Cal stepped out of his room. The hallway smelt of smoke and last night’s mead. That mead he could now feel in his body. His head hurt, the floor felt like it was the deck of ship and his stomach did not like to be at sea. He staggered down the hallway to the common room. The dark timber walls smelt of tar and Cal used them for support. Cal thought about the Ismarkings he had spent last night with. These barbarians sure knew how to drink and their mead was something he had never tried before. He hoped he had not spoken too much. The free Ismarkings did not like slavers, not even in the occupied areas as Svartrhamn and especially not here at The Hammer. He had chosen this tavern because it was close to the docks and it was not frequented by people he knew. When he had been in Svartrhamn before, he had always stayed at the taverns closer to the fortress, like The Noble Imperial or The Emperor’s Rule. Those were loyalists and he knew far too many people in that area.
His feet became more stable as he staggered towards the common room. He straightened up and looked around. The common room was nearly empty with the tables and chairs being cleaned by the young Ismarking girl, who had worked behind the bar yesterday. Her ample bosom was something that Cal had really appreciated last night. He had sneaked a peek every time she had filled a glass, but she clearly had an eye for the various Ismarking captains that were regulars in the establishment. Behind the bar a giant of a man, the innkeeper, was cleaning a mug. He had a blond moustache and a bald head. He was muscular, but not threatening. Cal staggered over him and the innkeeper smiled at him.
“Good morning, my lord.” The innkeeper sat the mug down. Cal shushed him. “No one must know my status.” The innkeeper looked apologetic. “I am terribly sorry, my…” He thought for a while. “… friend.” Cal looked around the room. “Has he arrived?” Cal tried to keep a hushed tone, but the young girl looked up them. “No, he has yet to arrive. His ship should have docked last night.” Cal leaned in towards the innkeeper. “Are you sure he will help me?” The innkeeper nodded. “The man owes me a favor or two and he has no love for Lord Vix.” The innkeeper was under the delusion that Cal was a former member of the High Lord’s court. Well, that was at least what Cal had told him. His family seal looked like one of the major houses, so any untrained fool could not tell the difference. The innkeeper took out a mug and a bottle and poured some red liquid from the bottle into the mug. He then gave the mug to Cal. “This will help you feel better.” Cal took the mug and smelt the content. The liquid looked like red wine, but it smelt like the sweets children of nobles in Syrenthal enjoyed. “Is it that obvious?” The innkeeper laughed. “I have been an innkeeper for twenty years now, so I have seen many men with the cost of drink.” Cal took a huge gulp of the sweet liquid. The taste was sweet, but it had a strange invigorating effect. He straightened up a bit.
The door swung open and huge man stepped into the room. He had a great black beard and long hair. His face had a huge scar over his left eye and down to the mouth. His dark coat reached his knees and his right leg had been replaced by a wooden one. He was dressed in the typical Wanderer garb, a waistcoat, brown trousers and triangular hat which were the most common hat among the Wanderers. The innkeeper smiled at him as he went into the room and walked over to the bar. The sailor looked over Cal as he stood there. “Mead, Beester, and be quick about it!” The innkeeper reacted quickly and poured mead into a mug and gave it to the sailor. “Is this the man?” said the sailor. The innkeeper nodded. The sailor indicated to Cal to follow him. The two went to the more private area of the common room.
The booth were the sailor led him had a curtain hanging in front of it. As The Hammer was often frequented by unsavory types or people on the run from the Empire, privacy was a matter of quite some urgency. The sailor sat down at the end where he could have a clear view to the door. It was clear that he was experienced in this cloak and dagger business. Cal did not feel comfortable in sitting down with his back to the door, but he needed this man to feel comfortable. “My name is Jerrard and I am captain of the Soulcatcher.” His voice was booming even when he whispered. “Ven, nice to meet you.” Cal had chosen the name Ven as it was his friend when he was a child. He was an unimportant noble’s son who had died when the two had served together in the Ismark contingent of the Sorian Imperial Army. Cal had never mourned him, but he liked that his friend’s name had come to great service now that he needed it most. The name Cal was far too recognizable among the slavers of Svartrhamn, so Ven was someone nobody knew and yet still had some clout as a noble name.
Captain Jerrard looked at him and smiled. “Good to meet you, Ven. I hear you have some problems with the local gentries.” The captain took out a pipe as he spooked. “Yes, I seem to have offended lord Vix.” Not a complete lie, he did have some problems with the High Lord. No offence had been given, but money was owed. The captain stuffed his pipe with some weird scented herbs. He looked at Cal. “Not someone you should offend really.” He took the pipe up to his mouth. “In fact the last man one should offend in this area.” He lit the pipe with a sulfur stick and smoke started puffing out his mouth. “So I have experienced.” Cal did not like the smoke, but he could not afford to upset the captain. He took out a purse and put it on the table in front of Jerrard. The captain looked at the purse and then at Cal again. “Money is no object.” Cal leaned back and the captain looked intensely at him. “What exactly did you do? Sleep with his daughter? His wife?” The captain leaned back. “Or maybe himself?” Jerrard roared with laughter. “It really is none of my business, but I have never had a Sorian noble not negotiate over price before.”
Cal looked at the captain. He seemed to observe Cal for any sort of reaction, but he would not give him too much. “How if we say that you pay me once we reach Syrenthal?” Cal cringed at the thought of returning to his city of origin. “I was hoping to go a little further than that.” “How much further?” The captain was very curious now. “I was thinking maybe Turpenthal.” The captain leaned back and puffed a bit on his pipe. “I did not have plans to go that far south.” He leaned forward and picked up the purse. Cal watched him as he seemed to way the purse in his hands. “But the money seems to be good.” He smiled, got up and reached his hand over to Cal. “It is a deal, Ven.” He emphasized Cal’s chosen name as if he knew it was fake, but Cal shook that suspicion off and shook hands with the big captain. “I will see you at sunset at the docks. Look for my ship, the Soulcatcher.“ Jerrard then got out of the booth and left the tavern. Cal was left thinking about how much the captain knew.
Cal stepped out into the street. The rows of black tarred walls stood closer together here than up in the noble’s district. He had a simple bag on his shoulder where what little he had managed to steal from his own storage remained. The common folk were walking around in the narrow streets and some of the shops were closing. Cal causally walked through the people heading home or to the tavern after a hard day’s work. They were a mix of Ismarkings and people from the Sorian Empire. The people from the Sorian Empire were mostly fortune seekers and mercenaries. Some common soldiers walked towards the taverns in their dark uniforms. Cal had never understood why a desert people would choose a dark uniform for their soldiers, but there were a lot of things the imperials did that he did not understand.
The street he had walked on now went into a much broader street. This was the main street towards the docks and a lot of people went in the opposite direction. Cal held a firm grip on his bag. He knew that this area was plagued by pick pockets and purse cutters. He could not afford to lose what little money he had left. The large timber houses loomed over the street as the sun was setting, almost warning Cal about the dangers he faced if somebody he knew saw him. He scanned the throng of people for anybody who could possibly know him. His hood was pulled up, but he did not want to cover too much of his face as that could arouse just as much suspicion. He passed three rows of houses and he could see the masts of various ships. The steam ships of the Sorian Empire were anchored up further out at sea, both protecting the harbor and as a blockade should anybody try to free slaves.
Cal could now see the first of the sailing ships anchored up at the docks. He almost sighed in relief, but then he saw it. Nidhar, one of his taskmaster, was on horseback at the docks. Next to his horse stood one of the Ismarking taskmasters, for the life of him, Cal could not remember his name. The Ismarking was talking to one of the captains of Syrenthal. Eed, Cal thought he was called, was also one who knew Cal’s face. The three almost blocked the way towards the harbor. Cal knew Nidhar well enough to know that if he caught Cal, he would not care for loyalty to his former master. He would deliver him to the local lords, who in turn would send him to Vix. Cal pulled his hood closer to his face and headed towards one of the traders closing up his shop for the night. The vendor was a small southern Sorian with dark skin and grey hair. He smiled as he saw Cal. “What can I do for you, my good man?” His Ismarking was heavily accented, but he could clearly make himself understood. Cal walked up to him and spoke in a hushed tone. “Do you know where The Soulcatcher is anchored?” The vendor smiled. “Of course I know where Captain Jerrard’s ship is.” He pointed four ships down the docks. “It is the one with the red sails and the golden bird at the bow.” Cal looked behind himself. Nidhar and the other taskmaster still stood there. “Thank you, my good man.” The vendor seemed a bit insulted that he did not ask him to look at his wares, but he nodded. “No problem. You have a great evening.” “You too.” Cal turned around and headed towards the ships. He was six lengths now from the three and wanted so badly to cover his face, but he knew that would only arouse the observant Nidhar. The huge dark skinned taskmaster surveyed the docks as though he was a lord surveying his lands. Cal slowly advanced towards the ships and he now was almost directly in front of the Ismarking. One person walking behind him must have been in a terrible rush, because shoved Cal, so he lost his balance and crashed into the Ismarking. The Ismarking turned around and looked at the man who had shoved Cal. “Watch where you are going.” The man was a huge man, probably from the Free Cities, with scars on his bare chest and a giant sword on his back. “What is it to you, Northerner?” Cal slowly slipped away as he did not fancy a direct confrontation with his former employees. Suddenly he heard Nidhar call. “You with the hood! Stop!” He acted as though he did not hear it. The Soulcatcher was there as a mirage calling to him and he was thirsty man in the desert. It was almost too good to be true. He was so close to be free, so he started to increase his tempo. Horse hoofs were hitting the docks. The people on the docks were clearly blocking the taskmaster’s way towards Cal. A whip started to crack. A sword became drawn and Cal could not help himself. He turned around. The huge Free City man had his sword drawn and Nidhar had shifted focus towards that man. Cal could also see the guards of the city approaching the fight. He turned around and The Soulcatcher was no longer a mirage, but a solid object.
Cal stepped onto the deck. The sailors were preparing themselves. They were a mix of Ismarkings, Wanderers, Free City folk and he could even see a dwarf. He had never seen a dwarf before. The dwarf was carrying planks of wood to the stairs leading down into the lower decks. He was a red haired man with huge muscles for his size and a big beard. In fact most of the crew sported some sort of a beard. HE felt his unshaven face. Captain Jerrard noticed the guest he had and walk, or more staggered, towards the man. “Welcome, friend. Welcome aboard The Soulcatcher.”
I like the tension building up a the docks, that had me scrolling carefully down to expose the story one line at a time. I enjoyed the paradox of
a) wanting to know what was happening behind, desperate to find out if a disaster was unfolding, but
b) not daring to turn around because that would be likely to cause the disaster of discovery if it hadn’t already happened.
I also liked the conversation between Cal and Jerrad, the little details of action and word as they came to a shared understanding of the desperate noble and the infinitely buy-able Captain. It was a nice and subtle way to reveal Cal’s back story with the reference to Ven, and Cal’s personality with the rather callous indifference of his identity theft. Showing those details in the context of the interaction between the characters kept the pace of the story going well.
Good stuff, keep going.
Thank you, TO. I will continue the work. 🙂
Once again, top shelf Jan. I really enjoyed the flow of the chapter and how it held the uneasiness of Cal that permeated everything he saw and did knowing the slightest mistake would mean his head. He was remarkably cool in the face of danger and kept his wits about him both at the bar and also on the dock. The bar scene was interesting. One would think Cal would have been very cautious to the point of not drinking so he could keep his faculties about him and not give away who he was by mouth, deed or mannerisms. But with the stress that Cal is under I am sure he took the time to release some stress and drank to excess in the process which is a plus to his character development. Cal as a character is believable and I can relate to him with both empathy and contempt at the same time. Your development is spot on, keep up the good work. The other characters also show an understanding of the human condition that is a necessity for a writer but not all writers truly possess.
I was riveted by the scene on the docks. To the last minute you waited to reveal whether or not Cal was caught. A nice leading in a direction of both avenues until the last second allowing for the suspense to be palpable and I personally was looking for a knife to cut it. A suggestion that could add a bit more to the tension. Have the merchant call after Cal to try and get him to come back/stay at his booth to look at his wares. Enough of a scene to catch the attention of the people around Cal and get a side glance from Nidhar. A concerning look but dismissed when Cal acquiesces to the merchants request to look at his wares if only to keep the merchant quiet.
I have really enjoyed your writing Jan and this chapter does not disappoint in the least. Keep up the great writing and I look forward to the next installment.
Thank you so much, BC. I will keep writing. 🙂 Did you catch the name of the innkeeper? 🙂
I did catch the innkeeper’s name. A wonderful surprise indeed! Ironic enough I tended bar in my 20s along with working at a hotel after I got out of the military.
Well, that is appropriate then. I just thought innkeeper would suit you perfect. 🙂