Part one relates the tale of Corvid's childhood in Iel and his days as a ratcatcher.
|I was born in the town of Onlyn. My earliest memory is of the town burning around me. The crying of children and screaming women filled my ears and would haunt me for years to come. Men and women ran wildly through the burning streets, some pulling their children along, some tossing their little ones over their shoulders so they could run without the burden of dragging their offspring along behind them.
A handful of people ran past us, their dirty clothes burning wildly. Their minds so wracked with panic that there was precious little room left for reason. Most of them ran in zig-zagging patterns down the street, screaming for help. A lot of them were running right back into the center of town. Maybe they were headed for the well or looking for a water trough, but I think it more likely they were simply crazy with fear.
I remember bobbing along in my mother’s arms, staring wildly around at the burning wreckage, I remember passing a building as it collapsed loudly and sent great plumes of smoke and fire high into the night sky. The heat on my face was amazing. My older sister Lesa followed closely behind holding the hands of my brothers and our father Brault led us through the inferno and out of town.
It was lucky for us that the king’s men were too preoccupied with other attempted runaways to notice us as we slipped out of Onlyn and into the hills. I saw a group of soldiers pushing a much larger group of Onlyn citizens back toward the blaze. The soldiers had their swords ready and a few of them used their weapons, spilling the guts of a number of men and women onto the cobblestones. The rest of the night has mostly faded from my memory or it has burrowed deep into the depths of my mind where it can remain hidden.
Many towns and villages and many hundreds of people were burned that season in a vain attempt to purge Overland of Cile’s Rot. Men were disappearing into the Far Reach every day and there was war with Arethe in the south. The throne of Overland seemed to change hands nearly as often as coin between players at a particularly rowdy game of dice. Needless to say I was born into a world that had fallen into especially dark times.
My father took us east to the fishing village of Iel on the coast of the Ondrish Sea. He told us he had heard stories in The Laughing Gate that the rot hadn’t yet reached the coast and as it turned out, the stories were true and would remain that way for another few years.
Iel was a small village and we had little choice but to live above the butcher’s shop. I was lucky to have a bedroom window overlooking Iel’s harbor and I spent countless hours watching the ships sail in and out of port. It was unfortunate that my pleasant view was often spoiled by the smells of death and blood wafting up to my window from the shop below, especially on hot days. I could see the market nearby, just down the road a bit, and took solace in the fact that the butcher’s smells weren’t accompanied by the rank smell of fish.
My father took a job on Gilded Lady, one of the smaller fishing boats, and we children rarely saw him. My mother spent most of her days fretting about the house or taking long walks in the woods to the west of town. I imagine her husband’s long absences pained her, worried her sick – a life at sea is often times a dangerous one and my mother was not naïve to the facts of life. I spent many nights listening to her crying in the next room before finally falling to sleep myself. I didn’t go to her and try to comfort her and to this day I wish I had. In this respect I suppose I failed her in my duty as a son.
When my father did return home the smell of the salty Ondrish Sea and fish followed him through the door. On one occasion the smell of a cheap woman fought its way past the smell of fish and into my mother’s nose as she embraced him. My mother beat him over the head until he escaped out the dining room window and jumped down to the street. I watched her chase him all the way down to the market from my bedroom window, screaming at him all the way. Father didn’t come back for five days after that and when he did he came armed with flowers and apologies.
I lived with my family in that town for several years before I had little choice but to leave.
“A tem per five head, thas’ my last offer,” Harbor Master Ulys’ broad shouldered form had not intimidated my brothers so much that they wouldn’t attempt to bargain with him. I had always been small for my age, but even my brothers were nearly dwarfed by the harbor master’s looming figure.
“A tem per five head is shit and we all know it,” my eldest brother Els said as he shook his head, “What about this little runt here?” he said pointing at me, “He’ll be the one you send under the wharves, into the tight spots.”
“Plenty of boys in town will do the job for less you little fool. Shit, plenty of men in town would take it,” Ulys calmly gripped Els’ shoulder in his meaty hand and gave a firm squeeze, “And I’ll ask you not to curse in front of me boy or I’ll thunk your damned head and dangle ya from the highest mast in harbor.”
“I’ll dangle yer mother you cheap old bastard,” Els said angrily. He was well known for flapping his mouth off before his brain had time to catch up.
Master Ulys lifted my brother high into the air with little effort and threw him violently off the dock. His normally emotionless face scrunched up and he laughed merrily at the boy splashing about dramatically in the water. The black sea birds circling the docks overhead seemed to laugh along with him. “You should be glad your father has been such a kind friend to me you greedy swine!” Ulys shouted at Els.
“I apologize for my brother sir,” my brother Garek said urgently to the harbor master.
“Ah!” Ulys yelled in mock surprise, “One has the manners of an Arethen whore and one is mute. You must be the sickeningly polite one.”
“I’m not mute Master Ulys,” I said, taking care to add a noticeable tone of annoyance to my voice, “just careful with my words.”
Els continued his wild splashing and angry cursing from behind Ulys who turned and looked down at him from the dockside. He laughed again and pointed down the harbor, shouting, “Ladders that way fishboy! Beware fisherman, they might snag you and mistakenly put you into market, good price you’d fetch!”
The harbor master sighed and turned back to Garek and me, running thick fingers through his long brown beard. “I’ll go two tem per five and that’s final,” he huffed, “but don’t tell your mouthy brother. Toiling under the docks for a few hours with the maddening idea that I’m ripping him off will be further punishment for his lip.”
Before walking off in the direction of his large boat docked on the harbor’s south end, Ulys told us to find Borse – or as Els called him Boring Borse – for our ratpoles and sacks. It wouldn’t have taken as long as it had if not for our waiting on Els to swim to the ladder and climb up. He stood before us sopping wet and fuming with anger. He pulled off his shirt to wring it out, all the while cursing madly.
Boring Borse was a noticeable figure in Iel’s harbor. He hobbled around the docks muttering to himself and scaring passing children with his toothless grin, sometimes using his fingers to pull his lips back in order to display his rotty looking gums. Els never claimed that Borse got his mocking title due to lack of character. I didn’t understand it myself until we spoke with him.
“Do you have a moment to get us our ratpoles and a few sacks Borse?” Garec asked the haggard old man, Els had yet to speak since finishing his dockside tirade.
“Master Ulys sent us,” I said.
Borse had been picking at some dirt underneath a fingernail and hadn’t seemed to notice us until my brother spoke. He looked up at us then, staring at us through foggy eyes. He lifted a nearly empty bottle of dark amber liquid out of the barrel beside him and took the final swig from it. I could smell the reek of booze seeping out of his pores from where I stood six feet away. He coughed and smacked his lips, he seemed to be thinking over the information he had just been given. He coughed again.
“Okay you whoresons,” he stopped to yawn, “follow me.” He spoke slowly, pausing in between words as if he had to ponder over what the next word in his sentence should be. I thought it sounded as though he hadn’t slept in a very long time, and badly needed a lie down.
“How old is he?” I whispered to Garek as the three of us followed the shambling figure to a nearby shack. We were close enough to the market by now for me to catch a strong whiff of fish on the cool breeze.
“Old as The First Bridge no doubt,” Garec said quietly, grinning down at me.
Borse struggled with the shack’s thin door and had to wedge his crooked fingers around it in order to pry it open. “You three are in for a special day,” yawn, “judging by this door, no one’s had the poles out in an age.”
That was how we began our work as rat catchers for the remainder of Nell, the harvest season. We spent every Remisday scurrying around the harbor, spearing vermin on the ends of our wicked looking ratpoles and stuffing them into the sacks. I often had nightmares about the rats and their frantic chittering as they wriggled fearfully on the end of my pole. It is hard to describe the sick feeling of a sack full of rats dangling from your hand, some of them still wriggling and screaming in terror. I refused to burn the sacks as we were instructed, leaving that job to my older brothers. I was teased by Garec and Els incessantly during those days about screaming myself awake in the middle of the night.
Brother Els turned out to be correct about Master Ulys sending me underneath the docks to climb around after the rats. On more than one occasion I found myself climbing all the way out to the end of the dock and back. I wasn’t supposed to bag any of the rats I speared down there, it would’ve been impossible to climb around on the supports while carrying the pole and a heavy bag in my free hand. The harbor master told me to spear them good and hard and shake them off into the sea.