. Doremi was a step behind Mac Tavish as he departed the tower, and she stepped out of the portal into a darkened room. Her eyes weren’t prepared for the sudden transition, and she was blind for a moment. Then she began to make out dim shapes that in a few moments revealed themselves to be crates, tackle, ropes, barrels, and hooks.

The Bard’s first thought was that she must be in a warehouse, for the smell of wood was all around her, and she felt planks beneath her feet. A ladder before her led up to a square opening in the roof through which she could see a hazy blue sky above.

They must be someplace in Serpenalik, she surmised.

Mac Tavish wasted no time in ascending the ladder as Raven and Espidreen now appeared behind her.

Doremi followed, and it was about ten-foot climb to emerge into the sunshine, and instantly she gasped as her head rose above the opening.

She was on board a ship!

And not just a ship, but a ship on the ocean itself!

Overwhelmed, she continued up until the Highlander reached forth a hand to help her step out onto the deck.

On the verge of panic, the humble Bard looked up and down and back and forth, comprehending this was indeed a vessel. In fact, it was the sister ship of the Black Scorpion, for she had the same two masts and the same nest of rigging crowning her. The vessel, however, seemed infinitely smaller out here in the middle of the ocean than the Black Scorpion looked moored to a dock.

Panic setting in, she stumbled forward against one of the ship’s lifeboats, which was mounted upside-down atop its mate, and lashed down to the teakwood deck forward of the cargo hatch. Her stomach was churning, and breakfast felt like it would be coming up at any moment.

She was taking in deep breaths as soft footsteps approached from behind.

What is the matter with you?!”

It was Raven.

The Bard had one hand upon her stomach while her other braced against the white hull of the lifeboat. “Ugh,” she muttered. “You didn’t say we were gonna be on a ship! I’m gonna be sick!”

Raven leaned forward, bringing her face down to the Bard’s. “Doremi, we’re in a flat calm--the ship isn’t even moving! You’re embarrassing yourself. Now stop it!”

“I told you I get seasick--I can’t help it!” she insisted.

Are you not the one who told me she grew up on a lake?!”

I said, on the shores of a lake!” Doremi corrected. “I can handle a rowboat for a little while--but a ship on the ocean is a different thing altogether!”

Well, I need you healthy,” Raven muttered in a quiet voice, “so find some way to deal with it, please!”

Mac Tavish, meanwhile, was just as surprised as Doremi was at their location, and was looking up and down the deck.

I’m nay much morre happierr ‘n the Lady herre,” he spoke. “What we doin’ on a ship, eh? Y’know I don’t swim!”

Raven turned and looked back at him. “I always told you, you should learn how, Mac Tavish,” she answered. “But don’t you worry--you’ll have no problems with this ship sinking.

Attention, all!” she now announced to the rest of her Assault team. “We will approach Hocwrath by sea--that’ll make us harder to spot. So just relax for a while; we should be there in several hours. We’ll take a launch to shore at the proper time.”

Doremi was tentatively letting go of the ship’s boat and trying to steady herself. She could feel the deck swaying beneath her feet, and though the movement was barely noticeable, it still made her nervous--for the ground beneath one’s feet isn’t supposed to move! The Bard then began to break out in a nervous sweat, and tried not to think about it.

She swallowed hard and forced herself to take a look around. What stood out was just how many ropes were needed to run this ship. There were ropes everywhere she looked! Big ropes, small ropes--ropes as thin as her thumb, to ropes as thick as her fist. How the sailors knew which ropes did what was a mystery to her.

The queasiness started in again, and the humble Bard braced herself against the rails of the ship, leaning out over the edge just in case.

Some footsteps approached, and she lifted her head to see Fosmo slowly advancing toward her.

He had apparently raided the food stores and--like a cow chewing the cud--was munching upon a big mouthful of turkey from a drumstick he held in his right hand.

And he was chewing it with his mouth wide open.

He stopped a few feet away from Doremi, smiled--and then lifted the drumstick toward her, offering her a bite.


Espy,” Raven noted at the back of the main deck as she watched Doremi lean over the rail and lose her breakfast, “go get that girl a cup of honey.”

The Witch scowled back in disgust. Then, clearly unhappy with her assigned task, she fetched a tin mug from the food stores piled on deck, ladled some honey into it, and walked down the deck to the Bard and Fosmo, who was profusely apologizing.

Without a word, she set the mug down on the rail--and set it down hard enough to let it be known she was resentful at having been ordered to perform such a mundane task. Then she started walking aft, back to her mistress.

Doremi grabbed the mug, intending to throw right back at her, but reason set in, and in the hope it might be helpful, swallowed the orange-blossom honey down.

It did actually seem to do the trick, and in a few moments she waved a hand toward Fosmo to let him know she was going to be fine.

Raven by now had turned her attention to the key members of her Fellowship, and was speaking to Nightshadow and Thor.

Wondering what they were talking about, Doremi approached from behind, and then Raven paused look back to her.

You better now?” she asked as the Bard and the Cutpurse drew near.

Doremi nodded. “Yes, thank you. I still don’t feel great, but I think I’ll be okay.”

Good. How you doing, Fosmo?”

Me always feels fine, Raven!” he exclaimed in response.

Nice to be at sea again,” Thor noted from a few steps away as he took in a deep breath. “It’s too blasted hot on your island! Feels like the hottest part of the Scandian Summer there, and it’s barely spring!”

Hah!” Raven laughed. “If you think that’s hot--try Arwin!”

No thank you--Vikings do not walk on desert sands.”

Queasy though she was, Doremi smiled at the thought of a big Scandian trudging through the desert.

A big recurve bow was strapped to Thor’s back, and it caught Raven’s attention. It was nearly five feet in height, emblazoned with Scandian runes across its surface, and fashioned in the form of a golden dragon, it’s string fastened between the dragon’s mouth and its tail.

Raven looked up into the Viking’s face. “Didn’t we forget something?” she asked.

Thor looked back with a puzzled stare.

She looked toward his back with a nod. “You might find some arrows nice to have along with that bow--or were you planning on borrowing some of mine?”

Doesn’t need them,” he explained.

To demonstrate, Thor unslung the bow and faced portside, grasping the bowstring with two thick fingers and pulling it back until his right arm was folded in with his elbow, and pulled it parallel to his ear. As he did so, a shimmering bolt of energy in the shape of an arrow began to take form, and the further back the Viking pulled the string, the sharper became the image. When the bow was at its full draw, the arrow would be close to three feet in length and rippling with electricity. There wasn’t any doubt that the bolt delivered far more damage than any normal arrow could.

Doremi couldn’t even begin to guess what poundage that bow had--certainly she’d never be able to draw it! The Viking’s huge muscles were nearly as taut as the bowstring itself as he strained in bringing it back into firing position. Finally, he released the string and the bolt of energy streaked forward, flying at least two hundred yards before arcing into the sea and vanishing.

Raven was clearly impressed.

May I?” she asked, holding out a hand.

The Viking handed her the bow and she began to take aim. Her form, however, was a bit odd and not correct for an archer at all: She hooked the string with her thumb and instead of drawing it back with the bow held away from her, she pushed the bow away with her left hand--or, rather, she tried to push it away. The pull was simply too much for such a small woman, though her own muscles strained with the attempt. She even resorted to pushing with her left hand while pulling with her right, but she could draw the bow no more than three-quarters of the way back, and its missile was correspondingly less lethal-looking than when Thor had drawn it.

Just how strong do you have to be to use this thing?!” she grunted.

Thor smiled. “About this strong.”

Apparently so.”

Raven brought the bow down, easing up on the string, and its missile vanished.

Don’t feel bad,” the Viking added. “This rune bow dates from what you call the First Age. My fathers used it to bring down dragons in that ancient time. Only the mightiest warriors could even string it.”

I believe it!” Raven exclaimed. “Fortunately, I don’t think we’ll run into any dragons in the First School, though.”

I don’t think we will either,” Thor agreed, slinging the bow around his back again. “But my motto is always to be prepared for anything and everything.”

Absolutely,” Raven agreed.

She then unslung her own bow and held it up.

This is the bow I use.”

Thor reached out to take it and easily drew the string back. “Light pull, and obviously not for distance shooting,” he observed, returning it to its owner, “but good for your size.”

Ah, but the pull is the least important thing to this bow,” Raven explained. “A two-step snake has nothing on it. One hit, and if the arrow doesn’t kill you, the poison from the enchantment on the bow will! Most people don’t even have time to go for an elixir.

I bound the essence of a deadly little Baratarian jungle frog into it. You so much as even touch the skin of that slimy little thing and you’re dead before you take your next step! For really large creatures, and those able to resist magic, I supplement the enchanted poison with the real thing in the tips of my arrows. Trust me--you don’t want to get hit by anything fired out of this bow. You can’t even break the string--it’s made from the sinew of one of your frost giants.”

The Viking nodded. “You mean like this one?” he grinned, nodding back to the rune bow.

Raven smiled back at him.

Bows definitely have their place,” Thor continued, “but my hammer will always be first in my heart.”

Yes,” Raven agreed. “I think Nostradamus will get a real charge out of it!”

That seemed to end the conversation about archery, and Doremi now spoke up.

I don’t like being on the water, but I have to admit this is a pretty boat, Raven,” she said.

Boat?!” roared a 350-pound voice from somewhere above them. “By the beard of Neptune, did someone call my ship a boat?!”

The source of this booming baritone suddenly appeared, looking down over the railing of the weather deck. It was a large man, over six feet in height, stout, with a black beard and curly, shoulder-length locks of hair capped by a wide-brimmed leather hat, pinned up along its right side by a ruby brooch. A long red ostrich plume sprouted back from the hat giving him a dapper appearance that befitted the captain of a ship.

From the hat, down to his frock coat with wide lapels and thick cuffs, the two cutlasses tucked into his belt, and his long black thigh boots, he personified nearly everything Doremi would have expected from a Freeport pirate.

The man’s gaze fell upon the Bard, and a finger sporting a golden ring with a large emerald pointed down to her.

You! You’re the one!”

The rotund man left the railing to rush down a set of stairs leading to the main deck until he stood toe to toe with the much smaller Bard.

Young lady,” he bellowed, pointing forward toward the ship’s launches, “those are boats!”

He pointed to the deck and stomped his foot. “This--is a ship!”

Doremi stood there, her face becoming as red as the feather in the man’s hat.

And not just a ship,” he continued, his voice carrying to every corner of the vessel, “but the finest ship that ever sailed the seas of Islay! The ship that has battled more enemies than a dog has fleas! The ship that strikes terror into the hearts of the Baratarians--the ship who alone is bold enough to call herself the Black Widow! What say ye now then, girl?!”

Uh,” Doremi muttered, “it’s a pretty ship!”

Pretty?! Did she say it was pretty?!” he now roared.

Doremi,” Raven broke in, “this is Nazier. Nazier, this is Lady Doremi Bender of Avalon.”

Nazier paused, removing his hat with his left hand and sweeping it away in salute, revealing a red headscarf beneath it, while simultaneously leaning forward to kiss Doremi’s hand Like a Torrencian gentleman. Then he returned the hat to his head as he stood erect.

Nazier is Captain of the Black Widow,” she continued. “He’s blustery, and gives me more mouth than I should put up with, but he’s still the best Captain in Islay--or so he’s been saying since he was swabbing decks for ten coppers a month!”

Ah, good to see her wit is still sharp as her tongue! And so wonderful to see you have finally chosen to bestow upon us the immeasurable honor of your glorious and esteemed presence, Raven,” he announced.

Nazier now swept his hat off a second time in salute. Then he bowed low as he rattled off Raven’s various titles.

The sun and moon bow in reverence to you, as do I, O Tenth Lord of the Captaincy, Mistress of Freeport, Supreme Guildmistress of the Guild of Business and Commerce, Guildmistress of the Adventurers’ Guild, First Citizen of the Krellan Republic, Princeps Senatus, Duchess of the Ocean Sea, Grand Potantatess of Serendib and sitter upon the Peacock Throne, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!”

He stood back up and replaced the hat upon his head.

I’ve known Nazier forever,” Raven announced to Doremi. “His voice wasn’t as loud back then--but of course he was smaller then by about ten stones’ weight. His belly and his bellowing have grown since the early days of Freeport.”

Ah, true enough, Raven,” he confirmed, patting his tummy. “As we’ve aged, some of us have indeed gotten bigger--others of us have just gotten slower.”

Raven’s eyes narrowed at the sarcasm.

That a belaying pin in your pants, or you just really glad to see me, Nazier?” she asked caustically.

Nazier stood up, returning the hat to his head, then reached into his coat and withdrew a brass belaying pin that had been tucked inside.

Doremi burst out laughing.

Oh, and by the way, Nazier,” Raven added, “it is a pretty ship--it’s meant to be!”

Except for the name.” Doremi added.

Eh?” questioned Nazier. “What’s wrong with her name, girl?”

Well...why do you people give your ships such mean, nasty names like Black Scorpion and Black Widow? This ship is nice and yellow--why not name it something pretty, like the Daffodil?”

Daffodil?!” Nazier bellowed. “Did she say to name the ship Daffodil?! Can you imagine what would happen if we overhauled some Baratarians and called out, ‘Heave to, lest you feel the wrath of the pirates of the Daffodil’? We’d be the laughingstock of every port of Islay!”

You mean this is a pirate ship,” Doremi asked, “and you’re all pirates?!”

Well--no, not pirates. We’re--privateers. Privateers--right men?!” he called out to the various deck hands who quickly nodded as if they’d better agree.

What’s the difference?” Doremi asked.

Nazier made a fist and brought it up in a dashing movement to his shoulder, to emphasize his point. “Well--pirates rob from anyone they come across, whilst we rob only from the pirates themselves or ships that aren’t part of the Guild.”

Doremi squinted. She didn’t see much difference.

Privateers operate legally, Doremi,” Raven now explained. “They operate under terms outlined in a document called a Letter of Marque. That letter comes directly from a recognized government, so privateers--though privately owned vessels--are, in fact, an extension of a nation’s navy. Since I am the government of Freeport, the Widow acts at my behest, keeping the Baratarians in line, protecting other ships of the Guild, and seizing cargoes from ships illegally flying the Guild flag. She and the Scorpion are Freeport's official navy.”

Okay...,” Doremi spoke, still not really convinced.

--Although most all the men aboard were probably pirates in their early days, I do admit,” she added.

Really?!” Doremi exclaimed. She then looked up and down and around at the various deck hands and top men.

I don’t see a pegleg or a hook-hand amongst the lot of them,” she finally spoke.

Huh?” Raven questioned.

Well--don’t pirates have peglegs, and hooks for the hands they’ve lost?”

What ever gave you that stupid idea? How would a pirate come to have a pegleg or a hook in place of a hand?!”

Don’t whales bite them off?” the Bard asked.

Doremi, why would a pirate ship go anywhere near a whale?”

The Bard shrugged, feeling silly again. “Just something I heard, I guess.”

You couldn’t be a pirate with a pegleg anyway, young lady,” Nazier spoke up. “How would you climb the rigging with a pegleg--not to mention reef a sail with a hook for a hand?”

I suppose it would be kind of hard to pull all those ropes with a hook.”

Ropes?! Did she call them ropes?!” Nazier now thundered.

Quit bellowing, Nazier--you’re giving me a worse headache than I already have,” Raven ordered, putting her palms to her ears.

That said, she turned aside, pushed her swords in toward her body so they didn’t scratch on the railing, and climbed the ladder to the weather deck, where most of the Fellowship awaited.

Nazier and the rest followed in tow, climbing the narrow steps leading up. Raven quickly made her way back toward the helm where a pair of sailors seemed to be changing its wheel. A large wheel of mahogany, about five feet wide, lay on the deck next to the helm as one of the men was tightening a hub on an ornate, seven-spoked wheel of brilliant white ivory that had taken its place.

Just finishing, Mam,” he spoke, hanging up the crude wrench he had been using.

Raven nodded and eased behind the wheel, grasping the spokes with her hands.

Doremi was suddenly reminded of the painting back at the Inn. Raven was in her element here, and the scene seemed perfect for her, as if she’d been born to do this. A look of confidence suddenly swept across her face, and it seemed to the Bard that taking the wheel suddenly brought back pleasant memories of the past when she’d made her living by sailing the seas of Islay.

Raven tested out the wheel by giving it a spin. It didn’t move as fast as Doremi had imagined ship’s wheels would turn, for Raven had to put some effort into it. But it did turn freely, and she seemed satisfied that it was tightly on its shaft.

The wheel itself was beautifully inlaid with scrimshaw of whales and squids running its circumference. On the back top of the rim, Doremi made out what looked like an Elven M inscribed into it, which was interesting since its style looked more Torrencian or Arwinian than anything else.

Raven released the wheel and stepped back to the transom, about ten feet behind her, gesturing to the helm while looking at Nazier.

Would you do the honors, Nazier?” she asked. “Let’s try her out.”

Nazier bowed, and moved to take his place at the helm, confidently reaching out to grasp the spokes.

Raven brought her hands to her mouth and shouted, “Everyone brace--hold onto something.”

Half the Fellowship weren’t quite certain why she said that, but a nervous Doremi followed the lead of the crewmen, whom she observed began reaching out to grasp the rigging or else one of the ship’s rails. So she stepped to starboard and placed her hand over the railing, waiting to see what would happen next.

At the wheel, Nazier began concentrating and suddenly the ship began vibrating--a most unsettling feeling! The shaking continued until finally there was a sudden jolt and Doremi felt the deck of the vessel impact up against her feet.

The ship was rising from the waves into the air!

It took only a moment to realize this, but the Bard’s terror was subdued by the wonderment of this new piece of enchantment.

I don’t believe it,” Fosmo exclaimed as he hung onto a shroud for support, “--we’re flyin’! We’re actually flyin’!”

After a few moments the shaking began to subside as the vessel’s movement upward became smooth and graceful.

A big smile on her face, the Bard now peered over the side, down to the blue water glistening in the sun beneath them, the waves quickly shrinking in size as the Black Widow moved further and further away from them.

In no time they were nearly two hundred feet above the water and then Doremi felt the ship begin a forward movement as it continued the ascent.

Well, Thor, “Raven grinned to the Viking as she leaned against the transom, “still think your ship is better than mine?”

The Viking was clearly amazed and equally transfixed as Doremi, peering down over the side to the waves below as he held tightly to the rigging.

I’ve always said that the Windhawk flies through the waves,” he muttered, “but you give new meaning to it!”

Nightshadow, holding onto a shroud next to Fosmo, was clearly nervous, Doremi noted. But she, herself, had lost all fear and had let go of the rail, moving forward along the bulwark, transfixed by it all.

The Black Widow began picking up speed now and Doremi could feel the breeze against her face.

How fast can she move?” Thor queried.

About fifteen knots with Nazier at the helm,” answered Raven. “I’m smarter than he is, so I can push her to about twenty knots. The speed depends on the power of the mind behind the wheel--but figure anyone can do ten knots, anyway.”

Just to Doremi’s side a seagull was flying, keeping time with the ship as both moved north, with the sun to their starboard beam. The Bard almost reached out to touch it, but then the bird put on a burst of speed and began flying forward.

Doremi followed along behind, oblivious to anything else, and found herself descending the starboard stairs, following the railing forward, trying to catch up with the gull.

She finally arrived atop the forecastle where the bow of the vessel lay before her, affording her an excellent view of a small island ahead of them. Thoughts of the gull then vanished and she became transfixed, watching the island approach.

Back at the stern, Raven addressed Nazier.

Let’s see how she handles, Nazier.”

He obliged by altering their course directly toward the island and in they flew, holding steady at about three hundred feet above the sea.


The island was an extinct volcano, ringed by a forest of palms and vines, that rose from a bed of sand and reefs visible in the sapphire blue water surrounding it. The Black Widow was heading directly for it nearly as fast as a horse at gallop.

From near the top of the peak, a great waterfall cascaded out and flowed down the sides of the volcano to a small lagoon below. Nazier now ported toward the waterfall at a point where it rolled off a cliffside, making its last plunge to the lagoon about two hundred feet below. As it reached it, the vessel slowed until her bowsprit actually began passing behind the waterfall! She continued forward, and now the huge waterfall made a great curtain of water along the starboard side as Doremi braced against a rail and leaned out to run her hand through it. She stared up with a smile, noting a lookout was sticking out a cutlass, doing the same thing she was.

Beaming with pride, with her hands clasped behind her back, Raven drew to the railing at the fore of the sterncastle where Nazier had first looked over to see Doremi, Espidreen following.

Magnificent,” she whispered. “Nazier,” Raven now called back, “--if you ever did anything right in your life, finding this wheel was it!”

Even Romulus, standing to the side of the helm with Mac Tavish, was amazed. “I don’t know how you came by this,” he spoke to Nazier, “but I admit I’m impressed.”

They had emerged from the waterfall by now and the ship swung sharply to port, then to starboard, easily running along the sides of the volcano’s peak.

Excellent! Excellent!” Raven was whispering as Nazier put the vessel through some tight maneuvers it normally would be incapable of doing when in the water.

Doremi was now returning aft, and walked to below the sterncastle, tears streaming down her face.

Thank you,” she spoke up to Raven with a sniff, wiping the tears with a sleeve of her shirt. “I always wondered what it would be like to fly like a bird. Now I know it’s wonderful. I’ll never forget it.”

Still teary, she made her way forward again, leaving Raven and Espidreen behind.

Espidreen sighed, and shook her head in disgust.

There is an example of a girl ruled totally by her emotions, Raven,” she noted quietly. “She is the sort who can’t even walk upon an ant or a flower, lest she hurt it!”

Raven leaned over and rested her hands upon the mahogany railing. “Perhaps so,” she agreed. “But she does have one thing over the two of us, Espidreen.”

Espidreen turned to her mistress. “What could she possibly have over you and I?!”

You and I can only look at a sunrise and think that it looks nice--she can look at a sunrise and see the magic in it.”

Espidreen fixed her gaze at Raven and then looked back to the Bard. “That is the price we pay for what we want, Raven,” she concluded.

Raven was quiet a moment, and then asked, “And just what is it that you want, Espidreen?”

Even that which you have always known, Raven--to sit upon the throne of a School of Sorcery,” came the reply.

Raven nodded. “You may have to share that throne,” she spoke.

The Witch shrugged, unconcerned. “Mine will be the true power, Raven,” she spoke. “Cyllindrethifl, being an Elf, is too much like that girl there--she cannot make the hard decisions that I can. She cannot be ruthless, whereas I can. No one can hold a School if they are unwilling to be ruthless, Raven. So,” Espidreen continued, “I have no qualms about sharing the throne, for between us, only I can do what needs to be done to keep that control.”

Astute point, Espidreen,” Raven noted. “Just remember for whom you work,” she warned.

I will always remember that, Raven,” came the Witch’s answer as she once again looked toward her mistress. “Time and again, you have proven yourself worthy of our loyalty. Time and again, you have flown higher and higher, sweeping up to the stars we who have caught hold of the tail of your comet.

No, I’ll not forget who I have bound myself to--for as you go, we go. Our fate is bound to you, Raven. And soon--when you achieve immortality itself, all our faith...all our trust...all our loyalty will be rewarded a hundredfold. Then the throne of the School will become the throne of Hocwrath itself. And when it is--know that I will never shirk from that which is necessary to destroy your enemies and keep the land in subjection to your will. The ruthlessness required to hold Hocwrath for you will never be lacking in me.”

Espidreen leaned closer as Raven continued staring after Doremi.

I will never let it be said that any of your servants shall have greater loyalty or greater devotion to you than I, for those who serve you best shall have the greatest power in the greatest positions of trust. I have devoted myself, body and soul, to your final victory, just as you have devoted yourself to bringing all Islay under your control. That is why we can never be a part of that girl’s world--there is no place for feelings like hers. After she is gone, who will remember there was ever a Doremi Bender? But your name--and ours--shall live on in the history of Islay.

No, Raven,” she concluded as she gazed back at the humble Bard, “--we will never see magic in a sunrise...but we will rule all that sunrise looks down on!”

Raven looked down for a moment. “Does it have to be that way, Espidreen?” she asked.

Yes,” answered the Witch.

Raven shrugged again. “Okay,” she answered, “--just wondering.”

She turned away from the railing and leaned against it, bracing herself with her palms as she stared aft.

You’ll have that throne by the next sunrise,” she promised.


Happy as a lark from the enchantment of flying, Doremi returned to the weather deck as Nazier brought the ship down, heading back for the water. Gently, he eased her into the sea and she rolled slightly, returning to an upright position as she halted.

Outstanding, Nazier,” Raven called back. “Set your course north, and use the wheel to move us. Keep us in the water, though--lest anyone who sees us from a distance realize we’ve got a ship that can fly. Meanwhile, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go alow and rest down in your cabin.”

Certainly,” Nazier replied, beckoning for the helmsman to take his place.

Hand out the crossbows first, though,” Raven continued. “Then stow the usual wheel.”

Nazier nodded to a couple of deck hands who quickly shuffled down to a storage locker to get started.

Espy,” Raven continued, “after everyone settles down some, I want you to get our Assault team familiar with some basic defensive positions. Then we’ll be as set as we’re going to be until Venivica joins us and things get rolling.”

We’re relying an awful lot on her, Raven,” the Witch answered, concern obvious by her tone. “I hope she doesn’t let us down. One mistake on her part....”

The Witch left the comment hanging.

She’ll be fine,” Raven answered. “She knows how to work fast, and she knows what’s at stake. I wouldn’t rely on her if I weren’t certain of her capacity to do what I need done.”

The sailors had returned by now, ascending the stairs with some crates they laid down at Nazier’s feet. No sooner had they done that, then back they went for more.

A crewman handed Nazier a dagger, and he used it to pry the top off one of the crates. He then reached into the straw-lined crate and withdrew a stock akin to a crossbow’s, although it had no limbs, but instead a flat round base atop the stock from which a handle protruded so that it might be held steady with the left hand as the right pulled a trigger. Next, he opened another crate, revealing thick round wooden cases slightly smaller than the base upon the stock with their own handles rising vertically from them. A metal fitting secured the case to the stock, and Nazier set one of the cases in place. Then, standing the whole device against his thigh and using the vertical handle, he rotated the case by its handle several times until it seemed to lock. Then he held it out to Raven.

Doesn’t feel like the sea air has warped the wood any,” he observed.

Raven nodded. “Didn’t think it would. Give her a quick test.”

Just what is that thing?” Doremi asked as Nazier began to bring it up to his shoulder like a real crossbow.

A crossbow, little lady,” came the answer.

Well, I’ve never seen a crossbow like that.”

There are no other crossbows like that,” Raven announced proudly. “I designed it.”

Ah, true enough,” Nazier said, tipping the device to show the Bard as various others of the Assault team gathered round to look as well. “You see, normal crossbows fire only one bolt, and then you must reload. This one fires eight times. Watch.”

Holding the device at waist level, Nazier pulled the trigger and with a loud CLICK, a small bolt shot out of a hole in the bolt case and out over the side of the ship. The bolt case immediately swiveled forward and locked into position for another shot as Nazier pulled the trigger once more, firing off another dart.

That’s very handy!” Doremi exclaimed.

Aye. Of course,” Nazier added, “it does have its problems. You can’t aim it very well, for one.”

It’s not meant for aiming!” Raven snapped back.

He ignored the comment and flipped a switch along the stock, then held it up once again. “Its best feature is--supposedly--that it can fire all its bolts very quickly to spray into a crowd of attackers. In fact, that is its prime purpose.”

Which is why one needn’t worry about aiming,” Espidreen spoke up. “Its function is to be used against large numbers of enemies at close range. It’s ability to shoot quickly, coupled with the strength of the poison in its bolts, gives its users the power of many times their number.”

At hearing about poison, Doremi noticed a look of clear displeasure pass over Giles’ face, but the Knight kept silent.

We even have bolts made up with holy water encased in their tips for use against undead,” the Witch added.

Nazier now pulled and held the trigger. CLICK-CLICK-CLICK went the crossbow, firing three darts in less time than one might even draw in a breath. But then it halted, obviously jammed in some way.

Nazier held it up with an I told you so look. “But its problem,” he added, “is that it’s badly designed, and it often--but not always--jams when you try to fire it quickly.”

There’s nothing wrong with the design!” Raven insisted, placing her hands on her hips. “The design is fine. The problem is in the springs. If my metallurgists could make me a decent spring it would work perfectly.”

You’re an armourer--why don’t you make one?” Nazier questioned.

Being an armourer doesn’t mean I know how to invent new metals, Nazier! Maybe Dwarven armourers know how to do that sort of thing--but I just work with metal.”

Well, in any event, young lady, this is the Raven Arms Repeating Crossbow, such as it is.”

Are we going to use these, then?” Doremi asked.

If you want,” Raven replied. “They’re mainly for the crew here aboard ship.”

The Bard looked over to the device, thought for a moment, and then said, “I’ll stick to my throw daggers. I’d probably hurt someone with that.”

Probably so,” Espidreen muttered as she leaned against the sternmast and folded her arms.

Good with daggers, are you?” Fosmo inquired, glancing down at the two brass bracers upon Doremi’s forearms into which the small throwing daggers were held.

The Bard nodded. “I’m okay.”

How okay?” Raven wanted to know.

Normally, Doremi wouldn’t do something so brash, and perhaps it was just the excitement of the last couple of days, or perhaps she’d had enough of Espidreen’s subtle sarcasm, or perhaps it was that she looked a lot like Sister Lavinia in her wimple and robe--but without even thinking, the Bard whipped out a dagger from the left bracer, spun around and hurled it in an overhand throw for the mast, embedding it only a few inches above Espidreen’s wimple. The Witch didn’t even had time to duck, but simply moved aside after it had been thrown, while giving Doremi an evil stare.

But Raven was impressed. She took three steps over to the mast and reached up to pull out the small dagger. For a moment, she looked it over, testing its balance and feel.

I’m impressed,” she noted, stepping back to the Bard and handing it back.

Me too,” Fosmo added, pulling out his own dagger, which he twirled and balanced on the tip on his finger before Doremi’s eyes. The Cutpurse then flipped it up, caught it, and slid it back into his belt scabbard. “Match ya sometime,” he offered.

Doremi chuckled. “I’ll probably lose, but sure.”

All right,” Raven spoke, “now that we’ve had our entertainment, I’m going to rest for a while. Nobody bother me. Meantime, Nazier, get the crossbows assembled, and hand them out to the crew.”

After saying that, Raven headed for the stairs, then started descending to the main deck.

She was halfway down when Nazier called out to her.

Raven--aren’t you forgetting something?”

She paused without turning, only the upper half of her body still visible. “No, I think that about covers it.”

She took another step, and Nazier called out once more.


His tone was like a parent mildly cross with its child.

Raven paused, and Doremi heard a sigh from beneath the hood. The hood shifted slightly as her eyes shifted aft without her actually turning.

Attention!” she shouted. “If, over the course of this voyage, I should happen to give an order, and Nazier countermands it--you are to obey Nazier over me! His orders aboard ship supersede mine!”

Having gritted her teeth and spoken that, Raven continued down, mumbling as she went.

Doremi nearly fainted in shock--just how Raven would ever say something like that was something she had to know, and she was determined to find someone who could explain this mystery.

Quickly, she followed after her hostess.

Hey, Raven,” she spoke as reached the main deck behind her, “do you think there’s any chance we might see a whale? If I’m going to be on the ocean, I’d love to see a whale.”

Probably not,” Raven answered, pausing. “They mostly like the really deep water.”

How come?”

I don’t know--I guess because they’re big fish, and they like lots of room.”

Is it true they breathe out steam like the dragons breathed fire?” the Bard now asked.

Actually, no--what they do is spit water out a hole in the top of their heads.”

Why do they do that?”

Doremi, am I a fish? How would I know?! Probably a stay away from me thing or a mating thing.”

Oh. Can I ask one more question? Where’s the water closet?”

Raven paused and pointed, it seemed to Doremi, out to sea.

The Bard looked confused.

Raven walked portside and patted what was a simple board with a hole cut into the middle of it that hung off the side of the ship in plain view of everyone.

Doremi’s face fell. “You’re not serious!”

Doremi--this is a ship, not an inn!”

Doremi just stood there grimacing, staring and wondering if there was any way she could make it ‘til the evening when they’d reach shore.

Raven burst out laughing. “But since you’re a guest aboard, I suppose we can let you use the officers’ water closet. It’s down below. You like exploring--go into the hold and explore ‘til you find it.”

You’re not gonna let that go, are you?” Doremi sighed.

Nope,” Raven answered, walking back to the door to Nazier’s cabin. “You only get one chance to make a first impression. But curiosity does have its usefulness at times.”

That said, she disappeared inside, swinging the door closed behind her.


Apart from the constant sounds of the ship’s timbers creaking as she pitched and rolled, Doremi found it was quiet below deck, although there was scant light to see with. They obviously didn’t want to keep torches down there, but the Bard happened to come upon a shuttered lantern handing upon a hook. She noticed light coming from inside it and reached out to raise its shutter. Someone had cast an enchantment upon the lantern, for a bright light came forth and illumined the hold, revealing that nearly the entire space was used for storage, since barrels, canvas-wrapped parcels, and crates were filled with the various sundries used by a ship and its crew, including enough lumber to make a spare mast or patch a hole. There was also sufficient canvas to replace any damaged sails, not to mention plenty of hemp to re-rig the vessel if they had to.

It didn’t take long in a ship under a hundred and fifty long to find the water closet near the stern, and when Doremi emerged, the Highlander was making his own way aft.

Find it, didya, Lassie?” he called out as she approached.

Doremi nodded and gestured back with her thumb. “In the back. It’s got--instructions,” she added.

Don’ think I need ‘em. If I haven’ learrnt how to b’ now...,” he muttered as he passed with a nod.

Doremi chuckled, and continued forward to the hatch.


Back on the main deck, most of the Fellowship had broken up and wandered about to different parts of the vessel to relax or pass the time. Fosmo was shooting dice with some deck hands next to the hatch, and Nightshadow and Thor were in conversation with Espidreen up on the weather deck.

Doremi herself wandered up above the forecastle, and from the bow the sound of scraping metal came to her ears. The Bard drew near to a forward railing and looked over to see Romulus sitting on the foredeck below, his back to the forecastle bulkhead and his knees drawn up to his chest. He was running a sharpening stone along the cutting edges of his new sword.

Hi, Romulus,” she called out, leaning out over the rail.

The Gladiator glanced up at her and then back to his weapon. “Hello,” he responded, running his thumb along the bottom edge of the blade.

Like your new sword?” she asked.

He shrugged, slipping the blade into its sheath and laying it aside, and settled back into a more comfortable position, placing his hands behind his head and kicking out his legs against the bow rail alongside the ship’s long bowsprit.

Remains to be seen.”

Can I ask you something?” Doremi inquired.

No answer came, and she continued.

How come you’re coming along on this quest? You don’t seem to believe in it, so why are you even here?”

He let out a breath. “I always pay my debts,” came the response.

Doremi eased herself down to the deck and stuck her legs out between two balusters to the left of the Gladiator. “You mean you owed Raven?”

Doesn’t everyone?” he asked sarcastically.

Doremi wasn’t certain what to say in response, but the Gladiator went on.

I was a slave-Gladiator when I started out, and she redeemed me when I was in my twenties,” he explained. “She gave me the Gladiatorial school, and though she doesn’t claim I owe her anything, both of us know she considers me forever in her debt.”

Romulus leaned forward and turned to look up at the Bard. “When I left slavery behind, I swore I’d never be anyone’s slave again--including hers. I’m here because both of us know, without having to say it, that the debt is paid in full when this thing is over.”

He reclined again and stared out over the rail to the horizon ahead. “And just what do you owe her? Why are you here? For a moment, there, I thought you were the one person smart enough to stay out of this, then you let yourself be manipulated.”

He shook his head.

No one manipulated me,” Doremi insisted. “I came because I’d had it with Espidreen’s mouthing off about how useless Bards are!”

Ah,” he replied, “you’re here because of Espidreen then,” he repeated.


Espidreen--who doesn’t so much as take a breath if she isn’t certain Raven wants her to? That Espidreen?”

Doremi was silent.

They tricked you,” Romulus went on. “They wanted you along, and they fooled you into coming. I wager Raven asked you to come, and you said no?”

No answer came from the Bard as she was considering the Gladiator’s words, and he went on.

Then along comes Espidreen, and she insults you in just the perfect way to get you to stand up and practically demand to come along.”

He paused. “And you think it was all your idea?”

The Gladiator shook his head again.

Doremi pondered his words for a moment and then punched her fist into the deck.

I hate that!” she exclaimed. “I’m a trusting person, and people always take advantage of me!”

Romulus turned his head slightly and then back to stare forward. “That shocks you? Trusting people always get taken advantage of,” he remarked. “That’s why you’re a fool to trust anyone.”

Doremi let out a sigh and looked down at him. “What’s the alternative? To be like Raven, and trust nobody, and always keep one eye behind you, ready to swat down the first sign of opposition?”

Romulus shrugged. “No one would take advantage of you that way. Certainly, no one takes advantage of her because she’s like that.”

Perhaps not.” said the Bard.  “But to be like her would turn me from being the sort of person that I am, into the sort of person that I don’t want to be.”

Fair enough,” Romulus answered. “Then don’t be surprised when people take advantage of your trusting nature.”

Doremi looked down to the Gladiator with a sense of regret over the fact that he wasn’t quite the sort of person she’d hoped he would be. There was always hope, though.

So you really think we’re all going to die before this is over?” she asked after a few moments.

I think you’re going to die,” he answered tersely.

Shocked at the comment, Doremi didn’t immediately respond, and Romulus looked back up at her.

No offense meant,” he added.

Let me guess--because I’m only a weak little Bard?” she asked, caustically.

The Gladiator shrugged. “I don’t know anything about Bards, but I know this: I could jump to my feet, mount those ladders, and have you lying dead before you could run five steps.”

He settled back, folding his thick arms across his chest.

Not that I would do that,” he added, staring out at the distant horizon, “but my point was, that’s what I could do to you, and we’re going to a place with enemies who may be even more powerful than I am, who wouldn’t hesitate to kill a woman who invaded their domain--even an attractive one.”

Hearing that, Doremi suddenly wondered how her hair looked, and how much of it had perhaps fallen out from under her cap.

And not that you’re the only one I think we’ll lose,” he spoke, as if that was some sort of backhanded attempt to blunt his earlier words. “I expect all the Witches, except maybe for Raven, to be dirt-napping before the night is over, along with that string bean of a thief.”

He shook his head. “Stupid woman is going to get you all killed. That School is no place for women spell-casters--muscle and steel is the only thing with a chance to survive in there.”

You probably know her better than I do, but she seems like someone who’s planned this thing out to the smallest detail,” the Bard offered.

And you don’t think that Liche has planned his defenses even better than she’s planned her attack in a place she’s never even been to? Like as not, he even knows we’re on our way.”

Doremi shuddered at the thought. “I sure hope you’re wrong,” she spoke. “If he knows we’re coming--we’re dead. Period.”

Romulus chuckled. “Makes it interesting, doesn’t it? We’ll just have to see what happens. I’m pessimistic about the whole thing. But I can always be wrong. The only thing I’m certain of is that I will get through it. The key, though, will be those two bulls of hers--Nightshadow and that Scandian. If they go down, get out of my way, because the only part of me you’ll see will be my back as I’m running for the door. You’re welcome to keep up if you want, but don’t expect me slow down for you.”

So you saying that when the going gets tough...?” Doremi left the sentence hanging, although her tone probably betrayed her disgust for his comments.

No,” he replied. “I’m no coward, and I’ve agreed to participate in this quest, and I’ll participate to the best of my abilities. I’ll fight alongside all of you, and risk my life for you, but I won’t give my life for any of you.”

He paused for a moment. “That’s not the way of Gladiators,” he finally said. “Our way is to survive until the next fight.”

Romulus’ voice began to soften as, it seemed to Doremi, he came to grips with some part of himself he didn’t often share with others. “That’s why we have no friends. The man you train alongside with may be the man you have to kill next month.”

He then glanced back up at her. “We may get one chance to run,” he spoke slowly, and with a serious tone. “If you make it that far and you see those two bulls go down somehow--you run like Asmodeus himself is hot on your tail, and don’t look back. Before they retreat, Raven and what’s left of her people will try one trick or another of hers to hold off whatever starts to come at them, but don’t you wait--you run. Understand? You run! And I’ll be running too.”

I just hope you’re wrong,” Doremi repeated, looking down to the deck. “I hope somehow she knows what she’s doing.”

She doesn’t,” the Gladiator answered, closing his eyes and resting his head in the crook of his left arm as he settled back for a quick nap in the morning sun.

The Bard turned, swung her legs back up to the forecastle roof, and reached up to the rail, pulling herself up to her feet.

But she’s very lucky, you know--and she has the best Gladiator in the history of the Ludus with her,” she heard him add as she walked away.


The layout of Nazier’s cabin was the same as that of her own ship, and after leaving Doremi Raven made straight for the bunk, which was mounted atop a unique slotted frame set into the deck and the bulkhead that permitted the bed to remain reasonably stationary as the ship pitched and rolled.

The bed smelled like Nazier, but she ignored that and settled down into it, her head throbbing.

On his perch next to a desk against the stern, Nazier’s pet parrot was flitting about.

Raven let out a breath and looked over to him. For a moment, she was envious. Life was pretty simple for a parrot. He always had a roof over his head, albeit one that never remained still for more than a moment. He always had enough fruits and nuts to eat, and he didn’t have to worry about a whole lot. All in all, not a bad life.

Unlike hers.

Cat got your tongue, Pete?” she called out.

The yellow and turquoise parrot didn’t so much as squawk, but he was flapping his clipped wings and nearly taking to flight. Nazier would have to trim his feathers soon.

She settled back into the bunk, resting her left hand behind her head. For a moment, her thoughts began to drift back to the Gypsy, but she stopped herself before any emotion could arise in her.

I will simply will myself to stop having this headache, she thought.

And with that, she drifted off to sleep so she could leave the world behind for a while.


The ship continued north for the rest of the day. During that time, the Assault team had little to do other than to learn a few defensive formations for use when inside the School. That took only a short time, and then they were free to lounge about and wait to reach shore.

Then, late in the afternoon, when the great orange sun began its dip into the western horizon, Venivica made her appearance. The Witch appeared out of nowhere, materializing upon the weather deck, a look of worry on her face. She’d obviously used a word of Power from a scroll to join them, for she cast a scroll over the side as she arrived, then she looked about for Raven.

Where’s Raven?!” she demanded, concern evident in her voice.

Nazier, standing next to the helmsman, pointed down to the deck and the Witch was off like a shrike, bolting down the stairs to the main deck to rush into Nazier’s cabin. Those who happened to be on the weather deck at the time, including Doremi, wondered what was up.

They didn’t have long to wait, for a few moments later Raven was rushing up to the weather deck with Venivica following behind.

Assault team, up here now!” she called out.

The few who were on the main deck began making their way aft, and Doremi noted that Raven’s teeth were ground together in a grimace.

Clearly, she was mad about something.

What is it?” Thor asked, moving to her side.

Problem,” she answered quietly.

It took only a few moments, and then everyone was gathered near the mainmast as Raven began to explain.

Cyllindrethifl, the other member of our Team who has been keeping an eye on the School, has sent Venivica a letter through a message box,” she announced. “Apparently, she caught sight of some activity that was slightly out of the ordinary. Though not suspicious, in and of itself, we agreed that if there were any signs of unusual activity at the School on the night of our attack, we would hold off. We are thus returning to Freeport.”

Voices exploded from amongst the Fellowship with everyone talking at once, it seemed.

Our entire plan relies on absolute surprise,” Raven went on. “If there is any chance Nostradamus has somehow learned of our coming attack, we must wait for another time.”

Wait! Wait!” Nightshadow interrupted. “What kind of activity? Maybe if it’s nothing that proves he knows....”

Raven held her hands up. “Remember what we said from the beginning: we cannot win unless we achieve surprise. We can’t take the chance, Nightshadow. There’ll be another time.”

But the Rogue wouldn’t be persuaded so easily.

If there’s no real proof, I say we go,” he continued, sweeping his right hand toward the bow to emphasize the point. “There’s no way he could have discovered our plans; and if he did, he’d do more than some superficial activity--he’d put that whole School on alert! There may not be another time, and we have the forces in place now--I say go!”

Raven was firm. “No! We don’t take the chance, Nightshadow.  I’m sorry.”

He was about to say more, but Thor stepped forward and put his massive hands upon the Rogue’s shoulders, trying to calm his friend.

She’s right,” he spoke. “We agreed that if anything out of the ordinary happened there, no matter how slight, we’d hold off.”

This from you?!”

Furious, Nightshadow shook himself free, his red eyes burning in rage over the fact Thor wasn’t backing him up.

The Scandian held his hands out. “No one here wants vengeance any more than I do, Nightshadow, but we force him to fight on our terms, not rush in to fight on his! Maybe next month, maybe next year, but another time will come. We’ve taken a vow, and we won’t forget him--and we will all live to see that Liche dead at our feet. But we’ll do it when we know we can surprise him.”

Livid, Nightshadow turned away in frustration. “I can’t believe you people! Has courage fled from Islay that you all want to turn tail and run at nothing?!”

Nightshadow,” Raven now spoke, “if it was just us--you, me and Thor--I’d agree with you, and go right now. I’d be willing to risk my life and take the gamble.”

She paused.

But it’s not just us. There are others here who would be placing their lives at risk as well. You could survive a surprise attack by a hundred of his wizards he might have hidden around him for protection, but what of Espidreen? Or Doremi? It’s not right that we ask them to take the chance we would take ourselves because of our own desire for vengeance. There will come another day! Be patient, and the day will come when we will have our vengeance, but as Thor says--on our terms, not his!”

There was silence for a moment, and then Nightshadow spoke. “So be it,” he muttered, fists clenched.

Then, without another word, he wandered back to the stern, clearly wishing to be left to his own thoughts.

Raven let out her breath. “All right--Cyl will join us any time now, and then we’ll portal back to Freeport. ‘Til then...I suppose you can all just relax and wait. And I thank you all for the willingness you’ve shown to be a part of this quest, even though it’s being canceled.”

She turned to Nazier. “Set your course west, for Freeport, away from Hocwrath.”

Nazier nodded. “Starboard your helm and set your course west,” he ordered the helmsman.

Starboard the helm and set course west, aye,” the man answered, and the vessel veered to port as he turned the wheel.

It came as no surprise to the Bard that most everyone in the Assault team was no less relieved than she was at the cancellation of the quest. Aside from Nightshadow, only Giles seemed to be taking the news with more than a passing amount of regret. Solemnly, the Knight stood leading against the rail, looking out to starboard, where somewhere in the distance was Hocwrath.

Curious at his demeanor, the Bard approached.

You seem disappointed, Sir Giles,” she observed.

The old warrior turned and bowed, then leaned back against the bulwark. “Disappointed? Aye,” he responded, somberly. “Disappointed I be.”

How come?” wondered the Bard. “I mean, you didn’t really want to risk your life on something this dangerous, did you?”

Thou must not knoweth much about Knighthood,” came his answer. “To a Knight of true heart, danger be the ultimate test of a man’s courage, skill and chivalry. Many a foe have I vanquished in mine years, but since there be no more Questing Beasts for a Knight to test himself against, then a Liche be the next best thing to a true dragon. Looking forward to it, I was. A night and a day also have I fasted to Priscilla, that she give me courage and strength to face yonder foe. But it was nay her will to bless me this night with the opportunity to face Liches.”

The Knight looked down to the deck for a moment. “All me life have I dreamt of slaying me a dragon; or, if not, then some beast like a Liche,” he admitted. “I have always wondered if my courage would sustain me, or if I be a coward at heart. Some of us believe we can never know what is in our hearts ‘til we face a foe we know we cannot defeat. Then the true measure of a man be brought forth, and he seeth himself as he truly be.”

Giles turned back to face north. “I have never shirked from battle...never shown my back to any foe...yet still I wonder if a coward I be, and if I be worthy to wield this blade.”

Doremi smiled. “Well, I’m sure you’re not a coward, Sir Giles,” she told him. “And I, for one, am glad no one, including you, has to face Nostradamus.”

Yes, but then a girl you are,” he observed.

Doremi chuckled at the comment, and for the first time since the council she began to relax. And as day began passing into night as they sailed into the setting sun, she silently gave thanks that the madness of assaulting Nostradamus in his own School had been called off.

But oh how wrong she was.


The sun was nearly below the horizon and the ship’s lamps lit when Nazier departed the weather deck and made his way down to the cargo hatch. It was then Doremi remembered the parcel Morgaine had given her, and though she wasn’t sure Morgaine would still have wanted her to deliver it given the new circumstances, nevertheless she retrieved the knapsack and followed him down below.

She found Nazier up forward, pulling down a large canvas tarp from some ten-foot sections of paneling that had been secured to the side of the hull, one of which, she noted, was made of stone rather than wood.

The Bard made her way toward him, stepping over some of the varnished mahogany ribs of the great ship, and bracing herself against the starboard hull with her right hand. The deck, she noted, swept upward as the width of the ship narrowed the closer she came to the fore end of the vessel.

Hello,” she spoke.

Nazier turned around as he began rolling up the canvas. “Hello again, little lady,” he responded.

I’m sorry to bother you, but, um, I was asked to give you something after I met you,” she spoke. “I don’t know if I’m still supposed to, since Raven’s called this thing off, but here it is.”

A look of puzzlement swept over the sailor’s face as Doremi removed her knapsack and knelt down, fumbling inside. She retrieved the red silken parcel which had a letter secured to it with a string, then stood up, handing it to Nazier.

The rough hands of the old mariner broke the seal and unfurled the note, which he tried to hold up near a lantern that hung from a hook on a beam, to better read it.

Doesn’t that girl know not everyone has the eyes of someone in their blasted twenties?!” He exclaimed, moving it back and forth until it became as clear as his eyes were going to get it. “You need the eyes of an eagle to read script this small!”

I’ll read it for you, if you like,” Doremi volunteered.

It’ll be fine,” muttered Nazier, finally settling on the best distance he was going to get. It took but a moment to read, and he then stuffed both parcel and letter into one of the large pockets of his overcoat.

Thank you,” he said.

Doremi paused for a moment in hope that he would explain what the parcel was, but Nazier said nothing more and she realized it would be awkward if she waited any longer without saying anything, so she brought up the next subject on her mind.

I, uh, noticed Raven actually said that we should obey you over her while we’re on the ship. I have to say that really surprised me--she doesn’t seem to be the sort who gives up authority to anyone else.”

Of course she doesn’t,” Nazier replied. “How long have you known her, anyway? I don’t remember ever seeing you with her before.”

I just met her a couple of days ago,” the Bard answered. “She’s hired me to run a Music school for her.”

An odd look flashed across Nazier’s face, but he let it pass.

Well, you’re right,” he said, “she doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do--and that’s one of her biggest problems. We almost drowned because of it.

It happened years ago,” he continued, “when we were sailing for Scandia, hoping to see if a ship could reach Torrencia through the northern passage without too much of a problem with Scandian raiders. One night Dipper, a wizard she knew, was up forward and caught sight of an ice rock ahead of us.”

What’s an ice rock?” Doremi asked.

Great floating hills of solid ice. They have them up in the far north. Some are small like ice patches on a lake in winter, and some are literally mountains of floating ice.

Well, we had never seen such a thing, and so when Dipper said she saw something big and white ahead of us in the water, those of us back at the stern assumed it was a whale that would swim away. Well, it didn’t, and another of her friends went forward to have a look, and they both start screaming at us to turn the ship. Well, Raven, who was back at the helm, panicked and ordered the hands to lower sail, hoping to stop. I countermanded that order and ordered the helm hard over. Raven countermanded me and ordered the helm hard over while lowering the sail; and the hands, afraid of her, did what she said and began lowering the sail, while the helmsman put the helm hard over.

Quickly as I could, I tried explaining we were going to lose our rudder control if we lowered sail, so she panics again and screams out ‘engage the reversing engine!’. To this day, I have no idea what that was supposed to mean, and so I shouted back that whatever that was, we didn’t have one, and then she comes to her senses and screams for the crew to hoist sail.

Of course,” he went on with a note of disgust, “by that time, we had lost our wind and had just enough headway to turn our starboard beam directly toward the ice, so there we were, drifting beam first into an ice rock. We nearly stove in the side, but fortunately Raven’s idea of stuffing coconut husk between our two hulls worked, and it sealed the hole up a bit, but still we spent over a day bailing water until we could beach the ship on land and repair the damage. Her friends really got on her for the incident, and I told them right there and then I would never sail with them again unless Raven agreed that at sea my word--and only my word--would be the word that counts. She grumbled and hated it, but she had no choice. That’s why, to this day, I outrank her aboard ship.”

He grinned broadly. “And I’m the only one in her life who can actually overrule her--something that has brought me no end of satisfaction, lo these many seasons.”

Doremi chuckled. “That’s funny,” she said. “So I guess this happened a long time ago on that first ship she owned, the Ocean Gypsy?”

Aye. In fact, I was her original master, you know,” Nazier said as he leaned back against the bulkhead. “You never saw such a beautiful ship as the Ocean Gypsy. First, she was huge--I think perhaps the biggest ship ever built in Islay up to then. She was crafted all of mahogany and teak, hand carved, hand fitted and joined, tied or staked together--you would be hard pressed to find much iron in her.”

The weather-worn hands on the sailor formed a tight fist and Nazier shook it. “Her bones were mahogany baulks and futtucks a collision with an ice rock could hardly stave in. And her hull was painted beautiful shades of mustard and yellow, accented in green.”

And below the waterline was bright red, Doremi said with a smile. “There’s a model of it at the inn.”

Yes, indeed it was. She sported a giant lateen--that’s triangular--sail of red and white stripes with her big Raven crest, along with a sprit sail. They weren’t canvas either--Raven had them made from silk! True, the Ocean Gypsy was under-canvassed and slow, but she was solid. That ship could sail the Sea of Storms if it had to. Raven sunk gold into that vessel like there was no tomorrow--she didn’t hold back any in making her into a floating jewel. The ship even smelled good from the lotus poison the Arwinians swabbed the hull down with to kill wood organisms.

Her friends were in a fit over all the gold going into the vessel. Raven would explain it off by saying ‘It’s our ship, and it should be the best’, yet they all knew it was her ship. But they saw she was excited about it and they put up with her extravagance.

You should have seen the first day we sailed her into Freeport. Everyone ran down to the docks to see her. Men, women, young, old--they were all running to see the beautiful yellow ship being docked by the tow galley. You must remember that a vessel a hundred feet long was a big ship back then. And here was the Gypsy, nearly twice that length. No one could even conceive a vessel so large in those days, and they all wanted to take a look at her--especially the shipwrights. We were all proud of her--and Raven was the proudest.”

Doremi chuckled. “And let me guess--she made a huge cabin for she and her sister, while the others got small cabins, and her rationale was ‘Well, we’re two people sharing, and since I’m the captain of the ship I need the extra room anyway’.”

Lady Doremi, you have Raven down,” Nazier congratulated her, removing his plumed hat with a graceful arc, and bowing. “That is precisely what she did,” he said, replacing the hat upon his head. “But the others didn’t gripe overly much; even the crew’s quarters were nice. Really, those early days aboard the Gypsy were the only days I think I’ve ever seen Raven happy. She was quite excited, and I think her sister and friends thought it worth paying so much for the ship, since she’d been so grieved after her father's death.”

So you knew her way back when, huh? And you even knew her sister?”

Indeed I did. I knew them all--Cydius, Dipper, and her sister Aradawn--all the original group she adventured with. Cydius, for one, was a great swordsman. That fellow could fight, fight well, and fight all day long. Dipper was a wizard--a rarity outside of Hocwrath in those days. Raven’s sister Aradawn, though--now she was something. Bigger and stronger than Raven, she could fight like Raven with a sword--and she was even better than Raven back then. Such a charming and pretty girl, too. Beautiful golden hair that shimmered as if it had captured the brilliance of the sun itself. And what she could do with a katana was remarkable. If you ever see Raven fight, as impressed as you would undoubtedly be at her prowess, bear in mind her sister was even more skilled with a blade. That’s why they put her and Cydius together, with Raven shooting a bow and Dipper casting spells behind them. All four were an extraordinary team. They cut through pirates like sheep,” he said, slashing the air as if he wielded a cutlass, “and that’s how they got rich: sailing out from Serendib in a beautiful ship like the Gypsy, and attacking the pirate ships from Freeport that would jump her like ravening wolves. They'd loot what the pirates had picked up beforehand and sell it back in Serendib. Meanwhile, they’d put a prize crew aboard the pirate ship and have them sail it to Torrencia to sell there. Amongst her many talents, Raven--if you don’t know it--can craft armor. Well, she fashioned this set of black armor for Aradawn with a special helmet that had a bladder filled with healing elixirs. When Aradawn was hurt, she’d bite down on it and heal on the spot, so a whole crew of pirates could be kissed by her blade before they’d ever put her down.”

Oh, that’s a great idea. I’ve known some warriors who would’ve loved something like that!” exclaimed the Bard.

Yes, one thing you must give Raven is, she’s smart. As I say, they were an awesome group of treasure hunters. Raven just never really fit in, though. Mostly, it was like she was with them, and perhaps even leading them, but she was never really a part of them if that makes any sense.”

Sort of,” Doremi said. “Her father’s death was still weighing on her.”

Nazier nodded. “I’m sure that was it. Aradawn got over it, but Raven never did. In fact, they once got into a nasty argument over that as I recall. Raven accused Aradawn of not loving their father because Aradawn was particularly happy one day. Well, Aradawn didn’t appreciate that one bit and they almost came to blows. Cydius and Dipper had to separate them. Aradawn moved in with Dipper, and she and Raven were barely on speaking terms thereafter.”

Doremi sighed. “That’s a shame. And so dumb. I guess brothers can be just as bad, but we girls stupidly argue over everything from boys to clothes, and sometimes fight like cats and dogs. But we know we do still love each other. If someone attacks one, you can bet the other will jump in, in a heartbeat.”

Nazier agreed. “Yes, it was a lot like that. If someone would have hurt Aradawn, even though she was cross with her, Raven would have slain them on the spot. But she was on the outs with the whole lot, really. Cydius, in particular, she came to hate, which was ironic because there would have been no Ocean Gypsy without him. He was Dipper's cousin, as I recall, about ten seasons older than the rest, and he had been a carpenter. A carpenter in Freeport meant, or course, he was also a shipwright. Well, there had never been a ship made like the Gypsy, and it started with Raven just making a drawing of it and trying to have it built in Serendib. The Arwinians had never built a ship that big, and they really had no idea how to do it. Cydius came up with the novel idea of making a model of the ship from Raven’s sketches, and he did. He carved out a model almost two feet long--the one you saw at the Inn--and made it as exact as he could, so he knew what size the main structural pieces had to be, and where they had to go. He worked with the Arwinians, and between he and they, the Gypsy was finished after about eight months of work. He even invented a new way of construction. Before the Gypsy, much of a ship’s bones were made from solid pieces of wood. Well, the Gypsy was much too large for that and to craft her, Cydius came up with the bright idea of crafting baulks and futtucks from several pieces of wood, joined together to make a single piece. To everyone’s surprise, the finished product was actually stronger than it would have been were it crafted from single logs. To this day, it is a mystery as to why that is. So really, he’s the one who made it possible for the ship to be built.

He and Raven seemed to get along tolerably well the first couple of years they knew each other, but toward the end she really came to hate him. I think he picked up on it, and he kept calling her ‘Rave’--at first, probably to be friendly, but eventually to goad her, though he had little nicknames for everyone: Dipper he called Dip, Aradawn he called Roddy and Raven he called Rave. Then one night in a tavern Dipper took it up and called her ‘Rave’, and she went berserk. She overturned this table she was at--she’d always sit alone in a corner--pulled her sword and screamed she’d run through the next one of them who called her ‘Rave’. That silenced the tavern, then some fellow at another table made the mistake of laughing out, ‘Okay, Rave, ha, ha, ha’. Well, he got the third ‘ha’ out before one of those star daggers of hers hit him in the forehead and dropped him dead on the spot. Raven then stormed out at that point and Aradawn went after her to either calm her down or fight with her; I don’t know. But I tell you--the tension was thick as a cheese between she and the rest from the point of that first big argument with Aradawn. At the very end, she’d even cut her hair short, no doubt to anger Raven who thought Aradawn’s hair looked better long.”

What happened that day?” Doremi asked. “The day her sister died?”

I don’t know. She never talks about it. From small bits and pieces, I know they were in Arwin looking for something Raven had a line on, and they wanted to stay after Raven wished to go, and I suppose something jumped them. She was the only one to escape alive.”

Do you think she blames herself for not being able to save them?”

Probably some, but I don’t know what more she could have done. She portaled back onto the ship half dead. I’ve never seen her look as bad. She obviously fought with everything she had, but there were too many of whatever they were. She ordered us to set sail for Freeport and stumbled down to her cabin. We didn’t say anything because it was obvious they’d all died. She didn’t come out until we neared port.”

She was haunted by her stupid feud with her sister, and grieving that not only had she died, but she had died when they were still mad at each other,” Doremi speculated. “I’m sure Aradawn still loved her, though. But when death comes unexpectedly, it’s too late to swallow your pride, and apologize.”

Maybe so. All I know is, we didn’t see or hear from her ‘til we reached Freeport. That’s when she finally came out and just scuttled the ship.”

Scuttled it?! I assumed it wrecked off the coast in the fog or something.”

Nazier shook his head. “Oh, no. She drove the ship right onto the rocks at full sail in the middle of a clear day in front of the whole town. Pushed me away from the wheel, ordered full sail, tossed a lantern onto the deck to start a fire, and rammed that beautiful ship onto the shoals. We were jumping like frogs to get off before she hit. The Gypsy came half out of the water, heeled over and burned, but we all made it to shore, fortunately.

Raven swam ashore too, said nothing, and walked up to her old shop. She was never the same after that. From that point, she was basically the Raven she still is. And, from that point, Lightfoot and the Council also started working on a way to get rid of her since her backup was now gone, and things progressed from there. That was also when she became Raven TenTolliver.”

Doremi was stunned. “What?!”

Oh, yes. Almost no one knows, and if you mention this, she’ll kill me. But she’s as human as you are.”

Doremi shook her head. “I don’t understand. She’s a half-elf--a TenTolliver.”

Nay, her sister was the TenTolliver. Actually, they weren’t even true sisters, to be technical. From what I know--and I suppose I’m about the last person alive who does know--Nightshadow’s uncle had a daughter by some woman he wasn’t married to. Well, the Elves wouldn’t approve of something like that, so I am told he left the daughter in care of Raven’s father to raise because they were friends who had adventured together. So Aradawn TenTolliver, and Raven, the daughter of Shibato, were raised together and considered each other sisters. But they weren’t true sisters, and Raven was never a TenTolliver. She took the name after Aradawn died. Didn’t you ever notice the difference in their names? Aradawn is an Elven name--no Elf would name their daughter Raven, after a bird of carrion.”

I--I hadn’t noticed. But yes, that does make sense. But she looks somewhat Elven. You can see it in her eyes.”

Nazier gave a laugh. “Her eyes come from her father; that squint has nothing to do with Elven blood. He’s from another continent where the people look like that.”

Doremi’s jaw now hung open in stunned shock at this new revelation. “There are no other continents; there is only Islay...isn’t there?”

Nazier shook his head. “There is another continent past the sea of Storms--it’s called Yamato. Raven’s father was a pirate or assassin, I hear tell, and a ship from there he was on was caught up in a storm and blown near Islay. It sank, and he survived to be pulled from the water by some pirates from Freeport. That’s why Raven does things no one else on Islay can--her father taught her boxing and things that they do in this other continent.”

But isn't the sea of Storms where the water falls off the edge of the world?” Doremi asked.

Well, yes, supposedly. But somehow there's another continent somewhere in there. I don't know how, but there is a place called Yamato, and Raven's father was from there. I imagine myself and Harlequin are the only ones left after all this time who have any idea of that.”

Who’s Harlequin?” Doremi asked.

Nazier turned and hung a coil of line upon a peg.

You don’t want to know,” he said. “But he’s the assassin who betrayed Lightfoot’s plans to Raven. Back then, he was just an apprentice to Lightfoot’s chief assassin. But, anxious to advance himself, he gambled that Raven was tough enough to kill Lightfoot and smart enough to become chief of the Council after he was dead. So he allied with her against Lightfoot. Lightfoot had promised to restore her position as a Lord by assigning two of his ships to her, and supposedly they would split the profits made by them. Well, the actual plan was to poison her at a banquet the nine Lords would hold to ‘celebrate’ the occasion. Raven found out, and cut a deal with Harlequin. He joined her, but asked for one thing in return--an enchanted silver harlequin mask Lightfoot’s chief assassin owned.

Harlequin underestimated her, though. She didn’t just plan to make Lightfoot alone the recipient of her vengeance; she decided her best course was to kill off the whole council. So what she did was, she passed the word to the slaves awaiting sale to the Krellans. You see--they’d demoted her so far by this time from a full Pirate Lord, to Treasurer, to City Archivist, to finally putting her in charge of only handling the slave market. Well anyway, the slaves and many of the common people in Freeport had come to like her because she wasn’t as--mean--as the rest of the Council, and she acted like she cared about them. See, a while before all this, her friends had been getting on her about how nastily she treated people, and how she was giving the group a bad reputation. Well, to get back at them, she started acting nice around other people. Someone would come up and ask for help or something, and she’d put an arm on their shoulder and in a nice, soft, caring voice and a charming smile say: Please--let us help you with that. We’d be delighted to assist you. Now, we can’t have that, can we? Certainly we’ll help you! And she’d talk all nice and sweet, like a ripe peach ready to be eaten, just to goad Aradawn, Cydius, and Dipper, who knew it was all hypocrisy. But the people she encountered never realized it, and they all thought she cared--though to be fair, I must admit that she really did have an antipathy for slavery and outright oppression, and she saw to it that the slaves were treated better than they had been before she was placed over them. But this is how she caught on that if you act sweetly you can make people trust you.

Anyway, on the night Freeport burned, those of us in her crew smuggled arms to the slaves--who’d been promised their freedom and ships to take them home if they’d fight for her. Around the third hour of the night, the slaves broke out of their pens and fought their way to the Council Keep. At the banquet, meanwhile, what Lightfoot had done was have his assassin poison the carrots they figured would be the only food she’d eat. What none of them knew was, Raven had days before gotten to Morgaine’s mother, who was a slave-cook at the keep, and convinced her to drop a two-stage poison in the meat and wine, and to make sure Lightfoot’s food wasn’t touched.

So the banquet starts. We get there, and they give Raven a nice dish of carrots and some water. Well, she holds off on the carrots and says to celebrate the occasion she’s going to eat some meat like everyone else. So she ignores the carrots and starts eating meat while everyone else digs in and washes theirs down with a river if wine as was their typical wont. After a few minutes, everyone starts getting woozy except for Lightfoot. Raven, too, was acting nauseated, and she arose and stumbled to the wall, doubled over in pain and shouting that they’d all been poisoned. Well, seven of the Lords immediately thought Lightfoot was trying to poison everyone and take the city, and they were about to attack Lightfoot; while Lightfoot thought his assassin was trying to kill the Council off and seize power himself. Lightfoot screamed for the assassin, and the fellow ran in. Well, he ran past Raven, who whipped out a dagger and stabbed him in the neck as he passed her, and she killed him. The rest of the Council were starting to go under, and Lightfoot realized he’d been tricked so he called for his men. The six captains who were supposedly going to be under Raven’s command rushed in from another room where they’d been waiting just in case Lightfoot needed them, and they knew what to do: Four came straight at her while Lightfoot backed off to swallow a poison elixir just in case he’d been poisoned too. Keep in mind that magic was quite rare in those days, and of the group only Lightfoot had an elixir; the rest had none, and just fell to the ground, puking and helpless.

Well, two of his captains came at me--I was standing over by some of the servants--and I killed them, but one got in a lucky shot and I went down but wasn’t killed. Four others then went at Raven.

Everyone knew she was an awesome fighter with those weird swords of hers, but they presumed, four-on-one, she’d be bested for sure. Well, what they didn’t know was how good a boxer she was--because no one who’d ever encountered it had lived to tell about it--and that she gets in far more attacks with her hands and feet than she does with a sword. So the first chap comes in at her and she dodges his swing and breaks his windpipe with a punch. He dropped like a rock, and she spun into the next pirate as he thrust a gladius at her, and locked his sword arm with hers. Then she made a sort of twisting motion--” Nazier did his best to illustrate it by wrapping his left arm around Doremi’s right and the leveraging it down and in toward his body and then twisting himself around to the right, into the limb “--and broke the fellow’s arm at the elbow.”

Doremi winced at the thought.

You could hear it crack, and one can only imagine the hellish pain, but he didn’t feel it long because a moment later she spun him around and impaled him on the next fellow’s sword as he thrust in. He backed away, pulling it out of his friend, while the fourth captain, a big Arwinian, came in swinging a two-handed scimitar for all he was worth. She had no problems dodging a clumsy weapon like that, then she made a flat fist of sorts and punched him, and I think put his eyes out, then she kicked him where she knew it would do the most good and finished him off by breaking his windpipe, too.

The last man now had his sword free, but Raven had hers out by now. He lasted about two or three breaths, then it was down to her and Lightfoot. He’d pulled his longsword and a dagger and then he charged in. I tell you, it had to be one of the great battles in the history of Islay. Lightfoot was a master swordsman--but he knew, going into it, he could not beat her! She’d already bested him the first time they met when he and four of his ships--who'd sailed out in a fleet to discover why his other ships were disappearing--jumped the Gypsy, and in return for his life, he gave her a seat on the Council. Well, he had figured out she knew some sort of fighting style that he couldn’t defend against, so he was dead if he tried fighting her normally. You see, when people normally fight, it’s sword-to-sword. You’ve heard that phrase, I presume?”

Doremi nodded.

She fights differently. It’s not sword-to-sword. In fact, there’s very little contact between her sword and someone else’s; mostly, she moves and dodges, keeping her sword ready, and looking for her opponent to get in some sort of position where she’s been trained to thrust in or slash in such a way that with her one attack she kills her opponent. Lightfoot didn’t understand that sort of style, so he did the only thing he could--he came straight on with everything he had, swinging that sword and dagger as quick and as hard as he possibly could. He knew his only hope was either if he got lucky or if she made a mistake, so there was no style or fighting skill he was using; it was swing as quickly as he could to keep her from using her own style against him, and force her to stay on defense until his break came.

They were at it a couple of minutes, but no one can keep that sort of attack up forever--and he was in his fifties. So he started to suck wind and she--being only twenty, or whatever--was hardly breaking a sweat. He kept swinging and swinging and swinging and moving at her, but she kept dodging or parrying and he simply could not hit her. Finally, she made this sort of right-handed spinning motion into him and her sword impaled itself up and into his gut. Next thing, there was a dagger in her left hand and she spun back to the left, laying the dagger across his throat--there was blood everywhere--and he fell forward, gurgling. She backed off, letting him fall, spit at him, then cut his head off. She skewered any of the Council who were still breathing, and that was the end of it.

The freed slaves, with Harlequin and some of our crew leading them, by now had made their way to the Keep, and Raven ordered Freeport burned to the ground--most of it, anyway, apart from the wharves and the shipyards. When it was over, Harlequin got his mask, Raven was in charge of Freeport, and many of the slaves were given ships of the pirate fleet to sail home on. But lots of them stayed on--some permanently, and some just for a while after Raven promised them gold in return for their acting as a sort of security force for Freeport until she was certain her opposition was all gone. And because Raven now had all the plunder of the Nine Captains, she distributed it to the population and used the rest to rebuild Freeport according to her own design. That basically made the citizens of Freeport prosperous, and they gave her their full support--the poor ones anyway. The allies and relatives of the Council were another matter, but she managed to restrain them ‘til Lightfoot’s head arrived in Torrence for the King of Torrencia with a plea for some guards to help keep her in power until she could forever turn Freeport into a neutral trading port.

Lawrence was pleased as punch to have Lightfoot’s head because of the problems Freeport had caused Torrencia’s ships--for centuries, really. He sent back fifty Knights as a guard for her, and though it took months for them to get there, Raven held off any threats until they arrived, and to this day she gets a regular squad of fifty Knights each year as an honor guard of sorts, though obviously she doesn’t need them now. After the smoke cleared, she took what was left of the nine fleets and turned them into merchantmen, hauling Krellan grain to Torrencia. That’s how the Guild started. Eventually, she made a treaty with the King of Torrencia that only the Guild would be permitted to sell foreign grain in Torrencia, and by that she became the lynch pin tying Krella and Torrencia together--and she reaped most of the profits, while the Krellans and the King of Torrencia also got a cut, so everyone was happy.

Maeve McConaghy, meanwhile, was at sea when all this transpired, so she was the only Lord to escape, and it was she who rallied the other pirates who survived and founded the pirates of Barataria, near Andor. But without Freeport as a base, or Lightfoot to guide it, piracy on Jewel ceased to be an art and became nothing more than base robbery.”

Wow! What a story!” Doremi exclaimed. “Bards like me love to hear stories about history from people who were actually there so we can know the truth behind the incidents, rather than the legend, although the legend is always more imaginative. The usual story behind that incident is that she invited the pirates to a banquet and poisoned them.”

Yes--and she hates that, and it enrages her. They were planning to poison her--she merely beat them to the punch. And she is infuriated when people accuse her of luring the Council to a poisoned meal merely to seize the city.”

Doremi thought for a moment. “You know, there’s a saying here and there, like That food was a regular Raven’s banquet or He ate a Raven’s meal. It means to eat something that makes you sick, or to eat some bad meat.”

She snapped her fingers. “I bet that’s where the saying came from!”

Yes, well--don’t ever use that saying around her,” Nazier cautioned.

Those pirates sound like they were a scurvy lot, but I suppose that’s in keeping for pirates,” the Bard observed.

Aye, they were a scurvy lot, most of them. Other than Raven, there was old Teach, who was Ninth Lord of the Captaincy because, like her, he had only one ship, mostly because no one would sail for him unless he was standing over them with his sword. He looked like a manbeast, and he scared everyone--only Lightfoot could control him.”

I saw his painting,” Doremi mentioned. “He looked like he was part ogre, didn’t he?”

There was talk he was,” Nazier confirmed, “though never to his face. After him was the Laffite bothers, Jules and Jean, who were Seventh and Sixth Lords of the Captaincy, with their six ships. There was Maeve McConaghy, Lightfoot’s squeeze, who was Fifth Lord of the Captaincy, with her eight ships. There was Qawasim, an Arwinian who had a dozen dhows sailing for him, as Fourth Lord of the Captaincy. The Third Lord of the Captaincy was Henry Avery--now that chap had a magnificent ensign with a skull sporting a Lord’s scarf over a set of crossed bones. I always admired it!

Winding up the list was the Second Lord of the Captaincy, John Roberts, who we called “Black Bart”. He had ten or twelve ships as I recall. And, last of all, was old Lightfoot, of course, who had twenty-seven ships under him--or at least he did at the height of his power; we captured and sold off at least eight of them. He had the best ship in Freeport, you know--in fact, it was the flagship of the King of Torrencia.”


Aye. He started out as an officer in the King’s fleet--what there was of it. They had just built this grand flagship with three masts, that mounted two catapults, and while the high officers were being toasted by the King in his palace, Lightfoot talked the rest of the crew into turning pirate, and they sailed the ship away, headed west, and took up the Pirate’s trade. They renamed the ship the Revenger, and were the terror of the sea, for nothing--at that time--could stand up to her. Raven eventually gave the ship back to the King when she brought in the first grain shipment.”

Oh--going back to the banquet, what was the importance of the mask?” Doremi wished to know.

Oh, yes--the mask. Well...I don’t know its history, but its power is that it allows the one who wears it to assume the form of any person. Man, woman, old, young. In other words, it’s a perfect tool for an assassin, and Harlequin is the most deadly assassin in Islay. He’s even better than Raven in some ways. I think he’s the one person she actually fears because he could, for instance, walk up to her looking like Morgaine and stick a knife in her. But luckily, we haven’t seen him in years, and they have an agreement to both stay out of each other’s way. Raven, fortunately, has his captured essence--or so she claims--and so he knows that any Witch who got a hold of it could make his life miserable, so he stays out of her affairs because if he killed her he knows one of her people would get to him sooner or later. He left Freeport and hires himself out here and there from what I’ve been told. Rumor has it he lives in Torrencia now as a Noble. If Raven had known what the mask does, she probably would never have given it to him. But--a deal was a deal.”

Nazier reached down into an oaken barrel and removed an apple, offering it to Doremi. She nodded and he tossed it to her, then reached down for another.

Doremi bit into the apple and swallowed down a piece.

Do you know anything about her portrait?” she asked.

Nazier pulled a knife from his boot, wiped it on his trouser leg, and began cutting the skin off the apple.

You mean that oversized painting of her back at the inn?” He laughed heartily. “I don’t know that I know much about it, but I remember it.”

Doremi shrugged. “Anything you know I’m interested in hearing.”

Well, let’s see--I remember the day she ‘posed’ for it. It was aboard the Gypsy. Dreamspinner came aboard, told Raven to pose; she did, then Dreamspinner just walked away and said to come pick it up in a week. I went with them in a wagon to get the thing and haul it up to the Council Keep. That blasted painting weighed a ton! Cydius and I could barely move the thing. Oh--and I remember the Council hated it! They all had portraits of themselves up at the Keep, but Dreamspinner wouldn’t paint them so they commissioned some Krellan artists to paint them all. Well, Krellans can’t paint worth anything; all they know how to do is sculpt and do mosaics. So none of the Council had what I’d say were really good paintings. Then along comes Raven, and she somehow gets Dreamspinner to not only paint her, but to paint this grand portrait that’s twice as tall as she is! Well, the only place big enough to hang it was on a wall at the end of the entrance gallery to the Keep, where Lightfoot’s painting, which was about half its size, hung. We moved him off to the side and placed her painting there, so the first thing you’d see as you entered the Keep was this giant painting of Raven looking down on the smaller paintings of the rest of the Council. Well, it riled them something fierce. They hated that painting, which I think was Raven’s intent. It was a real in-your-face thing on her part, but back then she was the cockiest, most arrogant girl you ever saw--not like she has that problem any more,” he added sarcastically.

In those days, she was really proud that she was a Lord of the Captaincy, and she’d strut around the docks like a peacock in that red head sash they wore. She decided to rub the Council’s face in it by having this overly big, ostentatious painting made by Dreamspinner. That was a big mistake she made--she hadn't learned tact yet, and she let the Council know how much disdain she had for them, because she was so powerful even then that it was obvious she considered them pirate scum, and she didn't try to hide it. That type of antagonism might have worked fine as long as she had her own band of friends to back her up, but once they were gone, suddenly the Council saw their chance to be rid of her--and that painting they were forced to look at every time they entered their keep.”

Nazier thought for a moment.

Actually,” he continued, “other than her old shop, that painting is all that’s left of her life from the old Freeport. She’s, by and large, destroyed everything else that ties her to that life, but the painting she kept. The Inn was even built where the Keep originally was. You know the big stone tower that rises above the rest of the Inn?”

Doremi nodded.

You might notice it looks a little out of place compared to the rest of the Inn. Well, that big tower was the original Council Keep. Raven renovated it as part of the Raven's Inn. It was completely redone, of course, but that was the original Keep. In fact...where the painting now hangs basically is where it hung back then, although what is now a white plaster waiting room was originally part of the stone entryway of the Keep.”

Is there anything else about Raven you could tell me? Anything else I should know?”

Nazier looked down to the deck and then up at her again. “You seem like a nice girl,” he spoke. “You think you can hold your tongue if I tell you something that could get me killed if she found out?”

Worried, Doremi nodded and Nazier lowered his voice. “If you’re going to work for her, understand you’re working for someone that is not what she seems. She has what I call her Good Raven face. That’s where she appears, like I said, all friendly and caring-like. She’ll cock her head a little, smile broadly and say Doremi, how nice to meet you--” Nazier mimicked the expression and the tone “--and she’ll act as if she’s your best new friend. But don’t be deceived by it. It’s merely her acting polite.”

Doremi’s jaw dropped. “That’s exactly what she did! It was like you were there!” she exclaimed.

Nazier nodded in understanding. “You see, Raven lacks the ability to care about people anymore, and she can’t relate to people from the heart as could a normal person. Her friends said that before her father died she was a decent person, although she was always serious. But her father’s death was the first straw, and her sister’s death was the last. It was just too much for her, and she lost the ability to care altogether. I pity her because I was there when lots of it happened, and I saw what she became as the seasons passed. But her mind is still strong, and she’s a very brilliant person. She understands what friendship looks like...she understands what compassion looks like--and she mimics it because that’s as close as she can come to actually feeling it. So she will never be able to relate to you on an emotional level like a normal person. She’ll--” Nazier paused and searched for the words, “--decide what part you are to play in her life, and she’ll treat you accordingly. But it will always be from her head, not her heart.

Assume you’re Morgaine--now she’s as close to a daughter as Raven will ever have, and Raven cares about her--in her own way. But she doesn’t care as a mother or as a friend does because she isn’t capable of doing that. If Morgaine died, unlike a normal person who would feel grief at the loss of a friend or daughter, Raven would be angry instead because her heart is as dried up as a prune, and she can’t grieve because that would be more emotion than she can handle. So she’d be mad instead. Thus, you need to understand you can never reach her on an emotional level--you must always come through her head. You get used to it after a while. But I just wanted you to know how to handle her.”

Doremi’s face had fallen. “Between what you and Romulus have told me about her, I knew it was too good to be true,” she muttered. “What have I gotten myself into?”

Nazier put his arm around her shoulder. “It’s not that bad,” he told her. “You’re important to her. She’ll act nice around you and you’ll learn how to pretend it’s real. But it's only fake because she can't make it real. I think she would if she could. And just bear in mind--I’m not saying she’s nothing but a pretty version of Nostradamus. She’s not acting nice on the outside and on the inside thinking you’re merely a dog who lives because of her whims. She’s not that kind of person. She just categorizes everyone, and then she puts on the face that she thinks they should expect to see, given the circumstances or their relationship to her. Really--you’ll get used to it. It’s hypocrisy, yes, but she can’t help it; she hasn’t got the ability to be any more sincere. Keep in mind that, apart from everything else that happened to her, she has spent her life having to out-think a legion of enemies from pirates to kings who wanted her out of the way. She’s had to become ruthless just to stay alive. In the world she lives in, the one who makes a mistake or misjudges his enemy rarely survives to learn from his error.” really grieves me to hear all that you’ve said,” Doremi answered. “I never knew much about her, but what little I did know caused me to admire her for what she was able to do, being a woman in a man’s world. Our world is changing, and it’s changing because of her. Magic is almost everywhere, machines are now doing many of the tasks it took back-breaking labor to do--and Islay is better for both. She’s the one responsible for it, yet to realize she has a side to her that is so dark...what a tragedy someone who has done such noble things lacks a noble heart.”

Nazier let go and moved to the stairway leading up to deck, where he paused and turned back to her. “Maybe some day she’ll find some way to love again. I wonder what she’d be like then. But I doubt I’ll live to see it.”

He turned away and started to climb up, but just then the ship lurched sharply, and he nearly lost his grip. Doremi too was tossed against a bulkhead as both could feel the deck beneath them pressing upward as it shook with a tremendous force.

The ship was rising into the air again!

It’s starting,” Nazier muttered as he held onto the ladder.

Doremi suddenly had a very empty feeling in the pit of her stomach, and--afraid she didn’t want to hear the answer--called out, “What’s starting?”

The attack on Nostradamus, of course,” he answered as he climbed up.

The Bard’s eyes flew open as she reached out for a beam to study herself. “But Raven said--”

Doremi left the comment hanging, for Nazier was stepping out onto the deck even as she was speaking, so she instead followed, climbing after the ship’s master.

The Widow was stabilizing by then, though she was still gaining altitude as the duo reached the weather deck. Here, they found that their missing party member was apparently missing no more, for an Elfwoman Doremi wasn’t acquainted with had taken the wheel and was concentrating on lifting the vessel into the air.

Her features were classically Elven, for she was neither tall nor thick-boned, but only five feet in height, thin and tightly muscled, with eyes of sapphire blue. She bore a fur cape secured by a golden chain hanging between a pair of golden discs inscribed with a hummingbird and a four-armed spiral, symbols of the Elven goddesses. A soft vest of red leather covered her yellow shirt and complimented a scarlet overskirt beneath which she wore a pair of black linen pants and thigh boots with silver accents. Two ornate daggers, with handles of ivory and gold, were scabbarded upon her leather belt, which also held pouches for spell ingredients.

Most odd was her hair, for the style was unlike anything Doremi had seen before: Its right side was short, barely hanging past her ear, but her straight hair was trimmed in such a way that as it wound its way over to the left side, it lengthened to fall past her shoulder. Its color was also unique, for it was a mixture of white interlaced with a platinum blonde so striking in the depth of its metallic color that it seemed to Doremi one might have been able to mint coins from it.

The woman herself was silent, yet heated comments between the Mistress of Freeport and the Gladiator were being exchanged as the two reached the stern.

But I thought you said you were calling it off!” Romulus was exclaiming.

Raven, standing to the Elf’s side, didn’t even turn to look at the Gladiator. “That’s right--I did,” came her answer. “Now I’m saying the attack is back on. So I suggest you all prepare.”

A lie, Doremi suddenly realized. She lied to us. She wanted us to think she was canceling it. But why?

Then she understood.

It was in case one of us was a spy! She tricked us, hoping that we’d somehow relay that information to Nostradamus, and deceive him. Does she really think someone here works for Nostradamus? I wonder if she thinks it’s me.

What sort of game is this?” the Gladiator was demanding.

Exasperated, Raven let out a breath and turned round to face the angry warrior, hands going to her hips. “What sort of game, Romulus? I’ll tell you what sort of game it is--a chess game!”

She took a step forward until she was nearly against him as her steely eyes locked with his. “A game where the first person to make a mistake, the first person to let his guard down, the first person that misjudges his opponent, pays for that with his life. A lot of people know about this Operation, and where there are lots of people in the Know, there is the potential of a spy being present. Just to cover that possibility, we arranged for this one final bluff, allowing as many as we could to think the Operation was being called off. Then, if there was a spy with us, he’d inform Nostradamus, and hopefully the Liche would let his guard down, regaining us the advantage. Only Morgaine, Cyl, Nazier, and Thor knew I’d be pulling this. Not even Nightshadow or Venivica--who heads my security force--knew Cyl’s letter to her was a ruse.”

Mac Tavish now folded his hairy red arms across his chest. “S’ y’ suspect a trraitorr’s amongst us, eh? Any idea who?” he asked.

Mac Tavish, if I really thought there were a traitor with us, he’d already be dead. But I got where I am today by out-thinking my enemies,” answered the Mistress of Freeport as she glanced toward the big Highlander. “I have no reason to suspect anyone, but I’d be a fool to take any chances--for if by some chance there was or is a traitor somewhere amongst those who are a part of this, I’ve now done all I can to neutralize any benefit he might have been to our enemy. And from this point on,” Raven now called out loudly enough for everyone to hear, “no one leaves my sight! Don’t even think of going to the water closet!

Nazier,” Raven now spoke, “summon all hands aft.”

Aye-aye,” Nazier answered. “All hands aft!” he shouted as he cupped his hands to his mouth, and then Doremi realized why he had such a blustery voice--necessity dictated everyone aboard ship hear his orders no matter where they were, and his thunderous baritone was perfectly adapted to that purpose.

Satisfied, Raven stepped back to stand behind the Elf, waiting as the ship’s thirty or so hands began making their way aft from their quarters in the forecastle, or down from the rigging.

And you didn’t at least tell me about it?” Nightshadow was questioning Thor. “You tricked me too?!”

You’re a bad actor,” Thor answered matter-of-factly. “We thought it would be more convincing if you didn’t know.” The Viking then winked. “Your cousin was right--it was the proper thing to do. Just be glad we’ll have our vengeance before this night is done if you’re still up for it.”

Though upset at the trick pulled on him, Nightshadow took it all in stride and settled back, relieved that at least the attack was going forward as planned. As for the crew, it took only a few moments for the deck to be crowded with seamen, and Raven was preparing to give a final speech when a voice called out from the crowd, “At your command, Mum.”

It bore the accent of a Torrencian.

Raven paused and seemed to recognize it, looking through the crowd until her eyes fell upon an old seaman with short gray hair and a long, but neatly trimmed beard made his way through his mates to her.

Mr. Hobbs!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?!”

At your command, Lord Raven.”

Now another voice came from a second older Torrencian, this one dressed in a dark overcoat with gold buttons running along both collars, sporting a triangular hat, who also now pressed forward through the crowd.

Mr. Grayson! Mr. Hobbs! You two are retired--why are you here? Nazier--what is going on?” Raven demanded, angrily turning to Nazier.

Before he could even answer, the first man spoke up.

Well, Mum, we figgered Nazier, here, has been so long since he’s captained a real ship he couldn’t get the job done without us to keep an eye or two on ‘im. We can’t have you getting lost now, can we?”

Raven shook her head. “Your wives will never let me hear the end of it if I let you two come on this quest. Espidreen is going to portal you back to Freeport right now!”

Me wife’s been dead now three winters, Mum,” Hobbs replied. “She won’t mind.”

Oh,” Raven spoke, suddenly embarrassed. “I’m sorry...I didn’t know.”

And me own wife, Mam, is just as happy to have me out of the house,” Grayson added. “Besides that, me grandchildren are tired of the same stories and want to hear some new ones. So both of us had to come. It’ll just be like old times.”

Nazier reached into his pocket. “And speaking of old times....” He pulled a red cloth out and unfolded what turned out to be a silk scarf--the one in her portrait back in Freeport, and the one Morgaine now wore.

He held it out to Raven. “Morgaine sent this for you to wear,” he explained. “After all, a Lord of the Captaincy should have a proper head covering. And, if you don’t mind...”

He beckoned and one of the crew came forward with a folded black flag. Nazier retrieved it and grasped it by the edges, allowing the banner to unfurl, revealing a grinning skull and crossbones. “It might be nice to fly under our old flag one final time.”

Raven looked at the flag and then stared down at the bandanna for few moments in shock. Doremi noticed she actually seemed a bit flustered.

My hair was straight then...scarves don’t fit it all that well anymore,” she muttered. “I haven’t worn one in years now.”

For old times sake,” Nazier repeated.

There was total silence aboard ship as all eyes were fixed upon the Mistress of Freeport, and Raven seemed confused about what to do. Clearly, she was uncomfortable, and she thought for a moment.

All right then!” she finally exclaimed loudly, grasping and placing the scarf on her head. Then she placed her hands behind her back and looked out over the crew. As happened the time Doremi had seen her at the Guild, the Bard noted what a small person she seemed to be compared to the others.

Men,” Raven called out, “let’s show ‘em we’re not only the best merchants in Islay; we’re still the best pirates on Jewel when we need to be!”

A cheer swelled from the ranks--the crew was clearly delighted at the words, Doremi noted.

This is our night--the night Nostradamus falls to us!” she continued. “Some of you were there to see the night Freeport fell to us. Now, you will see Hocwrath fall to Freeport! Remember it, for those who are still here tomorrow will live to hear the Bards tell tales of their adventure this night!”

Another rousing cheer came up as knives, cutlasses, and repeating crossbows were being raised in tribute to this one tiny woman.

To your posts, men!” Raven ordered. “Keep your heads down and follow the orders of your officers! And get that Guild flag down and hoist the black ensign! There’ll be no mercy for Nostradamus tonight!”

With a final cheer, the ship came to life as the crew departed the weather deck for their appointed stations and tasks. One of the men, meanwhile, began lowering the vessel’s usual flag as Nazier moved up with the black ensign.

Raven then turned to look at her three officers and, almost as an afterthought, she paused for a moment. “I don’t remember if I ever said it, but...I’m sorry,” she finally spoke.

We understand, Mum,” Hobbs answered. “We had good times together.”

Good times,” she repeated quietly.

But Doremi could tell her tone wasn’t one of agreement; instead, she was only repeating the man’s words. Then the Bard heard her mutter under her breath, “Time is always winter.”

Raven now reached up and removed the scarf, tucking it into a fold of her cloak.

I’ll put it on before we kill Nostradamus,” she promised. “For now, it’s messing up my hair.”

Raven then took notice of Doremi. “Oh, Doremi,” she spoke, “you haven’t been introduced yet--this is Cyllindrethifl,” she said, placing a hand upon the Elf’s shoulder, who glanced back. “Cyl’s one of my most important people. Cyl, this is Doremi Bender, a Master Bard from Avalon. She was a Librarian at the First School for a while.”

The Elf came to attention and began to speak. “I am Cyllindrethifl, of the House of--”

Short version, please, Cyl,” Raven broke in.

She halted and began again.

I am Cyllindrethifl, daughter of Hil-El and Ellenthariryll. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, for I have always wished to meet a Master Bard. I am very interested in Bardic magic!”

Finally, Doremi exclaimed to herself, someone who appreciates Bards!

I’d be glad to discuss it with you anytime,” Doremi answered with a smile.

Cyllindrethifl looked Doremi up and down and a look of puzzlement passed upon her face. “I do not recall having seen you at the School. You were a Librarian there?” she asked. “I did not think they allowed women to become Librarians in any event.”

It was over a year ago,” Doremi replied. But now it was her turn to look surprised. “You’re from the School yourself?” she asked.

Not officially,” Raven answered for her. “Cyl’s been living in secret at the School for months now, spying on it for us.”

And they didn’t catch you?” inquired Doremi.

Cyllindrethifl is a sixteenth-circle Druid-Witch,” Espidreen now spoke, joining the conversation. “She has been hiding out in the School in the form of a bat, keeping watch on the goings-on there, particularly at the Upper School.”

Doremi’s jaw nearly dropped: A sixteenth-circle Druid-Witch!

The Bard couldn’t begin to comprehend a wizard that powerful. It made sense, though, that such a wizard would be an Elf rather than a Human. It would certainly take an abundance of time to master two such fields of profession, and Elves, who lived for centuries, were admirably suited for a long-term study of the magic arts. Yet to find an Elf who knew magic was rare, for very few had learned magic since the Elves had lost nearly all of their wizards in the First Age.

And the activity you mentioned earlier?” Nightshadow spoke up. “Was there really some, or was that part of the ruse?”

Part of the ruse,” came the answer from Raven. “Right, Cyl?”

The Elf nodded. “There has been nothing out of the ordinary today at the School. I believe our attack is completely unexpected, Raven.”

Smiling, Raven seemed to relax a bit. Then she spoke again.

Cyl, who was Nefertiti?” she asked.

The Elf looked down for a moment, pondering the question. “I believe she was a queen of ancient Karnak, Raven,” came the answer.

Raven’s head drooped as she let out a breath. “I mean other than that, Cyl,” she answered.

The Elf thought for a moment.

You mean that catl’n you once owned?” she finally asked.

Raven suddenly came to attention. “You mean there’s a name for what Nefertiti was?” she asked in surprise. “He was called a catl’n?!”

Well...colloquially, they’re called that,” she replied. “Though I suppose technically it’s a cat-lion.”

You’ve seen others of their ilk, Cyl?”

Of course--they come from Ashvryl.”

But Venivica found him in Hocwrath--right?” Raven said, looking over to the Witch.

Venivica nodded. “Yes, Raven. I purchased him from some traders there.”

Some evil traders who probably stole him from his home, caged him, and sold him for a pet when he was meant to live free in the Forest!” the Elf added with a note of disgust.

So they’re from the Elflands, then? Good! Soon as we’re done here, I want you to go get me another.”

The Elf’s eyes narrowed. “And have Brigit curse me? I’m not going fetch you a catl’n, Raven! They’re meant to live in the Forest. No doubt the traders were cursed by Brigit for taking him from Ashvryl in the first place.”

They did seem rather glad to be rid of him,” Venivica noted. “Though I did pay well for him.”

I’ve seen a catl’n or two in my time near Green Dell,” Nightshadow now spoke. “Some Elves do keep them as pets.”

But only in Ashvryl,” Cyllindrethifl added. “Outside of there, they lose their vitality, and die.”

Nefertiti did just fine with me, Cyl,” Raven insisted. “He was with me for over a year, and was perfectly happy and perfectly content. He ate fresh meat and cream every day, and never lacked for anything!”

The Elf was shocked. “Meat?! You fed meat to a catl’n? Why would you do such a thing, Raven?”

Well--what else would you feed him?”

Fruit, of course!” she answered, shaking her head. “Feeding meat to a catl’n! Really, Raven!” Cyllindrethifl muttered.

Cyl, how many lions you know eat fruit?!”

He wasn’t a lion, Raven--he was a catl’n! Catl’ns eat fruit, not meat. That’s probably what killed him.”

Cyl, he was perfectly fine until the day he died! I’m still not certain someone didn’t poison him, and if I ever find out that someone did, and who it was....”

Raven left the comment hanging.

Why would you ask about your catl’n at a time like this anyway?” inquired the Elf.

I wanted to make sure it was really you, and not some trick of Nostradamus’.”

Oh. is really I, Raven,” answered the Elf.

Raven’s face tightened. “Thank you, Cyl--I realize that,” she whispered with a frustrated tone.

That ended the conversation, and now all was silent but for the creaking of the rigging and the groan of the ship’s timbers as she continued toward Hocwrath.

The last rays of the sun were slipping beneath the horizon and a chill was settling over the Widow. Standing beside the port bulwark, Doremi took a last look down to the sea before the darkness would hide it from view. It spread out below them like a great carpet of red and gold from horizon to horizon, and for a moment she gave thought to what beautiful a world she had been privileged to be born into. It was people who, for one reason or another, made that world less than a perfect place to be.

Why such a thought should come to her at that particular place and time, she didn’t know. What she did know was that the die had been cast, and, as Raven had said back at the tower, they were beyond the point of no return. This quest would now be seen through to its end, for good or bad.

And somewhere in the darkness ahead, Nostradamus and the First School of Sorcery awaited them.