It was becoming increasingly obvious that Narasan would need the rest of his army here very soon. The Albatross had seemed to be the best answer, but Gunda was definitely starting to have second thoughts about that.
‘She‘s tight now, cousin,’ Pantal advised Gunda late in the after- several days later, ‘and I think she might surprise you. She hasn’t been treated very well for several years, but now that she’s been re-caulked, she’ll go through the water like a hot knife through butter.’
‘I hope so,’ Gunda replied. ‘I’d really like to get back to Castano like about four days ago.’
‘I don’t think she’ll go quite that fast, Gunda, but you never know.’
‘I’ll do my best to find out. I’ve been watching the night sky for the last few days, and we’ve got a full moon now. If the sky stays clear, I won’t have to drop anchor when the sun goes down.’
‘That isn’t the best idea in the world, cousin,’ Pantal said a bit dubiously. ‘If you’re going to try sailing at night, stay a goodly distance away from any coast or islands. The Albatross doesn’t draw much water, but still—’
‘I’ll be careful cousin,’ Gunda assured him, ‘but things are likely to start getting tight around here before too much longer, and Narasan’s going to need the rest of his army here, not down in Castano.’
Pantal’s assessment of the potential of the restored Albatross turned out to be a slight understatement. Sometimes it seemed that she almost flew as Gunda raced on down the east coast of Veltan’s Domain. When he reached the tip of the peninsula jutting out from the south coast, however, he found that he had to fight the prevailing wind. Somewhat reluctantly, he lowered the sail and fell back on the oars.
Fortunately, the wind changed direction before the blisters on his hands started bleeding, and he raised the sail again.
Then he discovered that there was a steady current moving in a westerly direction along the north side of the ice zone, and he reached the channel that led south in just under two days. Of course, he was taking advantage of the full moon now, so the actual sailing time probably wasn’t much different than it had been when he’d come up from Castano. He was more than a little sandy-eyed as he started down along the channel, but he’d discovered that he could get by on no more than four or five hours of sleep a night. He was always tired, of course, but he promised himself several good nights of sleep after he reached Castano.
It was late in the afternoon of his fourth day out from Veltan’s harbor when he saw the north coast of the empire low on the southern horizon. ‘Well, well,’ he murmured to the Albatross, ‘You done real good, baby. I’m proud of you. As soon as we reach the harbor, we’ll be able to catch up on our sleep. Won’t that be nice?’
Then Gunda laughed just a bit wryly. ‘I think maybe my load’s shifting again. I almost expected her to answer me. I really need some sleep.’
He was jarred back into complete wakefulness as soon as he entered the harbor of Castano, however. As closely as he could determine, every pier and wharf along the entire waterfront of the city had several broad-beamed ships tied to it, and the men on board those ships were all wearing the distinctive red uniforms of church soldiers.
‘What are they doing here?’ Gunda exclaimed. ‘Those idiots!’
He beached the Albatross some distance up the coast from the central waterfront, chained her to a large tree, and then went around the city wall to the army encampment just to the south of the city. He went on through the gate and entered the headquarters building.
‘Where have you been, Gunda?’ Andar demanded in his deep, rumbling voice.
‘I got held up for a while up in the Land of Dhrall,’ Gunda replied. ‘What’s going on here in Castano? Every place I looked I saw a church ship.’
‘They aren’t talking to anybody, Gunda,’ Andar replied. ‘The church armies started marching in about three days ago, and then that church fleet sailed into the harbor. They’ve taken over the entire waterfront, so there’s no way I can load our men on the ships I hired. I’m not sure just exactly where those church armies are going, but it looks to me like they’re planning a major campaign somewhere.’
Gunda started to swear - extensively.
‘Was it something I said?’ Andar asked.
‘Jalkan!’ Gunda snapped.
‘Please, Gunda, don’t use that kind of language. There are children nearby’
‘It’s about time for them to grow up, then.’ Gunda managed to get his temper under control, and he told Andar about Narasan’s revocation of Jalkan’s commission and the little scoundrel’s imprisonment in one of the Trogite ships.
‘I’d say that it’s time for a celebration, then.’
‘Not really. Somehow, Jalkan managed to get loose, and then he stole Veltan’s sloop and sailed away. We both know exactly where he went, don’t we?’
‘In the light of what’s been going on here in Castano, I’d say that he most probably went to the central convenium in Kaldacin, and he was more than likely to have been spouting the word “gold” before he even got there, and it’s quite obvious that some of the higher-ranking churchmen took him at his word. That does sort of explain just why the church has expropriated every single wharf here in Castano, wouldn’t you say?’
‘And there’s not much we can do about it. Can you come up with any kind of estimate of just how many church soldiers are boarding those ships?’
‘Church armies have distinctive banners, just like real armies do. I’ve had people watching, and so far there’s evidence that there are five church armies being loaded on those ships in the harbor.’
Gunda winced. ‘That’s about a half-million men, Andar. We’ve already got one war on our hands, we definitely don’t need another one. Have you caught any hints about just when that church fleet’s likely to sail out of the harbor?’
‘I’d say probably sometime in the next two days,’ Andar replied. ‘There’s something else you should know about, Gunda. Yesterday, a couple of ships with black sails arrived, and the men on board those ships conferred at some length with the higher-ranking churchmen. We all know what that means, don’t we?’
‘Slavers?’ Gunda said. ‘What are they—?’ He broke off. ‘Of course!’ he exclaimed. ‘They’re not planning to rush up the east coast to confront Narasan. Slaves are almost as valuable as gold, and the church armies won’t have to fight anybody to gather up potential slaves - not in a region where all the tools and weapons are made of stone, anyway.’