a (Dead) Seed
by Judd Goswick
A crewman on a pirate caravel learns an important lesson about magic and finishing what one starts. Will the First Mate of his new ship be a boon or a burden in his quest?
Jasper Hagbouth, Dead Gods spare us a name like that, was the First Mate of the finest raiding vessel I ever served on, the aforementioned "Dara's Revenge". She was one of three ships in our fleet, and she was our puller. The puller, you see, is the ship that lures the target closer, so you can pounce. "Dara's Revenge" was outfitted to look like merchantman and had proud sails of fine, sky-blue cloth and was painted blue and gold on her hull, as much as we could maintain. From far away, she looked homey and lived-in, up close, she looked a bit slap-dash and haggard. In many ways, she's like my wife, Serpent spare her.
On the day in question (yes, I have a point), Jasper was treading the deck and gazing about with a eye that warned of discipline to any crewman who couldn't see fit to manufacture his own. I was down on my knees scrubbing the deck as he passed. It was from this vantage point that I happened to catch the details of his peg-leg's construction for the first time. I had been on the ship at that point only a few days, being moved to it from "Harbor Raider" after some…well, let's just say "personnel difficulties" since "failed mutiny" has a sting to it. Getting my first good look at the peg up close, I noticed it was covered in runes and sigils. Before I fell away from things proper, I was a Sindran student, so I knew the basics of what I was seeing. Jasper's leg was a section of a classic wizard's staff!
Over the next week weeks I tried to find causal ways to examine the peg or bring it up in conversation. Most of the crew knew it was some sort of magical construction, but the simple sea dogs were far too superstitious to have much in the way of useful information. They knew that Captain Tannah trusted Jasper from some connection they had before joining the raiding fleet and that the Old Man has spoken highly of his abilities when "in the Deep" so the assumptions naturally went to him being some sort of treasure hunter who found a magical knickknack to replace his lost limb. Nothing in my nature would let it stay like that for me. I wanted to know.
After my survey of the ship's crew (not that there were too many of us on a small ship like the "Revenge") yielded me no lore beyond what I have told you, I began to craft wily ways to earn Jasper's trust. I offered to shine his shoe. I brushed the coal-black great coat he was seldom without. My mates thought I was brown-nosing, but soon Jasper thought of me as his valet almost. I was ready to hatch my plan.
One day after doing some moderate chores for Jasper, I tried to bring up the subject. "That is fine wood you made your peg out of, sir," I said, brassy and cocksure, "Where did you happen upon it?"
The old salt eyed me like he was thinking of places to hide the body until he could dump me in the night. I knew that look. My old mates had given it to me before the "misunderstanding" that got me reassigned here. I am a hard body to hide, says everyone, and that has been my saving grace many a time.
After a time of this gazing, and coming to same conclusion everyone else does (I assumed), he finally spoke. "That story be not so easily bought as by a few chores and well-meant aids. If that be the reason for ye coming to me help, you can stow your ballast!" I swear to the Ancient Dead Gods he spoke like that!
Clearing my throat and looking as timid as I could I uttered, "Meaning no harm, Sir! I was taught in Sindra some of the Arts as this useless noggin could hold. I recognize the runes and sigils, and wonder if you are a…" My voice failed me.
"Yes?" His voice, a serpent's hiss, bit into my cheeks as he placed his eyes as near my good one as he could. "Was ya going to say a 'demon-caller'?"
"No, sir! Not a demon-caller! At most I would have said 'gruesome necromancer'."
He withdrew his face and his apparent anger drained a bit. His face started to look forlorn as he stared out the porthole that was a perk of his second best sleeping area. "Sindra teached thee well. Necromancy is my art, but not of man-flesh. My art is plant necromancy."
I puzzled at this for several moments. Jasper's face looked as if he assumed I was leveling some ghastly judgment upon him, and some shame showed there. In truth, I was just wondering how that worked. What was the point in being a plant necromancer?
"Ye may well judge me, but times in my youth were terrible bad. I was born the seventh son of a seventh son – all herbalists by trade. When I was old enough, The coven took me to the ancient wood and I was placed in sympathy with the dead things of the plant world. It were a solemn ceremony where I lay with a mulch pile and it symbolically bore my child."
He must have heard my gulp at that point, because he stopped and no further coaxing would cause him to discuss it more that night, When I pressed my luck too far, he cuffed me on the ear and ordered me back to my station.
The next few days, Jasper would have nothing to do with me. Our eyes never met and the only time I was mentioned was to tell the duty officer to pile some task on me to keep me occupied. I spent the time my labored afforded me considering the Art of Plant Necromancy. I avoided considering what he meant by the mulch pile bearing his child.
People, in my experience, have traditions that make perfect sense to them as they are wrapped within the paradigms of those traditions. Too often, when those traditions are presented without that cloak, they stand out as barmy. This includes almost everything sailors do.
As I considered Jasper's art, I realized how much of a ship is made of dead plant life. Oak timbers rib her hull. A variety of woods are worked into her frame. Miles of line and chords (we seafarers only call it rope when it is cargo), all made of plant fibers, run about her in a web. The sails are made of fibers as well. I boggled at the world of plant corpses that surrounded me. I realized then that Jasper was concealing a power that could rule or ruin our little world out here in the middle of the sea.
I longed to discuss my thoughts with him, but he made it clear that was not something he was keen to allow. I would need to earn his trust once more to learn more of his story, but I could not imagine how.
After my duties were done each day, I would find a spare area and pull out my old books from Sindra and start my mental exercises once more. While I never progressed very far in training before poverty and desperation made first a thief and then a pirate of me, I did have natural talent. I was considered to be something of a rising star before my troubles.
I would close my eyes and extend my senses one by one into the magical skein that lay all around me. I would feel for the chords of energy that permeated the world. Once I felt in sync with these forces, I would focus on a pressed flower I kept from an older and happier day back at school.
In the flower, I could feel a wisp of a memory from those old days. First a smell of her perfume, then a ring of her laughter, just as it was in those days. I could almost hear her saying something to that younger me, but it came to me as if I had my head underwater. I would stop and realize that the strain of the touch has caused me to sweat, and I would have fresh tears on my cheeks. I had to hide those from my mates, or there would be a price.
I began to see the edges of the world Jasper's words had revealed to me. I wanted more of it. What other wonders lay just behind that curtain I left my mind pressing against as I did my exercises? I owed it to my teachers, which I had always felt I failed, to at least try and find out. I knew if I broke that barrier in my mind, my life would change forever.
Weeks went by in this way, and the memories that flower witnessed became clearer, and with less effort. I could now hear the entire conversation we had that night I took my best girl at the time to dinner on Book Seller's Lane. The experience was strange, because I knew the senses to be those I borrowed from the flower, but its spirit seemed to see the world in a way that mirrored my own senses.
I went to look up the reason why in my primers when I felt a presence behind me. Turning, I saw Jasper looking down at me. His voice was like crumbling leaves when he broke the silence between us, "I knew you wouldn't give up. Ye're a good lad, and all. Smart. This path is hard, and I sees ye been following it dutifully and properly by feeling it for yeself."
I nodded to that, to afraid to speak lest I ruin this chance as I did before. He continued with a small grin when he saw I was listening this time, not judging. "I will consent to teach thee my Arts, if ye will listen and obey. Ye can'na judge til ye do. Ye can'na doubt til ye know. What says ye?"
I nodded, and found my voice because the moment seemed to call for an affirmation, "I do so promise, Master Jasper." His grin became a smile. He lowered himself down onto the deck beside me and opened and old leather case full of books. He then unscrewed his peg-leg and handed it over to me.
"We start, lad, as all have since the olden days. You must make yourself a staff of ye own. Care must be taken, because your staff is your pact with the Dead Woods. It is, in the world of symbols just past our imagining, your child."
And it is in this way I finally started living up to my potential. Wood – that is to say "would" – we all be so lucky.