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Johnny Dep eat your heart out!!!




Mark Spezzano


“Alas! It seems your mere presence brings bad luck!” said Grim Pete.

In the cargo hold of the ship Mystery Maiden, Unwold the Unlucky stood over the corpse of his only friend. Nausea writhed in his stomach like an oily eel. Grief threatened to overwhelm him and drop him to his knees; his vision blurred, his breath hitched. Only with the greatest effort was he able to wrench his mind away from the sharp rocks of emotional ruin. Bitter experience had taught him to avoid letting anyone see him in a moment of vulnerability. To do so was to admit to weakness, and weakness was something the other pirates detested and would never forgive. Even so, a tremulous wail escaped him.

Cold seawater, slowly reddening, gushed about his ankles from a crack in the hull. The ship swayed; timbers creaked. Unwold gripped a flaming torch with a white-knuckled hand and observed his late friend. Old Munley’s body bore a dozen ragged slashes.

“Why didn’t he stay aboard our ship?” groaned Unwold wearily. Old Munley had been their cook aboard their own vessel, the Dark Scoundrel. His duties had never extended to fighting aboard another vessel. This time it seemed that, for whatever reason, Old Munley had thought otherwise. Unwold’s heart was heavy with sorrow. Where the other pirates had shown Unwold cruelty and ridicule, only Old Munley displayed kindness and infinite patience. Old Munley had taught him numbers and letters, to tie knots, to fillet fish, and to cook. Before Unwold had befriended Old Munley, Grim Pete had relegated him to the menial chores of deck scrubbing and repairs.

“Ha!” said Grim Pete grinning and showing gold-filled teeth. “The last meal he’ll serve’ll be to the sharks.” His scarred face twisted into the semblance of a grin, clearly pleased with his own quip. His silver earring glinted in the light. He kicked the corpse in the belly as if to punctuate his statement.

Unwold gripped the torch painfully tight, teeth clenched.

Grim Pete sloshed over to the ladder and ascended, leaving Unwold alone. In many ways, though, Unwold had always been alone. A decade of misfortune had seen to that. Unwold the Unlucky seldom gambled, for when he did, he lost not only coin and clothes, but his rations and next month’s pay as well. When Unwold would eat at a tavern, weevils invariably infested his bread, sour dregs floated in his wine, and his mutton held the toughness of boot leather while other patrons dined on choice cuts. His clothes wore out quickly and so required frequent mending. And although he was only in his late twenties, his hair was already thinning and only cowlick-tufts remained in the semblance of a bird’s nest.

Despite all this, he was remarkably resilient. He approached life with stoicism and seldom bemoaned his station, traits which had earned him a measure of tolerance. Though Unwold’s piratical peers seemed to pity his life of misfortune, their so-called friendship extended only so far. Indeed most were superstitious of spending too much time in Unwold’s presence, fearful that his bad luck could become their own. As a result, Unwold was a loner, destined to while away the hours in meditative silence.

Unwold wondered if his own bad luck had somehow caused Old Munley’s death. Guilt worked mischief at the back of his mind; he found the notion depressingly hard to dismiss.

He spied two shining yellow eyes, like chips of topaz, watching him from the darkness on his left. He turned and saw a black cat perched on a crate behind the bulkhead, inches above the water’s surface. The cat meowed.

“Greetings little one,” said Unwold, taking a step forward. “What do we have here...a stowaway?”

The cat regarded him intently, flexing its tail.

He couldn’t leave the cat here to drown. It was barely more than a kitten. He held out his arm.

The cat tensed, then sprang at him, landing against his chest with a thump. It was a warm bundle, wet and soft. He stroked it under the chin and scratched gently behind the ears. The cat snuggled against his body, purring. Unwold grinned.

His delight was short-lived. From above came Grim Pete’s voice, snapping orders like a whip and calling out Unwold’s name. Unwold discarded the torch and climbed the ladder, thankful to be free of that dismal place. With Old Munley on his mind, he was barely aware of how tightly he clutched the cat to his breast.

#                                              #                                              #

“That cat’ll bring you bad luck!” growled Grim Pete. “And bad luck is the last thing you need.”

Unwold hummed a merry tune, ignoring the captain. He added mint and mushrooms to the trout stew simmering over the fire. He basted spitted rabbits with an aromatic paste of garlic and lemon zest. With Old Munley’s death, Unwold had assumed the role of cook. The other pirates sat around a table where they swilled rum and gambled their share of today’s haul.

And an impressive haul it was. The raid had yielded bales of damask, samite, and linen, crates of rum and casks of wine, cherry-scented pipe tobacco, ivory, and canisters of saffron. This load supplemented their existing cache of gold and pearls, coffee and incense, glazed pottery, and some three score barrels of olive oil. All of it lay secure in the cave hideaway behind Unwold.

Silence only gave Grim Pete encouragement. “Black cats especially are known to be bad omens. Witches use ‘em as familiars. And who knows? Perhaps the cat is a crone in disguise hoping to create mischief and avoid capture.”

“Whisper is my friend!” said Unwold, wounded. “Around her, I have true happiness.” Since this morning’s tragedy, Unwold’s spirits had lifted, largely due to Whisper’s presence. She had shown him unconditional love, purring gently and pressing up against his legs. ”Happiness is a fleeting thing in this cruel world!” He scratched Whisper behind the ears to reassure himself of her presence. She sniffed his lemony fingers, ever curious.

Grim Pete scoffed and grimaced, showing mucky teeth. “Your days in this business are numbered, Unwold! The very nature of piracy means one needs a healthy supply of good luck to avoid the law. A pirate without luck is like a peddler without wares, or a jester with no jape.”

Unwold always believed that cats had nine lives and so were naturally immune to the vicissitudes of fate. His reasoning suggested that Whisper’s resilience and his own lack should create a healthy balance.

He looked out at the Wyvern Sea. In ultramarine waters, the forlorn hulk of the Mystery Maiden wallowed one mile offshore, sinking slowly. Timbers groaned in protest, giving an occasional loud report as they snapped under a freight of inrushing water. Black smoke billowed from the wreckage and banners of orange flame shot into the air, like rising battle standards.

Grim Pete, chewing a quid of tobacco, swaggered over to where the crew played knave’s gambit with marked cards.

Unwold kept a watchful eye on their prisoner, Prince Leyon. The merchant prince who had headed the Mystery Maiden’s venture sat trussed at the cave entrance in soiled silks. Under a mop of unruly girlish curls were a pouting lower lip and eyes reddened from crying. The pirates hoped to ransom the sulky lad back to his family.

The campfire had burned low. Unwold retrieved an axe and walked up the strand. He pressed through the undergrowth of the island’s jungle and soon he had chopped an armload of firewood. As he returned, a discordant cheer went up as the ship upended and sank; placid waters reigned. Unwold dumped the wood by the fireside.

“Unwold!” yelled Grim Pete, striding over to the campfire. “These rabbits are charred...the stew, it has thickened into paste. Reckless stupidity! A cook never scamps his duties. Old Munley would be ashamed.” He gave Unwold a painful prod in the belly with his cutlass. “And look here! These branches you chopped are green and won’t burn!” He hawked and squirted a jet of brown juice into the fire.

Unwold was about to protest but then he sighed and fell silent. Trying to reason with Grim Pete was about as useful as attempting to recover an elixir spilled in the ocean.

The other pirates yelled for meat and rum, jesting that Unwold made an ugly and poor serving wench. There were guffaws all round. Tattoo Jack got up, voided his bladder, and staggered towards the campfire muttering profanity.

Grim Pete said, “Earn your keep if you wish to remain one of the crew.”

Exactly how he was expected to cook and chop firewood and guard over Prince Leyon and--

Prince Leyon was gone.

In his place were the remains of frayed ropes. Whisper sat nearby regarding Unwold with a content expression, tail moving sinuously.

Grim Pete broke off and followed Unwold’s gaze. “What is this!” he cried. He stomped over to the cave entrance, and snatched up the ropes. “This rope hasn’t been cut. It has been chewed through...” He shot Unwold a flinty stare as if it were somehow his fault. Then he turned to the cat, black eyes narrowing. Color rose in his cheeks.

If the other pirates weren’t so drunk, thought Unwold, they might have noticed the prince’s escape. Whisper tensed. Unwold felt his skin prickle...

Grim Pete grabbed Whisper by the scruff of the neck and thrust her into a bucket of water.

No!” shrieked Unwold.

The cat yowled and thrashed about.

Unwold lunged forwards but Tattoo Jack yanked him back and held him fast with an iron grip. “No please! No, no!” Unwold could not bear to see his companion drowned. The prospect of losing two friends in one day was intolerable. He felt anguished, wretched.

Whisper wriggled out of Grim Pete’s grasp and clawed a bloody slash across his brow. The captain fell backwards, tipping over the bucket and cursing. Whisper bounded over the campfire and tore across the beach in a dash towards the jungle.

Unwold’s hopes soared. He shook loose of Tattoo Jack and sprinted after Whisper, knocking over the stew pot in the process. Grim Pete roared orders at him. Heedless, Unwold the Unlucky pursued the cat into the jungle.

#                                              #                                              #

He pressed through a tangle of ferns, lianas, and tropical plants, the latter displaying a profusion of saturated red, blue, and violet blooms. Progress was frustrating; he wished that he had kept the axe to use as a machete. The air was warm and humid, thick with the smells of damp earth and rotting vegetation. He was drenched in sweat, sticky and uncomfortable.

He sneezed. Groaning, he stopped to blow his nose and cursed his misfortune. Having recently recovered from a summer cold, there was again irritation at the back of his throat. He sniffled and hitched up his trousers, scanning the trees for signs of the cat.

Dark fur streaked across his vision, disappearing under a mossy log some ten yards ahead. Foliage rustled.

Pleased that he knew where the cat was, Unwold called out, hoping to coax Whisper from hiding. Grim Pete’s wrath had undoubtedly traumatized her; Unwold advanced gingerly. He withdrew a strip of smoked cod from his pocket.

“Here sweet kitten...a tasty fish...”

At first, there was no response. Then a meow sounded and a black head bobbed up from behind the log. In the dim light, the cat’s eyes shone pale yellow, regarding him quizzically. She cocked her head, tempted by the lure. Her nose twitched.

Unwold broke off a morsel of fish and tossed it next to her. But Whisper ignored it, instead shifting her gaze to focus on something behind him. A branch snapped and he paused to turn around.

Then something struck him on the temple with force. His vision filled with a white light and he found himself lying flat on the ground. He felt detached and suddenly sleepy. Dancing lights and clots of blackness shifted across his vision. He glimpsed a flash of burgundy silk against the serene blueness of sky. His eyes struggled to focus, blurred...blurred...

Darkness claimed him.

#                                              #                                              #

On the deck of the Dark Scoundrel, Unwold leans against the gunwale, gazing across the rolling ocean. Like a shining shield of beaten bronze, the sun sets, leaving the horizon bathed in bloody crimson and a suffusion of peach and lilac hues. Dusk steals upon the world. The deepening twilight fills Unwold with a sense of dread, though he does not know why.

The stars appear. Shadows lengthen. Storm clouds roll overhead, low and ominous like a ghost fleet destined for some phantom port. Distant thunder rumbles. The ocean air, moist and pungent with the tang of sea salt, seems to tremble.

The sleek galleon slices through the night-blue waters. In the gusting winds, its sails are full, its course true. Tonight, the sea is a capricious beast, wild and wilful. Black waters build in front of the vessel, forming surging swells laced white with spume. The ship climbs, climbs and crests the rise; an avalanche of seawater breaks upon the prow, hammering the deck with its deluge. The waters recede and the ship plunges; Unwold grips the rail, planting his legs apart. Warm seawater sprays his face; it tastes like blood.

He turns and sees the back of a helmsman who struggles with the wheel. The helmsman’s hair whips in the wind and his arms are slabs of muscle. Though Unwold does not feel himself walk, he approaches. Though Unwold does not hear himself speak, he tells the helmsman to avoid the coming storm. The figure turns, ever slowly, ever silent, and Unwold gasps, nerves tingling. The helmsman is faceless! Where his eyes, nose, and mouth should be is a blank expanse of slick pallid skin. Unwold screams silently. He stumbles backwards upon the lurching deck and sprawls into the rigging. He looks about. Besides the faceless man, he is alone.

Unwold knows that Old Munley will set everything right. He finds himself below deck, though does not recall how he got there. He proceeds down a narrow corridor with cabins on either side. His friend resides in the one at the far end. Unwold approaches but the cabin seems distant and unattainable, like the teasing light of freedom viewed from the bottom of a well. Though he exerts much effort, he moves with leaden slowness, each step inching him closer, yet each step feeling futile. Glancing back, he is terrified to have come this far. His mouth is dry with fear. Certainty grips him: at any moment, the cabin doors will spring open and out will march a legion of faceless pirates, swords slashing. But the doors remain shut.

Then he is there, in front of Old Munley’s cabin door. It is dark here, deep in shadow, and he fumbles for the door handle. After an eternity, his hand comes to rest on the brass knob. It feels cold and hard against his skin.

Fear haunts him, like vampire bats harrying him through a moonless night, and he wants to turn back, to flee into oblivion. He is afraid but something forces him forwards.

The cabin door swings wide, seemingly on its own accord. Before him is a dark room from which wafts the nauseous stink of the sea and the ripeness of death. He can make out a mahogany bureau, a chess set, a cupboard, and shelves, all crammed into a space seemingly too small. Against the wall is a sleeping pallet on which lies Old Munley.

Unwold shakes the bloody, sea-drenched body, but the cook refuses to awaken. His eyes, normally full of grandfatherly kindness, stare blankly at the ceiling. Panic rises in Unwold’s gut, and he shakes the cook again, pleading with him to answer. But the cook is a corpse. Seawater dribbles from between his grey lips and bubbles out of his nose.

Unwold flees.

Somehow, in an instant, he is on the quarterdeck, shaking and looking out upon slate-grey sea. Above, the clouds are black and seething. The traitorous helmsman has steered him into the maelstrom! Thunder crashes and lightning stitches the sky. The heavens open and rain falls in a torrent.

From beyond veils of rain a figure stalks, cutlass in hand. The figure approaches, unperturbed by the rocking, slippery deck. Unwold sees that the visitor, like the helmsman, is also faceless. But unlike the other, a puckered white scar worms from ear to chin; this is Grim Pete. Unwold tries to run but his legs refuse to move. Grim Pete advances, relentless, his sword chopping Unwold’s forearm. Unwold looks down. His right arm is a stump of ragged flesh and sheared white bone...

#                                              #                                              #

Unwold felt warm rain spattering his face, but his mind suggested that it might be spurting blood. He groaned and opened his eyes. A procession of red ants marched single file along the side of the fallen log. He craned his head. Through the treetops, he could see a scrap of sky swimming with grey clouds; it hurt his eyes to look at the light. Spitting out leaves and crumbs of dirt, he rose to his feet. He placed a hand to the side of his head and sucked a hiss of pain through clenched teeth. He could feel a lump about the size of a small lime, tender and flaky with dried blood.

Although the dreamscapes had sifted away, a residual fear clung to him like swamp fog, leaving him shaken. Grim Pete’s scarred visages, both the faceless and the feral, came unbidden to Unwold’s mind; a chill coursed through his body. He pushed the images aside, taking deep breaths to settle his racing heart. His arm still felt queer from the nightmare assault.

Unwold was injured and miserable. He looked around suddenly angry: Whisper was gone. Rain pelted him, plastering his hair to his scalp, but he didn’t care. He cursed Grim Pete, damning him for his cruelty, for his manipulative ways and for his wrath. Envy and hatred controlled Grim Pete like a sickness, compelling him to snuff even the faintest glimmer of Unwold’s hope. In days past, Old Munley had tempered Grim Pete’s hostilities with wit and wry humor. Rather than serve to discourage however, it had only made the pirate more cunning. In place of overt violence came the subtler scourges of ridicule, sarcasm, and scorn, which, persistently applied, would grate at even the most stoic. Upon occasion, Grim Pete’s lackeys would join in and make sport of Unwold, considering him an object of jest, a target for jokes of poor taste when deep in their cups.

Unwold’s wounds, though not physical, were nonetheless raw and ready to bleed. He was suffering a slow, inexorable demise of spirit and soul; to acknowledge such made him feel ashamed. For the first time he entertained the notion that his misfortunes might not be his own fault. Instead, he wondered whether Grim Pete had perpetuated his bad luck, trapping him in a vicious cycle of misery and self-doubt. Unwold found the idea intriguing and disturbing all at once. He’d discovered a kernel of truth and somehow his conscience felt lighter for it. He resolved to tolerate no more.

Unwold’s head pounded. He could feel the monotonous throb of hot blood in his ears. He knew Prince Leyon had wielded the rock that struck him; the prince’s silk blouse was the last thing Unwold had witnessed before falling unconscious.

A macaw squawked, startling him back into the present. Above the patter of the rain, he heard a distant voice pleading for help. It sounded whiny, very much like Prince Leyon. Unwold could not imagine what trouble might have befallen the young fellow. Perhaps the crew had captured him. Perhaps it was a trap. The cries seemed to be coming from his left, though the undergrowth distorted sounds and so Unwold was unsure.

He pushed through the trees, stepping with care across the slippery ground. Even in the wan light the ferns and mossy boughs were a vibrant green, beaded with moisture. After all the trouble Prince Leyon had caused, Unwold was unsure exactly why he should bother to help the lad. His only hope was that the prince might know of Whisper’s whereabouts. Unwold pressed through a snarl of ropy vines. The trees thinned and he emerged at the top of a riverbank. Presently the rain had all but stopped. Looking down he saw that the riverbed was mostly empty, holding puddles of standing water. Some twenty feet away, at a curve in the riverbed and among a cluster of pebbles, sat Prince Leyon. Sprawled in the dirt and rubbing his left ankle, he looked a pathetic picture. His silks were torn and muddy and his grubby face, streaked pink in places by tears, held a brooding scowl. He seemed absorbed in his misery and oblivious to Unwold’s presence.

Unwold negotiated the steep decline, sliding his way to the bottom. The prince was about to yell for help again but gave a jolt of surprise when he noticed Unwold some two yards away.

“It’s broken!” the lad shrieked, as if it was an accusation. His blue eyes glared at Unwold with the authority of one used to giving orders. It was a challenging stare, as if he dared Unwold to disagree and thus have the satisfaction of laying blame.

“Have you seen Whisper? Perhaps she came this way?”

Prince Leyon blinked for a moment. “Oh, you mean Loranx’s cat, Shareela. No I don’t think...Ahhh!” He winced and withdrew a hand from his ankle. “I...I haven’t seen her...since she nibbled through my bonds. I suppose...suppose you think you’re going to drag me back to the cave now...” The prince snatched a pebble and poised to throw it in a feeble attempt at self-defense.

“No! That you escaped is of little consequence. You are Grim Pete’s problem; Whisper is mine. She escaped into the jungle after you fled. That pretty little cat is all I have left...” Unwold glanced around hoping that the crew was not seeking him. They would undoubtedly organize search parties once they sobered, but that might take hours. By then it would be nightfall. “Tell me, what sort of cat nibbles through ropes? Whisper is truly special is she not?”

“Indeed she is. You seem to have a natural affinity for her. Shareela--your Whisper, that is--belonged to Loranx, a magician of sorts who traveled with us aboard the Mystery Maiden. We picked him up at the city-port of Geloran, twenty leagues southwest of the Mermaid Archipelago. Loranx trained her to leap through hoops of fire, lap milk while standing upside-down on one paw, and play checkers with mice. She would break the monotony of the voyage between ports, you see. I think Loranx used her as part of an escape artist act...hence the ropes.” Prince Leyon gave a weak smile. He tried to get up, winced, and fell back. There was despair and exhaustion in his eyes. “You’re bleeding,” he said weakly.

“And who do I have to thank for that. It was quite a wallop you gave me, you know. And for what gain?” Unwold touched the side of his face, and his hand came away sticky with blood.

Tears spilled down Prince Leyon’s cheeks and his bottom lip trembled wetly. He shook his head, sniffling like a child.

“How long have I been out for? An hour...two?” asked Unwold.

“I didn’t hit you, it couldn’t have been. It wasn’t me.” Behind mussed locks of golden hair, the prince’s gaze was unwavering. A runnel of snot dangled from his chin.

There was a note of conviction in his voice; Unwold suspected that he was telling the truth. In any case, what did Prince Leyon have to gain from lying? Still, something was amiss...something he couldn’t quite remember. He gave the prince a searching look...

“Truthfully, on my honor! For the past hour, I’ve been running from you rum-besotted, villainous freebooters! Since I fell, I’ve been stuck here nursing my wretched leg. Listen closely! I swear, when I return to the mainland Lord Swardley himself and perhaps even Dame Beatwyn will hear of this injustice! You’ll all be hauled away to the island prison of Murkhos and left there to rot!”

Unwold had no idea who the lord and dame were, but they sounded important.

“I’ll have you know, I have influence in these parts. If...if you continue to treat me a dog--” Then he began to sob, wiping the snot away with the back of a hand. He dropped the pebble.

Unwold sighed. He looked at the lad and couldn’t help but to pity him. “Let me take a look at your leg,” he said at last. “Perhaps it’s just a sprain...”

Prince Leyon’s left shank was porcelain-white and hairless. Sure enough, his ankle was grazed, puffy and reddened. Unwold pressed gently around the swelling, eliciting an occasional whimper from the prince. “Can you move your foot, wiggle your toes?”

The prince nodded. “A little, yes--but it pains like fire when I do.”

“Just as I thought: a sprain. Though by all appearances, a bad one. Don’t walk on it. We need to get you to the top where you can rest. You should really have it wrapped firmly in linen bandages soaked in chilled ointment. Here, let me help...”

Prince Leyon slung his left arm around Unwold’s shoulders and Unwold hoisted him upright. They ascended the riverbank, Prince Leyon hopping along, careful not to shift his weight onto his balky ankle.

It was then that Unwold realized what was bothering him. Prince Leyon’s clothes were bright green. He distinctly remembered his attacker’s shirt as being a reddish-brown. If the prince didn’t attack him, then who did? None of the pirates wore fancy burgundy silk shirts.

“Ow! Steady! Now...go slower...that hurts awfully!”

They were almost at the top when Unwold heard voices arguing from beyond the trees.

Prince Leyon said, “I can’t take much--“

“Sh!” Unwold held up a warning hand.

“Would you--“

“Quiet! Hear that?”

They stopped to listen. The voices were unmistakably that of Grim Pete’s men. They were making a racket, tromping their way through the undergrowth, cursing and muttering.

“Hurry!” whispered Unwold.

A look of terror crossed Prince Leyon’s face. He needed no encouragement. They ascended the riverbank as fast as the prince could manage.

The voices grew louder. Evidently disturbed by these interlopers, a flock of macaws cried out and took to the air in an explosion of blue-and-yellow wings.

At last, the pair attained the top of the riverbank. The prince was breathing hard. He leaned heavily on Unwold’s shoulder.

Unwold was looking for a place to hide when Tattoo Jack emerged from the trees, brandishing a cutlass. “I’ve found your stinkin’ Unwold! And the pretty prince!”

In a trice, the other buccaneers appeared: Weasel One-Eye, Pious Snake, Ratface, Fat Walter, and Timmy No Tongue. And then came Grim Pete, cutlass gleaming. Surely, thought Unwold, the other six of their gang wouldn’t be far behind.

Prince Leyon had gone chalk-white and he looked like he was going to vomit.

A metallic dryness filled Unwold’s mouth while sour sweat streamed down his back. The stink of rum and fear hung in the air. The jungle was uncomfortably hot.

There was a feverish light in Grim Pete’s eyes and somehow Unwold feared that, like his nightmare, the confrontation would end in bloodshed.

The other pirates, eyes bloodshot, advanced with a combination of clumsiness and over-caution; Unwold noticed that they were still half-drunk. The crew encircled him and the prince on one side, cutlasses drawn. The other edge descended sharply to the riverbed.

Grim Pete strode forwards, blade gleaming like silver in his right hand. He pressed the point under Prince Leyon’s chin so that a runnel of blood coursed down his delicate white neck.

Prince Leyon flinched and let out a thin gasp.

Grim Pete held the prince’s gaze. “Do you take us for fools?” he said. From the lackeys, there were chuckles all round. “Did we not feed you and seek to arrange a ransom for safe delivery to your lord father? In return for our goodwill, you mock us! Your escape has caused us hassle and wasted effort. Ordinarily I am as forgiving as I am generous...but I weary and my patience is at an end.”

A swipe of the cutlass carved open Prince Leyon’s chest from nipple to navel. His intestines slithered out in a slick puddle like fat blue worms. The prince’s shriek was so loud, so shrill that Unwold felt it like a physical blow; his nerves jangled. Prince Leyon gagged and jerked like a marionette.

Unwold shrugged free and the body slid to the ground. Grim Pete had already raised his sword for another strike, presumably aimed at Unwold. Unwold didn’t trust his chances against six burly pirates, however drunk they might be. Praying for good fortune, he leaped over the bank, plunging some nine feet to the riverbed. Amid belated and drunken shouts from above, he hit the rocky bank hard, rolled and felt his right knee smack up against a pile of pebbles. Stifling a scream, he got up and ran across the riverbed, splashing through a puddle. He began to climb the far side, gritting his teeth from the scrape on his knee. His hands clawed at clumps of loose earth; escape felt futile. The sounds of the crew scrambling down to meet him hastened Unwold onwards. He found a rocky ledge and boosted himself upwards. He heard the others cursing and splashing through the waters below. A thrown rock skimmed the side of his head, and he almost lost his footing and fell. Then a sudden reserve of energy found him. Motivated by fear he moved rapidly upwards, finding purchase among nooks and granite spurs.

When he was at the top, he risked glancing back. The others were at the base, arguing and getting in each other’s way as they tried to ascend all at once. But even in their drunken state, it wouldn’t take them long to find a way up. Unwold noticed that Grim Pete had only just descended the far side. Their eyes locked. Grim Pete shot Unwold a hateful stare.

Then Unwold was running away.

As he fled, he could feel Grim Pete’s gaze pressing into his back like a physical presence.

#                                              #                                              #

Rain pelted the trees. The sun had set leaving the forest in a somber grey half-light that mirrored Unwold’s mood all too well. The air was thick and windless, so saturated with moisture that perspiration beaded upon Unwold’s upper lip and brow immediately after he’d wiped it away. His shirt and breeches were sodden, clinging uncomfortably like a weighty second skin that wanted shedding. The heat sapped his energy, toyed with his patience. He batted away flitting mosquitoes and winged ants in annoyance. Hidden creatures spied upon him with luminous eyes from behind foliage but, ever resolute, he ignored them, striking southeast.

For the past two hours, he had traveled at a steady pace despite the torpor-inducing, withering jungle heat. He had never stopped once to rest and now his mouth was parched. After some three miles, the sounds of pursuit had stopped, but Unwold dared not become complacent. He was certain that the crew, given time, would search the island jungle and chase him from hiding. Grim Pete would make it his solemn duty. The prudent option therefore was to keep moving. Unwold needed to find a cave, some form of shelter in which he could recuperate. He was tired, thirsty, and harassed; every step was a burden. At least the rain had abated.

Pressing through a tangle of prickly vines, he emerged at the edge of a field dotted with pastel purple blooms. To the east, the plain ascended to a rocky bluff. Against the star-speckled sky, a campfire blazed at the summit. Wind-stirred cinders swarmed about like red moths. The site appeared unattended.

The campsite could not possibly be that of his pursuers, for surely they were some distance behind. In any case, Unwold suspected that his crew, for the time being, may have given up the search, returning instead to the hideaway to sleep off their stupors. He reasoned that the campsite might belong to his mystery assailant.

To the left of the campfire, a concentrated ruby light pulsed three times and then went out. Unwold waited for several heartbeats and the light pulsed again, lancing through the night. Evidently, it was some kind of signal. Tonight the air was relatively clear and passing ships would no doubt see the beacon for miles around.

Unwold crossed the plain in earnest, under the full moon’s cold white light. A pleasantly cool wind picked up, rolling fresh off the sea and carrying mingled salty scents. Tall grasses rippled around his thighs, swishing like silvered waves.

Unwold soon arrived at the base of the headland. He climbed a series of limestone shelves weathered by wind, salt, sea, and sunshine. A solitary figure dressed in wind-whipped robes stood at the brink of the precipice. The man held some sort of oversized, reddish gemstone. The artifact pulsed with a blinding luminescence three times in quick succession, dazzling Unwold. Ragged red afterimages swam across his vision. He squeezed his eyes shut and after a minute, his sight readjusted itself to the gloom. He hoped that the howling wind and the waves battering the base of the bluff would serve to muffle the scrape and shuffle of his approach.

As Unwold reached the top, he spied Whisper sitting at the man’s side. As if alerted by some preternatural instinct she turned and meowed, her eyes gleaming in the moonlight. To Unwold she was a relieving sight and for a brief moment, he forgot about his hardships. Then the man himself began to turn and Unwold feared that the figure’s face would prove featureless like that of the helmsman in the nightmare.

Instead, it bore the handsome features of some forty winters with a stubbly chin, chiseled cheekbones, and a high forehead with a prominent widow’s-peak of long raven-black hair. In the lambent firelight, his eyes were dark, intelligent, and almost hypnotic in their intensity. His silken robes were burgundy. He gave a magnanimous, showman-like smile of even white teeth.

Unwold glanced at Whisper, and thought back to Prince Leyon’s tale. “Loranx...?” he said at last, recalling the name of the Mystery Maiden’s guest magician.

“I owe you an apology.” Loranx’s voice was smooth, deep, and confident. He pronounced his words with precision like a true stage performer. “I thought that you might be trying to harm Shareela so I hit you with a rock. To be honest, I actually thought I’d killed you.” He paused, as if for dramatic effect. “Forgive me, but you did help to slaughter our crew so I could only assume your intentions were hostile. Shareela has since told me that you saved her from drowning, something I was unable to do in the heat of battle. And so, though you attacked us, that places me in the curious position of being in your debt. How strange and unexpected life is!” He gave a small bow as if he’d just completed an impossible feat to audience applause.

Unwold idly touched the side of his head, somewhat puzzled by the nature of that reasoning. He wondered about the methods that Loranx employed to communicate with the cat. “How did you manage to escape the ship?”

“Who do you think set fire to the sails? Misdirection is a magician’s best friend. Whilst you hastened to plunder our vessel, I swam ashore. I’ll have you know I’m a strong swimmer, but I almost didn’t make it. But enough of that! It’s not polite to ask a magician to reveal his secrets.” He grinned and Unwold found himself grinning too.

Loranx stroked the cat, looked out to sea and sighed. “No matter now, of course. Freedom is soon at hand.”

Unwold followed his gaze. Some half a mile out to sea was the dim shape of a warship, oars bristling. The blue insignia of the Geloran navy marked the sails. Below the vessel and heading swiftly across the dark waters to the shore was a rowboat illuminated by a bobbing lantern. For Unwold it was a welcome sight indeed. Relief washed over him. He had found an escape.

As he noticed a path winding its way from the bluff down to the beach, he heard a noise behind him. He turned around in time to see Grim Pete, Tattoo Jack, and Fat Walter attain the summit, swords gleaming.

Tattoo Jack moved to one side to square-off against Loranx while Grim Pete and Fat Walter approached Unwold. As he was unarmed, Unwold backed away from their blades towards the brink.

Fat Walter attacked first, grinning with ugly yellow teeth. He thrust with his cutlass somewhat theatrically but to little effect. Grim Pete circled around to the left for a flanking position. Fat Walter lunged again with zeal, no doubt hoping to win the favor of his captain. Unwold dodged and grabbed the outstretched arm, pulling the obese pirate off-balance with unexpected ease and reversing the blade. Fat Walter toppled to the ground, impaling himself on his own weapon.

Unwold heard Tattoo Jack scream as Loranx plunged a dagger between the pirate’s ribs felling him in an instant.

Meanwhile Grim Pete had circled out of Unwold’s view. Unwold whirled, dancing back from a series of slashes that would have sliced his chest to ribbons. Grim Pete hesitated. He was seemingly intent on herding Unwold towards the brink. Though he was shaking with fear, Unwold took the initiative, ducking down and snatching Fat Walter’s bloody cutlass. Fat Walter moaned in a puddle of blood.

Grim Pete advanced, blade dancing in his hand like a living thing. Unwold flinched and could only deflect the rapid blows, edging his way backwards to the precipitous drop.

From Unwold’s left the red beam suddenly pulsed, hitting his attacker full in the face. Grim Pete cried out, shielding his eyes from the glare. Unwold stepped forth and deftly skewered the pirate through the stomach and then the neck. Disoriented, Grim Pete stumbled forth, slashing desperately with his cutlass. Unwold stepped to one side and watched Grim Pete walk himself over the edge. There was a short scream and then silence.

Unwold peered over the brink, trembling visibly. Loranx placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Grim Pete’s body lay in a twisted heap upon the rocks. Waves crashed against the bluff and, when they receded, the corpse was gone.

#                                              #                                              #

Unwold and Loranx lay exhausted in the boat as the Geloran sailors rowed them towards safety. Unwold had informed the Gelorans of the hidden booty on the northern side of the island. Because the Geloran authorities wanted Grim Pete and his men, Unwold and Loranx would be rewarded. Despite his former actions, Unwold would no doubt receive a measure of leniency from the law.

“Loranx, I must thank you for your quick thinking,” said Unwold. “Without your actions, things might have ended very differently.” He stroked Whisper, and she purred contentedly.

“Now our score is even! Though I must admit, I never got your name...”

“Unwold the Un--“ he began. “Unwold, I guess. Yes...just Unwold.”

Loranx nodded and smiled.

Unwold looked out across the open sea. A flock of seagulls cried out, flying into the newly minted light of the approaching dawn. It felt good to be free.

A cat and her sorcerer, a beautiful dream weaver, an evil voodoo priest, a bunch of man-sized rats, an army of really big bugs, a crazed randy rabbit, some dwarves, dragons and angry three-toed sloths, New York City, the woods of Maine, the sands of Arabia and the mythic lands of Avalon all come together for the wildest most epic adventure you’ve ever read!!!!

The Sorcerer's Song and The Cat's Meow is an author's triumph and a reader's delight... What a wonderful, free-falling storytelling ride to get to the end of a fantasy that's about as close to purrfect as you can get.

M. Wayne Cunningham - ForeWord CLARION Reviews

A well-plotted story with vivid and riveting description of characters and settings, as well as an intense page turning battle, the book is a delight to read.

Tracy Roberts - Write Field Services

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