Rounding a verdant, jagged headland this morning, the misty coast seemed to stretch off to the hazy horizon as far as the eye could see. Black sand beaches, dense green jungle rose slowly up to cloud shrouded peaks on one side while foaming white breakers, crystal blue waters and dangerous coral reefs led out to an endless teal sea on the other.
“Avast Ye! Avast! Jungle scrub party ahead! Get the Capn!”, Galdar heard Dogboy’s excited shouts from atop the crow’s next.
Moments later, Tully and Tonsil joined Captain Arganat at the starboard rails and the captain produced a long, brass spyglass to study the horizon.
“It’s a Shar hunting party. Nothing to be done now but carry on,” Arganat grumbled and then turned to his first mate. “Tully, prepare the crew!” Stumping up to the ship’s wheel, the gruff captain took over steerage duties.
Derg had finally come out of his cabin early this morning. Galdar and Gorbi had shadow-duty while Kate sat below, guarding the cabin door.
“We can’t do this!” Derg protested in a whiney voice, “We’ll be boarded, for sure! Turn about and we will live to see another day!” Galdar looked out beyond the bowsprit and strained his eyes to focus on the distance. He was just barely able to spot a cluster of boats apparently anchored in a line several miles further north up the coastline. Spots of red and purple could be seen flashing in the wind and among the waves.
Tully turned on Derg with a frightfully serious look, “Dogboy’s got good eyes, man, but sure as sunrise they saw us the moment we rounded that head. Anything but holding course will be a death sentence.”“Well, then we outrun them!” Derg whined with just a hint or aroma of desperation wafting about his pitiful demeanor, “This is a fast ship, isn’t it!? Didn’t I hire a fast ship?”
Tully laughed uproariously, “Ya! We’d outrun them, gov’nor, for all of about two days! Problem is we’re five days from nowhere! Har har har!” Tully’s guffaw spread about the crew and nervous chuckles broke out among them. Derg didn’t share in the mirth. Neither did Gorbi and Galdar who looked on with a mixture of equal parts concern and confusion.
A loud thud sounded from the wooden deck followed by the clank of metal chains. Galdar turned to see the huge, tattooed winch-hauler, Zokar, as he dumped a large pile of chains and shackles from a dusty burlap bag. Rhemi sighed deeply then extended his arms toward the big man and lowered his head to expose his neck. Zokar picked out a set of chain-linked manacles and tested the padded leather of the cuffs before clasping them gently around Rhemi’s wrist and neck. Min reached up, smiled and brushed the Olman’s cheek with the back of her hand while Zokar clapped the dark man on the back of his shoulder.
“You too!” Tully shouted at Gorbi, nodding to the chains. “Have to get you in those things, too. Can’t have a gnome running loose without raising questions we can’t answer.”
“What!? By the Nose-Hairs of Urdlen, there is no way you will be strapping those things on me!” Gorbi shouted. Tully was so taken aback by Gorbi’s tirade that Galdar thought a keel-hauling was imminent, but Tully just put his hand to his chin and stared down at the little gnome, regarding him with a thoughtfulness that seemed out of character for the rough and tumble first mate.
“Hey, Bilge,” Tully shouted across the deck to the toothless swabby, “you think we got room in those special lockers we set up for the Pomarj runs?”
Bilge eyed Derg’s diminutive bodyguard as if he were measuring planks for a carpenter. “Aye, me cortermastah, theys will fit and room to spare, methinks.” Bilge motioned for Gorbi to follow. The gnome took one more look at the chains and shrugged.
Derg lunged forward and grabbed Tully by his shirt screaming, “You have a place to hide him? Hide me, you buffoon!” Tully growled and threw him off roughly. Derg stumbled to his knees and Galdar was there to help him up.
“You,” Tully said in a dangerous-low voice, pointing at Galdar, “do your job and watch him. Make sure he doesn’t say anything unless asked.”
At first it looked to Galdar as if the Dragonsprit was approaching a small harbor town on the jungle coast. As the ship got closer, though, he could see tents and supplies and men spread out along a stretch of beach for about half a mile. Red flags with black crosses flapped in the wind and about thirty ships in a wide range of sizes were anchored just off-shore.
As they approached the small armada, Galdar saw several strange ships break from the Shar fleet and moved to intercept the Dragonsprit. Galdar had never seen anything like them before; pointed bows and bulbous sterns, they looked like giant teardrops scooting across the water. At first, what seem to be sails, turned out to be just colorful red and black awnings stretched across various parts of the deck to keep the sun at bay. Without sails or oars, he was baffled as to how the ships could be moving at all – let alone speeding along at a fast clip into the wind!
Arganat shouted at the crew to reef the sails and drop anchor. The two teardrop ships mysteriously glided up to either side of the Dragonsprit and grappling hooks clunked into place upon the stanchions. Soon, the three ships were hugging in a tight embrace.
Tully turned to Galdar and Derg just as the first of the Shar officers climbed onto the deck of the Dragonsprit, “Do not speak,” he said in a serious and hushed tone, “do as my crew does and you will live. You act out of line and you endanger my crew. If it comes to it, I will sever your head from your neck before the Shar can draw their swords. Mark my words, well, boy.”
Galdar watched from amid-ship as five young men in loose fitting clothes boarded the Dragonsprit. They were fair of complexion and wore their blond hair either cropped short to the scalp or in long ponytails draped down their backs. Armed with small hand scythes and billyclubs the men ushered twelve dark-skinned Suel tribesmen with freckled faces and reddish hair aboard behind them.
Tonsil and the rest of the crew formed a line along the center of the deck and looked down at their feet before dropping to their knees in supplication. Galdar fell in line next to Zokar. When Derg didn’t immediately drop to his knees, Galdar grabbed his hand and jerked him down to kneel beside him. The dandy whimpered audibly and Galdar sighed deeply. He put his hand to his chest and clutched at the holy symbol of St. Cuthbert which he wore around his neck.
The five pale men walked slowly up the line of the crew. Galdar saw their sandaled feet padding softly along the deck boards. When they reached the end of the line they turned to Captain Arganat, the only crewman of the Dragonsprit not kneeling.
Galdar couldn’t hear what was said over the sounds of the wind and the surf and the loud creaking of the boats, but he saw that papers were produced and examined, more words were exchanged, and then the captain took the five men on a tour of the ship.
After a brief inspection of the deck, Arganat led the men down into the ship’s hold. Fifteen minutes past and Galdar rocked slowly from side to side in order to ease the pain in his knees. He noticed the Suel tribesmen were still standing about above deck. They stared back at him, menacingly, thumbing their steel machetes. Finally, Arganat and the five Shar officers emerged from below. They motioned to the Suel and the whole lot of them climbed back over the rails to their strange ships and glided away back to the fleet.
“Set sail,” Captain Arganat said softly. Tully gave a few more orders and without a sound the crew silently weighed anchor and set the sails. Galdar saw Rhemmi, still in chains, mopping the deck and playing his part perfectly in this little charade. Within minutes they were moving again, sailing slowly past the mysterious and deadly armada.
Galdar noticed the largest ship in the fleet was a huge barge. Dark-skinned men swarmed over the deck as they dumped hundreds of barrels over the side of the barge and into the sea. Clear liquid poured from the barrels followed by what looked like a person, yet like no person he had ever seen before. The skin of each was a brilliant light green or blue in color. He could see no other features except the blue and green people didn’t seem to move and appeared dead, their features never clear enough for him to make out details before they were lost below the waves.
Later, once the Shar contingent was well out of sight Gorbi was freed from the secret lockers below decks, apparently none the worse for the wear.
Galdar remembered Mr. Tulley’s words from the other day when he had asked him about the Shar, " . . .best that you don’t know," he had said. Galdar shivered and decided Mr. Tully was absolutely right.