In which Valarien misses the fun
The Sea-Wolves were half-way across the aft deck before some out-of-place sound penetrated the unconscious minds of those who still slept. By the time the cabin door handle moved with the faintest squeak, three of the four were on their feet, knives in hand. Kai cursed under his breath.
"Someone wake Valarien," he hissed, "if that's at all possible!"
The fight in the cabin didn't last long. It left two corpses inside and several other Sea-Wolves nursing an assortment of wounds outside. Ewan used the bodies to jam the door shut then joined Leon in trying to rouse Valarien - without success.
A voice outside called, "You may as well give up now. We have control of your ship - and we are many to your few."
Kai looked out across the deck from one of the cabin's windows. There were indeed 'many' scoundrels cluttering the deck. Over a dozen, Kai reckoned. Shawlter and his crew were constrained among them with daggers pressed against their throats.
Standing in front of them like a ghost in the moonlight was their leader, grinning mirthlessly. The grin faded as there was no response from the cabin.
"Come on. Surrender now - or bide the consequences," shouted the pale one.
"Very well, then," he continued, as there was still no response, "bring me the captain."
Shawlter was manhandled forward.
"If you're not out of there by the time I count to three, I cut his throat. One... two... "
Kai stood before him on the deck, Kennoseigi in hand.
"Let him go."
"When you - and your friends - surrender And hand over your valuables."
"What guarantee do I have that you'll keep your word, knave?"
"None. None at all and the name's Stig - Stig Redblade," replied the Sea-Wolves' leader. "Your captain and crew will certainly die, one by one, if you don't do as I say. That I can promise. Are you prepared to gamble with their lives?"
"You seem prepared to gamble that I place a higher value their lives than you do," Kai observed.
The pirate shrugged.
"Kill him," he said carelessly.
"No!" Kai exclaimed.
Stig gave a sardonic laugh.
"It seems my gamble pays off," he grinned, "now, drop your weapon."
In the event, the thing that dropped was Stig, as one of Ewan's tiny darts pierced his cheek. His men were momentarily stunned into immobility at the sudden turn of events.
Ewan, who had scrambled unseen through the skylight, took advantage of the tempo thus gained.
"Your leader will be dead within five minutes without the antidote," he called down from the cabin roof where he lay hidden. "Let our men go and leave our ship, and he shall have it."
As if released from a spell, two of the Sea-Wolves sprang to the assistance of their fallen leader while the rest fell into a confused arguing. Stig's second-in-command stood up again and addressed the nightranger.
"Give us the antidote or we kills yer captain," he growled.
In reply, Ewan held up the little phial and removed the stopper.
"Go ahead," he said indifferently, "then watch the antidote trickle away."
The pirate paused to consider his options.
" 'Ow do I know you'll keep yer word?" he demanded.
"You don't," he smiled mockingly, "but time's passing... And I wouldn't do anything silly, if I were you. He's got plenty more darts - but no more antidote."
At that, the Sea-Wolves broke away and made haste to return to their own craft leaving only Stig and his two henchmen.
"You as well," Kai commanded.
Reluctantly - and watching their backs as they went - the remaining pirates rejoined their fellows.
"Now, cast off," Kai called across. "We'll set your leader ashore at the nearest settlement. You can pick him up there."
As an afterthought, he added, "Trust me!" and gave them a very leery grin.
There was actually no need for an antidote. Ewan had merely used a stupefacient drug and Stig was already beginning to rouse. Shawlter lost no time in making him fast in the hold. A man was posted on watch and the rest returned to their interrupted rest.
Leon had long since given up on Valarien, and the wizard slept on.
Valarien awoke with the sun, as was his wont. He was likewise both wide awake and cheerful, which was a lot more than could be said for the rest of the party when he roused them. Kai groaned and pulled the bedclothes over his head. Ewan maintained a corpse-like insensibility, whilst Leon, who once went in awe of the wielder of magical powers, so far forgot himself as to take a furious swipe at the wizard with his pillow.
"My, we are in a surly mood today, aren't we?" came the horribly bright response.
"Yes, we are!" growled the barbarian. "We were up half the night."
"Well, that was your own fault. You shouldn't have - um - 'spliced the main brace' quite so often last night."
There was a gasp of indignation as Leon swung his legs over the edge of his berth.
"We, - we three - were up half the night fighting off pirates, I'll have you know. While you were out cold, we were boarded." An impish twinkle came into his eye. "There must have been twenty or thirty of 'em "
"At least," put in a muffled voice from under the covers.
" and it was hand to hand-to-hand fighting all the way "
"Cut and thrust," put in the voice.
" We were chopping 'em down like reapers in a cornfield "
"Scything and slashing."
" The decks were awash with blood "
There was the sound of stifled laughter.
"So you - um - didn't need me, then?"
"Good job we didn't," said Kai, surfacing at last, "since we couldn't wake you," he added pointedly.
"If you had needed me, I'd have - um - woken up anyway," Valarien assured him airily.
Kai looked sceptical.
"It's true," Valarien insisted, "I - um - wouldn't be here now otherwise."
Kai still looked unconvinced, but let the matter drop and went below decks to see how their prisoner fared.
The pirate was laid in an empty stall beside Sadique, securely trussed, looking rather the worse for wear and very sorry for himself.
"Looks like your gamble didn't pay off after all," Kai said affably.
"Go to hell," Stig responded sullenly.
"I probably will," agreed the warrior with irritating urbanity.
He regarded the captive with interest. His eyes shone redly in the sunlight that shafted through an adjacent porthole, and Kai realized that the previous night's ghostly apparition was in fact an albino.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't send you on ahead," he added.
"There is no reason that I can think of, not that I would plead for my life anyway."
There was disdain in his voice and his speech was not rough. Kai was intrigued. It was rather like encountering a pale mirror image of himself when younger. He wondered what vicissitudes of fortune had brought Stig Redblade into his life. However, he hadn't come down for a cosy chinwag.
Instead, he said sternly, "I could have you pleading for death, however."
There was a stony silence, but Kai had the satisfaction of seeing a flicker of uncertainty in his adversary's eyes.
"On the other hand, you could have both life and liberty... if you so choose."
"What do you want?" The tone was ungracious.
There was a sharp derisive laugh.
"And then you would let me go? Just like that?"
"Huh! No dice."
"Think about it," Kai suggested softly, and withdrew.
When he returned after breakfast, the prisoner gave no sign of having changed his mind. His face was expressionless but his eyes were watchful. Kai was suspicious. Was Stig contemplating some ill-judged attempt to escape? He hoped not, since he would probably be obliged to kill him. Although the pirate undoubtedly merited it, it would be a short and unbalanced conflict which offended Kai's sense of fair play. Better to pre-empt any such action.
"Don't do it," he warned, drawing Kennoseigi.
Stig drew a sharp breath.
"How did you know?" he asked in amazement.
"Sixth sense, maybe. I guess I'd be long dead by now otherwise. Put it down - very carefully."
Seeing Kai's eyes rivetted upon him, Stig shrugged and slid a knife across the floor, sitting up as he did so. The ropes which bound him sagged slackly. Without breaking eye contact, Kai retrieved the knife.
"Not your smartest move," he commented. "What were you hoping to do? Make it over the side and swim for it? Even had you made it past me and into the sea, you wouldn't have got very far. One of our company is a wizard... "
Stig's eyes widened and he swallowed.
"Maybe a little co-operation is in order?"
The pirate sighed.
"Maybe," he conceded. "What do you want to know?"
Kai gave him a look askance. The capitulation seemed just a little too glib.
"We are strangers in these waters, blown out of our way by a storm," he began. "In the first instance, we need to find a suitable harbour - and no bullshit. Our wizard has a very unpleasant way with liars and tricksters, and has an uncanny way of telling truth from fiction... "
Stig scowled. For an instant, Kai felt that the pirate was offended by the impugning of his veracity, then decided that it was probably just having his last ace trumped.
"Grimaseth is probably your best bet. It's the biggest harbour between Dragonness and the Snake's Head. You'll reach it easily before noon, even in this tub. Next?"
"We need to cross the Snake Range. Do you have any knowledge of the Untamed Lands?"
"The Untamed Lands? Is that what you call them?" Stig looked amused. "I know them, yes. The River Rinnan rises in the Snake to the North of the High Marches. Grimaseth stands at the mouth of the Rinnan, so all you need to do is follow the river. Anything else?"
"No. I reckon that'll do for now. We'll set you ashore when we reach Grimaseth."
"I'd rather you didn't," Stig said tentatively.
Kai met a stony stare.
"Don't worry. We're not bounty hunters."
"I'd still rather you put me over the side. There's no way of hiding my appearance." The albino grimaced.
"Yes, there is," Kai contradicted him. "You're forgetting our wizard. I don't guarantee you'll like the results. In fact I'm certain you won't, but even your own mother wouldn't recognize you."
Kai was wrong about the disguise. Stig was delighted and only became despondent when told that the spell would expire by the end of the week.
"If only it were permanent, I could give up piracy and lead a normal life," he said wistfully.
"Perhaps you should have thought of that before you - um - took up piracy," Valarien said tartly.
Stig gave him a hard look.
"If you were a red-eye, you wouldn't say that," he snapped back, then took in the blank stares. "Do you not know," he asked, disbelievingly "that 'red-eye's are cursed? That we are outcasts - spurned by 'decent people' and must scrape a living any way we can?"
"No, I - um - didn't know," Valarien said, chastened. "Had I known, I would have held my tongue."
The 'Oranna Farika' reached the haven of Grimaseth well before noon. Stig was set free, much to the disgust of Shawlter and his crew, but Kai insisted. He had given his word.
Grimaseth was a small town relying - if the smell was any indication - principally on fishing, though other goods were being moved to and from the wharves. Several waterfront taverns were doing a brisk trade.
The four split up and went in search of information. With rare tact, Valarien forbore to remind the two drinking companions to keep their minds on the job in hand. When they met again shortly after noon, they found that all had heard roughly the same tale. This confirmed Stig's account.
There had been much talk of banditry with conflicting warnings both to avoid the overgrown forests that filled much of the valley and not to get caught in the open. They were particularly warned to beware of Erik Bloodaxe who claimed kingship over the Untamed Lands. These were known to the locals as 'The Vale'.
Further caveats, muttered behind hands as though the speakers feared to invoke such horrors merely by naming them, suggested that the Dragon Fells to the north of the Vale were not so named without good reason.
No one knew for certain the whereabouts of a pass through the Snake, since few were brave enough - or foolhardy enough - to make the trip. Fewer still had returned. However, the consensus was that it did exist. Of those who were prepared to be a little more specific, most opined that it was probably near the headwaters of the Rinnan. It seemed expedient, therefore, to follow the river into the mountains.
Having replenished their supplies, the four travellers followed the Cartergate out of the town and into the unknown. Initially, the going was easy. The low-lying land was criss-crossed by tracks and it was impossible to lose sight of the river which flowed sluggishly through the broad fertile valley.
After a couple of trouble free days, farmland began to be interspersed with clumps of trees - outliers of what had once been a great forest. So far, there had been no sign of any activity of the Dark Lords. Leon tentatively suggested that maybe the Evil Ones had lost sight of them.
"It is - um - possible, of course," Valarien replied, "but I doubt it. If they have, it will be only a temporary respite. They will find us again soon enough. In any case, they know where we're going. Of that I am certain. If our friends in - um - Grimaseth are anything to go by, it sounds as if there are plenty of perfectly ordinary hazards around with the potential to - um - slow us down at least. Why should the Dark Powers exert themselves when it may not be necessary? There is time enough yet, the Goddess knows, before we reach Gyldenburg, in which to - um - destroy us."
"They haven't done very well so far," Leon responded blithely, the memory of his encounter with the daemoness mercifully buried in the deeper recesses of his mind.
"So far," agreed the wizard repressively.
"I think we are being watched, though," Ewan put in. "There's some sort of bird circling overhead."
Leon looked up.
"Oh," he said, his chirpiness suddenly deflated. "I saw something similar at Grimaseth when we docked, now I come to think of it. I thought at first it was just another gull, then I realized it was flying higher than the rest, which meant it must be larger. Then I thought maybe it was one of the Great Gulls and forgot about it. Perhaps that's what I was meant to do "
"Do you think it's the same bird?" Kai asked, striving to see it and failing.
"Hard to tell. It's flying so high. Could be."
"Let's assume it is the - um - same bird and be wary."
"Why not zap it like the crow in Lascany?" Kai suggested.
Valarien considered the suggestion.
"I think it would be inadvisable for two reasons. One is that Leon confused the bird initially with the - um - seagulls. Therefore it must be light-coloured, possibly white, which does not sound like an agent of the - um - Dark Powers, and secondly, I have no wish to repeat the - um - experience we had with the crow... "
This led to the relation of that episode for the benefit of the other two, by which time the bird had disappeared from sight. Gradually, the number of hamlets dwindled as the proportion of the wooded land increased, until it was mostly forest broken by the occasional assart.
Their initial reception by the assarts' holders varied between overt hostility and - more commonly - patent apprehension. Once it was made clear that the little group had not come from 'King Erik' to collect 'levies' - or more correctly, protection money - they were made welcome.
Leon and Ewan took it in turns to scout ahead, but found no problems until the sixth day out from Grimaseth. The river and the mountains were converging rapidly now. Leon, returning from the morning's recce, reported that the river ahead flowed through a narrow ravine.
It was now the height of summer but although the water level was fairly low, the river's margins were so strewn with large boulders as to preclude their following its course with the horses. Moreover, the sky overhead, such as they could see of it through the leafy canopy, was darkening rather than lightening, and it seemed they were in for a downpour.
This caused slight apprehension after the storm at sea, but Valarien decided that there was no feeling of demonic intervention. Nevertheless the rain, when it came, managed to penetrate the forest ceiling well enough to leave them wet, cold and dispirited.
It did nothing to improve their mood to discover that Leon's investigation of the terrain had not gone far enough. At its deepest point in the ravine, the Rinnan was joined by a tributary which effectively barred their way. Ewan explored a little way upstream and reported the way ahead to be impassable. They had no option but to retrace their route to the end of the gorge, cross the river and follow the left bank.
Despondently, they made their sodden way back downstream, squelching every step of the way. They were in an ideal state of mind to walk into an ambush...