Another week, another bit of flash fiction adventure. Chuck Wendig brought back the X meets Y challenge (last time I got Transformers meets Toy Story, which somehow led to a magical girl inspired western). This time I got True Detective meets Guardians of the Galaxy. I was stumped at first, but then I realized that GotG is actually just classic adventure fiction; I can easily replace space with water and spaceships with boats, and end up with a solid swashbuckling genre homage instead. As such, I wrote the piece in my Elven Progenitors setting. I think you’ll see the True Detective parallels without too much effort, if you have a decent memory for some of the episodes and character dynamics. This is, of course, it’s own thing. I also consider it more rough than usual, since I’m a bit rushed; I have to go get in line for the Avengers!
Anyway, I hope you like it.
Marcel leaned over the transom of the small boat, staring at the sandy bottom as it rushed past. Frederika growled at him in frustration as he blocked the tiller.
“Move, you ass,” she kicked his shin with her small foot. It was hard enough for a gnome to pilot a human-sized sailboat like this one without a human-sized lubber obstructing her while she worked. Marcel shifted back, that frustratingly placid expression plastered on his face. “Prepare to jibe,” Frederika pulled in on the sheet and began to push over the tiller while Marcel ducked, “jibe ho.” The main came around with a loud snap, filling quickly in the stiff night breeze.
The sky above them was mostly clear, and full of stars. The moon overhead was full and bright, and the pale sand over which they sped shone up through the water with an almost eerie brilliance. Marcel and Frederika could hear the sounds of the camp on shore, yells and whistles and shouted conversations echoing out over the water.
Frederika hadn’t wanted to work with Marcel in the first place, to no one’s surprise. No one wanted to work with Marcel. The idea of going into a slavers’ camp with him at her side gave her the shivers. These camps sprang up all along the western edge of the Inner Sea every year, often returning to the same place summer after summer, and they were a crossroads of sorts, a place where all were welcome. Some, of course, might only be welcome as slaves and chattel.
Tonight Frederika and Marcel hoped to find some trace of the children who had gone missing three weeks earlier. Their mission was a simple one at first glance, appointed by the Kersini family’s factor; one of the tribes allied with the Kersini had been raided by suspected slavers, and now the Kersini would put their other allies to work offering aid. But the truth of the matter was that nothing like this could ever be simple. No one should have been willing to attack the tribe to begin with, let alone make off with its children as hostages or slaves. The Kersini might not be the most powerful elven family in Bospor, but their network of alliances was strong and it stretched far and wide.
Frederika dropped the sail as they approached shore, and brought the skiff coasting in toward the makeshift dock which had been built years before. It was one of the few things that stayed year round, and looked just as badly weatherbeaten as one might expect. The ship which had brought them north from Bospor had remained at anchor further out, a little ways beyond the other ships which dotted the shallow bay here, and now their only way back to safety was going to be tied up on a splintering jetty, thrust out into the shallows. Frederika could feel her anger at the situation mounting once more, though at least Marcel seemed to know what he was doing as he made the boat fast against one of the pilings. Frederika scrambled out of the boat without his assistance. It was little surprise that he could handle a line, she thought, given that he’d previously tied up people for a living.
The camp was filled with raucous celebration. One of the big crews had made a very successful raid a week or two back and had only just returned to the camp with their haul. Their captives were locked in paddocks and cages, awaiting the barges that would take them towards Venezia. And while the captives cowered, their takers partied.
Frederika followed Marcel as they wove their way through the noisy milling crowds, carefully avoiding loud knots of people and working further and further into the camp. They were supposed to be meeting someone who’d know where the children had been taken, but Frederika had the sneaking suspicion that no one would be in any condition to talk, let alone remember such details.
Marcel pulled up short in front of a large and well made felt tent, one which had been dyed a dingy hue of red a long time ago. His face was even more impassive than usual.
“Here we go. Follow my lead. And don’t say anything,” Marcel looked at his diminutive companion as she scowled fiercely up at him, “unless you’re asked a direct question.” They both turned to look at the tent’s flaps, hanging closed. “Oh,” Marcel added as an afterthought, “and make sure your guns are ready.”
The group of men and women lounging around the low fire pit looked nonplussed by the arrival of a strange gnome and human in their midst. They were grilling small chunks of meat on skewers over the coals, leaning forward to tend them or lying back on well used pillows and rugs. Some had fine glasses or clay mugs filled with a dark liquid that Frederika could only assume was wine. Marcel walked up to the group, ignoring the sudden awkward pause in their conversation, and squatted by the fire as though he belonged there. The people stared at him more.
“Marse?” One of the men by the fire spoke, peering out from beneath a floppy brown hat, “Is that you?”
Marcel nodded, staring at his questioner without speaking.
“Why, you goat loving ass, we thought you were dead!” A mustachioed man rocked forward from where he’d been tending a set of skewers, punching Marcel in the shoulder in a friendly fashion. Frederika stared at him, letting her hands rest on the butts of her pistols. Marcel took it in stride, and Frederika relaxed just a bit.
“Not dead, just missing. Here again on business.”
“Business?” One of the women spoke up from where she lounged with a glass. “You’re a cold fish Marse, disappearing for so long and only coming back for ‘business.’”
Marcel just nodded in reply.
There was a moment of silence as the people around the fire digested this, sounds of the camp’s party reaching them through the tent’s walls. The woman who’d spoken took a drink, then leaned forward on one elbow.
“So,” she said, “what sort of business brings you back here tonight?” She glanced at Frederika. “You selling her? I don’t think she’d fetch much.”
Frederika fought to keep the scowl off her face, but her hands clenched on her guns.
“Nope, looking for some kids. Some human, some northmen, maybe some mixed.”
“Well shit, Marse, you’re out of luck,” spoke the man in a floppy brown hat. “Gurnsey already sold the batch of kids we took, they’re loaded to barge out tomorrow.”
Marcel nodded. Frederika itched to do something. She was standing by a fire with the very same people who’d taken the kids she had been sent to rescue. Her hands squeezed the grips of her pistols, but Marcel just stood and nodded again.
“Thanks. Who bought them?”
“Uh,” the woman with the glass was staring at Frederika’s hands, clenched on her guns, “you remember Marco, right?”
Marcel blinked. “Yeah. Thanks.” He turned and left, a surprised Frederika trailing in his wake.
“What the fuck was that?” Frederika burst out as they left the tent and reentered the boisterous night.
“I got what we needed. Now we go deal with Marco, and walk out with the kids.”
“Excuse me,” Frederika poked Marcel in the hip, “but how the fuck do you think we’re going to get all the kids out on the little catboat we took in? There are supposed to be at least thirty of them!”
“We’ll use the barge.” And with that, Marcel picked up the pace, striding away into the night and forcing Frederika to run to keep up with him, unable to shout at him that there was no fucking way to use a barge with just the two of them.
Frederika was amazed by how little attention any of the slavers paid to her and Marcel. It was as though they didn’t care that anyone might be there who wasn’t supposed to be. Or maybe they just thought that no one would be so insane. Marcel led them through the maze of tents and revelers with his usual unsettling calm, and then stopped as they drew up alongside a large crowd of partiers.
He leaned down to speak loudly in Frederika’s ear, “You can’t see him from down there, but he’s a very hairy dwarf sitting on a log by the campfire. Work around behind him and put your gun in his back when I talk with him about the kids. We should be able to buy them without any more trouble.”
They pushed and stumbled their way through the crowd, coming out on the far side with new beer stains seeping into their clothes. Marcel strode around the fire circle towards Marco, Frederika racing to make her way behind the hairy dwarf. She got into position a little late.
“No fucking way am I going to sell you those kids, Marse!” Marco roared up at the impassive human. “They’ll fetch a far better price for me in Venezia, and they’re tough enough to make the trip!”
Frederika stepped up behind him, smiling like they were old friends as she pressed the muzzle of her flintlock into his back. Flickering firelight shrouded her hand in shadow, and she felt a grudging admiration for Marcel’s plan.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sell those kids?” Marcel flicked his eyes between Frederika and Marco. “We’re prepared to make a very reasonable offer.”
Marco got much quieter, and glowered at Frederika. One of Marco’s men nearby shouted over the din, “These folks bothering you, sir?”
“Ye—,” Marco started to answer, paused to reconsider as Frederika jabbed him in the back with the flintlock before pulling it a little ways away again. “You keep enjoying yourself Rik. Nothing to be concerned about.”
The man, Rik, looked unsettled but turned away and moved off through the rowdy mob.
Marcel glanced at where Rik had disappeared, then back at Marco. “You’ve already got them on the barge?”
“Then let’s discuss our business there.” Marco didn’t stand until Frederika encouraged him, but the three of them pushed their way out through the party and away towards the waterfront once more.
It didn’t take long to reach the barges, resting in the shallows. The one they wanted was easy to find, given that they could hear quietly crying children on board.
“Okay Marco, no hard feelings, we just need those kids and that barge.” Marcel held out a small bag that clinked with coin. Marco looked at it incredulously.
“You’re trying to buy them from me at gunpoint? For that little?” Marco started to laugh. He didn’t stop even when Frederika jabbed him in the ribs.
“Shut up hairy man, I’ll pay you with lead if you don’t like the coin.”
“About that,” Marco chuckled, “Rik, you can show yourself now.”
Rik and four other slavers made their way out of the shadows behind the uncomfortable trio. The slavers were armed with cudgels, nets, and swords. Rik held a crossbow.
“So, Marse and whoever you are, how about I take your coin and let you run away? I’m a merciful man.” Marco smiled, unfazed by the gun still leveled at his belly. Marcel looked frozen, unsure.
“Fuck it,” muttered Frederika. She stepped up closer to Marco, leaving him between her and the enemy. She fired her pistol at Rik, drawing her second smoothly in her other hand as she dropped the discharged one. Rik squealed and dropped to the ground, writhing. Her second pistol took Marco in the hip and was dropped, as she promptly kneed him hard in his wound. Marco screamed and collapsed. She had her third pistol out before the four other slavers had started to react. Marcel drew his knives.
“How about I let you run away? I’m a merciful woman.” Frederika smiled in the moonlight, drawing her fourth and final gun.