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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 5: Ash and Blood

part 3

Alighting, I shift to human form. I’ve barely lifted my hand to the door when the falcon lands with a clatter of wings, sinking talons into the gauntlet on my wrist. I hammer on the door, demanding entrance.

A serving woman answers and lets me in without a word, her eyes on my knife.

‘Where are my brothers?’ She blanches and points a shaking hand at the stair. My boots clatter on wood, no point in concealment, and I push open the first door.

Two small boys lie entwined in a single bed like puppies, bruises beneath their eyes and the remains of some sickly posset in a cup at their side. They breathe heavily, tousled hair cloaking their faces.

The camp follower rises to her feet as if to challenge me. I speak one word: ‘Out!’ She scurries for the door, letting it crash shut behind her. The drugged children don’t stir. I’m hoping that Mireio will follow swiftly and that Garaile will delay Majvaz long enough.

There is a fire in the room, and I light candles; no need to wait in the dark. The falcon settles on the chimneypiece and watches me.

I think of Majvaz riding hard for the manor. I draw my sword, for all the good it’ll do me, and stand guard until Mireio taps softly at the door. I let her in.

She nods in approval when she sees I’ve lit the candles. ‘Ash and blood,’ she says, curved knife in hand. I’m between her and the children.

She sighs, ‘Don’t be an idiot, Kyran. Give me your hand.’ The knife sears my wrist, and she gathers my blood in a flask. She mixes it with ash from the fire and a powder she spills from the pouch at her belt, smearing an abstract design in the floor. Outside night comes on swiftly, and I can hear the approaching horses. Still she doesn’t hurry.

Inside her basket, the cat mews and scratches Mireio as she pulls hair from her coat and adds it to the mix. Then she raises her hands and begins a conjuration that seems to last forever. I’m thinking time has frozen, but the charm encloses only the house. The doors stand open with the servants fled. I know the bubble will burst as soon as Majvaz crosses the threshold.

The flames rise in the hearth casting red light over the children. Mireio cuts a lock of hair from each. In the basket, something begins to grow: small shapes like blind, newborn kittens. As I watch, the breath of the sleeping children stills. Their faces lose blood and begin to turn blue.

I could have killed Mireio, but the falcon grasps me with a savage twist that dislocates my shoulder. He throws my sword in the fire, and the metal runs liquid, spitting out sparks that burn where they touch. He has shifted into a shape half-man, half-bird and pinions my arms, winding jesses around them.

‘Must I hood you, too?’ I struggle but the spell holds me while Mireio completes her work.

It takes less than the time for two dice to fall, and the children lie still. The falcon releases me, and I touch their cold dead faces, staring at Mireio and Khal. The shadows deepen. I am alone in the room with two corpses.

‘You said you could change them. You said you wouldn’t hurt them.’ My words fall into silence. Around me, the candle flames leap in a sudden gust. I’m slow to discover the nature of the powder strewn on the floor. As sparks fly from the fire, I realise this room is set to be a funeral pyre.

Moreover, the shutters are bolted fast, and already the window frames are burning. I’ve been distracted, but then I hear the horses and the shouts from outside as Majvaz enters and the enchantment cracks like a whip. I’m reeling from the force of it, and there is something broken in me too. I’m trapped as the tapestries ignite and the room fills with smoke.

Feet ascend the stair in a rush, but they come too late. The door bursts open — wood smouldering. Garaile is there, looking at me as blood drips from my wrists. He sees the children’s corpses. I should kill him, but I don’t.

The look of fear and horror he gives me crushes any resistance left in me. I have no heart to fight and let his men seize me as the fire spreads around us. The fragile shells that held the children’s souls crumble into dust.

* * *

‘Where are the princes, my brothers?’

I’m kneeling before Majvaz. There is blood on my shirt and hands. Some of it is mine.

‘My Lord, I do not know.’

He slashes his gauntlet across my face. It should hurt, but I can’t feel anything.

His followers have much to do to quench the fire. So I am alone with Majvaz and the guards that hold me. Garaile has left. He wrested my knife from me. I think he might at least have shown me that small mercy.

I never told you to kill them. May the curse fall on you, not me! I can’t reign with their blood on my hands!

Majvaz’ thoughts are frantic; I can taste his fear. He can’t live with this. He is determined that I shall confess to appease the gods. He wants me to take the guilt to the afterworld for him, and he tries to make me say the words that will release him while I condemn myself. I can’t give him the absolution he seeks.

All around us there is the crackling of flames and the hissing of water.

‘My Lord, the great hall is ablaze. We are laying trails of gunpowder to make a breach. Your Grace must leave now.’

They drag me forward. He marks me for execution with a flick from his sword. I wait for the stroke to fall; instead, the blade falls across the back of my neck.

The blade shears my hair, which falls forward around my face. There is a line like fire across my shoulder, a sting like a bee. The blow is turned by the silver I wear.

The next cut falls on my right arm, severing the tendon just above the elbow. As I fall forward, propelled by a kick to the base of my spine, the next severs the tendon in my calf. I feel it rip and tear.

The point of his blade probes for the point that will sever my spinal cord, but the flames are drawing close and he thinks he has done enough.

His retainers grab him and bundle him from the room, slamming the door shut. I can feel the heat contained around it and already the fire is burning through. None will question another charred corpse in this inferno.

I drag myself to the window. I can only crawl, which probably saves me. I am below the level of the smoke. I drag my useless leg and claw my way to the window seat, pulling myself up.

The heat is rising. The window explodes, shattering glass. A fragment lodges in my arm, and I tug it loose. My hands are covered with blood, and I use the shard to saw through the leather bonds at my wrists.

Then I launch myself forward, plummeting to the moat. One wing unfurls, slowing my descent, else I would have broken my neck on impact. My wing is a torn and broken thing. As the feathers fill with water, they begin to drag me down.

I shift, furling my broken wing, and then I hit the bank. I cling to it one-handed, powerless to pull myself out of the river.

Behind me, the facade is a sheet of flame. Flakes of ash fall on my face. I stare at the trail of churned mud where Majvaz and his retainers fled.

I see the house fall at last. Rags of flame singe my hair. Still I cling to life, trying to convince myself that the spell worked and some part of the children survived. I’m shaking with rage and the deeper chill of betrayal.

For the princes to die, there had to be a murderer, and I chose to play the sacrifice. Mireio, did you hate me so much? Did I bring this fate upon myself?

Time passes. Soon the water will finish the work of the fire. Only my grip on the roots holds me anchored to the bank.

I rest my head on my good arm; the other hangs useless in the water. The roots break, and I float free as the water closes over my face. I open my mouth, letting my lungs fill with water, ready to drown. There is no glory in this.

I should have known it would never be that easy to die. The current takes me, carries me downstream, spits me out on a narrow ridge of sand.

The water has swept me clean of everything I once was. I have nothing left save the rags of my clothes and the silver that gleams at my neck.

And that is what brings my rescuers to me. I think they may be kind, but there is a hard look to their faces. The scavengers who haunt the lower hills are looking for anything they can sell.

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Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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