The sun shone high up in the sky. Its light reflected off the sand on the beach and the rolling waves of the sea.
I hated it.
It had been a whole year since I had been marooned on this island with two of the crew of the Ocean’s Bounty. The ship had been destroyed with all hands by a dragon while we were ashore investigating a smoke signal. The memory of the ship engulfed in flames still haunted me. We had no way off the island – we had long ago chopped up our longboat to use for firewood.
My companions had not fared so well. Diero died shortly after the Bounty’s destruction – a seemingly small scratch had become infected in short order. He had died in agonising pain. Salazar was still alive, however, his mind was gone. He spent days rocking back and forth on the ground muttering to himself. He no longer responded when I tried to speak to him.
I was alone.
The worst part was, I didn’t even know why. Why was the smoke signal here? Whose was the body that had lain in front of it? Why had the dragon suddenly attacked and destroyed the Ocean’s Bounty? I had thought about it day after day and night after night and I still had no answer. It didn’t look as though I would ever get an answer either. Every day I looked out over the sea, hoping and praying to whatever god would listen that a ship would come. Every day I saw nothing. I had tried getting the smoke signal lit again but for some reason, it never worked. As far as I could see there was no hope.
I had even tried to decipher the map I took from the corpse, seeing if there was any hint of a solution there. It thoroughly defeated me. I was familiar with codes and cyphers, I knew Thieves Cant, I could hide secret messages in dozens of ways, but I had never seen anything like this map. I wasn’t even sure what sort of land it represented. The only thing I could guess at was that it was a different place than here. Very useful.
Then, one day, there was a sail on the horizon. It was only a speck, but it awakened hope in me. I tried to tell Salazar but he looked at me as though he didn’t see me. The emptiness in his eyes shook me. All I could do was leave him alone.
Over the next few days, I watched the ship draw closer. As it did so I started to make out details. It had black sails with a white wing-like symbol on them. The hull was painted in dark colours. Eventually, I was able to see the flag atop the mainsail. It was a white representation of a bird of some kind on a black background. As the ship got nearer, I started to feel uneasy. Something about it felt off. I began to make plans for when someone inevitably came ashore.
On the fifth day after first sighting the strange ship, I saw a longboat rowing towards the beach. It looked like there were half a dozen men on board. Their leader… something about him made me feel very unwary. I couldn’t see clearly at this distance, but it looked like he was wearing a huge black wide-brimmed hat and a red jacket. For some reason, this man unnerved me. I decided now was the time to hide.
I ran to the edge of the jungle and climbed one of the trees. The leaf coverage was thick enough to hide me but there were plenty of gaps through which I could look to the ground. I positioned myself so I could see the beach and wait.
After an hour the longboat came ashore. I watched the crew climb out and pull it on to the beach. The man with the big hat – obviously the captain – led the way up the sand. As they got closer to the edge of the jungle I pulled back and let the leaves cover me. The group passed below me – the captain cutting vegetation with his sword. I saw that he also sported a thick black beard which went down to his chest. As they progressed through the undergrowth I followed from above, leaping from tree to tree, careful not to make any noise.
It must have been an hour before the captain held up his fist, calling a halt. Without turning around he called out in a deep booming voice. “I know you’re there. You might as well show yourself.”
I nearly fell from the tree in surprise. He couldn’t have seen me! He hadn’t turned around once! I stayed motionless. After a few seconds, he sighed. “Look, boy, if it makes you feel any better you’re one of the best I’ve seen. You’ve got excellent skills. Now come down here and let me have a look at you.”
I didn’t see much alternative. I swung down through the branches and landed on the ground. The captain came up to me. Now that I could see him up close I took in more details. His black wide-brimmed hat was covered with black feathers. I also saw a bird’s skull at the front. His red jacket was lined with gold embroidery and his beard was even thicker than I had thought. He looked at me appraisingly.
“You’ve had some training, and a not inconsiderable natural talent,” he said after a while. I didn’t nod, didn’t move, didn’t do anything. After a while, I noticed that he was tapping his fist against his leg. Was that Thieves’ Cant? He saw my eyes focus on his tapping and smiled. “Yes,” he said, “I was also trained by the Zhentarim.”
At that I stepped back, ready to defend myself, but he chuckled. “No need to fear me, boy. I left them a long time ago, as I suspect you have.”
“What are you doing here?” I finally asked.
The captain shrugged. “I heard there might be something of value here.”
“Well you were told wrong,” I said, a little aggressively, “There’s nothing here.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” the captain said, eyeing me. I started to feel uncomfortable. Around us, the rest of the men were sitting down or leaning against trees, not paying attention.
I turned back to the captain, who seemed to be pondering something. After a few moments, he nodded. “So, boy, I offer you a deal. Join my crew and work for me and I will take you away from this island.”
My mind flashed back to the last time I had been offered a deal. However, I knew that, just like that time, I didn’t have a choice.
“I accept,” I said. Then a thought struck me. “What of my companion, Salazar?”
The captain sighed sadly. “I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do for him. I granted him mercy and release.”
I opened my mouth to protest but I knew he was right. The captain clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Welcome aboard, boy. My name is Captain Corvus of the Stormraven. What do I call you?”
“Ta… Talon,” I stammered. I hadn’t used my name for so long I had almost forgotten it. “Talon Shadowkin.”
“Well then, Mister Shadowkin, shall we be going?” Captain Corvus led the way back through the jungle. I looked around at my new crewmates. There was no hostility. It was almost as though they had been expecting this to happen.
As we boarded the Stormraven’s longboat I took one last look at the island that had been my prison for the last year. I wouldn’t miss it.
The Stormraven was an impressive ship, much more so than the Ocean’s Bounty. She was a pirate ship, there was no other word for it, but Captain Corvus informed me that their raids were directed exclusively against Amnian vessels. That explained why I hadn’t seen her before on the seas. It also made their expedition to “my” island more mysterious. If they weren’t usually sailing these waters, what had really brought them there?
To my surprise, I managed to fit in with the crew fairly quickly. It seemed that they were used to picking up new members from far-flung places. The work on the ship was more or less the same as on the Ocean’s Bounty – setting the rigging, setting the sails, cleaning the deck – and so I soon fell into the familiar routine.
After a few days one of the crew – an old sea hand named Boden – told me that Captain Corvus wanted to see me in his cabin. With some trepidation, I knocked on the captain’s door. “Enter!” the deep voice called from within.
I opened the door and stopped for a moment. I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye, something that looked like feathers blowing to the floor? I looked in that direction but saw nothing but flickering shadows cast by the lanterns. A noise like a “caw” made me start. There was a large black bird on a perch in one corner. It looked at me with beady eyes and I could almost swear that there was intelligence there.
Captain Corvus was sitting at his table, looking at something in his hand. As I entered he put it down on the table. It looked like a small bird skull. The captain looked up at me.
“You were on a trading ship heading for Mintarn.” It wasn’t a question.
How did he know? “How do you know that?” I asked.
“Oh, I have my sources,” Captain Corvus shrugged the question away. “My question to you is, why were you going there?”
“We were going there to trade our wares…” I started to say, but the captain cut me off.
“I know why a trading ship was going there. I was asking why you were going there.” His gaze seemed to pierce through me. “Were you running from something?”
The memories that I thought had been long forgotten came rushing back – Astrid, Zhayne, the fire… I just bowed my head and said nothing. Captain Corvus nodded.
“You can’t run forever, Talon.” The use of my name made me look up. He had a sad look on his face. “Believe me, I know.” A moment passed then his face cleared. “That’s by the by. I wanted to tell you that we’re heading to Mintarn. My patron has told me that there is something of extreme interest to them there and we are to investigate it.”
“Your… patron?” I asked. I had never heard of pirates working for anyone before – it seemed to go against the very definition of a pirate.
Captain Corvus’s gaze darted to one side – for a moment I thought he was looking at the blackbird – before continuing. “They’ve been very good to me. They’ve always steered me right.” He looked like he was about to continue but he was interrupted by a loud “CAW” from the bird. The bird ruffled its feathers, flapped its wings and flew to land on the captain’s shoulder. Again I was conscious of its stare.
The captain laughed. “I think she likes you,” he said.
“She?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the bird.
“I call her Regina. She’s been my companion for a long time.” The captain seemed to be watching me. Then he shook his head. “Most sailors are uneasy about ravens.”
A… raven? I had heard of such a bird but I had never seen one. They were said to bring misfortune to people who saw them. They were said to be harbingers of death. Looking at the bird, I started to feel a sort of kinship. I was also one who brought misfortune and death. I myself was like a raven. Even my name – Talon – had something of the raven about it. Had this name been chosen for me deliberately? Was I linked to this bird somehow?
I shook my head. I was talking nonsense. I had never seen this bird before. I had never met Captain Corvus until a few days ago. How could I have some sort of destiny that intertwined with them? I focused on what I did know for certain. “We’re going to Mintarn then?” I said.
Captain Corvus nodded. “We will be there in five days. What do you know of the place?”
Not much, I had to admit. I had heard it was a very wealthy island with many merchants and fine houses. There was also some rumours of a dragon who the inhabitants paid tribute to. I said as much to the captain.
He nodded. “It’s no rumour. There is indeed a dragon. A fierce red dragon called Hoondarrh. He has the island under his thrall. He allows them to trade and grow wealthy, but only so he can collect their tribute. He is also very jealous about guarding his territory.” The captain stopped and seemed to be waiting.
My mind raced. A red dragon? Could it be? “Do you think it was Hoondarrh who sank the Ocean’s Bounty?” I asked.
The response was another shrug. “It’s possible,” the captain said, “If it was, what will you do about it?”
I opened my mouth to reply, then stopped. What could I do against a dragon? I had no idea. I closed my mouth and shook my head.
The captain stood up. “We make landfall in five days. I suggest you return to your duties.” I turned to go but his voice stopped me. “Talon,” he said, “Everything happens for a reason. Never doubt that. And never doubt that you can’t make a difference.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I turned and left his cabin and returned to the main deck.
Mintarn was certainly a most impressive place. The Stormraven sailed into a magnificent harbour. It was so clean it was almost shining. The ports of Luskan and even Waterdeep paled into insignificance against it. Beyond the harbour, great opulent buildings rose. These must be the merchant and aristocratic houses. The whole place screamed wealth and luxury. It was almost impossible to believe that such a creature as a dragon could be lurking here. I resolved to not let my guard down and try to find any information I could about the attack on the Ocean’s Bounty.
As to Captain Corvus’s purpose, I had no idea. From talking with the crew, it soon became apparent that they had no idea either – it was not unusual for the ship to put into port and the crew to conduct their own affairs while the captain carried out his own secret business. Occasionally one of the crew would be called upon to perform some errand but no questions were ever asked. It was a strange way of doing things but it seemed to work.
I spent the first couple of days exploring Mintarn. Boden had been here several times before and acted as my guide. He showed me where the best taverns were, where to find the best trading information, even where to learn about the juiciest ships for plunder – Amnian of course. We visited the markets and the merchant houses. Everywhere I looked I saw a people enjoying life but – and it was only visible if one knew to look for it – there was an underlying sense of dread. There were many races here – dwarfs, elves, tieflings, even a dragonborn. I’d never seen a dragonborn before but as I stopped to stare he disappeared into the crowd. I had an impression of blue scales but nothing more than that.
I had time to think about the captain’s words to me. Everything happens for a reason. Could it really be true? Astrid’s death… what reason did that have? And what difference can I make? I’m just a runaway thief, hiding from the biggest criminal organisation in the known world.
The truth was, I didn’t know what I was doing here. Or anywhere. All I could do was make the best of whatever circumstances I was put in. And at the very least, I was off that accursed island.
One interesting tidbit we learned was that the governor of the island – officially called the Tyrant – was hosting a ball at the end of the ten-day. The timing of our arrival was too coincidental for it not to be related to Captain Corvus’s personal agenda. Many nobles would be there, along with a few of the lords from the Sword Coast. Even without the captain’s mysterious purpose, it would make a very tempting target.
The day drew to a close and myself, Boden and a few other crewmen went to one of the inns near to the harbour. As the others drank their ale and I had my customary water – again no questions were asked, although one or two of them did look at me a little strangely – all I could think of was the captain’s raven and his words to me.
Everything happens for a reason.
Could it really be true?
I didn’t see the eyes on me from the other end of the room.