The Morning Tide heaved and swung with the choppy waves. Darius’ head spun with the constant motion but the approaching bandit boats forced him not to throw up.
The leader of the oarmen, Yagor, poked his head up from below, “Sire, the men tire. They cannot keep this up for long. We must put up the sails.”
Darius looked at Tarvus manning the wheel. “Use dropping with alternates. We cannot let loose the sails yet or we run the risk of crashing.” The captain retorted.
The bare-chested oarmen shouts drowned in the cacophony of sea against the rocks. Tarvus swiveled the wheel starboard and then pulled it back half-way as the ship rounded a rock jagging out of the water.
Maybe Fabius would’ve known better. Darius cursed himself. Thinking this way wasn’t going to get them out of this soup. The plan had worked for a while.
The sea-fire wreaked havoc among the smaller boats but hadn’t wiped them out. Seven of the boats had remained pliable. But they did fall back. For two whole days they’d outstripped their pursuers and even lost them across the horizon for a few hours, but the bandits had picked up the chase again four days back. Their renewed vigour had surprised both him and Tarvus, using a mix of sail and oars to creep closer to the Morning Tide as if whips of the bandit lord rained on their backs.
Desperate to lose them, Darius had suggested taking them through the rocky archipelago of the Blood-Dune islands, named for their blood red vegetation. But sailors had avoided the stretch completely for many centuries as legends of sea monsters which dragged down ships in minutes ran amok. Darius had never believed them, but the fact that no sailor or ship had ever been able to sail to the east and return, provided a lot of credence to the stories. Darius had hoped that the tales would scare the bandits from chasing them through the islands. But not only had the bandits not given up, the cramped channels between the islands made it tougher for the much larger Morning Tide to navigate through.
“Are you sure we will not run aground, Tarvus?”
“Not unless I crash into one of these infernal rocks. The trenches between the islands are deep enough to drown this ship fifty times over.” Tarvus replied, maneuvering the ship between a wedge of high rocks.
Darius was impressed with the captain’s navigation of the ship. The smaller bandit boats had had to pull hard to keep up with the ship in spite of their speed and flexibility.
“We don’t know why they are so determined to catch us. Maybe they think we have an expensive cargo…”
Darius sensed the hesitation in the Captain’s voice. “You think they know I’m aboard?”
“Makes the most sense. They would gain a huge leverage. The King is not going to let you die.”
The thought had crossed Darius’ mind over the past few days. “Shave the beard?”
“Shave your head too. May look odd but the further you look from a prince, the better. Besides your hair seems to be thinning. A shave will do it wonders.” Tarvus chuckled. “And I have already told all my crew not to mention anything of the sort.”
“Will they hold against torture?”
“They should, but that’s why we are trying not to test that,” Tarvus turned the ship to port again. “Kalous…” he called out to an olive-skinned boy from Inchak, “take Darius to Fanou and ask him to shave off his beard and hair and within the hour. We don’t have time.”
The boy nodded and beckoned Darius to follow him down. “Wait, isn’t Fanou the first mate?”
The boy didn’t respond, running through the unmanned galley. All hands were either on deck or on the oars.
The boy led him to the first mate’s cabin who pored over charts of the area. “What is it now?” the man with a monocle looked up with a frown. “Oh, Prince Darius, you’re here to become Remus Tuliarr?”
“Well, we can’t use the name Darius Throdden if you change your appearance. That’s the name Tarvus and me came up with an hour back.”
Darius nodded. “But…you are a barber?”
“The one and only on any Throdden ship and I think on any ship actually. I like my boys to keep a civilized look.”
Darius realized that he hadn’t seen the crew with obnoxiously long hair or untrimmed beards, even though they had been on sea for over two months now.
Fanou dragged out a metal box. “Forgive me for any cuts and bruises, but I don’t usually do this in choppy waters.”
Darius took off his shirt. “I think the bandits would do a lot worse.”
An almighty jerk slashed his cheek during the final strokes of the razor on his cheek. Darius waved away the cotton that Fanou had produced from the tin box. “Why are we slowing down?”
“We must have struck. Darius, if we get caught, we don’t want the bandits to know why you have half a beard.”
“Do it quick. We need to get on deck.”
Darius tapped his feet impatiently and as soon as Fanou wiped his face with the cloth stained with his blood, he jumped up from the chair and rushed above.
Tarvus was struggling with the wheel as if it’d been jammed. Darius peered over the side. The bandits were a few rope lengths away.
“Something is weighing us down.” Tarvus shouted out, as he spotted him.
“What?” Darius exclaimed.
A loud scream from below rent the air. Yagor, rushed up the stairs. “It’s true. They are real. The cephalans are real!”
All the men on deck froze. Darius felt his blood freeze. It can’t be. They are a sailor’s myth.
“We have to get everybody out,” cried out Tarvus. “Better face the bandits than the cephalans.”
Orders rang out and men started pulling their companions up.
“Last shot cannons.” roared Tarvus, sharply turning the wheel as the ship groaned towards the bandit boats.
Darius grabbed onto a rail to avoid being flung across the deck. The port side of the ship rose above the water momentarily. Darius’ jaw dropped open. The side of the ship crawled with shapeless white and black shell shaped creatures, creeping up the sides like honey suckle vines. A sickly crunch followed by another scream saw one of the deckhands go over the side as a canon-hit part of the rail gave way. The ship splashed back as it completed its turn.
“Man overboard.” cried out Darius. But his voice was drowned under the synchronous boom of the cannons. Darius leaned over. The deckhand resurfaced and began swimming, unharmed.
“Draw your swords men. Let no prisoners be taken.” Tarvus bellowed, as his men gathered their balance.
“No, Tarvus. We bait them in and jump into the sea. The cephalans are only interested in the ship. Let it go down with the bandits.”
Tarvus did not hesitate. “Call all men on deck. NOW!”
Feet scrambled and shouts rang out through the ship. Tarvus bellowed again. “Gunners fire.”
Three cannot shots rang out from the broadside, but without time to aim, all but one missed. Darius could now make out the faces of the bandits from the remaining six boats, drawing their swords and reading ropes.
“We do not engage them. Let them climb up. As soon as they do, jump into the sea and swim for that island!” Darius found himself barking the orders, as he pulled his own sword out. The crew lined up behind him and Tarvus.
The ship groaned and Darius felt the boards beneath his feet disappear. Two men crashed into his sternum as he fell down. To his surprise, Tarvus had managed to stay on his feet.
“She’s going down. All men jump. And make sure we all get to the island.”
The men near the rails hauled themselves over as the others found their feet. What surprised Darius was that even in this confusion and peril, there was order in the crew.His appreciation for the captain grew even more.
“Remus, time to jump.” Tarvus, sheathed his sword in his belt and ran towards the rails.
Darius looked back to see a bandit face emerge over the other side. He turned and jumped over the side. Cold water enveloped him. As he turned himself upright and shot towards the surface, Darius saw a mass of the cephalans attached to the underside of the ship, with a wave full more rising from below.
He surfaced and pulled himself with all his might. The waters rolled around him, heaving and cresting. The cut on his cheek stung with the salt in the sea. Darius gasped for breath.
A large rock rose in front of him from the water. Darius let out a muffled scream as the force of the sea flung him towards it. A sharp pain rose as his head cracked against the rock and darkness engulfed him.
Fabius stood in front of the ivory Dovandohr Hall named after the first Droullin lord who’d turned the First War in the favour of the Throddens. The front of the building had several snowberry bushes on either side. A short flight of steps led to the huge main iron doors, which were said to have been constructed along with the main hall eight centuries ago.
Fabius had rarely bothered entering the palaces and castles of the lords and nobles. The few he had visited had not compared to the halls of Sen-Tian. But his first steps into Dovandohr Hall also created doubts in that perception. The hall looked dated, but the brown timber hammer-beam roof stood out. Great oak beams stood fixed along the walls to lend support to the majestic roof. The entire hall had no columns and provided an unobstructed view. Three humongous lanterns on the roof ensured that the hall remained well aired.
On the far side of the hall, Lord Droullin sat on a golden throne, only a little less ostentatious than his father’s in Sen-Tian. A tall wheatish man stood beside him, hunched in deep conversation with the lord. On either side of the room, small round tables held bottles and glasses. A solitary wine-red banner emblazoned with a blue hand holding a sword hung behind the lord. As flamboyant as the display of wealth seemed, it exhibited taste.
Ainsley nudged him. “Droullin can seriously give Sen-Tian a run for its money.”
Fabius nodded. Lord Droullin had allowed only one member from his retinue. He suspected that had something to do with the reputation his company had acquired.
The herald leading them announced their entrance. The lord turned towards him as the other man stiffened up straight. Military. Fabius mused.
However, in spite of the clean shaven polished look of Lord Droullin and the plush yellow robe with an inner lining set with coloured stones, the lord’s droopy eyes, gave away his dearth of sleep. He cannot be losing sleep over the salt, can he? From what he’d heard about the lord, bouts of eccentricity could not be ruled out.
“Welcome to the hallowed Dovandohr Hall, prince Fabius. I trust your journey went well?” the lord twisted a large sapphire ring on his index finger.
Fabius gave a curt bow. Ainsley followed with a much deeper one. “Yes, my lord. We made good time on the road.”
“Yes, you must have to have reached a whole day in advance.” The lord smiled.
Fabius held his face straight. “We needed to acquaint ourselves with the land. It will help in searching for the lost caravans.”
“Tell me, prince. Was attending a showman’s spectacle part of that?”
“My men needed to relax. And besides, we stand before you on the day the King instructed us to arrive.” Fabius replied smoothly. He’s been keeping track of us.The thought irritated him but it was not unexpected from a noble.
“And so you would want my seal of confirmation of your arrival,” the smile on the lord’s face widened, showing the lines of age.
“If your lord so pleases, yes.”
“A wayward son checked on by his father!” he announced to a chorus of laughter from the man beside him and a couple of courtiers. The serving maids did not, of course, join in.
Fabius rolled his eyes. Great! So Droullin is one of the insufferable kind.
Ainsley passed a small grin. As long as they got the sealed confirmation of their arrival sent to the King, it did not matter what insults Lord Droullin threw their way.
Lord Droullin sent off a servant with instructions to send a letter out to the King.
“What do you need us to assist you with, my lord?” Fabius squirmed with glee inside for the groveling tone he’d adopted, but that was the best he could do without verbally insulting the lord.
“You know very well what we require, prince Fabius. Do not play coy with me. You’re a spoilt young whelp.” Lord Droullin smirked. “General Viallan here is the commander of all the forces of the realm of Awad. Go with him and pick up the reports he has. And then get us back the salt caravans or at least the men behind the robberies.” The man beside Lord Droullin stepped forward, his square jaw set in a deprecating smile.
From the grey flecks in his hair, Fabius knew the man to be an experienced leader. The key to getting the job completed quickly lay in them getting as much aid from him as possible.
“Viallan?” sniggered Ainsley. “So the line of turncoats still endures.”
Fabius shot Ainsley a sharp look. “I apologise for my companion’s behaviour. His reaction was instinctive. He did not mean to insult you, General.” Fabius faced down the captain.
Anger besmirched the General’s bronze face, as his fingers clasped the pommel of his sword.
Lord Droullin intervened. “Mind your manners in my hall. The Viallans have been a trusted house of Awad and have ruled with us for many years. Whatever history says about them has long been written off.” A sneer writ on his face, the lord continued, “Besides with princes like you, the rule of Throddens is on the wane. To think a great king like Thaddius sired a disappointment as you.”
Fabius almost chuckled, but controlled himself. “Do you think these insults mean anything to me, Lord Droullin? I have never had any ambitions for ruling and I have made that amply clear. The Throdden rule is safe in Darius’ hands.”
“Ah yes, the noble older brother. And yet they send you after all my requests. Thaddius must be losing his touch for good governance.”
Fabius stiffened. Rarely had he taken insults on his callousness to heart but the lord seemed to be scratching a nerve.
“Maybe because you called for royal help for catching ordinary robbers. Why this high interest in salt, Lord Droullin?”
“Because I don’t like being stolen from, whether it be a single bronze petal or a thousand gold flowers. Something you and your rag-tag band of gambling fools can never appreciate. And besides, the King has ordered you to aid in their recovery. To ask why, is not knowledge you need. Fulfil your assignment. General Viallan will provide you with whatever details we have.” The lord waved them away. “And if you insult him again, I will not hold him responsible for his actions.”
The General glared at them but walked way to the left, leading them towards a door.
“Arbok’s dirty paws!” cursed Ainsley, as they followed the tall captain.
“That was uncalled for, Ainsley. You cannot define a man for what his ancestors have done, that too centuries ago.” Fabius whispered.
Ainsley shrugged, but kept his voice low. “I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. I didn’t want to call Droullin a lazy slob, so this guy had to take the fall. And I’m historically accurate.”
Fabius shook his head. Sometimes, Ainsley acted obtuse.
General Viallan led them through two long galleries lined with tapestries on the walls and polished teak doors, as far as Fabius could tell. The gallery ended with a huge window with rose tinted glasses. The General stopped and motioned them to enter through a door to the right.
The amount of books and loose sheaths of paper in the room, indicated that they’d been led to some kind of a study.
The General strode in after them and proceeded to a round three-legged table with a few pages littered on it.
“General Viallan, I truly apologise for the comment of my companion, once again.” Fabius advanced towards him.
Ainsley apologized on cue.
The General did not turn to face them but grunted. “I do not care what you think of me or the Viallans. Our house stood proudly long before the Throddens ever came into existence and will continue to thrive.” He shuffled through the sheets, throwing a couple back on the table.
The bitterness in his voice rang clear. “These are the details of the shipments that were lost, the routes and the guards that accompanied it. Other than this, there is no more that I can give you.”
Fabius flipped through the thin wad of crumpled sheets. “These do not even tell us when and where they were lost. How are we supposed to find that out?”
“That’s because we don’t know when they were attacked. Only when they didn’t arrive did we send out search parties. Even when we sent our own guards to accompany one of the caravans, they vanished without trace. This is all we have.”
Fabius looked straight into the eyes of the General. “Is this a joke? You’ve given us nothing.”
The General held his gaze. “I would’ve never called you. And if I had the soldiers to spare, you wouldn’t be here. I have people vanishing in this city. One of my own guards has disappeared and that is much more of a priority to me. You were called here to help with the salt caravans, so I suggest you do it.”
Arguing with an obstinate man biased against them wouldn’t get him any help. Fabius knew that from the scores of thick-headed barkeeps he had had brawls with. “Fine. We need a guide around the city.”
“Didn’t you hear what I just said. I have no guards to spare to lead you like a stray dog. Your retinue is big enough. Figure it out yourself.”
“Listen, General. I have other tasks. I cannot linger around Lushrow for more than a month.” Keep calm, Fabius. Fabius loathed the thought of wasting his life on such trivialities.
“Then, you’d best get going.”
Fabius stepped forward, drawing himself within an inch of the General’s face. He stood about half a hand shorter but Fabius knew he could be intimidating when he needed to be. “I don’t care how slighted you feel, General, I still am your prince. Now if you don’t give me a guide right now, the King will not be reprimanding me for knocking your teeth out.”