Prose Header

Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

Table of Contents

Chapter 8 Agis Scarthaga

part 2

Daan stands over me when I wake and he brings in the queen’s physician to tend me. This time Gavril raises the cup to his own lips before he hands it to me. I drink and somehow my head clears. It’s no surprise to find I’m back in my cell with my hands and feet chained together.

What does surprise me is that despite the aches and bruises from my beating there are no bones broken. Daan and Gavril bring me food and eat from the same plate until I join them.

Despite everything, I am hungry, and grief is a flickering fire that needs fuel. After I have eaten, I can stand. Under pretence of checking me over, Gavril winds bandages under the fetters at my wrists and ankles so they do not chafe.

‘You may trust the draught I leave you and any food you receive at our hands.’

I could choose not to, but there comes a time when you must trust someone. Daan tells me that Daria has sent messengers to Majvaz asking for a meeting at the ruined city of Agis Scarthaga.

In a way, the death of my father sets me free. From Majvaz I can hope for nothing but death, but at least I’ll never have to look into my father’s eyes and tell him how I stood by while his children died.

‘No doubt the queen wishes me to reach my brother’s court alive.’

I share this thought with Daan when Gavril leaves, and he places an apple on what looks rather too much like a headman’s block and lifts his axe to cut it deftly in two.

‘The queen could send your head as a gesture of friendship.’

‘What a charming thought. Much less bother for everyone, including me. It’s what I would do.’

I take the half of apple he offers me and bite into it.

‘You’re really not afraid, are you?’

No, I’m really not. I lift my hands to my neck. ‘If your axe is sharp and your aim true, I wouldn’t feel a thing. You’d be doing me a favour.’

He can tell I mean it and clasps my hand. ‘Try to stay alive, Kyran.’

Left alone, spitting out and counting apple pips, I weigh up the fate of the little kingdoms. The words of Khal the ambassador come back to me. I see Majvaz and his allies squeaking like mice, seeking to escape the owl at night. The empire will gain two new provinces, not one. I reach for the flask the physician has left, mentally thanking him for the detachment it brings. Hawks are not troubled by emotion.

I remember what Naraya said, too. The queen wants you broken, Kyran. I spare a wry thought for the truth that Daria’s fate as Majvaz’s bride is likely to be harsher than mine.

Agis Scarthaga, the ruined city, one time capital of the plains; haunted by spectres, ghosts of the shadow people who came before. No place for a bridal. I wonder if Daan knows all the stories and if he might like to hear them.

I never get the chance to ask him.

The next day Lia and Vitor open my cell door, unlock my chain from the cell wall and tell me to prepare for a journey.

They have six guards with them to escort me. Clearly the queen is taking no chances

When I protest, ‘I’m going nowhere,’ Vitor twists my broken arm to make me quiet. Lia rips a strip of fabric from my shirt.

‘If you speak again we’ll gag you.’

She’s made her point. I shuffle out of the cell trailing the weight of my chains. I suppose my escort can carry them and me if my strength fails. I don’t really need to ask them where they’re taking me. Agis Scarthaga, the nightmare city.

The spiral passages and then the tunnels that lead down to the plains take us hours to traverse. I’m too weak to walk far or fast, and soon they’re dragging me, adding to my bruises. When they finally lead me out into the light of day I can’t raise my hands to cover my eyes.

They load me into the back of a cart filled with straw. At least it’s clean. I’m less keen on the open cage they build to contain me. I lie on my back, my hands bound, staring up at the sky. The tumbling clouds hold the promise of rain.

Exhausted, I’m barely conscious of the bustle and flurry around me. There are more troops than ever massed on the plain, and the queen’s army and her court move out.

The physician’s boy brings me water and bread twice a day. Not even the slaves will deign to wait on me.

As the hills draw closer, I see eagles circling and know that by now the news of the queen’s journey will have reached my brother. I’m not looking forward to our reunion.

I see no more of the queen and her followers. The carts toil on in their wake and the court rides ahead, sending up falcons to bring down what prey there is. I should have guessed that Daria would never sit quietly in a gilded carriage.

After seven days of travelling I’d be grateful to speak to anyone, but no one is allowed near me, apart from the physician’s boy, Marin. His hands are deft on my bandages, and he keeps me clean and brings me food and water, but he shies away from my questions. I try to gain his confidence but it’s clear he has his orders, and the guards are watching us both.

At night there is feasting around the camp fires, story and song. I’m left in the cart and my guards rig a canopy over the cage. I listen to the tales they tell but when I offer to tell a ghost story of Agis Scarthaga their leader spits in my face.

There is a gap in the canvas where the rain runs down like a funnel. In the dark, I let it sluice the dirt from my face. When the night is fine I try to count the stars.

The queen’s cortege cuts a swathe across the plains, trampling down fields of corn and all that lies in its way. Her scavengers ride on ahead, stripping the villages of what stores they have. They ride back, herding the sheep and cattle they’ll slaughter to feed the army.

It’s a scorched-earth policy. Each village offers less than the one before. Word travels faster than we can, and the villagers have time to empty their stores.

There is one village where the Headman is slow to open the gates. That night the village burns, and screaming lasts long into the night.

After that, all gates stand open, though each village is a ghost town; women, children and the aged have fled to the hills. At each village, the commander takes a tithe of the fittest and youngest. The queen’s army grows and leaves nothing behind. Every day there is a little less food, and the cuffs on my chains are looser — but not loose enough.

In the cart, alone, I have leisure to think. It occurs to me that this is an exodus. The queen is carrying her people into new lands and does not mean to return.

At the end of two weeks, the army spreads out for five miles, and they bring the carts to the middle. Even then we’re a day behind the leaders. As might have been predicted, when we draw close to the hills, bandits ride out and attack the rear of the column. We leave a trail of blood behind us.

I realise that the purpose of rounding up all these farmers was merely to provide cannon fodder so that the queen and her entourage will make it unscathed through the valleys that lead up to the hills.

The carnage sickens me. I will not fight for Daria, but one night a young soldier lingers by my cart, perhaps staring at the kinslayer. I note he has the same wolf symbol on his cloak as Daan, and I ask him if he will take a message to his commander. ‘I can fight better than a farmer. Set me free for the next attack.’

The next day my guard is doubled. The boy is hanged for ‘fraternising with the enemy’. Later I see his comrades return with shovels and divide the pathetic spoils of his kit. I make no new friends. My thoughts focus on revenge and escape.

Sometimes I see Daan, the wolf with the axe, in the distance, but he shuns me, and I do not blame him. The physician still attends me weekly, checking the health of the queen’s ‘gift’ and refills the flask I’m growing to depend on.

The carts containing supplies and my moving prison are well defended. You can be sure I watch and wait for a chance to escape, but the opportunity never comes.

Then the day comes when we cross over into my brother’s kingdom. His honour guard rides out to greet us.

The night before the queen enters Agis Scarthaga we camp by a stream. The queen sends servants and they heat water for me and have me bathe. They bring me a suit of decent clothes such as a servant in a great house might wear. A woman washes my hair. She also trims my nails and then takes her knife and hacks the tangles from my hair.

There is some rite when the priests lead me to a pool and have me look at my reflection. The collar does its work; it holds me in human shape, no glimpse of my other forms. My eyes are dark. I look young and afraid.

That night I sleep in a silken tent surrounded by steel. They give me wine to drink in a silver cup and fresh meat.

I think I am the only one who sleeps that night; the camp is in a flurry of preparation for the arrival of the king, my brother.

* * *

In the morning trumpets rouse the camp, a brazen clamour. Servants of the priest come and bind me. I recognise the ritual of sacrifice only too well. They lead me from the tent, facing howls of rage when my father’s people see me. It is just as well that the queen’s guards protect me.

The people part before me and my escort, drawing back as if I have the plague. With my hair cropped there is no hiding the heavy collar, the bruising around my eyes and my limp. They throw me at the king’s feet like a sack of potatoes.

I raise my head and look into my brother’s eyes.

He turns to the queen, ‘An interesting choice of bride gift, my dear. A jewel, sword or horse might have sufficed.’

To me he says, ‘You should have run further.’

He smiles at the queen. ‘Politics are dangerous, for a woman. Once you take up your quarters in the royal harem, you will be able to forget these little distractions and concern yourself with the royal nursery.’

Her nails grip the arm of her chair like the eagle’s claws. Now her wings are clipped like mine. But I’m sorry for anyone in Majvaz’ power.

‘I am here to protect you, My Lady. You are in a strange country and far from home. There are none to defend you, save me.’

There is a muttering from her court, but he quells it. ‘I am the king. Remember, you sought this alliance. The queen is my consort and should obey me in all things.’

The priest is there, attended by acolytes. They bear a delicate crown for the queen and the knives for sacrifice.

‘For the sake of peace between our two kingdoms, I pray you, invite your followers to lay down their arms and swear allegiance to me.’

She hesitates.

‘Look around you, my dear.’

I follow her gaze. Majvaz’s guard surrounds her followers, they keep her army at a distance while the king and queen converse. There is a rumbling in the air like thunder. She is fully aware of the situation; if she does not surrender, his men will kill her escort and her people will be destroyed.

The condemned have no voice, but people will want to hear what the kinslayer may say. ‘May I speak?’

The king lifts his hand and I rise, clanking chains and take a step forward. ‘Brother, the queen comes to you in peace. You dishonour her. Let her people return to their lands. You know I have certain gifts. Let me use them in your service.’

I don’t know why I say this or what difference it can make. I don’t know if I am pleading for her or for me.

‘You are no longer my brother.’

I have my answer. Majvaz stands. He reels in the chain so that I stumble towards him, falling on my knees. Then he leans down saying, quietly in my ear, ‘I could hang you. Cut out your tongue. Wall you in stone. Bury you alive.’

I know Majvaz’s temper, and my hopes rise. Make him angry enough to kill me quickly. ‘Let me know when you decide. A strong king doesn’t threaten, he acts.’

He takes the knife from the priest and slashes my wrist. Blood pours from the cut and forms a sticky pool on the ground. The priest cries out an invocation. The alliance is sealed.

He returns to the queen and kisses her to a murmur of approval from the crowd. ‘I accept your gift and thank you.’

I feel her eyes linger on my back as they drag me away. Later, from the tent where they take me, I hear the sound of feasting and revelry until dawn when the king carries the queen to his bed.

Daria, once I could have given her my allegiance. She is cruel like the falcon and proud; she has no love for me. There is something between us, if only the knowledge that she is a changeling like me.

I pity her, knowing that she has sold her lands and that my brother is pledged to marry the Emperor’s daughter. I might have told her if she had asked me. No doubt it amuses Majvaz to take a queen for his second wife. Will she accept humiliation for the sake of her people?

Proceed to Chapter 9...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

Proceed to Challenge 585...

Home Page