“Where?” asked Captain Drusus, Master of the Bluebell, leaning against the ship’s railing and peering into the foam-flecked monotony of the sea in their wake. Blue-green it rolled, and the waves that were never still brought suddenly to mind his boyhood on the Plains, wind stirring the tallgrass, rippling the landscape as far as the eye could see. It had been forty or more years since he’d seen the grasslands, and the jolt of so unexpected a memory brought a frown to his long face. Daydreams of home were counted a bad omen on the open sea.
“There, sir,” said the sailor, a tall fair-haired boy, still with a few years of growing left to do. He pointed an overlong arm to a spot on the horizon. “Three points starboard, sir. A sail.”
“Here’s the glass, sir,” said Lieutenant Illian, jogging up the steps towards the aftcastle with a finely carved, long wooden box cradled against his chest. Drusus reached into its velvet interior and removed the long brass spyglass, the crest of the Imperial Navy glittering proudly on its casing as he raised it to his eye.
“I still don’t – wait,” he said, halting suddenly in his sweep. “Aye, there it is.” The shape was indistinct, a dark wooly patch against the softer sea. He sighed. His eyes weren’t what they used to be, not after a lifetime of sea glare and salt spray, and even with the glass he couldn’t make out much detail. He handed it to the Lieutenant, a man of twenty-five, not yet battered to pieces by a lifetime on the water. “How many sails do you make, Mr. Illian?” He waited as his subordinate located the distant vessel.
“Three sails sir,” he said after a moment. “White, no insignias. And I see no ensign or banner, Captain.”
“What distance do you make it?”
“Two, two and half miles, Captain.” Drusus cleared his throat, and both the sailor and the Lieutenant stiffened at the tic they’d long ago recognized as the sign of their Captain’s intense displeasure. “Perhaps it’s simply a merchantman, on route to the West Isles like us?” he said, grasping for straws. The Captain fixed him with a stare.
“Merchants are many things,” he said, “but stupid is not one of them. It’s four months to the sugar harvest – what profit would he hope to gain idling in port for that long?” They had chosen this route specifically in hopes of not seeing another vessel. He frowned, and turned back to the sea and squinted. He thought he could make out the ship unaided now, though he wasn’t sure.
“Boatswain,” he barked, suddenly, his voice like a sudden clap of thunder out of an untroubled sky. The man he called for, a stocky and heavily muscled veteran of the sea, tossed the rope he was splicing to a sailor and ran, quick as his bowed legs could carry him, across the deck aftward.
“Aye, sir, coming!” he shouted back, hurrying up the stairs. “At your service sir!” he said, snapping to attention.
“Who is posted up top, Mr. Sarl?” asked the Captain.
“Young Martin, sir.”
“Is he well rested, Mr. Sarl?” asked the Captain, his voice low.
“Ah, sir?” asked Sarl, unsure of what the Captain was asking.
“Well,” said the Captain, with a small cough. “I assume he’s been napping away the day up there, since he most certainly is failing in his assigned duty as look-out.” Captain Drusus turned to look at the boatswain, his black eyes cold with fury. “A ship, already well past the horizon, and not even a peep from our young Mr. Martin?” He stalked forward to lean over Sarl’s shorter frame. “I gave very explicit instructions as we left the docks of Barstom, did I not? Vigilant watches to be maintained at all times. All times! We are in dangerous waters, and you know what we carry, Mr. Sarl, and its value! Our passenger must arrive, safe and happy, at Port Pyrym, and she –”
He stopped midsentence, glancing towards the sound of bright clicking heels on the stairs. The very subject referenced in his harangue was stepping daintily onto the aftcastle deck.
She was, as always, impeccably dressed, a feat all the more impressive as she was unattended aboard the ship. Her wide-collared dress was as pink as the tea roses in the Empress of Narjan’s garden, the richly billowing gown accented beautifully by pearl buttons that glowed warmly in the afternoon sun. A shawl of painted silk was draped over her slim shoulders, and a delicate lace cap kept her thick black hair from streaming wildly in the gusts filling the sails of the ship. Her shoes, narrow-toed, high-heeled, and the height of fashion back home, were ill-suited to the rolling of a ship’s deck, and she wobbled precariously while trying to carry the heavy picnic basket she bore.
“Oh, excuse me, Captain Drusus,” she said, her voice a lovely singsong honed to perfection under the long and skillful guidance of many Instructors of Comportment. “I did not realize you were in conference.” She made as poised a curtsey of conciliation as she could manage.
“Ah, Lady Tanith,” said the Captain, smiling broadly. “Is it lunch time already?”
“I thought perhaps a picnic,” she said, motioning towards her basket.
“A lovely idea,” he answered, “although I fear that we may be in for some rougher seas shortly. Perhaps it would be better if we ate in your cabin? Lieutenant, would you help Lady Tanith down the stairs? I’ll be with you momentarily, My Lady.” He swept his feathered hat off in an elegant bow.
As she and the Lieutenant descended the stairs, the Captain straightened, gripping the Boatswain by the shoulder.
“Have Young Martin flogged,” he coughed. “Ten lashes, and put him on half-rations until further notice. And, Mr. Sarl? Find someone reliable to keep an eye on that ship, or you will find yourself facing discipline as well, understood?” The boatswain saluted, and hurried off to see his Captain’s will done.
“You,” he said, pointing at the seaman who had first spotted the ship. “Commendable job; keep it up, and I’ll see you get an officer’s commission when we reach Port Pyrym.”
“Thank you, sir!” squeaked the boy, snapping as sharp as salute as he could muster.
“Now, go below decks and tell the quartermaster I want weapons inspected and ready for distribution at a moment’s notice, understood? Swords sharp, crossbows strung, bolts quivered.”
He spent a few moments watching the horizon, still unsure of whether he could see the ship or not. Then, shaking his head, he retired to the cabin for lunch with his passenger.
As he washed up below, the first of Young Martin’s screams filtered dimly down from above.
The morning brought confirmation: the ship was certainly pursuing them. Through the night, it had slowly but surely closed the distance until barely a mile separated them from the Bluebell. Striding onto the aftcastle again, Captain Drusus grunted as he got his first good look at her.
She was a carrack, like the Bluebell, though smaller and sleeker. It was, or had been, a merchant vessel, evidenced by the absence of the fore- and aftcastles like those that stood proudly on either end of the Bluebell. It had three tall masts, like the Bluebell, with all their sails flying. Its lighter weight meant greater speed – by the end of the day they would almost certainly draw abreast of Drusus’s ship.
“Signals?” grumbled Drusus, leaning against the railing, staring hard at the ship.
“No response, sir,” said Lieutenant Illian. “We tried several times once the sun came up. Asked if they needed assistance, told them to hold off. Of course they can see our banner, and know we’re a Navy ship. But nothing at all.”
“And no flag,” the Captain said, shaking his head. “Pirates, I’ll bet my sword.”
“Stupid ones,” said Illian. “What do they hope to do against us?”
“Savagery and numbers count for a lot, Mr. Illian,” said the Captain, gravely. “Don’t underestimate them. They may be a rabble, but they’re desperate killers for whom defeat promises only death, and they know it. If they decide to try for us, they’ll fight to the last man.” He raised himself up. “Still, we don’t have to make it easy for them, do we?” Drusus turned and walked to the edge of the aftcastle overlooking the deck. “Sailing Master!” he shouted, and a man poked his head out from under the sheltered wheelhouse below his feet.
“Sir!” saluted the man.
“Let’s see how well those rats handle a ship! Full sails! Jibe south ten degrees, and mark the course!” He shouted, and soon the orders were being echoed down the deck and up into the rigging where the ratings swarmed, tying lines and fixing cords. The yardarms swung and the ship rolled first starboard, then to port, as the Bluebell zig-zagged through the wind, gaining speed and turning south.
“We’ll head out of the trading lanes,” said the Captain, returning to stand with the Lieutenant at the far end of the ship, looking towards their pursuers. “It’s possible they’ll abandon pursuit if they see we plan to make a chase of it.”
But the other ship was game. Soon they began to jibe with the wind too, slipping left and right, sailing on a broad reach like the Bluebell. It didn’t take them long to get underway either, reacting to the change in course of their prey with admirable speed and decisiveness.
“An expert hand at the helm,” muttered the Captain, “and with a skilled crew.”
Hours passed, both ships holding steady southward, the distance between them shrinking slowly but surely as the faster ship came ever onward. The crew was kept busy high in the rigging, subtle adjustments of angle that were shouted up at them, canting the sails to catch as much of the northerly wind as they could, pushing south. And behind them, on the smaller craft, the same dangerous work went on, visible now in the spyglass. The Captain watched as tiny figures scrambled up into their own rigging, the blank sails never slackening. A mere half-a-mile of open water was all that separated them now.
At eleven, Lady Tanith came on deck, her powder blue frock and bright yellow cloak a sunny counterpoint to the grim countenanced men who sweated and strained and waited. She hadn’t seen the crew of the ship this busy since they left port three weeks ago, and for a moment she wondered if she was nearing the end of her journey.
“Good morning, Captain,” she said, joining him at the aftcastle again. “Everyone is so hard at work! Are we nearing Port Pyrym, perhaps?” She tried to sound cheerful, though the quiet nagging doubt about the life waiting for her there crept into her voice.
“Lady Tanith,” said the Captain with a bow. “I am afraid that we have picked up a shadow,” he gestured across the water towards the far ship.
“Oh!” she squeaked. “Are we in danger, Captain?”
“My Lady,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “I have been entrusted by your father, a great man, with the enviable task of seeing you safely delivered to your new husband, the Governor of Port Pyrym. I assure you, there is no danger. However,” he said, drawing close and taking her hand. “There may some unpleasantness ahead. But rest assured that my crew and I stand between you and any trouble while aboard the Bluebell.”
“Who are they, Captain?” she asked, a chill growing in her stomach.
“I believe them to be Pirates, My Lady,” he said, releasing her hand and turning back to the sea. “It may be best, for the time being, that you confine yourself to your cabin.”
Pirates! For a daughter of the rich coastal city of Barstom the word came armed with very sharp claws, and she felt them closing around her heart as she stammered a sincere “good luck” and, sparing as much dignity as she could, hurried back below decks.
Unfortunately, the Captain had kindly given her his spacious cabin for her own during the voyage, a richly appointed room with a magnificent couch, shelves full of books, a surprisingly comfortable bed, and a vast bank of windows facing stern, all polished leadglass that gave her a panoramic view of the sea behind the ship. This vista, which she had previously found starkly beautiful, now presented a horrific aspect: the pirate ship, sails full as it sliced through the sea towards her, coursed after the Bluebell like a hunting wolf.
Pressing her face to the glass, she felt suddenly very alone, and very afraid.
“Look, sir!” said the Lieutenant, pointing. “They’re moving off!” His voice broke with relief. They had been running south all day, sinuously weaving left and right in the wind, the pirate ship mimicking their course and drawing inexorably closer. Around three in the afternoon, they had come abreast of the Bluebell and were now running alongsides, no more than 500 yards away. The tension of it, the enemy in sight but out of reach, waiting for them to make a move, had grown all afternoon, maddening as an itch you couldn’t reach. But now, as the Bluebell jibed starboard, the pirate ship slid to port, and for the first time the distance between them grew. “We out lasted them, Captain!” smiled the Illian.
“You’ve still got a lot to learn, Lieutenant,” snarled the Captain, running to the stairs overlooking the deck. “Ring the bell!” Drusus bellowed. “Distribute the weapons, and light the biers! We’ll burn ‘em to the waterline with fire arrows! No, don’t bother with the aftcastle, everyone to the bow and starboard! That’s where it’ll come!” He turned back and grimly scowled across the sea. “There’s a hell of a sailor helming that ship! They’ve been waiting for this just moment.” Seeing the uncomprehending look on his subordinate’s face, Drusus sighed and pointed at the far ship. “Look how wide they’re swinging to port. They’ll bend their backs now, boy, and in a few minutes they’ll come hard to starboard. They’ve been building speed all day, damn them, and now they’re going to try and use it! They’re aiming to cross in front of us. We’ll be jibbing to port when they come on – we have to, or we’ll lose speed ourselves and be done for. Watch ‘em! There they go!”
As he finished the lesson, the pirate ship indeed turned starboard, travelling at as sharp an angle as a vessel of its size could, bending into the wind and tilting towards the sea.
“Baal take ‘em!” cursed the Captain. “A hell of a sailor! Nerves of steel to try it! Too soon or too late and they’d miss us by a mile and end up calmed against the wind.”
“Who are they?” whispered the Lieutenant.
“We’ll know in a minute,” said the Captain. “They’ll run their colors up now that they’re on the attack.” The wind whipped through them as they waited. Five hundred yards away, they saw the deck of the enemy ship swarming with activity, dark shapes clambering up the rigging, bows and quivers on their backs. Others of the pirates were busy on deck, lowering buckets over the side and hauling back up, splashing sea water over the wooden deck in case of fire. Squinting, the Captain scanned the enemy’s ranks. They were a motley lot, as most pirate crews were, rogues from all over the world, well-armed and gaudy with jewelry and plunder. His eyes watered, most everything was indistinct, but then he saw a huge figure, a full head taller than the other pirates stride out onto deck, wrapped in scarlet.
“That red giant must be their leader,” he said. “By the gods, he’s big, I wonder – ” He stopped. The red figure had waved their hand, and a pirate in the crow’s nest unfurled their banner: a yellow skull on a red field, grinning evilly.
“Baal save us,” muttered the Lieutenant. The Captain felt the blood drain from his face.
“Barca,” he said, spitting the feared name of their now revealed foe. He heard the murmur of the crew, sensed their fear. No devil out of antiquity, no fiend from the Deep, would have shaken them so. But to be found by Barca, here, in all the wide oceans of the world? Drusus shook his head. “Let’s get our swords, Lieutenant,” he said. “We’ll have need of them, before the day is done.”
Tanith heard feet pounding the deck overhead, the short sharp bark of orders and the ringing response of sailors as they armed themselves. Each succession in the events of the pursuit had been the worst for her. First, the grim specter of the ship behind them had seemed intolerable, sending her pacing the cabin, wringing her dress in her hands; but then when it had vanished from her sight as it drew parallel with the Bluebell, she’d felt a sharper terror than she’d imagined possible, as if she were suddenly blind and could only wait for a blow she knew must come in the dark. But now, the sound of preparations for battle that echoed in her ears had shown her how naïve she’d been. The terror, like a storm cloud, had finally broken.
She almost fainted at the firm but gentle knock on her door, and could barely croak out a greeting. The door opened and Captain Drusus entered, bobbing his head in curt greeting.
“It’s about to begin, My Lady. I need my sword.” He crossed the cabin and swung open the ornate cupboard. Inside, he passed over the gilt rapier he wore for official functions, selecting instead a utilitarian saber, simple sharp steel in a plain leather scabbard. He strapped this to his side and then brought out a matching long dagger, examining its blade and checking its balance. He turned to Tanith and looked her over.
“My Lady,” he said, somewhat embarrassed. He opened his mouth, then closed it, then weighed the dagger in his hand. A shiver ran up Lady Tanith’s back; she realized what he was struggling to say. She felt suddenly sick, and wasn’t sure she would be able to remain standing much longer, but years of etiquette and training in the genteel arts rose up inside her, and she found her poise, however briefly.
“Captain Drusus,” she said, holding her head high. Her lips trembled, and she felt like crying, but didn’t. “I thank you for this gift, one that may prove to be the kindest and greatest I have ever received.” He swallowed, nodded, and handed her the cruel dagger. Then, without a word, he turned. She heard his steps receding up the stairs.
Tanith ran to the door and locked it, leaning against the sturdy wood, holding the sheathed dagger tight against her chest. It was cold and heavy.
The Pirate ship cut through the waves ahead of the Bluebell, four hundred yards in front of her, close enough for the blood curdling yell of the pirates to reach across the water and freeze the hearts of Drusus’s men. The late afternoon sun blazed redly on the edge of the pirate’s weapons, notched-swords and heavy axes and long-bladed spears, a premonition of the blood that would soon stain them. Some of the men in the forecastle lost their nerve and fired their crossbows, but the ship was just out of range, the fiery bolts hissing into the water a few dozen yards short, eliciting only laughter from the pirates.
The enemy ship tacked sharply into the wind, coming around, and the four hundred yards quickly became three hundred, then two hundred. The Pirate ship was now racing in the opposite direction of the Bluebell. Another minute and the two ships would pass each other completely. A hundred yards now separated them. The Captain raised his hand, preparing to give the order to fire, when there was a yell from the pirates.
Swiftly dropping to the deck, the pirates made an opening for the terrible weapon suddenly revealed. It was a ballista, mounted on a mobile turret between the masts, and as Drusus stared there was a rending crack as the weapon launched a yards-long steel-tipped bolt towards the Bluebell’s side, a heavy length of chain rattling out behind it as it flew through the air.
It struck the ship’s side, which shivered under the impact. The two ships were now attached to one another by a thick chain, two hundred feet apart.
“Fire!” screamed the Captain, and the crossbows thudded out, fiery bolts streaking into the pirate ship. Some crashed into the heavy oak sides of the craft, others arced down onto deck, pinning men to the planks. Those on deck couldn’t get up yet – the chain that connected the two ship was still sliding along the railing as the two boats continued to move, as deadly as any sword or arrow as it hummed under tension. But above in the rigging the pirate archers stroked their short bows like harps, and arrows flicked down among the defenders. Men screamed, red-fletched shafts piercing necks and bellies, and they pitched dying into the sea or fell writhing to the deck.
The chain held as the ships pulled at each other, listing inward, masts tilting like lances in a joust. Their movement slowed as they began to rotate, the momentum of each ship dragging the other to a standstill. Then, horribly, slowly, inexorably, the ships began to move together. From the forecastle, Captain Drusus saw six brawny pirates cranking hard at a pulley behind the ballista, their muscles bulging and their backs straining as they reeled in the chain.
He grabbed the Lieutenant and yelled into his ear. “Take men, get below, and knock that ballista bolt out of my ship! If we get free, we’ll have a chance to escape!” The man nodded and ran, gathering sailors as he went.
Arrows flew and men died. Ducking behind the line of his own crossbow men, the Captain raced up and down the ranks, shouting encouragement, directing some to fire upwards at the pirates in the rigging, ordering others to keep peppering the enemy’s deck with flame. Smoke curled from the Pirate ship from several points. If they could keep it up, the ship would soon be burning merrily.
But the ballista bolt remained gouged deep in his ship’s side, and the pirates working the pulley kept up a blistering rhythm. The ships were now fifty feet apart. With both ships at a standstill, the pirates crouching on the deck leapt up, locking the deadly sliding chain in place with heavy iron belaying pins. Arrows from the pirate ship began to fly more thickly, and at close range the crossbow’s superior power was quickly surpassed by the speed of the pirates’ short bows. His sailors began to die, not by ones or twos as they had been, but half-a-dozen at a time, whole ranks falling under a withering barrage of arrows, ten or twelve shafts feathering each body.
More grappling chains were flung across from the pirate ship, fierce hands and strong backs hauling hard at them, and the time for ranged combat grew short. They were now twenty feet apart and, as arrows rained down and smoke from the burning pirate ship choked sailor and pirate alike, heavy boarding planks were slung across the narrow watery canyon separating the two ships.
“Pikes! Damn it, pikes at the ready! Prepare to repel boarders!” shouted Drusus, coughing into his sleeve. There was a final blast of missiles from both sides at point blank range, then a roar erupted as the pirates prepared to charge the Bluebell.
Dimly through the smoke, Drusus saw a tall figure, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, suddenly rise, towering over the other pirates. With a below like an enraged bull, this figure leapt onto the plank and charged, swinging a huge two-handed axe over their head. The pikemen braced for impact, glittering spears at the ready. But, just when it seemed the giant warrior was going to be skewered on the broad blade of a pike, they hurled the axe. A deadly whirling arc of steel hummed through the smoke and sank into the body of the foremost pikeman, splitting his chest and sending him flying backwards, blood spraying from his ruined form.
His pike fell from nerveless hands, leaving a narrow opening right down the middle of the hedge of pikes. Steel rang as the figure on the boarding plank drew two heavy cutlesses from twin scabbards strapped to their broad back. Slashing left and right they beat the pikes aside, darting under the upward angled thrusts of others, and then they were in among the shafts, too close for the spearheads to be brought to bear. The pikeman scrambled back from the railing, but they were a fraction too slow. The huge figure, laughing gustily, stepped onto the railing and leapt, bounding over the heads of the pikeman and landing behind the defenders on the deck of the Bluebell.
She was tall, well over six-feet, and with the broad shoulders and iron muscles that could only come from a life time of hard labor aboard a ship. And now, the strength in those arms dealt terrible slashing blows left and right with the two cutlasses, death raining down on any who foolishly strayed into their reach. Blood splashed and sprayed, staining her dark skin as red as the gaudy silk breeches and scarlet tunic she wore.
“Barca!” shouted Drusus. Hearing her name, she paused in her death-dealing to glance in his direction. Recognition bloomed on her face, and her already grim smile grew brighter and fiercer.
“Hell’s Black Reef!” she laughed, hacking through the neck of the sailor in front of her. “After all these years! Drusus!” she spat and charged. The saber hissed from his scabbard, and Captain Drusus, master of the Bluebell, rushed to meet her.
The pirates had watched the successful onslaught of their Captain break the ranks of pikemen, and before any more could rush to fill the gap, they swarmed across in her wake, hacking and slashing. The defenders at the railing were pushed back, dropping their pikes and drawing their swords, and then the pirates poured across the other boarding blanks. Soon, the sounds of butchery filled the air, hacking steel, shattering bones, screams of fury and terror and death. The deck was soon slippery with blood.
The surge of battle ebbed and flowed across the deck of the Bluebell, pirate and sailor facing each other in howling individual combat. Barca parried a wild slash from her left, chopping down onto a sailor at her right who had been poised to skewer a wounded pirate at his feet. Across the deck she saw Drusus expertly touch the throat of a wild charging pirate, a gout of blood pouring from the man’s neck as he fell dead. His sabre danced as he killed, her cutlasses sang as she slayed and finally, both covered in blood that was not their own, they reached one another. His face was tense as he looked up at her, while she grinned hugely down at him. In both their eyes burned only hate.
Soundlessly they joined battle, his sabre seeking her heart in a blur of slashing steel. Laughing, she brought her two cutlasses to play, knocking his strike aside easily and sending her other blade whistling towards his skull. Only his expertise saved him, and then just barely – steeping lightly back, he abandoned his attack and brought his sabre up, catching her descending sword hard near the hilt. He cursed as he felt the crushing power she had put into the strike. Disengaging, he leapt to the side, darting right. If it came to a test of strength, Barca would simply batter him into the ground. He had to keep moving.
But for all her size she was also the faster of the two. He had barely gotten his footing when she was on top of him, slashing at his belly. He parried, prepared to attack, but was forced to suddenly twist his body to defend himself against the second blade that licked like a hungry flame at his throat. He shuffled back, his arms buzzing from the furious strength of her attack. She was relentless; he aimed a slash at her arm, but again was forced to surrender the initiative and defend himself, her cutlasses flashing as she swept towards him.
He was now fighting purely defensively, his sword high and close, legs bent, feet couched, his body turned to present her with less of a target. Steel rang as they clashed, and it was only his long years of experience that had kept him alive so far. They ranged across the deck, Drusus giving ground and Barca taking it, always on the offensive. They fought silently, grimly, the breath hissing between their teeth. Where they went, the terrible bloody tangle that roiled across the deck parted for them, sailor and pirate alike stepping aside to watch the combat.
With slow dawning horror, Drusus realized he was losing. Against any other opponent, his plan to ride out her assault like a hurricane would have worked; her fury spent, her arms would weaken, her resolve falter, and then he could step in and end it. But Barca was steel and fury, elemental, and she was not tiring. Her blows had grown neither weaker nor less frequent. Her footing was sure, her attacks confident. Glancing up from the glittering clash of blades, Drusus met her eyes, and in their black depths he recognized a growing light of triumph. She had not been attacking wildly with uncontrolled fury. She had known his strategy all along, but was confident in her own strength and unbelievable vitality to overcome it.
With a snarl, Drusus grasped at his last chance for victory. Raking aside one of her cutlasses and simply ignoring the other, he dove in, slashing for her stomach. He braced himself to feel the bite of steel on his exposed side. A wound, even the loss of an arm, would be worth it, he thought, to stretch this monster’s hide across his ship’s bowsprit.
But rather than taking the opening he’d left her, she moved in and, with a sudden change in style, wielded her heavy cutlass with the finesse of a rapier, whipping it in a circle around and beneath his lunging sabre. With a flick of the wrist, she brought the dull back of her cutlass up against his sword, knocking it aside with contemptuous ease.
Her cutlass rose and fell like a butcher’s cleaver, chopping through Drusus’s shoulder and deep into his chest. With a groan, he slumped to the deck and died.
Shaking her head like a lion, she scattered the sweat and blood that covered her, and turned to face the remains of the two crews struggling and killing on the deck of the ship.
“Drusus is dead!” she shouted, her voice booming out over the din of combat. “You get one chance now! Surrender and live, or fight and die!” Quiet ebbed over the ship, broken only by the sound of panting breath and the moans of the dying and wounded. “Well?” she shouted, shaking her two cutlasses.
“What good is the word of a pirate!” screamed a sailor near her, dashing in with his sword raised. She swept his head off in a clean stroke, then turned to face the rest.
“The word of a pirate is all you’ve got!” she roared. “What’ll it be?”
The clatter of steel dropping to the deck from weary hands was all the answer she needed.
Of her original crew of one hundred and twenty, only a little over forty remained. These, through long practice, had quickly divided into several groups to oversee the take-over of their new ship. Some gathered the weapons scattered around the deck, while others guarded the sullen prisoners who huddled in front on the foredeck, waiting to learn what their fate would be. Of more pressing concern, however, was the rapidly burning pirate ship still chained to the Bluebell. Smoke poured from the deck, and flames danced in the hatches. There were at least a dozen separate fires, with more starting as they watched.
“Come on, then,” shouted Barca, hacking into the wood around one of the grappling hooks that bit deeply into the ship’s railing. “The Hawk’s a goner for sure – and if we don’t want to join her, we have to get these lines free!” Soon a dozen pirates were chopping at the rails, filling the bloody deck with the sounds of a woodshop.
“We’re still hooked to the ballista,” she said, watching a second chain slip from the side and into the sea. “Ygo,” she pointed at the pirate next to her. “Take some of the boys below and knock that bolt out, will you?” Ygo, a tall thin pirate, flashed his gold teeth and, gathering help as he went, ran below decks.
“We gonna make it?” asked Erlam, a wide-set rogue with an eye patch, as he hacked the ship free of the last of the hooks on deck.
“It’ll take her a while to burn,” said Barca. “What I’m worried about is the sails. If one of them catches it’ll blow ash and sparks everywhere, could spread to our new tub. But,” she looked over the side of the ship, saw the long yew bolt shivering. “Looks like Ygo and the boys are about to get her loose.” The splintered wood around the shaft was burst by a number of sturdy axe blows, and then the rest of the ballista bolt was pushed out to splash down into the sea. Ygo’s head poked out of the hole and he waved up at Barca. The pirates’ ship began drifting slowly off, smoke billowing thickly as it went. Without a second look, Barca turned to other tasks.
The discarded and lost weapons were piled by the pirates aft, many choosing to exchange their own notched and rusted cutlasses for Imperial Naval sabers. Meanwhile, Barca strode over to the prisoners and stood, arms crossed, scanning the crowd. Few were willing to meet her gaze; most kept their heads down. All save one.
“You there,” she said, grinning at the sturdy man looking her in the eye and frowning. “You must be what’s left of the leadership here. What’s your name?”
“Sarl,” said the man, scowling. “I was the boatswain of the Bluebell.”
“The Bluebell?” said Barca, shaking her head. “Gods, that’s a stupid name for a boat. Sounds more like a cow than a ship of the line! Anyway, listen up, former boatswain Sarl. I want you to get your men organized into a clean-up detail. All this,” she waved at the bodies and blood and still-steaming gore that had turned the deck into a ghastly abattoir, “needs to get taken care of. Bodies over the side, and the boards scrubbed down. Understand?”
“What about our injured?” he asked, balling his fists.
“Aye,” she nodded. “We’ll see to them, and ours, shortly. Get our sawbones on it, once we secure the ship. Speakin’ of which,” she turned. “Erlam! You want to go do a sweep of the cabins and quarters?”
She watched as the prisoners got to work, hauling comrade and pirate alike to the port side and tossing them over into the sea. A red slick spread from the bodies as they bobbed alongside the ship, and it wasn’t long before fins began cutting the waves. Leaning her tall frame against the railing, Barca watched the sea roiling with the frenzy of the sharks. As Sarl drew near, hauling a bucket and mops, she called him over.
“Tell me, boatswain,” she said, thumbs in the red sash that fluttered around her waist. “Where were you going this time of year?” Sarl, wiping his blood smeared hands on his trousers, looked up at the pirate woman. He chose his words carefully.
“Port Pyrym bound, we were.”
“Strange time of year to be heading out to the West Isles,” she smiled, her teeth white as the sharks’ that flashed in the sea below. “In between tankards, the usual drunks were chattering about how they were outfitting a ship, one crewed by you Navy boys. Seemed worth pursuing. Figured it must be something important for the Old Man in Barstom to send a ship out this time of year, eh?” She winked at the man, who scowled. He was about to open his mouth when there was a shout from the stairs leading below. They turned and saw the eye-patched Erlam stumping towards them. He had a bloody gash on his check, ugly but not serious, and it hadn’t been there when he went below. More surprising was the beautiful woman he dragged along behind him, gripping her arm tightly and scowling. She wore a white and cloth-of-gold gown, and her hair was coiffed and pinned beneath a lace and pearl cap. The look of defiance on her upturned face wavered a bit as she saw the signs of slaughter still left on the gory deck.
“Found this girl in the Captain’s quarters, Barca,” said Erlam, pushing the young girl forward to stand, awed, in the shadow of the tall woman.
She was unlike anyone, especially any woman, that Tanith had ever seen. Towering over Tanith’s own scant five feet, the tall pirate woman’s brown body rippled with muscles, the promise of easy power evident in every movement she made. Her shortcut mane of black hair flew free, unrestrained by the usual bonnet found on the heads of respectable women back home. And she wore breeches! And tall sea boots! She grinned down at the small woman, and Tanith felt the blood rise in her face.
“She do that to your face, Erlam?” boomed the woman.
“Aye,” said the man, ruefully rubbing the wound. He handed a long dagger in its sheath to Barca. “We busted in the door to the cabin, and I saw her standing by the window, with that knife in hand.” He looked a little embarrassed and kicked his feet.
“Erlam tried to be a hero,” giggled another pirate, behind him.
“I thought she was going to kill herself!” he said, wheeling on the man. He looked up at Barca and held his arms out wide. “It looked like she was, you know, getting worked up to try and stab herself in the guts. So I ran up to stop her.” He scowled at the girl. “And then she slashed me.” Barca howled with laughter.
“Ah, me,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “I told you, you’ve been reading too many of them heroic romances!” She shoved the dagger into her sash and leaned down towards the girl, placing a scarred hand under Tanith’s chin and lifting her face into view. “Now, then, let’s see this feisty –” she stopped, and her eyes grew wide. Standing suddenly, she laughed again, and put her hands on her hips.
“Dagon’s Beard!” she swore. “This ain’t just a bedwarmer for the Captain. You’re Lady Tanith, third daughter of the Lord of Barstom! I saw you during the Fire Festival last year. What are you doing out here in the middle of all this?”
“Take your hands off me, murderer,” said Tanith, jerking her chin free of Barca’s hand, glaring.
“Bit harsh, Miss,” chided Erlam, behind her. “Barca here’s never killed no one that ain’t had a chance to defend themselves.”
“Mostly,” said Barca, with a shrug. She looked over her shoulder at Sarl, who was frowning sourly at the scene before him. “So this was why Drusus left Barstom off season? Special passage for a noble lady, huh. And what waits you in Port Pyrym?” She asked, turning back to the slim, slightly trembling girl in front of her.
“My business is my own, and you have no right to detain me!” she said coldly. “What have you done with Captain Drusus?” she asked, looking around. “I demand you take me to him, immediately.”
“Ah, well now,” said Barca, scanning the deck. “Where’d I leave him? Oh, there he is, that heap of carrion over there, in the nice coat.” She pointed.
“Oh!” cried Tanith, eyes wide in horror. “How could you do that to him! He was such a kind, gentle man!” She sobbed into her hands.
“Kind and gentle? Old Drusus the Butcher?” Barca chuckled darkly. “Let me tell you, he’s poured just as much blood into the sea as I have, my dear. Why, he skinned alive every member of my crew a few years back. Slapped me in a cage and made me watch, then sent me to die in the silver mines on Caparallion. I just thank Dagon I finally got a chance to pay him back!” The young girl shook her head, staring up at the tall pirate.
“That’s not possible,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Oh, life on the sea is a grim one, Miss,” said Barca, looking quizzically at the girl. “Why the approach to the docks at Port Pyrym would give you some real nightmares! A mile of cages, stretching out into the bay, each one occupied by a Pirate! And the –” Tanith was spared further description by a commotion coming again from the stairs leading below.
Ygo and his squad had returned. They were all wet, and even Ygo’s gold teeth were hidden behind a worried frown. Behind him, prodded by the angry swords of another pirate, was Lieutenant Illian, battered and soaked through.
“Trouble Barca,” said Ygo, simply. He pushed the young officer forward. “Found him and a few navy boys down in the hold, knocking holes in the hull. They’ve done a right number on the ship – there’s water coming in from at least four places, maybe more. We won’t last long.”
Everyone, even his former crewman Sarl, gazed in horror at the Lieutenant, who scowled stubbornly up at Barca. She looked him over once, then ran him through with her cutlass. He cried out and died with a curse on his lips. Spurning him with her boot, she kicked him off her blade, over the railing, and into the sea below. She turned to see fear already rippling through the crew and prisoners.
“All right!” she roared, silencing the building panic. “You heard what that rat of an officer did! It’s bad, but we ain’t sunk yet! Here’s what we do: First, we have to lighten the ship, so toss everything nonessential overboard. Food and water and nothing else aboard. We’ll work the pumps, night and day, and set up a bucket chain if we have to. We’ll stay afloat long enough to find a safe cove where we can anchor for repairs!”
“A safe cove?” said Sarl. “We’re four weeks from the West Isles, we’ll never make it.”
“We’re not heading west, not now,” said Barca, shaking her head. “We’ll keep this heading. South, to the Hydra’s Necklace.”
“The Hydra’s Necklace!” said Sarl, fear clouding his eyes. “No one goes there, not on purpose! Ships vanish in the Necklace all the time. That’s a haunted sea!”
“I’ll take ghosts over drowning any day,” Barca said. “How about it, comrades? Do we head south?” As one, the pirates all shouted an affirmation. Barca nodded, and then faced Sarl. “You’re not part of the crew,” she said, “but we’ll all need to work together if we’re going to make it. How about it?” Sarl looked over his shoulder at the blank faces of the survivors of the Bluebell.
“All right,” he said, finally. “We’re with you.”
Barca swung into action immediately. “Erlam! Get us on course, heading south; when the stars come out, make straight for the Centipede as it rises. That should put us in the middle of the Necklace. Sarl,” she turned to the boatswain. “You and your ten best men work for Erlam now. It’s your necks too, now, so follow his every order.” She scanned the pirates, found a lean, wicked looking woman with a huge, two-handed tulwar strapped to her back. “Vyrik!” she said, and the woman came running. “You take the rest of the sailors and half the crew and start emptying the hold. Birim! Use the Captain’s cabin as an infirmary, get the wounded out of the way. Here,” she pushed Tanith towards a bald, heavily scarred pirate. “Take the Lady Tanith with you; she’s your new assistant. Everyone else, come below! Okay, Ygo, lead on; let’s get those pumps going.”
Tanith was surprised to find how much hard, physical work helped calm the nerves that jangled in the pit of her stomach. The death and violence of the afternoon seemed distant somehow, a bad memory that, though it still had the power to make her shudder, wasn’t as real or threatening as it had been. The immediacy of death by drowning they all now faced gave everyone a shared purpose, and she was less lonely than she had been during the previous days aboard, when she’d felt like an orchid under glass, delicate and sequestered away from everyone else.
Still, the labor was hard. Birim, the nearest thing to a doctor among the crew, made her sweat. First they had to clear away much of the ornate furniture that cluttered the Captain’s rooms, keeping only the bed and the dining table to operate on. Tanith flung open the huge window and tossed chairs, books, side-tables and, with the help of Birim, strained and struggled and finally got the heavy shelves out of the widow and into the drink. She saw sharks circling, disappointed to find that all the noise was just for furniture and not more bodies. She turned and saw Birim struggling to walk her enormous travelling trunk over to the window.
“Wait!” she said, opening the chest. Inside were her dresses, forty of the loveliest gowns ever made by Barstom’s most exclusive tailors. Birim laughed.
“Boat sinking, and you’re worried about your fancy dresses? You making sure you look pretty for the King of the Deep or what?” he asked.
“No,” she said, tearing a strip of silk from what she had been planning to wear at her wedding. “These’ll make good bandages.”
With the room cleared, she and Birim spent the next hour hauling in the wounded. Some limped along on their own, others needed a shoulder to lean against as they made their way to the makeshift hospital. A few they had to bring in on an improvised stretcher they made using a bit of tarp stretched between two pike shafts. The moans of the wounded soon drowned out the creaking of the boat, and the smell of blood mingled with the salt air coming in through the open windows.
It was long and bloody work. Tanith mostly cleaned wounds. Birim was a wiser doctor than she’d realized at first – he’d spent time far in the east where medicine was still a science, and taught her to dip the rags in a shallow pan of the Captain’s finest rum to avoid infection. She swabbed sabre cuts and stab wounds, getting them ready for Birim’s needle or, in a few cases, a savage toothed blade he used for amputations, leaning his knees against the patient’s chest to hold them down while he sawed away. Tanith was proud of herself – she was only sick twice, and each time she made it to an open window.
Dawn pinked the sky when they finally finished, every patient stitched and bandaged and healing to the best of their abilities. There were a dozen wounded people spread through the room, the worst of them resting fitfully in the big, downy bed that Tanith herself had spent so many fitful nights in. Bleary eyed and yawning, she sent a bucket down a rope out the window, hauling up seawater, watching her blood-stained and now unfamiliar hands working. Everything had a slight unreality to it now, and she couldn’t tell whether she wanted to laugh or cry.
Barca, salty with both sweat and seawater, ducked her head under the door and stepped into the infirmary. She had spent the whole night working a handpump down in the hold, forcing sea water through a leather hose out of the rapidly swamping ship. She glanced around at the sleeping wounded, and nodded as Birim came over.
“As well as we could,” he said, wiping his hands. He took a swig of rum, and handed her the bottle. He was red to the elbows, and had more blood on him now than he’d gotten during the fight. “One of the sailors just died, and there’re three more who won’t make it to evening. Of ours, I doubt Lhim will see another dawn. Other than that, everyone else should pull through. How’s the ship?” She took a long pull from the bottle.
“That boy Lieutenant knew his business. Even with the pumps, we wouldn’t last out the week. If there’s no weather, we’ll be fine, but a storm’ll put us under. We’ll need a good cove when we hit the Necklace.” She looked towards Tanith, nodding at the window. “How’d her Ladyship handle it?”
“She did good,” he answered. “Surprisingly practical for a gentlewoman, and tougher than she looks.”
“I was just trying to get her out from underfoot,” said Barca, surprised. “Glad she wasn’t a bother, then.”
“You can get her out of here now, though,” said Birim, reaching for another bottle of rum. “She’s dead on her feet, and I’m planning on getting drunk and passing out, so I don’t want any more patients.”
Barca laughed and picked her way carefully around the wounded, clapping Tanith heartily on the back, her heavy hand making the small woman wince. It was like getting hit with a club.
“Come on, Assistant Doctor,” she said, leaning low to smile broadly into Tanith’s face. “Let’s get out of here before someone mistakes you for a corpse and chucks you overboard.” She laughed gustily and led her out the door, up the stairs, and onto deck.
Tanith, too tired to complain, simply followed the huge woman striding ahead of her as she made a final round of checks. Erlam lay snoring in a corner of the pilot house, a second pirate leaning lazily on the wheel. The sailors had made the sails fast, and had worked out a system where five napped, stretched out on the deck, while five others stayed aloft in the rigging. A handful of pirates, finished with dumping the last of the heavy cargo of West Isle-bound raw iron and manufactured goods overboard, were snoring in piles across the deck. A night of furious activity had given way to a dawn of weary collapse.
“Well,” Barca finally said. “We’ve done all we can for now,” she stared at the horizon. Even her iron body was showing signs of exhaustion, Tanith thought, sleepily. Her eyes were red-rimmed, the veins stood out on her arms, and she leaned heavily against the railing. Had she been working the pumps all night? It hardly seemed possible, she thought, but then again, who knew what kind of strength this mad woman had.
“Is there anything to eat?” asked Tanith, suddenly hungry. Barca lead her to the aftcastle, quiet and deserted. A cool morning breeze blew steadily out of the north, pushing them southward.
“Stay here, I’ll bring us something,” Barca said.
The next thing Tanith remembered was Barca kicking her feet. She’d dozed off, leaning against the aftcastle wall. Barca had two bowls in her hand, a bottle tucked in her belt, and several blankets under her arm. She handed the bowls to an apologetic Tanith, then tossed the blankets down and sat across from Tanith.
“I’ll stay downwind of you,” she grinned. “Sweating all night in stinking sea water in the hold has taken its toll, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sure I’m no better,” said Tanith. She looked down into the bowls. One had a thick cold gruel, the other a sliced dried apple.
“They’re both yours,” said Barca, seeing her confusion. “I ate earlier.” She withdrew the bottle from her sash and drank deeply, sighing as the rum warmed her blood.
“Are we going to make these mysterious islands you were talking about?” asked Tanith, scooping gruel onto a slice of apple and taking a bite. She’d never eaten with her fingers like that, but then again until last night she’d never bandaged a sword wound before. The gruel was bland and a little salty, but the dried apple was sweet and chewy, and she began to eat in earnest.
“I think so,” said Barca. “We’re on course, and we’ll keep pumping until we do.”
“Are they really haunted?” asked Tanith around a mouthful. Barca shrugged.
“There’s something uncanny about them, alright,” nodded the Pirate. “Strange stories, weird legends. Ghost ships crewed by the dead, weird lights flashing on the islands at night. Sailor talk, mostly. Though, I did once see a sea serpent there, far off, bigger than any ship ever made, coils that just kept going, all scaly like. Regardless, it’ll be better than drowning out in the middle of nowhere.” She took another drink from the bottle, then offered it to Tanith. The girl hesitated, and then with a shrug took it, sipping a little of the fiery rum. What would her father have said, she thought suddenly, eating with her hands, drinking liquor? She giggled.
“We’ll make a sailor out of you yet, Tanith,” said Barca.
“They wouldn’t believe it, back home,” she said, taking a second sip, and then handing the bottle back to Barca.
“What was waiting for you in Port Pyrym?” asked the Pirate.
“Oh,” she said. She felt her face grow hot, “I’m to be married there, to the Governor of Port Pyrym.” Barca made a choking sound.
“The Governor? Old Alghar Mhyn?” Barca coughed, staring at the girl. “He’s sixty years old! By the gods, why do you want to marry him?” Tanith twisted the edge of her dress in her hand, embarrassed.
“Well, my father promised me to him, in marriage,” she said, and then, surely only because the rum and exhaustion had lowered her inhabitations and made her talkative, she continued all in a rush. “He’s very rich, you see and, well, we aren’t, or at least not any more. My father has many debts, and he’s lost a great deal of money in shipping lately, and this man, I mean, Governor Mhyn, he offered a lot for my hand in marriage. I’ve never met him, of course. To be honest, I think he just wants to marry into a noble family. He’s a merchant, you see, wealthy and powerful in the Islands, but of common birth, and having a noble wife would help him continue to rise in the colonial administration.”
“Hell’s Thunder,” said Barca, shaking her head. “And people call me a pirate!”
“It’s a very respectable match,” she said, quietly. “Especially for the third daughter of an impoverished nobleman.”
“Bah,” said Barca, waving her hand. “You’d hate it! Trust me, I’ve seen those manor ladies in the islands, locked up in their great houses, day after day, year after year, while their husbands count their money and worry about the sugar harvest or a slave revolt. Miserable!”
“What do you care,” Tanith said, hotly, “I’m your prisoner, and I know what you pirates do to nobles like me.”
“What’s that?” asked Barca, cocking an eyebrow.
“I mean ransom me off!” she said, getting flustered.
“Oh,” said Barca, waving her hand. She drank deeply from the bottle and then offered it again to Tanith. “No, I mean, maybe we would have, if all this trouble hadn’t happened. But you helped out, took care of the wounded, worked as part of our crew. That makes you one of us, and we don’t sell our own.” She shook the bottle, and Tanith finally reached across and grabbed it.
“But then what’ll happen to me?” she asked drinking.
“Well,” said Barca, leaning back against the railing and closing her eyes. “After we patch up this tub, we’ll head East. No point in going to the Isles; if you’re late they’ll probably have the Navy out searching, so it’ll be safer in the East. There’s a monastery on the Ginj coast, buncha insane monks there who take in lost causes, strays, that kind of thing. They took care of me once, so you know they’re broad minded. Anyway, they’d love a chance to really practice their vow of chastity, so we could leave you with them.” Tanith blinked.
“What’ll I do there?”
“By the Sisters, girl” said Barca, exasperated. “Do whatever the hell you want to do!. Take the chance life is handing you! For all anyone will ever know, you died out here on the open sea. You’re free, and that’s all that matters.”
Tanith woke to the sound of voices coming up from below in the pilot house, low murmurs and the occasional growl of Barca’s booming voice. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. It was nearly noon, and the sun had just risen over the tarp that had been stretched as a shelter over her sleeping form. Yawning, she followed the sounds of the voices.
Barca was struggling with the wheel, the corded muscles of her arm straining as she forced it, slowly, to the left. A handful of pirates stood behind her, frowning. Barca released the wheel and stepped back, watching it swiftly spin back to the right. She shook her head.
“Dagon’s Beard,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re right Erlam. That’s a hell of a strong current. Like we’re running a river.”
“I’ve never felt anything like it,” said the pirate, scratching his eye-patch. “It’s powerful, and we just fell into it, too, right about the time the wind died.” He pointed up at the slack sails that hung sadly limp against the mast. “Lucky for us it’s running the direction we want to go in but, well…” he shrugged.
“It’s uncanny,” finished Barca. She looked up and smiled at Tanith. “At least the Hydra’s Necklace is delivering on its promise!”
“Are we approaching the islands?” she asked, trying to sound brave.
“Come see for yourself,” said Barca. They walked out onto deck, and the pirate pointed to the horizon where several long, low stretches of land just skimmed the bottom of the sky. “That’s them.” Tanith held a hand over her eyes and squinted.
“Not much to look at,” she said, finally.
“There’re bigger ones in the middle of the chain, some of ‘em nearly respectable enough to be called a real island, even. Those are what we’re looking for, something with some greenery on it, and fresh water.” She thumped the deck with her boot. “And we’re making good time, with this damned strange current dragging us there.”
The hours passed, and though the wind stayed still the current continued to pull them closer. They passed the low strips of land that Tanith had seen earlier, bare lifeless patches of rock, great rings or half-rings of limestone that stood a scant few inches above sea level. Barca had returned below to keep up the handpump while Tanith stayed above deck, leaning on the railing and watching the strange islands slide by. With no wind, Sarl and his crew had taken in the sails and now, idle, he walked over to join Tanith.
“My Lady,” he said, his voice low. “They haven’t been mistreating you, have they?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Everything is fine, Mr. Sarl, thank you. How are you and your men?”
“Working us like dogs they are, Miss, cruel hard, high in the rigging. But,” he added quickly, “nothing as what you’ve been through. A Lady such as yourself, forced to work like a common laborer. Disgraceful.”
“It wasn’t bad,” she said. “Besides, what with the ship in trouble, I imagine we must all do our part.”
“Aye, for now, Miss,” he said, leaning close. “But don’t you worry none, me and the boys will figure something out. They may have the numbers, but we’re Navy Men, we are. We’ll find a way out of this trouble.”
“Oh, Mr. Sarl,” she said, shocked. “You mustn’t put yourselves in any danger now.”
“Ah, you’re a thoughtful lass, My Lady, if you don’t mind me saying so,” said Sarl, touching his nose. “But just you stay calm. We’ll get you to your promised husband in the West Isles, you wait and see.” He winked, and then ambled off, leaving Tanith’s stomach in knots. Of course, she wanted to escape, didn’t she? She had a life waiting for her, and no matter what the mad pirate had said, she couldn’t just abandon all that, running off to do the gods know what, all on her own. Could she?
Her worries were cut short by a shout from overhead. A pirate lookout, high on the main mast, was pointing ahead.
“I see green,” he said, his voice thin and tiny filtering down to the deck. “Port, one point.”
“Aye, I see it,” shouted Erlam. One of the pirates ran to the open hatch in the deck and shouted down, “Barca! Flinn’s found something that sounds promising!”
Soon the bow of the ship was packed, people craning their neck to see what had been spotted. Ahead a few miles was a swatch of land, taller than the bare white patches they had passed, and darker too.
“Looks good to me,” said Barca. “Tall palms, and from here it looks like there’s a spit of land sticking out there, starboard side; might be good anchorage.”
“How can you see all that?” asked Sarl, standing next to here and squinting.
“How’s the running, Erlam?” she called back, ignoring the boatswain.
“Still strong!” he shouted back.
“Get ready to drop anchor,” she said to the assembled crew. “We don’t want to be swept by that berth. If we need to, we’ll launch boats and row her into the shore, dragging the anchor and all.”
But as they approached, it seemed as if the current would accommodate them by taking them directly where they wanted to go. It even turned them towards the spit Barca had seen, a long rocky protrusion that jutted out like a pier into the crystal blue waters around the island. The strangeness was further compounded by its steady weakening until, just as they passed the inlet and could see the calm shallow water of the sheltered cove behind it, the current stopped entirely, and they lay becalmed.
“That’s damned strange,” muttered Barca, frowning down into the water.
They sent a boat out with a long pole, and learned that the cove shallowed rapidly towards the dry shore, and that the bottom was soft and silty, with none of the hull-ripping coral that made up most of the island.
“Looks promising,” said Barca, but her voice was troubled.
“No strand line on the far shore,” said Ygo, his gold teeth flashing. “We hit high tide just right. We can haul her in and when the tide drops she’ll settle, soft as a baby into swaddling, and we can patch her up.”
“Awfully convenient,” she said, scanning the line of palms waving in the warm sun onshore. “Well, no choice, is there?” she said, finally. “Load the boats!” As the crew scrambled to get ready, Barca pulled Tanith aside. Keeping her voice low, she leaned in. “Here, tuck this in your bodice.” She handed Tanith the heavy steel dagger she’d had from Drusus. Tanith gazed at it, and then looked up into Barca’s face. “Just in case,” she said, shrugging. “I don’t know what we’ll find on the island, but you’ve already proven you know what to do with one of these,” she grinned. Tanith smiled back, and then carefully slipped the blade out of sight between her frock and her blouse.
The redoubtable Erlam and a skeleton crew of pirates remained onboard while the rest, sailor and pirate alike, piled into two longboats. Sarl grumbled about he and his fellows remaining unarmed, but Barca ignored it, and they were soon underway, oars slapping the crystal water, long heavy ropes playing out behind each boat. The bay sparkled, and the breeze was fresh, blowing in from the sea. Soon, the life boats scrapped bottom a few yards from the shore.
Barca leapt out; everyone else stayed in the boats, watching her as she peered into the wall of the green jungle just beyond the narrow strip of the beach. After a moment, she turned and nodded, and the rest of the crew disembarked. Tanith was trying to figure out a maneuver that would both preserve her dignity while also keeping her heavy gown from getting soaked, when Barca simply leaned over the bow and lifted her easily in her arms. Squeaking a surprised thank you, Tanith wrapped her arms around the pirate woman’s strong neck and allowed herself to be carried to dry ground.
With the longboats beached, the pirates arrayed themselves in two lines, gripped the ropes, and began pulling hard, keeping up a steady rhythm of heaving motion and slowly pulling the Bluebell into the shallow safety of the cove. Tanith, plumped down under the shade of a palm, watched them working, admiring in particular the play of muscles on Barca’s broad back as she hauled hard against the rope.
Erlam, peering down from the bow of the ship, lifted his arm and waved, and the pirates stopped their straining. Erlam tossed a sounding line overboard. It plunked into the water, but the rope barely played out; the ship was floating with just a few inches to spare. He whistled, and the anchor rattled down the side of the Bluebell and sank into the muck.
The pirates began unloading the boats of the casks, tarps, and tools they’d brought. Tanith hurried to help, struggling under an armload of long poles. Eventually, a camp of sorts began to grow in the shadow of the first palm trees. Barca swaggered easily by and set down a sloshing cask of ale that must’ve weighed more than Tanith. She peered into the forest. Her usual grin was replaced by pensive pursed lips, and she seemed to be listening for something.
Tanith, hammering a peg into the soft soil, looked up and saw the strangely watchful look on her face.
“Is everything all right?” she asked. Barca turned and gave her a toothy, rakish grin.
“Just paranoid,” she answered. “Too much time cooped up on a boat, I’ll warrant – makes me feel exposed out in the open like this.”
“I can’t agree there! I feel as if I can finally stretch my arms again, for the first time since leaving home,” said Tanith. She wriggled her toes in the coarse sand of the beach, the tiny shell fragments pricking her bare feet. “And I missed the feel of solid ground, especially after all that pitching about.”
Ygo walked over, tossing a number of empty water skins to the ground. He nodded at Tanith, and then leaned against a palm and wiped his face with a handkerchief.
“Just about all set up,” he said, watching as the last of the tarp-lined lean-tos went up. “Good berth, I think,” he nodded skyward where a number of gulls circled, inspecting the activity below. “Good eatin’ too. I could go for a bit o’ gull. Want me to go hunt up some water?”
“I’ll go,” said Barca, shaking her head. “I’d like to get a look around this island a bit, I think.”
“Can I come?” asked Tanith. Barca scratched her chin, then shrugged.
“Sure, but stick close, and if I say run, don’t wait or look around, you run, understand?”
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” said Tanith, throwing a salute. Ygo smirked.
“Don’t laugh,” said Barca to Ygo. “She’ll have your job if you don’t watch out.” She reached down and lifted an armful of the water skins.
“Take a few with you,” said Ygo. “Hey, Vyrik, Harasa, Pol! And you too, Kheran. You’re with Barca on water detail!”
“While we’re away,” said Barca, leaning close to Ygo. “Keep an eye on Sarl and the Navy boys – they’ve been close lately, and I don’t like the look that boatswain makes when he tries to think.” Ygo peered down the beach where, a few hundred yards off, the sailors were hard at work digging a line of latrines.
“You think they’re planning something?” he asked.
“Not until the boat is fixed,” she said. “But then we might have trouble with ‘em. Anyway,” she straightened up. “We’re off!”
From the distant edge of the jungle, a pair of unseen eyes watched them disappear into the shadow of the palms. A moment later, the hidden watcher also vanished.
All the forests Tanith had experienced back home had been carefully managed by cadres of professional foresters and woodsmen, experts in culling trees, clearing brush, and keeping the cute little trails clear of debris and weeds. She and the other daughters of the rich and powerful would promenade down these, fans in hand, presenting themselves to the noble sons of the great landed estates for assessment as potential wives. Never before had she seen a forest in its prime, wild and untamed, alive with the struggle of trees for sunlight and soil, and it took her breath away.
The palms were ancient and strange to her. Some were covered in inch-long spines, or reticulated like the armored back of a huge insect, while others were smooth grey columns, like the legs of vast animals that had paused midstride and stood, waiting, for the little people strolling beneath them to pass by. Their fronds came in a maddening variety of shapes and colors – razor-edged and stiff, or smooth and fluttering, green so dark they were almost black, or in a hue of emerald so bright it reminded her of the color ascribed to The Goddess’s robe. And between each titan tree erupted thick palmettos and small cycads, their own leaves reaching from the ground on thick sturdy stalks to do battle for what light scattered down from above. Through them all buzzed the metallic whine of insects and the raucous call of great scarlet parrots that flashed like fire through the timeless verdure overhead.
There was no path, just the grasping lances of the undergrowth and stiff, thick-bladed grasses that tugged and pulled at her gown. Barca strode ahead of her, breaking trail with a cutlass as best she could, tireless swinging her blade left and right as she hacked a path for them.
“The Hydra’s Necklace are all ring islands,” she called back over her shoulder, her face flecked with green from the plants she’d been butchering. “Circles of old reef, I reckon, and usually, if they haven’t been broken by storms, in the middle of them you find great pools of sweet water. We’ll just head inland and hope to run into something like that.” Barca stopped suddenly, and Tanith, who had been looking to the left, nearly stumbled into her back. She tensed, and heard the hiss of swords being drawn from their scabbards by the pirates behind her. They stood, looking left and right and behind them on the rough-cut trail, weapons at the ready.
“What is it?” asked Tanith, trying to keep the worry from her voice.
“The birds have stopped,” muttered Barca, staring hard into the trees. Tanith listened. Indeed, the noises of the forest had fallen silent; even the lazy droning of the insects had vanished, leaving only the rustling of the fronds high enough in the canopy to feel the breeze, and the breathing of the pirates. The minutes stretched on, and the sweat on Tanith’s brow and running down her back felt suddenly cold.
“What’s that?” hissed Vyrik at the rear of their line, stabbing to their left with her huge sword. “Something’s moving out there!” The pirates wheeled to stare in the direction she pointed; only Barca remained still, waiting. She had dropped the empty water skins and drawn her other cutlass.
“Anything more?” she asked after a moment.
“No,” said Vyrik. “Probably just the wind.”
“Not much breeze down here,” muttered another pirate. High in the trees overhead, a parrot squawked and, as if by signal, the whine of the insects roared back to life. Soon the whole forest was filled with primordial noise.
“I guess,” said Barca, sheathing one of her swords and taking up the water skins again, “that whatever it was has moved on. Still, stay alert.”
They continued on for another hour with no further interruptions or signs of pursuit, though Tanith regarded the forest around her with new eyes. What had seemed like riotous beauty was now shadowed by danger, something just beyond sight that stalked between the trees and threatened them from the dark heart of the forest. She stayed close to Barca, nearly treading on her heels, and more than once reached for the reassuring weight of the dagger hidden in her dress.
“Ah, there it is!” said Barca, chopping through the forest to expose a wide-open expanse of crystalline water, the pale blue dazzling after the perpetual green shade of the palms. There wasn’t much of a shoreline – the palms grew nearly right up the edge, digging through the hard limestone to lean in thirstily over the water. Barca and the pirates hacked a small clearing while Tanith stepped to the edge of the clear water, and gasped.
Just beyond her feet lay a dizzying drop straight down into blue oblivion, an abyss of seemingly bottomless water. And, bobbing softly in great, lazy gyres, were tens of thousand of pale white jellyfish, each glowing like a star against the blue backdrop of the pool. It made Tanith imagine a shaft of the night sky falling from the Heavens to sink down through the Earth forever.
“Hell of a thing, huh?” said Barca, crouching down and splashing her face. “Fresh water, a whole lot of it! And how about those moon jellies? Real pretty sight, especially out in the middle of the nowhere.” Some filled waterskins while others rinsed faces and arms, but the pirates always kept an eye towards the jungle and an ear cocked.
Tanith sat on the edge of the pool, her dress hitched to her knees and dabbling her tired feet in the water. She watched a pair of huge red parrots fluttering out of the canopy to soar over their heads, across the water and towards the far shore. As they came in for a landing, Tanith’s eyes widened.
“What’s that, across the way?” she asked, pointing. Barca and the pirates squinted across the distance, and then Barca swore. The parrots, having landed, had displaced a long trailing palm frond, bending it down and exposing a curiously black and disturbingly regular set of blocky stones.
“Dagon’s Beard! Is that a building?” She stood and hitched at the sash around her waist. “I’ve never heard of anyone living on any of the islands in the Hyda’s Necklace.”
There was no question about what they would do. Leaving the waterskins heaped in the shadow of a palm, they picked their way around the edge of the freshwater lagoon towards the strange structure they’d seen. “Could just be a natural heap,” said Barca, “but the color was odd. Black, and shiny-like, nothing at all like the coral rock native to these islands.”
The parrots who had revealed the structure were long gone when they got there, but they found it easily enough. Behind a screen of palms and a fuzzy growth of cycads, there stretched a long building of black stone. From across the lagoon they had seen only its narrow back, a solid face of worked blocks, smooth and mossy with age. Flakes of mica flashed on the building’s worked face, and the rock felt greasy, like soapstone, though it was harder than granite – Vyrik, hoping to carve her name in it, blunted the point of her knife without even leaving a scratch.
“Never seen anything like this,” said Barca. “Look how tight these joints are in the wall! Some builders.” They followed the long side of the building for fifty feet into the jungle before finding the entrance facing away into the forest. It was a tall, wide archway, twelve feet high, yawning blackly before them. Barca hallooed, and received only her echo in answer.
They gathered dried palm fronds from the forest floor, wrapping them tightly with long strands of strong grass. Then a pirate struck steel to flint and, each carrying a smoky, burning torch, they stepped into the dark, quiet interior of the building.
Outside, mere minutes after they’d entered, the cheerful noise of birds suddenly stilled, and a terrible shape stepped out of the forest to peer into the dark after them.
“Ahti’s Tears!” swore Vyrik, holding her torch high. “Look at all the paintings!” Along the length of the wall, as far as their smoky light extended, stretched panel after panel of strange painted scenes, the light of their torches making the figures flicker redly against the black stone.
“What do they mean?” asked Tanith.
“No words or letters I can see,” said Barca, holding her torch, though the roof high overhead remained in shadow. “Just lots of these figures.” They walked slowly down the hall as scene after scene slid by mysteriously.
They were dominated by two distinct shapes, one tall and white and featureless save for strange, staring blue eyes. The other figures, half the size of the first, were brown and had recognizable dark eyes and dark hair. In the early scenes, these small brown figures were numerous, living on the beaches and under what looked to be representations of palm trees, where they built small thatched huts and wove grass nets. Fish dried on racks in the sun, and the brown people thrived across the small island.
The first tall white figures appeared, striding out of the sea and scattering the brown figures before them. There were scenes of battle, brown figures armed with spears and clubs, six or eight surrounding a single white figure. But despite being more numerous and better armed, the brown figures seemed to get the worse of it; the white shapes from the sea seemed the wreak horrible violence on the brown warriors, leaving their broken bodies scattered, pursuing them into the forest, they strode uncontested over the island, killing and conquering. Soon the huts of the brown people were no more; instead, they were herded into pens, each with a tall white figure looming over them. Then the panels changed. There were no more battles, but there was no lessening of the number of scenes of slaughter.
“It’s horrible!” whispered Tanith, wide-eyed.
“Some kind of ritual, I guess,” said Barca, nodding in agreement.
Panels showed the white figures leading individual brown shapes away from the pens. Then there were images of a group of the white figures in a great circular room lined with shelves or alcoves packed with rows of small, pale skulls. More horribly, occasionally another ritual was shown, a ring of prostrate white figures before a tall, central officiant who appeared to be standing in a pool, holding a struggling brown figure beneath the surface, their hands around the victim’s neck.
Occasionally there were scenes of the island, the lagoon or the beach or the forest, always studded with long dark buildings and surrounded by the pens in which the brown figures lived, trapped, while the tall white masters of the island strolled at their leisure beneath the palms, or swam with strange monsters in the bays. But more numerous by far were the panels showing the room of skulls or the ritualistic drownings.
But things began to change as they continued walking the length of the dark hall. Half-way down they were again presented with an outdoor scene, but one with noticeably fewer brown figures shown in the pens. The scenes of violent sacrifice changed too – the skulls no longer stretched innumerably on the wall, and the drowning panels appeared more and more rarely. Heading further into the building, the pens that held their victims became less and less in number, with fewer and fewer of the brown shapes in them until, finally, there was a scene with only the tall white figures, standing forlorn in an empty skull room.
There was a sorrow, and a suggestion of something dark and awful, represented in these later panels. The white figures skulked in the forest, or crouched by the water’s edge, lamenting. They grew fewer and fewer too, until only a handful remained.
These few gathered on the shore and held their arms high to the heavens. The ocean, which had been represented by placid looping circles and happy fish, took on a new face not seen before. Ragged slashing lines streaked through it, a suggestion of movement or purpose the stirred the water.
Then the boats began to appear. Strange boats, long and low and with oars, filled with small brown figures. These landed, and the tall white figures hid themselves, and waited until dark to appear. Then there were again scenes of skulls and death by drowning and dancing white figures.
More boats arrived on the strangely stylistic seas, canoes at first, then eventually long ships with square sails and banks of many oars. More brown people came on these, and they suffered the same fate – quiet, secretive stalking from the forest, with death and rituals awaiting them.
“Look!” grunted Barca. “That’s a Lemurric Barque, or I’m a lubber!” It indeed looked like the great tall-masted ships of that once mighty sea-faring nation of the south, fat-sailed and proud on the jagged line of the sea, drawing close to the white figures who stood, arms to the sky, on the shore.
“And these are carracks, like ours,” said one of the pirates with a shiver. It was a good representation of a three-masted ship, like the one they had arrived on. Lines of rigging draped from the yardarms, and small brown shapes swarmed up and down as they approached. These too ended up as skulls on the shelves, or drowned in the pool.
“But there’s fewer of these white monsters,” said Tanith, gesturing with her torch. “Look, at first there were a half-dozen, then four, now there’s just the two.” They had nearly reached the end of the building. “It’s like they were dying out slowly over the years.”
“Look at this!” murmured Barca, awed. They had reached the very rear of the building, a simple dead-end, but it was occupied by a small dark pool full of water, and a huge stone throne crafted from the same strange rock as the building. The chair was enormous, the back ten-feet tall and the seat so high that even Barca’s feet would have dangled above the floor had she sat there. Tanith shuddered, and turned away from the pool.
“You don’t think,” she said, her voice echoing in the smoky darkness, “that that’s, you know, The Pool? That we’ve seen in these panels.” Barca leaned over it, lowering her torch.
“Seems small for that,” she said. “And look, moon jellies! It must connect with the lagoon, right outside.” She stood and looked at the throne, then walked around the back. “Ah, look, they added a last panel here, behind this big chair.” They hurried to join her.
It was a single, final scene on the beach – no more black buildings in the trees or on the beach, just trees and waves. A lone white figure stood under a pale sliver of a moon, its arms raised, and the dark water of the bay was again slashed in that strange pattern they’d come to recognize as denoting movement.
“The very last devil of them all,” said Barca.
“This is an evil place,” said Tanith, staring at the shape painted on the wall. Its terrible blue eyes seemed to stare directly into her, and there was a terrible sense of malice in its outstretched arms. She turned back and looked towards the distant archway, bright with sunshine, fifty feet away, and had the sudden, horrible sensation of being at the bottom of a dark well, looking up.
“Certainly a strange one,” said Barca. “And I can’t say I’ll feel too bad when we fix the boat and put our backs to this island.” She shook her head. “Come on, I imagine they’re all wondering where we’re at back at camp.”
They hurried back towards daylight, blinking and squinting as they emerged from the tunnel-like confines of the building. Barca walked a little way ahead, shielding her eyes from the sun and looking down, when she suddenly stopped and crouched. The rest of them heard her sharp intake of breath.
“Dagon preserve us,” she muttered. “Look!” They crowded around, and Tanith uttered a small choking cry.
Where they had gathered the dead palm fronds to make their torches they had exposed the soft thin soil below, and in the dirt something had left two enormous footprints. Each was twice again as long as even Barca’s sizable bootprint and had been made by a heavy, flat foot with three long, grasping toes.
“Something came by while we were in there,” said Vyrik, her voice sharp and her grip tight on the tulwar that sprang from its sheath on her back.
“And stood here,” said Barca, eyes narrow as she scanned the greenery, “watching.”
They made excellent time heading back to camp, especially considering they were weighed down with heavy water skins. But the forest pressed close; Tanith kept imagining alien blue eyes peering out at them from behind thick-trunked palms, and lived in fear of seeing monstrous footprints on the trail ahead of them. Barca brought up the rear, three huge water skins draped over her left shoulder and a cutlass shining in her right hand. Though they neither saw nor heard anything out of the ordinary on their rapid, jogging trek back, it was with considerable relief that they broke from the trees and out onto the beach.
There was no hiding the effects the water run had had on the pirates, so Barca related all they’d seen. The tale of the ruin merely piqued interest of possible loot, though they grew more troubled when she came to the description of the ships, and when the footprint entered the story, they were nearly ready to head back to the boat, sinking or not, and try for a different island. The pirates drew their weapons nervously and peering into the jungle.
“It’s no use panicking,” growled Barca, her harsh voice rising over the worried murmurs. “We wouldn’t last a day on the water in that busted tub, and besides, we’re as rough a band of killers as I’ve ever seen – just let some forest devil try and come for us. We’ll sell his skin to the Wizards at the Bazaar in Merkhemish!” Her swaggering bravado calmed them some, and her call for a cask of ale to be opened helped lighten their spirits. But Sarl, standing in front of the rest of the prisoners, demanded weapons.
“If there’s some damned monster crawling around this green hell,” he spat, “then we have a right to defend ourselves, don’t we?”
“You’ll just have to trust us to do that for your, boatswain,” sneered Barca. “You’ve seen what we can do, so you know we’re tough enough alright. Put some steel in your spine and shut up.” He’d left, grumbling, though he and the others didn’t stray far.
The tide ebbed as evening threatened, and a boat full of pirates led by Vyrik went out to relieve Erlam and the crew who had been left there on watch. These, along with Birim and the wounded, came ashore and listened, rapt, at the story of the ruin, which had grown in bloodcurdling terror as the ale cask had grown lighter. The sun sank red in the West and the Bluebell settled heavily onto the bed of the bay, listing drunkenly to port. Those on shore watched lanterns bob as the work crew, scaling below the water line on ropes, began the hard work of patching the many holes in the hull.
“And here I was lookin’ forward to some time on dry land,” said Erlam, settling in for the first watch, his one eye wide open as he turned to face the forest.
Barca stirred the embers of a dying fire back to life in the dark hour before dawn. Around her everyone else slept, save for the two pairs of sentries at either end of the camp. All night the sounds of carpentry had echoed across the bay, sawing and hammering and shouts for more nails or tar or wood. Now, with the tide flooding back into the little cove, the Bluebell sat quiet and dark against the last of the stars. Barca turned from the fire to look at the ship.
The oath that ripped from her throat stung the ears of even the deepest sleepers. The pirates leapt up, swords drawn, glaring into the forest. But again the voice of Barca boomed.
“The ship, damn you, look at the ship!” They turned and gasped with horror.
A shape, broadly suggestive of the human body but much larger and with unnervingly different proportions, was creeping up the side of the ship, long, lanky arms and shorter, crooked legs stretched wide as it climbed. It was a pale, sickly white in color, and seemed to shine in the starlight.
“Ahoy the ship!” Barca shouted, her voice ragged and raging. “Gods of Hell, Vyrik! Prepare to repel boarders, starboard side!” The pale thing had nearly reached the railing when, suddenly, lanterns flared on the deck. It stopped, rolling its head over its shoulder to peer at the noises on the beach, its eyes luminous and faintly blue. Then it released its grip on the ship and fell lightly into the shallows, crouching for a moment to stare up at the armed pirates swarming to the ship’s edge. Then with a swift bound it reached deeper water, diving into the bay and vanishing with barely a ripple beneath its surface.
Barca dimly registered her crewmates’ shouts of warning as she strode into the sea, her boots sinking in the muck and her swords quivering with the bloodlust pumping in her veins. It was Tanith’s hands on her forearm, vainly trying to pull her back, that cooled her fury enough to realize the foolishness of what she was doing. The pale thing was already gone, vanished into the sea. Shaking her head, Barca allowed Tanith to lead her back onto dry land.
Where others would have fallen to panic, the pirates on shore remained quiet and, outwardly at least, calm, despite the creeping horror of the unnatural thing they had seen. In part, this was due to their long and deep experience with the sea. That it held terrors older and stranger than humanity was, for them, simply a fact of life. But more importantly, they knew the danger of blind unreasoning fear. Death was always at their heels, running hard to catch them; they saw no reason to help it along. So they waited silently for Barca, the woman they’d elected to lead them in battle, to return to the shore and come up with a plan. Even the sailors, prisoners and blood enemies of all pirates, recognized the need for solidarity in the face of an inhuman threat.
“A close call,” said Barca, grinning as she sheathed her swords. He features were fiendish in the red glow of the campfires quickly kindled by the pirates against the dark.
“That thing?” asked Birim, running a hand over his bald head. “It was what you saw painted on the wall of the ruins?”
“I imagine so,” nodded Barca.
“Those terrible blue eyes!” said Tanith, revulsion thickening her voice.
“Vyrik is signaling,” said Ygo, pointing with his sabre across the water. Aboard the ship, a lantern raised and lowered and swung left to right in a complicated series of passes. Barca watched, tense, and then let out a long, gusting sigh of relief.
“No one hurt,” she said. “We must’ve caught it just in time.”
“But the ship?” rasped Sarl, stepping forward. “Did it damage the ship?”
“They’re checking,” said Ygo, watching as the lantern vanished from sight.
“I doubt it was interested in sabotage,” said Barca. “Besides, we’d have heard something if it had started busting planks.”
“Then what did it want?” asked Sarl, staring about him at the others.
“Victims,” whispered Tanith.
“Seems likely,” said Barca, nodding. “Like in the paintings, these white sea devils seem to be religious fanatics. Regardless, I think we can assume it wasn’t friendly, trying to sneak aboard like that.”
“What’ll we do?” asked Erlam, fingering the sharp edge of his cutlass. “Hunt ‘em up? It ain’t a big island, after all.”
“Not enough of us,” said Barca, shaking her head. “And the jungle is damned thick – we’d have missed those ruins if it hadn’t been for Tanith’s keen eyes. Who knows how many more of those black stone tombs are scattered in the forest? And that thing must know every inch of this atoll. We’d be groping in the dark. Ah! Look!” she nodded happily as the lantern once again appeared over the bow. “No damage to the ship, no more’n it already had, at least. Good news there, at least.
“Okay,” she said, turning to the others. “I reckon we oughta cut out of this here berth as quick as we can. The repairs aren’t done, not by a long shot, but I imagine Vyrik and the others’ll have ‘em tarred and corked. We’ll have to watch how the patch wood swells, and we might end up working the pumps again in a while, but if the carpenters think it’ll hold, I say we ship out on the next high tide. What’s the verdict?” The pirates were unanimous in their agreement.
“I think it’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since you brought us to this monster-riddled island,” grunted Sarl, sourly.
“You’re not a part of the crew,” growled Ygo, “so no one cares what the fuck you think, Navy boy.”
“And try and sound more cheerful, boatswain,” added Barca, with a wicked grin, “or we’ll leave you here for that devil to play with.”
Vyrik rowed ashore as soon as the tide had risen enough to allow it. She enthusiastically supported the idea of sailing away; she had seen the thing closer-up than anyone else, and she’d have happily tried swimming rather than spend another night on or near the island. With everything settled, they began tearing down the camp. High tide would peak a bit past the noon hour, and they didn’t want to spend a minute longer than they had to in that haunted cove.
“Do you think we’ll be able to escape,” murmured Tanith, helping Barca fold a heavy canvas tarp.
“I know what you mean,” said Barca, keeping her voice low. “From what we saw on those wall paintings, it doesn’t seem like these white monsters are the sort to let us come and go at our leisure.”
“But there’s just the one of them,” said Tanith, grasping for straws. “Forced to sneak around like that, maybe it’s afraid?”
“Maybe,” said Barca. “I hope so. What worries me is that current we rode in on. Something uncanny there, though I don’t know how anything mortal could make the sea flow like that. Still, I suspect we’ll have a sharp time of it when we try to leave this afternoon.”
As the sun rose and the promise of escape grew nearer, spirits improved in camp. They had quickly convinced themselves that the pale thing only came out at night, anyway, so they were as good as safely away already. It wasn’t until Ygo made the announcement that they needed to stock up on water before the trip that the worry crept back into their faces. The sun was bright, but the forest had many shadows.
“We’ll want more’n a few bags worth, I reckon,” he was saying to Barca. “And, well, the crew is worried about hauling a half-a-dozen barrels back without protection.”
“Can’t leave the ship here with Sarl and his Navy dogs, though,” said Barca. “They’d cut out on us the minute we got out of sight.”
“Use them to haul the water, and let us do the guardin’ then,” said Erlam, swigging the last of the morning’s thin, grainy coffee. They brought the boatswain over and laid out their proposal. But Sarl planted his feet and shook his head.
“I’ll not send any of my boys into that jungle unarmed,” he said, adamant.
“We could just cut your throats here and now,” said Barca. “Save a lot arguing.”
“Then do it,” spat Sarl. “It’s all the same: murder. Kill us here, or send us into that,” he jabbed a finger towards the thick wall of palms, “without even a knife for protection.” Barca pursed her lips and looked over the glowering sailor, his arms crossed and a stubborn scowl on his face. Then she shrugged.
“Fine,” she said. “Pick ten of yours, and we’ll give ‘em sabers. Ygo, you take twenty as a guard. Shouldn’t take much more than an hour. We’ll be waiting for you here.” She gave Sarl a hard, close look, and then went to help load the boats.
Five pairs of sailors walked under the palms, empty thirty-gallon casks bouncing lightly on the poles stretched between them. Swords hung on their side, while the pirates served as both van- and rearguards, ten each at either end of the line, weapons drawn and eyes bright and searching as they went. Ygo walked at the head of the line. He wiped the sweat from his forehead – more than the heat, the closeness of the jungle was getting to him. The trail Barca had cut was narrow, and the primordial jungle reigned thickly to either side of them. Ten yards out, the forest was an indistinct sea of waving palm fronds and the deep shadows of trunks.
He glanced back over his shoulder, saw the tight, anxious faces of the pirates, the wide-eyed horror of the sailors. Stretched out along the trail, it was hard not to feel that no number of companions would make you feel safe; a horde of soldiers could walk through the jungle with you there, but really, there was just you, and the person in front and behind you, to stand against the shadowy jungle looming overhead.
“Thank Summanus,” sighed Ygo as he sighted the glitter of the lagoon ahead. “We’re there!” he called back.
The first rank of pirates squeezed around the edge of the clearing, leaving just enough space for a single cask to be brought forward and filled, a pair of sailors at a time.
“Hurry it up,” snarled Ygo. Barca had warned him to listen for changes in the jungle sounds, and he was nervously turning his head left and right, straining his ears.
“What the hell?” said one of the sailors, kneeling by the water. “What’s going on?” He had leaned over the lagoon to drop a leather bucket into the pool when, inexplicably, the surface of the water seemed to lower. The lagoon rippled and sloshed, like an upset cup, slapping the stony shore as it returned to its original level.
“What is it?” barked Ygo. The sailor pointed at the water, which was again sinking and receding, this time even lower. Ygo stared, mouth open, watching it happen a third and a fourth time, each time more and more of the water seeming to flow away from them. Then, there was one final flux in the position of the surface of the lagoon, a drop of three or four feet, maybe more. Ygo saw the whole water level of their side of the lagoon simply drop, suddenly and sharply. He looked across the pool and saw, directly across from them, a bulging mass of water swelling up against the far shore to swamp the palms and the base of the dark ruins opposite them. And standing atop the black building, long arms raised high, stood the white thing, its blue eyes blazing brighter than the sun.
Then, with a roar, the bulge of water on the far side collapsed, and an enormous seiche wave swept across the lagoon and crashed into the assembled men by the shore.
“Well,” said Vyrik, stepping out of the empty long boat as it scudded to a stop against the shallows of the shoreline. “That’s all the gear loaded. Once Ygo comes back with the water, we’ll be all set.”
“How’s the inlet look?” Barca asked.
“Tide’s deep enough now that I can’t see it. We might just hit bottom, but Erlam think’s we’ll scrape through.” Barca nodded and looked to the sky, bright blue and dotted with gulls. Little wind, but a nice day for a bit o’ sailing, she thought. Then the ragged screaming of the handful of men who broke from the trailhead and were running to the shore brought her crashing back to reality.
“What happened!?” she shouted, grabbing a panicked sailor as he fell, stumbling, at her feet. She lifted him easily off the ground and shook him, hard, which rattled some sense back into his fear-dulled eyes.
“Wave,” he gasped. “In the Lagoon. Hit like a ton of bricks. Knocked us all back. Then it was there!” His eyes seemed to quiver in their sockets. “Goddess save us! It was there, and it grabbed them! Grabbed them and tore them to pieces!” He collapsed into sobbing incoherence.
“Are they dead?” asked Barca, stunned. The pirate could only blubber in response.
“That thing attacked them!” hissed Vyrik.
“We have to leave!” barked Sarl.
“It’s coming for us next!” moaned a pirate.
“Shut up!” shouted Barca, her voice rising above the panic. “Listen! Ten killers, to me, red-handed and ready to fight!” Varik stepped forward immediately, the light shining in her black eyes. Nine others followed, with only the briefest of hesitation. “Erlam! Get her ready to sail. Everyone else, load up. We’re going into the jungle to see if there are any survivors. If we run into it, we kill it, but otherwise we’ll be back in an hour.”
“We won’t leave without you,” said Erlam.
“Don’t lose the tide,” said Barca, simply.
“Oh!” gasped Tanith. She wished she could go with Barca and the others, but she knew she would only slow them down. “Please! Be careful!” Barca flashed her a dangerous grin, and then Birim was helping her into the boat. She watched as Barca and the ten other pirates ran into the jungle, vanishing beneath the trees.
Silence hung heavy over the deck of the Bluebell. The screams of gulls high overhead, the lapping of water against the hull, and the soft, quiet sounds of the twenty or so people, intently watching the shoreline. They had left a single lifeboat with a full compliment of oars pulled up on the beach, a sight that struck Tanith, standing next to Erlam in the bow, as unbearably melancholy.
“They’ll be back,” said Erlam, staring forward.
“They’re dead,” hissed Sarl, coming up behind them.
“Stow that talk,” shouted Erlam. “Ain’t nothin’ keeps Barca from the sea, dog!”
“It’s madness to wait here!” said the boatswain. “You heard the survivors! That thing isn’t just a monster! It’s got magic! It commands the water! We’re fools to wait here for it to come and kill us too!” With a snarl Erlam grabbed Sarl by the throat and sent him hurling back against the railing, rattling into a brace of belaying pins in their sockets, standing ready for the order to raise sails.
“Another word out of you, and I’ll gut you right here!” growled Erlam, drawing his sword. “It ain’t even been an hour yet, so I’ll hear no talk of abandoning Barca and the rest!”
A sailor helped Sarl stand. He was shaking with fury, but he held his tongue and stalked towards the stern.
“Thank you,” said Tanith, quietly squeezing Erlam’s rough hand.
“Don’t you worry, Miss,” said Erlam, smiling. “We’ll wait out that hour, and then some. We’ve got time before the falling tide cuts us off the from sea. We’ll give her that, we will!”
“Gods of the Dark!” screamed Sarl. They turned to look at him. He was standing midship, starring over the railing. With an inarticulate cry, he hurled himself backwards. The twelve remaining sailors who were with him also fled across the deck to the other side of the ship. “It’s coming up the side!” he screamed.
Erlam and the pirates rushed to the edge, blades raised high, a battle scream ripping from their throats as they peered, mad eyed and furious, over the railing. Below, a gull who had been floating on the water squawked with fear at the sudden appearance of their furious faces and flew clumsily into the air.
“Blast you for a liar, Navy dog –” said Erlam, turning around. The belaying pin caught him right in the temple, a sickening crunch as the heavy oak truncheon cracked his skull. Sarl, a look of hideous triumph on his face, brought it down on his head twice more, leaving a red ruin on the deck of the Bluebell. Then the other sailors, similarly armed, fell on the pirates.
There was a brief, terrible melee, but surprise and the first few blows it gave them carried the day for the sailors. The pirates on board were overwhelmed and beaten with belaying pins, or hacked by a desperate Sarl, wielding Erlam’s cutlass. The pirates were all dead, and only eight sailors remained, blood soaked and murderous.
Sarl barked his orders, and soon the anchor was raised and a handful of the survivors were scurrying up the rigging. He turned, covered in blood, and saw Tanith, a look of horror on her face. At her feet was Birim, the doctor she had worked with her first night among the pirates; his throat had been opened by Sarl’s swordplay, and his sightless eyes stared up into the blue sky. Tanith, in turn, didn’t see Sarl eyeing her intently.
“All’s ready, sir,” said the sailors, dropping from the rigging.
“Alright lads,” he barked. “Let’s get out of this damn haunted sea, and back into the lanes!”
“You can’t leave them!” said Tanith, her voice shaking with rage. “You wouldn’t be so cruel!” Sarl only chuckled, leaning against the port railing and looking incredulously at her.
“Against pirates?” he spat. “Devil take ‘em! And as for you, Lady Tanith, your time playing corsair has come to an end. For the life of me,” he shook his head sadly, “I can’t understand how a girl o’ your breeding, a noblewoman even, could fall so far as to get chummy with the likes of Barca and her crew! Shameful! But,” he smiled evilly, “I reckon it’s nothing a switch couldn’t fix. No ma’am, I think we’ll take you to the West Isles after all, and give you to your rightful husband. He paid after all, didn’t he? Can’t deprive a man of his property! Imagine what he’ll give us for bringing you safe to your new home! Why, I’ll probably be made a gentleman!” He laughed, long and hard, and then looked with unconcealed disgust at the girl, shrinking away from him. Terror clawed at her face, and her eyes were wide and full of horror. But she wasn’t looking at him; she was looking over his shoulder.
“God of the Deep,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You can’t expect me to fall for that now, do you? I just used that trick on those pirate scum! You saw me! Stupid girl!” He took a step forward, and then a pale, three fingered hand wrapped around his head and squeezed, crushing his skull like an egg. The pale thing let the limp body drop to the deck, then it climbed stiffly aboard, towering ten feet over the sailors, who simply stared dumbly up at it as it killed them.
It turned its blue gaze on Tanith, the light of them sickly and cold and like an iron band around her mind, crushing her with its alien will. It reached for her, and she then remembered no more.
“Dagon’s Beard,” said Barca, crouching by the headless waterlogged body in the trail. A few yards ahead was another body in similar condition, and beyond that, draped against the palms or stretched across the trail were a dozen or more bodies, all headless. She leaned in and examined the wound. No weapon had cut their necks – rather, the heads had been torn raggedly from the bodies. She felt a black rage welling up inside her. When she stood, her limbs quivered with it, and her eyes burned as she swept the jungle. But no enemy presented itself, and the parrots squawked merrily overhead.
“Back to the shore,” she said, panting with hate. She’d return one day, she vowed, and kill whatever devil lived in these trees. But there was the rest of the crew to think about now. With a snarl she turned and ran back to the shore, setting a blistering pace as they raced down the trail.
“Couldn’t wait, eh Erlam?” she said as they hit the beach, her breath coming in great gusting gulps. Behind her the other pirates slowed, gasping for breath. The ship was drifting away from them on the cove, making for open water. She took a step towards the shore, preparing to hail them, when she stopped. The sails were unfurled, but they hung slack and lifeless. In fact, the only breeze was coming onshore from the water, and even that was just a tepid breath of wind. Yet the Bluebell was streaking toward the inlet.
And then with a shock of horror, she saw the white thing standing on deck, its arms raised to the sky. Below it, the water surged as an eldritch current poured out of the cove, driving the boat before it.
“It’s got the boat,” said Vyrik, unbelieving. “How’s it making it sail?”
“That sorcerous current,” muttered Barca. “It drew us here, and now it’s making sure we’ll stay here. Come on!” She barked, pointing to the life boat. “We’ve got no magic, but we’ve got something just as good: strong backs and hate. Let’s go!”
They launched the boat into the water with a roar, and soon the oars were slapping hard against the water, sending the little craft rocketing across the cove and towards the ship. The hellish current was flowing strong too, and they rode that in addition to their powerful stroking, and they were closing the distance between them rapidly. Barca grit her teeth, her arms quivering with anticipation for the death stroke she would deal to that thing. The Bluebell shot though the inlet and the unnatural current bent it sharply to the east, around the island.
“Where’s it taking the ship?” grunted Vyrik, smoothly pulling the oar back.
“Who knows,” grunted Barca, the corded muscles of her arms and back ridged with her effort at the oar. “But we’ll be on it in another couple of minutes. Look, we’re out of the cove and in open water again! Pull!”
But as she said it, the white thing loomed up over the aftcastle railing, regarding them coolly with its icy gaze. It raised a hand high. Barca felt the longboat shudder and jump beneath her.
“Get ready to swim,” she growled. Then, with a gesture of rejection and contempt, the thing on the ship swept its hand down and out. A huge wave washed over the little boat, and a surging slug of water slammed into them, driving their boat hard against the sharp limestone of the island. The boat struck rock, spun about, and splintered. The pirates dove into the water and swam to the shore in the churning, roiling surf.
Dragging herself up and out of the water, Barca turned and watched as the ship continued on its way, hugging the coast. Around her, dripping like drowned rats, the remainder of her crew struggled ashore. She looked them over briefly. They were weary and wet, but none of them had any serious injuries, and the hate burned strong in their eyes.
“Come on!” she shouted, pointing to the ship as it turned a corner of the island and vanished from view. “I don’t think it’s taking her out far – it just wants us separated from it. Well, it can try, but we’ll show it! Run now! We’ll chase it around the whole island if we have to!”
Three times they caught sight of the ship, and each time it was just slipping around the far edge of the island. They ran silently, breathing hard, over sand and rock and, occasionally, ducking under the palms that grew all the way down to the shore. They were approaching the far side of the island, opposite from where they’d first landed, and they were beginning to encounter more topography. Here, the white coral rock climbed in gentle hummocks and rolled in soft swales, and soon they were leaping over narrow fingers of channels carved by wave and tide over the years into the ancient reefs that made the island. Archways and low sea stacks began to pepper the swashing shoreline, and then, as they turned a corner, the land rose steeply, a palm-covered hill that seemed to jut into the water, a vertical cliff face fronting the sea. They also saw the Bluebell, apparently disappearing directly into the cliff.
“Must be a cave,” panted Barca. “Careful now, and be ready!” They ran, rounding the narrow beach to see the entrance to a huge sea cave, deep and dark and cool, and full of shipwrecks. There were at least two dozen of them, some rotted to nothing more than worm-riddled wood, the hint of a curved dragon head or huge kohl-lined eyes carved into round prows all that attested to their ancient construction. Others were more recent, masted ships of a hundred or fifty years ago. And there, slid in to bob among them, was the Bluebell.
They were staring in awe at the ship graveyard before them, when a tall white shape flashed into view ahead of them, running hard on bowed legs towards the back of the cave. At first, they thought it was carrying a bundle of cloth under its arm, but then they saw a dainty pair of feet waving out of it, and Barca swore.
“By the Sisters! It’s got Tanith!”
She felt like she was falling, tumbling through the air like a leaf on the breeze. Then, with a jolt, she felt the impact as they landed on the sand of the cavern beach, and Tanith was suddenly, horribly aware of everything.
She was tucked under the long, hard arm of the white thing. A terrible smell, salty and putrid, filled her nostrils, and she felt a cruel rasping against her skin. The thing’s flesh was hard and rough; it ripped through the delicate cloth of her rapidly shredding gown and tore into her flesh. She whimpered, but kept her eyes closed. She didn’t think she could stand to gaze into those blue depths again, not without losing the last shred of her sanity.
She was jostled again, and peeked long enough to see the thing’s flat, flapping feet strike a series of steps carved into the stone. They ascended, and she was dimly aware of a tunnel yawning ahead of them. What hell was this pale monster dragging her down to? She tried to reach for the dagger hidden against her breast, but the thing felt her movements and shook her, hard, in warning.
Then, just as they stepped into the tunnel, she heard a sound that made her heart leap with joy.
“Turn and fight, you scabby-assed, slime-ridden, pus-colored gangly piece of shit!” roared Barca, her voice echoing hugely in the vault of the cavern. The thing turned and stared, and Tanith, ignoring the thing’s angry shaking, cried out.
The pale thing turned and leapt into the tunnel. Tanith kept calling out, her voice echoing weirdly in the small, rough cut passage. They were running down a corridor carved into the island’s very rock itself, light filtering down through twisting shafts in the roof over head, dim and faint, but with a breath of sea air moving through the tunnel. They drew near a wide room, brighter with light pouring in through several steep shafts big enough that Tanith could have crawled through them.
As they stepped into the room, the thing clamped a damp hand over her mouth, stifling her screams. It seemed to be listening. Then, apparently satisfied, it ran quickly across the room, fifty feet or more, and leapt nimbly up to a shelf on the far side of the chamber. Another passageway opened dim and foreboding there; the pale thing tossed her into it, and then turned to face the room. Tanith scrambled for the dagger, but fell to the rocky floor of the tunnel, hands clamped over her ears, sick revulsion rippling through her body. For the first time, she heard the thing’s voice, and it was a sound out of the maddest depth of Hell.
A rasping, clicking, gurgling, bubbling, screeching ululation, full of meaning and malice and timeless hate, burbled from the thing’s lips. Tanith was glad it was facing away from her – the thought of what its face must look like as it made such a sound was too much to bear. The noise seemed to claw at her brain, fouling her very soul with its unnatural strains. Then, just as she felt she couldn’t take any more, it stopped, and Tanith lay sobbing in horror in the tunnel mouth.
The pale thing stood there, silent, listening. The sounds of pursuit rang up dim and distant from the far tunnel. Then a new sound, closer, began to murmur in the chamber, a strangely portentous susurrus that hissed out of the shafts in the walls of the room. The thing seemed pleased. It reached down, grabbed Tanith and, without a backwards glance, raced down the tunnel.
Tanith wanted to scream a warning, but the effect of the thing’s voice was still on her mind, and she felt sluggish and weak with sickness. Then they turned a corner, and they left the chamber behind them.
“Blood and Fire!” gasped Vyrik. “What’s that?”
The terrible call echoed in the tunnel, a devil’s lovesong perhaps, or the sound planets make as they die, screaming, beneath the boot of some Elder God. It sent several of the pirates to their knees, and even Barca, a woman of indominable iron, had to reach out with a hand and steady herself against the wall of the tunnel. Then it stopped, and some sanity flowed back into the world.
Gritting their teeth, they ran down the tunnel and burst into the wider room. The ceiling rose twenty feet above them, and a fine sand covered the floor. Small tunnels and shafts struck off at crazy angles from the main room, but they ignored these and followed the flat footprints the thing had left as it had darted across the room.
They were halfway across when the sounds coming from the walls grew too loud to ignore.
“Something’s in there,” said one of the pirates.
“Something’s coming out,” said Vyrik. Her two-handed tulwar hummed as she readied it.
“Watch out!” shouted Barca, but as she said it, the walls erupted with giant crabs, each the size of a large dog. Their armor was heavy and dark, and their claws glimmered as they snapped nosily together. First a dozen, then a dozen more, poured into the room, their pale blue eyes shining hungrily at them from atop wriggling stalks. The noises in the walls continued; they were full of the monsters, and more crabs were coming.
“Run! The far passage!” yelled Barca, but they hadn’t taken two steps when the crabs swarmed them.
Their cutlasses glanced and clattered against the sturdy armor of the crabs; only Vyrik, with her heavy tulwar, and Barca, whose powerful arms drove the blades deeper and more strongly, were actually inflicting any damage on the attacking crustaceans. Blue sticky blood spurted wetly from the gashes they dealt, but for every crab the two killed, three more scuttled in, snapping their claws, foam bubbling as their mouths chittered at them angrily.
A pirate in the back screamed as a crab sheared his leg off below the knee. He fell to the ground and was swarmed. His comrade swung his sword, but a crab snipped his hand off cleanly, then a second gripped him by the waist and dragged him to the floor.
One of Barca’s cutlasses shattered against a claw as a crab clumsily parried her blow. She jabbed her second blade right into its clicking mouth parts, killing it. More screams erupted from behind her as two more pirates died. Crabs crawled from every opening in the wall.
“There’s too many!” grunted Vyrik, hacking through the shell of a crab with a powerful sweep of her weapon.
“Get to the ledge,” shouted Barca. “It’s too high for the crabs to follow!” Another pirate died, scissored into several parts by snapping claws. They were fifteen feet from the ledge, but a rippling sea of crab bodies stood between them and it.
Raging, Barca swung her cutlass, striking crabs, shattering shells with each mighty blow. The other pirates were slicing legs and eye stalks, sending the wounded monsters skittering backwards. But there were too many. Another pirate died, then another.
With a scream of fury, Barca drove a path through, claws snapping dangerously close to her limbs as she fought. The screams of the dying filled the chamber, a high piercing note against the low mechanical clacking of the innumerable crabs swarming the room.
Barca drove the point of her cutlass into a crab, the spasming body tearing the blade from her hand as it convulsed and died. Unarmed, she lashed out with her feet, kicking a crab over onto its back and then, planting her boot right on its underside, she leapt, clearing the last five feet in a single bound, her fingers gripping the ledge. She pulled herself up to safety and then turned, arm outstretched. Vyrik, the last remaining pirate, was right behind her. She reached the ledge and started to climb.
A crab grabbed her leg. She flung her other arm forwards, the tulwar ringing against the stone as she tossed it onto the ledge. Her fingers scrabbled against the rock, she felt Barca’s strong grip on her arm, trying to haul her up. Then, another crab bit its claw into her side, and with a scream, Vyrik fell back, and was lost beneath the writhing mass.
Cursing bitterly, Barca fell back. Red from her own wounds mingled with the crab’s blue blood splashed on her body, turning vivid purple where it congealed. She stumbled back, gripping Vyrik’s tulwar, and then, fury burning inside her, she turned and ran down the corridor.
Her breathing echoed close around her as she ran down the twisting passage, curving first one way, then another. It grew darker in the tunnel, less and less light filtering down from the cracks and holes in the ceiling; what would happen if it grew pitch black down there? She had no torch, no lantern. She grit her teeth. No time to worry about that.
Then, just as it grew even dimmer, she rounded a corner and saw, in the distance, a rippling lambency framing an opening in the tunnel far ahead, like dappled light playing on water.
She burst into the chamber, blinking at blue sky filtering down from the gaping circle overhead, a hole like a skylight in the roof of the cave. The tulwar was at the ready, but before she could cross the room, she stopped in awe at the horror before her. The Chamber of Skulls was enough to give even her titanic rage pause.
Row upon row of human skulls, some ancient, some much more recent, lined the walls, stuck into niches and alcoves or arrayed in lines on shelves. Many were black with age, crumbling into heaped ruin in the damp cave, but there were several directly across from her that were white and fresh, set right above the door. One grinned down on her, its gold teeth flashing in the light. Ygo’s skull, taken earlier in the day. With a scream of primal rage, she crossed the room and sped through the doorway, the beating of her heart a merciless war drum in her own ears.
Her battle cry was answered by the shrill shout of a human voice, Tanith calling her from the next room. With an oath Barca leapt into the Room of Drowning, and stood defiantly before its master.
The pale thing stood in the center of the room, towering over Tanith at the edge of a wide, shallow pool. It turned as Barca stepped through the door, and for the first time she got a good look at the white horror that had haunted this island for countless eons.
It was ten feet tall, and its body was covered in pale, rugose plates, like the armor of the crabs she’d just fought, heavy and strong and jointed. It had two fingers and a thumb on each hand, and three toes on each foot, all ending in sharp armored points. Its arms were very long, stretching down to its knees, but its legs were short and bandy; it seemed always to be standing in a low crouch, its legs bent wide. But it was the thing’s head that was the worst, by far.
It was like a marble bust, perfectly formed and objectively beautiful, or would have been, had it not been for the expression on its face. The high chiseled cheek-bones, the strong jaw, the full lips, the proud nose, the vast dome of its forehead sweeping back, the looming intensity of its brow – all perfect. But there was an utterly alien mind behind that idealized human face, something terrible and devoid of any relation to the emotions or thoughts of humankind. The blue eyes that stared out at Barca had no affinity with her, or with Tanith, or with any other human being who ever lived. There was no fear, or hate, or love, or lust, or anything recognizable in its expression, just the alien passions of something utterly removed from all mortal things on the planet.
Barca charged, and the white thing leapt to meet her. She dove below its outstretched arms and, two-handed, swung the tulwar, a savage blow that would have cut a man in half in a single strike. But against the unearthly armor of the thing’s body, it rang heavily, sending shivers up her arm. She leapt back, barely dodging its grasping arms, and scowled. She could see the wound the sword had made – little more than a crack, a single inch long slash along the thing’s ribs. A thin trickle of green fluid leaked from the wound. As mighty a sword stroke as she’d ever given, and barely a scratch.
The thing rushed her. Its speed was impressive, and its reach deadly. She slashed against the arms, her blows powerful enough to knock them aside but, again, leaving little more than nicks and cuts, despite her furious power. She’d been strong enough to overcome the armor of the crabs, but this thing’s plating was like steel –
She paused her slashing attack, lightly dancing back and around, putting some distance between her and it. The thought of the crabs had given her an idea. She watching it move, stepping towards her, sliding to the left and right, its arms weaving intricate circles in the air while it waited for a chance to grab and crush her. She got the feeling that the thing was playing with her, drawing out the agony. Surely it had learned that it had nothing to fear from her?
“Arrogant bastard,” she said, smiling. She had seen what she had hoped to see: at its joints the armor was thin, almost translucent, weak and pliant to allow for movement, the same as a crab’s armor plating. “Come on then,” she shouted. “Time to die!”
It rushed for her, arms out, hands twitching to crush her body in its steely grip. She stood there, the tulwar raised high. It could almost feel her dying already. It reached for her.
She stepped suddenly to the side and brought the blade down against its elbow joint, and a fierce, triumphant laugh burst from her lips as the tulwar sliced cleanly through the arm. The severed limb landed heavily on the stone floor of the chamber, the fingers convulsing as it died.
Silent, but with a new, different light blazing from its blue eyes, the pale thing staggered backwards. Ichor pulsed from the open wound, great gouts of green blood splashing the rock and dribbling down its side. It stared at her. She smiled savagely into its face.
She charged again, planning to cut its legs out from under it, but whatever pain or alien fear it might have felt did not dull its reactions. It shuffled back, and swung its good arm like a bludgeon at her body. She dodged, but only just; the blow glanced against her back as she ducked, and she was buffeted to the ground, gasping in pain. The thing was strong, stronger than she had realized – a direct hit would have smashed her to jelly.
She sprang to her feet, dizzy, and the pale thing rushed in. The tulwar sank into the soft tissue between leg and body, biting into the thing’s hip, but she hadn’t had been ready and the blow hadn’t gone deep enough to matter. Then the thing was on her, wrapping its good arm around her body. It dragged her into the air and crushed her against its chest. She was face to face with the monster now, held tight, staring into those hellish blue eyes.
Her right arm was trapped between their bodies, but her left was still free. The angle was wrong for the blade, but she brought the pommel of the weapon down hard against the thing’s temple. The head rocked to the side and green blood spurted from the wound, but the thing didn’t weaken. She felt its grip tighten around her suddenly, crushing the air from her chest. She gasped, but before she could strike again, the things raised its stump of an arm up to crash numbingly into her outstretched arm. She felt the tulwar slip from her hands.
The thing stumbled – blood loss was finally taking its toll. Its grip around her body slackened briefly, and she could breath again. She lifted her fist and hammered into its face, bludgeoning its marble countenance with blow after shattering blow. But still it held her, even as its life slowly drained away. It turned and staggered towards the pool. If it could not crush her, it would drown her. It stepped into the water, sank to its knees, then its waist, then its chest. Barca struggled but could gain no purchase against its body, could not pull herself from its grip. She struck its face again and again, felt the water lapping at her neck.
“Barca!” screamed Tanith. “The knife! Take it!” The girl was stretching her arm outwards, the handle of the cold steel dagger towards Barca. She reached, and Tanith stretched, her fingers brushed the pommel, water reached her ears, Barca strained and gripped the knife, and then the pale thing and she both slipped beneath the surface of the water.
Green blood clotted the surface of the Drowning pool. Tanith stared, horrified, at the still surface. Scrambling to her feet, she ran to pick up the tulwar and was preparing to throw herself into the water when, suddenly, the pale thing lurched up out of the pool.
Then Barca flipped it over, and Tanith could see the dagger, sunk up to the hilt in one of the terrible blue eyes, now forever dimmed. Coughing and struggling, Barca flopped against the edge of the pool.
“Dagon’s Beard, girl,” she gasped. “Don’t just stand there, help me. I’m half drowned.” Tanith grabbed her muscular shoulder and hauled, helping her pull herself out of the water.
“You did it!” she said, her voice quavering. “I thought you’d –” she choked back a sob.
“Only because of that dagger,” Barca said, grinning wearily up at the girl. “He was dying, but taking a damned long time to do it. He’d have drowned me for sure if not for your quick thinking. I stuck him in the brain, and he finally let me go.” She spat at the monstrous corpse. “We sent him back to hell all right, you and me both. I hope the others can rest easier, knowing that.” She rose to her feet, Tanith trying heroically to support her much larger frame.
“They’re all gone then?” she asked.
“Those that were with me,” she answered. “How about the boat?” Tanith told her tale, and Barca shook her head. “Damn that Navy filth! But they got theirs, I guess. Damnation, I’ll be glad to be gone from this cursed island.” She stretched and tested her arms. Her joints were sore and her muscles stiff, but everything seemed in working order.
“But how will we escape now?” asked Tanith. Barca took the tulwar and stuck in in her sash.
“We can’t go back the way we came, that’s for sure, not with all those crabs. But I think we can climb out through here.” She led Tanith into the Chamber of Skulls and pointed to the opening in the roof. “Easy climb!” she said. “Lots of foot and hand holds, then we’ll be up top, no trouble.”
“Maybe for you,” said Tanith, dubiously. She’d never even climbed a tree, let alone a concave skull-lined wall.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do the climbing!” laughed Barca, kneeling and presenting her broad back to Tanith. “Come on, girl, I won’t be bothered by a little sparrow like you. Climb aboard!” She was surprised by just how quickly Barca’s iron vitality had been restored to her. Clinging to her back, her feet hooked around her hips and her arms around her neck, Tanith marveled at the smooth power of her body, and the ease with which Barca scaled the wall. In short order Barca was pulling them through the hole in the roof, and they stood, breathing the clean salt air atop a broad rounded hill near the cliff.
They scaled down to the shore easily, or rather Barca did, helping Tanith over the tougher spots. The found themselves again standing at the mouth of the great cavern, looking in at the ship graveyard.
“Must we go in there?” asked Tanith, shuddering at the memory of the touch of the white thing’s arm as it carried her through the caves.
“If we want to get off this island, we do,” said Barca, simply. “I saw something when we first ran in here, and I want a closer look. Come on.” They passed by the rotting frame of a huge cargo hulk, rounding its collapsing prow, and Barca laughed suddenly, clapping.
“By all the Seas of Hell!” she said, pointing at a single masted sailing vessel, about forty feet long, with a sharp profile, low, long, and sheer. “Look at that beauty! A Thalassian Yacht, just sitting here.”
“What’s that writing?” asked Tanith, peering at the unfamiliar script.
“Name of this here wreck, I guess,” Barca squinted at it, then rolled her eyes. “Gods below, but every boat I’ve gotten lately has a stupid name.”
“What is it?”
“Ugh,” said Barca, shaking her head, “‘Turtledove.’” She made a face.
“I like turtledoves!” laughed Tanith.
“Maybe its fate then,” said Barca. She elbowed the girl roughly, nearly sending her flying. “A dainty little ship for two turtledoves like us, eh?” She roared with laughed, and Tanith giggled.
“How did it get here?” she asked, following Barca around the edge of the ship.
“Some poor doomed bastards rode that hellish current all the way out here in this fancy piece of work, only to get their skulls added to that wall. Well, their loss is our gain! Come on!”
She leapt up onto the ship, and then hefted Tanith up over the railing, setting her lightly on the deck. It was salt-rimed in places, and the brass fixtures were badly tarnished, but other than that, it looked in good order. The wheel spun, and the rudder looked sound.
“Better and better,” laughed Barca. “I’ll check below, you take a look in the cabin.”
A small bed, a table, and a bench confronted her in the cabin, simple and well-made, all lit by a pair of small round windows set in the walls. In one corner was a cedar sea chest; she opened the lid and lifted out a number of folded shirts and pants. She looked down at the shreds of her own dress, hanging on more out of stubbornness than through any strength of thread or stitch. She appraised the shirt in her hand, a simple cotton garment, nothing fancy or ornate, a working man’s shirt. She rubbed the fabric between her fingers, smooth and cool and clean.
Barca emerged whistling from below and looked happily up at the mast. Nothing broken, no rotten wood, nothing stove in.
“We lucked out, girl!” she called cheerfully. “Those Thalassians know how to build a boat, damn ‘em! We’ll cut a new sail from the Bluebell, and that should do us. These usually call for a crew of four to handle ‘em easy, but one can do it in a pinch.”
“Maybe,” said Tanith, emerging from the cabin, “you could teach me about sailing then? So I could help?” Barca turned, eyes widening as she looked her over. Tanith had shed her ripped and torn dress and now stood in the cabin’s doorway, nervously playing with the cotton sleeve of the work shirt she’d put on. A pair of heavy canvas trousers held on by a tightly cinched belt completed the uniform.
“Dagon, Ahti, and Set, girl,” said Barca, admiringly. Then, with a laugh, she bounded across the deck and lifted the small woman into the air, spinning her around. “I’ll make you the Queen of the Corsairs, Tanith, see if I don’t!” Their laughter echoed in the cavern, sending startled gulls outside winging into the blue sky overhead.