Well of Bones

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Chapter 6

“Lacking purpose, these Knights of Apollo have become drunkards and ruffians. One might wonder if we would be better off with the creatures of old.”

Sir Alvin Colby

A letter to parliament concerning The Order of Apollo, Fourth day of Tending, 3253

Walking up a steep and muddy road, Jake entered the small port city: Adeline. Each knight looked all around as they proceeded, taking in the town. The cold air smelled of old fish and lamp oil.

“Dreadful weather,” Duncan said, as he pulled his coat tighter around his neck. The overcast sky seemed low overhead and the ocean spray hovered all around, dampening everything.

“Dreadful place,” Roy responded.

Jake noticed two rather suspicious men eyeing the party of knights. One rested a hand on a pistol he had tucked in the front of his trousers, tapping its grip with a finger. The other lacked a nose with two dark slits in the center of his face where it should have been. His mouth hung open as if he could not breathe through his gaping nostrils showing off his stained yellow teeth.

The Count had warned his knights to keep their weapons loaded and at hand without seeming alarmed or skittish. This port was a major resupply stop for any merchant vessel, privateer, or pirate ship working in the south seas on this side of the world. Jake had done his own research on the voyage. He had read every book, newspaper and pamphlet on the island that he could get his hands on. Even though Delwhick was a Brenarian colony, ships came from all over the world which made Adeline a diverse mixing pot of different cultures and races. Sailors, in general, were unsavory folk and the many ships anchored in the bay made Adeline a filthy city, despite its beautiful name. The demand for squalid taverns, opium dens and brothels was higher here than in any other Brenarian colony. Besides the usual danger that came along with a place like this, the Marion had been attacked by a Spratzian privateer practically within a stone’s throw of port. There was no telling where these sailors’ loyalties lay. The knights had to be cautious.

Count Varro, Master Salvo, and the rest of the group headed to the governor’s house at the end of the steep and snaking road through the center of town. Warehouses lined the road on both sides until a few hundred yards from the docks. From there, shops and storefronts began to line the street as the knights made their way from sloppy mud onto cobblestone pavement. Jake noticed a wrinkled old man staring at Dogwa’s tattoos. The old man tapped a younger man who turned around with a pipe in his mouth. He puffed twice, inspecting Dogwa, then whispered something to the elder with the pipe clenched in his teeth.

Dogwa flapped his coat over the tomahawk and scalping knife on his belt, concealing them. When he noticed Jake’s inquisitive expression he leaned over to speak quietly as they walked.

“White men don’t think twice about a savage with a gun,” Dogwa said. “A tomahawk frightens them.”

Jake noticed that they were not only glaring at Dogwa now. They watched all of the knights. In every window, a sailor, merchant, or whore peered out at them. Silence added to the awkward arrival. The citizens made it apparent that the Knights of Apollo were unwelcome.

Varro, however, appeared unfazed and continued leading his troops to the governor’s house. Calling it a house would be greatly understating the estate. It was a mansion. The only white building that had stayed white in the whole town as if the salt air couldn’t touch it. A symbol of the governor’s wealth due mainly to his successful shipping company. Bradford Trading Company could almost be considered a monopoly in the area, from what Jake had read. Though, the prosperity of his business during wartime suggested the man had been illegally smuggling goods into the colonies. Steep importation taxes on tobacco, spices, and coffee funded much of the increasingly expensive conflict with Spratze. Most shipping companies had been suffering due to wartime taxes, yet Bradford Trading Company flourished.

The governor’s warm welcome seemed more brilliant in contrast to that of the townsfolk. Meeting Count Varro on the grand front steps with open arms and a hearty smile, Governor Bradford greeted the knights and bade them enter his home.

A black butler in a fine suit ushered the knights to the parlor. Slaves and indentured servants, though present most other places, were more common in the colonies due to the demand for workers on vast plantations and the management of the lavish estates that came with them. Jake’s father owned slaves and yet, Jake could never understand the practice.

The governor was a short, plump man. He smelled of rosewater and wore a fine powdered wig and elaborate clothing with ruffles around his neck and wrists. Jake did not understand the high-class fashions of the time either, though he had had much exposure to it. Bradford reminded him of the dandy politicians and statesmen who often visited his father’s estate. He wore a thick layer of powder and rouge to make his skin pale and his cheeks rosy. A false, black mole dotted his cheek. Jake thought it all looked ridiculous.

“The Order of Apollo on Delwhick. I expect you are here in response to the bit of trouble we have had of late?” Bradford asked Varro with a wide, overly genuine grin.

“We received a note from the widow Alana Fritz,” Master Salvo answered as he pulled the letter from his robe. A few dark servant girls brought silver platters with little cakes and a fine porcelain tea set.

“Ah, our libations,” Bradford graciously offered with an open palm. “Please have some tea. Entertaining guests of your caliber is as close to civilization as one gets all the way out here.” Duncan and Brom were the only knights who partook of the refreshment. Jake was grateful he had been spared the upturned mannerisms and prudish speech by joining the army as an enlisted man.

“May I ask what the note concerned?” the pudgy man asked with worry on his face. Salvo handed the note to Bradford whose gaze locked on his hook for a moment. The governor put a pair of reading glasses on the tip of his nose and unfolded the letter.

“Mrs. Fritz claims there has been an incident of witchcraft in the colony recently. Just one. She must have sent this letter after the first.” Bradford folded the letter abruptly.

“That will be all.” Governor Bradford motioned for the house slaves to leave the room with a few flicks of his fingers but the tall butler stayed with his hands at his sides and his chin high. The governor sat in a leather wingback chair and held a hand outstretched toward a matching leather couch. The Count and Master Salvo sat.

“May I have the pleasure of offering your troops the use of our guest rooms?” asked Bradford.

The Count shook his head. “Our marines will be staying aboard the ships. My knights will seek accommodation in town.” The Count leaned back, relaxing on the soft leather.

“Dare I insist, Count Varro? There is nothing in town but brothels and taverns of the lowest order. It certainly would be no bother.” Bradford snapped his fingers and the butler moved gracefully to the door. “I’ll have the rooms prepared presently.”

“We have already arranged accommodations at an inn that will suit our purpose,” Salvo interjected. “We dare insist.”

“In that case,” Bradford said, folding his hands on his lap, “how may I improve your stay?”

“Our physicians need supplies,” Varro said. “We met some trouble during our voyage. Is there an apothecary in town?”

Bradford put on a concerned facial expression. “I am sorry to hear this. I detest long voyages. Illness, I expect?”

“Just what is to be expected of a crossing to the new world,” Varro replied. “Nothing that couldn’t be managed.”

Bradford changed his expression to that of relief. It seemed to Jake as if he changed masks to show the expression pre-arranged for a specific occasion.

“I am glad to hear it.” He waved his hand and the butler pulled a stack of papers from under a thick book and handed them to the governor.

“If you wish,” Bradford said graciously, “your capable knights could fetch the supplies you require and settle themselves at the inn. Meanwhile, we may get down to the infernal issues at hand.”

“They need the information every bit as much as I do,” Varro responded. “They will only observe as if they aren’t there at all.”

For the first time, Jake saw uncertainty in the governor. Bradford reluctantly nodded as he looked around to each of the knights. He thumbed through the papers.

“Six,” he spouted without looking up. Varro and Salvo shared a confused expression. “There have been six cases of suspected witchcraft on Delwhick Isle of late.”

Varro leaned forward. “Of what nature?”

“There was, of course, the case with the little girl, of which Mrs. Fritz has already informed you. The first, here, in many years.”

“Headmaster Fray mentioned earlier cases,” Salvo said.

“Ah yes,” Bradford said, nodding. “My young ward, Ms. Crane, is one of the three survivors of the incident that occurred almost ten years ago.”

“What happened?” Salvo asked attentively.

Bradford sipped from his fine teacup and cleared his throat. “From the account of Nishtok, a hunting party of natives went up the mountain tracking game.”

“Pardon me,” Salvo interrupted. “Who is Nishtok?”

“Ah, pardon me,” Bradford said with a hand on his chest. “Nishtok was the tribal medicine man native to this island. The sailors and others in town call him a witchdoctor, but I think that offends him. Nishtok says the hunting party went to the mountains and only one fellow came back. A young brave, the heir to the Yan’tiok chieftain. Yan’tiok, being, of course, the native tribe on the island.”

The governor paused, cleared his throat and took a sip from his steaming tea. He settled himself and continued. “The young man, Fogwater, the best translation for his name, returned in the middle of the night. He killed the centuries with his dagger and bow to be silent. He was naked and bloody from head to toe when Nishtok saw him moving from hut to hut, slaughtering women and children in their slumber. Nishtok moved as quickly as he could to wake up the villagers and warn them, but they were all dead. Bloody, killed in their beds.”

“Why didn’t the colony report this home?” Varro interrupted with a stern face.

“The native’s affairs are never reported to Great Brenner. It is always expected of us to get involved only when it affects the trade port or the colonists,” Bradford said defensively. “Seeing as we had a rather homicidal savage running about our small island, we tried to help in any way we could. We sent a party out looking for the savage, but he was nowhere to be found. Nothing to report.

“Nishtok brought the only villagers he found alive to Adeline. Two children: a little savage boy and a young, white girl. She claimed to be his sister. Apparently, her parents lived closely with the natives. Trappers of the swamp I believe. They died when she was an infant, leaving her in the care of the natives. We believe she was about seven years of age when the tribe was destroyed. I took her into my home. No white girl should be raised that way. It is rather indecent.

“She lives here to this day as my ward. She has blossomed into a beautiful and civilized young lady.” Bradford paused for a moment. He bit his upper lip slightly as he stared at the tea in his cup.

Then, as if snapping back to reality, he inhaled sharply and went on. “The boy she calls her brother has been given a name I am sure the gods find honorable and put into the care of the Wood Hill Monks. He mines sulfur now that he is strong enough to repay the temple for housing him. Nishtok is old now. He works as a stable hand in town. Sometimes he practices backwoods medicine for those desperate and afflicted. Herbal remedies, chanting, smoke, that manner of hocus pocus.”

Jake was shocked. Why would the heir to the chieftain kill the entire tribe? There must have been dark forces at play.

“What all has happened in more recent cases?” Varro asked.

“That young girl, the widow has told you about, raised her father from the grave with a blood ritual, I suspect. He has since disappeared. His grave lay empty. His family, in graves of their own. The girl, executed.”

Brom gave Jake a wide-eyed expression. Jake pursed his lips and shook his head as if to say, “that couldn’t have happened that way.”

“Not long after that, there was a mother of three who would get a black eye or two from her husband now and then. She poisoned her husband’s dreams, eating away at his mind. He slowly went mad, seeing images of violent acts, demons, monsters. One morning, he walked down to the docks and slit his own throat. She was promptly tried and burned at the stake.”

“Apollo’s light,” Salvo exclaimed. “Did she confess?”

Bradford went on as if he hadn’t heard Salvo. “Soon after that, a farmer locked himself, his entire family, and all his livestock in the barn. He set fire to the hayloft from the inside. None survived. His debts had come due and he faced foreclosure. I think he made a deal with a demon, though I do not know what good it did him. A sane man driven insane, I fear.”

The governor cleared his throat again, obviously flustered. He took another sip.

“These are each horrible,” Varro began.

“There is more,” Bradford cut him off. “The fish in this part of the sea have been scarce, causing most fishermen to move elsewhere or seek different professions in the previous year. One sought help from darker forces. He drowned his daughters in the sea and vanished. His skiff washed up with his little girls’ bodies inside. He had marked them by carving strange runes into their flesh. Some sort of ritual I assume. No one has really seen the fisherman again, but some say he turned into a half-fish monster that patrols the cove where he drowned his girls. Superstitious rubbish.”

“Why would they say that?” Salvo asked. “Is there any evidence pointing to that assumption?”

“You know how it goes in small communities,” Bradford said. “One person says they saw something, then the next drunkard embellished over a few drinks. Before long, the whole town thinks a predatory fish-man lurks in the cove and no one goes there to really find out for themselves.”

Count Varro and Master Salvo nodded in agreement. Salvo opened his mouth to speak when Bradford began again.

“A young sailor shot his officer in the back of the head while he ate lunch. When the authorities found him, he had symbols drawn on his skin in an orange paste. Apparently, he made the paste by slitting the officer’s throat and bleeding him into a hollowed pumpkin with chicken feet and sparrows’ eggs, shells and all. He tried to drink the potion when the authorities restrained him. They dragged him out into the street. He managed to pull one of their daggers from its sheath, kill both men, then stab himself twice in the side of his head.”

Bradford shifted in his chair.

“Now who could do that? Twice, as the whole town watched.”

He placed a finger on his own temple and grimaced.

Varro seemed anxious to ask, “The latest?”

The governor shook his head. He straightened his jacket and his eye twitched. “An incident in which a rancher’s wife was cooking supper for her husband’s return from pasture. He had gone out in search of a stray animal. He returned empty-handed and filthy. The woman greeted him at the door, but he said nothing. He dragged her by her hair to the field where he had been branding his cattle earlier that day.

“He tied her hands and feet. He beat her with his fists, all the while yelling about some well in a cave. He branded her face just as several neighbors arrived. They had heard the screaming from their own properties. They shot the farmer twice in the back. The man hardly flinched. He turned around and charged the men with the branding iron. He was shot in the head at point-blank range and died with a horrible grin on his face. The woman is forever marked, but she lives. The last report I received stated she is still quite hysterical. I detest these stories and I am eager to have the matter resolved.”

Disturbed, Salvo stood, wanting to leave. “Thank you, Governor Bradford. This meeting has proven informative.” The Count and governor followed, bowing to each other. The knights exited the lavish house and began down the hill. Just as Jake reached the door he overheard Governor Bradford.

“Before you leave, Count Varro,” Bradford spoke through a gracious smile, “your savage companions interest me greatly. May I ask you some questions regarding their origins? I have read many books about their people but have only spoken with the natives of this island.”

The Count raised a hand signifying there was no need for further explanation. “If you have inquiries of Dogwa’s origin, you must simply speak to the man himself. He is fluent in Brenarian dialects as well as other old-world languages. Although he has maintained his people’s savage reputation on the battlefield, I think you will find him to be a very civil man.”

The Count smiled. Jake could tell Varro was proud of his knights, not only as fighters but also as human beings.

“He enjoys telling his story to whoever will listen, especially if the conversation takes place over a glass of fine brandy.” Varro gestured to the bottle and glasses on a silver platter nearby.

“Ah.” Bradford’s smile widened. “I am sure to enjoy the lad’s company. I would be very grateful, indeed, if you would be so kind as to arrange such a meeting.”

Varro turned again to leave when Bradford asked, “And what of the giant?”

“Once again, sir.” Varro’s smile shrunk. “You would have to speak to the man himself, as I cannot presume to tell his history. Brutus is not as fluent, however, and questioning him may raise great difficulty due mostly to his vow of silence.”

Bradford looked disappointed but he revived his grateful tone when he said, “Well in such case, I look forward to my audience with the young master Dogwa, as you call him.”

#

Brom and Jake were tasked with bringing the medical supplies to the Albatross’ surgeon who had been waiting on the dock. The other knights settled into a few rooms at the local inn, most likely treating themselves to a few pints as well. Jake didn’t care much for drinking but he knew Brom did. Jake thought Brom would be excited to drop the supplies off and join his brothers in the pub with some ale of his own.

With small crates in hand, they did not carry their rifles but had their pistols tucked into their belts. Brom had two. They also carried their rapiers which hung at their sides from a shoulder strap, slung diagonally from their right shoulders to their left hips. This was as unarmed as they wanted to be in Adaline. Some of the locals still glared at them through narrowed eyes.

Taking the glass vials and small canvas sacks from the knights, the surgeon looked over Jake’s shoulder. Jake followed his eyes. An old, seafaring man stared at them. He sat on some barrels with several other sailors by a shack at the beginning of the dock. The man had a peg leg and smoked a long pipe. One of the other men played an accordion slowly, making a series of low, eerie sounds. The third man had a case at his feet that looked like it contained a fiddle. They all cast cold looks in the strangers’ direction, glancing over shoulders and speaking in hushed tones.

“The locals look happy to see the Order of Apollo come ashore, eh?” the surgeon asked with a smirk.

Brom smiled back, always lighthearted. “It seems the whole town is under a mad spell to dislike people sent to help.”

“The Count requests the horses be brought ashore in the morning,” Jake cut the chatter. He didn’t like standing there so exposed. “If you wouldn’t mind passing the word along to the required parties, Doc.” The surgeon nodded and lowered the supplies to his assistant in a skiff below. He thanked the pair again as they rowed out into the bay.

Walking back up the dock, Jake tipped his triangular hat at the suspicious group of sailors. They returned the pleasantries with some hesitantly. The pair continued up the hill toward the inn when Brom leaned over to Jake and spoke in a low voice.

“I hope Peggy doesn’t start anything,” Brom whispered with a small head jerk back to the peg-legged man and his group. “I bet he kicks like a broom handle.”

Jake laughed through his nose so hard that his sinuses hurt. Once he had managed to contain his laughter, he looked over his shoulder. The old man still glared at the two as he puffed his pipe. Jake shoved Brom forward while he snickered through his nose.

When they walked through the low door into the tavern on the bottom floor of the inn, the knights cheered. They had all had a few drinks already, just as Jake predicted. A buxom barmaid poured two more pints without a request. She winked as she passed them to the duo and Jake looked around the room as he took his first sip. The low ceiling made of raw timber support beams made the room feel cramped. The creaky floorboards for the level above let dust fall through the cracks when someone walked on them. The beams bowed slightly but had vertical supports in the areas that sagged the worst. Pebble-sized chunks of mud that had broken free from the bottom of the patrons’ boots littered the floorboards under Jake’s feet. Straw and sawdust had been scattered in places to soak up spills, vomit, and other byproducts of excessive drinking.

Outside, the sun had set. The orange light from the candles, lamps, and fire in the hearth provided enough illumination for the large room but all that made the room warm, hot, in fact. Jake began to sweat. The innkeeper behind the bar polished pewter and tin tankards with a grimy cloth. The man cursed under his breath at the barmaid and she lowered her head as she retreated to the kitchen. Jake assumed her to be the innkeeper’s daughter. The tall and thick man furrowed his brow at Jake. The scowl contorted his thick brown mustache that hid his lips entirely. Jake knew he had seen his daughter wink at him and he shifted in his seat.

The innkeeper’s wife was middle-aged, plump and wore her hair up in a messy salt and pepper colored bun. She had a different pet name for each of her guests as she poured more ale into their empty mugs. Marines and knights celebrated coming ashore by drinking and singing loudly. They took up over half of the wide room. Sailors and other patrons sat more conservatively, keeping to themselves.

“What are the sleeping arrangements, Sergeant Amir?” Brom asked roughly sitting next to him while spilling a little from his tankard.

“They don’t have enough room in the inn for all of us.” Amir took another sip, burped in his mouth, then continued, “So it looks as though some of us will sleep in the blockhouse on the hill.”

“Who will go there for the night?” Jake asked.

“I don’t mind sleeping there,” Amir slurred his words. “As long as I may first drink here.”

“Nor I!” Jorn shouted heartedly, raising his mug.

“To dry land!” Roy toasted with gusto.

“Here, here.” Duncan agreed and drank.

“To Delwhick!” One of the marines stood on his chair to toast.

“Here, here.” And they drank.

“To ale!” Margaret toasted, slightly snickering, obviously inebriated.

“To ale!” the men chanted and again drank.

The knights drank and laughed more and more. The barmaid had returned to work under her father’s watchful gaze and brought the knights another round. She set down the drinks, took away the empties and Roy watched her go.

“She smiled at me, boys,” Roy said, puffing out his chest.

Margaret threw her arms up and shook her head.

“And girl,” Roy added as he took a gulp.

“That wasn’t a smile,” Duncan said. “That was her nose scrunching. She was trying to figure out where that awful smell was coming from.”

The knights burst into laughter, and Roy punched Duncan in the shoulder.

Jake noticed a peculiar seafaring man. A large black man, native of the fabled Tashulute peninsula, sneered at the cheerful bunch. Jake walked to the man’s table, pulled an empty chair out, and asked with his eyes if he could sit. After waiting a moment, the sailor said nothing. Jake sat anyway.

“May I buy you a pint, friend?” Jake put his best smile on. He would not buy everyone on the island a drink but if he could alleviate tensions with the most disgruntled looking seaman, maybe the stay here could be a little more enjoyable. Besides, approaching this head-on could reveal where the knights stood with some of the locals. “You look like you could use another one.”

The man’s piercing eyes snapped onto Jake and his lips tightened. “If I wanted another, I would get off my seat and fetch it m’self.” The tavern fell silent. All attention focused on Jake and the dark, angry sailor.

“Listen, friend, I was just trying—”

“I ain’t your friend neither, so quit callin’ me such.”

He stood, glaring at the sailor, anger burning in his own eyes now. He had to be careful. The sailor was obviously drunk but if things escalated, there was no telling where more fists and boots could come from.

“Easy, Jake,” Brom soothed. “He’s had more than his head can hold.”

“Is there something you need to prove, friend?” Jake said with prickly contempt. The sailor pulled a dagger from his belt and slammed it into the tabletop. When he let go of the hilt it was stuck in the wood solidly. Jake slowly pulled his pistol from his belt and every other seafaring man in the bar pulled a pistol of their own and trained it on Jake. The knights and marines answered with their pistols. Brom held one in each hand, trained on two different sailors. Jake placed the pistol on the table, followed by his sword.

“Put ’em down,” Jake said as a bead of sweat rolled into his eye. “This is between us.” The resident sailors, the marines and the knights lowered their weapons. The black sailor gulped the last bit of his ale and belched.

Kicking his chair backward, the man dove over the table, slamming Jake to the floor. A circle formed around them. The cheering and fists in the air reminded Jake of a schoolyard brawl. Jake flipped his attacker off him. They stood up and threw a few punches, most of which landed. Even though inebriated, the sailor knew how to handle himself in a fight. Jake threw a swift kick into the man’s ribs slamming him into the bar. Jake palmed his head and slammed his face into the solid bar top. The privateersman backed off, clutching his side and gasping for air.

“Have you had enough?” Jake asked loudly. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

The sailor became enraged and pulled a knife from behind the bar. The innkeeper had been using it to cut cheese.

The man lunged forward, slashing with his weapon. Jake gripped the man’s wrist and moved out of the way. He struck his elbow into the man’s armpit, twisting his wrist, making him drop the knife. Then, at the same time, Jake swept the man’s legs and slammed him to the ground with a crushing punch to the throat. The sailor writhed on his back, holding his throat and again gasping for air.

“I just wanted to buy him a pint,” Jake said, flipping a coin to the nearest standing privateersman. “Use that to have a physician look at him instead. More use to him right now than alcohol.”

He walked past the frozen sailors and retrieved his weapons before heading upstairs to rest his head. He had hoped that would have played out as a bonding experience between the locals and the knighthood, but that example would serve well. The Knights of Apollo were not to be disrespected. Through the creaky floorboards, Jake could hear another toast.

“To Jake and his iron fists,” Jorn shouted. “Huzzah!”

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