by Kevin R. Turner
Let's get one thing straight: I don't like ships. I only use them when I must, and even then I do my utmost to find another mode of passage. And this has nothing to do with seasickness, either. I don't like being cramped up, unable to wander and ponder, while all around me people who act like they don't want me there try to get me where I'm going. No, thank you.
But there was no way out, this time. No, sir. This time, I was running errands like a schoolboy, for Earl Morley of Endron, no less.
"And you'll go by ship," he said, spelling out every last bloody step of the way: how I was to dress, who I was (and wasn't) allowed to speak to. "As a matter of fact, I have a ship standing by. She's a very reliable craft. You leave at sunrise tomorrow." His emphasis on "reliable" let me know for certain what was afoot...not that the ill-concealed sniggers of his advisors hadn't clued me in.
Just because one of my tricks had gone a tad awry. I was entertaining, getting a great response to my Magic Bubbles I had just made; at great expense, I might add. I had a full-grown steer floating thirty feet in the air, inside a bubble! I was in my glory. The crowd loved it.
Then came the crosswind. In an eyeblink, the steer was a hundred feet up, then slammed into the outer wall over the portcullis...right above the workmen unloading casks of the Earl's favorite rum.
"Obviously, the Bubble wasn't meant to take that sort of pounding," I explained just minutes later to Earl Morley. He'd already confiscated the Bubble potion like he was my mother, catching me using my pruning shears to clip off the pigtails of little village girls (loads of entertainment in and of itself. Remind me to tell you all about it sometime).
Earl Morley said nothing. He just looked a mottled red and purple, and held his breath.
"And the steaks were uncommonly tender and flavorful," I went on.
The explosion wasn't pretty. Cutting out the choice language, he basically stripped me of my favored entertainer status and threw me in the dungeon for a day or two while he cooled off and pondered my fate.
That's how I found myself on the docks of Endron at the crack of dawn, looking for a ship called the Life of Luxury. Skipper's name was Worthmilling. It seemed innocent enough on the surface, but the baldfaced guffaws of the Earl's advisors had let out with at the mention of the name made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. And, to top it off, I had to pay the passage from my own purse! Indignity! Well, it was better than the dungeon, and certainly better than that time in Taunton.
The boatswain awaited me testily at the foot of the gangplank. Tapping his bare foot, his bulging arms crossed over what I'm still certain was a cloth-padded chestplate, he eyed me like a rat family carrying vacation luggage.
"Yeah, me Nevvitz. You dolt?" That earned me a swift backfist across the face. Morning is not my best time of day.
"Wimmer!" The word was high-pitched, but carried a note of accustomed command. Wimmer let go of my neck and stood at attention. The figure coming down the gangplank moved with the muscular, limber gait of one long at sea. The rising sun was behind the ship, blinding me to all but a humanoid form.
"You would be the messenger of Earl Morley? Mr. Nevvitz? I'm Captain Evelyn Worthmilling." There was a hand extended, and I shook it without exactly realizing what was going on. Evelyn? Oh, dear, sweet Chaos! A female captain? No wonder the Earl's aides couldn't contain their humor. Reliable, indeed. Humph.
"We've been waiting for you. It's past time to cast off."
"Thank you," I said, beginning to ascend the gangplank. The boatswain's huge arm kept me from doing so.
"I was told," the Captain drawled, "that you would be paying for passage in full, up front."
Grumbling, I gave over my purse from my baldric pouch. Captain Worthmilling counted the money carefully and deliberately. Obviously my "fame" had arrived before me.
"Thank you. Wimmer!" The big man sprang to life, bounding up the plank, the sunlight gleaming off his sweaty pate. The Captain turned and strode calmly up as well, leaving me squinting into the sunrise. She signalled briefly to someone aft, and the crew began their casting off procedures. I scrambled up the gangplank, and it was promptly pulled aboard after me.
They jostled me about, as I could find nowhere to stand that wasn't in the way. I couldn't even set down my pack where no one would trip on it: every square meter of the ship was being used or walked upon. Four men and a woman sprinted around the capstan, beginning the agonizingly long process of weighing anchor. All the crew appeared to dress the same: baggy tan breeches that just covered the knee, linen shirts covered with studded leather breastplates, and short swords in light scabbards at the waist. They were stern-faced, but competent. Neither breath nor stride were wasted. I supposed I should take some small comfort in that.
The first mate, Logan Rockbottom I was later to learn, stood next to the helmsman, shouting orders. Sails were unfurled, folks of all sorts sprinted across the deck and up and down from the rigging. Wimmer was everywhere, lending aid to the polemen pushing the ship away from the dock, heartening the folks at the capstan, hailing jibes to the elfin, strangely-jointed crew in the rigging. In a scant fifteen minutes, we were sailing past the harbor guard tower and turning north along the coast of the island.
I was tapped politely on the shoulder by one of the elfin ones from the rigging. It was tough to tell how much elvish blood was in them. They all seemed to act as if they were clan-mates, but none had any distinctive features that would mark them as relatives. The young lass who led me to Captain Worthmilling's cabin walked surely on the rolling ship, as if she were glued to the planking. Saying nothing, she knocked quietly on the door. Again I noted the strangeness of her limbs. She seemed able to bend her fingers in a way I just couldn't understand.
She opened the door for me, and closed it behind me when I had crossed the threshold. The Captain lived a spartan existence, for certain. Her cabin was comparatively small, and had no real extra features, save a navigation table, a desk, and a set of silver candleholders set into the table. She was seated at the desk.
"I want to make a few things clear. There will be no foolishness from you on this trip. It will be a simple, three-day voyage, do you understand?"
I nodded, uncertain of where this was going.
"Word of advice: go barefoot. The salt water will destroy your suede boots."
Again I nodded...reluctantly. I loved my extremely comfortable boots. But I presumed she knew best.
She held out her hand. It was hard and muscular, rather like the rest of her. Compact was how I would best describe her. Like her actions and her crew, there was nothing left unused; musculature said she was the equal of any on the ship, and probably took her share of duties on deck. Good leadership qualities, I thought. "You will give over to me all flammable items...I'm told you usually stock many."
I stripped my pack from my back and dug out four cloth-wrapped bundles. I was hesitant to part with my fun stuff, but it seemed she had my number. She took them and secured them in a locked cabinet in her desk. Then she fixed her sparkling brown gaze on me with a savagery I wanted to run from.
"Stay out of my way. I want none of your foolishness. Let me do my job and we'll part ways."
I stammered some sort of acceptance and beat a hasty retreat from her cabin. She only had a standard crew's hammock. A leader by example, not by privilege. No arguing with that.
I only tried once during the voyage to lighten the mood. We had rounded the northern end of Endron Island by nightfall the first day, and headed east towards the mainland. On the second day, I had found a nice spot on the foredeck and began to try some humor. The crew seemed appreciative but wary. Obviously they too had heard spurious tales of my conduct.
The fun, of course, came to a rapid end as I was doing my best comic impression of Egon, Lord of Taunton. My left eye wandered and drool came out of the left corner of my stiffened mouth as I gave mock orders. No one laughed. As a matter of fact, all eyes were pinned behind me. Knowing what was there, I turned to face the clear glare of Captain Worthmilling.
"Lord Egon happens to be my uncle," was all that she said, but the crew responded as if I had just been revealed to have the Curse of Chaos boiling through to my features. They scattered, bolting for their posts, cleaning things that were already spotless and muttering amongst themselves.
By midday, the mainland was in sight, and we turned north again, making for the Craw, the two-kilometer-wide inlet to the Bay of Murmonn. I considered the muscular form of the Captain, moving easily over the surface of the ship and into the rigging, her long black ponytail flapping behind her like the standard that should have been flying from the mainmast. Obviously, the lovely Evelyn was also a privateer. Strange to say, though. There were no signs of opulence aboard. Things were certainly not shabby, and the fittings and food were of the best quality, but no one was decked with jewelry or expensive armors, or anything of that nature. Another conundrum.
As the sun set on the second day, a misty cloudbank rolled in from the southwest. Visibility was poor, and we had to tack back west more often now. A cry came down from the rigging:
"Ship to port!"
"Identify!" came the reply from First Mate Rockbottom. Moments passed.
"She's run up the red flag! Marked as the Arrowhead!"
"Red flag! Battlestations! All hands on deck! Riggers choose guards and help with harnesses, then to deck!" Rockbottom was flying from one station to the other, making last-minute adjustments before the marauders came within range. Swords were loosened in their scabbards, bows were passed into the rigging, and the elvish-looking ones came down as if on their own invisible wires, dropping silently to the deck and snarling. In the fading gloom, it almost looked as if they had fangs. I couldn't blame them for being mad. We hadn't done anything, and the red flag of piracy had found us anyway. Hoo, boy. I was going to see Captain Worthmilling at her finest.
I was already certain I wanted to stay out of a battle, but she settled things for me. "Find a spot to hole up and don't move! Get in the way of my crew and you'll probably end up spitted! That I do not need." Then she was gone, giving orders, preparing to receive a boarding party.
The Arrowhead was in sight now, and I saw she had a nasty barbed ram on her prow. No preliminaries, she came in dead astern at full speed. The helmsman of the Life of Luxury waited until the last second, the cut hard to starboard, allowing the ram to miss and glance off the hull with only minor breakage.
Grapples flew from the deck of the other ship, and howling men with madness in their eyes and spittle flying from their mouths swung over to our ship, as others put planks between and charged across. From my vantage point in the netting under the bowsprit, I saw most of the bloody battle. Worthmilling's crew fought like cornered beasts, but there were too many of the marauders. The Captain herself, along with Rockbottom and Wimmer, were unapproachable, so deadly was their blade-work. Strange webs of nets came from the rigging, snaring the berserks like flies, but still more came, these bearing fire and oil. Bowstrings twanged at heartbeat speed, men and humanoids fell overboard shrieking. The carnage was terrible. In the background, thunder pealed as the sun set.
Our helmsman tried an incredible maneuver. Instead of trying to part the ships, he angled them together, the Life of Luxury crew hitting the deck on a prearranged signal from Captain Worthmilling. The crash shook fully half of the Arrowhead's rigged crew from their perches, sending them screaming to die on their own deck. Now I understood what the harnesses in our rigging were for: our folks were still up there, letting arrows fly almost uninterrupted. It was still in vain.
Being who I am, I have never taken well to the word of authority. Authority only has as much hold over a person as that person lets it have. I wasn't even to have spoken to Captain Worthmilling at all, according to Earl Morley. And I decided it was time to break the rules again.
Crawling out of the netting, I made my way stealthily aft. Checking to make sure I had my knives, I found a severed rigging line and grabbed ahold. The ships were locked parallel and facing the same direction, and I knew my chance was now.
In a move few would give me credit for, I climbed up on the starboard railing, put my weight to the rigging line, and pushed off to port, swinging over the raging battle, and onto the deck of the Arrowhead. Luckily for me, it was mostly empty, her crew being on our deck. Also luckily for me, no one seemed to notice. I came down as lightly as I could and drew a knife. I made my way to the edge of the aft deck on my belly, and looked down at the quarterdeck. I caught sight of the helmsman and another man. The helmsman was actually doing his job: keeping his mind on his ship, keeping it close to ours and trying not to get it jammed too tightly or pulled too far apart so the grappling lines wouldn't snap. His friend, however, was obviously burning with the desire to fight, as his hand was clenched tightly on his cutlass and his eager eyes were cast to starboard and the action on our ship. He never saw my knife flash through the air and into the back of his neck.
I dropped to the quarterdeck, shooting my stiletto from its hidden sheath on my forearm and into my palm in time to take the helmsman in the kidneys as he screamed a warning. Now arrows from the rigging began coming at me. I figured I had enough time to cut some ropes, so I dashed to and fro about the Arrowhead, slicing a rigging ladder here, a sail line there, a grapple at another point. The rigging loosened, and the helmsman dead, archers began to fall from their perches, and the berserks fighting aboard the Life of Luxury began to come back to defend their home turf.
I took this as a sign to beat feet, and I cut out below decks, pausing long enough to gather a lit torch and a few extra knives before coming up aft again. I pitched the torch toward the lowest sail and jumped overboard. I swam back to the Life of Luxury, and waited out the rest of the battle clinging to a mooring rope and floating along with teeth a-chatter.
My "heroics" had actually had a positive effect, for once. While the attackers were distracted by my antics, Captain Worthmilling had rallied the troops and driven the marauders off her ship. The ones that lived were taken prisoner and put in our hold under guard. The Arrowhead herself was hooked up abaft for towing and salvage when we reached Murmonn.
Captain Evelyn Worthmilling actually commended me to her crew, and even to the harbormaster at Murmonn upon our arrival at midday on the third day. In the pouring rain, we pleaded our case to the harbor judiciary, who quickly gave custody and reward to the captain and crew of the Life of Luxury for bringing in the rogue ship (mostly, I think, to get out of the rain).
Considering the way our relationship started out, I'd say we parted on good terms. She offered to wait for the return journey to Endron, but I told her I'd probably take my sweet time with the politicos in Murmonn, and enjoy the city while I was there. It had been several years since I'd been unkindly asked to leave for using my Wand of Flip! to dump the then-Grand Duke of Murmonn on his head in his own throne room, and I was anxious to catch up on news and developments.
I made sure not to irritate Earl Morley any further, and made sure his message went back with the lovely Evelyn, who I was certain would see that it got to him. As I said before, Captain Worthmilling was grateful, but not grateful enough to refund my payment for passage. Ah, well.
Copyright 1999, Kevin R. Turner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.