19

Shrouds

“At last that blasted elf they call the Messenger is mine!” cried the ogre king, exultant as he saw that his oar-powered galley was closing upon the wind-powered craft. “Row faster!” he called to his oarsmen, even as the wooden blades slapped the water with increasing speed. “Give them all your strength, my brutes, and victory will be ours!”

Goldwing surged like a great, water-borne predator, closing on helpless prey. It seemed as though the ship reflected the ogre impulse in its hull, keel, and deck and leaped ahead in response to the eagerness of her master. “Yes, Sire-we will crush them!” cried Stariz enthusiastically, still standing with her arms outspread. Her eyes were open and glazed in a religious trance. Near the stern Argus Darkand shouted out a frenzied cadence, and the drummer pounded his drum. The ogres pulling the oars maintained their impressive pace with strong strokes, the hull sliding even faster through the smooth and windless waves.

“Straight ahead!” Grimwar ordered. He stared at the sailboat, every feature of which he hated-the teak deck, the smooth hull, the low cabin and the vast sheets of white canvas. He was thrilled to see those sails hanging utterly limp, useless. The boat looked crippled, like a duck that had fallen, broken-winged, into a pond.

“Full speed! Make for the middle of the hull-we’ll smash the boat to kindling and haul the elf aboard as a captive of the crown!”

The king’s mind whirled, savoring the tortures and torments he could inflict upon this prisoner, the troublesome outlander who had made himself an enemy of the throne. There would be pokers to heat, barbed hooks to sharpen that would, very slowly, rend the elven flesh.

“This is a prisoner who must be put to death-at once!” snapped the queen. “We dare not leave him alive. I myself will cut his head from his scrawny neck!”

Grimwar shook his head in irritation, turned to glare at his wife.

“This fellow has come out of nowhere to vex me for eight years,” he retorted. “I will learn a few things from him, then I will select the manner of his punishment. There will be plenty of time to kill him, and I don’t intend to be hasty about it. Rather, his will be a death to relish.”

“No, he must die at once!” cried Stariz, her voice shrill. “Too often has he challenged us and thwarted the clear will of Gonnas! Consider the danger, Sire! Promise that you will slay him as soon as he is hoisted aboard.”

“I tell you, no!” growled the king, although he was surprised at her vehement interest in the elf’s fate. “Let us talk about this when we have him wrapped in our chains.”

The galley rocketed forward as the rowers put their backs into accelerated strokes. The ogre king licked his lips, anticipating his enemy’s humiliation, imagining the slender sailboat cracking under the impact of the mighty galley. Goldwing drew closer, as the vulnerable sailboat sat motionless, save for its gentle bobbing in the swells. Now Grimwar could see several people scrambling about on the deck. Obviously, they knew they were helpless, and it pleased him immensely to imagine their fear.

The collision was only minutes away. Grimwar laughed aloud at the revenge he had savored for eight long years.

The wind had fallen away completely. The sails hung limp. The ogre galley loomed larger with each passing heartbeat. Kerrick felt a sensation of utter helplessness, knowing he couldn’t budge his boat, couldn’t evade the warship.

“The paddles?” Strongwind asked desperately. “You have two of them-can’t we try to row?”

“Bah!” Kerrick declared in disgust. “The oars can maneuver us around in a harbor, but they’re no match for that!” He pointed at the ship surging toward them under the power of two hundred oars.

“By the gods, what would I give for some wind!” he cried in exasperation.

Moreen suddenly looked up. “What did Dinekki give you?” she asked. “That wreath she gave you when you set out for your home… she said it had some kind of power.”

“Yes,” Kerrick said, trying to remember the old woman’s words. What had she told him?

The chiefwoman had already darted through the hatch, down into the small cabin. Moments later she came out, carrying the delicate circlet woven of slender, almost threadlike fish bones.

“She said it would help if you were in trouble and needed protection.”

Yes, she had said that it would protect his boat, somehow. The details escaped Kerrick. Then he remembered.

“Throw it on the water, she said, and it will hide the boat!”

Moreen’s one good eye flashed with hope as she looked at him. She cast the object over the side and into the rising swells of the Dracoheim Sea. She murmured something, a prayer to Chislev Wilder, he imagined.

Immediately fog churned upward, a white veil of mist erupting like a funnel cloud. The vapors were silent but roiled and swelled like living things, sweeping outward with churning frenzy to wrap the sailboat and the surrounding sea in a murky embrace, expanding quickly, shrouding them from view in all directions. It swirled through the air, explosively expanding until it surrounded them, rising upward to form a shield that obscured all glimpse of the sky, the sun. Even the top of the mast vanished in the haze.

Motioning to Randall and Moreen, who had joined him in the cockpit, Kerrick pulled the two oars from their racks. He explained urgently, pointing toward the bow.

“Stay as silent as possible, but row! Push us in that direction! We’ll try to slip out of the galley’s path and hope they can’t see us in the fog!”

Moreen nodded. “It’s worth a try,” she noted hopefully.

Strongwind, meanwhile, had drawn his great sword and stood resolutely atop the cabin, straining to see through the unnatural fog. The berserker and chief-woman took their paddles and began to stroke, striving not to make the splashes too noisy, as the elf used the tiller to guide them. Gradually, Cutter began to glide through the rolling waves.

Kerrick had another idea. He went to the mainsail and quickly pulled down the great shroud of white canvas. Carefully he draped the sail over the boom, tugging it down over the gunwales. He pulled more of the material toward the stern, encompassing the cabin, then draping it, tentlike, over the cockpit and the tiller, allowing Moreen and Randall to row from beneath the sheet. Except for the tall spire of the mast, the ship might as well have been painted white, a ghostly shape shifting with the mist.

Kerrick strained his ears, listening for signs of the galley. He felt exposed and vulnerable, angry about cowering in the mist, yet desperate to remain unseen. The two oars splashed softly, and the sailboat continued to move-very slowly, it seemed-through the mist.

“There! Look and listen.” He heard Randall’s words, as soft as the waves lapping against the hull, and the elf followed the Highlander’s pointing finger. A shadow moved through the white fog, a barely visible darkening as the great shape moved past. They could hear the oars of the galley stroking the water and splashing, and Kerrick could only pray to Zivilyn Greentree that Cutter remained invisible, that the ogre ship would sail heedlessly past.

“By Gonnas-where is that devil-boat hiding?” demanded the ogre king, roaring into the billowing fog that had swelled to surround them. The pall masked everything in all directions, and when Grimwar looked to the rear, he couldn’t even see the stern of his own lengthy vessel.

“We would have a better chance of finding them, my king, if we remained silent and listened,” whispered Stariz, her tone dangerously close to insolence. She remained rigid, arms outstretched, face turned skyward, as she tried to concentrate on sustaining the wind-killing power of her god.

Grimwar cursed-loudly-because he knew again that his wife was right. He lapsed into sullen silence, straining to discern something through the murk. The water, darkened almost to black by the unnatural vapors, slid past the hull as the galley continued to plow forward.

“Hurry!” demanded Stariz. “The force of the spell will not last much longer.”

“How can I hurry when I don’t know where the elf is?” snarled the king, still trying to hear or see something.

For a long time the king strained to see something in that impenetrable mist, then he could stand it no more. Surely they had rowed too far!

“Come about!” he called to Argus Darkand, who passed the order on to the helmsman. “Conduct a search, back and forth, until we find that boat! We’ll sink the damned thing and use the elf as shark-bait!”

The ogre galley curved through a wide turn, oarsmen grunting and churning as they reversed course, but still there was nothing to see but the enveloping cloak of fog.

“You must find him-my strength fails, and he will escape!” declared the queen, staggering in weariness as she strove to maintain the powerful spell.

“I forbid you to weaken!” roared the king, turning to face his wife, spittle flying from his jaws. “We are so close!”

With a moan, the queen staggered backward. Her eyes rolled upward, and suddenly she tumbled to the deck, unconscious.

The king felt a wisp of breeze blow the fog past his cheek.

“Wind!” Kerrick whispered, not daring to believe. In another moment it was plain that the fog was blowing away, moist droplets landing on their skin with a welcome chill.

“It’s getting stronger!” Moreen said, elation raising her voice. She reached out to take Kerrick’s hand, her dark eye flashing in triumph. “Let’s make a run for it!”

Infused by her spirit, he nodded and raced to the boom. Quickly they raised the sail again, choosing haste over silence now. By the time the sail was up, the mist was thin enough that they could discern the position of the sun, low near the northern horizon. Goldwing was still out of sight.

Quickly the canvas filled with air, and Cutter started to glide through the water under moderate speed. Kerrick hastily raised the foresail. The mist thinned enough that they could see the galley, about two miles away, now wheeling toward them with strokes of those long oars.

The wind continued to pick up, swelling the sail, pushing the little boat through the water with increasing momentum. The ogre galley gave brief chase, but soon Cutter was pulling away. For long minutes they watched, heartened, as the enemy warship trailed smaller and smaller behind them. A few hours later they had gained enough distance that the galley vanished from sight astern.

“Now we turn to the southwest,” Kerrick declared confidently. “That’s where the galley was coming from. If this wind holds, we’ll be able to reach Dracoheim before Goldwing can even get in sight of the place!”

For another day they sailed westward under fair skies and pleasant winds. They saw no signs of land, however, leading Kerrick to deduce that the Sea of Dracoheim was larger than the White Bear Sea. When at last a black shape rose from the horizon before them, he felt relief.

“That’s it-that’s got to be Dracoheim,” he said. Moreen and Randall nodded in agreement. A rocky, volcanic island, with a mostly precipitous shoreline, took shape before their eyes.

The Highlander’s attention was directed to the water off to starboard. “What’s that?” he asked, after a few moment’s scrutiny.

Kerrick looked and had the impression of a silvery flying fish leaping from the water.. He waited, expecting the shiny thing to fall back into the waves. Instead, it kept coming up toward them. It was now angling directly toward the hull, approaching with astonishing speed-there was not even time to turn the sailboat from its path.

“Hold on!” cried the elf, in the instant before impact. Something powerful jarred his boat, shoving them sideways and rocking the hull. Sickened, Kerrick heard timbers snapping, then felt the deck twist under him as the keel of his beloved boat wrenched apart. Water surged over the gunwales, bursting out of the cabin door.

Instinct took over, raw fear propelling Kerrick. He dove through the door of the cabin, fighting the water surging upward through a great gash in the hull. The turbulence was savage, and the elf banged his head on the table, flailed, felt the square solidity of his treasure chest as the cold sea tried to suck the warmth from his flesh.

The water pressed against him, icy chill penetrating to his bones, darkness blinding him as he groped at the latch, allowing the lid to float free. His map drifted past, his spare clothes floated free, and he tore through them, feeling until his fingers closed around his small lockbox. Only then did he kick free, swimming back through the door, toward the surface that was a blur of brightness far above him.

Still clutching the box containing his father’s magic ring, he propelled himself upward, breaking the surface just as his lungs were about to burst. He drew a breath and collapsed back into the rolling waves. Exhausted and shivering, he floated on his back, turning his head to look for his companions.

Cutter was gone, vanished below them into the unseen depths, leaving only a few bits of flotsam to mark her watery grave. Kerrick kicked weakly, gasping for breath, vaguely relieved to see that Moreen, Strongwind, and Randall had splashed free of the rigging. Like him, they were floating, stunned and disbelieving, in the icy sea.

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