by Wendy N. Wagner
Chapter Three: Fires by Day
Jendara followed Tam's light, feeling the cave's blackness like velvet pressing against her skin, her nostrils. She wanted to run outside before the cave smothered her. But she couldn't stop thinking of that horrible wail. It wasn't Kran—he could make a few sounds, but none so loud or carrying. She reminded herself of that fact again and again.
It still made her skin crawl.
"Remember," Tam called over his shoulder. "Keep an eye on the person ahead of you. The floor of these places isn't always—"
His voice cut off in a scream and his light disappeared.
Jendara darted forward. "Tam!"
"Jendara, stop!" Vorrin shouted.
She froze. By the glow of her lantern, she could see the sudden drop Tam hadn't. The tunnel opened into great mouthing darkness that her lantern barely began to light. "Are you all right?"
"My arm's caught." Tam grunted. "Caught bad."
Vorrin knelt beside her. "I can wrap a rope around this bit of stalagmite, lower you down. Be some work getting the two of you up again, but I can manage it."
Jendara held her lantern over the cliff’s edge, getting a glimpse of Tam's red hair about seven feet below her, just above the floor of what must be a vast cavern. The cliff broke up into long fingers of rock at the bottom, and he hung from the crotch of the two tallest. Jendara shook her head. "Damn, that's ugly. Let's do this fast before he loses an arm."
Somewhere in the darkness, the wail sounded again. Jendara felt gooseflesh prickle as she passed her length of rope to Vorrin.
"Make a good knot when you join those."
He brushed his fingers down her cheek. "The best."
She didn't watch him tie the two ropes together or wrap the rope around the rock, just moved her lantern out of the way and rubbed dirt into the palms of her hands. She didn't need any sweat to make climbing harder.
Vorrin wrapped the rope around her waist and tied it tight. She clambered over the cliff edge, and after only a moment's climbing could hear Tam's pained breathing below her. He was too much the islander to groan or whimper—the raw rasp of his inhalations was as bad as a scream. But there was no way to climb faster. No light, no ladder, just her fingers and toes searching out purchase on the cracked rocks.
Suddenly Jendara's palms went sweat-slick. Her fingers slipped off the narrow handhold, and for a sickening second she swung from the end of the rope, her face scraping the cavern wall.
"Jendara!" Vorrin yelled.
Then her foot found a hold, a rock spur of some kind. "I'm okay!"
And wished she'd been quiet as a frenzied barking sounded out in the darkness.
"Gods," Tam groaned. Jendara could see what he saw, a brightening in the distance like flickering torchlight. She thought of the goblin dog scat on the boat and climbed faster.
The bottom of the cliff came as a surprise. Now that she was down, Vorrin's hands were free to hoist the lantern, lighting up Tam and the rocky ground.
The goblin dog's snarl echoed off the walls of the great cavern. Jendara loosened the rope from her waist and stretched on tiptoe to work it around Tam's. His breathing was just tiny gasps now. Every ounce of his body hung from the pinned arm.
Jendara locked her arms around his thighs, grunting as she lifted him up out of the vise. A horrible squeak choked in his throat, and the big man went limp. "Damn it," she whispered. She could only hope he'd regain consciousness soon. She couldn't get him back up that cliff on her own.
Pressing herself against the rock that had gripped him, she pushed off again, getting a little higher. Tam coughed and wriggled. Suddenly all his weight was on Jendara and she staggered.
"Vorrin, he's free!"
"Islander, pirate—but most of all, mother."
The light disappeared, and after a second some of the weight came off Jendara.
Behind the rocks, the goblin dog shrieked. Jendara stiffened as she heard a sound she knew only too well, the dry scrape of air moving in a throat that had never spoken. Kran's strange laugh.
She pushed Tam back against the cliff face, propping him against the wall. She could smell the blood seeping from his scraped and mangled shoulder. "Be right back, friend."
Then she was off. She wished for her own lantern, but guttering torchlight guided her forward, as did a cacophony of sounds: the hollow wailing, a clatter of stones, the hideous sounds of goblin speech.
A goblin dog lay twitching on the cave floor, the end of a very familiar pocketknife jutting out of its eye socket. Its rider had rolled free, and swung a torch around its swollen gray head to block the volley of rocks Kran lobbed at its face. One goblin, alone. Jendara grinned to herself and felt for her belt axe. She could handle one goblin scout and a dead dog.
The belt axe soared through the air. The wet thud of it sinking into the goblin's skull was like music.
Kran dropped his rocks and ran to the dead dog. He jerked his knife free and began to cut at the black pack on the dog's back, which wailed and wriggled. Jendara reclaimed her axe and jogged to his side.
It was no pack, she realized. The glossy black hide belonged to a bear cub, a cut seeping blood along its side. She held its paws as Kran struggled to cut the last of its ties. The white blaze on its nose triggered prickles on the back of her neck.
A grizzly rampaging last night. An island under attack this afternoon.
A goblin scout here right now.
"We've got to get out of here." She tucked the bear cub under her arm and grabbed Kran by the hand, racing for Tam and the only way she knew out of the cave.
"Vorrin! Hurry up!" she bellowed. She didn't wait for him to begin pulling. She slapped Kran on the butt and urged him up the cliff, scurrying behind him. One-handed, weighed down by the bear, she still made it up before Vorrin finished hauling Tam.
They worked together to half-drag Tam out of the tunnel and down to the beach. By the time they hit the sand, they could see the goblin torches flickering at the mouth of the cave, brighter than the faint orange of sunset over the sea.
"How did you know there were more?" Vorrin asked.
"The bear," Jendara grunted, shifting Tam's weight against herself. "The goblins must have scared it last night when they took to the caves. The attack on Black Bay Island was a distraction."
Oric jerked awake from his post on a washed-up log. "Wha—"
But Jendara cut him off. "Run back to your village. If there's trouble, let us know."
His eyes were huge as he nodded and dashed away.
Jendara could already smell smoke. Her stomach sank as they rounded the headland. Flames stained the sky. Oric stood frozen, staring at his burning village.
Behind them, goblin riders whooped and cheered.
Jendara passed her son the injured bear cub. "Kran, run to the Milady and arm yourself. Help the crew protect the docks. And take Oric!"
The boy looked pale, but did as he was told. Jendara smiled up at Tam. "I sure hope you can fight left-handed."
He gave a weak laugh and took up a fighting stance. Jendara felt heat course through her veins, the ice that gripped her all day melting away. She rubbed the tattoos on the backs of her hands and chuckled to herself.
"Little bastards don't know what they're in for."
Jendara stood beside the mound of goblin dead and waited for Vorrin to pass her the torch. Her arms ached with exhaustion, but she felt proud: proud of herself and the people she'd helped defend. A group of women stood close by, and at least one smiled at her. She'd forgotten that, whatever other duties the women of the islands might have, they could still fight. They weren't so different, she and them.
A great roar came up from the docks as the villagers cheered for their returning kin. But many minutes passed before Jendara made out the shapes of the returning war party, and even in the moonlight, she could see a grimness in their approach. The man in front led a shorter figure on a rope.
Oric jumped up from his seat beside Kran. "Father! You're home!" He dashed toward the men but stopped as the torchlight revealed the scowl on his father's face.
"What happened?" Morul growled. "Smoke fills the sky above the island. We found this filth looting the tavern on Black Bay. And all the village gathers here to make a bonfire?"
Vorrin handed the torch to Jendara, and she held it a moment above the goblins. "Not just any bonfire. While you fought the fires on Black Bay Island, the main goblin troop prepared to attack your village under the cover of darkness. They would have succeeded, too, if not for our sons and their furry friend here."
Kran hugged the bear cub, who made a sleepy grumble.
"Bears? Boys? I don't understand."
The wise woman stepped forward. "Know that we only lost one building—the meeting house—and have only two wounded. Jendara and her people helped greatly."
Morul tugged the rope lead hard enough to send the small, dirty man at its end sprawling. "And what of this trash?" Gorg groaned from the sand, but didn't move.
Jendara smiled. "I have an idea." She beckoned to Morul and, when he joined her beside the bonfire, murmured quietly for a moment.
He looked from the cowering Gorg to the villagers to the pile of dead goblins. And then to Jendara. "You truly are Erik Eriksson's daughter, aren't you?"
She laughed and lit the bonfire.
Vorrin watched Jendara finish tucking the blankets around a sleeping Kran and a snoring baby bear. He waited for her to close the cabin door behind her and join him on the deck. The night was clear and the stars brilliant.
Jendara could tell he wanted to say something—something meaningful and true about the day, about helping the village women fight off the goblins, about finding Kran, about everything they had done. But he knew better. Instead, he settled for standing with her and grinning as they watched a small boat row out of the harbor. "Nice of Gorg to chip in like that. Glad he didn't have any hard feelings after that beating we gave him."
"You'd think he'd need his ship, but it was thoughtful of him to leave it to the village for rebuilding materials." Jendara laughed, then sobered.
She reached out to the grizzly fur, still sitting on the deck. "You know, it's funny how this bear saved so many people. If the goblins hadn't driven her out of the caves, she would never have lost her baby or attacked Yul's sheep. Kran wouldn't have followed his ears down into that cavern. Right now, we'd be sailing for the mainland, and a lot of people would be dead."
"That's some bear." Vorrin studied the moon a moment. "Are you disappointed that we missed the tide?"
She shook her head. "No. Not one bit. It felt nice tonight. Like being part of someplace. Like having a home."
He reached for his pipe and lit it, puffing until the coals glowed red. "You know, when we get done selling this load, maybe we should come back here. It'd make for a nice summer harbor."
Jendara looked sideways at him. "You saying we should tie up for summer?"
He puffed the pipe again. "There should be a place we can take the ship for repairs and supplies. A place to let Kran get his land legs. What do you think?"
She nodded, and felt herself begin to smile. Behind his pipe, Vorrin was doing the same.
Neither of them had used the word "home." But for two retired pirates, it was a pretty good first step.
Coming Next Week: Scaly adventures in the Sodden Lands in Ari Marmell's "Hell or High Water"
Wendy N. Wagner is the author of short stories in such anthologies and magazines as Armored, Way of the Wizard, Rigor Amortis, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. She is a regular contributor to inkpunks.com, and can be found online at winniewoohoo.com.
Illustration by Florian Stitz.