Villainy On The High Seas...

The first chapter as taken from my first serious novel project - which is now 80% completed (First draft only) I'd really love to hear your honest thoughts on this one and feel free to throw as much criticism at it as you like - I need to know if it sucks, and I'll find out sooner or later.

Mort gripped his sword and squeezed his eyes shut. Listening intently with all the focus his young mind could muster. The trees in this part of the grove were packed in tightly, restricting his vision to the point that his eyes were almost useless to him. If he was going to find the pirate captain he would have to rely on his other senses.

 -

At first were so many innocuous little noises vying for his attention that it was almost impossible for Mort to hone in on his target. But then he caught a break. He heard a twig snap somewhere close-by. Without wasting a second the young swashbuckler motored into action, bounding off through the trees towards the disturbance.

 -

Mort ducked and weaved his way through the maze of trees with finesse and precision that betrayed his familiarity with his environment – this was a route he had taken many times before and he knew it well. Right now his priority was catching his quarry before he damned well slipped away again.

 -

Hardy trunks whizzed by thick and fast. This was the third time the pirate had slipped up and he wasn't going to let him get away again, not this time. Mort sprinted onward and the world around him became a blur, now relying on muscle-memory and instinct to avoid disaster.

 -

Mort's breathing deepened, his muscles started to ache and his heart was pounding in his chest. The adrenaline felt good though as it coursed through his body propelling him forward. He ducked a low-laying branch and suddenly found himself confronted by a thick bush of nettles. He had no time to circumnavigate the obstacle and his momentum was too great to slow down in time anyway.

 -

Without hesitating Mort opted to speed up rather than slow or alter his path. At the last possible second Mort jumped, vaulting clear of the vicious barbs. As he landed his bravery was rewarded by a flash of his quarry up ahead. Though exhausted this spurred Mort on and he crashed straight back into the undergrowth, which was thicker in this part of the Grove than elsewhere.

 -

With every passing step the distance between them lessened. Despite their age both were already expert woodsmen and intimately familiar with the terrain, but today Mort was just a little bit faster than his prey.

 -

The tree line ended abruptly and the two figures exploded out into the clearing which marked the centre of the Grove. The large, open expanse was surrounded by trees on all sides and was filled by a ditch which ran from one end to the other. The slopes that led into the long, thin channel were very step, even though the ditch itself wasn't especially deep - though with a little imagination the ditch was more than sufficient to serve as a claustrophobic canyon perfect for an ambush or a perilous ravine where the potential for falling rocks increased with every passing minute.

 -

Nihlus still had a slight lead and so slowed a little bit to catch his breath. Now that the cover provided by the canopy of trees had ended the ground was wet and treacherous here from overnight rainfall and Nihlus was also wary of his momentum carrying him into the ditch. Mort on the other hand was still psyched up from an abundance of adrenaline and threw all caution to the wind – instead choosing to launch himself head first at his friend.

 -

Had Nihlus been a little quicker on his feet he would have simply dodged to the side and let Mort's rash leap carry him straight into the ditch, but he wasn't fast enough and instead Mort collided with him and the tackle brought the pair to the ground together.

 -

Mort leapt to his feet, and was surprised to discover that Nihlus had got there first – his weapon already drawn and poised defensively.

 -

“Stop right there Redeye!” Mort demanded. “Your reign of tyranny on the high-seas is over.”

 -

As ever Mort delivered an expert rendition of the gallant sailor his father had introduced him to many seasons earlier – his go-to character for this particular game. While channelling this imitation of the man Mort also brandished his own imitation sword, waving it to-and-fro like a madman.

 -

“Ha. You'll have to catch me first landlubber!” Nihlus roared, tossing aside his stick and turning to dart away from Mort once again.

 -

Mort took this as his opportunity to act and before the infamous pirate could make good on his escape plan he once again flung himself forward to tackle his nemesis. This time though the force of the act caused both boys to lurch over the edge of the ditch and they found themselves tumbling down the slope.

 -

After a great deal of squealing and laughter the mischievous pair came to rest at the bottom of the pit. Both friends knew the next chapter in the story, after all they used this area often to represent the ocean, which was particularly fitting today as the recent rain had created a pool of muddy water at least a foot or so deep at the foot.

 -

Sometimes the pirate would make good an escape, sometimes Mort's character Mortimer Barnabas would prevail and bring him to justice – usually though one or the other would yell 'shark' and the two mortal enemies would have to work together, for a time, to drive off the blood-thirsty predator.

 -

However now that they had abandoned the canopy of leaves it was apparent for the first time just how hot it was today. As the sun beat down on them neither child had the energy to play anymore. So instead they just lay on their backs beside the body of water but not wetted by it and panted heavily as they tried to catch their breath.

 -

Nihlus was the first of the pair to regain his breath after the exhilarating chase and so he spoke first.

 -

“Mort?”

 -

“Yeah?” Mort responded sleepily, his eyes closed.

 -

“Does it ever scare you?” Nihlus asked.

 -

A contented smile spread across Mort's lips though his eyes remained shut, the midday sun was definitely making him drowsy.

 -

“Oh of course,” he retorted. “The stories of Redeye are legendary.”

 -

Nihlus rolled over and punched Mort on the arm, drawing him back to the waking world. “I don't mean the game silly. I mean that I always end up playing the villain.”

 -

“What?” Mort was a little perturbed by the question. “Yeah sure, it keeps me up at night.”

 -

Nihlus said nothing. He just sat up, wrapped his arms around his knees and stared off into the distance. Mort recognised the signs immediately, he'd seen Nihlus go into one of his moods one too many times before. The best thing to do was to pre-empt it and lighten the mood as quickly as possible before he shut down completely.

 -

“Hey I'm just joking around Nih. Honestly the thought had never even crossed my mind. I swear you can be so weird at times,” Despite knowing better Mort was still feeling a bit indignant that Nihlus had to suddenly suck all the fun out of the day and ruin what had so far been a perfect morning. “You know, you're not like me at all. Sometimes I wonder why we're even friends.”

 -

For a little while Nihlus said nothing, considering a response. He sometimes wished Mort would think a little harder before he spoke. After years of friendship Mort's careless words stung a little deeper than intended, but this was mostly because there was an air of truth in them. The two boys had lived such different lives what really did they have in common? What justified their continued friendship?

 -

Eventually Nihlus spoke. “My mum once told me that opposites attract.”

 -

“She did huh? Well what does that mean?”

 -

“Beats me,” Nihlus shrugged. “Just that we get along fine I guess.”

 -

Mort eyed his best friend cautiously. He was never really sure what to say when Nihlus got like this. The relationship between Redeye and Mortimer Barnabas was so much simpler, he was a little jealous.

 -

“Look man, if you're worried about...” Mort paused, his conviction waning under Nihlus glare. “...Well, you know...”

 -

Nihlus expression said it all, he quite clearly did not 'know'.

 -

“I mean turning out like... him,” for some reason Mort instinctively dropped his voice to barely above a whisper even though the pair were completely alone.

 -

“For goodness sake Mort,” Nihlus interrupted. “You don't have to worry, I know my dad was a bad guy but I'm nothing like him and I know it! Okay?”

 -

“Good. Just you remember that now!” Mort grinned. “Otherwise I'll have to kick your ass.”

 -

“Ha, I'd like to see you try.”

 -

“Test me on it.”

 -

“Okay, okay – look I know all right? And Mort?”

 -

“Yeah?”

 -

“Thanks.”

 -

There was a brief pause in the conversation, a natural lull, though it was less of an awkward silence and rather two friends quietly enjoying each other’s company. Though as usual Nihlus proved the more impatient of the two and broke it first.

 -

“Goodness Morty, you could almost talk the great Redeye himself into going straight.”

 -

Mort sprang to his feet. Nihlus knew how he hated being called Morty. He was being baited.

 -

“So you're ready to turn in your cutlass pirate?”

 -

“Oh yeah sure, just as soon as you walk the plank!”

 -

The two boys immediately launched back into a scrap, rolling around in the sloping grass grappling with one another. Nihlus was the bigger of the two and although not always as fast as Mort his size and mass usually gave him the upper hand in a wrestle. Nihlus was able to pin Mort beneath him pretty quickly and then pressed down his face, as if holding him underwater. For his part Mort flailed wildly in imitation of his final, frenzied death-throws.

 -

The morbid scene didn't play out for long though. His smaller frame made Mort wiry and he was able to wriggle free. Mort was just about to scale the slope back up to the Grove when he realized that Nihlus was no longer playing.

 -

“Hold up Mort. Do you smell that?”

 -

“I'm falling for none of your tricks this time oh scourge of the seas, now defend yourself Redeye!” Mort said, remembering with some satisfaction that while he still had his mock sword to hand while Nihlus' cutlass had been dropped in the clearing above when the pair had taken their tumble. “What's the matter pirate? Lose your sword? I'm sure you have plenty more on your ship – tell me where did you moor the Cloak'n'Dagger again?”

 -

“Stop it Mort. I'm serious, I can smell burning.”

 -

There was something in Nihlus voice that told Mort he wasn't joking. Mort sniffed the air a couple of times and he too thought he could detect the unmistakable husk of burning wood on the wind.

 -

“I think I can smell it too. Let's hop out of the ditch, we'll be able to tell from up top.”

 -

The pair helped each other up the steep bank swiftly and just as they reached the clearing their young friend Tesa burst out from the tree line and into the clearing at a pace that would have rivalled even the two boys during their earlier chase.

 -

“MORT! NIHLUS!” Tesa bellowed upon seeing the perplexed boys.

 -

“Tesa? What's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost.”

 -

Tesa was suddenly acutely aware of her appearance. If only her mother could see her now she would get a scolding. How, she would be asked, would she ever attracted a nice young husband if she presented herself as a common tramp? She realized this was hardly the time but these ideas had been thoroughly indoctrinated into her and so before proceeding she took a moment to regain some composure. Quickly wiping some of the mud from her face and smoothing down the ruffles on her dress. She realized it didn't really help but the token gesture certainly made her feel a whole lot better.

 -

“Thank heavens you're okay Mort, I was so worried,” she blurted thoughtlessly.

 -

Nihlus took note that as usual her first concern was for Mort, who was, for his part, oblivious to her affection for him. A fact which Nihlus derived great pleasure out of.

 -

“Well he is 'kinda' alright. I was just about to feed him to the sharks before you interrupted.”

 -

Tesa's face had painted a picture of anxiety, coloured with tears and hung in a frame of grease and dirt. For an instant though it was transformed, the concerned, frightened young woman before them becoming the indignant, somewhat spoilt princess that they were more familiar with.

 -

“Hey! Were you guys playing the pirate game without me!?!”

 -

Mort shot Nihlus a toxic look, so he decided to push his luck.

 -

“Yeah, sorry I'd already fed you to the...” Nihlus was never able to finish this sentence as Mort cut him off.

 -

“I think what Nihlus was getting at, in a roundabout way, was asking - what's wrong?”

 -

Tesa paused for an instant, her youthful innocence vanishing once again.

 -

“Oh Mort, it's terrible! The village... it's being attacked by goblins from the forest.”

 -

Mort and Nihlus looked at each other, completely unsure of how to respond. Her account was scarcely believable. It was true that there were goblins in Goldleaf Forest but they had always been peaceful, and besides why would anyone want to attack Hamlet - goblins or otherwise? It was a perfectly peaceful little village with nothing worth stealing and no enemies.

 -

Mort was about to argue these points with Tesa and either dismiss or at least challenge the notion that Hamlet was under siege when another whiff of burning wood hit his nostrils and with a sinking feeling he knew, he just knew, that she was telling the truth.

 -

Nihlus had reached a similar conclusion, though he had more of a predisposition to assume the worst in any given situation.

 -

“Okay. How bad is it?”

 -

“I-I don't know. As soon as he realized what was happening my dad rounded up everyone who couldn't fight and told us to hide in the town hall, we ran straight there while the men were fighting the goblins,” Tesa recounted the events so quickly that she forgot to breathe and had to take a big gulp of air afterwards.

 -

Mort asked the obvious question that Tesa had hoped to avoid. “Your dad doesn't know you came to find us does he?”

 -

“Um, no, b-but he didn't know you were out here. I had to do something, I tried to tell him but he had to rush off before I could get it out.”

 -

This wasn't quite true. Tesa had ample time to inform him while he was busy reminding her what a brave young lady she was, how proud he was of her, and how he needed her to be strong for him right now – but as usual when he had finished he immediately took off without hearing what she needed to tell him, and with her tender years she still lacked the self-confidence to cut him off and speak her mind.

 -

Anyway to her mind she was being brave and strong just like he wanted, so really she was following the spirit of his instructions after all.

 -

“Isn't he going to be mad at you for running off like that?”

 -

There was a long silence.

 -

“Probably, I mean I guess so, yes,” her face flushed red with embarrassment, she suddenly felt like a disobedient child. “I had to come Mort. I-I couldn't just leave you out here,” then as an afterthought. “Neither of you.”

 -

“Well, I'm really sorry if you get into trouble because of us.”

 -

“Thanks Mort, that means a lot.”

 -

Nihlus also offered his thoughts. “Yeah me too, and besides you don't need to worry about us. We can look after ourselves, right Mort?”

 -

Mort nodded confidently and it was true. Though young the boys were both accomplished swordsmen with skill that belied their youthful appearance. Certainly they were more than capable of fending off a few goblins who were hardly renowned for their combat prowess.

 -

One of Hamlet's finest guardsmen, a cantankerous old coot named Balthas had become quite taken with the adventurous pair. He had insisted on teaching both the art of fencing, which was as far as the two lads were concerned was completely awesome and an interest they were keen to indulge.

 -

It turned out that both boys had a natural aptitude for swordplay. Balthas pretty quickly graduated them to sparing with the more junior guardsmen, and was impressed to discover that each could best them two out of every three matches.

 -

“I know you can look after yourselves, but I was still worried about you. Let's get back to Hamlet quickly and find somewhere safe like my dad said. I'm not brave like you two at all. I don't want to fight any goblins.”

 -

Mort glared admiringly at Tesa. Even standing before them caked in mud from her perilous flight out of the village just to warn them of the danger they were in – she still found time to be utterly modest about her heroism.

 -

“You know something Tesa, you couldn't be more wrong. You are brave! It must have taken loads and loads of courage to come all the way out here to find us in the grove with the goblins roaming about.”

 -

Tesa froze. A mild panic set in.

 -

“I hadn't even thought about it. Well, not really,” she realized that she hadn't stopped until now to realize the risk she'd taken.

 -

She knew she should probably feel stupid and childish for what she'd done but the strange thing was she didn't. In fact what she felt right now was precariously close to pride. “I guess I forgot to be afraid. Is forgetfulness the same as bravery?”

 -

Both boys smiled at seeing the gradual return of their friend.

 -

“I guess it must be. Well you're either incredibly brave or just very forgetful,” Nihlus offered.

 -

“Thanks Nihlus. I think.”

 -

The trio was about to head back towards Hamlet when Mort glanced at his wooden sword and suddenly remembered that Nihlus was missing his.

 -

“Nihlus, what happened to your sword?”

 -

“Oh, I think it skittered into the bushes when you pounced on me, I'll find it quick – it'll only take a moment. Wait for me okay?”

 -

Mort nodded and Nihlus dashed towards the tree line to find his mock blade, leaving Mort and Tesa alone together for a moment. The girl was still clearly in shock, shivering even in the warmth of the hot sun. Mort shifted awkwardly. He knew Tesa very well but she was a woman, well a girl at least, and he had no idea how to comfort her.

 -

Mort had a sudden moment of inspiration and he strode over to a nearby tree which hung out over the clearing a little bit and stooped down to pick up a short branch which had fallen from it and was distinctly weapon-like.

 -

“Here Tesa, take this. Use it like a club if we get attacked. I can't think of anyone I would want backing me up more than you and Nihlus,” and Mort really meant it too.

 -

A moment later Nihlus returned with his sword and found Tesa positively beaming, he couldn't guess what Mort had said or done but it had obviously had an effect on her.

 -

“Come on , we should hurry back,” Nihlus said. “It's time these goblins meet Redeye.”

 -

With that Nihlus pressed his crumbled pirate hat back onto his head and the friends departed for their sleepy little Hamlet and those who would harm it.

The End

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