The entire World in which Beyond the Edge of the Map is set started out as a writing exercise. It was an attempt to make a likeable unlikable protagonist. That turned into “Prince of the North Tower“, perhaps the most slowly written novel in my catalog. Between the time in which I started Prince of the North Tower and the week in which I wrote Beyond the Edge of the Map, I did several other writing exercises in the same setting, some of which became completed stories like Rite of Passage. The first was “Sellstaff” starring Eugen Sulzbach, but that suffered from an excess of ideas and stalled. “Pirates of Dragon Cove” came later. The problem is I didn’t like the way Hermann and Rasmus interacted. There was plenty of material for future stories, but if I couldn’t work out that character dynamic, they wouldn’t be any fun to write. So Hrmann got shifted the background character, making a cameo along with his hated Skald in “Beyond the Edge of the Map“, but not getting a book of his own. Regardless, this story was still sitting around on my thumb drive, collecting e-dust. Its events are wholly canonical within the rest of the setting, but don’t get directly referenced.
Rasmus Ruud annoyed me. The skald had earned the ire of his kinsmen by aiding us in bringing the southernmost holds of the Raven Coast into our dominion. Since my father could not then dispose of such an ally, a new role had been found for the man. I had no need of a poet, especially one that seemed to delight in antagonism. If one knew nothing of me but Ruud’s poems they might think I was a tall, powerful warrior of great prowess with both weapons and women. But I knew better. It struck me as plain that Ruud was mocking me. He quite brazenly attached my name to the description of a man who was not me. At least for the moment, the wiry, flaxen-bearded man was quiet, though the application of his pen to paper foretold more verse at my expense to come.
My father was known as a conqueror, and it was true he had brought a number of territories north of the old marches under his banner. But the true fruit of his reign so far had not been the new lands. It had been born from the efforts to civilize the Goblins and the opening of direct trade with far flung Atlor. My eyeglasses and the spyglass in my hands had been constructed in Karststadt using techniques learned from the Atlorians. The bow slung over my shoulder was a marriage of innovations picked up from the Goblin bowyers and the knowledge of our own craftsmen. I had even made my own contribution to it. Goblins might have been savage, but they were not stupid. The Hookwood did not provide materials for making proper bows, so they had glued together what they did have. For its size, the Goblin bow was more powerful than you would expect. With the design in the hands of the more capable craftsmen of the Volkmund and made from better materials, it became shockingly powerful. The biggest flaw was the tendency of the glue to fail if wetted. I was not the best at keeping my arms dry, and had ruined bows that way. Out of frustration, I had tarred the next one I got with bitumen from Amber Town. The black bow that resulted was waterproof, and fit for service on land and sea.
Yet Rasmus never remarked upon my contribution to the design. Instead he hyperbolically waxed about an accuracy I did not possess. I was not unskilled as an archer, and could hit reliably when firing from both horseback and on foot. Though Ruud would speak of spitting a dragonfly from a hundred paces. Why the poet was sent to torment the spare to the throne was still a mystery. Maybe they thought having a flatterer lying about me might soften the sting of constantly losing swordfights in the practice hall and then losing the only battle I had ever been in. When Rasmus tackled my flight from the Raven Coast, he grossly inflated the size of the Ashmen host to make that mess of a withdrawal sound heroic. I had cast those poems into a hearth and nearly broken in Ruud’s teeth. I’d followed it up with an oath that, were he to ever take up the topic of that battle again, I would cast him onto the fires instead. Prudently, the skald had not incorporated the events into any other works to date.
I barely noticed the sway of the boat under my boots. The Servile Sea was smooth, as was its habit. No great swells tended to cross these placid waters, and it served as a great highway of commerce, as well as the hunting ground for pirates. It was for this reason I was on a boat out past the Dwarf Gate. With the exception of the new route to Atlor, all of the western sea trade to the Volkmund passed through the Dwarf Gate and across the Servile Sea. It also landed in ports owned by my father. So, it was our responsibility to deal harshly with those who preyed upon it. Brent von Slough commanded this particular flotilla. I was here to ‘gain experience’ in different forms of warfare. Mostly, I suspect it was to get me out of Karststadt and end my moping, or at least have me mope somewhere else.
The problem with pirates was that they avoided a stand up fight, and the Alfrend created a great many havens for them. The Alfrend was technically part of the Servile Sea, and the lands around it. It was the neck where the sea narrowed down to the channel leading to the Dwarf Gate. Along the north were rugged mountains with sharp valleys and no shortage of coves and harbors. Along the south was a spiderweb of estuaries, islets, mangrove swamps and small volcanoes. There were so many places that the pirates could be that narrowing it was a nightmare. Fortunately, that was not my problem. The location had been dragged from a pirate captured in a failed attack upon a merchant inbound to Salzheim. And then he’d been dragged along with the expedition. Having Arvo Feld within knife’s reach of my ribs was less distressing than the thought of having to listen to more of Ruud’s poetry. Feld was a scrawny, tawny-haired man whose main advantage in combat was that he looked so piteous as to not be worth killing. Arvo’s finger pointed to a gap in the greenery, and the steersman turned the ship in that direction. The other ships followed our wake, as we only had one guide.
“On the other side of that channel, you should put ashore and approach the camp overland,” Feld said, his simpering tone grating on the ears.
“Why overland?” Brent asked. Von Slough was a stout man with a thick chest, thick arms and thick fingers. The only thing thin about him was his hair, which he painstakingly combed to cover as much of his scalp as possible. Even his accent was thick, sounding like a fresh transplant from Atlor more than an Edler of the Volkmund.
“Their eyes will be to the sea, and your sails will warn them of your approach,” Arvo said. “They will scatter before you can come upon them, and your victory will be hollow.”
“I don’t like it,” I said.
“We will put a small party ashore to scout potential approaches and get eyes upon this pirate camp,” Brent said. He turned to me. “Hermann, I want you to lead it.” I stiffened my back and avoided blurting out how stupid an idea that was. What did I know about traversing mangrove-choked islands? As likely as not, I’d blunder into the middle of their camp, get captured and my father would have to ransom me back.
“Understood,” I said.
“The camp will be on the south end of the island, encircling a cove in which the ships harbor,” Avro said. “Woods grow right up to the edges of the encampment to hide it from sailing eyes.”
“Take your poet and a handful of men at arms. Feld will stay here.”
Avro looked at Brent as though to speak, but held his tongue. I did not trust the man to not be leading us into a trap, or on a fool’s errand through the mangroves.
“Rasmus,” I said, “Do something useful – find us some men for a shore party.”
Ruud grinned and gave an exaggerated bow. Then he was off to below deck. The flotilla approached the shore and began furling sails before dropping anchor. The stilt-like roots of the semi-aquatic trees hid the true coastline from our view. Even with the aid of the spyglass, I could not be reassured that there was actual land back there. The sailors had one of the ship’s boats over the side and into the water by the time Rasmus returned with less than a half dozen of our fighting men. Putting the spyglass in a pocket on my hip quiver, I went over the side of the ship. A line of rope led down to the launch. With feet against the hull, I was able to struggle down without plummeting to the water. The smaller boat rocked wildly with my weight, and I came close to capsizing it. A few careful moves stabilized the vessel, and I lowered onto a bench. The other six followed me, with Ruud as the last.
“My Lord, someone needs to steer,” Rasmus said. I grudgingly gave up my seat to take hold of the rudder. I was forced to stand to guide the vessel as the oars slapped the water and pushed us towards the green. Casting my gaze over the jungle, I looked for a gap to lead the launch into. The trees were tightly packed, resembling more a palisade than a forest. Frustration and fear of embarrassment at not finding a route to shore welled up in me with each stroke of the oars. I didn’t want to look like a fool in front of the sinewy, hardened men rowing me to shore. The soldiers were veterans of my father’s wars, and had seen me order a withdraw in the face of ambush. I recognized their features, but could not put names to them. Another embarrassing failure would be too much.
The illusion of a palisade of mangroves faded as we drew near. The trees were actually spaced out more than it had appeared, and I was able to aim for a gap between the trunks. Leafy shade fell over us, and the oarsmen began pushing off the roots rather than the water. Our bow crunched against the shallows before I expected it to. Boots splashed in the water and we pulled the launch far enough from the current that it would not drift off. Trudging inland, we found dry ground. Sadly, it was too late for my socks, which were soaked clean through and squished with each step. The mangroves only hugged the coast, and the inland trees were more traditionally rooted cypresses. Broad-leafed ferns coated the ground, and hid the underbrush from our sight. Roots were easy to find with toes as they tripped me up. I did my best to avoid showing how often I stumbled on the trek.
The ground rose slowly, growing more rocky as it did so. Grumbling about the hike would only undermine myself, so I kept my gob shut and trudged along behind the rest of the pack. To distract myself from the hike, I loosened my blade in its scabbard and unclasped the cap on my quiver. The bow stayed on my shoulder for the time being, as any confrontation was liable to be at sword range in these trees.
At first, I mistook the sound of the waterfall for wind in the canopy, but it was too steady, and not in time with the swaying pools of light filtering down from above. We glanced at each other as it became clear what we were hearing. A pirate base would need a source of fresh water, and confirmation of one on this island lent credence to Arvo’s claim. Still, running after the diffuse sound echoing through the trees would simply have gotten us lost. I nodded to proceed and the others began walking again. Before too long, the gradual incline of the ground became steep, with more stubborn plant growth gripping the stones as it went.
“We should go around,” I said, my voice almost startling me as it broke the silence of the forest. Oh, there had been noises – bugs, birds, the wind in the foliage, the waterfall; but my words were the first strong sound in a while. A gasp made me spin about. Off to our left, a rangy, sun-browned figure in patched pantaloons stared out of the trees. From the scarred face, bare chest and the crossbow in his hands, I guessed he was a pirate. Wide-eyed, we simply stared at each other for a moment. His ugly countenance was short a few teeth, and his nose had been broken at least once. The moment of surprise ended as the pirate dropped the front of his crossbow and hooked his boot in the stirrup. As he hauled back on the string, my bow came off my shoulder. It slid down my arm in what seemed like a crawl. Getting it in the correct position felt like sluggish fumbling as I heard the click of the pirate’s string engaging. Arrow nocked, I drew back to my jaw as he tugged bolts from his quiver.
It was as if the world returned to proper speed as the pirate’s head snapped back. The arrow had struck by his right tear duct and punched through the back of his skull, lodging in his head. Black fletchings protruded past his nose as the arrowhead dripped with gore behind his greasy locks. We were so close that I would have not been surprised had the arrow sailed on after going through the bone. He crumpled, his drawn but unloaded crossbow twanging as it dry-fired.
Another figure bolted, charging off into the woods. I raced to where the crossbowman had fallen to get a clear angle on the runner. The moment I had a shot, I loosed, catching the barely seen pirate square between the shoulder blades. I did not see them fall, as I was forced to duck the hatchet whistling for my head. The bit thunked into a tree trunk. The moment it took the swarthy man to pull the hatchet from the wood was enough for me to draw my blade and plunge it up under his rib cage. It was a short, stout blade, but still plenty long enough to find the pirate’s heart. I yanked it free in a crimson spray and spun about, looking for the next attacker. The only one I saw had Rasmus’ sword hilt-deep in his back.
“Where are the rest?” I asked.
“We appear to have slain all four of them,” Ruud said. The soldiers nodded in agreement. All had drawn their weapons, but none had wetted them. Planting a boot on the dead pirate, Rasmus pulled his blade free of the corpse. Looking down at the scarlet smear dribbling its way down my sword edge, I shuddered. While I had seen battle from the field, before today I had never killed anyone. Though it had been moments ago, and he still lay behind me, I couldn’t even picture the face of the hatchet man I’d run through. The ugly features of the crossbowmen were as harsh in my mind as the look of surprise he’d had at seeing us.
I told myself they’d been trying to kill me, and ending their lives was perfectly justified. But one had been running, and I’d simply put an arrow through that one. They’d been running to alert the pirate camp, gather reinforcements and put the whole outlaw band on alert. My bow slipped from numb fingers to land on a fern.
Stepping forward, Ruud cut a patch from the pantaloons of the crossbowman and handed it to me.
“What’s this for?”
“Cleaning your blade.”
I looked at the rag, then at the blood. Wiping down the steel returned its shine, but did not remove the stain my mind’s eye painted upon it. I sunk it in its scabbard and scooped up my bow again. I did not sling it over my shoulder, but held it firmly in my left hand.
“That one was likely running towards the camp,” I said, nodding at the pirate I’d so unthinkingly shot in the back. The others murmured in agreement. When none of them made to proceed in that direction, I set my jaw and began walking myself. The pack formed up behind me, having reversed the order we’d been marching from the boat. Reaching the remains of the runner, I paused.
“What is it?” Ruud asked.
“This one was a woman,” I said.
“Pirates are not known for obeying traditional mores.”
I had known in theory that piracy was not a wholly male endeavor, but it was a different thing to stare down at the reality with my arrow protruding from her back. I decided not to see what her face looked like. What good would it do to have more visages to haunt my conscience. I stepped over her still-warm corpse and saw signs of the pirates’ initial passage into the woods. While they hadn’t stamped down every fern, growths were trod upon with regularity, and many others had ripped or broken fronds. It didn’t take a tracker or huntsman to follow their course. What I had to do was to avoid becoming so engrossed in the trail that I blundered into the camp.
The sight of a crossbow gave me a start. Before I made a fool of myself by putting an arrow into its wielder, I realized it was Rasmus. Noticing the look I was giving him, Ruud looked back.
“Why did you take the dead pirate’s crossbow?”
“He’s not using it anymore.” As if this were justification enough, he turned his attention away from me. I had no counter-argument, and turned back to the trail. It wound and meandered through the trees, as if the pirates had been hopelessly lost in trudging through the island’s forest. With little warning, the path crested a low defile, and I quickly ducked back behind it. Just beyond the rise had been a wooden structure and a lot of sunlight. Taking a position behind the widest cypress nearby, I crept up and peered out. The wooden structure was a shanty perched atop a cliff. The light was from the distinct absence of any more trees past the drop. Whoever had assembled the shanty had not put a great deal of care into their work. It stood, and that was good enough. The walls had never been painted and were the gray of badly weathered timber.
Keeping to the ferns and behind trunks, I eased myself forward, trying to see if this clifftop shanty was just an isolated structure. A crow’s nest out beyond the cliff told me it was not. The crow’s nest belonged to the top mast of the tallest of three ships moored in a small cove. The cove was nearly circular, with tall cliffs walling it in. A narrow cleft in the rock gave access to the Servile Sea, and rendered the cove all but impossible to spot. The clifftop shanty wasn’t the only structure in the area either. The walls and shingle of the cove were crawling with shoddily built edifices clinging to whatever surfaces would bear them. Almost all had to resort to stilts to hold their outer edges up. A number of spots were not graced with a wooden building, and had tents of sailcloth covering them. Walkways, stairs and bridges of rope and board linked the pirate town together. People thronged the town, strolling, meandering, hurrying and scurrying, each on their own business and their own schedule. One spot on the shingle was left conspicuously bare, though many a path led to and from it. The only thing in it were the cold cinders and ashes of a bonfire long extinguished.
Examination by spyglass told me that the residents of this pirate cove had no uniformity of attire, either in style, quality, or quantity. This confused disparity extended to build and age, a veritable jumble of personages assembled in this town. The only common thread was the ubiquity of arms. Not a single soul I saw did not have at least one blade, spear, cudgel, or bow. The quality of these varied again from person to person, and not in lock step with their clothing. The best sword I saw sat on the hip of the most meanly dressed scoundrel who appraised the passers-by for an excuse to put it to use.
Lowering the spyglass, I eased back from the cliff, working my way to the pirate trail.
“Zhal’s Balls, that cutthroat was telling the truth,” I muttered.
“We are lost,” I muttered. It was obvious, staring as we were at a waterfall we had not passed going in the other direction. It emerged from a cave higher up in the rock, and plunged through a sinkhole into an echoing cavern down below. It was not a great torrent, but it would be ample to water the city at the cove. I found the sun near its zenith, and thought for a bit. “It we put the sun to our backs, we will be facing north. That way at least lies the flotilla. If we can spot them, we should be able to find our boat.” It was sound and sensible, and no one was listening.
“Is that gold?”
I looked over at the soldiers, who were peering over the edge at the plunge pool. Rasmus joined them and examined the hole in the ground.
“We could use that spyglass over here,” Ruud said. Torn between irritation and resignation, a sigh escaped my lips and I crossed to join them. Were the sun any lower in the sky, the bottom of the hole would have been cloaked in gloom. Being noon, it was illuminated by reflections off of pale limestone. Below the foam and ripples of the waterfall striking the pool, something glimmered in the light. It had a yellow hue. Extending the spyglass, I examined the glimmer more closely. A breath sucked past my teeth as I got a clear look at the object. It was a fan-shaped pectoral of gold inlaid with green and black opaque stones. Resting next to it was a skull, empty eye sockets staring up at us from below the water. A little ways away I spied an armband still encircling a long bone. And there an anklet, tumbled free of its limb to rest among the rocks. Looking this way and that, I found more jewelry, and more bones.
Along the rim of the pool was a level ledge. Along its level surface was scattered more glittering metalwork, but no bones. Here, the signs of artifice were visible in the rock. Someone had carved the ledge, and a series of steps down into the water along the entire edge of the plunge pool. They had widened the cavern to do so, and most likely carted the debris out through the tunnel where the creek flowed. Carved into the steps and the walls were reliefs of base supplication and worship. A basalt slab resting on the ledge behind the waterfall was ominously out of place amidst the limestone. Its sides glistened, showing hints of imagery carved into its surface, but the top was smooth, with a single, wet sheen.
“This feels very wrong,” I said. “That looks like a fane, and I don’t think the pirates built it.”
“Why have they not plundered the gold?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Maybe they don’t know about it?” Rasmus mused.
I shook my head.
Before I could voice my thought, a blue blur leapt from the trees and the soldier who’d spoken screamed, caught up in its jaws. I had an arrow nocked before my eyes took in the squamous, narrow, blue head whose fangs punctured the man. I took aim upon a cross-shaped pupil and loosed. The fist-sized eye burst in a welter of jelly and blood as my arrow sank into it. The beast screeched, the wide-open mouth letting the soldier slide off its fangs. Most were razors the length of hands, but the two largest dwarfed the rest, long sabers of ivory extending several feet from the upper jaw. It reared back on it’s long, sinuous neck and I caught sight of the massive body, twice as long as that of a horse. Its tail was twice again as long as that. Its colossal wings blotted out the sky as they beat angrily, and four muscular legs pawed the earth with talons almost the length of my forearms.
I stared in shocked horror at the beast as its head thrashed about and it roared. The other eye found me, and glared. I stood dumbly, terror squeezing my heart as I realized I had the undivided attention of a Longfang Drake. It surged towards me, snapping me out of my fugue. The only action I was quick enough to complete was to loose another arrow. The shot popped its remaining eye and caused the drake to rear back instead of scooping me up in its jaws. It did not, however, arrest its headlong rush. The slab of muscle and scale that was its right shoulder slammed me from my feet. Where I expected to crash to the ground, I found nothing but air. The walls of the pit reached up to embrace the sky as I plunged alongside the waterfall.
With the rush of a burst dam, all sound but the torrent and my own hammering pulse was driven from my ears. The impact kicked the air from me, even as I was enveloped in roiling liquid. My expected end of having my head dashed against the stones did not come. Panic swelled as my lungs cried out to be filled. Struggling against my own disoriented senses, I could not tell which way was up. Which way I needed to swim to reach breathable air. My wild flailings churned the water more as the currents turned me about. My eyes refused to be forced open, even to find a sign that would save them with the rest of me. My shoulder bounced from something hard and angular, and I grabbed at it. It was a stair. In an instant, I had a frame of reference, and began hauling myself up. My head burst from the surface and I sucked greedily of the cave air. The thud of something very heavy landing on stone made me turn.
The drake had followed me down. Its nostrils flaring, forked tongue licking the air, it quested for my scent. I dipped a hand into my quiver. A spike of fear pounded my heart as I found it empty. The arrows had been cast out in my floundering under the pool. My sword was still in its scabbard, but it was a short blade, not even as long as the creature’s namesake teeth. I looked to the tunnel the creek ran down. Was that wide enough for the drake to follow me? Looking up, I saw five faces peering down. I gestured at the drake and tried to mime shooting it with a crossbow. Ruud stared blankly at me. I wasn’t sure if it was my performance or his comprehension that was lacking. I dared not call out what I meant, as the drake’s hearing was undamaged. Though with the cacophony of the waterfall echoing through the chamber, I wasn’t sure anyone would be able to hear any noise I made.
Annoyed again at Rasmus, I looked about me for anything useful. I almost grinned as I found some of my arrows. The three shafts in my grip were nowhere near enough, but were more than I’d had before. I wracked my brain for memory of weaknesses of drakes. The lower hide, where it became lighter, was thinner than the upper, with smaller scales. It would be easier to strike from below. The drake seemed instinctively aware of this, as it moved bellied up to the rock while sniffing about and tasting the air. Besides, that was the side with all the claws. But the pale blue ran up the neck, to the underside of the lower jaw. If it was built like other beasts, the drake had a jugular, and it could be found right behind that mandible, in the pale blue span.
Rising to one knee, I nocked an arrow and took aim. The beast’s head turned the instant before the bowstring twanged. Even as its tongue flicked out, the armored cheek interposed itself between me and my target. The arrow glanced off the steely scales of the drake’s head, then again off the back of its neck before lodging in a wing membrane. The dragon roared, and I sent my second arrow sailing down its soft gullet. Screeching with surprise, it reared back, exposing the underside of its neck. My last shot sailed true, drawing a spurt of crimson vitae as it struck. The flash of elation from having struck a new blow against the beast evaporated as charged, bellowing. Even if the wound I had just inflicted proved mortal, the drake would not die quickly from it.
Out of arrows, I forced myself to toss aside the bow and draw my sword. If Ruud’s next poem was to be that of my death, it would not end with me cowering and wetting myself. I ran towards the charging drake, the distance between us evaporating in a heartbeat. Snagging one of its namesake fangs, I leapt as if mounting the saddle of an unruly horse. I landed straddling its thick neck and plunged my blade into the hole my arrow had started. Hot blood poured over my clenched fist as I sawed the steel through the muscles, tendons, and arteries encasing its throat. Talons flashed at me, and I threw myself back. Tumbling down the neck, I landed astride the beast’s shoulders. An angry roar came as a bubbling gurgle through the rent I had struck. Crimson cascaded into the pool, staining the water rosy as the drake raged and thrashed against the inevitable.
It was dead, we both knew it, but there was still life enough left in the beast to snuff me out. Wings buffeted my sides and it tore its own flesh trying to catch me with flailing talons. Tossed about, I lost my grip on my sword. The center of its back was as far from its reach as I could get, and I gripped the roots of its wings to keep myself there. A glimmer of malignant cunning sparked through the drake’s brain and it hurled itself over. Plunging backwards into the pool the drake dashed me under the water again. I could either stay and drown, or risk its teeth and claws fighting for the surface. I kicked off the from the unyielding hide and swam. The drake thrashed and slashed, blindly trying to find me in water that tasted only of its own blood. I stayed deep, pulling myself against the stones and the bones as my lungs ached and my eyes burned.
I breached the surface even as the death throes of the Longfang Drake ebbed. Dragging myself onto the ledge, I sucked down grateful gasps and steadied my overexcited heart. A slow, sharp rhythm echoed through the chamber. Confusion crossed my features as I realized it was the sound of a person clapping. It was not with excitement or adulation, but a slow, sarcastic clapping. I looked up. The sound came from a woman standing at the precipice of the pit. Her tall boots, short breeches and sleeveless vest hugged the curves of her body. Her black hair cascaded down her shoulders, and her skin was bronzed from exposure to the sun. She was not alone. More pirates ringed the pit, some held blades to the throats of my party, others had bows and crossbows aimed down at me.
“Well done, sir,” she said, he voice bearing the accent of Vartenthral. “That beast has given us no end of trouble over the years. Do wait for my men to come and fetch you, unless you’d rather be riddled with arrows instead of face the prospect of ransom.”
* * *
The pirates dragged the carcass of the drake into the bare patch of shingle where the ashes were. By it they heaped every piece of loot they could plunder from the pool and pit, as well as most of our possessions. The spyglass was ruined, its lenses shattered by the rough treatment. Somehow my eyeglasses had survived, probably because I’d landed face up in the water and they’d been shielded from the impact. I hadn’t noticed when they’d fallen off. Quite possibly it was during my swim from under the dragon. Now they sat in the bundle of booty, far from where they would do me much good. The she-pirate grinned as she looked over her new prisoners, bound to a series of stakes along the edge of the open ground.
“Our dragonslayer here has the look of a nobleman to him,” she said, tipping my chin up so our eyes met. Hers were cold and green. “And your soldiers look like lowborn warriors of the Volkmund. Pray tell, sirrah,” she said mockingly, “How did you get here?”
“Mutiny,” I lied. “My crew forced us into a boat and we came ashore on this wretched place.” She smirked and laughed playfully at my attempt at a defiant tone.
“And what of you, odd man out?” she asked of Rasmus.
“I wanted to join the mutineers,” Ruud said, “But they didn’t trust me. So here I am. If you could use a sword arm and balladeer…”
The pirate waved dismissively at the thought.
“And who are you?” I asked.
“I do believe it is my prerogative to ask the questions,” she said. “And I do need your name, so I know who might be willing to pay for your hide.”
“I want to know who I’m talking to,” I said. She shook her head, wild locks exaggerating the motion.
“You are the one tied to the stake. If I deign to give you my name, it will be after you have given me yours.”
I set my jaw and stared up at the pirate.
“I am Prinz Hermann Grosz von Karststadt-Salzheim, second son of the Furst of Karststadt.” A broad grin split her face.
“Today is a bounteous day. We are rid of that accursed drake, we have plunder on hand, and a prince’s ransom to add to it. Bring the wood, bring the knives, we shall skin this monster and make a feast of its flesh.” Even as her minions scurried off, I had to fight to keep my expression calm. Never interrupt an opponent’s error.
“You aren’t going to tell us who has captured the son of the Bloodstorm?” Rasmus asked.
The she-pirate’s good mood was sufficient for her to respond. “I am Commodore Amelia Agthoven, Queen of the Alfrend.” She gave an exaggerated bow in our direction before skipping off to bark more orders in preparation for the feast.
“This day is not going well,” I said.
“You killed a dragon,” Rasmus said, his tone artificially cheerful. I gave him a look. That look repeated everything he already knew about how the day had gone without giving it voice. What it did not convey was what I knew about Longfang Drakes. I had not made an extensive study of the creatures, but dragons are exciting to small boys, and my father’s library had a lot of books. Some of them were written by people who had done extensive studies on the beasts. The fact that I was not going to divulge would have caused Agthoven to abort her feast and keep that flesh as far from her lips as possible. For the flesh of the Longfang Drake was toxic. Not so toxic as to strike men dead upon eating it. Nor indeed enough that a healthy adult would be reliably slain. But, toxic enough that it would leave a man violently sick for days. They would not taste it upon their tongue as anything but the unusual flavor of the beast. And Amelia had just invited her entire camp to partake of the feast.
I watched the pirates peel back the hide and carve into that flesh with as much detachment as I could muster. This day was about to turn around.
* * *
As prisoners, we were not fed any of the meat, and were forced to watch the feast unfold. Now we listened to the sound of retching echoing through the cove. I grinned and explained what was going on to the other five. The bonfire was still crackling, though no one had fed it fuel for a while. There were still uneaten and half-eaten slabs of roast drake on trenchers discarded when the sickness began falling over the camp. The ochre hues of the sky foretold of night soon upon us.
“That’s fantastic,” Rasmus said, “But these stakes aren’t getting ill.”
Agthoven stormed over in a blind fury, her face quite green. “What deviltry is this?” she demanded. I explained what she’d done to her followers in as calm and detached a manner as I could muster. She interrupted me with an incoherent screech as she lunged. I brought my knees up, catching her in the middle as her fingers wrapped around my throat. My windpipe closed off as I lurched us both to the side. We crashed against the shingle beach and landed on our sides. I managed to suck in half a breath before Amelia’s fingers tightened again. Spots swam before my eyes and the edges grew darker as I pushed again with my knees, wriggling us along the ground.
The damnable Ruud started to inch away. The fool couldn’t see that I was trying to get Agthoven’s hip closer to his hands. With a last lurch I shoved her closer to Rasmus. As my vision tunneled towards the she-pirate’s visage of rage, I managed to spy a glimmer of realization from the skald. Edging back towards me, Ruud strained his arms against his bonds. Fingers caressing the pommel, he plucked the dagger from Amelia’s belt. Then my vision darkened to a tiny circle, and even Agthoven’s snarls ebbed away into the distance. I prayed that Rasmus’ fingers worked faster than his mind. It would not do to have the life choked out of my on the cusp of escape.
For the third time today, my lungs sang out with a sharp inhalation of new air after nearly suffocating. A few more deep wheezes, and I was able to blink my eyes to their blurry normal. A long, curved blade cut through the bonds on my wrists. Ruud had an arm about Amelia, dragging her limp form aside. Her cutlass was in his other hand. This he offered up to me, and I released my ankles so I could hop up and free my men. Smelling fresh blood, I looked down. A spray of it covered the front of my tunic. I turned to Agthoven. Rasmus had slit her throat from ear to ear. The skald looked at me, unapologetic. Though rationally, I understood his reasons, a large part of me still revolted at the sight of a recently slain woman laying on the blood-slicked rocks.
“My glasses-” I started.
“Are part of some pirate’s trinket collection,” Ruud said. “Our weapons have also been claimed.”
“Our best chance is to use the distraction to reach the fleet and bring them in to the cove,” I said. “What’s the best way back to our boat?”
Rasmus pointed at the cleft in the cliffs. “They know we’re here. We take one of their boats and row along the shore until we reach our ships. It will be faster and easier than crossing the island on foot and in the dark.”
I offered Ruud the cutlass.
“You are the better swordsman.”
“Now is not the time for flattery,” I said.
“Now is not the time for false modesty,” Rasmus snapped. The words struck me almost as surely as if he’d reached out with the back of his hand. “Standing here arguing will get us killed.” He drew a deep breath. “Lead on, my lord.”
Half blind and carrying an unfamiliar, curved blade, I started our search for a launch to steal. An angry, indistinct, tawny form leapt at me, and I lashed out. A hot spray washed over me just as the figure resolved into the less blurry image of a man. Life ebbed from saddened eyes and he crumpled to my feet. Ruud bent and scooped up the axe the man carried.
“We will soon have blades a plenty,” he said.
The battle became a walking nightmare. Ill-defined shapes with murderous intent became dying humans as we closed and I struck them down. I never saw their expressions of hate or aggression, only their regret, fear, and horror as the vitality left them and they fell dead. I was trembling with disgust and guilt, praying to whatever gods might listen that we find a boat and get out of this place. Rasmus grabbed my arm and pointed into the blur.
“I can’t see that far,” I said.
He steered me towards what he’d been pointing at and my heart rejoiced. It was a rowboat. It had ten oars and was meant to carry a good twenty or twenty-five people, but we could manage it with just the six of us. I clambered in it and took hold of a pair of oars. Ruud stepped into the boat.
“Don’t tell me to steer when I can’t see where we’re going.”
“Of course not, my lord.”
Rasmus took the rudder as the surviving soldiers took the other oars. Gratefully, I rowed into the night.