The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LIII - Unsteady Seas

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

At long last, the Magyars passed the northernmost reaches of the Vysehrad and turned their wagons south. Before them stretched the eastern extent of the mysterious Åelfwood, and with each passing mile, signs of human habitation dwindled until even the remnant of the road they had followed gave way to grass and scrub. Hanaman charted the best course he could see through the growing wilderness, but at least once a day, a wheel would become stuck in mud, thistles, or a depression they hadn’t seen.

In the two weeks since he’d spurned Bryone, Grastlako saw her only when she left the seer’s wagon to gather dinner for Dazheen. He stayed away then, not wanting to see her. His friends, Volay, Desko and Rabji all could tell he was upset about something, and did their best to cheer him up with tales of the Steppe and the many places they had seen, and of their misadventures, but these only filled him with a greater longing.

Honour had compelled him to become a Magyar, to do what he knew was right. And for a time, all seemed to be well. He made friends quickly, and the other Magyars all treated him as one of their own. But his eyes had ever strayed to the seer’s apprentice, the delicate and sweet Bryone, who never offered complaint or asked for anything for herself. Like a caged nightingale, she waited for instruction, and every time he’d gone to see Dazheen, her face had brightened as if with song.

But Hanaman had made it abundantly clear that Grastalko was not to pursue her in any way. Only a mage could wed a seer without destroying her powers, and Grastalko was no mage. With his crippled left arm, he couldn’t be much of a Magyar either. Apart from startling people by making the shrivelled remains of his left hand catch flame, what tricks could he perform to delight the audience? He had a role in the pageant, but other than that, what did he do?

Well, once they found a town again, Hanaman assured him he would be thieving, but that prospect did not brighten his day.

As the might trees loomed before them, Grastalko sat atop his wagon staring at them. By tomorrow they would pass beneath those ancient boughs. He looked forward to seeing this forest that the other Magyars all whispered about, if only because it would be a change of scenery. Once they had left, he would spend the rest of his life on the Steppe as a Magyar, hated and despised by the townspeople, and not even admired for any of his talents. He was a cripple now, and the one person he’d wanted to be with was closed to him.

Grastalko beat his good fist against the wooden seat. One of the Assingh turned its ears to listen as it plodded along through the mud and grass. “Nemgas, why didst thee do this to me?” It was his fault after all. Nemgas had been the one to give him a choice with swords. If he’d never touched the golden sword, his hand would never have been burned away.

And then Nemgas just left them after doing this to him, taking Gamran and Pelgan and his other friends! Grastalko hit the wooden seat again and again until his knuckles hurt. How could he have done this to him? Everything he thought mattered in his life had been turned on its head!

The wagon door opened beneath him and the falsetto Adlemas poked his head out. “Dost thee be well, Grastalko? We didst hear thy knocking.”

He sighed and nodded. “All be well. We shalt reach the Åelfwood tomorrow.”

Adlemas stepped out the door and climbed to the top of the wagon next to him. He stared at the trees not with longing but with dread. “A dangerous place. Hanaman wouldst ne’er take us there if there wert another way.”

“I heard that he didst ask Dazheen if there wert a way through Vysehrad, but she didst say no.”

“‘Tis an ill-omened year. Nemgas shouldst ne’er gone to the mountain.”

Grastalko thought that an odd thing to say. He seemed to recall Nemgas saying something about a mountain, but right then, he was too weary to try to remember. “What mountain?”

Adlemas made a sign to ward off evil and whispered. “The ash mountain. We didst warn him it couldst only bring ruin, yet he went anyway, and now we dost wander in foreign lands, and now we wilt enter a forest cursed for Magyars.”

“Cursed?” This was interesting. “How be it cursed?”

“This forest be the home of great spirits and strange people. They art not like us, and wilt take terrible revenge upon those that come uninvited. We shalt spend all evening storing wood, for we dare not take any whilst in the forest.”

Grastalko drummed his fingers on the wagon top and asked, “Why not?”

“Hast thou heard the tales of Shapurji, greatest of all Magyars?”

He nodded. “I hath heard a few. Didst he go into the Åelfwood?”

“Do not speak its name!” Adlemas snapped, fear flickering through his eyes. “To speak a name be to summon the one named. Thou dost not want the attention of this forest. We must cross it quietly, secretly, and quickly.”

Grastlako glanced at the forest, noting the boughs, many of whom had already lost their leaves, and the many pines that still stood tall, firm and green. How could something so simple as a wood instill such fear? What had happened to Shapurji?

“So what didst Shapurji do? Tell me the tale!”

Adlemas grunted and shifted on the seat. “Thou shouldst listen well, young Grastalko. There once wast a Magyar named Shapurji. He wast a brave lad, and he hath a terrible pride in his bravery. All the other Magyars admired him for there ne’er wast a thief as clever, or a fighter as skilled as wast Shapurji. When one of the Assingh went lame, he took the ropes and pulled the wagon in its place, so strong wast he.”

Grastalko found the lyricism of the words soothing. His anger abated as he listened, imagining this great Magyar, and what he must have been like.

Adlemas leaned back, his voice almost singing the words as they came. “One day, whilst travelling through the area of the Steppe, they ran out of wood for their fires. Shapurji assured the elder that he would bring them warmth. First he tried to rub his hands together fast enough to warm them, but he couldst not warm them all. Then he tried to hunt down as many game nearby, to bring their skins back to warm the other Magyars, but he couldst not find enough game for them all.

“Angered at his failure, Shapurji proclaimed that he would challenge the spirits themselves, and wouldst bring them enchanted wood which would burn always. He wouldst bring down a mighty tree from the Åelfwood for the Magyars. And so, Shapurji set out with four of his closest companions, Holbar, Roami, Khiakos, and Sorab.”

Grastalko watched the Assingh as he listened. The Steppeland donkeys continued to follow the wagons ahead as they passed beside a large hill surmounted by a stand of solitary trees. The branches rattled in a wind he couldn’t feel, as if screaming for them to stop.

Adlemas noticed them as well, but pressed on with the tale. “Holbar wast the strongest of them all, and Roami a runner as fast as the wind. Khiakos wast the greatest of swimmers, this in the day when the Steppe had many lakes and many more rivers, while Sorab could steal a hawk’s eggs whilst she was upon the nest! Surely no spirit could be a match for their cunning and skill.”

He’d heard other stories featuring Shapurji and his companions, and they were often introduced with the same words. Perhaps after this tale, he could convince Adlemas to tell another with a happier ending. The look of fear in the falsetto’s eyes suggested that this one would not end well for Shapurji.

“Shapurji lead them into the Åelfwood, intent on cutting down the biggest tree they shouldst find. They left early in the morning, as they did fear what would become of them shouldst they still be within that wood at night. They searched and searched for many hours until they found a tree worthy of their people, a mighty pine as wide as all of them across. With all of their skill, they brought down the tree, and began to carry it back.

“But they became lost in the wood. Nothing wast where it had been before, and so they went in circles for hours, before night fell, and they once more found themselves at the stump of the mighty oak they hath fell. There they were set upon by an army of spirits. Shapurji and his friends fought bravely, but for each spirit they struck, two would rise in its place. And so at midnight’s hour, Shapurji and his friends were beaten and a powerful spirit punished them for what they had done.”

Grastalko eyes the woods suspiciously. Were those same spirits listening now?

“Holbar, the strongest of them all, wast turned into a bear. Roami, the fastest runner, wast made into a stag. Khiakos, a swimmer the likes of which the Steppe will ne’er see again, wast made into an otter and banished to the rivers of the Åelfwood. Sorab the clever thief wast turned into a raccoon. But the worst would fall upon Shapurji, for it wast his pride that led them to enter that magical wood.

“Shapurji wast placed upon the stump, and before his very eyes, his feet became roots, and his arms branches. And then, he wast but a new oak, one that wouldst grow to replace the one he brought down. The legend saith he wilt always stand, his face etched in sorrow upon the bark for his crime.”

Grastalko whistled and rubbed his crippled arm. The air had suddenly grown cold. “Hath thee ever seen this tree?”

“Nay,” Adlemas replied with a visible shudder. “I hath ne’er ventured into the forbidden woods, and that ‘tis why! For it hath strange magics and spirits that dost not wish to be disturbed by men. Especially proud Magyars such as ourselves who might do them harm!”

Grastalko didn’t think he was that proud of a Magyar, nor much of a Magyar at all despite his dress and speech. Still, the story filled him with a curious dread. Did Shapurji’s tree still stand in the woods, and would they ever see his face in the branches? He glanced at the forest, but it was still too far for him to make out individual trees, nor could he tell if any were oaks.

“How long wilt we be in the forest?”

Adlemas shrugged, averting his eyes from what lay ahead. “I know not. We hath ne’er attempted a crossing. No Magyar in all our generations hath done such a thing.”

Grastalko leaned back a bit, wrapping his arms over his chest. “Then shalt they tell stories of us one day?”

“Aye,” the falsetto replied, his voice miserable. “And they shalt call us ill-favoured. But aye, they wilt tell stories of us.”

Grastalko stared at the forest, wondering if the trees dreamt. But what would a tree even dream about? He held tight to his curiosity, for it was the first thing that interested him in two weeks. He hoped he would see Shapurji, and at the same time, he wondered what it was like to be a tree.

James swayed unsteadily on his hooves, arms outstretched and clutching the paddock doors on either side. The donkey stepped back and forth, ears folded back, eyes dreary as the vessel rocked from side to side in the sea. That he couldn’t see the sea only made it worse. But after a week’s worth of sailing, he finally felt like he wasn’t going to throw up.

“Why don’t you try sitting down again,” Jerome suggested for the fifth time in the last twenty minutes. “The hay bales help, trust me. I spent my first trip over the sea like that, and I a Sondecki!”

“How much longer before we land?”

“The current is against us,” Charles replied, not looking up from where he brushed the comb through his Rheh’s tawny pelt. The majestic horse snorted in agreement, long tail flicking from side to side with the hull’s motion. “As is the wind. I heard Captain Tilly this morning speculate that we have no more than a week’s sail until we reach Tournemire.”

James blanched, let go of one paddock, and clutched for dear life to the second. “Another week of this? Ugh.”

Jerome shook his head and gestured with one hand at the bales of hay stacked next to the paddocks. The Rheh did not appreciate being stabled like common horses, but they consented for their sake. Each of them spent a bit of time during the day tending to the steed that had chosen them, and that seemed to mollify them.

“Just think of it this way,” Charles said, running the comb down his Rheh’s flank, “how many people in your family have ever done anything like this?”

“Gotten seasick?” James asked. “Not bloody many.” He took a faltering step along the paddock. The donkey’s Rheh, the one with the bell-shaped white spot on his golden brow, stepped forward and nudged James along his cheek. Supple lips plied at one long ear, while James lifted his hand and brushed down the Rheh’s strong neck.

Soft words seemed to echo in his ears, and the donkey listened to them, trying to pick out anything intelligible. He closed his eyes, and as the voice rippled through him, the rocking of the ship seemed to fade, ebb into the background like a breeze stilled. The hearty voice, strong yet delicate, calmed his anxious muscles, and his hand loosened its grip on the paddock wall.

When James opened his eyes again, he felt the seesawing beneath him, but he also remembered the voice, and the words. A large green eye met his, and he felt a strange kinship with the Rheh. He lipped at the his steed’s cheek, and felt the soft tugging on his ear cease. The head hugged him close over the shoulder, and James finally gave into a laughing bray.

“Thank you,” he said, patting his equine friend on the neck. “I feel much better now.”

“What was that?” Jerome asked.

“Oh, my friend here helped me,” James said, petting the Rheh down his neck, thick fingers smoothing out the lush mane.

“You don’t sound seasick anymore,” Charles said as he started currying the other flank.

“No. I can feel the boat rocking, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

“Good,” Jerome said with a sarcastic grin. “Then we won’t have to hear your belly-aching.”

“Or smell it,” Charles added with a laugh.

James shook his head, chuckling under his breath as he petted his Rheh. The noble beast nuzzled him and whinnied. “Let me get the curry,” the donkey assured him. Jerome, who had finished currying his Rheh and had started cleaning his hooves, tossed him a brush. James thanked him, opened the paddock door, and began to brush the curry through golden fur.

“You know, you were right, Charles. Nobody in my family has ever done anything like this.”

“Sailing?” the rat asked.

“More than that. None of them ever left the Valley. I’m the first in at least three or four generations to have gone beyond Metamor Valley.”

“I’m sure they’re very proud of you,” Jerome said.

“Maybe,” James added, a frown creasing his snout. “My father never had a kind word for me. My mother tried her best, but there was only so much she could do. My older brother was killed at the Battle of Three Gates, and my other siblings died as children.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Charles said softly. The rat slowed his brushing. All the Rheh turned their ears to listen. “What of your parents? Are they still alive?”

“My father died a year after Three Gates — he fell off the roof and landed wrong. Died in my mother’s arms. I’d run for the Lightbringer, but I didn’t even make it to the Temple before he was gone. My mother passed away a few years later in her sleep. What I didn’t know was that she’d incurred several debts. I’d spent the last three years trying to pay them all off, working whatever job I could. Until Nasoj attacked last winter, I’d been working in a shop selling meats and vegetables. It paid enough, and they let me sleep on a pallet in the back. I’d managed to pay off the debts, and was beginning to save some money up when everything was destroyed...”

Charles patted his Rheh on the neck and leaned against the paddock wall, chewing at its top a moment to sate his incisors. When he’d finished, he said, “I’ve known you for nearly a year now, James. I’ve watched you grow as a swordsman and you’ve become a good friend. I never knew that about your family. I’m sorry.”

Jerome grunted and set a hoof down. “We never really knew our families. The Sondeckis were our family. Brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. Well, mostly brothers and fathers as there aren’t many women in the Sondecki order.”

“It’s just, I’ve always been a nobody my entire life,” James replied as he worked the curry through his Rheh’s hide. “It’s hard not to think of myself that way still.”

“You shouldn’t,” Charles chided him. “You’ve killed a Shrieker. You have journeyed through the Great Barrier Range. You have seen the Binoq city of Qorfuu. You’ve walked the Dwema-tåi road. You’ve been in Ava-shavåis. You’ve ridden a Rheh across the Flatlands. And you have helped save the life of Duke Schanalein of Breckaris. Apart from us, you will never be able to name another person who has done all of that, and I bet nobody else after us will do it either.”

James smiled and stared into the green eyes of his steed. The Rheh stared back, and that warm voice assured him it was true. Finally, he nodded and continued brushing the magnificent horse. “Yes, I guess you’re both right. It’s just... ah, thank you both.”

Charles, who had started gnawing on the paddock wall again, laughed and spat out bits of wood. The ivy on his back twitched. “Hey, we have a long way yet to go. Who knows what else we’re going to face.”

“True,” Jerome added. “We may yet all die.” The Rheh smacked the Sondecki in the back of the head with his snout. Both the rat and donkey laughed.

One person was sitting in the hay bales. With his papers strewn around his large feet and tail, Habakkuk listened to his friends speak in the long pauses between the far briefer intervals when he would write on one of the sheets. There was so much he still had to do, so many thoughts to sort out, he barely knew where to begin.

He had nine manuscripts, most of them sporting only a handful of words. Only one of them was even half full. The kangaroo set that one aside and took one of the emptier ones, tickling his nose with the feather quill. He snuffled, breathing in the long lost scent. The quill had once belonged to a pheasant, but the Keeper gentleman gladly sold many sturdy feathers to the Writer’s Guild each year.

He closed his eyes, ears lifted and turned to warn him of anyone’s approach. The Rheh shifted about with the rocking of the ship, the two Sondeckis and the donkey laughed and chatted of the wonders they had seen. On the other side of the hull he could faintly hear the Binoq’s insistent chanting.

But behind his eyelids he saw a vast emptiness stretching into the distance. Lines of thought and action emerged from that darkness, streaks of red, yellow and green, intermingled with blue shapes that moved along those lines. The jagged lines turned and twisted, sometimes branching in a bounteous profusion like wildflowers in a virgin field. As they branched, the lights grew dimmer, indistinct, until Habakkuk couldn’t follow them at all.

He swivelled his vision, and the lines became firm, bending in the distance as if wrapped about a great sphere of unutterable size. Behind him, the lines and figures became firm, fixed like nails in a signpost. There were no branches behind him, only intersections between the lines, and places where lines simply ceased. Immutable and ever growing, the past held no secrets but those that passed beyond the horizon of his talent. Or those, like the line of the Marquis and of all those touched by Marzac, that had been hidden from him.

Habakkuk turned back around, staring at the future, reading it with a clarity that frightened even him. All Felikaush of sufficient talent were trained to read the skein of history. Usually little could be discerned from that tangled web, but Habakkuk had always been more gifted than most. Not only did many visions come to him unwelcomed and unbidden, but he could produce visions if he so desired.

But until now, those visions had always been fleeting, and he’d rarely understood them. Only a year ago, the lines of the future had been a mass of phantasms, a swirling emptiness in which only some light shone. Now, everything in the world grew clearer, more certain. The future was never certain, unless events were unavoidable. Only the most powerful and terrifying things could direct the course of time.

Staring into the future, a future that drew every single thread of life into a solitary vortex lurking at the edge of the horizon, scared Habakkuk so that he might never sleep again.

Each of his friends passed into that future, and he could see their lines striving towards that nullity. Beyond the nullity there was nothing. No lines, no faint blue images, simply nothing. Habakkuk pushed at the threads, knowing there was a way around this hideous future. He’d seen it before, seen flashes where the threads of existence stretched and branched anew. But not every time could he find his friends beyond. One he knew would die, there seemed no way to avoid it. But was there a path in time that could save the others?

He pushed forward again, but that emptiness, that vortex of nothing, reached for him. He screamed and tried to open his eyes. A hideous laughter, one gone mad, seemed to echo endlessly back and forth. Habakkuk thrashed from side to side, clawing at his eyes to open his lids. Yanking backward, he screamed again, whipping back and forth with his tail. The laughter ground him underneath like a mill grinding stones to dust.

And then he fell off the hay bale and landed on his side. Habakkuk groaned, rubbing at the soreness beneath. The lines, images, and even the nullity were gone. He stood up, waving a curious Jerome away, and straightened out his tunic. He searched amongst his papers, found the right one, and with exquisite precision, wrote one more line.

“I am thinking we have finished one,” Abafouq declared as he lowered the pendant into a small leather pouch. “Did you see any errors in the spell?”

The Nauh-kaee crouched next to the Binoq, his black talons deftly drawing diagrams with coloured sands. His beak opened, and in a soft voice he said, “The spell appears exactly as Jessica described it. You are right, it is done.”

“Now,” Abafouq said, running his fingers over every bit of decoration they’d been able to scrounge from their things and from Captain Tilly, “we need to make ten more.” Their stash included a several pendants of various designs, a few yew trees, and even a lady’s locket that Tilly had hinted once belonged to a woman of some importance. If he’d hoped to pique Abafouq’s interest, he’d been mistaken, but both Kayla and Jessica had asked.

He selected a pendant with a stylized fish — one of Tilly’s — and set it in the middle of the symphony of sands. He rubbed his hands together, pondering all of the intricacies of the spell. Jessica had told them all that she’d known, but she spent her days up in the crow’s nest keeping watch for the Whalish blockade.

“The fish is a different shape, so I am thinking we need to modify the lines. The hawk said everything should flow and all contours must be close together.”

Guernef slid a talon through a line of yellow sand, spreading it closer to the pendant’s middle, but further at its ends. Abafouq followed behind him, sweeping up the grains he’d missed.

“I hope it will not take as long to ensorcel the next ten as it did the first.”

“It won’t,” Guernef replied. Abafouq didn’t hear any confidence in his voice, but that was normal. He never heard doubt there either. Sometimes he wondered if the Nauh-kaee were capable of indecision.

“Then let us begin.” While Guernef continued to rearrange the lines and curves of the symphony, the Binoq began a slow chant under his breath. The fish pendant glowed a pale yellow.

Captain Tilly’s quarters featured a dining table with enough room for six, a row of windows overlooking the sea behind them, a yew tree hung upon one wall, and pinons with the Breckaris colours and those of the Pyralian kingdoms. For all that, his bed was cramped in one corner, and his personal larder of food and wine appeared to be used sparingly.

None of these concerned Kayla the skunk and the ancient Åelf Qan-af-årael. Sitting on opposite sides of the table with a game board between them, they studied the pieces and each other. Kayla leaned forward, long, stripped tail curling behind her and over the top of the flat-backed chair. The Åelf reclined with immeasurable dignity, his hand clasped loosely before him, the pearl-skin unsullied by the salt stains that slicked every bit of wood on board.

“This is an interesting game,” she admitted, her brow furrowing in concentration. “There are but so many rules, I’m having trouble deciding if the move I want to make is even legal or not. I’ve never played a game where the rules depend on the phase of the moon.”

Qan-af-årael smiled gently, an understanding smile of a grandfather to grandchild. “Do not the rules of the hunter and the hunted change during the nights when the moon is dark, and those when it is bright? Do not your people know when to plant their crops by following the guide of the moon’s silvery gleam? If our lives are shaped by the moon and its course, why should we exclude our games from its touch?”

Kayla churred and touched one of the pieces with the tip of her claw. She bent it forward slightly, and then let it settle back on the board. “Because it’s easier that way.” She lifted her claw, and took the piece next to it, sliding it backwards a pace. “And not everything in our lives is ruled by the moon.”

“Each part of our lives is touched by every other part. Some of your people have a saying, ‘Do not let the left hand know what the right is doing.’ Is this not so?”

The skunk nodded, sitting back some wondering whether she’d made a good move or not. “It’s from the Canticles of Eli. It’s the Follower holy book.”

“An allegorical statement, according to the interpretations I have heard. And it must be, because the face is absurd. Both the left hand and right are connected through the shoulders. Their intent is connected through the mind. To prevent the left hand from knowing what the right does would require one to be of two minds, distinct to the point that they know not what the other wills. A person of two wills is not really a single person, is he?”

“I suppose not,” Kayla replied.

The Åelf took one of the smaller pieces — she thought of them as pawns — and slid it forward a single space. “In the same way, the moon not only directs a portion of our lives, she guides us at all times.”

“You speak of the moon as if she were a goddess. Not even the Lothanasi believe that.”

Qan-af-årael shook his head with a faint smile. “No, I do not believe that either. I do not need to believe something is divine to guide me. Only that it was put in place by the divine for that purpose. And hence, our games, which are meant to draw our minds closer to the true purpose of the world, change based on the phase of the moon. A single game can last years, with strategies developed one day to be used two weeks hence when the moon’s phase has completely changed.”

Kayla took one of the taller pieces and jumped it three spaces to the side. “I hope you weren’t planning to take so long with this game!”

“No, this will merely be a diversion of hours. As I said, these games are far more difficult than anything you would consider.”

The skunk nodded, scratching one ear as she pondered the board. The Åelf moved another one of his pawn-like pieces at a diagonal, this time backward. “I feel like a toddler playing chess. It’ll take me years to learn the strategies of this game.”

“Years? It takes centuries amongst my kind.”

“Well, how about this then,” she suggested. “After you demolish me in this game, perhaps I can teach you one of my own.”

Qan-af-årael smiled, “I would be honoured to learn.”

While they used his quarters, Captain Tilly stood on deck, warily watching two of the three passengers who insisted on being on deck. The hawk was safely ensconced in the crow’s nest, but the young Åelf stood at the bow, hands planted upon the wooden railings on either side, and stared across the sea. Sailors rushed behind him, keeping the sail aright as they forged into the wind, but he didn’t notice them.

Beside the Captain was the northerner Lindsey. Lindsey scratched his long red beard, and idly fingering his braids as he spoke with Tilly. “Those clouds to the south do not look friendly.”

“By the time we reach them, they will have blown east,” Tilly replied with an air of confidence that Lindsey thought wholly inappropriate. Their venture had never gone smoothly, so why should it start now? “We have no reason to fear them.”

“But we’re headed straight for them. Besides, I thought you said the wind was blowing north.”

Tilly gestured at the sails snapping in the wind. “Northeast,” he replied, returning his hand to the tiller. The sea was calm, but the current buffeted them constantly, slowing their progress. To the west, a green line on the horizon spoke of western Pyralis, the very lands that Tournemire now dominated.

“Northeast,” Lindsey said. “That won’t matter if we are caught out here in a storm and with the Whalish patrols. The rain only makes their fire burn worse.”

Tilly eyed him suspiciously. “Have you any experience with the Whalish fire?”

“Well, for a number of years, the Prince of Whales served Metamor as part of our alliance. He even made use of his fire during the Battle of Three Gates. I have seen its effects, though I have never used it myself.”

Tilly frowned and gestured to the Åelf. “I am trusting your friend when it comes to the weather, and your other friend when it comes to Whales.” Here he pointed at the crow’s nest. “If you do not believe me, will you believe them?”

Lindsey grunted and nodded. “Forgive me, Captain. But those clouds make me nervous.”

Tilly gripped the wheel tight and pulled it ever so slightly to the right. “They make me nervous too. But your friend Andares has not led me wrong yet. I wish I could bring him for all my journeys! Your friends down below frighten the men, but he gives them energy. I do not understand it myself.”

“Neither do we,” Lindsey admitted. “Sometimes I think they are the most fantastic thing about this whole adventure. After seven years living with animal-men, you take them for granted. At least inside they are still men like you and I. The Åelf... they are altogether different. They may look like men, but they are not.”

Tilly grunted and kept his hands on the wheel.

The crow’s nest was aptly named in Jessica’s opinion. The interior where a man should stand was so cramped that it was better suited to a family of crows. The man who did sit there had grease stains all over his clothes, a beard that appeared to have been trimmed by lice, and a tongue that enjoyed the vulgar. He spent the entire time regaling the hawk with stories of his sexual exploits.

That is until Jessica threatened to peck his eyes out. He’d grown quiet after that.

So while the man muttered to himself and half-dozed, the black-feathered hawk turned her golden eyes this way and that, scanning the horizon for any sign of other ships. Somewhere out there the Whalish navy patrolled the seas. Their intent was to keep any ships from nearing Marzac. Normally she would have happily supported their efforts, but their need was greater. They needed to pass through, and only her eyes were good enough to see the Whalish navy before they saw Captain Tilly’s vessel.

Jessica let the hawk part of her brain focus on the horizon, while the rest of her pondered the many preparations still to be done before they dared enter Marzac. She knew the swamp extended for at least a hundred leagues, a distance they would have difficulty covering if not for the Rheh. Nor was the distance their only concern. There were innumerable dangers in any swamp, at least, the books she had read had assured her of this. The Marzac swamp was replete with every danger imaginable.

And those were only the dangers to their physical bodies. The corruption that festered in that swamp was the real danger. The nearer they came to the Chateau Marzac, to the castle built atop the ruins of Jagoduun, the worse it would get. It would try to claim their very souls, turning them into servants of an evil that yearned only for the destruction of this world. She had felt that evil when she’d been lost in the Imbervand, nearly made its slave, but for the rescuing hand of Pelain of Cheskych.

It still seemed so strange to have been rescued by a man dead for centuries.

Jessica stretched her wings, remembering the talisman that Pelain had given her and only to her. She kept it with her things for now. She didn’t know why she alone had been so gifted, but there had been an admonition in his voice when he’d given it to her that she could not ignore. Somehow, it would offer her protection in a way that the charms Abafouq and Guernef were busy making would not. And those charms were made with a spell that Pelain had given her, a spell whose intricacies challenged even the most difficult of enchantments her master Wessex had attempted. She was glad that the Binoq and the Nauh-kaee had volunteered for the task of learning it.

The thought of her dead master filled her briefly with a sense of rage, but it faded almost immediately. Agathe, the one who’d brutally slain Wessex was now dead herself, killed by her master’s final spells. Jessica’s wings fluttered at the memory. Though it had not even been a week ago, that event seemed to belong to another life entirely.

Jessica snapped her wings against her back, the human portion of her mind suddenly joined with the hawk. There, on the distance, something that was neither waves nor land bobbed up and down on the horizon. She focussed, staring closely for several long seconds as it grew closer. Though it was miles away, she could see the mast, the sail, and the hull. A ship, and out here, that could only mean one thing.

She screeched loudly, flapping her wings in agitation. Within seconds she had the attention of every man on the ship. Even the loathsome sailor in the crow’s nest stirred from his slumber, took a seeing glass, and gazed at the horizon where Jessica pointed. He gasped and shouted over the side, “Ship! Due south! It’s Whales! It’s the Blockade! Bearing due north for us, Captain!”

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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