Saturday, May 14, 2022

Flash Fiction # 510 -- The Long Way Home/10

 Jamison started to stand, grabbing at anything he could find to hold on. He took one quick look around and then dropped back to his knees by Rory.

"You decide," he ordered. "No, don't argue. You can understand better what you can do and which way will be safest."

"Safest," Rory said with a nod. "Toward the sea. If any of Kellic's people suspect an intentional breakout, they'll be waiting --"

Lightning hit the dock again, but they were already drifting past it. The light illuminated the area, and Rory fixed the area ahead in his mind, even knowing the half dozen craft would move in ways he could not guess.

"You're hurt!" Jamison grabbed at him.

"Careful." He winced at the touch on his arm. "Nothing serious. I was saying they'll be waiting for us to go upstream and likely have the guns manned on the castle grounds. We're going out to the sea. If you know the coast well, make a decision on north or south. If north, I'll say that we won't go far. Atria is in the midst of some special curse of their own, and we don't want to get caught up in that never-ending winter."

"South," Jamison decided. "Down toward the Arch River. It is about fifteen miles from here, with a wide delta. Difficult to navigate and the haunt of pirates, but we can get through that, right?"

Lightning hit a ship a few yards ahead of them.

"I'll take pirates over this," Rory admitted.

It took hours for them to get clear of the city. Rory feared that they could still be too close when the sun came up. Fortunately, the rush of the water from the storm kept the current strong, and heading downstream was definitely the better idea in this case. Other pieces of boats went with them, and at least one had a crew. They drifted past it, and Montinique shouted good luck to someone on board. That craft sat lower in the water and already had cargo on board.

The storm, which had blown up from the sea and pressed inward, was well behind them when they reached the waves. They found bits of boats here, and Rory suspected some of them must have foundered at sea as the storm raced for the shore.

By then, Jamison was taking care of Rory's two wounds, which had both been more annoying than serious. They moved well away from the shore, and Mantinique had come to speak with Rory.

"South, I agree." The Captain looked that way with a decisive nod. "I'm not so sure about the delta, but after last night I suppose pirates wouldn't be such a bad problem."

"Everything is a problem," Rory said. He looked toward the north but then shook his head. "We don't need more crazy weather, though. And we need to get out of this area. I would wish for the others to get away as well. Still, as the weather gets better, they may be all that keeps Kellic's people from coming after us by still blocking the river and getting in the way. We'll have to keep our eyes open for anyone from the army along the shore, but I think we can go out far enough to be well out of their range."

"It's not going to be easy sailing with just the four of us," Mantinique warned. "There's a reason the city is on the Baron River and not on the Arch. It's a treacherous River. I don't know how far upstream We'll be able to get. I'd rather not abandon the ship, but we may have to head out over the land."

"Or," Jamison added, "you could drop us off at some convenient spot along the shore and let us head inland, and you can go back and play at the idea that you just worked free and were coming back for your crew. I don't like that we left them behind, and not because we could use them now."

"They had orders to get out and scatter," Mantinique replied with a wave of his hand. "If they hear the ship is still in port, the crew will just show back up and say they got scared by the weather. They will make their way out of the city and head toward home if it's gone. I suspect they'll be home before we are."

"Dangerous for them," Jamison said with a worried shake of his head.

"Not as dangerous as sitting in port and waiting for Kellic to realize that we were from the area just south of your father's land. That's not your fault, you know. Even if you had never shown up for this little excursion, Kellic would still have been suspicious of us."

"Kellic is suspicious of everyone," Rory added. "He's not going to make a good King."

"That's something we can all agree on," Mantinique replied with a nod. He looked weary, which made Rory feel all the more tired. "Were still in the outflow of the river's current. We can still follow it for a few miles out into the sea, but we need to rig sails. Unless there's something you are specifically doing, Rory, like keeping the boat in one piece, I suggest you get some rest now. You won't want to enter the Arch in the state you're in now."

There was no use arguing it. Rory nodded and moved from bow to deck and laid in the sun. He slept. No one was likely to sneak up on them out here in the ocean. He didn't sense any magic nearby, and the few scudding clouds that raced across the sky were not harbingers of danger.

He slept, knowing there would be more trouble soon enough.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Flash Fiction #509 -- The Long Way Home/9

 Now there was a new part of the situation he had not considered. He realized Jamison had been ready to run if Kellic took over, and he should have considered the reason why. He had heard that there was an underground movement against the Prince, but that sort of thing was common in almost all capitals. This group had seemed benign since they made no demands and certainly never tried to assassinate the man.

Now Rory suspected they were too smart to do the usual things.

The wind came up with a sudden roar, and Rory could hear distant shouts on other ships. It seems likely that more than the ones that intend to go would be torn loose tonight, which would make a mess out of the dock while they tried to get away.

And that would be where he could do his most good. When the Captain came back up into the little room with them, the world outside had gotten dark and wet, and no one would see them unless they created light here, which they were not stupid enough to do.

"I can help us get out of the dock and keep the other ships away while we escape," Rory told him. "It will be easy, and I probably won't be able to hold back all the ships, but I think I can give us a better chance."

"It will not be easy for you or safe," Jamie replied. Rory was starting to get used to thinking that name. "But I don't say it isn't a good idea. I'll just go with you to make sure you don't fall into the water."

Rory didn't argue. He was already weak enough that this would be a challenging undertaking. Besides, Rory could glue Jamison more easily to the deck than Rory could keep himself there since his mind would be on other spells. Putting a spell on Jamison and linking himself to his companion would help. So he and Jamison went on out, already drenched and hit hard by the wind. Rory took tight hold of Jamison's arm and already ran a fine link of magic between them. He also ran a line between them and the deck that kept moving in odd directions. It made walking feel strange, but they didn't so much as slide towards the edge of the railing.

Soon they were at the bow of the boat. It wasn't a large craft, and that would help Rory keep some control. He could already see three other ships moving haphazardly away from the dock. None of them dared to use sails, and Rory wasn't even sure the masts were going to survive.

The storm grew worse almost immediately. Lightning flashed across the sky and then downward, hitting the dock itself with enough force to send wood flying. That tore several ships free, and there'd be no doubt that this exodus had been unplanned.

With any kind of luck, it would even look as though the ship had gone down in the deeper waters. Rory intended to make sure that did not happen, but if they did start to list, he was sure he could get all four of them to land.

Should he purposely sink the ship?

No, that was the sound of insanity in his head. Instead, he reached out the little magic and brushed the first of the ships out of the way. With the chaos out there, no one would notice a few ships moving in a strange direction.

Jamison kept tight hold of him, and they both knelt, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Rory continued his work with a single-minded determination. He dared not watch the storm over which he wouldn't have much control even if he tried. It was hard work, but he reminded himself that he desperately wanted out of the city and away from all the doubts and mistakes he'd already made.

He'd failed his own people, but he would not fail Jamison and his wife.

The wind howled louder, and at that moment, lightning struck the ship just to the right of them. Parts of it exploded into the sky, and Rory did his best to knock those aside, but he could not get them all. Something hit him across the head, and another cut into his arm. Jamison cursed and must have been hit, though perhaps not as seriously as Rory. The blow to his head leaked warm blood running down his face, and he had trouble pulling back his scattered mind. Something was still embedded in his arm, and he'd lost his link to magic. When Jamison started to slide away, his panic brought back at least that spell. Rory drew the man back to him and planted them both on the deck. That was all he could manage.

Then he saw that the ship that had been hit was burning and floundering, but would not go under before it hit them. Not for the first time in the last few days, Rory silently asked Etek for more power than see them through this trouble. At least he knew his God was not xenophobic, and the fact that Jamison was not a believer was not going to be a problem.

They had to get out of this area and into the deeper center of the river. From there, it was either upriver or down, and Rory would decide when he saw what sat in the way. Upriver would be better for reaching Jamison's land, but he suspected trouble would be waiting along that path. Heading down the broad path of the river to the sea might be the wiser course but no less dangerous in other ways.

Nothing would be safe, and Rory would not make this decision for the rest of them.

"Find out which way we go," Rory ordered and nudged Jamison away.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Flash Fiction #508 -- The Long Way Home/8

 That news came as a relief to Rory. He didn't like he'd been unconscious for however long they'd been on the ship. He had never been well known for his patience, and sitting here at the dock with Kellic not far away did not appeal to him. The aches and weaknesses in his limbs told me it had been a couple days already.

However, going out in a storm strong enough that the dock master suggested they tie down might not be the best choice. He looked up at the man they were trusting with their lives – and then he looked at Jamison and Keltrina.

Jamison would never have done anything to put her in more danger. That meant he trusted this man, and since Rory trusted Jamison, that ended his worries. At least for the moment.

"Here's a big problem," the Captain said. He put aside his finished cup. "All the rest of my crew are being held in the port, which is true for all the other ships. I know Jamie has sailed a few times, and even Kel here knows her way around the ship. What about you, Rory?"

"I've been on ships a few times and worked two of them, but I am not well-trained."  Rory smiled. "I might have other skills that can help, though."

Matinique smiled and looked a lot more his age. He also looked dangerous, which didn't surprise Rory, given the situation. This man clearly hadn't even thought twice about taking them all in and getting them out of the city under the nose of a very paranoid and angry Prince.

"Then we'll go with the storm," the man said and looked relieved. He was probably happy to get out of the city. Anyone would be under the circumstances. "The storm should be well on us before midnight. I suggest you go back to the hold and rest until then. Some of the other captains might wander in and out of the ship. I dare not tell them no. I'll do nothing to draw their curiosity because the captains are more likely to notice the discrepancy in the castle than anyone from the Army. If someone does notice, I'll buy them off with a couple bottles of contraband wine and from your father's own stores, Jamie."

Jamison smiled. "I'm sure he would fully approve."

So they went back down to the little room. Keltrina had the bed this time and fell asleep. Rory wanted to ask questions, but he knew better than to say anything aloud. Instead, he slept sitting up, though part of his mind continued to monitor what was going on around them. He had regained at least part of his powers, and he wouldn't be slow to use them to save any of his three new friends.

Perhaps he should have asked where they were going from here. He had a duty that would take him away from the river and certainly not out into the ocean, which sat a few miles away. He needed to get back home, back to his own Queen, and tell her all the things they worried about were true. Even with the little he'd heard about Atria had not sounded good. Rory suspected he knew where his next assignment would be.

If he survived this one.

Despite all his worries, Rory slept well. He only came fully awake again when the first winds of the storm started to rock the boat more violently. By then, it was dark above the dock except when lightning flashed. Rory had the impression that this had become more of a storm than the others had expected. Rory climbed up and stayed low until he was sure no one else was around to spot them. Matinique already worked at the ropes, which would probably make it look as if he was reassuring himself that they were tied down well. One guard went past, and if he said anything, Rory couldn't hear it above the sound of the storm.

The rain had started as well, but Rory wasn't sure when since the winds had blown splashing waves up the river.

"Oh, I can't say I like this very well," Keltrina admitted.

"We can sit this one out," Jamison said, and Rory nodded in agreement. "I know Mantinique is anxious to get away, but that's just because he hates boredom."

"I'd rather go," Keltrina answered and sounded steadier again. "We've been lucky so far, but that can't hold on for too long. At least one of the guards knows something is going on with the ship. As much as I would like to think he wouldn't give us away, I expect that Kellic might start offering some gold for our recovery – and that includes you, Rory. Maybe you more than any of us."

"It is something I've considered," Rory admitted. "And that is why I probably won't be with you for much longer. Don't worry. I'll see you safely out of this danger before I go off on my own."

"I wish you wouldn't go," Keltrina replied, a hand on his arm.

"He has his own job, my love," Jamison answered. "He has duties and has already set them aside to help keep us alive. Just the same, I wouldn't mind if you came with us to my father's estate."

"That's really where you intend to go?" Rory asked. He shook his head in confusion. "Isn't that the first place that Kellic will look for you?" He paused and shook his head. "I remember now. You and your father had some spectacular arguments. And you still think you'll be safe there?"

"Some spectacular and well-staged arguments," Jamison corrected and grinned at Rory's surprise. "My father and I mistrusted Kellic for years, and he's done worse than expected. Now the group to which I belong must take action."

Friday, April 22, 2022

Flash Fiction #507 -- The Long Way Home/7

 A dozen steps and they were moving past the guard who was no more than a slow-moving shadow in his sight. Rory moved to the left, pulling Keltrina closer so that she didn't go off the edge and hit the hull of one of the craft. Jamison had seen as well and moved slightly ... and they squeezed past, but so close that the disturbance of their passage sent the man sprawling.

Rory heard his shout of surprise, but they were already to the boat.  No ladder, no gang plank.  He had to make a jump.

They sprawled over the edge and came to an inelegant stop on the deck.

The world moved around him, but he could see nothing through the dark red and blue sparkle that blinded him. The ship moved -- that would give them away.

Several men came at a run, one of them huffing to a stop at the guard and ordering others to look around.

"Something ran across the path right at me, sir," the guard said. "Nothing human. Vermin, I think, but didn't want naught to do with it. Not after what happened to old Headlin, sir."

Rory could hear the voices clearly enough. That included the sharp gasp from the man who was still huffing.

"Yes, right. Why are the boats moving?"

"Vermin, sir. I saw the one, but I thought there were others. Jumping on ships and into the water. Oh, they couldn't pay me enough for this work, Lt. Haran, sir."

"You guard against them," Lt. Haran mumbled. "You watch for anyone heading to the ships. We've stopped dozens of traitors already. Don't let none get past you, or you'll be hanging with them."

"Yes, sir," the man said.

The soldiers gathered back around their leader and marched off in quick steps, eager to be away from the docks and back in hiding. The guard they had surprised remained where he was.

"Stupid old sot," the man mumbled. He started back the way he had come, passing their refuge. "I don't know who -- or even what -- ye might be, but get the word out. Kellic killed the king. Warn good Prince Palkin if you can. Tell him Dentin sent you."

And then he moved on.

They still did not move. Rory couldn't. He drifted in and out of consciousness for a while, aware of another voice and whispers of worry. They carried him down a set of stairs into a room with an uncomfortable bed, though no worse than the deck had been.

Time had passed. He could see the light through the ceiling above him and heard two sets of steps.  Not Jamison and Keltrina.  They were in this tiny closet of a room. Hiding place.

He kept very still.

"When can we leave, then?" someone demanded. "This isn't going to go well with my father. I have perishables to take back to the estate."

"You'll leave when King Kellic says you can."  That sounded like Lt. Heron again, especially in the huffing voice as if he had run some distance already. "I'll search your ship."

"Again? Well, go ahead. I've nothing to hide, and if you want to waste your time --"

"Open that door."

They went over the entire ship, and the man never found the small room, about six feet long but no more than four feet high. Rory felt sorry for Keltrina and Jamison, who must have to sit the whole time. As soon as it was safe, he'd change places with one of them.

Before too long, a small door opened in the wall beyond Payton. "You can come back out," a man said. "He's gone again, and it is late enough he won't be back before he drinks his dinner. Oh, you're awake."

Jamison and Keltrina both turned in surprise.

"Awake. Perhaps not alive," Rory said. "How long have I been here? Why are we still at the dock?"

Jamison was crawling out, and Keltrina followed, though she did look back in worry when he rolled off the bed and mumbled something impolite when he tried to crawl out.

"Your pardon," he said, still following them up a short ladder.

They ended up in the Captain's castle, with walls high enough to keep them from being seen by anyone in another boat or on the dock. From the sound of things, there were not many people around.

"Water closet," the stranger said and then moved, so the opening of the door wasn't seen. He clearly had smuggled people before. They let Keltrina in first, then Rory. Jamison followed, and by the time he came back out, the Captain had poured three cups of warm chicken and vegetable soup for his strange passengers. The Capt. was clearly no stranger to sparkling people. That little spot below this deck could easily carry contraband. The bed made it apparent that he took people often.

He also sat at an angle to the view outside and rarely glanced their way, even when he surreptitiously handed them the food.

"Thank you," Rory said, his voice soft. "What have they told you about me?"

"Everything," Jamison was the one to reply. "If Mantinique is going to smuggle us out of here, I wasn't going to keep secrets from him. I trust him. Besides, once we were aboard, he either saves us or turns us in."

"Never," Mantinique said.  He was probably no older than Jamison, though he tried to look it. "You are all three safe with me."

Rory tried to trust the man and realized it was stupid not to. It would have been simple for him to have turned them over by now.

"I have other news," Martinique added. He went silent and sipped his food, then waved toward someone outside. That person was soon gone. "A storm is blowing in, according to the dockmaster. We're ordered to tie down and ride it out, and some of us will not be doing so."

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Flash Fiction #506 -- The Long Way Home/6

 "Yes, a priest," he admitted, though softly. They still had unwanted company in the street. Once the bells had died away, even a whisper seemed too loud. "Not an Atrian priest, though. I am from Sunry and a priest of Eket."

"Eket priests don't leave the temple," Keltrina countered and looked distrustful.

"Rarely leave the temple," Rory corrected. "I know Euriday has tales of our help in the past."

"Myths," Jamison said. "Certainly nothing for hundreds of years. Did you come here now because you knew this trouble was coming?"

"Not this trouble," he admitted. "I didn't like Kellic from the first I met him, but I didn't think the problem was in Euriday. I was watching for news about Atria. The queen also asked me to help the Ambassador if things went badly, and I have failed in that request."

"I thought," Keltrina began and then stopped.

"Yes?" he asked softly. Things were getting quieter on the street below them.

"I thought the Eket priests never left their temple and that only royalty could consult with them."

"Mostly true," he admitted. He and Jamison both crawled toward the roof's edge, clearly with the same idea. "We rarely leave. I'm the first in more than twenty years. And we only answer to the ruling monarch, but we can offer help to others. A few have visions. I am not one of them, but I have a magic of my own sort. I can move very fast, but it will drain me."

"I noticed. Both."  Jamison said. "We're clear here, and I can see the river no more than half a mile away. Do we try for it?"

"It would be a shame to have come all this way just to turn back."

"But you had not planned to come this way, did you?"

"No. But I didn't have a ship here that I could trust. This is a good way, especially for more than one person. I don't say that I'll go with you, but we'll see when we get there."

Jamison nodded. "Good. Are you ready to go?"

"Yes," he said,  more anxious than them. "But take care."

They climbed back down, Jamison first, Keltrina next, and Rory last, almost cursing at the pain in his hands. He hoped they'd taken Polsin to cover somewhere nearby and were not actually following Rory and his companions. Rory didn't think anyone knew that secret about the Eket Priests. He hadn't even told these two, though he might have to if this problem continued. He almost slipped halfway down and heard Jamison make a hiss of surprise and worry -- a sound that could have given them away.

"Lead us there," Rory said. "I'll guard against anything behind us. If it turns bad, leave me. Write to my queen and tell her all that we've seen."

Jamison started to argue. He changed his mind, took Keltrina by the arm, and started away. Jamison did look back to make sure Rory followed them, though. He hadn't expected it.

Rory supposed they felt a debt to him for having saved them. He had also made Kellic their enemy -- but he didn't pretend that would not happen at some point soon anyway.

So they helped each other get out of the city. He had some worry about the boat since it would be a shame to send them off into danger alone after having come this far.

On a night like this, the best thing about the river was the ghostly fog that swirled up and around everything. They heard movement sometimes but saw nothing. Rory trusted that meant no one saw them, either.

Jamison knew precisely where they were going, which helped. Polison got no closer, either. By the time they reached the row of smaller boats, Rory felt that he might be able to take on trouble again -- as long as it wasn't too persistent.

Rory had them remove their shoes before they walked down the long, wooden path beside the ships. They mostly looked silent and dark, but Rory could hear the sound of someone walking nearby and knew that it had to be a guard.

"There should be many guards here," he whispered as they sat beside the hull of a rowboat pulled up for repairs. "Only one means it is a trap."

Jamison gave a nod of wary agreement. "We go your way."

"Which boat were you heading for?" he asked.

"Forth one. It can't be safe, Rory --"

"It can be if they don't see us. No one will hear us with our shoes off. Do you trust me?"

Jamison looked at him. The fog gave too much of a glow to the scene, and Rory feared they would be spotted before his companions decided.

"You saved us already. I can't see what good it would do you to let us be caught or killed now," Jamison whispered. Rory could hear trust in his voice, and Keltrina nodded.

"Take my hands. Hold tight to your belongings. We have to go now. The guard is coming too close."

He stood and held out his hands. They both stood and took hold.

Rory knew he was not going to be worth much after this. But he fixed his attention on the fourth boat and hoped Jamison had correctly counted the boats.

He could see the elongated shadow of the guard. They dared not wait, or he would see them.

Rory took a deep breath, centered himself, and moved.

This was not the first time he'd taken others into his power and moved. It had been part of his training back at the temple, and he'd been good at it, back when lives did not depend on how well he did.

And not after already expending enough magic to have put him down for a while.

He held tight, and then he moved just as the guard came into view.