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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 5: Ash and Blood

part 2

Left alone, I change and stand by the window, flexing my wings. I climb on the sill and then step out onto thin air. I fall but my wings slow the descent. The courtyard is deserted. I shift into human form. No one calls after me, no one stops me. I walk to meet Mireio, my footfalls loud in the silence.

There should be a flurry of bustling servants, maids and nobles, clerks and soldiers. I pass doors to the kitchens, armouries, stables. All closed like eyes while the castle sleeps. I could push them open so easily. I’m not sure I want to see what is on the other side. I have to believe that the castle denizens will wake unharmed when the spell is broken.

The pavilion was a folly built for the late queen. It is empty. No one seems to have used it since she died. The door opens to my kick. Inside I see mildew-stained furniture, a decaying garden table and chairs. The roof is open to the sky and there are crows nesting. It’s beginning to rain. I feel wet and foolish. The air is cleaner outside, and the cobwebs don’t cling to me.

Mireio keeps me waiting, but she finally arrives with the page who attended my bath. He looks at me with wide frightened eyes and does not speak. I have a memory of him strewing herbs, pouring oil from sealed bottles and I wonder just what was in them. My brain is clouded, and I fear I’m not thinking straight; an after-effect of the spell, I know. My will is not my own.

Mireio breaks my daydream. ‘The horses are waiting.’

‘And where is everyone? What have you done?’

She shrugs. ‘A small glamour to ensure no one wakes before we leave. Would you rather have left the castle with a score of soldiers at your heels?’

‘You said I slept for three days! When will they wake?’

‘Kyran, you are wasting time.’ I notice she is pale. ‘I can’t hold the charm forever.’

Delicate Mireio... she always did look as if the weight of the world might roll and crush her. She is stronger than I thought.

So it proves, as we ride long and hard for the marshes. Mireio leads, her peregrine flies ahead to show the way. Best not to think who this might be, though I saw the falcon symbol on Khal’s wrist. I’m guessing the Empire will be shadowing us. Mireio’s new protector is unwilling to let her out of his sight.

Sometime after noon, we halt. Mireio asks her page to unpack the picnic basket stowed behind his saddle. There is a veritable feast: wine, quails’ eggs and freshly baked bread, cheese, olives and grapes.

To any casual observer, it would appear that the king’s minor children are on a pleasure excursion. Already we are a day’s journey away from the castle.

‘Will we reach the marshes by night?’

Mireio glances at the sky. ‘Of course.’

I’m wary of eating her food, but I am hungry; I haven’t eaten for several days.

If Mireio merely wanted to rid herself of me, I can’t see why she would bring me on this journey at all. If her goal is truly to protect the children, then I know she needs me and the ring I wear. So I think I am safe. Even so, the bread has a bitter taste in my mouth, and the clouds are dark.

* * *

In truth, I still feel weak and ill, a shadow of myself. I follow where she leads me. As the sun is setting, I see on the horizon the manor that houses the young princes. Garaile is riding towards us with his escort of armed troops.

I rise in my stirrups and shield my eyes — then raise my hand, signalling for him to stop and talk to us.

He slows, speaks quick words to Majvaz’ men and spurs forward to meet me.

I raise my hand from my knife and then dismount from my horse, handing the reins to Mireio’s page and walking to greet him.

He checks his horse, then swings himself down from his saddle and clasps my hand. ‘Kyran! I knew you would come.’

He seems genuinely pleased. ‘Kyran, they’re just babies. They cried when we sent their nurse away. I’ve got one of the camp followers tending them. She has brats of her own, but they’re scared of her.’

‘You came to meet me?’

He looks troubled. ‘No, we had a message from Majvaz — sent by hawk.’ He is glancing curiously at Mireio. ‘He’s already on his way.’

‘Then I will greet my young brothers, the princes; and I will watch over them tonight and take them to court tomorrow.’

He shakes his head. ‘Majvaz has five hundred men. I can’t hold the manor against them. It’s a house with a ditch, barely defendable. If I defy him, it’s treason.’

‘Then you ride out to welcome the heir. Princess Mireio is here at the king’s command. Give me safe conduct, and I promise we’ll take care of the children. I’ll answer to my father for this night.’

Garaile nods, relieved, and rips Majvaz’ badge from his sleeve. I snatch it, then shift and fly for the house, leaving Mireio to follow. The falcon paces me.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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