23 - Pay the Piper

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Literature Text

Pay the Piper

Fenris lay chest down, nose to the floor, chained and spread-eagle in the cold, dark cell. It was in the lowest hold of the ship, below the waterline. Here the heavy wooden planks just above the bilge were damp but had been holystoned smooth. This was not a typical sailing ship in anyone’s navy, nor any normal pirate ship. This was the private ship of Cordonza and the wolf knew it only sailed when the man himself was onboard.

The werewolf’s head was covered by a shiny two-piece helmet. Small holes in it were for him to speak and see through, but the eye holes were presently covered by a visor. There was no light where he was anyway. His bulky chains were held tight to four stout beams connected in a square, an iron muzzle over his snout. The beams were presently fastened to the floor and held him face down with their weight, chains preventing any movement, neck bent in a way that ached from the night there. His fur was all that kept him warm in the cold ship, locked inside a large, thick-barred iron cage. The bars surrounding him were uninterrupted: where it connected with the floor, ceiling and walls they were fastened at regular intervals to the stout planks and beams.

He inhaled deeply, drawing in the odors of the hold. His options were extremely limited. Certain that Réz had run back to the snow dragon when he had yelled for her to go, he could only hope the two had truly left. The sounds and scents told him the large cargo hold was mostly empty, told him it was morning, told him the ship was still at anchor, told him no one had checked on their prisoner since they had left him here last night. Someone would be coming soon. If he could convince them that it was not worth staying and searching for the dragon, maybe he could accomplish something even now. Within the helm a sardonic grin formed. "Of course," he thought to himself, "wouldn't making a sacrifice that could never be known be the only kind I could manage?"

* * *

The sound of footsteps descending the ladder made his ears twitch under the metal mask. The door unlocked, light only faintly streaming in from a lantern, and the pair of men approached his cage. Another jangle of keys and the door of iron bars opened.

“Raise him up.” The r sounded with a slight Castilian trill.

The sound of a winch turning could be heard as the beams lifted his body from the floor until he was vertical, gravity pulling the chains on his wrists and neck, ankles gaining only the slightest release. The separately chained helmet would not allow him to turn his head, and he waited, slowly breathing in the air to confirm who he knew was with him now, neck finally straight again.

“Leave us.”

One man left, closing the doors behind him. Cordonza removed the cover to the helmet’s narrow slits. The two locked eyes as Fenris breathed in the spicy cologne drifting from the man through the cold air of the lower hold.

Cordonza hadn’t changed any more than Fenris had, perhaps less. The dark man stood a solid six feet, nine inches tall, chest and arms sculpted to perfection that the swank clothes and thick fur coat could not hide. Beneath the chiseled jaw, barely visible, were the collar and gold chains about his neck. Gilded boots peeked out below the long coat. He placed his hands upon his hips, smiling at his prisoner.

“What are you playing at, Fenris? You surrendered far too easily - it only cost me half the men I expected. And I heard you were knighted?” he asked with a small laugh, Castilian accent faint. His breath made even fainter wisps in the chilly air of the hold. “That upstart city-state must be desperate to knight one such as you. You, who were supposed to be dead, and yet continue to manage the impossible. None of this should surprise me anymore. But you still do. You were so sure of that treasure being up on Asgard, you even convinced my men to rent you a ship-”

“A sinking death-trap you overcharged for!” The accusation came forward in a strong release of steam through the helmet’s holes.

“Anyone else would’ve dismissed it for the piece of salvage it was, but you were willing to sign the papers. Imagine my surprise when I learned you returned and my ship did not? Then to start receiving payments? No one has ever received payments from you after an unsuccessful voyage.”

“Your contract required it. My letter explained it.”

“Did it? I know you do not fear me, wolf. You have been around since the beginning but do not have the brains to know fear. Your signature on a contract has always meant nothing where it did not benefit you. You cannot change what you are any more than a tiger can change its stripes. Why, really, did you start to pay me back?” He lightly trilled the r again on the really as he leaned in closer.

“Why did you put out a bounty on me after I started making payments?”

“Oh, I suspected you survived. You have always survived. A storm, a rotten boat, and a crew that hated you, going after a treasure that wasn’t there. That should’ve succeeded in ending you when all else has failed. I took that wager.”

Fenris laughed. “You of all people should know better than to bet against me.”

Cordonza shook his head and took a step back. “You have always been a losing bet. My one consistent loss. I have always worked and taken risks for profit and you have always, always, been a loss for me. Even when I’ve hedged the bet!”

“The tampered bilge pumps on the ship? Hardly a hedge.” If Fenris could’ve turned his head, he would’ve shaken it.

“One of many. The rotten keel, the cracked masts-”

“The bad caulking, the failing ropes, the loose rudder-”

“Oh, you did find that? Did you know more than half that crew reported to-”

“Hafnir.” Fenris growled.

Cordonza tutted. “I thought he might return, if anyone did.”

“Killed him. Spared him far too long as it was. The intention was for all to return.” The wolf gave a barely noticeable sigh.

“Was it now? Like the first time you purchased the insurance?” Cordonza examined his fingernails on one hand.

“That was always the intention, every time!” Fenris pulled his hands into fists, straining against the thick chains, but they had no give.

Cordonza casually dropped his hand and leaned further back briefly, then stepped forward closer to the masked wolf. “Of course, of course. Like anyone should believe that. But enough with the past. My interest is in the present and the profit to be made now. There are those who are prepared to pay handsomely for your hide-”

Fenris inhaled deeply. “I heard the bounty was with you and three others.”

Cordonza gritted his teeth, now balling his hands into fists. “Pegun does not know the details of everything. Lousy lizard has ceased to provide a copper’s worth of information since he became advisor to that wretched city! Did you think I would share all with him?” The man scowled, then calmed down. “The bounty was for me to provide your hide to those who would pay for it. Very simple. You are a famous, hated werewolf. I am a businessman. You can survive being skinned alive. I can provide multiple hides to multiple people. All that I have lost on you will be paid back, with interest.”

Fenris stared at Cordonza. “I never thought you were into torture. What makes you think I would survive?”

The man returned his hands to his hips. “I have spent money to learn about your kind in general and you specifically. Certainly, you didn’t think I had silver bolts made on a whim to ensure your capture? I knew they wouldn’t kill you outright. But they were painful and slowed you down, didn’t they? Research pays off, dog.”

Fenris gave a growl.

“You have a long history of surviving much worse than the loss of your skin. And torture is such an ugly word. No profit in it. There have been those who have needed… convincing, shall we say, to make repayments on time or their first priority. Just a part of doing business, I’m afraid.” The Castilian gave a small shrug, then continued.

“Now, a broken bone or lost finger means nothing to you. In fact, it would cost me more to have that done than it would be worth a thousand times over. Yes, you’ll feel it, if you feel anything at all, but whoever delivered it would be dead. Do you know the investment required to hire new people?”

Fenris gave another low growl. “I’m sure the twenty who died last night are aware.”

“Twenty-four. Did you lose count? Regardless, do you think this arrangement was built just to hold you for a little while?” Cordonza patted the beams and waved at the chains holding Fenris firmly in place. “I’ve hired an expert both in skinning animals and tanning hides. They can complete one of your skins before we even return to my castle. If your legendary healing ability is half as good as reputed, there should be a new skin available for shipment within another month or two at most. Why, in a matter of a year you will pay off the overhead and more than half of what you owed me with interest before you had started making payments. I will make good all of my losses from you. Then I never have to see you again.”

Fenris hung there for a minute, staring through the slits of the helmet at the man. “And you’re telling me all of this because…”

“Because there is another option. Your little snow dragon pet? Give-”

“No!” Fenris pulled uselessly at the chains again, neck strained against the iron collar.

Cordonza stood there, staring up at the huffing, growling werewolf strung up in chains before him.

“You can’t expect me to believe you care about the beast? When you hollered at someone to go, it wasn’t the little dragon. It was its kobold, wasn’t it? My men found the tracks…”

Fenris stopped growling. “What… did you do to the kobold?”

Cordonza grinned. “Is it the one you called ‘princess’? What does the dirty old werewolf want with a kobold? I thought you enjoyed human women.”

“You are disgusting.” Fenris closed his eyes rather than look at the man through the helmet’s slits and breathed in deeply.

Cordonza waved it off. “That’s rich, coming from you. You have never cared for anyone but yourself.”

“You’re one to talk.”

“Be that as it may…” Cordonza clipped the words. “I am making you an offer. Call the snow dragon. When we have it under our control or dead, I will release you and the kobold to go on your merry little way together, not only free, but debt-free.”

“No. You don’t have the kobold and you don’t control all of my debts.”

“I don’t presently control all of your debts. But with the snow dragon, I will buy them all off. Cooperate fully, and I will even give all of your equipment back. That pack of holding, fancy crossbow, and those swords are worth as much as the ship you lost.”

Fenris gave another large inhalation. “No. And they are worth far more than that rat-infested piece of rot ever was.”

“I was talking when it was new.”

“So was I.”

“Fine. Be that way. I am good with having both a source of werewolf rugs and a snow dragon.” Cordonza reached up to lower the blinder back over the helmet’s eye slits.

Fenris breathed in deeply again, eyes already closed. “I offer a wager.”

Cordonza lowered the visor, blocking the wolf’s view, and stepped away, appearing uninterested. After locking the iron cage, he walked to the wooden door of the hold, reaching up to the peg to place the key. Hesitating, he stopped, turned back to Fenris and asked, “What do you offer?”

“I bet I will leave here with the snow dragon and my equipment. If I do, you will pay off all my debts. You must never again come after me, the snow dragon, or the kobold.”

“Ha! I don’t see how you can do that. And if you don’t? What can you possibly offer me?”

“You may do what you wish with my equipment and harvest my hide until I die, and I will never attempt to escape as long as you never seek out the snow dragon or the kobold.”

“You have changed." Cordonza shook his head. "You are even more crazy than when I first met you. Suppose I believe you. What’s to stop me from keeping you and obtaining the snow dragon?”

Fenris growled a low, long growl. “You said you would harvest my hide until all that I owed was paid back to you with interest. If I survive, that is a limited time. My hide is unique and you said yourself it was worth a large amount. I know that is true. At the regrowth rate you estimate, that would mean payment would be complete in two…” he paused, working some mental calculations… “and a half years. Three tops if it takes longer for me to recover. I doubt the chance to own the hide of Fenris will lose its appeal, so the value should be stable or even increase.”

“Again, what’s to stop me from doing that anyway?”

“You are a business man with a reputation. Even the most desperate who come to you do so because you hold your part of the bargain. Those that pay see an end to their payments over time. When it is learned that you collect more than what is due or required, your business will collapse, because no one will be able to trust your name on the contract.”

Cordonza stood there. “You are naïve. There are always the desperate.”

“Are there? Enough to pay more than it costs to protect you, your castle and kingdom, this overbuilt luxury ship, and all your belongings? You lost twenty-four men to gain a single werewolf, not counting all of those who boarded my ship thinking they would be paid when it returned from the Arctic with treasure and one less, same werewolf. Your reputation has grown. Have you profits grown with it?”

“Of course they have!” But Cordonza remained where he was. Turning away, he slowly hung the key to the cage on a hook by the hold’s door.

“Besides,” Fenris said. “How long have you and your men been here waiting for me to arrive? A week? Maybe two?”

Cordonza gave the wolf a questioning look. “What does that matter?”

“I planned to spend no more than a single night here because of the goliaths.”

“Goliaths? They do not come up here in the winter. This ship is safe from them. What are you grumbling on about?” Cordonza turned to go.

“You have your men stationed all about the cliff.” Cordonza stopped and turned back to his prisoner. “I saw the signs of them having been here for some time, and the smell of this ship and the burning of whale oil carries far with the wind. Do you not think the goliaths will track the smell to its source? They are observant and keen to keep their territory secure.” Fenris gritted his teeth beneath the helmet. “They will come if they are not already on their way.”

“That is hardly a concern. My men will hold them off.”

“Will they? You think crossbows, arrows, swords, and spears will hold off a team of giants that have held this part of the land since the beginning? Why do you think there are no human settlements here? Why no one traverses this part of world? The arrows the goliaths use are the size of ballistas. They are well organized and fear no one.”

Cordonza stood there for a moment longer, considering. Then he laughed.

“All right. You have a bet. It will amuse me even more in fifty years when I still see the profit from my little rug business and remember that you gave it to me freely. I’ll have the contract drawn up immediately.”

He left through the heavy wooden door, taking the key, lantern and its light with him. Turning the lock, he climbed the ladder back up to the decks above.

Fenris breathed deeply in the dark hold once more.

* * *

There was no kobold on the ship; he knew that from the scents on Cordonza when he had inhaled the air around the man. The kobold Réz had heard him yell for her to go last night. She should’ve easily made it back to Snowball and they should be miles over the ocean by now. Or returning to the city of Refuge. But nowhere near here. At least they had better not be…

Cordonza would return with a contract. Fenris was sure of it. The man would not chance his own life even for the second kingdom the snow dragon was worth. Especially not when he had an easy source of profit chained in his hold.

“Iceberg off the port bow!” came a faint call from above deck.

“No…” the wolf whispered to himself.

* * *

Cordonza hurried from his cabin to the deck and over to the port side, looking out to the sea for a mountain of ice.

“You alerted us for that?” he asked pointing at the chunk of ice floating their way. It was smaller than their whaling boat.

“You said to warn you of anything unusual, whether it be from sky, sea, or land,” answered the seaman.

“It’s just a chunk of ice! It’s too small to harm this ship!” Cordonza turned to go.

“Sir! It’s not travelling with the current!”

Cordonza stared at it again.

A small wave broke against it but the chunk of ice continued heading towards the ship undeterred. In fact, it had a tiny wake behind it, clearly showing its direction.

“Well? Get those crossbows and spearmen up here and focus on it!” Calling to the men in the crow’s nests he hollered. “Do you see anything in the water around it?”

The men looked, shielding their eyes from the reflections on the water. Conferring with each other, one called down.

“There is nothing we can see in the water, sir. But something is moving it.”

“Iceberg off the port stern!” Called another voice from the end of the boat. “Two of them!”

Cordonza looked to the grey-bearded captain who had come to look for himself. “Well?”

“I’ve not seen such a thing before,” answered the large man. “It’s magic, or something is directing them this way. But I see nothing making them move like they are.”

“The first one’s going to hit!”

All eyes went back to the one near the front of the ship. The blueish-white chunk of ice moved steadily towards the ship just behind the anchor chain. With no hesitation it continued as they leaned over the side to watch it, dozens of crossbows aimed at it and spears at the water nearby.


A few crossbowmen fired at the chunk of ice and the iron bolts stuck in it like they would any other piece of ice fired on from such close range.

The little iceberg sat there, now drifting with the waves, making no further advances on the stationary ship.

“Carson!” the captain bellowed. “Get some men down on that piece of ice and examine it from stem to stern! And send a boat out to the others!”

“Aye sir!” hollered Carson and he hurried to carry out his orders, taking three seamen with him. In a minute, they were away on the boat, heading to the first chunk of ice. A second boat was being lowered into the water.

“More ice to the portside!” came the warning from the crow’s nest.

Three more pieces of ice were heading their way.

“What the devil?” muttered the captain.

Cordonza came up to the stern by the captain. “What’s your best guess?”

“I still say magic,” grumbled the captain. “But there could be something out at sea that’s pushing them this way. My recommendation, Senor Cordonza, sir, would be to hoist sail and head south before we see something bigger or find ourselves stuck here. There’re only a few now-”

“More ice coming in on the portside, Captain,” hollered a seaman in the crow’s nest. “These look bigger, sir!” The captain stared at the ice heading towards them in the sea.

He turned back to Cordonza. “But even with their small size, they can slow us down. Enough of them and we could become ice-bound, if the weather turns against us. That’s the worst case I see. If you want to chance spending the winter here-”

“No!” Cordonza pounded the polished rail with a fist. “No. I have what I need, even if it’s not what I want. Call the men to come aboard and head for home. We are done here.” He turned to head back for his private cabin, drawing his heavy fur coat up about himself. His solicitor should have the wolf’s contract ready by now.

The captain watched him go. The rich man did not like the sea or the cold. Unless something came up, it was unlikely they would see him again for more than minutes at a time until they landed back at their home port in Cordonza’s private harbor.

“Bosun, call the men back that have been guarding the shore against the goliaths or searching for the white dragon. Set sail as soon as all are aboard.”

“Aye, sir!” The scarred bosun sounded his pipe as the next two pieces of ice made contact with the side of the ship, crossbowmen at the ready. One piece of ice stuck itself between the stern’s anchor chain and the ship’s side.

The captain gave a small sigh as he watched his men returning from the first small ‘berg that had struck the ship, then looked out at the incoming ice, more pieces travelling against the current and heading for them. The sooner they were out of here, the better. And the sooner they could get that damned werewolf off his ship. That thing was a Jonah if there ever was one. The captain drew his own cloak close and went back to his charts.

* * *

Fenris is caught by Cordonza's men and held prisoner aboard the ship. It doesn't look like he's got a way to get out of this one...

Fun Facts: A bosun (also called a boatswain or bo's'un mate) was in charge of the ship and its equipment. Often senior or equal to the first mate, in certain situations even the captain may report to him instead of the norm of the bosun reporting to the captain.

A "Jonah" was someone who was bad luck for a ship, and comes from the bible story of Jonah and the whale.

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Critiques and comments are always welcome, not matter how long this has been posted. Although this one is part of a chapter series I'd like to learn if, with as little action as it contains, it holds the reader's interest and the images and discussions are clear? Does the arrangement and conclusion between the two main participants make sense for each one's perspective? Does the tension build up through the story and the scene interesting enough to make the reader want to go on to the next chapter?

I appreciate the feedback!

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MercenaryBlade's avatar

The dialogue between Fenris and Cordanza was really well done, he's quite the fancy chap isn't he? I was curious about the beef between these two, and I'm glad to have more insight.

Happy to see I've read enough nautical fiction to know about how important bosuns are, and the Jonah superstitions.

I do wonder what's going to happen next? Goliaths attack? Snowball and Rez mount a rescue? We shall see next chapter.

Don't really have any notes for you here, things look good to me.