Sneax and Elaina went to collect on a debt for Draks, but found more than they bargained for. Luckily for them, they met Nathaniel, a half-fire elf mercenary, and his companion Maleeka, a giantess of unknown origin. But it turns out that Nathaniel works for Draks as well, and that he's here to take Sneax to the hinterlands of the Kingdom's northern frontier. Thus, Sneax finds herself alone on a ship with her friend Elaina far behind...
The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 3: The Priest of Loki
Sneax sat in the crow’s nest atop the Argo’s main mast looking out over the water. The sea had seemed endlessly blue for more than a fortnight, but now there were rocks bubbling up from beneath the surface of the water and tiny islands dotting the horizon. These heralded the end of Sneax’s first ever voyage at sea.
She wished it could go on forever.
Down on deck one of the mates called up an order, and several sailors began climbing the rigging to put on more sail. Sneax saw them coming and swung down from her perch. She grabbed a rope and slid further, coming to rest atop the maintopmast spar. She sat and looped a rope around her foot and then began loosening more ropes, ropes that bound the sail up into a bundle. Soon the maintopsail spread before her, bellying in the breeze. With more canvas, the Argo began picking up speed. This would bring the ship into Ellesberg that much faster.
“Thanks Sneax!” one of the sailors called up.
Sneax waived in reply. She liked the sailors on the Argo, but she didn’t immediately head down to be with them. Nathaniel was down there, and ultimately Ellesberg itself was down there as well, and Sneax didn’t want to deal with either of them at the moment. She turned and began climbing back towards the crow’s nest and solitude. When she got there, she sat on the structure’s lip and leaned back until she rested against the very top of the Argo’s maintopmast.
Sneax missed Wanderhaven and her friend Elaina Emboo, of course, but she didn’t feel like she’d parted with either on particularly good terms, and in the meantime, the voyage on the Argo had been something of a revelation. She’d expected to be lonely at sea, but it hadn’t been like that at all. Instead, she’d found herself. Sneax was a natural climber with an almost supernatural sense of balance and a complete lack of the normal fear of heights, and she didn’t mind doing her fair share of work. She had therefore spent half the voyage—or more—hanging in the Argo’s upper rigging, tying this or untying that, reefing sails or putting on more canvas, sliding down backstays or sitting in the crow’s nest just keeping watch. These were jobs that sailors found dangerous—or at least unpleasant—but Sneax had been running across rooftops since before she could remember. She was as comfortable in the crosstrees as she was atop Wanderhaven’s arch, and she found neither spot more intimidating than any other part of the ship. By volunteering to do theArgo’s high work, Sneax had made herself useful to the crew, and with that had come acceptance of a kind that Sneax had never known.
For the first time in her life, she felt like she belonged.
Elaina Emboo was Sneax’s best friend, and they’d had many, many adventures together, but deep down, Sneax knew that Elaina felt sorry for her. Elaina liked Sneax, liked the way that Sneax refused to allow society to dictate its terms to her, but Elaina also thought that Sneax couldn’t take care of herself. She worried that if she, Elaina, weren’t around, Sneax would either get herself into trouble or else she’d starve to death out of simple self-neglect. Part of the reason why they’d stayed so close—even after Sneax had started working for Draks—was that Elaina simply worried about Sneax. She couldn’t let go of the idea that Sneax was nothing but a helpless, homeless street urchin.
Being part of the Argo’s crew was different. The Argo’s sailors didn’t know about Sneax’s past, and if they’d known, they wouldn’t have cared. They wouldn’t care that she’d been dirt poor and homeless, that she’d been abandoned by her parents for reasons the gods alone knew, that she’d grown up rough in a temple orphanage down by Wanderhaven’s docks. Sneax bet half the sailors could themselves tell similar tales. Out at sea, it wasn’t important. The sailors cared that Sneax could do her share of the ship’s work. Once they’d seen that she could, that was all they needed to see. Sneax was one of them.
Nathaniel was miserable aboard ship, Sneax knew. He had too much stiff-necked pride to help out with the workaday tasks of regular working men, and as a result, the Argo’s crew had isolated him. Maleeka, meanwhile, had yet to utter a single word. No one knew what to make of her save perhaps Nathaniel, and he kept his own counsel about almost everything. Yet these were the people that Sneax had to go with once the Argo reached Elleberg.
She shook her head just thinking about it.
Sneax was about to head down to the ship’s deck when she saw a great brown mass rising up out of the sea. It was more than just a few isolated rocks or some tiny, rockbound island.
It was land.
Ellesberg. The northern frontier.
It could be nothing else.
Sneax’s first sea voyage was finished. Once they reached shore, she’d be stuck full-time with Nathaniel and Maleeka and whatever insanity awaited them out in the hinterlands of the northern frontier.
She was not looking forward to that in the least.
Standing at the railing on the quarterdeck, Nathaniel tried to be happy about pulling into the small, rocky bay that sat just south of Ellesberg. After passing more than a week aboard ship, he itched to have solid earth beneath his feet and something to do besides hanging around watching the Argo’s sailors endlessly raise or lower the sails. In the distance, he could just make out where Ellesberg itself was tucked in amongst the rocky crags of a narrow headland. The headland jutted out into the bay adjacent to a broad, muddy river. The town didn’t look like much, just a few rough timber buildings nestled in amongst the massive granite formations that made up the natural bedrock of this, the northern edge of the Kingdom of the Western Isles, but beyond the town, a seemingly endless expanse of evergreen and beech trees stretched out to infinity beneath a clear azure sky. That sky was breathtaking. The air was cold this far north, and when Nathaniel breathed, he could see his breath. He could also just barely make out a single puff of smoke from the one building large enough to have a chimney he could identify from the Argo’s deck.
He turned to Maleeka. “It doesn’t look like much, does it? The town, I mean.”
Maleeka’s eyes flicked briefly in Nathaniel’s direction, but then she looked away. She said nothing.
“Well,” Nathaniel continued, “no doubt we’ll conclude our business quickly and be on our way. Perhaps we’ll have time for a pint in the local tavern, though, what do you say?”
Again Maleeka didn’t reply. She didn’t even glance in Nathaniel’s direction.
Nathaniel sighed. He turned back to look for Sneax and saw her sliding down one of the Argo’s backstays, as natural aboard ship as any sailor he’d ever seen. She hit the deck and went to talk to one of the sailors, a young man whose name Nathaniel couldn’t remember. Soon both were laughing. Nathaniel tried to catch Sneax’s eye, but she ignored him—rather more pointedly than Maleeka had, he thought.
Wonder what I did to deserve that?
The sailors’ antipathy Nathaniel could understand. They were commoners and brutes, uneducated to a man, and not at all the kinds of people with whom Nathaniel generally socialized. More than a few were on the run from the law, he was sure of it. He had little in common with such men and knew better than to expect their love. He didn’t need their love. He had the coin to hire their service, and if need be, he had a sword with which to take their respect.
Sneax was an entirely different case, however. She was no more educated than the sailors, it was true, but she was cunning and clever and quite good with a sword all things considered, and more importantly, Nathaniel’s father trusted her. They were stuck working together. They’d both be better off if they could establish some sort of relationship—a working relationship at the very least, but genuine regard and admiration if possible—but Sneax made absolutely no effort towards that end and had rebuffed Nathaniel’s own attempts at every turn. Even Maleeka, silent and sullen as she was, seemed at least to care whether Nathaniel lived or died. She listened when he spoke instead of walking away when he was in mid-sentence. But Sneax, Nathaniel thought, might not spare the effort to pour a bucket of water over me were I perchance to catch fire.
It was an ill start to an ill mission.
Nathaniel was all too aware that neither he nor Sneax had volunteered for the job. He had no choice but to make the best of it, however, and he wished that she would do the same.
He turned to the Argo’s captain. “Are we ready to launch the boat?”
“Lower the launch!” the captain called out. He turned to Nathaniel. “Aye, sir. Just as soon as the boys get the boat into the water, I’ll have the men row you and your companions to shore.”
“Thank you,” Nathaniel replied. He turned to look for Sneax. She was still ignoring him, but now he no longer had the time to indulge her attitude. “Sneax! Grab your gear! It’s time to head into town.” In a lower voice he said, “Maleeka? Do you have our baggage?”
Maleeka looked at him but said nothing. On the ground beside her, however, their packs sat prepared and ready.
Ellesberg was a logging town nestled into the northeast corner of the Charlesford Gulf, which itself lay at the extreme northern edge of the territory controlled by the Kingdom of the Western Isles. In theory, the Kingdom owned more territory to the north—all the way up to the edge of the Great Northern Ice—but those areas were lawless and largely unexplored. A few scattered settlements were known to lie further north, but their inhabitants were as likely to be orcs and giantkin as they were to be human, or even elven, and they recognized the authority of neither the king nor the Kingdom.
Baron Pavel Pavelovitch held all of the Charlesford Gulf and its surrounding territories by virtue of a royal charter. What the Baron claimed and what he actually controlled, however, were two very different things. The Charlesford Gulf lay hundreds of miles north of Wanderhaven—and any possible support from the King’s Navy. In practical terms, this limited the Baron’s rule to the extent to which he could deploy his household guard to enforce it. Since Pavelovitch chose to make his home on the Isle de Mont Deserette in the much larger town of Breakwater Bay, Ellesberg was, for all practical purposes, an independent city-state.
Such places were common along the frontier.
The Charlesford Gulf and its surrounding territories encompassed a massive area, but the region was barely settled. For much of the year, the Gulf was an icebound misery, inhospitable to all but the hardiest men and women. The soil was rocky and the growing season short. Those who made a home in the area survived by hunting and trapping and by logging. These were people who were comfortable living on the raw edge of the wilderness, and they tended to be fiercely independent.
The fact that there were people living there at all was a testament to the richness of the region’s natural resources. The Charlesford Gulf—and the area around Ellesberg, in particular—was famous throughout the Kingdom for the quality of its timber. Most of the wood harvested was pine or birch, but some large stands of more valuable woods had been discovered in the hinterlands north of town, and more were undoubtedly waiting for some intrepid explorer to find them even deeper in the wilderness. But that required explorers capable of braving not only the elements but also the goblins, wolves, and other creatures that made their homes in the vast forests north of Ellesberg. Such explorers were not easily found. The promise of wealth could lure them, but undiscovered timber resources didn’t command the imagination in quite the same way that undiscovered gold or silver might. Towns like Ellesberg were full of the desperate and the down-and-out, refugees and runaways from the cities of the south. They were hardy men and women, but they were not heroes. Most were content to work the established timber trade for established concerns. Even this kind of life was rugged in the extreme. Few stuck around for more than a season or two, and fewer still ventured beyond Ellesberg and its immediate surroundings.
Local geography exacerbated the problems. Because the waters around Ellesberg were shallow and rocky, full-sized ships couldn’t make port there. This presented a challenge to the region’s economy. Though Ellesberg was the center of the area’s logging efforts, the town’s timber couldn’t be loaded locally aboard ship. Instead, it had to be floated downriver and milled. It was then hoisted onto large, shallow-draft barges for transport to nearby Breakwater Bay, on the larger, more populous Isle de Mont Deserette. Breakwater Bay was home to the region’s only true deep water port and therefore became home to most of the Charlesford Gulf’s newcomers. For all its natural wealth, Ellesberg was never going to be more than a backwater hamlet in the middle of nowhere. The town’s residents accepted that because it came with an independence from outside law and order that most found preferable to the kind of civilization found in the cities of the Kingdom’s mainland.
It was because of the rocks near Ellesberg that Nathaniel and his companions had to load themselves into a longboat and be rowed into town. Nathaniel looked around and saw dour looks on his companions’ faces. He sat down on the longboat’s forward bench and decided to try to lighten the mood.
“With any luck, this little excursion won’t take long, and we’ll be back aboard ship before the end of the week.”
Sneax looked at Nathaniel like he’d lost his mind.
“What?” he asked.
“Are you serious?” Sneax replied. Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
Nathaniel shrugged. “We go ashore, arrange for the purchase and loading of some very specific loads of timber, and we come back. How hard can it be?”
The sailors pushed the longboat away from the side of the ship, and started rowing. There were four of them manning oars, along with a mate who held the tiller and counted time. They picked up the beat with the easy practice of men doing a task they found routine, and soon the little longboat was moving at a decent pace.
Sneax shook her head. “Drax sent three of us up here, all well-armed.”
“He was worried about pirates.”
“Who steal lumber?”
“It’s valuable lumber,” Nathaniel replied. “Why else would anyone come all the way up here?”
Sneax looked at him. “You’ve met Draks, right? Fire elf smuggler and sometimes-pirate? Always wears that stupid red hat with all those—” Sneax gestured vaguely towards her head with her fingers, “—frilly stupid whatever-they-are’s on it?”
Nathaniel stiffened. “Yes, of course I know Draks.”
“Yeah? And have you ever known him to waste resources?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Nathaniel replied.
Sneax put her face in her hands. “Unbelievable.”
There was no point in arguing, but Nathaniel knew the situation better than Sneakatara. Not that he wanted to get into it. How could he explain that his father had sent him on a make-work mission to the hind-end of nowhere because he’d failed out of the Sentralian Military Academy?
Fortunately, Sneax misread his consternation for simple confusion.
“Look,” she said, “all I’m sayin’ is, if the three of us are here for a simple lumber deal, then the odds are that the deal ain’t really all that simple. Something else is goin’ on, and Draks has us up here to deal with it for him. That’s how the man works.”
Would that it were true, Nathaniel thought. But he could tell by the look on Sneax’s face that she thought it was true, and that the thought depressed her. She really does hate me, he thought miserably. This girl will take on a nest of wererats by herself without pause, but the idea of going on even a tiny adventure with me is depressing beyond words.
Nathaniel was saved from further conversation when the longboat reached shore. He leaped lightly off the bow and onto a nearby rock then turned to offer his hand to Sneax. “Well, come along then.”
Sneax ignored his hand and pushed past him. “Yeah. Let’s see what kind of trouble we’re in now.”
Nathaniel stared after her, but then Maleeka pushed past him as well carrying the entirety of their baggage over one massive shoulder. Nathaniel could do little besides shake his head in wonder.
Behind him, the longboat’s mate spoke. “Captain says we’re to make port in Breakwater Bay and then be there a week.”
Nathaniel turned back and nodded absently. “Yes, I’m sure that will be long enough. We shall meet you in a week’s time in Breakwater Bay with the cargo.”
“Very good, sir,” said the mate. He turned back to his crew. “Come on, you lot. Let’s get this tub back to the ship.”
Nathaniel turned as well and hurried to catch up with his new, rather headstrong companions.
* * *
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Book 1: Sneakatara Boatman & the Priest of Loki
Book 2: Sneakatara Boatman & the Crown of Pluto