The Silence of the Silver Bells
by Astrid S. Nielsen
Part 1 appears|
in this issue
Kirvi was the first to scuttle off, with an air of self-importance. Where she went Tara did not know. Somewhere dubious no doubt; the apparently sweet old lady had an uncanny knack for uncovering the information the captain wanted. Tara hoped she would fail for once. As it was, they only went to towns fed up with witches and their goods.
This town seemed to be no exception. The looks in the eyes of those they asked for direction to the marketplace were weary, and the mood of the witches dropped as they filed through narrow alleys edged by tall buildings blocking out the sun.
The captain was the only one who seemed to be in high spirits. As they went along it was to the tunes of her humming the old song “I’ve lost my other ear, so now I can’t hear” and beating the time with her walking stick. Occasionally the carts they pulled along joined in with a plaintive creaking.
At the marketplace Tara slipped away and found her own spot, back against a trickling fountain. She did nothing in particular to draw attention to herself, just sat in the sun with half-closed eyes and listened to the shouts of the other traders telling the world here could be found the world’s best of most things imaginable.
Tara reckoned if there was still anyone after Vadoma’s visit who needed their fortune told, they could tell by the arcane deck placed in front of her that that was what she did. And so there was no need to shout.
As the day grew hotter, she could quench her thirst at the fountain behind her. Her stomach, however, was another matter; she had eaten nothing since the previous evening, and unless she could earn or steal enough money to buy herself a meal, she would get nothing that day.
And so at last, as the smells of fresh-baked bread and fried sausages became too much for her stomach to ignore, she too stood up and started shouting. Not in the most enthusiastic way, but nevertheless she soon had her first customer. She suspected it was mostly out of pity, for her customer was one of those kind-eyed, round, motherly types.
As Tara lay down her cards, she kept nodding and smiling and telling her how well she did. Tara, who had never been a keen student, stared at the symbols and patterns emerging and cursed her luck; not one of them was one she could remember more than vaguely. She would have to make it up as she went along. She had never had the talent some people did for reading in the faces of others what they wanted to hear. So her fortune telling went like this:
“Um...I see a tall, handsome stranger in your future and he... um... is going to do something. And something else is going to happen. And you’re going to be happy.”
To Tara’s surprise this was good enough for the smiling woman, who paid without complaint the full price of two silver florins, which Tara had named before she began. Tara nearly spent them at once at the nearest food stall, but it occurred to her the captain might be pacing the place and would most likely think anything she bought would be too much.
Tara sidled to the outskirts of the marketplace where she slipped into one of the shadowy alleys and then into a tall, rambling house. It had a faded sign over the door, saying “The Resting Place.” She thought it sounded very much like the name of an inn.
As she entered, she was not so sure, though; the room was packed with tables and chairs, but it was dark and cold, and not a single other person was in sight apart from the thin and withered looking man at the counter. She would have turned and left, but the man beckoned her closer, and she thought since she had been looking for an undisturbed place, this one might not be so bad.
And it wasn’t. She bought a bowl of soup along with some bread and a mug of beer and sat at a table in a corner well hidden from the door. The table was sticky when she placed her hand on it; and something faintly brushed her forehead, like a thread of cobweb, which wasn’t unlikely, since old dusty ones trailed from the black beams in the ceiling.
But it didn’t bother Tara; the soup was tasty, hot and with balls of meat. The bread seemed fresh, and the thin beer was cool. In fact she enjoyed so much the food and the silence and the solitude as well as the respite from the captain’s black beady eyes that she didn’t even hear the boy approach.
It was only when she had lapped up the last of the soup that she lifted her eyes and saw him. He was sitting right in front of her, across the table, pale and motionless. He was, perhaps, about ten years old. Tara, knowing no other children, wasn’t the best judge of the matter. But his eyes were so earnest that he seemed much older. His hair was black and pulled back tightly; his clothes were of some dark colour indistinguishable in the dim light. The colour suited him badly; it made his pale skin seem even paler in contrast.
“Are you hungry?” Tara asked after a long moment of silent staring. The boy didn’t answer. She handed him the last of her bread anyway. “Here, you can have it. I’m done.”
The boy didn’t move, didn’t even shift his gaze. Tara lowered her eyes a moment, feeling slightly disconcerted. When she looked up again, his stare was unaltered.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
The boy gave no sign of hearing her.
“I’m Tara,” she said when the silence became too long. “I am a witch. I can tell you your fortune, if you’d like.” Then she pulled her cards from her pocket. Mostly because she didn’t know what else to do. As she turned them one by one a cold chill ran down her spine; she knew them, every single one. These were the cards she could never forget. Each was a death omen.
For a while she sat with her mouth dry and didn’t know what to say. The boy’s stare seemed suddenly sorrowful and pleading to her. “You... you are in grave danger,” she managed at last. “You must come with me!”
She didn’t know until she had said it out loud what she had in mind, but it seemed to her the only right thing to do. She would take him on board the ship where he would be protected by the runes and the tinkling silver bells from whatever evil haunted him and scared him speechless.
* * *
The sun was setting as Tara towed the boy through the city’s maze of alleys, into the harbour area and up the gangplank to the ship. No wind had picked up during the day, and the silver bells were silent. But that wasn’t why her heart was pounding; up there they had all gathered: Kirvi and the other old crones and the black-haired captain, who wasn’t in sight but present nevertheless through the incessant tapping of her walking stick.
What would they say when she brought a boy on board? Most likely they would toss him over the side of the ship the moment they set eyes on him; they all believed the mere presence of a male could break the spell of flight.
Tara drew a deep breath and walked tall onto the deck, closely followed by the boy. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she readied herself for the confrontation. It was a new feeling, sweet and rushing, to decide to stand up for something, and she felt as if part of her were watching from outside, wondering if she was really the one doing this.
The glances they received were indifferent at best, and Tara felt a bit like a balloon losing its air as she walked aimlessly about the deck, nudging the boy along. No one seemed to care! She was almost glad the captain at least turned her head when they met her alone on the other side of the cabins, though her tongue went numb searching for some quick remarks to beat the captain to her yelling.
But the captain turned pale, and when she finally uttered a word it was in a low and stammering voice: “You...” Her eyes widened. Was she trembling? Tara wondering thought so, and the next moment the walking stick dropped from the captain’s hand. The boy took a step towards her. His expression didn’t change; it was the same sorrowful stare it had been all along, only now his eyes had turned to the captain.
“Darling... I didn’t mean to... you must understand... it’s all Vadoma’s fault, she shouldn’t have let me keep you...”
The captain backed away as the boy drew near her, slowly, step by step, and they both became black figures against the setting sun. There was a muffled bump as the captain’s back hit the railing.
The boy took another step. And the captain kept trying to back away, frantically, but there was only one way to go, and that was over the railing and down into the empty air.
“Mother,” Tara gasped and started towards her, but by then the scream and the crash had already torn the air.
* * *
There was running to and fro, there were startled, shrill voices. And there was the body of the captain being carried on board and laid with arms folded as if it would make her seem peaceful in spite of her snapped neck and the little stream of blood trickling from the corner of her mouth.
They congratulated Tara. Said they hadn’t thought she had it in her, but now she could rightfully take command of the ship; she had won it fair and square.
And when she protested she had not killed the captain, that it had been the boy, they laughed and said she shouldn’t be so modest. There hadn’t been any boy; surely one of them would have noticed if such a person had boarded the ship. And then they laughed some more.
Tara felt slightly nauseous. And though she searched the ship thoroughly, she was unable to find the boy. And that, for some strange reason, saddened her most of all.
When she gave up her search, she tried to find some peace crouching among ropes and barrels at the remotest part of the ship. But from her own thoughts she could find no rest. The boy... her mother had called him darling! Had she known him? She must have, the way she had looked at him, as if he were a ghost. And perhaps that was just the case; he had vanished into thin air, like a spirit. He had boarded the ship when the silver bells were silent... Vindictive spirits were known to linger long.
A cold shiver ran down Tara’s spine as a thought struck: this had been the place of her sister’s death. Or perhaps she should say her brother’s; had her mother had a boy, she could have kept him only by disguising him and telling the world he was a girl. And no one else could Tara imagine the captain calling “darling” than her beloved Chavi. The boy had been Chavi’s spirit.
Tara felt cold to her bones and hugged her legs closer. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a shadow. She turned her head; Kirvi was standing at the railing and staring at her intently.
“Don’t be so sad, our dear new captain—” Kirvi began in her sweetest voice.
Tara tried to cut her off with a glare that would have been worthy of her mother, but to no avail; Kirvi continued, a sly expression spreading across her face. “It is hard, of course, that your mother should die in the same way as your sister.”
Tara rose. “You were there when Chavi died? How exactly did it happen?”
Kirvi shrugged. “I don’t know exactly, it was such a chaos; for some reason the spell of flight was failing.” She spoke quickly, as if annoyed. “But the dear girl took a fall, and obviously Vadoma was to blame; she left the ship afterwards.”
Tara couldn’t help but laugh out loud. That couldn’t have been how it had happened; Chavi’s spirit had come for the captain. The captain had been the one doing the pushing, perhaps in a moment of panic, to save her crew and her ship. What other reason could there be for the failing of the spell of flight than Chavi’s presence?
She shouldn’t have let me keep you. Was that Vadoma’s crime, keeping the captain’s secret?
Not that it mattered anymore.
“Do you find this amusing?” Kirvi raised an eyebrow, and she, too, began giggling. “I guess you have more of your mother in you than I knew.” Kirvi paused, a strange gleam in her eyes, and leaned a little closer. “It would be a shame, though, if the family tradition continued. Wouldn’t you say?”
Tara could feel her warm breath on her cheek. They were close to the railing, and no one else was near. Kirvi’s brow furrowed. Tara could almost hear her reflecting on who was the weaker.
“You don’t really want to be captain, do you? You don’t have that lust for power in you,” Kirvi finally said.
Tara looked down. The planks of the deck were streaked by shadows, hiding the fact that they were in bad need of planing. She felt the cracks in the hard wood through her worn shoes. It would be nice to feel something else, something softer beneath her feet. She looked up, meeting Kirvi’s narrowed eyes.
Kirvi withdrew a little, smiling smugly. She didn’t speak; there was no need.
Everything was silence as Tara left the ship. But not for long; as she walked through the city and the twilight, towards the green hills beyond, she noticed a new sound. She was humming.
Copyright © 2013 by Astrid S. Nielsen