Friday, October 20, 2017

The Masks of Shandar; Chapter 1, Part 4

The Masks of Shandar
Chapter 1, Part 4

    In the days following, Skulk managed to find an amicable arrangement with the crew of the Stormwind: he stayed out of their way and they left him to his own devices. He’d dine with the crew in the evenings, and made attempts to be a little sociable, but he found that there was little in common between them.
    The most interesting thing he’d been able to determine was why the Stormwind seemed an oddity to him. From what he’d read in the past, most Jenar families had small formations of ships that traveled together. One ship would be devoted to being the cargo vessel, another was the crew quarters, one was the captain’s ship and one or two small ships that were outfitted for fighting should the need arise. Stormwind sailed alone, something that seemed to gnaw at Skulk’s thoughts. He he unwittingly joined onto a pirate ship? The men that served on Captain Storm’s ship weren’t exactly unfriendly, but they were hard men. Many of them wore scars, broken noses, or the sunken knuckles of tavern brawlers. Over dinner on a quiet night with little wind, Skulk was sitting with a woman that was called Crow because she preferred to be on lookout duty on top of the main mast.

    “Ah, ye noticed,” the Jenar said, half smirking around a bite of biscuit. “No, we don’t sail in formation. Cap’n Storm isn’t a typical Jenar.” Crow looked around a bit for a moment. “See, lad, here’s the thing. We ain’t traders, and we ain’t pirates. We’re pirate hunters. Traveling like we do means that we have the chance to find, catch, and… ahem… deal with pirates we might find.” Crow gestured out to the sea, waving a piece of jerky how a teacher would gesture with a classroom pointer. “Out here, on the seas, there be some sorry folk that don’t give enough of a damn to make an honest life. They hunt the folks that be tryin’ to make their own way. And they love to see a lone ship on the sea.”
    Skulk nodded slowly. “So, it’s a trap, then? The whole ship is basically a trap to lure in pirates?”

    “Aye,” said Crow. She bit off another piece of biscuit before continuing. “See, when it comes to life out here, there be more Jenar doing anything than anyone else. But pirates are the ragged bastard outcasts of Jenar life, Guide spit on their souls. Lots of pirate ships ain’t crewed by full Jenar, who know their rigging and lines from the time they learn to walk. They’re crewed by anyone that signs on, so there be folk of every type on ‘em, and they don’t want to have a stand up fight with a full Jenar formation. Cap’n got his commission from the Grand Admiral, and outfitted Stormwind to be just what ye want for the task.”

    “If that’s the case, why take me on as a passenger?”

    “Lad, ye came on the ship right before departure and paid gold. Cap’n has a commission, but he’s still a Jenar.”
    And, so, the Stormwind sliced through the waves on the way to Eumoyn. Skulk imagined what it would be like, to be aboard the ship during an action against pirates. Could he hold his own with his blades, or would he be better off remaining hidden away from what was happening? Could it be that the pirates might work for whoever had killed his parents? He spent long hours trying to consider as much as he could, ultimately coming up with very little.

    A couple of days after his conversation with Crow, a call went up from the masts of the ship. “Starboard! Sails and masts!” came the cry, and the ship immediately began a long, sweeping turn towards the sighted vessel. Sails billowed and the ship seemed to leap into action, like a predator chasing prey.

    Skulk took one look towards the direction indicated and headed below decks. He still wasn’t sure what good he’d be, but he knew he had to be prepared. He went to his hammock and picked up his sword belt from where he’d hung it from one of the hooks the hammock was anchored to. It had seemed pointless to carry the blades while on the Stormwind. If the crew was going to be hostile, there was nowhere for him to go. If they weren’t hostile, why bother carrying the blades? He belted it on, feeling the reassuring weight of the scabbards hanging on his left side. He carefully nudged the blades from their sheaths, making sure they still drew smoothly, and headed back above.

    It took Stormwind a couple of hours to finally reach the sighted vessel. As they drew near, Skulk started looking for details of what they were sailing towards. It was a lone ship, he saw, three masted and a great, hulking ship. It looked to him like one of the ships of Shandral make, and Skulk felt a chill run down his spine. But, the ship sat, unmoving. Captain Storm had come to the fore of the ship and uncased his spyglass. He stood still for many moments, barely moving, before collapsing it and tucking it back into a pocket.

    “Be prepared, men,” he said. His voice carried across the deck, drawing the mens’ eyes. “It looks to be abandoned, so this may be a trap of some sort. Arm and armor, mount the rail crossbows and prepare to board!” With these words, the crew split in many directions. Men and women began hauling up the large, heavy crossbows Skulk had seen below. They mounted into steel brackets on the railings with the sharp snap of metal on metal and powerful springs. They were armed in a sequence. Every third crossbow had a grappling hook and line loaded, which the others were mounted with heavy, wicked-looking quarrels. After these were mounted, crew came up from below, wearing the leathers and cutlasses typical of Jenar sea action. The big folks that had brought up the crossbows then vanished below, rotating with the other crew just now returning. Skulk didn’t see the large crew members return, and the crew populating the deck began to work the lines and bring Stormwind closer.

    As they came alongside the other vessel, they saw no sign of activity. Ropes lay on the deck, unsecured. Rigging and sails sagged in the wind. The air itself even seemed to be very still. The captain looked over the deck with hard eyes, then nodded to Knuckles.

    “Ahoy the ship!” Knuckles bellowed out. And then, there was plenty of activity.

    Men seemed to boil up out of the other ship. They streamed onto the deck, holding hatchets, sabers, clubs, and spears. They came up from the ports to below, they came out of cargo hatches, they swarmed out of the captain’s cabin, filling the deck. And each and every one of them had a black masked tied over their face. Skulk’s blood seemed to chill in his veins.

    The captain looked unimpressed with the show of force on the larger vessel. “I am captain of pirate hunter Stormwind,” he said in a deep, resonant voice that carried over the din. “This is your one chance to surrender.”

    A big, swarthy man elbowed his way through the mass. He was broad, with skin like tanned leather and an ornate blade in his fist. “You’re speaking to the captain of the Black Mask! We’re here for the boy!” he shouted. “Give him over and we won’t kill the lot of you!”

    The captain turned his eyes to Skulk, and Skulk seemed to feel himself shrinking under that hard gaze. Captain Storm held his hard gaze for a moment, then turned back to the other ship. “Very well,” he said. Both crews seemed to stop for a moment in surprise. Skulk’s stomach dropped. “You had your chance.”

    And with that, all the hells broke loose on the sea.

    The rest of Stormwind’s crew swept up from below decks. The bigger folk who had hauled up the crossbows, clad in studded leathers and holding weapons of their own. The crew already on deck stepped to the rail, lifting the crossbows in their mountings. Crossbows fired. Wicked, heavy quarrels flew into the massed enemy crew. Men that had expected a quick surrender to their show of force had nowhere to move as the bolts pierced their way through men three deep. The crossbows fitted with grapples remained loaded, tilted back in their mountings.

    Captain Storm and the ship’s storm mage, a small woman everyone called Windy, then raised their hands. Power crackled in the air before them for a brief moment before bolts of blue-white lightning lashed out at the other vessel. Bodies flew at the impact, and then, the surprise was over and the fight began in earnest.

    Men from the Black Mask threw lines equipped with hooks into the rigging and leapt, swinging from them. These men and women were brave, or stupid, and their swings ended on the spears and polearms of Stormwind crew, waiting for just such an attack. Other men hoisted boards overhead, their ends fixed with vicious hooks. They flung the far end over the water and the hooks bit into the railings on both ships, creating small gangways between the ships. Black Mast crew swarmed at these to cross, again, meeting the pikes and spears of Stormwind’s defenders, but their numbers were too heavy to be denied, and the fighting spilled out onto the deck. Their shouts and howls filled the air, with the smell of angry humanity on its heels.
    Skulk drew his blades smoothly, trying to keep his breathing even as he had been taught by an old duelist. All over the deck, crews of the two ships collided with the clang of steel and the shouts of a fight. And one man emerged from the mass, stepping towards Skulk, wielding a long, heavy club with bands of iron encircling it. The man swung and Skulk opted to avoid the impact, skipping and ducking to one side to avoid the diagonal swing of the massive skull-cracker. When it hit the deck with a solid smack, Skulk stepped in, swinging his short sword. He kept the dagger angled in front of his chest as he swung, drawing the blade of his sword across the wrist of the other man. Well, he had intended to, but in his excitement, he ended up dragging the edge across the man’s forearm. The man howled in pain, but it didn’t destroy the grip of that hand like Skulk had hoped.

    The other man snarled and began to heft the club back up. Skulk looked at the massive weapon and quickly stomped a foot down on top of it, slamming it back to the deck. The other man had looked down to see what had stopped him from raising his weapon, just in time to see the bell guard of the dagger coming at him. The punch caught him on the bridge of the nose, snapping it with a sound lost in the general chaos of the fight around them.

    As the first man staggered back, another man from the Black Mask shoved him aside and surged forward. When his eyes fell on Skulk, they seemed to light with realization. In his hands, he hefted a long handled axe. Skulk had seen them before, usually on hand for cutting masts or spars that might become damaged or tangled. The thought of them cutting into flesh and bone was too horrifying for him to ignore. As the axe head swung, Skulk hopped back, out of its way. He’d hoped that the axe bit would get stuck in the deck, but the man was able to arrest his swing and step forward. This time, he swung across his body, aiming for Skulk’s shoulder or neck. The young man ducked with an undignified yelp, and the swing passed over head. The man then swung a foot up and caught Skulk in the chest, flinging him to the deck. With a vicious grin, he stepped forward, lifting his axe.

    A set of massive hands wrapped around the axe haft just below the head and pulled. The pirate turned, shocked, to find one of Stormwind’s crew. A huge man that the crew referred to as Tiny clutched the axe in one hand, and grabbed the former wielder by the throat. With a pivot, he flung the man into the mass of fighting. He looked down at Skulk and reached down, gripping his vest, and hauled Skulk to his feet. Without a word, Tiny turned back to the fighting, throwing his new axe into another pirate.

    Skulk took the moment to look around at the fight. Windy stood on the steps to the rear deck with a small group of men blocking the stairway while she flung bolts of magical energy around her. The captain stood in the midst of the fight, blade in one hand and magical power glowing around the other. At his gesture, a blast of wind issued forth from that hand and threw three men off the edge of the ship. The crew of the Black Mast had the numbers, but they it looked like they were used to overwhelming guards on merchant ships with numbers. The crew of Stormwind was a collection of hardened men and women who had made it their lives to hunt people like these. Skill and experience waged war with sheer numbers and mass all across the deck of the ship, and Skulk felt incredibly out of place.

    That’s when a lancing pain struck his left leg and he dropped to the deck. A a short man in a black mask had slipped through the fight and his hand still glowed with a small amount of magical power. He’d flung it into Skulk’s leg, just above the knee, which left Skulk kneeling on the deck, biting back a scream. The short man stepped forward, hefting a slender blade made for stabbing. He made his way towards Skulk with almost a casual indifference. He lifted his blade calmly, pointing the blade at Skulk’s chest and then lifting the hilt to propel the downward thrust.

    Skulk felt his mind seem to detach. Everything happening around him seem to fade away and all he could see was the man in front him and the blade in his hand. Without thinking, his hands began to move in the drill the old dueling master had taught him. He swept his dagger across his body, dislodging the sword from where it had been pointed against his ribcage, and at the same time, swept his sword up at the other man’s hand holding the blade. The parry caused the man’s wrist to extend and the blade swung true, slicing against the muscles and tendons and causing the blade to drop from his limp hand. Skulk then lurched up and stabbed with his dagger, up under the ribcage and angled. The other man’s eyes had bulged and he began to scream when the first strike landed, but now, he seemed to gag at the stab. He started to pitch forward, his good hand losing the magical glow as it clutched the blade that had just pierced his heart. He collapsed on top of Skulk, his lifeblood flowing freely and his eyes glazing over.

    Skulk struggled and squirmed underneath the other man, but the limp form combined with the slick blood and his hurt leg kept him from being able to work himself free. He lay there, watching as the magical power faded from the other man’s hand as his life drained away. It had surrounded his hand, glowing like a soft lantern. Skulk eye’s seemed to fasten onto it, watching that glow. He worked one of his hands free and reached up to touch the glow as it faded. As his skin touched the glow, pieces seemed to fall together in his mind. He had seen people using magics before, but never understood how it had worked. He’d never gone to a tutor for it, he’d never read about it. But here, the power that he touched as it died away seemed to cause something in his awareness to unlock and Skulk understood the ability. He closed his eyes and lay his head back, feeling safe in the moment. Who would bother with two dead looking men on the deck in this fray? He thought about touching that power again, and found that he had a small reserve of it, seemingly appearing in the back of his mind.

    The shouts and scuffles of boots nearby snapped his eyes open, and he watched as a man fell near him, a small hole in his throat. He turned his head in time to see Captain Storm extend his hand again and throw another small dart of light that leapt out, striking another man. The second man took the spell on his arm, and stumbled, holding what looked like a burned hole in his arm. His mind seemed to whirl with what he had seen again. The captain had taken a small piece of that power and thrown it. He prodded that small reserve, finding that he could mentally draw a bit of it out. His free hand began a soft glow of its own.
    The man with the burned arm swore and reached into his sash, drawing out a long, slender pistol. He lifted it and leveled it towards the captain, who had turned and thrust his blade into another attacker. The captain’s eyes swung back to see the pistol aiming at him, and his hard face seemed to pale slightly. Skulk hissed and made a motion with his hand, like flicking water from his fingers, and a small dart of power flew and struck the pirate between his shoulder blades. The man dropped to his knees and collapsed on his face. Skulk looked towards the captain, unsure if the pistol shot might have gone off, to see Storm’s hard eyes meet his own. The captain gave him a slight nod.

    All over the ship, the crew of the Black Mask was finding itself bested by the crew of Stormwind. Experienced fighters were using every dirty trick they knew. Some guided the strikes of their attackers with parries that put the strikes into their comrades. Some used the momentum of the attackers to pitch them overboard. Still others used the environment around them, hooking blades on ropes or bouncing men off of masts, to create opportunities. Skulk struggled anew, trying to free himself from where he’d been caught, finally using his good leg to push his way free. He crawled across the deck and took the fallen pirate’s pistol. He turned, looking for more attackers, only to see the remaining crew of the Black Mask dropping weapons in surrender. He drew a slow breath and dropped back on the deck.

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