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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 12: Ice and Time

part 2

Then the sun rises, and the globe floods with light that runs like fire through my veins. There is a crack and the hooked chains that hold me snap with tension like looped steel, throwing me out of the circle. The clouds part and lights pours in. When I open my eyes, the ship is floating on a silver sea.

The light is so bright and pure and new that I cannot see and cover my face. After an instant or an age, a shadow falls over me and Lorcan helps me to my feet.

The brightness has faded. I find myself leading a weary and mud spattered horse down a path that leads to a cove, following my exhausted companions. The ship rides at anchor, waiting for us.

At the entrance to the cove, there is an Inn and a fire burns on the beach. The landlord has set out tables and is serving breakfast, grilled fish and potatoes baked in the embers of the flames. For a moment a shadow falls over me, and I remember the other Inn and the stench of burning.

Then Razvan flips a coin and, as it falls head up, I see the face of my brother.

The scene looks so ordinary: fishing boats drawn up on the harsh gritty sand, nets weighted with glass baubles spread out on the edge of the humble stone pier for mending, a huddle of lobster pots.

I can’t say the scene is familiar, but it recalls images seen in picture books as a child and in the fire when travellers told their tales of the sea at my father’s court, a thousand leagues from the sea.

The landlord with his white apron tied around an ample middle, pouring foaming beer from a pitcher, is like an illustration in a children’s tale. Perhaps his face is a little too brightly painted to be real. The girl who helps him and calls him father has a glow about her like a young goddess.

I remember a storybook from my childhood. I was told my mother gave it to me. It was the only memory of her I had left until Majvaz ripped it and threw it on the fire.

My companions seat themselves beside me. They look as they did when I first met them. Not ordinary — they were never that — but certainly not the deities of the night.

Nearer, there is a flicker on the edge of vision. Even as I see a ship’s boat put out from the schooner in the bay crewed by picture-book pirates. I sense perhaps the illusion is there to protect me. It could shift at any moment to reveal what lies beneath. But for now I do not care. I raise my tankard and drink and watch Lorcan flirting with the landlord’s daughter.

I have the impression that this is a game they have played many times before and that the outcome changes as the dice fall in a game of chance. There is a familiarity in the ritual with which the landlord pours his ale and engages in banter and brings fish fresh from the fire on the beach for us to taste.

There is a young boy playing a flute by the door of the inn. When we are all well fed, Daan takes Naraya by the hand and they dance and here again there is an element of ritual, a country dance, a measure these two have trodden many times before.

The boy is like spring, I think, and the girl summer and the landlord a benign autumn, shaking his head at the frost and building fires to keep it away.

As for winter, I look up at the hill behind the inn and see there is a grave mound on it. Someone close to me whispers, ‘Winter is sleeping. Can I fill your glass?’

I turn, laughing, and the girl kisses me on the lips. There is sweetness in her touch like sunshine. She leans close and whispers to me and then takes me by the hand and leads me into a stable close by where our tired horses are sleeping in their stalls.

She climbs a ladder to the loft and laughs down at me, her hair like tendrils of honeysuckle, and I follow her. She draws me down into a bed of soft hay and time stops or ceases to matter. The sun is shining on her face, shining in my eyes and it lights her hair like gold.

Later our shadows fall behind us, and she holds me close. Then later still the sun warms our backs as we lie curled together in the straw. This day could last forever.

Later, much later, when the shadows are lengthening in the barn, she kisses me and then pulls her dress around her and descends. I follow. On the beach the revelry goes on. No one remarks on our absence.

The crew of the boat is all on shore, and it looks as if the party is set to go on long into the night. Now we are drinking wine like rubies, and my lover twines around me like a vine.

Then as the first stars come out in a velvet sky, the ship sends up a flare that bursts in a pattern of stars across the sky. The next thing I know, the party seems to be over. We bid our hosts farewell, and they lead us down to the shore.

There are boats lit with lanterns waiting to ferry us out to the ship. I see that while I was distracted, they had already shipped out the bales and crates that hold our supplies.

The girl leans close and whispers her name. She hands me a white flower, a star of the sea and I have nothing to give her in return.

Razvan sees my embarrassment and gives me one of his silver cups. She takes it gracefully and smiles. For a moment, as she turns her face to me in a final silent farewell, I remember another picture in my mother’s book: a mermaid, but I know this girl is flesh and blood.

* * *

Razvan claps me on the shoulder, hands me into the boat and, as the oarsmen pull out to sea, the fire on the beach flickers and dies, and the shore fades into shadow. So we reach the ship in darkness, lit only by her lanterns.

The green glow of the starboard light welcomes us casting pallor on our sun-kissed faces. While the others scale the side of the ship, I struggle, my head spinning. They hoist me aboard like cargo, and I take my first uncertain steps upon her deck.

The captain ushers us aboard with some ceremony, greeting my companions with respect. ‘My lords and lady, I am honoured to greet you. And this must be the passenger you told me of.’ He does not ask my name. I suspect he already knows it, and my presence troubles him. He lights the way to his stateroom, where he urges us to partake of a fine brandy.

I am already feeling the ship shift beneath me and he smiles at my pallor and urges me to drink. There is much laughter, old jokes and banter as if they have sailed together many times before.

In the beginning I’m outside the circle, but they draw me in. I have the unlikely feeling that I am among friends, or as close to it as I am likely to come.

The brandy casts a pleasant haze over everything, and in the end I stumble to my cabin. Led there, I think, by Daan, who pushes me into my bunk. He places a handy bucket beside me and then to my surprise mutters something like, ‘We were glad of your help last night.’

This seems so unlikely that even as my eyes close, sinking deep into slumber, I find myself dismissing it as the fragment of a dream.

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Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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