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lord, what a lonesome song he sings

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Fjord didn’t think too much about the name when he first heard it.  So it was a bird name, that wasn't so unusual; he'd known a fellow called Hawk once, and a lady called Wren and another called Robin.  This one was maybe a little strange as bird names go, but whatever -- maybe one of his parents was a sailor, or liked sea songs, maybe that was all there was to it.

When they found out that it wasn't a given name but a chosen one, he considered asking more: why a bird name, why that bird?  But they'd had more important questions to ask, and in the end it didn't seem worth bringing up. Maybe someday down the line they'd come back to it, and he could ask then.

By the time he thought of it again, it was too late.

~

Darkness isn't as hard on half-beasts as it is for some, but Lorenzo's gotten good results in the past by alternating total darkness with the brightest light they’ve got, at irregular intervals.  He uncovers the magic lantern as he steps into the cell, and watches the figure on the floor flinch away from it, trying to shield its eyes with one raised shoulder as best it can with both arms fastened behind its back.

He doesn’t generally take a personal hand at this stage of breaking the stock, but on reflection he’s decided that this little situation is a teaching opportunity, one not to pass up.

The two who follow him in don’t need to be told what to do: Protto steps forward and crouches to draw off the gag, and Ruzza moves through to the far wall and readies Counterspell, prepared to release it if the captive attempts to use magic.  Seeing whether any such attempt happens is, of course, part of the point of the exercise.

The gag comes away, and Protto steps swiftly back.  Lorenzo waits out the inevitable coughing, and bends slightly forward with hands braced on knees, like a man good-naturedly passing the time of day with a small child.

"Evening, friend," he says affably.  (It's midmorning. Messing with the stock's sense of time isn’t a huge part of breaking them, but every detail helps.) "Might be a meal coming soon, for those who’ve got hands free to take it.  You ready to behave yourself and get those manacles off?"

He already knows the answer will be no, this time.  The half-beast doesn't disappoint him; he gives a virulent yellow glare and a hoarse "Fuck you."

“Ah, well.”  Lorenzo sighs and shakes his head, the picture of regret, and rubs his chin pensively.  “Had something else to tell you, while I’m here. Could be you heard the noise, when we stopped on the road ... something like a fight?”

Oh yes, that’s got a reaction -- the captive stiffens all over, the furious glare giving way to an alarm that he tries to hide.

“Now we wasn’t sure at the time, but it’s begun to look like those were your friends that waylaid us. Couple of humans, a goblin, and a purple devil-blood. Sound about right?”

He watches the captive’s face closely, waiting, waiting.  There’s no nod, but the minute play of muscle around the eyes and along the bruised jaw is just as good.

Deliberately blunt, now: “Your purple friend’s dead.”  He lets the words sit there in a small silence -- watching the yellow eyes widen, the bloodied lips part slightly to let in a sharp breath -- before resuming, in a more thoughtful tone. “Molly, I think the human girl called him.”

“That was it,” Protto confirms, on cue, all smug satisfaction. “Boss did for him right neatly.”

“Such a sad waste,” Lorenzo agrees, with a sigh that doesn’t even try to sound sincere. “Couldn’t be helped.  We left him for the others to bury, if they feel like it.”

The captive stares at him, mouth still a little open, and … wait. Something unexpected here.  Lorenzo carefully keeps his own face still, but he’s got no idea what to make of the shift in the half-beast’s expression: alarm again, dismay of a kind wholly unlike the predictable rage or grief, something like dread. No, that’s not quite it either --

“Oh,” he says slowly, staring at Lorenzo. “Oh, you didn’t know, did you.”

A long beat, while Ruzza and Protto exchange glances over the captive’s head and then look to him.  At length, Lorenzo makes a very small half-smile, an indulgent look that says all right, I’ll play.  “Know what.”

“You’ve killed a mollymauk.” He says it like it’s self-evident, and when Lorenzo doesn’t react, a look of consternation crosses his face. “Don’t you know anything, man? You ever talk to a sailor? You’ve killed a mollymauk, that’s the worst kind of bad luck.  That’s a curse like no other. Oh, you poor bastard.”

Lorenzo leans in, studies the captive closely for a few long moments … then draws back with a low chuckle. “All right,” he says, “all right, I think we’re done for now,” and gives a short nod to Protto.  Who nods back, turns to the rack of instruments, and reaches to take the barbed pincers from the brazier where they’ve been heating.

“I’ll see you later,” Lorenzo tells the captive gently, still smiling, “and in the meantime I suggest you think long and hard about trying to get smart with me again. Understand?”

The half-beast doesn’t even glance at the approaching pincers; he’s shaking his head, still with that look of dread bizarrely mingled with pity. “Poor doomed bastard. I wouldn’t trade places with you right now for anything.”

And by all the fucking gods, he sounds like he means it.

Lorenzo doesn’t let his smile slip, and turns to leave without another word.

No, he’s not rattled, of course not; he’s heard every kind of threat and curse from the stock over the years, it’d take a lot more than words to rattle him.  He’s just … he’s maybe going to take a few minutes, before he goes to look in on the blue-haired one.

Maybe he’ll have the half-beast put in with her, later.

~

Fjord comes to consciousness one pain at a time: the cold pressure of stone under his cheek, the sharp stab behind his eyes, the stiff soreness where the leather gag holds his jaw open, the throbbing ache in both shoulders, the numb prickling all down his arms, the wringing emptiness in his gut, countless bruises and burns and cuts chiming in around the edges like some hellish dawn chorus.

The first thought that comes to him in words is He was lying.  Which stands to reason, since it was also the last thought he had in words the night before.

Dimly, he remembers being dragged into a cell and dumped in a corner, after they were done working him over, and Ruzza laying a hand on his chained wrists and murmuring a word, and everything going away; he remembers half-waking a long time later, hearing Jester singing somewhere nearby, blithe and sweet and untroubled, like a bird outside a window.  He isn’t sure if that was a dream or not, but he can see her now, lying on the floor a few yards away, and he holds his breath until he sees her shoulders shift with her breathing.

No sign of Yasha, and he wants very much to take that as a good sign but can’t quite.

He was lying. Molly’s not dead.

Of all things to come to mind in that moment, though, the old sailors’ tale about the curse on any man who kills a mollymauk.  Fjord shakes his head, and winces as a jabbing pain in his neck contributes its own voice to the chorus.

If it’s true, what you told me, he finds himself thinking in the unknown direction of Lorenzo, then may the curse hold. Die soon and die bad, and your whole shit crew with you.

But it’s not true. Molly’s not dead, and that noise along the way probably wasn’t anything to do with their friends, and what kind of fool would believe anything a slaver told them?  No, Lorenzo was lying to mess with his head, some sadistic bullshit mind game. Only it turned out to be an exchange of mind games, thanks to that impulse about the curse. And who’s to say who came out of it ahead? Who knows, maybe he even scared the big bastard, if he believes in curses.  Worried him a little, at least. Maybe.

He shuts his eyes, and tries to hum to himself through the gag -- won’t you ride the wind and go, white seabird -- and gives up after only half a line because of how the humming scrapes his raw throat, and tries not to wonder when (whether) there’ll be water.

~

It’s later, some undefinable later.  He’s pretty sure it’s been a day at the very least, and he knows it can’t have been much more than three or four days, by how they’re not dead of thirst. Unless they’ve somehow been given water in their sleep, in which case … gods only know how long it’s been.

Not weeks yet, surely.  Surely not.

He’s seen them drag Yasha into the cell opposite theirs, heard them beating her in a series of sickening noises that went on for what seemed like hours, not drawing a single sound from her.  Her silence first impressed him and then unnerved him, eventually both at once. For a little while he was afraid her silence meant she was dead, but … they wouldn’t keep beating a dead woman, would they? Even as another mind game?

(Is Yasha even still in there?)

He’s heard Jester singing again, changing the words to some nursery-rhyme song, putting his name in. It didn’t occur to him until long after to wonder how he could hear her singing in words when they’ve all been gagged; maybe he dreamed that too.  Unless the big bastard had them take her gag off and tried to have one of those twisty conversations with her too, and she wasn’t having any of it and just sang right over him. That’d be like her, he thinks.

If they get a chance, if they’re ever put in the same cell without gags on, maybe he’ll ask.  Find out if Lorenzo told them both the same lie or not.

Gods, if he could just talk to her. Feels like he could bear everything else about their situation if they could talk: speculate about where the others are, compare what they’ve seen and heard while they were separated, discuss in whispers how they could try to escape. They could tell each other stories, maybe, when they ran out of anything useful to talk about. He could teach her the shanty that keeps running through his head (down upon the southern ocean sailing, the refrain murmurs again and subsides).

More than anything else right now, he wishes he could tell her he’s sorry.

Right now she’s in with him again, unconscious or exhausted, chained and gagged the same as he is, lying limp on the stone floor. It’s too dark to see the bruises on her shoulder and legs, the torn and bloody edges of her dress, but he knows they’re there.

When the noise starts outside, an explosion that shakes the floor, he tenses all over and struggles to raise his head to see. That turns out to be a bad idea: the resulting full-body pain rolls over him like a wave swamping a raft, and his stomach heaves once or twice even though there’s nothing to come up.

The noise continues, gets louder; he knows the sound of fighting when he hears it. Either some internal conflict has broken out or someone’s raiding the place, and while he hardly dares hope it means outright rescue, it could still mean some chance, something they could take advantage of. They’ve got to be ready, whatever it is. Somehow.

He grits his teeth against the pounding in his head, and tries hard to focus through the shouting and screaming, the blasts of light and heat and cold, the scrape and thud of weapons striking stone and flesh.  And with a jolt, somewhere in the shouting he recognizes a voice.

Ignoring the pain, he wrenches himself up into a sitting position, strains to hear that voice again through the din.  We’re here, he tries to shout through the gag, we’re in here.

He can’t make any noise loud enough to be heard over the battle, and there’s nothing he can do but wait for it to be over.

~

“Where’s Molly?” asks Jester.

“Who?” asks the stranger, and Fjord feels his heart stop.

~

They go over it all, helplessly, uselessly.  Nott confirms that it was Lorenzo himself who struck the killing blow; Beau confirms that he and his crew are all dead now. It’s Caleb who says, with that rare eyes-locked intensity he’s starting to recognize: We learn for the future. This won’t happen again.

Jester sheds tears, and Fjord struggles not to, and can’t manage it.

There comes a point where there really isn’t anything else to be said except please get us the fuck out of here.

It takes some time, and a few trips back and forth for the able-bodied; Yasha is still unconscious and has to be carried, and Caleb is injured and in no shape to help anyone, and neither he nor Jester can walk easily on their own.  But sometime in the course of the next half-hour or so, Fjord hobbles out of the cell with one aching arm slung over Beau’s shoulders, trying his hardest to carry as much of his own weight as he can.

And pauses, in the middle of the dungeon floor, to study the pile of char and ash around the dropped glaive.

Beau glances at him sidelong.  “Yeah,” she says, quietly. “That’s him.”

Curse like no other.  Fjord stirs a bit of the ash with the toe of one boot.  Fucking told you so, didn’t I, you slaverunning piece of shit.

~

He’s in a tavern, maybe two weeks later, somewhere between Zadash and Nicodranas; he’s alone, and discouraged, and not nearly as drunk as he wishes he were.

The place has its share of sailors, about as many as he can expect this far inland, but so far nobody’s heard anything about what he’s asking -- or at least nobody who’ll talk.  And as drunk as this crowd is, he has to admit that most likely means nobody at all.

Two more days, he tells himself, and he’ll turn around and start riding back to Zadash. This isn’t a road he wants to travel much further on his own.

There’s one more likely-looking pair he wants to approach, as soon as the server brings the meal they’ve ordered. He’s watching them carefully over the rim of his mug of beer, considering whether or not it would be a good idea to buy them a round before he starts asking questions.

Except that’s when across the crowded room, ringing over the general noise, a hoarse voice bawls out more or less on key: “Now the southern ocean is a lonely place --

Two or three more drunken voices join in on the second line, and then a handful more, blending into that half-cacophonous sailors’ harmony that’s as familiar to him as the sound of his own breathing.  Hands are beginning to beat the table in rhythm, and there’s almost a dozen of them singing along now, and Fjord knows with abrupt cold certainty that he has to get out before they reach the chorus.

He leaves his drink unfinished on the bartop and shoves through a knot of recent arrivals by the entry, and the chill night air breaks across his face, and the door swings shut behind him just as the singers hit the words ride the wind and go.