The Undefeated Heart
by Dana DeVries
"By Matushka's name, what happened to you?" Ivanovitch's face was pale with shock. The Undefeated Heart slowly rocked in the waves beside the Sweet Water as the beam of a lighthouse swept across the dark tides. When it flashed past them, Wazi's face could be seen. Deep, short scratches covered his bruised cheeks. He moved gingerly, as each movement rippled across his wounded muscles.
"Nothing." Wazi's words were slightly slurred, but he stood ramrod straight before the Ussuran Captain. "Miscalculation on my part."
Ivanovitch nodded and composed his features before handing over a clay-covered jar. "I thought you might enjoy this." Wazi shuddered and glanced over his shoulder before he shook his head and whispered. "No. I do not drink." At the other's puzzled look, he said more loudly. "No. I have no need of it."
The whaler shrugged and asked, "Why did you send for me?"
"I need some leviathan oil."
"Leviathan oil? Stuff doesn't get much trade. Too flamible. Not planning on using it in lanterns, are you?"
"No." Wazi's terse answer cut off the Ussuran's speculation.
"How much do you need?"
The Ussuran whistled softly. "That's a lot of barrels. I only have two or three. I can get you that much, but it will take some time."
"How much time?"
"I need it within two weeks."
"Two weeks? That will be...difficult. It'll cost you."
"I know. How much?"
"One thousand guilders."
With an exasperated sigh, the Crescent demanded, "How much is that in real currency, Ussuran?"
"200 pounds of gold."
"I'm not haggling, I'm just telling you the price. There's only one way to get leviathan oil. From leviathans. And to get that many barrels, it's going to have to be a huge one or several small ones. Two hundred pounds of gold is the price."
"What if I throw in some Ussuran slaves?"
"How many?" "I have 40 of them."
"Forty? I rescued all the ones you had!"
"You did. When I discovered I'd need leviathan oil, I traded with the some of the other captains."
"Alright, let's say 100 pounds of gold and the Ussurans. But I'll need the Ussurans up front."
"I need them on the oars. I can only release 10 of them for now."
"I'll need some of the payment up front."
Wazi thought carefully for a moment then nodded. "Wait here." He strode across the deck and down below decks. A few nervous moments passed as Ivanovitch studied the cannons on the deck. When Wazi returned, he carried another thick clay object in his hands which he handed to Ivanovitch. The Corsair spoke in a low voice, "That is a bottle of Marilo '22, one of only three surviving bottles. It is said to be the best vintage in the world. Vincenzio Falisci has offered 100 gold for the return of this bottle." The Corsairs paused and muttered under his breath. "Better that than letting it burn."
Ivanovitch looked uncertain. "That's all well and good, even if getting a Vodacce to pay is usually more trouble than its worth. I'll need the gold and Ussurans upon delivery."
Ivanovitch stared in Wazi's eyes for another moment. "What is happening?"
The Crescent shook his head and turned away. Blood from unhealed wounds had soaked into the back of his shirt. "You don't want to know. But there will be blood and fire before it is over."
Ivanovitch nodded slowly and turned away. He lifted the sealed bottles in his hands and called over his shoulder. "I'll raise one for you, friend."
"Raise a prayer when you're done." The Corsair shuddered and went below again.
Ivanovitch clambered down the ladder to his launch. Leaning close to one of the large rowers, he hissed, "Get us back under our own guns, Sea Legs. I don't trust these Corsairs further than I can throw you." The
man laughed softly and quickly began pulling towards the Undefeated Heart.
Sea Legs O'Connor rowed with the ease of long practice. "What news, cap'n?"
"We've just been hired."
"Those slavers hired us? Cap'n, I know you traded some men away from them, but how much longer do you think you can trust them?"
"As long as their fear of failing their leader is stronger than their need of new slaves."
"And how long will that last?"
"Long after we're gone. Now relax, Sea Legs. We've made it this far and now we're going back to our normal routine."
The captain replied with a smile. "Whaling, you muscle-bound oaf. We've been hired to obtain some leviathan oil."
"Leviathan oil? That's not our normal routine."
"They're paying in bullion and another forty slaves."
"We've got enough crew right now. We could use more gold."
"I will not leave the men behind."
"Yeah, I know. They're countrymen. Brothers of blood and language. Well the only language I want to speak is guilder. But I guess, some gold is better than none. Not as good as lots of gold though." The other rowers smiled, but saved their breath for the exertion of rowing through the dark choppy seas.
A week later, no one was smiling. Dark clouds hovered overhead despite a sharp wind out of the west and tiny white caps danced across the water as the Undefeated Heart slowly tacked leeward with short sails. To the north only a few score yards away, dozens of grey mounds drifted through the waves before disappearing back into the warm water of La Bucca. The gunner crews stood tensely on the deck while the riggers and topmen clung to the rigging overhead.
Ivanovitch strode to the centre of the deck and called out loudly. "Men! We're ready. When I give the signal, fire the guns and lets get us some whales. There are leviathans in these waters, so keep alert! Harvesters, I'll give the signal for you to put out. Victor, you know what to do." The captain scanned the men carefully to make sure that everything was in place. "Alright, men, fire!"
After a pregnant pause, the starboard side of the boat burst into smoke and explosions as half a dozen guns let loose simultaneously. Harpoons trailing thick lines flew through the air and smashed into the whales skimming across the surface. The creatures bellowed in pain and anger, but the gunners ignored them in favour of reloading their cannons.
Other crew began drawing the coils of rope tight. One of the targets disappeared beneath the waves and the lines came loose, either outright misses or harpoons not set correctly. But two other lines went taut as the whales dove beneath the waves. The men fought to slow the ropes as they flew through the windlass. Just as the men finished reloading the guns, the whales burst to the surface again. The guns fired again, but this time, the shots were cannon balls instead of harpoons and the explosions of blood and flesh burst from the two struggling creatures.
The captain shouted out and two longboats set out rowing double-time out to the two whales. Four men leapt from the boats onto the whales with long axes in their hands and began the difficult climb up, using rips in the whales flesh as foot holds and planting their axes deep into the creature to pull themselves up. Once on top, they quickly set to work driving their axes down into the flesh behind the head until great gouts of blood and oil flowed out of the weakly struggling creatures. Their task complete, the men quickly slid off the sides of the whales and into the waiting boats. One man slipped as he came down and crashed into another whaler. The two disappeared into the bloody surf beside the whale who rolled slightly towards them. A moment passed and then another. When neither one appeared again, the longboat quickly pulled back to the Undefeated Heart and the men scrambled back aboard.
By then, the gunners had reloaded and the crew waited uneasily as the whales tortured bellows sounded across the waves. Ivanovitch closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Tasting the blood and blubber leaking from the whales into the salty tang of the sea until suddenly his eyes sprang open and he shouted out wildly, "Hang on!"
Seconds later, the boat shuddered as something enormous smashed into the port side of the ship. As the boat rocked back from the blow, Ivanovitch called out. "Ready gunners! Now Otiro!" The gunners staggered back to their feet and into position by the cannons. Another blow jarred the boat and something cracked beneath the decks, but the Undefeated Heart endured the attack. Then the sky erupted in fire as a bolt of lightning split the air and water beside the ship. With a scream of rage, a creature breached. It was a hill of grey flesh and muscle, twice as large as the Undefeated Heart with a mad gleam in its blood red eyes. Without hesitation, the gunners touched torches to their cannons but the explosions barely registered beneath the crashing thunder as another bolt of lightning hammered into the creature's skull. Long jagged tears in the leviathan's hide pulsed as it suddenly dove deep beneath the surface. A lone cable sped behind it for several seconds before the captain took notice.
"No! Cut that line!" Saladin Khattab an inexperienced gunner, turned with a question in his eyes as the cable jerked to a stop. Then incredibly the starboard side of the Undefeated Heart creaked ominously and slowly began to dip towards the violent ocean waves.
An old timer named Moncle le Fou, yelled out to the gunner, "Ya landlubber, ya never hooks a leviathan! She'll pull ya ta the bottom!" Panic in his eyes, Khattab tried to release the cable from its anchor, but the pressure was too great to allow enough slack. He froze in place for a moment until Ivanovitch appeared at his shoulder and drove down into the cable with an axe he'd picked up as he rushed across the deck. With a tortured twang, the cable snapped and the Undefeated Heart jumped at the release. Jon Miles fell from the sheets and landed with a sickening thud.
For one long moment, the crew pulled themselves to their feet. Ivanovitch snapped out orders to his gunnery crews and they quickly reloaded. Just as they finished, the bleeding leviathan burst from the water only feet from the ship with a shriek to still a man's heart. Yard after yard of the beast emerged from the sea until it towered over the deck of the ship. Even the most experienced of the crew froze in fear at the avalanche hanging over their heads.
All except Captain Ivanovtich. He snatched a burning brand from Khattab and touched it to the gun. With a crash, the gun fired and the cannonballs drove deeply into the beast's belly. That broke the paralysis that had held the crew motionless. The rest of the guns fired a ragged volley that crashed into the creature. Time seemed to hold perfectly still for a moment, then the beast toppled back away from them and hit the water with enough force to drench the entire ship.
A collective sigh passed across the crew. The captain straightened and his voice was jovial. "Now we harpoon her, lads. Rig up the sails and tow her back to that spit of land we spotted an hour back. Surgeons attend the crew. Otiro, whistle us up a good wind. We got her boys. This one'll be enough for the Crescents and the two whales are sheer profit." A ragged cheer went up from the men. "Even better, young mister Khattab here has volunteered for first watch of the rendering pots when we land!" The cheer that greeted that announcement left no doubt that some had already begun to dread that malodorous chore.
Before the captain could say anything further, Otiro motioned him towards the stern of the boat. In a low voice, Otiro declared, "Diablo Tiburon was here. We're going to have to deal with it soon."
"What? How do you know it was here?"
"Not many things can do that." The little man pointed across the water to where the two whales still floated. One carcass floated normally enough, still cabled to the Undefeated Heart. The other had been ripped in half with a single chomp of some enormous maw. Ivanovitch could only nod his head grimly as he stared at the head still floating upon the waves.