By: Timothy Law
The year is 514, Vladimir the Young is Sage-King of the human kingdom of Thuraen. Paechra felt like a prisoner between cells as she lay in her allocated hammock and let the sea rock and sway her. The great ship, The Picturesque Picaresque groaned and creaked as it powered its way through the ocean waves. The sylvan's almond ears could distinctly hear the wind and rain as it affronted the vessel, to the druid it sounded like a war.
"Is it over yet?" moaned Queen Catherine, she searched frantically for the bucket which was located under her own hammock and released what bread and water she had eaten to break her morning fast.
Without answering Paechra made her way the three steps across the cabin and placed a hand upon the queen's burning forehead. A pail blue light enveloped the delicate fingers of the forest dweller that was so far from home. The royal from Thuraen sighed as the fever momentarily left her and she closed her eyes. In turn Paechra placed her still faintly glowing hand upon Catherine's belly and sent vibes of peace toward the child that grew within.
"We still have much distance to travel," the sylvan sighed.
The journey from the Docklands had been rough from the beginning.
Paechra thought back, not more than three days past, when with a bravery that was partly hers and partly that of Johannas her friend she stepped aboard this ship and called for its Captain.
"Welcome, forested one," announced the Ghoul that approached, bowing low. "Is it passage home that you seek?"
Paechra had tried hard to ignore the foul stench of the undead creatures that shuffled about the top deck, it was almost impossible to remain stone-like as the most senior aboard the Picturesque Picaresque appeared and then spoke. The grey skin of the creature drooped on the left side, a rat poked forth out from one sleeve of a tattered black coat, as the creature smiled Paechra could see the jaws were filled with jagged teeth designed for ripping and tearing flesh. Paechra's knowledge of these creatures led her to believe that flesh was preferably warm, heart still beating, victim screaming.
"Overtian, oh forested one," replied the Ghoul.
"Such a name means sea explorer in your language, true?" suggested Paechra, not completely confident with her translation.
"Sea traveler, oh forested one," replied Captain Overtian, genuinely surprised. "Your linguistic abilities could be useful to us on this voyage."
"I wish not for payment but am willing to offer my knowledge and abilities as a linguist while we travel together," explained Paechra.
"In exchange for..?" enquired the ship's captain as an off colored drool ran from his top lip's gum down his chin to then drip upon the head of the rat.
With a squeak the creature turned tail and disappeared, Paechra following its passage down the sleeve and amongst the body of the shirt the monster wore. The sylvan suppressed a shiver as she considered whether the vermin nested somewhere within the Ghoul's clothing or within his actual body.
"I wish only for a dual cabin, I travel with royalty," announced Paechra as she indicated the other members of her party.
With milky white eyes, ancient and knowing the captain turned away from Paechra and examined the humans.
"You travel with this?" asked Captain Overtian, for the second time genuinely surprised.
"It is my business what company I keep," replied Paechra.
"Indeed, oh forested one," replied the captain, returning his gaze to the sylvan and offering a respectful bow. "Do they know where and to whom you lead them?"
All of this occurred so far from the waiting humans that they could not overhear, something that Paechra was grateful for.
There was a period where neither spoke. The silence told the Ghoul all he wanted to know.
"I see," continued the Ghoul with a grin that enabled Paechra to count each and every pointed tooth. "Perhaps it would be a better fate for them all that they should join my crew now."
"No!" Paechra replied with a fury unexpected.
"No?" questioned the captain, the grin becoming a frown.
"No," stated Paechra again but this time her voice was level, a confidence and control returned. "I have not led these few from a fallen city to doom them to a fate worse than death."
"A fate worse than death, druid?" asked the Ghoul. "You hurt me and my kind with such words."
The captain's face contorted into that of a whipped dog.
"How would you describe the existence of yourself, your crew and the others like you?" enquired the sylvan, her face unchanged.
"Perhaps a fate similar to death, no better, no worse…" replied the captain, his smile returning.
"I would not know," said Paechra. "Nor would I wish for myself or those I choose to travel with to know of such a fate."
"Then it is agreed, oh forested one," announced the captain thrusting forward a clawed hand that missed half a thumb.
Paechra reluctantly took the offered hand and shook it once.
"There shall be a cabin set aside for you, the human queen and…" began the captain, pausing for a moment to sniff the breeze. "Joining you both of course shall be the unborn prince."
"Agreed," stated Paechra. "The men who travel with us shall assist your crew thereby retaining their flesh and their souls."
"As you are no doubt aware any failure to pay through work will forfeit said agreement and result in myself enjoying quite a meal," laughed the captain as his forked tongue ran across his dried and flaking lips.
"I shall make sure that all members of my party are aware of the finer details of our agreement," Paechra promised.
That was the hardest conversation that the sylvan had to have.
"Is there no other way to get to where you are trying to take us?" asked Michael, Johannas' father.
"To what fate have you doomed us, witch?" Anton demanded, butting in before Paechra was able to answer Andrapaal's blacksmith.
"Yes Paechra, what would you have us do?" whined Thomas. "We should have made a deal with the animals."
"And who is to say," growled Anton. "Where this stranger wishes to lead us is where we want to go?"
"The sylvan-kind saved us in the past," suggested Michael. "It is written so it must be true."
Anton spat upon the cobbles as he heard what Michael said.
"I believe what I can see and strike with my sword," stated the Head Truth Keeper. "The written word is for the sages, to keep, to read and to govern us by."
Paechra sighed. She could see Anton was going to be typically difficult.
"Thomas, those other ships do not travel to the lands of my people," the druid tried to explain. "Where they go I do not know and I cannot say what welcome we would get when those ships dock at port."
"Perhaps that is a risk we are all willing to take," announced Anton. "Aren't I right lad?!"
Thomas gasped as he was thumped on the back. Anton's surprising attack of comradery had caught the butcher off guard.
"Maybe," mumbled Thomas with a cough.
"That is you out voted again, Anton," suggested Michael.
Paechra leveled her eyes at the Head Truth Keeper then.
"Follow me, I shall settle us in," she announced. "We have lost enough travel time already."
"So you say, witch," replied Anton before he broke off from the group and marched toward the gangplank.
"Thank you," the sylvan whispered to Michael before she took Queen Catherine by the elbow and wrist and guided her toward the ship.
Michael nodded and then thumped Thomas on the arm.
"Come along butcher's boy, adventure awaits us."
Paechra knew that Michael and Anton both worked the oars, deep in the belly of the ship. Their strength had quickly been identified by Captain Overtain's more senior crew members. The sylvan wondered if on those nights when the wind had died down she could faintly hear the boom of the drum as the First Mate set a grueling pace. It was that or the heavy footfalls of the larger, half-giant crew rushing about top deck to bring in some sails and furl out others to keep the ship cruising with the aid of what wind there was. The druid hoped it was the crew, else the noise she would hear from Michael and Anton both would be relentless. Paechra knew she might never be able to call the Head of the Truth Keepers a friend but she hoped that what respect she had somehow gained from Johannas' father Michael Stormsong was not to be whittled away from this sea voyage. Paechra had wanted to explain that she could not possibly have led Queen Catherine and her unborn child over the mountains and none of the humans would have believed in the existence of the dragon. That would have literally been a dead end there. Paechra convinced herself for the hundredth time that the sea and this boat were the only way she could have returned home.
There came a knock at the cabin door, followed by the meek voice of Thomas.
"Paechra, your midday meal has arrived."
The druid cursed under her breath, in the semi-darkness Queen Catherine stirred at the sound of the butcher's voice. With care the sylvan unhooked the cabin door's latch and allowed the butcher a view of her facial features.
"I am sorry, oh forested one," stated the butcher with his head lowered.
Paechra noted one of the Ghouls stood waiting a step behind Thomas. The creature had no weapons that the druid could see but the creature's claws, those teeth and an eternal hunger were enough to cause Thomas to ooze fear.
"Come, bring the meal that I may share it with my companion," announced Paechra, hurrying Thomas into the cabin.
The sylvan swiftly shut and latched the door before the accompanying Ghoul could follow after. Paechra pitied Thomas, not strong enough to man the oars he had been relegated to the kitchen. Thomas had been allocated the task of distributing the bread and water to those who worked the ship who were not Ghouls. From day one he had been looked over and sniffed at by the undead and he had witnessed a number of dwarves and fellow humans attempt to leap overboard only for them to be quickly caught by Ghoul crew members and bustled off towards the kitchen.
"Paechra I have been asked by so many if I carry with me a knife," moaned Thomas as the door closed behind and the Ghoul began a rhythmic thump upon it.
"I bet they send you around the ship with naught but a wooden jug and a cloth sack of bread," replied the druid with a sigh.
Paechra wondered if she had doomed Thomas to the worst time aboard the Picturesque Picaresque. His eyes were widened more than they had been that morning.
"A knife to cut the bread they claim," continued the butcher, ignoring Paechra's attempt at sympathy. "But I know for sure that they would use it on their wrists."
"How could you be so certain?" asked Paechra, but she was sure she already knew the answer.
"Because I would use it myself," hissed Thomas, madly. "I would do anything to get away from this accursed ship and its monstrous crew."
"Calm yourself, butcher," demanded Paechra, though she looked upon Thomas with kindly eyes.
"Of course, Queen Catherine," considered the young butcher.
He turned his attention to the monarch and noted her eyes were open wide.
"Fredrickson, my love," cried the eerie voice of the queen from her hammock.
"Feed her," instructed Paechra and without question Thomas obeyed.
As Paechra had shown him the day before and as he had done for the evening meal, Thomas broke from the small loaf bite sized pieces. He then poured a small amount of water into a bowl and began dipping the bread and placing it at Catherine's lips.
Queen Catherine accepted the food, chewed it and then swallowed as if she did not know what was happening. Thomas held back a tear as he watched the process he was a part of.
"She retains her color," murmured Paechra. "We just need the body to fight the fever itself."
"You all fight for me," the voice of Queen Catherine stated suddenly, for once clear. "Who fights for you all?"
"My queen!" announced Thomas, joyful for that briefest of moments.
"You are not my husband!" Catherine stated, staring with suddenly fearful eyes at Thomas and the bowl into which he was dunking the pieces of bread. "You are certainly no king."
"Perhaps I am the king of fools," thought Thomas.
He placed his hand upon Queen Catherine's forehead.
"Paechra, she is hot again," the butcher announced.
There came another round of thumps and scratches upon the cabin door, the Ghoul on the other side demanding entry.
"You need to go," ordered Paechra. "I will finish here."
"Must I?" whined Thomas, his eyes pleading with the sylvan to let him stay.
"Please pass on to the men down below that I am hopeful our time upon this ship will be for only a few days more."
"As you wish, witch," replied Thomas.
The cabin door opened and then closed and the butcher was gone.
Out of sight Thomas' voice could be heard protesting as the monstrosity manhandled him away from the safety of the cabin.
Dutifully Paechra latched the door before picking up bowl and bread and continuing to feed the small, wet morsels to the hungry queen. As she dipped she sang and tendrils of blue danced about her fingers.
"Rest now, Queen Catherine," urged the druid. "Rest and remember happier times."