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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 18: Soul Thief

part 1

We glide over dark waters. The Winter Ship lours out of the shreds of mist weaving around her spars. Once again, I’m cut adrift from time. My fate is drifting on a different current.

Looking at the bleached hull, I shiver. It’s cold with the breeze from the sea. Her lamps dip, casting shadows; I can’t see the faces of those who are waiting for us. The port lantern stains the sea with a scarlet glow. Kras throws a rope, and a ladder is lowered for us. I hesitate, but it is a long swim to shore. Reluctantly, I climb, with Kras close behind me.

No friendly hand to guide me over the edge, but I’m more used to ships now. Even so, I’ve barely got my feet on the deck when Kras follows me. He pushes me forward into the crimson-lit circle and pulls back my hood.

‘Is this the one you seek?’

Razvan shoulders his way through the sailors. Lorcan, Naraya and Daan are there, too. On a ship there is nowhere to run. The circle is like the heart of a target with me at the centre. Razvan lets fly his first shaft.

‘Kyran, they said you were dead.’

‘Sorry to disappoint you.’

Razvan doesn’t dignify this with a reply. Leaving me to the Guardians, he walks away, his hand on Kras’ shoulder.

I’m slow to understand. Kras turns back to look at me and holds out his hand. ‘Give me my fee.’ If anything, he makes it slow and deliberate so there can be no doubt.

I stand there, foolish, but I’m not surprised. I know later the hurt will be there. For the moment, I watch the scene unfold and the hostage they are discussing isn’t me. I’m just there, and the knives beneath my cloak give no comfort. My weight in gold, Kras said. I wish him joy of it. I’m not his to sell. Strange there is salt drying on my cheek.

Naraya proffers a purse. Razvan tosses it to Kras who catches it, takes out a golden coin and tests it with his teeth before weighing the purse in his hand. ‘This is hardly ransom for a prince.’

‘These are difficult times. You can take that now and be quit of us or take your chances and sail to Kota Samur. They say there is enough gold lying on the shore to pay any man’s weight in gold.’

‘Kota Samur is only a tale.’ Kras looks uncertain, as well he might.

My hands are on the knives: time to give him back what’s his. I know I’ll never reach him, but they’ll have to kill me to stop me. Or so I think. And then he turns his back on me. A perfect target. The cloak hampers me, but that isn’t what stops me. No one deserves a knife in the back. I draw the knives and pitch them so they stick, blades quivering, in the deck between us.

Razvan smiles, amused as Daan and Lorcan pinion my arms. Even so, I drag them with me towards Kras, who watches but makes no move. I break free for a moment and snatch a knife, but Daan grasps my wrist.

‘Let the knife fall or I’ll break it.’

I know he’ll be as good at his word. The haft sears my hand with sudden heat. Defeated, I give in, and they hold me.

Slowly then Kras bends and picks up the knife. His hand closes on the haft. Then he throws it, and the blade passes so close that I feel a whisper of flame sear my cheek. The knife falls with a splash over the side. He stows the other he gave me in his belt and says nothing.

Naraya approaches, skirts swishing on the deck. She wears a cloak over her gown and a circlet in her hair. ‘Give me your hand.’ She unstops a jar that smells cool like a breeze over snow and smooths it over the burn on my palm. Her touch draws out the fire. It’s all I can do not to scream.

Razvan looks on. ‘I thought you learned not to play with fire, Kyran.’ He says it as if he doesn’t care, merely chastising the errant child he thinks I am.

‘I’m not worth the fee you paid. Why go to so much trouble to bring me back?’

‘It wasn’t my choice.’ So he answers me and tells me nothing.

Daan bows to me with mock courtesy. ‘Your cabin is below.’ I follow him down into the belly of the ship, and he leads me to the bow where there is a tiny room with two bunks. ‘One for you and one for your guard. Tonight I draw that duty.’

I turn my back on him and slide into the nearest bunk, drawing the blanket over me. I hear movement overhead, the clatter of the anchor chain as the crew reel it in. Their singing as the ship sets sail drifts down to me: a sea shanty lullaby. Daan blows out the lamp. I close my eyes and sleep.

* * *

So begins the new pattern of my days. I’m never alone. The Guardians take turns to watch me, Lorcan, Naraya, Razvan and Daan. Kras also takes his turn to watch me, though he comes alone, never with the others. They keep me below decks and allow me only one turn of the deck at nightfall.

Then ‘for your own safety’ two of the immortals escort me, looping a rope though the iron on my wrists. They let me eat my evening meal on the deck and are courteous to me, but whatever confidence there was between us is broken.

It seems they took my escape as a breach of trust, that I made the sacrifice to the sea god and he held me in his hand. After the freedom of charting my own course by the stars, it comes hard to be confined. Again, I ask for paper and pens, and at least they let me write my history.

Kras I can’t bear to look at, but he doesn’t leave me alone. I suppose it is foolish in me to resent that this boy, raised as a whore, should sell me.

He puzzles me. He looks so young but there is something ageless about him and he seems far older than I am. He is carelessly kind to me, as if I’m a dog, some favoured pet, and I note that of all my captors he is the one who spends most time with me.

* * *

On the third day, I am so bored I have to break the silence. ‘I thought you were taking me to freedom. I thought you were rescuing me, not handing me back to my captors.’

He doesn’t answer but sits trimming his nails with his knife and humming a tune under his breath.

I get the impression he is angry. Maybe things haven’t turned out the way he expected, either, and that he is no happier to be part of this than I am. Does he feel short-changed? My attempts at conversation meet with silent reserve.

Finally, I turn my face away from him and stare out of the porthole. Blue and green water lit by the sun. I envy the fish their freedom. I was foolish to take the immortals’ bait. I wish they’d cut my throat and throw me back.

A flicker of shadow as if he moved at my thought. ‘If you are still reading my mind, you will know I despise you. Why are you here?’

‘I’m not reading your mind.’ His voice is low, expressionless. ‘Kyran — that was only the once — after we... were close. Now you are distant to me. You hate me. You shut me out.’

‘We were never close. What you had from me you took. I gave you nothing. Leave me alone. Send Daan, Razvan, anyone else. I never want to see your face again.’

‘They won’t come. They’re afraid of the curse. The iron is to weaken you.’

Half-starved after a fortnight at sea and with the mark of the blood wraith etched in my throat, I feel I’m weak enough already.

I laugh, ‘You’d better pray it works. I’ll kill you if I get free. I wish you’d left me alone. I knew I was a slave then. I thought you were my friend.’

He puts his hand out, and I strike it away. ‘Kyran, I didn’t know. They posted a reward for you in the city. They said you were their kinsman’s son, kidnapped and sold, that they would pay to have you returned to them. I didn’t know you were their prisoner.’

‘You were quick enough to sell me and complain about the price.’

‘I thought I could buy my freedom. I wanted the gold, but I thought I was helping you.’ He weighs the purse in his hand. ‘This is no use to me at sea.’

‘Then why didn’t you leave? They gave you the chance.’

‘You think I could go back? Had you merely escaped, they’d have beaten all of us, not so the bruises would show. But you had to insult the heir to the kingdom. Jirair marked you and you fled. You don’t know what I risked. You have your life, Kyran. I lent you a knife to end it if they caught us.’

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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