Chasing Treasure: Part Four
As Sam said, the wreck was old. The rot-blackened wood of the hull was riddled with damaged and missing sections, and those that remained were almost more barnacle and seaweed than wood.
"You're sure the map would have survived if it was stuck down here?" Sam asked dubiously.
"It was sealed, if I remember correctly," Niettah answered. "The navigator was transporting it, but he wasn't trusted with it - he wouldn't have been able to open the seal."
"And we will be?"
Niettah blinked with faux innocence. "I'm sure we'll find a way," she demurred.
Sam snorted. "Convenient." He frowned at the wreck. "Some navigator to send his crew straight into the Teeth. You'd have thought he'd know better."
Bannok hmmed at that, thinking of the legends he'd heard passed down. "The White Horn's lot were never famous for their brains," he said. "Thugs and hired muscle, most of them."
"And in what universe is it fair that thugs get that rich and famous when we're sent traipsing round the world for their leftovers?" Sam complained. Bannok shrugged; the stories didn't relate the secrets of the White Horn's success, only that he had been successful. No one could get that powerful that fast or hold an empire that long without some sort of secret.
"Finding their leftovers isn't going to happen by itself," he said. "Rope together and let's go."
They left the canoe moored with enough leeway to move with the tide. The remaining rope went to tieing themselves together into a line, Sam leading followed by Bannok and Niettah. The delfins went out the front with Sam. The tides were fast here; it was too dangerous to risk one of them getting swept away in one of the currents twisting between the rocks.
Even with the security of the rope it was slow going. The parts of the ship that were exposed by the low tide were slippery and prone to breaking; underwater was completely opaque and impossible to see. Sam had it better than the other two but even he was reduced to navigating by touch and feeling the tugs on the ropes from the delfins in front of him.
"So," Sam drawled when they'd made their precarious way to the bow of the ship. "Any ideas how we're actually going to find this mysterious map case?"
"Grid pattern," Bannok said, gauging the width of the wreck. "I'll go down the centre, you two take either side - we sweep our section for anything unusual. You find something, pull on the rope and the rest of us will stop. "Niettah, any idea what this case looks like?"
"Anything unusual then," Bannok confirmed. He hoped that the case was waterproof, but even then the wreck had been here a long time. Things were not looking good for the map being legible once they'd recovered it.
They worked as quickly as they dared down the upper deck. Sam took the lower side, part submerged, and at various points tried to persuade the delfins to scout things out for him. By the end of the first pass they'd found two cannon balls, various bits of decomposing rope, and a small colony of peos that the delfins had tried to chase and nearly dragged the three of them off the ship in doing so.
Bannok grimaced. The cannon balls meant that there had been cannons at one point. The fact that they were missing now meant they'd probably fallen from the ship and sunk into the deep water between the Teeth. No one was sure how far down it went - no one dared sail over to do a survey. If the map had followed the cannons down, they'd have no choice but to send Sam diving and hope the sea floor wasn't too far down. It was a prospect that filled him with dread.
"Below deck?" Sam asked once they'd confirm that the top level was clean.
"Below deck," Bannok agreed. "Niettah, how long can you hold your breath?"
She made a face. "Two minutes, tops?" she offered. "I'm not at my best underwater."
"Two minutes is fine. You'll be the last one in - stay near the exit, make sure we can follow the rope to you and get out." It would be far too easy to get turned around in the pitch blackness and get trapped underwater. Bannok shuddered at the concept. As at home as he was at sea he'd seen its dangers too many times to ever be complacent about the risks.
It was eerie underwater. No sight, and the only sounds were the shifting groans of the wreck and the occasional whistle from one of the delfins. The creaks from the rotted wood in particular echoed, amplified by the surrounding darkness. They sent chills down Bannok's spine and he hoped, irrationally, that no ghost pets had taken residence in the Teeth. Not that he had anything against ghost pets - he knew, intellectually, that it was just a paintbrush colour - but still. He'd rather not meet one in quite such a spooky setting.
Two sharp tugs from Sam's end of the rope jolted him out of his thoughts. He was running near the end of his air. He gave an answering tug down the rope and felt his way along the wall back to Niettah at the entrance, surfacing to take a greedy breath.
"What've you got?" Niettah asked once Sam joined them. The young lutari was too excited about his find to remember that he didn't like her and answered with enthusiasm, speaking almost too fast to hear.
"A chest, some sort of chest - everything around it's covered in seaweed but it's spotless. I don't think there's even any rust on the hinge."
Bannok frowned in thought. "Some sort of sealant, perhaps? Wax?"
"Or a fire faerie's blessing," Niettah added. "With the right spell that can keep water at bay for a while - but it would be a stretch for it to last this long."
"Either way, it could be the map, right? Help me get it loose? It's stuck fast on something - I can't budge it."
Niettah stayed by the entrance again, making sure Bannok and Sam could make it back to the surface. The two brothers went forwards through the dark, Sam making a beeline for the chest as soon as he had his bearings again. It was wedged in a corner, piled underneath a load of old barrels that had rotted down to a seaweed covered heap. As Sam had said though the chest itself was clear - just tangled in the weeds growing around it.
They gave it a few tugs together before Bannok reached for his knife. Between the two of them they managed to dislodge it, alternating between sawing at the weeds and kicking the chest free. The force of it sent the whole ship creaking and swaying. It shifted on its perch, rocking forwards for a long moment before settling back down. Bannok let out the breath he'd been holding in a stream of bubbles, his eyes wide saucers and his heart racing.
He gripped Sam's shoulder, pulling them towards the entrance. Sam pressed a thumbs up against his palm and they retreated, ears wide for any more sound of the ship destabilising. It didn't move, but the drawn out groans were enough to keep them on edge until they were back treading water.
"All well?" Niettah asked with thinly veiled worry when all three could breathe again.
"Fine," Bannok assured her. "Just getting the chest free disturbed it a bit."
"Can we open it now?" Sam interrupted. He'd dragged the chest up onto one of the flatter rocks and was crouched by it, fidgeting impatiently.
"Yeah, if we can." Bannok swam over with a couple of powerful strokes and hauled himself out onto the ledge. "Best to know now if we need to go back down again."
Niettah hmmed, examining the chest with narrowed eyes. "I doubt it," she said. "This is some fancy spellwork to keep the chest protected - I'd be surprised if there was more than one chest with this level of magic on it."
"Let's hope," Bannok agreed. The chest looked perfectly normal. About as long as his arm, narrow but quite deep with bronze caps over the corners and what looked like gold inlay in the lid. There was no lock, just a panel with a series of symbol wheels in a row. Some were strangely familiar but others made no sense to Bannok. Below it was a collection of circles and dots connected by the occasional diagonal line.
"I don't suppose you've got the code?" Sam asked. Niettah shook her head. "Drat. There's only four wheels - how many combinations is that to try?"
"It's highly likely," the xweetok stopped him dryly, "that the wrong code will set off a trap of some sort. The White Horn was rather well known for them."
There was a contemplative pause as they considered the chest again. Bannok stared blankly. Puzzles were not his forte. He was so stumped that it took him a good minute to realise that Sam was singing to himself, of all things.
"Sam," he began. "What."
The lutari tapped the cirlces below the symbol wheels. "This," he said. "Call me crazy, but I'm ninety eight percent certain that this is the music for happy birthday."
"No, that makes sense," Niettah said, eyes flicking between the wheels. "These here," she pointed to the last wheel, "They're pictograms. Running, sleeping, eating - it's the months."
"It's a date?" Sam perked up. "Yes - that's the crescent moon on the twenty dubloon piece, and that one's got to be the five. They're numbers."
"But if it's a date, there're four wheels for the day number," Bannok said. Sam and Niettah just nodded at him.
"Obviously," Sam said. Bannok did not quite see how it was obvious. But then, this was why he did the sailing and Sam did the numbers.
Niettah took pity on him. "They add up. Like if you were paying for something in dubloons, these would be the coins you'd need. Nineteen dubloons is a ten, a five, and two twos."
"A silver cross, a silver skull, and two bronze crosses," Sam agreed. He sat back on his heels, arms crossed. "But it doesn't help if we don't know the date."
"Nineteenth day of Hunting," Niettah said. "Amelie's birthday."
Bannok frowned at that. "Amelie again?" he asked. "You're sure?"
"It's worth a shot. She was... important to the White Horn."
"She'd have been a kid when he disappeared though," Sam said. "Like, really tiny. Baby almost."
"Yes," Niettah said simply.
Sam and Bannok shared a glance. There was something here, something deeper. Bannok's eyebrow quirked and Sam's nose twitched in silent conversation; they'd leave it for now - no point pressing Niettah if she didn't want to talk. Save it for later when Niettah was less on guard.
"Right then, Little Ami," Sam muttered, recalling how the unsigned parchment in her painting had addressed the gelert princess. "Let's hope you're as important as all that."
He spun the dials. First the crosses and skulls for the day, then the crude bow and arrow for the month of Hunting. He held his breath, looked up to the other two, and pressed the lock in.
A dull click, a rusty creak. The chest opened.
To be continued…