Quentin awoke to Toli’s quiet touch on his shoulder as his friend shook him gently from sleep. He came up with a start, confused. The lulling creak of the ship reassured him, and he remembered they were on board the Marribo, making for Valdai.
“You cried out in your sleep, Kenta,” said Toli.
“Did I?” Quentin rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the heel of his hands. “I don’t remember . . .” Then it hit him afresh—the dream.
“Oh, Toli, I had a dream.” In the dark he could see Toli’s eyes, liquid pools that glimmered in the reflected light of a sky full of stars. The moon had set, leaving the lesser lights of the heavens to glow and sparkle like the lanterns fishermen spread upon an endless sea at night.
“Tell me your dream. Now, before you forget.”
“Well, I was standing on a mountain. And I looked out and saw all the earth covered in darkness. And I felt the darkness was like an animal. Watching, waiting.”
As he spoke, Quentin again entered into the spirit of his dream. He saw, again, as in the dream—but clearer, more real this time—that faraway land stretching out under a black and barren sky. An ancient land of years beyond counting and darkness huddled close like a preying creature—breathing, waiting.
He continued. “Into the darkness there came a light, like a single candle flame, falling—an ember, a spark—falling as from the very pinnacle of the sky.”
Again he saw the pinpoint of light falling through space, arcing across the sky, tumbling down and down toward the earth.
“And the light fell to earth and broke into a thousand pieces, scattering over the land, burning into the darkness. A shower of light. And each splintered fragment became a flame just like the first and began burning, and the darkness receded before the light.
“That was all. Then I woke up.”
Quentin remained silent as he remembered the dazzling rain of light and the feeling that somehow the dream had something to do with him. He brought his gaze back to Toli, who wore a look of quiet wonder.
“This is a dream of power.”
“Do you think so? In the temple I would have dreams like this— seeing dreams, we called them. But I thought the dreams had stopped. I haven’t seen an omen or had a dream since I left the temple . . . not counting Dekra.” He was silent again for a while. “What do you think it means?”
“It is said among my people that truth is like a light.”
“And the evil is like the darkness. Yes, we say the same thing. The truth is coming, maybe now is here, that will strike into the darkness and take hold against it.”
“A dream can mean many things, and all of them are right.”
“Do you think this might be one answer?”
“I think it is your dream and that you will find the answer within yourself.”
“Yes, perhaps I will. It was so real—I was there. I saw it . . .”
Quentin lay back down on the thick straw pallet. He turned the dream over in his mind and finally, feeling sleepy again, said, “We had better get some sleep. We come into Valdai tomorrow morning.” But Toli was already asleep.
When Quentin stirred to the smell of fresh salt air, the port of Valdai was already within sight. The sun was up, filling the sky with golden light. The sky arched royal blue overhead, spotted with a few wisps of clouds sailing across its empty reaches.
Toli was up and had already seen to the horses. Quentin found him standing at the rail, looking on as Valdai neared.
“Look,” he said, pointing as Quentin came to stand beside him. “Another ship is coming in too.”
Just ahead of them a ship plowed the water, dividing the waves and tossing back a harvest of white foam. The ship was stubby, squat, and low in the water—a usual enough design for a ship, but Quentin got an uneasy feeling as he watched it moving toward the harbor. There was something strange about it—what was it? Then he saw what it was that bothered him.
“Toli, that ship has black sails!”
Toli said nothing, but the quick nod of his head acknowledged the fact.
“That is odd,” remarked Quentin. “I know very little about ships, but I have never heard of any with black sails before. I wonder where they are from?”
“You might well wonder.” A deep voice spoke behind them. Quentin turned to greet Captain Wiggam, who continued. “She running the black hails from Karsh, like as not. Yes. Take note of her.”
The captain had become very friendly with Quentin in the few days of their short voyage. And he had become concerned with Quentin’s plans to join his friends. “Forget Karsh,” he said, regarding the ship with distaste. “Come with me. I will make you a sailor and show you the world.”
“I cannot forget my friends,” replied Quentin. It was not the first time Captain Wiggam had made the offer. “Though maybe when we return . . .”
“Sure enough,” said Wiggam, Quentin thought a little sadly. “You look me up in any port, and wherever I am, you have a ride with me.” The captain folded his hands behind him and walked aft along the rail.
“He would like to help,” said Toli when the captain was gone, “but he is afraid.”
“Do you think?” Quentin watched the retreating figure and shrugged. “Anyway, it is not his concern; it is ours alone.”
“It is anyone’s who will accept it,” said Toli with a certain finality.
Valdai shook with activity. A smaller port and harbor than Bestou, it nevertheless was just as busy. Elsendor, a far larger realm than Mensandor, had many such ports all along its western coasts. These served the whole world.
“There is the Black Ship,” said Quentin, pointing across the harbor. They had come to dock at the northern end of the harbor, while the Black Ship, as they called it, being smaller, had gone farther in, toward the southern end. But Quentin could see the black sails hanging slack as her crew set about furling them.
The gangplank was soon down, and Quentin and Toli made their farewells. They led the horses down onto the quay and waved a final good-bye to Captain Wiggam, who watched them from the deck, smoking his pipe. He waved once and turned away.
“We have to find somewhere to keep the horses,” said Quentin. A plan was already forming in his head. “There is probably a smith here. We will find one; perhaps he can help us.”
The search was but a short one. The task of making the smith understand what it was they were trying to ask him proved much harder. The inhabitants of Elsendor, though like their neighbors of Mensandor in many ways, had a thick dialect all their own—a fact that Quentin had not foreseen and that taxed his meager language skills beyond their limit. The smith, struggling to unravel the meaning of Quentin’s strange (to him) request, kept insisting that Quentin wanted his horses shod.
“No. No shoes. We want you to keep the horses for us, or tell us someone who will.”
The burly, smoke-smeared man, smiling still, shook his head once more. Then he got up and came to Balder, patted him on the neck, and reached down for a hoof. He saw the shoe, tapped it with his hammer, and grunted approval. He replaced the animal’s hoof and spread out his arms questioningly to Quentin.
Toli had disappeared into the rear of the smith’s shop and now returned, saying, “There are horses in the stable yard behind this place. Water and food too.”
“Come,” Quentin told the smith. He led them back to the stable yard and pointed to the horses there. “Will you keep our horses?” He pointed at Balder and Ela—that was the name Toli had given his horse—then he pointed at the smith and then again at the stable yard. The smith’s face lit up with the slow dawn of understanding. He nodded his head repeatedly up and down. Then he held out his hand and jabbed his palm with a grimy finger.
“He wants money. Now what are we going to do?” wondered Quentin aloud.
At that moment a familiar figure appeared in the front of the shop. “It’s Captain Wiggam. Hello, Captain!” Quentin called.
“I thought you might need some help,” he said simply. “You want this man to board your horses, I take it? Very well.”
The captain turned and spoke to the man quickly. “Done,” said the captain. “How long?”
“I don’t know!” Quentin hadn’t considered that.
The broad-faced seaman dug into his pocket and handed the man a piece of money. The smith bobbed his head and thanked the seaman. “There. That should take care of them for a while. You can redeem them when you come back.”
“Thank you, Captain Wiggam. I shall repay you someday, if I can.”
“Think no more on it. If I was—the gods forbid—on Karsh and in trouble, I would want someone like you trying to rescue me. You are brave, lad. That you are.”
Quentin reddened slightly. He did not feel brave.
“Have you thought how you are going to reach Karsh?” The captain was already walking into the street.
“Yes, we have.” He explained his plan to the captain, who listened, nodding.
“Stowaway, eh?” He nodded again, considering. “It could work. Once you are aboard, there would be hiding places aplenty for smart seamen like yourselves. But how do you plan to get aboard unseen?”
“We thought to wait until dark and climb aboard over the side.”
“There may be a better way.” The captain winked. “But . . . Ho!” he said, looking at the noonday sun. “I say we should discuss it over a fisherman’s pie. What say you to that? Ever had a fisherman’s pie? No? Well, come along. The captain’ll show you a wonder!”
Captain Wiggam trudged off along the narrow cobbled street onto which opened every kind of shop imaginable. Quentin and Toli struggled in his wake. The streets were jammed elbow to elbow with sailors and merchants and townspeople shouting, jostling, and generally making it difficult for Quentin to keep an eye on the captain, who moved ahead like a ship under full sail.
At last he drew up before an inn so crowded with patrons that several sat out in the street with their ale jars. Quentin and Toli came tumbling up behind him. “Ah! Smell that, my mates. Did you ever nose anything so tasty in all your days?”With that he elbowed his way in the door and began calling to the innkeeper, with whom he seemed on intimate terms.
The next thing Quentin knew, they were all seated at a table together with three other seafarers—all captains, pointed out Captain Wiggam. And in moments they were eating a rich stew of fish and vegetables baked in a deep dish with a thick brown crust over all. Jars of light ale stood on the board, and Quentin drank his fill of the heady brew.
“One more stop,” promised Captain Wiggam. He had promised that three stops ago. Quentin cast a doubtful eye to the sky, where the sun was already well down, causing shadows to lengthen toward evening.
They had been running all afternoon, here and there, talking to this merchant and that. Wiggam, he gathered, was looking for a specific piece of information, and it appeared at last as if he had found it.
“Here’s what we’ve found out,” said the captain as they turned up a steep side street, off the main course. “The ship, as I guessed by its size, is only an island runner. A supply ship good for short trips. Karsh lies only a day and a night out, in good weather. They come often enough to replenish provisions, which is what they are doing now.
“Ah, here we are.” They had stopped before an open courtyard, which, from the wood shavings on the worn stone flagging, Quentin took to be a carpenter’s shop. Captain Wiggam proceeded into the courtyard, calling, “Alstrop! Where are you, old friend? Come a’runnin’, Alstrop. You’ve a customer!”
“I hear you well! No need to shout!” came the reply from behind an uncertain tower of barrels.
A curly head of white hair poked round the side of the tower to look over the newcomers. “Wiggam! Old sea dog!” cried the carpenter when he saw his guest. He came from behind the stack of barrels, and Quentin saw a man, though white-headed and round of shoulder, strong and full of life, with large hands and well-muscled arms.
“Not injured that broken-down ship of yours again . . . That would be your luck.” He stamped over to shake the captain’s hand.
“No. Though I will admit to you I could have used your help a few days ago—rudder hinge pin.”
“Aye. I told you. I told you. Give me a week with the Marribo and I’ll put her to rights. But you? No. Too busy. By the gods!”
“She is a stout ship. Stout enough, I’ll warrant, even to stand up to your moiling about.”
“Bah!” The carpenter rolled his eyes, then smiled. “What brings you here, then?”
“I have friends here that require your assistance. Two of those firkins would do nicely.”
The captain outlined his scheme for Alstrop while the carpenter nodded gravely and scratched his chin. His bright blue eyes regarded everything in turn: the sky above, the wood shavings below, Quentin, the captain, Toli, the barrels. They took in everything, and after Captain Wiggam finished speaking, they seemed to turn inward and examine the carpenter himself.
“Yes, it is a plan,” he uttered vaguely. “I am certain that is your plan, for who else could think up such as this? Laughable! That is what it is. Not a plan but a joke!”
The carpenter turned and rumbled back to his worktable and came back with a short length of whittled wood; his thinking stick, he called it. He slapped the smooth stick into his beefy palm.
“Now! The barrels might work. Yes, they’ll do. But there must be some changes made. And you must let me take them down. No? All right, we go together. I have a handcart. The rest later. We must go to work. Quickly! There is little time.”
The last of the afternoon light had faded and the first evening star had risen in the sky before the two men standing next to a cart with two large barrels nodded to one another. “Here we go,” whispered one of the men to one of the barrels. “May the gods smile upon you.” Then they wheeled the cart around the corner and down the bumpy street to the wharf where the ship with black sails was making ready to get under way.
“You there!” the carpenter called to a sailor aboard Nimrood’s ship. The sailor glared down sullenly but did not offer a reply. “Tell your captain that we have some cargo to come aboard.”
After a long, hard stare, the sailor disappeared and came back with another, a man who carried a braided leather lash.
“Are you the captain?” asked Alstrop.
“The captain is busy,” called the man gruffly. “We’re putting off to sea. Be off with you!”
“We have barrels here to come aboard.”
“We have taken our provisions.” The man jerked the lash through his fist.
“That may be,” replied the carpenter calmly, “but these barrels are to come aboard. If you think better, go get your captain and let him deal with this.”
“I can deal with this, swine! Get away from here!” He turned to leave, indicating to the sailors who had gathered around to continue their preparations for casting off.
The captain winked at the carpenter. “Very well, we will take them back,” Wiggam called in a loud voice. “But I would not want to be the man who told my master he had forgotten two barrels, and those barrels left right here on the dock!” He nodded to the carpenter, who turned and began pushing the handcart and the barrels back up the hill.
The sailor with the lash came back to stand glowering over the rail. He whipped the lash several times against the rail. “Wait!” he bellowed. “What is in those barrels?”
Wiggam shrugged. “Nothing much. It is probably of no consequence . . .” He turned to follow Alstrop away.
“Stop!” cried the sailor. He jerked his head toward several of his crew, and the gangplank suddenly thrust out from the side of the ship. Two sailors disembarked and ran up the street to the barrels. They turned the cart and in a moment had the two large kegs aboard.
“Now be away with you,” the sailor in charge snarled.
“Be careful with those barrels,” warned the carpenter. “I will not be responsible for damaged merchandise. You will pay if you break it!”
The two men watched as the barrels were carefully carried aft, and the ship pulled slowly away with the evening breeze. “May a fair wind blow you good fortune, my young friends,” said Captain Wiggam.
“And may the gods return you speedily home,” added the carpenter.
Then the two friends turned and walked back in the deepening twilight. The evening star glimmered high on the horizon near the newly risen moon. “Ah,” said the carpenter. “A good omen for their success.”
“Yes,” replied the captain. “But it will take more than an omen to keep them from harm now. It will take the very hand of a god.”