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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 14: Fire Can Burn

part 1

I dive down and down while the shadow of the ship passes over me. I couldn’t surface if I wanted to. I have some idea I’ll keep going until the pressure crushes my lungs and I black out.

These heroic thoughts are all very well, but I find my body has other ideas. If I sprout gills and fins, I might make it through this. The current is strong. It seizes me like the great serpent of the deep and drags me further down, even as my lungs cry out for air. In the maelstrom, time ceases to have meaning. My body writhes and struggles to break free.

I pray for oblivion, to be dashed against the reef, but still this torment goes on. The waves roll me and beat me like a tapestry. I’m spinning, spinning, until they let me go and fling me up on the shore. Water pours from my lungs. I spew up everything in my stomach, seized by paroxysms of coughing.

Weakly, I begin to crawl away from the receding waves, up a sandy strand of beach. The waves have dragged me over the reef and cast me into the lagoon beyond. Now, dazed and bloody where the coral has torn at me, I stumble to my feet and turn to look back at the sea. Far away on the horizon, I pick out two storm-tossed spars of the Winter Ship that brought me to this unknown land.

For a moment I gaze at her. I’m thinking, Even the sea throws you back, Kyran. You are cursed! Then I find a cave above the seaweed-strewn tide line, crawl into its shelter and lie shivering.

There’s driftwood in the cave. I try to build a fire with shaking hands and summon warmth. The fury of the storm has taken this last art from me, and I can do nothing. There is no flint, no sun to kindle flame, and I am utterly quenched and spent. But I won’t turn my face to the wall. Life still has sweetness while I cling to it. With my back to the wall of the cave, I sit and watch as night thickens around me until, finally, I’m alone in the dark.

Razvan predicted Naraya would starve. There’s small comfort that fate fell to me in her place. With my throat raw from salt water, coughing up blood, I fear I won’t last the night; and the thought is not painful to me. I lie in the dark like a child in the womb, and I’m curiously at peace thinking here at least I can do no further harm. Maybe death brings expiation of a kind.

I close my eyes, and the darkness almost lightens. I remember the day everything changed for me, when I first accepted my father’s commission, ‘For the good of the realm.’ That was always the formula used; only one heir could live to rule. The irony is that, unlike every ambitious heir who came before me, I had no desire to be king.

I tried to protect my father’s children and, instead, my actions led to their lying cold and stark in their beds. So much for good intentions; I might have saved their lives. As king I could have protected them.

In the chill of the night, my self-delusion comes slinking out of its lair to confront me:

Do you really think you could have protected them? Even if you defeated Majvaz and took the throne?

I could have made them my heirs.

You would have written their death warrant or your own. As king, you could never let them live. There has only ever been one ruler on Castle Crag, and you are a fool to think different. At least Majvaz dealt honestly by them, if not by you. The death he gave them was not so unkind. A drug in their bedtime milk would have been quick and painless. They died innocent. He showed them that mercy at least.

Such thoughts are not consoling. I lean against the cool, damp wall of the cave and begin to trace out blind pictures in the stone. Familiar faces, past lovers and lost dreams, Mireio’s maidservant, a slim girl in a faded blue robe, sent out to gather herbs at dawn for her mistress. She smiled at me and then slipped away through the arch. It pleases me to think of her now and trace the contours of her face in the rock.

Time passes. I burn and shiver with fever. I lose count of the hours, and my lips are parched. I feel myself getting weaker. The first time the girl’s face in the rocks smiles at me, it doesn’t seem strange.

I’m conscious I’ve been babbling to her for hours, as a young child babbles to his mother. She pauses to listen to his prattle before returning to her tasks and gossip with the other women.

When she smiles, I reach out my hand. She takes it in hers, a small delicate hand. Dipping a cloth in water, she gently bathes my face. Then she pours cool water for me to drink.

I think she is a harbinger of the gods, sent to usher me into the world beyond. I rave, spilling out confessions, trying to shed guilt from my past life.

She touches cool fingers to my lips. I fall silent, gazing into her eyes. Then my vision flickers and goes dark.

Having passed as I thought to better things, it is disappointing to wake in the cave. My head is clear, though it aches and I’m very hungry. There’s water in a cup and a small flame dances on the pyramid of sticks, my optimistic attempt at a fire.

I reach my hands to warm them at the blaze before I remember, the last stages of what they call the cold death: slipping into pleasant dreams of warmth and food while the body chills and life fades. I’m reluctant to break the spell even though I know that none of this can possibly be real.

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Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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