Sail the Great Western Sea, sailor,
if you really seek to know yourself.
~ Pirate saying
Captain Bertin was the complete opposite of his mother.
He was large and possessed an indefinable something that spoke of a love for the sea. One naturally imagined him at home on any deck on every ocean; perhaps it was the distance in his gaze, as if he peered at one from afar. His hair was black and wavy, long, caught in a bushy ponytail. A thick black beard entirely obscured the lower half of his ruddy face.
The most marked difference lay in his absolute lack of curiosity and taciturn silences. He answered Taranis and Rayne in monosyllables, yet appeared trustworthy and capable.
Captain Bertin was on deck and when they hailed he nodded them aboard. His ship was in mint condition. The deck was scrubbed, brass rails and cannons polished.
The paintwork was bright and flawless. The Calloway was a sloop with a single mast, rigged fore and aft, and with a single headsail set from the forestay. She was sleek, manoeuvrable and fast, a vessel of outstanding quality. She bade one sail with her into the far horizon.
“Good morning, Captain, my name is Taranis … no relation, of course. This is Rayne. We require passage to Tor Island. Actar, specifically.”
Captain Bertin did not offer to shake hands. He merely nodded his head as if he already knew.
“We seek to hire this beautiful vessel and you come highly recommended …” Rayne’s complimentary words brought no change in expression. “We are fourteen in all. Are you able to accommodate our number?”
The Captain nodded again, but whether he confirmed accommodation or agreed to cross the Straits of Lex to Tor Island was open to interpretation.
Taranis grinned, Rayne shrugged.
“When?” Captain Bertin asked.
That had to be the confirmation. “First light tomorrow?” Taranis ventured. The Captain again bobbed his head and started to turn away with mop and bucket in hand. “Wait, Captain. Must we bring anything? And what of your fee?”
Captain Bertin stopped and looked up at the sky. “Food. Money.”
Perhaps inspiration came from above? “How much … oh, never mind,” Rayne said in amusement as the Captain made his way to the steps that led to the bridge.
Rayne and Taranis glanced at each other, both thinking money was not an issue for this silent man. He would probably sail for no payment; he loved the sea that much.
They ambled back along the jetty, muttering about stiff muscles after the night’s exercise, and met Aven and Mordan coming up from the beach. The day was still cool, but the sun climbed steadily into a cloudless sky.
Aven asked, “Did you manage to find the Captain? He agreed? Good, that’s one less issue to worry over … and how much did he want? Are there enough lifeboats? What about space for all of us? How long will the crossing take? What about the weather?” Aven did not like the sea, or seamen.
Taranis and Rayne burst out laughing.
“Getting that man to talk would be like wringing water from a stone! Come, old man, he is trustworthy and the Calloway is a fine vessel.” Rayne grinned at the sour look
Taranis added, “We leave it to you and Mordan to negotiate an economic bargain.”
Both men laughed again as Aven headed onto the jetty. In a curious scuttle, he headed to the ship at the far end. Mordan followed more slowly, shaking his head. They would be back barely ten minutes later, having made no headway.
“Rayne,” Taranis said as the two older men went about their task, his tone serious, “we need talk about money. So far you lot are paying for everything …”
“Money is …”
Taranis interrupted, “We didn’t figure financial resource when we discussed this misadventure in the Dome. Magic has always come to our aid in the past. We should’ve harked to Valaris’ distrust. We must do something …”
“Taranis.” Rayne did the interrupting. “McSee has Society resources and I have the Mantle.”
“Great, but …”
“We do this and you will do others as and when required.” Rayne shrugged when Taranis grimaced. “The Mantle has funds, more than enough, don’t worry about it. Aven is just naturally stingy.”
Taranis nodded, but seemed discomfited.
“Money, always an obstacle. As long as I can corner a moneylender when needed we will be fine.”
Taranis frowned. “Valaris had many banks in my day.”
“And still does, but moneylenders ask no questions.”
Taranis studied his companion. “At the risk of sounding like McSee, how do you persuade them to give you money without portable capital?”
“Most of the time we simply exchange goods for value. Other times … hypnosis. They get their money back once I have had an opportunity to lay out expenses to the Mantle in Galilan, with fair interest.”
“Hypnosis, you say?” Taranis echoed with a small smile.
Rayne’s mouth lifted at one corner.
They walked on. They were comfortable in each other’s company. It was now a bond of friendship also.
“There is something on your mind, Rayne.”
“I wondered over your family name.”
“Agripson,” Taranis said promptly.
Rayne halted. He seemed to pale. “I feel as if I know that already.”
Taranis studied him, and opted for amusement. “You won’t find me in a history book.”
A laugh. “Guess not.”
“What else, Rayne?”
“I think you have been talking to Cristi,” Rayne said after a while.
Rayne halted. “The real truth? Here, where the Siric won’t stand in judgement, Taranis? Dare I? Dare you listen?”
“I will listen.”
“And will you tell Llettynn?”
“Only if I need to.”
Rayne leaned on his arms upon the stair rail.
“Despite the fact that this mission to enlightenment intrigues me beyond the needs of the universe versus the Arcana, I feel the need to abandon everything I do here. Not only do I wish to return to Farinwood to reverse the influences on those helpless children, but also I want to find this blond child who screams for help in the darkness. I do not know how much longer I can ignore either situation. I tell myself what we are about will lead to an encompassing solution for every ill plaguing Valaris and her people and it is not enough. The lack of action drives me insane.”
“A man of action,” Taranis murmured. “I know how that is.”
Rayne looked at him. “Taranis, last night when Kylan spoke of the half-Valleur I suffered a gut reaction much the way you did. Yours, I think, speaks of a grander design; mine saw the girl. She has yellow eyes.” Rayne straightened. “She isn’t human. She isn’t even on Valaris.” He slapped the rail in frustration. “Which makes it worse; how, by all gods, do I help her?”
Taranis gripped his shoulder. “Keep it to yourself, hear? Start talking of an alien kid and you will panic the entire team.” He increased his grip. “Glint told Cristi not to speak of it either. I won’t discuss this with Llettynn … yet.” The Guardian leaned closer. “Somehow it fits in with that grand design reaction you spoke of. Give me a little time to figure it out. You have now asked for help, do you understand that? And I am willing to give, but I need time.”
Rayne looked into those grey eyes for long moments and finally nodded.
Wordless, with thoughts in complicated patterns in both minds, they headed for the Luannesse.
Luan was predawn quiet.
The air braced, with a slight breeze from the east. They headed along the broad wharf in silence, sniffing salt on the air, just as the sun peeped over the horizon.
Captain Bertin stood on the bridge and the Calloway’s sails were unfurled. He waved them aboard, not batting an eyelid at the sight of three cloaked figures. For all he knew they could be criminals, yet he seemed unfazed.
Pointing to Rayne, he said, “Untie.”
Rayne undid the mooring lines.
The Captain then pointed to a hatch alongside the bridge steps. It led to the galley and cabins below. As Taranis ushered the cloaked Guardians out of sight, Rayne watched the Captain swing the wheel on the bridge, saw the ship slowly turn from the jetty. The big sail caught the light breeze to fill gradually.
They were underway.
When Rayne moved his attention back to the hatch, it was to find most of the team elected to go below. Aven, not liking the sea, chose to comfort a nervous Averroes, and Mordan had never sailed the sea before and was already green.
Kylan, a sailing man, heeded Kisha’s hard tug to go with them. The three Guardians had no choice.
Rayne glanced around. For whatever reason, they went below. It was not every day one had the privilege to see the land vanishing into the horizon.
He inhaled slowly.
Saska was on deck. She watched the ocean loom larger as the Calloway nudged away from the encumbrances of land. She lifted a graceful hand and removed the scarf she wore around her hair, and allowed it to float free, watching as it gently drifted to the surface of the ocean to vanish into the swell. She leaned over the rail, long hair streaming back as the sloop gathered speed.
Rayne released his hold on the hatch and walked closer. “Saska.”
She glanced at him as he came to rest beside her, his hands on the rail and his gaze faraway. “Rayne.”
They stood side by side without looking at each other, without speaking, without touching. They watched the water steadily transform from grey to deep green to yellow to orange to emerald and to glorious blue as the sun climbed the dome above.
It was telling that neither watched the land vanish behind after all; the future lay ahead, not behind.
How wrong they were.
After a time she decided to make her way below deck. She did not see Taranis standing in the shade of the bridge, or the shadows enter his eyes.
Rayne stood on, hands gripping the rail for dear life. Or sanity.
He could not displace thoughts of Saska, her lips, her emerald eyes, her grace in the moonlight, in the water, her smile, with other more practical thoughts, and fought to find balance.
Taranis, watching, was aware of that inner struggle.
Having witnessed the intimacy of the silent communion at the rail, he realised where Rayne’s thoughts were headed and wondered how far Saska had joined him there.
Dear gods, am I to lose her? When I am almost ready?
No, Saska had a practical streak. She knew the dangers of a mortal-immortal relationship. No attraction was worth the pain afterward.
Hindsight, you hypocrite, you have hindsight, which neither of them have and cannot know of until they have walked that road.
Goddess, please do not take her from me.
Beyond the Straits of Lex
It took two days to cross the strait between the mainland and Tor Island, two days of calm and blue skies.
The occasional cloud materialised in the distance, but was so white and insubstantial it brought no relief from the heat.
Late on day two an island loomed a distance to the left and excitement mounted, but on questioning Captain Bertin and extracting answers with difficulty, they learned it would take an added two days to round the northern headland and sail south to the harbour at Actar on the western coast.
Averroes and Kisha voluntarily assumed kitchen duty for the duration.
“It’s a galley,” McSee pointed out, causing Cristi to stick her tongue out behind his back.
They had no contact with Bertin below deck as he prepared his meals in the cabin behind the wheelhouse on the bridge, and denied an offer to dinner on the first day. The good Captain left his guests to their own devices, for which they were grateful; Llettynn, Glint and Belun were thus freed to be themselves within the confines of the tiny guest area.
Rayne and McSee took turns relieving the Captain at the wheel, and they furled and unfurled, tautened and slackened the big sail at his command, both men enjoying the physical labour and sea air.
Kylan and Samson relieved them when the two stumbled weary and happy below deck.
Aven was a terrible passenger and was seasick the moment they were underway. He took to his cabin and stayed there.
Averroes proved she had a stronger stomach and as long as she stayed away from the deck with its unending vista of blue water she was fine. She cared for Aven and Mordan, the latter also queasy from the constant motion.
The three Guardians took time on deck when Rayne or McSee were at the helm, while the others, barring the two sick men, moved about as the mood took them. Averroes preferred a night stroll, for there was less to see.
When together they discussed the riddle and the game with growing fervour, and only Taranis was less communicative than usual.
The sea soothed and nurtured for the next two days, the water a beautiful blue, the weather a silent comrade. Tor Island vanished from view as Bertin steered his vessel out in a wide arc before turning south.
The fourth night at sea marked Valaris’ Full Moon, and all passengers were on deck, including the three Guardians swathed against Bertin’s incurious gaze, to mark its glorious blue passage across the wide heavens. It rose early evening and kept them company into the early hours, and as it set the others went below, Rayne taking over the helm.
Bertin muttered something about the tides and pull to the full moon and elected to remain at the helm until potential danger passed, going to sleep only when Rayne insisted they would need him fresh for the entrance into Actar later that morning.
It was exactly fourteen days since Infinity’s treacherous game commenced.
Barely two hours after the moonset, Captain Bertin stumbled blearily from his cabin.
Rayne was at the wheel, enjoying the solitude, a man happiest alone. The only exceptions were those rare moments he spent with family, moments ever scarcer as he grew older. Thus it was with some irritation that he turned as the Captain barrelled over, but one look at the man and he knew there was trouble.
He watched the man put a big hand to the helm, dark eyes intently studying the deck. Usually the Captain emerged with a steaming mug of coffee in one hand and waved Rayne away with the other; this was strange behaviour.
Rayne relinquished the helm.
Bertin gripped the wooden wheel with both hands. “Shudder.”
“I’m sorry?” Rayne’s fair hair was windblown and his cheeks showed a healthy blush in the pre-dawn grey. His eyes were silvery, bright and alert and in no way revealed the sleepless night passed. The cloak he donned hours earlier against the night chill flapped crazily in the wind.
Rayne bit back an oath and stared over the ocean.
“Shudder. How many?” the Captain muttered again. He was undressed in hose and white undershirt.
“Captain, forgive me, I don’t understand,” Rayne said.
“Shudder through the ship. Woke me. Have there been others?” Captain Bertin carefully enunciated that last query.
The barometer reflected normal, or Rayne would have been himself wary, but some of the man’s agitation communicated. “Is something wrong?” he asked, knowing there was.
It was in the wind also.
“Storm,” Bertin replied in his usual tone, eyes darting, checking the rigging, the cannons, the water barrels secured aft, and a host of nuances only a veteran seaman knew to look at.
“Oh. No, I felt nothing, no shuddering …”
Just then Rayne did feel a shudder, almost unnoticeable, yet a shudder, particularly as he now waited for it. A ship, by nature of its medium of travel, shuddered and groaned along, but this was decidedly a different kind of motion, spread in a manner alien to the medium.
His respect for the Captain increased; to feel that in deep sleep spoke of an affinity to his craft few seamen possessed. “I felt that. How long do we have?”
Bertin considered. “Two hours. No more.”
Rayne thought of Aven, debilitated, and Averroes, frightened of the water. “How bad?” When Bertin did not answer, he asked, “What can we do? Can we not head for land? Outrun it?”
“Only safe harbour is Actar,” Bertin replied. “Pack. Minimal. Attach safety lines on deck. No heavy clothes, no cloaks. Weigh you down in the water.”
It was the most the Captain had said in one go; it scared Rayne. “Gods, do you think we will go in the water?”
Bertin eyed him then, for the first time with a glimmer of curiosity.
Rayne had no idea what brought it on, and suffered the look in silence.
“Best be prepared,” Bertin said, turning away.
“It will be bad?”
A short pause ensued, then, “Yes, but you already sense that … you merely need my words to prepare your companions.” He shrugged, adding, “Make sure everyone has water. Salt water makes you sick. Everyone must be on deck in the next hour on safety lines.” He stared intently at Rayne. “Everyone.”
Rayne’s eyes hooded in thought over this surprising man, before he headed down the steps. Halfway down, he halted. “What about you?”
“I’ll be ready,” Bertin replied with the ghost of a smile.
“You know, do you not? Why we booked passage to Tor?”
“You seek something lost or hidden.”
“Can you tell me?”
Bertin smiled broadly for the first time. “I don’t know what it is, only that it’s there. You will find it, friend. You will save our world.”
Rayne paled. “We shall do our best.”
Captain Bertin shook his head. “No, friend, I meant you will save our world. The team you have around you is incidental.”
Rayne’s mouth opened, then closed, and a feeling of dread overcame him.
“Move,” Bertin prompted. “Little time left.” His dark eyes were sympathetic before he returned his concentration to the helm.
Rayne half-walked, half-ran to the hatch. Now was not the time to ponder the captain’s enigmatic words. He pulled the hatch wide and jumped through.
Kisha was brewing coffee.
“Storm coming. Bring the coffee to the mess-room while I get the others.”
Kisha nearly spilled the jar of beans in her fright and wanted to ask how he knew, but he already banged on bunks.
The team tumbled bleary-eyed into the mess-room. Rayne paced, warding off questions until Kisha entered bearing the tray of coffee. Aven and Mordan were last, supporting each other. Queasiness had finally abated, but both were weak, and Rayne studied them with concern.
“My boy,” Aven croaked. “You had better have a good reason for this.”
“Listen up,” Rayne said, ignoring the jibe, and told them what Bertin warned of, concentrating largely on safety measures.
Sleepiness gave way to shock.
“Wake up!” Rayne shouted when nobody moved. “Move!” He grabbed a mug of coffee, pointed it around significantly, and moved to his gear, his actions galvanising the others.
Moments of frantic activity ensued.
“How many lifeboats are there?” Llettynn shouted into the corridor.
“Two!” Saska shouted back.
Aven found his voice. “I told you! This sea business, it’s not natural!”
Rayne left off what he was doing and tread over to stand where Aven and Mordan packed essentials. “Aven,” he murmured, his tone concerned, “will you …?”
“Hush, son. I’ll be fine.” The old man gave Rayne’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Mordan and I will keep each other afloat if it comes to that.”
Rayne gave a twisted half-smile, resolving to ask Saska to keep an eye on the two men.
Aven smiled to himself as Rayne turned away. It was the first time in their long and tempestuous relationship Rayne put his old mentor first, showing concern directly and without apology. The boy was growing up at last. He went back to his packing and thought - a first for him also - that Rayne had long ceased being a boy. Rayne was a man in his thirties; it was time to treat him as one.
“I’m scared,” Averroes whispered to Kisha.
“I know, Ave, just stay close to me. Go, go get ready, all right?” Kisha responded.
“I’ll take position near the starboard lifeboat!” McSee shouted.
“I will take the other!” Belun shouted back.
“I saw lifejackets in the space under the stairs!” Taranis added his voice.
Finally, they congregated, dressed in clothes to allow limbs movement in water.
Already the roll of the ship had altered, as if it rode heavier swells. Aven gagged, but brought it under control. Averroes took his arm and smiled up at him. He looked at her the way Rayne had looked at him; with anxiety, fear and dread, intermingled with the love words could not explain.
Averroes donned boy’s breeches and a slim-fitting tunic, and was all womanly slenderness.
Rayne met Taranis’ equally surprised look, while Kylan and Samson shared a playfully leering glance. Averroes was unaware she created a stir even in such tense conditions, but the women noticed, and eyes rolled heavenward.
“Hey, boys,” Saska said, glaring at the offensive creatures. Then, ever practical, she asked, “Where can we get rope?”
Taranis led the way to the stairs, where he doled out lifejackets from the space behind. They were four short and everyone was then stiff with new tension. Taranis said, “The Guardians will not require jackets; take them without guilt.”
“Let us get to the rope,” Rayne said into the loaded silence, gripped his jacket and swung it on as he went up on deck. He led them aft to where coils were stashed in wooden chests.
Taranis and McSee cut short lengths to tie their packs and longer lengths to serve as safety lines. While they were engaged there, Rayne and Belun drew water for each from the secured barrels.
Captain Bertin was at his post, fully dressed, a pack secured to rope about his waist and a safety line knotted to the rail nearby. He was ready. He acknowledged the preparations with a curt nod, showing no surprise when pale Llettynn with his glorious wings appeared, nor when green giant Glint commenced tying a line to the mast, and even less for golden Belun.
As Taranis and Rayne climbed up to have a word with their Captain, Taranis muttered out of the side of his mouth, “Never have I known a man as incurious as this one.”
“He sees much, I think, alone on the ocean,” Rayne said. “He is incurious because we cannot surprise him.”
“Belun surprises everyone,” Taranis murmured.
“Not when you have seen the monsters of this deep.”
“There are monsters?” Taranis was unbelieving.
As they stepped onto the bridge, Rayne said, “Ever sailed the great emptiness of the Western Ocean? It would not surprise me.”
“Have you?” Taranis quipped.
“Have I what?”
“’Sailed the great emptiness’?”
Rayne’s response intrigued him, and would for days. The human paused in mid-stride, a thoughtful frown on his fair face, and said, “Not that I can recall.”
Taranis was about to say something, when he noted Bertin avert his eyes, and noted also the small, satisfied smile. Deciding to leave the matter for another time, Taranis approached the Captain with Rayne a step behind.
“Captain, are you certain we should be on deck?”
“Bad storm. No time to get out if below.”
“Then you do expect us to go in the water,” Rayne stated.
“Prefer not to speculate, but best prepared.” Bertin gestured at the horizon. “She’s coming …”
Taranis and Rayne looked in the direction he indicated and saw a murky smudge. The sloop was rolling far more than it had an hour ago, and more even than minutes back, to be sure, but the danger seemed far away, the sun shining mockery as it broke the divide between night and day.
“Seems far away,” Taranis murmured, perhaps seeking reassurance.
“Distance is deceptive,” Bertin said.
“And a storm of that magnitude moves fast,” Rayne added.
Bertin cast a speculative glance at Rayne and nodded in appreciation, recognising in the fair man someone who knew something of the unpredictability of the ocean and its weather.
“Indeed,” he confirmed.
Rayne returned the smile, like a salute. “Good sailing, Captain. It has been an honour.”
Taranis glanced from one man to the other. “It is written then,” he remarked. “Captain Bertin, we wish you Godspeed.”
Bertin nodded, bowed his head and concentrated on the task at hand. He hoped to bring them through, himself and his beautiful ship included, but it was the best way to go, here in the deep where his soul was ever happy.
“I wish I could have spent time getting to know him,” Rayne said as he and Taranis returned to the deck.
“You sound as if you are going to die today,” Taranis said, and lurched and grabbed at the low rail beside the steps as the ship listed. He swore and recovered his footing.
“Not me, Taranis. Him. This is his last morning.”
Taranis pulled Rayne to a stop and whispered, “I have given you leeway, supported you, defended you before my colleagues, but if you say something like that, then I must doubt my judgement. Goddess, you cannot know what is in store for him, or for any of us!”
“Taranis,” Rayne hissed back. “Look into the man’s eyes! He is prepared to die, he expects to. That is all it takes.”
Taranis was shocked into silence.
“I cannot see the future,” Rayne added, “but I can read people.”
It was not the time to argue or to agree, and thus Taranis inclined his head. He hoped Rayne told the truth; while farseers were not uncommon in the universe, if Rayne was one, it meant he possessed greater power than suspected. The man was too young for it under the auspices of the Mantle.
The two men did a final check on the others, stumbling about a rolling deck.
Kisha and Averroes were secured to the same post, near the centre of the deck. “Averroes cannot swim,” Kisha reminded Taranis as he checked their lines.
“I will keep an eye, don’t worry,” he smiled at Averroes. “Trust your jacket, hear? If we do get a dunking today, remember the jacket will keep you afloat. Don’t panic.”
She nodded her thanks, pushing her hair behind her ears.
Taranis moved to check Saska, but Rayne was there.
“You are good with knots, Saska.” Rayne gazed into her eyes. “Listen, when - yes, when, for our Captain is more alarmed than he lets on - we go into the water, will you watch over Aven and Mordan?”
Saska glanced at the two older men, tied a step from her. They were clearly frightened, despite the reassuring grins plastered on ashen faces. Aven’s grin was for Averroes’ benefit, while Mordan’s was for Samson and Cristi on the other side.
“This is why I chose this spot.”
“Thank you, appreciate that.” Again he fell into the depths of her eyes, the presence of death unpeeling the layers between what was practical and what was … not.
She leaned forward into his ear. “Please take care. Don’t let anything happen to you.”
“I intend to.” Briefly he touched her hand, a first contact he dared not decipher.
Her blue hair was bleached near blond by the merciless sun of the last days and her skin was lightly tanned with a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose to highlight her extraordinary emerald eyes.
He held those eyes a moment. She was more beautiful with each passing day, and more human.
It was harder and harder to remind himself she was not mortal. Since the night he witnessed her transform into a mermaid he was entranced … and if he were entirely honest had to admit it started before that.
Her voice in the dark of the Forest in those first moments of gathering was the instant when attraction began. He was accustomed to women approaching him and tended to take them for granted; he also tended to shy away, but Saska’s distrust drew him in immediately. He sensed she was as drawn, and fighting it hard.
Releasing her from his gaze, he checked if Belun and McSee would be safe at their stations near the lifeboats.
Saska grabbed his arm, nails digging through the fabric of his thin tunic. “Be safe. Please, be safe. I need you to live through this,” she whispered, before dropping her hand and stepping away. She leaned back against her post and closed her eyes.
Next to them, Aven frowned, eyes going from one to the other. He had not heard the words, but there was no mistaking that kind of intensity. My boy, I do hope you know what you are doing. He glanced at Averroes, but she had her eyes closed to find her inner well of calm.
Inwardly elated, somewhat confused, Rayne leaned in to whisper in Saska’s ear, breathing in the warmth of her skin, “I am not going anywhere, I swear.” Before he dared kiss her, he moved away.
Near the mast with Glint, Taranis clenched his fingers into fists.