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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 11: Night Has Come

part 2

When I come back to myself, I’m in a hollow in the rock, curled like a child inside the womb, an image that makes me want to scream. For a moment I think I’m in my grave. There is a bowl of fire beside me, and at the sight of the tiny flames I cry out and shove it away, not feeling the burns to my skin. My body runs cold with sweat and I’m shaking.

The stranger rights the clay pot and clucks like a mother hen. ‘Come back from the shades, Kyran. You are safe.’

I look up at the storm-riven clouds and think, Safe? Where is there any safety in this world?

We’re sheltering inside the lip of an ancient crater. ‘I know this place.’

‘You should. It is the cup of the Goddess, broken when the gods split the world asunder. We’re on the edge of the desert. Are you ready to go on?’

He gives me water. I drink thirstily but he pulls the skin away. ‘No more. It’s easy to see you know nothing of the desert.’

‘I’m sorry.’ His rebuke chastens me. ‘Thank you for the water.’ I pull myself to my feet and the world spins around me. ‘I don’t know if I can go on.’

‘Now you’re being pathetic. I expected better.’

I flush. ‘Don’t wait for me. I’d only hold you back.’

‘I have to wait for you. How else can I cross the desert? You can follow the stars. I don’t have this learning. I wouldn’t have brought you so far. You’ll go on if I have to carry you.’

‘It’s good to be wanted.’

‘You’re not. If there were any other way... I’m not Mathuin. And to me you’re just a lost cause. For now, I need your eyes. If I didn’t, I’d feed them to the crows.’

I’ve been through so much that the threats seem unreal, and I hardly care. It would be so easy to lie down and go to sleep. Something of this must show on my face for he drags me to my feet.

‘Enough. Don’t go fey on me. You’ll cross the desert. We’ll wait another hour until the stars rise and then we’ll go. Wrap yourself in this.’ He tosses me one of the brightly woven blankets from my pack. ‘I found your horse’s corpse. The wolves left it.’

‘Shadows cloaked as wolves, maybe,’ I reply. ‘Wolves hunt. They don’t kill for pleasure, torture or burn.’

Mortali,’ he says, and I shiver.

‘Were they looking for me?’

He laughs. ‘I don’t think so. There’s more at stake in the world than the fate of one lost princeling. Have you always been like this?’

‘Like what?’ I say, knowing I will regret the answer.

‘Arrogant, thinking the world circles around you. You come from a little kingdom at the edge of the world. No one cares, Kyran. They didn’t care enough to kill you.’

‘Lucky for me,’ I say. I feel light-headed, like nothing I say matters, like death is a friend waiting for me in the shadow, and my hold on life might break like a chain.

I’m tempted to tell him you don’t have to be a prince to think the world circles around you, but why waste words. ‘Have it your way. You don’t know anything about me.’

‘I know more than you think. You will guide me across the desert. You have a name for treachery but remember: in the desert there is nowhere to run.’

He prods me forward and I climb to the edge of the crater and stare out at the stars, mapping, considering and then I set our course.

‘Tell me one thing,’ I say, ‘your name.’

‘I only share my name with my friends,’ he says. ‘You can call me Razvan.’ He watches as my eyes widen. ‘You’d do well to mind your mouth and manners and lead me the best path you know.’

I swallow. I have heard tales of Razvan. I suppose he might have stolen the name to impress me, but one look disabuses me of that suspicion. This man doesn’t need to steal anything. I resolve to make myself useful, watch and learn.

Still, even displaced princes have obligations. ‘My friends... Shouldn’t we search for them?’

He laughs. ‘I think not. They know where to find you. I suggest we leave. Now.’

The moon rises and behind us I see crags lined with wolves. The owl hoots somewhere, and I shiver. I take up my staff and lead the way down to the grey volcanic sands. I look for the star in the south and, taking a drink from my waterskin, set out to divine my way across the desert.

* * *

Days pass and fall into a kind of rhythm. We see no one in this vast expanse of sand and sky except occasionally the kites flying overhead, looking for prey. The level drops in our waterskins and my skill is called into question. I’m lucky, finding cacti that we split for their water and, later, a hidden well.

This leads to trouble when the tribesmen defend it. I’m not much use in the fighting, and it’s only thanks to Razvan’s skill that we live. Razvan shows Mathuin’s safe-conduct, and the tribesmen let us pass. Razvan commands respect; they let us take water and dates and guide us to shelter where we can sleep.

I have a graze from a scimitar that Razvan stopped before it severed my neck. The sand gets into it. At night I wipe away the pus and use my spit to clean it, not daring to waste water.

The days continue until one dawn when the sun doesn’t rise. It becomes more than ever essential to find shelter before the sandstorm hits.

We take refuge in an abandoned temple. There are snakes, but Razvan spits them with his sword, cuts their heads off and throws out the corpses. The sand hits and for two days and nights we are buried beneath the shelter of a crumbling portico.

When the storm calms, I am half-dead, and Razvan finds the puncture marks in my leg. He heats his knife and cuts my flesh, binding it with salves then forces me to walk before my leg stiffens and I lose its use. He says the effect of the bite is a slow poison that reaches the heart, so he drives me before him like an animal.

My eyes are glued together with sand, and as the fever rises, I see nothing. It is Razvan who follows a flicker like water on the horizon and, when I fall, he half-carries me to the last oasis before the sea.

I wish that my first attempt at navigating the desert hadn’t come so close to being my last. I don’t know why Razvan fought so hard to save me. I may be able to read the stars and divine a route, but I came close to leaving my bones in the sand.

* * *

This is a distant trading outpost of the Empire. Razvan spends the king’s silver to buy food and lodging for us. The nomads are poor, but they share what they have with us and let their healer tend me. They say I am under the protection of their snake god, because the venom did not kill me.

As I skulk in the tent, waiting for Razvan to return, I listen to the chatting around the camp fire. Time was I could cast a spell to hear what they were saying. I send out a tentative thought and feel it rebound on a surface harder than stone.

I wrap my arms around my knees and strain to listen. I should be able to pick out some words. In any event I have to try, but the effort soon wearies me.

Maybe my thought caught something, for Razvan opens the tent flap and comes to sit beside me. He looks at me in the fading light then asks me quietly, ‘Are you ready to go on?’

I expect him to take a harsher tone with me and, for a moment, I almost give way to the kindness in his voice. But I have learned to be wary. ‘If you are ready to leave, don’t wait for me.’ A churlish reply to his courtesy, and I regret it immediately. ‘I’m sorry. I only meant that you must be anxious to depart. You stayed to look after me.’

He smiles a little at this. ‘Are you not my guide?’

‘We both know I nearly killed us in the desert. The craft I once possessed is gone. I would not lead you to your death. That would be a poor return for all your kindness.’

Now he laughs out loud. ‘I wouldn’t say I have been kind. Would you?’

‘You saved my life.’ The words must be said.

‘Then there is an obligation between us. If I did save you, then your life is no longer yours, and it is also mine to protect. Otherwise the gods will be angry that I snatched a life from them, and they would take mine. I foretell we have some way to travel together before the bond between us is undone.’

He is right. I am beholden to him. I can’t deny it, but I’m also reluctant to accept it. I hesitate and for a moment wonder what I can offer that might persuade him to set the debt aside.

The thought is not honourable but I’ve gone beyond that. I review what I have: my father’s sword? I can’t give that away, not unless the hand that holds it is hacked from my arm. Nothing else but the king’s silver and my knives.

‘I shouldn’t try to bribe me or renege on the debt. Give me the knives. I don’t trust you.’

You’re not the only one, I think. I hand the knives to him. Let him try to take the sword. It is only then that I see he wears it in his belt.

‘For safekeeping only — until you are strong enough to wield it, and I deem you fit to use it.’

‘You have no right—’

‘I have every right. We leave in the morning. I suggest you get some rest. You’re going to need it.’

I turn my face away, pulling my cloak close, seeking what warmth I can.

‘The Winter Ship sails in five days, and we have a hundred leagues to cover.’

Proceed to Chapter 12...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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