Chapter 19 – Search Party
Ashen’s Age: 10 Years Old
Today was another good hunt. The guys and I entered the forest early this morning, and were able to catch quite a bit of game today. We didn’t even need the assistance of our guardian angel, though she did peak in on us in briefly in the afternoon. Three baras and two deer. That was our haul. That should feed our families for quite some time, with meet left over for the market. The hides, materials and link cores should also fetch a good sum. There are not many of us who venture deep within the forest, after all, so materials are always in demand.
As the guys and I trounced out of the forest, a little slower than usual due to our load, we saw Bernard’s group standing in the clearing and talking with each other.
“Yo! Bernard, what are you still doing here. You just finish, or going in for a night hunt.”
“Night hunt? Don’t be kidding. Only you are dumb enough to do that. You know that there are a pack of Moon Bears hanging around lately. It’s the full twin-moon tonight, so they’re more dangerous than usual.”
“Well, not only I, but I bet the angel would be fine at night as well.”
“About that. We’ve been talking. No one’s seen her since the afternoon. Usually she makes her rounds on the forest path, but today, no one saw her on the western road.”
“Hmm? You sure you guys just didn’t miss her?”
“Well, about that, there were traces that mid way along the eastern path that someone broke through and headed inward towards the heart of the forest.”
“You think she broke from the path? That is somewhat unlike her.”
“Well…. there were also traces there. Of the bears. We’ve been waiting out here for an hour, but no sight of her. It is late, but we’re thinking we should go in. She’s helped us enough, and we’re the adults here, we should be looking out for her, ya know.”
“Yeah, I got it, but how many guys have you got? Going in at dark is dangerous. We won’t be able to see where we’re going ourselves, let along her?”
“Of course, we’ll come too, right guys?”
The rest of the guys looked a little leery, but none disagreed.
“Ah, but someone has to watch over the kills and get them into town before they spoil.”
“Ah, I’ll do that. I think I can handle the wagon myself. And when I get home, I can ask mother and sister to help me unload without you. We’ll hold onto the other’s shares until you are back.” said Ashland.
He was our youngest, around 19. Having only tagged along with us for these last 6 months, his experience in the forest is limited, and he’s rather timid by nature. Sure enough, it would be best to send him back anyways.
“Hmm… that is probably for the best. Please let your mother know whats going on. We’ll be back later.”
“Ah, yeah.” said Ashland.
We helped load the carcasses that we were carrying, slung from a pole between us, into the wagon. Ashland jumped into the driver seat, and we saw him off down to the village.
“Now then,” said Bernard, “We have about 20 of us here. I think that should be more than enough. We should prepare-”
As he was speaking, three more people joined us from up the road, two women and a young boy. I recognized them straight away, though I don’t think the others have. They have not interacted with them much. But I would know the two women anywhere. Though I have seen them many times, I have not talked with them before. Even during my time as a member of The Fleet.
The Fleet was a criminal organization, primarily focused on piracy. But it was more than that. It was a pillar of defense, and bound together the coastal communities, which shared in it’s profits and were protected each other it in turn. The Fleet was made up primarily of slaves and ex-slaves.
That is how I came to join The Fleet in the first place.
The Fleet would purchase slaves from slave dealers, and then give you the opportunity. Through work, you would earn a meager wage. That wage would go towards buying your own freedom. You were to work and work hard. But you had some say over your profession. The Fleet had many activities aside from piracy, dealing in prostitution, gambling, protection, banditry, and the black market. If you had special skills or a predilection for one or the other, you would be shifted in that direction.
Once your freedom had been purchased, that sum was used to buy your replacement. So the more slaves were acquired, the more they worked, and the more slaves were freed, and the cycle would start over again.
For girls, the prostitution angle was actually rather popular, surprisingly enough, as unlike brothels run by other organizations, tarts in The Fleet’s houses were treated like queens in comparison. They were protected, could turn down a john, got regular health checkups, and got quite a large cut from their activities.
For me, I did not go that route. I was a pirate, through and through. And as a female pirate, there was none other to look up to than Blue Testarossa, the leader of The Fleet. A genius of naval tactics, and the founder of the art of Shipboard Combat, a legendary (among fleet members) fighting style that allowed you to fight any opponent on any ground. Unlike other fighting styles that were rigid and for whom you forced your own style upon them to defeat them, shipboard combat would do the opposite, using your opponents style and the terrain against them, regardless of what that style was, or where you were fighting. Only a few were able to master it, but everyone knew a bit of it. Even knowing it at an intermediate level gave you a large advantage over opponents when fighting on a bucking ship.
She was the one who came up with the system for slaves buying their replacements. There is also the legend of how, during mid fight with some members disparaging her that she had never known the life of a slave, nor hardship by her noble looks, ripped off her shirt to show her slave crest, still adorned, on her back. She was a slave, and one that was not yet freed, unlike many of them.
About eleven years ago, however, things changed. The kingdom had begun cracking down on the fleets activities, and pirate organizations from other nations were hitting Astrania hard. It was then that Blue struck a deal. The deal pardoned all Fleet members, and gave them the choice of joining the Kingdom. In return, The Fleet’s organization would become the backbone of the kingdoms neglected Navy, and allow them a scaffold and a model to build their navy around.
The practice of slaves buying their freedom through work had also continued.
Even the protection and banditry racket had been molded into the kingdom, becoming highway law enforcement and escorts-something they had become anyways as everyone would always pay the marginal fee to avoid banditry on the highways regardless. The only difference was that it was now sanctioned.
After the deal, I decided to return to a normal life. I used my skills to put together a team of hunters, several former Fleet members themselves, and settle down in this village. I say settle down, but I am still just living with my folks. I really should settle down, shouldn’t I. Hmmm…
“Blue, I’ll head over, and see what I can learn.” I heard woman say to Blue. Her name was Amelia, and she was Blue’s adjunct back in the Fleet. It looks like she has still stuck around Blue all these years after all. I gave her a little wave, and she tilted her head a bit before giving an understanding nod.
They approached us and opened up.
“Hey! What’s going on?”
“Ah, hey there. We’re all just gathering. There is someone lost in the forest.”
“Who is it?”
“Ah” says another hunter, “It’s this little girl. We see her around here a lot, but no one’s seen her come back yet. She usually wanders the forest path, and then returns. But this time, we think she may have gone of the path.”
Another hunter pipes up.
“I saw her move off the path a bit, but then there was a roar and a commotion. Moon bears, if I had to guess it. I tried to get over where it was coming from, but I Was blocked by a boggart. I can’t get past one of those on my own, so I called for help. It’s the least we can do to go help her out. She could be wounded, or lost. For all she’s done for us… we just can’t give up.”
“All she’s done for you? Do you know who she is? What has she done?” asks Blue.
“She’s just a local girl. I don’t know her name. But whenever we”re out hunting, we can see her watching us. She think’s she’s being clever and out of view, but I mean, we’re hunters, we’re used to tracking the unseen, right? Anyway, the little miss is a magician, whenever we get in trouble or bite off more than we can chew, she’s there from the shadows helping us. Saved us from quite a few jams, if I do say so myself. But she never asks for a reward, or even a portion of the hunt. Kind of a silent protector. So we keep an eye on her as much as we can and keep her out of trouble.”
“And since no one’s seen her leave the forest, we’ve gathered here after the hunt.”
“Who are you guys, anyways. We don’t see you around here. How did you hear about this?”
“I’m the girls mother.” says Blue.
“You are? Well nice to meet ya, er-”
“Blue. You can call me Blue.”
“Blue, hah, you wouldn’t be the great Testarossa” he says, mockingly.
“As a matter of fact, yes. Yes I am.”
Those of us who were former Fleet members grabbed others by the arms who looked like they were reacting to the name Blue. We made it clear that we would support her if they were to cause a scene. Thankfully, everyone calmed down soon after that.
We decided to split the group. Bernard’s hunter group would head through the western path along with Amelia and the boy who had come with them. We would take the eastern path with Blue. As there were more former fleet members with our group, we were more comfortable with Blue together with us.
Along the way, the group of us started discussing the predicament. We were mainly concerned with the Moon Bears. With Blue among us, though she seemed to be at the back of the group and lost in thought, we knew we could take a moon bear or two. At least, I hope we can. With the twin full moons, they’ll be at full power tonight.
I drop back a bit, and try and talk with Blue. It is a rare opportunity to talk to a legend, after all.
“Hey, I heard you say that the angel is your daughter, that true?”
“Huh?” she says. She didn’t hear me as she had been lost in thought. I repeated my question. “Ah, yes, she is.”
“How old is she?”
“Ashen is ten, close to eleven this year.”
“Nine or ten? Wait, that would be around the timing of the Fleet agreement, wouldn’t it? You didn’t do the agreement just for her, did you?” I asked.
“Huh? What? No, no, of course not. Though Sander, who brokered the deal, is indeed her father, and my, er, um, husband.” She said, blushing.
“Wait, it wasn’t, er, forcibly, um….?”
She started to glare at me.
“Ah, if I am mistaken, I am sorry. I know you don’t remember me, but I served under you, you know, so I care about you, you know.”
She looked at me with a blank look.
“Um…. Hester, wasn’t it?”
I was shocked. “You remember? I don’t think we ever spoke.”
“You were one of the rare female pirates in the fleet, of course I had heard your name before, and had you pointed out. But yes, we never did get to interact, did we?” said Blue.
I paused for a moment.
“So Ashen, you said it was? She was with that Sander guy, right? Was he a government official?”
Blue looked left and right, then leaned in. “Fourth Prince.”
“PRIN-” I began, but she clamped her hand over my lips.
“Keep it down. It ain’t a secret, but don’t want too many people yapping about it.”
“I am sorry, it is just… prince.. no wonder he was able to broker that deal.”
“Yes, he was a childhood friend, so he was concerned for me, and for the kingdom.”
“Ah, so the rumors you were a nobless were true after all.”
I think I leaked some disdain in my voice. But it didn’t match her disdain that came next.
“Noble, feh, who can call a daughter of a slave maiden a noble, regardless of what my ‘father’ was.”
A slave maiden is a derogatory term for females of lower noble houses that serve higher houses. To ensure their loyalty, they and their ‘children’ that may come from improprieties with their masters, are given slave seals to keep them in check and keep them silent.
“Aren’t you worried then? About your seal? If some noble want’s to control the fleet, they could control you, is that why you did it?”
“Hmm? It was always in the back of my mind, but it never came up. At the meeting, Sander had acquired it, and had been keeping it safe for me.”
“Ah, is that why you did it then?”
“I don’t even know why I am discussing this. I haven’t told anyone but Amelia, though she was there.” said Blue. “But no, he gave it to me before negotiations, and I, er… let him keep it afterwards.” she said, blushing.
Ah, so a long lost love affair rekindled. It does make me think that she may have done the deal more out of love for her partner than for the Ffleet, but if you think about it, it was likely because of that that the fleet got such a good deal in the first place, so it was all good.
It was a dream come true for many of us who wanted nothing more than to get our lives back and turn legitimate. There were those who stayed the life of crime, but now we could be in the light without nearly as much prejudice as before. We were now not ‘former slaves’ but ‘former fleet members’. That’s not as much an upgrade to some, but it is a good deal better for others.
Blue perked her head up, as we heard crashing ahead of us. I caught glimpses of something through the trees, and crashing and explosions.
“WINDBLAST EARTHWALL!” I heard a childs voice ring out, followed by the roars of bears.
Before I knew it, Blue was gone from my side, and was charging ahead, both the swords at her waist drawn. I don’t know how she was able to move that fast, it was as if she were made of light.
And just like that, she slashed, and both Moon Bears that followed the little girl, the angel, were cut in two, followed by a third in toe.
“Amazing…” “Woah…” “How the…” voices leaked out.
That was the power of the shipboard combat style, after all. I couldn’t even follow it, and I was an intermediate at it.
I ran up and caught the flying girl Ashen in my arms as she flung herself from the forest. Ah, her arms, large crystal claws came from them, but I was able to maneuver myself to catch her without making contact with them.
“Woah, er, hah, thanks.” said the girl.
This little girl had been fighting… three moon bears? She was scratched up, and her clothes torn, but I could see no wounds.
Behind her was a path of destruction. Shattered crystals and a three meter clear path of blown up trees. She had cleared out so many large trees in her path while fighting the moon bears.
Looks like we have another pathway into the forest.
I handed Ashen off to Blue, and ran ahead with a few of the guys. Bernards group was coming around the bend as well.
Quickly, I gave orders to the guys to start securing the moon bear carcasses for their meat and fur, We would take them back to the village. While they did that, I dug into the carcasses and secured the link cores before they evaporated. To be safe as well, I hurried up the path further, and found a fourth bear hobbling along the path as well. This I can handle, and I quickly stabbed it through the back of the neck, and twisted my sword. I then cut it open and got the fourth link core, and then called the others to carry it as well.
I still need to find out what Blue wants to do with the bears, but they’ll provide plenty of meat and materials. Killed at the full moons, they’ll be the finest of materials.
I take the link cores, and put them in a pouch.
I walked over and found Ashen in her mothers arms, and looked at the loving embrace. I didn’t want to interrupt that, so I walked over to Amelia.
“Amelia, here, the cores from the moon bears. Please give them to Blue, would you? I don’t want to interrupt.”
“Ah, yeah… Thank you, Hester.”
“About the Moon Bear carcasses, what would you like me to do with them?”
Amelia glanced over at Ashen and Blue, then turned back to me.
“I would like the Link Cores and the pelts. The rest you can keep. Send them up to the manor when you are done. Will that serve as payment enough?”
“Ah, yes, that is plenty.” I said. “The manor? Where are.. you mean Blue is the lord of the area?”
“Ye…yeah, she is. Though I do much of the work myself. She just spends the time training with Chesney and Ashen. But what can you do. She had to have some title, married to Sander, after all.” said Amelia.
“Ah, yeah, I’ll have the pelts sent up. Here,” I handed her the pouch, “Here are the link cores for the four bears.”
“Yes, there was a straggler. It was badly beaten, and I finished it off.”
“Ah, so Ashen must have…”
It hit me then, that Ashen had been fighting four of them, and managed to get away in that state. That is amazing in and of itself.
“But yeah, I’ll take them. If I know Ashen, we’ll get something surprising out of them.”
I lowered my voice and leaned in a bit. “I know that Ashen is the daughter of Blue, so she would be amazing, but seriously, how is she that strong? Even when she watches over us, she does amazing magic.”
Amelia leaned in as well. “Well, I’ll tell you Haster, as I’ve confided in you in the past, but…”
I leaned in further.
“Ashen is, well… the Blue Star, after all.”
I was speechless.