Monday, February 18, 2008

Chapter One: Setting Sail

Hellstrom Voyage: Chapter One, Setting Sail

Captain’s Log: Captain Herriman Hellstrom, commanding H.M.S. Constant, first log entry.

It is always with mixed emotions that I watch a ship being loaded for departure. The sea is where I am most at home. I took to sea at the age of 11 and the sea has been my true home for the rest of my life, where I have made my career and whatever petty distinction I may have earned.

But today, as an older man, with a wife and children I see far too seldom, I find myself wondering whether it would not be better to stay with them rather than risk my life and lives of those souls under my command to the sea once again.

But as I am a creature of duty, when my Queen commands, I of course obey. And the sea. She continues to call me. The mistress that pulls me from my familial bed.

Captain Hellstrom capped the bottle of ink on the desk in his cabin, laying his pen to the side, leaving his logbook open for the ink to dry. He heard the loud clatter of footsteps increasing on the deck above. This ship, the Constant, was as much a part of him as his right arm and he knew with certainty as he buttoned up his uniform coat and headed up that the crew was beginning to arrive.

As he made his way up the stairs he saw his enormous helmsman carrying two unconscious men below deck.

“New recruits then, Mr. Sawyer.”

“Aye, Captain. It seems that fool Greeland has been telling anyone who would listen that we sail for a new land. Not only do the common swabs see no chance of bounty in that, but they also think there’s a good chance we’ll sail off the end of the world, or be swallowed by a leviathan.”

The enormous man continued down below as Hellstrom felt his face grow hot with anger. Not only was the purpose of their voyage supposed to be a secret, but his entire crew, minus the officers, would have to be shanghaied just as those men were. Their entire crew would be the derelicts and bar-scum too dim-witted to avoid the press.

As he stepped on deck, everything seemed to add to his irritation, even though the day was undeniably glorious and the air sweet, to him it seemed unseasonably hot and bright. He grimaced, his temperature rising even more as he saw more of his officers herding unsavory dock-men below deck.

His officers knew his temper and avoided looking his way as they made their way below deck. “Miss Medeirra!”

The slim figure of his first officer shimmied down the ropes where she had been inspecting the upper rigging with a lithe grace. She was at his side in an instant.

“Aye, Captain?”

Hellstrom took a deep breath, composing himself before continuing, all eyes had been on him since his outburst and it seemed time had come to a complete stop in the small world that was the ship. By the time he spoke, the cold, awful aura of command had settled back around him and time had begun to move again on the ship, as the officers forced struggling and unconscious crew below decks.

“Miss Medeirra, take the midshipmen with you into port and search every bar, every brothel, until you find Dr. Greeland. Bring him to me. In irons, if necessary.”

The woman smiled, running a hand through the mass of brown hair on her head, before tying a scarf around it to keep it out of her eyes. She placed her hand on the hilt of her saber, clearly relishing the idea of dragging the naturalist who had spurred this expedition in like the rest of the dock-scum.

“That, Sir, will be my personal pleasure.”

Turning, she walked over to the midshipmen, ages 12, 13 and 15, “Misters Ansel, Star and Patton, we have an errand to run in port. Come along then!”

It didn’t take long for them to find Greeland. Medeirra had started with the brothels, calculating that he’d already spent his time bragging in the bars. As she described him to the matron running the desk of the “hotel”, she was pleased to see that her knowledge of the science that was a rumor running rampant through a dock town was as refined as ever.

Fiddling with the brass clasp of the enormous, oversized cloak she wore over herself, she made her way upstairs, a silver coin having secured the doctor’s room number from the matron.

As they made their way to the top of the stairs, however, it seemed the matron had other loyalties that couldn’t be bought. The pimp that ran the establishment and two of his toughs were waiting for them. Medeirra could feel their eyes on her body even through the heavy cloak she wore over herself but ignored it with a practiced ease.

She raised her chin defiantly as she spoke, “Don’t mind us gentlemen, we’re just here to pick up a shipmate before he misses his voyage.”

The pimp just shook his head, slapping a thick, wicked looking rattan fighting stick against the palm of his hand. Medeirra noticed the practiced ease with which he handled the stick and the leather wrapped around its hilt.

“No miss, you’re not going anywhere, except to a bedroom down the hall to begin entertaining clients. A man in my position knows an opportunity when he sees one, and a lass like you, with those noble cheekbones, is worth a little trouble.”

As he spoke, the pimp’s two companions moved to either side of the midshipmen. The poor boys looked terrified. Naive though they may be, they seemed savvy enough to realize that this man intended to kill them, rather than allow them to report back to the ship and bring an army of angry sailors down on this wretched place.

That got her ire up, the idea that this little man thought she needed protection. And his crack about her cheekbones. The pride of her family history was always there, bristling under the surface and it was not be trifled with by a man like this.

Still, she smiled, “Come now men, we don’t want any trouble. And my Captain will be oh, so upset if we’re late. I can pay you -”

At that the pimp lashed out with the stick, snarling, “Everything you have is mine now you impudent little-”

Suddenly there was a shimmer in the air, like hot air rising from a cobblestone road on a summer day, combined with the sound of tearing cloth. Medeirra’s last conscious thought was to commend the midshipmen for the way they fought and controlled fear against the larger, stronger toughs.

Suddenly there was a whirlwind among the pimp and his toughs. A black shadow accented by the bright green of Medeirra’s cloak. Their confidence shattered as the pimp went down with a sickening crack, the arm that held the rattan stick bent at an impossible angle, blood spurting through the wound where the broken bone had punctured the flesh.

Medeirra, or what had once been her, jumped to the balcony railing and then to the chandelier that tried to give the first floor of the brothel a touch of elegance. She swung back and forth there with an easy, natural grace, eyeing the two toughs malevolently.

Neither of them had ever seen a gorilla before, and they froze, their eyes caught by this creature that was almost human, except for the way it moved.

Suddenly she was among them again, leaping off the chandelier at its closest arcing point to them. She landed full in the chest of one with all four hand and he went down with a heavy thud under her weight. She let out an inhuman cry of victory before punching him in the head and chest several times.

Then she leaped off him, ambling in a roly-poly gait toward the last of the toughs, who finally remembered his feet and ran like he’d never run before.

Snarling again, she turned on midshipmen, who were as stunned and frozen as the toughs, before a strange glimmer of recognition sparked in her inhuman eyes. A sadness that revealed the woman fighting free, struggling against the undercurrent of the primal.

Finally, after a torturous moment of indecision, the woman triumphed over the animal, and the air shimmered again. Her human nakedness quickly covered by the heavy, oversized cloak, the only garment to have survived the transformation.

Her voice sounded thick, like someone learning how to talk again after a lifetime among the animals of the jungle, “He’s down the hall. Bring him.”

Bending down, she picked up her belt, which was fastened in such a way as to slip free rather than break and fastened it around her naked waist. She briefly laid a light touch on the hilt of her sword and her pistol to make sure they were in easy reach, then cast a quick glance around the lower level of the brothel.

Everyone was still in place where they had been before the fight started, still trying to process what they had seen. Finally one of the trollops pointed at her and yelled, “Witch!” Then ran from the lobby, no doubt seeking the nearest guard or inquisitor to deal with her.

With a sigh the twitching, gasping mess that was the pimp caught her eye. Carefully avoiding the blood, she reached down and picked the rattan stick from the ruined wreck of his arm and gripped it tightly in her hand.

Gently, almost whispering, she said, “They’re going to have to amputate the arm. Even if you live, there’s going to be months of extreme pain, followed by a lifetime of smaller pain and addiction to the drugs that get you through that awful first year.”

Blood bubbled from his lips as he hissed, “Just do it.”

Glancing at the midshipmen, she inclined her head toward the door, where they drug the struggling, protesting Doctor Greeland. After they had moved past the scene of the fight, Medeirra slid the stick into her belt and placed both forearms against the side of the pimp’s neck.

Her eyes held his as the steady pressure quickly cut off the flow of blood to his brain and he passed out. She continued to hold until, with an experienced eye she was certain he was dead. Much quicker and more humane than the end he had waiting for him, or for the one he had planned for her and her midshipmen.

Then she followed the midshipmen out into the street and turned toward the towering sails that marked the docks.

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