Tale: “Desperate Times”
As Uriel, Max and Narraw watched, soldiers and sailors from the Luminous took control of the Skylark, raising the bark's sails and steering it to follow after the departing galley. All they could do was continue staring, stunned by the development.
“Well,” the half-orc grumbled, “what in the nine layers of Hell do we do now?”
“We have failed!” Narraw groaned.
Max was about to reply when, out of the blue, a bird landed on his head. It was Polly, Lucinda's familiar.
“Rawk,” the bird announced.
“Polly,” the halfling asked, “can you follow that ship, and help us go after them?”
The parrot nodded.
“Even if we know where they're going, how can we follow them without a boat?” Uriel asked.
“Perhaps I can help with that,” said Narraw.
* * *
During the next couple of days, the lizard-woman showed them how to gather armfuls of the reeds that grew in the marshy areas along the shoreline, and, using the plants' roots for cords, tie them into long, buoyant bundles. Those, then, they lashed to a lightweight frame made from small, roughly cut trees, and they had a serviceable raft. Max fetched a couple of hammocks from the pirates' hideout, and from them stitched together a crude but functional sail.
While the halfling was busy with that last task, the lizard-woman and half-orc hunted for food further inland. They managed to run down a wild boar, which Uriel skinned, gutted, and cut into long, thin strips. Then he lashed a simple frame and, after building a smoky fire beneath it, laid the meat out for curing.
All the while, Max noticed that Uriel and Narraw would sometimes sit off by themselves, telling each other stories, or just sharing amiable silence.
* * *
On the third day following their comrades' capture, the three were ready. After loading up their meager supplies—the cured meat, a few spears that Uriel had cut for himself, a few dried gourds filled with fresh water and a pair of roughly fashioned paddles—they hauled the raft into the sea, raised the step-up mast, and set sail.
Max was perched in what served as the boat's bow, watching for hazards. He'd followed Polly's flight path when the bird departed, using the evening star for his bearings, and thus he plotted their course.
They'd been sailing two more days, seeing naught but desolate passing shoreline to starboard and open sea to port, when a familiar, colorful figure fluttered down from the sky.
“Polly,” Uriel declared, “you are a sight for sore eyes.”
“What have you found?” Narraw asked.
“Rawk, an island,” Polly answered.
“Can you lead us there?” the lizard-woman added.
The bird nodded in affirmation.
“Wait a minute,” Uriel interrupted. “What dangers are we going to find there?”
Polly looked at the half-orc and, by way of a response, tilted her head sideways.
“Hold on,” Max spoke up. “Remember, Uriel, that she can't communicate with us like she does with Lucinda.” He considered for a moment. “Are there building on this island?”
The parrot nodded.
“Are they made from stone?”
Polly shook her head.
“From wood, then, with a stockade—logs, trees cut down and stuck in the ground, with the pointy ends sticking upward?”
“Ah.” Max thought about the bird's answers. “It could be a trading fort, probably located close to some kind of natural harbor.”
“In that case,” Uriel added, “maybe we can sneak around from another side.”
“Do you think,” Narraw asked, “that's where they have our eggs?”
“Unless they're in that galley,” Max replied, “I'd say they're in that fort.”
* * *
Armed with that information, the trio continued on their course. From time to time Polly would fly up and away from their boat, taking a bearing on the island and looking for any dangers. While Uriel handled their one small sail, Max remained in the bow, watching. On the fourth day he announced, “There it is. Land, ho.”
“The island?” Narraw asked.
“Yes.” The halfling turned to the half-orc. “I think it would be best if we struck our sail and paddled the rest of the way.”
“Aye, aye, captain.” Uriel loosened the lines on the boat's crude sail, then lifted the little mast out of its post. Wrapping the sail around it, he stowed it in the bottom of the boat and then hefted one of the paddles. The half-orc set to paddling with powerful strokes; as he did so, Narraw slipped over the stern and began to push with her powerful tail.
Turning back to Polly, Max asked, “Can you find us a place to go ashore where we won't attract any unwanted attention?”
The bird nodded and then took wing, and they followed.
* * *
Following the parrot, they made their way to the southwest corner of an island that was perhaps a mile wide and who knows how long. At that point a rocky, jutting peninsula gave way to the island's forested interior, and that was where they pulled their boat ashore, carrying it up under the cover of the trees. Then, again following Polly's lead, they hiked up and over the peninsula, to a high point that overlooked a broad natural harbor.
There, riding at anchor, were the galley Luminous and the bark Skylark.
“Look there.” Uriel pointed into the forest on the shore of the bay, where a thin trail of smoke drifted upward.
“A settlement of some kind?” Narraw asked.
“Yes. Shall we go have look?”
The others nodded in agreement, and so they set off in that direction, careful to remain quiet and to stay hidden by the hills or the trees. They'd gone perhaps half a mile when, in the distance, Max spied the hewn log walls of a stockade. “I think we found our trading fort.”
As they watched, they could see soldiers wearing tabards with the Order of the Lion's emblem, stationed atop platforms inside the wall.
Narraw frowned. “If our eggs, and your friends, are in there, then what can we do?”
Max smiled. “You forget, my lizard-lady, that we have a secret weapon.” Placing two fingers to his mouth, he fave a shrill whistle; moments later, Polly fluttered down to land on his outstretched arm. The halfling fed her a bit of ship's biscuit. “Pretty bird, I need you to find Lucinda.”
* * *
Inside the stockade of the trading fort were two buildings—one a compact, two-storied, whitewashed house, and the other a long, low warehouse. It was in the latter structure that the other 'Larks were being held prisoner. The method of their jailing was crude but effective; each was tied at the wrists with stout cord, as well as bound by a rope to metal rings spaced at five-foot intervals along the walls. They were thus allowed movement enough to avoid becoming too uncomfortable, but not so much that they could tamper with their bindings.
In the three days of their confinement they'd been treated well enough—given adequate food and water, and taken one at a time to use the privy—but no amount of questioning their captors had revealed just why they were being imprisoned. They'd settle into a tired routine of trying to entertain each other with old, familiar stories when Lucinda's eyes went wide.
“Something the matter, Luce?” Konrad asked her.
“No,” she answered—but then she winked at him. “I'm polly just tired.”
“Oh.” It took the dwarf a moment to catch her innuendo. “I see.”
Horace noticed their exchange and recognized its implication, too. Not for the first time he tried to twirl the end of his mustache, but his bonds prevented him from doing so. In spite of that, he smiled.
“So, now what do we do?”
“We wait,” Lucinda replied, “and see.”
* * *
Uriel, Max and Narraw had been hunkered down behind cover for close to an hour when Polly returned.
“Did you find her?” Max asked.
The parrot nodded.
“In the fort?”
The halfling gestured, with each hand indicating first an object more cubical in shape, and then something broader and flatter. “Are they being kept in the taller building, or the shorter one?”
Polly pecked lightly at his right hand.
“Ah, the warehouse. Are they bound with ropes?” He held up a piece to illustrate.
The bird nodded.
“Good—then it shouldn't take much doing to cut them loose. How many guards—people—are watching them?”
Polly scratched the ground three times with her left talon.
“That should be manageable.”
“You have a plan for freeing them?” Uriel asked.
“Yes—but first I want to have a look in the main house, to see what all of this is about.”
* * *
Max waited until dark to pay his visit. Gathering handfuls of dirt, he darkened the skin of his hands and face. Then, creeping through the vegetation that encroached on the stockade, he found a tree with a branch from which he could watch the guards. His hope was to find a gap of time in which he could go over the wall unnoticed; to his surprise, a guard at the front of the stockade called out, “Ship, ho!”
The halfling watched, tensing, as half a dozen guards and then a pair of officers from the house, headed out through the gate and down to the dock.
That was his chance.
Stepping quickly out along the bough, Max used it as a springboard a jumped over the wall. The rogue landed, light on his feet, and rolled in a somersault that was nearly silent. Back on his feet, he ran across the open space between the stockade and the house, and then scampered up one wall, using a pair of knives for climbing tools. Pausing at a window, he listened for a moment, then used one of the blades to open the shutter and clambered inside.
The room was, as he'd suspected, empty at the moment. There were signs of recent occupation, and Max peered into the closet and under the bed, but he found nothing of interest. After pausing again to listen at the door, he moved out into the hallway.
From there he could see a railing to one side, overlooking the house's main entry below it, and doors on this level leading to other rooms. One of them, centered on the back wall of the house, he chose as his next target; it was unlocked.
Inside that room Max found one wall lined with bookshelves; next to them stood a desk and chair, along with a padlocked chest.
Here we go, Max thought. He closed the door to the hallway and latched it, and then unrolled his pouch of tools atop the desk. The padlock on the chest took some effort, but he managed it; the chest proved to contain coins of various values—copper, silver and gold—along with a small bag of pearls. Max tucked that last item into one of his pouches and then turned his attention to the desk.
Its drawer was locked, but it, too, succumbed to his picks. Inside it he found a sheaf of papers bundled with a ribbon, some of which bore the seal of the Imperial Navy. Max scanned them hastily, and one line in particular stood out to him:
Continue with your recovery plan as you've described, but remember—under no circumstances should you let anyone discover and communicate the objective of your efforts.
Max nodded as he read. It was as they'd suspected; the Navy crew was trying to salvage a wreck of some sort, and whatever cargo was aboard it was important. And that meant valuable.
Folding the letters, he tucked them inside his shirt. He was about to head for the hallway when the crack of a pistol shot stopped him in his tracks.
Heading for the window, he opened the shutter and climbed out onto the sill; from there he could reach the roof, and swung himself up onto it. Then he crawled up to the peak and looked over, out toward the harbor.
From there he could see the situation unfolding on the dock. One uniformed officer, brandishing a pistol, stood over the body of the man from the house. The other soldiers were quickly being cut down by the newcomers, leaving bodies strewn about the dock and in the surrounding water.
Max focused on the officer from the arriving vessel and froze.
In spite of the uniform, Max recognized him.
It was the pirate, Arturo Martelli.