The Ballad of Rika Strong-Arm - Episode 2
Captain Bolter was a reasonable man. He was an honorable one as well, if also strict and unyielding. Seeing as how sailing across the Endless Ocean required his crew be disciplined and he wield supreme authority, he had every right to be a strict man. I also had not expected him to make me work on the trip. I’d absently imagined I would merely sit in my cabin and write all day long. Mistakenly, I had thought I had paid for my passage, but I had paid only for the renting of my cabin. It was space that might have been used for the stowage of goods, and my payment made up the difference in the transaction. I still owed him for both my food and passage, apparently, and was informed I would be working off that debt. I was glad to learn that it would be easy enough to train me to sail, under the care of a capable seaman. The merchant who was paying for the vessel was the only person aboard who did not have responsibilities pertaining to the maintenance and seafaring of the T.S.S. Auriga.
I was paired with Fynn Mk’Kay, Seaman, and the captain told me that I was to be tethered to Fynn. I did my best not to stare. I had never met a Tiefling before.
Fynn’s skin tone was nearly maroon, it was so red. A bun of clean black hair, pulled tight between two smallish horns that swept backwards and offered little risk of snagging, adorned the top of his head. His eyes were a bright dandelion yellow, and his teeth were snow white. He had such a charming grin, I found myself smiling stupidly at him when he flashed a quick one as a greeting.
I briefly imagined a scene between us, alone on deck under the moonlight. I then noticed the awkward silence between us and did my best to make myself presentable. Captain Bolter waited until he had my attention again, an annoyed frown teasing at the corners of his lips, and he gave us strict orders.
I must always know where Fynn was, and he must always know the same for me. If either of us lapsed in these responsibilities and it resulted in the disruption of the crew or operation of the ship, both of us would receive beatings. This was non-negotiable.
While I had, at first, thought this arrangement outrageous and abusive, I soon realized the importance of knowing where you belong on a ship. If I wanted the privilege of wandering the deck, I needed to understand where not to be and when not to be there. Completely by accident, I also learned that starting off on the wrong foot goes a long way in affecting your relationship with someone.
I was enjoying the play of the sea breeze in my hair, the smell of the spray, and the warm sun in the clear blue sky above. We were two days out to sea, headed south before turning east with the currents, and the air was getting warmer by the hour. I could hear Fynn talking nearby, his unusual accent standing out from the others around him and figured I had earned a moment of rest. We were out of rope to coil, sail patches to sort, and dishes to wash, for the time being, and I was grateful for the break. Someone behind me yelled something about clearing the jib, whatever that meant, and I ignored it. I was watching the dolphins playing in the water as we crashed through swells.
Quite suddenly, I was lifted by strong arms around my waist and spun away from the railing. I didn’t even have time to protest or fight. I was relocated as easily as a wayward mop; about as gracefully as one too. Fynn set me down on my feet, out of the way, and I watched a burly sailor slide into position and begin hauling on the little triangle sail at the bow (front) of the ship.
“That’s Harley” Fynn said in his ‘mouthful of marbles’ accent, “and he’d have tossed you right to the deck just to do his job. He’s not too keen about having a woman onboard; he thinks it’ll cause strife among the crew. You’ll want to stay out of his way, Rika” he warned me. I had no idea where his accent was from, it sounded nothing like anyone else on board. Was it Infernal, the accent of Hell? Or had his mortal parent been from a distant land? I never found the courage to ask.
“Thanks, Fynn” I said, my hands on his wrists which were still about my waist, “I guess he’s not invited to card game night” I said, frowning at the dirty look this Harley was giving me.
“I was thinking the same thing myself” Fynn agreed, “You don’t know nothing about sailing, do ya, Rika?” he asked me, looking down over my shoulder. He had given me my first nickname about two minutes after I had met him. It had taken about a day for me to come around to it, but I found it endearing enough to appreciate it once it stuck. I shrugged.
“Either that, or I’m an Inspection Marshall here to ensure your capabilities as a sailor” I winked.
“Ah, well, in that case…” he said thoughtfully, “The jib is up at the prow there, and it’s one of the foresails. It serves a mighty important function in handling the ship with strong sidewinds like these. You were in the way of a sailor given a task, an unfortunate location indeed” he cautioned me. I nodded as though I had suspected the same all along.
“Very well spotted, Seaman Mk’Kay” I commended him, “you handled the situation appropriately” I said, patting his arms. It was a polite way of asking him to let me go. Instead, he gave a soft purr in my ear, sending a shiver down my spine.
“It’s my responsibility to handle you properly, Ms. Rika” he replied. The small squeeze he gave both excited and terrified me. I quickly broke out of his grip and said I would be in the galley, peeling potatoes. I refused to meet anyone’s gaze the entire way there. When he joined me later, he did not seem offended or upset, but friendly and playful.
Nine days into our journey, we spotted a vessel on the horizon. The distant ship was not flying any colors, a worrisome sign. Worse still, it did not appear on the captain’s charts. Every merchant vessel and legitimate military ship on the seas had a magical map which displayed every other so-enchanted chart currently at sail in real time. Only pleasure yachts whose owners could not afford one, or pirates, sailed without those naval charts.
It was a tense few hours as the other ship maintained a respectable distance away, and the Auriga readied for a possible conflict. That was when I was forced to tell Fynn that I couldn’t fight. I figured they would simply send me belowdecks to my cabin so I wouldn’t get in the way. I was wrong.
Fynn borrowed a blade from the large Tressian man he spent most of his time with and handed it to me. I looked at him as though he were crazy. He looked at me as though he were having fun.
“Okay, you’re not looking to touch me. These things are sharp, you know. I just want you to practice blocking me, okay Rika?” he cautioned, his hand held up in front of him.
“Okay… when do I—” I started to ask. He forced me to bring the saber to bear without further warning. Later, I would realize that he had never come anywhere close to my body, but it was a frightening experience, nonetheless. He continued slashing at me, cutting the air where an invisible foe a single step in front of me stood. I did my best to keep up with him and block his attacks. Often, my blade was quickly skewed aside, and a lethal blow would be landed in the space in front of me. Much more frustrating was how often I swung a blow I thought would connect with his weapon and missed entirely.
After only a few minutes, I was out of breath and sweating heavily with the effort. At least, I had managed to block enough of his strikes that Fynn was convinced I wouldn’t die immediately when someone attacked me; I might even be able to survive long enough for him to rescue me from an attacking pirate, should it ever come to that.
The other ship finally seemed to notice the Auriga and raised the white flag of civilians. It made no attempts to approach, altering its course away from us even, and the crew returned to their assigned duties. I returned my sword to Fynn’s friend, a massive, muscular, pale man with platinum blonde hair who insisted he be called, “Frost”, and we went back to the work we had been busy with before the alarm had been raised.
Though, after that, Fynn made sure to take an hour of each day to teach me swordplay. We used mop handles, mostly. Once a week, we would work on hand-to-hand and grappling techniques, but we mostly focused on swordplay. The first thing he drilled into me, once he decided I had learned how to properly wield my weapon, was how to hold a strong stance. So long as I could block any attack coming at me, I would eventually best any single individual in a fair fight. Maybe even a few if I perfected my technique…
Attacking takes significantly more energy than blocking. If I could force my opponents to wear themselves down against my defenses, they would eventually open themselves for a decisive strike. I would, hopefully still fresh and full of strength, have an opportunity to attack. The second thing he taught me was to effectively disarm my opponent. It would be significantly harder to kill me if I was armed and my foe were not.
I was going to bed covered in welts, exhausted, and happier than ever. I had purpose and routine. I knew what to expect from my days. And I was making clear and definite progress in something I had always dreamed of. I was quite grateful to have Fynn for a friend
I didn’t know just how much I owed my Tiefling companion, until I walked in on an argument he was having with Harley, concerning me. We had both been washing towels so we would have them to dry dishes with later. Fynn had said he needed to take care of something, and I finished up the wash on my own. As soon as I had the last towel hanging to dry, I went and grabbed our mop handles and went in search of my friend.
I checked my cabin, a place where we spent much of our free time together, but he wasn’t there. I began to worry and started looking for him everywhere. I did not want to earn a lashing. I found him in the general quarters, talking with another sailor among the hammocks. I heard them before I saw them, and I realized that it was not friendly banter.
“It’s a disgrace, the way you simper for her” the gruff human man said.
“I had seventeen sisters, growing up” Fynn retorted, “pardon me for actually knowing how to be friends with a woman, when the idea seems utterly incomprehensible to you” Fynn had his hands on his hips now, looking like a cross parent.
“You’re wasting your time on her. She’s stuck-up and a tease” Harley insisted. Fynn dropped his hands, though the muscles in his arms tensed.
“I’ve told you before, Harley” Fynn said, his voice dangerously calm, “Rika is my friend. This is me asking you politely. Stop slandering her” he poked the man in the chest.
“What are you going to do about it, half-devil?” Harley said, brushing Fynn’s finger away. Suddenly, he was right up in Harley’s face, light smoke trailing from the tips of his horns.
“I killed a man when I was thirteen. How about you, Harley?” Fynn asked viciously, “When was your first murder?” the Tiefling asked, falling back, and stepping into his hand-to-hand fighting stance.
“Back off, fiend. Threatening a superior is quite the infraction” Harley said, a waver in his voice.
“That wasn’t a threat, it was a question” Fynn snarled, “If I had said that I would strip the skin from your back before keel-hauling you, that would have been a threat” he said, and turned to storm away. His face looked as though he had bit into a lemon. He seemed surprised to see me standing there, listening to the conversation.
“Watch your back, devil” Harley called after him, “you can’t protect your pet forever!” he said, eyeing me with a look of disgust on his face. Fynn ushered me out of there and up onto the deck. He silently snatched one of the sticks out of my hand and stepped into form and struck me without warning. A flash of stinging pain seared through my back, and I cried out in agony. He raised his mock weapon again and I jumped into stance just in time to block a second blow. He was not aiming for the air in front of me; he was swinging at me. He had hit me hard enough that, had his weapon been forged of steel, I would be horribly wounded.
“Let yourself be so easily surprised, and you’ll die before you know it!” he yelled at me, his yellow eyes burning like twin suns. Was that anger, or excitement? I didn’t want to believe he would enjoy hurting me, but the evidence seemed overwhelming.
He came at me again, just as fiercely as before, but I was ready for him this time. Once, twice, thrice we clashed, our wooden weapons clacking loudly. I couldn’t find an opening against him, and he kept me blocking his constant attacks. He drove me back, across the deck, sailors dodging out of the way. A few protested, but most watched in stoic silence as though they knew this day must come eventually. I couldn’t understand why he was so intent upon hurting me. Was he mad about what Harley had said?
Again and again, we came together in violence, him driving me ever backward with his ferocity. We passed the mainmast, and my weapon got caught in the rigging above my head when I raised it to swing. I let go of my handle and ducked away from his slash. The tension gone, the mop handle fell free of the rigging it had tangled in, and I made a quick grab as it bounced on the deck. Fynn sent a powerful thrust at me, and I reeled backwards.
I recognized this section of the deck as I backpedaled across the heavy timbers. We were coming up to the foremast, where the jib was, at the prow of the ship. I was running out of room to retreat.
Falling overboard at the prow of a sailing ship was practically a death sentence. If the ship didn’t crush you as it pushed you into the water ahead of and beneath it, the barnacles would shred the flesh from your bones. I was intent on keeping my skin; I finally felt comfortable in it.
I started to notice a pattern in Fynn’s attacks. He tended to strike in sets of three, varying between practiced combinations. I could create my own opportunity there if I was careful. Fynn was showing no signs of wearing himself out. I, however, was feeling the burn in my arm.
I timed my attack to disturb his flow, knocking his weapon off-balance in between strikes, and whipped mine back down around his hand to catch it and fling it up and out of his grip.
The wooden handle flipped backwards and clattered across the deck. I hesitated to strike at an unarmed foe, waiting for my friend to surrender. He nearly looked impressed for half a second, and then lunged for me and grabbed both of my wrists. Fynn tried to overpower me, attempting to hit me with the weapon still in my hand. I dropped the mop handle and leveraged his grip on me to pull his knee out from under him. We crashed to the deck and broke apart. The breath was driven from us both, and I jumped to take advantage of this rare opportunity.
I scrambled to pin him as he had taught me. One hand on a wrist, the other arm across the neck. One knee on the other wrist, one on the chest. He anticipated me and ducked his head, biting my arm as I moved in for the pin. I yelped and fought the urge to jump away from the pain, so I didn’t tear the skin off my arm. He took the opportunity to throw me off and rolled onto his feet, picking up my old weapon as he stood.
I scurried away, darting past sailors who had been cajoled back to work by the officers on deck. Why was the captain allowing this? Surely, there was something more productive we could be doing. It seemed to me that we were disrupting the proper operation of the ship with our display. When I looked up at him, however, he was watching us, stone-faced and steely-eyed.
I turned my attention to where my weapon lay on the deck, held firmly under Harley’s foot. The big man had his arms crossed over his chest, and grinned as he shifted his weight more fully onto the handle. I would need to best him as well if I wanted to defend myself.
Fynn was still chasing after me, I could hear his footsteps. I was loathe to bring this man who seemed to hate me into whatever was happening between Fynn and myself. I wanted to hope that it was a training exercise somehow, but it felt more like a punishment that the entire ship’s crew was willing to allow.
I didn’t slow my approach for one step. I dropped into a slide and crossed my arms over my chest loosely. My hands caught on Harley’s ankles, my momentum carrying me between his legs, and I twisted around, flipping upright once I was on the other side of him, and yanked back with all my strength. That, combined with his weight being not properly supported by the rolling wood under him, sent the man crashing face-first into the deck. I grabbed my weapon, jumped to my feet, and met Fynn as he came at me swinging.
We clashed against one another, jarring with every attack. Meeting force with blocks and counters. We gained ground over the other in turns; I was growing more confident by the second. And then I did the stupidest thing, on an impulse.
I created a pattern of attacks that ended with a sharp thrust and repeated it twice. I needed him to place his weapon in just the right spot. The third time I moved through the attacks, I released my weapon on the thrust. When he blocked, my stick rolled around his and smacked him in the face. I came following behind it and grabbed his sword wrist, twisting and pushing his weapon into place. As I tackled him, I pressed the mop handle against his throat. We crashed to the deck, and he lay there, defeated.
“That’s enough, Seaman Rika” the captain called out, and I immediately backed off. I was out of breath and drenched in sweat. Fynn smiled at me warmly as I helped him up to his feet, looking about as tired as I did. He did not seem to be at all upset with me but, rather, proud. The captain continued to address us, “Seaman Mk’Kay, your lessons appear to be paying off. Keep it up, and you’ll find yourself a boatswain in no time” he said, a small grin on his salted features. He then turned his attention to Harley, whom I had forgotten about as I had been concerned with pinning Fynn. Frost and a few others were standing in the way of him getting to me. Judging by the amount of blood all over his face and chest, he had broken his nose in the fall. “Boatswain’s mate Smith,” Captain Bolter barked roughly, demanding his attention, “You are to lead a crew in swabbing the deck. It’s looking a touch dry…” he said with a wry grin, and added, “If I catch wind of you harassing our newest sailor again, I’ll see to it that you find your way to the scuppers, sailor” he said with a tone of finality. Harley dropped his head in shame and went belowdecks as ordered. I had the sinking feeling this could not possibly produce a positive change in his attitude towards me.
The sailors who had stopped him dispersed, Frost coming over to us with a wide grin.
“Quick as a rabbit, you are” he clapped his massive hand on my shoulder. I winced but returned my own goofy smirk. Fynn’s red arms clasped themselves around my waist, and I felt him pressing against me. I reached up and pulled his head against mine as he rested his chin on my shoulder from behind.
“You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met, Rika” he whispered in my ear, sending a pleasant shiver down my spine, “and I’m glad to know you’ll survive out there in the world” he added and let go of me. “I told you, she’s a fast learner” he said proudly to Frost.
“She might be better than you,” the wall of a man chuckled, “No one else has put the merchant’s son in line; not even the father of that brat” he was eyeing the blood on the deck with disdain.
“Wait, Harley is Takkun’s son?” I asked, incredulous. Harley, who looked like he had ogre blood somewhere in his lineage, was the son of the fat, short, terrible gambler of a merchant who owned the Auriga?
“Sure is” Fynn chuckled, “And we’ve all been wanting to break his nose since he first set foot on deck”
“What do you mean?” I asked in an exaggerated sweet tone, “He’s got such a winning personality”
“At least now all the sailors will be too intimidated to continue their talk of proposing to you, Rika” Frost chuckled, his hand warm on my shoulder. What? Had they really been considering that?
“Well, I must admit, none of them are really my type” I shrugged with a blush. The subject made me uncomfortable. A knowing look passed between my two friends, but neither of them said a word.
Now that I was standing there, and the sense of danger had evaporated entirely, my back was aching like never before. I recalled how Fynn had hit me at the beginning of our bout and punched him as hard as I could in the shoulder. He winced, looked hurt, then ashamed and embarrassed.
“Maybe I hit you a little too hard at first” he admitted sheepishly, “but no pirate nor bandit will show an armed opponent an ounce of mercy. Nor should you expect them to fight fair. It seems, however, you’ll do just fine, if you’re ever put to the test” he said, looking for an excuse for his behavior, “Are we still friends, Rika?” he asked, pleadingly. I looked at my arm, and then at him.
“Of course, Fynn” I assured him, “and, once I bite you, we’ll be even” I teased him.
“No, thank you, ma’am. Human mouths scare me unless I’m kissing them or…” he stopped mid-sentence, his eyes widening in horror at what he had almost blurted out, “… or they’re voicing their highly intelligible opinions on important matters wherein they are assuredly held as equal among their peers” he saved. I rolled my eyes, clasped his hand in mine as he often did with Frost, and pulled him in close. I kissed his cheek as he clapped my back with his free hand. He froze, and I stepped away.
He was blushing furiously, and I wasn’t sure if I should regret my action. I had no idea his cheeks could get even redder than normal, they were now glowing like embers. I had figured he would’ve appreciated the joke. Luckily, he was saved from further embarrassment by the ship giving a massive lurch just then. I stumbled, but did not fall, Fynn had caught me. He was doing that a lot on this voyage.
“We’ve hit open water, Captain!” the man in the crow’s nest called out.
Open water was where the ocean floor gave way to the elemental plane of water, an endless expanse of infinite depth. The water pressure changed immensely, no longer being squeezed between the air and the seabed, and we slowed down noticeably as that pressure provided much of the thrust for the ship. More than anything, this was the realm of true sea monsters. Legends said that some denizens of the infinite depths were larger than mountain ranges and could swallow entire fleets of ships all at once. I wasn’t sure I believed those entirely, but I knew that sea serpents were real enough, their massive bodies long and strong enough to crush the Auriga to splinters. I prayed to both Solarre and Tyde that we would not meet such a creature. I should have been more specific.