The Tower: Chapter Two - The Marlin

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Chapter Two

"Sacked, you say? Venarium?!" The Marlin's Quartermaster, a burly Argossean looks puzzled. "I thought Venarium was a fortified town?"

"It is" says the Mate, and then pauses. "I mean... it was..." He shrugs. "Razed to the ground. That's what I heard."

Even this early in the day, the news brought by a Zingaran merchantman of Venarium's fall has raced along the waterfront like wildfire.

The Quartermaster strokes his chin: "So Aquilonia and Nemedia are at war?"

Now the Mate looks puzzled: "Nemedia?" And then realizes the mistake the other has made: "It wasn't the Nemedians... It was a barbarian horde..."

"What?!" The Quartermaster is incredulous. "You jest!!"

"Not I" says the Mate. "That's what they say. A barbarian horde."

"Ishtar preserve us!" The Quartermaster shakes his head: "Let that be a lesson to us all. The fools must have been asleep on watch..." He grumbles for a moment, and then turns his mind to more pressing matters, such as deciding whether the ragged band of mercenaries who have presented themselves at the foot of the gang plank are fit to be allowed on his vessel.

"Lord Veredan told me to expect a few new faces," he says, looking them up and down in much the same way that a woodsman looks at a tree that he's about to fell. "I must say that I was expecting something more... well..." His brow furrows. "And I don't approve of women aboard... but if that's My Lord's wishes then so be it." He glares at Lina. "But there'll be no cabin berth for you... any of you. You'll sleep on deck with the rest of the crew. So get you aboard! We've little enough time to ready for sea as it is..."

Under the watchful gaze of Jubal, the Kushite, he hands each sell-sword a white sash and ushers them up the Marlin's gangplank.

The Marlin sails on the noon tide. A long vessel with a high prow, narrow in the waist and built for speed, her living accomodation is sparse. Veredan shares the sole cabin with the vessel's skipper. The sell-swords sleep on the deck between the rowers benches, beneath the stars.

Swiftly she pushes southward, with consistently fair weather. The sun beats down from day to day with a heat that grows steadily fiercer. The sailors run up canopies for protection from the sun, striped silken cloths from Zingara that match the shimmering sail and the shining gold along the gunwales and on the prow.

Jubal the Kushite is a constant presence, not unfriendly but only seldom drawn into conversation. Veredan is hardly ever seen on deck, preferring the shelter of the cabin to the heat of the day.

After a few days the coast of Shem is sighted. Long rolling meadowlands with the white crowns of towers and cities in the distance, and horsemen with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sit their steeds along the shoreline and eye the Marlin - clearly no trading vessel - with suspicion.

She does not put in here, nor a few days later does the Marlin pull into the broad bay of the River Styx where the black castles of Khemi loom over the waters. Ships do not pull in unasked to this port, where dusky sorcerers are said to weave awful spells in the sacrificial smoke that mounts eternally from bloodstained altars where naked women scream and where Set, the Old Serpent, arch-demon of the Hyborians but god to the Stygians, is said to writhe his shining coils among his worshippers.

The Marlin gives that dreamy, glass-floored bay a wide berth, even when a serpent-prowed gondola shoots from beneath a castellated point of land, and naked, dusky women with red blossoms in their hair stand and call to her crew, posturing brazenly.

Soon no more shining towers rise inland. The vessel passes the southern borders of Stygia and cruises along the coasts of Kush. At last, after two weeks the Marlin pulls into shore, anchoring to re-provison in a shallow bay near a high-walled village of blacks.

Then on, further on to the south, the villages along the shoreline growing sparser and sparser in numbers until at last there are no more sightings. The shoreline is rocky now, and a canopy of green grows down almost to the waterline. Occasionally the captain spots a beach, and sends the longboat ashore for fresh fruit and coconuts, but these occurences become less and less frequent as the vessel beats an unstinting path to the south.

After the third week the Marlin cruises slowly past the mouth of a broad, sullen river, whose banks are clouded with jungle. "That is the Zarkheba," says the Mate, leaning against the guard rail. "See how black its waters are? Death comes swiftly to those who drink of them."

"The black people shun this area." Lina is startled by the voice of Jubal, who has come to stand behind her and gazes solemnly at the shoreline, his eyes heavy-lidded, his thoughts veiled.

Still the Marlin beats to the south, until the crew begin to voice their discontent openly, and even the Mate begins to mutter his disquiet. The vessel has sailed to the utmost reaches of the skipper's charts.

The lookout sights the tower at sunrise on the thirtieth day.