Craft of the Heretic
The man found in the cabin was roused with a lash of seawater. He sat up feebly on the deck, squinting in disbelief at the strangers, then casting his eyes down as though straining to make sense of it all—a man with a groomed beard scouring a shallow stream for dropped coins. Not a single glint in the ripples.
Wrenched up by his shirt and held fast by a powerful arm, he found himself among a score of men aboard an old ship, surrounded by an empty sea and grey sky, with no notion where in the world they were.
He met the close gaze of a burly foreigner with dog-bite scars about his jaw, glaring in disbelief and making demands in some harsh language. Was it Grawn? A far country famed for heavy infantry. Then, the foreigner raised the bearded man’s own sword—an anonymous gift with a curled wasp decorating the pommel—his forearm swollen, branded with a triangle and dot. Terrified, he squirmed speechless before the closing blade.
A halting shout in another language—Helgican, perhaps—seemed to object to his rough treatment.
Following the turn of the angry gaze, he saw that those onboard stood divided: a smaller group with the hulking ape-like build of Grawn infantry, heads shaven back and sides; the rest, lean, darker, and long-haired—Helgican soldiers of some sort. Both parties dressed the same, barefoot and in simple breeches and shirts.
Suddenly, he was cast aside as the infantry locked together in a block headed by their armed leader, and the Helgicans hesitated before them.
As he crouched, still weak, it occurred to him that perhaps no one knew what they were doing here. Had they all awoken aboard this boat as baffled as he was?
Abuse erupted from both sides as Helgicans armed with shards of the shattered cabin door weighed their chances, and the Grawn dared them to come closer.
He longed to call out and tell them not to blame each other, but it was beyond him, and he crawled away, thinking conflict was inevitable.
A loud crack. And a lingering hiss. The sounds of a blasted skalda.
Unseen, a lead ball fell from a high arc fifty yards from the ship with a tiny splash.
All turned to two Helgicans standing in a cloud of steam in front of the broken cabin doorway. One was reloading a skalda: a three-foot weapon with a steel barrel and long wooden stock curving to a handgrip and a horizontal trigger. The other stood sideways, holding a skalda at waist height and aiming at the Grawn leader. Both wore long leather gauntlets.
The Grawn baulked at the skalda’s incredible energy as smirks spread amongst the Helgicans. Dog-like, the bearded man gaped at them. Now he knew what soldiers they were: skaldiers, their weapons devised following the divine revelation of blastsalt—a white crystalline substance with miraculous explosive properties.
With a sweep of his reloaded skalda, the first skaldier showed that he trusted no one apart from the skaldier at his side. And, with a jerk, the other drew the retractable blade from the front of his skalda stock, and Helgican smiles faded. They stood side by side before the cabin, skaldas held low in firm side-on stances, gloved hands ready on triggers—about to issue a statement.
The first skaldier spoke reasonably in Helgican. But the Helgicans did not seem to agree, waving their arms, arguing, and neglecting their adversaries.
Wary of excitable Helgicans and alert to the Grawn threat, the bearded man struggled up and finally managed to speak in his Glennbodian tongue, ‘What did he say there?’
A young Helgican heard him and, understanding Glennbodian, called for calm, pointing him out. A polite lad for a lost soldier, he sought permission and translated, ‘He asks who brought us here, where we are and why?’
Blank faces met the words only the bearded man could understand, with another revealed as the Grawn leader spoke again, in coarse Glennbodian, ‘So, you’re Glennbodian? I should have guessed. Now tell me what’s going on and how we’re getting back ...’
The skaldier interrupted, ignoring the finding of a common language, and readdressed the Helgicans. Targeted by the skaldas, the Grawn leader kept quiet.
Recovering, the bearded man sensed that he again fell under suspicion as a perpetrator. And when the Helgicans began to murmur in agreement, he stepped forward to speak, flinching as a skalda shifted onto him, but then addressing them all with authority, ‘I am Captain Gregory Walford of the Glennbodian Navy. I swear by God that I do not know what I am doing here. And I suspect that no one here will admit otherwise and that only I can sail this ship back to land.’ Then, looking to the Grawn leader and the young Helgican, he added, ‘Sirs, if you would please translate.’
They did so with no backlash from either group; moreover, there was a sense of progress, and everyone waited for the captain’s next move. Now he had to be careful. He had just made two deceptions; he was a merchant captain posing as military to win over soldiers, and he had overstated his ability to navigate under cloud without tacksilver. Nevertheless, he felt that the orchestrators of this bizarre situation, whoever they might be, had intended that he take a leading role. It could be no coincidence that a captain had found the means to communicate with two diverse parties stranded at sea.
He pushed his luck and reached towards the Grawn leader, who had held him dangling moments earlier.
‘My sword,’ he said as if this daunting infantryman were under his command and holding his sword.
The Grawn leader accepted that he should relinquish the symbol of authority found in the cabin with this Glennbodian captain and handed the sword over with military respect.
‘Name and rank?’ the captain asked.
‘Sergeant Hennecke Fuerst. North-West Division. Captain,’ he answered in a tone reserved for superiors.
Turning to the young Helgican, the captain was pleased to meet intelligent brown eyes and youthful compliance, ‘And you?’
‘Skaldier Severin Guillaume of the Trabet City Guard.’