After three days at sea, the wonder and wildness of it all had worn a bit thin for the children. Though they had fair weather, and were able to enjoy the beauty of blue waves reflecting azure skies, they also learned that life on board a ship consisted of a nauseous sequence of pitching and rolling, of tight, uncomfortable hammocks, and of dry biscuits that were only rendered interesting whenever a weevil would scamper out of their cracks.
Despite the rigors of life with the royal navy, however, the children found ways to amuse themselves. Joe and Sim ran races up and down the rigging, and Lady found an agreeable ear in the ship’s boy stationed in the crow’s nest, who would listen to her animated stories with an attention she never received from her brothers. They rode along up there, while their perch traced a graceful figure-eight over and over again in the air above the ship as the mast tilted and swayed with every dip of the deck.
On that third day, though, Lady was watching silently as the lookout trained his glass out toward the western horizon. Within the next few hours they expected to sail within sight of the Great King’s realm. The boys were below, pacing back and forth on the forecastle deck with Kobi and Mack, waiting for the cry from above. At the rear of the ship, Captain Drave stood beside the boatswain at the wheel while both regarded the far horizon with bright eyes.
Minutes dragged on in agonizing silence, until finally a shout went up.
Kobi stopped, startled, and looked quizzically at the nearest officer. “Sail? Not land?”
The officer shrugged.
They all crowded the bow-rail and peered into the distance until they could just make out the white speck of something lingering on the edge of the horizon. Joe thought at first that it just looked like a bit of foam at the crest of a wave, but little by little it became clearer that it was a sail, a square patch of cloth made tiny by distance, and beneath it was a great wooden ship.
Captain Drave strode up to the forecastle and trained his eyeglass at it. “I wouldn’t have thought it,” he muttered at last. “But that’s the ship you were chasing. We caught up to her before landfall.”
“But how?” asked Mack. “We had to wait days to set off after them.”
“The weather that passed through here recently was rough; far rougher than what we received. We were riding the tail end of those winds, but it may be that they were caught in the midst of the squall and had to drop sail. They may have been blown off course.”
“Let’s catch up to them!” Sim said eagerly.
It was the first time during their whole journey that they had been within sight of Prince Hal’s location, and the anticipation of that meeting flooded them with nervous excitement.
“Aye, we may be able to do that,” said the captain. “We’ve got a fair wind at our backs, and they’ll be soon running into the crosswinds around the coast. We might be able to reach them before they disembark.”
With a shout over his shoulder, Captain Drave ordered his men to raise all sail, and they steered to the furthest point of seizing all available wind in their shrouds. The Wellspring seemed to be bounding from wave to wave, so swift was the way she cut through the water. Foam rolled back from her slicing bow in long, graceful curls. As they raced over the surface of the deep, ever nearer the Great King’s realm, gulls began to throng the skies overhead, and every now and then a silvery dolphin would spring from the water and race alongside the ship for a time.
Little by little, they drew closer to the ship ahead, until they were near enough for Captain Drave to wave a flag-signal for them to pull up and rendezvous. Sure enough, a few moments later the white shrouds of the other ship were taken in, and it rode becalmed while the navy frigate cruised alongside. At the same moment, the lookout gave another cry from far above.
They looked out, past the neighboring ship, and there on the western edge of the world a green line seemed to be spreading across their vision, just where the ocean met the sky: the verdant hills of the coast.
The Wellspring pulled up directly alongside the other ship, and Captain Drave held up a large brass funnel, a speaking-trumpet which he set to his mouth in order to be heard over the distance that still separated them.
“Ahoy there! This is His Majesty’s frigate Wellspring of the royal navy!”
“At your service!” came the distant, tinny reply of the other ship’s captain. “How can we assist?”
“We need to speak to one of your passengers—the man who embarked with you just before you left Westport!”
There was a brief conversation aboard the other boat, as the captain and the men around him consulted in a little group. Then he raised his speaking-trumpet again.
“He’s willing to come to you,” the captain called. “Prepare to receive a boat!”
Breathless with anticipation, they watched as a man in a dark traveling-cloak descended a rope ladder from the side of the ship, down into a dinghy where a sailor was already present to row him over. Just a dozen strokes of the oars were enough to close the gap between the two ships, both rolling at ease on the ocean swells. While the boat was in motion, Lady clambered down from the crow’s nest to stand eagerly alongside her brothers and the two knights. Captain Drave had his ladder put down, and a few moments later the traveler appeared over the side-railing of the ship.
His hood was up, obscuring most of his face in shadow.
Joe looked hard at the man, trying to decide if he was the same one he had seen on that first dark night in Arrens. And even if he was, what if Joe had been wrong? What if he really was just a traveler on his way from the capital city to the Great King’s realm? What if the prince really had died in his sleep, as Steward Presten said, and their whole adventure had been nothing more than a vain fantasy?
“Prince Halbrinnon?” Sir Mack asked.
The traveler looked at him for a long moment, then slowly reached up and dropped his hood.