The mad ship, p.78
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       The Mad Ship, p.78

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  The isolated pools harbored anemones and seastars. Tiny crabs scuttled from oasis to oasis. A gull came down to join him in his inspection. He knelt briefly by one tidepool. Anemones of red and white bloomed in its shallows. A touch of his finger stirred the surface of the still water. In a flash, the delicate petals of the creature folded away from him. He smiled, rose and went on.

  The sun was warm on his back; it eased the ache in his shoulder. There were no sounds save the wind, the water and the gulls. He had almost forgotten the simple pleasure of walking an isolated beach on a pleasant day. He did not realize he had rounded the headland until he glanced back. He could not see the beach anymore. A survey of the cliffs above him showed him that it would be death to be trapped here by an incoming tide. They rose black and sheer. Except . . . He stepped back farther from the bluff and squinted up. There was a fissure there, or perhaps something more. A narrow sloped trail led across the cliffs face. It was not very high, no more than the height of two men. Before he had truly considered the wisdom of it, he had started up it.

  If it was a trail and not an accident of nature, whatever had made it was more sure-footed than he was. It was not wide enough for him to walk comfortably on it; he had to face the rock and edge up it. It ascended the face of the rock sharply. It shone underfoot with sparkly slime like a slug's dried track. One moment it seemed slippery, the next tacky. It suddenly seemed higher than it had from the beach; if he fell there were only rocks and barnacles to land on. Still, he had come this far, he would satisfy his curiosity. He came to a sudden indentation in the rock, the beginning of the chimney. He stepped inside and found his way blocked by bars of metal. He stepped close to peer past them.

  A very narrow fissure in the rock extended all the way to the cliff top. Sunlight reached down timidly from an opening high above. Someone had chiseled and ground out a cave within it, not much larger than a coach. Inside the wrought cave, the rock floor sloped sharply away. Water from a high tide was trapped there in a dark still pool. He could see light reflected from its surface.

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  So what was the purpose of the bars? To keep people out, or to keep something in? He set his hands to one of the bars and tried to rattle it. It did not budge, but he could rotate it. It grated against the stone, and suddenly the surface of the pool erupted.

  Wintrow stepped back so quickly he nearly fell over the edge. The pool was deeper than it looked to contain such a creature. Then, as it continued to regard him with immense gold eyes, he became bold enough to venture back to the bars. He clutched them in his hands and stared.

  The sea serpent confined in the cave was stunted, its body marked with the limits of the pool. Its head was the size of a pony. Its body was so convoluted, he could not guess the length. It was a pale yellow-green, like a glowing fungus. Unlike the scaled sea serpents he had glimpsed from the deck of the Vivacia, this one looked plump and soft as an earthworm. Its body bore thick layers of callus where it had rubbed against the rocky walls of its prison. He suddenly realized that it must have grown to fill the pool. It had been captured and confined when small. He suddenly knew that this was the only world this creature had ever known. He glanced about himself. Yes. A high tide would just reach the lip of this fissure, bringing with it new salt water. And food? He didn't think so. Someone must bring it food.

  It roiled in the confines of the pool, no more than a shifting of its tail from one side to the other. The effort corkscrewed its body. He watched with pity as it worked each segment of its serpentine body, trying to ease the twist on it. It could not, not completely. It stared at him expectantly.

  “So you're used to being fed,” he observed. “But why are you kept here? Are you a pet? A curiosity?”

  The creature canted its head as if intrigued by his words. Then it dipped its immense brow down into the pool to wet it once more. The movement was an effort in the confined space. When it tried to lift its snout, its whole body kinked and bound. He watched it struggle, its length bulging up out of the water and scraping against stone smoothed by many such wedgings. It gave a cry like a raven's sharp caw, then suddenly snapped its head free again. Wintrow felt sickened. A fresh scrape showed on the side of its face. A thick greenish ichor oozed from it.

  He set his hands once more to the bars. He could turn each in its socket, but they were set deep in stone both above and below. He could not budge them from their beds. He knelt at the base of them, to see how they had been fitted. He found the answer under his feet. He brushed away sand and sea detritus, to find the fine seams of worked stone. Above him, the sockets for the bars had been painstakingly drilled into the stone. A slight discoloration at the edge of one suggested it might have been a slot cut in the stone, one that had been filled in to the shape of the bar afterward. He visualized it to himself. The long bars would have been brought in, inserted at a sharp angle into the deep holes above and swung into place. The stones that secured them at the base had then been set. An examination of the seams proved him correct. He tried lifting each bar in place. Each had some play, some more than others. Yes. Now that he knew how it had been done, could he undo it?

  The Treasure Beach and Kennit forgotten, he knelt on the floor in the alcove. He brushed sand and detritus away with his hands, then took off his shirt and cleaned the floor down to stone. The fine knife that Etta had given him became a tool for cleaning the sand and tired mortar from the fine cracks where the stones were joined. As he worked painstakingly, the creature watched him. From its interest, it almost seemed to know that its freedom was at stake. He gauged its girth against the spacing of the bars. At least three of them would have to come out, he guessed, and possibly four.

  The mortar was old and crumbly. If the mortar was his only enemy, he would have won easily. But the blocks themselves had been cut and fitted with the precision of a master. He worked until his calloused hands broke new blisters. His knees ached from kneeling on the stone. He leaned close to the seam and blew sand and mortar out of his way. He tried his fingers in the crack. They would just slip inside. If he could get a grip, would he have the strength to lift the stone? He pulled with all his strength, and thought he felt the block slide fractionally. He took up his knife and went back to work while the serpent watched him with spinning golden eyes. His injured shoulder began to ache.

  ETTA WAS BATHED IN SWEAT BEFORE THEY GOT TO THE BEACH. BY TAKING his arm, she was able to help Kennit along without being too obvious about it. Sometimes she looked at what fate had done to the man and she wanted to shriek in fury. And loss. The tall, strong body that had once intimidated her was taking on a cripple's twist as muscles on one side of his body compensated for the loss of his leg. She saw how he planned what he would or would not do, all with an eye to keep from disgracing himself with any show of weakness. His tigerish spirit had not dwindled; his ambitions had not lessened. She only feared that the heat of the fires that drove him might consume his weakened body.

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  “Where is he?” the pirate demanded. “I don't see Wintrow. ” She shaded her eyes and looked up and down the beach. “I don't see him either,” she said uneasily.

  The curved shoreline was black sand and rock backed by the tableland. There was nothing large enough to conceal him. Where could he be? She blinked her eyes against the glare of sun on the water. “Could he have walked the beach already? Would the Others have met him and taken him somewhere?”

  “I don't know,” Kennit growled. He lifted his arm and pointed to the far end of the beach, where a separate finger of land separated itself from the shore. “Down there is the alcove cliff, where all the treasures are kept on display. If he walked the beach and met an Other, it might take him there, to deposit whatever he had found. Damn! I should have been here with him. I wanted to hear what the creature would say to him. ”

  She thought he would blame her then, accuse her of dawdling on the path or otherwise delaying him.
Instead, he settled his crutch under his arm and nodded at the alcove rock. “Help me get there,” he growled.

  She surveyed the loose dry sand and the stretches of uneven black rockface that made up the beach and her heart sank. The tide was at full ebb now. Soon it would turn and gradually cover the beach once more. The men at the boat expected them to return by high tide. It would make more sense for her to run ahead and see if Wintrow was there first, instead of forcing Kennit to lurch the length of the beach. She nearly spoke out. Then she straightened her spine and took Kennit's arm. He knew all those things as well as she did. He had said to help him get there. She would.

  THE BACKS OF HIS HANDS WERE SCRAPED AND BLEEDING AND HIS ARM WAS throbbing by the time he lifted the first block from its bed. It had been heavier than he expected, but the tight fit had been the biggest obstacle. He braced his hands against the floor as he sat by the block, and then used both his feet to shove it out of the way. The base of one bar was now exposed. He stood up, arched his aching back and then gripped the bar in both hands. He lifted it. It grated against the stone as he raised it, and the serpent in the pool suddenly lashed its tail in excitement.

  “Don't get your hopes up yet,” Wintrow grunted. The bar of metal was heavier than he had expected. The higher he lifted it, the longer it seemed to be. He braced his shoulder against it, took a fresh grip and lifted again. He suddenly saw the end of the bar. He pulled it at an angle, and was rewarded with a shower of old mortar from above. He lost his grip on the bar, but it did not slide back into the hole. It fell with a heavy thud to the stone. He caught his breath, took another grip on the shaft and dragged the loose end of it toward the cave's entrance. It came slowly, screaming in protest as the metal scraped and dragged against the stone. When the top finally came free, it overbalanced him. He lost his footing and fell, while the length of metal clashed to the stone with a ringing like a hammer on an anvil. It echoed in the small cave.

  Wintrow stood up. “Well. That's one,” he told the serpent.

  Transparent lids briefly covered the great gold eyes. It lifted its head from the water and shook it. A fleshy starburst suddenly bloomed around its throat. When it twisted in the water, he now saw that a faint pattern ran the length of its body. The variation in color reminded him of the eyes on a peacock's tail. He abruptly wondered if the display meant it was angry. Perhaps it felt threatened by what he did. The poor creature had probably been confined here all its life. Maybe it thought he threatened its lair.

  “Next time the water rises, you'll be able to go free. If you want to. ” He spoke the words aloud, knowing they were just noises to it. It probably couldn't even interpret the reassuring tone of his voice. He knelt and went to work on the next block.

  This one went much faster. The mortar had long ago weakened into clumps of sand. He had the empty space vacated by the other block; it gave him room to wiggle this one. He sheathed his knife and took a grip on the block. He did not even have to lift it all the way out of the hole. Once he had pushed it to one side, he went to work on the bar. This second one was looser than the first, and he had the knack of it now. As the metal shrieked against the stone and mortar rained down once more, it suddenly came to Wintrow that perhaps someone would be angry at what he had done. Perhaps all this noise would attract their attention.

  As the pole clattered to the stone, Wintrow jumped aside to avoid it. Then he went to the mouth of the fissure and peered out. There was no one in sight. But another threat was immediately visible. The tide had turned and was creeping back in over the stones. There were storm clouds on the horizon. The wind seemed to be blowing the tide in with its force. Bladderwort that had lain flat on the rock now swayed with the incoming water. The rising tide could trap him here. Even if it did not, there were other matters to consider: the Treasure Beach, the Oracle and the boat that was expecting them to return by high tide.

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  Kennit was probably furious with him.

  He stood, cradling his sore arm, and watched the tide spilling up over the slope of the beach. It was coming fast. He had no control at all over that one factor. If he stayed, he was going to be trapped here. As it was, he was going to get wet wading around the headland.

  He'd have to leave. He'd done all he could.

  He heard a sound from within the fissure, a metal bar rolling on stone. Frowning, he stepped back within, and then gasped at what he saw.

  It had heaved itself out of the pool and flung itself at the walls of its prison. Its head, turned sideways, was wedged in the opening he had created. Its dwarfed and twisted body was still powerful as it lashed and thrust against the confines of the pool. “No, go back!” he cried futilely. “It's too small! There's no water yet!”

  It could not understand him. The animal lunged again against the bars, but only succeeded in wedging itself more tightly. It screamed its frustration, the starburst around its neck standing out as it raged. It tried to jerk its head back through the bars, but could not. It was stuck.

  With a sinking heart, he realized he was stuck as well. Wintrow could not leave it like that. Its gills worked as frantically as its gasping jaws. He did not know how long it could survive with its head out of the water. There was already an air of desperation to the lashing tail. If he could just loosen one more bar, perhaps it could slip back into the pool. It wouldn't be free, but it wouldn't be dead.

  If he hurried, he might live, too.

  He approached it gingerly to see which bar would be best to work on. Its wedged struggles had actually loosened one of the blocks. It had also coated it with slime. That wasn't going to make lifting it any easier. He took up one of the bars he had worked loose. It was horribly long, but at least he wouldn't have to touch it. Any trapped animal might bite, and if one that size bit, not much would be left of him.

  He shoved the freed bar between two of the remaining bars and used it as a lever. Unfortunately, this meant pushing the bar even tighter against the creature. It roared, but surprisingly it did not strike at him. The block of stone that secured the bar at the base grated against its fellows as it shifted. Wintrow immediately repositioned his lever in the widened crack between the blocks. The pole was too damn long. It jammed against the walls of the fissure. But finally it worked, shoving the stone over a bit. Now for the bar.

  “Don't hurt me!” he cautioned the creature as he approached it, and for a wonder it seemed to understand his intention if not his words. It stilled, gills working heavily. Or perhaps it was simply collapsing as it died. He couldn't think about that, nor about the passing time. He seized the bar in his hands and lifted it up.

  He screamed.

  His hands burned and froze to the slime-coated metal. But the agony on his skin was as nothing compared to the agony of knowing. He knew her pain, and he grasped suddenly the torment of a sentient creature imprisoned for time past his ability to imagine. With her, he breathed the scalding air. His tender skin cracked and stung in the dryness, while he knew with terror that soon it would be too late. She must escape now, or it would soon be too late for all of them.

  He convulsed away from the bar. The strength of his body's rejection of the pain flung him to the floor of the prison. He lay there panting. Nothing in his life had ever prepared him for that blast of sharing. Even the bond he had with the liveship was a clumsy and insensitive bridge compared to that joining. For a brief moment, he had been unable to distinguish between himself and the creature.

  No. Not creature, not unless he too was to be considered a creature.

  She was no less than he was; as he considered all he had experienced, he wondered if she was more.

  An instant later, he was on his feet. He tore his shirt off, wrapped it about his hands and approached the bar again. This time he had to recognize the intelligence that was fading in the great gold eyes. He seized the bar in his muffled grip and lifted. It was difficult, for whatever coated the bar made it slippery. He
heaved up on it twice before he lifted it from its deep bed in the stone. The moment it had cleared the lip of the block, the sea serpent surged against it. Her greater bulk pushed it aside as if it were a straw. Wintrow went with it, not only flung forcefully aside by her passage but also brushed with the slick coating of her scaled hide. It seared him where it touched his flesh. He cried out as he saw even his heavy canvas trousers fraying away like crumbling ashes. He knew her determined intent. It appalled him.

  “No water below!” He conveyed the information with voice and thought as forcefully as he was able. “Rocks. Only rocks. You'll die. ”

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  Death is preferable.

  She undulated past him, length after coiled length of her spilling out of the imprisoning pool like thread unwinding from a spool. As she passed, he was aware of the tremendous effort it took for her to move her cramped and distorted body. This was an act of desperation. She was not sure if she fled to freedom or death. But she knew she left captivity behind.

  Yes. Sorry to have killed you.

  “It's all right,” he muttered. He was not even sure if he was dead. He was outside himself. No. Bigger than himself. It was like the trances at the monastery, when he worked his stained glass, but bigger, much bigger. The pain of his scalded flesh was no more significant than an annoying splinter in the heel. Ah, he sighed. Now I see you clearly. You were there all along. The serpents and the dragons in my windows, in all my art. How did you know I'd come to you?

  How did you know to come to me? She wondered in reply.

  But she did not wait for an answer. She spilled out of the fissure. He braced, unwilling to hear the impact of her heavy body on the rocks below. But her very size saved her that. Her length reached from the floor of the cave to the beach below. She lowered her fore-section until it met the beach, and then drew the rest of her body down after herself in undulations like an inchworm. Strange. He was no longer touching her but was still aware of her. The hot sun shone down on her. Sand clung to her. She rolled helplessly on the barnacle-coated rocks. The last of her strength was spent. She needed the water to take up her weight; she needed to moisten her gills. The incoming tide just kissed against her belly. It wasn't enough. She had striven so hard, just to die on the beach. So hard a battle, only to become food for crabs and seagulls.

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