The seas at the end of summer were in full flood. The tall ship strode the ocean, riding over the scalloping light, urged by a brisk wind which drove it through the dalloping dolloping waves.
The name of the ship was the Warwolf, but her figurehead was no wolf but a dragon. She had been built by the best shipwrights of the Greater Teeth. Her timbers were of winter oak and cedar, but for the masts, which were of kauri from Quilth, and the deck, which had been made of a chance load of mahogany alleged to have originated in Yestron. She had three masts, and sails of green canvas.
Togura Poulaan, taking his ease on a sunny yet sheltered part of the deck, surveyed the work going on at hand and thanked his stars - which were the two green ones known as the Cat's Eyes - that he was not a pirate. From this vantage point, it looked too much like hard work.
Taking advantage of the fine weather, the weapons muqaddam was supervising the overhaul of armaments and muniments. He was a broad-fisted man with shoulders like an ox and a shadow like a menhir. He was bald but for a little floccus scabbing the centre of his skull. His eyes, squinting out of a sun-weathered face, were as sharp as caltrops. His tongue was as rough as pumice, and he used it industriously.
Glad to be a passenger, Togura closed his eyes and leisured out at full length on the deck. Then cloud quenched the sun; a crisp whippet of wind came cleaning around him, and, chilled and annoyed, he sat up again.
"Come back son," said Togura. "Go away wind."
The wind, obedient to his commands, veered away to vanishing. But the sun remained hidden by a sulk of cloud. In the sea, something hinted through the waters. Seal? Dolphin? Whale? Rock? Togura narrowed his eyes, trying to see it more clearly. But it had gone. Perhaps it had been nothing to start with, or a chance bit of driftwood or float-stone now smothered by a wave.
Togura closed his eyes again, but was abruptly jolted into full alertness when a fight began. Looking round, he saw it was only two young pirates sparring with a lot of brag and paraffle. The weapons muqaddam, seeing their footwork looked sloppy, screamed abuse at them. They took heed, stopped fooling around and became more businesslike. They were rather good.
Togura had always imagined pirates as being lazy, leisurely beasts, loafing through the idle seas, amusing themselves with wine and women until the opportunity for pillage aroused them from their sport. Now, after only a brief acquaintance with the breed, he knew the reality was altogether different.
There was wine aboard, true, but it was rationed - a gill per man per day, which was next to nothing. There were women somewhere below deck - not that Togura had seen them - but the woman ration was stricter still. Most of the day was spent in work, maintenace, exercise and training. The Warwolf was a taut, sober, workmanlike ship, captained by the stern, ascetic Jon Arabin; there was no laybaout nonsense here.
If Togura had ever had the misfortune to sail on Draven's ship, the Tusk, then he would have found a state of affairs rather closer to his imaginings - which was the main reason why the Tusk had been smashed on the coast of Sung, the crew butchered by the local populace, and the wreckage looted, while the Warwolf rode out the storm with matchless aplomb.
As the sun came out again, Togura dozed down to the deck and relaxed. For the moment, he had no worries. This ship, its mission urgent, had no time to call at Larbster Bay on this leg of its journey. Instead, it would take him all the way to the distant island of Ork, then drop him at Larbster on the return voyage. For the time being, all he had to do was eat, sleep, and enjoy the sun at the end of summer.
With all his difficulties thus comfortably postponed, it was pleasing to toy with the idea of being a questing hero. Once he finally got from Larbster Bay to Estar, he would most certainly have a look at the monster in Prince Comedo's Castle Vaunting. He would then be able to decide whether he should attempt to recover the box which held the index.
He remembered back to the days when he had lived in the stronghold of the Wordsmiths in Keep. Brother Troop had talked about the box, which held the index which could control the odex. Aasked what the index looked like, he had answered:
"When you open the box, you'll know. Remember, it speaks the Universal Language."
Togura, daydreaming, imagined himself performing desperate heroics and recovering the vital box. It would open at a Word. And the Word was?
No, it was nothing like that. It was something else, but, for the life of him, he could not remember what. For a moment, he panicked. Then he relaxed. There was no need for him to remember how to command the box. All he had to do was get it to Keep. The Wordsmiths would do the rest.
It would be easy.
Or would it?
After all, there was not just Castle Vaunting's monster to deal with. If he slew the monster, that in itself would not be enough to give him the box which held the index, or the box was at the bottom of the bottle. Togura tried to remember Brother Troop's instructions for getting into the bottle, but could not. All he could remember was Brother Troop saying:
"The box itself lies as the very bottom of the bottle, and is Guarded ... which means there's death waiting nearby."
Remembering this talk of death made Togura once more doubt the wisdom of being a questing hero. He decided to procrastinate his decision until he reached Estar, which would not be for many days yet: there was no hurry.
A shadow blocked out the sun. Togura opened his eyes and saw a fair-haired young pirate looking down at him. The pirate, who was unarmed, was wearing a woolen shepherd's rig and rope-soled shoes.
"What are you staring at?" said Togura.
"Nothing that catches my fancy," said the youth. "They told me you were a manhunter, so I thought you'd be something special. But you're not."
Togura wondered whether to take offence, then decided against it. The doughty little pirate was a tough, nuggety piece of work. Togura might have trouble handling him if it came to a scuffle.
"Tell me, for you're the expert," said Togura, venturing a little flattery, "what's that island over there?"
And he pointed at a high-rising island some distance off. Its coast was "walled round with bronze," as the pirate idiom had it - that is to say, it had a rugged, iron-bound coast.
"That?" said the youth. "We name him Drum. That's - "
He broke off as the ship shuddered as if something had struck it. There was instant alarm on board. Men rushed to the side and peered overboard. Shouts rang out as deck queried crow's nest.
"What was it?" said Togura.
"Sharbly we grounded a whale," came the laconic answer. "No worry. It's gone, and us, we're not drinking."
At that moment, the ship lurched hideously. Togura was sent sliding. As he clung to the deck rail, he saw something rising up out of the sea. Up, up it came, ascending in blue-green coils.
"Snake!" said the pirate.
Its jaws leered toward them, as if it would strike, then it dipped down into the sea again. It was indeed like a snake, except that it was three times the length of the ship and had the girth of a bullock.
"There's another!" cried Togura.
There were two - no, three ... four! five! ... there were six sea serpents in the waters around them. Togura heard Jon Arabin, the ship's captain, bellowing orders. Shortly he heard wails and screams as the ship girls were brought up on deck. Fighting and biting, they were dragged to the stern and thrown overboard. They thrashed round in the water, screaming. Blood foamed on the waves as the sea serpents ravaged them.
"That's murder!" said Togura, shocked.
The young pirate gave a twisted grin.
"Them or us," he said. "Which would you prefer?"
It was indeed a difficult question.
Jon Arabin gave another order. And the weapons muqaddam grabbed Togura and started to drag him to the edge of the deck.
"This is a joke, yes?" said Togura.
The weapons muqaddam made no answer.
"A joke? Understand?" said Togura desperately. "A joke?"
They were now very close to the edge.
"Draven!" screamed Togura, sighting his friend at last. "Stop him!"
"Sorry, boy," said Draven, advancing at a casual saunter. "This isn't my ship. I've got no authority here. So enjoy your swim."
"I can't swim!" screamed Togura.
A lie - but he thought it worth trying.
He locked his hands round the stern rail, and, struggling vigorously, managed to kick the weapons muqaddam in the guts. His enemy did not even grunt.
"Did you hear me?" screamed Togura. "I can't swim!"
"Bait doesn't have to swim," said Draven, grabbing hold of Togura's flailing feet. "Give my regards to the chiefest of serpents."
"Don't do it! Please!" begged Togura, as he lost his hold on the stern rail. "Draven, help me!"
"Heave ho!" said Draven, cheerfully.
They gave him the old heave ho, and over he went. Arms and legs flailing, he tumbled through the air. He hit the sea awkwardly with a crash, a shock of cold water, and a blunt, ugly pain, as if someone had rammed his rectum with an iron bar. The impact drove him deep.
Momentarily stunned, lost to all knowledge of his place, time and name, he struggled for the light. Breaking the surface, he gasped for air. A slip-slop wave slapped him in the face. He remembered what was happening. A shrill whinny of terror escaped him. He thrashed at the water as if having a fit.
"No no no," moaned Togura, drawing his legs up to try and stop anything from biting them.
Another wave slapped him harshly, cutting off his moans. Blinking away the stinging salt of the sea, squeezing a web of water from his eyes, he dared to look around. He could see no women. No sea serpents.
The big seas hoisted him up then slopped him down again. The Warwolf, bulking away from him, heeled in the wind. He saw its lower timbers were foul with weed, barnacles and sea squirts; it was overdue for careening. Draven waved to him from the stern, then shouted something; the wind blurred away the sense of his words.
"What?" shouted Togura.
Draven shouted more unintelligible words, then pointed at something. What? Trying to see, Togura forgot all about keeping his legs up. They drifted down. The next moment, Togura felt something firm underfoot. Ah, ground! A miracle!
The ground began to rise.
Togura began to cry out with short, panting, uncontrollable, hysterical screams. Up came the green surge in a smooth, hypnotic flow, riding up between his legs and lofting him into the sky. He found himself straddling a sea serpent, which was racing through the sea toward the ship. He began to slip. He grabbed for a handhold, finding nothing but a few barnacles clinging to battle-scarred scales. Taking his weight, the old scales themselves started to scab away, revealing fresh, gleaming, frictionless scales beneath.
As the sea serpent raced toward the ship, Togura slid sideways. He scrabbled desperately for purchase. He had a brief, hallucinatory glimpse of the deck of the ship. It was below him. Men were scattering in all directions. Then the sea serpent crashed down. The stern splintered. Timbers smashed. Togura was thrown through the air.
Togura, bruised to the deck, rolled to his feet in an instant. He stood there, swaying. The ship lurched, the deck canted, and down he went again. He saw a scream wailing between the sea serpent's jaws. Then the scream was gone. The jaws were turning toward him.
Togura accelerated from a crawl to a sprint in one and a half paces. Then he collided with a pirate. Both went down. The sea serpent slavered above them. Blood dripped from its jaws. Togura, paralysed with fear, mewled weakly with terror. But the pirate bravely struggled to his feet, drawing his cutlass. A mistake. The monster snacked on the cold steel, then munched down on the pirate. Togura slithered away, then got to his feet and ran with a blind, lurching gait.
Knocked to the deck by the ship's next ungainly movement, Togura turned to see half a dozen pirates charging the sea serpent, using a spare spar as a battering ram. Wood splintered, bones crunched, and Togura went humbling up the ratlines, climbing for dear life or cheap, life at any price, there was no time for bargaining.
He climbed and climbed until he could climb no more, and then, at a dizzy height, he hooked his arms through rope netting and slumped there, exhausted. The ship, struck by another sea serpent, heeled alarmingly then righted itself; the motion, amplified by the mast, did sickening things to his stomach.
"Enjoy your swim?" said a laconic voice beside him.
Togura opened his eyes to look at his neighbour. It was the fair-haired young pirate he had conversed with earlier in the day.
"You're a murderous pack of unprincipled bastards," said Togura savagely.
The youth laughed.
"What did you expect?" he said. "We're pirates! You got off lucky, though. Bait can be cut, blinded, tortured. Or ship-raped, my hearty. If there's time. This time there wasn't."
"Does that mean I was bait all along? Did you expect to meet - "
"Not so angry, man. Settle, settle! You, you were our much loved, honoured, respected passenger until we met the monsters. Stall it, man, don't say it - of course we weren't expecting them. None in their right minds - or out of them, for that matter - would sail to a monster's jaws full knowing. My name's Drake. And yours?"
"Togura," mumbled Togura, his strength for anger fading.
"Forester," said Togura, speaking up loudly, amending his name as he remembered who he was masquerading as.
"Welcome, Forester. Do you - "
The mast lurched alarmingly.
"Dahz!" exclaimed the pirate Drake, using a foreign obscenity.
Togura realised a sea serpent had coiled itself around the base of the mast. Even as he watched, the mast, very slowly, began to bend. Then, with a shudden shatter-crack, it snapped.
The sea roared up and smashed them.
Engulfed in green, harassed by rope, choking and breathless, Togura struggled for air and daylight. Breaking up to the surface of the sea, he snorted water, sucked air, was floundered over by a wave, ducked by another, hauled down by a third, rolled over and over by a fourth, then lifted up by a fifth to an eminence from which he saw the Warwolf, encumbered by a trio of sea serpents, crabbing away through the sea with its broken mast trailing.
"Swim!" yelled a voice.
It was Drake.
Togura saw his young pirate friend, still clinging to the mast. What was better? To cling to the mast until the sea serpents were ready for dessert? Or drown in the bottomless ocean?
"Swim! Now!" shouted Drake, wind and distance rapidly eroding his voice.
Togura struck out for the mast and the ship, but it was hopeless. The sea was rough; a strong, fast current was sweeping him away from the ship. Finally he gave up and trod water, watching the ship, listing badly, dragging itself away from him, still in the grip of three implacable monsters.
Seeing a stray spar surfing through the water, Togura swam for it, reached it, latched on and clung to it for dear life. One end was all munched, crunched and splintered; he shuddered. The ship was now too distant for him to make out any detail of what was happening on board, but he saw black billows of smoke beginning to rise from the vessel. Soon one of the remaining masts was on fire; it was Togura's guest that the ship was doomed.
"Drown down, you buck-rat bastards," he muttered, cursing the ship and its crew.
By now he was very, very cold; he began to shudder violently and continuously. He would be chilled down to his death unless he could get to land. But there was no land anywhere near. Or was there? The island of Drum was now much closer. The current was taking him toward the shore.
The current was swift, but, even so, it seemed a long time before he could cast off from the spar and strike out for the shore. He swam very slowly. Caught in the surf, he almost drowned, surviving by luck alone. The waves tumbled him onto a pebbly beach. He struggled up the beach and across the driftwood line at high tide mark, then shuffled into a cave and collapsed, exhausted.