|Previously...Unaware that Thanax, the former captain of the slave galley they have commandeered, plots treachery, Zen and Linis set sail. But no sooner do they fight off an attack by a giant serpent then a pirate vessel looms on the horizon, and Thanax is forced to put aside his thoughts of mutiny as they must face this mutual foe -- but his plans are only postponed, not forgotten...
chapter six: "cast the grapnels!"
“Their forecastle is packed with archers. We’ll never make it across.”
“Do as I say, damn you!”
Thanax grunted, issued commands. Mariners raced up the ramp, crowded the stern castle. The enemy’s black shafts arched towards them; shields were raised, overlapping like tiles – a roof against the impending arrow storm beneath which the bowman crouched. The Long shafts fell – a rain of death that rattled ominously like deadly hail.
A slight pause ensued as the pirate’s archers readied another flight. Zen lowered his shield, hurled the grenade as Linis had instructed. The death-laden sphere spanned the ever-narrowing gap; fell among the foe, exploded thunderously.
The ram struck, timbers splintered, slaves screamed, mariners stumbled under the terrific impact. Zen wrapped one massive arm about Linis’ slim waist, leapt into the pirate’s forecastle – a charnel house of butchered corpses. The girl shuddered at the awful sight, tried to ignore the carnage.
“Hurry, you fools,” shouted Zen. “Cast the grapnels, board now before they pull away.”
Archers leapt the narrow gap, began loosing shafts into the milling pirates below who had been thrown into confusion by the grenade’s roaring blast. Linis fired from behind Zen’s shield; men fell. An arrow sped up, struck her shock-pistol. She cried in pain and fear as it spun away, its shattered mechanism scattering across the bloody deck.
“Marines forward, phalanx formation,” came Thanax's bullfrog cry. A hedgehog of spears surged down the ramp, across the waist - an unstoppable wave of heavy armor that swept the deck free of life.
Kasar stood on the stern castle, a great hulk of a man, his arms and naked torso crisscrossed with scars. He roared profanities at the Ruminites, wild with defiant fury. Zen and Thanax raced towards him followed by other men, their mutual enmity forgotten in the heat of battle.
Up the ramp they charged, collided with the knot of buccaneers before the pirate chief. Savagery erupted – the clash of blade on shield, the spray of blood, its sickening smell, and the screams of stricken men.
Thanax fell back, his shield split by Kasar's mighty blow. Zen stepped forward, furiously engaged the snarling pirate. Kasar retreated before his savage onslaught, the battle swirling around the fighting pair. With wild desperation the pirate captain leapt forward, rammed his shield against the Etruan, hurling him to the deck.
From the safety of the forecastle Linis watched in helpless horror as Kasar's blade swung down in a killing stroke, saw Zen interpose his shield just in time, lay open the buccaneer’s thigh with a crippling blow. Kasar screamed, fell. Zen finished him with a shearing stroke that clove his skull, then staggered upright and saw victory had been gained, for all about were strewn the dismembered corpses of the foe.
With worried eyes Zen looked about; saw Linis leaning against the forecastle’s crenulations, sickened by the slaughter. Looking forward, she saw marines cutting away the grapnels, felt the ship pull free. The Laylia was sinking, the slaves drowning; their pitiful cries knifed her heart. As a doctor Linis had dedicated herself to saving lives, now she was involved in ending them. Turning her head away, she wept with grief and shame.
“Come,” said Zen as he drew near and placed a comforting arm about her shoulders, sensing something of what she felt, for he knew that only fools believe there’s glory in a bloody fray. “I’ll take you to the captain’s quarters, you can rest there.”
Thanax watched the couple depart, a thoughtful expression on his craggy face. The girl seemed strangely weak for a mighty sorceress. Walking up the sloping length of the forecastle ramp, he found the broken shock-pistol, picked up a piece, weighed it in his calloused hand. Her magic seemed bound up in the strange devices she carried; the black ball had been used; now this thing was ruined.
Thanax turned, saw the First Mate watching him. Both men knew each other well enough to guess what each was thinking. The captain walked passed Talos with an unfelt air of casualness, mouthed a single word: “Soon.”
Late afternoon on the Sea of Dadan: Zen stood in the forecastle, gazing across the calm waters, deep in thought. By evening Etru should be in sight – her crescent harbor, a calm mirror reflecting the opal moon, the white stone dwellings on the purple hillsides, warm with lamplight.
Such are the poignant memories of home, came his thought as a vision of the palace, a grander version of the other houses*, arose within his troubled mind.
*Footnote: A characteristic of all Etruan homes is their circular plan. The rooms lead off a colonnaded loggia surrounding the central circular courtyard. Each room is U-shaped in plan, the windows and doors of which are circular, and are surrounded by an outward facing border of stylized eyes. This magical symbol (called a mezra) is thought to prevent evil spirits and bad luck from entering the home.
His musings shifted to Linis, still resting within the captain’s cabin. I’m dragging her into danger, he thought. But what choice is there? Poor girl, she is all adrift upon uncharted waters.
A vision of her loveliness appeared before him, a moment of melting tenderness. If they could survive the dangers that lay ahead, then perhaps … Ah, but the future was uncertain - like something dimly seen through a clouded glass, a distorted shape; a wavering phantom.
The sound of footfalls: Instinctively, Zen grasped his daggers, turned; watched cautiously as Thanax approached. The man bowed. “A word with you, if I may, Lord Zen.”
“You may speak.”
“Thank you, Lord Zen. I …”
Thanax gasped, a look of sudden alarm on his features. “Another neshrin,” he cried, pointing with a trembling hand.
Zen spun about; Thanax leapt, seized him; hurled the Etruan over the side in one swift and fluid motion, sending his enemy plunging to the hungry waves below. There was a tremendous splash; Zen disappeared from sight.
For a time Thanax watched the waves, but of the man there was no sign. Probably taken by a ranth*, thought the captain, gleefully.
*Footnote: Ranth: Another serpentine marine predator, gray-green in color. The head and jaws, somewhat resembling an alligator’s, are armed with venomous teeth.
And what of the wench? Was she truly a woman, or something else? I’ll soon discover that, came his lascivious thought. And if she is I’ll enjoy myself before tossing her to the other men.
Linis ate slowly, savoring the strange victuals set before her – an array of preserved fruits and vegetables set in a narrow oval dish of reddish wood. The meal was rather spicy, very different from the familiar rations of shipboard life. So too the eating utensil – a bonze device resembling extremely long tweezers with which she transferred the diced food to her mouth.
Suddenly, the girl looked up from her meal with a start. Her eyes darted about the luxurious cabin - awash with the glittering wealth of many ravished ships - realizing that something was amiss. Her gaze locked upon the door – the handle was slowly turning. Zen? No, he would never enter so stealthily.
Fighting down her rising dread, Linis rose lightly from the table, dagger drawn. Running to the portal on swift and silent feet, the girl pressed herself to the wall at one side, blade raised ready to strike. Could she kill if necessary? Fearing she must, Linis steeled herself for the deed, knowing she must adapt to this savage world or die.
Slowly the door swung open; the girl tensed, dagger poised. A man entered, the dying light catching his profile – Thanax. Linis leapt, dagger plunging. A flash of movement – Thanax spun, caught her wrist in a crushing grip. She cried in pain, her blade clattered to the floor.
The captain barked a harsh triumphant laugh. “The fact that you attacked me not with magic but a common dagger is proof enough you’re no sorceress.”
Linis tried to claw his eyes as he pulled her close, but Thanax turned his head in time, grabbed her hand, twisted both arms behind her back, snared both wrists within one encircling iron hand, and tore away her garment with the other.
She screamed, struggled fiercely, but to no avail. “Let me go,” she cried.
“The top half looks like a woman,” came his oafish reply as he snatched the hebara from her neck and hung it about his own. “Now we’ll see about the rest.”
Again she screamed as his brutal fingers tugged at the waistband of her underwear.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)