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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Wolf’s Paw

part 3

In the end, more to get away from him than anything else, I let the change take hold and run, far and fast over the snow. I would hunt, my blood is hot and it would be a relief to rend and tear something, but there is no prey foolish enough to stand in my way.

Even as I flee from him, I am aware of his thoughts in my mind, tracking me. There is nowhere to go to ground — nowhere I can go he would not follow.

In the end I run — run from the itch in my mind that I can’t scratch, a maddening itch, like a burr caught in my thick pelt. I look over my shoulder at my tracks. The snow is falling like a shroud.

I shift again, shedding fur for feathers as Lucid intends, and fly above the cloud. I find my direction in the shifting flakes and, true to his will, fly like the falcon I am, back to Lucid’s waiting hand.

I don’t think I will ever get used to the jess Lucid winds around my feet, ‘For your own protection’. The hood is worse but I submit and let him carry me in out of the snow. In the ice house Lucid removes my hood. I blink at him.

He goes to tend the fire to allow me privacy, and I make the change, shedding feathers that I gather and burn, so that none can gain power over me. He hands me my robe without comment.

He has this much delicacy, though in truth it is not my nakedness that bothers me, it’s showing him the intimacy of the change. Even lovers turn their faces from each other at such times. To be caught in that transition — neither one thing nor another — is a revelation few care to risk.

There is only one man who had courage enough to show me the change, Mathuin, child of the falcon, who sought to make me his lover at my father’s court. I was too young to know the value of the gift he offered me. It was for this latest transgression that my father sent me to the temple on the eve of my coming of age ceremony.

It wasn’t that my father cared who I took to my bed, but he did care that I should dishonour him. To take a changeling as my lover would only revive the old rumours about my mother and the ‘gift’ she passed to me.

My father hid my shame by sending me to the falcons, relying on the temple to tame my wild nature. They had licence to discipline me and to ensure that in all things I obeyed my father.

Defying the king was treason and the penalty, even for a king’s disinherited son, was death. By putting me under the rule of the falcon, my father sought to protect me. He didn’t know what it cost me to live a lie, knowing there were others like me but sworn to deny what I was.

I have heard the Old Tales — the legends of the shape shifter king who one day will return to the heights and reclaim the throne that was stolen from him. Surely such tales are fabrications, created to explain the forces that once shaped this world before the Cataclysm. Tales for the credulous and the common people that will help them understand.

I wonder if anyone back in the wild times would believe people could be so tame. When I see the dull-eyed serfs toiling in the fields, I realize that a farming community will always have this underclass.

Still I am fortunate — being trained for the temple to serve the gods means I can read. I am studying the old languages, words preserved in the rituals we follow, long after their true meaning is lost. Ceremonies of purification, cleansing the soil, killing meat in season, ‘ritual’ that kept this sheltered community protected while the waters rose. The maps in the histories show the old world, not the new.

Even now, few give credence to the Old Tales. We reserve these mysteries for those of the blood, those born in the crimson. I owe it to my uncle that I am an initiate.

I shiver and he places the fur cloak around my shoulders. He says it is a gift from my father. We both know that isn’t true but it gives me a kind of comfort — that he thinks I should care.

I am dreaming, gazing into the crumbling coals, picking out the shape of a fiery ship. My uncle peers over my shoulder, and I pull the cloak close. ‘You see it too,’ he whispers, ‘the Winter Ship?’

When I turn, I find him seated in his chair beside the hearth. He has conjured the hot chocolate I craved earlier, a reward for my compliance. ‘Drink,’ he says and as I raise the goblet to my lips, I wonder if he said anything at all.

Maybe I was merely in the drowsy dream stage that goes with the change. Like the headache that sometimes, when I was younger and not so strong, meant I would sleep until the lamps were lit in the temple and the priest came looking for me.

I hear the snow-muffled bell chime and at once, I pull myself to my feet, anxious to escape the beating that should fall to me. With Lucid here, they will use a surrogate again and Teodor will learn to hate me.

‘Be at peace, Kyran,’ Lucid holds me back. The bell is not for you, merely a summons to council. I made time for this conversation, though we should probably go now, before we are missed. The king sent a message, and you need to hear it.’

At his gesture, the snow palace subsides. Once again, we are walking through sleet. The bitter taste of chocolate lingers.

* * *

We are in time for the second bell, so I find myself walking into the chamber and taking my seat with the other novices at the rear. My uncle takes the honoured seat, reserved for the king’s messenger, in the centre of the hall.

A grey sky bunched like a fist with heavy clouds darkens the room. The high priest calls for the lighting of the lamps, although it is almost noon.

My uncle rises, a scroll in his hands. When I see the blood red seal, I lower my eyes, according to the ritual my master taught me. This is sacrosanct, signed by the King’s own hand, so that only the Hierophant can touch it without insult. From the king’s hand to the gods’ high priest only.

There is a whispering in the hall, hastily quelled as the Hierophant rises to take the scroll with due obeisance. He gestures and in a single rippling movement, everyone in that hall rises, drawing their cloak around their faces like so many crows flapping.

I rise too, but slowly because I am anxious to see what is happening. I hope that no one notices, but the high priest looks straight at me and signals that I should stay. I let my cloak fall and stand like a statue, while all around me, elders and novices file out.

Usually they would taunt me, making faces, but today they hurry past with downcast eyes. Today no one envies the banished prince. They are just grateful that they’re not the ones to stay and learn what the blood scroll portends.

The chamber empties like water flowing from a sluice, leaving the tall figure of the Hierophant, my uncle’s bent and shrunken form and me, standing alone in the tiers. Twelve doors for the gods, left unbarred so they can visit the Goddess at any time. To shut one out is to risk the enmity of all.

The last door closes and my uncle beckons. Moving as slowly as I dare, I gather my cloak around me and descend the central aisle, past rows and rows of empty seats until I reach the floor.

In the meantime, the High Priest has taken his seat. My uncle stands leaning on his staff before him. His pose is deceptively humble. I have no doubt who holds the power in this hall today.

‘You read the scroll yourself?’ The Hierophant sounds querulous, his voice thin in the echoing space.

My uncle moistens his lips. ‘No, Your Grace.’

‘Yet you knew the contents, Excellence. The King summons the Prince to court to resume his duties and train in arms as befits his state. He has in mind to create him Duke and guardian to the twin princes.’

The priest shakes his head. ‘Lucid...’

I am surprised to hear him use my uncle’s name. No doubt, they trained together before my time.

‘Kyran has no knowledge of the mysteries. His skills are raw and untried. He lacks application as a scholar and his health is poor. I see no need for him to return to court, indeed I would counsel against it. He has his education to complete and is young for his years.’

As a plea, this leaves much to be desired. I don’t look sickly and I rather resent the slur on my youth. Life is short and sweet at court. As if my father cares about my knowledge of the mysteries and the old language! My health is the least of his concerns. He has too many children.

‘I am sorry, but the King has spoken. Kyran will return to court in my care. I must ask you to release him from the order.’

This I had not looked for, thinking myself bound to the falcons. They never permit anyone to leave, but with the blood scroll in his hands, Lucid seems sure he will prevail.

The priest glares at him and calls me forward. I kneel, and he raises his hand. ‘Kyran, I release you from the protection of the order.’

I should feel relieved. Now, with the lifting of the priest’s hand, my sanctuary is ended. My uncle frowns at me.

With shaking hands, I unclasp the wrought silver falcon that I have worn against my skin for as long as I can remember. The Hierophant doesn’t take it but nods wearily at the altar set before the flame. I place it there on the stone, feeling the harsh granite scrape my hand. A drop of blood falls on the silver. Now I have defiled the altar as well. I should pray but it’s too late now.

‘Go in peace to serve the Gods and Empire.’ It has the finality of a curse. I think the priest fears he is sending me to my death. Credit to him that he sought to protect me. I clasp his hand in the ritual gesture of farewell and kiss his ring for the last time. Tears prickle at the back of my eyes but do not fall. For that, I am glad.

My uncle leans on me and I dutifully escort him, another frail old man clutching his staff, out into the bright winter sunlight glinting on the snow.

My uncle must be in a hurry; apparently he gave orders to have horses ready for us even before we met with the High Priest. My mare is old and I have little to do but cling to her mane, my few goods tied in a bundle behind the saddle. I do not make a princely figure. My uncle might be mistaken for a healer who travels with his apprentice. A healer, like a bard, is always welcome.

We descend the path into the valley leaving the temple behind, and I can’t even see the tower, shielded behind the walls. As we ride out of the valley, I look back. There is nothing of my former home, or prison, to be seen.

Proceed to Chapter 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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