Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe
“Remind me why the pirates won’t sink us with cannon fire at long range,” said Sir Hereward as he lazed back against the bow of the skiff, his scarlet-sleeved arms trailing far enough over the side to get his twice-folded-back cuffs and hands completely drenched, with occasional splashes going down his neck and back as well. He enjoyed the sensation, for the water in these eastern seas was warm, the swell gentle, and the boat was making a good four or five knots, reaching on a twelve knot breeze.
“For the first part, this skiff formerly belonged to Annim Tel, the pirate’s agent in Kerebad,” said Mister Fitz. Despite being only three feet, six and a half inches tall and currently lacking even the extra height afforded by his favourite hat, the puppet was easily handling both tiller and main sheet of their small craft. “For the second part, we are both clad in red, the colour favoured by the pirates of this archipelagic trail, so they will account us as brethren until proven otherwise. For the third part, any decent perspective glass will bring close to their view the chest that lies lashed on the thwart there, and they will want to examine it, rather than blow it to smithereens.”
“Unless they’re drunk, which is highly probable,” said Hereward cheerfully. He lifted his arms out of the water and shook his hands, being careful not to wet the tarred canvas bag at his feet that held his small armoury. Given the mission at hand, he had not brought any of his usual, highly identifiable weapons. Instead the bag held a mere four snaphance pistols of quite ordinary though serviceable make, an oiled leather bag of powder, a box of shot, and a blued steel main gauche in a sharkskin scabbard. A sheathed mortuary sword lay across the top of the bag, its half-basket hilt at Hereward’s feet.
He had left his armour behind at the inn where they had met the messenger from the Council of the Treaty for the Safety of the World, and though he was currently enjoying the light air upon his skin, and was optimistic by nature, Hereward couldn’t help reflect that a scarlet shirt, leather breeches and sea boots were not going to be much protection if the drunken pirates aboard the xebec they were sailing towards chose to conduct some musketry exercise.
Not that any amount of leather and proof steel would help if they happened to hit the chest. Even Mister Fitz’s sorcery could not help them in that circumstance, though he might be able to employ some sorcery to deflect bullets or small shot from both boat and chest.
Mister Fitz looked, and was currently dressed in the puffy-trousered raiment of one of the self-willed puppets that were made long ago in a gentler age to play merry tunes, declaim epic poetry and generally entertain. This belied his true nature and most people or other beings who encountered the puppet other than casually did not find him entertaining at all. While his full sewing desk was back at the inn with Hereward’s gear, the puppet still had several esoteric needles concealed under the red bandanna that was tightly strapped on his pumpkin-sized papier-mâché head, and he was possibly one of the greatest practitioners of his chosen art still to walk—or sail—the known world.
“We’re in range of the bow-chasers,” noted Hereward. Casually, he rolled over to lie on his stomach, so only his head was visible over the bow. “Keep her head on.”
“I have enumerated three excellent reasons why they will not fire upon us,” said Mister Fitz, but he pulled the tiller a little and let out the main sheet, the skiff’s sails billowing as it ran with the wind, so that it would bear down directly on the bow of the anchored xebec, allowing the pirates no opportunity for a full broadside. “In any case, the bow-chasers are not even manned.”
Hereward squinted. Without his artillery glass he couldn’t clearly see what was occurring on deck, but he trusted Fitz’s superior vision.
“Oh well, maybe they won’t shoot us out of hand,” he said. “At least not at first. Remind me of my supposed name and title?”
“Martin Suresword, Terror of the Syndical Sea.”
“Ludicrous,” said Hereward. “I doubt I can say it, let alone carry on the pretense of being such a fellow.”
“There is a pirate of that name, though I believe he was rarely addressed by his preferred title,” said Mister Fitz. “Or perhaps I should say there was such a pirate, up until some months ago. He was large and blond, as you are, and the Syndical Sea is extremely distant, so it is a suitable cognomen for you to assume.”
“And you? Farnolio, wasn’t it?”
“Farolio,” corrected Fitz. “An entertainer fallen on hard times.”
“How can a puppet fall on hard times?” asked Hereward. He did not look back, as some movement on the bow of the xebec fixed his attention. He hoped it was not a gun crew making ready.
“It is not uncommon for a puppet to lose their singing voice,” said Fitz. “If their throat was made with a reed, rather than a silver pipe, the sorcery will only hold for five or six hundred years.”
“Your throat, I suppose, is silver?”
“An admixture of several metals,” said Fitz. “Silver being the most ordinary. I stand corrected on one of my earlier predictions, by the way.”
“They are going to fire,” said Fitz, and he pushed the tiller away, the skiff’s mainsail flapping as it heeled to starboard. A few seconds later, a small cannon ball splashed down forty or fifty yards to port.
“Keep her steady!” ordered Hereward. “We’re as like to steer into a ball as not.”
“I think there will only be the one shot,” said the puppet. “The fellow who fired it is now being beaten with a musket stock.
Hereward shielded his eyes with his hand to get a better look. The sun was hot in these parts, and glaring off the water. But they were close enough now that he could clearly see a small red-clad crowd gathered near the bow, and in the middle of it, a surprisingly slight pirate was beating the living daylights out of someone who was now crouched—or who had fallen—on the deck.
“Can you make out a name anywhere on the vessel?” Hereward asked.
“I cannot,” answered Fitz. “But her gun ports are black, there is a remnant of yellow striping on the rails of her quarterdeck and though the figurehead has been partially shot off, it is clearly a rampant sea-cat. This accords with Annim Tel’s description, and is the vessel we seek. She is the Sea-Cat, captained by one Romola Fury. I suspect it is she who has clubbed the firer of the bow-chaser to the deck.”
“A women pirate,” mused Hereward. “Did Annim Tel mention whether she is comely?”
“I can see for myself that you would think her passing fair,” said Fitz, his tone suddenly severe. “Which has no bearing on the task that lies ahead.”
“Save that it may make the company of these pirates more pleasant,” said Hereward. “Would you say we are now close enough to hail?”
“Indeed,” said Fitz.
Hereward stood up, pressed his knees against the top strakes of the bow to keep his balance, and cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Ahoy Sea-Cat!” he shouted. “Permission for two brethren to come aboard?”
There was a brief commotion near the bow, most of the crowd moving purposefully to the main deck. Only two pirates remained on the bow: the slight figure, who now they were closer they could see was female and so was almost certainly Captain Fury, and a tub-chested giant of a man who stood behind her. A crumpled body lay at their feet.
The huge pirate bent to listen to some quiet words from Fury, then filling his lungs to an extent that threatened to burst the buttons of his scarlet waistcoat, answered the hail with a shout that carried much farther than Hereward’s.
“Come aboard then, cullies! Port-side if you please.”
Mister Fitz leaned on the tiller and hauled in the main sheet, the skiff turning wide, the intention being to circle in off the port-side of the xebec and then turn bow-first into the wind and drop the sail. If properly executed, the skiff would lose way and bump gently up against the pirate ship. If not, they would run into the vessel, damage the skiff and be a laughing stock.
This was the reason Mister Fitz had the helm. Somewhere in his long past, the puppet had served at sea for several decades, and his wooden limbs were well-salted, his experience clearly remembered and his instincts true.
Hereward, for his part, had served as a gunner aboard a frigate of the Kahlian Mercantile Alliance for a year when he was fifteen and though that lay some ten years behind him, he had since had some shorter-lived nautical adventures and was thus well able to pass himself off as a seaman aboard a fair-sized ship. But he was not a great sailor of small boats and he hastened to follow Mister Fitz’s quiet commands to lower sail and prepare to fend off with an oar as they coasted to a stop next to the anchored Sea-Cat.
In the event, no fending off was required, but Hereward took a thrown line from the xebec to make the skiff fast alongside, while Fitz secured the head- and main-sail. With the swell so slight, the ship at anchor, and being a xebec low in the waist, it was then an easy matter to climb aboard, using the gun ports and chain-plates as foot- and hand-holds, Hereward only slightly hampered by his sword. He left the pistols in the skiff.
Pirates sauntered and swaggered across the deck to form two rough lines as Hereward and Fitz found their feet. Though they did not have weapons drawn, it was very much a gauntlet, the men and women of the Sea-Cat eyeing their visitors with suspicion. Though he did not wonder at the time, presuming it the norm among pirates, Hereward noted that the men in particular were ill-favoured, disfigured, or both. Fitz saw this too, and marked it as a matter for further investigation.
Romola Fury stepped down the short ladder from the forecastle deck to the waist and stood at the open end of the double line of pirates. The red waistcoated bully stood behind, but Hereward hardly noticed him. Though she was sadly lacking in the facial scars necessary for him to consider her a true beauty, Fury was indeed comely, and there was a hint of a powder burn on one high cheek-bone that accentuated her natural charms. She wore a fine blue silk coat embroidered with leaping sea-cats, without a shirt. As her coat was only loosely buttoned, Hereward found his attention very much focussed upon her. Belatedly, he remembered his instructions, and gave a flamboyant but unstructured wave of his open hand, a gesture meant to be a salute.
“Well met, Captain! Martin Suresword and the dread puppet Farolio, formerly of the Anodyne Pain, brothers in good standing of the chapter of the Syndical Sea.”
Fury raised one eyebrow and tilted her head a little to the side, the long reddish hair on the unshaved half of her head momentarily catching the breeze. Hereward kept his eyes on her, and tried to look relaxed, though he was ready to dive aside, headbutt a path through the gauntlet of pirates, circle behind the mizzen, draw his sword and hold off the attack long enough for Fitz to wreak his havoc . . .
“You’re a long way from the Syndical Sea, Captain Suresword,” Fury finally replied. Her voice was strangely pitched and throaty, and Fitz thought it might be the effects of an acid or alkaline burn to the tissues of the throat. “What brings you to these waters, and to the Sea-Cat? In Annim Tel’s craft, no less, with a tasty-looking chest across the thwarts?”
She made no sign, but something in her tone or perhaps in the words themselves made the two lines of pirates relax and the atmosphere of incipient violence ease.
“A proposition,” replied Hereward. “For the mutual benefit of all.”
Fury smiled and strolled down the deck, her large enforcer at her heels. She paused in front of Hereward, looked up at him, and smiled a crooked smile, provoking in him the memory of a cat that always looked just so before it sat on his lap and trod its claws into his groin.
“Is it riches we’re talking about, Martin Sure . . . sword? Gold treasure and the like? Not slaves, I trust? We don’t hold with slaving on the Sea-Cat, no matter what our brothers of the Syndical Sea may care for.”
“Not slaves, Captain,” said Hereward. “But treasure of all kinds. More gold and silver than you’ve ever seen. More than anyone has ever seen.”
Fury’s smile broadened for a moment. She slid a foot forward like a dancer, moved to Hereward’s side and linked her arm through his, neatly pinning his sword-arm.
“Do tell, Martin,” she said. “Is it to be an assault on the Ingmal Convoy? A cutting-out venture in Hryken Bay?”
Her crew laughed as she spoke, and Hereward felt the mood change again. Fury was mocking him, for it would take a vast fleet of pirates to carry an assault on the fabulous biennial convoy from the Ingmal saffron fields, and Hryken Bay was dominated by the guns of the justly famous Diamond Fort and its red-hot shot.
“I do not bring you dreams and fancies, Captain Fury,” said Hereward quietly. “What I offer is a prize greater than even a galleon of the Ingmal.”
“What then?” asked Fury. She gestured at the sky, where a small turquoise disc was still visible near the horizon, though it was faded by the sun. “You’ll bring the blue moon down for us to plunder?”
“I offer a way through the Secret Channels and the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe,” said Hereward, speaking louder with each word, as the pirates began to shout, most in angry disbelief, but some in excited greed.
Fury’s hand tightened on Hereward’s arm, but she did not speak immediately. Slowly, as her silence was noted, her crew grew quiet, such was her power over them. Hereward knew very few others who had such presence, and he had known many kings and princes, queens and high priestesses. Not for the first time, he felt a stab of doubt about their plan, or more accurately Fitz’s plan. Fury was no cat’s-paw, to be lightly used by others.
“What is this way?” asked Fury, when her crew was silent, the only sound the lap of the waves against the hull, the creak of the rigging, and to Hereward at least, the pounding of his own heart.
“I have a dark rutter for the channels,” he said. “Farolio here, is a gifted navigator. He will take the star sights.”
“So the Secret Channels may be traveled,” said Fury. “If the rutter is true.”
“It is true, madam,” piped up Fitz, pitching his voice higher than usual. He sounded childlike, and harmless. “We have journeyed to the foot of the Sea Gate and returned, this past month.”
Fury glanced down at the puppet, who met her gaze with his unblinking, blue-painted eyes, the sheen of the sorcerous varnish upon them bright. She met the puppet’s gaze for several seconds, her eyes narrowing once more, in a fashion reminiscent of a cat that sees something it is not sure whether to flee or fight. Then she slowly looked back at Hereward.
“And the Sea Gate? It matters not to pass the channels if the gate is shut against us.”
“The Sea Gate is not what it once was,” said Hereward. “If pressure is brought against the correct place, then it will fall.”
“Pressure?” asked Fury, and the veriest tip of her tongue thrust out between her lips.
“I am a Master Gunner,” said Hereward. “In the chest aboard out skiff is a mortar shell of particular construction—and I believe that not a week past you captured a Harker-built bomb vessel, and have yet to dispose of it.”
He did not mention that this ship had been purchased specifically for his command, and its capture had seriously complicated their initial plan.
“You are well-informed,” said Fury. “I do have such a craft, hidden in a cove beyond the strand. I have my crew, none better in all this sea. You have a rutter, a navigator, a bomb, and the art to bring the Sea Gate down. Shall we say two-thirds to we Sea-Cats and one-third to you and your puppet?”
“Done,” said Hereward.
“Yes,” said Fitz.
Fury unlinked her arm from Hereward’s, held up her open hand and licked her palm most daintily, before offering it to him. Hereward paused, then spat mostly air on his own palm, and they shook upon the bargain.
Fitz held up his hand, as flexible as any human’s, though it was dark brown and grained like wood, and licked his palm with a long blue-stippled tongue that was pierced with a silver stud. Fury slapped more than shook Fitz’s hand, and she did not look at the puppet.
“Jabez!” instructed Fury, and her great hulking right-hand man was next to shake on the bargain, his grip surprisingly light and deft, and his eyes warm with humour, a small smile on his battered face. Whether it was for the prospect of treasure or some secret amusement, Hereward could not tell, and Jabez did not smile for Fitz. After Jabez came the rest of the crew, spitting and shaking till the bargain was sealed with all aboard. Like every ship of the brotherhood, the Sea-Cats were in theory a free company, and decisions made by all.
The corpse on the forecastle was an indication that this was merely a theory and that in practice, Captain Fury ruled as she wished. The spitting and handshaking was merely song and dance and moonshadow, but it played well with the pirates, who enjoyed pumping Hereward’s hand till his shoulder hurt. They did not take such liberties with Fitz, but this was no sign they had discerned his true nature, but merely the usual wariness of humans towards esoteric life.
When all the hand-clasping was done, Fury took Hereward’s arm again and led him towards the great cabin in the xebec’s stern. As they strolled along the deck, she called over her shoulder, “Make ready to sail, Jabez. Captain Suresword and I have some matters to discuss.”
Fitz followed at Hereward’s heels. Jabez’s shouts passed over his head, and he had to weave his way past pirates rushing to climb the ratlines or man the capstan that would raise the anchor.
Fury’s great cabin was divided by a thick curtain that separated her sleeping quarters from a larger space that was not quite broad enough to comfortably house both the teak-topped table and the two twelve-pounder guns. Fury had to let go of Hereward to slip through the space between the breech of one gun and the table corner, and he found himself strangely relieved by the cessation of physical proximity. He was no stranger to women, and had dallied with courtesans, soldiers, farm girls, priestesses and even a widowed empress, but there was something about Fury that unsettled him more than any of these past lovers.
Consequently he was even more relieved when she did not lead him through the curtain to her sleeping quarters, but sat at the head of the table and gestured for him to sit on one side. He did so, and Fitz hopped up on to the table.
“Drink!” shouted Fury. She was answered by a grunt from behind a half-door in the fore bulkhead that Hereward had taken for a locker. The door opened a fraction and a scrawny, tattooed, handless arm was thrust out, the stump through the leather loop of a wineskin which was unceremoniously thrown up to the table.
“Go get the meat on the forecastle,” added Fury. She raised the wineskin and daintily directed a jet of a dark, resinous wine into her mouth, licking her lips most carefully when she finished. She passed the skin to Hereward, who took the merest swig. He was watching the horribly mutilated little man who was crawling across the deck. The pirate’s skin was so heavily and completely tattooed that it took a moment to realize he was an albino. He had only his left hand, his right arm ending at the wrist. Both of his legs were gone from the knee, and he scuttled on his stumps like a tricorn beetle.
“M’ steward,” said Fury, as the fellow left. She took another long drink. “Excellent cook.”
Hereward nodded grimly. He had recognized some of the tattoos on the man, which identified him as a member of one of the cannibal societies that infested the decaying city of Coradon, far to the south.
“I’d invite you to take nuncheon with me,” said Fury, with a sly look. “But most folk don’t share my tastes.”
Hereward nodded. He had in fact eaten human flesh, when driven to extremity in the long retreat from Jeminero. It was not something he wished to partake of again, should there be any alternative sustenance.
“We are all but meat and water, in the end,” said Fury. “Saving your presence, puppet.”
“It is a philosophic position that I find unsurprising in one of your past life,” said Fitz. “I, for one, do not think it strange for you to eat dead folk, particularly when there is always a shortage of fresh meat at sea.”
“What do you know of my ‘past life’?” asked Fury, and she smiled just a little, so her sharp eye teeth protruded over her lower lip.
“Only what I observe,” remarked Fitz. “Though the mark is faded, I perceive a Lurquist slave brand in that quarter of the skin above your left breast and below your shoulder. You also have the characteristic scar of a Nagolon manacle on your right wrist. These things indicate you have been a slave at least twice, and so must have freed yourself or been freed, also twice. The Nagolon cook the flesh of their dead rowers to provide for the living, hence your taste—”
“I think that will do,” interrupted Fury. She looked at Hereward. “We all need our little secrets, do we not? But there are others we must share. It is enough for the crew to know no more than the song about the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe and the dangers of the waters near their isle. But I would know the whole of it. Tell me more about these Scholar-Pirates and their fabled fortress. Do they still lurk behind the Sea Gate?”
“The Sea Gate has been shut fast these last two hundred years or more,” Hereward said carefully. He had to answer before Fitz did, as the puppet could not always be trusted to sufficiently skirt the truth, even when engaged on a task that required subterfuge and misdirection. “The Scholar-Pirates have not been seen since that time and most likely the fortress is now no more than a dark and silent tomb.”
“If it is not now, we shall make it so,” said Fury. She hesitated for a second, then added, “For the Scholar-Pirates,” and tapped the table thrice with the bare iron ring she wore on the thumb of her left hand. This was an ancient gesture, and told Fitz even more about the captain.
“The song says they were indeed as much scholars as pirates,” said Fury. “I have no desire to seize a mound of dusty parchment or rows of books. Do you know of anything more than legend that confirms their treasure?”
“I have seen inside their fortress,” said Fitz. “Some four hundred years past, before the Sea Gate was . . . permanently raised. There were very few true scholars among them even then, and most had long since made learning secondary to the procurement of riches . . . and riches there were, in plenty.”
“How old are you, puppet?”
Fitz shrugged his little shoulders and did not answer, a forbearance that Hereward was pleased to see. Fury was no common pirate, and anyone who knew Fitz’s age and a little history could put the two together in a way that might require adjustment, and jeopardize Hereward’s current task.
“There will be gold enough for all,” Hereward said hastily. “There are four or five accounts extant from ransomed captives of the Scholar-Pirates, and all mention great stores of treasure. Treasure for the taking.”
“Aye, after some small journey through famously impassable waters and a legendary gate,” said Fury. “As I said, tell me the whole.”
“We will,” said Hereward. “Farolio?”
“If I may spill a little wine, I will sketch out a chart,” said Fitz.
Fury nodded. Hereward poured a puddle of wine on the corner of the table for the puppet, who crouched and dipped his longest finger in it, which was the one next to his thumb, then quickly sketched a rough map of many islands. Though he performed no obvious sorcery, the wet lines were quite sharp and did not dry out as quickly as one might expect.
“The fortress itself is built wholly within a natural vastness inside this isle, in the very heart of the archipelago. The pirates called both island and fortress Cror Holt, though its proper name is Sarsköe, which is also the name of the entire island group.”
Fitz made another quick sketch, an enlarged view of the same island, a roughly circular land that was split from its eastern shore to its centre by a jagged, switch-backed line of five turns.
“The sole entry to the Cror Holt cavern is from the sea, through this gorge which cuts a zigzag way for almost nine miles through the limestone. The gorge terminates at a smooth cliff, but here the pirates bored a tunnel through to their cavern. The entrance to the tunnel is barred by the famed Sea Gate, which measures one hundred and seven feet wide and one hundred and ninety-seven feet high. The sea abuts it at near forty feet at low water and sixty-three at the top of the tide.
“The gorge is narrow, only broad enough for three ships to pass abreast, so it is not possible to directly fire upon the Sea Gate with cannon. However, we have devised a scheme to fire a bomb from the prior stretch of the gorge, over the intervening rock wall and into the top of the gate.
“Once past the gate, there is a harbour pool capacious enough to host a dozen vessels of a similar size to your Sea-Cat, with three timber wharves built out from a paved quay. The treasure- and store-houses of the Scholar-Pirates are built on an inclined crescent above the quay, along with residences and other buildings of no great note.”
“You are an unusual puppet,” said Fury. She took the wineskin and poured another long stream down her throat. “Go on.”
Fitz nodded, and returned to his first sketch, his finger tracing a winding path between the islands.
“To get to the Cror Holt entry in the first place, we must pick our way through the so-called Secret Channels. There are close to two hundred islands and reefs arrayed around the central isle, and the only passage through is twisty indeed. Adding complication to difficulty, we must pass these channels at night, a night with a clear sky, for we have only the dark rutter to guide us through the channels, and the path contained therein is detailed by star sights and soundings.
“We will also have to contend with most difficult tides. This is particularly so in the final approach to the Sea-Gate, where the shape of the reefs and islands—and I suspect some sorcerous tinkering—funnel two opposing tidewashes into each other. The resultant eagre, or bore as some call it, enters the mouth of the gorge an hour before high water and the backwash returns some fifteen minutes later. The initial wave is taller than your top-masts and very swift, and will destroy any craft caught in the gorge.
“Furthermore, we must also be in the Cror Holt gorge just before the turn of the tide, in order to secure the bomb vessel ready for firing during the slack water. With only one shot, He . . . Martin, that is, will need the most stable platform possible. I have observed the slack water as lasting twenty-three minutes and we must have the bomb vessel ready to fire.
“Accordingly we must enter after the eagre has gone in and come out, anchor and spring the bomb vessel at the top of the tide, fire on the slack and then we will have some eight or nine hours at most to loot and be gone before the eagre returns, and without the Sea Gate to block it, floods the fortress completely and drowns all within.”
Fury looked from the puppet to Hereward, her face impassive. She did not speak for at least a minute. Hereward and Fitz waited silently, listening to the sounds of the crew in deck and rigging above them, the creak of the vessel’s timbers and above all that, the thump of someone chopping something up in the captain’s galley that lay somewhat above them and nearer the waist.
“It is a madcap venture, and my crew would mutiny if they knew what lies ahead,” said Fury finally. “Nor do I trust either of you to have told me the half of it. But . . . I grow tired of the easy pickings on this coast. Perhaps it is time to test my luck again. We will join with the bomb vessel, which is called Strongarm, by nightfall and sail on in convoy. You will both stay aboard the Sea-Cat. How long to gain the outer archipelago, master navigator puppet?”
“Three days with a fair wind,” said Fitz. “If the night then is clear, we shall have two of three moons sufficiently advanced to light our way, but not so much they will mar my star sights. Then it depends upon the wind. If it is even passing fair, we should reach the entrance to the Cror Holt gorge two hours after midnight, as the tide nears its flood.”
“Madness,” said Fury again, but she laughed and slapped Fitz’s sketch, a spray of wine peppering Hereward’s face. “You may leave me now. Jabez will find you quarters.”
Hereward stood and almost bowed, before remembering he was a pirate. He turned the bow into a flamboyant wipe of his wine-stained face and turned away, to follow Fitz, who had jumped down from the table without any attempt at courtesy.
As they left, Fury spoke quietly, but her words carried great force.
“Remember this, Captain Suresword. I eat my enemies—and those that betray my trust I eat alive.”
That parting comment was still echoing in Hereward’s mind four days later, as the Sea-Cat sailed cautiously between two lines of white breakers no more than a mile apart. The surf was barely visible in the moonlight, but all aboard could easily envision the keel-tearing reefs that lay below.
Strongarm wallowed close behind, its ragged wake testament to its inferior sailing properties, much of this due to the fact that it had a huge mortar sitting where it would normally have a foremast. But though it would win no races, Strongarm was a beautiful vessel in Hereward’s eyes, with her massively reinforced decks and beams, chain rigging and, of course, the great iron mortar itself.
Though Fury had not let him stay overlong away from the Sea-Cat, and Fitz had been required to stay on the xebec, Hereward had spent nearly all his daylight hours on the bomb vessel, familiarizing himself with the mortar and training the crew he had been given to serve it. Though he would only have one shot with the special bomb prepared by Mister Fitz, and he would load and aim that himself, Hereward had kept his gunners busy drilling. With a modicum of luck, the special shot would bring the Sea Gate down, but he thought there could well be an eventuality where even commonplace bombs might need to be rained down upon the entrance to Cror Holt.
A touch at Hereward’s arm brought his attention back to Fitz. Both stood on the quarterdeck, next to the helmsman, who was peering nervously ahead. Fury was in her cabin, possibly to show her confidence in her chosen navigator—and in all probability, dining once more on the leftovers of the unfortunate pirate who had taken it on himself to fire the bow-chaser.
“We are making good progress,” said Fitz. He held a peculiar device at his side that combined a small telescope and a tiny, ten-line abacus of screw-thread beads. Hereward had never seen any other navigator use such an instrument, but by taking sights on the moons and the stars and with the mysterious aid of the silver chronometric egg he kept in his waistcoat, Fitz could and did fix their position most accurately. This could then be checked against the directions contained with the salt-stained leather bindings of the dark rutter.
“Come to the taffrail,” whispered Fitz. More loudly, he said, “Keep her steady, helm. I shall give you a new course presently.”
Man and puppet moved to the rail at the stern, to stand near the great lantern that was the essential beacon for the following ship. Hereward leaned on the rail and looked back at the Strongarm again. In the light of the two moons the bomb vessel was a pallid, ghostly ship, the great mortar giving it an odd silhouette.
Fitz, careless of the roll and pitch of the ship, leaped to the rail. Gripping Hereward’s arm, he leaned over and looked intently at the stern below.
“Stern windows shut—we shall not be overheard,” whispered Fitz.
“What is it you wish to say?” asked Hereward.
“Elements of our plan may need re-appraisal,” said Fitz. “Fury is no easy dupe and once the Sea Gate falls, its nature will be evident. Though she must spare me to navigate our return to open water, I fear she may well attempt to slay you in a fit of pique. I will then be forced into action, which would be unfortunate as we may well need the pirates to carry the day.”
“I trust you would be ‘forced into action’ before she killed me . . . or started eating me alive,” said Hereward.
Fitz did not deign to answer this sally. They both knew Hereward’s safety was of almost paramount concern to the puppet.
“Perchance we should give the captain a morsel of knowledge,” said Fitz. “What do you counsel?”
Hereward looked down at the deck and thought of Fury at her board below, carving off a more literal morsel.
“She is a most uncommon woman, even for a pirate,” he said slowly.
“She is that,” said Fitz. “On many counts. You recall the iron ring, the three-times tap she did on our first meeting below? That is a grounding action against some minor forms of esoteric attack. She used it as a ward against ill-saying, which is the practice of a number of sects. I would think she was a priestess once, or at least a novice, in her youth.”
“Of what god?” asked Hereward. “A listed entity? That might serve us very ill.”
“Most probably some benign and harmless godlet,” said Fitz. “Else she could not have been wrested from its service to the rowing benches of the Nagolon. But there is something about her that goes against this supposition . . . it would be prudent to confirm which entity she served.”
“If you wish to ask, I have no objection . . .” Hereward began. Then he stopped and looked at the puppet, favouring his long-time comrade with a scowl.
“I have to take many more star sights,” said Fitz. He jumped down from the rail and turned to face the bow. “Not to mention instruct the helmsman on numerous small points of sail. I think it would be in our interest to grant Captain Fury some further knowledge of our destination, and also endeavour to discover which godlet held the indenture of her youth. We have some three or four hours before we will reach the entrance to the gorge.”
“I am not sure—” said Hereward.
“Surely that is time enough for such a conversation,” interrupted Fitz. “Truly, I have never known you so reluctant to seek private discourse with a woman of distinction.”
“A woman who feasts upon human flesh,” protested Hereward as he followed Fitz.
“She merely does not waste foodstuffs,” said Fitz. “I think it commendable. You have yourself partaken of—”
“Yes, yes, I remember!” said Hereward. “Take your star sight! I will go below and speak to Fury.”
The helmsman looked back as Hereward spoke, and he realized he was no longer whispering.
“Captain Fury, I mean. I will speak with you anon, Mister . . . Farolio!”
Captain Fury was seated at her table when Hereward entered, following a cautious knock. But she was not eating and there were no recognizable human portions upon the platter in front of her. It held only a dark glass bottle and a small silver cup, the kind used in birthing rights or baptismal ceremonies. Fury drank from it, flicking her wrist to send the entire contents down her throat in one gulp. Even from a few paces distant, Hereward could smell the sharp odour of strong spirits.
“Arrack,” said Fury. “I have a taste for it at times, though it does not serve me as well as once it did. You wish to speak to me? Then sit.”
Hereward sat cautiously, as far away as he dared without giving offence, and angled his chair so as to allow a clean draw of the main gauche from his right hip. Fury appeared less than sober, if not exactly drunk, and Hereward was very wary of the trouble that might come from the admixture of a pirate with cannibalistic tendencies and a powerfully spirituous drink.
“I am not drunk,” said Fury. “It would take three bottles of this stuff to send me away, and a better glass to sup it with. I am merely wetting down my powder before we storm the fortress.”
“Why?” asked Hereward. He did not move any closer.
“I am cursed,” said Fury. She poured herself another tot. “Did you suppose ‘Fury’ is my birth name?”
Hereward shook his head slowly.
“Perhaps I am blessed,” continued the woman. She smiled her small, toothy smile again, and drank. “You will see when the fighting starts. Your puppet knows, doesn’t it? Those blue eyes . . . it will be safe enough, but you’d best keep your distance. It’s the tall men and the well-favoured that she must either bed or slay, and it’s all I can do to point her towards the foe . . . “
“Who is she?” asked Hereward. It took some effort to keep his voice calm and level. At the same time he let his hand slowly fall to his side, fingers trailing across the hilt of his parrying dagger.
“What I become,” said Fury. “A fury indeed, when battle is begun.”
She made a sign with her hand, her fingers making a claw. Her nails had grown, Hereward saw, but not to full talons. Not yet. More discoloured patches—spots—had also appeared on her face, making it obvious the permanent one near her eye was not a powder-burn at all.
“You were a sister of Chelkios, the Leoparde,” stated Hereward. He did not have Fitz’s exhaustive knowledge of cross-dimensional entities, but Chelkios was one of the more prominent deities of the old Kvarnish Empire. Most importantly from his point of view, at least in the longer term, it was not proscribed.
“I was taken from Her by slavers when I was but a novice, a silly little thing who disobeyed the rules and left the temple,” said Fury. She took another drink. “A true sister controls the temper of the beast. I must manage with rum, for the most part, and the occasional . . .”
She set her cup down, stood up and held her hand out to Hereward and said, “Distraction.”
Hereward also stood, but did not immediately take her hand. Two powerful instincts warred against each other, a sensuous thrill that coursed through his whole body versus a panicked sense of self-preservation that emanated from a more rational reckoning of threat and chance.
“Bed or slay, she has no middle course,” said Fury. Her hand trembled and the nails on her fingers grew longer and began to curve.
“There are matters pertaining to our task that you must hear,” said Hereward, but as he spoke all his caution fell away and he took her hand to draw her close. “You should know that the Sea Gate is now in fact a wall . . .”
He paused as cool hands found their way under his shirt, muscles tensing in anticipation of those sharp nails upon his skin. But Fury’s fingers were soft pads now, and quick, and Hereward’s own hands were launched upon a similar voyage of discovery.
“A wall,” gulped Hereward. “Built two hundred years ago by the surviving Scholar-Pirates . . . to . . . to keep in something they had originally summoned to aid them . . . the treasure is there . . . but it is guarded . . .”
“Later,” crooned Fury, close to his ear, as she drew him back through the curtain to her private lair. “Tell me later . . .”
Many hours later, Fury stood on the quarterdeck and looked down at Hereward as he took his place aboard the boat that was to transfer him to the Strongarm. She gave no sign that she viewed him with any particular affection or fondness, or indeed recalled their intimate relations at all. However, Hereward was relieved to see that though the lanterns in the rigging cast shadows on her face, there was only the one leoparde patch there and her nails were of a human dimension.
Fitz stood at her side, his papier-mâché head held at a slight angle so that he might see both sky and boat. Hereward had managed only a brief moment of discourse with him, enough to impart Fury’s nature and to tell him that she had seemed to take the disclosure of their potential enemy with equanimity. Or possibly had not heard him properly, or recalled it, having been concerned with more immediate activities.
Both Sea-Cat and Strongarm were six miles up the gorge, its sheer, grey-white limestone walls towering several hundred feet above them. Only the silver moon was high enough to light their way, the blue moon left behind on the horizon of the open sea. Even so, it was a bright three-quarter moon, and the sky clear and full of stars, so on one score at least the night was ideal for the expedition.
But the wind had been dropping by the minute, and now the air was still, and what little sail the Sea-Cat had set was limp and useless. Strongarm’s poles were bare, as she was already moored in the position Fitz had chosen on their preliminary exploration a month before, with three anchors down and a spring on each mooring line. Hereward would adjust the vessel’s lie when he got aboard, thus training the mortar exactly on the Sea Gate, which lay out of sight on the other side of the northern wall, in the next turn of the gorge.
In consequence of the calm, recourse had to be made to oars, so a longboat, two gigs and Annim Tel’s skiff were in line ahead of the Sea-Cat, ready to tow her the last mile around the bend in the gorge. Hereward would have preferred to undertake the assault entirely in the small craft, but they could not deliver sufficient force. There were more than a hundred and ninety pirates aboard the xebec, and he suspected they might need all of them and more.
“High water,” called out someone from near the bow of the Sea-Cat. “The flow has ceased.”
“Give way!” ordered Hereward, and his boat surged forward, six pirates bending their strength upon the oars. With the gorge so narrow it would only take a few minutes to reach the Strongarm, but with the tide at its peak and slack water begun, Hereward had less than a quarter-hour to train, elevate and fire the mortar.
Behind him, he heard Jabez roar, quickly followed by the splash of many oars in the water as the boats began the tow. It would be a slow passage for the Sea-Cat, and Hereward’s gig would easily catch them up.
The return journey out of the gorge would be just as slow, Hereward thought, and entailed much greater risk. If they lost too many rowers in battle, and if the wind failed to come up, they might well not make it out before the eagre came racing up the gorge once more.
He tried to dismiss images of the great wave roaring down the gorge as he climbed up the side of the bomb vessel and quickly ran to the mortar. His crew had everything ready. The chest was open to show the special bomb, the charge bags were laid on oil-cloth next to it and his gunner’s quadrant and fuses were laid out likewise on the opposite side.
Hereward looked up at the sky and at the marks Fitz had sorcerously carved into the cliff the month before, small things that caught the moonlight and might be mistaken for a natural pocket of quartz. Using these marks, he ordered a minor adjustment of the springs to warp the bomb vessel around a fraction, a task that took precious minutes as the crew heaved on the lines.
While they heaved, Hereward laid the carefully calculated number and weight of charge bags in the mortar. Then he checked and cut the fuse, measuring it three times and checking it again, before pushing it into the bomb. This was a necessary piece of misdirection for the benefit of the pirates, for in fact Fitz had put a sorcerous trigger in the bomb so that it would explode exactly as required.
“Load!” called Hereward. The six pirates who served the mortar leaped into action, two carefully placing the wadding on the charge bags while the other four gingerly lifted the bomb and let it slide back into the mortar.
“Prepare for adjustment,” came the next command. Hereward laid his gunner’s quadrant in the barrel and the crew took a grip on the two butterfly-shaped handles that turned the cogs that would raise the mortar’s inclination. “Up six turns!”
“Up six turns!” chorused the hands as they turned the handles, bronze cogs ticking as the teeth interlocked with the thread of the inclination screws. The barrel of the mortar slowly rose, till it was pointing up at the clear sky and was only ten degrees from the vertical.
“Down one quarter turn!”
“Down one quarter turn!”
The barrel came down. Hereward checked the angle once more. All would depend upon this one shot.
“Prime her and ready matches!”
The leading hand primed the touch-hole with fine powder from a flask, while his second walked back along the deck to retrieve two linstocks, long poles that held burning lengths of match cord.
Hereward took one linstock and the leading gunner the other. The rest of the gun crew walked aft, away from the mortar, increasing their chances of survival should there be some flaw in weapon or bomb that resulted in early detonation.
“One for the sea, two for the shore, three for the match,” Hereward chanted. On three he lit the bomb’s fuse and strode quickly away, still chanting, “four for the gunner and five for the bore!”
On “bore” the gunner lit the touch-hole.
Hereward already had his eyes screwed shut and was crouched on the deck fifteen feet from the mortar, with his back to it and a good handhold. Even so, the flash went through his eyelids and the concussion and thunderous report that followed sent him sprawling across the deck. The Strongarm pitched and rolled too, so that he was in some danger of going over the side, till he found another handhold.
Hauling himself upright, Hereward looked up to make sure the bomb had cleared the rim of the gorge, though he knew that if it hadn’t there would already be broken rock falling all around. Blinking against the spots and luminous blurring that were the after-effects of the flash, he stared up at the sky and a few seconds later, was rewarded by the sight of another, even brighter flash and, hard on its heels, a deep, thunderous rumble.
“A hit, a palpable hit!” cried the leading gunner, who was an educated man who doubtless had some strange story of how he had become a pirate. “Well done, sir!”
“It hit something, sure enough,” said Hereward, as the other gunners cheered. “But has it brought the Sea Gate down? We shall see. Gunners, swab out the mortar and stand ready. Crew, to the boat. We must make haste.”
As expected, Hereward’s gig easily caught the Sea-Cat and its towing boats, which were making slow progress, particularly as a small wave had come down from farther up the gorge, setting them momentarily aback, but heartening Hereward as it indicated a major displacement of the water in front of the Sea Gate.
This early portent of success was confirmed some short time later as his craft came in sight of the gorge’s terminus. Dust and smoke still hung in the air, and there was a huge dark hole in the middle of what had once been a great wall of pale green bricks.
“Lanterns!” called Hereward as they rowed forward, and his bowman held a lantern high in each hand, the two beams catching spirals of dust and blue-grey gunsmoke which were still twisting their way up towards the silver moon.
The breach in the wall was sixty feet wide, Hereward reckoned, and though bricks were still tumbling on either side, there were none left to fall from above. The Sea-Cat could be safely towed inside, to disgorge the pirates upon the wharves or, if they had rotted and fallen away, to the quay itself.
Hereward looked aft. The xebec was some hundred yards behind, its lower yardarms hung with lanterns so that it looked like some strange, blazing-eyed monster slowly wading up the gorge, the small towing craft ahead of it low dark shapes, lesser servants lit by duller lights.
“Rest your oars,” said Hereward, louder than he intended. His ears were still damped from the mortar blast. “Ready your weapons and watch that breach.”
Most of the pirates hurried to prime pistols or ease dirks and cutlasses in scabbards, but one woman, a broad-faced bravo with a slit nose, laid her elbows on her oars and watched Hereward as he reached into his boot and removed the brassard he had placed there. A simple armband, he had slid it up his arm before he noticed her particular attention, which only sharpened as she saw that the characters embroidered on the brassard shone with their own internal light, far brighter than could be obtained by any natural means.
“What’s yon light?” she asked. Others in the crew also turned to look.
“So you can find me,” answered Hereward easily. “It is painted with the guts of light-bugs. Now I must pray a moment. If any of you have gods to speak to, now is the time.”
He watched for a moment, cautious of treachery or some reaction to the brassard, but the pirates had other concerns. Many of them did bend their heads, or close one eye, or touch their knees with the backs of their hands, or adopt one of the thousands of positions of prayer approved by the godlets they had been raised to worship.
Hereward did none of these things, but spoke under his breath, so that none might hear him.
“In the name of the Council of the Treaty for the Safety of the World, acting under the authority granted by the Three Empires, the Seven Kingdoms, the Palatine Regency, the Jessar Republic and the Forty Lesser Realms, I declare myself an agent of the Council. I identify the godlet manifested in this fortress of Cror Holt as Forjill-Um-Uthrux, a listed entity under the Treaty. Consequently the said godlet and all those who assist it are deemed to be enemies of the World, and the Council authorizes me to pursue any and all actions necessary to banish, repel or exterminate the said godlet.”
“Captain Suresword! Advance and clear the channel!”
It was Fury calling, no longer relying on the vasty bellow of Jabez. The xebec was closing more rapidly, the towing craft rowing faster, the prospect of gold reviving tired pirates. Hereward could see Fury in the bow of the Sea-Cat, and Fitz beside her, his thin arm a-glow from his own brassard.
Hereward touched the butts of the two pistols in his belt and then the hilt of his mortuary sword. The entity that lay in the darkness within could not be harmed by shot or steel, but it was likely served by those who could die as readily as any other mortal. Hereward’s task was to protect Fitz from such servants, while the puppet’s sorcery dealt with the god.
“Out oars!” he shouted, loud as he could this time. “Onwards to fortune! Give way!”
Oars dipped, the boat surged forward and they passed the ruins of the Sea Gate into the black interior of Cror Holt.
Out of the moonlight the darkness was immediate and disturbing, though the tunnel was so broad and high and their lantern-light of such small consequence that they had no sense of being within a confined space. Indeed, though Hereward knew the tunnel itself was short, he could only tell when they left it and entered the greater cavern by the difference in the sound of their oar-splashes, immediate echoes being replaced by more distant ones.
“Keep her steady,” he instructed, his voice also echoing back across the black water. “Watch for the wharves or submerged piles. It can’t be far.”
It was not a wharf, but the spreading rings of some disturbance upon the surface of the still water. Something big had popped up and sank again, off the starboard quarter of the boat.
“Pull harder!” instructed Hereward. He drew a pistol and cocked the lock. The Sea-Cat was following, and from its many lanterns he could see the lower outline of the tunnel around it.
“I see the wharf!” cried the bowman, his words immediately followed by a sudden thump under the hull, the crack of broken timber and a general falling about in the boat, one of the lanterns going over the side into immediate extinguishment.
“We’ve struck!” shouted a pirate. He stood as if to leap over the side, but paused and looked down.
Hereward looked too. They had definitely hit something hard and the boat should be sinking beneath them. But it was dry. He looked over the side and saw that the boat was at rest on stony ground. There was no water beneath them at all. Another second of examination, and a backward look confirmed that rather than the boat striking a reef, the ground below them had risen up. There was a wharf some ten yards away but its deck was well above them, and the harbour wall a barrier behind it, that they would now need to climb to come to the treasure houses.
“What’s that?” asked the gold-toothed pirate uncertainly.
Hereward looked and fired in the same moment, at a seven-foot-tall yellow starfish that was shuffling forward on two points. The bullet took it in the midsection, blasting out a hole the size of a man’s fist, but the starfish did not falter.
“Shoot it!” he shouted. There were starfish lurching upright all around and he knew there would be even more beyond the lantern-light. “Sea-Cat, ware shallows and enemy!”
The closer starfish fell a second later, its lower points shot to pulp. Pirates swore as they reloaded, all of them clustering closer to Hereward as if he might ward them from this sudden, sorcerous enemy.
Louder gunfire echoed in from the tunnel. Hereward saw flashes amid the steady light of the xebec’s lanterns. The Sea-Cat’s bow-chasers and swivel guns were being fired, so they too must be under attack. He also noted that the ship was moving no closer and in fact, might even be receding.
“Cap’n, the ship! She’s backing!” yelled a panicked pirate. He snatched up the remaining lantern and ran from the defensive ring about the boat, intent on the distant lights of the Sea-Cat. A few seconds later the others saw pirate and lantern go under a swarm of at least a dozen starfish, and then it was dark once more, save for the glow of the symbols on Hereward’s arm.
“Bowman, get a line over the wharf!” shouted Hereward. The mortuary sword was in his hand now, though he could not recall drawing it, and he hacked at a starfish whose points were reaching for him. The things were getting quicker, as if, like battlemounts, they needed to warm their blood. “We must climb up! Hold them back!”
The six of them retreated to the piles of the wharf, the huge, ambulatory starfish pressing their attack. With no time to reload, Hereward and the pirates had to hack and cut at them with sword, cutlasses and a boarding axe, and kick away the pieces that still writhed and sought to fasten themselves on their enemies. Within a minute, all of them had minor wounds to their lower legs, where the rough suckers of the starfish’s foul bodies had rasped away clothing and skin.
“Line’s fast!” yelled the bowman, and he launched himself up it, faster than any topman had ever climbed a ratline. Two of the other pirates clashed as they tried to climb together, one kicking the other in the face as he wriggled above. The lower pirate fell and was immediately smothered by a starfish that threw itself over him. Muffled screams came from beneath the writhing, yellow five-armed monster, and the pirate’s feet drummed violently on the ground for several seconds before they stilled.
“Go!” shouted Hereward to the remaining pirate, who needed no urging. She was halfway up the rope as Hereward knelt down, held his sword with both hands and whirled on his heel in a complete circle, the fine edge of his blade slicing through the lower points of half a dozen advancing starfish. As they fell over, Hereward threw his sword up to the wharf, jumped on the back of the starfish that was hunched over the fallen pirate, leaped to the rope and swarmed up it as starfish points tugged at his heels, rasping off the soles of his boots.
The woman pirate handed Hereward his sword as he reached the deck of the wharf. Once again the surviving quartet huddled close to him, eager to stay within the small circle of light provided by his brassard.
“Watch the end of the wharf!” instructed Hereward. He looked over the side. The huge starfish were everywhere below, but they were either unable or unwilling to climb up, so unless a new enemy presented itself there was a chance of some respite.
“She’s gone,” whispered one of his crew.
The Sea-Cat was indeed no longer visible in the tunnel, though there was still a great noise of gunfire, albeit more distant than before.
“The ground rising up has set her aback,” said Hereward. “But Captain Fury will land a reinforcement, I’m sure.”
“There are so many of them evil stars,” whispered the same man.
“They can be shot and cut to pieces,” said Hereward sternly. “We will prevail, have no fear.”
He spoke confidently, but was not so certain himself. Particularly as he could see the pieces of all the cut-up starfish wriggling together into a pile below, joining together to make an even bigger starfish, one that could reach up to the wharf.
“We’ll move back to the quay,” he announced, as two of the five points of the assembling giant starfish below began to flex. “Slow and steady, keep your wits about you.”
The five of them moved back along the wharf in a compact huddle, with weapons facing out, like a hedgehog slowly retreating before a predator. Once on the quay, Hereward ordered them to reload, but they had all dropped their pistols, and Hereward had lost one of his pair. He gave his remaining gun to the gold-toothed pirate.
“There are stone houses above,” he said, gesturing into the dark. “If we must retreat, we shall find a defensible position there.”
“Why wait? Let’s get behind some walls now.”
“We wait for Captain Fury and the others,” said Hereward. “They’ll be here any—”
The crack of a small gun drowned out his voice. It was followed a second later by a brilliant flash that lit up the whole cavern and then hard on the heels of the flash came a blinding horizontal bolt of forked lightning that spread across the whole harbour floor, branching into hundreds of lesser jolts that connected with the starfish in a crazed pattern of blue-white sparks.
A strong, nauseatingly powerful stench of salt and rotted meat washed across the pirates on the quay as the darkness returned. Hereward blinked several times and swallowed to try and clear his ears, but neither effort really worked. He knew from experience that both sight and sound would return in a few minutes, and he also knew that the explosion and lightning could only be the work of Mister Fitz. Nevertheless he had an anxious few minutes till he could see enough to make out the fuzzy globes that must be lanterns held by approaching friendly forces, and hear his fellows well enough to know that he would also hear any enemy on the wharf or quay.
“It’s the captain!” cried a pirate. “She’s done those stars in.”
The starfish had certainly been dealt a savage blow. Fury and Fitz and a column of lantern-bearing pirates were making their way through a charnel field of thousands of pieces of starfish meat, few of them bigger than a man’s fist.
But as the pirates advanced, the starfish pieces began to move, pallid horrors wriggling across the stony ground, melding with other pieces to form more mobile gobbets of invertebrate flesh, all of them moving to a central rendezvous somewhere beyond the illumination of the lanterns.
Hereward did not pause to wonder exactly what these disgusting starfish remnants were going to do in the darker reaches of the harbour. He ran along the wharf and took Fitz’s hand, helping the puppet to climb the boarding nets that Fury’s crew were throwing up. Before Fitz was on his feet, pirates raced past them both, talking excitedly of treasure, the starfish foe forgotten. Hereward’s own boat crew, who might have more reason than most to be more thoughtful, had already been absorbed into this flood of looters.
“The starfish are growing back,” said Hereward urgently, as he palmed off a too-eager pirate who nearly trod on Fitz.
“Not exactly,” corrected Fitz. “Forjill-Um-Uthrux is manifesting itself more completely here. It will use its starfish minions to craft a physical shape. And possibly more importantly—”
“Captain Suresword!” cried Fury, clapping him on the back. Her eyes were bright, there were several dark spots on her face and her ears were long and furred, but she evidently had managed to halt or slow the full transformation. “On to the treasure!”
She laughed and ran past him, with many pirates behind her. Up ahead, the sound of ancient doors being knocked down was already being replaced by gleeful and astonished cries as many hundredweight of loose gold and silver coinage poured out around the looter’s thighs.
“More importantly perhaps, Um-Uthrux is doing something to manipulate the sea,” continued Fitz. “It has tilted the harbour floor significantly and I can perceive energistic tendrils extending well beyond this island. I fear it raising the tide ahead of time and with it—”
“The eagre,” said Hereward. “Do we have time to get out?”
“No,” said Fitz. “It will be at the mouth of the gorge within minutes. We must swiftly deal with Um-Uthrux and then take refuge in one of the upper buildings, the strongest possible, where I will spin us a bubble of air.”
“How big a bubble?” asked Hereward, as he took a rapid glance around. There were lanterns bobbing all around the slope above the quay, and it looked like all two hundred odd of Fury’s crew were in amongst the Scholar-Pirates’ buildings.
“A single room, sufficient for a dozen mortals,” said Fitz. “Ah, Um-Uthrux has made its host. Please gather as many pirates as you can to fire on it, Hereward. I will require some full minutes of preparation.”
The puppet began to take off his bandanna and Hereward shielded his face with his hand. A terrible, harsh light filled the cavern as Fitz removed an esoteric needle that had been glued to his head, the light fading as he closed his hand around it. Any mortal that dared to hold such a needle unprotected would no longer have hand or arm, but Fitz had been specifically made to deal with such things.
In the brief flash of light, Hereward saw a truly giant starfish beginning to stand on its lower points. It was sixty feet wide and at least that tall, and was not pale yellow like its lesser predecessors, but a virulent colour like infected pus, and its broad surface was covered not in a rasping, lumpy structure of tiny suckers but in hundreds of foot-wide puckered mouths that were lined with sharp teeth.
“Fury!” roared Hereward as he sprinted back along the wharf, ignoring the splinters in his now bare feet, his ruined boots flapping about his ankles. “Fury! Sea-Cats! To arms, to arms!”
He kept shouting, but he could not see Fury, and the pirates in sight were gold-drunk, bathing uproariously in piles of coin and articles of virtu that had spilled out of the broken treasure houses and into the cobbled streets between the buildings.
“To arms! The enemy!” Hereward shouted again. He ran to the nearest knot of pirates and dragged one away from a huge gold-chased silver cup that was near as big as he was. “Form line on the quay!”
The pirate shrugged him off and clutched his cup.
“It’s mine!” he yelled. “You’ll not have it!”
“I don’t want it!” roared Hereward. He pointed back at the harbour. “The enemy! Look, you fools!”
The nearer pirates stared at him blankly. Hereward turned and saw . . . nothing but darkness.
“Fitz! Light the cursed monster up!”
He was answered by a blinding surge of violet light that shot from the wharf and washed across the giant starfish, which was now completely upright and lifting one point to march forwards.
There was silence for several seconds, the silence of the shocked. Then a calm, carrying voice snatched order from the closing jaws of incipient panic.
“Sea-Cats! First division form line on the quay, right of the wharf! Second to load behind them! Move, you knaves! The loot will wait!”
Fury emerged from behind a building, a necklace of gold and yellow diamonds around her neck. She marched to Hereward and placed her arm through his, and together they walked to the quay as if they had not a care in the world, while pirates ran past them.
“You have not become a leoparde,” said Hereward. He spoke calmly but he couldn’t help but look up at the manifested godlet. Like the smaller starfish, it was becoming quicker with every movement, and Fitz stood alone before it on the end of the wharf. There was a nimbus of sorcerous light around the puppet, indicating that he was working busily with one or more energistic needles, either stitching something otherworldly together or unpicking some aspect of what was commonly considered to be reality.
“Cold things from the sea, no matter their size, do not arouse my ire,” replied Fury. “Or perhaps it is the absence of red blood . . . Stand ready!”
The last words were for the hundred pirates who stood in line along the quay, sporting a wide array of muskets, musketoons, blunderbusses, pistols and even some crossbows. Behind them, the second division knelt with their own firearms ready to pass on, and the necessaries for reloading laid out at their feet.
“Fire!” shouted Fury. A ragged volley rang out and a cloud of blue smoke rolled back across Hereward and drifted up towards the treasure houses. Many shots struck home, but their effect was much less than on the smaller starfish, with no visible holes being torn in the strange stuff of Um-Uthrux.
“Firsts, fire as you will!” called Fury. “Seconds, reload!”
Though the shots appeared to have no affect, the frantic movement of the pirates shooting and reloading did attract Um-Uthrux’s attention. It swiveled and took a step towards the quay, one huge point crashing down on the middle wharf to the left of Mister Fitz. Rather than pulling the point out of the wreckage it just pushed it forward, timber flying as it bulled its way to the quay. Then with one sweep of a middle point, it swept up a dozen pirates and, rolling the point to form a tight circle, held them while its many mouths went to work.
“Fire and fall back!” shouted Fury. “Fire and fall back!”
She fired a long-barrelled pistol herself, but it too had no effect. Um-Uthrux seized several more pirates as they tried to flee, wrapping around them, bones and bloody fragments falling upon shocked companions who were snatched up themselves by another point seconds later.
Hereward and Fury ran back to the corner of one of the treasure houses. Hereward tripped over a golden salt-boat and a pile of coins and would have fallen, had not Fury dragged him on even as the tip of a starfish point crashed down where he had been, flattening the masterwork of some long-forgotten goldsmith.
“Your sorcerer-puppet had best do something,” said Fury.
“He will,” panted Hereward. But he could not see Fitz, and Um-Uthrux was now bending over the quay with its central torso as well as its points, so its reach would be greater. The quay was crumbling under its assault, and the stones were awash with the blood of many pirates. “We must go higher up!”
“Back Sea-Cats!” shouted Fury. “Higher up!”
The treasure house that had sheltered them was pounded into dust and fragments as they struggled up the steep, cobbled street. Panicked pirates streamed past them, most without their useless weapons. There was no screaming now, just the groans and panting of the tired and wounded, and the sobbing of those whose nerve was entirely gone.
Hereward pointed to a door at the very top of the street. It had already been broken in by some pirate, but the building’s front appeared to be a mere façade built over a chamber dug into the island itself, and so would be stronger than any other.
“In there!” he shouted, but the pirates were running down the side alleys as one of Um-Uthrux’s points slammed down directly behind, sending bricks, masonry and treasure in all directions. Hereward pushed Fury towards the door, and turned back to see if he could see Fitz.
But there was only the vast starfish in view. It had slid its lower body up on to the quay and was reaching forth with three of its points, each as large as an angled artillery bastion. First it brought them down to smash the buildings, then it used the fine ends to pluck out any pirates, like an anteater digging out its lunch.
“Fitz!” shouted Hereward. “Fitz!”
One of Um-Uthrux’s points rose up, high above Hereward. He stepped back, then stopped as the godlet suddenly reared back, its upper points writhing in the air and lower points staggering. A tiny, glowing hole appeared in its middle, and grew larger. The godlet lurched back still farther and reached down with its points, clawing at itself as the glowing void in its guts yawned wider still. Then, with a crack that rocked the cavern and knocked Hereward over again, the giant starfish’s points were sucked through the hole, it turned inside out and the hole closed taking with it all evidence of Um-Uthrux’s existence upon the earth and with it most of the light.
“Your puppet has done well,” said Fury. “Though I perceive it is called Fitz and not Farolio.”
“Yes,” said Hereward. He did not look at her, but waved his arm, the brassard leaving a luminous trail in the air. “Fitz! To me!”
“It has become a bloody affair after all,” said Fury. Her voice was a growl and now Hereward did look. Fury still stood on two legs, but she had grown taller and her proportions had changed. Her skin had become spotted fur, and her skull transformed, her jaw thrust out to contain savage teeth, including two incisors as long as Hereward’s thumbs. Long curved nails sprouted from her rounded hands, her eyes had become bright with a predatory gleam, and a tail whisked the ground behind.
“Fury,” said Hereward. He looked straight at her and did not back away. “We have won. The fight is done.”
“I told you that I ate my enemies,” said Fury huskily. Her tail twitched and she bobbed her head in a manner no human neck could mimic. Hereward could barely understand her, human speech almost lost in growls and snarls.
“You did not tell me your name, or your true purpose.”
“My name is Hereward,” said Hereward, and he raised his open hands. If she attacked, his only chance would be to grip her neck and break it before those teeth and nails did mortal damage. “I am not your enemy.”
Fury growled, speech entirely gone, and began to crouch.
“Fury! I am not your—”
The leoparde sprang. He caught her on his forearms and felt the nails rake his skin. Fending her off with his left hand, he seized hold of the necklace of yellow diamonds with his right and twisted it hard to cut off her air. But before he could apply much pressure, the beast gave a sudden, human gasp, strange and sad from that bestial jaw. The leoparde’s bright eyes dulled as if by sea-mist, and Hereward felt the full weight of the animal in his hands.
The necklace broke, scattering diamonds, as the beast slid down Hereward’s chest. Fitz rode on the creature’s shoulders all the way down, before he withdrew the stiletto that he had thrust with inhuman strength up through the nape of her neck into her brain.
Hereward closed his hand on the last diamond. He held it just for a second, before he let that too slip through his fingers.
“Inside!” called Fitz, and the puppet was at his companion’s knees, pushing Hereward through the door. The knight fell over the threshold as Fitz turned and gestured with an esoteric needle, threads of blinding white whipping about faster than any weaver’s shuttle.
His work was barely done before the wave hit. The ground shook and the sorcerous bubble of air bounced to the ceiling and back several times, tumbling Hereward and Fitz over in a mad crush. Then as rapidly as it had come, the wave receded.
Fitz undid the bubble with a deft twitch of his needle and cupped it in his hand. Hereward lay back on the sodden floor and groaned. Blood trickled down his shredded sleeves, bruises he had not even suspected till now made themselves felt, and his feet were unbelievably sore.
Fitz crouched over him and inspected his arms.
“Scratches,” he proclaimed. He carefully put the esoteric needle away inside his jerkin and took off his bandanna, ripping it in half to bind the wounds. “Bandages will suffice.”
When the puppet was finished, Hereward sat up. He cupped his face in his hands for a second, but his burned palms made him wince and drop them again.
“We have perhaps six hours to gather materials, construct a raft and make our way out the gorge,” said Fitz. “Presuming the eagre comes again at the usual time, in the absence of Um-Uthrux. We’d best hurry.”
Hereward nodded and lurched upright, holding the splintered doorframe for support. He could see nothing beyond Fitz, who stood a few paces away, but he could easily envision the many corpses that would be floating in the refilled harbour pool, or drifting out to the gorge beyond.
“She was right,” he said.
Fitz cocked his head in question.
“Meat and water,” replied Hereward. “I suppose that is all we are, in the end.”
Fitz did not answer, but still looked on, his pose unchanged.
“Present company excepted,” added Hereward.