but prophecy controlled the journey.
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A strangling sense of horror woke Ellspeth from a deep sleep. The sea air carried the faint reek of freshly-spilled blood. Pale moonlight filtering through the shuttered window cast shadows around the small cabin. Nothing moved in the darkness beneath the narrow-legged desk or behind the wooden trunk that held the ship’s records. No visible danger lurked, yet the feeling of intense fear remained strong. As she fought to slow her rapid pulse, she listened for unusual sounds on the deck outside. The Sea Falcon had been her home, and she its captain, for the last three turns. She knew every inch of the bark from the tip of the ship’s five masts to the carved insignia on the bow. Despite the unease that ruined her rest, only the familiar creaks of the gently rocking wooden hull touched Ellspeth’s questing senses.
It was only a dream! At the remembered panic, she breathed deeply to rid herself of the effects of the nightmare. They keep getting more vivid, more real. Tomorrow we’ll be taking mage healers aboard. I wonder if the dreams and the healers are connected? Just as quickly as the question arose, she ruthlessly quashed it. “The dreams started even before the transport was arranged,” she muttered. At the sound of her voice the ship’s orange-striped tom cat nudged Ellspeth’s hand. “All right, all right, you greedy glut.” The cat stretched out at Ellspeth’s gentle ruffling of its fur. His almost soundless purr sent vibrations wherever his paws touched her side. “It was only a dream, right Fal? You wouldn’t be so relaxed if the Sea Falcon was in danger.” Grabbing onto that thought, Ellspeth nestled beneath the heavy coverlet. The soft flap of the light wind through the rigging finally lulled her back to sleep.
Gentle breezes ruffled Ellspeth’s hair and brought the tang of sea air across the harbor. The rumble of a stream of wagons pulling up to the gangplank pulled her sharp gaze from the mass of crates and barrels piled on the Sea Falcon’s deck. Ellspeth’s glare froze the lead driver in his seat. All the wagons were empty, when they should have been full of men to unload the ship.
“Where are the dockhands?” she snapped.
“Sorry, mistress. I couldn’t hire any. Three ships arrived yesterday. Every able man has already found work or been spoken for.”
Ellspeth rapidly calculated how long the crated food would survive under the harsh sun. The tubers and dried fruit could wait until sundown, but the brined meat and fresh fruit in the holds needed to get into the guild’s cold cellars. She worried most of all about the barrels of braga wine. Putting them back into the hold wasn’t feasible and after a few hours she would only be able to sell the valuable liquid as vinegar.
“Perfect. We’ll just have to do it ourselves.” One of the first lessons the sea had taught her was that she could not control everything. By instinct her fingers found the pair of hair sticks she always carried within the deep pockets of her tunic. Three quick twists and the sticks secured her long silver tresses at the nape of her neck.
“All right men.” The authority in her voice brought instant attention from her crew. Men slid down ropes or climbed from the holds to form a circle around her. The first officer took his usual spot to her right. Ellspeth spotted an unruly shock of brown hair just beyond his shoulder. Ever since he came aboard the Sea Falcon two seasons ago, young Ionnain became the first officer’s perpetual shadow. “Those kegs won’t get themselves to the warehouse. Start loading the wagons. A bonus if we get the Falcon’s cargo in them before dinner.” Ellspeth pushed her gold captain’s bracelets up under her sleeves and joined her crew in rolling barrels down the narrow gangway.
Calling a halt, Ellspeth wiped the sweat out of her eyes. The workers slid beneath wagons or into the sliver of shade presented by the ship’s shadow to escape the searing mid-day sun. Silently she counted the number of barrels and crates still on deck. “We need more hands,” she declared. Desperate to get her goods undercover before the heat ruined them, Ellspeth searched the bustling docks. She focused on a man. Not because he busily shifted crates, but because he lounged against a barrel placed in the shade.
His clothes seem of good quality. Maybe he’s a local tradesman. After a second look at the well-worn loose breeches, tight vest, and leather neckband, she corrected herself. Or, the younger son of a chieftain from the Mtwan mountain region. A few quick steps took her to the loafer who watched her approach, amusement sparkling in his light brown eyes.
“You look strong. I will pay you 10 coppers for the day. That is double the going rate. Payment when the Sea Falcon is unloaded.”
Accustomed to an immediate response from her crew, Ellspeth’s fists clenched at his insolent stare when he ignored her and took another bite of his meat roll. His gaze holding hers, he raised his earthen mug in salute and asked. “Do you even have 10 coppers?”
Several long swallows later, he clanked the drained mug down on the barrelhead. The slowness with which he wrapped the remnants of his meal in a small square of white cloth and wiped the foam from his lips with the back
of his hand frustrated Ellspeth even more. Slipping the bundle into a small pouch hanging from his belt, he turned the movement into a courtly bow.
His cool tones were at odds with the smile that never left his eyes. “Lead on. I’ll give you an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wages.”
Ellspeth paired herself with him as they worked to unload the ship. There was something different about this dockhand. But what? The heavy bolts of Nerevian silk seemed much lighter whenever he held the other end. She felt her face warm at the image of his hands unbinding her hair.
No! She turned to tell her partner to pick up his earnings, only to realize he’d slipped away. It’s a good thing, she thought with a relieved sigh at the removed temptation. The weight of her gold bracelets reminded her of her rank and she wondered how she could even contemplate a dalliance with a common worker, even if he was quite handsome.
Ellspeth checked the sun’s position. To her surprise, it hovered just above the horizon. Somehow she had lost several hours and the dock was clear.
“Good work men,” Ellspeth called to her crew. “We sail on the first tide on third morn.” The men waved to each other and laughed as they fanned out in search of amusement. Her eyes scanned the jovial crowd for the worker she’d hired, but he had disappeared. He’ll show up. I’ve still got his money.
“Where are those passengers?” Ellspeth growled to no one in particular. The swoosh of her soft leather boots with each pace across the polished deck echoed the gentle onshore breeze. With every back and forth motion, she stopped to listen for the sound of wheels that would herald the arrival of her passengers. A flash of movement near the bow caught her eye; the ship’s cat playfully chased a dust mote dancing in the sun. This day not even Fal’s antics lightened her mood. “If they don’t come soon, we’ll sail without them. I don’t care who paid their fare.”
The outburst did little to restore her equilibrium, especially after she caught the Sea Falcon’s first officer hastily suppressing a smile. The Falcon’s luxury treatment of guests was well known. And they’d never lost a cargo.
Minutes passed. Both Ellspeth and her first officer watched for the arriving fares, and for the telltale ribbons of dark water that marked the changing tide.
A call of “Wagons ho” echoed from a sailor hanging in the upper rigging. The rumble of wagon wheels reached the Sea Falcon’s quarterdeck as two covered carriages and a freight wagon with several wooden trunks in the bed rolled up to the gangplank.
“Ready on the mains’l. Man the bow lines. Man the stern lines.” Ellspeth’s rapid-fire orders sent the few crewmen not at their posts racing to the dock. “Get those trunks. I want to be underway as soon as our guests board.” One ear tuned to the sounds of crew readying the Sea Falcon to get underway, Ellspeth watched the approaching people to see who warranted special favors from the King. She was glad to see her cabin boy, Jon, waiting at the rail to offer the appropriate courtesies to their guests.
Out of the first carriage climbed a man dressed in leather breeches and the dark-colored doublet currently in style. His tanned arm waved to send the hurrying purser on to the next carriage. In the midst of preparing the ship, Ellspeth caught a glimpse of a head of dark hair above broad shoulders before the passenger reached inside the carriage to pull out a bulging valise. A slender man about 20-turns swung down from the second carriage. He extended a hand to help a young woman descend. Her long skirt swirled around her ankles as she stepped to the ground. The pair hurried to the ship as if well aware that captains made their own laws, and more than one late passenger had found himself left behind on the docks.
The man from the first carriage took a few balanced strides up the narrow plank to the opening at the ship’s rail. Ellspeth nodded in approval when he shifted the valise to his other shoulder and gave a formal salute to the banner flying from the main mast.
Her eyes widened—her missing dockhand. She almost missed his low voice amidst the clamor of loading the passengers’ luggage when he addressed the waiting crewmen.
“I am Lord Dal. My compliments to the captain. This is Lady Jesmen and her consort, Lord Voan.” The woman took his extended hand and nimbly walked onto the deck. Her male escort landed silently beside her.
Slipping the carry-thong from his shoulder, Dal dropped the valise alongside the rail out of the path of the scurrying seamen. “Please see our luggage is stowed in our cabins.”
“Yes, m’lord,” Jon replied.
“I’ll take my companions and leave you to your duties.” Then to his two companions he added, “The captain won’t appreciate us getting in the way of the crew. Voan, those barrels at the stern will be a good place for Jesmen to watch our departure. I don’t think she’s ever been to sea before.”
In response to his gesture, Jesmen hiked her skirts and gingerly picked her way across the deck to the indicated spot. The two men followed a step behind.
The Sea Falcon’s prow sliced through the rolling waves. The freshening wind filled the mainsail until the canvas snapped taut. Feeling eyes upon her, Ellspeth spun around. There was her mysterious dockhand. I have to stop thinking of him that way. He’s Lord Dal. She was impressed by how he handled the tilting deck with the instinctive moves of a natural sailor.
“Good morning, Lord Dal. Are your companions comfortable?”
“Yes, Captain. I’m afraid we won’t see much of them on the journey.” A smile twitched the edge of his lips. “This is also their matrimonial voyage. They were partnered last week.”
“Newlyweds,” the Sea Falcon’s captain exclaimed with a snort. “It’s a good thing I put them in the aft cabin. The adjoining cabin is empty so your friends will have their privacy.”
A companionable silence grew around captain and passenger as they watched a pair of sleek-bodied shipfish swimming alongside. Elevated fins left a luminescent trail in their wake. The aquatic escort peeled off with a series of spectacular leaps to break the moment.
Although it wasn’t her normal practice to associate with passengers, Ellspeth made a sudden decision. “Would you like to join me for dinner? I have a bottle of Delusian wine if you’d like a glass. It is not as foxy as the whites they make on the coast.”
Dal hesitated as if considering her proposal.
She smiled. “Your virtue won’t be sullied. We can dine out here on the deck, in full view of the crew. Besides,” she continued with a full-throated laugh, “you gave an honest day’s work. I owe you ten coppers.”
Running a hand through his dark curls, Dal wiped the sea mist from his hair. “How did you know? I can usually hold a mesmer and unload barrels at the same time.”
“King Fraunces is a friend. When he booked the passage, he said my passengers would be three wizards—two healers and a fighting mage. The king knew that, unlike some, my crew would make you welcome. A pirate ship has been attacking traders on the route to the Aberden Archipelago. There’ve been rumors that a wizard is among them. Since some magicians are supposed to have the ability to shape change, as a precaution Fraunces divulged your true appearance. I caught a glimpse of your reflection in a window when we unloaded the last barrel. Although the description matched, I wasn’t sure what I actually saw. Then you disappeared before I could investigate.”
“I wanted to see what kind of ship Fraunces was putting me on.”
Ellspeth chortled at his honesty.
Each evening of the voyage they shared wine beneath the setting sun. One such night, two bright lights sparkling near the horizon caught Dal’s attention. “The stars are different down here than in the north.”
“You haven’t been to the Southern Sea before?”
“No,” he answered after a moment’s pause. “Most of my travels were throughout the Four Kingdoms. And we didn’t often have a chance to just sit and stare at the stars. Even when on night guard duty, you dared not focus on one point too long.”
Sensing his hesitance to talk about his background, Ellspeth quickly changed the subject. “The stars are named Iol and Pelra. Did you ever hear their legend?” When he shook his head, she started the ancient tale. Her low voice barely carried above the sound of water beneath the hull. “Rima, my grandmother, told me this on my first sea voyage. Iol and Pelra were captains; both had won their gold bracelets. Their rank was suitable but his mother had rejected her father’s courtship, so a joining between Iol and Pelra was not allowed. Since no one had ever sailed the southern island route in less than four sevenday, the two families proposed a wager. If Iol and Pelra made the trip in less than two sevenday, the families would allow the marriage. The pair set off in their respective ships with all masts carrying as much canvas as the rigging could handle.
“Iol and Pelra prayed, and in recognition of their devotion the water god favored them with fair skies. Brisk winds pushed them faster than any vessel had ever sailed before. The ships returned in the final hour allowed by the bet. Despite their return within the allotted time, the parents reneged and declared that Iol and Pelra had lost the bet and refused to allow the marriage. The ruling council of Iol’s house ordered him to a remote inland lake to captain an old scupper. Pelra was confined to her family complex. Unable to return to their ships and the sea, the pair sneaked to the twin rocks that guarded the harbor entrance. When the families sent soldiers to enforce their orders, the water god brought up a storm to protect the lovers. Then he transformed Iol and Pelra into shipfish. Legend has it they swam together to the end of the world. One powerful leap carried them into the night sky.”
I haven’t thought of that story for years, Ellspeth mused. Why should it come to mind now? As if in answer, her eyes were drawn to Dal whose gaze had fixed on the two stars.
The answer still eluded her the next morning as she stood watch. She spun the ship’s wheel a quarter turn, then looked over to where the wizard was practicing defensive moves with a pair of swords. The sun sparkled on the metal with each slow, rhythmic motion. Ellspeth made another slight adjustment to move the compass needle to the desired course. No matter how much she tried to focus on the ship, her attention kept being drawn to the exercising man—and to the way his muscles rippled beneath his tanned skin.
This is useless. I should know better. No personal involvement. “Jon,” she called. The cabin boy appeared from his usual spot below the quarterdeck where he had been petting the ship cat. “Please fetch my flute and writing gear.” Her murmured instructions sent the boy below. Moments later he re-appeared, a silver flute in one hand and a leather guitar case slung over a slender shoulder. Ellspeth’s whistle summoned another crewman, red-freckles peeking out from beneath the brim of a well-worn cap.
“You wanted me, Captain?”
“I’m taking a break, Reld. You have the helm.”
A broad grin appeared amidst the freckles as he snapped Ellspeth a sharp salute.
She returned the honor then smiled remembering her first time at the helm. The emotion turned into a tune. Jon placed the metal flute in her hand. In a single lithe movement he set down his bundles and settled himself on the deck. A long reach and he snagged a small wooden traveling desk from beneath the map chest. Seeing Jon ready with parchment and ink from inside the desk, Ellspeth lifted the flute to her lips.
Soon silvery notes floated across the deck. The song seemed a reflection of the water’s movement against the ship’s hull. As if summoned by the flute’s call, a dozen shipfish appeared. Water sheeted off their bodies as they leaped and dove in time to the jaunty air. The music now firmly in her hands and mind, Ellspeth set down the instrument. Nodding to the cabin boy, she leaned back and closed her eyes, prepared to listen with a critical ear to her new composition.
Jon carefully anchored the parchment against the breeze, picked up a four-stringed guitar and arranged his fingers on the ivory frets. His blond head nodded in time to an inner clock. On the fourth beat, a strum and Ellspeth’s haunting melody rose over the waves, the guitar rendering it a few octaves lower than Ellspeth’s flute.
“That’s an interesting piece you’re playing,” Dal commented. “I don’t remember ever hearing it before. And I’m sure I would. The tune stays with you.”
The cabin boy’s fingers halted in mid-stroke at the wizard’s voice. Ellspeth started at the sudden silence.
“Please don’t stop on my account,” the wizard said. “Continue.”
Surprise flickered across the cabin boy’s face to be replaced by a smile that seemed to show a thousand teeth. “It’s not mine.” His head inclined toward Ellspeth in a respectful bow. “It’s the captain’s. I just put the notes to parchment for her.”
“My apologies, Captain, that in my exercises I missed you composing.” Dal’s courtly bow emphasized his words.
“None needed, Lord Dal.” Ellspeth laughed. “It is a rare gift to be able to shut out the entire world and focus on one thing. The tuning is nothing. I just play the flute to pass time. Apprenticing for my bracelets and being away so much at sea prevented me from serious musical study.” She glanced down at the now sheathed weapon hanging at his side. “I wish I could handle a long sword as readily as you. My instruction focused on the short sword.”
“Short weapons do work better for ship’s crew. However, if you wish, tomorrow we can practice together. My price—to hear the rest of your tune.”
~ * ~
Heavy sheets of rain obscured the horizon. Crashing waves broke on the Falcon’s bow and flowed over the deck. Ellspeth’s summons brought the three passengers to the wheel. “This isn’t normal weather for the Aberden Sea,” Ellspeth shouted. Her voice barely rose above the roaring water. “The wind is chasing around in circles, widdershins. It’s not natural.”
“No, it’s magic,” Dal shouted back. “Voan and Jesmen are healers. Their powers can’t help.”
“Then, m’lord, m’lady, thank you for your attendance. Your quarters will be the safest place for you right now.” Ellspeth’s eyebrow arched in question as Dal made no attempt to leave.
“With your permission, Captain, I’d like to stay. I promise to keep out of the crew’s way. Unlike the others, I’m used to fighting.”
Too focused on saving her ship to wonder at the relief she felt at the wizard’s offer, Ellspeth merely nodded approval. She moved aside to make room for him at the rail, their shoulders almost touching.
A long silence started to grow. Wind-driven rain grabbed at their clothes and plastered wet hair to their heads. Ellspeth started as Dal laid a hand on her shoulder. His long arm pointed just off the Falcon’s starboard rail. “Look over there!”
Ellspeth’s gaze followed the wizard’s gesture. Before her eyes, one of the thick walls of rain twisted into a circle. The revolving column sucked water skyward, throwing it high into the air. Faster and faster it rotated. In seconds its color changed from the light gray of a cloud-filled morn to the black thunder-filled summer storm. A second column formed alongside the first—then a third—then a fourth. Desperately Ellspeth searched for a path away from the danger. “Can you do anything?” she yelled at Dal. “If one of those spouts hits the ship, it’ll swamp us.”
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Copyright 2016 by Helen Henderson
Cover Art by Michelle Lee
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