From Chapter Twelve:
At last Orlahn was within their sights. Of course, there still lay one league of restless sea-water between them and the isle, but after day upon day of brisk travel -- and night over night of broken sleep -- Balgor and Gralok stood one lengthy swim or one short sail from their goal.
"What say you, Gralok? How are your raft-fashioning skills?"
"Never before," said Gralok. "Might we not signal them somehow, to send a vessel for us?"
Balgor laughed. "Bad enough that we come to twist their arms for a Soork that may or may not be in their possession, but we also have the temerity to insist that they bring us to their doorstep to hear our plea?"
"Are they not our countrymen?"
"In long-ago blood, perhaps. But these Orlahnians have evolved in their politics to a degree that differs in several key fashions from those of our mainland kin."
"Aye, but surely they despise the NuRacs as we do. I recall you telling me that some of them were imprisoned alongside you in QieLahr."
"They were. But in far fewer number than the rest of us."
"Is this provocative to you? Perhaps those who were captured were the only ones who had left the safety of their isle and had come ashore."
"Oh, I am sure of that."
Balgor squinted at the far-off land mass, half-obscured by fog. "The Orlahnians were the first and the last to trade with the NuRacs, years back, when the NuRacs were more benign. These northern lands were the first places to feel the pinch of NuRac encroachment. I cannot help but to puzzle why Orlahn was spared when they turned aggressive and began taking Ergosian territory for their own."
Gralok stared out across the waters. "Foremost, because the NuRacs have no maritime skills. The Orlahnians do. Very good ones, I am told."
Balgor smiled. "What manner of clodpate am I, my friend, to not realise that the most obvious answer is usually the correct one?"
"I will tell you," said Gralok, "but, I warn you, the truth may be painful."
For a while they strode the rocky shoreline, east and west, hoping to come across a dock or quay -- and perhaps a small shuttle moored to it for messengers, visitors, or for returning Orlahnian foragers to use. Initially, they found none. Lacking this success, Balgor commenced, then, to scrounge for a handful of seaworthy logs, and the hemps and grasses with which to bind them. Gralok followed suit.
In time, and with the aid of the small war-axe they'd brought along, they'd hewn six suitable pieces of timber to comparable lengths. Then, with their impromptu twine -- and with the bit of rope that had been included in their packs -- they were able to begin fashioning. Balgor chose the lightest, most buoyant woods for the project, particularly several partially-rotted trunks, for he'd determined that with his and Gralok's combined hefts they would need to displace as little water as possible to stay afloat. Decaying wood weighed less, and would therefore trim a few grams in the right direction. And although he knew that the rotted lengths would waterlog more quickly than would haler ones, he believed that they would nevertheless serve nicely for two short jaunts -- one to Orlahn, one from.
Another little gem of sailing ad hockery that he'd learned from one of the more knowledgeable fishermen in the rebel camp was to employ longer pieces of timber in the construction -- longer than what seemed sensible -- as he was assured that this would not only spread the load across a greater surface, but it would make the raft easier to manoeuvre. Neither man being at all nautical, they truly did not know what to expect once asea; but they were not the kind to shrink from new challenge, especially when the realm stood in the balance.
For the sake of convenience, they built the raft while standing knee-deep in the water, even as many an ornery comber jostled their efforts with irking regularity. The bobbing logs, however, weren't tossed to quite the extreme that they might have been -- and in fact rode the surface rather splendidly -- which made for a less harrowing process in securing them one to the other. And eventually, beyond a few false starts, one failed twine, and a peck of re-work, they had before them a not-so-handsome but workable conveyance for bringing them to the people of Orlahn.
Oars were next, and they spent an inordinate time in search of suitable paddle-wood. Nothing at hand seemed broad enough to provide for efficient stroking, and neither man understandably wished to hack and hew at a large trunk in hopes of netting the wide, sturdy, slim-handled accessory that they desired. At end, however, they were forced to do just that. Driving both the axe and their daggers into what was deemed the most promising bole, with considerable effort they were able to wedge in and split it lengthwise, which yielded them a radial pair, each with one flat side. Then, going to work on the barked portions of the halves, they whittled and carved and excised until they had resected enough to result in two passable oars.
Petulant in their success, within minutes of completion they redonned their packs, refitted themselves, and made ready to fulfil their mission. Leaving solidity and sure-footed comfort behind, they pushed off with the confidence of fools, hopeful that their amateur construct would be sturdy enough to see them through.
Far from a blustery day, upon the water it soon became a different story. Once they were fully committed the wind gained advantage, and at times it was more than they could manage merely to balance the craft and keep its heading straight. But they were strong men, and persistent, and after escaping the influence of the shore-bound breakers it became easier to maintain their bearing, windy or not. One man paddling from the port side, and the other, from starboard, they proceeded without falter or incident toward the misty isle ahead.
At roughly two kilometres out, however, near the half-way point, something in the water caught Balgor's eye. In silhouette, twenty metres from the bow, there appeared an object in jut from the surface. As quickly as he focused on it, it submerged and was replaced by two similar juts ten and fifteen metres to starboard. He called Gralok's attention to the phenomenon, but he, of course, had seen nothing. The pair of silhouettes having slipped beneath the water no less swiftly than the first, it was only when all three bobbed up simultaneously a few seconds later that each man saw what the other did.
"Men or fish?" asked Gralok.
"I know not. My only hope is that they are one or the other, and not something that is neither man nor fish."
"What could be neither man nor fish? Sea-faring vrohdas?"
"Jest if you wish," said the realmson. "But I like it not."
They rowed on with a bit less verve in their strokes, instead channelling that cautious percentage of energy into a jerky paranoia of glances for additional signs of unwanted company.
"Why do you tap on the raft?" asked Balgor.
"It is not I," said Gralok.
Balgor touched the wood beneath him. There was definitely a vibrative sensation to it, vibrative as when mice burrowed and chewed within the walls of one's abode. Had they unknowingly chosen a log that had been host to a rodent hovel? An insect nest? No, he knew that this couldn't be; the former would have fled their pulpy sanctuary at the first few axe hacks, and the latter would surely have swarmed in defence of theirs. Yet, if not these explanations, then what?
They hadn't long to ponder. Within the minute, the outer starboard log detached from their craft and fell away in drift. Balgor grabbed for it, but his effort returned him nothing save a severed strand of twine.
"Blasted saboteurs!" cried Balgor. "They seek to undo us! Quickly, Gralok -- your blade!"
Both men drew and began jabbing their daggers through the joints and alongside the vessel, hoping to dissuade their assailants from disabling them further. Whether it was man or beast below, surely they bled, and randomly thrusted steel was the best and most that the rafters could offer in countermeasure.
This worked, temporarily. But, so busied with keeping their log-boat whole, this left no one to paddle it; and when they settled on one man defending and one man rowing, their harrowers counteracted in thwart. Apparently gleaning the position of the oar-man from underneath, said clever beings fixed upon the lashings beneath him and continued to dismantle. The rafters, frustrated by their disadvantage, rowed and stabbed, stabbed and rowed -- neither with calm or focus -- until the very moment that their submarine saboteurs finally succeeded in unseaming the construct completely.
Suddenly amid a loosed muddle of logs, each drifting in its own direction, Balgor and Gralok quickly spilled into the drink. Floundering in the bracing chill, they lashed at empty ocean, thrusting their blades wildly in a long-shot hope of crippling a far more dextrous enemy. Finding their backpacks not terribly buoyant, both men were too limited in their mobility to simultaneously fend and tread water, and it was no significant while before they began to tire. Dark, shadowy forms darted confidently around them, deliberately drawing their fruitless exertions and draining them further, and before long neither man was in condition to retaliate. And of the little fight that remained in them, this was easily expended with a bit of body-buffeting knockabout, courtesy of their still-faceless assailants.
Groggy, almost drunkenly so, Balgor drifted between windedness and exasperation. He felt his body in bob within the lull and pull of the tide. He barely reacted to the collective nudges that propelled him forward. He even thought nothing of it when his dagger slipped sleepily from his hand and sank to the bottom. He only knew that he and Gralok had been defeated before they'd even had a chance to serve the realm. In his past, he'd battled scores of NuRac minions and triumphed. He'd survived the Great Arena through challenge after challenge of unmeasured peril. He'd helped to orchestrate and execute the most ambitious prison escape that anyone had ever conceived. But here, now, he'd gone down with barely an effort. And even in the stupor of his exhaustion, he felt ashamed.