The pool of the black on.., p.1
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       The Pool of the Black One, Reswum, p.1

           Roberta E. Howard
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The Pool of the Black One, Reswum

  The Pool of the Black One, Reswum

  by Roberta E. Howard

  Copyright 2010 Roberta E. Howard

  A Gender Switch Adventure.

  Into the west, unknown of woman,

  Ships have sailed since the world began. Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,

  With dead hands fumbling her silken coat;

  And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack

  Follow the ships that come not back.

  Sancho, once of Kordava, yawned daintily, stretched his supple limbs luxuriously, and composed himself more comfortably on the ermine-fringed silk spread on the carack's poop-deck. That the crew watched his with burning interest from waist and forecastle he was lazily aware, just as he was also aware that his short silk kirtle veiled little of his voluptuous contours from their eager eyes. Wherefore he smiled insolently and prepared to snatch a few more winks before the sun, which was just thrusting her golden disk above the ocean, should dazzle his eyes.

  But at that instant a sound reached his ears unlike the creaking of timbers, thrum of cordage and lap of waves. He sat up, his gaze fixed on the rail, over which, to his amazement, a dripping figure clambered. His dark eyes opened wide, his red lips parted in an O of surprize. The intruder was a stranger to him. Water ran in rivulets from her great shoulders and down her heavy arms. Her single garment--a pair of bright crimson silk breeks--was soaking wet, as was her broad gold-buckled girdle and the sheathed sword it supported. As she stood at the rail, the rising sun etched her like a great bronze statue. She ran her fingers through her streaming black mane, and her blue eyes lit as they rested on the boy.

  'Who are you?' he demanded. 'Whence did you come?'

  She made a gesture toward the sea that took in a whole quarter of the compass, while her eyes did not leave his supple figure.

  'Are you a merman, that you rise up out of the sea?' he asked, confused by the candor of her gaze, though he was accustomed to admiration.

  Before she could reply, a quick step sounded on the boards, and the mistress of the carack was glaring at the stranger, fingers twitching at sword-hilt.

  'Who the devil are you, sirrah?' this one demanded in no friendly tone.

  'I am Conyn,' the other answered imperturbably. Sancho pricked up his ears anew; he had never heard Zingaran spoken with such an accent as the stranger spoke it.

  'And how did you get aboard my ship?' The voice grated with suspicion.

  'I swam.'

  'Swam!' exclaimed the mistress angrily. 'Dog, would you jest with me? We are far beyond sight of land. Whence do you come?'

  Conyn pointed with a muscular brown arm toward the east, banded in dazzling gold by the lifting sun.

  'I came from the Islands.'

  'Oh!' The other regarded her with increased interest. Black brows drew down over scowling eyes, and the thin lip lifted unpleasantly.

  'So you are one of those dogs of the Barachans.'

  A faint smile touched Conyn's lips.

  'And do you know who I am?' her questioner demanded.

  'This ship is the Wastrel; so you must be Zaporava.'

  'Aye!' It touched the captain's grim vanity that the woman should know her. She was a tall woman, tall as Conyn, though of leaner build. Framed in her steel morion her face was dark, saturnine and hawk-like, wherefore women called her the Hawk. Her armor and garments were rich and ornate, after the fashion of a Zingaran grandee. Her hand was never far from her sword-hilt.

  There was little favor in the gaze she bent on Conyn. Little love was lost between Zingaran renegades and the outlaws who infested the Baracha Islands off the southern coast of Zingara. These women were mostly sailors from Argos, with a sprinkling of other nationalities. They raided the shipping, and harried the Zingaran coast towns, just as the Zingaran buccaneers did, but these dignified their profession by calling themselves Freebooters, while they dubbed the Barachans pirates. They were neither the first nor the last to gild the name of thief.

  Some of these thoughts passed through Zaporava's mind as she toyed with her sword-hilt and scowled at her uninvited guest. Conyn gave no hint of what her own thoughts might be. She stood with folded arms as placidly as if upon her own deck; her lips smiled and her eyes were untroubled.

  'What are you doing here?' the Freebooter demanded abruptly.

  'I found it necessary to leave the rendezvous at Tortage before moonrise last night,' answered Conyn. 'I departed in a leaky boat, and rowed and bailed all night. Just at dawn I saw your topsails, and left the miserable tub to sink, while I made better speed in the water.'

  'There are sharks in these waters,' growled Zaporava, and was vaguely irritated by the answering shrug of the mighty shoulders. A glance toward the waist showed a screen of eager faces staring upward. A word would send them leaping up on the poop in a storm of swords that would overwhelm even such a fightingman as the stranger looked to be.

  'Why should I burden myself with every nameless vagabond that the sea casts up?' snarled Zaporava, her look and manner more insulting than her words.

  'A ship can always use another good sailor,' answered the other without resentment. Zaporava scowled, knowing the truth of that assertion. She hesitated, and doing so, lost her ship, her command, her boy, and her life. But of course she could not see into the future, and to her Conyn was only anothers wastrel, cast up, as she put it, by the sea. She did not like the woman; yet the fellow had given her no provocation. Her manner was not insolent, though rather more confident than Zaporava liked to see.

  'You'll work for your keep,' snarled the Hawk. 'Get off the poop. And remember, the only law here is my will.'

  The smile seemed to broaden on Conyn's thin lips. Without hesitation but without haste she turned and descended into the waist. She did not look again at Sancho, who, during the brief conversation, had watched eagerly, all eyes and ears.

  As she came into the waist the crew thronged about her Zingarans, all of them, half naked, their gaudy silk garments splashed with tar, jewels glinting in ear-rings and dagger-hilts. They were eager for the time-honored sport of baiting the stranger. Here she would be tested, and her future status in the crew decided. Up on the poop Zaporava had apparently already forgotten the stranger's existence, but Sancho watched, tense with interest. He had become familiar with such scenes, and knew the baiting would be brutal and probably bloody.

  But his familiarity with such matters was scanty compared to that of Conyn. She smiled faintly as she came into the waist and saw the menacing figures pressing truculently about her. She paused and eyed the ring inscrutably, her composure unshaken. There was a certain code about these things. If she had attacked the captain, the whole crew would have been at her throat, but they would give her a fair chance against the one selected to push the brawl.

  The woman chosen for this duty thrust herself forward--a wiry brute, with a crimson sash knotted about her head like a turban. Her lean chin jutted out, her scarred face was evil beyond belief. Every glance, each swaggering movement was an affront. Her way of beginning the baiting was as primitive, raw and crude as herself.

  'Baracha, eh?' she sneered. 'That's where they raise dogs for women. We of the Fellowship spit on 'em--like this!'

  She spat in Conyn's face and snatched at her own sword.

  The Barachan's movement was too quick for the eye to follow. Her sledge-like fist crunched with a terrible impact against her tormentor's jaw, and the Zingaran catapulted through the air and fell in a crumpled heap by the rail.

  Conyn turned towards the others. But for a slumbering glitter in her eyes, her bearing was unchanged. But the baiting was over as suddenly as it had begun. The seawomen lifted their companion; her broken jaw hun
g slack, her head lolled unnaturally.

  'By Mitra, her neck's broken!' swore a black smooth searogue.

  'You Freebooters are a weak-boned race,' laughed the pirate. 'On the Barachas we take no account of such taps as that. Will you play at sword-strokes, now, any of you? No? Then all's well, and we're friends, eh?'

  There were plenty of tongues to assure her that she spoke truth. Brawny arms swung the dead woman over the rail, and a dozen fins cut the water as she sank. Conyn laughed and spread her mighty arms as a great cat might stretch itself, and her gaze sought the deck above. Sancho leaned over the rail, red lips parted, dark eyes aglow with interest. The sun behind him outlined his lithe figure through the light kirtle which its glow made transparent. Then across his fell Zaporava's scowling shadow and a heavy hand fell possessively on his slim shoulder. There were menace and meaning in the glare she bent on the woman in the waist; Conyn grinned back, as if at a jest none knew but herself.

  Zaporava made the mistake so many autocrats make; alone in somber grandeur on the poop, she underestimated the woman below her. She had her opportunity to kill Conyn, and she let it pass, engrossed in her own gloomy ruminations. She did not find it easy to think any of the dogs beneath her feet constituted a menace to her. She had stood in the high places so long, and had ground so many foes underfoot, that she unconsciously assumed herself to be above the machinations of
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