"It's such a long way up Channing's tower," I groused as the endless steps took their toll even on my powerful back legs. "You'd think he would be considerate enough to come down just this once." Lord Thomas just smiled quietly as he often did at the eccentric behavior of one of his altered subjects, so I continued. "It's all very well if you have wings or hooves, maybe, but these big hindfeet feet are just not meant for stairs."
"You seem to handle stairways well enough when the Deaf Mule is at the other end," interjected Bob Stein, Lord High Chamberlain.
"That does it!" I declared. "Four footed is far easier for me than two, and you both know it. But I was being considerate of your limitations, and doing it the hard way. I'll see you at the top!" And with that I dropped into a more natural means of locomotion, quickly leaving my companions far behind as I dug my claws into cracks in the old stone and thrust my self skyward in an ever tightening circle. Until I came to a little landing at the very top, where I waited for my companions. And waited. And waited...
Until finally their clumping hooves and panted exhalations let me know they were near. "It's about time, my equine friends! What's been keeping you?"
Thomas answered me with a glare, while Bob was too beat even for that. Both collapsed onto the landing, gasping for air.
"What's the matter? Can't you horsey-folks beat a little bunny rabbit in a place where full-morph isn't practical?" Every year we were the top three finishers at the Festival run, with me a distinct third. I kept pushing for a slalom event or a shorter race, but the equine types just wouldn't fall for it. So I accepted what petty victories I could, and rubbed them their noses into them endlessly.
But they were too tired to appreciate my needle-work, both gasping and out of breath. Finally, Thomas waved acknowledgment of the point I'd scored, freeing me to help my friends to their hooves for the last short ascent to the learned gander's door. Being the most frequent visitor, I scratched at the portal. "Chan!" I called, "It's us!"
"Us who?" Chan honked back.
All three of us looked pained, but I was used to this. "Duke Thomas. Bob Stein. Me, Phil. You wanted to see us, urgently. Said it was vital to the future of the realm, a matter of life and death. Told us to drop everything and come at once, no matter what. Thomas and Bob have a King and a minor Lordling cooling their heels in the throne room right now, in fact...."
"Oh!" said the goose. "That! I had almost forgotten..." And with a bustle of feathers and muttered apologies we were let in.
The Reverend Channing's tower-room is not a place a lot of folks get to see, though I spend a lot of time there working on various writing issues. The goose is incredibly absent-minded- I'd even go so far as to say bird-brained were it not for the obvious rejoinder. Things were left sitting around wherever he had last placed them in his deep mental wanderings from one matter to another, often to wait for years before being picked up and moved again. The result is really one of the strangest sights in the Keep. On an end table sat a pewter mug filled with green sand, next to an unopened scroll that looked to be a thousand years old. In between rested a skull of some kind of beaked creature, though like none I had encountered in all my travels, with an abandoned jam sandwich dripping purple preserves into it's eye sockets. Across a narrow walkway through the accumulated junk stood a cabinet covered with a collection of dead insects arranged in a manner I had not yet fathomed after long study, while a fixture off to one side contained every imaginable variety of toothpick. A cauldron sat on long-dead coals in a corner, it's contents seemingly boiled away while Chan became distracted with something else. And everywhere was writing, bits and pieces of vintage Channing that had been recorded on tablecloths, scraps of parchment, the walls, and even Chan's own clothing as the spirit moved him. It was such a terrible waste of writing talent, as most of it was absolutely illegible. But our Reverend would not be himself were he any different- I merely appreciated those works that did emerge from the fine mind behind the clutter in coherent form, even the sonnet once scrawled on a leaf of lettuce...
Thomas and Bob were not used to the spectacle or the goose himself, however, and gawked a bit as Chan moved a totem pole and an entirely unlabeled collection of seemingly ordinary rocks to make room for them to sit on two dusty chairs. And in the end it was I who recognized the dreamy look in my friend's eye as the rocks began to distract him....
"Chan," I prodded gently. "There was something important?"
"Oh! Yes, there was, wasn't there? Now what was it...."
"Something vital to the future of the realm," Thomas prodded gently.
"Yes, that!" the goose expostulated happily, dropping the rocks into an already-forgotten heap to wait who knew how many years to attract his notice again. "I have found an original copy of the Prophecies of Felix of Lee in the Keep library."
Thomas nodded. "Most excellent, Reverend! Good work! But the Prophecies of Mad Felix are well known. Why is this an emergency?"
"There was an error in transcription, which I have rectified."
"Indeed?" asked Bob, still unimpressed.
"Chapter three," the goose continued proudly. "The original translators got it wrong."
Interesting. Long ago I had been required to memorize that passage as part of my apprenticeship. It held particular interest to my people, as it dealt with a future naval campaign. "Read your version to me, if you would" I requested.
"Certainly. It begins the same-
"In times to come
The world in sum
Will be cut up into twain
With Evil's heart
Confined in part
Through warrior's blood and pain
On sea and land
True men will stand
So that evil cannot gain
"So far, so good" I interrupted.
"Yes!" said the goose excitedly. "But here is where things are different!"
a wizard's fate
On triple gate
a leader shall appear
With hare of white
and rat of might
He shall know no fear
His Army shall
Hated by all near
In fort they stand
In fight long plan'd
At sea they strike shrewd blows
The world is held
Through body's weld
Where knowledge freely flows
But vict'ry comes
From math and sums
Of scholars in strange clothes
So it shall happen by land and sea
An alliance will end this history
Fleets and forts shall pay red blood for time
While thinkers create device sublime
The horse-king controls the newfound slave
With it the world, which it to him gave
Great storms announce the end of the age
And new prophet shall see new page
There was silence for a minute, as we appreciated the significance of what we had heard. Then Thomas spoke up. "Channing, this is not so different than what we have heard before. In fact, I can detect no changes at all."
"Three words," I interjected. "Three words differ. 'Rat of Might' reads 'Fat old Knight' in the version I learned. Otherwise, nothing is different."
"Ah," said the goose, "but you have missed something important."
"The line before the Rat of Might."
"But that hasn't changed at all!" I objected. "It says that the leader will have white hair."
Thomas stared, then smiled. He is always quicker than me. Then Bob Stein began to stare at me too...
"What?" I asked. "What are you looking at? Sure, I have white hair, all over in fact. But so do you, Thomas! And a lot of other folks get white hair. It doesn't mean anything!"
"Phil," Channing explained gently, "Felix of Lee was illiterate, as you should well know. His acolytes wrote down the verses as he spoke them. Then they the original scrolls were copied and recopied. But this is an original."
"You learned the scroll as 'Hair of white', the implication being that the rising leader is old. But here, in the original, it says 'Hare of white'. H-a-R-E. Not H-a-I-R."
My jaw dropped. We had always thought, back at the Naval Academy, that the three-gated place mentioned must be the eternal Metamor. It was part of why I had journeyed here to begin with. And a lot of other things matched up too, once you put me into the picture and quit looking for a fat old knight. There were plenty of rats about the keep, and one might well have some hidden ability. But then the horse-king, who everyone had expected to be a great cavalry leader, must be....
My friend Thomas. Who valued learning above all, kept a huge staff of strange artisans and wizards about, and who prided himself above all on the free flow of knowledge throughout his realm.
Still gently smiling, the Horse-King of legend and prophecy shut his eyes and fainted dead away onto Channing's floor...
Bob reacted first, opening Thomas's tunic and trying to get fresh air to his leader while I continued to gape idiotically and Reverend Channing honked and fluttered about ineffectually. Eventually though I regained my senses. "Channing!" I said, "Go fly for help. Tell them the Duke has fainted!" He honked once in acknowledgment, and was gone. "Bob!" I said, turning next to the distraught advisor, "You know that you can beat me running DOWN steps, all joking aside. Run for help, just in case Chan comes across something interesting between here and the House of Healing."
"Right!" he nodded, and was off.
Which left me alone with my Lord and friend to do for him what my limited physical form allowed. Carefully I nipped off the remaining tunic buttons, and spread the garment wide. Chan had not closed the shutter behind him, and a fresh breeze was entering from the open window. It did not provide as much air flow as I would have liked so I swept a collection of what appeared to be random bits of clay pottery from the other windowsill to the floor with a forepaw, and hopped easily up onto the now-bare surface to examine the latch on the opposite side. It burst open unexpectedly, with a gust of air that threw me off kilter at the edge of the sheer drop. Before I realized what was happening the wind had me half in it's grip, and I was dancing and twisting frantically along the edge of the precipice, losing ground with each motion. Finally, as the sill slipped out from under my hindfeet I reached out into Chan's room with my forelimbs and managed to half-catch in the crook of my left paw some sort of magical box with a red light that had flashed insistently since we had entered the room. It offered just enough purchase to pivot my upper body forward as I fell, so that I re-entered the room instead of plummeting to my death far below. Fortunately, my landing was on Thomas's soft belly, instead of the pavement far below. In delayed reaction I trembled violently, and instinctively clung to Thomas for all I was worth, hugging myself to him and burying my face in his chest while the frightened animal in me calmed itself.
Naturally, though, Thomas recovered first. "Phil," his first words were, "I didn't know you cared so much about me..." Embarrassment worked miracles where reason had failed utterly, and I was able to pull away and collect myself enough to suggest that Thomas show himself at the window before half of Metamor came rushing up to his rescue. He did, shouting to the rushing healers below that all was well and bidding Posti to put the nobles off for a day on the excuse of his fainting spell. Then he turned to me.
"I think Channing was justified to call us together on this. Don't you?'
Soberly. I nodded.
"You do agree that the new interpretation of the prophecy is pretty convincing, right?"
Again I nodded.
"Any chance the Reverend Channing has it wrong?"
This time I shook my head in the negative. "That goose is incredible. Not only is he a truly gifted writer, but his scholarship is impeccable, especially regarding words and their meanings. I would stake my hutch on Chan's being right even if every other scholar in the world disagreed with him on a translation, not that they would likely dare do so. I work with him often on writing projects- once I was even privileged to collaborate with him. Never would I doubt him, strange being though he may sometimes be."
"Hmm...." Thomas paced a bit, hooves clattering on the stone floor. He could pace for hours, I knew, but it was my duty and place to wait patiently. This time, though, it took only a few moments before the Duke of Metamor planted himself in front of the window where I had just so nearly met my doom, and sighed. "We have much to talk about, you and I. And this is as good a place as any. But there's a storm coming in."
I eyed the ghostly red-lighted box that had just saved my life. It was still blinking furiously, whatever it was, and it bothered me. It had only done that once before, when Matthias and Chan and I had been judging stories in this room not too long ago. Determinedly I looked away from it and joined Thomas at the window. Indeed there was a storm on the horizon, and it looked to be a bad one. Very bad indeed. Moving fast too. I gave a low whistle, as forks of lightning speared the ground in the distance, and a low rumble of thunder followed.
"Should I call the Keep to shelter?"
"I am no weather mage, Lord."
"But you are a seaman, and possessed of a seaman's skills. What does your weather eye tell you, Fleet Admiral?"
Fleet Admiral? It had been long years since that title had been hung on me. And how did Thomas know of it anyway? I had told no one.... "My Lord..."
Thomas grasped my chin and turned my face to his. "Phil, you have been a true and loyal friend since your first days here. Your writings enrich the treasury, your counsel has been wise, and your running of the intelligence service at times brilliant. You have kept peace among many of the young and hotheaded, and been a friend to me. But you have been holding out, as well. Did you truly think you could keep such a secret?"
"Thomas... My Lord, I have NOT told all. But it wasn't anything that mattered..."
"Strictly speaking, that is true. It hasn't mattered, and I have respected your wishes for privacy and discretion. The form you have taken on is very difficult, I know, and makes things hard for you in many ways. You are a citizen here that has earned an honored place, no more and no less. But this new twist on the prophecy, it changes all of that. Doesn't it?"
I sighed. "It might. It just might. But look at me! I am only a rabbit-man now, for crying out loud! I can't command fleets, or even operate a Fire machine anymore- I would be too frightened! I lived as a caged bunny for years until Doug nursed me back, and under pressure I revert to animal still! I just did for that matter, a few minutes ago while you were still out. What can I do, more than what I am doing now?"
Thomas sighed, and listened to the rumble of the approaching storm for a few minutes. Metamor has always suffered from terrible weather in the Spring, but this was shaping up before our eyes as a dandy, even by Keep standards. A warm gust of air blew against or faces, followed by a much chillier one. "My Lord," I interrupted his silent thought, "You asked a few moments ago what I thought of the weather. My seaman's eye says this will be a very bad one. Yes, I do think you need to call the Keep to shelter. Soon."
Reluctantly, Thomas nodded. "It's too bad. We need to talk more, but it will have to wait for another day." The Lord of Metamor fastened Channing's shutters carefully, though the wind and thunder leaked through. "But there is just one thing I wanted to ask you, Phil, before we go to shelter. I have always wondered. Why do you refuse the Crown?"
My stomach did a flip-flop as I stood rooted to the spot. No one knew about that, aside from the tiniest handful. "Uh..." I said, then "Well..."
Thomas smiled, and scratched my right ear. "Who do you think the King in my throne room is, and what do think we were discussing? And you call yourself a spymaster!"
"But... But..." I sputtered intelligently.
"I know, you thought it was one of the minor Kings of the West, King Zachary in fact. You are not the only one with secrets. King Tenomides asked that you be kept in the dark- he has no desire to embarrass you."
"He thinks you are ashamed of your lapine state. Thus, he will not embarrass you by making you feel obliged to visit him by his presence. He has come here thrice since the Battle of the Three Gates, and the first time the old man wept at your cageside though you of course do not remember it. His visits are largely to check on you."
The old King? Traveling all those miles? To check on me? Well, he DID adopt me as his son, even though I had turned him down. My rejection had nothing to do with him, of course, as he well understood. Honor had required that I step down...
"Phil, I must go and have the alarm sounded. Join me at my table?"
It was a happy coincidence that the safest storm shelter in all of Metamor was the Deaf Mule. "Certainly, my Lord." I said, bowing.
But Thomas bowed in return. "I am honored, my Prince." he said, turning and leaving before I could react.
This did not bode well at all....
It was true that equines could go down stairs faster than me, and I never did catch up with Thomas after I was finally over my shock enough to move. By the time I got to the bottom of Channing's tower the Horns were blowing loudly and all the citizens of Metamor were scurrying across the courtyards and heading for places of shelter, while the air was tense with the energy of the storm that was now nearly overhead. I checked to make sure that the lovingly-crafted barricades had been placed around a very special Larch tree, then ducked for cover myself as the first fat raindrops began to spatter like fat grapes falling onto the pavements of the Keep. Almost immediately the wind rose, making the trees bow and dip to one another like royalty unsure of proper precedence. Then a guard came to seal the doorway, and I turned to take my place at Thomas's table. Where, predictably, King Tenomides already sat.
Well, it had to happen eventually. And I DID love this old man in a very real way. "My Liege" I said, awkwardly trying to kneel in front of him. Until he grabbed me up in his arms and lifted me off my feet in a bear hug-like embrace. "My son!" he exclaimed. "My Son! Oh, how I have yearned to hear your voice again! Why have you stayed away so long?"
Murmuring broke out in the crowded room as he released me from his grip and set me on the floor again. "Your Highness, you know that I cannot accept the honor you wish to bestow on me. It is not that I do not love you, or that I think little of your offer. Far from it! But I too am glad to see your face and hear your voice again," I admitted. "I have been happy here, in my way, and merely wish to live out here the fate that has been dealt to me. For you can see that I am no longer fit for the throne, even if honor would let me accept it."
"Nonsense!" roared the King. "I have named you my heir and successor. This is irrevocable! Even I cannot undo what has been done. When you lived in a cage with the mind of a hare, I wept that the Island of Whales would be ruled by a regency for as long as you lived, but even thus would you have become King Phil. And you know it."
"Don't be ridiculous, your Highness..."
"That's 'Don't be ridiculous FATHER', son!"
I inhaled to make the old arguments again, but was interrupted by a piercing peal of thunder from a nearby lightning strike. By the time it passed, I had thought better of my speech. Calmly and quietly, I addressed the man I respected more than any other. "King Tenomides, we have traveled this road before. I suggest that this is neither the time nor the place to do so again. I rejoice to see you here hale and healthy and safe from the terrible storm outside. Let us put our dispute aside for the moment, and enjoy the moment together before we argue again in a more private place."
The King thought it over a moment, then nodded. "Done, by God! In truth I'd as soon not argue myself.. Thomas! Beer for everyone, on my account!"
And there was rejoicing, as well as partying and music and demonstrations of fancy billiard shots by Copernicus. The storms continued to come, as the hours passed, marching one after another like soldiers in a parade, with nary a space in between and intensifying with every hour. Our weather mages said it was the nature of such things, though more powerful this time than most. Using magic, they said, would just make things worse later. So we waited it out together, drinking beer and mead and swapping lies, until eventually even in the Mule we could feel the roaring of the wind through the minute cracks in the stonework and the hear the impact from time to time of hailstones the size of my forepaws.
Then, I began to detect the scent of fear. But Thomas was right on it, it seemed, climbing to the top of our table and stamping his hoof for attention. "Everyone, everyone,!" He shouted. "Your attention, please!" When there was relative quiet, he continued. "The mages assure me that there is nothing magic about this storm, that it is nothing to fear. This old Keep has seen far worse, in days gone by, yet is still standing. We are all together here, and as safe as we can possibly be. This storm is not a bad thing- rather it is a holiday when no work can be done save by Donnie and his noble crew. So let there be no fear- this weather will pass soon enough and there will be plenty of cleaning up to do. In the meantime, let us rejoice! I call for the Wanderer, the Royal Bard, to entertain us!"
Happy applause broke out, as Wanderer approached the Royal table. But instead of sweeping his cape aside with a flourish and beginning a masterful tale, as he usually did, his stepped quietly to Thomas's side and whispered in his ear. The Duke nodded understandingly, whispered something back, and climbed back onto the table. "Wanderer," he explained, "is suffering from a sore throat. He asks our forgiveness, but he cannot tell tonight's story. Let us thank him for past tales nonetheless!!"
And there was more clapping and cheering, as the fear of the terrible weather was forgotten. Then Thomas continued. "Therefore, tonight, as Duke of Metamor I wish to indulge myself. We have all heard of the Great Storm of the Central Sea, and the desperate Battle of the Wind fought in it's midst. Two survivors of that night are here among us, and to them this day's weather must seem relatively tame. There are many myths about what happened, and many who make claims about what really did and did not come to pass. But I have always wondered about the truth of the matter. Would King Tenomides or Phil, our own Court Rabbit, perhaps be willing to share the tale with us?"
A murmur went through my fellow Keepers as I met the eye of the King. It had been so many years ago, that terrible battle, and yet the memories were live and vivid and horrible. I leaned over, and whispered. "Your Majesty, I have no desire for this story to be told. It was a horrible thing, best left in the past."
But the King, after considering shook his head. "No, Phil. Too many good men died that night. They deserve to be remembered. Do they not?"
I shuddered inwardly- the butcher's bill had been absolutely horriffic, beaches blackened with corpses for days afterwards. And almost all of them under my command, dead under my orders. Technically we had won a decisive victory, but my nightmares were still populated by the silent masses greeting our pitiful few ships as we returned home. There were no victory cheers, no triumphant bands. Rather, the shrieks of the new widows and fatherless children had almost ripped my heart out...
Yet the King had suffered even more, I remembered. If I refused, would he feel obliged to relive his even worse experience? In the end, I nodded. "For them, and for you, I will tell this tale. For no others would I."
He nodded quietly. "I thank you, as does Harold I am sure." And a tear came into his eye at the very mention of the name...
As it did to my own. Angrily I looked over at Thomas, miffed at what he was going to put us through for his own entertainment. But then I saw the determined set of his visage, and I realized there was more to this than met the eye. Though what I couldn't guess.
Eventually I stood in the flickering torchlight, and in my high-pitched bunny voice I began to relate the story of the strangest and bloodiest sea victory ever won...
"I have to begin (I explained) with some history. The Isle of Whales is a good-sized piece of land square in the center of the Strait of Good Fortune, so named because it is fortunate indeed for the world's mariners that the world's two great oceans are connected thus. The Western Ocean lies South and West of Metamor, while the Central Sea, almost entirely landlocked, is to the East. On these bodies of water trade and commerce enriches the lives of all, and good fishing feeds the coastal peoples.
"But ships can carry the stock in trade of war as well as peace, and in the very earliest writings we find empires built and destroyed by the control of the Seas. There are even stories of conquests beyond the known lands of today, where great riches and bonanzas in trade await the brave and foolhardy who dare sail beyond the edges of our maps. In all times, whoever has held the Island of Whales has controlled the Strait, which is the major chokepoint of fleets of both conquest and commerce. Long ago, a most tyrannical Empire controlled the Island. They were undefeatable at war, and intolerable in peace, demanding crippling tribute from all who would pass the Strait. Trade languished, and the world became a poorer place.
"One day, a traders son from one of the oldest families on the Island made a discovery quite by accident, a method of creating a liquid fire. The circumstances were such that the precise chain of events leading to the mixture would probably never happen again, but the boy had been observant and was able to make it again whenever he wished to. His father was watching him experiment one day when it occurred to him that this could make a great weapon for defending his ships from the pirates that infested the Central Sea while the Empire chiefs failed to police the waters. Together with his other son, who captained a ship of his own, the three members of the Greek family fitted the first ever Greek Fire projector onto the lowly merchant vessel.
"The results were far in excess of what any of them dreamed. When pirates showed up on the very next voyage, one brother conned the ship to face the would-be murderers while the other prepared the projector. When the time was right a stream of flame was released right into the shouting mass of boarders. With horrible screams they blackened and died, many leaping into the sea to drown rather than burn. The whole ship went up in a matter of seconds as the Fire played along it's length, and it burned to the waterline in less than an hour.
"It is one thing to discuss such matters here, in the safety of Metamor, but another entirely to hear the screams and smell the seared flesh at sea. I know this all too well from my own experience, and can easily see the Greek family looking with horror over what they had wrought, then slitting the throats of the few pirates still alive. This is NOT cruelty- it is a mercy. For there are few who survive even a small touch of the Fire even with the attentions of the greatest Healers. And the victims scream as the salt water soaks into their burns...
"They decided that the weapon was too inhumane to ever use again, until a cousin was roasted alive by pirates in "repayment" for what the Greeks had done in self-defense. Then, with terrible resolution they fitted Greek fire projectors to all their merchant ships, jealousy guarding the secret lest the pirates steal it. Within weeks any vessel with a Greek house flag was avoided studiously by pirates as word got around...
"Eventually of course, the Empire got wind of the whole affair, and demanded a projector and an operator. The Greeks could not stand the idea of such a horrible weapon in Empire hands, and resisted. One thing led to another, and pretty soon the merchants of the Island of Whales, following the lead of the Greeks, were in open revolt against the Empire. The Greek fire proved decisive, as it has in virtually every naval war since, and in the end the Empire broke up as it's sea lines of communication were utterly destroyed, along with it's entire navy, by the converted merchantmen.
"Throughout all of this, the Greeks had kept their secret among their own people only, creating a body of specialists in this unique weaponry. This made them the most powerful family among all the merchants, and eventually they accepted a Crown. King Tenomides, sitting here, is the direct descendant of the ship-captain brother. His full name is Tenomides Greek.
"The inventive sibling, however, died childless. He named as his successor the most competent and able of his students, and given the technical difficulty of making Fire and, even more so, the projector from which it issues the Greek family decided to honor his wishes. And thus the Guild of Greek Fire was founded, with each Guildmaster selecting the next regardless of low birth or nobility.
"Over time the areas of responsibilities of both groups were defined. The Royal family provided the ships and crews to carry the Fire, while the Guild built and manned projectors, all the while taking greater and greater pains to protect the secrecy of their weapon. By tradition no Guild members learn to sail and none of the Royal family join the Guild. There is only one exception each way. This, we have learned, keeps the power balanced nicely and ensures the Fire is not misused....
"Wait a minute!" a voice interrupted. "Forgive me, Phil, but the Guild is mercenary in nature. You rent projectors and operators to the highest bidder. How is this not misuse?"
I paused a moment, trying to find the words to explain an unpleasant truth. Then I gave up and said it plainly. "Greek Fire is hideously expensive to make and safeguard. It polices the sealanes of the world, and keeps any fleet from sailing without the blessing of both the Guildmaster and the King. But the Island of Whales cannot pay for it alone. It is simple economics."
"So you sell victory to the highest bidder, and roast the loser's men?"
"Think about it. If you have lost out in the bidding for the ultimate weapon, will you not perhaps make peace instead of fighting? Is not economic war more civilized than the kind waged with swords and steel and flame? "
"But you yourself have roasted men alive!"
"And women too, quite frankly. Their screams live in my nightmares. But if they are crazy enough to face a projector when they could have backed down, how much evil might they have wrought? Mass-murder in the name of something holy? Genocide, even? I took no joy in operating my projector, but it is better that one side be overwhelmingly powerful in war. And neither Guildmaster nor King will tolerate true evil. If one did, the other would refuse to support him. Besides, the seas MUST be policed, and it has to be paid for SOMEHOW. Have you a better plan, one that will keep the seas free among a hundred squabbling petty kinglets and a thousand would-be pirates?"
As I expected, I was greeted with silence.
"As I was saying then...
"Only one individual of either group is trained in the discipline of the other. These two are called "Fleet Admirals", and are equals in power. The Admiral of Ships, from the Royal family, controls the strategic deployment of ships, construction, training, and the like. The Admiral of Fire, from the Guild, commands the Fleet at sea. He is usually to be found in the flagship, where his special knowledge of Fire can be put to best use in the event of a large battle. Usually, the Admirals are the Crown Prince and Guild Master's designated successor, though sometimes circumstances make this impossible. Through this arrangement, the Island of Whales reigned unchallenged on the seas for a thousand years.
"Until the Evil began to arise in the East again...
"Some folks call the farthest reaches of the Central Sea the Eastern Ocean, just because the people seem to be so different there. I tend to agree with this custom, even though there is no Strait or other dividing line. After all, where else do you find Lutins working with Humans, or Demons running warehouses? These far reaches are absolute hotbeds of piracy, and we Island folk have a hard time policing there, what with the prevailing winds against us and the communications time sometimes running into months. Here and there, among the Eastern Kingdoms there are decent ports with good facilities, and everything a King needs to build a fleet of conquest save the Fire. From time to time, one of them tries it. And sometimes succeeds in pulling off a troop landing without our help...
"But King Iro was something else entirely, a whole different breed of cat. I know that here at Metamor we have experienced the Battle of the Three Gates, and that there is a long history of low intensity warfare both before and since. But terrible as Three Gates was for us all, the main effort of the Enemy whose name I will speak not was directed against we Islanders a few years before. And King Iro stooged for the Evil One.
"Our first reports came in through the tiny Fireless patrol vessels that the Island maintains the world over for news gathering. From everywhere in the East, it seemed, shipbuilding supplies were flowing towards the Kingdom of Spake. Ship after ship bulging with timber, pitch and hemp was working it's way down the coast and around the difficult Jaw of the Devil into the sheltered waters beyond. There, the greatest collection of shipwrights the world has ever seen, including many from the Island itself, was feverishly turning out ship after ship while slave labor was drafted and trained to row.
"Now, a fleet is not built in a day- it takes far longer to build an effective navy than a comparably sized army. This is because so much is so difficult at sea. For example, a Metamorian on patrol can live off the land, as can an army so long as it stays on the move. But a fleet at sea requires provisioning with not just special, preserved food but purpose-built goods like masts and cordage. A whole science of replenishment must be developed. Men must be trained to climb masts in howling gales while the wood is encased in slippery ice, in the dark. Officers must learn to navigate as well as fight. And so forth. So we on the Island were not immediately afraid of the Spakean Fleet, quickly though it grew. But it became a matter for concern.
"The King, here, tried to reason with King Iro, offering our services for a fraction what the new ships must have cost, but Iro would have none of it. A fleet was essential to Spakean interests, he maintained, and his kingdom could not feel secure so long as Island ships could land troops with impunity. So he continued to build, and we monitored the situation as Iro's Fleet began to venture out into the open sea and maneuver clumsily about. At first, they returned to port every night. Then they began spending first one, then two and three days at a time at sea. Their skill levels were increasing, and we began stationing a squadron off Iro's coast as a reminder of the length of our arm.
"Things progressed, and as Iro built more ships our squadron got bigger and bigger. We began to develop problems of our own due to the length of our supply lines and the unfavorable prevailing winds. These difficulties were only made worse when Iro started snapping up the little kingdoms around his homeland where we had at least been allowed to fill our water casks ands repair the inevitable storm damage."
"It became evident that things eventually had to come to a head. The Navy was far and away the Island's primary expense, and the maintenance of a large squadron so far away without shore support was slowly bankrupting us. We as a kingdom had to decide to either fight Iro in our first war on our own initiative in over a thousand years, or else fall back and allow him to dominate most of the Eastern Sea.
"The decision was inevitable, of course. If you give someone like Iro more resources to control, he will just build more ships still and the problem will become worse down the road. So the bulk of the fleet of the Island of Whales sailed East, rowing and tacking against the steadily foul winds.
"King Tenomides himself came along, so that if the show of force made an impression a treaty might be signed. Since our flagship, the quinquireme "Fist" was in drydock he came out along with the Fleet Admiral of Fire in a trireme. It was planned that "Fist" would join us when her refit was complete, and the King would take her into Spake Harbor to meet with Iro face-to-face. In the meantime, we would sail back and forth in an intimidating manner, sending forth the odd burst of Fire when Spakean ships were in sight so as to demoralize the crews.
"All went as planned for a couple weeks, with the great Fleet heartened by the presence of the King. Never did oarsmen pull so willingly, never were formations so tight as when Tenomides oversaw with things with his stern eye. And a "Well Done" signal hanging below the Royal Banner after a particularly difficult exercise, well, even crews worked to exhaustion cheered their lungs out in joy. It was a good time for the Fleet, and we were on the razor's edge of readiness when "Fist" hove into view over the horizon...
Which was just as well. As soon as the flags could be read, "Fist" signaled. "To Admiral of Fire. Guild Master poisoned. Hail, Master of Fire"...
"The Admiral of Fire, now Guildmaster, was devastated of course. The Guildmaster had long been a friend and father-figure to him. He wept openly as the flags were raised from all the dozens of ships in the fleet, one after the other. "Hail, Master of Fire" broke out from masthead after masthead, while the King comforted his younger friend. Finally he composed himself while his ensign as Admiral of Fire was taken down, and the new one for Guildmaster raised right alongside that of the King himself. Watching the entire fleet spew flame in salute, the new Guildmaster turned to the King. "Not too many years ago, when you took the throne, I saw that you were crying. Your Majesty, until now, I thought they were tears of joy."
The King replied with a sad smile.
"Only a tiny handful get to see this spectacle in their own honor, a hundred ships in formation playing Fire upon the waters. Yet gladly I would forgo it to see my Master laugh and love and breathe again."
Nodding soberly, the King replied. "Guildmaster, you speak truth. I would trade my throne and all that goes with it if my own father could but live. But Death is an implacable spirit, and one with which no mortal may argue in the end. Remember this spectacle, and understand the trust that it implies. You have been invested with great power, and an even greater responsibility. Know that I think the Master chose his successor well."
"With that, the King ceremoniously kneeled to the new Guildmaster, the one time when their roles would be reversed in a symbol of Royal gratitude and respect for the Guild that controlled his most potent weapon. And all hands gave three cheers...
"By the time the ceremonies ended, "Fist" had nearly joined up with the Fleet. It was then that she began signaling again.
"Did not wish to interfere with ceremonies" the flags read. "Crown Prince on board." And with that the "Fist" raised the banner of the Admiral of Ships to the forepeak.
"What?" asked the King in bafflement. "What on Earth can Hector be doing here? Captain! Ask for me!" And the one flag of the "interrogative" rose skyward.
"Poison found in Crown Prince's food too," "Fist" signaled back. "Safest at sea until plot uncovered. Hope you concur."
"Poison!" the King raged to his new partner. "Weapon of cowards and schemers! He is right of course. Signal that I agree, and that we will meet to discuss this further on board "Fist" when I transfer my Flag." And the colored squares were hoisted once again, and acknowledged. Meanwhile the great quinquireme worked slowly to windward, it's huge bulk making the task long and laborious. It would be several hours yet before the ponderous vessel was in it's proper place at the head of the Fleet.
"You know," the Guildmaster mused, "This is I think the very first time so much of the Island's leadership has come together at sea far from home. Our traditions tend to cause the Admiral of Ships and the Guildmaster stay close to the Island, to preserve continuity. I think that your son and I must be heading back as soon as we are able."
The King sighed. "But who will command the Fleet in action? The Admiral of Fire is supposed to be the one with the experience to do so, but... is perchance your designated successor in the Fleet?"
The Guildmaster shook his head. "No. He is home, teaching at the Academy. And does not know that he has been Selected. I must command, as things have fallen. Our traditions allow this, under extraordinary circumstances. But Hector MUST be kept safe- he is your only child, after all, and a most promising King to be."
"I agree wholeheartedly. Yet is it wise to send him back with a poisoner loose?" The King sighed. 'We must finish this thing with Iro. It is bleeding us white, both financially and in terms of leadership. There are a hundred problems at home that we are neglecting while tied up here, and now there's an assassin about..."
"Perhaps Iro is behind that, as well?"
"Hmm. An interesting speculation, indeed. And all the more reason to finish business here. What could his goal be in killing your Master?"
"Perhaps he sees me as weaker?"
"Perhaps. Or maybe he is just trying to intimidate us?'
"Always possible. Nothing like killing a leader to get the full attention of a Kingdom. But Iro has to know that the succession is always secure."
"True enough. But is my son, for all his promise, yet ready to be King?'
"In truth, no, Your Majesty."
"And is your successor ready to lead the Guild?"
"Of course not! He has not yet even begun to serve as Fleet Admiral."
'Then, if Iro were to kill all three of us that are here right now, do you suppose that there would be a crisis at home? One that might give Iro time to expand his Kingdom to the point it might rival our own at sea?"
A chill seemed to pass through them both, then the Guildmaster tried to refute the idea. "Your Highness, we are safer here at the head of our Fleet than any other conceivable place. Even the Dragons will not attack massed ships of the Island of Whales. And Iro's Fleet, while strong, does not even begin to match our own. Let us transfer our flags to the "Fist", most powerful warship afloat, and parley with Iro while the Fleet is at our back. We will see who fears Death and conquest then!"
The King smiled. "Well spoken, Guildmaster."
"It is engraved right over the Academy gate, my Liege. 'Never Take Counsel of Your Fears. Fortune Favors the Bold'."
"It was right then that all the men of the Island Fleet discovered just how bold Iro was. His declaration of war arrived, in the form of a great breeze shimmering in magic, coming from exactly the opposite direction of the prevailing winds. Taken aback, the ships staggered and drifted helplessly while sailors rushed to trim the yards and take in sail. Another magical breeze came, then another and another as the Fleet struggled to come about. Presently, there was a half gale blowing, then a full gale as the seas began to mount, driven by the sorcerer's hurricane. But still the wind mounted in strength until it screamed like a demon through the rigging and oarports. Forced down to bare poles, the Fleet of the Island began slowly and helplessly to drift before the great wind.
"Straight down to leeward, where their fate awaited them in the form of the cruel rocks of the Jaw of the Devil...
I paused a moment in the telling of my tale to survey my audience and ensure that all was well. Wanderer was the Master, of course, but I badly wanted to do justice to the brave dead that this story honored. In all my life, I intended to relate the horrors to come only once. It was essential, therefore, that it be done right.
But I need not have feared. All over the Mule there was stillness, only the howling of the infernal wind and the racket of driven rain interrupting the silence. Thomas and his advisors, who surely knew the tale to come, looked vaguely apprehensive, while my friend and King Tenomides sat rigidly upright, preparing to relive his terrible loss. Respectfully I met his eye, and almost imperceptibly he nodded. With this blessing, I wet my lips from my mug to refresh myself, and went on...
"I know that there aren't that many sailors this far inland, and that most of you don't really appreciate what a terrible danger the Fleet was in. You see, while a sailing ship can 'tack' into the wind, it is a slow and laborious process that causes the ship to use large sails and heel over onto it's side. This was totally out of the question in the wind that night. And as for the oars, well, we could row some but it would be far too slow to counter the wind pressing us before it. All mariners respect so-called "lee" shores, where the wind blows toward the land out of fear of the very situation we found ourselves in. The prevailing winds were just the opposite, and a magical storm of sufficient magnitude to endanger our well-built ships was something that would take so much power we hadn't even considered it.
"But obviously Iro had. All we could do was keep our bows pointed into the waves and pray that the magic ran out before we hit the rocks. There literally was nothing else to do but wait to die.
"Until the Master of Fire had the craziest idea of his life...
"The seas were mountainous by then, and those of us condemned to share that insane ride felt our weights increase and then fall away to nothing as the vessels rose and fell. All hands literally bailed for their lives as the seas crashed in hatches and stove in oarhole covers, while carpenters trembled at the sight of the massive oak keels warping like saplings under the incredible stresses. Already ships were being lost, usually the older vessels whose pitching was old or whose timbers had gone brittle. They would appear briefly like all the others at the top of a wave, again and again and again. Then, the sea would rise and the ship simply no longer be there. A hundred or more lives, snuffed out with no more fuss than that.
"The Guildmaster was appalled, and deeply angered at having been rendered helpless so seemingly easily. Clinging to the rigging like all the rest, he raged against Iro and whatever infernal powers were being arrayed against him. Screaming his impotent defiance into the wind, he watched as the wreckage of what had just a few minutes age been a fine ship under his command, swarming with survivors he was helpless to rescue, narrowly missed the hull of his own vessel and slowly passed alongside. It was just as well that the hopeless pleas of the terrified men could not pierce the storm, though their faces would live in his mind forever. They would be dead in minutes, and had the wreckage struck his own hull the King and Guildmaster would have joined them...
"Then it came to him. No time to check with the King, no way to make himself heard had he tried. The Guildmaster, timing his moves carefully, dashed across the waveswept deck to the signal locker and dug among the flags. Finding the ones he sought, he arranged them in order and with wild eyes thrust them into the chest of the ship's Captain, who was staring open mouthed. At first he was too shocked to accept them, but then long habit set in and, nodding, he accepted the implied order. Unwilling to ask anyone else to perform the dangerous task, he bent the flags onto the rope, and using both hands began to hoist them aloft. Three times the sea tried to wash him overboard while he was unable to hold on, but each time the Captain emerged from the froth still singlemindedly hoisting the signal.
"It read simply, "Reverse Course"
"Even leaving aside for the moment the fact that this order would entail charging onto the rocks with the wind at their backs, making the turn would be incredibly dangerous and difficult due to the fact that for a time the Fleet would of necessity be broadside to the waves. No captain would willingly do this, as the risk was horrible. Following this command would be a death sentence for half the men in the Fleet, and they all knew it. But the Fleet of the Island of Whales was a proud one of long tradition, and stoically they began to acknowledge by hauling the same signal to their own foretops. Eventually, when enough time had passed for the entire assemblage of ships to get either the original or the repeated signal, the young Guildmaster made a frantic chopping motion to the Captain. He hauled the signal down, which meant it was time to execute the maneuver. Helms went over almost as one, as various scraps of sail were shown to push the bows around as quickly as possible...
"And surely, half the ships did founder on the spot. Waves rolled the Island vessels drunkenly in their troughs, and hurled them sideways from their crests. Ships with the least bit of bad workmanship, with a single inexperienced seaman, or simply just a bit of bad luck rolled over and were dashed into fragments by the pounding waves, the screams of the dying drowned out by the eternal wind. Five thousand men and more had just died, trusting that their leader had a reason for this insanity...
"The Guild master's own ship came about safely, and presently the seas were coming over the stern instead to the bow. A little sail was made, then a little more until the ship was balanced precariously. Waves struck much less frequently as the vessel moved along with them. The Fleet was closing on the flagship, but was still headed for the land at perhaps thirty knots. Having the wind over the stern made the ship much more stable, and presently the King came over to shout his outrage and grief at the commander of his Fleet. "What insanity is this, you fool!" he berated the Guildmaster. "Have you gone utterly mad? Or have you taken Iro's coin, perhaps?"
"The accusations deeply wounded the Master of Fire, but he paid his Sovereign little heed. "Either trust me or do not, Tenomides!" he screamed in return, full of emotion at what had just taken place. "But stay out of my way or relieve me! I have no time to explain!" And with those words he turned back to the captain. "Signal "Attack the enemy in harbor by ramming.'."
"The captain froze again, in sheer disbelief at what he had just heard. The Guildmaster once again thrust he proper flags into his hands, and shouted again. "Make the signal, damn you! There's not a second to waste if we are to weather the Jaw!" And numbly the Captain again began bending the flags and running them up the halliard, the rest of the crew too shocked to believe what they were seeing with their own eyes.
"This was suicide. Pure and simple.
"What do you want?" The Guildmaster began shouting at the crew in frustration. "We are all going to die. You know that. Would you rather crash into rocks, or take the triple-damned ships of Iro with you? Would you leave him a fleet, while our Island lies defenseless? Come, let us die like men, instead of cowering and watching the rocks creep upon us. Let us die with our ships, a bone in our teeth and under sail! And let us take the hopes and dreams of our enemies along with us!"
"Gradually, a grim resolve came in to the eyes of the doomed sailors, a terrible fell sight for any enemy that might have been in reach as the truth of the words of the Master of Fire struck home. You could watch as each made their peace, and committed themselves to the attack. The signal rose to the foretop.
"The response was slower this time, as each captain had to come to the same conclusion the Master of Fire had already reached, and explain to his men why they must die. But eventually all ships were flying the flags that sealed their doom. And each began to put the wind as far on their starboard quarter as possible, in order to weather the Jaw... I paused again in my storytelling, as I could see that many did not understand what was involved in the attack. "The Jaw of the Devil juts out from the mainland, and forms a beautiful natural harbor. We were being blown onto the rocks of the ocean-side of the Jaw before reversing course. With the ships running before the wind, instead of being blown helplessly we could steer a little- this is what is meant by 'putting the wind on the quarter'. In other words, we were charging the shore, running before the wind but now had some control of where we would hit instead of just being striking wherever the wind landed us. The Master of Fire, rather than waiting for an inevitable doom traded time for control. We would strike sooner, but just might be able to strike a blow first. If we could steer far enough away from the wind to get around the Jaw.....
"And many ships could not get the wind sufficiently on the quarter. >From the second the signal to attack was hauled down it was clear that only the most nimble vessels with the cleverest captains would weather, or get around, the Jaw and into the enemy anchorage beyond. And clearly the "Fist", with it's terrible bulk, would not be among them. The captain gave it a noble try, of course, and at first it looked as though against all odds he might win through. But in order to try and keep the wind off the centerline he was carrying far more sail than was wise, and some of the rigging gave way. It was over in minutes after that, as "Fist" spun out of control and down upon the Jaw. Even against the wind it's impact upon the rocks was audible aboard the flagship, we were so close to disaster ourselves. There could have been no survivors, we all knew, as the hull seemed to dissolve and the King wailed in agony at the death of his only child. The Guildmaster comforted him as best he could, as the perilously close shoreline continued to unreel at a terrifying speed.
Finally the King got himself back under control, and though still weeping he looked the Master of Fire in the eye and swore an oath. "Guildmaster," he declared "I accused you falsely. Though my son is dead, you at least let him face his end with a plan in mind and resolve in his heart. I know of no one better fitted. Master of Fire, I name you my heir."
"The Guildmaster was flabbergasted of course, and bound by honor and tradition to turn down the offer. After all, the division of responsibilities and power was a tradition of centuries, and one that served the world well. But he had a Fleet in terrible peril to command, and other things on his mind. Besides, he knew that both he and King would be dead in the next hour or so anyway. So he simply nodded, and claiming the very legitimate press of duty went back to work.
"One by one the ships of the Fleet fell victim to the Jaw, either falling downwind inch by inexorable inch as the captains failed to hold the wind quite far enough on the starboard quarter, or going the way of "Fist" when overstrained rigging failed. In the end, at the very last light only a handful, perhaps twenty ships, remained when the Jaw was weathered and the fleet of Iro lay waiting for the killing. Still traveling three times as fast as any warship ever expected to travel in battle, the doom of Iro swept around the Jaw...
"Spake Bay is large, and frankly a better naval anchorage than our own Oyster Bay. The Master of Fire ran to the bows in the failing light, trying to make out what he could. There were the lines of ships, anchored neatly as he anticipated, while the graving docks were just where he'd been told. All in all the Spakean fleet was only about 40 ships, enough to threaten the Island Navy only because they had been forcing the Islanders to operate so far from home. We could not maintain our full force there for very long. The Guildmaster was quite certain his twenty, rushing in as they were with all the energy of a tempest behind them would certainly destroy most or perhaps all of the enemy. Even were his vessels reduced to wreckage, the wrecks pressed by the force of the wind would suffice to destroy all in their path. Especially if they were burning, which he was quite certain his Guild brothers were even now hustling to arrange...
"But off to the left stood a single solitary Spakean vessel, the quinquireme "Iro" intended to rival the late "Fist". He was just wondering whether to detach a ship to burn her or leave her to survive due to her lucky position when inspiration struck. "Captain!" he cried. "Signal 'Rally at enemy flagship after attack." Surely there would be survivors, and in the confusion it just might be possible to take the big ship and burn it as a last act of defiance.
Then the King appeared at his elbow. "Guildmaster!" he said excitedly. "I just had an idea!"
"Yes, my Liege?"
"This storm is magical, right?'
"What if the wizard were to die? Would not the weather calm?"
"A light began to dawn in the Master of Fire's eyes. "Yes! And the prevailing winds would be fair for home. What do you have in mind?"
"Quite simple. I have a Ring from Metamor here with me. The Royal family may use it to change form. I have used it once or twice for amusement, and Hector was quite fond of it. Almost certainly the wizard is in the castle, right here by the sea. Care to have a go at him with me, my son?"
"Amazingly enough, in all the activity the Guildmaster had actually forgotten he had been offered the Crown. But it was against all his inclinations, all that he believed in for a Guildmaster to accept the position. It would make him far too powerful in his homeland, and too easily tempted by dreams of Empire. But what was the alternative? Leaving the King to face a wizard alone? Abandoning all hope for any lucky enough to survive the imminent attack by ramming? There really was no choice at all, of course. Reluctantly the Master of Fire nodded and, explaining why he and the King must leave at this moment of peril, turned over command of the Fleet to the Guild man operating the flagship's projectors. The King donned the ring, and the Master of Fire grasped firmly the finger bearing it. Quickly His Majesty explained what would happen. First there would be a burning sensation, then a massive sense of disorientation. When it passed, both would be seagulls.
"Seagulls?" asked the Guildmaster. "Against a wizard?"
"Like I said," replied the King grimly. "This was supposed to be for amusement only."
"Great'" muttered the Guildmaster as the burning took hold, followed by the disorientation he'd been promised. When it passed, the wind gripped him bodily and literally blew him off the deck. Before he knew it he was flying, and another gull he took to be the King was alongside him, screaming raucously. Fortunately the transformation came complete with knowledge off his new body, as this terrible windstorm was not a good place to learn how to fly from scratch. Presently, both were headed toward the shore, even faster than the remnant of the Fleet was running down on the anchored ships.
"The Guildmaster had no idea where he was going, having studied the anchorage as a matter of professional routine weeks back but not learning about any installations ashore aside from the naval docks. But it seemed the King had visited here before since he flew directly to the correct window of the proper tower. Fortunately the window faced down wind, making a little dead air for the two gulls to use in landing on the sill. Inside there was a ghostly orange flickering. Heat and a monotonous chanting leaked through the rare and expensive glass window. The Master of Fire tried to ask what came next, but all that came out was another raucous gull scream. The two could not communicate, and for a moment they stood there trying to read each other's mind. Then, distantly, they heard the first impact of the Fleet upon the anchored ships, followed by another and another. Time was running out...
It was the Master of Fire that began pecking at the window. Someone would probably come and shoo them away, he figured, and if that happened they could fly inside. Presently the King came to the same conclusion, and he too began pecking insistently. Pretty soon they were indeed rewarded as the glass was flung open and curses shouted. The wet birds flew fearlessly in, to be greeted by an incredible spectacle.
"A Demon had been captured, and was being forced to create the storm...
"Now, this was not your Demon like works in warehouses along the Eastern Ocean and sometimes puts up a nasty fight as part of an army assaulting places like Metamor. They are only called Demons because of their appearance and fighting abilities. This was a REAL Demon, as in the opposite of a God. He was surrounded by flame (thus the orange flickering we had made out through the glass) and held in a pentagram while the chanting compelled him to use his powers. There wasn't just a wizard that had to be killed- there were RELAYS of wizards that chanted continually lest the Demon escape and do who knew what to those who had enslaved it. Iro must have been mad to allow such an abomination in his Kingdom. Only the Evil one could have snared it and sent it to him...
"The pair perched on a high shelf across the room from the window, which was immediately reclosed. The angle kept them out of sight, and presently the wizards complained that the search for the two gulls was disturbing their concentration far more than the tapping had. So the Guildmaster and King presently were left alone.
"But they had no idea what to do. In gull form, they were as helpless and vulnerable as the true bird. And if they changed to human, they would be slaughtered before the disorientation passed. In desperation, the Guildmaster began hopping about the shelves, heedless of the risk of being discovered...
...when he found something VERY familiar in one of the many jars. It would be an insane risk, he knew, trying to make a precise mixture with wings and beak, but the key element was there, as were acceptable substitutes for the rest. Carefully he dragged the precious jar back out of sight, and indicated to the King some others he needed. Then using beakfuls to measure, he began mixing Greek Fire in the very heart of Iro's castle, while the King fetched and carried.
"He couldn't make very much, not with the materials available and the limitations that came with wings. But the Master of Fire's timing could not have been better. Just as he was finishing Iro burst in and demanded that the wizards redouble their efforts- the cursed Islanders were raiding the harbor in the middle of the storm! The Spakean King was still berating them when the jar fell from the highest shelf, and burst at his feet. He was spattered heavily, and began to run about blindly, the blaze already attacking his flesh. And he ended up in the arms of the Demon, who seemed most pleased to see him. Did you know that a Demon can keep you alive indefinitely, even when covered with Fire?
"Even worse, in crossing the pentagram Iro broke it, and the Demon was freed. I've heard he rampaged across the kingdom for years before someone finally managed to get him under control. Where the rich town of Spake once sat there are today only ruins of a city, and a vast desert behind a splendid harbor. Truly, we Islanders even in victory would not have made the Spakeans suffer half so much as did their own King who tried to use a Demon against us.
"Seagulls didn't merit the Demon's attention, though, and the pair were able to fly out into the corridor and the maze of the castle beyond. They got separated, however, as the Demon rampaged and the structure began to crumble. The Guildmaster became sick and lost, due to the chemicals he had handled in his mouth. He was forced to take shelter in a tree, and through the night he watched the harbor burn and the Demon wreak havoc. All the while he feared he would never see human form again, since the King held the Ring that was the key to restoring his form. But next morning he was able to snare a fish from the bay, which made him feel much better. With his head clear, he visited the berth of the "Iro" and found it empty. He did not know if it had been successfully taken or if the Spakeans had merely used it to run from the Demon. Firmly resolving to find his men or die trying, The Master of Fire rested a bit, then flew out to sea. Needless to say, at the very limit of his endurance he found the vessel and landed at the feet of his King. Who was weeping over his losses, the Master of Fire not least among them...
"I would like to say that this story has a happy ending, but of course it does not. Hector, light of the King's life, star student and potentially the greatest King Whale Island ever would know perished in the breakers, as did almost ten thousand sailors aboard the ships of the Fleet. Only a hundred and forty-three souls survived, taking the captured "Iro" home to an empty dockyard filled with grieving widows and fatherless children. The forces of Evil, acting through Iro, were denied control of the seas, but at a cost that is difficult to imagine.
"Rebuilding the Fleet still continues, draining the treasury and the population alike.
"And the royal succession was broken. There is no heir...
"Wait a minute!" cried the King from behind me. "There is a successor, and you are it Guildmaster! You nodded in acceptance, and the Ring changed you into a gull!"
Then Matthias, my fellow writer spoke up. "Yes! And why do you persist in telling this as if you were not the Guildmaster? We all know now, Phil. There is no more use trying to deny it. Why speak as if it were someone else?"
I sighed, knowing that my stay at the Keep could not be the same as it was, that I could perhaps never just visit with the good people returning from Patrol again, and share a carefree ale. Then I tried to answer, as best I could. "Because, my friends, it WAS someone else. Part of me died on the trip back to the Island. I should have persished that night, ramming my flagship home on a line of Spakeans, drowned beneath the weight my sinking victims. I should never have lived, while so many I led died. Had I done better, there would be many fewer widows. I don't deserve anything."
There was silence, so I continued. "I cannot resign as Guildmaster while I live, this is so. But CAN refuse the Crown- the very idea that I should have both is ridiculous. And I CAN retire, passing on the power to the Fleet Admiral of Fire and finding a quiet place to try to forget my mistakes. And perhaps practice my art where it is needed. There is much precedent for this."
"And now look at me. Who could take me seriously as a ruler now? You folks remember- just last Tuesday I hid trembling from Pascal's latest cleaning contraption while Doug Linger tried to get me to come out so I could be carried to my hutch to recover. 'Master of Fire' indeed! And Crown Prince? What other king would take me seriously, my Liege?"
"What sovereign could fail to take seriously the architect of the victory at the greatest naval engagement in history, the Battle of the Wind? Phil, you take too shallow a view of the world. They are much more open-minded about curses and magic than you suppose, once you get out of the hinterlands. I have a long list of foreigners who would pay much gold to have you speak to their admirals. All around the Central Sea, your name is spoken with awe."
"Awe!" I snorted derisively. "Only because they do not know! They were not there! There was just no other way."
"Phil, ten thousand men thought enough of you to die willingly at your command. They knew you well. You had commanded as Fleet Admiral for years. And you brought them, and me, victory. Had any other man been in command, they would still have died, but in defeat. Do you not see this? I owe you my kingdom. And my life."
I paced nervously like I had on so many quarterdecks, though now I tended to trip over my big hindfeet if I got too deep in thought. "Look, The Island of Whales has gotten by just fine without me. If there were need, at your request I might return to the Guild, but...."
It was then that the wind began to rise form it's previous howl to a banshee screech, accompanied by a deep rumble. Fear paralyzed me where I stood- probably I was the only one there who had heard that sound before. I stamped, twice, before realizing no one understood...
"Tornado!" I shouted finally, squeezing the word past my fear-constricted throat. "Take cover! Now!"
And we piled under the tables in disarray, me ending up between Thomas and the King. A thousand flutes played as the wind was forced through the cracks so quickly that the Keep itself became one huge discordant symphony. The rumble grew and grew, until the stone floors shook in sympathy. A few loose cobbles fell, smashing onto tables and the floor. But still the rumbling grew incredibly forceful, getting louder and louder and louder...
Until there was sudden silence. A little awestruck by the violence of Nature, we stayed huddled for a few moments. Then I sniffed, and sniffed again. The air seemed awfully fresh...
When I looked up, the roof was gone. Lifted in one piece, apparently, and dropped somewhere downwind. Soon more of us were gaping up, awestruck. In all the history of the Keep, no force had done so much damage...
A quick survey showed no one hurt or missing, until I recalled that no one had seen the Reverend Channing since he had gone for help when Thomas fainted. But a quick search found him examining some old graffiti carved into one of the Mule's portals. He still had not noticed the tornado... Thomas asked Michael to stay close by the gander for a bit until we were sure it was safe to let him wander about without a keeper.
The stars came out soon after, as lightning marked the great storm's progress downwind. Some folks went to look for the roof, while others began the task of moving the Mule's fixtures into temporary storage until the Keep could be repaired. I kind of hung near Thomas and the King, my heart still beating rapidly, This could have been far worse, I thought to myself....
Until Thomas spoke. He said simply:
"Great storms announce the end of the age And new prophet shall see new page"
Then he looked at me. "Hare of White, are you ready to take your proper place?"
The King was mystified, but did not interfere.
I sighed again. "My King, My Lord. I promise you that when the time comes I will accept what the Prophecy is demanding and my Father- yes, my Father- insists upon. But truly, my soul is not yet healed. Who knows, maybe my proper place is here at the Keep? Let me rest a little longer, and see what is to come. A rabbit is not comfortable far from his hutch, I regret to say."
And for the first time the King reached out and stroked my fur. "My adopted son," he said, "You may wait as long as you feel is proper. My heart is joyous just knowing you will come when the time is right. Do not be ashamed of your body- the people at home already know and love you the more for it. For they are aware it happened while you were opposing the Evil one in a far land. On you, it is a mark of further honor."
I'm afraid I wept a bit as I threw my arms around my Father and embraced the royal Destiny I had never sought...
Prince of Whales...