Chapter 6

 

 

Hunting for Pirates

         Wildflowers grew beside the winding road that journeyed from the First Gate down to the harbour. Aliviel watched the Bees that buzzed between blossoms and wondered if they might tell her the future. Ciardha watched his cousin’s laboured pace. He could tell that she was tired and hungry, even though she wouldn’t say so. He worried that they were not going to make the water by sundown. Now and then carts would pass along the road, either coming from or going to the Red City. The first few times this happened the children hid. But eventually Ciardha decided that if they were to make it in time, they would have to catch a ride.

It was impossible to get the carts to stop, however. The drivers were merchants and tradespeople, busy travellers who had no interest in stopping for a pair of young children walking alone along the road on a sunny afternoon. There were strange rumours regarding the unseen children of the Red City. Many thought that curses and bad luck must be involved. Those that drove past them felt that a young boy and girl found walking on the road alone, coming away from those red walls, even in the middle of the day, was most likely an ill omen, and they kept a wide berth.

Finally, around noon, as the hearts of the children were growing heavy, a rickety old cart drawn by a weary old donkey meandered by. The driver was likewise old, and slumped over. He slept on his perch, not even bothering to whip the donkey when it stopped to munch some grass at the side of the road. It was during this momentary hiatus in the dilapidated cart’s journey that Ciardha and Aliviel scrambled aboard. The jostling the cousins made broke the driver’s slumber. Rather than looking back to discover the stowaways, however, the curmudgeon grumbled and stirred the donkey to keep moving.

Their pace was not greatly increased by the slow trek of the cart, but the children were able to rest and find a decent lunch in the bundles the magician had given them. Most importantly, Aliviel was finally able to sleep. Ciardha tried to keep watch, but the sway of the cart on the road, and the deep breathing of the driver, combined with the lazy hot glow of the afternoon sun on his face, all lulled him into a gentle slumber. Strange images of goons and goblins and sunny gnomes danced across his mind, following the sleepy sway of a fuzzy black cat’s belly, and strange myopic green eyes glaring above gnarled hands reaching out to him.

The cry of seagulls and a cold salty breeze brought him awake with a soft start. Aliviel still slept, but as they had neared the harbour and the bustle of crowds, their somnambulant driver had become more alert. Ciardha shook his cousin awake and the two strapped on their bundles as quietly as they could. They waited for the cart to pause long enough for them to get off. This time the jostle of their departure drew the attention of the driver and they ran into a nearby alley with grumpy shouting at their backs.

The streets of the small harbour village were dirty, full of grime and refuse. They smelled of cigar smoke, of alcohol and stale sweat. Every few doorways there were taverns, and in the alleyways between buildings filthy individuals could be found drunk and unconscious. It was not a savoury place for children and the two drew nasty looks from the people they passed. No one responded to inquiries about a dark sailor or the various ships at port. They spent a good hour wandering about the squalid streets before they found any help at all.

They were just passing yet another establishment of questionable repute, when they collided with a drunken sailor who was being rousted from the premises. His clothes were tattered and worn, and had long passed any hope of cleanliness. The hot stench of liquor emanated from his every pour. Aliviel wondered that he could still stand, and indeed the inebriated old salt swayed violently and ended by grabbing the shoulders of the two children just to keep himself from falling.

“S’okay! Is okay, I’m hardly asss’soussed as she thinks I am, damn ‘urp. . . wench!” The drunk let the two children lead him away. But he followed this statement with an explosive string of colourful expletives. Too colourful, I am afraid, to be put down here.

“Excuse me sir, but we are looking for a ship harboured near here that is sailed by a moor named Dakshieth. Do you have any idea where or how we might find either the sailor or his ship? It is almost sundown and we must get on board before then.”

Ciardha and Aliviel had repeated this inquiry so often in the last hour that it had lost all meaning for them, they were unprepared for the effect it had upon their drunken listener. The name in particular had an immediate sobering effect upon the man, who reacted as though he had been struck in the face with cold water. His eyes flicked open, peering around suspiciously as if to see who might have been near enough to overhear. Then he leaned toward the two children grabbing them each by a wrist and whispered in their ears, harsh and angry.

“How is it you know that name? Dakshieth! Who are ye and what business do ye have upon that ship?” His voice was strong and his hands tightened painfully as the children struggled in futility to get free.

Not waiting for the answers to his questions the drunk swore under his breath and pulled them along behind him as he made his way quickly through the greasy streets. Keeping his head down he seemed to be trying to hide the fact that he pulled two struggling children along with him. Ciardha and Aliviel doubted they would find any help or sympathy from the sullen villagers, and they did not waste time and energy crying out for it. Besides, the reaction to the name Dakshieth, although startling, gave them the hope that they were being taken to the very man they sought.

They were pulled roughly along until they came to a dark doorway set in from the main road that ran along the docks. There the drunk stopped and pounded heavily upon the door with his boot, still holding tightly to the children’s wrists (which at this point were becoming quite bruised). Aliviel made one final attempt to wrest free from their captor’s grasp. But failing at this, she resigned herself to their fate and looked out at the sea sparkling in the late sun.

Seagulls played in the wind and shouted down at her, landing upon the tall masts that rocked gently with the rise and fall of the sea. She looked in wonder at the various ships, the smaller ones tied in close to the docks, the larger ones anchored farther out. They were all worn with the look of adventures, and she wondered which was the one they wanted. She looked about in excited anticipation, expecting to see the illusive Dakshieth in every cloaked stranger who walked past. She smiled broadly at the look of worried consternation on her cousin’s face, as he continued to try and wrestle free from the drunkard’s iron grip.

Ciardha, looking up, asked, “Why on earth are you smiling, are you crazy? Who knows what this big louse is going to do with us.”

“Yeah, I know. But it sure beats being locked up all alone in the high tower, I bet. I know it is more exciting than being alone in that gloomy city,” Aliviel sighed. She figured she had not been so cheerful in a long while, and considering the circumstances that was really saying something. She took a deep breath, enjoying the fresh sea air, and Ciardha couldn’t help but relax his struggle and smile as well.

Finally a fat woman in an apron answered the door. She seemed less than pleased to see the drunk and almost closed the door on him. The drunk, however, pushed past her into the dank front room of what appeared to be an inn. She swore at the man and turned to face him with a dark frown, her arms akimbo.

“Damn it, Roger! What are you bringing this here for? And you’re late! He’s been grumbling after you and thinking of leaving without you, and no one would blame him if he did. I sure as hell won’t be stopping him, nor should you think you’d be welcome here once he leaves. Pah! But you do stink!” The woman’s voice screeched and nagged, and the children both looked on her with immediate dislike.

“Quiet down woman!” Roared the drunk named Roger. “These two ’ave been traipsin’ all ’round everywhere askin’ after a moor named Dakshieth, and his boat!” At the sailor’s name the woman’s face froze and she looked at the two children in horror. She nodded at the man, suddenly silent, and made a strange jerking motion that indicated the upstairs where footsteps could be heard pacing. What little mirth the cousins had come in with, quickly dissipated. Their path seemed once again to be headed toward peril.

The footsteps paused at the sound beneath them and all four held their breath waiting. After a minute the heavy tread could be heard again, and a strong deep voice came from above calling for Roger. The face of the drunk went pale and the man looked as if he were about to be sick. He made to take the children with him up the stairs, but then thought better of it. Looking behind him, he nodded at the woman indicating that he was leaving the two in her charge. Walking slowly, but with purpose, up the creaking staircase, Roger looked as though he headed toward an execution. The children suddenly felt worried for him. They began to wonder what sort of pirate this Dakshieth was, and whether he would really be of any help to them at all.

The fat woman looked at the two suspiciously and ushered them over to sit on a footstool in a dirty corner. She listened at the stairs and then grumbled, wiping her hands on her apron. She looked again at the children with a strange bitterness and brought them a jug of grey water, the stale end of a loaf of bread, and what appeared to be a mouldy chunk of cheese. Aliviel tried not to show her distaste too visibly, appreciating that the woman needn’t have given them anything. Ciardha nibbled nervously at a piece of the wretched bread but did not touch the rest of it, and the woman didn’t seem to care. She went about her business pretending that the entire situation was not happening, but her hands noticeably trembled. It went on like this for a quarter of an hour until there was the sound of feet scuffling above them and then a loud should and a thud, the sound of a large body hitting the floor.

The woman gasped and stepped backward. Moments passed and then the dark figure of a man moved swiftly down the stairs. His movements were strong and precise. They had a grace about them that was terrifying. The man was tall and handsome, and had eyes that shone with a fierce light. He wore a shirt made of silk that hung elegantly against his black skin, and his body rippled with strength beneath it. He was stunning and the children could taste it in the air, could feel it in their bones, he was powerful and dangerous. It was like meeting a dragon. It filled them with a giddy excitement, and, however dangerous it might be, they both suddenly yearned to be a part of whatever adventure he might offer.

The man grabbed a cloak that hung by the door and spoke to the woman in a low voice.

“Roger will be along shortly. Do not detain him.” He paused, not looking at the children, and added in a whisper, “and do not mention them to anyone . . . I will know if you do, and I am sure you know what happens to those who cross me?”

The woman seemed unable to swallow or breathe. She nodded at the man. She backed away from him and scowled toward the dusty corner where the children sat. The man also turned toward the two and held them in his gaze, summing them up.

In a low voice that sounded like melted gold, the dark man spoke. “You will both come with me now. Be quiet, and stay close!”

There was a soft rustling sound made by the fabric of his cloak, as he turned and walked toward the door. As though drawn by strong magnets, the children hurried after him.

The day had changed. It was almost sundown and the sky had grown overcast, the air had become damp, soon it would rain. Dark purple clouds gathered in the distance and a cold wind blew in off the water. The man in the dark cloak turned up his collar and walked quickly, and with purpose, through the side streets and along the docks, so that the children sometimes had to run to keep up.

Ciardha thought about his bruised wrists and the fact that they were now chasing a man, who might just as well be considered their captor, through the streets toward who knows what adventures or possible danger. They were suddenly willing to follow this stranger without hesitation into any dark corner where new horrors might lurk. Ciardha wondered what it was that was so compelling. Short of breath he ran beside Aliviel, looking ahead of them at the graceful swirl of the thick cloak around the tall man’s stride, with a frightened respect and a secret longing.

The man finally stopped beside a small rotting dock that looked like it would soon fall away into the sea. He spoke to an old man who sat there, his whispers inaudible as the children caught their breath. They fastened their cloaks against the spit of rain that was beginning to fall. Aliviel heard the old dockhand mention Roger and watched as the shoulders of the tall man shrugged. Suddenly he turned on them, his handsome face shining in the light rain, his fierce eyes daring them to defy his next command.

“Get in the boat,” he said quietly, somehow knowing that they would. Indeed, his every movement was so swift and sure that Aliviel doubted they would have much hope against him if they did not.

He motioned toward a small dory that was tied to the rotten wood. They made their way clumsily, settling nervously in the stern, waiting. Eventually, two rough looking men came toward the dock and nodded at the tall man, joining them in the small boat. The tall man sat alone at the prow as the other two untied the docklines and began to row out toward the largest of the ships that sat in the harbour.

At this point, it may be useful, to take a moment to admire the ship they are approaching, for it is unlike any other ship you may have heard of, or may have ever seen. It is a large vessel with three tall masts, much of the type that explorers and adventurers prefer, yet, wholly singular and unique as well. There is the flare of magic in the design of the ship that defies physics, practicality, or reason. It is old magic that sits upon every detail, making the ship magnificent. With far too much glass, and too many portlights, and more cabins than would seem advisable, the ship sits a bit too high above the waterline, defying the weight of its gun decks and gravity, while its bowels explore a bit too far into the depths below. It is an altogether remarkable and impossible vessel, with sails made of gold, and the glow from yun, that magical Bee pollen, having been rubbed into its wood, making its hull impenetrable.

As the small boat drew nearer to this leviathan, the children began to take in the ship’s enormity. In a few days time they would have a greater appreciation for the singular beauty of the vessel. But for now, upon their first blush of wonder, the ship seemed merely impractical and imposing.

Ciardha watched silently as the men rowed forward toward it. He squinted into the rain and tried to look past them at the figure of the tall man in front. Aliviel leaned against him looking back toward the village. She watched the water falling away from the wood into the small wash made by their passage. The rain made pockmarks in the choppy sea. She looked up into the darkening sky at the seabirds that circled diving for fish, brushstrokes of faded white. She wiped the rain from her eyes and huddled closer to her cousin. The rain splashed up from the wooden planks under their feet, and, although it was only a light rain, with the air still warm from the heat of the day, the children sank into the stern sheets feeling tired and hungry, wet and cold.

As the dory reached the remarkable ship, the rain abated to a drizzle. The two rough men handed the children aboard into the hands of other rough men, all of them looking haggard and mean. Ciardha held tightly to Aliviel’s hand, cold and damp like his own. He felt her shiver beside him and wondered if it was from the wet cold, or from a knot of fear similar to the one growing in his own tight stomach. Aliviel squeezed his hand, looking at him with brave eyes. Ciardha remembered her facing off against a horde of armed goons with just her small knife. He squeezed back smiling, cheered by the absurd thought that even a ship full of hardened pirates was no match for his tiny cousin.

Aliviel watched the rough men and felt very isolated. She felt light-headed, and maybe a little brave, but mostly she just felt tired. She held tightly to her cousin’s hand and waited. She thought how amazing it was that it had been only a day since she first met Armillarious in the field. She wondered how her father was, and, feeling a little guilty, she hoped that he was not too worried. Although, she thought, given the present situation perhaps a little worry was not misplaced. The thought nearly made her giggle. Thus it was that the two children stood, in the midst of dangerous pirates, as the tall man came on board his ship and finally looked down at them long and hard.

The effect of the man’s gaze upon the children cannot be described. It lasted for many minutes. He did not pace, and his handsome features belied nothing of his thoughts. The men on board moved about, giving them a wide berth. It was clear that the man inspired great fear and respect among them. None dared disturb the strange scene and its silence.

After a while the dark man broke his contemplation. With a calm smile he gestured for the children to go before him into a beautifully ornate cabin just beneath the sterncastle. The pirates nodded in deference as they passed, mumbling ‘Capt’n’, neither addressing nor acknowledging the children. Opening the cabin door, the tall man ushered them into a snug and warmly lit room. In the silence within, they heard the door lock behind them. It was an ominous sound that bounced between the walls.

 

The cousins turned to look at him. The man walked past them and leaned casually against a table. He was imposing, and they were suddenly frightened. They were more frightened than they had been in the evil wood, or in the dark corridor. They looked at the dark face that no longer smiled, at the fierce eyes that were suddenly cold and dangerous. In the low rich voice that they had heard before, there was now something hard and terrible. In the graceful gestures and movements of the man, they could now see the potential for violence. The children could hardly breathe as the pirate looked down at them and said, with the quiet air of a strange malice:

“I am Dakshieth. Congratulations, you have found me.”