Rain … Wind … Thunder … Lightning … Tentacles … Screams … Creaking wood … Crashing waves … Shipwreck …
Fathum Rojbac remembered only pieces of his recent history when he awoke, a phantom fire ravaging his gaunt, cocoa-skinned frame.
“Shh, be still!” scolded an unfamiliar voice in Traveller’s Tongue as he tried to move and whimpered in agony. “You are wounded. You need rest.”
“Where am I?” moaned Fathum in the same tongue, barely able to open his eyes thanks to the needling meagre light.
“You are in my home,” the voice told him. “The home of Prralla.”
Prralla cared for Fathum for he knew not how long, tending him back to health with salves, leeches, incense and bandages. His broken ribs, torn skin and the thousand splinter-wounds he had accrued slowly healed over the course of weeks.
“What are you?” he asked Prralla as soon as he could talk, his words weak, only coming out after he drank some water so cold it stung his lips.
“Prralla and her people are Skavyri,” Prralla explained, cocking her furry, ginger-furred head and regarding him with almond-shaped tawny eyes, while her catlike ears and whiskers twitched.
She resembled nothing more than a five-and-a-half-feet-tall cat able to walk on its hind legs. Like all Skavyri, she spoke in purring, sibilant tones. Her home, in which she was nursing him, was a shallow, rugged cave carved into a cliffside, entered by way of a narrow winding crack.
“Skavyri?” Fathum repeated, trying to prop himself up on his elbows on the golden-brown furs that served as his bed and failing. He shook his bald, stubbly head and then regretted it when a gonging began behind his eyes. “Never heard of you.”
“Where are you from?” Prralla asked, framing each word carefully.
“Chilpaea,” murmured Fathum, laying back down and closing his eyes. “Where am I now?”
“Men call this country Al Kutz,” purred Prralla.
“Good,” mumbled Fathum. “I came here to find my father and the Egg of Xachajya.”
“Where is Chilpaea?”
“Far, far south of here.”
When he recovered enough to venture outside of Prralla’s cave, Fathum learned that she was one of a large community of Skavyri living in caves in the mountains north of the country men called Al Kutz. Foraging and hunting in the mountains, he soon learned, was far from easy. Instead, when he was able, he made his way down to the base of the mountains by the sea each day, at first to fashion a fishing rod from the debris of his shipwreck and then to begin to attempt to rebuild his shattered vessel.
Smashed on the rocks by the tempest and the Gods alone knew what else, the old lateen-rigged dhow was stuck on a jagged boulder, flapping with the movement of the lapping waves like a flag in the breeze. Her sail torn, her hull punctured, she was in a sorry state. Fortunately, most of the debris had washed up on shore along with the ship. So, he began the laborious process of rebuilding the vessel. It proved that the Skavyri were excellent finders of lost things and that they already had a collection of nails and wood that were next to useless to them, for they built no homes. Fathum thanked the Gods the cat-people had been scrounging materials from shipwrecks over the years, just in case they ever needed them.
Soon, he was not alone. First, one Skavyri – a young male named Shava – joined him in his efforts to rebuild, and soon others tagged along with them both every morning, intrigued by Fathum’s foreign ways and friendly nature. Soon, he had all the help he could want and the rebuilding process was flying by faster than he had ever expected, for the six-foot Skavyri were fast and strong as panthers. Within a month, the dhow had been lifted off its boulder and fully repaired on the safety of a small beach nearby. The rebuilding had become Fathum’s entire life; he slept in a cave near the beach, and soon Prralla relocated to join him. When it was finished, he lay with her in his cave, stroking her soft fur and listening to her purring.
“The ship is ready,” he said at last, “and you know what that means. I have to resume my journey. Legend tells of a mysterious island north of here where the Egg can be found. I have to find out what happened to my father.”
“I know you do,” she said quietly, lying in his arms. “But why do you both want this egg?”
“It is not just any egg,” said Fathum. “It is the Egg of Xachajya, said to be the most powerful good luck charm in the world. There are many theories about how it was created – that it has been since the dawn of time, that it is a crystallized Dragon egg, that it is a Nymph egg, that it is a sorcerous object fashioned by powerful wizards or forged by the Gods themselves … none know for sure. Whatever its origin, it is said that the Egg grants its bearer incredible good fortune such that they could sail through a storm or fight a thousand foes without a loss. That is why my father set out in search of it. It is worth fortunes, and he already had a buyer for the Egg arranged in Chilpaea. The problem is that he took money from the buyer in order to prepare for the trip. Now, the investor thinks him dead and wants to claim his property and assets as collateral. I told him it was foolish to sign such a contract … So, I had no choice but to leave and find my father. If I do not find this Egg, his life’s work will come to nothing. Of course, I pray I will find my father, too.”
“What is your father’s name?”
“I hope you find him, dear heart.”
Fathum hesitated, but he had to ask. He had to know. “Will you come with me?”
The words hung in the air, and the cave throbbed with palpable tension as he held his breath and awaited the answer. His heart thudded so loudly he thought for a moment he was hearing distant drums. His whole body throbbed with nervousness.
“You want me to go with you?” she asked softly, gazing up at him.
He stared down into her tawny eyes. “I do.”
“Then, I will come,” she said simply, and his heart skipped a beat, flooding with relief.
He felt abruptly giddy and grinned like a boy. “Thank you, Prralla. D’you think any of the others will want to come? I will need some help sailing the ship.”
Prralla nodded. “Skavyri do not like water. But some will come, I am sure.”
“Should I ask the Mouser for permission, d’you think?”
Prralla thought about this, then shook her head. “No, I do not think so. The Mouser is old. He will not understand. It is the youths who want to go. No, ask Shava. Ask Doprr. Ask those you think will come – and no others.”
Fathum frowned. “Why? D’you think the others would try to stop us? Would the Mouser stop us from leaving?”
Prralla nodded. “Yes, they would. So, we must leave as soon as possible.”
So, over the next couple of days, Fathum secretly asked those Skavyri with whom he had become friendly whether they would care to accompany him on his voyage north, promising them adventure and incredible sights such as they had never seen before. Shava agreed immediately, and Fathum was able to coax most of the others to an accord, for they were young and feckless. One, however, stubbornly refused on the second day, and so on the third day, Fathum, Prralla, Shava and almost a score of Skavyri rushed to the beach in the morning at high tide with rations and provisions, desperate to get underway lest he who had refused had tattled on them to the Mouser, the cat-people’s leader. Their concern was justified.
As they were shoving the ship down the beach, they heard the Skavyri crying out above them, their words intermingling with the seagulls’ squawks. Ignoring the cat-people coming for them with wooden spears, Fathum and his friends propelled the dhow into the water and debouched with all haste. Then, they gazed back at the cat-people lining the shore, sombre beneath a slate sky. Fathum waved, and some of the Skavyri tossed their spears at him, only for the weapons to fall short and plunge into the ocean.
“I do not know if we will be welcome back,” said Prralla softly, and Fathum put his arm around her.
He had to teach the cat-people how to sail as they went, and so everything became twice as difficult and took twice as long. Nevertheless, he had managed to instruct them on the basics before the elements brought another storm to plague him. Inwardly, he cursed Merejulanna, Goddess of the Sea, for beleaguering him with such tempests again and again, but he knew it was simply her capricious nature. He roared out orders to the Skavyri amid rain and thunder, and they bent to their tasks with a will, terrified of drowning. Once clear of the storm, they tacked north, soon leaving Al Kutz behind entirely and gliding smoothly through an uninterrupted expanse of blue that glistened both at night and during the day, reflecting sun and moon, sunrise and sunset.
Fathum tracked their progress and trajectory with a simple device called a kamal made from wood and string, using it to judge their position relative to the position of the stars at night. He taught Prralla how to use it, focussing her attention on one particular star, the brightest in the moon-bear constellation. The seas were smoother once away from the coast, and Fathum felt a degree of peace steal over him as it had not since he had last seen his father. He was among friends at last, setting out on his heart’s quest, and he was happy.
Soon, he could no longer remember what that felt like. By the time they had been at sea for two weeks, they felt stranded in the blue, their supplies and water dwindling. With chapped lips and dry, peeling skin, Fathum could scarcely keep his eyes open. Their fur ragged, their eyes listless, the languid cat-people fared even worse. So it was with a glad heart that they finally espied a blot on the horizon.
“Land ahoy!” called the lookout in the eagle’s nest atop the single mast, just as Fathum had taught him.
Spotting it, Fathum yelled hoarsely, “Bring her about! To port! A few degrees to port!”
Unfurling the sail and tacking into the wind, the Skavyri soon had the dhow racing for the lump on the dim horizon just as dawn touched the ocean with gold. The blot resolved into a lump, the lump into a mound. As they approached, though, they saw that a league offshore, there floated an odd crust on the sea. By the time they could make out mountains and forest and beach in the distance on the land, they could also make out a strange sight in the middle of the ocean. The crust proved to be a small, vaguely circular town floating on the waters, rickety wooden houses floating on rafts tied together. Boats were docked on every side of the strange little civilisation.
Fathum and his crew saw people staring at them from the raft-town as they neared, olive-skinned people with predominantly dark hair, all dressed in patched clothes. Now that he would be seen by humans once more and not the always-naked Skavyri, Fathum began to once more feel the anxiety of civilisation creeping up on him as he looked down at the ragged loincloth that was all he wore. Nevertheless, he shouted to the sullen-looking folk as they neared, requesting permission to dock in Traveller’s Tongue.
“What are those creatures sailing with you?” a big, middle-aged man with a black beard and a hanging gut shouted back, fingering a simple straight sword at his belt.
“They are Skavyri!” Fathum replied, cupping his hands around his mouth. “They are civilised! They mean you no harm!”
“You may dock,” yelled the big man after a moment, scratching his gut through his threadbare tunic. “But bring neither weapons nor mischief with you into our village, you hear?”
Fathum agreed, and he and the Skavyri carefully manoeuvred the dhow into position alongside the raft, so that they could disembark. They were immediately confronted by several big men reminiscent of the first, each armed with a blade.
“Did you leave your weapons aboard?” grunted the first big man who had spoken, crossing his arms.
Fathum nodded. “We did. Thank you for letting us dock. We seek only a little trade, perhaps some information if you have some.”
The big man eyed the Chilpaean up and down, then growled, “Come. You look thirsty. We can discuss this further in the village hall.”
Fathum had never been thirstier, and so he readily acquiesced. The Skavyri, however, were blocked off and waved back by the sword-wielders.
When Fathum looked questioningly to the big man, he said, “I’m sorry, my friend, but we cannot allow so many dangerous-looking creatures to run around the village freely. I have my people to consider.”
Fathum gritted his teeth, but he well understood. For those first encountering the Skavyri, it was difficult to see past the fangs and claws. So, he bobbed his head, assured Pralla and the others that everything would be fine and followed the big man.
“What is your name?” Fathum asked.
“Johesh Jal Skrata.”
“Pleased to meet you, Johesh Jal Skrata. I am Fathum Rojbac.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure, Fathum.”
Johesh and a handful of warriors escorted Fathum to the village hall, which proved to be nothing more than a slightly larger shack than the rest. Slim windows let in the daylight and the gulls’ caws and let out the odours of salt and musk. Inside, Fathum saw a hall full of young, brawny men with cold eyes eating scraps of fish from wooden bowls, and his heart sank. He could sense more and more what kind of man this Johesh was, though the man had spoken scarce few words to him. A village hall should have been a place for counsel and wisdom; the only wisdom Fathum thought he would find there was the wisdom of the ignorant. Johesh sat in a large chair set on a slight dais at the far end of the room, a throne of splinters. Fathum stood before him like a beggar petitioning a king, his teenaged pride chafing at the imagery. He tried to quash his emotions; he needed to find out what had happened to his father.
“So, Fathum Rojbac,” Johesh rumbled once settled – using his deepest, most theatrical voice, Fathum suspected, “what brings you to the floating village of Carpwater?”
“I have come seeking word of my father, village leader,” Fathum explained, adding a vague honorific and wondering whether he should mention the Egg or not. “I believe he passed this way in search of a … treasure, of sorts. His name was Donneum Rojbac. I would ask only that you tell me – have you met anyone or heard of anyone by that name?”
Johesh nodded knowingly. “A treasure of sorts, you say. Of course. You would be referring to the greatest jewel known to mankind, I presume. You would be referring to the Egg of Xachajya.”
He waved a hand, and one of the men in the hall swept a rag off a wooden pedestal to reveal an egg about a foot long that looked like it had been made from a thousand tiny jewels stitched together. It sparkled almost blindingly brightly in the daylight streaming in through the windows for a moment as Fathum ogled it, before Johesh waved his hand again and the man covered it up once more. Fathum’s heart was cartwheeling in his chest; he had found the Egg, which meant there was a good chance he had found his father.
“Yes,” he whispered, “that is what my father sought.”
Johesh nodded knowingly, then rose and beckoned for Fathum to follow him, leaving the hall once more through a side door. “Come,” he said without looking back, while his men pressed Fathum forward with their presence at his back, “there is something I would show you.”
Fathum followed the man to the far side of the raft-town, the side closest to the shore in the distance, and there he gagged at the spectacle laid out before him. Covering his hand with his mouth, he averted his eyes while his stomach lurched sorely. Lined up along the edge of the raft-town was a series of vertical wooden spears. Dried blood encrusted them, for impaled on each spear was a severed human head.
“This,” said Johesh grimly, watching the Chilpaean retch with satisfaction, “is my collection. My collection of men and women who have sought to steal the Egg from me over the years. None have succeeded. If your father was among their number, this is where you will find him. You may take his head if you find it for last rites. Then, I want you out of my village.”
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