Two days after leaving the outpost on the South River, the weather grew seasonably warmer, and the humidity made the work of moving upstream even more difficult. The air was still, and the sail was limp most of the time except for an occasional breeze that would cause it to billow, but not long enough to give any push to the boat. For the crew, it was all muscle. The river was deep, wide, and lazy where they were, so it offered some reprieve when poling or rowing. They had gotten out of the lowlands with swamps and bogs and were now in the pine and oak forests. The crew had not seen much in terms of settlements in the area, only an occasional boat passing the other direction downstream that carried goods or passengers to other markets in the Empire by river rather than by road. An occasional Imperial patrol would pass them but paid them no mind as they went about their business.
At midmorning, they came to a divide in the river with a large stone erected on the point. Jorn examined an inscription on the stone. “It’s just an island,” Jorn called. “The island runs for about two miles in the middle of the river before it merges back. Which fork do we take?”
“We’ve been keeping to the northern bank, so take the right one, I guess,” Camon answered.
They directed the boat towards the north fork, which covered only about a quarter of the river’s width. The channel was narrower, and trees hung over the channel giving it almost complete coverage. The waters were less rapid here, so they felt as if they were picking up some speed once they were out of the main channel. They worked their way through the channel as it bent slightly to the north.
As they rounded the bend, they came upon another boat stuck in the water. The boat was occupied, but nobody seemed to be moving. One of the men on the boat turned to look at Camon’s crew and glared at them, then brandished a short sword in the air.
“Pirates!” Jorn shouted. “We interrupted a hijacking or robbery from the looks of it.”
“Full stop,” Camon ordered. The crew stopped their advance and dug their poles into the mud to hold the boat in place.
“We can’t simply turn around,” Jorn said. “There’s likely more of them somewhere.”
“Are you looking for a fight?” Camon asked.
“Wouldn’t be my first choice. They have hostages.”
“We’ll probably get a fight, but I can’t tell how many pirates there are, though.”
“Achara can take one, but she’d need time to reload.”
“Let’s see if we can get closer. Achara, ready your crossbow, but don’t let them see you do it. Wait till we’re right next to them to loose a shot.”
Achara raised her pole and hopped down from her station to get her crossbow ready, and Camon gestured to Ghing and Jorn, and they inched forward. Camon cautiously moved them to the south bank of the river. The pirates watched them as they came closer. Once they were close enough, Camon observed two women, one older and one younger, two children, and two men who were older and younger, all sitting on the boat deck with three other men on the deck. One watched Camon and his crew standing next to those seated on the deck, and another was tearing through crates and sacks at the boat’s bow. A small raft was lashed to the side of the captured boat.
“Looks like there’s three of them,” Camon said in a low voice. “I can’t see any on the shore. The hostages look like a family, perhaps. Hard to say.”
“How is it that we keep running into riffraff like this?” Jorn asked.
“Just my luck, I guess. Keep moving. We need to get closer.”
The man staring them down finally shouted, “Go no further! We claim this vessel and its content for ourselves.”
Camon looked over the water and then shouted back at the three men, “Or what?”
“An Imperial patrol just passed us not fifteen minutes ago going downstream. I could persuade them to come back up here if you’d like.”
“Imperials? You’re lying.”
“No, I’m not. But I’m sure you would love to explain to them why you’ve got six people held hostage on a ship, and you’re rummaging through the ship’s contents.”
“Why do you care?”
“Because I think we can make a deal. Look, I would rather not have to go back downstream to fetch them. So, I’ll make you an offer. Give me a cut, and I will be on my way and pretend I never saw a thing. What do you say?”
Jorn looked at Camon and then at Achara, who was in the deck of their boat. The crossbow was at her feet as they poled slowly by. The man lowered his sword.
“How do I know you will stick to the bargain?” the pirate shouted.
“You don’t. But if we do this, then neither of us should mention it to anyone else.”
“I see your point.”
“Anything worth keeping?” Camon asked.
“Typical stuff. The kids and girl might be worth something, though.”
“Very true,” Camon nodded. He then looked at Achara and nodded at her. Camon then shouted back, “I’ll come to you, and we can work out a deal.”
“No tricks,” the pirate said. Camon inched his boat closer to the captured vessel. He put Achara and Ghing behind himself and Jorn next to him as they came closer. They closed in on the captured vessel, and all three pirates stood next to the boat’s edge. They had weapons in hand as they came closer. Camon could see the captured boat had a similar construction to his own: a single-masted riverboat with low cabins under the forecastle and at the rear with a recessed deck between them. The pirates themselves looked much more grizzled up close than far away. They all wore scraggly beards and dirty clothes. Camon brought the starboard side of his boat alongside the captured vessel’s port side, then they touched.
Just as they did, Achara bent down as if she was retrieving a rope from the deck, but then cleared the rope to reveal her crossbow. She raised and fired it, striking one of the pirates in the head. Camon and Jorn both drew their weapons and leaped from their boat to the captured vessel right at the remaining pirates as if they were twins in a choreographed show. Camon struck his opponent head-on, knocking him back on the deck near the hostages. He then pounced on top of the man and slammed his fist into the man’s face repeatedly until the man went out.
Jorn clashed steel with the other one, who leaped on top of the cabin. The pirate took advantage of the height, but Jorn’s skill compensated. Jorn drew his opponent to the edge of the cabin, then got right under him and grabbed the man’s legs and forced him off the cabin onto the deck, falling with a great clamor that rocked the entire vessel. He lost his weapon and started to crawl back away from Jorn, who held him with his sword’s tip. Camon came around to the pirate that Jorn had at sword point and pointed his sword at him as well.
“Who do you work for?” he asked.
“Why do you guys always ask that stupid question?” the pirate retorted. “I don’t work for anyone.”
“Should I run him through?” Jorn asked.
“That’s up to these people,” Camon said, turning to the captives who looked at Camon with fear. “Don’t worry about us. We’re not here for you or your stuff.” Camon drew a knife from his belt and went and cut the bonds of the people.
At first, they were still a little skittish, still cowering even with their bonds cut. They didn’t say anything, but the oldest man finally spoke. “I don’t know what to say… I thought we were done…”
“‘Thank you’ would be in good order,” Jorn commented.
“Shut up, Jorn,” Achara scolded from the boat.
“Pardon our manners,” Camon said. “We’ve had quite the trip ourselves.”
“Well, he’s right,” the old man said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Jorn said back with a self-satisfied smile on his face. The pirate attempted to move, but Jorn thrust his sword closer to the man.
“He’s yours. Do what you want to with him,” Camon said to the old man.
“We don’t need any bloodshed,” the man said. “We are on a holy quest.”
“A pilgrimage?” Ghing asked.
“No, rather a mission. My wife, my son, his wife, myself… we’re all Healers.”
“Not under the banner of the Church then,” Camon said.
“No, we’re not ordained. None of us are priests. We practice healing through medicine, not magic. We’re taking supplies to an orphanage for children with diseases in Rahtclang, and hopefully, we can help some of them.”
“Missionaries, then?” Camon said.
“Of a sort, yes.”
“Unsanctioned missionary work. You must belong to one of the cell networks then. Since you don’t use magic, I can only assume it’s in a puritan sect.”
“Yes, an astute observation. How do you know of this?”
“Let’s just say that I understand what it’s like to serve the Light in unofficial capacities.”
“Are you part of a sect then?”
“Not exactly,” Camon said. “But needless to say, I’m not your judge. I’m no Inquisitor.” The older man and his companions grimaced at the word. “I see you have no love for them.”
“They have brought us great harm even though the only thing we try to do is good. We don’t seek to harm anyone, but we’re considered heretics because we don’t bow a knee to the Church’s dogmas.”
“I understand, I really do. Look, we too are on an urgent mission as well in the service of the Light. We are headed back to Rahttaay. I am glad our paths crossed. We’ll at least help you get your ship back in order and then be underway. These men are at your disposal. One is incapacitated. The other lives. The last is, unfortunately, dead. I’m truly sorry that happened on your watch.”
“I understand,” the old man said. “I don’t know what to do with them.”
“You’re headed downstream, so it’s about a day’s journey to an outpost on the north bank. You can turn them over to the authorities there. It’s an Imperial post, but they don’t dabble in the Inquisitors or the Church’s affairs this far out. They probably won’t even ask your business.”
“Can you help us bind them?”
The remaining conscious pirate looked at Camon. “You bought their story without question.”
“Well, I don’t see them with weapons holding people hostage either. And from the looks of it, they are carrying supplies for healing. You wouldn’t have found anything worth your while on this boat too. Sad day for you, it looks.”
“We’ll see who gets the last laugh,” the pirate scorned. Jorn lashed his hands and feet together, and then he hogtied the man to the ship’s mast. He did the same for the unconscious pirate. Camon, Achara, Jorn, and Ghing all helped the family repack the supplies the pirates had rummaged through, and once everything was in order, they got back on their own boat.
Before Camon boarded, the old man spoke to Camon again, “Thank you again.”
“Glad to help. A word of advice, though. These waters are not for the faint of heart. I would take the road next time.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. So long.”
Camon then boarded their boat and waved goodbye to the family as they pushed off and started poling up the river again. As soon as they were out of sight, they could see where the narrower fork rejoined the river’s mainstream.
“Deception Paladin. That was a nice touch. I thought that would be below you, though,” Jorn said.
“You have been around him long enough,” Achara said.
“Sounds to me like he’s done it before…” Jorn surmised. “But those folks… Talk about fools. Traveling these parts without protection is just insane.”
“Perhaps they can’t afford it,” Achara said.
“Probably can’t,” Camon said. “They are just trying to help people, that’s all. They are not all that different from me, truth be told – serving the Light without the Church’s blessing. They, however, believe the Church has lost its way.”
“How so?” Achara asked.
“For one, the use of magic. The puritan sects see magic as a problem. They agreed with the Church after the Second Reformation to reign in magic. Still, when the Church did not completely abandon it itself, they formed a schism and have focused on healings through practical means – natural remedies, concoctions, physical treatments – all sorts of things. They are probably only second to the elite Healers in Rahtneua. Yiew would probably sympathize with them, though, even though he uses magic, as he practiced many of the same remedies. “
“It’s a shame, really,” Achara said. “I mean, they aren’t hurting anyone and probably doing more help than many priests do. Heck, they are pacifists and a family. That’s hardly a threat.”
“It’s only a threat to authority,” Jorn said.
“But they don’t seem even to want that. I think they want to be left alone,” Achara said.
“If it were only that simple,” Camon said. “If you understand their plight, then surely you see mine. Albeit, I’m not afraid to use a sword every now and then, and I do use magic.”
“You. Them. Truly, I still do not understand what makes you tick.” Jorn said.
“It’s a calling,” Camon said. “You accept it despite what others think about you.”
“Until it gets you killed. Or worse. Those pirates hinted about selling those children into slavery,” Jorn noted
“Indeed. It comes with its risks. I was on death’s door, not that long ago.”
“Yeah, but you had help.”
“And so did they,” Camon said. “I don’t believe in karma, but sometimes I have to wonder.”
“We’ll see about that. We tend to stumble upon trouble a lot. You might need to change your belief.”
Camon grinned at Jorn, “Well, maybe it’s time you changed yours.”
With that, they poled upriver with a renewed sense of purpose. They continued for the remainder of the day and picked up the routine the next. After some weeks of uneventful travel, they started to see farms, villages, ferries, and bridges. The boat traffic on the river increased going both ways. They knew that they were near Rhattaay at last.