Night had fallen and the war galley of Chu Kutall rested quietly on the waves. In the inky darkness below decks, Nergal rubbed his aching arms and legs. The great brute rested on the rowing bench, having ousted his oarmate to the floor nearby. Only two days now, and already Nergal felt thinner and weaker. The hulking half-sragn greatly regretted his foolishness in the city of Woldwall, which had led to his capture and enslavement on this ship.
Nergal had contemplated for many hours how he would enact his escape from this hellish prison. A single heavy manacle wrapped his left ankle, joined by a thick chain to the sturdy oak rowing bench. Nergal’s oarmate, the scrawny mainlander who called himself Skaggs, had an identical manacle on his leg. Unseen in the gloom, more benches around them held other slaves the same way. The odor of their sweat filled his nostrils. He heard the steady sounds of their breathing and the creaking of their benches.
Nergal rolled over on the rowing bench, fumbling for Skaggs in the darkness. He succeeded in grasping Skaggs by the neck with one powerful hand. There was an exhalation of surprise from the man, and then Nergal felt Skaggs’s smaller hands lock around his forearm, attempting to break the half-sragn’s grip. Nergal’s other huge hand slapped across Skaggs’s face and opposed the force of his grip on the man’s neck. A muted pop and snap told Nergal he now manned this oar station alone.
Nergal allowed himself a moment of satisfaction, until he smelled the released urine of his victim. Although annoying, it was not a terribly bad smell by the way Nergal reckoned things. He reached down again, this time for Skaggs’s hand, which he pulled up to convenient biting distance. Placing the dead man’s forefinger into his mouth, Nergal bit the member off and began to leisurely clean the flesh from the severed finger with his teeth. Having had a primitive upbringing, he did not find the taste unpleasant; in fact in his extreme state of hunger he savored it somewhat more than strictly necessary.
The heavily muscled half-sragn had eyed the keys to his manacles on the officer’s belt for the entire first day, fixating on the item of his salvation to the exclusion of all else. However, during today’s rowing, Nergal had spent a great deal of time thinking about killing his overly talkative oarmate and mutilating his corpse so thoroughly that even his mother would not recognize him. During these rather limited imaginings, he had come up with a most satisfying plan. Taking the bone from his mouth, he felt the rounded ends of it in his grimy fingers. Selecting a spot below one rounded end, Nergal placed it against the outside of his manacle. He began to scrape it back and forth, putting a great deal of pressure onto the finger bone.
Nergal scraped the bone for a long time. Twice he stopped, thinking someone had heard the noise and come to investigate. When he heard nothing, he continued. Slowly he wore down the bone until the knob flattened into a tab like the key he had so desperately eyed the first day of his enslavement.
Nergal attempted to place the modified hand bone into the lock and turn the mechanism. Extreme displeasure struck when he found that he could not grip the other end of the bone with sufficient force to turn the bone tab. Nergal snarled and stomped on Skaggs’s body in rage, breaking several more bones in the corpse. It made him feel a little better. He waited silently for a while afterwards, in case he had made too much noise. That had always been his problem with thievery: the necessity for silence. Nergal much preferred the openness of outright murder and pillage. He had experienced more success as a highwayman and brigand than as a burglar.
Nergal clenched his teeth and forced himself to remain quiet. If only Skaggs were still alive, Nergal thought, he would make him pay for the failure of his finger bone. If only he could have taken the bone without killing the annoying man. One of Nergal’s teeth was rotting in his mouth, and it pained him greatly as his jaw muscles worked. This gave Nergal another idea, which he considered equally brilliant to his first. Taking his manacled foot up onto the bench, Nergal placed the bone firmly between his clenched teeth and tried to insert it into the keyhole.
Try as he might, Nergal could not quite reach his foot with the crude key in his mouth. Now at last the scream of rage escaped his lips, erupting forth through his self-control like an exploding volcano.
“Aarrrrrrghgghhhhhhhh!!!!! Skaggs is son of Caltorans! Arrrghghghhh!!” he screamed, spitting out the carefully fashioned bone.
Now there was a commotion among the oarsmen, and the light of a lantern appeared at the stairs on the end of the hold. A guard peered into the darkness several rows beyond Nergal’s grisly scene of mayhem.
“Shut yer holes ye useless arses! If ye wake the capt’n it’ll be yer hides!” Having delivered this warning, he walked back up the steps.
Darkness returned to the smelly, crowded hold. Nergal could barely sense the grumbles of the other slaves. They did not have the courage to curse at Nergal openly, even though they knew he bore shackles like the rest of them. Nergal considered them beneath contempt— even worse than Skaggs— because at least Nergal had been able to shut him up at last. Yes, Nergal thought, smelling the urine in the darkness, he liked Skaggs the best of them all.
If only smarts came to me easier, thought Nergal, the key plan would have worked.
The officer demonstrated too much wisdom to ever get anywhere near Nergal with the key. The half-sragn just didn’t have the flexibility to reach his foot with the key in his teeth. But now, as he was forced to think again (a rare occurrence), Nergal realized he had almost been able to reach the keyhole.
Once again, Nergal reached for Skaggs.
“My best friend, Skaggs,” uttered the sragn under his breath. He brought up a foot this time and began to chew hungrily on the fetid body of his erstwhile oarmate. Nergal produced a considerably longer foot bone this time, ideal for his needs. He went immediately to work on the bone, forgetting entirely to test its length before beginning his labor.
“What’s that noise?”
Nergal thought he recognized the voice, that of a bald man with a sickening smile, who sat chained across from him.
“Be quiet,” commanded Nergal in a growl as he continued scraping the pirated bone against the rough surface of the manacle.
“What are you doing?” asked the man after another moment.
“Be shutting up,” Nergal said more loudly, and then remembered he had to be quiet as well. Nergal stopped scraping for a moment and applied the full force of his brainpower.
“I will be killing you, you not be shutting up,” he explained in a painfully long sentence. Then he continued. The man whispered questions twice more, but Nergal did not waste the effort to answer; eventually the other slave gave up.
At some point much, much later, after a lot of scraping and suppressed cursing, after many hand cramps and a hurt claw, Nergal had fashioned his second bone key. He pulled his leg up onto the bench and placed the key between his teeth, and clenched them painfully. Nergal inserted the key and tried to twist it to unlock the manacle. He had to try several times in different directions at random, with pains shooting down his leg and in his rotted tooth until at last he unlocked the steel device.
Once again Nergal took a moment to enjoy his progress. I have the smarts, he thought. They will not have Nergal to row for them.
Nergal rose to his feet and walked across the hold to the oarsman who had asked about the scraping noise. Nergal felt around in the tenebrous prison until he found the man. There was a muffled grunt and a gurgle as Nergal affixed his hands around the man’s soft throat.
“I told you, I be killing you,” Nergal whispered, and squeezed harder. Even though the half-sragn could not see well in the dimness, he knew what was there: a red, swollen face grimacing in fear and white eyeballs almost popping out of their sockets as Nergal applied his tremendous strength.
Having satisfied his immediate urges, Nergal once again returned to thought. His head began to hurt from the constant effort. Once free, he would not have to apply himself so. Nergal needed a weapon to kill the warriors of Chu Kutall who had enslaved him. That came easily enough from killing the first man. Killing was Nergal’s best tool with which to fashion solutions, because he excelled at it.
Nergal made his way past the rows until he was at the front of the hold, where the guard had appeared earlier. He peered up the stairway, at last able to see a little as a feeble light came down from the outside. Nergal did not know or care if the light originated from the moon or torches above, as long as he could see. The half-sragn moved up the stairs quietly and carefully examined the next deck of the great galley.
Most of the deck formed a barracks of some sort. Men were strewn about on their sleeping racks, which were built into the port and starboard walls. No one seemed aware of the half-sragn’s presence, and Nergal could not see the sailor that had come down to yell at his disruption. He skulked up to the first set of beds bent low so his knuckles almost scraped the ground, and squatted in front of a wooden trunk. His fingers worked with a great deal of dexterity as he gently lifted the lid and peered down into the container. Nergal briefly struggled about whether to grasp the knife or the sword he saw inside until he resolved to take them both.
His left hand held up the trunk lid while his right set the dagger on the deck and then clutched the sword by the hilt. He drew it out of the scabbard, which he left in the locker. Then Nergal took the knife as well, and stood slightly higher, regarding the weapons with near glee.
The half-sragn considered the many men in the barracks. There were two, three... many men. He would have to start without waking them up, or they would be too numerous for him to handle at once. One of the few skills Nergal had mastered in his nineteen years of existence was how to kill silently. He almost snickered aloud as he considered this, but managed to stifle the noise as he remembered his priorities. It never even crossed his mind to leave them alive, as he had learned to hate them all in his short stint of enslavement.
Nergal had almost slit the throat of the third-to-last man, when a watchman blundered into the barracks. The darkness hid the wounds Nergal had inflicted. The sentry walked calmly towards the half-sragn, as if to make a quiet inquiry.
Nergal turned from the sleeping man, letting his sword dangle limply by his side in the darkness. Nergal reckoned it invisible to the human’s poor night vision.
“What is ... Aaaahhhhh!” screamed the sentry as Nergal’s sword slid into his chest.
The last three men started at the scream, but Nergal was already upon them. He slammed the dagger into the first and left it there, turning to hack at another man. The half-sragn’s strength proved sufficient to shear off the next man’s lower leg with the strike, and once again a scream sounded in the barracks. The third warrior was scrabbling for his weapons when Nergal killed him.
Now sounds of alarm could be heard above, and Nergal made his way towards the entrance of the hold. He knew there were not many left now, but one would be the captain and another the officer on watch. Those two might well be superior swordsmen, and Nergal did not relish having to fight them without the element of surprise.
He came up onto the next deck and could hear men approaching from port. He dodged into the shadows the other way and reached the edge of the deck, where he could look out onto the waters.
There was land! The light of a waning moon allowed the half-sragn to see heavily forested mountains across a modest distance of water from the ship. He needed no further encouragement. Placing the sword into his belt, he clambered through the opening and hung above the waves while grasping the ledge with his hands. He released his grip and fell into the warm tropical sea, starting immediately for shore. Nergal did not swim well, but he was sure he could make his way to freedom.
Nergal noticed two things at once: the shore was farther than he had gauged, and the sword in his belt weighed him down alarmingly. He could still hear the men on the ship, but so far none had started to search for him in the sea. Loathe to give up his only weapon, he turned onto his back to ease his swimming. He was free once again.
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