(Go back to Part 21)
“You will not always travel in the light, Acolyte, much as you think a servant of the flame would.
Sometimes the flame must be muffled, the lantern shaded, the coals raked over.
Sometimes the light must be hidden at dusk, so that it may burn all the brighter at midnight.”
–The Lexicon, Vorhall’s Letters To The Acolyte 109:52
Al Fayd was not a large city. Most trade ships landed further up the river, where trade that was still headed east crossed via ferry. Only a small portion of their caravan diverted south to the port city.
Al Fayd’s main business was shipbuilding. The road turned right when it met the river and followed a long muddy bank that curved slowly to one side. The riverbank was covered in scaffolds and timber ramps, and ships rose in various stage of construction all along the road. Half a dozen small coasters with flat bottoms and raked masts were under construction, while a huge war galley was pulled all the way out of the water for repairs. On the other side were low warehouses and clusters of small shacks; as they went, the city deepened until finally a plaza came into view. The road switched back up a rocky bluff that marked the end of the beach. They had reached Al Fayd.
They paused here to disband the caravan, and Alex took the chance to look out over the bay. The wide curve in the river created a calm basin, lined with the shipyards they’d just passed. Other ships lay at anchor, some with rigging destroyed by storms and waiting for repairs.
A stone pier jutted out from the bluff, and a few small cargo ships were moored to take on provisions. “That’s why we’re here,” said McCann, pointing at them as he returned from the final meeting with the caravan chief. “One of them is bound to be headed for Antioch.”
They found a ship the next day. The Lysia‘s sails newly mended and her deck a mix of old and new wood. “Sure, I be headed for Antioch,” said the captain, a lean, brown man named Tyrus. He spat tobacco juice over the side. “Fifty silvers each for the passage, you and the horses both. Another three a day for grub.”
“We’ll bring our own,” said McCann. Alex wasn’t surprised.
“Just for the horses, then.” Captain Tyrus shrugged and spat again. “We sail with the morning tide.”
McCann pulled out his money pouch. “We sleep on the deck tonight, Acolyte.”
In the cool darkness of the desert morning, the Lysia cast off from the stone quay. Al Fayd’s towing launch took a hold of their hawser; the voices of slaves cut the morning air as they sang a ragged chant at the oars. Soon the Lyria caught the current, and with a bit of wind in the sails they were able to steer. The launch dropped the hawser, and before long the banks of the river were slipping far behind on either side.
As the sun rose, McCann went below to check on the horses. Alex stayed on deck, watching the orange disc slip over the horizon in the East. The river was huge—this close to the ocean, the opposite bank was barely visible. A million blinding slivers of light gleamed on the surface as the breeze stirred the water.
Two dark shapes were visible on the horizon downriver. Alex asked one of the hands what they were.
“Pair a’ barques, left earlier this morning,” said the sailor.
“Were they also in for repairs?” asked Alex.
“Nah, ‘was in for takin’ on cargo. Kinda funny, actually.”
“Didn’t take nothin’ for trading. No spice, no silk, no gold. Just stores an’ water, but they near cleaned out the place.”
“Yeah. Saw the bosun—old friend of mine—down at the market, asked ‘im about it. Wouldn’t tell me nuthin’. Bet they’re trippin’ on salt meat underfoot right about now, amount they took on.”
“Hmm,” said Alex.
“Once we pass the barrier islands an’ get off this dem river, we’ll see ‘at course they make.” The sailor went back to his work.
They made slow but steady progress all day toward the ocean. The wind lessened as night came, but the barrier islands were visible on either side as darkness fell. A channel lay between them. “Keep the course steady,” Captain Tyrus told the helmsman, “and even if the wind dies the current should carry us out.”
Alex and McCann slept on deck. The wind died that night, and they woke the next morning to a thick fog covering everything. Alex shivered in her damp clothes as she gulped at the weak coffee that McCann brought from the galley.
“Gods be damned, I hate October,” said Tyrus. A bucket was lowered over the side, and he tasted the water. “Plugh! No ocean yet. We’re not past the islands; a good stiff breeze would be nice.”
Alex stood by the rail. The fog was new to her. It was thick, wet, and impenetrable to the naked eye. The experience was disturbing and a little frightening, being the only island of life in what could be an endless mist. They were totally alone.
“Is it always like this?” she asked the sailor she had talked to the night before. His name was Ovar.
“What? The fog?” he said.
“Nah.” He looked up from a cable he was splicing. “There be all types a’ fog. Summer fog. Winter fog. Storm fog. Land fog, sea fog . . . nah, this be a fall fog, Miss.”
“Huh. A fall fog.” She leaned on the rail, eyes straining to find purchase in the swirling mist.
“Best not to look too hard into the fog,” added Ovar. “It’ll do funny things to yer head.”
Alex looked back at him. “Like what?”
“You might see things, hear things. Stuff that’s not there. Happens a lot.” He shrugged and went back to his work.
Alex tried to take his advice. She went back below deck, but there was nothing to do there. Brutus was snug in his stall. McCann was writing in his report portfolio and in no mood for conversation. After a few minutes she came back on deck.
The mist was still swirling around the Lysia. Ovar was right; the more she looked into it, the more she saw and heard things that she knew couldn’t be there. “We’re alone, remember?” she told herself.
But were they? Alex frowned and strained her ears. Ovar had said that the fog did strange things to sound, but this was too strange to be her imagination. She heard splashes, other voices, snatches of speech. One moment they seemed right nearby, and then the next they were swallowed up by the mist. McCann appeared at the hatch; she motioned to him.
McCann joined her at the rail. “What?”
“Do you hear that?” He pointed out into the mist.
They listened, but nothing came. Finally McCann spoke. “I don’t hear—”
A burst of conversation reached them, clear as if they were standing next to the speakers. In a flash it was gone.
“That! What was that?”
But McCann held a finger to his lips. He looked worried. “Another ship. We drifted to them in the dark,” he whispered.
“Should we say something? What if we collide?” asked Alex.
“Let me go tell the captain, and stay very quiet. Did you recognize the accent?” he asked her.
“It’s from the South . . . and Baron Sinclair rules in the South.”
“What? Here?!? How? I thought we were going this way to avoid the Baron!” she said.
“Shh!! I don’t know what they’re doing here. Let me talk with Tyrus; stay here and keep listening.”
Alex stayed at the rail, straining her ears until they hurt, but she heard nothing more. Eventually she joined McCann and Tyrus on the quarterdeck.
The captain was nodding. “We’ll try an’ slip past them, if we can.”
“Is it possible?”
“Maybe. When the wind comes, the mist’ll lift quick. We’ll put all the canvas on now . . . should give us a head start.”
Tyrus soon had his men in the rigging, unfurling sails as quietly as they could. They trimmed them back tight to keep the blocks from rattling, and once they were set Tyrus sent them back aloft with buckets of seawater to wait for his signal. Wet canvas held the breeze better than dry.
Half an hour passed. The Lysia was silent, but before long they could hear at least two other vessels nearby. Bells sounded on either side as the ships’ watches were changed. Fragments of lazy conversation drifted over the water, and then the snap of orders. Water splashed against hull, and timbers groaned as the ships drifted. Alex tried not to clench her teeth—it was maddening to hear the strangers so close nearby without being able to see them.
As long last a puff of wind came. Tyrus held up a hand; the crew tensed. Another puff came, stronger, and when it lengthened into a steady breeze Captain Tyrus dropped his hand. The lines were loosed, and buckets emptied—the mainsail caught the wind with a crack and Alex felt the deck tremble underfoot. The Lysia heeled a few degrees, the rudder bit the water, and they were underway.
The mist was showing variation now that the wind had caught it. Bright patches of blue were appearing here and there, while great billows of cloud were blowing over the port-side rail. A rolling boil of fog came in over the side, and then they were free of it; the mid-morning sun blazed above and brilliant blue ocean stretched in every direction. The Lysia bit into the first roller and sent a great cloud of spray over the bows.
“Oy!” called one of the sailors, pointing astern.
Alex followed his hand and gasped. They were not alone; fully ten ships lay at anchor behind them, all larger than the Lysia. Each of them flew a flag from one of the houses of the South; they all flew the green and yellow of Baron Sinclair.
And the Lysia had not gone unnoticed. The ships were swarming with sailors; the tinny sound of trumpets carried over the waves. Sails were being unfurled, anchors hoisted.
“Well, we got a good jump on them, sure,” said Captain Tyrus. “But see those three? Those be warships, fast as birds with the wind behind ’em. If they’ve a mind to catch us, they will.”
“And it looks like they do.” McCann frowned. Sails were going up on the three ships Tyrus pointed to. “We’re about to have some company.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Alex.
McCann thought for a minute. “This . . .” He turned to Alex and began outlining his plan.
(Go on to Part 23)