This high in the mountains the sky was almost featureless. Clouds spread across the stretch of sky like a gray, padded gauze that filtered the sunlight to a muted, smoky dawn. A gust of wind touched with the damp cold of rain and snow stirred the rigging and trim sails around the main gas bag. On the deck, the crew busied themselves with their daily tasks, only today they kept a watchful eye on the stretch of snow capped mountains that loomed nearby and below the ship itself.
Captain Hunter, dressed in his usual dark trousers, boots, shirt and long coat leaned on the starboard railing. Quietly he scanned the mountainside below, almost oblivious to his surroundings. Finally, struck by some odd thought, he withdrew a folded piece of paper from his coat breast pocket. He unfolded the worn correspondence, then read the message again.
“My dear Captain Anthony Hunter,
My associates speak highly after you and word of the reputation of you and your crew speaks likewise of your merit. I seek your employment on a matter of some import. Perhaps you are familiar with her, but the ship Marie Celeste has been logged overdue for arrival at Port Camden. This is of great concern to me as I had booked passage for my own niece and nephew to travel to meet their long lost parents. As I have been their caretaker for some time now, naturally I am concerned as to their outcome.
Enclosed is a map that detailed the last route taken by the Marie Celeste and a Bill of Order detailing the amount I have advanced. This first amount is up front for you and your crew’s efforts. Any news will garner a similar amount upon your return.
Yours with gratitude,
Ian Von Patterson“
The captain brushed a few snowflakes that fell on the paper then folded it thoughtfully. Last calculations put them along the same route as the Marie Celeste, seven days out from London. He sighed and surveyed the rocky ground covered in a fresh blanket of snow. The wind stirred again and the Brass Griffin creaked in reply, a protest against the weather while the ship gently banked to port.
From the quarterdeck came a shout from the navigator, Billy Baker. Baker was a thin man with deep gray eyes and nimble way with his hands. Rumor had it that Billy’s mother was a sea witch and he inherited some of the Gift from her. Billy himself only would say he had a knack for finding things. “Ship ahead!”
Captain Hunter stood up and returned the letter to his breast pocket. He called back, “How’s she fare Mr Baker?”
“The bird’s aground Cap’n, a good 10 twain down on that snow and tree covered slope. Not sure she’ll fly again without some work.”
“Any sign of castaways?”
“None Cap’n, but tha’ don’t mean there’s not any.”
Hunter nodded to himself, the lad was right about that one. “Thank you, Mr Baker.”
A rough voice preceded Hunter’s first mate while he joined the captain at the rail. “Our employer won’t like this. He was clear about finding the children alive.”
“We don’t know the Marie Celestewent down and took all hands and passengers with her, Krumer.” Hunter scrutinized the mountainside until his eyes caught sight of the downed airship. He let out a small whistle of amazement at the view of the mangled wreck.
The first mate shook his head slowly at the sight. “Her gas bag’s in at least four parts, and it looks like she hit bow-first when she came in. She might have weathered it, but that large rock outcrop sheared her like a knife. It’d have been rough to ride her down.”
“What would your Orcish spirits say about those odds?”
A grin spread across Krumar’s flat orcish face, he folded his heavily muscled arms over his chest, straining his worn white shirt. “They’d remind me they don’t believe in the odds. Me? I’d say even odds here. If the ones in the stern didn’t get bounced around too much when she hit and if she just didn’t collapse on herself when she ran aground.”
The pilot brought the ship around again, closer this time, to offer a better look at the wrecked airship below. On this pass, the crew’s usual work on the rigging and other matters slowed while all looked over the side towards the scene. No one spoke more than a whisper or two out of respect for the deceased spirits of passengers and what the crew believed was the deceased spirit of a wrecked airship. Even the regular protests of the Griffin herself sounded mournful and quiet while they passed.
It was Hunter who broke the spell of silence. “That’s a bloody large set of ‘ifs’, Mr. Whitehorse.”
“Aye Cap’n. I’ll take them too, if it means we’ve live survivors to return instead of dead remains.”
“Some hope is better than none, eh? Well, I’ll take that.” Hunter turned towards the knot of crew that had gathered at the port rail. “Mr. O’Fallon?”
The broad shouldered, tattooed man with a long red pony tail near the back of the group looked over. “Aye Cap’n?”
“Bring out the longskiff, I’ll be taking three down ashore with me to search the wreck.”
The red haired quartermaster looked at the crew. “Ye both there and ye by the rail. Ye’ll be doin’ in a pinch. Ya be hearin’ the captain, he be wantin’ his longskiff. Look alive!”
Quickly the three men, escorted by O’Fallon, raced to the winch towards the bow where the longskiff was folded and stowed. Once the ropes were released, the four men slowly drew the catamaran shaped craft up over the railing and unfolded the second smaller boat hull that provided some storage and ballast to the first. The cold wind rippled the longskiff’s kite sails while a small flock of brightly colored firehawks swooped and played among the top rigging of the Griffin herself. Firehawks, modest sized birds that were a stout foot from toe to shoulder with firey orange and red feathers, often enjoyed the heated updrafts of air from an airship’s steam engines.
Hunter walked to the port rail next to the few crew that remained there. Slowly he shook his head in sad dismay at the tangled knots of rope, wood and bodies that littered the white, clean snow.
“A lot of ‘ifs’, Krumer, a lot of them.”