Land! I can see land!"
It was Stefan, calling from the lookout position in the bow of the Heron.
There was a buzz of interest from the crew as they surged forward to get a sight of the coast--at this stage, no more than a distant, hazy line on the horizon.
Hal heaved a silent sigh of relief. They had been out of sight of land for four days, cutting diagonally across from the eastern coast of the Stormwhite Sea to head for the southern coastline. After days without any reference points or landmarks, with nothing but the waves to see, niggling fears had begun to gnaw at his confidence. What if he had misread his sun compass? What if Stig had let the ship stray off course while Hal was sleeping? What if Hal himself had made some simple, fundamental error that had led them off on the wrong path?
When you sailed out of sight of land, he thought, there was always the worry that you might never sail back into sight of it.
He shook his head, realizing how groundless his fears had been. Four days, after all, was a relatively short ocean trip. He knew of Skandian seafarers who had sailed for weeks with no sight of land. He had done so himself, on ships commanded by other people. But this was his first time in command.
Thorn came aft from his favored spot by the keel box. His rolling gait easily matched the movement of the ship and he smiled at his young friend. He'd spent many years at sea but he knew all too well what must have been going through Hal's mind.
"Well done," he said quietly.
Hal gave him a quick smile. "Thanks," he said, trying to look nonchalant. Then he couldn't keep up the pretense any longer. "Must admit, I had a few sleepless moments."
Thorn raised an eyebrow. "Only a few?"
"Two, actually. One lasted for the first two days. The other for the next two. Apart from that, I was fine."
The fact that the young skirl could admit to his concerns was a sign of his growing maturity and confidence in his own ability. He was growing up fast, Thorn thought. But then, command of a ship had that effect on a person. He either grew into the responsibility or it crushed him.
In the bow, Stig had climbed onto the bulwark alongside Stefan, but on the other side of the bow post. He shaded his eyes, then turned and called back down the length of the ship.
"I can see three hills," he shouted. "Two big, one small. The small one is in the middle. They're a little off to port."
Thorn saw the look of pleasure that came over Hal's face. He nodded his admiration.
"Sounds like Dwarf Hill Cape," he said. "Wasn't that where you were aiming?" It was a near-perfect landfall--an impressive achievement for a neophyte skirl. Thorn was an expert sailor, but the intricacies of navigation had always proved too much for him.
Hal rearranged his features, trying to hide his pleasure.
"Should have been dead ahead," he muttered, but then the smile broke through again. "But that's pretty good, isn't it?"
Thorn clapped him on the shoulder. "It's very good. For an old coast crawler like me, it's beyond comprehension."
Hal nodded forward. "Looks as if our prisoner is finally taking an interest in things."
Rikard, the Magyaran pirate Thorn had broken out of the Limmat jail, was standing up to peer toward the land. For the past few days he had remained huddled by the mast, restrained by a heavy chain that secured him to the thick spar.
"He knows he's near home," Thorn said. "The entrance to the Schuyt River is only a few kilometers up the coast, and that leads to the Magyaran capital."
"Are we planning on setting him free?" Hal asked.
Thorn shook his head. "Not until we know he's telling us the truth about Zavac's destination. If he is, we should be able to find someone who's seen the Raven when we head down the Dan River. He's just going to have to wait till then."
After they had left the port of Limmat behind, Rikard made good on his promise to tell them where Zavac was heading. Zavac was the pirate captain who had earlier stolen the Andomal, Skandia's most prized artifact. He stole it while Hal and his crew were charged with its protection, so they had a personal interest in regaining it from him.
With that in mind, they had pursued Zavac down the length of the Stormwhite, always one step behind the elusive Magyaran ship, a large black craft named the Raven. They caught up with Zavac and the Raven at Limmat, a harbor town on the east coast. Zavac, in company with two other ships, had led an attack on the town and occupied it. The crew of the Heron had been instrumental in defeating the invaders and driving them out. Many of the pirates had been either killed or captured in the ensuing battle, but Zavac and his crew had escaped in the closing stages, ramming and nearly sinking the Skandian ship Wolfwind in the process.
According to Rikard, Zavac and his crew were heading for the Dan River, a mighty waterway that ran all the way from the north of the continental mass, on the Stormwhite's coast, to the south, close by the Constant Sea. At the southern end of the Dan was a fortified citadel called Raguza, a pirate haven governed by a council of pirates and thieves. Raiders from the Stormwhite and the Constant Sea sought refuge there, knowing they would be protected from pursuit and revenge. Ships harboring in Raguza paid a tribute to the city's governing body. Usually, this was a tenth share of any booty they had on board. It was expensive, but it was worth it to enjoy the security and freedom from pursuit that Raguza offered.
Zavac, of course, was carrying a large supply of emeralds plundered from the secret mine at Limmat. Some of those emeralds should have gone to the men who had assisted in the invasion and occupation of the town. But they had been defeated and killed or imprisoned, and he had absconded with their share. With such a rich haul, he had no further need to raid during the current season and had obviously decided to relax and regroup in the citadel.
Now, as the Heron moved closer to the coastline, Rikard seemed to sense their attention on him. He turned to look at them, then beckoned to Thorn, who walked forward to speak to him.
"What is it?" he asked, knowing the answer before Rikard gave it.
"Are you going to set me free?" he said, pointing at the approaching coastline.
Thorn shook his head. "I think we need the distinct pleasure of your company a little longer."
"I've kept my part of the bargain! You promised you'd set me free," Rikard protested.
"No. I promised I'd set you free once we're sure you've kept your part of the bargain. I also promised that if you haven't I'll throw you overboard."
"Well, is there any need to keep me chained up like this?" Rikard angrily rattled the chain that secured him to the mast. "After all, there's nowhere I can escape to."
Thorn smiled at him. "That's in case you decide to do me out of the pleasure of throwing you overboard. Wouldn't want you taking matters into your own hands."
Rikard scowled at him and slumped down to the deck once more. He could see there was no point in arguing any further. In the few days he had been on board, he had learned that Thorn was not a man to change his mind easily.
"I know you can't wait to get back to Magyara and join another pirate crew," Thorn said. "But you'll just have to put up with us for a while yet." He turned and walked back to the steering position, where Lydia and Stig had joined Hal.
"Are you planning on putting ashore?" Lydia asked as Thorn came within earshot. Hal pursed his lips, then shook his head.
"We'll run along the coast for another day. That'll bring us to the mouth of the Dan. We can go ashore there. We need to find out if anyone's sighted the Raven."
He had a constant, nagging worry that Zavac may have headed off in another direction entirely and they had spent the past four days on a wild-goose chase.
"The boys could use a good night's sleep," she said. "So could I."
The Heron wasn't the most comfortable place for sleeping. The crew could bed down on the planks between the rowing benches. But the constant need to adjust to the ship's pitching and rolling, and the frequent showers of spray that broke over her, made it difficult to get deep, uninterrupted rest.
"Another day or so won't hurt them," he said.
She smiled ruefully. "Or me?"
"Or you. Sorry. We'll all have to wait. The sooner we find out we're on the right track, the happier I'll be."
Lydia nodded. Hal's point was a valid one and she realized that he had probably had the least sleep of anyone on board. He and Stig shared the responsibility of steering the ship and Hal tended to take on the lion's share of that.
"Not worth checking in any of the coastal towns here?" Stig asked, but Hal shook his head.
"If she's been sighted here, that doesn't tell us she's gone down the river. She could have continued heading west along the coast."
Stig sighed good-naturedly. "Oh well, I guess that means another night of sleeping on those hard planks. Why did you design this ship with so many ribs? There always seems to be one digging into my ribs."
Hal grinned at his friend. "I'll bear it in mind next time I build a ship," he said. Then, as so often happens when someone raises the matter of sleep, he found he couldn't suppress a huge yawn.
Thorn eyed him thoughtfully. "You look as if you could use a good night's rest yourself."
Hal shrugged, blinking his eyes rapidly to clear them. Now that Thorn mentioned it, he was aware how dry and scratchy they were.
"I'll be fine," he said, but Thorn wasn't to be put off.
"I've been thinking. You should have someone else trained to take over the tiller," he said.
Stig made a big show of clearing his throat. "Um . . . have we noticed that I am here? Or am I just a piece of chopped halibut?" he asked. "I seem to recall taking over the helm several times in the past few days."
"I'm aware of that," Thorn said patiently. "I mean you should have a third person ready to take over."
"Couldn't you do that?" Lydia asked.
Thorn looked at her. "I could. But if we get into a sea battle, Stig and I are the logical choices to lead a boarding party. We're the two best fighting men on the ship. And Hal has to be free to operate the Mangler."
The Mangler was the name they had given to the giant crossbow mounted in the bow of the ship.
"Did you have anyone specific in mind?" Hal asked. Thorn's reasoning made sense, and a third helmsman would lessen the strain on him and Stig in what looked to be a long and hard journey ahead.
"I was thinking Edvin," Thorn said. "Stefan and Jesper are working well together raising and lowering the sails, and Ulf and Wulf have a natural affinity for sail trimming. Edvin is a bit of a loose end at the moment."
Hal smiled. "It might be more tactful to say he's an unrealized potential asset," he said. "But, yes, that's a good idea. Plus he's smart and he listens. He'll get the hang of it quickly enough. Let's go talk to him." He nodded to Stig, who took over the helm. Then he and Thorn made their way forward, to where Edvin was sitting beside the supine form of Ingvar, who had been wounded in the attack on the watchtowers at Limmat.
Edvin was concentrating on something, his head bent over as he worked two long, thin sticks back and forth, setting up a rapid click-clicking sound. A ball of thick yarn lay on the deck between his feet.
"Edvin?" Hal said. "What are you doing?"
Edvin looked up at them and smiled. "I'm knitting," he said. "I'm knitting myself a warm, woolly watch cap."
Hal and Thorn exchanged a glance.