The creaking of the cart wheels sung a melodic tune of wood squeaking against joints with each turn upon the stone cobbled road the horse dragged them across. If it were not for the rough bumping of the cart against the road it would have put the assembled men asleep. Each time one would start to drift off though a bump would wake them, or the man next to them would strike them upon the cheek.
They’d been riding for several days in the carts laden with whale oil set for South Port. The Salt Men were not very fond of the city’s inhabitants but gold was gold, and right now the price for whale oil was near its highest. At least they never had to part with the sight of the sea, the men of Ruce always grew anxious when they could not smell salt in the air.
Five carts in total made up the caravan, four laden with nearly six kegs of whale oil apiece while the fifth held the majority of guards. Twenty four men in all, a small caravan in the eyes of other merchants but no bandit would dare tempt fate by trying to steal from the House of Ruce. Each man was seasoned and conditioned by the sea and they wore their sharkskin jerkins with pride. They were an intimidating sight to behold, even with most of them half drowsy and the other half sick from the horse ride.
The sixth son of Salty Amadeus Ruce, Lord of House Ruce, rode in the front upon his own horse. He’d grown in the past eight years since he took his first life, no longer the sobbing brat that puked at the mere prick of blood. Though still considered a squire he’d grown a fierce reputation like any man of sea. He’d taken his share of lives over the years, some by deceit, a few by raids, and others by fair duel.
Arkhil the Bloody was his title, any son of Ruce worth his salt held a title. His younger brother was called Sharknose Xaelos, his fifth oldest brother Waterborn Wallen, and so on. His own was a more brutal title but he was known along the coast as a man that was not to be trifled with.
To say he let it all go to his head would be an understatement.
Upon a Friesian horse bred further inland Arkhil was half the age of most men in the caravan but led them with a confidence that rivalled a general returning from victory. He was dressed in the customary sharkskin leathers with a hauberk beneath it, he’d killed the Tiger shark himself and took the predator’s striped hide as his own. The same shark’s teeth hung in cord around his neck, adorn with small whale bones that encircled his upper arms along strings. For protection he carried with him a dagger made of whale ivory and a longsword.
He and his caravan were a rugged sight to behold as they entered the grand city of South Port. They drew most eyes as Salt Men were not a common sight in the bustling port city. In the eyes of the civilized they looked like pirates come to raid the city, and a few centuries ago that wasn’t so far fetched.
Weary legs disembarked from the caravan, grumbling and cursing at each other and the noise of the city around them. One of the horses were startled by two Ruce raiders shoving one another, causing the cart it was pulling to buckle shakily and disturbing the stack of kegs that lay within.
“Careful you pack of clubbed toed bricon nags!” Arkhil shouted as he swung his horse around, “That oil is worth more than your miserable hides. Spill a drop and someone loses a hand!”
The two men scowled and continued on their way, mumbling acknowledgements as another made sure the kegs were secure. They still were unwilling to respect the young Ruce son’s authority, but none of them dared question him knowing his father. Arkhil sneered at that thought, he didn’t need his father to keep these men in line.
Jumping down from the black horse he took the animal by the reigns as they made the last few hundred feet to the gates of the city. As always they were met by guards of the La Seine, Red ones like the last time they’d made the trip nearly a year ago. Just like last time they regarded the Ruce caravan with notable more suspicion than any other.
Arkhil didn’t mind, fear was just the same as respect in his mind. As always their rough caravan was allowed into the city. Once they entered the plaza, nearly all activity stopped for a moment as bystanders gawked at the scene of shark men filing into the city before the scowls of the Ruce men returned them to their business. The young leader gave a chuckle, pleased with the reaction.
Turning around he called out, “Aye, start unloading the kegs. Not a drop spilled!” Harpoons were set down if they were held and the soft chiming of shark teeth striking each other sounded as the men got to work getting the kegs down. The merchants they would be selling to would meet them in the plaza, Salt Men did not venture into South Port very far. Buildings blocked their view of the sea.
Handing his reins off to another, Arkhil stood off to the side to supervise each keg as it was carefully set down. Most often he would be there to help unload but he had to show his authority, not pulling his weight.
As he stood to the side watching the other men, Arkhil was taken by surprise when something short struck him heavily in the legs. Catching his balance, he scowled and whirled around. He was young but his face and body were hardened with the sea, rugged and toned. Even his short auburn hair was beginning to have the fringes of grey seeping into its color like salt had been speckled into his hair. His glare focused down upon a boy dressed in dirty clothes and wild fearful eyes.
Arkhil growled at the boy and was prepared to chew him out for daring to strike his leg when he noticed the sound of rushing feet from behind the boy. The young child noticed it too and despite regarding Arkhil with sheer terror, he ducked behind the Ruce and clung to his leg. An annoyance, but Arkhil was more focused on the two angry young men who’d been chasing the boy.
Both were about the same age as Arkhil, strong looking as well but the Ruce figured them to be soft land dwellers. One of them pointed a chubby finger at his sharkskin jerkin, “Out of the way ‘Salt-boy’, that rat needs a beating.”
“Does he?” Arkhil growled back, his eyes darted down to the boy, “and why is that?”
The other young man displayed his arm, the skin was broken near the wrist where he sported a bite mark, “little runt bit me, now get out of the way. This doesn’t concern you.”
“Actually it does,” the Ruce’s hands formed into fists, both men were taller than himself but that was no concern of his, “He ran into me. I figure if anyone is going to knock some sense into him it’s going to be me.”
The first boy that spoke was also the first to throw a punch, but the boy threw his hand back way too far, not even close to being a practiced brawler. Arkhil punched much faster, striking the man in the nose with a hard haymaker.
The second teenager watched as the first went down, his nose twisted and bleeding. Arkhil expected the boy to make a run for it but to landwalker’s credit he threw his own punch, striking Arkhil in the face as he was caught unprepared. He stumbled and the boy clinging to his leg cried out, nearly tripping him. “Damn it boy, let go of my leg!” Arkhil said as he blocked another punch aimed for his face.
The boy did not let go and Arkhil was left off balanced as he tried to shake the burden from his leather legging. He had the air knocked out of him as the other fighter punched him in the stomach. In return, Arkhil punched the man’s still outstretched arm where the bite mark was. The boy cried out in pain but was silenced as the Ruce struck him against the temple and sent him to the ground.
The fight was over, Arkhil could hear the laughter and jeers from his fellow Salt men... And yet the bloody boy wouldn’t let go of his leg!
Shaking his still hindered leg Arkhil growled, “By the Drowned Liaison, let go of my bloody leg, boy!” He didn’t look to be much older than eight, but that didn’t mean the man wouldn’t strike the child for annoying him.
Before he could though the boy looked up, tears welling in his eyes, he spoke urgently “Please my lord, the rest of that gang has my sister still! You have to help her!”
Arkhil stopped shaking his leg, fixing the boy with a glare, “Show me where...”