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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

Table of Contents

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 16: The Lady Karishma

The sun is rising. I feel its warmth and throw back my cloak, exposing my face. If I’m going to burn I’d rather embrace my fate than try to hide from it. No hint of fire as yet, no heat in my veins, merely a sense of exhilaration. The freedom of the sea is mine. I hear the lonely cry of the gulls overhead. I missed the birds on that deserted isle.

The boat is easy to handle. When I look back, the shore is receding fast and soon it will sink beneath the horizon. Unless Jarmil lied to me, there is land ahead, the lost outposts of the eastern Empire. Maybe I will find the Winter Ship and my friends, or at least get news of them. Beyond the Empire and the ocean, there lies the fabled land of Kota Samur.

The day passes. I say my prayers to the gods of my hearth and later to the god of the sea. I make my peace with the Lady but death does not come for me. I keep vigil watching the path of the sun chariot burn across the sky. Perhaps this is a further cleansing; this trial shifts another layer of my guilt.

As the sun bids farewell in streaks of flame and gold, I drink sparingly from the water skin and eat a couple of biscuits and a strip of the tough stringy goats’ flesh. Worrying at it with my knife and dulling the blade, I take time to divide the food into 14 portions. It’s a way of counting the days. I know that I don’t come to land within that time, then I will sail on to the edge of the world and maybe see what lies beyond.

I laugh, remembering these old tales. I know the world is round, but somehow it’s easier to trust to old legend, fireside tales, and imagine the waters pouring ceaselessly over the rim. Maybe the sun has something to do with these heated thoughts, and I drink a little more as the light begins to fail.

Then I tie my wrist to the tiller as Jarmil showed me and sheathe my knife and make myself a bed with my cloak. The fisherman gave me a spare sail and a coil of rope and the sail bag makes a pillow. I lie on my back, looking up at the stars, drifting on the face of the ocean and wondering what the morrow will bring to me.

There is a new moon in the sky. I pull the moonstone on its thread from beneath my cloak and hold it while I say a prayer to the Goddess, for Jarmil who gave me this token and his sister.

I remember the Winter Ship, Razvan and his fellow immortals. I think back to my father’s kingdom and say a prayer to the memory of my twin brothers and then, lulled by the waves I close my eyes.

I sleep fitfully through the night, waking every now and again, to check my bearings with the stars. The boat will not sail herself. Every now and again, I make small adjustments as the wind shifts, to keep her on course.

On the Winter Ship I often felt bemused by the hive of activity. I also felt resentful, that once the ship set sail I was useless cargo. Maybe my prayer to the moon goddess had some effect, or the charm has power to guide me. I know that I can sail this boat, and there is power in that thought.

I begin to wonder as my eyelids droop and I pass into another doze how far I could take a ship like this, even as far as Kota Samur. But I also know the gentle weather is my friend and I lack skill to come through a storm.

I wake before the dawn to find the sail flapping and water in the bilges. I trim the sail then grab the bucket to bale. I set my course by the fading stars and I’m busy for some while. At first I curse Jarmil, thinking the boat unsound, but then I understand that the breeze has shifted, spilling wind from the sails and letting water slosh over the side. I’m chilled and my muscles ache but baling makes me warm. Soon the sun rises on my second day at sea, and I’m still alive.

That night I sleep better. I’m getting used to waking at intervals to trim the boat. In the day I track the path of the sun, willing it to do its worst on me. I rip my cloak to fashion a hood to shield my face. I portion out my water with a miser’s care.

Now that I’m further out to sea, I see fewer birds and wear my eyes out squinting at the horizon for the haze that means land. I also use my compass and keep my course for the east. So the sun rises in my face and sets at night behind my shoulder. At night there are the stars to ponder, and I find I have lost none of my old skill.

By the third day, I’m half crazed with thirst and the temptation is to eat more food and drink more water simply for something to do. At noon I rig a simple shelter to keep the sun off, so I have less need for water. I remember my desert lore, so painfully acquired, and eat only at night, to save evaporation. I also try to drink water only in the cool of dawn and dusk but I find myself becoming lightheaded and so my sips of water become my ‘hours’ to mark out the day.

At night I pray, remembering tales of the old gods, and the sea lulls me to sleep as a child in its cradle. It would be easy to lie back and let the sea take me where it will. Maybe with the gift of blood, Jarmil gave me some part of himself, some resolution or courage that I lacked. Maybe by feeding the hunger in me he gave me the hunger to live. Friendless at last, left to my own devices I take a keen pleasure in my survival.

All my life I have been in thrall to some higher purpose, but now destiny has unravelled and there is a chance for me to make my own. I carry my life in my hands and the resolutions I take are only for me. At sea the burden of guilt is light and I fear to take it up again.

I gain new strength even as my muscles harden and I grow used to tending the boat. I learn to rely on my instincts, waking and watching, noting the way the current flows, the clouds in the sky, birds as they fly above, even strands of weed and detritus in the sea.

By the sixth day, though, I’m constantly hungry. I feel light, almost as if I could spread wings and fly again. Sunrise burns away fear, not flesh, leaving me stronger.

Sailing into the east is the gateway to a new world. I understand that Jarmil gave me a gift. Not death, as I thought, but a gift of life, the life he has forsworn by keeping to the shadows of that decaying fortress and guarding his sister. I shiver at the memory of her and her teeth in my throat. There is a scab on my throat now and the sun cleanses it, cauterising the wound. There is none of the fever and leaking pus that marked the infection in the desert.

The boat was clean and I begin to take pains to keep it so, realising the importance of the tasks I observed on the deck of the Winter Ship. I even make plans to survive a storm, thinking what I might do to get through it.

I remember seeing the hands on the Winter Ship taking in sail. I practise furling my single sail, making reefs in it to make it smaller. I imagine a true seaman would laugh to see my efforts but, clumsy as they are, they work. I dare to think I’m getting a sense of the sea. Precarious as my existence is I will not die before my time. If my time is due, there is no point in fretting.

I keep count of the days, seven so far, and when there is nothing else to do, I watch the sea. Looking below the ever-shifting surface, there is life in this ocean unlike the dead rivers in my father’s land.

The fisherman left me a box with line and fish hooks. Maybe it was a gift, maybe he forgot it was there when the dark prince came to commandeer his boat. I bait my line with a miniscule portion of the dry bread and checking the line becomes a new diversion for me. At first, as the boat skims over the waves, there is no hope of catching anything but later, when the wind fails, it becomes another story.

It is only later, when the boat is becalmed half a day that I wonder what I will do with any fish I catch, whether I will be hungry enough to eat it raw.

Counting out the strips of meat on the eighth day and allowing myself a single date, I feel that my scruples are vanishing fast. I would eat anything. By then the boat is running before a gentle breeze and maybe the chance is lost.

There’s a tug on the line, and I reel in my catch. I’m appalled by this flapping fury as it leaps and writhes, covering my hands with scales. Finally, I grab it and dash it against the deck, more to spare me watching its agonies than to give it a painless death.

There is something horrible in its desperation, blood dripping on the deck from its mouth. I have to pull the hook from its jaw and hack its head off with my knife. That goes straight over the side, as I’m not that hungry, though I fear I soon will be. Then I still have to slit it and pull out the guts and skeleton.

By the time I’m done, my gorge is heaving and there is blood spattered everywhere. It’s all I can do not to retch. I don’t know why it is worse than snaring and gutting animals in the woods. Maybe because the fish, ripped from its element, fought so hard to live. I’m ashamed to balk at a task I have seen cheerfully performed by children on the shores of the great lake that borders our lands.

After that, I have little appetite. I manage to eat some of the raw flesh and find it at least a change from goat and surprisingly sweet, though the slimy texture is off-putting. I have some idea of leaving the rest to cure in the sunshine but can’t face it. I think of flies laying their eggs in its carcass and waking to find the whole alive with maggots. Muttering a prayer in expiation, I throw the remains back into the sea.

I realise this may be a mistake almost immediately. I see larger shapes circling in the depths and can only hope that they will be satisfied with the crumb I have tossed to them.

A breeze comes up and I let out the sail and run before it, eager to get away. I leave those shifting shadows — a trick of the light, I try to persuade myself — far behind.

With this unhappy fishing incident, my luck begins to desert me. Night comes early with scurrying clouds. The waves are rising, there is more than ever the need to bale, then leave the bucket to trim the sail. I hope it’s enough to keep momentum and avoid being swamped.

The rain comes down in torrents and, with the water the boat’s taking in and the spray, I’m soaked to the skin. Only a week ago I would have despaired and given myself up for lost, but I lash myself to the side of the boat and determine that I will fight the storm and come out the other side.

This rain-swept squall is nothing like the storm that battered the Winter Ship but enough to threaten my much smaller craft. The gale blows for three days and nights, driving me and my frail vessel before it. The sail holds but it’s impossible to steer any course, and there is no chance for sleep.

I find myself baling day and night and become adept at following the current, finding a path through the waves. It’s as if some luck or charm protects me, the gift of the Goddess maybe. I find I’m steering while keeping one hand clasped on the moonstone.

I’m lucky. As the third day dawns, the breeze lightens and the ship drifts into a calm. I’m too exhausted to do anything other than to make all shipshape as I can and collapse into sleep.

Even in my dreams, I feel the movement of the water and the breeze on my face and mark its strength and the direction it blows from. Days ago I followed the fisherman’s tip and bound a cotton thread from my sleeve on the stays to show me where the wind is coming from and to help me sail close to it, but for now such niceties are beyond me.

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Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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