The ring of eman vath, p.6
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.6

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Six: The Kull

  He woke to screams.

  He was moving before he had time to think, rolling to the side, up and out of his blankets and hammock, and then he was standing and staring blindly into the pitch-black darkness. He stumbled forward, sleep making him clumsy, and jabbed his toe against something hard. He cursed and groped for the ladder, found it, and hurried down.

  As he descended, the noise became muffled and distant, but no less mistakable: distant screams and cries for help. He let go of the ladder with his feet and slid the rest of the way down, slamming into the wooden floor with a heavy thud that made his legs burn.

  He turned and hurried through the house, only to crash into two moving shadows that had come from the next room over.

  “AH! Mother of – ”

  “Solom?”

  “Samson?”

  “Selor?”

  “What’s going on – ?”

  “Both of you – quiet!”

  The screams from outside cut through the room. In a rush of movement, the three of them made it to the cooking room, where a sudden glow flared up at the window over the counter. It was bright enough to turn the drawn curtains a deep shade of scarlet, and Samson hurried to it, rounding the covered earthen stove.

  He ripped the curtains back but couldn’t see the source of the light. It came through the cross-barred hole as a reflection off the granite wall that wound around and behind the house. He cursed and turned back.

  “Selor,” he said, trying to peer through the darkness. He could just make out the outlines of his brothers in the reflected light: both of them were still in their smallclothes and they wore matching expressions of fear. “Find mother – wake her if you have to. Take Solom with you.”

  He moved in the direction of the door.

  “Wait! What about you? Where are you going?”

  He rushed from the room without responding. His mind was blank, his instinct and responsibility as Clan Captain pulling him forward blindly. All the thoughts he’d had at first – A fire? An accident in the village? – had filtered out of his mind like sand through a sieve. He stumbled over a pile of sitting cushions in the receiving room, pushed his way through the hanging curtain across the entryway, and then slammed open the front door.

  The city that had only hours ago been peacefully falling to sleep was now a full riot of motion. Men and women were running through the streets, calling to each other as fire leapt from house to house in a growing inferno centered around the Longhouse. The huge hall was not yet fully ablaze, in large part due to what looked like most of Gol fighting back the flames with hurriedly formed fire lines passing pails of water, but the threat was very real.

  The volatile scene began to shift. Another group came into sight from the direction of the Doors. They moved with precision, not panic, and their strange black clothing made the hair on the back of Samson’s neck stand on end. He didn’t know them, and yet some primal instinct recognized them as an enemy.

  Mainlanders? Is it an attack?

  He launched himself off the granite steps and down the sloping side street that would take him to the Road and the Longhouse, his long strides eating up the distance in huge gulps. But as he faded into the maze of houses, he lost the advantage of the higher ground, and his view of the approaching group disappeared. The screams changed pitch and tenor: there was more than fear in them now. There was terror.

  He continued his headlong dash, with no plan at all of what he would do when he arrived, only knowing that he had to help – somehow, there had to be a way that he could help.

  He burst around the final corner just in time to see flames lick up the side of the Longhouse and ignite the roof.

  The fire lines broke apart as the men and women that had made them up dropped their pails and retreated before the oncoming rush of men clothed in black. The invaders looked like moving shadows, and waves of danger seemed to radiate out from them, sending spikes of fear through Samson’s stomach.

  A new sound came – Golish battle horns. He shot a glance toward the other side of the city and saw Golish men in leather armor carrying spears and rushing to meet the invaders. They engaged the black tide and were swallowed by it.

  Samson lurched forward into the square with no idea of what to do. He watched in horror as flames devoured the Longhouse, and the blaze continued to build all around him. A small group of men among the black-clothed invaders began to chant something in a strange language, and all thought disappeared from his mind. He remembered nothing of the next few minutes save a wonderful feeling of serenity. The world became wonderfully simple: all he had to do was walk to where the song was telling him to go; all that mattered was that he come home to –

  Home?

  A ship appeared in his mind – a black ship, beautifully made, with black sails. It was larger than Longrider and sleeker, clearly built for carrying large loads at high speeds. Smaller than a Great Ship, but large all the same. A carrack of some kind, maybe. It shone in his mind’s eye like a beautiful dream, and the feeling of blissful peace swirled in around it, coating every flap of canvas, layering into every grain of wood….

  Sailing Longrider under a cloudless summer sky; riding the waves beside his father, who spoke in a calm slow voice and passed Samson a carved wooden ship just like the one they rode over the Sea –

  The memory jarred him loose from whatever enchantment it was that had taken hold of him. The feeling of serenity evaporated and the burning world came rushing back in on him with all of the attendant panic and confusion. He found himself inexplicably in the middle of a crowd of children and teens his age or younger walking toward the chanting men – chanting men wearing bleached-white bone armor beneath heavy black cloaks.

  As soon as he regained enough presence of mind to question what was happening, the alien chanting turned from a beautiful melody to something excruciatingly painful. He cried out and slapped at his ears, trying to pull the sound out, to push it away, to just make it stop make it stop –

  And then through the haze of pain and fear he saw little Solom, his bronze skin shinning with the reflected light of the fires, walking slack-jawed toward the group of black-robed men.

  He followed me.

  “NO!”

  A surge of energy cracked through him like lightning, and he began to shove his way through the crowd of children, making for his brother. All of the children were younger than he was, and for a brief second he wondered why, but then the question was driven from his mind when he heard shouts behind him, harsh guttural words clearly not the common speech of Aeon.

  He spun to see soldiers in black rushing for him, and through their ranks saw a brief flash of the Golish men who had counterattacked being pushed back into side streets. Dozens of other families were ignoring the soldiers altogether and trying to save their houses, and still more were shouting for the senseless children to stop but were held back by the flashing swords of the invaders.

  Strong hands grabbed Samson’s arms from behind. He shouted and struggled against them, turning again toward Solom and screaming his brother’s name to no effect until something heavy crashed into his head and the world went sideways.

  By some miracle he stayed conscious. The blow must have glanced away somehow, or been turned partially aside, because though his vision shook and his head burst with pain, he was able to push himself back up off the ground and turn to confront his attacker. He caught a flash of a black hood and huge muscled arms before a heavy club wielded in a ham-fisted grip descended toward him and he was forced to react without thinking.

  He pulled back one bare foot, coiled his knee to his chest, and struck out, connecting with the man’s chest. His long, lean body, muscled from the work of several years on a fishing ship, acted like a whip, and his foot collided against the man’s unarmored chest with such force that the brute was knocked off his feet.

  If he’d been wearing a breastplate I’d have broken my foot, Samson thought deliriously. He had the insa
ne urge to laugh until the pain in his head shot down his neck and made him gasp.

  Seeing their comrade fall, a half-dozen others closed in on him. He grabbed the downed man’s club in desperation and swung it in a wide arc, laying about him with such fury that they all recoiled. His head throbbed with every beat of his heart, and the sound of the fire blurred together with the invaders’ chanting to become a single noise that boomed painfully inside his head. His attackers drew their swords and advanced. He swung the club again, but to no effect. The closest of the black-cloaked men dodged beneath his reach, grabbed his arm, and broke his grip. Others grabbed his arms and held them in place behind his back, and then he saw the flash of shining steel rising up above him.

  And then, for no reason he could understand, the hands released him and he fell. The sword plunging for his neck sliced through air instead, and then the attention of his assailants was directed elsewhere.

  His hearing came back to him little by little, and as he pushed himself to his feet, stumbling away from the center of the growing fray, he saw not a wall of black but a whirling storm of red and green. The chanting had broken down, and now disjointed strings of harsh words were being shouted, words that stung and hissed as they shot through the air like arrows.

  The black-cloaked men began to retreat. Horns sounded again, but this time they rasped instead of bellowed, and Samson knew that they were not the horns of Gol but the horns of the attackers.

  The Viretorum fought as a single unit, and they tore through all the black-cloaked men who dared to stand before them. Samson didn’t spare them more than a glance, though – he needed to find his brother.

  “SOLOM!”

  The children who’d been walking toward the chanting men were gone, along with most of the chanters, save those that had stayed behind to spit burning words at any who dared approach them.

  They were going toward the Doors.

  He moved down the Road, his mind racing ahead to the thought of the black ship he’d seen in his vision until a man in bone armor stepped into his path. The man in black struck out with an ancient iron dagger, hissing a word that sounded like the venomous bite of a snake.

  Samson pulled back at the last second, and the stroke went wide. A man in red and green stepped between them: a knight of the Viretorum. His dark hair flashed with red highlights from the reflected light of the fires, and a thin circlet of gold shone at his temples.

  Prince Rewlyn.

  The man in bone armor attacked with artless savagery, and the prince countered with calculated grace. He bore no shield, but instead a longsword that he wielded in both hands. Another of the black-cloaked men joined the fight, swinging a heavy mace, and was quickly dispatched. The man in the bone armor drew something else from inside his cloak, pointed it at the prince, and shouted a word that sounded like fire, but the longsword flashed in the night and seemed impossibly to cut the word down. Shock flitted across the invader’s face as the sword continued its arc, looped around, and slammed into his chest.

  The shining blade slid easily through a chink in the bone armor, and Samson heard the sick sound of parting flesh as the whole length of it was sheathed in skin. The light behind the man’s dark eyes went out, and he fell.

  The sword pulled free, scraping against bone with a horrible screech that set Samson’s teeth on edge, and Prince Rewlyn stepped back to let the body fall. Immediately, the Viretorum were on it, hacking at the limbs.

  “What are they doing?” Samson asked, horrified by the brutality.

  “He’s a disciple of death,” Rewlyn gasped. His dark hair was unbound and disheveled, his gray eyes wild. Samson saw again, in that moment, how young he was. “He – he will rise if he is not dismembered and burned.”

  An explosion of sound cut off any reply Samson might have made. Everyone turned to look in that direction down the Road – and saw a plume of dust rising into the air from the direction of the Granite Doors.

  “They’ve sealed us in,” said one of the Viretorum knights. He was bleeding freely from a gash on his arm, and a whole sleeve of his armor had come undone and was hanging loose.

  “That’s impossible,” Samson said immediately. “The Doors – ”

  “Have known sorcery,” Rewlyn said. “They can be manipulated by anyone who speaks the Words.”

  “Who are they?” Samson asked. “They have my brother – who are they?”

  Rewlyn ignored him and turned instead to the Viretorum.

  “We need to get through,” he said. “Jeremiah, is there a way around? We need to get to the Ship, we need to put to sea before they get away.”

  “It’s been too long since I left,” the man said, shaking his head. Samson realized with a shock that he had the bronze skin and green-blue eyes of a Golish man. “There are back roads – I knew them as a child, but they may have changed – ”

  “I can take you to the dock,” Samson said. “I can take you.”

  The prince paused, seemed to consider, and then made up his mind.

  “Then take us.”

  “Promise me you’ll save my brother.”

  “You speak to the Crown Prince of Caelron,” growled the captain Samson had confronted at the Longhouse. His eyes flashed as he pushed his way forward. “How dare you demand – ”

  “It’s your fault he’s been taken!” Samson shouted, beyond all reason. “It’s your fault – Mainlanders always take from us when they come!”

  Prince Rewlyn stepped between the two and pushed them both apart. He turned to Samson first. “I will do everything I can to save your brother – to save all of the children who were just taken. But you must get me to my ship!”

  Samson searched the young man’s face: his gray, heavily lidded eyes were wide and focused, his mouth was pulled back in a grimace, and his whole body was tense with carefully controlled fear.

  “Follow me,” Samson growled.

  He turned and hurried away without so much as a backward glance. He led them through the burning city, ignoring the cries for help that echoed all around. He closed his eyes against the red-orange glow of the fire still slowly eating away at his city; against the blackened bodies being dragged into the street and the sickly sweet smell that came from them. He focused instead on the wall of black-green trees atop the granite curtain that contained the city. He picked up speed, breaking into a jog and then into a loping run as he neared the final ring of houses. He did not slow or look behind him; he ran, and let the Mainlanders follow as best they could.

  The hidden turn in the granite curtain appeared to be nothing more than a natural ripple in the stone. When he neared it, he felt the knights slow behind him. They’d managed to keep up even in their heavy armor, but their pale faces bore clear looks of skepticism. All save for the face of the Golish man – his face instead had brightened, as if he recognized something he hadn’t seen in years.

  A Golish knight. A man of Gol part of the Viretorum.

  He moved into the alcove, then around the edge of the hidden passageway behind the curtain’s concealing edge, and disappeared.

  The knights followed him as he ascended the path that led to the forest, and he heard one or two of them curse as they tripped over stones and cracks hidden in the darkness. With a final surge of motion, he emerged to find himself atop the curtain looking in on the city; his breath caught in his throat and choked him.

  At least a third of the buildings had caught fire, and the other two thirds were in real danger of following suit. Two clan quarters had gone up entirely in flames, and they glowed in the night like miniature suns. Buckets of water were being gathered, passed, and thrown on the blaze, but they seemed to make no appreciable difference, and with the Doors barred there was no way down the Road to gather more. Others were throwing water on houses that had not yet been set aflame, dousing the wood to keep it from burning and adding steam to the gray-black smoke that billowed ferociously out and up into the night sky.

  The knights emerged behind him, Prince Rewlyn flushed
and winded among them. Those that had brought torches lit them and passed them around. One of the men offered a torch to Samson, and he took it, turning his back on the city.

  Mother will help. She will make sure everything is fine. The Clan Heads will have it under control. There is nothing one more pair of hands could do.

  But the litany could not purge his guilt.

  They raced through the pitch-black forest, Samson with his torch thrust high above his head, though he hardly needed it; his feet found their way unerringly on the path he had tread since he was old enough to walk. They descended the mountain quickly enough and emerged on an outcropping that leaned out over the side of the harbor, near Horas’ warehouse.

  There was no light here from the burning village – just a dull glow in the distance, as of a fire slowly fading to coals. There echoed down the mountain the faint sounds of screaming, though, but even that was dulled – and the heavy smoke mingled with the steam of evaporating water had so filled the sky that the moon and the stars had been snuffed out like candlelight in wind. The only light left came from the watchtowers at the harbor’s mouth – the lights meant to guide in ships at sea lest they break against the heavy shoals that ringed the island. They lit up the mouth of the harbor, but only that; everything else was clothed in night as black as sin.

  The captain of the Viretorum pointed: “There.”

  Samson looked, trying to pierce the veil of darkness, but saw nothing.

  “Douse the light,” the captain said, coming even with Samson. His face was impassive and his callous eyes were fixed on something down below. Unlike the prince, he wasn’t winded or even breathing hard. The others followed the command without question, until only Samson was left.

  “We won’t be able to see,” he protested.

  “We can’t see now,” the captain said. “Douse the light.”

  “No – that’s not – ”

  The man moved so quickly that Samson didn’t have time to react. The torch was torn from his grasp and then put out with a sputtering hiss, plunging them into true darkness. All he could see were the distant harbor lights, two bright points stuck in the great mask of the darkness like the eyes of a watching beast.

  “On me,” the captain said. “We go silently – follow my mark.”

  “Wait – ”

  Samson cut off as a sudden wave of masculine breath mingled with oil and armor polish caught him by the nose. The captain, inches away from his face, spoke quickly and quietly. “Come with us or stay here,” he growled. “I do not care. But either way, be silent and stay out of our way.”

  The smell disappeared, replaced by the clean scent of pine overlaid by smoke, and Samson let out a shaky breath. He heard the soft sounds of the knights moving past him, following the captain down the hillside, and he realized he was in real danger of being left behind. Not knowing what else to do, he followed.

  As his eyes became accustomed to the night, he began to make out smaller lights down below he hadn’t seen before. There was noise, too – small and almost at the edge of hearing, but it was there: the metallic clink of buckles, the gruff snap of muffled words, the whimpering cries of prisoners.

  “Hold,” the captain whispered. Samson could just make out his outline, though his red-and-green cloak blended him almost perfectly into the background darkness of the night.

  The captain made a motion with his hands that Samson did not understand, and then there came noise from behind them. Samsun spun and looked back up the precipitous slope they’d descended and saw… nothing. He heard again a shout, though, farther up the path, and he realized that he wasn’t the only one who’d decided to find another way to reach the harbor.

  The knights ignored the sounds completely, though, and began filtering through the shops and buildings between them and the retreating force of invaders. Samson swore under his breath, caught between going with them and turning back, but was diverted from the choice when he felt more than saw someone moving in the darkness to his left. He spun toward the shadowed figure and grabbed hold of thick cloth in the darkness.

  “Stop! You idiot, it’s me – it’s – let go of me!”

  Breathing heavily, Samson released the prince.

  “They left you behind?”

  Prince Rewlyn glowered at him, making the answer clear enough.

  “There’s only six of them,” Samson hissed, looking back down the path toward the harbor. The invaders were coming closer, and it was clear that they were making directly for the harbor. “Are there others?”

  “Aboard the ship.”

  “But only six – what do they think they’re going to do?”

  “They’re Viretorum,” the prince said. “Six might be five too many.”

  The shout from farther up the path rang out again, and Samson turned to see torches at the top of the slope and a group of people headed by a big bear of a man wearing a small knitted cap.

  “Jolly,” Samson whispered.

  “What?”

  Samson grabbed the prince by the front of his embroidered tunic.

  “Who are these men?” he demanded. The raiders were nearing the dock and would soon make for their ship, which was still cloaked in the darkness of the bay. “Tell me what you’ve brought down on us.”

  By the light of the approaching torches, Samson could see the prince’s expression go from shock to anger. “They have my brother,” Samson said, his voice softening before he could help it. “They have my brother.”

  The prince’s expression did not change; he glowered at Samson with self-righteous contempt. “They’re the same raiders you refused to help us find.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “They are invaders, Islander, the ones that have taken up residence in the Floating Isles. They call themselves the Varanathi, and they’ve come for you just as I warned they would. It’s as I told your Clan Heads – we are fighting the same enemy, come for us both. Caelron needs your help as much as you need ours.”

  In disgust, Samson released the man, shoving him back against the granite wall that made up the left side of the hidden forest trail.

  “I was there, Mainlander,” sneered Samson. “I was at the meeting in the Longhouse, standing with the other Captains. You said you didn’t know who they were – you said you wanted men of Gol to go explore and find out. You lied.”

  Prince Rewlyn’s face was clearly flushed even in the masking darkness of the night, and his mouth was set in an ugly line. But before he could retort, there came noise from below, and both of them turned to look. A tongue of flame suddenly lit one of the streetlights – an oil lantern, situated high above the ground on a long pole – and then two more followed suit, seemingly of their own accord. The light pulled back the darkness like a curtain at the beginning of a play, revealing dozens of men all dressed in black with masks covering their faces. Struggling between them was a mass of children that ranged in age from four or five years old to early adolescence.

  The mass of shapes began shouting. The reason was clear: six bodies, all clothed and masked in black, lay on the edge of the road, bleeding into the gutters. Pandemonium broke out, though the raiders tried to contain it. Several of the black-clothed men detached themselves from the greater group and made for side streets and alleyways, looking for their attackers, while those in charge of the bound and gagged prisoners continued forcing them down the street, brandishing swords, knives, and clubs as encouragement.

  “What’s happening?” Jolly asked, alerting Samson to the fact that he and those he’d come with had finally arrived. Wasting no time, Samson pointed to the prisoners.

  “They’ve got Solom,” he breathed.

  Jolly’s face folded in on itself, and he bared his teeth like a wild animal. His clothing was singed and blackened, and shiny burns covered his arms.

  “Then we get him back,” he growled.

  Samson nodded and then glanced behind his first mate. His breath caught in his throat and his heart swelled: Jolly had bro
ught the Longrider crew with him. Many bore clubs or other rude instruments of force, and their looks were murderous. Some were missing, though, and he couldn’t bring himself to think about what might have happened to them.

  “We make for Longrider,” he said. “We can’t fight them on foot – they have swords and armor and who knows what else – but we can take them in the water.”

  “Wait!” Prince Rewlyn said, throwing himself in front of them. “Take me to the Great Ship, and you’ll have us there to help you. The rest of my force is there.”

  There was a pause, punctuated by more screams, and Samson knew there was no more time left for talk. “Take him with us,” he said over his shoulder to Jolly.

  He pushed past the prince, who gave an indignant squawk as the first mate picked him up, slung him easily over a burly shoulder, and followed Samson down the slope. The fighting between the invaders and the Viretorum had drawn some of the group back toward the upper end of the merchant port, but many more were still making their way toward the docks. The prisoners had already passed that way, and they were being thrown ignominiously into a half-dozen rowboats like sacks of grain. Samson glanced along the docks the opposite way, toward the last long spur of wood that reached out to the deeper waters of the harbor directly in front of Horas’ warehouse.

  “Go for Longrider on my mark,” he whispered, raising his hand. He listened as the order was relayed and then held his breath as a final group of invaders retreated past them, led by a tall man who carried himself with an air of command that set him apart from the others. Just as Samson saw him, the man paused mid-stride and turned to look back down the street.

  The raiders who had attempted to seek out and kill the Viretorum in the dark alleys and side streets were retreating now, torn and bloodied. The knights themselves had emerged in pursuit, all six of them unharmed and with swords coated liberally in blood. Seeing them, the waiting man raised his hands to his head, pulled back his hood, and revealed a bare skull beneath it.

  Fear squeezed Samson’s heart painfully in his chest. Where there should have been skin, there was only bone; where there should have been a nose, there was only an empty socket. The dislocated jaw spoke a word that hissed and burned, and all of the street lanterns that had inexplicably lit themselves only minutes before were just as inexplicably extinguished.

  Suddenly blind, Samson stumbled backwards. “Go for the ship!” he hissed at Jolly, hoping the man was behind him, hoping that he had not been unnerved by the sight as Samson had been. The first mate relayed the order and the crew hurried to obey, rushing off into the night. Samson followed as best he could, trying to collect himself but plagued by the shocking image.

  The skull – he has no skin – the skull – a skeleton – bare white bone –

  They hit Longrider at a dead run, and the ropes were cast off and the ship set adrift only seconds later. The crew ran out the oars, and as soon as they hit the water Samson gave the order to row for the Great Ship.

  What else is lurking in the dark tonight?

  Longrider cut easily through the waves, and the familiar rocking of the deck beneath his feet cleared his head. Out over the prow he could see the lights from the harbor towers; when he turned back toward shore, he could see nothing but deep shadow. Too deep, in fact. The lanterns had been relit, this time one by one with long poles in the hands of Golish folk who’d made their way down the hidden forest trails and retaken the dock. They carried torches and lanterns that illuminated quite clearly the shops and the Road… but that illumination did not touch the open water of the harbor bay.

  The water remained unnaturally dark and cloaked in shadow, and shapes of boats and ships were only visible when they emerged like phantoms in the night as Longrider passed by them. There were no waves either, which made no sense – it was as if the tide had been temporarily stilled, and the active harbor had become a blank slate of glass, closed off from the outside world and contained in an unnatural globe.

  “The ship!” Jolly called out. Even his booming voice sounded like little more than an elevated whisper. Seconds later, the massive galleon loomed out of the unnatural gloom like a wraith, shining and white. Samson’s eyes traveled slowly up the side, flicking back and forth as he gave command to turn Longrider along its side.

  Something felt wrong.

  Prince Rewlyn sensed no such thing; he moved forward as soon as Longrider was close enough to the Great Ship to make the distance easily crossable. He readied himself to jump for the ladder carved into the Great Ship’s side.

  “Wait,” Samson said, and even though his voice was low, every one of his crewmen heard it and froze. He turned back away from the Ship, looking into the eerily still harbor. Where were the invaders?

  He turned back to the Great Ship and glanced at the upper deck. A sudden cold dread washed over him, and he realized what he’d sensed, realized what was wrong.

  The crew was missing.

  “Oars double time reverse! Pull us back!”

  Longrider jumped into action as Timlin beat the drum furiously and the ship began to back away. Selor and the other two runners – Selor?! Where did he come from? Why isn’t he with mother? – rushed to untie the knots as Jolly ran down the lines making sure all was in order.

  Prince Rewlyn, taken by surprise at the sudden change of direction, swayed dangerously on the side of the deck nearest to the Great Ship; he grabbed for the rail, but his momentum was too great –

  “Rewlyn! SOMEONE GRAB HIM!”

  As if summoned by his brother’s thoughts, Selor lunged for the prince and caught him by the back of his cloak, ripping the red-green cloth in his haste to pull the man back. Gasping, Rewlyn staggered to regain his footing, looking around with wild eyes. The men were rowing frantically even as the sails opened in a desperate attempt to catch the barest hint of breeze; the combined effort sent them skittering back across the dark water like a many-legged bug. Samson shouted out orders, trying to control his panic, and glanced back behind them over the high stern just in time to see lanterns flare to life on the Great Ship.

  Damn damn damn damn –

  “What do you think you’re doing?” the prince demanded, pulling himself up to his full height and striding over to Samson. “Get me to my ship!”

  “I’m saving your fulking neck!”

  The first volley of arrows flew, and he pulled the prince down with him, holding the wheel steady with the furthest extent of his fingertips. They hit the deck with a thud as an arrow flew through the space above them and embedded itself in the quarterdeck wall.

  “MOVE MOVE MOVE!” Samson shouted. Timlin increased the rowing beat, thumping the drum openly now that there was no use for secrecy or silence. Another volley followed the first, and arrows sliced through the air, causing the crew to duck and find cover even as they continued rowing.

  The Great Ship was full of moving shadows now, shadows in the shape of men. Among them glinted here and there silver flashes of steel and hot, flickering flame. And then, as if waiting for the distraction, a massive ship exploded out of the unnatural shadows that cloaked the water, racing for the open harbor mouth.

  The ship was black from stem to stern, as if every rope and porthole had been dipped in pitch, and Samson could only watch in awe as the dark behemoth sliced through the water before them. It was nearly as large as the Great Ship, and two bonfires on the main deck, both fore and aft, lit it with a dazzling blaze.

  A sudden wind sprang up from nowhere, blowing at gale force, and it opened the black sails to their fullest extent, plucking the carrack up and throwing her forward with such force that she almost left the water. She flew past Longrider, throwing off waves that turned them sideways and left them drifting, but then the wind caught Longrider too and the smaller ship turned of its own accord. The sails caught and stretched almost past the point of endurance as every rope and tie groaned under the extreme stress. The crew was thrown back as the ship shot forward, and by some miracle they managed to hold on to the o
ars.

  Samson came back to his feet first and shot one last look over his shoulder: the darkness that had settled on the harbor had lifted, and he could see a half-dozen Golish ships being made ready to sail in an effort to follow them. At this pace, none of them stood a chance of catching up in time.

  Longrider and her crew were on their own.

  “Captain!”

  He looked over and saw Jolly pointing frantically. Following the gesture, Samson realized that they were approaching the mouth of the harbor at breakneck speed and drifting much too far aport. If they continued on that path, they would end up wrecked against the rocks.

  He dove for the wheel and grabbed the heavy wooden handles, throwing his whole body into the motion. Longrider shuddered beneath him, and Jolly yelled for the oars to change pace to match the turn. Everything seemed to go black as stars winked around the edges of his vision.

  The two lights of the harbor towers flashed past them, and they were through.

  He let go of the wheel so that the ship could right itself and then grabbed it again as she evened out. The world came slowly back to shape around them, and he called out more orders between gasping breaths.

  The supernatural wind died as suddenly as it had sprung up, and a natural one that smelled of salt and sea took its place. The darkness that had cloaked the harbor gave way to the light of the moon and stars, and with the change came a sudden silence, broken only by the creak of wood and rope. The black ship was still ahead of them, but Samson suddenly realized they could catch it.

  A scattered trail of shoals and reefs separated Gol from the open sea to the north and west, and it was through these that the raiders would have to navigate. With the wind the way it was, blowing down from the north, the bigger two-masted carrack had to tack against the wind, and that limited its mobility. It also meant that when it cleared the island, the ocean wind that blew north from south beyond the Archipelago would catch them and take them away far faster than the galleys and longboats of Gol could follow.

  Samson went frantically through the maps he’d memorized, the maps his father had pounded into his head, and compared them to the path the carrack was taking. They were slipping through Deadman’s Trench, the fastest but trickiest way to go – and if they veered too far to port or starboard they would be run aground and held there until the tide came and set them loose.

  He did another quick calculation, thinking back to when he’d launched the ship, and realized the tide was coming in, that the water of the distant ocean was washing back into the sea, and that soon the Black Ship would have smooth sailing even through Deadman.

  “We need to steer her onto the shoals,” he said quickly to Jolly. “Tide is coming in and we only have so much time to do it – they’re going for Deadman’s Trench and if we scare them to port they’ll scrape the reef and run aground.”

  “Aye,” the first mate replied simply, and then he was off to Timlin, instructing him to alter the rowing pace yet again. Samson followed that up with orders to pull hard on the oars, and he spun the wheel to turn Longrider to the starboard side, minimizing their loss of speed. He straightened the ship, held the wheel with one hand, then shot a glance back over his shoulder.

  The other Golish ships were on their way, racing through the harbor. There was no chance they would arrive in time to help slow the Black Ship, but if the plan succeeded and Longrider managed to run the invaders onto the reef…

  Samson lit the stern lantern and shouted for Selor. His brother came, and Samson told him to relay the plan to the fleet behind them. Selor did so, flickering the light in timed intervals.

  The raiders ahead were moving quickly, but whatever skill or power they had did not extend to navigating unseen reefs at speed. Longrider was closing the distance in the shallow water, and Samson held his breath.

  “What are you doing?” asked a voice by his side.

  Samson started, realizing he’d completely forgotten Prince Rewlyn was onboard with them until he’d spoken. The side of his jaw was bruised, and the rest of his face was red and drawn in anger.

  “Hold on,” Samson said. “We’re coming up fast and we – ”

  “Turn this vessel around now,” the prince said. “You have no idea what you’re facing – you’re risking more lives going after them. You need to get me back to the Great Ship, you don’t stand a chance against them in a fishing galley – ”

  Samson’s temper broke. He released a hand from the wheel, grabbed the prince by his finely embroidered tunic, and drew him up so that he was standing on tiptoes and gasping for breath. The prince’s gray eyes were wide and full of shock.

  “My brother is a captive on that ship,” Samson hissed. “If you expect me to abandon him on the orders of a king-worshipping Mainlander, then you can jump over the side and drown for all I care. Do you understand me?”

  Rewlyn was looking back and forth between both of Samson’s eyes, obviously at a loss; finally, he swallowed hard and nodded. Samson released him, then turned back to the wheel and diverted the ship away from a hidden shoal just in time.

  Longrider gained on the larger ship quickly, and Samson’ pulse began pounding in his ears.

  “Get us alongside!”

  Timlin shifted the beat, and the men took it in turns to row them into position. The Black Ship had spotted them now, and in the light of the bonfires fore and aft, Samson could see glints of steel and moving figures.

  Solom – Solom – I have to get him back – my brother – have to get him back –

  The Black Ship spilled enough light into the surrounding waters to make visibility easy. As they raced closer, Samson made out bowmen on the main deck and realized the steely glints he’d seen were arrowheads.

  “Any man not rowing, cover the others!”

  Men grabbed up long boards and planks slung beneath the rowing benches and held them over the heads and exposed backs of their fellows. Barely seconds later, a chorus of twanging sounds echoed from the deck of the Black Ship, and then wooden shafts were raining down on them.

  Men cried out as some of the arrows found their mark, and Samson’s heart leapt into his throat and almost drove away his courage. The sound of men he’d known his whole life cursing in pain rocked him more than he’d thought possible.

  No – no – Solom – Solom – you can’t turn back – save your brother –

  “Take cover and keep rowing!” he shouted desperately. The men did as commanded, but the arrows continued to strike, and soon there were more cries of pain added to the night. Some of the crew managed to return fire, using their short fishing bows, and they were reward with curses in a foreign tongue.

  “Jolly!” he shouted. “We need to get on that ship!”

  The man roared out an affirmative and pointed to the handholds carved into the black wood of the ship’s side. They pulled dead even, now racing through the last stretch of Deadman’s Trench neck-and-neck. There had barely minutes left.

  “Jolly – take the wheel!”

  The first mate whirled and grabbed the wooden handles just as Samson dodged aside and grabbed up one of the fishing spears. With the same practiced, easy motion he’d used only hours before, Samson hurled the spear up and over the side of the ship, where it sank into the chest of a black-cloaked archer. The hooked end caught, and Samson yanked on the rope to pull him forward. The man stumbled, crying out in pain, surprise, and fear, and twisted himself awkwardly, winding the rope around his body. Samson pulled again, and the man found himself wedged against the high railing of the deck several yards above.

  “Samson! Wait!”

  He ignored the shout and launched himself out into the space between the ships, using the archer as an anchor point. He flew over dark churning water and hit the black wood of the carrack’s hull with a thump. He slid and turned as the rope tried to pull him back around and the man above fought and screamed for help, but then managed to grab the first rung of the carved ladder. He pulled himself up, hand over hand, with manic determinat
ion.

  Jolly was shouting something behind him, and he heard the thud of two other spears thrown into the Black Ship’s hull, but none of it really registered. Neither of the spears found flesh, but they did catch the railing, and the ships were pulled closer still as a dozen strong Golish arms heaved on the ropes and ran in the oars on the port side.

  Samson made it to the starboard rail and nearly lost his head as a cutlass swung through the air above him. The only thing that saved him was the glint of the blade in the light of the roaring bonfires; he saw it and ducked just in time, then struck out with his foot through the bars of the railing and knocked his attacker down.

  He pulled himself up the rest of the way and rolled over the railing, grabbing for the cutlass the man had dropped. He narrowly avoided being skewered by another sword as the Longrider crew shot a second flurry arrows up at the raiders, forcing them to duck. He seized his chance and slammed the hilt of the cutlass into the face of the closest black-masked man, knocking him out cold.

  He turned, his eyes wide as he searched desperately for his brother.

  The light from the bonfires illuminated the scene quite clearly. There were two heavy masts full of black canvas, and the wood of the deck looked sticky and wet with some dark liquid. A strange metallic scent filled the air along with harsh, guttural voices shouting in that strange foreign tongue.

  But what drew Samson’s eye was the mass of captives chained amidships. All of them were children, and there must have been nearly thirty of them. They shivered in the cold night air, completely naked, and they’d been chained hand and foot to one another. They were all so emaciated that they looked half dead, and none of them had the bronze skin of the Archipelago.

  Where’s Solom?

  There were masked men in black around the captives, and when they saw him, they rushed toward into action. He raised the stolen cutlass and set his teeth, believing with the naivety of youth that he actually stood a chance, that he could fight them all off and save his brother.

  “Hold!”

  The masked men froze. Samson saw them breathing still, but if he had not he would have thought they had become perfect statues. He heard sound from behind him and realized there was fighting on the deck of Longrider.

  But they were coming after me, how did they – ?

  A tall man detached himself from a patch of shadow Samson hadn’t noticed and moved forward, lowering the cowl of his hood.

  It was the skeleton man.

  Once again, primal terror clutched at Samson, uncontrollable in its intensity. The bare skull gleamed at him where there should have been a head, teeth grinned like the face of death...

  But this time, something flickered in his mind, and the skull seemed to shift. Suddenly Samson saw it for what it was: a mask, over the face of a man.

  “You are brave,” the mask said, in words that somehow rang through Samson’s body. They were twisted and oddly accented, but perfectly clear. He shivered as he heard them and found himself unable to look away from the two burning eyes that stared through the empty sockets of the bone mask. “So very brave. What is it you’ve come all this way for?”

  “You took my brother,” he said immediately.

  “Your brother?” The man smiled, revealing yellowed teeth with receding gums. “What does he look like?”

  Samson told him, once again without hesitation, the words pulled from him against his will. He felt queasy and nauseated, and a sourceless ache had begun to radiate through his chest. His cheeks began to burn with fever, and he swayed where he stood.

  “Bring him,” the man in the bone mask said. One of the guards disappeared, only to reappear almost immediately holding a struggling captive.

  “Solom!” Samson cried, rushing forward.

  The black-masked men were on him instantly. They slammed him against the nearest mast and forced the cutlass from his hand, then grabbed him by the hair and forced him to look at his brother, who was now held by the man in the bone mask.

  He realized distantly that the shouting down below on Longrider had grown in intensity, but all he could see was Solom. The boy had a cut upper lip from which ran a thin trail of blood, and his eyes were wide with terror and the desperate hope that Samson could save him.

  “Is this him?” asked the man in the bone mask.

  “Yes,” Samson answered, the words pulled from him.

  “Good.” The word came out almost as a moan of ecstasy. The skeleton man pulled Solom forward, his large hands pale, gaunt, and powerful, like ancient stone spiders upon the boy’s upper arms. Solom was mouthing something at Samson, but he had lost the power of speech. Tears streamed from his eyes, and the sickness in Samson’s chest became a horrible pain.

  “This fire beside me,” said the man in his strange accent, “is what propels us. It is what gave us the wind that drove us from your harbor, and it is what will take us far from here, and far from you and your crew.”

  One hand let go of Solom; the fingers jumped to a pocket in the black cloak and removed a gleaming knife, slightly curved, with a bone handle.

  “It is powered by something that has long been missing from your shores.”

  He turned and pulled Solom to the fire, holding the boy’s head over the flames. Solom found his voice and began to whimper and cry.

  “Let him go!” Samson snarled, fighting with all his power against the hands that held him, but to no avail.

  “You who are blind to the true powers of the world, now see!”

  The blade rose and pressed against Solom’s throat. The man turned to watch Samson, and the firelight made the pale eyes behind the bone mask gleam like stars.

  “Power comes from terror. From pain. From death.” He smiled widely, baring again those yellow teeth. “Take this message back to the land of Aeon. Take this message to your family, to your clan, to anyone who will listen. To the King of Caelron himself, if he will hear poor insignificant you. The Kalac Kull rides the waves of the Shining Sea, and you will bow before him or die in agony.”

  The blade bit into Solom’s neck, and a curtain of blood fell into the fire.

  “NO!”

  The man released the boy, and Solom fell, choking and gagging. His head slammed into the metal side of the brazier, making it ring out like a gong, and then he was on the deck, twitching and shaking. He tried to hold his own neck together, but the blood ran through his fingers like water through a cracked hull.

  The bonfire leapt upward, shooting flames high into the air and burning so intensely that it singed Samson several yards away. Words began to flow from the mouth of the bone mask, the yellow teeth flashing in the light, and a wind came from nowhere, lifting the sails.

  Samson was pulled backward, away from his brother, away from the fire, and toward the edge of the ship. He was screaming deliriously, calling for Solom, begging his brother to answer, but the discarded body no longer moved. Blood, black and lifeless, pooled beneath it.

  The chanting cut off when Samson reached the railing. Hands grabbed his chin and forced his head around, forced him to stare at the bone mask, and the man who wore it silenced the sound of his screams with a single flick of his finger. Samson still shouted, but his cries made no sound.

  “Tell them what you’ve seen. Tell them to bow when next we come.”

  The hand flicked again, and Samson was thrown over the railing by an invisible force. Panic jolted his mind back to lucidity just as he crashed into the dark water. The freezing sea and the harsh sting of salt shocked his body into action, and with frantic haste he pulled himself to the surface. He was in the shadow of a ship, and two figures descended the side and grabbed him by the arms to pull him up on board. When he fell to the hard deck he had so often trod, his nose pressed against the worn wooden boards, he knew that he was back on Longrider.

  He rose back to his feet, coughing and hacking out the seawater he had swallowed. The blood was still pounding in his veins, and his head felt far too light and his chest far too heavy. He stumbled f
orward, blindly grabbing at things around him and pushing away the strong hands that sought to hold him still.

  He shook his head to clear the water from his eyes and saw his crew, ashen-faced and staring, in the light of the sea lanterns that lit the deck. He saw old little Timlin slumped against the coxswain post, an arrow through his chest; he saw the bodies of Wulf Dover and Aron Hol and others laid out on the deck, unmoving. He saw wounds and bowed figures, heard heavy, labored breathing, and someone somewhere crying quietly, trying to hold back sobs.

  His gaze landed on Selor, his other brother. He was unhurt.

  A rush of relief invaded him, driving out his grief at Solom’s death, and just as quickly that relief was replaced by guilt and revulsion.

  “Selor – take the drum. We have to go after them.”

  But his brother did not move; none of them did.

  “I’M YOUR CAPTAIN!” he roared, drawing himself up to his full height. But the words turned into a sob before he could bring himself back under control. “They – they just – they killed – we have to stop them!”

  “Solom – they killed – ?”

  “They killed him! Now we make them pay!”

  “Blood and tears, Samson, we fulking can’t! They’re gone!”

  “No!” He turned and advanced on his brother, impotent rage taking him over. The realization of Solom’s death stole over Selor’s face, and he swayed where he stood. Samson reached out to grab him and caught him before he fell. The slight form folded into his arms, collapsing against Samson’s chest as his knees gave way. Samson helped lower him to the deck, but then left him there and turned to Jolly.

  “We give chase,” he said viciously. “We follow them. The others can’t be far behind us, if we attack together –”

  But the look in Jolly’s eyes told Samson it wouldn’t happen. There was a fire in them – not internal, but reflected. He turned to look in the direction Jolly was facing, out to sea, and saw that the raiders had made it through Deadman’s Trench and were drifting into open waters. The Black Ship was speeding quickly away under the power of a new supernatural wind, rounding the far side of the Gol. In the light of the bonfire, Samson made out a name carved into the side:

  Desecration.

  And then he looked past it, and saw the others.

  A whole fleet of black ships rode the waves just north of Gol, all flying a flag that bore a silver skull. They ranged in size and make, from single-masted galleys to heavy schooners to some nearly the size of a Caelron Great Ship, and there were over a dozen all told, stretched out across the horizon like black-winged vultures.

  The call to follow them died on his lips, and he stood staring, speechless. The one to break the silence was Prince Rewlyn, whom almost everyone had forgotten was on board. “I have been told of Islander bravery,” he said, “but I have never seen it until now.”

  Samson continued to watch the fleeing ships. How many Golish children had they taken with them? How many had they already killed? Where were the others going?

  “Let me come with you back to Gol,” the prince continued earnestly. “Let me speak with your Clan Heads once more – and stand there with me. This is what is coming – this is what has come! Caelron cannot stand alone against it, and neither can the Archipelago. We must be together – we must find a way –”

  “Enough,” growled Jolly. “Leave him be.”

  The crew took a collective breath and held it, waiting, as they watched Samson. He could feel the pressure of their eyes.

  “You must act,” Rewlyn said. “My brother, King Malineri, is a good man. He will not betray your trust – ”

  Samson rounded on him. Several of the crew moved as if to put themselves between the two, and fear flashed across the prince’s face before his features settled into a mask of wary determination.

  Samson didn’t strike him though, nor did he make an attempt to do so. His thoughts were a hopeless tangle: Solom was gone, along with who knew how many more from Gol and the other islands. The Archipelagans had no way to fight against dark power like what he’d seen.

  Only sorcerers can fight sorcery.

  Rewlyn had come with an offer of help. Mainlanders had helped in the past in times of war, his father had told him that. And yet his mother said they took with one hand while they pretended to give with the other.

  What would his father have done?

  Some of his blind anger drained out of him, making room for sorrow. It rose in his chest, and though he tried to swallow it back down, shaking his head and looking out over the prince’s shoulder, it was no use.

  “I don’t give a fulk about your king,” he said softly. The crew shifted at the sound of the dangerous words, but Rewlyn didn’t react or even really seem to care. “I care about my mother. I care that my father is dead and gone and now our home has been torn apart. I care that my brother is dead. I care that if I go back to fishing, they’ll come again and take my mother, or my sister, or even me. I only care about you if you have a way to keep us safe. Do you have a way to do that?”

  “Yes,” Rewlyn said emphatically. “Yes, I do.”

  They locked eyes, and something passed between them.

  “Then I will speak for you,” Samson said softly. “And we’ll drive those fulking bastards from our sea.”

 
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