Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Masks of Shandar: Chapter 1, Section 2

The Masks of Shandar
Chapter 1, Section 2

Jheghende’s quiet flight through the city took him on a route that was kind of familiar, but not exactly. In trying to make his way to the docks, he tried to keep to the back alleys and off of main streets. Maybe his little trick had bought him enough time, but then again, perhaps it had not.  He kept having to dash back into the alleyways when old habits led him back onto the open streets in the moonlight.  In his terror, he kept trying to go back to the familiar ways, trying to find comfort in the routine of doing things he’d done for years. Except, that might get him killed.

He crept up one alley, carefully stepping around a pile of refuse that had a smell he didn’t care to try and identify.  As he did, something inside shifted, and Jheghende took off at a run.  He’d heard stories about what lurked on the low streets of Shandar: cutthroats and mongrel dogs were the nicer variety of options.  Already exhausted from the blade practice earlier in the day, he only made it down the alley and around the corner before he had to stop and breathe.  

He leaned against the building wall, trying to catch his breath.  He almost slumped over, hands on knees, to gasp for air, but his fear kept his head up.  And that’s when his eyes fell upon the harbor.  It was scarcely a block away.  Dark masks jutted up into the night like needles, stark against the full moon and cloudless sky.  Getting a little of his wind back, Jheghende carefully walked forward.  He absently patted at his bag, at his pouch, and at his blades, feeling that he still had everything.  He also, very carefully, reached into his pouch and dug into his coinpurse.  He stopped only a moment, glancing at what he drew out.  A gold ring glittered up at him.  Probably too much for passage, but perhaps enough to not have questions asked.  He curled his hand around it, and then set off down the docks, looking for ships with lights burning in the night.

He passed by a heavy-hulled Andoly ship.  While they were formidable and probably crewed by Andolmen, they were not nimble or fast.  He doubted they would be willing to fight on behalf of some random passenger.  Or maybe they would.  The denizens of Andol were inclined towards the concept of honor.  But he still felt safer with a faster ship.  He also passed by several Shandral-flagged vessels; he had no way of knowing who it was that had attacked his home and if they would have an ally on any given Shandral ship.  Jheghende considered, and thought his best choice to be a swift Jenar ship.

The Jenar were the uncontested masters of the Rune Sea.  The Sea itself, that is.  They couldn’t match the might of Andoly infantry, Shandral cavalry or the array of Cyndral legions.  However, even with the craftsmanship of the Shandral vessels, the sheer mass and might of the Andoly warships, the Jenar’s ships were nimble, fast, and unmatched on the oceans.  A fleet of Jenar vessels may find the bad end of a fight should they become entangled with other ships, but they were simply amazing when it came to maneuvering and hammering other vessels to tinder.  Of course, this was all from what Jheghende had read about the Jenar and their vessels.  There were a few tales here and there of the success of the Shandral Navy or the Andoly Armada, but those were remarkable not only for their scarcity but for the tactics at play in those stories.

Jheghende came across a small two-masted Jenar sloop.  On board, alchemical lights burned, hanging on the rigging and shedding light all around.  Mustering his courage, Jheghende walked up the gangplank from the dock.  He crossed the rail when arrived, and found a ship very much in motion.  Men walked back and forth, carry crates or lines.  Others were adjusting sails, while still more were prepping lines for departure.  Two sets of eyes locked onto the youth that had just boarded their ship.  One was a tall, lean man with a hard, angled face and a dark beard lining his jaw.  However, underneath his tri-corner hat was a mass of curls in intensely blonde curls that stood as stark contrast to his dark beard and sun-darkened hair.  However, his dark, intense eyes robbed the visage of its humor.  Next to him was a shorter, wider man with a head and jaw covered in short, dark stubble.  The second man’s arms looked like they were made of nautical rope themselves and ended in heavy, thick fingered hands.

The shorter man nodded to the captain and walked over to Jheghende, eyeing the blades hanging at his belt.  The man had a very confident walk and didn’t slow his approach even after looking at the weapons.  “So, tell me, lad,” he said in a harsh voice, “what in the hells do you think you’re doing here?”

Jheghende swallowed before answering.  “I’m looking to buy passage.”
“Passage, lad?”  The man almost laughed in incredulity.  “There will be a slew of ships in the mornin’ that will be happy to take on a passenger.”

“I’d like to leave tonight,” Jheghende said, trying to make his voice as firm as he could.

The man chuckled again.  “Ah hah.  You don’t even know where we’re heading to.”

“I don’t care,” Jheghende said.  

The man’s face seemed to darken and take on new shadows in the ship’s lights.  “We aren’t going to put up with trouble on this ship.”

“I’m not causing trouble,” Jheghende said.  “Bad memories I’m trying to leave behind.”

The man tilted his head up slowly.  “Can you pay?”

Jheghende very carefully lifted his curled hand and showed the man the gold ring.  

“You might want to be careful showing gold around the docks, lad.”

“If I can buy passage out of here, I won’t have gold to flash around,” Jheghende said, hoping that the lie wouldn’t be transparent.  “But I’d rather do it that way.”

The shorter man nodded slowly, then turned his back to Jheghende and walked back to the tall me.  Try as he might, Jheghende couldn’t hear more than a word here or there.  Captain, passage, space, deck.  The tall man spoke in a quiet, deep voice that resonated but was indistinct.  The shorter man nodded and crossed the deck back to Jheghende.

“Alright, lad, the captain says you can buy passage, but you’ll have to bunk in a storage locker.”

“That’s fine,” Jheghende.  “Just show me where that is and I’ll stay out of your way.”

“Aye, that sounds like a good plan,” the man replied.  “I’m First Mate Knuckes.  That over here,” he said, tilting his head towards the tall man, “is Captain Storm.  Welcome aboard the Stormwind.”  With that, Jheghende pressed the ring of narrow, spun gold into the first mate’s hand.

True to his word, Jheghende kept back and out of the way, tucking himself away by the stairs leading to the quarter deck.  He watched as the men moved back and forth like a well-trained unit.  After a mere half hour, the ship was under way, setting out in the night on a placid sea with quiet winds.  The captain stood at the rail of the quarter deck, at the center of the ship.  At the prow stood a man with his hands glowing with power.  Winds seemed to ripple from his gesture and lights flared where he pointed.  The ship’s storm mage was checking the way out of the harbor, cautious even in perhaps the most open, clear harbor in the Rune Sea.

The winds rippled the sails of the small ship and it swept out of the harbor, quiet like drawing a piece of velvet across a table.  Once past the harbor mouth, and out on the open sea, the Stormwind picked up speed, knifing through the water.  Finally under full sail, Knuckles came to Jheghende and led him below decks.  He walked towards the rear of the vessel and threw back the curtain to a small alcove. Inside hung a simple cloth hammock and a sconce on the wall for an alchemical light. With a grateful nod, Jheghende closed the curtain, slid onto the hammock and let the grip of exhaustion take him. There, he slept, one hand wrapped around the messenger bag and the other resting on the hilt of his dagger.

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