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 21: Kota Samur
A translucent bowl of light hangs from the ceiling, a lantern filled with cool fire that moves in gentle waves, ever ready to flow over the edge. I picture the light escaping, sliding towards me like glow worms, and I hold my hands out to embrace it. The light flows towards me in streams and serpent-like, wreathes its way around my legs and body, climbing until it twines around my arms and comes to rest, a flickering tongue over my heart.
I blink, shedding rainbow tears. The illusion fades, showing only myself, my clothes grey with dust and damp, standing at the edge of a circle of light. My hands are stained from the rocks, and I wipe them on my shirt, leaving dark smears.
As I move forward, I see that the light is reflected in a clear pool and, leaning over it, I see my face and dip my hand in the water. The image breaks and scatters, and I scoop the water in my hand and drink. The taste is clear, like metal, cool upon my tongue.
There is a flagon showing images of fire, water, air and earth and, at the centre, the Goddess. This must be her shrine. I lift the stone cup beside it and pour a libation into her sacred pool and murmur an invocation before I drink again.
The lamp seems to wax and wane above my head like an underground moon. I lose track of time, and I wonder if later my skeleton may be found here. I am weary in body and soul. I linger here in a kind of waking sleep that could go on forever.
The water seems to keep me alive, for I don’t feel hungry and, as I did so long ago on the Fortunate Isles, I wonder if all this is illusion, that I am not really here at the heart of the earth but out in the snow, perishing from cold.
I feel as if I am coming home. I have the impression I have been here before, if only in dreams. Just as the reflections showed me the days of my life written in images of my face, I sense that if I could just reach a bit farther, see around the corner, I could see my path forward, find a way out.
I recall my snow-crazed flight, running away from Kras and the ship and my friends. It is as if, during this whole pilgrimage, I have been running away, skulking in shadows, refusing to turn and fight.
I accepted that my powers were lost to me. I never paused to consider that perhaps the powers were always within me, that I was never ruled by my father, powerful warlord that he was. He disowned me, banishing me to the temple, though later he named me as a mage and gave me the circlet. Why would he exile me and then call me back, then exile me again when I defied him?
This was the pattern of my childhood. Why could he never accept me, and why did he shackle me until he made that desperate plea for me to protect his later children? Majvaz, my sometime brother, would have been so much more suitable to serve his ends.
Majvaz, strong and powerful as he was, a proven warrior, never needed your gifts. This makes no sense either. Is there any man alive who would not choose to run like the wolf or fly like an eagle, given the chance?
There have been shape-shifter kings in legend. The old tales tell how, when a shape-shifter is born, he has the right to rule. I was told the custom had been abandoned, but was that true? Why did my father send me away from court and compel me to hide my ‘gifts’?
For the first time since I lost my circlet, the pain in my head is gone. My thoughts are calm and my own. Although I am trapped in this cave at the centre of the earth, it occurs to me that I came here of my own choice. I am free, and I can, if I choose, simply retrace my steps and go back.
There is something in the water, something perhaps newborn in me, that lets me know that my eyes have grown keen and that even, blind in the dark, I know my way. With that, certainty comes to me. I can find my way back. Maybe even make my own path.
Strength comes to me, and I make my way across the cave floor, skirting the rocks and debris until I come to a darker cleft in the rock. There I have to bend almost double to follow the tunnel leading up to the surface. The rock is heavy over my head, but I feel safe. I can sense the firm foundations of the earth; I have found a mystery, probed the secrets of the underworld, and now it is time to return to the world above.
* * *
I don’t know how long it takes to retrace my steps. The journey seems much shorter, and I can almost follow the path of my footsteps; they leave a trail that glows in my mind. At the mouth of the cave, I gaze out on a night of clear stars.
The Winter Ship lies frozen in the bay. There is a path over the ice, and smoke rises from her galley. It looks like the Children of the Grey have returned. Ice hangs from her spars in spears, but the net is empty. Kras is gone. As I slide my way down to the bay and take my first steps on the ice, I wonder what tales my companions will have to tell and how they will receive me.
There is no one on deck when I reach it, climbing a frozen rope ladder left dangling over the side like an invitation. I hear voices, lift the hatch and descend to the cabins. My ‘friends’ are seated around a table. It would seem their foraging has been successful, for there is a feast laid on the table. Strange provender that I doubt they came by in these frozen lands without resorting to their arts.
‘This is unexpected,’ I say. ‘Don’t tell me you prepared all this for me?’
Razvan is the first to react, drawing his sword and moving to shield Naraya. Her hands go to her knives. The others are rising now, bristling with weapons. It will not take all these to kill me, and I lift my hands in surrender.
‘Peace, I mean you no harm. Can I come in?’
There is a doubtful muttering, and then Razvan gestures warily. I will have to pass him, and I am reluctant to turn my unprotected back. ‘You will give me safe conduct?’
I know that Razvan’s word is his bond. He hesitates and then speaks reluctantly. ‘You have permission to enter and safe conduct on this ship.’
‘Can you be sure that I will be safe? Do you know all the secrets of the Winter Ship? I think you are all passengers, like me. I found this land as you asked me. You saw the leaves in my hand. Could you not have waited for me, rather than leave me to awaken alone? I might have found you safe harbour rather than this frozen waste.’
Daan starts forward. ‘We had no choice. A storm drove us onto this shore. There was no time to tend to you.’
‘I suppose you’ll say now that I was responsible for this storm, too. For someone who calls himself a navigator, you have an uncanny talent for driving this ship onto reefs. Can’t you read your charts?’
‘There are no charts of these waters.’
I pull out a chair. ‘Then it is fortunate I can plot you a course. We have much to discuss, but first I need wine and food. I’m half-frozen.’
The snow is melting from my cloak in a puddle, but I don’t feel cold. Some of the glow from the cavern came with me, though my companions shiver and make haste to bolt the hatches shut behind me.
I sit and, after a thoughtful glance, Razvan gestures to the ship’s cook, who hastens to place a silver platter piled high with meats before me. Initially, I recoil, but my old prejudices are dwindling fast and I eat the rare meat, dipping my bread in the blood-stained juices, and drink deeply of the wine that accompanies it, watching my companions’ faces in the light of the flickering lamps.
Naraya is beautiful as ever, though she has smudges like bruises beneath her eyes. Daan is angry, but there is an uncertain look about him. He must feel his element has betrayed him. The earth is buried under the ice. Razvan is taking care to appear the same as he ever was, but he is not as calm as he’d like to pretend. There is a searching quality to the looks he gives me, even as we eat together in apparent fellowship.
Lorcan has his knife in his hand as he spears the meat. He says little but watches me. I am careful to keep my hands in plain view. I have no weapon other than the knife I use to cut my meat.
They are four and I am one, but the balance has shifted and for the first time, I feel not only equal to them but that I have the mastery over them, if I choose to use it. Otherwise, the Winter Ship will settle into this frozen bay forever. I don’t fancy our chances of survival in the snowy wastes and blizzards that surround us.
So you think you can command the elements now?
The question hangs in the air unspoken, and I begin to think what I must say, how to answer their doubts and persuade them to trust me.
* * *
As the meal ends, my companions push their plates away, wipe and sheathe their knives. A servant comes to refill the brazier and clear away. He is cloaked as we all are, seeking to keep warm, and a feather drops into my lap as he removes my cup. I can’t see his face, but I know my shape-shifter has returned to me. His presence gives me courage to speak.
‘Who can command the elements save the gods? To steer the Winter Ship out of here, there must be harmony, we need to join the elements, so they work together and against each other. We are all servants of the Goddess.’
‘You would do well to remember that,’ Naraya mutters, but Daan lifts his fingers to her mouth. He is braver than I am. I almost expect she will bite him, but she kisses his fingers softly, accepting this correction like a caress.
This moment is the same as when I left the cave and looked out on the frozen world, seeing it as it was for perhaps the first time. Finally, I recognise the bond between Naraya and Daan. I could easily believe that he might love her, but I refused to accept that she might love him.
What did I think: that as a prince all should accede to my desires? I feel colour steal into my cheeks. The servant bows his head, but I can see the curve of his lips and I know he is smiling. I saw even Kras as a means to an end, and I thought I loved him. Was it the reflection of my image in his eyes that caught me?
My eyes sting from the smoke. The cook brings coffee in translucent cups like mother of pearl. The Immortals hold them and, as I glance at Naraya the fire maiden, they gain colour from her warmth.
It feels like the whole world is laughing at me. Better than killing me, I think and I raise the glass my lover has filled for me and raise it to Naraya in salute. I am a prince despite all and must be courtly in defeat.
Razvan doesn’t join in the toast. He isn’t quite drumming his fingers on the table, but there is a tension about him that I know will explode swiftly into action if I continue to thwart his will.
He is waiting for me. My words have gained me a hearing, but it isn’t his nature to wait for long. Soon he will grow impatient, and I am anxious not to incur his disappointment. Not with the feather trembling in my lap. Stirred by the drafts from the porthole, it quivers as if alive.
A piece of the puzzle clicks into place. No wonder his feathers were highly prized. I feel the feather’s warmth beating against the inside of my hand like a miniature heart, so easy to crush. I hold it gently like the fingers of a newborn child.
Razvan raises his head, and I see comprehension in his look. Or do my heightened sensitivities give me the illusion that he knows what I am thinking?
‘Tell us what you know, Prince of the fabled crag.’ The title is a gentle mockery. Little prince from a small and forgotten kingdom, what can you tell us, servants of the Goddess? Neat to use my title to diminish me; but then, that is Razvan.
I have some childish thought of holding back, making him sweat for it, but what would that achieve? I can only show them the way and trust that they will not use it against me but see it as the gift it is. We have come through many perils, completed the circle, and just as it took all of us to release the Winter Ship before, so it must be again.
Cupping my hand around the feather for courage, I begin to tell them what I know.
Finally, when I’ve told them of the cave and what I learned there, I pull the crumbling remnants of the dead leaves from my pocket and spill the grey ash on the table. My companions lean in closer to see. I pick up one leaf and, like a child playing a game, I strip away the sere ‘flesh’, exposing the skeleton and hold up the ghost of a leaf.
‘This leaf was fresh when I pulled it from the tree. When I woke this is all that was left. It isn’t frozen or preserved. It’s dead. I’d like to know how long I slept, how long I was gone.’
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts