Sails filled with a solid south easterly wind, heeling Le Cheval to starboard. The strong breeze off her port quarter drove the ship quickly through the Hoppe Channel, throwing out spray to either side of her bow.
To the north, the city of Vendel, on the southernmost point of Vestenmennavenjar, slowly slid past. Normally Jan was mesmerized by the sight of the bustling activity of the ships coming and going at the busy seaport. But today, his gaze stayed locked on the western horizon.
Somewhere out there was Bera and the Windrider, but tracking a ship on the open sea wasn’t easy. He knew they were heading for Deschaine, but if it was true that the Montaigne city was under quarantine, it was impossible to predict what detours or distractions Captain Graulik would have had to react to, or what decisions he would make avoid those obstacles.
“Sail ho!” came a cry from the crow’s nest. Obviously there were a number of ships near the city to the north, so a surprised warning would obviously be a ship coming from the open ocean.
“Where away?” Jan yelled back.
“Off the starboard bow, tacking against the wind,” the lookout called back. Which meant that the ship was heading their way. It was improbable that a pirate would be hunting this close to a busy harbor. Even if it was, Le Cheval had the weather gauge, giving it a significant advantage. It was most likely a trading vessel making its way to Vendel from Avalon, or somewhere south. It took almost an hour to recognize that the ship did indeed fly a Vesten flag, allowing the crew to finally breathe a sigh of relief.
As they neared, both ships dipped their flags in a friendly salute. After identifying themselves with signal flags, Le Cheval closed to hailing distance. In return the other ship flew it’s identification as the Snelheid.
“Ahoy Snelheid,” Jan yelled through a speaking trumpet once they neared each other. “What’s your origin?”
“Port Borequen,” came the reply, “Off Colina Verde in the Atabean.” That meant that the Snelheid had had a long voyage.
“Have you spotted any other ships heading through the Trade Sea?” Jan asked. “Another Vesten trader, by the name of Windrider? I’m trying to track it!”
Jan watched as an older man in native garb stepped up to talk to the captain of the Snelheid. They conversed for a moment before the captain finally raised his own speaking trumpet again.
“Le Cheval, are you willing to come alongside?”
“Yes!” Jan snapped simply before turning his attention to his own crew.
Relatively quickly both ships turned into the wind. Their sails just began to luff before the topmen raced up the lines to take them in. Within minutes, both ships came along side each other. The smaller Le Cheval drifted with the current until it nudged gently against Snelheid. Lines were secured and planks were lowered over the railings to allow for easy access back and forth. Not waiting for the accommodations to be placed, Jan quickly used a halyard to swing across the expanse and catch one of the other ship’s staylines, stopping just short of stepping onto the opposite deck.
“Permission to come aboard?” he said to the Snelheid’s captain.
“Thanks for stopping. I’m Captain Karlsson.” said the man, offering his hand to Jan. The captain looked like a sturdy but slightly disheveled Vesten officer. Jan could tell that he had been a bit too long at sea by his missing buttons and the disorganized state of the deck, but mostly by the regrettable stench surrounding the fellow.
“Captain Jan Daarlsen. The pleasure is all mine.” Jan was normally polite to a fault, but in this case he was a little annoyed by the delay and anxious to get back on his way as soon as possible.
Captain Karlsson was savvy enough to pick up on Jan’s impatience. “I don’t mean to keep you captain, but you seemed to be on a heading to Montaigne. Might I ask if you are bound for Deschaine?”
Jan was a bit surprised by the question but saw no compelling reason to deny it. Besides, maybe he could gain some information. “Indeed. Although hoping to avoid any entanglements. Have you heard any news?”
“Oh no no no, captain. We’ve been in the Atebean for far too long. Just looking to get back to civilization. But you might be able to help me with a bit of a problem.” He guided Jan over to the side of the deck to be out of earshot of the crew. “You see that Atebean native over there?” He nodded towards Liren. “His names Liren. Good fella. I took him on as a deck hand back at Port Borequen and he’s made the voyage rather… interesting.” Jan glanced over at Liren. He was obviously too old to be a deck hand but he seemed the sort who must have been born on the sea. Captain Karlsson continued, “This guy claims he’s never been on a ship with more than one mast his whole life, but pretty soon I realizes this guy can do anything. He’s up and down the rigging like a monkey, he keeps pointing our helmsman to faster currents and he’s straight up replaced our chef. The best bit is he keeps throwing these long lines baited with god-knows-what off the stern. Really long lines. And he pulls up these… things. Creatures like I’ve never seen before. He cooks ‘em up at night and I’ll be damned if they don’t taste just like steak. The problem is, he’s spooked some of the crew. He makes the Castellians nervous and the Vodacce working below deck think he’s “touched” or some nonsense. So half the crew is terrified of him and the other half wants to go back for seconds.”
Jan sighted a bit and said, “Fascinating captain but I’m not sure how I can help with your problem here.”
“Well for a quiet guy he’s real friendly like and keeps the crew up all hours telling stories about some ship he is chasing after named the Resolution. Quartermaster spent some time throwing dice with a bosun from the Resolution and it turns out her official destination was listed as Deschaine. Now I’ve tried telling him that a ship off to no good like a slaver vessel isn’t very likely to file correct paperwork, if you get my meaning. But this little guy, he ain’t having any of it. He sees your ship heading toward Montaigne and he asks me all polite like if he can put on with your ship. Now I tells him that’s not how this works and he won’t get paid if he doesn’t stick with us to port. He says I can keep his share and he’s only interested in getting to Deschaine. So I figure if I can send him off with you, I don’t have to pay him. And with him being so keen on this quest of his, if you play your cards right you won’t have to pay him either.”
Upon realizing that the point of this entire delay was so Captain Karlsson could save a few guilders, Jan’s annoyance finally broke through his polite veneer. “Look, we are really in a rush here and I’m afraid I don’t have the time or inclination to take on any additional passengers. Your crewman will just have to…” Jan noticed that the old Atebean native was no longer on standing on the deck. A quick scan found him leaning on the railing back on Le Cheval.
Jan let out a much more profound sigh and quickly evaluated his options. He could have him detained and removed easily enough, but it would end up taking even more time than he had already wasted. This man represented no obvious impediment to his mission so it might be best to just get back under sail as soon as possible.
“Excuse me sir. Liren was it?” Jan yelled across the gap.
“Aye Sir.” called the steely mariner.
“Permission to come aboard, “Captain” Liren?” Jan quipped as he grabbed a line to swing himself back over.
“Granted sir.” Liren said with a deferential bow. “But be quick about it. We have no time to waste.”
Jan dropped softly back on La Cheval with a practiced ease and replied, “I’m glad we agree on that. Once we are underway, maybe you can tell me all about this quest of yours.”
It had been three days since Liren and his crew hauled the Kaua up from the depth. Three days of pleasant seas and squid entrails. Even though hardly any of the colossal beast had been thrown back to the waves, there was no sign of the Kaua on the deck anymore. Every part from the arms to the beak had been cut up and divided into various barrels and pots that now mostly filled the crew cabin. The only sounds being the gentle lapping of the waves and the murmured thanks being given by the crew as they diligently performed the gruesome task. With the exception of the boy, the crew were seasoned and did not need Liren to tell them what to do. They all had their own strength and courage to draw from and this is why no one was lost to the Kaua this time. Hunting on the Atebean Sea was always dangers and losing men was unusual, but not unknown. Such is the way of life for the Rahuri.
Ever since the hunt, Liren had been uneasy and even before they were within sight of the village, he knew something wasn’t quite right. Manchu was his neighbor who always fished by himself in this part of the bay and his tiny boat was nowhere to be seen. And there should be a cloud of seagulls circling high above the dock as the fishermen clean their catch all day. Liren growled “Get the oars men. We need to get back to the village now.” It was the first thing he had said all day.
When they were two miles out, they could see that most of the buildings were gone. All that remained were burnt skeletons of the frames. The lack of smoke told Liren that whatever had happened here occurred days ago. They rowed facing backwards but every man on the crew crew strained their necks to glimpse the ruined town. A bit closer and they could see that most of the ships were missing. Only a few of the smallest ships remained tied to the docs. Liren pulled the oars as hard as he could but could not resist the urge to steal another glance over his shoulder at the village. This time he saw two figures waiting for them at the end of the dock.
As they pulled their ship up to the dock they were met by a young woman that Liren recognized from the village and her boy. Liren approached them but he gathered what had happened before she said a word. “They took them in the night.” the woman said.
She told the hunters of how three nights ago, a huge foreign vessel arrived in the bay with the name “Resolution” written on her bow in huge red letters. The villagers were wary as foreigners generally trade with the port city to the south. As the strongest hunter in the village, Yacachu gathered the warriors together to meet the foreigners at the docs. They were not expecting a fight, but traders still told tale of slavers raiding Borquen villages. The ship lowered longboats into the bay and the tension grew among the warriors. You don’t need three longboats to trade. As the long boats made their way closer, the first explosion hit the dock and sank an empty fishing ship. The canons continued to rain fire on on the town as most of the villagers fled into their houses or into the jungle. The warriors fell back from the docks, but as the longboats hit the beach, the warriors descended on them with a stunning fury.
The woman said that the fighting was fierce and many of the foreigners were killed, but in the end they tied up the remaining villagers and began taking them back to their ship. Once that was complete, the ship left on a course eastward back to the Serpent Sea. Only about a dozen villagers remain among those that fled into the forest. Liren shook his head and noticed the rows of newly dug graves on the beach. Liren walked over to them in a daze and the woman told him who she had buried in each grave. She named the village elders first. Liren barely noted that he now the oldest survivor of the village and thus the new village elder. She named a few others who had resisted the slavers and then listed all of the warriors that fell in battle, ending with Yacachu. Fully half of the villagers rested in the graves before him and were now travelling to Soryana, the land of the ancestors.
The woman placed her hand on Liren’s shoulder and added, “On the night after the attack, Yacachu and the warriors took a ship and left to follow the slavers.”
The breath left Liren and he fell to his knees in the sand. It is not uncommon for the spirits of the dead to remain for a while before departing for their journey to Soryana. Almost everyone knows someone who has received a message from an ancestor. These are usually delivered through tree frogs who whisper them in the night. Sometimes the ancestors return directly to help with a hunt or complete unfinished business. These things are well known among the Rahuri. But the departed hunters were pursuing the slavers into the Serpent Sea. Any ancestors who leave the Atebean Sea soon go mad. His friends and comrades would be lost to wander forever, surely a fate worse than death.
Liren was not a man prone to rash action, but he knew something must be done. Someone must find the slave ship Resolution and someone must bring home all of his family, both living and dead. As he knelt in the sand, his path began to crystallize before him. He must find a ship worthy of sea voyage. He would take a fishing boat and sail it to Port Borquen. Once there, he would find a ship and leave the Atebean Sea. Because Yacachu was chasing the Resolution, he would follow both at once and he with a cold knot of certainty he knew he would pursue them to the ends of Thea if necessary.
“No coin, no grog!” snarled the barkeep. He was an ugly, twisted man who spit whenever he spoke and Liren could hardly hear him over the din of the surrounding crowd.
“This is going to be a problem.”, thought Liren. Although he was aware of the concept of money and had even coins to trade at various times in the past, they were not typically used in his village. In his haste to pursue the Resolution, he had not considered what the rest of the world readily accepted, that you need money to get anything done. He paused a moment and asked the barkeep, “I have a ship tied up out back. Can you tell me where I can sell it to get some golders?”
This set the barkeep off on a fit of laughing and coughing that continued for far too long to be genuine. “You mean you had a ship, grandpa.” and pointed out the back window. “I don’t see nuttin’ out there now. Maybe you left your guilders on the boat? Hahahaw!”
Liren ran out the door and around back to the pier. Indeed the fishing boat he tied up a mere three minutes before was now nowhere to be found. He felt his anger growing. How could this happen? His quest was noble and must assuredly be blessed by the ancestors. Unless… maybe he was wrong. Maybe they were trying to tell him to return and attempt to rebuild the village. To leave his kin to their fate. He inhaled deeply to calm himself, but even here on this dock, he could not smell the sea, only the wretched stench of “civilization”. When he exhaled it sounded like a profound sigh.
“Excuse me.” It was a young Atebean man with an eyepatch who stood alone behind Liren on the dock. He wore the clothes of the foreigners, but seemed to have a light to his smile. “My friend here told me to buy you a drink. It looks like you need it.” In one hand he extended a full mug of ale out for Liren. “My name is Osro the Drunk” he stated, although he was clearly sober. With his other hand he placed a small green tree frog on a nearby railing and when Liren saw it, he knew this man was a part of the ancestor’s plan.
“Many thanks to you and your ancestors.” said Liren as he took the mug and drank deeply. “I am Liren and this has not been a good day.”
“So tell me your story Liren.” said Osro with a smile, “The little guy was a bit short on details.”
Osro calmly listened to Liren’s story, although he scowled and spat when he heard the name of the slaver ship, Resolution. “Your story is not as uncommon as you might think my friend.” remarked Osro at the end. “Walk with me.” And with that they headed west to where the great shipping vessels were docked. Osro continued, “I’m sure the tales of slavers has reached even your village, but you may not know that they are but a small part of a very evil organization. The Atebean Trading Company, known around here as ATC, has a long history of stealing our people with one hand and selling us goods with the other. Sometimes it’s just fishing ships that disappear in the night, other times it’s entire villages packed up and sold to the highest bidder. They prefer to take people from isolated places so that the news doesn’t spread as quickly. They have an image to uphold after all.”
“If this is known throughout the islands, how can they do business with the Boriqua?” asked Liren with genuine confusion.
“Some of us cannot believe the tales of their treachery as they have never known true evil in Atebean men. Others take wealth from the outsiders and choose to look the other way. They choose to believe that the ones who are taken are “primitive” and no longer suited to the modern world. Other times we choose to fight. I choose to fight.” Osro said with a grin. “And I am not alone. Together we are known as the Riroco and we fight the Company whenever and wherever we can.” His face began to beam with pride as he continued, “Their ships are mighty and nearly indestructable at sea, but we find their crew when they make port and show them the error of their ways. Sometimes we find allies to infiltrate their ranks and sabotage their ships from within. Do you see that?” Osro pointed off into the bay where a prow of a ruined ship could be seen jutting up from the waves. “That was me. Well, it was us. But mostly me. I did the hard part.”
He slapped Liren on the back and gave a hearty laugh. “And now the ancestors have delivered you to me. When we need new allies the most. Can you swing that sword old man? Together we will cut them down all across the Sea of Monsters! We will make them shake when they say our names! Liren, we will have revenge for your people!”
Liren stopped in the street and looked out over the sea to the east. The sun was setting and the vast horizon knew nothing of what he had endured. “I care nothing for revenge. I understand your calling and I wish you valor and glory against your foes. But my people will only be lost if I stop looking for them. I must go east to the Serpent Sea, to the lands of the foreigners. I must follow the Resolution wherever it may lead. I must bring the living back to our village and bring the dead to Soryana. And although I have never killed a man before, I fear I may kill many on the Resolution.”
Osro smiled, “I liked that last bit. Well, we can fight the same battle even if we do not fight together. Maybe that blasted frog brought me to you and not the other way around. I think I can help.” He lead Liren down the docks in the dying daylight, before them loomed a massive 3 masted galleon. It flew the Vesten flag and the bow read Snelheid. It was far, far larger than any ship Liren ever sailed.
“I could fit my whole village in there.” said Liren before the irony of the statement had dawned on him.
“Not all of the foreigners are devils. Some just want trade with us. It turns out that the rest of the world doesn’t have sea creatures as large and as tasty as ours.” They reached the gangplank and Osro lead the way up. “The captain is a friend of mine and they are bound somewhere back east. Perhaps you can continue your chase there? He’s looking for crew. Can you sail a ship?”
For the first time in a long while, Liren smiled.