Sword of The Quest
A Wolf Slayer Saga #3
Captured by pirates, Valka the Wolf Slayer is sold into slavery then battles as a gladiator in order to survive. Purchased by a great spiritual master, he undertakes a quest to re-capture a magical emerald stolen by the Black Brotherhood. Accompanied by the Shield Maiden, Aquila, and her band of women warriors, Valka battles his way across a blazing desert and into a black mountain of sorcery where the jewel is kept. He faces psychic attacks, an army of bloodless ghouls, a wave of poisonous serpents and a deadly labyrinth. But his most dangerous challenge comes when he confronts the emerald itself and faces the irresistible lure of the gift it offers.
At the sound of the captain bawling orders to his crew, Valka opened his eyes. He had spent the night dozing against the gunwale with his sword cradled in his arms. Heavy mist hung like a shroud over the cove where they moored for the night and dripped like silver moss from the yardarm. The sun peeked over the eastern mountains and shot long beams of light through the dense fog, giving the atmosphere an eerie, almost surreal luminescence.
“Get that anchor stone up,” the captain bellowed, and two seamen leaped to the gunwale. The muscles ridging their shoulders and backs rippled and rolled as they hauled up the great stone.
Cupping his hands around bearded lips, the captain called out, “Get your lazy asses moving, and climb those rat-lines. Get that sail unfurled!”
Four Nubian sailors, garbed only in loincloths, scampered like monkeys up the rope ladders to the yardarm, where the linen sail had been furled for the night. Untying the hempen lines securing it to the cypress-wood mast, they dropped the boom, and with a crack like thunder, the sail spread out in the morning breeze like the wings of a great sea bird.
Grabbing an unkempt weasel of a man by the neck of his soiled tunic, the captain threw him in the direction of the stern, where Valka was just rising to his feet. As the little man stumbled past Valka, the captain bawled, “Grab that steering oar, you worthless whoreson, and guide this boat past the rocks edging the mouth of this cove.”
Garbed only in black leather trousers stuffed into high-laced boots, carrying his sword in his left hand, Valka ambled forward until he was abreast of the captain. “Good morning to you, Captain Barka,” he said amiably. “How goes it this dawn?”
Dragging his eyes away from the Nubians securing the sail with the fore and aft stays, Captain Barka nodded in greeting. “Could not be better, My Lord,” he answered with a smile that revealed yellow teeth. He was bearded to the eyes, with a scarf covering his wavy black hair. A leather tunic swathed his thick torso, and a linen kilt reached to his mid-thighs. High-laced sandals were strapped up his hairy calves. “With the sun coming up, this fog should lift in less than an hour, and we will have smooth sailing…Nereus willing,” he added piously.
Valka nodded and glanced over the boat. It was a Phoenician cargo vessel out of Tyre—a merchantman built wide in the beam and deep in the hold for transporting trade goods. A sturdy wooden deck made of fir stretched amidships, and several other passengers, who had also been sleeping on deck, were just rising from their blankets.
“How long do you think it will take us to reach the Land of the Two Crowns?” Valka asked, bringing his attention back to the captain.
“Watch those rocks off the starboard beam!” Captain Barka shouted to the steersman, who threw his weight against the steering oar and missed the rocks by ten feet. Heaving a sigh, the captain pursed his lips in thought. “If all goes well, and the Inland Sea remains free from any storms, it should take about two more days to reach the port of Pelaumius on the Delta.”
They stopped talking as both men leaned over the gunwale and watched the mouth of the cove approach through the mist. The fog was still heavy, and Valka could just make out a coastline fanged with rocks and steep slopes covered with a hardy, prickly brush. Then the prow of the boat nosed through the entrance, and the boat sailed out of the shallows and into the dark blue waters of the Inland Sea.
“Hard a-starboard!” Captain Barka called to the steersman. “Trim that sail!” he shouted up at the Nubians who still clung to the ratlines.
With a groan of wooden planks, a singing of ropes and the deep boom of the sail as it caught the wind, the boat heeled over to starboard, the waves rising up the gunwale, then it righted itself, calmed down and began sailing east into the sun.
It seemed to Valka that the crew and passengers breathed a collective sigh of relief. The worst was behind them, and they could settle down to the monotony of another day at sea. He moved back to the stern where he had placed his leather traveling bag, nodding to the passengers as he passed. One traveler was a fat merchant who apparently had a financial interest in the cargo. There was a family comprised of a father, mother and a daughter in her late teens who was quite pretty. They squatted among their belongings on the deck, sharing a meager breakfast of hard bread, cheese and dried meat.
Valka’s eyes met the girl’s as he went by, and he watched her gaze rove over him. He knew what she saw: shoulder length black mane, leanly muscled, six-foot frame, deep chest and broad shoulders etched with scars of old sword wounds, as well as the scar that blazed like crimson fire from above his right eye, across the bridge of his nose, ending on his left cheek beside his wide, thin lipped mouth. Her eyes lingered curiously over the choker of alternating bear claws and fangs strung on a heavy gold chain around his corded neck, and finally came to rest on the bronzed, scarred fist holding the curved sword.
Valka responded to her beauty—and her interest—but, he sighed regretfully, it was clearly neither the time nor the place to pursue it.
He squatted next to his traveling bag and rummaged inside until he found his own supply of dried meat. Swinging around, he sat on the deck with his back against the gunwale and broke his fast. As he chewed the meat, he watched the sharp rays of the sun shred the mist into long glistening streamers that revealed a clear blue, cloudless sky beyond.
* * * *
Valka stood at the gunwale with his elbows on the rail watching the rock-girded southern coastline stream past later that morning. The fog had long since lifted, and the vault above was a clear cobalt blue unblemished by a single cloud. A shout from the lookout perched on the yardarm brought his attention around. One of the Nubians pointed excitedly to the east, and Captain Barka rushed forward to investigate. As Valka ran to the bow, the other passengers leaped up and stared anxiously into the distance.
“What is it, Captain?” Valka asked, coming to a halt beside the seaman.
His eyes focused on a dot on the horizon, Captain Barka was nervously biting his lower lip. “Pirates!” he muttered hoarsely, glancing bleakly at Valka. “It is the worst thing that could happen to us.”
Valka stared into the distance at what was swiftly materializing into a rakish black hull under full sail, heading directly for the merchantman. “Can we outrun them?”
“In this tub?”
Valka cast a hasty glance around at the crew. “Can we outfight them?”
Barka shook his head in despair. “We be merchant seamen, My Lord, not warriors.”
Even as they spoke, the distant ship was bearing down upon them at a terrific pace. Valka studied the black hull, with at least twenty oars flashing in the sun on either side, the square black sail bellied by the wind and knew instinctively that Captain Barka was correct—they were pirates. As the ship came closer, he made out the high decks at prow and stern where groups of archers were positioned. Amidships, warriors brandishing spears and swords lined both gunwales.
His fighting instinct aroused, Valka drew his sword half out of its scabbard. Then he stopped. Not even he could prevail against a force of that size. He could not even bring his sword to bear before the archers killed him and everyone else on board.
Groaning with frustration, he sheathed his sword and stared at the doom swiftly overtaking them. He glanced bleakly at the fat merchant running up and down the deck, waving his arms hysterically as he cried out in panic, and at the family huddled against the gunwale, sobbing with terror.
Valka faced the brutal fact that he could do absolutely nothing about the situation.
* * * *
Braided leather ropes whistled through the air, and iron grappling hooks bit into the rail of the merchantman as the pirate galley drew alongside. The oars on its starboard side were shipped so the vessel could pull in against the merchantman, beam to beam. His legs braced against the impact and his sheathed sword in his hand, Valka studied the pirates as they lashed the two ships together.
Black from rakish prow to up-swept stern, the galley was narrow in the beam for greater speed. The raised decks fore and aft were crowded with archers, and their iron tipped arrows were close enough that Valka could make out the feather design. Scarred, bearded pirates of many races lined the gunwales, brandishing weapons, shouting obscene taunts at the terrified passengers. Casting an experienced eye over them, Valka had never seen a more deadly looking crew.
A space cleared, and a tall, lean, swarthy man stepped up to the rail. A crimson kerchief kept back his long black hair, while a matching crimson tunic encased his muscular body. His black eyes danced with cruel humor as he looked over the merchantman. His nose was aquiline, and a mustache and goatee as black as a raven’s wing framed full red lips. Muscular hands gripped the rail, rings glittering on each long finger.
Valka found no mercy in the harsh lines of the pirate chief’s face as he took in the crew and passengers. His eyes lit with a lurid glow when he caught sight of the young woman. Noting his glance, the girl cowered behind the protective shoulder of her father. Then the pirate’s gaze swept on and came to rest on Captain Barka and Valka.
Barka, for all his sturdiness, quivered and panted with terror.
Dismissing him with a sneer, the pirate studied Valka. His eyes narrowed at the wolfish set of Valka’s physique, the level grey eyes that returned his stare without fear and finally the sword he gripped in his left hand. An unspoken understanding arced between the two men—one warrior recognizing another.
The pirate spoke. “You people, I am Captain Tunis, and this boat and everything in it now belongs to me.” His deep voice rumbled like a proclamation of doom across the deck. He grinned cruelly, and his teeth flashed white against the blackness of his beard. “I demand your immediate surrender,” he glanced again briefly at Valka, “or my archers will clear your deck.”
The fat merchant rushed forward, gibbering in a frenzy of anxiety. “Most of this cargo belongs to me,” he cried, waving his pudgy hands in the air. “You have no right to take it—”
A flurry of arrows feathered his torso, his voice cut off in a strangled cry. His eyes glazed as a torrent of blood gushed out of his mouth. Then he fell over backward on the deck and lay still, resembling nothing so much as a dead porcupine. The other passengers and the crew stared at his still form, then looked back in horror at the pirate chief.
He arched a black brow. “Does anyone else have anything to say? Good...” he concluded, when no one dared to speak. “Then,” he pointed to the opposite gunwale, “all of you line up against that rail.”
Valka, Captain Barka, the Nubians and the other two crewmen, the father, mother and daughter all walked to the other side of the boat and lined up against the rail.
The captain barked orders to his crew, and men swarmed over the side onto the merchantman. While the archers remained at the ready, the rest of the pirates opened the hatches and peered down into the hold.
“We are in luck today, Captain,” said a bearded man in a silken tunic who held a long straight sword in his fist. “This hold is full of cargo!”
“Excellent,” Tunis replied. “Get it transferred to the Barracuda while I deal with the prisoners.”
The lieutenant shouted orders, a line of men formed from the hold of the merchantman back onto the pirate ship, and the transfer of goods began.
The captain stopped before the crew and passengers and glanced over the line. His left hand rested on the jeweled hilt of a curved scimitar sheathed in a cloth-of-gold scabbard. A bodyguard of four men with bare swords in their hands stood ready at his shoulders, most of their attention centered on Valka.
Captain Tunis started with the crew. “You men look strong. I need rowers. I give you the choice of being my oarsmen or dying on the spot.”
The crewmen glanced incredulously at each other, then nodded their heads vigorously, grateful they had even been given a choice.
As one of the bodyguards led them away, Tunis passed on to the family.
Although his black eyes kept straying to the girl, he addressed the father. “I require your women, my good man.” His voice was hard. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“By the gods, master!” the man croaked. “They are my wife and daughter. Please spare us.”
Captain Tunis made a slight gesture with his finger, and two of his bodyguards lifted the man by his arms and heaved him over the side. As the man splashed into the sea, the older woman buried her face in her hands and sobbed miserably. The young girl cringed fearfully at her shoulder.
“Laneus...” Tunis called over his shoulder, and the lieutenant, who had been overseeing the transfer of the cargo, spun around and rushed to his captain’s side.
Captain Tunis pointed to the older woman. “The crew needs some diversion. Throw her to the men once the cargo has been transferred.” Gesturing to the girl, he added with a leer, “She is mine. Place her in my cabin.”
“Yes, sir,” Laneus replied. He grabbed the two sobbing women and dragged them away.
Suddenly, a commotion erupted in the hold. A moment later, the thin weasel of a steersman was tossed onto the deck.
“We caught him hiding in the hold, Captain,” one of the men called. “What do you want us to do with him?”
“Throw him over the side,” Tunis replied, without a moment’s hesitation.
When he hit the water, the splash drowned out the steersman’s screams.
Tunis turned to Barka. “You have lost a ship, Captain,” he sneered. “That would seem to deprive you of any reason to go on living. Can you think of any reason why you should not join the others over the side?”
“I be an excellent navigator, sir,” Captain Barka spoke up briskly. “I can guide by the stars, and I know the coastline of the eastern Sea like the back of me hand.”
“And you would serve loyally in that capacity?”