Authors: Nancy Springer
Sea King Trilogy, Book Two
Two there were who came before
To brave the deep for three:
The rider who flees,
The seeker who yearns,
And he who is king by the sea.
Two there were who came before
To forge the swords for three:
The warrior who heals,
The hunter who dreams,
And he who is master of mercy,
He who has captured the heart of hell,
He who is king by the sea.
I was dreaming of Tassida, her startling dark eyes and willful brows, her strong warrior's body, her small, tan, pink-tipped breasts. Well remembered, those breasts. Kor and I had torn her clothes off, frantic, searching for a wound, and found instead a young woman where we had expected a boy.â¦ Much as I ached to, I had never touched Tassida's breasts, never courted her in any way, not by so much as a kiss. But sleeping on soft grass under a midsummer moon, I dreamed that she came to me. For some reason it was all right, now, for me to love her. She came in her proud way and laid herself atop me, and I caressed her breasts, kissed them, nuzzled them with my faceâ
Cold. That could not be true of Tass. She was all warmth, blazing heat even, passion's fire within her.
Cold as icy seawater! She stared down at me ghoulishly, teeth bared, her handsome head turning to bone, as if she were long dead and rottingâ
I awoke with a panicky jolt to find that I could not move. A cold and heavy presence lay on me, holding me helpless with its weight, enveloping me in fishy folds, pinning my arms where it had found them. One hand lay trapped at the breasts. Yes, by Sakeema, the thing had breasts, huge ones, hard and chill, and my face was wedged between them so firmly that I could scarcely breathe. And the smellâKor had not mentioned the smell. It was subtle, but fearsome, the very smell of horror, a womanly smell gone evil. And slime, threatening to choke my nostrils. But slime was the least of my peril. Down in the area of my chest and belly I could feel speartip teeth and a strong sucking force. Like a starfish on an oyster, the monster had its maw wide open, and it was working to devour me.
It was worse than any demon dream. I struggled, trying to thrash about, trying to kick away six feet of breasted body and fleshy, rippling wing atop me, and the thick, snakelike tail that wound tightly around my legs. But even in strength of desperation I could not move, fainting, there was not enough airâcould not remember who I was, the devourer was turning me intoâotherness, taking me within. I would no longer beâbeâ
I was Dannoc, Dannoc, Dannoc.
I was horse tamer, skilled archer, storytellerâDannoc, son of Tyonoc, who had been king of the Red Hart Tribe. My father had been bested, but, Mahela be cursed, I would not be taken by any minion of hers! Hatred of what had been done to Tyonoc made me suddenly rock hard and calm. My breathing quieted, became shallow as I willed myself into a sort of trance. Merely enduring was the worst of tasks to me, for I far preferred to strike. But I had to endure until dawn, when the devourer would be forced to loosen its gripâand perhaps then I would have a blow at it.
Bowels of Mahela!
Even as I learned how to withstand the demon, it lifted off me and attacked in a different way.
Furling itselfâthose hard, swollen dugs shot out streams of cold liquid and collapsed. I caught a glimpse of a single great eye in the moonlight, and then the thing stood head down and upright, folded into a shape like a stubby arrow with the maw at the fore, fastened just below my ribs like a huge leech. It thrashed its flattened tail, swimming in air as an eel would in water, boring into me, mindlessly set on possessing me one way or another.
“No!” At least I could cry out, for all the good it did me. None at all.
I struggled to rise, to throw it off, and only gave myself more sickening pain, for the monster held me pinned to the ground with its great weight crushing into my gut.
Who was I? I could not remember my name!
Dannoc. Strong and tall. Dannoc, son of Tyonoc. A devourer had done this same thing to my father and turned him into a living, walking shell, demon-possessed by the evil thing hiding within. If that should happen to me, if I should then betray Kor as my father had betrayed meâ
I could see Kor, my comrade. It had to be him, lying by my side, though another of the swaddling gray-skinned monsters hid him from head to foot. Only one hand lay free, curled on the grass.
He would be well enough. He was a king among his own people, Korridun, son of Kela, a wise king with many powers, and he had survived the devourers before. For me, it was the first time, and I was failingâI felt self slipping again. The thing was besting me, and I would kill my body before I let a devourer take it and turn it against those I loved.
Sakeema be thanked, at least I could move my arms. Sword and knife lay in the grass beside me, and I reached for the knife, groaning with the agony of the movement, which forced teeth yet deeper into me. Such weapons were of no use against devourers, I had been told, slicing through them as if through water, leaving no mark. Therefore I meant the knife for myself. Made of sharpest obsidian, it would find its way quickly to my heart, I hoped.â¦ Kor's hand, lying near the weapons. He had made me this same promise, to kill himself before he let himself be possessed. Kor, my friend like no other â¦ Hardly thinking anymore, hardly knowing who I was or what I was doing, I reached beyond knife and sword and gripped his hand, just to say farewell.
His fingers curled around mine, and strength surged through me.
Strength as of four warriors, ourselves and two out of the past. A high courage, so joyful, so effortless it could sing. I sat up, shouting out loud, and aimed a hard blow at the devourer with my fistâbut already it had let go of me, had unfurled, was flying away. The other joined it, the two of them rippling away like the flat, stinging fish that live on the sandy bottom of the sea. For a moment the capelike shapes of them shadowed the moon, and then they were gone, and Kor was sitting up, blinking at me.
“Thanks,” he said.
He thought I had handbonded to help him. I snorted, spraying slime, scraping slime from my face with my fingers, and his dark eyes widened.
“There was one on you, too? Dan, are you all right?”
“Of course,” I said. “I just reached over to lend you a hand, weakling that you are.” He had been fighting off foes both human and monstrous since he was a boy.
By then he was kneeling by me, staringâthere was blood all over my chest and belly. “Great Sakeema,” he whispered, and without ceremony he emptied a skinful of water on me. I sputtered, but he was intent only on washing away the blood, seeing the wound. “Great Sakeema, Dan,” he whispered again.
“It very nearly had me,” I admitted.
“You will not be riding for a while.” He brought bandaging, passed the lambswool strips tightly around my body. I sagged against the binding, for my surge of strength had passed and I was beginning to feel weak and sick. “What happened?” Kor demanded. “I would have thought, pigheaded as you areâ”
I was not too weak to glare at him in protest, and he grinned.
“Stubborn as you are, you should be proof against devourers.”
I flushedâperhaps he did not see it in the moonlight, but he must have known, for he was Kor. “I was dreaming,” I mumbled. I would not say of Tassida, for he loved her, she was his by a bond I scarcely understood, part of his kingship. He was the reason I would not court her.
“Oh.” He smiled, though not to mock me. “A dream of the sort in which the cock lifts his head.”
I merely grimaced, mortified, remembering how I had been pinned with my right hand at the breasts, the left one down by my bird.
“So the creature had a goodly hold on you before you awoke.” He wadded a blanket by way of pillow, eased me down onto it. I lay there and let him wash my head and hands. A smell as of death still lingered on me, and I shivered. Kor brought another blanket to cover me.
“I keep telling you, Dan, tunics have their uses. Leather vests, even.” He was trying to rouse me by teasing. Red Hart born, I went bare-chested nearly always, even in the wintertime, and on this fine summer's night I had not been covered by so much as a fawnskin. But Kor, being of the Seal Kindred, had the sense, as he put it, to keep himself warm. I reached out with one hand and pulled up the woolen shirt the Herders had given him.
“Not a mark on you,” I said, and his smile faded.
“Luck was with me. I had the blanket up. The monsters are mindless.”
Being of the Seal, he slept under blankets and furs. Being of the Seal, again, he had a skin of seashell tan and dark hair cropped like fur, as dark as mine was sunbleached bright. My eyes were sky blue, his the deep gray-green-brown of vast water. He was nearly as tall as I, and nearly as strong, but deft, so controlled and contained as to make me feel oafish.
None of it mattered. We were brothers.
We had done it with swordcuts and a handbond beside a visionary pool, only a few days before. The cuts on our fingers were but half-healed, and the handbond had been tested for the first time this night, and had saved me.
Kor brought wood for the fire, blew embers ablaze. King he might be, but I knew he would nurse me like a mother until I was well. I knew without words that he would stand guard over me for the rest of the night. Yellow light of flames made me shut my eyes, and I dozed.
I awoke after sunrise, blinking up at tall pines and snowpeaks and the heady blue of mountain sky. My fanged mare, Talu, was ogling down at me and breathing a vile reek, stench of carrion meat, into my face. Her flaccid nose seemed uncouth, huge. Peevishly I reached up to push it away, groaning with even that slight effort. Talu gave a snort of scorn and walked off, tail swishing, to hunt a nest of asps up among the rocks. There was nothing she liked better to eat than snakes.
Kor came over, laid a hand on my forehead. “How do you feel?”
“Why do you ask?” I retorted, querulous. He knew well enough that I was wretched, for he felt it himself. He felt the passions of all whom he knew well when he was waking and near them. My sorrows, my joys, my sufferings were all his as well as mine while we traveled together. A mixed blessing; for my illness made him miserable as well.
“I ask to annoy you,” he snapped.
“Well, how do you think I feel?”
“Rather less strong than thin soup.” He sighed, giving up spleen. “There must be some sort of venom in the bite of the devourers.”
“Lovely,” I muttered.
“Something to make the victim weaken. I always felt weak and sick for days afterward, and maybe not just from self-pity.” He pulled down the blanket and had a look at me. My wound was still oozing.
“Sit up,” he directed, helping me.
Unsteadily I sat while Kor undid the bandagingâhe wanted to look at the injury in the light. He made me lie flat as he pulled apart the lips of the puncture to see how deep it was. He was gentle, as always, and I had thought I would be strong and silentâa pox on silence. I screamed with pain.