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Even though the hail of arrows had ended, most mariners still huddled against the shield plank. There were moans and cries all about the ship, but none dared leave cover for fear of being shot. The captain was nowhere in sight. Considering the disorder and lack of command, it was likely he was dead already.

Kauko considered escape. As their ship hadn’t been boarded yet, there was still a chance to get away and try to swim to Broenwic’s shores; the men of that city would not look suspiciously on one of Kauko’s kind: Gettefolk were a common sight in these parts. But the water seemed dark and cold, and the shore was far away still.

“Here they come. . .” said one of the mariners.

Out of the dark night came a square white sail. The dark hull of the vessel that bore it was still concealed in the blackness. Kauko considered the plunge into the cold water: weighed against a trip to the scaffold by way of Broenwic’s cold and dark dungeons, the icy black deep began to look more favorable.

“Get ready, men,” said an elder mariner. The men around Kauko gripped the hafts of their axes firmly. Several mariners chanced to rise quickly and lift a shield from the shield plank.

“Hey, goat-man!”

Kauko sighed. He turned his head to face the merchant, who still lay under the bench where they had sat together less than an hour before.

“What?”

“So you can speak, after all. Come over here.”

Kauko raised an eyebrow. Despite the dark night, he saw a smile on the merchant’s face--inappropriate. . . yet intriguing.

Kauko deigned not to go on all fours like a beast, but still he crouched low for fear of arrows. He made his way slowly to the merchant, who watched him come with a sardonic smile. When Kauko was close, he spoke: “Death comes for us all, goat-man. . . But I may yet have a way for you to postpone that inevitable encounter.”

The merchant reached into his pouch--his movements made awkward by the limited space underneath the bench--and retrieved from it a pendant: it was a dagger the size of a man’s little finger, set with precious stones.

“Although the Dead God is no more,” the merchant said, “He lives on in each of His followers, and the lives of those who heed His teachings are sacred to Him. He is very unlike the Wendel you worship here in the west, who have few interests beyond satisfying their most base urges.”

Kauko stared at the pendant as it caught the starlight. It was beautifully crafted: such jewelry was beyond the skills of men on Adelfán.

“The Dead God, Damas of the Dagger, recognizes strength,” the merchant said. His eyes pierced Kauko’s and his face took on a solemn expression. “And so do I.”

The merchant extended his hand towards Kauko. Between thumb and index finger he presented the pendant.

“I spoke earlier of two choices, but what do you say to a third choice, goat-man? Will you choose water’s freezing bite or the guard’s barbed arrow? Or perhaps will you choose the Grace of the Dead God?”

As battle was joined all around Kauko and the night sky came to life with the cries of victory and defeat, the pendant flickered with an unearthly light and an unearthly promise, and the merchant’s voice echoed through Kauko’s mind. . .

“Will you choose the Grace of the Dead God?”

[End]

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