The Golden Ankh cut through the leaden waves before a fresh wind. Her white sails, bearing the symbol from which she got her name, billowed out, her serpent pennons snapping from the masts. Great clouds of salt spray hissed up from the prow as she surged forward on her course, the winds blowing in the direction we wanted thanks to my magic. The skies we were heading towards were heavy with the kind of dark, threatening clouds that made one think of an imminent storm, though Iolo, Shamino, Dupre and I fervently hoped that one wouldn't be forthcoming. We were far out on the Great Sea, and, Arcadion aside, help would be a long time coming should disaster strike.
"This should be it!" Shamino shouted from aloft. The ranger was perched in the crow's nest with a telescope, sextant and a copy of Batlin's map. "This should be it!" he repeated, louder this time.
"I hear you!" I yelled back. "Do we drop anchor here?"
"I think so!"
I looked up to see the ranger clamber over the side of the nest and make his way down the rope ladder, map clenched tightly in one hand. "Dupre!" I bellowed.
A short time later, the knight poked his head up from a hatch in the deck. "Did someone call?"
"I did. Would you mind dropping the anchor?" When he started to grin, I added, “With the chain still attached, if you don’t mind.” Turning my gaze upward again, I waved at Shamino to start reefing the sails. We wouldn't be needing them for another day or two, if the directions we had were accurate. As I carefully negotiated my way up the swaying ladder to help him, I asked, "Shamino, are you sure this is the right place?"
"I know how to use a sextant," he answered. "We'll find out soon, in any case."
"One way or another," I added. "Just remember that if we're wrong, it could be another year before we get a second chance at this."
"Only if the legends are true!" Shamino jumped the last few steps and landed lightly on the deck, brandishing the parchment he held. "It says that these 'serpent pillars' only appear in the depths of Winter, but who's to know if it's accurate? Iolo said Gwenno left in Autumn."
"Well, two days from now is Midwinter's day," I reminded him. "We'll see what happens. What are the other signs?"
"Um," he unfolded the scroll. "Both moons and the sun must be visible." He glared at the sky. The sun would be sinking below the clouds at any minute now. "Well, above the horizon, in any case."
There was a sudden splash as the anchor hit the water.
"I hope it doesn't rain," I said irrelevantly, concentrating on the sails. "Where's Iolo?"
"I think he's tying to keep his mind off Gwenno," the ranger said softly. "In fact, he's not the only one in a… repressive mood, I might say. Dupre hath been acting a little touchy since Kra'lysie told him she wasn't coming, and thou... well..." he shrugged. "What's up with thee, anyway? Or is it just the stress of knowing that the Guardian's trying to destroy the world, again?"
"Something like that." I gave him a sidelong glance. "What about you? You're not worried about leaving Amber behind?"
"Not exactly," he said with a self-conscious grin. "I'm more worried about leaving her behind in the company of a certain tinker and shepherdess." He let out a rather mournful sigh. "Who knoweth what she'll be like after a month in the company of those two?"
I gave him an amused look.
"They're determined to make sure she knoweth what she's getting herself into," he added, rolling his eyes. Then he paused and gave me a worried look. "Do I snore? Honestly, Avatar."
I began to laugh.
"Only when thou'rt drunk, Shamino!" Dupre shouted from behind us.
"He's right..." I grinned. "...but then, it goes both ways."
Shamino sighed. "No more getting drunk?"
"Poor thing," I said brightly, a look of complete insincerity on my face. "No more throwing up in the mornings."
He sighed again, then grunted as Dupre clapped him on the shoulder.
"Let's make this one the last, then," the knight declared. "A hogshead between the two of us, and we can place bets on who's the first to drink the other under the table."
"What table?" Shamino asked.
Dupre waved a dismissive hand. "A few drinks and thou wilt be seeing more than tables, my friend." He started off in the direction of the hold.
"Care to join us, Elora?" invited Shamino.
"Ah, thanks all the same, but as fun as having a hangover sounds, I think I'll pass. I only got over being seasick an hour or so ago. I might go see how Iolo's doing."
I found the white-haired bard sitting alone in the cabin he shared with the other two. He was plucking experimentally at the strings of his lute, his face drawn into a thoughtful frown as he tested one melody against another.
"Knock, knock," I said, leaning against the open doorframe and crossing my arms. "Just dropped by to see how you're going. The Golden Ankh's holding position here for the next couple of days."
"So we're almost there?" he asked, pausing to twist a tuning peg.
He nodded. "That's good." Then he smiled. "I'm trying to think of something for when I'm reunited with Gwenno. It hath been over a year."
"Almost two years, actually. Oh, before I turn in, Dupre and Shamino are having a little drinking party, in case you might want to join them."
Iolo grinned. "I'd prefer to be coherent when I find my wife, Elora. Besides, if she finds out I've been drinking she'll yank out my beard."
"I didn't know Gwenno was so vicious.”.
"She hath standards," he replied, somewhat loftily. "One thing she can't stand is beer on my breath."
I laughed. "I can count on you to keep an eye on Dupre and Shamino, then," I told him, gesturing in the general direction of the hold. "Wake me if there's any trouble.”
Before dawn two days later, I was keeping watch on deck. All was relatively quiet. There were no real waves, and the only sounds came from the gentle lapping of water against the keel and the creaking of ropes and timber over my head. The lantern amidships had burned out half an hour earlier, but it wasn't as dark as one might expect so early in the morning. The sky had cleared just before midnight, and the full twin moons of Britannia were still visible as dawn approached.
A faint scraping sound caught my attention and I bent over the starboard side of the ship, staring down at the surface of the Great Sea. "Bet Lor!" I whispered, conjuring a small light to better see by. Gesturing slightly, I sent the short-lived illumination down closer to the origin of the sound.
A thin layer of ice was actually starting to form on the surface of the water. It was fragile enough so that it broke when the ship moved slightly, but it was still ice. "I didn't know a sea could freeze over," I murmured to myself, just as the Glimmer spell ran out. "We might have a problem here." I hurried over to the port side of the ship, carefully avoiding obstacles on the deck. There was no ice over there, however. At least the ship wouldn't be trapped.
An hour slipped by and a filmy mist started to form in the air, causing the moons to look hazy and mysterious. The fog got thicker as time passed, so when the sun rose as an indistinct, golden blur in the east, the very air seemed to light up around the ship. With moons and sun present, silver and gold tints raced through the mist like glittering threads. I had little time to appreciate the sight, however, as the ship suddenly lurched forward.
"Great," I muttered. "Now what?"
The ship again jolted, dragging against the anchor. There was a sudden, wooden tearing and I realised that the side of the ship where the anchor's chain hung was about to be torn away. Stumbling as a third pull rocked the ship, I jumped over a pile of ropes and reached back over my shoulder, tearing the Blacksword from its scabbard. With a single, precise swing, I whipped Arcadion around in a horizontal arc and sheared through the heavy chain.
“Oh, very nice, Master,” the daemon said sarcastically as I returned him to his sheath. “What next? Will you use me to help prepare a salad for today’s lunch?”
Free, the ship began to move. Swinging to the starboard, she drifted directly into the ice that had formed on the water as if she had a mind of her own. I let out a strangled gasp and ran for the forecastle, certain the ship would spring a dozen leaks if we hit the ice.
There was no need to worry. A wide path of calm, grey-blue water cut through the thick bank of ice and into the fog. The Golden Ankh sailed down this winding channel without my direction, keeping an even distance between her keel and the ice on either side.
"What's going on?" Dupre's voice demanded from the hatch. "I felt a jolt!"
"It's ok," I called back. "You might as well come up here, and bring the others with you. Something's going to happen."
The four of us watched in silence as two vast, cylindrical forms emerged from the sun-and-moons-lit fog. Many times higher and wider than the mast of the ship we sailed in, the pillars rose one on either side of what appeared to be the end of the icy channel. Black, yet overlaid by a silvery sheen, they were each encircled by the sinuous form of a serpent with dark, frost-blue scales. The thick coils of the stone reptiles twined around the columns from base to summit and it could have been a trick of the light, but I could almost swear I could see their tongues flickering from their mouths. As we got closer, I thought I could hear them hissing.
Then a great light took shape between the pillars. Brighter even than the sunlight reflecting off the ice around the ship, the silver-white flickering hovered at the very end of the watery path we were sailing down, and the Golden Ankh bore straight for it. It suddenly seemed to register on each of us that this was the gateway to another place, and that we were about to leave Britannia for who knew how long.
"I'm coming, Gwenno," Iolo whispered from just behind me.
"I'm coming, Batlin." Dupre's voice, though just as soft, grated from between clenched teeth.
A strong wind started to blow across the deck as Shamino spoke. "I'm coming home," he seemed to say, but I couldn’t feel sure.
The light blazing in front of us was almost touching the prow, and it was my turn. Staring directly into the almost blinding gateway to another world, I said, "I'm coming, Guardian. Ready or not."
"And we went onward without looking back,
Only dimly aware of what lay before us,
Though unafraid because of she who led us;
She who wore the golden Ankh."
--from the diary of Iolo Fitzowen
Ye Virtues, I can’t believe I’ve finally finished this thing. Did I start it in 2000 or 2001? Anyway, the last book went in a very different direction from what I’d originally planned, and I fully intend to upload what ‘outtakes’ I’ve already typed to my site so people can get an idea of ‘what might have happened’.
The epilogue actually predates the majority of the last book of TBA. :)
I think my biggest mistake in this fic was the constantly growing cast of characters. It became hard to keep track of them, and I was often questioning whether I should give one or the other more ‘air time’. This was made doubly tricky because of the First Person Narrative, which means I can’t go see what so-and-so is doing unless I had a reason for Elora to jog over there to find out. In the end, I decided to stick with the main characters as much as possible, but still try to ensure that everyone was involved in the final fights. At least my character list isn’t as monstrous as the Wheel of Time saga. :p
BIG THANKS to all those who have helped edit and nitpick this lil’ fanfic over the years. Particular thanks to Tailrace Dragon, who put up not only with my sometimes odd spelling and grammatical structures, but also with my continued attempts to hunt him down with a butterfly net. ;)
Thanks also to the Dragons who helped me out while TBA was still young, namely Nightfire, Goldenflame and FlameBlight. :)
Finally, a massive ‘thank you’ to everyone who’s ever commented on my writing. Your kind words have been my inspiration to keep putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), and a constant encouragement in my creative efforts. Thank you. :)
Hope you enjoyed reading The Black Ankh as much as I enjoyed writing it. And hope the end was worth the wait. :)