It is a slim chance, but it is a chance,” said Durwin, lifting off the first of the water barrel lids.
“I only wonder why we did not think of it sooner,” remarked Theido. “Keep your ear to the door and be ready to sing out,” he added, whispering across the hold to Trenn crouching at the top of the steps.
Durwin took a handful of yellowish-looking powder from a cloth that Alinea held in her hands. He sprinkled it into the water in the barrel, and Theido stirred it with a broken oar and replaced the lid.
“Do you think they will come for water today?” asked Alinea. The three moved on to the next barrel and repeated the procedure.
“I hope so.” Theido rolled his eyes upward to the deck overhead. “They come every second day to replenish the stoups on deck with fresh water. With any luck at all, they will come today too. Though we must be close to land now—they may wait.”
“We do what we can. Just to be sure, we will refrain from contaminating this last barrel; it will be for our use.” Durwin shook the last of the powder into the keg and dusted his hands over the top.
Just then Trenn rapped sharply on the stairs with his foot. “Someone comes!” he whispered harshly. “Look quick!”
Theido stirred vigorously and replaced the lid of the keg, driving it home with the end of his oar. The three then took up their usual places at the foot of the stairs as the door to the hold opened.
“Bring up a goodly length,” a voice called out from the deck to the two descending figures.
“Get back!” snarled one of the sailors. The other went to a corner and proceeded to sort among piles of rope. When he found what he wanted, he returned and started up the stairs with the rope. The captives watched in disappointment.
After the sailors had locked the door behind them, Durwin said, “Take heart; the day is yet young. Perhaps they will come again.”
Trenn looked doubtful. “But we have no way of knowing how close we may be to land. We could drop anchor soon.”
“Indeed we could. If that is to be, so be it. The god holds us in his hand and moves however he will.”
But as he spoke, there arose a commotion on the deck above and the sound of someone furiously throwing off the chains and locks that secured the hold. The door again swung open, and Pyggin’s scream could be heard as he berated his poor seamen. “The day’s ration of water, you dolts! Fetch it! You’ve already fetched yourselves a flogging!”
Three forlorn sailors tumbled down the stairs, led by the sailor with the rope. They dashed straight for the nearest water keg without casting even a sideways glance at the prisoners huddled at the edge of the shaft of light thrown down by the door overhead. They lifted the keg in their brawny arms and struggled back up the steep stairs. They did not see the surprised and pleased expressions on the faces of the prisoners as they disappeared back up on the deck with the water ration for the crew.
“We still don’t know whether Pyggin drinks from the same bowl as his men or not,” said Trenn when the footsteps had faded away above.
“It is a risk we will take,” answered Theido. He turned to Durwin. “How long before your potion works?”
“It varies, of course—how big the man, how much he drinks . . . But I made it slow to act, though strong. When all have gone to sleep tonight, none will rise before dawn—though tempest blow and waves beat down the masts.” He laughed, and his eyes twinkled in the darkened hold. “But lest we forget, we have a more immediate problem before us . . .”
“Right,” agreed Trenn. “If we don’t find a way out of this stinking hull, it won’t matter low long those rogues sleep.”
“What about one of the other hatches?” said Alinea, pointing into the darkness beyond to one of the two dim squares of light cut in the deck above.
“An excellent idea, my lady.” The voice was Ronsard’s. Surprised, all turned to see the knight standing somewhat uncertainly behind them.
“Ronsard!” exclaimed Theido. “How long have you been standing there?”
“You should not be standing at all!” said Alinea, rushing over to take the wounded knight by the arm and lead him back to his crude pallet. He took one step toward them, and his face screwed up in pain; a hand shot to the side of his head.
“Oh!” he said and then steadied himself. “I am not used to having my feet under me just yet.”
“It will come,” assured Durwin.
“Ah, but I feel better than I have in a very long time,” replied the knight, allowing himself to be sat down on a keg by the queen’s insistence. “Aside from this throbbing head of mine, I feel like a new man.”
“I am glad to see it,” said Theido, beaming. “I had long ago given you up for dead—even seeing you here and looking like you did when we found you did not increase my hopes by much. But it now appears that you will live after all.”
“It is all due to this wizard priest of yours,” Ronsard said, grinning at Durwin.
“I did nothing—only allowed you to get the rest your body needed. You have slept these last three days.”
“You said something about the forward hatch, sir,” reminded Trenn. “If you don’t mind my saying so,” he said to Theido, “I think that is our most pressing problem.”
“Of course. What do you know about the forward hatch? Is there a way out from there?”
“It may be we can make one,” said Ronsard, rising slowly from his keg. “I seem to remember watching them lower supplies through the forward hatch. It may be it is not secured the same way as the others.”
“Let us see.” Theido led the group ahead, carefully picking his way among the carelessly stored cargo and supplies. In a moment they stood under the small hatch, gazing up through the latticework of its bars.
“It is a scuttle hatch more than likely,” said Trenn pessimistically. “Too small for a man to get through.”
“Though not too small for a woman, perhaps,” said Alinea brightly.
“My lady, I forbid you to go running about on deck—what if one of those pirates does not fall asleep? No, it is too dangerous.” Trenn spoke in an authoritative tone. Theido and Durwin were inclined to agree with him but said nothing.
“Well! Is bravery only for men, then?” Alinea’s eyes snapped defiantly. “I will match my hand against any of Pyggin’s herd if it comes to it, but I have stealth and surprise on my side at that. Not to mention Durwin’s art.”
“It may be our best plan after all,” said Ronsard. “It would be dark.”
“Yes, and she could move about more quietly than any of us, I will grant,” said Theido.
“But we have yet to find the means to raise the hatch,” pointed out Durwin. “I suggest we start there while we still have a little light to see by.”
“Here,” said Theido, “help me stack up a few of these casks and barrels. We will build our lady a staircase to freedom.”
The prisoners worked all day and into the evening chiseling away at the lone hasp that fastened the hatch using bits of metal and a tool or two they found lying rusting in the bottom of the hold.
As twilight came upon them, they heard sounds from on deck, which gave them to know that the ship had sighted its destination, the cruel land of Karsh.
Captain Pyggin’s voice, hoarse from screaming orders at his lackluster men, could be heard above the commotion of scrambling feet and dragging tackle. “You lazy gulls! You’ll get no rum tonight, land or no land. Move! What’s got into you! Are ye all bewitched?”
“Hmmm . . . the drug is beginning to take effect, I believe,” said Durwin.
“Surely he will not try to land tonight.”
“No, most likely they will wait at anchor some way out and not risk their boats against the rocks in the dark,” replied Ronsard from his bed.
“Good,” said Trenn. “That will give us time to work. By dawn we should be ashore and this tub will be resting at the bottom of the sea.”
“You would not sink it with all on board,” objected Alinea. She was perched upon a barrel top, grinding away at the hasp of the hatch above.
“I would caution against such an act myself,” warned Durwin, “the needless taking of life.”
“But this is war!”
“Even in war we must conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of men.”
“Besides,” added Theido, “we may need the ship later to make our escape.”
“Now that I understand,” muttered Trenn.
Just then the clink of metal falling to the deck above them sounded, and Alinea said, “It is free! The hatch is free!”
“Good. Come down now, and we will wait for darkness to make our move,” said Theido. “We will not have long to wait, I think.” Prince Jaspin paced furiously about his apartment in Castle Erlott. The Council of Regents had been in session all day, and he had been barred from going anywhere near the meeting that was taking place in his own hall.
“Leave them to their business,” cautioned Ontescue, the prince’s would-be chancellor. “They will remember their benefactor, have no fear. If you like, I will send to the cellar for some of your excellent ale. That should refresh their senses to the task—and give them a taste of the riches to come under your reign, my liege.”
Though the selfish Jaspin did not fully appreciate pouring his best ale down the throats of the regents, he nevertheless saw the wisdom of such a move; it was a sure reminder to them of who pulled the strings.
“Yes, a fine idea, Ontescue. See that it is carried out at once.” He continued his pacing.
“How long have they been in there? How long will they remain?” Jaspin wailed. “What can be taking so long?”
Ontescue returned shortly with a message in his hand. “The ale is being served. The regents are in recess now for a time. Sir Bran delivered this now to me in secret—it is for you.”
The eager prince snatched the letter out of Ontescue’s hand and read it at once. “By the gods’ beards!” he shouted, losing all composure. “The council is deadlocked. That skulking bandit Holben has talked some of his spineless friends over to his side,” the prince fumed. “They are blocking my approval with their dissent.”
“How can that be? They do not have the power to elevate another in your place. By right of succession the crown goes to you.”
“True enough, but they appeal to a dusty old law, insisting upon proof of the king’s death beyond reasonable doubt. That proof I cannot give.”
“Does such proof exist?”
“You ought to know as well as I,” evaded Jaspin, covering his mistake quickly. “If the king is dead, then proof exists.”
“I only meant that even if the king were still living—though unfit to continue his reign—some proof might be found that would satisfy the troublemakers.”
“Hmmm . . .” The prince’s high brow wrinkled in thought. “There is something in what you say, my friend. How quickly you think.”
“Might I suggest that a search be made that would turn up something or someone who would provide the necessary proof ?”
“Yes, that will do,” said Jaspin, rubbing his hands together with glee. “Where do you propose we start looking?”
A wry look came over Ontescue’s sharp features; his weasel eyes squinted merrily. He bent his head close to Jaspin’s ear and whispered.
“By Azrael,” breathed Jaspin. “You are a clever fox. Let us make haste. There is no time to lose.”