We have luck with us yet, my friends,” exclaimed Theido upon his return from the shipyards of Bestou.
“You have found a ship to take us to Karsh?” asked Alinea. She and Durwin sat in the lodge of the Flying Fish Inn, waiting for Theido to arrange their passage to the island stronghold of Nimrood the Necromancer.
“Yes, though it has not been easy. I have asked fully half of the captains in the yard if we may be accommodated—always the same reply: ‘We stay far away from Karsh! Not for gold, nor for the blessing of the sea gods themselves would we go there!’
“One man sought me out, however. He said he is captain and owner of a ship that would pass near Karsh and would be willing to land us on a friendly shore, if there is such a thing in Karsh.”
“He sought you out, you say?” mused Durwin. “We must be suspect of any offering aid too readily. They may be in Nimrood’s employ.”
Theido brushed the observation aside impatiently. “We cannot always be looking under every rock and behind every tree for a spy. We must trust our own initiative; we must act!”
“Of course, Theido. But we would do well to remember that our foe is a sorcerer of great skill, adept in evil of every kind. And his net is cast wide indeed.”
“That may be,” said Theido a little angrily. It chafed him to remain idle; a man of action, he wanted to move at once. “But we cannot wait forever for a sign from heaven—whether your god smiles or not, we must go.”
“Gentlemen, please! Refrain your tempers for the sake of our cause,” pleaded Alinea. She had seen the growing restlessness of Theido in the past few days as they waited for a favorable result from the docks. She had often to play the peacemaker, supplying the gentle word or a quiet touch in times of heated discussion between the two men. “I am as anxious as either of you to see the end of our journey, but not at the cost of enmity between us. That, I fear, would be disaster for us and our good king.”
Theido nodded, acknowledging the reproof. Durwin, too, admitted his irritation, laying a hand upon Alinea’s and saying, “You are right, my lady. Our purpose will not be served if we are crossing swords with one another.”
“Then come, good friends. Let us be resolved. Our differences are slight and better put far behind us.” She looked long at Theido’s worn appearance and at Durwin’s usually cheerful countenance, now overcast with care. “My king has never had more noble subjects, nor any half as brave. His gratitude to you in this adventure will be hard-pressed to find worthy enough expression.”
“To see him alive and safe once more will be payment enough,” said Theido. He smiled, but the tight lines around his eyes were not erased.
The party had reached Bestou on the island of Tildeen after a rigorous march through the tangled forest surrounding Dekra. Their path had become surer and the way easier upon reaching the fishing outpost, hardly big enough to be called a village, of Tuck. There they clambered aboard the ferry, which plied the narrow channel to the island of Tildeen, one of the larger of what were called the Seven Mystic Isles. In truth, there was nothing particularly mysterious about any of the islands in the small chain—only that the largest, Corithy, had long ages ago been used as a primitive holy sanctuary of a shadowy, secret religion. Strange events were said still to take place on that odd-shaped, often mist-shrouded island.
But Tildeen, the second largest of the seven, was the site of the seaport city, Bestou. This commercial center served as the winter refuge for the whole of Mensandor because of its immense sheltered harbor, which seldom froze during the coldest months, despite the island’s northern lay.
Upon arriving on Tildeen, put ashore rudely by the rustic operator of the ferry, Theido, Durwin, Alinea, and trusty Trenn had before them an arduous mountain trek, up and over the hunched and twisted backbone of the island, on a serpentine path descending at last to the low-lying port on the other side.
The journey was accomplished in more time than Theido would have liked to allow. But as the group came within sight of the harbor, approaching like bandits dropping down out of the high hills behind Bestou, Theido had been vindicated for his relentless push along the trail; the ships lay at anchor, their colored sails ready-furled, waiting for the first good day to sail.
As he walked the shore that first morning after their arrival, having spent the first warm night in weeks before the fire in the lodge of the Flying Fish, Theido had talked to sailors and captains of large ships and small. Each refused, some politely and others with bold discourtesy, to grant them passage to that accursed land.
Their reluctance was understandable. Karsh, a grotesque lump of earth, the tip of a huge submerged mountain, jutted out of the water far east off the coast of Elsendor, Mensandor’s sprawling neighbor. The island had long been shunned by superstitious sailors, even before Nimrood had taken up residence there and built his fortress. The place was forsaken by all gentle humanity, fit only for countless seabirds, which nested in the precipitous cliffs on the western side, and the tiny land crabs that feasted upon the washed-up remains of putrid fish and hatchlings from the cliffs above.
Theido, with Trenn behind, had stalked the wharf for two days before happening upon the captain who agreed to deliver them to the hated island.
At last satisfied that his objective had been achieved, Theido did not bother with the formality of inspecting the ship or its crew, relying on the word of the captain, a rather short, oppressive-looking man who called himself Pyggin, to vouch a faithful account of its seaworthiness.
He returned to the inn, humming to himself and leaving Trenn to stow their few things and make any provisions he thought necessary for their convenience on board. Trenn, after seeing to his task, also returned to the inn, much less happy than his friend Theido.
“There is something strange about that ship,” he told Theido, pulling him aside after dinner that evening.
“What did you see on board—something amiss?” The knight searched the soldier’s troubled features for a clue to his misgivings.
“Nothing I can say, sir. But I noticed that while all other hands aboard the ships in harbor made ready to get under sail—loading and stocking provisions, mending sails, tarring, and whatnot—this Captain Pyggin’s men sat idle. Not one stirred a hand all the while I was on board. They stood about the deck or sat on barrels in the hold . . . as if they were waiting for something.” He frowned deeply. “I do not like it at all.”
“Perhaps they are ready and only waiting for the first fair wind to be under sail. So the captain told me,” replied Theido, blunting the other’s complaint as gently as he could.
“Perhaps, but I never saw a ship of that size that didn’t need some fixing, nor any captain who ever let a crew stand idle.”
“That may be,” agreed Theido. “But all we ask is to be put ashore at our destination. Where is the harm in that?”
Trenn pulled on his chin and scowled furiously, repeating his original pronouncement. “You know best, sir, and no doubt. But I still say there is something strange about that ship.”