Prologue: Heroes

Sunlight filtered through faded curtains onto Dale’s face as he lay sprawled across his bed. His head danged awkwardly over the side, his mouth was wide open, and he was snoring loudly. Dale was a hunter by trade. On any other day, he would have been awake long before the sun came up, sitting with his back against a tree deep in the Forsooth Valley waiting patiently for the first animals of the day to make their way down to one of the many small creeks that dotted the landscape. But today was no ordinary day.

A loud knock on the door interrupted Dale from his slumber. With no small amount of effort, he pushed his feet off his bed and brought himself to a sitting position. Instantly, the room started spinning wildly around him and he was forced to close his eyes and hold his head with both hands to make it stop. Another loud knock shocked his eyes open again.

‘What!’ Dale shouted as he dragged himself to his feet by pulling on the small table he kept beside the bed. The table toppled a little under his weight, causing a lamp that had been sitting on the table to slip off. Dale lunged to save it but lost his balance as he did so. More knocking could be heard over the sound of the glass smashing on the floor; softer than before but more insistent.

Now that he was upright and the room had stopped spinning, Dale managed to compose himself a little. His balance returned enough that he was able to leave his bedroom. The next room served as a kitchen, dining area, living area, and possessed the only door to his house. Currently, the door was wide open, and a large middle-aged man was standing in the passage. Dale had never seen the man before but his bearing and short haircut identified him as a soldier. The soldier was out of uniform but he was wearing an armband with three vertical lines stitched onto it. Dale recognized this to be where soldiers kept their rank if they had any, but was ignorant as to how the ranking system worked.

‘Can I help you?’ Dale slurred at the intruder. His mind reeled as he tried to remember what he could possibly have done the night before to cause a soldier to rouse him at such an ungodly time in the morning but decided that he had better be polite just in case.

‘You’re late. You had better get your things and make them appear in the wagon up the end of the road in the next fifteen minutes or you’ll be leaving without them,’ came the gruff reply.

‘Wait, what? What things, what wagon? Leaving where?’ Dale asked, bewildered. Then he remembered.

Dale had had a particularly successful hunt the day before, followed by a surprisingly quick sale, and he had spent the rest of the day celebrating. While he was eating, a herald entered and announced that the King required skilled men to venture across the sea as part of a larger entourage on the King’s own business. The venture itself was nothing new; the town had been talking of little else for the better part of the last year, but it was a widely believed fact that all positions had been filled before the mission had been announced to the people. As it turned out, this was true. But as is often the way of things, a bout of dysentery swept through the town the day before the ship was set to sail. Dysentery on a ship could be fatal, and so those members had to be left behind. Weather concerns meant the voyage could not be postponed, and so the governor elected to simply replace those quarantined with other able-bodied men. There were whispers about the town that the voyage was cursed, and the thought of actually leaving home and venturing across the ocean became more real and sinister in people’s minds. There were not many volunteers.

Luckily for Dale, the herald informed him, the King had no need for such cowards. What the King did need was capable hunters – and because Dale would be doing the King a personal favour by going on this mission, he would be repaid with more money than he would ever know what to do with. Dale, being in as good a mood as he was at the time and more than slightly intoxicated, had signed up on the spot. He then proceeded to drink well into the night, announcing to anyone who would listen that he was about to leave on a wild adventure, and would come back richer than his wildest dreams – the King himself had said so!

The soldier looked hard at Dale, and then sniffed the air. His face visibly softened as he realised this was one of the shanghaied. ‘Quick, go and have a wash,’ he said. ‘It will be your last proper wash for nearly a month. Hell, it could be your last wash, god forbid that bloody sea takes any more souls.’ The soldier’s eyes went distant and he unconsciously rubbed the side of his face, suddenly lost in thought. But it only lasted a moment, and his eyes went hard again. ‘I’ll tell the wagon master to wait, but I strongly suggest you at least ask your neighbour to help you pack. Don’t take too long’.

With that, the soldier turned and walked back down the trail that led from the hunter’s home back to the road. Dale wasn’t sure what else he could do at this point, so he quickly wrapped a few sets of clothes into a sheet, grabbed his bow and quiver, and stuffed his knife and the other tools of his trade into his work belt. Leaving his meagre belongings at the front door, he raced around the back of his house to a tub of water he kept handy for washing his tools after a hunt, and tried to wash the alcohol out of his skin.

A little over an hour later, Dale was riding in the back of a wagon, sitting on a pile of luggage, hugging his bundle close to his body in an attempt to keep it from making the other passengers in the wagon too uncomfortable.

‘Sorry again,’ Dale said, but he didn’t get any response; in fact, the other passengers hadn’t said anything since he had finally arrived at the wagon.

Dale assumed they were too lost in their own thoughts, or at least that some of them were just as hung over as he was. His head pounded, and looking at the road rolling away under the wagon as they passed was making him feel queasy.

Mantle was originally a lonely fort built into the side of a hill; these days, Moribund was considered a monument to peace and unity, but it had not always been that way. While the fort was now utilised as a government house, its exterior had been maintained to remind the people of their bloody past.

A kilometre away, a stone wall ten foot high and three foot thick surrounded the fort. The area inside this ring was dubbed ‘The Old City,’ and it was home only to politicians, guild masters, and the notably wealthy. A select few of the most prominent businesses also had their offices in this district.

Beyond the stone wall, the city sprawled across the landscape for miles, and it was growing every year.

The city’s growth remained unchecked, except that the east side of the city was exclusively a manufacturing and warehousing district. Further east, the city met the sea, where Mantle boasted the largest and busiest port on the continent.

Dale watched Mantle’s lush countryside pass by through bleary eyes as the wagon rolled on. His home was almost ten kilometres north of the city, where fertile pastures gave way to a series of valleys rich in game.

As they moved further toward the east side of the city and passed through the walls that marked the borders of the old city, the wagon was bombarded with noise from all directions. The Port Access Road was filled with the screams of women, the cheers of men, and the excited shrieks of children. Dale weighed up whether leaning out the back of the wagon to see what was happening was worth the risk of vomiting if he did so, but it didn’t take long for curiosity to get the better of him.

Everywhere he looked, on both sides of the street, there were people waving and cheering. Confetti littered the street, and the very air was buzzing with excitement.

One of the other passengers gave a nervous smile as the words ‘we’re heroes’ escaped Dale’s lips.

The wagon eventually came to a stop and the passengers climbed out. Dale took a proper look at them for the first time. His first glance didn’t tell him much; there were three of them, they were all male, they were all about five years older than him and they all looked extremely fit. They were all fairly well presented; not quite wearing their Sunday best, but perhaps the cleanest set of practical clothes that they owned.

He didn’t get any more time to examine them as there were so many other things happening!

A row of wagons, all similar in appearance to the one he had arrived in, were in his immediate vicinity. Similarly, the passengers were unloading their gear and carrying it along a ramp toward the biggest ship he had ever seen. Not that he had seen many ships, but this one was really, really big. The word Kanimbla could be seen stretched along the length of the ship in letters that were each at least as tall as a man.

‘Wow. That thing is enormous,’ Dale breathed out loud. ‘How can it possibly float?’

The wagon master pushed Dale out of the way and started helping the other passengers out of the wagon. ‘They call it a caravel. I’m not sure what that means, but it’ll be your home for the next three weeks so I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Go on now, don’t gawk. You’ll be tired of seeing it soon enough. Here, take your things’. The wagon master held Dale’s things out in front of him, which he grasped without ever taking his eyes off the ship.

It was truly magnificent, unlike anything he had ever seen before. Surely it was the work of God. Surely no man could ever create anything so big that could float.

‘Go on now,’ the wagon master prodded.

Dale started to walk off, still mesmerized, then stopped. ‘Sorry, I never caught your name.’

‘I’m Harold. Now get going, or you’ll be staring at the back of the ship as it leaves without you.’

‘Thanks, Harold. Goodbye.’ Dale waved, but Harold had already walked around to the front of his wagon to untie the horses.

Dale walked up the ramp and onto the deck of the Kanimbla.

From where he stood, leaning against the guard rail on the deck of this tall ship, Dale could see well over the heads of a crowd that he hadn’t even realized was there until this very moment. No sooner had he reached the top of the ramp than he found himself jostled below deck and abruptly instructed to dump his gear on his bunk. He complied, but when he turned back for further instruction, no one was there. He was left to his own devices. With nothing left to do in the small room, he retraced his steps and continued looking out over the harbour. There were thousands of people pouring all over the docks and up the road. Half the town must be here, he thought to himself.

Dale stopped staring at the crowd long enough to examine the ship. The deck stretched out from the bow where he was standing for what looked like about thirty metres to the stern, which was raised from the rest of the ship. A man stood on the platform at the stern of the ship, shouting orders at a dozen or so men that were running around like ants on the deck, checking ropes and going through the process of setting each of the ship’s three sails.

Before he knew it, they were away.

Dale stayed hanging onto the guard rail, watching the town become smaller and smaller as the distance between the town and the ship grew. After an hour, although he could still see the town itself quite clearly, he could barely make out the shapes of people.

From the look of it, the crowd still hadn’t dispersed but Dale was no longer interested in that. With all the excitement finally starting to wear off, he started feeling the effects of the night before again. The gentle swaying of the ship wasn’t helping, and Dale was finding it harder and harder to keep his feet.

Some hours later, Dale opened his eyes. He was in a dark room, lit only by a small candle that was somehow suspended from the wall. The bed seemed comfortable enough, but he barely had enough room to roll over. Swinging his legs over the bunk, he found himself crashing to the floor.

That’s right. Top bunk, he thought. It was only a small drop, and if he had have been just slightly more coordinated he would have landed on his feet quite easily.

As he was sitting on the floor rubbing his knee, he heard the door creak open and could just barely make out the silhouette of a person entering the room.

‘Ho there, how’s your head?’ The newcomer enquired.

‘Aah,’ Dale thought about this for a moment, ‘it feels much better actually’

The newcomer laughed, ‘Have a bit to drink last night, did we? Here’, the stranger extended a hand to Dale. Dale reached out to grab the hand, expecting to be helped to his feet, but instead found it was holding a small pewter cup.

‘I managed to save you some supper. It isn’t much, but it should help you feel a little better. I’m Tanah, by the way’. Again, Tanah extended a hand to Dale. Dale swapped the cup to his other hand and reached out, expecting a handshake, but again Tanah was holding something. A plate.

Tanah laughed. As he did he bared his teeth, which shone in contrast to his exotically dark skin. Tanah spoke too well to be a native, but he obviously had some island heritage.

‘Uh. Thanks, Tanah. I’m Dale. Wait, dinner?’

‘Yeah, you’ve been aslee-ah‘, Tanah stopped short as he abruptly found himself being pushed from behind.

‘Oop, sorry friend,’ the intruder apologised. He stepped around Tanah, and promptly tripped over Dale, who was still sitting on the ground in the darkness. They both swore.

‘How you doing, friend? Finally awake, I see. I’m Nick. Are you going to come up and join us?’ The intruder asked as he began rummaging through something on the bunk across the room.

Dale could smell ale on the man’s breath and on his clothes. ‘No. I, ah, don’t think I will. Sorry, maybe tomorrow?’

‘Yeah, no problem. Aha, here it is.’ The man held something up to the light, but before Dale could work out what it was, the object was stuffed into a pocket. ‘We got three weeks in this tub anyway, I’m sure there’s plenty of opportunity for us to share a drink later.’ The man stepped over Dale and pulled the door open again. ‘See you boys in the morning,’ he said as he disappeared into the dark corridor.

‘I’m sure we will,’ Tanah said to the man’s retreating back.

‘Who was that?’ Dale enquired.

‘I don’t rightly know.’ Tanah grunted. ‘I hope that was his bunk’.

‘Right. Anyway what were you saying before?’ Dale asked.

‘What? Oh, you’ve been sleeping all day. I was starting to worry about you. Do you get seasick often?’ Tanah asked

Dale took a sip from the cup before he answered. ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been on the water before, I can’t even swim. I just thought it was because of last night.’

‘Ah’, Tanah nodded as he began to understand. ‘You must be one of the draftees then. Do you even remember signing up?’’

‘Barely,’ Dale answered, laughing. ‘The herald came into the tavern and I was already pretty gone. I don’t really know what I’ve signed myself up for.’

‘Yeah, a few others that got roped in the same way. You’re one of the lucky ones really, there were press-gangs everywhere after midnight,’ Tanah informed him. ‘We’re going to some place called Lawnton, in West Harmith. The King wants to open up trade negotiations, and we’ll be acting as the emissary’s escorts. I believe you’ll be one of those in charge of keeping us fed should the ship have to make for land for any reason, unless I have mistaken your trade?’

‘No, that’s right,’ Dale confirmed. ‘They told me I would probably just be coming along for a free ride, unless something went horribly wrong and they need to pull into land somewhere for maintenance. But I thought we were supposed to be exploring up the coast?’

‘No, the Mongoose is exploring up the coast. We’re stopping at a place called Port Henry. Mongoose will continue up the coast from there, but we’ll be going the rest of the way to Brunus on foot.’ Tanah was going to explain further, but he stopped. ‘Are you on the right ship?’

‘I have no idea,’ Dale admitted. ‘If not, I should be able to make the change when we reach Gogdof, shouldn’t I?’

Gogdof was the name of an Ogre town on a large island a little more than a week’s sail from Mantle. Gogdof was a regular stop off point for all Moribundian ships, and the Ogres were a highly likeable bunch that made surprisingly good trade partners.

It was lucky the Ogres were so accommodating, because the location of Gogdof and the ability to use it as a place to resupply and carry out any maintenance meant the Moribundian mariners could explore much further out to sea than they previously could have imagined.

It was this ability to travel so far by sea that inspired a nautical engineer named William Kanimbla, the ship’s namesake, to build a ship that could actually do it.

Tanah laughed. ‘I don’t know. You’ll have to ask in the morning.’

‘Who would I see about it?’ Dale asked.

‘Well’, Tanah said, ‘there’s the First Mate. He would know whether you’re supposed to be on his ship or not. Then there’s Sergeant Rhyl; he’s supposed to be the first point of contact on the ship for civilians with administration problems.’

‘Ok, I’ll ask around tomorrow. Thanks, Tanah.’

‘No worries,’ Tanah clapped a hand on Dale’s shoulder. ‘Listen, Dale, I’m going to have to call it a day. I might have a bit of a read and then I’m going to bed.’

‘Ok, goodnight.’ Dale wasn’t tired anymore, so he thought he would go for a walk instead. As Tanah climbed into the bunk below Dale’s, Dale slipped out of the room into a dimly lit corridor.

Dale made his way to the end of the corridor, where he knew he would find a small stairway leading to the deck above. On his way, he counted the doors he passed so he would be able to find his own room again, in case he had to do it in the dark later.

Eight doors he counted, which would make his room the ninth. Dale climbed the stairs and found the deck above surprisingly well lit.

The sky above was full of stars and there was a full moon, which made the paint on the guardrails glow luminously. No one else was on the deck, although he could see the first mate leaning on the rail on top of the stern platform of the ship. A beam of light indicated there was another man in the crow’s nest above.

Shouting and all the other rowdy noises involved with late night drinking could be heard coming from the front of the ship. Just the reminder was enough to make Dale’s head start throbbing, and he instinctively walked as far astern as he could without climbing the stairs to the captain’s platform.

Leaning on the rail, Dale looked out to sea. With the fresh smell of sea air all around him and a cool breeze gently brushing his face, Dale was certain he had never been anywhere so beautiful in his life.

There was no sign of land anywhere, though he hadn’t expected there would be. The moon’s brilliant light reflected off the water’s surface.

Dale felt something on his shoulder and turned to see the first mate standing behind him.

‘First timer?’

The rough voice of the first mate brought Dale back to the present. He tried to answer, and found he had been holding his breath.

‘It really is beautiful, isn’t it? There’s nothing else like it in the world,’ the first mate continued. His rough voice belied the gentle words coming out of his mouth, but Dale knew the man was being genuine. ‘I still remember my first time.’

The first mate moved so that he was leaning on the rail beside Dale. Dale wasn’t sure what to say, so they both simply stood there enjoying the view in silence for a time.

The first mate started breathing more heavily. Dale turned his head to see what the matter was, and found the first mate frowning intensely. There was a line on his face where something wet had fallen. Before Dale could determine whether it was perspiration or a tear, the first mate wiped it away.

‘It isn’t always like this, you know,’ the first mate informed Dale in a voice so low it was barely audible. ‘Once we leave Gogdof, we’ll be crossing The Great Ocean. This is the best time of year for it, but even now those seas are perilous. We have lost so many ships—‘. The first mate’s voice trailed off, and he turned his head away.

‘We’ll be fine,’ the first mate started again. ‘Our Captain’s the pride of the King’s navy, and the Kanimbla is the finest ship in the fleet. We’ll be fine.’ Dale wasn’t sure just who he was trying to convince.

Dale locked his gaze on the sea as the first mate squeezed his shoulder once and started walking back up the stairs to the platform. Once the first mate was out of sight, Dale returned downstairs, counting the doors back to his room.

Feeling his way around inside the room, Dale climbed the little ladder into his bunk and stretched out. Using a bundled up shirt as a pillow, he closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

The tight bunk space quickly became uncomfortable. Dale tried to counter this by letting one of his legs dangle off the side, but it didn’t help. The first mate’s words echoed the soldier’s words at his home that morning. He tossed and turned, but it was hours before the darkness would give him the relief he sought.

Next Chapter: Chapter One: Life at Sea