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"Where's Keeper?" Sigurd asked, peering down into the hold.
"Dead," said Skylan.
His comrades stared at him in shocked silence. Then some of the men glanced grimly at the ogre ships with their triangular sails that were approaching them cautiously, wary, no doubt, of the reputation of the Vindrasi dragonships.
Other men watched Raegar sailing after them in his new dragonship, Aelon's Triumph, that he had ordered built along the same lines as the fabled dragonships of his cousins. Raegar's ship was dedicated to the God of the New Dawn, Aelon. His dragon, Fala, was dedicated to the new god, as well. Both of them were traitors to the Vindrasi and the Old Gods, the true gods.
"So what do we do now?" Sigurd demanded, breaking the silence.
"We stand together," said Skylan.
Sigurd snorted. "You mean we die together."
"Better than dying alone," said Skylan. "Like Keeper."
"How did our Keeper die?" asked Legate Acronis, frowning. He had known the ogre godlord a long time and although they were nominally slave and master, the two had long been friends. "He had a cracked head, nothing for an ogre with their thick skulls."
Skylan's gaze flicked to Aylaen. Worn out after her battle with the Vektia dragon, she was sitting on the deck, slumped back against the bulkhead. He and Aylaen had fled Sinaria disguised as the military escort for Legate Acronis and they were both wearing the segmented armor worn by the Sinarian soldiers, as well as the breastplate and the leather skirt that was too big for her slender waist. Aylaen had removed the helm, claiming that she couldn't see properly. Her legs were bare from her thighs to her tightly laced boots. Skylan was surprised her stepfather, Sigurd, hadn't berated her for exposing her body in such an unseemly manner. Perhaps Sigurd had given up the fight to salvage his wayward daughter's honor. She had, after all, just saved his life. Skylan hoped Aylaen was asleep.
She wasn't. Hearing the news of Keeper's death, she opened her eyes wide and pushed herself to her feet.
"Keeper's dead?" she said in dismay. "How did he die? What happened?"
"How he died doesn't matter," Skylan said in flat, dry tones. "What matters is how we die. If Raegar captures us, he will take us back to Sinaria and slavery."
Skylan held out his arm, still bloody from where the blessed sword of Vindrash had slashed through the tattoo that had branded him a slave. "For myself, I choose the ogres."
"The brutes will board our ship to find one of their godlords dead," Erdmun pointed out. "They'll think we killed him. They'll butcher us."
Skylan sighed. Erdmun could always be counted on to take a negative view of the situation. Though Skylan had to admit, in this instance there wasn't much positive.
"So we're going to just sit here and wait for death," Sigurd said, scowling.
"We will not sit here. We will pray," Aylaen said. "We will turn to our gods."
"Our gods have been such a big help to us up to now," Erdmun sneered.
Aylaen angrily rounded on Erdmun.
"We're still alive," she said, her green eyes flashing. She pointed back to the city, to the smoke that blacked the sky and the orange flames that burned so fiercely not even the torrential rains could douse them. "The people in that city cannot say as much. We are alive and we are free. We have our ship and we have our dragon and we have each other."
The men were listening to her. She was wet and bedraggled, her face smeared with grime and soot, her red curls plastered to her head. She was a mess, but to Skylan she was beautiful. He had never loved her more than he loved her now, and he had loved Aylaen all his life.
"Our gods fight for their survival even as we fight for ours," Aylaen continued. "They have given us what help they can. The rest we must do for ourselves."
The men were impressed. Aylaen turned to face the carved figurehead of the dragon that proudly graced the prow of the Venjekar. Kahg's eyes glittered red. The dragon had refused to fight Raegar's dragon, Fala, saying he would not fight one of his own kind, no matter that she served a treacherous god. Kahg had not abandoned them, however. The dragon was with them, sailing the dragonship, imbuing the ship with his spirit.
Aylaen began praying to Vindrash, the dragon goddess, thanking her for her blessings, for her help in saving them from a Vektia dragon. Skylan was proud of her, proud of her courage, her strength. She had become a Bone Priestess reluctantly, led to the decision by a lie that held more truth for her than she wanted to admit.
"Vindrash," Aylaen said in conclusion, gazing up at the heavens tinged with smoke. "We need a miracle."
Skylan said his own prayer. He did not pray to Vindrash. Now that the Dragon Goddess had given him the secret to the Five Vektia dragons, Skylan hoped she was done with him, that she had punished him enough and there would be no more horror-ridden dragonbone games played night after dreadful night with the draugr of his dead wife, Draya. Skylan had worked hard to make amends for his past misdeeds. Aylaen was a Bone Priestess now. She and Vindrash could commune and leave Skylan out of it. He clasped his hand over his amulet, the silver hammer he wore around his neck.
"I don't need a miracle, Torval. I need a favor. I need time," Skylan said beneath his breath. "Anything that will gain me more time. Do that, and we can handle the rest."
His prayer dispatched, Skylan looked with concern at his warriors. They had escaped Sinaria aboard the Venjekar, hauling the ship overland until they reached the river and then launching it. They were wearing the traditional armor of the Torgun, "barbaric armor," the Sinarians termed it—leather tunics, padded leather vests, and chain mail, newly made for the Para Dix games. Some wore swords, others carried axes, depending on their preference. Skylan, as a Sinarian soldier, carried a standard-issue sword; a weapon neither good nor bad.
Sigurd's head was bowed in prayer, but Skylan thought he was only pretending. Sigurd cast darting glances at the ogre ship from out of the corner of his eye. Grimuir, his friend and ally (allied in their dislike of Skylan), was watching Raegar's ship. Acronis, former Legate of the doomed city of Sinaria, did not bow his head. Skylan knew he did not believe in gods, in any gods. His only beloved daughter had died yesterday. His beautiful home had been burned to the ground. His city was still in flames; the smoke from the burning buildings crept over the water, stinging the throat and eyes. He had lost everything except his life and he must hold that life very cheap right now, for he had tried to kill himself. Small wonder he turned his back on the gods, who had turned their backs on him. He was dressed in his ceremonial Sinarian armor, his finely made sword at his side. He gazed out across the restless sea and scratched his grizzled chin.
Bjorn seemed to pray in earnest; Erdmun prayed, Skylan was sure, because he was hedging his bets. Farinn, the youngest of them all, looked as if he prayed fervently through lips that trembled.
Farinn is afraid of death, Skylan realized. And he imagines he is alone in his fear. I must remember to give him some task to keep him occupied.
The ship was quiet, the only sounds the waves slapping against the hull and the murmurs of men praying. Wulfe, the fae child, son (so he claimed) of the daughter of the Faerie Queen, sidled up to Skylan and announced in a loud voice, "Treia murdered Keeper."
"Shut up!" Skylan clapped his hand over Wulfe's mouth, but he was too late. Aylaen turned to stare at the boy in shock.
"What do you mean?" She looked at Skylan. "What does he mean?"
"He's just talking. He doesn't know anything," Skylan said, gripping Wulfe by the arm.
"I do, too," said Wulfe defiantly. "Treia poisoned him. I'll tell you how. She gave him a potion and told him it would help—Ouch!"
Wulfe glared at Skylan indignantly and rubbed his head. "You hit me."
"Because you tell tales," Skylan said. "Don't pay any attention to him, Aylaen. He's crazy. He thinks he talks to dryads—"
"Does he also think he can turn himself into a man-beast?" Aylaen retorted. "Because he can."
Skylan opened his mouth and closed it. There was no denying that. They had both been witness to the startling transformation. One moment a scrawny boy of about eleven years had been standing before them and the next moment he was a yellow-eyed, sharp-fanged wolf.
"Tell me the truth about Keeper, Skylan," said Aylaen.
"He died," said Skylan. "He just died."
Aylaen shook her head and then she vanished. Wulfe vanished. The mast behind Skylan vanished. The dragonhead prow above him vanished. Fog, thick, gray, greasy smoke-tinged fog rolled down from the heavens and engulfed them in a blinding cloud.
Skylan could see nothing for the thick mist that floated before his eyes. He knew he was standing on the deck of his ship only because he could feel it solid beneath his feet. He couldn't see the deck, he couldn't see his feet. He had to hold his hand close to his face to see it. He was reminded of the terrifying journey he had made on the ghost ship, haunted by the draugr of his dead wife, Draya. He wondered if he was the only person on board the Venjekar; he had to swallow twice before he could force his voice to work.
"Aylaen!" he called.
"Here!" she gasped, somewhere to his right.
"The rest of you shout out," Skylan ordered.
One by one they all replied—from Sigurd's deep bass to Wulfe's shrill, excited yelp.
"Aylaen, ask the Dragon Kahg if he can see." She was a Bone Priestess, the only person on board who could commune with the dragon.
"Kahg is as blind as the rest of us," Aylaen reported. She paused a moment, then said wryly, "The dragon tells me you did not pray for a miracle. You asked Torval for a favor. The Dragon Kahg says you have it. The fog blankets the ocean, blinds our enemies. Make the best of it."
Skylan almost laughed. A thick, blinding, soul-smothering fog wasn't exactly the favor he'd had in mind, but he'd take it. The Dragon Kahg slowed the ship's progress through the sullenly stirring waves to a halt. Every ship's captain must be doing the same, for Skylan could hear muted horn calls, while voices, muffled by the fog, shouted orders. The last he had seen of the ogres' ships, they had been clustered together and were likely to smash into each other. Raegar's ship was too far away for Skylan to hear anything, but he had no doubt Raegar would also be forced to stop lest he inadvertently sail into what remained of the ogre fleet.
"I'm standing near the hold," Skylan called out to the crew. "I'm going to keep talking. Follow the sound of my voice and come to me."
The men made their way to him. He could mark their progress by their swearing as they stumbled over the oars, barked their shins on the sea chests, or bumped into each other.
"A strange phenomenon, this fog," Acronis observed.
"Nothing strange. Torval sent it," said Skylan.
Acronis regarded him with good-natured amusement. "On the contrary, my friend, the fog was caused by the smoke from the fires combined with the humidity."
The two stood practically toe-to-toe and yet they could barely see each other. The air was heavy and difficult to breathe. Skylan could feel the fog catch in his throat.
"You and I will argue about the gods when we are safely back in my homeland," said Skylan impatiently. "Now I need your learning for more important matters, Legate—"
Acronis shook his head. "I am no longer Legate, Skylan. I am no longer your master." He gave a wry chuckle. "You would say I never was…"
Skylan had once hated Legate Acronis as the man who had enslaved him. He had since come to honor and respect the older man as an able military commander and because they had ended up on the same side in this war, fighting the same foe. Having lost everything, Acronis had elected to bind his wyrd to Skylan and his Torgun warriors.
"You are not my master," Skylan agreed, smiling in turn. "But you are a learned man, worthy of respect. You have made a study of ogres, sir, so Keeper told me. What do you know of their rituals for the dead?"
"I know quite a bit," said Acronis, puzzled. "Why?"
"Because Torval sent you to me, as well," said Skylan.
"Skylan, over here," Aylaen called.
He made his way to her and found her clutching Wulfe by the arm. "He almost fell."
"I was trying to talk to the oceanaids," Wulfe said.
"Keep hold of him," Skylan said to Aylaen. "Stay by the mast. Both of you."
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"What I have to," he said.
Aylaen silently nodded. Her face was the gray of the fog. Her green eyes and red hair seemed the only color in a gray world. She feared Wulfe was telling the truth, that Treia had poisoned Keeper. Skylan wished he could stay with her, talk to her, tell her some comforting lie. But there wasn't time. Torval's favor would not last forever and when the fog lifted, they had to be ready.
Led by Skylan, the Torgun warriors stumbled down the ladder that led into the hold. They had to feel their way, for the hold was dark, the mists were thick, and they couldn't see a thing. Skylan heard a terrified gasp and a rustling and he remembered that Treia was down there somewhere.
She must be afraid we are coming after her.
He said nothing to disabuse her. Let her spend a few moments in terror. None of the others spoke to her. They had all heard Wulfe's accusation and most probably believed it. Still, murdering the ogre was not the worst of her crimes. He had kept from his comrades the fact that Treia had summoned the Vektia dragon who had leveled a city and nearly killed them all. Skylan had kept silent not because he gave a damn about Treia. He cared about Aylaen, who cared about Treia.
The men gathered around Keeper's body lying on the deck of the hold, shrouded in the gloom and the darkness.
"All right, we're down here," said Sigurd. "What do we do now?"
"We are going to honor the dead," said Skylan. "We are going to return Keeper to his people."
Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman