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 12: Ice and Time
Looking back, our time in the desert was a mirage of fractured dreams. I was feverish for much of it and I remember little more than falling asleep on my feet, conscious of Razvan’s ever-growing impatience and waking to a series of grey dawns, pulled from whatever meagre shelter he’d found, like a child taken from a warm bed and out into the cold.
Now the moon is rising and still we walk across the endless sands. There is cloth bound about my brow, shielding me from the fierce heat of the sun. I remember cool hands wrapping it around my forehead and the water running down into my mouth, but surely that was hours ago.
I try to think back over that day and find I can remember nothing, nothing since Razvan bade me goodnight. Now we are riding down a rocky valley, the bed of a river that died aeons ago.
Far away and faint at first, the sound of water; and finally we come to an outcrop in the rock, and there is a waterfall: silver rain that falls to the rocks below. For the first time in many days there is green amid the grey, and flowers spangle the grass.
I drink, water running down my throat. Then I strip off my clothes and jump into the clear pool, and I dive, down and down. I see a glitter like gold beyond my reach. I break the surface, gasping for breath.
Razvan is sitting on a rock watching me, my sword across his lap.
I scramble for the bank and dry myself hastily, before pulling on my clothes. I remember flying as a falcon and running with the wolves. I have no memory of swimming like a fish.
I lean forward to wring out my dripping hair. There is sand in the pool, stirred by my feet; it settles as I watch. I see my face reflected and the moon in the sky over my shoulder. It is a slim crescent, newborn.
Razvan has filled a silver cup from the spring and drinks. He draws another cup from his bag, dips it in the clear water, then hands it to me. There is something priestly in the ritual. I almost expect that the water will have changed into wine but it is water still, though sweeter than any wine.
I feel refreshed, and it is as if the dive into the pool awakened me or quickened something in me like the echo of memory. As I tie back my hair, I find myself staring into the depths, seeing the sunlight cast rainbows in the spray. Seven colours, and I shield my eyes in reverence.
‘Is this the well of Kota Samur?’
On this moonlit night, I could believe anything. The world is new made in myriad hues.
Razvan laughs. ‘You really believe in that?’
His skepticism jars like a blow. ‘The place of healing, yes, why not? I feel sleep has fallen from me, and I am awake for the first time in many days or months.’
‘Awake maybe for the first time in your life, that’s all.’
‘But my arm has healed, and my leg. I can walk. I am strong again.’
‘I’m pleased to hear it. We still have a way to go. The ship sails in the morning. The tide does not wait.’ With that, he pulls himself to his feet and shrugging, I make to follow when he holds up his hand. ‘Wait. There are those who would speak with you.’
He gestures to a shadow behind the waterfall. A cave perhaps? As I watch, three robed figures emerge from the curtain of iridescent spray. They approach and raise their hands to let their hoods fall back. I recognise the faces of my former companions, Daan, Lorcan and Naraya. They look at me, lifting their hands in solemn greeting and to my amazement, Razvan bows his head.
‘I have brought the changeling here as you commanded.’
I stand with hair still dripping down my back, reminding me that this is no dream. I know the Goddess they serve and I wonder what they want with me.
Naraya approaches, robed as a priestess, and I wonder at my presumption, that I could ever have failed to realise who she was. ‘You are the lady of the sky.’
‘And these are the lords of earth and fire.’
I kneel before them.
‘Welcome, brother.’ They greet Razvan, not me, and as I look at him, he too shifts before my gaze to reveal his true nature.
‘The Lord of Water.’
Naraya smiles. ‘Who else could cross a hundred leagues of desert in one night? Though in truth each of us has some command over all elements. There must always be four Guardians to serve the Goddess.’
Razvan stands beside them and his clothes blur to a robe the colour of the sea. There are pearls and shells around his throat. He smiles at me and his teeth are like those of a shark. I blink; some illusion and the image fades as he is once again my travel-stained companion.
Servants come out of the caves leading pack mules laden with supplies. The immortals shed their robes of fire and air and earth. They shimmer, like wisps of cloud, assuming their usual guise.
A stable boy leads out a mare for me, and my companions ride grey horses. They surround me like the honour guard for a prince or, some might say, a guard for a prisoner.
Night falls suddenly. It is chill, and I draw my cloak close around me and ride beside them.
* * *
The road is a grey ribbon unwinding. I have a feeling that the earth is moving beneath the horses’ hooves. This is no natural ride. I lose track of the passage of time.
After a few or several leagues, it is hard to tell, we approach a tumbledown village. Crumbling walls make a poor defence and the broken gate bears the scars of a fire.
Dogs bark and far away a door slams. The village doors and windows are shuttered and barred, a clink of light around shrouded windows the only sign of life - that and thin plumes of smoke from the hearths.
We ride swiftly through the silent village. I can almost hear the people breathing in their houses. I sense that everyone is awake, wrapping babies in blankets or muffling their children’s voices as we pass like wraiths in the night.
As we ride through the final gate, it swings closed behind us and now, perhaps, the villagers can sleep. I suppose it must always be like this for many, waking in the night to hear strangers pass, barricading their doors, venturing out only in the light of day.
It is a sad thought for the son of a king that the people are so afraid. Yet who can blame them? Caught up as they are in this endless war between kingdoms, their only hope is survival, to raise their children and live out their lives as best they can.
I ride on with my honour guard of immortals, wondering what their business is with me. The thought that I tricked them, took them for servants, makes the blood rise in my face. The Winter Ship is a legend, an old tale, a living myth, but these folk speak of it as a commonplace. For those who rule over tide and time, who can say this ship does not sail every year?
They are hurrying, I feel their urgency driving us forward like a whip, their fear that after all, we may come too late. A chance may be missed that will not come again for another age.
We ride on to the shore, leaving the huddled buildings of the village behind. The village lies inland from the great expanse of ocean that lies before us.
‘Why is the village so far from the sea?’ I speak my thought aloud.
‘So that raiders can’t see the settlement from the sea and burn it. This shore has been fought over time out of mind.’ Lorcan’s tone rebukes my ignorance.
I have never seen the sea, and I stare out at its grey immensity, listening to the roar of the waves. I touch my hand to my lips, tasting salt.
My companions ride out onto the shore, the horses’ hooves sinking deep into the sand until we reach a hard bar of sand where we wheel towards the north and canter along the shore.
The horses are running through the surf as if they are a part of it, in their native element: sea horses. I am drenched with spray. In this ride there is a wild exhilaration.
* * *
Finally, we come to a pier that shimmers like glass, lit with lanterns that burn with a blue flame. Then I see what has to be the Winter Ship, frost on her rigging, encased in ice, a wreck it seems, long abandoned.
The pier is made of ice and the sea is frozen in crests, waves of cream, that sparkle under the cold light of the moon.
The horses’ hooves strike shards from the ice, and I remember another tale of a princess who had a splinter of ice in her heart. Still my companions do not slow their relentless pace but ride out along the pier until we slide to a halt and look down on the ship, the height of a sheer glass cliff, a child’s toy, frozen.
‘This ship has not sailed for a thousand years.’ Daan’s breath plumes in the icy air. Despite the cold that gnaws at us, pierces the furs we wear, I do not feel cold. It is something to have lived to have seen such a marvel, almost at the world’s end.
‘Why aren’t I cold?’ My question shatters the silence and four faces, hoods rimed in ice, turn to stare at me.
Razvan lays his hand in its heavy gauntlet, like the claw of a snow bear on my arm, and it is like a fire courses through my veins and a weight holds me. ‘The ship is frozen in time, not ice. Tomorrow the tide will turn, and the ship will sail.’
I am about to laugh but some instinct of self-preservation stalls the sound in my throat.
‘Tonight we keep vigil and tomorrow, when the sun rises, you will see.’
I begin to fear that I am in the company of madmen. I glance at Naraya seeking some trace of the girl I knew, but her face is remote, an ice queen. She and the others merely sit their horses like statues while the cold creeps around us.
I look up and see there is a canopy above us, a globe. The snow falls on the outside, enclosing us and piles up around us. This reminds me of the snow globe Lucid raised on that snowy morning outside the temple when he first showed me the Winter Ship limned in fire.
That globe felt like light and air, a bubble of ice. Here there is a crushing weight as if we hold up the world. The snow falls on the outside and piles up around us. Soon I think we will be buried. I feel I am held in a dream and cannot wake from it.
I hear Naraya’s voice. ‘This is indeed a dream. This night, our only shelter is in dream, and all must dream together lest the globe shatter and the snow spill in and obliterate us.’
‘This is not my dream!’ I hurl the words at her like a rock, but when it hits her shield it crumbles like snow and melts against the heat she projects, and I am sorry. I would call back my words if I could.
Daan casts me a look that bodes no good, but Lorcan sighs. I sense disappointment and suddenly am ashamed.
From some part of me, a tendril curls and rises towards the dome and where it touches the globe spreads and I feel myself held in a web of thought. I begin to struggle and Razvan shouts to me, his voice is a bellow in my mind, ‘Do not tear it, you young fool!’
Slowly, with infinite care, I spin thought to mend the gaping wound I caused and find my mind bound in chains. It hurts, like hooks in my heart, but I would not be free now if I could.
After a while the effort takes over, bleeding warmth and I become snow and ice, part of the globe that protects us all, and there is no conscious thought. It is like sleep, but there is awareness to it and so the night passes, in a moment or an hour or a hundred years.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts