The Strongest Woman in the World
It was hot, dry. The burning wreckage a cog’s toss away made it worse. Smoke billowed and fire crackled by a rocky coast. Palm and coconut trees with silver leaves grew between several stony islands, and the embers of the wreckage painted five shadows near the sandy ridgeline of the coast.
“We crashed the ship.” Said Tig.
“We crashed the ship.” Whimpered a lowered Franco besides him.
“We crashed the ship.” Sighed Gemjo, next in line.
“We crashed… the ship.” Uttered the still tied Remy beside her.
The Professor, the last of them, snorted awake. His eyes slowly went wide as he stared up at the inevitable sight, “Mates. I think we crashed the ship.”
Four heads spun to him and frowned.
Gemjo said it first, “You crashed the ship.”
“We’re alive, isn’t that all that matters?” retorted the drunk.
“I understand your tendency to pass out,” began Tig, “but to do so while midflight is absurd.”
The Professor’s risen rebuttal finger quickly wilted, “Crash or no crash we’ve got moving to do, mate.”
Franco stood up, his legs wobbling, “Indeed. If it wasn’t for being stranded on an island surrounded by… by…” He crouched back down. “I think I’ll stay here.”
“Drop that you dog!” screeched Remy.
“Dog?” questioned Gemjo, eyeing the silver gun with a newfound interest. “Seeing as they won’t let me gag you, know that I prefer wolf, mostly of the sea variety. Besides, how do you expect to use a gun in your condition?”
“I will arrest all of you!” roared Remy.
“Right, keep talking, bet that’ll loosen your bind any moment now.”
Remy shook wildly, tossing the tails of Gemjo’s scarf about as she did, “Wretched, ungrateful whelp. You would’ve died without our help.”
Gemjo lifted a brow, nodding briskly to the barrel’s smooth curve, “Thank you for that, truly. Glad you were there. Say, how do I go about firing this?”
“That is not a toy.”
Gemjo aimed at the sand, “I take it I press this trigger.”
Bang. She recoiled as sand dusted into the air.
“Bit of a kick.” She grunted, swerving the gun at a nearby coconut tree nestled between two stony crags. “Who wants to bet I’ll hit that coconut?”
“Preposterous, using firearms takes training, you could never hit something at that range and elevation without ever holding a gun.”
The shot echoed, and a coconut cracked in the distance.
“H-How?” asked Remy.
The sea wolf shrugged, “aimed and fired.”
“You must be joking.” Griped the girl.
Gemjo poised the gun at another coconut, fired and watched as it emptied into the sand, darkening it.
“I think she’s a natural shot.” Said Tig.
Franco held up a silver hand, summoning the courage to stand up once more, “As much as I would love to see coconuts explode, we should really focus on our trouble at hand. We’re shipwrecked on island that’s barely marked on any maps. I say we salvage what we can and build another vessel. Why, the fire’s not too bad. We should have something to work with once it douses.”
Tig puffed in agreement. While the air was dry and increasingly hot under the rising sun, it was only a matter of time before the ship’s mostly metal interior decided to give up burning. He glanced at Remy. Perhaps enough time to convince the others they could trust her.
Then something creaked above and Tig heard the laughter of a woman, maniacal and loudening. He raised his eyes up.
A sky whale the size of a sloop came plummeting through the clouds and, scarcely, he discerned a woman, kneeling upon it with her blade plunged deep into the creature’s skull.
It zipped through the air in frantic speed. Moments if only that, and the felled beast, woman and all, crashed into the flaming wreckage. Tig caught a glimpse of Franco now speechless at the sight.
The blade drew against flesh and two fur boots thumped against the stony floor.
“Shi shi shi.” The woman laughed. “Made it in time I should think!” With her back to them she plopped her large two hander on the blades of her shoulders, loosely balancing it with the wrists of her hands. The instant she turned Tig felt his heart sink. She had black hair, brown skin, flat nose and dark eyes.
“She’s a chitik.” Said Tig, taking steps back, “I-I should hide.”
Gemjo spun Carter, “Bit too late for that.”
“What have here? Travers? Explorers, nay, fans of mine?” Her dark blue coat waved behind her, arms empty, dangling, and the coat seemingly held in place by her whitebear pelt collar. Her chest and arms were covered in bandages with plates loosely tied on, while sandy trousers covered her legs.
Tig would have retreated more if he could, but gave up once he realised the sea was there.
Luckily, the woman stopped short as the Professor lumbered up to her and sniffed her.
“You’re strong.” He remarked. “Sober to.”
“Not for long, drunk one, the villagers here will treat me kindly for my kill.”
“Of that?” asked Gemjo pointing behind her. “How much did they pay you?”
“Hundred cogs, a place, meals, and an invitation to a wedding. Are you looking for a crew, seawolf?”
Gemjo shrugged, “Depends, can I live an easy life in said crew?”
“Shi shi, not so, I’d work you to the bone.”
The woman’s brows furrowed. She knocked her blade into her left hand and pointed it at Remy, “Why is this one tied?” the blade swished to Gemjo. “Are you slavers?”
Remy croaked at the unwanted attention, “W-w-w-w-worse...”
The woman cocked her head, “Is she alright?”
Tig and Gemjo both snickered, directing the woman to Tig.
“You’re a chitik!”
Tig flinched, “I…” he tried to cover his eyes but to no avail.
“And blue moons, you’re the traitor child.”
He winced, “What of it?”
The blade lowered, “Nothing really. Your name precedes is you is all. But answer my first question. Are you slavers?”
Franco bounced to her side, “No we are not, Niss lovely. We are travelers who just so happened to, uh, repossess a ship.”
“You mean steal.” Barked Remy in a moment of clarity. She shrunk as the woman turned to her, “I think…”
The woman nodded, “Ah and she was on it. A rational thing to do then.”
“It is not.”
“You wear a blue coat, Navy I assume?”
“A-Army.” squeaked Remy.
“That means you lot are a wanted bunch. Fascinating! Makes me interested all the more. Now you must join me.”
“All due to respect, Niss.” Started Tig. “We really must leave.”
She had already turned, “With what ship?”
Tig glanced at Gemjo who shrugged in return. She had a point. So they followed the woman as she waded in between the narrow crevices that stretched along the crags.
A gradual slope greeted them after a brief splash across a saltwater creek. Stony walls grew on to their sides and silver palms trees crept over the tops nervously.
Steps into that new passage and the woman paused, glancing at Franco, “Did you call me lovely?”
Franco played a sly smile, “What else do I call you?”
She laughed and kept walking, “I’ll have you know that I’d only love a man stronger than myself.”
Franco ran up to her, proudly prodding his chest, “Ah, then you’ve met him. I am the man who’ll topple the navy.”
“The Navy? You?”
“Franco Cantinio. Better remember the name.”
“Shi shi shi! Then remember mine, Cantinio. I am Inyande Ita, huntress of man, and the strongest woman in the world.”
“That’s quite a claim.” Echoed Gemjo from the back.
“It’s true.” said Inyande. “And if it’s not someday I will be. I’m the captain of the Wing Pirates.” She said pointing at the emblem of a small silver wing upon her back. “Champion of the Bout of the Sixth, and a ranked huntress within the chitik chiefdom.”
Tig slowed until he was beside Remy, while her arms were bound she could still walk. Gemjo was a little ways behind her, actively yawning as she deliberately lacked in pace.
“I’m sorry about this.” He whispered to Remy.
“About what? About stealing my ship, binding me or was it the gagging?”
His eyes wandered up and he saw the slightly faded ‘Rich witch’ still sprawled on her forehead, “That.” He conceded, “Among other things. I didn’t want to steal anything. It just… happened.”
“Including how the ship just happened to crash?”
“That was the Professor.”
“You mean your companion?”
“He’s not—he just does that sometimes.”
“How have you lived this far?”
“I’m not sure honestly. Luck, the right people. The same people you’ll be stuck with for a while so let me warn you,” He said leaning close, “do not touch Gemjo’s tail. She hates it.”
Just then, the sea wolf popped her head between them, giving them a fright, Remy more so.
“Remember my delightfully fluffy ears?” said Gemjo. “Well they’re also delightfully sensitive. He’s right though. Never touch the tail.”
Tig nodded quickly and Gemjo slowed back without another word.
Remy muttered under her breath seconds later, “I’ll be sure to shave it.”
Gemjo popped back, pointing expressly at her ears, “What did I just say?”
“Oh I remember it.” Remarked Remy.
“I’m gagging her.”
“Wait.” Said Tig. “If we are to travel together, even for the short term, we should try to get along.”
“She stole Carter.” Quipped Remy.
“She’s rich.” Bit back Gemjo.
“Both, uh, valid arguments, but the point still stands. We’re shipless right now. We can’t fight amongst ourselves.”
Gemjo sighed, “Tig, a word?”
The boy nodded and continued slightly ahead until he was out of an earshot of Remy.
“She’s not one of us,” said Gemjo
“I know, but she saved my life.”
“Tig, everybody saves your life.”
“She’s not bad I swear.”
“She’s military and for all purposes we’re pirates. We can’t trust her.”
A bottle swished and the stench of liquor directed them forwards to the Professor, “What are you discussing mates?”
“Remy.” Said two voices in exceedingly different fashions. Tig had answered with a sigh, while Gemjo let out the name with lauded disgust.
“Ah Her.” Said the Professor with a scrunch his nose. “She stays. I’ve got a debt to pay her.”
“You know her?” asked Gemjo.
“Bit of a wish. Secretive stuff, you wouldn’t like it. She asked for this and that and seeing as how I am a man of my word, I agreed.”
“Wait.” Started Tig. “Then did you knock her out on purpose?”
The man’s goggle eyes wandered, “I may have. But it was the greater good, promise. And what is a promise if not a future made better with a lie. Which, and I’m not lying here, where abouts is she?”
Tig peaked over his shoulder and stopped. Gone. Remy le Ricci was no longer there.
Tig spied in every direction. There little cracks everywhere in the great stone wall one could have ran into, so it seemed impossible to accurately predict which one Remy escaped. Dozens of paths led out from the main one.
He asked the inevitable question, “Where did she go?”
“Oh no.” said Gemjo with her lids half closed. “We lost her. What do we do?”
“Gemjo be serious.”
Her unimpressed mug was followed by her continued pace forwards.
“She’s got me beat, mate.” He pointed at a crack in the wall then swept that finger to another then another. “She could be anywhere. Hiding, or even run away by now. I say we go ahead and look for her later.”
The Professor slung his arm around Tig’s shoulder, “Mate, we’re on an island. Where she got to run? The sea? I swear on this bottle that we’ll find her… not now though, right now I want some of that drink Niss Ita promised.”
“Right.” Agreed Tig as returned to the trail. Even then as he resigned himself to the path they were headed, he could not help glancing back, hoping that Remy would return. The image of bloodied back replayed in his thoughts. He hoped she would return safely. Even I the odds were against her. She was bound, with no gun and worst of all she was a half turn.
And half turns were fragile things.
The high walls of their paths gave way to flat ground filled with yellow grasses. Shadows covered much of it and Tig craned up to see silver leafed trees that had a habit of forming umbrellas with its branches. His knowledge on trees labeled it as an acacia tree from The Basics of Botany.
There weren’t many bunched, but they were close enough to cover almost all the yellow grasses in cool shades. A dusty path led along the center of it. While it wasn’t worked, Tig could tell it was used frequently by the footfalls still fresh. Birds rushed and some trees away he could see a small heard of mechanical gazelles grazing under an acacia, an ever distant field, large and roaming beyond that.
“She gone, huh?” spoke Inyande as she walked backwards.
Tig gave her an uneasy nod.
“Number one rule of keeping prisoners. Always watch them.”
“You’ve done it before?”
“I’m a pirate captain, cursed one. I’ve committed many less than honorable acts. Well,” she said turning back, “the prisoners in this case were children escaping the Trimblys”
Tig lowered his head.
“The foolish imps wanted to return to their families so we acted as the villains and pretended to capture them.”
“I’m sorry.” Said tig.
“You said Trimblys. I’m a Trimbly.”
By now, the others had been drawn to their conversation.
“So I’ve heard,” said Inyande, “but what our families do don’t define us.”
Tig smiled weakly, “I wish everyone thought that.”
“And do you think that, Trimbly?”
That was a difficult question. His question. No answer was right, nor was it wrong.
“I want to do what’s right,” he said, “but I don’t know what’s right anymore.”
Inyande had been staring at him through the corner of her eye. The steel of her blade glinted in the scarce savanna light.
She began as she studied the overhead leaves, “There are things that’ll tell you what’s right in this world, cursed one. Your stomach, your ears, and your worst enemy. Follow this and you won’t regret a second of your life.”
“You make it sound simple.” Said Tig.
“Because it is.”
Grasses crunched and the five of them came to stop.
Inyande smiled and cracked her shoulders, “Ah my benefactors.”
Three figures dressed layered white fabrics slowed before them. White ponchos folded as all three pressed their palms together and bowed their heads.
They were not full turns nor were they half turns. It was as if both their skins and limbs were formed of a constantly shifting sand. Hair to. While white sands formed much of their bodies, black sand formed the more notable features, that is eyes, nose, brows and curving marks upon their foreheads. Tig had to squint to tell what they were. Yet he couldn’t, he had never seen their kind before. The Professor had.
“Synergists.” The bronze man named them.
“A whole village of them.” added Inyande. “And our honored hosts.”
The lead synergist spoke in grainy breaths, “Are these friends of your Inyan’dara?” They had no mouths, these synergists, but the moment they spoke they formed them.
Inyande bowed her head, “Yes, Oke’dara.”
Inyande bounced her head, “I think so.”
“And the whale?”
“Slain and awaiting your collection.”
The manufactured mouth tilted up in what Tig assumed to be a smile, “Excellent work as always. We will send from it soon. Come,” he said facing the rest of them, “I will show you our village.”
They spoke little the rest of the way there, though, admittedly, Tig was curious. He had heard of sand shaping before, but never to such a degree. It was a difficult and daunting process based on some form of magnetism.
To think then that a creature could manipulate it to form its body. Tig shook his head. There had to be a reason. He glanced up at the three ahead of them. Perhaps these were experts, elite guard sent to check on new arrivals.
A bright and sprawling hamlet pictured up ahead. It was settled in a valley where the yellow grasses descended in layered flat levels, while huts made partly of metal, acacia wood and dried leaves littered each of the layers.
A silver forest covered the surroundings of it and a river trickled through the various layers, pooling at the bottom.
He saw small figures splashing there and noticed they were made of sand too. In fact, the entire village was that way. Distinctly feminine figures carried vases above their heads. While other synergists, these ones male, had their chest half exposed at an angle as they hoisted various carts up by the upper ridges of the town. There were more huts along the outer parts, colored gasses fumed out of them.
Tig found himself staring at a passing by synergist, the sands on his skin in constant movement and shimmer.
“Strange.” He said aloud.
“What?” asked the lead synergist. “That you have outside flesh. We find that strange honored’dara. Ah mind the children.”
Several small synergists ran up and started poking about the strangers, giggling all the while.
Tig struggled against their writhing masses but found it oddly endearing. They were interested in him, even if it was out of curiosity for what was alien. He cracked a smile as those same synergists were attempting to touch Gemjo’s tail.
“No.” she screeched, clawing them back with one hand and holding her tail up with the other, “Back, back you cretins!”
“Mate, why do they avoid me?”
“Probably because you smell of liquor.” Said Tig.
He sniffed himself and gagged, “You’ve got a point.”
Oke spoke from the front, “I suggest you empty that bottle. We do not drink here, honored’dara.”
The Professor sobered there and then, “What?”
“The liquids are poisonous to our kind while we are still half turns.”
“You’re telling me, you lot don’t drink? Not even a drop?”
“What Hour do you worship if I may ask?”
“The Eight Hour, the Hour of learning.”
“Explains a bloody lot that.”
“You amused by this mate?”
“Never seen you mad is all.”
“I’m infuriated. Tell ya what, I’m scrapping my first plan here. Let’s go look for Remy, yeah?”
“Wait honored’dara.” Oke had changed his sandy expression. The black sands on his head shifted until brows were furrowed. “I’d hoped to employ you and Inyan’dara at our temple after a meal, seeing as you are all warriors, but it seems I must do so now.”
“Is something the matter Oke’dara?” asked Inyande. More and more synergists surrounded them.
The sand man nodded, tossing grains from his head, “Do you remember what we invited you for?”
“Yes the wedding, where are the happy couple by the way?”
Oke shared a sorrowful glance with his two companions, “Missing, both of them.”