Crispin Redbeard met my attempt at a joke with a glare so icy it would have frozen a fire elemental in its tracks. “That is some courage you have,” he said in a voice so quiet I had to drop my head to hear him, “considering you’re completely surrounded and outnumbered.”
I glanced around and couldn’t suppress a chill down my spine at the sight of the hundreds of pirates waiting eagerly for Redbeard to give the order for a massacre. My gaze continued to my colleagues. Christof’s face was impassive and Ellen’s showed no sign of fear, while the members of my little party and Ellen’s men met the jeers of the pirates with raised chins and rebellious glares. Still, I knew they must be feeling as wary as me. No matter how skillful the soldier, if you’re overrun by vast numbers, it’s likely you’ll fall.
I regretted my joke and met Redbeard’s eyes silently. He walked around me, and I stood motionless, fuming inwardly while he took his time to size me up.
“A norn,” he said, and glanced at Christof, then across at Jeger and Aisling. “Lots of norns. And an asura! So sweet!” He laughed at Skylar, who dug his hands into his pockets as if afraid that if he left them loose, he might be tempted to lash out.
Redbeard circled to stand in front of me again, and reached out a hand to run a finger along my cheekbone. “So pretty,” he murmured. “I might just keep you for myself.”
My blood boiled. Before I could think better of it, I spat in his face and pushed his hand away. “Get your filthy paws off me.”
The pirates whistled and Redbeard chuckled as he wiped away the spittle. “She has spirit,” he said aloud. “I like that.” He seemed amused, although his eyes held a dangerous glitter. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Christof blow out a breath—no doubt he was cursing me silently.
I didn’t care what he thought, though—I didn’t care what anyone thought. Nobody touched me without a personal invitation. “Touch me again,” I said quietly to the pirate captain, “and you’ll be wearing a hook instead of a hand.”
We stared at each other for a long moment. Redbeard looked deeply into my eyes as if seeing me properly for the first time—not just as a female, maybe not even as a soldier. His gaze penetrated deep, searching the dusty corners of my mind like the beam of a lighthouse scanning the rocks.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
I wondered why he wasn’t addressing Ellen Kiel, when she was obviously the leader of our party. To one side, I saw Christof flinch. I knew what he was thinking, but I wasn’t stupid enough to mention Sohothin.
“I’ve come for my staff,” I said. “I crafted the stone myself and it has personal value.”
“You brought an army for that?” he said, amused.
The air around us crackled, glittered. I saw it briefly and frowned, although nobody else seemed to have noticed it. What was that about?
“It’s hardly an army,” I said. “And it’s not mine—I came with Ellen Kiel.”
Redbeard didn’t even glance at her. “No, you didn’t. She came with you. You’re leading this party. And you didn’t just come for a staff.”
A whisper of apprehension ran around the cavern, although I couldn’t tell what had caused it. Ellen twitched, but the pirate standing next to her raised his sword until the blade rested against her chest, and she remained where she was.
I met Christof’s blue eyes. For the first time, he looked wary, and I could almost read what he was thinking. He knows.
Redbeard knew about Sohothin. I knew it as sure as I knew the sun rose in the morning and set at night.
Still, though, the pirate captain didn’t say anything, so I merely repeated, “I’ve come for my staff.”
Redbeard nodded at one of the pirates, who disappeared into the darkness of the cavern. We all waited for a moment, and then the pirate reappeared, carrying my staff.
He walked up to me and held it out. I took it silently, relief sweeping through me at the feel of its weight in my palm. My fingers tingled as the piece of coral I’d crafted connected with me. I was surprised Redbeard had given it back to me.
“Now you can go,” the captain said. A smirk appeared on his face.
Ellen shifted again. Christof put his hands on his hips, inches from the handles of his pistols. Besides Jeger, Tolkien the bear had been sitting, but he now stood, obviously picking up on her tension.
“Enough,” I said. “Enough of the games. You know I’ve come for the sword.”
Redbeard nodded with satisfaction. “I know.”
“Where is it?”
“Safe,” he said.
“I want it back,” I said.
We studied each other. “Hmm.” He appeared to consider my demand. “Well, for something so valuable, I’m thinking I should ask a great price.”
“Name it,” I said.
He grinned, and foul breath swept over me from his blackened teeth. “Five hundred gold pieces.”
I stared at him, not because of the outrageous amount he demanded, but because then I realised the truth. He’d obviously realised the sword was unusual, and maybe he’d even sensed the energy within it. For all his strutting and lewdness, the man obviously had power—I could feel it, latent, but present. Perhaps, I thought, he might even have Mesmer blood within him. But although he knew the sword was special, he obviously did not know its history, or who had given it to me.
Considering this, five hundred gold pieces was an extortionate amount to ask, even for a weapon of the highest quality. And he knew it. His smug, self-satisfying grin told me he had no intention of giving us the weapon back.
I hesitated, unsure what to do. We were too few to rush the pirates, too blocked in to run. Ellen knew we were looking for a special sword, but we hadn’t told her its origin so she wouldn’t realise just how important it was to us either, and there would be no way she’d agree to providing the money for it.
My staff weighed heavy in my hands, the coral gathering energy, channelling it up my arm and through my body. At first I was only half-conscious of it, but gradually the tingling increased, and I glanced down, distracted by the odd sensation. Once again, I noticed that the stale air around us shimmered and glittered. Magic…
It was Sohothin. Somewhere in the depths of the cavern, the sword was calling out to me.
I held my breath, conscious of the magic building around us. I was powerless to stop it—or maybe I could have, if I concentrated enough, but I didn’t want to. I caught Christof’s eye, and something in my face must have shown what was happening because his eyes widened.
“Flash,” he said out loud, and it must have been some secret Lionguard codeword, because Ellen’s head snapped around even as her hand shot to the hilt of her sword, and the other soldiers she’d brought with her all immediately stood to attention.
“Thunder,” she said and, as one, they all drew their weapons. Jeger, Aisling and Skylar—although unaware of the codeword—immediately followed suit, nocking arrows into bows and drawing swords.
You won’t need them, I thought, but I couldn’t speak. Instead, I closed my eyes and let the energy spread through me.
It spread out in a wave as the coral gem connected with Sohothin deep in the cavern, and magic arced between them, crackling like splintering wood, shining bright even through my closed eyes. A sonic boom spread from me, shaking the cavern’s rocky floor, knocking everyone to the ground, except for me. I stood with feet planted firmly, the staff held out in my left hand, the gem radiating heat and light, and automatically reached out my right hand towards the inky darkness of the corner of the cavern. People yelled and scuffled, and the sound of metal striking metal filled my ears, but I couldn’t move. My right hand grew warm, then hot, and I gasped, fingers automatically curling around an object that had appeared. The leather grip fit snugly into my palm, and my fingers tightened.
I opened my eyes. Sohothin—sitting comfortably in my hand—glowed eerily in the dull cavern light.
Redbeard bellowed and the pirates yelled, but they were too late. Lightning blazed through the blade, extending across the cavern, and as one, every single torch in the place went out.
“Follow me,” I yelled to the others, holding out my staff in front of me, letting the gem light our way out of the cavern. The others stumbled after me, knocking aside those pirates who managed to work out what was going on. I gripped Sohothin tightly, my mind swirling, unable to think about what had happened until we’d escaped and we were all safe.
We stumbled back through the caves, moving more quickly once we were out of the main cavern, and it wasn’t long before I saw sunlight ahead of us, marking the exit to the outside world. I gasped with relief, aware my staff was fading as the sunlight grew in strength.
We spilled out into the light and circled, counting our numbers. Nobody had fallen—one of Ellen’s soldiers had a gash on his arm and Aisling had been pushed into the cavern wall and grazed her forehead, but we were all safe.
We turned to the cave entrance, readying ourselves for the pirates in case they’d come after us, but nobody came out, and after a while we realised they’d declined to follow.
Some of the group sat on the floor, catching their breath, others started laughing, swept with relief that we’d made it out alive.
Ellen, however, came over to me. She was breathing hard from the run, and her eyes were flinty hard, unamused that we’d kept secrets from her.
“So,” she said, looking down at the sword that had just stopped glowing in my hands. “I think you have some explaining to do.”
Edited by Jalinar