The Voyage to Caerl Headland
I stood by the rudder, my hands gently keeping Pa’adhe on course. It was a fine day for sailing, with the wind constant and from the right direction. The deck was warm beneath my feet and the easy motion of the ship an unconscious counterpart to the rolling sea. I looked over the ship, pleased with everything, as the air, the sea, the ship, and the warm sun conspired to make me feel happy.
By the gods, this is why I love sailing!
The Pa’adhe wasn’t much, one of the smaller trader-ships, with a crew of four, and she wasn’t standard, being narrower for her size than most, but she was fast. She was sharp, clean, and well kept, like her crew. We’d been together, ship and crew, for a long time now. And we went where others couldn’t, or wouldn’t, so business was good.
Yet, this voyage was unusual, even for us. We’d taken cargo before that no other ships would touch on routes no other ships would sail, and there was always more business than we could handle, letting us pick and choose. But this voyage, this business, was different. It sounded simple enough: Carry four people and their belongings from Walh’a Port to Caerl Headland. Now we were two days into the trip and still the passengers had not come above-deck. What with the door and the ports kept shut it had to be stuffy in the small after cabin that served as passenger berth when we had passengers, and as my cabin when we didn’t. They’d paid well, hardly even haggling though that also wasn’t at all unusual for us. Even though the holds were only half full, they’d paid enough to cover the whole voyage so any sale of what cargo I had would be pure profit. They had arrived at the dock promptly at sunrise as instructed and moved right into the cabin. I knew they weren’t trashing the cabin, as Cook had a clear view of the cabin when he delivered their meals. They’d even handled their own cargo, politely but firmly declining any assistance with loading it or moving it into the cabin.
Yet, no matter what I thought I could not shake the feeling that something was…odd. I didn’t know yet whether it was just odd or bad odd and that was making me nervous. It’s going too well. The thought sprang to mind unbidden, making me even more nervous. I shook my head, trying to dismiss my unease.
Xinu came across the deck and started up the ladder to the afterdeck. I waved him off, it was too good a sailing day to give up the rudder just now. Besides, it was a great time to think. He grinned, knowing exactly why I didn’t give up the rudder, gave a nod, and headed forward. As he reached the foredeck ladder, Scarle came out of the forepeak and they conferred for a bit, dividing up the work for their shift until I choose to give up the rudder.
* * *
When it came, it was almost disappointing.
Towards midday of the third day into the voyage the wind simply quit. It didn’t die out. It didn’t get flaky. It just quit. Pa’adhe coasted to a stop as Xinu and I looked at each other where we sat eating our midday meal. We both looked up at Scarle on the rudder and he just raised his hands up in the air. That’s when I suddenly realized the sea was suddenly a flat calm. I rose to my feet, scanning the flat surface of the sea as far as I could see. I knew these waters, and there should have been wind all the way to Caerl Headland but not a ripple was to be seen on the sea. Xinu was already at the lines, loosening them against any sudden gust. Cook had banked his fire and was packing everything down.
“Scull!” I called to Scarle as I looked over the side. Seeing no sign of water moving past, I looked to him only to see he was sculling for all he was worth. “Cook! Weapons! Scarle! Lash rudder!” I eyed the door to the after cabin uneasily.
Xinu pressed my long knives into my hands and I took them without thinking. Their weight was comforting, though I wondered what good they would be against warlocks that could kill the air and sea. Just as Cook tossed Scarle his weapons, the cabin door opened to reveal the leader of the passengers.
His hood was back and I could see him clearly. I didn’t like what I saw: he was alarmed.
He shook his head. “Not us! Those that come after us!”
“The Prae’aer.” As anger flooded me and I stepped towards him, he continued. “I feared to tell you, lest you not carry us. None other would even look at us. You were our last chance.”
“Aye, and you the death of us!!”
“Perhaps not. We can help, but we can’t fight them off alone. Not out here.” Seeing my skepticism he pulled open his cloak to reveal a sigil tattooed on his chest. “We are Virohan. All four of us.”
That gave me pause. Outcaste though they be, it was well known the Virohan were honest and powerful. None could live with that sigil tattooed on them that were not worthy. I gestured for him to continue.
“We have four Earthstones with us, that we were taking to our brethren beyond Caerl Headland. I think it is those that the Prae’aer seek. Were they simply interested in destroying them or keeping them from us, they would have sunk this ship by now. So I think they will come for the Earthstones.”
I nodded at his logic. “Scarle, up the mast! Cook take the stern, Xinu the forepeak. Keep your eyes peeled and let me know the instant you sight anything. ANYTHING!” They took off at a run for their stations and I moved closer to the Virohan. Ignoring the glint of steel in the cabin behind him I said, “Know this…if you ever keep anything like this from me again, I will throw you overboard. Remember, they’re after you, not me. Keep talking.”
“We are hampered by the situation. Earthstones require, well, earth, to sustain them. They have some power stored up, but unless they are in contact with earth they can’t renew themselves.” He gestured around him, “Here, they have no way to renew. We will fight the Prae’aer and not you no matter what you do, but if you know the Prae’aer you know that means nothing to them.”
“Aye, I know them. I could have prepared for this voyage better if I’d known. That’s past.” I glared at him. “What do you expect?”
“No doubt they know what ship we’re on. Obviously they know where we are. Perhaps not exactly, but in general or they’d not have calmed so much of the sea. That calming will cost them power and it will cost them more to come to us. They know there’s four of us and four stones, they’ll be prepared for that. They also know there’s no earth here, so all they have to do is drain us and they’ve won. I doubt they’ll send more power against us than they need to, their distrust of each other will see to that. If they are after the Earthstones as we suspect, they will then storm the ship, most likely slaying all.”
“Can you drive the ship? To Caerl Headland?”
He shook his head.
“How much earth do you need?”
He looked at me curiously. “Enough to completely cover the area where the Earthstone sits.”
I grinned wolfishly. “Let me see one. I assume they are all four the same size?”
He led me inside the cabin where the other Virohan had already uncovered the four Earthstones. I looked at them thoughtfully, wondering if I were crazy. As I led the way back out onto the deck I asked, “Just out of curiosity, what is this ship made of?”
Puzzled, he answered “Wood. Wood and metal.” I said nothing, waiting. I watched his expression change as he digested what that answer might mean. He called for one of the others to bring one of the Earthstones to him. Taking it from the other Virohan, he held it out for a few minutes, chanting softly under his breath. Then carefully, he set it down on the deck. For a few heartbeats, nothing happened then his eyes refocused to the here and now. He stood up, facing me, appraisal evident in his look.
“How? How did you know?”
I shrugged. “Wood comes from trees, trees come from the earth, therefore isn’t wood linked to earth? It was as simple as that.”
He nodded. “We should plant them now.” I didn’t understand the reference to “plant” but nodded my assent. He called out orders to the rest of the Virohan, sending one Earthstone to the foredeck, one to the afterdeck, and the fourth to a point half-way between the one where we stood and the one that would be on the foredeck.
As each Virohan went through the same process of setting his Earthstone on the deck, I began to wonder about the wisdom of what I had suggested. As each Earthstone was “planted”, I sensed a subtle change in Pa’adhe. It was nothing overt, just a change in…something. As if the ship were somehow more alive than even us sailors considered her to be, as if she was linked to the Earthstones instead of them linked to her. I looked at the Virohan leader. He held up both hands, shaking his head slightly. I was about to ask if he could now move the ship to Caerl Headland when Scarle called from the mast, “Something to the east! I can’t make it out!”
I looked to where he was pointing. At first I couldn’t see anything, then Cook, from the higher afterdeck, called that he could see it as well. Just as Xinu called that he, too, could see it, I saw it, behind Pa’adhe and to the right, off on the horizon. It looked like a ship, but of a style I’d never encountered before. For a little while we all just stood there in the odd silence, watching the distant dark ship slowly approach.
“Well, I’ve no idea its size, so I can’t tell when it might get here. I assume that’s the Prae’aer.” The lead Virohan nodded. I gestured for my crew to join me. When they sere all three standing nearby, I asked the Virohan, “You know them better than we. What thoughts do you have for countering them?”
He gestured for the other three Virohan to join us.
“We can counter their power, and even attack.” Looking curiously at me again, he continued, “they probably believe we’re isolated from Earth and quite unaware of the extra power we can link to now. So, if we play it right, we just might be able to blast them enough to get away. My guess is that they’ll come near enough to start attacking with the idea of boarding when we’re exhausted. We should be able to do enough damage to regain the wind. It all depends on how powerful they are and how many.”
“So, we can’t do anything until they board? What about arrows? Can we attack them that way?”
“That’s about right. And yea, feel free to attack them any way you can. When they board, it will be because they’ve overwhelmed the Earthstones and at that point we will join you with steel.”
“What do you know about their ships?”
He shrugged. “They’re built the same as any other ship but with some protection spells. They usually have both sail and sweeps, and so likely have slaves chained to the benches. They’re usually painted dark, with dark sails. They always have one or more Prae’aer on board plus their two accolytes plus their bodyguard, usually three to five warriors depending on their rank. The Prae’aer will not share a room if they can help it. Lack of trust. The bodyguard most likely will not participate in the boarding, again Prae’aer self-distrust will take care of that. To calm all this air and sea, there has to be at least three Prae’aer. More likely four, one for each of us. To carry that many plus a crew plus the boarding party, I’d say there’s probably ten crew and ten warriors. That should give you an idea of the size of the ship.”
“So, say three Prae’aer to kill all this, and one more to attack you?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. I wonder if there are any more than four. There are four of us, and that ship looks too small to be comfortable for more than four Prae’aer. Of course, if they wanted these Earthstones bad enough they might be willing to set aside their personal agendas and co-operate. I seriously doubt that, though.
“Also, I’ve been thinking that most likely when they get into range to attack us, they’ll lose control over the wind and sea in the immediate area or they won’t be able to move their own ship either. It’ll take you time to get under way again and I think that’s what they’re counting on to enable them to get too close for you to escape that way.”
“I wish I knew for sure where the wind would be from. Right now our sails are still set to take advantage of the prevailing winds for the area. We’ll just have to hope that when they return, the winds will be right and not chaotic.”
“There is one other thing.” The lead Virohan turned to face me. “If, and I mean if, they should kill us four you must send the Earthstones over the side.”
I looked at him, saying nothing.
“They want these Earthstones. If you toss them over the side where they can see you do so they may well let you live.”
“Or they’ll be so furious they’ll kill us.”
“I think they’d do that anyway, myself, to be honest.”
“So do I.” Turning to Scarle, “Break out the bows. We’re going to need all the arrows divided up evenly between the four of us. Place a bow and arrows at our posts by the rail but try not to let them see you doing so. When the fight starts, if you can see any of the Prae’aer see if you can shoot them but I think the bodyguards will shield them. So, focus on the crew. And if they’re using the sweeps…get any of the people manning the sweeps you can, it might foul the oars.”
To the Virohan, I said, “I want you to fight them as if all you had was the power of the Earthstones. Let it fade as if you were using it up and lure them on. Do not take advantage of the link to Pa’adhe until they are in close and you can hit them hard, harder than they expect.”
I was glad to see the Virohan nod and turn to the other three Virohan to co-ordinate their defense. I hadn’t been sure he’d take my command, but Pa’adhe was my ship not his.
I turned back to the rail, looking at the distant ship as Scarle and Xinu ran off to fetch the bows and allocate the arrows. It was definitely closer now and I could see the sails hanging slack. They were obviously being driven by sweeps alone. I wondered how they could use the sweeps when I couldn’t even scull. Then I noticed their sails fluttering and realized the wind was blocked for them as well, but not as completely as for us. Apparently in order to be able to use the sweeps they had to avoid controlling the sea in their immediate area too much. I studied the set of the sails, wondering if they were set for the wind when it returned or just left from when they calmed the winds and sea. I shook my head, there was no point in wondering. We’d find out soon enough.
* * *
It was so eerie when it started, I almost missed the opening attack. As the Prae’aer ship came closer each Virohan crouched near his respective Earthstone, so he was mostly hidden but could see the oncoming ship over the rail. The first indication of the attack was, of all things, the tickling of a slight breeze. Xinu and Cook leapt to adjust the sails loosely to the breeze but the most it did was lightly shake them. Fortunately, the larger ship wasn’t blocking the wind, a mistake on their part I was glad of. Hopefully it gave us a valid idea where the wind would return from, if it did. When it does, not if I told myself. As I glanced to the Virohan, I saw they were all staring at the other ship with a far-off expression. I caught the crew’s eyes and signaled to them to hold off shooting until I did. Xinu and Cook kept shaking ropes and pretending to try and make the sails work. Scarle was on the afterdeck, frantically trying to scull. I could tell he wasn’t putting too much real effort into it, but he sure looked like it. I went from Xinu to Cook to Scarle, berating them, grabbing things, yelling at them to do this or that. As pretty a picture of panic as you could want, I thought.
As the Prae’aer ship began to get within range, I shook Cook and pushed him to the foredeck, pointing at the forestay. I hurried to the rail seemingly in a panic but all the while studying the Prae’aer ship approaching from the starboard quarter. Pounding my fists on the rail, I ran up to Scarle, pretending to berate him again but passing on instructions based on what I’d gleaned of the Prae’aer crew. As I passed the Virohan leader running to Xinu, I quietly told him, “Wait until they’re an oar and half away before you attack.” I could only hope he heard and understood as I continued on to Xinu and passed a plan of attack while shoving him towards the side closest to the oncoming Prae’aer ship. Looking around, I threw up my arms and ran to Cook to grab him and pretend to yell in his face, giving him his instructions. Shoving him towards the lower forestay, I ran back to my place at the rail.
By then, the Prae’aer were well within bow-shot. I bent and grabbed my bow, fitting an arrow as I rose. In an instant Pa’adhe went from a ship in a panic to a ship intent on defending herself. I had no sooner loosed my first arrow than arrows were similarly arcing from the rest of the crew onto the Prae’aer ship. Even before the first arrows struck, the second flight was in the air and we were reaching for the third.
As we released the third flight, I was glad to see the tactic had worked. The first flight took out two sailors and caused at least one rower to flinch, almost fouling that oar. The second flight took out another sailor and forced the Prae’aer bodyguards to put up their shields. After the third flight hit, we started shooting for anything we could. By then, we were having to duck as several return arrows started landing. A quick glance showed none of the Virohan hit, but out in the open as they were I wondered how long that would last. I heard a cry of pain from Cook, but could not spare any attention. Suddenly a group of Prae’aer bodyguard moved towards the companionway. Apparently we’d managed to at least wound one of the Prae’aer.
Throughout all this I had been aware of a heaviness in the air, an unusual pressure, more an awareness than something really felt. A shimmering had appeared between the two ships and had been creeping closer and closer to Pa’adhe. The shimmering was till a few feet out from our hull but the Prae’aer ship was within an oar and half of us. I looked desperately at the Virohan but they seemed oblivious of what was going on. They were slumped over their Earthstones, looking every bit totally exhausted. With a mental groan I turned back to find another target for my next arrow, desperately hoping he’d heard me and the appearance was a sham.
The Prae’aer ship was an oar length away when their oarmaster yelled for oars in. Immediately after, an arrow struck him at the base of his throat. As the oars went into the Prae’aer ship, I was firing arrow after arrow blindly into the bodyguards, oarsmen, and any men I could see. I had just dropped my bow and grabbed my long knives when the shimmer suddenly slammed back into the Prae’aer ship. The effect was astounding.
The oars that were still out shattered. Sails ripped. Lines parted. People were…slammed as if hit with a huge shield. As chaos broke out on the Prae’aer ship, I took a quick look at the Virhon now standing strong with arms outspread. Gleefully, I grabbed my bow again and began to loose arrows at the now visible Prae’aer before their bodyguards could reform. As our arrows struck home the effect on the enemy ship was nothing short of amazing. With at least two Prae’aer dead and another wounded they lost all control of wind and wave. The wind came back as a strong breeze and quickly built up as the water churned from the sudden wind. Even as Pa’adhe, lines whistling, sails banging taut and hull groaning, literally leapt away from the Prae’aer, disaster struck the other ship. Whether Earthstone magic or the result of the set of their sails, the Prae’aer ship’s sails boomed out to their maximum belly and she rolled away from us. It was mesmerizing to watch her slowly roll over and turn turtle. By then we were two ships lengths away and quickly increasing the distance between us. The sounds of men in the water and the gurgling as the ship went under tore at our hearts, but we made no effort to save any of them.
A quick look over Pa’adhe showed no real damage and the crew had things well in hand. Satisfied with the ship, I looked to the Virohan.
They were standing by their Earthstones, looking as if they had just run a race up the highest mountain. One slowly sat down and rested against his Earthstone. The other three just stood there, swaying against the deck’s movement.
Setting my bow aside, I grabbed a nearby waterskin and took it to the Virohan, urging each to drink. Having done what I could, I left the waterskin with the sitting Virohan and went to check on my crew.
Amazingly, we were in great shape. Scarle had a couple scratches from too-close arrows. Cook had received an arrow through his thigh but it had gone just under the skin and was now bound by a rag. I ordered him take care of it properly, dismissing him as I took the line he was hauling and lashed it to a belaying pin. Xinu and I were unharmed, though my left forearm was stinging from the bowstring slap of a couple of poorly loosed arrows.
Satisfied with my crew, the ship, and our course, I relaxed against the rail. The Virohan had gathered up their Earthstones and retreated once more to the cabin. Grinning, I realized I was hungry and went searching for food only to meet Cook heading my way with a platter of cold cuts and fruits. I grabbed some food as he passed by and watched him go on to offer Xinu and Scarle food before going and knocking on the cabin door.
* * *
Three more days of easy sailing saw us off Caerl Headland. As we rounded the high cliffs of the promontory the head Virohan joined me on the afterdeck. I glanced at him but said nothing, once again enjoying the feel of deck, sun, and sailing. For a while we leaned against the rail just soaking in the day. Then he pointed.
“The little bay.”
“That’s where you want to be let off?”
“Yea. We should be met there by two Virohan. I’m told the bay has a good beach for landing but is too shallow for the larger ships to beach.”
I nodded, wondering who gave him that information — landsman or sailor.
“I understand your logic,” he continued. “However, none of us have ever thought of that. Ship to tree to earth…that was a great leap of knowledge you gave us. For that, our thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Don’t get me wrong, but it was my ship that was in danger.”
“True.” He glanced at me sideways and I pretended not to notice. “Are you sure you’re no Virohan?”
This time I looked straight at him. “Whether I am or no, this is the choice I make. I’d rather be captain on Pa’adhe than Virohan.”
“Why? I can tell you that you would make a powerful Virohan.”
I said nothing, leaning back against the rail and staring off at the passing shore. Eventually I just said quietly, “My heart is here.”
He said nothing, merely nodded. When I stepped away from the rail as Pa’adhe began to turn into the mouth of the bay he also left the rail and returned to the cabin. I went up by Scarle, who was on the tiller, and began calling out orders.
We sailed into the bay and as we did the hidden shore gradually revealed a sandy beach. Approaching it, Cook was by the stem calling out the depths as two men stepped out from the shade of the forest backing the beach. I called for the Virohan and as he came out of the cabin he glanced at the beach, waved to the two men, and nodded to me. I took us the rest of the way in, dropping the sail so that we glided in to the beach, gently running slightly up on the sand. The two new Virohan on the beach came to stand by the bow.
As the Virohan made their way forward from the after cabin, I joined Cook at the stem. Together we helped the Virohan over the side and handed their packages over to them. When all the packages were handed over and had been carried up the beach a ways, the head Virohan paused before going over the side.
From within his robes he drew forth a pouch. “The rest of the fee, as agreed.” I nodded, taking the pouch. “You can check it, I’ll not be offended.”
“I think I can trust you.”
He nodded. “For the voyage, our thanks. For your protection, our thanks. But for your knowledge, our greater thanks, Captain.”
I nodded my acknowledgment. For a moment longer he stood there looking at me. Then he smiled and slapping his hand hard on the rail he went over the side. I watched them move up the sand and turned to call for Xinu to bring the poles so we could push off. Cook nudged me and nodded at the rail. Where the Virohan had slapped his hand was a rune-mark. I looked at it, rubbing it thoughtfully. It was marked into the wood but there was no feel other than the smooth wood of the railing. I looked up at the trees just in time to see the Virohan turn and wave farewell before disappearing into the shadows. I turned and began giving the orders to take us off the beach.
It seemed that Pa’adhe came off the beach easier than usual. It seemed, too, that as we sailed out of the bay she was somehow more alive, more vibrant, more responsive. I shook my head. It’s nothing. I’m just happy to be sailing. But I knew, deep down, it was more than that. I went forward and looked at the rune-mark again.
Pa’adhe, I knew, had been truly blessed.