Sand, Sea and Stone Excerpt: Talbert

Here is the full first chapter of the continuing tale of Talbert Gretchen. (Bear in mind this is still the rough draft version so there might be some changes in the final version.)

Talbert sat and watched. Soon he would have his audition. Yet again it was to be in a sea-side pub, although this time the conditions were slightly different. Before, when he was interviewing for the Academy, the smell of decorative flowers masked the salt-scent of the ocean, this time that ocean aroma was drowned out by the odor of sweat, beer, bile and smoke. Talbert could not help but think that this was the more honest aroma.

Last time it was his future at stake. A chance at the Academy meant a new life. Now it was his past that he was looking to settle. This would be his opportunity to put his ghosts to rest. For entrance in the Academy he had the one chance. If he had failed then it would have been near impossible to gain further access. Here, that was one pressure he did not feel. If he failed this time, there were other ways that fit his needs. He could try again. Unless of course he was killed, which was indeed an option.

Those with whom he was seeking to join were after all killers. Death was what brought Talbert Gretchen here. The death of his parents. The Gretchens were in the business of brewing and trading a high quality rum. Although it wasn’t the most prevalent of brands, Blue Tide rums were sought after. It was a product that could be thought of as lucrative. Unfortunately, this meant that the Blue Tide ships were thought of as vulnerable targets.

And it seems they were vulnerable. It was an effort to track down members of the crew that survived the attack. But Talbert managed and all spoke in hushed tones of the same ship with the same flag the attacked them. The Skeletal Kraken. Part of Talbert hoped that this would turn out to be a well-known and well-feared band of pirates. That they would be regarded as the height of villainy and the scourge from which other pirates fled.

The truth was that there were merely one of any number of dog ships that floated between ports.  They had steel and black hearts and would set upon any ship that lacked a garrison of soldiers or mercenary guards. They were not the wolves of the ocean bringing down the strong they were merely the dogs that barked at every traveler but could still occasionally use their teeth. Sometimes all it took was a swift quick to give them a fright and make them turn tail and run. Sometimes their bark was enough to win any bounty being hauled by the merchants they set upon. And sometimes they drew blood and only left behind a charred hull in their wake.

Talbert’s search had led him to this particular dank pub that the crew of the Skeletal Kraken were known to frequent. And he waited. He planned. And he wrote a letter. Like so many who had left for the sea he was leaving someone behind. Talbert shook his head at that thought. It romanticized his situation too much. He had left her behind when he set his plan in motion with little cares for whether or not he would be dismissed from the Academy. He was. He neglected a girl whom he was actually quite fond of in order to focus on his plan to be well-armed when he began the hunt for the pirates that murdered his family. The plan failed. All he had were his clothes, a set of pens and his intelligence. It would be enough.

Two days prior the Skeletal Kraken had docked and set upon the pub for revelry. Talbert had down his best to acquaint himself with the crew. At the very least he was considered a friendly face. He did not have the coin for the purchased drinks it would take to be elevated into a boon companion. But he had become someone the crew would talk with. They told them of their accomplishments, mostly lies sprinkled with the occasional twisted truth, but more importantly he learned who did what. He learned the cook was a man everyone called Beef because of the joke that he was the only beef to be found on board. Talbert had laughed uproariously at the joke even though he did not see the humor in it. He learned there was at least one woman aboard who answered to Sweet Smell. She was quite a handsome woman but the crew respected that the closest they would ever get to her sweetness was her smell. Another of the barflies japed that he knew where the sweetest spot to smell would be. Those in this circle of conversation fell quite and glanced around nervously. Sweet Smell had been in the pub earlier and known wanted to risk her wrath by joining in that line of humor. Talbert made a note to be wary of Sweet Smell should he manage to gain purchase aboard the ship.

Most importantly, Talbert acquainted himself with Jern, the ship’s lore master. A lore master was something of a jack of all trades on a ship such as the Skeletal Kraken. There were many such jobs that required actual knowledge on board a ship, even a pirate one. Maps needed to be read and courses needed to be charted. Illnesses needed to be treated, bones needed to be set and arrow holes needed to be patched in a manner where the patient didn’t wake with all his blood forming a pool in his hammock.

Talbert knew he was no doctor. But he had more than a passing knowledge of anatomy and some practical knowledge of how to knit a body together, albeit the only bodies he ever practiced on were farm animals and small game, due to his accelerated course of study. But he was able to talk at length about charts, mapping and even figures with Jern. Talbert did so very pleasantly and very publicly for several hours just the other night.

So, it was with an air of concern that he received the news earlier this evening that Jern had taken quite ill and Talbert’s face showed nothing but bewilderment when the ship’s mate, a man of solid muscle and well tanned from constant exposure to sun, salt and spray, sat across from him to discuss serving as temporary lore master for the next leg of the Skeletal Kraken’s journey.

“I suppose it is possible, but what made you think of me?”

“Wanting me to sing your praises, lad?” asked Johm Stout, first mate of the Kraken. “Then here is the quickest of the tunes I can muster. Jern said you would be a good fit if only a temporary one. Said you know the ways of a sea, know maps and stars. That you be learned or at least more so than others around. And that you’d spent enough coin to try and purchase favor that you might be looking for voyage anyway.”

Talbert tried to steady his beating heart. He did not think the lore master had taken any real notice of his purchased drinks. To some degree he had underestimated Jern and regarded him as close to a fool because his profession was pirate. The steel in Stout’s grey eyes sparked with something keen and Talbert knew he should be wary to mistakenly think little of one of the crew without evidence in the future that low opinion was merited.

“Your ship and its reputation is known to me,” Talbert admitted. “I had thought that a friendship with the lore master might get me purchase aboard the ship.”

“And you were right, just not in the manner it seems you expected.” The turn of phrase left Talbert wondering if there was already suspicion towards his motives, but he saw none in the mate’s eyes. “The quick of it,” Stout continued “is you should agree to join us.”

“Why is that?” asked Talbert.

“Ship needs a lore master, even if it is an untested one. Agree to join, you get time to pack, gather your things and say any goodbyes you want. Decline and I smash you about the head and drag you on the ship myself. All you have is what we give you. Not the best way to start a relationship with your employer.”

“What if I agree only to attempt to sneak away before boarding the ship.”

That caused Stout to break into a broad grin revealing surprisingly white teeth. “You’re a smart lad,” Stout said steal beaming with genuine mirth. “I’m sure you can fathom what would be the result in breaking your word to me.” Talbert couldn’t tell if the mate’s amusement was in the cheekiness in suggesting he could flee the pirate’s grasp or in the imaging of what would be a violent response to such an attempt.

Talbert’s plan had worked perfectly. Just enough of the right mixture of herbs into Jern’s beers had the desired result and the lore master would easily spend the next week keenly aware of the workings of his digestive tract. It would be a miserable patch of time and one in which he would be practically unable of performing his seaborne duties. Talbert had taken the gamble that he would either be able to join the crew as the left the harbor or would have time to care for the lore master and perhaps join as an assistant. He was glad the fate provided the more expedient method, which was also the one that kept him from having to tend to the lore master’s constant soiling of bed pans.

“Then I guess I will accept the post of lore master,” as he allowed his joy to show on his face.

“Good answer,” Johm Stout replied extending his hand. Talbert took it. “Welcome to the crew of the Skeletal Kraken.” The pirate’s grip was one made of callous skin and taut muscle. Once again Talbert was reminded that his plan was to commit himself against a ship of pirates that were known as brutal killers. There was no doubt that the very hand he shook easily had the power to throttle the life out of Talbert as easily as it could rip a rag doll in twain. Talbert’s only true defense, and offense for that matter, would be his wits.

“I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”

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