I have posted the first chapter of ‘The Altar of Kolaset’ for review and comment. Please leave comments and constructive criticism. Thanks!
THE ALTAR OF KOLASET
By Robert Houghtby
The gaudy royal barge rocked softly in the calm clear inlet. The crystal water lapped softly at the sandy beach surrounded by soothing green tropical foliage. Colorful birds flapped from tree to tree angrily screeching at the humans violating their territory.
Though completely unseaworthy, the barge was meticulously clean and brightly painted with gilded fixtures sparkling in the sun.
At the fore and aft of the barge, members of the royal guard leaned on their spears and spoke to each other in hushed voices. The days were growing warmer and their heavy armor had been left behind. Instead the guards wore light cotton shirts and pants with a brown leather vestment and short swords belted to their waists.
Several young ladies, just beginning to bud into womanhood, sat or reclined on the main deck at the waist of the barge, relaxing in the shade of a cotton awning. They had spent the morning splashing and laughing in the shallow waters of the inlet. Wearing little during their swim, they had flirted brazenly with some of the younger soldiers and laughed at their return glances. The women were the entourage of the Princess Opal of Highport, who also shared in the warm spring day.
From the inlet, the sandy colored stone walls of the city ofHighportcould be clearly seen. Originally the city had created a powerful naval and had conquered the surrounding islands and coastal cities all along the coast of the vast continent of Myr. For generations the sailors and marines of Highport were spoken of in awe and fear.
Through the years the men of Highport evolved from marauders into merchants. Treaties, taxes and control of shipping lanes conquered far more people and expanded the reach of Highport further than any of their pirate ancestors. Not counting the Royal city ofTwinbanks, Highport had become the wealthiest of the city-states of Myr.
The princess was the only royal heir of Highport, her parents having died when she was young. With the coming of her 18th birthday, she was to be crowned Queen of Highport and all of its territories. The entire city was abuzz with the coming celebration, and preparations were consuming a great deal of everyone’s time. The princess herself was constantly being fitted for gowns, making decisions concerning ceremonies and the placement of guests. She was grateful for the respite offered by the day at the beach.
None of them saw the brawny, sun browned men sneaking through the foliage. They wore the light clothing of sailors and carried cutlasses and daggers. Many were armed with crossbows, cocked with a bolt on the string. The men were of various races and each was lean from hunger and hard work. Some sported eye patches, missing limbs or ears, all the signs of past criminal activity. They continued to move toward the barge with the ease and silence of practiced killers.
At the sound of a loud whistle, the still air was filled with the snapping of bowstrings and the angry buzzing of crossbow bolts. The guards fell, some into the water to slowly drown, others on the deck, dying in a spreading pool of crimson on the pristine painted deck of the barge. Screams of the young women echoed across the water as they realized they were under attack. Clutching each other, they could do nothing as the raiders splashed through the shallows, stormed up the gangplank and began killing and looting the bodies of the surviving soldiers.
A large man in a crimson silk shirt and matching head scarf, trod up the gangplank in high leather boots. By his demeanor and swagger he was obviously their leader. His cold eyes took in the scene and the corners of his dark mustachioed mouth turned up. He eyed the shivering captives with no more regard than a cowherd would eye cattle. The other men, finished with their grisly task now surrounded the women eyeing them hungrily.
“I know Princess Opal is among you,” he asked with his fists on his hips. “Step forward princess.”
The girls clutched each other. The cold sweat of fear had replaced the summer’s day sweat, but they remained silent.
The man sighed.
“You will not be harmed,” the pirate leader said. “But if you do not come forward, I will allow my men to take one of the young ladies and have their way with her until you do.” The women gave a collective shriek and huddled closer together. The pirates all laughed at the frantic women and gave nods of approval to each other.
“In time you will come forward Princess, even if I have to let my crew ravage each and every one of your maidens.” The young women huddled together even closer but did not speak.
“Very well,” the leader said. “Her,” he pointed to the youngest, smallest girl near the edge of the group.
The women wailed as the girl was dragged screaming away from her friends by bloody clawing hands. Her dark hair was tousled as the pirates pushed her back and forth between each other. Groping hands grabbed her in places she had never been touched before. A dozen laughing pirates pulled the girl roughly to the front of her ship, tearing her gown. Screaming, she tried to cover herself.
“Please stop,” a quiet voiced called.
“Enough!” called the pirate captain.
All was still as the pirates turned toward the women. A tall blond emerged from the crowd amid protests from the others.
“I am Princes Opal,” she said in a soft voice. The pirates looked to their captain who nodded his head. They reluctantly released the sobbing girl. Clutching her gown to body she ran back to be enveloped by the cowering group. “If it is me you want, please release my ladies in waiting.”
“Good day, Princess,” the Captain said with a mock bow. “It has been years since we last met. I am Red John.”
The women gave a collective gasp. The pirate leader enjoyed the theatrical response.
“You and your ladies will be taking a cruise on my ship with me and my lads. If you promise to behave I will keep my sea-dogs away from your ladies. If you cross me,” he said with a wicked grin, “well I think you know what will happen.”
“We will do as you say,” she said meekly. The women continued to huddle around her seeking protection when there was none.
“All right men,” the captain called. “Get these wenches to the longboats and let’s sail.”
The men began herding the young woman off the ship and down a path that led away from the inlet and the city. The captain trailed behind his men and stepped off the trail near a fallen tree and waited for his men to disappear from sight.
“Your information was good,” he whispered to a shadow behind the tree. Red John pulled a heavy bag of gold from his belt and handed it to the unseen informant. “If you keep your mouth shut, I’ll repay the favor. But if Highport’s navy runs me down, I’ll not swing on the gallows alone.”
The shadow nodded and melted into the greenery around them. Red John jogged along the jungle path quickly reaching his crew.
The young women were separated into groups and pushed roughly into longboats waiting on the beach. Grunting, the pirates pulled the oars as the longboats cut through the growing waves.
The water grew darker and deeper until they reached Red John’s ship where they were reunited and forced into a dark hold.
“Weigh anchor and make your heading south-east,” Red John barked at the crew. “We have a package to deliver.”
Back at the inlet, red life blood of the guards ran from the decks into the clear water, creating a long crimson ribbon that was making its way out to the open ocean.
A single figure, a wounded guard, pulled himself from the water. Clawing at the soft bank with his left hand, he tried to staunch the flow of blood that ran from the wooden shaft of a crossbow bolt lodged in his side with his right hand. The dark life blood ran freely from under his hand he used the vines and branches to pull himself upright. After gaining his feet, the unsteady guard used the tree trunks to hold himself upright as he shuffled toward the gates of Highport.
Argyle Stormheart leaned against a tan stone wall of Highport. Between the fine layer of road dust that covered his entire frame and his absolute stillness, he appeared to be part of the stone wall. The only sign that the burly dwarf was not made of the same dusty stone was the small wisp of white smoke that rose from the long clay pipe he clenched in his teeth.
He had all the characteristics his race was known for. He was short and broad across the shoulders. His scowling face was hidden by a long beard that was braided, the long plait reaching from his chin to his belt. His body was covered from shoulder to knee with a long shirt of dwarven chain mail belted at the waist. The strong metal links hid the steely muscles that made it possible for members of his race to dig in the earth for days on end without rest.
Tucked into his belt was a large axe with a long curved blade of dwarven steel he had made when he reached adulthood, a rite of passage for dwarven warriors of his clan. He had named it Black Cleaver, and for the last two hundred years of adventuring it had seen many horrific battles and had always served him well. Though it was nicked and scarred, he spent many loving hours keeping the edge keen and dangerous.
A tall lean human woman wearing leather armor approached the dwarf. Her jaunty carefree step revealed an athletic build and grace in her limbs. Her long red-gold hair sparkled in the sun. It was pulled back and secured in a braid that started at her neck and stopped at the middle of her back. She wore a comfortable smile as she gnawed on an apple. She tossed an apple to the dwarf who caught it with a nod of gratitude.
“So Shayna,” the dwarf growled as he tapped the ashes out of his pipe. “What did you find out?”
Shayna grew up a homeless waif prior to meeting the adventuring dwarf, stealing and conning people to get by. Argyle had taken her in without expectation of reward, feeding her and giving her a place to live. Their relationship had grown into one of father and daughter.
On her hip, a long sword slapped her powerful thigh as she walked. When Argyle felt she was ready they had made this weapon together. Once the sword was completed, Argyle trained her in the dwarven art of combat. The double-sided blade tapered slowly until the tip seemed to disappear into sharpness. The sword was long, light and she was able to use it with one hand or two. Laughed at by dwarves who favored heavy weapons and brute force, it was a joke that had named the weapon.
“No one takes a needle to war,” they had laughed.
Warneedle had pierced the armor of many a bandit and monster, proving that it and Shayna were to be feared.
Though her skills she had developed as a thief violated Argyle’s code of honor, those same skills had served them well in times of crisis. He knew it was best not to ask some questions, like where she had gotten the apple he was enjoying.
Another of her talents was how to gather information.
“Well the rumors are changing by the minute,” she began excitedly. “But the general story is the Princess was kidnapped less than a week ago by a pirate known as “Red John”. A soldier who survived the attack told the tale before he died. No ransom has been demanded, but the whole city is in an uproar because she was set to take the throne on her birthday in a few months.”
“Huh,” he grunted. “Any word on a rescue?”
“The City Council is arguing about what to do,” she mumbled over a bite of apple. “Evidently this Red John was given a Letter of Mark some time ago to work as a privateer for the city. Something about exposing a corrupt naval officer to the council put him in their favor. The kidnap has the council baffled.”
“So all they do is panic and talk,” Argyle smirked. “And what gets done? Nothing.”
The dwarf stood away from the wall and began walking down the busy cobblestone street. In addition to their mismatched height, Shayna’s smooth, athletic walk next to Argyle’s powerful march made the two an unlikely pair.
Unlike Argyle, Shayna had grown up on the streets of human cities and could sense the tension in the air, but for all appearances the town was like any other. Once inside the tall stone walls, rickety wood houses of the common folk were located closest to the edge of town while the more well-to-do stone manors and palaces were found toward the center. Near the center of town located on a small hill overlooking the entire sprawling town was the royal castle. It was made of a brilliant white stone that shone brightly in the sun. The royal pennant of silver and white was fluttering in the breeze from the highest tower, its silver threads glimmering in the sun.
Highport was a prosperous city and merchants hawked their wares from shop doorways or carts on a central square. The smells and sounds of the combined blacksmiths, bakers, alehouses and other merchants created a single unique experience that could be described as city-life.
The two turned toward the docks and made their way past carts of a wide variety of sea life freshly caught from the nearby ocean, stopping at theInnof the Flying Fish. It was run down and in a state of disrepair. Argyle and Shayna entered and stood by the door to survey the interior.
The inn was dark even in the bright light of day. The two counted less than half a dozen customers seated at various tables. Those that didn’t sit alone spoke in hushed whispers to their fellows.
The pair made their way to a filthy bar.
“Ale,” Argyle said, dropping a coin on the counter.
The coin disappeared as two tankards of ale were dropped on the bar, the brown foaming contents sloshing onto the battered wood. A shadow passed over them as the two tested the brew.
“Hey,” a voice said.
Shayna turned seeing three rough and tumble men. They wore the well worn clothing and weapons of sailors. Tough callused hands hovered dangerously near the long knives tucked into their belts. They smelled and wavered as if they had been in their cups most of the morning. The largest of the three was talking to Shayna.
“Aren’t you cute,” he slurred, “wearing that sword and armor like you know how to use it.”
Argyle sighed. After a long draught from the tankard he turned to face the three.
“When the council decides to go after the princess, my friends and I plan on being the ones that will rescue her,” the ruffian leader said. “Wouldn’t you like to say you’ve slept with her saviors?”
“I sure would,” Shayna gasped excitedly, clasping her hands together and fluttering her eyelids. “But since I sleep with myself every night,” she said regaining her composure, “I guess I already have.”
One of the ruffians snorted at the joke. Argyle smiled to himself as Shayna turned back to the bar.
“Don’t turn your back to me, pretty one,” the ruffian leader said grasping her arm and spinning her to face him. As Shayna spun, she drove an elbow into the jaw of the tall man. As he fell back, Shayna chased him, driving a fist into his stomach causing him to double up and continue backwards, crashing through a table onto the floor.
His two companions reached for Shayna seeking to help their friend. Argyle grasped them by the collars and jerked them off their feet. They both struck the ground with a thud that shook the inn. As they struggled to get up, they found themselves trapped in Argyle’s vise-like grip. His large dwarven fingers began slowly pinching closed around the back of their necks causing them to squirm in pain rather than fight.
“Stop right there lads,” the dwarf growled. “He brought this on himself, let him learn his lesson.”
Shayna stood over her attacker, fists clenched. The ruffian struggled to get up then collapsed back to the filthy floor. Shayna turned and walked back to the bar.
“Alright lads,” Argyle said releasing the two. “Why don’t you take your friend home.”
Argyle watched as the two got to their feet and went to their friend. Grasping him under the arms, they dragged him from the inn. Once they were gone the inn was deathly quiet.
“Ahem.” Someone clearing their throat broke the silence.
Turning to look, Argyle recognized Oren Kale, the man who had sent for him.
As the woman and the dwarf made their way through the dark room, thieves and cutthroats cleared the way.
Oren Kale stood and offered his hand to Argyle. He was balding. The hair he had left was gray. A simple wool cloak hid expensive clothing, and the hand Argyle shook was decorated with jeweled rings of gold.
“It has been many years Argyle,” Kale said looking closely at the dwarf. “You haven’t aged a day since the last time I saw you.”
“We dwarves have a different reasoning of age,” Argyle said. “The wrinkles of time come slowly, but the scars of battle come quickly.”
“At least the company you keep is more attractive,” Kale said smiling at Shayna. She smiled and nodded. He motioned toward the chairs around the table he had been sitting at. Kale had already taken the chair with his back to the wall so Argyle reluctantly sat with his back to the room. From long years of practice Shayna sat where she could watch the rest of the room, covering Argyle’s back for him. The remaining customers avoided her gaze as she scanned the room. After they were all seated, Argyle spoke.
“You have done well for yourself,” Argyle observed.
“My days as a caravan owner, with you protecting my wares, may be long behind me, but I am still a merchant of sorts,” Kale said shrugging his shoulders. “I still buy and sell goods but in much larger quantities now, and the profit goes to the city.”
Argyle arched a skeptical eyebrow.
“Oh, I still make a profit,” he said grinning, “but trade is the lifeblood for the City and they recognize the need for good business men to sit on the council. Speaking of the council, I only have a few moments my friend. Meetings are occupying most of my time. You already know of the princess’ abduction?”
“Since the untimely death of her parents she has been the darling of the community. While the council rules in her stead, she has been raised by the nursemaids and tutors. They have filled her head with strange notions. She roams the streets like any other girl, visiting all classes of people as if she were nothing more than a common maiden. She has no knowledge of her class or standing. Her retinue is an odd mixture of noblemen’s daughters and commoners.” Kale was obviously frustrated over the actions of the young woman.
“Sounds like the makings of a decent queen,” Shayna said grinning.
Oren Kale turned a sour look Shayna’s way, not appreciating her statement. She glared back. She was used to saying her piece.
“She is loved by the people like no other noble before,” Kale said turning back to Argyle. “The princess is due to take the reins of the kingdom in a few months. Now that she is on the verge of ruling, we need her returned.”
“What is the council going to do? Are you going to hunt down this pirate?” Argyle asked.
“We’re not sure why Red John has kidnapped her. Before the last of her bodyguards died he told us Red John asked for her specifically. So she was his target.” Kale said. “He was an agent of the council at one time, so he knows how important the Princess is to us right now. We have yet to receive any demand for ransom. The council is preparing for a political solution as well as military one. We are still debating which is best.”
“Why have you summoned me,” asked Argyle. “I am not a politician or leader of armies.”
“I am suggesting a third option,” Kale whispered. “We need more intelligence. I think a small group could find out where he has taken her. Once Red John is found, we can move forward with a plan.”
“Sounds like a fool’s errand,” Argyle snorted.
“Or one the pirates would never expect,” Kale said.
“What does the council think of your plan?”
“I know you are unfamiliar with human politics Argyle, bureaucrats don’t listen to common sense,” Kale sighed. “It would take months of bickering and lobbying to get them to see reason.” Kale leaned close to the dwarf whispering, “I believe there are some on the council that don’t want to give up their power. Some on the council don’t like the idea of being reduced to simple advisors when the princess takes control.”
“Could council members be involved somehow?” Shayna whispered, eyes wide with the thought of intrigue.
Again Kale turned another sour look towards her. Shayna she sneered back, daring him to stop her from talking.
“Years ago,” Kale continued turning back to Argyle, “when you guarded caravans for me, you always prevailed. Your reputation has grown since then. I hear stories about your exploits now and it seems nothing is impossible for you.”
Argyle nodded, a wry smile crossed his lips.
“If you could seek her out, you would find her.” Kale said. “If you could find her, I could persuade the council to act to rescue her. If you were to rescue her on your own, the council would be very grateful to you. I don’t know anyone else who could do this.”
“Well if the council doesn’t know about our mission,” Argyle said, “who is going to pay for this little expedition? It won’t be cheap. We’ll need to hire some transport and someone knowledgeable with the ocean.”
“I have prepared some help for you from my own pocket.” Kale took a small bag from under the table and handed it to Argyle. Argyle turned the bag over carefully dumping the contents into his palm. Sparkling gems of varying colors and sizes spilled out. Argyle’s eyes lit up at the sight, dwarves being particular to gems of all sorts. Argyle poured the gems back into the bag and dropped it into a pouch on his belt.
“Hmm,” Argyle grunted as he tugged on his beard.
“I have to go my friend,” Kale said standing up from the table. “Can I count on you for this task?”
“We will take the job,” Argyle said.
Kale smiled, shaking Argyle’s massive hand.
“Hire a decent ship and crew,” Kale said pulling his cloak around him. “Find Red John and report back to me. I’ll be able to sway the council and get you more help.”
Shayna watched Kale leave then turned to Argyle.
“I don’t like him Argyle,” she said. “He is rude.”
“His money is as good as any,” Argyle grunted.
“Yes, but do you trust him?”
“Of course not, he has the stink of a politician on him,” Argyle said standing and turning toward the door. “Let’s see to our work.”
Everyone on the Highport docks agreed; the best captain who might take on a charter was Captain Hull. Some feared him, others revered him, all spoke of him as a man of honor. This pleased Argyle.
Shayna and Argyle found him standing on the dock next to his ship, the Falcon.Hullwatched as his men unloaded crates onto the dock from the hold of the ship. The Falcon was long and sleek with a mast near the front and rear. It looked fast even while it sat at its moorings.
Shayna marveled at the men as they made their way through the lines and across the crosspieces on the masts.
“They look like monkeys,” she said out loud.
“They can be just as troublesome,” the captain said. Shayna could not judge the captain’s age. A hard life at sea had left his face weathered and lined like Argyle’s. His frame was lean and hard and his hands were callused from the miles of the rough rope that had been dragged through them.
“Your ship looks fast captain,” Shayna said.
“Being fast is no replacement for being a good sailor,” he said. “Any ship can be fast. But a good captain takes full advantage of it.”
“Captain, could I speak to you?” Argyle asked.
“Yes master dwarf,” he said. “Mister Lant,” the captain said to the young first mate, “make sure those forward lines are secure and that the deck is cleared before I start my inspection.”
“Aye captain!” the first mate barked.
Turning he led Shayna and Argyle away from the ship a few paces.
“We were told you might be able to help us with a scouting expedition…,” Argyle started.
“Ah no,” the captain interrupted. “We’re not taking any charters.”
“…we seek the pirate Red John,” Argyle finished.
The captain’s hard look got even harder.
“Come with me,” the captain said walking past the two adventures. He led them further down the dock where crates and equipment was strewn here and there.
Shayna had never been to the ocean, and she stared out at the expanding sea with a chill realizing how small she was compared to it. Shayna tried to determine where the blue ocean ended and the blue sky started, and failed.
The waves rhythmically slapped against the pilings beneath the dock, splashing everything within reach with seawater. Screeching gulls wheeled through the clear salty air over their heads. She noticed Captain Hull and Argyle were already talking when she finished admiring her surroundings.
“Why is it,” Captain Hull asked, studying Argyle’s face, “you hunt for Red John?”
Argyle studied the captain in return.Hullwas spoken well of on the docks, but Argyle hadn’t decided the captain could be trusted.
“We believe he may have something to do with the disappearance of the Princess…”
“That is a common belief. Master dwarf,” captain Hull interrupted. “You strike me as a person of integrity. I too hunt for Red John. I have my own…” the captain hesitated, “personal reasons. Like every sailor in Highport, I have sworn an oath to protect the Royal Family.”
The captain studied Argyle’s face carefully.
“I will not hire my ship out to you,” Capitan Hull sat on a nearby crate. “But I think I know how we can benefit each other. I will take you on as part of my crew if you can convince me you are worthy.”
Argyle smiled. He did like the captain.
“My name is Argyle Stormheart. I am from thePurpleMountainClan. I’ve killed hundreds of ogres, thousands of goblins and just as many men. I’ve earned every scar on my armor.” Argyle lifted his arms and threw out his chest showing off his nicked and dented armor. “I’ve killed in the name of family, honor and for gold. My word is an oath worth more than the treasury of Highport.”
The captain’s eyebrows shot up at such a boast. Argyle turned to Shayna with an outstretched hand.
“My daughter can fight as good as any dwarf and better than any man.”
Shayna smiled at the compliment, her heart swelling.
“She can, I’m ashamed to say, escape any jail cell and can pick any lock.”
Shayna rolled her eyes and blushed, deflated.
“I won’t lie to you and fill your head with tales of good deeds. We are here to earn gold and kill those who stand in our way. Two things we do very well.”
Captain Hull smiled as he stood up. He was beginning to like Argyle.
“Realize I am the master aboard my ship,” the captain said. “My word is law. My promise to keep my word is just as valuable as yours. If I have to scuttle my own ship to keep my word, I will do it.”
“I think we understand each other,” Argyle said smiling. “But realize my concern for my daughter is primary. If at any time she is in danger, she will become my only concern. You and your ship can all go straight to the bottom of the sea as far as I care. Do we understand each other?”
Captain Hull’s smile grew larger.
“I believe we do. You might be helpful in case of a fight. Have either of you ever been at sea before?”
Both shook their heads.
“It is a great thing to be nestled in the bosom of the sea goddess, alone outside the sight of land,” the captain said with a faraway look in his eye. “Your wits and quick thinking can save you or kill you out there on the ocean. Come let me show you the Falcon,” he said as he led them back to the ship.
The three walked back to the Falcon and went aboard. As the captain walked past each sailor he spoke to them by name and commented on their work.
Argyle nodded with approval. He admired the leadership shown by the captain, as well as the discipline of the sailors.
“Mister Lant!” the captain barked.
“Sir,” a young man about Shayna’s age stepped forward. He had tussled sandy brown hair and bright blue eyes.
“This is William Lant,” the Captain said introducing him to Shayna and Argyle. “He is the first mate, my second in command.”Hullthen turned to Lant.
“Master Argyle and Mistress Shayna will be serving with us on this sail,” he said motioning towards the two. “Master Argyle will be our Weapons Officer, junior grade.” Shayna giggled at the title, drawing a glare from Argyle. “Mistress Shayna will be a crewmember. Put them in the ship’s log with the appropriate shares to be designated. Take them below and show them where they will berth.”
The captain turned to Argyle and Shayna.
“Go and gather your things and store them below. We will leave on the evening tide.” He studied Argyle and Shayna’s confused expressions. “What is it?” the captain asked.
“When is the evening tide?” Argyle questioned.
“What’s a berth?” Shayna asked.
Hull smiled at their ignorance.
“We’ll leave in about an hour,” he said. “You two have a lot to learn.”