For a week the king and queen made themselves at home in and around Castle Dracoheim. There were shallow streams fished by massive ice bears along the nearby shore, and Grimwar made several outings to hunt the great creatures. On one occasion he killed a big male with a single cast of his spear. That night he hosted a great feast for his mother and all the ogres of her court, including his own crew. Warqat was swilled through the long night, and the celebration rang through the keep of the remote outpost.
Stariz confined her expeditions to more civilized locales, traveling with Hanna to several of the nearby gold mines, touring the walled villages wherein dwelt the many human slaves sharing the island with the ogres. The queen was particularly impressed by the glassy smoothness of one place, where Hanna told her a human village had once stood.
“This is the place where the first orb was tested,” explained the elder queen with a tight smile.
“Impressive,” Stariz agreed enthusiastically. “Soon, Gonnas willing, Brackenrock itself will look like this!”
The younger queen was not surprised to find that she preferred the company of her husband’s mother to the companionship of the king himself. Indeed, the two priestesses shared much, including a profound devotion to their god and to the kingdom. They spent many enjoyable hours engaged in discussion as to how they could best serve the former and ensure the advancement of the latter.
It suited Stariz, in fact, that her husband avoided these outings-where he would suffer the combined influence of the two ogresses. Stariz was content with the gradual progress made by the Alchemist, whom she checked on daily. He was a blur of activity and invariably took her breath away with his deft gestures, quick dashes around his laboratory, and startlingly quick comments. She thought Hanna’s selection of elixir-giving him a potion of haste-was a clever, even inspired idea. Stariz had no doubts that the fellow would complete his preparations in time for Goldwing to return to Bracken-rock by summer’s end.
Eight days after arriving on the island, however, she found herself bored. Grimwar was gone on another of his tedious bear hunts, and the Alchemist was making drawings for the smith. Hanna, too, was off somewhere.
One of the nicer features of Castle Dracoheim was the system of pressurized water the slaves had shown her, much of it drawn directly from hot springs beneath the fortress. Momentarily without something to do, Stariz had her slaves draw a deep bath, and the ogress settled into the great tub with a grunt of pleasure. As she lay there, peacefully, her thoughts slowly focused on her husband.
What a king Grimwar Bane, proud ruler of Suderhold, could be! If he would only heed her advice. As strapping and powerful as any ogre bull in all the land, by his mere presence he commanded the respect and devotion of his people. He was ruthless enough to be a great leader. He had proved that when he had slain his own father, more than eight years before. All Grimwar needed was a sense of his own destiny, a sense that his wife, the wise and powerful queen, could and, justly, tried to provide.
But his character flaws-how could she correct those and guide him to his full potential? There was his childish dalliance with Thraid, a mirror of his father’s weakness. Oh, yes, she knew about Thraid. Though she was disgusted by his lust, until now she had tolerated it as a harmless diversion. Thraid was one of his capricious whims, just like these ridiculous bear hunts, which hampered him from focusing on more important tasks.
Though, in truth, she admitted that he had impressed her with his determination to have a second orb created. He had been decisive in bringing his ship directly to Dracoheim. Perhaps, finally, he was starting to grow wise.
Her bath-time reverie was interrupted by a slave woman, knocking hesitantly, entering the chamber only after the queen angrily raised her voice to call her in.
“It is the Dowager Queen, Your Highness,” said the quavering human. “She says it is vital that you and the king come as soon as you can, to meet her in the Ice Chamber.”
“The king is gone hunting bears,” Stariz replied with some annoyance.
“Begging Your Highness’s pardon, but his party is coming up the road even now. He will reach the main gate within twenty minutes.”
“Very well,” grunted the queen. “Bring my towels-I will come.”
Half an hour later Stariz met Grimwar in the main courtyard and brought him down the steps to the chilly vault in the castle’s most sacred temple. This was a cavern bored deep into the bedrock, well below the main walls and keep. A sheet of ice shimmered in one niche in the black chamber, while icicles draped the walls and the ogres’ breath frosted in the air. Thunder echoed in the distance, vague and fading, as if lingering from an earlier storm.
Queen Hannareit was already there, her eyes closed, hands outstretched in the trance of seeing. She lowered her arms, relaxed, and turned to welcome the royal pair, at least one of whom-her son-didn’t appear overly pleased at the prospect of this summit meeting. Behind her, the wall of ice swirled with flashes of light and roiling images of black cloud.
“I think you both must see this,” declared the Dowager Queen, gesturing to the strange sheet of ice. “I will focus the power of the Willful One.”
Once again the elder queen closed her eyes and raised her broad hands. She murmured a prayer to Gonnas-a prayer Stariz mouthed silently-and once again drew upon the might of the god to illuminate the sacred ice.
Thunder rumbled, the sound emanating from within the depths of the world. Lightning flashed in the slick surface, flashes brightening a mass of roiling, dark cloud.
Grimwar stared worriedly. Stariz looked too, as slowly the gray brightness devolved into flickering images. The clouds parted, the lightning faded. They noted the shape of a slender sailboat, which appeared to be tossing in the midst of a storm-lashed sea.
Grimwar’s eyes widened, as he pointed in fury.
“That’s the elf’s sailboat!” declared the king.
As usual, Stariz thought, he stated the obvious.
“Where do you see this?” the queen asked, already knowing the answer. “Where is the elf?”
“On the Sea of Dracoheim,” replied the elder queen Hannareit. “No more than two or three days away from here.”
In a matter of an hour ogres were hauling casks of fresh water up Goldwing’s ramps, while slaves packed dried fish and flatbread into the huge storage lockers. Grimwar had decreed they needed provisions for a week, though they hoped to find the elven sailboat quickly and destroy it in just an easy couple of days.
“I hope we can catch him in light winds,” groused the ogre monarch. “Too often he has spread those sails and vanished over the horizon faster than my oarsmen can row. But if we get a stretch of calm, I vow he will be mine!”
“Please allow me to accompany you, my king,” said Stariz sweetly. “It may be that through my flesh the power of Gonnas will come to your aid.”
Grimwar scowled. He had resisted her entreaties, thus far. Having endured two long journeys with his wife aboard, he had looked forward to a voyage of relative independence. Even so, he knew the might of his god and could not deny that the power of a high priestess could prove very useful. Grudgingly he assented.
They carried the full complement of ogre rowers, as well as two dozen armored warriors, veterans culled from the ranks of the Grenadiers. Very soon all were aboard, and the galley pushed off from the beach, glided through the harbor, and broke from the protected anchorage into the expanse of the Dracoheim Sea.
“Turn northward-make a course for the ocean,” Grimwar Bane declared. A storm was rolling out from the land onto the gray sea across their intended course.
“No, we must go straight!” Stariz protested, pointing north of due west. “The elf comes from that way!”
Grimwar grimaced. His wife was already interfering. The king pointed to the clouds fleeing along the horizon. “That will blow past in a few hours, but for now it stands in our path,” he said sharply. “If we sail into the storm, it will put us off track to meet the Messenger and his boat.”
The king derived satisfaction from the chagrin on his wife’s face. She lacked his experience on the sea, which certainly aggravated her, but she could see the evidence of his words. Stariz grunted and went below, while the ogre king felt the icy raindrops begin to spatter against his skin. He looked north toward the black clouds and was pleased with himself.
Goldwing glided through the water steadily, leaving a white wake foaming at her stern. The warriors maintained the beat of Argus Darkand’s drumming, and in the clear light of the constant day the king of Suderhold could allow himself to believe that he really was the master of his world.
The gray waves rolled and pitched relentlessly, a legion of watery warriors marching against their speck of a foe, Cutter. Kerrick’s steadfast vessel had taken the attacks of these warriors, one by one, and defeated them.
Now the swells evidenced the rhythm of deep ocean currents, and though the waves towered higher than before, the briny summits did not break with extreme violence or frequency. The wind had settled enough to allow the mainsail almost full spread, and the elf smoothly steered his boat along the vast slopes of these watery ridges, while Moreen, Strongwind, and Randall played out the sail to its full capacity. The gray clouds lingered overhead, but off to the south they broke to reveal patches of pale blue. From the cabin top, however, there was no sign of land.
“I think it would be safe to mark a course west by southwest,” Kerrick said, seeing in the opening sky proof that the storm had exhausted itself.
“How far north are we?” asked Moreen.
“We might be eighty miles, even a hundred, from the Icereach. We’ll probably have to tack some to get back on course, but we’re not more than a day away from land, at the very most.”
“Then let’s do as you say,” said the chiefwoman.
Kerrick made the turn as they started up the slope of one of the mountainous swells, levering the tiller to move the boat through a gradual arc. Moreen pulled the line and ducked as the boom swung past her head, and Cutter heeled across the rising sea. In another moment they were racing back to the south, down the wave, up the steeper water beyond, and slicing through the narrowed crest.
Wind pressed the sail, and the boat shot forward. The sun poked between ragged shreds of cloud, lighting the deck, dazzling the flying drops of spray and turning them into liquid gemstones, and in the magical brilliance of the sunshine the gray waters became a deep, vivid blue.
After eight or ten hours, the gray coastline took shape, and they changed course to run to the west. The icy face of the mainland quickly faded to the stern, and the wide, gray swells of the Dracoheim Sea now opened up before them.
Randall joined the elf in the cockpit, while Moreen and Strongwind talked quietly in the cabin. The berserker whistled breezily, leaning back against the transom for a few minutes before abruptly sitting up straight and fixing Kerrick with an intense look.
“They say you wear a ring into battle,” said the Highlander with forced casualness. “That it brings a madness of war upon you. I have seen the madness but confess to wondering about the ring.”
Kerrick shrugged. He had not talked of his ring with anyone but Moreen. Still, the humans knew of it, certainly. He thought about how to reply.
“Not a madness of war. More of a madness of need or desire, I would say. I know that when I take the ring off, there are times when I would almost kill someone just to be able to put it on again. I don’t use the ring very often. I can’t let myself. It has too much power.”
“I know that feeling,” said the berserker. “When the spell of war and fighting comes upon me, it’s as though I then-and only then-truly come to life. All the rest of existence is just some pale charade.”
“But you enjoy the peaceful side of life too, don’t you?” pressed the elf, disturbed by the conversation. Randall had always struck him as one of the most serenely contented people he knew-a boon companion around a campfire-eerily transformed by the battle madness.
“Endure more than enjoy,” said the Highlander frankly. “I know that when I die, I want to die with the madness upon me, in my eyes, ruling my mind.”
The elf nodded, acutely conscious of the ring in his sea chest, feeling the desire to get it and put it on right now. Despite the longing, he stayed where he was, fighting off the almost physical urge of temptation. “May the gods see that day a long way off,” he said.
“Aye. Or perhaps it will be soon,” Randall replied, with apparent good cheer. Again he leaned back and started to whistle, forgetting all about Kerrick.
The cabin door opened, and Moreen emerged to stretch in the small cockpit. “I’ll go forward and have a look around,” she offered. With lithe grace she scrambled up the ladder to the cabin roof, flexing her knees to keep her balance as the sailboat coursed over the rough water.
“What’s that?” the chiefwoman asked suddenly, pointing.
“What?” asked the elf, seeing nothing unusual.
“Something floating on the top of a waves… like a boat. At least, I don’t think it was a rock, or an island.”
“What direction?” Kerrick queried, standing and looking past the cabin as they came over the next crest.
“Just to port,” Moreen said. “I don’t see it now.”
“That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there,” Kerrick replied, alertly. “In a sea like this, you’ll only see another boat when you’re both on top of the waves at the same time. Keep looking.”
He took the tiller and used it to slowly adjust the course, bringing them directly into line with Moreen’s sighting. A minute later she cried out. “There it is again-it’s something, for sure. Not a boat, though… wait, it’s a ship! The ogre galley, and it’s heading straight toward us!”
“Close on them-crush them!” Grimwar howled, in a frenzy of exultation. He gestured madly, exhorting more strength from the muscles of his oarsmen. “Row like the wind, you dogs!”
He paced back and forth on the observation platform, clapping one fist into his other palm. He gazed forward, saw the elf’s sailboat bobbing plainly several miles ahead among the tossing waves.
Already the cursed elf was turning, using the full sail to catch the wind, propelling the little boat into birdlike speed.
“Gonnas curse him and all his children-he’s getting away!” roared the monarch.
“Have faith, Husband,” chided Stariz, scrambling awkwardly up the ladder to the platform. She took a magisterial stance beside the king, glaring into the distance as Grimwar stalked impotently back and forth.
“Now-may the power of Gonnas strike this wind from the sky!” This was Stariz the high priestess speaking, booming out a full-throated prayer that resounded over the wave-lashed sea. Her arms were spread wide. “Smite the very air, O Willful One, and cripple the flight of your enemies!”
As Grimwar watched her dubiously, Stariz whipped her arms upward and swirled them over her head. The ogre king felt a chill down his spine that had nothing to do with the weather. He heard an ominous muffling of noise, as if the very hand of Gonnas had come down to cup them, to cover the whole of the sea under its protective dome.
Within that invisible and immortal shelter, to Grimwar’s astonishment, the wind died away to nothing.
“They must be coming from Dracoheim-I’d bet my gold on it!” Kerrick said excitedly. “We must outrun them, then backtrack their course-that should lead us directly to the island. In this wind, we can escape without a problem.”
The great ogre ship, maybe five miles away now, came on steadily but was clearly no match for the sailboat’s nimble fleetness. Randall and Strongwind had gone to the high gunwale, where they added their weight as ballast, leaning outward to keep the sailboat racing through the choppy seas, countering the straining sails as the boat pulled along sharply with the powerful force of air.
All of a sudden the boat heeled violently, almost throwing the two men into the water. They scrambled onto the deck, pulled themselves up as Cutter lurched and slowed. In seconds the boat was rocking listlessly. The frothy whitecaps had vanished, and the sails now hung limply, like so many useless sheets drying on a line.
“What happened?” asked the amazed Highlander king.
“The wind has died!” Kerrick declared. He glanced around, saw that waves were still rolling, but that the air had grown utterly still. “But how-it’s not possible!”
“No, not possible,” Moreen agreed worriedly, making her way to the top of the cabin and gazing at the galley bearing in on them. “Unless it is magic of some kind.”
Kerrick’s heart pounded in his chest as he peered at the sky. “Well, we’d better hope the magic wanes and the wind starts up again, or we’re doomed,” he said hoarsely, holding up a hand, groping for the touch of even a faint gust.
But there was no wind.