- Andrew M. Trauger
Chapter 7: Rescued
Captain Hunt sauntered into Marley’s Tankard for the sixth night in a row, wondering at this point whether he was wasting his time. Perhaps it was a setup, maybe a joke. He certainly felt the fool for trying yet again.
The tavern was as seedy as Westmeade offered, which still made it nicer than those in the underbellies of larger places. But Marley, being an Ogrian, did his best to lower everyone’s standards, and judging by the clashing odors wafting across the unwashed tables, he was succeeding.
Hunt brushed off a stool at the bar and sat, a sense of futility settling over him as he ordered an ale. The crumpled note from Rutland was stuffed in his vest pocket, but he had no longer any need to review it. “Find me at Marley’s,” it said, nothing more. Rutland could be laughing his head off counting the times he made his former captain trudge into this armpit of a tavern only to leave for home much later than he ought. How many times would he play the game?
“Say…” the captain said, catching Marley’s attention. “Have you seen a young man, about five-ten, dark hair, blue eyes, bit of a cocky disposition…?”
The Ogrian stared at him with one eye closed, his hands absently wiping on his trousers as his jaw hung open, exposing several gaps in his teeth. “Maybe.”
“Look, I’m not going to arrest you, if that’s what you’re wondering. I mean, I could arrest you for at least a dozen infractions, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m supposed to meet this man.”
“Men seein’ much an’ much.”
Hunt dropped his gaze and sighed. I hate Ogrians. He looked back up at the barkeep and presented a patient smile. “Do you know how to speak? Like…literally everyone else in this town?”
Hunt uttered a curse under his breath. “If I paid you a half-dozen eagles, would you spare me this act?”
Marley held out his hand. Hunt dropped six silver coins in it.
“I see a lot of men like this,” Marley replied, his jaw closed and both eyes opened. “Does yours have a name?”
“Mason Rutland,” the captain said.
Marley returned the silver coins. “For that one, no need to pay. He sits in the back corner…alone…in the booth with no light. If you arrest him, I’ll pay you.”
Hunt regarded the barkeep with a sideways glance. “What do you mean? Are you filing charges?”
“Nope. Only he’s bad for business, if you get my meanin’.”
Captain Hunt nodded and grabbed his ale. “Bring another one.” He scooted off the barstool. Seconds later, he slid into the back corner booth with no light and set the pewter mug in front of a figure dressed in solid black. A cowl covered his head and a scarf wrapped around his face from the nose down. Hunt’s hand inched toward the hilt of a dagger strapped to his thigh, ready to draw the blade if needed.
A barwench set a second mug on the table and scurried off.
“That’s for you,” Hunt said, tipping his head toward the mug. “Whatever it is you’ve got to say, I figure it’s best said over a shared pint. One of us is about to have a bad night. Am I right?”
The hooded figure reached out a gloved hand and pulled the mug closer, then reached up and slid down the scarf.
Hunt’s eyes widened at a latticework of deep and angry scars covering the man’s face, some of which still oozed. “By the Maker…Rutland?”
The man nodded. “I done had my bad night. So, I reckon it’s yer turn.”
“I’m sorry for whatever happened to you, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it. And you’re in no position to threaten me.”
Rutland sipped his ale, and some of the liquid dribbled down a crevasse in his lower lip. “Yes sir, I am. See, I got witnesses, an’ the number grows by the day.”
“Witnesses? Of what?”
“Ya sent men away—exiled ‘em. An’ ya burnt the stuff we hauled outta the tower.”
Hunt laughed and fell back in his seat. “Assuming you know even half of what you think you do, it sounds like all your ‘witnesses’ are gone. But that’s a huge assumption, because you don’t know anything at all.”
“The Dragon Slayers killed a dragon—thus the name—that was livin’ beneath the tower.”
Hunt took a long draught of his ale. “So? I mean, good for them and great for the city, but what difference does that make to you and me? I’m still going to haul your arse to jail for breaking into my office.”
“You said in the trial that Cora acted on impulse, without cause, burnin’ down the tower for nothin’ but a wild rumor.”
“No, sir. It weren’t a rumor. She had cause. There was an old man in that tower, an’ banespiders, an’ walkin’ armor, an’ traps, an’ nisser, an’ a rinkin red dragon.”
Hunt smiled and held up a hand. “All right, you’ve had your fun…that’s enough.”
Rutland sat up suddenly and slammed a gloved hand on the table. “No, that ain’t the half of it! There’s shadow walkers roamin’ that tower, too, an’ they’re stealin’ the children. I seen it, an’ I seen ‘em funnelin’ them kids right through this tavern.” He pulled back his cowl and untied the scarf to reveal his full visage. “An’ I got the scars to prove it.”
For a long minute, Hunt could not peel his eyes away from Rutland’s disfigured face. Hairless gouges ran through his scalp, one of which split an ear. Half an eyebrow was missing, as was the tip of his nose. Innumerable lacerations crisscrossed his face, making normal expressions impossible. But the cloudy eye, no longer blue but a dull and sightless gray, cut through to the captain’s soul. By the Maker…
“What do you want?” he said with some effort. His mouth had gone dry, and he turned back his mug. “Do you need money? Freedom? Do…do you want a title of some kind? What am I supposed to do?”
Rutland pulled the cowl over his head and returned the scarf to his face. “Cap’n Hunt, I’d like to say I’m surprised, but at this point, I ain’t no more. Bribery is also a crime.”
“That fair,” Hunt said with a quick nod. “No need for money.”
“Also, I’m freer now than I ever been, an’ titles mean nothin’…present company included.”
The captain felt the verbal stab exactly where Rutland had intended it. He smiled wryly at his former soldier. “So, what do you want?”
With no hesitation, Rutland sat forward. “I want ya to make thangs right or go to jail.”
Hunt sipped on the last of his drink, studying the man behind the veil. He was caught, and unless he committed one more crime—a truly horrible act of utter evil—unless he eliminated Rutland, there was little choice but to undo his previous choices. There was no “unburning” the confiscated items, but he could recall the men he sent away. He could at least demand a retrial of Cora’s freeblades.
He set the empty mug down and pushed it aside. “Look, I’d like to help you. Really, I would. I’ll admit recent developments have changed the scenario, and…um…maybe we need to take a second look at this. But here’s the thing: nothing’s going to happen right now while the Dragon Slayers are tromping around below Wilder Tower. They’re on a commission for the Council, and I can’t interrupt that for another investigation.”
Rutland folded his arms. “That’s convenient.”
Hunt smiled with growing confidence. “Well, it’s worse than convenient, actually. You see, they were supposed to report to the Council three days ago, but they never showed. And that means they are now fugitives. So as far as I can see, if they don’t appear within the next few days with a rinkin good reason, I’ll be calling in the Sentinel League for a manhunt.”
Rutland’s blue eye squinted but not the gray, and Hunt realized for the first time that the gray eye was dead and had never blinked once all evening. “You ain’t callin’ nobody if I rat ya out first.”
Hunt sighed. “Mason Rutland, you obviously have an axe to grind, but you also have your whole life ahead of you. Think very clearly whether you want to spend the majority of what remains in a cold, dark cell.”
“I’d feel right at home, sir. I done seen the darkness, an’ I come to embrace it. But I thank fer you it’d be a terrible place. Mebbe you need to thank clearly.”
A shudder swept through the captain’s body. Whether it was involuntary or sent from Rutland across the table he could not tell, and it unnerved him. “All right. What do you want me to do? From your point of view, how do I make things right?”
“I seen thangs, Cap’n, an’ I know thangs. It’s a maybe that I know stuff that you don’t. So…here’s my proposition: put me back on yer team, but this time as a lieutenant—”
“What? No way.”
“Hear me out.”
“You’re out of your league, Rutland. And your mind.”
“Reinstate me. As the leader of—say—yer own personal freeblades. Put me on a special team, an’ I’ll get to the truth.”
Hunt fell back against his seat and chuckled.
Rutland held out his gloved hands. “Or don’t, but I’ll get to the truth anyway. One way helps ya—mebbe even saves ya—but the other way locks ya up fer the rest of yer life, which ain’t got nearly as much left to it as mine.”
Captain Hunt folded his hands under his chin. “I’ll see what I can do.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Elric could not tell whether he was awake or asleep. It made no difference whether his eyes were open or closed. The soft sputter of Cora’s fevered sleep sounded from the prow through utter darkness. Cuauhtérroc’s restless snoring rumbled from the stern. At least, that’s where he remembered they were. It taxed the mind trying to sense direction in the impenetrable black. He had no idea whether Shinnick, lying at his feet, slept in this world or the next.
A faint cadence floated across the opacity, a sound from afar drifting over placid waters. Elric felt for his face and pinched himself. He needed to rule out the sound being a trick of the mind—he needed to know if he was going mad. The tempo continued, a rhythmic motion precisely timed, a sloshing that echoed with familiar refrains.
He had no reference to indicate if it was near or far, moving or stationary, real or imagined. He wondered if he was dying, if this moment was his entry into the Maker’s Realms. He had hoped for a better entrance than this.
The cadence of sloshing gradually registered as oars in the water. He thought it might still be a figment born of exhaustion and starvation. If it was another boat, someone could rescue them or at least provide some food and direction. On the other hand, they might just as easily kill them all and seize their goods. Why in the Nine Hells would anyone else be down here? He had to be teetering on the edge of death.
“Cora…Cuauhtérroc…” he whispered, and his voice, unused these past innumerable days, sounded like coarse sand. He groped about in the dark and tapped the savage on the leg. “Wake up.”
Cuauhtérroc shifted, and the boat rocked beneath his movements. Elric clutched his seat in panic. Capsizing in pitch blackness would be a horrible end.
“What ees dees noise?” the savage asked.
“I thank it’s another boat,” Elric said. “Listen at the oars.”
“Yes, it ees a boat. Hello!” he hollered out across the water, a hoarse and pained sound. Cora and Shinnick both jolted from their sleep.
“Whatcha doin’?” Elric hissed at him. “Ya don’ know if they’re gonna help us or kill us.”
“What’s going on?” Cora asked, her voice strained and feeble. “Do I hear someone rowing?”
“If dey keel us,” Cuauhtérroc said, “den we weel not die alone and weeth no food in dees boat. Dat ees good. If dey help us, den we are saved. Dat ees better.” He shouted out a second time, and this time a voice echoed back a reply.
“Kill us?” Cora asked, then coughed through a dry throat. “Not in the dark they don’t.”
In the infernal blackness, the songsage drank from the lake and uttered her song of illumination. She had sung that tune so many times that Elric and Cuauhtérroc could sing it with it, which they did, despite their famished and exhausted condition. Their untrained voices produced nothing for it, but it lifted their spirits to sing. The buoyancy of hope carried Cora’s tune aloft, and a radiant glow of white pierced the gloom.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ralam of Clan Graystone rubbed his thick, stubby fingers through his long, gray-white beard. Deep-set eyes beneath bushy eyebrows peered out across the railing of the main deck of his low-slung lugger, the Gemwarden, across the placid waters to the minute speck of light that had suddenly appeared off his starboard side. His crew had rowed in continual shifts for over two days and had seen no light nor heard any sound save the creaking of the lugger and the soft rippling of water off its prow. This was to be expected. They were plying Black Lake, a forsaken watery tomb.
The presence of a mote of light, then, was cause for pondering. More puzzling was a voice from that direction that had hollered out “hello” as if they were passing each other in the tunnels of Durn Kahldur.
Being Dokari, Ralam had no difficulty seeing for a short distance in complete darkness, a common trait among his people. Between that and an uncommonly keen ear for echolocation, the captain had no concerns with moving through pitch blackness. But a light in Black Lake meant trouble—either someone was in trouble, or the Gemwarden soon would be.
“Me glass, mate,” Ralam grunted as he peered into the darkness at the mote of light bobbing atop the water.
His first mate, Nulak of Clan Ironhaft, rotund by Dokari standards, handed the captain the collapsible instrument. Ralam extended it and placed it to his eye. He harrumphed, a deep and resonant grumble of scorn. “Blasted surface-dwellin’ landlubbers, in a rinkin jibber,” he muttered gruffly. “Jis ruin me day, will ye?”
Nulak took a long draught from a pewter flagon and wiped his wiry red beard with his entire left arm. “What do they be wantin’?”
Ralam folded his stout arms across his chest and exhaled sharply, propelling a forest of white hair outward from his lips. “I reckon they be wantin’ to come aboard. They be sickly and runnin’ thin o’ grub.”
“Are ye sure this be no trap?”
The captain held the spyglass to his eye again. “Aye. Death be waitin’ fer them o’er the next turnin’ o’ the sand.” He handed the spyglass to his mate. “We be seekin’ the Maker’s blessin’ and he sends us this speck o’ light.” Ralam harrumphed again with a small shake of his head. “So, we be dredgin’ fer scragglers. Bring us ‘round and full stop aside ‘em.”
Nulak conferred the order to the helm, and the Gemwarden made a tight turn to starboard, hardly agitating the waters. The rowers belowdecks, possessing the hardened strength of their Dokari blood, brought the lugger to a complete halt beside the beleaguered crew of the rowboat.
“Cover yer light,” Ralam warned with a hand over his eyes, “or there be nothin’ for ye.”
The light disappeared, and Ralam stepped forward to view the drifters from the starboard railing. He had not seen a more pitiful, miserable, downtrodden group—a redheaded lass and two men stained with dried blood and multiple old surface wounds. Panic and dread etched their faces, along with a silent pleading for mercy. This was also to be expected in Black Lake. Those who did not know the lake easily succumbed to its pervading doom.
Death wafted up from the jibber, and the yellow eyes of a wolf peered from around one of the men. Ralam paused and regarded the group anew. It was worse than he had thought. “Ye no be bringin’ death aboard the Gemwarden, and we no be takin’ curs. She no be fit for the four-legged kind.”
“Shinnick is our friend,” said the stocky man with a long, wilted mustache. He draped an arm around the wolf. “His master died, an’ I swore to take care of ‘im.”
“You say this ship is named Gemwarden,” the redhead said with a weary voice. “I have twenty gems taken many days ago from a dragon’s hoard. Good captain, if you take Shinnick aboard, they are yours. We beg of you, take us out of this horrid place. Our beloved friend died in a battle against hodekin and their nasty pets; we only wish to bury him in a forest setting, much like his home. Please.”
Ralam regarded them at length, his glance darting from one careworn face to the next. “I be needin’ some flow o’ the sand to think this over.” He pushed away from the railing and turned to his first mate. “Round up me officers.” He stormed off to his quarters, his boots clomping loudly across the deck until they were silenced behind the slamming door.
Ten minutes later, Captain Ralam returned to the main deck with three officers following him. His crew, dimly illumined beneath the glowing orange of a lantern, awaited his decision with expectant eyes. Ralam glared at the lantern. “Whose idea be that?” he growled.
A young Dokari stepped forward and gave a brief bow. “The lassie’s light be too bright fer us, and they no be seein’ in the dark. It be a decent compromise to me, Cap’n.”
“Compromisin’ with lassies…” Ralam grumbled with a blast of hot breath. He gave the lantern a second glance but said nothing more about it. Leaning over the rail, he addressed the redhead. “The Maker’s blessin’ be not always what we think. Ye, then, may come aboard with yer cur. Yer dead man be stayin’ in the jibber, but we be tyin’ it to our stern. Take no thought fer ‘is safety. There be nothin’ in these waters what’ll fetch ‘im.”
The crew lowered a harness over the side and lifted the wolf onto the deck while the two men, with great weariness and struggle, handed up all the gear. After the lass crawled up the rope ladder and collapsed into a blanket held out for her, the two men accepted blankets and knelt to the floor in exhaustion. With their presence on board, a profound odor wafted across the deck and pushed the crew away in a wide berth.
“Thank you so much,” the redhead said, handing him a pouch of gemstones. “May the Maker of all that is lovely bless you.”
Ralam took the payment with an impassive grunt. “It be only me duty.” He turned to Nulak of Clan Ironhaft. “Mate, see to it they be cleaned, healed, and fed. In that order. Put their gear in me quarters. Helm!”
The helmsman peered over the aft deck rail to the main deck below. “Aye, Cap’n?”
“Bring ‘er back ‘round.” Ralam paused, glancing back at the sad trio on his deck. “Set yer course fer the Mouth.”
“Cap’n?” the helmsman said with a puzzled grimace. “The Mouth?”
“Aye. We be goin’ to the Mouth.”
Two dozen crewmen took a step back; two dozen pairs of eyes widened. Murmuring spread among them, scowls deepening for the three passengers.
“And if any of ye lot has a problem with that, ye can sleep with the dead man in the jibber. Now get back to ye oars! The Gemwarden no be rowin’ ‘erself.”
The crewmen scattered.
Captain Ralam of Clan Graystone shook his head at the overhead lantern and retired to his quarters to make up three cots.
* * * * * * * * * *
When Cora awoke, the opacity of blackness enshrouded her, and she her heart began to race. Her ears said she was awake, given the occasional muffled voice in the distance, but her eyes saw nothing. She remembered a Dokari ship, but the expected listing of a ship was missing, and she could hear no crashing of waves. Perhaps they were docked. Perhaps it had all been a fevered dream. Had it not been for the faint echo of an F-sharp ringing in her ears, a reminder of Ordin’s lightning strikes, she might have guessed she was dead.
She felt a cot beneath her; it wasn’t a dream, and she offered a whispered prayer of thanks. Her legs and back ached, for she had slept soundly, and her muscles begged to be stretched out. The air smelled dank, with overtones of stout ale, pine resin, and stale smoke drifting about the cabin. She sang a magical light into being while tucking her hand beneath the blanket.
Gradually, she pulled her glowing hand from hiding, slowly raising the lighting around her. Elric and Cuauhtérroc rested soundly on cots of their own, and Shinnick lay curled beneath Elric’s arm. Memories faded back into her mind, like figures stepping through a fog. Cold water baths had been given them, and the ship’s cassock had administered healing to their wounds. It astounded Cora that Maker worship extended even to the Subterrain peoples. Perhaps they weren’t so “cursed” after all. They had been fed a hearty stew and given fresh clothes. Despite their dour demeanor, the Dokari had exhibited uncommon kindness.
Cora peeled back her blanket and surveyed her attire. Nothing feminine was available from the spare wardrobes; she wore one of the smallest outfits they had for deckhands—brown linen trousers and an unbleached linen shirt, open at the top a bit more than she liked. A fine swashbuckler I’d make. She sat up and stretched, curious how long she had slept. There was no sense of time, and she wondered how the Dokari managed never to go insane.
Curiosity compelled her to rise and walk about. She wandered for a while in the cabin, inspecting the various collectibles in cabinets behind glass doors. A pair of miniature sailing ships in full sail occupied one shelf, barely a foot tall but exquisitely crafted to the last detail. A bronze disk etched with Dokari runes dominated the center cabinet, its metal surface dull in Cora’s light. A set of figurines—carved of the purest ivory—sat upon one shelf, unfinished but possibly intended for a chaturanga board. On a small fold-down desk in the corner was the captain’s log, which Cora might have enjoyed reading had she known the Dokari language.
She opened the door leading to the main deck. A burly Dokari, his head bald and tattooed but a chestnut brown beard flowing past his waist, accosted her with a steely grip to her arm. “Put that blasted light away!”
Without knowing quite why, Cora hastened to dispel her spellsong, leaving only the dim ambiance of a single oil lantern hanging from the mast.
She found the captain at the helm and cautiously approached him. “Excuse me, Captain.”
Ralam’s dark eyes viewed her askance from beneath his bushy white eyebrows. He snorted and returned his gaze into the darkness ahead of the prow.
Cora felt suddenly unwelcome. She looked about but could see nothing that warranted the captain’s undivided attention. Not that she could see much at all. Undaunted, she continued, “Do you know how long I slept? I cannot fathom the passage of time in this place.”
“Twenty turns o’ the glass, I’d say.”
She frowned. “Is that the same as hours, or…how do I convert that?”
A rumble escaped the captain’s throat that might have been laughter. “Do ye see a sun to be countin’ hours by? We be turnin’ the glass in the Subterrain. But aye, ‘tis about the same, maybe more, maybe less. Every ship’s captain be makin’ his own glass.”
“They’re not…different, are they?”
Ralam’s eyes shifted back to her. “Aye. Ye cannot be a ship’s captain an’ not be makin’ yer own glass.”
“Then…” Cora paused, trying to puzzle it out. “Then, how do you know how much time has passed?”
“‘Cause it be my glass, ye daft landlubber! Ye be thinkin’ like a sun-soaker, sayin’ time be a fixed thing. This be the Subterrain, lassie. Forget all that ye know.”
Cora stood motionless and silent for several minutes. At least, she thought they were minutes. She wasn’t about to ask.
“I s’pect ye be wantin’ some more grub.” The captain’s voice had calmed. “Down in the belly o’ me ship—mind yer footin’—there be grub fer ye. And yer cur.”
Cora thought better than to explain to the short-tempered Dokari that Shinnick was a wolf. Since he seemed preoccupied with guiding his ship through placid waters in a massive cavern of nothingness, she thanked him and sidled off. Down a short stairwell, she located the galley forward of the rowing pits. Despite the previous admonition, Cora created a fresh magical light and held it close under the folds of her shirt. She didn’t care much what they said; it was impossible for her to see anything in total darkness.
Plain and simple rations were laid out on a tray, and a bowl of scraps was prepared for the wolf. The aroma was hardly appetizing, yet it sparked anew Cora’s desire to eat. She took up the tray, letting her magical light shine forth as a torch, and retraced her steps to the cabin overhead. As she passed the rowing pits, she marveled that a dozen Dokari men—six pairs, three to each side—spent untold hours sitting and rowing in perfect synchronization, driving the lugger ever onward. Dour expressions on all twelve faces suggested irritation at the beacon Cora had created, but they might just as easily have been permanent scowls sculpted into their chiseled stone visages. Quickening her pace, she returned to the captain’s quarters and spread out the food on the desk.
Time passed with agonizing slowness as the Company of the Dragon Slayers waited, watching endless fathoms of lifeless, dark water slowly slip by. What seemed like a day was barely an hour by “the turnin’ of the glass.” Life had been reduced to a rote cycle of eating and sleeping, and none of that very cyclical.
Countless times Cora checked over the stern where Ordin remained untouched in the rowboat. The sight of his cold body, enwrapped in the boat in the Gemwarden’s wake, was both a comfort and a great sadness. She sat on her cot and pulled a sheet of parchment from her pack. Using a quill borrowed from the captain’s desk, she wrote:
Bravery comes in myriad forms, and each of us expresses the height of courage in surprising ways.
A teardrop converted the “age” of “courage” into a gray crater of ink. Bravery…Ordin had it, and I didn’t. As fresh tears flowed, Cora ripped the sheet into tiny pieces and scattered them across the floor. She cast herself onto her pillow and mourned. It was a chapter she would never be able to write.
During the ensuing days, Elric found a chaturanga board in the bottom of a wooden chest and tried to teach Cuauhtérroc how to play the game. The chipped and broken pieces of black and white marble garnered no attention from the savage, until Elric described the game as “like a military battle.” They played for several hours until Cuauhtérroc won his first game and Elric announced he was tired of playing.
Cora battled with frustration continually. The lantern had been extinguished and her light strictly forbidden, throwing them into utter darkness. No light, no music, no talking above a bare whisper. Shinnick was not allowed outside the cabin except for taking care of necessary things. No water or food unless it was drinking or eating time. Absolutely no ale. It drove her insane, and all the while she was cognizant of Ordin’s increasingly deteriorating condition. She knew full well his soul had long ago parted from his body.
After what calculated to a week of voyage, derived from Cora’s rough conversion of “turns” into hours, a speck of bright light appeared in the distance ahead. Far away and far overhead. For a time, Cora had no idea what it was, but its presence above and beyond the lugger’s prow captivated her imagination. She feared it was her imagination, a sign she was going insane.
The speck of light grew, and with it came the realization that they were nearing the end of the cavern. With Elric and Cuauhtérroc standing on either side, Cora grasped the starboard railing as a smile spread wide across her face. Her heart leapt with joy at the return of reverberated sound—echoes had never meant so much. The gentle burbling of falling water created an ambiance that filled her empty soul.
With the plodding pace of a rising sun, the lugger crawled forward to the light. New aromas wafted in on a warming breeze, pleasant odors from a distant memory: lichen, musty leaves, and moss. The shrill shriek of a cave bat pierced the silence, and the faraway calls of forest life filtered through the opening overhead.
She slipped a hand around Cuauhtérroc’s arm and another around Elric’s. “We made it,” she whispered and pulled them close. She wanted to shout at the top of her lungs, dance the shimmy-shaker, and light up the sky with all manner of magical brilliance. But all that was forbidden. “We survived this infernal place.”
Faces and objects on the ship’s deck appeared out of the darkness, but before she could be kissed again by sunlight, the Gemwarden veered hard to port. Cora whipped her head about to the helm.
Captain Ralam, standing beside the helmsman, pointed at the opening. “That be yer way out, but we no be settin’ foot in the light. We be soon comin’ upon port where ye an’ yer crew be disembarkin’. There be a ladder an’ steps leadin’ the way.”
Under his guidance, the ship slipped away from the revealing light.
In the occasional glint of Dokari eyes, briefly illumined in the final vestiges of radiance, Cora saw a nervous fear. She scanned the area but noticed nothing alarming. Could they, with their darksight, see dangers invisible to her? No splashes in the water below, no roars or screams in the air above. Only the sunlight. Could they be afraid of sunlight? Or was Ordin correct after all—are the Dokari cursed?
“Imma kiss the ground,” Elric said.
The outdoors! Cora saw a glimpse of leafy trees and blue sky through the cave entrance, now directly above them as the lugger slowed to a halt by a dock cut from the stone. Her knees buckled, and she clutched the rail to steady herself. “Thank the Maker.”
She turned also to thank Captain Ralam and his Dokari crew, but the deck was cleared. The helmsman was gone and the captain nowhere to be found. A lone Dokari loaded their gear into the rowboat with Ordin’s body, and with great haste tied it to a metal cleat. Once finished, he beat a quick retreat back into the ship. A gangplank extended to the dock, and all was utterly still.
Cora looked around and shrugged. “I guess this is where their cordiality ends. We had better get off.” As their feet met the wet rock, the gangplank retreated and with a series of creaks, the Gemwarden pulled away, leaving the trio standing alone.
“I cain’t wait to be outside again,” Elric said with a contented sigh.
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “I want to see dees trees.”
Cora stood over the rowboat, her nose buried in the crook of her arm. “First, we have to figure out how we’re going to get all of this…” She lifted her gaze to the cave opening overhead. “…up there.”
The sunlight was blinding as they climbed out, worn and weary, onto the surface world. Cuauhtérroc’s face widened in a broad smile as he inhaled the fresh forest air and, setting down the wrappings that held Ordin’s body, spread his arms as if to embrace the breeze.
Elric sneezed twice. “Sunlight got me.” He dropped to his hands and knees, lowered his face, and touched his lips to the soil.
With an exhausted groan, Cora set Shinnick on the ground, and the wolf immediately trotted off into the trees. With eyes of wonder, she marveled at the vibrant colors of autumn—everything was green when they had entered Wilder Tower. Now, the ground was littered with variegated castoffs, and the soil exuded the rich loamy aroma of earthworms hard at work. How much time has passed? She squinted and shielded her eyes from the radiance of day. “Wow, the sunlight is bright!”
“An’ the moonshine is cold,” Elric replied with a wide grin.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Elric shrugged. “Nuttin’, I guess. Jis sumpin I used to say as a kid.”
Cora fell back onto the ground with a long, contented sigh. “So, Elric, now do you believe in the existence of the Dokari?”
“Ain’t never said I didn’t.”
“Yes, you—” Cora paused in mid-retort as Elric’s appearance came into focus, as if she was truly seeing him for the first time. His handlebar mustache drooped and hung in a mouth surrounded by a forest of blond—many days of unchecked growth. His hair stood out in scraggly spikes where it wasn’t matted to his head with grayish-black—she didn’t want to know. He was layered with stains. “You are a miserable, disgusting, wretched sight.” Cora glanced at the Audric. “Both of you are.”
Cuauhtérroc looked himself over and shrugged. “It is dirty under dees dirt.”
Cora held out her arms and surveyed her appearance. Like the men, she was filthy, caked with mud of varying colors and reeking of innumerable days without a proper bath. It would take more than a single cold-water bath aboard the Gemwarden to cleanse their accumulated grime.
A rocky hillside ascended steeply above them, and a small stream trickled beside them as it flowed into the cave opening and cascaded down rocks and thirsty tree roots to the dark waters beyond and below. The entire area was lightly covered with mixed evergreen and deciduous trees: cedars, oaks, birches, and the occasional poplar. The landscape reminded Cora of The Grottoes they had passed through on their way to Westmeade over four months ago. The sweet chorus of birds and barking of squirrels greeted her, and the earthy smells of forest detritus filled her nostrils.
On the mossy banks of the stream, the Company of the Dragon Slayers off-loaded everything, sat down, and quietly soaked in the joys of freedom. Shinnick returned from the trees, curled up against a mossy boulder and whimpered, his yellow eyes fixed upon his dead master.
As Cora stared at the sack, a cloud of gloom settled anew over her, overshadowing any peace and joy she had just garnered. She wished Ordin were here to enjoy the tranquil woods. He might even consecrate it as a memorial. He would certainly gripe about something. Lamenting his absence, her eyes watered anew.
“Don’t cry anymore, Cora,” Elric said. “It’ll make all ‘at gunk on yer face run down like muddy rivers.”
“Not now, Elric.”
Cora smiled weakly at him and sniffed. “It’s all right.” She paused and scanned their environs. “So, I wonder where we are.”
Cuauhtérroc checked his bearings against the sun and wind. “Dees reever is flowing north. We are south of Westmeade, but I do not know how far.”
Elric stood up and dry-washed his hands. “Welp, I reckon it’s about high noon, an’ we gotta get back to Westmeade.” He scooped up the bedroll containing Ordin’s body and whistled for Shinnick. As he waited for the wolf to join him, a corner of the sack slipped from his hands and exposed the mystic’s ashen leg, now mottled in a sickly translucent blue-black. The reek of carrion wafted over him. He dropped the sack and dashed away, holding a hand over his mouth.
Shinnick whimpered, caught between approaching his master and avoiding the stench of death.
Cora dreaded what she would see in that bedroll. “It’s too late. We’ll need to bury Ordin after all.”
“We oughtta pile rocks on ‘im, too,” Elric suggested. “For a memorial and like such as.”
Cora nodded. “Good idea.”
Over the course of the next hour, in grim silence, they shoveled a hole and lowered Ordin’s body—bedroll and all—into the ground. They gathered loose rocks from the riverbed and piled them atop the loose soil as high as they could manage. When the miserable task was done, they stood quietly in reverence for a time.
Cora sang a lament she had learned at the O’Banion School of Performing Arts, a sad tune called Eily Dear. The lyrics spoke of a mother’s desire to see her son home safely after war, and the songsage’s voice cracked several times before she had finished. The meandering stream behind them, the wind in the trees, and the melodious calls of a variety of birds formed a pastoral chorale appropriate for Ordin’s mystic order and blended Nature’s harmonies with her song.
“I do not know how to theenk.” Cuauhtérroc’s eyes were distant, and Cora thought he might be on the verge of tearing. “I see dees men die in my homeland, but we do not cry. We do not sing dees songs for dead panther warriors.” He looked up at Cora. His dark eyes had watered. “You do a good thing, Cora O’Banion. I weel remember dees.”
Elric folded his arms and frowned at the pile of rocks. “Look, this is stupid.”
Despite her own tears, Cora chuckled.
* * * * * * * * * *
In a thick verdant wood, Ordin bounded after his prey, deftly dodging low branches and leaping over fallen saplings. His footsteps tread lightly as he dashed through the underbrush, his keen eye never losing visual contact with the white-tailed deer ahead. Off to his right, his companion drove the prey closer in ever-tightening circles. Soon, the deer would backtrack and cross the shallow stream once more. Soon, it would be in range of his bow.
As Ordin crested a small rise, the forest thinned, enhancing his field of vision as he looked down the low slope on the other side. The glen below lay blanketed in a light coating of snow. He smiled at this, for the pristine white would both reveal his quarry and camouflage his alabaster skin. He crouched, his trained eye focused sharply on the deer. It had stopped, its head erect and its ears scanning the silent woods for the faintest sound of its pursuers. Quietly, Ordin pulled back on the bowstring.
In the distance, a grey wolf leaped from the cover of a snow-draped tree, and Ordin pulled his string taut. The deer scampered, heading directly toward him. Ordin breathed a prayer of thanks to the Maker and released the arrow. It struck home, embedding in the creature’s chest and piercing the heart. The deer’s legs buckled, and it fell, never to move again. The wolf was by its side a split second later, sniffing at the carcass. It pawed at the deer’s body and looked up at his master expectantly. Ordin set his bow down, reached out a hand and rubbed the wolf’s ears. “Good job, friend. We will eat well today.” From his pack he took a bit of dried meat wrapped in a small biscuit and handed it to the wolf. “For you. Thanks.”
While carrying the deer the several miles back to his home, Ordin rejoiced in his new life in the wilds. As he neared his stone hut in the densest part of the forest, a heavy rain fell that washed away the snow before he reached his home. He carried the deer to a small lean-to around back where a thick wooden rod hung horizontally from the rafters. On this Ordin fastened the deer and began the meticulous process of skinning and cutting up the carcass. The job, though a messy one that stained his skin with the crimson flow of life, filled him with peaceful satisfaction.
By day’s end, as the light gave way to ever-increasing darkness, Ordin had fully carved the deer and wrapped the various cuts of venison in thick palm leaves. Much of this he would give to the farmers that lived nearby. Their fields were just beginning to sprout the first shocks of grain, and their work would keep them far too busy to capture and prepare their own meat. It would also keep them far too busy to notice a couple of their melons missing, which would be only fair.
Ordin liked this farming family. The goodwife reminded him of someone he used to know. She laughed a lot and could be heard singing a lilting tune as she hoed in the fields or drew water from a nearby brook. Her voice wasn’t exactly angelic, but it had a good quality. It was sincere, from the heart. Her smile was pleasant and made positively radiant by the wavy auburn locks that framed her face.
He had seen scarlet hair like that only one other time, but that had been a long time ago. How long had he hunted this realm? Ages, it seemed. A lifetime of sunless days and moonless nights, of tempests and arid calm, of snows and drought. He knew the Tanglewoods by heart, yet it always seemed to catch him off guard. Wild apple orchards in full bloom gave way to stands of pine heavy laden with wet snow. Fields of wildflowers were striped with desert wastelands; evergreens grew next to lazy palm trees. One day could be scorching hot; the next, bitterly cold. Through it all, there ran a constant: for every creature birthed, another was slain; for every snowfall there was a heatwave; for every gift given something was taken.
Balance. Such was the way of the Grove and such was the rule of the realm. All those who lived in the Tanglewoods knew this quite well. Ordin lived it every day of his new life.
Hours later, a knock on the thick wooden front door pulled Ordin’s face up from his melon feast. Rivulets of pink juice dripped from his chin. The mystic spat a pair of black teardrop seeds into a bowl and wiped his chin with a towel.
A second knock echoed with slightly more force.
“Comin’!” the mystic growled, tossing aside the towel with a measure of irritation. He hated having dinner interrupted.
A tall, broad-shouldered man stood in the doorway, his face calm and expressionless. He was dressed in simple white linens, laced loosely across the chest. A sash of brown embroidered with green oak leaves provided the only color to his wardrobe. Thick, dark brown hair hung in broad waves to his shoulders.
“Whatcha want?” Ordin said gruffly. “I’m eatin’.”
The man stepped inside without invitation, and Ordin bristled. “I am Gadris. I won’t be long.”
Ordin’s hackles rose as his uninvited guest slowly wandered about the small house, lightly touching items on the shelves and casting a scrutinous eye into every corner.
“Look, Gadris,” Ordin said, folding his arms across his chest, “either state your business or get out. I don’t like you traipsin’ about my house like this.”
Gadris stopped in front of the hearth. Half-burnt logs radiated with faint heat from the day before, when it had snowed suddenly. Above the mantel rested a well-crafted scimitar, cradled in a pair of carved wooden hands affixed to the brickwork of the wall. “This is a nice sword,” Gadris said, retrieving the blade from its home.
Ordin’s eyes narrowed. The scimitar was an heirloom handed down to him from his father. He disliked anyone handling it, especially strangers.
The man surveyed the length of the curved blade, checking it for straightness, balance, and sharpness. It had very few nicks and glinted with the afternoon sunshine streaming through the western windows. “Very nice indeed, Ordin.”
“Do I know you?” the mystic said, feeling a small charge of adrenalin.
“No,” the man answered calmly. He walked over to Ordin, still gazing appreciatively at the scimitar. “I am Gadris, the avatar of the Grove, but you do not believe in me. You were slain by a sword such as this, were you not?”
Ordin felt a lump forming in his throat. “This is stupid. How do you know that?”
“You were run through, right?”
Ordin stared at him, unsure whether fear or anger ruled.
“I believe it was right about…here!” With the emphasized word, the stranger in the white linens skewered the mystic’s torso. As the blade pierced organs, there was a moment of dull silence, broken only by his occasional gurgled breath. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, overlaying the pink melon stain with crimson.
Ordin felt no pain, but his strength and his will were gone, as if the sword had killed them. His vision faded as his balance faltered. “Why…” he whispered.
Gadris placed a hand on Ordin’s shoulder to steady him. “It’s quite simple, Ordin Austmil-Clay.” The avatar further pushed the scimitar into Ordin’s wound until he had buried the hilt, then he closed and sealed the flesh around it. “You and the sword should have never parted.”
Blackness enveloped the mystic as his vision failed. His heart pounded its last beat, then he felt cold. All was dark around him. He heard voices in the darkness, eerily familiar but faint and distant, as if coming from the other side of an earthen wall. He could not move or see exactly, but he was aware.
The voices went silent. Ordin tried to call to them, but he could form no sounds. He was alone in a dark and cold place. So, this is it, then. I am cursed. O my Maker! Is this my purpose? Is this how you treat your servant of Nature? I loved you and followed you. I’m sorry, O Maker! By all that’s fair and lovely, I am sorry. Have mercy…
A voice, soft and comforting, whispered in his mind. “Do not fear. I am with you, even in death. This is not your purpose. It is your preparation.”