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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Winter Ship: synopsis

Kyran, a king’s son, has been disinherited and exiled to a remote temple. One snowy morning, a messenger arrives to recall him to court, where he is to serve as governor of the king’s other children. Kyran is a seer and a child of the Falcon, but his paranormal abilities do not protect him from court intrigue. He must ultimately set out on a quest to find the Winter Ship and its destination.

Chapter 9: Circle of Fire

The sun is rising, casting a pool of light at my feet. The tent is roughly furnished: a bed, a chair and a table; a washstand with a clay jug and bowl. In the field, this is luxury.

There is little pleasure waiting here, wondering what will become of me and, more urgently, if they will feed me. I do not trust Majvaz. The camp is ringed with soldiers. I could walk out of the tent, but there is nowhere to go.

I move to open the flap, to let in some air and a boy enters, dressed like a page in the royal service. He lays a cup and plate on the table. This is an improvement, not eating from the floor like a dog.

He keeps his eyes lowered and will not look at me. I recognise the device he wears: it belongs to one of the great households of the north.

‘You serve Lord Mathuin?’

He turns to face me, and I can tell he is afraid.

‘Will you tell him I send my greetings and ask him to remember our friendship?’ I hold out my hand. ‘My name is Kyran. Thank you for the food.’

He nods in confusion and does not take my hand.

‘Can you tell me what happened to the king, my father?’

A dangerous question. I see how his eyes flicker to the open tent flap. No doubt there are guards listening outside. He licks his lips nervously. ‘It was an accident, My Lord. It was a young horse, newly broken, a gift from His Highness, Prince Majvaz.

‘The King was riding out to greet his children. He meant to surprise them, meet them on the way. Then a messenger came with news of the fire. The king wouldn’t wait, left his escort behind. They say his horse was startled by the flames. He was thrown, suffered a broken neck.’

He spills the words out quickly, stumbling over them. ‘Lord Majvaz wept. He blamed himself for giving the horse to his father but everyone knows the traitor set the fire to kill the children.’ His eyes widen as he looks at me. ‘They said you were dead!’

I grasp him by the throat, smothering his voice. ‘I am dead. You’re talking to a ghost. A spirit summoned by the queen’s priests to expiate my crimes. Remember it.’

I release him, he is shaking. I feel sick with shame.

‘Ghosts don’t breathe, they can’t hurt the living. I’m not afraid!’ He shows rage, not fear. I deserve it for laying hands on him.

‘There’s no need to fear me. Only the weak threaten children.’ I sink wearily into the chair.

The boy looks at me. ‘I’m sorry for your grief.’ He gives me no title now, but the simple words touch me.

I keep my eyes lowered. Best he not see there is no grief in my face, only rage and a desire for revenge.

I try not to think of my father mourning his dead children, riding out to look for me. The son he sent to the temple, now a murderer who betrayed him and killed his children. Should I be glad or sorry he never found me?

I think of him, weakened by his illness, falling from his horse. Did the fall truly kill him? Did he lie there, helpless, waiting in the woods for help that never came? Was it an assassin who found him? Did he see his face and did his curse fall on me or my brother, Majvaz?

I’ll never know now.

My mind fills with the memory of flames, the flicker and glow, screams in the night, dead children, a dying man’s grief and despair.

I should be hardened. This is what happens when the old king dies. His successor must destroy all rivals. In Majvaz’ place wouldn’t I kill to rule?

Later they take my chains from me and lead me to the royal pavilion. I am under guard, too heavy for protection.

My brother sits with my circlet in his hands, turning it so that it catches the light from the noon sun, revolving like a circle of fire. There is a furrow between his brows. I feel a glimmer of hope knowing it is merely metal in his hands. He can do nothing with it.

I wait to learn what he intends to do with me. His threat echoes in my head like a drum. I could hang you. Cut out your tongue. Wall you in stone and bury you alive.

Majvaz dismisses my guard, leaving us as alone as king and subject can ever be.

‘I believe you killed my brother and took this circlet from him. You are no more than a common thief who deceived the queen, my bride. My brother died in the fire. What fate do you think an impostor deserves?’

This is a twist I didn’t anticipate. Majvaz will not recognise a ‘thief’ as his brother. Kyran Kinslayer is dead and now he’ll heap stones on my grave to make sure I don’t rise to haunt him.

‘Surely my lord does not look to a thief for instruction?’ I refuse to give him my father’s title. He is pretender, not king.

‘You admit then that you are not Prince Kyran?’

‘You know who I am.’

I’m surprised there’s no rope around my neck and he’s letting me speak. I’m still trying to work out why.

‘I don’t mourn Kyran Kinslayer. He was a traitor. He deserved a worse fate. I will reward you for his death and the return of this heirloom of our kingdom. You have your life and freedom — so long as you leave these lands. If you ever return, your life is forfeit.’

It seems Majvaz has gained in subtlety while I was away. If I lived through the fire, he’ll bury me again. He wants no talk of a brother’s murder to stain his right to the throne.

My name is my death warrant. Claim it and my brother need not even arrange my execution. No doubt my father’s people will be only too willing to lynch the traitor prince if his captors should accidentally let him escape.

My life is my reward for taking the guilt of my own murder on myself. Majvaz’ hands are clean.

I would like to ask him about Mireio. Did she ever reach the empire? But if there is any last vestige of hope that my father’s children escaped the fire, their safety lies in her keeping. Best that all accept their death and that the dead Prince Kyran take the blame for it.

The private audience is over. Majvaz summons a retainer who hands me a purse containing silver coins.

‘I give you the king’s mercy so you will not starve. I give you safe conduct, a horse from my stable. All I ask is your word that you will not return.’

Then he says quietly, ‘Even if you were my brother, back from the dead, there is nothing here for you now.’

It is almost as if he is pleading with me to go.

‘I thank you for your mercy and I take my leave of you, great king.’

There is a flash of anger in his face at my insolence. I bow like a servant dismissed and leave quickly, followed by the wolf, the lion and the bear.

I have been here before. Once again I’m leaving the presence of a king, lucky to escape with my life. But Majvaz will never be the king my father was. I should ask him how my father died, but he will not tell me.

The guards outside the King’s pavilion raise their halberds, letting me pass. Three familiar masked attendants close in around me. They carry a sword and axe and a bow. I have the feeling that once we reach the border, there is only one way they can set me free. After all, who would know or care if a nameless thief dies?

The halberds drop behind us, preventing anyone from following, and my guardians surround me, as if to protect me. There is an old grey horse waiting for me. Naraya, the lion girl, hands me a cloak, and I draw the hood over my face.

The boy, Mathuin’s heir, brings me a cup. I look at the glint of the wine in the sunlight, wondering if there is poison in it, a last parting gift from my brother. I drink it anyway.

There are long shadows behind us. I ride out, from the camp, leaving behind me this tented city and the ruins. I remember days gone by, before they sent me to the temple, riding out from my father’s castle for sport or mischief. Stories in the courtyard at bedtime, the maid who was kind to me and took my innocence when I was still a child.

My companions are mounted on rough mountain ponies, sure and strong. With any other horse I might try to outrun them. As it is, I ride towards the sun and let them follow.

I could ride these paths blindfolded with my hands bound and still scent my way. I laugh; at least I am no longer bound, and Majvaz has set me free. I have nothing but the purse of silver the King gave me; the one I took from his hand to buy my life.

We ride for several hours, no sound but the faint jingling of harness. Two of my companions might be asleep in their saddles. I notice their heads droop over their horses’ necks and, as unobtrusively as I can, I dig in my heels and encourage my horse to lengthen his stride. I risk a quick glance over my shoulder at Naraya to see if she too has relaxed her guard.

She has fallen behind, letting the pony take a mouthful of grass. She yawns. Without spurs I dig in my heels again, and the horse ambles into a slow canter.

Then, distant still on the wind I hear the howl of wolves. My horse shies, whinnies in fear and nearly unseats me.

Naraya rides up beside me, a crossbow in her hand.

‘Please don’t try to escape. My orders are clear. If I put a bolt through your foot and leave you to crawl, the wolves will finish you.’

She smiles. ‘It wouldn’t be murder, just an accident.’ I don’t like the twist to her words.

‘You don’t fear the curse?’

She shrugs and raises the crossbow. Sufficient answer, and I have no response. She has no fear of me or anything I might do. Disconcerting to think she holds me so cheap.

So we ride on until we come to a clearing on the edge of the forest by the circle of standing stones. This place has been sacred to the red goddess time out of mind. The ponies herd my horse into the ring of stones like a sheepdog herding sheep, and once again I hear the howls of the wolves in the hills.

There is a spring of water bubbling from beside the god stone. I am parched with thirst. I slip from my horse’s back, letting go of the reins so he can wander where he will. Chilled by the ride, I limp over to the well.

I cup my hand beneath the cool water and let some drops fall for the god before drinking. One of the stones has fallen. Drawing my cloak around me, I seat myself on it, waiting as my captors draw close.

This sacred place marks the boundary of my father’s lands. Once I leave the circle to the north, I put myself beyond the pale.

My human shadows approach me on stealthy feet and stand, looking down at me.

I run my hands through my cropped hair. Then I pull out the bag of silver coins and lay it beside me on the stone. I see their eyes flit to it then centre on me.

I don’t fancy the crossbow bolt in my back if I turn and walk away from them. I stand and hold out my hands, palms down, an ancient gesture of surrender. It isn’t as if I don’t know the sacrificial purpose of this flat stone, though it has not been used time out of mind.

‘My life is yours.’

The masks stare at me. I think about letting the cloak fall but I don’t want to stand there shivering in the dawn. It seems trivial to be so obsessed with looking good in death. These are hired cutthroats, and I doubt that anything I do will impress them.

There is a long silence while I wait for the blow to fall. It goes on and on, my nerves on the stretch. Then Naraya lowers her crossbow, Lorcan sheathes his sword and Daan turns the blade of his axe away from me.

Naraya murmurs a charm and I feel the metal flex against my neck. I have time to think this is a fitting death for a traitor. The collar glows, scalding my skin and it parts in my hands like a piece of iron heated once too often in the forge, one that loses its strength. As I watch, it reddens and dissolves into rust. The girl blows softly, and it dissolves on the wind.

I am free. I glance up at the sky; eyes lidded. My hands curve into claws and my cloak is feathers. I flex my wings, fail to rise. Then I cower like any dog, shedding feather for fur. My pelt is heavy on my neck. I crouch, paws to the ground and could run forever, if there were no weight on my heart. It holds me stronger than any chain. I blur back into my human form and pull myself uncertainly to my feet.

‘You can’t fly and you can’t run.’

Lorcan doesn’t need to tell me. I lack strength to sustain the changes. My injuries hold me back.

Naraya removes her mask and smiles at me, and the bear and wolf man follow suit. They roll the masks up and stow them away in the packs they wear on their backs. They carry food and water and are equipped as if for a journey. I have a cloak, my clothes and the silver my sometime brother gave me.

The girl breaks a branch for a staff and leans on it, looking at me. Then she draws out a small pot from her pack, dips her finger in it and draws a mark of ash in a sweeping half circle on my forehead. Looking around I see that my companions also bear the sign of the crescent moon in ash, like penitents.

‘Naraya’ — I taste the sound of her name on my lips, remembering the touch of her cool fingers upon my brow — ‘why did you let me go?’

She shrugs, breaks a staff for me and proffers it. I take it, thinking it is at least some kind of weapon, though no defence against steel.

‘The queen dismissed us. She paid us, not the king. Now we go seek our fortunes in another land.’

‘Naraya, we should hurry.’ Daan gives me a chill look of dislike. He would cheerfully cut my throat, needing no pay to kill.

‘Can you spare me some water?’

Lorcan takes my hand in his and opens it. He drops some flint arrow heads in my palm and a knife.

I offer him the coins, and he strikes them away. I scramble in the mud to retrieve them.

Naraya intervenes, standing between us. ‘The flints are a gift. You insult him.’

I bow my head, as a prince to an equal. ‘I am sorry, Lorcan.’

Daan spits and turns away.

‘Please,’ I call after him. ‘Take me with you?’

‘What use are you to us?’

‘I can hunt, use a sword and spear. I know languages and the manners of courts. I have a certain craft: salves and medicines to mend wounds.’

‘Sorcery!’ Daan makes the sign against me, and the other two echo it.

I raise my hands to my head, feeling a dull ache where the circlet used to rest against my brow. ‘Not any more. I have no magic now, and I would not be alone.’

I look at the girl, but if she understands my plea she makes no sign and Daan lays his arm around her as if to protect her... or to warn me off? I notice a yellowing bruise at her temple.

Lorcan takes me by the arm. ‘We travel many miles today. We are deserting the king and court and should leave the horses here. The king won’t care over much for our loss but if we take the ponies...’

I lay my hand on my horse’s bridle. ‘The king gave this horse to me. I will keep him. The ponies I think are yours. The king won’t pursue us. I think he is afraid to cross his borders, and he will soon have other prey to concern him.’ There is an echo in my voice, something remembered from long ago, and I see my companions tense and raise their heads like hounds scenting their quarry.

‘Then by your leave, Lord, we should go and make use of the hours of daylight we have. I want to be under shelter and behind walls by this night.’

I know the stories and can only agree with him. I lead my horse to a rock and mount, too lame to do anything else. I lead this odd company out of the glade, heading not south but east towards the desert.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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