Slammercatch, Slammercatch, make the master meet his match!
He never forgot that day.
Slammercatch, Slammercatch, shut him up and draw the latch!
Little Oliver hated playing Slammercatch – he hated the complex rules (which he was sure the older urchins made up as they went along,) he hated the idiotic rhymes, and most of all, he hated being sat on by half the beggar brats in the city, which was invariably how it ended. Underdog among the underdogs, he usually did what many others have done in his position – he desperately sought someone lower than himself to persecute. And so it was on that day – spying a ragged, bent old man, he picked up a rotten apple and threw it at him. And this point the others, flaunting their youth (which was, after all, their only asset) were wont to forget about the game and laugh and jeer and taunt Oliver’s chosen victim. But that day was different.
When the children turned and saw whom he had hit (and a very good hit it was, by the way – right between the eyes so that the putrid juices flowed down his face) they were at once still and silent. The old man turned slowly to look at them, and Oliver was struck by the brightness of his blue eyes.
“It’s him,” said one of the older children.
“The storyteller,” said another.
“Who threw it?” Asked the old man.
No-one said a thing. Without speaking, he looked each of them in the eye. Slowly. One by one. Then, “It was you,” he said, pointing to Oliver. “Why did you do that?”
A pause. Everyone was looking at him – the children with hostility, the old man with… what? He couldn’t tell.
There was a silence. Then one of the younger children spoke.
“Please sir he didn’t mean it sir he’s not one of us sir a stranger sir please tell us a story sir my big sister told me about you sir we didn’t do nothing sir I’ve always wanted…” Someone, presumably her big sister, silenced her. The old man continued to look at Oliver.
“I forgive you,” he said, “and children, I want you all to forgive him too. Now. Would you all like to hear one of my stories?”
Oliver was not (to be honest) particularly interested in hearing a story, but judging from the delighted squeals around him, the others were, so, not wishing to be further alienated, he said: “Yes please sir!”
Huddled in the abandoned cellar where they sheltered at night, the children sat around the feet of the old storyteller, who took pride of place on an old three-legged stool. I do not reproduce his exact words, but the gist of what he said was this:
“My land is a land of stories – they flow through our veins like the heat of our blood. Legends are our sweet wine, and dreams our daily bread. In Candória the poets are princes and the princes poets, and children tell tales before they can walk. Princess Sdeki was the only daughter of King Phillipe. Her beauty enchanted all who saw her and her sweet voice wove tales like music. But her heart’s desire was to be a story, to be the greatest story, to live forever on the lips of her people. Well, forever is a long time, and it is not so long since Princess Sdeki passed from the world of men into the world of legend, but I need be no prophet to tell you that some angel must have heard her wish, for her story is the first that our children learn, and yet they never tire of hearing it.
Many loved Sdeki, but she loved only one – Prince Merin, son of the King of Camberia, far across the ocean. Her dowry was the richest there has ever been – a great golden ship loaded with treasure worth half a kingdom, which sailed ahead of her as herald of her splendour. On the seventh day of sailing it was attacked by pirates – the sailors and guards fought valiantly, but despite out-numbering them ten to one, they were no match for the men of Captain Resarge, Scourge of the Sundering Sea. The ship was taken. He who called himself King of Pirates was now as rich as a king.
Perhaps Sdeki in her wrath had learned witchcraft, perhaps the captain, sated with wealth, had become careless – who knows. Not long afterwards, a merboy, out with his herd of dolphin, saw the golden ship sink to the bottom of the sea with Resarge and his crew and every last jewel and coin upon it.
Sdeki, it is said, went mad with grief that she could no longer marry Merin. Some say she was simply incarcerated by her own family, others that she ran away to live on a strange double vessel called the Lunai Helia that was more floating palace than ship, and sailed around the ocean, searching for her lost dowry. Many believe that the form of her madness was a delusion that she was both man and woman and married to herself. Some say that she died in her youth, others that she still lives today.
In my land there is not a child who dreams not of finding that treasure deep beneath the Sundering Sea, yet it has been prophesied that no Candórian but a foreigner will be the one. And still it lies there, daring each adventurous and inventive spirit to seek it out."
After the story, there was silence; after the silence clamour as the children begged to hear more, offered their own theories about what happened and started to discuss their plans for how best to recover the famous hoard. But the storyteller said he had to be on his way, so Oliver helped him up the dank stairs and into the street. In the doorway, they stopped:
“Well, boy? You didn’t want to hear my story at first did you? No, no – don’t protest – I could see it in your eyes, for all your “yes please sir” you weren’t interested. But what do you think now?
“It were… it were like you’ve gave us a dream sir, a hope…”
With that, the old storyteller went on his way. Oliver listened to his playmates with growing disdain. Idiots! They would spend the rest of the day – the rest of their lives – talking about fabulous wealth and never lift a finger to actually achieve anything. He began to smile – he had only said the thing about dreams and hopes to flatter the old man, but now it struck him that it was entirely true. He would go to Candória – if it truly was a nation of dreamers and poets, then they would prove as easy victims as the man himself. Tightly holding the storyteller’s purse, he set out for the pie shop. He had a long journey ahead of him.
As Oliver leaned over the side of the boat, he remembered the glee he felt at the picking of that first pocket. He remembered how new the world felt when he finally found something he was good at. He saw it all so clearly then – there were idiots who wasted their time with fantasies and there were those such as himself who simply saw what they wanted and took it. Dream the possible dream… that had been his motto. And what now? Here he was chasing after that very treasure he had so disdained. Ah, but it’s different, he told himself. I’ve seen the ingots. I’ve touched them. I’m different. But in his heart he knew he wasn’t. I’m an idiot, he thought. All it takes is for some loony to wave a couple of lumps of metal in front of my face and I’ll follow him to the ends of the earth, no questions asked.
First Mate Seribro (Mister Seribro now, as Oliver had learned to his cost) had called the whole crew up on deck. Oliver watched them walk past, laughing and swearing, and had trouble distinguishing them one from another. It was as though time and the harshness of life at sea had weathered them all to a brawny brown-faced uniformity. None of them paid him any attention, with the exception of Idean, the grey-clad, grey-skinned ship’s cook, who seemed to be watching him out of the corner of his eye. He pretended not to notice.
The change in atmosphere as Hilt came among them was almost tangible. He was not a large man, but he had the skill of making his presence felt. Oliver made a mental note to work on acquiring this skill for himself. He thought it might be something to do with staying very still when you’re still and moving very precisely when you move. Or maybe it was the eyes. Hilt had a way of staring at you a little too intently for a little too long. When he spoke it was in the tone of a gentleman – Oliver fancied that it was subtly different from the voice he used when alone with himself and Seribro – there was a slow precision to the consonants that made it seem as though every word was carefully and individually chosen as being superior to all the alternatives.
“Welcome, shipmates, to the Dark Lady. I am no lawyer nor politician to stand round speechifying when there’s work to be done, so I’ll come straight to the point. You will have heard rumours that the merfolk have rediscovered part of Captain Resarge’s sunken hoard and that they have been negotiating with the Smugglers over terms for its return to land? Yes?”
A few murmurs of “aye cap’n” confirmed that the rumour was not new to many of those on board. Also perhaps a little trepidation at the idea of getting involved with the affairs of the Smugglers – a close-knit group of two or three families who in many coastal areas were more powerful than the King, and whose retribution against their enemies was swift and painful.
“That they bought several ingots and also the Captain’s log-books, which reveal – or so ‘tis hoped – where the ship sank and thus where the remainder of the treasure lies?”
“Aye, cap’n.” The voices were stronger now and more in number.
“The more… observant of you,” he paused momentarily and shot an inscrutable glance at a particular group of three sailors, who were standing apart from the others, “may also have guessed that these… artefacts – the ingots and log-books both – have… fallen into the hands of Mr Seribro and myself. How this came to pass is a fine tale, one to be shared over a bottle of rum or three of an evening. It can wait.”
At the mention of rum, there were murmurs of approval.
“You will realise that however precisely we locate the treasure, it will be beyond human capability to retrieve it. We have negotiated with a representative of the merfolk and the price for their co-operation is the freedom of their prince, who is being held captive by the Queen of Camberia. Our expert pickpocket here – ” at this pointed he turned and smiled at Oliver, showing his strange pointed teeth, “will pluck the golden key from the chain around her waist, and the rest of us shall….”
But Oliver did not hear him. All he could hear was the blood pulsing through the arteries around his ears as his heart beat faster and faster, preparing him to run away. And he knew that for the first time in his life, there was nowhere to run. To pick the pocket of a queen!? The idea was impossible, preposterous. He would be tortured and killed – the barbarity of the Camberians was infamous. He forced himself into a semblance of calm. He’d finish the voyage to Camberia, then slip away when they reached the port. Yes. That’s what he’d do. Easy. No problem. He turned his attention once more to what Captain Hilt was saying.
“…of course not! The legend of Ocelot and Ciela is exactly that – a legend. Princess Sdeki must have died many years ago. Now. Does anyone have a sensible question?”
“What do them log-books say then?” The speaker was a short man with an ill-kempt brown beard.
“I don’t know. They were were written in a code based on a dialect of Ancient Mava. It seems that on his days off from being the Scourge of the Sundering Seas, Captain Resarge was a rather talented scholar. Which reminds me. Stokes!?”
A thick-set, lumbering giant of a man stepped forward.
“You found us a scholar?”
“Well, bring him up then.”
Stokes went below and returned immediately with what looked like a boy of around Oliver’s age. Vomit stains on his clothing suggested that he had not taken well to life at sea. His face was pale, almost white, and his eyes were red. His hands were tied behind his back and it seemed to Oliver that were Stokes not holding him up, he would fall to the floor.
There was absolute silence as the crew took in what they saw. Many who had sailed with Hilt before edged away slightly and exchanged nervous glances. The Captain himself stared at the trembling boy for many seconds. Oliver thought he was going to explode with rage, but when he spoke, it was with a quiet self-control.
"Mr Stokes. What is this?"
"A… a scholar, sir. I found him comin’ out the university. He... he were wearing them heavy robes jus' like you said an' carrying a big pile of papers." There was a pause. "Wiv writing on 'em an' all..."
Hilt interrupted him in a voice that cut through his thick-set seaman's phlegmy brogue like a knife.
"And what is he wearing now?"
Another pause. The habits and costume of land-dwelling folks were to sea-born Stokes as much a mystery as those of the pale-faced merpeople who swam beneath his feet. How could he be expected to identify the skinny youth's cassock and biretta when all he knew of priests was a vague impression (gleaned from Captain Hilt's diatribes) that they were corpulent ogres with their hands in the pockets of the poor, their faces stuffed with food and their syphilitic cocks thrust into the tender arses of their choirboys.
[PG 13… PG 13… Yeah, OK – I’m sailing a bit close to the wind. Um… ‘Slightly poorly tongues in the ears one or two of the older choirboys’ if you prefer.]
"Dunno Cap'n Hilt, Sir. A dress?"
One or two crewman laughed, anticipating sport at the expense of their ignorant shipmate. But the captain had already tired of Stokes, and had turned his attention to the quivering youth on the deck before him.
"Well, well," he snarled, "a little priestling. What's your name, 'Father'?"
A few more crewmen laughed this time: the young man's smooth face and tiny stature rendered this honorific ludicrous. Fresh tears sprang to his eyes, and he opened his mouth a couple of times as though trying to answer but finding himself incapable.
"M... Marius Van Helm," he said.
"And you can read Mava, can you? The scholar's tongue?"
"Y... yes, sir."
"Well Stokes, I was going to have you whipped for bringing this filth aboard my new ship, but it strikes me now it'll be such a pleasure to kill him when the job is done, it'll be worth the enduring of him until then. Murderer though I be, it would have been no joy to slaughter an innocent man of learning, but to rid the world of these church-rats is both a duty and a pleasure..."
Throughout this exchange, Oliver stayed silent by Seribro’s side, painfully aware that he too was a newcomer, and that Captain Hilt could not be relied upon as a fair and reasonable man. Thank God I’m an atheist, he thought. But he couldn’t help wondering to what other kinds of person the Captain might take exception. To Seribro he seemed friendly enough – the two were obviously old friends. The rest of the crew seemed to like him and fear him in equal measure, which was, Oliver supposed, how it should be.
Yet he himself could not bring himself to feel anything but repugnance for the man. There was something about that face, those intense, scornful eyes, the aquiline nose, the pointed front teeth and prominent canines – it made him look like some kind of predatory animal – a monstrous hybrid of eagle, wolf and shark. And then there was the arm. Covered almost to the shoulder with a black leather glove, for the most part it hung useless by his side, the hand grotesquely twisted into a sort of claw, but sometimes – as when he greeted Seribro – the captain seemed to be able to harness that manic energy of his to reanimate it for a second or so, and sometimes – as when he first saw the priest aboard his ship – it twitched and jerked of its own accord.
Oliver was used to being able to act on his intuition. He had fallen in with undesirable acquaintances before, but had always managed to give them the slip before coming to any real harm. He began for the first time to realise the magnitude of what he had done, to understand the impossibility of escape.
He was distracted from his rising panic by one of the strangest sounds he had ever heard. If you crossed a cat with a colicky baby with a drunken soprano you might come up with a creature who made a noise a little like that of Bosun as he swooped down from his perch in the rigging and began to fly around the young priest’s head.
Hilt turned to Seribro.
"What does it mean?"
"I cannot say sir, unless it be... that is... Bosun hath a gift fer the discovery of dissemblers."
"Ha! exactly so – men o' the cloth, dissemblers all of them."
"Men o' the cloth..." Seribro came close to the quivering priest, and took his smooth face roughly in his big hands. Then he roared with laughter.
"Excellent! Arr, most excellent work Stokes – our captain be famed as a reas’nable man – a fair one even – but fer two kinds o’ folk he hath no love, no patience and ne’er one jot of his famous fairness. Aye, priests and women ‘ave been the bane of ‘is life an’ ‘e hath sworn t’ be their scourge, t’ hurt each one of them more than they have hurt him. An’ you, oh most magnificent Mr Stokes, you ‘ave managed to find the one creature in the whole of this unholy world who’s both. Fer I’d stake my life that this be no Marius, but a common little Maria..."
"Stop!" said Hilt, glaring at his friend. "Sure he looks girlish enough, but so do most of his kind..." With that he drew his cutlass and, resting the blunt side beneath the youth's chin, started slowly, one-by-one to cut the buttons off the front of his cassock.
"Forty-two buttons, each standing for one of the forty-two articles of the holy church... well, we'll soon see what heresies you're hiding beneath your stinking priest-coat."
"No!" cried Marius, drawing back, "I am a woman - I admit it. There's no need for that. Sir, I too have been persecuted by priests and women both... and... and..."
And with that she fell to the floor in a dead faint. All hell broke loose. Some of the men complained it was bad luck to have a woman aboard, others pointed out that it might also have certain advantages. Seribro continued to laugh, Hilt merely glowered, deep in thought. "Silence!" he suddenly cried, and was obeyed at once. "Cut her throat and turn back to port. I will not have such a creature on my ship.”
"Nay!" This was Seribro, serious now. "It be too dang’rous – it'll take too long – ‘ow we gunna find another scholar? She'll be missed, yer know – an’ if the likes of us be seen hangin’ round the university we’ll more’n likely end up... well hangin’ round the university."
Hilt shot his friend a murderous glance.
“Very well,” he said at last, “she shall stay for long enough to translate the logs for us. Men – use her as you will, she will sleep with you in the common quarters. But do not kill her or render her incapable of reading or writing, or you will feel my wrath. Now. To your duties.”
He turned without another word and walked into his cabin.
Oliver’s ‘duties’ turned out to consist of swabbing the decks – keeping them continually wet to prevent the wood from drying out and warping. He had never worked harder in his life – more than ever he regretted agreeing to join the voyage. Worse still, Seribro had also made vague allusions to other ‘duties’, from which he gathered he was to spy on Hilt and Idean, though what he was looking for and why he had not the slightest idea.
At least his work gave him plenty of time for thought. Something about Hilt’s story didn’t quite ring true. If the smugglers had obtained a sample of the sunken treasure from the merfolk, why was it necessary to go to all the trouble of kidnapping a scholar to translate Resarge’s logs? Why couldn’t they just ask the merfolk where they had found it?
Evening fell. He heard the men down below talking and drinking and singing. He was afraid to try to join them, so instead he went to Seribro’s cabin, where he had been told he was to sleep, and knocked on the door.
To his surprise he saw that Seribro was not alone. The priest woman was sitting at his desk. She had obviously been crying, but was now drinking rum instead, holding the earthenware cup in both of her small hands and taking big, frightened gulps.
“Arr, boy. Good. I were goin’ to send for yer. Father Marius here is going to sleep in my cabin now – you can throw yer lot in wi’ the men down below. Nay, nay, don’ be afeard now, they’re a good bunch an’ it’ll do yer good t’ get t’ know ‘em.”
But Oliver was absolutely dismayed. He was frightened and exhausted – he wasn’t good with big groups of people at the best of times, and the notion of introducing himself to the sailors was appalling, impossible. No. For one night he’d find somewhere else to sleep. He prowled around the ship, silent as a cat, searching for somewhere tolerably sheltered. Eventually he found an unlocked store cupboard with just enough space between some barrels of water and piles of rope for him to squeeze in and, wrapped in his blanket, seek sleep.
He was just drifting off when he heard movement behind him – the cupboard must back onto someone’s cabin. He listened. A door opened and then there were voices. Hilt and Seribro! He strained to hear what they were saying. Gradually, as his ears became accustomed to the effort, the words began to make sense.
“D’yer think they believed us?”
“I don’t see why they wouldn’t. We weren’t lying – perhaps we will manage to find Princess Sdeki’s dowry.”
“An’ that would be prize enough.”
“Yet if I’m right, the log books hold a far greater secret….”
“If you be right. We’ll have to wait for our scholar to do her work.”
“She’s sleeping in your quarters?” The sneer in Captain Hilt’s voice was audible.
“Your eyes be everywhere.”
“You desire her?” He sounded disgusted at the very idea.
“Nay – o’ course not, since when ‘ave I gone chasin’ after skinny little girls?”
“What then? Why did you go against me? I said she was to sleep down with the men.”
“She wouldn’a lasted five minutes down there.”
“You realise we’re going to have to kill her once the logs are translated?”
To be continued…