Tale: “Bad Business”
The bark Skylark once again lied at anchor; this time it was drawn up alongside a pier in the harbor of the religious settlement known as Säis. Horace stood on the main deck, saying farewell to the disembarking passengers—clerics of Gaea, whom the Larks had transported back from their pilgrimage. Max and Urield stood with Horace, sharing gregarious farewells. For his part, Max made a deep bow to the halfling woman who'd drawn his eye.
After all had gone ashore, Horace was about to give orders to set sail; he was interrupted by Lucinda, who emerged from the companionway that led aft to the main cabin. “Captain,” she announced, “our patient has regained consciousness.”
“Belay,” Horace called. “Hold here and wait for further orders!” Then, turning on his heel, he followed her aft. In the main cabin he found Konrad sitting on a chair from the captain's table, which he'd drawn up alongside the narrow bed built against the aft wall. As Horace watched, the dwarf sprinkled water with a ladle from a steaming pot onto the bedclothes in which the lizard-woman was wrapped.
She gave a contented sigh. “Again, I thank you,” she said in sibilant Common.
“It is nothing.” Konrad shook his head. “But, Narraw, can you tell me why you came seeking us?”
Her expression of comfort dissolved into a worried frown. “They... they took our children,” she hissed.
“Your children?” That question came from Lucinda.
“Yes. Our eggs.”
Horace's brow furrowed. “Do you know why?”
“They needed a way to make us work for them, to make us dive in the water and explore a...” She struggled to find the correct word. “A wreck.”
“A wreck?” Each of the adventurers asked that question simultaneously.
“Yes. I did not understand all that they said, but it sounded like it was... important to them.”
Max and Uriel smiled identical wolfish grins; Konrad stroked his beard, and Horace twirled the end of his moustache.
It was Lucinda who spoke. “If we help you recover your eggs, then would you help us recover whatever is in that wreck?”
The lizard-woman nodded. “Yes.”
“It's settled, then,” Horace declared. “All hands to stations; make ready to sail.”
* * *
Because the river provided plenty of propulsion, they set only the topsails to aid in steering the Skylark. While they made a brisk pace downstream, Horace left a veteran hand in charge of the whipstaff so that he and his officers could reconvene with Narraw in the main cabin.
“So,” Horace began, “we encountered Martelli.”
“And gave him and his men a good thrashing,” Uriel added with a grin.
“Indeed,” Horace continued. He turned back to the lizard-woman, and gave her a quick description of the fallen foe. “Is he the one?”
“Yes,” she hissed.
“You said they forced you and your people to dive on a wrecked ship. Did they have a place where they took the things that you recovered from it?”
“Can you lead us there?”
“Very good. Let's go up on deck, then, and see what we can see.”
* * *
An hour later found the Skylark once again trailing behind its longboat. This time, though, it was moving under minimal sails instead of being towed. Konrad was stationed in the bow of the boat, watching and reporting, and Horace stood by the helm. Lucinda, Uriel and Max crewed the longboat, and Narraw accompanied them. They waited while the lizard-woman scanned the passing shoreline, looking for telltale signs of the hideout.
After what seemed like hours, she raised a hand and then pointed at a dense cluster of reeds. Max signaled back to Konrad, who relayed the message to Horace.
“Strike sails,” the human whispered, “and drop anchor.” The crewed moved quietly to execute his orders.
Back in the longboat, Uriel was preparing for action. He stripped off his leather armor and any clothing beyond a loincloth and a belt. Into that item he slipped the halfling-sized shortsword that Max offered him, which in the half-orc's big hand looked more like a longknife. Then he turned to Narraw and gestured toward the water. “After you.”
In one lithe motion she dove into the water, making hardly a splash. Uriel was nearly as graceful following her. For a time they were gone, and then they came back up to the surface.
“This is the place,” Uriel explained. “Max, we need your help.”
The halfling stripped out of his armor, too, and then stepped up onto the boat's gunwhale and dove; he added a backflip to it.
Lucinda, watched that display and then followed their progress toward the shore as best she could; then her eye was caught by a flicker of bright color descending from the sky. The newcomer settle down onto the gunwhale next to her; it was Polly, her familiar.
She looked the bird in the eyes for a moment, and it nodded. Turning back toward her departed comrades, the half-elf considered for a moment and then decided. Taking up the boat's oars, she began rowing back toward the Skylark.
* * *
Before long Lucinda was back aboard the bark, having been hauled up on the carpenter's swing while a sailor took her place in the boat. After asking Konrad to keep a lookout for the others, she approached Horace.
“Captain,” she announced, “I have good news and bad news.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“The good news is that most or all of the pirates are currently away from their hideout.
Horace considered that information. “What's the bad news?”
She gave a rueful smile. “It seems that they've attacked and overrun a Northern Empire galley, and they did it not far from here.”
“What are the odds that they'll return to their hideout?”
“I think it pretty likely.”
“Then spread the word: double the watch and arm the crew, bows and blades.”
* * *
For a time Narraw swam through the water, her powerful tail propelling her like an oar. Max did his best to keep up with her, while Uriel brought up the rear. Both the half-orc and halfling were force to surface from time to time in order to take a fresh breath, and thus it was that she came swimming back to them, indicating with gestures that they should follow her.
She led them to a pace where a narrow tunnel, concealed by the reeds, led up under the shoreline. Urield and Max both recognized that it would be completely hidden at high tide, but partially expose at low ebb. Kicking back to the surface, the two adventurers took deep breaths before diving again and, with Max in the lead, swimming into it.
The tunnel, narrow and sandy, sloped upward, rising after some fifty feet above the waterline. Max and Uriel pushed themselves into the air pocket, and then the halfling began to crawl further forward. After a time the tunnel opened up into a broader cavern, one with stone walls and a sandy floor. It was nearly empty, except floor a hole in the floor, on the other side of the chamber, that led downward and had a ladder sticking out of it. Max scrutinized it and then started toward the ladder—but not in a straight line; instead he kept one hand against the wall to his left. Reaching the hole, he listened for a moment before jumping downward.
The lower level was dimly lit by a few everburning torches set in crude sconces along the walls. They illuminated a chamber that was furnished with hammocks tied to support posts, along with a rough, broad table surrounded by chairs. Against the wall opposite the ladder rested a number of chests, each bound in iron and secured with a heavy padlock. Most notable, however, were the sharpened stakes that jutted up from the ground, ones that were placed directly beneath a false canvas floor in the middle of the upper level.
While Uriel considered that, Narraw dropped to the sand against one wall and began sniffing at it. Both of the others could see numerous small, circular indentations in that area.
“They were here,” she declared. “The eggs were here.”
Uriel nodded. “But where are they now?”
“Maybe they moved them onto a ship,” Max suggested.
“If they did, then how will we ever find them?” Narraw asked.
“Don't worry.” Uriel tried to sound confident. “We can ask the others. They'll think of something.”
“Do you think so?”
The lizard-woman nodded. With a final glance at the small impressions, she turned and headed for the exit. Before long they were treading water in front of the shoreline, looking for the longboat that wasn't there.
“Wait a minute,” Max cautioned, nodding in the direction of the Skylark. They could see that a galley had pulled alongside it, and sailors were already streaming from it onto the smaller bark.
“That's a vessel of the Northern Empire,” Uriel noted, holding a hand over his eyes. “Finally, a little help when you need it.”
“No,” Max cautioned. “Something's not right.”
* * *
Back aboard the Skylark, Horace was overseeing his crew's preparations to receive visitors. The newcomer, a galley named the Luminous, had been secured with grappling lines, and its crew was now laying boarding planks across the gap between the vessels. He moved to stand nearby them, waiting for the traditional request for permission to come aboard.
Instead he saw musket-bearing soldiers come tramping across, with their weapons held at the ready.
“What is the meaning of this?” Horace demanded.
His answer came from an officer who followed the soldiers. “Order your crew to stand down,” the officer declared. “You and your crew are under arrest.”