How Zantheus Fell into the Sky

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THE WAY SPLITS

Over the course of the next few weeks Zantheus reluctantly managed to settle into a rhythm of routine on board the ship. He was still none the wiser as to how he had got here, but he decided that he would just have to make the most of his situation until he was. On the whole the other twenty-or-so crew members avoided him, eyeing him suspiciously when they passed him; in any case they all had strange foreign names which Zantheus had difficulty remembering. His only real company was Tromo, who was unable to speak. They spent most of the day working at various menial tasks together about the ship, punctuated by stints in the crow’s nest. He continued trying to piece together parts of the boy’s story to give him something to do, but with little success. The most he could ascertain was that the boy and his family had been attacked by someone or something when they had put into port in Shul. At meal times they sat next to each other in the long dining room, silently eating whatever meal they had just been helping Chortas, the ship’s cook, to prepare. It was an odd sight, the towering knight sitting next to the timid child as they spooned down their broth in tacit comradeship. The rest of the crew ignored them as they prattled on about this and that concerning the upkeep of the ship, or speculating as to how long it would take them to reach Dahma.

To this second topic in particular a great deal of their discussion was devoted. Thalassa ate separately in the captain’s quarters with Hudor, his first mate, so at meals the crew got to voice opinions that might be contrary to his own. It became clear to Zantheus that some of them, the majority, even, were beginning to doubt whether they would ever reach Dahma, to which they were sailing from Shul as refugees, or in some cases whether it existed at all. When the latter view was voiced, those in support of Thalassa would make reference to the “Sky-Man” and the crew would glance apprehensively down the table at Tromo and Zantheus. The chief issue seemed to be whether or not they would run out of food before they got to Dahma. Chortas was often consulted as to the quantity of the remaining supplies, and he would reply “There’s not enough, not nearly enough.” Zantheus wondered how he could know this, seeing as none of them really had any inkling how far off they were from Dahma. Their spirits had been raised by the arrival of Zantheus, whom everyone secretly assumed must have swum or drifted to them from the Dahman coast, but with each passing day they began to question this theory and wonder more and more about Tromo’s unbelievable report of him falling out of the sky. Chortas’s comments about the food supplies were in turn used as a weapon against Hudor, who had to eat a good deal in order to fuel his considerable bulk. Zantheus perceived that, gradually, those in support of Thalassa were becoming increasingly outnumbered as the ranks of dissenters increased. He started to hear murmurings of ‘turning back’.

He sincerely hoped that the pessimists were wrong. The prospect of never getting back to Awmeer did not bear thinking about for him. Indeed, Zantheus tried very hard not to think about it. Not knowing how he had arrived on this ship and whether he would ever get home was a kind of unceasing, unspoken agony. However, one small piece of respite came Zantheus’s way. One evening it was his and the boy’s turn to take the late shift on look-out duty, the last of the day. After the sun had set, they descended the rigging to turn in for the night. On this night however, Zantheus just could not get to sleep. He was accustomed to uneasy nights, but for some reason this time the visions that usually waited to creep up on him in his dreams were right there in front of him, inescapably vivid in his tiny bedroom: an enormous mirror and two big arms threatening to enclose him and launch him into the air. He got out of bed and went for a walk above deck.

Up here he was joined by millions of stars, sending down their soft glow to meet him. He felt a sudden desire to get as close to them as possible. He found himself climbing again to his least favourite place, the crow’s nest, just to get a better view of them. Out here on the ocean they were a breath-taking sight. Somehow in those countless points of light, separated from one another by impossible blackness, but gently shining all the same, Zantheus took comfort. They spoke hope to him. If they could cross that void of blackness to bring their light to him from all the way up there, then surely he could cross the great distance that lay between him and his home. Soon this became Zantheus’s refuge. Every night before going to sleep he would ascend to the look-out post and watch the stars, dreaming of his return to Awmeer. You will get back, they told him. You will get back. You will not wander forever.

It was one night after one of his stargazing sessions in the crow’s nest that Zantheus was returning to his hammock when he heard a noise in the corridor outside his cabin, a kind of muffled whimpering. It was not long before he identified it as coming from behind one of the doors. Carefully he edged it open. The room was even smaller than the one in which he slept, a store cupboard. All that it contained was a small chest, a mat in the corner and on it, sure enough, Tromo, wrapped in a blanket. He had his back to Zantheus and was shivering uncontrollably in his sleep, letting out the whimper. It was the only noise Zantheus had ever heard him make with his mouth. For a while he just stood in the door with no idea what to do. He could not understand such weakness. Why did the boy tremble so? The shivering bundle was the most pathetic thing he had ever seen.

Zantheus heard a movement behind him. “He’s always done that,” Thalassa said quietly at his side. “That’s why we put him to sleep in here.” Apparently the Captain could not sleep either.

“Why?” said Zantheus, also in a whisper. “Why does he tremble like that?”

Thalassa let out a quiet sigh. “Let’s talk up on the deck, so we don’t wake him.” Zantheus stepped out of Tromo’s tiny room with him and shut the door as quietly as he could.

Above board, they moved over to the rail and watched the seething mass of blackness that was the sea. The only other person in sight was one of the other sailors, half-asleep at the ship’s wheel, but out of earshot. Thalassa began to tell his tale.

“Zantheus, let me tell you a little about myself,” he said. “I come from a land called Shul, as you know, in the West. It is ruled by a wicked king, who oppresses his people violently, and those that oppose him are few and far between. I was a Sergeant in the Shulite army, and I slaughtered many at his whim. Dissenters, rebels, escaped slaves, even regular townsfolk, if an example needed to be made. I am not proud of it...”

He paused for a moment. If Zantheus was meant to respond in a certain way, he was oblivious to what it was.

“Until one day, that is,” Thalassa went on, “when I was ordered to murder the passengers on a ship that was to put in at a certain port—a ship that was carrying emissaries from Qereth. So, I did. But that was also the day on which I realised that what I was serving and doing was a very great evil.”

There was another awkward pause. If Zantheus had been more aware he would have asked “What happened?” Instead, the silence merely hung in the air, interrupted only by the sound of the waves lapping against the ship, until Thalassa resumed his story.

“We were raiding the ship, you see, having killed all the men on board, and looking for plunder. It was this ship, in fact, the very same on which you are standing now. As I was raiding it, I came to that room you were just standing in—the cupboard where Tromo sleeps. Inside, I was met by a young girl with that same brown hair that he has. She was terrified of me. She stood in the corner while, mad with greed, I helped myself to all the valuables I could find in there. But as I did so, I noticed that she was trying to keep something from me, trying to block me from noticing something with her body. Behind her there was something with a blanket thrown over it –that same blanket, he always sleeps in it. I asked her what it was and she became hysterical, lying to me that it was nothing, that it didn’t matter. I pushed her aside and flung off the blanket to find a chest underneath. That chest in the cupboard. She clung to my arm and begged me to leave it, she even bit me when I wouldn’t…”

Thalassa halted his narrative once again. It seemed as though he genuinely needed to pause before he could go on.

Eventually he said “So, I slit her throat. Then I forced the lock on the chest and opened it. And what do you expect I found? There I was, mad with lust for my own wealth, expecting to find gold or jewels or some priceless artefact from a foreign land. But instead, what did I get? That little boy, staring up at me and trembling with fear.” Thalassa spoke the words ‘that little boy’ with a mixture of resentment and compassion. “I don’t know why, Sky-Man—or ‘Zantheus’ if that’s what you’re really called—but for some reason when faced with that cowering child, hidden in the chest, something broke in me. For some reason, at that moment I realised the full extent of my wickedness, the depths to which I had sunk in serving the ruler of Shul. Funny that it should happen then...I suppose it must have been the shock of it…I was convinced the girl had been guarding something valuable and priceless locked up and hidden in that chest. Instead, I got the boy.” Thalassa looked at Zantheus. All at once his expression changed and he became suddenly self-conscious. “But I suppose you know nothing of this—I imagine you have never committed a wrong deed in your life?”

“No, I have not,” said Zantheus in complete seriousness.

The pair were left in excruciating silence. Zantheus supposed that he should say something more, that he was expected to say something by way of reply to the tale, but he had nothing to say to the man. He was disgusted by what Thalassa had told him. Why had he felt it necessary to tell him about this? Zantheus did not want to hear about such abominable deeds. He had no sympathy for the Captain: it was a despicable thing that he had done; there was nothing more to it than that. What was more, he had ruined Zantheus’s crow’s nest pastime of trying to think up questions to ask Tromo. So that was all there was to know: the boy was the son of some emissaries from Qereth, who had been killed by Thalassa and his men in carrying out the orders of the wicked ruler of Shul. Nothing mysterious or out of the ordinary there. He had no more questions left to ask the boy. How would he keep his mind busy whilst on look-out duty now?

“I know I do not deserve forgiveness for my deeds...” said Thalassa, interrupting his stream of thought.

If only for the sake of breaking the silence, Zantheus asked “What did you do after you found him?”

Thalassa hesitated. “I slumped to the floor and sat with my back to the wall while Tromo watched the girl die on the floor next to me. For the first time in my life I felt guilty. I was overwhelmed.”

“Then what did you do?”

“…after a while I recovered myself, and I covered the boy’s mouth to stop him crying and hid him back in the chest, until the raid had finished. Then I snuck off the ship with him and deserted the army, abandoning my men. I stayed in the port, Sephinah, with him for some time, wondering what to do. After a few days I discovered that there was a…group of men in the town who were looking to sail east to Dahma as refugees. So I joined them, led the re-capture of this ship with them, and here we are. We have sailed this sea for what seems like an age, with no clue as to whether we are any closer to our destination. Until you joined us, that is, by falling out of the sky.”

“I see,” said Zantheus.

Just then Thalassa’s vulnerability appeared to disappear and his gruff manner resumed. “I don’t know whether you are telling the truth, Sky-Man, whether you really did come from the sky like Tromo says, but I sincerely hope you will serve as a useful guide to Qereth once we are in Dahma. You probably think that nothing I could do could make up for my actions, but when we reach Qereth I intend to find the boy’s living relatives, if he has any, and return him to them. Maybe then I will be able to live out the rest of my days contentedly in a more peaceful country...”

Zantheus wanted this conversation to end. “Maybe you will,” he said abruptly, and went down to his cabin, shutting the door firmly but quietly behind him so as not to wake the other slumbering crewmen. He went to his hammock that night a little more disrespectful of Thalassa, a little more sympathetic for Tromo, and a little more desperate to land in Dahma.


“It’s no use, Zantheus; you’ll have to let me down.”

Zantheus was helping the first-mate Hudor and Tromo repair the mainsail. It had torn in a few places during some stormy weather yesterday—apparently it had already been weakened by catching him when he had fallen out of the sky. They had managed to sort out two of the tears, but the piece of material Hudor was trying to use to patch up the third had turned out not to be big enough. Zantheus, who had hoisted Hudor up to the sail on a ramshackle platform they had assembled out of wooden planks and rope, began to let him down as he had requested.

Perched on the main mast above, Tromo looked after the intricate arrangement of pulleys that surrounded it, making sure that Hudor’s ropes did not get tangled up with any of those holding the sails in place. The three of them had become something of a team; often now when Hudor needed assistance with a task he would enlist the help of Tromo and Zantheus. Zantheus appreciated this. Hudor was the only person on board other than Thalassa who really paid him any attention. He was also the only person who dared to talk to him about his life before he came to be on the ship. He would question Zantheus about his alleged climb of the mountain Awmeer and how he had prepared for it. Zantheus would tell him about the training exercises he had been made to perform his whole life growing up as a knight in the Aythian Sanctuary, how his body had been coached into a state of physical excellence and how from childhood he had been taught to withstand extreme cold.

Hudor in turn told him about how he had been a fisherman in a town called Sephinah in Shul, but had wanted to leave for as long as he could remember, for the people of Shul were oppressed by a despotic tyrant. When he had heard of the group of refugees planning to sail to Dahma he had joined immediately, and his hard-working and friendly nature had meant that he had quickly become first mate when the defected military Seargent Thalassa had come along to take charge of them. Zantheus discovered that in Shul talk of the continent of Dahma was forbidden and it was only known as a rumour to some; hence the crew’s restlessness and uneasiness about the growing length of their voyage. Hudor retained his certainty that the place existed, however, and Zantheus’s dramatic arrival on board the ship had bolstered his faith as it had Thalassa’s. All the same, he was very careful never to ask Zantheus exactly how he had come to arrive on their vessel, perhaps because it was a taboo subject, perhaps because he was worried the answer would do something to call his certainty into question.

Zantheus helped him off the platform. Hudor was a very big man. Though he had not had the physical regime of an Aythian knight to hone his body into shape, Zantheus noted, he was a hulk all the same, and incredibly strong. He was prevented from being intimidating, however, by his exceptionally friendly nature and by his attire: for trousers, Hudor wore what looked like a couple of sacks clumsily stitched together, and his shirt, ripped at the arm-holes, appeared to be made out of the same material as the sail, giving him the overall impression of being dressed in different parts of the ship and having outgrown even these. He wore no shoes either, preferring to walk barefoot.

“Thanks, Zantheus,” said Hudor. “We’ll have to go and get some more material. But let’s have a break first. Why don’t we have something to eat?”

Zantheus nodded in assent. He was not particularly hungry, but he had grown used to Hudor’s almost insatiable appetite and constant need for food breaks. Hudor was just about to call up to Tromo for him to come down as well when-

Land hooooooooooooo!” came the words from the crow’s nest.

Zantheus could hardly believe his ears.

Land hooooooooooooo!” the jubilant cry sounded again.

At last!

Immediately the entirety of the crew dropped whatever they were doing and rushed on to the deck. Zantheus joined the congregation at the bow, crowding for the best view. There on the horizon, an obscure, shadowy mass rose out of the sea. It was indistinct and at places faded away to emptiness, but there was no doubt about it: land was in sight.

A voice spoke quietly next to Zantheus, unable to conceal its relief. “I knew you were a good omen, Sky-Man.” It belonged to Thalassa. Now he spoke louder, addressing the whole crew. “Well boys, we made it! Soon we will weigh anchor in Dahma!”

A great cheer went up from the crew. Any resentment or doubt towards Thalassa was forgotten in an instant. “Now get back to work!” he bellowed, making full use of his renewed authority. “We should reach her by nightfall, by my reckoning!”

The men swiftly returned to their stations, visibly uplifted. Some of them even smiled at Zantheus.

Thalassa remained where he was. “Zantheus and Hudor, may I see you in my quarters?”

Zantheus followed the sailors into Thalassa’s quarters, which were located in the aftercastle, at the top of some steps that led up from the deck. This was the most well-furnished room Zantheus had seen on the ship. A polished table stood in the centre, complete with silver cutlery, and there were even some pictures on the walls. One of them, he noticed, depicted a magnificent white watercolour mountain-range. Instead of addressing him directly, Thalassa stood at the end of the room staring through the big windows that looked out through the stern of the ship over the ocean at their backs. After a moment, he spoke solemnly.

“So, Zantheus, you don’t really know your way around Dahma at all, do you?”

Zantheus’ mouth dropped open.

“In fact, Hudor tells me that you seem to have almost no knowledge at all of the world outside of your ‘Sanctuary’. Am I right?”

Zantheus glanced at the first mate, who gave him a sheepish look. Had he only been spending time with him in order to get information for the captain? Had their friendship just been a ruse?

Zantheus was cornered. “Yes. That is correct,” he said.

“I thought as much,” said Thalassa. “You have never reliably spoken of anywhere in Dahma beyond this place called ‘Aythia’, and even of Qereth you have given us only the barest details. But I asked Hudor here to befriend you and find out for himself, just to be sure. And it turns out that, however you got here, you really do know nothing about Dahma.” Now Thalassa turned and looked at him, with some anger. “So then, you would agree with me that it is difficult to see how you might serve as a useful guide once we reach it?”

Zantheus wondered what the sailors would do to him now that he had so carelessly given away his secret. Would he have to defend himself against them?

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to kill you,” Thalassa said, as if sensing his thoughts. “I have left that way of life behind. Anyway, you have proven yourself to be a reliable and hard-working hand aboard this ship. You can stay with us. But if you ever lie to me again, Zantheus, so help me...” Thalassa’s voice trailed off.

Zantheus wanted to say something for himself. He stuck with the truth. “My only desire is to return to Qereth. I would be happy to make my journey across Dahma with you, and help as I can, though I do not know the way as I let you think that I did. Nothing will stop me from returning there.”

“Yes,” said Thalassa. “You are determined to reach Qereth. Hudor has confirmed as much. I can see at least that is true. You are lucky that we have spied land; the crew were getting very restless. They were considering mutiny.”

“I know,” said Zantheus.

Thalassa turned back to the window. “Then you are more perceptive than I had given you credit for, ‘Paragon’. Yes...this is a welcome change in events. I do not know how much longer we would have lasted. I had begun to suspect that this sea went on forever...” Something resonated in Zantheus with these words, but he pushed the thought away. “With any luck, we will be able to put in at a port or at the very least go ashore very soon. My voyage is at last coming to an end...” He spoke more to himself now, not really paying attention to Zantheus and Hudor. “Leave me,” he concluded.

Zantheus left with Hudor. Tromo was waiting for them outside.

“Zantheus,” said Hudor, “I’m sorry. It wasn’t just because of my orders that I befriended you…”

“It does not matter,” said Zantheus briskly. “You were performing your duty.” He ignored the feeling of betrayal and stifled it, pushing it away just as he had the thought of the never-ending sea.

“I hope we can still be friends.”

“Yes,” said Zantheus without emotion. The truth was, he told himself, he did not really care that much. He just wanted to be off this loathsome ship, rid of this loathsome ocean, back on dry land. Sensing the awkwardness, Hudor went off to get some food and Zantheus went to find some other chore to occupy himself with.

He spent what was left of the afternoon in the galley peeling spuds with Tromo, who followed him, and whom he now matched for speed at the task, having had lots of chances to practice it. Just as they were finishing off, there was another cry from the deck above them. It sounded urgent. Had a port been sighted, or a beach, or rocks? He went up to the deck where once more everyone had congregated.

“What is happening?” he asked the assembled rabble.

“Skaphē’s seen another ship,” said one of the sailors. “Somewhere on the starboard side.” The crew were craning their necks and squinting their eyes to try and make out the ship. Gradually it came into focus. It was more or less the same size as their own, with two masts and sets of sails, though maybe a bit longer and more slender. At once each of them started to fantasise about what was on it. Zantheus was no exception. Maybe it carried a contingent of emissaries from Dahma. Maybe he could explain what had happened to him, and who he was, and they could offer to guide him back across the country to Qereth.

“Who told you to leave your stations?” Thalassa tore them out of their collective reverie. “Back to work! We will talk with them when they are closer to us!”

Zantheus watched the far-away ship as the crew dispersed. When there was no-one else around to hear, Thalassa said “Zantheus, do you really not know anything at all about the settlements on the west coast of Dahma?”

“No. Nothing.”

“You have no idea about what kind of welcome we will receive?”

“No,” said Zantheus again.

“No idea of the diplomatic protocols of your country?”

“No,” he said a third time, though this time he added “The people of Dahma are civilised and upstanding. I am sure they will receive you in the proper, courteous manner.”

“I sincerely hope you are right,” said Thalassa.

They watched as the foreign ship got closer. It had definitely spotted them; it had set a course to come alongside them. It was evening now and the sun would soon set. As the day darkened, the ship drew closer. After some time, they were sailing parallel to it. They could see figures moving about on the deck, oddly ominous in the waning orange light. The crew came up one last time to see what was going on as they finished their respective jobs.

“I wonder why they don’t come closer...” said Thalassa.

Just then a hatch in the side of the ship opened. Something black filled the space.

“Echthros’s tongue—!” swore Thalassa.

Suddenly a flash of light erupted from the ship with a terrible noise and something smashed into the main mast, raining a shower of splinters onto the deck. The whole thing toppled over, sails and all, and Zantheus dived to the side just in time to avoid being crushed by it. The boat rocked violently.

“Foes!” Thalassa was shouting at the top of his voice in the chaos. “Foes! They’re hostile! All hands! All hands prepare to fight!” Another tremendous boom and a second cannonball whizzed across the deck.

“Zantheus!” Hudor grabbed him. “Come with me!” They rushed down the steps below deck, along the little corridor to a door Zantheus had not been inside before. Hudor fumbled with the key when a third cannonball ripped into the hull somewhere below them. He unlocked the door. Behind it were weapons, a pile of swords, spears, and some shields. Zantheus spotted his own white scabbard and shining helmet, dented slightly from where his head had hit the edge of the ship after his fall, and retrieved them. He barged past the rest of the crew who had come to take up arms and bounded back up the short flight of steps out into the air above.

The cannonballs had stopped when they had not been answered. Thalassa was shouting more orders. There now came a brief but terrible interlude while they waited for their attackers to come aboard. It was no use trying to outrun them; they had been crippled by the lucky first cannon shot. The ship was close enough now that Zantheus could make out their attackers’ faces clearly. They were gripped by grim, murderous stares, underneath messes of long, bedraggled hair—pirates, in all probability. Not the ‘civilised, courteous’ welcome party he had expected at all then. It struck Zantheus that he might die at some point the next few minutes. He could not handle that. He could not die out here, so far from home, so far from Awmeer, without ever finding out what had happened to him, how he had got here. He would not.

Grappling hooks flew across the gap between the ships. Zantheus drew his sword and got a surprise. It was only about half its proper length, and ended in four uneven splinters instead of a single point. The memory of breaking it against the enormous mirror on the mountain shone in his mind and for a moment he was filled with a all-consuming sense of helplessness.

He regained his wits just in time to block the first blow that one of the assailants aimed at his head as he leapt over the edge of the deck with a bloodthirsty roar. He parried another, having to compensate slightly for the reduced length of his weapon, and then swung his broken blade around in its own deadly arc. He was surprised when this was parried in return, but then an instinct which Zantheus had never had to rely on before suddenly came into play and he brought his knee up hard into his opponent’s stomach with such force that he crashed over the rail backwards into his own vessel.

Zantheus looked around. About him swords locked and the clang of steel rang in the air. Another man launched himself at Zantheus from out of the corner of his eye, and he span to meet him. As he knocked away the blows of his new adversary and countered with his own he became aware of how excited he was. He had sparred with his fellow Paragons and undertaken countless combat exercises before, but he had never had to fight for his life. This came as more of a momentary insight, as he did not really have time to meditate on his predicament at length before blocking the next swipe directed at his head. It was a dance. The movements came easily to him, rehearsed a thousand times, as if he was practicing a routine. The pirates were unskilled and untrained. This was going to be easy. Now he blocked high, moved his foot here, came back low with a counter-blow, now he elegantly sidestepped an ambitious thrust from his opponent, caught him off balance, and struck at him...

Zantheus nearly dropped his sword in horror. The man fell. The dance had come to an abrupt end, in a way he had not been prepared for. Had he meant that to happen? He lifted his jagged edge. It wept thick red tears. It had never tasted blood before.

“Zantheus!” came Hudor’s voice from behind, bringing him back to his immediate situation. He turned to see another man running towards him, charging to avenge his fallen comrade. Still in shock, Zantheus did not react in time. The man collided with him, tackling him to the floor, and lifted a long knife. Then he dropped it and keeled over, Hudor’s spear protruding from his abdomen. The knife thudded into the deck, barely missing Zantheus’s right ear. Hudor nodded at him.

“Thank you,” said Zantheus. He pushed the man off of himself him in repulsion. More death. Death everywhere. He suppressed the sickness rising in his stomach and re-joined the battle with Hudor.

Meanwhile, Tromo had been trying to keep out of the way of the fighting. It was happening all over again; it was just like the last time he had been on this ship when it had been attacked. Only worse. This time he had no-one to tell him what to do or to try to protect him. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about him the moment they had sighted the ship. While the others had been preparing to be boarded, he had searched about manically for a place to hide, and had decided on Thalassa’s rooms. Now he was stuck in the dining room in which Zantheus had been questioned earlier that day. He hid under the table and was concentrating on trying to stop himself shaking. By now he could hear the sounds of weapons meeting in the air, and horrible screams when they met something other than steel. He knelt with his eyes fixed on the floor, willing this all to be over.

The door flung open with a bang. Not again. It was happening all over again. He could see two pairs of legs. One man had been forced to back into the room by the other as they were fighting. He could hear each of them grunting with the force of each blow as their legs took them round one side of the table. One wore brown boots, the other dirty white trousers that ended in huge feet and sandals. The man with the boots had backed in first, and Tromo could see just from their feet that he was struggling to fend off his opponent. The white trousers were winning. Tromo hoped they belonged to someone from his ship, but he didn’t recognise them. They were at the window-end of the room now. The boots changed the pattern in their steps. There was a gagging noise. Tromo recoiled as a gush of blood decorated the floor. A shout of rage followed, and then the boots disappeared altogether. At the same time there came the sound of breaking glass and translucent shards joined the blood on the floor. Had someone been thrown out of the window?

The remaining man in the white trousers made a gasp like someone might make after a long drink and started to walk back towards the entrance of the room. Blood still dripped where he walked. Tromo begged his body to stop shaking so violently. Why was he trembling? What good was it going to do him? His worst nightmare happened: the sandals stopped. The legs started to bend. No! He couldn’t do anything! He wanted to make a dash for the door but invisible chains held him in place. After all of that shivering, now his body had decided to freeze still! A fat, ugly face appeared and looked straight at him, choking him with fear. An arm reached under the table to grab hold of him, but this turned out to be the same instant that his body chose to start obeying him, and he shot out on his hands and feet, under a chair, through the open door. The man followed him. Tromo scrambled up and looked around. Fighting. There was no safe corner, nowhere left to hide.

At the other end of the ship, Zantheus turned as he dispatched another foe, piercing his chest with almost surgical precision. He had been moving through a range of different emotions during this battle; first fear, then excitement, then horror. Now he was just angry. Who were these men to attack their ship? Why did they hurl themselves at him so recklessly, so eager to meet death? What right did they have to board a peaceful, well-meaning vessel, unprovoked? He looked for his next combatant. Tromo whizzed past. The boy! What was he doing? He was stumbling over the wreckage of the main mast and sail, trying to get away from something... There! A man in pursuit –a great big ball of muscle and fat, in a blood-stained white apron and trousers, carrying a huge meat-cleaver in his right hand. He was bleeding from a cut in his neck, and making straight for Tromo.

Zantheus reached the man just as Tromo made it to the rigging of the second mast and swung himself up in his nimble way. There was no time to aim a proper strike as the cleaver was lifted high in the air. Zantheus could only dive and smash headlong into the aproned man from behind. The cleaver came down, missing Tromo by inches and slicing straight through the tough, tight roping of the rigging, severing part of it from the side of the ship. Tromo held on for his life as it swung inwards, pulling him in tow. The collision had brought Zantheus to the floor, but the aproned man had merely been knocked into the side of the ship; he had retained his footing. The cleaver was raised high again. There was no time; Zantheus had lost his grip on his sword when he fell. This was it. He was about to die.

Something collided with the aproned man, smacking him in the face. Tromo, still hanging on to the loose bit of rigging, had swung back to kick his pursuer in the head. Fast as he could, Zantheus picked up his sword, stood up, and struck. He had not been fast enough. It was blocked by the cleaver. But instead of pulling back, without letting a moment pass Zantheus brought his free hand up around the other side of the man and punched him as hard as he could in the face. The man reeled backwards with a cry of pain, clutching his neck where the punch had further opened his wound. Zantheus plunged his broken sword into his stomach, then withdrew it as the man slumped to the ground. Victory! But where was Tromo? He could not see him anywhere. He realised what had happened. When Tromo had swung back into their attacker, most likely saving Zantheus’s life, the force of the impact had made him let go of the rigging. He had gone overboard.

Just then the world was torn into two. Zantheus felt two paths diverge before him: he could win this battle for Thalassa and his crew. Their enemies were wild and vicious but they were unskilled. Zanethus had not faced one yet who could best him in combat. He could stay and fight. But, the boy... Up until lately no such choice would have presented himself to him. In fact, Zantheus could probably save more lives by staying on board and fighting. It was no use being distracted by the loss of one small life, one tiny piece of existence passing out of the world with no-one to notice or care. No-one to mourn him. No-one to remember that he even existed...

Sharp cold filled Zantheus’s lungs as he hit the water. He thrashed about, coughing it up and swallowing more at the same time. He had to fight to keep his head above water. His armour was dragging him down, fast. He was just about able to use the strength in his legs to force himself upwards towards the surface, but only barely. As he came up for air he bashed his head against something that would have knocked him unconscious had he not been wearing his helmet. Swirling himself round, Zantheus realised it was a chunk of the fallen mast, and a thick one at that. He grabbed hold of it and, using it to keep afloat, began to look about in search of Tromo. It did not take long. The boy could swim, and he had paddled over to Zantheus, lips tremulous blue from the cold. Zantheus took one little arm and placed it on his shoulder.

“Hold on to me! We can stay afloat with this!”

What to do next? The blue and orange twilight was now dwindling fast as the sun sank into the ocean. Above them the noise of battle could be made out. Just then a body flew overboard with a scream and landed face down in the water next to them, staining it temporarily. From the wisps of grey hair Zantheus recognised it having belonged to Chortas, the cook. It was clear that Thalassa was not going to win the battle. There was only one thing for them to do. Cloaked by the creeping darkness, Zantheus maneuvered his section of mast around the two ships as cautiously as he could, titling his head up every few seconds to check if someone had spotted him. When he could see the outline of what he very much hoped was the shore, he left caution behind and started swimming as fast as he could towards it, driving the fragment of ship forwards, willing it to complete its last voyage, bearing Tromo and himself towards Dahma.

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