Paechra's Tale
Part Six
By: Timothy Law

The year is 514, Vladimir the Young is Sage-King of the human kingdom of Thuraen.

Paechra stared down the length of the dining table. So many candles, their lights flickering. The sylvan thought perhaps their existence were purely for her benefit, a way of keeping the stench of undeath at bay. The combination of rose, forest fruits, sea breeze and so many more fragrances, impossible to single out. The affect was distractive yet still thoughts of death assaulted Paechra's mind.

"Try the chicken," suggested the captain of the Picturesque Picaresque, a rotting hand indicated the fine bird that was the table's centrepiece.

"You will not join me?" asked the druid though she already knew the reply.

"Nay oh forested one, the food I eat usually still lives and squirms and screams… I am sure you have heard my feasting at least once already…"

Paechra had, twice thus far during the sea voyage. Twice her dreams had been disrupted and her sleep then stolen as she prayed to whatever spirits listened that the poor soul being devoured was not Thomas, Michael or even Anton. Queen Catherine had been the worst to console then. There was something about those initial screams that had even cut through the royal's fevered delirium. Sleep vanished like the stars as day dawns and Paechra had been in the worst of moods on those mornings that followed after.

Her thoughts returning to the meal before her, Paechra reached for the golden goblet filled with wine. A sip turned into a gulp. The ship's captain gave an open lipped smile that revealed his razor sharp front teeth. It was frightening how the ghoulish curse turned humans into creatures that were more animalistic, almost like they had never lived a previous life, never been anything other than the monster they had morphed into. As the goblet was returned to the overflowing table the ship pitched portside. The goblet toppled as Paechra reached out to steady her sliding plate and what dishes she could reach.

"Why not distribute this fine food amongst the others on board?" asked the sylvan.

"If the rowers rowed faster than me and me crew would miss out on a chance to feast upon the weak," replied Captain Overtain with a smile. "No, we need them afraid and tired so they make mistakes."

Paechra shuddered at that logic, knowing the verbal agreement, knowing the ultimate price for breaking contract. Her fear continued to grow deeper as from out of the shadows came another figure. A sigh of relief followed as the druid discovered it was one of the living, not the undead.

"Thomas?" she asked, taken slightly aback.

"No ma'am," came a squeaky reply, the human only a teen, Paechra guessed he would be fourteen years at the most. "My name is Aaron, Aaron Hollantain."

"I promise to remember your name, Aaron," said Paechra solemnly as the boy righted her goblet.

"I thank you, ma'am," replied the boy with a courteous nod of honest relief. "I fear I shall remain aboard this ship for so long it gladdens my heart that someone will remember me."

From behind her Paechra felt, heard and could immediately smell one of the deathless approach with a pitcher of wine.

"Water please," she asked, placing a hand over the mouth of the drinking vessel.

The creature wordlessly turned to the captain who nodded. With a gnashing of teeth the ghoul then withdrew, dragging the boy Aaron along with it, back toward the galley.

"Please don't hurt him," stated Paechra, her voice level, trying not to beg.

"For your refusal?" asked Captain Overtain of the Picturesque Picaresque, a dark laugh following after. "Oh forested one, it will not be for your refusal that he shall be punished."

There was something about the captain's tone that alerted the sylvan to the fact that the boy was not safe.

"Aaron is but a child, how can you hold him accountable for his own fears and mistakes?" demanded Paechra Lightheart.

"The child as you suggest he is was just as willing to agree to the conditions of passage," stated the captain, face blank, unreadable.

Paechra made to respond but the captain barrelled onward, his face becoming a carnivorous smirk.

"Besides, it is the youngest flesh that is the tastiest, that boy shall be fought over by my crew."

"Poor soul," Paechra murmured sorrowfully. "It is a damned eternity deserved by none."

"Fear not for the child, oh forested one," assured the ghoul, still smiling. "That tasty boy shall be torn into many pieces before he is devoured."

"And what? That is a better fate?" growled Paechra, a faint glow of blue glimmering at the tips of her fingers.

The ghoul's smile faded, fast.

"I assure you when one such as he dies it is not a path to that of an eternity of slavery…" the captain stammered. "It is the ones who are bitten and then brought back of whom the Picturesque continues to punish."

"So she is a sneaky mistress?" asked Paechra, all the while wondering to herself "How could I have been so foolish to not hear the word thief in the very name of the vessel?'

Guilt caused the tendrils of magic to fade just as quickly as they had appeared. Overtain hid his relief at such a sight.

"Aye, oh forested one," agreed the captain, his voice unusually quiet. "She be a rogue who fools with her great size and her greater promises… Many have had stolen their lives… Those who stay on to set the sails or swab her decks have had their very souls taken in the night."

As a pair of rats appeared from the neck of the captain's fine shirt Paechra pushed her plate away from her.

"I have a queen to attend, she and the ocean disagree," the sylvan announced. "I have had my fill of your table and your company."

"What of the water you requested?" came then the voice of Aaron.

The teen presented the ceramic jug, pure white with a slight crack running from the lip to the base.

"You are safe," announced Paechra, surprised and delighted.

As Aaron leaned past the sylvan to pour accurately, Paechra was able to see the boy's shoulder bled from a bite.

"You promised!" the druid growled, again the evidence of arcane fury enveloped Paechra's fingers then hands.

Those hands reached out to touch the gaping wound but a guttural sound came from the captain's throat which caused the sylvan to pause.

"You should consider your strike for the villain, not the victim," urged the captain then.

"I mean only to undo the injury and hope to return at least some of the humanity," explained the druid.

"Your touch will burn and torture, a poor fate made worse," the captain replied with an explanation of his own.

"Please, do it," muttered Aaron. "I already feel the change upon me, my life ebbing away."

"I cannot," mourned Paechra. "I have done you enough harm already."

The boy dropped the jug as he reached for the knife.

Paechra heard the porcelain shatter around her feet and then caught herself as the ship pitched again. With great effort she stopped a gasp from escaping as Aaron fell across her lap. Far lighter did her feel compared to how hefty Paechra assumed a human teen boy to be. Hands still glowing blue accidentally fell upon Aaron's face and shoulder and the creature he was already becoming squealed like that of a frightened rabbit.

"I am so sorry!" cried Paechra as Aaron struggled to roll away from her and under the table.

The rats scurried over to the sylvan's plate and nibbled briefly at the chicken uneaten. As Aaron vanished from sight Paechra watched one rodent vanish after the teen. There was a moment or two of near silence before the tiny beast then scampered away with an eye in its mouth.

"Do not look at me, mistress," begged Aaron as he crawled away from the table toward the captain and the dark shadows.

"I'll take that, thank ye lad," stated Captain Overtain, leaning down as the teen crawled by. "Not a great deal of good will it do ye, you're one of us now."

Paechra noticed that the captain pulled the knife away from Aaron with ease.

"Only good for the living these," the captain then said.

There was a sound like a butterfly flapping its wings as the blade went through the captain's shirt and into the ghoul's flesh. Overtain stabbed himself a number of times, his sharp teeth evident as he smiled, unhurt.

Paechra watched on in silent shock.

"No point stabbing a heart that don't beat," the captain explained. "A true pain when we lose a limb, but nothing we cannot somehow move on from."

The captain laughed, a dry chortle this time mixed with the weariness of eternal damnation.

"So if we are finished with yer eating perhaps you'd be willing to do some translations for me?"

"But, what of Queen Catherine?" asked Paechra, the sylvan hopeful of getting away from the smell and sight of undeath.

"Your friend Thomas is taking great care of our royal passenger," assured the ghoul. "Certain am I that he would like it not if you returned too soon."

Paechra thought of poor Thomas and wondered just how often he too drew close to Aaron's fate. Day after day the butcher of Andrappal mixed with the fretful living and the cursed undead. Day after day he begged Paechra for release.

Returning her focus to that of Captain Overtain the sylvan gave in, her only foreseeable option.

"As you wish then," she stated with an audible sigh. "Where do you wish to begin?"

*

Paechra knocked lightly upon the cabin door.

"Thomas, please open…" the druid requested. "It is me, Paechra, returned at last."

"What if I tell you, no?" whined Thomas. "Queen Catherine and I are quite comfortable together."

"You know what fate awaits you if you remain in and keep me out," stated Paechra.

Immediately she regretted her words.

"Should I be more fearful of you, witch?" spat back the butcher of Andrapaal, one of the chosen Eleven.

"Thomas, I am your friend," Paechra then said, attempting to reassure.

"For how much longer do you tie us to this pontoon of death?" hissed Thomas, the cabin door opening a crack.

"The pace of the rowers, the strength of the wind, should we hold this speed and have no greater storms assault us I believe I shall be back on home soil by late tomorrow morning," announced Paechra after a moment of thought.

The cabin door closed again as Thomas saw Paechra was not alone.

"Thomas, you must come out," demanded Paechra, a slight waver in her voice.

This time when the butcher opened the cabin door he opened it wide.

"I am not afraid of you and your blue glow witch," Thomas announced. "Nor am I afraid of the monster…"

Paechra sighed as the moonlight revealed that her companion that night was young Aaron. It were a cruel joke played by the captain. The newest edition of the Picturesque Picaresque's crew had been forced to remain at hand as Paechra was forced to attempt to translate so many passages, maps, intercepted correspondences. Aaron wanted to merely vanish, to crawl into that rat hole or a shadowy hole of his own and to think why he had chosen such a dangerous voyage. Instead the enchantment of the ship and the power of the one named captain made the teen nothing but a puppet, a slave, something to command for the rest of eternity. Considering herself greatly responsible for such a fate Paechra in turn had wished nothing more than to either take back her actions or remove herself from the poor boy's sight. The captain had enjoyed his time watching the two squirm in silent agony. It was well past midnight when the cruel jest had finally run its course and the captain had released the pair with a dry smirk and the sinister words "We should do this all again sometime."

Paechra had decided there and then that the return trip to Andrapaal with or without her kindred would certainly not be by ship. There were other ways to tackle such a distance.

"Thomas, why must you call me witch?" asked the druid. "Please try to understand that I am who I am and I want to be your friend."

"I have seen what fate awaits those who befriend you," replied Thomas, carefully.

The butcher watched the young one who stood silently beside Paechra.

"What do you know of this boy's fate?" asked Paechra, somewhat surprised. "Can you smell death upon him or do you sense somehow my guilt?"

"I speak not of this boy who follows you, witch," replied the butcher, eyes wide. "Though now I wonder what you have brought to the door of my queen."

"Then of whom do you refer?" asked Paechra.

"Johannas Stormsong, the one whom you have proclaimed to be your friend," spat Thomas, eyes drifted away from the silent figure, finger raised in accusation.

"Raven is my friend!" cried Paechra. "It was not me who set him on his current unfortunate path, I did not drive him into the darkness."

"And yet you lead us now along a path that is filled with danger and for what end?" demanded Thomas.

"The sylvan peoples have helped to free humanity once before," argued Paechra, though she and Thomas both were uncertain if it were the butcher or herself she was trying to convince.

"True, witch," agreed Thomas. "Your kind did have a moment in your history and ours when your hearts shone brightly."

"And that is what I hope will occur again," stated Paechra.

"But after how many years of suffering? How many decades of slavery? The tomes do not lie," argued Thomas, with the blindness of the faithful he clung to the belief all humans of the Sagedom of Thuraen had been taught.

"Surely my people can be convinced to help again?" asked the druid, this time it was obvious she questioned herself. "It is for that reason I bring you to me homeland."

"You have set us upon a path that gambles greatly upon the truth of that conviction," accused Thomas, adding, "I only hope that your dice roll high."

The argument was broken as Aaron stepped forward and grasped Thomas by the wrist. The pointing finger of the butcher was retracted.

"Hey!" cried Thomas and Paechra together.

It was only then that the moonlight revealed Aaron's injured shoulder.

"I know you, boy," stated Thomas in disbelief. "I saw you this morning, a frightened little child who asked me, no actually you begged me for some rope, for what reason I can only guess."

"Be silent, please Thomas," begged Paechra, the sylvan's voice suddenly a mere whisper.

"What have you done to this poor young soul, Paechra?" growled the butcher.

Paechra lowered her head, not willing to meet Thomas' cold gaze.

"While the sun was up this boy lived," growled the butcher. "Now he walks with death in his eyes, his heart, his clouded mind."

Aaron pulled causing Thomas to stumble forward.

Not wishing to talk anymore, Paechra stepped around the pair.

To the living she bade goodnight. Of the undeathly she begged forgiveness.

As Thomas was led away Paechra listened to his cries. Shouting accusations changed to a begging for release.

"You did this, witch!" the butcher called out as loudly as he dared.

"Please save us, Paechra!" Thomas then added a second or two later.

"I did do this," thought Paechra to herself. "It is my foolery that has set us on this merry path."

To try and block out Thomas' fading pleas and accusations Paechra stepped into the darkness of the cabin that she shared with Queen Catherine and closed the door behind her.

The night had been a long one. To Paechra's dismay it was only to get longer.

"He is right," announced the voice of Queen Catherine in the darkness.

Paechra thought at first it was her own conscience speaking, guilt mixed with uncertainty and exhaustion.

"From what that butcher boy has told me you have given us all little choice," the queen continued.

"Catherine, are you well?" asked the druid, as she placed her hand upon the forehead of the royal Paechra found it cool to touch.

"Between you both I feel I have been nursed back to something that resembles health," replied the queen of Thuraen. "I guess that is something I must be grateful for."

Paechra went to feed the queen another morsel of bread and water but found both bowls to be empty.

"I am doing this for you," announced the sylvan. "For you, Queen Catherine and your unborn child."

"I know," replied the queen, her voice tight, not willing to allow her built up emotions to spill forth.

"I am doing it for my friend Raven too, a Truth Keeper and someone whom I consider to be my friend," continued Paechra. "I lead you all on this perilous quest in hope that we can return to find there is still some of Thuraen left to save."

"And what if there is not?" asked the strengthening voice of the royal who lay thinking in the darkness. "What if all of the walls have crumbled and all of my people slain?"

"Then we must remember that you and your child are Thuraen," replied Paechra Lightheart confidently. "Where ever you are the kingdom is also."

"Thank you, friend Paechra," sighed Queen Catherine.

There was a silence then shared by the two women. A promise of sorts. In the moments that passed Paechra finally heard the soft sounds of Catherine's slumber. It was then that the sylvan felt the full force of the day that had been. Latching the door to the cabin shut Paechra was thankful to find her hammock and some rest.

To Be Continued…

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