The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LXIII - Rush to the Beginning

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

A week after Berkon’s death they saw it to the north.

Night began to fall, ever so early so near now they were to the Winter’s Solstice, but in the moment before the sun let its grip upon the sky fail, a blue star pierced the twilight in the north. The Magyars watched it and all but one of them trembled in fear as that blue light regarded them for a full minute before fading like a dying ember into the night sky.

Only Nemgas had no fear of it. It had been the source of his very life, that which freed him from the prison of the Yeshuel Kashin and gave him flesh to breath and bleed. And now it was the only thing he could think that had the power to save his friend Chamag.

“How dost he fare?” With the light of Cenziga gone, the others found themselves able to move again. Nemgas looked at Amile who stood at the wagon door, her hands tightly wrapped across the back of the coachman’s bench. “Amile?”

She blinked and turned to Nemgas. Her face was sallow after so many weeks tending their now dead friends. First Berkon, then Kaspel, and now Chamag. Berkon and Kaspel had succumbed to the dark poison, but Chamag had only been touched a week ago. For him they still had hope.

Amile sighed and shook her head. “I hath drained his wound again a few moments gone. The poison wilt not leave him. More comes each time, not less.”

Nemgas frowned and ran his fingers through his beard stubble. Gamran, Pelgan and Gelel busied themselves with clearing out a small space in the snow to build a fire and did their best to pretend not to listen. “What of his teeth? Dost they grow as did Berkon and Kaspel’s?”

Amile shook her head, this time with more vigour. “Nay, they hath not grown. The poison hast not yet made a monster of him. He dost complain that thou dost not let him help.”

“He wilt remain abed until we reach the mountain,” Nemgas replied. “Ja. Help Pelgan and the others. I wilt see Chamag.”

Amile climbed down the carriage steps and passed Nemgas so close their chests nearly touched. Nemgas sighed, his breath steaming in the cold air. With a hop he pulled himself onto the carriage and climbed inside.

As always, the inside was warm and welcoming. The scent of decay and death that had lingered around Kaspel was beginning to return, a sign that troubled him. Nemgas shut the door behind him and Chamag stirred in the bed at the far end. The burly Magyar leaned over the side and grimaced. A bandage wrapped tight around his neck and shoulder. “Ah, Nemgas. Wilt thou let me up this eve?”

“Nae, Chamag,” Nemgas replied. “After Kaspel tried to escape and join what hadst become of Berkon I wilt not let thee up.”

“I art no monster,” Chamag replied in irritation.

“But if that poison remains in thee, thou wilt become one,” Nemgas replied without much joy. “E’en now it may be poisoning thy mind.”

“It isn’t!” Chamag growled. “I hath lost none of my faculties, Nemgas. I art strong and ready to fight. It hath not taken me yet.”

Nemgas sighed and shook his head. He walked back to where Chamag lay half in bed and leaned against the far wall. Chamag’s eyes followed him, and the Magyar had to admit that they were the same eyes he’d always seen in his wagon-mate. The axe-man looked no different apart from the bandages. Perhaps because he’d only been infected the one time it would take longer? Or perhaps Chamag’s body was stronger and more resistant? Regardless, he couldn’t give in.

“And I wilt do what I can to make sure it never takes thee,” Nemgas said in a soft voice. His fingers idly rubbed the stump of his right arm as he spoke. “We didst see the ash mountain’s star this twilight. ‘Twill not be long now ere we reach it.”

“I detest that place,” Chamag said in a low voice. He leaned back in the bed, his free arm fingering the bandage. It was stained with a mix of red and black blood in the middle, though the red was still the dominant colour. “Why dost thou take us there?”

“Because the sword smote Berkon and the sword wast touched by Cenziga.”

Chamag flinched at the name but gave no other outward sign of discomfort. He pressed his lips tightly together and thought for a moment. The burly Magyar’s eyes gazed past Nemgas as if seeing through him and then they lifted to meet his gaze. “But wilt it not smite me? Dost thy cure kill the poison or the person?”

Nemgas frowned and then shrugged. “I hath no answer for thee my friend. ‘Tis the only hope I know and ‘tis what I wilt seek for thee. Know this, I wilt not let the poison make a monster of thee.”

Lips still drawn together, Chamag lowered his eyes and muttered softly, “Wouldst it be so terrible a fate? More terrible than death?”

Nemgas stiffened and studied his friend more closely. His body seemed slack and listless, but so too had Kaspel’s the night he’d attacked. He glanced at his lips, wondering if they hid something. “Aye, to hunt thy friends like rabbits? ‘Twould be worse than death. The gods tend thee in death. Death rejected what had taken Berkon, and wouldst hath done the same with Kaspel.”

Chamag snorted and rubbed his face with his hands as if working some strain loose. “Cenziga wilt bring death beyond the gods.”

“It brought me life,” Nemgas replied, glancing furtively from side to side. He was alone in the carriage with Chamag. The others were still out trying to make a fire. He could almost hear their voices and the snorting of the horses. If he gave a cry they would be here in seconds. He took a deep breath and pretended to turn aside. “Take thy rest, Chamag. I will check on thee later.”

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Chamag relaxing. Nemgas took one step towards the door, and then jumped back onto the man’s chest. Chamag gasped and tried to grapple Nemgas, but Nemgas had them pinned with his side. Nemgas pressed his fingers into either side of the burly Magyar’s cheeks and forced his mouth open. Chamag screamed, eyes flashing with anger and briefly, something more vile.

Nemgas’s heart beat even faster when he saw the teeth behind the lips. The canines were not like what they’d seen in Kaspel or Berkon, but they had begun to grow. They stretched a pinky’s breadth past the rest of his teeth, swollen and raw. Chamag hissed and pushed up to bite him, but Nemgas pressed his stump into Chamag’s neck and forced him back down.

Pelgan and Gamran jumped in opposite sides of the carriage. Pelgan came in the back entrance, and immediately grabbed Chamag by the sides of his head and held him down. Gamran grabbed his legs, couldn’t keep them still, and then sat on them. Chamag spat, struggled, and then all of the fight drained out of him.

“Chamag!” Nemgas said, letting go off his cheeks and leaning up ever so slightly. “Art thee well?”

Chamag blinked several times, groaned, and then looked up at him. “Help me, Nemgas! ‘Tis there inside. Dost not let it make me a monster.”

“It shalt not take thee,” Nemgas assured him, though as when he assured the same to Kaspel and Berkon, he found there was little confidence in his voice. He reminded himself of Cenziga’s star, and tried again. “Thou wilt not be a monster, Chamag. I promise thee.”

Tears streamed down his face which Pelgan wiped up with his sleeve. “Tie me down,” Chamag said. “It wants me to escape.”

Nemgas nodded. Gamran fetched the rope while the two larger Magyar’s looked into each other’s eyes. The one full of fear, the other full of determined hope. This friend he would save, Nemgas swore to himself. This friend he would save.

Grastalko spent a day recovering in his wagon. The smouldering remains of his left hand had flared to life at the mention of the Ash Mountain that the Magyars were now bound for; the flesh had blackened past his wrist and the ever-present agony stabbed at him every time even so much as a leaf should touch his wound. Soaking it in cool water helped, and once out of the wagon he would take every opportunity to dip his left arm in the stream they followed through the forest. For a few moments he could enjoy a world without pain.

Only a few days later they left the forest behind. The plains of the Flatlands came suddenly. One moment they trudged through an endless sea of trees beneath a broad blue sky, and then the next the Assingh crunched snow beneath their hooves and the sky became a barren gray. Yet even so wintry a landscape could not still the joy that every Magyar felt at seeing their homeland once again after so long an absence. That night they cleared a great deal of snow, built a bonfire with what wood they’d collected prior to entering the Åelfwood, feasted, danced, sang, and revelled until the waning moon had passed its zenith.

Grastalko had participated as much as he could. Every time his hand began to cripple him he ran into the snow banks and buried it. The snow sizzled a few seconds before he felt relief sweep over him. Thrice he sought surcease that night.

On the nights that followed he got little sleep as he needed the relief again and again, more often each time. On the third day through the Steppe, he found a bucket, filled it with snow and ice, and kept it by him as he rode the wagons through the white land. Not even the chill air was enough to bring him any comfort. All he felt was the mind numbing pain whenever he took his hand from the bucket of snow, a bucket he needed to refill more and more frequently.

On the fourth day, Hanaman refused to let him come eat in his wagon until he had done the one thing he knew he should do but hadn’t been able to bring himself to do. “Thou must speak to Dazheen,” Hanaman declared with the firm insistence of a father. “Thy hand pains thee too greatly to e’en aid Kisaiya with the Assingh now. I hath seen thee flinch from thy duties, Grastalko. Thy hand pains thee. See Dazheen and she wilt give thee some balm.”

He argued to no avail, and he was pretty sure Hanaman knew the real reason for his reticence. If he went to see Dazheen he’d have to face Bryone again.

But go he did. Holding his left arm close to his belly, he climbed the wagon steps and rapped the back of his knuckles on the door. The solemn face of Bryone greeted him. Her eyes were soft, brown, and searched him, quickly noting the way he held his wounded hand. Her lips drew back in a frown, dimples faintly forming in her cheeks. She gingerly held out one hand but didn’t touch him. “Does it hurt thee, Grastalko?”

He gritted his teeth and nodded. “Aye. I seek Dazheen.”

“Dost thee need help?”

“Nay! I canst do it,” he replied, trying to bury the anger in his voice behind the pain.

Bryone lowered her eyes like he’d seen her do many times for the other Magyars and stepped back from the door. Grastalko stepped through, edging against the door so he wouldn’t brush her, more for his arm’s sake than his heart’s. She held back the curtain for him and he passed beneath into the warmth of Dazheen’s wagon.

The seer was seated at her table as he’d always seen her. Her white hair was twisted and frazzled. Her skin hung in folds on her face. These he’d always seen, but what startled him was to see the bandage removed from her face. Her eyes were closed, but the lids flickered like a dog eager to pounce a squirrel. Her hands, gnarled like bird’s feet, scraped over her cards arrayed before her in a pile. All of them were face down.

Grastalko nervously watched those cards as he neared. Her face turned towards him as he stepped closer and a faint smile drew taut the many folds in her cheeks. “Good evening to thee, Grastalko. It has been many weeks since last thou didst grace my wagon.”

“Art they safe?”

“The cards? Aye. They art quiet tonight. He watches elsewhere now. I dost not know where.” She pushed the cards to the side with one hand; her nails dragged along the table with a sullen rasp. “Sit. What hast brought thee to me?”

Grastalko took a few steps closer but didn’t sit. “My hand. It hurts worse each day.”

“Show me.”

He took another step closer and lifted his left hand towards her own. The blackened flesh seemed to simmer as she moved her fingers through the air nearby. Her smile faded with each pass. Strangely, for the first time in days, the pain seemed to ebb. No longer did his arm throb, but it lingered in a quiescent torpor.

And then Dazheen opened her eyes. Grastalko felt his entire arm go icy cold. He made a fist with his good hand and shivered as he stared at the horizontal red slits amidst the black ruin of her eyes. They lifted up and down a moment before she closed them again. And the iciness passed.

She lowered her hands to the table and coughed wearily. He heard Bryone stir, but the fit passed as soon as it had begun. “I art well. Worry not for me. It is thee for whom I worry.”

“Me?” Grastalko asked. “Why? Art there nothing thou canst do for my arm?”

“The magic in thy arm art the same magic that I hath seen upon Nemgas. ‘Tis an act of the mountain to which we now journey.” Just thinking of this ill-omened mountain made the pain flare anew in his arm. He winced and fell back into the seat. “It hath a hold on thee, Grastalko. Dost the pain grow worse?”

“Every day. But when thou wert examining me I didst not feel the pain. Why?”

She shook her head. “That I dost not know. But I fear that thou wilt feel e’en greater pain in the days ahead. The course I hath set shalt not be changed, for I must go there. As, I believe, thou must also.”

“But I dost not wish to!” Grastalko cried. The thought of heading towards the source of his agony horrified him. Would he be able to manage the pain at all? How much worse would it get?

“Of this thou hast no choice, Grastalko.” Dazheen sighed and lowered her face. She seemed immeasurably more ancient, like a crumbling stone wall built generations ago and left untended. “I canst give thee something to aid thy sleep. It will take thee from the pain for a time, but sleep art all that thou wilt do when thou hast taken the draught.”

“Anything that wilt help. Please!”

Dazheen nodded slowly. “Bryone wilt bring it to Hanaman’s wagon soon. Go enjoy thy dinner with him.”

Grastalko stood, and put his arm back against his chest to protect it when he realized what the seer had said. “How didst thee know I wouldst be eating with Hanaman tonight?”

Dazheen lifted her face and smiled. “There art things I canst still see without my cards, young Grastalko.” He blushed in embarrassment at doubting her. But she didn’t seem to mind. “Go and know that thou wilt sleep well this night.”

“Thank thee, Dazheen,” he said. He glanced briefly at Bryone, then hurried out before she could say anything. With each step through the snow toward Hanaman’s wagon the pain blossomed in his arm again. Grastalko gritted his teeth tight and stared balefully to the southwest. The source of his agony was out there somewhere. How could he possibly face it?

Water clouded with sand and froth foamed violently around him, tumbling across the smooth sandy bottom of the secluded beach with all the wrath of an irritated sea god but he suffered the defeat stoically. For one born and raised with the sea at his doorstep the assault of a breaking wave was mere play yet it brought frustration nonetheless. The waves defeated him each time and with every ignominious dunking and thrashing across the sandy bottom that frustration grew. The wave board prevented him from simply plunging through the breaking waves in an easy dive; it was simply too buoyant. Yet each time he tried to cut up and across the waves they would surmount and roll the board, and him with it, into a chaos of sand and froth.

He was perhaps seven, clad on in a simple loincloth and water shoes, tackling the waves breaking upon a broad wash of dark sand. He was a pauper, clad in the common garments of a seafront peasant, and his name was Phil. But he was not the Phil whom he knew himself to be, he was only a child embracing a challenge, not a white-furred animal drowning in the surf. Staggering back to his feet after another bruising surf roll he cast about for the wave board that had been ripped from his hands. His eyes stung with the salt and frustrated tears, blurring his vision. The other children sharing the waves with him could ride the rolling waves on their simple boards, reed-framed constructs wrapped in a thin layer of tanned whale-leather, with all the grace of gulls on the wing. Retrieving his strayed board Phil once more stretched out upon it and paddled toward the next approaching wave.

As it neared he swing the board to one side to tack up the face of the wave and paddled hard with his hands. Swiftly the face of the wave bore him up, tilting the board ever more steeply no matter how much he paddled. He was almost at the crest of the wave, now hanging onto the board as it listed fully, but the curling lip caught the high side of the board and sent him tumbling down the face of yet one more wave.

Like any child of Whales he could swim as skillfully as a fish so the churning innards of the wave did not alarm him. The sandy bottom punished his lack of wave-riding skill with fresh bruises and scrapes but that, as well, was neither new nor alarming. After being released from its rough handling he stood and shook the water from his eyes. A few of the other children laughed at his lack of skill while others merely looked on. A strong hand came to rest upon his shoulder causing him to turn toward the form standing in the shallows at his side, the taller man casting Phil in his shadow.

“Head on, lad, head on.” The man advised with a tone of gentle humor, his chin nodding toward another wave as it built up and crashed down around the dozen other children riding its curve. Phil blinked salt induced tears from his eyes and cocked his head to look up at the stranger whose physique was quite unlike that of the local Whalish people. He had the pallor and broad-shouldered frame of a mainlander and sported a slender bit of hair beneath his lower lip in a point the likes of which Phil had only glanced sported by duelists, courtiers, or brigands. The look in the dark brown eyes was not dangerous, however, and was clad more like a courtier than brigand, in silks and fine cotton linen opposed to the well worn leathers of sailors or commoners. Tucked under his other arm was a gleaming silver flute.

“What?” Phil groused feigning difficulty hearing over the roar of the next incoming wave.

“You’re trying to cut across the wave to traverse the crest, lad.” The gaily clad courtier seemed to pay no heed to the ruin that seawater was making of his expensive raiment. “Putting your broad side to the wave just gets you tossed like an unmoored boat. You’ve got to approach it head-on.”

“Of course I knew that!” Phil railed, looking for his lost wave board. “Any sailor knows you don’t climb a wave broadside.” He could not see his board. Nor, for that matter, could he see the beach, the cliff-climbing city of Whales, or any land at all. He found himself staring down at the pale, smooth wood of a ship’s deck.

There was a curious pattern of scratches in the age-worn planks near the base of a pedestal mounted spyglass. The sun was only a short distance above the eastern horizon and the post upon which the spyglass was mounted created a shadow across those gouges like the line of a sundial’s blade. But it was a sundial only he could decipher, the gouges made by his own toeclaws etching a pattern that said nothing to anyone but Phil. Sunlight shone down the barrel of the spyglass and created a pinpoint of brilliant light at the apex of several scratches.

“Do they now?”

Phil looked up from the confusing display to find himself upon the deck of the Burning Spear alone but for the same mainlander who now leaned upon the long spar of the steersman’s tiller. Beyond him, aft of the Spear, arrayed an armada of ships vast beyond counting, the sky and water teaming with a host of foes. Fear seized Phil’s heart for the Spear was a ship adrift and unmanned. All around her other Whalish ships sat upon a glassy sea with empty decks and motionless oars. Phil’s ears backed in heart-clutching fear as the hopeless situation seized him. “What matters a wave?” he challenged the stranger with a wave of one short, white-furred arm at the armada around them, “When enemies lie at anchor in the harbor?”

The stranger shrugged, “What matters a wave, lad, when you know to take it head on and they do not?” Turning his head the man glanced eastward and Phil followed his gaze.

As he watched the horizon rippled an rose behind and to one side of the enemy host, a wave bulking upward as it surged toward them. As Phil watched it raised up the dark shapes of the enemy ships and sent them tumbling down the face of that watery mountain. Even as he watched the foe being dashed into the sea he felt the Spear beginning to list.

The wave was not directly astern, it came upon their aft port beam and the Burning Spear began to rise up and roll. The stranger with the intense brown eyes made no motion to correct their course with the tiller upon which he still leaned as if unmoved by the steadily steepening list of the deck. “Head on, lad, head on.” The man intoned completely unconcerned by the wall of foaming water towering above them. Already the Spear was listing so far that it was difficult for Phil to stand even after digging in his claws. The spyglass squeaked forlornly as it spun atop its post.

“Turn us, damn you! Turn us!” Phil fell forward and scrambled at the deck but horizontal had become vertical and sunlight was eclipsed in an azure shadow. He felt himself falling away from the deck as the Spear tumbled, a white hammer of sea foam plunging down toward him.

Prince Phil, heir to the thrown and power of Whales, thrashed about upon his berth like the frightened rabbit that he was. Falling, he felt, to land heavily upon the deck in a tangle of linens and lines. It took him a moment to realize that he had not been plunged helplessly into the sea and that the wood he had landed upon was safely horizontal. He forced himself to still in a fit of pique; too many times awakening to fear would lead him to slipping into his uselessly feral state and stuck impotently in a cage.

He could ill afford to loose his control now, before his sailors, upon the eve of a war.

Nay, not a war, but a single engagement. Should the engagement fail it would become a war; a war that Whales would be hard pressed to prosecute with their current naval strength. He could not lead his sailors, his people, or his serve his kin and King from within a cage impotently nibbling on carrots.

“Your highness?” a young voice inquired cautiously from the shadows. “Are you well, Prince?”

Phil chuffed irritably and forced himself to still though his heart continued to race so strongly the roar of it filled his head. “Aye, I am myself.” Again, still in control of his faculties by sheer force of will alone.

“You’ve become tangled, may I assist you?” Brad, Captain Ptomamas’ nephew and cabin boy, asked. Of the crew he seemed the least distressed by the fact that his liege was an oversized rabbit prone to fits of feral witlessness. But then the boy was a mere nine years of age.

“Aye, if you would. What is the time?” With the boy’s efficient help, even at nine he was a competent member of the Spear’s crew, Phil was quickly untangled.

“Just after dawn, Highness, we have already spoken the Dawn Prayer.” Brad’s shadow explained while deftly sorting the snarl of linens and replacing them on Phil’s spartan berth. Phill donned his tabard and belt in the dim shadows of the cabin while he listened to the boy and the song of the ship; the chanting of the oarsmen, the drummer’s master tempo, mingled with the creaking wooden voice of the ship itself.

“Have you been on the deck?”

“Nay, highness, my father forbade it because the foe has drawn close.”

Phil rested his blunt-fingered paw upon the lad’s shoulder as he stepped past him toward the gangway, “My thanks, Brad. May the fates favour us this day, but your father is wise. Keep yourself safe and ready.” Beyond the narrow portal leading from the Captain’s cabin the glow of sunlight on age-paled wood lent enough light to the dim shadows of the lower deck enough for Phil to pick his way toward the nearest ladder.

The mood was tense and expectant as he made his way past a few crewmembers resting belowdecks, their weapons readied near at hand or in the process of readiness that bespoke of distracted activity more than any need to make them any sharper. Dark slashes splashed across the wood still remained after the ambush of fire that they had survived only two nights before. In the sharp angle of the early morning light they looked like shadowy holes through the pale wood of the bulkheads. Phil ascended the ladder to the main gangway and made his way to the aft castle where a small knot of silhouettes cast long shadows across the main deck. The officer of the deck and master drummer gave him slow nods as he passed to make his way up the short, steep stair to the aft castle.

He found Rupert there, as well as a few officers from both the First and Second Crews, but none of the ship’s higher command. “Where is Captain Ptamomas?” He asked of Whiett, the commander of the First Crew. The reed-slender officer gave him a brief glance and swift jerk of hand to head as a distracted half-salute.

“Getting a few moments of rest, your Highness, down among the Third Crew.” Whiett offered curtly but without any disrespect. “Step on up here and see what there is to see, but keep yourself somewhat low. We’ve got lads in white on every deck in the fleet but a good spyglass in the day will tell our tainted brothers what ship you’re commanding.”

Keeping low was not difficult, the gunwales of the Spear came almost to Phil’s shoulders when he rested back on his powerful haunches. A waterboy wearing a white smock ducked down toward the stair as Phil mounted to the aft deck, giving the prince a wan smile before sidling down the stair. Phil gave his shoulder a touch as he had with Ptamomas’ nephew and stepped onto the deck to look eastward over the aft rail.

The nearness of the enemy fleet surprised him initially, but as he scanned the horizon the sheer size of the enemy armada gave his heart a distinct pause. “Numbers?” he asked with a quick chuff, his backed ears rising briefly before he realized it and forced them back down. The waterboy had not been wearing anything to give him the appearance of ears so Phil thought it best not to give the enemy something distinct to see.

“Three score and some, my Prince.” Whiett grumbled from his place near the plotting table. “Another group joined them in the night but from where they came I have no idea.”

“They passed south of us in the night.” One of the mages supplied from behind Phil as he mounted the ladder. “Aramaes will be up shortly, he is conversing with Pythoreaus’ circle.” The man gave Phil a deep nodding half-bow in greetings, “And I think you need not worry overmuch of our enemy’s eyes, sire. If they’ve anyone with a decent spyglass they will have noted your bodyguard already.” He waved a hand bedecked with ornate rings toward Rupert where he stood silently at the aft rail. “We overtook those others likely making to rendezvous from the north, Pythoreaus reports that they were not among the group harassing him.”

“How far is Pythoreaus from us now? We could sore use his aid very soon, the enemy has closed more swiftly than I would have expected.” Whiett asked while he looked at the plotting table and the First Crew navigator read a few shadowmarks off of his navigation angle. He gave one shoulder a shrug, “Well, our Whalish brothers I would have expected such speed from, but not out of those canvas driven cogs.”

“Less than a league to our bow.” The mage reported, looking eastward at the armada spread across the horizon behind them. “They’re under masking magic until they can join our group.” The man reached down to touch Phil’s shoulder lightly with his fingertips, “Speaking of magic, highness, look to the western horizon.”

Phil, and the others on the aft deck, did as bade and scanned the western horizon. A thin line of shadows seemed to hover just above the gentle curve of the distant sea but with the early hour it was difficult to read what they were seeing as more than fading night. “What is it we are expected to see, Phernias?” Phil asked.

“Storm clouds, your grace. The mages of Whales have raised a wind to push our Wind Runners to us, and slow the enemy windships.” Phil scoured the western horizon but the shadow did not reveal itself to be anything recognizable as a weather phenomenon.

“How far are we from Whales?”

“Five or six leagues by our reckoning, my prince.” Whiett offered grimly. “Those clouds block the peaks from view.” He shifted his attention toward Phernias with a thin, grim smile. “We’ve made excellent time with the mages aiding us, but our men are beginning to show the strain.”

“As are the mages, we cannot sustain our efforts to much longer.” Phernias reported with equal grimness. “The fatigue of the men has been taken on heavily by our number, Highness. If we continue to push ourselves some of us will perish from sheer exhaustion.”

“They shant, Phernias. I fear that the enemy will overtake us before we see highsun if they keep closing at their current speed.” With a long breath Whiett glanced back at the enemy armada. “And there is more, my prince, none of it good.”


“The spotters have identified whale sign among the enemy ships.”

Phil’s brows furrowed and he tilted his head slightly, “Whale sign?” That was nothing unusual to see anywhere on the ocean.

“Among the enemy ships, as I said. The Merai have joined our foes, the beasts they command move with the enemy. I do not know when, but if they’d been allied more than a day I would imagine that they would have moved against us already.”

Phil felt his heart drop at that news though it was not wholly unexpected after Aramaes’ report the previous evening. That alone made him fear that the entire idea of facing and vanquishing their tainted brethren, a difficult and painful task that it would have been on its own, completely untenable. Already they were outnumbered three ships to one by the inclusion of ships, pirates and fishermen allied to no nations, that had lived among the islands of the straights. And then there were the Sathmoran and Pyralian ships caught up in the mix. Sinking them, should word of it return to those nations, could cause diplomatic repercussions that would last years if they did not bring about their own wars.

Without Merai supplementing the Whalish ships, relying only on dragons and the surprise windships already fast running from Whales under the push of mage-spawned storms, Phil did not feel confident. He could not show the faltering of his heart, however, in the face of these loyal sons of Whales.

“As Ptomamus said yesterday, the Merai are not too great a threat if they try to assault us out of the water. With Pythoreaus’ fleet hiding near at hand, and Stohshal making all due speed before a strong wind we will be at the advantage against that host.” Phil tried to sound confident as he stepped up to the plotting table and grasped the intricately worked edge with his blunt-fingered hand paws.

Whiett raised one eyebrow dubiously, “Advantage upon them, my prince? They’ll have us three to one even with the Windships among us.”

Phil nodded slowly, “Aye, but they are pirates and cargo haulers for the most part, just as hard pressed to maintain distance on us as our oarsmen to keep that distance however it slips.” He waved one white furred hand toward the aft, “With only a score of Dromon, seven Dromonai among those, and the Iron King they do not have our number. If they restrain from engaging until their cogs can catch up the choice of water will be ours and the fleets tight pressed limiting how well they can deploy their fire.”

With a begrudging grunt of acknowledgment Whiett looked over the aft rail, “If we can continue our course until Stohshal is within support range we’ll wear them down just that little bit more.” He directed his gaze westward and his lips drew into a narrow line, “And you say we will have dragons. That will upset their strategies, no doubt about that.”

“Have indeed, commander.” Aramaes hauled himself up from the lower deck and leaned upon the forward railing looking overwhelmed but pleased. “You shant have mages enough to support the fight, Highness, we are simply too weighed upon, but Stohshal reports seeing them ahead of the storms pushing his canvas.” He afforded Phil a roguish half-smile from one corner of his mouth, the fine etching of blue tattoos contorting across his cheek. “He counts fourteen, most of them the smaller and younger storm riders, but a handful of fire breathers. That’s an entire battlegroup of Dromonai.”

Phil laughed with a nod, “That can fly.” He said with grim satisfaction. “Your news is well received Aramaes. Our foe is but a league aft and will close within the day under our current oar. Your circle will only need hold out until the engagement is upon us and after that…”

“We just try to survive, Highness, yes. We will do all that is within our power, and leave the rest up to good strong men with honed steel.” Aramaes dismissed his subordinate mage with a slight wave of one hand.

Phil looked back to the east and the array of ships bearing down upon them with slow implacability. “For now we merely need wait.”

Aramaes joined the First Crew on the aft castle while Whiett ordered those without any immediate duties to get water and rest. Throughout the morning the men at the oars rotated regularly, far more frequently than Phil had ever witnessed and without the precise scheduling typical of ship duties. When a oarsman began to feel fatigue he waved over someone waiting to take a bench and rotated out for a bit of rest.

Phil stood at the rail and watched the enemy host, now spread out across a broad front with the Iron King at the core just behind a line of steadily moving oar ships. Behind that line the wind driven ships tacked carefully to keep their sails belled with whatever wind their own mages could sustain. Every so often Phil spied the white spume of a whale’s blow among the ships but other than the cursory hints he saw no other sign of the Merai among them.

The morning dawned crisp and cold in Masyor. Frost covered the tents, the grasses, and even those soldiers unfortunate to sleep under the stars. The tracks of mud had hardened over the night’s course which made it even easier for the horses and wagons to move about as the lords of the Southern Midlands all gathered at Duke Titian Verdane’s meeting tent.

Sir Malcom Royce had woken Verdane from his oddly peaceful slumber once the pale winter sun peeked above the eastern treetops. The knight reported that all remained calm and that the soldiers were more worried about huddling around the morning cook fires than they were about attacking each other. Verdane was not surprised to discover that nobody had reported seeing a stranger in their midst last night.

He took only a bit of bread and cheese to break his fast, washed it down with warm juice, and then readied himself to face his vassals. The words of the Felikaush reverberated through his mind. He did not even need to look at the letter to know them. Tyliå-nou’s unutterably strange presence lingered in his chambers, but no sign of him was there apart from the letter. This he concealed from Sir Royce. He did not want any to know that his decision this day was motivated by ancient creatures living in enchanted forests where no man dare trod. If this feud had eroded his ability to command his vassals, that knowledge would destroy it altogether.

“Is all prepared?” Verdane asked as a page fretted over the evenness of his tunic.

Sir Royce nodded. Apollinar fidgeted with his spectacles and said, “Your soldiers at the meeting tent have been relieved and fresh soldiers sent. Lord Guilford and his allies are there already. Lord Grenholt, Lord Thrane, and Lord Stoffels wait outside for you.”

Verdane nodded and slapped the page’s prying hands from his collar. “It is fine. I am ready now. What of Lord Dupré?”

Sir Royce grunted. “I have him being brought by carriage. Few know that he is being held prisoner. I thought it prudent to keep that secret for now.”

“Good. And Anya?”

“She’s already there,” Apollinar replied.

Verdane gazed briefly at his mailed doublet, noting the wolf’s head silhouette across the breast. The letter told him that the wolf would not conquer horse or falcon within his lifetime. He’d long harboured that dream and after the curses struck Metamor had felt it was finally within his grasp. Now it was gone. The ravenous wolf would hunger for a time more.

Finally, he took his eyes from the mirror and nodded to his Castellan and Steward. “Then let us keep them waiting no more.” Verdane led them from the tent where he found another page standing ready with his horse saddled and barded. Verdane’s breath misted in the cold air. Beyond sat the three nobles who had aided him these last few months. They bowed their heads at his approach.

Verdane took the reins from the page and mounted. His horse, a black destrier he’d trained himself, snorted and stamped his hooves as he turned about to join the others. Behind him, Sir Royce and Apollinar mounted and followed. A carriage trailed behind them covered in Kelewair soldiers.

None of his vassals dared engage him in conversation as they rode through the ranks of soldiers toward the meeting tent. Their eyes, which passed between each other, back to the carriage, and then toward the meeting tent and assembled armies said all that needed saying. For the first time in a long time, Verdane saw that they feared him again.

Both horses and soldiers lined the grasses outside the meeting tent. A small pile of weapons lay outside the entrance, each of them carefully placed so as not to touch any other weapon. Verdane and the rest dismounted and at his direction, his vassals each lowered their swords and knives to the ground. Verdane alone entered the tent with his sword at his side.

Like the day before, Lord Guilford and his allies sat on one side of the table. Dupré’s allies sat on the other, and these already looked uncertain as their master wasn’t with them. All of them rose when Duke Verdane entered. He ambled stiffly past and quickly took his seat in the makeshift throne at the head of the table. Grenholt, Thrane and Stoffels sat nearby, but Anya was given pride of place at her father’s right hand. Her eyes were a mask; though they saw everything around, not even her father could read them. Whatever she was feeling she would not show it. It both irritated and pleased Verdane.

“Thank you all for coming at my call,” he said in a sarcastic drawl. Some of them, especially those that allied with Guilford or Dupré, flinched back in their seats. “This foolishness has gone on long enough. I will be brief. The war in my lands is now over. To those of you aiding either Lord Guilford or Lord Dupré, your traitorous acts will be forgiven under two conditions. First, all your troops must have left Masyor by the set of the sun, and you must return to your homelands straightaway. Second, after you have returned to your lands, you will each send a levy of your food stores to feed the people of Kelewair who have had to forgo much to feed my army. If you fail in this, and I will personally check that each of you has complied, then your lands will be taken from you and given to others more worthy of your titles.”

He could hear a few grumbles, and several shifted uneasily. Verdane paid especial note of those who did not. Those who grumbled now were sure to do as he wished. Most of the rest would too, but they would need watching.

“Lord Anson Guilford. Eight months ago I assigned to you the task of rebuilding the bridges across the eastern Southbourne. You have failed to accomplish this. Your armies are to be converted to this task. By the first of the new year I want the foundations laid on at least one of the bridges. Those of your men who are not occupied with the bridges are to be set to rebuilding the towns in your fief that were destroyed in this squabble.”

Lord Guilford’s eyes lifted in surprise at this. It was clear he expected something harsher. A smile teased the corner’s of his lips. Verdane glowered at the man. “However, should you seek any reprisal against Dupré’s men or his lands, you will meet the same fate as William.”

Guilford’s smile faded instantly. “Am I to have no satisfaction for my son’s death?”

“William’s fate will suffice to you or you will share it. I will not tolerate any more of your feud.” He turned to Sir Royce. “Bring in Lord William Dupré that I may pronounce his fate.”

Sir Royce nodded and waved to soldiers standing at the entrance to the tent. Two of them disappeared outside. While Verdane’s vassals shifted nervously, and Lord Guilford kept a baleful stare upon the Duke, Verdane fingered the hilt of his sword. How he so wanted to draw it and cleave William’s head from his body. His heart beat faster at the thought of William’s blood splattering across his cheeks. His fingers tensed, frustrated, and then withdrew from the hilt.

Lord William Dupré was still chained and gagged when Sir Royce marched him into the tent. Dupré’s eyes were at times defiant and at others full of misery. Whatever du Tournemire had done to him had clearly unhinged his mind. He was very glad that he’d never accepted du Tournemire’s suggestion of a game of cards.

Royce brought Dupré to within a stone’s throw from Verdane’s throne and then pushed him to his knees. Dupré’s lips curled around the gag. His eyes never left the Duke.

Verdane stood and drew his sword. Almost everyone held their breath and quite a few gasped. Verdane held the blade before him, threatening but not too close lest Dupré attempt to skewer himself. “Lord William Dupré, your actions in precipitating this war and in your alliance with a foreign power, you have given me the right to execute you before your peers.” And how much he wished to do so. Verdane tried to think of his son Jaime, held captive in the courts of Salinon. The letter had offered him a slim hope, but it was still hope.

“I choose not to kill you this day, but it is not because I am merciful. The land of Mallow Horn passes to my daughter Anya. In time your son Jory may inherit the land, but he will be my child and not yours. You will never see him again. I pronounce a sentence of exile upon you, William Dupré. In these lands you have no title, no rank, no position, no servants, no land, and no family to speak for you. If you should ever return to these lands you will be killed. You have until the beginning of the new year to cross the Marchbourne River. Troops will escort you there to make sure you practice no devilry on your way. No accommodations of honour will be granted you on your way. The only mercy you have from me in this regard is that you shall be an anonymous prisoner on this journey.

“Once across the Marchbourne, the soldiers will bring you to the lands of Metamor where you shall suffer the touch of their curse. What becomes of you will be reported to me and to all in my kingdom. After, I care not what you do, only that you never return, never write any letters, or ever again have any contact with your family. This is your fate, William.” William Dupré stared wild eyed at him and he screamed through the gag. Royce smacked him in the back of the head and he tumbled to the ground.

Verdane turned his gaze on the now pale Lord Guilford who stared back in horror. “That is the fate you will share, Anson, if you do not do as I command.”

Lord Guilford slowly nodded. He muttered, “I understand, your grace. I will build bridges and homes. Nothing more.”

“Good. I am Duke Titian Verdane IV of Kelewair. You are all my vassals. You will each renew your vows to me this very hour or go with William to become a beast, a babe, or a whore. The choice is now yours.”

And with that he sat down in his throne. As Sir Royce dragged the blubbering William Dupré away, the others fell over themselves to be the first to renew their vows of obedience and service. After so long a time, and at such a high price, Duke Verdane knew that the Southern Midlands were once again his.

He hoped that in time Jaime would understand.

Elvmere needn’t have worried. Master Elsevier was as good as his word once again and procured for them a humble but private carriage complete with a team of four horses and a fresh supply of bread, cheese and wine to succour them on their trip from Menth to Metamor. And to further show his dedication to the priestess, Elsevier volunteered to drive the carriage himself with only a trio of his sailors to provide defence against banditry.

The raccoon and priestess rode in relative comfort across the northern countryside. The trip took no more than two days in good weather, but with the roads cloaked by snow it was another day before the mighty castle of Metamor was in sight.

Until then, Elvmere and Nylene talked quietly, prayed, or watched the vistas pass them by. From Menth the road north led past the well tended forests south of the valley’s mouth to the more wild stretches once the mountains closed in on either side. They passed many small homes along the first day, farmers or shepherds it made little difference. From each a thin column of smoke rose testifying to the warmth and life within.

On the second they entered the valley proper and what few people braved the cold air they saw were either merchants like Elsevier or Metamorians patrolling the woods, river, and road. Elvmere felt a flush of anxiety when he saw his first animal morphed Keeper again. He’d left Malger and Sheyiin’s company at the wharves of Breckaris months ago now it seemed. Apart from them and Murikeer, they’d been the only Keepers he’d seen since March. Nine months he reckoned it. Time enough for a woman to carry a child to term. The thought both intrigued and irked him. Intrigued because he was a different man than the one who’d left Metamor by paw. Irked because it was far too prideful a thought to allow to please him.

Of these feelings he confided a few to Nylene who nodded sagely. Her eyes were taken by every Metamorian they spotted along the road. For a time they travelled alongside a rather wooly badger-man carting onions from the south, and he and Nylene discussed the valley and its affairs. Elvmere didn’t recognize him and was grateful that the badger, a master Derygan, didn’t recognize him either.

But what wondrous news he had! Duke Thomas was to be wed, and to none other than Dame Alberta Artelanoth! It took Elvmere a few questions more to learn that this was the new name of she who’d once been the knight Sir Albert Bryonoth of Patriarch Akabaieth’s retinue. Though generally delighted by the news, Derygan did complain that he hadn’t found anybody else as reliable to cart his onions for him.

Elvmere couldn’t help but marvel at the drastic changes Metamor had made in the knight. He knew that Artelanoth had come from the Flatlands and recalled Sir Egland fretting over her after the curse took her. She hadn’t been adjusting to being female very well so how could she now be marrying the Duke? But Derygan the badger wasn’t much help there either.

Still, he brought news that the valley had not suffered from any more incursions by Lutins or by any other foul creatures. There was a fantastic tale about an assassin caught in the bell tower during the Solstice festival, but Derygan knew even less of that than he did of the Duke’s bride.

But the badger turned down the road towards the Iron Mines and so they continued towards Metamor alone. Of the others sharing the road with them they saw more scouts and soldiers than anything else. These proved far less conversational than the onion merchant. And they smelled worse too.

Shortly before noon on the third day of travel, while immersed in a conversation about a point of theology, Elsevier knocked on the door of the wagon and said, “You’ll want to see this, priestess!”

Nylene stooped by the door and stared north out the window of the carriage. She gasped and Elvmere had to catch her round the middle to keep her on her feet. “It’s beautiful! More beautiful that even Malger could say!” Her awestruck voice pricked a tingle of delight in the raccoon’s chest. He slid his head out, one ear brushing across the top of the carriage door as there was so little room.

What he beheld made him tremble and forget his discomfort. A surge of joy blossomed in his heart, and his whole body tingled with excitement. His paws wrapped tighter around Nylene’s waist, and his tail flashed back and forth with an almost canine merriment. His green eyes brimmed, but the tears he held back only because they would impede his view. He felt like a child who’d been lost in the woods but had finally seen his mother standing at the edge looking for him.

Above the tops of the trees, with the edge of the mountains clustering close on both sides, rose the towers of Metamor Keep. Their alabaster sheen brightened the leaden sky and seemed a pearl amidst ash. In the way the cupolas were arranged from their vantage point, he fancied he saw the entire castle smiling at him.

Elvmere rested his snout on Nylene’s head and she patted his shoulder with one hand. “Is it good to be home?” she asked, her voice still awed from the sight.

The raccoon’s tears finally burst, and his chest heaved in delight. “Aye, it is good. Good to be home at last.”

“Have you ever watched stray dogs on the street, Prince Phil?”

Phil looked up at the unexpected question to find Aramaes at his side, the lanky man’s hands clasped loosely at the small of his back while he looked across the water. “Stray dogs?”

Aramaes nodded sagely without looking away from the enemy flotilla now slightly more than a half league behind them. “Aye, highness, dogs. Normally they move in their own little packs, their territories overlapping, and will work as a larger pack when there is some prey that needs more than just a few to bring down, or when there is enough food for all so that competition is gone.”

“Yes, I have seen them, but I do not understand the point?”

“They work together, but they don’t work as a single pack. That is my point. They are two packs, with two leaders, with two commanders, and a lot of warriors answering to their pack leader, not to the other.” Aramaes unlaced his fingers and waved one of his slender, expressive hands in the direction of the enemy fleet, “Our corrupted brothers, the free seamen from the Marzac isles, the pirates, Sathmorans, Pyralians, and what other ships that have been drawn in by the dark touch, are all individual ships. Or small flota of a few ships such as those Dromon, but they are not a whole.” His hand lowered toward the water, “The Merai, likewise, may not be of one city or even kingdom if such exist below the waves. They do not communicate with the captains of the ships under which they now swim, and the surface dwellers like us do not treat with them.”

“Their entire battle doctrine is going to be in complete chaos, in other words.”

Aramaes bobbed his head slowly, “We can hope, but I put little expectation of complete disarray among them. See, now, as they are arrayed. The faster ships have not surged forward, they hang back awaiting their cogs. The Merai, as well, remain with the fleet to act as a large mob of disparate packs rather than small groups.”

“They mean to overwhelm us by sheer numbers, then.” Phil’s ears quirked uneasily as he shook his head. Out of the corner of his eye he glanced westward at the towering pillar of black clouds above the broad wash of low, slate gray clouds spreading across the distant horizon. Under the core of that mounting storm the peaks of Whales were lost but visible when the lightening flickered in just the right array. Tendrils of cloud like the reaching fingers of a starving amoeba stretched across the sky overhead slashing the blue with ever darkening gray, but the dragons had not yet put in an appearance. In the far distance Phil could spy, if he chose to use the spyglass, the angular sails of the Windriders just peeking over the horizon.

Aramaes smiled, a rictus snarl that crossed his face giving him the mien of a sinister cadaver for a moment under the fine blue lines, “They mean to try, your highness, but remember the dogs.”

But just at that moment stray dogs were far from Phil’s mind, for a curious pattern of etches in the deck had caught his attention. Arrayed outward from the pedestal holding the spyglass he had been using they looked almost like the haphazard lines of a sundial etched by the unskilled hand of a child. The post of the spyglass cut across those lines, slowly swaying one way and then the other as the Burning Spear rode up the crest of a wave and slid into the trough that followed it. The spyglass, viewing glass pointed toward the sky and eyepiece pointed toward the deck, created a brilliant circle of sunlight that danced across the etched markings and bisected the shadow created by the post.

Phil’s heart clenched in his chest with a sudden unreasoning fear and he grasped at the ship’s railing, looking east and northward intently.

“Highness?” Aramaes noticed the abrupt change in his prince immediately but could see no cause of the rabbit prince’s sudden attack of panic.

“Yahshua’s tears, you were right!” someone exclaimed in surprise close at Phil’s left but no one stood there. No one, that is, save Rupert who also looked to his prince with the same expression of simian concern shown by Aramaes. The voice that spoke, however, was not Aramaes and certainly not Rupert. “Look to my voice, Prince of Whales, and listen! I have only a breath to speak!” the voice continued, now much more intense with less of the startled surprise. Phil’s ears stood upright and he leaned toward the ship’s rail, fingerclaws digging into the wooden balustrade, while his ears pinned forward to focus on the words.

Those words that followed almost sent Phil into a spiraling maelstrom of fear but he understood their import before he felt the panic. “Head on, lad, head on!” The last syllable trailed away and was silenced as abruptly as a taper dunked in water. Fear clutched at Phil’s heart but he shoved it aside and spun toward Whiett.

“Come about!” he yelled, or tried to yell, the sound coming out more as a squealing yelp. “Come about, that direction, swiftly!” he thrust his arm toward the northeast.

“My prince?” Whiett looked confused and glanced toward Aramaes who only shrugged.

“We must come about, now!” Phil hopped back to the rail and gazed northeastward. “To that direction, Aramaes tell the others to follow our course!”

Aramaes nodded and touched the fingers of one hand to his temple. Whiett, while still looking flummoxed by his new orders, crossed to the forward railing. “Come about, all oars! Steersman new heading, to the north and east by north, three hundred fifteen degrees! Oars to starboard hard in!” Whiett looked to his prince and beyond but saw no threat in the direction Phil’s attention was riveted.

“Oars to starboard steep in, port double stroke!” bellowed the Officer of the deck below. The drummer’s tempo increased rapidly while the oars along the right side of the ship were pushed deep into the water to break the Spear’s forward momentum. On all sides the rest of their small flotilla also began to break hard and turn, the orders of their respective deck officers echoing across the water. Phil clutched the railing and dug in his claws and Aramaes grasped the wood with one hand and continued to gaze northeast. Rupert spread his muscular legs and leaned forward to drop one massive hand to the deck as all about them the command crew braced themselves. The Burning Spear tried to turn in such a short radius that it listed alarmingly, the locks of the starboard oar ranks almost dipping into the water crashing against the turning hull.

“The host is turning!” one of the lower ranked officers exclaimed. Whiett leaned expertly without bracing against anything and watched everything from the steersman leaning upon his tiller to the oarsmen working below, relying on the eyes of his subordinates to keep him informed of activities beyond his ship.

“What is it, Phil?” Aramaes asked in a hiss with an uncharacteristic lapse of protocol.

Phil could only shake his head, “I don’t know, yet.” He moaned, pounding the rail with one hand, “A wave, a wave, that is what I fear.”

The mage blinked and stared off in the direction of Phil’s gaze and then Rupert gave the railing a slap with one meaty hand. He did not point but the direction of his deep-set eyes and the intensity of their dark gaze told everyone that he had seen something. He only refrained from pointing lest he alert the enemy host of a new direction to point their attention. Phil never looked away and after a few more seconds Aramaes let out a startled, surprised grunt. He spun toward Whiett, “Wave!” He barked, “Demon wave, northeast by north!”

“Distance?!!” Whiett snapped without looking toward the horizon that captivated the attention of the mage, rabbit, and ape. Ptomamus vaulted up the stairs from the lower deck in a lunge and scanned the aft deck to see if there was some manner of attack occurring.

“Whiett, report!” the captain barked.

“One league!” Aramaes cried out at the same moment.

“Oars steady on, northeast by north, prepare to take on water!” Whiett yelled down to the officer of the deck. Ptomamus allowed his subcommander to hold the deck for the moment until the crisis was past, moving to join Phil at the railing. The wave, a line of darker blue against the water far below the horizon, stretched across the sea from southeast to northwest but hardly looked threatening, little more than a bulge in the water beyond the turning enemy armada. As Phil watched flecks of white rippled along the crest where it crossed lesser waves rippling the surface of the sea.

“The enemy is turning to intercept our course!” called one of the other officers, the same one who had given the same report only seconds before. The Spear slowly settled once again into its new heading. “Fliers off the decks! The enemy windships have put out flying beasts!” The main waved an arm wildly toward the distant line of sailing ships beyond the leading Dromon.

“They’re turning across the wave.” Aramaes said flatly in an undertone lost in the chaos of exclamations filling the air. He grinned that same cadaverous rictus sneer and chuckled deep in his throat. As the wave neared the flank of the enemy formation a few of the more alert captains noted the threat and began to respond. Chaos erupted within the loose enemy formations as some ships abruptly began to turn so that they could take the wave along their beams rather than broadside. The turning ships cut across the courses of ships less alert to the wave, forcing those ships to hastily adjust their headings lest they collide. Shapes small only due to distance began to rise from the distant sailing ships upon broad wings.

The wave surged through the enemy formation, raising the distant sailing ships and causing the distant forest of towering masts to ripple and sway. A few listed over far enough for their oarports to take on water and they foundered with their masts pointing across the water at sharp angles. And then the cresting wave surged across the smaller, less seaworthy oar-powered ships and began to break. Those ships that had seen the oncoming danger thrust almost vertically into the air as they cut over the rolling crest but those that had not seen the wave could do nothing. They rose up the face of the wave broadside, desperately throwing out their oars to stay their roll or attempting to turn but too late and far too ineffectively; the top of the wave caught their broadside hulls and broke over them swamping their decks if it did not roll them utterly.

The Whalish Dromon among the enemy fleet had seen the onrushing wave but not soon enough to turn fully into the surge. Caught in profile half about the massive warships listed up the face of the wave, their crews hastily surging toward the higher bulkheads, and then fell over the crest to crash upright into the trough beyond the wave. None of them foundered though it was clear that many had taken on considerable quantities of water, but the wave was too small to impact their heavy hulls as it had the smaller, slender skirmishers. The white foam crashed into them, rolling the broad hulls dangerously and flooding their decks but none of them foundered. The massive Pyralian flagship only bobbled unconcernedly and the wave rushed around it.

Phil watched the wave crash through the enemy host and felt a moment of triumph as he watched enemy ships founder and capsize. The spent wave crashed toward Phil’s small fleet and broke against their bows in a shower of foam, lifting the Spear’s bow up several degrees before the entire Dromonai rocked forward and crashed into the trough with a second massive splash. The crew let out a ragged cheer more for having survived the rogue wave than because they witnessed the chaos that had broken out among the enemy ships.

“Look to the sky!” Whiett bellowed and pointed up. The enemy armada had managed to release some manner of beast before the wave struck and those creatures had taken wing to rise up in a circling column above the milling remnants of the Marzac host. Some three dozen in count the huge beasts looked like jungle birds festooned with a wild array of colors, long tails and broad wings lent to low-altitude flight from tree to tree. They were not gliders suited for thermals and would not long be able to sustain their circling rise, Phil knew even if he could not put a name to the beasts.

“Archers make ready!” Ptomamus ordered. Whiett leaped down the stair to the lower deck to take command of the men at the oars directly and left the command of the Spear to its captain. Ptomamus grasped Phil’s shoulder and laughed maniacally, “I leave for a few minutes of sleep and you awaken the sea gods, young Prince!” he said with a grin. “We may sustain this yet. Now, if you would, please take shelter belowdeck.”

Phil blinked and backed his ears before shaking his head emphatically. “This is our fight, captain, if I fled for cover below deck it would demoralize the entire fleet much less our own crew.”

“So would you getting feathered, young prince. You cannot hold sword or bow or even a shield, highness, you are only a target here on the deck.”

“I am a standard for the men of Whales, captain.” He grasped Ptomamus’ upper arm with his handpaw and returned the captain’s adrenalized grin with a smile of his own, whiskers forward and ears up. “Let the enemy see me, let them see I am not afraid.”

Ptomamus let out a barking guffaw and shook his head, “If you come out the other side of this on deck and not in that oversized cage, Highness, the story of our rabbit war prince will be sung about for centuries.” The captain gave Phil’s shoulder a hearty slap and crossed over to the plotting table. “Come about to our previous heading!” he called down to the officer of the deck.

Phil watched the slow spiral of the enemy’s flying beasts rise above the fleet that had closed alarmingly despite their losses. The ships crippled by the wave were left behind with their crews as if they held no importance to the fleet. As the Spear and its attendant fleet came about, under considerably less stress than their initial turn, the pillar of strange avians spiralled down to the remaining ships and disappeared from the air. As he had thought, they were not made for protracted gliding. Until the two fleets came together they would stay grounded.

“Archers, stand down.” Whiett ordered from the center castle where he stood with the infantry officers under his command. The Second and Third crews had been roused, those that were not awakened by the wild turning minutes before, and stood ready along the main gangway from one end of the ship to the other. Most had bows while others held sword and shield and all eyes were cast toward the skies.

“Aramaes, how distant are our support groups?” Ptomamus asked while he shifted his attention from the waters to the arches and up to the flying monstrosities winging down toward the ships maintaining the chase.

“Pythoreaus is closing to support us now, he is out before us about as far as our enemy is to our aft. The windrunners are,” Aramaes paused to scan the western horizon, “hmm, they’ve doffed sails to hide in the dawn reflections on the sea between them and the Marzac armada, and to take what’s left of that wave. Stohshal means to come around and down on them from the north once we’ve engaged, with the wind in their favor.”

Ptomamus scowled and cocked an eyebrow, “Pytho is how far away?”

“Less than half a league, captain, under illusion.”

“And the dragons?”

Aramaes shrugged and shook his head, “I have no idea, but I hope they’re up in those clouds somewhere.”

Ptomamus’ lips narrowed as he contemplated the information he was given and regarded the enemy fleet that had regained its battle formation sans perhaps a score of ships left foundering in the water behind them. “And for the love of Eli where did that wave come from?” His chief mage could only snort and shake his head helplessly. “Ara, tell them to tighten up the fleet so the archers can support one another. Whatever those beasts are I don’t want them coming down on us untouched.”

“They look like Rhukh, captain, though I have only seen those in books.”

“Rhukh? From the southern continent?” Ptomamus shielded his eyes and looked up at the shadows beginning to circle above them. “Marzac taints beasts to do its bidding, too?”

“I’d wager they’re trained beasts like war hounds, captain. And we don’t know what resides in those jungles.” Aramaes shrugged and watched the last of the beasts disappear from sight.

“Ara, let’s talk war.”

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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