Chapters 11 – 20

Chapters 11 – 20

She Wolves and the Son of Nine Dragons

Continued from Parts 1 – 10

11     Visions and Desperations

Everyone on the aft-deck watched Honour intently as she began to tell the tale of her vision. While Viridian and Jonneran had both heard it before, they nonetheless paid close attention, absorbed by the details, as though the vision were about them. Honour herself stood with one hand upon the gangway rail, steadying herself against the rocking of the waves as the Puffing Bey steamed southward through the coastal shallows.

“My dream begins at a manor house,” Honour said. “It is a fine building, built for a noble family. There is an enclosed courtyard, with a high wall and a strong gate. I am in the courtyard, but in the vision I am not a woman; I am a dog, a puppy hound.”

Garreck gave an snort of a laugh, but his humour was cut short as he realized that no one else present shared his amusement. Honour gave him a withering glance of unrestrained contempt and in response he sank down to the deck, sitting with his back against the sides. He studied the decking, eyes down, avoiding her gaze.

“Yes, I am a puppy in my vision,” Honour continued. “I play in the morning light; there is food and water for me in the courtyard. It is lonely, but I am content. Sometimes, over the wall I can hear the baying of wild dogs, or wolves. Then the day begins to wane, the sun dips beneath the wall, and the shadows lengthen. In the late afternoon, my owner comes into the courtyard and his face is concealed in shadows. I am happy at first, and I run to play at his feet but he does not play with me. Instead he takes me by the scruff of the neck and hauls me to the courtyard gate. Before I even realize what is happening, he throws me out beyond the wall.”

A single tear formed in the corner of Honour’s eye as she recounted this part of her vision. The sense of loneliness and rejection in the scene she was recounting seemed palpable to all listening. Matthias closed his eyes, cocking his head to one side to show that he was still listening.

“The day finally ends and I am left whimpering at the gate, in the darkness,” Honour explained. “Soon though I hear the baying of the wolves and I am afraid. A pack of them gathers about me and I expect to be devoured. Instead, they bring me food, a fresh kill, and they invite me to share in their meal. As I eat with the wolves I realize that I am not a hound. I too am a wolf; I am one of them. I tear the flesh with vehemence and as I eat, I grow from a puppy to a she-wolf. I eat with my pack and then I run with them into the nighted of the forest, unafraid of the darkness.

“In the pack are two other she-wolves and we are especially close, we three. The pack gathers about us; we are its core, its heart. We hunt and range together, strong and unafraid. Then, nearing midnight, a shadow comes amongst us and one of my sister wolves is stolen away. We two who remain, we snarl and wail, but the shadow ignores us and swiftly disappears into the woods. The pack tries to follow, tracking our sister’s scent, but soon we are lost. As we race through the woods, hoping to catch her scent, we come to a frozen lake. In the middle of the lake is an island. Between the woods and the lakeshore, the hoarfrost glistens on the rocky ground.

“In the moonlight we see another wolf, a stranger to us, upon the stony shore. He is a mighty timberwolf, with a thick pelt of grey and black. His eyes glitter in the moonlight and he has claws of iron. He does battle with shadows as we meet him, shadows like the one that has stolen our sister. He rends the shadows and they attack him without mercy. Then he defeats them and they do him homage, then they withdraw into the woods.

“My sister and I stalk forward with the rest of our pack and the wolf with iron claws leads us across the ice to the island in the lake. He sniffs the air and finds our sister for us; she is safe. The pack crosses back over the lake. As we do the shadows emerge from the woods again, but the wolf with iron claws howls a challenge and we all do battle with the shadows. Together we win through the darkness and flee into the woods, to our freedom.”

Honour fell silent in the telling of her tale. Viridian watched her friend with a mixture of pride and concern, feeling her vulnerability, but respecting it as well. Matthias stood quietly, his eyes still closed. Garreck still stared at the deck, not really taken with the story, but unwilling to break the atmosphere again. Jonneran though leaned forward eagerly.

“Tell them the rest,” he urged. Honour cast a slow look at him, but eventually nodded her assent.

“When the four of us go into the woods together, the timberwolf and I…,” she stumbled over her words, losing her way in the story for the first time. “Uh…the…ah…wolf…the wolf with iron claws and I…we…ah…we mate. There’s more, but I don’t wish to tell it now.”

Matthias opened his eyes, looking at Honour, who seemed confused and troubled. He looked at Viridian, who was glaring across the deck at Jonneran. For his part, the Fraternal Order mage had a look of triumph on his face, as though he had just won a race or been awarded a great prize. Matthias studied him for moment and then turned his face back to Viridian.

“You are one of the she-wolves, are you not?” he asked her. The half-elf pistoleer nodded.

“A priest in Caspia, famous for the gift of interpreting visions, explained much of the dream to me, though not all” said Honour. “Viridian is one of my sister wolves. Tarleen, the woman we go to rescue, is the other.”

“And tell them who the ‘wolf with iron claws’ is,” Jonneran all but commanded. Matthias and Garreck looked at the man in open disbelief, the pieces of the vision connecting in their mind with the realities of Honour’s life. Jonneran stiffened at their doubtful stares; “Do you doubt me?” he demanded.

Garreck could not stop himself from chuckling this time. “Sorry lad,” he said with a smile. “It’s jus’ tha’ you don’t strike as the ‘wolf’ sort.”

“Tell them, Honour, how we met,” said Jonneran. “How we met, the very day after you had the vision!”

“It wasn’t the ‘very day after’,” said Honour quietly, but she continued with the tale. “Tarleen, Viridian and I were on the streets in Caspia, when we heard screams further down. We rushed to see and found that an iron statue of a woman was attacking people randomly on the street, laying about it with a sword and with long spikes that projected from its skin.”

“It was an iron maiden,” added Viridian, interrupting for the first time. “A wizard’s construct that had gone mad.” Honour nodded.

“It was killing without restraint,” continued the paladin. “We were wondering how we could arrest its rampage when Jonneran emerged from the crowd. He confronted the iron maiden and when it charged him, he reached out with his magical gauntlet. The magical touch rusted the construct’s skin, and it soon corroded into pieces.” Jonneran brandished his gauntleted hand, triumphantly.

“Claws of iron,” he declared. “I had only just completed the gauntlet’s construction. It was fortuitous and fateful.”

“So that’s how you got engaged?” asked Garreck, a dubious tone in his voice. “Just like that.”

“Jonneran proposed to me as soon as he heard of my vision,” replied Honour, nodding. There was a seriousness in her face, neither sad nor happy. For a moment there was quiet among them, with only the sounds of the sea. At last, Matthias let out a sigh.

“You have my sympathy,” he said. All heads snapped to look at him, Honour and Jonneran glaring.

“What?” demanded the paladin of Katrena.

“Do you think to mock me?” Jonneran nearly screamed over top of her, his voice causing gulls upon the waves nearby to take wing, crying to each other with their high pitched voices. Matthias fixed Jonneran with a level gaze, stern and unafraid, but he spoke to Honour.

“It is never easy to live one’s life according to the vagaries of prophecy,” he said in a steely voice. Honour’s angry look softened momentarily, then hardened again.

“My faith carries me over any uncertainties!” she declared. “Katrena guides my steps!”

“No doubt, lovie,” said Garreck. The dwarf shook his head in wonder. “But vagaries is right.”

“Enough of these insults,” ordered Jonneran. The young mage gathered the shoulders of his robe and straightened his back. “This is fate; the will of the gods! Your faithlessness only proves that your status as a heretic is well deserved!”

“I figure ‘e’s talking to you there,” said Garreck to Matthias with a flippant nod. Then the dwarf fixed Jonneran with a hard look. “Tell me mage, if yer faith in this vision is so pure, ‘ow is it you two is still only engaged? Why ain’t you ‘mated’ already?”

“Remember the vision, dwarf!” answered the mage with a contemptuous sneer. “The wolves don’t mate until after the sister wolf is rescued! It is plainly obvious!”

“Tha’ may be, Jonny lad, tha’ may be. But if we’re going by the vision, the lady wolf ‘ere don’t even meet ‘er ‘mate’ ‘til after ‘er sister is stolen away by dem shadows. ‘Ave I got tha’ right? I thought she just said tha’ the three of ‘em was together when they met you?”

Garreck’s observation stilled conversation, as all present contemplated the implications. Jonneran and Viridian both tried to speak at once then stopped, waiting for what the other had to say. Before either could speak their piece, Dokor the ogrun staggered out onto the aft deck, his grey skin pale almost to white. He was naked to the waist and had many bandages where he had been wounded in his battle with the Gosling Street Runners. He staggered to the stern gunwale and poked his head out over the water. A strangled groan escaped his lips as he was violently ill, vomiting loudly into the ocean.

“I guess that’s why ogrun don’t make good sailors,” quipped Viridian, in between the sickening noises that Dokor was making. Matthias and Garreck both laughed, the formerly tense mood broken by Dokor’s surprising arrival. The gunmage made his way fore-ward, while the dwarf headed back down to the boiler. Honour and Viridian looked to their giant companion, to see if they could care for his needs in some way. Honour laid her hand gently upon his massive, bare shoulder.

Jonneran stood on the aft deck for a moment, as if refusing to acknowledge that the confrontation had concluded unresolved. He glared at the deck, then at the ogrun and two women, still present and yet ignoring him. At last he strode from the deck, heading alone into the cabins.

12      Secrets and Shot

By the time the day had passed, the Puffing Bey was far from shore, heading south west. The sunset bathed the horizon in orange and gold while the darkness crept in from the east, trailing stars in its wake. Viridian stood on the fore deck, listening to the regular chugging of the boilers and watching the sky. A little way off, seated against the gunwhale, was Matthias. Cross-legged on the deck, he had his gunsmith’s kit opened on his lap. His eyes were narrowed in intense concentration and he seemed barely aware of the boat beneath him, let alone Viridian standing nearby. She casually sauntered over to him, drawing a cigarillo from its case as she approached.

“Given that I am working with unmixed powder,” said the gunmage without looking up. “I would really rather that you did not smoke or carry a naked flame.”

“Fair enough.”

Viridian looked closely, watching Matthias packing his shot. With practiced motions, he spread out squares of strong paper, a little larger than the palm of his hand. Onto each sheet he poured a single line of grey powder, one half of the alchemical mix which exploded to launch bullets from the barrel of a gun. Each thin trail of grey granules was neat and regular, in the same place on each square of paper. As a pistoleer, Viridian admired the precision of the gunmage’s powder craft, especially considering he was working field-style, moving quickly and doing the whole thing in his lap. Alongside each of the grey powder trails Matthias next laid a thin wrapped package of red paper, the size of a half-smoked cigarillo. These packages contained a second powder; when the two were mixed, they exploded automatically. Inside the breach of a gun, the hammer would pierce the two pieces of paper and force the powders to mix. Lastly, onto each sheet, at the head of the twin lines formed by the grey powder and the red tubes, Matthias placed a single lead ball, the shot. Viridian noticed that several of the lead shot seemed inscribed or engraved in some way.

“You engrave your balls?” she asked. Matthias looked up to see her smirking at him.

“I take it you are referring to my ammunition?” he asked with a smile.

“Of course,” answered Viridian with a look of mock innocence on her face. “Why sir, what else did you think I might be referring to?”

“Well in answer to your question, yes I do,” Matthias said with a chuckle, returning his attention to the ammunition in his lap. “These are rune carved bullets. The sigils will carry my spells for me when I fire them.”

“The runes are engraved with gold?”

“Yes.”

“The fabled golden bullet?” Viridian mused, referring to the soldier’s nickname for a shot that should kill but for some reason never actually hits, such as a misfire at point blank range.

“It’s not the gold,” said Matthias, shaking his head. “There’s barely a royal’s worth in this whole lot. The real cost is in the other alchemical ingredients needed to enchant the sigils. Each shot is worth close to a hundred a piece.” Viridian whistled in surprise.

“It’d be cheaper to make them solid gold!” she said. Matthias nodded.

“People wonder why mages are not interested in gold for its own sake,” he said. “It is because we already know of a thousand different things worth ten or a hundred times their weight in gold. You don’t have to study magic too long before gold ceases to impress.”

He cleared all of his other tools from his lap and began to fold the little papers into the shape of ammunition. The thick paper took the creases neatly and his deft fingers turned all of the corners precisely.

“You can see you’ve served with the Cygnar military,” observed Viridian. “I remember the first time my master sergeant-at-arms caught me just twisting the ends of my tamping paper, civilian style. I thought he was going to shoot me right there and then.”

“Twisting leaves too much paper at either end; it can over tamp the shot. Makes the breach filthy too!”

“I know that!” Viridian said, a little exasperated by Matthias ‘teaching her how to suck eggs’. She was about to say something more when the sound of raised voices came from the cabins, followed by Honour charging out onto the twilight deck, her face in her hands. Viridian rushed to her friend’s side. As she drew closer, she realized that Honour was crying.

“What?” Viridian asked, concerned by her comrade’s tears. “Honour, what is it?” She made to put her arms around Honour’s shoulders, but the paladin shrugged her off and turned away. Viridian thought for a moment that she heard Honour praying quietly into her hands. Then the proud female knight turned back to face her friend. An ugly red mark on Honour’s face was visible even in the poor light of the lantern hanging just inside the cabinway door, but it faded, as Honour’s prayers healed the injury.

“You’re hurt? What happened?”

“I…uh…we…” Honour struggled to explain. “We…um…fought. We argued and…”

“You argued?” asked Viridian, not quite understanding what she was hearing. “With Jonneran?”

Honour nodded. Surprise bloomed on Viridian’s face, quickly blossoming into furious anger.

“He hit you?!” she demanded, her voice rising in volume.

“Shh, please, Viridian, don’t shout,” Honour begged. “It was just an argument.”

“But he hit you!”

“I provoked him,” Honour said weakly, turning away to face the gathering darkness of the ocean. She walked forlornly to the bow, as small as Viridian had ever seen her seem.

“You shouldn’t say that,” Viridian said, coming up close to her best friend. “It doesn’t work that way, not with people who are supposed to love us.”

“But…I said things. Things I knew would make him hit me. We were both angry and I…if we’d been in some tavern somewhere, if it was some bravo, I’d have expected a fight.” Honour’s words made a kind of perverse sense, but Viridian would have none of it.

“If Jonneran got into a bar brawl with you, he’d spend the next hour looking for his teeth,” she said derisively. Honour smirked in spite of herself. “So why did you let him hit you?”

“I…he is going to be…we are betrothed,” was all Honour could think to say.

“You think he’ll be different after you marry?”

“I…hope so.” Honour stared out at the stars becoming visible upon the horizon, then turned back to her friend suddenly. “You must not tell anyone about this; promise me!”

“That might be hard to…” Viridian began to object, but as she turned to where Matthias Warlock had been sitting only moments before, she saw the space was empty and he was gone.

“Hard to what?” asked Honour.

“Nothing.”

“Honour, darling?” came Jonneran’s voice from the cabinway, his robed form silhouetted in the lamplight. “Can we talk?”

Honour nodded and walked slowly to him. The pair spoke quietly and went back inside together. Viridian watched them go with a scowl on her face and then nearly jumped when she heard Matthias’ voice beside her.

“Women bear some astonishing burdens,” he said with a quiet tone.

“Where’d you come from?” asked Viridian.

“It seemed like you two needed a moment in private,” was Matthias’ response. They both looked back to the open cabinway door, though Honour and Jonneran had already disappeared from sight.

“Right now he’s telling her how he’s sorrier than he’s ever been before,” said Viridian bitterly. “He’s probably on his knees, crying, begging for forgiveness and swearing that it’ll never happen again. Until the next time.” She fell quiet, unable to find any more to say. Finally, Viridian turned to Matthias with a request on behalf of her friend.

“You must never tell anyone,” she demanded. “Nor let slip that you know. The shame would kill her! She’s very proud, but it’s a defence against the hurts of her life. You wouldn’t think it to look at her, but when we signed up together she cried herself to sleep every night for the first week. She’s tough and strong and as sure a blade to have at your back as anyone could ever want, but…”

“But she has deep hurts,” said Matthias, finishing the sentence. “And her betrothed can strike at her when she is most vulnerable.”

Viridian nodded sadly.

“I will never reveal this,” Matthias promised.

“I want surety!” Viridian demanded.

“Such as?” asked Matthias, surprised.

“You know one of her secrets, I want one of yours!”

Matthias considered Viridian’s words for a time. At last he nodded.

“Alright,” he said. “I suppose you have gathered that this robe is no ordinary piece of clothing?” He tugged at his sleeve, rubbing his thumb over one of the darkly embroidered runes.

“I figured,” replied Viridian with a nod. “It turned that hammer blow like a coat of mail, back in Five Fingers.”

“Yes, and that’s only one of its benefits. It serves me well in the practice of magic as well,” Matthias paused in his tale, weighing carefully how much he wished to reveal. “There isn’t a mage alive who wouldn’t want this, unless they already had one of their own. Jonneran in there would in all likelihood cheerfully kill me in my sleep for it, if he knew what it was.” The gunmage gave a nod in the direction of the cabins.

“Expensive?”

“Extremely, and good luck finding someone to make or sell one to you. The secret is closely guarded.”

“So how did you come by it?” asked Viridian, sensing a deeper story.

“I received it soon after I left the island that we are traveling to,” Matthias recounted, staring out at the stars and the firmament above the black, ocean. “It was a gift; a gift from a lover.”

“A lover?” Viridian probed, surprised at the thought of the Warlock letting anyone close enough to become lovers. “Who was she? Or he?”

Matthias didn’t answer, but continued to look out over the bow. The quiet stretched between them.

“Wait a minute,” Viridian said as she realized that Matthias would not share any more of the story. “That’s not much a secret!”

“It is half of a secret.”

“So what’s the rest?”

“I hope never to have to tell you,” Matthias said in a quiet voice. “But you may find out soon enough.” A sense of premonition carried by the gunmage’s words sent a shiver down Viridian’s spine. She took a deep breath of the salty air and then fished out her cigarillo case. For the second night in a row, she shared the starry night with the mysterious man who refused to join her in a smoke.

13      The Orca Men – Part 1

The stars glittered in the moonless sky and the sea lapped against the bow of the steamer. Garreck Three Fingers Short leaned against gunwale railing, staring into the predawn blackness of the ocean. He wondered what would happen if they missed the island they were heading towards; could they just sail on forever into the west? Would they wash up on the homeland of the Orgoth? Or would they merely float on, day following night following day until they starved or were eaten by monsters. The prospect unnerved him. From the direction of the main deck cabins, the hunched form of Dokor emerged, apparently less sea sick than the previous day. The ogrun walked to the side of the boat and stretched himself upwards. His wounds were almost healed and his bare chest was no longer bandaged. Dokor thrust his head over the edge of the boat and into the water. Then he came up again, snorting and huffing like and angry warhorse, the sea water running down his muscled torso. Garreck watched him closely for a moment.

“So what’s your story?” the dwarf asked after a moment.

“I’m sorry?” replied Dokor in his distinctive clipped speech and rumbling voice.

“You speak like a priest or a scribe,” Garreck explained. “Not a lot of ogrun as are that well-spoken!”

“On close terms with a lot of ogrun, are you?” Dokor asked, with a slight edge to his voice.

“I’ve known enough o’ yer kind to know ye ain’t common for your folk!” Garreck stared at Dokor with a fearless, steely gaze. If he was the least bit intimidated by the ogrun, he showed no sign, in spite of the four feet difference in height between them. After a tense pause, Dokor sighed.

“Your observation is true enough, as far as it goes,” Dokor conceded, looking out to the darkness. “My birthplace has a long standing relationship with a nearby contemplative temple of the Church. The temple clergy educate the young of our village and in return we offer protection to the temple in the form of patrols of the surrounding woods and bodyguards when the priests travel.”

“Mutual benefit,” observed Garreck.

“Precisely! And, as a consequence, my village is substantially more well educated than others of our people. I grew up in the same kind of hut that most ogrun live in; playing the same rough games that build stamina, strength and speed; but of an evening, my father would read poetry to the family as we sat by the fire. My mother once debated theology with a prelate from Orven for over three hours.”

“I think the closest t’ theology I ever heard me mam get to was swearin’ at the gods when she was birthin’ me brothers!” Garreck declared and Dokor smiled. His smile faded quickly though as he sniffed loudly at the air, his eyes ranging back and forth over the ocean.

“What is it?” asked the dwarf.

“I think I smell…” said Dokor, but before he could finish his sentence, a lamplight sprang into existence. It bobbed up and down on the waves inside a shade of waxed paper. As the two companions on the Puffing Bey looked, they were able to make out a small craft, no bigger than a jolly boat, riding the chop beneath the mast that held the lantern.

“Ahoy, the steamer,” called a voice from the newly apparent boat. As the tiny vessel drew closer, Garrreck could see a cloaked figure riding in the bow, while further to stern, four oarsmen strove hard, driving toward the Bey.

“Ahoy,” called the Captain’s voice from the wheelhouse over Garreck and Dokor’s heads. “What be the call?”

“We call for parley,” the newcomer replied and his boat continued into the radiance of the steamer’s lamps. There was the sound of footsteps on the gangway as the Captain sent his mate to wake his passengers. Garreck watched the approaching boat, with one hand on the hilt of his fighting knife.

“Strange that they were traveling without lights,” Dokor observed, giving voice to Garreck’s suspicions at the same time.

“I thought your people had eyes to see in the dark?”

“Perhaps you don’t know us as well as you think,” Dokor quipped with a wry smile. It quickly faded though. “I’ll be back.”

The ogrun entered the cabins just as Viridian and then Matthias emerged. The two looked out at the boat and its approaching lamplight. It was now within range of shot, and closing.

“Any ideas?” asked Viridian.

“None at all,” the gunmage answered, clearly puzzled by the newly arrived strangers. The figure in the bow of the boat had an ominous air. The opening under his hood was completely shadowed in the lamplight and the hem of the hood was strangely ridged, so that it resembled the open maw of some monstrous creature. “They’ve called for parley, which should be a good sign.”

From the wheelhouse there came the sound of voices in discussion, which rapidly became heated.
“Warlock?” called Jonneran from above.

“The master o’ the voyage is callin’ for ye, boyo,” said Garreck with a sardonic smile on his lips.

“Hedge-wizard? Where in blazes are you?” called Jonneran again. There was a rising anger in his voice. “Answer me!”

“I am on deck,” Matthias called back. “Underneath you!”

“Well? What are these lot about? Do we trust them or see them off?” Jonneran asked loudly. Matthias sighed and rubbed at his temples as if in pain. Viridian and Garreck winced as well.

“Warlock? You’re supposedly here as our guide,” continued Jonneran archly, his voice strong and doubtless carrying over the black water to the approaching vessel. “Can you offer no guidance? Are you that much of a waste of space.”

Matthias strode to the gangway and grabbing the railing all but flung himself up the stairs in fury. Viridian rushed after him, fearful of coming violence. Garreck followed along with a more casual gait, confident to arrive in time to see any fun. He had just reached the bottom of the gangway when Dokor emerged from the cabins, carrying his warcleaver and pulling his leather jack into place. The ogrun watched in puzzlement as three sets of feet disappeared up the steps to the next deck.

Matthias strode along the narrow deck around the outside of the wheelhouse to where Jonneran was standing leaning on the railing. The Fraternal Order mage noticed the Warlock’s approach, his eyes glittering with a contemptuous anticipation of coming conflict.

“So? Do you have not one piece of helpful information? Should I ask the fish…?”

“Would you shut your damn mouth!” hissed Matthias, rushing straight up to Jonneran. Matthias was slightly taller of the two, with a much more substantial physique. As the Warlock leaned in angrily, Jonneran was intimidated in spite of himself.

“Don’t speak to me like…”

“Morrow’s mercy!” Matthias swore. “Are you feebleminded? We have no idea who this is or what they are about! Pompously discussing them at top volume is the act of a total lackwit!

“Insult me again, hedge wizard, and I’ll kill you!” Jonneran declared, taking a half step back and withdrawing his hands inside the sleeves of his robes. Matthias recognized the gesture as a precursor to spell casting, the mage hiding his fingers from sight while they made the arcane gestures of his art. The gunmage’s hand reached to the hilt of his magelock, drawing and cocking the pistol in a single motion. The two arcane spellworkers stared at each other in fury, each daring the other to make the first move. Viridian came up behind the Warlock while Honour emerged from the wheelhouse.

“Jonneran,” said Honour to her fiance.

“Matthias,” whispered Viridian. The two men ignored both of the women, their hard eyes unwilling to see anything but the foe. “Matthias, we still have guests!”

Viridian’s words pierced the gunmage’s fury and he turned to look over the edge of the deck at the boat, which had now rowed to within a few yards of the Puffing Bey. The maw-hooded leader was easy to see now, though his face was still lost in the shadows of his cloak. The ridged hem of his hood was in fact strung with rows of teeth, now clearly visible and further enhancing the sense that the opening was the mouth of a predatory sea creature.

“Will you parley?” the man called, his voice strong and fearless in the cautious lamplight.

“Well, gunmage?” asked Honour. “Do we parley?”

14      The Orca Men – Part 2

Looking down at the tooth-cloaked man and his crew in their small boat, Matthias had a deep feeling of misgiving, like a man climbing a cliff when he feels his grip beginning to slip. He suppressed the sensation and closed his eyes momentarily to gather his calm. With a long sighing breath, he released the hammer of his magelock and returned it to his belt. Then he opened his eyes, sparing a cautious glance for Jonneran, before addressing the men in the boat below him.

“Speak your parley,” he said.

“We are the Brothers of the Orca,” the hooded man declared. There was a ferocious tone to his voice, a mixture of pride and something darker; it sounded like bloodlust. “You have wandered into our hunting seas. These waters are holy!”

“Holy waters? Hunting seas?” repeated Jonneran. “What nonsense is this?” If the Orca leader heard the mage’s words, he ignored them, continuing to speak to Matthias.

“It will soon be dawn, and we will begin a sacred hunt,” the man explained. Behind him the four oarsmen sat dour and silent, their backs to the Puffing Bey, as if showing their contempt. With the steady strokes of their oars, they matched pace with the steamer, an impressive feat. “Your presence here is unwelcome!”

“We have not come to disrupt you,” Matthias replied. “Is there a way we might divert around your hunt? We mean no disrespect to you or your ways.”

“You could not in time divert away from our hunt, for our range is vast and leagues may be covered this day.” Watching the calm power of the oarsmen, no one on the Bey doubted the leader’s words. “However, we are not pirates and would not waste strength on you that must be kept for the hunt. This is what you will do: cease the noise of your vessel’s steam belly. When the hunt is underway and we have drawn up our prey from the depths, you may commence again your journey, careful always to remain behind the hunters. If the prey turns and heads towards you, you must again cease your noise, until the prey has passed.”

The Orca leader stood calmly in the prow of his boat, his arms folded, as he awaited the Puffing Bey’s response. Matthias looked to the others around him. Viridian and Garreck seemed unperturbed by the demands and merely shrugged.

“There’s no margin in not doin’ what ‘e asks,” said Garreck.

“What? Concede? To handful of peasant fishermen?” Jonneran asked, incredulous at his companions’ easy acquiescing, but mindful enough to finally lower his voice. “Why should we honour the crew of this bathtub? What matter to us if we disturb their hunt?”

Matthias looked past Jonneran to Honour, to gauge her opinion. She said nothing, neither agreeing with her fiance, nor crossing his words. As Matthias met her eyes, he was sure he saw discomfort there, that something about the Orca men troubled her, but she did not reveal what it was. While he was trying to think what it might mean, Jonneran took over the parley.

“We do not care for your terms,” he announced. “We will travel where we will.”

“No you shall not,” answered the Orca leader. As if this were a signal, dozens of lanterns like the one on the little boat sprung into existence on the ocean all around the steamer. Each lantern was tied to the mast of another boat, most as small as the first, but some considerably larger, with two or three times the crew. In the front of every craft was another cloaked figure with the toothed hood pulled over their heads.

“They’re all about us,” declared the mate’s voice from the other side of the boat.

“I count twenty two, just on this side,” said Viridian quietly, and a grumbling growl came up from Dokor on the lower deck.

“That makes things a little different, wouldn’t you say?” said Matthias. He looked back from the crowded ocean to Jonneran and the others.

“We could out pace them,” protested Jonneran.

“They are keeping up easily enough for now,” observed Honour. Jonneran turned to face her, as if surprised to hear her talk.

“Well, yes,” he conceded weakly. “But for how long?”

“Long enough,” answered Matthias. “We will do what they say. Captain, stop here! I will go down to the boiler room with Garreck. We will disengage the main axle and vent some steam.”

“Aye, aye!” answered the Captain. “How long do we stand by?”

“What? You don’t give orders!” Jonneran declared, his voice rising again to a shout. “You have no authority!” Matthias ignored his protests, but Viridian fixed him with a withering glance.

“Oh, for the gods’ sake, Jon! What else are we going to do?” she said. Jonneran considered her words, casting his eyes back and forth to the others standing with him on the upper deck. It was clear that none cared one wit for issues of authority. He straightened his robes and lifted his head in a dignified manner.

“We shall honour your traditions,” he announced to the Brothers of the Orca with a regal sweep of his arm. Then he turned and went into the wheelhouse. Garreck rolled his eyes and Viridian suppressed a smirk, for Honour’s sake. Then the two of them looked out over the sea and realized how exposed they were, under the cold eyes of over a hundred strangers. With heads downcast, they went back down to the lower deck.

—-

The horizon was lightening to dawn when the Puffing Bey came to a full stop. In the grey awakening of the day, near to fifty boats arrayed themselves west of the steamer’s bow. The Bey’s passengers stood on the foredeck, watching as the Brothers of the Orca began their ritual hunt. At the bow of each Orca boat stood a cloaked figure. Each had his arms raised and together they sang a song in an unfamiliar tongue that rose and fell in a disturbing fashion.

“What are they singing?” asked Viridian. She looked to the others, but no one had an answer for her.

“Could it be the Orgoth tongue?” Honour asked.

“I would not be surprised,” answered Matthias. Jonneran snorted loudly.

“No one has heard their language spoken in several generations!” declared the mage.

“So, I guess we would never know,” Matthias said with a shrug, not rising to Jonneran’s bait.

“But I can decipher the words nonetheless,” said Jonneran and he quickly invoked a spell. His eyes became unfocused and he tilted his head slightly to one side. He smirked at what his magic let him comprehend.

“Well?” demanded Garreck, curious. “Well?”

“Yes, Jon,” agreed Honour. “What is it they are singing?”

“It is gibberish,” Jonneran said with a bemused smile.

“Gibberish?”

“Yes, something about ‘raising the giants from the deep canyons’ and ‘flying under and over the horizon of breath’,” related Jonneran. He continued to listen, appearing to enjoy what he was hearing in the same manner as an adult listening to the songs made up by children at play. The others continued to wait for tidbits of translation, save for Dokor and Matthias, who leaned forward at the bow, fascinated by the scene. For some time the Orca men’s ululating song played over the waves, while the oarsmen in every boat held firm, unmoving with their hands ready at the oars.

“There,” declared Dokor suddenly, pointing away to the south. A dark black shape had emerged from beneath the choppy waves of the sea. A long, thin triangle, it cut the surface of the water like a swift slashing knife. Soon it was joined by several more, each one the fin of a mighty water creature. The squadron of fins circled eastward and north in between the Puffing Bey and the Orca Brother ships. As they passed in front of the Bey’s bow, Matthias and Dokor could see their dark shapes just beneath the water. Each was close to the size of the Brothers’ longboats, and their rounded snouts had toothed mouths, reminiscent of the Orca men’s cloaks.

“Surely they do not mean to hunt such monsters?” said Dokor, awe struck by the speed and power of the sea creatures. Viridian and Garreck rushed to the bow to see them swim past. Honour watched as well, but stood by where Jonneran was still listening to the song. The squadron swept westward and swam between the boats.

“Some’uns goin’ in the drink,” said Garreck, but as they watched, the sea creatures swam through the flotilla of boats without disturbing any of them and for the first time the Brothers of the Orca smiled, wild ferocious grins. As the sea creatures reached the front line of craft, so the singing reached a crescendo and with a wailing cry that should not be uttered from a human mouth, the cloaked men threw themselves into the water.

“They’ll surely be slain,” cried Viridian and everyone on the foredeck strained against the gunwales to see where the men now swam amongst the song-summoned predators. Not one mortal body could be seen, but the squadron’s numbers had swollen. The companions on the steamer struggled to accept what they had witnessed as the squadron swam west a way before diving beneath the waves. Every hooded Orca man had become one of the summoned creatures, and now they swam together in the depths beneath the waves. These creatures were the Orca, and the men were truly their brothers.

“What magic is that?” asked Honour, turning to her fiance. When Jonneran did not answer, she looked to Matthias, but the gunmage also said nothing.

“Well I for one am glad that we did not decide to interrupt these men at their ritual,” said Dokor reflectively. “Who knows what other powers of the sea they might have at their command.” The group were silent then for some while, watching the oarsmen in their small boats. Once again, the Orca men had dour faces with looks of stern readiness.

“Is that it then?” asked Garreck. “What’re they waitin’ fer?”

No one knew the answer to Garreck’s question and all waited uncertainly, to see what would happen next. After half an hour a strange noise was heard from the ocean, many hundred yards to the south west of the Orca Brother’s boats. Viridian ran up the gangway steps to get a better look. The Orca men cheered loudly and then from all boats was heard the repeated call; “Pull away, ye squids! Pull away!” The oarsmen all began to row with a passionate effort, quickly reaching speed and chasing away over the ocean to the south west.

“What can you see?” Matthias asked Viridian, who had reached over the wheelhouse helm to grab the Captain’s collapsible telescope. Extending the instrument to its full length, Viridian studied the sea. Out beyond the chasing boats, she could make out shapes running across the surface.

“It looks like those creatures, the Orcas, they’ve brought something up from the depths,” reported Viridian.

“Brought something up?” repeated Jonneran. “What? What is it?”

“It looks like a capsized boat,” Viridian explained, puzzled by what she was seeing. “A big one.”

“They can’t have brought up a boat,” muttered Jonneran in frustration. He mounted the stairs and took telescope out of Viridian’s hands. Scanning the ocean, he gave his own report of the Orca men’s behavior.

“It’s not a boat, it’s a whale,” he said in a tone that clearly suggested that Viridian was a fool for thinking otherwise. “These Orca creatures are herding it.”

“Herding? Like goatherds or shepherds?” asked Honour.

“More like wolves, I would think,” said Matthias. Jonneran lowered the telescope from his eye and was about to say something to the Warlock, when there was a sudden loud spurt of water from the ocean, not twenty paces south of the Bey’s bow. Another whale had surfaced, blowing water and air from the large hole in its back. It seemed to dive for a moment, showing its full length, almost twice that of the Puffing Bey from stem to stern. The whale quickly returned to the surface however, as around it a dozen Orca crowded in. As the companions watched, two of the Orca near to the whale’s sides darted in and bit at its flanks and flukes. It was clear that the Orca were keeping the whale on the surface and harrying it southward. The mighty sea beast twisted itself around, perhaps trying to use its flukes to beat away its tormentors, but to no avail. The swift Orca churned the water with their continuous series of herding assaults.

“Quite like wolves,” observed Dokor, watching the tactics of the predatory sea creatures. Some of the Orca men boats detached from the chase of the first whale to follow the newly surfaced prey.

“Giants from the canyons,” whispered Honour, recalling the words of the summoning song. The twin hunts ranged swiftly away to the south west. Matthias tapped Garreck on the arm.

“Come, let us get that axle back into gear,” said the gunmage. Then he called up to the wheelhouse. “Get us underway Captain, but try to keep some distance from the hunters and their prey.”

Matthias and Garreck headed to the boiler room, but Matthias stopped and turned to face the remaining group.

“Unless of course someone has other orders they wish to give,” he said in a neutral tone that might have been mockery. All eyes went to Jonneran who blushed and sneered, but said nothing. With a quick grin and a cheerful wave, Matthias followed Garreck down to the boiler room. In short order, the streamer was underway, following the strange whale hunters and their mystical ritual.

15      The Orca Men – Part 3

The Orca men pulled at their oars for hours, following the hunting packs that herded the two mighty whales southward. On the foredeck of the Puffing Bey the companions watched with interest and some awe, except for Jonneran, who had gone bellow by mid-morning.

“Their endurance is astonishing,” said Dokor, fascinated by the demonstration of sheer strength.

“How long do you think they’ll keep it up?” Viridian mused.

“All day, I’d figure,” said Garreck and everyone on the deck felt it was a fair guess. The two whales were beginning to slow in their flight as well, and the foam on the water about them was ruddy with the blood from dozens of tiny bites the herding orca took from their blubbery hides. As the sun drew higher in the sky, approaching noon, the mystical hunters began to turn to the west, apparently heading even further out into the trackless ocean. From the foredeck, Matthias called to the wheelhouse.

“Stay on a southward heading,” he shouted to the Captain.

“Giving orders is becoming something of a habit, hmmm?” asked Honour.

“You brought me along as your guide,” answered the Warlock. “I’m giving guidance.” He and Honour fixed gazes for a moment, like two animals sizing one another up. At last Matthias looked away, turning his face to look south over the prow. After a short moment he pointed to an object on the horizon.

“That’s your heading, Captain,” he called. “Keep east of that marker.”

“What is it?” asked Viridian, squinting her eyes to make out the object.

“I’m not sure really, I just know that it’s the marker we need to steer by,” Matthias answered. “It’s a spike of rock that points up out of the water in the middle of nowhere. We passed it on the first voyage and our guide that time said it was exactly north of the island.”

“You had a guide then?” asked Honour, surprised by this revelation. Matthias nodded. “Prelate Marsendat’s report said nothing of a guide.”

“I imagine the Prelate neglected to include many details in his report,” Matthias said, keeping his gaze fixed upon the spike of rock jutting from the waves in the distance.

“Do you impugn the word of a Prelate of the Holy Church?” demanded Honour, her eyes burning with fury and her sword hand resting on her hilt. Seeing the motion, Matthias turned to face her, his stance plainly ready for violence. They regarded each other coldly for a moment, but Matthias did not answer Honour’s question. The tense silence was broken by Viridian, who pushed herself between them.

“Look it’s possible that our copy of the report is missing all sorts of information,” she said in a placating tone, facing Honour. “It is only a copy after all. Maybe we should have Matthias review it, see what’s missing. We brought him as a guide after all; we might as well make use of him, don’t ya think?”

For a time, Honour ignored her friend, keeping her eyes locked on the gunmage’s. Then at last she blinked and turned to look at Viridian.

“I suppose you are right,” Honour said. “The report is in my cabin.”

“Maybe we could get it then, what do you say?”

Honour allowed Viridian to lead her into the cabins to retrieve the copy of Prelate Marsendat’s report. As she left, she scowled and muttered something under her breath, though Matthias could not hear what. The two women disappeared into the steamboat and Garreck Three Fingers Short made his way quietly to stand next to the gunmage. A cool ocean breeze blew across their faces momentarily and Garreck scratched at his scalp.

“I think ye two’s past foreplay,” said the dwarf. “’Bout time ye jus’ drew a circle on the deck an’ went at it!”

“Excuse me?” asked Matthias, astonished by the dwarf’s comment. “You know the woman is engaged!”

“Well yes, but I can’t see ‘im countin’ fer much!”

“Is that right?”

“Oh aye,” said Garreck with a nod. “In fact, in a fair fight, I would’na be surprised if ye could take ‘em both, gunmage!”

“A fight?” repeated Matthias, finally understanding Garreck’s point.

“Aye, a fight! Why, what d’ya think I meant?”

“I would not allow it,” rumbled Dokor in a stern warning.

“Never mind!” said Matthias, answering Garreck’s question though looking at Dokor. Garreck seemed about to say more when there was a cry from the ship’s hand, standing atop of the wheelhouse.

“Sail ho!”

“Where’s that?” called the Captain from inside the wheelhouse.

“Sou’ sou’ west,” answered the hand. Matthias, Dokor and Garreck strained to look and could just make out the shape of a sail, dark cloth billowing on the southern horizon.

“Purple sails?” mused Dokor. Matthias closed his eyes and sighed heavily.

“Go get your toolbelt, Garreck,” said the gunmage, using the Five Fingers street slang for a man’s weapons. “Best get your warcleaver too, Dokor.”

“Why, what is it? Pirates?”

“Of a sort.”

“We are traveling in a steamer,” Dokor observed. “Can we not outrun them?”

“They are right in our path,” countered Matthias. “And even if they were not, we’ll not outrun them, believe me.”

Garreck and Dokor regarded Matthias uncertainly for a moment. His shoulders were slumped and a sense of despair clung to him like morning fog in deep fjords. They looked back once more to the sail growing on the horizon, then went into the cabins to seek their weapons and armour. For a time Matthias continued to stare at the approaching vessel. His trigger finger absently traced the gilt inlaid hilt of his magelock, tucked into his sash. He blew out a long breath and turned from the gunwales just as Viridian emerged from the cabins.

“Garreck tells me we’re about to be attacked by pirates,” she said quizzically. Matthias nodded over his shoulder towards the approaching sail. Viridian stared hard at it, her elven, almond shaped eyes narrowing even further. “They’re a long way off, are you sure they’re pirates?”

“I recognize the sail,” said Matthias with a nod.

“So you know them? Who are they?”

“You remember I told you I got my robe from a former lover?” Matthias explained. He looked back at the sailing ship now clearly visible in the approaching distance. “Well that is she!”

“You’re not expecting a happy reunion, are you?”

“No.”

“Oh well,” said Viridian with a shrug and drawing her matched pistols from their holsters at her hips. “I don’t carry these as fashion accessories!”

In spite of himself, Matthias smiled.

16      Barracuda

“Pirates?” repeated Honour. She buckled her sword belt around her waist as she climbed the gangway steps. “How does he know for sure?”

“He said…” Viridian began to answer, but checked herself, feeling acutely Jonneran’s presence in the narrow passage behind her. “He says that he’s had…dealings with them before.”

“Dealings?” said Jonneran with a snort, showing the contempt that Viridian had feared. “I’ll just bet that he has!”

“Jonneran, would you give it a rest!” Viridian snapped. The Fraternal Order mage was taken aback, more surprised than offended by Viridian’s outburst. He followed the two women quietly into the midday sunlight. The three of them stood on the gangway next to the wheelhouse. They looked to the south to see a sailing ship swiftly cutting through the swell towards them, barely a league distant. It had a slender hull of ancient grey timbers and sails of purple silk trimmed in gold. With the Captain’s spyglass, Honour could make out the ports of four guns down one side of the hull, which she guessed were partnered by a similar number down the other side. Far from heavy armament, but more than the steamer could match.

“They make good progress, Warlock,” Jonneran called down to Matthias, who was standing on the foredeck with Garreck and Dokor.

“Remarkable, considering,” replied Matthias, enigmatically. Viridian and Honour glanced at each other, puzzled by his words. Looking back to the sails approaching, Viridian realized to what he was referring.

“Aren’t they…?”

“Running into the wind? Yes!” called Matthias, completing her thought.

“Gods!”

Realizing the power that the approaching vessel possessed over and above her guns, Honour and Viridian rushed down the stairs to the foredeck to consult with the rest of their companions. Jonneran also followed more calmly, his eyes scanning the vessel for clues to its magic. It had now closed enough of the distance that he could make out several crewmen scrambling in the vessel’s rigging and what he took for a helmeted figure standing proudly on the wheeldeck. Even at this distance, something about the figure’s commanding stance drew the eye and Jonneran knew instantly that this was the pirate ship’s Captain.

“No more mysteries, Warlock!” Honour commanded Matthias. “Whatever criminal past you have with this crew is by the by; tell us everything you know about this vessel. We must be prepared!” Matthias raised an eyebrow at the phrase ‘criminal past’, receiving a sheepish glance from Viridian in reply, but otherwise ignored the comment. Looking back at the vessel that was now nearly in cannon range, he told the others what they wanted to know.

“The vessel is the Barracuda, out of some unknown cove in the Scharde Islands north of Cryx,” Matthias explained. “Her crew are a cursed mob, dragon-blighted mostly. Expect their appearance to be shocking, and for gods’ sake, don’t stare! Their captain is a sorceress and an expert sword, more dangerous than most of her crew combined.”

“Sorceress?” asked Honour, surprised. “The captain is a woman?”

“Yes.”

“The’s more woman pirates ‘an ye might think,” said Garreck.

“Is she the one in the helmet?” asked Jonneran, looking past his friends to the Barracuda which was now pulling up close. The crew were slackening the sails and slowing the fast moving cutter, but even as they did so the preternatural wind that had been carrying it forward to its prey died upon the waves. The pirate vessel slid smoothly across the steamer’s bow and the steamer captain cut the engine with a hiss of vented steam.

“That’s not a helmet,” said Matthias, correcting Jonneran.

“Then what are those…?”

“Her horns!”

“Horns?” asked Viridian and Honour simultaneously.

“Satyxis,” breathed Garreck in realization.

“Aye,” nodded Matthias. The simple statement sounded like a whisper. The Barracuda drew alongside the Puffing Bey, several crewmen casting across grappling irons and hauling the small steamer up against their own gunwales. True to the gunmage’s description, the pirate crew were a blighted lot, misshapen by the power of the Father of all Dragons and his magical influence over the island realm of Cryx. Many of them had skin with patches of scale, some with bony protrusions at their shoulders, their elbows, even the ridges of their knuckles and their eyebrows. Almost all had fingers that ended in cruel talons and more than one had a mouth rent with fangs like a dog’s or a shark’s. Though all were armed, their weapons went virtually unnoticed by the passengers of the Puffing Bey, so fearsome was their appearance.

Matthias and his companions did their best not to stare at the crew, but their efforts were in vain when it came to the figure of the Barracuda’s captain, who strode to the railing of her vessel and surveyed the foredeck of the steamer. She was a tall woman with long, slender limbs. On her feet were long boots of black leather that reached past her knees. She wore a skirt of fine, steel mail and a breastplate polished to the brightness of silver. The breastplate was of the finest manufacture, tailored precisely to its wearer, and shaped to resemble her naked breasts. Two nipples of gold were fitted at the front. A thin leather baldric hung between the steel breasts, carrying a rapier in an elegant leather scabbard. The captain’s skin was the colour of morning milk, in spite of her life upon the open sea. Her face seemed carved from alabaster, with prominent cheekbones and a high forehead that swept back to a long fall of lustrous, auburn hair. Here though, her beauty gave way to her own blighted heritage, as from beneath the hairline her skull sprouted two strong, goat-like horns that twisted upwards above her head. The horns marked her species, satyxis, a race of warrior women, once human but now no longer. From her perfect face two glittering, amber eyes gazed mockingly at the Bey and its passengers, who instantly felt forlorn and vulnerable in her sight. Her gaze lighted at last upon Matthias.

“Monkling,” she said, her voice sounding like the shattering of glass made into music. “I scarce believed the oracle when she told me that you would once again be upon the seas this day. My crew and I could scarcely pass up an opportunity this sweet.”

The accursed crew of the Barracuda chuckled with the laughter of the damned.

“How could you know this…this…woman?” asked Honour of Matthias.

“More intimately than you would ever imagine!” answered Matthias, as his eyes were drawn once again into the amber gaze that led him into damnation.

17     Satyxis

“Your crew really do not need their arms,” the satyxis pirate captain said sweetly to Matthias, her auburn hair stirring in a gentle sea breeze. Involuntarily, Garreck and Dokor allowed their weapon hands to go slack. For his part, the gunmage kept his hand upon the butt of his magelock pistol, his eyes fixed upon the witch’s face. When he had first encountered the satyxis’ seductive gaze, many years before, she had seemed irresistibly beautiful. Now he was more wary, but he still felt the riptide pull of those eyes, full of promises of pleasure and beauty; irresistible, immeasurable and unending.

“Why do you seek me out, Alliissa?” he asked, trying to keep in mind the damage the she-devil had done to his life the first time they met. He dredged past suffering into the forefront of his mind, guarding against the promise of pleasure with memories of pain. “Did the breeding not take? How fares the spawn of your loins?”

The satyxis captain smiled even more sweetly, and dark chuckles could be heard from some of her crew. The fingers of her left hand lazily traced the lines of her armoured breastplate, enticingly toying with the polished cleavage. Standing next to Matthias at the gunwales, Honour Pendragon spat vehemently at the Barracuda.

“Licentious slut!” she swore in disgust.

“Your concubine does not approve of me!” Alliissa declared. “Jealousy is such an ugly trait in a lover.”

“I am not jealous of you…!” Honour began, but her denial was overridden by Jonneran’s shouted reply.

“She’s mine, not his!” declared the Fraternal Order mage. His shout caused Alliissa and several of her crew to spare him a withering glance. As he gazed into her eyes, Jonneran seemed to raise himself up on his toes, as though his body felt itself rendered weightless. His mouth opened as though he wanted to say something, but his lips were unable to form the words.

“Do not interrupt, little boy,” said the satyxis with a voice like a honey-dipped razor. “The adults are speaking.” Then she turned her gaze away from Jonneran. He almost seemed to fall, as if dropped from a height, his shoulders slumped and his face downcast.

“What do you want, Alliissa?” Matthias asked again.

“What I wanted the last time! Your seed was potent, and you did indeed ‘get me’ with it!”

Everyone on the foredeck of the Puffing Bey turned to look at Matthias as they realized the reason for the satyxis’ interest in the gunmage. Matthias winced, as if in pain.

“Only a pity that it was male,” Alliissa continued. “Else I don’t doubt it would have grown to be straight and proud. Your blood is very rich in strength.” The satyxis pirate fell quiet, apparently awaiting Matthias acquiescence. Her crew stood by relaxed and confident. On the Bey Viridian stood quietly behind her companions, absorbing the pirate captain’s words and their meaning. Standing to the left of Jonneran, she watched as he fished inside his robe and drew out a roll of parchment. As he cracked the seal and unwound the scroll, Viridian saw the look of wild fury on his face. The satyxis’ rejection, or the implication that Honour might be Matthias’ concubine, or both, had enraged the young mage. Through terse lips, he began to utter a swift combination of magic phrases. The air about him began to crackle with static, the electrical charge building inexorably to the power of storm lightning. Out of reflex, Viridian threw herself to the deck.

“Beware; magic!” she shouted; it was the cry of warning a soldier would make to their comrades on a battlefield. Matthias, Dokor and Honour threw themselves down instinctively, saved by their own military experience as Jonneran’s spell discharged in a bolt of blue-white fury over their heads. The lightning struck the astonished Alliissa full in the chest, casting her body backwards against her ship’s mast. After striking the satyxis captain, the bolt split into two and leapt to her two nearest crewmen. Wherever it struck, the lightning divided again, gradually weakening but striking again and again upon the crew of the Barracuda. Dozens of the blighted men fell, burned to death, their electrocuted muscles twitching and convulsing even as their last breaths fled their bodies. The powerful magic danced across the pirate ship’s deck, striking almost all of the crew and finally collapsing like deadly sparks onto the ships tack, boiling away around the vessel’s brass and iron fittings. Seeing no choice but to press the attack before the pirates recovered, Matthias, Viridian and Honour leaped over the gunwales and clambered up to the Barracuda’s deck.

The crew still alive fought to defend their vessel, using cutlass and claw against the invaders from the Puffing Bey. The companions drove amongst them, dispatching the wounded and laying arms against those who still resisted. Recovering his wits, Dokor took hold of his warcleaver and clambered up to the pirates’ ship, only to find himself confronted once again by the satyxis captain. Though wounded, she had not been slain by the lightning bolt’s initial blast. As the ogrun moved towards her, he once more found himself entranced by her bewitching gaze. The satyxis moved forward groggily, keeping her eyes fixed on Dokor’s; she was no longer smiling, but grimacing now in pain. With her rapier poised, she ran Dokor through the belly, the thin blade flexing almost to the breaking point as it pierced the mighty warrior’s muscled torso. Dokor sank to his knees with a grunt, his sight still fixed upon the pirate captain’s as she drew back her blade and held it poised to run him through the eye.

Honour clove a pirate through the shoulder blade, the man collapsing under the blow. Finding herself with a moment’s breathing space, Honour looked across the deck to see the satyxis’ rapier pierce Dokor’s belly. In a fury, she drew back on her sword, but found that it was lodged fast in the dead pirate’s body. Desperate to save her friend, Honour abandoned her sword and ran across the deck, seizing up a powder barrel on the way. Just as Alliissa positioned her rapier for the killing blow, Honour hefted the barrel over her head and brought it crashing down upon the satyxis’ skull. As the pirate witch collapsed insensible to the deck, Honour fell upon Dokor, praying for the healing of his wounds and sheltering him with her body from the melee that raged about them both.

With their captain gone and the shock of the lightning spell, the pirate crew were unable to defend effectively for long. Almost all of the crew had fallen when Viridian noticed two pirates loading a small cannon with chain shot near the vessel’s prow. Realizing that the gun was a decksweeper and could shred almost everyone on deck in a single shot, Viridian drew one of her pistols from its holster. She had already fired both her sidearms soon after she had boarded the Barracuda. Now she flicked open the breech of the empty pistol with one hand while she drew ammunition from her bandoleer with the other hand. Her eyes fixed on the two man cannon crew, as they raced to load their weapon. They slammed the breach of the decksweeper home just as Viridian drew her aim. One pirate sighted down the barrel of the cannon and looked dead into the eyes of Viridian as she sighted down her pistol. A shot rang out and the pirate gunner fell back dead, a bullet in his eye.

His companion ducked involuntarily and then looked down the deck to see Viridian as she cleared her pistol’s breech and loaded a second shot. The pirate dived at the loaded decksweeper, leveling the barrel in panicked haste. His hand reached for the firing pin as Viridian calmly squeezed the trigger and her second shot took the him in the neck. He clutched for the firing mechanism as he collapsed to the deck, sending the decksweeper spinning on its pintle mount. The blighted man’s black blood gurgled from the ragged hole in his throat as he clawed at the air and deck, before he died at last. Viridian sniffed at the smoke in the air as the quiet after the battle settled across the deck of the Barracuda.

“Impressive,” said Matthias as he came up beside Viridian.

“Panic never won a battle,” replied Viridian, quoting the Cygnar military motto for pistoleers and riflemen.

“Help me,” called Honour suddenly. “Dokor is wounded.”

“You go,” said Matthias to Viridian. “Garreck, let’s see about securing our prize!” Three Fingers Short joined the gunmage in checking over the dead, systematically looting the bodies and searching for survivors.

18     Aftermath

Garreck Three Fingers Short looted the dead Barracuda crew with the practiced efficiency of a professional. From corpse to corpse, he swiftly located rings on fingers; purses on belts; coins and occasional precious stones sewn into the seams of clothing; as well as weapons, ammunition and scant pieces of armour. He was using the tip of his short sword to wedge open one fallen sailor’s jaw to look for gold teeth, when he felt taloned fingers clawing at his left calf. Spinning about in a crouch, he expected to find a dying man seeking either aid or final vengeance. Instead he saw only a scaled hand, severed at the wrist and trailing blood and tendons. With sickened disgust he kicked the disembodied member from his trouser cuff. It skittered across the decking and struck one of the vessel’s port side guns. Like an undead spider, the battered hand began to claw at the air, trying to right itself. Before it could though, Matthias pinned it with the point of a gaff hook, spearing it through the palm. The Warlock threw both hook and hand over the gunwale and into the sea.

“I suspect many of them will regenerate like that,” observed the gunmage. “We will have to burn the bodies.” Garreck suppressed a shiver. He looked to the wheel deck and the shadowy gangway opening that led below decks.

“I was figurin’ on going below next,” he said. “Don’t know as tha’s such a clever idea now!”

“Take Viridian with you,” Matthias suggested. “It looks like Honour has made Dokor stable for now.”

On the foredeck of the Puffing Bey Dokor the ogrun was laid out where Honour and Viridian had managed to carry him. Honour had one hand upon his chest and her other raised in prayer to Ascendant Katrena, the holy patron of paladins and warrior maids. With no other help to offer, Viridian stood by watching and worrying. Dokor’s face looked pallid, his breathing shallow; the dark blood still seeping from his belly was soaking into the grain of the deck.

“Viridian?” called Matthias, but she appeared not to hear him.

“Ay, pistol-whore,” called Garreck in a rough but not unkind tone, hoping that his insult would rouse her from her worry. “Git yer skinny elf butt up ‘ere!”

Viridian started in surprise and then managed a wan smile to her two companions on the Barracuda. She clambered up the hull of the pirate ship to join them.

“How is he faring?” asked Matthias, looking down at Dokor. Viridian shrugged.

“There’s a limit to Honour’s healing ability,” she conceded. “Ogrun are tough, but that’s a savage wound he’s got. I don’t like the look of it.”

“Ogrun’s tough alright,” said Garreck, reaching up to pat Viridian in the mid-back. “Don’t ya fear too much fer ‘im!”

“Where’s Jonneran?” asked Viridian, realizing that she didn’t know where the young mage was. Garreck and Matthias cast their eyes back along the deck to where the man stood watch over the bound and unconscious figure of Alliissa the satyxis.

“Is that wise? He didn’t handle her too well earlier!”

“I am keeping an eye on them both,” said Matthias, his expression hard and cold.

“You know he probably saved our lives?” Viridian asked.

“What?”

“It was a dangerous stunt to be sure, but his spell probably saved us,” Viridian explained. The Warlock hardly seemed to hear. “I mean…you know…it’s not worth…getting angry over. I just…”

“I could not care less about Jonneran,” Matthias said with a flat tone.

“Oh? I just thought…,” said Viridian, but Garreck cut her off before she could finish.

“Leave it, girl,” said the dwarf. “Come wif me an’ look down below!” He grabbed her wrist and led her away.

“What are we looking for?”

“Loot, ya daft bird! What else?”

The sound of Viridian and Garreck’s footsteps receded as the two adventurers went below, leaving Matthias by himself on the deck. For a time the gentle breeze and the lapping of the waves were the only motions. The soothing stillness of the calm ocean belied the violence and wounded nature of the two vessels’ meeting. At last a moan sounded across the deck, and Matthias looked to see Alliissa stirring from unconsciousness. He crossed rapidly towards her, weaving his way between the dead bodies and ship’s rigging. By the time he arrived, Jonneran was already helping the imprisoned satyxis to a more comfortable kneeling position.

“Do not touch her!” Matthias ordered.

“Do not presume to tell me what to do with my prisoner!” Jonneran retorted.

Your prisoner?”

“Yes,” Jonneran confirmed with a nod and a smile of strange pleasure. “I intend to interrogate her at length, to see what we may learn.”

“You could learn all manner of things from me,” said Alliissa looking up from her kneeling position. Matthias spared her only a sidelong glance; even with the wounds of battle and a burgeoning bruise that threatened to swell her left eye completely shut, the satyxis nonetheless exuded an aura of passion and unbridled lust. Wounded, bound and on her knees at the feet of her captors, she seemed as in control of the situation as she had standing the wheel deck of her ship, with her whole crew at her back.

“Shut up, witch!” Matthias ordered.

“Yes; you should learn to be silent when your betters are speaking,” added Jonneran. Matthias wanted to slap him.

“I’ve lived a long time and traveled very far to find my ‘betters’,” quipped Alliissa with a coquettish smile. Then she turned her eyes upon Matthias exclusively. “Tis a pity he thinks he doesn’t want me.”

“Not him!” Jonneran shouted, his hands balled in enraged fists. The sound of bootsteps heralded Honour’s arrival. The paladin pushed her way between Matthias and Jonneran, eyeing each man suspiciously and then looking down at the Barracuda’s captured captain.

“My friend shall live, no thanks to you,” Honour said. Fury burned in her eyes and her lips turned in a hateful sneer. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now?”

“I wasn’t the one who turned to violence,” Alliissa objected sweetly. “It was your boy here who threw down, with his magic spell.” The truthfulness of this protest caught Honour by surprise. Though she had no doubt that violence would have eventually resulted from their encounter, it was still true that Honour and her companions were the ones who had drawn first blood; she fell silent, trapped by the moral implications.

“You’d have killed us if we hadn’t struck first,” snapped Jonneran. “It’s just your ill luck that we were the faster and the stronger – your betters!”

“You don’t even understand the meaning of the word,” said Alliissa. With a dismissive turn of the head she looked to Honour. “Don’t be angry with me, I only want to borrow him. I promise to return him when we’re done.”

Honour glared at Alliissa in fury. Inside her she could feel a calm, wise part of her spirit counseling caution. The satyxis had astonishing powers to influence the hearts of men, seemingly of all races. Emotions were running high and if they were not careful, Honour was sure that Alliissa would turn them against each other, to her own infernal advantage. In spite of this inner wisdom though, the paladin wanted to smash the smug witch’s teeth down her throat. Honour was unable to stop herself from turning her ire on the gunmage standing next to her.

“Is it true, what she says? Were you truly lovers?”

“It is not that simple,” said Matthias, with a pained frown.

“Oh my dear, have you not told her about us?” asked Alliissa, her face an unlikely mixture of deep sympathy and cold amusement. “Why all the secrecy? Do you yet yearn for me? For my touch? I see that you still wear my gift. Perhaps I am as sweet a memory to you as you are to me.”

Honour’s eyes scoured Matthais’ form, ranging over his midnight blue robe, realizing that it was the ‘gift’ to which Alliissa referred.

“A gift?” she muttered. Jonneran snorted, but whether in disgust or from some other motive, none could tell.

“Fear not my dear,” Alliissa continued. “You shall have me again; you should see the gifts I have for you this time.” The satyxis’ words were cut short as Matthias thrust his magelock pistol at her face. He cocked the firing hammer with a loud clack. For a moment Alliissa stared at the weapon, then she looked up into Matthias’ eyes.

“Do you really want to hurt me?” she whispered, her stare fixing on his, consuming all of his vision. She leant forward and her tongue reached out, licking and caressing the muzzle erotically. “That might be fun.”

Matthias stared down at the lascivious display, conflicting emotions roiling within him under the influence of the witch’s beguiling power. Likewise, Honour and Jonneran were transfixed, disgusted and fascinated; Jonneran’s ragged, open-mouthed breathing sounded loud in the strange quiet. With the desperation of a drowning man, Matthias threw himself after the slimmest hope of control, the bitter reminder of a truth too horrifying to believe.

“What happened to our son?” he forced himself to ask. Alliissa sat back on her knees with a petulant sigh, like a child forced to admit to a naughty secret.

“He’s dead; alright!” she said, her words spitting out like acidic venom. “I sacrificed him to the sea, as is our way. Boys cannot bear the curse; they grow to be abominations, a thousand times worse than any of the ugly brutes you killed on my crew.”

In spite of the witch’s petulant tone and angry words, the cloying, erotic atmosphere created by her powerful presence was not dispersed. After the outburst she leaned back in seductively.

“If it makes that much difference to you,” she whispered. “Then let us try again. Get me with a girl and I promise you can see her one day. I could even keep you as my consort if you like. You begged me to release you both last time, but you don’t have to make that mistake again. I want your strength inside me again.”

Tears pressed their way onto Matthias face, fighting against the thick air of passion that Alliissa’s words created. Clenching his teeth, the Warlock embraced his rage, reaching into his heart and pulling forth pain like a shield. As the thin tears moistened his eyes, his finger trembled on the trigger guard. With a supreme effort of will that nonetheless seemed like the feeble tremblings of a withered old man, he pressed his finger closed. The hammer fell seemingly slowly, as though through molasses and the paper charge ignited like a blossoming flower. The spell-charged bullet tore into Alliissa’s face and the former captain of the Barracuda collapsed to the deck, slain in complete surprise. The ensorcelment of her presence faded and the Warlock cast a defensive eye over his companions. Honour stared first at the corpse and then at Matthias. Her eyes were filled with anger and disgust. Beside her, Jonneran’s thoughts were a mystery, his face a blank mask. Turning away, Matthias noticed Viridian and Garreck standing a few paces off, apparently watching carefully.

“Couldn’t rightly tell which way that was goin’ ta go,” declared Garreck. In his hands he held a cloak that had been twisted into a makeshift sack. It appeared full of silver cutlery and other table wares. Viridian was carrying an elegant box of dark hardwood, inlaid with gold and silver.

“I think this is the new gift she was referring to,” said the red headed elf. She propped the box on one knee and opened it away from herself, showing the contents to Matthias. Inside, laid in the black velvet lining, was a matched pair of fine pistols, with revolving chambers and long, adamantine barrels. Arcane sigils ran in spidery lines along each barrel, the mystical symbols picked out in gold against the dark alloy. In a pocket inside the lid of the box, was tucked a pair of fine leather gloves. Matthias stared dumbfounded at the magnificent weapons.

“Pistols?” asked Honour, coming to Matthias side and peering into the box.

“Magelocks,” said Matthias. Honour snorted derisively and turned away, heading back to the Puffing Bey.

“I hope you enjoy them,” she said archly, before she jumped to the steamer’s deck, disappearing from sight. Jonneran also swung his legs over the side, pausing to give Matthias a smug smile before also jumping back to the companion’s boat. The Warlock closed the gun case and took it from Viridian’s hands.

“Did you want them?” he asked the half-elven pistoleer.

“Magelocks? I don’t think so,” answered Viridian, shaking her head vehemently. Then she followed her friends back to the Puffing Bey. Matthias watched her go.

“What now?” asked Garreck.

“Now we burn it!” Matthias said. “We burn it to the waterline.”

He walked to the nearest ship’s lantern and opened it, splashing the oil over the boards of the deck. Garreck followed suit and soon they had doused much of the Barracuda’s main deck. They headed back to the steamer and as it pulled away, Matthias conjured a spell of flame, sending it arcing over the water and into the rigging. The Barracuda ignited and it continued to burn for many hours. Even after sunset, the light of it could be seen on the horizon as Garreck and Matthias watched from the Bey’s stern. The two sat in silence, but towards midnight, Garreck thought he heard Matthias whisper two words.

“My son.”

19     Loves of a She Wolf

Honour Pendragon ducked as Jonneran’s spellbook flew end over end through the air towards her. It missed and struck the cabin wall behind her instead, falling to the deck with its pages splayed open, threatening the binding. Straightening again, Honour forced herself to meet her fiancé’s glaring eyes. Inside herself, she trembled. She tried to steady her breathing, but the anger in his face scoured her like a flailing whip.

“What did you say?” Jonneran demanded. His voice was low, but it trembled with restrained fury.

“I was just saying that witch’s power over men was astonishing,” Honour answered, surprised by how angry her words made him. “It is true! Even Dokor was bewitched. I thought for a minute that none of us would have the strength to defeat her.”

“Even Dokor? You compare me with the ogrun?” asked Jonneran. “You think I’m no better than a beast?”

“Dokor is no beast!” Honour protested, defense of her friend steeling her nerve momentarily.

“No, apparently he’s another man like all of us; like your precious hedge-wizard!”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was so obvious, how jealous you were!” Jonneran declared. Honour struggled to understand his words. “Do you lie awake at night, hoping that he’ll come to you? You slut! I expected more from a sworn knight and member of the Church!”

“Are you mad?” Honour spat back. “How dare you? If anyone was jealous, it was you! You were like a suitor vying for that witch’s hand!”

Jonneran surged across the cabin and slapped Honour across the cheek. Even though she had survived countless affrays and suffered numerous wounds, Jonneran’s contemptuous, hateful blow brought tears to her eyes and hurt in a way that few others could. She backed away, tripping on his spellbook and falling against the cabin wall.

“Have a care, you clumsy cow,” Jonneran rebuked her, dipping quickly to retrieve the fallen tome. He gathered it in his arms and brushed off its covers, fussing like a parent with a child. “This just sums it up completely! You have no respect for me or my things! Do you seriously think I would abandon you for some pirate whore? You must think I’m no better than your fancy-man gunmage! Why don’t you just go to him, then!?”

He walked to the cabin door and flung it wide.

“Get out!”

Panic rose in Honour’s thoughts, welling up from her deepest wounds like the ichor of an infected soul. Abandonment and rejection; these were the demons that hounded her. She trembled in Jonneran’s disdainful gaze, not moving at first, but then slowly making her way out of the cabin. At the door she paused, looking to Jonneran’s face for a hope of mercy, a flicker of a memory of love, but there was none to be found. She turned to leave and was confronted by Viridian, standing impassively in the gangway. Honour swallowed heavily and cast her eyes downward in shame. Beside her, Jonneran sighed.

“What do you want, whore?” he said. Honour flinched at his words and then shuffled out the door like a chastised servant, head bowed and spirit crushed. In the silence of Honour’s departure, Viridian and Jonneran stared at each other for a time. When the mage moved to close the cabin door in her face, Viridian thrust her boot against it and stepped in close to him.

“I’ve stood beside that woman and faced Khador steamjacks, Cryxian bilethralls and far worse than that!” Viridian whispered angrily. “She has the courage of a lion and the dignity of the Church itself. Somehow you can make her forget that about herself, but I don’t forget.”

“Get your foot out of the door or I’ll…”

Jonneran’s words were cut short as Viridian pulled forth her pistols in one swift motion, bringing one to bear on his face and pointing the other at his chest.

“Or you’ll what, mage? You’ll what?” she shouted at him.

“You wouldn’t dare,” Jonerran said, trying to sound confident, but not succeeding.

“I’ve killed mages before,” Viridian assured him. “And on the battlefield, too! Real masters they were; so a bookworm journeyman like you isn’t gonna give me any pause, truly!”

Jonneran took a step back from the door, his face a pale mask. He had never regarded Viridian with more than thinly veiled contempt. For the first time he was forced to accede to her. It galled him, but it frightened him even worse. He stood silently and waited to see if Viridian would make good on her threat.

“Lay a hand on her ever again,” Viridian said, lowering her voice once more. “I mean even once, and I’ll put your corpse over the side and into the sea. Maybe the Orca-men’s deep sea beasts might find your body but I swear your family and the Fraternal Order never will! Do you understand me?” Jonneran nodded slightly, moving his head barely a fraction, as though he were too fragile for normal movements. Viridian held her guns on him for a long moment, then turned away and followed after her friend, holstering her pistols once more.

Left alone in the cabin, Jonneran gently closed the door and sank down upon one of the two bunks. For a time he didn’t move, struggling with his emotions and thoughts. In a burst of sudden fury, he punched the mattress then recoiled, flexing his hand in pain. The bones in his palm stung from where he had struck Honour’s face. He regretted that.

“Damn it, she ought not to have provoked me like that!” he thought. “Don’t women know any better than that? Gods, no wonder the Order won’t admit them! Don’t they understand pride; honour; respect? You’d never catch a brother mage speaking to me with such disrespect. How can a woman be named ‘Honour’ and yet understand so little of what the word means?”

He pushed himself up from the bunk and moved to the table, placing the spellbook back where he had been studying it, before the whole unpleasant business had begun. It had been annoying enough when Honour had interrupted his study in the first place. Why did women always want to talk?

“And then to compare me to those others,” he thought. “The beast, the dwarf and the hedgewizard? I’m the truest man on board and she lumps me together with the scum. As if I’d fall victim to that witch’s charms? Of course she was beguiling, but I’m not about to fall for the charms of some monstrous slattern!”

Jonneran paused as this last thought resonated through his mind. Images of the satyxis’ pirate’s beauty and sensuality danced in his inner vision. The truth was that few things seemed as enticing to him as a tryst with her, even a fleeting one. Though he would never admit it to himself, he would never have been able to resist, to pull the trigger, in the way Matthias had.

“And even that witch rejected me!” he thought. “She got what she deserved, choosing the dregs over the cream like that.”

The satyxis’ disdain for him dawned in his mind, a scalding sun of hateful derision. The burning of it re-ignited his fury, a mixture of jealousy and unfulfilled desire. And the pirate bitch had been worthy of desire. At least she had known what a woman’s beauty was for, not like Honour! Like a deluge of icy water quenching his ire and chilling his heart, a new thought washed through his mind.

“What if she goes to the gunmage now?” The notion terrified him. “Every time I’ve cast her off before, she’s come back with her tail between her legs, suitably chastened. But what if now…?” New visions crowded into his mind; most unwelcome images.

Jonneran turned and rushed to the cabin door, eager to get to Honour before the gunmage did. Even as he laid his hand upon the latch though, he heard his father’s voice in his head, echoing from his memories.

“Show some spine, boy!” he heard his father say, as he had a thousand times in Jonneran’s life. “You are of a proud family, with a glorious tradition. Damn well act like it!”

Jonneran took his hand from the latch, standing in the middle of the cabin with his shoulders slumped under the burden of his duty to his family and his family name.

“Dignity; tradition; honour; pride; these are the cardinal virtues! They are the mortar and brick that built the glorious mansion that is your family!” said his father’s voice in his memories. These were the words his father had spoken on the day Jonneran had been accepted to the Fraternal Order; a callow youth about to take the first steps on the path of a magnificent career. “Do you know how much has been suffered to build this mansion into which you have been born? If you laboured every day until you died, you would never pay back the debt that you owe your honourable name! Remember this while you are away. We are what you are! Be proud of yourself as you are proud of us! Dignity in all of your dealings; pride in your achievements; fulfill the traditions bequeathed to you; and make yourself worthy of honour amongst men of honour! Do this or else do not return!”

Jonneran doubted that his father had known that when his son went out into the wild world, he would not just meet men of honour, but even a woman named Honour; a woman so exceptional that he had desired her almost as soon as he had seen her. He shook his head. Desire was not one of the cardinal virtues.

“I will not disappoint you, father,” Jonneran whispered to himself. He sat down at the table and, opening the spellbook once more, set himself to his studies.

20     Thoughts of a Whore; Hopes of a Saint

The Puffing Bey rocked unsteadily as it crested a breaking wave, slipping down the other side like a sled on a snowy slope. Viridian Swift reached out for the nearest lifeline as she was thrown against the cabin walls. She regained her footing and pushed herself to where her friend Honour stood clinging to the gunwales, looking into the ocean.

“These waves are strange,” Honour said to her friend as the half-elven pistoleer grabbed at the gunwale railing. “It is as if we are in a storm, but the skies are clear!”

“I think we’re going over a reef,” said Viridian, but she didn’t really know for sure.

“I think I am going over a reef,” Honour mused. She sighed and bowed her head to the railing. The waves soon began to calm and Viridian risked taking one hand off the railing to fish her cigarillo case out of her belt pouch. She put one to her lips and tore the end off with her teeth, spitting it into the ocean. Flicking back a small cover on the silver spine of the case, she exposed an enchanted pin of metal that remained continuously red hot. Touching the pin to the other end of the cigarillo, she puffed studiously, working hard to keep the smoke alight, in spite of the salty spray coming off the sea. In the end she gave up and threw the damp tobacco overboard as well.

“Isn’t that a bit of a waste?” asked Honour, looking up.

“Whole thing tasted of bloody sea water,” Viridian said in disgust. “I think I’ll save my last two for when we reach land.” Honour smiled.

“Remember that gunnery sergeant on the Protectorate Frontier?” she asked. “He threw that whole pouch of Amber Llael into that river when he found you smoking on sentry duty.” The pair of them chuckled at the memory.

“Cost me three months wages, that pouch. The finest tobacco you’ve ever smoked, I swear! I think that’s what switched me from pipes, you know,” Viridian recalled. “Besides, a cigarillo is so much more lady-like.” She affected the pose of a fine lady in a Caspian salon and the two of them laughed again. They looked back out over the ocean, taking a moment to enjoy the endless anonymity of the sea together. After a time of silence, Viridian broached the real subject between them.

“He doesn’t love you, you know!”

“He does…I…no, no he doesn’t!” Honour lowered her head again. She kicked at the scuppers with her boot. “What should I do about it?” Viridian only shrugged.

From the wheelhouse came the sound of the Captain ordering his mate to lash down equipment that had come loose on the foredeck.

“Perhaps he will grow to love me,” Honour ventured, as Viridian looked momentarily to the bow. “You know the vision…”

“The vision is wrong!” Viridian snapped, then immediately regretted it. She turned to see her friend staring at the ocean with an empty expression, no emotion. “I mean, maybe we don’t have the right of it. That mystic said interpretation was really difficult and as often wrong as right.”

Honour nodded slowly, her eyes showing her inner turmoil. When they had been girls, Viridian had envied her friend, so pretty and with such privilege, waking every morning from her own warm bed and being educated in the abbey. Now that they had grown to womanhood, Viridian pitied Honour, even as she loved her as her closest friend. Viridian’s harsh childhood had strengthened her in the end, readying her for the buffeting of life’s ocean. Honour had had her future wrenched out from under her on the very threshold of womanhood; now she was like a drowning swimmer, bereft and clutching at anything that promised stability. That was why she embraced the harsh discipline of a paladin’s life and why the vagaries of prophecy were like unwavering law to her. At least, that’s how it looked to Viridian. She crossed to her friend’s side and embraced her.

“Don’t worry about it,” she urged, listening to Honour’s sighing breaths. “Whatever way it turns out, Jonneran is wrong!”

“No he’s not,” Honour whispered.

“What?”

“He is not wrong, not about everything.”

“What’s he got right then?” Viridian asked, puzzled and curious.

“I do think about him,” Honour said quietly, in the manner of someone confessing their most shameful sin.

“Who?”

“Who do you think?” Honour snapped, her discomfort getting the better of her for a moment. She softened immediately though. “The heretic; the gunmage!”

“Matthias?” Viridian pressed, not understanding Honour’s revelation. “So you think about him; so what?”

“I think about him, all the time,” said Honour. She raised her face again to meet Viridian’s eyes. “Even when I am alone; especially when I’m alone!”

“When you’re alone? Oh…oh!” said Viridian as her friend’s meaning finally dawned. The two exchanged meaningful glances for a moment and the half elf reached reflexively for her cigarillo case. She drew one forth and put it to her lips before she realized the futility of the action. With a snort of frustration, she pulled it from her lips and thrust it back into the case.

“Well, look,” she said uncertainly. “Is that really such a big deal? I mean, he’s not unhandsome and I must admit it’s crossed my mind, once or twice.”

“It does not just cross my mind,” Honour protested. “It infects my thoughts. I can barely concentrate on prayer, let alone anything else. When I am near him, I feel like I am standing near a powder keg with a lit fuse. I can’t relax. And when that witch was talking to him…”

“You wanted to protect him?”

“I wanted to kill him!” retorted the paladin vehemently. “And her! I hated him for having been with her and I hated her for having touched him! And for wanting to touch him again! Most of all I hated her for thinking I was his concubine, because…” Honour’s voice trailed away.

“Because…?”

“Because a part of me wanted it to be true!” Honour let her shoulder’s slump and the straps of her pauldron creaked as she leaned, deflated, against the gunwale railing.

“Oh girl, you got it bad,” said Viridian softly. “Do you think he knows?”

“Gods, I hope not!”

“He might; you said that Jonneran knows.”

Honour shook her head in vehement denial.

“Jonneran suspects,” she said. “But that’s just jealousy. He’s got no real insight.”

“Ain’t that the truth!” The two women laughed together, but their laughter dissolved into wan smiles. The pain in Honour’s eyes was still clear. Viridian felt tears of compassion rising in her own. She looked south, nodding over her shoulder.

“The Captain says we’re almost there,” she said. “Let’s keep Tarleen foremost in our minds and let the men take care of themselves, huh?” Honour nodded.

“You won’t speak of this, will you? Not to anyone!”

“I have never and will never betray your confidence,” Viridian assured her friend. “You are my battle sister and I owe you more than that!” Honour smiled. The two began to make their way to the bow, looking south for their island destination.

“I am sorry, Viridian,” Honour said, following her friend.

“Sorry?”

“For calling you a whore and…and for insulting you!”

“I was a whore,” Viridian said. “And worse.”

“You are the most loyal and honorable person I’ve ever known,” said Honour.

“Yeah, but you haven’t known a lot of people,” said Viridian with a shrug and a wicked smile. “I mean, you were raised in an abbey.”

They both laughed again.

Continued in Parts 21 – 30

RSS
Subscribe
Twitter
Visit Us
Follow Me