Thursday, June 23, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 14: A Pirate's Apostle

             Tarsus stood at the ship’s railing as the sun began its descent.  The scene was one of utter peace: not a cloud in the sky, not a lap in the water; nothing around them as far as the eye could see.
            He breathed deep.
            “Captain!” a panicked sailor called down from the crow’s nest at the top of the main mast.
            Tarsus spun around.  Amelia, her eyes looking skyward, was standing next to Cassius on the quarterdeck.
            “What is it?” she called out.
            “We’re being…” the crow began to call.
            “Don’t bother, fool,” Cassius interrupted.  He put a hand on the captain’s shoulder.  Gently, the she turned to face the young half-god.
            “What’s going on?” Amelia asked loudly.
            “Sir, they’re hailing us!” the crow called out again.
            Amelia turned from Cassius and sped to the railing.  Tarsus too looked out to the open sea.  But neither one of them saw nothing on the calm waters.
            “It’s only pirates, my dear,” Cassius answered, clearly bored.  “They approach from behind.  They are almost on us.”
            “On you, actually,” a voice said.
            Everyone on the ship turned then.  Sailors on the main deck looked each other up and down, trying to decipher where the voice had come from.
            “Who said that?” Amelia asked as she approached the railing of the quarterdeck that overlooked her crew.
            No one answered.
            “Does anyone know?” asked a thin sailor who stood near the main mast.
            “No, Matt, I don’t think anyone does,” replied a fat one by the railing, very near to where Tarsus stood.
            “Wouldn’t it behoove us, Brian, to learn who did?” Matt asked.
            “It would indeed,” Brian nodded in assent.
            Perhaps the culprit is here…in our very midst,” Matt went on, bending low as though he was sitting in a dark wood over a camp fire.  “One of us.  Someone who has been communicating the Defiance’s many weaknesses to the pirate band all along.”
            “A dark treachery indeed,” Brian added.  “But so tedious.  Surely it couldn’t be just one person Matt.  There’d have to be at least one other, wouldn’t there?”
            “I do think you’re right Brian,” Matt said.  “Yes, our mystery man…”
            “OR woman,” Brian butted in.
            “Of course,” Matt said, bowing his head to Brian for a point well made.  “Our mystery man or woman surely must have an accomplice.”
            “As amusing as all of this has been,” the voice of Amelia rang out.  All eyes turned to her, and found her gripping and end-piece of a single cord of rope in each of her hands.  She had looped the rope around the one of the main mast lines that extended high above them.  She launched herself from her elevated position, and in an instant she landed on the main deck.  “Your joke lost steam several lines ago.  You are the pirates.  Your ship is approaching.  What do you want?”
            “Oh, we were having fun,” Brian said disappointedly.
            “S’alright Captain Amelia,” Matt said as he stepped toward her with an outstretched hand.  He caught the serious look in her eye, though, and paused where he was.  “We just want to rob you.”
            “Oh!  Here’s a fun wrinkle,” Brian exclaimed, finding another element of their plan he could be excited about.  “We don’t want much.  No gold or jewels or great sums of cash.  In fact, we’d be happy with a single coin.”
            “Since you are going to make me ask,” Amelia began.  It was her turn to be bored now.  “Why would you settle for so little?”
            “Everyone knows the Defiance’s reputation,” Matt answered.  “And that of its fiery captain.  If we take too much, you’ll chase us.”
            “Or your god could do it for you,” Brian added, looking hesitantly up at Cassius.  “The Defiance is the only ship known to travel under the protection of a god.”
            “Then why rob us?” Amelia asked, irritated.  “If riches are not the intent, what value could a single coin from my ship offer?”
            “We don’t’ want just any old coin, captain,” Matt said, pointing up to the quarterdeck.  “We want one with his seal on it.”
            Everyone turned their heads to follow the pirate’s arm.  On the quarterdeck, Cassius’s hands were gripping the railing, and his body was huddled over the bannister looking down on the scene play out.  For the first time since leaving the last isle, he was smiling.  For the first time since the start of the journey, he was riveted.
            “You have had free reign to sail the Crystal Sea without fear of anything,” Brian added.
            “But that ends today.  With a token from this ship as proof, we’ll be able to loot and pillage as we please.  Other ships, islands, colonies…they will live in fear as the names of Matt and Brian, pirate kings, strike terror in their very souls,” Matt portended passionately.
            “Ha,” everyone on the deck jumped at the laugh, including Matt and Brian. 
Cassius was clapping as he beamed down.  “You flatter me bandits.  Well done.”
            “Why should I give you anything?” Amelia asked, recalling everyone’s attention to her.  She drew her sword and rested the flat of her blade on Matt’s shoulder.
          Suddenly, ten blades were drawn and pointed at the captain.
A stunned Tarsus reached for his own sword, but it was not at his side.  His sailor suit was made for hard work on the open sea; there were no belts, hooks or straps from which a weapon could be hung.  Yet these pirates had found a way to conceal full-length swords even as they worked the deck all that day. 
He looked around at each man and woman who’d drawn a sword.  They were not sailors that he recognized.  This must have been the new crew they picked up at the last port; all pirates, hidden in plain sight.
“We’re smart,” Matt said with a grin.  “There are more of us down below, and many more on the ship approaching.  You’re outnumbered.”
“And if I may be so bold,” Brian interjected.  “Your god seems to prefer us to you.”
Boldly, Brian turned to the god and gave a solemn bow.  Cassius gave a slight nod to this gesture.  The pirate’s offering had been accepted.
Tarsus was in awe.  Surely, the half-god would not give these pirates what they wanted for the sake of flattery? 
“Give them something Amelia,” Cassius said with a lazy wave of his hand.  “They have earned it.”
An impishly smiling Matt held out his hand to the captain of the Defiance, even as the flat of her blade still rested on his shoulder.
Amelia looked hard at him.  She stood there motionless for several moments.  When her cold stare began to unnerve Matt, she lifted her blade off of his shoulder and put the sword away.  Then, she brought her arms up around her neck, and began to undo a leather cord that was tied at the back of it.
“Excuse me,” Tarsus said, suddenly stepping in front of Amelia. 
Matt and Brian instinctively took a step back as the lethal sparkle of several blades was suddenly thrust forward.  Amelia inched closer to Tarsus’s back; for now, a slight trip or fall in any direction would mean being skewered.
Tarsus held up his open hands, showing that he was unarmed and had no ill intent.  Matt stepped forward then, surveying this new player in the game.
“Who are you?” he asked of Tarsus.
“Tarsus Cole,” the sunsword replied calmly.  “I am Cassius’s chosen.”
“Chosen for what?” Brian added from behind Matt.
“A quest,” Tarsus said simply.  “To retrieve something precious to him.”
“My lord,” Matt called out to Cassius, looking up at the half-god.  “Is this true?”
Tarsus chose not to turn and look at Cassius, but from the corner of his eye he could see the demigod leaning farther over the railing than he had before.  That was good.  Tarsus had succeeded in capturing Cassius’s interest.
The small smile the half-god offered before turned into a larger grin.  His eyes were fixed on Tarsus; and he looked at the mortal with a scrutinizing gaze.
“It is,” Cassius finally answered.
“Interesting,” Matt said, turning back to Tarsus.  “How may we help you master chosen?”
“On the contrary my friend,” Tarsus said, offering a confident and self-assured smile.  “It is I who can help you.”
“How?” Brian asked, intrigued by this.
“By joining you,” Tarsus explained.
“What?” Matt snickered.
“Take me with you,” Tarsus said again.  “And I will be your living token.”
“We have no more time for games, I’m afraid,” Brian added, putting a hand on Matt’s shoulder and indicating the starboard side of the ship.  Nothing was there, but Brian’s intent was clear: something would be very soon.
“This is no game,” Tarsus said with a patient calm.  “Let me join your crew, and where we go I will tell this story: not the story of stealing a simple coin.  Such a trinket could have easily been pocketed or spirited away.  But rather how you stole, from under his very nose, the chosen servant of Cassius.”
Tarsus felt a slight tug in the pit of his stomach.  Even more so than noticing it before, he now felt Cassius’s full attention on him.
The pirates stood silent, weighing Tarsus with their gaze.
“So you would be our…what?” Matt finally had to ask.  “A bard?  Singing of our triumph?”
“I’m afraid I do not sing,” Tarsus answered, somewhat strained by the roiling that was beginning in his belly.  “But you have it generally right.”
Matt and Brian shared a look.  They were both grinning, which then turned to light laughter.
“Sorry chosen,” Matt said.  “But I think we’ll take the coin.  It has benefits you do not.”
“Such as?” Tarsus pressed.
“It’s small,” Brian chirped.  “Easy to take with us wherever we go.”
“And it bears his seal,” Matt exclaimed in a high-pitched voice, as though the response was obvious.  “People will recognize it.  You…aside from the three of us, who would know there was anything special about you?”
“You are right,” Tarsus said, panicked. 
He searched his mind.  Tarsus had no answer to the problem of being recognized.  He and Cassius had only talked of the sunsword’s service.  There was no contract, no heirloom denoting a special position, no seal branded onto…
“Brand me,” Tarsus said as he turned to face the demigod.  His plan could still work, if he could only keep Cassius’s interest for a few more moments.
“You are insane,” Brian said.  The mirth had gone from his voice.  He was nervous now.
“Imagine it,” Tarsus went on, his voice booming over the deck of the ship even as his eyes were fixed on Cassius.  “A living, breathing symbol of your victory.  Dedicated to spreading the good news of how you bested Cassius, god of the Defiance.”
The roiling in the pit of Tarsus’s stomach was in full force now.  But he did not break his gaze with the demigod.  Nor did Cassius look away, but returned the sunsword’s gaze with fervent intensity. 
            “Preaching…to anyone who will listen, how the meek overcame the mighty,” Tarsus kept going.  “Becoming your apostle; converted…from the service of a god, to the glory of superior men.”
Tarsus fell to his knees.  The pit of his stomach was shaking, throbbing.  Every quake was a surge of the demigod’s anger.
Matt, Brian and everyone else on the deck of the Defiance only had a moment to contemplate Tarsus’s fall.  For just then, from the starboard side of the ship, came a call.
Everyone turned to find they had been dwarfed in the shadow of a huge, black ship.  The monstrous boat blocked the Defiance from what remained of the twilight sun; and on the railing above them, Defiance sailors saw the silhouettes of hundreds of ominous shadows looking down.
“Time to go,” Brian said hurriedly.
“We have to take something,” Matt said, surveying Tarsus on his knees and an angry Cassius rising to his full height.
“Grab whatever the captain was going to give us,” Brian insisted.  “Around her neck.”
Matt needed no further convincing.  He stepped around Tarsus and reached his hand for the cord around Amelia’s neck.
“AHHHHHHHH,” the scream echoed so loud that the crews of both ships covered their ears.
Suddenly, Matt burst into flames. 
“Matt!” Brian called out, but too late.  Before the name could fully leave his lips, the fat accomplice exploded in a brilliant light of yellow fire.
Everyone on the deck of the Defiance stood by and watched in horror as these two pirates burned.  Even through Matt and Brian’s screams, no one moved.  They stayed where they were, stupefied by the heavenly fire that burned and darted all over the deck.  Until finally, it stopped moving.
“I do not suffer insults,” Cassius proclaimed in a deep, booming voice that boomed like a thunderclap.  “I am a god!  And I am worshipful!”
Cassius lifted his hands.  The purple and red twilit sky turned black, and from the emptiness there came a lighting bolt.  It struck the bowsprit of the pirate ship, setting the wood ablaze.  Those dark, ominous silhouettes were suddenly illuminated in the ship’s fire; and they were afraid.  Half of them rushed to put the fire out, while others were following the orders to get the ship moving.
As quickly as it had appeared, the pirate ship disappeared.  It sailed back the way it came, the fire at the front only seeming to grow.
On the deck of the Defiance, the ash remains of Matt and Brian were smoldering.
Cassius lowered his arms, slamming them to the railing of the quarterdeck.  All eyes turned back to him.  In that moment, at the height of his power looking down on all of them, he was worshipful.
Everyone on the deck fell to their knees: sailors, pirates, it didn’t matter.  Everyone mumbled their prayers to this terrible god; either thanking him for keeping them safe, or begging him to show them mercy.
Tarsus felt the pull in the pit of his stomach die down.  He looked up at Cassius, even as almost everyone else on the deck of the Defiance looked down with bowed heads.
The demigod gripped the railing of the quarterdeck tightly.  Tarsus could tell he was struggling to keep his body upright.  Everything seemed to be weighing him down; even his head was drooping toward his chest.
“Bravo, Tarsus Cole,” Cassius finally said.  “You have proven yourself useful again.”
Tarsus did not answer.  He could only look, awed, at the smoldering ash of Matt and Brian behind him.
“Though I warn you…” Cassius began. 
Tarsus turned back to the weary demigod with fearful eyes.
“If you ever try to manipulate me again, you…your friends…all of you, will be taught the same lesson as those pirates.”
Tarsus combed the deck of the Defiance searching for Cecily and Finnian.  But he could not find them. 
“A lesson writ in fire,” Cassius concluded.  He pushed himself off the railing and half fell, half walked backward into the shadow and out of sight.
“Alright men, back to work,” Amelia ordered. 
The sailors got to their feet. 
“And to our new pirate friends,” Amelia added.  “Make yourselves useful.”
Everyone on the deck headed off in various directions.  Tarsus struggled to stand.  He turned and scanned the throng of sailors beginning their duties.  Finnian and Cecily were still nowhere to be found.  He took a step forward, but a hand fell on his shoulder pulling him back.
Tarsus was spun around and came face to face with Amelia.
“Captain,” he said, concern rising in his voice now.  “Where are my friends?”
Amelia only looked at him sternly.  Tarsus waited a moment, and when she said nothing he opened his mouth to ask again.
She grabbed both of his arms and pulled him down to her height.  She leaned in close to his ear.
“Now you know what he is,” she whispered sternly.  “This is not a game.  It’s not a quest.  You are a slave.  You have been, since you set foot on this ship.  And your only path to freedom, is finding him that sword.  Nod if you understand me.”
As shocked as Tarsus wanted to feel; as much as he wanted to push away from her and ask her for more of an explanation; he did not need one. 
He nodded.
“You’ll have to keep proving yourself,” Amelia said.  “Keep him interested in you.  If you ever become boring, and he decides to choose someone else…”
“I understand,” Tarsus said quietly. 
It came out much calmer than he expected such an admission ever could.
“Welcome to hell, Tarsus Cole,” Amelia said, releasing him and stepping back.  “I hope you find your way out.”

Thursday, June 9, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 13: A Respite and A Warning

             Time passed very quickly on the Defiance.  Tarsus, Cecily and Finnian were growing accustomed to life on the high seas.  They had grown so much a part of the crew, in fact, that they were given the traditional black and gold uniforms of Defiance sailors.
            “Thank you all,” Tarsus said.  “I feel very welcome, and we haven’t been on this ship long.”
            “Sailors have to learn to be a crew very quickly,” Maurice, the sailor who had handed the three of them their new clothes, said.  “We stop so frequently and change out crew so often, that we have to be open to working with all sorts of folk.  This isn’t the life for someone who can’t be comfortable around other people.”
            “It’s funny, I am never comfortable around other people,” Cecily said.  “But it’s very easy being around all of you.”
            “Many thanks,” Maurice said with a smile.  “Especially since not all of us will be going on with you to the Under Isle.”
            “What?” Finnian exclaimed.
            “Tomorrow, we arrive at the last port our map shows, before venturing into uncharted open waters.  Some of us, including myself, will be taking our leave of the Defiance.  But don’t you worry, new crew will be brought on,” Maurice finished.
            “If this port is the last marked haven.  Then after tomorrow we must be heading straight for the Under Isle,” Cecily concluded.
            “Cassius says he knows the way,” Maurice agreed.
            “What are you leaving for?” Finnian asked of Maurice.
            “My wife,” Maurice answered.  “She gave birth to our first child.  She needs me.”
            “That’s fair enough, I suppose,” Finnian said as he surveyed Maurice up and down, as though reading the man’s answer on the man himself.
            “If you three didn’t have a quest of your own, I’d try to convince you to come with me.  But I know you would not.  Truth be told, I don’t think you’d be allowed to.”
            Maurice’s smile receded.  He turned his gaze on Cecily, giving her a heavy look and a small nod.  She nodded back. 
“Take care of yourselves,” Maurice continued, shaking hands with all three of them.  “Especially around Cassius.  I have sailed on this ship long enough to know that he can’t be trusted.”
The next day passed as Maurice said it would.  The Defiance dropped anchor in the morning.  Many sailors, including Maurice, left the ship as a batch of new ones came onboard. 
            Tarsus shook hands and talked pleasantly with the new men and women as they boarded.  He enjoyed it.  It occurred to him that he had been a crew member of the Defiance longer than any of them had.  They looked at him as though he belonged on the ship; like he was part of the original crew.  He realized how comfortable that felt, and for the first time since leaving, he was reminded of Briarden.
            A few days on, that feeling of perfection turned to one of pure bliss.  The sun was beginning to set on yet another perfectly clear day.  The ocean, living up to its namesake, was so reflective that it looked to Tarsus as though they were sailing on a mirror.  The blue sky and the yellow sun were perfectly recreated in the face of the Crystal Sea.