Friday, March 2, 2012

Voyages of the Peregrine

This is from a writing project I wanted to start called the Circle of Friends. I planned on doing short stories featuring friends of mine as protagonists in a fantastic manner. This is the first one I got done. Hopefully I'll pick back up on this and do more.

In my younger days, I was part of a tale worthy of being retold. It was an incredible event, one that I never thought I would see, and one that still seems surreal to me. I began as a cabin boy aboard a corsair in the days where trouble stalked the seas between the kingdoms.

The corsair, the Daring as her captain had named her, was a long, sleek sloop-of-war. She was built to cut through the water, to outrun pursuit or run down prey as was needed, and armed with heavy carronade cannons to hammer at what she did engage. It was a joy to ride the high seas on her deck, feeling her knife through the waves and ride the powerful winds that swept across her domain, the salty Wan Sea.

One day, we were setting off from port. The water barrels had been filled and loaded, the rigging restrung and supplies ferried below decks, and when we were a few miles from sea, the captain stepped to the wheel. The boatswain, knowing what this meant, gave out a loud, ringing call that drew every eye. Some men tied off lines from where they worked and others scurried down the masts and rigging to hear.

The captain was not a tall man, but instead of just below average height, with nimble and quick hands and feet and balance that made any situation on the seas no challenge at all. His long, dark hair whipped in the wind as he surveyed us, and spoke out, his voice carrying with the breeze. “Men, we begin a mission today of great import. You are all my hand-picked crew, trusthworthy to the last and capable in every way I could ask. We will be giving passage to one of the rarest treasures in the world.” That made our breath catch. As a corsair, the crown had sent us out as raiders against the enemy navies, but this was new.

“Captain!” spoke Hartha, the first mate, a heavy, swarthy man who always seemed to need a shave and a voice that resonated like cannon shot. “I would never question what you ask of us, but I do ask why this has fallen to us. We serve aboard a corsair, not a heavy, fat warship or passenger vessel! May the passage be on a ship whose sides will repel fire that may come upon it, not the beloved Daring that seeks to dance and slip around her adversaries!”

“While I myself did voice these concerns,” the captain answered smoothly, “we were sought out special for this task. The bearer of this treasure did so request a ship of speed and a crew of cunning. It is for our strengths that the Crown did seek to grant us this commission, and lo, I did accept.” He stopped, letting the words sink into our thoughts, to let our pride swell at being so valuable in our ability. “It has been said to me that no one should know of this voyage until it is over, but it has come to be possible for word to have spread before the task reached our able hands. As such, you are all tasked: look for ships attempting to match our course, to meet our speed. Everyone, keep your eyes to the horizon for ships of an enemy flag, for we will outrun before outfight this trip, as to preserve that which has been placed in our care.”

It was then that a man stepped out from the captain's cabin, one that I had never seen before. He was unlike most seafarers I had seen in my time, and I immediately thought of him as a man of the shores, and he that we would be shepherding. He was much taller than the captain and lean of stature from what I could tell. He had dark hair like the captain's, but cut short and combed away from his eyes. Though his body was wrapped in dark frock coat of double breast, I was of the idea that he was slender and lean. He stood with his left hand inside his frock coat, in a manner I could not place. I wondered idlly if he perhaps clutched at something or hid his hand away due to some form of injury. His dark eyes were severe, but I could see the intelligence glitter in them as they swept across the assembled crew from behind round spectacles. The rest of his clothing was similarly dark, setting him apart from the crew, though I was certain it kept him warm against the cooler air of the Wan Sea. His right hand rested atop a cane that matched his attire, though with a pommel of elegent silver.

“This,” the captain rang out, “is Sage Lucious Thanan. He is the keeper of the treasure we so endevour to protect. He claims that he is willing to speak with those what wish, so let not his severe presentation damper your high spirits. We know we will be successful this voyage, for any ship that can outfight the Daring cannot dream to catch her, and any that may catch her will not have the might or grit to outfight her or her men.” A cheer rose from the men, smiles alighting on even the dourest face. “So now, men, return to your posts. We will take a northern route of the sea to avoid the major routes. Be ye prepared, and let us prove the skills we are attributed.”

As the cabin boy of the proud vessel, I was charged with seeing to Sage Thanan's needs during the voyage. I would check in on him during the day, usually before meals and at midpoints during the morning and afternoon hours. I was fascinated at seeing this man at his work during the day. He sat at the desk in his cabin, one that the captain had seen to being refitted, often toiling away over texts, making notes and comparing two pieces that, to my eye, seemed identical, incomprehensible or both. Whenever I would knock and enter, his left hand would be inside his vest, which he wore underneath the frock coat when on deck. Upon seeing me, he would nod slowly, draw his hand from the vest and continue his work. One such midmorning, about a week into our journey, I entered to see what he might need and he gestured for me to approach the desk.

“Child, what do you know of the great old works of literature?” he said to me.

“Sir, I am but the cabin boy. I do not know of such learned things. I have no call or need to.”

“No call or need?” he asked me, partially astonished and partially disproving. “Boy, everyone should have some knowledge and appreciation of the great works that define our history and culture. Here, look at this piece. Have you ever heard of its like?” I gave him a sideways look and scanned down the open book he held presented towards me. I read the words as best I could, stumbling as I went, but seeing the basics of a story of a wild man near a placed called Uruk and his friendship to the king.

“No,” I said slowly. “I have never heard those names or those places.”

“But,” he said, his eyes sparkling, “you have heard similar stories.”

“Yes,” I allowed. “The wild man, found and brought to people, seeking to make his way, I have heard stories of that ilk before.”

“You see,” the sage said, a grin touching his lips, “it is important to know that these stories come from somewhere. They can change over time, depending on where they come from and who is telling them. I, myself, am working on a translation of a story in an attempt to make it something that is comfortable for everyone to read. I believe I would like your help in making my text more accessible to those that have not had the experiences I have, should your captain allow it.”

And so, at not only the captain's allowance but his behest, I spent time with the sage in his cabin, working on the selection of words, on the points I did and did not understand. Over and over again, I struggled to keep up with his learned dialect and even attempted to learn some of it myself, as I hope is becoming apparent as I tell this tale. He would alter words, sentences, even entire sections as to make them more sensible to my humble ears. Sometimes he would insist that some pieces do not change, as they were important to link the story to its origins. Names like Hrothgar and Heorot reamined unchanged, even though I had no concept of them.

In our works, the sage began to take what we had done and present it to the men in the evenings, after supper. He told the rousing story of a mighty warrior, a Geat, who went forth to do battle with a dangerous beast. I felt a sense of pride stir in my breast as he used the words that he and I had selected together, and came to gain a glimmer of understanding on what drove this man. The men cheered at the successes of the warrior in the story, bellowed when things around him failed and found themselves growing more and more fond of the man they had originally deemed as aloof and superior.

As time passed, though, several concerns were brought to mind. I, myself, wondered at the precious cargo that the man safeguarded. Was it another such tome, older than the ones he had spoken of and worthy of great value? It would seem possible, though unlikely, that such a thing would be worthy of an enemy's pursuit and our vigilance. Among the crew, I heard rumblings of concern. What would this thin man who walked with a cane be able to do should the enemy come to attempt to claim this great treasure? I knew not myself, but could not help but think that a man chosen to safeguard something so precious would not be a useless dandy.

It was two weeks beyond, where we were a mere ten days where we presumed to land, that one of the men in the crow's nest sang out of a ship. The captain sent two more up to verify the sighting, who both came back with word that there were three cutters moving to match our course. The captain's eyes flashed with defiance and determination and sent me for his blade. These ships were so much smaller than the Daring, but could move more quickly on the winds. The good captain called for the cannons to be loaded, those for and aft loaded with solid shot and those midship to be loaded with grape and chainshot. His hope was to have the solid shot to put holes in the hull and the chainshot to destroy the rigging and sails and allowing us to outpace them.

We watched as the ships moved to close with us. The man took up cutlasses and pikes, and Hartha took up his large boarding axe. I threw myself down the hallway to the cabins and to the sage's cabin. I knocked and he answered immediately. As I explained what would happen, his face darkened and he nodded slowly. He asked me to come and help him. He had me help him don his long, dark frock coat and enclose it, which at first shocked me, but then, upon hefting it, I found it to be unbearably heavy. He tucked his hand inside once again, took up his cane and followed me to the deck.

“Captain!” he called out when we emerged into the gray light of the overcast day.

“Sage,” the captain returned, approaching him from the stairs that led to the aft deck. He had tied his long hair into a tail and doffed his coat to give him the fullest range of motion possible. His skin was flushed with anticipation, as happened before any conflict at sea, and it made the scar across his neck stand out, livid and angry. “You should be belowdecks, a fight comes for us.”

“I have been told,” he responded, dryly. “I plan to stand at my cabin below, and wished to account for myself. How long do you believe it to be before the engagement begins?”

“We have an hour,” the captain said certainly. He grabbed his weapons from one of the men that ran by, his customary short, straight blade and a dirk, both of which he tucked into his sash. “Will you be able to defend yourself against the oncomers or should you need one of the men to stand with you?”

“Captain,” the sage said without a hint of offense in his voice, “I would hardly have been chosen to safeguard the Voyages of the Peregrine were I not capable.”

Upon hearing this, the captain blanched, as I felt myself do. The Voyages of the Peregrine was a book detailing the travels of the legedendary wanderer, the Peregrine, who had found hidden routes to any place in the world and provided the fearsome tactical advantage that made the Crown's territory as safe as it was. The foolhardy few that challenged the Crown found their homes destroyed by armies appearing if from nowhere. Only three copies were said to exist, one of which never left the palace and the others only deployed in times where their use would be necessary in war. It was a legend that even lowly sailors knew of and feared.

“Very well,” said the captain. “We will engage shortly.”

I could waste no time myself, and made my way to the arsenal, looking for a means to defend myself when the boarding parties arrived. When I arrived there, most weapons were gone. All the axes, the cutlasses and pistols were gone. What I did find, though, was a pair of long fighting knives, so I thrust them through my own belt and rushed to the deck and sought a place to make my place. I watched to see the captain directing men to the cannons and the men armed with muskets to pick of their like on other ships.

Daring found two of the ships drawing up alongside her flanks, while the last ship made to move to the stern of the ship. The two flanking ships drew up alongside and the captain gestured to Hartha, who bellowed the order to fire. With a series of dull booms and the whine of grapeshot, the cannons rocked back against their restraints and the crews leapt into action, reloading. That's when it struck me that the two ships hadn't fired back. I cast my looks left and right and found the ships to be entirely lacking in cannons. I didn't understand why they might draw alongside until I heard a crash and looked to see the prow of the third vessel strike the back of the ship. Mariners swept over the prow and onto our rear deck.

The captain knew that the maneuver was coming, and had formed enough men up to blunt the inital attack. The cannon crews changed their directive, leaving only one in three to man their cannons as Hartha bellowed that they switch to grapeshot to prevent more boarders from coming over from the other ships. I heard the crew shouting, bellowing encouragement. “Remember the Geat! Fight like the Geat!” I gained a new respect for the sage and understanding. Old stories inspiring the men around me, which would not have happened without him, and to a lesser extent, me. I felt a thrill of pride in the clash of steel around me.

It was then that the rest of the attackers from the last ship made their push and swarmed onto our decks. The line broke and our men fought against them in scattered pockets on the deck. I stood at the mouth of the hall to the cabins, hoping to guard my back. Three men swept over the rail and landed in front of me, cutlasses clasped in their fists and moved towards me. I swept the knives, blocking the lead man when I felt fire lance up my leg where one of the other men had stabbed my thigh. I staggered and fell, scooting away from them and trying to protect myself. In a desperate move, I rolled to the side, through the doors of one of the crew cabins. What I didn't realize is that I left the way open to where Sage Lucius stood in the hallway.

I could see through the doorway where he stood, looking cold and severe in his dark clothing, left hand still tucked inside the coat and his cane resting under his right. “Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “now is the opportunity for you to preserve your lives.” The men laughed and started forward. The sage sighed and twisted his right wrist and flicked the cane back, past his body, where part of it flew away, and left in his hand was a length of slender, gleaming steel. The man that had faced me paused but a moment. The other two attempted to move to attack, but his body blocked them, the hallway being too narrow for one man to pass another standing directly forward. The sage smoothly uncoiled towards them, the blade darting and took the man in the front in his right eye. His body went stock still, and crumpled to the deck, while the sage withdrew calmly, flicked the blade and splattered the man's blood on the deck before him. The other two men looked at their downed comrade, then up at him slowly. The two bellowed and tried to make their way forward. Again, the narrowness of the hallway worked in the sage's favor. They shoved, grunted and growled, trying to get past one another. With almost a smirk, Thanan let them work their way forward, then lunged again and thrust twice, taking both of them in the throat. He withdrew again, flicked the blood from his blade upon the floor in front of the two dying men and stood, relaxed and calm.

The attackers knew who they were looking for. Again and again, I would hear them shout that they had found him, and again and again, they would attempt to reach him. The bodies began to mount in the hall as he struck again and again. One man, nimble enough to actually make the challenge, leapt over the bodies to face the sage directly, but in the blood that was now soaking the floor in front of the calm Thanan, he slipped and ended up on his back, where an almost contemptuous thrust took him in the heart. Another man, great and hulking, shoved past the bodies lying in the hallway, and his heavy feet were unaffected by the blood, but the boarding axe clutched in his fist had no room to swing at his adversary, and the sage tsk'ed several times with a shake of his head and finished him with three quick strikes, hitting the arteries in both sides of the neck and taking out his throat.

I watched this in perplexed horror and amazement. The sage had picked his ground well, knowing what sort of attack he would face. Neither cutlass or axe could swing or move quickly enough against his thin rapier. Men with pikes had no room to use them in the body-strewn hallway, and often, the heads of these weapons were snapped off from their hafts. The pool of blood the sage created in flicking droplets from his blade served as another line of defense, but finally, I saw someone move to exploit the choice in terrain. A man appeared, looking down the hallway at the dead men and at the sage, who stood, confident and patient. This new assailant turned and took from the hands of another a musket with a bayonet on the end. He brandished it menacingly towards the sage, taunting him with the answer to the field where he made his stand. Instead of even seeming concerned, Lucius Thanan drew his left hand from inside his coat in a smooth motion, showing a flintlock pistol. The face of the man with the musket went slack and he scrambled to point the musket when the pistol ball took him in the face. Calmly, Thanan dropped the pistol, reached back into his coat and drew another pistol. However, the din of battle had faded and the next face to peer around the corner and, incidentally, down the barrel of the pistol was Hartha. Blood ran down his swarthy face and dripped from his axe, but he smiled.

“Come, Sage!” he shouted. “The day is ours!” Thanan nodded and turned, picked up the cover to his cane and slid it back onto his sword, then put both pistols back in his coat. He turned, looked at me and gave me a small, assured smile.

“How are you, boy? Is the wound serious?” His voice was steady, but I could hear the unyielding steel behind it. With smooth steps, he very carefully made his way to me and drew a kerchief from his pocket. I only then noticed the burning in my leg. I grabbed my shirt and ripped at the sleeve, bundling it to my leg while the sage tied it in place. As he moved, I heard several sharp, metallic sounds as his coat shifted. He looked at me, again with a small smile and put his hand back into his coat.

In the days that followed, I did not see the sage on deck. I was kept there so that the men could look in on me, check on my wound and so I could get the fresh air and sun they claimed I would need to recover properly. It was only on the day that land was finally spotted that he finally emerged. I sat at the mouth of the hallway where he had made his stand, and saw him step out, a small, narrow booklet in hand. He closed it and, with his left hand, tucked it into his coat again, and looked up to see me watching. He smiled again and walked past, his cane clicking against the deck.

“Captain!” he shouted as he stepped into the sunlight. “I need to suggest a course change. There is a hidden cove where our rendevous will take place.”

“Again, Lucius?” the captain said, one hand on his hip and the other tucked into an improptu sling where he had taken a wound to his arm. “This happened a few years ago when we had to make the trip, but that time, it was a cave.”

“I go where I am supposed to, captain.” Again, I was surprised. The two... knew each other, and had for years. This sage that I had thought over and over again I had figured out was definitely more than I could have ever thought.

That trip predated the successful efforts of the Crown in the War of the Wan Sea. That is the story I have to tell this night, the story I was a part of that changed the face of the world. Whenever you hear the stories of meeting one of the Sages, do not ever underestimate their capabilities.

No comments: