“Octavi removed her earrings and when she threw them to earth, great fissures formed in the land between
Harri’s Harpies and Honorus’ Hounds.
Women, boy, are very clever, very clever indeed.”
~ Tattle’s Blunt Adventures
Resourceful McSee was a hero.
After striking out after the drifting lifeboat, the big man reached it and held on with everything he possessed.
When it tumbled upside-down, he single-handedly righted it in the temperamental action of the waves. When one oar came loose, floating off, he tied his safety line to the boat and again struck out into the heaving seas to retrieve it.
Eventually it was beyond reach, the tie to the boat holding him at arm’s-length, but tenacity and bull-headedness saved the day.
Untying the safety rope from his waist, he wrapped it about his left arm and reached out. An arm’s-length he gained, but the oar had moved on, he stretched with all his might and, as his right hand brushed the wood, his left shoulder dislocated. He screamed, but his right hand curled around the oar and held on.
The pain was excruciating, but the fear of drowning in the hellish ocean far outweighed it.
Painfully transferring the oar to his numbed left hand and wrapping rope about both oar and hand, he drew himself one-handed on the twisting, slippery rope anchoring him to the lifeboat, until he reached that safety zone, spurious as it was. The vicious waves smashed him against the side and, helpless, he loosed a terrible scream.
Rayne heard that piercing cry and swam towards it. He found the exhausted man hanging onto the boat with one hand, saw the oar wrapped around the other, and understood what McSee achieved in a roiling ocean.
Although there was no place for admiration in the direness of their situation, he was impressed. He would have opportunity to tell him later, all going well.
Kylan also heard the scream and reached the boat soon after, with Kisha hanging onto his safety line. Kylan noted McSee’s eyes darken with fierce pain, the kind even a strong man could not ignore, and noted how each push against the boat intensified the reaction. He noted the useless left hand and traced it back to the misshapen shoulder … ah.
Motioning to Rayne, he indicated they get the big man into the boat.
It was not easy.
Eventually Rayne managed to drag himself into the little vessel, every rocking motion causing McSee additional pain. With him pulling and Kylan pushing, they finally dragged the brave man in as well.
Kylan clambered in, the vessel more stable with weight, and helped Kisha. Four bodies steadied it further, and Rayne undid the oar from McSee’s arm, sitting back to give Kylan space.
Thank Aaru for a Herbmaster.
Kylan drew breath, placed one hand behind the man’s shoulder, the other pushing quickly forward before McSee was even aware; a click followed, and the shoulder was back in its socket. McSee burst into tears, which set Kisha off.
Manning an oar each, Rayne and Kylan went in search of the others.
They lifted the unconscious Aven first, then Mordan who had given up treading water and relied solely on his life jacket.
Saska remained with the two men, keeping them afloat. Had it not been for her, both men would have drowned, for a life jacket did not keep heads upright or rushing water from gasping lungs.
She swam off in a streak of silver to aid the others, winking at Rayne as she did so.
They came upon Samson and Cristi next. The two young people were swept overboard when the mast split in half, with Glint, Llettynn and Taranis, but Llettynn used his instincts to guide then back to the site of the sunken ship.
Taranis left the Siric to it, and was back with the Calloway before she vanished into the depths, on hand to see Averroes go down.
Glint, generally clumsy in water, was just joining Llettynn, mouthing silent curses.
Samson and Cristi clung to a piece of debris, and Saska steered them towards the boat. Rayne and Kylan held the vessel as steady as they could and McSee and Kisha helped the final two Valarians aboard.
Rayne checked progress and, as he moved, Kisha saw the Medaillon glitter dully through the gaps of his torn tunic. She burst into renewed tears.
Averroes weighed heavily on their minds, as did Captain Bertin. Of the taciturn Captain there was no sign, nor would there be. The man went in a fitting manner, probably with a smile on his face and a string of curses.
Steering towards the knot of Immortals, Rayne and Kylan realised something else weighed heavy. The boat. It was too low in the water. Eight on board with waterlogged packs in a vessel designed for six. The moody ocean helped none.
The two men stared at each other. Now what? Samson, Cristi and Kisha bailed with cupped hands, but it was evident incoming wave action would soon win that battle. More bodies and it would surely sink.
A team was a team.
Firm in their purpose, they came alongside. Rayne leaned over to lend a hand, but Taranis shook his head, and gestured with his hands. The deafening din of the storm receded.
“I can hold the quiet for only a brief time!” he shouted, one hand gripping the boat. “We are not coming, we will sink you! We are what we are and this will not kill us! We travel another way now!”
“There is too much energy!” Rayne shouted back.
“Saska will lead us to the calm first!” Taranis returned, and added sombrely, “I would that we had enough to power you out as well, but even leading the four of us will take too much from her!”
Rayne nodded, and did not look in her direction. “What can we do to get out of here?”
“Llettynn managed to summon a Falcon to lead you to land.”
Llettynn shouted, “Weave a protection! We meet in Actar!”
Rayne noticed something strange about the Siric. It seemed as if his wings had shrunk.
“Siric do not take well to water!” Llettynn shouted.
Saska swam forward and gripped Rayne’s hand on the oar. “The storm takes what I have left fast, Rayne. We have to go. Trust Kras, he will lead you well. Go now!” She released him and as she did so, a bird of shimmering ruby alighted on Rayne’s shoulder.
Human, protect your companions, the Falcon said in Rayne’s mind. Now, mortal!
Glancing back, he noted how dire the circumstances were. The others stared at the Falcon in awe, completely forgetting to bail. The boat was a breath from sinking.
He jerked back when the din resumed, and saw Llettynn dive. Glint followed, then Belun. Taranis and Saska hung a moment longer, their expressions anxious.
Rayne realised belatedly the Guardians travelled only as they were to keep together. They could travel great distances employing a simple wish to do so, in an instant.
He mouthed at them, Go. We shall be fine.
Saska and Taranis joined hands, and they too disappeared into the depths. That, for a moment, was wrenching envy.
Mortal. Kras reminded him of his duty.
“The name is Rayne.”
Whatever. Do it now!
Rayne noted Kylan’s frightened face, and saw it, too. A monstrous wave bore down on them. It would not swamp, it would annihilate them, and there was no way to move from of its destructive path.
Without conscious thought, he shouted, “Mykia lan shuldra! Invin ka!”
Back in the Great Forest when Kylan shouted the Ancient Tongue, he was frightened of it, hated the fact he knew an enchantment.
When, on Kisha’s gentle prompting, he realised his mother taught the protection to him as a baby, he was more frightened of what that meant.
He told no other of his dilemma, merely mentioning a charm had saved them from Infinity. Kisha, respecting his wishes, held her silence on the subject.
He subsequently deliberately set it aside to deal with the game, regarding it as mystery he could confront later. It was, after all, a small mystery compared to what transpired after that night.
Hearing Rayne say the exact words, the issue seared to the fore. He needed to know, and finally he wanted to know also.
When their boat became an island of peace, with wind, rain, lightning, rattling thunder and the roaring, angry ocean outside a bubble of calm, the water inside the boat miraculously vanished, floating like a feather high on the ocean, Kylan burst out, “Rayne, what did you just do?”
Kisha laid a comforting hand on his shoulder while Rayne faced Kylan in mild surprise.
Kras left his shoulder to alight on the prow of the little vessel, his intelligent, silver eyes watching them.
“It’s an invocation calling for protection, one of the stronger enchantments, working differently in different situations. It will see us through the storm.” Rayne gave a wry shrug that was also sad. “It is a personal protection. Not much could prevent what happened today.”
Kylan right then was not too concerned with the ship and its fate. “What language is it?” he asked. He believed Kisha; he needed it confirmed.
Rayne frowned. “Ancient Tongue. Why do you ask?”
Kylan steamed on. “Is all sorcery in the Ancient Tongue?”
“No. Kylan, obviously you have heard the words somewhere else, and it is bothering you. Tell me.”
Kylan told him, and included in the narration his fears. Everyone was quiet, listening, and Kras watched, seemingly entertained.
“Can you remember your mother?” Rayne asked when the younger man was silent.
“Who was she?” Rayne prompted. Had his mother been a sorceress? And, in dying before her time, not had the time to train her son? Was Kylan an untrained and untapped source of genetic magic?
“Her name was Merle, and that is about all I know,” Kylan whispered.
Rayne sucked at his teeth. Merle. “Your family name?”
Kylan inhaled, exhaled, his eyes intent on Rayne. He read the man’s body language, subtle as it was. “Finnian,” he said. Rayne knew. After so long, someone would tell him about his mother.
“There can only be one Merle Finnian,” Rayne said. “It fits, yes, for she was a student of the Ancient Tongue.”
“I thought you said the south had no knowledge of it,” Kisha interrupted.
“Jeez, Kisha, please …” Kylan said.
“Well, that is not entirely accurate,” Rayne said to Kisha and behind them McSee snorted. “Kylan, Merle was part of the Mantle. I was too young to have known her, but I knew of her. In any event, the Mantle keeps extensive records and I do know she uncovered powerful enchantments in the Ancient Tongue. This was one of those, and Aven taught it to me as a youngster, for my protection he said, as your mother saw fit to teach it to you. You must have been really young to have imprinted without knowing.” Rayne paused, reading emotions. “Fine, let me put you at ease, my friend. By all accounts, Merle was a good person.”
“Was she a sorceress?” Kylan blurted.
“She wasn’t even an ordinary magician, for she had not the gift. She was a highly intelligent woman with an extraordinary thirst for knowledge. She was a gifted researcher and an invaluable asset to the Mantle.”
Kylan shared an unaffected smile of pride, pleasure and utter relief. Rayne grinned at the sight, and Kisha hugged Kylan, smiling with him. Then, serious once more, he asked, “Do you know how she died? And my father? Is there mention of him?”
Wounds long buried were again raw. Kylan clenched his hands into fists, eyes fixed on Rayne.
“I am sorry, I do not know of your father. Perhaps in the archives in Galilan, but I am not sure.”
Kylan’s face fell, he hoped that much, yet he smiled his thanks before repeating the question, “Do you know how she died?”
Rayne was silent a time, thinking, but eventually he shook his head. “I wish I could tell you more, I am sorry.”
Kylan expelled an explosive breath and stared over the roiling ocean, clamping hands under his armpits. When Kisha touched him, he shook her off.
She turned a troubled gaze on Rayne, who shrugged at her.
Rayne faced forward. He looked through the shiny Falcon as if he were not there.
Kylan, I hope you never find out what happened to Merle. The manner of Merle Finnian’s death still shocked Mantle members and the investigation was never fully closed.
When he actually did focus on the bird, it was to note the creature watched him with a knowing expression.
“You are reading my mind?”
No, human, I have not that talent. I read only what you send, and, naturally, I understand your spoken words. You must warn the one you called Kylan to beware of using the enchantment too much.
“Yes,” Rayne muttered, and was about to do so when Kylan spoke.
“Thanks, Rayne. I appreciate what you told me. I … well, it will be easier now.” He gripped Kisha’s hand.
Rayne forced a smile. “Don’t mention it … and, Kylan, about the invocation. Invoking it will protect against most ills, including evil, and it protects you and those near you as it has here, but listen well and understand you are not a sorcerer; if you use it too often, it will harm you.”
“How?” Kisha asked.
Rayne sent her a look, acknowledging her intelligence. “Over-use nullifies power, causes it to become mundane, unless you are strong enough to hold the power within. Just heed the warning, please.”
The two nodded, and did not press for details.
The Falcon employed the ensuing silence to draw their attention by extending his wings. He sent for all to hear, this storm has driven you further from land. You need steer southeast. Begin now and it will be two days to Actar.
“Surely we can land before?” Kisha queried.
“Desert,” McSee stated. “I would rather row.”
“At least we can take turns,” Samson said. “I haven’t the strength for a long walk.”
“We still have this storm to get through,” Rayne muttered.
No more than three hours, less if you row fast, the bird sent. He rustled his plumage and gazed over their heads.
“Can you not …” and McSee snapped his fingers, “… whoosh us out of here?”
Please, human. While you flatter me with your suggestion, you must know the weather affects magic.
“Rayne did magic,” Samson pointed out.
“A personal charm only,” Rayne murmured.
The sorcerer had a solid substance to build upon - the boat. Were you drifting apart in the water, he could have invoked through rifts and back with no result.
“Ah, well. This has been a real doozy of a day thus far,” McSee grumbled. He gradually recovered his equilibrium. “Storms and dunking and now a cheeky bird, I ask you.”
“McSee!” Kisha hissed.
“I would like to suggest this here is no ordinary storm.” As Rayne and Kylan turned the vessel southeast, he continued, “Now, I’m not saying there weren’t an itty-bitty storm to begin with, but someone used a perfectly sane little weather pattern and stretched and shoved it out of all proportion.”
Rayne gazed over his shoulder, willing the man to keep silent. No such luck.
“You must have felt it. I did. I bet our Immortal companions did. Captain Bertin was no fool, so why did he steer us right into the centre of this hell pit? I’ll tell you why. He steered us to the outer edges of a storm to skirt the worst of it, and didn’t expect what he got instead. It tracked us, and he had no choice but to fight as long as he could. We must stop normalising everything. We’re strong enough to cope. Nothing is normal anymore! We could’ve died, and Averroes and Bertin did. I tell you something leads us by the noses! Trouble is coming, Valaris is deep in it, and we must be honest with one another. Putting a positive normal spin on matters helps nobody right now. Most important, we need be honest with ourselves.”
Your friend has a point, Kras sent to Rayne. He is correct; it is no ordinary storm.
Infinity? Rayne thought, sending it. Never having done so without the Centaur’s open channel, he was unsure whether the bird would receive.
You have a talent for sending, human. Yes, I believe it was Infinity who started this. A delaying tactic, perhaps? Who knows? The dara-witch has many personalities.
My name is Rayne.
Kras said no more.
“Rayne?” McSee growled.
“Yes, McSee, I hear you,” Rayne said. “Honesty, a good thing, yes.”
Cristi blurted, “Enough talking! Kylan, I’m worried about Mordan and Aven.”
Kylan handed his oar to Samson and knelt beside the two unconscious old men. Mordan opened his eyes. “I’m fine, just tired.”
Kylan nevertheless checked his pulse, breathing, eyes. “You’re all right. Cristi, give him water and make him comfortable.”
He gave his attention to Aven.
The old man was ill on board, lapsed into a semi-conscious state on deck and lost full consciousness before going in the water. Kylan made a funnel with his hands, listened. His lungs were without fluid and that was good.
He lifted Aven’s eyelids, saw the pupils react to the meagre light; brain activity was normal. Sliding his hands around the old man’s head, he felt with his fingertips and encountered a raised bump behind Aven’s left ear; turning his head, he noted the discolouration there.
After checking his pulse, he said to Rayne, who had ceased rowing and waited, “He is debilitated, needs real rest and took a nasty bump to the head. But he is in no danger. This is a sleep variant of the unconscious state, which, truthfully, is the best. A few days, and he’ll wake on his own.”
Rayne nodded and returned to rowing.
“Cristi, dribble water into his mouth. Dehydration is his only enemy in this condition,” Kylan murmured.
“Give me the oar, Rayne. Take a break,” McSee said in a conciliatory tone.
“Your shoulder …”
“Bugger my shoulder. I feel like a girl sitting here.”
“Hey!” Cristi protested.
“Oh, relax. You girls will get your turn, too, I promise,” McSee grumbled.
For the first time in her life, Averroes felt unburdened.
She had not realised how heavy a load the Medaillon was, despite its guardianship until Aven rescued her from a life of perpetual poverty, from probable slavery, and possibly from a life of prostitution.
Only now that it was gone did she understand the burden. It had then been a mixed blessing.
Alone, she would have to find her way back to the others, but she was empowered and capable. Find the others she would; she was as bound to their destiny as they were into hers.
It would not be easy, a young woman travelling alone in a strange place, but it would be done.
She had a change of clothes, useful once dry, soap and a brush. With these items she could be presentable. She had her water bottle - thank you, Captain Bertin - and, most important in a new environment, she had coin, which Aven insisted she have with her always.
Of the others, she missed Rayne, more so than Aven. He frightened her, yet she understood him, and knew he understood her. There was a bond, and one day they would uncover it, perhaps once this game was finished.
Fourteen days ago she knew him only from Aven’s ramblings - often proud, often anxious and also often furious - and she decided not to like him, until the day he stood on the other side of the door in Farinwood.
Could one know one’s heart’s choice this quickly? If her life led her on to wed another, it would not take anything away from it. Whatever answers others may supply to that question, she could only say … yes.
He was not immune, recalling that moment at the dam, and it caused her to feel like a woman, not a waif.
Averroes frowned. Saska. Something brewed there, and it meant trouble.
She sat on a rock under a huge old oak ripe with green acorns, and contemplated her future, whether Rayne was part of it or not.
The ground was crunchy with dry cups … years of falling. Young saplings struggled in the shade of their huge matriarch, with stronger sons and daughters growing well further away. There were the little cups, fairy drinking bowls.
Averroes believed in fairies; she had actually seen them.
She had no idea where she was, how far the stormy ocean carried her, in which direction, for how long, before tossing her towards dry and blessed land.
At this moment what counted was that she had survived the journey.
As the Calloway hurtled downward in search of its grave, her safety line was releases when the rail splintered.
Clueless how to behave in the water, instinct took over, and she pulled at the dark water with cupped hands. As she broke surface to draw panicked breath, she was knocked under to gulp seawater.
Coming up, she instinctively paddled, and found the swell aiding her away from the sucking vortex caused by the vanishing sloop.
She panicked again, before hearing Taranis’ kind voice in her mind, telling her not to panic, to trust her life jacket. Putting fear aside, she relaxed, and floated. The ocean battered and betrayed her, but she did not go under for long. Every time the inflated jacket brought her back to air.
Noticing a rope twisting on the heaving surface, she grabbed it, and held on despite the tugging from the ocean.
It was wound around one of the water barrels that was stored aft of the ship. It had to be empty to float, and was obviously thoroughly sealed against the ocean’s advances. It waited for her and she did, for dear life, take it.
She pulled it closer and painstakingly pulled her pack up. It countered the float of her jacket, she had to get it out of the water, or balance it. After countless attempts, she managed to sling it over, and secured the ropes.
The achievement meant she and her pack were then counter-balanced, the barrel between them. An added advantage was she floated high enough to dodge mouthfuls of salty water.
Looking for the others, she saw only floating debris in a dark, vicious and watery world. She tried calling, but the thunder was too loud. She paddled, but seemed to go nowhere.
She was alone, and she was alive. It was up to her.
The storm passed on or she floated beyond its reach, and the blessed sun shone bright and hot. Never again would she curse the heat.
Time passed, certainly hours, and she was in calm waters.
Becalmed, she thought. I will float in one place until thirst kills me. I should throw my water away now, before I need it, and bring on oblivion faster.
Becalmed she was not, for then she saw land.
She was exhausted and nauseous, bruised from the battering, but kicked determinedly for the shore. The ocean’s landward current came to her aid, gently nudging her closer.
When her feet touched bottom, she was elated. She dragged her pack and her barrel, unwilling to abandon what had become a friend to the ravages of ocean life, onto the narrow shingle beach.
With her last reserves, she made it to the old oak, and collapsed onto the crunchy bed of old acorns.
The sun shone weakly when she awakened. It was dawn. She slept through the afternoon and the entire night. She was wet, cold, and hungry and had a raging thirst. And she was alive!
She grinned at the calm ocean as she searched for her water.
You treacherous creature, I have lost my fear of you. She toasted the sea.
It took two days for her pack to lose its dead weight. She used the days to rebuild strength, to rediscover who she was and to think as she planned for the immediate future. She found a tiny brook with clear water; she drank, washed her hair, herself, her clothes and thus renewed in that way.
Growing along the banks were rambling hedges of gooseberries and blackberries, somewhat over-ripe, but she ate with relish. She found crab-apples and pomegranates further a-field as she looked for signs of human habitation and came across lavender and rosemary, and used it to brew a passable, if bitter, tea.
She enjoyed relying on herself.
On the third day she set off south. She wore boys’ clothing for ease of movement; she would not again wear shapeless gowns. She would not again hide her hair and wore it wild, loosely caught in the nape of her neck. She swung a length of rope diagonally across her chest; one never knew when and where it might come in handy. She praised herself for being practical and for thinking ahead. She liked that her opinions meant something.
Patting her friend the barrel, she spared a quick glance for the ocean, and set off.
She hoped she was on Tor Island and not back on the mainland. It seemed logical, for she had not been in the water long enough to drift across the strait. The others would head for Tor and would do so even if they believed her dead. The game would not cease because she was no longer there.
Dear father, I hope you sense me as I do you. Do not grieve; I am coming.
It served no purpose to dwell on what was beyond her control; she would get there and they would reconcile. Aven would smile and laugh, and maybe Rayne would clasp her in his arms.
She skipped a little, feeling happy.