Maddy nearly rolled off of the top bunk as the ship clumsily floated to a halt. For a brief instant, she thought she was back in her sleeping bag in the woods, but as she slowly opened her eyes, the tiny cabin appeared instead of the canvas tent. She hadn’t expected to fall asleep so quickly, as she was still full of nervous energy when they boarded the ship the previous night. But the days’ events had taken their toll, and no sooner had they been led to their “cabin” (which could be mistaken for a broom closet), Maddy collapsed onto the small bed.
She felt the entire ship awaking at once. Grort had explained that the ship could sail itself, thanks to what he called “some rubbish elf magic,” and so both crew and passengers had went in for the night as soon as they had departed from New Wales.
She still couldn’t quite believe everything that happened, as the craziness of the previous day had left little time for her to reflect. From what Lord Trafford had said after he had re-emerged from the hidden cellar, getting home immediately was out of the question.
“In a short 30 years, New Britain had grown quite prosperous, thanks in large part to the influx of wealth that the Council poured into the colony. But then something unexpected happened. The last ship that sailed back to England never returned. Few that were left knew how to navigate the passage home, but even they were unable to find the way back. Each time they thought they had reached home, they were greeted with nothing but open ocean and had to hastily double back to New Britain on dwindling supplies. It took several years for the colonists to make peace with the idea that they weren’t going home, and they began to explore up and down the coasts. When the first ship spotted smoke rising from the shore, the crew thought it was just fumes from a dwarf forge. But upon closer inspection, they saw that it was a small city … a human city.”
“Who were they?” asked Maddy.
“The French. As the colonists soon learned, they were not the first ones to discover this new world. All along the coast were cities settled by their European rivals. Some had been there for only a few decades, some for a hundred years. The colonists thought they had found a way home, but were dismayed to learn that these other colonies had also lost the way home. What happened next was not unexpected, it being the colonial era and all. The British, with the newest fleet, sailed up and down the coast, smashing whatever resistance they encountered, in what came to be known as the Hundred Days War, and New Britain found itself in control of all seven of the other human colonies.”
“So the sum total of this history lesson is that we’re stuck here, is that what you’re saying?” said Jack. “There’s got to be some way to travel back, or else how the hell did we get here?”
“This land has a strange way of drawing people to it. You and Maddy are not the first to show up suddenly in the middle of the night.”
“There are others?” said Maddy.
“Yes, but none still alive. Fortunately, the Council keeps meticulous records in the central archives, which should hopefully also include the logs from the original British expedition and the other colonies. Getting access to those records, however, will not be an easy task.”
The discussion had gotten cut off once they had reached the docks, but Trafford had promised more answers once they reached a safe place in the capital. Grort offered to come too, as he said he had business to attend to in the capital.
Maddy turned over to see if anyone else was up and saw that Trafford’s bed was empty.
“Jack, Grort, wake up!”
Maddy jumped down from the top bunk, the floorboards creaking as she landed. Jack still lay fast asleep but Grort had begun to stir.
“Does dragon want a cracker?” mumbled Grort. Maddy shook Grort on the shoulder and he jumped up from the bed.
“Lass, your lesson for today is to never wake a sleeping dwarf.”
“Sorry, but Trafford’s gone! Look!”
Trafford’s bed sheet was folded neatly into the mattress and a bulge protruded from under the pillow, which Maddy threw off the bed to find a small stack of papers. On top was a short letter written on parchment.
“Maddy and Jack,
Apologies for ducking out early. I did not want my presence to cause you any trouble.
I’ve left two letters of introduction, one for each of you. See that they are delivered unopened and the recipients will help you both.
Will reconvene soon.
Underneath the letter were two envelopes closed with ornate red seals addressed to two people Maddy had never heard of.
“What’s all the commotion?” said Jack as he slowly sat up from the bottom bunk.
“Trafford’s gone!” said Maddy as she handed Jack the note.
Jack glanced at the note and the letters in Maddy’s hands, his face turning red.
“WHAT … THE … HELL?” said Jack with a loud, piercing scream. “What was the point of him taking us for a ride on a crazy magic elf boat, only to abandon us the minute he got the chance?”
“But he didn’t abandon us! We have these two letters…”
“Yes, two sealed letters that we can’t even open. For all we know, they might tell these people to kill us.”
The cabin walls suddenly reverberated as a loud bell rang above on deck, almost knocking Maddy off her feet.
“Blasted elves, can’t even make a proper bell!” said Grort, as he began to gather his things from his bed. “We’d better get a move on before the ship turns around, unless you feel like swimming to shore.”
Maddy heard the rumble of footsteps outside their cabin. Peering out, she saw people beginning to collect in the hallway. The mob, stationary at first, started to move quickly towards the stairs. Grort pushed his way out in the hallway, his axe handle swinging loose from his belt, knocking random passengers to the floor. She followed behind the newly-cleared path, whispering apologies to the people who had suddenly found themselves flat on their backs, until she reached the stairway and began the long climb up.
Maddy nearly keeled over from the stench as she finally reached the deck of the ship. If the aroma of the docks of New Wales could be described as noxious, then the smell emanating from their current location was on another spectrum entirely. Yet somehow the people milling about her did not seem to notice.
The smell, however, soon became the least interesting thing to take note of. In their haste to board the previous night, Maddy had not paid much attention to the ship itself. Now, standing on deck in the light of the morning sun, she realized its sheer size. Rows of tall masts dotted the deck, each equipped with huge white sails, currently at rest. From what she knew of sailing ships, and admittedly, it was not much, she expected to see dozens of sailors manning each of the sails. But, looking up and down the deck again, Maddy didn’t see anyone who could be fairly described as a sailor. Peering over to the side, she could see dozens of wooden ramps leading down to the large dock below, as scores of passengers slowly made their way down off the ship.
What finally stole her breath away was the city itself. Where New Wales had seemed like a bustling town, it was actually a sleepy, backwater hamlet compared to the vast island settlement that stretched before her. Morning mist enveloped much of the city but she could see billowing clouds of black smoke rising from one section, violently contrasting with an adjacent and seemingly out-of-place thick, green forest. She spotted channels of water criss-crossing haphazardly between other areas. One led right up next to the ship, with smaller pontoon boats docked and waiting for the disembarking passengers. She finally spied an imposing ridge that rimmed the far side of the island, casting a long shadow that seemed to stretch over half the city. Maddy suspected the ocean lay just beyond.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” said Grort, who had sidled up beside her.
“It’s amazing! I don’t even know where to look.”
“I’ll hand it to you humans, you really did something right with New London.”
“New London?” asked Jack, who had joined the pair looking out over the railing.
“Yes, the human capital. It is the largest, richest and and also unfortunately poorest of your cities. Even we and the elves could not ignore it. That smoke rising over there marks the Dwarven Quarter and the trees mark the Elven Quarter. But come now, we’d best disembark before all the water cabs are taken.”
Grort darted away from the railing and towards one of the wooden ramps leading down to the docks, Maddy doing her best to keep up. The ramps sunk slightly under the weight of the stampeding passengers, and Maddy felt like an impediment to the stream of people walking around her.
“This is like walking through Grand Central during rush hour!” Maddy called back to Jack behind her.
“Yeah, except with the added risk of being elbowed into the water.”
Jack’s words were soon proven true as an unfortunate man in a bowler hat several people in front of Maddy went tumbling into the drink, his briefcase following soon after. Maddy glanced behind her while still moving down the ramp and saw him surface without his hat and motion angrily for a life preserver from a young boy standing at the edge of the dock.
“Why are these people all in such a hurry?” asked Jack as he reached just after Maddy.
“I believe you humans call it ‘rush hour,’ “ said Grort.
The ship soon emptied, its passengers finding transport among the smaller barges docked nearby or with the line of carriages parked just beyond the pier. Without warning, the elvish bell rang again, though thankfully not as loud, and the sails sprung to life as the ship slowly reversed course.
“What now?” asked Jack as the crowd of commuters began thinning out.
“I guess we seek out the people on these letters. We have no idea where Trafford is or when he’ll turn up again.” Maddy pulled them out and looked at the names again. “Lord Hamilton Brackwood, Larken Hall. Lady Elektra Fairclough, Garland Manor. Grort, do you know where either of these places is?”
“I don’t usually stray far beyond the Dwarven Quarter, but if I had to wager, I’d say your lord and lady live on Mayfair Hill.” Grort motioned to the boy who fished out the wayward commuter. “Lad, call us a cab.” Grort flipped a small silver coin to the boy, who pocketed it greedily.
“Yes, master dwarf.” The boy scampered off to find a water cab, waving the group over to one of the few remaining crafts. Maddy stepped aboard, rocking the boat slightly to the side, which drew a dirty look from the other passenger. Jack and Grort followed after, taking seats in the back. Maddy looked around for the boat’s captain, but didn’t see anyone.
“The bowl,” said the passenger, who looked particularly rushed.
A small wooden bowl stood on a column in the middle of the boat.
“Put your destination in the bowl with your fare, so we can shove off already.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” Not wanting to ask the passenger for a piece of paper, Maddy pulled out Trafford’s letter, and tore a small piece from the bottom. It was to her good fortune that she had remembered to pack a pen for the camping trip, as she had hoped to work through some crossword puzzles to pass the time. The pen had survived the encounter with the Redcoats, but the book of puzzles had not.
After writing “Mayfair Hill” in small, neat print on the scrap of paper, Maddy placed it slowly in the bowl, along with a coin from Grort. No sooner had the paper and coin touched the bottom of the bowl, than the boat sprang to life, knocking Maddy backward onto one of the benches.
“Tourist,” muttered the passenger under her breath as she rolled her eyes.
Maddy pushed herself up from the bench and looked out at the city passing by around her. Her heart was in her throat, but for some reason, she felt a rush of excitement as the boat sped on toward the unknown.