Cydric Araesto stood at the rail of the trading ship Vanguard Voyager and looked out over the deep green waters of the Laraka River. The mid-morning sun warmed his face, and a gentle breeze whispered through his short brown hair. For a while he watched a seagull wheel about in the clear spring sky; then a glint of something on the horizon caught his attention. Squinting and shading his eyes to get a better view, he made it out to be a small patch of shimmering haze. He stared at it for several minutes, then decided it must be a kind of mirage, similar to the illusions of water reported by desert travelers.
“Cydric! There you are. Aren’t you glad to be done with your chores? Brynna’s been working me like a slave all morning! Pox, if I didn’t know better I’d swear this was a prison ship. Sometimes I don’t know why I ever became her cabin girl.”
The young man turned at the sound of the voice and smiled as Mandi Mercallion approached him, her mandolin slung across her back. A gust of wind disarrayed the curls of her tawny-auburn hair; with a look of annoyance, she smoothed her locks back into place. Her expression brightened as she came to stand next to Cydric.
“I don’t know if you should be speaking ill of the captain,” he said, turning to face the girl.
“Why not? She’s only my cousin, and if she does anything to me I’ll simply tell Uncle Quill. I’m his favorite niece, you know.”
“Not a very mature way to handle it, but effective.”
Mandi swatted him playfully. “Oh, you. Shall we get started? Where do you want to do it?”
Cydric looked around the deck for a place where they would be out of the crew’s way. He settled on a spot further up the starboard rail, near a stack of lashed-down crates. As they walked over to the space, Mandi asked him, “How’s it going in the galley? Oddfoot didn’t give you anything tiring to do this morning, did he?”
“No, nothing besides the usual kitchen duty,” Cydric replied.
“Good,” Mandi said. “I mean, if you’re too tired to do it right now, we can always wait ’till we arrive home.”
“It’s no problem. I’ve actually been looking forward to it all morning.”
They reached the place Cydric had selected. He took off his vest, while Mandi slipped the mandolin off her back. “Is there any particular position you want me in?” she asked.
Cydric took out a charcoal stick and a piece of parchment from his vest. “Well, why don’t you stand next to the rail, and hold the mandolin like this.”
Mandi moved to where he pointed, and copied the position of his arms. “This way?”
“Yes, perfect. Now hold that pose.”
“What if I put my leg this way? Does that look better?”
“That’s fine. Okay, now–”
“How’s my hair? It hasn’t gone flat, has it?”
“Sorry. I’ll be still now,” she said with a slight giggle.
Cydric sat down on a crate. Using a piece of polished wood one of the crew had given him earlier as a writing surface, he began to sketch on the parchment. He outlined Mandi’s figure, then quickly filled in the background. As looked out at the horizon, he noticed that the patch of distant haze had gotten somewhat larger. He didn’t realize that he’d been staring at it until Mandi spoke.
“What is it? Do you see something out there?” she asked, starting to turn.
“No, nothing. Just glare, I suppose.” Cydric returned to his sketching. He drew in Mandi’s loose tunic and tight leggings, then worked on her face: a small, pert nose, softly blushed cheeks, an impish smile.
Just then a tall, sandy-haired man swaggered up to them. “Hey, dovey, what’re you doing?”
“Oh pox, not you Danner,” said Mandi, dropping her pose. “Why don’t you leave us alone?”
Ignoring Cydric, the brawny youth stepped up close to Mandi and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Leave you alone, dovey? Not me. All through my duty shift all I could think about was you. How about us going below and–”
“Excuse me,” Cydric said, putting down the sketch and rising. “We were in the middle of something here.”
Mandi shoved Danner’s hand away. “That’s right. Cydric was making a nice drawing of me. Now we’d like to get on with it, so please just let us be.”
“Oh, so he’s an artist, is he?” Danner turned to face Cydric. “He hasn’t been doing naked drawings of you, has he? I’d hate to think that’s why I haven’t seen you all week.”
“Of course not, you swine! And besides, if he was it wouldn’t be any of your business.”
“Look, Danner, maybe you should go visit with someone else,” said Cydric.
“Go draw a seagull, sissy boy,” Danner sneered. “And if I catch you with Mandi again, the only thing you’ll be able to draw is breath. And barely that.”
Mandi interposed herself between the two young men. “Don’t you threaten him! What makes you think I want to be with you, anyway?”
Danner grinned. “What about that night back in Dargon? You wanted to be with me then. I couldn’t get you off me until you fell asleep.”
“You lying mouthful of fleas! You just wish it were true. We all know how you can’t get a girl–not even a queenie!”
“You want me and you know it.” To Cydric’s surprise, Danner grabbed Mandi and roughly kissed her on the lips.
“Pox!” sputtered Mandi, shoving him away.
Cydric swiftly went over and took hold of Danner’s shirt. “See here! Who do you think you are?”
Danner looked down at Cydric and slowly grinned. “I think I’m about to split your skull.”
Just then Cydric remembered that Danner had once punched a hole in a keg of ale when the cork had become stuck. Releasing his hold, Cydric said, “I see the light’s better on the other side of the ship, Mandi. Let’s go over there, shall we?”
Danner gripped Cydric by the tunic and hoisted him upward. “Ever see the birds up close, sissy boy?”
Cydric tried to back away, but found that his feet no longer touched the deck. Smiling frantically, he said, “Perhaps we could settle this another way?”
“How about with swords?” said a voice from near Danner’s shoulder. Cydric looked over and saw with relief that it was Tyrus Kayne, First Mate of the Voyager, who had spoken. Pressing the point of his cutlass against Danner’s side, Kayne said, “Let’s be civilized about this, what say?”
Danner started and let Cydric go. “We were just having a bit of fun, sir. Nothing wrong with that.”
“He was about to mash Cydric into pudding!” Mandi exclaimed.
“Spend your offshift with your bunkmates, Danner,” said Kayne. “Or you’ll be swallowing the anchor cold.”
“Aye, sir,” Danner mumbled. He cast a hostile glance at Cydric, then walked away.
“Now, what was all that foaming about?” Kayne asked. Mandi quickly explained Danner’s intrusion.
“He’s at it again, is he?” Kayne said when Mandi had finished. “Acting like a snupper so the Captain’ll let him out of his contract. Well, I’ll have a speak with him; but meanwhile, I caution you both keep him upwind until we make port. Think you can stay out of a wrinkle for a couple of hours?”
“Yes sir,” Cydric said. “And–thanks.”
Kayne nodded. “Don’t mention it. Wouldn’t want a new crewman to end up as pudding.” He sheathed his sword and headed astern.
“Maybe we should do this another time,” Cydric said when Kayne had gone.
“Why? Danner won’t bother us again. And even if he does, you’ll be able to handle him.”
“I probably would have been killed if Kayne hadn’t come by.”
“I don’t think so. You were very brave, to stand up for me like that.”
“Well, why wouldn’t I? If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be with the ship at all–getting seasick, sweating in a hot galley, being threatened by possessive sailors….”
Mandi giggled and patted him on the cheek. “Yes, and I’m glad you enjoy it so!”
Cydric grinned. “Now, where were we?”
Mandi started to resume her pose when a long-haired crewman came up to them. “Hey-o, Cydric! Captain wants to see you–in her cabin,” he said.
“We’re never going to get this done,” sighed Mandi.
“We can continue this later. I’m almost finished, anyway.” Cydric carefully folded the parchment and tucked it into his pocket. He thanked the crewman, and headed for the lower deck hatchway.
“Hey, I’m coming too!” Mandi said, hurrying to catch up with him. “What do you think she wants you for?”
“I don’t know.” He looked back, but the crewman who delivered the message was engaged in a dicing game with several others. “Should I have asked?”
“Better not, now,” said Mandi. “They take their gaming extremely seriously.”
They reached the hatchway and descended the stairs to the mess room. A short, stocky man in his late fifties was wiping off the long wooden tables with a multi-colored cloth. He appeared oblivious to the pair’s approach.
“Hi, Oddfoot!” Mandi called. The old ship’s cook made no reply. The girl walked up to him and tapped his shoulder; Oddfoot turned and smiled broadly. Mandi repeated her greeting, making a hand gesture at the same time. The cook nodded and wordlessly gestured in response. He turned to Cydric and made the same sign.
“Hello Oddfoot,” said Cydric, making the appropriate motions in reply. “Does the, ah, Captain want to see me?” He signed his question as he spoke.
The cook frowned and signed to Mandi, who broke into a laugh.
“That wasn’t exactly a joke,” said Cydric, puzzled.
“You just asked him, ‘Does a capstan wet seaweed?’” she explained.
“I really must practice more,” Cydric replied, slightly embarrassed.
Mandi signed the correct question to the deaf cook. He nodded, and pointed to the other door out of the room. She thanked him and left with Cydric.
“Don’t worry, he knows you’re still learning the hand-speak,” said Mandi as the walked down the hallway.
“Couldn’t the Captain just have hired a hearing person?”
Mandi stopped and turned to him, hands on her hips. “I’m surprised at you, Cydric! Don’t you know Oddfoot is considered the best ship’s cook this side of the Valenfaer? We’re lucky to have him! Anyway, what does hearing have to do with making great food?”
Cydric scratched the back of his head and smiled apologetically. “I don’t know what I’m talking about, do I?”
“In two languages, yet!” Mandi said, shoving him playfully.
They continued on. Three doors from the captain’s cabin Mandi stopped. “Let’s check on Scarabin,” she suggested. They entered the room of Brynna’s Master-at-Arms.
“Hi, Scar! How’re you feeling?” Mandi said to the lean, dark- skinned figure occupying the single bed.
“Ah, Mandi. Cydric. Good that you stopped by,” Scarabin said, his Desert accent nearly obscuring his words. He raised his head slightly, grimacing as he did so.
“Now, Scar! Remember what Oddfoot said. You’ve got to rest. Razorworms don’t die overnight, you know.” Mandi gently pushed the Lashkirian back down.
“How everything is, above?” he asked Cydric.
“Just fine. Nothing exciting to report.”
“These worms in my gut, how they feed!” Scarabin muttered. “A bed is no place for a warrior. If pirates attack, the Captain will need me for battle.”
“Brynna wants you to get better,” said Mandi. “Besides, it’s not your fault. Danner’s the one who put the worms in your stew.”
“A dog-skin rug, he is, when I have my health back!”
“We hope you recover soon,” said Cydric.
“Relax now, and I’ll bring your medicine later,” said Mandi. Scarabin smiled faintly as the two left the room.
They came to Brynna’s cabin. Cydric knocked on the door, but received no answer. Mandi went in anyway, motioning for Cydric to follow.
A large map hung on the left wall of the room; directly beneath stood a long desk and a chair. Opposite the door was a bed and on the right wall hung various objects.
“I suppose she stepped out for a moment,” Mandi said, turning up the lantern that was mounted next to the door.
Cydric went over to the map and located the Laraka River, on the northwestern edge of the continent called Cherisk. He put his finger on the town of Shark’s Cove, on the Laraka’s outlet to the Valenfaer Ocean, and traced the river’s path inland to Port Sevlyn, their current destination. He continued on past Gateway Keep, and stopped at the city of Magnus. He shook his head at the memory of his home there, and the events that had caused him to leave. Pushing the thoughts out of his head, he turned and examined the Captain’s desk. A piece of dragon’s horn scrimshaw weighted down a loose stack of papers; next to them was a large leatherbound book. Cydric tried to make out the gold-scripted title, but the words were in an unfamiliar language.
“Look at this, Cydric,” Mandi said, tapping him on the shoulder. He looked up to see a demon’s face laughing at him through twisted, gaping jaws.
“Yaah!” he said, nearly jumping out of his skin.
Mandi removed the mask and giggled. “Scared you!”
“Ah, no you didn’t,” Cydric replied, trying not to breath fast.
“It’s only a Melrin mask from Comarr. If we arrive early enough today we may be able to catch the festival dance.” She went over and replaced the mask on the other wall. “Here’s something that won’t scare you,” she said, taking down a large intricately carved wooden bow. “One of Brynna’s most favorite things.”
“Should you be touching it, then?” Cydric said as he joined her.
“She doesn’t mind,” Mandi replied, holding it out to him.
Cydric took the bow and examined it. Lines of gold and silver traced complex patterns on the back and face. “Very nice workmanship–probably made for a prince or a king,” he remarked.
“Are you any good at archery?”
“A little. I do better with swords.”
A voice from the doorway said, “That’s quite all right. I’m not such a crack shot myself.”
Cydric and Mandi turned to see Captain Brynna Thorne enter the room. She tucked the last bite of a dried fig into her mouth and wiped her lips with a handkerchief.
“You wanted to see us, Brynna?” Mandi asked as Cydric replaced the bow onto its peg.
“I only asked for Cydric,” she replied. “Haven’t you anything else to keep you occupied?”
“I won’t be in your way. Really! Let me just stay.”
Brynna sighed and ran a hand through her slightly curled shoulder-length hair, black except for a streak of blue running down the left side, by her forehead. “Oh very well. Just don’t start playing that mandolin, straight?”
“Straight! I mean, right,” Mandi said, laying the instrument on the bed and plopping herself beside it.
Brynna sat down behind the desk and motioned for Cydric to come forward. “Pull up that stool over there and have a seat.” When he had done so, she said, “We’ll be docking before midday, so there won’t be much more for you to do until then. I’ve been watching you all week, and have made my decision on whether to keep you on or not.”
Cydric thought back to the night in Shark’s Cove when Brynna had signed him on. Noting his inexperience, she had accepted him on the condition that he could be discharged if she found his performance to be unsatisfactory.
Mandi leaped up. “Yes? Well? What?” she asked excitedly.
Brynna gave her a quiet-down look, then said to Cydric, “You’ve done tolerably well, for a landling. I think you could make it as a shipman, if that was your bent. So I’m going to let you decide your fate–I’d be glad to have you, but you may have changed your mind.”
Before Cydric could reply, Mandi danced over to him and put her arms around his shoulders. “Stay on with us, please! If you do it’ll be most fun–Brynna’s planning a voyage AROUND thE WORLD! Isn’t that the most exciting thing you’re ever heard in your life?”
The Captain made a sound of irritation and twisted the blue streak in her hair. “Gods’ breath, girl, I can’t tell you anything!”
“Oh!” Mandi exclaimed, putting her hand over her mouth. “Forget I said that, Cydric. It’s not supposed to be known just now. Pretend you never heard it. Sorry, Bryn.”
“It’s Captain, when we’re on the ship,” answered Brynna. “Sit down and be quiet, all right?” Mandi went back to the bed. “Anyway, Cydric, did you have an answer for me?”
The young man paused before replying. He had been considering leaving the ship and finding other employment, but Mandi’s revelation now changed his mind–a voyage around the world was exactly the kind of adventure he had been yearning for ever since he abandoned his royal heritage. He decided not to ask Brynna for details about the trip; she would no doubt tell him were he to become a regular member of the crew.
“Yes,” he finally said. “I’ve been thinking about it for some time. I want to stay.”
“Oh goodie!” Mandi said, springing up once again and hugging Cydric. “I was hoping you would.”
“Very well,” said Brynna, a faint smile on her lips. “Now all that remains is the standard articles of agreement–”
Just then a crewman burst into the room. “Captain! Beggin’ your pardon, but you’d better come on deck quick! There’s somethin’ you have to see.”
“What is it?” Brynna asked, rising from her chair.
“I don’t know, rightly, but master Kayne says it’s real strange.”
Brynna, Cydric, and Mandi followed the crewman up onto the deck. “Captain! Over here,” Kayne called from the starboard rail. The three made their way over to him. “What’s the trouble, Kayne?” Brynna asked.
“See for yourself, Captain,” he replied, motioning outward. Cydric looked to where the first mate pointed. At first he saw nothing, then became aware of a large rippling air mass drifting over the surface of the water about two leagues distant. He surmised that it was the same shimmering haze he had noticed earlier.
“What do you make of it?” queried Brynna.
“Fog or sea-mist it isn’t,” the first mate replied. “But stiffed if I can say what it is. I was watching a flock of barjee birds when they just went blurry for a second. Thought I was losing my sight, but then the lookout spotted the same thing.”
Brynna frowned. “Peculiar. Mandi, fetch the spyglass please.”
The young girl hurried off, and returned a few minutes later with the requested item. Brynna studied the strange transparent rippling through the ocular for a few moments, then shook her head.
“You fathom what it is, Captain? ” asked Kayne.
“I’m not sure. But whatever it’s birth, it appears to be moving towards us.”
“Moving towards us?” echoed the first mate. Brynna handed him the spyglass.
“Do you think it’s dangerous?” Mandi asked.
“Perhaps not, but I don’t want to go petting the sharks,” said Brynna. She strode back to the quarterdeck and ordered the helmsman to steer well clear of the shimmering mass. Cydric felt the ship lurch slightly as it came about onto its new heading.
Moments later, Kayne shouted, “I think it’s still with us, Captain! Looks like it’s getting larger, too.”
Brynna dashed to the rail. The rippling entity had apparently altered it’s direction to match the ship’s; it was now on a direct collision course.
“Damn peculiar,” said Brynna. She ordered another course change, but the shimmering mass still stayed with them.
“Still think it might not be dangerous?” asked Kayne.
Brynna bit her lip. “Sorcerous, more likely,” she murmured. She took Kayne aside and spoke to him in a low voice. Cydric tried to listen but was unable to hear what they said. A moment later, Kayne’s eyebrows shot up and a look of understanding came over his face. “You fathom that’s what it is?” he said aloud.
“I hope I’m wrong,” Brynna replied. “But we have to be ready in case I’m not. Alert the crew, then–battle readiness. Prepare the scorpion for firing.”
“Aye, Captain.” Kayne left to carry out the orders.
Cydric looked over at Mandi, who had been staring at the mass and apparently missed the exchange. He started to tell her about it when she turned and said, “You know what it looks like, Cydric? Heat waves. What if it’s just a ball of heat coming towards us?”
“Ball of heat, indeed,” said Brynna, approaching them. “Mandi, I want you to go below and secure the cabin, then stay there. Straight?”
“Me?” Mandi said, eyes wide. “But Brynna–”
The klaxon bell sounded, followed by Kayne’s call to action stations.
“You’ll just be in the way up here. Cydric, take her down, would you? Go now, please.” She abruptly turned on her heel and left to oversee the preparations.
The deck came alive with crewmen hustling back and forth, preparing to defend the ship against its possible danger.
“She must think I’m a child or something,” Mandi said indignantly as they headed for the entrance to the lower deck.
“She’s just concerned about your safety,” Cydric replied.
“We don’t even know what’s out there, and she’s acting if it was a fleet of pirates or something! It could be just a trick of the eye, you know. I’ve heard stories about people being lost at sea for months who’ve thought they saw the All Creator riding a horse backwards while eating a chunk of smoked meat.”
“I doubt that’s what it is. In any case, you’d be safest down below.”
Mandi stopped and put her hands on her hips. “And what about you? You’ve been at sea barely a week. You ought to be down there as well.”
“Cydric! Come with me!” Kayne called as he dashed past.
“Hellblaze, Mandi–just go, please? For my sake, if nothing else?” Cydric gently squeezed her arm.
“But–oh, since you asked nice, I’ll go.” She started toward the lower deck hatchway, then stopped and turned. “But only until it gets exciting.”
Cydric waited until she had disappeared below, then hurried to join Kayne.
The first mate was waiting for him at the scorpion. The large crossbowlike weapon was swivel-mounted amidships, a little forward of the main cargo hatch.
“Finally getting a little action, eh Cydric?” Kayne said.
“Yes, sir,” the young man replied. “But shouldn’t we try to understand what’s out there first?”
“The Captain’s got a notion, and if she’s right we’ll all be hard up in a clinch.”
“Oh. Sorry sir, I didn’t mean to be questioning orders.”
“Ah, I won’t tell. But, it’s better to be safe than flotsam, right? Righto. Well, let me show you how this old girl works.” He turned to the three men manning the scorpion. “Line to bow, forty-five up, and hold.” Two of them turned separate cranks that aligned the weapon with the bowsprit, and tilted the barrel upward. The third took a large, heavy spear from a nearby long box, dipped the head into a pot of tar, then loaded the projectile into the groove along the top of the barrel of the scorpion.
“When I give the signal, all you have to do is set the spear head on fire. Then we pull back the bowstring and let her fly! And pray that it hits, of course.”
“I understand, sir,” Cydric said.
“Good. Now take these.” Kayne handed him an unlit torch and a piece of flint & steel. “Be ready when the Captain gives the word.”
“Aye, sir,” acknowledged Cydric. Kayne clapped him on the shoulder and proceed astern to join Brynna.
The two crank operators started chatting amongst themselves. “So, what do you think it is?” Cydric asked the spear loader. The large bearded man shrugged and began chanting a prayer against evil.
“Ah, I see. You could be very well be right,” Cydric said as the man lifted his arms to the sky and begged for deliverance. Edging away, Cydric looked out again at the mysterious rippling mass. As he watched, it appeared to lose speed slightly, but continued moving toward the ship.
A frantic shout jolted him out of his thoughts. “The wind’s dying, Captain!” The crewman who had made the observation gestured up at the rigging. Cydric saw that the sails, previously full and billowing, were now flapping idly. He realized that the ship was slowing in its forward motion.
The crew began muttering in consternation. The spear loader stopped his frantic praying just long enough to advise Cydric to light his torch.
“Hard a-port, while we’ve still got headway!” called Brynna. “All hands clear for action. Stinger crew stand ready.”
The ship began turning in a slow arc, and soon came to drift with its port side facing the shimmering mass.
Cydric got the torch lit just as Kayne returned to the scorpion.
“What do you make the target distance, Flix?” the First Mate asked.
“Hard to say, sir,” replied the spear loader. “It’s like looking for a black cat in the dark. I’d say about a league, though.”
“Fine,” Kayne said. He took a sighting on the nearly invisible mass using an astrolabe-like device. “Okay, lads– thirty-five marks port, down five, and hold.” As the men brought the weapon to bear on the mass, Kayne turned in Brynna’s direction and called, “Stinger clear and steady, Captain! Just give the word.”
“Very well, Kayne. Steady on.” Brynna raised the spyglass to her eye.
Cydric shifted the torch from hand to hand as he watched the mass of rippling waves draw closer to the ship. As it drifted nearer, the area of distortion it caused became larger and easier to see. The sky behind it appeared to writhe and undulate like a heap of restless snakes.
“Close enough, I think,” said Brynna, snapping the spyglass away from her face. “Fire when ready, Kayne!”
The First Mate quickly took another sighting.
“Port plus three, up two, and pull,” he said.
The men made the corrections and cranked back the bowstring.
Cydric set the spear head afire.
“And let her fly!”
The spear shot away into the sky. Cydric watched as the projectile gracefully sailed through the air, curved off into the distance and shattered in a burst of flame against the shimmering mass.
The crew’s cheers became shouts of dismay.
“Cirrangill’s blood!” exclaimed Kayne.
A dark patch appeared at the center of the shimmering. From it emerged a bright green globe which darted with amazing speed straight toward the Vanguard Voyager. Cydric quickly predicted the impact point and flung himself away from the scorpion a second before the globe struck the weapon and caused it to explode amid a shower of green flames.
Bits of wood and metal rained down on the deck. Cydric lay flat on his stomach, sheltering his head from the shrapnel. When no more fell, he looked up and saw Mandi crouching before him.
“Cydric! Are you all right? Did you get any splinters in you?”
“What are you doing up here?” hissed Cydric, glancing quickly around. Most of the crew were still covering their faces against the blast. “The Captain will have my head if she sees you!”
“Is anyone hurt?” Brynna called, brushing debris from her hair. Flix the spear loader and one of the crank operators reported injuries. She instructed them to report to Oddfoot for treatment.
“Better go,” Cydric said.
Mandi nodded and started back. She was halfway to the hatch when Brynna caught sight of her.
“I thought I told you to stay below, Amanda!” the Captain said, striding toward the girl.
“I heard the noise–just wanted to see what it was,” Mandi hastily explained.
Brynna gestured for her to be silent. “Cydric, take Mandi down again. And this time stay with her!”
“Right, Captain,” Cydric said. He took Mandi by the hand and led her to the lower deck hatchway. As they started to descend the stairs, Cydric looked once more at the rippling mass, now less that half a league from the ship. Suddenly the shimmering became translucent, then opaque, and finally resolved itself into the shape of a large black ship–a war galleon.
Brynna smacked her palm. “I knew it! Damn him.”
“A ship!” gasped Mandi. “I never would’ve guessed. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”
The men of the Vanguard Voyager babbled in amazement and fear as the galleon drew closer. Cydric saw the name “Black Swan” on the prow, and that the figurehead was the namesake bird. Long oars on either side of the ship propelled it silently through the water.
“You were right, Captain,” said Kayne. “It’s him, by Cirrangill.”
Mandi tugged at Cydric’s sleeve. “We’d better hide before Brynna sends us below.” She pointed to some barrels near the hatchway. Cydric nodded and they both crouched down behind the casks. Peering over the barrel tops, they watched as the black ship slowly pulled up alongside the Voyager.
On the deck of the Black Swan were assembled the crew, all armed with steel. By the rail stood four men: one balding and bearded; the next, large and wearing a rusty breastplate; the third, a grey-haired gentleman wearing long black robes and holding a large crescent-shaped crystal object; the last, somewhat younger that the third man and dressed in green robes. As the Swan drew alongside the Voyager, the black-robed man put a hand to his forehead and collapsed to the deck. Several crewman rushed to his aid and took him below. The green-garbed man smiled and retrieved the dropped crystal object, tucking it into the folds of his robe.
“All hands, prepare to repel boarders!” commanded Brynna.
“Ho there, Captain Thorne!” the armor-clad man called out in a deep, resonating voice. “What kind of a greeting is that, hey? What makes you think I wish violence upon you?”
“Ho yourself, Commander Challion,” Brynna answered, striding to the rail. “I suspected you were behind this. And why the freezing hell did you fire on my ship?”
“Indeed, you fired upon me first. But I only wished to disable your weapon. I hope no one was hurt.”
“As if you actually cared. Now tell me straight, Challion– what gives you the right to stop a peaceful vessel in Baranurian waters? Is piracy your profession now?”"
“As you no doubt saw, Captain, I have regained the Cavarnon Shield; I was merely testing its effectiveness. And judging from your early reaction, I think it would be better used under cover of darkness.”
“You haven’t answered my question. Is this a raid? If not, I’d very much like to get under way. Tell your mage–the conscious one, that is–to give us the wind back.”
Challion leaned over the rail. “I have one other objective, and I think you know what I mean.”
Brynna shrugged. “Do elaborate.”
“The Codex Araltakonia, Captain Thorne. I wish to purchase it from you.”
Cydric turned to Mandi. “The what?” he whispered.
“That book you were looking at in the cabin,” she replied in hushed tones. “The one on her desk–it’s supposed to be as old as the Mystics!”
“Sorry. I don’t have what you’re looking for,” Brynna replied, folding her arms.
“No lies, no games, Captain! I know you acquired it back in Dargon. But I’m prepared to offer twice what you paid for it.”
“In truth, Commander, I never thought our paths would cross again–the dragon whale seemed rather attached to you, as I recall.”
“I got the better of the creature, in the end,” Challion answered. Hitching his trousers up around his ample waist, he said, “Well, three times your purchase price, then. You’ll be making quite a profit.”
“The knowledge in the Codex is beyond price. In any case, what do you want with it? You’re by no means a scholar–neither are your mages.”
Challion rubbed his fleshy face and exhaled loudly. “My final offer–quadruple the amount you paid to acquire it! A fine trader such as yourself cannot fail to recognize a wonderful bargain such as this.”
“True, but I also recognize barjee squat when I hear it. And I’ve heard enough,” said Brynna. “Spear detail, forward!” Several crewmen went over to the remains of the scorpion and picked up spears from the storage box. After dipping the points into the tar pot, they lined up alongside Brynna at the rail. Kayne lit up a torch and stood behind them.
“It always comes to violence, hey Skoranji?” Challion said to the balding man. To Brynna he said, “Very well. If you do not wish to sell the book, then I am afraid I will just have to take it.”
“You and what battle fleet? Your men won’t set foot upon this ship,” Brynna shot back.
The balding man spoke. “Truly now, m’ dear? Be you willin’ to test your pups ‘gainst me bloodseekers?”
“Would you be willing to bet on it, Captain Skoranji?” Brynna asked, smirking. The Voyager crew laughed.
Even from his vantage point Cydric could see Skoranji turn red.
“Please, please, let’s not bring my friend’s fondness for gambling into this,” said Challion. “I appeal to your reason, Captain Thorne. Give the Codex over peacefully, and we’ll part on friendly terms.”
Brynna shook her head. “You raffenraker, do you seriously think you intimidate me?”
Challion motioned to the green-robed man, who lifted his arms and spoke a short phrase. An intense green glow limned his hands, then a ball of light the same color formed and shot toward the Vanguard Voyager. It came to hover over Kayne, then sped downward to strike him full in the chest and knock him backwards. It then ringed his neck, and slowly the First Mate rose into the air.
“Certainly not, Captain. I know better than to threaten you. But a threat to your friend is another matter,” Challion said, smiling.
“True men do not hide behind magic,” Brynna returned coldly, gripping the rail so hard her knuckles turned white. “Let him down, Commander Challion. Now.”
“We are going to board your ship. If you or any of your men resists, mister Kayne will no longer have the use of his head.”
“First let him down, damn you. Then I’ll give you the Codex.”
“The book first, in exchange for his life. That is your only option.”
Brynna chewed on her lower lip, then finally agreed.
“I think we deserve a little more for our trouble. We’ll also be taking whatever cargo you have.”
Behind the barrels, Mandi wrinkled her nose.
“Don’t sneeze!” whispered Cydric.
“I..I..” Mandi closed her eyes and clamped her hand over her mouth. “Choo!”
Brynna’s head jerked at the sound, but she did not turn.
“Now, tell your men to lay down their weapons and move as far astern as possible. It will only take a few moments for us to maneuver into boarding position,” said Challion.
Brynna glanced up at Kayne. The First Mate twisted slowly in the air, struggling feebly to remove the ring of magic from his neck. Sighing heavily, she ordered the crew to obey Challion’s instructions.
“Who is this Commander person, anyway?” Cydric whispered to Mandi. “He looks like an old, fat knight to me. And if Skoranji is the captain, why is Challion giving the orders?”
“They’re not high up on the list of Brynna’s favorite people,” Mandi replied. “Back in–” She looked up as someone sat down on the barrels.
“It’s the Captain,” said Cydric, recognizing the silver-blue of her tunic.
Mandi tapped Brynna’s slim posterior. The Captain put her hands behind her back and made signs with her fingers.
“She’s going too fast,” said Cydric as he tried to follow the gestures.
” ‘Cydric, shoot the mage,’ ” Mandi translated. ” ‘Use my bow and arrows. Tap twice, understand.’ ”
“She wants me to shoot their sorcerer?” Cydric said, astonished. “I said I wasn’t much good at archery. There’s a good chance I might miss. What if–”
Mandi tapped twice. “He understands, all right.”
Brynna continued signing. ” ‘Wait for my word,’ ” said Mandi. ” ‘Stand up to fire. Get bow now. Be ready.’ ”
“What if I miss?” said Cydric, gripping Mandi’s arm. “He’ll kill Kayne! I don’t know if I can do this.”
“You won’t miss,” Mandi reassured him. She tapped Brynna twice; the Captain rose and strode away.
“I’ll go and get everything,” Mandi said. “Stay here and watch out.” She quietly edged backwards toward the hatchway and carefully made her way down to the lower deck.
Cydric peeped out over the barrels again. The Black Swan had dropped behind the Vanguard Voyager a little, and was now angling in closer. Brynna went over and tried to grab Kayne out of the air, but the mage raised his arms higher, and the First Mate floated up just beyond her reach.
“Kayne will be returned to you, after we have what we came for,” Challion boomed out.
Mandi silently returned with the bow and a quiver of arrows. “Here. Now get ready when Brynna says.”
Cydric nocked an arrow and sighted on the mage. “I’m not sure if I can hit him at this range. Maybe a little closer. How far do you think she’ll let them come?”
Mandi did not reply. Cydric relaxed the bowstring and looked around–the girl was nowhere to be seen.
“Hellblaze!” he muttered.
The Black Swan shipped her oars and drifted on a parallel course with the Voyager. “One more thing, Challion,” Brynna said. “You have to agree to just take the cargo and leave my ship as it is. I’ve heard of how Skoranji’s men like to torch the wrecks they scavenge.”
“Your position is highly unsuitable for bargaining,” Challion replied, “but I will respect that. Let it not be said that I, Commander Artemus Challion, was ever ungracious to a lady.”
“As if a lady would ever have you!” a young voice chimed in.
Cydric groaned inwardly. Mandi stood by the bowsprit, waving her arms. “Yes, you who looks like a pregnant toad. Why don’t you just go home!”
“Who is that?” Challion asked sharply.
“My–former–cabin girl,” Brynna said through clenched teeth.
“Look, milord Scullion, we told you we don’t want you on this ship. So make like the wind and blow!” Mandi said, making an obscene gesture.
“We’re all fish food,” Cydric sighed.
Brynna walked to the foredeck, giving Cydric a clear line of fire. “Amanda Lynn, please come over here. Now.”
“Now?” echoed Mandi. “NOW?”
Cydric drew back on the bowstring and prepared to stand. Just then Mandi screamed. Looking up, he saw Danner standing behind her, holding her arms back.
“Hey, let me go, you pox-ridden gutter rat!” Mandi shouted, struggling.
“Commander Challion! I want to make a bargain. Let me join your crew, and you can have this girl,” Danner called to the other ship.
“What do you think you’re doing, Danner? Release her this instant,” demanded Brynna.
“It appears, Captain Thorne, that one of your crew is dissatisfied with his lot,” Challion said. “Perhaps your reputation for running a fair ship is a trifle exaggerated?”
“Let Mandi go, Danner. Immediately.” Brynna ordered. “Why the freezing hell are you doing this?”
“Sorry, Captain. I’ve told you I want out of my contract. I see this as my chance.”
“Ho, son! Wait until we board. Then we will talk about this, hey?” Challion turned to Skoranji. “Whenever you are ready, Captain.”
“Ayah, Commander,” said Skoranji. He turned to his crew. “Right then, me bloodseekers! Prepare to grapple!”
Cydric tensed, torn between waiting for Brynna’s command to fire on the mage, and trying to save Mandi by firing on Danner instead.
“Don’t try to stop them, Captain Thorne,” Danner warned. “Or I’ll have to get a little rough with Mandi here.”
“Toss lines!” called Skoranji. A moment later, three rope- attached grappling hooks sailed across and anchored themselves around the Voyager’s rail.
“You’re a god-cursed disgrace, Danner,” Brynna said. “I ought to shoot you right now. Do you hear me?” She spun around and shouted in Cydric’s direction, “SHOOT YOU RIGHT NOW!”
Gulping a quick breath of air, Cydric leaped up, drew a bead on the Black Swan’s magic-maker, and let the arrow fly. It sped through the air in a flash of silver, and smacked deep into the sorcerer’s left eye.
The man screamed, clutched at his face with both hands, staggered forward, and pitched over the rail into the river.
Kayne fell to the deck as the green ring vanished from around his neck. “Battle positions!” shouted Brynna. The Voyager crew surged forward, scooping up their weapons and whooping in defiance.
Mandi slammed her heel hard against Danner’s shin. He grunted in pain and loosened his grip, allowing the girl to wrench free.
“Codless traitor!” she said, ramming her knee into his groin. Danner yelped and pushed her away.
Cydric ran over to check on Kayne. Challion cursed as Brynna severed the grappling lines.
“Are you all right, sir?” Cydric asked, helping Kayne to sit up.
“Never did like wizards,” the First Mate replied, rubbing his throat.
Danner staggered to the rail. “Little slut!” he spat. He reached into his boot and pulled out a stiletto. Mandi’s eyes widened; she turned and ran.
Brynna instructed two crewmen to take Kayne below, then ordered the spear detail forward again. She retrieved the torch and re-lit it.
Challion ordered the Swan’s oars back into the water, then directed Skoranji to prepare the ballista for a counterattack.
Cydric was about to report to Brynna when Mandi came rushing over and hugged him tightly.
“Thank the gods you’re safe!” Cydric said, holding her close. “How’d you get away from him?”
Mandi looked up. “Well, let’s just say, he wasn’t codless after all.”
Brynna handed the torch to the first spearman, who lit up his weapon and passed the flame to the next man. After the torch made it down the line and all the spears had been lit, Brynna gave the order to let fly.
Several of the burning spears struck the side of the Black Swan. A few of them landed on the deck, and one managed to hit a sail. The fire spread quickly, forcing Challion to abandon his plans for a retaliatory strike in favor of saving his ship from the flames.
Cydric and Mandi watched the action from the rail. As Skoranji dashed madly about the deck of the Swan calling out orders, a breeze rippled across Cydric’s cheek. At the same time the helmsman cried, “We’ve got the wind back, Captain!” Cydric looked up and saw the ship’s sails billowing proudly once more.
“Get us under way immediately!” called Brynna.
As the Vanguard Voyager slowly pulled away from the enkindled Black Swan, Cydric could see Commander Challion standing motionless at the rail, flames licking at his back. Suddenly he shouted out across the widening gap between the ships.
“I will not forget this, Brynna Thorne! I cannot be defeated so easily–revenge will be mine, in the end!”
Brynna came over and took the bow and arrows from Cydric. “Wrong, Challion. It ends now!” she said. She nocked an arrow and fired. It struck the Commander square in the chest, penetrating his breastplate. Challion gasped and fell back into the fire.
Soon the Vanguard Voyager had left the doomed Black Swan behind and was sailing clear on the river.
“Excellent work, everyone!” Brynna said to the crew, assembled on deck. “When we dock, there’ll be a bonus in your pay. Right now, though, I think a double ration of spice ale is in order. You’ve all earned it!”
The men cheered her, and began filing below into the mess room. “I’ve never had to serve the whole crew at once,” Cydric said to Mandi as they joined the line.
“You won’t have to,” Brynna said, coming over to them. “You helped save the ship. Mandi will fill in for you.”
“Me?” Mandi said, a look of incredulity on her face.
“That’s right. You almost ruined everything with your antics.”
“I was just trying to help,” Mandi protested. “Commander Challion might have figured out what you were planning. I was just helping distract him. And before you say it, I had no idea Danner was there. Oh, and besides, wasn’t I the one who got your message about having Cydric shoot the wizard?”
“You were supposed to be in your cabin,” Brynna reminded her.
“I’m afraid that was my fault,” Cydric admitted.
Brynna sighed. “Well, since everything turned out in our favor anyway, I suppose I can overlook these things. But next time, I expect *all* my orders to be followed. Straight?”
Cydric and Mandi exchanged glances. “Straight!” they said in unison.