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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 13: Rude Awakening

part 2

That night I dream. I’m riding through a forest. Under the trees there are bluebells, and somewhere ahead of me I can hear the sound of water. I know that if I can find the stream, I will be able to find my way into the heart of the wood. I have the feeling I’ve been riding for hours through this still morning.

The larks call overhead and I’m happy. White flowers bloom in the greensward, the tang of wild garlic is in the air, and then, ahead of me, a fallow deer crosses the path with a single fawn at her heel. They turn to stare at me. I have an arrow on the string. I’m about to pull back my bow and shoot when they startle and disappear into the shadows. I lower my bow, happy that I don’t have to make this kill.

But I was sent out to hunt and risk punishment if I return empty-handed. I ride further into the forest until I come to a grey ruin with a gate that leads to the most beautiful garden in the world. The key is lost and I can’t get in.

Children are playing in the garden. There is a little girl who is still a toddler, and her brother and sister are tossing the ball to her and helping her to catch it, tending her like little nursemaids. She is none too steady on her feet as yet, but they help her, stretching out their hands to hold her so she does not fall.

After a while she waits and watches them as they toss the ball higher and higher beyond her reach until it sails over the gate and lands at my feet. The children see me then and draw back, scared.

I pick up the ball and throw it over the wall to them. They let it lie and huddle together, watching me. I tell them not to be frightened, that I mean them no harm.

A dog throws himself at the gate, barking furiously, snapping and snarling. I draw my knife — I could slit his throat but I stand back, hands protected by my gauntlets and let the knife fall. It turns into a flower

The dog howls, shifting into a golden-haired boy. The children have fled. It is just me and him.

He stands, pulling the skin of the wolf around him. How could I have mistaken him for a dog? I make a gesture of peace again, to show I will not harm him.

‘Who are you?’

The boy in the wolfskin stares at me. There is a curiously wrought key in his hand, and he wears a silver circlet at his brow. For a minute I imagine what it would be like to tear it from him but there is something about his eyes that stops me.

‘You know who I am.’

I reach out to him in entreaty. ‘I’m locked out. Can’t you let me in?’

He shakes his head sadly, and I see that where I let my knife fall the white flower is crimson with spilled blood and there is blood on my hands. Then he leaves me, and I wait by the gate like a pilgrim.

One day the boy returns, his wolf skin draped over his arm and says, ‘Why are you still here?’

‘Because I’ve lost my way home.’

I wake with the light of the moon on my face. The ship parts the waves through the darkness. It is the last watch before morning. I place my hands on the hilts of my knives and draw my sea cloak around me and then, after a while I drift back into sleep, but there are no more dreams.

* * *

When I wake late that morning and reach for the water pitcher, it has rolled across the deck and rain strikes the roof of my canopy. I remember what I was told and I try to angle the tarpaulin to catch the rain in the barrel. Lorcan passes me and gives me a brief approving nod. He is wrapped again in his cloak and when it brushes against my hand, the fabric is dry.

Having nothing better to do, I follow him. He is only staring into the mists that weave around the ship, shrouding her in silence. The ship is an isolated world drifting through the fog. I can’t see the lookout in the crow’s nest. Seagulls cluster on the spars and from below comes the muttered sounds of the watch turning in to their bunks. We are gliding through a ghost world.

Lorcan seems preoccupied, but the quiet of the ship unnerves me. I turn to him and say, ‘What’s happening?’

‘The calm before the storm.’

I don’t like the sound of this much. I’m beginning to realise that, sick as I was when I came aboard, we were having what the sailors call ‘good weather’.

‘You think there’s going to be a storm?’ I’m babbling like a child, hoping he’ll say something to make me feel better.

‘Certain of it.’

This does not sound good.

‘Still,’ he says cheerfully, ‘we may strike the rocks before it hits.’ He gestures and I see the cabin boy is busy playing out line and taking soundings. The significance of the seabirds roosting on the spars comes home to me.

‘We’re near land?’

‘I wouldn’t call it land, more like a reef and, if we get through that, there’s a chain of barren volcanic islands. Nothing can live there. We’re drifting off course, at the mercy of the current. Unless the wind changes soon, we’ll either strike the reef or when the storm hits, it’ll drive us onto it.’

‘So what are you doing about it?’

He lifts his eyes. ‘Praying.’ Then at my look of disbelief: ‘I was seeking a way to alter the tides, to make the current work for us rather than against us — but you interrupted me. Go away, Kyran. Let me work on this.’

I can tell when I’m not wanted. A look from the cabin boy stops me as I move towards him, thinking he might let me help. Instead I go check on the rainfall level in the water barrel. It seems hopeless if we’ll soon have more water than we can deal with, but it’s the one task they’ve trusted to me.

Then I hunker down under my tarpaulin and try not to remember the tales of shipwrecks I’ve read. This lasts me about five minutes before I’m too restless to sit still. I give my attention to preparations being made aboard ship in the hope that I may be useful or live to learn something I can use in the future.

The seamen are rigging lifelines. I dislike the look of their efficiency and wonder if the rule about staying above decks will still apply if the storm hits. Surely I’d be in the way? I’m expecting to see Naraya and Daan and Razvan unleash their skills, but when I ask I’m told they’re closeted below, ‘making preparations.’ Surely the four immortals can save us all?

There’s a chill in the pit of my stomach. I wouldn’t be the first diviner who left it too late to read his own fate. Not that I ever wanted to. And besides, the fates are written in riddles to tantalise and deceive the unwary. Dreams are different. They come as gifts from the gods. Or so we were taught in the temple.

What is worse than not knowing is my sense of helplessness. There’s nothing I can do to save myself or the ship.

‘Put yourself in the hand of the god.’ Razvan is at my elbow, leafing though my mind again. Easy for him to say; water is his element.

I’d rather have Daan. As a child of the earth, he must be as miserable as I am. ‘Can’t Naraya change the wind? She could escape, fly to land.’

‘And die of starvation. That is if she manages to keep her wings dry and doesn’t sink to the depths.’

‘And you’re not going to save her?’ I throw that in his face. ‘Surely this is your fault — or don’t you care? You’re immortal. Water can’t kill you. How many sailors have you drowned?’

I catch a spark of the anger flaring green in his eyes. It burns like the fabled lightning of the storm gods, scorching the hair on my arms.

‘What I can do or what Naraya can do is beside the point. Don’t you see? Your blood curse taints us all. It angers the gods and draws down vengeance from heaven. You bring ruin on the ship.

‘You’ve left a pile of corpses in your wake, from the first maidservant who witnessed your birth. Did you know the king your father made Lorcan strangle her child in its crib so you could drink her milk? Don’t talk to me of death, Kyran of the Shades. Death is the shadow you trail behind you.’

His words lash me like a whip. He is right. Even as a child others were beaten for my childish errors or pranks. It was seldom I who paid.

I look up into a darkening sky where the clouds are gathering, and I walk out onto the deck. The rain falls on my upturned face. Put yourself in the hand of the god.

‘All right, Razvan! I hear what you say. And so it ends.’

For the first time in countless days, I feel I have a choice that is mine to make. I can move more quickly than I used to. Lamed as I was, I take him by surprise. I run to the side, shedding the heavy boat cloak — I have no shoes — then I pull myself up and turn to face him. ‘Be free, Razvan. I make this offering to the gods.’

I turn and plunge into the churning waves. The shock severs breath from body, and I plummet like a stone.

Proceed to Chapter 14...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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