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Lady of Shadows: Part 6

The skimmer’s crew took the news surprisingly well. Neren and Enamdis called a brief halt and gathered them together below the quarterdeck to explain what was likely chasing us and to make preparations for a possible night attack.


Prologue and Previous Parts

Part 6

By: Duskweaver

The skimmer’s crew took the news surprisingly well. Neren and Enamdis called a brief halt and gathered them together below the quarterdeck to explain what was likely chasing us and to make preparations for a possible night attack. The faces of the eight men and women paled with fear, and several cast angry glances at Bayl and I, quite reasonably holding us responsible for what was soon to descend upon them. But none of them voiced any word of complaint or showed any open hostility towards us. The youngest of the crew, a blonde girl of perhaps sixteen years, even glanced at me with what looked to be pity, as though she somehow realised what I must have suffered before my escape from the sand devils. I found I could not meet her gaze.

As soon as Neren had finished speaking, Enamdis put the crew back to work with astonishing efficiency. The two strongest men, one of whom I was sure must have some mul blood in him, for he was almost as heavily muscled as Bayl, bent their backs to the skimmer’s capstan, adding their strength to that of the wind filling the sails. The blonde girl went below-decks and re-emerged carrying a double-armful of weapons and armour. Enamdis snatched a massive, obsidian-headed gouge from her and swung the strap over her shoulder, before taking her place at the ship’s helm. The rest of the crew set to trimming the skimmer’s two sails, letting each one fill out until it started to flap, then pulling the sheet tight to capture as much of the wind’s power as possible. Unless the wind picked up substantially, it was unlikely we could actually outrun our pursuers, but the faster we travelled, the more tired the sand devils would be if and when they attacked.

Wordlessly, the blonde girl handed me a leather breastplate, shaped to fit a woman’s torso and at least somewhere near my size, and a set of leather greaves. I thanked her and began to strap the breastplate on over my robe.

“They have a good crew,” Bayl remarked as he sauntered over to join me at the rail, out of the way of the crew. Enamdis had made it very clear she wanted no distractions at the helm. Controlling the silt skimmer’s course at this speed over the uneven, boulder-strewn terrain was a difficult enough job without having a lovesick mul mooning over her. So I was stuck with him.

“The half-giant picked them well, I suppose,” I shrugged, buckling the last strap under my left arm.

Bayl shook his head. “No, she told me Neren picked them.” He grinned at my sceptical expression. “He’s not as naïve as he seems, you know. Enamdis knows fighting, almost as well as me, maybe, but Neren knows people.”

“That’s what she said?”

“Actually, she said she knows more about fighting than any thick-skulled gladiator could ever pick up scrapping in a filthy arena. But, yeah, the rest of it’s exactly as she said.”

I finished strapping the greaves in place and checked they wouldn’t rub against the tops of my bare feet. Wearing borrowed armour is always uncomfortable, but at least this set was not so ill-fitted that it would hinder me in combat more than it would protect me.

“So, this Neren isn’t some silly child playing at being a hero, then? But, since he didn’t immediately dump us overboard the moment he learned we had likely brought the sand devils down on him, that means he’s something even more dangerous: a true idealist.” I swore under my breath. “An idealist trained in the Way who can read people like a book. Why do I suddenly feel like we’d have been better off with the sand devils?”

Bayl shrugged. “I don’t see the problem. He’s on our side.”

I stared at him incredulously. Had Enamdis really rendered him this stupid? “That might not last forever, Bayl,” I said, keeping my voice low enough that none of the crew could possibly overhear. “Every malcontent and rebel the Temple of the King’s Law has ever hung from the city walls started as a mere ‘idealist’, questioning things no subject of the Shadow King has any right to question. If they were not so mercifully rare, idealists would tear down civilization itself with their endless questioning. Our city would end up like Raam: a wretched hive of lawlessness, ruled by murderers and thieves.”

Bayl didn’t reply. I’m not sure he was even listening, for his attention was once again fixed upon the statuesque form of Enamdis where she stood upon the quarterdeck, both hands gripping the skimmer’s great mekillot-bone wheel. I sighed and checked the straps of my armour again.

 

We made good time at first, reaching the Nibenese Road by midmorning. As Enamdis had predicted, the ancient stone causeway was half-buried in great drifts of yellow sand, carried from the surrounding desert by the gusting winds that gave this month its name. It was a cruel irony that the same wind that had filled our sails so readily would now be responsible for delaying us, for the deepest drifts bogged down the silt skimmer’s huge wheels and dragged on the bottom of its sturdy hull. Two more crewmembers – a wiry, ebony-skinned man of middle years and a scar-faced woman whose cropped hair was almost the colour of the sun – had joined the pair at the capstan.

Three of the crew had erected a shelter of blue wyrm-silk below the quarterdeck once the sun had climbed high enough to make it necessary, and Bayl, Neren and I sat beneath it. Enamdis remained at the helm. Like the rest of the crew, she had wrapped a krama about her head, but she seemed otherwise unconcerned about the day’s steadily growing heat.

“We should reach Bremil Pass by tomorrow evening,” Neren said, sipping water from his cup. “If we are lucky enough not to be attacked tonight, the sand devils will have lost their chance. Nibenay maintains a fort in the pass and the lands roundabout are regularly patrolled.”

Bayl and I knew this already, of course, but we were supposed to be simple travellers, so we both made a great show of looking relieved at the revelation.

“You said you were a healer,” Neren continued. “That will no doubt prove useful in the aftermath of any attack. We have bandages, needle and fine silk thread for stitching wounds, spirits for cleansing and for dulling pain, even a crate of potion fruit. I have asked Mei to stay in your shadow. She knows where everything is stored on this vessel. Just ask her for anything you need.”

“Mei? That’s the blonde girl?” I asked.

Neren nodded. “She’s the finest archer aboard. Eyes like a hawk, except she can see well in the dark, too.” He shrugged. “Maybe she has some elven blood, like you?”

I tried not to take offence at that. I could hardly deny the evidence my vile father had left imprinted in my eyes and ears. It did not seem to me that Neren had meant his words as an insult, however. His smile was warm and genuine, with not a trace of the mocking irony I was used to whenever people spoke of half-bloods like myself.

“In any case, any sand devil who tries to get at you is likely to end up looking like a cactus,” Neren grinned.

“If her eyes are so good,” asked Bayl, voicing what I myself had been wondering, “how come she’s not your lookout?”

Neren sobered abruptly, and for a moment his eyes lit with fury. “It is difficult to serve as a lookout when one cannot call out what one sees,” he grated. With an obvious effort of will, he softened his angry tones. “I am sorry, my friends. You could not have known. When she was but a child, Mei somehow angered one of the Shadow King’s wives.” He shook his head. “I don’t know the details. Shadow-brides are notoriously petty and spiteful. Perhaps she was simply jealous of the girl’s beauty. Whatever the reason, she had Mei’s tongue cut out.”

I almost bit my own tongue to stop myself from replying to this. Of course, his complaint was not entirely without merit. There have always been a few templar-wives who abuse their power and authority, and some are indeed vicious sadists and petty tyrants. I suffered enough indignities myself in my first few months in the Naggaramakam to know that. I could well believe Mei might have fallen foul of one of the worst of our number through no real fault of her own, especially if she had been merely a silly child, still ignorant of how the world truly works. But this callow youth, Neren, whether noble-born or not, had no right to criticise the actions of a templar-wife. Only senior wives and the Shadow King himself may chastise us.

Perhaps realising he had spoken unwisely, Neren changed the subject. “Ah, the mountains! We are almost at Nibenay’s doorstep.”

Indeed, the jagged, broken peaks of the Stormclaw and Black Spine ranges were just visible upon the southern horizon, their dark shapes dancing in the heat. A wide gap separated the two ranges: this was Bremil Pass, the gateway to the fertile lands beyond. I wondered whether I, or any of us, would live to reach it.

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Raddu

Original creator of The Burnt World of Athas back in 1995 or so...