Chapter 1: Mordimer

Chapter 1: Mordimer

Mordimer was sweating. His voice was raw from ceaseless pleading. He spent the sleepless night alternately clawing his way around the cold, dark room in search of a way out, and clutching his wife and two daughters close to him for warmth and comfort. Together their voices rose and fell through the night like a sad, poorly rehearsed chorus of feral cats.

The question they kept asking the merciless walls, and the deaf ears beyond, was why. Why did you take us? What do you want with us? What are you going to do with us?

No answers came.

Mordimer was positively terrified. He was terrified for them. He had had brushes with death before, and while he was not hoping to come face to face with it again any time soon, the thought of his own end was far more welcome than the injury or demise of his precious family. Let them go! was a regular refrain shouted throughout the damp, hellish night, often followed or preceded by, I’ll do anything you want!

Mordimer was a big man. He was, perhaps, most at home in the woods hunting or walking in silence. As a boy he had learned to recognize the sounds and tracks of animals. He loved to follow his father on excursions into the forest. When he was orphaned at thirteen, Mordimer’s size and gentle demeanor attracted the attention of other boys, particularly those bullies inclined to violence. It took only a few beatings before he learned to use his size and instincts to defend himself.

Soon after his parents’ death, in desperation, he found his way to the docks of Rockmoor, whose shipyards were the heart of commerce for the bustling port city. On the afternoon of his very first day there, a jovial and corpulent captain noticed the mongrel youth skulking near a pile of fishy traps and salt-dried nets.

“Oh ho! What have we here?” the captain boomed, flapping and rolling his way to stop directly over the cowering youth. “Is there something here you’d like, boy?” His eyes glinted with worldly experience and a tinge of humor; his flowing scarlet and black silk garments billowed in the ocean breezes. “Maybe something your dirty little fingers are hoping to grab when Jastro isn’t looking?” The big jovial eyes narrowed and swept the piled items on the dock in mock accusation.

Mordimer was speechless. He was frightened. He had not taken anything. If he was honest, though, he had to admit his biting hunger had prodded him to notice the valuable things on the docks that seemed easily portable.

“Come now, boy.” Jastro relaxed the ruse of indignation in his voice and countenance, and allowed the faintest hint of sincerity to creep into his tone: “What is it that brings you here all by yourself?”

Perhaps it was the hunger, or perhaps the desperation—but in that moment, Mordimer found courage to answer the opulent stranger directly. This was a chance, and he hadn’t had too many of those in his short, troubled life.

“A job, sir,” he managed.

“A job!” cried the captain to the audience of seagulls and waves. “The boy wants a job,” Jastro continued, feigning contemplation. “And where might your parents be, boy?”

“Mum and dad are dead, sir,” Mordimer replied meekly.

Jastro considered this for several long moments, during which time the boy became acutely aware of the chilly wind off the sea, the noisy insistent lapping at the shore, the bobbing of the ships, and of the rigid dry mask of his own face as he squinted up hopefully at the loud seaman, the sun shining brightly above.

“I’ll tell you what, boy.” The man rummaged in his enormous black sequined vest. “You be here tomorrow morning at first light and we’ll see if I can find something to keep you occupied.” With that, he pushed two small copper coins into Mordimer’s limp hands with his warm, pudgy fingers, and strode off into the city.

Mordimer woke early in the packed sand beneath the slatted wood boards of the docks. He was nervous and had slept poorly, not wanting to miss his appointment. One of the copper coins had bought him a cup of odiferous fish stew; the other coin had joined him for his fitful slumber, nestled tightly in the same hand he’d used as a pillow.

Jastro emerged at first light from a large vessel, accompanied by several strapping and exotic-looking elaborately tattooed men. He whistled to Mordimer with a beckoning flick of his wrist, and Mordimer raced to meet him. There was work to do: hard, heavy, sweaty work moving crates, carpets, fabrics, casks, and many other things. It was perfect. Almost instantly Mordimer fell into the rhythm of the simple physical labor beside the wordless sailors.

When the sun set, Mordimer was exhausted, smelly, incredibly hungry, and extremely happy. Jastro gave him four more of the copper pieces and invited him back the following morning to clear the hold of another trading vessel. That evening, the boy spent two of the coins on a larger bowl of stew and a hunk of bread. And overnight he slept soundly, holding fast to the three copper pieces he had now saved.

Through this first employment, Mordimer found other jobs loading and unloading goods of all kinds at the docks. But anytime Jastro was at port, he would drop everything to work for his mysterious benefactor. After a little over a year, he had saved enough copper to rent a tiny room at a nearby inn, where he ate, slept, and carefully saved his earnings. On slow days, he would leave the city and hunt in the dense lush forests of his youth. He often returned with the carcass of a deer or boar that he would skin, butcher, and then trade for some of the myriad treasures that flowed through the docks each day.

He met his wife one early fall afternoon when the nights were just becoming colder. He had several extra pelts stored in his room, and he knew that with the frigid air blowing in he would be able to trade them well.

She sat glumly on a blanket with a basketful of oysters in front of a dingy boat that looked barely seaworthy. A loud drunkard, her father, swayed on board and heaped derision on his other children. She stared mournfully at the ground as Mordimer approached. Mordimer was very fond of oysters, and while the whole basket wasn’t worth even one of the pelts he carried, he very much fancied trying one. He was just thinking about how many coins he was carrying when she turned her gaze upward, weariness and sorrow in her huge almond-shaped eyes.

And they connected.

Taking note of the potential customer, her father became silent. When his daughter did not speak up immediately about their wares, he blundered from the boat and apologized to the stranger for his idiot-daughter’s manners. He asked if the stranger might like some of the freshest oysters in all of Rockmoor. His voice grew louder and more insistent, as if hoping some other stray passerby might hear as well. He bragged about the secret place he’d gathered these oysters, a place that only he knew.

Mordimer and the girl ignored him, lost in each other’s eyes.

Finally the wiry little man lumbered toward them, a storm brewing in his drunken stare. The girl tore her frightened eyes away and cowered slightly as though expecting to be struck. Mordimer intervened, “Forgive me my manners, sir. I do love oysters and I admire great beauty, and I’ve found both at once right here before me. I’m overcome.”

Light dawned in the man’s polluted mind. “She’s not for sale, you sick city bastard. But for copper I’ll gladly deal ya some oysters to take back wherever you come from.”

For the second time in his life, Mordimer realized he was being given a chance. Chances, he had come to believe, were to be seized when offered.

“I wish to marry your daughter, if she’ll have me.” Her bewildered look of fear and excitement at his brash statement was one Mordimer would never forget. “I’m carrying four furs, twenty-two coppers, and eight silvers.” At the word ‘silvers,’ the man’s jaw went slack. “And if she’ll walk with me tonight, I’ll leave them all with you as a token of my good faith.”

Indeed, Mordimer and Zarina left together that night. Navigating through the drunken depths of her father’s greed, pride, and anger was not easy. The thought of freedom made Zarina’s features sparkle with a whole new radiance, and Mordimer, emboldened by her looks of desperate enthusiasm, was prepared to win her at any cost. Much flattery, one threat, two rough exchanges, four furs, twenty-two coppers, and eight silvers later, the two walked quickly and awkwardly away from the swaying dock, not yet even knowing each other’s names.

Sometimes Jastro transported people. Zarina’s eyes narrowed the first time Mordimer described it to her. They had two small children now, a bigger room, and a growing secret stash of valuables from their years of hard work and modest living. Mordimer revered Jastro, he trusted him, and even though they rarely spoke, he believed Jastro to be an honorable man. The conditions of the voyage were not always clean and comfortable, and the passengers often looked bedraggled from their journey. Who ever said sea voyage was easy? he reasoned with Zarina. In truth, Jastro’s tattooed crew dealt primarily with the passengers, who were often hurried into waiting carriages that trundled off into the narrow alleys of The Grotto, Rockmoor’s southern borough by the coast. Mordimer just busied himself with the heavy traded goods, and decided at some point to stop talking to Zarina about the live cargo altogether.

His fingertips were bleeding now. The incessant searching and scratching, the hammering of his powerful arms on the heavy door and solid walls, were taking their toll. Zarina and the girls were reduced to soft whimpers and quiet sobs.

Suddenly, the door opened and light flooded in.

Mordimer rushed the intruder. He had rehearsed this moment in his mind all night long. When the universe gives you a chance, you have to take it. Just beyond the threshold were two people. The larger of the two he recognized. Mordimer’s eyes grew wide in disbelief as he barreled forward toward him.

Even if he had not stuttered his steps in his moment of realization, Mordimer would have had no chance. In mid-flight, a flash burst from within the dark crimson robes of the second, smaller man, and Mordimer instantly lost control of his body. He sailed forward and out the door on momentum alone, and landed with a limp flop on the cold floor beyond. He heard the door slam behind him, but could not turn to look. He heard the impact of Zarina’s body against it along with her anguished shrieks as rough hands grabbed him under his armpits and dragged him away.

Mordimer’s lifeless body would not respond to his screaming nerves. He could see and hear. He could think, but he could not move. On they went, through a network of quiet stone passageways, his feet bumping noisily down short flights of stairs.

At last they stopped. This place was lit by several candles. There were books and parchments and countless jars. Working wordlessly, the two men stood him up in a tall box, and fastened him upright tightly with thick straps at his shoulders, waist and ankles. Before him on the floor lay an ornate rug. He had seen these rugs come off the trading vessels from time to time; Mordimer himself may have unloaded this very piece.

A low voice emanated from beneath the crimson hood. At the robed man’s command, the big man who had dragged him here, the man he knew, knelt on the floor and slid the ornate rug away. Mordimer pleaded mutely for mercy with his eyes, but his former acquaintance was careful to keep his gaze averted.

Revealed beneath the rug, embedded in the stone itself, was an image resembling a black bat with ruby red eyes. Cold fear rolled over Mordimer.

The robed man was murmuring. He was hissing and grunting constantly now. He approached Mordimer’s restrained and inert body and tore open the captive’s tunic revealing the broad naked chest beneath.

Muttering louder now, the man placed a cold hand on Mordimer’s heaving stomach. Mordimer’s eyes roamed the room—dark things were here…skulls of animals and humans, beakers of what was most assuredly blood. And he could not be certain, but it seemed the ruby eyes in the floor were glowing now. They were looking up at him.

And now the robed man produced a long black serpentine blade. Oh, god, no! Mordimer screamed in his mind. He willed his thoughts—those that he knew would be his last—to his girls, and to his sweet Zarina. 

This is it, he thought, my last chance, and I had better take it.

With his mind nestled in that happy place, Mordimer’s eyes saw his life’s blood drain quickly from him in thick sheets onto the floor. Impossibly, his eyes saw the onyx inlay hungrily drink up every last drop, the rubies growing blindingly bright. Heavily drooping, his eyes saw the man in the crimson robes once more approach him over the clean dry floor. Finally his eyes closed and Mordimer saw no more.

Until several minutes later, when they fluttered open again.But they were stark white now, absent pupils. The blank eyes that once belonged to Mordimer stared straight ahead unblinkingly.

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