Thursday, April 12, 2018

No Better Life - Chapter One

No Better Life

Chapter 1

by Gerard "Gray" Chartier

A light drizzle spattered on Gray’s head as he navigated upstream on a river south enough of the Southern Wastes to not appear on any of the maps he’d been able to obtain.  An explorer by heritage and inclination, cruising into the unknown concerned Gray little. He imagined his passengers were even less phased. Just to be in the Realms, they’d already taken a much greater leap of faith than sailing off the charts could ever be.
“I wish we could have taken an imperial vessel on this voyage!  A proper ship would have somewhere to get out of the rain!”
Gray glanced at the complainant, a slender figure huddled in her cloak, shielding her gleaming bronze skin from the rain. “We’ve only got about four feet of water under the keel, Kamilla,” he replied, “One of your imperial ships would have run aground days ago.”
The Mayerling elf flicked a lock of her golden hair out of her face.  “It’s not that Stormseeker isn’t a fine boat, Gray. It’s just that she lacks…amenities.”
“And her lack of amenities makes her light enough to bring us to our destination,” Charwindle said as she approached the stern, her red scale armor jingling in time with her movements, “Instead of at least three weeks hard riding, Gray’s ship is bringing us to our destination in just a little over a week.”
“If it’s there,” Gray remarked.
Kamilla raised her chin.  “Everything has been just as my informant told thus far.”
“Which could just mean we’re reaching a prearranged ambush point,” Gray retorted.
“Either way,” Charwindle interjected, “We should be prepared.”  She turned to the bow of the ship. “Mayerling!” she called, “Look lively!”
At the bow, Eion sprang from where he’d been lounging, stringing his bow and scanning the forested riverbanks.  Darvin and Swift did likewise, but with the economy of movement of veterans, while Soft simply peered out with interest, not even bothering to draw his tiny dagger.  From the stempost, Killer the squirrel cast his baleful eye over all of them, screeching his disapproval.
“That squirrel would make a fearsome sergeant,” Charwindle observed.

Stormseeker’s hull hissed through the water, her oars rising and falling in unison as if manned by silent ghosts. The bend they rounded in the river lacked an ambush, but it did have a worn statue rising from a plinth in the water – a robed, hooded woman bearing a shield on one arm, the other held aloft broken off below the elbow.
“As described,” Kamilla gloated.
“No one likes a told-you-so,” Gray grumbled.
Past the statue, Stormseeker wasn’t the only vessel in the water.  Gray steered their course around small boats whose occupants dropped fishing lines into the water, or dove below and came back up with handfuls of mussels – at least until they laid eyes on his ship.  As soon as they did, they invariably snatched up oars and rowed frantically for shore.
Gray nodded towards the fleeing fishermen.  “They don’t seem very friendly.”
Charwindle cast a glance at the carved dragon head curling from his ship’s stempost.  “I imagine Stormseeker is a more formidable vessel than they’re accustomed to seeing.”
The longship easily outstripped any of the boats trying to flee upstream, so for the next hour they scattered fishermen like a hawk putting pigeons to flight.
Darvin pointed out to shore.  “Buildings! To the right!”
“Starboard,” Gray corrected.
“Whatever,” Darvin said, “Over there!”
Gray looked the way Darvin pointed, towards stone structures in varying states of disrepair, most missing at least some portions of their walls and roofs.  Some showed signs of repair with planks, timbers, or thatch. They cruised towards supports for a bridge that had long since collapsed, but some enterprising soul had built a pier out to the support nearest the shore.
Stormseeker responded to his hand at the tiller, curving towards the pier, her oars sliding into the hull as the ship slid into place, her hull bumping against the piles.  Gray clambered up to the pier and began securing his ship while Charwindle’s troops formed a defensive line.
Gray finished his task as a half dozen toughs tromped down the pier towards them.  “Here!” shouted the biggest, a boat hook over one shoulder, a frown on his scarred, grizzled face, “Ye can’t just tie up to our pier!  Ye got to pay the docking fee!”
Kamilla glided out past the Darvin and Swift, ignoring the crude weapons the toughs brandished as she lowered the hood of her cloak.  “Forgive us, good sir. We were unaware there were duties to be paid. What is the cost of the docking fee?”
The lead tough seemed taken aback by the apparition of grace he was suddenly confronted with.  “Uhh…milady, the fee be a hunnred gold pieces.”
Gray snorted in contempt.  “I’d sooner incinerate these fools where they stand than pay them a hundred gold!”
“Strong talk for one don’t carry no sword!” the lead tough snarled.
Gray began drawing in his power.  The toughs all took a step back as electricity began to crackle from his form.  “I don’t need a sword!”
“Gray!” Kamilla snapped, “You’re not helping!”
Gray scowled at the elf, but let the power dissipate harmlessly into the air.
Kamilla turned back to the lead tough.  “I apologize for my friend. He has a bit of a temper, but I’m sure he won’t object to a reasonable arrangement.  Would you care to negotiate the terms of one?”
The lead tough shot a terrified glance at Gray, but he nodded.
A few minutes later, the lead tough spat into his open palm and offered it to Kamilla.  The elf showed no hesitation in doing likewise, the two shaking on the deal they made. Charwindle started counting out the agreed-upon price as most of the gang members retreated back up the dock, pretending not to hurry.   Kamilla led the way after them, humming a cheery tune. Gray brought up the rear of the Mayerling group.
“I hate to admit it,” Gray grudged to Killer, “But Kamilla struck a good deal.”
The squirrel on his shoulder chittered about his preference for resolving conflicts with extreme violence. Gray only half-listened - it was a typical rant for his familiar.
Upon reaching the end of the dock, the lead tough surprised Gray by distributing even shares of his haul to all his men.  “Burt and Kline, ye’ll guard the pier like we agreed. Ye, Reed,” he said, “Ye’ll be their guide.”
Reed, a burly man Gray guessed was in his mid-twenties, pushed back his mop of sandy brown hair and nodded.  “Aye Donner.” He turned to the Mayerling party. “Reed be me name! How can I be serving ye?”
Kamilla favored Reed with a brilliant smile.  “First, can you take us someplace where we can rent rooms for the night?”
“Why?” Gray asked, “We can stay aboard Stormseeker.”
“I think we’d all like a roof over our heads tonight, Gray,” Charwindle pointed out.
Killer chittered his disagreement.
Charwindle sighed.  “Everyone except Killer, that is.”
Gray offered Killer an acorn to silence him.  The squirrel snatched the nut and began chewing happily.  Gray surveyed the surroundings as Reed led the group to a two-story building where three still-standing stone walls had been supplemented with a fourth wall of rough planks and a sod roof.  Wispy smoke drifted from a pair of chimneys, and the aroma of cooking food wafted from within.
Reed grinned at them.  “The Leaping Trout,” he said, pointing to a crude sign with a reasonable painting of the inn’s namesake, “Me cousin runs the place.  I’ll see ye’re treated decent.”
Reed’s cousin turned out to be a sturdy woman of roughly the same age with a crooked nose.  “I’ve three rooms can sleep three each,” she said, “Two gold gets ye a room, food, and fresh straw for a week.  An extra gold gets ye a bath every other day.”
Kamilla readily agreed, and they were ushered to the common room for an early dinner of crayfish stew and brown bread.
“So, Reed,” Kamilla said as she sniffed at a spoonful of her stew, “What was this town originally named?”
Reed shrugged.  “Don’t rightly know.  Folks just call it Broken Bridge, for the obvious reason.  Must have been someplace to somebody, but that was ages and ages ago.
“Who runs the place?” Darvin asked.
Reed slurped at his stew.  “No one, really. Gangs control bits and pieces.  Sometimes, someone takes it into his or her head to try and make him or herself  lord, it ain’t never stuck.”
“Reed,” Kamilla said, “We’ve heard about someone who looks like me, but male.  A elf with metallic-tinted skin.” She gestured to the double-headed dragon heraldry on her tabard.  “Possibly wearing emblems like we bear. Have you heard of such a person?”
Reed smiled and nodded.  “Ah, aye! I have heard of who ye speak!  Quotes from books no one round here’s even heard of!  Folks call him the Scholar. He be spending his time in Red Walls territory.
The ‘descended’ Mayerlingers, as Gray thought of them, all leaned towards Reed, their food more or less forgotten.  “Reed, can you take us to see this Scholar?” Kamilla asked.
“Aye,” Reed agreed, “I’ll need to approach the Red Walls gang, but they be havin’ no quarrel with the Dock Rats.  Ye should be able to see ye’re Scholar in a day or two. No more than three, be sure.”
“As soon as possible, please, Reed,” Kamilla urged.
“Ah, well, it be important, it can be sooner, if the right palms be greased,” Reed said.
As if expecting Reed’s statement, Charwindle produced a small pouch and slid it across the table to Reed.  The local picked it up and shook it, smiling at the jingle the contents produced. He rose and sketched a bow.
“Lords, ladies,” he said, “I be off to do ye bidding.”  Whistling, he sauntered out of the inn.

“Swift,” Charwindle commanded, “Follow him.  Discreetly.”
Swift grinned and got up from the table, shedding his tabard and bracers before darting out the door after Reed.
Charwindle dabbed her mouth with a ragged cloth napkin and rose.  “We should do some scouting. Darvin, you go out with Gray. Soft, you’re with me.  Kamilla, you and Eion stay here. If I don’t return, you have command of the mission.
The elf nodded.  “Understood, captain.”

Darvin looked at Gray and nodded his head sideways towards the door.  Gray grabbed a hunk of the bread and got up from the table, following the soldier out.

To be continued in Chapter Two...

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