Introduction

 

Wispy clouds floated majestically past the full moon that hung low in the heavens. The man walked out onto the balcony with his hands clasped behind his back. He looked skyward and watched the clouds. A sigh escaped his big frame. He instantly regretted the pity, and knew he was a blessed man. It had been five years since he had come to this valley. He was rich beyond his wildest dreams; he was worth more than some royals. He had found a gold dragon long dead, and its hoard had made this and much more possible. Even then he had only wanted to start a mercenary company. Now, he was a landowner and a ruler of one of the biggest areas on this continent; with a navy that was second to none. He had good friends, and a beautiful wife who loved him. Maybe General Hiller, an old friend, was right. He missed the simple times.

Bolinor went into the study. A lot had happened in the last three years, since the lich had been defeated. Sara and James had married. James was Privy Purse of Bolinor’s kingdom, and his wife had started her own school of magic. The tower was actually only a few miles away. The couple made sure they spent a lot of time together, inspite of their duties, as they had a small daughter now. One of the original members of the company, Donald DeMonfort and Jazzel had married as well, and they had moved into a small manor near the smelter. Donald was actually working with Admiral Phillips to put a small field gun on the ships. They had been doing experiments with the slave ship that had put into My Pell, and turned out to be infected by Were Rats.

The cat-like Koldorians were thriving in their new land and Blackwell was well settled by the survivors of the kingdom of Dun-lyn. Nathan Sinclair and John Roland the newest general of the fourth army, were still good friends of the Commander. Nathan still spent a lot of his time with Justine. The defeat of Devron at her hand with the Blood Wart knife had cured her dreadful curse.  Bishop, Steven Wall, had reorganized his church; he was now Steven Wall, Seraphim of the Reorganized Church of Our Redeemer

During the attack on Cr’Mere; Bolinor received an indescribable gift. Joy filled him even now as he remembered the return of his beloved elder sister, taken in the same bandit raid he had been captured in. She had arrived to stay in Amberwine, with her son. An imperial officer had taken Jasmine as his concubine when she was young, barley out of her teens. Brendan had been born when she was in the army. A sympathetic friend had taken care of him. After the Battle of Cr Mere, Jasmine had sent for him. Now two year on he was a strapping lad of eighteen. Bolinor’s nephew loved the wild and the two of them had spent a lot of time together, adventuring and discovering the new land.

His thoughts were interrupted by footfalls. He turned to see Cassandra. She was dressed in one of the flowing dresses she favored. Bolinor knew that she wore the style of her old homeland because she didn’t like wearing the restricting under clothes worn in this region. Her long auburn hair framed her face. “Bolinor, when are you coming to bed?”

The man smiled and reached for her hand. “Now, my love. I was just thinking how everything started.”

Cassandra smiled. “It was hard, but things have turned out so well.”

Her reply was interrupted by the appearance of a young man coming around the corner. It was his nephew Brendan. Bolinor couldn’t help but think how much he looked like his mother, Bolinor’s sister.

“Uncle, do you have a minute? I need to talk to you too, Cassandra.”

She pulled out of Bolinor’s arms and said, “What is it?”

“I’ve been having dreams, strange compelling ones. They haunt my nights and distract me when I’m awake.”

Bolinor looked perplexed. “Go on.”

Brendan began to pace. “It started two days ago, when I ran into this elf in Assandra. We shared a jug of ale. Now, all I can think about is building a ship for a journey south. There are to be four others who will go with me on this ‘quest’.”

“‘Quest’?” Cassandra asked.

The young man rubbed his forehead. “I can’t think of any other way to describe it. This feeling is overpowering and compelling.”

Cassandra looked intensely worried. Bolinor just felt puzzled. “This has magic involved. I’ve scried his memory. Your nephew is required to go south. I’m not sure why he was chosen, or what he has to do, or even who the others are.” Cassandra looked to her husband.

“I’ll know where to go, and who the others are when the time is right,” Brendan answered.

Bolinor wasn’t one to get in the way of adventures, ‘quest’s, or even a young man’s ambition to make something of himself. “You draw up the plans and we will get your ship built.”

* * *

Steven Wall walked through the chapel of his abbey. The room was a good size with benches flanking the aisles. He stopped at the altar with a cross behind it. The building was large; with three levels and a number of outbuildings. The abbey sheltered almost two hundred people who lived and worked there. Students came to study, the scribes wrote, and priests worshipped here. Steven hated the word cleric. It was funny how he had built his entire life on the teachings of the man who traveled the land; a man with only one God. He was still tormented and teased in the tavern about it from visiting clergy. But, more than one would seek him out asking for more on this man. The Reorganized Church of Our Redeemer had no spell casting abilities but when the injured or sick came to this place, and prayed in faith they were healed.

Now he knelt before the altar in his nightly prayer with his head bowed in silence. He didn’t see the figure appear behind him. The elf touched the kneeling man and then vanished. Suddenly Steven looked up sharply. Then he sighed and crossed himself as he stood up.  He moved through the church, saw a servant was putting out the candles and lanterns. He pattered on down the dimly lit hall and knocked once, and slipped into the room and closed the door behind him. A young woman lay in bed. Her shoulders propped up by pillows. She was dressed in a white nightdress and her auburn hair was shoulder length.

She sighed then recognized the man and smiled. “Coming to say goodnight?”

Steven stood looking down at her. She was slowly dying and nothing he could do could stop it. “No I haven’t. The time has come for you to start your journey home.”

“Have you found where I have come from?” she asked hopefully.

“No one knows, not since the day the ship plucked you from the wrecked lifeboat.”

“Why now? Do I really have to leave?” The woman asked saddened.

“Yes, I’m afraid so. We leave for Assandra in four days.”

She nodded, and then lapsed into thought. Wall, not wishing to disturb her further, let himself out.

* * *

The stranger rode into town. His horse was tired and worn. The gelding plodded with its head down. The man, like his horse, was exhausted. His faced was lined and dirty, neither young nor old. He looked haunted. Every clang or sudden movement brought quick notice. If one were to look close enough, they would see the hardened determination on his face. The fire of urgency burned in his deep-set eyes. The man had pushed hard from Mullaria. It was hundreds of miles away through some of the wildest land in Menel Fenn. Directly overland, crossing the BurningDesert, and then over one of the highest mountain ranges, the rider had made the trip in twelve days.

He had been often asked what it was that drove him; he would only look bewildered and shrug uncertainly. He did not know, but he had killed two horses and rode the gelding hard to get here. He rubbed his head. Ever since meeting the elf the urgency to get to Assandra was the all-important thought. He mused, the wild elves wouldn’t miss him, a human was tolerated there, more were slaves, but they were never really trusted. Bolinor had changed that; the grand duchess had been working with the Commander to mend the rift between the races. He had no family, and no ties. He hired his sword as needed. No one would miss him. Slowly he dismounted, and leading the gelding, went in search of an inn, near the harbor.

* * *

The three-masted ship slowly worked her way into harbor, only the topsails flapped in the dying wind. The ship showed hard use. Caught in a storm three days ago, two of the longboats were missing as well as some of the deck fitting torn off in the height of the frenzied weather. Sails were being mended, and the crew who had been washed overboard were all but forgotten.

A man in his early twenties stood on the deck watching Assandra grow in size. He was so excited he could hardly stand still. The trip south had taken two weeks. To help curb his impatience he had learned what he could. The captain showed him the secrets of navigation, and the sailors taught him sail handling. He had pulled his weight in the storm. He had no regrets selling the struggling farm to get his passage. He had no kin or anyone to hold him to the barren land.

It had all started when the traveler had stopped for the night, and he and the elf had shared wine with the meal. In the morning the stranger was gone and without a word, the farmer sold his place and left. The new owner was gratefully happy; he had paid forty gold pieces for the place.

When asked why he sold it so cheaply he shrugged and said, “Because.”

Now they slowly approached the dock, he could see the shipyard over the tops of the other buildings around it. The man stared at it till the sun hurt his eyes. Without waiting for the gangway he thanked the captain and gathered his small bundle and leaped for the dock. He had to find the inn; his time was almost up.

* * *

The young woman walked from the stables looking quickly down the road. She pocketed the gold she had just received for selling the horse. Two horsemen turned into the small cluttered road, and moved slowly looking all around them. She looked in fear at the men. She had come so far now, she couldn’t be caught. Frantically the woman sprinted down an alleyway. The girl was getting desperate. Since coming to Assandra she had gotten lost. She had left Jasper four days ago.  She had run into trouble the second day when she fell off the mare crossing the Snake River when the animal slipped and went under. When she surfaced the horse was disappearing over the hill on the bank she had just left. She was literally in tears when she stumbled onto a coach station two miles later. She breathed a sigh of relief seeing the coach in front as the teamster was harnessing a new team.

She parted with a few of her precious coins from her pocket, all her other things were in the saddlebags on the horse. To make matters worse, the coach was so slow, and at each stop she could feel the panic building inside her. She was running out of time fast. The next stop was for the night, and as soon as they were asleep she silently crept into the corral and stole one of the horses. She cursed the elf again with feeling. She had been a serving girl in a tavern when the elf came in for a drink just on closing. The tired girl was happy to have the stranger buy her a drink of the finest wine. At first she was suspicious thinking he wanted more from her. But when they had finished, he paid for the wine and left, patting her on the shoulder as he went. Two hours later, she was on the road south to Assandra.

She dodged around a corner to get away from the horseman. She was afraid they were from the station looking for the horse thief. If they caught her she was would likely be hung. Now for the first time in days she felt hopeful, she could see the tops of the mast and rigging of ships ahead of her above the rooftops. Urgency filled her; her time was almost gone. She cast caution to the wind and with a sob broke from hiding and ran desperately down the street. She had to find a damn inn and she didn’t have a clue where to look.

* * *

The small group of horsemen came into Assandra at the trot. At the front was Tracy Harrington, the royal princess of the defeated kingdom of Dun-lyn. She had lived the last three years in Blackwell at the estate of Duke Tittling. The duke and most of the country of Blackwell had died in the Dun-lyn invasion. The Orcs in turn attacked them treacherously when they had been tricked into sending their army into Blackwell on a holy crusade. Now, the princess kept to herself, rarely coming to town. She came once a month for supplies with her friends, ex-army soldiers who had volunteered to stay with her. She had become close friends with Bolinor and Cassandra as the couple visited the princess often. This time, as the small group of horseman came into town, they stopped on the edge. A young rider moved forward from the rear and dismounted.

The woman swung down from the saddle to met him, “Well, we are here, and this is where you want us to leave you?”

The man bowed slightly. “Thank you, your grace. I appreciate you escorting me here.”

“Well the elf was very insistent. Now you’re here, you have a part to do.” She looked melancholy; it would take her a long time to get over losing everything. “After you lose the big one, it helps to win some of the little ones. I wish you all the best,” the woman answered.

“I’ve enjoyed being in your service. I know that I’m only a man-at-arms, but I thank you.”

She nodded and as he turned to go, she was seized with a feeling that this young man was destined for something of great importance and he might not live to see the end of it.

Impulsively she turned and cupped his chin, giving him a fleeting kiss on the lips. He blinked in astonishment.  “That might bring you luck.”

The man turned the reins over to a rider and she remounted and waved a tiny wave goodbye. The soldier waved in response to the hearty farewells from his comrades, whom he had worked and lived with since fleeing their homeland following the kingdom’s disastrous defeat. The soldier turned. ‘Why did the elf have to pick him? He was of no importance.’ He doubted he would have made it here in time if it hadn’t been for the princess. He turned and looked for a last time, but they were already out of sight. He turned and made his way to the waterfront looking for an inn.

* * *

Bolinor and Cassandra had spent most of the last six days at the shipyard. They labored day and night to complete the ship on schedule. The deadline was tight and Cassandra wanted to help, but Brendan was insistent no magic of any kind would touch the ship. When she asked why, he could only shrug, he didn’t know.

The design was somewhat radical and most sea captains laughed and scoffed. The ship was made from elven yew trees; the strongest and yet lightest wood that was known, also the most expensive. The stern was rounded, as was the bow. The bowsprit was shorter than normal, mainly to help support the rigging. The longboats were built so they could be retracted below deck. The ship had two masts but, unlike the conventional ones, these were built in three sections. The dwarves manufactured a joint with two big pins. The idea behind it was the mast could be broken down and folded back on itself. The battens over the hold and the longboat section were made of yew wood as well. The ship had two helms, one above deck and one below. The schooner herself was one hundred and ten feet long and forty feet in width. The ship also had outriggers on both sides. The rigging was designed so the mast could be raised and lowered. Each mast would have two sails and a spinnaker. Twenty crewmen could operate the whole ship. The cabins below deck were comfortable and plush. Even the common sailors had a cabin, even though they would be doubled up. After a fantastic six days non-stop round the clock effort, the schooner slid down the ways and splashed into the water. It was late and as the work progressed to provision, and get the ship ready for sea, the three family members went to the inn. If the ship were to sail soon, they would like some time for themselves. They went to the ‘Monarch’s Way’. It was typical of a harbor inn. The common room was crude and rustic.

Cassandra looked around the room. “Why don’t we go to somewhere nicer?”

Brendan sat down, “No, I think this is the place.”

Cassandra nodded and kept quiet. Bolinor sat down and he shook his head.  This ‘quest’ stuff was hard going and he was glad their part was almost done. Now, his nephew would be required to take over on his own.

They sat for some time drinking, when a man walked up. “Are you the one building that ship outside?”

Brendan nodded.

“Your idea is sound, even if it does sound crazy to the others. But your design won’t work.”

Bolinor looked up in interest; he had learned to recognize the pulpit tone in the last few days.

“Why not?” Brendan asked.

“The yardarms of the second mast, they won’t allow the mast itself to lay flush.” The newcomer went over and took a half-burnt stick from the hearth then returned and began to draw on the table. “See, the first mast will lay flush, even folded back, the second section’s yardarms will just lay on top. Your second mast as it comes down will hit the yards on the first one that is already folded into place. I know it’s not really clear but do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

Brendan nodded. “Yes I do see, what do you recommend.”

“The yardarms will have to be pivoted so they will swing as the mast come down. A pulley system will allow it to do it automatically. My suggestion is to fold the stern first then the main one beside it. With the two yardarms swinging as you go. You will have to redesign your whole rigging system. It’s something if done now, won’t take to long and it won’t cost any extra money.”

The man threw the stick back into the fire. “You trying for the whirlpool?” the man’s voice was almost a whisper.

Brendan looked shocked. “We must be.”

“What is the whirlpool?” Cassandra asked.

“It is a giant whirlpool in the middle of the ocean, almost eight hundred miles away. Legend has it that the ship that survives, will go to another plane or world wherein lies fortune and glory.”

“The gold at the end of the rainbow,” Bolinor said thoughtfully.

“The legend goes on to say, the elven people once came from there, four thousand years ago. The three races of the elves are the result.

“What did the elf you saw look like?” Cassandra felt a chill as she asked the question.

“About five foot six or seven inches and about one hundred and forty pounds. Long blond hair with silver streaks and eyes like cats.”

She paled. “Grey Elves. Your legend is correct in one account. The races did descend from a fourth. Our mages lore and history tell of the grey elf nation. But that was only supposed to be a scribe’s story.”

Bolinor picked up his mug. “Well it looks as if Brendan will be finding out.”

“When do we leave?” the stranger asked.

Cassandra’s eyes widened. “Taking a few things for granted?”

He shook his head. “No, the same elf you described,” nodding to Brendan, “sent me here to find you, to correct the design, and captain the ship. Personally, I’m not looking forward to taking on the whirlpool, but I don’t seem to have any choice. I’m almost compelled to go.”

Brendan looked at his aunt and uncle and laughed. “I know that feeling.”

 

Early the next morning Brendan went to the shipyard. The ship had been moved up to the dock sometime during the night. She floated easily, tied up to the wooden piles. Men moved purposely over her decks. One man came down the gangway.

Both shook hands. “I still haven’t found out what I call you?” the stranger asked.

“My name is Brendan; you can call me anything that’s fitting at the time. And you?”

“Thomas Harrick.”

“Well, captain, how many crewmen?”

“Nineteen all told. Like me, they showed up this morning having been ‘compelled.’”

“Okay, captain, finish stowing the provisions. I’ll go get the rest of our merry band.”

 

The inn wasn’t open for meals yet, but the keeper made a few coppers selling drinks to the dockworkers. Brendan walked in. Three men and a woman sat in the dim room. They sat at their own table, and had a drink. They all watched each other warily and seemed to be waiting for someone. He knew that someone was himself.

“If you were sent by the elf, come join me. We’ve much to talk about.”

They all stood and came to a table Brendan commandeered. For the next two hours the group sat and talked.

 

The tall dark man was Riskin Morbin, a mercenary from the wild lands. The second man was Farek Mull, he was a big man as well, and he was deliberately vague on his whereabouts. Next to him sat Tilly Cross, a tall lively red-haired beauty that hailed from Jasper. And the last man was Yaren Forbs. He was dressed in a suit of burgundy chain mail armor. He came from the princess’ estate in Blackwell. The three men looked well able to handle themselves in a fight. The woman looked wiry and nimble, four fighters including himself and a thief?

Brendan eyed the girl. “You’re no serving girl, nor are you a guild member.” Suddenly, he remembered hearing about a red-haired woman. “You’re a pirate captain.”

She glanced quickly around and colored deeply. “Ah … I’m retired,” she stammered.

“My uncle’s admiral, a man named Phillips Barrows has spoken of you. You were one of the best. Your two ships raided the pirate fortress at Calhurn.”

“Yes, that’s right. My ship was hit and sinking when Phillips fished us out of the water. That close call was a little too close so, I retired.”

“When we get back, I think Bolinor could use a respected, honest captain.”

The dark-haired man laughed. “That’s rich. We all know this is a fool’s quest and none of us will return.”

Brendan stood. “I for one have lost the compulsion once the ship was built, and I’ll wager you’ve lost yours as well. You’re not obligated to sail with me. If you’re at the dock in the morning, we leave with the tide.”

Brendan finished the drink and left. The group heard him mutter, “Fool’s Quest… I like it.”

 

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