"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov


Friday, August 1, 2014

3. Leap Of Faith

Kardeeb shoved an elder out of his path and started toward Rafe.  “Are you saying this woman is not yours?”  His dark, beady eyes heated as he stared avidly at the unconscious woman.

“No, I didn’t say that.”  Rafe held the woman against him with one large hand on her back, using the other to reach under his djellaba for the bag of gold.  Tossing it at Kardeeb, he said tersely, “Your payment. We're done.” 

Snatching the money pouch out of the air as it flew toward him, a cruel smile spread over the Mor’Abat’s face.  “I think not, my friend.”  Gesturing at the two guards, he shouted, “Seize them!”

Before the words had left Kardeeb’s mouth, Rafe had tossed the woman over his shoulder to free his fighting arm and was on the move.  It wasnt his habit to unman a guy, but outnumbered, one-handed and hampered by dead weight, Rafe didn’t hesitate to boot the first guard in the balls and snatch the man’s sword as he dropped with a low, guttural cry. In the slight pause as the second guard eyed the painful writhing of his fellow tribesman, Rafe lunged forward, smashed his fist into the man's face and ran for the exit.

The two men who’d taken his weapons had scimitars drawn, blocking the only way out of the pavilion.  Behind him Kardeeb was screaming for his weapon, women wailed in high-pitched ululations, and the elders scrambled frantically to distance themselves from imminent bloodshed.  Rafe smiled, tossed the sword aside and pulled the cloth fully away from his face.  As the guards stared, transfixed in horror, Rafe slammed into one, sending him in a violent spin out of the tent, then wrenched his Jambiya out of the second man’s belt and hammered the pommel down on his head with a satisfying crack.

His way was clear, but now there was a loud, growing commotion outside the pavilion.  Over the chaotic sounds at his back, Rafe could hear the shouts of men rushing toward the Mor’Abat’s tent.  Spinning to his left, leaping over cushions and cook pots, he ran to the far wall, slashed an opening and vaulted through.
“Master Treb!”  The shout from above was sharp, edged with excitement.

Treb looked up at the small enclosure circling the topmast.  Henri leaned precariously over the edge of the wooden basket as if she could get closer to the image in her spyglass.  “Aye lass,” he shouted back.  “You see him?”

“He’s on the run.”  She looked down at Treb, her grin slightly feral. “With half the Red Tribe on his arse.”  Laughing exuberantly, she climbed out of the basket, danced like a monkey along the yard and down the rigging, landing gracefully in front of Treb.  Henri was small, lithe, with a delicate face, guileless blue eyes and freckles sprinkled in a band across her nose.  She wore her thick auburn hair in two long braids, tied at the ends in bows of silk ribbon, color determined by her mood; today they were blood-red.  She exuded a child-like innocence, an illusion she cultivated.  No one ever saw stone-cold lethal, until it was too late.

“Guns primed and ready, Master Treb,” she said with glee.  “Time for a bit of fun?”

“Aman!” Treb bellowed.  He walked to the port side, raising his own spyglass as the quartermaster joined him at the rail.  “All provisions and supplies aboard?  Jai-Li’s medical paraphernalia?  The ballonets of lifting gas?”

“Aye, we’re loaded to the gunnels, ready to sail at your word.”

Lowering the spyglass, Treb turned, gave both Henri and Aman a broad smile and said, “Then let's go get the captain.”

With a loud whoop, Henri ran forward to the three men who worked under her command in munitions.  Handpicked and trained to her exacting standards, they could handle any weapon with calm efficiency, including the two long cannon protruding through either side of the prow.  Running a hand along one sleek barrel, stroking it like a beloved pet, Henri smiled at her team in anticipation.

     Treb kept his spyglass on the area outside the el-Ahmar compound as the Dark Wind began to ease away from the docking poles, bracing himself against the rail as the ship gently moved forward.  The soft whisper of lifting gas, drawn from a ballonet in the chamber beneath the deck, was as sweet as a lover’s kiss to his ears. Rafe might love wind billowing the sails, but for Treb, liquid helion transformed into lifting gas that would allow an airship to fly?  Well, that was just magical, as far as he was concerned.

Rafe suddenly came into view.  Treb frowned and quickly spun the outer brass ring on his spyglass to bring the image closer as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing: Rafe, firmly gripping a body draped over his shoulder before disappearing behind a row of tents. 

Aware Rafe’s plan had been to get in and out with the least amount of damage and make his way back to the ship by nightfall with Elissa, Treb knew the body had just buggered that scheme.  As a large group of red-clad tribesmen began to spread out in a search pattern around the marketplace, Treb barked an order to the helmsman, directing him toward the center of the city.

 Rafe set the woman down, then crouched in the narrow space between two tents. Slumped against his thigh, her head lolled and she softly groaned.  Rafe leaned close to whisper, “Hush. No sounds.”  He watched her eyelids flutter as she struggled to lift them, but then she shuddered and went limp.  Sliding his dagger into its sheath, Rafe put a hand to her neck and quietly waited to feel a pulse, his mind racing with questions.  He went still at the approach of running feet and harsh voices.  Kardeeb’s men were close.

Laying the woman flat on the ground, Rafe stretched out beside her, gathered her close and swiftly rolled them under the bottom edge of the nearest tent.  He had chosen this area of the market for its selection of rugs, carpets and silks, tents that would provide ample places to hide. Pleased to discover row after row of colorful bolts of material, Rafe burrowed into a mound of sky-blue silk and held the woman against his body, one hand around her waist, the other securing her head beneath his chin, ready to cover her mouth if she made the slightest noise.

Minutes passed while Rafe listened to Kardeeb's men searching, shouting, threatening.  He breathed easier when the sounds moved further away, giving him a chance not only to consider his next move, but to ponder the unconscious woman.  What was wrong with her anyway?  Had she been drugged, or was she one of those females prone to swooning? And if that were the case, what insane circumstance had brought her—and supposedly Elissa—to this uncivilized and brutal corner of the world?  Rafe shook his head. Answers would have to wait for now.

     Prepared to rest until full dark, he was just getting comfortable when a familiar dark shadow passed over the tent, followed by a swelling roar of outrage and fury.  Rafe laughed out loud. It was strictly forbidden to fly over the city, yet his crew were blatantly making a point by putting themselves above the rulers of the Four Tribes.  And from the sound of it, the entire city was howling for blood.

Still chuckling at the audacity of his crew, Rafe eased his large frame over the woman's body, gently wedged her back into the fabric niche and slipped out the tent. Looking skyward he caught a glimpse of the rudder and the starboard propeller before the ship was out of sight. Digging under his robe for the small reflecting device that all airship sailors carried, he pulled out the round disk—a comfortable fit in the palm of his hand—and rubbed the battered, tarnished metal. It was probably time to get a newer, shinier version, but this one held far too many memories in each scratch and dent to ever be replaced.

Flicking up the lid, he walked to a small path that ran behind the silk merchant's tent and waited. When his ship came back around, Rafe quickly lined up the reflecting mirror with the sun and shot a beam of light toward the Dark Wind. The response was immediate. Flashes traveled back and forth until both he and his crew knew exactly what to do and where to rendezvous. Hurrying back to the tent, he yanked up the edge and pulled the still unconscious woman out of her hiding place. Settling her over his shoulder once more, he stood in the shadows, tense and ready.

When the first explosion shook the ground, sending shock waves through the tents, Rafe took off, running toward the center of the market.  He plowed into a few guards, too busy shouting up at the airship before being knocked flat and barely avoided a large, irate group of fist-waving tribesmen. Sliding around a corner, the fountain in sight, he hurdled over a fruit cart, and jabbed a hard fist into the nose of a basket merchant who foolishly tried to grab him.

Overhead he heard a crazed laugh—Henri in her element—followed by another explosion just as the hawser dropped through a veil of smoke and dangled near the fountain.  Tightly gripping the woman, Rafe put on a final burst of speed, bounded off the rim of the fountain and with a flying leap, grabbed the thick rope as the Dark Wind rapidly ascended. Grinning, heart pounding, he savored the heady rush of exhilaration that thrummed through his body as he was quickly hoisted aloft.

Treb was there to help him aboard, then they laughed with shared relief.  “Excellent rescue, my man,” Rafe said, pounding his second on the back.

“It was a joy to see you move, boy.  A pure joy.”  His gold tooth sparkled in the sun.  “And that great leap at the end?”  Treb shook his head in amazement. “Songs should be written.”

Rafe started to laugh again, but the woman stirred, reminding him that he couldn't plot their course until he had the necessary information. Swinging her off his shoulder, Rafe carried her determinedly toward his quarters, a frowning Treb on his heels.

“If memory serves, Cap’n, wasn't your brother’s wife a small and dainty thing?”

“Aye, indeed she was.  This is not Elissa.  I don’t know who this is, but I aim to find out right now.”

Stalking into his cabin, Rafe laid the woman in his berth, thoughts already on reviving her with the brandy in the bottom drawer of his desk.  As he turned, a shocked gasp from Treb stopped him cold.  “What?  What's wrong?”

“Damnation boy, you never said you were hurt!”

“I’m not.”

“What's all that then?”

Rafe peered down at his blood-soaked djellaba, met Treb’s gaze, then they both stepped toward the bed and looked at the woman.  Her hood had fallen back, revealing blue-tinged lips in shocking contrast to her white, nearly translucent face. Frail, labored breaths sounded ominous in the quiet cabin as the two men stared at several wet, dark patches on the front of her brown robe.

“She doesn’t get to die until I have answers,” Rafe hissed.  “Find Jai-Li.”


  1. Yeh, that'd be just plumb inconvenient if she just up and died before the plot could be advanced any further.

    1. Would make for an interesting twist though, right? Except for the part where I fry my brain reworking the whole plot... ;D