Rise of the Thrall Lord
Dark Treasures Part I – The Storm Lass
The storm clouds in the distant east loomed like great mountains sprung from the ocean over night. The sun was just beginning to scale those far off clouds, painting the whole sky crimson in its effort. Despite the ominous sky, the stirring predawn breeze felt good as Thea Stealle walked the docks of Penwick harbor.
She was dressed in a hooded poncho of mottled green, her dark hair tied in a tight braid and hidden in the folds of her hood. An old woolen hunting tunic of faded brown fit somewhat loosely and helped hide her budding figure. The tunic, like the poncho was a cast-off of her older brother Pallas. Thea had even went so far as to purposely smudge her face with some soot from the hearth. She felt her disguise was perfect. No one would see a young highborn girl of the House of Stealle out by herself on the docks of Penwick before dawn.
Even at this early hour the piers and warehouses were a hive of activity. Workers swarmed in orderly haste across the decks of a heavy merchant galleon up from far Isandor. Having made harbor late last night, the ship had waited for the first glimmer of dawn to dock.
Thea walked by the galleon with barely a glance. At the next dock, the Captain of a small two-mast schooner was unsuccessfully trying to coax some dock workers away from the wealthy and exotic Isandor galleon to hastily load the schooner’s small cargo and the luggage of her few passengers.
Thea recognized the smaller ship as the Puella; the ship was nominally a merchanter of Penwick, with the golden lion blazoned below the violet triangle of House Dargonea. In practice, the ship stopped here no longer than any other port on her run between Orllon, Palt and Lymerdia.
The Captain, Brec Culninc, was currently trying to beat the storm out of the Merchant Channel and around South Point. Thea pulled the hood of her cloak low about her face and tried to walk quickly past. During the Puella’s last stop in Penwick the cabin boy had gotten a bit too friendly with Thea and she had left him with a black eye and bruised ego. She was sure that story was a great hit with the sailors.
“Hey boy!” Captain Culninc called from the ramp of his ship. "Give us a hand here. You’ll see a fist full of silver for an hour’s honest work. No better deal in Penwick than that.”
Thea intended to look angry, but couldn’t help grinning as she pulled back her hood. She waited for the shocked pardons as he recognized her as the young Lady Stealle.
“What? Oh you’re simple minded.” the captain surmised. “Well no harm there, it doesn’t take brains to haul cargo. But step lively, or you’ll not get your copper.”
“I’m not so daft as to forget a promise of silver.” Thea countered. She had little need for more change for her purse, but was feeling oddly annoyed that he didn’t recognize her.
“Silver you say? It’s hard to believe that a slight young lad as yourself could do a silver hand’s worth of work.”
“That is one odd and fierce looking storm out there.” Thea commented, looking in mock worry to the east.
“Silver it is then! But only for those who look sharp and jump lively!”
So somehow she found herself loading the merchant ship Puella in the storm laden predawn hours of the Penwick harbor. Sighing to herself, she hefted the first bundle of fine Penwick linens off the wagon onto her shoulder and followed the handful of crew hauling bails onto the schooner.
As she reached the deck, Thea passed a strange girl on her way down. The girl appeared a few years younger than herself, with fair complexion and shoulder length blonde hair. She was slight, perhaps a hand’s breath shorter than Thea. Her oddly cut long coat of supple dark gray leather, was flared at the sleeves, and split and flared at the waist above a pleated skirt of paler gray. The skirt ended just above knee-high boots that matched the coat. But what caught Thea attention was the girl’s eyes, not just their bright green color with amber flecks, but the intensity of her strange gaze as it passed over Thea.
She found herself staring as the girl walked off the ship.
“Don’t bother with her,” a slightly pained and out of breath voice warned from behind her.
Thea peered around the linen bundle. As she feared, it was Folann, the ship’s cabin boy. His handsome face was healed from their last encounter, but he looked slightly red, and held his stomach as if it pained him.
Folann came up next to her, and leaned in conspiratorially while looking down at the blonde girl nimbly traversing the ramp to the dock. “Oh, she may look fair enough, but a nastier and more violent wench you won’t find this side of the channel.” Thea hoped he would go away after that; she wasn’t so lucky.
“But don’t worry,” he continued, his tone becoming even more suggestive. “I know plenty of more accommodating girls… omphf”
Thea thrust the bundle forcefully into the arms of the boy who’s brief confusion turned to alarmed recognition as he looked closely at her face.
“That is enough.” she whispered quietly with what she hoped bordered more on menace than embarrassment. “Not another word. Not about her. Or all your girls in port. Or…” As she moved in closer the boy backed against the forecastle holding the bundle of linen defensively in front of him. “…not a word about me. You don’t know me! Understood?”
“Hey you two.” The ship’s quartermaster called across the deck. “Stop slacking and jump lively.”
Thea looked meaningfully towards Folann, motioned him to take the bundle below and turned back to the ramp.
The small blonde girl was coming back up the ramp with a stack of three bundles held casually as if they weighed nothing. Thea was intrigued.
“Hi, I’m …. err” She stopped herself, glancing at the sailors busily stowing the cargo, the few looking her way seemed amused, misinterpreting her stammer. She could only guess what they were thinking, but rethought talking to the girl now.
“Ship’s not loading itself” the girl said flatly as she walked by with her load.
“Its a sad day for you lad,” the next crewman up the ramp said to Thea with a wink. “Shot down and shown up by the little beauty all at once.” He was a burly looking man, but she noticed he only had two bails of fabric.
“Challenge accepted” she muttered crossly to herself on the way back down the ramp. The Stealle stubborn streak had taken over.
It was heavy but simple work, and it gave her time to think. Two bails was the most she could comfortably handle, so of course she went for three. The weight of which made it somewhat precarious on the schooner’s flimsy bouncing ramp. But all in all, she told herself, not as strenuous or difficult as the daily practice rituals at the Stealle Academy of the Sword could be. Her father had founded and taught at the Academy. And as soon as she was able to walk, she had followed her older brother Pallas to the academy to train; usually with her younger brother Lloyd in tow.
When they had grown older and she began to develop, Pallas decided that the way of the sword was too strenuous and unladylike for a girl. He put her, and most of the school through a hell week of the most stringent and harsh exercises imaginable to discourage her. At the end, even Pallas had to grudgingly admit she was worthy, since she fared better than most the male students.
“Of course,” her younger brother Lloyd stated. “She’s a Stealle, and we are made of stronger stuff than even iron!” Dear Lloyd never tired of family name puns.
This day was shaping up to be like one of Pallas’ special training routines. Ironically, Thea had thought skipping practice this morning was going to be a break. But so far it was turning out to be far from an easy day, which she felt was some minor divine retribution. She did feel a little guilty; her excuse this morning was that she was going to help mom. Her mother was on one of her all too common research binges. She could spend days in her lab going over some magical formula or other, and Thea had on several occasions been roped into being her assistant; although she had no knack for it.
Thea often thought she was a disappointment to her mother, who she was sure wanted her only daughter to grow up studying wizardry with her. But the swordplay of her dashingly handsome father was a draw Thea could not resist. Her mother always seemed so happy when Thea showed even the smallest interest in magic, but the study of spellcraft was just so tedious for her.
Blades on the other hand, she found fascinating. She was more than just familiar with them, she was a master, if just a junior ranked one. Currently, a short cutlass was discretely clipped in an inverted sheath across her back hidden by the poncho and a kukri knife was in easy reach at her belt. She was very good with both of them, at least in practice. But for the type of encounter she expected this morning, she had brought a sturdy oaken quarterstaff. The staff she had left on the dock near the rapidly emptying wagons.
She had gotten so caught up in her imagined competition of loading the schooner, she had totally forgotten the reason she had snuck out this morning. What foolishness! Besides that little blonde creature showed no signs of tiring, and Thea had about had it. After this next load, she was done. But as she reached the wagon she saw that it was empty.
The girl stood next to the wagon holding the single remaining bail. “How many she asked?”
“Thirty six” Thea said without hesitation.
“This will be my thirty seventh.” the girl stated, a faint hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth was the first expression she’d shown.
“You better get this on board.” the girl said as she tossed it. Thea tensed to catch the bail of cloth, but it sailed to her left directly to Folann who had finally recovered his nerve to approach the girls. He staggered slightly under the impact, but managed to hold on to the bundle.
“Listen,” he began. “I’m sorry if I offended earlier. Let me make it up to…”
“Boy! There you are! You lazy lounge-about! Where have you been hiding all morning?” Captain Culnic bore down on his cabin boy at full sail. “If you’ve been mooning over some lass again, I’ll tan your hide! Now make yourself useful and get your sorry carcass on my ship and that last bail stowed!”
“Yes sir! No sir! Of course sir!” Folann said all at once as he scampered back up the ramp.
As Captain Culnic approached the two at the wagon, the girl took out a small purse.
“Oh no lass,” the captain said quickly. “You’ve more than paid for your passage on this trip. You’ve a born sailor’s sense for sea and wind, you have. And ye ain’t afraid of a little hard work either. Thanks to you, we’ve made better time than I ever have in the crossing.”
The captain paused as if trying to read something in the girl’s inscrutable expression to tell him which course to take. He then looked at Thea speculatively before turning back to the younger girl. “I’ve got you past that storm as I said I would, although it was a close one. And it is a queer storm alright. Some old timers claim storms like that are raised by angry sea dragons. It is enough to stir the imagination of my more foolish crew and make them see strange shapes in the thunderclouds at night.”
“Sometimes a storm is just a storm, but a dragon is rarely just a dragon. It is best to play it safe.” the girl said quietly.
“Well said.” the captain nodded. “In any case, it is best I take my leave of this port before yonder storm arrives.” he went on briskly. “About your other request, I’ve told you all I know. But I can point you to someone who is possibly the best expert in town on the subject of old Eboneye’s treasure.”
Thea stiffened to restrain any reaction at the mention of the name.
“It is the daughter of one of the local Lords in town who is a blades-master of some renown. The young lady is notoriously obsessed with the lost treasures of the Pirate Lord Eboneye. So much so, that in her enthusiasm she may have run afoul of some sailors. Or better put, they ran afoul her.”
Thea kept her face blank. She knew where this was going.
“Of course you won’t find that lady here on the docks. Her father has made it very clear. It would be bad for both any sailors involved, and” he empathized the last part, “the lady herself.”
“But you may be in luck,” Captain Culnic continued with mock surprise motioning towards Thea. “This lad here may be able to introduce you to the young lady.”
“Oh and one last thing.” Captain Culnic dropped a palm full of silver into both their hands. “Fine job loading the ship.”
As he wandered back up the ramp to his ship, he was singing a song about the luck of a sailor who finds calm when two storms collide.
Thea felt the girl’s gaze on her as she retrieved her quarterstaff from under the wagon.
“You’re the lady.” As expected, it was not a question.
“How’d you know?”
“You bath in rose petal scented water.” she replied.
“Oh” Thea said, sniffing herself but detecting no discernible odor. “Well, follow me.” She said over her shoulder, leading the way down the docks. “That old sea captain talks too much, but doesn’t say half of what he knows.”
“Definitely,” the girl replied, shouldering her one small bag and looking speculatively past the schooner at the distant storms as she fell in beside Thea.
Thea headed south towards the older, less crowded parts of the docks. Somewhere behind the crimson clouds the sun was up and things were only going to get busier in this area. Walking past the Puella, they saw Folann near the prow watching them, his dark hair swept by the storm driven breeze.
“He sure is good looking,” Thea sighed sadly, “shame he is such a stupid git.”
The girl just grunted noncommittally, so Thea tried a different tact to draw her out. “I know the perfect way to spend a hard earned silver or two.”
A few minutes later, and they were seated on the end of the old Migtarn docks with a large bag of sweet buns. The pier they were on was mostly burnt out, with a rickety single plank crossing required to get to the one remaining intact area at the end. The dock swayed slightly with the tide and might end up in the harbor with the next big storm, which Thea thought ruefully could be today. But the weather still held, and the angry clouds out to sea were no closer.
“I’m Thea Stealle of the House Stealle.” Thea waited for the typical reaction from those who either loved, hated, or sought favor from her house.
The girl shrugged. “Never heard of it.”
“You’re not from around here.” Thea stated.
“Not remotely.” she replied. “I’m Rukastanna Greymantle from Thunderspire.” She pointed to herself, then declared with mock formality, “The Greymantles are pretty famous on the remote rock of an isle we’re from. Every hear of us?”
“No,” Thea acknowledged. “I guess we’re even then.”
“What are these?” the girl examined a bun dubiously.
“A sweet bun of course,” Thea said surprised. “Don’t tell me they don’t have sweet buns on this island of yours?”
Rukastanna stared off across the waters as if she could see it as she said. “It’s wildly beautiful, like a range of great spines thrust from the sapphire sea, encrusted with brilliant emerald foliage.” then sighed mostly to herself, “but you have no idea how primitive it can be.” She bit tentatively into a bun. “Hey! These are pretty good!”
They sat looking out at the bay and eating sweet buns together in silence when Rukastanna said between full bites “mmm…heading north”.
“Huh? You’re traveling north?”
“No, the storm is heading north” she said happily between bites of sweet bun. “To Orllon I think”. And she turned and grinned at Thea. When she smiled, the young girl was very pretty; even her strange eyes seemed only mischievous.
“So Rukastanna, what have you done that someone would send a storm dragon to track you down?” Thea asked, moving in closer and lowering her voice.
“Call me Ruka. And let’s just say that my family is…. well, over-protective and think I’m too young to take care of myself. My father is a wizard, and he’d like to keep me home studying books for the next hundred years or so. Or until I ‘grow some sense’,” she grinned, “which isn’t very likely.”
“So just a runaway?” Thea mused looking speculatively at the massive cloud bank in the northeast. “Sending a dragon to track down a little girl seems very extreme, even for a wizard.”
She turned her gaze meaningfully towards the girl. “You didn’t, say for example, steal a powerful artifact from this wizard, and now he is hunting you to get it back?”
Ruka laughed. “Oh, that would be fun! But do you really find it so difficult to believe that I would sneak away from my family in disguise?” Ruka asked emphasizing the ‘you’ by pointing the dwindling remains of a sweet bun in her direction.
“My father really is a wizard,” Ruka continued, “and I haven’t taken anything of value from him … well not recently. Unless,” She stopped and looked meaningfully at Thea, her grin returning, “you consider his notes on Eboneye valuable.”
“Really?” Thea asked. “How extensive are they?” She tried to cover her eagerness with “I already have very extensive notes from my mom.”
“Hmmm,” Ruka leaned in very close, their faces inches apart. “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” she whispered. Then after a breathless pause, she laughed and swiped a sweet bun from the bag.
“Hey! You ate most of the bag. You’re going to make yourself sick! I brought a full dozen to share with my crew.”
Ruka’s wolfed down the sweet bun between chuckles. Her mood had brightened dramatically since the storm seemed to be fading in the distance.
Looking at her like this, smiling with the remains of devoured sweet buns on her face, it was hard to believe Ruka was some hardened thief desperately running from wizards, dragons and conjured storms.
“So your father is a powerful enough wizard to command dragons?” Thea asked. Her mother was the most powerful wizard in the City of Penwick, and didn’t have any dragons at her beck and call.
Ruka stood up and looked out to sea. The wind caught her hair, obscuring her face as she replied. “Don’t worry. The types of dragons my father associates with are boring, stuffy, judgmental creatures, obsessed with protocol, ritual and stories of ancient days of lost glory. They are more likely to talk you to death than devour or destroy anything.” There was a surprising amount of disdain in her tone.
“People are far more interesting.” Ruka continued turning back to Thea more brightly and popping the last of a sweet bun into her mouth. “I’d like to meet this crew you mentioned.”
“I think you owe them a bag of sweet buns.” Thea said, handing the mostly emptied bag to Ruka. “And since it appears that they are even later than me this morning, you might just have time to get another.”