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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 2: A Lesson in Civility

part 1

We ride for some hours, passing through the village that serves the temple for provisions. Here all doors are closed, windows shuttered and no smoke rises from the hearths. I turn to my uncle. ‘Where are the people?’

Lucid looks at me as if I’m mad. ‘I forget how sheltered you were in your temple, Kyran. Did you never hear of famine and conscription?’

He gestures as we ride past a newly dug mass grave, soldiers of the Empire filling it in. They pay no heed to us. My uncle rides on, his cloak drawn close around his face to avert disease. Nothing can purge the scent of decay.

‘The plague killed thousands while you lived out your quiet life in sanctuary!’ Lucid’s tone is curt. I flush, feeling the reproof, flinching from it as if it were an undeserved blow. He gives me no time to gather my thoughts and reply. ‘You really think you had it so harsh, cared for and tended as you were?’

‘You saw how they tended me.’

Lucid shrugs. ‘They kept you alive. Now that responsibility falls to you. The King isn’t summoning you back as his son and heir. He has an altogether different purpose for you.’

‘Different?’ I say but already I know, even before he fails to meet my eyes.

‘I should let him tell you, but my sources tell me he plans to confirm you as protector to the young princes, Your Highness.’

He says the title gently, with no apparent irony, but I suspect him. ‘I thought you were the Lord Protector.’

‘I was for you. A thankless role and self-appointed. Now the King wants someone to stand between his infant sons and Majvaz.’

‘So my dear brother will kill me first? Like a tethered goat?’ I should know better than to answer back.

‘Do you really think, my dear boy, that I’d freeze myself out here, encouraging you to shed your sheep skin for a wolf skin, if I thought you’d play that role?’

There is nothing affectionate about ‘my dear boy’ and, in case I don’t get the point, he goes on to make his meaning clear. ‘The choice, my young friend, is yours. When it comes to Majvaz, it’s him or you. You think me hard, boy. I haven’t got time to update your political education, but learn this: sooner or later, if you can’t kill, you will die.’

‘I’m no assassin.’

Lucid laughs. ‘You think assassins are born with knives in their cradles? Let my story be a lesson to you. Cripples can’t rule. That was my brother’s mercy to me. He left me alive as a warning. Your father has been called many things, but he is a consummate politician if nothing else.’

* * *

It takes forever to reach the palace. Lucid rides in easy stages as befits a man of his age. For me there is nothing easy about our journey. He’s determined that I’ll be ready to survive when we reach the court, making me run in the shape of a wolf and fly as the falcon daily to test my endurance.

At night he keeps me awake by the campfire under the stars while he lectures me in statecraft. If I want to eat, I have to catch and skin my prey and forage for whatever I can find. Not that the starving peasants leave much for strangers.

I begin to appreciate the austere fare at the temple as never before. The servants of the Goddess never go hungry; the people bring offerings to the shrine every day. After seeing the stricken village, I’m wondering if they went hungry to feed us. Is there anyone left to bring the offerings?

At night I shiver, wrapped in my woolen cloak that is already frayed and torn. The changes have always been hard on my clothes. After a couple of cold nights, I give in and lapse into wolf form one night.

Hearing the cries of other wolves reminds me I’m not full-grown. If they catch my scent and it comes to an encounter in their territory, it’s likely I will lose. So I shift and sleep with the sword Lucid has given me at my side. I bank the fire high at night and leave branches within reach so we have some defence.

Lucid appears indifferent and dines on little more than the dried stores in his pack and a flask that never empties. He will not share his provisions with me, forcing me to rely on my skills.

I learn to cook, or at least not scorch the meat too badly, and to survive on less sleep than I’m used to. In the temple we went early to bed and woke in the night for the holy hours of prayer. In the shadows of the temple it was easy to doze through them. In the woods I keep watch and go hunting. It’s strange to be out in the forest at all hours, away from the sheltered walls of the temple.

We pass a couple of isolated settlements. There is the scent of freshly baked bread in the air, but my uncle won’t permit me to stop. Then, after two weeks on the road, we finally approach a fortified village and ride to the inn. The accommodation is poor. As a healer’s apprentice, I’m relegated to the stables with the other boys, who resent the stranger in their midst.

When they attack me the first night, I give a good account of myself. I dislocate someone’s shoulder and break the nose of another. After that they leave me alone and, truth to tell, I’m shocked by the outcome; I’d not intended to wreak such mayhem. It feels like my uncle’s training is beginning to pay off. I’m no longer the soft acolyte he took from the temple.

For a day or two I revel in my newfound confidence until four of them lie in wait for me and take their revenge. Lucid is unsympathetic but leaves me to nurse my bruises, telling me to rest while I can, because tomorrow the holiday will be over. He always did have a warped sense of humour.

Early next morning I wake to the sound of a new arrival. This dark-haired stranger has letters for my uncle from friends at court — or so he says anyway. Lucid loudly announces his surprise and delight at this fortunate meeting. He introduces Garaile as the son of an old friend. He discovers that Garaile is going our way and invites him to travel with us and teach me to use the sword. At least there is another person to share the night watches, and I get some sleep at night.

There are secrets here. Messengers usually wear livery and it is obvious, even to me, that Garaile is a soldier who has seen combat. It seems more than coincidence that now, when I’m finally allowed to play with edged weapons, a king’s guard arrives to teach me how to use them. One might almost think Lucid expected to meet Garaile and that we were waiting for him to join us.

Still my uncle keeps his counsel, and ‘Master Garaile’, as I learn to call him, keeps his secrets well.

The days settle into a pattern as we enter the fourth week of our journey. Strange that we are summoned urgently to court and yet we spend a month lingering on the road. Unless the phases of the moon have changed, my uncle is playing games with time again.

I had access to the library at the temple and I know that with fast horses a man can travel to the capital in five days. When I ask, Lucid tells me we’re not going to the capital where my father keeps court in the summer. We’re bound for the castle on the crag on the northern defences.

As the king’s disinherited son, I grew up in this castle. Far from coming home, this shift of state from pleasure palace to fortress tells me that we are at war. My childhood is about to come to an abrupt end.

I’m getting stronger. Although I will never rival Garaile with knives and sword, I’m gaining some skill and haven’t cut myself in days. I get the impression that, far from trying to transform me into a conventional fighting man, my uncle merely intends to teach me my limitations. Shifting to wolf and tearing out throats might be satisfying until they set the dogs on me. So the cursed are executed.

The beating I took at the inn was to show me the consequence of overconfidence and the nature of reprisals. The aim, he tells me, is that I learn to avoid fights and to keep out of trouble. I can defend myself if I need to.

Garaile snorts derisively at this, which is enough to make me go for him. He teaches me a brief, pointed lesson in civility and prudence. The flick of his blade over my heart is a kind of warning, but I’m growing up fast. Maybe I’m wrong but I read another message in it, which I don’t share with my uncle. Garaile is young, barely twenty, though already he has seen five years service in the King’s guard.

No journey lasts forever. Finally, we come to the end of the forest, leaving the trees behind for moorland and follow the stream that leads up into the mountains.

The muddy track that I remember has become a broad paved road with way stations. We pass a couple of new villages, the thatch still green on the houses, built to provide food and supplies. The King is raising an army for defence against the Empire.

Lucid leads us. Garaile rides at his shoulder, while I follow like a page. We spend our first night at the King’s Inn and use the bathhouse. No longer in disguise, Lucid pays for our accommodation in style. Servants bring clean clothes for us. It seems everything has been provided for. There are fresh horses waiting for us.

In the morning we dress for court. My hair, which was allowed to grow long at the temple, is trimmed. I don’t recognise the stranger in the mirror. Lucid sends Garaile ahead to announce our arrival to the king. We can’t enter the city until we receive royal permission. Although I’m afraid, I’m excited too. Who knows what the future will bring?

That afternoon the King sends a party of men at arms to welcome his ‘nephew’. Garaile rides at their head in royal livery. Lucid has warned me to say nothing until he gives me leave. He accepts the king’s scroll on my behalf with all due ceremony while I sit in the inn’s best chair in the parlour and try my best to look as if I give audience every day.

Later, Lucid briefs me in private. It seems that my late mother has become his sister, removing me further from the line of succession to the throne. The fiction that Lucid is the late Queen’s brother rather than the King’s is now prevalent at court. I learn that the King can change history to fit his purposes.

My uncle warns me not to resent my demotion, and in truth I have no complaint. Lucid was always more of a father than my own.

It is therefore an unpleasant surprise when Lucid breaks it to me that he is leaving. He is not invited to court and his presence would endanger me. ‘You can trust Garaile. He’ll take care of you.’ I ask him where he’s going and when I’ll see him again but he just smiles and tells me the future is uncertain. I should know a farewell when I hear one.

I sleep very little in the inn after Lucid has left but lie awake, hearing the bells in the castle chapel strike the half-hour through the night. In the end I get up before the dawn and go sit in the kitchen by the fire. Garaile finds me in the morning and orders wine. I’m drunk before breakfast which is hardly good preparation for the day, but I don’t care.

The wine is a comfort and dulls the edge of my fear. Garaile is good company. Under the mellowing influence, I begin to imagine that maybe I will have one friend at court; a dangerous assumption, but in truth I don’t expect to see my next birthday.

Family politics have always been lethal in this court. After Lucid’s lessons, I learned to think in terms of alive or dead, not right or wrong, or good or bad. All I know of the good is that they tend to die young, which gives me some hope. Despite the best efforts of the temple brethren, I don’t count virtue among my failings.

When I suggest we’d better leave before I get so drunk I fall on my face in front of my father, Garaile shakes his head at me, reproving my ‘dangerous sense of levity’. He says it, which is more than I could with the wine in me. I tell him one of my family traditions is to make a good death. If that means I need drink to laugh in the face of it, so be it. As for being delivered meekly like the child I was when I left, no and no again.

That’s when Garaile tells me his own hard-luck story. How my father the King made his father, the powerful Duke of a border province, send him to court as a child hostage. His service in my father’s household was to guarantee his father’s loyalty to my father’s crown.

We noble children are used like gambling counters to buy advantage here or there. None of us get to grow up in our own homes. I’m thinking Garaile must hate me for my father. I make a drunken promise that if he doesn’t kill me, I’ll let him live.

He laughs and says I’m safe... for now.

When I’m cleaned up, and sobered through fear, Garaile and I take the day’s ride to the castle. Although I’m not his prisoner and wear my sword, I feel that I’m under escort. My riding has improved, which is some comfort, but we make a lonely procession. Few turn their heads to mark my return as the king’s son.

We’re halted by the guards at the door to the royal chambers and submitted to a humiliating strip search. Family or not, my father is being careful. I’m hoping he doesn’t know some of my weapons are invisible to the eye, unless I choose. In either case I’m helpless. If I show what I am, the archers will shoot me down at the king’s feet. Hardly the homecoming I’m looking for.

All this is passing through my mind as I shrug myself back into my robes and make some shift to tidy my hair. Even combs count as weapons. It is hardly our fault if we arrive tussled and out of breath in the royal presence.

I begin the long walk to the throne. Garaile discreetly merges into the ranks of armed servitors, and I’m more alone than ever.

I pause at the foot of the dais, waiting to see if my father will recognise me. He’s reading a scroll across his knee. He knows I’m there, makes me wait, my face burning at the slight. Until he lifts his head and deigns to acknowledge me. Kneeling, my head bowed in the approved posture of deference, I feel the heat of his eyes on my neck.

Finally, he speaks. ‘Kyran, be welcome to our court.’

I rise at that and make him another low obeisance. He shifts slightly as if uncomfortable. The throne is granite, excuse enough. For a moment I expect an invitation to take my former seat at the foot of the throne. But my chair has been removed. Foolish of me to think he’d keep a place for me. With a gesture, the King dismisses me.

Careful not to trip on the court mantle that trails behind me, I take the ritual ten paces back before I can raise my eyes briefly, murmur the correct formula for leaving the presence, make the third obeisance and retire. All this happens under a pall of silence. Courtiers’ eyes flick away from me. The King’s displeasure is evident. My disgrace confirmed.

My hands are shaking so I clasp them under my cloak with its narrow border of purple. I feel faint with hunger and fear. The sour wine churns in my stomach, and it is all I can do not to break and make a run for the door.

Somehow I reach the outer court and nearly throw up at the stench of urine from the large amphora placed at the door.

Gold leaf on the walls and puddles and night soil everywhere; such is the glory of our court.

Why did he send for me? After leaving my father’s presence, I go in quest of my old rooms and happen upon an old chamberlain of our house. He is dumbstruck with embarrassment and makes some excuse about ‘My Grace’s’ apartments being in need of repair — alternative arrangements — he will ascertain.

I might feel sorry for him but coming home to find there is no place for me hardens my heart. No doubt the princely apartment has found new tenants. Rooms never lie empty in the castle for long. There are always more courtiers than places at court.

For a moment I contemplate an ignominious return to the inn. Bearing in mind I don’t have any money and would be hard pressed to work out the value of any coin if I did, let alone the chances of the guards letting me past the gate, I’m going nowhere.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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