THE ASSAULT ON THE RED EAGLE
Willbrand stood on the foredeck of the boat gazing ahead of them. The winds were blowing strongly from the northeast, and had been since the day they had left harbor four days ago. With these favorable winds, Capt. Fisher had said they might reach port later today.
Not that Willbrand was in any rush. He had always dreamed about taking a trip on a ship, a real ship, that is. He had watched the river barges that plied the waterways between Crotasia and Keesa, but they were just small lumbering boats on a narrow river, and he had never actually even been on one of them. Even so, he imagined they could be nothing like this. He looked around, and all he saw was blue sky and the dark green expanse of the ocean surrounding them for as far as the eye could see. The wind was drawing forth an endless line of slow rolling waves. When the bow of the boat cut through one, foaming spray shot into the air, wetting Willbrand's hair and filling the air with its salty scent. Everything he saw was new and exciting. He had even spent an hour earlier this morning watching fish swimming alongside the boat, their agile gray bodies slipping in and out of view just beneath the surface, or occasionally launching themselves into the air. It was all new to him and terribly fascinating.
"You look thoughtful."
He turned, startled, but then relaxed as Merigan walked up beside him.
"I didn't hear you approach," he said.
She rested her arms on the bulkhead, looking out over the water without replying. Willbrand looked her over for a moment. She was wearing a sleeveless dark red dress, almost maroon in color, which fell to just above her ankles. It was a simple yet versatile design, the type not uncommonly worn by peasant women throughout the kingdom. A dress had not been practical on their journey through the wilderness, so she rarely wore one. He had to admit she looked much fairer in one.
After four days of rest, she seemed to have recovered fully from her near fatal encounter with the poisonous dart. Her face was no longer pale, and her eyes had regained their usual sparkle.
She must have noticed him looking at her, for she abruptly turned toward him, lifting an eyebrow.
"So what are you thinking about?" she questioned.
He paused for a moment. What had he been thinking about, and why had he become so distracted by the girl beside him?
"About sailing on a ship," he replied finally. "It's something I've always dreamed about ever since I was little. The sky, the waves, the ocean. It's beautiful, and very tranquil. Not at all how I pictured it, actually."
"Oh?" she said. "And how exactly did you picture it?"
"Well, more dangerous, I suppose," he replied. "I've read tales of sailing in books, and there was always a terrible storm or a mutiny or an attack by a giant sea serpent or bloodthirsty pirates..."
"We're with the pirates," she reminded him.
"Yeah, well, that doesn't mean pirates don't prey on other pirates," he replied. "I don't know, I just thought there'd be more adventure."
"They were just books, you know," she said slowly.
"Oh yeah, I realize that," he replied. "And don't get me wrong. After all we've been through on land, not to mention what's ahead of us; a nice peaceful sea voyage might be just what we need. I'm probably lucky anyway.
"That's possible," she agreed neutrally.
He paused for a moment and looked at her again.
"Have you spent a lot of time on ships?"
She thought about that for a moment.
"I suppose that would depend on what you consider a lot," she replied. "We've been to a lot of places. I guess about a dozen times perhaps? Funny you should mention throwing up over the side, because that's exactly what happened to me the first time I was out on a ship."
"Oh really?" Willbrand replied.
"Yes," she said, nodding. "We got caught in a storm and I was sure the ship was going to sink and we would all drown. All the men were laughing at me, which didn't help either. I swore that if I survived, I'd never set foot on a ship again."
"So what changed your mind?"
"Necessity, I suppose," she replied. "Plus the fact that I was only six at the time."
"Ah," Willbrand said knowingly.
Merigan turned away, looking out over the water once again. Her raven hair blew in the wind around her face. Far to the east, they could see seagulls circling, a sign they were nearing land, though neither one knew that.
"Did you read many books about the sea?" Merigan questioned eventually.
Willbrand hesitated for a second.
"I suppose that would depend on what you would consider many," he replied slowly.
This was rewarded with a glare from Merigan.
"Sure," he replied. "I've read a lot of books about a lot of things. The library in the castle back in Crotasia had one of the largest stores of books in the north. The Baron was quite proud of it actually, and my tutor had insisted that I read as much as I could."
Merigan shifted her gaze back toward him again, brushing the hair from her face.
"You're so lucky," she stated.
"Huh, what do you mean?"
"All those books," she replied. "I love to read. I'm so glad Ktan took the time to teach me. But I haven't read much. I've seen a lot, but we've never stayed in any one place for very long. You can't bring books on the road with you. Well, maybe one or two, but that's about it. You can only carry so much, so you can only take necessities. I haven't had many opportunities to do much reading in my life. And you had a whole library at your fingertips. I'm jealous. I wish I could have seen them."
"Yeah, well maybe when this is..." Willbrand began, and then stopped abruptly.
Merigan gave him a curious look.
For a moment Willbrand averted his eyes, then he turned back toward her again.
"I was going to say, maybe when all this is over I can take you to look at them," he said. "But it's not that simple, is it? I keep thinking this is all just some kind of stupid mistake; that it will all blow over, that I'll be able to go back to Crotasia someday without fear of being arrested. I keep thinking this is all a dream and one of these days I'll wake up, but it's the normal life I had back in Crotasia that's a dream now, isn't it?"
This time it was Merigan's turn to look away.
"I'm sorry," she said.
Immediately Willbrand regretted saying that. He had almost forgotten she had more than a little to do with his being here. He placed a hand on her shoulder.
"No, I didn't mean it like that," he said. "I might have blamed you for what happened to me in the beginning, but I don't now. It was just one of those things. My life was going along much too smoothly. If it hadn't been you, someone else would have come along and screwed it up."
She looked at him skeptically.
"Right, some other heretic would have wandered in."
"Exactly," he agreed. "You know how those heretics are wandering all over the countryside. Another one would have been bound to come along in no time."
That managed to get a smile from her.
"Well, if we manage to get the book," she said, turning serious once more, "maybe you will get to return to Crotasia one day."
Willbrand suspected she was saying this just to cheer him up. Even with the book, he really didn't see what they were expecting to accomplish. But he would go along for now. There really wasn't much else he could do, since he certainly couldn't think of any other plan.
"Yeah, maybe," he said halfheartedly.
The thumping of feet on the deck attracted their attention. They turned as the first mate and two crewmen emerged from the forward cabin. The first mate was easy to spot. He had long dirty blonde hair that came almost to his shoulders, but it was the wide scar that ran down the left cheek of his angular face that really made him stand out. That and his almost constant sneer made his a face only a mother could love. His name was Bartro, but Willbrand knew that most of the crew just called him scarface, naturally enough, though never in front of him. He stood there for a moment, looking around, his gaze lingering on the two of them for much longer than seemed necessary, then turned away, quickly issuing orders to the two men beside him.
Merigan took a step closer to Willbrand, until their shoulders lightly touched.
"I don't really like that fellow," she said slowly.
Willbrand felt his hand fingering the hilt of his sword.
"I don't much like him myself," he replied, and then looked at her. "He hasn't done or said anything to you, has he?"
"No," she said, quickly shaking her head. "He hasn't bothered me at all. I don't really know why I said that. It's really just a feeling. I'm seen him watching us. Not just us, but the others too."
Willbrand nodded. The guy just had a suspicious look about him. But among this group of cutthroats that Captain Fisher called a crew, that wasn't all that unusual. Willbrand suspected that almost all of them wouldn't think twice about cutting his and all his friends throats in a moment if it were to their advantage to do so.
Still, after four days, nothing had happened. Captain Fisher seemed to be able to keep them in line. Either that or the prospect of facing his, Ktan and Jenya's swords for sparse gain just wasn’t worth it to them.
He looked around for a moment. Personally he had had enough sun for this morning. He was about to suggest they head back down to their cabin when a sudden cry came from above.
The southern islands consisted of six large volcanic islands and dozens of smaller ones, all laid out in a rough chain running northeast to southwest. Well, perhaps to say large islands was being generous. The largest of them all, the
The town of
The boat glided into the harbor just before dusk. Two ships already lay at anchor there, the largest of which, Willbrand was told, was Dason's ship, the Red Eagle. It was kind of incongruous to Willbrand to see the ship of the Admiral of the Royal Fleet at anchor beside ships of dubious pedigree, and had openly wondered why Dason allowed these pirate ships to remain there unhindered. Ktan had explained to him that it wasn't as simple as that. For one thing, they were far from the mainland. The Admiral had only come with one ship, while there were many pirate ships in the area. Besides, Dason was here on business, not in the name of the royal fleet. He was as greedy as any man for money, and wouldn't hesitate to trade with pirates if it was to his advantage to do so. Besides, a lot of these so-called pirates could be hired as privateers to attack the ships of other kingdoms. It wasn't about right and wrong, it was about politics and greed. Willbrand just shook his head at that. A short time ago he would have been shocked at such revelations, but he had seen too much to be naive about it anymore.
Captain Fisher dropped anchor in the northwest corner of the harbor, sheltered under the lee of a towering cliff. There was no harbormaster, no one asked any questions about any ship that came into port. This far from civilization, every ship was on its own.
Willbrand was anxious to go ashore, always intrigued by seeing someplace new. As a small dinghy was prepared for departure, Captain Fisher suggested the females in Ktan's party remain aboard. Water wasn't the only thing that was in short supply on the islands. Sailing was almost exclusively a man's occupation, and it might be quite some time since the men on the island in front of them had even seen a woman. Given the lack of law and the impetuous nature of the men who came here, it might be better if they didn't tempt fate.
Merigan acquiesced to this constraint without complaint, but Jenya protested quite strenuously, saying she had a right to go where she pleased, and she'd be more than capable of cutting off the arm of any man who tried to lay a hand on her. Having seen how well Jenya could wield a sword, Willbrand had to agree. Nevertheless, Ktan eventually convinced her of the wisdom of staying behind; reminding her that they were trying to remain inconspicuous and that even she had to admit that cutting off the arms of overzealous sailors would have a detrimental effect on inconspicuousness.
A narrow beach of almost pure white sand ringed the harbor. Beyond that palm trees and the thick green vegetation cut off the view of anything inland save the huge cone of the volcano that loomed above all. A dark line of smoke rose from it, drifting off to the south. Willbrand stared up at it as they approached the shore. It was another thing he had never seen before, and he had to admit, it was a bit intimidating. If it erupted while they were here, he had a feeling there would be no escape.
But neither Captain Fisher nor any of the others seemed concerned, so Willbrand tried to pretend it wasn't even there. No one came to greet them as they pulled the boat ashore. A few people over by the makeshift buildings paused to look at them momentarily, then, satisfied that the newcomers weren't a royal raiding party, went back to their work.
Ktan had explained to Willbrand that this was basically a reconnaissance mission. They knew Dason was here, but they needed more information before they made any moves. They needed to know how many men Dason had, both on shore and on the ship.
No one thought Dason carried the book around with him, nor did Ktan think it likely he kept it in the flimsy hut he sometimes used as a base when he came onto the island. No, the safest place was on the ship, which meant if they wanted it, they'd have to get on the ship somehow.
That wasn't going to be easy. If it was anchored at a dock, Merigan could probably slip aboard without too much trouble. But there was no dock here. The ship was self contained, anchored out in the harbor. There was always someone on watch, and the vessel could not be approached without being seen. Merigan could conceal herself, but she couldn't conceal an entire boat. The only way she would be able to do it would be to swim out, and Ktan had determined that was just too risky for her.
So they had to come up with some other scheme. Captain Fisher had said he would gather what information he could. Sararmis went to the village; talking to everyone he met, making a general nusciance of himself, yet also using his charms and a lot of wine to pry information out of any of Dason's sailors he could find. Ktan posed as a merchant, trying to discover exactly what it was Dason was buying or selling.
As for Willbrand, he was sent up to a high promontory overlooking the harbor. From here he could see any ships at anchor, including the Admiral's, of course. And there he sat day after day, and some nights as well. Ktan had given him the job of being a lookout. He was to observe all that transpired on the deck of Dason's ship. How many people were on watch, when the watch changed, anything at all that might be important to them in trying to find a way onto the ship. It was actually very boring, but Willbrand didn't mind. The view was spectacular. He could see the entire harbor below him, and when the sun dropped toward the horizon to the west each evening it gave a golden hue to the lush tropical vegetation surrounding him. The place was idyllic, and besides, he was contributing. He was much happier doing something, anything at all, rather than sit on the boat all day like Merigan and Jenya.
After a week of observation Ktan gathered them one night in their cabin on the Lady of the Night to pool their findings and discuss their next move.
"I'm not completely sure, but I've counted about thirty people aboard Dason's ship. If it's more than that, it isn't much more," Willbrand told them. "Along with the sailors, there are six Imperial Knights. Four of them always stay with Dason. If he goes on shore, they do as well. The other two always remain on board. They keep watch in six hour shifts, changed in the morning, , at dusk and . It's always the same four sailors. I guess they're either officers, or someone else that Dason trusts. I've seen Dason and some of his men making two trips to the boat and back, but they were both at different times of the day. In addition, yesterday, they sent another boat into shore; I think to get some supplies. That was the only traffic I saw between boat and shore."
"Those Imperial Knights will be trouble," Saramis muttered.
"It's only six," Jenya replied. "We've fought that many before."
"Besides," Ktan cut in, "as Willbrand said, when Dason is on shore, only two of them are on the ship. I had planned on this taking place when Dason was away from the ship anyway. We can certainly handle two of them."
"That may be," Saramis stated. "But you've still got the crew of the ship to deal with. They may only be sailors, but they're still trained to fight, and there could be as many as twenty of them aboard at the time. You and Jenya are... and Willbrand, are good, but I don't think you can take an entire ship by yourselves."
"What about you Saramis," Willbrand said. "Don't leave yourself out. With your magical skills, you're worth at least ten ordinary men."
Saramis gave him a sly smile, obviously pleased with Willbrand's words.
"Oh don't worry, I'm not forgetting about myself," he replied. "In fact, if we follow my idea, I'll be playing a key role. But, unfortunately, I won't be able to help you on the ship."
"Just what do you have in mind, Saramis?" Ktan questioned, coming right to the point, as usual.
"Something brilliant in its simplicity," Saramis replied. "If I do say so myself. When you board the ship, we need to have as few crewmembers as possible aboard. We need a way to draw the others off the ship. What we need, in other words, is a diversion."
"Do you think Dason will fall for something that obvious?" Jenya questioned.
"If we were talking about an ordinary diversion, I would say no," Saramis responded. "But I'm not talking about anything so pedestrian. What we need to give them is something they won't be able to resist. This is an out of the way trading post in the middle of nowhere. There are no amenities to speak of. Nor is there any entertainment, unless you consider the nightly brawls at the bar as such. So what we need to do is to provide that. And not just any entertainment. Oh no sir. I'm talking about something big. I'm talking about something they've never seen before. I'm talking about a show that will astound and amaze them, a show that will be talked about in this region for years to come. A show no one would want to miss. In other words, a show performed by Saramis the Spectacular, the greatest magician ever to have walked the face of the earth!"
As he spoke the last sentence he lifted up his hands, and a shower of multicolored sparks shot out of them, up toward the ceiling, fizzling in the air, then falling like snowflakes toward the floor.
Jenya smacked the sparks out of her hair.
"Cute," she muttered. "I just hope you didn't set the ship on fire."
Saramis gave her a sour look.
Ktan folded his arms across his chest.
"In spite of Saramis' bravado, I'd say he has a point. No matter what some of us might think of his magical skills," he said, casting a glance at Jenya, "even I have to admit he puts on a pretty good show. It's certainly something different, and will be bound to attract attention. I think it's a good idea."
Saramis said nothing, but gave Jenya a smug look.
"Even so, that might leave a minimum of people on the ship, but that still doesn't explain how we'll get on in the first place," she retorted, looking at Saramis. "Or do you have any brilliant plans for that too?"
Saramis just shrugged.
"Hey, I can't think of everything."
"Do we know anything about the watchman?" Ktan queried.
"Hmm?" Saramis questioned.
"Willbrand said only four men ever keep watch. Do we know anything about them? Do they ever come on shore?"
"Yes," Willbrand spoke up. "Two of them came ashore with Dason the last time he visited the boat. They went back with the supply boat."
"Saramis, did you speak to either of them."
"Hard to say if I don't know who they were," Saramis replied.
"One was wearing a bright red shirt," Willbrand volunteered. "The other had on a blue and white kerchief tied on his head."
"Ohh," Saramis said, nodding slowly. "I know who you're talking about now, or at least, the one with the kerchief. His name is Toroque. I didn't talk to him myself, but one of the sailors I got to loosen up was complaining about him. How he always went by the book when it came to the others, but flaunted the rules himself. And he was especially unloved because whenever they came into port and had any trollops on board, he was always hogging the best for himself."
"Sounds like a wonderful person," Jenya said slowly.
"He has a weakness for the flesh, eh?" Ktan said after a moment. "Perhaps we can use that to our advantage."
Saramis turned to look at him.
"I see the wheels spinning in that little brain of yours Ktan. Could it be you're coming up with some sort of scheme?"
Ktan gazed at each of them in turn, lingering for a moment on, of all people, Willbrand.
"Yes," he said finally. "I think I've come up with a way for us to get on board."
"I feel like an idiot!" Willbrand hissed.
"Shhh," Merigan warned.
Willbrand looked darkly around him. They were in a small rowboat. There was barely enough room in it for all four of them. Jenya sat at the bow, her back toward them, looking at the lights twinkling on the ship in front of them as they slowly approached. Ktan sat in the center of the boat, pulling on the oars. Willbrand and Merigan shared the rear seat, pressed so tightly together that she was almost in his lap.
Each of them work dark cloaks, proof against the night chill on the water. Or so they hoped the sailors aboard the ship would think. But it wasn't the cloak that so chaffed at Willbrand's sensibilities, but instead the dark blue dress he worn beneath it, and the coarse horsehair wig that covered his head.
He stared at Ktan for a moment.
"Why didn't he wear a dress?" he whispered. "His hair is long enough to pass for a female."
"Would you be quiet!" Merigan cautioned again. "They're not that far away, and sound travels surprisingly far over water."
Willbrand looked ahead at the ship in front of them. It was still too far away, in Willbrand's opinion, for them to hear his whispered grumbles.
She leaned closer.
"Ktan would make a lousy girl," she said softly. "His hair might be long, but that stubble on his chin would give him away, and besides," she glanced at Ktan and lowered her voice even more, "he's much too ugly."
Willbrand had to smile at that, even though he wasn't sure he should. If Ktan would make a lousy girl, then did that mean he made a good one?
Determined not to be in a good mood, he forced the smile from his face.
"Still, why couldn't we have two men pulling the oars?" he questioned. "We'd still have two females for them."
"That would look suspicious," Merigan replied. "This is risky enough as it is. If everything works out, you're not going to be in that dress for long anyway. So stop your complaining."
Willbrand shut his mouth, but the look on his face didn't change. It wasn't cold out. With the cloak, the dress underneath, and his own clothes under that, he was overdressed. He could feel the sweat beading on his brow, which made him very uncomfortable. The fact that the wig made his forehead itch like crazy wasn't helping either. All in all, he thought he'd rather be in a fight with a dozen Imperial Knights then spend one more minute like this.
Unfortunately, (or perhaps, fortunately) that wasn't an option. In spite of how he felt, he had to admit that Ktan's idea might just work. And he certainly didn't have any better plan of his own. His ego had taken enough hits on this trip that he thought something like this shouldn't even bother him anymore. The best thing to do was just sit tight and hope that Merigan was right.
A flaring of light behind him made him turn to look toward the shore. Streamers of purple flame were shooting up into the air from behind the collection of huts. Saramis' show was in full swing, and seemed to be eliciting exactly the desired effect. For the last two days, Saramis had been walking though the village giving small demonstrations as to what might be expected at his show. He must have been right about the entertainment thing, for nearly everyone in the village had gathered to watch the spectacle. It seemed funny how even rough and often bloodthirsty men like these pirates could get so excited about something that didn't involve pillaging or treasure. Yet the evidence proved otherwise. Seemed everyone wanted to see the show, and only the smallest of skeleton crews was left on any of the ships in the harbor.
It seemed that the first part of their plan had worked to perfection. Yet, that was nothing to cheer about. After all, the first part was the easy part. Willbrand turned toward the bow and saw that the ship was much nearer now. They were about to find out how well he hard part would work.
Already they must have been spotted, for Willbrand could see movement on the deck of the ship, and torches being brought forward. As far as Willbrand knew, no one from the island had ever approached the ship unannounced before, and he was worried that the alarm might be sounded before they even had a chance to explain themselves.
As it was, that fear at least, proved unfounded. By the time they came within hailing distance, Toroque stood on deck with two other pirates, but no one else appeared alerted. Apparently he had just called his friends over for a look.
"Ahoy, rowboat, what business have you here?"
Ktan shipped the oars. The boat drifted closer to the Red Eagle, until the bumped the side. The men on board did not throw them a rope.
Ktan looked up at them.
"Business indeed," he said. "I am but a simple merchant who couldn't help but notice you were missing out on yonder spectacle."
Toroque lifted his eyes toward the shore and the lights that shot up into the sky there.
"We can see well enough from here," he replied gruffly. "Besides, we've got more important things to do than watch some childish magician tricks."
"Perhaps," Ktan replied. "Still, a man can't be all business all the time. Seems a bit unfair to me the others are all ashore enjoying themselves while you're all cooped up here on this ship. Just thought you might like a little bit of entertainment of your own."
Toroque snarled at them.
"We're on watch," he replied. "We're not here for fun and games. Besides, what kind of entertainment could you possibly provide; save the kind we might get watching you try to avoid the points of our swords?"
Ktan sat in his seat looking up at the man for a moment, the raised his hand.
At that prearranged signal, Jenya and Merigan pulled back their hoods. Willbrand did the same, though a bit more reluctantly.
The snarl on Toroque's face disappeared, replaced by a smirk that just made him look even more evil. He leaned forward, obviously trying to get a better look.
"I didn't know there were any women on the island," he said slowly.
"There aren't. These ladies came on the Lady of the Night," Ktan said, pointing out Captain Fisher's ship, "and have stayed on it while we were here. The men on board have gotten rather possessive of them, it seems. But almost all of them are at the festival at the moment, and my charges were getting bored. We thought since you were also missing out on all the fun, we could sort of miss out together..."
Toroque didn't reply for a moment, just looked at them with open hostility, yet desire too.
"Lady of the Night?" he said slowly. "I see she's well named. So you want to have some fun with us, eh? Name your price."
"Toroque," one of the sailors beside him began.
"Shut up!" Toroque snarled. "You know how long it's been since we've been to a real port. Those are women, Gallen, women. But then again, knowing you, you've probably never been with one."
The third sailor laughed.
Toroque looked down at the rowboat again.
"Name your price," he repeated.
"Forty coin for each of them," Ktan said.
"Forty! You fantasize! I'll give you twenty for each, and fifteen for the old one."
Jenya's eyes flashed with anger.
"Old one!" she snapped. "Who you calling an old one, you son of a Keesan snot viper! Take that back or I'll come up there and knock those yellow teeth right out of your skull!"
Willbrand hand went reflexively to the hilt of his sword, but it was still hidden beneath his cloak. As it happened, however, Toroque did not take offense. Instead, he just laughed.
"Ah, you're a saucy one, ain't ya? I like that. All right, twenty for each of them."
"Twenty?" Jenya continued. "Why, that's an insult! What do you think we are some kind of common...Ow!"
She turned around to see Ktan's booted foot quickly slipping back underneath him.
"Forgive her," Ktan stated smoothly, while he and Jenya exchanged evil looks. "She's a bit hot tempered, but very passionate once you get to know her. But she has a point. Twenty coin is too much of a bargain for such highly prized ladies as these. I'm afraid I couldn't accept less than thirty."
As they spoke Willbrand turned to Merigan.
"Is there really such a thing as a Keesan snot viper?" he whispered.
His young companion just shrugged.
"Twenty five, and not a coin more!" Toroque shot back.
Ktan pondered that for moment. Finally he shook his head.
"I'm afraid it's back to the ship, ladies," he said, picking up the oars.
"Wait!" Toroque snapped.
Ktan paused, looking up at the man.
"You drive a hard bargain," Toroque said finally. "All right, thirty coin each. But they better make it worth my while!"
"Indeed they will," Ktan replied. "If we could come aboard?"
Toroque nodded to the sailors next to him, and a moment later a rope ladder was dropped down to them. As Jenya started nimbly up it, Ktan turned to Willbrand.
"You come last," he whispered.
Willbrand nodded. He knew his disguise would not stand up to close scrutiny. By the time Toroque and the others on board the Red Eagle noticed, Willbrand and his friends had to be ready to strike.
One by one they made their way up the ladder. Before starting up, Willbrand pulled the hood once more over his head. When he reached the top hands reached out and helped pull him over.
"Let's get a better look at you now," Toroque said. Willbrand's hand slipped below his cloak to the hilt of his sword, made easily reachable by convenient slits in his dress. Toroque pulled back the hood and looked at Willbrand.
He frowned, and a moment later a sword erupted from his chest.
With a gasp he fell to the ground, Jenya pulling her sword out of him as he fell. The other two sailors stood there with looks of surprise and horror, then one broke for the cabin, while the other drew his own sword.
Not fast enough, however. Ktan's blade pierced his chest before his own was out of its sheath. In one fluid motion, Ktan withdrew the sword and swung it in an arc. A shower of blood shot from the neck of the man who was running away, and he stumbled and fell to the ground.
"Hurry," Ktan said. "There are still eight or nine other men on board. We have to get rid of them all before they sound any alarm."
Willbrand stopped for a moment to pull off the dress and wig, throwing them to the deck beside him, so glad was he to be rid of them.
There were two entryways into the cabins below, one on the foredeck and one aft. Ktan sent Jenya and Willbrand to the stern, while he took Merigan with him and went forward. The sailors put up a good fight, but they were taken unawares, and were no match for their opponent’s skill with a sword. Any that came before Jenya and Willbrand were soon dispatched.
Once below deck they quickly made their way forward again. They heard shouts and the sound of battle as they ran up a narrow stairway. There they found Merigan standing in the corridor in front of them, looking into one of the cabins.
They rushed past her. The cabin they entered was larger than any of the others, the furniture more ornate. It was obviously the cabin of Dason himself. But Willbrand wasn't paying any attention to the decor at the moment. The two Imperial Knights that remained on the ship were in the room. One lay on the floor in a pool of blood, the second was backed into a corner, with Ktan advancing upon him, a look of grim determination on his face.
Neither one of them wore any armor, nor did the man still standing hold any weapon. It was apparent they had been taken completely unawares.
The man made no move to defend himself, or escape. Instead he crouched down bringing up his hands in a defensive position.
"Please...don't kill me."
"Begging for your life? What kind of Imperial Knight are you?" he questioned, sounding truly surprised. But his tone immediately turned to one of disgust. "In my day such a thing was unheard of! You're a disgrace to the name. Now stop your sniveling and die like a man!"
Ktan brought his sword back.
"Ktan!" Merigan shouted.
Ktan paused. He glanced behind him to see the others looking expectedly at him. Finally he lowered his sword.
"Get some rope and bind him to the chair," he said, pointing to a chair near a mahogany desk in the center of the room. "Be quick about it!"
It wasn't difficult to find some rope. A few minutes later the man was tied securely to the chair. Even so, that didn't seem to be fast enough for Ktan.
"We don't have time for this," he muttered through clenched teeth.
"So what do we do now?" Willbrand said, springing up after tying the final knot.
"What do we do now, we find the book!" Ktan snapped. "This is Dason's cabin; it seems likely it's in here somewhere. So start looking. But be careful! If you find it, or anything suspicious, don't touch it, just let me know."
The others nodded. After what had happened to Merigan, they didn't need to be reminded of just how dangerous it might be to look for the book. Who knew what sort of trap Dason had laid to any who might covet it.
They quickly searched through the room. But though they poked and pored over every nook and cranny, they found nothing out of the ordinary.
"I don't see it," Jenya said finally.
"I had a feeling it wasn't going to be easy," Ktan muttered. He suddenly turned and looked at the Imperial Knight. He had sheathed his sword while he was looking, but now he pulled it out again.
The man's face went pale as Ktan walked over to him.
"Where is it?"
The man shook his head.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he stammered.
Ktan raised his sword.
"I don't suppose you'd make a very good Knight without your right arm," he snapped.
"Please!" the man said. "I don't know anything. I don't know what you're talking about! I don't know anything about a book. I'm just here to guard Dason and the ship. I swear it!"
Merigan took a step forward, but before she could say anything, Ktan lowered his sword again. He turned away from the man.
"Move all the furniture," he said. "Look for a secret panel or compartment. Check the floor for loose floorboards. Hurry up, we don't have much time."
Once more the others scrambled to obey. Willbrand pushed a large dresser away from the wall, searching behind it. He looked at the wall, floor and back of the dresser, but he saw nothing unusual.
"I think I've found something," he heard Jenya say.
She had pushed the desk to the side, and was stooped down looking at the floor. The others gathered around her.
"There's a loose floorboard here," she announced, pointing to the deck.
Ktan stooped down beside her, running his hand very carefully along the deck.
"You're right," he said. "Get back."
Jenya stood up, and they all took a step back. When he was satisfied they were out of the way, he gingerly slipped his sword into the crack in the floor beside the floorboard and pried it up.
They all tensed, waiting for...well, Willbrand wasn't sure. But for something to happen.
But nothing did.
Finally Ktan risked a peek into the hole.
"It's here," he said.
For some reason, that announcement just made Willbrand even more tense. The last time they had attempted to steal the book, Merigan had almost died. Saramis was their expert on traps, but he was not even with them right now. After carefully protecting the book's resting place in his house, Willbrand didn't think Dason would just leave it unprotected in a hole in the floor on his ship. He had to have taken some kind of precautions. They had to be ready for anything.
For a long time Ktan stood motionless, looking into the hole in the floor. Finally he slid his sword into the hole. For long minutes he tried to tease the book out with it, and finally he succeeded in hooking the sword between the pages and pulling it out.
The book fell to the floor beside the hole, and still nothing happened.
Ktan looked at the others.
"No traps?" Jenya said slowly.
Ktan cast another glance into the hole in the floor. He could see nothing out of the ordinary. He wasn't quite ready to concede that yet.
He pushed the book away from the hole with his sword. Still nothing happened.
He looked at the others again. It seemed there was nothing left to do but bite the bullet.
Having made up his mind, he reached out and picked up the book.
He stood up.
"Let's get the hell out of here."
The others didn't need any convincing. Ktan led them quickly out of the room, and a few moments later they were back on deck.
"The ship is ours," Jenya muttered as they walked toward the ladder. "We could just sail it out of here. We don't even need to go back to the Lady of the Night."
"True," Ktan replied. "Much as it might be embarrassing to King Gultane to sail off with the Admiral of the Fleet's ship, there are not enough of us to sail it, and besides, we still have Saramis to pick up. Let's just stick with the plan."
"I know," Jenya replied. "It was just wishful thinking."
"I don't understand," Willbrand spoke up. "Why was it so easy to take the book?"
"I don't know," Ktan replied. "Dason is a seamen, has been for most of his life. Perhaps he thought it was safer on his ship than on land."
"Are you sure it's the right book?" Jenya questioned.
Ktan looked down at it again.
"Yes," he replied. "Now hurry up and get down the ladder. The sooner we get out of here, the better I'll feel."
With no more talk they climbed down the ladder, taking up their positions in the rowboat, they cast off and were soon headed once again for shore. Merigan looked back at the ship.
"Thank you for not killing that man, Ktan," she said.
Ktan just shook his head.
"I didn't do him any favors," he replied grimly. "Do you think Dason is going to give him a pat on the back when he finds out the man let us get away with his book?"
Merigan frowned. That was obviously not a thought that had occurred to her.
"And you just left him there?" she accused.
"Don't feel sorry for him," Ktan said harshly. "He's an Imperial Knight. The price for failure is death. He knew that when he joined, or he should have. He was honor bound to die before surrendering."
Merigan opened her mouth again, but the cold look on Ktan's face made her close it again. She knew there was no point in arguing. Instead she turned away from him.
"Something's going on ashore!" Jenya hissed.
"What's happening?" Ktan questioned.
"I'm not sure," Jenya replied.
The rowboat was headed west, parallel to the shore, to a small secluded cove at the eastern side of the harbor. The village was farther away from them here.
"I saw people running," she continued. "It's too far away to tell for sure. But I don't see anymore of Saramis' lights."
Ktan turned to look toward the village, while at the same time trying to keep the boat heading in a straight line toward the shore, which was now rapidly approaching.
"Well, whatever's happening, there's not much we can do about it," he stated. "We have the book, so even if they somehow found out, we're still ahead of them."
"At the moment," Jenya replied. "But it's too soon. It will take Captain Fisher some time to get his crew back to the Lady of the Night and set sail. We're not out of the woods yet."
Ktan did not reply.
Jenya hopped out of the rowboat as the neared shore and dragged it the last few feet. As the others stood up Ktan handed the book to Merigan.
"Keep an eye on this," he said, drawing his sword.
Willbrand knew the plan. They were supposed to wait here for Saramis, then head for the Lady of the Night. He drew his sword as well, though looking down the beach, he saw no sign of danger, nor any sign of Saramis either.
"So how long do you think we have to..." Jenya began.
"There's someone there!" Merigan warned.
They all turned around, swords ready; to face the direction Merigan was looking.
A group of people resolved themselves out of the darkness. There were at least six of them.
Captain Fisher?" Ktan said.
The Captain and his men quickly strode forward as Ktan lowered his sword.
"What are you doing here?" he questioned.
"There's not much time to explain," the Captain said. "Dason found out somehow. Even now some of his men are headed for the ship, while the others are scouring the shoreline looking for you."
"Found out? How?" Jenya snapped.
"I don't know," the Captain replied. "One of my men overheard them, but he couldn't say how they found out. Does it really matter? We need to get back to the ship. If Dason gets his men organized before we get out of here, we won't stand a chance."
"What are you doing here?" Ktan repeated. "Where's Saramis."
"There's been a change in plan," the Captain said. "Saramis didn't think he'd be able to get here in time. I'm here to take you to him. Hurry!"
In spite of the Captain's urgency, they all hesitated.
"It's not like Saramis to change the plan," Ktan said slowly and not without suspicion.
"Couldn't be helped," the Captain replied. "He had no choice. He didn't expect you to be found out so quickly. We don't have much time!"
Ktan still hesitated, looking from the Captain back to his companions. Even Merigan seemed suspicious. Captain Fisher had agreed to take them on, and had treated them well, but Saramis had said he couldn't be trusted. If there was something to be gained by betraying them, Ktan didn't think anything so mundane as loyalty would stop him.
He stepped closer to the Captain, his sword glinting in the pale moonlight.
"Very well," he said, the menace suddenly obvious in his voice, "but if this is some kind of trick, I swear to you, you'll pay dearly."
Captain Fisher held up his hands as a gesture of peace.
"Be careful you don't hurt yourself with that thing," the Captain stated. "I'm just repeating to you what he told me."
"So let's go then," Ktan said gruffly. Having made up his mind, there seemed no point in delaying.
"This way," the Captain said. He turned around and led them quickly down the beach.
The others followed, Ktan right behind the Captain, Willbrand last in line. They didn't stay on the beach for long, but soon plunged into the forest. In the darkness it was difficult for Willbrand to figure out exactly where they were, but the thought they were moving parallel to shore.
"Where are we going?" Ktan questioned.
"Closer to the village," the Captain said. "It's not far. Saramis told me he didn't think he'd be able to make it all the way to the cove in time, so he wanted to meet you a little bit closer."
“If he didn't have time, how come you did?" Jenya questioned.
"I left before the show was over," the Captain said irritably. "Saramis couldn't do that. We're walking in the forest to avoid detection, but if you keep up with you incessant questions, Dason's men are bound to find us."
Jenya glared at him, but said nothing more. It was obvious to Willbrand he wasn't the only one who suspected the Captain wasn't telling them the whole truth.
However, he didn't have much time to ponder the situation. A sudden shout and the sound of men thrashing through the underbrush gave away the fact that they had been discovered.
"A trap!" Willbrand heard Ktan accuse.
"No," the Captain protested. "I knew nothing about this. It was your chatter that gave us away!"
There was no more time for talk, for suddenly their opponents were upon them.
Willbrand couldn't see very well in the dark. He couldn't tell how many of them there were, exactly. He thought he saw at least four or five, but with so little light, it was difficult to even tell friend from foe. The whistling sound of a blade made him duck, and the solid thunk of it hitting the trunk of a tree made him realize just how lucky he had been. He drove his own sword forward. He felt it bite flesh, but could tell right away the wound was not fatal, or at least, not instantly so, as the man jerked away from him with a cry. He pursued, his instincts to attack taking over. The man saw him behind, and suddenly turned on his pursuer. His strike at Willbrand's head was clumsy. Either he was not a skilled swordsman, or Willbrand had hurt him in his initial attack. For whatever reason, Willbrand easily avoided the blow. Slipping to the side, he turned and drove his own sword into the man's abdomen. With a gasping cry, the man fell to the ground.
Willbrand stopped for a moment to look around. He stood right at the edge of the forest. He could see the beach in front of him, dimly lit by a moon that was about to set. He could hear the sounds of battle in the forest, not far off. But there was movement on the beach as well. A boat was drawn up on the beach, and half a dozen figures were running toward it. Willbrand could not tell who they were in the darkness, whether they were Dason's men or Captain Fisher's pirates. But one thing he could tell, and that was that one of the men was dragging a female along behind him.
He couldn't tell who it was, but she obviously realized it was him.
"Willbrand, help!" Merigan called out to him.
Without hesitation Willbrand raced forward. Merigan wasn't the only one who had seen him. The others had as well. The man who was holding onto Merigan cursed, telling the others with him to get aboard the boat, and Willbrand recognized Captain Fisher's voice.
The Captain pushed Merigan roughly into the boat. He stepped into to it himself, turning to look at Willbrand as the others with him piled in. It was obvious that Willbrand was going to reach them before the boat was afloat.
The Captain suddenly grabbed hold of one man and shoved him out of the boat. The man fell to the sand.
"Kill him!" the Captain shouted.
Before the man could react the other pirates were pushing the boat away from shore. The pirate turned around, drawing his cutlass. Willbrand would have been perfectly happy to ignore the man. He was obviously being left behind, they didn't have any real reason to fight, but there wasn't time to discuss the situation. Captain Fisher was getting away with Merigan, and the man stood in his way.
Their swords crossed with a clang. Willbrand drove in for the kill, trying to dispatch the man as quickly as possible. But his opponent was no amateur. He stepped to the side, avoiding Willbrand's initial blow. Willbrand swung again, and yet again. For long minutes their swords wove a dance of death in the night, each one of them seeking any small advantage. The man was skilled, but he was no Imperial Knight. Willbrand wasn't either, but he had been taught by someone almost as skilled. Slowly the man in front of him had to give ground as Willbrand's blows forced him to retreat, until he found himself suddenly knee deep into the water. Thus hindered, he couldn't get out of the way of one of Willbrand's blows that slashed across his thighs. With a cry the man fell into the water with a splash.
The man wasn't dead, but he had dropped his weapon, and seemed no longer interested in battle. Willbrand looked up to see the boat the Captain and the others were already far out of his reach, the boat making its way swiftly toward the Lady of the Night.
Willbrand looked around wildly. He could still hear the sounds of fighting coming from the forest, but he could see no one. Should he go back and tell the others of Captain Fisher's treachery? Did he have time?
His head swiveled back and forth for a moment, unsure of what to do. He knew going after Merigan on his own was a stupid thing to do. He knew Ktan would want him to do the prudent thing, to find the others. But with his crew aboard, Captain Fisher could weigh anchor at any moment. They'd never be able to catch him then.
Willbrand saw his hand's shaking. Whatever he was going to do, he had to do it now!
He sheathed his sword and dove into the water, and struck out toward the ship, swimming as fast as he could.
He knew he was being stupid. He should have gone back for the others. Ktan was going to roast him alive. Even if he reached the ship, what exactly did he think he was going to do? Surely he didn't think he could take on an entire shipload of pirates all by himself?
All that ran through his head, but he didn't care. All he knew was he had to help Merigan...somehow.
He paused for a moment to look at the ship ahead of him. It was much closer now. The Captain's boat had already reached it, and they had all climbed aboard. Willbrand could see them even now, hoisting the sails.
So they were planning on leaving. They were taking Merigan and the book and leaving Willbrand and the others here. That must have been the Captain's plan all along. The bastard!
Willbrand resumed his stroke. As any noble and cadet, he was expected to have a well rounded knowledge of all physical skills, including swimming. He had been given lessons in the rivers of Crotasia, and had actually enjoyed it immensely. He made good progress, and beside that, the anger burning inside him masked any fatigue he might have felt.
But as he came closer he slowed down, smoothing his stroke so it made no noise. The ship was close now, so close that even in the dark he could easily be spotted. He just had to hope that they were too busy preparing to depart to notice him.
Fortunately he reached the ship without incident. Once there however, he ran into the dilemma of how to actually get on board. The deck of the ship floated more than fifteen arm lengths above the surface of the water. The sides were smooth as glass to cut down on drag and make the ship as fast as possible. There was no way to climb to the deck without assistance.
He looked around. He hadn't thought about this. He would feel rather stupid having swam all this way just to sit there helplessly in the water as the ship sailed away. A clanking sound alerted him to the fact they were pulling up the anchor. He didn't have much time!
He swam toward the rear of the boat; desperately looking for any line the pirates might have neglected to pull aboard. He supposed he could climb up the anchor chain, but he couldn't possibly do that without being seen.
He felt a triumphant rush as he spotted a rope dangling from the deck just off the stern.
He quickly swam over and grabbed hold. He looked up. He couldn't see the deck; he couldn't tell if anyone was near. But it didn't seem that anyone had seen him.
He couldn't hold his sword and climb, and the weapon was larger than the pirate's cutlass, too large to hold in his teeth. He didn't have a dagger. As he climbed, he would be helpless, but he had no choice.
He hauled himself up the rope, looking up, expecting any moment to see someone look over the side and spot him. No one did, and eventually, he found himself perched just below the deckline.
He could easily haul himself onto the deck now, but would he be doing that only to be greeted by the grins of a dozen pirates?
Unfortunately, there wasn't much he could do about that. He knew he couldn't take them all on by himself. He didn't really have a plan. He had spent all his thoughts on just reaching this point. With all those pirates on deck, it didn't seem likely he could slip aboard without being seen. He didn't have any help, but Merigan was on board. Perhaps if he could catch her attention, she could help him somehow.
Seemed like a faint hope, but it was all he had.
He listened for a moment. He could hear the pirates shouting and talking, but none of them sounded close by.
Steeling himself, he pulled himself up, peering over the deck in front of him.
And straight into the eyes of Captain Fisher's first mate.