Hap the crystalwright and his nephew Pit pursue a spy, and, with others, embark on a dangerous voyage. A continuing fantasy story.
Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved
The Story So Far
Chapter One: We meet Hap the crystalwright who creates and repairs simple machines that utilize the “crystals” manufactured by his friend Zeebo, who is a Benoy and thus not a citizen of Meteron; Meteron is a city in the land of Kreeg. Hap meets with friends in the Assembly, planning their strategy to grant citizenship to the Benoy population. However, their plans are forestalled by the opposition. We also are introduced to two persons with special talents: Vel, Hap’s daughter, who can reliably read the character and honesty of people, and Dez, a blind woman with preternaturally acute hearing.
Chapter Two: Pit, the nephew of Hap, arrives across the Inland Sea from Noi with a letter from Hap’s brother. Vel catches Pit lying but says that he is honorable. It is revealed that the Great King of the East is attempting to force Pit to steal the secret of the crystal technology that is the source of Kreeg wealth. A spy is discovered in Hap’s shop/residence and a pursuit begins.
The Story Continues
Chapter Three: To Catch a Spy
Vel led Dez up Groh Street and around the corner.
“Let me do the talking,” Dez said. “If you see anyone you think might be our man, squeeze my hand twice. If everyone looks honest to you, squeeze my hand once. Understand? You can do this?”
“Let’s go. I believe that’s the Horn O’Plenty across the street. We’ll start there.” Dez removed her ear covers and tucked them under her arm up a capacious sleeve as they walked across the uneven and dimly-lighted cobblestone street. Lights flashed on distant rooftops. They entered the public house hand-in-hand where a man at the bar was talking loudly. Dez said softly, “The owner is an old reprobate, you can ignore him. How do the rest look to you?”
Several men, growers by the look of their thick clothing, were drinking at the bar and the talking man was telling outrageous lies, but Vel thought the rest rude but reasonably honest. A young man and woman were sitting expectantly at a table, another man was sitting alone at a table with a half-empty glass in front of him, and an old man was sitting quietly in a corner. There were no others. Vel squeezed Dez’s hand once.
The short, fat, and bearded old owner came from behind the bar. “Honored Listener,” he said in an oily voice, “your presence graces my unworthy establishment.”
“True enough, Pep. This is my friend, Vel.”
“Charming girl. Charming, charming. But enough pleasantries. You would like, perhaps, an ale?” he said doubtfully. “Food?”
“Doubtless your viands would tempt my delicate palate. Shrimplings, cabbage, and poket soup, if I may trust my nose, but no, we are looking for a man, a stranger, not one of these here. Seen him?”
Pep squinted at her. “Why do you want to know? I have to protect my guests.”
Dez held out a small silver coin. “An admirable sentiment that speaks well for your establishment.”
Pep slipped the coin into his purse at his belt. “Just these at the tables, I think. Wait a second, Dem!” he yelled as Dez winced in pain. “Dem!” Seeing Dez’s reaction, he said softly, “Apologies, Lady.”
A slender, sweating woman with stringy hair entered from the kitchen. “Watchya want?”
Pep waved her closer and said, “Any more new ones upstairs?”
Dem looked at him with a sluggish curiosity. Then at Dez and Vel, finally around the room. “One upstairs. Young tough guy, room three.”
“Has he been here all day?”
Dem shook her head. “Came in quite a while ago, ate a bite, and went upstairs. Haven’t seen him since, but I wouldn’t would I, with my head in the oven and my hands in dishwater half the day.”
“A very uncomfortable position, I’m sure,” Dez said. “Thank you. Oh, and you might want to do something about the rats. Six, I think, in your pantry.”
Dem shrieked, cursed, and ran back to the kitchen. Much banging and more cursing followed.
“Let’s go up to room three, Vel.”
Vel led Dez to the stairs, then up, as Dez said softly, “Shh.” They stopped at a door. After a long moment she motioned back to the stairs.
Once in the street again, Dez murmured, “I heard anxious breathing and hasty writing. I think it’s our man. Go get Hap and the guards. I’ll wait here.”
Vel hurried off and returned in a couple of minutes with the men, and waited in the street with Dez as the guards surrounded the building and Hap and Pit went inside with two more guards. Shouting and a scuffle inside, and a moment later a guard called down from the roof of the bakery next door, saying, “I’ve got him!”
The men joined Dez and Vel in the street. Four guards marched by them with a skinny, scared, and limping young man in their midst.
After they passed, Vel said, “I feel sorry for him, he’s so afraid. But he looks like a spy to me, dirty and brutal. What will happen to him?”
Hap said, “Appearances don’t mean much here. He will be questioned by the guards. Then it will be up to the Justice Council. Most likely he will be held prisoner for a while, then he might be executed or condemned to the galleys or even ransomed. We found him writing in code in his room, but he went out the window when we got there. The guards pursued, telling us to stay behind. We could have searched the roofs for days and never would have found a thing. Good thinking from you two. We’ll have to go to the Council to make a statement and turn over the man’s writing. We’ll do that in the morning.”
Dez said, “It was too easy, wasn’t it?” She had replaced her ear covers. “We must maintain vigilance, but I think we have been very lucky. Surely there are other spies in Meteron and the other Kreeg cities. We just don’t know yet if the Great King is behind this. It makes all the difference in the world whether it is Serpias or just some greedy merchant or manufacturer.”
The Assembly decided to send Hap and his group to spy on the Serpians to find out their war plans—likely impossible—and to rescue Pit’s parents, where bribery might accomplish much. The Assembly approved the persons selected to go, with the exception of Vel, a restriction which Hap quietly ignored, though the decision troubled his conscience.
In secret council, the captain of their vessel, Sup Hec Sup, was instructed to follow the orders of Hap, even to the loss of the vessel if necessary, for which the Assembly would guarantee assurance. The ship was the newest and one of fastest of small merchantmen in the harbor, the Runner.
Weeks passed as preparations were continued.
The Runner was equipped with the powerful crystal motors that had become standard on war merchants, allowing a forward speed of seventeen knots, faster than any sail- or oar-powered ship in existence. However, except in emergencies, the craft would use sails and oars both to avoid unwanted questions as well as to preserve the strictly limited life of the engines, very expensive to replace or recharge, a process which required months of windmill power to store rotational energy. It was decided that this was an emergency.
In addition to the crew of twenty plus forty rowers, ten guardsmen were also assigned to the ship, standard practice for any Meteronian ship docking at non-Kreeg ports. A small motorized catapult was installed on deck at the last minute and kept under wraps. The hold was packed with provisions and fresh water. Weapons and ammunition including fire crystals and heavy stone projectiles for the catapult, plus all the tools, rope, sails, oars, lumber, and other necessities for the operation of the ship, and a cargo of crystals and metalware. A small part of the hold was reserved as quarters for Hap’s party, which included Vel, Dez, Sich Sich Kot, and Pit.
As Vel’s last year at school came to an end she said to Hap one day, “It’s just not fair! Why do the boys get two more years of school and the girls don’t?” It was late evening and Hap had come to her room to say good night. He sat on the edge of her bed.
“How many girls would want two more years of school?”
“Well, I’m afraid it’s for the worst of reasons, Vel. Because it’s always been done that way.”
“Then I think it’s time for a change.”
Hap smiled. “I agree, apprenticeships aren’t for everyone. I’ll raise the question at the assembly. But it won’t happen this year. You know what the boys will be learning.”
“Training for war. But I want to learn mathematics and astronomy and philosophy and politics. Can’t I go to school?”
He shook his head. “But if you want to learn those things—and I’m glad to know that you do—I can teach you.”
“That’s fine for me, but what about the other girls? What about Sel? Women should be citizens, too.”
“I see you believe in the equality of the sexes. Maybe you’ll be the first woman elected to the Assembly.”
Vel nodded eagerly. “You’ve been involved in getting the Benoy made citizens, why not women?”
“People in power seldom share that power willingly. Women have to demand equality if they hope to get it.”
“Is this my first lesson in politics?”
“In a way you’ve been learning politics all your life, by living in Meteron. What would you think about having a king, or two, like Zymor?”
“I think that would be horrible.”
“But you’ve seen how hard it can be to get things done in the Assembly. If I were king I could make the Benoy and women into citizens immediately.”
Vel frowned. “But maybe your people wouldn’t like that. They might get a new king.”
“And have a civil war. Indeed.”
“Politics isn’t so easy, is it?”
“You know it’s not. Now off to sleep. You can change the world tomorrow.” He kissed her on the forehead and said good night.
The next morning, Hap came downstairs to the shop where he found Zeebo waiting for him. In Zeebo’s hand was the light crystal mechanism Hap had constructed weeks earlier. Zeebo handed it to him and said, “Point it at me and press the button and we’ll see what happens.”
“What’s it supposed to do? Won’t it burn you?”
“No, it won’t burn me. It has a dispersing lens, not a focusing lens.”
Hap said, “So it should be a very bright hand light, eh?”
Zeebo backed across the shop until he was against the shelves on the far wall, ten feet away. “Go ahead,” he said.
Hap was doubtful, but he shrugged and pointed the mechanism at Zeebo. “Okay,” he said as he pushed the button. A brilliant flash of light, much brighter than sunlight, flooded the shop and was as quickly gone. Hap blinked and blinked, his eyes dazzled, and for a moment he couldn’t see at all. Slowly his vision cleared.
“Wonderful,” Zeebo exulted. “Even better then I had hoped. I can’t see a thing!” He chuckled gleefully.
“What?” Hap said in alarm. “You mean I’ve just blinded you?”
“Completely!” he rubbed his hands together. “What a weapon! This will revolutionize warfare.”
“You’re blind? Blind! Are you mad?” Hap staggered to a chair and fell into it. “It can’t be! Why, in heaven’s name?”
“It had to be tested. I had to know how it would work.” He groped towards his work bench, found it, and settled awkwardly into his chair.
“We could have tested it on a dog or something. Why you? This is madness, madness, Zeebo.” Hap felt tears of anguish start in his eyes.
“Now how could I deliberately blind a dog!” Zeebo said scornfully.
“How could you blind yourself? I need you, Meteron needs you! I’ll never trust you again.”
“Calm down, old friend. I’m hoping the effect will be temporary.”
“Hoping.” Hap felt a tear rundown his face. “Would you like to lie down? Can’t I get you anything?”
“That’s my Hap. Already I can see a greyness where all had been black.”
Hap waited while Zeebo continued talking. “The burning ray might yet be made to work, but somehow I got the idea for this last night, and it was simply a matter of putting a different lens in front of the stack of light crystals. What shall we call it, the flasher?”
“How is your sight now?”
“Improving. I can see light and dark patterns, the light from the front of the shop is taking a more definite shape. I think for battle we’ll want it a bit stronger, don’t you think? What time is it?”
Hap checked the timer lamp. “An hour and a quarter after dawn.”
“Then it’s been only about five minutes. My sight is returning quickly now. I can see objects.” He blinked rapidly. “Almost normal. That’s a relief. It’s fortunate that I took the precaution of not looking directly at the lens. That was insurance. Overall, this has been most, um, enlightening.”
“For a second there I was blinded also. We’ll have to tell people to shut their eyes when they use it. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to disable the firing mechanism to make sure no one gets accidentally ‘Zeeboized.’”
Chapter Four: A Dangerous Voyage
When the Runner was set to depart three days later, four Zeeboizers had been added to the possessions of the “spies.” Hap, Vel, and Pit said goodbye to Zeebo and two other friends on the dock. Attendance by others at the departure had been forbidden for matters of safety and security, though keeping the departure a secret was impossible. Hap thought sadly that the whole city knew about the mission, practically guaranteeing failure. Keeping secrets was one of the things democracy did rather poorly. It had been decided that their best hope was to run on engines the entire way to cut their travel time by half. They could be in Noi within four or five days, while any pursuers would probably require two weeks even with favorable winds.
Hap walked up the crowded deck of the Runner toward the bow. With benches for the rowers, the ship’s wheel, the single mast, and the covered catapult, with sailors scurrying to the mate’s barked orders, and last minute supplies being lowered into the hold, there seemed hardly room to turn around on the gently rocking deck. Hap settled on a gunwale at the bow and looked back over the deck. Vel was skipping from rower’s bench to rower’s bench. Pit was at the stern observing the activities directed by the mate.
Sunlight sparkled on the waves in the narrow harbor of Meteron, called the Toreus. The Toreus was originally an estuary that had been dredged and widened by the inhabitants of Meteron, four miles distant. A fresh breeze was blowing in from the Inland Sea and crying gulls wheeled overhead. It promised to be a fair day, with just a few clouds far out to sea. Hap looked back over the small seaside village, trying to see where Meteron lay, but all he could see was the hill of Pylos with gleaming white ruins of the temple of The Forgotten God which lay a mile beyond, to the north of the city. When the Metronians had cast out their last king and proclaimed The Rights of Self Determination, they had also abandoned subservience to the deity which many had still believed in. When Meteron had prospered as a democracy, even the believers began to doubt that a god, angered by the faithless, was plotting their ruin. The names of both the dead kings and the god were forbidden to be spoken in the Assembly and were discouraged in conversation; but the people did not forget, and some still offered prayers and sacrifices in secret.
A number of rough, bearded, poorly-dressed men and Benoy were trickling up the gangplank and onto the deck, filing into the rower’s benches. Hap thought about this for a moment, then headed for the stairway and below to the captain’s quarters. The captain was sitting on his bunk, studying a map. There was no room even for a chair.
“Captain, why are we taking rowers with us? Wouldn’t we make better time without their weight aboard?”
Captain Sup smiled indulgently. “The difference would be very slight and we will want them for the return.”
“No more than a day I should think.”
One day out of four or five, Hap thought, and sighed. “That day could be important at the end.”
The captain’s smile broadened but he looked unhappy. “It might be very difficult to get a full complement of rowers at Noi, and my orders do not include leaving the rowers here. I’m very much against it.”
“It was agreed in council and should have been included in the orders. I know this will be a great inconvenience to you and your crew, but I am unwilling to take even a slight chance that my mission will fail. I want you to send the rowers ashore.”
Sup’s face reddened as he stood up. “Is this an order?”
“You’re a good man, captain. I trust your reputation for experience and good judgment.”
“Hmm.” As he stalked out, pushing past and up the stairs, he muttered, “Thank you for your trust.”
As Hap followed up the stairs he heard the captain shouting, “Rowers ashore! Remove those benches and get those oars ashore. We’re running on engines all the way. Cut that sail down and pitch it over the side onto the dock. Look lively there, don’t you know we’re in a bloody great hurry?” A thunder of rushing feet and angry grumbling resounded from the deck. Hap reached the deck. captain Sup was at the stern watching the activity while the mate barked orders.
Hap said, “Are you relying solely on the engines?”
Sup shook his head and, without looking at Hap, said, “Now, sir. I’m not such a fool as that, though I’ve never heard of an engine failure except when it was rammed in combat. There’s a spare sail in the hold, and if we have to we’ll get in the ship’s boat”—here he jerked a thumb towards the stern—“and tow her to port. Now, sir, no more questions if you please.”
Face burning with embarrassment, Hap looked over the rail to see a small, sturdy boat bobbing in the water, tied to the stern of the Runner. He resolved to never again question captain Sup about his duties or decisions. I’m acting like I’ve never been on a ship before, he thought.
A horse-drawn cart rumbled onto the dock. It was fully loaded with three persons, a large wooden chest, and several small bundles. In the cart was the Listener and two country men, one driving, the other, a very old man, riding in back among the luggage. Two soldiers walked behind, each bearing a bronze spear, shield, and sword, and wearing a breastplate and helmet. The old man struggled feebly down from the cart.
He was barefoot, with a rude stick for a cane and a ragged straw hat low over his forehead. He hobbled along the side of the cart and helped the Listener to climb down. Together they made slow progress up the gangplank and onto the deck of the Runner. Hap went forward to greet the Listener and to get a closer look at the old farmer, who had stopped to lean against an open barrel of apples on the deck.
“Hap?” Dez said, not really asking. “Here is Sich Sich Kot.”
“Sich?” Hap tried but failed to stifle the laughter that bubbled up.
The old farmer bowed gravely to Hap, then took an apple from the barrel and handed it to him.
“What?” Hap said. Then he noticed that the old man had a strange curved sword belted to his waist.
With trembling fingers, the farmer lifted Hap’s left arm to shoulder height and held it straight out to the side. Then he whispered something as his right hand went to the sword’s hilt and the left held the scabbard.
“I didn’t hear you,” Hap said.
“Drop the apple,” the old farmer said as he straightened up.
Hap frowned in confusion and released the apple. Quicker than Hap could follow, in one fluid, lightning move the old man whipped out the sword—the apple fell to the deck in two neat halves.
The old farmer was truly the long-awaited Swordmaster, Sich. He straightened up further, now standing six inches taller, and the straw hat fell to the deck, revealing dark, amused eyes. “Please forgive the theatrics, revered Crystalwright,” he said in a vibrant baritone as he wiped the blade of his sword on a ragged sleeve. “I enjoy making an impression. You are admiring the Pearl of the East, I see.” He extended the blade in both hands to Hap. “I allow few to touch The Bitch, but I know you as a valiant fighter of many battles against the insolent snakes of Serpia. I rescued The Bitch from a minor king unworthy to wield her. The snakes are evil, but they make the best swords in the world.”
“Revered Swordmaster, I would not profane your sword. It is enough to admire from a distance. I’ve never seen finer inlay and engraving.”
“I deeply respect your opinion on such matters, but I think you should get the feel of her as well.” Sich turned the hilt towards him.
Hap took the smooth hilt of carved horn in his right hand and lifted it overhead. The sun glinted on the polished blade. He slashed the air and imagined—or heard—the blade whisper “Sich.”
“She is also called the Fleshseeker for her habit of finding gaps in enemy armor. But I prefer to call her simply The Bitch, because she is the only wife who would have me.”
Hap was deeply impressed. “She gives strength to my arm,” he said as he turned the hilt toward Sich.
“If you young men are through playing with your toys,” Dez said, “I would like to be seated, preferably in the shade and on deck, please.”
“Sorry, Dez” Hap said. “They will be setting up a small pavilion for you and Vel on deck, and as the sail has been removed there is no shade at the moment.” He led the eyeless old woman to a seat at the rail, then returned to Sich.
The soldiers had come on deck and Sich introduced them as Fach and Tup, “Reliable and sturdy men.” To Hap they seemed grave in their open-faced helmets, tall and muscular with scarred limbs and thick, bare legs.
“Our honored leader,” said Sich, “Hap Hoc Pex, the Crystalwright.”
The soldiers nodded curtly, which served as a salute among the Kreeg. Hap returned the nod.
An hour later, the Runner was ready to depart. The sun had climbed high in the sky. The mate called for lines to be cast off, then he worked the lever to start the engines. The deck shuddered as the ship slowly pulled away from the dock and moved to the middle of the channel. A small knot of spectators on the dock cheered and waved.
Hap thought, not about their mission, nor the beauty of the day and the harbor, but rather about the precise linkage that connected the lever in the mate’s grasp to the trigger crystals at the bottom of the ship. They would be moved in unison to touch the great, smooth crystal cylinders, one on each side of the ship, that at the light touch of the trigger would smoothly and powerfully begin rotating, turning the huge propellers. And as the mate moved the lever further, up to three additional triggers would touch the spinning crystal, increasing speed to maximum.
As the Runner passed between the two guard towers at the mouth of the Toreus, guards on each cheered and waved. Ships and small boats passed daily, even hourly, between the catapults of the towers, for trade, fishing, and to move supplies and colonizers to the forty small colonies established by Meteron and other Kreeg throughout the known world. War with Serpia would interrupt the expansion, but it seemed inevitable that the two greatest powers of the time must clash, to the ruin of one or both.
After an hour of seasickness, Hap was feeling better. Pit had escaped the malady altogether, being a seasoned traveler, but Vel and Dez lay in their tiny pavilion, moaning occasionally, until the sun was low in the west behind them. A small island, Veon, was close ahead. The Runner glided closer, slowed, and dropped anchor close to the tiny colony, also called Veon. Dez was eager to get solid land under her to quiet her stomach, and Sich, dressed as a common sailor and without sword, announced his intention of collecting all relevant rumors. With two soldiers and six sailors also aboard, the ship’s boat headed for the dock a quarter mile off.
In the lee of the island the waves were small and the Runner was quite stable. Hap, Vel, and Pit sat on the deck, watching the stars come out as Hap told Vel some basics of the astronomy he had learned twenty years earlier. The ship’s boat made the round trip between the Runner and the dock more times during the evening.
In the morning, Dez and Sich returned, Dez rested and cheerful, Sich blurry and reeking of ale and public women. “I am forced to sacrifice my personal dignity,” Sich explained loudly, “by carousing with the local riffraff in order to preserve my disguise. As it happens, however, I learned nothing of value and seem to have acquired a slight indisposition.”
“Hangover,” Dez muttered.
Sich continued, “I shall seek to recover below decks. Good day to you.” He bowed to Hap and Vel, ignored Pit and Dez, and proceeded with extreme dignity and unsteady steps to the stairway.
As the anchor was being raised, captain Sup sought out Hap and Pit. He said, “We pass within sight of Taza today, and we are likely to be attacked by the dragons that live there.”
Pit said, “My ship lost two crewmen to their attacks.”
The captain continued, “All males are required to wear swords, and shields and helmets would also be a good idea. The women should go below while we are in sight of the island, though they can remain in their pavilion until then.”
Hap and Pit went below for weapons, then went to the women’s pavilion near the bow.
“What’s up?” Vel asked.
Hap said, “The captain warned us we may be attacked by Taza dragons later today. You’ll have to stay below while the island is in sight.”
Dez nodded placidly. Vel said, “What are they like?”
Pit said, “My ship was attacked four times on the way to Meteron. They’re flying reptiles with a body the size of a man and with tremendous wings. They seem to always fly in packs of three. When one of them gets his claws in you, another joins in and the two carry off the victim. Nasty customers.”
“We’d better have the Zeeboizers on hand, too,” Hap said.
When Hap told the captain about the Zeeboizers, Sup counseled restraint. “Don’t use it unless you have to. At our speed we might just get through without being attacked, but if we do get attacked I’d rather lose one sailor than have a dozen blinded by your weapon.”
“Good advice, captain,” Hap said, though he didn’t really think so. As long as the Zeeboizer was pointed up, the risk to the crew seemed negligible.
The Runner sailed a placid sea, but as noon passed the crew became silent and the lookouts, fore and aft, became intent. Hap sought out the captain, who was at the helm.
“How soon before we sight Taza, captain?” he said.
Sup rubbed his chin. “We lost sight of land about ten minutes ago. At our speed it should be no more than half an hour.”
“Thank you. I will tell the women to prepare to go below.”
Hap made his way forward toward the women’s pavilion. He was enjoying the steadiness of the deck and the warmth of the breeze, when the forward lookout called in a shrill voice, “Sea dragon off the port bow!”
The crew let out a cry of dismay which chilled Hap’s blood. The deck tilted under foot and Hap staggered as the captain threw the helm over, steering hard to starboard. The mate called out, “Man the catapult! Pikes and shields! Archers to the portside!”
Hap ran to the women’s pavilion. Dez and Vel were hurrying towards him, followed by Pit. “Pit,” Hap yelled above the noise on deck, “Get the women below. We are in for it.”
Vel cried, “Daddy! What is it?”
Hap pointed. “Sea dragon, coming fast.” Two miles distant, a feather of white spray was visible, racing toward the Runner. “We are in grave danger, you’ll be safest below. Pit, get them to the stairs!”
The sea dragon plowed through the water, cleaving it into two great waves spreading on either side of its immense, serpent-like body, and above it a plume of spray fifty feet tall thrown up by its blunt head.
The cover was stripped off the catapult, the eight-foot long arm was cranked back by a crystal motor, and two men loaded the missile basket with a forty-pound stone ball. The mate, in charge of the catapult crew, worked levers to keep it pointed at the approaching monster, now just over a mile away. Hap did a rapid mental calculation—with a range of 300 yards and a rate of fire of ten rounds per minute they would be lucky to get off three shots before the monster reached the ship.
[To be continued]
Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved