Kingdom of Royth?
Book 9 of the Richard Blade Series
????The official Rolls-Royce carrying J toward the Tower of London was not quite like theadvertisements-so quiet that all he could hear was the ticking of the electric clock. But itwas almost that quiet, and otherwise there were only faint traffic noises outside. It waseleven o'clock on a spring night, and London was either going to sleep or already asleep.
J would normally have been in bed and asleep also. Part of his rise to the position of head ofthe special intelligence branch MI6 was the result of years of rising early, not only beforethe dawn but before his rivals (and his enemies). But tonight Richard Blade was being hurledthrough Lord Leighton's gigantic computer on his ninth journey into Dimension X. J would soonerhave violated the Official Secrets Act than not be on hand when his best agent-almost like ason to him was hurled off into some fantastic other world to live or die by his own quick witsand superb physical prowess.
Blade had made the same journey eight times. The first time it had been by accident, when anexperiment indirectly linking one of Lord Leighton's earlier computers to Blade's mind has gonespectacularly awry. The remaining times, however, his journeys had been part of a deliberatelycontrived project to explore what was now called Dimension X, for the benefit of England. Overthe short time of its existence, Project Dimension X had grown from a bee in Lord Leighton'swhite-haired bonnet to a massive undertaking housed in a self-contained complex more than twohundred feet below the Tower. Its financing swallowed money to the tune of better than half amillion pounds a year. It drew on the talents of some thirty of England's most brilliant men-scientists, engineers, psychologists-without letting them know what they were serving. Onlyfour people in the whole world-J hoped-knew full details. Blade, Lord Leighton, the PrimeMinister, and J himself.
In spite of the Prime Minister's generosity with priorities, financing, and staffing, ProjectDimension X still had a weak point. That weak point was Richard Blade himself. J grinned wrylyat the notion of Blade, with his mind and body and experience, being a "weak point." Then thegrin faded.
It was true. Dimension X could not be explored or exploited without somebody going through thecomputer. So far, the only person able to go through the computer and return alive and sane wasBlade himself. One other man had tried; he had returned permanently insane. A dozen others hadbeen considered; all had been rejected. All fell short of Blade's perfection.
But however perfect Blade might be, there was a limit to what he could take. Sooner or laterhis brain would suffer major damage from too much stress placed on it too often by thecomputer. Even worse, somewhere out in Dimension X his mighty strength might not be greatenough, his lightning reflexes not fast enough, and he would not come back at all.
It was absolutely necessary to find at least one other man, and preferably several, who couldsurvive a trip into Dimension X, both physically and mentally. They needed to take the strainoff Blade for his sake. Even more, if he cracked or vanished before they found somebody else,the whole Dimension X project would come to a standstill, possibly for good. That would benefitnobody and nothing.
All of which explained why J was in the official Rolls-Royce heading into London. An hour agohe had been high over the Atlantic in an airliner. To all eyes he had been a tall, elderlyimpeccably Establishment businessman or civil servant. He had just completed a mission toWashington, a mission personally ordered by the Prime Minister. He had been discreetly
inquiring of the Americans whether they had any good agents that might be available for a jointAnglo-American project. Making the inquiries widely enough to get useful information but not sowidely that American curiosity was aroused and they started inquiring in their turn had beenone of the most delicate jobs of J's whole career. He thought it had gone well. At any rate, healready had seven names and the promise of a thorough search of the staffs of Americanintelligence agencies for more. Between that and the Prime Minister's equally discreetinquiries in England's armed forces, something should turn up.
Of course, it would be preferable for the Project to remain an all-British affair. If theAmericans provided men, they would also be sure to demand a share of any benefits from theProject. But even dividing the benefits with the Americans was preferable to suspending theProject entirely. And it was even more preferable to keeping it going with Blade alone until itdestroyed him.
J caught himself. Was he thinking too much of saving Blade and not enough of their common dutyto England? If he was, it was time to face the fact that he was getting old and hand over hisjob to a younger, more dispassionate man. Then he remembered that even if he retired as chiefof M16, he would still be involved with Project Dimension X. The Prime Minister hadspecifically asked him to stay on even after retirement as the Government's representative withthe Project. He had agreed. The Prime Minister had tried to present this as a high honor, and Jsupposed that in a way it was. But, and here he grinned again, it was also an easy way ofsaving the Prime Minister from having to deal directly with Lord Leighton very often. Leightonmight be England's most brilliant scientist, and he might have forgotten more about computersthan any other five men in the world had learned. But that didn't make him any less eccentric,irritable, or maddeningly difficult to work with.
J was still running futures-Blade's, his own, and the Project's-back and forth in his mind whenthe Rolls drew up at the entrance to the Tower. He climbed out, then smiled broadly as a tallfigure with an escort of dour Special Branch men loomed up out of the darkness. It was verydecent of Richard to come out to meet him here on the surface, even though they couldn'texchange any serious words until they had left the escort behind.
They did that at the massive, gleaming bronze doors marking the head of the elevator shaft downto the complex far below. The door swished shut behind them and the elevator began itsunnerving plunge downwards. J turned to Blade and thrust out his hand.
"How are you; Richard? I'm sorry I couldn't get back until just now. I wouldn't have been ableto do even that if the P.M. hadn't sent an official car out to the airport for me."
Blade grinned and took the offered hand in a strong grasp. "It wouldn't have mattered. LordLeighton said we were going to wait before starting the sequence until you arrived, howeverlong that might be."
"Well, I'll be damned!" J's eyebrows rose. "I'm almost prepared to believe that Lord L isdeveloping some human feelings at last."
"Quite possibly. He-" Blade was interrupted as the elevator sighed to a stop. The doors slidopen, revealing the familiar long corridor stretching away under the lights.
As they stepped from the elevator, Lord Leighton popped out of a side door like the WhiteRabbit. He looked even more like an industrious gnome than usual as he scuttled ahead of themdown the corridor on his polio-twisted legs. His hunchbacked body bounced inside the grimywhite laboratory smock. As they moved along through the familiar series of electronicallyguarded doors, he kept up a cheerful stream of comment.
"Very glad you could get back in time, J. Richard knew you'd want to be around for the send-off; talked my arm and half my leg off persuading me to wait. No good reason not to, of course.We can start the main sequence any time we choose. The problem's always going to be makingadjustments once the sequence is started. So far we haven't had any malfunctions in the middle.We'll have to make some modifications in the sequencing procedure, though. Put in a provisionfor "holds" like the Americans use on their space launches. Don't want to put Richard halfway
into Dimension X and leave half of him here, do we?"
J found Leighton's cheerfulness more than a trifle ghoulish and his technical comments about asintelligible as if they had been in Chinese. But it again occurred to him-might Leightonpossibly be developing some human sensibilities about the whole Project? Was the cheerfulpatter an effort to conceal a sudden nervousness of his own, as well as to attack thenervousness he assumed J and Blade were feeling? J certainly didn't mind admitting to havingthe wind up a bit, as usual. He turned to look at Richard, striding along in massive silencebeside him. Blade's lips wore a very faint smile, but it seemed to be pasted on, out of keepingwith the rest of his manner, which was preoccupied and a bit tense. Hardly surprising, that.Blade had been a first-class field operative for MI6 for the better part of twenty years andhad survived more unexpected dangers than most men would encounter in ten lifetimes. But eventhe worst field assignment didn't throw an agent literally naked into a situation about whichhe knew absolutely nothing beforehand. So far, Blade's physical and mental qualities hadbrought him through safely. But this sort of good luck couldn't last indefinitely.
As if he had been thinking along the same lines, Blade turned to J and said, "How was theAmerican mission, sir? Do I plan to retire on my laurels after this trip?" There was a note ofself-mockery in Blade's voice that made J feel a little better. Richard was as ready as ever totake whatever the world-this or any other one-might throw at him.
"Don't start planning your retirement yet," J replied in the same light tone. "It's too soon tosee if the Americans can come up with anybody good enough. I have a few names, but that's allfor the moment. I haven't yet even worked out a proper cover story for bringing them over herefor testing."
Blade nodded. "Lord L thinks he may be on to a method for the advanced testing of candidates.Not just physically, but mentally as well."
J nodded grimly. He thought of the ruined shell of a man locked away for the remainder of hislife in a North County institution because his mind had not survived the trip into Dimension X,even though his body had returned. Lord Leighton turned around and also nodded.
"If the mental breakdown was the result of some physical effect that the computer has on thesubject's brain, we're barking up the wrong tree. And if it turns out that Richard is the onlyman in the world with a brain immune to that effect-well, we're in a nasty situation. But ifit's simply a question of a man's being unable to adapt to such a fantastically differentenvironment, one of the psychiatrists thinks he may have developed a new method of testing forstress tolerance. If it-ah, here we are."
As always, the main computer room, filled with the great shadowy bulks with their crackledfinish and the swarm of writhing multicolored wires reminded J of an abandoned temple of somefantastic and sinister religion overrun by the jungle. And the squat black chair in its glasscubicle in the middle looked like an altar for sacrifices of a highly unpleasant sort.
Blade, however, seemed entirely relaxed and at home. He turned to J and said, "Well, sir, itlooks like that time again. No point in making Lord L wait any longer." They shook hands, andBlade stepped into the dressing room.
Inside, he quickly stripped naked and began smearing on the black paste that protected him fromelectrical burns as the computer's immense power surged through his body. Now that the time wasdrawing near, he felt his tension slipping away. It was replaced by anticipation. Apart fromwhat it might bring for England, the whole Project offered him an endless series of challengesand adventures. And it was a love of these that had helped bring him into the intelligenceservice in the first place.
This time, of course, he was not running away from a broken love affair or running toward someplace he hoped might cure an inexplicable and maddening impotence. He had resigned himself to aseries of fleeting relationships with women as long as he was working on the Project. As forhis virility, neither he nor any of his recent partners could have any reasonable complaints onthat score. No, it was just a case of going out once more to do what he did well and, when you
got right down to it, enjoyed doing.
He pulled on the loincloth. This was purely a gesture, since it had never yet survived thetrip. He stepped out into the chamber and strode over to the chair. He knew the routine by nowto the point that he felt like twiddling his thumbs as Lord L adjusted the net of restrainingstraps, then began attaching the cobra-headed electrodes to every part of Blade's body. Thiswent on until he was festooned with wires-blue, green, yellow, red-leading off in everydirection into the guts of the computer, like some mad artist's vision of an octopus.
Then there was a further wait, while Blade's impatience began to build. Of course Leighton hadto double-check everything. Still, why did he always have to be so bloody slow about it? Bladetook several breaths as deep as the straps permitted and tried to relax.
Finally everything was ready. J moved aside and raised a hand in farewell as Lord L steppedslowly up to the main console and poised his hand over the master control switch. He turned andlooked inquiringly at Blade. "Ready, my boy?"
The gnarled hand pressed the master switch. There was a hum of surging power, then the shrillwailing of a hundred thousand flutes filled the chamber and made the air turn a liquid green.Everything around Blade turned green too, except for the figures of J and Lord L. They turnedblue, then shrank and became dwarfed and monkeylike, scratched themselves and clamberedfrantically up the face of the computer. The electrodes writhed and twisted and pulledthemselves free from his body, turning to snakes as they did so. The snakes wriggled furiouslyacross the floor and swarmed up the face of the computer after the fleeing monkey figures.
Just as the snakes reached them, the face of the computer itself cracked open in a hundredplaces. Blade cringed as the great slabs of facing came pouring down on him and then pouredthrough him, and a tangible blackness flooded out from the vast hole where the computer hadbeen, gushing out until Blade was completely surrounded by it and the snakes and monkeys wereboth gone.
Then the blackness receded slightly, and Blade was standing on a concrete block with harsh bluelights pouring down on him from all around. A voice was chanting tonelessly, "Five-four-three-two-one-LIFT-OFF!" Fire spewed out from under the block and he and it together began to riseinto the sky. Quickly they were out of the blue lights, rising again into thick blackness,until the flames gushing from the block died and it fell away. Blade hurtled alone through thedark, then felt himself slowing. His climb ceased; he rolled over and began to fall, silently,with no sensation of air rushing past or of anything except the falling, the endless falling.
Blade suddenly realized that he had made the transition into Dimension X. The fall was now areal, physical one. Before he had even had time to wonder where he was going to come down, hehit water with a tremendous splash. He plunged deep enough for the light to turn green, thenkicked his way to the surface. The water was cool enough for the coolness to be noticeable, butnot enough for it to be uncomfortable. That was fortunate. He might have landed in the localequivalent of the Arctic Ocean, in which case he would have been dead within three minutes.Even so, this was the first time he had found himself in water immediately after a transition.
Treading water, he took stock of the situation as he had done eight times before. As always, hehad a splitting headache. And as always, the loincloth had gone, leaving him as naked as anyfish that might swim in this-river, lake, sea?-where he had landed. He licked his lips. Salt.So it was an ocean or sea. Next question: how far was he from shore? He was a powerful swimmer-twenty miles was nothing to him-but if he was out in the middle of something the size of, say,the Atlantic Ocean, he was in a sticky situation. Before, it had been a question of landing inthe middle of battles or at least of some inhabited territory where he had to fight or at leastcommunicate with the local inhabitants immediately. Now, half his problem was the lack ofpeople.
The headache had faded enough now so that he could raise his head and look around. The sea wascalm, broken only by a gentle swell no more than two or three feet high. Above its surfacenothing moved except the faintest of breezes. The air itself was warm and moist, faintlyscented with something Blade at first had trouble identifying. Then he realized it was thesmell of smoke. Smoke? In the middle of an ocean? He resumed his scanning of the horizon-notfar away, for a man in the water.
It was apparently late afternoon, with a westering sun sliding down from a flawless blue sky.But the western horizon itself had sprouted several tall columns of smoke, coiling greasilystraight up into the sky for hundreds of feet before they plumed out at the top into broad,feathery clouds. There was the source of the smoke odor, but what lay at the base of thosecolumns and clouds was invisible just beyond the horizon. Still, whatever might be there wasmore likely to be a source of help than the empty ocean nearer at hand. Or at least it couldprovide information about what sort of beings inhabited this particular Dimension. Steadily,taking his time and conserving his energy, he began to swim towards the smoke columns.
It was well over an hour before what lay at the base of the columns lifted over the horizon.Drifting sluggishly on the sea, five ships were burning. Around them like scum on a stagnantpond floated a wide circle of wreckage-spares, rigging, planking, chests and boxes, overturnedboats, human bodies. Blade was elated. Here was a better chance of survival than swimming aboutaimlessly in the sea. He quickened his strokes. In a few more minutes, he reached the fringesof the circle, climbed on to the bottom of an overturned boat and looked more closely at theburning ships.
He now noticed that they were of two distinctly different kinds. Two of them were large, broad-beamed merchantman types, with high castles fore and aft and bluff bows. As far as he couldtell from what he could see through the smoke and what the battle had left standing, they hadpossessed two masts, with two or possibly three square sails on each.
The other three ships were smaller, low-slung, with jutting bows apparently ending in rams.They also had two masts, but lanteen-rigged, and there were definitely oar ports in their lowsides amidships.
Merchantmen and war galleys-two distinct types. Two distinct sides perhaps? And with all fiveships on fire, and wreckage and bodies littering the sea, that suggested a recent battle. Bladefound himself scanning the horizon again. The survivors of such a battle, if any, might not bewelcome company for a man naked and unarmed. It was time to see what he could scrounge in theway of survival gear from the flotsam spread out over more than a square mile of ocean.
The boat was far too heavy in its waterlogged condition for Blade to right it by himself. Butthere were plenty of floating spars trailing rigging and still half-wrapped in sails. Kickinghard with his feet, he pushed two such together, added a third, then tied them together with asmuch rope as he could salvage without a knife to cut it. After half an hour's work, he had aramshackle raft, three feet wide and about fifteen feet long. It rode half-submerged, like afloating log. But it saved him from having to swim or tread water continuously. And in thecourse of assembling his raft, he found a small piece of timber that balanced well enough inhis hand to make a serviceable club.
The sun was noticeably lower in the sky now. One of the galleys finally dipped its bow underand sank with a great hissing as the fires were drowned and a great bubbling and gurgling asthe last of the air escaped from the vanishing hull. Bits of charred wood popped to the surfacein the disturbed water it left behind. One of the merchantmen was also visibly lower in thewater. The sight of the sinking ship and the thought of oncoming night reminded Blade of theneed to get himself a better weapon than the improvised club and, if possible, clothing aswell. In the darkness, any survivors of the battle returning to the scene would probably be ina "strike first and ask questions afterwards" frame of mind. Blade didn't blame them, butneither did he want to be a helpless victim. He slid off the raft and swam toward the nearestof the floating boxes and chests. He hoped it hadn't belonged to the captain's mistress and sowas full of her cheap jewelry and by now thoroughly waterlogged cosmetics.
The first box he opened was far from useless, though not quite as useful as one containingweapons. It held bolts of coarse, garishly colored cloth, like burlap bags dyed purple, brightblue, red-orange. Trade goods for some primitive tribes somewhere on the remote shores of theocean? Blade could not help speculating about the people of this Dimension, little evidencethough he had as yet to go on. He appropriated the blue cloth and with a good deal of effort-itwas tougher than he had anticipated-improvised a loincloth and a rough hood for his head andshoulders, which were already beginning to sting from their exposure to the sun.
He was no longer naked, but he was still practically weaponless, and there were other boxes andchests and crates to examine. Some had been opened already; most of these were as empty as ascraped-out bowl. Others had stout bolts or locks, and he could not swing his club hard enoughto smash them open while he was in the water. He had to laboriously push them over to the raft,hoist them on to it and precariously balance both them and himself while he hammered away atthe fastenings. He usually fell off two or three times while working on each box, and the boxitself usually slipped off the raft into the sea at least once. It was well into twilight, witha raw red and orange glow sprawling across the western horizon, and his own temper blazingnearly as brightly as the sunset, before he finally found what he was looking for.
The chest had not been completely filled with weapons, or it would probably have sunk with theweight of the metal inside. Apparently it had held the personal possessions of an officer ofone of the ships-colored tunics, white breeches, a belt, a pair of black boots, linenunderclothing, a green silk sash, a small enameled brass box for valuables, all jumbledtogether as though somebody had been hastily pawing through the chest before abandoning ship.
But there was also a sword-a rapier, all point, light and supple, and not a ceremonial weapon.The steel of the blade was good and the hilt and guard plain heavy brass without fancyornamentation. He flexed the blade experimentally and tried a few thrusts. It would serve quitewell against any opponent who wasn't wearing enough body armor to stop the point. And Blade hadenough confidence in his own skill with weapons to believe he could find chinks in armor intowhich to drive the point.
Now he had weapons and clothing of sorts, but no food or water. He was prepared to surviveseveral weeks without food, or with only what he could catch from the ocean. But he had to findsome water before another two days had gone by. He would not be dead by then, but he would bealmost past the point of being able to save himself, and perhaps to the point of making somefoolish mistake (like drinking salt water) that would finish him off quickly. Unfortunately,finding water was probably going to be difficult. He would not be likely to see it bobbingabout in chests or boxes in the ocean. Possibly some of the water barrels in the holds of theships were still intact.
He turned back to the ships, which he had largely ignored during his hunt for survival gear.Another of the galleys had gone down, and one of the merchantmen was so low in the water thatBlade knew she also had only a few more minutes afloat. The other merchantman was still blazingtoo brightly to make it safe to board her. But the remaining galley had burned herself out andwas floating, a charred and smoldering hulk, but yet one which might be boarded and evenexplored safely.
It was now almost dark, with only a faint pearly sheen in the western sky to mark the finalfading of daylight. Blade recalled that in the tropical seas of Home Dimension, nightfall meantlarge, hungry fish roaming about, seeking what or whom they might devour. This felt like atropical ocean; he hoped the parallel would not extend farther. It case it did, however, it wastime he got moving.
The burning merchantman was spreading a pool of golden light across the surface of the sea, andas Blade turned, his superb peripheral vision caught something moving on the outer fringes ofthat pool. He froze, turning only his head to get a better look. Then he slowly flattenedhimself on his raft.
A boat was rowing out of the darkness toward the floating hulks and wreckage-a ship's boat,crowded with men and rowing about five oars a side. They were rowing very badly, Blade noticed,
with much splashing and catching of crabs. The oarsmen were either untrained or nervous orboth. However, that wasn't an important question. They were other human beings. Unfortunately,there was no way of knowing which side they belonged to. At least neither side had anycompelling reason to be violently hostile to him, the proverbial innocent bystander. And thesepeople were certainly a better alternative than either exploring smoldering hulks in search ofwater or sitting on his raft until he died of thirst. He took a firm grip on the rapier, stoodup and HALOOOOED at the top of his powerful lungs.
The sound carried well over the water to the boat. Blade saw it suddenly swing around as theoars stopped. There was a dead silence that lasted until Blade wondered if his hail hadstricken everyone in the boat mute or dead. Then a harsh shout came back over the water.
"Who goes there?"
Blade was no longer surprised at his ability to understand and speak the local language fromhis first moment in a new Dimension. Lord Leighton of course found it a fascinatingpsychological and physiological phenomenon and had once devoted several hours to anenthusiastic and, to Blade, totally unintelligible consideration of the various possibleexplanations for it. He shouted back.
There were audible mutterings in reply to this, followed by another moment's silence. Thensomeone shouted an order and the boat swung back on course towards Blade, the oars splashingaway as busily and as sloppily as before. In five minutes the boat was close enough for Bladeto make out its occupants clearly-and for them to make him out also. At that point the boatstopped again. Blade grinned as he realized that this must be the result of his own appearance.If these were the survivors of the battle, the sight of a huge man whose near nakednessrevealed massive muscles and whose hand held a long and businesslike rapier wouldunderstandably be enough to make them hold back. He lowered the rapier to the raft and spreadboth hands out in a conciliatory gesture.
"I said 'Friend,' damn you! What do I look like?"
That started the mutterings off again. He even heard one or two laughs. Apparently theycouldn't make up their minds. Finally, one man, bare to the waist but with the air of a leaderabout him, stood up and shouted across.
"What was your ship, fellow?"
"None of these." Blade gestured at the hulks. "I hail from the south. My ship sank two daysago."
"Howfor it sank? No storms this part of t'ocean of late. Or did ye meet pirates too?"
"By Druk's sea-green beard, you're from a distant land if ye've no beard o' the pirates ofNeral." The man's eyes narrowed. "Less'n ye be one yourself. Forbye-" and he began to rattleoff a stream of words that Blade guessed must be some sort of slang. He went on until the blankincomprehension-partly natural, partly assumed-on Blade's face brought him to a stop. Then heshrugged. "If ye be not knowing the Neralers' cant, ye be none of them, tho' who ye be else Iknow not. Throw me over that pigsticker ye be wavin', and then swim over to us bare as a babe.I'll be leavin' no seaman here for the Neralers if they come back. But I'll not be riskin' mymen either."
Blade complied. When he was safely in the boat, the man looked him over again carefully andsaid, "Ye look like no man I've ever seen, but Druk's not a liker of sailors who abandon a manto the sea or the Neralers. Still, ye'll be sittin' quiet and makin' no moves for a weapon, orye'll be spitted and fed to the fishes. If-"
"Brora! Look!" somebody behind them shouted. Blade and the other man spun about to see two low-slung boats swing out from behind the abandoned galley and move towards them. Blade knewinstinctively that these were the Neral pirates Brora had mentioned. He also realized that if
they found him in a boatload of their enemies, they would kill him along with the rest beforehe could explain who he was. Even a chance to explain might not do him any good. It was time tofight.
Brora was shouting to his men. There were clatters and scrapings of metal as swords and daggerswere drawn. He raised his hands to heaven and bellowed, "Druk, save us now!" and muttered underhis breath, "Why did we come back like a pack o' fools?" Blade took advantage of thedistraction to snatch up his rapier. Brora turned, started, glared at Blade.
"Damn it, Brora, I told you I was a friend! The pirates will kill me just as readily as theywill you! Don't waste your time distrusting me!" Brora frowned, but then nodded and handedBlade a dagger. The pirates were almost up to them now. There was no room to run, only tofight.
If the pirates had had arrows, the fight would have been hopeless. But they had only the sameswords and knives as their opponents, so they had to close. As the two pirate boats moved in,oars thumping in a trained rhythm, Blade rose from the bottom of the boat to a half crouch andstared at them, trying to guess their tactics.
One boat was going to cut off their retreat; it was swinging around behind them. The other wascoming straight in at full speed. In a moment Blade knew it was going to plough into them,trying to capsize them. But Brora knew his business. He yelled to the oarsmen, and theysnatched up the oars. Clumsy though they were, their frantic efforts pivoted the boat around.
The boats met bow to bow with a crash and a shock that threw practically everybody in both offtheir feet with curses and a clatter of weapons. Practically everybody-except Blade. Before thepirate crew could regain their feet, he was over the side of their boat, flourishing both hisweapons.
The pirate leader had been ready to lead his men into the enemy's boat, so he was the first todie. Blade's longer weapon and immensely longer reach gave him a decisive advantage. The pirateleader died with the rapier jutting out the back of his neck while his own cutlass whistledthrough the air futile inches short of Blade. Another pirate lunged forward past the leader.Blade kicked him in the stomach and laid open his throat with a slash of the dagger whilejerking his rapier free to confront a third opponent.
This one bobbed and weaved, making three of Blade's thrusts miss by inches. Then the piratesprang in and under the rapier, bringing his cutlass down in a whistling slash that missedtaking off Blade's arm but crashed into the guard of the rapier so hard that it flew out ofBlade's hand and over the side. But the pirate was off balance for a moment, long enough forBlade to thrust the dagger into his stomach, then snatch the cutlass out of the air as theman's hand unclasped. Almost with the same motion he slashed down to take off the head of afourth pirate trying to get around the dying man.
He had killed four men in something under thirty seconds, and now the men in the boat behindhim were waking from their amazement and crowding forward. But a moment later they had theirown battle to fight. Out of the corner of his eye Blade saw the second pirate boat sweeping in.With a crash it smashed into the merchant sailors' boat, pushing it away from the first pirateboat. With yells and howls its crew hurled themselves on their opponents.
Blade was too busy to watch any more of that. He was alone in the bow of the first boat now,alone against eight or ten armed and furious pirates. The cutlass was shorter and heavier thanthe rapier, but it had an edge as well as a point. He chopped down with it like a butcherchopping meat while the dagger flickered in and out. The pirates could only get at him one ortwo at a time without going over the side. One bolder or more imaginative type tried that. Butas the man rolled himself over the side of the boat into the water, Blade parried a thrust withhis dagger, slashed his current opponent across the belly with a cutlass stroke, and leapedacross the falling body to bring the cutlass up, over, and down on the bold one's back. He feltthe blade chop through the spine. The man went limp and rolled into the water with a splash,vanishing like a lead statue.
There were eleven bodies in the boat when Blade finished, and the bottom was awash two inchesdeep in blood. If there had been any survivors of the crew, they had thrown themselves over theside and thrashed frantically off into the darkness to get away from this monster that hadhurled himself upon them. Gradually, as the fury of battle faded from his mind, Blade becameaware of someone calling.
"Hoy, friend! Be ye hurt? By Druk's coral trident, that were fightin' like none ever seen!"Blade turned about and saw Brora standing in his own boat some twenty yards away, surrounded bythe survivors of his own men. Another thirty yards beyond, the second pirate boat was limpingoff, only two or three raggedly plied oars on each side in action, and blood visible on some ofthe oarsmen. Brora saw Blade looking, and grinned savagely. "Aye, they be goin'. We were hardat it for a bit, but we took six or seven o' them to four of us. Then they saw what ye'd doneo'er there and that were enough for 'em. Hold where ye be, friend. We'll come clean thosesharks out o' their boat and take it for our own."
After the dead pirates had been stripped of usable gear and clothing and dumped over the side,the merchant sailors redistributed themselves among the two boats. While this was going on,Brora drew Blade as much out of earshot as possible and looked hard at him, with a faint smileon his weatherbeaten face.
"From the south, ye say?"
Blade shrugged. "As much as any place. I'm a footloose type by nature."
"And a fighter. I've seen no sailor who could fight like that, tho' we do reckon ourselves fairtough in any scrap."
"I wasn't a sailor. Down south-" Blade hoped there was enough of a "south" in this Dimension tomake his story plausible "-I was a professional soldier. A freelance. There are many such."
"So I hear," said Brora, and that was apparently as much as he was interested in inquiring intoBlade's origins. "Well, I tell ye-whatever ye think ye be worth as a fighter, any shipmaster ofRoyth would give ye double it or more were ye to sign on w' him as a guard. Ye've seen what thepirates are like. 'Tis a miracle sent by Druk to aid honest sailors that we found ye." Hethrust out his hand. "Brora Lanthal's son swears friendship with ye from now 'til death dividesus. What say ye?"
Blade clasped the hand and shook it vigorously. "I say yes, Brora."
"Well and good. When Brora speaks, no few o' the Sailor's Guild listen. And we sailors be halfthe honest men of Royth these days." Before Blade could ask any further questions, Brora turnedaway and began issuing orders about shifting supplies and raising sail. Blade took the chance,a welcome one, to sit down and rest.
Blade had plenty of time to rest and think in the five days before they were picked up.Unfortunately, little of the thinking led to any useful conclusions. During the whole five daysall he could guess from the conversation and from what Brora told him was that the Ocean wassurrounded by land. Most of the land was divided among four kingdoms. Of these kingdoms, themost powerful was the Kingdom of Royth, from which Brora and his men came. In the Ocean,however, also stood the island of Neral, somewhat to the north of their present position. Itwas the base for a powerful confederacy of pirates, almost a fifth kingdom in military power,which preyed on the shipping and even on the coasts of the Four Kingdoms. During the past fiveyears, the pirates had been growing more numerous, more enterprising, and more ferocious.
Brora had been first mate aboard the Blackfish, the larger of the two merchantmen Blade hadseen burning. Because both ships were larger than usual, and both had well-armed and determinedcrews, they had succeeded in sinking one of the pirate galleys outright and setting the otherthree hopelessly on fire before themselves going up in flames. This, Brora emphasized, was avery unusual outcome for a battle against the pirates of Neral. They usually won, taking theship and cargo, and either murdering, enslaving, recruiting, or (very rarely) holding for