Unmoored

By Justine Alley Dowsett

Red in the face, Renaud Laurent stood and slammed his cup down, splashing ale on the table’s checkered cloth. “I’ll bet any one of you here,” he slurred in his thick French accent, “that I’m the luckiest man ever to have crossed the Ismeran Channel!”

“Aww, sit down and put your money where your mouth is, Renaud!” His dicing companion, a red-headed Haldoram man, nudged the dicing cup toward him, taking a swig from his own ale cup and wiping his scruffy chin with the back of his hand. “All you do is talk.”

“Ginny, another round please,” Renaud called out after dribbling ale all over his thick curly beard, “I’m about to win all of Dagan’s coin.”

“If you lose this hand, I’ll buy the round,” Dagan countered.

Renaud grinned, scooping the dice up into his calloused hands. “As you say.”

He blew on the dice in his hands for emphasis, his blue eyes twinkling with more than just drink under his thick brown brows, before he let them fly onto the checkered cloth below and waited, holding his breath.

“Ha!” Dagan jeered. “That’s a win for me.”

Renaud studied the results of the dice closely, feigning shock. “Why, I believe you’re right, Dagan.” He lifted his head. “Ginny, I’ll have that ale now.”

“You’ve had more than your share,” Ginny called back, but that didn’t stop her from delivering another cup at Dagan’s expense, sashaying her ample bottom as she did so.

Dagan scowled, seeming to realize he’d been played, but wisely kept his thoughts to himself. Seeing that he’d possible overstayed his welcome, Renaud downed his first cup and started in on his second as he looked about for another dicing partner.

“Ah, well, I guess I better call it a night,” he said loudly, wobbling slightly as he reached for his winnings from the night. Not bad, he noted, mentally tallying them, though I should’ve bet less on that last round.

He turned about, ready to depart, only to find a lithe, dark-haired man staring intently at him. Renaud squinted at the newcomer. By his appearance, he was not a sailor like most of the patrons at The Crow’s Nest. His hair was greasy and pulled back into a loose tail at the nape of his neck, and his clothes were well-tailored and expensive looking, though they had clearly seen better days.

“Excuse me,” Renaud belched. “I was just leaving.”

“Luckiest man ever to have sailed across the Ismeran Channel, huh?” the man questioned, eyeing the dice on the table. “Ever thought of playing a game with a bit more skill involved? Poker, by chance?”

Renaud looked down into his mostly full cup. “Well, it seems I’ve still got some left in me after all,” he drawled. “Why not?”

“Poker’s a Lord’s game,” Dagan sneered as he turned his seat over to the stranger. “Do you even know how to play, Renaud?”

“How hard can it be?” Renaud demanded jovially, noting the barest of smiles on the face of his new opponent. “Watch and learn, Dagan, watch and learn.”

The newcomer busied himself shuffling the cards he fished out of his pocket, but Ginny was quick to put a stop to that. “We don’t allow people a chance to cheat here, mister.” The round-bottomed barkeep slid a fresh deck of playing cards onto the table. “You use house cards or you take your game elsewhere. This is a reputable establishment.”

The man scowled, but didn’t hesitate in swapping his own cards for those provided to him. That’s why I love coming to this place. Gives everyone a fair shake. Renaud watched the man shuffle again and deal the cards out, keeping a close eye out for foul play. Hmm, he either wasn’t planning on cheating in the first place, or he’s all set to rely on his skill as a poker player to best me. Either way, that means he’s going to be a challenge and I’m already what, three drinks in? Four?

I’ll just have to make my friend catch up!

They played for a couple of hours, Renaud plying his newfound friend with drinks while drinking less and less himself. Dagan watched for the first hour, but thankfully wandered away when neither side was making much headway against the other. Renaud wasn’t daunted, however, he still had winnings left to bid and as it turned out it didn’t take ‘Lord’ Christian Vellaire long to lose himself to liquor.

“All the way from the Casinos in Welland?” Renaud exclaimed to something the drunken lord had said. “That’s a long trip, my friend. It also explains how you’re so good at poker!”

Renaud had learned from his wife, a minor Ismeran noble herself, but there was no sense in telling his opponent that.

“Yeah,” Christian slurred. “I won a boat my last night there. Decided to take her up the coast, but I don’t know the first thing about sailing!” He laughed. “Cost me more to hire a Captain than it did to win the damn thing.”

A boat. Renaud sat up straight at the word. Does he mean a ship? A real ship?

“Oh?” Renaud aimed for nonchalance and fell just shy of it. “What kind of boat?”

“Oh, you know,” Christian shuffled and dealt the next hand as he spoke. “One of those tall ships. Not very large, but a proper boat and not a fishing vessel, I made sure of that!”

Renaud put his hands flat on top of the other man’s cards before he could pick them up. “If it’s a Captain you’re looking for…” he said with all hint of triviality gone.

Christian narrowed his eyes shrewdly, despite the large quantity of drink he’d consumed. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll bet my boat against everything you’ve got left there; winner keeps all.”

“Are you serious?!” Renaud looked down at his pile of winnings, which really had grown somewhat since he’d started playing against Christian and hadn’t been inconsequential to start with. Still, it paled in comparison to what a real ship would cost him.

“As a sword through the heart,” Christian told him. “You see, the real reason I wanted that boat was a fast trip out of Southern Ismera. Things are heating up down there with Vance Chappelle struggling to hold the throne he stole. I didn’t want to get conscripted, or killed,” he added conspiratorily, “by either side.”

“So you came to Turrellin, which has declared neutrality,” Renaud finished for him.

“That’s right,” Christian nodded, “and now I’ve got no reason to be paying to dock and man a boat I have no intention of using again. So,” he concluded, moving Renaud’s hands away from his cards so he could pick them up, “you win this next hand and the tub’s all yours.”

***

Renaud exited The Crow’s Nest as the sun was coming up with his pockets a fair bit heavier, but the real prize was still waiting for him down at the docks.

I really am the luckiest man to have sailed across the Ismeran Channel! Renaud exulted. What a night!

He stopped by the bucket of a ship he’d ridden here on to pick up his things and tell his former Captain that he never wanted to see his liver-spotted face again, then he set off for the mooring labelled C-2 to greet his new baby.

And there she was, a two-masted brig. She was small for a warship, but far more grand than that Ismeran Lord had made her out to be, despite her obvious age and faded paint job. From the moment he laid eyes on her, Renaud was in love.

What is that it says on the side? La Giovanna? No way I’m letting my baby have a prissy Italian name. I’ll have to get that fixed right quick. Renaud patted the coins in his pocket. Should be enough here for a coat of paint, eh?

Grinning widely, Renaud set off with purpose toward the shipyard at the end of the dock. At the mouth of the wide opening, he stopped. The lift, he found himself staring at the marvel of modern invention fastened to the cliffside, it’s about to go up.

Sure enough, the lift had three people standing on it. A woman, elegant in a white dress with lace that flapped like a sail in the wind and a matching wide-brimmed hat she had to hold in place to keep from blowing away. A man – her husband, Renaud assumed – a tall, thin gentleman wore freshly pressed grey pants and a pristine white shirt under a grey vest. His dark ash-coloured hair matched that of his daughter, except hers was long and wavy down her back, and bounced when she moved. She turned to look up at her father, with a wide smile on her young features that was both happy and trusting.

Though the sight of them made him acutely aware of his own unwashed state and the smell of sour ale that wafted from him, it also made him nostalgic and yearn for his home across the Channel in Saegard.

She can’t be more than ten, but she reminds me of my own boy. I remember when my son used to look at me like that. Now, at thirteen, I can’t do anything right in his eyes. His thoughts inevitably returned to his new acquisition. Maybe I’ll take him out when I get back home. If that ship doesn’t impress him, I don’t know what will.

He watched the lift soar upwards with the young family against the backdrop of the cliff face and felt his spirits rise again with it. That boat’ll fix everything. No more serving with the unwashed masses under unfeeling Captains. Having a ship of my own means I’ll have guaranteed work. Maybe I’ll even get a commission and join the Navy. Ha! Wouldn’t that be a sight!

Capitaine Laurent, I like the sound of that. The smile back on his face, he strode into the shipyard with confidence.

He was soon led to the appropriate man for the job he needed doing. He showed the man the  paperwork Christian had signed over, rumpled and wine-stained though it was, and paid him upfront for the paint job and renaming of the vessel. That taken care of, he walked back to his new ship, boarded it, and proceeded to fire its old Captain.

“If any of the rest of you want to stay on,” he announced to the small crew once he had them assembled, “you’re welcome to, but this ship is bound for Saegard where it will make a new home port!”

Most of the sailors left, but a few stayed on and he greeted them warmly. The cook, a woman named Dot simply stated, “I go where the ship goes, Cap’n or no Cap’n.”

“Very well then.” Renaud surveyed his new domain and found it to his satisfaction. He finished his inspection in the Captain’s Quarters where he promptly fell asleep.

***

He’d just washed and was having supper served to him that evening in his new Captain’s Quarters by his new cook, when one of the shipyard’s staff came for him. “Is the Captain aboard?”

“I’m the Captain.” Renaud grinned at the chance to name himself as such.

“I’ve been sent to let you know that your paint is dry enough that you’re free to go.”

“Splendid.” Renaud got to his feet, taking a piece of hard tack with him out onto the deck.

The ship was moored inside the shipyard, but with the torches all lit and the last of the light outside, it was bright enough within. He crossed the gangplank to solid ground and backed up enough to get a look at the painter’s handiwork.

The Clover? What is this? He blinked repeatedly, but the green four-leafed clover and the English name also painted in green stayed the same as if to mock him. “Excuse me,” he grabbed hold of the messenger, “what’s this supposed to be? Some kind of joke?”

“No, sir!” the young man said. “We painted it just as you said, only it took us some time to translate what you meant when you said a…a ‘trefle’?” he garbled the French word.

Le Roi du Trefle!” Renaud exclaimed. “The King of Clubs! As in poker? As in the card that won me this ship!”

As soon as he said it, Renaud realized where he’d went wrong. He’d been half-asleep and all the way drunk when he’d given his instructions to the shipyard worker this morning. It therefore stood to reason that he’d reverted to his native French.

“I’m…sorry, sir…” the young man stammered.

Renaud laughed, his anger dissipating as quickly as it had formed, and he clapped the young worker on the shoulder. “Never mind! It’s luck that won me this ship, so luck should name it. My lucky Clover.” He laughed again, shaking his head at the absurd coincidence.

“Glad you like it, sir.” The young man smiled nervously before scampering off, leaving Renaud staring proudly at his newly-christened ship.

It’ll do perfectly.

***

Renaud was overseeing the relocation of The Clover from the docks as the shipyard’s workers and his own meager crew worked together to clear the shipyard’s gates when the first sounds of trouble came to his ears.

He turned around to look back along the dock, toward the town of Turrellin. The sun was setting on a cloudy day, but there were too many lights and far too much commotion for an average evening in the small port town. As he watched, a ripple of panic seemed to pass through the people he could see, emanating from somewhere beyond his limited visual range.

“You got this?” he called out to the shipyard worker who seemed the most likely to be in charge of the operation. Getting a nod in return, Renaud tossed the rope he was holding to the nearest sailor and made the leap from boat to dock without waiting for it to be properly attached. It was foolish, but he felt on high alert, like he was on open water and feeling one hell of a storm coming his way.

Renaud started for Turrellin, but the plague-like emotion that had infected the small but prosperous town didn’t take long to reach the docks, and soon people were darting every which way around him. He stopped someone at random by the simple expedient of grabbing hold of their arm. “What’s going on?”

“It’s King Vance the Usurper!” the young man in his grasp exclaimed, lost to panic. “Turrellin is under attack!”

Renaud felt the world beneath his feet give way and the warm breeze off the water left him suddenly chilled. My luck’s about to run out, I think.

He looked up at the town. He was near enough now that he could see the light from various torches bobbing up and down and hear the clash of wills between those attacking and those trying to defend their homes. Shops and businesses lined the road that sloped upwards from the dock to the cliff edge, and at the top of the hill overlooking it all was The Crow’s Nest.

Damn. Renaud realized he was running again before he’d actually decided to do so. His gait slowed considerably going uphill and he soon became aware of the fact he was the only person running uphill, as opposed to down toward the waiting ships. This shouldn’t be my fight, but that’s my bar you’re attacking!

Sure enough there was a brawl on the street ahead of him. Patrons of The Crow’s Nest, including his friend Dagan, were out on the street en masse, caught in a one-sided fist fight with a bunch of armed soldiers. The fight was one-sided only because the other side was using swords, not fists.

Renaud grabbed the nearest soldier to him by the plume on his ridiculous-looking helmet. Catching the man completely off guard, he was able to knock him over and relieve him of his pointy metal stick. Launching himself onto the next man, he pummelled this one with his fists any place he could reach.

It didn’t take long for the invading army to realize they had a madman in their midst. Renaud fought with abandon, breaking noses, biting fingers, and kneeing the stupidest of men in balls. Didn’t your fathers ever teach you to guard your stones? He made a mental note to teach his own son that very lesson as soon as he got home.

Renaud was an unstoppable force until several of his victims began to recover and he found himself in the middle of a pile-up. He took a foot to his ribcage, a knee to his left kidney, and an elbow in the eye before Dagan and some of the others were able to come to his rescue, pulling him free of his attackers and leaving them to confusedly wrestle one another.

“Thanks, man.” Renaud clapped Dagan on the shoulder. “I owe you one.”

Dagan grinned, one of his front teeth missing. “How ‘bout you give me a posting on that new ship of yours and we’ll call it even?”

My ship! He belatedly recalled that he was Captain of his own ship now. That’s right! I don’t have to stay for this. I can be out on the water and away from Ismera before this civil war, or whatever this is, gets any worse.

Though something about what was happening rubbed Renaud the wrong way. Turrellin declared itself as neutral in the conflict between the King and those who want to dethrone him. Why would Vance Chappelle attack his own people?

Suddenly eager to return to his ship and sail home to Saegard where the world made sense, Renaud found himself looking back toward The Crow’s Nest. He watched as the barkeep, Ginny, tossed a pot full of boiling hot stew in the face of one soldier before retreating within the inn and shutting the solid oak door tightly behind her. She’ll be okay, Renaud realized, and I’m right, this isn’t my fight.

“Dagan,” he held a hand out to his red-headed friend, “you’ve got yourself a deal. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Aye, aye, Captain!”

Renaud and Dagan made their way down the hill much faster than Renaud had initially run up it, despite the stitch in Renaud’s side and his rapidly swelling eye. Once his feet were firmly on the docks, though, Renaud felt his pain and worry melt away to be replaced with a sense of duty and purpose. He was a Captain now, and his ship and crew were waiting for him to lead them safely out of here.

He was within shouting distance of The Clover when his eyes happened to notice something out of place on the lift, way up at the top of the cliff edge. Is that a person?

“Why are you stopping?” Dagan demanded. “That’s yours there, with the four-leaf clover, right?”

“Yeah,” Renaud answered somewhat distractedly. “You go on. I’ll catch up.”

Dagan shrugged and resumed forward motion, but Renaud’s eyes were glued on the lift far above. At this distance and in the failing light the form he saw was lumpy and small. It could be a pile of supplies with a tarp over it, but when it moved Renaud knew better. It’s a child, he realized with a sharp intake of breath.

He watched as a small white hand, stark against the dark fabric of the cloak the child was wearing, darted out to grip the lever that would activate the lift. Renaud’s breath caught in his throat. The lift usually has operators to run and monitor it. What is she doing?

Renaud couldn’t explain how he knew, but he had a sinking feeling in his gut that told him the small child who now had both hands on the lever and was pulling as hard as she could was the girl he’d seen this morning; the one with the bouncy dark hair and perfect young, happy parents.

As he watched, suddenly the lift mechanism gave way and the girl plummeted. Despite himself, Renaud ran forward, but the girl didn’t scream or otherwise announce her presence. Instead she hunkered down and waited for the lift to bring her safely to the ground.

Renaud was there to meet her.

“Petite fille,” he called to her, not even realizing he’d reverted to French in his distress. “Are you all right?”

She stood and nodded, her grey eyes wide and serious-looking in her young round face.

“Come away from the lift,” he told her, holding out his hand. “It’s not safe.”

She didn’t take his hand. She was wary of strangers. Good for her, Renaud thought, nodding to himself. “C’est d’accord,” he said comfortingly. “Je m’appelle Renaud.

Êtes-vous un Capitaine?” she asked cautiously in halting French.

Abruptly Renaud remembered that he was, in fact, a Captain. He straightened his back. “Oui, Madame.” He switched back to English, which the girl was obviously more comfortable with, “My ship is called The Clover. She’s waiting right over there.” He pointed out which vessel was his in the harbour.

“My mother…” She fought back tears that threatened to overwhelm her, hugging something to her chest beneath the navy blue cloak she wore. “My mother wants me to find a good ship, one without soldiers.”

“Well there are no soldiers on The Clover, only sailors. And Dot, she’s a cook.” Renaud didn’t know why he was wasting time talking to this little girl when he should be fleeing Ismera, but some part of him missed his own family and he didn’t have it in him to leave this girl all alone. “Would you like to come to my ship and you can wait for your parents there?”

The girl nodded vigorously, darting a hand out of her cloak to wipe at her tears. This time when he extended a hand to her, she took it. “What’s your name, little one?”

“Meredith,” she answered between sniffles. “Meredith Turrell.”

Renaud almost stopped where he was, halfway back across the dock to where his ship waited with the gangplank lowered for him. Turrell?! As in ‘Lord and Lady’ Turrell? The man and woman I saw on the lift earlier, they own this town and this is their daughter. Of course, I’m so stupid. The Turrell Manor is at the top of the cliff, you can see it from the Channel.

“Are you sure you should be down here?” Renaud looked back at his newfound companion, suddenly nervous that his act of charity would be misconstrued for a kidnapping. “I could take you back up the lift to your house.”

She shook her head fiercely. “Mother told me to find a ship.”

He would have pressed the issue, but at that moment a bright light erupted on top of the cliff. Renaud’s eyes went wide. It looked like nothing more than a massive bonfire, its light reflected on the clouds above.

Vitement,” he urged Meredith and the two of them hurried across the gangplank which was pulled in after them.

Back on his ship, Renaud gave the order to disembark and his skeleton crew worked double-time to obey his command. Unmoored from the dock, The Clover began quickly drifting into the Channel, and one by one the crew unfurled the sails to take advantage of the rising wind.

Looking back toward Turrellin, and specifically at the Turrell Manor, it was clear that the civil war his good friend Christian Vellaire had fled from had reached Turrellin, and young Meredith’s parents were among the unfortunate casualties.

Renaud heard a thump and looked down to see that Meredith had dropped a satchel the size of her torso onto the deck at her feet. He didn’t have time to wonder much about that before he felt the girl’s arms clamp tightly around his waist as she buried her face from the sight of her home up in flames. Overcome with emotion, Renaud put a hand on her slight shoulder. “I’m sorry, little one,” he whispered, his voice thick and his cheek moist from tears he hadn’t realized had formed. “I’m so sorry.”

Watching the flames grow farther and farther away, Renaud couldn’t help but feel that his victories over the past twenty-four hours were being karmically balanced by Meredith’s losses, and he vowed right then and there that he would do everything within his power to see this little girl safe.

Renaud turned Meredith about so she could face the water and the way to Saegard instead of the chaos they were rapidly leaving behind. He wiped at the tears that ran down his cheeks to nestle into his bushy beard. I promise my dear, if I have anything to say about it, one day you’ll be the luckiest girl to have ever crossed the Ismeran Channel.

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