by Sarah Ann Watts
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 1: Wolf’s Paw
Morning in the temple, and a dog is barking. I wake, scrunched up on my pallet, straw tickling my throat. My breath mists in the cold air. There will be ice on the pitcher this morning. I shiver, burrowing beneath my thin blanket but then the bell begins to toll. Already I am late. I slept in my shirt to keep warm and save time.
I reach for my acolyte’s robe, rough as sackcloth and tie the rope around my waist. If I displease my master, he will use the rope to beat me. I am lucky it has only one knot and has no steel weights, a concession to my youth, never my rank.
My feet are grimy — no bath until the purification ceremony and none of us are keen to bathe in the river in any season. The bell tolls, impatient, and I drag open the door to my master’s cell. It is an honour to serve so venerable a priest, to sleep in the bare chamber that borders his anchorite’s cell and wait on him. I know it was also for my own protection that the Hierophant separated me from my fellow acolytes. A penance for my pride and disobedience to his will.
The night torches are burning down. My task is to rise before the sun and open the shutters. I make haste to throw them back, letting in the pale light of a winter’s dawn. The shutters are heavy and powdered snow collapses in. Already I am running out of time.
Six strokes of the bell and Master Fadil will take six strokes out of my ‘princely’ skin again. My back hasn’t healed from my last act of defiance. Some things I bring upon myself. I rush for the broom to sweep up and have barely completed my tasks before my master calls. I make haste to draw back the curtain to the alcove where he sleeps, and he emerges snail-like from his shell.
I fear he will chastise me for my tardiness but his mind is on other matters, perhaps the single plumed feather that twists in his hand, a curled question.
‘Do you know anything about this, Kyran?’
I keep my eyes lowered. ‘No, Master Fadil.’
I can tell he isn’t fooled by my show of humility, though in truth I never left my pallet last night. I was licking my wounds and musing on revenge.
He lets the feather fall and contents himself with a cuff to my head that knocks me back against the wall. I pick myself up along with the feather and hide it in my sleeve. Master Fadil sighs, perhaps in pity, and I rush to open the door for him.
I should have risen early, ready for the expected snowfall, but he says nothing. At the door I hesitate, and he turns his head to stare at me — a pallid tortoise shrouded in the layers of his cowl.
‘Did you see the bird arrive, Kyran?’
‘No, Master Fadil. I slept outside the door as you commanded.’
He nods grudgingly. ‘It would be better for you and all of us if you had learned to obey before I had to chastise you.’
He is right but I have nothing to say and merely bow my head.
To my surprise, Master Fadil throws a pair of worn sandals at me, and I catch them mid-air. My reflexes have always been fast. He grunts, whether in approval or amusement I cannot tell and even leans on his staff to wait while I shuffle frozen feet into the sandals and struggle with the straps. Then he points to the shovel and sends me out to clear a path through the snow.
When we reach the main temple, Master Fadil dismisses me. I join the other acolytes for a scanty meal. As ever I get the smallest portion of food, dried bread and a thin sour wine like vinegar. We all drink it, even the little ones, as water brings fever and disease. We’ve all heard the old tales, how once the waters ran clean and fish lived in them. Now the temple breeds fish in the farm tanks. Water is endlessly recycled in a secret ‘god given’ process, known only to the priests.
There is some warmth from the fire pit in the centre of the floor and for a while, friends and enemy alike, we are left alone to huddle around it. Not that I go too near. I keep my back to the wall. Whatever the news from beyond the pale, the great bird that delivered tidings at dawn, it seems it will occupy our masters for a while. We enjoy an unexpected holiday. The cook’s servants drag in a hog for slaughter.
The Hierophant must be expecting guests, which means a feast, and we novices bound to serve in the temple will get an early visit to the bathhouse, clean clothes and our chilblains bound up. Some of us are of noble birth, so the priesthood must observe certain decencies. After a while, I realise that no one is going to hit me this morning. The usual boredom that leads to petty torture gives way to gossip.
I draw closer, they ignore me but they let me listen.
‘They say the King is coming himself.’ This is Aurel, my chief tormenter. He’s hoping for a reaction from me but I don’t give him the satisfaction.
‘In this weather? Why should the King come now?’ Questions tinged with fear.
They all glance at me.
‘To see Wolf’s Paw here?’ Aurel grins and draws his hand across his throat. They all laugh.
Nicu hushes them, offering me a seat closer to the fire. Any other day I’d stand on my bruised dignity but today I am eager as anyone to hear the news. The cook’s slave comes through from the kitchen with a pitcher of wine and a plate of honey cakes. ‘For Prince Kyran.’
Sometimes I think the cook, a loyalist, is trying to get me killed. I don’t blame my companions for their resentment of me. Today I have courage to take the first honey cake and pour wine into the crystal glass. Usually I am lucky if they leave me the crumbs but today they wait and I smile at them — wolf like — before I share the cakes and wine. It doesn’t go far among ten of us — all hungry — but is better than nothing.
Life is hard for all of us, and I don’t blame the boys who torment me. They think I’m only there to finish my education and one day my father will recall me. They are the second sons of second sons who know their families will never spare the fees to release them. They will have no choice but to take vows and accept the austerity of the order. For them the only route out is to prove themselves as fighters and gain a limited freedom in the temple guard.
After a while one of the poorer acolytes enters — Teodor, a foundling and possibly the only one of them I do not envy. He is perhaps fifteen, though like me he has been denied the coming of age braid. His robe is outgrown and he carries a sheepskin pelt, which he offers me, although his arms are blue.
‘You are summoned, Kyran. I mean, My Lord.’
I take the sheepskin from him and then pass it on to one of the little ones who has a harsh racking cough. It used to keep me awake at night in the dormitory before they sent me to Master Fadil’s cell to meditate on my sins and prove my humility.
Then I follow Teodor into the chamber where the priests hold the morning meeting to appoint the duties of the day.
A hum of conversation falters as I enter. My father would not come himself but he has sent my great uncle. It is a subtle insult as Lucid — the name given in mockery — is held by many to be feeble-minded. He has lived through the reign of three kings, no mean feat.
Lucid smiles at me but I school my face to a scowl and stare at the floor. It would do neither of us any good if I showed I was pleased to see him. My lack of courtly manners, my failing to make the correct obeisance to him, dismays the priests.
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts