The Sun Vanguard
The fastest way to reach Gulfside is to travel by boat, sailing across the gulf in a matter of hours. The alternative is a grueling trip on land along the coast as it winds slowly away to the east and north and eventually back to the west. A trip of hundreds of miles following the curving coastline, when a short jaunt over the open water gets one there in a fraction of the time.
Ships to make such a trip can be found readily in Anchorage, a town due north of Thistledown, which sits on the southern shore of the gulf. On foot, as the companions travel, the journey from Thistledown to Anchorage takes most of the day, an easy march along a well-tended road of hard earth.
It’s downhill the entire way.
Behind them, the towering peaks of Gods’ Wall grow distant.
They enter the sleepy town of Anchorage at sunset, cutting a path through the town center towards the waterfront. The masts and sails of the largest vessels are visible, towering above all but a few of the town’s buildings. Shouted voices and the smell of the salt water reach them as they wind their way down the sloping, twisting streets. A few lazy gulls circle overhead in the pink and orange sky.
They book passage on one of the larger triple-masted ferries that regularly cross the gulf, and find themselves with a couple hours to kill while they wait for the ship to sail. A quick jaunt to a dockside tavern called The Rusty Nail passes the time quickly enough. Soon, they return to the ferry, which is called the Sun Vanguard, and board the waiting vessel.
Elaine glances over her shoulder as they mount the gangplank up to the ship, and spies Scarlet scowling down at the water below them.
When the two women are standing together on the boat deck a short while later and away from the others, Elaine asks, “It doesn’t bother you to be on a ship?”
“Why would it?” Scarlet’s eyes drift to the deck railing and the water beyond, and her face twists like she tastes something foul.
“Oh, because, um . . . you know, the whole . . .” Elaine flounders, intent on avoiding the word ‘swim’ and all its conjugates.
“Are we really talking about this again?” Scarlet growls.
Elaine presses her lips together, makes a show of looking elsewhere. After a moment passes and Scarlet hasn’t moved away, Elaine glances over. Takes it as an invitation to say more.
“You don’t . . . get seasick?”
Scarlet glares at the cleric for a moment, and then she reaches into her pack and pulls out a bottle of spirits to show Elaine. “I get drunk.” She exhales through her nose, a sort of sharp sigh. Lowers her voice. “Belowdecks. Where I can’t see . . . you know.”
“The lack of land,” Scarlet snaps. Then clears her throat. “Good talk.” Makes her face carefully expressionless. “Thank you for taking my confession, cleric,” she says with mock formality. “Tell anyone and you’re dead.” She brushes past Elaine, and leaves the deck, hustling down the stairs into the belly of the ship.
Elaine clasps her hands together, dizzy with a sudden gushing giddiness. More bonding!
“What’s up with you?” asks Jake, coming to stand beside her. “You look like you just secretly took a really satisfying piss right in front of everyone, and got away with it somehow without anyone noticing.”
She narrows her eyes. “Okay, that’s disgusting, Jake. And weirdly specific.”
“I’m not hearing a denial.”
“I did not just pee myself,” she says through clenched teeth. But the giddiness is still flowing inside her. “And so what if I did?” she demands, throwing her hands up in mock outrage. She points a finger at him. “Huh? Gotta problem with that, swordarm?” And she stalks off across the boat deck so that she can bust out giggling without giving Jake the satisfaction of witnessing it.
* * *
The moon is far overhead by the time the ship pulls up anchor and edges away from the dock. The sails are raised and immediately snap full with the wind. The lights of Anchorage quickly fade into the darkness.
Overhead a full sky of stars glitter and shine onto the black surface of the water. The deck rises and falls under the feet of Mathos and Jake, who stand together at the rail, peering out into the warm night.
“I feel like losing the crown was all my fault, Mathos.”
The mage shakes his head. “Come on, Jake. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Swordsteel and the Darkblades followed us in there, let us fight through all the goblins and the traps, and waited while we solved the riddle that opened the passage to the lower levels. Let us fight through more goblins. The Crypt Guardians. And then they swooped in and snatched the crown right out of our hands at the last minute.”
“Actually, they picked it up off the floor after I dropped it, but your point is taken.” Jake stares out at the glittering starlight reflecting off the water below them. Exhales noisily. “Still, I can’t help feeling like it’s my fault. And that I’ve let down Sir Elton. He’s done everything for me. Raised me. Supports me. Supports us. Helped get this”–he gestures vaguely–“whole adventuring thing going. Runs the guild for us.” The swordarm shakes his head. “This would have been huge.”
Mathos is quiet, watching as Jake’s mind continues running.
Jake shakes his head again. “The Crown of the Sun King,” he says to the mage. “Probably the most legendary artifact in this whole damn part of the world. In my hands. I was holding it, Mathos. And it’s gone. Do you know how long I’ve been dreaming of the Sun King’s crown? Of being the one who found it?”
“Your entire adult life?”
“My whole life,” Jake says, sighing. “My parents used to read the Legends to me as kid, before . . .” He looks up at the stars, the thought fading away. “Before,” he echoes quietly.
“Hey,” calls Elaine, crossing the deck towards the pair. She joins them at the rail, adjusting her ponytail.
“Tired of hanging out down below?” Jake asks, grateful for the young cleric’s appearance and the opportunity to push dark thoughts aside.
“Yeah,” Elaine replies, scrunching her brow, considering. “It’s crowded down there. I feel like I’m covered in . . .” She searches for the right word. “Big muscly men.” She shivers.
Jake almost holds back a snort.
Elaine narrows her eyes. “What?” She understands belatedly the way he’s intentionally misinterpreted her words. “Ha, ha.”
“Well, you smell like sweat,” Jake tells her.
“Thanks,” she replies flatly.
“Yeah, well, some clutz spilled his drink on me.” She smiles, despite her irritation. “Then Hamfrd challenged the guy to an arm wrestling match.”
“Did Ham win?”
“Oh yeah, he beat that guy easily. But now he’s in the middle of a full-fledged tournament with like a dozen others passengers and crewmen. Even the captain is down there.” She glances over her shoulder towards the stern of the ship, peering through the darkness to where the helm is located. “Hopefully someone is still steering this thing,” she says, only half kidding.
* * *
A sweaty raucous crowd stands in a circle around the table where Hamfrd and a wide-shouldered sailor sit across from one another, hands clasped together, locked in a titanic struggle of bulging muscles and veins, of grunting, straining, and cursing.
“Come on, Ham!” shouts Scarlet, raising her fist. “Bury this chump!”
The bald-headed sailor, his forearms covered by winding patterned tattoos, his thick arm trembling as he struggles to pin Hamfrd, glances up. Grins at her, a mouthful of clenched teeth, and then lets loose a roar from deep in his belly and strains against the red-haired Northerner.
“Let’s go, Brodie!” cry the sailor’s colleagues, clapping and slapping their hands against their thighs. The crowded cabin rumbles with stomping feet and cheers, simmers with drunken passion and the sweat of the rowdy spectators.
Hamfrd screams a warcry that comes from somewhere in the realm between pain and fury, and with an explosive burst, powers the bald sailor’s arm to the wooden surface.
“Yes!” Scarlet whoops triumphantly and slaps the big warrior on the back. “That a boy, Ham!” She turns to a pair of grumbling coworkers of the bested sailor and collects several coins from each, her face split by a cocky grin. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Turning in his chair, Hamfrd says, “I think you’re more excited than I am, Scar.”
“You just stay focused and win, Ham. I’ll be excited for the both of us.” She nods towards the huge brute now stepping forward through the crowd to a round of applause and solid, thumping pats on the back. “Keep your head in the game. Last match.”
The shirtless brute, yet another member of the ship’s crew and obviously their champion, straddles the chair opposite Hamfrd, making the wooden seat under him seem as if it were designed for a toddler. The huge brick wall of a man, whose name is Riam, stands that way for a moment, flexing his bared chest muscles one after the other, before letting loose a mighty roar and settling down onto the seat. His skin is damp with sweat and tanned a rich color of brown from working under the sun. He’s shorter than Ham, but wider and thicker. Ham’s muscles are more defined, but this guy’s chest is solid like an stone tower and his arms thick like tree trunks.
“You and him a thing?” rumbles a gruff voice at Scarlet’s shoulder.
She spins away from the speaker’s body heat, one hand dropping to a knife on her belt, while the other holds her drink steady. She growls, “What?”
It’s the bald sailor from the previous match. Brodie. He appears unconcerned by her reaction or the hand on her weapon. In fact, he grins. “Do you and the Northerner bed together?”
She glances over at Hamfrd, then back. Scowls. “What? No.” She eyes the sailor warily, but he makes no move to force himself farther into her space. “No.”
“Then perhaps you and I might bed together.” He says it as casually as if he’s suggesting they have a seat on a bench.
Scarlet narrows her eyes, scowling deeper. “Even more no.”
He chuckles, flashes another maddening grin. “As you wish,” he replies, hands up and offering peace. The gesture shows off his tattooed forearms. “I found myself unable to concentrate during the match because my eyes kept returning again and again to you.”
“That’s your excuse?”
“The truth,” he sighs. “And I’d have been kicking myself had I let you disembark without saying something. A farewell, at least.”
“Keep talking, and you’ll be saying farewell to your balls.”
The sailor barks a genuine laugh. “Very well. I don’t suppose I can interest you in a wager on the final match.”
“Balls,” Scarlet growls. “Farewell.”
“If Riam there beats the Northerner,” he continues, still grinning, “you have to give me a kiss. One kiss. What do you say?”
Now Scarlet barks a laugh. “And after Ham puts down your champion? What then?”
“Name your terms. I know Riam. I’m confident I’ll have that kiss.”
“You’ll kiss my sweaty, stinking feet maybe,” she growls. “If you’re lucky.” She studies him silently for a moment, smirking. The slightest curl of playfulness tugs at the corner of her mouth. “Fine,” she says at last. She sticks out a closed fist. “You’re on.”
Brodie bumps her fist with his own. “Excellent,” says the sailor, grinning.
“Come on, Ham,” she shouts, turning back to the two men facing one another at the table. She slaps the big man’s shoulder, digs in with her fingers. “Put this freak of nature down.”
* * *
Hamfrd and his giant opponent, Riam, sit across from each other and squeeze thick fingers together, hands clasping and unclasping, each working to get the tight grip just right.
The captain of the ship, a strong, barrel-chested man himself, but now nearly sixty years of age and no longer able to defeat the strongest among his younger, hungrier crew, looms over the table, acting as the match’s referee.
When the two big men at the table are both satisfied with their respective grips, the captain of the ship places his own strong hands over those of the two matched opponents. Explains to them, as a formality, the rules, and reminds them of the only way to win the match: pin the other man’s arm to the wood table.
Hamfrd and the sailor, Riam, both nod hungrily, eager to begin, eyes locked together just as their hands are joined on the table between them.
The crowd hushes.
The captain, acting as referee, removes his hands. “Begin!” he bellows.
A roar explodes from the crowd as the two men face each other. Straining. Snorting. Cursing. Roaring.
Their locked hands remain perfectly upright on the table, their massive arms tensed and trembling. The crowded cabin seems to rattle and shake with the intense struggle of the two men.
Scarlet stands behind Hamfrd, urging the big warrior on, an empty cup in one hand and the other clenched tight into a fist that she pounds against her thigh. She steals a glance over her shoulder at the sailor, Brodie, finds him watching her instead of the competitors at the table. She growls at him, which he can’t possibly hear over the shouting and cheering of the crowd, but he can read the meaning in her face well enough. She scowls when he grins at her.
Turning back to the arm wrestling match, she screams, “Come on, Ham!”
Hamfrd is straining, sucking in mouthfuls of air, growling them out in shuddering breaths, his entire tall Northerner frame shaking from the effort of resisting the power of this man, Riam. The tanned sailor across the table puffs out his cheeks, face turning red, roars with some new reservoir of strength discovered deep within, and begins to edge Hamfrd’s arm towards the table.
Hamfrd fights against it, grits his teeth, draws forth a wild warcry, but the push of the other man is an inexorable weight collapsing onto the Northerner, driving his arm downwards towards the wood.
* * *
IN AN OPEN FIELD BENEATH A NORTHERN WINTER NIGHTSKY
The campfire crackles, the heat of it a tangible thing in the bitter cold night. Young Hamfrd, now nearing the celebration of his eighth cycle, what the Northern tribespeople call the years, can stick his hand forward and feel it pass within the range of the flame, push against the bubble of warmth there.
His father is seated almost directly across the small ring of stones, and Hamfrd looks through the orange dancing flames and the haze of smoke, to see him there. Beside his father, Hamfrd’s mother sits nursing her infant son, his baby brother.
The first flakes of the winter season are floating down from the heavens above. “It snows, Papa,” says young Hamfrd.
“Aye,” his father agrees, his voice rich and resonant.
“Pyr-Ut,” says the boy, “he fights for us.”
“Aye, he does.” His father’s voice drops to a deep rumble as he intones the legend of their people again to his son. “Pyr-Ut, who gave us the breath in our lungs and the secret of this fire and the magic of our speech. Every cycle, the jealous Gods and Goddesses from their towers in the Heavenly Lands take everything from us. The food from the earth, the leaves from the trees, even the mighty bears who prowl the Great Woods, hiding them away. Leaving us with nothing.”
“That’s when Pyr-Ut reaches up,” continues young Hamfrd, “and lifts the Heavenly Lands with his bare hands, and roars with fury. He shakes the Heavenly Lands with all his might, until the Gods and Goddesses agree to return what they’ve taken. And bears return, and the trees are green with life again, and the food grows once more from the earth.”
“That’s right,” his father laughs, pleased to hear his son recite the legend so assuredly. “Pyr-Ut has begun to shake the Heavenly Lands yet again. Even now, the Gods and Goddesses are cowering in fear of his strength. The snow falls.” The elder man peers up at the black sky, where a few flakes float slowly to the earth. “The dust of time, which lies heavy and covers all in the Heavenly Lands. It begins to fall to earth whenever Pyr-Ut rises up and shakes the world above.”
“Will I ever meet Pyr-Ut?” asks young Hamfrd.
His father glances to the silent woman beside him, seated crosslegged on the hard ground before the fire, her back propped against a large stone. The fire’s light makes her wild orange hair glow like burning clouds at sunrise, and her pale skin shine like the day’s light. She holds the well-wrapped suckling babe to her breast.
The mother and father of young Hamfrd share a look.
“Aye,” his father replies at length. “You’ll meet him one day. All who strive, pure and true, shall know him in the end. He shall lead us one and all through the flowered fields of Paradise to the Great Beyond.”
“Beyond what?” asks young Hamfrd.
“Beyond this world. Beyond time.” More quietly. “Beyond life itself.”
“And that’s where Helstr is? Pyr-Ut took her to the Great Beyond?”
“Aye, Ham. He did.”
“I’ll bring her back,” young Hamfrd says, setting his jaw determinedly. “When Pyr-Ut comes for me, I won’t go with him.”
“Don’t say that,” his mother admonishes.
Young Hamfrd stares up at the sky, sees the few falling flakes floating downward. “I know he helps us. I know he means well. But he took Helstr, my sister. Right, father?” Hamfrd hits his small fist into his open hand. “I’ll challenge him. I’ll make him wrestle me like the chiefs do, and if I beat him, I’ll make him give us Helstr back.”
“Oh, sweetchild,” his mother says, eyes sad.
“You cannot even beat me,” his father laughs, flexing his own, giant fist. “How do you expect to beat Pyr-Ut himself?”
“Hush,” his mother says, reaching out a hand to swipe at her husband.
“Then you can challenge Pyr-Ut, father. You can beat him. I know you can!”
“Sweetchild, you mustn’t say such things,” his mother tells him, but his father only laughs again, deeper.
“Not I, Ham. This challenge is yours. You’ll just have to work hard, stay pure and true, and then one day, maybe you’ll be as strong as Pyr-Ut.”
“Don’t tell him such things,” his mother says, but in the next moment she must also laugh as young Hamfrd clenches his hand tight and pumps his fist.
“Then that’s what I’ll do!” he says. “I’ll become big and strong. So big and strong that no one in the world can defeat me! And then when Pyr-Ut comes for me I’ll say to him, thank you for all that you do for us, and now I challenge you! Do you accept? And if you do and I beat you then Helstr will come back from the Great Beyond to live with us again. Agreed? And thank you again for all you do for us!” Young Hamfrd smiles wide at his grinning parents. “And then I’ll pin his arm. Bam! Boom! I win!”
* * *
IN A CROWDED CABIN BELOWDECKS ON THE FERRY VESSEL, SUN VANGUARD
Hamfrd roars, a mighty warcry fueled by a blazing fire that burns deep within the Northerner. His thick arm holds pat inches above the table’s surface, its downward slide halted. The locked hands of the two men quake and strain.
The crowd goes into a frenzy. Many of those watching are crewmembers and colleagues of Riam, and none of them have ever seen a man do what Hamfrd has just done. They are stomping and hollering, hoping to rally their champion, while at the same time they bubble with excitement, wonder, disbelief, as Hamfrd begins pushing the giant sailor’s arm up, escaping certain defeat, moving the match back to even.
Both men bellow and the entire cabin rattles. Hamfrd and the sailor are like two horned rams charging across open plains, crashing head to head, locked in a thunderous monumental clatter. They strain, they swear, they snort, they scream.
Neither gives an inch to the other.
The table is not so lucky — it cracks and then shatters beneath them, crumbles to the floor, and down they tumble with it.
The crowd scatters backwards, skipping away from the snapped wood and flying debris of the doomed table.
The two combatants land together atop the mangled pile of wooden shards and split boards, hands still clenched tight, and lie there among the broken pieces, growling and snarling and refusing to be the first to let go.
A huge cheer erupts from the stunned spectators, a wild roar that carries from the bowels of the ship up through the decks above to those on the boat deck and out beyond the railing and across the black surface of the gulf and away into the night.
* * *
ON THE BOAT DECK OF THE SUN VANGUARD, TWO HOURS LATER, DOCKING IN GULFSIDE
“So then Hamfrd and the other guy broke the table and fell right on their asses,” Scarlet tells the others with something approaching a grin. “It was badass.”
“Then what happened?” asks Jake. “Who won?”
The Companions minus Hamfrd stand together beside the railing, watching as the dockhands down below secure the ship with ropes, and the crew on deck prepares for the passengers to begin their disembarkment.
The rising sun in the east spreads its first rays of morning light across the glistening waves. The boat rocks gently.
Hamfrd remains somewhere below, having been enthusiastically brought into the fold of the ship’s crew after his brave and by all accounts unparalleled showing in the epic match against their champion, Riam. A match that has been officially declared a draw, much to the satisfaction of nearly all involved, participants and spectators alike. Heavy, celebratory drinking commenced at once, and Hamfrd has yet to emerge from belowdecks.
“Did you not hear all the wild shouting and cheering two hours ago?” asks Scarlet. “And pretty much every minute since?” Drunken, out-of-tune voices can still be heard raised in song, coming from somewhere within the bowels of the ship beneath their feet. “You weren’t curious enough to find out what happened?”
“We heard,” Jake answers, “But Elaine, Mathos, and I were actually having a very pleasant conversation up here on the deck.”
“That we were, Jake” says Mathos, nodding. “Deep and probing.”
Jake frowns and shakes his head. “I wouldn’t describe it that way.”
Elaine leans forward, smiling smugly. “Did you know Jake and I have the same favorite fetch quest tale from the Book of Legends? It’s the one about the hero, Katlas, who is tasked with finding a royal doctor’s lost surgical blade. It’s an enchanted blade, obviously, and it has the power to–”
Scarlet barks a laugh, which startles Elaine to silence. “Are you seriously saying the words that are coming out of your mouth right now?” she asks, making the cleric blush.
“Hey, back off the Legends,” Jake warns.
Scarlet almost grins, albeit condescendingly. “Wow. I keep forgetting what massive dorks you three are. Thanks for reminding me.”
“Yeah? Well, we can’t all be super cool like you,” Elaine mumbles. Then, she sighs and whispers as an aside towards Jake, “I wish I were cool like her.”
Scarlet, who is still standing right there, frowns. “What are you mumbling about?”
The cleric makes her lips a tight line, pretending she hasn’t said a word.
Scarlet eventually shrugs, and shaking her head, turns away. She does a double take as she catches sight of the sailor, Brodie, out of the corner of her eye. He’s working together with two other fit sailors up by the forward mast. She watches for a moment.
Brodie notices her, raises a hand in a half-salute, half-wave.
She narrows her eyes.
“Well? What happened next, Scar?” asks Jake, who still wants to hear the rest of the story. “After the table broke. Who won the match?” When she doesn’t respond, he squints and follows her gaze with his eyes. Sees the sailor, Brodie. “Who’s that?”
* * *
TWO HOURS EARLIER IN A CABIN BELOWDECKS
“A draw?” says Scarlet dubiously. She crosses her arms beneath her breasts.
Other spectators have crowded in and are helping Hamfrd and Riam to their feet, patting both combatants good-naturedly on their thick muscled shoulders, including the captain of the ship himself, who has just announced the shock result. The rest of the crowd seems thrilled, awed by what they’ve seen. Excited ripples of conversation crackle throughout the cabin.
The sailor at her side sighs. “Looks like I don’t get that kiss after all.”
“Yeah, guess not.” Scarlet sneers. “Boo-hoo. Baby gonna cry?”
They stare at each other for a moment.
Her hand snakes out, grabs the front of the sailor’s shirt. “Come on,” she growls, and together they push their way through the crowd towards the door.
“Great job, Ham!” she calls over her shoulder, finding the big man among the crowd and briefly meeting his eye. She raises a fist. “That was badass.”
Then she and the sailor are through the door and out into the tight corridor.
Unfamiliar with the ship, she pauses for him to take the lead.
“This way,” he says.
* * *
“No idea,” Scarlet says evenly. “Never seen him before in my life.”
“Take care of yourself, Song!” Brodie calls right at that moment, voice booming across the deck.
“Wow, that is freaky uncanny,” says Mathos. He leans towards Scarlet. “You’ve never seen that guy before, and he just yelled your surname like that? I’d be totally spooked if I were you. Actually, I’m spooked right now just witnessing it. Look at me, I have goosebumps.”
“She obviously knows him, Mathos,” says Jake, smacking the mage on the back of the head. “Don’t be a dunce.” He turns back to Scarlet. Grins knowingly. “So . . . who is he?”
Scarlet scowls, turning her fierce glare from the sailor across the deck back to Jake. “Someone who clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of simple words.”
* * *
THIRTY MINTUES AGO IN A DIFFERENT CABIN BELOWDECKS
“Right,” says Scarlet, yanking her black leather pants back up sweaty legs, fastening them tight. “Let’s agree to never talk to each other ever again.” She glances at Brodie, who is still sprawled on the thin, scratchy mattress, and adjusts her belt and knives. “The memory will be sexier that way.”
“Sure,” Brodie replies lazily. “Whatever you want. Anyway, it seems unlikely we’ll just bump into one another somewhere. Not that I’d mind,” he adds with an exhausted grin. “So what kind of business do you have in Gulfside?”
Scarlet slips her boots on, one bare foot after the other.
She glares at the man on the mattress. Off to a bad start already, she thinks.
* * *
ON THE BOAT DECK, THE PRESENT
The gangplank is finally secured into place, and a crewmember with a web tattooed on his face steps forward and makes the announcement that disembarking may commence.
“Oh, look at that,” says Scarlet. “We’re here.”
“Technically, we’ve been here for the last five minutes now.”
She pats Jake heavily on the chest. “Sorry. Storytime is over.”
“Wait!” he calls, watching her saunter off. “You didn’t even finish. The table broke and then what? Scarlet? What happened next? Who won the match?”
“So cool,” murmurs Elaine, watching Scarlet’s receding figure.
Jake glances at the cleric, and then sighs. Shakes his head, bemused.