“There are many on Fomoria who are part fae, from back when man and fae mixed more closely,” his father continued. Esra, who was always in awe whenever his father spoke to him, listened raptly. “Your mother… Sihannah, she had a bit of fae blood. Gave her the prettiest pointed ears.”
He sounded wistful.
“It doesn’t show on you. Probably for the best…”
He’d smiled then, but Esra had the sense that his father’s smile was not for him. Marten’s eyes were distant with memory; seeing some other time, some other face, that still held a place in his heart.
Then, he was stern again.
“They are our allies against the tyrant, Esra. Always be a friend to the fae.”
“I will, father,” Esra had promised, without fully knowing what he meant.
The fae always treated him with an undue kindness whenever he served them, even though he must have seemed a graceless, awkward creature in their eyes.
In his years, none had ever called him handsome, or beautiful. There were no mirrors in the village. He came of age with no real idea of what his face looked like. His nose felt sloping, narrow. His mouth was small, and his lips thin. From catching his distorted reflection in rivers and polished metal, his eyes stood out like huge dark circles in his narrow face.
It must be something in the way his eyes were set, or shaped, but they caused well-meaning people to ask him if he was sad. But the fae all, unfailingly, called them soulful eyes, a beautiful gift from Danu.
Esra didn’t know anything about Danu, and had been too nervous to ask Kian, who, once he had moved from the children’s sleeping hut to the men’s, decided that Esra’s company was a bother. But it was nice, Esra thought, to have a feature that could be called beautiful.
* * *
By the time he’d come of age, Esra had grown into a slender, long-limbed youth, more gracile than gawky, thankfully, now that he’d finished his growth spurt. He wore his hair, long and inky black, tied neatly back.
His father had congratulated him, and in a roundabout way told him that it would soon be time to instruct Esra more completely in the work that he did around the village. So that Esra could follow in what his father did, when he passed. So that Esra could become the hope, the new hero of many.
Esra had felt a bit of fear at that, at so much responsibility. He much preferred following orders, felt safe when he was being told what to do. But his father wanted him to smile and be excited, and so he had. Marten was a man that Esra desperately admired, but he had expectations of his son that Esra knew he would never be able to fulfil.
His childish awe of Marten had matured into a deep and fearful respect.
Esra was so different from his father. All they had common was their olive skin and inky black hair. Where he was frail, his father was tall and broad. While his personality was quiet, shy, his father had the commanding presence and untiring strength that was required to lead their village, and captain the ships. He was so often away that Esra knew him mostly through stories others told of him—his father the hero, his father their saviour.
Still, there were memories Esra held close to his heart: being lifted up, as a small child, to be shown around the ship; the warmth of a kind hand ruffling his hair; the joy of being swept up into a strong embrace upon every homecoming. These affections became rarer of course, as Esra grew older, and then stopped entirely, until his father became something of a stranger to him.
When Esra moved from the children’s quarters to the men’s, he found it difficult to sleep in this new, larger building. He was surrounded by people who, while polite, kept their distance while they tried to gauge his character as a man.
Compared to his father, they no doubt found him wanting.
As much as Esra tried to hide it, he knew he wasn’t like the others. He was gentler, more easily hurt, his slender frame not strong enough for a whole day of manual labour. And he’d had little instruction as a sailor, being a weak swimmer. Qualities that were forgivable in a child were not as kindly dealt with upon reaching adulthood, when one was expected to be useful.
Esra learned quickly that he wasn’t allowed to cry any more.
He missed Kian, who as a newly married man spent most of his nights—when he was not at sea—with his wife, a sloe-eyed girl called Lynn. After a whirlwind romance, she had left her Continent-bound family to promise herself to him. A handsome young man, Kian had been chased by a few girls already, but Lynn was the first to truly catch his heart. Kian had laughed at the romance of it, and enjoyed the jealousy that his young wife provoked amongst the male populace of the village. He seemed harsher now, something taunting in his gaze.
Esra did not have the same jealousy that the other men did; another mark of his difference. Instead, he missed the cheery-eyed boy who shared his bed as a child, who wrapped him in his arms when he had a hard time falling asleep, who answered all of his innocent questions, who made him laugh when he was feeling sad.
Kian was every inch the man now, and gave Esra none of the tendernesses he’d been used to. Instead, he kept his distance, for reasons Esra didn’t understand. Esra suffered a painful sting of betrayal from Kian’s actions, but he knew better than to ask why.
What was allowed for children, was not for men.
* * *
It was late summer. Sunlight reached up over the edge of the horizon, warm rays spilling over the small village where it lay, nestled between thick forest wilderness and the wide sweep of the ocean.
Inside the men’s communal sleeping hut, Esra’s eyes blinked open at the muted sounds of those around him, rising, low sighs, shifting and dressing, getting ready for the day’s work. His bed creaked gently as he sat forward, rounding his spine, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. His dark hair, now long enough to brush his mid-back, slipped forward over his narrow shoulders.
On the floor beside him were piled sails the workers had left for him, frayed and damaged from their difficult trips from their island of Fomoria to the Continent. Fixing them would be his work for the days ahead. He was the best at it, all agreed, thanks to his fastidious nature.
Esra dressed himself in his usual neat manner and tied his hair up and out of the way, his movements automatic and unthinking. He glanced at the workload by his feet, brow creasing at how much he had to do, and bent down. With a huff, he hefted the heavy linen pile over his back.
The lonely blue-grey expanse of the sea met him as he padded outside the sleeping hut. There was something about the vast body of water that had Esra feeling tiny, insignificant. On the pier, the men prepared the ship for her next voyage to the Continent. The refugees were getting restless, but his father didn’t want make the journey too often. Such a thing drew unwanted attention. He would wait for the shroud of the new moon, and only set sail at nightfall.
With the weight of the sails bearing on Esra’s slim back, he turned away from the shoreline, and started up a well-trod dirt path to a grassy outlook just outside the village. Here, the sea breeze brushed over his skin, and the morning sun granted him plenty of light. Seating himself on the soft green grass, he took the first sail from the pile, laid a part of it out over his knees, and set about darning the holes.
Esra found a rare inner peace when he could narrow his attention down to focus on a single task.
Growing up, the other kids had called him witch-fingers because of his slender hands, with unusually delicate narrow fingers that nearly tapered to points at the nail bed. A fae-ish feature unusual in humans, now they were what made him useful. Give it to witch-fingers, the sailors would say when something was broken, or damaged. He can fix anything.
A faint smile blossomed on Esra’s face, and he neatly tied off his darning, folding the sail aside. One down. He reached for the next.
As the morning passed, he could see the village below him stir to life as he worked. There were ships to maintain, animals to tend, food to gather, things to be made and mended. He saw his father, tall and stern, directing the sailors who were loading up the ships for the crossing to the Continent with food and clothing. His authority was never questioned.
Esra felt again, that gnawing fear of responsibility. Could he ever be like that? He still struggled with asking people to please move when they were blocking his path…
Lost in thought, Esra’s grip slipped, and he pierced the side of his index finger with the darning needle. He hissed in annoyance as red blossomed over his skin, and sucked his finger into his mouth before checking the minor wound.
It didn’t go too deep, he mused, intent on examining it further, when movement from the lands behind the village caught his eye.
There were dots on the horizon, people coming. Esra put down his materials for a closer look as the crowd raced closer. They were men, on horseback, he realised. A rather large number of them…
Esra’s heart froze in his chest when he saw steel armour glinting in the morning light.
* * *
Fifty men of Balor’s Fist, the God King’s army, swept through their defenceless village like a storm.
Those who tried to fight back were cut down, easily outclassed by the soldiers; men who trained every day and killed for a living.
A trio of them found Esra upon the grassy outlook. With nowhere to run, he sank to his knees and surrendered himself, shaking as he softly pleaded for mercy from the flint-eyed men who cornered him.
His terror seemed to amuse them, he realised with a slow-dawning horror. But while they seemed to enjoy threatening it, they didn’t kill him.
The boats used to transport non-believers and other traitors of Fomoria were dragged ashore and torn apart for kindling massive bonfires. The smoke that billowed up from the flames sent a whooping cry of victory amongst the soldiers.
There had been three fae folk with them when Balor’s Fist descended, hoping to join one of the communities of their kind on the Continent. They were dead now, their slender bodies impaled on the stakes surrounding the village, along with others who had struggled to escape Balor’s justice, those deemed criminals and treasonous. Any villagers who fought to defend them lay dead on the ground, their blood mixing with the dirt.
Esra was escorted, an armoured hand clenched around his upper arm, back to the centre of a village that was quickly becoming foreign to him. He kept stumbling—his legs were like water beneath him—and the man holding him growled threats in his ear to keep him moving.
Balor’s soldiers paced lazily around the land Esra had grown up on, hungry for trouble. Their blood was still up despite their easy victory, Esra realised, shivering. They were looking for an outlet. He carefully avoided eye-contact, not wanting any more attention on him than he’d already experienced, but still he could feel their gaze on him.
But the ground wasn’t a safe place to point his eyes either. Esra had hesitated, but he was pushed to step over the littered corpses, and he desperately squinted his eyes near shut, too afraid of seeing a face he recognised. He’d vomit. He’d pass out. Then they’d kill him too, for being a terrified, useless nuisance.
He was breathing too heavily, he knew. He looked like prey.
The soldier led him to a small group of people who knelt fearfully on the ground, others like him who had been deemed harmless. Mostly women and children.
Another confirmation that Esra wasn’t like other men. Even strangers saw it.
“Stay,” growled the soldier, and shoved him down to join them. Esra fell to his knees on the hard dirt. He kept his eyes downcast, and tried not to cry.
All sounds seemed muted to him; his vision greyed. As a child, he’d dared climb a tall pine, egged on by Kian. A deceptive branch had snapped under his weight, and he’d dropped to hit his head, hard, on the dirt below. The disorientation, the paralysing animal fear—all of it was the same. A fear of dying that numbed him to most else.
Time passed, he did not know how much. He felt a gentle pressure on his shoulder from a fellow harmless prisoner.
“Esra…” whispered Hester, the barkeep’s wife. She was crouched next to him, her creased face white with fear, concern. Her usually neat greying hair was tumbling out of her coif. “Did they hurt you?”
Esra shook his head in response, then thought carefully. He wet his lips, and very quietly asked, “M-my father..?”
Hester’s too-long pause before answering told Esra everything. “They… took him. Once they’d cut down all those who fought back. They took him to the blacksmith’s hut. Him and a few others… I don’t know how they chose who to—who to…”
Esra looked over at the smithy. The chimney was smoking.
“Their leader is using it for interrogations.” Hester wrapped her thin arms around herself. “Balor’s Fist are being led by a knight of the Order—” she was abruptly cut off, her head whipped wildly to the side as she was backhanded by a soldier.
“Silence, heathens!” the man barked, spit flying.
Cowed, the group fell into complete silence. Hester’s cheek blossomed red with blood. The soldier’s eyes dragged over them, his hand pointedly resting on the hilt of his sword. That gauntlet, Esra saw, was spattered with fresh blood. They all dipped their heads, and waited for his next cruelty. After a few long, breathless seconds, the man was satisfied with their submission, and resumed his patrol.
Esra exhaled shakily, and wiped his eyes.
A knight, he thought, mind racing. One of twenty who made up the Order of Balor, direct agents of the God King himself. The seabeast’s many roaming eyes. Esra had heard so many stories that it was hard to separate fact from fiction.
Everyone who passed through the village had a different story of the Order of Balor, and all, of course, swore to the veracity of their tale: of black knights clad in magic armour, who drank blood to subsist, who were immortal, unkillable—to which Esra had thought, then why wear the armour? He’d heard that they could see in the dark, hear every sound from a mile around, read your mind, your intentions. They looked for the guilty. They enforced Balor’s justice. They were his eyes and ears, his most loyal servants.
And now, a knight of the Order was questioning his father. His proud, stoic, father. A man who, in Balor’s view, was nothing more than a traitorous, treasonous, heathen.
And Esra, weak and easily subdued, could do nothing but listen as screams started to come from what used to be the smithy.
* * *
The soldiers had clamped irons around their ankles, then set them to work raiding their own rations to feed their invaders. The chain between Esra’s feet was not so short as to prevent movement, but there was no running away.
“We’ll be taken to the nearest market city and sold,” said a young woman in a stilted voice.
Esra knew her as one of the runaway slaves who’d come to them, hopeful for a new life on the Continent. Her fear was not well hidden, a tremor of her limbs as she grabbed supplies.
“I’ve already a slave mark,” she stammered, face raw, eyes wild with fear, “so I’ll be getting a runaway brand. I’m going to be sold for a pittance to a monster. I know it already.”
Outside, the soldiers lazed around the bonfires of the broken ships. They drank all the barkeep’s ale, and eyed up their prisoners with increasingly lecherous scrutiny. Some of the bolder ones had already snuck off with their own helpless captive for muffled thudding cruelty behind trees and bushes.
One of the soldiers, who had been eyeing Esra for a while, downed the rest of his ale and threw his mug to the side. He approached with predatory swagger. Esra quickly averted his eyes and tried to shrink into himself, tried to become small and invisible. Insignificant.
He had to stifle a gasp as a bruising hand grabbed his slim arm, rough fingers digging into his skin. He could smell the soldier’s breath over him, hot and stinking of ale, as the brute leaned in with a savage grin.
Esra wanted to scream, but he knew he could not. He must not.
Yet he was somehow saved. Another soldier rushed up and whispered something in that brutish man’s ear. As much as Esra strained to hear, he could only catch one phrase: “The knight—” and then, he was released again, as his would-be torturer pulled reluctantly away.
An immense relief flooded through him, chased by trepidation. He could not fathom why he had been spared, and what fate might await him instead.
* * *
Nightfall started to creep into the evening, a grey-violet wash as the sun fell low. The moon floated over the ocean, a pale sliver, waning. Esra could not look at his village, not without tears threatening to spill from his eyes—yet it was not safe to look to the sky either. Pillars of smoke spiralled up into the clouds, from the ever growing bonfires.
He’d heard all day, until it was almost easy to ignore, a constant whisper of weeping from the prisoners, the lazy cruelty of the soldiers, an ebb and flow of wails and screams from the smithy. When the sounds of torture abruptly cut off, Esra’s gaze snapped up.
That’s when he saw him.
Two soldiers came out first, splatters of blood on their plate armour, and took their places on either side of the door. The entrance darkened with pitch black shadow; the soldiers straightened, spines stiffening at attention.
In the half-light, he seemed more monster than man.
Moving with a beast-like grace, the seabeast’s black knight had to dip his shoulders to pass beneath the smithy doorframe. When he drew himself to his full height, he towered at least a foot over anyone. He was clad neck to toe in fearsome darkened steel, with a heavy cloak that draped from his broad shoulders to the ground. Strength and authority were obvious in the very line of his body.
Instead of a sword, he carried a black scythe: a weapon, and a mark of his office. A helm-like mask covered his eyes. It followed the cut line of his cheekbones, and ended in a sharp point over his stern mouth. This left little of his expression to read. His pale face was clean-shaven, his strong jaw set fierce.
Without pausing, the black knight stalked to the town hall. Even the rowdiest soldiers fell silent at his imposing appearance, and moved from his path in a respectful wake. He was followed closely by a finely armoured soldier, some captain of high authority, and the two soldiers who had been with them in the smithy.
These two were looking around at the shambling survivors with a particular intent. One of them paused as his eyes alighted on Esra in recognition. He marched over, and grabbed the trembling youth by the wrist.
“With me,” he ordered, and all but dragged Esra with them.
* * *
The soldier swung the door to the meeting hall open, and ushered Esra in.
“Something pretty, Sir Knight,” he drawled, holding Esra’s arm aloft like he was displaying him, “to serve us wine while we talk.”
A dark head turned to them.
The tall knight, in his gleaming black armour, struck Esra as an incongruous figure in the humble village hall, eating up the dim space around him with his presence alone. Orange light from the crackling fire glinted off the darkened steel, and Esra thought he looked like some sort of mythical salamander, from the stories Kian used to tell him. A creature formed from flame.
“If you must.” Esra couldn’t tell if the knight was looking at him or not, behind that mask. He had a low, rumbling voice, with the crisp accent of city folk. “Remove the irons, so I don’t have to hear him rattle.”
* * *
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