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Dragonlands: Chapter the First

Mac O'Roni


     On land he was formidable: solid, powerful, and enormous, hulking head and shoulders above most others of the Kind, who were already as much as twice as large, on average, as their Human rivals. His mind for strategy and his battle-prowess were legendary. He was feared, respected, and loved by the men under his command. He had never shown a weak stomach for anything, in war, society, or politics.
     On land.
     He leaned far out over the water, clutching the rail with panicky tightness, gasping. He had not heaved, at least not yet, but it wouldn’t be long by the feel of things. We’ve been on this stinking tub for months now, he thought. Won’t I ever get used to this?
     Preoccupied as he was, he still heard Kiaran’s approach behind him. He raised his head, pushing his wet hair out of his face as he did. He tried to stand up straight but the ship lurched against a wave and he clutched convulsively for the rails again. He whined a little, deep in his throat, involuntarily.
     “Are you all right, Reis?” Kiaran asked.
     “I’m fine,” he said, but in the next moment the ship lurched against another wave and his stomach turned over. He gagged, sputtered, swallowed. His seasickness might be a big joke among the people but, by the gods, he would not throw up in front of the boy.
     Kiaran leaned back against the rail and flicked his damp white hair out of his eyes. For a moment, Reis envied him his nonchalance. Like most of the others on board, Kiaran had long ago become accustomed to the up-and-downs and side-to-sides of life on the sea. Reis had tried, tried very hard, but he just couldn’t adapt. Every time it started kicking up a little squall, he got sick. In the beginning, the slightest motion on the calmest seas kept him glued to the rails. He had finally gotten over that, but life on a boat would always be sheer misery.
     “Perhaps you should let Rhiannon give you something for this,” Kiaran suggested, not for the first time. Reis glowered at the churning black water below. “I know you don’t trust her, but she’s all we’ve got since Oleg…well, you know.”
     “It’s not that I don’t trust her, it’s that I don’t trust her magic. After all, she learned it from that posturing ass.”
     “It’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, Reis,” Kiaran said. “It brings bad luck. And however he may have lived, you know he died honorably.”
     Reis cocked an eye at the young man. “What do you mean, ‘honorably?’”
     “Well, he killed himself because he didn’t want his knowledge to fall into enemy hands.”
     Reis barked laughter. “Is that what he told you?” he asked, tossing his head in the general direction of the King’s cabin.
     Kiaran blushed and pulled himself up straighter. “I know how you feel about my father, but please keep in mind—”
     “I know, I know. Don’t lecture me on protocol, me lad, I’ve forgotten more about it than you’ll ever know. But the fact remains that the King isn’t in a position to know what happened. I am. I’m the one who found the cowardly bastard.”
     He thought about Oleg, the late and largely unlamented Chief Magus to the King. As slimy as a worm and twice as low, in Reis’s considered opinion. An opinion he had refrained from expressing only because of the charlatan’s close association with the kingship. Notably, his lips were stayed by respect for the offices of the King rather than the King himself. The ship lurched and shuddered again and his knees buckled, his swarthy face tinted with pale green. He shook it off as best he could and continued.
     “Oleg didn’t kill himself because we were losing. He killed himself because we were winning. The traitorous shit sold us out to the enemy, and he was afraid of what would happen to him. He knew I’d found out about what he’d done.”
     Kiaran gaped. “What? Are you sure about this?”
     “Yes, I’m sure. I knew someone was double-crossing us from the beginning, so I had men watching the Human’s camp. Oleg was careful, but not quite careful enough. One of my guys saw him sneaking in the night before he off’d himself and reported back to me. I was going to arrest him but he decided to take the coward’s way out.”
     “Why didn’t you tell my father of this?”
     “There wasn’t time. I had a battle to fight, you’ll remember, and it was too late to do anything about the spying bastard anyway. Up to the gods to administer justice at that point, I think.”
     “I suppose you’re right about that, but he should have been told later. I know I can’t teach you anything about protocol you don’t already know, but I think that’s a major breach of it.”
     “I’ve been breaching protocol for years. Soldiers who don’t know when to break the rules die young.”
     Kiaran shook his head, his mouth set in a thin line of disapproval. “Well, in any event, Rhiannon isn’t Oleg. She does have magic, and she has the healer’s touch. She’s already helped several who were just as sick as you. No one else is suffering like this.”
     Wanting only to ease the boy’s mind and send him away so he could be sick in peace, Reis said, “All right, Ki’, I’ll think about it.”
     The ship tossed against a succession of large waves, once leaning alarmingly to the port side, and Reis sank to his knees on the deck, still clutching the rails. Go away, kid, he thought. Go away so I can puke and have done with it.
     But Kiaran didn’t leave. “I don’t like the look of this weather,” he said. “It’s brewing up a big one, don’t you think?”
     Since he seemed to be looking for some kind of reply, Reis grunted. It was all he could manage.
     “What do you think?” Kiaran persisted.
     Reis took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I think,” he said, “that it’s high time these idiot sailors of ours started battening things down. Get ‘em started on it, will you, Ki’? Then get below decks with the others.”
     “Sure thing, Reis,” the boy said, sounding relieved. He left to relay the orders to the nearest group of crewmen. Reis struggled to his feet, held out until he was sure the boy was out of earshot, and vomited into the sea.


     “Damn it, get those sails tied down! And do it right this time, or I’ll pound you bloody and feed you to the damn sharks! All unnecessary personnel get below, on the double!
     “That means you, maggot,” Reis growled, shoving aside a young crewman who was struggling to secure a line. In a few moments he had the rigging tied down. Now that there was important work to be done the wild rocking of the vessel was incapable of sickening him, even though the boat’s motion was increasingly erratic. Wave after wave smashed into the little ship, crashing over the decks, swamping the struggling crew. “Who’s steering this damned thing, a blind man?” he shouted.
     As he finished with the rigging, he sensed someone approaching from behind. He spun to the left just in time to avoid being struck with a heavy oar, swung wildly by the young sailor he’d pushed away. His right fist shot out instinctively, slamming into the young man’s face, the force of the blow increased by the heavy iron band clamped to his wrist. The crewman flew backward and smashed into the gunwale. He crumpled to the deck, unconscious. Reis realized with a sick lurch that the “man” was really just a boy, probably no more than sixteen or seventeen years old.
     “Ah, gods damn it!” Reis shouted. “Somebody drag this idiot below!”
     There was no time to carry out the order. A thirty-foot wave broke over the railings and swept the young man’s limp body off the ship and into the sea.
     Reis’s actions, if impulsive, were not wholly ill-considered. He quickly tied a heavy rope to the mast and ordered several sturdy-looking crewmen to stand by, told them to pull him back when he gave the signal. He knotted the other end through the loop on the front of his iron neckband. Then he clamped his teeth down on the short end of the rope, thinking in some way to save his throat and ensure his knot, and jumped into the ocean.
     He went down at first, and the waves tried to keep him under. The iron slave-shackles on his wrists and ankles and around his neck fought against him, weighing him down, keeping him from the surface and blessed air. He struggled his way up at last and struck off swimming, using his own strength combined with the speed and power of the water to quickly overtake the unconscious crewman. The young man had been one of the few on board smart enough to be wearing a life belt, Reis noted, but he had strapped it on too low and too tight, and it was keeping him floating wrong side up in the water. He grabbed him, pulled him upright. The young man’s face was already turning blue.
     The water was cold. Reis could see his breath pluming white and frigid from his nostrils. If he didn’t get out soon they’d both die of hypothermia. Reis knew these waters had many ways to kill even the strongest of men.
     He could’ve kicked himself. Why hadn’t he thought to bring a second rope? There wasn’t enough slack in his own rope to secure the boy and it was too late to correct his mistake, if mistake it was. He clamped the young crewman tightly under one arm, trusting to his incredible physical strength. He doubted it would be enough.
     Reis didn’t want to trust the knot he’d tied so hurriedly, and didn’t fancy the idea of his own thick neck snapping with the force of being towed through the churning waters or even being throttled by his own shackles. He twisted the rope tightly around his free hand until the circulation was nearly cut off. His teeth, still clenched onto the thick hemp, grew strong, thick, and fang-like as he set his grip. His nose flattened out and his jaw muscles expanded, distending the lower half of his face. The exertion was so great and his concentration so focused that his round pupils retracted into thin vertical slits and his gray-blue eyes faded out until they were nearly all white. Even the color and texture of his skin changed as a strange by-product of his preparations. His dark tan faded out to a blue-tinged white and his flesh rose in hard ridges, as of tiny bones or scales erupting under the skin. He set his grip tighter across the sailor’s chest, paying no attention to the sharp sound of ribs breaking. Broken ribs were easily mended.
     He gave the signal; a piercing, ululating yell that came as much from his nose as from his closed mouth, and carried even over the sounds of the storm. He felt the rope grow taut, and then he was slowly being towed through the waves—losing ground one moment, and then making it up and more in the next interval between waves. The hand wrapped up in the rope was growing stupid from the backup of blood behind the tight coils and the strong muscles in his arm and shoulder were cracking and quivering as he neared the end of his considerable endurance. His teeth, deep-rooted and steel-strong, felt as though they would be pulled out of his jaw from the forces acting against his forward movement. Finally, as the fight to remain conscious in the frigid waters became desperate, he felt dimly as his body smashed into the side of the ship. He set his feet against the wood planks and began to help the men struggling to haul them back on deck, pushing against the side of the ship and walking up. The pain in his jaw increased, and he was forced to relinquish his bite. His feet kept slipping, and once he nearly lost his increasingly tenuous grip on the rope. If he had he would likely have found himself effectively hanged, but at long last he was dragged over the rail and flopped on the deck.
     He rose unsteadily to his hands and knees and shook himself off like a dog. He stood, swaying slightly, and realized he still had his hand wrapped up in the rope. The thick hemp had cut into his flesh and he was bleeding profusely. He dug the bulk of the fibers out and wrapped the wound with a strip of cloth torn from his shirt.
     The crew had fallen upon their unfortunate young comrade, beating the life back into him. He was slow to respond to their efforts. Through the pouring rain, Reis saw a rain-slick youth running up from below decks, slipping on the wet planking. He might have taken it to be a young man if not for the brilliant red hair that was unmistakable even in the dark and the wet. Rhiannon. Well, if she could help, let her.
     The clouds were breaking up now, the water settling. The worst was over. Nausea crashed back over him with the force of a blow to the guts.
     Reis staggered over to the bulkhead doors and called down the stairs. “All right down there?”
     Kiaran appeared at the foot. “Reis, we have troubles,” he said.
     “I had noticed,” he replied.
     “We’re taking on water.”
     “What? How bad?”
     “Bad. I’ve plugged it up as best I could, but it keeps getting worse. We’re sinking.”
     He clumped unsteadily down the stairs. “Show me.”


     “Your Majesty,” Reis said.
     “Yes?” The King lay in bed, dressed only in his cloak with his scrawny, naked body bare to the world, disdain and disinterest writ large on his face.
     “Your Majesty, the ship is sinking. We need to abandon.”
     “Nonsense,” the King said.
     Reis could not credit what he was hearing. “Excuse me, My Lord?”
     “We will not abandon. The ship is fine.”
     “My Lord, the ship is breaking up. It would be suicide to stay aboard.”
     “Nonsense. We stay aboard. This is my command.”
     Reis bowed slowly, his eyes never leaving the old King’s shrewish face. Without another word, he backed out of the chamber and closed the door.
     Kiaran met Reis at the foot of the stairs. “Should I give the order to begin loading the boats?” he asked, anxious.
     “His Majesty has commanded that we stay with the ship,” Reis said.
     “That’s suicide!” Kiaran gasped.
     “That’s what I told him.” He went to the bulkhead doors and called down the stairs. “Ladies, gentlemen, children, I beg your immediate presence on the deck. We will begin the evacuation of the ship as soon as the winds settle a bit.”
     Kiaran grabbed Reis by the arm. “What are you doing?”
     “What does it look like I’m doing?”
     “It looks like you’re disobeying a direct order of our King.”
     “That’s what I’m doing.”
     Kiaran let go and backed away, eyes wide. “That’s treason.”
     “I believe we discussed my views on protocol earlier.”
     “This isn’t like breaking some little rule, this is…this is…”
     “This is survival.”
     Reis spun around to face the boy, who flinched and retreated a step. “Listen, do you want to die? Because that’s what will happen to you if you stay aboard this rotten piece of—” He ground his teeth together. “Look, you saw what’s happening. The damned hull is splitting open. I don’t know if the storm did it or if it was just rotted out and going to happen anyway, but it’s going, and it’s going to sink. I don’t know about you, but I intend not to be on it when it does.”
     “But, Reis, what about…what about him?”
     Reis sighed and shook his head. He was exhausted, his stomach was churning, and he wanted nothing more than to get everyone off the ship and into the lifeboats so he could be miserable in peace. He was not relishing the idea of bobbing in the middle of the ocean on a ten-man boat, especially not while the waves were still cresting at as high as fifteen feet.
     “Listen, kid, I tell you what—I’ll go talk to him again, tell him what’s up, and give him the option to come along. No promises, okay? He’ll be angry with me for going over his head, and he’ll probably try to set the Guard on me. Except I’m all the Guard that’s left.” He laughed, another harsh bark of sound.
     “I want you to stay here, and wait for me. Keep clear of the rails. I don’t want you getting in one of those boats until I’m here to supervise. I don’t trust to the intelligence of these so-called sailors of ours to know what to do.” And he left to see about the King.


     "Your Majesty, I’ve given the order to abandon ship,” Reis said, without preamble.
     The King sat up. “What? On whose authority?”
     “On my own authority.”
     Red-faced, livid, the King stared. “Traitor!” he hissed through his yellowed ivory dentures.
     “The ship is falling apart, your Majesty. We cannot stay aboard. We simply can’t.”
     “Falling apart?” The King sounded amused. “The ship is falling apart? And why is it doing that? You don’t mean to stand here and tell me that this little blow has defeated the flagship of our kingdom?”
     “Your Majesty, this ‘flagship’ is a rotted-out wooden tub that was obsolete fifty years ago. If you’d allowed us to spend a little of that tax money you took so much of, we could have got a newer, better boat. Or maybe some of those guns and artillery the Humans used to destroy your precious kingdom and then we wouldn’t have needed—” He stopped, swallowed, took a deep breath. This was no time to rehash a dead political agenda. “The ship is sinking, believe it or not. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why. It’s not my job to know—I’m a soldier, not a sailor. I don’t know boats, and I don’t like them. But I know when my ass is in the fire, and this is one of those times. All our asses are in it.”
     The King stood, face crafty. “If I went down into the hold right now,” he said, “what would I find? A ship that’s breaking apart, or a ship that’s been scuttled?”
     “And how would this ship have got scuttled? There are no pirates out here. We haven’t even seen another ship since we started this gods-forsaken voyage.”
     “Who needs pirates when you have a traitor aboard? What did you use? The traditional iron spike? Or something else? Your bare fist, perhaps? That would be more your style, I think. A brute in all things.”
     "That’s shit, and you know it. I’d no more sink this ship than I’d kill my own child.”
     “Oh, but you don’t have any children, do you, Warrior? Or do you? A little bastard, perhaps, like his father?”
     Reis said nothing. The King advanced upon him, leering unpleasantly. “Don’t think I didn’t know already. I’m not so old and senile that I can’t see how much he looks like you, how much he is like you. Tell me, Warrior, how long have the two of you been plotting to kill me?”
     The faint green tinge in Reis’s face was entirely gone now, replaced by a violent red flush of rage. “You can accuse me of anything you want to, but that boy has never been anything but a good son to you, no matter how little you deserved it.”
     “That boy is just biding his time until he can take over. And when he does, you stand to gain a lot, don’t you? You can control him; you can make him do whatever you want. You can be the real power in the kingdom.”
     Reis began to growl, low in his throat. “I don’t have time for this shit,” he said. “Either you can come with us or you can stay here and drown.”
     The King made a feeble attempt at an attack, claws out. Reis grabbed his arms and turned him aside easily. The brittle snapping of the King’s left wrist was hollow and unenthusiastic, like the King’s howl of pain. He hunkered over, cradling his limp hand, weeping. “Don’t screw with me, old man,” Reis said. His voice was deadly calm. “I didn’t come here to fight with you, and you don’t want to start. Believe me, you don’t.”
     The days of the great Warrior-Kings were long gone, and even in his prime this King had never been a fighting man, but perhaps some of the forgotten fire of his legendary sires burned malevolently in his heart. As Reis leaned down to help him to his feet the King lashed out, raking the claws of his good right hand down the left side of the Warrior’s face.
     Reis roared in pain and surprise, and before he could stop himself his traitorous fist had flown and the old King was sent flying to smash against the tall, ornately-carved wardrobe. He crumpled to the floor, eyes open and staring, a thin, ragged line of blood trickling down his chin from the corner of his mouth. Reis didn’t even bother checking for a pulse. He knew a dead man when he saw one.
     He left the King’s quarters and headed back to the deck to see to the evacuation procedures. Kiaran would be angry and upset with him, he suspected, but for the moment at least he didn’t really care. The kingdom, or rather what was left of it, would not be the worse for the loss of this king. Besides, he was already beginning to feel seasick again.


     His dismal mood did not improve when he reached the deck. The sailors seemed to be having an altercation with someone about getting into the lifeboats. “What the hell is this all about?” he demanded, tiredly.
     “She won’t get in the boat!” one of the crewmen said.
     “I want my books,” Rhiannon said. Rhiannon. He should have guessed. That girl had been nothing but trouble since the day she was born.
     “My dear, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this ship is sitting an awful lot lower in the water than it was twenty minutes ago. Do you know why that is? I’ll tell you why: it’s because it’s sinking. We do not have time for you to get your books, and we wouldn’t have room for them in the boats if we did. By now, they’re probably under water anyway. Now be a good little girl and get in the boat.”
     “Don’t you talk to me like that.”
     Reis sighed. “Like what?”
     “Like I’m a spoiled child throwing a tantrum.”
     “Aren’t you?”
     She threw her head back and crossed her arms across her bosom. “No, I’m not. I am a maga, a learned-one, a witch. I’m also the only one left among the miserable dregs of this kingdom. Those books are important. We need them.”
     “But we don’t need this,” Reis said. “I told you, we don’t have time, and they’re probably ruined already. Get in the boat.”
     “Come on, witch—get in the gods-be-damned boat.”
     “I will not.”
     “Then you leave me no choice.” He picked her up, ignoring her shrieks of indignation much more easily than the small, hard fists pounding into his much-abused shoulder, and plunked her down in a mostly-full lifeboat. “Cast off,” he ordered, and the crewman manning the little vessel obeyed with alacrity.
     “Reis, where is my father?” Kiaran asked. Reis turned to look at the boy. For a moment he felt a terrible urge to tell him exactly where his father was, and mastered it with difficulty.
     “I’m afraid he’s dead, Ki’. I’m sorry.”
     “Dead? How?”
     Reis gestured to his bloody face. “He attacked me. I didn’t mean to kill him, but that’s what happened. He should have known better than to attack me, and I should have known better than to hit him that hard, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it now. What’s done is done.”
     Kiaran nodded, but there were tears standing in his eyes. Reis put a hand on his shoulder, more than half expecting the action to be resented. But the boy didn’t try to shake him off. He merely said, “I hated the son of a bitch.”
     “You had every right to,” Reis said, as gently as he could manage. “Now get in the boat, your Majesty. There’s a good kid.”
     Reis helped the young King into a lifeboat, and then saw to it that the last of the people were loaded up, along with the last few sailors. He was the last man off the ship. “All right, let’s get out of here,” he said, and they cast off.