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28 September 2015 @ 08:14 am
_Sea Wolves_part 3  
 

Chapter Four Sea Wolves

Southern Hemisphere

(Southern)Summer 1397

The Organtes coast in Fashir and Allantro states was composed of parallel ridges of rock thrusting out to sea in a west-southwest direction. There were huge fjords with hundreds of little inlets between the ridges.

Deena hadn't realized how big of a chore it was going to be. Nor that she'd suffer from something resembling seasickness. A witch sourced from _Gravity_ not some mythical "Earth" element. A mile of water between herself and solid rock shouldn't matter. But it did. However infuriating it was, halfway to Organtes she'd given up and asked Xen for help. What ever he'd done, worked, and he'd promised to reverse it as soon as she asked, which she figured would probably be after they returned to Karista.

But the main problem was the sheer improbability of finding a shipyard based on a man's memory of a map of unknown providence, picked up by Yellow. Xen didn't think his lady spy could have ridden more than a day, and he'd gotten a clear impression that she had been the only woman there, the visiting Important Person's concubine . . .

The first two fjords were spangled with normal fishing villages, but the third was smaller and had an aura not of a settled home . . .

They found it up the eighteenth inlet. Deena was using her magically enhanced night vision, while Xen tried to influence the waves and sounds to hide them from any observers. Jenet was handling the approach; he'd been perfectly happy to let an intelligence agent exercise his muscles with a bit on rowing on the open ocean, but now they were too close for an amateur to be in control. So Easterly was chewing his fingernails.

One glimpse of the large rakish hulls, and they'd turned to retreat from the large anchorage beyond this narrow, half hidden inlet.

"So, Jenet, where can you drop us off? We need to check this out." Easterly looked eager, and Deena suppressed a smile. Poor man was going to get stuck in an office too damn soon. He was grabbing field work while he could.

"That snitch of beach north around the headland." Jenet kept his voice low. "I can lay up in the rocks at the southern end, away from the fishermen. Wait for you there. It's nearly high tide, and nearly dawn."

"No problem with the fishermen spotting you? Or women out collecting clams or anything?" Easterly's hand's twitched as if he wanted to row again, get them there faster.

"Red tide month, they won't be collecting any shellfish at all. This month will be deep sea fishing. More likely they'll spot the Petrel than us."

Xen stirred slightly. "I told Jeff we were going ashore and they could move offshore for the day, if not longer."

Deena sighed and wished she had a longer range . . . she could damn near yell further than she could mind speak. Even Easterly could speak over a dozen miles.

The waves kept flattening out in front of them so they never climbed up where they were more likely to be seen by watchers, and there was something going on with the light as well. Xen was just sitting comfortably, breathing in a slow cadence. He looked, in fact, as if he were asleep, but when the boat hit the sand, he was out ahead of even Easterly, and heaved the boat back afloat as soon as Deena was out. He backed away from the surf line, and a large wave curled up and washed all traces of the boat and their footsteps away. In the fine dry sand, a little whirlwind danced over the indentations left by their feet and filled them. Easterly led them to the left along the rocky bluffs. The first break in the cliffs was a small streambed, ending in a ten foot waterfall to the beach. The second break was a trail. Not quite wide enough for a wagon, but a bit more than an occasional footpath. Deena closed her eyes and looked with her inner eye. Something warm up the path a ways.

Easterly touched her shoulder, and they all retreated to the waterfall. Easterly boosted Xen halfway to the top. He got a secure handhold, and reached back to help first Deena and then Easterly up, before rolling over the lip himself. "Get all the beach sand off, now, so we don't leave traces." Xen's voice was barely aspirated, and he stroked his hands over his pants' legs, then sat and dumped sand from his low boots into the water to be carried away. City girl through and through, Deena followed suit, as Easterly was doing.

They followed the little water course until it intersected the path, and felt for warm spots again. Two, strolling toward them from inland.

They lay low in shadows of rocks and watched the pair of men in Organtes uniforms—the red and blue of the former Auralian Empire with the addition of a large golden O in the center of the tabards they both wore over white shirts and blue pants. They strolled obliviously past, and Xen led them quickly and quietly into a narrow canyon and up a steep rocky path beside the water. Fifty yards along—and nearly that higher, they topped out onto a flat shelf. Xen trotted down the path and back into jagged piles of rock fallen from the steep hills and kept moving, and climbing, long after Deena was ready to take a break.

He stopped at a fork, a smaller path leading up to the left, the larger path to the right and downwards.

"Shall we lay up where we can get an eyeful?" He looked back at Easterly, who looked at the brightening sky and nodded.

Xen found them a slight overhang sheltered from eyes above, full of big angular rocks to both allow a view below and conceal them from the quite large number of people below.

The bulge of the hill below them hid most of the ships they'd glimpsed from the sea, but the activity across the inlet was plain. Two hulls under construction. One nearly done, one mostly bare ribs. A space and activity that might be preparations for a third keel. People everywhere. Organtes uniforms and a bunch of people in gray shirts and white bell bottom pants. Not a uniform she'd seen before, but far too consistent to be anything else.

Four large buildings in a neat row well up out of the range of storm waves, and a clutter of smaller sheds that had sprung up around them. The people with rolled paper in their hands were coming and going from the large building closest to the hulls. "Offices, engineers and designers in the building to the right," she murmured.

"Don't do anything magical, tuck down tight." Xen said. "Those gray people are magicians. A couple hundred, easily. Damn, maybe Yellow's right."

"Hard to believe, but I haven't heard about any large groups of magic users down here. Discordia, on the other hand, we've had reports about. Their embassy staff has been reading up on magic in the King's College library and so forth." Deena tapped her fingers uncertainly. "We've been trying to, umm, not let their attention drift toward Ash. They've kept a pretty close eye on Lord Hell, and gotten young men in to charm the Sisters."

"So maybe the two pieces of Auralia are getting back together. Or maybe One World?" Xen made a face.

"Let's hope this is strictly our World, this time." Easterly shook his head. "If Yellow's boy is correct, they're Cove Islanders betraying the Sea King and about to get used by the Organtes' Amma to take the Islands. We'll watch in shifts today and see about sneaking in tonight. I'd like a peek at their paperwork, and the number of hulls afloat right now. I suppose something telling us what they plan for these ships would be a bit too easy, but maybe we can at least identify the gray guys for sure."

"I really do need to _touch_ one of them." Xen eyed the shipyard below. "If I could slip into the barracks at night, I could get a good sample."

Easterly gave him a jaundiced look. "Without raising the alarm? Some how, that impresses me as the sort of thing we _might_ consider on the way out of there."

Deena took first watch, and made notes of the times for shift changes and meals, and the number of people with rolls of paper plans verses the number of people doing the actual work.

When the grays formed up, she nudged Xen awake. "Your magicians are doing something."

He promptly sat down and closed his eyes, meditating, and no doubt feeling a hell of a lot more than she did. She watched as their officers talked to them. When he was done, instead of a cheer they threw back their heads and howled. Lovely. They saw themselves as wolves, eh?

One of the other officers advanced and spoke to them, and Deena felt her scalp crawling as they all stood silent for a minute. Then they howled again.

"I don't think they were looking for us, specifically." Xen muttered. "But they were looking anyway. All male too. So they're ether mages or badly prejudiced."

Two of them entered the second building, and emerged with a bound man.

His bindings were cut and the magicians spread out in a circle as a sword was tossed at the prisoner's feet.

He snatched it and charged the circle. His sword strokes were beaten aside, and he was shoved back into the center bleeding from two small cuts.

Deena reached and shook Easterly awake, and the three of them watched as the magicians played with their prisoner, even stopping to bind up any cuts that bled excessively, threatening to shorten their fun. The damage got worse, the man was having trouble getting back up, and finally the circle howled and a dozen blades skewered the man.

"Nasty." Easterly remarked.

"Blood Mages. Pulled quite a bit of magic, but almost at an instinctive level, rather than organized and efficient. I think they just did it because it made them feel good, without understanding why." Xen took over the watch and she slept fitfully until nudged awake. They ate and drank while the watch changed, then headed down hill in the dusk and shadows.

The other path took them inland and over a series of small seeps and trickles that headed down hill and added their efforts to a stream with enough volume to keep the inlet open. A bare, open, foot bridge crossed the stream a mile upstream of the shipyard, opposite the last building. It was full dark and they crossed quickly.

The fat crescent moon threw faint shadows, and the lantern on the first building ruined any night sight that glanced that way. They slipped to the far side of the last building, found the privy, the kitchen, the water well and finally crept up to the first building. Several offices on the shipyard side were still in use, movement seen in silhouette on drawn draperies.

Deena slipped along the other side of the building, checking windows, and found one to a dark room that was ajar. Easterly boosted her in and she checked that it was an office, no one sleeping there, before she signaled Easterly and Xen to enter.

Easterly settled down with his night sight to scan the available papers. Xen eased the door open a hair and peeked out, then turned his head and put his ear to the door. Deena rifled though the files, but nothing seemed terribly important. Easterly put down his last paper, and they both slipped up behind Xen.

"There are two people talking in the first office on the left. The second left door is open and lit. Everything else is dark. Why don't we slide down a bit closer, eh?"

"Light warps?" Easterly breathed.

Xen shook his head. "Use as little magic as possible, and shield it if you can. There's a pretty dense pool of listeners out there, it feels a bit like being in Ash."

"All right. Ordinary sneakiness. Deena, third office left. I'll take right. Xen, go listen. You're more likely to get away with using magic undetected, if it's needed."

They walked quietly down the hallway, and Deena checked at the door to the third office. No light around the edges, no sound. She turned the knob, and pushed the door. No squeak. She slipped in and closed the door. A very organized desk. Locked. One picture hung a bit oddly against the wall. It was affixed to the wall, not hanging more or less loosely.

She had the safe behind it open in two slow minutes, memorized the position of the files inside and started looking through them.

Three sheets down in the first file, a memo.

Keep an eye on these so called Sea Wolves. A more dangerous ally is hard to imagine, they betray their own king, and we have no hold on them at all. Be sure that your crews are solidly loyal. I will be sending my most trusted lieutenants to serve under their captains and this 'Admiral' of theirs. W

Allies. Not home grown magicians. She abstracted several line drawings of ships, and a building schedule. Lists of expected crews and the timing of bringing them here to train.

They must have either aggressive intensions toward the Islands, or perhaps they wished to take over control of trade. The Sea King's response to that last would make the first a necessity.

Another memo.

These fishermen and merchants the Sea Wolves capture. Can't you stop them from killing them? If it ever gets out there will be diplomatic repercussions at the least, and we really don't want to find ourselves with both the Islands and the Westerners out for our blood at the same time. W

Deena bit her lip. The man killed earlier today, was he a captured Westerner? Were there more?

She rolled the sheets she'd abstracted, slipped them into her bubble and replaced everything in the safe.

She peeked out the door and spotted Xen close to the open door, and could hear the rise and fall of voices.

She slipped out and gestured him away. Opened the door to the room Easterly was working his way through. He looked up, as they both slipped in, and Xen shut the door.

Deena showed her collection of plans, and the memos. "If there are captured merchantmen or fishermen here, could we steal a ship? I'd like to see the Cove Islanders deny that."

Easterly nodded. "There was mention in a memo of building a jail to the south. Let's go see who's there."

Xen grinned. "And I know which ship to steal. They've finished the rigging and got the sails for three ships, but they've only got one loaded and ready for sea trials at the moment. Those two were arguing about whether they ought to wait till all three were ready."

The jail was just a large building with solid log walls between the four rooms, and doors of iron bars and massive locks. Xen had the locks open in seconds, as Easterly hushed the prisoners.

"They've got three ships rigged, but only one supplied and ready for sea trials." Easterly rumbled quietly.

A thin gray haired man smiled. "We know which one, we've been watching them as best we can. But how are we going to get down to it? Those Sea Wolves . . . They like to play with swords, but I've seen them kill with fire, throwing fire fifty, sixty feet."

"We'll get you to the ship, and then we'll head the other direction and keep the Sea Wolves busy while you get underway."

"Aye. Tide's going out, we can cast off and drift as we work out the rigging."

"Quick enough to keep us off the rocks, I trust." Another gray hair. This one looked less like a sailor and more like a merchant.

They followed Xen as he led them around the encampment and circled back to the docks. Then the sailors swarmed quietly aboard a ship and cast off.

Deena looked at the other ships. They'd have to use magic to sink them, but setting them adrift might slow pursuit of the first ship. She started working on the ropes.

Sudden noise from uphill. Sharp peels of a bell.

"Run." Easterly snapped. "Xen, can you sink the boats without attracting attention?"

"Probably." He started making gestures, running along the dock.

Deena sprinted to keep up, splitting her attention between her footing and the uniformed men piling out of the four buildings. Looking to the bell ringer, excited voices, "...escaped ..."

Drat, they know a couple dozen sailors are loose! "Xen, an illusion of the sailors, running with us?"

"Ha!" Figures sprang up, running silently.

Deena glanced back. In the dark she could barely see the masts against the sky, they were leaning, haphazard, and leaning further. Excellent. Up ahead a smaller boat was casting off. A lantern shone on the metal barrels of thunder guns. A sharp crack and the mast fell. Excellent. No pursuit of the ship. Now we just need to get ourselves out of here.

She spotted more soldiers . . .but they were past three of the buildings. Men were running from the fourth. Sea Wolves by their dark shirts and white pants. Drawing swords and howling as they closed in on them.

Her stun spell bounced. "They've got shields against magic." A waste of breath, that was painfully obvious. They drew swords as they raced for the foot bridge.

Xen flicked a spell ahead of his rush, and hit the two men ahead at speed. He knocked their blades aside and got his shoulder into the first to clear the path to the footbridge. A shield piercing spell?

She growled a bit, at the cosmic injustice of what women had to do to advance.

"Deena, head for the beach, clear out the sentries." Easterly was backing away, fending off the men behind them.

Uphill a bit, the Wolves were forming circles. For more power. The magic is going to get really nasty in just a minute! The rest of the Wolves didn't seem to have physical shields. They attacked with simple brute force, no finesse. Three against a hundred or more. Xen was his usual deadly self, piling up the enemy until they stopped trying to close with him. Deena turned and ran. She could feel spells flying, behind her. Best to get the way cleared as fast as possible, before they brought in crossbows. Before those compasses start throwing spells. Even Xen can get worn down, and he can't hold more than three shields at once. And then he can't throw anything in return. How strong is he, compared to a mage compass? Two mage compasses? The bridge leapt beneath her feet and she glanced back. Easterly had made it to the bridge and was running across, Xen backing rapidly. She heard the howl as her feet hit the stone of the far side. The Sea Wolves were organizing for the fight. Well, we've got their attention. The seamen should be able to get away with the ship. She ran up the trail, and her other sight showed her two warm spots rushing her way. She stepped into shadow and as the first man rounded the corner, threw a stun spell. He collapsed and the second man tripped over him. Her sword hilt hit him behind the ear, and she kicked him off the path, rolling down the stony slope. The stunned guard followed him.

She kept going, all senses alert. They'd only seen a pair of guards on their way here, but that didn't mean there weren't more.

It was a damn long way to the beach. Coming, they'd stayed off the main trail most of the time, climbing on rocks. She spotted the narrow entry to the canyon, no warm spots. Easterly was just behind her, and Xen not far behind him. Half way down the steep canyon path, two gray and white Sea Wolves stepped out to block their path.

"Xen, hold the top while we deal with a problem."

"Go all the way, then signal." Xen yelled back.

"Right. Deena, watch my left." Easterly charged down on the Sea Wolves and Deena cursed her female body again as Easterly used his reach and strength to take out the first man. Deena blocked a stab coming in low and left from the second man, then Easterly's sword came down on the top of his head. They jumped over the bodies and jogged down the trail as quietly as they could. The clash of steel echoed down the canyon. Deena could hear Easterly's heaving gulps for air over her own, and hoped his legs felt better than hers did.

They staggered as quietly as possible down the path, skidding the final ten feet to the soft sand.

::Xen! Beach, now!::

Deena winced at the mental shout. "What if he can't break away?"

Even as they crossed to the dark surf, Deena was protesting. "We can't do it. We can't leave." She could still hear the clash of metal on metal. He couldn't break contact. A quarter mile away, perhaps. A feral howling rose from the pass behind them, like wolves up on the hill.

Distant cheers. There was no more clash. Was he dead? Or were they playing with him?

"You know we have to get this back to Rufi." Easterly waded out through the surf to the rock, and Deena saw the boat suddenly as Jenet held it off the rock. Easterly handed over the backpack. "Get ready to haul out of here."

Then Easterly waded back to where she stood at the water's edge. "If this doesn't work, we're leaving anyway."

"What?" Deena stared as he drew a wide circle in the wet sand.

He stood with his back to the ocean, and raised his eyes to the overcast sky. "God of Spies. Hear my prayers. We have the packet and have nearly completed our duty. Come to us! Tell us that we may leave, our company intact! COME! Do not let us fail, by foolishly trying to rescue our fallen companion."

Something dark sprawled on the sand, gasping.

Arrows, three or four. It was hard to see, as he'd broken them off so they didn't interfere with his swing. Stab wounds. Too much blood for there to only be one. Deena threw herself down beside him and pulled out her pocket flask.

"Drink." She dribbled wine into his mouth, listened to the ragged breathing and dribbled more.

Easterly examined the wounds carefully, and she hoped he could see enough details, as he reached carefully for the stub of an arrow. Xen's hand twitched, to stay him, and Deena dribbled more wine. Xen's hand flattened around one stub and he whispered, "Slowly."

Easterly pulled, slowly, and the flesh seemed to draw back from the barbs and the seal back together. They repeated that three more times, and then Easterly picked him up carefully and waded out to the boat.

Jenet's breath caught, and Deena stood waist deep in the water trying to steady the boat as Easterly lifted Xen over the side, then climbed in. Deena waited until his weight was on the far side, then levered herself over the side and slid limply down to sit by Xen. It wasn't until she tried to make him comfortable that she realized that his right arm was missing from a few inches down the shoulder. The Organtes wolves had wrapped a thong around the stump. To give them more time to play.

"It doesn't work like this," Xen whispered hoarsely. "The God always goes back once the job is done."

"Well, the job isn't done until we deliver this to Rufi, now, is it?" Easterly said.

"Bah."

Deena gulped. "So you need to stay with us until we get to Karista. Then you can reappear in the desolate wastes, no doubt long since abandoned by the Ogantes."

"You two are insane. You get this stuff back to Rufi and none of this Hero business, you hear me?"

"Sorry, Xen. But like you said, the only thing worse than hurting, is having lost the ability to feel emotional and moral pain."

"You are both bloody piss poor excuses for spies. I'll go overland to the port of Nanchez. Give me that flask."

She handed it to him, and he was gone. She looked back to the shore, and the snap of orders and the movement of dark shapes on the strip of pale sand showed that there was no going back. She could only hope that the troops had moved away from the place from which Xen had disappeared. She leaked slow tears all the way out to the Petrel, then wiped her face and it was the professional spy that stepped aboard the swift little ship as it raised sail and slipped away west and north, outrunning the only Ogantes Navy ship that spotted them.