Waves break lazily against the wooden hull. Beneath the waves, massive finned beasts hunt their prey slothlike. A man in dull leather armour absent-mindedly watches the water as he waits for the Island to come into sight.
He is Conn Regarda, private first-class in Lord Dimitri’s army, the army of the Southern border provinces of Glos. He glances amongst his shipmates; all around him are bored men and women in the same armour he wears. At the prow is Captain Jane Tuller, apparently born to some minor noble, though which he cannot remember.
As she walks across the ship all cease their tired reverie and return to formation, before she has opportunity to pass them.
‘Alright, all of you! We’re mere minutes out from the Island! None of you care why we’re fighting, but the Admiral could be in the next ship over, so listen up! Our scouts found this fine island a short year ago; it is apparently rich with resources and ripe for the picking, with but a few Islanders to defend it! The grass is green, the fruit plentiful, and the resources vital! Today we take the Island for our Lord and land, and if any of you buggers impress me I’ll see about recommending you get a bed on the colony ships once this land is ours! Ready your weapons soldiers, Island in sight!’
All around him soldiers grasp at their weapons and make whatever final preparations they must. Conn stuffs a bullet and powder into his pistol, and affixes his sword to his belt.
The Island grows quickly on the horizon. A forested shore breaks off into a massive, grass-stained mountain that makes up the heart of the Island.
‘Ready men! Ladderers, prepare to the portside!’ The Captain co-ordinates all from her station, yelling orders in perfect synchronisation with those under her command.
As the ship approaches the sandy shore it banks hard, turning until it is travelling in parallel with the ground. Anchors are then thrown from the front and back, and the ship comes to a graceless halt. The laddering team springs into action; two squads of three going through the same motions. Two soldiers run directly toward the Island, heavy ladder in hand. One leaps from the ship, the two remaining using themselves as pivots to slow the descent. As soon as the ladder is down, the soldiers at the top and bottom secure it, and immediately the throng of soldiers on board rush down the ladders with abandon.
Conn holds back, having no desire to enter the squirming fray to be the first on the ground. Once the last of the mass is sliding down the ladder he and some others go down the ladder in gentler fashion, followed by their Captain.
Up the gentle incline of the beach and into the forest they go, climbing across the twisting footpaths cut into the space between trees. Left and right Conn sees similar groups of soldiers charging the paths, each group rushing to be the fastest to the first strategic point marked by the scouts.
Then the shouting starts. Conn can barely see from his position in the back, but up the hill he sees clear signs of conflict. Looking to his sides he sees the other groups meeting their own resistance; trained soldiers crashing down upon them with blades and axes. These Islanders are better equipped than anything the scouts mentioned; fine clothes marked with strange regalia instead of the simple clothes reported, and instead of barely armed guards these warriors wield fine blades with pistols in belts and even muskets across backs.
It might be an even match, if the defenders were not on higher ground, and in seemingly ever greater numbers. Soon Conn can see the front line of his own unit; only a few men before him, and the bodies of his fallen comrades littering the floor underfoot. How long have they been fighting? He can’t remember, amid the smoke and blood.
His captain has noticed their plight too though, and just as Conn reaches for his weapon she cries for their retreat. As they escape the woods and run across the shore they see many other groups rushing back to their own boats, all in smaller number than when they arrived.
‘Bloody hell! What was that? Everyone, back into the ship immediately! We need to go back! Gods, is this it?’
Captain Tuller removes her cap as she sees the small number of her soldiers that have returned. They quickly ascend their ladders, raise anchor, and set sail back to their own land – though Conn notes that they were not pursued once they fled. Perhaps these Islanders at least have honour, he ponders.
A year later, Conn finds himself sailing for the Island once again under Captain Tuller’s command. He sails among a fresh set of soldiers toward the hazy mountain in the distance. He is a lieutenant now; recognised as one of the only survivors of their last attempt to take the Island.
After their total defeat last time, they sail under a fleet of new weapons; massive rifles attached to the ships designed to fire huge balls of destruction from afar. The tacticians told them to rain hell upon the Island until the people were softened, and then charge to take whatever dregs remained. Conn is uneasy all the same.
‘Prepare yourselves, soldiers!’ The captain cries, ‘Island’ll be in range soon, prepare the rifle!’
A crashing sound pierces the chaotic preparations of their new gun.
‘What was that?’ Conn yells, eyes darting all around.
‘No clue. Did one of the other ships fire too soon? We’re still outside of firing range.’
Another thundering crack rings out, and this time they see the source. A flash from the Island is briefly followed by the awful sound of metal tearing and wood shrieking, as the ship to their left is torn asunder. A massive metal bullet has ripped through the ship, leaving a pile of rapidly sinking scrap. Screams are heard only briefly, before going silent once again.
‘Bloody hell. What are we dealing with here?’ The captain asks to the silence of the ship; everyone frozen in place looking to her for direction.
Another cracking sound rings the fate of another ship, further down the line.
‘Bugger this. About face, quickly!’
The crew springs into action and turns the ship about, sailing back the way they came. Glancing about, Conn notices most other ships have decided to do the same. Those who don’t are quickly picked off by whatever strange rifle the Island wields.
They sail back once again; Tuller’s crew fully intact, but morale in tatters.
It is another year before Conn once again finds himself on Captain Tuller’s boat, headed to the now dreaded Island.
‘Lieutenant Conn, you have the deck!’ Tuller shouts to him, ‘I need to speak to Bagsley in the quarters.’
Conn is more uncomfortable than he has ever been. They ride the same ship they always have, but the rifle has been replaced with an olive-wood flagpole, a call for diplomacy. They carry no weapons but the pistols at their belts, and their quarters are full of diplomats, traders, and well paid scholars.
They sail into sight of the Island, and the crew grows quiet. Across the line of ships each waits for the thunderous sound of death as the Island once again picks off ships at random; but that sound never comes. Olive-wood poles are sighted from the crow’s nests, and the ships reach the shore for the first time in years.
The peaceable sorts held in the quarters below deck are taken aboard by a small host of guards, and from the deck Jane Tuller and Conn Regarda watch them walk up the banks he remembers climbing himself; flashbacks of bloodshed fresh in his mind.
‘Watch and learn, lieutenant; this is truly how wars are won.’ She smiles, staring through her spyglass.
Doing just as she says, Conn watches. Diplomats from both sides meet upon the banks; tables are gathered for discussion and debate. Scholars meet to share information, and traders greedily discuss the goods of both lands.
Conn smiles; ‘The secret to war is peace, captain? I like that.’
‘No, my dear boy. The secret to war is deception.’
‘What?’ Conn asks, shocked.
‘Watch. The wine our traders are giving out is poisoned. As soon as the first body falls our guards are instructed to open fire. This is how we win the war.’
Through his own spyglass Conn sees the first body fall; a trader, holding a flask of-
‘Oh bugger.’ The captain mutters.
A trader of their own falls to the ground, having taken a single sip of the beer that the locals had brought forward. The guards look confused momentarily, and some draw their pistols to open fire; but it is too late. The Islanders pull their own weapons from beneath shirts and from hidden pouches, and the roar of metal is as rapid as it is one-sided.
‘Release the anchor! Turn the ship about, now dammit!’
Once again, Conn finds himself fleeing the Island, their ship far emptier than when they arrived.
‘What the hell are we meant to do now? We lost some of our best minds on that damnable idea; a good portion of the senate is missing!’
Conn should not even be present for this meeting; at least he feels that way. Captain Tuller was, apparently, too drunk to attend, and thus her lieutenant stands amongst the captains of the First Class Navy, while the war council meets.
‘Well what next?’ Asks one of the councillors. Many of the captains wish to speak, but they all know too well that while they are allowed to attend these meetings due to old rites and practices, they hold no sway and will likely lose much should they dare to speak. Even so, many of the captains appear to be fighting a battle to speak internally, weighing up losing their jobs against losing their lives when they are sent to die yet again.
‘One of my advisors tells me of a new weapon his lab has devised. An explosive, to be used from afar. With only a few ships carrying these devices we could level their banks and force them inland; then our crew would stand a much fairer chance!’
‘They clearly have philosophers as wise as our own though, Mr. Gale. Note that they have outwitted and outgunned us at every turn.’
Conn’s eyes open wide, his palms close into fists, his lips tremble as he suddenly fights his own desperate struggle of tradition against reason.
‘Don’t you fools understand!’ He cries out; his eyes bulging as he realises what he has just done.
All eyes turn to him, the room turns silent, the air to stone.
‘I don’t recognise you. Are you a captain in my fleet?’ Asks the admiral, Lucas Graves.
‘I am lieutenant Conn, acting under Captain Jane Tuller.’
‘Oh. That one. Stay quiet, soldier, and you may just have a job when this council is through.’
‘Sorry sir, but I must speak.’ He says, his hands shaking behind his back.
‘Such is your right.’ Says the eldest at the table, Senator Cailen. A withered man without hair or teeth.
‘Barely.’ Grunts the admiral, ‘Damned traditions. Speak your mind and pray it is worthwhile, else I can assure you’ll regret this interruption.’
‘Thank you sir.’ He begins, ‘Don’t you all see? The Island, the Island you continue to attack, is simply reacting to your presence!’
Blank stares greet him from all corners.
‘It is, clearly I believe, a reactionary entity. Our scouts arrived, and what did they see? Scattered Islanders, trying to stay hidden. Then the attack; I rode the waves on that very first siege. They outmatched us at our own plans; they held the upper ground and there were two Islander infantrymen for every one of our own.’
Blank faces, still. He gulps, he needs to be more convincing.
‘Then we sail with our mighty ship-rifles. You assured us we would ruin them long before they even knew of our presence! Yet, once we arrived we were not greeted by an army on the shores, but a mighty gun of their own that tore apart our ships!’
A few faces appear to be considering his words. He’s getting through to them, he’s sure. He hopes.
‘And our latest attack, our deception. We greet them with scholars and diplomats, and they meet us in kind. Where was their gun then? I saw no sign of such a device upon their shores. But just as our own deception was to begin its play, their own began, and more swiftly executed than ever we could. I argue it is an aspect of the Island itself; a defence, if you will! Whatever arrives at the Island, it simply responds in kind. Thus, it is always safe, always protected! It can always best what attacks it, for it has the same, and the advantage of land and high ground!’ He finishes his speech and gasps for air, looking around in concern for any signs of agreement.
The council look perplexed. Some faces show a dawning realisation and fear, some a dumbfounded confusion.
‘What would you have us do then, lieutenant? How can one defeat an opponent that bests you at your own game?’
‘Do not sail to beat.’ Conn says, ‘Such a defence is impenetrable, I believe. Do not attempt to take the Island, but instead see it as another nation to reckon with. Send traders, diplomats, scholars all you like; but do not attempt to harm, for we will feel whatever sting we send.’
There is much discussion, much debate. Many do not believe the wild claim, whereas others say they see the sense in it.
‘Then it is decided.’ Pronounces the admiral, ‘Captain Tuller’s ship will sail once again for the Island. In the hold will be a crate of trade goods, to be placed upon the shores. They will record anything that happens, should they survive. They will carry no guns, no blades, and no poisons. Whether they return or not, lieutenant Conn’s theory will be tested well.’
Captain Tuller is not best pleased with her lieutenant’s actions in her name, but her ship still sails for the Island.
‘But why no weapons at all? They wouldn’t even let me have my sword!’ Jane Tuller complains to her lieutenant, as they both look out upon the waves from the bridge.
‘I’m not sure how this works; I don’t want the Island to think we’re attacking it. A sword would do no good against their guns, should they choose to attack us.’ He reasons, uncertainty breaking through his voice.
‘Are you even sure it works, friend?’ Jane asks, her voice softer than Conn has ever heard before.
‘Not at all, captain. Does it matter, now?’
They sail in silence as the Island comes into view; the crew holds its breath as they wait for the gun to fire and their ship to be torn apart, but none comes.
They sail up to the shore, and Conn is surprised to see a small host of Islanders awaiting them. They have no apparent weapons, but they watch the ship with unease and anticipation.
Making anchor, the crew slowly drop ladders and walk across the shore. A single heavy crate of valuable commodities is brought down from the ship, and they warily approach the welcoming host.
Conn makes a point of leading the march while the captain stays on the ship and watches carefully, ready to bellow orders at a moment’s notice. They greet the Islanders, who do not speak but simply nod or wave slowly. An Islander walks up to Conn, shakes his hand, and passes him a flask of local beer.
Conn glances to the crew, and to his captain on the ship. All eyes are on him. His face hardens, and he gulps from the beer; it is bitter and dark and tastes oddly of milk; but it is not unpleasant. He smiles to the Islander and finishes the flask, before signalling to the crew to drop the crate at the welcome host’s feet.
From the trees come two Islanders, carrying their own crate. They place it at their feet, and Conn instructs the crew to take it to the ship, before trying to show his own gratitude to the enigmatic Islanders.
He glances to who he presumes is their leader who smiles a wry smile to Conn, and nods in knowing approval. Conn feels a wave of calm pass over him, as the ordeal ends and they return to their ship.
As they break anchor and sail back into the open sea, calmly for the first time, captain Tuller immediately demands the crate be opened.
‘I think our Conn might have been on to something after all, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this crate was full of deadly snakes either. Come on, open it up lads, let’s get this over with!’
The soldiers, who had been eager to open the crate, now begrudgingly wander over to it and peer into the wooden cracks before prying off the lid. Inside are various pouches of coloured powders and sweet smelling plants.
‘No, no surely not.’ The captain whispers, before taking a small pouch of orange powder in her hand, sticking a finger in, and tasting the powder. ‘Paprika! This crate is full of herbs and spices. Good gods, Conn, this crate is worth a fortune!’
Conn glances back to Island, rapidly vanishing in the distance. He smiles.