June 18, 708 CR
Malger leaned his forearms against the railing and turned his muzzle toward the wind which had warmed perceptibly since leaving Metamor behind. The wind did not stream from the bow into his face, rather it was steady astern and their progress under its persistent nudge pushed the vessel swiftly enough to offer a breeze. Eyes half closed as he enjoyed the caress of his whiskers he could see young Erick sporting about the forward rigging under the watchful eye of a couple nearby crewmen. His own Misanthe, a truly strange acquisition to his House, and Charles’ Kimberly were below the aft castle with the other children listening to Pharacellus tell another improbable tale.
“We’re making excellent time, Your Grace.” Captain Calenti offered from his left. Malger turned from the breeze and opened his dark eyes more fully. The human offered a pleased smile and, extending one hand, a thin tapered flute of wine. The flute was pewter rather than crystal, owing to the risks of sailing, but was finely wrought and etched with maritime scenes. With a gracious bow he accepted the wine and sipped; it was a Lorland red, certainly young in vintage but not unpleasant to the palette all the same. “In another week we should be making safe harbor in Sutthaivasse, well ahead of schedule.”
“Indeed, captain.” Malger smiled with a burring concurrence, “So swiftly does the Venture fly the waves my messengers will scarce be ahead by a day, and even then only if I send them when we pause for the evening a day prior to arriving.” His nobles, both those loyal and those not so, would be wroth at his sudden return with another gaggle of beastly visitors. “The dragons may have great stamina of wing, but they’re considerably lacking for speed, and my messenger birds are the same save perhaps the gull. Your gryphon, Kurgael, may make better time but, well, he’s got the wings of a raptor, not an albatross. Good for speed over short sprints but not so swift over distance.”
“He doesn’t seem to much care for you, either.” Calenti offered dryly with a glance at the twin specks circling high above. Strangely, the smaller of the two was flying in exaggerated, elongated circles, positioning his wings in a most peculiar manner and falling a short distance before repeating. “Leastwise, he seems rather aloof.” Calenti trailed into silence after watching the gryphon for a few moments, and then his gaze dropped to the western horizon.
“Raptors tend to be aloof, too.” Malger opined blandly as he watched the odd behavior and sipped his wine. A soft metallic clatter brought his gaze to the deck where Calenti’s taper was spilling wine and rolling across the deck. “Captain?”
“Devil’s wave!” Calenti barked with surprising volume, gripping the rail of the aft castle and glaring goggle eyed at the deck below. A few deck hands paused to look up but most abruptly launched into frenzied action. “Devil’s wave to starboard! Starboard oars hard in, port double beat!” Leaping over the railing he dropped the short distance to the deck below, startling the already concerned women and children. Pharacellus quickly reached out and drew them in though the captain was aware enough not to land nearby. The human stalked furiously up the length of the Venture’s center deck barking rapid orders. The steady thud of the drum marking time was hammering a much more rapid pace.
“Dig in, you louts, dig in!” Even as he barked orders Calenti kept his gaze toward the boundless sea to the right side of the Venture. Malger could see nothing, at first. It took several heartbeats before he noticed a much darker line of water hulking up between their ship and the horizon. The tillerman, cursing a string of invectives in a foreign tongue, had pushed the board hard over even as the stilled port oars began dragging the ship into a laborious turn.
Calenti returned to the aft deck at a charge and snatched up the spyglass from its cup on the forward railing. He held it to his eye and scanned the oncoming line of deeper blue, then forward, and finally all the way around toward the shore just visible on the horizon to port. “Sea witchs’ tits!” He snarled at whatever he saw through his spy glass.
Malger followed each of the captain’s turns and saw the strange line of building water to one side, a paler stretch of water several boat lengths to the same side which slowly revealed itself to be land, or sand, encrusted with upthrust stones and corals, and to the shoreward side a gap in the land on the horizon. “Captain?” Malger inquired curiously, hoping for some interpretation to be offered. Calenti supplied it, though with terse words and actions.
His arm thrust toward the blue line rushing toward them, its crest beginning to fleck with white, to the stretch of newly revealed rocky shoreline between the Venture and the line, and finally to the gap in the distant land to their opposite side. “Devil’s wave, sand bar there’s going to build it up ere it reaches us, river cuts from land,” He pointed forward of the ship a mere few lengths where the sea water seemed a slight bit darker and was clearly moving far more swiftly away from land than the water upon which the Venture sailed. “There!” His eyes shifted seaward again. “Reef the bloody mainsail!” He bellowed so furiously Malger backed his ears. “Now, bleed ya, now!” Men who had already scrambled into the rigging were clearly already attempting to do just that.
Only a minute or two had passed since they spied the gryphon’s odd behavior and the Venture had barely turned; the sails had their fill of the wind and did not wish to alter course. “Meaning what, captain?” Malger’s voice ratcheted up an unwilling octave at the captain’s apparent loss of composure.
“Devil’s touch is gonna roll us!” Calenti snarled, shifting his steely gaze from crew to wave and back as if willing them to work more swiftly. “Swamp us or flat out capsize us, I do not know. Yet.” He cast another glance at the sea. “Tell yer ladies to hold fast to them younglings of yours and stay put. Belowdecks will be as dangerous as topside when that bitch of the seas kisses us.”
Malger felt a moment of panic, himself, when he saw finally what Calenti already knew. The blue line of water had resolved into a breaking wave. As it hissed noisily over the exposed spit of rocky shoreline it mounted even taller, easily twice as high as the low sitting Venture’s gunwhales. “Ship oars!” Calenti fairly yelped, “Ship oars and lock! Secure for rolling!”
“Phar!” Malger leaned over the railing to look down, “The children, Phar!”
“I know!” The man below was gone, in his place a hulking reptile huddled around a knot of frightened rats and a fox. “Erick! He was forward!” The dragon’s voice was a kettle pushed to boil and beyond. Malger felt the deck at his feet begin to tilt as the roaring wave charged. He spied Erick huddled at the very bow of the ship below the bowsprit, two crewman madly hauling lines on either side of him. Even while they worked they kept an eye to him but their attention was mostly on getting the sails furled.
And then the wave reached the Venture, curling but not breaking as it surged against the partially turned bow. Water exploded over the first third of the Venture as it lurched upward and rolled toward its starboard side. Men screamed. Beasts who had once been human screamed. Malger even felt a horrified howl escape his own throat as the world became white and wet with a roar drowning out mortal voices.
He held to the rail and thrust a leg and arm through the posts as the Venture, with a tortured groan, heeled up and rolled. Distant thunder boomed from below decks as cargo broke loose. Wood creaked and snapped with claps of tortured thunder.
Up and up the Venture seemed to rise as it rolled. The mainmast slammed into the water with an explosive wet crack and men were hurled into the churning sea. Oars not fully withdrawn wagged about like the legs of a beetle on its back. Malger saw the roiling surface of the sea a man’s height below him and looked away, only to see the bow of the Venture standing in the air. In the foamy tumult he could not see Erick, or the two crewmen, at the bow where snapped rigging flailed like an attacking Kracken.
Slowly the upward tilt began to reverse, though barely a handful of seconds had passed. The crest of the wave continued beyond them and the Venture returned to the water with a slap and groan of protesting timbers. The aft lurched upward over the fulcrum of the wave, almost launching Malger into the air. Calenti, who had similarly braced himself, would have been thrown overboard had Jerome not snatched his arm and hauled him down. The ragged Sondecki was as fully human as Malger had ever seen, one arm grasping the aft railing of the ship to pin the rudder handle, the other dragging Calenti back to his feet. Of the tillerman there was no sign.
Taking a moment to ensure Calenti had retained enough wits to take over the tiller, Jerome turned and launched himself overboard.
As the listing ship righted itself and stilled its wild tossing Malger released his deathgrip on the railing and levered upright. The scene on the deck was utter chaos. Men, injured and hale, were dragging themselves back to their posts. Smashed oars were hastily cast off and intact oars were shoved back into the water.
Whence came one wave another would follow so they were still trying to turn the ship into the next. The main mast had miraculously survived, but the boom and cross spars had all succumbed to the violence of the wave. Tattered canvas and snapped ropes dangled, showering the deck below with water. A single crewman managed to remain in the rigging – though only because he had become tangled before he could leap clear. The thrashing had all but dismembered the hapless soul who hung limp against the mainmast below the smashed crow’s nest.
Malger spared little thought for the crew. He glanced over the railing to see Pharacellus heaped against the gunwale, battered and bruised with a shattered oar thrust through one wing, but he had retained the women and children. He turned his attention to the water where sailors and debris bobbed, all caught in an increasing outward current. The river coming from shore had carved a channel through the reefs and sand bars. Now it provided the easiest route for water to recede from the wave’s passing. The Venture and its detritus was captured in the outward flow, lighter things moving away with surprising speed. Living crew wailed and flailed toward the Venture while others simply floated amidst the debris unmoving.
And then he saw it, a tiny arm flailing in the air as its bearer was swept away with startling speed. With a curse Malger raised an arm, seized the cuff in his teeth, and concentrated. Unlike Misanthe, he had to work to shift himself from man to animal, a process neither swift or exactly comfortable. But in moments he had shucked the form of a half-man animal to the form the curse should have left its victims with. As he shrank from man to marten his clothes collapsed around him, the falling sleeve allowing him to shimmy from the heap without difficulty. Misanthe had shown him that trick, allowing him to escape what would otherwise be an entrapping tangle. Hopping free he reversed the change even as he darted toward the railing.
Already another wall of water was mounting before the wallowing Venture but it was far more shallow and, cut by the current of the unseen river, failed to form the deadly rolling crest. Malger reached the side, perched a moment on the gunwale to get his bearings, and dove overboard. The water was not cold, but far from comfortably warm, and closed over him with a rushing gurgle. The sound of creaking wood was loud through the water above and behind him but the current had him in its clutches, sweeping him swiftly away from the floundering ship. Arms churning against the weight of water soaking his fur Malger fought for the surface and gulped a breath as soon as his head broke free.
Turning away from the vessel he swam.
Gmork’s Prodigal felt a displeasing emotion when the captain began bellowing and the crew began running about; fear. He could smell it through the reek of sweat, tar, and the suffusing fishy brine spilling from the bustling humans like the puff of a vapor mushroom trodden underfoot.
He found himself almost entirely wolf in a breath, darting away from a trio of seamen who had failed to heed where he crouched not far from the man-dragon Pharacellus. Scrambling hastily one way, only to dodge another knot of jabbering, frightened humans running about, he found himself at the steep stair leading up aft castle. Scrambling up, where only the tiller man and Malger remained, he found a moment of peace to consider the sudden change in the crew.
He wondered what had engendered such swift fear, for not knowing infected him with its own anxiety. Calenti surged up onto the aft deck and stepped around the huge crouched wolf without being conscious of doing so, and snatched a long spy-glass from a cylindrical holder on the railing.
Malger and the man shared a brief, curt exchange and a scent of alarm came from the normally affable, unflappable nobleman as well, further confounding the wolf. But at least he understood something of the exchange; a wave approached large enough to threaten the wide, deep bellied Venture.
The human Gmork’s Prodigal had once been knew water, if only enough to be comfortable with the concept of so much water neither man nor beast could swim its breadth. The creature Gmork's Prodigal had become, however, could not swim in the manner of man nor as easily as a true wolf born with the knowledge ingrained. If something could arise from it with such power to threaten the wallowing wooden tub there was little Gmork's Prodigal could do but hope it survived.
Fear struck true and sent the deadly wolf scuttling away from the human and marten, unsure where to go or what to do. The tiller man, eyes wide and pale face turned toward the seaward side of the boat, paid him no more heed than the captain did. Despite reeking of fear sweat he maintained his post, however, holding the long arm of the tiller turned hard to one side. On the decks below oarsmen worked similarly while others scrambled in the rigging.
Gmork’s Prodigal felt the deck begin to list and tilt, the bow turning up the face of a terrifying wall of water, white foam crashing over the forward half of the ship in a hissing roar. His stout claws dug at the deck but as it tilted and pitched further and further those normally unfailing anchors began to slip, tearing the wood beneath them to splinters. His fear ratcheted up further when, looking down, he saw the far side of the ship was nearly in the water below. The tiller man hung onto the arm of the tiller but, as the Prodigal watched, he slipped and, with a terrified shriek, fell into the churning water.
He did not resurface.
Gmork’s Prodigal was forced to finally move or fall into the water as well, but the paws and jaws of a hunter would not serve him against the truest of predators; the angry sea, against whom the wolf was no more dangerous than a cub. He had to shed the beast.
It proved to be more instinctive than willful, however. Sliding across the almost vertical deck looking down at the water below Gmork's Prodigal reached out for the nearest solid wood he could reach. His hand – not paw, but hand – grasped at the swinging arm of the tiller, hauling him up short of the water. His free hand grabbed at the rail of the aft gunwale and he hauled himself against it, pinning the tiller arm in place. For a moment all he could do was hang there while the ship’s bow speared skyward and the entire vessel slipped toward its aft, almost driving the Prodigal and the tiller he grasped into the water before it crested the wave. The reverse of its upward pitch and sideward roll was, if anything, even more violent. With the crest of the wave acting as fulcrum and the Venture a lever the bow fell and the aft rose.
Captain Calenti lost his grasp of a nearby railing, briefly flattened to the deck as the fore and aft traded elevations. The impact of the bow jerked the stern upward and catapulted him into the air where he would have gone overboard had Gmork's Prodigal not acted. Releasing the beam of the tiller, keeping it pinned with his body, he reached out and caught the flailing man’s arm and jerked him down. Once again Calenti was hammered to the deck but by then the ship had wallowed itself more or less upright.
And then he saw something he had longed for, but fighting, since his old friend had taken him from the north.
The Venture’s launch was bobbing in the flotsam behind the ship, both oars still secure in their locks, and only a little water sloshing in the bottom. Without another thought to the tiller or the captain floundering for control he leaped over the railing and splashed down into the far smaller boat.
My son, the voice whispered in his mind. Come back to me, my son, let us run in the forest once more. Let us hunt!
I come, Father, Gmork’s Prodigal thought in reply, grabbing up the oars and swinging them free. The launch listed as a hand reached up to grasp the gunwale near the stern. Another hand appeared, and then a soaked head as one of the Venture’s crew hauled himself up. Struggling, the man did not look up, spilling himself awkwardly over the side of the boat and collapsing in a sodden heap only an arm’s length away.
Slay him! The voice demanded fiercely. Slay him and come to me! His hands shuddered on the oars, striving to become paws, but he fought the impulse. Paws could not row; a wolf could not row, could not seek freedom. Turning his head, he glanced over the bobbing bow of the launch, but he was much lower on the water and could no longer see the thin band of land over the horizon. When he looked back the crewman was staring at him, fear and caution writ on his face.
Dipping the oars, Gmork's Prodigal dug them into the water, the long spars of wood creaking as he pushed his considerable strength against them. The launch was light and nimble, quickly moving its length and more away from the wallowing Venture. The crewman hastily grabbed the small boat’s tiller and pushed it hard to one side. “Into the wave! Row, man, row!” He rasped, choking and coughing water.
Gmork's Prodigal raised his eyes as the small craft turned swiftly, his view across the stern swinging landward rather than away. He could do nothing more than row, feeling freedom slipping from his grasp. It was a freedom he yearned for, though he knew it was the doom of the man he had once been, surrendering to the predator he had become.
He heard yelling from the Venture as it receded, the captain and crew striving to turn the lumbering hull away from the shore. Flotsam thumped and whispered as the launch pushed through but the Prodigal had eyes only for the distant horizon. After several long moments he felt the boat begin to pitch upward, a rumbling hiss growing in his ears. He chanced a glance back, toward the bow, and saw a towering ridge of water topped by a thin line of curling white swiftly approaching.
The crewman had gained control of their small craft and it sliced up the wave, through the birthing break, and tipped over the top to slide smoothly down the opposite side. Behind them the Venture plowed forcefully through, sending up a hissing spume of white as it rose and crashed down with a second spray of water. Some of its long oars dangled unmanned, while others reached out to dig into the churning waters like the legs of a water beetle. The smashed boom arm swung wildly, a few brave souls had scrambled into the tangled rigging struggling to get it under control.
Gmork's Prodigal continued to creak the oars, speeding the small craft away from the larger vessel, confused for a few moments as the man at the tiller half stood to crane his head high enough to see over their bow. “Left oar.” He muttered and Gmork's Prodigal let the right oar drag and pulled the left, swinging the craft. “Hold oars, look right.”
Off the right side of the launch was the ferret Garigan, clinging to a floating cask and waving an arm toward them. Once the boat coasted nearer he abandoned the cask and awkwardly swam close enough to grab one of the oars. He held it steady while the ferret dragged himself over to the boat and the first man helped him climb aboard. Garigan patted Gmork's Prodigal on the shoulder and offered him a grateful smile while the man resumed his seat at the tiller. Once more Gmork's Prodigal set to the oars and got the small rescue craft back to its task.
Freedom slipped further and further away as they moved from floundering crewman to crewman, cresting waves that seemed smaller with each pass. I'm sorry, Father. I'm sorry.
“Erick!” Kimberly screamed, scrambling awkwardly toward the bow even as the venture wallowed in the wake of the first wave. Having become a rat lent her surprising balance as she darted over spilled cargo and tangled ropes. Of the two men she had seen there before the wave hit only one remained, curled up about his broken arm and groaning. “Where is my son, the one who was here?”
The man looked up at her with terrified eyes and then at the tangled nest of ropes and spilled canvas in the small alcove beneath the bowsprit. “I… I do not know, m’lady.” He moaned with a shake of his head. “I saw not where he went.”
“Overboard.” A woeful voice rumbled behind her, Pharcellus pushing his way through the hanging ropes and torn canvas dangling from the swaying main boom. He raised his head and looked beyond the swinging bow of the ship. Raising a wing slightly he swept it forward. “There. Lord Malger swims for him.”
“Erick!” Kimberly screamed again. She could not see her missing son. “Pharcellus, can you fly to him?”
“Alas,” The dragon rumbled, shifting his other wing to reveal a bloody rent through the delicate membrane. “I am truly bound to the earth, milady.” Charles darted past with barely a glance at the unpleasant looking tear in the hapless dragon’s wing. Reaching the rail beside his wife he stared out to see, and then looked up.
High above the gryphon Kurgael swooped and circled with Lindsey well above him. The muscles under the fur and scars of the rat’s face twitched and jumped, his ears jerking as he gazed out across the water. He ignored the captain’s bellowing or the scrambling crewman trying to recover from the chaos. Another dark line of water built as if summoned, slowly, from the blue green waters between the injured Venture and distant horizon.
Pharcellus quickly reached out and grasped Charles by one arm when the rat’s claws dug into the railing and his weight shifted forward. “Charles, no!” He rumbled, only the strength of his dragon form withstanding the rat’s Sondecki strength. Bits of wood tore free under his claws as he fought to pull his arm from the dragon’s grasp. “You are needed here, for your wife and children!”
Charles rounded on the dragon and his free hand grasped at the talon holding him. “Erick is being swept away!” He snapped, clawing fruitlessly at tough dragon hide. “I will not lose another child!”
“You shan't!” The dragon growled, covering how much those sharp, powerful rat claws hurt as they dug at the thin flesh of his talon. “Look! Malger swims for him!” The Venture’s bow rose several feet, dropping the weeping Kimberly to her knees, and another white explosion of water broke over them, and then a second as the bow crashed back down. In the distance Malger and Erick were but small specks on the littered water, one flailing and the other swimming rapidly closer. “He is too far away for you to swim.”
“Malger swims for him, but can he swim back?” Charles finally ceased struggling with the unbreakable grasp about his arm and slumped to grasp the railing. Kimberly grasped his other arm and pulled herself up, looking fearfully toward the raft of debris swiftly stretching toward the distant horizon. Another, shorter bulking of water obscured the distant swimmers. A short distance away the Venture’s launch was surging through the water, but not toward the rapidly dwindling pair. Charles was somewhat startled to see Jerome at the oars with Garigan and a half dozen crewmen in the launch striving to scoop up those they could reach before they were swept away.
“The gryphon!” Kimberly cried out, pointing, as the smaller of the two fliers dove precipitously toward the distant water. He pulled up, however, before dropping too low. “What of Lindsey? Can he help?”
“If he tries he will not escape the water, Kimberly.” Pharcellus offered, trying to keep his own fear out of his draconic rumble. “He would founder and drown, he is ill practiced swimming as a dragon.”
Several times the gryphon Kurgael dove and climbed, staying near the surface of the water, but he was so distant even Pharcellus had trouble seeing what he was doing.
By the fourth wave the Venture barely lifted and the shattered boom had been carefully cut loose to slip over one side of the ship into the water. Kurgael finally stopped diving and, in a show of both avian grace and feline awkwardness pumped his wings frantically, almost touching the water. A moment later he was struggling into the sky, defining a long curve back toward the ship.
Without the sails, ropes, and booms complicating his approach the gryphon was able to glide in and, backwinging powerfully, drop lightly to the clear deck with only his rear paws. In the deadly raptor’s talons of his forelimbs he clutched a small, sodden form. Erick cried out when his parents clambered up to the aft deck, darting into their arms to join his wailing cries with Kimberly’s relieved cries.
“What of Malger?” Misanthe asked fearfully, following Erick’s brother and sisters up to join the gaggle of rats crowding Calenti’s command post. The Captain, for his part, gave them a brief glance before returning to getting his severely damaged vessel pointed back toward land. “He is still out there!”
“Yes,” Kurgael panted, his rough avian shriek ragged, wings sagging. “He held young Erick above the waves, where I could take him without falling into the water. I am no sea bird to take wing from the water, milady. If I fell in, I would not rise again.”
“What about Lubec and the others?” Charles asked, glancing toward the top of the main mast where they could commonly be found. He saw none of them.
“Out staying with the marten.” Kurgael offered with a sigh, “But they are too small to lift him from the waves. They keep him afloat, but can do little more. The current is far too swift for him to swim against.”
“Even with that black clad man-wolf of yours at the oars, even riding the current, they are too far distant for the launch to reach. It could not return against the current, either.” Calenti sighed with a frown, glancing briefly toward the horizon before looking away. With little any of them could do and the Venture limping toward shore, he had accepted the truth; nothing could be done to save the Lord minstrel. Jerome had returned to the Venture to offload survivors before turning to the sea again. They could not easily be asked to try making for the horizon without abandoning those who were still in the water and closer to reach.
“What of the net?” Pharcellus asked, his large head peeking over the railing. “You used for fishing?”
“It’s either tangled with all the other gear or gone overboard.” Calenti said quietly with a wave toward the heaped items tossed to the center of the deck by the crew as salvageable. Everything too damaged to be repaired or re-purposed was being cast overboard.
Carefully freeing herself from Erick’s terrified grip Kimberly stood and darted down to the lower deck, returning within moments carrying a large, empty waterskin. Pulling the cork free she inflated it slightly before holding it out to Charles. “Carry this to him. It will allow him to float until we can get a boat to him, or do something. Anything! He saved Erick, we cannot simply leave him to drown!”
Taking the waterskin Charles inflated it as much as it would withstand before corking it. “Tie a rope to it, the others may be able to tow him closer.” He held it toward Kurgael. The gryphon eyed it dubiously before gingerly reaching out to grasp it carefully lest his sharp claws puncture it. “Or have him assume his animal form. It may be small enough for you or the others to pluck free of the water.”
Calenti had one of the deck hands bring a length of narrow rope and they tied it to the waterskin while the gryphon watched, his avian visage inscrutable. He accepted the bundle carefully when they were finished. “As you wish, your grace. I will do what I can.”
“He must survive, Kurgael. Without him, our journey ends here.” Charles frowned and looked at the distant horizon, now speckled only with a few distant bits of debris. “We know no one in the south as he does. Even in his city, that knew us briefly, I doubt any would offer us succor without him.”
“Please.” Misanthe begged, her voice subdued. All four of the Matthias children clung either to her or their mother, still fearful more waves might come.
Kurgael took a slow breath before bobbing his head once, “On my life, your grace, mistress. I will bring him back alive.” Stepping back while they retreated he climbed up to perch on the aft railing. He crouched for a moment before thrusting off with strong feline rear legs, wings snapping out and beating the air noisily. His launch never looked graceful, rising and falling with each flap of those broad pinions, but he never failed to climb despite the awkward look of his hybrid body.
Tilting as he climbed the gryphon turned toward the distant shape of Lindsey who still circled, almost at the horizon.
Calenti found a small cove some leagues south in the late hours of the afternoon into which to steer the Venture, the hapless boat still afloat but sorely damaged. He had lost a dozen crew to the rogue wave, either overboard or slain when the ship rolled. Another two dozen were injured, some severely, reducing the capable crew by half. Jerome and Garigan had saved over a dozen who had been tossed overboard, most of them uninjured despite their dunking.
In the depths of the cove was a sheltered curve of beach onto which they drove the Venture rather than anchoring it in deeper water. They secured it with stout mooring ropes to larger trees along the shore and waited for the tide to recede so the full extent of the damage could be surveyed.
With no duties to the ship itself the bedraggled passengers disembarked and began setting up a camp. Misanthe turned her attention toward the injured to distract herself from thoughts of Malger’s fate. Kurgael and the other fliers had not yet returned. For once the crew did not look at them as anything beyond those caught in the same circumstances. Injured crewmen suffered the embroidery needle and thread Misanthe appropriated to stitch up what wounds she could, including the painful looking tear in Pharcellus’ wing. Calenti admitted some surprise the diminutive, red furred vixen knew medicine at all, much less sufficient to treat his injured.
She explained she had been trained to serve for the entirety of her life, and taking care of the sick was one aspect of her training. Injuries at risk of infection were neatly bandaged and broken bones carefully, if painfully, set and splinted. Of those injured a good many who would’ve not been able to return to their duties would be able to. All were grateful, even those who had earlier expressed unease at their passengers’ beastly appearance.
Further setting their apprehension at ease, Charles, after making sure neither his children nor his wife had taken injury during the wave, especially Erick who despite being swept off the bow had suffered nothing more than fright and drinking too much sea water, regaled the crew with fanciful tales he'd known from his days in the Writer's Guild. The tales were full of ribald humor and double entente normally foreign to his repertoire as well as silly noises and expressions impossible for any but a rat of Metamor.
His children chittered and squeaked in delight, their fear forgotten as they watched their beloved father perform. At first only a few of the crew laughed, but with each tale more and more turned from cursing the fickle sea or lamenting friends lost, to laugh and relax with those still alive. By the seventh tale Calenti and his surviving crew applauded and demanded more. And with each new tale Charles cavorted across the beach more, gesticulated with greater verve, made even more salacious innuendo, and produced ridiculous noises with any part of his body he could manage.
Charles saved no lives when the wave hit. For a few hours as the tide went out he did his best to save their spirits.
The sun had dropped below the horizon but the camp was still busy when all were startled nearly witless when a loud splash erupted from the cove near the beached Venture. Uninjured men leaped for weapons and everyone stood poised to flee or attack whatever intruder had caused such a noise.
Firelight glinted from rippling water and the narrow, wet visage of a large, panting reptile wading from the water, wings dragging at its sides. “Lindsey!” Pharcellus rumbled in surprise as he trotted to the water’s edge, Jerome as a wolf close behind. “Are you well? What of the others?”
“They are well.” The younger dragon panted, head sagging as much as his wings. “I’m exhausted. We could not find you until the sun went down and we spied your fire. The trees.” He flicked a wing halfheartedly at the foliage stretching over the cove. “Kurgael and the others are near behind, with Malger.”
“Oh, blessed Nocturna.” Misanthe breathed, trotting up to stand beside the dragons and wolf, eyes cast toward the darkness of the sea. Dimly she saw several shapes, one large and three small, gliding toward them from the night. Two of the birds dropped into the water as Lindsey had, though with far more grace. The third alighted on the bow of the Venture while the last form dipped, then climbed steeply with the loud thumping of wings before dropping onto the sand.
Kurgael collapsed where he landed, panting loudly, as Malger hopped from his back. Naked, his dried fur sticking in all directions though generally rearward, he had the appearance of an overly furry animal dried in a windstorm.
Which, in truth, he was and had.
Misanthe darted to him and he caught her in a tight hug, unabashed at his nakedness, resting his chin between her ears as he gazed at the camp and every eye turned toward him. “Captain Calenti?”
“Milord?” The captain stepped from beyond the fire.
“I would accept the service of your crewmember Kurgael, if that pleases you.” He reached one hand to rest his fingertips against the feathers of the panting gryphon’s neck. The raptor’s beak snapped shut with a sharp crack and his head turned slightly. “Had he not returned, I would have not survived the day, even with the help of the birds.” He gave a self-deprecatory laugh and looked down at his disarrayed fur. “My fur is ill suited to swimming, I fear.”
Calenti glanced at Kurgael and shrugged, “Whether it please me or not, master Malger, t’is he you would ask. He hired on to provide eyes, not crew my vessel.”
“I will wait, then, and let him get the rest he so mightily deserves.” His hand gave the gryphon’s neck a light pat and he stepped away, one arm still around Misanthe. “How fare your crew, captain? I’m afraid I abandoned ship a tad early.”
Calenti snorted a brief laugh and even Kimberly managed a short titter before stepping up as if she would embrace the bedraggled marten. As if suddenly cogent of his state of dress, or the fact that even in his state of undress he was still a royal, she merely reached up to cup his muzzle in her slender rodentine hands. “You nearly died to save my son. I – there is – I –” Flustered, she dropped her hands and gaze, only to snap it back up briefly before turning aside.
“We are in your debt, Malger.” Charles intoned quietly into the momentary silence. After a moment one corner of his muzzle lifted ruefully. “Again.”
Malger shook his head slowly, “For that, you are not nor shall ever be, my friend. The life of a child is worth any risk, of friend or foe.” Moving toward the fire he raised a hand to clasp Charles on the shoulder before continuing on. “Misanthe, did any of my wardrobe survive? As much as modesty annoys me, it does not due to reveal my good looks to just anyone.”
A few of the crew laughed, the surprise of Lindsey’s noisy arrival ebbing. “Well, your lordship,” Calenti opined as people began to resume their interrupted tasks, “Getting my poor lass back into seaworthy shape will take a number of days. Such, perhaps, that your messengers may bear tidings of our arrival in a timely manner.”
“After they have rested, captain, after everyone has rested. We have all earned a respite. Let us make of it what we can.” He said as Misanthe lead him out of the firelight and into the shadows of the forest where she had arranged their area of the camp.
June 20, 708 CR
Seated upon the thick trunk of a fallen tree Malger leaned back against an upright limb and toyed with his flute. While the tumbling of the wave had all but destroyed his dulcimer and subsequent dunking had ruined his tambour and drum his flute had escaped unscathed. Nearby Misanthe sat, cross legged, perched between two branches while she worked on what remained of his wardrobe. Like his tambour, much of it had been ruined by a lengthy stay in seawater tainted by both cargo and bilge. He had no fine garments surviving worthy of wearing when he presented himself to the lords of Sutthiavasse.
Into one’s life a little fetid water must flow, he mused, admiring the vixen as she worked. She truly was a fetching creature, he had to admit, as much if not moreso than any he had ever had the pleasure of entertaining in the past. Worthy of the itch teasing the back of his head, he wondered, or more? Her skills were without peer, surpassing any manservant he had ever employed, and far more broad beside. She was adept at the skills of body servant, house servant, steward, and even cook.
His ruminations were disturbed at a slow whispering among the leaves not far away and he paused in his admiration of the vixen. Beyond the source of those sounds, in the distance, the sharp reports of axe against wood drifted through the forest – Calenti’s crew hard at work fabricating workable repairs to the Venture.
The source of the nearer noise soon proved to be a large raptor easing down the path to their small camp. The sharp predatory eyes spied Misanthe and glinted in an errant beam of sunshine leaking through the canopy when they shifted to Malger. “Your grace.” The gryphon rasped with a slight bob of his huge head. “I have considered your offer.”
“And?” Malger inquired guardedly, sensing something about the gryphon was not entirely on balance. The bird’s dreams had been troubled since the Venture’s near disaster but Malger had not plumbed them.
“I wish you to know, before I respond.” Raising his head, the gryphon gazed down the length of his deadly raptor’s beak with intense eyes. “I meant to kill you.” Misanthe froze abruptly, ears pinning forward, one hand creeping toward the long blade secreted up the sleeve of her blouse. “Or see you dead, in any regard.”
“And now you seek to fulfill that?” Malger asked quietly, his senses expanding to seek out the most immediate route of escape, and engagement. “None are near enough to hear, or witness, should we inexplicably disappear.” A roll to the right would drop him from the log, impeding the gryphon long enough for him to draw his blades. If Kurgael went for Malger first, anyway. If he struck at Misanthe first he would take those swords to the back of his neck, and likely her dagger to his throat, before his beak could close upon her.
“I –” The predator paused to take a breath, eyes dropping and huge head slowly dipping. “I hired on with the Venture when I heard who had hired it, the last survivor of House Sutt.” Head and eyes came back up to bore down upon him though the gryphon did not move closer, or further away. “To kill him. You.”
“Ahh, my sire’s legacy lives on.” Malger sighed with a slow shake of his head. “Tell me, then, which land did you hail from that he conquered?”
“Breckaris.” Kurgael rasped in a short, furious hiss. “My sire and brother stood, and fell, in your sire’s last push. Crushed between Sutt army and Breckaris defense. They were merchants, Sutt. Not soldiers. Pressed into your sire’s service and pushed to the vanguard though neither had but swing a sword at straw men in some Lord’s yearly levy training.”
Malger slowly bowed his head to gaze at the gleaming silver of his flute for a moment, though never letting the gryphon slip from the corner of his sight. After a moment he raised the instrument and blew a few short, mournful notes. “For that, Kurgael, my most heartfelt grief for you. As a youth you were spared?”
“As a youth I fled.” The sharp beak scissored the air, breath hissing from the gryphon’s nares. “My father bid me take to my feet and flee, with my mother. Illness and grief did for her a year later, learning what fate befell those who marched against Breckaris. I fell in with bandits, earning my pay cutting throats and smashing heads. We did not know, or care, where we roved.” With a snort the gryphon abruptly folded his forelimbs, body settling couchant so swiftly Malger almost cast himself away fearing attack. “Until one of our member sported tits and I found this … thing, protruding from my face.” Though the gryphon could not cross his eyes Malger sensed that he sought to stare at his own deadly beak. “Other things happened to others of the band, and they eventually fell upon one another in rage. The one who led us became a woman, and I will say nothing of his fate. It was not swift. I slipped away in the night before I became a spitted roast over the fire.
“Eventually the change stopped, leaving me as some monstrosity the likes of which I had never before encountered. I hid away from the lands of men, making my way to the cliffs to the south. One day, while I feasted on a deer I had slain, a bird landed nearby. And it spoke to me.”
“One of our long traveling three?”
“The gull, Quoddy. I nearly swooned in surprise at being spoken to by a bird.” The massive head shook slowly at the memory, though humor tinged his rasping voice. “He told me of his brothers, and of Metamor. He explained the Curse, which had apparently overtaken myself and the others when we carelessly ventured too far north, plundering a rich farming duchy called Lorland.”
“Lorland is a barony, actually, of the Northern Midlands duchy, under Duke Thomas, of Metamor.” Malger corrected blandly, watching the deadly creature just far enough away not to reach him with a single darting snap of that beak. “But, say on.”
“They lead me north, showed me the safe cliffs to find a home in, where strange beasts and beasts who spoke would be little remarked upon. That was where I first heard the name ‘Sutt’ uttered. Indeed, the same House who conscripted my sire and brother. A princeling of the House had come to Metamor. Vengeance!” Malger started at the hissing vehemence of the raptor’s last word, looking into those piercing predator’s eyes and finding confusion rather than fury. “Vengeance, could I find him. The winter siege had come and gone and the name faded, I thought him dead in the attack. But ere the next winter the name came again. I waited. I listened. I asked my winged brothers what they could learn. But little returned. I would have to go to this place, Metamor, and find my justice.
“And then I learned that the princeling whose sire had destroyed my family sought to hire a ship. I learned which ship he sought to hire, and I offered my services to its captain. And finally, after more than a decade, I discovered my prey. A fop with a train of rats at his heel and a vixen to wife. Prey, all, when the ship made south far enough not to send word back.”
“You put much thought into my demise, Kurgael son of a merchant.” Malger rested his elbows on his knees, tapping one unshod foot with the end of his flute. “And now the moment has come. To talk?”
“To listen, in truth, and be heard.” Kurgael’s wings lifted and fell. “I found that the rats did not follow you, rather you followed them in some manner of pilgrimage. They did not fear you, or the name of your House. They seemed friends. And I saw nothing of the arrogance of nobility in you, save for the masquerade you proffer. And then, I saw you commit your life to the sea for a child, knowing that your fur would hamper your limbs and drag you down. But it was not even that, but what you said when we returned.”
“And that was?” Malger leaned forward, ears pricked. Even Misanthe was alert, though one hand was still in the opposite sleeve. She was rather surprisingly good with that dagger, Malger knew.
“The life of a child is worth any risk, be they of friend or foe.” Slowly Kurgael shifted himself upright, wings shuffling at his back. “Your sire would have never thought such, for he trod upon man and child alike without concern.”
“And for that his life was forfeit in blood.” Malger concurred, “And the legacy haunts me still. For that, I have sought to balance the scales, in as many small ways as I can. I fear I can never undo such evil as my sire stained the land with.”
“I do. And if, in justice, my life is forfeit for the loss suffered by one whom my father wronged, then so be it.” Turning slightly Malger let his legs down over the facing curve of the log, hands resting on the pommels of his tasseled swords. “Though I will not offer payment cheaply.”
Kurgael’s eyes dropped to the blades and he actually let out a hissing snort. “I did not nearly drown myself merely to snip your head off now, your lordship. I have come to respond to the offer you made.” Folding one foreleg Kurgael lower himself, head bowing. “I accept, milord.”
“I am Malger, Kurgael, save when observing your station in my house, retainer Kurgael.” Malger took a cautious step forward, still aware that a jerk and a snap would likely be fatal, and laid the fingers of one hand between the long eartufts of that bowed head. “First retainer, messenger, and voice of Sutt in my absence, if you accept that commission.”
“I do, your – ahh, Malger.” Kurgael’s head came back up and, with a short but swift twitch, bumped Malger smartly at the shoulder. “Unto my demise or yours, but never by the edge of my beak or prick of my talon as you fear.” Malger saw the dark pupil so unnervingly close dilate and then shrink. “Could you ask her to put that away? I fear that she can’t miss at such distance.”
Malger turned to see Misanthe poised, dagger raised to throw, her vulpine pupils narrow slits.