TG Universes & Series:
A simple leg of a voyage from one port to the next turns out to be anything but, as the Visund is attacked by one of the creatures that live in the depths of the great river. An alternative landing must be found for their injuries to be treated, but their lodgings for the night is unexpected.
The Voyage of the Visund
A tale of Anmar by Penny Lane
6 - Brief Encounter
Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2018 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.
The men were waiting for their food when Wallesan, Maralin and the Joth contingent joined those already in the courtyard of the hostel. Many other travelers were also there, anxious to eat and continue on their journeys, however there was as yet no sign of any of the women in their party.
The kitchen had just begun serving food when Eriana led her companions from the women's quarters. She took one look at the waiting men and came to a quick decision. Clapping her hands for attention, she pointed to the clear area in the middle of the courtyard.
"Men of the Visund! It is time we resumed our Tai Chi! Assemble now, while these other travelers obtain their food. Your Grace, if you or your men desire to join us, we will welcome you."
Most of the men immediately left the line and headed for the cleared space, leaving bemused travelers behind them. Wallesan gestured to his men and they all rose and walked over to join Eriana.
"Good morrow, Wallesan, Maralin, Hambran. We used to do this regularly while at the palace and when we were training for our expedition. I have not seen you or your men do the Tai Chi, do you know the forms?"
"Good morning, Eriana," Wallesan greeted her. "Aye, we learned most of it while we were in the palace, though our party was taught by His Majesty's men so you may not have seen us. We managed a day or two at Dekarran, also, but you should consider us rusty. Where shall we stand?"
The work of the whole hostel ceased as everyone watched the assembled men and women go through the evolutions of Tai Chi. Many of her men had come to appreciate the focus and flexibility that the exercise offered, but to the onlookers it simply seemed like some arcane ritual. Finally, as those taking part broke ranks and headed for the kitchen, everyone went back to their own affairs.
Some of Eriana's men went to fetch plates, cutlery and beakers for the women while the men of Wallesan's escort did the same for the Duke, Hambran and Maralin. These selected a table for themselves and the women. As before, Wallesan seated Eriana before taking his own chair and Maralin and Hambran seated the other women before sitting down to their own meals. Ursula seemed now familiar with life at the hostels, so ate and drank as though she had always done so that way. The only thing, Maralin noticed, was that she was clumsy with the borrowed fork.
Eriana said, "It looks like a fine day to continue our voyage on the Sirrel."
Wallesan replied, "Aye, you may find that all the weather is like this as you go on your way, I deem. There are occasional periods of rain, and even the occasional heavy showers, though I would not call them storms, but in this season of blossom and growth all will welcome any rain that comes, since it will provide for next years' food. Did you all sleep well?"
"Well enough, though poor Ursula suffered another headache this morning when she rose." Eriana looked frustrated. "I wish I could do more but I know I cannot. Do the healers of this valley have anything that would ease the pain?"
"There are potions," Maralin answered, "since I was fed some of them myself. I believe that they are the same things that are used for a painful injury or joint, and also by women when Kalikan calls." He hesitated. "I would be wary of giving her too much of such stuff, Highness, because it may complicate her recovery. Some of those herbs are strong."
"I will take your advice, Maralin, though it pains me to see her suffer so. You are certain that once her memory recovers these headaches will cease?"
"That is what both Garia and myself remember, Highness, though of course our memories of that period are not as good as what happened before or since. Oh - if I have not said it already, she may not remember exactly what happened before she left or even when she left. I suspect that she may not remember meeting that bear."
Eriana's eyes narrowed. "But you told me that you remembered your own ending, in a burning building."
Maralin grimaced. "Well... Highness, that isn't exactly true. All I should say is that I was told what happened to me some time after I arrived here, and that such matters are one of those things we have given oaths not to talk about."
Eriana's eyebrows shot up, but she nodded. "As you say. I see now that this whole subject is a complicated one and there may be reason for your silence. No matter, it is not important now. Let us eat."
Once they had eaten, everybody carried their bags - and the women's chests - down to the Visund, among a crowd of other water travelers doing the same thing. There was the usual apparent confusion as the men stowed everything away and prepared the ship and themselves for departure. Finally Prell appeared, having made his morning visit to what Maralin thought of as the local equivalent of the 'harbor-master's office'.
"Pilot! Anything we should be aware of today?"
"Very little, Captain. Today's weather is expected to be much the same as yesterday, so you should be able to make good use of the sail. There is one minor matter, but it need not delay us. You may instruct your men to cast off."
Once out in the Sirrel again, Eriana turned to Prell. "Can we sail, pilot, or must we use oars? I see the river turns again, and against the wind."
They were facing north-west, roughly towards the northern wall of the Great Valley, and there was sufficient variation in the course of the river that it was not obvious which way it would trend.
"Captain, you may raise the sail, but if it is possible I would suggest that you leave the oars out for now. Our route will soon take us to the right, where we must cross the current again without the aid of the wind." He waved a hand. "As I mentioned the other day, it is possible to do it by sail alone but with all these men and oars there is little point, and it will save you much time."
"As you wish."
She turned to the crew and issued a stream of Norse, letting the men know what was about to happen. There was more bustle as the oars were pulled in but not stored while the sailors among the crew raised the sail.
«You'll need to pull the yard right round to the left!» She waved a hand before turning to Prell. "What of this minor matter you spoke of, pilot? How may it affect us?"
"Captain, a boat arrived late yesterday evening, having been delayed in the Northern Virgulend Reach. Although they were not affected themselves, they reported seeing something... large... in the river."
"Large? How so? A tree trunk, mayhap?"
Wallesan leaned over. "I overheard a word or two at the hostel, Eriana. I think what Prell means is some kind of large water creature. Is that so, pilot?"
"Aye, Your Grace. Those who reported said that they saw ripples in the last of the light and the back of something, swimming against the current. Because the light was poor, they could not identify it and, in any case, were anxious to leave it be and make for West Haral before it became fully dark."
"Creature?" Maralin asked. "I suppose that a river this size must have things living in it. What sort of creatures might there be, Your Grace?"
"Fish of all sizes, of course," the Duke replied. "They range from small hatchlings to some that are large and dangerous. I have heard of one that was found dead on the bank that was said to have been seven strides long when alive. There are other things, creatures with legs instead of fins, and others with something that are neither legs nor fins but serve them as both. Others with tentacles or with shells." Wallesan shrugged. "As you said, it is a big river. Fortunately for us, most of the larger of such things only appear at night, so do not cause trouble to the river traffic. It is one reason we try not to travel by night, but not the only one."
"As you say, Your Grace," Prell agreed. "Because most of these creatures are active at night we rarely encounter them and thus, they are not considered to be dangerous to most who travel on the Sirrel. I am merely warning the Captain in case anyone sees something they are not familiar with as we progress."
The journey continued, the sailors and crew now reasonably prepared for the actions that would be required as the Visund ventured further along the great waterway. Sometimes there was need for rowing, as the main current was crossed, other times the sail had to be adjusted to make most of the warm breeze that came from the north-east. Most of the time, the crew was at leisure, only the lookouts and the steersman having to maintain a constant watch.
Maralin took advantage of the relaxed attitude and made his way forward to join the women, who apart from Eriana had found regular seats out of the way near the bow.
"Ladies," he greeted them. "If I may join you?"
"Of course, Tenant," Bennet replied. "Do you enjoy the ride?"
"It is different," he said. "This is probably the longest time I have ever been on a boat. I have gotten more used to riding everywhere now, I suppose. I would not have missed this experience, though. It has shown me more of the Valley and the towns we have passed through. When you are actually in the Valley, you don't appreciate just how big it is or how the walls either side affect the way one thinks about distances or directions. And then you have the Sirrel, which goes merrily from side to side and chops everything up into different countries."
"I see what you mean. Of course, having lived in the Valley all my life I tend to take all that for granted. Was there something you sought of us particularly, Tenant?"
"I was told that Ursula had a headache this morning. I wanted to ask her what she remembered, or what she was thinking when it happened. It might provide clues to her past."
Ursula said, "Do you think so? The flashes I have had so far seem very disturbing to me. Can my life have been so very different before? It is all so confusing."
"Well, when you do get your memory back, everything you remembered in those flashes should be explained and explainable. You may not believe me now but afterwards you will understand."
"It's just that what I have seen is so different than what I have been doing... since..." she paused. "And all I have is your word that all this will come right eventually."
"All I can tell you, Mistress," Maralin assured her, "is that what is happening to you is the exact same thing that happened to me, oh, some five months ago. There is a record of it happening to at least one other. We both survived the experience, though I would add that once you are recovered you may find some things to be very different than you might have been used to before."
"That may be so..." Ursula considered. "Some of the flashes I have had so far have been very strange. I have the feeling that something is wrong, but also an odd feeling that something is right." She shook her head. "I cannot explain it."
"Without your memory, it will all seem odd, Mistress. So, what did you see this morning?"
"I saw... a street, a wide street, with buildings of stone... I think. There were metal poles every so often, with... ropes..? strung between them? There were strange... vehicles... traveling along the street, but no animals pulling them. Does that sound odd?"
"Not at all, Mistress. I can think of several explanations, none of which would mean much to you at the moment. Anything else of note?"
"The ground was white! There was some kind of stuff, white stuff on the ground, except where those vehicles had worn it away. All the people I could see wore lots of clothes to keep themselves warm, it must have been very cold."
"That sounds like snow," Maralin explained. "If you came from Canada, I would expect there to be lots of snow, especially in winter. Where we are now is... nearer the Equator, which means we get only a little dusting of snow here each winter."
"Then the headache came," Ursula continued. "Now I can think of those things again without the headache! Is this what happened to you?"
"More or less. Unfortunately you'll probably have another day or two like this before it gets better."
"If it is no worse than this then I will bear it." She smiled at Maralin. "Thank you for explaining, Tenant."
"That's what I am here for," he said with a returned smile.
Maybe that is exactly what I am on this voyage for! To explain things to this transferee, at least to some extent. I wonder what she might be here for?
Two of the sailors among the crew approached.
"If we can ask you to move for a moment," Brodgar said, "it is time for us to cross the current again and we must swing the sail round."
The next bend was a sharp right hander, which meant that the ship was now facing down the Great Valley once more. Maralin smiled as he realized that, since leaving their first stop at Terban, the ship had described a complete clockwise circle to end up pointing towards the distant sea again!
"What makes you smile, Tenant?" Bennet asked as they watched the crew make ready for the new leg.
He explained, adding, "Now I understand why everyone uses the trade road instead of the river. This must make the journey three times longer, at the very least."
She frowned. "If you say so. I find it difficult to see in my mind what you describe. Still, I am seeing parts of the Great Valley I would not otherwise see, am I not? And, because of the current, I deem that a downstream journey will be much faster than the upstream one we are making now."
"Yes, of course. I am not complaining, I am finding it just as interesting as you are."
Eriana elected to use brute force to traverse this section, rather than tacking backwards and forwards using the sail. The men were used to rowing and the physical effort helped them stay fit, so nobody complained. It took them a bell and a half, and another crossing of the current, before the river curved to the left again, to head towards the northern wall once more, and shortly afterwards they were heading roughly south-west and the sail could be raised to give everyone a rest.
A little later Prell told them to head for the left bank, for a small village that had rest facilities. A channel led to a pool where pontoons allowed river craft to tie up and let crews ashore. A short distance inland was the village, with several barn-like structures to one side. These had high canvas roofs but no walls. Inside there were rough tables and benches at one end, while the other had rows of straw pallets for resting. A separate kitchen building between two of these barns provided a limited selection of hot food and drink.
One minor complication was the fact that the coin they offered in payment for their food and drink was not accepted.
Wallesan explained, "We're in Virgulend now. At the ferry ports, and in the bigger towns, there are money changers who will provide Virgulend Pikans for the coin of the other countries. They don't like mixing the coinage as most of the other countries do. Fortunately, I have brought Pikans with me, against this very need."
"Rate of exchange?" Maralin asked.
"Grand Duke Mariswin, who of course you met at the palace and at Dekarran, is very honorable and insists that a standard rate is asked throughout his lands. He would just prefer that it is his coin that is spent in his own lands, that everybody may be sure what value they receive for their coin."
"Unlike, say, Palarand, where some tavern keeper could make up an exchange rate as he went along, should he be offered a foreign coin."
"Exactly. I do not know what the answer will be, once we get the Federation going. I doubt that we will be able to have such a variety of coin as we all do now."
"True. In the United States I vaguely remember that each state had its own currency for a while, before everyone eventually settled on a single currency that they would all use. I expect much the same will happen here."
"As you say. Any experiences -" Wallesan cast around to make sure nobody was taking notice of the conversation, "- we may subsequently learn will be of value to us, of course."
"Aye, Your Grace. Having decided on a Federation, Garia and I spoke of related things she could research while away and currency was one of those things. Ah, here is Eriana."
She displayed one of her frequent scowls. "Wallesan, they do not take our coin. You know these people, what must we do? I do not remember having this trouble when we came back from Forguland."
"Leave it to me, Eriana, I have the kind of coin they prefer. What of sentries? Shall you need my men to help out?"
Since the village was small, there were no troops or local Watch of any kind who could guard the Visund or their sleeping place. Each vessel would have to provide its own security, though for Eriana's party this was no real problem.
"If you would pay what is required, I will provide the sentries we will need." She squinted at the landscape in the distance beyond the shelters. "Although, it will soon be hot enough to send sentries to sleep as well! You must face this problem all the time, Wallesan. Is there some remedy?"
"There are ways, Eriana." He lifted his waist pouch. "Now, how much do they want?"
The voyagers ate a combination of their own provisions and some prepared by the small kitchen before settling down to rest. Eriana and the other women slept in the center of the block of pallets, surrounded by the male crew members. Two stood guard while two more watched over the Visund, all heavily armed. From the looks that other travelers were giving them, it was unlikely that anything would be attempted while they were taking their rest.
* * *
It was much hotter when the Visund nosed out of the channel back into the Sirrel, Eriana noticed. There were some ominous-looking clouds to the east which threatened a sudden downpour sometime later. She was used to such spring weather, similar sudden squalls were familiar at sea though how long these might last, and what the effects might be in this different setting, she had yet to discover.
Prell gave the obvious order to Tor to swing left, upstream, and Eriana felt the hot sun on her neck as the Visund turned. With another scowl, she dropped from the stern deck to the hull.
"Wallesan! Though we hid away for the hottest part of the day, my men and I will fry in this heat. If this weather will continue, as you suggested, then we must needs have some kind of protection for our heads."
She did not mention the fact that her usual tunic and trousers of heavier material was already stained with sweat. It was apparent that alternatives would not be forthcoming any time soon, so she accepted the inconvenience.
"You are right, Eriana, and I beg your pardon for not thinking of it sooner. Aye, most who must needs work outside in such strong sun should have some protection for their heads and shoulders. When we next land, let us try and find some hats for as many as we can."
"What of your men? I see they already wear such gear."
"They are military issue, Eriana, since fighting is often done in such weather as this. I'm not so sure that what they wear is suitable for being on the water, though. They are so light they could blow away."
Wallesan's escort, with the exception of Maralin, were wearing hats fashioned out of thin undyed cloth. These had a rounded conical crown with a broad floppy brim drooping down all around, designed to be worn over a helmet but which could be used without. Captain Hambran's hat had a narrower brim and an elaborate fabric flower stitched to the front to distinguish him as an officer.
"I see what you mean." She watched the breeze from astern ruffle the brims. "They would not be of such use on board, I would think. It seems to me that they would interfere with the men's duties - not the rowers, of course, but the sailors."
"I agree. Perhaps hats of a different material. Maralin, is there anything from Earth which may be of use to Eriana?"
Maralin considered. "Well, Your Grace, as always, the subject of hats as worn on Earth is a broad one. We could find a stiffer cloth in the market, or even some thin felt, perhaps. In olden times sailors used to wear hats made from straw, I believe."
"Straw!" Eriana was surprised. "Like those cone shaped hats the farmers wear, you mean?"
He smiled. "As you say, Captain, though they needn't be of that shape. There was a hat called a 'boater' which, from the name, was probably originally intended for sailors. They might be more suitable for bargemen than true sailors like your crew, though. Let me think about it for a while."
"As you wish." She fixed him with a stare. "If I may ask, why do you not wear a hat as the others of Joth do?"
"Ah, Captain, my position with His Grace is an unusual one, as you must realize. Strictly speaking, I am not part of His Grace's escort but more of a special advisor, for reasons you already know. That means that I did not get issued with my uniform when the others did, not being of the household troops."
"Oh. I see. Do you think that you will also have need of a hat?"
"Of course, Captain. Like you, this climate is new to me and I will need to protect my head and neck if I am to perform my duties properly."
Wallesan muttered, "Well said, Maralin. Let us see what kind of hat you may dream up for Eriana's crew - and perhaps for her navy, since they will have a like desire."
Maralin shook his head in bemusement. "When I first came to Anmar I wondered what use I would be here, especially since everything was so different to what I had left behind. I never ever imagined that I would become a designer of military uniforms!"
Eriana said, "Well, my men have need of hats, Maralin, and I have sore need of a summer dress. If His Grace is willing, I would ask that those be your first priority."
Wallesan inclined his head. "We cannot ignore Ursula, Eriana, but otherwise I am in agreement with your suggestion. Maralin, you have my authority in this."
"As you command, Your Grace."
The Visund, using sails alone, crossed the river to the right bank and proceeded some marks along that side before the current came across to join them, forcing them to switch sides again. For this crossing, Eriana wanted to make it quick before the threatened thunderstorm erupted above them and caused a loss of visibility. So, the oars were pushed out and the men began to pull as the ship swung left again.
Few of those on board saw what really happened. The rowers were facing aft, as usual, and most of those who were not pulling an oar were intent on their own comfort - or just trying to keep in the shade as the ship turned and the shadow of the sail moved. There was a cry from one of the lookouts and Maralin turned to see the pointed arm, just as the whole world went mad.
A huge jaw, filled with a row of dinosaur-like teeth, rose from the river and clamped down on the first four oars of the left side. The inboard ends of the oars were wrenched from the rowers' grasps and promptly hammered down on their thighs as the monster lifted more of itself out of the water. An immense eye stared at the ship before the head jerked, yanking the bow of the Visund bodily to the left.
One of the two lookouts was flung directly into the water, disappearing immediately into the foam. The other, the left side man, flailed out and barely managed to grab the prow, swinging his body out over the right side as he clung on in desperation. Inside the main hull, everyone who was standing was yanked off their feet, most of them falling awkwardly on the hull, the cargo, or odd parts of the rowers bodies.
Most of the rowers had relaxed their grip on their oars in an attempt to steady their balance. Very occasional rogue waves at sea produced a similar twitch of the ship and it would normally be easy to recover afterwards. Not this time. The monster twisted the oars in its mouth, snapping them as if they were twigs, before swimming strongly along the left side of the Visund, its back bouncing off the remaining left side oars as it did so - and causing more injuries as the inboard ends slammed against unprepared bodies.
By this time the Visund was side on to the current and being carried downstream again. The sail, set for their previous direction, hung in line with the wind and did nothing to help their progress. The men scrambled up from where they had fallen, some very gingerly, and attempted to regain control of the ship. The monster had vanished once more into the depths.
Maralin offered a hand to Wallesan to lift him back to his feet. Eriana, flung against some provision barrels, struggled to her own. All around were groaning men, some holding damaged ribs or thighs.
"In the name of the Gods, what was that!"
Wallesan winced, feeling an impending bruise. "A gogon, I think. It is a kind of large fish. Few have ever seen one, small or large. Maker! My chest hurts."
"Are there many like that in this river?" Eriana was shocked and wanted to know more.
Wallesan shook his head. "I doubt you will ever see one again, Eriana. Like most such river creatures, they live in the depths and feed at night... or so we believe. Very little is known about them or their habits, for fairly obvious reasons."
"Do Questors... No, this is not the time for that. I must check the crew."
"I'll come with you," Maralin suggested. "I have some little knowledge of First Aid, you know."
"What is First Aid? Oh, I can guess. Aye, you take the right side, there should be less injuries there."
"Captain," Prell broke in. "If I may advise... we are being rapidly carried downstream. We have to get out of the current."
"You are right, pilot." She raised her voice. «Listen to me! Maralin and I will come and ask for injuries later. For now, we must get out of the current, or we will be back at West Haral in a bell or so! Now! Those of you who cannot row, pull your oars in out of the water, or find somebody who can row instead. Those who can row, left side, row normally. Right side, row reverse. We have to turn the ship so the sail catches.»
Most saw the sense of what she asked so it took very little time before the ship had been turned again, the sail had caught and they were once more on their way towards the left bank. Around half the rowers were able to pull, but once beyond the main flow it was relatively easy to get into the slower slack current which the sail alone could overcome.
Tor, still on the steering oar, asked, "What do we do now, Captain?"
Eriana looked to the left, spotting a very small lump sticking out of the water. She pointed. "Head for that. We don't have to land, we just need somewhere to moor while we find out what injuries we have."
A thrown grapnel secured them to the tiny islet and the Visund rode beyond the tail as her crew licked their wounds. Eriana and Maralin went along the benches asking everyone about damage, personal or otherwise. Just below the foredeck, they took stock.
"Captain," Maralin reported, "The right side were mostly lucky. Almost everyone fell heavily so have bruises. We have one forearm cut where someone fell against the hull and found a protruding nail and another who broke a finger."
Her eyebrows rose. "A protruding nail? There should not be any! When we get to Joth we must needs have that repaired. For myself, I have a sorry tale to tell. Fritjof has a broken upper arm, it looks like a clean break but that is little comfort. Several report being struck in the chest by their oars, I do not know enough to know if they are merely bruised or have cracked or broken something. Three have broken fingers, two have twisted ankles as they stumbled. Everybody has bruises, even myself."
She turned to the foredeck. "Brodgar, I have not asked you."
"Captain, I was very fortunate to be able to grab the prow as the ship shifted," the lookout replied, "I have no wounds, not even bruises. But Vynil is gone, he went straight into the water."
"Vynil! I never noticed! Think you the monster got him?"
Brodgar shook his head. "No, Captain, he went over the right side. He is a good swimmer, perhaps he found the shore somewhere."
"I hope so." Eriana shielded her eyes and scanned the further bank before turning back. "There is so much of it! And I have no idea how far we came before we could get out of the current."
Maralin suggested, "At least a mark, Captain, but more likely three or more. I remember that grove of trees over there. Trouble is, most of the landscape looks much the same this close to the river."
"That is true. Although the pilots do excellent work, perhaps the river could do with some kind of marks to help navigation." She waved a hand. "Enough. That is a matter for another time. Let us deal with our injuries and then see how far we may get before dark."
There was an unexpected victim to the incident. Semma called to Eriana, who turned to find Ursula unconscious between two of the benches.
"She muttered something about wanting to help and then one of those headaches struck, Captain."
Eriana grimaced. "Did she suffer when the monster came?"
"No more than the rest of us, Captain. I think she just fell over - on top of me, as it happens."
"Hmm. Shall you tend her?"
"Of course, Captain... but I would rather be tending the men, they have the greater need."
"I understand that, but she is important to us. Look after her, please, Bennet and Maralin will do what they can for the men. Oh, I see Hambran and his men are also helping."
Half a bell later all that could be done for the men had been, but everyone knew that it was only a temporary measure. There were no potions or medicines on board for dealing with injuries, since no-one had the knowledge to use them. The lid of a barrel was broken up to provide splints for Fritjof's arm but it would require proper attention.
The broken oars were swapped out for spare ones and the most able of the men changed places to make use of them if required. After some fuss the grapnel was retrieved from the islet and the Visund prepared to sail once more. That raised another question.
"Do we head directly for the next available port, to obtain help, or should we attempt to search for Vynil?"
Wallesan considered. "It may be a question of timing, Eriana. The afternoon passes and we have little idea how long we have been delayed. Can we still make Treen by tonight?"
Both turned to Prell, who bent under the stern deck and pulled out his satchel of charts.
"If you would give me leave, Captain... Ah, here is the one I want. Look, I deem we are somewhere about here presently. Treen is here, so I would reckon about thirty marks or so. Under normal circumstances you should be able to reach there by sunset, even after this delay, since the breeze is still strong. However, these are not normal circumstances... I do not know how you regard the loss of your man."
"An interesting question, pilot. Of course, were we at sea the answer would be different, since the chances of finding him would be smaller - but, against that, there would not be a strong current that carried us away from the spot he was lost... If he has found the shore, what will happen to him?"
"As I explained when we found... Mistress Ursula, Captain, he would normally be taken to the nearest small port and then a way would be found to return him either to his ship or to where he came from. Unfortunately, the Upper Virgulend Reach is the longest stretch without such a port on that side. There are two small ferries which connect that strip of land with Virgulend, perhaps he would be taken to one of those."
"Hmm. On that side, you said? What of this side?"
"There is Gakra, which lies just before the next big bend in the river, though Treen is but a short distance beyond, ten or twelve marks... I think, perhaps, that you should consider Gakra for tonight's stop, Captain. It is where one of those smaller ferries crosses and they are big enough to have healers to tend your injured."
"Very well. Pilot, I intend to search for my man before we find somewhere to stop for the night." She held up a hand. "I will not make a performance of it, but if we may hug that shore as we travel we may see him, or someone who knows of him. Vynil will know that we would look for him and he will stay close to the water's edge if he can. Once beyond the place where we met the monster, we can cross back to reach this Gakra that you name. Will that work?"
Prell frowned. "There are one or two places your men might need to row, Captain, but I agree. There should be time to cross the river and then come back again, even though you have less oars to use."
"Then let us begin."
The breeze was a little fresher than it had been earlier, so crossing the current was straightforward and no effort at the oars was required. The Visund sailed as close as it dared to the right bank, everyone who had a telescope scanning the near landscape for any evidence of their missing crew member. It was Hambran who first saw a farmer waving his arms at the ship.
"There, Your Grace! He may not be an Einnlander, but he wants our attention."
Eriana climbed onto the stern deck and waved her arms at the distant figure, who stood not at the waterline but on a low bluff above it, making him easier to see. When the man saw that he had been noticed, he pointed with both arms upstream. Eriana waved back and then called down to the crew.
«He has been found, men! Prepare yourselves for a beaching!»
Down at the waterline, a few hundred strides further along, three men and a woman stood waiting, Vynil conspicuous due to his greater height.
"I see them, Captain!" Tor said and leaned on the steering oar.
The Visund turned directly for the shore and ran up onto the fine silt. Eriana made her way forward and dropped from the bow onto the ground, heading for the small waiting group.
"Vynil! You are safe, I see."
"I am, Captain." He switched tongues. «What happened? One moment I was looking for debris in the water and the next I was in the water myself. Then the ship disappeared.»
«Some kind of river monster, we think. It chewed up some oars and we drifted downstream a while. Most of us have bruises, some have broken bones. Come, let us board, we have a long way to go and the crew is not fit.»
«You must reward these people, Captain. I was near exhausted when they pulled me out of the water. Without their help you would never have found me.»
«It would be the proper thing to do, I agree.» Eriana turned to the farmers. "I give you thanks for saving my man. We would have looked for him but you have made it easy for us."
"Eriana." She turned to see Wallesan at the bow. "Ask them what coin they use here. This bank is not Virgulend but either Smordan or Brugan."
"Do you tell me? The twistings of this river are strange indeed!" She turned to the group, who had now been joined by the man who had waved. "I would give you something, to thank you for your help. What land is this?"
The leader said, "I heard what the Master above said, Mistress. We would take any coin you offer, since we must needs trade across the river at times. But, I beg of you, it was only a small thing we did. Anyone along the bank will help all who have need of help on the river."
"Your labor on your land is hard enough as it is, Goodman, and we have kept you from it. Let us offer at least a small token."
Wallesan weighed two small pouches in his hands before throwing one down. "Find a few small coins to give them, they will appreciate it."
He tossed the pouch to her and she sorted through the coins inside. Most were of gold and she knew that giving gold to farmers like these might cause awkward questions to be asked. Other coins were of silver and some of copper, though she had little idea of their value. She didn't even know the value of most coins in Palarand, having spent much of her time there living in the palace. Finally she selected a small handful.
"Take these as a token of my gratitude. Vynil has been with me some years, we have fought battles, sailed oceans and drunk beer and sung songs together. Doubtless we would have been reunited after some time if we had not seen you, but this way is better. Thank you again."
The man who looked to be the eldest said, "You are the captain of this strange ship?"
Eriana smiled. "Aye, I am, amongst other things."
"And you spoke of battles. Your accent is strange and your man had few words we could understand. There is a mystery here."
"Aye, there is, but unfortunately we have no time to tell you the tale. Our ship was struck by a..." she turned to the ship. "What was the name of that thing?"
"A gogon, Highness," someone called down.
The man goggled at her. "A gogon? And he named you Highness?"
She waved a dismissive hand. "Here and now, I am merely the owner and captain of this ship, nothing more. Because of the attack, we have many injured and must get to Gakra before it becomes dark."
The group all bowed as one. "We understand. Thank you for your gift... Highness. We will remember your kindness."
"And we yours. We bid you farewell. May your crops be plentiful and keep you and your family through the winter."
Willing hands pulled Vynil and Eriana on board, then most of the crew walked towards the stern. The bow promptly lifted, allowing the ship to float free in the water again. It took little time before they were back on course, although out of prudence they stayed a greater distance from the right bank. The storm cloud had by now passed overhead, leaving sticky, sultry air but no rain.
Soon the current switched sides again and the Visund headed for the left bank. A small town could just be made out further along that bank and Eriana hoped that it was their destination. The sun had not yet set, but the day had been tiring and there were injured men - and women - to be tended to.
Unlike the situation at previous stops they had made, there were no pontoons or other provision for water craft to dock. The bank sloped steadily into the river and there were a number of small fishing craft simply pulled up out of the water. This was similar to the way the Norse were used to operating from beaches so they simply turned left this time and ran the Visund as far up the bank as possible.
Eriana joined the others as they climbed cautiously down from the bow, or in two cases were carried. Two of the crew took lines and secured them to stone blocks some distance further up, to ensure that the ship didn't come afloat by itself.
Although... there are no tides here! I guess that the river level only rises and falls slowly through the year.
...Only, there's that thundercloud up there and there could still be a squall. That could change the water levels for a short time, but long enough perhaps to float the Visund off.
Better to be safe than sorry.
Further along the bank a stone slipway ran from the water a seeming long way inland, and Eriana remembered again what she had been told about the river levels. Astride the slipway was a small version of the ubiquitous double-hulled ferries, and she wondered again who had thought up that idea. Inland, there were three buildings on stilts - tall stilts, she would be able to easily walk underneath the structures without banging her head - but no other obvious signs of life. The town was visible in the distance, maybe a mark away behind a line of trees.
Three men were approaching from one of the buildings and Prell advanced to meet them. Eriana noticed that he was limping and wondered if he had twisted a knee or an ankle during the attack.
"Welcome to Gakra," the first man said. "I am Cherdek, River Warden of this crossing. What brings you to our small town? Have you goods to sell? It is too late to unload anything now."
"We encountered a gogon," Prell replied shortly. "There are many injured. Can you call healers?"
"A gogon?" the Warden asked, astonished. "How big?"
"Oh, about half the length of our ship," the pilot replied, glancing back at the Visund, which stood proud on the shore - and maybe sixty to seventy feet long. "Its jaw was about three strides long. I have never seen anything like it in all my years as a pilot on the Sirrel."
The men stared at Prell and then at the ship, taking in the state of the men who had climbed off. One of the others spoke to the warden and then set off in a jog for the town.
"He has gone to fetch help," the Warden explained. "There are so many of you, it would be better if you were examined and treated at our small hostel, which is on the edge of town. Can all of you walk?"
Not all could, so those who were able set off with the second man, Wallesan and Kalmenar, while Eriana stayed with those who, mostly, had leg injuries of some kind. It was not long before a line of small two-wheel carts appeared, pulled by hand, which the limping and lame were loaded into. By this time Prell had finished giving his report to the local authorities, so climbed aboard the last cart as the procession followed the walkers.
"Who did you say your captain was again?"
"The tall blonde woman there." Prell pointed. "Like most of her crew she is not originally from the Great Valley, though they have all given their allegiance to King Robanar now. Know you that she is Princess Eriana, once of Einnland, owner of her ship the Visund, and that Duke Wallesan of Joth is along the road with your fellow. She carries the Duke and a small number of his retainers back to Joth before traveling onwards to the upper Valley."
The two men stared at one another in consternation.
"He must know of this," the second man said. "He will not permit such folk to sleep in our simple hostel."
"Aye, true enough," the Warden agreed. "Let us organize the hostel first and then report to him. We are fortunate that there are so few using it today, this number will almost fill it. Tell me, pilot, will your ship remain here tonight?"
"Aye, we will, since we did not know how long it would take to treat all the injuries. Our original plan was to reach Treen this evening but the gogon had other ideas. How far away is Treen from here? By river, I mean."
"Some twelve marks or so... depending on the time of year, of course," the Warden replied. "Once summer comes and the level drops, it will probably be thirteen or even fourteen. I do not know how you could measure such a distance directly - or even if there would be any point."
"As you say." Prell thought of a point. "Our ship must needs be guarded. It is an open construction and all our belongings are visible, once one climbs up the hull. What is the local watch like here?"
The Warden waved a hand. "You may rest your mind easy, pilot. They are all men sworn to Count Horvik, whose land this is. You may have my sworn oath that our watchmen are trustworthy, though I know that in other places it is not always so. Even so, guarding such a craft as yours would be difficult if not for the fact that the brother of our liege stays nearby with the Count. He has brought his own troops with him which means that ours are released for such duties as will satisfy you and your captain. Will that be satisfactory?"
Prell shrugged. "You had better ask the captain yourself. She has particular ideas... and also a short temper - and I should warn you, she is a warrior of renown. She will deal with you fairly but do not attempt to cross her."
"I note your warning, pilot."
The two men made their way to the front of the column, where Eriana was walking beside the first cart with Bennet and Semma. Ursula was on the cart, having struggled to fight off a pounding head for the bulk of the journey since the attack.
Eriana turned to the man with a scowl, but relented when she saw who it was.
"When I am on my ship I am merely the captain, Master Warden. I do not care to be addressed by any other title then."
"My apologies, ...Captain.., but I would point out that you are presently not on your ship."
"The point remains. We are but travelers on the river, forced to stop here to tend our wounds, and mayhap to rest overnight. When I am attending the King in his palace, then you may call me Highness."
"The King? You are from Palarand, then? I understood that both of the King's daughters had long wed."
Eriana quirked a smile. "Aye, his... three daughters have wed, two long enough ago that both have children, so I am told. The last is adopted, and she was wed at Spring Dawning in front of most of the city of Palarand, to his son Prince Keren. I am the daughter of a different King, now living in exile in Palarand, and Robanar graciously permits that I keep the courtesy title of Princess by reason of my birth."
"We are honored by your presence, Highness... ah, Captain. The last..? We have heard many rumors, so far away in the Valley. Some say that the recent war with Yod was because of someone who traveled to Palarand. Was that you?"
"No, that was she, Master Warden. The tale? It would take too long to tell and I do not know the half of it, since I arrived after much had happened. Aye, she is a traveler from another world and her name is Garia, and, aye, she has caused much to change in Palarand since she arrived. She has also won the heart of the Crown Prince besides that of most of Palarand and she is beloved by all. Yod sought her because of her great knowledge but that knowledge was used to defeat Yod in turn."
"Thank you... Captain. I wish we could learn more, and from such a trustworthy source, but we will respect your privacy as you desire. It would only be to satisfy our own curiosity, in any event. What I came to ask you was about providing a guard for your ship."
The Warden and Eriana discussed possible arrangements and came to an agreement about providing a guard for the Visund, which would also allow everyone on board to have a good night's rest. Now that the Warden knew who the ship belonged to, he was certainly not going to permit it or its contents to come to any harm.
They finished the arrangements just as the column arrived at the hostel. Waiting at the entrance to the courtyard were a group of women, who, while all dressed differently, were obviously healers. These women took immediate charge of the carts, directing some to the sleeping quarters and others to the bathing chambers. One looked askance at Ursula.
"Her injuries are not caused by the attack," Eriana explained, "although, like the rest of us she will have bruises. She suffers periodic headaches of which some members of our party are familiar but I am not. Can you offer something to make her comfortable?"
"Is it the jerking sickness? Does she fall over?"
"I know of what you speak. No, we are assured it is not that. She has lost her memory through some process I do not understand and I am told the headaches are an indication that it is slowly returning."
"Lost her memory? Strange. Still, I have something here that should help. Then, by your leave, I should examine you and the other two women for breaks and bruises."
Eventually the travelers trickled back into the courtyard by ones and twos, having been cleaned up and in some cases strapped up or had broken bones splinted. Eriana sent six of the fittest back to the ship with three handcarts to bring back their chests and many of the men's duffels. These had just arrived back when two men dressed in scarlet and gray uniforms appeared at one of the gateways.
Maralin noticed them first. He indicated the men with a nod. "Your Grace, look."
Wallesan drew in a breath. "I hope they are not who I think they are," he muttered. "This day has been long enough as it is."
The men approached the nearest table and spoke to the men sitting there, one of whom stood and pointed, first at Eriana and then at Wallesan's table. They approached Eriana first and bowed.
"Our liege, His Grace's brother, presently visits Gakra to adjudicate a local matter while his brother attends some gathering of rulers elsewhere. Learning of the presence of yourself and His Grace yonder, he offers you and your retainers the comfort of a bed more suitable to those of your status tonight. He regrets that this simple hostel cannot offer the kind of facilities you may be used to, and so he humbly suggests that you might join him for a meal tonight before you retire. His Grace will be offered the like comforts."
Eriana was confused by the 'His Graces' that evidently referred to two different people but eventually understood the invitation. Given the circumstances, it would be difficult to refuse, even though it meant leaving her men. Although Einnlanders had a blunter culture she knew what a refusal could do to relations, and these people were nearer to Joth than to Palarand. She didn't want to cause unnecessary difficulties for Wallesan.
She stood. "Of course. I would be honored to accept... His Grace's invitation?"
"As you say. Thank you, Your Highness. We should now go yonder and make the same offer to His Grace. If there is any baggage you should bring? Who shall we say will be in your party tonight?"
Eriana thought. "We have chests, of course. There will be four women, including myself, and I will bring my second in command, Lars..." she hesitated and then gave in, "...and a special advisor. I imagine that Duke Wallesan will bring the captain of his escort and his special advisor. He returns to Joth in my ship with a very small party. Our carts can bring all our baggage, if that is satisfactory."
Most of the baggage was still on the carts, so it was a simple matter to adjust as required. Eriana left instructions for the men who would be remaining at the hostel and then led the smaller group out along the road into the town, following the two men. Their way led them to a central square, along a side street and out of the town to the country beyond.
A very short walk brought them to a large mansion. It was surrounded by something that might once have been a fence or a stockade, but was now simply a high wooden wall covered with climbing plants, all in profuse flower. It was unusual enough an arrangement that Eriana puzzled over it as they approached the gate.
It can't be a defensive wall, surely. It is only two strides high, I could be over that in a moment!
...Looking at those plants, though, I would be ripped to shreds by the thorns! Clever. It looks decorative but still keeps people out.
...Or maybe, it is there to keep people in?
"Welcome to the mansion of Count Horvik, who rules this district of Virgulend," the senior of the two men explained with a bow. "Though his lands are distant from the capital, Their Graces often have reason to visit him on their travels, and so his mansion is somewhat larger and better provided than you might expect. I am sure that you will all be comfortable here."
As they came through the gate into a driveway bordered by lawns house servants appeared to take charge of the baggage on the carts. The two men led the party to the entrance to the mansion, which did not appear to have the traditional courtyard, up steps and inside, where a long corridor faced them.
The senior man bowed again. "If you would excuse me, I will go and advise His Grace of your arrival."
As he walked off Eriana realized that Kalmenar was muttering.
She turned. "What's that?"
"Highness," he answered low, "I do not like this place."
From a door halfway along the corridor a noble appeared with a woman Eriana assumed was his wife. He saw the party and came to greet them with a smile. His wife also had a welcoming smile, but Eriana saw something else there. Fear, perhaps, or resignation?
"Welcome! I am Count Horvik of North Virgulend, be welcome in my house. This is my wife, Siendra. His Grace should join us shortly. I am delighted to welcome such illustrious guests as yourselves to my humble home. I understand that you were just passing by along the river and tangled with a gogon?"
"As you say, My Lord," Eriana responded. "I should imagine that you do not see visitors like ourselves very often, you are not on the trade route. Aye, my ship was attacked by a large monster and most of my crew suffered some injury."
"Your ship? Your crew?"
"Aye, I am the owner of the Visund and its captain. But I am forgetting myself. If I may introduce -"
Horvik held up a hand. "If I may, save your introductions for His Grace, that will save you repeating yourself. Ah, here he comes now."
From a doorway at the far end of the corridor came a man. In the indistinct light from the corridor lanterns Eriana thought him old, since he limped with a stick. As he came closer she saw that she was mistaken, he was younger, with a broad body that once must have been very fit and agile. Perhaps the injury came from a battle wound?
Kalmenar's hand grabbed Eriana's arm. "Be careful, Highness!" he hissed. "This man is dangerous to you!"
Eriana shook off the hand with a scowl that disappeared the moment she saw their host clearly. His face looked interesting and his smile warm. She immediately relaxed as he reached them.
"I see Horvik has already welcomed you," he said with a broad smile. "Let me extend my own greeting to you all. I am also a guest in his mansion while I deal with a local matter nearby. My brother would normally handle such affairs as these but he is presently away at some gathering down-river, I believe. No matter, I am not adjudicating this evening, we may all relax and bring each other up to date concerning recent happenings in the Valley.
"Wallesan, of course, I already know. Be welcome here, brother. I was distressed to learn of the capture of your city and delighted when your brave men retook it. Those of Yod have much to answer for, to the peoples of the Valley." He frowned. "But I do not know any of you others." He raised an inquiring eyebrow at Wallesan.
The Duke's face was impassive. "Thank you for your concern over my city, Your Grace. It was a hard battle but fairly won, despite the treachery of those of Yod. If I may introduce firstly Her Highness Princess Eriana of Palarand, whose ship is returning me to my lands."
The man bowed low. "Your Highness! This is indeed an unexpected pleasure."
Wallesan continued, "With her is her second in command Lars, who bears no formal rank that you or I would understand. Also with her are her special advisor Lord Kalmenar from Palarand and her companions Bennet, Semma and Ursula."
The man bowed again, but just barely. "Lars, an unusual name, I deem. Kalmenar, I believe we may have met before, but a long time ago. My welcome to you both and to you ladies."
Bennet and Semma promptly curtseyed, not taking their eyes off his face for a moment. The man stared at Ursula for a moment and then returned his attention to Wallesan.
The Duke of Joth finished, "For my own part I am joined tonight by my escort captain, Captain Hambran and my own special advisor Tenant Maralin."
"Well!" Their host gave them all a warm smile. "It promises to be an interesting evening, I would wager. But I am forgetting myself. Wallesan is familiar with me, you others are not. I am, of course, the brother of Grand Duke Mariswin who rules here in Virgulend, and my own name is Jarwin."
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