The Hand That Steers A Kingdom – Part 9
The man sang like a canary, and Connor emerged with a plan, leaving the guards life in the hands of the ship’s doctor. Anfir’s rebellion could use any other information he possessed. He wiped the blood off his hands as he made his way to the captain’s quarters. Sarai looked up from the map she was studying, her expression morphing into dull satisfaction when she noticed the stained rag he tucked away.
“They’re taking her to Doerma. It should have taken them about a week to get back to their outpost. After that, they’ll go overland.” Sarai frowned and consulted the captain’s map once more. Said captain was dozing in his chair, a bandage wrapped around his head. Connor grimaced at the red tinge invading the white.
“They’re following our original course,” Sarai muttered. Her hand trailed along their outlined path before marking the watchtower the enemy would likely use. “How long would it take for them to get a message out?” Connor thought about it.
“Doerma uses pigeons instead of ships for priority contact.” He pointed at a chain of outposts leading to a command base near the original border. “They mean to deliver her to the king, he had no idea why, but those were the instructions. An order has to be given to send men from the tower to Doerma when they deliver Tristan. They won’t move until they have relief forces. A message from this post to the closest base that could spare those men would take five days at most to deliver. Mobilization would take an extra three days.
“Little more than a week isn’t enough time for us to mount a counter-attack,” Sarai whispered. She was biting her nail in a way that said she’d been at it for a while, the skin was nibbled raw, and her nail looked like it had very little left to bite. “We don’t have enough people for it anyway. Is it possible to sneak in?”
Connor’s gut squirmed gleefully at having an ally. Another adult more concerned with Tristan than her cause was a blessing.
“The captain already said that his only role in this would be to deliver us,” he admitted while glancing at the injured man. “Anfir has one of the Ravens’ ships using ports around here.” He pointed at a port not far from where they were. “Best bet? We dock and ride in with them.”
Sarai nodded. “I wasn’t aware that his network was so expansive, but if they’re Anfir’s people, they’ll be able to handle themselves. A fighting force at our backs is a start.” She stopped biting her finger long enough to retie her hair, which was coming loose from its tail. “We have to move fast.”
Connor led them to the dock the Raven’s used, saying farewell to their captain. The Doerman would be delivered to the rebellion directly when the ship reached the end of its original course. It didn’t take long to find an inn that was under the Ravens’ protection. The Ocean’s Rest Inn had the Raven’s insignia hidden in the corner of the doorway, behind the hinge. The innkeeper was happy to deliver a message for them, and after two days, they were sitting in an airless room in the back of the dining room, a pirate from one of Anfir ships in front of them.
“My captain regrets she can’t be here in person,” Boulder said. He took a large sip of his ale and sighed. “She’s officiatin’ a marriage aboard tonight. But I’ll get anything you got back to her, prompt-like.”
“Congratulations to the happy couple,” Sarai muttered, smiling in a way that didn’t go beyond her mouth. “We’re here on behalf of the future queen.”
Information was exchanged, and they set out under the Ravens’ flag. Connor tried his best not to snap at everyone on board as they pulled into a cove just beyond the harbor that housed the watchtower holding Tristan. Worry and anger ate at him so often that not even Sarai could stand to be around him for more than a moment.
The captain sent out divers to gather information. Crewmembers that were exceptional swimmers and able to climb the walls stealthily. In the dark water beneath the ship, three shapes returned from their mission. One, the newly married crewman, dragged himself aboard, shivering and wearing a manic grin.
“All their rudders,” he panted, slicing his hand through the air. “Gone.” There was vindictiveness in his tone, but Connor couldn’t blame him. The man’s mage mark stood out starkly in the moonlight, situated underneath his eye the same way Freya’s had been. Destroying Doerman ships would have been a personal pleasure. The ship’s captain, Natalia, offered him a blanket.
She was an older woman, tanned and worn by the sea. Her graying hair was tied up in a wrap. Many of her crew referred to her as ‘Ma,’ but she ran the ship with an iron fist. They never disrespected an order
“Good work, now go see your husband, Blue,” she ordered. “He’s been worrying my ear off.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Blue muttered while stomping off, presumably in the direction of his husband.
“The rest of you,” Natalia demanded. “What did you see?” The other two divers blinked up from where they, too, were being shrouded in blankets. A weathered, old sailor spoke up.
“They got twenty guards at the walls, thirty in the keep,” he hissed out between chattering teeth. “Shifts of ‘em are watchin’ this one door off in the far west corner. They only got three mages.” Natalia nodded.
“And you?” The second swimmer, a gangly reed of a girl and another mage, flipped her hair away from her eyes, scattering droplets everywhere.
“The girl is in that west room,” she said. “It’s next to the commander’s office. Heard ‘em mention her while I was messin’ with their larder.”
“How much damage?”
“Enough. What they don’t eat will spoil, what they do will turn ‘em sick.”
Natalia smirked. “Good job, Fleet.” The girl beamed at the praise. “Get below and get warmed.”
“Fifty men is too much for us,” Connor said as soon as the two were out of earshot. He hated to admit it, but the small fifteen-member crew wasn’t a great fighting force, and Mikki employed more men than he’d expected. Connor didn’t want to worry about the crew while they snuck in to get Tristan.
Natalia grinned savagely. “My kids can handle anything. You’ll have most of my crew while the mages fire on ’em from the ship and the cliffs. This ain’t new territory for us, boy. We’re used to bein’ outnumbered.” Connor gulped. He believed her. Gods save him from ever going against Anfir’s folk.
“We’ll set out tomorrow after sundown, then.”
Tristan shivered in the cot. The room was cold, and she almost wished the scary men would come back just so she wasn’t alone. The food they’d brought her sat in its tray on the floor where they’d left it. Tristan didn’t want it. It smelled funny. Wrong. The last time she’d eaten any of it, she’d been sleepy all day. She’d stopped crying a long time ago, afraid to make the bad man angry again. Her arm still hurt from where he’d pulled her away from Connor, and there was a bruise that had become yellow. Tristan looked up at the window. It had bars so she couldn’t escape, but every day she tried to anyway.
If she stood on the cot and pulled herself up to her tippy toes, she could just see over the window sill. She saw what she’d expected to see as she gripped he bars and tried to pull. There was the ocean, the cliffs, there was the shore and the moon rising. Her eye caught on something in the distance, a dark blot that interrupted the waves. A ship. A ship flying a Ravens’ flag! Tristan jolted, losing her grip and tumbling to the floor, skinning her knee on the way down. The guards only glanced into the room before slamming the door again. Tristan didn’t care. She blew on her knee as she thought. It had to be Connor and Sarai! They were coming to get her!
Tristan waited long into the night. She counted to one hundred, forwards and back, but nothing happened. So she counted again. Before I get back to one, she thought. Connor and Sarai will be here. She only got to seventy-eight when a loud boom split the night, and the yell of “Pirates!” came from the guards outside. Tristan hopped back onto the cot and pulled herself up as high as she could. With her feet dangling in the air, she watched for the ship. Small lights showed her their location. Anfir had shown her the big cannons before, something only the Raven’s used. Special powder, spelled to explode, would launch metal balls through the sky. Tristan cheered at every burst of light that shook the tower. A strangled cry escaped her throat when the ship started sailing away. They couldn’t be leaving her? Someone screamed outside.
“Mages coming in from the cliffs!”
The door creaked open, and Tristan dropped from the window, curling into a ball under the cot to escape the harsh sound of footsteps. She’d gotten used to hearing that particular gait.
“They think they’re so clever, don’t they?” he growled. Tristan curled up tighter. His voice turned sickly sweet. “You must mean a lot to him, princess.” A hand flipped her cot over, exposing Tristan to Mikki’s frantic gaze. “Pity he won’t be here to see you die.” Tristan panicked when his hand wrapped around her arm again.
He started dragging her up. Quick as a snake, Tristan did exactly what Sarai had taught her to do. She bit down on his hand, hard, so hard she felt skin give way and tasted iron and sweat. As he growled and swore at her, she jerked her arm out of his slack grip and punched up, throwing her whole body behind it. Mikki swore again and sank to the ground clutching himself. Tristan bolted for the open door.
Her bare feet tripped on cobblestone, but she kept going. Most of the soldiers ignored her in favor of the debris being tossed in the air and the pirates that were shooting them with crossbows from their own ramparts. The mages were more concerned with protecting themselves than they were with fighting back. One had talked to Tristan when she’d arrived. He’d seemed sad, but nice. She didn’t see him, though.
Tristan ducked and dodged, screaming for Connor and Sarai. She raced to the gate. Her vision was blurry, but she didn’t have time to wipe away the tears.
The gate was locked when she arrived. Tristan pounded her tiny fists against the door, begging, screaming for anyone to help her. The wood didn’t budge, and no one answered.
“Get back here, you brat!” Mikki’s face emerged through the swarm and charged towards her. Tristan trembled against the gate, too scared to try and fight back. Mikki was getting closer, closer, almost in front of her. Just as he was reaching for her, a booted foot made contact with his side, flinging him away.
In the torchlight, with her sword in one hand and a knife in the other, Sarai looked like an avenging goddess. If Tristan had been a few years older, she might have suggested that her mentor was a representation of Omi, They-Who-Are-War, but she hadn’t been allowed to visit Omi’s temples yet and didn’t know the legends. Instead, she stared up at Sarai in awe and relief, ready to run forward and latch onto her legs and never let go.
Sarai’s flinty gaze softened a fraction when she saw the little girl stumbling towards her. She shook her head.
“Stay behind me,” she whispered. “And keep your eyes closed.”