Lady of Shadows: Part 5
We heard the cry of the lookout, perched upon his small platform near the top of the skimmers mainmast, and saw the vessel alter course towards us.
Prologue and Previous Parts
The silt skimmer juddered as the crew pulled the locking bars from its huge wheels and the vessel began to move again, quickly picking up speed as the sails turned to catch the wind. I stumbled and had to steady myself against the gunwale; my legs were still unsteady and a lotulis makes a poor walking staff.
Neren looked awkward for a moment, as if unsure whether he should lend me his hand or not. “I do apologise. I tend to forget that not everyone is accustomed to travelling by skimmer. It will be smoother going once we get out of this Dragon-blasted boulder field.”
“Slower, though,” growled Enamdis from behind us. She was making a very poor job of pretending to ignore Bayl and his moon-eyed gaze. “There’ll be sand drifts all across the road this time of year. No doubt we’ll get bogged down and have to get out and push.” She was joking of course, but I could almost imagine she might be strong enough to move the silt skimmer by hand, grunting and half-panting, her well-muscled limbs streaming with sweat, glistening in the light of the crimson sun…
I shot Bayl a furious glare, then realised that Enamdis and Neren, as well as several of the skimmer’s crew, were staring at him too. He looked around, bewildered as though just woken from a pleasant dream, which I suppose was more or less the case. “What?” he demanded.
Neren chuckled. “It would appear your large friend has some talents besides fighting, Ysuun. That was a rather… detailed image.”
I shrugged with feigned nonchalance, relieved at least that Bayl’s lack of control would make us seem more like the ordinary travellers we pretended to be. Wild talents such as his were not uncommon, but Bayl’s abilies had been refined and strengthened through months of training in the Temple. If Neren was an adept of the Way, as could be safely assumed of any Nibenese noble as intelligent as he obviously was, there was a chance he could recognise such training. Luckily, Bayl’s lust-fuelled projection had been brief enough to pass as the product of an untrained mind.
Neren led us to the narrow wooden door beneath the quarterdeck. “I am afraid my cabin is rather cramped,” he said. “But there is at least a table so we can sit and eat like civilized folk.”
He was right. Enamdis and Bayl had to stoop just to get through the doorway. Neren’s cabin was surprisingly Spartan, too. A hammock woven from sack-cloth hung from a hook on one wall. Below it was a stack of books, obviously ancient, their leather bindings cracked and flaking, many of the pages loose. The rest of the room was taken up by a wooden table, strewn with charts and navigational instruments. Neren drew four small, three-legged stools out from under the table and motioned for us to sit.
The four of us squeezed in around the table, Enamdis taking the stool nearest the door. After a moment, one of the crew entered, a weathered veteran with skin like leather and a beard that made him look as though he were trying to eat a hejkin. He deposited a bowl of dried fruits and four cups of water from his tray, then left as silently as he had arrived.
Bayl tucked in with his customary lack of restraint. I took only a handful of dates, still unsure how much my ravaged guts could withstand.
“We heard rumours in Raam that there were raiders on the road near the Dragon’s Bowl,” Neren said, chewing thoughtfully on a dried fig. “The consensus, at least so far as there can ever be a consensus when it comes to rumours among merchants, was that the Black Sands Raiders have spread their territory to the north.”
Enamdis snorted. “A hundred miles to the north? I don’t think so.”
“Still,” said Neren mildly, “you must admit the stories sound like their work.”
“Oh, because no mere bandits could be as cruel and savage as Zeburon and his kank-humping scum, you mean?”
I wondered for a moment whether Bayl was out of luck here. Surely, no Nibenese noble would allow a mere bodyguard or other servant to talk to him in such a manner in front of guests? Yet the thought of this massive half-giant and this skinny young man as lovers was so ludicrous that I had to feign a yawn to hide my sudden mirth.
Neren smiled indulgently. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Enamdis send anyone to sleep before,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “Though, on second thoughts, arguing with her does sometimes make me want to give up on the day as a sunk cost and crawl back into my hammock.”
The half-giant glared at me, and for a moment I wondered if they’d both read my thoughts as clearly as we’d all seen Bayl’s. “So, who attacked you two, anyway,” she demanded. “Maybe we can settle this right now.”
I was going to lie and tell them it had been merely human bandits who attacked us. After all, my mission was supposed to be a secret. The Shadow King wanted confirmation that the raiders who had virtually cut off trade and travel along the northern part of the Nibenese Road were sand devils as he suspected. But I knew that he did not want such news made public. It was a tragedy that so many merchants and other travellers were lost, but the cost to Nibenay’s trade from the panic that might ensue would be far worse. Greedy merchants would gladly risk a road where there was merely a vague rumour of bandit raiders, but no sane person would travel where sand devils were known to hunt.
But the sand devils might still be following us. They might attack the silt skimmer, and we would have a much better chance of survival if our benefactors knew what we might be facing when dusk fell. Besides, once we reached Nibenay, Neren, Enamdis and their crew could be silenced easily enough if the Shadow King commanded it. I would have to be careful not to let Bayl know, though.
I took a sip of water to moisten my suddenly parched lips. “It wasn’t the Black Sands Raiders,” I began. Neren looked relived, but that quickly passed as I continued. “It was sand devils.”
Enamdis shot to her feet, spitting a string of expletives, some of which even Bayl had probably never heard before. “Sand devils don’t let anyone escape. Ever. That means they’re following you. Neren, I said we should have left them behind!”
The young noble had gone deathly pale, but he still managed a wan smile. “You always did say my kind heart would be the death of me. Still, they’d surely only send a small hunting party to chase down two escaped captives. There are a dozen of us, and we have stout wooden walls between us and the desert. The sand devils might not be willing to risk an attack.”
“Oh, they’ll attack. I’ve seen a sand devil dragging himself up the spear that skewered him to gouge the eyes from his own killer. They don’t fear death or pain.”
“Then we’ll kill them,” Bayl snarled. “They might not fear death, but they die just as easily as anyone else.” He glared fiercely at Enamdis, as if challenging her to dispute his claim.
The half-giant woman’s lips twitched as she met his insolent gaze, then she roared with sudden, hearty laughter. “It looks like we might have something in common after all, little man!”