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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 15: Stranger from the Sea

part 3

So it is, when Jarmil comes for me in the evening, that I am still abed. He has to shake me to wake me from my stupor, and even then I am slow to answer his summons and have to look away from the concern in his eyes.

‘Kyran, I am sorry, will you walk with me on the battlements tonight? I should like to show you more of our kingdom.’

I try to rise and greet him but when I pull myself from the bed, my head swims and I fall back. He grasps me and then he sees the bruising and marks at my throat and lets his breath out in a slow hiss. He throws me back then against the wall. I fall like a broken doll, and then he curses and draws his knife.

I think he means to cut my throat, but he cuts his own wrist and forces it into my mouth and the blood trickles down the back of my throat. He says, ‘Drink, damn you,’ and with the taste of the blood my teeth fasten on his wrist. I’m sucking the blood avidly until he grows very pale and finally he says, ‘Enough,’ prises me away and then looks deep into my eyes.

‘Kyran, I told you we were children of stone. I told you it was death to touch Karishma. I have to get you away from her.’

I gaze at him blearily. ‘So you would take me away and will you feed on me?

He shakes his head. ‘I don’t drink blood. Karishma is...’ He pauses as if in pain. ‘She is a priestess of the Goddess. Usually she feeds on slaves or those who sacrifice themselves willingly. It is an honour to be chosen.’

‘And she drinks their lives?’

He passes a hand wearily across his brow. ‘No, of course not. As priestess, she takes a little from each suppliant. I didn’t know that she had chosen you. There are prophecies that the Goddess can take a consort who will die to give her life. Pray that I got to you in time. How many nights has it been?’

I can’t answer his question. How long have I been here? Fear rises; surely I should remember. Why does he react with sadness rather than anger?

‘Seven. No more since you came here. I am sorry to have left you alone so long. I thought, after our most recent talk, that it would be better. You seemed to think I would coerce you, take what you didn’t want to give.’

I shake my head. ‘Jarmil, I’m sorry. I need to be free. Why don’t you leave this land with me? There must be boats. We could sail together, to Kota Samur even. I hope to find cleansing there.’

‘Cleansing?’ His eyes harden. I know I have said too much. ‘What are you running away from?’

Such a simple question, but the answer is far from easy. ‘My father named me guardian to his children. He asked me to protect them. The children died, and my father too. I failed him.’

I don’t know what power Jarmil has to draw this confession from me. Maybe I’m just tired of hiding from the truth.

‘Did you kill the children?’

‘They died, and I was responsible. Isn’t that enough?’

‘So there is blood on your hands.’ His rejection is absolute, leaving me hurt and exposed.

‘I will take you to the shore, give you a boat. You can set sail and the Goddess will take care of you.’ The way he says it sounds like a curse, and I flinch.

Then he covers his face with his hands. ‘I would do anything to ease my sister’s suffering. Believe me, she suffers. All she wants is to find one she can love, who will become like her. But I can’t let that happen. If she had a child, I couldn’t let it live.’

He looks at me. ‘Are you thirsty?’ He pours water and watches me as I drink.

My hands are shaking. Seven nights... What if she should bear my child? I’m also wondering what will happen when night comes. Will I sleep in the day and rise from a cold bed to feed upon warm, living blood?

Something of my fear is reflected in his face. ‘You can’t stay here now. Your presence tempts the Goddess, and she will show her anger. I must let you go.’

I say nothing. I feel drained and cold.

‘Tomorrow, Kyran, be ready. I will come for you in the early hours of the morning, and we will ride for the shore. You will set sail at dawn.’

‘You think the sun will consume me?’

He covers his face. ‘Kyran, I don’t know. I won’t lie to you. It may be that already the change begins within you, and if so, then believe me, it is the kinder fate.’

‘Or else I drift when the current takes me and die of thirst and starvation?’

‘I will give you a compass, an oar, and supplies to last you a fortnight. You should strike land by then. And if you don’t...’

He doesn’t need to spell it out. ‘Will you give me a knife at least?’

He doesn’t look at me. ‘I pray that you survive and find friends and the healing you seek.’

I laugh and then I take his hand. ‘Why don’t you come with me?’

‘I can’t leave the island. I have some strength to bear the dawn and twilight but not the sun on the sea at noon. I would burn, Kyran. Karishma and I, we have been alone for so long. She needed me. I told you I would do anything to ease her suffering.’

‘You should have killed me.’

‘We are cursed enough for this land, Kyran. There has been enough death already. Spilling tainted blood will cause the Isle to become more barren that it is and would destroy us all.’

I run my tongue over my lips, they are dry and crusted. I wipe my mouth, but the taste of blood lingers.

‘I’m sorry, Kyran.’

‘Leave me.’

He puts out his hand but then withdraws it and leaves me alone to wait for morning.

The night passes quickly. Servants attend me as he promised and bring me clothes for my journey. I rise and dress some hours before the dawn so that I am ready when he comes for me. I rise to greet him and he takes me by the arm, but I shrug off his courtesy.

I follow as he leads me down endless flights of steps to an enclosed courtyard far below where horses wait for us. I see he has his band of hunters to attend us. Does he think I will escape, that there is anywhere for me to run?

In the pale light that comes before the dawn, they bring me a horse and I mount, gloved hands on the reins and I draw my hood over my face. Then a gateway creaks open, and we ride out onto the desert sands. Behind us the volcano blots out the sky. Jarmil sets a brisk pace and rides for the shore.

Already there are streaks of flame in the sky, and I guess he does not wish to prolong this errand beyond the need he has to be rid of me. I wonder that he should escort me himself. Maybe he is afraid of what tales I might tell his followers but why should they believe a stranger?

The horse’s gait eats up the miles. I remember the long and weary hours it took me to cross this barren plain on foot. All too soon, we come to the cove where the boat awaits us. It is a small sailing boat with a lateen sail, such as can be managed by one man. One man who knows the sea, and I have no knowledge of this craft.

When we reach the cliff, Jarmil dismounts and, bidding his followers wait, leads me down to the sands. I follow in the half-light. There is the glow of the rising sun on the horizon. Quickly he gives me directions, telling me I should steer always to the east.

There is a fisherman waiting for us. Jarmil gives him a purse heavy with coin for his boat. He takes it and calls his sons who emerge from a hut on the shore. They load the boat with a water cask, and show me a box that contains a cup, biscuits and dried meats and dates, small bitter oranges to bite and chew, and some oil, tinder and flint.

I have to wade to the boat, and it bobs uneasily on the waves, such a fragile shell. Jarmil comes with me, as if even now I might make a break for freedom. The impression is confirmed when he lashes my hand to the tiller.

The boatman plays out the sail and trims it for me, showing me how to wind the rope around my wrist and fasten it to the cleat. He is patient with me, explaining how the wind will fill the sail. I thank him.

Jarmil listens and then he puts a few questions of his own. It seems the boatman will tow me out so that I will have some chance to clear the reef. I watch as his sons launch a small rowboat, tying it to the fishing boat. I wonder if they had any choice in this. Judging by the fearful looks they give to Jarmil, I think not.

The fisherman boards the rowboat, leaving Jarmil and me facing each other. He leans forward and places a thong around my neck, ‘A moonstone for good luck,’ he says.

He gives me a knife in a crimson leather sheath that I can bind on my arm. He does this for me as if he were my page. ‘So you can cut yourself free.’ Then he bids me farewell, leaping gracefully into the sea. The boatman bends his back to his oars and pulls out to sea beyond the reef.

Even in this calm dawn, the foam churns around the rocks. Sufficient deterrent should I choose to chance my luck and skill and turn the ship’s helm for the shore. Once past the reef, he unties the towing rope and casts it back to me.

I am amazed how far we have travelled in so few minutes. He makes a gesture of farewell, invoking the name of a sea god. I think of Razvan and shiver. I manage to catch the rope and coil it neatly and then I turn to see the horses are already tiny on the shore.

I see Jarmil in his scarlet cloak raise his hand and ride hell for leather for the castle, racing the sunrise. The boatman pulls away from me. The sail fills and my boat skims over the waves.

Proceed to Chapter 16...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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