The Silence of the Silver Bells
by Astrid S. Nielsen
part 1 of 2
The lights of the city drifted closer, like a cluster of stars at the edge of the dark sky. Tara watched them lazily through half-closed eyes; a new place, the same as every other. She yawned and stretched her length.
The lights tilted as the ship turned slowly towards them, and the tiny silver bells hanging from every rope chimed. The night air had taken on a slightly different quality, that of the green and growing things of the island they were approaching, she imagined, and she breathed in deeply.
“Tara! Are you sleeping?” snapped the hoarse voice of Captain Fifika Adsincani, the fearsome leader of this ship. And also Tara’s mother. Which made her seem no less frightening to Tara.
“Um, no...” Tara, who had been leaning against the railing, turned abruptly and opened her eyes wide.
“You must stay vigilant!” The captain shifted her gaze from the red runes on the steering stone, which kept the ship flying, to Tara, and the ship dropped for a moment.
Tara gulped down a lump of nausea. “Yes ma’am.”
“Useless girl! Useless, useless girl! You didn’t notice! I told you to keep watch, and you didn’t notice.” The captain shook her head, and returned her eyes to the stone. The faint reddish light it emitted lent a misleadingly soft touch to her otherwise sharp and weathered features.
“Notice what?” Tara ventured.
“Well, her fleet, of course!” The captain made a gesture much like a punch in the air. “All those little lights, there at the edge of the city. The way they are bobbing, they can only be ships. I thought I had taught you that much.”
Tara squinted at the lights and sighed. “But we already knew Vadoma’s fleet had landed at Port Gran. That’s why we came here in the first place.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, silly girl. She’s following us. I knew she would. I warned you.”
Tara knew it was futile to point out it seemed to be more the other way around. Wherever they went it was always in strict coherence with their intelligence of Vadoma’s whereabouts. Tara settled for a muffled grunt, which the captain would most likely take as a sound of agreement.
“Your sister would not have made so light of this. She would have had no rest until she had seen our enemy’s downfall...” The captain’s voice trailed off, and the last words were barely audible, but Tara knew them anyway; she had heard it all before.
The planks of the deck creaked under approaching footsteps. Tara’s and the captain’s shifts had ended.
A sour-looking old witch placed herself at the steering stone, and the captain got up without a word and set off towards her cabin, her red-feather trimmed cape and the fast tap of her walking stick trailing behind her. The door slammed, and Tara breathed out.
For a moment the faint chiming of the silver bells was the only sound, though Tara didn’t notice it. It was always there, keeping the ship in a bubble of sound, which supposedly no spirit could penetrate. Along with the tight web of runes carved on the side of the ship to ward off curses, it was their main defence against Vadoma’s magical attacks, though Tara had no memory of any occurrence of the sort.
“Don’t worry yourself, my dear,” said Kirvi, the one who had come to take Tara’s place. She was a frail woman with a slim, wrinkled face, and her thin voice fitted her looks completely. “Your mother isn’t angry with you, only Vadoma. This is the island where Chavi died, so it’s all a bit hard for her. But none of us expect you to do as well as Chavi, who would have surely thought of a vengeance by now, had she been alive. Bless her soul.”
The old woman smiled benignly, showing her few remaining teeth, and the tone of her voice was all kindness as she patted Tara on the cheek with her dry fingers. Even her breath was sweet, in a sickening kind of way, like layers of old candy.
“Thank you.” Tara managed a brief smile, but couldn’t help recoiling from Kirvi’s touch. “Anyway, I’m turning in, now.” She fled to the cabin she shared with the rest of the crew, but the air was too stale, and the snoring of the others seemed even louder than usual, and soon she slipped out to the starboard deck where she could sit unseen and watch the island, a dark shape obscuring the stars.
The ship creaked and swayed gently in the wind. The silver bells tinkled. Tara sighed and glanced upwards reluctantly; the moon was waxing, as she well knew. This was a good time for weaving spells. Though she wasn’t very powerful and showed none of the promise Chavi had, as the captain often reminded her. You could tell it just by looking at her: thin, weak, freckled. Flimsy hair with no proper colour; just a watered-down brownish tone. A sure sign of weakness. Chavi’s had been black like a raven. Just like the captain’s.
Tara produced a black candle from her pocket and watched it intently. It wasn’t that she really cared about this dead sister of hers; she didn’t even remember her. But if vengeance wasn’t found, nothing would ever change. So she placed the candle in front of her and lit it with a spark from her fingertip. Completely powerless she was not.
“Mother Moon,” she said and recited the proper verses, as well as she recalled them, and did the proper gestures.
A cold gust of wind blew out the candle, and Tara shuddered, but otherwise nothing happened. She glanced up at the moon again, smiling wryly, and shrugged; she hadn’t really believed anything would happen anyway. If revenge came so easily, one of the others would have long ago cast the spell.
At some point she dozed off, and when she awoke the commotion that always preceded a landing filled the ship; Captain Fifika strolled the deck, black eyes flaring and her red cape billowing about her as she supervised the curses that were crafted and cast towards Vadoma’s fleet by three of the crew.
Others were busy preparing the magic potions they would hopefully be selling to the people of the city and checking the small cargo of ordinary trade goods they had brought from their previous destination. Trade between the floating islands could only be done through the vessels of the witches.
Tara got up and went to the railing. Below was the grey labyrinth of the city; and, further out, green hills and pastures were dotted with white spots she thought might be sheep. The sun was rising, bathing the scene in a golden glow, and she wondered briefly what it would be like to feel the grass of the hills beneath her feet. She had never done that, walked on green grass; there had never been time for it.
* * *
Tara counted 27 ships as Vadoma’s fleet took off from the island. There was a moment of awed silence as they passed by, brightly painted vessels with sails of unpatched canvas bulging boldly and somewhat mockingly in the wind. Very unlike the one shabby ship of Captain Fifika Adsincani and her crew of six witches — seven, counting Tara, which she wasn’t sure the captain did.
The silence ended when the captain filled her lungs and yelled an appropriately nasty curse. All but Tara joined in, for fear of having the captain’s wrath turning to them. As Vadoma’s fleet became dots on the horizon, however, the yelling and cursing and spitting abated; now they could finally land their own ship.
Barely had the ship settled in one of the wooden landing frames at the harbour when the gangplank was lowered. The captain proudly strolled down it, her cape draped around her shoulders in a fashion that would have seemed royal if it weren’t for the bright sunlight, which made very visible every patch in the washed-out red velvet and every hole in the feather trim.
The rest of the crew filed after her in a no less swaggering manner, though they were a sorry sight, every one of them wrinkled and crooked, with tight lips hiding toothless mouths, and the colours of their scarves and dresses faded to a ghostly echo of their former brightness.
Tara hesitated. She was the last now, on board, but just as she placed her foot on the gangplank every tiny hair on her body stood on end, and she froze. Something was wrong. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something very much out of order.
There was a hint of a foul smell in the air, from a nearby garbage pile most likely. But that wasn’t it. The few passers-by didn’t exactly send them friendly glances. But that was nothing out of the ordinary. Everything seemed to be the same as always. The weather was perhaps finer than most days, but that was no reason to feel uneasy.
She shrugged off the feeling and started walking down the gangplank. Then, just halfway down, she realised there was no tinkling. The air had suddenly become so still; not the faintest wind brushed her skin. And the silver bells were silent.
Tara ran. And stumbled into the circle of grave witches surrounding the captain and a man who could be no other than the harbour master. He was elegantly clad, all in black velvet, and with a no less elegant notebook wedged under one arm, just above the heavy-looking pouch tied to his girdle.
Tara bit her tongue to keep it from crying out the warning she had in mind; to interrupt the captain was generally a foolish thing to do, and especially so when she was in the middle of a negotiation concerning money. Tara breathed in heavily, and as the faint metallic taste of blood spread in her mouth, she prepared to wait; this usually took a while.
“Do you not know who I am? I am Captain Fifika Adsincani!” The captain tossed her head.
The harbour master arched his bushy eyebrows. “Well, as far as I know the captain of the Adsincani took off this very morning—”
“You mean Vadoma, that snake. She is an impostor. She is no Adsincani, she is using my name, she is—”
“I wouldn’t doubt your word, dear madam, but I’m afraid it makes no difference in this case. She paid four gold florins a day, as does everyone else. And so you will have to, no matter who you are. Unless you wish to take off again immediately, of course.”
“But think of all the trade this town can make through us. Surely it’s in your best interest we stay, and so you should at least give us a discount.”
“I mean no offence, but I’m sure those who wished to trade have already done so with the rather grand fleet of the imposter.”
The captain pursed her lips. “Let me tell you about Vadoma and her grand fleet. She is relentless. She—”
“I’m sure she is a very bad sort of person, and I can assure you we gave her no discount—”
“I will not be interrupted! She murdered my child!”
“Yes, yes. But nevertheless you, like everyone else, will have to pay me four gold florins right now or take off immediately.” The harbour master extended his hand, and his smile, though still courtly, got a little tighter.
Blue sparks appeared at the tip of the captain’s fingers, crackling in time with the barely audible muttering pressing through her clenched teeth.
The harbour master stepped back. “Let me remind you, dear sister, that we in this town have our own wizards, who will strike down hard upon any magical crime.”
He spoke in a low and calm voice, using the term “sister” as island dwellers often did when addressing a witch. The point being, Tara supposed, that the great number of infant boys abandoned and left on the islands by the witches — it was said the mere presence of a male on board a ship could cause the spell of flight to fail — made an unknown blood relation an ever-present possibility. How it was supposed this would have any appeasing effect on a witch was still a mystery to Tara. But the mention of the wizards made the captain wince and, with visible effort, relax.
The blue sparks faded. “No need to get all worked up or call any wizards. Surely we can come to an agreement, brother.” The captain grimaced in a way that with a little goodwill could resemble a smile while Fifika rummaged through her pockets.
Eventually she produced a black leather pouch, and from it she drew three gold florins, which she placed in the hand of the harbour master. “Here. What do you say we let this be the payment for today, and if we be here still tomorrow, I swear we will pay full price for that and every following day.”
The harbour master bit the gold coins discreetly and nodded in agreement. “Tomorrow at first light, I’ll be here to collect the payment or see that you have gone.” Then he jotted something down into his notebook and went on his way.
The captain jammed the pouch back into her pocket, and it was clear by the way it crumpled between her fingers that it was now utterly empty.
Tara started towards her. “Ma’am, you should know—”
“I have no time for your whining now, girl. We must all do our best if we are to pay these ridiculous fees. Kirvi, find out where Vadoma is headed next and see what other dirt you can dig up about her. The rest of you, you know what to do.”
“Ma’am, the silver—” Tara tried again.
“Get to work! I swear I’ll make you regret it if I have to repeat myself!”
Tara sighed and glanced back at the ship. It probably was of no importance anyway that the silver bells were silent for a little while, when nobody was on board. The runes on the side of the ship glowed clearly enough, and no real nastiness could slip through. No, when it was time for them to fly again, the wind would have picked up, and the bells would chime as always. No need for alarm now.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Astrid S. Nielsen