The bow of the ship rode the waves confidently, sped along by the power of twenty four broad-shouldered men from the frozen North. Their ship, with the dragon’s head rising at the prow, wasn’t one of the elegant vessels that plied from one coast to the other of the Mediterranean. No, cured by the frigid weather of the Atlantic, gouged in battle, it was much like its crew, rustic, scarred and indomitable. A man with long braids of red and blond hair hung onto the rigging on the prow, with one booted foot on the edge and his scowl focused on the crowded horizon of the Persian city. It gleamed in the distance.
“Merchant!”, he growled over his shoulder. A much shorter man, dressed in robes that must’ve once been expensive, though they were now weather-worn, shot onto his feet from the stern.
Walking briskly along the spine of the ship, he replied with a thick accent. “Yes, Captain?”, he said, hanging onto the rigging. Though he wasn’t a Viking, he was comfortable at sea.
“Is this the place? Where riches overflow and fortune beckons?”, the Viking asked, reciting that last verse with incredulity. Each new claim the merchant made about the city he had led them to was punctuated with that reprieve.
The Italian merchant grinned. “Yes. Al Khalid is where a pauper can stow away to and return home a banker. By my mother’s eyes, I’ve seen it more than once.”
“And all those other stories were true as well, I expect?”, the captain inquired sarcastically, “Animals that predict the death of men, men with the heads of dogs and spices worth twice their weight in gold?”
A voice rose from the rowers. “Don’t forget the women! Sweet as honey, eager like flowers for Spring!” Laughter boomed across the ship, loud enough to startle fishermen on boats they were passing by. Those tales were popular during long weeks of travel.
“Yes!”, bellowed the Italian merchant, grinning widely. “All of them true, Captain. Here, the Sultan will enlist your men, heap you with as much wealth as your strong shoulders can carry, for no more than a few trifling chores”.
The Captain was still young, as was his crew. It was at their goading that he’d had agreed to listen to their captive, a trader they swept up in a raid on a coastal town in the North of France. Quick-witted, the venetian traveler spun tales of these faraway places to the ambitious young men, who, trusting the strength of their sword arms and the stoutness of their shields, set out further than they had ever intended. Giacomo, as the merchant had introduced himself when they held an axe to his throat, claimed that he already had secured employment for him and his men doing what they did naturally. Messages had crisscrossed while they made their journey South to the pass into the Mediterranean.
“All of that, just because we would be unusual?”, the Captain asked again, just to make sure he fully understood. He wasn’t a fool by any means, but the posturing of royalty still perplexed him.
“Like lions pulling the chariot of Charlemagne!”, Giacomo exclaimed. The crew laughed again, roaring like the beasts in the tales told around the fires of their childhood. “You will be a prize for him as his personal guard”, Giacomo added, “living testament to his wealth and limitless kingdom. Savage men from the North! I dare say the lot of you will make a fine spectacle by merely being yourselves.”
Somehow, the Captain’s pride didn’t agree with the idea of being a trophy, a thing to display like those jeweled swords that’d shatter with the first swing. The scowl came back. Greed could only go so far, even less for someone who doesn’t crave gold, but glory.
Giacomo, as a haggler, could read that expression, and though he was not much older than his captors, he was one for gold. He sidled in closer. “Captain”, he said in a half-whisper, “I must admit that, though this is an opportunity for you to fill the coffers of the house of your father, I would fear for you.”
The Captain looked down at Giacomo. Somehow, through storms at sea and opportunistic night-time assaults on lonely manors along the coast, the man had been able to keep the cap he wore the day they took him. Even now it sat atop Giacomo’s black curls. His eyes gleamed with mirthful treachery, as if he was about to laughingly reveal a close ally’s secret. He knew no one sang songs about palace guards.
“Being who you are, Captain, you might get an audience with the princess…”, Giacomo confided. “I’m certain the name Thane Sversson has rang far and wide already! King of his people, leader of warriors; they’ll want your allegiance, your obedience! Yes, they’ll surely give you an audience with her, and you’ll be forced into tender servitude.”
“Beautiful, is she? Armies dare not march when faced with the radiance of her face or somesuch?”, Thane asked, accustomed to Giacomo’s storytelling flair. He listened, nevertheless.
“Mock me and my tales all you wish”, Giacomo scoffed. “But you’d be a fool to underestimate the power of her beauty. Why, when we were aground near Genoa, one of my cousin’s business partners told me, upon discovering that we were travelling to Al Khaled, that the crown prince of Mur had thrown himself off a cliff in her name!”
After glancing over his shoulder towards the crew, Giacomo cupped a hand next to his mouth. “Prince Muhammad of Mur had come to Al Khaled to declare war, Captain! Tribute or strife, it was rumored he was planning to tell the Sultan. However, as he marched with his honor guard to the palace, he came across the Princess’ palanquin in the market, he was struck to be as stiff as a granite statue. It is said that she was visiting her goldsmiths in regards to a dress fashioned entirely from gold thread, and that at that very moment, she was pointing out the window, with two delicate fingers…” Giacomo rolled up his sleeve, gesturing caricaturesquely with his calloused money-counting hands. “…And that was what Prince Muhammad of Mur saw. It was all, my cousin’s partner assures me, that he had to see in order to lose his mind for her.”
Giacomo pulled down his sleeve and, as he had done all those nights for the Vikings over the fire, gripped an imaginary sword in both hands, and slashing away theatrically. Sea snakes, thieves and giants fell before the very same strokes. This time, it was a prince’s honor guard.
“Immediately, he set about killing his own men before they had a chance to even blink! Then, he threw himself on his knees next to her hand, still dripping in the blood of his own servants, and held up his sword to her, crying out in the tongue of devils, ‘Mistress, I’ve killed men who wished your kingdom harm! Accept their deaths as a gift, as proof of my devotion. All I ask is the boon of a glimpse of your face.’ She refused him”, Giacomo hissed. “I don’t know whether she did it out of cruelty or horror, but she did, and he was inconsolably heartbroken on the spot… So, he rode to one of the cliffs facing the sea on the outskirts of the city, carved a love poem to her name, and he threw himself to be swallowed by the waves.”
Thane grunted. “At least he left a poem”, he said. And yet, despite himself, Thane was intrigued. They were well within view of the city now, and the busy rows of ships coming and going suggested that there was a grain of truth to Giacomo’s exaggerations of gold and fortune. So, it followed that there might be a grain of truth to this latest story as well. Surely, Thane thought, even Giacomo’s stories only scratches the surface.
Thane hung on to the rope, watching the triangle-shaped sails get out of their way, parting to let the city shine in all of its life and bustle.
“Merchant”, Thane said. “What is her name?”
More to come