Urms closed his gills and raised his face out of the water. Behind him, other Gilian began to surface silently in the shadows of the floating trees. Illuminated by the soft glow of their lanterns, their pale, mostly naked bodies appeared elf-like amid the hard roots of the forest lake.
Across the channel, the three ships were moored together fore and aft, forming a makeshift triangle. The humans of Arx Caeli had sent oared warships into the forest lake before, but never sailed merchant ships. Urms was surprised that, with the support of only two oars, they had made it as far as they did.
Two days had passed since the last human cry sounded over deck. What need or desire drove these men into the forest lake, Urms neither wondered nor cared. For those vessels that sought the island at the center of the lake, the path always ended the same way—in silence and fire.
The Gilian spread out, and Urms clenched his fist, drawing the air through his mouth and expanding his lungs. The pain passed as quickly as it had come, and he forced his breath out through his nostrils, severing the membranes there. Blood trickled onto his upper lip, and he washed it away in the lake.
One by one, the other Gilian opened their lungs, and Urms waded silently across the channel, resting his ear against the hull of the nearest ship. The whir of carrion flies sent a tremor through the wood; Urms drew his face away and frowned. “Bring fire and oil,” he said.
The floating trees drifted toward the ships, and Urms took the anchor chain in his hands and climbed up over the deck rail. Above Urms, the furled mainsail creaked on its rigging, while the tattered foresail fretted lifelessly in the wind. Blood stains streaked the wooden deck from the aft cabin over the fore hatch railing, where the flies churned the darkness. Their chorus told Urms everything he needed to know.
“Check for signs of life and burn the ships,” Urms ordered the Gilian gathering on the adjacent ships.
The planks creaked behind Urms, and two Gilian approached bearing torches. Like others of his Order, these Gilian wore only shark leather shorts.
“Here, Master Urms,” said one of the Gilian, handing him a trident and a torch. Already, Urms could feel the moisture leaving his skin. If he stayed out of the water long enough, he would appear almost human.
“Cover the deck with oil,” said Urms, crossing the deck and pushing open the door to the aft cabin with his trident. Soiled papers littered the table and floor. Urms studied a map drawn in coal dust on the wall.
“This isn’t a map… It’s a battle plan. Get out now!”
A cloaked man appeared in the doorway. Behind him, the torchbearers lay dead, their throats slit gill to gill. Standing over them was a tall man holding a bloody sword.
“Don’t move,” said the cloaked man, raising his weapon. Dirt and oil covered his bearded face, but his brown eyes blazed bright with starvation or madness; Urms couldn’t tell which.
“Who are you?” Urms managed to say.
“I am Atellus. He’s Gurges.” Atellus glanced askance to the tall man. “Our master, Furius, has been expecting you.”
“You will die for this, Atellus.” Urms brought his trident to bear.
“You may want to reconsider that,” Atellus said.
Urms heard a creak behind him, and the cold touch of a sword point against his back.
“Time to drop that skewer of yours,” said Atellus. “I won’t ask you again.”
Urms dropped his trident and stepped over his fallen comrades. “You’re monsters.”
Gurges pushed Urms to the edge of the deck, where the three interlocked ships formed a triangular pool at their center. He raised the lake boy’s chin with his sword point. “Furius’s dreams were true after all. You have gills and everything.”
Urms regarded the captured Gilian on the other ships and lowered his eyes in shame. This was his first command and likely his last.
“I expected you to be older. You are from the Order of Arms, correct?” came a raspy voice from behind. Urms tried to turn to the speaker, but Gurges backhanded him.
“Look ahead! Speak,” Gurges growled.
“Who are you?” asked Urms.
Gurges moved to hit Urms again, but the unseen man placed his hand between them. “I am Furius. I recommend not struggling.”
“What do you want?”
“You’ll see. Atellus.”
“Toss them over,” said Atellus, pointing to his men. The soldiers raised the dead Gilian overboard into the pool formed by the interlocked ships. The bodies floated and were dragged under.
“Good.” Furius cleared his throat and crossed the deck to face the forest. “I would treat with Arwa, Queen of the Gilian, for the lives of these prisoners. I will begin executions in ten minutes.”
“How do you know of our queen?” asked Urms, quickly casting an eye on Furius.
Furius’s face appeared younger than his voice, with the gauntness of a man who might have been tortured or plagued with visions. Unlike his men, who wore leather cloaks and armor over red tunics, Furius wore silver-segmented plate and a red cape held fast across his chest by clasps cast in the shape of wolves’ heads.
“I dreamed of her.” Furius wiped his brow and steadied himself on the ship’s railing.
Near the bow of the ship, the floating trees drifted apart, forming a long channel. A small ship, illuminated by a golden lantern, drifted forward. Standing aft were two figures Urms recognized, Queen Arwa and the shaman, Herms.
“Drop a ladder and get me a chair.” Furius pointed to nearest soldiers. “We have guests."
The men did as commanded, and Furius sat motionlessly as Herms helped Arwa over the rail. The shaman’s body was covered with intricate scar-like tattoos, hidden only by a loincloth and an assortment of semi-precious stone jewelry. The queen was less adorned, wearing a fitted shirt and shorts of green sea silk and a crown of braded gold partially lost beneath the bangs of her short red hair. Urms saw sadness in the queen’s eyes but not fear.
“Welcome, Arwa,” said Furius, drawing her attention to him. “I am Furius of Authia. These men are what remain of that brave country. Forgive our scent, savage as we are now.”
“You are savage.” She glared at the men around her.
“Come, come. Is that any way to treat your host?” Furius regarded her harshly and turned to Herms. “Your scars tell me you are the queen’s counselor and head of the Order of Rites. I would recommend you tell Her Majesty to be nice, or I will add more blood to the water.”
Herms appeared surprised and whispered in Arwa’s ear.
“What do you want?” she asked Furius.
“I think you know the answer to that. Why does any man enter this Gods forsaken place? We seek the island, Apenninus, and the Citadel.”
“Passage there is forbidden.”
“Yes, I was told you would say that.” Furius nodded to Atellus, who stood at his side.
“Minius.” Atellus pointed his blade at a short, black-haired soldier on an adjacent ship. Minius stepped forward and slit open his captive’s neck. A torrent of blood spilled down the lake man’s chest into the water below.
“No!” Urms struggled.
“Shut up!” Gurges silenced him with the hilt of his sword.
“Please.” Arwa started forward, and Atellus raised his blade to Urms’s neck, staying her. “The Gods will not forgive you,” she said to Furius.
“The Gods.” The words sounded sour in Furius’s mouth. “The Gods forsook me the day I watched soldiers of Arx Caeli burn the castle where my son slept. Shall I execute more of your people?”
Arwa lowered her face. “I will lead you to the island if you release the prisoners."
“That’s better, but this is not a negotiation. Seize them.”
Arwa took Herms’s hands. “Save Urms, find Nubis, trust your vision.”
“No, My Queen!”
“I command you.” Arwa drew away and ran to the bow of the ship.
Furius’s men collided in confusion.
“Get her, you fools.” Atellus raised his sword.
Arwa twisted out of the grasp of one soldier and put her foot over the railing before Atellus seized her by the collar. She cried out, and Atellus threw her down onto the deck.
Furius clapped his hands mockingly. “Pathetic, Atellus, truly pathetic. Bring her here,” he said.
“No!” Urms shot up, striking Gurges with the back of his head. The soldier stumbled sideways, but before he could right his sword, Herms wrapped Urms in his arms and carried him overboard into the black waters.