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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 6: Cold Stars

part 2

They have led me to the Headman’s hut and tied the rope to a peg in the ground, tethering me like a beast. It’s been used for this grim purpose before. I crouch and draw my cloak over my face. I’m lucky that they let me keep it. The day is cold and will grow colder yet.

The Headman takes his time about coming. Even now I could break the rope, but I can’t run.

Shadow falls over me. A jerk to the rope and I raise my head to see the outline of the Headman, wrapped in furs against the October chill. He pushes back his fur lined hood revealing dark hair and a scar that runs from one ruined eye to his chin. This is not a face that reveals any hint of kindness.

Matthias presses forward. He still speaks for the hills people while Luc hunts and fights for them. ‘My Lord, the boy is a seer. He can foretell trouble coming, and he is a hard worker.’

‘If he is a seer, then where is his circlet?’

Luc shrugs. ‘It was lost, My Lord, in the forest. The boy was injured.’

‘What use is a broken seer to me?’

I begin to understand. The hills people will not take me with them, fearing the ill fortune that clings to me. They are afraid that I will bring more danger upon them. Equally they will not leave my power to be used by others. They think I am useless without my circlet. Or perhaps they always intended to sell me.

In truth I’m surprised Majvaz didn’t send his dogs to hunt us down, or maybe he believed me dead. In any case, the hills people are safer without me.

‘My Lord, the boy can read and write. He knows healing and herb lore. He is a gift. We ask for safe passage across the plain and food for our wives and children.’

‘A woman would be more use to me, strong and able to draw water from the well with a child at her skirts.’

Matthias is outraged. ‘My Lord, you know our customs. Do not dishonour us. We cannot sell one of our own, and all our women have husbands.’

The tradesman gives him a long look. ‘I imagine that might be mended. Life is, after all, uncertain.’

Johannes draws himself up, a snake spitting venom. ‘Is this the honour of the plains? Would you kill the guest within your camp?’

He’s assuming the traders share the same rituals. ‘Honour the seer, take in the stranger, tend the injured, respect and use the bounty of the gods.’

I shake my head. It’s ironic that ‘take in the stranger’ leads naturally to ‘sell the stranger when the price is right.’ But they’ll protect their own at any cost.

The bargaining goes on, and I lose interest. The moment of danger is past. Johannes will not kill me within the settlement. I close my eyes and sleep comes like a tide, washing fear and pain away.

If they slit my throat now I will neither know nor care, and who knows: I may wake as a page, serving the Goddess in her hall. Many would give their lives for the promise of such feasting, now that the hungry times have endured for so long.

I hear music, the ripple of a harp’s strings and somewhere at a distance the memory of my sister singing.

The day is getting late and still the bargaining goes on. Luc is a fool. Does he want to travel through the night? Finally, they drag me into a circle scraped in the red clay. The line is deep, unbroken. For the first time I have hope.

A Wise Woman, robed in crimson, draws symbols in the clay with her staff. She draws the outline of a boy and pins her spear through the ankle. I know what she expects and writhe as if in agony. She draws out the spear, and I pretend that the pain has gone. The point of the spear hovers over the boy’s heart, and I throw up my hands, begging for mercy.

She nods in satisfaction and speaks to the Headman in the outland tongue. ‘The demons’ boy is tamed. He will remain within the circle.’

Until nightfall, I think. The village curs prowl round the edges of the circle. They look hungry; they are a better guard than any circle in the mud.

The hill people and the children of the plains face each other across the circle. The woman, Anah, is there with her child, and I smile at her. She will not meet my eyes. If it were not for me and my arcane skills, she and her baby girl would have died. Despite myself, my hand goes out to her, but she turns her face away in shame.

The Headman gestures and his followers bring provisions. I watch as they allow the hills people to refill their water skins at the well while the wise woman chants an incantation. I look at the provisions they have sold me for. A couple of sacks of grain, fruits and berries, strips of dried meat.

The Headman’s wife brings a tray of honey cakes, but only the chief and Luc and the Wise Woman eat. The hill people watch each mouthful, and the dogs scuffle for the crumbs.

Women bring mead in jars and pour it into clay cups. Again, only the leaders drink. Finally, they clasp hands on the bargain, and I am sold. It is insulting to see how little they think I am worth.

The hills people take up their sacks and move on. Penned within the circle, I watch them go and for once I don’t need silver to read the omens on the wind. The night is coming in fast, the traders are lighting lamps, and darkness gathers on the plains.

I watch their straggling column out of sight and even with the taste of betrayal in my mouth, I am sorry to see them go. For a time they were my people.

The village children gather around me, pointing and staring. One picks up a stone and weighs it in his hand, staring at me. Then there is a bell from the temple, and the children scatter and scurry into their homes.

I can smell the food cooking on the fires. My mouth waters and my stomach gripes with hunger. The traders have all gone in for the evening meal, leaving me with the dogs and one villager to guard me.

If I have any hope of escape, the crossbow in his hand is enough to dissuade me. I draw pictures in the mud, men without heads and lines like flame.

I’m not averse to trying a little earth magic for myself, but the night is already dangerous without my rousing any new horrors. Light spills from an open door, and a girl comes out, wearing a rough shift. I can’t see the colour of her hair, but even in the dusk she is beautiful. She draws close to the edge of the circle and puts down a plate with bread and a cup of water.

My hands are still bound tight behind my back. I shuffle over, she lifts the cup to my lips and I drink. She breaks off a piece of bread and places it in my mouth. I feel a fool.

I am beyond hunger. The bread is dry and I can’t swallow. She brings more water and stares at me. I try to read her expression in the gloom. Fear, I think — she is a slave like me — and perhaps a glimmer of compassion.

I chance a whisper of thanks, hoping she will understand the meaning if not the words. Her eyes widen, and then a door bangs behind her. She snatches up the bowl and cup and is gone. Later I see her pour water in bowls for the dogs, though she does not look at me again.

I wonder if they will leave me here all night. The temperature will drop before morning. I gather my cloak and huddle my arms around me to keep warm. As the first stars come out, I recognise the constellation of the falcon, the sky god. Although its light is dimmed, it is still there for me and I find some comfort.

Time passes slowly. The man with the crossbow fidgets as the light fades. He wants to be in by the fire rather than keeping watch on me. He wears a heavy cloak of sheepskin and rags bound round his feet. Mine are bare and filthy and there is a darkened bruise on my ankle. He stares at me, expressionless, and I wonder that the traders will go to so much trouble to guard a slave.

After a while I hear horses approaching. The man does not move but leans heavily on his spear. He must have fallen asleep. The hoofbeats are loud in my head. I don’t know why he doesn’t wake. Then he lifts his head, and I see the glint of his eyes. He is more than awake.

He whistles. Two others slip from the shadows and join him, and he moves towards the brush-bound gate. With his back turned, I pull free of the bonds around my wrists and pull myself to my feet. Good to know I can stand, though I’m not sure how far I can walk.

The dogs are sleeping. My stealthy movements go unnoticed. I can see the outline of the circle. A lighter pool of shadow shows its markings, and there is a faint glow to it like moonlight.

It glimmers as I draw near, and I hesitate before I tell myself it is only a line in the mud. Outside the symbols are faintly visible: the bear, the lion and the dragon.

Although I know dragons are creatures of legend, I find myself scanning the skies as I take one step over the boundary. A wire snare closes around my ankle.

There was more to the Wise Woman’s charm than I thought. The guard turns, levelling the crossbow. I raise my hands in surrender then limp towards him, trailing the wire. The gate is open now. The girl slips from the shadows to join him.

Outside I hear the murmur of voices, two riders, each leading another horse. I take another step towards the crossbow. One of the men mutters a command.

‘Please, take me with you.’ I speak in the old tongue, once common to all. I have no idea if they understand or if they will even listen. The girl glances at me then shows a glint of silver; my circlet, maybe.

The guard hesitates then moves towards me. There is the sign of a bear on his sleeve, and he has a knife in his hand. He cuts the wire, setting me free. Then his fellow pulls me into the saddle behind him and, with a clatter of hooves, we leave the village behind. The girl clasps my circlet around her wrist and smiles.

I think of the water she held to my lips, and how she then went round pouring water from her flask and I wonder what drug she used to make the villagers and dogs sleep so soundly.

I should be afraid, but I find my thoughts lingering on her face and I wonder what her name is and if she will tell it to me.

‘Sleep,’ she whispers, and my eyelids flutter. They loop a rope around me so I don’t fall. The horses’ hooves beat out against the night. They are relying on speed, not stealth.

I hear strange cries on the wind, but I no longer care where they are taking me. I drift, letting my thoughts scatter on the wind like grains of sand.

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Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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