The Windlass passed Valash, the southernmost island in the straight, while Captain Tilwin stood on the forecastle watching. The current Captain Valash was the most apt to shoot first and ask questions later of any of the pirate lords. Valash’s previous name was Guzeman, the first mate of a ship flying Mooredand colors. Guzeman and two other ships broke away from the Mooredand fleet two summers prior and attacked the island, killing the previous Captain Valash in his sleep. Tilwin’s man on the island said Guzeman and a party of twelve Marines jumped overboard a mile from the island and rode the current to the south side. They would have had to scale the algae coated rock-face that made the south side of Valash, over seventy feet from the surface of the water. Once there, they crossed the island on foot, snuck into the keep, and killed Captain Valash. The next morning, Guzeman killed off the previous captain’s family, and in accordance with custom, named himself Captain Valash. With the exception of The Rock Tail, the other four islands in The Strait were named for the Pirate Lord who originally settled them.
He knew Galain would be right behind him, probably the slower current of the Algrind coast. The Windlass had passed within a quarter mile of Galain, close enough for Arian to watch Galain’s first mate take off running when he caught sight of a ship heading south in the current. Arian knew there was no way La Chance could keep up with him, and would make the assumption that Arian was making landing at the mines in southern Algrind. Whenever Arian said the name of that ship, he always affected Galain’s foppish accent. “Lah Shaunce is ze greatest ship in ze strait.”
La Chance had no chance. The Windlass sailed south for another half-day past Valash. Captain Tilwin took the mid-day meal with ten members of his elite corps, The Hand, to brief them on that evening’s activities.
“Tonight, after sunset, we’ll make landfall at the southern edge of Shindow.” Tilwin took a bite of his cold roast beef sandwich and put it down on his plate. “All of their towers are placed to watch for ships from the north. They’ll have no idea we’re coming. From shore, it’s twelve mile run up to our target.” The captain reached for the pot of mustard, smeared a generous glob on his sandwich, and continued. “Once we’re at the village, we’ll need to take control of the gateway.” Tilwin took another large bite of his sandwich, and thoughtfully chewed for a moment. He was unsure how to phrase the next part.
“Gateway to what, Sir?” Asked Geyor. When Arian needed stealth, Geyor’s squad of The Hand were the men to go to. Their leader was a slight man, standing just barely over five feet tall. He was lean, but that hid a powerful frame. Arian was sure that Geyor could lift any weight he himself could. Geyor’s true strength came from his ability to blend in. People underestimated the man. In a crowd, he could become virtually invisible, and in the shadows, no one could see him. Geyor hand picked the members of his squad, all small, silent men, and spent sixteen hours a day, every day training them in silent combat. Arian knew their techniques, and had practiced with them as often as he could, but any one of these men were better fighters than he was.
“The gateway to the floating city,” Arian said flatly. They discussed the plan in detail, and when Arian was sure every man in the room knew their job, he dismissed them to get some sleep. It was going to be a long night. Arian himself went up on deck and inspected the kite rigging. Everything was holding, and the kite was working beautifully. The knots were secure on deck, his spyglass confirmed that the kite supports were holding, and an inspection of the plate below the water line showed no undue stress on the hull. Now it was time to really put it to the test. Up to this point, they’d allowed the kite to simply pull them southward as the wind took them.
In his preparation for this journey, Arian doubled the size of The WIndlass’ rudder. With such a massive force pulling him, he needed more rudder to fight the kite. On the bridge, he called down to his men. “We’re exiting the current. Hold on.”
He spun the wheel a full rotation, turning the rudder slightly. The ship started angling out of the current, creaking and groaning under the extra stress. “Hold on, baby. We’re gonna be fine,” he said to his ship. Slowly the ship crossed the lee current, heading for the Shindow coast. The water pressure against the rudder was intense, Arian had to brace himself against the deck to hold it. The captain and first mate took turns, each holding the giant wheel until their muscles failed, before handing it off to the other.
All at once, the pressure on the rudder increased dramatically, and the ship rocketed forward. “We’re out of the current!” Tilwin shouted, and a cheer rose up from the men on deck.
“Tilwin, Tilwin, Tilwin!” they chanted, lauding their captain. The first man to ever successfully sail the length of the lee and exit safely.
“Stow the kite!” he ordered. Two men on the forecastle started cranking on the Harpoon reels, pulling the kite towards the ship. “Hoist the sails! We need to block the wind to the kite.” His men extended the sails fully. The ship gained speed, and the pressure against the rudder increased again. Now both Tilwin and Maign were struggling to hold it. “Get that kite down, double time!” Tilwin shouted. “Prepare to drop all canvas!”
When the kite was close enough to the ship that the sails interrupted the air flow, it crumpled and crashed into the water. The change in the force propelling the ship, from being pulled by the kite to being pushed by the sails rocked the ship so far forward, waves crashed over the deck. “Lower sails! All stop!”
The sails dropped, and the ship rocked back to level. The pressure on the tiller ceased so suddenly, both Tilwin and Maign stumbled, barely catching themselves on the railing.
“You did it, Captain. You’ll go down in history as the greatest sailor of all times,” said Maign, shaking the captain’s hand. “It’s an honor to serve under you, Sir.”
“Credit to the crew,” said Tilwin. “You are a credit to your station, they’re the best on the strait because of you, Maign. There will be plenty of time to congratulate ourselves after the mission. We still have a long couple of days ahead of us.” Tilwin shook his mate’s hand, and resumed issuing orders. “Raise the sails. We’re being swept upstream every minute we dally is a mile we have to swim!”
The sails went up, and The Windlass sailed south under normal sail for the rest of the day, and into the evening. The captain spent the last hour of the voyage packing his sea-pack. Every marine in his crew had one. A water tight pack that strapped to a man’s back. Not only could it be used to haul gear, food, and goods, but in rough seas it could be inflated to act as a flotation device.
Tilwin had two days worth of food, which mostly consisted of hard tack, a dry, tasteless, dense cracker like wafer. Hard tack was terrible to eat, but it kept forever, never molded, and provided enough energy to keep the body going through the harshest conditions. Everyone had heard the story of a sailor that washed up with a drum of hard tack on the algrind coast, where he lived in a cave for a year drinking water that seeped into the cave and eating only the hard tack in the barrel. He was found, very much alive, but totally insane from the lack of flavor. Arian never put much stock in fish tales and sailor stories, but this one seemed plausible to him. He often felt like he was going crazy for real food after only a few days of the stuff.
The clock on the wall told him it was time. He strapped his sea pack to his shoulders, fastening the belt at his waist. One last time he inventoried it’s contents in his mind to make sure he had everything, and stepped out onto the deck. Geyor’s men were already assembled. “Captain on deck!” Geyor whispered. The deck was silent. They were less than two miles to shore. The wind could carry a man’s voice over the sea for miles on a still night. Every sailor had removed his shoes, and in the last hours of the trip every inch of line in the rigging had been worked through with lard to reduce the creaking. The sails were down, and every hatch was battened down.
“Into the water, lads,” said Tilwin, quietly. “Maign, you have the ship. Take her out to the lee, let the current sweep you north. Make port at Tenku, and start negotiations with the harbor master on our cargo. We’ll meet you at Tenku in two days.”
“Yes Sir. Favor be upon you, until you return to the sea.”
“And with you. Treat her well and The Windlass will see you through.”
The sailors saluted the captain as he walked out the gang plank, followed by The Hand. Each dropped and hung from the plank by their hands, before dropping as one into the cold sea. The spash was no louder than a large fish breaching the surface. Tilwin counted twelve heads, eyes shining in the moonlight, before he started the long swim to shore.
Behind him, Maign ordered the sea anchor raised, and the ship was carried northward by the current.
At the halfway point, nearly an hour into their swim, Tilwyn’s muscles were on fire. Exiting the lee had been harder on his arms than he expected. You didn’t become captain of the greatest fleet in the strait by whining about sore muscles, he told himself. At the end of this, you’ll see Algrind twisting at the end of a short rope. He drew strength from that thought, and it propelled him the rest of the way to the shore.
The men swam until the water was just a foot deep, and then ran quickly across the wide sandy beach to the jungle at the edge. “Grab a bite. We have a long run ahead of us. Shindow has creatures the likes of which we’ve never encountered. We’ve all heard the tales, keep your wits about you, stay low and silent, and we’ll make it. People have lived in this land for thousands of years, so there’s nothing out there we can’t handle. Confidence lads.”
Tilwin took off, loping along at a fast, but easy pace through the jungle. The day after that bastard Algrind tried to abduct his son and murder Marianne and Carina, Arian hatched this plan that was now in motion. The first step of that plan was to get into peak condition to prepare for this. Every day for the last two years, rain, snow, sleet, or oppressive heat, Tilwin ran two laps around his island, a trip of just over fourteen miles. In the first days he walked more than he ran, but now he could run the entire fourteen miles in just over an hour. He’d run the same route so many times he’d worn a path around the island, and over the last year, people started using his path to carry goods around the island. Tilwin’s Run, they called it.
This night, on a beach far from his home, in a terrain he’d never encountered, Arian Tilwin started his daily run. All those cold, rainy, morning runs had been to prepare his sea-legs for this trip. This time it was for real.
Twenty minutes into the run, Geyor gave the signal to hold up, get down and be quiet. The group was stealthy, but twelve men in the jungle, no matter how skilled made some noise. Tilwin squatted beside Geyor. “What’s up,” Arian asked the commander of his marines.
“I heard something following us. It’s big,” Geyor whispered. He held up a hand signal, Tilwin recognized it as “threat behind.” His marines circled him, and crouched silently. They waited in silence. Each of the men carried a spear that broke down into three segments and attached to their vests under their sea packs. Six of them silently screwed the pieces together, while the other six plus Tilwin drew their swords. They heard a low, droning rumble from the jungle, a primal growl from something very large. Tilwin could feel the sound in his chest as much as he heard it.
Geyor stood, moving forward. The beast pounced. All the men had seen the creature in a book, it was a sleek coated Hynnix, a massive feline. It’s black fur bristled as it landed a dozen feet in front of the men. It opened it’s mouth, huge fangs, as long as Tilwin’s forearm glinted in the light of the moon. Geyor lunged, stabbing at the creature’s mouth with his spear. his men spread out in a semicircle around the monster. When it lunged at Geyor, snapping it’s jaws, he ducked, driving his spear into it’s throat. In a flash, his men were on it from all sides, driving spears into it’s side, pushing the beast down to the ground. The creature roared in pain as the sword men, including Tilwin advanced, hacking and chopping. Tilwin opened a three foot gash across it’s neck, and it was still. It’s life’s blood running out onto the jungle floor.
Just as quickly as it started, the whole thing was over. The men shouldered their spears and once again the group started running towards the village that had grown up around the gateway to the floating city.
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