By the Grace of Disfara
Maleth had neither size nor significance to be surrounded by walls. Various roads led into the town, with most traffic entering from the south. A pittance of farmland and pastures provided food for the inhabitants along with a few other goods; beyond that, most survived on the fish brought in from the sea. It was hard to see why there would ever be caravans moving between this settlement and Alcázar except for one reason. Maleth lay close to the treacherous straits known as the Teeth. Passing through those waters rather than circumventing them allowed swift movement of goods between Adalmearc and Alcázar and avoidance of taxes. As a result, the islanders patrolled the Teeth, but the lure of riches proved stronger for many a smuggler.
Situated a few weeks north of Alcázar, Maleth was the furthest end of the Kabir’s reach. In normal times, a small garrison was stationed here, mostly to raise the flag of the falcon; since the smuggling of weapons, iron, and timber had been convenient in the past for Alcázar, the garrison had no orders to interfere.
As Brand and Jana approached the town, they found the situation had changed. Scores of tents were raised beyond the outskirts of buildings. Hundreds of soldiers milled about, including a good number entering or leaving the town. Looking towards the sea, several war ships could be seen.
“Are they starting the invasion?” asked Jana.
“I doubt it. Not enough ships present for that. Besides, winter is upon us. I think they have missed their opportunity.”
“This is how you came to Alcázar?”
Brand nodded. “On a boat sailed by less than savoury characters.”
“Can we trust them to take us across?”
“We cannot use their services,” Brand explained. “They do not dock in this town, but on the coast. I am not able to find them again on my own, and given my lengthy delay in returning to Maleth, I doubt any of my contacts remain.”
“So what do we do?”
Brand took a deep breath. “We find a fisherman whose poverty is greater than his will.”
They moved in a circle around Maleth to enter it from the north, where activities and soldiers were fewer in number. Jana rode on the horse while Brand held its reins, giving the impression of a married pair of travellers. Each time they passed any soldiers, he disguised his limp as best he could. They walked almost by the coast, seeking to reach the docks as soon as possible.
The weather was cold, and the wind came from the sea with a strong bite, giving them an excuse to keep their hoods up. They passed one group of fishermen’s wives after another, tying and repairing nets while giving the travellers sharp looks. Brand continued as fast as his leg allowed.
They reached the piers; Maleth only had a few. One had the expected assortment of fishing boats. On the other, great ships intended only for war lay moored on either side. The keels were too deep and the design too slender for a galley; they were built for the open sea and to transport men rather than cargo. On the deck of the nearest war ship, the two travellers could see plenty of soldiers and sailors; the latter did work on the vessel, the former kept sharp watch.
“Let us go,” Brand mumbled. Still with the mare in tow, they walked down the pier, drawing eyes; Maleth had few horses, and never on the pier.
“Who are we looking for?” asked Jana.
“A smaller boat. The fewer onboard we must convince, the better. While I realise how callous it sounds, we should look for one who seems desperate.”
They walked slowly while surveying their possibilities. “There. Four boats ahead to the right, the small one. An old man and a boy. They only got fish in the one basket,” Jana pointed out.
“Good choice.” They approached and witnessed the fisherman and his helper, aged around fifteen, push a basket of fish onto the pier. In the boat was another basket, empty. “Good catch?” asked Brand.
“Could be better, could be worse,” replied the old man. He gave a stare at the horse and their travelworn clothes. “If you’re travelling on horseback, I think you’ve come the wrong way.” He glanced towards the end of the pier and the ocean beyond.
“We seek passage on a boat,” Brand explained.
“I’m a fisherman, not a ferryman. Besides, no place here worth sailing to. You got a horse, you might as well ride.”
“Not if we wish to pass the Teeth,” Brand elaborated with a lowered voice.
The fisherman’s expression became guarded. “That’s a fool’s journey. If the storms don’t sink you, the shallows will. And if you get past the shallows, the patrols will get you.”
“We pay in gold,” Jana added.
“None in this town got gold unless by dishonest means. I don’t want coin with blood on them. I suggest you get going before I call some of these soldiers over.” He nodded in the direction of the war ship behind Brand and Jana. Already, some of those onboard stood at the railing, observing them.
“We do not offer coin nor dishonest pay. The gold is my wife’s jewellery,” Brand claimed. Jana took his hand, moving closer to stand by him. “The horse is yours as well. We clearly have no further need of it.”
Indecision danced across the old man’s face. “It’s too risky,” he declared. “This boat is all I have to leave my son.” He glanced at the boy. “If we wreck, I’ll leave him, his mother, and his siblings to starve.”
Brand withdrew the last of Jana’s jewellery from an inner pocket. “If he sells the horse, along with this, your son can buy a new boat, nets, and have more to spare.”
The old man stared at the gold glistening in the sun. “We need provisions,” he finally spoke. “It’s a long journey.”
“We have,” Jana told him. “Both food and water.”
“Abbi,” spoke the boy. “We will sell the fish. We don’t need more.”
The fisherman looked from the gold to his son. “Get ashore.”
“Abbi, what will I say when I come home?”
“Let my boy have the horse and gold,” the old man said. Brand did as requested. “I expect you want to leave now.”
“Yes.” Brand glanced over his shoulder. Soldiers were approaching from the other pier.
“Tell your mother I’ll be back when I can. Go, boy, now. Before anyone asks questions,” the father bade his son. Looking worried but acting obedient, the boy stepped onto the pier. A quick exchange followed as the saddle bags were emptied of provisions and Brand’s sword, while Jana’s remaining jewels went back in. “Help us cast off.”
Wiping his nose with a despondent look, the boy did as he was told once Jana and Brand had stepped into the boat. Brand took a seat by the oars while the fisherman used a pole to guide the vessel away from the pier. Once they were free of the other boats, he let the sail unfurl. Quickly, the town of Maleth began to shrink behind them; on the docks, a boy holding the reins of a horse watched them sail towards the horizon.
Once clear of the harbour, they set a course to follow the coast north. Their boat was small and unable to brave the open waters, should the sea get rough. Conversation was sparse and revolved mostly around rationing their provisions. For two full days, they sailed north until the cliffs of Ealond began to loom in the far distance. Tall and unapproachable, they formed an impenetrable wall against the sea, giving the same protection as the Langstan afforded on land. With this landmark to steer by, the fisherman adjusted the sail, catching the wind from an angle on a slow course west.
With the wind less amenable to them in this direction, they took turns rowing through the day. Each night, they pulled the sail down to lower the risk of being blown off their course. The boat did not afford them much room to serve as bed. The fisherman, experienced to this, slept in a sitting position in one end, leaving the bottom of the hull to his passengers. With cloaks to soften the ground and each other for warmth, Brand and Jana slept curled together.
On the fourth day, they saw the end of the mainland. Where the coast ended, the Teeth began. Countless tiny islands and reefs rose from the sea; their brethren lay hidden under the water as sharp rocks that would tear wood apart with ease. Many a vessel, either for the sake of riches or desperation, had been chewed to pieces by the Teeth; driven by the latter reason, their boat now approached.
The wind picked up, blowing stronger northwards, and they were forced to pull down the sail. One at the oars, another had to sit at the stern with a long pole, constantly scouring the path ahead.
“I can’t take you much further than the Teeth,” warned the fisherman; it was his turn at the pole. “The food won’t last beyond that. As soon as we find a place to beach on the mainland, that’s it.”
“Very well,” Jana responded; Brand was busy at the oars. “We will make our way from there.”
“I don’t know what you’ll find there, but I reckon your husband knows the land.”
“He does. Well enough, at least.”
“Right then. I don’t want to leave you stranded, but I can only take you so far.”
The old man hesitated while moving the pole back and forth like a pendulum, protecting the full width of the boat. “You paid me well enough not to ask, and you seem like gentle folk, so I won’t speculate. I don’t know if you’ve been forced to run from your home or that’s where you’re going – I suspect with a pair like you, both could be true.”
Jana breathed slowly. “We make our home wherever we go.”
“Right, right. I just meant to say, I’m sorry if it’s ill fate that drove you on this journey. I hope you reach a good end.”
“I am sure we shall.”
“It is getting dark,” Brand warned from his seat.
“We’ll drop anchor,” the fisherman assented. “Let’s sleep. Another day or two, and I reckon we’ll find our beach.” They did as agreed, letting the anchor steady the boat for the night and seeking to their humble beds. Around them, the wind blew harder.
The rain woke them in the night, attacking them like pebbles striking the skin. The boat rocked, and the waves pushed, stretching the anchor rope to its fullest. “We have to get ashore,” yelled the old man; the howling gale drowned most sounds.
“To do so, we must raise the anchor!” Brand called back. “That will set us adrift!”
“The rope looks ready to burst,” Jana interjected. “We may not have much choice.”
“Drifting in this weather, we are more likely to run the boat aground,” Brand retorted. “And any of these reefs we may climb onto, they will be flooded by tide and rain.”
“Then we are no worse off than now,” argued the old man. “I’ve sailed my whole life, this is my boat! We do as I say,” he declared loudly. “Pull the anchor!”
Wind and rain whipping his face, Brand did as commanded with reluctance. His arms grabbed the anchor rope and began pulling. Immediately, the boat swayed heavily, and Jana grabbed one hand onto the railing, the other onto Brand’s belt to steady him. The fisherman meanwhile had grabbed his pole, trying to push against the sea bottom to steer the boat; they were in shallow grounds, for now. As lightning and thunder appeared, it became clear the storm was only increasing.
The waves began to rise taller and taller, tossing their boat about. Any attempt to steer was futile; they had no further influence over their fate. The ship cracked and groaned, pressured by strong waves and pushed against the rocks. Water sprayed over the ceiling, drenching them and filling the bottom of the boat.
The clouds parted, letting the moon illuminate the waters, but it gave them no aid; all three were clung to the boat as it tossed about. One arm around the plank that served as a seat, Brand had his other hand against Jana’s wrist; she likewise had hers secured around his. The wind had pushed her hood down, and her black hair, though heavy from rain, flowed behind her like the long leaves of a willow tree. She turned towards him, and he saw the droplets on her face shine with moonlight. Her eyes held fear, but her grip upon him was strong.
“Disfara, I beg you,” Brand whispered through the shrieking storm. “Me, but not her.”
The harsh sound of metal striking wood reached them. They all turned their heads in every direction, frantically searching for the source. It was the railing. Two grappling hooks had sunk their fangs into the planks. Like a phantom sailing out of legends, a ship appeared. It was slender and long, allowing many men to row an oar, while the keel was shallow, letting it navigate the waters of the Teeth. Shields lined the railing, and hardened men, warriors as much as sailors, filled the seats. The sail was lowered in the storm, but atop the single mast flew the raven banner of Thusund.
The hooks pulled the fishing boat to the longship, and hands were extended to help Brand, Jana, and the fisherman cross to safety. Tying the smaller vessel to trail after the bigger, the islanders resumed pulling their oars, ignoring the threats of the storm. One of the sailors approached Brand, pointing at his sword and gesturing for it to be relinquished. Hesitantly, Brand acquiesced.
“You speak northern tongue?” yelled the man in Suthspeech.
“We do,” Brand responded.
“Good. I am captain of this vessel and have been charged by King Leiknarr to protect these waters. You will stand trial and answer for your unlawful presence. Sit tight,” he suggested. “The storm will continue a while.”
“Where will you take us?” asked Brand. “To Dvaros?”
The captain shook his head. “Too far. We go to Fortönn. Now sit! There’s nothing you can do but shield yourself from cold and rain. It would be foolish if sickness killed you after all the trouble we had,” he said with a grin, leaving them.
By his side, Jana pressed up against Brand. “What happens now?” she asked.
Moving closer to her as well, Brand looked ahead. The ship had turned to sail west. “I do not know.” As the howling winds continued, the pair entwined their arms around each other and shared the little warmth they had. With the oars pulled perfectly in unison, the longship ploughed swiftly through the waves towards the kingdom of the thousand isles.