The innkeeper surveyed the growing crowd in his main dining room. It was evident the rowdy bunch were drinking more than eating. Outbursts of laughter could be heard as he made his way around the room. He smiled knowing that his coffers would be full come morning. A tug at his arm gained his attention and he swung around to look at the patrons face.
"Yes sir, what is it I can be doing for ya?"
"Ive put my order in three tankards of ale ago," he eyed the innkeeper suspiciously, "and Im still waiting on my food. When is it going to come?"
"Hmm good question," the innkeeper muttered softly, before smiling acquiescently in the patrons direction. "Let me find out why its taking so long." He turned abruptly, and headed for the kitchen.
Once past his rough-hewn bar the innkeeper entered the kitchen. His gaze quickly roamed over the stone fireplace loaded with unattended boiling kettles of food. He turned to the right where the preparation table sat covered with a disarray of dirty platters, plates, and utensils. He could feel his own boiling point surpassed as he let out a vicious yell. "ME-E-E-E-G!"
The coolness of the evening air seemed charged with energy. Meg could already feel her neck hairs standing on end and the kiss had only begun. She couldnt help but grab onto the messengers face and deepen her response before pulling back and breaking away.
"Wow! What a kisser." Megs eyes twinkled with delight as a silly smile registered on her face. "You can stop by here anytime." She licked her lips as she eyed up the young man. Lost in her craving, Megs lips closed in on her goal. "I bet thats not all you know how to do," she snickered, moving in for another kiss.
"Youre right. Ive got a little something for you, too." He could barely get the words out before his lips were silenced with hers. The lush softness of nibbling lips suddenly stilled and the young man pulled away. "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" She reached out to reel him back in toward her. "I didnt hear "
"ME-E-E-E-EG!" The angry voice called out again.
"Anything," Megs voiced softened immediately. "Uh oh!" Her face took on the look of a child caught doing something wrong. "Well, it was nice while it lasted," she grinned.
"MEG, IF I FIND YOU SITTING AROUND DOING NOTHING WHEN IVE GOT WAITING CUSTOMERS I SWEAR ILL " Just then he burst through the half door and into the open air. "There you are."
"Yep," she turned quickly and grinned. "Its me alright and as you can see I am doing something," she snickered, using her head to motion to the man behind her."
The innkeeper gazed over Megs left shoulder to the young man standing behind her. "I should have known," he spit out in disgust. "Once a wench, always a wench." He wrung his hands in consternation.
"Hey! I was just " Meg flicked her eyes about, hoping for something to come up. The blunt-tipped jab at her butt brought her attention back to the man behind her. "Getting excited, are you?" She mumbled out for only the messenger to hear over her shoulder.
"Not yet, but I will in a minute," he whispered, "as soon as you release me."
"Sh!" She turned her attention back to her employer. "I was just getting ready for a delivery er take out," she corrected then grinned as she reached behind her back and wrapped her fingers around the hard object jabbing her with almost every uttered word. She could feel the shaft give slightly under her gentle squeeze as she flexed her grip around it. "Hmm " she purred, "and I can tell its a big one too." Her eyebrows wiggled sensually as she toyed with the roll in her hand.
"Why you " the innkeepers temper was getting the best of him as he continued to fume.
"Meg, please I beg you," the messenger implored. "Take it and release me of my duty."
She felt the long shaft being shoved through her fingertips and into the palm of her hand. "What do you think Im doing?" She turned and met his gaze with a wry smile. The whole time she could feel his nervous energy shifting in her hand. She could already see the changing emotions crossing his face as she turned her gaze back toward her boss.
"Everybody deserves a little release every now and then, dont they?" She chuckled.
"Release?" The Innkeeper boomed. "Ill release you." His stride quickened and his hands flexed into fists.
Fright came to the messengers face as he watched the imposing form of the innkeeper come across the yard toward them. "Im sorry," he whispered as he began to take his leave. "Maybe we can hook up next time Im in the area Meg."
Impulsively she grabbed the shaft in her hands and held on to it as his voice faded in the distance. "He wouldnt hurt a fly," she smirked. "Hey, where are you " she looked down to her hand and saw the scroll firmly locked in her grip. She stuck out her lower lip and pouted. "Men " she blew a strand of loose hair from her face. "They head out when the situation gets sticky."
"Speaking of out " the innkeeper stopped short, his eyes aglow. "Dont bother coming back in." He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down his nose at her.
"What do you mean?" Meg turned her head to the side and stared at the man from the corner of her eye.
"YOURE FIRED!" He turned as fast as his words and stormed back to the kitchen.
"But I " Meg stopped abruptly with the sound of the door slamming behind him. "Yeah, well, I was tired of slaving away in that kitchen anyway." She sniffed a time or two, wiping her nose on her forearm. "Well," her voice took on a childlike innocence as her attention fell to the scroll. "What do we got here?"
She tore off the seal and opened the parchment. Megs eager eyes scanned over the symbols as a rakish grin turned into a beaming smile.
"I guess I know where Im going," she turned and looked back at the door. "I QUIT," she yelled, feeling better about the situation already. "Im needed elsewhere." She started to roll the scroll up, then kissed it gently over the broken seal. "You just might be better than what I thought you were," she chuckled with an air of mischief before tucking it into the bodice of her dress. "And to think the Committee has summoned me." Meg pondered that thought for a moment. "Guess Ill have to find out who they are and thank them for the invite." She rolled her eyes and finally shrugged. "Oh well " She looked to the road heading down to sea. "Watch out Orlandopolis, here I come."
As evening slipped into night, the city of Marathon showed its seedier surface of the portside neighborhood. Meg made her way toward the piers. The smell of free-flowing ale, fish, and sailors came wafting out of the many little taverns that dotted her path. The less than pleasing fragrance assaulted her nose, stirring her memory and bringing back thoughts of her earlier days of misguided self-direction. Older and wiser now, she knew that staying safe meant keeping out of them, especially for a woman.
Hastening her steps, she kept to the middle of the footpath, giving her time to react to wayward sailors flying out doors or side windows. A quick dodge from one drunken man brought her nearly running into another. His full moon face smiled joyously around gaps in his teeth as he lifted his head to meet hers. One whiff of his breath was all it took to set a scowl on her face.
"Guess you left your tooth brush at home," she turned her head for a breath of untainted air. "Bet youre some kisser," Meg mumbled, rolling her eyes as his lips mimicked a blue gill. "Thanks for the offer but Im not that kind of girl." She pushed his flailing arms away. "Well, not any more," she tossed in, thinking better of it.
"And just when I thought I had a real lady," his slurred speech slithered out around a hiccup or two. "It just goes to show what I know."
"You know ships, dont you?" Meg steadied the man as he wobbled in front of her.
"Ships?" He laughed out loud. "Of course I know ships. Im a sh-ailer," he stated rather indignantly. His face turned deadly serious and he peered at Meg with a bloodshot gaze. "As-s-sk me anything," he swept his arm away, almost losing his balance in the process, "and Ill tell you."
"Alright, big boy let me think for a moment." Meg cast her gaze over to the pair of vessels moored down the length of the pier. Seeing her chance for a little inside information, a sly smile came to her lips as her gaze redirected to the sailors face. "Which one of those ships would get me to Orlandopolis the fastest?"
The sailor eyed the vessels and their riggings for a long moment then smirked. "Depends on the wind, my lady, and where theyre charted to sh-ail." He licked his lips. "But for the price of a kis-sh " he leered over at her, "Id tell you which one is heading out at sunrise to get you within a good sound swim of it."
Megs eyes shifted from his to the ships and back again as she weighed her options. "The scroll did say to make the best possible speed to get there," she muttered under her breath. "Alright," she cautioned the sailor, "but if youre lying "
"Youll what?" His gaping teeth showed through his smugness.
Hard pressed to come up with a good enough threat, Meg resorted to the only thing shed ever seen that could make men quake in their boots. Standing up straighter, she looked him in the eyes and laid out her ultimatum. "I have a pretty close friend that wouldnt take it too kindly if you were to lie to me. Some people even think we look pretty much alike when Im decked out in leather." She tentatively raised an eyebrow to see if it had the same effect for her as it did her friend. Viewing the trepidation on the mans face she threw in her trump card. "Ive seen her use the pinch on a few occasions, so dont tempt the Fates unless youre feeling really lucky, sailor boy."
"Xe-Xena?" The sailor stuttered out, his eyes bulging in fright as he quickly sank to his knees. "Have mercy on my soul," he begged her as his spirits-imbibed mind started rambling off down a road of ill-gotten memories. "I didnt want to take those slaves. I was just a cabin boy. I didnt know what Id sh-igned on for." His slurred speech sounded now as though it were on the verge of tears. "I didnt know." The sailor lowered his head until his chin almost rested on his chest.
Amazed at the power of her imitation, Megs eyes sparkled in delight and she found it hard not to jump for joy. She fought to contain her enthusiasm while she turned to the matter at hand. "The ship," she lowered her voice as her fingers brushed against the mans neck. "Which one will get me closest to Orlandopolis?"
"T-t-the Cricket," he warbled out with little delay. "They sail for Naxos on the morn."
"Cricket, huh?" Meg gazed over to the vessel he was pointing at and smiled fondly. A second later she turned on him with steely eyes. "Are you sure?"
"As sure as a cooks mate can be." He stood up, trying hard not to wobble. "The Crickets my ship as soon as I report in with my scroll of introduction." He produced the scroll from his pocket and waved it in front of her.
"Your first time on her, huh?" An idea was formulating in Megs mind as she watched his head bobbing up and down. "Well done, my good man." Meg glanced over to the ship, then turned toward the sailor. She cupped his chin and raised the seamans head until his gaze met hers. "Thanks," she said, before giving him a hurried peck on the cheek. "Were squared now." She held out her hand for him to shake. "My friends call me Meg," she curled up her lips in a silly smile.
"But I thought " the confusion was written on his face as he turned and pointed the scroll at her. "You look like "
"You thought wrong," Meg chuckled, eyeing the letter of introduction in his hand. "I wouldnt hurt a fly."
"Like I said before a true lady." The drunken sailor bowed too deeply to keep his balance. The next thing he knew he was heading face first for the ground.
"Oooww!" Meg cringed seeing his head smack off the ground with a thud. "I bet that hurt." She quickly bent over and snatched up the scroll cradled loosely in his fingers, then gazed over her shoulder at the ship to the far end of the pier. "Well, its a darn good thing I know how to cook," she snickered. "I think Ive just got my ticket for boarding." She looked from side to side before grabbing the man under his arms. "Okay my friend, its time to find you a good place to sleep it off," she muttered as she dragged the sailor off into the shadows.
With the pier just coming up on her right, she moved into the shadows. Silently she inched forward toward the ship while she watched for any sign of activity aboard. Blue eyes scanned the area for a long time as the laborers toiled to load the ships cargo. One by one they hefted boxes up on their shoulders and trudged up the gangplank only to return empty handed to start the process all over again. It wasnt long before the only things left on the dock were a few items that needed to be hoisted in the nets and lowered down into the hold.
Meg looked off to the horizon where the faint light of daybreak was beginning to crease the night sky. "My bet is that as soon as theyre loaded, it will be time to sail." She rubbed her hands together in delightful anticipation. "Thats when Ill make my grand entrance, thanks to ol pucker puss," she rooted in her cleavage to come up with the right scroll before plucking it out from her bodice. "Getting pretty crowded down there, eh girls? Im going to have to find another hiding spot soon," she murmured thoughtfully before turning her attention back to the activity around the ship.
"Oops! Looks like the last load is going into the net." Meg tightened her grip on the scroll. "Show time," she beamed with a twinkle in her eye.
She held her breath and waited a few more seconds until the order had been given to ready the sail. She ran from the shadows of the alleyway toward the ship and called out in a breathless manner, "Stop Stop the ship! You wouldnt want to leave without your cook now, would you?"
The laborers halted their motions at the sound of the cry and turned to the man in charge. Their grumbling sounded more like a rolling wave ready to break in a single note of discord.
The ships captain turned his steely gaze to the crew and barked out his order. "Quiet. Ill have quiet, you hear." The mans hawk-like face was cold as it turned toward the figure drawing nearer to his ship. "And who might you be?"
Meg stopped short as a wry smile curled up over her lips. "Your cook, thats who." Her eyes danced from one sailor to the next, saving the man in authority for last. "Ive got my recommendation here from my last ship, sir. Id be happy to come aboard and present it to you." She winked, conscious of the gesture.
He looked her over sparingly. "I dont fancy to liars or thieves Ill warn you." He stood there for a long moment, debating her intentions before making his mind up. "Come aboard. But be warned, Ill not stand for any trickery. Your recommendation had better be in order or youll find yourself walking the gangplank like any other common stowaway on my ship."
Bold as brass Meg strode up to the deck and presented the scroll to him. "Its the real thing, Captain." She watched as he snatched the scroll from her hand, broke the seal, and unrolled it. "I can cook with the best of them," Meg smiled cheekily. "My wares are known far and wide as some of the tastiest in the region."
"I bet they are," came his droll reply. The Captain set his gaze to the written word, his mouth moving silently as he read the scroll.
Meg waited cautiously, trying to edge closer to the man to catch a glimpse of the recommendation. A look of anticipation was on her face when he finally looked up from the scroll. "Well?" Meg shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she glanced over to the crew and back again. "Do I get to see the galley," she snickered, "or are you going to let your men all fend for themselves?"
There was a moment of silence as crew and Captain considered the choices.
"Cmon, Captain H."
"Yes Capn," a sailor in the rear called out, "weve eaten enough raw fish on the last voyage."
"Ewwwwwww!" Meg turned a disgusting face at the comment.
The first mate moved closer to his superior. "Think of your men, Captain."
All parties concerned waited with bated breath, Meg worst of all as she leaned closer, trying to get any indication of the answer to come.
"All right," he took in a breath and held it for a second before letting it out in a huff. "Make ready to sail," he called out to the crew before turning to make eye contact with the first mate. "Show our new cook the galley."
As a round of cheers came up from the sailors, Meg stood dumfounded. It took a moment to register before the silly grin came to Megs face. "YES!" She clenched her hand into a fist and pumped it toward her body. "You wont regret this," she said, looking over to the Captain, her excitement abundantly obvious. "Ill make you a different meal every night."
"Come on, follow me." The first mate tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention. "Well get you settled in."
Meg started to follow the first mate as he led her further onto the ship. "So, how long will it take us to get to Naxos? I mean that is where were headed, past the island of Orlandopolis, isnt it?"
"Yeah, it is." The first mate nodded. "If the wind holds out and the seas are kind, we should be there in a few weeks time. The island of Orlandopolis will be off our portside in about five days or less." He turned to look at her. "Why, you worried you wont have enough recipes?" Yellow teeth showed themselves through his crooked smile as he looked back over his shoulder.
"Me?" She asked flippantly. "Ive got a million of them." She rolled her eyes knowing it was a lie and started counting on her fingers, as the recipes came to mind. Meg got to her fourth finger and her eyes grew wide in the realization that shed come to her complete repertoire of culinary delights. "Oh boy," she whispered under her breath and gulped.
"Good sup last evening, Meg." The sailor called out, his toothy smile exploding as she came nearer. "We aint eaten that good in a long while on ship." He nudged the mate standing next to him. "Have we?"
"Nope," came his one word reply before turning his gaze in her direction. "Whats for tonight?"
Meg thought for a moment before letting a beguiling smile light up her face. "Depends on what I can find below," she purred, giving him a wink. She turned away and breathed in a lung full of sea air, savoring its fresh smell then turned her eyes up to the billowing sails. "Nice strong wind," she commented.
"Aye, maam." The proud sailor gazed up at the sails. "Well be making the turn around the big island in the next day or so."
Pleased with the information, the gleam in Megs eyes brightened. She looked around to the men on deck to see if anyone had noticed her delight. Seeing nothing even resembling a faint interest in her from the crew, she picked up her pace as she crossed the deck. "Im off to the hold," Meg announced rather loudly then descended the steps into the bowels of the ship.
The darkness of the hold was nearly pitch black except for the small amount of light meandering through the tiny cracks in the deck above. It didnt do much for ventilation either, its rank stench being barely breathable. Meg sucked in a last bit of fresh air before pushing on into the room, searching for the ships store of provisions for its crew. The small torch in her hand did little but cast flickering shadows with its flame as she moved along the makeshift aisle. A step or two further and she felt her foot catch on something. She held the torch lower and could make out a ripped sack of grain with its contents spilling out onto the floor.
"Mice Im guessing." She eyed the tear in the material more closely. "Or maybe one big mouse." Meg stomped her foot down quickly and whirled around in a full circle, the torch lowered closer to the floor and her eyes keenly on the look out.
"Four days into this trip and youd think Id be used to this creepy place," she muttered. "Ah, it wont be long now though." Her thoughts turned to the future. "Ill be out of here soon enough." She dodged what appeared to be a scurrying shadow. "With any luck Ill never see anything that even closely resembles a mouse again once Im in Orlandopolis."
She continued making her way down the piles of supplies until one of the containers struck her fancy. "Hmm olives." A smile came to her lips. "They can suck on those tomorrow night along with whatever else it is they can find." She chuckled. "Tonight they get my best meal," she looked around intently. "That is, if I can find it."
Another few steps down the aisle and her boot kicked over an urn. "There you are " Megs eyes twinkled at the drops of port coming from the broken seal on the urn. She reached down and ran her finger around the seal, catching as much as she could before tasting it. "Oh yeah!" She snorted when the tang of the strong wine surprised her. "Thatll make them forget all about their watches after they eat dinner tonight."
The rattling lids of boiling pots provided the background rhythm to the cooks melody as Meg moved from one pot to the other to stir each ones contents, adding the finishing touches to her recipe. A dash of this, a sprinkle of that and soon her concoction would be ready for the final ingredients. She looked over to the urn of wine and seven pieces of fruit that lay next to it.
"Yeah, the taste of the fruit will mask the wine and no one will be the wiser," Meg mumbled as she turned her attention back to the largest pot and gave it another stir. "Oh there once was a maid named Nan Tucket " she warbled on in reverie as she covered the pot and moved over to the table. "Who couldnt carry a tune in a bucket." Meg grabbed the knife and a piece of the fruit. She started to hack away, dicing and slicing. "But the boys in town." She reached for one piece of fruit after another and proceeded to chop it into tiny bits. "Oh, they didnt frown." Meg wiped the juices from her knife on her apron. "Since Nan could really " Her hand groped along the table but there was no fruit to be found. With startled eyes, Meg looked down at the empty table. "Hey!" She exclaimed. "Whered my last apple go?"
Meg stuck the tip of the knife into the wooden table, then bent over to view the floor. Her gaze swept the area under the table and then broadened to cover more of the floor. Coming up empty, she twisted her face into a thoughtful expression and scratched her head. "Damn! Time to get off this ship when youre losing your apples," she muttered half out loud. Her attention turned to the pile of diced fruit on the table and she considered it for a long moment. "Ive got enough anyway. I must have miscounted," she shrugged nonchalantly. "Or maybe " she chuckled, "I was just having too good a time with that song." There was a gleam in the womans eyes as her smile broadened.
"Ah well time for me to get this into the pot." Meg scraped the fruit into a bowl, then proceeded to dump it into the mixture already simmering. She stirred the contents and inhaled the wafting aroma. "The last thing Ill put in is the port," she cast her gaze over to the urn as she gave the pot a stir. "Im going to have to remind myself not to eat any of this or Ill be the one sleeping and miss my chance to get to Orlandopolis tonight." She put the lid back on the pot then stood up, stretching her back. "I hope they have some soft mattresses in Orlandopolis. Im going to need it after all the rowing tonight."
"All right my seafaring lads, come and get it." Meg stood at the galley door with a ladle in one hand and a wooden dish in the other. She banged the utensil on the dish as she let go of a whistle that nearly shook the riggings off the ship. "All hands on deck," she yelled, "and your bellies, too."
Within seconds the sounds of footsteps bounding across the deck above her could be heard.
"Here they come," she cooed to no one but herself as she readied for the onslaught of ravenous sailors. "Thisll be the best eating theyve had in many voyages." She wiped the sly smile from her face as the first man came sliding to a stop in front of her. "Ah, I knew it would be you, Eripadus." She leaned in toward the sailor and whispered. "What did you do, get duty at the top of the stairs today?" Seeing his eager nod, she winked her approval. "Not too chatty there but youre a good man." She lifted the lid on the pot and dipped her ladle into the mixture. "There ya go." Meg dumped the food onto the plate and handed it to the sailor. She watched him shuffle off.
"And what will be your pleasure today?" Meg asked as she turned to greet the next man in line.
"The Captains food," the first mate demanded.
"Too late," Meg winked at him and grinned. "Ive already taken it to him myself, along with a good sized portion of his private stock grog." She dipped her ladle into the pot and stirred it a time or two. "Id eat hardy there first mate as youll be the one guiding this ship tonight," the cook leaned into him and whispered, "if you know what I mean."
The flash of power that came to his eyes told her all she needed to know. "I know who really runs this ship." Meg nodded, then pulled up an overflowing ladle of food letting its aroma scent the air between them. "Heres a masters size portion to tide you over." She dumped the food onto his plate and watched his hands take its weight. "Youll be sailing straight as a whistle or Im not the best cook on the seven seas."
He stood there for a long moment and looked at her. With each passing second, the clamoring of the crewmembers behind him rose until muffled urgings could be easily made out.
"Come on, we all want to eat while its hot."
The first mate turned and cast a cynical gaze over his shoulder, quieting the noise. In dead silence he cast a wary eye at Meg, then grunted his thanks before stepping out of the way.
When the first mate was out of earshot, Meg turned back to the line of crewmembers waiting to be fed. "Dont worry lads, Ive made enough for double helpings for everyone." Her blue eyes sparkled with excitement as she visualized her plan working. "Alright you sailors, whos next?" She laughed heartily, seeing numerous plates held out in offering. "One at a time," the cook quipped, "theres plenty to go around. Well all be sailing on full bellies tonight and dreaming of better things to come in our future."
Without wasting another second, Meg dipped the ladle into the pot and started filling the dishes shoved at her.
The scent of the salt air came pouring into the small galley as Meg finished cleaning up the last of the dirty pots. Through the open window she could hear the deployment of the ships crew as they got on with their supper. The cantankerous grumbles of men in line soon gave way to resplendent tranquility. The sound of waves lapping on the ships hull could actually be heard over the muttered groans of men enjoying their feast.
"Ah, nothing like a little space and a good meal to keep a sailor happy." Meg thought about comment for a moment, then started to giggle. "Well, I guess thats as happy as theyre going to be without more women aboard." She finished up her last pot and placed it on the hook off to the left of her head before stepping back to admire her work. "You know, this wouldnt be a bad job if I wasnt set on going to Orlandopolis." She half sighed as she wiped back a tear. "Dont be blubbering now. Youre on a mission."
It took the woman a few seconds before her attitude hardened somewhat. "Alright, better find some food for myself before I go out to gather up all those plates."
A half candle mark later, she began her rounds at the Captains cabin. Standing outside the door, she knocked and waited. When no answer readily came, she quietly opened the door and peeked in. The dimly lit room didnt afford her much of a view except directly around the burning oil lamp on the desk. She studied the figure for a long moment. Unsure as to whether the man was deep in thought or sleep, she spoke softly. "Captain?" Eliciting no response, Meg spoke up louder. "Captain?" Cautiously she entered the room and searched out the full mug of port that shed left for him. It was nowhere to be found. Instead, an empty mug was clenched in the mans fist, with his wiped clean plate not far from the fingertips of his other hand.
A smile slowly came to her face as she marveled at her resourcefulness. "Ah, now aint that just like a good little sailor, licking your plate clean and washing it down." Meg lifted the plate from the table and started to reach for the cup when the man rolled his head, brushing her cheek with his lips.
Startled by the unforeseen action, she quickly drew back. She stood there silently for the longest of moments holding her breath, waiting for his next move, but it never came except in sound.
"ZZZZZZZZZ." The resounding sound of his snore should have easily awakened the man, but it didnt. Instead, he duplicated it almost exactly. "ZZZZZZZZZ."
Meg snorted. "Remind me to never sleep with you," she rolled her eyes. "No wonder youre a sailor," she leaned in and whispered right into his ear, "and a drunken one at that." She straightened up, entirely pleased with the Captains state of mind.
Bolder now than ever before, Meg reached for his mug but stopped short when she realized what the man had been working on as he ate. There, stretched out on his desk was the ships map and the route they were to be taking. She studied it for a few seconds and came up smiling. By the times and distances entered onto the routes log it looked like the isle of Orlandopolis would be at its closest within two candle marks. "Well, well," Meg winked at the snoring man. "Thats what I call being a good navigator." She studied the map for a moment more. "Now, if I can just do the same."
The woman started to leave, then stopped dead in her tracks. "Im not that good," she muttered, tapping her finger to her lips. "I better take the map." Meg retraced her steps until she was standing back over the table. "Now if I can just " she reached for the map as a loud round of snoring erupted from the Captains body and she immediately froze. Her eyes were the only thing left moving as she studied the mans bobbing head. It was a long moment before she dared to breathe. "Okay," she mumbled, never taking her eyes off the man, "lets try that one again." Meg flexed her fingers then slowly reached out for the corner of the map.
The nerve-wracking sound caused her to jerk away from the paper when she touched it. "Damn, that was close," the cooks disappointment had come through gritted teeth. She quickly looked around for something to use as a distraction but came up empty handed. A sheer look of determination settled on Megs face as her eyes grew narrow in their intensity and an idea came to her. "Ive got it!" A smile quickly spread across the womans face as she let go with a sultry laugh.
Without a second to lose, she leaned in toward the Captains ear and started whispering. Through her story, Megs eyes came to life with delight. Every now and then, her lips twisted into a snicker as her narrative moved on, causing the Captains snores to diminish as his head tipped further onto the high back of his chair. Looking much more relaxed, his hands slipped off the map and fell down to his sides as a moan started to escape his lips.
Seeing her chance, Meg took it. Without batting an eye, she moved his empty cup from atop the map and rolled the parchment up into a tight roll. "Hows that for some story telling, Gabrielle?" She tapped the map onto her bare hand. Blue eyes twinkled in delight as she gazed at the prize. "Now all thats left is to wait for the right time and get to the dinghy." Without wasting another second, Meg slipped out of the cabin.
The gentle roll of the ship under her feet seemed to be timed perfectly to the symphony of snores that rose from its deck. Everywhere Meg looked, a sailor lay propped up or draped over a piece of the ship, and it brought a smile to the womans face.
"Guess they liked the meal," Meg chuckled, looking from one empty plate to another as she picked her way closer to the rear of the ship. "It wasnt that I didnt like the job, fellows," Meg said, seeing several of her favorite crewmen stretched out at the base of the mast. "Ive got to be somewhere in a hurry," she whispered. Gathering her courage, she planted a quick kiss on the cheek of Eripadis. "Dont let them bully you." She cleared her throat and pushed off, grabbing a tighter hold on the cloth sack she had thrown over her shoulder.
"Come on Meg, its not like theyre your family or anything." She chastised herself. "If youd stay any longer, theyd surely find a reason to fire you or send you off on your way like everyone else in your life."
Meg sniffed back a threatening tear as she wiped her arm across her cheek. The glow of an aberrant star caught her eye and she lifted her gaze to the sky before crossing to the railing and setting her bag down on deck. Now with more focused attention, she stared at the heavenly body that had beckoned her. "I wish " she whispered aloud, then tightly closed her eyes, hoping her dream would someday come true. "I wish to have a family," said the child-like voice floating on the sea breeze.
Megs eyes slowly opened to view the aberrant star again. "Yeah," she said, marveling at her own inner voices ability to sound like a much younger version of her wish. "Has it been that long ago since Ive made that wish?" The woman thought for a moment. "Yes, it has," she sighed, "and someday its going to happen. Ill get that family thats waiting for me. I know theyre out there somewhere."
"Do you wish on stars too, lady?"
"Nah," Meg shook her head. "I only wish on special stars like that one." She pointed to the brilliant star that had caught her eye. "I believe that every star is a family waiting for their loved one to come " Meg slowly turned to look next to her when her mouth dropped opened and her eyes became larger. "Youre a child. Whered you come from? I dont remember seeing you in my supper lines."
"From over there," the blonde child gave a lazy arc to her arm as she pointed in the direction from where the ship had set sail.
Megs eyes grew wider and she quickly sank down on one knee. "Youre a stowaway?" She whispered, looking around to make sure no one had heard. The Captains welcoming speech revisited her, his words echoing in her head. "Youll find yourself walking the gangplank like any other common stowaway on my ship."
"My brother and I "
"Your brother should know better." Megs mood turned deadly serious. "Where are your parents? You should be home in bed."
"We dont have a home," sad brown eyes looked up to Meg. "Not any more."
"Raiders, eh?" Meg said skeptically. Her heart almost broke seeing the somber nod of the little girls head. "My family was too." The words drifted out on the wind.
The stillness of the night was overpowering as both orphans stood and looked up at the night sky.
"Every night I look up to the same star and wish that we could find a family again," the little girl spoke from her heart.
"So do I," Meg said solemnly. "Thats my star," she pointed to the one that had caught her eye. "I believe that all families waiting to be reunited live on the stars." She looked over to see an awestruck little girl looking up to her with hope-filled eyes. "What?" Meg looked away, then back again. "Did I say something wrong?"
The young girl simply shook her head. "That thats my star, too. The one that I make my wish on."
A smile came to Megs face as she smirked. "Well, imagine that." She looked over to the girl. "My name is Meg. Whats yours?"
"Charis," she said with a billowing smile. "My brother is Gilly."
"Nice to met you Charis." Meg reached over and tweaked the girls nose. "So, where is this brother of yours?" She looked over the girls shoulder without seeing anyone. "Is he imaginary too?"
"No, hes for real. Hes just very shy." Charis turned away from Meg and called out to the shadows. "Gilly, its all right to come out now. This is Meg." The girl waited a few seconds, then implored again. "Shes an orphan like us. She wont hurt you."
"What if shes just saying that?" The tykes voice came floating out from behind a shadowy barrel strapped to the railing.
Meg turned her attention in the direction of the voice. "But Im not. I really am an orphan." Her brow frittered with worry. "Hey, if I wasnt, dont you think Id have you walking the plank already for being a stowaway?"
Unsure for a moment, he stood there and watched her intently before slowly stepping out of the shadow. "Only pirates do that," his tiny voice informed them. "She doesnt look like a pirate, does she?" He turned to his sister for assurance.
"Pirate," Meg scoffed. "I can guarantee you Im not." She chuckled. "Although some may say that Ive stolen them blind," she whispered under her breath. "Ive only taken what was owed to me when it was all said and done."
"Is that what you have in the sack?" Charis pointed to the bag in Megs hand.
"This?" Meg opened the sack and looked in it. "Its nothing more than a little provisions for my trip." She shrugged. "My dinner, if you must know," she gave a wan smile and rolled her eyes under the scrutiny of the children, "and maybe a little bit more." She relinquished as she watched the whites around their eyes grow bigger. "Say, have you kids eaten anything today?" Meg eyed first one, then the other. "Ive got some fruit here," she dug into the sack. "And a crust or two of bread." She came up looking hopeful.
"Ive had enough fruit," Gilly said, rubbing his stomach.
"Thank you," his sister whispered, reminding him of his manners.
"Thank you," he repeated the words.
Meg looked at the pair and smiled. "So youre the ones that were "
"We were hungry," Charis spoke up. "We only took "
"What was owed you," A lazy smile settled on Megs lips. "You know they treat the ships cat very good when he does his job keeping the mice at bay and out of the ships stores." She took a crust of bread and broke it, offering the halves to the children. "Id say youve done a very good job down there in the hold."
"You saw us?" The lads eyes became big as saucers as he reached for the bread.
"But we hid in the shadows," his sister piped in.
"I know that." Meg ruffled her hand through his hair and winked before turning to the girl. "I didnt see you but then again, I didnt see any rats, either." She handed Charis the other half of the bread. "Id say you did a fine job then."
The boy chewed on his crust for a while, then meekly looked up to Meg. "Does that mean we get to stay?"
The question warmed the womans heart, the lads eyes seemed so eager for acceptance. "Well " Megs voice came out sounding funny, causing them all to giggle. "Im not the captain of this ship but Id be glad to have you aboard my ship."
"You have a ship?"
"Charis, did you hear that? She wants us on her ship." He blinked back his surprise, then turned to look at his new skipper with complete awe. "Is it a big boat? Are we sailing far away?" The questions rolled out of his mouth faster than Meg could try to answer them. "Can I learn to be a pirate, too?"
"Sh!" Meg tried to calm them down. "Do you want everyone here to wake up?" She said through a clenched jaw. "Be quiet."
Blue eyes quickly surveyed the nearby crew members to see if any had stirred. Seeing no unwarranted movement on their part, Meg turned back to the children. "Okay," she whispered. "Heres your first lesson in being a pirate." She crooked her finger and motioned for them to come closer. "Pirates have to be very quiet " She eyed them each, one at a time, to make sure they understood. "And always do what their captain tells them to do." She lifted her head a little higher and looked down at them. "Now, listen to your captain and get ready to jump ship."
The lad gulped and looked over to his sister.
"Whats wrong with him?" Meg motioned to the boy as she tied her sack into a knot, then slung it over her shoulder.
"He cant swim."
Meg looked over to see Gilly shaking his head. "And you want to be a pirate?" She sighed, then raked her hand through her ebony locks, letting her hair fall haphazardly. She rolled her tongue over her teeth and licked them as she thought. "Okay, second lesson for being a pirate." She got down on one knee and looked the lad straight in the eye. "Always trust your captain." She waited until the lad slowly nodded in reply, then leaned into him. "Well work on that swimming thing later." She winked, then stood up. "As for now, Charis will slide down the rope first, then you and I will go down together." She took the lads hand in hers. "Sound like a plan to you?"
"Yeah " his gaze held hers with unwavering faith.
"Alright!" Meg smiled, jubilant of the trust that was being given her. "Now lets blow this flea bag ship and set off to find our new home."
"Home?" The word was spoken in unrehearsed unison.
"Did I say home?" Meg felt her heart rate picking up speed at the idea. Could this be happening? She glanced up at the night sky and quickly found her star. Nothing seemed different about it. It was still there, twinkling in the dark like an ember dazzling in the warmth of a hearths fire.
The tugging at her skirt finally got her attention and she looked down at two sets of hope filled eyes. "What?"
"You said " Gilly gulped, then spit out the words somewhat reverently, "our new home." He looked at her in wide-eyed innocence then blinked in an effort to gain his courage. "Do we really have a home?"
Megs gaze shifted from one child to the other. Suddenly she was seeing all her hopes and dreams brought to life in the faces of the children before her. Did she dare have the heart to tell them no? Could she be the one to sentence them to a life of doing whatever they had to so that they might survive? All at once her lifetime of bad choices, tough experiences, and ill-begotten gains flooded her mind. If only she had someone to guide her through that tumultuous time in her life, she would have been a better person today, or at least have had a family to call her own by now.
"I I " Meg shifted her position to cast a longing gaze at her star, then slowly turned back to the eagerly awaiting faces. "Yes," she nodded, gathering the children into her arms, "we have a home."
For the first time in her life, Meg felt a tear of joy rolling down her cheek. The sense of belonging overwhelmed her for a moment, threatening to steal her breath away. It was almost too much to ask for this feeling of family. She released them from the hug. "Come on, weve got some rowing to do before we get there." Meg wiped the tear from her cheek with the back of her hand. "You ready to go?" She looked from one child to the other to acknowledge the exuberant nodding of their heads.
"Alright Charis," Meg moved over to the railing where a rope was tethered, "youre first to go."
The girl looked up to see a slightly lopsided smile and twinkling blue eyes urging her on as she crossed the deck. When she reached the railing, she peered over following the thick rope to the dinghy floating just off the side of the ship. "It looks so little." Her voice slowed as she thought. "Will we all fit?"
"Like three peas in a pod," Meg said, without even thinking.
"How do we get down there?"
Meg leaned over the railing and surveyed the situation. With an ever growing smile she uprighted her stance. "Well just have to slide on down the rope, I guess." She turned to look at the children. "Havent you always wanted to do that slide down a rope from one place to another?" She watched as their eyes gravitated toward each other. "Come on," Meg put her hands on her hips, "whos your captain here?"
"You are." The words come out around a twin set of giggles and without a thought.
The woman couldnt help but feel proud of her new found following. "Alright," she tossed her bag to the deck and clapped her hands together. "Let me give you a lift over that railing." She hoisted the child up. "Just eating some fruit, eh?" Meg muttered under her breath as she lowered the lass.
Charis small hands transferred their grasp from Megs arms to the rope. After a moment to get her balance, the girl was sliding, hand over hand, to the dinghy below.
"Careful now," Meg called out in a loud whisper. "You dont want to make a splash." Her dark brow knitted with worry as she watched the child clamber into the boat. "Whew! One down " she mumbled under her breath, then turned to lock gazes with the boy next to her, "and two to go." She cuffed the lads cheek and winked before lifting Gilly up and sitting him on the railing. "Steady. Hold on mate." Once he had, she quickly turned, gathering up the bag and tied it to the waistband of her skirt.
With one last gaze around the ship, Meg turned back to the railing and promptly climbed over it. Standing on the short side of the deck, she looked down to the murky water below. It was a long way down. Longer than she had anticipated. The audible gulp that stuck in her ears added to her own apprehensions. "Ah, what do I have to lose?" She muttered nervously, and forced her eyes to look anywhere but down.
Between the stars in the sky and the trusting look on the face of the child next to her, she realized what indeed she could lose. Suddenly the fear of the black waters below was no match for the love waiting for her in the boat, or the open heart that sat next to her. Slowly the word turned in her head and came out in a whisper. "Everything," she sighed.
The loud moan coming from the sleeping form further down the deck brought her back to the task at hand. Her blue eyes narrowed with determination as she grabbed onto the rope and lifted one leg over the railing, making sure to wrap her ankle around it too. She shimmied down a bit, giving up her last hold of the railing for a handful of rope.
"Your turn." Meg gave the boy an encouraging smile. "We cant hang around here all night, you know."
Gilly took in a deep breath and followed suit, stretching his small body down the length of unoccupied rope as he kept a tight hold of the railing. The gentleness of Megs hand on his back finally gave him the courage to let go of the ship and soon he was working his way down the rope, tentative as it was.
Megs weight on the rope pulled the dingy closer to the ship, making the slope of their descent more vertical than Charis had been. With one hand over the other, she lowered her body along the line, keeping a close watch on the lad at the same time. The occasional steadying hand on his body kept him moving right along with her. Three quarters of the way down, Meg could feel his body start to tremble.
"Not much more to go and were in the boat," she tried to inspire the boy as she reached out with her lead foot, searching for something to stand on. The extension of her body shifted her weight and without warning the sack tugged at her. Fearing for her safety, Meg slipped one hand down and loosened the knot. In the blink of an eye, she looked up to see the shifting position of Gillys body as it started to slide around the rope.
"I cant " his voice was edged in fear, "cant hold on." And he didnt. The weight of his body was just too much for his young arms to control. "Falling "his word seemed to trail off.
Blue eyes looked up to see the terror etched into the boys face as his grip on the rope diminished. There wasnt much time to consider her options and Meg found herself acting purely on instinct, releasing the sack. Lunging forward with her free hand, she snatched at a piece of his garment. "I I " Meg clamped her hand down and hung on, feeling the shift of his body with the extra weight pulling her downward. "Gotcha!" Her face tightened under the strain. "Augh " Meg muttered out around her clenched jaw.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the shocked look on Charis face. "Ive got him." She croaked out under the strain. "Going to swing him over " she started her arm in motion, "to you."
"Im scared." The boy looked up to Meg for comfort.
"Think of it as swinging on a rope," she gasped. "Like youre getting ready to board a ship weve come along side."
"Like a pirate?" His voice sounded stronger.
"Yeah," Meg rolled her eyes. "Lesson three in being a pirate. Ready?" She watched as he nodded. "One." She swung him toward the dinghy. "Two," she said on the backstroke. "Three." Meg reversed her swing, taking careful aim. When the lad came to the highest point of the arc, she let go of his hand. "Now jump!"
The small amount of forward momentum he mustered sent him directly into his sister with a crash. The sudden weight coming to rest in the small boat sent it rocking on the surface of the water. The children finally came to rest in a heap at the bottom of the dinghy. The resulting shock wave traveled up the rope and sent Meg bobbing like a whittled piece of wood on a fishing line.
"I did it!" Gilly proclaimed as he stood up with his hand held high in the air. "I boarded the ship like a real pirate."
Neither child saw the pleased look on Megs face right before she lost her grip on the rope. Their glee was dampened only by the drenching they got from her wake as she hit the black murky water. A few seconds later, plastered down black hair broke the surface of the sea and a spout of water erupted from Megs mouth as she bobbed with the tide.
"Meg " Charis was the first to see her.
"Im all right." Meg spit the remaining remnants of the sea out of her mouth. She watched as Gilly clung to the side of the boat.
"What are you doing in there, Captn?" He blinked in astonishment.
The question startled Meg for a moment. Did he really think she knew what she was doing? Her gaze moved to Charis. How long was it since shed seen the tight-lipped look of apprehension and the worry in someones eyes directed solely at her? She didnt deserve it and neither did they to worry about her. In a second her mind was made up.
Meg reached out over the water, taking a stroke or two until she came up to the side of the small dinghy. She grabbed onto the boat and pulled herself halfway out of the water, letting it roll off her as she stared into the childrens faces. "Figured Id take a bath and save some time for later." Her lips curled up into a smile seeing the relief on their faces. She brought one leg up and climbed into the boat rather unceremoniously, finally coming to rest with her body draped over one of the seats and most of the floor. "Now, untie the rope and lets get out of here." Her eyes flashed to the rope tethering them to the Cricket as she moved herself into position, taking the oars into her hands.
The two children scrambled to untie the rope, promptly casting it into the black of night. Then they turned to see Meg pulling back on the oars.
"Better sit down cause Im not stopping until were run aground on Orlandopolis." Meg cautioned them before starting into an old familiar melody to set her pace. "Sixty-three tankards of ale in the wall." She leaned forward bringing the oars up out of the water and setting them to the front of the boat before dipping them back into the murky water. "Sixty-three tankards of ale." She stiffened her arms and pulled with her back propelling the dinghy forward. "Take one down and pass it around. Sixty-two tankards of ale in the wall."
Hoarse, tired, and craving ale right about now, Meg rested from her task for a minute. The soft sound of snores sifted through the lapping waves on the side of the dinghy. The children had long since fallen asleep in each others arms. Gingerly, she locked the oars into their place and reached for her bag of ill-begotten treasures. A quick drink from the waterskin quenched her thirst for now but the taste for ale clung to her mind like a hungry babe to its mothers nipple. She replaced the skin and pulled out the ships map. Unrolling the chart, she studied her position, looking first to the rear of her small craft and then twisting around to see over the bow. Sure enough, her plan was working. The small dot of land just barely visible from the deck of the Cricket now loomed much closer. Blue eyes peered down to the map again and the irregularly shaped island came into her view.
"Orlandopolis," she whispered, not wanting to wake the children, "I wonder if therell be some place for us to stay?" A smirk came to her face. "You know in this light it almost looks like a " Meg rubbed her eyes, then rolled the map back up. "Nah, cant be. Who would want to go to a place that makes you think of rodents?" She tossed the map back into the sack and picked up her oars. "I bet theres a person there with a big stick in charge of killing all the little vermin."
"Whomp!" The oars slapped down onto the water causing a ruckus and sending water splashing.
"I wonder what that job pays " Meg chuckled as she righted her oars and put her back into the stroke. "Yep," she looked over to the children. "We could be a whole family of whackers. Im going to have to ask the committee about that just as soon as we get there."
Meg cast her gaze over her shoulder and set about judging her distance from the shore. Satisfied with her progress, she tightened her grip on the oars and set her body into motion. "Twenty-two tankards of ale in the wall. Twenty-two tankards of ale "
The tiny boat had made it ashore several candle marks before dawn but its inhabitants were either asleep or too exhausted to move. Instead, they stayed in the boat recouping their strength until the first rays of the sun fell over their faces. One by one they lolled out of Morpheus realm to greet the new day.
Charis turned at the tug on her arm.
"Are we home yet?" Gilly asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
The girl shrugged her shoulders looking over to Meg who was the last to stir, warding off the light from her eyes with an arm. "Im not sure, Gilly."
"Gilly " Meg drooled out the name. "Thats an odd name for a pirate if Ive ever heard one. It sounds more like a nickname for a fish." She propped herself up on an elbow and squinted into the sunrise, one blue orb pinning him. "So, whats your real name."
"Virgil," Charis spoke for her brother. "But he hates it. Thats why I call him "
"Gilly," Meg said it before the girl could get it out. "Alright Gilly," she winked at the boy, "what do you say we go find us some breakfast or something." She pushed herself up from the boat, then stepped out onto the beach and looked around. "Dont look like much now but I bet that Committees got some good ideas about how to make this place real interesting." She stretched, trying to ease her muscles from the night of rowing. "Given its nothing but sun, sand and swamp water, Im betting we have a home here." Meg caught the hand of each child in hers as they ran toward her. "Now lets go find it." She laughed carelessly. Three sets of feet left their impressions on the sand as they ran headlong to find the Committee.
Meg pulled up short after a few steps and brought the children in toward her as she knelt down. "Theres only one thing you got to remember here." She looked at each child for a long second before continuing. "If you see a mouse, well all gang up on it cause were a family now." Her lopsided smile grew to envious proportions as two small sets of arms encircled her with unconditional love in a place where dreams can come true.
When the hug finished, each came away feeling better. Meg looked up to see a group of people walking toward them, one carrying a rather large stick in her hand.
"Well, guess were out of that job," she sighed. "Looks like they already got a whacker down here." Meg tilted her head to the side and thought. "I wonder if they need a cook?"
Gilly tugged Megs hand and looked up to her with questioning eyes. "But I thought we were pirates."
"Yeah, well, that too." Meg started walking. "There are lots of things we can be or do. We just have to think of them."
"Or wish on a star," Charis said with a smile.
"Yeah," Meg drew out the word, her eyes all aglow. "Or wish on a star."
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