A Silent Game of Spies

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Hosh never minded the fog out west in the islands, for at least the winds pushed it inward toward land. But here in the Riverlands, the fog just settled over you like and hung there, trying to smother you like a wet wool blanket, he mused. Damn fog was wetter, somehow, too. That come with the climate. Muggy and muddy – made for a lousy combination.

Plenty of sailors said, “Hah! You think these Riverlands is bad, you should sail down to the Swamplands. Now thems is muggy.” And they would detail all sorts of interesting stories about horrible smelling mud that sucked you down and wouldn’t let you back up, long, ridge-backed land monsters with pointed teeth that swallow a man whole, snakes as long as a mast and thick as your waist, and not a breath of wind, not ever.

Hosh could always tell if a man was lying, and most of these men was just blowin’ the same old wind at the same old sail. Men who had actually made the trip kept to themselves, didn’t want no one to hear about it. Makin’ that trip was near impossible, so tellin’ folks about it would be next thing akin to askin’ fleas to jump on rats. They didn’t want word to reach the wrong ear.

But as long as there was water and a paddle, Hosh would be standing at the helm. He had a good nose for rotten fish, and Storden reeked of it, and growing worse. Hosh didn’t know what it was, but he hadn’t served the most of the Twenty Years War just to retire in a neutral country whose seas were starting to get rocky.

He wondered times when he steered this ferry up and down the Rosh about what he’d left behind. Not much. Couple of grave markers for his brothers and parents. Somewhere out there was that son, and now a grandson, maybe even more. But hell, Hosh had been stationed on an island that was little more than a fort – that was Anchor Island. Archer Island no different. No one lived there but navy men when they weren’t at sea.

Just five years into the Navy, docked at Leedsport, Hosh had himself a night of fun at a local pub and a bit more than fun with a local girl. They docked again three months later. Her name had been Shellie. She goes by Shella now she’s a grown woman now, Hosh mused.

The girl was frantic, found him at the docks and told his she was with his child. Beggin’ for Hosh to marry her. Hosh was bewildered. Marry? A child? He couldn’t think straight at the time. He believed the girl that it was his child, for he’d taken her first time easily enough and no doubtin’.

But Hosh hadn’t no money for a hearth and a home, none even for himself, much less for a wife and a babe. He never was proud of himself for turnin’ her down. Quite hated hisself for it, when he was past a few pints or three, in fact. But so it was. He wasn’t so old hisself, hardly past twenty and no one to tell him, “Hosh, ya fucker, marry the girl,” for his parents and brothers died at the start of the Twenty Years War when Ambsellon and Ormon soldiers marched through Storden.

Storden was neutral to all the countries, for hundreds of years now, and didn’t contribute nor assist no country, just imported and exported a bit. In war times, no one was supposed to harm any Storden citizens, but that didn’t stop the Ambsellon and Ormon troops from takin’ what they pleased in his parish and then burnin’ it.

His dad and brothers had fought back and they’d got killed for it. His mum sent him off toward the cliffs, tellin’ him to “Run, Jom, run!” And then an arrow caught her straight in the back. Her eyes had just stopped seein’ suddenly. Hosh sighed. He could barely remember what her eyes looked like anymore. Sad, that.

So Hosh had run, just as his mum told him to, for what was left to him in a burned down, empty parish with no family or villagers? The first building he saw in Haliport, the next port past Leevesport, to was a naval yard. Hosh had been fourteen, and full of guts and fire when he made his decision. Who could burn him down at sea on a neutral Stordish ship? Hosh entered boldly and claimed that he was sixteen, for to join the military, men had to be of age.

The recruiter eyed him and raised his eyebrows, clearly doubting that Hosh was of age. But he glanced at the soot and blood on Hosh’s shirt and said, “All right, son, if you’re sure. This ain’t gonna be no apprenticeship, you know. Just so’s you’re sure.” Hoss had written his name with clumsy letters on the parchment in reply.

He’d sent Shellie a good share of his wages whenever he came into port. When he next came into Leevesport, he found out that she’d married a man. Hosh wasn’t proud of himself for sneaking up to their house in the dark and peeking in like some sort of thief, but Shellie’s husband – well, he looked like a good enough bloke.

That rankled at Hosh for some reason. More so, for he’d been holding Hosh’s son. Hosh’s boy. There he was, his son, in another man’s arms. And then Shellie walked past, and her pregnant. Hosh nearly ran from the house, where he damn near lost his belly against a tree across the dirt street. He’d made his choice. That was his fault, his choice. Best he steer away from it altogether.

Hosh never did stay away completely. Times were he’d sneak past on occasion. Hell if that boy of his didn’t look just like his oldest brother Krighton. And now Hosh’s son had a babe of his own, just a wee boy.

Hosh shook his head. Nothin’ that way but sheer quicksand, sheer quicksand. Hosh had seen the babe just twice, enough to see his boy was goin’ to be a good father.

And then he left for the East Riverlands. He had no ties to Storden, after all. Nor did he have ties here to the East. He’d just packed up what he’d felt like taking with him and set off, figuring on stopping when he felt like it was time to. And he took the ferry up the Silver River, straight up into the Rosh. A river wasn’t an ocean, but it was still water, Hosh had thought at the time, and Romeny was a safe enough country, bordered by three other strong countries. And there he had hung up his boots.

Easy enough to get a job at the docks. Even easier piloting the ferry up and down the Rosh at night. They couldn’t keep a captain on the night ferry for longer than a few weeks. Hosh took on the R.C.S. Night Crawler easy enough. He knew he was still a young enough man, by all standards, that he could take a younger wife, give her a babe or two. His wages were plentiful enough. But Hosh just didn’t think that now, at his age, he could stand the squallin’ of a babe and havin’ to change it…. Hosh didn’t know -

The Night Crawler hit something to port and she rolled over it. Hosh sighed. Another bloody barrel….

He stepped down, hearing the river waves make exception as the Night Crawler slipped over the barrel. Hosh leaned out on the starboard edge, net in hand, for the barrel to surface. Depending on what was in it, it was going to be wicked hard to pull up by himself….

Oh hell. Another one. Not a barrel. Did these bloody fucking idiots not know that wood fucking floats, he asked himself. And it had been such a quiet night.

Hosh tossed the anchor, glad no one was aboard but himself. Then he took the boat hook and pulled it in. Roped to the barrel was another dead body. Hosh was glad no one was on this stretch of the river or they’d certainly be in horror. He netted in the barrel and dragged the rest of the poor bastard aboard.

Hosh shook his head. Someone, or someones, had taken care to open the barrel and stuff some stone brick in it, for they certainly didn’t want this one found. But the barrel top had eventually opened and moved about on the river bottom, best Hosh could tell from the condition of the bloke’s face. His face was quite a bit nibbled off by fish, but all the same, the skin below his clothing was relatively intact yet. But bloody hell, the man stank – shit! River mud is river mud and it always stinks, no matter what it comes up with, he thought.

Hosh rubbed his face and grimaced. Riverweed attached to the man’s boots trailed water down the planks of his ferry. Damn it, he’d have to spend extra time swabbing the deck now for mud. Hosh never expected when he retired from the Storden Royal Navy that he’d ever swab a deck again, and damn sure not for a fucking dead body, but here it was, another one.

Hosh poked at him with the end of the boat hook. Nah. At this point, he just didn’t care no more. He remembered the first few floaters. The first guy, he thought, well, he was just one unlucky son-of-a-bitch. Not for just his death, but what happened after. For Hosh, after he’d made his run, he’d gotten off at North Rosh Port and hung about for the next day. The town was all abuzz about the floater. But it was what they all said that smelled the fishiest.

For the port’s Medical Man, or whatever this country called them, had announced that he died of sheer drowning after being drunk. And Hosh knew damn better than that, for he’d pulled him out of the river. He’d seen enough floaters and dead bodies aboard ship with stab wounds to know just exactly how that man had died. And he’d died of a nasty gut wound. His clothing wasn’t terribly bloodstained, either, and he hadn’t been eaten up much, nor too stiff, so he hadn’t been up the Rosh too far. Clothing was of decent quality, too. Somebody missed that man. But Hosh knew better than to say a word.

About a month later, another floater turned up. Bloke had been strangled, best Hosh could tell. He netted him aboard and into a burlap sack, and in front of the widened eyes of the passengers that night. He expected they went home with nightmares. But that bloody bloke, he’d been strangled, sure as shit. His eyes bulged out and his neck purpled all about in a ring, he hadn’t been in the water long. Fish had nibbled at him a bit, his nose and part of his eyes gone, but he wasn’t too stiff yet either.

At first, Hosh thought maybe it was the Castle Grates. But he eventually dismissed the idea, for really they only wanted what was in the barrels, and they stayed to the docks. He’d never known them to kill folks. Maybe once or twice had he heard of them threatening anyone, but that was the only violence he’d heard of. What’s more, the Castle Grates, if they had beat anyone bloody, or even killed some unlucky bloke, they’d want the notoriety for it, they’d put the bloke out before the Castle with a note, for all to see, not dump him in the river in the dead of night.

So Hosh didn’t know if these poor bastards were coming from the east or west side of the Rosh, but his gut told him it was the west side.

Of late, nearly every three weeks floaters turned up. Some of them were tied to barrels. Land folk didn’t understand – you don’t tie things you want to sink to things that float. Fucking rafts float, boats, ships all float. Why would you tie a dead body to something… that floats? Idiots. Tie them to stone.

Hosh dumped them on the east side of the river. He had no idea why people were getting killed and tossed in the river as they were, but it was happening more and more. If it got much worse, Hosh just might pack up, somewhere where it didn’t smell so fishy….

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