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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Four

 

The second time Theodonis the senior had seen his son had been when the Agbar authorities had apprehended his drunken self and dragged him to the stale and damp penitentiary at the bottom level of the Agbar City court house. It was the first time he'd been in port and stayed long enough for word to get around that he was in town and a senior law clerk, who happened to be a distant cousin of Theodonis the junior's late mother decided a family reunion was long overdue.

Theo had been incarcerated for stealing. He sat alone in a small, windowless cell, no bigger than a box. He had been here before for one trouble or another and it was ironic that on this particular occasion he hadn't even committed the crime for which he was accused. He'd taken the blame though, because Wing was older and big enough that he wouldn't have received the leniency that Theo had. Wing would have lost a hand for nothing more than a decorate knife no longer than his arm from wrist to elbow. So Theo grabbed the knife over Wing's objections when the city guards had chased them down and admitted valiantly and belligerently to the crime. He could be so much louder and more obnoxious when the urge hit him than his friend that the guard was more than willing to box his ears and drag him away despite Wing's efforts to convince them that the fault was his.

So that's where he was when his uncle whom he only vaguely recognized brought his father to him. The older Theodonis was most assuredly not pleased with the responsibility that it seemed was going to be thrust upon him. He cursed and complained and glared at uncle and son, denying relationship altogether. But it was plain to see, from the hair and the eyes and even the shape of still young bones that this was indeed flesh of his flesh. It was even plainer evident that he was the son of the hauntingly beautiful woman the older Tehodonis had loved. As much as he could have loved a woman over the sea.

Theo would have rather stayed in the cell than to have gone with a man who did not want him, with a man that had not come to pay respects to his mother's grave after years of using her body when ever he strayed to Agbar Port. But the choice was not offered him and he was dragged from the cell, held in a hurtful grip and hauled out to the street where several sailors from his father's ship waited, concerned with welfare of their captain. His father gave him over to their keeping, giving only the briefest of curt explanations.

It wasn't until they'd reached the docks that Theo realized that they might very well mean to take him aboard their ship and sail away with him that he began to panic. He kicked the one on his left in the shin and twisted out of the grip of the other, running for the city with their cries behind him. They would never catch him if chose not to let them. He had survived these streets all his young life and certainly no bowlegged sailor could track him on them.

He found Wing in the hovel they shared behind the candle makers barn. The older boy was furious and indignant at the sacrifice made on his behalf, and in no mood to listen to Theo's fast paced babblings. It wasn't until they'd both calmed down that Wing comprehended Theo's tale and sat with wide eyed awe at the thought of going to sea. He held more of a romantic notion of the seafaring life than Theo did, Theo being inclined to spit upon sailors more than revere them since the heartless bastard who had gotten him on his mother and then abandoned them both happened to be one.

For a day they laid low, afraid to venture out onto the streets and by the second morning hunger drove them to look for food. There was a tavern run by a retired seaman where they occasionally did odd jobs in return for supper. They were headed there when figures rushed out at them from the shadows and laid hands upon them. Theo never did figure out how he'd been found. All he knew that he was being dragged away again despite his protests and Wing railing at the sailors from all sides. They slapped him down several times, but he kept coming, and with each and every blow Theo became a more frantic object in their grip. They had no choice finally but to take hold of Wing and drag him along too.

When they reached the ship with two bloody, bruised boys in tow, the captain had looked down in disapproval, listening to the story of his mate as to how the two were damned and determined not to be separated. It was one of the smartest moves on Theodonis the senior's part and the one that first endeared him to his rebellious son, when he ordered them both aboard with the wry observation that he might as well recruit two new boys as soon as one.

Theo started out of a not quite doze, where his mind had wondered the currents of his past. Still vivid in his head was the first time his feet had touched the unstable deck of the Luck. He'd gotten his sea legs before Wing though, and only once ever had his stomach gotten the better of him. A natural sailor his father had said to him, later on when their relationship was on better footing. Must have been in the blood.

He lay cocooned in the web of his hammock, swaying slightly from the natural roll of the ship, a chart book of Danar's coastal waters on his stomach. There were dozens of notes scribbled in his father's hand among the pages, warning of a treacherous reef or a tempting cove that was frequented by pirates. Danar was wilder than Khell, peopled sparsely and ruled by the law of the strong. The only organized cities were along the coast, and the interior, rumor had it, was a haven for nomadic tribes, slavers, bandits and outlaws.

He rubbed grit from his eyes, comfortably drowsy still and to likely to fall back into sleep to leave the aging, yellowed pages of the chart book in danger of falling to the floor. He shut the book and swung out of the hammock to return it to its proper niche.

His fingers had barely left the spine of the book when the cabin door swung inward. This late in the night no lanterns burned in the hall outside the passenger cabins, yet a pale, bluish glow hovered around the lady Tiana as she stood in the threshold. He didn't know what surprised him more the lady or the eerie glow that surrounded her. She was in her night clothing. A sweeping white robe that covered a floor length gown of the same material. Her hair was a cascading tangle of color upon her white clad shoulders.

Her face was what made him draw back, for it was filled with fury. Her eyes fairly snapped with it. Theo knew with absolute certainty that she had found out he had intruded upon her father. He was ready to take blame, ready to admit that his curiosity had gotten the better of him and apologize.

The first words out of her mouth took him off guard.

"What did he tell you?" she hissed. He blinked, expecting accusation not a scathing request for the contents of the conversation.

"Tiana. Lady, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have gone against your wishes and I assure you it won't - - - -"

"What did he say to you?" she stalked the scant feet across the cabin, coming at him like some attacking animal. Her voice was shrill with anger. Something fluttered behind him out of the shadows thrown by the single lamp burning in his room. His gaze flickered up, distracted by the movement.

Her hand cracked across his cheek and that brought his attention back swiftly enough. He brought a hand up instinctively, matching her glare.

"Damnit, woman! I talked to the old man, I didn't take him out for a stroll on the deck. You act as if it's a crime for him to have company at all. Are you ashamed of your father in his decline?"

"What words did he speak to you?" the syllables flowed out of her mouth slowly, carefully as if he were a half wit that might not understand otherwise.

"Nothing but babble. He asked who I was." Theo admitted in frustration.

"What babble?"

"Spirits! What do you care?"

She didn't ask further. Her lips pulled back in a snarl, her jaw twitched slightly as if in tension. Theo's cabin exploded with darkness. Moving, living darkness that seethed out of every shadow and every nook, that spun past him in the form of whispery, malevolent demons, trailing ghostly claws across his flesh. He cried out, stumbling backwards, flailing arms in a useless effort to chase the things away. They kept coming at him, taking it seemed, great glee in his harassment. Gaping, sharp toothed grins could just been seen below the jet black sockets where eyes should have been.

He crashed into his hammock, twisting frantically to untangle himself from it's webbing and went to his knees with the dark things clutching at his hair, at his throat. Breath came hard as hands he could not touch to pry loose, pressed in upon his neck. He felt the touch of them all over, under his clothing, in his mouth, jabbing and poking and invading. He could not fight them, or even rightly see them, and frantic, wild terror turned his vision black around the corners.

And then they withdrew. All of them just slipped away from him and hovered scant feet away, framing the pale, amused face of Tiana as she bent to look at him. "Do you recall," she asked sweetly. "What words my father spoke?"

Theo was shaking. He could not still the tremor in his limbs. There was a warm wetness down the leg of his pants. Numbing, revolting embarrassment that. "He said - - the earth shifted. He asked for - - tea. There was a broken stone. He asked for Dharva." he couldn't recall if the old man had mentioned more. He was lucky to remember that with the state his thoughts were in.

"That's all?" Tiana pouted, looking disappointed. "He said nothing else?"

Theo shook his head, at a loss, beyond shock at the moment. The lady hissed and behind her the drifting shapes melted away.

"Weeks and he says nothing and when he does - - incoherent jabbering."

Theo didn't understand. He had no wish to understand anything about the lady Tiana or her father. His one desire and it was a stingingly great one, was for her to vacate the stifling space of the chart room. But, she did not seem to be of a mood to leave just yet. A pitying smile played about her lips. The anger was gone from her eyes, replaced by something else.

"I asked you to have my father left strictly alone. It's your own fault if you reap the consequences of defying my wishes. Don't do so again, Captain. My little companions are without the benefit of human compassion or morals. They could rip the flesh from a body, and the soul from the flesh if they were allowed too free a hand."

She reached out and touched his hair. He flinched from her, revulsion tightening his gut as he realized that his fear excited her. She was a woman -- and he'd known a few more like her -- that loved to have the upper hand.

"Get out." he muttered.

"Ah, Theo, don't let this come between us." She cooed, leaning closer, threatening to press her body against his. He pushed her back violently. She stumbled, caught her balance against the table that dominated the small cabin and righted herself. Her head went up proudly, eyes narrowed dangerously at the rejection.

"What sort of man are you," she hissed. "that lets such a little thing shrink his manhood? You were eager enough for me a few nights back. Coward!"

In a flutter of white robes she whirled and stalked from the room, leaving in her wake a definitive lightening of the air. He could breath again, barely. He needed the sweet tang of sea spray and unhindered salty air though, so he staggered to his feet and made his way towards the upper deck.

There were a sprinkling of stars adorning the night sky. The moon was far to the east, only a third of the full globe she had been at the start of this voyage. By her position he gauged it to be some three hours since he'd given over the watch to Wing. His first mate, ever diligent in his duties would be certainly aware of his appearance on deck and Theo did not wish to be questioned by a concerned friend.

He kept to the shadows of the deck house, following it's course towards the bow where no one held duty during the hours of the night watch. With the solid wall of the deckhouse at his back, and the prow of the Luck before him, he slid down to the deck, locking his hands around his knees to keep his fingers from trembling. Visions of those things kept lunging up in his memory. Horrible, evil apparitions that had come from the shadows of his very room. The darkness had never been a thing to frighten him, even as a child, but he hadn't realized the things that dwelled there before. He knew now and did not know if he could ever exist within it again without wondering what thing lurked there with him.

What a fool he was. Scant years he'd served as captain of this ship and he brought her nothing but trouble. She should be rechristened. The Curse. Theodonis' Curse. It was only fitting. His first act as captain had been to get them banned from prosperous Agbar Port. Stupid, stupid misunderstanding with the high magistrate, his lovely young wife and a shipment of exotic body oils. He'd a bounty on his head and his ship if ever he showed his face in that harbor again for black marketeering and rape, although spirits knew the latter was the grandest of fantasies, although one suspected the claim had saved the young wife from being burned as an adulteress.

The bad luck with this last shipment for Kava was only the last in a string of deals gone wrong. Port officials it seemed were more inclined to double deal a green captain than a seasoned one. It was enough to make a man consider piracy, as the cranky old captain in the Kava Port Authority office had so open accused.

A witch on board shouldn't have surprised him at all. A bad tempered one ran perfectly well with the string of luck he was experiencing. Collin would have fits containing his smug 'you should have listened to me ' jibes. If they survived that long. If Tiana did not release more of her black magic and end Theo's bad streak once and for all.

Spirits, he wanted this voyage over and Tiana and her party off his ship. Let her use any magic she wanted to keep the weather fair and the winds at their backs. He wouldn't fault her for that, as long as she kept it away from him and his.

He rested his forehead on his knees, closing his eyes and shutting out even the faint outlines the starlight made of the bow. The skin of his throat hurt from the ministrations of Tiana's dark spirits. His skin itched in other places where their unearthly little nails had scraped. And the witch had actually wanted him after that. Actually expected him to gratify her after setting her foul demons upon him. The notion occurred to him that there were two weeks left to this journey and that she might again suggest a coupling and might, considering her temper, take it unkindly if he refused. He shuddered to think what her retaliation for rejection might be, if she reacted so violently to a few mere words to her doddering father.

The deck creaked and a shadow darker than the one he took shelter within fell over him. Theo's breath caught in his chest. His head jerked up so quickly it cracked into the wall behind him. Wing stood over him, a mere silhouette against the night sky. Theo couldn't see him clearly but he sensed the frown on his broad face.

"What's wrong?" His first mate's voice was short and filled with concern. How did one say there was a dark witch on one's ship that had assaulted one with demons, threatened one's flesh and soul and then causally suggested a good roll under the covers and would probably insist upon the same at a later date?

The darkness was a blessing at this moment, for his expression must have been priceless. He shook his head mutely, finding to his almost hysterical amusement that his voice wouldn't work. He couldn't come up with words that his throat would let pass.

He laughed a little madly and managed to mumble. "Nothing."

Wing kept standing there, a solid, unmovable presence that was not so easily swayed by false assurances. Wing knew him too well. Wing did not press or speak a word, he merely stared, waiting.

"All right." Theo whispered finally. "Collin was right. He'll be so pleased to hear me say it. We've a witch on board and not a particularly sweet natured one."

"What did you do, Theo?" Wing asked somberly with a dread tone of acceptance in his voice. Theo's eyes snapped up, offended at the easy assumption that he was somehow at fault for this fiasco.

"What did I do? You immediately assume I'm to blame?"

"Did you bed her?"

Theo couldn't answer that right away. He looked away, out over an inky sea, rubbing his face with a hand callused from years of hard work.

"I was wrong." he admitted. "I broke a cardinal rule, but damned if that's the cause of what she did."

"What did she do?"

"I spoke with her father." Theo's voice turned a little desperate, as though he sought absolution in his friend's eyes. "The door was open, the old man was alone. I thought he was sick - - choking. I sat with him for only a few moments before his nurse came back. What harm was there in that?"

"She told us plainly to keep from his cabin." Wing reminded, ever the pragmatic one, ever the stolid follower of rules that Theo blithely ignored.

"Innocent or not, she has a right to be angry."

"Angry?" Theo spat out the word in distaste. Angry was far too mild a term for what Tiana had been. He felt a little hysteria rising. "She set demons on me, Wing. I've never seen the like. Out of the shadows - - dozens of them - - they came at me and I couldn't fend them off. I thought I was dead." His words choked out with an aborted sob.

Wing crouched down beside him, gripping his shoulder with a heavy hand. "She attacked you with magic? Are you well?"

Theo laughed. Miserably. He was fine other than dealing with the fear that she'd do it again. He did not say that to Wing. He merely nodded mutely.

"If there was a port closer than Vahnatu, I'd say deposit them immediately, gold or no." Wing said thoughtfully. "As is, if her main concern is the privacy of her father, then by all means keep away from him. I'll tell Collin to keep his nose of out her business, for I suspect he's the instigator of a good part of this. And by the spirits, Theo, stay your distance from the woman. I've no taste for feeding the sharks, witch or no, but if she lays a hand to you again I won't hesitate." Always his protector.

The thought had not quite crossed Theo's mind of tossing her to the sea. It was not a bad notion and an even better threat to be used towards good behavior. No matter how powerful a witch, neither she nor her underlings were sailors and without this crew to man the Luck, land would not be reached.

"Cap'n slept in the crew quarters last night." Adella commented, ever the bountiful horn of gossip among the Luck's crew. Collin who slept in the galley lifted an interested red brow as he added salt to the morning porridge.

"Better than some places I could think of." Was the cook's reply.

Wing, sitting at the plank table that ran half the length of the small galley partaking of what to him was his last meal before his sleep, frowned at the loose talk of the captain. But the implications of the casual remark worried him. If Theo refused to go back to his temporary cabin, then he was more than merely upset by the confrontation with the lady.

"Ah, she's a pretty piece," Adella was musing. "but the lad well knows the unspoken law."

Collin sniffed. "Now I can't be saying much on the subject having been chastised for spreading rumors, but I will say what he knows and what he does might not be the same thing."

"Fish wives." Wing spat, fed up with the topic. "That's what the two of you sound like. Spiteful old crones with nothing better to do than trade gossip."

"There's no spite in it." Collin shot back. "Don't tell me you don't see what's going on?"

"Nothing's going on. Not anymore. Why do you think he slept in crew quarters?"

Both Collin's brows shot up. "What? Doesn't trust himself or the lady?"

"She is a redhead." Adella put in. "You know what they say about them."

Collin's red head tilted sardonically at that. "What do they say, old man?"

Adella's reply was cut off by Wing's mug slamming down on the table top. Tea splattered, dishes jumped. "She is a witch, as if any of us doubted it after her trick with the storm, and she took great offense when he visited with her father. Scared him bad, if I'm any judge."

Collin took the pot off the fire, all mirth gone from his face. "How?"

"He says she called demons out of the thin air and set them upon him. I'd wring the wench's neck myself if that wouldn't bring even more bad luck upon us."

"Aye," Adella muttered. "Sleepin' with the payin' passengers is bad enough without killin' them to boot."

"I told him to go to the old man." Collin admitted gravely, hands on the table as he leaned down to give Wing an earnest stare. "I told him I thought the old man was more than merely sick from natural maladies. She's hiding something. Why else go to such extremes?"

"Whatever the reason, this voyage can't be over soon enough."

"What's the cap'n going to do about it?" That from Adella, who'd sailed more voyages than all of them and knew well the dangers of an unsettled crew.

Wing shook his head, not knowing. Hoping that whatever Theo decided had more thought given to it than the decision to bed the witch in the first place. Theo, who was sometimes prone to rash actions, had better consider their options here, or the lot of them might regret it.

The broad, gray backs of a dozen whales broke surface to port. The gentle behemoths, some as long as the Luck herself, kept a parallel course with the ship, making great sport of blowing out geysers of water as they heaved their massive bodies half their length above the choppy waves. It was a sign of good luck, the company of whales. The crew lined the port side watching the playful antics of the great creatures. A fine thing, the whales appearance, to lift the spirits of a crew that had gone moody with the tension of this voyage.

The last few days had been the worst and Theo had to admit that a great deal of the blame lay with himself and his own black mood. It was not in his nature to take threat or intimidation well. The more he dwelled on the events of two nights past, the more angry he became. The feeling of fearing to trod in certain areas of his own ship ate at him like some corrosive disease until his attitude became short and his temper so close to the surface that no one of his men felt comfortable in his presence. Even Wing tread carefully around him.

The afternoon sun was mild, the wind crisp and cool. It fluttered unruly hair into his eyes, half blinding him as he sat perched on the aft rail. It hardly mattered, his thoughts turned broodingly inward. The whales were a slight distraction, the talk of his men as they called out to the sea giants hardly noticed at all.

The sails flapped overhead, so full of wind that the Luck fairly flew across the water. She had never made such good speed. He figured they were just past the midway point and might make port in less than the two weeks it should have taken. Ten days, if the winds stayed at their backs. Ten days of tip toeing around the serpent coiled in his very own cabin.

Color of a nature bolder than what his sailors wore appeared on the deck. First one, then the second of Tiana's guards appeared out of the deck house, the height of fashion in their brocaded red vests and black pantaloons. The lady herself followed, in flowing robes and prim headdress. Theo's eyes narrowed beneath whipping tendrils of hair, watching her progress to the port rail to better see the whales she had no doubt caught glimpses of from her cabin.

The crew cleared a wide space for her, casting her and her men black looks, muttering amongst themselves at the intrusion. Bad luck vying with good. If she noticed the animosity, no trace of it marred her expression. She strolled along the rail with all the grandeur of a queen surveying her domain, her men following two steps behind. She made the circuit, lingering for a while on the quarter deck at bow before walking down the opposite side. Somewhere along her passage she took note of Theo sitting on the aft rail and instead of staying to the main deck she climbed the steps to the aft quarter-deck and approached him as if she had some minor business.

He didn't get up at her arrival. Merely sat there swinging one leg over the furrow of water made by the Luck's wake, staring at her perfectly detestable face from under half lowered lashes. Her men were hulking presence's at her back, glowering in obvious indignation over Theo's lack of manners. Them, he ignored entirely.

"Fine day." she observed lightly as if there were no rift between them. "Delightful spectacle, those creatures. I've never seen them in the flesh."

Theo made no comment. He was vaguely aware of his men drifting uneasily back to whatever work they had been at before the appearance of the whales, their stares covertly directed towards stern.

"I've a complaint." The lady said. "You bragged at the talents of your cook and yet I find my meal becoming more and more unpalatable. Now whether this be from some - oversight - on his part, or mere incompetence, I expect some improvement or I must ask to allow my maid access to the galley so that she might prepare fare more to my liking."

"No." Theo said shortly. "None of your people will be allowed in my galley."

Tiana's eyes narrowed slightly. "Oh, Theo, still upset over our disagreement? I'm over it, I assure you. You're not the type to hold a grudge, are you?"

There was something in her eyes that hinted at levity, at amusement taken at his expense.

"I'll speak to Collin about the meals."

"That's a good boy." Her lips turned up in satisfaction. Theo wanted to slap the expression from her face.

"Keep off my decks." he warned. "You're a distraction to my crew. You and yours can take an hours fresh air at the start of the morning watch, but stay below decks for the remainder."

The smile vanished, and the lady, who had not been seen overmuch above decks to begin with, was very suddenly incensed that she should be banned henceforth. "I'll not be caged in that dreary box because you can't take a mere hint of magic without wetting yourself."

"Get off my deck." he snarled, fighting to keep control in his voice. "It's not a suggestion, it's an order for the good of all on this ship."

"I'll not take orders from you."

"You will or you'll find yourself floating to Danar in a boat a quarter of the size of that box you're caged in."

Tiana's eyes flared with outrage. Her fingers curled into sharp nailed claws. Theo thought she might actually physically attack him, so tense had her body become. He put one foot on the solidity of deck, not caring to be overbalanced and shoved overboard. The action must have seemed threatening, for the larger of her guards, Theo thought his name was Darak, stepped forward menacingly.

"Watch your tongue, whelp." The warning rumbled forth from a barrel chest.

"You watch yours." Theo shot back, uncaring of the fact that a good foot separated them in height, not to mention five stone or more of weight. He had determined not to let the lady threaten him more, and damned if her overgrown bodyguard would get away with the same.

"Back off." He warned, when the man took another step and loomed close enough for Theo to scent the acrid smell of his sweat. It was a bully's tactic, that invasion of his space and even though his instincts cried to sidle along the rail and put distance between them, he stubbornly refused to move.

Then he didn't have to because another oversized body had come into the engagement. Wing grabbed Darak's shoulder and swung him around.

"The captain said to move." he growled, face to face with a man who actually stood an inch or so taller than he did. A man who was not used to being manhandled. Darak swung at Wing. Wing, having by far the more stable sea legs of the two, dodged and came back with a mighty blow of his own. Darak staggered, hit the rail where Theo had been sitting and with a frantic flailing of limbs toppled over.

Tiana's screech pierced the afternoon air. She ran to the rail, leaning over and scanning the water for her man. He was a pale figure bobbing in the waves. Her other guard, after the initial shock of seeing his partner's abrupt departure made to follow in his footsteps and attack Wing. Wing, who did outsize him, and had a look of no compromise on his broad face, merely stood with arms folded, daring the man to try him. Uncertain, the second body guard, Sol was his name, looked to his mistress for direction.

She was busy fixing Theo with glare filled with malice.

"You'll regret this." she cried. "You will pay for this. Get him out this moment." She lifted her hands and the hint of shadowy things faded into view around her.

"Do it and you'll follow him." Theo promised as calmly and quietly as he could considering that hazy spirits were beginning to invade the air around him. "I swear even if it kills me, you will be over this rail and then we'll see how far your magic gets you."

Tiana hesitated. "I could have the breath ripped from your body before you could make one move towards me."

He shrugged, forcing a reckless smile to his lips. "Maybe you could, but would you have time to stop him." He gestured towards Wing, then with a wave of one hand the lower deck and the still, tense figures of his crew. "And what about them? Can your magic take us all? And even if it can, can you or yours sail this boat. Plot the course? Navigate by the stars? All the magic in the world isn't going to keep you alive once the water and food runs out. Sailors are a superstitious lot. They already want you off this ship. What do you think they'd do to the witch that killed their captain? "

He leaned forward, so close to her face he could feel her breath. "Go ahead, Tiana. Set your demons on me again. See what happens this time."

Her could see her shaking. He doubted it was from fear. Her lips were a taught line across her face, her eyes pits of blackest rage. But she lowered her arms, and the faint forms that had come at her calling faded into obscurity.

"Get him out of the water." she hissed.

"Stay to your quarters. No more magic. I don't care if a monsoon hits, no more magic."

With rigid back, she nodded agreement. Theo moved quickly to the wheel, calling that there was a man overboard, as if the crew wasn't fully aware. Her turned the ship right before the wind and let her drift back towards the small figure. A line was thrown out and the man frantically splashed after it.

Tiana waited until the dripping man was aboard before turning on her heel and stalking below decks. She didn't say another word to Theo. He didn't wish to hear one of her. There was an enemy aboard his ship. He'd suspected it before, but now it was fact.

Land could not be reached soon enough for any of them.

A thin line of darkness that the hawk eyed sailor in the crows nest declared to be land, was spotted just as dawn brushed the horizon with it's rosy kiss. It was Wing's watch and he stood with big hands on the rail watching that vague hint of solidity in the far distance with grim satisfaction. They'd made it. The crew was coiled tighter than ropes on a spool and testy to boot, but they had reached Danar.

Theo joined him on deck, roused out of his sleep by the news. The last vestiges of sleep were still in his eyes and his hair was a tousled brown mess, but his face held the same relief that Wing felt. The darkland of Danar was within a day's sailing. All they had to do now was turn north and let the coastal currents carry them up to Vahnatu.

The lady had kept to the bargain. Had done more than that actually, but not setting foot on deck at all, even now when her homeland was in sight. Theo had kept his, having quite a few words with Collin about the manner in which he prepared the passengers meals. There had been no more complaints there. Soon it would be over and they could put it all behind them.

An hour before noon and they were close enough to land to see the dark hint of dense forest growth and the hazier jagged edge of mountains. Along that wild coast the Luck sailed, lookouts scanning the waters for hidden reefs. Twice that day they passed distant ships sailing south along the coast. It was a fair amount of traffic for a land that boasted no more than four major coastal ports.

Night fell with the crew talking amongst themselves of exotic trinkets to be purchased and foreign delights to be sampled in Vahnatu. Moods were improving and one hardly heard a word about witches and demons all through the night watch.

Noon of the following day the port of Vahnatu was reached. Two points of land snaked out, creating a narrow inlet that fed into a large, landlocked lagoon. The harbor was a safe haven against even the most terrible of sea born storms. Two towers stood on either side of the inlet, grim reminders that these waters were strife with pirates who did not hesitate to strike even established ports.

The waters of the lagoon itself were placid and filled with small sailing vessels and fishing boats. A dozen or more larger sea faring vessels sat at dock, clippers, barges, large schooners and even the heavily armed, bulky shapes of warships. The spindly masts made an orderly lattice of wood and rope through which the city could be seen.

Vahnatu was carved out of the forests that lurked behind it. A sprawling mass of man made structures that fought with the harmony of nature behind it. It's buildings were squat and plainly made. No towering spires pierced the air in hopes of reaching heaven. It was a simple city that fought against the wilderness around it and the pirates of both sea and land that besieged it. It was no Agbar or Perth, but it was mighty in it's own right, being the first established colony in the Darklands of Danar. It's sprawled along the length of the lagoon, more than a league of warehouses, stores or taverns faced the waters, and behind those were the uncountable small single story dwellings of Vahnatu's inhabitants.

The pier the Luck was directed to was old and in need of repair. It groaned and swayed in protest as the ship gently nudged against it in docking. The ropes were barely tied and the gang plank lowered when the lady Tiana and her party appeared on deck, baggage in hand. She marched past Captain and crew without a word or glance and proceeded down the plank and onto the weather worn pier. Sol and the nurse helped the old man who seemed weaker for the voyage, his head nodding on his narrow shoulders.

Theo watched her progress off of the pier and onto the facing avenue with great relief. So she was gone and good riddance to her. May he never lay eyes on another sorceress woman again and be happier for it. He tried to wipe her from his mind, focusing his attention of the activity of the crew who were busy securing the ship, eager to be relieved of duty and let loose on shore. They deserved it, having their last leave cut short to embark on this dismal voyage. He left it up to Wing to arrange the details of crew disembarkment. His own duties lay in dealing with port authority and finding a good price for the cargo they carried.

He inquired and was given directions to the Vahnatu dock offices and went there first. A helpful clerk directed him to an importer who dealt in spices ad medicinal herbs. The shop was a fair walk around the rim of the lagoon, almost to the arms of land forming the inlet itself. The dock street was narrow far from the main bustle of the port, but well relatively well traveled, although the number of people walking the Vahnatu streets were scant in comparison to the crowds that one could find in any Khell port city. The major difference were the expressions on the faces of the folk he passed. Friendly smiles or nods of greeting were few and far between. These people were grim and business like in their manner. Their pace quick and driven with the air of a people about urgent errands. Even the faces of the children were unusually devoid of sprite and the sometimes malicious humor of port side youth.

Vahnatu felt leaden and ominous, as if the wild darkness of the inland had seeped into the fragile lives of those that tried to make a society on its coast. He was glad to have a weapon at his belt, even if it was only a knife. This port made him vaguely uneasy. Chilling thought that it had spawned someone like Tiana.

The offices of the importer were along a row where several similar business' were located. No ships docked at the opposite piers, though several sailess dinghies bobbed in the gentle current, tied to the moorings of the weather worn pier.

Blera had been accurate in her suggestions of hot merchandise. The cargo of herbs was well received and after a relatively brief bit of haggling over price, a sum was settled on. Theo was pleased, spirits considerably higher than they had been scan days past. They had made a good profit and he'd not yet even bargained for the crate of tea.

He was inquiring about a fair seller of Danarian silk when young Urchin burst through the door of the import offices. The boy was red faced and breathless, skinny shoulders heaving with exertion. His eyes were wild when they fixed on Theo and relief crowded his freckled face.

"Cap'n! Cap'n!!" he cried. "You've got to come."

A little finger of dread crept up Theo's spine. He took a step towards the boy, marginally aware of the interest in the importer's eyes as the man observed the exchange. He caught hold of Urchin's narrow shoulders and demanded.

"What's happened?"

The boy practically wailed the answer. "She's sinking. Right there at dock. Takin' on water so fast Mr. Wing can't hardly find where she's bilged."

Theo stared, feeling lightheaded. His fingers tightened convulsively on the boy's flesh as a brief wave of dizziness assaulted him. One drawn breath, then another to clear his head. He turned Urchin and pushed him out of the shop ahead of him, ignoring the importers shout that he'd have no part of water logged goods. He wanted to curse, to cry out in frustration, but neither would make this tragic news go away.

He asked no details, merely took off down the lagoon side street at a dead run, careless of the bodies he jostled or the offended stares that followed him. He lost Urchin somewhere along the way, the boy being already winded from his sprint up the docks.

He was not entirely familiar with this port, but the crowd that had gathered about his ship was a clear indication of where he needed to be. He pushed his way past curious onlookers, able to see from that vantage only the very awkward angle of the mainsail as it thrust in a distinctly diagonal direction. When he finally fought his way through the spectators the most miserable sight he'd ever beheld met his eyes.

His ship was half submerged, her stern almost entirely underwater, her proud bow knifing into the air. There were crates on the pier, and sails and sacks of various equipment and personal gear. He saw maybe six or eight of his crew scampering haphazardly along the Luck's tilted deck. Ropes had been fastened to the moorings of the pier in an attempt to halt her decline, but the weight of the ship was fast testing even those hasty precautions.

The gang plank was floating in the muddy water next the ship. The only way aboard was to leap the eight foot span and grab hold of rigging or rail to pull ones self on board. Theo made the jump without hesitation, catching the rail and vaulting over, barely loosing his balance as his feet touched down on the steep incline of the deck. He bellowed for Wing, and one of his men who was carrying rope to help secure the ship, cried for him to look in the hold. He skidded that way and found the hatch flung wide. There was a great deal of water down there. Everything buoyant that had been stored in the hold was floating.

Wing was down there, looking for the hole. Theo could hear the sound of voices and the splashing of bodies. There were ropes tied to the cargo hatch that disappeared into the darkness. He took hold of one and shimmied down. His feet touched water halfway to where the floor should have been. He called out Wing's name, and Adella's voice answered him.

There was the faint flicker of lantern light towards the aft. He struck off the way, and found his passage blocked by water up the ceiling fifty feet from the stern. Adella bobbed there, a lantern floating at his side on the salvaged top of a crate. The old man held on to a rope fastened around a timber in the ceiling. His face was drawn and pale, his teeth chattering behind blue cast lips.

"How long has he been down?" Theo demanded.

"Few minutes. It's a bad one, Cap'n. We tried to patch it, but it was too big. I seen ships run afoul of reef with holes smaller than this one."

Theo's reply was cut off by Wing's head breaking surface between him and the bosman. The big man shook water from his hair and spewed it from his nostrils. One large hand caught hold of Theo's shoulder to keep him afloat as he gulped huge lung fulls of air. When he could he cursed, and shook his head in disgust.

"It's a lost cause. She'll hit bottom before that hole is patched. You could march a horse through that rip."

"How did this happen?" Theo ground the words out in frustration.

"Let's get out of here before we go down with her." Adella suggested, shoving the floating lantern ahead of him as he pulled himself hand over hand towards the square of sunlight at the hatch. Wing followed, not saying a word more until he pulled himself onto the deck and the three of them stood solidly on the pier with the rest of the crew.

"An hour, maybe more after you left she started taking on water. By the time I got down to the hull it was knee high and getting worse. Most of the crew were already gone, so Adella and I did what we could to patch it, but it didn't hold. It was like we had rot so bad in the wood that the nails wouldn't take. I'll tell you plainly there was no sign of rot last year when we overhauled her. A hole the size of that one doesn't just appear out of nowhere sitting in dock."

Theo stared at the pitiful sight of his ship, one thought repeating itself over and over in his mind. Sorcery. Black magic. A petty, cruel method of vengeance from a woman who'd proved herself less than the lady they'd called her.

"That bitch." he whispered, then louder. "I'll kill her. That black hearted bitch."

He whirled, a sudden, irrational rage upon him and started towards the dock street with murder on his mind. Wing's hand caught him, effectively jerking him to a stop.

"We don't know it was her." his first mate warned.

"Oh, don't be naive. I was and look where it got us. The whole last part of the voyage she was probably sitting in my cabin figuring out what she could do that would hurt us the most."

"He's right there." Adella put in. "What else could it have been but dark sorcery?"

"What if it was? How do you find her? And even if you do, she's no doubt a respected citizen of this port. Are you going to wring her neck and get us all hanged?"

"And what would you have me do, Wing? Report it to port authority? To the local magistrate? Go up to them and say, 'my ship just sank in your cursed harbor and I'm pretty sure magic was the cause. Go arrest the witch I brought over from Khell, I'm sure she'll admit to the deed?' They'll put me in chains, damnit!"

Wing's grip loosened. He patted Theo's shoulder, blue eyes mournful and every bit as lost as his captain felt. "I don't know then, Theo. I just don't know."

 

 

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