“Why, master wizard, do we count our fingers?”
“We would all count different otherwise.”
“We don’t all have ten fingers, master!”
“That’s not the point, son.”
“I don’t understand”
“Few do, son, few can.”
South of the Great Forest
What lay beyond the Forest came as a shock to the northerners.
When they reached the southern tree line to see a vista of rolling, green hills and farmland surrounded by honeysuckle, jasmine, hawthorn and granadilla hedges, tended paths and tracks bordered by a profusion of flowers, copses of oaks, pines, chestnuts, bountiful orchards, gurgling streams, they were awed, and saddened.
Mordan found his voice first. “It’s gentler than the north.”
Aven placed a comforting hand on the old man’s bony shoulder.
“Valaris is a particularly beautiful world,” Taranis murmured.
“It looks so easy! I have hoed and fertilized and watered back home, but in twenty years of doing so this wouldn’t be the result. How trade would have made our lives easier.” Samson shook his head in bewilderment.
“What is that body of water glinting in the distance?” Kisha asked.
“That is the Ness and beyond is the Galilan,” Rayne murmured. He was drawn to Saska’s silence. It was as if she dared not use words to describe her awe, and he liked her reticence, her unwillingness to share depth of wonder.
Valaris was a war zone the last time she was here; this was her first view of the continent not burning.
He forced himself to speak, wanting too much to see it through her eyes. “If we hire a boat on the Galilan, we can sail down to the coast. From there it’s a short hop to Luan along the beach.”
They left the comfort of the Forest, following Taranis and Saska as they headed for the nearest path, crossing a field of wildflowers to reach it.
Glint was entranced by the profusion and had to be prodded into movement. Aven and Mordan took turns thereafter to keep the giant going forward, causing much merriment along the way.
This close to the Divide the land was unpopulated, but old fences were covered in woodbine and hawthorn and, despite the heat of summer, the peek of spring’s cornflowers were seen in the deep shade of the rambling hedges. Under an old tamarind tree, a latticework bower stood in somnolent repose, water gurgling over smooth stones nearby.
The wanderers were quiet in absorbing the sights of a serene and unsullied countryside, filling lungs with the ripe smells of summer. Tiny birds flew by undaunted, dipping bright wings in greeting, chirping continuously.
They wandered down green lanes of sun-dappled earth, crossed flower and bee filled fields and meandered along tracks bordering fragrant orchards of peaches, pears, apricots, and further along early apples attracted hosts of birds and squirrels. Knapweeds and hollyhocks jostled for space. Red clover and dandelions vied with sunflowers and primroses, and staked sweet pea gave off heady scent.
The sky was blue and bright, not a cloud in sight.
As midday approached, they called halt beside a large earth-dam; grass covered banks, water clear, still, and soothing. A copse of wild figs beckoned and they made their way to the shade.
After a while Saska spoke, hesitantly, as if admitting a secret. She stared at the mirror-smooth water reflecting blue the sky above. “The Sylmer homeworld, Canimer, is a water world. We have no land.” She rubbed her legs, but was not aware she did so. Rayne’s stomach tightened, and he looked away. “We lose our tails during the Immortality Ritual, but never do we lose the desire to be in the water.” She noticed Rayne’s averted face, his noble profile, his set mouth. “Whenever we get the chance we enter water whether fresh or salt, and our tails return for a time, like a gift from the gods …” She cleared her throat.
“Let’s go in!” McSee exclaimed. “Come on, it’s cooking hot!” He lurched up, ran at the water and jumped in.
“That sounds good,” Llettynn murmured and waded in. It seemed as if he preferred not wetting his wings, for he flared them out above the surface of the dam.
Moments later the dam was alive with shrieking, laughing, diving, splashing forms.
Averroes, afraid of the water, waded cautiously in, found the water shallow enough and promptly sat in it up to her neck, throwing water over her face and hair.
Even the two old men floundered about, laughing like silly teenagers.
Saska, who brought it on, continued to sit.
And so did Rayne.
“Too private to share?” he asked, not looking at her.
“Yes,” she answered. “It will distract me.”
“Why say something?”
“I don’t know,” she responded, still with that wistful note in her voice.
The silence then was uncomfortable.
Kisha and Cristi returned wet and laughing. Averroes too emerged, her usual shapelessness revealed as a lie, dress clinging to her slender form. Rayne rose to walk away, and knew Averroes had seen his reaction … as had Saska.
What is the matter with you? He castigated himself as he stalked the bank. You need a cold dip, my friend.
Nevertheless, he stayed away from the water, and could not fathom why.
Later, the Ness River lay before them.
Kylan explained it was the least travelled watercourse in the south, for the Ness plunged through the Great Dividing Forest on its journey to the ocean at Silas Bay. A ferry system plied the river, taking passengers and goods across the broad expanse. He reckoned they were downstream of it, and thus they headed upriver.
McSee shook his head at a suggestion they swim across, with Averroes squeaking denial.
“Too treacherous,” the big man muttered, and related the tale of how his father nearly drowned, impatient as he was with the ferryman.
A bend in the river, and the ferry came into view.
The raft, a rough platform of logs that instilled little confidence, and the ferryman, a darkly tanned, bearded man in early middle-age with arms the size of tree trunks, was on the opposite bank collecting two old men and an even older and far more stubborn donkey. Muffled curses floated across the water from all three when the donkey refused to set foot on the rocking platform.
Belun transformed again, taking on the guise of an old man with silver hair and moustache, but could not disguise his height or the spring in his step. Taranis told him to stoop and shuffle and admonished him to behave.
Llettynn pulled a lightweight grey cloak over his wings and pulled the hood up to darken pale features. He then waved a hand to alter the giant’s green skin to a more acceptable colour. It was quickly done - this change of appearance had been used before.
Saska and Taranis looked the three over.
“You will pass at a glance,” Taranis muttered. “Just don’t draw attention.” He worried over the signature the changes wrought, but they had no choice - the Guardians’ alienness would reveal them this day.
Saska dragged a length of blue cloth from her pack and proceeded to wind it around her blue-tinted hair. When finished she appeared human, something Rayne found disturbing.
“All right, let’s go,” Taranis said. “We are a large group and that will attract attention. If asked, we’re on our way to a wedding in Luan. We hail from Farinwood, same place as the, um, bride.”
The donkey was finally manhandled onto the raft amid much braying and snapping of teeth. The three flushed men cursed as the ferry poled across.
Reaching their side, the ferryman raised his eyebrows at the sight of a large party, but did not show suspicion. The donkey launched furiously onto dry land before the raft fully settled and the two old men jumped off, running helter-skelter after the fleeing animal.
McSee burst out laughing and so did the ferryman.
“That’s why folk pay upfront,” he chuckled. “Hey, big party, I can take only eight a go.”
“Fine,” Taranis said with a smile and jumped aboard. The four Immortals followed him, along with McSee and Samson. McSee handed over the necessary coin.
Fortunately the ferryman was not the overly curious sort and poled them across without a word, before returning to collect the others, doing so with smiles and sincere friendliness. He did not once remark on the presence of weapons.
From the Ness it was a three-hour hike to the Galilan, and the land between was cultivated with many farmhouses dotting the landscape. Luckily the heat kept most people indoors, although periodically a back would straighten to stare across a field at the large group of travellers.
The sun was setting when they reached the large river. Ships plied it, travelling from the coast inland to Galilan the city, and all manner of smaller craft sailed the broad expanse. It would soon be dark, and they decided to halt for the night.
Footsore and weary, even the guards - Belun, Taranis and Samson - nodded during their shifts.
The next morning they followed the river downstream, looking to hire a boat and it was not long before they came upon a jetty, a rickety affair jutting out into the shallows.
A crudely painted sign proclaimed boats for hire and sale. Smaller letters underneath advertised all manner of repairs done to all makes of vessels.
“A jack of all trades,” Aven chuckled. “Leave this to me; I shall negotiate with yon farmer …”
Rayne grinned, knowing the old man could drive a hard bargain.
Aven, winking, set off up the path to a farmhouse perched in a picturesque garden above the forty-year flood line. From the whitewashed cottage a man appeared to amble down to meet him at the gate to his property.
Moments later, both men approached the jetty, both gesticulating wildly. Rayne was already laughing.
“You’ll need the big one,” the farmer was saying. “… and I usually hire that one only! She’s my biggest earner! If you want to buy her it’ll cost you forty dians!”
“Daylight robbery, man!” Aven shouted. “I can buy two new boats for that ridiculous price in Galilan!”
“It’s my best boat!”
“Let’s see this wonder!” Aven fumed.
Muttering, the farmer stalked to the end of the jetty, setting it alarmingly a-sway and pointed to a vessel the others could not see. Aven made a show of looking and burst into incredulous laughter.
“That? Forty dians? It probably leaks!”
“My boats do NOT leak!”
Aven huffed in disbelief.
The farmer considered and conceded, “Thirty-five dians.”
“Ten!” Aven countered.
“Now that’s daylight robbery!” the man screeched. “Thirty!”
“Twenty-five, and that’s my final offer!” The farmer was purple about the gills and evidently would not budge more.
“Deal!” Aven shouted and promptly paid the man, who stomped off the jetty to mutter all the way to his home.
It was a flat-bottomed boat better suited to shallower rivers, but would accommodate them.
It was also old with little of the original paint remaining.
Best boat, my whiskers, Aven fumed.
Still, they were not concerned about looks, only with sea-worthiness. A faded name on the side proclaimed her the Galilan Goddess and Aven snorted. Two oars lay in the boat and a single mast sported a tattered sail, haphazardly furled. An old flat paddle did duty as a rudimentary rudder.
Samson and McSee jumped in and laid hold to an oar each in preparation of rowing them into the river’s strong current. One by one the others clambered in. Only Averroes was pale and sat close to Aven.
“Aven,” she whispered, clutching his arm hard.
“It’s all right, my dear, nothing will go wrong,” Aven pacified, and at Taranis’ questioning glance, added, “She can’t swim.”
Taranis gave her arm a reassuring squeeze.
The Galilan Goddess leaked. As Averroes grew steadily paler, the men took turns bailing, finding an old stowed bucket, obviously for that purpose. It leaked also.
“He conned us,” McSee muttered.
Aven swore to get even. “I’ll show him where he can shove those twenty-five dians …”
Rayne and Kylan grew up sailing on various rivers. They managed passably well, seeing as the sail was useless.
Aven cursed again. The stupid boat was not meant for the Galilan, it leaked, and the sail was non-existent. Would he ever give the clown a piece of his mind. He shook all thoughts of revenge aside upon seeing his ward’s ashen face.
“We’ll take care of her,” Kisha said, shuffling along the wooden seat until she sat against Averroes, propping her, and Cristi moved into the space between Aven and Averroes, doing the same. Both women whispered first comfort, then gossip, and after a while silly jokes.
Averroes managed an occasional weak smile. Aven nodded, well pleased.
The wind was not strong, but it was steady, and thus they made good time with the aid of Samson and McSee’s rowing. It was hard work, for bailing was continuous.
They reached the mouth by late afternoon, dodging frequent traffic, and found it unoccupied. No ship waited to enter and they were the last vessel downriver. No doubt it had something to do with the fading light, for by all accounts it was treacherous where fresh water mingled with salt.
Tired, thirsty and hungry, they steered over to a natural bay before the river put out to sea; the Galilan Goddess was not ocean material.
There was general relief when the leaking boat attained land, and Averroes, stiffened in a crouching hunch, needed to be carried ashore. Glint obliged when he saw Aven’s expression as McSee moved to do so, stepping into the duty with tact.
Once on land and with everyone safe and gear unloaded, Aven went back to the troublesome vessel and pushed her back into the current with a mighty shove, and watched with evident satisfaction as she was hurtled out to sea.
“May you land up in little pieces somewhere,” he said.
“Amen,” McSee agreed.
“Let’s hope she causes no harm to other vessels,” Taranis said, caught between amusement and anxiety.
“That old thing?” Aven scoffed, and put his back to the water without giving it another thought.
Thankful to be on land, they set to the camp routine. Firewood, tea and stew followed. They took turns at bathing in the bay thereafter, and settled down.
McSee had the first watch and now Saska was on duty, the midnight stint.
In a couple of hours she would wake Mordan, but until then she enjoyed the silence, the pure stillness of the night, the ocean a rhythm that lent profoundness to the land’s quiet. The waxing moon rode high, casting a blue surreal glow over everything.
She lifted from her perch - an old tree stump - and glanced back at the sleeping forms. McSee was restless as he settled into deep sleep, but the others were oblivious. Pale blue shapes, indistinguishable from the land. She was energised. She walked down to the bay to stare at the ripples on the water.
Soft lapping at her feet revealed the tide was in, the water deep and calm. She bent to remove her boots and stood in the water, relishing the coolness.
The desire to dive into the depths overcame her, an intense longing so profound she clutched her stomach.
She checked again on the others. All quiet. And she sensed no ill will in the vicinity.
Rapidly removing her clothes, she waded in. She stood a moment with the water up to her shoulders, revelling in the sensation of caress, and floated free. Gradually her legs transformed.
She flipped onto her back to await her full tail, allowing the water to soothe mind and soul, erase all cares, so easy to just go and swim away.
With delight, she flicked her complete tail, and dived into the dark depths.
Upstream, Rayne released breath in a tense explosion.
Unable to sleep, aching muscles finding no release that permitted oblivion, he crept away before Saska was awakened for duty. McSee saw him go, but clearly neglected to mention it. Should he curse the man, or thank him?
He saw her disrobe, her body a pale blue shimmer in the moonlight, too far for detail, but imagination had a mind all its own. He closed his eyes, seeing there what imagination conjured for him … and snapped them open.
What are you thinking, Rayne? You have not the time for this type of involvement, not under these circumstances, and definitely not one such as her.
Three minutes later, he frantically scanned the surface. Surely she could not remain down that long?
What do you know, stupid mortal? She is a Sylmer and can probably stay down all night.
However, he could not shake his concern. He dragged boots off, released scabbard and sword, tossing it with a dull clunk to the ground, and waded into the cold water in the general direction he saw her dive.
She could spend hours discovering the hidden world below and came close to heading out to sea, but knew as well the others relied on her to sleep without care.
Duty overcame selfishness, but it was with reluctance that she headed for the surface.
She saw him the moment she broke through to air once more, her lungs automatically affecting the necessary changes. Knee-deep in the water, unease etched on his face, and mere feet from her.
Another step and he would be off the shelf and into the depths as she was.
She ached to smooth the lines caused on his face, the anxiety and the … guilt? Had he seen her? Of course he had, why else was he standing there? She was glad he had not raised alarm, glad he was worried enough to wade into water cold for him, and glad he had seen her. At the dam, he understood.
She did not need this. Taranis would not understand.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I did not intend to intrude.”
“You thought I was in trouble?” she returned. “We breathe under water.”
He nodded, feeling foolish, and backed away.
“Rayne,” she called, halting him. “Thank you … you cared.”
He gave a smile and made to turn, but she called again.
“Did you see me?” Goddess, why ask that?
Moments elapsed, their gazes locked. Then he nodded again before turning swiftly away. He waded to the shore, grabbed his boots and sword, and vanished into the trees away from the sleeping camp.
Her heartbeat was unnatural as she watched him go. Feeling terrible, she glanced at the camp, and was relieved to find everything as it was and no one awake.
What is it about this man that draws me so? What made me choose this night to go into the water, she wondered, of all nights, with Rayne watching?
For Rayne, it was not the end of the night’s surprises.
He walked inland a fair way to sit in self-flagellation on a rocky outcrop that overlooked a bend in the river. His fingers tightened on the leather length of his scabbard until it was as if the blade within cut into the tendons of his hand.
Rayne glanced down at his right hand when the pain penetrated the fog of his thoughts.
He moves like a swordsman. Those were the Siric’s words to him in the Forest.
Of course he was a swordsman.
He lifted his hand and flexed it, breath whistling in at the sharp release in tension. A blade felt right in his hands, as if it belonged there. Yet he had to admit choosing a sword as weapon was an odd one for a Valarian.
There was mention of swords arriving with the settlers on their starships, but they came as heirlooms, antiques too valuable to be left behind. Humankind had, by that time, already moved into technological weaponry; swords were thus regarded as intriguing artefacts. Few settlers knew anything of swordsmanship, and the art of fencing, whether with rapier or sword, never took hold.
Today’s pirates wielded blades, to be sure, but they were crude imitations of the true, folded sword.
When he discovered this blade in the Mantle archives, he assumed it an heirloom and set out to learn the art.
Books came with the settlers, all subjects, and were copied by hand and later by virtue of presses, and widely distributed so no knowledge was lost. There were no blademasters on Valaris and thus his learning was based also on instinct. Slash and parry, swoop and stab, lunge and block until it felt right.
He was a swordsman. Right?
“I found a blademaster on Beacon.” Rayne jerked around to find Taranis standing behind him. “You are no doubt questioning your ability right now. I would, knowing no one on Valaris could have taught you.”
Rayne faced forward. “Found the sword and read every book on the subject.” He shrugged. “I am wondering, yes.” He wondered also how long Taranis had been awake - long enough to see him with Saska?
“You are already steps ahead of where I was when I left Valaris. That blademaster despaired of every teaching me to move fast enough.” Taranis sat on a nearby outcrop and stared into the water.
A smile. “According to Declan - he’s a Siric - I am proficient. Declan prides himself on swordsmanship and we often spar … wish I had met him first as blademaster, he has patience.”
Rayne turned his head in Taranis’ direction.
“It is hard for you to ask for help, isn’t it? Years of doing all in secret has curbed your ability to be transparent.” Taranis held a hand aloft. “Never mind that. Saska said she saw you head in this direction carrying your sword and I thought this might be the way of it.” He tapped his hilt. “I cannot call myself a master, but I could tell you whether you have ability.”
One could read much into that offer. Perhaps Taranis had seen him with Saska. Maybe the Siric instigated this. Did they want to test him or help him?
And this was Taranis, the man who wanted everything to work out well, for everyone to get along. He did not think in shades and shadows.
Rayne stood and faced the Guardian. “I would appreciate that.”
Taranis rose as well and slapped a hand onto Rayne’s shoulder. “Excellent. Next opportunity we get where there is light and privacy.”
Rayne smiled, liking the man. “Deal.”