The mad ship, p.77
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       The Mad Ship, p.77

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Undoubtedly,” he said drily.

  The silence stretched out. She looked at her battered hands. Every knuckle was swollen. When she flexed the fingers on her right hand, it felt like there was sand in the joints. Still, they moved. More to break the silence than to ask, she queried, “If you can move your fingers, that means nothing is broken, right?”

  “It means nothing is badly broken,” Brashen corrected her. “Let me see. ”

  Knowing it was a mistake, she still turned and held out her hands to him. He came to her and took both of her hands in his. He moved her fingers and felt the bones of her hands. He shook his head over her knuckles, and winced when he saw the teeth marks on her wrist. He released one of her hands and lifted her chin. He looked at her face critically. She found herself examining his face in return. Even his eyelids showed blisters, but his dark eyes were clear. It was a miracle he hadn't lost his sight. The open collar of his shirt exposed standing welts on his chest. “You're going to be all right,” he told her. He cocked his head and nodded to himself. “You're a tough woman. ”

  “You probably saved my life when you distracted that thing with the oar,” she . suddenly remembered.

  “Yes. I'm a dangerous man with an oar. ” He still held her hand. Without warning, he drew her closer. When he leaned down to kiss her, she did not step away. She lifted her face to his. His mouth was gentle on hers. She closed her eyes to it and refused to be wise. She refused to think at all.

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  He broke the kiss. He drew her closer but did not embrace her. For just an instant, he rested his chin on top of her head. His voice was deep. “You're right. I know you're right. We're better as we are. ” He sighed heavily. “That doesn't make it any easier for me. ” He released her hand.

  She could not think of anything to say to that. It was not easy for her, either, but to tell him that would only make it harder for both of them. He'd said she was a tough woman. She proved it by walking to the door. “Thank you,” she said softly at the door. He made no reply and she went out.

  She passed Clef standing in the companionway. He was kicking one bare heel against the wall and chewing his lower lip. She frowned at his idleness. “Peeking at keyholes isn't right,” she told him severely as she passed.

  “Neither is kiss'n' ther cap'n,” he replied insolently. With a grin and a flash of dirty soles, he was gone.



  Wintrow was stretched belly down on the foredeck, letting the early sun touch him. He had discarded his blanket during the muggy night, but his shirt was wrapped around his head. The new warmth of the sun soothed the ache in his arm, but the light from it nagged his headache into wakefulness. He was resigned to it. He had to wake up soon anyway. How he longed to just lie still. All the others seemed long recovered from the injuries taken at Divvytown. He felt a weakling that a couple of blows from a club still bothered him. He pushed away the idea that his injuries hurt more because he had killed the man who had given them. That was a silly superstition.

  He rolled over onto his back. Even through the shirt and his eyelids, the light danced on his eyeballs. Sometimes it seemed he could see things in the patterns. He clenched his eyelids, and green flashes snaked across his vision like darting serpents. He loosened his eyes and the color became paler and took the shape of sunbursts.

  The days of high summer were dwindling now, falling away one after another as the year inexorably carried them toward autumn. So much to have happened in the passing of a handful of months. When they had left Divvytown, half a dozen motley structures, constructed of wood old and new, had already risen from the ashes. A wooden tower as tall as a ship's mast was already manned, while one of stone took slow shape around it. The folk there called Kennit king. It was a term of affection as much as title. “Ask the king,” they would advise one another, and nod to the tall peg-legged man with the scroll of papers always tucked under his arm. Their last sight of Divvytown had been the Raven flag flapping boldly from the flagstaff atop the tower. “Here To Stay” was embroidered beneath the bird's outstretched wing and rapacious beak.

  Vivacia was now anchored, fore and aft, in Deception Cove off Others Island. The tide was swelling in around them. Kennit had said this was the only safe anchorage of the island. When the tide was fullest, he and Wintrow would leave the ship and row in to the shore. They were here to seek the oracle. Kennit had insisted that Wintrow walk the Treasure Beach.

  Farther offshore, the silhouette of the Marietta was just visible in a drifting fog bank. She would stand off and watch them, coming closer only if they appeared to need aid. The peculiar weather had everyone unsettled. To look out to sea was like peering across a distance into a different world. The Marietta ghosted in and out of the mist; here in the cove, all was breathless warm sunlight. The silence cupped Wintrow's ears and made him sleepy.

  “I do not like being here,” the ship insisted.

  Wintrow sighed. “Neither do I. Some find them exciting, but I have always feared omens and portents. At the monastery, some of the acolytes would play with crystals and seeds, casting them out and reading what they foretold. The priests tolerated it, more or less. A few were amused by it, saying we would learn better as we grew. At least one said we'd be better off playing with knives. My instincts led me to agree with him. All of us stand on the edge of the future; why venture off the precipice? I believe there are true oracles, who can peer ahead and see where one is destined to tread. But I also think that there is a danger in-”

  “Not that,” the ship said sharply. “I know nothing of that. I remember this place. ” A note of desperation crept into her voice. “I remember this place, but I know I've never been here. Wintrow. Is it your memory? Have you been here before?”

  Wintrow spread his hands flat on the deck, opening himself to her. He tried to be comforting. “I have never been here, but Kennit has. You have become close with him. Perhaps it is his memories that are mingling with yours now. ”

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  “Blood is memory. His blood has soaked into me and I know his memory of being here. It is the memory of a man. But when last I was in these waters, I slipped through them, swift and sleek. I was new and young. I began here, Wintrow. I began here, not once, but many times. ”

  She was troubled. He reached for her, and felt the swift shadows of memories so old she could not grasp them. They flitted away from her, soft-edged and elusive as the sunlight patterns under his eyelids. The glimpses he caught disturbed him. He knew them as well as she did. Wings against the sun. Sliding deep-water images framed in green light. These were the images of his deepest sleep, fever shapes too bright and hard to meet the light of day. He tried to mask his uneasiness. “How could you begin many times?” he asked her gently.

  She pushed her glossy black hair back from her face and pressed her temples as if it would ease her. “It's all a circle. A circle that turns. Nothing stops, nothing is lost, and it all goes spiraling on. Like thread on a spool, Wintrow. Around and around it goes, layering on in circles, and yet it is always the same piece of thread. ” She shivered suddenly in the sun, hugging herself. “This is not a good place for us. ”

  “We won't be here long. No more than the turning of one tide. It will be-”

  “Wintrow! Time to go!” Etta's voice broke into his words.

  He ran his hand along the wizardwood planking of the deck. “It will be all right,” he assured her. He jumped swiftly to his feet and hurried off to join the others, unwinding his shirt from his head as he went. He dragged it on and tucked it in. Despite his reservations, his heart beat faster at the prospect of landing on Others Island.

  KENNIT WATCHED WINTROW'S FACE AS HE PUSHED THE OAR. THE TRACES OF his pain were there to see-a pinch of white about his mouth, a sheen of sweat on his forehead-but the boy wasn
't whining. Good. Etta sat on the bench next to Wintrow and manned an oar also. They kept pace with the other two rowers. Kennit sat in the bow, his back to the beach. He spared a glance for the Vivacia. He trusted her safety to her as much as the man he'd left in charge. Jola was the new mate. He'd given the man a direct command to defer to the ship's wisdom if they disagreed. It was a strange order, but he'd ignored the query on the man's face. In time, as Jola proved himself, perhaps Kennit would trust him more. Kennit had been sorry to let Brig go, but he had earned a ship of his own. Kennit had given him the ship they had managed to raise from the Divvytown harbor. An ample measure of coin went with it, and the order to obtain some lumber and hire some stonemasons for the tower. After that, Brig was to stop a few slaveships, and rebuild Divvytown's population. Most of Brig's new crew was from Divvytown; Kennit had chosen men and women with family in Divvytown, to be sure the ship would not be tempted to abandon their mission. He nodded to himself, pleased with how he had managed it all. His only unanticipated factor was Sorcor's new tie to the town. Alyssum had been pregnant by the time they had left. Sorcor already wanted to return as soon as they had finished at the Others Island. Kennit had had to remind him sternly that as a family man he had to earn a respectable living. He could scarcely return to Alyssum with empty pockets, could he? Especially as Sincure Faldin had not been in town when the slavers struck. Any day now, the man and his sons would return. Sorcor should be ready to show her father that he could provide well for his daughter. That had re-ignited the man's fervor for piracy with a fierceness Kennit had not expected, either. Truly, there was more to Sorcor than he had first suspected.

  The bow of the boat grated against the black sand of the beach, snapping his mind back to the present. He looked about the somber little cove as the rowers jumped over the side and dragged the boat up onto the shore. Rocky walls and evergreens fenced the small beach. Little had changed here since his last visit. The green-scummed bones of some large animal were tangled in the rocks. The roots of one tree on the cliff above had given way; the dark evergreen now dangled tip-down to the sand. Seaweed was tangled in its dying branches. A narrow path climbed the cliff via a crack in the black wall of stone.

  Kennit clambered from the boat to the shore. Squidgy seaweed bladders, blue mussels and white barnacles on the glistening black rocks made the footing treacherous for his crutch. He threw an arm across Etta's shoulders in mimicry of affection. “Etta and Wintrow will be coming with me. You two wait here for us. ” The rowers muttered uneasy agreement as Kennit surveyed the steep path without enthusiasm. He had a long hike ahead of him, over a stony trail. For a moment, he doubted the wisdom of his decision. Then his eyes met Wintrow's gaze. The youth was nervous, but anticipation danced in his eyes. For a sharp instant, Kennit felt that sense of connection again. Wintrow was so like himself as a lad. Sometimes he had felt that same rush of excitement, usually when they had sighted a particularly rich plum of a ship. An instant later, the faint smile on his face turned to a grimace of distaste. He rejected the memory. No. He had never truly shared anything with Igrot. After all the man had subjected him to, he felt nothing for his memory except disdain. “Let's go,” he said so sharply that Wintrow jumped slightly. Kennit started up the narrow defile, leaning on Etta.

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  By the time they reached the crest of the first hill, Kennit's shirt was sweated to his chest. He had to stop to rest. It was the day, he told himself. It was warmer than it had been last time he was here. Under the trees, the heat became more oppressive despite their shade. The pebbly path that led through the Others' domain was as precisely kept as ever. The last time he had passed this way, the charm on his wrist had told him that there was a spell on this path, to keep travelers from straying. Now, as he glanced off into the green shadows of the verdant forest, he dismissed it as so much nonsense. Who would want to stray from a straight and level path to venture through such a leafy maze? He took out his kerchief and wiped his face and neck. When he looked around, he realized the other two were waiting for him.

  He scowled at them. “Well? Are you ready? Let's go on. ” The gravel of the path shifted unpredictably under his crutch and his peg. The constant small struggle to correct his balance multiplied the distance for him as the path meandered down this hill and up the next. At the top of the second rise, when he stopped to catch his breath, he suddenly reached a conclusion.

  “They don't want me here,” he said aloud. The trees seemed to echo his words back in agreement. “The Others are making it hard for me, trying to turn me back. But I won't give up. Wintrow shall have his oracle. ” As he lifted his kerchief again, he caught sight of the charm strapped to his wrist. Its face was frozen in a clownish smile, the mouth ajar, the tongue lolling out. It mocked him. Deliberately he set his thumbnail to its brow and scraped it down, but as always, the iron-hard wood defied him. The face of the charm did not even flicker an eyelid. He lifted his glance to the other two, to find them watching him in consternation. Casually he brushed his thumb over the charm again, as if he had been flicking dirt from it.

  He made a difficult decision. “Wintrow. Go ahead of us. I think it might be better for you to walk the Treasure Beach alone, undistracted by my presence. I might inadvertently prompt you to pick up something you were not destined to discover. I would not wish to taint the prophecy. Go along, now. Etta and I will be there for the Other's pronouncement. That is all that really matters. Go now. ”

  Wintrow looked uncertain. He exchanged a glance with Etta, who gave a tiny shrug. Kennit felt his fury rising. “Do you question my order? Go!”

  His roar sent the boy haring off down the path.

  “Good. ” Kennit put satisfaction into the word. He shook his head after him. “Wintrow must learn two things from me: to obey, and to be able to act on his own. ” Once more, he set his crutch under his arm. “Follow me. Not too swiftly, for I wish Wintrow to have plenty of time alone on the beach. These things are not to be rushed. ”

  “To be sure,” Etta agreed. She glanced about the forest. “This is a strange place. Seldom have I seen such beauty. Yet it forbids itself to me. ” As if suddenly fearful, she moved to take his free arm. He shook his head to himself. Helpless females. He wondered why the charm had been so insistent that he bring her along. Not that he had consulted the charm about this venture; the damnable thing had insisted on offering its opinion, not once but repeatedly. “Take Etta, you must take Etta with you,” it had exhorted. Now look at her. He would have to take care of her, he supposed.

  “Come along,” he told her firmly. “If you stay to the path, nothing will hurt you. ”

  WINTROW RAN. NOT FROM ETTA AND KENNIT; HE FELT HALF A COWARD TO have abandoned them there. He ran from the forest itself, that cupped him like a trapped mouse in its palms. He ran from the overwhelmingly strange beauty of the threatening flowers and the poignant fragrances that both tempted and repulsed him. He fled even from the whispering of the leaves set to gossiping of his death by the hot breath of the wind. He ran, his heart pounding in his chest more from fear than exertion. He ran until the path spilled him out on a wide-open tableland. Before him was suddenly the blue arch of the sky over the open sea. A crescent beach spread out, framed at its tips by toothy cliffs. He halted, gasping for breath, wondering what he was supposed to do now.

  Kennit had told him little. “It's simple. You walk the beach, you pick up whatever interests you, and at the end of the beach, an Other will greet you. He will ask of you the piece of gold. You give it to him; just put it on his tongue. Then he will tell you his prophecies for you. ” Kennit had lowered his voice to confide skeptically, “Some say there is an Oracle on the island. A priestess say some, a captive goddess say others. The legend is that she knows all the past, everything that has ever been. Knowing all that has gone before, she can predict the shape of the future. I doubt this to be true. I saw nothing of the kind when I was there. The Other will tell us what we need to know.

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  When he had tried to ask for more details, Kennit had become impatient. “Wintrow, stop dithering. When the time comes, you will know what to do. If I could tell you everything you would find and do on the island, we would not need to go there. You cannot always depend on others to live and think for you. ”

  Wintrow had bowed his head and accepted the rebuke humbly.

  Increasingly, Kennit said such things to him. Sometimes Wintrow felt the man was grooming him for something, but he was not sure what. Since Divvytown, he had accepted that there was far more to Kennit than he had ever suspected. He had followed at Kennit's heels all of one long afternoon, dragging a bag of stakes and a mallet. Kennit paced the distances, and jabbed a hole with his peg where he wanted each stake driven. Some described the edges of a road, others the corners of the houses. When they finished and looked back, Kennit seemed transfixed. Wintrow had stood beside him, trying to see what he saw. Kennit broke the silence. “Any fool can burn a town,” he observed. “They say that Igrot the Bold burned a score of towns. ” He gave a snort of contempt. “I shall raise a hundred. I shall not be remembered with ashes. ”

  Wintrow had accepted him then as a man of vision. And more. He was a tool of Sa.

  He scanned the scene from left to right. Kennit had told him to walk the beach. Where was he supposed to start? Did it matter? With a shrug, he turned his face to the wind and began walking. The tide was still going out. Once he reached the tip of the beach's crescent, he'd turn and start his search. He would walk the whole beach seeking for his destiny.

  The bright sun beat down on his head. He muttered at his stupidity in not bringing a bandana. He kept his eyes down on the beach as he walked, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Tangles of skinny black seaweed, empty crab shells, wet feathers and bits of driftwood marked the limits of the tide's reach. If objects like this were to foretell his future, he did not think the prophecies would be earth-shaking.

  Towards the tip of the crescent beach, the sand gave way to outcrop-pings of black rock. The tableland behind him had risen to the height of a ship's mast and showed its underpinnings of slate and shale. The tide had retreated fully, baring the normally covered black shelves. Their cracked and pitted surfaces cupped tidepools full of life. Such things had always beckoned Windrow. He glanced back at the trail from the forest. There was still no sign of Kennit and Etta. He had a bit of time. He wandered out onto the rocks, stepping carefully. The seaweed underfoot was treacherously slick, and a fall would land him on barnacles, blue mussels and cone caps.

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