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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 21: Kota Samur


‘You left us somewhat abruptly last night.’

Razvan wakes me at first light and invites me to come on deck. It is not the kind of invitation you refuse. Kras is long gone. No stray feathers on my pillow. Maybe it was all some crazy dream brought on by wine and exposure. Folly to think he would come back. It is just that I see him everywhere, and if I could dream him into being, I would.

I hope Razvan didn’t see me reach to touch an empty space. Maybe I’m so far gone in insanity that he will pardon all excesses.

He proffers a glass of warm spiced wine, and I swallow it even as it scalds my mouth. The pain peels off another layer of awareness.

‘Did you dream again?’

I always dream. I shake my head. This pain is not for sharing.

‘You don’t have to go through this, Kyran. Naraya could help you. We could strip this memory from you.’ His voice is not unkind.

That is the easy option but one I will never accept. ‘I’m all right.’

I’m shivering despite the warmth of the brazier.

Razvan says, ‘I’m sorry for what happened with Kras and in the Isles. You did not change.’

He talks as if Kras is some fever I caught, and he is not far wrong. The shape-shifter is long gone, having left his mark on me. There is the lingering scent of burning in the air. This rouses me from my trance, and I see feathery ash drifting towards me and try to snatch it. My hand closes a charred stub of feather that powders to dust even as I touch it.

I throw myself at Razvan. He holds me back, stronger than I am, striving not to hurt me. That is almost worse. I wish he would hurt me so I can’t feel this grief.

‘You burned the feathers.’

‘We thought it best, for you, so you could forget.’

My cry, coming from somewhere beneath my heart, startles him more than it startles me. I feel like someone is dragging the heart out of me on a red-hot hook; there is no pain like this. He pinions my arms so I can’t harm myself.

‘Listen, Kyran, listen to me, it was the only way to set you free of his spell. Don’t you see? It is the only way for you to live.’

‘You have killed me.’

‘No, Kyran, I have set you free. Jarmil tried to save you on the Fortunate Isles.’

It is worse than when they took the colours from my sight.

I slump, feeling torn and empty, but Razvan will not let me rest. ‘The others are waiting for you. We need your skill to set a course.’

He throws me a fur cloak and watches over me as I pull on the fleece-lined boots he has provided. There is that sense of a pattern repeating over and over. He is always looking out for me, but he is always watching over me.

Like a child dressed for a festival in the temple long ago, I follow him. Cold and heartless as I am, it is time for me to make my boast true, to prove that I can sail this ship out of the ice.

The snow is still falling. Razvan lights a lantern, and we make our way up on deck amid the whirling flakes. Wrapped in furs, I am still shaking. Razvan puts his arm around my shoulders, but I shrug him off. I stumble and nearly fall.

The net hangs suspended from the frozen masts. A flurry of grey feathers flecked with blood, swirls around my feet. Razvan tightens his grip on me. Lorcan and Daan sweep up the feathers and throw them overboard. They flutter like grey snowflakes and are gone.

All I can hear is the creaking of the ice and I feel the ship wrestling to be free. Her tortured timbers grind against the ice. Soon, if we do nothing, she will break.

My eyes sting, the cool flakes of snow fly into them and run in frozen tears down my face. I light the torch that Daan brings for me and begin the conjuration as I was taught in the temple long ago.

The elementals watch me as I pray, trying to find the flaw in the ice and conjure heat. The effort is massive, I am sweating and I feel I will burst into flame, a phoenix rising from the ashes. This rite always demanded sacrifice. There is nothing I can give but a fractured soul.

It grows darker. There is a line on the horizon lit with flame. The blood races through my veins, heating like mercury. I cut my wrist and three drops of blood fall to the deck, ignite into flame. I breathe on them and the bubble expands and grows to fill the world and then sweeps out from the ship.

The immortals have cast a circle of protection. Razvan holds me in an iron grip, though my flesh sears him and he lets go. I’m tempted to step out of the circle, ringed now in flame, but it spreads ever outwards like crimson flowers.

I hear the burden of ice cracking as the waters rise and spears of ice cascade from the spars to smash on the deck below.

For a moment the ship and the cove are outlined in fire, and then the ship breaks free of the ice. Razvan calls the crew, there is a flurry of activity, frozen sails unfurl as the ice cracks and water streams from them. The ice releases its grip on us and the ship lifts on the rising tide. I feel we are sailing over the edge of the world, plunging down through a waterfall of stars.

Daan gives the order to cut the anchor free, and the ship speeds forward as if released from a sling. The seas come up to meet the bows in an avalanche of foam. When I look back, we sail upon a tranquil sea, and Kota Samur has faded over the horizon as if it had never been there.

The sails fill and tilt, streaked with golden light, and we set a course into the path of the sun.

Blood trickles from my wrist. I clasp it and murmur a word of healing. The scar glows and then fades. Razvan holds me or I would fall. Around me the ship takes on life and surges forward.

She should be a ruined hulk but as the elementals link hands, a transformation occurs, the ship is renewed. It is as if the Goddess breathes over her, restoring life, if a ship can live.

* * *

Razvan releases me, and I stumble to the bow, looking out across an endless sea. I gather my furs around me, trying to still the tremors that wrack me.

Naraya brings me wine and bread, but I can’t eat. I see her through a blur of colour. The sun is shining in my eyes. I feel I could float away, fly into the sun. I’m wracked by tremors, struggling to break free of this human shell, but I can’t.

Naraya wraps a blanket around me and holds me tight like a mother holding her child, or so I imagine, having no memories to compare it with.

The ship is free but all I can see is grey ash, I taste it on my tongue and I hug my arms around me. Filled with light, I long for the darkness. It is the longest day.

I would go below decks but lack the strength, and all day Naraya tends me. There was a time when I would have been grateful for this, but now my eyes scan the horizon and I look in vain for any sign of life in the skies.

I’m still the outsider. The Immortals may treat me with a wary respect, but the crew shuns me, and who can blame them?

The cabin boy brings me food and water, but for three days I do not eat. Then hunger takes over. Despite my grief, my body wants to live. The meals mark out the rhythm of my days now that the nights are quiet.

I sleep very little, lying awake and staring at the hunters in the sky and wondering if once they lived on earth like me, as the old legends say, or if it is true that there are other worlds and that once the gods sailed to them in ships like this, sailing across space and time.

I recognise the winter constellations of the southern sphere, the eagle, the scorpion and the lyre. I can’t bear to look at the eagle.

I should feel closer to my companions, as I have taken something from each of them, fire, earth, air and water. My mystery is to bind them all together to create the sacred fire. A strange name for something that burns and destroys all in its path, but whoever said the gods were gentle?

I have spilled out the force that creates worlds and ignites volcanoes; life has spilled out from all of us to gain energy to power the ship. No wonder if I feel empty. The force of the power released is extraordinary. There is a kind of fear to it, that we have disrupted the course of nature and maybe altered the balance of the world.

I know the life I drew on came from somewhere and I fear there is now some grey corner of the world where life once flourished. I cover my face as in my mind’s eye I see crops wither, a deserted village, dust lying over the land like a shroud.

Razvan comes and talks to me quietly. ‘You did what you must. There is no crime.’

‘I feel like death. There is a mark on me greater than any curse.’ I don’t know what to do with this thing I have become.

Razvan tells me we are making good time. The tide I conjured is strong, and we sail towards Keroessa. I don’t want to return to the Empire, but I know that I must go back, retrace the patterns of the past and fulfill the promise I made to my father. I should bring his children home.

There is something caught in my hair. I reach and grasp it before it blows away. The feather curls in my hand like a question mark. I touch my lips to it and then cast it gently over the side, where it floats then is lost in the wake of the ship.

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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