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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 10: Children of the Falcon

part 1

I’m forever running away. I’m no longer a prince. I was only ever a pawn. I am beginning to see the loss of my circlet as a gain. For the first time in my life I am free. There is a world waiting for me. In the mountains, the sea was only a tale for me, but now it beckons like a promise.

Naraya turns in her saddle. I’ve fallen behind; my horse is unhappy on the broken ground. My brother has hardly treated me to the pride of his stable. This old grey has seen better days and better horsemen, too. I fear it’s too late to teach him manners, but he’ll go where I tell him.

I’m thinking about the bruise on Naraya’s face. If it was Daan who laid his hand to her I might kill him. She is waiting for me.

‘Thank you for letting me ride with you,’ I say to her.

‘You should thank Daan, not me.’

My attempt at making conversation is not going well. ‘I thank you all, and Lorcan for his gifts.’

She smiles at that. ‘He would not leave a wounded man defenceless.’

‘Then I am grateful for your compassion.’

Her lip twists a little at that. ‘’The king did not pay us to kill you.’

I stare into the distance, remembering my life at the royal court. I was so very proud when my father gave me the circlet. Now I am only a lame youth who has singed his wings in fires he did not understand. I may never fly again, but I can still live.

I smile. ‘I would rather be free, and I thank you for releasing me.’

She leans close so that her fan of red-gold hair almost touches mine.

‘Don’t look at me that way. Daan and Lorcan already count your silver as theirs. You are merely saving them the trouble of carrying it. If we are attacked, you will be the target. The attackers will come for you first. When we reach the sea, Daan and Lorcan will sell you to buy passage. I would slip away tonight, if I were you. They won’t bother to come after you.’

‘And if I do, will you come with me?’ I place a finger gently beside the bruise on her face. ‘Did Daan do that to you? I could make you some salve.’

‘Don’t touch me! I fell, that’s all. Not that it’s your affair anyway. Leave me alone.’ She doesn’t meet my eyes.

I laugh. ‘I think I’ll stay. I wouldn’t know what to do if no one was trying to kill me. It makes me feel... alive.’

Daan canters up beside us. ‘Is that a smudge on your cheek?’ I pitch the question so I’m sure he can hear me. He pushes me out of the way and takes Naraya’s rein in his hand.

I fall back and fall in with Lorcan.

‘Are you trying to get yourself killed?’ he says.

I glance at him. ‘Not really. This looks a likely place for an ambush. I’ll ride on ahead. If they attack me, you might still get through.’

He has the grace to look a little ashamed.

‘Don’t worry,’ I reassure him. ‘I know this country.’

No harm in pressing that point home, I think. If only I could get his sword away from him. Or find another like it. A bandit attack, if we live through it, might prove useful for food and supplies. We have little enough to cross the desert with. My companions are carrying water; I have none.

Meanwhile I feel curiously lighthearted. My companions have no claim on me, but I think again of Naraya. Her eyes haunt me. This obsession is unhealthy. I’d stand no chance against Daan’s axe. I’m beginning to think that life as a vagabond in exile might be worth more than the death of a prince.

I smile at Lorcan, wave to Naraya and her dour companion, spur my horse into a gallop and put some distance between us. As I reach the valley, I’m weighing plans. Ride down the road and risk capture on the Emperor’s highway or keep to the heights?

If we keep to the heights we have the advantage of looking down on enemies, though our horses will be silhouetted against the skyline. On the other hand, the robbers that keep these passes will be expecting us to ride through the valley, and they will lie in wait. I make my decision and ride back to greet the others.

‘I think we should lead the horses and take the mountain path. That way we keep clear of the valley and avoid ambush.’

Daan regards me warily. ‘The horses will be lame in a day if we scramble over these rocks.’

‘Please, hear me out. There is a path the herdsmen use. It will lead us away from trouble and bring us down to the desert. There are streams. We will not run short of water, but we should light no fire at night.’

The three of them huddle together. They have no reason to trust me, but I will not ride through that valley.

Naraya approaches and lays her hands on my temples. I focus my thoughts and send her an image of the path we have to take. I don’t know if I can still do this, but if a stray arrow finds me... I don’t want her to wander, starving in the wasteland.

After a moment she drops her hand as if burned. ‘There is no lie in his thoughts.’

Finally Lorcan speaks. ‘I say we go over the heights and trust this stranger to bring us safely through. If he lies, if he seeks to betray us, then it is three against one.’

Daan draws his knife and strops the edge against his thumb leaving a trace of blood that he smears on my face. It means I am his to kill, but I have seen real magic, and I’m not about to be scared by his hedge wizardry. I wipe the smear on my sleeve.

The shadows are lengthening. We gather in the shelter of a rock to eat a meagre supper. The others share their food with me, and we drink water from the spring and fill the water skins. I wait until dusk and, muffling the horses’ harness with strips torn from my shirt, I lead this motley group into the gathering dark.

My sight is keen at night and I have no difficulty spying out the path. I don’t want the others blundering into me, so I lay a subtle charm to enhance their senses. To them the night is lighter than usual, and they glance briefly at the sky.

I tell them to keep their eyes on the ground to find their way. They are fit and strong and have no trouble keeping to the pace I set. I’m tiring quicker than they are and draw some strength from the horse. I hope I don’t regret this later, but I have to risk it. I can’t be seen to weaken.

The ponies are surefooted and strong; my horse is more finicky. I use another rune to keep him quiescent. It means I am burning up my strength, but I don’t want to wrestle with him and lose time.

I can do little about the noise we make; we have to cross quickly before the bandits find us. A light glamour helps us blend with our surroundings, nothing that would withstand serious scrutiny but enough to ward off a casual glance. At least I hope so.

As the night wears on, our pace slackens. The horses are tiring, and so are we. From the stars I know we are following the right course, and I’m looking for shelter; we need to rest soon. There is an itching in my shoulder blades that urges me to hurry, but we have to pace ourselves. Better to seek a safe haven before we court exposure in daylight.

I halt and the others crowd up behind me, the ponies whinny softly. The sun is rising, a pale light on the horizon. We have been tracking across the face of this barren mountain, following a diagonal path that zigzags as we climb. The path is treacherous, bordered by scree, and the air thins as we climb. If we are where I think, then it is time to see if I have any friends left in the world.

‘Why do you stop?’ Lorcan asks, his voice rough after the night’s journey.

‘There is a cave. We can rest, water the animals and eat. Wait here.’ I give my horse’s reins to him and make my way cautiously along an ever-narrowing path. I have been following hunters’ tracks for a while. The cave is where I remembered: a hundred paces away. But first I need to make sure it is empty.

I position myself behind an outcrop of rock and wait to make sure. I pray that my companions will not grow impatient and seek to follow me before I give the signal. Finally, I steal forward and enter the mouth of the cave. It is lit by embers, and there is a recently doused torch. Warmth still lingers in the air, but I think we have an hour or two before the hunter returns.

I stand at the mouth of the cave and give the falcon’s cry. I wait for the reply. I hear the soft hooting of an owl and release the breath I didn’t know I was holding. They say the children of the falcon can sense each other in the dark.

When Daan and Lorcan arrive, they enter the cave warily, noting as I did the recent signs of occupation, and I can tell they are perturbed.

‘What refuge is this?’

I shrug. ‘Would you prefer the shelter of one man, who has gone out to hunt for fresh meat, which will take a while in this weather’ — I point to the curtain of rain — ‘Or would you rather breakfast in a robbers’ hold where you could be sure of company?’

Daan nods grudgingly, but I note Naraya takes up her station by the mouth of the cave with her crossbow while the others lay out their meagre supplies.

I am thinking fast. Is the risk worth it? But crossing the desert unprepared is certain death. ‘If you get that bowstring wet, it will be useless.’

Naraya barely glances at me and keeps her vigil.

The warmth of the fire lingers, but to rekindle it would be lighting a beacon. We make the best of what we have. Breakfast is biscuit and a few strips of dried meat, but we feel better for it. I’m humbled that again they share equally with me. I’ve lived with lords of the court and temple who routinely take the best for themselves and throw scraps and leavings to their followers.

* * *

Our scanty breakfast has not taken long, but I hear the sound I have been listening for: footsteps on the rocks. Even as I pull myself to my feet the cave mouth darkens and something or someone blunders in. Naraya raises her bow, but I snatch it from her, and the arrow buries itself in the wall.

A great bear rises to its feet. There is a blur, and a tall shaggy-haired man stands before us, axe in hand, a giant.

‘Mathuin!’ I call out his name. ‘Wait, this is a friend!’

Daan’s knife is across my throat, but the hunter reaches out, knocking it from his hand and sending him spinning against the wall. The blow that follows hurls him across the cave. Daan crumples and falls. Lorcan and Naraya close in, but I throw myself in front of them. ‘Wait!’

The bear man bellows and his followers rush into the cave and make prisoners of us all. They bind our hands and feet, even Daan, who is stirring weakly. I had thought his back had been broken. He opens red-rimmed eyes and glares at me.

The hunter approaches and pulls me to my feet. His claws rip at my cloak.

‘Mathuin!’ I call his name, putting power behind the thought even as he rips the fabric from my shoulder, exposing the falcon brand.

He roars at me then drags me up by my hair and pulls me into a circle lit by the fire rekindled by his followers. ‘Kyran! They said that you were dead.’ One swipe of his paw and I know I will be.

‘Mathuin, once you were my friend.’

‘The children of the falcon are scattered because of you. The young princes lie dead, buried at the feet of your father. Majvaz rules in Castle Crag and you, murderer and traitor, dare to come to me.’

‘If I were guilty, would I deliver myself for judgment? Would I come to you seeking help and friendship?’

‘You always had a tongue slicked with oil, Kyran.’

‘Majvaz has exiled me and declared my death. Truly you are talking to a dead man.’

He lets me go. ‘You’re no friend of mine. Did you kill your brothers?’

‘If I said no, would you believe me?’

I take a halting step towards him, and then he really looks at me, perhaps seeing my limp and the awkward twist to my shoulders. What he reads in my eyes I can’t tell, but his gaze falls before mine.

‘You’d better come with me. We have much to discuss.’

It is not an invitation. As he drags me toward the inner cave, I see Naraya, Lorcan and Daan staring at me.

‘Let my friends go. I brought them here. Your quarrel is with me, not them.’

‘How do I know that they will not bring an army here to destroy my people?’

‘Do I look like I command armies? I’m a fugitive. These three helped me when they could have left me to die. Please let them go.’

‘I give you my word they will not be harmed.’ He ushers me into his sleeping quarters. The cave is a honeycomb of passages and rooms carved out of the rock.

A servant lights a fire. Mathuin gestures me to a chair and pours wine. My hands are still bound. He takes them in his then draws his knife and cuts my bonds. I chafe my wrists until feeling returns; then I lift my glass. I drink and look into the flames.

‘What do you see, Kyran Shade?’

I pick up a pine cone and toss it onto the flames where it kindles, grows red, white and then crumbles to ash. ‘I see the fall of a kingdom. Betrayal and blood shed in anger. I see a gift crumbled into ash. I see the wreckage of hopes and dreams. And I am tired.’

He lays a rough hand on my sleeve. ‘So it is true, then. You’ve lost your power.’

‘Say rather it was taken from me. You see I am lame. I can’t run, and I can’t fly. I am no longer a child of the falcon. Some rags of magic cling to me, enough to keep me alive.’

‘And you come to me now. You are hurt and broken.’

I lift my eyes from the flames and look into his face. ‘I had nowhere else to go. I thought you might take me into your service; if not me, those who ride with me. They are exiles, too, and need a patron.’

‘You can’t stay in the caves, nor would you want to. Don’t lie to me, Kyran. Tell me where you are really going.’

How can I tell him, when I don’t know myself? Then I remember what I said to Khal, although at the time I didn’t mean it, not thinking I’d live to go anywhere. ‘I need to cross the desert. I plan to seek the wells of Kota Samur and find healing. Then I want to seek out my mother’s family. I want to see the world beyond this kingdom.’

‘You want a new kingdom. I know you, Kyran, remember. I know your ambition. I could send your head to Majvaz and seek alliance.’

‘You could. The queen has already tried that. He doesn’t want my blood on his hands. What you said might have been true once, but people change. I’m not who I was. I don’t have the power or even the inclination to steal a throne. I just want the chance of a new life, one I can call my own.’

‘And you want the girl? With you, Kyran, there is always a girl — or a boy.’

I laugh. ‘Any ruler, be he bandy-legged, crooked and ugly as sin can bed anyone he wants. I have no princely glamour left, and Naraya does not want me.’

‘You have no pride either.’ Methuin turns my face to the fire. ‘You’re not ugly.’ He places his arm on my shoulder, and I feel its warmth and strength. It is all I can do not to relax and sink into its comfort like a child. He is right, I have no pride.

I raise my face to his but he releases me and puts some distance between us, leaving me alone. I reach out my hand to his back with its great cloak of fur. Maybe he sees my movement out of the comer of his eye or senses my need; he turns and in three short paces kneels before me, taking me in his arms.

He kisses me and I respond, opening my mouth to his, and then he lifts me and carries me to his bed. The night ends as even so damaged a seer as I could easily have foretold. He takes me roughly; in truth he owes me little gentleness, for we both remember days when I saw his eyes linger on me and, being young and heedless, gave him no comfort then.

For me this is an expiation of sorts, but I would lie if I said I did not revel in his strength. I am amazed and grateful that amongst the heat and passion there is still tenderness even for such as me.

The night strips me of more than my clothes and, in the end, I am naked before him as perhaps I have never allowed myself to be naked before anyone else, taking others for my pleasure and not caring if they wept for me when I left them alone.

Tonight there are tears in my eyes and, when he finally sleeps, I burrow under the rich coverlet and let them fall. There is something healing in them, and a great weariness.

I pass into a kind of waking dream in which I see many faces. I feel I have crossed a bridge in the night, and now the past waits for me. I have crossed to another shore.

I open my eyes and my lover raises himself on his elbow to look at me. This time I am the one who reaches for him and he laughs softly and takes his revenge that to me is pleasure, and both of us are satisfied. For a while we forget there is a world outside that room lit by flickering candles that cast a clear flame.

He is the first to remember and throws back the coverlet. I don’t want to let him go.

He throws me a robe, and I’m grateful that I don’t have to clothe myself in my rags. A bath seems too much to hope for, but he leads me into another room where a hot spring rises and there is a pool deep enough to swim in. It is good to lie back in the warm water and drift, letting thoughts dissolve.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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