Feeling her hand tighten around her glass, Felix looked up from her bright blue shot. She flicked her fringe out of her eyes and stared at the soldier before her. His deep green eyes narrowed and a cocky smile lifted his thin lips. She smoothed out the muscles in her face and made her expression neutral. Slowly she rose from her chair, perfectly aware that every eye in the inn was turned towards her. She deliberately looked around at the many faces in the room and said in a clear voice, loud enough for everyone to hear,
“I accept your challenge, Roderick.”
The young man’s smile widened and he gestured for them both to step outside. It was a simple knife throwing contest, and he was as sure that he could win as birds are that they can fly. On the wall of the inn was a triangle made of three painted, black dots with a fourth point in the centre. It had been drawn for this exact purpose, to settle disputes. Roderick drew a small, glittering blade from its leather sheath at his waist and took up a throwing stance, knees bent, arm raised and slightly bent. He aimed and the dagger flew true, landing in the centre of the top most point. He turned and grinned at Felix. She kept her face blank.
Roderick retrieved his dagger and held it out for Felix to take.
“To make it a fair trial, I don’t want to have any unnecessary advantage over you, except, of course, for the fact that you are a girl and I am a man
Felix didn’t respond, instead she threw the dagger. It landed with a thump in the indent Roderick had made. She retrieved it and returned it to its owner. Whilst his back was turned, she allowed herself a small smile. Reaching up, she unwound the bands that held her dark hair in place. She ran her fingers through the mid-length waves and arranged her features into a pleasant smile. She would use her ‘disadvantage’ to its full potential. Roderick had successfully hit the second target and was retrieving the dagger once again. As he turned the triumphant smile slid from his face and his bright eyes widened in surprise.
She sauntered up to him and slipped off the leather gloves she wore, revealing polished nails. Then she slid off her captain’s jacket and folded it over his arm, taking the dagger from him. She felt his stares as he took in the delicate dress she kept folded beneath it. The soft, white fabric tumbled down like water until it hung in elegant folds around her legs.
She threw again and was again successful. She saw Roderick still staring open mouthed at her. Felix knew her scheme had worked, even before he had thrown. His stance was wrong, his knees not bent and his arm too relaxed. His aim was off and the dagger point embedded itself in the inn wall a fair few inches from where it should have been. As Felix saw him turn to face her, she drew her own dagger and flicked her wrist. The blade skimmed past the soldiers head, cutting a few of his hairs loose before landing, quivering, in the centre of the hilt of Roderick’s knife.
She watched, fascinated, as her adversary’s face turned pink then red then a deep beetroot. His hands balled into fists and he shook with anger and humiliation. There was an eruption of cheers from the crowd of onlookers as they saw the dagger fly. Although both Roderick and Felix had thrown off target, and so they had technically drawn, it was commonly accepted that Felix’s throw had been intentional and that she was the winner. At least it was accepted by everyone except Roderick himself. He advanced towards Felix, dropping her jacket on the floor as he walked. Felix crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight to the other foot, putting on a bored expression.
“You cheated!” shouted the unfortunate soldier. “You put me off, you know you did! I’ll… I’ll tell the captain, that’s what I’ll do. But first I want to teach you a lesson! Girls shouldn’t be Sky Pilots, let alone Captains! They should stay at home, to be there when the real men come home. They should cook and clean, and be docile, not order men about!”
He took off his own jacket and threw it to the ground. Felix looked at the soldier with surprise. He was braver that she had thought, brave or stupid. She guessed he was new to the area, otherwise he would have known of her reputation for winning. She smiled and took up a fighting stance, lowering her centre of gravity and setting her hands in front of her for balance. Despite her gender, she was stronger than she looked. She quickly knotted her hair at the nape of her neck and turned her hand over as a gesture of invitation. The soldier lunged.
It was over quickly. A swift sidestep and a leg out in the right direction and the boy was on his face in the dust. He rolled over and tried to sit up, spitting dirt out of his mouth. Before he could even think about standing, Felix was on him like a cat on a mouse. She stood over him and crouched down, tilting her head to the side questioningly.
“Are you sure you want to get up soldier? I doubt even you could stand any more humiliation. And just remember, I could have you arrested for attacking a senior officer without reason. I’m sure the judge wouldn’t see my gender as provocation”
She waited until she saw him nod and then stepped over him and walked off, picking up her coat as she left. She brushed off the dust and replaced it over her shoulders. She shouted out a last minute warning to her crew.
“I want you in bed by eleven, boys, and no exceptions. Anyone with a hangover tomorrow will be on scrub duty.” She heard the usual reply of drunken groans and protests and smiled.
The next morning she was woken by a knock on her cabin door. She put her jacket over her shirt and pulled on her uniform trousers before shouting out “Enter”. A messenger boy scurried in and squeaked when he saw she wasn’t fully ready.
“I’m sorry, sir…I mean Captain…I’ll come back later…umm…sorry…” he stammered, hurrying back to the door.
“Just spit out the message, boy. I don’t get dressed up this early in a morning. This better be good,” she said as she slid on her knee high boots and laced them up with practiced fingers. The boy looked terrified. “I’m only a woman, not a beast or monster, come on, do the job you’re paid for.” She added encouragingly.
The messenger couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Too young really. But most likely things were bad at home and his family needed the money.
“Umm, well, Captain Tempest requests your presence on the Air Dragon. He says he ‘needs a word’” The messenger emphasised the last three words with a voice so like the Captain’s that Felix almost laughed. The deep, chastising tones didn’t suit the fair-faced child.
“You run ahead, will you? And tell him I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she pressed a sliver coin into his hand as he left and carried on getting ready. She washed in the cold water in the bucket in the corner of the cabin; living as the rest of her crew did, and tied her hair into the two plaits that hung by her pointed ears. Pulling on her cap as she walked on deck, she was met by cheers.
“You got him good miss!”
“…best Captain ever…”
“Did you see the way he looked after he fell? Priceless!”
“Wonderful dagger work miss.”
She smiled at her loyal crew, thankful once again that they had chosen to ignore her gender and follow her nevertheless. As the only woman to fly the Elven skyships, sometimes fitting in could be hard. She felt bonded to them all after flying with them for ten years. They had recently gathered enough spoils to invest in a new vessel and she glanced around at it with pride. It certainly wasn’t the most ornate ship in the dock, and neither did it have the most weapons, but it was fast and strong and deadly.
“Get back to work you dirt-brained slackers! I want this ship sparkling by the time I get back, and there will be a cabin inspection too! Now get to work!” her voice, strong and clear, carried over the whole top deck and the crew responded with cheers and bursts of song. It meant they would be setting out again soon, flying to more adventures. Most of them were growing bored with land life; drinking, gambling and the likes. Few had families to visit and so drowned themselves in alcohol in-between journeys, spending their wages in the few weeks they weren’t airborne. She glided to the edge of the deck and made the small leap to the shore. The wooden boards creaked as the tide pressed against their supports and her boots made soft thumping noises as she walked. She glanced back at the Outcast, floating a few centimetres above the water. A small, hooded head emerged from a window at the rear of the ship and a gloved hand waved. It was the Crystal Pilot, Olli, whose job it was to make sure the Cloud Gem was kept warm and to adjust its temperature according to the Captains commands.
These new Elven sky ships flew with the aid of a Cloud Gem, a stone which rose when it was hot and lowered when it cooled. It took three years of training before an elf could become a Crystal Pilot, and it was such hard work that most graduates didn’t pursue it as a career path. A pilot had to spend the voyage in the space surrounding the Gem, adjusting furnaces and making calculations in the heat. The holding cabin was made of a special metal made by the Southern Dwarves which stopped heat from escaping and setting the rest of the ship on fire. Unfortunately, this meant that the interior was very, very warm. The Crystal Pilot had to wear a heat suit constantly and it had become a uniform, something they wore on land too.
Felix headed down the shore, passing other ships on the way. She glanced at their names idly, matching them to their Captains. The Dragonfly belonged to Captain Olden, The AT (Autumn Twilight) was flown by Captain Beck and The Turbulence was owned by Captain Merryflight. She passed this, young, eccentric elf on her way to the Air Dragon. He had a mop of blond hair, the ends of which were singed, and his jacket was dusted with brown. He quickened his pace when he saw her, a big grin on his face.
“Ah ha!” he said when he reached her. “Guess what?”
“You know I hate guessing games, just tell me,” she replied.
“I just won Beck in an archery contest!” he showed her the bow that he carried in his left hand. It was made of polished willow with small, intricate carvings of leaves down one side. It was a fine model.
“Were you playing with burning arrows by any chance?” she asked, looking pointedly at his singed locks. He nodded. “Isn’t the flame supposed to burn the target, not you?”
“Ah well, I found out, at a high price, that one of Beck’s crew had been employed to sabotage the game. He charmed my arrow in mid-flight so that it curved around and chased after me. I must say, it was hilarious!”
Felix smiled at her friend’s optimism and fun-loving nature. She and Ash Merryflight had grown up in the same part of Glade, the Elven continent. It was a small town on the edge of Mittewood, in central Glade. It was known to produce the best Pilots. Several other pilots had grown up with them too, these proving to be the ones most accepting of her. Joseph Tempest was the main exception to that rule. That reminded her of her appointment.
“Excuse me Ash, I have to meet Captain Tempest. He wants a word,” she grimaced, making a bright laugh escape Ash’s pale lips. He knew all too well the friction between the two of them.
“Have fun, I’ll catch up with you later, ok?” Then he sprung up the gangplank to relate his story to the rest of his crew. Felix watched him go and then carried on along the road.
It was unusually busy for a work day. It was mid-week and there were no markets or festivals on, and yet the town of Frost was teeming. The tall, lean elves made up the majority of the crowd, dressed in a diversity of clothing depending on their occupation. There were pilots and Captains in uniform, bakers with aprons covered in flour, hunters with their close fitted leather gear, children with tunics and some of the richer members of society with deep coloured robes which dragged along the ground behind them.
Scattered among them were people from the other races, dwarves, sprites, fairies, centaurs, goblins, pixies, the odd troll. Felix was sure that scattered among the population of Frost there were one or two Charters too. Charter Marks were strange symbols that when drawn, engraved or traced by certain people could make strange, deadly or wonderful things happen. They were the symbols of magic. Felix preferred to stay as far away from magic as she could, seeing it as a strange and confusing subject that could backfire at any moment. Despite this, she had a Charter as part of her crew.
Felix could smell the salt of the sea miles inland. It was strong here but mixed with the earthy scent of the forest that protected the towns back. The mixture of soil, leaves and the ocean sent her senses tingling with delight. Then she wrinkled her nose in distaste. Closer at hand were the less pleasant smells of the sweat of the people, rotting fruit, burnt bread, fish, the over powering scent of spices as she pushed past a stall selling them, the tangy scent of mining dwarfs and the odour of the sewer that ran beneath the town. Elves, having better senses than the other races, could smell all of these things powerfully and had to learn to live with them. Sometimes she envied the others, for not having to constantly put up with them, and for being able to appreciate silence. Life was never silent for an elf. They could always hear the whisper of life miles away. But now, Felix’s ears throbbed with the vibrations of the town.
Shouting, haggling, a baby crying, the ocean sighing, the trees singing, the air whistling. All of these noises forced themselves into her pointed ears, demanding to be heard and processed. She clamped her hands over her ears and quickened her pace. She finally arrived at the Air Dragon, which was the second to last ship on the shore. The dock, although on the sea, hosted skyships as well as sea voyagers. You could tell the difference by the way skyships hovered a little way above ground. Of course, if you got closer and knew what you were doing, there were other differences as well. Skyships had no oars, for obvious reasons. (Pushing against air is pointless) They also had more sails, small ones, and big ones, scattered along their length. This made it easier to control in the air, even when fighting against a storm. The ship could be positioned at any angle by moving one of the many movable sheets. You needed more than pieces of cloth to help make it so agile though. On each side of the ship were five weights of different sizes which made the ship tilt. By lowering them you could point the ships nose in the air or face it towards the ground. It could also tilt so that the deck was vertical.
All of these sails and weights were controlled by a central control station which was where the Captain stood. The many levers and switches occupied the three surfaces surrounding their post. You didn’t need a steering wheel when you had this amount of precise equipment. Felix could see Captain Tempest stood at his post, twiddling with the lever that lowered the smallest left weight. She watched as the stone was lifted gently over the side of the ship from its holding place in the hull, and then lowered. Then Tempest stopped pressing down on the lever, meaning the stone should have stopped moving, but instead it carried on falling until it landed with a splash in the sea. Curses floated down from the deck as the Captain slammed his fist on the control deck. Climbing the gangplank, Felix shouted out,
“I wouldn’t do that, or your repair bill might just increase by a couple of hundred.”
Joseph spun on his heels. His face turned quickly from shock to its usual stern self so quickly that Felix wondered if she had imagined this little show of emotion.
“Captain Storm,” he said, acknowledging her with a polite tilt of his head. Well, at least that’s a start, she thought.
“Joseph,” she replied, curtly. She saw him stiffen at the use of his first name and then turn away and walk to his cabin, his boots hardly making a sound on the wooden deck. Somehow he always appeared so elegant and graceful, even on board a rocking ship. It unnerved her that a man should be able to move so well, even an Elven man.
She followed his into the wide, airy space that was his living quarters. There was a bed in one corner, three chairs surrounding a table in another, his chest of clothes and a wash basin in the third and several paintings around the room. Skyships were rarely lavishly furnished as no one expected them to live long, with the exception of passenger ships which had lovely, decorated rooms. Tempest settled himself into one of the chairs and gestured for Felix to join him. She perched, like a bird ready to take flight. No-one could really predict or contain Joseph Tempest’s temper.
“I see you’re having problems with one of your weights. I could get one of my boys to fix it if you like, he’s very good,” she said awkwardly, not knowing what else to say. The other Captain didn’t deem to respond. Instead he said,
“You attacked another of my men last night, Captain,” Felix opened her mouth to protest but he put a hand up to stop her. “He came on board around ten ‘o’ clock last night with his uniform covered in dirt and a large chunk of hair missing from the left side of his head. He had bruises on his knees and shins and was claiming he had been attacked by a woman in Captain’s uniform. Of course there is only one person who fits this description.”
Felix gritted her teeth to stop herself from insulting every member of Tempest’s crew including the Captain himself. She swallowed her curses.
“He was in soldier’s uniform, I didn’t know he was one of yours, you don’t usually employ them. He accused me of being an imposter, saying he would call the authorities, raving on about how it was a criminal offence to wear a Captain’s uniform if you weren’t a Captain. I politely corrected him.” Here she heard Tempest scoff. “Then he went on another rant, poor guy was extremely drunk, about how girls like me shouldn’t be pilots or Captains or have any jobs at all if all was right in the world. They should stay at home, to cook and clean and be good wives.” She spat the words out with contempt.
“Then he challenged me to a knife throwing contest,” she continued. Tempest allowed himself a smile at that. He should have warned Roderick about Felix’s unbeaten weaponry skills. “We were drawing, two hits each. Then he missed. He got angry and refused to carry on. I drew my own dagger and aimed for his knife. It landed right in the centre.” She allowed a bit of smugness to enter her voice. She missed out the bit about her exploiting her ‘disadvantage’.
“Then he lunged at me and tripped. I warned him not to attack me and then I left. I went straight to the Outcast. That’s it. I certainly didn’t attack him.”
When she had finished, she looked up to find Joseph’s dark eyes looking at her. They’re eyes hadn’t met for years; they had always looked another way pointedly or simply avoided each other. This wasn’t what Felix wanted, but she had no choice. Joseph had made it clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her, but recently they had been seeing more and more of each other. This was probably due to the fact that she kept humiliating members of his crew, but nevertheless, she was glad she got to see him. She missed him.
“You really need to break this habit. I swear you target my men on purpose. It isn’t funny, and I want it to stop. I don’t want to talk to you about this again,” he said harshly. Felix felt like a naughty school girl in the headmaster’s office. Joseph, when he put on his stern voice, could make you feel about the size of an ant. He was scary and sometimes quite nasty. She didn’t know if this was just to her or not, because his crew all adored him. He hadn’t always been like that, that was for sure.
“What if I want to talk to you about it?” she asked quietly, lost in her memories, meaning something else entirely. For a moment she thought she saw his features soften but the mask was on again before she could be sure.
“There’s no choice, Felix. I’ve told you how I feel. It’s gone.” He replied, catching onto her meaning at once. He stood up and walked to the door. The wood swung open and he held it for her. She hesitated a moment before stepping onto the deck, long enough to catch his eye again. In that second she let all of her barriers down and showed him all the hurt and pain she felt. Then she broke the contact and hid behind her walls again.
A wind was growing off shore. It was only gentle, but from past experience, she knew it would grow. Bad news. If a storm brewed when you were in the East Sea, who knew if you would land again? She would have to monitor it, but she wasn’t sure if she would be able to fly tomorrow as planned. Without glancing back at Joseph, she leapt from the deck and meandered back to her ship, taking longer than usual as she let her thoughts take hold of her mind.
Joseph returned to his cabin and threw himself onto his bed. He had watched Felix wandering through the streets, feeling the pain throb in his chest, until she had boarded her own ship and was hidden from view.
He still had to keep reminding himself about her new name. Felix. She had been using it since she became a Pilot fifty years ago, but he had known her for longer by her true name. Serenity. He could see why she had changed it. Peace and calm weren’t really good attributes for a Captain and yet they had suited the elf he had known perfectly. He doubted she had changed really, but instead hid behind a mask. Just like he did.
He put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling of him cabin. Memories came unbidden into him mind which he didn’t have the strength or will to push away.
He remembered climbing the trees near the river to watch her as she practiced archery and throwing and sword craft. He had willed her on silently when she challenged the boys of the town to matches. She always won of course.
He remembered the day he had been watching so intently, hoping to learn the new move she was practicing, that he had leant too far forwards and had fallen from the tree to land with a thump at her feet. She had looked down at him in surprise, and then offered him a hand. There had been no embarrassment or anger. Just serenity. After that they had practiced every day together. He became better and better, beating everyone else, but he could never beat her. Then, after training with her for two years, they had a match that lasted three days and nights. Neither of them could best the other. Eventually they had both collapsed and the other elves of the town had called the fight to an end. They were equals.
It stung that he couldn’t beat her. But outside the arena, they began spending more and more time together. They had often skived school to wander through the forest or lay by the river that meandered across it. They would sit and talk about anything, make up songs and tell each other secrets.
There had been one day when she hadn’t turned up at school. He had looked for her in all of their usual spots and eventually had to resort to knocking on the door of her mother’s house. The old elf Willow had come to the door with red eyes and he had feared the worst. But nothing had happened to Serenity, it was her big brother who had died. After the death of their father, Alex had followed in his footsteps and joined the army. He fought for the elf king in his war against the Northern Dwarves on the border where their lands met. It was a war which had reached a never ending stalemate and anyone who went was doomed not to return. Alex had died. Willow invited him in, telling him that Serenity wasn’t speaking to anyone but telling him to try anyway.
As he had walked through the door, she had leapt from the bed and thrown her arms around him, sobbing into his shoulder. He had comforted her, told her funny stories, sang to her and eventually, after he had been there three hours, she had begun to talk. They had whispered long into the night and in the hour before dawn, when he had gotten up to take his leave, she had whispered thank you and had kissed him.
Joseph never forgot that kiss. He could feel the magic of her touch now as he studied the patterns in the wood of his ceiling. He stopped the train of images there, resisting the more recent memories, and forced himself up. He needed to organise someone to fix his ship.
Felix was just boarding the Outcast when the first big wind hit her. It whipped her hair around her face and into her eyes. She felt the wood beneath her creak and groan as the wind made the water rock faster. She hurried on deck, seeking the safety of the hovering ship. The crew were already assembled. She saw their disappointed faces and wished, for their sake, that she could control the weather.
Aside from her, there were ten of them that she regularly flew with. Sometimes, if the mission required more hands she would hire more pilots or soldiers, but not recently. For the most part, she flew only with these ten. There was the little mixed race boy, who was half fairy, half elf. He was small and thin with bright blue wings. He was a fast, agile little creature, and the youngest crew member employed on the whole dock. They called him Angel. He was orphaned and didn’t know his true name, but he had the most beautiful face ever seen. He also had a quick sword hand.
A centaur called Neptune (or Nep as he was more commonly known as) served as the navigator and scientist. He had a sleek, black coat with one white ear and one white hoof. He was a genius, both in science and music, and could make even dwarves cry with his violin. Although quite sombre, he was logical, sensible and had a dry sense of humour. He was the Charter that Felix employed.
The next crew member came in the form of an elf called Eric. He had long dirty blonde hair that turned brown when wet and odd eyes. One was green and the other was grey. No-one knew why. He was a skilled archer and could fight with a sword if need be. He refused to eat meat, had a gift with horses and, like Nep, was musical, and never went anywhere without the glass flute he played. He also never went anywhere without Holly.
Holly was the other elf in Felix’s crew. They had grown up together but had lost contact when Felix became a pilot. When she needed a crew, and had already got the love of Holly’s life on board, she only needed a few words to convince her to join. Holly kept as low a profile as she could when on shore. She lived in her sailors cap and kept her bonny head down. Eric put a charm on her to make the citizens nearby see a small, thin, young boy, but it didn’t help if Holly drew unnecessary attention to herself. Although there was nothing wrong with having women on board a skyship, it wasn’t a popular idea. Felix had already caused enough scandal by becoming a female Captain and wanted to keep Holly out of any conflict. Holly had learnt the basics of fighting quickly and was also a quick, agile deck hand. But she spent most of her time below deck, helping out the ships cook, Hakkin.
Hakkin was a dwarf. And typically of a dwarf, he was small. He had a plump belly and a long, dark red beard that reached nearly to the floor. He tied his equally long hair into two braids which hung down his back. His dark, beetle black eyes were sharp and could catch a thief a mile off. His memory was flawless. A silver axe always hung at his hip, ready to chop off the legs of anyone who dared ignite his extremely short temper. But he was the only one Felix knew who could make sailing rations edible.
A big eyed, big eared goblin served as a lookout and deckhand. He was of a very rare species, which had been hunted down to near extinction by their rivals the trolls, which could hear thoughts as well as sounds with their huge, bat like ears. It is needless to say that he was invaluable when negotiating. There were only five of his kind left in Glade and less in the other continents. His name was Twaddle and he could usually be found in the crows nest or swinging from rope to rope.
Often seen as high up as Twaddle were the two fairies, Joy and Rain. These two were unstoppable when it came to a battle and were also pretty good at cleaning up around the place. They often sang as they worked, or played the little harps that were their only possessions. Their blue skin - one dark and the other a slightly lighter shade - shimmered in the sunlight and glowed when the moon came up. The constant hum of their wings beating was as natural to the ship as the creaking of the wood or the snapping of the sails.
The next crew member was perhaps the most mysterious. She was a spirit, and resembled a beautiful woman with long, black hair, piercing blue eyes and pale skin. Felix hadn’t employed her exactly, but Hakkin had found her in the lower cabins soon after the new ship was finished. She never spoke, preferring instead to send thoughts and images directly into the minds of other people. There was a slight transparency to her figure that sometimes increased so that, unless you looked carefully, she was invisible. Despite her beauty she had no qualms about cleaning and cooking and fighting. She could, like all spirits, befuddle the mind of her opponent. If that failed, the hawthorn staff she always had near could do some serious damage. It wasn’t common for a spirit to join a crew, and Felix only knew of hers that had one. Not that it was common knowledge. Just like Holly, the spirit kept her head down whenever they hit land, making herself invisible to the civilians.
Then there was Olli the Crystal Pilot. He was just Olli, mostly keeping himself to himself by the Cloud Gem, but filled with bits of wisdom. You only had to think about asking Olli for help and he was there with the answer. Olli was a pixie. He was smaller than Hakkin by only a few centimetres, with sharp, mischievous eyes and long, pointed ears. When not in uniform he wore oddments of bright fabric, and always in his hand was his Wickerstick. This was a common pixie artefact and not only made a very good walking stick and weapon, it helped him be seen in crowds. Olli was a kleptomaniac. He had an obsession with stealing things. Any lock could be broken and any pocket could be picked by his small, busy fingers.
Felix stepped onto the deck and gestured at the sky.
“I’m sorry, I really am, but we simply can’t set sail in weather like this, I don’t know how bad it could get. I’ll keep monitoring it, but we can’t leave until the storm dies down. I don’t know how long that will be.” She looked at Nep for some support and he stepped forward, his hooves clip-clopping on the wooden boards.
“The storm will last approximately four days. The winds will have subdued by the third day though, so we can leave then at the earliest,” he said, in his clear, scientific voice. Felix could feel a ‘but’ coming on. She wasn’t disappointed. “However, this storm will be followed immediately after by another, more violent one which will last seven days. I’m afraid we’re stranded.”
When he had finished, his face dropped and Felix could see that the rest of the crew were looking crestfallen too. They had probably spent most of their last adventures loot, and weren’t looking forward to more than a week without alcohol, gambling or the open sky. She made a decision.
“Right,” she said. “Let’s see how you Sky Pilots are capable of living on land for a while. Get you’re stuff ready, we’re going into the forest!”
She spun on her heels and headed for her cabin, leaving the rest of her crew looking clueless. She saw Nep, out of the corner of her eye, lift his head up and trot away to his own quarters. The others followed his lead.
She didn’t really know what had possessed her to suggest spending the next week and a half camping, but she was prepared to stand by her decision. It would be a great bonding exercise if nothing else, and it would keep them away from gambling money they didn’t have. They may be a friendly and loyal crew, but Felix knew they were sailors, and had sailors’ tendencies.
She fetched her small leather rucksack from beneath her bed and peered inside. It still contained her two tunics and two pairs of leggings as well as her soft, sturdy leather boots. She slipped into the warmer of the outfits and examined herself in the mirror that was tethered to one wall. She was so used to wearing the loose fitting Captains uniform, that for a moment, her reflection took her by surprise. The leaf green of the tunic was the same shade as her eyes and the embroidery along the seams and edges was simple yet elegant. She sighed, remembering her childhood in the forest, where she had owned a wardrobe of tunics. The soft leather of her boots felt good against her feet, more comfortable than the knee high version that was included in her uniform. She took out her plaits and untangled her hair with a comb, letting it fall around her face and down her neck. She looked like her old self again. Serenity.
She turned away from the mirror and began packing up the necessities for their time on land. When she was done, she headed down to the kitchen to see what supplies were left. They could hunt and gather in the forest, but it always helped to have some food spare. She filled the remainder of her bag with bread, cheese, dried meat and a full bottle of water before instructing her crew to do the same. She was surprised to see Nep with a saddle on his back and two saddlebags strapped to it. He always refused to be treated like a horse, and took offence whenever anyone mentioned a centaur’s connection with them. But when she saw Angel climb onto his back, understanding dawned. Nep had taken the boy in during their travels and they had become closer than words could express. The centaur would do anything for him; even lower himself to wear a saddle. The half elf clung to his mane with strong fingers, and gripped his sides with his slender legs. The white bandages contrasted starkly with his luminous wings. Because he weighed more than the average fairy, due to his Elven blood, his thin wings couldn’t support him in flight. He was like a bird with a butterfly’s wings. During their last voyage, he had become distant and withdrawn, growing steadily quieter until he hadn’t spoken a word for a week. It was after that week of silence that Nep had found him perched on the crows nest, his wings and arms outstretched. He had jumped, flapping his wings as hard as he could, but still he had tumbled to the ground. It was lucky that Nep had been there to catch him, or the impact would have killed him. But the strain his wings had endured had ripped them at the join between his body and the thin membrane. He was in agony whenever he tried to move them.
Nep caught her eye and nodded. Felix smiled a half smile and turned to her other crew members. They all had their packs strapped to their backs and their weapons within reach. The last to arrive was the spirit. She glided towards them, her hawthorn staff in hand and her back bare. It took a moment for Felix to remember that Spirits lived off of the light of the sun and moon, not food and water. She signalled to Olli who gently cooled the Cloud Gem until there was a gentle splash. The Outcast rested gently in the water, tied to the coast with a dozen thick, strong ropes. After the initial bump that told them the ship was no longer airborne, they stepped onto the gangplank and onto the wooden boards of the dock. The familiar creaking of the wood and the swish of the ocean was overshadowed by the howling of the wind. Felix pulled up the hood of her cloak and hugged the fabric close to her to keep out the wind. The crew followed her as she hurried away from the ocean. As their feet left the wooden boards and met with the dirt and sand of the road, Felix saw the soldiers she had employed to guard the ship. They were experienced fighters, who were loyal to anyone who paid them. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on where the money came from, but for now, they were loyal to her.
She nodded to them as she passed and they returned the greeting before returning their gaze to the passing crowds of people hurrying away from the storm. The others followed. The town was not huge, although it conducted most of the Eastern Sea trade, of which there was a fair amount. Most of it was filled with warehouses and shops, and only the most western edge was inhabited by dwellings. These town houses were double story, containing a separate household on both. They were long, squat and built of the red stone quarried near the town. Small, shuttered windows pierced their lengths at regular intervals and the noise of several of these clattering in the wind pounded at Felix’s ears. It wasn’t long before they were under the dense green foliage of the forest and the wind died down a bit. They were dry beneath the trees, as the thick cover above them collected most of the rain. They continued deeper, following a trail for an hour and then cutting their own path through the undergrowth. The ferns and tall grasses clung to their clothing and Nep had to stop constantly to pull sticky buds from his tail. The fairies flew above the others, looking out for danger as well as a place to camp.
They soon called out to those on the ground that there was a small, clean river ahead and that there were berry bushes too. The elves, of course, had already known this, having heard the running water and smelt the tang of the berries, but it was all part of the teamwork that Felix was trying to develop. She smiled to herself when she heard Joy’s clear voice ring out through the trees, and caught similar looks in Holly and Eric’s faces. They followed the hum of beating wings until a clearing came into view. It was a large, natural spot, still under the cover of trees, but with little undergrowth. There was soft, dry grass on the floor instead of ferns. Nep cantered in gleefully and immediately settled himself down to groom his coat and remove the plant life that clung to him.
Angel gave a yawn and sat down with his back against a tree and took out Nep’s violin, which the centaur was teaching him to play. A lively tune warbled through the campsite as the rest set up hammocks and tents before starting a fire. Felix took her hammock and strung it beneath a gap in the foliage. She could see the dark clouds rolling in from the east to cover the blue sky to the west. She hoped that the night would be clear enough to see the stars. Her bed secure, she took the bow from her pack and strung it, shouldering a quiver of arrows too. Twaddle nodded as she passed and reached for his own. He was valuable when hunting, as he could hear animals even more clearly than an elf, due to his almost unique gift. They left the others gathering and crept northwards.
With Felix’s hearing and Twaddle’s sixth sense, they returned after an hour with a small doe, two rabbits and a duck. They didn’t hunt anymore after that, as they had more than enough. There was no need to be greedy. The others had foraged handfuls of delicious red berries, several aromatic types of waterweeds and herbs and a basket full of nuts. These they were roasting on a healthy fire when the successful hunters returned. The meat was quickly and cleanly butchered by Felix and Holly and then spitted over the flames. They stuffed the rabbits and duck with the herbs and coated the doe with the nuts. Eric took a portion of berries and nuts and went off in search of other edible plants to fuel his vegetarian body. He didn’t mind that the others ate meat, and they respected his views by neither pressing him nor refusing him their other foods. It was a harmonious relationship that had been polished during their other voyages together.
The meal was huge and delicious, and after each had eaten their fill, they lay back on the soft grass and sighed. It made a great change to the meals they had on deck, even with Hakkin cooking. There was no reason to ration the food, as they had the freedom of the forest and they still had meat left over for breakfast so they wouldn’t go hungry in the morning. They wrapped the said meat in cloth and stored it in the hollow beneath a tree where Nep drew a charter mark across the entrance so that nothing could scavenge at it. Then soft snores filled the quiet forest air. Angel lay curled up inside Nep’s shelter. The centaur tenderly placed a blanket over him and closed the entrance flap against the breeze.
The warm glow of the fire and the full bellies sent others off to bed too. Holly was the next, closely followed by Eric, and they lay in parallel hammocks beneath two great oaks. Joy hastened to bed soon after, and flew up to the two boughs between which he had stretched his hammock. Rain took out his harp and played a sweet, but sad lullaby that made Twaddle’s head droop and Olli’s tense back and hands relax. They both crept away to their beds. The spirit hadn’t been seen since the meal, but Felix knew she wouldn’t be too far away, probably finding a gap in the forest so that she could soak up the faint moonlight. The melody continued and Nep slunk away to curl up beside Angel, lending the boy his heat.
Now only Felix and Rain were awake. The captain examined the fairy whilst he finished his tune. His usually turquoise skin glowed purple in the red light of the fire and his wings, now at rest for a brief moment, were like sheets of glass stained red. They were slender, and thin, joining his back in the centre and spreading over his shoulders. They had two branches, the higher being the larger. Both were threaded with thin veins and at times, like now, they looked like they had been coated with spider webs. She looked up with a start to find that he had finished his lullaby and was examining her in return. His soft features, so unlike Joy’s, creased into a smile as their eyes met. Felix felt herself blush.
“I’m sorry I was staring, it’s just, I never get to examine them properly, they’re always moving!” she said quietly, fearful of waking the others. Rain shuffled closer round the fire so that they could whisper and still hear each other. His grin widened.
“I know, they are strange, are they not? But I am so used to people staring that there is no need to apologise, I am used to it by now,” he replied. He spread them towards her and invited her to touch. She did so, sliding her long, slender fingers across its soft membrane. She could feel the muscles inside but couldn’t see them. They were softer to touch than silk or satin, and were smoother than glass or still water. Suddenly, the fairy pulled away.
“I’m sorry,” Felix repeated, anxious she had hurt him. A murmur of laughter escaped him.
“Too many apologies, Captain! You didn’t hurt me, your touch merely tickled. I doubt your slender fingers could harm my wings anyway, they are stronger than they appear.” He relaxed them, and they joined at the centre of his back. His gaze strayed to the flames. Felix lent back until her head met the ground, and extended her feet to the fire. Her eyes wandered over the leaves, remembering their shapes from her childhood and breathing in the scent of home. Rain must have heard her sigh.
“How long since you visited this forest, or any other for that matter? It is your home, is it not?” he asked in his peculiar speech.
“This forest isn’t. This is Portwood, the forest on the sea. I was born in Mittewood, in the middle of Glade. I haven’t seen as much green as this for …oh… twenty years now.”
“You miss it?”
“Yes, very much. But I also love the freedom and excitement of the open air.” She answered, adding under her breath, “and the way it helps me forget.”
“My ears are better than you think. They mayn’t be pointed, but still they can hear almost as well as yours. Forget what?” he said, his voice a mixture of amusement and concern. It made Felix smile to wonder how he achieved such a mixture.
“Some unpleasant conversations that took place, not so long ago, under trees very similar to these.” She indicated the green above and around them. But it seemed Rain’s curiosity wasn’t going to be sated with vague answers. He persisted.
“I don’t mean to pry, miss, but perhaps a problem shared is a problem halved?”
“I know your not nosy, Rain,” she assured him, “but perhaps I am the wrong person to ask. I was only on the receiving end of those conversations. I didn’t intend for them to take place, and I certainly did not want them to.”
With that she rose and swung up onto her hammock. She heard Rain feed and then bank the fire so that it wouldn’t escape, before climbing up onto his bough, which was only a tree or so away from Felix’s. There was no need to keep watch, as animals would be kept out by more of the marks Nep had set. Before sleep overcame her, she heard Rain whisper to her.
“Who shall I ask, Captain? I swear I’d make them pay if I knew who hurt you.”
Then she smiled at his loyalty and succumbed to the open arms of the dreams awaiting her.
The next few days passed without major incident. They woke each morning, fully refreshed with forest air, and spent most of the morning foraging, hunting and doing the necessary chores such as washing and cooking. They played games and pursued their own hobbies. A relaxed and pleasant atmosphere settled over the camp.
On the fourth day Felix took out her bow and examined the supple wood for the first time in years. She noticed every scratch, knoll and bump, running her fingers over the polished willow. The string of threaded unicorn hair would never snap and charms had been cast over the body of the bow to make it stronger and more flexible. She pulled back on the string, flexing the muscles in her arm and arching her back. The tension made the string pull against her fingers, but unlike normal strings, the unicorn hair didn’t rub her skin, or feel uncomfortable at all. She relaxed and put the weapon away. Leaning her back on a tree she sighed and stared up at the leaves above her.
She was silent and musing for a few minutes before she shook herself and forced her back from the tree. She was getting into the habit of musing to often and it wouldn’t do. She picked up the bow for a second time and headed out to hunt. She avoided offers of company, preferring instead to go alone, and tramped away into the forest. She shot a duck and several hares before the hour was done and had strapped them all to her belt. She began her walk back to the camp. She had only taken a few steps back when the commotion reached her ears. It was coming from the direction of the campsite. Her ears couldn’t detect any screams but there was a definite clamour. She increased her pace and nearly flew through the trees.
As she reached the river, she thought better of simply bursting into the scene and reached up to climb the nearest tree. She pulled herself up higher and crept along branch after branch until she was crouched low on a bough that extended over the campsite. What she could see were her crew members stood in a semicircle on one side of the clearing, and another crew stood on the other. All of the Sky Pirates had their weapons drawn and stood still and silent like pieces on a chess board. A movement on the enemy side drew her attention and she picked out the Captain by his white uniform. Beneath the cap she caught a glimpse of familiar copper locks as he turned his head. With a shock she recognised the face of Joseph Tempest. He was stood with his arms folded facing her crew, his usual mask in place and his sword in hand.
“Your Captain, men, where is he?” he asked, his deep voice floating up to Felix, who remained in the tree, unnoticed.
It was Rain who replied, his wings vibrating angrily.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but he isn’t anywhere,” he said, keeping his voice calm and polite despite his obvious frustration.
One of Tempest’s crew stepped forward threateningly at this and shouted, “You stupid fairy, don’t riddle with us! How can a man be nowhere?!”
“When he is not a man,” Joseph answered softly, gesturing for the elf to step back. He looked around again and then sheathed his sword. His crew hesitated and then did the same, “How could I not have known? You’re Captain Storm’s crew aren’t you?” He didn’t wait for a reply. He carried on, apparently speaking to the trees around him. “Felix? If you’re there, then I assure you I mean no harm. I simply fear we have had the same idea. We stumbled upon your campsite and wish to share it, as it’s the best for miles, is this acceptable?”
Felix frowned. The Joseph from a month ago would have travelled miles to find another campsite simply to avoid her. Curiosity and confusion drove her and she swung from the branch to land softly behind him. He span on the heels of his uniform leather boots and Felix was glad to see the look of alarm on his face when he saw her with her bow in hand and her kills hanging from her belt. She gave him a moment to straighten his face and clothes before saying, “No.”
“Beg pardon, Captain, but do you have a reason?” he asked, looking genuinely confused. Felix felt anger and hurt welling up inside her as she looked at his face, which held the most emotion she had seen in him in years.
“You know full well my reason, Joseph. Better than I do!” Then she walked around him and went to stand with her crew, on the opposite side of the campsite. She handed her kills to Holly, who melted into the shadow of a tree to begin cooking them. The rest of the crew stood with their arms folded behind her, bristling as they caught on to her mood. Captain Tempest stood, dumbfounded, staring at her for a few moments before he collected himself. He spoke quietly to his crew and they melted silently back into the trees. Now there was only their captain left among a hostile crew.
“That is not a wise place to stand, Tempest,” hissed Felix. Beneath the hostility and anger, she felt hope and joy growing, but she smothered them. She didn’t want to feel like that towards him anymore.
“Might I have a word?” he asked, then seeing my crew frown in unison he added, “In private?”
“Do you not trust my crew?” Felix asked testily.
“I do, only the matter I wish to discuss is a private one.”
“Is this going to take long, Captain? I have matters to attend to.”
He didn’t reply. He just stood there waiting, a pleading look on his face. Felix gave in. She knew she shouldn’t, but she couldn’t help it. She nodded, and her crew silently dispersed to continue their jobs. She followed Joseph as he left the clearing. They walked for a few minutes before he stopped and turned to face her.
“Serenity, I…” he began, but Felix interrupted.
“You know full well my name is Felix. Captain Storm if you can’t remember.” She said icily. Deep down, she wanted to relent, to take this opportunity to tell him how she still felt about him, but her stubbornness wouldn’t let her. He had hurt her, and that wound was still healing. Bitterness rose up and smothered all other feelings.
Again, Joseph floundered, lost for words. And again he recovered himself.
“To me you are Serenity; you always will be, most likely.” A hesitant smile creased his face, but Felix kept her face straight. “I didn’t know this was going to happen today… I didn’t follow you or anything. I just…now that I have the opportunity to talk to you I can’t ignore it. I want to apologise, for what I’ve put you through these past few years.”
Now it was Felix’s turn to be shocked. And appalled. A few years? It was nearly fifty, fifty years of agony that he thought an apology could erase! Then confusion cams to the front of her mind again as she wondered what had brought on this change of heart. The little spark of hope and joy inside her flared but she smothered it quickly. Her voice was fierce when she spoke again.
“Can’t you remember what you said when we last spoke under the trees like this? Can’t you even remember that meeting? Or do you think that the cruel words you said can be erased from my mind with an apology? I don’t understand Joseph, a month ago, even a few days ago you would have walked for miles to avoid me. You have shunned me for fifty years and now, for apparently no reason you want to apologise! I knew you were an independent man, but do you not even follow the rules you have set?”
She turned and started to leave but he caught her arm and took a step closer. Suddenly she could smell him with such intensity that the memories hurt. The scent of lavender and salt water, of pine wood and damp moss, of cinnamon and honey, all the smells that were as much him as the shining strands of his hair, the roughness of the skin on his hands and the deep, gentleness of his voice. She felt old feelings return to her and old, fond memories overpower the harsher ones. She was torn. She wanted so badly to hurt him as he had hurt her, and just as badly wanted to feel his strong arms around her again. She was at war with herself.
“When you came to my ship the other day, after you had fought my soldier,” Joseph said softly, taking another step towards her, “and I met your eyes for the first time in years, and you put down the mask you had always worn, and I saw all of the hurt and anger I had caused you to feel, I missed you so much. I felt such guilt that I had made you as you are now, a pearl hidden inside a shell, all of your feelings hidden from those around you. I can’t stand that you feel like this, and I want to help. I want things to go back to how they used to be.”
He caught hold of her other arm and turned her round to face him. Then he reached up to touch her hair, but Felix turned her head aside.
“They can’t.” she said simply, trying to pull her arms out of his grasp.
“Why not? I love you Serenity.”
“But what about the last fifty years, did you just forget that you loved me, or refuse to admit it? Did you not think about the hurt and anger you had caused at all? How could you have been so blind? You say you cannot stand it any longer, I couldn’t stand it the moment you decreed it must be so. You forbade me from seeing you, made it seem possible that I could stop loving you. I’ve missed you for fifty years, loved you for all of your faults, and had to live by your rules. And now you break them without a moments thought, for your own convenience. I just don’t understand how you could have made this happen, let alone live with it for fifty years.”
She shook her head and stared sadly at the floor. She couldn’t control her thought any more, and instead let them run around her head freely. They were both silent for a moment.
“I love you Serenity,” Joseph repeated. Felix looked up to find him regarding her with a look of regret and sorrow on his face. His green eyes were sparkling with held back tears and his copper coloured hair was whipping around his face in the breeze.
“Do you?” she asked. “You still haven’t explained the last fifty years.”
Joseph released her arms and stepped back. He scanned the ground before settling himself on the protruding roots of the sycamore tree behind him. He drew his knees up and rested his head in his hands, hiding his face from view. After a moment, Felix lowered herself to the floor and rested her back against another tree. They sat there in silence for a while, both minds in turmoil. Joseph finally collected his thoughts and raised his head from its resting place in his palms.
“You know of my bitterness towards you when we were young, which grew when I found I could beat you at nothing. It almost consumed us both during that duel which lasted three days. But when we began to see more of each other outside of our training, I put the feelings aside, determined to enjoy our relationship without my competitiveness tainting it. It worked, to a certain extent. It was still there, but I managed to smother it. Then the Sky Pilots came to find new recruits for their schools. My bitterness surfaced again and I saw a way to best you. Female recruits were rare and even if you were accepted, I still had the chance of promotion to Captain that was reserved for men only. So I joined and trained. Then one day the doors opened whilst we were training and you walked through them and joined in our exercises. You had been admitted. A small part of me was angry, knowing you would probably be better than me during our school years. But a larger, more dominant part was glad. I knew that I had better prospects than you once we graduated, and I was delighted I would get to spend more time with you than just during the holidays. I was almost right. We were almost equals during school, and this quelled the bitterness enough for me to be truly happy.
“But then we graduated. After only five years in service, I was promoted to Captain. I was safe and snug in my new position, childish as the motives were. But my bliss was short lived. You rose in rank shortly afterwards. My competitiveness overpowered me and fuelled the fires of anger that rose up in me. I was angry at you for taking from me the last chance to best you, and angry at myself because I knew I would come to despise you for it. These conclusions made me say the words I did. I won’t repeat them; we both know what they are.”
“I know most of this,” said Felix when he paused. Joseph just nodded. He didn’t seem aware of anything anymore, except his memories.
“After our confrontation,” he continued and then paused again as he saw the look on Felix’s face, “After I said the words I did, I managed to convince myself that I had hurt you enough to make you hate me. I wanted to be immune to my feelings for you, and in my attempt to smother them, I locked out all feelings altogether. I hid, as you did, behind a mask. Inside, I was becoming as numb as I appeared. I forced my thoughts away from you, making myself relive that evening if ever I though about you. The glimpses of you I gained only fed my imagination. You seemed so serene, so sure of yourself, so unhurt and calm. I made myself believe you hadn’t ever loved me, and that you enjoyed beating me. Now, I can’t stand myself when I think of how I imagined you. But it is what I thought at the time. I forgot that I ever loved you, forgot everything about you, almost forgot you existed in my attempt to keep myself from you. My own competitiveness made me into someone else. When I had to speak to you, I saw someone else.
My actions towards you would have continued indefinitely, eventually making me into an emotionless monster, but then I met your eyes for the first time in fifty years. Your face, the emotions hidden beneath your eyes, all that hurt and anger, made me remember the night you found out Alex had died. The look you gave me was identical. Then I remember your kiss, and all the walls I had built to keep myself locked up, broke down. I cried for the first time in fifty years that night. And now…well now I’m here. And you’re looking at me with the same expression as when I fell from the tree and landed at your feet.”
Felix blinked and looked away. She searched inside of herself and felt only shock and…pity. She felt sorry that he had lived within that barren shell, refusing himself any happy memory, for fifty years. He had not only hidden himself from the world, but from his own mind as well. She watched as the man she loved buried his head in his hands again as tears escaped his eyes. They remained like that for some time until Joseph raised his head again and spoke; his voice rough with tears.
“Say something, Serenity, please,” he said, his words pleading.
“What would you have me say?” she asked quietly.
“Anything! That you hate me, love me, forgive me…anything but this silence,”
“I don’t know what I feel,” she replied, struggling to keep her voice calm. It was true that she didn’t know what to feel. She wanted to put her arms around him and comfort him, and yet she also wanted to hit him for being such a bitter, relentless man. Opening her mouth to continue, she shut it again as a disturbance reached her pointed ears. Muffled shouts and cries wound their way through the trees and the ring of metal on metal bit into the silence sharply. Josephs head snapped up and his sparkling eyes searched through the foliage in front of him. It took only seconds for their minds to interpret the sounds as trouble, and in less time they were on their feet and running back towards the camp.
The sounds were growing in volume and intensity and the angry shouts had turned into moans and sharp cries of agony. The trees began to thin out, and without a glance at each other, both Joseph and Felix leaped up into the trees and crept along the boughs, out of sight of the ground. They came to the clearing and looked down in dismay. Felix’s crew sat huddled in the centre of the clearing, their hands tied and mouths gagged. She saw Nep wincing at the gaping cut on his left shoulder and Holly weeping into Eric’s shoulder, an arrow wound in her leg. The others were all sporting similar injures. They were silent. Around the prisoners stood another crew, bearing bloodied weapons and malicious smiles. One of them stepped forward and leaned over Angel’s cowering body.
“Don’t worry, boys. You’ll be reunited with your precious Captain soon enough!”
Felix’s heart stopped. She started at the speaker in disbelief. He was the elf who had snapped at Rain. His broad shoulders shook as he laughed whilst Felix carried on staring in disbelief. He was part of Joseph’s crew. They all were. She slowly turned to face him. He had a pained look on his face and he shook his head earnestly. He said he hadn’t had anything to do with it.
But how could she believe anything he said anymore. It all fit. Why he had wanted to share campsites. Why he wanted to talk to her alone. Why he had suddenly decided to ‘confess’ his feelings. It was a well thought out plan. And she had fallen for his stupid tricks again! How could he? She had actually believed all of the rubbish he had just come out with. What a lovely little story, filled with reasons to make her pity him, love him again. Well, it seemed that this time, his petty competitiveness had got the better of him. And he was going to punish her crew as well as her.
“How could you? You planned it all from the beginning! You truly are the most spiteful, wicked creature in this world, Joseph Tempest. Those are innocent people down there, tied up and injured. How could you?”
Only her quick reactions saved her. The whistling of the arrow was the first thing to register. Even before she had heard it thump into the tree next to her head she had her own bow drawn and aimed at her attacker. Keeping one eye on Joseph and the other on a small, pointy looking pixie on the ground, she steadied herself on the branch.
The gloating elf, who seemed to be taking the lead during Joseph’s absence, strode towards the commotion and stood with his hands on his hips, smiling up at Felix. She glowered back.
“Well, well, speak of the witch. How are you Captain?”
“Let my crew go! Do whatever you want with me, but release them and let them tend to their wounds.”
“What? And risk them running off? I don’t think so! They’ll fetch a fair price, this lot. I think I’ll leave them where they are. Why don’t you come join them? A few gold pieces I think you’ll fetch. Bit thin though? What do you think Tempest?”
She caught Joseph’s eye and saw him mirror her glower. Did he think his first mate was over doing it a little?
“Bring her down boys!” yelled the elf on the ground.
Before she knew what was happening, two fairies emerged from the trees behind her and seized her by her upper arms. Their fingers, although thin, grasped her tight enough to hurt, and their nails, as green as their skin, dug into her. She kept herself form crying out as she was hoisted roughly into the air, flown into the clearing and deposited roughly into the hands of two bad-tempered looking trolls. They were at least three heads taller than her and smelt strongly of beer and smoke. Their trunk like arms held her still whilst she was tied up and gagged. The dirty rag in her mouth tasted of stagnant water and wet dog, and she gagged emptily. It was only then that she realised she hadn’t eaten yet. The trolls pushed her roughly onto the floor near her crew and she met Rain’s eyes. They were narrowed in pain and she saw that his wings had been strapped together. Joy’s and Angel’s had been secured similarly. The crew’s weapons were stacked in a pile at one end of the clearing along with their food supplies and shelters. She watched as her bow and quiver were thrown onto the pile.
The trolls left her propped against her crew members. She tried to sit up straight, but the task was hampered by the ropes and the fact that she was gasping for breath. Air didn’t seem to be able to penetrate the dirty fibres of the gag. Finally falling still she looked up and met the eyes of the elf. They were a pale, watery, almost colourless grey, and they were narrowed in distaste. He sneered at her as he examined her from head to toe. Felix glared back until he eventually grew bored and turned away.
“Take them to the ship,” he called, and suddenly there was an eruption of motion. The trolls returned and yanked Felix and her crew to their feet. The food was quickly gathered up and flown away by the green skinned fairies, and the rest of the crew, comprising mainly of elves and a few mean looking goblins, began to herd the Outcast crew through the forest. Felix found herself at the back of the line, behind Nep, with a sword in her back and an arrow pointed at her from the right. She struggled against the ropes uselessly, feeling them chafe her skin. She watched, powerless to help, as her loyal crew were marched along in front of her, bows drawn on all sides. A rough shove from behind indicated she should start walking.
They trudged along in single file, through the thick undergrowth, stooping under hanging ivy and wincing as brambles snared their legs. After wading through yet another ocean of nettles, Felix finally saw the hull of a skyship hovering in a clearing ahead. It was the Air Dragon. The glinting ruby eyes of the dragons head at its prow seemed to inspect them all as they filed past.
The gangplank wobbled as Felix stepped on it and her legs felt like lead as she forced them to carry her up to the deck of the skyship. The Air Dragon was roughly the same size as The Outcast, but stouter, wider, and not as sleek looking. It had a bigger cargo hold. She could see why. A slave ship would need bigger space to hold its prisoners. A wave of disgust swept through her as she thought about the slave traders she had seen in her travels in the East Sea. Their captives were treated worse than animals, kept in the dark and damp below deck. Some were lucky enough to be allowed into the open air above, but they had to work terribly hard for the privilege. The Captain of a slave ship usually carried a whip around with him, and liked nothing better than to deal out a few cuts before breakfast.
Slave ships usually roamed the East Sea, attacking trade ships and taking their crews as prisoners. They only came ashore to sell their wares and restock with food. Although slavery wasn’t acceptable in Glade and the Dwarf Territories, most of the islands in the East Sea still kept slaves and were sources of great profit for slave ships. Felix guessed that was where they were heading.
She followed her crew as they were hurried across the deck and down the ladder to the floors below. They passed the crew’s quarters, kitchens and food stores and finally reached the lowest floor. There were no windows and the only light came from the flickering lantern that one of Tempest’s elves had thought to bring. A strong smell of damp reached her nostrils and she winced. Mixed in with the scent of stagnant water were the even worse stenches of sweat and human waste. The light from the candle illuminated faces as they walked along the length of the floor. Pale, drawn, exhausted people of all races gazed up at her pleadingly as she passed, groaning. Their lips were dry and cracked and there was no light of life behind their eyes. They passed a poor dwarf, huddled up against the wall of the deck, muttering to himself. His sobs echoed around the dark space, bouncing off of the metal walls. The usually silver metal that the skyships were made of glittered like gold in the candlelight.
They were told to kneel in a small, unoccupied space near the back of the ship. Their gags were removed and their ropes untied, and then they were left. Felix struggled to her feet, determined to pounce on one of them and break his neck, but in the time it took her to stand up, they had all vanished. The light vanished with them, and she found herself staring hard at blackness. She sank to the floor again. She felt the soft, sleek coat of Nep and snuggled gratefully against his sweet smelling neck. He sighed softly.
“I’m sorry I got us all into this,” she said quietly. No one had insisted on silence, but it felt strange to talk in this dismal place. It imposed its own silence, broken only be the sobs and cries of the mad dwarf and the prisoners’ regular breathing.
“It isn’t your fault, Captain. No-one blames you,” he whispered back. Felix felt a small, wiry body move next to her and heard the gentle whimpers of Angel as he huddled close to Nep. Instinctively, Felix wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him tight. He curled himself into a ball in her arms and his breathing slowed into the regular rhythm of sleep. His warm weight was comforting by her side.
“What are we going to do?” she asked to no-one in particular. There was no reply.