“Hard-tack? Really?” Karrick grumped.
“It’s a little taste of home,” Thanos shrugged. He selected a blocky lump of ship’s bread from the basin and inspected it closely. Years of experience with military fare surged to the fore. He tapped the thing gently against the surface of the table. Karrick, grimacing, followed suit.
“What on earth are you doing?” Joraz asked, staring at the pair as if they had each suddenly sprouted a second head.
Karrick held up the biscuit. There was a small hole in one side of it. From that hole peeked a fat white grub with two black spots for eyes.
The monk pursed his lips. He very carefully placed his own biscuit back in the bowl.
Thanos sighed. “We’ve only just left a city-port, and he feeds us months-old waybread. Our good captain pays close heed to his purse-strings.”
“It’s my bow-string he ought to be worrying about,” Breygon growled. “This is revolting.” He tossed his own biscuit after Joraz’s. “What’s next? Maggoty beef?”
“Hopefully not,” Thanos replied. “But if I know ship’s chandlers - and I do - I’d bet on pork salted to woodenness. And pease porridge.” He pushed his plate away. “I’ve eaten better during a siege.”
“Nothing quite like a nice, fat, biscuit-fed rat, spit-roasted to perfection!” Karrick laughed.
Valaista, who had been staring at the bread-bowl with utter revulsion, turned a remarkable shade of grey.
“He’s joking, child,” Thanos said quickly, patting her hand.
“Hmm, yeah,” the shield-bearer nodded. “Stewed’s better.”
The five companions were seated around the small table that occupied most of the deck-space in the wardroom. Eight low doors lined the room – three on each side, leading to the tiny individual cabins occupied by the passengers, and two forward, one leading to a grubby water closet, and the other to the gangway that opened onto the main-deck. The windows overlooking the stern gallery had been flung open, and the freshening sea breeze was doing its part to alleviate the stench of bilge-water and cheese that permeated the chamber.
They were alone. Akhir – who apparently had no problem with boats, but did not like crowded spaces – was curled up on the fo’csle, near the foremast. Myaszæron had not left her cabin since boarding the ship. And the only other passenger – the short, talkative fellow that they had not yet formally met – was still on deck, speaking with Captain Fall. They had the wardroom to themselves, and were talking of inconsequential things, deep in thought about all that they had seen and done, and wondering – or worrying – about what would happen next.
At that moment, the door swung open, and Dame Amorda swept into the already crowded wardroom, followed closely by her hand-maiden. The four men stood, the humans ducking their heads to avoid cracking them on the deck-beams above.
In the few hours they’d been under weigh, the elf-woman had already managed to change clothing. Instead of the elaborate gown she’d worn when boarding the ship, she now sported an almost mannish costume, consisting of shirt, doublet, hose and boots. On her figure, though, topped off with expert cosmetics and her usual elaborate coiffure, the result was anything but masculine.
“Hallelujah!” Karrick muttered.
Amorda dimpled at the compliment. “I thought I’d play the pirate tonight.” She swivelled her hips gracefully, allowing the company to see that she had traded her pugio for a long, slender rapier, basket-hilted and encrusted with stones that glimmered too brightly in the lantern-light to be simple crystals. The manoeuvre also gave everyone a better view of her shapely backside. Valaista snorted lightly, and Joraz covered a smile with one hand.
“Good evening, lady,” Thanos said, keeping his eyes on her face and bowing carefully in the restricted space. He glanced around at the limited furnishings, then offered her his chair. “Please, join us. I can’t vouch for the food, but the company shouldn’t be too objectionable.”
“Thank you, Colonel.” She sat. Reticia took up station behind her, shrinking into inconspicuousness against the forward bulkhead.
Thanos resumed his seat. “It’s ‘lieutenant-colonel’, actually, madam. Prochiliarch, in your tongue.”
“Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “That’s not what I heard.”
Thanos frowned, not sure how to respond.
Karrick leaned forward, proffering the bread-bowl. “Biscuit?”
“Thank you, no,” the lady replied, smiling to take the edge off her refusal. Turning back to Thanos, she said, “I’ve made use of Ekhani shipping before. No offence to your countrymen, sir, but their expertise in architecture and ship-building seems to have been won at the expense of the culinary arts.”
“No argument there,” Thanos agreed. “But it’s a week or more to the capital, isn’t it? That’s a long time to fast.” He found a relatively clean cup and filled it from a battered pewter pitcher. “Wine’s drinkable, at least,” he added.
Amorda nodded her thanks. “It’s only two days to
I mean,” she clarified when they looked at her blankly. “My apologies. When I speak the traveling tongue, I tend to
“In any case, Fall tells me that he’s planned a two-day lay-over to exchange cargos.
Newport is the
crossroads of the southern sea-lanes, and boasts many acceptable inns and
eateries. I plan to spend the lay-over
sleeping ashore.” She took a sip from
her glass and grimaced. “And gorging
like a new-hatched wyrmling, ‘gainst the trip up-river.”
“ ‘Gorging’?” Valaista said, her voice rising dangerously.
“Figure of speech, primagenitrix,” Amorda said soothingly. “I meant no offence.”
The dragon-girl said nothing.
“ ‘None taken’,” Thanos muttered under his breath.
“None taken,” Valaista grated.
Amorda smiled and nodded. She turned back to Thanos. “That reminds me. I’ve a proposal for you, sir.”
Joraz shot a surreptitious glance at Breygon. The half-elf was watching the conversation with apparent disinterest…except that his ear-tips were pink, and twitching slightly.
Thanos was about to say ‘I’m all ears’, but decided at the last instant that it would be impolitic. “Unfold, madam,” he said instead.
“I understand that the young…ahh, lady,” she began, nodding at Valaista, “is apprenticed to you.”
Thanos nodded. “I’m teaching her my craft at her parents’ request.”
“She couldn’t find a better teacher for the ars arcana, I’m sure,” Amorda said smoothly. “But seeing as how we’ve a week or more to spend together, perhaps I could assist her in mastering some of the gentler arts.”
Five pairs of eyebrows, including Valaista’s, rose simultaneously.
“What?” the dragon-girl said, taken aback.
“Your hair looks like a stirge’s nest, dear,” Amorda clucked, shaking her head. “If you’re going to wear that shape, you need to learn how to do it credit. And while you won’t need make-up for a few decades…”
“Millennia,” Valaista growled.
“…millennia, then,” Amorda corrected, still smiling, “knowledge gained is never lost. Someday you’ll be grateful for a little rouge and kohl.”
She turned back to Thanos. “What do you say, Colonel? I can make a lady of her for you.”
“A generous offer,” the warmage mused. “I can’t imagine how I’d repay you.”
“You misunderstand,” the lady laughed. “I’m repaying you! All of you. You’re a breath of fresh air. Joyous Light has seen more excitement in the last seven days than in the last seven centuries!”
“Vampires, tree-monsters,” Joraz murmured. “It’s been a little dangerous, too.”
“Danger is life’s spice,” the elf-woman said. There was a hard glint in her eye as she spoke. Joraz wondered whether any of his comrades had noticed that.
Thanos shot a glance at Karrick. “What do you think?”
The warrior shrugged. “When a sword-master offers to show you a few tricks,” he replied, “you don’t set conditions. You just say ‘thanks’.”
The warmage laughed. “Thanks,” he said to Amorda. “We accept.”
“What?” Valaista shrieked.
Thanos regarded her coolly. “I’ll presume that was an expression of gratified surprise, apprentice,” he said carefully, “and not an objection to your master’s command. Yes?”
The dragon-girl leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms and looking rebellious.
The warmage sighed. “Let me put it a different way,” he said. “In the last week, you’ve managed to compromise your disguise half a dozen times. Some of these have been excusable, but not all of them. You may look like a young lady of the First House, child, but you don’t act like one.” He nodded at Amorda. “She’s offering to show you how. It could save us a lot of trouble.”
“I’m not asking,” Thanos added sternly. “I’m telling you. Do we have an accord? Or do I send you back to Elder Delvin and your parents?”
“You wouldn’t!” the dragon-girl snorted. “It hurts too much to lose a familiar. You’d never do it.”
“If you think I wouldn’t shed blood to rid myself of a troublesome subordinate, then you haven’t been paying attention,” the warmage said coldly. “Or if you prefer, I could have Karrick put you over his knee.”
Karrick beamed at this. An instant later his look of glee changed to one of alarm as he visualized trying to paddle four hundred-weight of dagger-fanged, tail-whipping, fire-snorting dragon. “Leave me out of this, boss,” he said, holding up his hands in mock surrender.
Amorda rolled her eyes. “Men!” she snapped. “Trust you lot to make a production out of nothing.” Abandoning her chair, she edged her way around the table until she stood behind Valaista. Gathering the girl’s unruly mass of silver-grey locks, she twisted, knotted, bent and shoved like a veteran rope-maker, working the errant strands into a coherent pattern, then finally coiling the lot into an intricate, carefully-constructed edifice atop the girl’s head.
She reached into her own coiffure, selected a silver pin the length of her hand, eyed her handiwork carefully, then wedged the pin to the coiled braids, locking the whole structure together. “Shake your head,” she commanded.
Valaista did so, putting up a hand to contain the expected collapse. Nothing moved.
Karrick uttered a low whistle and began clapping. Joraz and Thanos joined in a moment later.
Valaista blushed, her cheeks purpling. “What?” she muttered.
Amorda put her lips to the girl’s ear. “You look like a lady ready for a night on the town,” she said. “Or you would, if you were wearing silk instead of steel, and carrying an aluta instead of a meat-cleaver and a shield.”
The dragon-girl put a hand to her new coiffure. “How…how do I get it down?”
“Pull out the pin,” Amorda replied.
The girl grasped the pin and pulled it out. Instantly, the coiled mass of curls tumbled down around her shoulders, smooth and untangled.
“Now look at the pin,” the lady said.
Valaista did so. “It’s sharp!” she said, amazed.
Amorda nodded. Taking the hairpin from the girl, she put her thumb over the jewelled end, then stabbed it through one of the tin plates on the table. “Mithral-steel. Designed to penetrate mail,” she said, wriggling the pin to free it from the wood and tin, and holding it up for closer inspection. “This is what it is to be a lady in the Fair Realm.” She handed the pin to Valaista. “That was lesson number one.”
To Thanos, she said, “What say you, Colonel? Give me a week, and I’ll give you back a different apprentice.”
The warmage turned to his adjutant, grinning. “Well?”
“I thought it was a good idea before,” Karrick replied. “Now I think I’m in love.” He was staring at Amorda, a beatific smile on his lips. She smiled back and dropped a quick curtsey.
Thanos turned back to the elf-woman. “Done. She’s yours, lady. Until we dock in Astrapratum, or otherwise part ways.”
Sunrise tomorrow, then, sweetling,” Amorda said, giving
Valaista an affectionate pat on the cheek.
Glancing up at Reticia, she added, “We’ll start by doing something about
these bugbear eyebrows.”
“I’ll sharpen the hatchet,” Reticia muttered.
“What’s wrong with my eyebrows?” Valaista asked, nettled.
“You’re supposed to have two, dear. Now hush,” Amorda said, returning to her seat. Retrieving her cup, she said, “Beck, my dear fellow. You’ve been quiet.”
“When the subject is hairstyles,” the half-elf replied stiffly, “I have little to contribute. Eyebrows, likewise.”
The lady leaned towards Thanos. “Is he always so serious?” she stage-whispered.
“It’s an admirable quality,” the warmage replied.
“In moderation,” Amorda qualified. “Let me guess: he’s obsessing over the mysteries you’ve not yet solved. The vine-creature at Rykki’s funeral. The lamiatae in Kalena’s quarters. The fate of Auranitoris. The whereabouts of the Summer-Queen. Yes?”
The five companions stared at the elf-woman in stunned silence. At last Thanos, in strangled tones, said, “You’re very well-informed.”
“I keep my ear to the ground,” Amorda shrugged. “And I spoke to Kaltas earlier today. He’s asked a few favours of me.”
“I wasn’t aware you were that close,” Breygon murmured.
The lady arched a narrow brow. “The list of things I wouldn’t do for Kaltas Aiyellohax is very, very short.” She thought about that for a moment, then said, “Well…it’s a little longer, now, seeing as how he’s married again.”
“If you’ve any insights into any of those mysteries, as you called them,” Thanos said gravely, “then we would be most grateful to hear them.”
“Not about the attacks you’ve had to deal with,” Amorda shrugged. “Blood and death are your province, not mine. But I think the disappearance of the Summer-Queen and the obliteration of Auranitoris might be linked. Have you ever heard the tale of Prex Æstiva?”
“ ‘The Curse of Summer’?” Thanos translated. He glanced at Breygon and Joraz.
“No,” Joraz replied. The ranger simply shook his head.
“Well, then,” Amorda said brightly, “As my harp is packed, I hope you don’t mind a capella.” Glancing over her shoulder at her hand-maiden, she said, “Feel free to join in for the counterpoint.”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Reticia sighed.
Prex Aestiva - The Curse of Summer
Fallen the Mighty, and fallen Usurper
Tîor, Xîardath are both gone to wind
Black eyes and white-hair, ill-born Bîardath
The master of shadow and demon-wrought magic
Supreme and unchallenged, triumphant, chagrined
For all of his wisdom and all of his power
Avail him naught ‘gainst the might of the green
The heart of the forest bends not to his majesty
Spurning his spellcraft and darkness-spawned messengers
Thriving as ever, apart and unseen
In thrall, Astrapratum is shadowed and terrible
Lifewater laps at the banks of despair
On the Filigree Throne a lascivious spectacle
Shannyra the temptress, the fiend incandescent
Whose touch drives her victims all good to forswear
And beyond the black walls lies the withering majesty
Nature resplendent surrenders to woe
As the stench of corruption and darkness-wrought misery
Weighs on the woodlands of Fair Harad’s majesty
And feasts on the green like a carrion crow
The woe of the woodlands calls unto kesatuan
Summoning forth the protector of all
Regina Æstiva, the fair Queen of Summer
Mother’s most radiant servant
The ruin of the forests to fight and forestall
From the green came she forth clad in fair verdant splendour
The light of the Lantern pierced lowering clouds
And the flowers sprang up in her life-giving footsteps
And blossomed in glory all ‘round and about her
And mighty morbannons in majesty bowed
The green glowing heart of the uplifted woodland
Caught Shannyra’s eye as she lounged on her throne
And she raced to the window in transports of fury
Enraged at this challenge to Dark Ender’s mastery
From origin strange, and of powers unknown
She called to her plaything, demanding Bîardath
Attend her, assist her in facing this foe
But her mate answered not; he was deep in his mysteries
Forging his Wand; engineering his travesties
Alone she descended to forests below
Amid the morbannons, enrobed in dark splendour
She calls to the power she sensed in the green
“Come forth, worthy sister; I feel your presence
“Your lifebeat I taste; its delectable luxury
“Calls to me - feeds my desires obscene”
So forth from the flesh of the tallest morbannon
Regina Æstiva in majesty stepped
And confronted the demoness standing before her
Her beauty bound up with a soul born of darkness
Her exquisite gorgeousness chained to profanity
Heart-shorn and sorrowful, Summer Queen wept
“Weep not, verdant sister,” the demoness gloated
“My power and might make me first of this land
“I sit on the throne wrought by Tîor the Mighty
“And whisper my words to the ear of his grandson
“That grandson I hold in the palm of my hand
“My decrees all the elven-folk hasten to answer
“They answer to me as their sovereign queen
“So too must the forest my glory acknowledge
“Bowing down to the power that Bardan has granted me
“Kneeling to me as the new Summer Queen”
At these words did the Summer Queen smile in sadness
And opened her heart to the daughter of blight
Through the touch of kesatuan, knew she her enemy
Fiend-fell, soulless, and reft of all sympathy
Jealous of beauty, and hating the light
“The Dark Ender’s power avails you nothing
“Shannyra, thou daughter of darkness and pain
“The forests are ruled by the might of the Unity
“The sun and the wind and the bark of the thunder
“The life of the earth, and the sweet-falling rain
“I beseech thee, leave off with thine orders and blandishments
“To that thou defamest, abase thee and yield
“The might that thou bringeth is naught to kesatuan
“For all spirits bend to the strength of the Unity
“Such is the power the nature-queens wield”
“My spirit?” the demoness snarled in stark hatred
“My spirit was forged by the Ender’s black hand!
“I bow not to leaf-lords; your simpering Unity
“Quails at the might of the Shadow’s eternity
“Knell! For I am the lord of this land”
And with that, did she open a portal in Evertime
Straight ‘twixt the woods and the fires below
And through it flew fiends in numbers uncountable
Blazing with lust and with fires abominable
Fangs wet with venom, and fell eyes aglow
“Dost thou now understand?” quoth Shannyra in victory
A thousand stark minions arrayed at her side
“My soldiers will wither the heart of your Unity
“Burning the forests and blighting their dignity
“Cowing the green to the Dark Ender’s majesty
“Such is the might Bardan grants to his bride”
Surrounded by shadows, encircled by enmity
Summer-Queen wept, and she raised up her hand
And the slavering horde born of fire and darkness
Fell at once stiff and silent, their shrieking abated
And rooted themselves to the earth of the land
Great legs grew together; scaled hide turned to tree-bark
Vast shoulders to branches, and talons to leaves
Verdant beauty sprang up from the filth of their passing
New life blossomed forth from the horrors of darkness
And a welcoming wind shook the new forest’s eaves
Reft of her minions, surrounded by greenery
The fiend-whore trembled in deepest dismay
And she quailed in fear at the Summer Queen’s power
The might of the green and ubiquitous Unity
Power and power on savage display
Regina Æstiva, stern and implacable
Spoke to the cowering fiend: “Thy might
“Matters not to the Unity’s unrivalled splendour
“The heart of the green is its own sovereign master
“Acknowledging neither the dark nor the light”
The Summer Queen strode to the fiend-born maiden
Laid hand on her breast; on her black, poisoned heart
And she said, “Thou mayest also be one with the Unity
“One with the green and the forest’s great majesty
“No longer standing alone and apart”
But the fiend of desire at that touch shrieked in terror
And fled from the site of her army’s demise
And never again did she challenge the Unity
Nor dare the despite of the forest’s great majesty
Until she and Bîardath, at Mærglyn’s black treachery
Fell before daughter’s treason and met their demise
And what of her army, that Summer-Queen sundered
It stands still in glory near Starmeadow’s wall
In name it is called ‘Hortum Elanadiria’
Flowers and vines - and in glorious splendour
A thousand morbannon trees, mighty and tall