Ship of destiny, p.65
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       Ship of Destiny, p.65

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  But halfway through the orchard, the wide-reaching branches of the trees showed the signs of seasonal pruning. The grass had been trampled down, and Brashen caught a faint whiff of woodsmoke on the air. He saw now what the tangled trees had hidden. A whitewashed great-house dominated the valley, flanked by a row of cottages along the edges of the cultivated lands. He halted and his men stopped with him, muttering in surprise. A barn suggested livestock; he lifted his eyes to isolated sheep and goats grazing on the opposite hillside. This was too much to be the work of one set of hands. There were people here. There would be confrontation.

  He glanced back at the men following him. “Follow my lead. I want to talk my way through this if we can. The ship said she would be willing to go with us. Let’s hope that is so. ”

  As he spoke, a woman carrying a child fled toward one of the cottages and slammed the door behind her. An instant later, it opened again. A large man stepped out onto the doorstep, spotted them, and ducked back inside the cottage. When he reappeared, he carried a woodsman’s axe. He hefted it purposefully as he looked up at them. One of Brashen’s archers lifted his bow.

  “Down,” Brashen commanded in a low voice. He lifted his own arms wide to show his peaceful intent. The man by the cottage did not look impressed. Nor did the woman who emerged behind him. She carried a large knife now instead of the baby.

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  Brashen reached a hard decision. “Keep your bows lowered. Follow me, but twenty paces behind me. Unless I order it, no man shoots an arrow. Am I clear?”

  “Clear, sir,” one man answered, and the rest muttered doubtful responses. His last effort at peaceful negotiating was still fresh in their minds.

  Brashen lifted his arms wide of his sheathed sword and called out to the people by the cottage. “I’m coming down. I mean no harm. I just want to talk to you. ” He began to walk forward.

  “Stop where you are!” the woman shouted back. “Talk to us from there!”

  Brashen took a few more steps to see what they would do. The man came to meet him, axe ready. He was a large man, his wide cheeks tattooed all the way to his ears. Brashen recognized his type from brawls: he would not fight especially well, but he’d be hard to kill. With a sinking certainty, he knew he had no heart for this. He wasn’t going to kill anyone while their untended baby wailed inside the cottage. Althea herself would not ask that of him. There had to be another way.

  “The Ludluck woman!” he shouted. He wished Paragon had told him the mother’s name. “Lucky’s widow. I want to talk to her. That’s why we’ve come. ”

  The man halted uncertainly. He looked back at the woman. She lifted her chin. “We’re the only ones here. Go away and forget you ever came. ”

  So she knew the odds were against them. If his men fanned out, they could trap them in the cottage. He decided to push his advantage.

  “I’m coming down. I just want to see that you are telling the truth. If she isn’t here, we’ll go away. We want no bloodshed. I just want to speak to the Ludluck woman. ”

  The man glanced back at his woman. Brashen read uncertainty in her stance and hoped he was correct. Arms held well away from his sword, Brashen walked slowly toward the house. The closer he came, the more he doubted that they were the only people on the island. At least one other cottage had a well-trodden path to the door and a shimmer of smoke rising from its chimney. A very slight movement of the woman’s head warned him. He turned just as a slender young woman launched herself from a tree. She was barefoot and unarmed but her fury was her weapon.

  “Raiders. Raiders. Filthy raiders!” she yowled as she attacked with her fists and nails. He lifted his arm to shield his face from her nails.

  “Ankle! No! No, stop, run away!” the other woman screamed. She came toward them at a lumbering run, her knife held high, the man only a step behind her.

  “We’re not slavers!” he told her, but Ankle only came at him more fiercely. He hunched away from her, then spun back to seize her around the waist. He managed to catch one of her wrists. She clawed and pulled hair with the other hand until he captured that, too. It was like hugging an angry cat. Her bare feet thudded against his shins while she bit his shoulder. His vest was thick, but it did not dull the savagery of her attack. “Stop it!” he shouted at her. “We’re not slavers. I just need to talk to Kennit Ludluck’s mother. That is all. ”

  At the name Kennit, the girl in his arms went limp. He took advantage of the moment to heave her toward the woman with the knife. The woman caught her with one arm and then put her behind her. She held up a hand to halt Axe-man’s headlong charge.

  “Kennit?” she demanded. “Kennit sent you here?”

  It didn’t seem a good time to correct her. “I’ve a message for his mother. ”

  “Liar. Liar. Liar!” The girl hopped up and down with rage, baring her teeth at him. “Kill him, Saylah. Kill him. Kill him. ” For the first time, Brashen realized all was not right with her mind. The man with the axe absently put a hand on her shoulder to calm her. There was something fatherly in the gesture. She stilled, but continued to pull faces at him. There was no exchange of glances; the woman was obviously thinking, and he now knew who was in charge here.

  “Come on,” Saylah said at length, gesturing at the cottage. “Ankle, you run fetch Mother. Now don’t you alarm her, you just say a man is here with a message from Kennit. Go on. ” She turned back to Brashen. “My man Dedge is going to stand here and watch your men. If one of them moves, we’ll kill you. Understand?”

  “Of course. ” He turned back to the men. “Stay there. Do nothing. I’ll be back. ”

  A few heads bobbed agreement. None of them looked happy about it.

  Ankle took off running. Her feet kicked up clods of dirt as she crossed a harvested garden. Dedge crossed his arms on his chest and fixed a glowering stare on Brashen’s men. Brashen went with the woman.

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  The crowing of a rooster broke the gray afternoon, making him jump. He wondered suddenly if he had completely miscalculated. Tilled earth, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs… this island could support a substantial settlement. “Hurry up,” Saylah snapped.

  At the door of the cottage, she got in front of him. Once inside, she swooped up a lustily bawling baby and hugged the child to her, still keeping her knife at the ready. “Sit down,” she ordered him.

  He sat, looking curiously around the room. The furnishings spoke of folk with more time than skill. The table, the chairs, the bed in the comer looked like the work of their own hands. Everything was sturdy if not elegant. It was, in its own way, a cozy room. A small fire burned on the hearth and he found himself grateful for the warmth after the chill day. The baby quieted in his mother’s arm. The woman began the universal rocking sway of women holding children.

  “You have a nice home,” he said inanely.

  Her eyes widened in confusion. “It’s good enough,” she said grudgingly.

  “And better than many another place we’ve both been, I’m sure. ”

  “That’s true,” she conceded.

  He put on his best Bingtown manners. Small talk while they waited for the lady of the house. He tried to sit as if he had confidence in her hospitality. “It’s a good place to raise a boy. Plenty of room to run free, lots to explore. Healthy as he looks, it won’t be long before he’s ranging the whole island. ”

  “Probably,” she conceded, looking down for an instant at the baby’s face.

  “He’s, what, about a year old?” Brashen hazarded a wild guess.

  It brought a smile to her face. “Scarcely. ” Saylah gave the baby an affectionate bump. “But I think he is big for his age. ”

  A sound outside the door brought her back to alertness, but Brashen dared to hope he had disarmed some of her distrust. He tried to maintain a relaxed posture as Ankle thrust her head into the room. She glared at him and pointed. “Raider. Liar,
” she asserted furiously.

  “Ankle, go outside,” Saylah ordered her. The younger woman stepped back, and Brashen heard an odd muttering from outside the door. When an older woman entered, a glance told him that she was the one he sought. Kennit had his mother’s eyes. She tipped her head inquiringly at him. She carried a basket on one arm; wide-capped brown mushrooms glistened inside it.

  She made an inquiring noise at Saylah, who stabbed toward Brashen with her knife. “He showed up, coming from the cove, with six men. He says he has a message for you from Kennit. But he asked for you as Lucky’s widow, the Ludluck woman. ”

  The older woman turned an incredulous gaze on Brashen. She raised her brows in an exaggerated gesture of surprise, and muttered something. Her lack of a tongue was not going to make any of this easier. He glanced at Saylah, wondering how best to proceed. Paragon had told him to be honest, but did that mean in front of witnesses?

  He took a breath. “Paragon brought me here,” he said quietly.

  He should have been prepared for her shock. Kennit’s mother staggered where she stood, then gripped the edge of the table. Saylah uttered an exclamation and stepped forward to steady the old woman.

  “We need your help. Paragon wants you to come with us, to see Kennit. ”

  “You can’t take her off the island! Not alone!” Saylah cried angrily.

  “She can bring whoever she wants to bring,” Brashen said recklessly. “We mean no harm to her. I keep telling you that. I am here to take her to Kennit. ”

  Kennit’s mother lifted her face and stared at Brashen. Her mild blue eyes pierced him with their acuity. She knew that no one who mentioned Paragon came from Kennit. She knew that whether or not he intended harm to her, he would be taking her into danger. Her eyes were the ancient eyes of a martyr, but they met his steadily in a long look. She nodded.

  “She says she will go with you,” Saylah needlessly informed him.

  Kennit’s mother made another sign to the woman. The tattooed woman looked stunned. “Him? You can’t take him with you. ”

  Kennit’s mother drew herself up straight and stamped her foot for emphasis. She made the odd sign again, a turning motion of her hand. Saylah looked hard at Brashen. “Are you sure she is to bring whoever she wants? That was part of the message?”

  Brashen nodded, wondering what he was getting into. It was too dangerous to contradict himself now. He met the older woman’s eyes. “Paragon said to trust you,” he told her.

  Kennit’s mother closed her eyes for an instant. When she opened them, they swam with tears. She shook her head fiercely, then turned away from him to Saylah. She gabbled away at her, punctuating her noises with hand signs. The other woman frowned as she translated. “There are a few things she has to gather. She says you should go back to the cove, and we will come there. ”

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  Could it be this easy? He met the pale blue eyes once more and the woman nodded at him emphatically. She wanted to do this her own way. Very well.

  “I’ll wait there for you,” he told her gravely. He stood, and bowed formally.

  “Hold a moment,” Saylah warned him. She stuck her head out the door. “Ankle! You put that down! Mother says we are to let him go back to the cove. If you hit him with that, I’ll take a belt to you. Now, I mean it!”

  Just outside the door, a heavy stick of kindling was flung disdainfully to the earth.

  The tattooed woman issued more orders. “You run tell Dedge that Mother said to let him pass. Tell him all is well. Go on, now. ”

  Brashen watched the girl run away. If he had stepped out the door, she would have brained him. He felt a cold rush up his spine at the thought.

  “She’s never been right since they chained her, but she’s getting better. She can’t help it!” The woman spoke the last words defensively, as if Brashen had criticized her.

  “I don’t blame her,” he said quietly, and found that he did not. Brashen watched the girl run. She could not have been more than sixteen. She had a very pronounced limp, as she hurried up to Dedge. He listened, then acknowledged the message with a nod to Saylah.

  Brashen left the cottage with another bow. Ankle made faces at him as he passed them and gesticulated wildly and obscenely. Dedge spoke not a word. His eyes never left Brashen. Brashen gave him a solemn nod as he passed, but the man’s face remained impassive. He wondered what Dedge would say or do when he was told Kennit’s mother planned to take him with her.

  “SO. HOW LONG DO WE WAIT?” AMBER ASKED HIM.

  Brashen shrugged. He had returned immediately to the ship and told her all. He had found his men jubilantly gutting two hairy pigs they had taken with spears. They had wanted to hunt longer, but he had insisted that the entire crew reboard. He would take no chances on any possible trickery.

  Paragon had remained silent through his account. Amber had looked thoughtful. Now the ship spoke. “Never fear. She will come. ” He turned his face away, as if ashamed to let them read his features. “She loves Kennit as much as I did. ”

  As if his words had summoned her, Brashen spotted movement on the shaded trail. An instant later, Kennit’s mother emerged onto the beach. She looked up at Paragon and her hands flew to her tongueless mouth. She stared at him. Dedge came behind her. He carried a sack over his shoulder; in his free hand he held the end of a chain. At the end of it shambled a wreck of a man, long-haired and pale, thin as a bundle of sticks. The chained man turned his eyes from the light, wincing as if it pained him.

  “What is that?” Amber demanded in horror.

  “I guess we’ll soon find out,” Brashen replied.

  Behind them came Saylah, pushing a barrow of potatoes and turnips. A few trussed roosters squawked loudly atop the vegetables. Amber instantly grasped what that was about. She jumped to her feet. “I’ll see what we can spare in the way of trade goods. Are we generous or sparing?”

  Brashen shrugged his shoulders. “Use your judgment. I doubt we have much, but anything they can’t make for themselves will probably please them. ”

  In the end, the entire exchange went easily. Kennit’s mother was brought aboard and immediately went to the foredeck. With her, she carried a canvas packet. It was more difficult to get the chained man aboard. He could not manage to climb the ladder; in the end, he had to be hoisted aboard like cargo. Once on deck, he huddled in a heap, moaning softly. His scarred forearms sheltered his head as if he expected a blow at any moment. Brashen guessed it had taken all his strength to get that far. Amber was generous to a fault in her trading, giving them needles and such tools and fasteners as she decided she could spare from the ship’s tool chest, as well as clothing and fabric from the seachests of their dead crewmen. Brashen tried not to think about buying food for the living with the possessions of the dead, but the crew did not seem troubled by it, and Saylah was delighted. Amber’s generosity went far to disarm her hostility and suspicion.

  “You’ll take good care of Mother?” she asked as they were taking leave.

  “Excellent care,” Brashen promised sincerely.

  Saylah and Dedge watched from the shore as they departed. Brashen stood on the foredeck by Kennit’s mother as the anchor was lifted. He wondered to himself how Kennit would treat those on the island when he discovered how easily they had surrendered his mother. Then he glanced at the old woman. She seemed calm and clear of conscience. Perhaps he could be, as well. He turned to Amber. “Shift Althea’s things from the first mate’s cabin into my stateroom. We’ll put Mother there. And cut the chains off that poor devil and feed him. Sa only knows why she dragged him along, but I’m sure she had a reason. ”

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  “I’m sure she did,” Amber replied in such a strange tone that Brashen was glad when she hurried off to her tasks.

  As the anchor was taken up and Brashen called his commands, Kennit’s mother kept her place on the foredeck. The turning o
f her head, and her nods of approval as the crew moved to their tasks showed her familiarity with the ways of a ship. As Paragon began to move, she lifted her head and her veined hands ran along his forerail in the little pats of a proud mother on her son’s shoulders.

  As the wind took Paragon, and he began to slice the waves on his way out of the cove, the old woman unwrapped her package. Brashen rejoined her on the foredeck. Three fat worn books emerged from the yellowed canvas. Brashen knit his brow. “Ship’s logs,” he exclaimed. ” The Logs of the Paragon, a Liveship Trader Vessel of Bingtown on the Cursed Shores. ’ Paragon, they’re your logs!”

  “I know,” the ship replied gravely. “I know. ”

  A hoarse voice creaked from behind him. “Trell. Brashen Trell. ”

  Brashen turned in consternation. Amber supported the skeletal prisoner from Key Island. “He insisted he had to speak to you,” the carpenter began in a low voice.

  The prisoner spoke over her words. His blue eyes watered as he fixed Brashen with a doleful stare. His head nodded restlessly in an aimless circle. His hands palsied as well. “I’m Kyle Haven,” he rasped. “And I want to go home. I just want to go home. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT - Dragon Dreams

  TINTAGLIA’S WINGS BEAT FRANTICALLY. REYN CLENCHED HIS EYES AS THE BEACH rushed up toward him. The wind was gusting horribly; this was going to be bad. As her clawed hind feet came down on the beach in a scrabbling run, her body pitched forward. She kept hold of him this time, her clenching claws deepening the permanent bruises that rounded his chest. He managed to land on his feet as she released him, and staggered clear as she caught her weight on her front legs. He lurched a few steps further and then sank onto the damp sand, pathetically relieved to be on the ground again.

  “Dragons were never meant to land like that,” Tintaglia complained.

 
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