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• CHAPTER SIXTEEN •
KASPAR DRANK ALONE.
The Talnoy sat motionless in the room above, a small attic over an alehouse that wasn't usually rented out. He was avoiding taverns and inns until he found a ship, concerned about Kalkin's warning that others would be looking for the creature.
For that was how he thought of it now - a creature. He had spent some time over the previous four days experimenting with it, asking it questions, determining its capacity for independent action, and at the last he was convinced of two things: first, that the creature possessed enough faculty for independent thinking and making decisions that it could hardly be thought of as devoid of life, and second; that an army of such creatures would be almost impossible to defeat.
He also discovered he had found the limit to the time he could wear the ring. He had identified the warning signs, for it was an alien feeling to him: blind fear. He had reached this alehouse with the Talnoy less than an hour after donning the ring and having the Talnoy disguise itself as a servant. By the time he had agreed to a price with the owner of the establishment and reached his room, Kaspar had felt very uneasy. He had wondered why, and left the ring on as an experiment. Sitting on his simple straw mattress, he had waited, leaving the Talnoy standing in the corner. Nearly half an hour after reaching the room, blind panic had started to sweep over him until he was certain something dire was outside the door. He had overcome the urge to draw his sword and attack whoever was outside, and had yanked the ring off his finger. Almost instantly the feelings of dread and fear had dropped away.
He had experimented and now knew he could wear the ring for no more than an hour and a half, and he could not use it for at least that length of time after removing it. If he put the ring back on after the minimal time had passed, the madness returned quickly. Kaspar had decided once or twice a day was safe, and that more than that was a risk.
He considered what else he knew about the Talnoy. It was ancient, yet appeared as ... fit, for lack of a better word, as those he had seen on Kosridi. There were no signs of age or any lessening of its effectiveness. It was, for all intents and purposes, new.
Kaspar couldn't escape the feeling that he now was in over his head. Before, he had felt tasked - plagued even - by the geas that had driven him to take this thing to Kalkin. He also had a list of questions he wished he could have got answers to: Why had the geas been placed on it in the first place? If the geas wasn't intended as a compulsion to get the item to the gods for the very purpose he was now undertaking, then what had it been intended for? Kalkin had said it wasn't important to know, but Kaspar could hardly believe that was true. And why did Kalkin seem so troubled by the thought of those things entering Midkemia? Even if he was limited in his ability to leave Midkemia, couldn't the gods act if the Dasati invaded? Were the gods afraid of the Dasati?
He sipped his ale while waiting for Karbara, a man who passed for a shipbroker in this sorry excuse for a city. Karbara was supposed to appear shortly with news of a ship which would carry Kaspar home. Kaspar cursed fate for putting him in the middle of this enterprise, for it had felt doomed from the outset, but then he realized that it was his opportunity to return home without forfeiting his life. However, finding a ship was proving to be a problem.
Sulth was the biggest city on the western coast of Novindus, but that meant hardly anything. The only other city of any size was Port Punt down the coast. Most of the shipping was between the two cities, with a ship bound for one of the southern cities leaving every three or four months. The large ocean-going types of ships common to Olasko and the other Eastern Kingdoms were rare in these waters. And none of the larger ships in port were heading north. He would have to buy his own ship.
Kaspar turned as the door opened, and Karbara entered. He was a slightly built, anxious man, given to glancing around as if someone was following him. He came to Kaspar's table and said, 'Found a ship.'
'What is it?'
'A two-masted coaster with a square-rigged foresail and a jib,
lanteen-rigged on the main, but it's got a deep draught for a coaster, and it's relatively new. The owner is giving up the sea to stay at home with his wife and children. It's the best I can do, but it's a bargain.'
'Three hundred golden coins or the equivalent.'
Kaspar considered. That was cheap by Olaskon standards, but everything down here was cheaper. It was more than a year's earnings for a master carpenter back home, twice that here, so the ship's captain could buy a handsome little inn or set up some other business with that. 'When can I see it?'
'Tomorrow. They finish offloading cargo before noon, then she sits where she is. The captain is anxious to sell, so he might come down in price.'
'I'll be there after dawn,' said Kaspar, finishing up his ale.
'I'll meet you there,' said Karbara, getting up. 'And you'll have my price?'
'Ten percent of what I spend on the ship, yes.'
'Good,' said the thin man, and left.
Kaspar sat back. Something was wrong with Karbara. He was too nervous about the sale. Yes, for him, it was more than a full month's earnings, but Kaspar expected he had other sources of income. Kaspar understood betrayal, and he knew that early in the morning, when it was busy yet still gloomy, a lot of things could happen in an alley between here and the docks that might be overlooked by the local constabulary for a while.
Kaspar decided to get to bed early, and to ponder what he would do in the morning. He finished his ale, nodded goodnight to the owner of the alehouse and went upstairs.
The Talnoy stood motionless in the corner of the room. So that no questions would be asked, Kaspar had secured a sleeping mat which he put on the floor. It was probably a needless caution, as the alehouse owner seemed indifferent to anything beyond collecting his rent.
The first night Kaspar slept in the room, he found it troubling to have the thing standing there. Several times during the night he awoke to find it hadn't moved. It was odd that while he had carried it from place to place it hadn't troubled him to sleep near the Talnoy. But now that he knew it was capable of independent action - even if only when Kaspar gave the commands - he found the presence of the device troubling. Still, he was tired, and finally he fell into a troubled sleep.
He tossed and turned most of the night, plagued by dreams of a vicious, loveless race living in a dark realm.
Kaspar moved slowly though the pre-dawn murk. An unseasonable fog had rolled in off the Bay of Sulth and noises seemed to come out of nowhere. The city was already awake and moving, with vendors pulling carts, shopkeepers getting ready for the morning's business, and wives hurrying to the vegetable market.
Kaspar had no idea where an attack might take place, but he had the sense to use a roundabout course to get to the docks. If anyone was waiting to ambush him along the way, they'd have to be mind-readers. He had put on the ring before he left and told the Talnoy to kill anyone attempting to steal the chest. He marked the hour and vowed to return to the alehouse within safe time-limits.
He had stopped to tell the alehouse owner not to enter his room and made it clear that the 'servant' had been instructed to use deadly force if anyone did. The owner of the establishment seemed slightly amused by that: he nodded and said he might send his brother-in-law to clean the room, though.
Kaspar found no one waiting for him along the path he had chosen, but then he knew that if Karbara was remotely clever, the ambush would be close to the docks, for there were less people likely to notice an altercation there, and fewer who might investigate if they did. He reached the docks at the western end, far from the designated meeting place. He moved in the gloom as the sky began to lighten. It would remain dark until the sun burned off the mist - not for another two hours or more.
Kaspar reached a point where he could see the outline of the ship at rest, a darker shape in the murk, delineated by fore and aft lanterns. From what little he could see, she might do.
He lingered for a few minutes, conscious of the ring on his finger, even though he felt none of the discomfort that marked his nearing the safe time-limit. As the sky lightened, he could make out the figure of Karbara pacing near the ship. Kaspar leaned into a doorway, content to wait until dawn to see what happened next.
For half an hour the sky lightened and Karbara paced. Dockworkers approached the ship and shouted to the sailors and they began to finish offloading the cargo they had started on the previous afternoon. Wagons and porters, hawkers and thieves began to appear as the day broke.
Finally, Kaspar decided that if there was an ambush planned, it must by now have been aborted, for the docks were becoming too crowded for anything clandestine. Besides, he had left himself only a short while to speak to the captain and return to the inn.
Kaspar strolled up and said, 'Good morning.'
Karbara turned, and then smiled. 'I thought you would be coming that way,' he said, nodding in the opposite direction. Shaking his head, he said, 'No matter. Good morning. Let's go aboard.' He motioned to Kaspar to mount the gangplank.
Kaspar waved to Karbara to precede him. With a hesitation, then a shrug, the slight, nervous man mounted the gangplank. Kaspar wondered if the ambush might happen below decks. He kept his hand loosely on the hilt of his belt-knife.
They reached the main deck to find that a rotund man of middle years was directing the offloading of the cargo. He glanced over at Karbara, then Kaspar. 'You the buyer?' he asked without preamble.
Kaspar said, 'Perhaps. Tell me about your ship, Captain . . .?'
'Berganda,' he said, curtly. 'She's less than ten years old. I traded in two older ships because she's faster and holds almost as much as the other two combined.' He looked around. 'She's fifty feet at the waterline - what we call a bilander. You can see we've got a big lanteen yard on the mainmast.' He pointed to the large boom that nearly touched the stern. 'You get a lot of canvas open to the wind in a reach, and while she's a bit of a pig in a following wind, if the breeze is spanking, you can reef the lanteen and run straight ahead. Otherwise it saves you the need for a mizzen sail. Anyway, my wife is eager for me to stay home and I've got a brother who has a wagon business, so while I know nothing about being a teamster, I do know cargo. She's fit, and if you know ships, you know at three hundred pieces of gold, she's a bargain.' He pointed to Karbara, 'But you pay him his fee.'
'I'll pay his fee,' said Kaspar. 'And I'll give you five hundred, but you've got to sail her one more time.'
'Across the Blue Sea, to the northern continent.'
'Damn me, but that's a long voyage. I don't even know how to get there. All I've ever heard is you've got to sail out from the City of the Serpent River to the north-east. I guess we could sail along the north coast and head up from where the continent turns south . . . that's nearly a year.'
'No,' said Kaspar. 'Once we clear Horsehead Cape, then it's forty-five days north by west, then due west for two weeks.'
'Sail the other way?' said the Captain. 'Very well. Always wanted to see that part of the world. I'll take three hundred now, and two hundred when we get back. How many passengers?'
'Two. Myself and my manservant.'
'When do you want to leave?'
'As soon as possible.'
'Very well, sir,' said Captain Berganda. 'You've bought yourself a ship. I call her the Western Princess. Care to rename her?'
Kaspar smiled. 'No, Princess will do. How long to provision and crew?'
'Crew's no problem. My lads were grumbling about being out of work after today. They'll be happy to come aboard for another long cruise. Provisions? Give me two days. You say fifty-nine days or so? Let's say three months in case the winds are contrary. We should be ready to sail on the morning tide in three days' time.'
Kaspar reached into his tunic and took out a small purse. 'Here's one hundred pieces of gold to seal the bargain. I'll have the other two hundred for you this afternoon, and two hundred more when we reach Opardum.'
'Opardum, you say?' The Captain grinned. 'That the name of the land we're bound for?'
'The city. The nation is called Olasko.'
'Sounds exotic and I look forward to seeing it.' He took the gold then extended his hand and they shook to bind the deal.
Kaspar turned to Karbara and said, 'I have your gold back at the alehouse. Come along.'
Karbara hesitated. 'Sir, I have another appointment shortly that I must not be late for. I will come by later today for my payment.'
Kaspar clamped down on the thin man's shoulder and said, 'Come now, this will only take a few minutes, and I am certain you're anxious to be paid.'
The little man tried to twist out from under Kaspar's grasp and failed.
'What is the problem?' asked Kaspar. 'You act as if you don't wish to return to the alehouse with me. Is something amiss?'
With a look bordering on panic, Karbara said, 'No, sir, honestly, nothing. I just need to meet with another gentleman. It is most urgent.'
'I insist,' said Kaspar, digging in his thumb. The slight man looked as if he might faint, but he nodded and came along. 'You're not worried are you, that I might return to the alehouse and discover someone's broken into my room and stolen my chest of treasure, are you?' Kaspar felt a sense of disquiet growing inside and knew that he needed to remove the ring soon.
At this Karbara turned to run, but Kaspar tripped him. 'When we get back to the alehouse, if anything of mine is missing, I'll personally turn you over to the local constables, do you understand?'
Karbara began to weep, but Kaspar ignored his tears and half-led, half-dragged him along. They reached the alehouse and found the owner standing in the centre of the room, his face drawn and his eyes wide. 'You!' he said to Kaspar as they entered. 'You'd better get up there!'
'Two men came in here as brazen as can be and walked up the stairs without so much as a by-your-leave. I heard noises and got half-way up the stairs to investigate when I heard screams . . .' He shook his head frantically. 'Well, I've sailed and fought and travelled . . . but man, I've heard nothing like that in forty years. I don't know what happened to your manservant, but something dreadful has occurred and you'd best see to it. I've already sent a street boy for the constables.'
Kaspar felt fear sweeping over him and knew he had only minutes to keep the ring on before the madness came. He pulled Karbara upstairs and entered his room. The Talnoy stood in the corner where he had left him, the chest still at his feet, but otherwise the room looked like an abattoir. Blood splattered the walls and floors, soaking completely through the blankets on the bed. Two men, or what was left of them, were piled on the floor. It was hard to recognize much that was human about them, as it appeared they had been methodically pulled apart, limb from limb. Two heads lay nearby, staring blankly up at the ceiling.
Karbara gave a whimper and fainted.
Kaspar shook his head. He slipped off the ring, and felt the approaching madness vanish. He took a deep breath. He would wait as long as possible before slipping it back on. He hoped the constables in this city were as slow to respond as they were in other places, for he needed an hour or more to pass before he could put the ring on again.
An hour passed, and Karbara stirred. Kaspar looked around and decided it was better to have the little would-be thief unconscious for a while longer, so he knelt and delivered a swift blow behind the man's ear. Karbara flopped once and fell silent.
Kaspar heard voices from below, and knew that even if the constables were slow in coming, the news of some problem in the room were spreading through the common room, and shortly would be the topic of street gossip in the neighbourhood.
Taking a deep breath, Kaspar put the ring back on and instantly felt a small discomfort. He knew he must make straight to the ship and get the Talnoy out of sight. He went to the Talnoy and put his hand on its shoulder. 'Manservant!' The creature's appearance changed instantly. 'Pick up the chest and follow me. Say nothing to anyone unless I command it.'
The creature bent over and shouldered the small chest effortlessly. He didn't have a spot of blood on him, and Kaspar realized the manservant disguise was an illusion, not a costume that could be splattered with gore. Unless he ordered it.
Kaspar turned and walked out of the room. At the bottom of the stairs, a few local men had gathered and were whispering as Kaspar and the Talnoy descended. Kaspar took out ten gold coins and handed them to the alehouse owner. 'My friend passed out. Take a deep breath before you go in there. This is for the trouble of cleaning up and for telling the constables that I've left by the south gate if they ask, instead of the west gate. Sorry for the trouble, but they were thieves.'
The owner took the coins without a world.
Kaspar led the Talnoy down to the docks and boarded the Western Princess. Captain Berganda said, 'I thought I wouldn't see you for another couple of days.'
'Change of plans. We're staying aboard, and if anyone asks, you've never seen us.'
'Understood,' said the large man. 'You're the owner.'
'Where's our cabin?'
'Well, I haven't moved out of the captain's cabin yet . . .'
'Stay there. Is there another?'
'Small one near mine. I'll have a boy show you.' He shouted for a cabin boy and when the youngster appeared, he instructed him to take Kaspar and the Talnoy to the cabin.
Kaspar told the boy that he'd eat in the cabin tonight, and as soon as the door closed, he pulled the ring off. Kaspar felt anxious and didn't know if it had been the ring or his concern about it, or worry he might be apprehended before he reached the docks. Unless the constables in this city were rigorous beyond his experience of such local officials, his roundabout route to the docks would have them seeking him through the south or western gates.
Kaspar sat on the lower bunk. There was another above him, but he made the Talnoy stand in the corner, next to the chest. Kaspar then settled in for two long, boring days of waiting until they departed Sulth.
No mention of the bloodshed at the alehouse reached Kaspar before they departed. If the captain or the crew had any concerns about his reasons for hiding in the cabin, they kept them to themselves. Finally, on the third morning, they got underway. Kaspar waited until they were clear of the harbour and came up on deck. Captain Berganda said, 'You're the owner, but once we've weighed anchor, I'm master.'
'Understood,' said Kaspar with a nod.
'If your course doesn't set us sailing off the edge of the world or into some monster's maw, we should be seeing your homeland in three months or less.'
'If the gods want us to,' said Kaspar with an ironic note.
'I always make an offering before leaving,' said Berganda. 'I don't know if it does any good to have those priests praying for a safe voyage, but it can't hurt.'
'No,' said Kaspar, 'Prayer can't hurt. Who knows, they might even listen now and again, right?'
'Oh, they listen all the time,' said the seaman. 'And they answer prayers. It's just that most often the answer is "no".'
Kaspar nodded, and couldn't find a reason to disagree.
He looked at the distant shore as they sailed south by southwest down the Bay of Sulth. It would be a long, and he hoped uneventful, voyage.
Kaspar watched the sea, the choppy waves sending spindrift dancing in the late afternoon sunlight. They had put forty-five days between the ship and Novindus. Kaspar had never felt any affection for the sea, but he had been aboard many ships voyaging from city to city as ruler of Olasko.
The Western Princess was a well-run little ship, and the crew knew their tasks. There was none of the iron discipline found on military ships, rather it had more of a family feel. These men had sailed with their captain for years, some of them for their entire adult lives.
Kaspar had fallen into a routine, mostly out of boredom, that began each day with his exercising on the deck. He would draw his sword and go through a vigorous workout, at first to the amusement of the crew, then to silent approval as his skills were shown. He would strip to his trousers and swing his blade for an hour, ignoring the weather unless it was blowing so fiercely he couldn't stand on deck. Then he would douse himself with a bucket of sea water, which was as close to a bath as he was going to get until they reached land.
Now they were on the westward leg. Kaspar stood quietly, thinking, letting his eyes rest on the constant surge of the sea. He had pondered his next move, for Kalkin was right about Talwin Hawkins. Though it was nearly a year since the battle of Opardum, Tal was likely to draw his sword and start carving Kaspar up before he could get out three words. Kaspar had an idea of what he was going to do, but he hadn't worked out the details yet.
'Captain!' came a shout from the lookout above.
'What is it?' shouted the captain.
'I don't know . . . something . . . off to starboard.'
Kaspar had been on the port rail, so he crossed the ship. In the distance an enormous shimmering circle hung in the air.
'What in the name of the gods?' muttered a seaman, while others made protective signs.
The hair on the back of Kaspar's neck stood up. He didn't know if it was the few minutes spent on Kosridi, the time he had spent with the Talnoy, or just an intuitive moment, but he knew this was a rend in space, a rift as Kalkin had called it.
Suddenly water started pouring from the circle into the sea, brackish, dark, and stinking of sulphur as the wind carried its reek towards the ship. 'Come to port!' shouted the Captain. 'I don't know what that thing is, but we're showing it our stern!'
Sailors jumped to obey, while Kaspar watched in mute fascination as water from that lightless world poured into the Blue Sea. Where it struck the sea, the water roiled and sputtered, throwing up steam and smoke, as flickers of energy danced along the foamy edges. Then abruptly a head appeared in the circle, a monster of that ocean's deep unlike any mythical sea monster or real danger on Midkemia. It was black, and the head looked as if it was armoured, sunlight gleaming off its hide. To Kaspar it appeared to be some sort of giant eel, with amber eyes that glowed in the lowering sun. The head had a crest of swept-back spikes as if to protect it from even larger predators - if that was remotely possible. Kaspar could hardly believe the size of the thing. It was already thirty feet out of the rift and more of it ■was coming, and it was getting bigger at the girth, so not even half of the creature was through. It could swallow this ship in three or four bites!
'Gods preserve us!' shouted the lookout.
The creature's fins came through, and Kaspar reckoned it must be over a hundred feet long! Men began calling out the names of gods and begging for mercy, as the creature was now looking at them and attempting to come through the rift faster.
Then abruptly the rift vanished, and a shock of wind was accompanied by the sound of distant thunder. Severed in two, the creature hung in mid-air, its eyes glazing over. It thrashed as it fell, spraying black-red blood everywhere. Then it plunged into the sea below, vanishing beneath the foam.
Suddenly it was as if the incident had only been imagined,
for any sign of the event had gone, the creature vanishing below the waves, and the empty sky showing no signs of the rift.
Kaspar looked around. Ashen-faced sailors muttered prayers and clung to lines and rails, until the Captain's voice shouted for them to be about their duties.
Kaspar glanced at Captain Berganda, and their eyes locked across the gulf between them. For an instant the Captain's gaze seemed accusing, as if he sensed somehow that this terrible vision was linked to Kaspar being aboard the ship. Then he turned his attention to his ship and the moment was lost.
Kaspar looked around and knew that by the time they reached Olasko, the crew would be arguing over what it was they had seen, and the tale would become another bit of seaman's lore.
But Kaspar knew that what he had seen had been no vision. And he knew what it heralded. He heard a voice in his mind. He didn't know if it was his own recognition of what he had seen, or Kalkin whispering one last warning into his ear, but in his mind the words formed, 'Time is short.'
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