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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Three

 

"She's after the capn', that's for sure."

That was the comment Theo walked into as he approached the galley for mid-day's meal. He paused outside the door, recognizing the gravely tones of his bosman. A morbid curiosity made him wait to see what other comments might be made.

"She was all over him out there last night. So I hear."

"I don't much care for her myself. Reeks of Kerisai. I could swear to see a few of the dark little imps traipsing about her when I delivered her breakfast." That from Collin.

"The weather's been unnaturally good." Adella mused. "Do you reckon she's been calling on the air spirits for a helpin' hand?"

"Could be. She's not one I'd want in my bed, for sure though. Theo should know better."

"That's a young man for you. Never thinks too much with his head when a pretty lass is around." That sage bit of advice from Adella. "Lad always has had the women after him. Needs a few scars, he does, so he's not so pretty."

Theo rolled his eyes in exasperation and pushed open the galley door. Adella, Collin and the boy Urchin looked up at his abrupt presence in guilty surprise. Wonderful. Not only did two of his trusted old hands talk about him, but they did it in front of a green boy.

He nodded greetings at the lot of them and strolled over to see what soup Collin had warming as if he hadn't heard an infamous word. The boy blushed furiously. Collin calmly ladled him soup, it was fish and potato today, with fresh bread and a chunk of sharp cheese. Adella finished his soup with a slurp, and pushed the bowl back.

"Afternoon to you, captain." he said with the air of a man who had never uttered a word of gossip in his life. He disappeared down the hall.

Theo watched him go with a tight smile, taking his place at the table. Collin stirred the soup, adding a touch more salt to the mix. He told the shuffling boy to fetch a sack of flour from the hold and when the sound of the lad's feet had faded, asked Theo.

"How long were you outside the door?"

"Why ever would you ask? Talking about something you shouldn't have?"

Collin gave him an arch look, pointing the dripping ladle at him like an accusatory finger. "Find a man on this ship that isn't talking about something they shouldn't and I'll never touch another drop of ale in my life."

"You make that bet all to often and never live up to it." Theo glared. "She wanted to walk the deck. Was I supposed to let her do it alone in the middle of the night?"

Collin shook his head, with that look that indicated something sat badly in his gut. "One night out and you're tempted. We've three weeks to go. What are you going to do?"

"Nothing. I'm going to do nothing. I had this talk with Wing this morning. I don't need a lecture from you too."

"I wouldn't think to - -"

"You would! And you are. Leave it."

"Fine. I saw her father again today. Delivered his lunch while the nurse was indisposed over the rail."

"Fine. Did you appease your morbid curiosity?" Theo was not feeling particularly pleasant at the moment.

"Not really. He's not aware of where he is, which might very well be the symptom of a failing mind. But do you know what I smelt in the room? Veperin leaves."

"And this indicates what?"

"Veperin is a drug used to dull the mind. A hallucinogenic."

"A painkiller?"

"Perhaps, but an unorthodox one. I could think of better things."

"Are you determined to find some fault with Lady Tiana? She's pulled us out of debt with this one passage. I personally can't afford to search out all her past sins."

"Hummm. Just thought you'd want to know."

 

Theo was starting to get a little irritated with the crew. He was certainly well aware of the talk going around. He made a particular effort to be civilly polite to the lady when she walked the deck during the day light hours, and nothing any of the gossip mongers he called a crew could construe as anything more. She seemed to sense what he was about and her manner was nothing if not coldly oblivious. He wasn't certain if that sudden disinterest was a relief or a depressing deflation of his ego.

They reached the currents west of Flamora and turned seaward towards Danar before she spoke more than two sentences to him again.

Theo came off watch, leaving the ship in Wing's capable hands, by passed dinner altogether and made for the chart room and his hammock. The door to Tiana's cabin opened and the lady herself stood and beckoned him. Of course he went, thinking she had some problem, some complaint she needed to bring to his attention. Two steps into the familiar room and she closed the door. One more and she pounced at him, catching his collar and pulling him to press against her in a most passionate manner.

It was very much unexpected and he stood rather dumbly enduring her softly rounded body touching his until she kissed him and then the realization struck, that 'no' she did not have a complaint. She was a very good kisser. Magnificent really, as far as his experience went and he had kissed quite a few girls. It was such a pleasurable experience that he entertained no thoughts of pulling away. The merchanter's code just did not seem important at the moment. Not while her hands were doing things to his body, at any rate. It wasn't until she forced him back and his knees hit the bed that some small bit of panic began to sit in. Where was the maid. Spirits forbid she was huddled in the corner while her mistress had her way with the ship's captain.

He hit the mattress with Tiana between his legs and had the breath to ask just that. The lady laughed.

"I sent her to stay with father and his nurse tonight. I couldn't stand another night of this charade."

"Charade?"

She was working at the lacings of his shirt. "Pretending," she whispered, nipping at his ear at the same time. "that I didn't want to rip your clothes off and make love to you on deck in front of mortals and spirits alike."

He took a sharp little breath when her hands started at his pants. "Oh. That charade."

With logic like that, one certainly could not turn the lady down. It would be rude. Ungentlemanly. To hell with the crew. Wing and Collin and the rest would just have to learn to live with the shame.

Theo was fairly certain the crew was unaware of his liaison with the lady until after the lull before the storm, after which, to his somewhat haphazard memory of events, it became rather obvious to all concerned. For a week running he had joined Tiana in her cabin. It was a mutually beneficial situation and a mutually enjoyable one. Sexually she was a dynamo. He could not recall ever having slept with a woman as versatile in ideas and physical prowess as Tiana. His attraction was fast becoming an infatuation that the lady was more than happy to encourage. She did, after all, thrive on adoration.

Almost a week after their first encounter, the skies to the north turned chalky gray and the wind that had been at their backs for days suddenly died, sucked up into a void as if it had never been. Theo and Wing stood observing the ominous skyline somberly. For the wind to dry up so totally was a bad sign. It meant something huge was brewing within those dark clouds. The Luck tossed uneasily on the waves, her sails flaccid, carried along by nothing more than the deep westerly current they followed.

"She'll be a bad one." Wing predicted. "We should furl the sails and fish a yard. I don't trust that arm to hold well during a big storm."

Theo didn't take his eyes from the approaching weather. He could feel it in the air. The electricity that seemed to permeate everything, the smell of faint ozone in the air. The dead quiet that had overtaken the world.

"Do it." he ordered quietly. Storms didn't scare him, no more than they scared any sailor in his right mind, even though each and every one brought back the memory of the one that had claimed his father. No fright, other than the tension in his gut, but there burned a challenge, a hatred almost of the sea's fury. He almost looked forward to beating it, to riding out the storm and coming through with his ship in one piece.

Wing's started to nod, then frowned, eyes tracking on something behind Theo's shoulder. The lady had come on deck, followed by one of her guards. She paused scenting the air, then moved towards where Wing and Theo stood.

"There's a storm brewing." she said.

Theo indicated the northern horizon with a jerk of his chin. "You'd better go below. It's liable to be treacherous."

"It will slow us? Put us off course?"

"More than likely."

"It can't be allowed."

He half smiled at that, an incredulous little grin that crossed his lips then left them at her naiveté. One allowed the sea nothing. She was a power unto herself that all sailors respected. He might hate the storm, challenge it even, but he damn well understood that there was no avoiding it.

"There's no choice in the matter." he told her. Tiana smiled serenely.

"Let it go else where and plague us not."

He shook his head, figuring there was no reasoning with a land bound woman. "Furl the sails." he told Wing. "Brace the yard if you want. Just be quick about it, I don't think we've a great deal of time."

"No." Tiana said. "Leave the sails. The wind will be back and the storm will harass some other place."

Both he and Wing stared at her. She took a breath and closed her eyes. Her fingers touched, forming a triangle shape at her breast and a soft humming issued forth from her half parted lips. A indistinct, vibrant pulse disturbed the still air, hardly a thing to be noticed, save that attention was so silently and securely fixed on Tiana. Theo felt the hair on his arms stand on end, rather from some imagined chill or the very real unease the lady was invoking with her curious behavior. All about the deck the crew had ceased their work to stare at the goings on at the wheel. Collin had come up top and stood behind Adella, a foreboding frown on his face. His somber eyes were fixed on the air above Tiana's head, as if something there were more intriguing than the lady herself.

Theo shifted his own gaze up. The very air seemed to ripple. It might have been entirely overlooked if one had not been looking for some oddity. It was like shimmering heat waves above desert sands, only it was far from hot here, and this disturbance was centered solely in the space above Tiana's head. He squinted and looked harder and could almost make out the ghostly shapes of - - things. Small, willowy shapes that frolicked and danced about Tiana. No one else seemed to notice, even though the number of wavery shrouds increased. Shocked, he met Collin's gaze and his cooking surgeon merely shook his head, as if some dire fate he had predicted was coming to pass.

With an abrupt slash of her hands, Tiana broke her own trance, speaking one harsh word. "Go!"

She jabbed a rigid finger at the northern storm front and with astounding speed, the faint forms above her shot away towards the distant darkness. Tiana took one breath, then another before a calm, satisfied smile crossed her features. Breeze ruffled her hair and the sails snapped as they caught a gust of the same westward air current.

"There." She said. "The wind is back. We should have smooth sailing henceforth."

She passed close by Theo, brushing her fingers along his arm with all the arch backed satisfaction of a cat who wanted something a human too slow witted to anticipate her needs. "Now that that nasty storm is spewing it's temper elsewhere, perhaps you'd care to join me for lunch. Your cook has made up a lovely cheese pie. You must give him my complements if the taste is anything like the aroma."

He was at a loss for words. Tiana did not seem troubled by the open mouthed stare he gave her. It seemed to rather please her.

Theo gazed at her back in something not quite akin to awe, but close to it, while Wing looked at him with brows lowered in apprehension. They were sailors all and not used to dealing with the forces of magic. Theo had never seen a magician at work. He'd certainly never seen such a sight as the shimmery inhuman figures that Tiana had summoned to carry out her will.

One heard tales. One heard a great many tales in the port side taverns that a seaman might frequent. Stories of magic both light and dark and of sorcerers both evil and good. One heard so many fables that it was hard to keep the fact from the fiction. Men like Collin held so many superstitions that they could barely experience an odd change to the weather without attributing it to some weather spirit or another, or the workings of some magician doing what he ought not to.

Personally Theo had never put much faith in tavern tales, preferring to rely on the reality he made for himself. But on this particular afternoon he was reviewing a fair number of stories overheard and hoping rather desperately that the Lady Tiana was a magician of the good persuasion. It was disconcerting to think that he had slept with anything else.

"What have we taken aboard?" Wing's voice was barely a whisper. He cast wary glances about at the crew who had clustered together in little groups, heads together in debate.

"Did you see what I saw?" Theo inquired in the same low tones.

"I saw a witch at work. I feel the winds when there were none and see a storm front changed course at a moment's whim."

Theo frowned, wondering if any of them save himself had seen the sheer spirits around Tiana. He hoped not. His men were suspicious enough without having the sight of the arcane to fuel their nervousness.

"Back to work." he called, striding to the stern quarter deck, adjusting the rudder slightly to take better advantage of this unnatural wind. Wing took his cue and stalked out to break up the clusters. Grudgingly the men returned to their tasks and only Collin remained loitering on deck. He did not come over, which was a relief and deliver an 'I told you so'. He merely shook his head forbodingly and after a moment more disappeared below decks.

"I was disappointed," the lady Tiana pouted, when Theo next saw her, after his watch. "That you did not join me for lunch. Halli is such dreadful company."

He was tired and stressed from a day spent soothing the superstitions of his men, not to mention the quiet squelching of his own uncertainties. Tack, was not at the moment his greatest of skills.

"Why don't you dine with your father. Collin tells me he takes his meals alone every day."

Her smooth expression twitched. Just a curl of those deliciously full lips, then the placid smile was back in place. "You might suppose me weak and an ungrateful daughter, but I confess that his condition distresses me. I find the doddering of the weak, the helplessness of a once strong man upsetting to my digestion. I assure you I sit with him, but allow me the grace to take some pleasure of my meals."

Theo took a breath, feeling guilty at having drawn forth that admission. To let the pressures of the day and Collin's gossip instigate such a snappish comment was unforgivable. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that." He hung his head, rubbing a neck sore with built up tension. "It's been a hard day what with - - - everything that's happened."

"Ah." she said, understanding gleaming in her eyes. "The storm. Sailors, I've heard, are a superstitious lot. Do your men fear I might turn into a blood thirsty demon and devour them some moonless night?"

"Spirits, I hope not." He attempted a tired grin. "I'd have the lot of them sleeping with me."

"That would be terrible." she conceded slyly. "I do hate sleeping more than two to a bed."

The invitation was clear. He was at a loss for reply, in no wise of a mood to continue the relationship she had instigated. At least not this night. "Lady, they'll deal with it. It's just that none of us have witnessed a working of magic so close. It was not, I take it, a small thing you did?"

"No." she admitted carefully. "It was not a small thing, but needful." Needful to her. He wondered where that storm would hit, that nature had not intended.

"I'll take your word." he said, to be politic. "It's been a long day. I bid you sleep well."

Her fingers brushed his arm. "Captain, I can offer you more comfort in your own bed than that hammock in the closet."

"Yes. But not more rest." He smiled his best, genuine smile of fond regret, and stepped into the chart room, closing the door firmly behind him.

Collin was sitting at the port rail peeling potatoes, the boy Urchin at his side doing the same when Theo walked past.

"Well, did you bed the witch again last night?" the cook inquired without looking up from his knife. The boy furiously kept his head down, whittling his potato to a nub.

Theo's step faltered. That was out of line. Totally out of line considering it had been said in front of Urchin. Collin had a habit of embarrassing him when he was out of sorts with something his captain had done. He thought he could get away with it. He was a damned good cook and a better surgeon, and his services would be more than appreciated on any ship, but he'd been a friend of Theo's father and a friend to Theo for a good many years and stayed this berth because of it. Other than Wing, he was the best friend Theo had. It still didn't mean he could get away with remarks like that to his captain. At least not in front of junior crew.

Theo stopped and turned on his heel. Collin looked up, eyes speculative, the boy hunched further over his potato.

"I've had about as much as I'm going to take from you on this subject." Theo said, in his best irate captain tone of voice. "It's my ship and who or what I choose to take on board is my decision. It is not open to crew discussion. I don't particularly care to overhear any more snide remarks about our passenger or what I may or may not be doing with her. "

Collin's eyes flashed. The color rose in his pale cheeks. Spirits, his northern temper was sparked. Well, Theo had a temper too, and his was just about at it's breaking point.

"Is it indignity or embarrassment, Theo? Doing what you shouldn't and the rest of us be damned, is it? Bring a dark witch on board this ship and expect no one to worry?"

"Dark witch my ass, Collin. You don't know what she is. You have no idea, you're just making assumptions as usual and while you're at it you're doing a fine job of undermining my command. What, are you planning a nice friendly little mutiny next?"

Collin's brows dropped. His fingers tightened on the knife. He looked at the boy, who was shaking and still working at the pitiful remains of his potato. "Take what we've done down the galley and start dicing, lad." The cook gently suggested. The knife dropped from Urchin's fingers as he made a grab for the pan of peeled white lumps. When the boy was gone, Collin looked back up to Theo.

"You know that's not true. Not a man on this boat would betray you, myself foremost among them. It's just - - you're damned young Theo - - and the young don't always see things the same light an older man might."

"What light is that, Collin? Superstition? Paranoia? Pessimism? You're not that much of an old man Collin. No gray on your head. How do you figure you see things so much more clearly than the rest of us?"

"Every man and woman in my family save for me was brought up either a scholar or a wielder of magic. I didn't have a taste for either one, but I'll tell you plainly that association with the both of them rubs off on a man. I've heard things about the darker side of magic that most men don't want to know. You hear the terms Kerisai and Kurisar and think, they're merely two different sects of magicians; two different views on the making of magic, but I'll tell you now that it's more. It's a way of life and a way of thinking and the man or woman that embraces Kerisai isn't just using the darker spirits to fuel his magic, he's embracing a darker side of life itself. Different morals, different needs, different set of right and wrong."

"Fine, I believe you. You still don't know she's of that sect."

"There aren't many who practice magic in Danar who are anything else."

Theo stared off across a clear, calm sea, feeling this conversation was going nowhere. That Collin was damned and determined to think what he wanted and voice it whenever he chose.

"Go talk to her father." Collin suggest. "Try and get a moment alone with him if you can. Spirits know his nurse won't let me past the door anymore. See the state she keeps him in."

"He's sick and old, and not right in the head because of it."

Collin let out a short bark of laughter. "He's drugged, Theo."

"We've talked about this."

"He's drugged and I don't think it's to kill any particular pain, other than maybe having the lady Tiana as daughter."

"I don't want to talk to him. It would be like calling her a liar."

"So you'd rather call me one?" "You don't know what you're talking about." Theo snapped in exasperation.

"Go talk to him."

With a glare Theo stalked away. But Collin had planted the seed. No matter how hard he tried not to dwell on it, he was beginning to wonder what the old man might have to say.

Coincidentally he got his chance the following afternoon when the old man's nurse was overcome with a sudden and violent attack of sea sickness. One had to wonder what it was about her lunch that had sent her so quickly to the rail to spew it forth into the sea. One hesitated to suspect one's cook of such foul deeds, but the thought did wheedle it's way into the mind. He passed the nurse on his way to the chart room and that stern faced woman barely acknowledged him as she rushed by, green of complexion and hand tightly covering mouth. He half frowned at the alacrity of the woman's passage, hoping her haste did not lead her to injury on the deck. He noticed upon pausing at the door to the chart room that the opposite door, the one to Tiana's father's cabin had been left slightly ajar. There was the sound of slight coughing from within, and he wondered if the invalid old man also found lunch disagreeable.

Tiana had made no bones about her desire that no one disturb the rest of her father, but between Collin's suppositions and the sound of distress from within Theo found it hard not to step towards the door, gently push it ajar and peer in upon the cabin's occupant.

The room was in good order, but the smell of sickness made the air heavy. They were experiencing fine weather and there was no reason the hatch could not be opened to air the cabin out. He would suggest it to the nurse on her return. The old man himself was propped in the single narrow bunk, blankets kicked away from his skinny legs. He was a frail thing, all wrinkled and bony. His skin was dark as were his rheumy eyes, and he looked like nothing else but any old father from the southern reaches of Khell.

It was the look in his eyes that drew Theo further into the room. It was as Collin had said, a drugged, dazed expression directed aimlessly at the wall at his feet.

There was a chair at bedside with a half eaten plate of food on a tray before it. Theo pushed the tray aside and perched on the edge of the chair.

"How fare you, sir?" he inquired gently. No reaction from the eyes, though the lips seemed to be trembling over words that never passed them. What had Tiana said his name was? "Are you all right, master Pyphin?"

The eyes shifted, darting towards him, then up to the ceiling as if searching out invisible sprites. "My throat is dry." he complained in a croaking voice, sounding as if he hadn't spoken in years. Theo looked about and found a half consumed cup of tea. He took one of the old man's hands and wrapped it around the luke warm cylinder. A great deal of the liquid spilled down the front of his gown, but the old man managed to swallow a sip or two.

"Good girl, Dharva." he muttered.

"Dharva's not here." Theo told him, thinking he referred to his nurse. "She had to make a trip to the rail, but she'll be back."

"Not . . ? Did you feel the earth move? The whole world shifted, did you feel it, Dharva? It's broken the third rune. The world will mourn if the other two follow."

Theo didn't follow that, so he just patted the old arm and sat the cup back on the tray. The old man's eyes focused on him and for a moment they were sharp and intense in their gaze.

"Who are you?"

The cabin door opened and the nurse staggered across the thresh hold, then froze when she saw Theo sitting with her patient. Her face screwed up in displeasure and something else almost akin to fear. She seemed on the verge of delving into a lecture, so Theo headed it off by brushing past her with an apology on his lips before she could bring an accusation to hers. The door slammed shut behind him and he was sure the hook was latched.

Tiana's farther was sick and ravaged by the rigors of age. She had assured him of that quite succinctly and in truth the old man did look ancient and weak, his thoughts wondering like a feather in the breeze. Collin was an instigator and a spinner of wild yarns. Theo should have known from experience that his cook's theories were far fetched and riddled with paranoid supposition. Yet that one agonizingly sharp look the old man had pierced him with stayed with him. It was like a moment of clarity in a drunken man's stupor, when for a brief flicker of time clarity forced its way past the haze of alcohol. He couldn't get that look out of his head and stood a troubled watch because of it.

 

 

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