We went to bed at 2:45. Couldn’t stop when Raisse’s player was supposed to go and catch the last train, because it was in the middle of a storm; couldn’t stop when it was a reasonable bedtime (just past midnight) because it was in the middle of a battle. Finished about 1:50 but badly needed to wind down. Fortunately Raisse’s player had brought a bottle of whisky retrieved from a shipwreck.
And I woke up at 6:37 from a dream in which we’d escaped the Khas only to end up in the hands of the Taleban.
(it’s really long, over 4500 words; I wish I could do that with ‘real’ writing, but then the events happen as I write them and with game writeups events have already happened and I feel like I’m hurrying to catch up)
Life on a ship, when everything goes right and you’re not one of the people whose job it is to keep it so, is small and boring.
And noisy. The sea makes a noise, the sails do, the ropes, the woodwork, the people, the gulls, even the dolphins and porpoises that swim around the ship though their song is overpowered by all the other sounds.
We got to know the other people in what were obviously the high-class quarters of the ship rather well. The Iss-Peranian captain, Kistid, and the Valdyan captain, Arni, the latter acting as first mate. They acted very much like a long-married couple, and in fact it turned out that they were a couple– never found out whether actually married but if not it was as near as made no difference. Ayran astin Brun who commanded the palace guard, and Talvi astin Hayan who commanded the regiment from Ildis. The priest of Mizran, Lochan. The Síthi doctor, whose name I keep forgetting, but I know now that it is Dushtan. And Merain, the general from Essle. And Senthi, of course, who was not a servant, almost but not quite a member of the family, and slept in the other bunk in our cabin.
There was a lot of work going on and we couldn’t share in any of it. Raisse got interested in navigation, and the sea-charts were indeed interesting, though completely incomprehensible. I could just about see that it was a map, and even point to the approximate place where Dol-Rayen was, but the lines and squiggles didn’t make sense to me. Navigation was completely in Iss-Peranian, too, which Arni spoke perfectly while Kistid spoke only halting Ilaini. I did gather that the ship would pass the ‘wind boundary’ and we’d have to make a turn to the south-east, and then, after passing the wind boundary again, another turn to the south-west at exactly the right spot because otherwise we would go off the edge of the world (according to Kistid) or end up in Khas-occupied territory (according to Arni). I was inclined to believe Arni. Everybody knows that the world doesn’t have any edges, if you keep going south long enough you’ll end up in the north again.
We stopped seeing the coast after that first turn, the seagulls disappeared –they probably needed land to sleep on– and it was warm, dry and windy, what the sailors called ‘handy weather’. All we saw was the Swan, with the Khandihan on it, ahead of our Eagle of Dol-Rayen; the smaller fast ships on either side of us; and the Fame of Istila behind us. There was another Iss-Peranian ship behind that but I could only see that one at night by its lamp. Nobody ever went from one ship to another, though there was a little boat tied to the back of our ship that seemed to be made for it.
Raisse started teaching Iss-Peranian words and phrases to anyone interested, mostly the soldiers. I sat in on the lessons and picked up numbers, and names for food, and useful phrases like “where can we get something to eat” and “please don’t do that”.
Once we were past what Arni called ‘the whale line’ –it showed up on the map, with a picture of a whale– the small fighting ships sailed at a greater distance from us and everybody seemed warier. I was uneasy myself, but I’d been putting that down to really being at sea without even seeing land. It was disconcerting not to be able to use my gifts at all; I could only sense Raisse when I was touching her. This is what it’s like not to be gifted, I thought, and it made me shudder.
Real whales turned up too: a herd –hundreds!– of smooth dark grey backs that bobbed up and down on the surface like solidified waves. They must be the size of six elephants each. And these were the small ones: farther away there were whales the size of the Temple of Mizran in Valdis. I found myself wishing I was Reshan, or I had Reshan with me, or I could do anything at all at sea: they looked somehow gifted and I’d have liked to know more.
The uneasiness didn’t go away. And I hadn’t imagined the wariness among the others either: Arni’s temper was short, there was arguing among the soldiers and the sailors, once even a really bad fight between a soldier and a sailor that caused Kistid to pronounce summary judgment and have the sailor flogged. He had to sleep on his stomach and eat standing up for several days. After much prodding Arni admitted that this was the most dangerous part of the voyage, with risk of wandering Khas and Síthi pirates. That was why the fighting ships kept more distance; they also had semti on board who could see farther still. Not that it’s all that easy to see Khas, of course, but some of them would probably be able to send their mind out and see ships.
Then, one day, night seemed to fall in the middle of the day. We were told to stay in the cabin and tie down anything that could move. Around us, other people were tying down everything on the ship that could move. It was scarily quiet. No wind, no noise except occasional creaking and the sounds of people. There was a black cloud to the south with edges in different colours as if it was a spectacular sunset. It became even more silent, as if the whole world was holding its breath, before the storm broke.
Raisse and Senthi had each tied their own baby securely to their front, but once the storm was upon us both of the babies bawled and couldn’t be comforted. We lost the shutters in the roof of our cabin, the lamp swung dangerously and went out, there was too much noise to understand each other or anybody who shouted something on deck. Senthi was flung from her bunk and smacked into the wall with her shoulder. Raisse and I got her in our bunk between us; the shoulder-blade seemed to be broken, and Raisse called the doctor but she was busy and promised to come later.
It seemed to be days, but it must have been only hours; the sky cleared before evening and we could see a real sunset, and later some stars between ragged clouds. The doctor came and bound up Senthi’s shoulder, a little cabin boy was assigned to be “Senthi’s left arm” and help her with Rovan, and finally Arni came and told us that we’d lost only one man in the storm, but two of the four masts had snapped and the rudder was broken, so we were adrift. And, frankly, she didn’t know where exactly we were.
The next day we were going forward already; carpenters had been in our cabin all day and most of the night to fix the steering mechanism. It looked intriguing, and I said that it reminded me of the workings of a windmill, but of course the ship’s carpenters hadn’t any experience with windmills, even less than I have. We were sailing with the two remaining masts now, so it didn’t go as fast as with four, but at least we were moving. Arni and Kistid tried to calculate from the sun and the stars where we were and where to turn.
Both the fighting ships had sunk: we’d taken in ten sailors from one of them, and the Fame of Istila had stayed behind to pick up whoever could be saved from the other. The Swan and the Iss-Peranian ship that had been last were nowhere to be seen. But we had been saved, and we celebrated with a dinner in the captains’ cabin, a huge fish that could be eaten raw if it was very fresh and sliced very thinly, the best fish I’d ever tasted. It had to be raw, because the fire in the galley had had to be put out during the storm for safety and it would take another day to get it going properly again.
There were two more storms, which blew us off course even more, but everything that could break was already broken so we didn’t have much more damage. Except that we were now sailing with only one proper mast and something makeshift made from part of a broken-off mast. After a while the Fame of Istila caught up with us, which had two hundred people on board from the other fighting ship, mostly soldiers; we passed them some of our stores of food with a rope bridge because our little boat was also gone.
It got worse on board. In the sailors’ quarters in the front there were lice, and the Síthi doctor ordered them all out so she could fumigate the hold with brimstone. It worked, at least for a while. The Fame of Istila was worse off: they had fevers and infection and asked for us to send them our doctor. She didn’t actually want to go, but knew it for her duty. She prayed to Dayati about it, at length, in the middle of the captains’ cabin, and they were so impressed that they let her go. On a rope bridge, in a sackcloth sling, like a package; she looked positively green.
Then suddenly the ship made a sharp right turn, the Fame of Istila following. Apparently the captains had calculated or estimated or just guessed that this was the place to turn. Food got scarcer, water got worse, and tempers got shorter. One day Arni and Kistid were arguing so loudly that Raisse went down and told them to stop, which surprised them so much that they did stop. Then she told them to explain the problem. Kistid said they’d turned too late and would fall off the edge of the world, Arni said they’d turned too soon and would end up among the Khas. Raisse tried to resolve it by calling a semte sergeant on the Fame of Istila, who could only say that they didn’t have a captain any more but the first mate thought the course was about right. Also, they didn’t have enough able-bodied people to sail the ship, could they have some of ours? It was done, and we got the doctor back at the same time; knackered, but as far as Raisse could see not infected with anything.
We put the doctor to bed in her cabin; Raisse noticed a kind of seal falling away from her as she fell asleep, a layer of ryst dented and soiled by the disease. That was what had kept it away from her. She started to dream, and it was obvious even on the outside –even for me– that the dream was turning into a nightmare. Raisse was about to try to influence the dream, when an idea occurred to me: “Wait! I’ll get Timoine to help.” I got my lute and sat next to the sleeping doctor, playing very softly, anything that occurred to me, children’s songs and lullabies and tinkling improvisations while I was thinking of the next thing. Her sleep became more peaceful, and Raisse told me that the nightmare had been driven away. I sat there all night, until my fingers felt raw as if I’d worked them to the bone.
She’d prayed to Dayati– to Timoine as the Síthi see him. And I realised –and said as much to Raisse– that whenever I’d prayed aboard the ship, I’d prayed to Timoine too. Anshen seemed to be very far away, or I couldn’t reach him here. I still wasn’t used to for all practical purposes not being semte. At least I still had my music: Timoine was with me all the time, a great comfort that I was only beginning to appreciate now. I was so used to being gifted –I couldn’t really remember it starting– that I’d been taking it for granted. I said to Raisse that if I hadn’t been gifted I’d probably have ended up a brewer or a musician, and checked myself: of course I would still have been the king! Mother hadn’t been gifted and she’d been the queen; in fact there hadn’t been a gifted king or queen since Vegelin the Great’s daughter. It was as if in my mind being king and being grand master had been the same thing for as long as I could remember.
After that night with Timoine, the sea no longer made me so uneasy. Sea-legs, people would call it, but it wasn’t quite that. And not much later, we saw land. Islands, by the look of it. Arni said that this meant that we were indeed quite far to the west, but it was a good thing that we were here anyway, there would be fresh water and fruit from the trees and we’d be able to clean and repair things. Cleaning would be a blessing indeed– we’d given up on nappies, they couldn’t be washed, and the cabin floor was covered in baby poop.
The nearest island was shaped rather like a horseshoe, bent around a bay and tilted so the highest point was a respectable hill. There were trees growing on it, strange supple things, not rigid like oaks or beeches, with a tuft of large leaves on top and fruit hanging among the leaves. A stream ran down from the hill and into the sea. A herd of small black-and-pink pigs came running from the trees, curious about the strange thing in their bay.
Our ship had neither a boat nor any spare wood to make a raft from, so once we were anchored in the bay some sailors jumped off the deck and swam and others let themselves down by ropes. Just as I was tempted to do one or the other myself, a raft came from the Fame of Istila and brought us ashore, me and Raisse and Vurian first as a matter of courtesy.
Land! Earth! Soil! But it was a strange sort: mere inches of sand, with something that felt like a stiffened sponge underneath, no roots, nothing to sustain me. Not having all that water under me did help a little, but not nearly enough. I sat down on the sand, puzzled, and accepted fruit from a cabin boy, while smells of roast pork started coming our way. The smallest piglet was nearly done.
After we’d eaten, we washed in the pool made by the stream just before it flowed into the bay. It was already full of naked sailors and soldiers; a naked king and queen –and two babies and a nurse– didn’t attract much attention. Vurian’s first bath since Essle! He wasn’t quite old enough to try and play with the water, but he splashed happily. Rovan, too. I envied those two baby boys, who could take everything as it came. As Senthi slept and Raisse nursed both babies, a cabin boy from the Fame of Istila came up to us, a brown-skinned Iss-Peranian about fourteen years old called Shab Hafte, and asked if he could make a drawing of Raisse as he’d never seen someone nurse two babies at once before; and it turned out excellent.
We left Vurian with Senthi and climbed to the top of the hill, flanked by a self-appointed guard of six soldiers. Three went all the way to the top, three stayed below, while Raisse and I made ourselves comfortable –very comfortable!– on a flat bit of ground near another of the pools in the stream. Animals would probably want to drink there, but for now it belonged to two very married humans. There was a lot of giggling and snickering from the soldiers later, but that was all for a good cause.
Up here, there was more of a feeling of earth, as if the island was standing on top of a stone pillar. It was still not enough to get my gifts back completely, but I could look down into the ground a bit– but recoiled from what looked like a seething mass of worms, as if the whole island was made of critters! I had to shake it off, and wash in the pool again, and push it out of my mind.
We stayed at the island just long enough to do some necessary repairs to the ships, and fill all the barrels with water, and bring fruit and roast meat aboard. Arni told us that ships leave pigs on islands like this deliberately to provide food for other sailors, but they had to slaughter the whole herd if they found one, because pigs are smart and they’d become afraid of people and not let themselves be caught otherwise. “These islands are what some people go back to sea for,” she said. I could believe that: it was a glorious place. I’d tasted at least six kinds of strange fruit; the best had been a thing the size of my fist that looked like a bag of orange pudding and tasted like nothing I’d had before. And enormous hairy nuts filled with sweet nutty milk, and roots that you could grind into flour for bread or porridge. Much better than the not-so-hard-any-more tack, mouldy cheese and the occasional fish which had been all we had to live on for the last few days.
But we had to leave; if we didn’t leave now we’d probably stay forever. I imagined myself and Raisse as king and queen of this island, Vurian growing up a barbarian prince– well, no, though it made me laugh.
The Fame of Istila sailed out of the bay first. A few hundred yards out there was a great creak, a scraping sound, and she keeled over to one side, though it didn’t look as if there was anything but water there. Rocks under the water, it must have been. As many supplies were loaded into the Eagle as was possible, as well as the great mast for the carpenters to make a new mast from, and we got two hundred more people aboard. It would be very crowded for a while. We had enough food and water, though, and according to Arni the real shore couldn’t be far.
She was right: after a few days we saw more islands to our left, but Kistid said not to go there, because while these islands had been a good place years ago, they were now a nest of the Khas. “Khas pirates?” I asked, and he said “What’s the difference?” And indeed, when we had passed the islands there were three sails on the northern horizon, clearly following us.
But the real land was also there, in the south. It looked for all the world like a row of lettuces. A captain of the Iss-Peranian soldiers from the Fame of Istila told me that it was a wood, with trees that stood in the water on top of their roots. Behind the wood, there was a swamp, then hilly terrain and mountains. After a while we could see the mountains too, poking up quite sharp and grey from the lettuce-like wood. We could either try to go ashore in the wood, Arni said, or find the river and sail up it as far as we could; if it was the right river, there was a little town there where we could get help. But the captain knew that town: he’d been born there, and been driven away by the Khas who had conquered it when he was six. He asked me a boon: if we escaped the Khas now, would I take him and all his troops into my service? Of course I could promise him that, as he promised me his loyalty in return.
All the while the three sails were coming closer. And laden as heavily as the ship was, it couldn’t go fast. The crew put all the barrels of water overboard –as soon as we got to shore there would be plenty of water– and that helped a little: our pursuers stayed at the same distance now, a few hours away.
As we neared the shore, one white patch that I’d been taking for a rocky outcrop or a bit of mountain resolved itself into three white towers sticking out from among the trees: the town. A river-mouth was close to it which we sailed up until the ship could go no further. The wood was really standing on its roots, like the houses on stakes in Tilis.
People were already coming from the town. It was hard to hide a big ship and three hundred and fifty men and women. The first group ashore –including me– were surrounded in no time; a big man with a rather nasty countenance came to stand in front of me and put a large finger on my chest. “Velain — king — Valdyas?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, drawing myself up to my full five foot three.
“I, Prince Mikhanan,” and something I couldn’t understand. And then he hugged me in an enormous bear-hug, as if I was his long-lost brother.
The Iss-Peranian captain looked at him incredulously. “Mikhanan?” The big man looked as incredulously back: “Ruchkhane?” After a lot of talking in a language not even Raisse could understand or even recognise a word of, the captain told us that he and the big man had been born in this town in the same year, had been mostly enemies as children, but they’d reconciled now –we had seen them share a flagon of wine to do that– and Mikhanan was asking us to help them fight the Khas. They’d taken the town back from the Khas, but it was still far from safe, because this was far from Alliance territory.
There were mostly men in the town, very few women and no children at all. Mikhanan told us that there was a place where women and children could be safe and offered to have Raisse and Senthi taken there with the babies. I didn’t wait for Raisse to protest, but said that I wanted her to go; if it had been only me I’d have been selfish and kept her at my side, but now I wanted her to keep Vurian safe. A woman came and took them away, out of town.
[What happened to Raisse will be told later; I hope by Raisse herself.]
The Khas ships were very close now. I had enough strength back, though the earth was strange here, still hard for me to use. I offered to make some soldiers inconspicuous so they could swim to the ships and sink them; Ruchkhane sent ten men, who I put a seal on, and after a while we really saw the ships go down one by one. They’d been sunk in shallow water, though; presently about eight hundred wet and angry Khas were coming toward the town walls.
“How about we open the gates and trap them?” I said, only half serious. but Mikhanan thought that was a splendid idea and slapped me on the back for it. It was’t absolutely outrageous –obviously these Khas thought the town was still in their countrymen’s hands– but there were more of them than of us, and we hadn’t exactly had time to prepare. Now I could think clearly again –blessed earth!– I realised that I’d never trained with the soldiers, though I could have; I’d been feeling so unsteady that I never even thought of it. But I had my sword and got someone to give me a bow.
The gate was open. The Khas came into the town; it looked empty, except for the welcome committee on the main square: Mikhanan, Ruchkhane, the generals who had been on the Eagle, and I. As soon as they were all in, the gate closed behind them and people jumped off roofs and came out of streets and houses. In the chaos, I lost track of where everybody was except Talvi on my left and Ruchkhane on my right, and at least a dozen Khas opposite us. Talvi fought off two and had to let the third through –even a general with a sword in each hand, Anshen knew where she had got the second, can’t fight three opponents at once– and that one sliced through my shoulder with his sword, before I kicked him (not very kingly, I admit) so he stumbled and Talvi could get at him. I saw my shirt go red and couldn’t feel my left arm at all, but I had too much fight in me to feel pain. I blocked a killing blow meant for Ruchkhane, narrowly avoided another Khas sword pointed at me, and then suddenly nobody was fighting us any more.
I sat down. Fortunately there was a tree-stump or something to do that on. Ruchkhane bent over me solicitously and went to get the doctor, but came back saying that she was with Arni. “How is Arni?” I asked, but he said he’d tell me later– that could only be bad. Someone –it was the gifted sergeant from the Fame of Istila— said that we had captured two hundred Khas, and do we cut off their heads? I said something to the effect that I didn’t care (very much the wrong thing to say, I realised later, but not at the time) and that they should ask Raisse, and apparently they did, because the prisoners were shut up in one of the three white towers.
Presently the doctor came and stitched me up –it felt as if she was sewing my arm back on my shoulder–, telling me not to move at all, not even my head. I still didn’t feel much pain for the fight in me, but I must have passed out at some point because I woke up lying in a bed on my right side, left arm bound tightly to my body, with Raisse sitting next to me looking pale and drained, and Mikhanan on a bench across the room drinking wine. And now it did hurt. The doctor came again and told me that the collar-bone was not just fractured but completely shattered and that I was lucky to be alive and would be very lucky if I could ever use that arm again. “I’ll have to learn to play the one-handed whistle,” I said, still not completely back to my senses.
Later, I learnt that Arni had gotten a sword through her belly, that the doctor had already given her up –belly wounds don’t heal–, but when Raisse offered to help the doctor had used her strength, as I had once used it for fighting the Khas witch-admiral, to put Arni back together. Drained her completely; that she’d been so pale hadn’t only been out of worry for me. Fortunately; I don’t want her to worry about me too much.