BK 3: Chapter Four: The Journey South
Morning dawned crisp and clear with a chill breeze blowing from the north across the narrowing shorelines of The Deepening. Cora stood on a pier in the shipping district, along the southern wharf, patiently waiting for their cutter, the Expeditious, to make ready. She cradled a steaming mug of ragamuffin kaffe in her hands and shivered against the biting wind. Vapor from her breath blended with the rising steam of her drink.
Once the quartermaster had given the signal to board, Elric and Cuauhtérroc loaded crates containing their gear up the gangplank and into the forward hold. Cora sipped her hot drink as she signed the manifest and paid the fare. But Kiyla, in a sleeveless shirt that revealed broad and scarred shoulders, stood column-like with folded arms, staring at the keel of the ship.
“Is everything all right?” Cora asked over the brim of her mug.
“Never been on the water.”
“Really? I find that surprising.”
Kiyla’s brown eyes narrowed. “Can’t swim.”
The kaffe burned Cora’s throat, and she sputtered. “No worries.” She patted Kiyla on her bare shoulders. “I won’t tell anyone.”
With an angry glare at the ship, Kiyla forced herself up the gangplank. She pounded her fists on the sidewalls of the hull as she stepped down onto the main deck. “Better not sink.”
They settled into cramped quarters belowdecks, where the crew instructed them to remain for the better part of the day. As they drifted down the river, Cora played her lute softly while Kiyla tossed atop the mattress. Elric and Cuauhtérroc hovered over a wooden chaturanga board with mismatched pieces as the scenery floated by.
As the evening sun set behind sparse trees lining the Alikonian side of the Rae Serene, the passengers were invited to leave their cabins and join the crewmen atop the main deck. Dinner was simple and unadorned, but with the company of forty passengers and crew, the atmosphere was lively and festive.
In a corner near the mainsail rigging, a trio of sailors pushed away from their grub and began singing the tight harmonies of Under the Midnight Moon. The deck fell silent as guests and crewmen alike listened, and soon their song was the only sound blanketing a quietly flowing river. With the final lyric, polite applause rippled across the ship, and requests arose for another tune.
Cora climbed the ladder to the helm and approached the captain. “I happen to be a famous songsage, sir. With your approval, of course, I would like to provide the evening’s entertainment.”
“Me men be singin’ jis fine.”
“I agree, Captain, but you always have your men. You’ll have an accomplished songsage for only a few days. Perhaps you’ve heard of Cora O’Banion?”
The captain snorted. “Nay.”
Cora suppressed her disappointment. “Then perhaps you’ve heard of the Company of Dragonslayers?”
A hard stare was the only response.
“We saved the duke’s life and stopped a Nephreqin coup.”
“Aye, I be hearin’ o’ that.”
Cora’s mouth shifted sideways in frustration. “That was us—the Dragonslayers. I’m…I lead the Dragonslayers. Even now we are on a commission from the duke as his personal freeblades.”
The captain looked her over with a raised eyebrow. “True? Then aye, lassie, I be lettin’ ye sing. Even if ye be no good fer singin’, ye do be good fer lookin’ at.”
Cora groaned, forced a “thank you,” and swallowed the caustic remains of her thoughts.
Her boots clomped on the deck at the base of the ladder, garnering the attention of those nearby. She breathed an arcane phrase and held out her hand. With an audible buzz, brownish-orange streaks of muted light raced across the deck and coalesced in her hand, forming into the shape of Lysanthir’s Lute. All eyes fixed on her, mouths open in a mixture of wonder and apprehension.
Cora gave Lysanthir’s Lute a satisfied smile. I’ve been wanting to do that for so long. She warmed her fingers with a quick scale up the fretboard and down again, followed by a succession of rapidly changing chords. The audience applauded, and Cora launched into the opening notes of The Night I First Kissed Sara Lou. A thundering roar of approval lifted from the sailors as they recognized one of the raunchiest and, therefore, most beloved sea shanties ever written.
As Cora played, she drifted along the deck, winking at crewmen as she passed. For the second verse, she climbed the ladder to the helm and sang directly to the helmsman the sultry lyrics of a man’s first kiss. The helmsman leaned in, certain Cora was going to kiss him as the verse ended, but she jumped up quickly, leaving his puckered lips in the air, and spun about to sing the chorus over the main deck. The crew roared in laughter. During the last verse, she crept back down the ladder and sang for the first mate standing beneath a lantern hanging on the main mast. The extended pause and emerald gaze into his eyes forced him to back against the pole. Cora turned to the expectant crewmen, who leaned in to see the kiss. But she shook her head vigorously and finished the song, drawing more laughter and teasing from the crew.
Had Cora’s mother seen the act and heard the song, she would have grabbed Cora’s ear and pulled her away under a barrage of exasperated scolding. But it was a performance that would have filled Devin Rhynn, the renown songsage and her mentor, with great pride. Cora grinned; an apron string was cut that night.
She launched into The Day My Bonnie Died, which elicited a chorus of knowing laughs and winks. The song embodied the secret longing of many seamen who wished, as the song described, to make their own cheating spouses walk the plank. Hand clapping and foot stomping accompanied her singing and playing to such a volume that she wondered whether some of them had done it.
For close to an hour, Cora entertained them with their favorite tunes, introduced them to a handful of folk songs from the Alikonian farmlands, then settled the mood with a dirge and a pair of ballads. She ended the set with her signature piece, The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep. A strange silence settled over the crowd as she played and her voice carried across the placid waters of the Rae Serene. It had been a masterful performance thus far, and warmth filled her heart as she began her finale.
When the water is not high,
Where the river tells you why,
There look up unto the sky
And see your calling
Cora smiled warmly as Cuauhtérroc softly sang the familiar song to himself. She might not have taught him how to read, but at least he was learning her songs. But as she meandered through the quieted audience, she noticed a shift in the crew’s demeanor. They grew agitated and shifted about in their seats, each one stealing glances with his fellow crewmen. As she stepped across the deck, a visible change swept through the crew like a sonorous wave on dreadful shores. It seemed to affect only the crewmen, for the two dozen passengers appeared as pleased by this song as any Cora had sung. The sailors recoiled from her, their faces registering fear or possibly anger. Always a professional, Cora maintained her performance despite the clear dislike for the song.
Open eyes and open ears,
Know that death is very near;
May your mind be ever clear
While doom is falling
Abruptly, one of the crewmen jumped up and dashed down the steps into the hold, stumbling over the outstretched legs of a passenger as he fled.
Though warned by her instructors never to slip into a detached frame of mind—monotonous equals monotonic, they said—something was happening that needed her attention. Cora shifted to rote singing. Unconscious of the lyrics and melody, mindless of her lute, she scanned the faces of the other crew as they gaped open-mouthed and wide-eyed at her. There was no mistaking it; they were afraid.
She had not quite reached the third verse when the captain suddenly shouted, “Enough!”
With a final, weak plink on the strings, Cora brought her concert to a halt.
“What be the meanin’ o’ this?” the captain barked at her.
Cora stared in dumbfounded confusion. “I…I don’t know. What do you mean?”
The captain strode across the main deck. All fell silent, save the gentle flapping of sails overhead and the captain’s hard-soled boots thudding on the floorboards. As he approached, his stern face was illumined by a lantern hanging from the mast, casting sideways shadows across his disapproving scowl. “Why do ye be ruinin’ our pleasant evenin’ with a tune like this?”
“Aye, lassie.” The captain loomed over her. “Ruin.”
“But that was only The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep,” she offered. “It’s a harmless tale, maybe a bit sad, but…” Her words trailed off into silence. Murmuring from the crew signaled she was missing some vital piece of information.
The captain scowled. “It be not harmless, and it be not sad. And ye be not singin’ no more upon me ship.”
“I don’t understand.” Her eyes pleaded for meaning.
“Tanasha’s Keep be the very mansion what vanishes every day in yon Brack. Ye be havin’ no business regalin’ me crew with such as that. Now get belowdecks afore I have ye tossed o’er.”
Cora blanched, studying his face. It was all business.
“Now!” the captain barked.
She scampered across the deck, down the ladder into the cabins, and holed up in her room, her mind a hazy fog of disbelief. She had been mocked, jeered, and catcalled. She had watched people leave from boredom. But never had she been tossed out on her ear.
Minutes later, the rest of the Dragonslayers joined her in the room and spread out on their bunks.
“Well, who’da thunk?” Elric said after a moment of silence. “That was ‘bout as bad as a fly in the buttermilk.”
Cora looked up, imploring someone to make sense of it all. “What just happened?”
“I don’ reckon the cap’n liked ‘at song so much,” Elric suggested. “Ya do kinda play it a lot.”
“Not to them,” Cora protested. “How was I to know the stupid mansion had a name? That name?”
Kiyla smirked. “Gotta know your audience.”
Elric rolled over and sat up. “What’s got me puzzled is how ya coulda sung that ditty fer years an’ never learnt what it was about. I mean, didn’t nobody tell ya where Tanasha’s Keep was?”
“Now just a minute, you two.” Cora bit her bottom lip to hold back a torrent, exactly as her mother would do. Cripe. “There’s no way this is my fault. I’m from Lorenvale, for one thing, clear on the other side of Cer Halcyon, and this keep is in southern Alikon in the middle of the Brack. And you think I should have known this?”
Elric chuckled and fell back on his bed. “Pfft…ya know ever’thang, Cora.”
“That’s not fair. Cuauhtie, tell them this isn’t my fault.”
Cuauhtérroc lay quietly on his bed, his hands folded across his chest. “Cora O’Banion, when dees water speel from dees cup, you cannot put it back inside. You only have dees mud. If you want dees more water, den you go back to dees reever.”
He was right. At least, she thought so. I can’t undo it; I just have to move on. She closed and locked her lute in its case. Stupid sailors.
Except for the freeblades, the passengers disembarked that night at Kralencaster by the juncture of the Rae Sarcoss. For the next four days, the Expeditious sailed quietly along the wide and smoothly flowing Rae Serene as it snaked through the Cerion Forest. Ancient trees flanked both banks of the meandering river, many draped with silverbeard, a curly silver lichen hanging from branches extending over the water. Bird calls, lively during the day, fell eerily absent at night, giving way to the melancholy moans of nocturnal creatures.
Cora became something of a byword, and her reputation with the crew only worsened with each passing day. The longer she stayed aboard the Expeditious, the more their attitudes soured to her presence. Some of the sailors wanted her tossed overboard to appease the curse they believed she had brought upon them. The plank wasn’t getting used enough, they said, and it was about time someone walked it. Only by remaining sequestered in the cramped cabin was she able to stay their hand and deliver her allies to their destination.
On the final day of travel, the looming forest gave way to scrub brush and reeds. The Cerion Forest had ended and the upper Brack had begun. Within minutes of exiting the dense woodlands, the crew hoisted sails and back-rowed to a slow crawl. Along the western bank of the Rae Serene sprawled the small outpost of Misteral, a thatched-hut village at the headwaters of the delta swamp.
The Expeditious worked against the strong river current, swinging full around to face its bow against the flow while also edging ever closer to the lone dock that jutted into the water. The crew navigated the ship into position and tossed mooring ropes onto the dock, where a man, shirtless and barefoot, tied them around the cleats. Other crew extended a gangplank and offloaded supplies to Alikon’s most isolated colony.
“We be returnin’ in a month,” the captain muttered as Cora stepped onto the dock. His eyes narrowed at her. “Maybe.”
The dock felt unstable beneath her feet, as if it would collapse at any moment, but she soon realized it floated atop the river water. Solid rings anchored to the sides of the dock slipped along vertical posts that rose twenty feet overhead. As she reestablished her footing, she scanned the village with furrowed brow. Meager housing spread about the marshy land in haphazard fashion, each built atop a floating base ringed to lengthy posts nearby. Floating boardwalks connected some of the buildings, but others were accessible only by boat when the river flooded. “I need a drink.”
The common house in Misteral was a small two-room building containing little more than tables and chairs. They unloaded their gear and waited.
Nearly half an hour later, an unwashed, sunbaked man entered. He scratched his head, dug a finger in his ear, and studied what he found. Wiping his discovery on his grimy pants, he looked up with jaundiced eyes and flashed some of his original teeth. “I heard we had company. I’m supposed to fix your dinner. We got whatever comes out the river or off the ground. You’d be surprised by what we find.” He grinned like that was an enticement.
Cora averted her gaze to a series of thick cobwebs dangling from the ceiling, able to suppress a rising column of bile by thinking of spiders. “No thanks. Suddenly we’re not hungry anymore.”
The man shrugged and left, but the churning in Cora’s stomach remained.
“What a dump,” Elric said. “An’ ever’body looks like somebody peed in their ale.”
Cora shook her head. “Don’t be crude, Elric. But yes, there’s a pall of gloom hanging over this place. I think we may have brought in more wealth on our shoulders than what exists in this whole community. I’d rather not stay the night here, or we may not have any gear in the morning. We can probably reach the greater part of the Brack by nightfall, and we can set up camp there.”
The Dragonslayers gathered their gear and began the long trek south into the Brack, following the bank of the river to their left, with Cuauhtérroc and Elric leading the way. Out of habit, Cora began to hum The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep, but the tune died on her lips before she had finished the first musical phrase. They walked along in awkward silence.
“Creepy,” Kiyla said.
“So, is it Tanasha’s Keep?” Elric asked.
Cora shrugged. “I don’t know. It was my graduation recital piece at Gramma Cora’s school. I never once thought about it as a real place, never mind actually happening upon it one day. That’s a bit surreal, to be honest.”
Cuauhtérroc stopped them, his dark eyes scanning the reeds ahead. After a moment, he proceeded with more measured steps. “Why do dees sailors hate dees song?”
“They’re a superstitious bunch,” Cora answered. “The timing was awful, I admit. They’ve been worried about phantoms in the Brack for a couple of months, then I go singing about it. But if you listen to the lyrics, it’s actually a hopeful song of encouragement.”
Kiyla pulled a branch out of her way, breaking it off in her hand. “They get under your skin?”
“A bit!” Cora exclaimed. “I have never been so humiliated in all my performing life. I was grounded in a room the size of a rinkin broom closet like an incorrigible stepchild. How could I have known it was the very mansion buried in the myths of irrational fear? They wouldn’t even let me explain…no, they just shut me up in my room. You can’t reason with ignorance.”
Elric chuckled. “Heh…broom closet.”
Cora stopped in her tracks. “Really? That’s not funny.”
Cuauhtérroc stopped and spun around to Elric, a wide grin breaking across his face. “I remember dees! You try to fight weeth me, and Cora O’Banion has dees many steecks fall out of dees room when she open dees door. Yes, it is funny.”
“Busted noses two years in the Muckraker,” Kiyla said, shaking her head. “Nobody broke into that broom closet before.”
Cora threw her arms out in an appeal of innocence. “I didn’t know it was a broom closet!” She rolled her eyes and would have stormed ahead, but her feet failed to move. The soles of her boots had sunk over an inch into soft, water-logged soil and created a soggy sucking sound as it broke free of the ground.
Cuauhtérroc observed the ground and the tracks their feet were leaving. “We walk so we not sink in dees ground.”
As they pressed on, Misteral faded into the background as the odor of bog strengthened. Waves of decay wafted through time and again, always returning them to the heavy scent of oily, muddy, rotten slime. Shifting winds brought new smells, including stagnant brine from the Bluhusk Sea farther south.
Kiyla reached around and smacked the back of her neck. She grinned with smug satisfaction at the black-and-red smear in the palm of her hand. “Got ‘im!”
“Got what?” Elric asked.
Kiyla suddenly slapped Elric on the side of his neck and showed him a second bloody smear in her palm. “That…a midge. Swamp’s swarmin’ with midges.”
They had entered a localized swarm of midges, and they were beginning to draw attention. Cora cursed under her breath. Midges were the vermin of tropical lands; she hadn’t expected to encounter the tiny blood-suckers here.
“No!” Cuauhtérroc barked, “do not keel dees nyamuk…as you say, meedges. Dey smell dees blood and more nyamuk come. Dees is what you do.” The jungle warrior stooped down and dug a handful of mud from the soggy ground. Bits of soil dripped between his fingers. “Like dees.” He slapped the handful across his chest and smeared a thick layer of it onto his skin.
“Are you nuts?” Cora asked as she smacked her cheek.
“Dey do not smell you in dees mud,” the jungle warrior explained. He pointed to a midge that seemed to be hovering near his torso, occasionally diving in only to bound back as if repulsed by the mud.
“Well, I’ll be…” Elric muttered.
“You also cover weeth dees mud,” Cuauhtérroc said to the others. “It is good.”
“Right!” Elric exclaimed as he shucked his backpack and unfastened his scabbard.
“What are you doing?” Cora asked, fearing the answer.
Elric unclasped the buckles of his red dragon armor and lifted it over his head. When he removed his shirt and gave his pudgy belly a smack, Cora knew everything had gone wrong. Before she could react, Elric spread his arms and legs wide and belly-flopped into the muddiest area he could see.
“What in the…” Cora muttered in disbelief.
“Looks like a blonde pig,” Kiyla added.
As they resumed their travels, Cora’s arms fluttered in the air as she vainly attempted to wave midges away. When she smacked them, more arrived, drawn to the scent of her blood. Frustration built as she stumbled through the mud, her boots sucking into the sludge with every step. It was maddening, and she felt like screaming. They could not possibly sleep out here. We have to turn back and better prepare.
A clomp of stringy, goopy mud slopped across the back of Cora’s neck. Her eyes bugged and she wheeled. Elric grinned at her as remnants of mud dripped from his hand.
“Tell me you didn’t just—” The urge to scream surfaced. “Nine Hells, Elric! I’m at my wit’s end, you stupid buggard, so if you do that again…so help me, I will bust your rinkin nose, then you can have a hundred midges hanging out on that ridiculous blonde mustache draped across your lip.”
Elric dropped a second handful of mud behind his back. “Yes, ma’am.”
It started as a low rumble, then the sound of Cuauhtérroc’s hearty laugh burst forth in full volume.
“What’s so funny?” Cora asked, grinding her teeth.
“I see Erik Rikeoven weeth dees nyamuk sitting on his leep, and…” The savage doubled over in full-throated laughter. “…and dees nyamuk are eating dees blood from hees broken nose…”
Cora pulled her boots from the sucking mud and stormed off. She smacked another midge on her arm. “Whatever.”
“But he has dees one hundred meedges on hees nose, eating dees blood…” Cuauhtérroc looked around him. “Why is dees not funny to you mainland people? You do not know funny if it bite you in dees bounda. Like dees meedges.” He laughed again and strode onward.
The day trudged along with little change. The marsh grew marshier and the swarms of midges grew swarmier. Under agonizing duress, Cora finally slathered her arms and neck with the bog. The air continued to buzz with the swarms, but they rarely landed to bite. Eventually, she could no longer smell the reek, probably because her nose had been pickled by it.
Cuauhtérroc stopped their travels at one point, pointing to a miniscule bluish-green frog that warmed itself on a moss laden tree trunk. “Do not touch dees,” he warned. “It is leetle, but it keels a man.”
Kiyla raised an eyebrow. “It’s a frog.”
“No, it is dees karpo vèt from my homeland. I theenk we are in my lands now. I see dees trees and dees birds from my home.”
“I assure you we’re not in the Audric Jungle,” Cora replied. “We would have to cross the entire Bluhusk Sea to get there. But there may be some similarities, so please point out anything you recognize that we need to avoid.”
The evening sun dipped below the upper branches of the canopy, casting an orange glow upon the marsh. Cuauhtérroc pointed to a long-limbed, striped animal brachiating through the trees, stopping between swings to take stock of its surroundings.
“We have many maki in my homeland.” Cuauhtérroc mused, his eyes growing distant. “How long do I wait to go back with dees army?”
Cora sighed and put a hand on his shoulder. “I promise you, Cuauhtérroc. I will do my best to make that happen.”
“It is dees long time, and I do not know if dey leeve or die.” He tapped his muddy chest. “It hurts here.”
“Have faith, my friend. Let’s get through this mess, then I’ll talk to the duke. Maybe if we can free his shipping lanes, he will reward us with a small contingent of his armed men.”
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “Dees is good. Now it gets dark, so we need to make dees camp. I see dees dry ground.”
Cora raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t we been walking on it?”
Before the sun had fully set, Elric had cleared a small area and laid a ring of stones for a makeshift pit. A small pile of deadwood lay nearby, but most of it was damp and rotten.
Ten minutes later, Cuauhtérroc gave up trying to ignite the pile of damp brush and mossy logs with his flint rock. Cora tried a couple of tindertwigs, but when those also failed to create a meaningful fire, she tucked the small box away, preserving them from needless waste. Cuauhtérroc pulled a torch from his pack and was about to douse it with lamp oil, but a loud and painful groan stayed his hand.
Elric looked and sounded as if he had been punched in the gut. He doubled over with contorted face, one eye opened to them as if pleading for help.
Cuauhtérroc stood up and pulled his longsword, holding the unlit torch in his other hand as a makeshift club.
“What’s the matter?” Cora asked as she prepared to call her lute.
“Better stand back,” Kiyla replied. She gathered up her bedroll and pack and edged away from the campsite.
“Why?” Cora frowned at her. “What’s happening?”
For an answer, Elric dashed forward to the pile of unlit brush, his arms clutched around his stomach. His face was bright red and his cheeks puffed out as if he were about to throw up. Cora stared aghast. He’s going to turn up on the firepit!
Elric knelt at the edge of the rocks and spewed out a rolling wave of fire, turning the pile of damp wood and a good ten feet of grasses beyond it into a blaze. “By the Maker, that hurts!” he yelled as he rolled onto his back.
“Wha’d I say?” Kiyla quipped.
Cora gaped in horror, partly from the sight of half their campsite going up in flames and partly at the realization that Elric had vomited fire. “Wait…” She spun around to Kiyla. “You knew he could do that?”
A roar sprang from Cuauhtérroc. With madness in his dark eyes, he stomped, jumped and beat the grass fires on the far side of the camp. Doubtless, memories of his burning homeland had been thrust to the forefront of his mind.
Staying clear of his rampaging, Cora dragged their gear away from the fire and trudged back into the bog.
When the fires were corralled back to the original location, Elric and Kiyla gathered additional wood and formed a renewed pile that would serve through the night.
Cora sat beside her Audric friend. “Are you all right?”
Cuauhtérroc remained quietly staring into the flames.
She regarded his somber face. “That hit a little too close to home, didn’t it?”
“Yes. It heet my home. Eric Rikeoven do not theek before he do. He is like dees Amurraks.”
Cora cringed and drew breath through her teeth. “That’s a bit harsh, I think.” Still, I probably need to have a talk with him.
As they settled in for the night, Cora watched Elric lying atop his bedroll and staring up at the stars, hands folded across his chest. His breath appeared tinged with the faintest wisps of smoke. Perhaps it’s only the cool night air. Or maybe he’s slowly turning into a dragon. “Hey Elric.”
“The duke wasn’t kidding about that armor making you breathe fire, was he?”
Elric smiled weakly. “I jis wish it didn’t hurt so awful.”
“At least the fire doesn’t burn you.”
“Trust me,” Elric replied, looking over at Cora, “it burns plenty.”
“You know, that can’t be very good for you. I mean, the armor is from a dragon, after all—a son of Karashakon. What if some of that dragon’s evil nature passes to you in the same manner as its fire-breathing did?”
Elric grunted and rolled away from her. “I got second watch, Cora. I gotta sleep.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Elric stared into the darkened swamp as the dull orange glow of the campfire cast dancing shadows onto the nearby trees. He had no desire to argue with that smarty-pants songsage about his dragon armor. It was his most prized possession, and she was just jealous. He had the awesomest armor ever, and all she got was a music strumming-thing. Worthless. But it worried him that she might be right. Besides the pain it caused—like trying to swallow a hundred prickleberry shells that were on fire—he wondered if the armor was souring his outlook on life. He was turning serious, making plans, thinking about things. Boring stuff he had never done before. Cripe, I’m even thinkin’ ‘bout how I’m thinkin’ ‘bout things—pfft, I’m a mess.
He closed his eyes and pushed aside his worries. There would be time for that tomorrow. Instead, he filled his imaginations with that one undebatable truth that answered every question.
“Tray-sure,” he whispered to himself as he drifted to sleep.