And now, part of the mystery of Rinaria is to be unravelled. Remember that Shartalla is only out for the adventure, not so much the mystery-solving or the treasure-finding, so she won't have a large part to solve.
If you need to read the earlier Quest for Rinaria stories, here are their links:
Now without further ado - The Quest for Rinaria, Part III
The Quest for Rinaria
Part III ~ The Dragon's Nested Clutch
Zuryzel had never been on a ship for an extended time before, so some small part of her was afraid of seasickness. But to her surprise, she felt absolutely at ease on the ship. Dejuday, too, was completely comfortable on the rolling deck.
Una the raccoon was not.
“It’s a good thing you brought ’er with us,” Shartalla grinned. “Any o’ the other crews’d never give ’er a moment’s peace.”
Una clung to the mast with all four limbs, her eyes squeezed closed and her forehead pushed against the wood. Shartalla’s crew was courteous enough to leave her alone, except to offer reassurances that the sea was calm and the ship was in no danger. While Zuryzel knew the pirates were snickering behind their sleeves, none of them said anything out loud. The princess suspected Shartalla had a lot to do with that; but perhaps the crew remained polite (or as polite as pirates ever got) out of respect for Zuryzel herself. However, it would undeniably be very different on any of the other ships.
“The others have rougher sailing, too, don’t they?” Zuryzel asked Shartalla.
The pine marten nodded and checked her compass once again. “They do until we reach Serapis.”
“What’s it like inside?” Zuryzel queried, scanning the sea for any sign of land.
Shartalla leaned against the wheel, a thoughtful look on her face. “Honestly … it’s kinda like a … ah, what are they called … not a hatch, not a funnel …”
She looked helplessly at Zuryzel. “Y’ know – where smoke comes out?”
“A chimney?” Zuryzel guessed.
“Yes!” Shartalla exclaimed. “Chimney. Sorry, been a while since I used that word in this language. Anyway, yeah, that’s what Serapis’s like. It’s eight or nine times as tall as the mast, and it’s very shady inside. There’s a bunch o’ springs in the wall. The rock’s grayish an’ rough, an’ that’s partly why ’tis so ’ard t’ get into. There’s six or seven exits, but only one entrance.”
“Sounds like it belongs in a legend,” Zuryzel smiled.
Shartalla grinned. “Y’ better believe it.”
Zuryzel lifted her face so that the wind whipped against her ears. “Shartalla, do you have any ideas at all about the whale’s eyes we have to sail north through?”
“It’s a waterfall,” Shartalla replied immediately.
Zuryzel turned around to stare at her. “And you know this how?”
“That’s the only explanation,” Shartalla explained. “If it were a ring o’ rock, then north is the only direction y’ c’d sail through it. Y’ can’t sail west through a ring o’ rock facin’ north.”
“You could sail south,” Zuryzel suggested.
Shartalla gave her a frustrated look. “C’mon! The riddle was clear fer a secon’!”
“Eneng’s probably obsessing about the whale’s eye as we speak,” Zuryzel murmured. “Did you see the look on his face when Ksheygha read that yesterday?”
“I did,” Shartalla replied briskly. “Obviously it ain’t a live whale. C’d be a ring o’ rock, c’d be a spring o’ some kind.”
“The riddle never said you have to sail through it,” Zuryzel offered helpfully.
Shartalla turned the wheel a little bit. “The next lines go then league and league … unless I’m much mistaken, that probably means a league o’ leagues. I ain’t sure about that number, but the only island bigger ’n a league an’ a half in these waters is Pelleck Island. That’s the most densely populated island that I know of. Rinaria ain’t there, so we have t’ sail somewhere.”
Zuryzel gave her a quizzical look. “Just how well do you know these seas?”
Shartalla smirked. “I only put to shore when I abs’lutely ’ave t’.”
Zuryzel smiled at her. She did not say so out loud, but she knew the real reason Shartalla was in such an especially good mood: on this voyage, she had both her best friend and the sea. However much Shartalla savored Zuryzel’s company, any experience on land was an annoyance to the pine marten. But if there was one thing she lacked at sea, it was a friend. Even for a pirate like Shartalla, the sea could be lonely.
Shartalla, in turn, had similar unspoken knowledge about the Wraith Mouse princess. Zuryzel had no interest in buried treasure; what she was interested in was the freedom of the sea. For all that Zuryzel loved being a princess, there was something very special about sailing on the open ocean. If the sea was the last barrier to the unexplored, a ship was the trick to breaking it. But anyone who had spent time aboard a ship, particularly one with a captain like Shartalla, knew that the sea was no barrier to be broken, but rather a gate to be opened, and a ship was the key. Zuryzel knew that, and she had been dying to actually see it.
Shartalla’s musings were interrupted by Dejuday as he clambered up the stairs to where they stood. “Poor Una’s finally opened her eyes,” he reported, smiling.
Shartalla grimaced. “I’d hoped she’d keep ’er eyes closed ’til we was inside Serapis. It ain’t nearly as intimidatin’ as the outside.”
“Maybe bringing her along wasn’t such a great idea,” Zuryzel murmured.
“She’d have snuck along somehow,” Dejuday teased.
“Besides, she ain’t ’oldin’ up any work,” Shartalla added graciously. “Well, not too badly, anyway. She’s gonna have t’ move when we gets near Serapis, though.”
“Where too?” Zuryzel asked. “And I’ll start getting her there.”
Shartalla shook her head. “Not yet. It’s another four hours ’til we even set our sights on it. Should get there right at sunset. That’s good, that’s the best time t’ arrive. Una should stay topside ’til then. She’ll just get seasick belowdecks.”
Zuryzel tapped the side of the ship. “You know, I’ve heard about seasickness, but I don’t understand it at all. I don’t feel seasick in the slightest, and we’re rolling around quite a bit, aren’t we?”
Shartalla rocked her paw back and forth. “So-so. Some creatures are just born t’ sail, Zyna. Y’er one of ’em. Y’ both are.”
Dejuday gave her a mock bow. “Thank you for that compliment!” he joked.
Shartalla laughed. She knew why Dejuday was glad to be at sea – he could spend time with his mate without affairs of the palace interjecting themselves!
Shartalla’s predictions were true; they saw Serapis four hours later. Zuryzel stared at the huge rock formation in amazement. Her friend was right – it did look like a chimney, a round chimney sticking up out of the sea. Zuryzel could imagine smoke billowing from it. Una had managed to detach herself from the mast and had pressed herself up against the wall that marked Shartalla’s cabin. Shartalla had left the wheel and climbed gracefully up the bowsprit to look out over the sea. When she saw Serapis, she scrambled back down and returned to the wheel.
Skorlaid the ferret, her first mate, relinquished the wheel to her. “Orders, Cap’n?” he asked.
“Leave the hatches open awhile,” Shartalla instructed. “But make all other preparations t’ enter Serapis. Double-rope the sails, an’ make sure no ropes are frayed.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” Skorlaid answered.
Instead of using the stairs, he vaulted over the railing and landed on the main deck. From there he strode forward, bellowing out his captain’s orders.
“Tsanna!” Shartalla shouted. “In the crow’s nest. Keep a weather eye out fer any sails, ’specially the Nygoan!”
Una lifted her face feebly to face Shartalla. “What’s a Nigh-Grown?”
“Nygoan,” Shartalla corrected. “It’s Snow’awk’s ship. Don’ worry, though, Una. I doubt she’ll be able t’ find us. It ain’t like y’ can track a ship.”
As Serapis loomed closer, the sun just touched the horizon. Una fled belowdecks of her own accord while Dejuday and Zuryzel found the place on the deck that was least likely to hamper the crew.
“Approach from the west and batter down the hatches!” Shartalla shouted from where she stood at the wheel. At her command some pirates scurried to the headsail to change its position, while others scrambled belowdecks to close the hatches and prevent any water getting in. There was a smooth lurch as Wynraser swung to port, so as to approach Serapis from the west, and the sails flared as they caught the evening breeze.
Zuryzel got a taste of what the Wynraser could do.
It was only a few minutes before they were on the southwest side of Serapis. Shartalla steered Wynraser so close to the edge that Zuryzel almost felt she could reach out and touch the rocky wall. She couldn’t, of course, but it showed Shartalla’s skill at the helm that she could keep the ship steady through the shallows.
Shartalla’s crew was braced and poised, each one at some designated place on the ship. When Wynraser approached the entrance, they were ready.
Shartalla appeared to have been counting something – maybe the streaks of quartz that shot through the gray basalt. Whatever it was, when Wynraser passed a certain number of them, she suddenly spun the wheel to port, away from the wall.
“Set the sails!” she shouted, and her crew complied. Immediately the sails changed sides, and Wynraser gracefully turned in a half-circle. It was the kind of turn that larger ships, like Oceanflower, could never make, and that only a skilled crew could execute even on such a small ship.
And when it was complete, Zuryzel saw something she hadn’t seen from the other direction: a huge gap in the stone, wide enough for a ship. The gap seemed to lead to a narrow channel going in at an angle. The stone on each side of the gap was so perfectly symmetrical that the only reason Zuryzel knew there was a gap was the shadow thrown by the setting sun.
Wynraser’s turn had put her at the exact angle to enter this gap, and she glided in with perfect smoothness. Now Zuryzel really saw how skilled Shartalla’s crew was: the steering was so perfect and the sails arranged just so that Wynraser’s side never once touched the rock. Zuryzel found herself staring up, craning her neck, but the rock walls were so high and narrow that the sky was only a blue streak far above her head.
Bear King, she prayed, why did you make something like this? Just so pirates can marvel at it?
Shartalla would say the Bear King had.
Apparently the steering wasn’t over. Shartalla was still at the wheel, tense and strained, staring fixedly ahead. Zuryzel looked at her, and then straight forward, and gasped.
They were sailing at solid rock.
“Ready for the tough part, crew!” Shartalla called.
The ferrets that made up Shartalla’s crew scrambled here and there to set the sails differently. Shartalla remained positioned at the wheel. When the ship was only a few feet away from the rock, Shartalla spun the wheel starboard.
Wynraser veered sharply to starboard, and Zuryzel, who hadn’t been prepared for such a sharp turn, was suddenly thrown sideways. She staggered and tripped, trying to keep her balance and take in what was happening all at once. But a moment later Wynraser veered to port, and Zuryzel tripped and fell flat on her back.
From her back, she noticed that she could see a circle of sky far, far, far above the mainmast.
She pulled herself into a sitting position and saw Dejuday laughing.
How did he not fall over? Zuryzel wondered sullenly. It used to be Dejuday was always the clumsy one. But he did stop laughing enough to cross the ship’s deck and hold out a paw to her.
“You should’ve held onto something,” he teased.
She gripped his paw and managed to stand. “I wasn’t expecting that,” she mumbled.
It was then that she noticed a huge change: everything was still.
Everything. The ship, the air, sound, everything. There was an unnatural and disquieting stillness that seemed to hold this place in a vice-like grip.
“What is this?” she whispered.
Shartalla’s paws descended the stairs from the wheel, and they were mercifully loud. “Welcome to Serapis,” she said calmly.
Zuryzel turned in a full circle, seeing but not really believing. The outside of Serapis had been grim, lifeless, and harsh, but the inside was almost a paradise. The walls were steep but not so steep that they couldn’t be explored, and they were covered in lush green vegetation. Almost right next to the place they had entered from was a waterfall cascading down and splashing in the water below. It was the sight of the waterfall that dispelled the disquieting stillness in Zuryzel’s mind. Most peculiarly, light seemed to be coming up from the bottom of the inside sea. Looking over the railing Zuryzel saw pure white sand; the sunset must have been reflecting off the bottom.
“We’re sailing in fresh water,” Shartalla told Zuryzel. “There’s some kinda underground spring that shoots up enough fresh water t’ get rid o’ all the salt water. It’s in the rock itself.”
“Where’s that waterfall coming from?” Dejuday asked, sounding as astonished as Zuryzel.
“Also from an underground spring,” was Shartalla’s response. Then she strode along the length of the deck, shouting orders. “Ready the boats and assemble fer shore parties! Break out the climbing gear! Get casks ready t’ collect water! Cooks, get yer baskets out and fill ’em with fresh food! Look lively, crew!”
She reached the bow and remembered something. “An’ leave the standin’ stones alone! Don’ go near ’em!”
She leaned on the railing and heard Zuryzel’s pawsteps behind her. “What are the standing stones?” her friend asked.
Shartalla exhaled heavily. “Who knows. Who cares. They’re big, big, heavy pillars o’ stone standin’ upright every thousand steps up there on the rim.” She nodded at the top of the rock. “There’s twenty-five of ’em. Not sure how they got there, but y’ know how superstitious sailors c’n be. Some o’ the crew try to leave offerings t’ the sea at these stones. But we ain’t got time t’ puzzle over those things now.”
“Maybe they’re part of the riddle,” Zuryzel suggested.
Shartalla shrugged. “Maybe, but I doubt it. I’ll show ’em t’ you if y’ want, but honestly Zyna, I think they’re more recent than Rinaria.”
The pirate heard a smile in her friend’s response. “You afraid of them, Shartalla?”
Shartalla shook her head. “I am not afraid of them. I just don’t want my crew wasting time over a bunch of nonsense.”
Shartalla had assigned her crew to groups for shore leave a long time ago. It cut down on the preparation time if the ferrets already knew their orders ahead of time. Skorlaid and seven ferrets were usually left aboard to keep the ship secure, while nearly everyone else, even the cooks, went ashore.
Shartalla had a small group that included Zuryzel, Dejuday, and Tsanna with two others. The captain tried very hard to concentrate on the task at paw – finding the whale’s eye – and not think about the twenty-five stones atop the ring of rock.
But as her group gradually spread out more, she reluctantly acknowledged that she would accomplish nothing until she had visited the stones.
Stealing quietly (though not silently – pirates have very little woodcraft) through the lush forests, she ascended the steep sides of Serapis until she came up to the top.
The trees ceased growing at a distance of about twice her height from the top, and the ground leveled out a little and became dry, rough rock. Shartalla stood at the very top and looked first into the harbor at Serapis, where the sight of her ship was reassuring; then she looked north, and then west across the ocean. She could see a few dark spots that were islands, maybe a couple of ships, and far below her, waves and seabirds. The sun had completely set by now, though it wasn't dark enough for many stars to appear. The pirate scanned the sky for some time, looking for stars she usually found reassuring. Finally Shartalla looked left – south – to the nearest pillar.
It wasn’t far away, and as the very rim of Serapis was only a few paw-widths wide, Shartalla dropped to all fours and crawled along until she reached it. It was nothing obviously special; the thing was twice her height and about three times her width. But at a little above eye-level on the side facing in to Serapis, hardly legible in the twilight, was a carving of a shark.
Shartalla wasn’t afraid of this pillar. Nor was she curious about it. She was saddened.
The pillar marked a mass grave.
She had seen carvings on similar stones elsewhere in the western ocean. The theory was that they were set there by sea otters who had lived there before migrating to the shores of the mainland. Shartalla knew what the symbols on the rocks meant: a starfish was one dead, a conch shell was five dead, a wave was ten, a fish was fifty, and an octopus was a hundred. But there were no sharks on any other stones in the western sea. That meant a shark was more than a hundred. Probably five hundred at the least.
Shartalla set a paw on the shark. Then, satisfied that she would now accomplish something, she spun around and whisked back into the trees.
“Bear King,” she prayed aloud, “please grant that none o’ my crew saw me actin’ like that.”
Shartalla’s crew searched into the early hours of the morning and found no sign of the whale’s eye. Their captain even allowed them to search the top of Serapis, and still they found nothing.
“We don’t even know what we’re lookin’ fer,” Skorlaid murmured.
Shartalla, Zuryzel, and Dejuday had rejoined him in Shartalla’s cabin. Shartalla was staring hopelessly at the table cluttered with charts and Winterblade’s translations.
“The dragon’s nested clutch,” Shartalla repeated for the eightieth time.
She was so absorbed in the accursed riddle that she only half-heard the conversation of the others.
“Maybe some of the others are having better luck,” Zuryzel guessed, clearly out of ideas.
“Maybe it’s on the ocean floor,” Dejuday suggested. “Could you get some of the better swimmers to examine the sand?”
There was silence for a minute; then Skorlaid’s voice. “Cap’n?”
“Sounds good t’ me,” Shartalla replied absently. “Get a group on that.”
The cabin door briefly opened and she half-heard Skorlaid yelling out her orders. At a complete loss for anything else to do, Shartalla turned to the original riddle in the ancient language, where she read the line about the dragon’s clutch.
“Braech leveatas cae daugh branmaer.”
The only word she recognized was braech, which meant west. But another word caught her attention.
“Levy-at-us,” she repeated. “Levy-a-thus. Le-vigh-a-thus. Le-vigh-a-thun. Le-vigh-”
She caught her breath. For a moment she stared at the paper. Then she whispered, “Leviathan.”
She caught her breath. For a moment she stared at the paper. Then she whispered, “Leviathan.”
She looked up sharply and saw her friends all looking quizzically at her.
“Winterblade did translate it wrong!” she exclaimed. “The word ain’t dragon. It’s leviathan! The leviathan’s nested clutch!”
“A water dragon?” Skorlaid protested. “What difference does that make?”
“Water dragons allegedly lay their eggs under water,” Shartalla explained, mentally kicking herself for not realizing it sooner. “We were looking fer an island when we were supposed t’ be lookin’ fer a reef!”
Zuryzel snatched up Winterblade’s translations and stared hard at them. Dejuday looked over her shoulder for a minute, then asked, “Any idea which reef?”
Shartalla hesitated. She scanned the chart, as if she didn’t already have it memorized, and it was a good thing she did because one place caught her eye.
“Windcrier’s Reef,” she said quietly.
“Why Windcrier’s?” Skorlaid asked, staring at the spot in confusion.
Shartalla touched the reef with her paw and then drew a line straight west a few inches until her paw landed on the drawing of an island. “Because due west is Mauggiak Island,” she explained. “An old whaling center.”
Skorlaid whooped with delight. “I’ll go recall the crews?”
“Yeah, go,” Shartalla replied, asserting her decisiveness. “If Craic is around, tell him t’ bring the news t’ the others. Then get ready t’ sail as soon as the crew is all back.”
Skorlaid slammed his paw once on the table and then hurried out onto the deck. Dejuday and Zuryzel both grinned at Shartalla. “Nicely done,” Dejuday praised her.
His compliment embarrassed her, especially since she had been the one to send them on this wild goose chase in the first place. She looked down at the chart and replied. “Let’s just hope I’m right this time.”
As soon as Wynraser broke out of Serapis, Shartalla leaned against the wheel and lifted her face to the early morning breezes. The western ocean spread out before her and she couldn’t resist a smile. Even if they never found Rinaria, she had all the treasure she would ever need right in front of her.