Captain Pyggin had threatened not to give his men their usual rum ration, a customary gesture when a ship reached port. But, as were most of his threats, it was an idle one. As darkness fell, the rum pots were filled and the rowdy play of the crew began.
The captives could hear the raucous clamor of drunken voices raised in song. The wild revel would normally have lasted far into the night, but the rum, acting in harmony with the power of Durwin’s drug, heightened its effect. Thus, after a few salty choruses and a drink or two, the men collapsed upon the deck where they stood—a normal happenstance on a night like this, but the outcome hastened, thanks to Durwin’s art.
Abruptly, the singing stopped, and the snores of the crew members could be heard droning softly against the wash of the waves.
“So it is!” announced Durwin. “That is the remedy. Now to business.”
“Be careful, Alinea,” warned Theido. “There may be one or two still on their feet. Stay out of sight until you have a chance to have a look around.”
“I will,” she said. “Now stop worrying. I will have you out of here in no time.” Alinea, looking more like a stable boy than any queen, ascended the rude staircase of cargo and pushed open the hatch while the others gathered below.
“Oh, my lady,” moaned Trenn nervously, “I’d rather you let me take your place.”
Durwin smiled. “No need. Besides, you would not likely fit through the hatch in your present shape. Come, let us make ready to be off.”
The three ascended the steep steps to the chained and bolted door. Presently they heard Alinea’s soft footfall approaching. “What do you see?” asked Theido when she reached the door.
“All are fast asleep, save the cook and his galley servant. They sit nodding in their cups beside a rum pot on the far side of the deck.”
“Can they see us from there?”
A pause. “No . . . I do not think so. Anyway, it will soon be beyond their power to stand up, let alone draw sword against a knight.”
“We must find the keys to these locks—how many are there?”
“There are two, and the door itself. Where should I begin looking?”
“The captain’s lackey,” suggested Trenn. “Unless I miss my guess, he was the rat that brought the food and fetched the rope.”
“Good eyes, man!” said Theido. And then to Alinea, “Find the man who brought us our food. He wears a blue coat and a squint, as I recall.”
“He’ll likely be found in the captain’s shadow,” offered Trenn.
“Yes, look for the captain.”
They heard her footsteps leave and stood waiting for her return. A minute passed. Then another, and another. Each one seemed to stretch out far beyond its normal limit.
Finally, they heard her return. “I cannot find the man, though I found Pyggin. He had no keys on him.”
“What do we do now?” wondered Theido aloud.
“If I were up there, I would find that pirate. Those keys are up there in a pocket somewhere.” Trenn clenched his fist as he spoke.
He had no sooner finished speaking than they heard a low rumble from somewhere far away. “What was that? Listen!”
“It is thunder,” said Alinea. “The sky is clear, but I can see a storm approaching from the east. There is lightning. It looks to be a large storm. And it is moving fast.”
“We have got to find those keys,” muttered Theido.
“What about the other hatch?” suggested Durwin. “The main cargo hatch. We could climb out from there with ease.”
“Alinea, we are going to try the main cargo hatch. How is it secured?” As Theido spoke, thunder cracked in the distance.
“Listen,” said Trenn. “The wind is rising.”
It was true. They could now hear the wind singing in the high rigging of the ship—fitfully, but with growing force.
“I had best wake Ronsard,” said Durwin. “He may need time to gather his strength.”
Alinea returned from looking at the main hatch. “It is a simple hasp with a single staple—it will require no key. They have beaten a wedge through the staple. I may remove it if I can find something to loosen it with.” She hurried away again in search of a tool.
“Come,” said Theido. “Let us be ready to leave here as soon as the hatch is opened.”
The three set about busily restacking casks and kegs, most of which were empty, in a rude stairway that fell short only a few spans from the hatch. Theido stood on the top of the pile while Trenn and Durwin handed him the items needed to construct the precarious stairway. Ronsard sat to one side, complaining, “I am fit, I tell you. I can lend a hand . . .”
“Save your strength, man,” said Trenn. “You will have need of it before this night is through.”
“No more than you will, I should think.”
“Perhaps not,” reminded Durwin, “but none of us have been sleeping as close to death’s dark door as you have. There is much to be done before our journey’s end. We will need your unhindered strength when the time comes.”
From above could be heard the tapping sound of Alinea working at the hasp. The teetering mountain of cargo tilted dangerously in the slow rocking of the ship with the waves that were beginning to run higher.
The three held their breath and waited.
“It is free!” shouted Alinea. Then, “Aieee!” The scream was muffled and broken off quickly.
“Something’s wrong,” cried Theido, clambering up the cargo mountain and heaving the hatch open.
As he poked his head above the deck, he saw Alinea caught in the grasp of a hulking figure whose hands were around her throat. She struggled furiously but futilely against the superior strength of her assailant.
“Release her!” shouted Theido, pulling himself through the hatch. The queen’s attacker turned slowly, drunkenly, around to meet Theido’s crouching charge. Theido sprang headlong at the man, spearing him full in the stomach like a ram butting into an unwary trespasser.
“Oof!” the man wheezed as he went down.
The pirate hit the deck like felled timber and lay stretched full length gazing up at the sky. He made one feeble attempt to raise his sodden head and then fell back, asleep, his head thumping upon the deck.
“The cook?” asked Trenn, now standing next to Theido and ready for action if his services were required.
“Yes,” said Alinea, drawing a shaky breath.
“My lady, are you hurt?” The warder took her by the arm and gestured her to sit down.
“No, Trenn, I am unharmed. The man was so obviously drunk . . . he frightened me just a little, that is all.”
“Come, everyone!” shouted Durwin as he clambered from the hatch, his eyes searching the sky. “This storm will be upon us too soon, I fear. We must hurry!”
Theido dashed across the deck, shouting, “Trenn, give me a hand with the boats!”
“Ronsard, you and Alinea go with them. I will join you in a moment.”With that, Durwin turned and climbed a low companionway leading to the captain’s quarters.
Ronsard and Alinea made their way to where Trenn and Theido were lowering the ship’s longboats. They were three rickety-looking specimens of the boatwright’s art long past their prime, decrepit—a state hastened by neglect. One boat was already in the water as the queen and the king’s knight drew up.
“Here, hold fast to this rope,” said Theido, shoving the thick, braided seaman’s rope into Ronsard’s hand; the other end was attached to a small open boat. “This one looks to be the most seaworthy.” He and Trenn then dashed farther down the deck to lower the others.
“I do not like the look of that sky,” said Ronsard. As he spoke, the first fat drops of rain splashed at their feet in small puddles. The wind whipped the high rigging, and the ship began to rock against the waves. “I fear we are in the brunt of it.”
“Where is Durwin?” asked Theido as he came running up.
“He went in search of the captain’s quarters, I believe,” answered Ronsard.
“Well, let us get aboard while we can.” Theido threw one long leg over the ship’s rail and buried his hands into the netting hanging there. He dropped down the side of the ship like an awkward spider and jumped into the boat. He grabbed an oar and pushed the boat, now bobbing like a cork in the swell, closer to the ship.
“My queen, you come next. Trenn, Ronsard, hand her down gently.”
“I can manage,” she said as she threw herself over the side like an experienced sailor and shimmied down the netting into the boat. Trenn and Ronsard stood marveling.
“Move, you two!” yelled Theido.
Ronsard was next, lowering himself somewhat laboriously, a step at a time, into the boat. Trenn followed, releasing the ropes attached to the other two boats.
“Now where is that meddling wizard?” wondered Theido impatiently.
“Let me see to the oars, sir,” said Trenn, settling himself on the center bench.
“It may take two,” said Ronsard, sitting down beside him. “From the looks of those waves, we have our work before us.”
Alinea positioned herself low in the center of the boat at the bow. Theido manned the rudder, casting an anxious eye up to the rail in expectation of seeing Durwin’s round face peering over the side at any second. “What can be keeping that hermit? The storm is almost upon us.”
Thunder crashed around them now as lightning tore through the heavy black clouds. Salty spray off the white-capped waves drenched them, and the rain, falling faster now, pelted down in stinging pellets.
“Look!” cried Alinea, her voice lost amid the roaring wind and thunder. The others followed her outstretched hand with their eyes.
“The gods save us!” shouted Trenn; the words sped from his mouth in the shrieking wind.
Glowing green out of the darkness, twisting, writhing like a gigantic living serpent, spun a waterspout coming straight for them. The awful maelstrom, lit by the terrible lightning that showered around it, whirled and coiled about itself, rising half a league into the sky. Behind it a curtain of rain, tossed by deafening winds, hurled into the flood. The little boat rocked violently but stayed above the swell, descending into the valley and then climbing the hill of water on the other side.
Finally, Durwin’s bewhiskered face appeared at the rail. Without a glance toward the onrushing waterspout, though the gale seemed to fill the world with its scream, the hermit threw himself over the rail and down the side of the tilting ship.
“Careful!” shouted Theido. No one heard him, though they saw his mouth form the word.
The netting, slippery now, proved treacherous for Durwin’s grip. Twice he lost his footing, being saved from a plunge into the angry sea by thrusting his arm through the netting and crooking his elbow.
Theido shouted again. “Jump for it!” Durwin had the same thought at the same instant and half turned, gauged the distance, and then dropped the rest of the way into the boat. As soon as the hermit had plopped into the bottom of the craft, Theido shoved them away from the hull of the ship.
Trenn and Ronsard strained at the oars and began to row furiously. The little boat bit into the water and moved slowly away from the ship.
Theido threw himself against the rudder’s stout tiller and headed them toward the shore, now showing as a faint white strand against the gloom.
When they dared look again, the waterspout had grown fantastically as it swept in from the sea. Sucking more and more water into its cyclone, it wavered like a long, wicked finger tracing a course of death toward the small boat.
Blindly, the party fought the waves that threatened to swamp them at every valley and overturn them at every peak. Somehow Theido managed to keep the boat heading to shore, and Trenn and Ronsard moved them ever so slightly ahead. Durwin, gripping the gunwales with white fingers, lifted his face to the sky and prayed, “God of all creation, spare us from the storm’s great wrath. Deliver us safely to yonder shore—for without your help we surely will drown.”
No one aboard heard the prayer, but all knew what Durwin was doing and echoed his thoughts in their own.
A shout turned the others toward Theido, who stood waving his arms. They looked through the driving rain to where he waved and saw to their horror the waterspout looming up behind them, thrashing through the water like some agony-driven creature loosed in fury upon the sea.
Theido threw himself forward into the bottom of the boat, indicating for the others to follow his example. Water hurled from on high showered down upon them in sheets. The bawl of the storm filled their ears.
Then, suddenly, inexplicably, when the terrible spout should have been upon them, there was no sound. Nothing. The rain stopped. The water grew calm.
Durwin lifted his head and peered above. “Look! The spout has skipped over us.” It was true. The waterspout, which only moments before had towered above them, threatening to draw the tiny boat and its occupants up into its dreadful tempest, had lifted over them, dancing back up into the clouds. They could see its green tornado spinning directly above them, twirling like a burrowing worm and heading inland.
The calm lasted only brief seconds. Then the wind and water hit again with renewed force. The boat spun helplessly in the torrent; the rudder slammed into the stern and broke its hinges. Theido threw himself to the tiller, but it was too late. The handle flopped uselessly in his hands.
“The rocks!” Alinea screamed.
All turned to see the jagged roots of the island jutting crazily from the swell and disappearing again, only to rise once more as the water rushed around them.
The rocks formed a sharp row of teeth protecting the shallow bay beyond. In calmer weather the breakers beat upon them ineffectually, and even the most hopeless sailor could navigate them with ease. Now, however, the stony teeth gnashed furiously, driven to rage by the boiling sea.
The boat was lifted high and thrust forward with the waves. As the water crashed down, a rock rose beside them on the right. Ronsard, picking up his oar, shoved against the rock as it shot up; the boat spun aside, barely grazing her fragile hull against the unyielding mass of stone.
Again the boat was lifted high on the frothing waves and thrust forward. Trenn on his side wiped the flying spume out of his smarting eyes and held his oar ready to avert another rock. But before anyone could see the warning tip shooting up out of the foam, they heard the sickening crunch as the boat dropped square upon the crown of a huge rock they had just passed over.
The hull splintered and buckled. The boat teetered, now completely out of the water, stranded upon the rock as the wave drew away. For a second the small craft hung in the air, a fish speared upon a jagged tooth of stone. Then, with a sideways lurch the boat began to tear away from the rock as the hull gave way.
A wave pounding in upon them picked up the damaged boat again and split it in two, spilling its occupants into the rolling, angry sea.