King’s Ranger – Part Three

Chapter Three

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.

“Well?”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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?”

“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.

“No name?”

“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.”

Cuileán nodded.

“Did you get the guys at the warehouse?”

“What guys?”

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.”

“Makes sense.”

“Ready?”

“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.

The End

King’s Ranger – Interlude

Interlude

The Senior Ranger had just gotten to his small office, when his assistant caught up with him.

“There’s a woman here to see you. She’s asking for you by name and she was very insistent.” The man traced a voluptuous figure with his fingertips and winked. The Senior Ranger raised an eyebrow. This could be something interesting to start his day. Better than some dry report he had to read before training.

“Where is she?”

“Right this way. Her name is Anna.” the Ranger said, with a grin. His boss thought she had to be something, the way he was acting.

When he turned the corner and saw her sitting primly in his small wooden chair, he couldn’t blame the man one bit. She was a looker, but the way she was fretting indicated that there was something big on her mind. There was a package on her lap with suspiciously familiar handwriting.

“Hello, my name is Sir Will. I’m the Senior Ranger in charge. You must be Anna.”

She looked up and gave him a big smile.

“Yes, I am.”

“What can I do for you?”

The young woman held up the package in her lap. “I have this to give to you, from Sir Cuileán.”

His interest sharpened at the name. The Senior Ranger gestured for it and she gave it to him.

“What is it, Anna?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me.” She worried some more, wringing her hands. He broke the seal, but didn’t open it yet. He looked up at her.

“Excuse me, but are you all right?”

“I’m worried about him, and I know I’m not the only one. I know that he’s doing something dangerous.”

That’s probably true enough, he thought. On the heels of that thought was, the boy doesn’t let any grass grow under his feet, does he? Out loud, he said, “I won’t lie. He’s a King’s Ranger. We do have to do things that can be dangerous, but Sir Cuileán is a very careful man.”

“He said that.”

Wondering what else he’d said to this girl, Sir Will continued. “Then you can take that as a truth. He will be. Sir Cuileán isn’t the kind of man to say anything idly. If he gives his word, then you can believe it, beyond reproach.”

As he spoke, he opened the package and pulled out a letter, two books, and what looked like maps. He read the letter quickly, and had to quickly control his expression. Looking up, he realized he hadn’t done it quickly enough.

“He’s in danger, isn’t he?” Her eyes filled with tears. “Tell me, and don’t lie.”

Trapped by his own word, he simply nodded and she sobbed. Sir Will spoke quickly.

“Anna. Look at me.” She looked up, into his face. The imploring look in her eyes steeled his resolve. “Anna, I promise you. We will help him. He’s one of ours, and we don’t leave one of ours behind.” He stood up. As he did, so did she. Sir Will watched a weak smile appear on her face.

“I believe you. Cuileán is a man of his word and so are you.”

He put the package’s contents on the table, and she came closer to hug him.

“Go get him, and bring him back.”

He nodded. Anna broke the embrace and quickly left, wiping her eyes. The Senior Ranger watched her go, and thought to himself that the young Ranger was a lucky man. He stepped out to see his assistant approaching the door with an appreciative grin for Anna. It didn’t last long.

“Get a group together for Drokan’s Beard. As many as you can, back here.”

The snap of command quickly sent the man on his way with no questions asked. Senior Ranger Thomas sat down to await the group and to quickly look over what Ranger Abel had sent him. Halfway through, he realized that he’d been right. It was an interesting start to his day.

King’s Ranger, Part 2

Here is Part Two of “King’s Ranger.” I’m enjoying reading it. I know I wrote it, and it’s one of my favorites, but I am honestly enjoying re-reading it even as I dissect it into postable bits for this website.

I hope that you enjoy it as well.

Happy reading!

— JB Steele

Chapter Two

Captain Sasaki peered through the spyglass. He was a day out of port with a full cargo hold. He didn’t run this sort of cargo very often. It wasn’t out of a sense of decency. He didn’t care one fig for the erstwhile inhabitants of the hold, but he did care about what it did to his ship. Weapons, rum, poppies, and other things didn’t make noise or whine or mess up his holds when they died. He didn’t know what his next cargo was going to be, but he was for damn sure not going to do this again for a long while.

The first mate knocked on his cabin door. Captain Sasaki had been expecting him.

“Come in, Jack.”

The man came in and mopped his forehead with a large red handkerchief. Captain Sasaki had never seen him without it, and apparently neither had the crew. Everyone wondered if he reused the same one over and over, or if he had many. If he did, every one was red. It was a subject of popular speculation among the crew, but no one wanted to ask him. He had a violent temper, and several wags wondered if the first mate was part bull.

“Sit down.”

“Thanks, skipper.”

Captain Sasaki waited for him to be seated.

“All right, Jack, we’re a day outside of port.”

“I thought so. I’ve kept up with our course pretty well.”

“What do you think about this business?”

“What, carrying slaves? Doesn’t bother me one bit.”

“Why?” His voice was noncommittal.

“You saw ’em when they came on board, just as I did. Trash, all of ’em. Fit only to put to work and dump in a hole after they drop.”

The captain grunted. The first mate waited for a moment, but the captain was quiet. Finally, he gave in to impatience.

“Skipper, why’d you ask me a thing like that? It’s a job, and we’re in the business of fulfilling contracts.”

“That’s true, and we do that. No, I’ve been thinking lately on something.”

The first mate leaned in. They’d worked together for several years and the captain often used him as a sounding board. He watched as the captain stood up and went to the aft windows, his steps moving with the ship’s roll. It was stuffy in the captain’s cabin, and he wiped his forehead again.

“I’ve decided that it’s time to retire when we get back to port. Before we left port, I had the papers drawn up for you to take over the command of this vessel, subject to the agreement of the home office.” He smirked. The ‘home office’ wasn’t anything but a room where the master of the smuggling ring worked, gathering shipments and dispatching his three ships on their journeys. The first mate looked up at the captain’s back.

“I’m … surprised. Sir.” He paused for a moment, taking it in. “I didn’t expect to hear this.”

“I know, Jack.”

“Cap’n, pardon me if it ain’t any of my business, but when did you decide this?”

Captain Sasaki didn’t respond for a moment. He turned away from the large bay window and sat down again.

“I’ve been thinking about it since our last voyage.”

“Two months ago?”

“That’s right. I realized that all the times that I’ve gone out, including before you joined the crew, have all just started to blend together. I had to check my personal journal to see how many, and… well, it’s time. I’ve been doing this a long time, and sooner or later it’ll catch up to me.”

Jack nodded at the words, but didn’t say anything.

“I’ve hoarded my money and set up a nice plantation somewhere where nobody will find me. So, when we get back, I’m retiring.”

“Well then, sir. Let me be the first to congratulate you.”

Captain Sasaki brushed it off.

“No congratulations yet. Wait until we finish this run first.”

Jack nodded.

“I’m going to ask you to keep this private. No one else knows about it, understand?”

“Aye, cap’n.”

The captain fixed a steady glance on the first mate. It was a penetrating stare, and Jack was feeling uncomfortable with the weight of that regard. He shifted a little.

“Sir? Was there something else?”

The captain blinked, then sighed.

“Yes. I put in the papers, and they’re stored safely away, but under the ‘honest’ bylaws of this organization I can’t sign them until I’m ready to quit as soon as I put my pen to paper. As it is, I have to have the ship ready to turn over to its new captain – which would be you – before I could retire. So, as soon as we offload, we’re taking on supplies using a writ of lading. On the journey back, I want this vessel inspection ready.”

“Aye, aye, sir. I’ll do that thing.”

“This means that I have to make it back to port to sign the papers, so you need to keep my safety in mind, too. If you want command, that is. Otherwise, without that signature, there’s a good chance ‘the boss’ will assign it to someone else.” There was a twinkle in the old man’s eye.

“Aye, that, too.”

“That’s all I wanted, well – except for doing a wellness check of our cargo. Take some of our younger hands and do it. Get it done before we make port. The quicker we can get in, the quicker we can get out.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” The first mate stood up and nodded to the skipper, then hustled out.

For his part, Captain Sasaki got up again and went back to the bay windows to stare out at the rolling sea. Small whitecaps showed on the surface of the water, and he felt the motion of the ship as it sailed. He’d been at sea for decades, in one ship or another and one service or another. A long time to be afloat, and he wondered if he was doing the right thing. A seabird flew overhead crying at the sailors on deck with their duties. He thought again about the journal locked in his desk, and its contents, and felt better about his decision.

* * *

On the quarterdeck, the first mate watched the sailors work with a slight frown. The set of his face didn’t reveal his thoughts. It was about time, he gloated. I’ve worked too long and put up with him too much not to get it now. He pondered whether he should feel gratitude to the captain for the decision he’d made. It was a good question, he thought. On one hand, he couldn’t stand the cur – not that he ever showed it. On the other, he’d learned a lot about ship handling from him.

And what about that remark about his safety? Did he suspect something? Jack Doresche had been working with the steward to poison the man for six months now. Minute amounts, introduced in his tea or the potato soup he liked so much. The steward knew about a triplex poison. One part to settle in his heart, one part to settle in his brain, and the third part to activate the other two. The first mate had that packet in his quarters. When the time was right, all he had to do was dump it in the captain’s tea. The steward assured him it was like sugar. It would melt in without anyone the wiser.

Doresche remembered when he’d first came on board as first mate, five and a half years ago. The previous first mate had been killing in a gambling dispute, and that left a hole. There were no merchant commands for him, and he’d had to swallow his pride. Being the first mate on this ship wasn’t so bad, really. Not for a man with a decided larcenous streak to his heart. He’d established himself as iron-willed and hot-tempered, which was actually the truth. He had a foul mouth when he wanted to, and wasn’t above cheating another man out of his earnings. The crew learned not to mess with him.

He was meant to walk the rail of his own ship, and he’d planned on doing that three years ago. Doresche wasn’t getting any younger and it was past time for it to happen. The captain was known to drink heavily after getting to port and paying out the crew, wherever he went. The various bars knew him by name, and knew that he didn’t drink a drop while aboard ship. There was one exception. No matter how heavy he drank, the captain always had one last drink in his cabin. It was a ‘welcome back’ drink, he always said. The first mate had planned on slipping him the trinary poison in this last drink.

Then, after finding him dead in his bunk the next morning, there would be ‘the appropriate mourning. The fine captain, but with the one human failing. Had too much to drink that one final time.’ The first mate would then take command for the somber voyage home, after conducting a burial in very deep waters for the old sea-dog. He would drive the crew hard to keep their minds off the loss to the ship, and then split the captain’s share of the take with the steward.

Or, just arrange an accident for the steward. That way, he could keep it all.

Now, with that little surprise announcement, he couldn’t do it that way at all. It would be his luck to kill the old man, get the ship back to her home port – then get a new captain and stay the first mate. He knew the first mates of the other ships, too. One of them, a big guy who went by the name Segol, was the best of the group. Everyone in his ship snapped to his command. Doresche knew that it was no stretch of the imagination that if a command slot came open, Segol would get it without question. Unless, of course, the previous master made his preferences clear.

And for that to happen, there had to be a signature on the dotted line.

The first mate shook his head. He’d waited for years, and he could wait for a bit longer. He made a mental note to talk to the steward. In the meantime, the tasks of running the ship still remained. The first mate saw a few slackers barely winding rope in the proper manner and cursed them roundly. That motivated them to work harder.

Jack Doresche stared out to sea, looking back at the way they’d come. He’d have to watch his step for the next few days. If he could do his job and make it look like he was a loyal first mate and nothing else, then he’d be free. Sometime in the next watch the captain took, and before they made port, he’d have to have that little talk with the steward.

In the meantime, he had another job that had to be done. He passed the word for the carpenter and the doctor. After a few minutes, the carpenter hustled up.

“Yessir?”

“Waiting for the sawbones. Stay here.”

“Aye, sir.”

A couple of minutes more went by, and Doresche started to yell for the doctor to drop whatever he was doing. He closed his mouth when he saw the man’s distinctive walk head for the ladder.

“Sorry I’m late, Jack. Had a man with a busted toe from a dropped cannonball. Had to get it cut off and sewed up, and I didn’t think you wanted me to have blood all over my clothes.”

The first mate’s thoughts was jarred from their previous bad mood by the desultory explanation.

“Cannonball? What was he doing with a cannonball?”

“Three of them, actually. He was trying to juggle them.” The look on the doctor’s face was nasty. “He won’t be trying that again.”

“Did you have to cut his toe off?”

“No, there was a slim chance he would have kept it, but I told him that rusty cannonballs could give him lockjaw and I had to take it off. I’ll wager he won’t try juggling cannonballs again.”

“Or anything else.” The carpenter mumbled. Doresche looked at him and nodded in agreement.

“Well, now that you’re both here, I have a job for you. The captain wants the cargo below given a wellness check before we make port. That’ll be in about sixteen hours, so get busy.”

The men grimaced. The first mate scowled mightily at them.

“Go! Get busy with that. If you don’t like it, then we can see how you like a flogging!”

They went, waiting to turn the corner before muttering to each other about the first mate.

* * *

The steward was on edge. He had been slipping the powders in the captain’s food and drink for a while now, and was wondering when the first mate was going to make his move. It was nerve-racking, having to act like there was nothing wrong. On top of that, he had to perform his duties beyond reproach. He didn’t want to be busted down below decks and be unable to keep administering the poisons. From experience, he knew that they would leech out over time, and the captain would start feeling better.

The occasional hacking coughs that he’d recently developed was from a general chill that ran around the ship. However, the steward knew that the presence of the foreign substances in the captain’s body had something to do with it. The first two parts of the cocktail tended to make the victim more prone to illnesses, but the captain was a hearty man for his age. The steward put it down to a lifetime at sea. Certainly a lesser man would have already died just from what he’d been using, much less the third portion.

He sat in his cubbyhole just off the captain’s cabin and thought carefully. What could he do if the first mate didn’t make his move? The steward knew that they had to get the cargo unloaded and the payment made before the captain got his terminal dose. It was still hard to wait for that moment, though. The plans had been made for when he found the captain. It had been decided that it would be best if he found the captain dead and then alerted the first mate. The steward went over his role in his mind yet again, then pushed the thought away with an effort.

This waiting was hard. He had more of the same substance that the first mate had, and was sorely tempted to just use it now and get the waiting over with. The first mate didn’t know that he had it, and that was just prudence’s sake. If he became captain, then the first meal he ate as captain would be poisoned, as well. The steward knew how to guard himself.

The man got up and started to clean up his area. It was almost time for the captain’s lunch, and he had to get busy.

* * *

The carpenter stood on the rail, out of sight of the first mate. It stank below, where the slaves were kept. He’d had to go from one to the other, checking the wood that each slave was on and the chains. The metal was all suitable, without any noticeable wear, but the various benches and shelves and racks the assorted prisoners awaited their fates on needed a little work.

The various bodily fluids that soaked the wood didn’t help the resiliency and some of them were rotting away or growing splinters. The seawater that the sailors dumped over the slaves to wash the surfaces off didn’t help either. The rime that the salt left in the grains of the wood stuck and had to be scrubbed out after the slaves left. Either that, or he had to get busy and start replacing the damaged sections.

He wasn’t comfortable with the thought of transporting slaves. The carpenter supposed that there was a very small kernel of empathy buried down deep inside him, but he ignored it. It was not easy at times, especially in the dark hours of the night, but he rationalized it by telling himself that he didn’t have any say on what the ship hauled. That didn’t make it any easier when he saw the looks in the eyes of the poor brutes shackled to the beams. The ones with sores, bruises, and raw skin made it worse.

The carpenter knew he’d be visiting the sail maker tonight. They were old friends, having known each other for almost twenty years, in one ship or the other. The sail maker always had a supply of hooch that he kept guarded zealously. He would charge for it, but the carpenter knew he’d get a discount. Come to think of it, his old friend harbored some of the same reservations. Maybe he wouldn’t have to drink alone tonight.

Below, the doctor was going down a list, checking this and that. He ordered that the ports needed to be opened up and kept opened, to air out the space. There were a few that was very sick and probably wouldn’t make it. The carpenter had known that and didn’t want to spend more time down there than necessary. He’d done his part of the job quickly and thoroughly, and left the doctor with the guards without saying a word.

The doctor watched him go, and shook his head. He looked at one of the guards, who shook his head.

“Can’t blame him, doc. He’s not used to the smell when we ship like this.”

“I’m not either. Lift this one up.”

The guard did, and the doctor inspected the slave’s back.

“This one has sores, but otherwise healthy. Put him back.”

The guard let go, and the slave flopped back onto his back with a moan and a jingle of chains. The doctor ignored it, already stepping to the next one. There were a few more sores, but for the most part the slaves were in tolerable shape for the journey they had endured.

“How many do we have, all total?”

“Doc, told you a week ago. Seventy-six.”

“I keep forgetting. Not that important. Long as we have seventy to meet the terms of the charter. Four of these have gone bad.”

“Which ones?”

The doctor indicated the ones he observed, and the guard nodded to the others. Those were unchained and unceremoniously thrown overboard to the mercies of the sharks following the ship. The doctor didn’t stay, but went back to his work. At the turn of the watch, the first mate showed up.

“Well?”

“All but four.”

“Was that the ones I saw tipped over earlier?”

“Right.”

“That leaves us with a spare. I’ll see what we can do with that one.”

The doctor nodded, without saying anything. He ignored the first mate, who left to tell the captain.

* * *

Captain Sasaki was on the quarterdeck. He watched as the ship entered Drokan’s Beard. He’d seen this harbor many times, almost more than he’d seen his home. Or, so it seemed to him. Well, this was the last time. He thought about the decision that he’d made and seemed glad of it. For some strange reason, he didn’t feel any regret or melancholy about not seeing this harbor again. In fact, he was ready to get done with this cargo and get back home to retire.

He didn’t care about the crew so much either, but he did love this ship. She was all his, and had served him well over the years. Captain Sasaki looked at the first mate, talking with the chief leads-man. If he had to give up the command when he retired, at least it was going to someone who knew what he was doing. The captain had spent plenty of time teaching the younger man what he needed to know.

As far as he was concerned, one crew was like any other. Full of drunks and laggards and layabouts, responding only to threats and curses and the whip. Even sick, he could perform several tasks easier than they could. He reflected that maybe it was because of a lifetime at sea, but dismissed it. Captains were all supposed to be extremely competent in their roles. He ordered sail trimmed and watched the tide carefully.

The ship edged up to the usual dock, off to the side from the main wharf. This gave it some privacy for loading and unloading operations. If another ship had been there, it would have been bad for that master. This dock was purported to be only for the use of the shell company he worked for. Any others that didn’t run for the ‘shipping line’ was subject to heavy fines stiff enough to bury the owners of those competitors in debt. The captain gave his rudder ordered and looked to make sure the line handlers stood ready.

“Lines away!” came the order from the first mate. “Capstan ready!”

The squeak of the capstan rumbling around and pulling the ship closer to the dock punctuated the tenser-than-usual maneuver. After the ship was tied off to the dock, a customs officer came aboard. As the usual forms were being signed, the first mate offered a drink to the man and slipped him an envelope. He took both smoothly, and the envelope disappeared.

The customs man took a cursory look around, then vanished in the direction of the captain’s cabin. After a few minutes, he came out. The first mate crossed over to him.

“Captain says he’ll wait for the ‘next official visit’ when the moon rises. I’ll arrange for that to happen.”

“Sounds good. Make it happen.”

“You got it. Have a nice evening.”

The customs man went back over the side, his forms filled out properly and pocket heavier. Doresche watched him go, mind again tumbling over with thoughts. The conversation with the steward had been uneasy, with the man a little fearful. The first mate had to reassure him that there was nothing to worry about and that should the old man suspect something, his name wouldn’t come up.

That was a lie, but he sold it. The man calmed down, not knowing that the first mate would indeed throw him overboard if he had to. Whatever would work.

King’s Ranger, Part 1

This is my last entry into the Writers of the Future contest for the last quarter. For this story, I had an inspiration from writing my novel, due “Real Soon Now.” This tells a story mentioned by other characters in the novel.

King’s Ranger
By JB Steele

 

Chapter One

Ranger Cuileán Abel was not happy.

He had recently transferred into the King’s Ranger Corps from the knighthood. There was a lot of interesting things to keep him busy and the work was diverting. He was also discovering that there was a lot of things that he’d never thought about as a knight. Of course, then he was required to see to the security of the kingdom and fight for the King, along with a few other things, but as a Ranger he was also attending to internal matters as well. All King’s Rangers were required to serve as a Knight for at least six years and be recommended for entry to the Ranger Corps by a current member.

The loyalty oath to the King was nothing new, but the magical spell that came after a truly grueling training regimen was. It bound him to the office of the King, like every other Ranger in the Corps, and compelled him to always tell the truth to his sovereign in any official matters. It also gave the King absolute powers of punishment over any Ranger. The King could order the instant execution of a Ranger with a word. Every Ranger hoped that any King they were sworn to was wise enough to recognize the grave responsibility they carried, and was not capricious with them.

It seemed that King Samuel was a fair-minded sort. Tough, of course, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. He ran the kingdom well, and there was plenty of treaties with neighboring monarchies to prevent anyone with empire-building ambitions from going rogue. The kingdom was prosperous, and while there was some problems with pirates and other such rebellious types, for the most part things went well.

Ranger Abel rubbed the silvery tattoo with a sword glittering in the confines of an oval. There was room for more to be added in the event he advanced in the Ranger Corps, but for now all he had was a lonely sword. It still stung a bit, even after all this time had passed. He wondered if it was just something he was thinking about. The sergeant-at-arms in the castle that applied it assured him that it would fade in time, but how long was dependent on the person. The phosphorescent glow that came with a Ranger tattoo was caused by something that was in the ink. How they got the ink was something that he hadn’t found out yet. It was still new enough that to see it glowing after being in light was still strange to him, but the usefulness of being able to faintly see in dark confines amused him.

He was not so amused about where he was, stationed here at Drokan’s Beard yet again.
He hadn’t been too crazy about it the first time he’d been ordered here, some years ago. The young Ranger supposed that the act of dancing with all the King’s daughters as he had, freshly knighted and long before the Rangers had taken him, had maybe not been the wisest decision. The Knight Companion then overseeing his detachment had called him in and read him the riot act. The King wanted his brand of distraction away from his daughters and taken steps to see to it.

Hence, the arrival on station.

The Knight Companion was very stern as he told the young Sir Cuileán what had happened, and informed him of the urgent need to get his affairs squared away. There was a suspicion quiver at the corner of his lips at the word “affairs,” but the young knight thought he was imagining things. In any event, he was leaving that very day, so he’d had to hustle. As he ran off to his quarters, his very sharp hearing detected what sounded like bellows of laughter coming from the office. It couldn’t be, he thought. The Knight Companion had a reputation for being so serious, his head would split apart if he tried to smile.

As for the daughters, he remembered separate private dances with each one. It was good to be young, he thought, grinning.

Reminiscing was not going to help him now. Ranger Abel had to be vigilant in his duties here at Drokan’s Beard, or someone would sneak up behind him and bury a knife in his ribs. He looked around the area he was assigned to. It was a calm place at the moment since the day’s business had yet to be conducted. The Silvermoon Bay emptied into this harbor, and it was frequented by various traders and merchants. It did a great deal of business, and many items transited these docks that the Kingdom used every day. Quite a few fortunes had been made here, and in the case of hurricanes, quite a few fortunes had been lost. The first fortune to be made was by a long-dead trader named Drokan, hence the name. The trader had made this harbor his home port, and over time it was associated with him.

Of course, he’d been a conscientious and honest man beloved by many of the people who still spoke reverently of him in all the stories that they swapped. Cuileán Abel knew many of the stories by now, and had a pretty good idea what kind of man he’d been, even with the exaggeration such stories tended to take on over time. It was a shame that after his death, all the opportunistic smugglers and pirates took over by pretending to be some of the various traders and merchants that did honest business here. It didn’t help matters that there happened to be several governors that proclaimed that the rough elements would be cleaned out of the harbor, but secretly enabled all the illicit activities. The Rangers wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that some of the take from the transactions found homes in the governors’ pockets.

The Senior Ranger in charge of this station was a smaller man than Cuileán. That didn’t seem to matter to anyone, since his presence was arguably larger than anyone. No one would go so far as to say he ‘intimidated’ everyone, but not a single Ranger under his command went out of his way to make jokes at or about him. That was fine with the young Ranger, since he wasn’t really the sort to be humorous anyway. Cuileán paid attention to him the first time they’d met, especially since he’d found out that this place had only gotten worse since the first time he’d been there. He’d reported in to the Senior Ranger when he arrived and found him reading a letter that bore Sir Jorah’s distinctive seal.

“I understand you’ve been here before.” The statement from the Senior Ranger wasn’t a request for information. His voice was even, but it was austere. Cuileán fought the urge to stand rigid. He relaxed his legs and spoke up.

“That’s right.”

“And you got yourself shuffled off here for having the guts to do some dancing.” The man’s eyebrows raised in all innocence. If he didn’t know better, the young Ranger would swear that his superior was making a joke.

“That’s also right.” The Senior Ranger snorted at his even reply.

“Any man brave enough – or foolish, maybe – to risk the King’s wrath over his daughters isn’t a man who’s going to be worried about the malcontents here giving him a hard time.”
It didn’t seem to be a good idea to comment on that statement, so the young Ranger was silent. After a moment, the Senior Ranger went on.

“May as well get used to it. The Ranger Corps is still a small group, relatively speaking. You’re going to hear about any number of variations on your dancing ability for a while. Speculations, too. I decided to get mine in first. Sir Jorah had a few speculations of his own in the letter he sent me, but nothing serious.”

Cuileán Abel had already come to that conclusion. He resigned himself to it.

“Anyway, to business. Sir Jorah says that you work best alone, or with a partner. I don’t have anyone to partner you with, anyway, but I do have something that needs to be done.”

The young Ranger’s gaze sharpened, as did his attention. The Senior Ranger tossed the letter down on the rough-hewn table he worked from. His face took on a pinched look as he glanced out the window.

“What is that, sir?”

“First, know that we’re stretched pretty tight here. I alluded to the situation a moment ago when I said that we’re a small group. While that’s true here of the detachment at Drokan’s Beard, it’s just as true of the Ranger Corps in general. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a lot of sleep while you’re here. I don’t.”

The grimace on the man’s face was very real.

“Yes, sir. I understand.”

“No, I don’t think you do just yet. You will, though. Trust me, and this is not another joke, you won’t get any chance to dance with any daughters, King’s or otherwise.”

The young Ranger didn’t react, but winced mentally.

“What do you have for me to do, sir?”

The other man regarded him critically. He seemed to be coming to a decision, and if that was the case, Cuileán didn’t want to rush his answer. After a moment, he leaned back in his chair and gestured to an old wooden chair. The young Ranger eyed it doubtfully, but since it was the only other chair in the small room, he sat gingerly. It creaked and swayed a little, but held his weight.

“Ranger Abel, you have the look of a man who won’t put up with a lot of the games that people like this try to run on people like you. I want you to go out to Drokan’s Bay, and start gathering information. There’s been too much illicit activity out there, and it has to stop. Or, at the very least, get cut far down.”

“Yes, sir, I will.” The young Ranger peered at his superior. “Is there more I need to know?”
The man sighed. His fatigued demeanor seemed to relax more. The young Ranger couldn’t tell what prompted it. “Sir Cuileán, all I can tell you is that there is supposedly a special cargo coming into the harbor sometime in the next week, but what it is I don’t know. It has to be found, because it could be anything – and nothing good. I don’t want you to think that I’m throwing you off into the deep end just as you get here, you understand. Sir Jorah speaks highly of you, and I’d send someone with you to do this. But – I don’t have anyone, which means that you’ll be working alone. The people I do have are established in the things they’re working on. Yanking them off and reshuffling them now is a sure way to alert the other side something might be happening. If they get spooked by it, it might stop them from whatever they’re doing. That might warn them off, and I don’t want that. I want to catch them. Don’t think they don’t know where we are or where they think we are.”

Cuileán nodded. That made sense. It was good that the Senior Ranger didn’t underestimate them.

“One more thing. It would probably be a good idea to not show yourself as a King’s Ranger, so you need to find a way to hide your Ranger tattoo. I would suggest that you do your best to pass yourself off as the common riffraff. You’ve got longer hair than the usual, which will help.”

Cuileán didn’t mention that it was because several of the King’s daughters had enjoyed playing with it.

“Also, I want you to send me written reports of everything you find out, but don’t send me idle gossip. Can you distinguish between the two?”

“I can.”

“Good. If you find you need help, try to get word to me here. I will do my best to support you, but the first thing to do is ‘be careful.’ Got that?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Good. Get out of here. Get established and find out what’s going on.”

“I will.”

The older man paused at the certainty in the younger Ranger’s voice, but as he searched Cuileán’s face, he seemed reassured.

“Good, then do it.”

He turned his attention back to the work on his table, dismissing the young Ranger. Cuileán took the cue and left.

That had been a month ago, and he had not wasted his time. The young Ranger had found a long, loose coat that fit him extremely well and helped with the more frequent rains that Drokan’s Beard was prone to. The wear of long coats by knights was frowned upon, but now as a King’s Ranger he had more choices in his sartorial choices. The coat had several pockets that he found extremely useful, and in one he stowed a tiny jar of a concealer to cover his tattoo. If he needed to remove the jacket, he didn’t want to blow his cover.

“Hey, Casimir!”

The whisper from a narrow alley caught his attention. A hand gestured quickly from the depths of the alley. The young Ranger was using that name as an alias, and he looked around quickly before ducking into the alley. It was a tight fit, with all the trash and other debris scattered about. The man who called his name was one of the more unsavory types he’d made the acquaintance of, in his second week.

“What?”

“I hear might be a little something coming in tomorrow night.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“Don’t know quite yet, but it’s something you might be interested in. You strike me as a man who would take advantage of an opportunity.”

“Depends on the opportunity and whether I can stay clear of those Rangers.”

The man shuddered.

“You hadda go and mention them. I’m a good mind not to tell you.”

Casimir/Cuileán shrugged.

“Sorry, just speaking the truth. Wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, you’re right. I hate Rangers. Worse than the knights.”

“They got a job to do, just like us. It’s up to us to make sure the two stay separate.”

The man squinted at the young Ranger.

“You know, you make a lot of sense. But I’m a suspicious sort.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Roll up your sleeve.”

“For what?”

“Humor me.”

Cuileán glared at him, his gray eyes growing chips of ice. The man shriveled back a little, but pointed at the Ranger’s left sleeve. Cuileán slid it up and showed him a hairy forearm without a tattoo showing. The man relaxed, and the Ranger slid it back down.

“I’ll give you this, you got balls. I would think you were accusing me of being a Ranger.”

The man started to speak, but Cuileán wasn’t finished. He grabbed the man by his filthy collar and pivoted. In the tiny alley, the man was slammed up again the opposite wall hard enough to drive the air from his lungs. He shoved his forearm against the man’s throat. The Ranger’s greater height let him hold the man off the ground. Cuileán pushed his face up into the other man’s filthy face and snarled at him.

“Do it again, and you won’t live long enough to finish the statement. Do you hear me, slug?”

The man nodded quickly, fear showing in his eyes at the expression in the freezing gray eyes.

“I… I hear you.” Cuileán released him, and he fell to the ground coughing. He clambered up, hanging on the side of the wall. The man kept an eye on the young Ranger, and his hand crept toward his jacket. Before he could blink again, the flat of a blue-green blade slammed against his collarbone and he collapsed again. The man looked up from a sprawl, his back against the same wall he’d just pushed himself up. Behind the razor-sharp blade, gray eyes stabbed him.

“You better start talking.”

“What’s in it for me?”

In answer, the blade shifted and lopped off the earlobe from which a gold ring hung. The man screeched and jerked to the left, only to find the same blue-green blade on his opposite collarbone just inches from the side of this neck. The man holding the sword had moved so quickly that it was a dim blur to him.

“Your pitiful life. Talk.”

He did.

* * *

The Ranger stopped in front of the small building on the waterfront. There was a small sign that said ‘Blackton’s,’ and the number over the door was the same that the brigand in the alley had told him. It had taken a little convincing, and he’d start talking after receiving a stupendous black eye. Cuileán thought about the information that he had gotten. Something was going on at Drokan’s Beard, something that was out of the ordinary even for it. The details were a bit sketchy, but the trail started with him and led him to this place.

He rapped on the door, in the sequence he’d been given. A muffled curse came from inside and footsteps stomped to the door. It was wrenched open, and Cuileán saw a grizzled man about his size glaring owlishly at him.

“What do you want?”

“Garrick sent me to remind you about the ‘prancing ponies.’ He didn’t want you to forget.”

A more suspicious look as Cuileán delivered the code phrase, then the man said “Get in here.”

The Ranger did, and ducked his head as he went through the low door. The man closed the door, and Cuileán could see the glint of a long curved knife in his hand.

“What happened to Garrick?”

The knife came up. Cuileán glanced at it, unimpressed. The stranger noticed but waited for the answer. He stood with his back to the door, other hand opening and closing.

“He decided that he wasn’t going to put in for anything this time around, and sent me. I’m interested.”

“Are you? I don’t know you. What’s going to keep me from killing you and tossing you to the sharks?”

Cuileán didn’t answer. He grinned at the man, who furrowed his brow at the response. The knife looped toward Cuileán. The Ranger’s left hand shot out, gripping the man’s wrist in an iron grip. His right hand swung up, not any slower than the other and catching the man on the chin. He collapsed in a heap, and the knife clattered to the floor. Cuileán grabbed the knife and rammed it deep into the door frame.

It took a good twenty minutes for the eyes in the grizzled face to blink open. During that time, the Ranger flipped through the book on the table and noted a few log entries on the front page. The rest of the pages were blank, and to Cuileán it appeared that this was a newly opened logbook. The entries seemed to be spaced about two weeks or so apart. His carefully trained memory noted the entries in the book. The man was still out cold, so he looked around some more.

He found another few books in the trash that looked very similar, and slipped them in the lining of his coat. Ashes in the stove had the consistency of burnt paper, so whatever the man had burned, it might have been more books like this. Cuileán’s lips thinned. No telling what he was trying to hide by burning. He didn’t look like a successful business person in any kind of legal enterprises.

The Ranger found a couple of maps shoved in the back of the stove that had charred edges. He got them out, cursing the hot coals. Those went down the lining, too. He had to spit on the burning edges to put them out, otherwise his coat would be rather warm soon. The man crumpled on the floor groaned. Cuileán quietly closed the grate, and drew his sword. He sat down in the chair, one foot propped on the table and sword on his knees. The blade gleamed with its unusual color.

The man groaned again and pushed himself up to a seated position. He shook his head. It seemed to Cuileán that he was shaking off a hangover. The Ranger didn’t think he’d hit him that hard, but it was possible. He waited for the man to blink a few more times, then spoke.

“What’s your name?”

“Thormond.” The name came out as a long groan. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“That’s for you to decide, Thormond. But I’ll tell you this: you come after me again and you won’t have to. I’ll decide for you, and you can rot. It doesn’t matter to me one way or another. You got me?”

Thormond looked up to see his knife buried in the wood. It would take him a while to work it out. He winced as he rubbed his jaw and looked at the Ranger sitting in his seat.

“I got you.”

“Good. Now, let’s talk business. Don’t bother getting up. We can talk just fine like we are, but if you get up this sword,” he raised the tip just enough to show the keen edge to the man, “will be the last thing you see.”

The man gulped.

“Garrick sent me, like I said before. He didn’t want to take advantage of an opportunity and he clued me in. I’m beginning to wonder if this ‘opportunity’ he was talking about is just small potatoes and not worth my time.”

Thormond colored up.

“It’s very lucrative. If you can take delivery of a cargo, handle payment, and get it to our agents.”

“Sounds simple enough. What’s the cargo?”

“Not all that simple.” The man rubbed his jaw again. “Did you have to hit me so hard?”

The Ranger shrugged, unrepentant. “If you’d rather I had cut your head off instead, that can be arranged.” The sword eased up, and the man shrunk back.

“No, I’m quite satisfied.”

Cuileán nodded at the response.

“Quit stalling and talk. Why not simple and what’s the cargo?”

“The port authorities have to be convinced to look the other way when the ship delivers seventy ‘guest workers’ for the fields.”

Cuileán schooled his face to stillness. He didn’t expect this. Smuggling goods or other objects was one thing, but people was another. He had a part to play.

“That’s all?”

“That’s all. Can you handle it? Or want to?”

The Ranger made a show of thinking about it, privately amused at the bead of sweat that popped up on Thormond’s forehead.

“I’m in. Garrick said it was tomorrow.”

The man blew a frustrated breath. “Garrick couldn’t remember a date if his life depended on it. It’s a wonder he’s lived this long.”

“So when it is?”

“Day after tomorrow. A few hours after sundown.”

“That’s not a problem. I can move some things around and make room. What’s your role?”

The man grimaced. “I’m the arranger. I get these shipments set up and line up buyers. I’ll give you the payment for the captain of the vessel, you give it to him. You take the cargo, get it stored, and release it to the buyer.”

“How do I get my cut? You?”

“No, after I give you the payment for the captain, you don’t see me again unless there’s a problem. Your payment comes from the buyer.”

“What?”

“I give you the payment, and they give you a cut of it.”

“What if they short me?”

“Then it’s between you and them. This keeps suspicion off me.”

“Better not be any funny business. I don’t handle that very well.”

The man chuckled, although it seemed that the levity was painful. His eyes were still a little unfocused. “I’ve seen that. These people keep their word, since they know if they don’t then the word we’d put out would blackball them. They want to keep doing business here.”

“Good to know. Garrick wasn’t too forthcoming with details.”

“That sounds like him. He keeps a secret.”

“Why don’t you do this yourself? Just out of curiosity?”

Thormond grimaced. “I can’t get on a boat of any kind. I get sea sick without solid ground under my feet.” He even turned a little green at the reminder of it.

“I see.”

The Ranger stood up and sheathed his sword.

“I’ll see you here at dusk day after tomorrow. Be ready.”

Thormond nodded. He gasped as Cuileán picked him up roughly without straining in the least, and set him in the chair. The unspoken demonstration left him with no illusions about the nature of his new business partner. He watched as the door banged shut behind him, then blew out a long breath.

* * *

Later that afternoon, the Ranger slipped into the room that he stayed in while on this assignment. It wasn’t much, just a small room with a bed and no other furniture at all. He shrugged the long coat off and pulled out the items that he’d secreted there. The two books he lay on the floor, and the papers he spread out as well. Most of those looked like maps, but not quite. It took a moment to realize that he wasn’t looking at maps, but of hand copied charts similar to what sailors used. He studied them closely, seeing the marks on one that denoted Drokan’s Beard.

This was something new. Why would someone have a chart of Drokan’s Beard? He saw rough lines that could be bearing marks, but since he wasn’t a sailor he didn’t know. He knew how to read a land map, and he supposed that sea charts worked the same way. Cuileán flipped through the others and saw that they appeared to be ripped from a rough binding. Some of the jagged edges still had glue attached.

That gave him a thought. He moved closer to the window and laid the sheets out on the floor. He arranged them in a semblance of order and found out that some observant sailor had drawn a fairly detailed set of charts. He found gaps, but when the young Ranger finished a few minutes later, he had a hand drawn chart of the east coast of Cadealith. Cuileán’s gaze narrowed as he saw the collection of marks on the assembled charts resolve into locations of suspected smuggling hideouts – or close enough.

He made several notes and observations on his own paper. The first thing was the information that he had memorized from the logbook he’d left at the warehouse. It consisted of a date, which was in two days time, and a destination, which was Drokan’s Beard. There was a name, too. The entry ‘Capt. Sasaki’ was written in bold script, and underlined. The name was unfamiliar to him.

The young Ranger had made it a habit to put down his thoughts as he investigated something and it allowed his mind to poke and prod things with every entry. The first thing that occurred was that the arranger, Thormond, was into it up to his neck. Why else would he have these maps? The second was that if he could find out who drew the maps, he could yank the evidence chain and get more people. The third thought was that this was valuable information, just with the charts. Why was he destroying them? What did he have to hide? Several of the people he’d talked to after leaving Thormond didn’t seem impressed by him.
The Ranger looked at the section of floor where he’d laid the logbooks. From where he sat, he could see the year lettered neatly on the fronts. Cuileán picked them up, grimacing at the musty smell, and laid them on the open windowsill to open. There wasn’t anything there to intrude, much less any curious eyes, since the window opened up to a cliff side view of the ocean.

Cuileán immediately saw that each book contained roughly a year’s worth of entries, with the great majority of cargoes delivered to Drokan’s Beard. Maybe twenty went to other locations, some of which Cuileán recognized as marked locations on the map. He wrote that down, too. Since each entry followed the same format as what he’d memorized, namely, a date, a place, and a name.

He wondered if the places that he didn’t recognize signified where the cargoes came from. For that matter, if the cargoes happened to be slaves, then something had to be done. There wasn’t much time. The shipments had to come from somewhere, since they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. He looked again at the log books, and noticed that this ‘Captain Sasaki’ was repeated in a majority of the entries.

The young Ranger wondered about that. If this person came into the harbor and docked regularly, then his ship would be known. He’d have to find out what ship tomorrow, when he met with Thormond again under his Casimir alias. He didn’t like the idea of being out here all alone, not with something like this. Cuileán took a moment to organize his thoughts on a fresh sheet of paper, laying out the information he’d discovered in a report to the Senior Ranger. A conclusion was reached, and he put that down, too. He bundled the log books, the charts and this report into a package, which he sealed as tightly as he could. The young Ranger burned his sheet of notes and dumped the ashes out the window. He watched them flutter on the breeze into the water far below.

It was time to visit an old friend.

* * *

At first glance, it seemed that the woman in the chair was sound asleep. Her legs were tucked up under her body and she didn’t seem aware. A small smile was on her face, and she murmured as if dreaming. The Ranger eased through the gate and slowly climbed the steps to the wide porch. She didn’t react to his presence, and he grinned as he got closer to the chair.

The grin fell off when a crossbow came up and the quarrel poked him in the belly.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in! A rat!” A laugh bubbled under the mock stern voice. “I’m impressed. You got closer than last time. Must have been practicing.”

“A bit, yes, Anna. Now can you point that thing somewhere else?”

“I could aim it down a little.” The crossbow waggled and dipped.

“Um, no.” She did laugh, this time. Anna set the crossbow down on the rough boards beside her chair, then bounded up to hug the Ranger as tight as she could. She kissed him, hard. It took a moment, after which he had some trouble remembering why he’d come.

“Hello, Cuileán. I’m glad to see you, you rogue!”

He blinked. As always, Anna was effervescent and joyful in her outlook on life. She didn’t lack for any attention, but there were some that she particularly enjoyed spending time with. Those she didn’t feel as enthusiastic about soon found out. Some of those found out permanently. Hence, the crossbow.

Cuileán was glad that she liked him.

“I’m glad to see you, too, Anna.”

“Have you missed me?” She grinned up at him as she wriggled deeper into his arms.
He hadn’t realized how much until that moment, and it was a little painful to find out.

“I have, a lot.”

She smiled and tilted her face up for a kiss, which he delivered. She broke the kiss and stepped back a little, holding him at arms length and looking at his long coat and longer hair. Anna ran her fingers through it.

“You look different. I didn’t think King’s knights were allowed to dress like this.”

“They aren’t. I have a new job, now.”

“New job?”

He pushed his sleeve up, revealing the newly cleaned Ranger tattoo. Her breath caught in admiration.

“A King’s Ranger! Cuileán!”

“Yes, for a couple of years now.”

She was inspecting the tattoo, rolling his forearm back and forth. He was bemused at the intensity of her regard.

“Cuileán, it shines!” She stooped over and grabbed the hem of his coat.

“Anna, what are you….”

She covered her head with the hem and put the tattoo in shadow. He heard a delighted squeak as the tattoo shimmered with its phosphorescent glow in the absence of direct light. Anna dropped the coat and stood straight. Grabbing his hands, she danced around him and hugged him again.

“I like!”

He grinned. He’d forgotten just how exuberant she was.

“I’m glad.”

“Ooh, now I have my own Ranger!” He blushed, and she chuckled to see it. “When did you come back, Cuileán?”

“About two weeks ago. I didn’t get to report in for any less than a few minutes, and I was sent straight off on a special assignment. It’s been a very busy time. Being a Ranger is considerably more work than being a knight, but I like it.”

“Is it dangerous?” Her eyes looked up at his with sudden concern, and he nodded.

“I won’t lie. It can be.”

She sighed, then hugged him closer.

“Promise me that you’ll be careful.”

“I promise you that, Anna. Always.” She looked up at him, eyes still dark and a slight frown. “We stand up for the ones that can’t, Anna. It’s like the chivalry code, but more involved. I’m finding out that there are things out there that a normal knight wouldn’t even have notice of until late. It’s amazing the seamy underbelly in the Kingdom. That’s why the King’s Rangers were formed long ago, from the knights that saw this within the kingdom’s borders and wanted to do something about it.”

“But King Samuel didn’t start the Rangers, did he?”

“No, his great-uncle did. King Nodar did.”

She grimaced.

“I’ve heard stories about him.”

“So have I. We won’t get into those stories. Let’s leave it at that, and just say that King

Samuel is a good king to work for.”

She smiled at him, her mood changing back to her normal lightness. She pulled out of the embrace and bent to pick up her crossbow.

“Come inside and let’s get reacquainted before you tell me why you came.” She threw him a saucy look and ran inside. It didn’t take him much resolve to follow the sound of her giggles.

* * *

Anna stretched languidly. Beside her, Cuileán lay, watching as she snuggled into his arms.

“Being a Ranger is good for me,” she purred.

“You’re not a Ranger,” he protested.

“No, but you are, and you represented the Ranger Corps very well. I could stay here all night.”

He grinned, then sobered.

“Anna….”

She snuggled closer still.

“Tell me why you came. I don’t want to move.”

He told her, in very general terms. When he got to the meeting, she sat up. The covers spilled off her body and he had to keep his eyes on hers.

“Cuileán! That sounds like danger!”

“It is, but it’s what I’m sworn to do, Anna.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and she collapsed on his chest. Her sobs filled the room. The young Ranger held her and let her cry. Finally, she eased off. He kissed her head as she looked up.

“Anna, I promised you I would be careful.”

“Yes, you did, and you’ve never lied to me.”

“No, I haven’t. Anna, I still have to do this.”

She hiccuped. “I know, but I don’t like it.”

“I’m not looking forward to it, either. People’s lives are at stake, and that’s why I have to.”

“I know.” She was silent for a while. “What do you want me to do?”

“I have a package that needs to go to the Ranger detachment inland. It needs to go to Senior Master Ranger Thomas.”

“I can leave here at first light. Where is it?”

He gently disengaged her from his side, and got up. She gasped silently as she saw a scar on his back, shining in the firelight. He looked up, but she had her expression under control, and he started looking for what he sought.

Cuileán had to collect his things first. His boots were at opposite sides of the room. His sword and long coat stood guard in a corner by the bed, and various articles of clothing lay near the hearth. Some were his, and he finally found his pack. The young Ranger reached in to grab the package.

“Anna?”

“Yes?”

“This is very important.” He tapped the bound package. “This is my life.”

She nodded, unhappily.

“I know. Put it on the table.” He did, and her eyes fell on his sword.

“Cuileán? Is that Feraeil’avel? Your Elven sword?”

He nodded.

“Can I see it?”

Wordlessly, he drew his blade partway. She gasped in surprise as the blue-green blade revealed itself with a slight glimmer. He offered the hilt to her, and she shook her head.

“I can’t carry it. That’s your sword? The last time I saw you, you didn’t have it. What happened?”

“My grandfather died, and passed it to me. My father carried it in one of the border uprisings, and helped put it down, but after I was recalled to court he told me that the time had come for me to carry it as Thedulean intended.”

“It never leaves your side for the next few days – please!”

He chuckled. “Feraeil’avel hasn’t left my side since I got it.” He replaced the sword in its spot, then used a poker to bring the fire back to life.

“Good!” She opened the covers, revealing herself. “Now come back.”

He needed no encouragement.