All humans, in one way or another, are helpless. All humans, in one way or another, are under the hand of a god or two. Fighting against this helplessness was useless, for it would only ever end in failure. Such was the truth that resonated in Bjorn’s head.
On your feet, Stormtamer!
The echoes of the sting of the icy waves still chilled his flesh to the bone.
What’s the meaning of this?
He rubbed his temples, trying to massage the echoes of his own voice and others out of his head. Part of him thought that he should’ve gotten used to them by now. But who in their right mind was used to voices in their heads. His self awareness was a sign that Bjorn had yet to lose himself.
You’re no longer fit to sail with us, Stormtamer.
His heart pounded shame into his chest, like the sea lapping at an eroded shoreline.
It wasn’t out of jealousy! How many times do I have to explain? If I hadn’t done it, she’d be-
He was right. He was right. He was right. Bjorn had done no wrong. It was wrong that had been done to him. So then why? Why the shame?
You disgrace us to call us your comrades. We haven’t sent a soul to this place, but if you don’t apologize and ask for forgiveness from both of them, we’ll have no choice but to leave you here.
Disgrace. That’s what he was. That’s why he felt it.
Disgrace to those who had disgraced him!
But that didn’t matter. So long as the many saw him that way, that’s what he was.
I won’t apologize for doing the right thing!
He shook his head, trying to banish the echoing voices in his mind. That declaration meant nothing now. They carried the weights of his efforts and had been swatted down by one singular statement.
Bjorn’s pickaxe clattered into a box full of identical rusty tools as he followed the single file line of soot-stained men out of the mine. Guards protected by the south’s arcane magics stood over the pitiful snake of father, brothers and sons who were all forced to work here or be sent back to their homelands with their families to die.
They were sick. All of them. All except the guards. The mysterious disease only ever referred to as the Plague infected each of the souls who came to this island. Here, they would be safe, they were told. The Plague spread seemingly at random, marking all those with its touch with blackened scars along their flesh. It wasn’t rot, more like that of a tattoo. But whatever it was, it was enough to get you sent to Pomedua.
Bjorn wasn’t sick. He bore the scars, yes, but he wasn’t sick. He didn’t hack and cough in the night. He was never down with fever. He never even had a spell of dysentery. He was as strong and healthy as ever.
The doctors told him he still carried the Plague, but wasn’t weakened by it and thus, was still a danger to the uninfected. Bjorn didn’t know how much he believed that assessment, since Avisilan doctors also believed that flowers stuffed up their nose would prevent the Plague, as they thought the stench around it was the cause. The scent was just rot. It was there wherever there was death. Bjorn knew that putrid smell well enough.
Bjorn felt his eyelids becoming heavy as he followed the path back to the island’s encampment. No. He needed to stay awake tonight.
“A shame about what happened to Antero, eh Stormtamer?”
Bjorn stopped himself from physically recoiling at the use of his title. Stormtamer. That title was naught but a formality at this point. It was known only among his people. Outsiders knew him either as yet another raging Ashman or Bjorn Olafsson, if he got the chance to introduce himself. Well, except for this man.
Ruhak, a dark skinned man with long, black hair and uncommonly narrow eyes, was from the Koinelian Imperial territory of Hikuptah. He made an extra effort to try to get to know people who didn’t want him poking his nose in their business.
Bjorn grunted, attuning his mind to Koini, the only other language he spoke, “I thought I felt something rumbling. Though I’d congratulate the poor sod. I can’t say I don’t envy him.”
“Don’t say that, Bjorn,” Ruhak frowned. “It’s in bad taste.”
“Bad taste is all they ever serve these days, Ruhak. It would do you well to get used to it,” Bjorn remarked, before pulling away from the Hikupti.
For as much as Ruhak liked to talk, he sure wasn’t very good at it. Bjorn never opened his mouth unless it was necessary or he had a tongue-lashing prepared.
He walked up the beach to a collection of campfires that dotted the area, surrounded by a plethora of tents where the infected languished.
Bjorn stopped by the guard who was serving supper at one of the fires and got his serving of lackluster gruel and pork with a side of crackers that tasted much like the bland little wafers the Sarfans thought they could imbue their god into.
Then he, everyone around, and all the guards turned their heads as an agonizing scream pierced the air.
A woman was writhing around on the ground near one of the main fires, her Plague Scars glowing bright with arcane colors. She screamed and wailed, clawing at the ground.
No one bothered to help. They knew what was coming and started to just murmur their pity amongst themselves.
The screams turned to echoes as the light flashed and the woman’s skeleton collapsed to the ground, a few remnants of flesh burning away.
Sometimes deaths from the plague were...showy.
Bjorn looked down and continued onward. Witnessing that was commonplace now. And nobody talked about it.
He looked back at his meal. This here was why he worked the mines. If he were sent back to Ascomarch, that would be great. Except the fact that he would be stranded out in the cold to die. If he wanted to live, he needed strength to finish his project.
Bjorn took his meal across the island’s small northern tip to the little sandbar on its west side. It was a secluded little bit of shore that he enjoyed the quiet of.
He sat down right where the sand met the small forest and started to eat.
As he ate, he couldn’t help but look at his Plague Scars. Strips of his skin had gone blacker than any ink in a continuous pattern over his left arm and elbow. The black flesh mixed made the last conversation he’d had in his own language echo through his mind again.
Under his actual Scars were smaller, fake ones tattooed on to him before he was first abandoned here. In that time, he managed to catch the Plague for real.
“That’s what you get for sticking your neck out, idiot,” he muttered to himself. “Get that through your thick skull whenever you get...well, somewhere.”
He glanced up, able to see the sunset in the west. The sky was clear this far down south. The only colors in the sky were the orange and pink that the sun seemed to drag with it into the oblivion of night.
The fool part of him longed to return home, to the people that had betrayed him and ask forgiveness. To the green and red ribbons of the dancing gods that would wave in the sky.
Bjorn violently suppressed the nostalgic longing for his hometown. He had no place left in Ascomarch that would welcome him back. The part of him that knew this was also angry. He desired revenge against that snivelling rat, Angi. He wanted to rip his heart out and wring the blood like a fistful of berries into a cup made from his skull.
But where the first of him had been refused the ability to return home, the other part had been refused his revenge. Bjorn as a whole was okay with that.
His only chance to stay in his homeland was to try and make a new life for himself in another, far-off Chiefdom. Perhaps Uppland. Otherwise...he would have to seek out new kingdoms.
A soft disturbance in the dirt behind him caused Bjorn to launch his wooden spoon as he whirled around. The spoon whizzed past its target and knocked harmlessly against a tree.
“Is that how you greet everyone or am I special to you, Bjorn Stormtamer?” A feminine, heavily accented voice spoke.
Did he just have the title written on his chest? Ruhak asked the guards. But how did this person know?
The woman before him was just as old and tall as he was, the second of which was off putting, given that Bjorn was quite large for a man. She held herself with an assurance Bjorn felt challenged by.
She looked deep into his eyes with her stormy grey pupils as the coastal winds blew through her brownish-black hair which had been tied up in the back of her head. She wore the same rags as all the other patients, but had seemingly ripped off most of the legs of her pants. She had Plague Scars running down her leg from her thigh.
Bjorn frowned. It was then he realized this woman had been speaking Ascomanni, “You speak my language…”
“Admittedly not well, but yes. Sklavenis and Ascommani are close cousins,” the woman said.
The Sklavenis hid within the northern forests just south of the White Sea, which separated Ascomarch from the rest of the continent. They were a very close-knit culture of tribes that valued war almost as much as the Ascommani valued shipbuilding.
“What do you want?” Bjorn asked.
The woman tapped her fist to her upper chest like she was giving some kind of salute, “I am Taya. And I want off this island.”