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Chapter One: Life at Sea

Chapter One

Life at Sea

 

The next morning Dale awoke just as the first rays of sunlight reached down from the heavens and touched the sea.  He felt completely refreshed, invigorated, and almost leapt out of bed.  Lowering himself from his bed he quickly changed his shirt with the one he had used as a pillow the night before and padded silently out of the room with his hunter’s feet.

Up on deck the ship’s crew was already busy with the sails and a cabin boy scrubbed away at what appeared to be a trail of spilt booze. 

Dale looked toward the stern of the ship just in time to see the first mate and the captain salute each other.  The first mate took a step back and they saluted again, then the first mate turned and walked down the stairs from the platform to the deck.

The first mate yawned as he reached the bottom step.  He tipped his hat to Dale as he passed but if he even remembered the conversation the night before he gave no indication.  Dale watched as the first mate descended to the rooms below.

The smell of cooking food wafted from the front of the ship and Dale soon found himself standing in front of the stairwell leading down to the kitchen and mess. 

‘Oi what the bloody hell are you doing in here! Mess doesn’t open for half an hour, sod off!’ 

Apparently Dale had wandered down the stairs.  He was standing in the mess which basically consisted of trestle tables and bench seats lined in neat rows against the walls in an otherwise empty room. 

Well, empty except for one of the cooks, whose angry face could be seen above a steaming baia-mare at the far side of the room.  The cook had stopped yelling but his stare unsettled Dale enough that he made his departure a rapid one. 

What could one do to fill half an hour on a ship?  Dale wondered. There wasn’t much to do.  The crew had loaded all the ship’s stores the morning prior to the ship’s departure, the crew handled everything involved in running the ship and this early on there wasn’t much to clean.

Just as Dale was about to give up and go back to bed, Tanah appeared walking up the stairs from the bunk rooms below with two women in tow.  The women wore figureless shifts that made it hard to determine much about them.  They, like everyone else on the ship, appeared to be in their late twenties or early thirties and they both appeared to be healthy and in good shape.

Tanah spotted Dale and turned to the women.  A moment later the women walked off together giggling and Tanah crossed the deck to meet up with Dale.

‘Top of the morning to you Dale, how are you feeling?’ Tanah asked.

‘There are women here?’

Tanah laughed.  ‘Why wouldn’t there be? That was Erin and Lydia.  Erin’s an old friend of mine; she used to run a little seafood shop with her husband just up the street from me back in Arbindale.  Lydia’s her bunk mate, she’s a hunter too I think.’

‘I haven’t heard of Arbindale.  Is that on one of the islands?’  Dale asked.

‘No,’ Tanah shook his head.  ‘Arbindale’s about a week on horse south of Mantle, on the coast near Mount Hitchenback on the other side of the river Thae.’

‘Oh,’ Dale said.  Now that he could see properly in the sunlight Tanah was no islander at all, he just had a really dark tan.  ‘Lydia’s a hunter you say?’

‘Yeah, I think she works the north side of town.’

Dale’s brow furrowed.  He worked the north side of town.  ‘I don’t recognize her, are you sure she works the north side?’

Tanah shook his head.  ‘No, I’m not sure.  I thought she said north but you can ask her later if you want, we’re all getting together for a few drinks tonight if you want to join us?’

‘I don’t want to intrude,’ Dale started.

‘Nonsense.  What else were you planning on doing?’  Tanah looked around pointedly at the rest of the ship.  Dale followed his gaze and saw the rest of the ship’s passengers:  Soldiers, hunters and foragers, mostly, standing around smoking and talking. 

The cooks and the crew were kept busy, the quartermaster and his mob were still below somewhere sorting through the stores and Dale hadn’t seen the emissary or his team yet but no one else had any tasks and they were pretty well left to their own devices.

‘Alright, I’ll come.  What in God’s name are we supposed to do for the next three weeks?’

‘Well it’s not like its three weeks in one stint; we’re supposed to reach Gogdof in about ten days.  I think the translators are going to run a little language class on the main deck before lunch every day so that we can actually communicate with the Ogres when we get there if that interests you.’  Tanah looked to the sky as he tried to jog his memory.

‘The soldiers got bored yesterday and started a little competition thing too so if you’re any good with a sword I guess you could have a crack at that.  There is an entry fee though, of sorts.  If you enter the competition and lose you have to buy whoever beat you a drink that night.’

Tanah narrowed his eyes at Dale.  ‘You don’t look surprised,’ he commented.

‘Not really’, Dale admitted.  ‘That gives me an idea though.  I wonder if the captain will mind a little archery competition off the side of the ship.’ 

Tanah’s eyes grew sharp.  ‘That is a good idea, leave that with me.  Anyway’ Tanah sniffed the air.  ‘That smells like breakfast.’

It was breakfast.  Just as the words were out of Tanah’s mouth, the cook that had shouted at Dale to get him out of the mess was now standing on the deck shouting at everyone to get into the mess.

 

It was first in first served as everyone filed through the mess for a feed.  The food was surprisingly good:  There was fresh fruit and rye bread, a seemingly endless supply of porridge and ale to wash it all down.  Dale was sure some of the passengers would never have eaten so well in their lives.

 

There was very little to do after breakfast.  The deck was full of people wandering around from one side of the ship to the other, talking to friends both newfound and old.  The smokers smoked and everyone else played cards or threw dice in a vein attempt to pass the time.

About mid-morning, the doors to the room at the stern of the ship opened for the first time that Dale could remember and two men walked out.  They were lean almost to the point of being skinny – Dale guessed they were naturally skinny and they had bulked up as a result of trying to get fit for the expedition. 

It wasn’t just the men’s build that set them apart from the rest of the crew.  One of the men looked to be in his early twenties, the other in his mid fifties.  They both wore loose fitting comfortable clothing that belied nothing of their trades. 

The two skinny men stepped out of the room and the youngest stopped to close the door behind them before doing a little jog to catch up to the older man.  They wore serious expressions but when they realized everyone had stopped to stare at them their faces softened.  The older man smiled and the younger gave a shy wave before they disappeared into the mess.

 

A long hour or so later, true to Tanah’s word, a class in speaking ogre was held on deck at the front of the ship.  The class was compulsory for all soldiers to attend but it was also open to anyone else that was interested.  The two skinny men, it turned out, would be their teachers.

To begin with, every man on board joined the class out of curiosity but as the class dragged on and people began to struggle the class size slowly waned.

As Dale started struggling to form the swollen sounds of the ogre language, Tanah edged through the crowd to get to him.  With no small degree of difficulty, by the end of the class they could greet and thank each other, ask each other their names and give their own, count to ten and swear in Ogre. 

Before they realized, the cook was shouting at them that it was lunch and why weren’t they downstairs already.  The cook was shouting at them from the stairwell and only his head was visible to most.  The effect was quite comic and to the cook’s rage everyone was hooting with laughter and slapping each other’s backs as they followed the cook down into the mess.

 

Within half an hour every soul on that ship had wolfed down his food and was waiting on deck for the class to continue.  They were disappointed when they learned the class was over for the day but they were a bit happier when they learnt the class would be on every day. 

After the build up of excitement and the prompt let down, most of the soldiers became a bit cocky after lunch and the swords started coming out.  Dale watched as the soldiers formed into pairs and threes and practiced their swordplay. He couldn’t help but laugh; the soldiers seemed to think they would make better use of their time, running concurrent training by swearing at each other in Ogre as they crossed swords.

Less than an hour later, the sounds of steel against steel slowed and finally stopped as the soldiers grew tired.  Only two still fought on, Edgar Onebrow and Sergeant Rhyl with his fighting staff.  They were fighting for the day’s championship and the ale that would come with it. 

They weren’t small boys.  Rhyl stood almost six foot even and weighed in at a solid hundred kilograms.  Edgar was about a half foot taller and proportionately bigger. 

They were both tired and as moving their arms to swing their weapons got harder they resorted to walking in circles around each other, making the occasional feint hoping to catch their opponent off-balance. 

Finally, something was happening.  The sergeant struck out with his staff.  Edgar blocked it lazily but suddenly Rhyl was on him like a whirling vortex of death.  The staff seemed to come at him from all directions at once and the next thing he knew he was flat on his guts with Rhyl standing above him, staff poised for the kill.   Rhyl himself no longer looked tired.  In fact, he seemed peaked.  Dale couldn’t be sure if it was just his imagination but Rhyl seemed to have grown in stature somehow.

All the soldiers clapped loudly and cheered the sergeant on as he helped Edgar back onto his feet, shook hands and congratulated him.  Edgar gave a half-arsed salute with a cheeky grin, then wobbled his way on down into the mess where he would return from a few minutes later with two fresh mugs of ale. 

Dale found he was clapping too, and he felt elated after watching the last few moments of the fight.

‘Never seen a warrior priest fight before?’ a voice came from behind him.

Dale turned to see Tanah walking toward him.  ‘I haven’t’, Dale admitted.  ‘I’ve heard stories of course, but I’ve never actually seen one.’

Everyone had heard the stories.  Stories of men who would be struggling in battle, who would suddenly fight with all the force and fury of a vengeful god.

‘I didn’t know Sergeant Rhyl was a zealot,’ Dale commented.

‘All sergeants are.  It’s a standing rule that as the King must answer to the high priest, so must every soldier in the army answer to a commander with a religious background.  I thought everyone knew that.  You really are from the sticks aren’t you.’  It wasn’t a question.  ‘And before you ask, you can always tell someone with rank because they all carry that fighting staff.  It’s a sign of their office.’

Dale made an understanding ‘oh’ face.  That would have been his next question.

‘Anyway I just came to see if you were joining us for dinner tonight?’

‘Oh, yeah of course.  Want me to bring anything?’  Dale joked. 

Tanah chuckled and walked away again, leaving Dale to sit and wonder where he kept going.

 

At some point one of the soldiers had managed to procure a long length of thin cordage and a tin full of old hooks from only God knew where.  The soldiers were all lined up on both sides of the ship attempting to fish off the sides.

It wasn’t long before most of the soldiers gave up – they weren’t fishermen and most of their lines dropped directly off the ship and reached to only just below the surface.  They were moving too fast, using make-shift bait and there was no way they were ever going to catch anything.

The crew had a quiet chuckle to themselves; there was plenty of actual fishing gear on the ship for when the fresh food supply started running out. 

 

The rest of the day dragged on.  The boredom made Dale strangely lethargic and he found himself below decks lying in his bunk when the sounds of shouting from above heralded supper. 

This was what he had been waiting for, a chance to get together with Tanah and the women over a few mugs of ale.  What was strange, Dale thought to himself as he started the small trek to the mess, was that he had hardly seen Tanah or the women all day.  The ship was the biggest Dale had ever seen, but in reality it wasn’t very big at all and surely he should have seen them around.

It was still light above deck but the mess was lit by a row of lanterns hung on the walls and candles on each of the tables.  Once he had been served, Dale took his food back to one of the tables along the back wall where Lydia and Erin were waiting.  Their food was on the table in front of them but they were too busy leaning over the table talking and giggling. 

As Dale self-consciously approached they went quiet.  Dale sat next to Lydia so Tanah could sit next to his friend Erin when he finally arrived.  As he sat down, Lydia moved across the bench so they wouldn’t be sitting right next to each other and suddenly found an intense interest in her food.  Where was Tanah anyway?

‘Ah, hi.  I’m Dale.  Tanah invited me to the table tonight?’

Erin noticed his discomfort and took control of the situation.  ‘Hi Dale, I’m Erin.  This is Lydia.’ 

Erin frowned when Lydia didn’t lift her eyes from her food.  ‘So what brings you to the ship Dale?’  Erin asked. Tanah had already told her Dale was a hunter, but she thought it would be a good way to draw Lydia into the conversation.

‘Ah, I’m a hunter’, Dale started nervously.  ‘I’m here just in case, I think.’

Lydia’s eyes lit up with interest.  She looked briefly at Dale, and then buried her face back in her food but Erin could see she was waiting to hear more.

Dale and Lydia were of a kind; not just as hunters but as social misfits.  While they were supremely confident on the job, that confidence did not transfer to social situations:  Hunting, at least for these two, was a solo task.  It required the development of a very introverted mindset. 

The practical upshot of this was that, although they craved human company, it also made them uncomfortable as it filled them with feelings of ineptness and social inferiority. People like Dale and Lydia were shells to the human world, but they also tended to be the most open kind of people amongst trusted friends.

‘Actually, Lydia, Tanah mentioned you’re a hunter too?’  Dale queried

‘Yeah, I have a little homestead that backs onto Vermilion Forest.’ Lydia answered. 

‘Vermilion Forest?  Where’s that?’ Dale asked.

‘About half a day north out of Mantle by horse, the monastery backs onto it.’

‘Ah’, Dale said, nodding.  That made sense.  The monastery was to the north just as Tanah said, but further to the west.  He knew of the monastery of course, everybody did, but as he had never been out that way he wasn’t aware of the forest.  ‘Good hunting?’ He asked politely.

‘Ah, sort of.’  Lydia replied vaguely.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, it isn’t meat or game.  There’s a pretty big cattle property out that way.  For some reason there are also a lot of predators and they aren’t afraid of the dogs, which is where I come in.’

‘You mean Hendersons’? The Hendersons’ property’s supposed to be pretty big and I think they’re out that way.  Why don’t they deal with it?’

‘Well, its just one of those things.  We’ve always had the homestead there and we’ve always taken care of their cattle.  Our families go back a long way, I guess it’s just always been like that.’

‘You two, your dinner is getting cold’, Erin gently reminded them.

Although they were still strangers, talking about such a familiar subject filled them both with confidence.

Dale ripped off a piece of meat and put it in his mouth.  ‘You’re right’, he agreed once he had finished swallowing.  ‘I wonder where Tanah is.’

Dale heard a chuckle from behind him.  ‘Behind you.’  Dale looked behind him and sure enough Tanah was there, holding a full plate of food.  Erin shifted on the bench to give him more room to sit.

‘Where have you been?’  Dale asked.

‘Let’s just say you’ve got your archery contest.’  Tanah said, smiling.

 

When dinner was over the plates were all cleared, everyone rinsed their hands off in a communal bowl of water and the drinking started.  All the losers of the day bought the winners their drinks.  It was clearly going to be a raucous night but Dale was still feeling a bit seedy from the other night.  After a couple of glasses of wine he called it a day and took himself off to bed.

 

The next morning was pretty similar to the day before.  After an early breakfast the soldiers found they were all fired up from the competition the day before and the novelty of trying to fight on the deck of the gently swaying ship.  It wasn’t long before the sound of steel striking steel and the flat thudding sound of the thick fighting staves smashing into the flat of the blades rang around the ship in a kind of violent, bizarre chorus.

Dale watched this with some enthusiasm until, almost an hour later, Edgar finally held his sword above his head and gave a victorious shout.  Gareth, a soldier of surprisingly small stature had attempted to grapple his way to victory.  He came out second best in the end, but there was a smile on his face as he brought Edgar the first of his victory drinks for the day.

Sergeant Rhyl wasn’t a part of the competition; he had been called into a meeting with the Ambassador and the other officers in the Stern Room. 

Curiosity got the best of everyone in the end and by the end of the first day everyone had taken a peak into the stern room to see what was so interesting in there.  It turned out there wasn’t really anything interesting.  The room inside consisted of a large table covered in paper.  The ambassador, some of the translators and several officers and other gentry were sitting around this table debating.  There were two doors on either side of the back wall. 

When he asked one of the crew, Dale learnt that one of these doors led to the Captain’s personal room which served as both bed and office.  The second door led to a storage room.

 

Some time mid-morning, Dale received a visit from Lydia.  She saw him sitting watching out to sea, his legs hanging comfortably off the side of the ship, and joined him.  They chatted for a while, about this and that; how lucky they were to have this fantastic weather, how beautiful the sea and the sky were, how amazing this ‘caravel thing’ was.   

They talked about their families, their homes, and shared stories of their numerous hunting trips.

It felt good to have someone of a like mind to share their experiences with.  The moment was spoiled when Tanah walked past them.  Tanah was walking with the Captain when he spotted Lydia and Dale together.  He gave Dale a wink as he passed.

Dale gave Tanah a small wave then tried to pick the conversation back up but Lydia suddenly became self-conscious and excused herself. 

Dale, not understanding the mysterious ways of women, couldn’t figure out what he had done wrong and went back to watching the sea on his lonesome.

 

An hour before lunch the translators gave another class on Ogre.  Dale found himself paired with Tanah for the lesson once again.

The lesson never went anywhere, however.  The translators had only just finished running through some revision when shouts brought everyone to starboard side in a panic. 

The panic didn’t last long when they discovered what the shouting was about.  A pod of dolphins were playfully swimming alongside the ship.  It was a sight to behold:  Except for the crew, no one on the ship but for a few veterans had ever seen any marine animal other than the fish they dined on. 

Many would swear that this was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen.  The dolphins would come shooting out of the water, squeaking happily before diving back into its clear depths.  One shot a good eight feet out of the water and did a somersault before diving back into the waves.

Another was swimming on its side so that one flipper was out of the water, making it look like he was waving to the people on the ship.

The crew were all smiles as they happily told everyone this was a sign of good luck.  Dale was breath taken.

 

After lunch, Dale was surprised to see barrels of arrows on either side of the deck.  There were two barrels on each side.  Sergeant Rhyl stood in the middle and everyone naturally started to congregate around him to find out what was going on.

‘Afternoon, gentlemen’, the sergeant began.  ‘It seems that some of you have been inspired by the plaisance yesterday afternoon and this morning and want the opportunity to practice your own skills.  Here is your opportunity.  You can all see here four barrels on the deck.  There are a dozen arrows in each barrel.’

Most of the men looked at each other, confused.  The sergeant continued.

‘Due to the fact that we don’t have an infinite supply of arrows on board, they will have to be used sparingly.  What we have here is all you’re getting for the day.’

The majority of the men began shuffling their feet, not entirely sure where they fit into this particular picture. 

‘Now for those of you that don’t have your own bows, or who don’t know how to shoot - which I think is nearly all of you, it might be worth trying to make a deal with someone who does.’

 

The sergeant left them with that.  As he returned to the meeting in the captain’s quarters, the crowd quickly dispersed.  Most weren’t interested.  They went back to smoking or playing the few on-board games available such as cards, dice, ring toss and shuffle board, though there were a few souls curious enough to stick around and watch.

 

The archery started off well, the soldiers that had stuck around were utilized to throw the targets into the air for the hunters to try and hit.  The targets were primarily bits of broken plates and cups and food that had begun rotting. 

The archery practice finished with a bit of a no-stakes friendly competition between the shooters.  Lydia surprised everyone; she was the only female hunter and she confidently took second place in the competition.

Dale didn’t do so well.  It wasn’t that he was a bad shot:  It was just that he relied on ambushing and a single precise shot.  Snap shooting simply wasn’t his thing. 

Eventually dinner rolled around.   Dale, Lydia and the other hunters sat at a table together, swapping stories over drinks. 

 

The next few days were almost identical.  A bit of swordplay after breakfast, a lesson in Ogre before lunch, about a half hour of archery after lunch and then mind numbing boredom until the mess opened for dinner. 

The trip was going smoothly so far.  Nothing really untoward had happened.  There was one occasion when a soldier, full of booze, jumped off the ship on a dare.  The soldier wasn’t as good a swimmer as he thought he was and another had to jump in to try and save him. 

The crew managed to pull them both aboard without too much drama and nothing was said that night.  The next morning they were lashed to one of the masts and whipped, mostly as a warning to everyone else. 

The soldiers learnt their lesson and nothing more was said about it.

 

For most, the novelty of looking out to sea had worn off by the sixth day.  Nearly all of the fresh food stores had either been eaten or had rotted which further depleted morale and they ended up drinking more and sleeping longer to try and pass the time.

Despite this, when there was shouting on deck everyone would rush up to see what it was all about.  They were witness to schools of fish bigger than they could have imagined, swimming past the ship.  The crew said they had also seen a whale on the fourth night.  They said it was big, huge:  At least twice as long as the ship and half again as wide. 

Conveniently, no one else had been above deck to witness it and it was passed off as being just one more of the sailor’s tall stories that they told to all ignorant land lubbers.

 

The real rush, however, came mid-afternoon on the seventh day, when the cries of ‘Land Ho! Land Ho!’ from the crow’s nest above drew every man to the bow of the ship in record time.  They were disappointed when they couldn’t see anything in the distance and felt only a little better when they learnt the spotter could only see the land because he was using something called an ‘eye glass’. 

It was sunset when land finally came into view.  Sheer excitement kept people leaning over the guardrail straining their eyes long after darkness set in. 

 

Most of the ship stayed up drinking all night so they could see the morning in.  When it came, land stretched out in front of the ship as far as they could see.  Hills dotted with trees opened up into what appeared to be a natural port:  In one small area the land was almost flat, and the beach stretched out to sea like a natural pier. 

While the others seemed fairly spartan, the closest hill looked almost pockmarked with little caves.

As they got closer to the quay, they could make out figures forming a crowd along the beach near the natural pier. 

After what seemed an eternity the captain ordered the sails to be trimmed and the ship was brought to a gentle stop alongside the pier.  Dale wondered how the ship could be so close to the land without becoming beached. 

Ropes were thrown over the side and tied to massive stakes in the ground of the pier.  As the crew hustled to set the ramps, everyone else found their eyes drawn to the crowd on the beach.

The figures, much closer now, appeared to be massive mutated men.  They all stood about eight feet tall, and were built proportionately. 

 

Once the ramp was set the crew dispersed onto other tasks.  The soldiers pushed through their various states of insobriety and began unloading the ship’s stores under the direction of Sergeant Rhyl. 

As dale was pushed and shoved about by men trying to work, he noticed Tanah standing on the raised platform.  He also noticed that nearly everyone that wasn’t a soldier or part of the crew had congregated up there with him.

Dale didn’t need any more convincing that that was where he belonged.  As he got closer he realized Tanah had somehow gotten hold of an eyeglass and was looking through it toward the monsters on the beach. 

‘Where’d you get that from?’ Dale asked him.

‘The captain’, Tanah mumbled without looking away.

‘Hey Dale’, Erin said.  She was standing next to Tanah but Dale was engrossed in the eye glass and hadn’t seen her.

‘Hey Dale’, Lydia said with a smile as she approached the group. ‘What’s happening?’

‘Hi Erin’, Dale answered with a quick smile before turning to Lydia.  ‘I don’t know’, he said with a shrug.

‘Two heads.’ Tanah mumbled, still looking through the eyeglass. 

‘What?’ Dale asked, puzzled. 

They all had a closer look.  Sure enough the men on the beach had two heads.  Or it looked like they did; the men were just far enough away to blur the shape so that they couldn’t be certain.

‘Here.’  Tanah said, passing the eyeglass to Dale.

Dale put the thing to his eye.  It took him a while to get the sights correct as Tanah impatiently directed him.  Once the sights were set, however, he could see exactly what Tanah meant.

 

The ‘men’ on the beach all had two heads.

Or rather, they all had space for two heads:  Some only had the one head but where the other should have been, there was only a knotted bit of flesh. 

 

‘See that knot looking thing?’ Tanah asked, as if reading Dale’s mind.

‘Yeah, what is that?’ Dale asked.

‘Here, let me look.’  Erin said, gently prying the eyeglass out of Dale’s hands.

‘I don’t know for sure.  I heard the crew talking about it the other night.  If you can believe their stories, these Ogres are all born with two heads but-‘, Tanah stopped to help Erin fix the sights.

‘But the heads don’t always survive.’  Tanah paused again to look Dale in the eyes.  ‘Apparently, if one of the heads dies, they crush the skull and tie a knot in the remaining skin after the bones are removed.’

‘That’s disgusting,’ said Lydia.

‘Yeah, right’, Erin said with a chuckle.  ‘Just like they saw that ‘whale’ the other night.  Here you go girl’, she said as she handed Lydia the eyeglass.  ‘See if you can figure that thing out.’ 

Lydia fiddled with it for a while, bringing it this way and that trying to find the men on the beach with its tunnel-vision lens.  Once she found the men she tried fiddling with the distance between the lens and her eye to try and get the men in focus.  Frustrated, she gave up and handed it back to Tanah.

‘Seven days on the open water crying for land.’  A voice came from somewhere behind them.  ‘Now we’ve found land and you’re not interested?’  The voice queried.

The group turned to see who belonged to the voice and saw the captain himself standing there.  He was on his own:  Everyone else had apparently made their way down the ramp to dry land while they had been discussing the ogres and trying to figure out how to use the eyeglass.

‘Go on now,’ the captain prompted.  As they went to leave the captain put his hand on Tanah’s arm.

‘Oh, right’, Tanah said.  He gave the captain his eyeglass back with a wink, and then they all made the short descent to this strange new land.

 

Dale found the beach sand surprisingly hard beneath his feet and it was easier to walk on than he had expected.  It was a bit over half a kilometre from where the ship had docked to the beach itself but excitement gave them all wings and the walk was over in what felt like moments. 

The rows upon rows of two-headed monsters greeted them amicably as they approached:  The females threw garlands of flowers over each and every man and woman from the ship while the males clapped and hooted loudly. 

Their behaviour completely belied their appearance.  The only thing that stopped the shipmates from panicking was the fact that the sailors, who had all been here before, seemed quite at ease among the monsters.

A short time later, the Kanimbla crew cheered as the Mongoose pulled up safely on the opposite side of the pier.

 

When everyone was off the ship and the stores had been unloaded, they were led as a group around the back of the foremost hill. 

As they rounded the hill, the sound of drums and pipe music greeted them.

On the other side of the hill the ground opened up into a small valley that was surprisingly flat considering the hills surrounding it. 

Directly beneath the hill was what appeared to be the Ogres’ village.  Bizarre little houses that seemed to have formed out of the earth itself dotted the landscape in clusters. 

Dale couldn’t tell whether it was normally there or not, but the Ogres had a thriving marketplace.  It stretched across the front of the Ogre’s homes making a kind of wall of pavilions and people between the Ogre village and the beach.

 

Dale noted the sailors had all abandoned any pretence of working and were spread amongst the various stalls attempting to haggle in broken Ogre. 

‘What are we supposed to be doing?’ Dale asked.

‘Whatever you want,’ Tanah said, shrugging.

Dale frowned.  ‘Oh, ok.  Well how long are we here for then?’ 

‘That depends.  The stopover was planned for a week, but I reckon we’ll only be here a couple of days.’

‘Why’s that?’ Dale asked.

‘We’re just here to resupply and the week was for any maintenance on the ship but we’ve had better weather than we had any right to expect.’  Erin interrupted. 

She could see Tanah was itching to run off on his own and inspect the Ogres’ wares for himself. 

‘Hey fellas are you coming?’ A stranger said as he pushed his way past the group.

‘Coming where?’ Erin asked.

‘The translators are going to help us haggle, just got to find a group!’ The man called back.

Tanah burst into action.  ‘Come on’, he said as he raced after the man.  The others ran to keep up.

 

‘Ugh.  This is supposed to be jewellery?’ Erin said with a grimace. 

‘Yes, it is.’  Tanah said as he snatched up a handful.  He held it in front of the stall owner’s single face.  ‘How much?’ 

The ogre pointed at Tanah’s head. 

Tanah put his hand to his head.  ‘My hat?’  He asked, taking it off.  ‘Here you go.’ 

The ogre gave a happy hoot and placed the hat on her own head.  She gave a toothy smile but the fear it would have caused was lessened by the hat sitting comically on her over-large head.

Her breath stunk.

Tanah thanked the Ogre in her own language, which prompted another happy hoot and a clap, then watched the jewellery sift through his fingers into a pouch.

The jewellery consisted of small animal bones, teeth and small squares of tanned leather on necklaces and bracelets made of sinew or intestine.  It was very primitive and the girls wondered what Tanah saw in it.

 

Dale felt a tug on his arm. ‘Dale, look!’ It was Lydia, and she was pulling him to another stall.  Dale gave Tanah and Erin a backward glance as he let Lydia lead him away.

Thick lengths of vine were strung between the branches of two short trees that had somehow been hammered into the ground.  Various animal skins hung over the vines.  There were various small animals, a few wolf pelts and the biggest bear skin Lydia and Dale had ever seen.  The beast must have stood over twelve feet tall. 

A two-headed ogre who had been standing on the other side of the skins, walked around to greet them.  One head smiled at them, exposing a neat row of sharp teeth while the other head shouted at them in the rough ogre language. 

The ogre thumped his chest and pointed at the bearskin then began jumping up and down making stabbing motions and shaking his fists.

Dale and Lydia backed up, until they walked into someone.  Another ogre stood snarling over them and they fled further down the line of stalls until they found a crowd of humans standing around an assortment of over-large weapons.  There was a translator with them, so they slipped into the safety of the crowd.

 

Massive clubs were presented on a wooden rack in the middle of the crowd.  Each four or five feet long, most of them ended in a rounded head slightly larger than a human skull and in fact many had animal skulls strapped to them.

On the other side of the rack were spears, about the same length the Moribundians used but thicker and heavier.

Lying in a pile next to the rack were what Dale shaped rocks all uniform in size.  Next to the rocks lay axes, all with stone heads.

There were no swords, Dale noticed.  No swords, no knives, no pikes or halberds.  It was possible they were simply at another stall or not on sale to the general public but somehow Dale didn’t think so.

Lydia had something else on her mind.  ‘We should see what kind of bows they have!’ She said, excited.  ‘Can you imagine the size of the arrow these brutes must use?’

‘Dou you think we’ll even be strong enough to pull their strings back?’ Dale countered.

Apparently forgetting the ogres from the animal skin stall, Lydia led Dale back through the throng to find a bowyer or fletcher.

On their search they came across Tyrrell, a young soldier who had doubled as the ship’s minstrel.  He held a group of ogres captivated as he sat on a stump playing his flute for any who would listen.

While on the Kanimbla, Tyrrell had become somewhat enamoured with Lydia and he gave them a friendly wave as they passed.

Lydia blushed but they kept searching for the elusive bows until they ran into Tanah again at the far end of the markets.

Tanah had somehow convinced George Coltrane, one of the linguists who taught the ogre classes on the ship, to give him a private tour of the market. 

Their heads were close together and they were talking in hushed tones.  Dale wasn’t sure about interrupting them but Lydia had no such qualms.

‘Tanah’, Lydia said as they approached, ‘have you seen any bows or hunting gear on your travels?’

Tanah shook his head but the question brought a smile to his face that was so intense they both took a step back.  He quickly regained his composure.

‘No, I haven’t.  I gather they don’t need hunting gear – as far as I can tell they just throw big rocks.’

The linguist gave him a look which the others couldn’t quite interpret.  ‘If its bows you’re after they don’t have any,’ he informed Lydia.  ‘You will be joining them on the hunt some time tomorrow anyway, so you’ll find out all about it then.’  With that, he turned back to whatever he and Tanah had been discussing earlier.

Lydia didn’t appreciate George’s shortness but she decided she would just have to find out exactly what was going on from Tanah later.

 

An odd noise; something like a pig grumbling while blowing bubbles into a stew, erupted from Dale’s stomach and suddenly they both realized they were hungry.

Dale’s first thought was to return to the ship and beg the cook for something but then he realized he was on dry land and could probably find fresh food somewhere.  He wasn’t sure what these ogres ate but surely their diet couldn’t differ too much from his own?  From the sheer size of them and their incredible muscle mass Dale guessed they probably ate a lot of meat, which was just fine by him.

 

After a short wander past the myriad food stalls they hadn’t noticed until now, they stopped at the one they thought looked the nicest.  Most of the other stalls seemed to sell nothing but heavily spiced meats and for some reason chopped up plants. 

This stall, however, had a couple of different kinds of meat (though neither Dale nor Lydia could readily recognize either of them) on a pointy stick with bits of onion and some leaves.  It wasn’t as heavily spiced as the rest of the food and its smell wasn’t quite as pungent so it seemed the way to go. 

Dale pointed at the kebabs and said ‘how much?’ in the best Ogre he could manage.  The ogre thumped his chest twice and grunted loudly before offering his palm face up to Dale.

The expression, Dale had learnt on the ship, meant literally ‘gift’ - the ogre was giving him something; in this case, the meat was free.  He wasn’t sure why and couldn’t be certain he hadn’t misinterpreted, so he pulled out his coin purse and started shuffling a few coins into his hand. 

On seeing this, the ogre snorted and half-turned his back to Dale.  He gave him a backward glance under a furrowed brow as he did so, which Dale knew meant that he had somehow offended him.

He shrugged and put the pouch back into a fold in his tunic before offering Lydia a kebab and taking one for himself. 

The meat tasted of garlic and another herb Dale was sure he hadn’t tasted before.  The leaves tasted a little like onion, but with a bit more ‘zing’.

With all the onion, garlic and other herbs it was no wonder the ogres had such foul breath.  Dale wondered if this food was part of the ogre’s regular diet or if it was just something found at the markets like at home.

 

Dale hadn’t realized how hungry he had been.  The kebabs had awakened that hunger and now he felt pangs in his stomach, although he couldn’t be certain he wasn’t just feeling sick from eating whatever was on the kebabs.

A look at Lydia told him she was feeling the same way, but something else caught his attention.  The markets had slowly been dying down for some time but now the majority of the stalls had been packed up and the area was almost devoid of people. 

‘Where did everyone go?’ Dale asked Lydia.

The sun was starting to set.  He hadn’t realized it was so late.

‘I don’t know but there’s Tanah’, Lydia said.  She pointed to where Tanah was making his way toward them.  He was accompanied by Tyrrell and another soldier Dale didn’t recognize.

‘Are you going to join us?’  Tanah asked as Dale and Lydia met them halfway.

‘Join you?’ Dale wondered aloud.

‘Ah, yeah. As we’re here on official government business, we get to dine with the ogre hierarchy tonight.  So you coming?’

 

Tanah and the two soldiers led them out of the market and through the ogre town.  They stopped a couple of times as Tanah pointed out some of the amazing ogre architecture (that had been pointed out to him earlier) on a few of the buildings they passed. 

On some houses, the ground raised into little hollowed-out mounds.  It didn’t look natural, like they had simply dug out existing mounds.  Some of the ‘mounds’ even had square edges:  It was as if the ogres had somehow discovered a way to mould the very earth itself. 

Other houses were made similar to human structures, except that the support beams holding up the house weren’t cut lengths of timber but entire trees.

Then they came to the town centre, a massive structure of earth supported by monolithic pillars of stone.  The earth rose from the ground like a massive dome, a good four feet taller than the ogres that used it. 

Six feet of earth was suspended above the ground, full size trees growing out of the top.  Vines writhed artistically around the pillars.  The ground inside the dome was not just bare, but incredibly smooth and even where they walked, no footprints would mar its surface.

Inside the dome were rows of trestle tables and bench seats, enough to fit the two hundred and fifty-odd humans that had come across on the caravels and almost as many ogres. 

The benches seemed to be made of a single log which the ogres had somehow bent into shape without breaking it. 

‘How do you think they do that?’ Dale asked, gesturing at a bench as they passed it.

‘Who knows?’ Tanah replied, shrugging.  ‘Maybe they control the way the log grows?’

 Tanah led the group to their seats, which were at the furthest end of the dome from the head tables. 

All the seats were arranged so that humans were all on one side and the ogres were on the other, perhaps to force some socialization between the visitors and their generous hosts.

 

At the head tables sat the captains and first mates of the Kanimbla and the Mongoose, the ambassador and his entourage, the army officers, the linguists and the other assorted gentry.

Opposite them were what Dale assumed to be their ogre counterparts; probably their lord, his family, important council members and the wealthy.

In contrast to the bawdy tables at the far end of the dome, the head tables exuded polite conversation. 

 

Each table had its own buffet, full of all sorts of gourmet ogre food.  Most was unpalatable to human tastes; raw meat, fish and unidentifiable plants mostly.  The kebabs were there, however, and most of the humans picked at the ogre food and found at least some of it was surprisingly delectable. 

There were only two kinds of drinks available.  Fresh water, thankfully, sat in pitchers.  There was also something else in a bowl that looked like nothing so much as muddy water.

‘What’s this I wonder?’  Tanah wondered aloud, his face screwing up as he looked at it.  ‘Are we supposed to wash our fingers in this?’ 

‘No, it’s a drink called kava’, Dale informed him. 

Kava was an intoxicating beverage he had once tried at the Mantle markets.  Most islanders drunk kava ritually but it couldn’t be found anywhere on the mainland except at the markets.

It was made from the root of a plant and affected the body more like a drug than like alcohol.

Tanah poured some of the mystery liquid into his cup, which he kept in a pocket at all times. 

Tanah had a sip, then frowned and had a mouthful.  It left his lips tingling a little bit and his tongue feeling oddly dry.  ‘Good god’, he said. 

‘You’re not supposed to sip it.  You’re supposed to just down the whole thing at once’, Dale told him helpfully.

Tanah held his cup out to Dale.  ‘Here, you want it?’

‘No, thankyou’, Dale replied.  ‘I wasn’t planning on drinking tonight.  Lydia was telling me earlier that we should be able to go on a hunt with the orgs, whatever they are.’

‘Aah,’ Tanah said, nodding.  ‘That sounds romantic.  Well, you kids have fun’.  Tanah downed the last of the kava in his cup with a grimace, and then left the dome to join the celebrants outside. 

Indeed the food and drink weren’t the only items of interest.  Ogre women danced around the perimeter of the dome and further in the distance Dale could make out both humans and ogres drinking and singing around little fires.

There were two occasions that caused everyone in the dome, from the dancers to the head table, to stop what they were doing.

The first was when various members of the head table, most notably the ambassador and the ogre chief, gave speeches to the assembled audience which were translated so everyone could understand.

The speeches were the standard sort of thing:  Welcome to Gogdof, unbelievable luck with the weather on the voyage, congratulations on being selected for such an important mission, hopefully we’ll have the same luck on the rest of the journey to Lawnton.

The second was when Edgar, the strongest man in the King’s Fourth Sword Company and arguably the strongest human in Gogdof, challenged an ogre to an arm wrestle.

His first opponent was an ogre of quite a decent build.  At first everyone was certain the ogre was taking it easy on Edgar as they seemed fairly evenly matched.  But then, after a long struggle, Edgar finally forced the ogre’s hand to the table. 

Edgar jumped up and shook his fists in the air as loud cheers erupted from both the humans and the ogres.  The cheers turned to raucous laughter when a much larger ogre, probably the ogre’s champion, thumped his chest and challenged Edgar to the next match. 

Edgar, wide-eyed, shook his head and sat back down.  Someone in the crowd called out, suggesting that Sergeant Rhyl should have a go but the sergeant gracefully declined and the crowd slowly dispersed.

 

When Dale had had his fill, he looked outward to where humans and ogres freely intermingled, the magic of drink bringing the two races together like nothing else could. 

It was quite amazing, really.  The ogres were so big the humans were put in their place.  In fact, the ogres tended to treat the humans like they might their own younger siblings. 

As Dale watched the dancers he was vaguely aware that Lydia was by his side.  It didn’t surprise him; she was shy and he doubted dancing with complete strangers would be her thing. 

 

Dale thought he saw a flicker of light in the corner of his eye but before he could confirm it the world exploded above him.  The night sky was lit as a brilliant light illuminated the dancers below brighter than day.  A massive ball of fire erupted in the air above.

The fireball was higher in the air than it appeared and the heat from it barely made it to the ground.  Most of those below were already so hot and sweaty from dancing they didn’t notice.

The reactions to the fireball were varied.  The soldiers dove for cover.  The majority of the civilians were struck by a kind of panicked awe and froze. 

Another fireball exploded above, and then another.

As the soldiers began to reform under the shouts of the junior commanders, Dale realized the ogres weren’t running and hiding or attacking the humans:  They were actually cheering.

It was then he noticed the ambassador, his entourage and the crew of both ships had lined up around the earthen pavilion.  They watched the fireballs split the sky with expectant smiles.  As the humans slowly came to realize they weren’t in any danger they relaxed and enjoyed the show. 

 

Dale wasn’t sure when it had happened but somewhere in the first terrifying moments Lydia had slipped into his arms and he found he was holding her tight against himself.  They stayed like that for the duration of the show.  When things had relaxed Tyrrell, who had stayed behind earlier, shot Dale a dirty look and left the dome to join the dancers. 

Moribund didn’t have fireworks and so Dale had no way to relate to the fireballs.  Instead, he turned his attention to finding their source.  Another fireball arced across the sky illuminating a small posse of two-headed ogres on the surrounding hillocks.  Dale watched as the ogres, one by one, appeared to pull an invisible object in close to their chests and then throw it with all their might into the sky.  Whatever the object was, it seemed to create the fireballs.

And then the show was over.  Lydia realized she was being held and gave an embarrassed smile before slipping out into the darkness.  Dale stood   there a moment, his arms holding emptiness.  He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong but there was nothing else for it so he wandered out into the darkness too. 

It wasn’t a conscious decision to follow Lydia but he thought maybe he would at least run into Tanah.  He hadn’t planned on drinking tonight but with his companions already out there doing just that in this strange new land, what else was there to do?

 

Tanah woke some time mid-morning.  Dale was passed out on the ground beside him, which meant he wasn’t out hunting with the orgs like he was supposed to be.   

Without moving his body, Tanah reached his arm across and shook Dale.  ‘Dale.’

Dale stirred, then slapped at the intrusive arm and rolled away.

‘Dale!’  Tanah said again, more insistent this time as he groped around on the ground.  His hand closed on a rock, which he tossed toward Dale’s head.  The rock went high and Dale’s slumber continued unabated.

‘Dale you bloody basset hound, get up.  I thought you were supposed to be a hunter.’

A loud snore broke Tanah’s already tenuous resolve.  Giving up, he rolled over so that his face was out of the sun and went back to sleep.

 

Some hours later Dale was back in his cabin on the ship preparing his hunting gear.  Lydia was just up the hall doing the same thing in her own room. 

Apparently Lydia had ‘slept in’ as well.  Dale vaguely remembered finding her again last night, amongst the group watching Tyrrell play his flute.  Just as he had gone to sit with her, Tyrrell had finished his song and walked off, hand in hand with Lydia, into the darkness.

Dale had spiralled on a jealousy-induced drinking rampage after that, and his mind blocked out any memories of the rest of the night.

 

The ogres, it seemed, had slept in too and the planned morning hunt never took place.  When the village finally woke to a left-overs lunch, they decided to go on an afternoon hunt instead.  Any catch wouldn’t be prepared in time for dinner but the humans were only going to be in the village for one more day and there was no guarantee there would be any time again later. 

Hopefully they would have a good catch:  A good catch meant fresh meat on the ships for a couple of days before they had to go back on the highly despised preserved rations.

Dale wasn’t too sure what to expect on this hunt.  While the humans were in typical hunting garb; basically any clothing that allowed plenty of freedom of movement and that blended in with their environment, the ogres were still wearing their festive garments from the day before.

The humans all came armed with bows and their favourite hunting knives.  Their arrows were held in a few different ways.  For example Lydia, the fast shooter, preferred a large quiver with plenty of arrows.  Dale, who preferred to ambush his prey, had only a small quiver and a few arrows.  Other hunters preferred to sneak up on their prey.  They had even fewer arrows which they strapped to their chests to ensure complete silence. 

The ogres however carried a few large rocks or a single massive club – if they were armed at all. 

There were several hunting parties going out this day.  A good half of the ogre villagers were apparently orgs, which seemed to mean they thought they were hunters.  The org hunting parties split up into groups of about five each.  The human hunters were paired off and, once they each joined an org hunting party, the groups all speared off in different directions into the hills and out into the forest around the village.

 

‘Have you ever seen anything like this?’ Dale asked Flynn, his human companion.

‘No, no I haven’t.  I don’t know about you but when I go hunting I try not to let my prey know I’m coming.’ Flynn responded cynically. 

The ogres had the strangest method of hunting Dale had ever encountered.  As far as he could tell, he had just been wandering around in the forest for the last hour, just kind of hoping they ran into something.  The ogres weren’t sneaking at all. 

In fact they were just kind of strolling, talking loudly, joking and laughing as they went. 

‘Well I guess the menu for the voyage is going to be jerky.’  Dale said with more than a hint of annoyance.  Lydia had left him confounded, his head was still pounding from the night before and he was quickly losing his patience.

‘I don’t know what you’re complaining about.  Your ship gets priority any—way’.  A horn sounded somewhere in the distance, stopping Flynn mid-grumble.  ‘What was that?’

Dale shook his head.  Something was happening.  Dale could hear buzzing and saw one of the ogres lunging as he threw a rock.  Dale crouched and drew his knife, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it:  Predators were not unusual in the Forsooth valley and using his knife meant he couldn’t outrun whatever was coming at him.

A flash of colour attracted Dale’s attention and finally he could see what the ogres were fussing about.  What appeared to be a massive wasp - it looked to be four or five feet in length from the tip of its tail to its head and its wings were probably a foot and a half long each – flew up from behind a tall bush.  Dale hadn’t been able to see over the bush but the ogres’ height must have allowed them to. 

 

The wasp rose over the bush and flew straight at its closest attacker.  The ogre dove to the ground close to where Flynn had already taken cover behind a large tree.  The wasp flew away. 

Just as Dale began to relax, thinking the trouble over, a grunt from an ogre alerted him to the wasp’s return.  There was a flash of colour maybe thirty or forty metres away.  Despite its size, Dale could barely make the wasp out through the trees.  The wasp rose, higher and higher, its bright yellow stinger curled underneath it ready to attack.

Dale dropped his knife, took up his bow and nocked an arrow.  He took the shot just as the wasp struck at the ogre closest to it, but the shot was hurried and it went high.  The ogre tried to smash the wasp with his rock as it struck.  The rock hit, hard, swatting the wasp away with lethal force but not before the stinger had begun to penetrate.  Dale expected the ogre’s strength and the massive rock to kill the wasp outright but the moment the wasp hit the ground it buzzed angrily and flew back the way it came.

 

The ogre moaned and beat its chest.  Another ogre snarled and made a motion like he wanted Dale to go over to him. Dale started toward him but the ogre snorted and pointed somewhere at the ground near Dale’s feet.  The knife; Dale had left it on the ground. 

The ogre took the knife when Dale handed it to him, and proceeded to cut into the other ogre’s chest.  Dale watched, momentarily horrified, but then realized that the ogre was actually extracting part of the stinger from the other ogre’s chest. 

When the ogre whose chest was currently being sliced open’s expression changed from grimacing to smiling, Dale had to see what he was smiling about.  The other ogres looked too, and gave a small cheer when they saw Flynn walking toward them holding the gigantic wasp in both hands.

Flynn looked to be struggling with the weight, so once the injured ogre gave him a congratulatory slap on the back he took the wasp and slung it over his own huge shoulder. 

 

‘Well done, Flynn.’ Dale said amiably. The adrenaline from the brief encounter had made him forget his headache and he was enjoying the thrill of the kill.

Flynn only managed a wink in response when the other ogres started making noises and began jogging toward the direction of the horn.  The ogres had a quick but heavy gait and the two hunters, both fairly fit, were able to keep up with them easily.

When the ogres determined they were close to the horn they slowed to a walk.  Whistles and clapping told them they were already too late for whatever was coming up.

Indeed, about fifty more metres and they found the source of the cheering.  Nearly two dozen ogres - obviously four or five hunting parties, stood around the body of an enormous bear.

The bear must have stood a good ten, twelve foot tall and it looked like it had to weigh at least a tonne.  Good, Dale thought.  That meant plenty of fresh meat for the voyage.

The bear was riddled with arrows, but it was so massive it was doubtful the bear would have even noticed them.  Dale was counting them when he felt a nudge in his ribs.  It was Lydia, and she was looking pretty pleased with herself. 

‘So what did you guys get?’ She asked smugly.

Dale pointed sheepishly at the wasp the injured ogre had dumped unceremoniously at the base of a tree. 

 

He would be hearing about this all the way to Harmith, he was sure.