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Authors: Elaine Cunningham

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BOOK: Tangled Webs
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Liriel tied the loose end of the harpoon’s rope to a winch and attached a float to the line. The rope was not all that long, but she didn’t think she’d have to go very far to find the shark. She’d taken the first fish not far from the ship. If this shark was like any of the other predators she knew, it would be drawn by the scent of blood.

The drow plunged in again, dreamily imagining the look on Ibn’s face when he hauled up her catch and came face-to-fang with this shark ofhis.

Liriel swam quickly toward the site ofher first kill, taking a slightly different path downward. She was more at home in the water than were most drow, but she knew she was out of her element and kept careful watch. The image she’d taken from Ibn’s mind-the sight ofher own mangled body-was still vivid.

The drow’s only warning was a flash of silver on the outermost edge of her vision. Instantly she whirled, the harpoon on her shoulder and ready to throw.

To her shock, Liriel found herselffacing not a shark, but a young male elf-the first nondrow elf she had ever encountered.

The faerie elfwas every bit as strange and alien a creature as she’d been taught to believe. His short-cropped hair was green, and his skin was mottled with a silvery green pattern that seemed to waver with the movement of the water. There were gills, like those of a fish, on his neck, and delicate webbing between the fingers of the hand that gripped a ready spear. He was no taller than Liriel, but he was well made and he held his weapon with the air of one who knew its use. Yet he did not strike. He merely stared at the drow with openmouthed astonishment.

Liriel was equally dumbfounded. Oh, she knew that some elves lived in water, and she wasn’t particularly surprised to encounter one. What amazed her was that he did not attack.

From her earliest days Liriel had heard tales of the bitter enmity all the fair races of elves held for the drow. Defeated and forced underground many hundreds of years ago, the drow could expect nothing but cruel death at the hands of the faerie elves. Why then the hesitation in this one’s hands and the curiosity in his eyes?

A sleek gray form sliced through the water toward the distracted sea elf. Liriel shook off the moment of immobilizing shock and hurled her harpoon. The weapon tore past the elf, less than a handbreadth from his mottled face.

The water directly behind him exploded into a churning mass. The harpooned shark struggled and thrashed, but moved inexorably upward as Ibn hauled on the line. Although Liriel would have dearly loved to witness the mate’s surprise, she had another problem to consider. A second sea elf, this one with long hair plaited into kelplike strands, swam to his comrade’s aid. The elves flanked her, spears poised for attack.

Clutching the Windwalker, Liriel called upon her innate drow magic to conjure a globe of darkness. Black water instantly enveloped all three elves. The drow used the impenetrable darkness-and the moment of surprise—to make her escape. With the speed and agility for which drow were famed, she twisted in the water and darted to one side. Not quick enough. A sharp tug jerked her head painfully back as a spear tore through the strands of her floating hair.

Liriel’s first impulse was to kill both of the sea folk. Indeed, a dagger was in her hand before the thought had fully formed. Put the first male elf, the curious one, had not attacked. Of that Liriel was certain. He did not look like one who would throw and miss. And she had been virtually unarmed, unable to turn aside a thrown spear. Fyodor would not have attacked under those CIrcumstances either. There was something in the elf’s eyes that reminded Liriel of her friend’s steadfast honor.

The drow found that she had no desire to finish the battle. Her lungs burned with the need for air. She swam toward the starlight, keeping careful distance from the still-struggling shark, and leaving the sea elves to their own domain.

Aboard the Elfmaid, all was going exactly as she’d hoped. Ibn was at the winch, cranking furiously. He glanced up when Liriel climbed over the rail, but his face gave away nothing of surprise or disappointment. Suddenly, the drow felt weary of intrigue. She accepted the blanket Fyodor offered her and then strode over to the first mate. Pulling a dagger from her leg strap, she quickly slashed the rope that tethered the wounded shark to the ship.

“Don’t waste your time,” she said in response to Ibn’s incredulous stare. “I don’t mind killing a shark, but I don’t think I’d care to eat one. The thing reminds me a little too much of some people I know.”

Her remark caused a passing Hrolf to pull up sharply. “Sharks? Now you’re hunting sharks, lass?” He looked the shivering drow up and down. “And in these waters! A strong man could die of the cold. Why did none of you warn her?” he bellowed, looking to his mate for an answer.

Liriel brushed aside the question. “Hrolf, I’m afraid the ship might be under attack. I saw two faerie elves, waterbreathing males. There might be more.”

“Sea folk? Here?” the captain asked with obvious surprise. The drow nodded. “We fought.”

“You fool female!” Ibn exploded. He bore down on Liriel, shaking a clenched fist. “You’ve bought us trouble, that’s sure.”

Hrolf waved the man into silence. “Did you hurt them, lass?”

“She did not.”

The words were spoken by a new voice, definitely male but high in pitch and soft as the wind. There was no sign of the speaker, but Hrolf’s face lit up.

“Xzorsh!” the captain cried happily. It was an odd word-a click followed by a sibilant zzorshhh-but it flowed off Hrolf’s tongue with familiar ease. The captain snatched up a rope ladder and draped it over the side of the ship. “Come aboard, lad, and welcome you are!”

Liriel’s eyes widened as the green-haired sea elf climbed aboard. She knew Hrolf to be a rogue, but could he be on good terms with one of the wicked sea faerie? Obviously so. The stranger bowed low to the captain, his webbed hands spread palms-up before him as if to indicate he was unarmed.

“I come with a warning, Captain Hrolf,” the elf said in grave, melodious tones. “There is a disturbance in the lower seas. The deep dwellers are rising, forcing lesser predators into bold and desperate attacks. Did you not see the sharks?”

“Some of us did,” Liriel said, tossing a quick, arch glance at the first mate.

“I know you sea folk aren’t fond of sharks,” Hrolf commented, “but they’re no threat to the ship. And the creatures from the depths come near the surface every spring.” “Not all do,” Xzorsh said soberly. “No vurgen has been seen near this area in my lifetime, yet since the last new moon I myself have seen three.”

Hrolf stroked his beard thoughtfully. “That is odd,” he admitted at last. “Vurgens are rare.”

“Well, I’ve certainly done my part,” Liriel put in dryly. Her remark surprised a bawdy chuckle from Hrolf, but his face abruptly sobered as he returned to the matter at hand. “Giant gulper eels, lass,” the captain explained, “big enough to swallow a man whole and mean enough to bash small ships to driftwood with their spiked tails. Vurgens are bad business-make no mistake about that-but they’re worse omens. Seems as if they come up only when theyre chased by something even bigger.”

“That is my fear,” Xzorsh agreed. “Sittl has gone ahead to warn the sea folk community nearby.”

“Sittl.” Liriel folded her arms and glared at the sea elf. “That would be the male who tried to skewer me, I suppose.” “Don’t take it personal, lass,” Hrolf advised cheerfully. “The sea folk believe that your kin had something to do with their loss of magic-seagoing elves don’t have any, to speak of-which naturally puts drow on their list of things to look out for. And that’s what Xzorsh and Sittl do. They look out for the sea folk who live hereabouts.”

“And for the Elfmaid, as well,” put in Olvir, one of the crew. Until Fyodor’s arrival, Olvir had been the ship’s main storyteller. Though the man listened more than he talked these days-so eager was he to learn the new and wondrous tales that the young Rashemi offered-he was quick to jump in whenever an opening presented itself.

“Captain Hrolf is unnatural fond of elves, he is, seeing as how he had him an elf woman some years back. Well, about twenty years past, we come across a pair of Calishite vessels in the shallows, net spread between ‘em. Seems theyd herded some young sea elves into the nets, planned to sell ‘em down south as a curiosity. Hrolf now, he wasn’t having any of this. A good fight, it was,” Olvir noted dreamily. “Scuttled both the ships, we did, and fed the southern bastards to the shrimp.”

“I was one of those young elves,” Xzorsh said with quiet dignity. “I will ever remember this, as will my clan after me. The runes on the bottom of the Elfmaid identify her to the sea folk as Hrolf’s vessel. We are pledged to protect him and all his crew.”

The sea elf’s eyes drifted to Liriel as he spoke, and his troubled expression said plainly that he was uncertain about the wisdom of including a drow in this pledge.

As well he should be, Liriel thought grimly. She would never forget the atrocities faerie elves had committed against her people, nor did she trust this particular male. For a long moment, the two elves regarded each other with wary curiosity.

“You could have killed me, but you did not,” Xzorsh ventured at last. “You… you are not at all what I might have expected.”

His words, and their puzzled tone, mirrored Liriel’s thoughts exactly. The last things she would have expected from a faerie elfwere mercy and honor. Yet Xzorsh spoke of a pledge as something so strong and immutable that his people would regard it with the pride a drow might give an inherited title. Liriel saw several possible explanations for this disparity: either the dark elves had misunderstood the nature of the faerie-or more to the point, had twisted the tales to their purpose-or this Xzorsh was naive beyond belief.

Either way, she did not know how to respond to Xzorsh’s question. Liriel had no idea what stories the sea elf had heard about drow, but she was willing to wager that they hardly did justice to the evil and treachery that was her heritage. So Liriel merely shrugged and turned her gaze out to sea.

The sight before her stole her breath. Without a word she dove toward her pile of discarded clothes and weapons. Hrolf had seen it, too. On the dark water, there were twin circles of reflected moonlight. The problem was, the sky held but one moon.

The captain roared orders to the crew as he lunged for the harpoon rack. He snatched up an enormous bolt of wood and metal and hauled it back for the throw. Before he could hurl the weapon, a long, silvery tentacle whipped forward and snatched it from his hand.

A spray of dark water exploded upward like a fountain as the creature burst from the waves. Its huge, bulbous head gleamed silver, and countless tentacles churned the water to keep it afloat. Two of the creature’s arms spread wide and slapped against the starboard hull. There was a wet, sickening slurp as hundreds of suction cups found purchase.

“The eyes!” shouted Hrolf, pointing toward the bulbous orbs, each bigger than a man’s head. “Shoot for the eyes!” A storm of arrows rained toward the creature. Not fast enough. The enormous squid seemed to understand Hrolf’s words, for as soon as he’d spoken, it sank below the waves to protect its vulnerable eyes. It did not loosen its hold on the ship, though, and the vessel rolled sharply to one side as the creature pulled it along. Liriel-along with most of the crew-was thrown to the deck.

She skidded along the wooden planks and slammed into the lower side of the ship with a force that sent sparkles of pain along her spine. The drow wriggled free of the tangle of sweat-scented limbs and frantically looked around for Fyodor.

He had somehow managed to keep his footing and was clinging to the mast lines with one hand. His naked black sword gleamed in his free hand, and his booted feet were planted wide on the sloped deck. Despite the danger, he appeared utterly calm. A faint smile curved the young warrior’s lips, and he seemed to take on height and power before Liriel’s eyes.

The battle fury was beginning.

Liriel let out a whoop of exhilaration. Fyodor’s berserker rage was wondrous to behold, and she relished the prospect of seeing it unleashed upon a single, easily recognized enemy. He knew the crew now, and at any rate there was little danger that he could confuse a Ruathen fighter with a giant squid. She rolled onto her hands and knees and began the uphill climb to her friend’s side.

Hrolf, meanwhile, was scrambling up the deck toward the port rail, shouting the names of several others to follow him. The men struggled upward, throwing their weight against the far side in an attempt to balance the faltering vessel. But the giant squid sank still lower, pulling the Elfmaid inexorably along. Frigid water sloshed over the starboard side.

A probing tentacle reached over the low rail and curled around one of the sailors. The squid lifted its thrashing victim high, then smashed downward into the crew. Again the tentacle arched up. This time the man hung limp in the squid’s grasp. He made an effective bludgeon for all that, and with the second strike the screams of the injured mingled with the groaning protests of the battered ship.

As the squid raised the man for a third attack, Fyodor’s sword traced a downward arc, cutting the lower end of the mast line free. Clinging to the line with one hand and suspended from the tilted mast, the young berserker swung out toward the water. He slashed at the flailing tentacle as he passed, severing it in a single blow. The captured sailor dropped heavily to the deck, still belted by a length of the writhing, silvery appendage.

The impromptu pendulum reached its outer limit, and Fyodor began to swing back toward the ship. To Liriel’s astonishment, he let go of the rope well before he cleared the side of the deck. Holding his sword firmly in both hands, point downward, he fell directly toward the giant squid.

Fyodor landed on the creature’s head, and the force of his fall drove his blade hilt-deep into the base of one of the tentacles gripping the Elfmaid’s hull. The berserker began to wrench the blade back and forth, tearing an increasingly wide gash.

This attack seemed to confuse the squid. Other tentacles rose from the water, slapping out wildly in an attempt to dislodge the human. Fyodor continued to tear through the clinging tentacle, unmindful of the powerful blows that the squid occasionally managed to land.

BOOK: Tangled Webs
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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