“Who camps there? Bah! As if you didn’t know, you poxy shrewson!” was the answer to Ionas’ question, punctuated by jeers and rude gestures.
Brownie bellicosity was a by-word in most of the realms and these two, though their armor of rodent fur and woven grass was disheveled and their weapons of sticks and faerie shot were broken and they were rather uncomfortably crushed together in Ionas’ grip, still lived up to their people’s legend. Known as Mouse and Buckrabbit (which would hardly help to identify them as nearly every third Brownie was called either Mouse or Buckrabbit), they faced up to their captor fiercely. They’d fought flying bandits and hungry dragons this day. They’d laid low the enemy, survived magic most dark, and clawed their way out of a coat pocket. They were not to be intimidated by some skinny-faced elf pretending innocence now.
“You’ve got a nerve, aye, and then some,” either Mouse or Buckrabbit barked, and then either Buckrabbit or Mouse added, “D’ye think we don’t know the spies of Baugl Caernith when they come crashing through our forest?”
“Who else would be stupid enough to fly into dragon territory in a bucket strapped to a haggis?” they both guffawed together. “May rose rot take your nose and the foul itch your loins, you laggardly screw.” They shook their fists at Ionas. “The sons of Flidais give neither quarter nor word to blaspheming bandits.”
They summed up their defiant speeches with more rude gestures at the elf who held them both in his hand.
— — —
Most of the Brownies’ performance was lost on Jeneyeru Nightwise, but fortunately other things were not. He had nearly fainted — indeed, for a few seconds he probably did lose consciousness — from the pain of those first ministrations to his wound, the pressure applied to stop his bleeding and hold the dagger fast, and then being moved up to the Calinda and to the big table in Captain Lafitte’s cabin.
But Lotye and Ionas had done well, and Lotye’s healing potions were having what effect they could on the bleeding and the pain. Better yet, Lotye had retrieved the Staff of Ghosts and pressed it into his hands. Though he had not yet fully regained his aura-balance, the staff hastened the flow of the vital energy through his battered body and sped his mental recovery. The Calinda herself or, rather, the curse she carried in the stolen weather idol, came to his rescue as well.
“Ah, truly,” he whispered, sighing, “Manawydden does not abandon his Selkies.” The power of the god of the winds, who was the patron of sailors, surrounded the Selkie wizard with an energy uniquely attuned to his own spirit. The Staff of Ghosts drank up that energy and fed it to its master, and so Jeneyeru had regained much of his alertness by the time Lotye had gotten him stable enough to remove the knife.
While Lafitte, Beau and Ionas took their bearings and interrogated the prisoners, Jeneyeru helped Lotye and Lafitte’s wizard, Tayliana Winddancer, to invoke the Webs of Blood. One of the few healing spells the Master of the Luminous Shadow Way knew, the Webs would do in the absence of a true surgeon on board the airship, closing the wound with hard-clotted blood. Stabilized at last, leaving Lotye to bandage his torso and see to the weeping and fretting Thimble, Jeneyeru lapsed at last into exhausted sleep. He might have caught the small voices of the Brownies shouting something about “the sons of Flidais” and “bandits,” but those thoughts would have to wait until later.
What the stricken wizard also did not think about at the moment was that the combination of the Staff of Ghosts, blessed object of Caillech the death goddess, with the storm of the idol blessed by Manawydden the weather god, had the effect of strengthening Jeneyeru and strengthening Manawydden’s curse at the same time. As Jeneyeru sank into a healing sleep, the winds gained power. Lightning snapped around the airship and yet more of the storm’s clouds and debris pummeled everything around and below as it carried the Calinda more swiftly yet towards the smoke rising over the forest.
— — —
Meanwhile, the parlay of bandits and gangsters at the camp of the army of Baugl of Caernith was going as such things typically did.
Ashcat of Sesus and his lieutenants, Switchtail and Elda, in their half-shabby dark coats and cloaks, and the Usanerian Baugl with his plated and quilted armor strapped across his massive belly, glared at each other suspiciously over a smoking fire and tankards of rough fresh-brewed nut ale. Haug Handslayer played the role of mediator, a diplomatic function the gigantic enforcer seemed surprising well suited for, as he laid out the proposal he’d invented on the way from the wreckage of Train No. 47. Baugl listened with eyes narrowed to slits in his heavy, bone-lumped, goblin-ish face.
“Why should I bother with the likes of you alley rats?” he growled. “I already know who owns the cards and where he’s to be found. What d’ye think all these fighters are here for?”
“You know a lot, Baugl, but you don’t know everything. For an instance, you know of a man holed up in a stronghold with a stack of cards for summoning demons to defend him, but you don’t know that there’s a suit of those cards floating this side of the stronghold right this moment. Cards that, if they were in your hands, could even the play between you and the Guild Hall. You don’t know how to gain those cards, but we do.”
It was a risky play, and Haug knew it, but as they had galloped on stolen horses away from the train Baugl’s gang had wrecked, it was the best he could come up with. It had been a challenge to talk Ashcat into letting him risk his quarry, the mysterious airship, and now it would be a challenge to convince the bandit warlord Baugl to give them the resources to hunt down said airship. Ever since his seller of goods had turned up dead in a canal and the remainder of the Blood Arcana gone, Ashcat had been convinced the foreigners who had fought them in their alley and shot Elda with a crossbow were behind it all. He’d tracked them to the embassy of the Grand Navigators and done his best to take them down before they escaped Sesus. But the murderous scum had made a mince of his ballista crew, yet more blood the obsessively ambitious gang-leader was determined to avenge. These Navvie scum wouldn’t be the first to try to knock Ashcat out of the race to become king of the Sesan gangs, and they wouldn’t be the first to suffer for it. For that, Haug knew Ashcat would pay any price, including whatever it would take to get this warlord on his side. Haug, loyal to his boss for as long as he would need to be, juggled one tale over another to make that happen and hoped only that Baugl would not ask where this ship of the air was to be found.
— — —
“What are they saying now?” Ruili Windwolf whispered in the bushes.
“I can’t hear. Lay to,” Peino Starhand whispered back to his impatient brother, as they waited for the subtle, even quieter whispers of the faeries eavesdropping on the bandits and passing the word back.
As the parlay and the spying and the whispering carried on, the Selkies felt the day passing. Ruili suggested they leave the bandits to their business and carry on looking for a way to escape the camp and get ahead of the army, but as the time had passed, so suddenly did the day’s light.
The faeries fell silent as the air changed. Heavy clouds lowered over the forest, and with them came the smell of rain and salt water, and a tingle in the chilling air — the tingle of lightning and of magic. The ethereal Priestess Moonrain’s eyes grew large and dark, and her deer-like parts grew yet more deer-like, twitching to run.
“A god approaches,” she said.
“A storm,” said Ruili, breathing deep.
“The Calinda,” said Peino, knowing the feel of this particular storm well by now.
“The what?” said Ruili.
“No time to explain.” Peino drew his sword and dagger. “Lady Moonrain, tell your people to take cover against a storm and prepare for battle. Lord Manawydden comes to visit Lady Flidais, and he brings friends of ours.”
Ruili drew his gleaming broad sword and took a position beside his brother. “Lady Y’lanna, close to me this time, if you please,” he said, since leaving her safe behind last time had not worked out as planned.
He drew a long dagger from his belt and handed it to her, then gave his attention to the developing situation. As the faerie folk scattered into the trees, a leprechaun tapped Y’lanna on the arm and offered her a battered steel buckler, a small shield for her to hold in her hand. “Go on, lass,” he said, “it’ll go well with that knife if a fight’s to be had.” And with a wink, the old faerie was gone.
“What signal do we wait for?” Ruili asked Peino, but at that moment, a bolt of lightning crashed into a tree, and a wall of rain swept through the forest, plopping heavy bodies through the branches.
A shadow loomed over the camp clearing, and Ashcat, looking up as all of the bandits had been doing in annoyance at the weather, turned as red as a hot poker. Rising to his feet, he pointed skyward, sputtering in furious, eye-bulging incoherence.
Baugl rose as well, looking up curiously, and was hit in the face by a heavy plop.
Another plop nearly hit Haug Handslayer, and a few others landed in the bushes with Ruili, Peino, Y’lanna and Priestess Moonrain. The faerie recoiled from the slimy, formless things that lay tangled in the shrubbery. “Ugh, what are they?”
Ruili pulled one out, its eight arms hanging from its bag of a body. He laughed. “Lyr’s blood, they’re octopodes. Must have been carried from the sea by this storm.” He held it up to Peino. “Luncheon?”
“Let’s call it our signal,” said Peino.
A rain of helpless cephalopods upon the heads of the mountain bandits was enough to give the element of surprise, and the Selkies and their faerie allies made good use of it. Ruili and Peino led the charge, shouting, into the clearing, while Priestess Moonrain triggered volleys of arrows and faerie shot from the bushes and trees.
As the bandit guards sounded the alarm on their horns, Baugl yanked the octopus off his face and turned his battle-axe against Haug. “Traitor! Now you die!”