Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 23
“And now, master?” said Meb. Pitch torches and candles were showering a sprinkling of points of light through the city.
“Now we head for the lake. To where I stashed the other large bag. We’ll need to do a little engineering in the dark.”
Meg wondered just what he planned to build. She found out soon enough.
“It’s a coracle. Willow laths and an outer skin. It’ll leak, but it will get us across the lake.”
“Not . . . not this lake, Master.” Even she had heard about it.
“They’re getting organized behind us, Scrap. By first light there’ll be a hue and cry like nothing this island has ever seen. We need to be a good long way away by then. Preferably hidden under a big rock.”
“But master . . . the Nichor. He lives in the lake. He’ll pull us in if we as much as touch it,” said Meb nervously.
“Ah. That’s the last lath in place. Help me to get it on my back, Scrap. The Nichor . . . well, it’s his lake. But we’ll toss him a ruby or two. There really is no other way out. Trust me.”
She did. But she was deathly afraid, as they slipped out on the dark, quiet water. Sitting still — it was a tiny cockle-shell of a boat, with only a hand’s width or two of freeboard while they got further and further out onto the water, with the pinpricks of flame-light in the city behind them receding slowly.
“Why don’t they fix their light-magic?” asked Meb, desperate not to think of the green-toothed worm-beast that everyone knew haunted this famous lake.
“It may take them some months,” said Finn. “It’s part alvar magic, part dvergar contrivance, and part dragon-magic. They’ve burned their bridges rather badly with the dvergar. You noticed that there was little gold in that treasury?”
“Well, the alvar will hold that they prefer silver, and that it’s a purer color — a matter of opinion. But the truth is the dragon takes the gold, and the alvar see that he gets it. Of course your old Loftalvar think that treachery. But the Huldralvar and Stromalvar made bargains with dragonkind. So now, as you know, your Prince, the one I swatted about the ear, calls himself Prince of Yenfar. The dvergar say he is nothing more than a tax-collector. But then the alvar can deal quite effectively with dvergar, and their magic. There’s no love lost, now.”
Meb said nothing . . . because she was too afraid. It was overcast, but the sky was still lighter than either the water or the shore. And now part of that light was blotted out. A tangle of dark . . . it must be hair, was rising behind them. It must be hair, because set below it were definitely eyes. Huge eyes that glowed with a pale inner light, their glow illuminating a green face and a slit of a nose . . . and the mouth. An open mouth full of snaggled teeth. Long, clawed hands with seven spidery fingers were reaching for Finn.
Her mouth was too dry . . . “Nichor,” she managed to croak in a tiny voice, pointing.
Finn turned the coracle. “How right you are. Go away, Shellycoat. We’re not your meat.” He tossed a stone at it, presumably a ruby.
It didn’t seem to be planning to listen, or be interested in rubies.
He flung the paddle at it like a spear. The Nichor hissed like a fire that had just had water spilled onto it. The paddle didn’t deter it, though.
“Take that bit of sea-weed and pearl out of the bag,” said Finn, quietly.
She did so with shaking hands. She pulled back her hand to throw, but Finn reached forward and stopped her. “Just put it on your head.”
“Whisht,” said a voice in the darkness. “And just what have we here? Be off with you, Shellycoat, or I’ll be putting my trident just exactly where you’d least like to have it put.”
“Your work, Scrap?” asked Finn, sounding surprised.
“Work?” Meb was puzzled. The nearest she’d come to work lately was a bit of juggling.
“Calling a merrow to us,” said Finn, quietly. “What is it doing here in fresh water otherwise?”
“I could just be looking for something that was taken from us,” answered the voice. “It’s to be hoped you can swim, because the Shellycoat’s gone all stupid on us. They seem to get like that when they’re really big. It’s going to attack your little boat.”
“I am about to splash you,” said Finn, quietly to Meb. “I’m telling you just so you don’t get a surprise and upset us or jump overboard. As soon as I to do, you tell the shellycoat to get gone. Firmly.”
By now, Meb’s nerves and wits were jelly. Even knowing that it was coming — the water that hit her in the face was an icy shock. She really didn’t mean to start swearing. But she did. With every word garnered from her step-brothers’ vocabulary she told the Nichor to leave them alone. She’d die defiant anyway.
The Nichor nearly swamped the coracle . . . the wave rocked it and slopped water over the edge. The creature dived with all the haste it could muster.
There was a silence. And then Finn began to laugh. “Do you know how anatomically difficult it is going to be for the creature to obey you?” he asked.
“It’s a fine tongue you have in your head,” said the other voice from the water, reminding Meb that they were not out of trouble, yet.
But the voice sounded amused and, if anything, impressed. “Well, what are you doing out on the water on a night like this?”
“Much what you’re doing, I suspect,” said Finn. “Trying not to get eaten, Hrodenynbrys.”
“It’s a good ambition, I’m thinking,” said the voice. “And how did you know who I was?”
From the chilly lake water Hrodenynbrys considered his options. It would take him only a moment to tip the coracle. On the other hand . . . the fact that other human knew his name, and didn’t seen in the least perturbed to find him here, was worrying in itself. And she was now wearing the Angmarad. The force of it — when water touched the poor long-dry stems — had been like a tidal bore. She might just use it on him, if she fell in. She didn’t do too well in water, as he remembered. And he liked the attitude of the lass. She had fine tongue on her. Swear a fire-being out of the hot place, let alone a shellycoat back down into the depths.
The intrinsic problem was that he was supposed to bespell her to fetch the Angmarad . . . not for her to take the power of it and give it into fresh captivity. Well, Merrows were gamblers by nature. That meant knowing when to bluff and when not to bet too. “Before I give you a tow to the shore, as you are short a paddle now, I’d still like to be knowing how you knew my name?”
“Ach,” said the man, easily. “Your fame goes before you. Really.”
There was something almost familiar about the speaker. Enough to make Hrodenynbrys wary, and glad that he hadn’t merely tipped the coracle over. “If I was to believe that, I’d have to be human, or something equally daft. Have you a bit of rope? It’d make pulling you easier.”
It was still hard work. But gave him time to think. That had been the biggest shellycoat ‘Brys had ever seen . . . and what had happened over in the alvar city? Who was this human with her . . . he fenced as well with words as a merrow. And more relevant: why had she got the Angmarad . . . and what was he, Hrodenynbrys going to do about it?
By the time he got to the shore, ‘Brys had decided that he’d better play it the way Margetha intended, even if it went against his better judgement. He pulled on the cape — which allowed him to change into human form. There was some confusion about that, in human circles. It was something merrows were keen to see continued.
“I think I might have some trousers to lend you,” said the man, as he stepped ashore. “It seems a fair exchange for the ride.”
Hrodenynbrys had forgotten humans felt like that about nudity. Merrows seldom went on land these days. No wonder those women gathering berries had run away from him in such surprise. “I forgot,” he said. “I have them here in my bag.” It was good hunting misdirection. He pulled out the throw-net, so cunningly made and bespelled, its fringe weighted with coins from shipwrecks, and he flung it with a smooth, perfect cast.
And that was the last thing that went well.
As he threw, she — who had been carefully not looking at him — stepped closer to her companion. Instead of catching the one fish he had two. Considering the magic expended on every knot of that net it should have ensnared any human, and also made her his to command. It should have bound her as still as stone, beyond anyone but him freeing her. He’d reckoned that he could retreat into the water if the man gave him any trouble that a trident couldn’t fend off. After all he just wanted the Angmarad off her head, and he’d be away so fast that they’d think he was a sea-pike.
Margetha’s spell-work — or that of the human mage, or the effects of the Angmarad on her head — failed completely, in a series of little sparkly explosions as the two of them tore free. Hrodenynbrys held his trident at the ready and retreated back into the icy lake.
“Soul-net,” said the man. “Well, well, what do you merrows think you’re playing at? I was all set to give your bauble to you to carry back to the sea for me. But now I’ve changed my mind. Scrap, tell him to get his trouserless butt out of the lake. I’ve got work for him to do.”
“Me, master?” she asked, her fright showing in her voice . . . but not her posture.
The tall man chucked. “No, me master, you Scrap. You’re wearing the spirit of the waters on your head, so you tell him what to do. And if he doesn’t listen you can send him off to do to the Shellycoat what you have the creature trying to do to itself. It must have a crick in its spine by now. Tell him to get out and to take that coracle into the lake and sink it. Too deep for Zuamar to see from the air, and then to get back here, and give you that cape of his.”
So she did . . . ‘Brys found himself compelled to do as she ordered, and to wonder firstly, just what sort of a mess he was in this time, and secondly just what the man had meant, and how he knew so much. Hrodenynbrys had a feeling that he’d gone grailing for flat-fish and stuck his trident through his own foot instead of a fat flounder.
But he had little choice but to do as he was told, and then to return, and put on the spare clothes . . . and to part with his cape of red sealskin.
He was trapped in this awful form without it.
But on the other hand, he had to stay close to the Angmarad, even if it meant that all he could to do was to — somehow — pass word on to his fellow merrows as to where it was.
* * *
Meb was unsure about what was going on. Unsure what that bit of spiderweb and sparks had been about. All she knew was that it had made Finn angry. She hadn’t really seen him angry before, she realized. He was furious with the merrow . . . Who seemed both frightened and desperate. Well . . . the merrow had saved her life, once. She was pretty sure it was the same one.
“Right,” said Finn. “Thanks to Mr. Clever Merrow there’s a sign here, etched indelibly into these stones that merrow-magic and a few other flavors of enchantments were used here. And not ones that we wanted to advertise. The alvar will get to searching the lake shore eventually. Or Zuamar may to do it for them. You damned fool, merrow. You’ve as likely as not started a war between your kind and the alvar, not to mention dragons. Was that what you had in mind?”
The merrow stammered something . . . about the “Angmarad” and need and duty.
Finn snorted. “You’ve more balls than brains. But that is typical of merrows. Come on. Lets move out. Walk in the water. Yes, your feet are going to get wet, both of you. Live with it.”
So they walked. Across the water, the chaos of pinpricks of fire-light had resolved itself into orderly moving lines of torches.
“They’re searching,” said Finn, a little reluctant admiration in his voice. “One thing you have to grant the alvar. They organize better than humans. And the merrows,” added as an afterthought.
The merrow snorted. “Organizing is for those who can’t to do it alone.”
“Well, then you ought to learn,” said Finn.
Meb’s feet were completely numb when they came to a spit of rock that spiked out into the water, with a low cliff facing them. “This is as good a place as any. Right, up we climb.”
It was not particularly difficult even with feet like lumps of wood. Meb scrambled to the top, easily enough. The merrow found it a lot more of a challenge. “Could I not go around?” he asked after the second try.
“No. Use your feet. Don’t try and just pull yourself up.”
The effort it took him would have had Meb over the white walls of the alvar city. “It’s a little different to swimming,” he said panting.
“And there’s worse to come,” said Finn. “I’m going to wear those fin-feet of yours down to stubs running.” At least, by his tone, her master appeared to have recovered his sense of humor, somewhat.
Finn led them along the ridge. In the dark it was a scary half-climb, half-scramble. Eventually they came to a narrow neck and something of a way down. Meb did not know how Finn saw where to go, but he did. Then they were off and into the pinewoods, walking.
And walking. Meb was barely able to stagger when he finally let them stop at a small overhang, where water dripped down one edge. The sky was beginning to pale above the spiky, dark trees.
And if Meb thought she was tired, the poor merrow simply fell over when they stopped.
“Hmm. He won’t be used to this sort of thing,” said Finn. “Right. Let’s get a fire going and a bit of food into us. We’ll need it before the chase is done.”