Chapter Fourteen
Sea of Trees


...... "Is there room for both of us in here?" Justin asked, peering around at the narrow cabin with its two tiny bunk beds, a small floor chest, and a miniature shelf set. "Or do we sleep in shifts?" Edging past the door curtain, he held onto the frame of the doorway against the swaying of the moving ship.
...... She turned from scowling at the tiny wall shelf and the crowded assortment of personal items which stood precariously on its flimsy irregular surface. "We'll manage," she coolly announced, then laughed. "I warned you about shipboard life. Is the horse okay?"
...... "Good enough," he allowed, frowning at the timbers of the ceiling, where a water drop had formed. When it fell, he looked back. "From my point of view, anyhow. That overfed plowhorse reject is safe enough. However, I can hope for some kind of an equestrian sea sickness. It'd be fitting."
...... "No such chance," she laughed, shaking out a heavy fabric cloak. "Our people routinely carry horses on ships. The crew know what they're doing."
...... Balancing against the random swings of the airborne vessel, he held out his other hand, palm up, in answer. "This voyage undoubtedly is the experience of a lifetime. Meaning, a man would have to be crazy to ever do something like this again!"
...... She giggled and began putting spare clothing into the small chest. "I think I know what you mean. About this entire adventure! My feet still hurt."
...... Bundles rolled along the cot, as the ship suddenly slanted and turned away to a different heading. The timbers of the hull groaned with the stress. Overhead, the patter of running feet announced the working crew; while below, the massive Repeller Stone creaked inside its rotating timber cradle.
...... With one hand braced on her hip, and the other clutching the corner of the upper bunk, she glared at the jumble now piled at the end of the blanket. "I wonder what that's all about?" she finally asked, nodding upward.
...... "There does seem to be only one way to find out." He levered himself around, using his grip on the doorway, then pushed past the swaying doorcurtain.
...... With a dismissing wave of her hand at the confusion on the bed, she followed.
...... On deck, careful to avoid the hurrying crewmembers at their work, the pair sauntered to the midships railing to peer out over the swaying treetops through the thin drizzle.
...... "Over there," Misty loudly said, pointing. "Up at the top of that ridge." She grabbed again at the handrail, as the vessel made another abrupt change of course.
...... Several large ships had crested the last ridge behind them -- obviously in full-sail pursuit. "Of all the impossibly incredible bad luck!" Willi complained from his perch on the aft rail, his voice traveling down the length of the small ship. "Mercadoratius should have been going the other way. He shouldn't be anywhere around here." Clinging precariously to a backstay, he gestured extravagantly to the gray, drizzling sky.
...... "Apparently, he navigates differently from your plans," Xyly remarked coolly from her post beside the helmsman. "I've got on all of the sail, which the masts can hold in this wind. But we're so small of a ship that we can't outrun him, unless we reverse course and try to run past him. With that many ships out there, I doubt we can!" she added, turning to speak to a crewman who had just trotted up.
...... "Damn that irritating, despicable, overegoed, little man! Damn him all the way to the clouds!" Misty raved, waving her hands toward the pursuing ships. "He's always around to cause me problems." The deck canted again, and again she had to grasp with both hands for the stability of the railing.
...... "Funny. I've often had much the same feeling." Having waited for an acceptable moment, Willi sauntered up the deck, using the edge of the deckhouse roof as a support. "I don't think we can outrun him or outmaneuver him, this time. If Xyly thinks that way, I have to agree with her." He paused to stare at the distant ships. "And if we keep going in this direction, we'll run square into the other part of his fleet at the bridge."
...... "Well, we must get away from him," Misty declared, pointing a forefinger toward the approaching ships. "I have to go to Center. And without his interference, this time!"
...... "There's no way now, Child," Xyly remarked, walking up behind them. "Thus is fate." She tiredly laughed. "And the end of all of my elaborate plans."
...... Misty looked at the thin rain from the perpetually gray sky, glanced over her shoulder at the pursuing fleet, tossed her hands in the air in abrupt gesture, then turned and stomped to the aft ladder to go below.
...... "How was it living with the Outlaws?" Willi asked in a conversational tone, wiping his palms on his trousers. "Any suggestions, for when we abandon this ship and take to the trees for our own safety? Can one make a living at the Bazaar?"
...... "I suspect that you'll manage to do quite well there," Justin chuckled. He glanced toward the aft hatchway, then looked back.
...... Xyly echoed with a tiny laugh, almost a titter, before pacing forward to peer over the bow railing.
...... Willi looked sideways at him, opened his mouth, then closed it again, as Misty bounded back up on deck. She marched to the front of the deckhouse, thumped a wax candle down on its low roof, knelt in front of it, and cupped the candle's wick in her hands.
...... "Don't do anything brash, Little One," Justin called in warning. "You're very angry right now, and what you deal with, cannot be toyed with. It's an awesome and dangerous operation." He took a step forward, then halted, only raising one hand. "Be very careful!" he warned again. "Don't do anything which you'll later regret."
...... "Yes, Child, be very careful!" Xyly agreed, speaking loudly from the bow of the ship. "Whatever you're planning to do, be very cautious. You were warned about it in the beginning." She looked upward at the rain and the sky. "I know that you've been taught what can happen, if you let your anger overwhelm your caution. Remember your lessons!"
...... Misty twisted her head to glare at them, before removing her hands from the wick -- the candle began to burn with a tall, bright flame. "I think I can manage quite well without your advice, Justin," she snapped. "And most particularly yours too!" she added in a caustic tone to Xyly. Ignoring the gusty breeze and the rainwater dripping from the rigging, tightly closing her eyes, she hunched her shoulders and began to concentrate her thoughts.
...... Within moments, at a frighteningly artificial speed, the sky changed from gray to an ominous, luminescent, gray-green. The clouds began to move at a spectacular velocity, thickening and dropping lower in huge, churning waves. The wind rose rapidly in strength and volume, shrieking in the lines and tearing at the rigging.
...... "I'd get those sails in, very quickly, if I were you," Justin advised. He walked over to kneel behind her. "Misty! Watch out. What you're doing is dangerous. Take a lot of time and care right about now. Be very careful with what you're doing."
...... "A great thought," Willi said to no one in particular. Beckoning to the crew, he jumped onto the nearest ratline and led the way aloft.
...... The crew quickly followed, spreading out along the spars to furl the sails before the wind could destroy them. With an anxious expression, glancing first at the building thunderstorm, then at the scene by the deckhouse, Xyly hurried aft to stand beside the helmsman.
...... The storm grew at a dangerous speed, as the deck planking turned pale green in the sickly light from the sky. The wind came in block-like cold gusts, ripping at the last open sail. The rain poured down in drumming waves, hiding the pursuing fleet.
...... Willi slid down a stayrope to land lightly on the deck. "I don't like this," he remarked, again to no one in particular.
...... The crew ran past him, intent on working the ship during the storm. Xyly's attention was exclusively on the swirling clouds and the random pull of the wind.
...... "Turn the ship into the wind! Toward those stones over that way," Justin demanded in a loud shout.
...... "Yes! Exactly! Right now!" Willi shouted immediately afterward. He clung to a railing for support against the violent wind. Rain splattered on his face and ran down his neck. "And get lifelines rigged! Before anybody is blown over the side."
...... The ship already was turning as they spoke, the helmsman rapidly spinning the wheel. With her soaked cloak flapping in the gusts, Xyly ran down the deck to the bow. "Over here. A steering sail," she ordered several of the crew.
...... The crewmembers rushed to comply.
...... Reaching out to grip her arms in tight reassurance, Justin quietly murmured: "Go easy, Little One. Be careful."
...... There was no answer.
...... Grabbing the loose end of a long rope, he quickly strung a safety line, then sat back down behind her, his arms wrapped tightly around her waist.
...... Crewmembers were landing on the deck from the overhead spars and looking at each other in the partial darkness of the storm. The Everlast Candle at the helm was only dimly visible from the bow -- a diffuse glimmer in the downpour.
...... "Everybody grab something, and hang on!" Xyly's voice roared out of the darkness over the crash of the deluge.
...... Justin looked over his shoulder, saw the oncoming mass of dark cloud right on them, and took tight grips on both the safety rope and Misty.
...... The rain hit as a solid wall -- gushing down and carrying everything loose over the side of the ship to vanish into the treetops. The thunder rumbled from directly overhead. From the sides of the deck, the rainwater poured overboard in dozens of waterfalls. The turbulent wind tried to drive the ship in all directions at once, while the helmsman and Xyly each fought with the wheel and the steering sail to hold the small ship bow-on to the worst of the wind.
...... In a few minutes, the rain and wind stopped abruptly, although the churning clouds stayed the same luminous green.
...... "I'm glad that's over," Willi announced, as he released his grip on the railing and walked to the centerline to lean against the main mast. "Are we still floating?" He squeezed his shirt sleeves, the water trickling down over his hands.
...... "It's not over!" Justin shouted from his place next to the deckhouse. "Get this ship turned around, facing the opposite way. It's going to hit again in another minute. Only worse!"
...... "There can't be a worse," Willi objected, dashing back to his rail. He sat on the deck, coiling his legs and his arms around the railing stanchion.
...... Immediately, Xyly and her work force drove the ship in a half-circle to face bow-on to the valley.
...... The ship barely had stabilized on its new course, when the thunderstorm hit again. The wind roared along the deck with even more force than before, as the heavy rain was driven wind-whipped horizontally -- smashing into fine, drenching spray against anything in its way. Ropes, which were not quite taut, vibrated and snapped -- to be blown straight out from the masts. The dozens of waterfalls, along the vessel's sides, were smashed back against the hull to drain off in their own downpour from the keel.
...... After a few more interminable minutes, the wind slowed, and the rain tapered off to a steady shower. The storm was moving over the next ridge, slowly dissipating in an immense display of lightning and thunder.
...... In a short time, only a persistent drizzle and a cool, steady wind were left. The sky returned to light gray.
...... "Is that all?" Willi asked, dubiously. He hugged the stanchion, watching the last of the water drain off of the deck.
...... "Yes," Justin replied, releasing his hold on the safety line. He flexed his hand several times, before moving back onto his knees and gripping her firmly by the shoulders. "Misty," he softly coaxed. "You're safe now, Little One." He shook her gently. "Everything's okay now."
...... Suddenly, the abnormal candle flame reverted to an ordinary, flickering, red-yellow light, which quickly died out in the rain. At same moment, she collapsed back into his arms, holding her hands over her face. "I didn't . . . it wasn't . . . it was that . . . I can't . . . ." She twisted in his arms, wrapping her own arms around him, and started to sob.
...... "It's okay," he soothed, hugging her and stroking her hair. Water poured out under the pressure of his hand. "It's all right, Little One. Everyone's safe now. Everything's okay. You're safe here too. Just relax now. It's over."
...... "It was out of control, almost," Xyly stated, standing behind him. "That storm." She wrung water out of her cloak hood. "You appear to have recognized that, too."
...... "It certainly nearly was," he agreed, absently. "That is exactly the sort of thing which can happen that way." He patted Misty on the back, while she cried against his sodden shirt.
...... "One must not let one's emotions become involved, when using the Crystal," Xyly continued. "I've told everyone that, often enough!" Folding her arms under her wet cloak and frowning, she stooped to look closely at Misty.
...... "Most certainly true, also," he agreed, untangling the disheveled blonde braid and trying to smooth it.
...... "I suppose it could've been worse," Xyly suggested harshly, as she stood and turned away. "Michelle should be taken below and put into some dry things," she added.
...... "And that is the truest of all. Beyond your comprehension!" He stood and scooped Misty up in his arms. "Your second remark is true, also."
...... He carried her aft before putting her down on her feet. Shaking violently and still wiping tears away, she descended the narrow ladder, holding tightly onto him for support.

* * *

...... Still gripping a loop of the heavy rope which reinforced the main mast, Merc turned away from the snarl of wrecked rigging. "What out of Hell was that?"
...... "A truly most apt description!" Igthorus clung to a rail stanchion. "I presume that you no longer need inquire as to the whereabouts of your beloved betrothed, the Lady Michelle." He shook his head at the littered deck and at the crewmembers, who pulled at the confused mass of broken spars, snapped ropes, and shredded sails.
...... "The Council did arrange for you an appropriate liaison," he continued, kicking at the tangled ropes which draped across his legs. "I must give them credit for that, if nothing else. Remarkably unsuitable, but quite appropriate."
...... "That was no natural storm. That storm was created deliberately!" Merc gestured toward the horizon, where the sky was a darker gray. "I can't see any of the other ships anywhere."
...... "And by a master at WindCalling." Igthorus unwound the ropes which snared him and pulled himself up off of the deck, hand over hand on the railing post. "Even you must admit to her talent in that regard." He rubbed his lame leg and sighed, finally motioning toward the lessening rain. "Beyond doubt, you may consider that to be your first prenuptial gift from your true love. And indicative of all to follow!"
...... "They're going on to Center." Merc raised his voice over the sound of hatchets, as the crew started clearing away the debris. "They have to be. There's nowhere else they could be going."
...... "Again, obviously true." Igthorus cleared his throat and spat over the side into the treetops. "And?"
...... "And that's where we're going too," Merc announced. "It was an excellent idea to have those Scribes aboard." He took two steps, then halted. "Send messages to all of my ships to set sail for the bridgehead, as well as they can. Then send a message to the fleet at the bridge to start this way." He looked upward at the remains of the rigging. "We'll get some sort of sail on, and meet them as soon as we can. I'll change to another ship, and we'll go after those people. I'm not going to let them get away this time."
...... "Center is the unquestionably established domain of the Guild of the White Witches," Igthorus observed. "You don't have any authority there. No SeaLord does. None at all." He paused, changing stance to rest his leg. "And in your present frame of mind, you will cause such an uproar there, that you will never escape its consequences."
...... "We're going to Center." Merc brushed the objection aside. "Go below now, and send the necessary orders to the Scribes on the other ships."
...... "As you wish," Igthorus allowed, shrugging. He walked carefully across the rain-slick deck, through the tangle of broken lines, to the aft ladder.

* * *

...... "Too dry for you, down below?"
...... "Too tiny is a better description." Justin turned away from the bow railing to smile. "I was restless and wanted a breath of air."
...... "More like a breath of rain, this night" Xyly laughed, holding out her hand to catch droplets. "I have the late, late, late watch tonight. This morning, rather." She motioned toward the dark silhouette of the ridge. "Not much of a view out there."
...... "Your watch, even at anchor?" He gestured to the long, crudely-woven cable which stretched down into the treetops.
...... "Most particularly at anchor. You must know all about the Outlaws down there." She looked into the darkness, away from the brilliance of the Everlast Candle at the stern. "Lady Michelle mentioned that you're seeking the Master Crystal in the Temple at Center. A religious duty, she said."
...... He nodded, just visible in the backwash of the light, and turned also to peer into the shadows of the forest. The silence was broken only by the creak of the rigging, as it moved to the light breeze.
...... "A religious obligation?" Hands spread on the rail, she rubbed one boot sole on the deck, adjusting the fit of the soaked leather.
...... "That's the best description of it." He added an aimless gesture. "It's complicated, and difficult to explain to an outsider, but I have traveled quite a distance to reach that objective. Quite a distance!"
...... "So I understand." Turning, she leaned against the rail, her arms folded inside her cloak. "Well, I'm one of the Five Administrators of the Guild. The Master Crystal comes under my purview."
...... He glanced at the fine rain, which was collected by and dripping from the many overhead lines. "And in addition, Misty's infamous tutor," he chuckled.
...... She nodded slowly. "But I must've missed one aspect of her education. Michelle may believe that you're from the BlackRider tribe, but I don't. I know the BlackRiders, and you're not one of them. Where do you come from?
...... "We vary," he retorted, still looking out at the darkness.
...... "Not that much," she persisted. "Which makes me wonder why you're seeking the Master Crystal."
...... "Because I can't return home until I find it." He shrugged. "As I said, it's complicated. Which is why I call it a religious obligation."
...... "Excuse me for a minute," she requested, walking away. "I'll be back."
...... She hurried to the stern, conferred with the helmsman who was standing idly looking out over the side, checked the tautness of several lines, then sauntered back to stand with her hands again spread along the railing, looking into the darkness.
...... "Why I ask, is because there are people who would like to see the Crystal and all of its ramifications end. They think that the Crystal is dangerous and has something to do with the dying out of the ancient civilization." She motioned to the forest below the hull.
...... "That might well be," he finally agreed in a flat tone.
...... "It could be? Or it is?" She coughed several times, then waved a hand in apology. "It was obvious to me, during the storm yesterday, that you know about the Crystal. About what it does. How we make it work. Possibly, you know more about some aspects of the Crystal than I do. About how it works, I mean. Or how it does what it does." She softly laughed. "I'm usually not quite this incoherent."
...... She stopped, while a crewmember did a nearby chore. When the woman had gone, she continued: "Yet, you are not connected to the Crystal like we others are. I know this, because I am. I can tell who is and who isn't, just as I can tell where most of them are. This discussion isn't going very well," she sighed. She silently collected her thoughts, again staring out over the breeze-rippled treetops. "Perhaps, you can tell me this, at least: How dangerous is the Crystal?"
...... He was silent for several moments, leaning on the railing, while she waited patiently.
...... "More dangerous than you have a concept of," he finally allowed. His boots scuffed, as he restlessly shifted position.
...... "When I spoke about those, who would like to see the Crystal end, I should have said we." She leaned heavily on the rail. "There are many of us who think that the sailing ships and the Candles and the Scribes and the FireStarters are not worth the possible consequences." Turning to face him in the darkness, she waved a hand in the air. "Yet we don't know what the consequences are, and thus are unable to convince anyone else of our ideas. But all of us are dedicated to seeing that the Crystal, and all it creates, comes to an end as soon as possible."
...... "As Guild Administrator, you have access to the device. Why don't you shut it down?" He brushed at his hair, causing water to trickle down his neck.
...... "Because we don't know how, and we're afraid of doing the wrong thing . . . of somehow unleashing all of its power upon us. We do know how powerful it is, and how difficult it is to control." Her voice was emphatic. "Apparently, you understand the Crystal. How much could it do? If by some accident, it became . . . fully active."
...... He shifted, also to lean on the rail, idly pushing beaded raindrops around with his finger. "You saw the hurricane, which Misty accidentally conjured up. That was only a small fraction of its true power." He paused, his hands clasped together. "A very small fraction, at that."
...... "Then it is truly that dangerous," she decided aloud.
...... "The device is very hazardous to your world here." He slowly picked his words. "It could destroy you, if you don't shut it off. You have been very lucky with it so far, astonishingly lucky, but it will destroy you, sometime, if you don't stop it."
...... "Dangerous to my world," she quoted. "Spoken as a true outsider! Where do you come from? Why are you here?"
...... "That doesn't matter." He waved away the questions. "Why don't you stop using it. Shut the device off completely."
...... "As I said, because we're afraid of it," she snapped back. "We don't understand the Crystal, even though we use it. The Device," she repeated. "As in mechanical device!"
...... "Structure, and the various descriptive words for it, makes no difference." He waved that away also, with the same cutting gesture. "Mechanical or not. Magic or not."
...... "In truth, I had hoped to persuade our people to cease using the Crystal." She paused for a mirthless laugh. "We, the DawnWriters, had a plot in operation. Michelle was raised and educated to fill a key position in that plot, and now that has gone astray and to waste. I never expected her to fall in love with a barbarian," she added.
...... He turned to face her. "If you value your lives, and this world, you must shut the device down!" He again brushed water from his hair. The rain was increasing, tapping a steady beat on the deck planks.
...... "Once again, we just don't know how!" she answered, tiredly. "Not safely. At least, we of the DawnWriters don't know how. No one knows how . . . those of us on our world." She flicked the hood of her cloak up over her head. "Do you know how?"
...... He studied her, a shadow in the darkness. After a long silence, he answered, simply: "Yes."
...... After another long silence, she turned away. "You will be contacted!" she warned over her shoulder, as she paced back to the helm.

chapter thirteen CHAPTER FOURTEEN chapter fifteen

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PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)

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