The mad ship, p.79
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       The Mad Ship, p.79

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Something was happening to Wintrow. His entire body was reacting now. His eyes were puffing shut, while his breath whistled in and out of his thickened throat. His eyes and nose streamed, his skin felt stripped. Yet he was standing, and staggering to the edge of the fissure. His useless tattered shirt still wrapped one of his hands. He could see the green-gold body of the serpent on the beach below him. He could feel her baking in the heat. He would go down to her.

  The narrow path defied him. On his third edging step, he simply fell backwards off the cliff-face. He landed on the serpent's yielding body. She broke his fall, but it was all the comfort of falling into a sizzling frying pan. He shrieked in pain. Too much, she was too much to know, and whatever coated her skin was eating his away. He rolled away from her, to land on barnacle-crusted rocks. A wave rushed in, licked tentatively at his face and rushed away. The cool of the water was a blessing, the salt a stinging curse against his raw flesh.

  The Plenty.

  All the longing of an immortal heart was encapsulated in that single word. His shirt was still wrapped about his out-flung arm. The ragged fabric was heavy with seawater. He gathered it to his chest and crawled to her. The world was so dim, yet the afternoon sun still beat hot on him. Or was it hot on her? He managed to shake out the remnants of his wet shirt. He flung it over one of her gills. It covered such a small part of her head.

  It eases me, nonetheless. We all thank you.

  “We?” He mouthed the word, but did not think that was how she shared his thought.

  My kind. I am the last who can save them. I am She Who Remembers. Even now, it may be too late. But if I am not too late, and I can save them, we will remember you. Always. Take comfort in that, creature of a few breaths.

  “Wintrow. My name is Wintrow. ”

  The next wave reached them, lapping a trifle higher. She thrashed feebly in its touch and managed to heave herself a bit closer to the water. It was not enough. Selfishly he wondered if he could roll far enough away from her to stop sharing her pain. His own was quite enough. Then it all seemed like far too much trouble. He lay still and waited for the next wave to lift him so he could swim away to join his kind.

  AT THE FIRST SCREAM, KENNIT HALTED IN HIS TRACKS. “WHAT IS THAT?” HE demanded.

  The sound had echoed oddly. “I don't know,” Etta had replied uneasily. She glanced wide-eyed around them. She suddenly felt very small and exposed. The path and the sheltering forest had been left far behind them. Here was only open sand and rock, glaring sun and the endless water. On the horizon, she glimpsed black clouds. The wind blew stronger, with a promise of rain in it. She was not sure what she feared, but knew there was nowhere to hide from it. She could see nothing threatening; the scream seemed sourceless. An ominous silence followed it.

  “What should we do?” Etta asked.

  Kennit's pale eyes skimmed the beach in all directions, then glanced up to the tableland behind them. He, too, saw nothing. “Continue to the alcove rock,” he began, and then halted.

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  Etta followed the direction of his eyes. The creature she beheld had not been there a moment before. She was sure of it. There was nowhere it could have concealed itself, and yet now suddenly it was there. The erect part of it was as tall as Kennit, and a heavier sluglike body trailed behind it. As she stared at it, it flung out flexible limbs from its upper body. They were impossibly graceful, bonelessly unfolding, with outstretched long-fingered hands at the end. The fingers were webbed. Its body was gray-green and gleamed damply where it was not covered by a pale yellow cloak. Its flat eyes glared at them menacingly. “Go back!” it warned them. “Go away! She is ours!” The hissing, thrumming voice was thick with menace. Even the smell of the creature was frightening, though she could not think why. She only knew she wanted to get as far away from it as possible. It was too foreign. Too Other. She seized Kennit's arm. “Let's get away from here,” she pleaded, tugging at his arm.

  It was like tugging at a statue. He set his muscles and resisted her. “No. Stand still, Etta. Listen to me. It's a magic, a glamour he has cast at us. He suggests your fear to you. Do not give way to it. He is not so frightening. ” With a small, superior smile, he tapped the charm at his wrist. “I am impervious to it. Trust me. ”

  She tried to listen to his words but could not. The wind brought the creature's stench to her, a smell she instinctively recognized. Dead and rotting human. It revulsed her, as did the pressure of that flat-eyed stare. She wanted to cover herself, to be out of reach of those eyes. “Please,” she begged Kennit, but he had locked gazes with the Other. He shook off her grip with a strength that surprised her. He had forgotten her. She could run, if she wished.

  She did not know where she got the strength to stand still and watch. Kennit baited the Other with a courage she found unthinkable. Crutch tucked under his arm, he first stepped toward it. It raised itself higher, spreading its wormy limbs. She could see the webbing between its long fingers. “Go back!” it warned him.

  Kennit only smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “This way,” he told her and led her toward the trailhead for the forest path. Relief flooded her. They were leaving. As he trudged toward the path through the shifting sand, she slunk along at his side. Kennit kept glancing back over his shoulder at the creature. She did not blame him, but she could not bear to look at it. Etta caught the edge of his sleeve and he allowed her to cling to him as he stumped along.

  He suddenly halted and turned to her, grinning. “There. Now we know. And we will beat the Other to it. ”

  She glanced fearfully over her shoulder. The creature was undulating rapidly over the sand, yet for all its effort, it seemed to move slowly. Again, the wave of terror shook her as the smell of the creature overwhelmed her. She could not still her shaking.

  “Stop being afraid,” Kennit commanded her uselessly. “See how it hastens down the beach, as soon as it thinks we are fleeing. Whatever it seeks to protect is down that way. Come. Help me go as swiftly as we can. ”

  She closed her eyes in an agony of terror. “Kennit, please. It will kill us. ”

  “Etta!” He took her upper arm in a grip like a vise and shook her. “Do as I say. I will protect you. Now come. ”

  He positioned his crutch once more under his arm and then took off down the beach. He moved like a long-legged creature, swinging on his crutch as he almost ran. Stone and sand shifted under him, but he compensated. From behind them came a cry of outrage from the Other. When it was echoed, Etta glanced back fearfully. There were more Others. They seemed to rear out of the very earth or ooze up from the sand. She ran like the wind after Kennit. She stumbled once, her hands skidding on rocks and sand. She scrabbled to her feet, her palms stinging and her boots full of pebbles. She ran.

  She caught up with Kennit just as they heard the second scream. Kennit blanched suddenly. “That's Wintrow!” he gasped. “I know it is. Wintrow! We're coming, boy, we're coming. ” Incredibly, he increased his pace. She loped at his side. The Other flowed after them, humping their bodies along as if they were walruses. Some carried short trident-headed spears.

  Her mouth was dry and heart hammering when they reached the end of the beach. There was nothing to be seen, save the rocky headland rising before them. Kennit glanced from left to right, searching for a trail, or some sign. He threw his head back, and drew a deep breath. “Wintrow!” he bellowed.

  There was no reply. He looked back at the oncoming wave of creatures. The wind off the water had increased, and the first warm raindrops spattered against the sand. “Kennit,” she panted desperately. “The tide is coming in. The boat will be expecting us. Perhaps Wintrow went back there, to the boat. ”

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  Then they heard a shriek of pain.

  Etta froze but Kennit did not hesitate. The pirate waded out into the incoming water, crutch and all. She was not even sure that was the direction the sound had
come from. In the rising wind, it was hard to be sure. Still, she followed him. Salt water joined the rocks and sand in her boots. She glanced fearfully back. The Others were still coming. The sight of them paralyzed her with fear. Then with a sudden howl, wind and rain struck her. The brightness of the day vanished. All was dim and gray as she stumbled through the waves after Kennit. She clutched at his sleeve, as much for her guidance as to help him stand against each wave.

  “Where are we going?” she shouted through the summer squall.

  “Don't know. Around the headland!” The sheeting rain had drenched his black hair to his shoulders and molded it to his skull. Rain dripped from his long mustache. He swayed as each wave washed past him.

  “Why?”

  He did not answer her. He just forged on and she went with him, clinging to his sleeve. The rain was beginning to lose the warmth of the summer day and the waves were cold. She tried to think only of what they were doing, and not worry about the boat on the other side of the island. They would not leave them here. They would not.

  Kennit gave a sudden shout and pointed. “There! He's there!”

  Around the headland was a short rocky beach backed by black slate cliffs. Wintrow's body rose and fell with the waves that washed past him. Next to him was an immense greenish-yellow thing. From the way it wallowed back and forth in the water, it was alive. Suddenly it lifted a huge head, and her eyes resolved the contorted shape. It was a stranded sea serpent. Immense gold eyes swirled at her. Another wave washed past them, almost lifting its body. It ducked its head under the seawater and then lifted it again. Then it slowly reared its head higher and shook it. Suddenly a great fleshy mane stood out around its throat. It opened a huge red mouth lined with long white teeth and roared against the wind and the rain.

  “Wintrow!” Kennit bellowed again.

  “He's dead,” Etta shouted to him. “He's dead, my love, killed by the serpent. It's no use. Let's go while we can. ”

  “He's not dead. He moved. ” There was so much frustration in his voice, he sounded almost grief-stricken.

  “A trick of the waves. ” She pulled gently at his arms. “We have to go. The ship. ”

  “Wintrow!”

  This time the lifting of the boy's head could not be mistaken. His features were scarcely recognizable, he was so battered. His swollen mouth moved. “Kennit,” he moaned.

  She thought it was a cry for help. Then the boy dragged in a breath and cried out, “Behind you. The Abominations!”

  A web-fingered hand wrapped bonelessly around her thigh. Etta screamed. Her heart hammered and her ears roared as she spun to face it. Flat fish eyes stared at her from their frontal setting in a blunt bald head. It gaped its mouth open at her, the lower jaw dropping, opening wide enough to engulf a man's head.

  She never saw Kennit draw his blade. She only saw the knife slice through the elastic flesh. The limb stretched before it parted. The Other belched a roaring protest. It gripped at its severed stump. Kennit reached down swiftly and unwrapped the clinging hand from her thigh. He flung it back at the Other. “Do not let them scare you to death!” he bellowed at her. “Pull your knife, woman! Have you forgotten who you are?” He turned from her in disdain to meet the next one.

  The question snapped something in her, or perhaps it was the feel of her knife's hilt in her hand. She pulled it free of its sheath and then lifted her head to shriek her defiance at these creatures that strove to ensorcel her. She slashed at an Other, scoring its rubbery flesh in passing. It ignored her, flowing through the water with a grace it had lacked on land. Kennit had finished the one that had grabbed at her, but no others attacked her. They were avoiding them to fan out and encircle the stranded serpent and Wintrow.

  “Ours!”

  “She is our goddess!”

  “You cannot steal our Oracle!”

  “What is found on the Treasure Beach must always remain!”

  The Others belched their words out like the croaking of frogs. They surrounded the serpent. Some lifted menacingly the short jabbing spears they carried. What did they think to do? Slay the serpent? Herd it somewhere?

  Whatever they intended, Wintrow was bent on opposing them. He had dragged himself to his feet, but how he could stand, Etta did not see. His body was swollen like a sea-claimed corpse. His eyes were slits beneath an overhang of puffy brow. But he opposed the waves to slog around the serpent and stand between her and her tormentors.

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  He raised his voice. “Abominations! Stand back. Let She Who Remembers go free, to fulfill her destiny. ”

  His words rang oddly, as if he spoke by rote in a language he did not know. A wave nearly knocked him down. The lift of it raised the serpent's bulk. Her coiling tail found purchase. She slid a short distance toward the sea. A few more waves, and she would free herself and be gone.

  The Others seemed to realize it as well. They surged forward, jabbing at her to urge her shoreward. One closed with Wintrow as well. The boy's puffy hand groped at his waist and found his knife. He drew it out and tried to assume a fighter's crouch. That simple act, taught to him by her, cut her to the heart. Her own knife was naked in her hand, and she stood there, idle, while he died? Never. She sprang forward with a sudden shriek. She sloshed wildly through the water, and when she got close, plunged her knife into the creature's sluglike hindquarters. It bounced off the squamous flesh. It had no weapon, but it did not hesitate to attack. Wintrow got in one good cut before the Other seized his knife hand by the wrist. The boy abruptly stood stock-still. Etta could guess the terror that sank to his heart at its touch.

  Her second jab cut deep, and she gripped the hilt with both hands and dragged on the blade, opening the Other up. It didn't bleed. She wasn't even sure it felt anything. She stabbed it again, higher. Kennit was suddenly at her side, slashing at the hand that gripped Wintrow. The Other sidled away from them, dragging Wintrow with it.

  Then the serpent's head arched down from above them. Her jaws seized the Other, engulfing his head and hunched shoulders. She lifted the creature from the water and then flung it disdainfully aside. Wintrow stumbled, thrown off balance by the struggle. Kennit immediately seized his arm. “I have him. Let's go!”

  “She must escape. Don't let them trap her. She Who Remembers must go to her kind!”

  “If you mean the serpent, she'll do whatever she pleases, with no need of help from us. Come on, boy. The tide is coming in. ”

  Etta took Wintrow's other arm. The boy was near blind with the swelling, and his face was discolored in shades of red. Like a crippled caterpillar, the three lurched toward the headland through the driving rain. The waves had gained strength now, and the water never fell lower than their knees. The surge of the sea rattled the stones and sucked the sand from beneath their feet as they struggled on. She did not know how Kennit kept his footing, but he clung to both Wintrow and his crutch and struggled gamely on. The headland jutted out from the shore. They would have to go deeper yet if they expected to circle it and get back to the beach. She refused to think of the long hike across the island, to a boat that might not be there anymore.

  She glanced back only once. The serpent was free now, but she had not fled. Instead, one by one, she was seizing the Others in her jaws. Some she threw as broken wholes, others fell from her jaws sheared in half. Beside Etta, over and over, Wintrow uttered a single word with obsessive hatred. “Abomination! Abomination!”

  A larger wave hit them. Etta lost the sand under her feet for an instant, then found herself stumbling as the wave passed. She clung to Wintrow, trying not to fall. Just as she was recovering her feet, another wave took them all. She heard Kennit's yell, then she was holding frantically to Wintrow's arm as she went under. The water that flooded her nose and mouth was thick with sand. She came up gasping and treading water. She blinked sandy water from her eyes. She saw Kennit's crutch float past her. Instinctively she snatched at it. Kennit was on t
he other end. He came hand over hand toward her, and then gripped her arm hard. “Make for the shore!” he commanded them, but she was disoriented. She flung her head around wildly, but saw only the sheer black cliffs, the foaming water at the base of them and a few chunks of floating Other. The serpent was gone, the beach was gone. They would either be pounded against the rocks, or pulled out to sea and drowned. She clung desperately to Kennit. Wintrow was little more than a dead weight she towed. He struggled faintly in the water.

  “Vivacia,” Kennit said beside her.

  A wave lifted them higher. She saw the crescent beach. How had they come to be so far from it, so fast? “That way!” she cried. She felt trapped between the two of them. She leaned toward the shore and kicked frantically, but the waves drew them inexorably away. “We'll never make it!” she cried out in frustration. A wave struck her face, and for a moment, she gasped for air. When she could see again, she faced the beach. “That way, Kennit! That way! There is the shore!”

  “No,” he corrected her. There was incredulous joy in his face. “That way. The ship is that way. Vivacia! Here! We are here!”

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  Wearily Etta turned her head. The liveship came driving toward them through the pouring rain. She could already see the hands on the deck struggling to get a boat into the water. “They'll never get to us,” she despaired.

  “Trust the luck, my dear. Trust the luck!” Kennit rebuked her. With his free hand, he began to paddle determinedly toward the ship.

 
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