Before Willbrand could move, Bartro reached out and pushed his head back down below the railing.
"Keep down, ya fool," he muttered. "Do you want everyone on deck to see ya?"
The panic that had been welling up inside him changed to confusion. He had thought it was all over, that he'd been caught red handed. His hand had been fumbling for his sword, but now it stopped. If the man had wanted to kill him, he'd certainly be dead already. He waited for long moments, expecting...what? What was Bartro up to? He could hardly believe the man was a friend, but he obviously had known Willbrand was there, and he hadn't given him away. Instead, in fact, seemed to be helping. What reason could he have to do such a thing? The crewmembers were a rough lot; Willbrand didn't think any of them would do anything unless it was to their own benefit. What benefit could this man derive from hiding him from the others? Did he have some kind of scheme of his own in mind?
Still, whatever the man's motives, he didn't seem anxious to have Willbrand discovered. And since that was exactly what Willbrand wanted as well, he wasn't going to argue. The ship had begun to move. He looked down at the water slipping by below. There was no other way onto the ship. If he dropped back down to the water, he'd never be able to get back on, or even keep up. This was his only chance. He had no choice but to trust Bartro.
He heard the first mate issuing some orders. The ship was moving swiftly through the water now. Willbrand glanced back to shore, wondering where the others were. He couldn't see anything in the darkness of the cove he had departed from. If they were anywhere near the shore, they would be bound to see the ship departing. But even if they did see it, what could they do about it? They didn't have another ship; there was no way they could follow. There was nothing they could do to help him.
And it didn't seem like there was much he could do to help them either. He was only one man. Even with Merigan's help, he couldn't overcome the entire crew of the ship. He wasn't sure what Bartro was up to, but he wasn't ready to trust the man just yet anymore than he had to. There was no way he could make them turn back, and with each passing moment, his chances of seeing his friends on shore again became slimmer and slimmer.
Still, at this point that couldn't be helped. His only options were to cling to the rope, or let himself fall back into the water, and if he did the latter, he'd never get a chance to help Merigan. It seemed that at least for the moment, Bartro was on his side. He had to hope that the man had some kind of plan to get him on board, because he certainly didn't have one of his own.
A brisk breeze was blowing from the south, and the ship was moving faster now, sailing smoothly toward the harbor entrance. Willbrand could see the huts of the village, a little farther down than the cove. He could see people running there, waving their arms as if greatly agitated, but he was too far away to hear them, or determine the cause. He could only assume it was because of the sudden departure of Captain Fisher's ship.
He felt a tap on his shoulder and looked up to see Bartro's head peering over the side at him.
"All right," he hissed. "It's safe. Hurry up."
Willbrand pulled himself over the side and onto the deck. He looked around quickly, his sword ready, he could see a few other crewman farther forward, but no one else was nearby.
Bartro was already walking quickly away.
"Hurry," he repeated.
Willbrand followed him as Bartro quickly led him into a hatchway and down a narrow flight of stairs. Bartro paused at the bottom to look around, then waved Willbrand forward. As they walked down the hallway a door suddenly opened ahead of them and two crewmen stepped out. Bartro pushed Willbrand against the wall, a thick timber partially hiding him from view.
"What are ya doin' down here pussyfootin' around?" Bartro snapped. "Get forward and help the others with the riggin'."
The other men scurried to obey, well aware of Bartro's nasty disposition. None of them took the time to notice the man behind the first mate. In moments, they were gone.
"Let's go," Bartro said, starting forward once again.
Willbrand followed silently. The young noble wanted desperately to know where Bartro was taking him, and whether he had some kind of plan, or whether this was all some kind of elaborate trap. But right now didn't seem like the time for chatter.
Bartro stopped in front of an iron bound oak door. He produced a set of keys on a large ring from his pocket. Trying to keep them from jangling together, he slipped one into the lock. He turned the key and pushed the door open.
The room was simply furnished. A tiny desk and chair stood in one corner, a bunk along the far wall. It must have been the cabin of one of the officers, maybe even Bartro's. Merigan sat on the bunk looking at them curiously as they walked in. She stood up when she saw Willbrand.
Before either of them could speak, and to Merigan and Willbrand's astonishment, Bartro dropped to one knee in front of her and bowed his head in deference.
"Is it true, m'lady?"
Merigan just stared at him. She looked up at Willbrand, but he just shrugged.
"Is...what true?" she questioned slowly.
"That you're a Maiden of Donelan," Bartro replied. "My parents were farmers in Donelan. I grew up there. The Maidens often came out to our farm and our neighbors, offering blessing and sometimes bringing us food and supplies if they had more than they needed from donations. That is, until that knave Gultane had them declared heretics and started a war against them. We were farmers, not warriors, but a lot of us came to the Maiden's defense. My father was killed in the Battle of Murgess Hill. I fought too, even though I was only fifteen. That's how I got this."
He pointed to the long scar that ran down his cheek.
"We were being soundly beaten," Bartro continued. "We were being pushed back. We had fallen into a trap. But then a squadron of Sacred Knights came galloping to our aid from the Maiden's fortress. As I'm sure you know, Ktan Hammerlane was leading them. I'll never forget the sight of him and his riders charging into the fray on their magnificent horses. They threw the King's Knights back in disarray. It filled our hearts with renewed hope, and we carried the field."
"But our triumph was short lived. The Maidens had been betrayed by Irissa Cardone. She had let the enemy into the fortress. Before the Sacred Knights could return, all the Maidens had been killed."
He lifted his head, looking straight at Merigan.
"Or so we were told," he stated. "But I've heard rumors. I've heard that Ktan found one Maiden still alive. That they had gone into hiding from King Gultane. That someday, the Maidens would appear again. When I saw Ktan and recognized him, and saw you with him, well, I hoped the rumors might be true. But I didn't dare say anything. If you were in hiding, I didn't want to give you away."
He was looking at Merigan expectantly, and she realized he was waiting for her to answer his original question.
"Yes," she said slowly. "I do believe I am one of the Maidens. But I don't know anything about the battle you mention. Ktan never told me anything about my past."
She stopped, seeing the look on Willbrand's face. What Bartro had told them had jogged his memory. The Battle of Murgess Hill, he remembered that. He had read about it. He had thought what he had known of Merigan's story had sounded familiar, but he hadn't been able to place it. But what Bartro had said had suddenly made things clear.
"You're talking about the Witch War!" he blurted out.
Bartro turned toward him, his face clouded.
"The Maidens were no witches!" he snapped. "That was all a rumor spread by that foul Gultane. They were kind people. They saved my family from starvation!"
"The Witch War?" Merigan questioned.
"The war against the witches of Donelan," Willbrand replied. "I read about it. The witches tried to undermine Gultane's power."
"I told ya, they weren't no witches," Bartro snapped.
"Yes, I believe you," Willbrand replied quickly. "I'm just repeating what I learned. Eighteen years ago King Gultane fought a war against the Witches of Donelan. It lasted three years, but in the end the King was triumphant and the witches were thrown down in a great battle."
"It's all a lie," Bartro said. "The Sacred Knights had taken the field. The Kings forces had been routed. The witches were only defeated by treachery. I was there. I know!"
Willbrand was starting to get used to Bartro's vehemence.
"After all I've learned about the King in the last month, I don't doubt you," he said.
Bartro looked at Merigan again.
"Ktan hasn't told you any of this?"
Merigan slowly shook her head.
"No, not really, although I had guessed some. I knew from a very young age there was something different about me. I've asked Ktan about it many times, but he always changed the subject, always said I wasn't ready."
"I see," Bartro replied, looking a little surprised. "Then perhaps I should have said nothing as well..."
"Don't be ridiculous," Willbrand cut in. "You didn't know, and how were you to explain yourself otherwise? We'd have never trusted you if you hadn't told us the truth."
Bartro nodded. He could see the wisdom in that.
"Yes, I'm afraid we misjudged you," Merigan added. "We saw the looks you gave us sometimes. We thought you had some kind of plan of your own in mind."
"I know my mug doesn't exactly inspire trust," he stated.
"Tell us, why did Captain Fisher kidnap me?" Merigan questioned.
"I'm not the only one who knows things," Bartro replied. "The Captain guessed your true identity as well. But like most pirates, he has no lofty ideals, his ruler is money alone. He plans on selling both you and the book to the Imperial Knights. He's certain he can wring a very favorable reward out of them, perhaps even enough for him to retire. What true pirate could pass up a chance like that?"
"Treacherous bastard," he muttered.
"Yes, but not surprising. I've no doubt that every man on board would have done the same thing, in his position."
"So what do we do now?" Merigan questioned practically. "Can we turn the ship around somehow?"
Bartro shook his head.
"The only one who can issue that kind of order is the Captain. Obviously, he's not going to do that."
"But our friends are back there!" Willbrand protested.
"I'm afraid there's nothing any of us can do about that," Bartro replied. "If I know Ktan Hammerlane, he'll be able to take care of himself. It's yourselves you should be worried about."
"Where are we headed?" Willbrand questioned.
"I assume the Captain will head for the nearest mainland port. That would be Hadell."
"How long will it take us to get there?" Merigan asked.
"Depends on the wind," Bartro replied. "Probably two or three days."
Willbrand looked perturbed. He wasn't happy about this at all.
"Do we have some kind of plan?"
"Not yet," Bartro replied. "I don't think we can trust any of the crew. We can't take the ship with just the three of us. We can't really do anything while we're out at sea. Once we get to shore, there may be a way to escape. I know that doesn't sound helpful, but it's all I can tell you right now."
Willbrand looked at Merigan. He desperately wanted to talk to her alone. Bartro has spoken of the Maidens, they had helped his family, but did that mean he knew about Merigan's powers? He hadn't mentioned them, and Willbrand suspected he didn't. If not, he didn't want to discuss them in front of the man. Even if he was on their side, that wasn't something they wanted to become common knowledge.
"So we just have to wait until we reach shore?" he questioned unhappily.
"I'm afraid so," Bartro replied. "But you can't wait here. The Captain might come in, and if he found you here he'd have you slapped in irons. I'll take you down into the hold. You can hide among the supplies, and I'll make sure no one disturbs you."
Willbrand didn't like that idea much either, but he could see the wisdom of it. Still, now that he had found Merigan, he was reluctant to leave her. And he hadn't gotten a chance to talk to her alone.
"Don't worry, I'll make sure nothing happens to her," Bartro said, as if reading this thoughts.
Willbrand nodded. After what he had told them, Willbrand believed the man would defend Merigan with his life. At least that gave them a chance.
"All right, let's go," he said.
Bartro opened the door and looked out. Seeing the way was clear he motioned for Willbrand to accompany him once again. With a last look at Merigan, Willbrand followed him out of the room.
They made their way forward a bit more, then walked down another steep staircase. Willbrand found himself in a huge room that ran the length of the ship. The ceiling was low, and he had to stoop to proceed. The entire room was taken up by piles of supplies.
Bartro lead him toward the stern, walking around the piles of sacks and crates until they came to a large area filled with tightly sealed barrels. There was a narrow space between them.
"You can hide here," Bartro said, indicating the space between the barrels. 'You should be safe. Not many people come back here. If we need anything from this area, I'll get it myself. It won't be very comfortable, but it's the best we can do."
"I don't mind," Willbrand said, not sure he was telling the truth.
"I'll come around every so often," Bartro continued. "If you need anything, let me know."
"All right, I've got duties to attend to," Bartro said.
"Yes, by all means. And thank you."
"Anything I can do to help the Maidens is my pleasure," Bartro responded.
Bartro turned away and walked toward the bow, quickly disappearing. Willbrand stood there for a minute, then slowly walked over and sat down, his back against one of the barrels. What a mess this had turned out to be. He could hardly imagine it being much worse. Bartro's plan didn't seem to be much of a plan to him. Even on shore, how was the man going to separate Merigan from the Captain, even with Willbrand's help? Perhaps Merigan could use her skills, but he didn't want to have to depend on that. He wondered for a moment why she hadn't used them in the first place, when the Captain had abducted her. But he wouldn't know the answer to that until he could talk to her again. Whatever happens, they couldn't do anything until they reached shore in a few days, and what was he supposed to do in the meantime? Just sit around in the hold twiddling his thumbs?
He wished the others were here. Even though he and Ktan hadn't seen eye to eye sometimes, well, most of the time, actually, he had still come to respect the man's leadership skills. If anyone would know what to do in this situation, it would be him.
But he wasn't here, nor were Jenya or Saramis, and Willbrand had no idea when, or even if, he'd ever see them again. They were going to have to get out of this without any help from Ktan.
He had wanted to show that he was capable, had wanted to show the others that he could contribute. Now was his chance to show what he could do.
He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword and sighed. He had had a lot of responsibility in Crotasia, that was true. But it was different now. Their lives depended on the decisions they made here. If Merigan was taken by the Imperial Knights, it would almost certainly mean her death, and he wasn't about to let that happen while he was alive himself. He had never had to make life or death decisions as the Captain of the Crotasia cadets. He was beginning to understand just what kind of pressure Ktan felt as their leader.
He wasn't sure how long he sat there. He knew it was late, but he had no idea how late. At first, the didn't think much about sleeping, but as time wore on, he found his eyelids beginning to close. No one disturbed him. Bartro had said he was safe here. He was pretty sure he could trust the man now, but that still didn't mean someone might not come upon him by happenstance. Even so, he couldn't stay awake forever. He was going to have to sleep eventually, it might as well be now rather than the middle of the day.
He sank down, curling up beside the barrel. He wasn't very comfortable. Now that he had determined he wanted to sleep, he wasn't sure if he could, no matter how tired he was. Leaning his head on his arm, he stared off at the far wall, wondering how they were going to get out of this.
Willbrand yawned and stretched his arms over his head. Or at least, he tried to, until his wrists banged against a barrel. He sat up, blinking, then groaned at the pain that ran through his shoulders. Hard as it was to believe he had fallen asleep on the unforgiving wooden floor, he obviously had. He rubbed his shoulders to try to get the kinks out, wondering how long he had been sleeping. There were no windows in the hold, there was no way for him to tell what time it was.
He had thought his uncomfortable position was what had woken him up, but as he pulled himself to his feet, he heard muffled shouts and the sound of running feet somewhere above his head.
He stopped, listening carefully. A moment later he heard another sound. What was that, the clash of steel? Was the ship being attacked?
He took a step forward, but no more. He wanted to know what was going on. Who could be fighting? They were on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Had Ktan and the others somehow found them, unlikely as that seemed? Had Dason found them? That didn't seem likely either. None of the other ships had been ready to depart. They had quite a head start. He didn't think any of the ships from the southern islands could have caught them this quickly.
Were the pirates fighting among themselves? If so, why? Had Captain Fisher somehow found out about Bartro? That seemed more likely, and if that was true, he might need Willbrand's help.
On the other hand, it might have nothing to do with Bartro. It might just be some stupid pirate thing. If we revealed himself then, it would spell disaster.
He stood there, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, uncertain of what to do. He strained his ears to try to catch what they were saying, but he could make nothing out of the muffled shouts. Eventually, they faded into silence.
For a long time Willbrand stood there, wondering what was going on, debating what to do. The door to the hold wasn't far away. No one seemed to be nearby. Should he go over to the door, peek out into the corridor outside? Perhaps he could make his way up to the upperdeck without being seen. Perhaps he could find out what was going on without revealing himself.
But he didn't move. It was just too risky. If he got caught, it would all be over. He couldn't fight the entire crew. The reasonable thing to do would be to wait, even if it was going to drive him crazy to do so.
Fortunately, he didn't have to wait long. Listening carefully, he heard the tread of feet coming down the stairs. Willbrand slipped back behind the barrels, just in case it wasn't Bartro who was coming. His caution was unnecessary however, for when the interloper came into view, it was indeed the first mate.
Willbrand stood up, feeling relieved. It seemed whatever had happened, they hadn't been discovered after all.
When Bartro saw the young noble looking at him he waved him over.
"Willbrand, come with me."
Willbrand walked forward, a little surprised that Bartro hadn't kept his voice down.
"C'mon," Bartro replied, not very informatively.
He walked back up the stairs. Willbrand followed, not too pleased with the lack of response. In spite of himself, he felt his suspicions of the first mate returning.
"Where are we going?"
Bartro did not answer, but it was plain enough. They stopped once more in front of the door to the cabin Merigan was in. Bartro took out the keys and opened it up. Merigan looked surprised when she saw Willbrand standing in the corridor behind Bartro.
"Come with me," Bartro said. "You are no longer a prisoner."
Merigan looked at Bartro, then at Willbrand. She walked into the hallway.
"What are you talking about?" Willbrand questioned, feeling more frustrated than ever. "What's going on?"
"Captain Fisher is dead," Bartro finally replied.
"Dead?" Willbrand exclaimed. "How?"
Had this been Bartro's plan all along? If so, why hadn't he told them right from the beginning?
"It will be easier if you see," Bartro replied. "Come with me."
He led them back toward the stern. Merigan fell in beside Willbrand behind him. It was obvious to the young noble that she didn't know any more of what was going on than he did.
They reached another door, hanging open on broken hinges. Inside was another cabin, much larger and more lavishly furnished than the one Merigan had been in. A rug covered the center of the floor. A large four poster bed stood beside the window opposite them. There was a table and desk. But the room was in disarray. The curtains fronting the window were torn. The desk and a chair were overturned. Papers and books were strewn on the floor.
"The Captain was in here earlier this morning, “Bartro began. “Alone. The men heard a commotion. They rapped on the door, but the Captain did not answer. They heard shouting from the room, and the sound of a fight. He was yelling something about some kind of monster. They broke down the door, and found the Captain in the middle of the room, by himself. He was suffering from some kind of madness, for when he saw them, he shouted at them and attacked them. No one could control him, he didn't recognize anyone. It was like he was possessed."
"He ran up on deck, screaming about monsters chasing him. He killed three crewman. He couldn't be reasoned with. We had no choice but to fight him, or he might have killed us all. We cornered him up on deck, and he leapt overboard."
Willbrand could hardly believe it.
"Are you sure he's dead?"
Bartro grinned mirthlessly.
"He might still be swimmin', but it's just a matter of time. We're too far from shore for a man to make it. He doesn't stand a chance on the open ocean, without even so much as a lifeboat. In the condition he was in, I doubt he could even swim."
Merigan said nothing. Willbrand couldn't bring himself to feel sorry for the man. After all, he had kidnapped Merigan with the intention of selling her to the Imperial Knights, and he wouldn't have hesitated to kill any of them if they had gotten in his way.
"So that makes you the Captain, doesn't it?" he said slowly.
"I had to crack a few heads to get some of the others to agree, but yes. It was a stroke of good fortune for us, actually. Looks like the gods are looking after you, m'lady."
Merigan just nodded her head.
"But what brought about the Captain's madness in the first place?" she questioned. "Surely it wasn't by some plan of yours..."
Bartro shook his head.
"No, I had naught to do with it. It was the book."
He pointed. On the floor beside the overturned desk, amid all the other debris, lay the Book of Redemption.
"He told me he was going to look it over before he came in here," Bartro continued. "He must have had it on the desk when the madness seized him."
"The Book of Redemption?" Willbrand said in surprise.
"It's the only explanation," Bartro said. "He dared to open the blessed book of the Maidens with his filthy hands. For that blasphemy he was stricken with insanity. It was a deserving fate if ever there was one."
Willbrand just stood there, resisting the urge to look at Bartro as if he'd lost his own mind. Did the man seriously believe that somehow that book had caused Captain Fisher's madness?
Yet he couldn't help but think back to what the madman in that farm in Porgia had told them. Anyone other than the high priestess of the Maiden's who opened the book would be sent straight to hell. It seemed absurd, and yet he had seen so many things in the last month that he would have thought absurd just a short time ago that had happened, they were real, and how else were they to explain what had happened to Fisher?
Merigan walked over to the book and stooped down to pick it up.
"Merigan," Willbrand said, his tone that of a warning. Whatever had happened to Fisher, he couldn't rule the book out of it completely. He didn't want her to take any chances.
"It's all right," she said, picking up the book. "Both Ktan and I held this on the island. Whatever bewitchment is contains, if it contains any at all, is inside."
"It is bewitched," Bartro said with finality. "There is no doubt."
Willbrand wasn't convinced, but there didn't seem any sense in arguing the point. Whatever had caused Fisher's madness, it had happened. Whether divine intervention, the curse of the book, or just dumb luck, the fact was that Bartro was now in charge, and that meant the future suddenly looked much brighter for them.
"Well, however it happened, Captain Fisher is no longer an obstacle. You're the captain now," he stated. "Will you take us back to get our friends?"
"I'm afraid that's not going to be so easy," Bartro replied.
Willbrand looked at him curiously.
"Huh? Why not?" he questioned.
"It would be easier to show you," Bartro replied.
He motioned for them to follow him once again. He led them down the companionway and up the flight of stairs, onto the deck. Willbrand blinked in the bright light as he emerged. Most of the other crewmen were here. They stared at Willbrand and Merigan, but said nothing. Bartro ignored them and walked toward the stern of the boat. Willbrand and Merigan followed him slowly, looking around. Though the sailors didn't say anything to them, some of them looked at the couple darkly. When Bartro reached the stern he looked out over the ocean and pointed.
Willbrand came up beside him and looked at the dark water as well. Far behind them, but still distinct, he could make out the shape of another ship.
"The Red Eagle," Bartro announced.
For two days the Lady of the Night sailed northeast, the Red Eagle following like a shadow behind. Bartro ordered every bit of sail hoisted, had every man manning the lines, trying to coax as much speed out of his ship as possible. As a result the two ships were nearly matched in speed. Nearly but not quite. Whether through superior seamanship or superior design, Dason's ship was slowly catching up.
As night fell on the second day of the chase the wind picked up, and it began to rain. Willbrand wasn't anxious to get caught in a storm. The last thing he needed right now was to get seasick. But bad weather might cut down on visibility, perhaps giving them a chance to give the Red Eagle the slip. If it meant they could get away, he supposed he could live with a bit of seasickness.
Unfortunately, the weather did not get that bad. The Red Eagle was not far behind them now. Even at night the ship was easy to see. The rain came down at a steady, dreary pace. The wind picked up, but not enough to interfere with navigation. The darkness came, but not so dark they couldn't still be tracked. The Red Eagle followed relentlessly behind them, continuing its slow inevitable gain.
Later that night, Bartro bid Willbrand and Merigan to meet him in his quarters. When they got there they found him poring over some maps strewn upon a desk.
He looked up at them as they entered, his face grim.
"I'm afraid the situation is grave," he stated without preamble.
He pointed to the map on the desk in front of him. Willbrand could clearly make out the coast of
"This is our current position," he stated. "As you can see we've sailed northeast from the
"So we're going to have to fight?" Willbrand questioned.
"Don't be ridiculous," Bartro replied. "We can't fight the flagship of the Admiral of the Mandarian Fleet. Even after you and Ktan's little assault, he's still got more than twice as many men as we do, all of them trained Madarian soldiers. My men would have no stomach for that kind of fight."
"Well, what are we going to do then?" Willbrand questioned. "Is there some way to lose them?"
Bartro shook his head.
"Only if the storm gets worse, and I've been told by my weatherwatcher that it will not. Our best chance to give them the slip was when they were farther away. Now that they're this close, that's unlikely. Besides, we have another problem."
"Oh, and what's that?" Willbrand questioned.
"I may have been Captain Fisher's first mate, but that doesn't mean I inspire the same loyalty he did. The men are on board to make money, to get rich if possible. Captain Fisher was a man who did that for them, and they expect the same from me. They're here for the gold, not for some idealistic crusade. A lot of them are unhappy about this situation, and with the choices I've made. A lot of them are suggesting that we turn both you and the book over to Dason Walcroft."
Willbrand frowned. He had seen how some of the men had been looking at them. He didn't doubt most, if not all of them, would gladly turn he and Merigan over to Dason to save their own skin, but he had been hoping Bartro could keep them in line. He had hoped that with the death of Captain Fisher, they'd at least be safe on this ship, but apparently that was not the case.
"So what do we do then?" he questioned.
"I'm afraid there's only one thing we can do, and that's get you off the ship."
Willbrand just looked at him for a moment.
"And just how do you propose to do that?" Merigan spoke up.
Bartro's eyes returned to the map.
"In one of the rowboats. According to my calculations, we're not that far from the coast. If you take a lifeboat and head due south, you should be able to reach shore sometime tomorrow."
"But, wouldn't Dason see us leave?" Merigan questioned. "We certainly can't outrun him in a rowboat."
"The Lady of the Night is too big to hide," Bartro replied. "But in the darkness and rain, I don't think they'll be able to see a rowboat. Once you're away, we'll turn north. We should be able to lead the Eagle away from you."
Bartro looked at them again. Neither one of them looked too thrilled with this plan.
"I know it has its risks," Bartro continued. "But I don't see what else we can do. We can't outrun them, and it seems we can't hide. It's just a matter of time before they catch us. I think you're safer in the ocean."
Neither Willbrand nor Merigan answered for a moment. Willbrand was not a sailor, he wasn't anxious to get in that little boat on this big ocean in a storm. He was uncomfortable enough on this one. But it did seem like this might be their only chance.
"We don't have much time," Bartro stated. "If the Eagle gets much closer they'll be close enough to see the rowboat. Also some of the crew might not take kindly to your leaving. As far as they're concerned, you're the only bargaining chip we have. I've got my most loyal men topside right now, the others below, but someone is bound to get suspicious eventually. The sooner we do this, the better."
"I really wish I had a better solution," Bartro continued, looking at Merigan.
Merigan looked up and smiled.
"It's all right Bartro. You've already done more than enough for us. But what about you? What will happen to the ship if the Red Eagle catches you and I'm not aboard?"
"Don't worry about me," he said. "I've always managed to survive. Who knows? When they board the ship and find neither the book nor any young lady, they may decid they just made a big mistake and go home."
Bartro smirked when he said this, but somehow Willbrand didn't think it would be that easy. It was quite possible that by letting them go, Bartro was signing his own death warrant.
Bartro folded his arms across his chest.
"Well, are you ready to go then?"
Willbrand looked at Merigan. He didn't have to discuss it with her to realize they both agreed with Bartro.
"Yes," she said.
Bartro nodded and quickly led them topside. The rain was still coming down in a steady stream. The first mate handed them both cloaks which they wrapped around themselves. They walked over to the starboard side of the boat. Willbrand looked around. He could see some of the other crewmen. He held his hand near his sword, ready in case any of them decided to take matters into their own hands, but none of them came near.
When they reached the side Willbrand looked down to see that a small dinghy had already been dropped from the ship and was bobbing in the water beside it. A rope ladder led down to it.
"Hurry," Bartro said. "There are some provisions stored in the boat. It's not much, but it should last you long enough to find civilization. I suggest you head east once you reach land, try to get to Dramon or Donelan. Don't go south. You don't want to end up in Galias."
Willbrand nodded. He grabbed hold of the ladder and started down. The ladder was slick with rain, and he had to watch his footing.
Merigan mounted the ladder as well. She looked one last time at Bartro.
"Thank you again."
"Good luck t' ya," Bartro responded. "No matter what happens, it lightens my heart to know that the Maidens were not totally destroyed."
Merigan smiled, then slid quickly down the ladder herself.
Willbrand helped her get on board the rowboat. The waves weren't nearly large enough to have much effect on the Lady of the Night, but the small rowboat bobbed up and down to an unnerving degree, or at least, it did in Willbrand's opinion. After he helped Merigan sit down in the stern he not so much sat as fell into the middle seat. The line was cast off above their heads, and without delay he slipped the oars into the water and began rowing away from the Lady.
Willbrand tried to concentrate on his rowing, and not the way the rowboat lifted and dipped over waves that were nearly twice his height. He had never rowed a boat before, and he soon realized it wasn't as easy as it looked. One oar seemed to constantly be slipping out of the water, while the other went too deep, or turned so that it didn't get a good bite. He tried to row directly away from the Lady, but soon found himself turning back and forth, going first too far in one direction, then overcompensating. He tried to remember just how Ktan had done it when they had snuck aboard the Red Eagle, but he couldn't seem to get the hang of it. When one oar slipped out of his hand and almost fell in the water, Merigan got up and plopped herself down beside him.
"Perhaps it would be easier if we both row," she suggested.
Resisting the urge to tell her a gentleman didn't let a lady row, he nodded his head.
They made better progress after that. Merigan seemed to have done this before, for she matched his speed so that they traveled more or less in a straight line from that point on. Wouldn't really surprise him if she had, she had done so much else in her life.
For quite a while they kept staring back at the boat they had left, and the one following. True to his word, Bartro turned the Lady north as soon as they were away, and it wasn't long before the ship vanished in the darkness. Willbrand felt uneasy about that. They were truly on their own now.
But he could think about that later. They couldn't dally; they couldn't chance being seen by their pursuers. Willbrand kept his eyes peeled for the shape of the Red Eagle. It was hard to see, but he could make it out for a while in the night, until it too turned north and disappeared.
"I guess it must have worked," he commented.
Merigan did not reply, just continued to pull her oar, a determined look on her face.
Bartro had told them to head south, but with both ships out of sight, a new problem developed, how to tell whether they were going in the right direction. There was no land in sight. The rain was coming down steadily, the overcast sky making it impossible to spot any stars. Without any landmarks, there was no way to tell if they were going in a straight line or in circles. Well, maybe that wasn't completely true. They could still feel the wind. It blew the waves in steady unending rows from out of the northwest. They could use it as a crude way to tell their direction. Willbrand just prayed it continued to blow true and didn't shift.
They rowed for hours, until Willbrand's shoulders ached and blisters formed on his hands. The oar tore the blisters open, causing his hands to burn painfully with every pull of the oar, but the gritted his teeth and kept going. He wasn't sure if Merigan suffered the same affliction, but she did not complain, or suggest they stop. They both wanted to get to shore as quickly as possible. Willbrand was deathly afraid they had turned in the wrong direction. If they got lost at sea, if the storm got worse and the overturned, he knew they wouldn't stand a chance. They rested whenever they could pull no more, but never for very long. They were both cold and wet and tired, but neither one of them felt any desire to sleep. The fear and adrenaline inside them, plus the uncomfortable conditions, made that an impossibility.
Eventually the rain lessened, and the sky to the east began to lighten. Dawn was finally approaching. Willbrand turned to look ahead of them, and saw a band of greater darkness running along the horizon.
"Is that land?" he questioned.
Merigan looked as well.
"Yes, I think so," she said thankfully.
Filled with relief, they both pulled on the oars with renewed vigor. As the sun rose, they could see the mainland quite clearly in front of them. Even so, the distance was deceiving, and the land drew closer with agonizing slowness. It was not until the sun was nearly at it's zenith before they gratefully pulled the boat ashore on a narrow beach.
Willbrand stumbled out of the boat, his legs weak from disuse, so thankful to have survived he was tempted to kiss the sand he stood on. Merigan followed him out more slowly, looking around.
Willbrand searched the beach around them with his gaze. A sandy bluff rose up in front of them. He could see trees overhanging the edge at the top. There was no sign of civilization. He had seen the map on the Lady of the Night. He knew they must be somewhere to the north of Galias, but he didn't know anything more about this area. He turned to Merigan, who had traveled a lot more than he.
"Do you have any idea where we are?" he questioned.
Merigan shook her head.
"Not really. We could be anywhere along the coast between Hadell and Donelan."
Willbrand nodded. That was pretty much what he expected. He had seen many maps of the kingdom. He tutors had gone over with him the history and geography of Mandaria. The southern portion of it was the oldest, where the kingdom had begun, and where the capital city of
Merigan had turned and was staring out over the ocean. He came up beside her. Even if they did find civilization, they were still in a bad way. Ktan and the others were far away, and they had no way to contact them or tell them where they were.
"Are you worried about the others?" he questioned.
"We've been separated before, but never like this," she said. She turned to look at him. "It's kind of scary."
He nodded. He felt the same way.
"But we did have a contingency plan," she continued. "In case something like this ever did happen. Even though we're hunted, we do have friends in many cities. If we can contact one of them, they'll try to get in touch with Ktan for us. But even if all goes well, Ktan is not an easy person to find, and I'm afraid it's going to be quite some time before we see the others again."
Willbrand didn't say anything at first. He had never been on his own. His days spent with Ktan and the others had given him confidence, but he was still worried. After all, he didn't have just himself to worry about, but Merigan as well. Even though he suspected she was more capable of taking care of herself than he might be, he still felt responsible for her. He couldn't just suddenly dismiss all those years of training as a noble. Nevertheless, she was the one who was going to have to make the decisions right now.
"So where do we go?" he questioned. "Where do we find these people?"
She turned again and looked to the east, along the endless line of bluffs in that direction. She seemed almost reluctant to speak.
"We go do Donelan," she said finally. “The town of my birth."