The dock was no less dirty than the last time the young Ranger had been here. The night air was faintly cloying with the scent of sweaty bodies and fetid water. He stopped in front of the warehouse door again, and knocked using the same pattern as last time.
The door opened quickly, and he was ushered inside. Cuileán saw the same man, Thormond, in the cluttered room with a disheveled man. The Ranger’s eyes narrowed.
“Who is this?” The words came out low, with a dangerous undertone.
“This is our banker, for want of another word. He has the information that you need to hand over the payment. He’ll also handle the transfer of cargo once the arrangements have been made.”
Alarm bells rang in the Ranger’s mind. “If he is supposed to handle the cargo, then what am I here for?”
Thormond wiped his sweaty brow.
The man spoke up.
“I won’t ask for names, since it’s safer that way, but to answer your question….” Cuileán looked at him, and the man shrugged. “There were some business dealings with the captain of this particular ship, some years ago. Things didn’t quite work out. I normally handle the job you’re going to do tonight with other captains, but since he swore to kill me on sight because of that bad deal, well….” He shrugged again. “I wanted to play it safe. I like my head where it is. You’ll get a cut from the pay. Say, ten percent?”
“Of what?” The man told him, and the Ranger was impressed. He didn’t show it, but affected a thinking pose.
“What about the customs officials?”
“They’re already handled. There was a signal from the ship. The usual thing.”
Which meant that the customs officials raked in a take of their own, Cuileán thought. He knew it already, but finding the dirty ones was something that he’d need help with. He looked at the other man.
“If you try to deal me wrong tonight, your head will be the least of your worries.” He tapped the sword slung over his back for emphasis. “I won’t need this.”
The other man raised an eyebrow, but the stark tone of the young Ranger’s words registered. He simply nodded. Thormond spoke up.
“So do we have a deal?”
The Ranger thought for a moment, then nodded.
“We have a deal. What do I look for?”
The anonymous man looked him over.
“Can you read?”
“Look at this, then.” He handed the Ranger a heavy bag and a slip of thin paper, on which was several markings.
“’Dock Eleven, the Glorieux. Seventy items. Warehouse G.’” He looked up at the man, who nodded.
“If you get anybody standing watch, which you should, the password is ‘Firelight’s chill.’ Give this to the captain when you go on board in a little while.” He handed the Ranger a sealed package.
“And I come back here afterward?”
“No, I will be at Warehouse G, with the others. They will handle the unloading so I don’t have to show my face.”
Cuileán grinned. “And I do?”
“I doubt anyone will give you a problem. You’d just stab them with that sword.”
“Anyone who gets in my way. Remember that.”
The man nodded. “One more thing.”
“Be quick. As soon as the cargo finishes unloading and touches the dock, the ship will cast off.”
“Understood.” Cuileán started to wonder what he had gotten into. He didn’t have a lot of time to stop this. A passing thought to getting help wandered his mind, but it didn’t seem like there was much chance of that happening. He was committed. “Let’s do this. I will see you soon. Don’t waste time.”
The young Ranger left the two standing there without any further word. The last few weeks had familiarized him with the layout of the harbor’s dock space, and he found the Glorieux without any problems. It was indeed painted black, with a copper sheath and a row of gunports. He wondered how seventy people could fit in what had to be a small hold, then realized that he didn’t see many people standing watch. The Ranger wondered if the ship was operated with a skeleton crew or close to it.
He whistled, and a head appeared over the side.
“What you want?”
“I’m here for business. You an officer?”
“Naw, I work for a living.”
The Ranger’s eyes narrowed again.
“That wasn’t a request.”
“Yeah. Now get your officer.”
“What if I don’t?”
The rock left Cuileán’s hand and smacked between the man’s eyes. He slumped to the deck. Two more sailors ran to the rail. One was dressed better than the other. That one pointed at the Ranger.
“You! Stop right there!”
“I’m right here. You the officer?”
“I am and you’re going to be hung!”
“I doubt it. Not when I have a payment to collect and firelight’s chill to ward off.”
The phrase changed the officer’s demeanor immediately.
“Ah, I see. Come aboard.” He exchanged glances with the sailor at his side, and motioned him to get the unconscious man below. For his part, the young Ranger went aboard the ship quickly.
“I want to see your captain.”
The officer nodded. “Right this way.” No further conversation was given, as the two walked off the deck. The young Ranger listened carefully to the sounds of the ship, but he was unfamiliar with many things relating to the sea. He knew vaguely that a ship floated on the water and often carried things, but how sailors did the things that they did was beyond him. Still, he was here now.
A door opened, and he saw an older man behind a plotting table, with dividers in his hand. The man put them down and nodded to Cuileán’s escort. The officer left without another word. The Ranger’s sharp hearing could detect the footsteps moving back up on deck, and he was moving fairly quickly.
“I’m Captain Sasaki.” The man’s voice was businesslike. “Who are you?”
“I’m your contact, with ‘firelight’s chill.’ I have a payment, but first I would like to inspect the merchandise.” The captain nodded as though this made perfect sense, and Cuileán supposed that to him it did.
“In my line of work, it wouldn’t be a real name anyway, so might as well not bother.” It was only the truth, after all. The captain nodded at this, too, and a slight grin crossed his lips.
“You’re pretty careful, aren’t you?”
“Wouldn’t you be? Now, let’s get to work.” He handed the captain the package, who opened it and read it carefully but continued speaking.
“Sounds good, but since we’re on the subject of being careful, I’d like assurance that you actually have the money.”
The young Ranger reached into a pocket and pulled out the fat bag of coins. The jingle that came from it as he tossed it up and down convinced the captain. Cuileán replaced it with a warning look.
“Are we done with the posturing? And don’t forget, ten percent of this is mine.”
The captain smiled. “We’re done, and I’m not forgetting. I should have a man like you on this crew. You seem like you know what you’re doing.” He lay the letter down, with the rest of the contents.
“Business first, then we can tell each other how great we are.”
The older man laughed, and waved a hand at the door. Cuileán took the hint and both left the room.
* * *
The dock looked to be quiet from a distance. King’s Ranger Harald Morgin was staring at the outcropping. He poked the man next to him.
“Did anyone else show up?”
“No, just you, me, and John.”
“Where did everyone else go?”
“I don’t know. There wasn’t a lot of us sent out, remember.”
“I know, but I thought it was something hot. I hope they didn’t get lost.”
“It is hot. We don’t have a lot of people to send out, and I hope they didn’t get lost, either.”
“Cuileán’s got something going on here, but what ship is it?”
“I don’t know that either. Don’t you just love it?”
“Story of the Corps. There’s got to be maybe twelve ships out there.”
“We’ll find it. Think like a slaver.”
The three men split up, searching for their lost man.
* * *
As they went into the slaves’ hold, Cuileán had a hard time keeping his face still. The captain stood by the door, and the young Ranger stepped among the group. There were many people there, stuffed into the small area like so much trash put into every corner. All of them had restraints on, and most perched on small shelves. The young Ranger made a show of closely checking eyes, mouths, and muscle tones. He mumbled to himself as he did so, and every slave watched his frowning expression. Finally, he stood up.
“These look good.”
“We’ve been careful with them.”
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s handle business.”
The captain motioned to another sailor, who started unlocking chains, while eight more stood by with bared hangers. The way back to the captain’s cabin was as quiet as the first, and the young Ranger watched as the old man counted the coins out of the bag that he dropped on the charting table. Captain Sasaki divided out a portion and put them back in the bag, then held it out.
“There’s your cut.”
Cuileán took the bag, and tucked it away. He watched as the captain unlocked a chest, then poured the rest into it.
“What of the merchandise? How are we getting it off your ship?”
Captain Sasaki chuckled.
“I’ve got sailors for that.”
“You don’t have a lot, I noticed.”
“It’s my habit to let half of them off for leave as soon as we make port. They’re probably laying out drinking or chasing skirts. It’s nice to be young,” the old man sighed. “But I have enough to unload with, then they’ll be given leave, too.”
The young Ranger nodded, seemingly unconcerned, but his senses on high alert. He turned to leave.
Captain Sasaki sprang from the charting table, a belaying pin moving up from the hidden recesses of the wood. Cuileán’s reaction was immediate, and he tipped an armchair in front of him. The high back of the chair impaled itself on the pin, and the weight of the chair drove the captain’s wrist past the breaking point.
The snap of the man’s wrist was loud in the confines of the cabin, and Captain Sasaki began a screech of pain. This was halted quickly, as the young Ranger drew a long dagger and buried it deep in the other man’s temple. The captain’s feet and knees started to drum the rough deck, as Cuileán stared out the half-open door and saw some of the slaves out on deck. He grabbed the package he’d come on board with and stuffed it into a pocket.
He ran out onto the deck and drew Feraeil’avel. The blue-green blade gleamed readily at the battle upcoming, and the first two slavers died without knowing. The dagger whipped around and Cuileán threw it into the forehead of the first sailor to come up on deck with his hanger held high. The unfortunate sailor tumbled back down the steps. The blade of the cutlass being held by the man behind him rammed through his body. Cuileán took a deep breath.
“King’s Rangers! Stop what you’re doing and down on the deck!” he bellowed. Feraeil’avel glowed brighter. The glow of the Elven blade didn’t stop some of the sailors, who snarled and jumped toward the young Ranger. He countered them, back to the wall of the quarterdeck. Cuileán slashed down with his sword and sent several opposing blades down to the deck, and the return stroke ripped through several arms and chests. A couple of kicks here and there, and wounded sailors flew over the side.
A warning shout got his attention, and he jumped to the side just in time to avoid a cutlass slicing for him. It missed him, but managed to cut off the end of his long coat. He didn’t have time to see where it went, as Feraeil’avel met the cutlass coming in again. Cuileán turned the wicked blade aside as the man screamed something about not getting his command. A hard punch knocked him out.
The young Ranger didn’t waste any time with him, instead turning to engage a couple of sailors with marlinspikes. The sword took off the head of one. His compatriot gulped at the sight, and Cuileán kicked him in the throat. He fell, gagging, and tried to stab the young Ranger with the marlinspike. It scratched him in the leg, which didn’t do the sailor any good. Cuileán ignored him as he passed out.
As the action exploded by the quarterdeck, the slaves rushed the distracted sailors with anything they could pick up. One picked up a dropped mop, another found a length of rope, and a third seized upon a marlinspike that others had dropped. Still others found blades, and soon it was bedlam on the deck. Screams and shouts, and Feraeil’avel’s glint, was drawing attention from below decks. Several of the now freed slaves rushed below with weapons.
Cuileán was fighting for all he was worth. He had four men pushing him back against the rail, and was swinging his sword everywhere. He dimly heard a war whoop from his side as someone clambered over the rail, and thought to himself, Now what? ”
Boots hit the deck, and the new arrival shouted, “King’s Rangers! Are we invited to this party?” The men pressing Cuileán looked over their shoulders, and he sprang ahead. Feraeil’avel sliced at knees, shoulders and a head, leaving one man standing alone. His eyes widened as the young Ranger advanced toward him. It didn’t take long for him to decide to throw his cutlass down and jump overboard.
“Just like you to find adventure in this place, Cuileán, and not invite us. Your brothers in arms. Your good buddies. Your…” he broke off as a slaver made a desperate swipe to his face, which he parried to the side with his rapier. A dagger opened up the man’s belly, and he fell to the deck screaming. The Ranger’s heavy boot silenced him.
“Figured you’d show up sooner or later, no matter what I did, John. Just you?”
Another set of boots thumped behind him with muffled curses and a couple of punches to a wretched sailor.
“No, and if I’m not mistaken, Harald just made it.”
Cuileán looked at the newly arrived Ranger. He stood with a great-sword in his hands. John looked over his shoulder.
“Took you long enough.”
“Yeah, well, Ralph was a little busy on the docks. He found some of the others that got themselves lost. Cuileán, we got most of the other sailors rounded up. Seems like they were causing more trouble than usual.”
“Did you get the guys at the warehouse?”
Cuileán and John looked at each other. John spoke. “There’s more?”
“Yes, waiting to receive these slaves.”
Harald grimaced. “It’s always something else we find out at the last moment.”
“Like you said, story of the Corps.” He got a wry grin.
“You go with Cuileán to get these men. Send Ralph up here. I’ll stay here and secure the ship.”
John regarded Harald’s sword.
“Don’t you think that sword is a little too big for shipboard use?”
The older Ranger made a rude gesture.
“Shut up and go.”
John chuckled at the other man’s expression, but went. He found the Ranger on the docks, standing with other Rangers and the city militia, and clapped him on the shoulder. At the motion toward the ship, the man nodded. John took off and caught up with Cuileán.
“So you caught some slavers, I take it?”
“Caught some. Night’s not over yet.” Cuileán shot a speaking glance at his fellow Ranger.
“Outstanding. So much for a quiet night in Drokan’s Beard.”
* * *
At the warehouse, there were little signs of life, except for a few lights lit inside. The two Rangers stood at a distance away, watching for patrols or sailors out for a walk. Cuileán filled John in on what was inside.
“There’s a man inside that’s a big part of this, with a lot of knowledge. I want him alive.” He described him, and John nodded.
“Got it. What else?”
“There may be more people inside, but I gathered that the majority of the work with the slaves get done with the sailors. The sailors move them off, move them here, stow them with the help of the others inside, then immediately leave on the ship. Then after a certain amount of time, they come back with more, like a regular cycle. When they leave, there are fewer witnesses.”
“Let’s do it.”
John positioned himself at the side of the building, following the other Ranger’s hand signals. Cuileán reached down and got a handful of dirt. He smeared it over himself to give his appearance a nasty look to go along with the blood on his body. He also ruffled his hair up.
“Quickly,” he mouthed to the other Ranger, who nodded. Cuileán banged on the door, beating it as if he were panicked.
Footsteps sounded heavily inside, and the door was wrenched open. It was the same man from earlier, who’d been termed the ‘banker.’ Cuileán didn’t give him a chance to say anything. He bulled his way into the warehouse with John at his heels. He saw maybe eight or nine others, with replacement shackles laid out to receive the slaves.
“What’s all this about? Where’s the slaves? Who’s this?”
Cuileán turned and drew his sword. He grinned evilly.
“He’s a good friend of mine, and works alongside me. I’d like to introduce you to King’s Ranger John Maclochlainn.”
The man’s eyes widened, and he turned to flee out the door. He ran into a powerful punch that wrenched consciousness from him. Sir John stepped more fully into the warehouse and drew both sword and dagger. The blood on him highlighted the quite serious look on his face as he spoke. His Ranger tattoo gleamed as bright as Feraeil’avel.
“I think it’s time to sorting out here. You people have a choice. Put those shackles on yourselves and throw the keys to my partner, Sir Cuileán. Or, you can die. No matter to me, or to him. We’ve relieved several men of their lives tonight – more slavers won’t matter to us.” He grinned, but the hard gleam in his eyes didn’t match the rest of his expression.
One man screamed and ran toward Cuileán with a cleaver. Every man there claimed to see a glowing arc as the man’s body split in two suddenly. The scream gabbled suddenly, then froze. As the two halves of the body came to rest apart from each other, the only sounds to be heard were the clink of a ring of keys landing at Cuileán’s feet and the rasp of the shackles rushing to be used.
* * *
King Samuel, Ruler of the Realm of Cadealith, looked at the young man kneeling before him.
“Rise, Sir Cuileán.”
King’s Ranger Cuileán Abel did so, standing to look his monarch in the eye. He was taller than the King, but the ruler had a force of personality that made him seem bigger than he was. That had been reinforced in the young Ranger’s mind several hours ago, as the King tore a bloody strip off him for going to the slaver ship by himself. The King admitted that he’d done the best that he could do with what he had, and immediately gave orders for the detachment to be reinforced with more Rangers.
Now, Ranger Abel stood before King Samuel. He wore the uncomfortable dress uniform prescribed for such events, and listened as the King spoke.
“Ranger Abel, you have performed a great service to the King and to this town. You haven’t heard yet, but the Blackton’s Noble Raiders had some nobles of the Realm as patrons. Those particulars are being taken care of as we speak.” Surprise showed on the young Ranger’s face. It had never occurred to him, as he was investigating. He resolved to never discount any possibility in the future.
“Also, and you might know this already, the customs officials of this town had been corrupted. When we took possession of the ship, we found plenty of incriminating evidence linking many of the ‘businessmen’ of the town. Those leads are being chased down as we speak. The slaves are being checked over for health, and we’re getting some chatter about some deaths on board. Apparently, the slavers killed the ones that took sick on the voyage over, and so they are also murderers. We knew that already, but couldn’t prove it. Now, we have proof. That proof comes from the statements of the freed slaves, and the log books and other documents that were found on board the Glorieaux. As a result, the surviving officers and crew will be judged accordingly.”
The young Ranger nodded in satisfaction.
“The gold that you gave to the slaver, pretending to be a buyer, has been recovered. You reported the gold that was to be your ‘cut,’ but keep that. Call it your finder’s fee.”
Ranger Abel started in surprise, but knew better than to argue. He nodded, and the King went on with a small smile. He turned to the King’s Chief Ranger, who held out an open box.
“You will be awarded the Legion of Valor for your service, and given two weeks’ leave, but after that I want you back on the job. There’s still too much to do in this village. Understand?”
“Aye, Your Majesty.” He leaned over for the King to place the medal, and stood up straight again to the applause of the others.
“Now, Ranger Abel, draw your sword.”
Immediately, the Ranger obeyed the command of the King. He drew Feraeil’avel, and eyebrows rose. Mutters sounded across the hall as the blue-green blade shone out. The King chuckled.
“I see your family heritage is strong with you.”
“Aye, Your Majesty. It is.” There was a bit of challenge to the young Ranger’s voice, and various courtiers gasped to hear it. The King traded grins with the Chief Master, and turned back to the young Ranger. He stood still, holding the Elven sword steady and motionless.
“No disrespect was intended, Ranger Abel. In fact, I’m very pleased to have Feraeil’avel in service to me.” The King got the name out better than most Humans could. He must have practiced, the young Ranger thought. He listened as the King went on. “I had the fortune of meeting your grandfather, when he carried that sword and I am pleased to see it again. I understand that he has passed on, and I grieve with you.”
The King bowed his head for a moment, and everyone followed his lead.
“Thank you, Your Majesty. I have inherited Feraeil’avel, and I follow his lead and his example in fighting evil, in whatever forms it might take.”
The King nodded in agreement.
“Of that, I have no doubt at all.”
At the Chief Master’s signal, Cuileán let the blade swing down until the point touched the floor. He wrapped his hands around the hilt, and bowed his head. The King rested his hands on the pommel for a moment.
“Ranger Cuileán Abel, may your sword go forth before you ever after, as it has done before in this service. Well done, my servant!” King Samuel removed his hands, and the young Ranger bowed over the pommel. He stood straight and re-sheathed Feraeil’avel. The Chief Ranger stepped from behind the King, and together, he and Cuileán stepped away from the King. The next person came up for recognition.
“Well, Sir Cuileán, what are you going to do for your two weeks?”
The young Ranger wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and he looked around the room as he thought about what answer to give. Suddenly he knew exactly what to say. A blinding smile came his way as Anna came out of the crowd to take his arm. A knowing look came over the Chief Master’s face and he winked at the young Ranger.
“I think I can think of something to fill the time, Chief Master.”
The Chief Master snorted loudly and waved the young Ranger on. Soon, Cuileán Abel was nowhere to be found in the meeting hall.