The Imago Dei ploughed steadily through the gentle ocean swell. The setting sun cast eerie shadows about her upper works and masts. The ivory colored sails billowed and then hardened against the wooden mast, snapping loudly in the evening wind. Coireall walked slowly about the quarterdeck, stopping to chat with the helmsman before moving on. He was tired; they had been at sea now for three days. They would meet the merchant ship shortly to take on the rest of the mercenaries. Suddenly, they heard a thunderous explosion echoing across the still darkening night sky, the horizon lit up in a bright flash, and then settled down to a flickering glow. Coireall ran to the side of the ship as another flash flared up, seconds before the rolling, thundering detonation reached the men on the ship. Master Dunflaith tottered unsteadily on deck from his cabin below. He lunged into his sheltered awning, and quickly cast his divination spell. The small crystal ball stayed cloudy, the mist swirling around inside.
He looked up from under his spectacles. “No, my Prince. There is nothing. What ever has happened has been caused by powerful magic.”
Major Zaren called to the Prince, “Orders, sir?”
“Helm, steer for the explosion. Major, get the crew to their assigned combat stations. Boson, take in sail. I do not want to go charging into something, before we know what has happened. Once sail is shortened get some men to rescue stations, and prepare to launch the longboat.”
In the space of a few seconds, orders were shouted out in rapid-fire sequence, and men ran in ordered chaos. The Imago Dei slowed rapidly as the sails were reset. The long boat, normally stored overturned on the main deck, was quickly man-handled to the davits. The men assigned to the new weapons, waited in the waist of the ship near where the slivers of wood had been fixed. The ship moved closer, the phosphorescence from the wake gradually dying, until hardly any could be seen. They drew nearer to the area of the explosion. Heavy acidic smoke drifted in the gentle breeze. The hideous stench lingered, catching in each person’s throat.
“There, something in the water!” came the cry from one of the crew.
Coireall hurried forward, and craned over the side. They could see bits of burnt wood bobbing on the current, to scrape down the hull of the ship. Now, in the glow of the quarterdeck lantern, the Prince could see the spread-eagled figure of a man, drifting aimlessly on the hidden eddies.
“Deck there, sail ho!” came the cry from the masthead lookout.
“Where away?” called the first officer.
“Clearing the smoke!”
Master Dunflaith cried out in his shaky voice, “Drow Raiders, Pretender’s warships.”
“Helm, hard over, Boson let the sail go!” cried Coireall.
As the Imago Dei pushed through the smoke, they could see the twisted, burnt-out wreck of a large merchant ship. The foremast was gone and the mainmast was dragging alongside. She was down by the bow and listing sharply to port. The blackened charred hulk still had internal fires burning as well as those on the quarterdeck.
They could see the sleek narrow hull with the hawk figurehead. Her sails flapped impotently, but it was of little matter. The magic in the Drow ship made conventional sails unnecessary at the slower speed. As the first ship cleared the wreck, the crew of the ‘Imago Dei’ could see the bowsprit of a second ship moving close to the first. The helm order moved the High Elf ship through the wreckage, putting the carcass of the dying ship between them and the Drow. Major Zaren stood gaping at the burning ship. Even in her present state, there was no problem identifying the Aurora, one of three ships used by the Phoenix Mercenary Company.
“There were over five hundred men on that ship.” He stared at the wreck in despair.
A searing bolt of fire jetted from the lead raider and slammed into the sea with a violent eruption of water shooting skyward, and the angry hiss of steam and superheated water bellowed out, and then with a whoosh, everything collapsed back in on itself. The sudden course alteration threw off the Witch Elf.
“Third Raider, coming from the stern of the sinking ship!” the lookout yelled.
“Major, fire as she bears, but remember, we have one shot with these!” the Prince ordered.
Zaren nodded vaguely, and then when Coireall snapped again, he jumped and hurried to the main deck. Even as the Major ran to his station, they could see a fourth warship.
“Helm, between the two raiders please. Master, that bonus would be nice.”
The Imago Dei turned sharply as the Quartermaster spun the spoke-wheel hard. The ship pivoted like the ballet dancer she was, and went racing forward, her speed building the whole time. The elven mage quickly started a spell, and as he finished the final hand semantics, he touched the crystal ball.
The Witch Elves on the two approaching raiders were standing in the bow. They finished off their own spells and two fireballs, no more than a tiny peanut leaving the pointed fingers, rapidly grew in size until they detonated ten feet from the ship. The crew hastily averted their faces as the tremendously brilliant, deafening explosion expanded out and over, blotting out the Imago Dei from her attackers. Seconds later she burst from the smoke; a faint pulsing globe was surrounded the entire ship with flickering random blue flashes. Bits of fireball residue continued to burn for a few brief seconds.
Now pulling abreast of the two enemy ships Zaren shouted, “Number one, two, six and seven, fire!”
The crew assigned to these numbers said a single word, and touched the wooden wands fixed to the ships railing. Four fireballs, two to each side, went off within seconds of each other. They slammed into the raiders where they detonated. The results were extremely satisfying for the Imago Dei crew. For the drow, they were simply catastrophic. The raider passing down the left flank seemed to simply disappear in a tremendous detonation. Her amidships just vanished, and the bow and stern bobbed in the sucking greedy sea; they gave a lurch, and slid beneath the smoky bubbly water. The few cries from her crew were drowned out in the reverberating echo. The other ship, while it faired better than her cohort, was absolutely shattered. The forward and main mast was just so much tangled rigging, and shattered, splintered timbers. The mizzenmast leaned drunkenly to the side, only a few frayed, singed stays were holding it upright. The entire deck was ablaze from stem to stern. The stains that ran freely down her side were soon bubbling. She quickly lost way and slewed around almost perpendicular to the Imago Dei. A few of the High Elf crew, who cared to even look, could see a few survivors diving into the sea. Some of the screaming pyres were silenced when they hit the water. Debris from the two broken and shattered ships was falling with lazy, flittering, almost comic-like slow motion into the water. Even now, the raider on the left had gone; nothing remained but a few pieces of blackened debris.
The Imago Dei charged past the sinking merchant, and as if sensing the intruders herself, the rudder went hard over. The ship turned violently toward the other raiders. The crew ran frantically to loosen the sails, or the mast would go by the way.
Coireall picking himself from the deck where the violent movement tossed him like a wet rag, yelled, “Quartermaster, what the bloody hell?”
“Sorry sir, rudders jammed hard. We must have hit something in the water,” cried the man as he frantically tried to bring the ship back under control.
Without her sails, the Imago Dei drifted to a stop and then wallowed uncomfortably in the swells. Men ran to the bidding of the harsh orders, but there was nothing they could do at the moment to repair the damage. As if waiting for the other two interlopers, the ship began to drift side on. The other pair had withdrawn, seeing what had befallen their comrades. It didn’t take long for them to split up. They maneuvered, to take the Imago Dei on opposite quarters.
The Prince paced with frustration. “Helm?”
The frantic man, his face reddened by his effort to move the ship’s wheel, only shook his head.
“Master, any chance of another of those globe spells.”
The elderly mage shook his head resignedly; misery was reflected in his slumped shoulders. “If I was a thousand years younger, I could have managed a second Globe of Invulnerability. We have another few minutes on this current casting.”
“Bloody hell,” Coireall said with feeling.
“Deck there, sail ho!” called the lookout in his singsong cry.
“Where away,” called back the Prince.
The lookout pointed. “Coming over the horizon, still hull down.”
“Helm?” he asked in exasperation.
The man simply shook his head.
“Get the boats into the water; stand by to abandon ship.”
Zaren came close. “They will slaughter us in the boats.”
Coireall clenched his fist in frustration, and then sighed. “I know, but there is a chance some of them might get away.”
Zaren nodded, in understanding.
“Deck there, raiders close to hand are leaving.”
Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked on in disbelief. The two raiders that had been circling for the kill were heading quickly away. Now the others ships could be seen with Master Dunflaith’s aid. There were eight ships all told. Two were slowing, heading for the Imago Dei, the rest of the fleet were hot on the heels of the would-be attackers.
“Major, Boson, stand down the boats.”
Suddenly the Helmsman called, “Sir, rudder’s free.”
The newcomers could be seen maneuvering close, one continued to circle and the other slowed and drifted, nearly stopping.
“Can we be of assistance?” a man called through a cornet-shaped speaking tube.
“Who are you?” called the Prince through cupped hands.
“Admiral Breasal, Royal Navy. Queen Lartessa sends her compliments. The Pretender has been defeated. The civil war is over.”
* * *
Admiral Morgan walked through the halls of St. Stevens Abbey. His hard leather boots echoed off the marble walls. Morgan was striking by the fact that he was so ordinary, which in his old profession was a remarkable asset. Before he ran into Bolinor, over three years ago now, he had been a pirate. Along with an old shipmate, he and Phillips had been onto a good thing. Once the drow and the Orcs attacked and sacked Dun Lyn, their little venture had been found out. Both men had made more money, and had more going for them than they ever had as buccaneers. They had willingly signed with the Commander, and had never looked back. Now in command of the ex-Kiltarki ship, Morgan was wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. The magical flying ship had been a key part of the scheme. Morgan paused in the halls and looked about. He saw a woman up ahead with a stack of bandages and a few blankets.
“Miss, do you know where Donald is?”
“He has been moved to one of the second floor study cubicles.”
Morgan nodded his thanks and moved on. He passed a number of people, both elven and human. It was one such person that was able to give Morgan directions. A few minutes later he peeked into the room directed to. The big red-haired and bushy-bearded man looked terrible. He had a number of bandages about his chest and head. He lay propped up on a bed. A five foot ebony woman sat slumped in a chair asleep. Her long dark brown hair was loose about her shoulders, and she wore only a long woolen shirt, almost to her knees, which obviously belonged to Donald. Her firm, trim legs were tucked up under her.
Donald glanced up and grimaced in pain as he looked at the pirate. “Robert.”
Morgan smiled. “You look like you have tangled with a dire bear.”
Morgan sat in another chair as Donald smiled, and then squirmed a bit in pain.
“You here to visit, or is this business?” he gasped shakily.
“Both. How are you and Jazzel doing?”
“Jazzel hasn’t left since they brought me from Cr’Mere. I feel like I have been stomped on and dragged through a bloody thorn bush.”
Morgan smiled. “On the business side, I have a project that I want to talk to you about.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“I wanted to know if it is possible to put your field guns on board one of the flying ships?”
Donald thought for a minute. “Not sure. It will take a bit of testing. I don’t see why we can’t try. With the beating I took, I can’t see me doing anything much else for a while.”
* * *
Bolinor silently tiptoed to the door holding his boots. He turned and took one last look at his beautiful wife. He had brought her up from the dungeon a few hours ago, after she and Simon had suddenly and dramatically reappeared. Husband and wife had clung tightly to each other. Bolinor had tears running down his face, and mumbled about not seeing her again. She’d stroked his hair tenderly. The Commander had gathered her in his arms as easily as a newborn and carried her upstairs. They had just lain on the bed, bodies touching, gaining comfort from just being together. They had talked for an hour about the Shadow Realm. Cassandra literally repeated verbatim what Simon had explained and had later shown her.
He carefully closed the door on his sleeping wife. This was the second time he had almost lost her. He turned and looked at the Koldorian, V-tur had followed him from the dungeon. Bolinor clasped him on the shoulder and nodded his thanks. V-tur blinked his astonishment; first the ‘Fabled Lady’ now the man himself, graced his humble life.
V-tur, in return, grasped the Commander’s forearm, and nodded his understanding.
The King crept down the darkened halls, and dropped down the back stairs to the kitchen. He was famished and was looking for anything left over from the evening meal.
“Ah, Commander,” James mumbled, his mouth full of roast venison. Bits of bread fell from his sandwich.
Bolinor settled down on the bench with a sigh, and picked up the big carving knife, cutting a slice. “You know James, at times like this I feel really old. I didn’t know what I was going to do if Cassie had died.”
James pushed a tankard to him and a bottle of Koldorian wine. “I will bet you are thinking of locking her away, so nothing can happen to her ever again.”
Bolinor’s hand stopped with the mug half-way to his mouth. He grinned ruefully. “That was about right. But knowing my wife as I do, I don’t think she would be very happy. Things were so much simpler in the old days.”
James nodded in agreement. “I don’t think I could ever give up Sara, or the baby and go back to what I was, a fat innkeeper. I like what we have now.”
Bolinor thought briefly about the ‘old days’. He had been a mercenary, a sword for hire. He had known a lot of women, but never seemed to settle down. Then Cassandra had appeared out of nowhere on the sailing ship that fateful day. Bolinor smiled at the memory of that day and others.
“You don’t really like the old days better, do you?”
Bolinor shook his head. “Not really if the truth is known. James, I want you to make arrangements to have Emily taken care of. She is to be given the freedom of the Castle, and the town. Can you make sure that she has a suitable bodyguard? I don’t know if the Banshee is finished with her or not. I want to you get hold of Major Finch and see if he knows anything about Matthew.”
The officer in question was in command of the Jasper Chapter House. Unknown to anyone, he also had an alter ego as a spy. His people knew him as ‘The Fetch’. His organization knew more than most of the local governments. Bolinor only learned of his ‘hobby’ when he had gotten involved with Queen Stephanie during the aborted Brotherhood attempt on her throne.
“Matthew?” James asked cautiously.
“Yes. It seems my dear brother is not what he seems to be. According to Simon he has been up to his grimy little neck in mischief.”
Any further conversation on the topic was cut short as one of the castle guards stopped in the doorway.
“Sire, the Lady Justine is looking for you.”
“Can you send her in here?”
The soldier bowed and left.
Bolinor took another bite of the juicy meat and said, “I asked her to stop by when she had a chance.”
Justine came into the kitchen. She was wearing a simple gingham dress and wore her hair in a ponytail. The dress had a few smears of blood on one sleeve and along the hem. She swayed wearily. Her face was drawn and exhausted.
“Commander, sorry I couldn’t get here any earlier.”
Bolinor smiled, he liked this woman even in her present ‘cursed’ condition. Nathan had asked the Commander to keep an eye on her while he was gone. For the last few weeks since the defeat of the Southern Empire’s army, by the combined allied armies, Justine had been working in the Abbey helping the healers. The wounded were in no state to notice her dental differences. What was even more, she didn’t get caught up in this ‘King’ stuff. She still addressed him as Commander, much to the annoyance of some of the other retainers around.
She shook her head. “Not really. I caught a ride with one of the Pathfinders. He is waiting to take me back. I don’t think the griffin likes me much.”
Bolinor smiled, the half lion, half eagle mount the Koldorians rode, didn’t like him a lot either, and he said so.
“I wanted to see you about a new job I have for you. I want you to be Stewardess of the Privy Purse in charge of War Pensions.”
Justine sat there stunned. Her mouth slowly dropped. James couldn’t resist a little snicker.
“But I thought James was Steward?” she stammered.
“He was, but his job has grown considerably, and he now will be Privy Purse. He is overseeing and running the day-to-day operations of the Kingdom. I want you to set up a census of the soldiers. You will get a staff to make sure the troops working for me get paid. I want buildings constructed at the Abbey where the wounded can get the care needed. I also want the dead properly buried and recorded. I also am commissioning a medal for courage on the battlefield, so you will need to find a decent jeweler to make the ‘Dragon Crescent’.”
They both watched her. Her mouth moved, but no sound came from it.
“You will make an excellent choice. As a ruler in your own kingdom, you have the necessary skills and savvy to administer this new office,” James said.
Bolinor leaned forward. “This ‘King’ thing is what the people want. I don’t believe in divine rule by right. Maybe I can make a few differences. I have to create a nobility, and titles and land grants. The best way I know how to do this is by rewarding those I trust. It has been driven home to me over the last few days after I started thinking about what Cagel said. If we win this fight with the Lich, then we will need a functioning government in place. If we lose, well, we as least gave the people who follow me a chance.”
A tear welled in Justine’s eye. “Commander, people think of me as the vampire, someone not to be trusted. I can’t think of any staff who will be willing to work for me.”
Bolinor nodded. “Agreed, things will be hard to start with, but I already have your Reeve of War Pensions. Sara.”
“Bolinor talked this over with the two of us last night. Sara loves you like a sister. She says that if you’re good enough for Nathan, you’re good enough for the rest of us,” James said simply.
Justine wept. “Oh Commander, what can I say?”
She hugged him, and Bolinor put his arm around her shoulder. James grinned merrily at his discomfort.
“Just say, yes,” he said quickly, hoping no one could see them. He didn’t want rumors to start.
“Yes, yes. I want to make a difference, too.”
* * *