The ship groaned and creaked moodily as the crew made their way noisily down to the cabin hold. The sound of their raucous laughter resounded in the bowels of the ship and the one lantern swayed violently from its chain. Twelve pairs of boots clomped down the rickety steps, their owners loud and talkative, eagerly anticipating their nightly discourse.
"Hey, did any'un see that shot o' mione back there? Me arm's been getten' good eh?" Ned, a great lamppost of a man, grinned toothily at his company, looking around expectantly for flattery.
"Ned, your shot would've been off by a mile if the knucker hadn't been five feet away. Besides, you shoot with your elbows flapping like a coocoo. Always have." Jacques grunted dismally from his bunk.
"Quite a good bit of luck for us, though, a bit strange even." Riven said, thoughtfully fingering his whiskers. He was the old man of the crew, wrinkled and weathered, capped with a snowy tuft of hair, and inlaid with deep, blue eyes.
"Yeah, looks like we just might not lose our jobs. Not this time anyway. The demand's too high for us to keep up with. Prices keep rising, but just too few dragons. Too few to go around." It was Iriund who spoke then, leaning down from his upper bunk to join the conversation.
"But it shouldn't be that way, now should it? Every year for the past decade, a flock of Southern Firesqualls migrates to the Canduilian islands. The captain still hasn't the foggiest why the islands were bone dry when we got there." Said Riven, his eyes solemn and weary.
"Aye, it's been a hard year, it has. 'Seems every corner we turn is empty these days." Mused Flain, who was in the act of extracting his boots from his large, yellow toes. There was a pause that followed this statement, where every man stopped and silently nodded in agreement.
Ned thoughtfully picked his nose with a long, bony finger, sucking on the booger meditatively.
"It's that ruddy little captain. I knows it." Growled Burm, his broken teeth plainly displayed as he uttered the words.
"I knew it was foolish to sign up to work for a little girl. Not only's she a girl, but she's young! Fresher than fresh-picked liver, I says. I thinks she just can't handle the ship, that's what."
"Stop talking you great oaf, before you injure yourself. In all my years I haven't served under a better captain than our own Dune Ferris. She's young yes, but give her time and that'll be remedied soon enough." Riven scowled at Burm, who frowned right back. The two of them remained abnormally quiet the rest of the evening. Goard cleared his throat roughly, and made a valiant stab at resuming the conversation.
"Do we know yet when we'll be putting in at Port Salahdras? Or are we planning to anchor elsewhere?"
"At this rate, we'll be drifting at sea for a good several months. But who knows, perhaps after all this poor luck we're bound for some more good fortune." Said Iriund hopefully.
The talk was more subdued than usual, and noone seemed to be in the mood to resume a string of thought for more than a few sentences. At last, they turned in their bunks and muttered a few 'G'nights', and filled the cabin with their blustering snores.
The morning greeted Dune cheerily, as though trying to make up for it's poor behavior the evening before. The sun came out to warm her face, and a fair wind billowed their sails. Dune strode up and down deck, her hands clenched behind her back.
Suddenly, she looked up, gazing into the sky. A tiny, fluttering something was zooming towards them. It wheeled at the topmost mast, and began orbiting around the mainsails, slowly descending to meet her. Finally, it rested upon her outstretched forearm, and chirruped hungrily. It was a little messenger glider, only a foot or two in wingspan. Dune stroked its frill appreciatively and offered it a scrap from her breakfast, which it eagerly accepted.
"Well, you've come quite a long way, little one. Now, who is it who's bothering to write to me." She perched the little thing on the rail and it obediently stretched it's wings towards the sun, allowing the light to shine through its membrane and reveal the writing covering its wings.
For several minutes, Dune stooped over the dragon's wings, relentlessly interrogating the words with her eyes. Abruptly, she gave a coarse laugh and straightened.
"What's this? My dear old mum wants me to come home for the Festival of the Moons? I wonder what would persuade her to do that. . ." The dragon cooed inquisitively, and Dune resumed stroking it.
"I wonder what she wants. . .She didn't happen to tell you, now did she? Ah well, you may go, little one." Immediately, the glider dragon took off, it's wings pumping and tail whipping behind. Dune gazed after it for a moment, thinking.
"Captain?" Dune spun around, and found her first mate, Riven Saigcrow, giving her a curious look.
"Yes, First Mate Saigcrow?"
"Iriund wishes to know our coordinates. Shall we continue our present course?" Dune couldn't keep her eye from wandering to his scar as he spoke. It was long and slender, running down his left cheek in a crude line.
"Wha-, oh. Right. Make for Port Salahdras; keep her steady at about 8 knots. We'll take our time and see if there's any more catch to be had." He nodded curtly and strode away, leaving Dune alone to gaze after the boundless blue desert stretched around them. An infinite number of waves rolled over, like dunes, almost, only faster and more temperamental. She smiled to herself, remembering a time, long ago, when her father was captain of this very ship, and she was still learning the ways of the sea.
"It's like an desert. Nothing but blue dunes tossing and rolling in a never ending wind." He had said. She looked up to him, puzzled. Her eyes were still innocent and clear then.
Now, her eyes were always cloudy and grey, weary with demands and responsibility.
'Too young, just too young.' She thought bitterly, and her hair blew across her mouth, whipping at her face. Her father would never have allowed her to take command of an entire ship at a mere seventeen. She missed him. Greatly.
A painful lump pressed against her throat and she angrily pushed it back down.
"Listen to me. I'm going all soft. What the heck's wrong with me?" She snarled in frustration, and glared at a stray pup who had stopped mopping and was gaping up at her.
"Get back to work." She muttered, and stumped away.
As she was not needed on deck, she decided to inspect the cargo hold to see how the men were getting on with their latest catch. A narrow stair opened into the storage room and 'threshing floor', where the dragons were disassembled and prepared for market.
Three knucker-length dragons lay in a pathetic heap, deprived of their wing membrane, their ribs empty, and eyes glassy and staring. Dune prowled through the crates, baskets, boxes and jars, sniffing and poking about to see that everything was in order. She peered at a row of enormous glass jars that held the entrails of the dragons. Three canon-ball sized hearts suspended in pickle brew, which had just yesterday pumped blood to their owners' muscles in flight. She didn't like this side of this business. It rather disturbed her to see such majestic creatures dismembered like this, but it was for the good of her crew, she told herself.
She stopped. Something caught her eye, up on the topmost shelf. She stared in disbelief. Curled inside a jar, was large, well-developed fetus. Probably about four months old, due to be born within another month. She could see with remarkable detail the partially formed features, the scales just beginning to sprout from it's sickly yellow skin. She wondered how long it would have taken it to die. Not too long, she hoped. But wait, that wasn't pickle brew.
"Jacques! Get over here!" Jacques, who had been preparing wing membrane for tanning, bounded over, his braid swinging between his shoulder blades.
"Yes, captain?" He inquired obediently. By way of answering, she nodded pointedly at the jar.
"Oh, I was going to tell you about that. The female was pregnant."
"Obviously, Jacques. What I want to know is why it isn't being pickled like the other organs." He looked a little uneasy, for he didn't exactly know what he had done wrong, but had the sense a mine was bound to explode underfoot.
"I. . .just carefully sliced open the uterus and bottled the fluid. I dunno, I thought it might have a better preservative effect if I left it in there with the fluid and everything. . ." he trailed off lamely.
"What everything?! You idiot, bring down the jar!" Gingerly, Jacques reached up for the jar, which was very heavy, and cradled it with his arms.
"Open the lid."
"Open the damn lid." With trembling fingers, he removed the large cork lid, and held the jar out for Dune. Slowly, ever so slowly, Dune extended her hand to the jar's contents. Finally, her forefinger touched the fetus.
It twitched. The two of them jumped a foot in the air, and Jacques nearly dropped the fragile glass jar. With an exasperated roar, she bellowed at Jacques to replace the embryonic fluid with pickle brew, and swept from the cargo hold.
Dune was relieved to be back on deck and to get away from the freak show. The salty wind rushed through her dark, tangled hair, rustling the beads. She could almost hear it whisper reassuringly to her.
That evening, Dune sat chained to her desk, pouring over migration charts and weather maps. The heavy clomp of Goard's boots roused her from her weary nightmare. The cabin door creaked open, and Goard poked his large, whiskery face through.
"I've brought your sup, my lady." He said courteously.
"Captain." She corrected, without looking at him.
"As it pleases you, Captain." He said good-naturedly; he was quite used to her games. He set a wooden tray on her desk bearing a hunk of cheese with a knife stuck into it, some sausage, a small loaf of bread, and flagon of brandy. Dune looked at it, as though hoping it might say something enlightening.
"It should be illegal to market unborn fetuses. Dragons, that is." Goard merely nodded, and stumped away, shutting the door carefully on his way out.
Dune did not have much of a stomach for food that night.