Here’s eleven-year-old Arlyn starting out on a very strange adventure.
We’re all sailors here, but we don’t have any ships.
Well, all the grown-ups are sailors, we kids were all born here but our parents were sailors before their ships were wrecked. If a ship gets wrecked anywhere nearby it washes up here in pieces, and sometimes people as well. If they’re dead we bury them in the cave, and if they’re alive and don’t die because they’re too wounded or too drowned to live they come and live with us in the village and learn to rake the salt like everybody else, and whatever else they want to learn, work the fields or catch fish or rabbits or build houses.
But ships come in too few and too small pieces to build a new one, even though there are some people here who could if they had the right wood and the right tools. We do get tools, and barrels of nice things to eat and drink, and once a whole load of beautiful cloth so everybody could have nice feasting clothes — my favourite blue skirt that’s too short now but not yet too tight is still from that, and so is my best friend Dayapati’s pink wrap that used to be a whole dress when she was smaller. And from the latest ship we got two little animals, the size of a rabbit but with longer legs and a long tail and small pointy ears, that look very fierce and bitey but follow you around and butt their heads on you if they happen to like you. And they catch and eat mice and rats, very useful.
My mother is Halla, second mate of the Swallow from Essle, and my father is Güzün, leader-of-ten from the Khas regiment of the tribe of the Bison. I don’t know what a bison is but I know what a swallow is, because there are lots of them living on the rocks here, screeching when they catch insects at dusk. Mother almost died when my smallest brother was born, and the priestess of Naigha did die when she was taking care of Mother because she was working too hard to take care of herself, but my smallest brother didn’t die, he just cried and cried and hasn’t stopped since.
I have too many brothers and sisters anyway. There are eight of us and the ones on either side of me are both brothers, and they’re very Khas and think that girls aren’t worth noticing. I’d rather be with Dayapati or just by myself.
I was out by myself to catch shrimp when the big storm hit.
I had my net and bucket, just about to go home with a good-enough catch when I saw some of the blue fish with short tails that are so yummy when you wrap them in seaweed and put them in the ashes of the fire. They were in the shallows so they should have been easy to catch, but I’d been running after them for quite a while when I saw the storm coming. It went faster than any storm I’d seen before! I tried to run, never mind the fish, but it was all around me and I thought I was going to die. But I didn’t die because there was someone I could hold on to, someone who could have been my brother or cousin, a boy a bit older than me with brown skin and curly hair and bright eyes.
I held on to him, and then the storm got a bit less and he pointed me home without saying anything. And I didn’t say anything either, not even “thank you”, because I was too confused to think of it.
When I got home everybody was glad and surprised, because they thought I’d been washed away by the storm. And there were still some shrimp in my bucket so we ate them, and the net had been full of mud before but I’d washed it and it wasn’t even torn.
Then they sent us all to bed, except my brother Kusay who is hardly more than a year older than me but he’s a boy and Khas so he counts as grown up. I could hear them talking about the storm, that it was such a strange storm, nothing like the ones we’d had before, but I fell asleep before I could hear more.
And then I was asleep and not asleep at the same time. I was on the beach and saw the storm going to the east, like it was an alive thing, and a princess or a queen arguing with it, saying she was already married, as if the storm wanted to marry her. I know a lot of stories but I don’t know a story about a princess marrying a storm! But clearly this princess was already married to a prince, or to a king if she was a queen.
I didn’t even think of it the next day until Dayapati took my arm in the afternoon and pulled me along to the beach, “did you see it too? The thing in the sea? It wanted to fuck me but I didn’t want to be fucked, it’s bad enough that Uncle wants to!”
I knew about that uncle, who had taken care of her since her mother died. “Can’t you kick him in the balls? Your uncle, not the thing in the sea.” I didn’t think it had balls, unless those were made of water.
Dayapati shrugged. “I’d rather go away. With you. Don’t care where, just away, anywhere except here.”
I didn’t have time to say anything because there was someone walking between us, one of his arms around each one’s shoulders. “That’s a good thought,” he said, “to go away together. You should go north-west. Tell Raisse about here.”
“What?” I said. I didn’t know any Raisse, except if he meant the queen but why would the queen want to know about our village, and how could we tell her? “Who are you anyway?”
“I’m Timoine, of course.” And to Dayapati he said “I’m Dayato.” He said a lot more but it didn’t make much sense, except that he was off to my parents to make them angry. Of course they’d be angry if I went away to the north-west! There wasn’t anything there, except the far turnip field. And we didn’t have anything to eat with us, in fact nothing except the clothes we were wearing.
But north-west we went, walking until we couldn’t any more, and there was a man there tending animals but I couldn’t see what they were. He gave us food, nice-tasting soft white stuff with a lot of herbs in it. And we got a place to sleep inside his house on white fluffy things that were like I imagine lying on a cloud.
When we woke up in the morning the house was gone and the fluffy things were gone and the man and the animals were gone, but we knew very well where we were going. “Do you think that was Archan?” I asked Dayapati. But Archan would have talked, wouldn’t he? Perhaps it was the Nameless. Dayapati said she didn’t know either way.
We walked all day again, sometimes in the sun and sometimes under clouds, until we came to a place where there were trees higher than I’d ever seen, trees like walls, higher than any walls I could imagine. It was really dark in there and there were lots of strange scary sounds, but we could see a fire in the distance and someone was sitting there roasting something on the fire that smelt delicious. And the other one was there again too, who had told us he was Timoine and Dayato, and he said “come and eat with us! We’ve roasted a goat!”
We got something that looked like the front leg of a rabbit only much larger, and we could eat all we liked of it but it didn’t make us feel full! And I would have liked to feel full, because we’d been walking all day, more than a day, and I felt very empty. But Timoine or the other one, whoever he was, stroked my stomach and made me feel full.
Then I had another dream, or at least an awake-and-not-awake thing, with the person — god — being who had been roasting the meat talking to me, trying to sweet-talk me in fact, like Dayapati’s uncle does. I don’t really remember one word of what he said, except that I said to him at one point “You’re Archan!” and he said “Does it matter?” And I didn’t get the chance to tell him if it mattered or not, because I fell asleep again at once.