The summer fog was dense and cold as the aged galley creaked atop the black water and slipped into the moody bay, plowing cautiously through small, choppy waves. Rough seas were ever-present obstacles in even those navigable quarters so that the bay, as the great ocean that fed it, was restless and ever in motion, like a shark: each wave-crest a dorsal, each trough a gaping maw. Even here it held treasures unguessed in its deep, icy embrace.
Upon the sun-weathered deck stood Rath Halden, dark, curly locks thrust carelessly beneath a brown rough-spun hat, stubbled face spread in a wide and anxious grin. Nine long months did Rath spend aboard the Mirthless Mother, a simple, two-masted affair with salt-yellowed sails and a nasty proclivity for pitching and rolling in even the fairest following seas. As second-mate he ranged far into warm southern waters, largely on missions of commerce, though many were the adventures he had over the better part of that year; the seas, as much as the lands punctuating them, were alive with promise and peril alike.
Now, however, as the Mother dove clumsily into his home port, his mind was here, for here he always came. Later, he thought, he would have such tales of his travels to tell – yarns to spin, ales to quaff, fat to chew – but for now, his eagerness to place his feet on land was equal only to that to leave again. Thus was his nature, ever in motion, a man of the sea in more than fact.
The deck of the Mother, itself a living thing when putting into port, was unusually subdued and refrained, for its part. What oft boiled with action, abound with commands and oaths was, in relation, quieted, as the men who populated its length sensed innately the dour disposition of this dark and jagged coast. Their commands were muted and oaths sworn into their beards, withered and swallowed by the sharp, icy wind that dragged the sullen, clinging fog over the ceaseless water. Even the gulls’ voices were still, their existence announced only by the soft rasping of their feathered wings on the great grey sky. Presently, a clanging bell interrupted the melancholy, and the hands upon deck were – without their conscious knowing – apprehensive at the sound that rudely split the insistent silence, though it rang heedlessly on. The melody lilted across the frigid air, and skin prickled and crawled, before it fell upon some fog-shrouded, shore-bound ear, which hailed its author with a shout. The ship slowed forward, and presently soft, orange orbs pierced the mists ahead of its bow and a dark mass hove into view, floating just above the black water. As the vessel drew nearer, the bleary shapes took form: flickering torches upon a gnarled but sturdy wooden dock. Men stood upon its surface, awaiting the heave of mooring lines from the ship’s crew. All was hushed, and every man was acutely aware of it, though none ventured to speak, and so it maintained its eerie hold.
With a wet thud, lines were thrown over the gunwales and to waiting hands, which grasped and swiftly made fast the moorings. Rath watched the proceedings with passing disinterest, having seen the near-mechanical precision unfold innumerable times, both at this very port and those of distant lands and faraway seas. Singular in his mind was that of his welcoming, which was always warm and bristling with excitement among his core group of followers: a throng of young men (and several disreputable women) dismissed about town as cringers, hangers-on, and debauchers. Such perceptions mattered little to Rath Halden, however; his concern lay with their attention to his tales, and their generosity of refreshments. Though the Blackmill was his home, he never set down roots in its loamy, chilly soil; instead, he stood apart, as he had from birth.
Rath Halden was intertwined inextricably with strife, his life one prolonged hardship, from the moment of his first breath and very likely to the second of his last. His mother had died during his birth, a bloody, tragic affair that long dampened the already moody hamlet, and had been a black mark over the awkward and ungainly boy that it had produced. Even today, yammering lips jested cruelly – and furtively – that Rath himself was to blame, owing to his unusually large size.
The man was huge – that was the first impression of those new to the hulking mass of granite bone and iron muscle that was Rath Halden. His shoulders were wide as a door frame, and he stood so tall that he need stoop to enter one. He was clean-limbed, his lily-white flesh baked to a copper glow beneath the warm southern sun, and he bore a countenance that was wide, strong, and grimly set, though always there flickered a puerile, boyish play in his deep black eyes. That light, however, was extinguished like a flame in deluge when the killing lust possessed him, as it often does a man of his cachet. In Rath’s world, it was strike or be struck, kill or be killed; if your opponent was merciful, that is. Not particularly quick-witted, he had earned his hold on the Mirthless Mother through might and blood alone, the same tokens by which he retained it.
He was roused from the dark thoughts that ever clouded his homecomings by the clatter of the gangplank on the dock, and he strode quickly along the deck, pushing aside shipmates like a schoolboy jostling for head of the line. Swiftly he was upon the creaking boards, and moving with the ease and familiarity of the native, he marched, beaming pridefully, toward the rugged shore. The darkness was gone from his mind, for the present, drowned in vainglorious expectations of a hero’s welcome. Here he came upon yet another dusky shape looming in the mist ahead; as he drew closer, it called in a jovial, booming voice: “Doth mine eyes deceive me? Is it the Black Wolf himself who stalks my port?”
Rath swelled at the greeting, and he inflated his massive chest and bellowed a response. “Who quoth mine name?” he feigned oblivious, drawing a sun-bronzed, calloused hand – the likes of which had never seen a glove – flat and wide above his eyes as though squinting into the sun.
The two men approached each other quickly now, the thick fog swirling about their bulky forms, until they met chest-to-chest with the force of storm clouds, raining thunderous claps on each other’s sturdy backs and radiating a vitality that itself was enough to dispel the misty clutches around them. The man wrapped in Rath’s embrace presently wrenched free of the bear-like arms – large though he was, such was a task not easily accomplished – and held him at arm’s length, inspecting him as one might a counterfeit coin.
“By Mishra, it’s you in the flesh, ya big damned fool!”
They laughed raucously, defiant of the grayness that smothered the dark and dreary coast.
“Thought for sure they’d be sendin’ ya home on yer back this time!”
More laughter erupted from the men: a din of booming, roaring glee, and each man’s face wore a delighted grin almost child-like in its sincerity.
“You won’t be rid of me that easy, Daven, you ugly gasser!”
“Well, come on, then!” Daven insisted, beaming at the specious abuse, for he was widely regarded as exceedingly handsome, if not intolerably boastful. “The lads are waiting for ya at the Oyster.”
“Oh!” Rath exclaimed, his voice resounding across the docks, his mouth forming a wide and exaggerated O. “I’ve many tales for the lads!”
“I expected as much, you crusty sea-dog! Come! Let’s not keep ’em a moment longer!”