The Merchant and The Minstrel – Chapter 1
As they climbed higher, the rope turned coarse and splintered. Their fingers were red and swollen. Her hands were well calloused, and so she voiced no complaints. His were tender and inexperienced, so each scratch became another injustice. Their pants were wearing thin, and perforations gave way to tears, which gave way to holes, which gave way to blood. The snake charmer’s song was lost in the wind, but they knew he was still playing. Like a sapling peeking out of the soil, the top end of the rope manifested the strands, which braided and knotted themselves. Each push of their feet, and pull of their arms brought them closer to the wispy clouds. The rope did not sway, as the trees had. The cuffs of their clothes rippled in waves. He told her to slow down. She told him to keep up. A crowd below, swarmed together, growing and shrinking from sight. He wanted to give in, and let them catch his fall. She had listened to him whine for long enough, and each time she inched up, her hips moved with increasing angst. When he asked if she was trying to shake him off, she told him that she couldn’t hear him so far below, and again he was told to hurry.
The airship was slow, but steadily it came, threatening to pass without them. It had to fight the wind, and the men at the cranks rained cold sweat upon the sands. The speed of each propeller, said much of the strength of each pair of hands. The captain sat upon the prow, beside a windsock used for measurements. He dangled a fishing rod between his knees, jigging a lure that held no bait. Two handles hung down to the height of his ears. Each one was drawn to the rudder. A pull would steer in an inverse direction. The first mate laid a hand of the fire feeder, signalling him to stop. Sparse embers were kicked away, shooting between the holes in the furnace’s grate. They aged into ashes and journeyed away in the currents, never to be noticed again. The ladders were dropped, from both sides and the back, along with airy baskets, hooks and nets.
The pirate fleet had fallen behind. Each man piloted his own pairs of wings. The tiny crafts were exhausting in the headlong gales. Down below, they were known as the dragonfly thieves, but within their ranks they knew no collective name. Any person who could fly may join in their fun, as long as they wore no badge. At the tip of the hoard, two women strained with grinding teeth. Neither would let the other get there first. They practice of attack feigned of chaos, but each one knew their role. The nimble and light, would spend their strength for height, and latch on to the top of their prey. When one would cling on, they could give their peddling legs a rest, and let their weight do their part for them. The burly pirates, who wore padding and clubs, would land on the decks, in a fury. Their higher risk let them get first picks, but that incentive was hardly worth it. Those who were amiss in speed or strength, would play about as distractions. Their flyers could hold less loot, as they were weighed down with shields and slings.
The rope had blossomed like a daisy, whose petals were stiff enough to stand on. The minstrel panted, perched on the top. She bounced her gaze from the merchant below to the oncoming ship above. She smiled with malice, seeing the merchant roll tears, and the puff his cheeks. As he climbed, he left red stains where his legs and hands once were. She judged, there was a chance he would be left behind. He would make a playful target for the dragonflies. The ship came overhead. She grasped the first ladder, and pulled herself up towards the lower deck. Hands met her sleeves and shoulders, bringing her over the rails. Her back pressed against the planks, as her chest heaved in crisp air. Her eyes closed, her mouth widened, and she listened to the captain’s commands. The Merchant had stopped under the flowered platform, and stretched his arm far for a swinging basket. It brushed against his hand, as it spun on it own, and was lost to his dismay. Another came fast, and crashed against his blind side ribs. His elbow dropped in, pinning the second basket to his chest. The merchant’s legs unwound, and dangled free from the rope. With both bodies off, the snake charmer’s trick ended as the fibers imploded down. Four airmen chanted, pulling up the second basket to the rhythm of their song. The merchant had expired his arms, so he used his chin to help hold on. They reached for him before the basket was aboard, and seized his outstretched hand. His blood lubricated their grips. He watched their eyes widen, and felt confused as he slipped away.
The minstrel heard a scream, then felt the deck quake three times. They were subtle bumps, but the captain felt them too. His shouts explained two of them. Mesh-men were dispatched to ascend the balloons and remove the pair of female boarders. When the merchant was heard again, in a desperate state of agony, men were ordered to reel in the hook which had violently snagged him. The fire feeder was joined by two others. They had to climb higher and freeze out the followers. The minstrel sat up, fell forward, and crawled to the back of the bottom deck. An aft window let in the light of the morning sun. She had to block out the glare with parted fingers, so she could count the dragonfly thieves. They were too erratic with their approach, so she quit, believing that there were between thirty and forty. The first mate found her, and left her with a bow and a bursting quiver. She had a history with strings, and knew what to do.