Rogues to Riches
By Gerry Torbert
Calm is the Night
Beltondo Calladora sat with his back to the railing. The splashing of the waves on the boards of the old boat was a refreshing sound. He looked down at Isola Melotta, sleeping in his arms. The peaceful sea took in the light, the glow, the welcome of the moonlight and cut it into little ribbons, playing them on the surface as though they were strings on the guitar of Sackota Bellintwigia, now strumming softly as the bard composed a tale to be told and retold many times to Teregnaven youth.
Beltondo smiled at Galomo, carefully steering his wheel. The snapped shaft was repaired with the tools found below. The captain smiled at the couple, and the lines on his face were broad and discernable to Beltondo even in the moonlight.
He didn't want to think about it. He couldn't bear to think about the fish, the whales, everything that was caught in the overpowering whirling of the water as they descended, listing almost halfway over and pinned against the wall of water, the wall that now was a hundred feet wide and spinning with a speed that would outdistance the fastest horse, were they on land.
He wanted to remember how his first kiss began, or almost began, as their last moments in each other's arms approached. Almost, but not quite. He noticed, as he looked down to her now peaceful, serene visage, a very bright glow in his pocket visible even through the cloth. He reached into it and brought forth the stone, now cold but burning with the light of a hundred noonday suns.
He held the stone upwards - but which way was up? Galomo looked down into the tail of the anomaly as it seemed to stretch to hell itself. The brief flashes of lightning illuminated its endlessness. Beltondo stared at the stone. Isola must have thought he had lost his mind, because she didn't see any glow at all. Beltondo began speaking in a strange tongue, from deep in his soul, and the stone began to vibrate.
He held tightly to the stone with one hand and to the captain's rail with the other. Isola's grasp almost squeezed the air from his lungs as he said the last few words. Then, from the bottom of the hole itself, a powerful wind erupted, spraying mist and foam as it hissed and roared its way to the ship. As fearful and frightening as it seemed, accelerating as it swept over the port side of the boat, it appeared to Isola and Galomo as if they were breathing their last breaths.
But it pushed the ship up and out of the funnel, almost throwing the three off the deck as they grabbed onto anything solid to stay on board. The ship breached the ridge and raced across the sea at an amazing speed, not slowing until they were a safe distance from the whirlpool. A hideous gasp, as if it were from the throat of a thwarted god, was heard as the whirlpool, almost as suddenly as it appeared, turned into a tall peak of water, now an inside-out funnel, then relaxed with a splash to a calm surface.
He did want to remember his first sight of the other ships, how they turned to meet his, how they cheered. He looked down into his hand and opened it. Nothing was left but a palm full of dust. Isola looked as well, then into his eyes. They finished the kiss.
What Lies Below
People slowly awoke to the sound of the gut string guitar as Sackota picked his way quietly through a song. It was a ballad, forcefully sung to match the movement of the ship through the water as either the water slapped against the bow or the ship crested the higher waves. Either way, the song plowed through long sentences and heroic lyrics with a cadence that seemed to drive the ship itself. The captain, ever at the helm, was even swaying side to side as the bard played.
Beltondo awoke to almost two dozen buckets of water awaiting his special touch. Isola had already left his side, something he found very strange. These last two days after their encounter with the whirlpool were calm and uneventful. The party following their near demise was almost worth the experience. The ships closed in and were lashed together, as boarding planks allowed many of the passengers to visit each other for the first time since setting sail. Sackota was accompanied by several other bards who played flutes and drums, instruments which were strangely found below decks. New and old acquaintances were made and re-made, and quite a few stories were told and re-told. The next morning, attention turned to repairing the rudder and the business of finding a new home.
He began by recalling his incantations and focusing on the task at hand. Except for a few instances, he found that this was the best way to assure he could make his magic work. Even though he knew the salt removal task by heart, he still had to concentrate to perform it. As he finished the last bucket, Isola came bouncing up from below deck and plopped down beside him, seemingly bursting with news.
"Beltondo, I've been below. There are some amazing things in the holds, some of which I can't identify. I have been going through some of them with Tallamah B'Ellandroso and Gentilado Demerveaux, both of whom seem to have a great deal of knowledge about such things and how they work. At least, we tried to figure them out. We have some time now, will you join us? Maybe you might recognize some of them." He had never seen her so excited and found her even more beautiful as she rattled on about her findings. "Okay, I'm done here. Let's go."
They walked to the stairs leading to below deck. It wasn't easy these days, as a lot of the passengers were filling the deck, basking in the sun and the breeze. They descended into the hold, Beltondo grabbing a torch along the way. Tallamah and Gentilado were studying a rather strangely shaped metal object, holding it up and turning it every which way, commenting on its construction. "Hello, friend," said Gentilado. "We were just trying to decide what this is. It seems as though your friend Derg had a vivid sense of humor. It was packaged in this sack, with a rope and hollow tube," he said, holding up a mass of tangled junk for Beltondo to see. "The tube is attached to this thing." He pointed to a pair of flat boards attached to each other by leather patches, sporting handles on the wide end. "Can you make anything out of it?"
Beltondo held the heavy object up to the torch's light. It was bell-shaped, with the tube attached to the dome portion, along with the rope. He thought for a while, then placed it over his head, eliciting several laughs from the other three. Embarrassed, he said, "Well, that's the only thing I can think to do with it. "Cooking is out of the question," he said, turning it over. "The food would just fall out the hollow tube. It can't be used as a bucket, because there's no handle, and it's too heavy to make sense as a bucket. It must be a hat!" He placed it on his head again, garnering more guffaws.
He put it down and laughed. "That thing over there, what could it be?" He pointed to a flat metal dish, about waist high, with another of the set of flat boards and leather patches. He walked to it and pressed the handles together. A puff of dust blew from the hole in the middle of the disk. "Hmmm...could be used for cooking...Derg mentioned a blacksmith forge - could this be it?"
Tallamah nodded. "I don't understand the concept of blacksmithing, not fully. Steel is supposed to get soft when you heat it up, I believe. Maybe we'll find this out when we reach our destination. When will that be, Beltondo? We've been sailing for a long time. Will our food run out?"
Beltondo shook his head slowly. "I don't know. Bestra only talks to me when we need her. I know it sounds strange, but it happens. We have to trust her. She has fed us an entire herd of yak, led us across the ice, saved us from wolves, gave us ships, gave us these...things...saved us from that evil whirlpool. I believe in her. She'll provide for us, somehow, some way. I know that's not an answer, but it's the only thing I can say.
Tallamah nodded. "I guess I don't understand magic and gods. Anything I don't see, can't touch, can't smell, can't hear...it doesn't make sense. I have to know how it works to believe in it, whatever it is. I know how the ship stays together, how the wind propels us, things like that. But I'll never understand how you can plunge your hand into sea water and take out the salt."
Beltondo smiled. "I guess I don't understand it, either. But it might be a natural thing to some people like me. It might be another type of nature, one that we can't see or feel, but natural, nonetheless. I have no idea why the stone worked, it just did. But either way, we both are needed, just as the captain is, just as Sackota is for his spirit, as Merolta is for his fishing and hunting, as Lulotta is for her understanding of languages. We all seem to have a place in our new lives, and together, we will accomplish many things."
This speech seemed to either answer many questions or raise even more, but it was all too foreign for them to pursue. An uneasy silence was cut by Gentilado's sudden shift of attention. "What do you think this is?" he said, walking to a wooden structure. A wooden wheel was attached to two arms, both of which protruded from what appeared to be a seat. A wooden slat seemed to be hinged to the opposite end of the structure, and the other end was attached to a crooked arm leading from the wheel. "Look - there are strands of some type of fur coming from the center of the wheel, and the fur is wrapped around and around to make a rope. Is this how clothes are made?"
Isola moved to his side. "Yes, Gentilado, I believe you're right! Look at your clothes - see how they are woven ropes of something? This is very interesting, all of it!"
The four intrepid explorers fumbled, manipulated and experimented their way through the holds for the rest of the day. Several other Teregnaven joined in the investigations, adding to the mass of findings their own unique outlooks on the objects. Isola found a book of blank paper and some sticks of burned and charred wood. She and Tallamah determined they could write on the paper, and Isola began to draw the objects.
They were all amazed at her ability to draw, as well as some cryptic symbols she wrote next to them. When questioned about them, she said, "I don't know why, but these figures seem to describe what we've seen. I am writing what we are saying." She then showed the others what each of the symbols meant to her. It was apparent to all that she had just placed all of their information and knowledge of the objects in the hold on paper for all to see later. No one would have to ask what each thing was for - they would only have to read it.
Beltondo was rummaging through the items. Most of the things he looked at he understood, not necessarily because he was intuitive in most cases, just that he happened upon a stash that seemed familiar. It may have been his intuition that was piqued, however, by a simple piece of wood. He held it up to the light. It could have been a piece of a branch off a tree that was used in prying the pallets of seed, or something used to separate two boxes, or even a stray stick that made its way to the hold. Maybe a walking stick - but who would need one, among a healthy loading crew capable of hauling the heavy goods to the ship? No, it had to be here for a reason, he thought. Simple, stripped of bark, dried, but cut cleanly on both ends. It felt warm to his touch, while everything else in the hold was slightly cool.
He caught himself looking intensely at the simple stick, then raised his eyes ever so slightly to focus in on Isola. "What is it, Beltondo?" "I believe they call it a stick," he said, drawing several laughs. He transferred it to his other hand, then noticed something strange. The stick glowed slightly where his other hand had grasped it. Transferring it back, he noticed the imprint of the second hand, and looked at Isola. "Did you see it? It glowed." She looked, but shook her head. Somehow, as before, he knew he should keep the simple stick for himself. He excused himself to go above, leaving the rest to search for more answers.
Beltondo kept the stick near his side the rest of the day. He stashed it in his sash as he helped to haul another net of fish to the deck. When he had to answer nature's call, it was there. He wasn't sure why, but he felt it must be important. Isola finally came out of the hold as the sun began to set and ate with him. It took a long time for her to finish the food, as she couldn't stop talking about the objects and their uses. She seemed to be bubbling over, just as she was earlier in the day. They sat along the railing, watching the moon rise over the eastern sky. Isola was still writing, even as her eyelids, heavy with the activity of the day, closed. He took the book from her and closed it with the well-used stylus marking the page. He put his arms around her and he, too, fell asleep.
The Devil and the Sky
Beltondo awoke to the lack of a warm body next to his. This made two days that she wasn't around in the morning. He smiled to himself, as he could see the excitement in her eyes the day before. She had found her place in their society, something that she could do, some way she could contribute, and she had found it exciting, even thrilling. He imagined her waking and looking for the book almost immediately, quietly moving away so as not to disturb him. But the thump of a board against the deck suddenly made him look up.
The second boat, Abandon, was about five feet from Old Reckless' starboard, and a plank had just been set. As he turned to look and sat up, Isola came running over to him. "Beltondo, I've just had the greatest idea - I asked the second ship to come close. I'm going across to tell them all of what we found below. They may have different items, things we can figure out. I can show them how to write! I want everyone to be able to read and write by the time we get to land! And maybe someone on the other ships may know what it is that we have on our ship, as well! Come with me!"
Beltondo smiled and stood. He began to walk with her to the plank, but stopped. "No, Isola, I think you should go to them. This is your part in our new land now. I still have to guide us, to make sure we're all safe. That seems to be my task, as it is yours to write and teach. I'd like to come with you, but not now." He looked down to the stick hanging from his sash. "I have a feeling about something....I think it's best we're apart right now."
She looked a little hurt, but somehow she understood. There was just something about Beltondo that was hard to understand, but what he did, he did for the good of all. He was driven by something, a force no one could understand. She nodded and smiled. "I won't be gone too long, maybe a day or two. If I can teach a few others, they can teach someone on the other ships. I'll miss you."
He gave her a kiss. "I'll miss you as well. Be careful, I..." Something grabbed his attention. It was his pocket again. He reached in and pulled out a small stone, something he didn't know he had. It was shiny, and the sun played on it with frivolity. The stone shone back with intensity, with a beauty he could scarcely believe. It was the feeling they had for each other, and each realized it. He placed it in her hand and closed her fingers over it.
"Beltondo Calladora, you are always full of surprises," she breathed, staring with unbelief at the stone, then returning his kiss.
"Yes, I know." He began to add, But I don't know why, but he thought better of it. "Take care of yourself."
She carefully walked across the plank, a simple board that had been outfitted with a series of poles and a rope rail for safety, a modification found necessary by the party a few nights before. The book was clutched to her chest, and as she got to the other side, she waved energetically to him. She soon was swamped by others, wondering what she had found. She was in her place now. Beltondo felt hollow inside. He knew not why.
He finished his chores for the day. Taking over for Galomo, he found solace at the helm. He was able to stand a little higher than the main deck, able to see the Abandon easily enough. He strained to see her, but she was busy below decks.
The seas were light and smooth, and they seemed to be making good time. To where, he didn't know. Was it possible they would sail far enough to reach the place they came from? Would it be another place, another type of land? What would they find? Would they have other problems, would nature throw more obstacles their way? The questions swept over him like the wind that drove the ship, clouding his mind and numbing him to the sun and spray, the smells of the sea. So much that he didn't hear the calls of warning from the Abandon nor the shadow that engulfed the Reckless Abandon, until it was past them.
The shadow itself was much longer than the ship, or so it seemed. It was accompanied by a swooshing sound, a sudden flap at the end, then another swoosh. Beltondo looked up to see an unbelievable sight. A bird, or was it a reptile? Or both. The underbelly of the giant bird was lined with well-distinguished scales. The head was that of a snake, but much heavier, much wider. Rather than feathers, the wings seemed to be fashioned out of thin black skin, stretching between five very long fingers, each finger tipped with a claw. The rear legs looked powerful, but appeared to be an afterthought. Although the beast was at least a hundred feet above them, the powerful sweep of the wings created a downdraft that almost blew Beltondo off the deck.
The abomination craned its neck around to get a better view of its intended prey. The fiery yellow eyes seemed to focus on Beltondo himself. It appeared as if it smiled with a gaping mouth, a mouth illuminated by fire. The monster turned away to the port, flapping and rising higher, until it was hundreds of feet above them. It turned in the air, now fully in line with the ship, and began a descent toward the ship.
Galomo was running at a dead heat along the deck and leaped up to the captain's mount. "Beltondo! I hope you have a way to kill that thing! It can't be anything but trouble!" He took over the helm and turned Old Reckless to the port, hoping to goad the beast into a miss. But the giant followed the ship, moving to its right to stay ahead of it. "I seem to recall something about these things - they're called 'dragons', I believe."
Beltondo moved off the captain's aft deck, and the dragon followed him, looking straight into his eyes-it was coming for him. He moved to the starboard side of the deck, near the railing. A bright glow shone from the gaping mouth of the dragon as it neared the boat. It drew back its head and thrust it forward, as a fireball as bright as the sun began an arc toward Beltondo.
A scream could be heard from the Abandon. It was Isola. As the ball struck the railing, the wood burst into flames and burning splinters. Beltondo leapt to the left, against the cabin wall, barely missing the fiery explosion. The wood barely caught fire, however, as the sea spray had soaked it well. The dragon swept upward just above the mast, arcing toward the sky for another pass.
A few inquisitive Teregnaven began to climb the stairs to the deck. "Keep the women below - I'll need a few men to help put out the fires. Be careful, and be ready to move quickly!" Beltondo began grabbing buckets and handing them out as he made his way to the bow, as he heard Isola's voice. "Beltondo, what are you doing? You can't fight that monster yourself!"
He leaned over the rail. "If it's me it wants, then it may go away. Maybe I can save the rest of you!" The dragon arced high above the bow, preparing for a second strike. Beltondo felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Helmando Jastosormio. "No, Beltondo. I have a feeling about this. It is after us all. Something is driving these unnatural things that are in our path. We have to trust in Bestra - she will deliver us!"
Beltondo looked into the preacher's eyes. Helmando knew, somehow, and had the faith that they all needed. Why he lost his, however temporarily, he didn't know. He remembered the yak, the face in the ice, the gull, the beautiful lady. Everything moved slowly now. It seemed as though he was alone in a silent world. The dragon approached, but very slowly, it seemed. It seemed that the weight of seven hundred people rested squarely on his shoulders. Everything was clear and crisp.
The second fireball was launched. He turned to the others and warned them of the approach. Just before it reached the halfway point, he moved to the very bow of Old Reckless, allowing it to sail over his head. It landed squarely against the front of the cabin, splitting into two balls and engulfing it. The flames curled around the sides and struck two of the passengers; Beltondo felt regret that he asked them to come above deck. The men immediately dropped and rolled around, while others doused the flames. He turned to face the dragon.
The beast was just twenty feet above the bow now, flapping his wings to hover. A rear claw snapped toward him, and he ducked it just in time. As he rolled to port, he noticed one of the spears used by the fishermen lying along the railing. Grasping it and rising to a crouch, he just barely ducked another sweep of a rear claw. The dragon alighted on the bow shaft and railing as it prepared for another blast of incendiary breath.
Beltondo had other plans. He strode forward and lunged with the spear, stabbing the beast in the right claw. It stopped pulling its head backward, looking down at him and screaming in pain. Its tail swept over the railing toward the Teregnaven. The heart-shaped sharpened scaly tip barely missed his head, but on its downward movement it ripped his shirt and pants, scraping his flesh as well. He yelped in pain and rolled to the right.
As he stopped rolling and looked up, he heard a strange swooshing sound above his head, then half a dozen thuds, as spears flew into the beast's body. Five of them bounced off its armored belly, but one stuck into its chest just below its right arm. The dragon roared in pain again; it flapped its wings and rose off the bow and into the sky.
Merolta rushed over to his old friend. "Are you okay?" he asked, but looking down at the scraped and blood, his question was answered. "You're losing blood, Beltondo. Come back to the stern of the ship!"
Beltondo rose to a kneeling position. "No, Merolta, all it will do is burn the whole ship to get to me. Then the others. We have to find a way to defeat it." He began to stand up, but found that something was holding him down. It was his sash. He looked down to see what was the problem when he noticed that the end of his sash, as well as the stick he had found below, were frozen to the deck! Merolta tried to help him up, but found the same thing. The water that the men were using to put out the fires was freezing them to the wood. The stick was covered in ice, and the encasement of ice was growing across the deck. He reached to grasp the stick, but it felt warm. It began to glow in his hands as the ice released itself from the deck. The ice quickly climbed up his arm to his shoulder and stopped.
There were no words that could describe it, nor any that needed to be said. Merolta stood aghast, unable to speak. But the nearby Helmando looked at Beltondo and asked, "Do you need any more of a sign, brother? She is giving you what we need."
Beltondo nodded. The dragon was still circling, trying to reach the spear still implanted in its chest while treading air. He looked over to Isola. The lines of worry were etched into her face as her hands clenched the railing with a mighty grip. He smiled to her and turned to the bow. The other men had retrieved the spears and retreated to the cabin. Beltondo began what he thought might be his last walk, toward the bow. He turned to Helmando. "Pray, brother. Just pray."
His arm was useless now, except that he had full movement of his shoulder, so he knew he could point the arm and stick. His other arm was still oozing blood, as was his leg, through tattered clothing. He stood, a creature with the look of a beaten dog, and waited.
Isola dropped to her knees, her elbows draped over the railing. She felt hollow, sick, afraid, many things at the same time. She didn't know what he was attempting, what was wrong with his arm, but knowing Beltondo, she wouldn't be surprised at anything he would do. A few consoling hands touched her shoulders, as the others knew how she felt about him. She couldn't bear to look but couldn't take her eyes off him. He gave her a glance and a warm smile, as he always did. She smiled back with all the strength she could muster, if only because she wanted the last he saw of her to be a smile. She reached into her pocket and held the gem. It was warm.
Why hadn't Bestra appeared to me by now? Had she forgotten her children? Is she concentrating, herself, to give me the power? Or is she confident that I can do this? Thought raced through his mind. Thoughts of how far they had come, how he must succeed. How he longed to hold Isola once again. Everything moved slowly again. Everything was quiet, just the lapping of the sea against the boards, the annoying random cadence. It was the only thing that was noticeable now. It was as loud as the thunder from the gouts of fire the dragon spewed. It was a wonder that the ship was still afloat.
The dragon beat the air with an insane frenzy, adding his speed to gravity, careening down from a thousand feet toward the bow. He reached back with his neck and blew a huge flaming ball toward his prey. Beltondo lifted his icy arm toward the ball and began to chant arcane sayings that he never imagined could be words. A stream of ice crystals flew forth from the tip of the stick, nearly tearing off his arm from the recoil. The fireball and ice collided in a burst of steam and a cloud. The dragon pulled up quickly in surprise, wheeling around to the right. Confused, he slowed his descent toward the bow.
He lighted again on the bow and puffed out his chest, preparing for the biggest fireball he could make. Beltondo yelled another few words and the stick fired again. The dragon's ball of flame barely escaped its lips before the ice hit, covering his body in a sheet of water. The water soaked the dragon's head and neck completely as it choked on a slug of it. It looked down to its body, now drenched, then to Beltondo. It seemed to know what was coming next.
Beltondo shouted a few words more, and the ice burst forth in a wide pattern, covering the dragon from belly to head. He tried to crane his neck away from the effects, but his neck moved only a few degrees before it froze solid with a piercing, cracking sound. A final blast from the stick pounded his head and snapped his neck backward, breaking it as if it were a huge, living icicle. The body slumped backwards to splash into the ocean.
Beltondo collapsed in a pile, the now-melted and glowing stick rolling from his unconscious hand. Isola screamed, and the deck hands rushed forward to help him. After a few tense minutes, during which Isola nearly climbed over the railing, he sat up. The first thing he did was to push Merolta aside to look at Isola. He smiled. Internally he gave thanks, for it was obvious to him that there was no way he could have defeated such a powerful creature without the help of the god Bestra.
Abandon and Old Reckless pulled toward each other, as the other ships gathered near. Planks were dropped and passengers swarmed aboard to give Beltondo congratulations. Isola was the first to race across to his arms.
The party lasted all night, this time. Sackota found it easy to compose ballads of Beltondo's escapades: he had created three by the morning's light. Mosantu gathered with followers aboard the Abandon for some quite involved services. Beltondo had to tell and re-tell his story several times. One of the passengers had found more paper and blank books aboard another ship, and Isola was busily writing the events for posterity. Mosantu Perrinosio began talking to groups of his visions of a city, a place of learning, a spire representing all they had become. Tallamah listened intensely, his own ideas of a spire and buildings racing across his mind.
Beltondo sat on a chair on deck, while Patisio Mel'ancola healed his wounds. Isola found this discomforting and watched her carefully, aware of some new, strange feelings within her own heart. She tried to dismiss it but found it very distracting. And Merolta found a few new ways to serve and preserve meat, thousands of pounds of which were delivered to them courtesy of the stick now resting beside Beltondo.
As the party wore on, Beltondo finally felt the pressure of the adulation released from him, and Isola was nearly crippled from writer's cramp. They smiled at each other and embraced. Slipping away from the crowd, they found each other's souls in the deck below.
He had made the climb each morning in the same fashion. The pegs along the main mast were second nature now. He knew just how far each of them were, remembered the cadence of the climb, remembered how he had to swing his leg over the basket side of the crow's nest, even when the wind tried to tear him from his grip. Isola shook her head each time and looked to Galomo, who smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Nothing needed to be said. Beltondo would be Beltondo.
She made the trek to the captain's deck to watch him climb the last two days, even though she felt somewhat sick. She had stopped writing and just wanted to be left alone. The movement of the ship, second nature to each one of the Teregnaven, now repulsed her. She spent a lot of time throwing her meals back to the fish, leaning over the railing. Beltondo had asked her several times if there was anything he could do for her, but she could only answer with another wrenching of her gut. He was concerned and hoped for a quick end to this trip.
A day ago, however, Beltondo found quite a surprise. A pigeon had landed on the edge of the crow's nest. It watched him climb and fluttered to the other side as he arrived atop the mast. He was confused: had it followed them all along, or was it from the land ahead? His heart raced with the thought that they could be within a bird's flight of land. He fed the bird with a few crumbs of food he had in his pocket. Having seen no land, he returned to the deck, only to find the bird had flown down to land on his favorite chair on deck.
At first, he thought it may be another portent from Bestra, and he began softly talking to it. Isola found this strange, and he stopped. The pigeon simply remained by his side, going wherever he went.
Discourse was more prevalent between ships now. It was not uncommon for one of the other boats to pull up nearby and drop plank for someone to come aboard and meet with another. They would bring some food or take some with them, as sharing was the most important function for all. Isola often traveled between the ships, holding reading and writing classes, but she would always arrange to be by Beltondo's side in the evening, if not for comfort from her physical condition, at least because of their feelings for one another. And certainly they all felt more at ease near the magician, as he seemed to be a lightning rod for trouble. One was ever amazed at what he might find in his pocket.
Beltondo found this particular day a welcome one. Isola had left, having a class arranged on the High Sea Sailer, a smaller but newer and tighter-sailing ship, he was told. She appeared to be in much better health today, as her stomach hadn't betrayed her so far. As a matter of fact, she ate several fish and had a handful of dried meat, more than she had eaten the whole day before. Now the sun shone brightly, a constant wind was blowing out of the west, and the seas were smooth. He took over for Galomo for a while, enjoying a game of chasing dolphins until he got too far off course and had to reel the ship back in line. The captain relieved him later, so he thought he'd go below and explore.
His new friend accompanied him. He found this strange, since he thought that birds usually tended to stay near wide open spaces. He often talked to her, looking for any sign that she was sent from Bestra. But she just continued to watch him from a reasonably safe distance. He soon gave up the idea and just enjoyed her company.
Beltondo looked through many of the items stacked neatly along the ship's hull. Tallamah and Gentilado were quite intuitive as they investigated the treasures days ago, although Beltondo thought some of their explanations were too creative. In most cases, they would have to wait until they reached land before they would be able to try them out - a ship just wouldn't be the best place for a hot forge, for instance. The spinning wheel would require some sort of animal wool or fur; the potter's wheel, mud. And the heavy metal hat - he couldn't imagine what it was for. But he did find a strange tube of yellowish metal. It came in two parts, the smaller of which slid inside the larger to make it longer. There was a crystal at each end, and his inquisitive nature got the best of him. As he looked in one end, he noticed that he could see completely through it. He held it to the portal to the main deck, noticing that everything he saw seemed much smaller, much farther away. Turning it around, he noticed that everything seemed equally large. He stuffed it into his belt.
As he lifted a wooden box of clay pots, he noticed another box that didn't seem to have been opened. How could they have missed it?, he wondered. He hoisted it up to rest on the other box and pried the rope wrapping from around its girth. As he opened the creaking top, he was astonished to see several books resting inside. He lifted the top one and blew off a cloud of dust. He had looked at some of the written language Isola had devised, and therefore, the writing on the front of the book looked familiar. Illuminated only by the flickering torch nearby, it seemed to read "The Seven Virtues" in a yellowish, shiny raised ink. He carefully opened it and read the first page.
"In the morning of the first day, there was light and dark; cold and heat; good and evil; order and chaos. And out of this was born the eight planes. And out of the planes came the gods: the Heavens begat Heshtail, Elysium begat Bestra, Gladsheim begat Kantor, Nirvana begat Neltak, Limbo begat Bel, Hell begat Lagur, Gehenna begat Grlarshh, and The Abyss begat Soggoth. And there was equality. And there was Concordance between all. And at the center of Concordance was the Lifestone.
And Bestra created Calbran, and all on Elysium was good. And Bestra looked upon Elysium and saw it was good.
And each God wished for the Lifestone for his own, and a great war of the Gods ensued, and the Lifestone was rent. And the gods put the stone together, and was created the Shattered Jewel, the rock that was Núrion. And upon this rock the gods created beings in their shape: the Elves, the Dwarves, the Halflings. And the god that was evil did place upon the rock evil beings in their own image. And war ensued again, this time on the Shattered Jewel.
And Bestra and the gods of light looked upon the jewel and saw that it was not good. And they sent down to her followers this book. And they read it and they rejoiced. And they followed the Seven Virtues."
Beltondo read the words and somehow, deep in his heart, knew this book was sent by Bestra herself, sent to his people to guide them in their quest for the new world. He shuddered and could hardly close the book. As he did, he looked up to the pigeon. She was looking directly into his eyes, into his soul. He knew her name now: it was Forntol. And he knew the books must be given directly to Helmando Jastosormio. He must teach the books to the children of Bestra. He walked the stairs to look for Helmando, followed closely by a pigeon.
The Devil and the Rocks
The sea remained peaceful over the next two days. Helmondo was ecstatic with the receipt of the book detailing the Seven Virtues. He immediately gathered several of the ships near to Old Reckless, walking the planks to visit other passengers, then to the rest of the ships in a whirlwind visit. He found more than twenty men and women who agreed to meet on the different boats each day as he read from the Books and conducted his own theological college. They read and discussed each of the parables of the books, giving examples of each quality and describing how each follower was to teach these merits to the rest.
Forntol stayed close to Beltondo, and Isola became more used to her and accepted her presence. One time, Beltondo had to laugh, as he rounded the corner of the cabin and found Isola talking to the very attentive bird. Isola was now over her stomach discomfort but found it difficult to appease her hunger. She seemed to always need more fish and meat than the others and was growing fuller in the face. Beltondo was concerned and mentioned it to her, but she said she felt natural, only very hungry. They dismissed it as simple stress of the long trip.
He also played with the strange tube, using it to see others aboard the sister ships. He also viewed the waves to the sides of the ship, even watching dolphins play in the sea.
Beltondo awoke to see Isola off to another class in literature. He ate a small breakfast and made the walk up to the captain's deck. Galomo stood with the wheel in his hands, smiling, as usual. "What say you, good Captain! How goes everything this morning?"
"Sun in front of us, calm seas, not much difference from yesterday, Magician! Every morning seems to be the same. But it can't last forever. Where's your bird going?"
Beltondo looked around and didn't see her. He looked up to the top of the mast and noticed her perched along the edge of the crow's nest, looking back at him, cooing. She continued beckoning until he began walking to the mast. "I may as well see what she's cooing about," laughed Beltondo. He climbed the rungs to the top. As he swung his leg over the rail, she moved to the bow side and looked out over the water.
There was the most beautiful sight he had seen since he walked aboard the ship. A speck of brown, jutting against the horizon toward the sky, proudly beckoned to its new inhabitants. He took a deep breath of relief and looked to Forntol, who took off and flew a hundred feet out over the ocean only to turn around and return, resting on his shoulder. He pointed the strange tube in its direction, amazed at the detail it gave him of the land ahead. "We've arrived, my friend, we've arrived." He turned and yelled at the top of his lungs. "Land! Land ahead!"
He fought the urge to leap to the deck, instead carefully climbing down the rungs to a crowd of passengers that had streamed out of the holds to the main deck. Others aboard the remaining ships began climbing their masts to see. Galomo was the first to greet him, and Beltondo handed him the metal tube, standing aside while the captain climbed the mast. Other Teregnaven crowded around him, asking many questions. The look of sheer joy made him feel complete.
As he walked to the wheel, Forntol flew away toward the mast. "I guess she's excited too!" Others laughed as the bird flew ahead of the ship for hundreds of yards before returning to rest on his shoulder. This time, she appeared more agitated, bouncing along his arm to the wheel and continuing to coo. Galomo climbed down to the deck with a strange look on his face.
"What is wrong, old friend?" said Beltondo. "Isn't this what we've been sailing to reach?"
"The land is there, all right. But there seems to be something wrong with the seas. Remember when we left, how the waves broke close to the shore? These waves are breaking very far from the shore. Unless I'm wrong, the waves break when the sea is shallow. There may be rocks or reefs close to the surface, and we may have a hard time getting close to the land. We aren't home yet."
Beltondo didn't know what to say. Forntol continued to hop back and forth, cooing and flying off, only to return quickly after circling. Her antics caught the attention of both leaders. "Why is your bird acting so strangely, Beltondo?"
"I'm not sure. She seems to know something we don't. She can certainly see things we can't from her position above the water. Are pigeons supposed to know how to find their way over long distances? She must have, if she found us."
"Yes, I seem to know this is true," said Tallamah, overhearing the conversation. "Maybe she's trying to get us to follow her." With that, the bird cooed loudly and flew off toward the bow. She flew almost straight up, curving to the left. "Let's test your theory, Tallamah. Galomo, I'll climb up and watch ahead. Keep her in line with the bow."
"Good idea," said Galomo as he took over the wheel. The surf loomed closer. However, everyone's attention was drawn to the spot of brown, now visible even to those standing on deck. No one seemed to notice a darker, more sinister shadow moving just below them. The shape moved on ahead, oblong and gliding almost effortlessly.
Forntol veered to port slightly, causing a shift in the Old Reckless as Galomo reacted. She turned back in a wide arc, looking to make sure the lead ship was following. She retreated halfway to the bow and then lit out straight in the same direction, evidently satisfied that they were heeding her directions.
Beltondo raised the viewing tube to his eye but noticed that it suddenly felt cold. He held it at arm's length, trying to assess the sudden change, when he noticed a change in its structure. The tube had become much heavier and colder. His attention now focused on the tube; he raised it again to his eye and looked out over the bow. Shocked at what he saw, he moved it to the side to see if his eyes were deceiving him. Seeing nothing more than the slightly choppy waves, he brought the tube again to his eyes and was aghast. There, no further than a hundred yards from the bow and just below the surface, was a dark, huge shape moving across the line of the bow and toward the unaware pigeon.
He brought the tube to his side and exclaimed to Galomo, "There! Just ahead - do you see that shape below the surface?" Galomo craned his neck and moved side to side, then shook his head. "No - what is it you see?"
He handed the tube, now very heavy and cold, to the captain. Galomo took it and held it to his eye effortlessly, not aware of either a shape or of the change in the tube. "I still don't see anything, Beltondo. Are you alright?" He tossed the tube back to the magician who caught and almost dropped it. It felt as if it weighed twenty or thirty pounds. Beltondo realized that something was amiss, that the tube was more than just a viewing instrument now. To his horror, the shape emerged, breaking the surface in a titanic leap upward and toward the bird. She noticed the motion and began turning upward immediately, narrowly avoiding the snapping jaws that tore loose a few tail feathers. She wheeled around and headed back to the bow.
"What in Holy Bestra's name is that?" yelled Galomo. The long, smooth shape thrust into the air for two thirds of its length. Now that it could be seen fully, passengers aboard the deck pointed and a few shrieked. Four large fins flapped in the air and a long, slender neck craned around toward the ships as it descended back into the water. Eyes that seemed so intelligent, so knowledgeable, peered toward them as it hit the water. An evil grin flashed across its toothy face, with teeth that were easily as long as a human is tall. The creature disappeared beneath the water, only to hump back out as it turned its unbelievable bulk up to begin traveling back to the ships.
The tube now felt lighter in his hand. Forntol reached the ship's wheel before the monster reached the bow. She landed and cowered, shivering at the sight. The monster humped its back in and out of the water as it sped along, peering at the ship. But Old Reckless slowed slightly. Galomo had trimmed the sails to gain better control of her as they approached the rocks, and the third ship, Heavenly Endeavor, continued along the starboard, catching up and passing her. Deck hands were scurrying around, pulling cloth and bringing in the boom, but it was too late. The monster turned to its left and headed for her. Beltomo looked to the ship and his heart sank. Isola was aboard the Endeavor, and judging from the few men above deck, he knew she was below.
The huge reptile pushed its head just above the water, opening its gaping maw wide. With its lower jaw still half below the water line, the upper one loomed easily twenty feet above the main deck. Deck hands ran from the bow as the upper mandible closed on the wooden vessel. Sharp teeth crushed the olden boards, snapping them like toothpicks in a blacksmith's vise. Some boards nearly exploded into the air, twisting and flying before spinning to the water. With a twist of its neck, the entire front twenty feet of the ship was rent clean from the rest. The ship reared back sternward, the bow rising high in the air. Fortunately, the rest of the ship was still buoyant enough to remain afloat, but the crew had to hold onto anything bolted down to keep from falling into the roiling sea.
Beltomo was shocked and unable to move a muscle. He barely heard Galomo. "Beltondo, can you do anything? Beltondo...BELTONDO!"
He shook himself out of his trance long enough to turn to the captain. "I...I don't know! She hasn't appeared! I don't know what to do! Damn!" He gripped the tube harder and made a motion to throw it to the deck. But he couldn't open his hand-it grasped the telescope tightly, as if it was now a part of him. He shook it again, but to no avail. The serpentine demon dove into the sea and under Old Reckless, as if to mount another charge. He looked at the tube. It was now very warm and glowed from its ends. Holding it up to look into it, he saw the face. "Use it, my son. Use it to save my people." It was Bestra. He took the tube from his eyes and looked at it sideways. A beam of light came from the front and grew stronger. The horror from the depths circled around to the bow. What was left of Heavenly Endeavor began to take on water.
He knew what to do this time. He leapt from the captain's to the main deck, and as he landed, began barking orders to the men on deck to lower the rowboats. They looked at him as if he had lost his mind, knowing full well that anyone caught on the open sea, even though protected somewhat by the other ships, was doomed. He insisted, adding, "When you see the light, cover your eyes!" The men began to move as Beltondo dashed to the bow, holding his every-increasing beam of light.
He reached the bow just as Forntol alit on his shoulder. "Fly to the stern, little friend. Don't look. I'll be okay." The bird turned and flew back toward the stern. Beltondo looked to the bow. The monstrosity sped toward the ship. Beltondo's tube began to vibrate slightly, humming audibly. He shone the beam of light toward the hellion and it shied away, twisting its head slightly, but still swimming toward Old Reckless. This told him what he needed to know-it was a creature of the deep, unused to light. A smile crept over his lips.
The sea-demon reached about a hundred feet from the bow, and Beltondo began a loud chant of arcane words. As before, he had no idea where they came from, if he would ever remember them, how they worked, or if they would work. He screamed the last word as it raised its head and half its neck above the water. As he closed his eyes, a piercing, searing beam of light blasted forth from the scope, pushing him back with its recoil. The very air screamed as the beam ripped through the salty atmosphere, and the blast struck the monster full on its head. A tremendous explosion rocked the water and even the boat itself. As Beltondo opened his eyes, he beheld a headless serpentine neck, spurting blood and whipping back and forth. As pieces of meat began to fall to the deck, he allowed himself a little smile and yes, even a laugh.
Love Lost Below
His celebratory mood was to last only a few seconds, as his mind raced to Isola. Looking to starboard, he ran to help the deck men lower the boats. Heavenly Endeavor was now only half out of the water. Passengers were climbing out of the holds, diving into the water and toward Old Reckless. He peered toward the ship, looking for Isola, but didn't see her. Torn between his duty to protect Bestra's children and his love for her, he remained on deck and began throwing the ends of several ropes overboard to give those in the water something else to hold. After tying the other ends of the ropes to the railing, he directed the crews as they began picking up survivors as the ship took on more water. Several other ships lowered their rowboats as well, and the recovery continued. Still, he didn't see her. He called to her, but no one answered; he could only hear the yells and commotion as one by one survivors were plucked out of the sea.
He didn't know what to do. He didn't know if she had made it out or was trapped below. Even though Galomo's depth rope, thrown down for soundings just before the monster appeared, told him they were in fifty feet of water, it could have been fifty miles. The ship picked up speed as it began its final plunge.
Forntol flew to him and landed on his shoulder. She pecked at his cheek until he turned to look to her. She flew downward to the water, landing on the surface and looking back to him. She began to shriek, flapping her wings and dunking her head in the sea. He seemed to understand, but how was he to save her? The pigeon flew back up to the deck, landing at his feet. A clay pot was resting on the deck, and she bounced over to it, pecking it until it tipped over. He found this strange, but he knew better than to ignore her or anything that seems strange. The hustle and din from the boats drew his attention once again. Passengers began climbing up the ropes as the Heavenly Endeavor bid its last adieu.
He looked back at the bird. She had picked up the edge of the pot far enough to climb under it. "What's with your bird, Beltomo?" The voice from behind him belonged to his old friend Merolta. Forntol peeked her head out from under the pot, then ducked back under it again. She repeated the motion - suddenly Beltondo understood. "Merolta, Isola is below decks on that ship. She's trapped. Get down to a rowboat and wait for me."
Merolta knew that voice of urgency. Beltomo raced to the hold where he rummaged quickly through the strange items. Finding the metal hat, he rolled the rope and tube around his arm. He grabbed another piece of rope and a heavy weight attached to it. Everything was making sense now - if it only would work, and if there was only enough time.
He ran up the steps and over to the railing. Finding an unused rope, he tied everything he had in a bundle and lowered it down to Merolta. "What are you doing, Beltondo?" Galomo had come down to assist in the rescue of the others. "Isola - below decks - I don't know what I'm doing! If I don't come back, take care of Bestra's children, old friend!" He dove into the sea.
Aboard the rowboat, Merolta unraveled the rope from the mess of rope and tubes. "I hope you know what you're doing, Bel. What do I do?"
Beltondo treaded water over to the rowboat. "Row over the sunken ship. Tie off the other rope and throw it over. Lower the hat - it's a breathing device. Keep it filled with air from those flapping things - just press them together, over and over again. Hand me that short rope with the weight. And pray, old friend. Pray."
Merolta understood, although he didn't understand how it worked. Beltondo strapped the short rope to his ankle for ballast, then drew a deep breath and disappeared. Forntol landed on the rail of the rowboat to watch and was joined in heart by hundreds of onlookers from the railings of several boats above.
He had never suspected this world could be so foreign, so frightening, so imposing. He seemed to know naturally how to swim, however, and slowly made his way down, aided by the weight. The ship was resting on her stern, what was left of the bow pointing upward. He entered the hold, pulling himself down by grasping the railing, the steps, anything he could find. He hoped and prayed she had found a pocket of air, a room, anything to give her a little more air. Through the darkness he worked, moving from nook to cranny. There was no sign of Isola.
His lungs were burning, almost to the point of bursting. His head was swirling from the pressure of the sea, a feeling he had not expected. He knew he had to get some air, and fast. He turned around and swam up to the waiting bell, now only ten feet from the wreckage. The air was flowing out from its lower rim and bubbling to the narrow spot of light, the surface. Exhaling before he put his head into the bell, he took a few deep breaths and returned to the wrecked hull.
Racing against the evil teeth of time itself, he said a little prayer as he entered the hold for the second time. The tall, lanky saved troll tried to orient himself better this time so that he could cover a different search area. In the murky darkness, only a minimal amount of light filtered through. He felt his way around one hold, then a second. His lungs again feeling the fire of lack of air, he decided to try a third. As he entered, his hand brushed against something - a leg!
He swam upward, now not even sure which way was up. He reached the top of the hold and burst through the surface to a pocket of air. He reached across the water to Isola, running his hands over her green-skinned face in the darkness. He knew by the touch of her skin that she was unconscious but still alive. She still clutched her book in her arms. He wrapped his arms around her waist and around the book and swam to the hall between the holds, then to the bell.
Beltondo forced her head into it, hoping a little air might revive her. She didn't seem to move, though, so he pulled her back down and unfastened the weight from his ankle. Climbing the free rope and kicking, in a few moments they were treading water beside the rowboat.
To cheers from above, he hoisted her to the boat, where Merolta and a few others pulled her aboard. They laid her on the bottom of the boat, and Beltondo crawled out of the water. The cheers quieted to a murmur as he knelt over her. Forntol flapped over to her and sat on her chest, looking back at Beltondo. Tell me what to do, Forntol, Bestra. I can't lose her!
Forntol bent over and placed her beak between Isola's bluish, cold lips. She raised her head and placed her beak there again. That's it - breathe for her! He bent over and opened her mouth, breathing life into her body. After a few breaths, she coughed and opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was her only love. He smiled and pressed the book to her chest, folding her arms over it. She smiled as the onlookers cheered again.
A New Home
Salty water lapped the boards of the old ship with an annoying random cadence. It wasn't always noticeable. Sometimes it wasn't there, other times it was as loud as the commotion from the crews the last few days spent beyond the reefs, preparing for the final leg of the journey. Still other times the sound was barely noticed over the creaking of the old, poorly fitted boards. It was a wonder that the ship was still afloat, after all it had been through-a whirlpool, a dragon, a sea monster. He looked down to the lovely Isola, curled in his arms, soundlessly sleeping.
The rescued passengers were divided among the remaining ships. A crew of divers, all willing to try out the new invention, conducted a thorough salvage operation to bring the items on the Heavenly Endeavor to the surface. Most ironically, they found another diving apparatus, aiding the project.
Isola spent much of the time beside Beltondo, who was too emotionally and physically drained to do much in the way of directing or managing anything. She temporarily gave up her classes, getting some much-needed rest and eating almost everything she could lay her hands on. Her belly seemed a little larger now. Beltondo didn't understand why. But she knew, she knew.
The last leg was directed by Forntol. She brought each ship through the treacherous reefs and within a hundred feet of shore. The rowboats brought the people to shore, the first being Beltondo and some precious cargo.
Their ordeal prevented most of them from truly realizing the majesty of the new land. A gently sloping beach of beautiful, white crystal sand rose to lush forests beyond. Behind this initial tranquil scene was a series of rolling hills of short grass meadows; beyond that, rocky foothills. Looming beyond, occasionally peeking through a layer of clouds, was a strange mountain range, stretching as far as the eye could see, culminating in a strangely-shaped peak to the south.
The first night ashore was spent around several campfires, where all retold tales of their adventures. Sackota had composed several new tunes. He had found several others skilled in music, and they were flitting between the circles of Teregnaven and entertaining them. Merolta had gathered several others and, equipped with swords and bows, ventured into the forest to find boar and deer. Stalwoto had caught plenty of fish along the reefs, aided by several other fishermen. All ate heartily. Mosantu gathered some people together to discuss politics and society - after all, they had a clean slate upon which to write an entire society.
Helmando began spreading the word of the Seven Virtues to anyone who would listen: many would. Gentilado leaned back against a stump and looked up to the sky, speaking to others of how the stars could help in navigation and explaining his theories of a round Núrion. Tallamah began recruiting able-bodied men for his latest idea - a spire to the Good Goddess who had created them and delivered them to these new shores. Mosantu interjected his ideas that the spire could be used to assure that none of the evil they left would follow them. Gentilado added that it could be used to study the heavens. Isola's followers suggested that the spire be the center of a great learning center, where arts, literature, and science could mingle and grow.
Isola added her voice but didn't join them for long. She was hesitant to leave Beltondo's side. He suggested that the university include study of the arcane magical arts as well. They walked together among Bestra's creations, meeting and talking to everyone. They appeared to be the new society's celebrities.
The next few days were spent building temporary wooden homes in the lush meadows off the beach and setting up some of the items from the holds. Hunters began to hunt, farmers began to farm and herd, builders began to build, teachers continued to teach, engineers began to design, and all began to dream.
At the end of the first week, during a particularly large campfire, Helmondo called Isola and Beltondo forward. In front of seven hundred faithful, he read the Seven Virtues and bound their hands together with a piece of red satin sash to indicate they were one. On that first wedding night, she looked radiant. She felt a little kick from the rather large lump beneath her white, flowing dress, as Forntol sat on Helmondo's shoulder.