Four tall, graceful ships glided noiselessly through a darkening mist, which rose from the sea, stealing from the sails any breeze. An oil lantern hung high in each ship’s rigging, but the fog and mist proved almost too thick for those lights to be seen. At the order of the helmsman on the largest ship, the men bent to their oars and began the task of guiding the heavy vessels through the gray world. The strong southerly breeze, which had brought them thus far from their homeland, had died. The muffled slap of wooden oars dipping into the steel-green water robbed the deep voice of power as it called out cadence to the men. All orientation felt lost in the fog-shrouded air.
The patched and frayed sail hung limp from the single spar mounted across a tall mast; lines encrusted with salt, stood slack like a whipped cur’s tail. The mast coated and encrusted from the constant dash of salty spray, gleamed eerily white against the gray of the fog.
Three men stood at the stern of the lead ship, peering into the clouds of fog with tired and fretful eyes. The eldest and largest was a huge, burly man of fifty summers or more, who wore an air of long and weary command. Ginger hair, mixed with gray, hung to his shoulders and hugged his bowed head. An etched gold diadem held the dripping strands back from his eyes.
Disappointment and resentment sat uneasily on his proud face and darkened his brow. The firm jaw clenched against the damp and chilly air, his lips refusing to tremble in the cold. Instead, they pulled downward in a disapproving frown. A damp and drooping golden beard and mustache, flecked with many strands of gray, echoed the defeat of his slouched shoulders.
King Oengus searched the waters for danger, straining his eyes against the gloom as he paced along the port side railing. He heard the surf somewhere ahead, dim and threatening, like a monstrous beast waiting to seize his wooden ships and hurl them onto the killing jaws of jagged rocks. It was his responsibility to get his people safely to haven, but days without seeing the stars had combined with a fierce storm to totally disorient his navigator. The gods alone knew where he was leading the small flotilla.
He turned his back on the limited view and shuffled over to a crate with a gait that suggested he was more at home on a horse than a ship. Giving a deep sigh he sat, pulling his heavy fur cloak over his head.
Months at sea had turned a dignified defeat into a nightmare of despair. The Goddess knew there was hardship enough without sailing into a storm that ripped through the original five ships, causing major damage to two and totally destroying another. The remaining four ships were crowded with food, livestock, farming implements and grimly determined people.
Due solely to the skilled seamanship of the flagship’s crew, they had saved most of the people from those damaged and doomed vessels, but Oengus’ mind shied away from the thought of the precious tools and livestock lost to the ravenous sea. Again, he had lost a battle. There is something quite pathetic about a commander who could not win battles, or a king without a kingdom, he mused to himself.
The muted sound of surf washed over him and the dim roar seemed fitting background for his lagging spirits. He rested his elbows on bony knees, and dropped his head into calloused hands.
The other two men stood at the stern and watched their king sit and huddle against the damp, cloudy air. The dejected attitude of his hunched shoulders effectively shut out any attempt at comfort they might have made. The youngest man looked at the other with a question in his clear blue eyes. The elder shrugged and clapped his companion on the shoulder.
“Let be, Prince Faelan,” he said. “Your father must have his solitude. When he needs us, he’ll roar like the Shadow Wolf singing to the moon.”
Faelan smiled thinly and watched Bradan, the wise helmsman, return to his duties. He was right, of course, but it disturbed Faelan that his father, the king, lost more than a kingdom when Faelan’s older brother, Erlic, took the throne by force. He sighed and turned again to the mist-filled sea.
Standing outlined against the gray world in the dim light, his body strained towards the invisible shoreline, eagerly and instinctively reaching for something unknown. Perhaps the chance to regroup, recoup their strength and return to reclaim his birthright. His head bare of any protection, the rain and mist plastered his sandy hair against his skull. Dire thoughts raced through his mind, reflected briefly on his determined face, if anyone took the time to notice. Drops of moisture trickled down his smooth, youthful face unheeded.
The sound of the surf, louder than before, echoed against unseen rocks and caused him to dash to the bow of the ship. He climbed to the salt covered railing and wrapped his left arm around the slippery, soaring stem post topped with the snarling black head of a huge wolf. He leaned recklessly out over the swells, straining his eyes and ears, willing something to appear, barely able to wait for his new life to begin.
A grim excitement showed on his beardless face as his fingers clenched the slick wood. His heavy fur cloak thrown back on his shoulders, leaving his chest open to a cold he did not notice. His breath quickened and his pulse raced. Was this what a future of his own making felt like?
For some inexplicable reason Faelan wanted to be the first to spot this island which was to be their new home; the place of their exile. He knew it was close, there in the fog, waiting for him – calling to him. The new, unseen place drew him like a wolf drawn to the full moon.
His brothers thought they had sent them here in defeat and disgrace. Faelan vowed to use this land like an old marrowbone, sucking all the goodness and nutrition from its center, before returning to the homeland, wrecking havoc and destruction on his brothers, the usurpers. If they thought to never see their rightful king and liege lord again, Faelan swore they were wrong.
His eyes searched harder to pierce through the heavy air. The muffled surf heightened his excitement; adrenaline-laden blood sent tingles to his head and legs. His whole body felt as tense as a great wolf before a kill. This place would be his proving ground.
For a heartbeat, the fog lifted and he saw a slate-black tower, balancing on a tall cliff, stretching upwards from a rock-tossed shore. Waves crashed and boomed, bowing to the majesty of the tower and throwing a challenge to the battered ships. Quickly, the mist closed in again, giving him to wonder if he had seen an illusion.
The next moment a deep, pounding din surrounded the ship, filling his ears with a heavy thudding, like that of a war drum. The hull scraped into hidden boulders, and knocked him off his feet. Only the fact that he hugged the stem post kept him from being tossed into the surging sea. The wooden ship screamed out its agony as sharp rock assaulted its side.
Oengus lunged to his feet and wheeled to his crew, bellowing orders. The oarsmen on the left pulled mightily while those on the right tried to back water. Faelan hoped the other vessels would see their lantern and the unexpected change of course in time to follow the King’s ship.
The ship slowly swung to starboard, the planks protesting the unrelenting strain. Men shouted encouragement to each other as they pulled mightily on the oars. Women and children huddled in the bottom, amid the bilge water and gear, silent despite their terror.
Booming on the rocks, the surf echoed across the rapidly narrowing stretch of water for all to hear. A following sea caught the stern of the ship and slapped it on the starboard side. Spray drenched the sweating oarsmen as the vessel skidded around, helping them with their task. Bradan joined Oengus at the port side as the ship swept past rocks and surf, barely thirty feet away.
Faelan pulled himself up, his heart in his throat. Clinging precariously to the railing, he tried to orient himself on the pitching deck. He made slow progress to his father and Bradan as they stood scanning the mist for the rest of the diminished fleet. He heard the king make a small grunt as the ships steadied on the new course, following his lead. They had been far enough behind to react to the sudden maneuver.
“Sir, there is a tower on the cliff, overlooking the sea,” Faelan pointed to the surf and rocks.
Oengus turned to his son and flashed him a piercing glance.
“How so? The lookout has not spied it through this damn fog.” His voice growled in the moist air. Glancing quickly at Bradan for verification, the king pinned Faelan again with his fierce blue eyes.
“No, Sire,” the helmsman answered the unspoken question.
“I glimpsed it from the bow just before our hull scrapped the rocks,” the prince explained. “The fog cleared for a moment and I saw a tall tower set on a high cliff.”
Oengus grunted noncommittally and turned to peer into the gray clouds. Faelan met Bradan’s eye as the helmsman gave him a sympathetic smile.
“Land! Land! Off the port stern!”
The news shouted from the lookout had a startling effect on the crew. The men raised their voice in enthusiastic yells, while the women and children scurried to the railings to catch a glimpse of the first land they’d seen in weeks. Oengus, Bradan and Faelan watched as the fog parted like a curtain and revealed a tall black tower frowning as the sea, perched atop a steep, rocky cliff. The disturbing view effectively stilled the cheers as one by one the crew and passengers fell silent and stared at the ominous edifice.
“Not a pretty sight, my lord,” said Bradan to Oengus. “I cannot make anyone on the parapets, can you?”
“No,” replied the king tightly. “It’s as still as death.” Oengus continued to scan the tower and the top of the cliff that was now visible, “and nowhere to land.”
Dark stone slabs rose from out of the foaming sea, with surf and stone seeming to rest impossibly on billows of fog and mist.
“It’s waiting,” whispered Faelan into the chilly air. His eyes remained riveted to the tower in fascination. He felt the pull again; a faint irresistible call whispering in the swirling fog.
Bradan tore his gaze away from the pounding waves slapping the feet of the sheer precipice where the tower rested, and looked at the father and son as they watched the tower, mesmerized. The face of one was set in a mask of dread and fear, while the others wore a look of excitement and hope.
He glanced uneasily over the ship, experienced eyes taking in the careworn appearance and shocking lack of readiness. He saw the lookout at the bow in a similar trance-like state, eyes fixed on the tower instead of scanning the sea ahead.
“Sorcery!” Bradan growled and moved half way down the center of the ship between the rows of stilled oars.
“Bogsbund, you half-eaten carcass of a swamp crawler,” he roared. “You’d better put your eyes and ears where they belong before I nail them to the bow for you!” His deep voice broke the heavy silence that blanketed the damp air. Eyes blinked and lungs filled as bodies remembered to breath again.
Bogsbund jumped at his name yelled unexpectedly in the quiet. Darting a quick glance to be sure Bradan wasn’t bearing down on him to carry out the threat, he snapped his head towards the thinning fog ahead of the ship and scanned the sea. He saw nothing more menacing than a cloud of dead seaweed.
The sound of Bradan’s voice jerked Oengus’ attention from the tower to his ship. He scanned the deck with grim eyes, a frown pulling at his mouth. The women and children were chattering, but the warriors looked uneasily at him with shame as they realized how dangerously foolish they had been, staring at the tower and ignoring a possible threat.
King Oengus used the moment well. Shaking his black fur cloak back from his shoulders like a shaggy beast, he strode forward.
“Well, a fine group of warriors you are! Get you off a strange shore and you act like a lot of cringing maidens!” The man unlucky enough to be in Oengus’ direct line of sight burned red with shame. Bradan watched his king rant at the men and smiled to himself.
“Yes, there’s land and a tower and, for all we know, a war fleet putting out after us,” Oengus bellowed. “Would you have the Wolf Kin cut down like a cub just out of his mother’s womb? Where are your weapons – your spears and swords? Have you all forgotten your drills? Move your carcasses and prepare for battle!”
The harsh words galvanized the men into a flurry of controlled confusion. One group of ten men, four with bows and the other six with spears, shield and long sword, surged into the bow led by a husky warrior with a long scar down the left side of his face.
Along each side of the ship, every other oarsman picked up a round shield and spear and placed himself to protect the rower. The women and children huddled together in the middle of the deck, as much out of the way as the crowded ship would allow; five older boys with shields and short swords swaggered importantly as they took defensive stances to protect them.
Faelan joined the boys guarding the passengers, and they snickered behind hands. He clenched his jaw and turned his back to his tormentors, gripping the hilt of his sword until the muscles bunched on his forearm. His eyes were dark pools of misery. One day, he promised himself, everyone would treat him with respect and honor.
In less than five minutes Oengus’ ship was ready for battle.
At his initial command to prepare, a large silver banner with a black embroidered silhouette of a shadow wolf had been hoisted to the masthead to signal the fleet. The four ships pulled closer, taking positions slightly behind and on either side of the flagship. Oengus’ command set the reduced ranks of rowers into action, starting the small flotilla forward.
The promontory with the mysterious tower remained visible through the thinning fog, off to port as the ships moved forward, giving its guardian rocks a wide berth. Although outwardly as impassive as the tower, Oengus had all he could do to restrain himself from running to the bow to search the sea ahead.
Had there been unseen guards in that sinister watchtower? Was there a hostile fleet putting out to challenge him? He’d led his loyal people in the wrong direction for so long, it seemed, was he even now guiding them into an unseen sea of death?
He moved his eyes to the group of women and children, poorly defended by so many youngling boys. If it came to a fight, could they be protected? Would this day find them all dead Ã¢Â?Â¦ or slaves?
He would have preferred to send a smaller, faster ship ahead to scout this land and its waters rather than endanger everyone, but he couldn’t risk a scout ship becoming lost. If there was to be a fight, he would need all three ships.
“Sire,” Bradan interrupted Oengus’ thoughts. “The fog is thinning.”
“Perhaps.” The king strained to see through the mists ahead.
An irritating noise that had started as a high, almost inaudible sensation in his mind, grew to a steady, steeply pitched wavering wail. The noise reminded him of mountain banshees screaming after the souls of dead men. A tingle of fear crawled up his back as he met the terror-filled eyes of a seasoned oarsman.
“What new threat?” The sound seemed to rise and fall with the regularity of breathing. Some horrible sea creature hungry for human flesh? Mayhap the sea god, Aegir, had come to claim his sacrifice for their journey on his domain. Jumbled thoughts chased each other in Oengus’ mind, while the crew looked to him for guidance.
“Land! Starboard side!” The shout from the lookout crystallized Oengus’ thoughts.
Bradan made his way back to the king’s side. “There’s an island off the starboard, my lord,” he reported.
“Still no trace of people or ships?” At Bradan’s negative shake, Oengus continued, “Another tower?”
“No, my lord, but the wailing does seem to come from the island.”
The banshee screams were growing in both intensity and volume. The women and children were near panic, and the crew mumbled and cast uneasy glances into the mist-filled sea.
“Row, you stinking dung worms! Row!”
At the roar of their commander, the oarsmen instinctively responded and bent to their oars. The ships lunged together in unison and began to leave the solitary tower and it’s rocky island behind. To meet an unknown enemy head-on was far preferable to sitting on his territory and waiting docilely for him to kill you. The wolf never waits for the hunter to strike first.
The wailing continued, but no foe challenged them.
The island off starboard rose clearly from the sea, as the last of the fog banks lifted and vanished. With the clearing of the fog, the wind freshened and caught their sails. It was now obvious the rock that formed the island was honeycombed with hundreds of caves and openings.
“Surely, that god-tortured noise is the wind as it whistles through those caverns,” Bradan said.
“There you have it.” Oengus’ relief was replaced by an involuntary gasp as he looked ahead. The ship entered a bay. A quarter of a mile on either side were stone-faced cliffs, but ahead, just visible, was a beach of pure white sand. They were sailing into an inlet, protected now from the whims of the sea.
* ~ *
Half an hour of steady work at the oars brought the ships to within a few hundred yards of the beach. The protected cove had no surf to speak of, no heavy waves. Oengus surveyed the stretch of sand with a practiced eye. No signs of life had been seen, no marks of men or ships on the shore ahead of him.
The beach formed a part of a narrow neck of land barely above the high water mark, no wider than one hundred yards. A broad, shallow tidal flat stretched before them on the other side of the beach. Long sand dunes, crowned with stunted flowering shrubs, dotted the scene. In the distance, beyond the dunes, trees guarded a few green, rolling hills.
“Bradan,” Oengus called.
“We will make a landing. Have the women and children assembled and ready to transfer to The Dolphin.” He watched Bradan give orders to the crew, then turned back to survey the shore.
Black jagged cliffs rose to the right of the sandy beach. Many pocked and pitted boulders had dropped and rolled into the sea, creating levels of rocky walls and cliffs, much like the rocks around the tower. Fortunately, few of these massive stones had landed in the beach area, and nothing disturbed the smooth white sand or the welcoming open space, which would allow his people to embark without trouble.
The rowers brought the flagship along side the three smaller ships, and the women and children quickly departed. The larger vessel then rowed ashore until the keel ground gently on the sandy bottom. As it stopped in shallow, clear water, twenty men leaped out and moved up the beach. Faelan, his weapons at the ready, stood on the rail to jump when Oengus hauled him back roughly.
“No, boy. Stay aboard the ship,” the command, harsh in Faelan’s ears.
“But father, I want to be with the men when we land.”
“This is for seasoned warriors,” Oengus growled, “not some cub who has yet to cut his teeth on anything tougher than fancy dreams.” His father’s reprimand brought a flush of shame to the young prince’s cheeks.
“The lad is quick, my lord,” said Bradan quietly. The king whirled and frowned at his helmsman. “He needs the guidance of seasoned fighters as well as lessons at arms,” the man continued. “How better to learn the art of warfare than at his father’s side?”
Bradan held the disapproving gaze of the king for a full minute. Faelan caught his breath, afraid for the man who had spoken up for him. Oengus’ temper was as volatile as the Shadow Wolf of the Kin.
“You presume upon my friendship too much, Helmsman. The Prince is just a boy with little combat training and no skill. He stays.” The note of command in the voice sounded final to Faelan.
“Pardon, my king,” replied Bradan, lowering his eyes. “I spoke out of turn, but it was said in earnest. The Prince has seen enough summers to have proven himself a warrior.” Faelan was amazed at the helmsman’s courage.
“The Prince has been trained as a comfort-loving scribe, not a warrior. He has no more knowledge of blood and killing than an ass has of flying!” Oengus’ face glowed dark with anger.
“As your majesty says,” continued Bradan, “but the men’s spirits would be raised to see the King of the Wolf Kin stride into battle with his only remaining heir, Prince Faelan, at his side.” A dangerous glint flashed in Oengus’ eyes at the reminder of his eldest sons’ treachery. “It must be seen that the Royal family is once again united under the Wolf banner. Little harm can befall him were I on his right side.”
Oengus pondered Bradan’s words in heavy silence, glancing at the hopeful face of his remaining son. Faelan’s eyes shone with excitement and he gripped his sword with strong fingers. The king turned back to the helmsman.
“True it is that the Kin should have an heir they can be proud of.” His eyes stabbed Bradan as he continued, “Fair enough! You shall be his wet nurse. Boy,” he said to Faelan, “stand tall and walk with me, but as the Goddess lives, if there is a fight, stand clear of my sword!”
Faelan met Bradan’s eye with a thankful grin and a duck of his head, as Oengus jumped into the waist deep water and joined his warriors on the beach.
They formed into two lines, with scouts ahead, and advanced carefully off the neck of land to search for inhabitants and a suitable camp.
The party moved quietly into a stand of cedar trees. The fresh scent of cedar mingled with a salty tang, pleasant and invigorating, assailed his nose. The island held no sound except for the slap of waves and the cries of gulls. Not a trace of human life could be seen. It was a beautiful island with lush trees and rolling land laid out before them. Hills in the distance promised more beauty and beckoned silently.
Oengus chose a fairly high piece of ground about two hundred yards from the beach. From his vantage he had a clear view of the surrounding area. He sent two small scouting parties off to investigate a wooded grove to the left and the rocky cliffs to the right. The remaining warriors positioned themselves in a tight defensive semi-circle.
Faelan felt the blood pound in his head as a heightened awareness caused his breath to come quickly. He twisted the hilt of the sword in his hand; it slid smoothly in his damp palm. Bradan smiled encouragement.
The men whispered amongst themselves, and the silence of the place descended upon the landing party like a heavy shawl. Occasionally, in the distance, faint and far, the ghost of the moaning caves carried on the wind, pricking everyone’s nerves.
Abruptly, birds rose from the trees where the scouting party had disappeared, and forms scurried from the dappled shade. Faelan whipped his sword up to a defensive position as his heart thumped uncomfortably in his throat.
“Ruins, my lord,” said the lead man excitedly. “Ruins and a temple just ahead! And not a soul to be seen!”