In which Valarien takes possession
Valarien nodded mutely. He trawled through his robes for the required equipment, glancing up at the new crescent with some misgivings.
"It would be much better if the Lady were near to the full," he remarked, "still, we have passed the - um - dark side and must be thankful for that at least."
He located a large flat stone suitable to his needs and laid it to the north of their fire. Upon the stone, he placed a small crystal bottle of black liquid, a long slim piece of vellum, a black quill and a phial of silvery powder. This done, he unstoppered both bottle and phial and began an incantation in a language Kai had never heard before.
"Nooshi Charng, yooay nooshen, sharmow shargwa, choo goojarng, jeeyee dzwor kong, jeeyee men gwarn fandooee sheeshee choo wor zheewai, wor chee nee."
A blinding blue-white radiance suddenly blazed over the stone, leaving a dark image burned into Kai's eyes that persisted for many minutes. Thus, he never saw that the black feather and the liquid had turned to silver.
The struggling ceased abruptly. Leon stared ahead with fixed unblinking gaze. Kai and Ewan rolled away exhausted and Valarien examined his subject with satisfaction.
"It worked," he exclaimed in surprise, and added as Kai looked at him in some consternation, "I've never tried it before."
"What have you done?" Kai asked in a shocked whisper.
"I have - um - closed down his mind," Valarien responded warily, "and locked its doors to all communication from everything save - um - myself."
"You - you mean - you've taken over control of him? You've possessed him?"
"In effect, yes."
"That's horrible," Kai breathed.
"Yes. I didn't want to do it, but as you pointed out, I - um - had no choice. It was either that - Thing Or me."
The warrior stared at Valarien in awe. A trickle of fear ran unbidden down his spine as he appreciated for the first time, the full extent of the wizard's powers - if that was the full extent. Valarien read his face.
"It is not - um - true possession," he explained kindly, "more a kind of suspended animation. It will give him respite from his torment and enable his body to rest."
"Then why didn't you do it sooner? Why let him suffer for so long?"
"That spell is from the - um - Eighth Order - Necromancy... It is at the absolute limit of my capabilities - my knowledge. Had I failed Well, best not to think about it."
It took them nearly a fortnight to traverse the pleasant land of Deira. Under different circumstances, the trip would have taken on a holiday spirit for the weather could not have been finer. The gentle countryside glowed under a beneficent sun.
In contrast, the little group of travellers journeyed in sombre silence. In particular, the absence of the barbarian's merry and irreverent banter cast a gloom over the rest of the party as he rode, trance-like, beside Valarien.
They arrived at Ancalla in low spirits that were in no way alleviated by the fact that their demonic pursuers appeared to have left them alone. It was almost midday when they reached the top of the granite cliffs that towered over the town, and looked out across the vast expanse of the Halcyon Ocean, twinkling in the bright sunlight.
Ancalla was built around a rocky little harbour. Stone houses seemed to cling to the surrounding cliffs like children to a mother's skirts. Though it presented a picture of serene beauty now, it must be a bleak and windswept prospect in the winter months.
They picked their way carefully down the narrow rugged track that lead down to the town. As they drew nearer, the exhilarating salty tang took on more pungent overtones and the serenity fragmented into a bustle of activity around the harbour itself.
There was the lively cacophony of cargoes being loaded and unloaded, boat-owners plying for trade and sailors for work, boats being careened, sails being mended, hawkers volubly peddling their wares, and ladies of a certain class unashamedly peddling their 'wares', also. Ewan looked wistfully at the unresponsive Leon.
"Don't even think about it," said Valarien sharply.
The nightranger scowled. "I wasn't," he muttered sourly with a hint of injured innocence.
The wizard let it pass. Kai had ridden on ahead and hired rooms at an unpretentious waterside inn. Next, he sought out a suitable looking craft to convey them across the Strait of Tonnan Vora to Barrachira in the Eyastan Reech. After the inevitable haggling, he came to an amicable agreement with one, Egan Shawlter, for the hire of himself, his ship and his crew.
That done, he returned to the 'Merry Mermaid' where Valarien had ordered a substantial luncheon. The little group embarked on the 'Oranna Farika' early next day to catch the morning's tide.
Having installed the docile Leon, along with the baggage, in the aft cabin, his three companions returned to the deck to watch Ancalla slide slowly into the mists of distance. Fair weather and a steady breeze promised an easy voyage with the expectation of arriving in Barrachira on the morning of the third day after their departure. For a short while, they could set aside their cares and enjoy themselves.
Valarien spent much of the time leaning over the side, dreamily watching the patterns created by the wake of their vessel. The lacy caps of foam grouped and regrouped against the dark cerulean water, endlessly changing. He thought wistfully of Perizada and wished she were with him. The feeling came that - perhaps - she was.
Kai stood on the poop deck. He was enjoying the wind in his hair, which had outgrown its military crop, and looking keenly ahead. Though he knew it was still far away, he was impatient to catch the first glimpse of a land he had not seen for over a decade.
Ewan merely soaked up the sun, sitting with eyes closed on a coil of rope beside the main mast. Alas, the idyll was not destined to run its course. Shortly after noon on the second day, dark clouds appeared on the southern horizon. They hurtled towards the little ship, rapidly blotting out the sun. The wind veered sharply and increased in strength.
Shawlter's crew scurried round in alarm, hastily reefing the sails. They cast suspicious glances at the passengers as the heaving ocean played with the little ship. Fear took root in every heart save one. Three, at least, aboard the 'Oranna Farika' knew the cause of the approaching storm. The Dark Powers had returned with a vengeance.
"Now we know why they left us alone for so long," Kai shouted to Valarien against the shriek of the gale.
The captain was having words with his men who were gesticulating angrily in the direction of the three travellers. Shawlter broke away and approached Kai, weaving across the pitching deck.
"The men want you to leave," he cried, the wind whipping away his words as they left his mouth. "There's a dinghy in the hold."
Before Kai could respond, a sheet of rain hit the ship. It merged with a wave that threatened to inundate the vessel. At this, the sailors' nerves went completely. They advanced purposefully towards those who were undoubtedly responsible for their sudden peril. Two of the crew members laid hands on Valarien. They rapidly learned that the storm was not their only danger as they rebounded off the gunwales. The rest backed off in terror.
Shawlter dropped to his knees before the wizard, hands raised in supplication. His words were lost. The ship was yawing wildly now. Passengers and crew alike slid across the deck. The wind-ravaged waves threatened to overwhelm them.
"Do something, wizard!" Ewan screamed as he went tumbling past.
"Like what?" Kai screamed back.
"Pray!" cried Valarien, a demented look in his eyes.
It seemed their prayers went unheard. The strength of the wind doubled. the ship began to spin, rapidly picking up speed. A twister? The ill-fated vessel rose slowly up out of the water. All gave themselves up for lost - all save Leon. He had been thrown out of the cabin by the violence of the storm. Now he lay in a tangled heap amid the main halyard. His eyes stared blankly into the inky clouds above.
Almost imperceptibly, the rotation of the 'Oranna Farika' slackened . The roiling clouds, losing their darkness, drew back. The ship came to a gentle halt some sixty feet in the air.
Kai had no opportunity to indulge his fear of flying - nor to wonder what held her there. Far above, the clouds - gilded by the returning sun - shimmered into a vision of the Goddess's face. As he looked up in awe, the immaterial coalesced into corporeal reality as the Goddess herself appeared. Her lambent gaze shone upon them all and a different kind of fear took them.
"Who calls me?" she asked in a voice which, though soft and low, yet set all the air around vibrating like the rumble of thunder.
"I did," came a very faint whisper.
The Goddess heard it nevertheless.
"Valarien? Again?" She raised an incredulous eyebrow.
Valarien looked up sharply.
"Again?" he echoed, puzzled.
The Goddess relented.
"The first time, it was your heart that called," she replied with a gentle smile, "and now, you seem to be a little overmatched. I shall redress the balance no more. Ha! What's this?"
With thumb and forefinger, she delicately picked up the inert barbarian by the back of his jerkin and held him up to her face.
"What have you done with him, Valarien?" she asked with a slight frown.
Her face betrayed no emotion as the wizard haltingly explained.
"Perhaps I can do a little more," she murmured and blew gently over the dangling little figure that was Leon.
As in a gale, the spell paper blew away and the barbarian recovered his senses. He looked around in horror, gave a token struggle then fainted clean away. The Goddess gave a little chuckle that was almost human and returned him to his ship. Slowly, she faded from view, giving them an enigmatic smile as she did so.
The 'Oranna Farika' settled softly on the now calm surface of the ocean. For several minutes, no one either moved or spoke, being subject to a tumult of thoughts and feelings. Egan Shawlter, a man of little sensibility, was the first to snap into action, ordering his men to let out the reefs.
Leon moaned. Kai was beside him in a trice.
"Steady friend," he said cautiously, wondering in what state the barbarian would awaken. "How are you?"
Leon opened one suspicious eye and squinted at his companion.
"Kai?" he murmured doubtingly, then, "are we... safe?"
"For the moment, yes, I think so."
There was a vague look of incomprehension in Leon's eyes as he took in his surroundings for the first time.
"Where are we?"
"About half way across the Strait at a guess," Kai replied.
"We are at sea, then," he stated, just to get things straight in his own mind.
Kai gave a shaky chuckle.
"Oh, yes, we're at sea all right!"
It was a relief to find that Leon had returned to his former self, with no apparent traces of that which had possessed him.
He was, naturally, exceedingly disoriented, having passed from the nightmare visions of hell to a confrontation with the Goddess in what seemed to him like a matter of seconds. He soon absorbed the news of the missing portion of his life.
In an uncharacteristically serious mood, he was thanking Valarien for his spellbinding, when Shawlter sidled up to the wizard.
"I trust yer honour will overlook the men's little misunderstanding? Had they known you have the Goddess's favour "
"Of course - no harm done. How long before we reach - um - Barrachira?"
"As to that, I couldn't rightly say sir. Y'see, in the storm, we seem to have been blown off course - a long way off course. But if we keep sailing west, we're bound to make landfall somewhere - eventually."
As he spoke, there was a cry of "Land ahoy!" from the crow's nest.
"What?! Where Sandy?"
"Off the port bow, skipper."
"To the south?"
"We must've travelled even further than I thought, and rounded Snake's Head Point. Well, before we change course, I'd better find out where the devil we are. 'Scuse me, gentlemen."
"Any idea where we are - skip?" Leon asked the wizard.
Kai gave a crack of laughter.
"He hasn't changed, has he?"
Leon was unabashed.
"I know little of the lands to the north of the - um - Snake Mountains, save that they are known to southern folk as the - um - Untamed Lands."
"Great. The sooner we go about, the better, then," Ewan observed.
"Not necessarily, " Valarien said thoughtfully. "The Goddess said she would - um - redress the balance, but no more. She chose to set us down here, and - um - still facing west. If we go back around the Snake's Head, we will lose time and the - um - Dark Powers will have gained an advantage. No. I think we are meant to go on."
At this point, Shawlter scuttled out of his cabin like an agitated hen. "Sirs," he cried, "I don't know how to tell you this, but we have travelled over five hundred miles out of our way! It will take nearly a week to reach Barrachira now."
The wizard and the warrior exchanged glances.
"It would seem best to continue then," Kai said calmly, "and make a landing where we can. There must be some sort of settlement where we can dock. The Goddess would not have placed us here otherwise."
The captain looked much struck by this point of view.
"Right you are, sir," he agreed, "we'll follow the coastline then, until we can find somewhere to set you ashore."
By evening, they were sailing north-west, having left behind the ominous cliffs that bordered the northern edge of the Snake Range. The shoreline had become sandy and the land behind softer, tapering gently into unbroken lowlands.
Shawlter dropped anchor in the sanguine hope of finding a suitable haven on the morrow, though so far they had seen no sign of life other than seals and seabirds. Nevertheless, crew and passengers spent an enjoyable hour after supper, singing shanties under a bright full moon.
Before they retired for the night, Valarien gathered them all together in a circle on deck and, heads bowed in reverence, they gave thanks to the Goddess for their deliverance. Relaxed and almost happy, the travellers then retired to their cabin, hopes higher than they had been for weeks.
It is a sad fact that such buoyant spirits are almost invariably short lived. Mortals are not made for ease - to lower one's guard is to court disaster. So it was that the Sea-Wolves boarded the 'Oranna Farika' without resistance and had already taken captain and crew prisoner before anyone was the wiser.