The mad ship, p.8
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       The Mad Ship, p.8

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 
“Hold him down,” Wintrow replied. His own voice came out as harshly. He wondered if he were as pale as she was. A spark of anger burned inside him at her disdain. He tried to rekindle it as determination.

  Etta knelt by Kennit's head but did not touch him. Two men took his good leg and pinned it to the deck. There was another man on each of his arms. Brig tried to hold Kennit's head, but his captain twisted free of his tentative grip. He lifted his head to glare wide-eyed at Wintrow. “Is it now?” he demanded, sounding both querulous and angry. “Is it now?”

  “It's now,” Wintrow told him. “Brace yourself. ” To Brig he said, “Hold his head, firmly. Put your palms on his forehead and pin him to the deck with your weight. The less he thrashes about, the better. ”

  Of his own accord, Kennit lay his head back and closed his eyes. Wintrow lifted the blanket that had covered his stump. In the few hours since he had last seen it, it had become worse. Swelling stretched the skin tight and shiny. His flesh had a blue-gray cast to it.

  Begin now, while he had courage still. He tried not to think that his own life depended on his success. As he gingerly worked the strap under the leg stump, he refused to think of Kennit's pain. He must focus on being swift and cutting him cleanly. His pain was irrelevant.

  The last time Wintrow had seen a limb severed from a man, the room had been warm and cheery. Candles and incense burned as Sa'Parte had prepared for his task with prayer and chanting. The only prayer uttered here was Windrow's silent one. It flowed in and out with his breath. Sa, grant your mercy, lend me your strength. Mercy, on an indrawn breath, Strength as he breathed out. It calmed his thundering heart. His mind was suddenly clearer, his vision keener. It took him a moment to realize Vivacia was with him, more intimately than ever before. Dimly, he could sense Kennit through her. Curiously, Wintrow explored that faint bond. It seemed as if she spoke to Kennit at a great distance, counseling him to courage and strength, promising that she would be there to help. Wintrow felt a moment of jealousy. He lost his concentration.

  Mercy, strength, the ship prompted him. Mercy, strength, he breathed back at her. He threaded the leather strap through the rings and cinched it firmly about Kennit's thigh.

  Kennit roared out his agony. Despite the men pinning his limbs, his back arched up off the deck. He flopped like a gaffed fish. Fluids broke through the crusted scabs on his stump and spattered on the deck. The foul odor poisoned the breeze. Etta threw herself across Kennit's chest with a cry and strove to hold him down. A moment of terrible silence fell when he ran out of breath.

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  “Cut him, damn you!” Etta shrieked at Wintrow. “Get it over with! Do it!”

  Wintrow was frozen as he knelt, paralyzed by Kennit's agony. It inundated him like an icy wave, shocking and immersing him in its intensity. The force of the other man's experience flooded through his tenuous link with the ship and into Wintrow. He lost his identity in it. He could only stare dumbly at the whore, wondering why she was doing this to him.

  Kennit drew in a ragged breath, and expelled it as a scream. Wintrow shattered like a cold glass filled with hot water. He was no one, he was nothing, and then he was Vivacia and abruptly Wintrow again. He fell forward, his palms flattening on the deck, soaking up his identity from the wood. A Vestrit, he was a Vestrit, moreover, he was Wintrow Vestrit, the boy who should have been a priest. . . .

  With a shudder, Kennit suddenly lay senseless. In the stillness that followed, Wintrow grasped at his sense of himself, wrapped himself in it. Somewhere the prayer continued: Mercy. Strength. Mercy. Strength. It was Vivacia, setting the rhythm of his breath for him. He took control of himself. Etta was weeping and cursing at the same time. She sprawled on Kennit's chest, both restraining and embracing him. Wintrow ignored her. “Hold him,” he said tightly. He chose a knife at random. He suddenly understood what he had to do. Speed. Speed was the essence. Pain such as this could kill a man. If he was lucky, he could finish cutting before Kennit recovered consciousness.

  He set the shining blade to the swollen flesh and drew it across and down. Nothing had ever prepared him for that sensation. He had helped with butchering at slaughter time at the monastery. It was not a pleasant task, but it had to be done. Then he had cut through cold meat that was still, that was solid and stiff from a day's hanging. Kennit's flesh was alive. Its fevered softness gave way to the keen edge of the blade and closed up behind it. Blood welled up to hide his work. He had to grasp Kennit's leg below the spot where he cut. The flesh there was hot and his fingers sank into it far too easily. He tried to cut swiftly. The meat under the knife moved, muscles twitching and pulling back as Wintrow severed them. The blood poured forth in a constant crimson flood. In an instant, the handle of the knife was both sticky and slick. It puddled on the deck beneath Kennit's leg, then spread to soak into Wintrow's robe. He caught glimpses of tendon, glistening white bands that vanished as his knife divided them. It seemed forever before his blade met the bone and was defeated by it.

  He flung the knife down, wiped his hands down his shirt and cried, “Saw!”

  Someone thrust it toward him and he grabbed it. To insert it into the wound sickened him but he did it. He dragged it across the bone; it made a terrible sound, a wet grinding.

  Kennit surged back to life, yelping like a dog. He pounded the back of his own head on the deck and his torso writhed despite the weight of those holding him down. Wintrow braced himself, expecting to be overwhelmed with the pirate's pain but Vivacia held it back. He had no time to wonder what it cost her to take that to herself. He did not even have time to be grateful. He bore down on the saw, working swiftly and violently. Blood spattered the deck, his hands, and his chest. He tasted it. The bone gave way suddenly and before he could stop, he had sawed raggedly into flesh. He pulled the saw out of the clinging wound and threw it aside, then groped for a fresh knife. Somewhere Kennit barked, “Uh, uh, uh!” It was a sound beyond screaming. A splattering noise followed.

  Wintrow smelled the sourness of vomit on the sea air. “Don't let him choke!” he said abruptly, but it was not Kennit who had puked but one of the men holding him. No time for that. “Hold him down, damn you!” Wintrow heard himself curse the man. With the knife in his hand, he cut down, stopping just short of severing the leg completely. He turned the blade at an angle, slicing himself a flap of skin from the stump before he made the final severing cut and rolled the rotten remains of the leg aside.

  He looked down, sickened, at what he had wrought. This was not a neatly sliced piece of meat like a holiday roast. This was living flesh. Freed of their attachments, the bundled muscles sagged and contracted unevenly. The bone glistened up at him like an accusing eye. Everywhere was the spreading blood. He knew with vast certainty that he had killed the man.

  Do not think that, Vivacia warned him. Then, almost pleading, Do not force him to believe that. For right now, linked as we all are, he must believe what we think. He has no choice.

  With blood-smeared hands, Wintrow found the small bottle that held the kwazi fruit rind. He had heard of its potency, but it seemed like a pitifully small amount to stop such vast pain. He unstoppered it. He tried to pour it sparingly, to save some against tomorrow's pain. The pieces of preserved rind clogged in the bottleneck. He shook it, and the pale green liquid splattered forth unevenly. Where it fell on Kennit's flesh, it brought a sudden silencing of the pain. He knew because through Vivacia he sensed it. Less than half of the extract was left in the bloody bottle when he capped it. He clenched his teeth and touched the flesh he had cut, patting the thick green liquid to spread it evenly. The cessation of pain was so sudden that it was like being stranded by a retreating wave. He had not realized how much of it was battering past Vivacia's shield until it stopped. He sensed, too, Vivacia's sudden relief.

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  He tried to remember all that he had seen Sa'Parte do when he had cut off the man's leg. He had tied the ends of some
bleeding arteries, folding them back on themselves and closing them off. Wintrow tried. He was suddenly tired and confused; he could not remember how many the healing priest had sewn. All he wanted to do was get away from this gory mess he had created. He longed to flee, curl up in a ball somewhere and deny this. He forced himself to go on. He folded the slab of skin up over the raw end of Kennit's stump. He had to ask Etta to pull more hair from the pirate's head and thread the fine needles for him. Kennit lay absolutely still now, his breath puffing in and out of his lips. When the men started to ease up their holds, Wintrow rebuked them.

  “Hold him fast still. If he stirs while I am stitching, he may tear all my work apart. ”

  The flap did not fit neatly. Wintrow did the best he could, stretching the skin where he had to. He wrapped the stump with lint and bound it I with silk. As fast as he hid it, the blood seeped through, smearing from his sticky hands, oozing out to blossom through the fabric. Wintrow lost count of how many layers he wrapped it in. When he was finally finished, he wiped his hands down the front of his robe yet again and then reached for the cinch. When he loosened it, the clean bandaging almost instantly reddened. Wintrow wanted to scream in horror and frustration. How could there be that much blood in a man? How could so much of it gush out of him, and yet leave him still clinging to life's thread? His own heart was thundering with fear as he wrapped it once again. Supporting the stump in his hands, he said dully, “I'm finished. We can move him now. ”

  Etta lifted her head from Kennit's chest. Her face was white. Her eyes fell on the discarded leg. Heartbreak contorted her mouth for an instant. With a visible effort, she smoothed her features. Her eyes were still bright with brimming tears as she huskily ordered the men, “Fetch his litter. ”

  It was an awkward trip. He had to be maneuvered down the short ladder to the main deck. Once they had crossed it, there were the narrow corridors of the officers' living quarters to navigate. Every time the wooden handles of the litter rapped against a wall and jostled Kennit, Etta snarled. As they moved him from his litter to the bed, his eyes opened momentarily and Kennit babbled wildly. “Please, please, I'll be good, I promise. I'll listen, and obey, I will. ” Etta scowled so blackly that every man lowered his eyes before her. Wintrow was sure the captain would never be questioned about his words. Once on his bed, Kennit closed his eyes and was as still as before. The other men left the cabin as swiftly as they could.

  Wintrow lingered a moment longer. Etta scowled at him as he touched Kennit first at wrist and then throat. His pulse was light and flighty. Wintrow leaned close to him, and tried to breathe confidence into him. He set his sticky hands on Kennit's face with his fingertips touching the man's temples and prayed aloud to Sa to grant the man strength and health. Etta ignored him, folding a clean cloth and slipping it deftly under Kennit's bandaged stump.

  “Now what?” she asked dully when Wintrow finished.

  “Now we wait and we pray,” the boy replied. “That is all we can do. ”

  She made a small contemptuous sound and pointed at the door. Wintrow left.

  HER DECK WAS A MESS. THE BLOOD SOAKING INTO IT MADE A HEAVY PLACE.

  Vivacia's eyes were half-closed against the brightness of the westering sun. She could feel Kennit breathing in the captain's cabin, and knew the slow leaking of his blood. The medicine had drowned his pain, but it remained for her a distant throbbing threat. Every beat brought it a minuscule step closer. Although she could not feel his agony yet, she sensed its immensity and dreaded its coming.

  Wintrow moved on her foredeck, tidying up the mess. He damped a leftover piece of bandaging in his bucket of water. He wiped each knife as he put it away, cleaning the needles and the saw carefully. He stowed it all in the medicine chest, methodically returning it to order. He had washed his hands and forearms and wiped the blood from his face, but the front of his robe was stiff and soaked with it. He wiped clean the bottle of kwazi-fruit essence and considered what was left. “Not much,” he muttered to her. “Well, it matters little. I doubt that Kennit will live long enough to require more. Just look at all this blood. ” He placed the bottle back in the chest and then looked down at the piece of leg. Gritting his teeth, he picked up the thing. Severed meat at both ends and a knee in the middle, it balanced oddly light in his hands. He carried it to the side of the ship. “This feels wrong,” he said aloud to Vivacia, but he still threw it over the side.

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  He staggered back with a low cry as the white serpent's head shot out of the water to snatch the leg out of the air before it could even splash into the sea. As swiftly as it had appeared, it was gone and the leg with it. Wintrow darted back to the rail. He clung there, staring down into the green depths, looking for some pale flicker of the creature. “How did it know?” Wintrow demanded hoarsely. “It was waiting, it seized the leg before it touched water. How could it have known?” Before she could answer, he went on, “I thought that serpent was gone, driven away. What does it want, why does it follow us?”

  “It hears us, we two. ” Vivacia's voice was low, pitched for him alone. She felt ashamed. People had started to come out of the hatches, back up onto the deck, but no one ventured near the foredeck. The serpent had come and gone so swiftly and noiselessly that no one else seemed to have seen it. “I do not know how and I do not think it understands in full what we think, but it understands enough. As to what it wants, why, exactly what you just gave it. It wants to be fed, no more than that. ”

  “Maybe I should fling myself to it. Save Etta the trouble of doing it later. ” He spoke mockingly but she heard the despair under his words.

  “You voice its thought, not your own. It reaches for you, clamoring for food. It believes we owe it food. It does not scruple to suggest your own flesh might satisfy it. Do not listen. ”

  “How do you know what it thinks and wants?” Wintrow had abandoned his tasks and come to the rail, leaning over to speak to the figurehead. She glanced over her shoulder at him. The weariness on his face aged him. She debated how much to tell him and then decided there was no point in sheltering him. Eventually, he must know.

  “He is family,” she said simply. At Wintrow's astounded look, she shrugged one bare shoulder at him. “That is how it feels to me. I get the same sense of connection. Not as strong as you and I have now, but undeniable. ”

  “That makes no sense. ”

  She shrugged at him again, and then changed the subject abruptly. “You must stop believing that Kennit is certain to die. ”

  “Why? Are you going to tell me that he is family also and can sense my thoughts?”

  There was an edge of bitterness in his voice. Jealousy? She tried not to be pleased about it, but could not resist prickling him more. “Your thoughts? No. He cannot sense your thoughts. It is I that he senses. He reaches toward me and I toward him. We are aware of each other. Tenuously, of course. I have not known him long enough to make it stronger. His blood soaking into my deck seals that bond in a way I cannot explain. Blood is memory. As your thoughts touch mine, so they also influence Kennit's. I try to keep your fears from intruding on him, but it is an effort. ”

  “You are linked to him?” Wintrow asked slowly.

  “You asked me to help him. You asked me to lend him strength. Did you think I could do that without bonding to him?” Vivacia felt indignant at his disapproval.

  “I suppose I didn't think about that aspect of it,” Wintrow replied reluctantly. “Do you sense him now?”

  Vivacia thought about it. She found herself smiling softly. “Yes. I do. And more clearly than I did before. ” The smile faded from her face. “Perhaps that is because he is weakening. I think he no longer has the strength to hold himself separate from me. ” She brought her attention back swiftly to Wintrow. “Your conviction that he will die is like a curse upon him. Somehow, you must change your heart, and think only of him living. His body listens deeply to his mind. Lend it your strength. ”
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  “I will try,” he said grudgingly. “But I can scarcely convince myself of something I know is a lie. ”

  “Wintrow. ” She rebuked him.

  “Very well. ” He set both hands to the forward rail. He lifted his eyes and fixed them on the horizon. The spring day was melting into twilight. The blue sky was darkening, its color changing gradually to meld with the darker blue of the sea. In moments, it was difficult to tell where the sea left off and the sky began. Slowly Wintrow withdrew into himself, calling his vision back from that far focus until his eyes closed of their own accord. His breathing was deep and even, almost peaceful. In curiosity she reached for the bond they shared, trying to read his thoughts and feelings without being intrusive.

  It did not work. He was instantly aware of her. Yet, instead of being resentful of her invasion, he linked willingly with her. Inside him, she became aware of the steady flowing of his thoughts. “Sa is in all life, all life is in Sa. ” It was a simple affirmation and she realized instantly he had chosen words he absolutely believed. He no longer focused on the health of Kennit's body. Instead, he asserted that while Kennit lived, the life within him was of Sa and shared Sa's eternity. No end, his words promised her. Life did not end. After thought, she found she shared his conviction. No final blackness to fear, no sudden stopping of being. Changes and mutations, yes, but those things went on with every breath. Changes were the essence of life; one should not dread change.

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  She opened herself to Kennit, shared this insight with him. Life went on. The loss of a leg was not an ending, only a course adjustment. While life pulsed in a man's heart, all possibilities existed. Kennit did not need to fear. He could relax. It was going to be all right. He should rest now. Just rest. She felt the warmth of his expanding gratitude. The tensed muscles of his face and his back eased. Kennit took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

  He did not draw another one.

  CHAPTER FIVE - The Liveship Ophelia

  ALTHEA'S WATCH WAS OVER; HER TIME WAS NOW HER OWN. SHE WAS TIRED, but pleasantly so. The spring afternoon had been almost balmy. It was rare for the season to be this kindly and Althea had enjoyed it. The Ophelia herself had been in an expansive mood all day. The liveship had made the sailors' tasks easy, moving northward toward home with a will. She was a ponderous old cog, now heavy with goods from a successful trading journey. The early evening wind was gentle rather than brisk, but Ophelia's sails caught every breath of it. She slid effortlessly through the waves. Althea leaned on the forward rail, watching the beginning of the sunset off the port bow. Home was only a few days away.

 
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