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Authors: Licia Troisi

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BOOK: Sennar's Mission
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Nihal jumped forward and shoved him violently. “Run!” she yelled to Laio.

The man fell, then rose again quickly, cursing. But Nihal was too fast. She sliced off his hand in one motion and left him howling in the doorway of the crumbling cottage.

Laio had already made it to Nihal’s horse and climbed into the saddle. She quickly joined him and they took off at a gallop. But keeping up such breakneck pace was no easy task. Rain had made a mush of the ground, and in the dark, it was impossible to see where they were going.

A sharp whistling cut through the sheet of rain.

“They have bows!” Nihal shouted.

Laio prodded the horse, but it only stumbled forward. An arrow caught it in the hoof, and Laio and Nihal crashed to the muddy earth.

Nihal shot right back to her feet, but Laio was still moaning on the ground. The thudding footsteps of their enemies came on more rapidly, more insistently.

“Get up!” Nihal yelled.

“I can’t. My foot …”

Nihal tugged him up forcefully and dragged him through the woods, directionless. She slipped and slid and the thick rain blinded her. There was whistling again at their backs and then a torrent of arrows. Nihal felt a sharp stinging in her left shoulder and stopped short.

Laio was gasping for air, grimacing with pain. “You’ve been hit.”

The arrow had skimmed her, lacerating her skin. Blood ran from her shoulder. Nihal began to trudge forward again, pulling Laio by an arm. “It’s nothing. Keep moving.”

The forest seemed impenetrable, the Fammin ever closer at their heels.

Nihal plowed on through the bushes, branches lashing her skin, racking her brain for a solution.
What should I do, now? What?
Her arm was in terrible pain and Laio was in no condition to fight, but to continue fleeing without direction, with their backs to their enemies, could only mean disaster. By now they could hear their enemies panting behind them.
What should I do?

“They’re over here!” came the shout of a savage voice.

A throng of Fammin emerged suddenly from the woods and crashed around them like an avalanche.

Nihal fell forward, dragging Laio with her. She turned on her back, gripped her sword and pushed herself up by the elbow.
I don’t want to die!
She slipped, groped, fell again in the mud.
I do not want to die!
With rain lashing her face, she could see the Fammin’s deformed snouts descend upon her, their long, inhuman arms curled to attack, their axes raised and ready to maul. Lightning glanced off their fangs.

Nihal closed her eyes.
I don’t want to die. Not yet!

“No!” Laio shouted between his hiccupping sobs.

Her eyelids sealed, Nihal sensed a wild flash of light. The handle of her sword turned boiling hot. She opened her eyes. A silver force field surrounded her and Laio.

The Fammin bashed their weapons up against it and the force field began to vibrate, rumbling intensely.

“Nihal,” Laio groaned.

The Fammin continued delivering blows, snorting with anger, but the transparent shield was impenetrable.

The vibrations grew louder and louder. Below them, the earth quaked and trembled and the rumble became deafening, intolerable. Nihal and Laio covered their ears. The force field exploded.

At impact, a wave rippled outward with the force of a hurricane, carrying the Fammin with it. The monsters were thrown back several yards. Some were slammed against tree trunks and collapsed horrendously to the earth, their limbs contorted, their skulls smashed. Others disappeared into the black of the forest, overpowered by the thrust of air.

The forest was silent again. The rain thinned and tiny droplets formed on the leaves and bushes. Laio was pale, breathing heavily. “Nihal, what happened?”

She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “I have no idea.”

4
Storm

 

The ship made for open sea. The coast disappeared from the horizon. By now, Sennar knew, the die was cast. There was no turning back.

Of all the books Sennar had packed, not one provided clear information about the whirlpool. His most reliable source was a general’s account of an attempt to reach the Underworld one hundred years earlier, but even that was rife with inconsistencies. Written years after the actual journey, it was a hodgepodge of reality and fantasy, making it impossible to distinguish between the two. Sennar wasn’t at all sure how they’d reach the whirlpool, nor how many miles they would have to sail to get there. They needed to head due west, that was all he knew.

The faster the ship glided over the water, the tighter Sennar’s stomach knotted in apprehension.

Meanwhile, the captain seemed to be developing a certain respect for him, and even Aires began treating him with something like friendliness. Before long, Sennar had the sympathies of everyone on board, apart from the ship’s mysterious guest.

The first few days, the guest kept a low profile. He stayed tucked away in Aires’s cabin, where she went to him as often as possible. When he began to walk about on deck, he seemed a completely different person than the beaten-up prisoner they’d brought aboard. There was something precious about him: the long brown hair, worn in a thick ponytail, the intense blue eyes, the carefully groomed beard. His facial features± harmonious, but at the same time distinctly masculine—seemed to have been designed expressly to please women, and he seemed to take particular care with his dress. He wore brilliant satin shirts with billowing sleeves and finely wrought brocade waistcoats. Wandering about from one end of the ship to the other, he’d let his long, black, silken coat flutter in the wind, his hand at rest on the chiseled handle of his sword. Now and then he’d pause and gaze profoundly at the sea, enraptured by his own allure as a pirate. Whenever he passed Sennar on deck, he’d look at him askance. In the sorcerer’s eyes, the man was a perfect idiot, though the rest of the ship treated him with deference, never once complaining about the fact that he did nothing from dawn ‘til dusk. Evenings, Rool invited him to the captain’s quarters to drink and talk late into the night.

Sennar wanted to know more about him, and Dodi gladly complied.

One stormy night, the sorcerer wracked with seasickness, Dido shared the history of the ship’s newest passenger, relishing the details.

Benares, Aires’s lover, fought for many years in the army of the Land of the Sea. Their ruler, weary of the pirates’ raids, created a special division for fighting sea-robbers.

Before enlisting, Benares had done a bit of everything: artist, thief, merchant, bootlegger. Soldiering was just another way to get himself in trouble—his only real goal. Thanks to his ability as a swordsman, the army had taken him in with open arms, turning a blind eye to his questionable past. His assignment was to escort a store of gems from the rich mineral deposits found in the mountains of The Last Promontory, transporting them by sea to the eastern lands, where the stones would be refined. He liked the ocean at once, the life of sea crossings and sword clashes with pirates. Not to mention the effect it had on women. Though he wasn’t a sailor, he had a lover at every port. For an entire year, he roamed the seas without losing a battle. Until he met his nemesis.

One morning, Rool and his men attacked Benares’s army ship. Benares battled one crewman after another, routing them easily, until he came to Aires. Astonished by her beauty, he committed the most fatal of sins: gallantry.

“I don’t draw my sword against women,” he said with a practiced tone, “only my heart.”

In response, Aires slashed his uniform to pieces with a few flicks of her sword and lunged at him mercilessly. Benares was forced to unsheathe his weapon. After a violent duel, he soon found himself face-to-face with death, the blade of her sword pinned to his throat.

Aires took a long look at him, breathing heavily with fatigue, and slid her sword back in its sheath. “You’re too handsome to kill,” she said coolly, then turned her back and reboarded her ship in a flash. Benares watched as the red sails disappeared into the distance, knowing his destiny was aboard that ship.

He left the army and joined a band of pirates. Bold and reckless as he was, he built a reputation in no time. His name was heard in the taverns where the buccaneers gathered, and his fame as a great swordsman took hold rapidly.

Aires had always loved a challenge. There were times she’d even convinced her father to attack a ship already seized by other pirates, just for the thrill of proving herself in battle. Which is exactly what happened in the case of Benares—after months of cat and mouse, they found themselves face-to-face once again, on the deck of a galleon they’d both boarded.

It was a bizarre duel. Between jabs and blocks, he proclaimed his love for her, employing all the methods of seduction he’d picked up in his travels. She countered with her wit, sharper than her sword, and made a fool of him and his romantic declarations. Words failed her, though, when she found herself with her back against the wall. It was the first time she’d been beaten by a man in battle.

“Tell me you love me and I’ll let you live,” Benares whispered, his face nearly pressed to hers.

“I’d rather you slit my throat,” she shot back defiantly.

“As you wish,” said Benares, smiling. “But only after this.”

He pulled her head close and kissed her passionately. Aires, surprising even herself, kissed him back with equal fury.

From then on they belonged to one another. If they had found themselves competing to board the same ship, they wouldn’t have hesitated to slit one another’s throat, despite their love. Their passion was sporadic, limited to quick and unplanned meetings at sea or in the ports where they lay anchor.

Rool, meanwhile, wasn’t entirely convinced. The captain was a fierce and merciless pirate, but for his “baby,” as he insisted on calling her, he wanted nothing but the best, and he believed that only a man stronger than himself could be worthy of his daughter. He took Benares to be a fool, and their passion a childish whim.

As time went on, though, he was forced to concede—and when his opinion changed, so did the crew’s.

The king of the Land of the Sea, in taking up his personal crusade against piracy, had Rool at the top of his list from the very outset. The price on Rool’s head was enough to excite the greed of any man.

But that never troubled the captain. That’s just the way he was—cocksure, untroubled by danger, oblivious to all but the sea, his beloved ship, and Aires.

When they captured him, he was out of his element, on land, drinking merrily in a tavern. During the struggle, his drinking companion was killed and Rool was carried away in chains. They dragged him to a dungeon deep in the woods, where they planned to keep him until word of his disappearance had died down. After that, they’d have taken him directly to the king’s militia, and it’s not hard to imagine what would have happened then: a rope around his neck, his body dangling in the capital city’s main square, a warning against all pirates.

When news of his capture reached the ship, even the unshakeable Aires was thrown into panic. Rool’s capture had been coordinated by a famous bounty hunter, Mauthar. Mauthar had begun his career as an assassin-for-hire, ready to kill anyone for the right price. During one mission, though, he was caught, and he was offered his life in exchange for a change of occupation. The decision came easily. Of course, every major arrest for the next few years came courtesy of Mauthar. He was unstoppable. Nowhere, land or sea, was beyond his reach. His hideout, though, was on land, and that was where the crew of the
Black Demon
would have to go looking for Rool. At this point, as in the best adventure stories, the hero made his move. That very night, Benares was docked at a cove where Aires had anchored. Expecting a night of pleasure, he rushed over to his lover’s ship, but found her in tears.

Naturally, he offered to lead the group that would free Rool, selecting the best men from the two crews to form a rescue squad. They set off a few hours later, in the middle of the night. Once they’d scoured the alleys around the port for information, they raided the dungeon where the captain was being held and killed the bounty hunter and all his men. Rool was free.

With that, Benares earned the respect of Rool and his crew, not to mention the eternal gratitude of Aires.

Dodi was a truly fine storyteller. Sennar had listened without so much as breathing, even forgetting his seasickness.

“How’d he end up on the ship where we found him?” he asked, once Dodi stopped speaking.

“Simple,” Dodi replied, pleased with the success of his story. “Mauthar had done favors for plenty of friends, practically every scumbag at every port in the Land of the Sea. So after Benares freed Rool, he was a wanted man. They came for him at night, while he was anchored in one of our meeting places, a secret bay. No one had ever seen a force like that just to capture one man. When we rescued him, they were on their way to sell him to the military.

“To sell?”

“That’s the way it always is. Didn’t you know that? One man does the dirty work, the other pays and takes all the credit.”

“You should be a writer, Dodi,” said Sennar, when the story was over.

Dodi smiled. “You’ll see, sorcerer. Once I’ve earned my fair share as a pirate, I’ll write all my adventures and be even more famous than Benares.”

The night air grew damp. Sennar patted Dodi on the back and stood up, yawning. “I don’t know about you, but I’m off to bed.”

“Wait, Sennar,” the boy stopped him. “Can I give you a piece of advice?”

“Of course.”

“If I were you, I’d watch my back.”

Sennar looked at him, perplexed. “What do you mean?”

“Benares isn’t exactly thrilled about the little chats you’ve been having with Aires,” Dodi answered grimly. “And, since I’m telling you anyway, the fact that you convinced her to get involved in such a dangerous mission has him kind of suspicious.”

BOOK: Sennar's Mission
11.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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