His senses keyed as tightly as if he'd just stepped back into an Esurhite arena, Abramm Kalladorne stood on Wanderer's quarterdeck with his two liegemen, nervously scanning the leaden waters of Kalladorne Bay. As the white cliffs guarding the bay's mouth slid silently astern, he wondered if the other men's stomachs had just done the same little twist his own had. Probably.
It was one thing to boast of slaying sea monsters and sharing fabulous rewards in the warm, smoky haven of a Qarkeshan tavern, quite another to sail alone past a gaggle of crudely made warning buoys into the quiet, empty waters of what had once been the busiest harbor in Kiriath. Off the port gunwale, a broken mast listed in the spray-plumed rocks at the base of the western headland. With shredded canvas still fluttering from its yardarm, it stood in silent memorial to all the vessels lost to the monster since spring --- six of them fully rigged merchantmen weighing over five hundred tons. Large, strong, stable ships.
Back in Qarkeshan's own busy international harbor, Wanderer had seemed large and strong herself. Crafted of oak and iron, she floated at just over four hundred ton, with three stout masts and a complement of square-rigged sails now bellying handsomely before the breeze. Plenty strong and safe she'd looked in Qarkeshan.
Suddenly she had grown small and frail and pitifully inadequate. Suddenly Abramm could not imagine how he had thought her anything but, how he had ever let himself get talked into this harebrained scheme. To think that he and his companions could sail into this bay, brazen as gulls, knowing nothing about their adversary, and strike it dead when all who'd come before them had failed, was not only arrogant but incredibly stupid. And even if he and his companions did not mean to use conventional weapons, it was still stupid. Especially considering that the weapon they did mean to use could get them all lynched for heresy.
Tendrils of hair, teased free of the warrior's knot on his neck, lashed annoyingly about his face as he glanced down at Wanderer's waist and foredeck, where every man had turned out, ready for action. Crewmen lined the gunwales, balanced on the bowsprit, and clung to the rigging. Weathered faces with keen eyes searched the gray swells for the telltale ripple, the rocklike hump briefly breaking the surface, the quick breaching grope of a fleshy tentacle, as fat around as one of Wanderer's masts....
They would use the four boats stowed between the two forward masts to engage the kraggin once it was spotted --- two eight-man whale hunters and two twenty-man longboats. They also had harpoon guns, axes and spears aplenty, two extra masts, and a crew of one hundred fifty crazies --- experienced, die-hard adventurers who relished the challenge of facing a creature no one else could slay. And of divvying up the not insubstantial reward money when it was over.
Assuming anyone remained alive to divvy ...
This is insane, Abramm thought. Dorsaddi bravado has pushed me into this, and nothing more. It's far too late in the day. At the least we should heel out and go around to Stillwater Cove for the night. Get our bearings. Learn something about this monster ... where it's been seen, where it hasn't, how often it feeds, what its habits are....
But just as he was about to give the order to retreat, his liegeman spoke at his side. "It's shadowspawn, all right. Can you feel that aura? About as strong a warding as any I've ever encountered. Griiswurmlike, but not griiswurm."
Abramm glanced at him, chagrined to realize that was exactly what it was. The all-too-familiar doubts and second thoughts might be his own, but the rising intensity of his anxiety and resistance to proceeding came from outside himself, part of the defensive aura generated by the monster they sought. Abramm's red-bearded, freckle-faced liegeman, oath-made as of last night, raised a brow in unspoken amusement. "Don't feel bad, my lord. I was about to suggest we turn back myself."
Trap Meridon had always read Abramm's thoughts with uncanny ease. It was one of the things that had made them such good partners in Esurh's gladiatorial games --- and now made Meridon the invaluable retainer and liegeman he had become. Like Abramm, he had kept the Esurhite beard and warrior's knot, and the loose trousers, tunic, and ochre-hued overrobe of Dorsaddi custom. So had his brother Philip, Abramm's other liegeman, standing now on Trap's offside, squinting across the bay. Both, also like Abramm, wore the deep swarthiness of weeks at sea.
"It must be awfully big," Philip said quietly.
Abramm exchanged a glance with Trap and knew they were all thinking the same thing: Would the three of them alone be strong enough to do the job?
"Do you suppose it senses us?" Philip asked. He stood as tall as Trap now, though leaner and lankier. Strands of curly auburn hair blew across the sparse silken gold of his young beard as he frowned at the sea and gray sky.
"Most likely," his brother replied, bringing up the telescope to examine something off the starboard bow. "Which, unfortunately, may only drive it away."
The ship's captain --- Abramm's old friend Kinlock --- stepped from where he had been conferring with the helmsmen to join them by the railing. "We'll be taking her up the west side o' the main channel, sir," he said to Abramm with a bob of his head he evidently intended as a covert salute. "Unless you have objections. Wind's stiffer there, and the beast is said to prefer the deeper waters."
"I leave it to your discretion, Captain," Abramm said.
"Aye, Your --- er, sir." He gave another little nodding salute, gestured an okay at the helm, and strode across the deck to disappear down the companionway.
Of the crew, only Kinlock knew who Abramm really was, though all were intrigued by the contradictions in his person --- a tall, bearded, blue-eyed blond in faded Dorsaddi robes and trousers, who wore his hair tied in the warrior's knot of Esurhite tradition and, for those alert enough to notice, bore a trio of tiny holes along the outer margin of his left ear, silent testimony of combat honor rings no longer worn. He was a northerner who spoke the Esurhites' Tahg as fluently as any native and came to them with a ship and a challenge and a promise of riches beyond imagining.
Ten thousand sovereigns and more if they killed the kraggin that had shut down Kalladorne Bay. The captain would get the largest share, of course, his mates after him, and on down the line, with even the lowest-ranking sailor standing to make himself a tidy profit.
Alone of them Abramm would take no cut.
He had come out of duty. These were his people this monster was killing, his people who were losing their livelihoods because of it. And where once he would have left it all in bitterness for his brother Gillard to mishandle --- he who had wanted rulership so badly he was willing to kill and betray for it --- now Abramm found his heart changed. Yes, Gillard might deserve the headaches and burdens of the crown he had snatched, but did the people he misruled?
"These disasters are entirely your fault, you know," Abramm's friend Shemm, king of the Dorsaddi, had told him bluntly back in Esurh. "What do you expect but that a land and its people suffer when their rightful king has deserted them?"
Because, of course, Abramm was their rightful king, and they both knew it. Even if Kiriath did not.
Thus, after two years of slavery to the Esurhites, and four more spent living among the Dorsaddi in their rugged canyonland fastness, the SaHal, Abramm had come home. Reluctantly, to be sure, for he still had no idea how to go about claiming this inheritance of his, least of all from a brother who'd as soon kill him as look at him. It could well ignite a civil war that would be the fish that sunk the ship for Kiriath. Then what good would his return be?
But, believing it was Eidon who'd sent him, that this was, in fact, the destiny Eidon had prepared for him, Abramm had to believe Eidon would make him a way. Slaying this kraggin might be the first step.
And if, instead, the beast slew him, well, then he wouldn't have to worry about the other. Right now that looked like a very real possibility, for if he had no idea how to go about claiming his inheritance, he had even less of a plan for how they were going to kill the beast, nothing beyond the vaguely shaped hope that it was indeed the shadowspawn legend made of it. If so, and they could provoke it to engage with them, they hoped to use Eidon's Light to slay it.
Unfortunately, Trap was the only one of them who had killed spawn larger than a dog and the only one of them who could throw any significant amount of Light. Philip had only mastered the thinnest threads, and those at close range, while Abramm still required direct contact to release the Light at all. Their only chance was for all three of them to get a spear into the beast, then let loose with the Light all at the same moment.
Just contemplating the logistics of arriving at that moment made Abramm's thoughts snarl and his head hurt. They'd had little choice but to take it one step at a time, the first being to get back to Kiriath and Kalladorne Bay. The second, now facing them, would be to draw the kraggin from its deep-channel lair, a task complicated by the fact that their very presence could well drive it deeper into hiding.
Abramm scowled at the gray tableau of sea and sky, doubt intensifying the ever-rising desire to turn back. Doggedly he held his tongue and continued to search, the hair dancing around his face and the breeze tugging at beard and robe.
"Huh," Trap grunted. "What do you make of that?" He pointed to a distant shape off the starboard bow, and Abramm brought up his own glass.
"Looks like a whaler," he said, squinting at the battered, poorly rigged two-master silhouetted against the lavender haze of the bay's distant end. A likely candidate for monster hunting, it stood at anchor, most of its sails reefed, with only a bit of jib set to keep it stable.
"Yes. But what's that to starboard of it?"
Abramm shifted the glass, his loose sleeves stuttering in the wind. The second vessel was harder to see. Long, low to the water, and white, it looked like ---
"A barge?" What the plague is a barge doing that far out in the bay? He shifted his stance for more stability and squinted harder, perceiving now the tiny white manforms that encircled what appeared to be a burning, broken-off mast at its midst. Had the vessel already been attacked? No ...
The chill that rippled up the backs of his arms had nothing to do with the cool of the breeze. "Khrell's Fire!" he muttered. "What incredibly bad timing."
"It is Guardians, then," said Trap.
"Guardians!" Philip cried. "What are they doing out here?" He snatched the spyglass from his brother to have his own look.
"Probably trying to drive the kraggin away with their Holy Flames," Abramm replied.
"But, my lord," the youth protested, "won't the Flames just draw it to them? I mean, if the beast really is spawn?"
"It might," Abramm agreed gloomily.
Philip missed entirely the significance of Abramm's tone. "Well, then we've got our bait right there!" He looked from Trap to Abramm, his enthusiasm fading into confusion. "Didn't you just say it wouldn't come up for us?"
"Aye," said Abramm. "But I can't see how a flock of Guardians as witnesses to what we do will bring anything but trouble."
Philip's expression turned grave. He glanced across the water toward the dark blot that was whaler and barge, and Abramm could see his mind working. Tales circulating in Qarkeshan --- many told firsthand --- had painted a grim picture of the religious persecutions going on in Kiriath at present. After --- if --- Abramm and his liegemen slew this monster, and if it was clear they'd used Terstan power to do it, he had hoped their fellow crewmen would be well enough disposed toward them not to make trouble. That would never happen with a pack of Guardians in their midst, shrilling hysterical condemnations at the merest hint of "evil Terstan magicks."
Still, Philip was right --- this was a perfect opportunity to engage the kraggin.
By now Captain Kinlock had been alerted to the presence of barge and whaler and came to ask if Abramm wanted to pay them a visit. Shortly Wanderer's bow was angling east of its former track. The ship rose and fell in long graceful swoops, her hull creaking and groaning around them as she made her way up the bay. Water slapped the hull as a small jib sail forward flapped a rapid staccato and the breeze played a high sweet song through the rigging. Out on the bay nothing moved save a distant trio of pelicans, skimming low over the waves near the western shore.
Anxiety corkscrewed in Abramm's belly, igniting a restlessness that made standing still an agony of suspense and self-discipline. Again and again, he was swept with the premonition of imminent disaster, followed by the nearly irresistible compulsion to call off the affair and run for port in Springerlan, the royal city now visible as a sprawling patchwork at the bay's end.
"It's getting right strong," Trap said quietly beside him.
"Right strong, indeed." Even the fading feyna scar that still marked his left wrist had begun to tingle.
They could see the shapes of whaler and barge with naked eye now, and in the gathering gloom of late afternoon could even pick out the crimson flame dancing on the Guardians' brazier. If the wind held, maybe ---
"There!" one of the men in the rigging cried, pointing across the water. "Surface wake, moving fast. About ten degrees to port."
Other men echoed the sighting as Abramm snapped open the spyglass again and trained it left, off the port bow. Magnified waves against the dark backdrop of the distant shore filled the field of view. He was sweeping the scope back and forth, seeking the swell when someone else cried, "It's breached! Khrell's Fire! Look at the size of it!"
Abandoning the glass, Abramm scanned the waters with his bare eye, heart pounding in his throat.
"Ope --- there it goes, down again, heading straight for the barge."
"What was it?" another man cried.
"Cursed big. Dark and rough, like it had barnacles on it."
"Not with those tentacles pumping after it."
Kinlock was already bellowing for the flagman to signal warning to the whaler and barge, for the spears and harpoons to be broken out and the hunting boats readied for launch. Back on the barge, clear and sharp in the round field of Abramm's spyglass, no one seemed to have noticed anything, though a flurry of activity had erupted on the whaler.
"There it is! Still to port, making straight for the barge."
This time Abramm lowered the scope, climbed onto the bollard adjacent the portside railing, and saw it --- a massive mound of water, rising and falling in powerful lunges across the bay's gray surface, heading, as the sailor had said, for the same destination as Wanderer.
"Merciful Laevion!" someone exclaimed from up in the mizzenmast rigging behind them. "Look at it go!"
It appeared to stand as high as Wanderer's top deck, and encompassed as much volume. Once he'd marked it, Abramm found it easily with the glass, tracking it as it moved. Beneath the water's surface sheen, he picked out the dark bulk of the creature's body, laced with jagged, flickering lines of brilliant yellow-green and eye-searing blue. He scanned backward from it over the water's strangely curdled surface to the end of those flickering lines of light, estimating its length. By now his heart hammered at his breastbone and his stomach knotted with dread. The thing was huge and moving significantly faster than Wanderer.
Snapping his scope back to the leading edge of the mound, he tracked forward of it now, over a league of calm gray swells before he found the barge --- much too close. Its white-robed figures still marched obliviously around their pan of flames, but by now the other men aboard, those clad in the blue tunics of royal armsmen, lined the railing, swords and spears a'ready.
"The whalers have launched their first smallboat," Trap said.
If Abramm's will could have powered her, Wanderer would have flown across the water. Guardians or not, they were his folk, and it infuriated him to see this thing bearing down upon them, to feel the evil at its core, the dark, destructive lust to own and utterly devour....
Half a league from its target, the mound subsided, leaving a remnant of itself to roll on across the bay, losing amplitude until it vanished in the water's normal rise and fall. The Guardians continued to march and the men at the railings to watch as the hunting boat reached the midway point between barge and whaler. Its harpooneer stood now at the bow, searching the depths. Behind it, the whaler's second hunting boat dropped into the water and its crew scrambled down to man her.
Those aboard Wanderer held their breath and prayed for speed.
Abramm had the harpooneer in his spyglass when the man recoiled and brought his harpoon to bear on something just before his bow. Then he vanished in an eruption of water and foam. Abramm gave up the scope again for the naked eye, but the hunting boat was gone, lost in a frenzy of churning waves, foam, and writhing gray tentacles laced with blue lightning. One arched against the sky, mind-boggling in its length and breadth, and slapped down on the barge with a dreadful rending crack attended by a chorus of screams and shouts. The vessel's bow leaped skyward, then fell back and was swallowed by the turbulence.
The whaler, its masts gyrating wildly on the stormy seas, had heeled round in an attempt to close with the kraggin. Already it had fired one harpoon, and now it loosed a second as another dark tentacle reared out of the waves and coiled round the top of the whaler's mainmast. Rocking the ship like a child's toy, it yanked down, snapping the four-foot-wide timber like a twig, yardarms shattering, canvas and rigging ripping free.
More tentacles shot out of the churning water, sweeping men off the decks of both vessels. The second small hunting boat had long since vanished as another arm tore down the whaler's foremast with a crash. A horrible booming squeal followed close in its wake as the barge's ailing front half wrenched free of its stern and disappeared under the waves.
Abramm watched in helpless fury, gripping the gunwale with one hand, the spyglass with the other, desperate to close the gap and seeing it wouldn't happen in time. They would lose both ships, and the monster, as well, and he could do nothing to stop it.
Then, as swiftly as it had begun, the attack ceased. The tentacles released both barge and whaler, and the beast sank back into the depths, leaving a field of foam-flecked flotsam and dying waves for Wanderer to sail into, far too late. A cluster of keening Guardians clung to the barge's rapidly sinking end section while most of their unfortunate fellows thrashed --- or floated limply --- in the roiling waters around them. Kinlock ordered Wanderer's longboats dispatched to pick up the survivors, and the hands leaped to obey. But once the two vessels had been dropped into the water, all activity stopped. To a man the crew stood frozen, looking down at the boats, at one another, at the ruined barge and dismasted whaler barely afloat amidst the flotsam of their floggings. Even Kinlock held silence.
Abramm could feel their fear, a thick, stifling mantle crawling across his flesh and squeezing the air from his lungs. These were tough, courageous men, used to incredible danger, but between the power of the kraggin's aura and the horror of what they'd just witnessed, they'd reached the end of their resources. He glanced at Trap. His liegeman saw the decision in his eyes, started to protest, but already Abramm was swinging round the companionway turnpost and thumping down to the ship's waist.
If I've got it wrong, my Lord Eidon, he prayed grimly, please head me off now.
He reached the gunwale unimpeded, men stepping aside to allow him passage, one of them taking his overrobe as he shrugged out of it. Two rope ladders already dangled over the side above the still-empty longboats.
"Hand me down some of those spears," he called as he hitched a leg over the gunwale. "And a harpoon or two, as well."
"Ye can't row and spear at the same time, my lord," Kinlock protested.
"No, but then I probably won't have to." Abramm swung the other leg over to catch a foothold on the rope rungs. "And it's better than standing on deck with this flock of quivering yelaki."
He started down the ladder. By the time he'd jumped into the boat and got his balance, Philip was halfway down the side after him, while Trap was commandeering the other vessel. Philip landed between the thwarts, Abramm steadying him as the boat lurched, and for a moment their eyes locked. Abramm had a flash of memory --- the lantern-lit stern cabin last night, an impromptu liege-giving ceremony, this young man on one knee before him, reciting the ancient oath of fealty all Kiriathans gave to their king. Now here he was, ready to make good on that oath, maybe even to die doing it. And hardly more than a boy.
Nausea swirled in Abramm's gut, a sudden sickening realization that it was his own action and need that placed Philip in jeopardy. But then the youth grinned at him with the sense of immortality that belonged only to the young and said, "Eidon has made us a way, Sire!"
Abramm forced a smile back. "Indeed he has, Phil. Now let's do our best to make good on it."
Releasing the youth, he reached to snag the bundle of spears descending toward them, then saw that his parting words to the crew had borne the fruit he'd hoped: seven seamen now came scrambling down Wanderer's hull to take up oars in the two boats. Thus they set out to round up the survivors, undermanned, underequipped, and praying fervently the kraggin did not return until they were done.
Excerpted from THE SHADOW WITHIN © Copyright 2004 by Karen Hancock. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.
The Shadow Within (Legends of the Guardian-King)