- Chapter 14 -

Klein prodded the fire with a long branch, watching the sparks fly up into the cool night air. The leaves were dropping freely from the trees along the river and he wondered idly how long it would be until the first snow fell.

"We'll never catch up to her attackers," Cal groaned pathetically.

"She ain't dead," Aedran said quietly.

"How do you know?" Cal fired angrily at her.

"It wouldn'a make sense fer someone ta kill her," the black haired girl mused. "Wha' could their reason be?"

"She knows many secret things," Klein said softly.

"Why are the both of you asserting things you can't possibly prove?" Cal wailed.

"I have seen it in her eyes," the fish man replied calmly. "Somehow, she knows things that she should not. She is afraid."

"She's mighty high strung, tha's fer sure," Aedran commented, "but I don't think she's passed on. And be she dead 'r alive, we should be thinkin' about catchin' whatever the spoon leads us ta."

The three had been working their way down the river for the past three days and were all tired of walking. They kept hoping to find some horses, but Cal could not be persuaded to pause the search even long enough to find mounts. Aedran was exasperated with the red haired man, but Klein had no opinion regarding Cal, though he railed about his own shortcomings far too often.

"We need to sleep," Cal stated after staring silently into the flames for a few minutes.

"Yes," Klein replied.

"We need to keep a guard, as well," Cal added.

"Yeh two shut yer eyes," Aedran ordered sharply. "I'll keep watch fer anything dangerous-like."

"I should do it. It is my fault that Rika was left by herself," Klein sighed morosely.

"How do you work that one out?" Aedran asked, surprised.

The fishman flicked his large ears nervously. "She gave me a gift," he said.

"She gave me many gifts," Cal said icily. "If that is the measure of your guilt, then I bear much more of it than you."

Aedran frowned, then said sharply, "What a useless lot of dribble you men can say. Ta sleep with both o' yeh, and an end ta arguin'!"

"What you think you doing?" Afet screamed at Jai. The short, angry man managed to look furious and contrite all at once.

"Sorry, cap'n," he muttered. "These god damned sandbanks come outta nowhere."

"See that they not," Afet demanded.

"Aye, captain."

Rika rolled her eyes in exasperation. "This must be the third time today we've gotten caught on a sandbank," she commented to Phil. Kasuku screeched plaintively, trying to escape from the boy's arms. Phil hushed the bird mechanically and nodded agreement with Rika.

"They're having troubles right enough," he said, grinning like a cheshire cat. Afet had ordered Kamal, Insan, and Jai to free the barge, and the three men were working up a profuse sweat. Jai's curses echoed up to the pair sitting on the railing.

"If you people can't steer a river boat, how'd you get so far inland?" Rika asked after a moment watching the landscape stay perfectly still.

"We snuck into a mail wagon," Phil said. "It wasn't any fun and everyone swore they'd never put up with something as miserable as land travel again. It's the water for us."

"Traveling by land might be more comfortable if you did it legitimately," Rika pointed out.

"But we're pirates!" Phil exclaimed.

Kasuku crowed, "Arr, matey! Raise the main! Heave to!"

"So I see," Rika said, looking bemusedly at the parrot. She looked over the side of the barge and caught a glimpse of Jai straining to push the craft back into the soft brown of the River Shannon. With a jolt, it slipped into the water. Rika had to cling to the rail she sat upon with both hands to keep from falling, though the boy beside her shifted with the barge almost without seeming to notice.

"What a landlubber," he told Kasuku.

The bird looked back at him, a dark eye glittering intelligently in the alien face. "Landlubber!" he called, turning his head so that one eye faced Rika. The girl shivered. The bird disturbed her, though whether the cause was its uncanny intelligence or its clear infatuation with her hair she was not sure.

Rika slipped from the rail and crept to the cabin she shared with Afet, hoping desperately that her friends would rescue her soon; she wasn't sure how much longer she could bear the tedium and hostility settling over the barge.

It was evening almost three weeks from Bluestone Point and Klein was feeling watchful eyes upon his back. Someone or something had been following the three companions ever since the sun had begun to wane in the sky and now that they needed to set up camp Klein knew his fellow travelers would be at their most vulnerable.

Though neither Aedran nor Calvin were aware of the problem, Klein prepared himself for a fight. He knew the ways of highway robbers far more intimately than a respectable person had any right. Loosening a knife at his belt, he began whistling lightly. As they followed the river road, his ears began to twitch slightly to his gentle tune. Neither Cal nor Aedran noticed the odd change in their companion. His whistling seemed a natural part of the evening, as correct and straightforward as the setting sun or darkening air. As well comment with surprise that stars were in the sky as take notice that a soothing whistle echoed through the lightly wooded hills.

When a dry clearing appeared at the side of the road, Cal turned off and dropped his pack on the ground. Stretching, he said, "At least it didn't rain today." Klein had settled into soft humming, which was eerily beautiful.

Aedran dropped her pack as well and joined him in stretching. Klein lowered his pack gently to the ground and began fiddling with his hunting knife. A rustling in the trees made Cal and Aedran twitch, but Klein remained at ease, his flickering ears the only sign of his awareness of danger.

A rustling in the bushes to the north and south of the travelers made Aedran and Cal glance suddenly in each direction. Almost, their startlement set them free of the light spell Klein wove with his voice. But Klein's voice grew louder, becoming a beckoning march that hinted at trumpets and beating drums, and his two companions fell back into their mild daze.

To the beat of Klein's insistent call, bedraggled and bone weary men crept forth from the bushes. They surrounded the three travelers, armed with dull knives and broken spears. Yet in their hardened, cruel faces glowed a light of awe. Klein's voice, on occasion, could work magic indeed.

The fishman's ears started to flicker and tremble on their own as he felt the gaze of all the people surrounding him. His palms, normally so painfully dry, began to sweat. The salt in his sweat seared the cracks in his skin and he winced in pain. His voice cracked. Klein paused, drawing in a calming breath and closing his eyes.

He knew that if he could not stay calm all of those around him would die. Klein could defend himself and kill all of the assembled thugs without breaking a sweat. He need not fear for his own life, but he could not defend Aedran or Calvin. They were depending upon his performance. Without his voice, the men were coming out from under their trance. Even more troubling, Aedran and Calvin were regaining their wits. If Klein did not act soon, everything would spiral out of control.

Releasing his breath, Klein began to truly sing. This time his song was not the angelic and careless air that Rika had heard before she even set eyes upon him. Now his voice soothed and gentled, caressed and coddled. With terrible slowness, the robbers sank to the ground and relaxed, eyes closing as they gave in to the immense tiredness Klein put into their hearts. Calvin and Aedran were not immune to the song. Being fairly young and cheerful, both of Klein's compatriots were even more susceptible to music than the bitter and desperate highwaymen.

Once certain that the robbers slept soundly, Klein ceased his song. He cast his eyes about the now darkened clearing and smiled bitterly. "So this is all that I am good for: putting children to bed and cleaning up after careless babes who are too innocent to look after themselves," he muttered to himself. Retying his thin, oily hair at the nape of his neck and tugging his hood further down his face, Klein lifted Aedran from her resting spot on the ground and carried her several yards down the road. He laid her beneath a tall oak tree and then brought Calvin to lay near her. He looked at them both for a moment. He thought it seemed right that they lay beside each other. Despite their quarrels, Klein felt that they somehow fit together. Perhaps the two young people would realize it one day; Calvin would see Aedran as a woman instead of a goddess and Aedran would see Calvin as a man instead of just another brute.

Klein crept back to the robbers and tied them up loosely with bits of their own clothing. They would be able to get out of their bonds, but it would take them time. Klein, Aedran, and Cal would be well away by the time they were free.

Klein returned to his sleeping travel companions and started a small fire. He sat staring into its flickering heart and fought silent sobs as he cried for the love he had lost long ago, and the scorned love of Calvin who he felt almost a brother despite knowing him for such a short time.

"Ta!" Dr. Deng Dao declared, pointing a bony finger grandly towards a smudge on the horizon. He grinned broadly, his largely toothless mouth gaping cheerfully at Rika. She winced in revulsion while simultaneously attempting to smile at the old man.

"Yes. A smudge," she said encouragingly.

"Stupid girl," Afet grunted behind her, making Rika jump in surprise. The prismatically haired woman couldn't get used to all the people constantly under each other's feet. "That be great port city. Opens onto Mortimer's Channel, then sea."

"Oh," Rika said with a slight grin, trying to figure out how to use this knew knowledge to her advantage.

"You not do so," Afet shouted, then buffeted Rika smartly on one ear. "You stay with us. On ship. Safe here, you not hurt us and us not hurt you."

"This is not a ship, esteemed captain," Dr. Deng said through his thick accent, carefully separating every word, "This is a most miserable and repugnant barge."

"You! You evil bearded old man, dishonoring the ship you are sail in. You bring bad luck on us all! Stupid, stupid! You not do, not do!" Afet cried. She didn't hit him, but only because Dr. Deng was out of her reach and she was busy trying to steer the barge. The rudder was a makeshift affair that the crew had fixed many times over and it only worked in fits and starts.

A sandbar rose up from the water ahead of them and they floated serenely onto it. "Another one?" Jai groaned loudly from elsewhere on the barge as motion ceased.

"The four hundred eighty-ninth time we've run aground," Rika stated calmly.

"You have nothing better do than count times we get stuck?" Afet screeched almost as loudly as Kasuku might have.

"Not really, no," Rika responded warily.

"Here, you steer!" Afet demanded. "And remember, sooner we get to port, sooner you free."

"Wha' happened?" Aedran asked rather groggily when she woke the next morning.

"Nothing," Klein wheezed. "I must have bored you to sleep with my pathetic attempts at conversation. Not terribly surprising, considering what a dull person I am. Not that I am really a person. The way I look, I could be something dead pulled out of the river after an especially bad storm."

"Don' say tha!" Aedran exclaimed. "Yeh're too hard on yerself. Yeh're a good man... er, person."

"My point exactly," Klein muttered bitterly. "I am not a man. I am not a beast. I am nothing."

"What's the problem?" Cal asked sleepily, stretching to wake himself up. "I just had the most amazing dream..."

"What of?" Aedran asked recklessly, eager to turn the subject away from Klein's deficiencies.

Cal blinked in surprise at her enthusiasm, then glanced at Klein's dour countenance and guessed what Aedran wanted to avoid. He grinned slowly, his eyes sparkling despite the early hour.

"Nah, I didn'a mean tah ask," Aedran said hurriedly, suspecting the dream might involve her in minimal clothing and strange positions.

Cal laughed loudly. "Oh Aedran," he sighed, wiping tears from his eyes. "You are too much."

Aedran glared. Cal fought another burst of laughter and then said, "Well, since you asked so politely, my dream was perfectly innocent."

"Alrigh', you kin tell it then," Aedran said grudgingly. Klein settled with his back against an ash tree, his hood hiding his face in shadow.

"I was just about to set up camp, getting things out of my pack and all that, when suddenly singing filled the air. It seemed like there was a heavenly choir around us, the sort of nonsense the Church of the Unnamed preaches to-."

"Calvin!" Aedran exclaimed, horrified.

"One of those, are you?" he asked lightly. "Well, I'll be sure to watch my tongue. But the point is, there was this group of ugly thugs singing at me - at us - and then I fell asleep. I my dream, I mean."

"O' course. Only in yeh're dream," Aedran muttered.

"Are you angry with me for not being properly religious?" Cal suddenly asked with unusual solicitude.

"Nah, righ' now I ain't. But I had a dream a lot like yers. The exact same as yers, act'ly."

"Life is full of bizarre coincidences," Klein intoned.

"Right," Cal said, glancing meaningfully at Aedran. She frowned, trying to parse Cal's glance and failing.

"What?" she mouthed.

"A lot of coincidences happen to me," Cal said, stressing coincidences.

"Tha's life fer yeh, I suppose," Aedran replied, her brow furrowed in confusion.

"Fine, I'll leave the matter be!" Cal exclaimed. He threw his hands up in the air and then set about brushing dirt from his slept-in clothing.

"Wha's the matter with him?" she asked Klein. Klein stared at her, surprised.

"I am the one that has scales and webbed fingers and toes," Klein said slowly. "I don't see that Calvin's troubles would outweigh my personal tragedy."

"Oh, yeh're hopeless," Aedran said in much the same tone Cal had just used with her. She too began to try and clean off her rumpled and stained clothing before the three began their day's walk.