Message in a Bottle
This is a departure for me, as I am not given to writing in this particular perspective. Your comments are appreciated and welcome. Razz the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
For those curious, here is a map of Kithranori.
While sailing from the weaver’s city of Berry to the trade center of Auk, a storm erupted upon the Corryn Ocean and tossed the ship carrying my crew against the dreaded Reefs of Kith. Only I, Lyran Allar, a woman of meager years, survived the treacherous waters to reach Ran’s Tears, a chain of islets that dot the southern reaches of the ocean. Though spared death, the torture of my life was to be completely alone in my survival.
Marooned upon the islands for four years, the passing of Solis’ chariot seemed unending. Deep into the cliffs above my lagoon I scored the marks of my days, and with each inscription, a little more of my hope fled. The voices and sounds of my daily past receded into distant memory, replaced by the harsh clamor of island life.
Daily, I fought to survive. Great Kithran, the god of the deep sea, roused himself to send such gifts as he could. In the weeks following my stranding, a net, two glass bottles and a long knife were left upon the shores of the island. These tools, along with what could be taken from the land, were sufficient to build a shelter against the worst of Mother Nai’s fury. Only a fool would stand unguarded against our lady of nature’s gently cruel ways.
When my clothing - a simple set of sailor’s breeks and tunic – wore away, Mother Nai kindly gave me the threads of her hair to clad my body. From the massive ollanut tree, leaves the size of a tark’s fin pounded and dried in the sun made up the kirtle that girded my waist. Bits of sailcloth, left upon the shore by Kithran’s waves, were woven about my breasts. To an outsider, I would have appeared to have been one of the savages that the Montain high lords claim dwell in the outlands.
My feet and hands, never tender, were dried to the consistency of boot leather by the ocean’s salt. There were no mirrors upon the cursed isle, yet I only had to gaze down to see that once pale skin was as dark as the dregs of Auken tea.
Food was a source of great loathing for me, for the most plentiful source of flesh was fish. Repugnant as they were, yellowtail, pinkback, bluegill, and spuni were the best of the beasts, having flavors that were as unique as the shifting plains of the Sonan. Though they had not replaced my longing for the simple tastes of home, they were at least palatable.
The one dweller of the lagoon that I avoided was the vicious tark. One encounter with teeth cruel enough to rend a man limb from limb was enough of a deterrent to keep me from making a meal of his gray flesh.
Kithran’s bounty was not all that kept me fed. From the land came the meat of the ollanut, a tree that bears a sweet fruit. Fried until it cracked and steamed, it was a perfect companion to the tart flesh of the yellowtail. The shells of the fruit made for good bowls and the bark of the trees served as plates.
Mother Nai had surely blessed these isles for even the brackish weeds that decorate the shore were of use. A long, tough and fibrous grass, they could be woven into a durable rope.
My friends were the wild kackens whose eggs broke my night’s fast for many seasons. Their feathers, though not of the downy softness of the quecks that roam the waterways of home, made for fine pillows. For drink, I collected rainwater and ollanut milk. Aged in the heat of Solis’ chariot, the milk made a fine substitute for sailor’s grog, though too much left me too fatigued to move for many days.
For entertainment, there was Mother Nai’s cornucopia of birds – they would sing, play and mate in ways that fascinated me for marks.
My shelter was a work that would have made my shipwright father proud. Vines, stout poles and broad leaves provided the materials to build a hut high above the tide line. I was dry in rain, cool under the sun and safe from the watersnakes that lived in the caves along the reefs.
Storms were my favorite time. The rain brought sweet water to drink, deep dwelling spuni to catch, and in the days afterward, gifts to my beach. There were always those, like me, who had met their fate against the Reefs of Kith. Only the absence of spoken word invaded my peaceful life. As beautifully as they sang, the birds of the isles could not carry a conversation about a subject as simple as the weather.
A day came that was no different from many others after the rage of Mother Nai’s fury, yet it would forever change my life. My vessels were filled with clear water and there were a dozen of the large, white-fleshed spuni drying in the sun. I looked forward to my evening meal, for of all of Kithran’s creatures, these held very little of the flavor of the sea.
Later, I would give thanks to the Ocean Lord, for he had delivered to me a mighty gift. Wrecked against an outthrust rock not far from my shore was a small sailboat. What would be found upon this broken ship? Would it be salvation or sorrow? All through my morning chores, hopeful thoughts twisted and leaped in my mind while a painful stillness grew within my heart.
Barrels, maybe? I would have given much to own even one solid barrel to store water. The jars that had drifted my way barely held even a day’s worth of liquid. Better would be cases of salted meats or even, dried fruit. My mouth filled with the sweetness of ghostly arples. A moan trickled out with the moisture that had leaked from my lips at the thought of the long absent treat.
Dreams of food were soon supplanted by the emerging hope for fabrics. Sailcloth was heavy and not meant for garments. Where it rubbed against my skin was now chafed raw. A pair of thick gloves would also be welcome, for my hands bore the daily bite of the ollanut tree’s thick and thorny branches.
At low tide, half a mark’s walk was quickly filled with fanciful imaginings. Then the vessel was upon me, listing brokenly against the sand. It was small – a coastal ship, not one built for the deep sea. I wondered what idiocy prompted its captain to chance the mighty waves of the Corryn.
Though she bore evidence of hard travel, the ship’s bow did not list into the waves. Anticipation metamorphosed into flashfire elation and slammed my hammering heart into my throat. Never did my dreams contain even the fragment of hope that such a gift could wash upon my shore.
The ship bobbing so gently upon the waves could be my way home.
Memories of the green hills of Berry flooded my vision. Faces of loved ones – my father’s wrinkled with age and my mother’s still as smooth as a youth – tumbled in my heart. I could hear mother’s voice, lifted in song as she wove the tapestries that made our city famous.
Choking back a sob, I flung myself up the side of the ship, leaping the final feet to the guard rail and clambering aboard.
The deck was littered with wreckage. Rope and sail had tangled into a rat’s nest that could only have been caused by a storm’s fury. Yet no sailor stood out among the debris. A silence that was a kin to death filled the ship, broken only by the slough of waves against the bow.
My eyes were filled with the sight of treasure after treasure – barrels, ropes, sails and containers – boxes that could be filled with fabrics, foodstuffs – even lamp oil! The sheer amount of the bounty threatened to overwhelm me. I took a deep breath to gain balance.
It was then that I saw her. Slumped against the tiller was the body of a woman. Bedraggled hair the color of a fire’s embers framed a face that while beautiful was white with the kiss of Kithran’s Call.
Sadness rushed to supplant my exhilaration. Even the gift of the ship would not have outshone the blessing of company. I longed to hear the speech of another like Solis longed to chase her lover Nori through the sky.
Tears welled as I contemplated her. She was striking, this brave, foolish mariner who attempted the impossibility of sailing a coaster in the open water. A smile would have rest comfortably on her face while frowns would have found no home on such a visage. Her body, slumped and slack now, still held the tone of muscles built by marks of exercise.
Even in death, her beauty drew me to her side. I would give her to the sea – Kithran’s bride delivered by the hand of his sailor. Reaching for her, I noticed that her face was not chafed by the wind’s caress nor were her hands gnarled by the sea’s salt. She is no common deckhand. The thought hovered in my mind briefly.
As soon as my fingers grazed her skin, she screamed and bolted upright. Fear blossomed, sending me stumbling backwards. A seawight! A blade was in my hand and brandished in heartbeats. I would not be fodder for this undead creature. The words of an ancient spell leaped to mind.
“Begone, thou foul wraith of Kithran’s design! This mortal will not heed thy call nor feed thy wonton desires! By Mother Nai’s blessed eyes, I cast thee back to the hell from which thou hast come. Begone! Begone! Begone!” My voice was coarse, for speech was something that was rarely practiced on the isle.
She laughed. I had spoken the harshest of spells and she laughed! My fear escalated. Another spell tumbled from my lips, but I stumbled on the words when she cocked her head and spoke.
“A pretty speech, Wilder. A pity that it will do nothing to me.”
I gasped, for her voice was soft and edged with the cultured touch of the nobility. Gathering the shreds of my courage, I spoke again. “To the deep with you, foul maiden. You will find nothing but death in my flesh.”
The woman sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Nori protect me from fools and their prattling. I told you, Wilder, that your fancy words will not harm me. I am not a dead thing – though it may appear otherwise.” She sniffed self consciously. “The sea air that is so heavily touted by the priests of Kithran is best delivered in measured quantities, I think.”
In gape-jawed astonishment, I stared at this vision of bedraggled loveliness. Was she truly real? Her chest rose and fell evenly as we traded stares. My eyes began to see beyond fear – to take in the very expensive garments that clothed her body. My ears finally heard the speech of one Montain born in her accent. Habit overcame the shreds of fear remaining. There were two thuds on the deck – the knife and then my knees. The sounds echoed hollowly.
The grain of the deck came into sharp focus as I gave obeisance. “Please forgive my impertinence, my lady. My manners have gone wandering.” There was another long silence. My back began to ache, but nothing short of death could make me move. This noblewoman could keep me here until the coming of Mother Nai’s children and I would be content to wait. Groveling was an art form for one raised Kithranai.
A shipwright’s daughter learned to be a quick study if she wished to charm coins and contracts from the purses of the noble houses. My father was proud of his only child.
The lady sighed aggrievedly. Almost, I dared to look up only remembering my place at the last moment. New resolve kept my gaze firmly planted on the three lines of worm-eaten wood grain that was now keenly familiar. Water pooled in the tiny grots, forcing bits of blood and dirt out of the planks and caused me to wonder just what had happened aboard this strangely captained vessel.
Her voice shredded my contemplation. “Stand up, Wilder. The rear of your skull is a dreadful shame to behold.” Exasperation threaded her words, sending a shiver of fearful anticipation through me.
Nearly falling as I quickly stood, tension forced a posture long unused on my body. Head bowed, shoulders hunched and muscles as relaxed as I could make them was the appropriate stance when facing an irritated Montain noble. Their moods are many and varied and almost always painful. The Whip of Caste might not have been in evidence upon her waist, but it did not mean that she did not have it secreted somewhere nearby.
“As you request, my lady.” A good sailor never goes unarmed, even in the presence of nobility. The blade at my feet was quickly retrieved and sheathed. The action might have drawn a blow, but I was willing to accept the pain if it came. “Again, I humbly beg your forgiveness. I would not board a ship without permission. In all truth, this ship appeared to be abandoned.” Honesty, above all else, was essential when dealing with an irritated Montain. Kithranai nobles had the ability to pick lies from the air. Those whose tongues deliver such falsehoods pay for their dishonesty in striped flesh.
Her face, smoothly impassive before, suddenly twisted into a cynical grin. “I doubt it not, Wilder. You speak with the true heart of a Kithranai sailor.” The smile on her face faded, replaced by such a look of pain that I took a half step toward her before stopping myself. The smile returned, softer, and less harsh. “Had you but waited half a day’s marks, Wilder,” she gasped breathlessly, slumping against the side of the ship, “you would have been correct.”
There was no consideration to my actions. I was by her side in heartbeats. Courtesy, the most humble of gifts that one can grant another, was of paramount importance among my kith and kin. It would be easier to slaughter a child than it would to disregard someone in need. That it was a Montain noblewoman who required aid had no bearing on my actions. Her caste might grant her the right to beat me senseless, but that was no deterrent to years of Kithranai upbringing.
Why was my heart suddenly drumming a dancer’s beat? “What ails you, my lady?” I spoke softly, calmly, in an effort to gain her trust.
There was no answer forthcoming for the beautiful noblewoman had drifted into the realm of the exhausted. Her chest rose and fell in short, staccato breaths - even in sleep speaking of the pain that her body suffered.
This was a terrible quandary. My hands shook as I deliberated over what to do. Courtesy clearly stated that my duty was to seek what had caused this lovely woman such devastating harm, but caste barred me from brushing so much as a hair upon her noble body. She was Montain – inviolable by one of my humbler origins.
The spectre of pain skimmed the surface of my skin. The bite of the Whip had tasted deeply of my shoulders. Infractions imagined or real had left me whimpering for marks following meetings with certain of Berry’s nobility. Montains had no patience and would strike any who barred them from what they desired.
My caste is lowly and beyond the level of remarking, because I hold no land nor do I keep a seat in even the smallest of the great houses. Wilder this noblewoman has named me, and it is an appellation that glove-like, enshrouds my history. In ages long past, my ancestors lived in tiny forest communities within the vastness that is the Forests of Alleran. Eons have passed since my people were swallowed by the Montain of Kithranai, but enough of their heritage remains to scar me as one not of any worthy blood.
Hair that should be golden, scarlet or russet was instead earthy brown. Eyes that might have been remarked upon should they come in the hues of the sea or sky instead go unnoticed for they are ordinary – the shade of the forest at Solis’ leaving. Even my ears betray me, upswept and rounded of point as they were. A Montain’s ears were grander, flowing in a way that is reminiscent of wings.
As a final insult, I was tall – taller even, than the tallest of the noblemen for whom my storm lost ship had sailed. Montains viewed all Wilders with some suspicion and even outright distaste, but they did not forbid us our lives, for we were the workforce of their society.
The part and parcel of my being were all that needed to be seen for a Kithranai noble to mark me as unremarkable.
So I squatted beside this Montain noblewoman and chewed upon my lip until the tang of blood spattered my tongue. Her visage grew to be as familiar to me as the ragged remains of my kirtle. Slowly, I became aware that a decision had been made.
Her hair, which though full of its own beauty, did not hold the sheer perfect splendor of a true Montain’s tone. It was neither scarlet nor russet, but instead a blend of ruddy gold that could only be named copper. This was a shade that did not exist among the Montain nobility. In other words, this lady was less than she seemed. She was touchable, if only to render aid.
Freed to act, it was simplicity to cradle her against me while seeking the wounds which had stolen her consciousness. Her supple flesh yielded its secrets of bone and blood.
Speaking a prayer to Uncle Thed, patron of brave fools, I lifted the remains of her blouse to study what lay beneath. The sight that greeted me was a mottling of bruises in varying shades of pain. Deep black mixed with lighter yellow banded her side from just under one small breast to the top of her hip. The contusions were semi circular in shape and layered in a collection of misery that made my own abdomen tighten in mute sympathy.
The hiss that filled the air was my own. This shape, this pattern of torment was all too familiar to a born and raised dock brat. In my arms I held a woman whose Montain blood had not prevented her from being kicked stem to stern like a common servant. My stomach recoiled at such a thought. Bile rose as visions of what might have been slashed through my mind, filling it with the vileness of those who had savaged this untouchable flesh.
Carefully laying her out on the deck, I sat back on my haunches and tried to puzzle out the situation. What horrible crime had this noblewoman committed? For crime it had to be, to receive a low-caste’s punishment.
“You look like a demented Auken artist’s sculpture, Wilder,” came a weak voiced comment. The speech was so unexpected that it caused me to land with a thump on my bottom.
She laughed at the indignant squawk that erupted from me upon landing.
I glared, but inside the golden warmth of that sound had knotted and woven my heart to her soul in ways that not even the bravest priest would dare to untangle.
For the briefest instant, I understood what had just happened, but that moment passed, leaving me confused and frightened. Falling back on habit, familiar words formed a buffer between us. “Your pardon, my lady.” When no blow came, it was safe to add, “I was but attempting to render you aid.”
A frown traversed her face as she glanced at her side. Wincing, she shrugged one shoulder while suppressing a grunt of pain. “My thanks Wilder, but unless you have a flask of magic potion hidden about your person, I shall have to bear this to its inevitable finality.” She seemed quite convinced of her mortality. Worse, she appeared to accept the fate dealt to her with such a lack of emotion that it left me aching for something lost before it was found.
It crossed my mind to tell her that she would most likely live, but one does not willfully inform a Montain of ill news, and by her tone, living was the last thing on her list of desires. Choosing my words carefully, I said, “You are right in that there is no magic potion, my lady. However, the chill of the sea might take some of the ache from your wounds.”
The frown vanished to be replaced by her familiar wry grin. “Death takes me not to Kithran’s hall, then?” Her face was filled with a mixture of relief and sorrow.
“Not this day,” I assured her, while standing. “Do you wish my assistance?”
She nodded, admitting softly, “I do not think I can stand on my own.”
With great care, I lifted and held her steady until she found her balance. This strange noblewoman was tall for a Montain. The top of her hair brushed the tip of my nose. She shook her head and swallowed convulsively, using the stability of my body to find her feet.
It came to me that we fit together like two perfectly cut planks and where her flesh brushed mine, fire crackled into life, spreading until I was dizzy with the sensation of it. My throat dried with the need to touch. It had been far too many years since love had crossed paths with mine and my body reeled from this close contact.
Love be damned, it had been too many long years without any companionship either! Kackens did not count, as they were more likely to peck a body with their sharp beaks than to curl, furling style, against one’s side at night. Nor were they great conversationalists, having but one word in their vocabulary – squawk.
“I think that I am ready,” the noblewoman said.
“All right, my lady. If you will allow, I can take you to my shelter on the beach.”
A long, exhaustion filled sigh escaped her. “My lady does. My lady would also prefer that you call me Tyshanara.”
A small breeze could have tossed me overboard at that moment. Names were the epitome of Kithranai courtesy. To give one such as I the right to use a Montain’s name – it was unthinkable. Within our society, one did not bandy about the names of others. The words that our parents worked so closely with our priests to create were fragments of our souls. To those who were trusted, my face might call the salutation of Lyran Allar, but to others, such as the crew of my ship, I was simply Em.
Birth names are kept hidden. Instead, we gave use names like Em for my eyes that are darkly green. Basher, Chip and Hookie were crewmen who had gone to Kithran’s hall. These were the words that called their faces to mind for their true names had died with them.
Truth – Tyshanara could be a make-name, but it held the ring of birth, not life to it. I would treat it as gold, no matter which it was. For this strange lady to set aside the trappings of caste to grant this boon spoke deeply of the pain she suffered.
“By Kithran’s great hook, no greater honor has graced my tongue than the gift of your name, lady Tyshanara. In return, please make free with my own name. I am called Lyran.”
“May Mother Nai cradle you gently, Lyran, thank you for your name. Now I must insist that proprieties be damned to Kithran’s hall for if you do not take me off this boat now, I will sleep where I fall!”
With as much careful haste as possible, we left the wrecked boat and made our way to shore. Once there, it was a small matter to lead Tyshanara to the shelter.
As we walked, I mused over where to house her. My bed is naught but a hammock of twisted and woven vine, and I suspected that the lady’s injuries would prevent any ease of rest in such a contrivance.
Picking through and discarding the bulk of a paltry amount of choices, I came to the conclusion that both the sandy beach and the reed floor of my home would be even less comfortable.
On the morrow I would suggest that my lady spend some marks bathing within the cool waters of Kithran’s blood, and under the heat of Solis’ chariot but for tonight, she needed a place to rest.
Inspiration struck just as we reached the rope ladder that led to my home. In seasons past, I had gathered piles of soft feathers left by the island’s avian inhabitants and stuffed them into a giant case made from scraps of sailcloth.
This was my winter bed, and it was very comfortable, if a bit on the overly soft side. It would be a perfect chaise to cradle Lady Tyshanara’s battered body.
Cheered to have discovered the solution to my dilemma, I turned to the noblewoman and said, “My- um, Lady Tyshanara, please, it is up here.”
Tyshanara took one look at the vine rope that served as the entrance to my home and snorted dubiously.
“Good Lyran, normally there could be no greater thrill than adventurously scampering up such an ingeniously designed conveyance, but today, I fear that my strength has fled.” As she spoke, her legs gave out and she sagged toward the sandy ground. “Perhaps I shall rest here, instead.”
A strange emotion, heady and sweet for its long absence, rose within my breast. The desire to cradle this beautiful, damaged woman in my arms while soothing away the lines of pain that were so deeply etched into her face nearly overwhelmed me with its power. Weary bleakness had settled in Tyshanara’s icy pale eyes, robbing them of any gleam of peace. Fear lanced my heart. Would she surrender to her injuries before I had the chance to know her?
“No!” It came out sharper than intended and she stumbled against me. “I will carry you, my lady.” This was said so forcefully that she could not have denied me. Words became actions as I swept her up in a one-armed hold and began to climb. Half way to the landing, dreams of block and tackles with well-oiled pulleys played in my imagination. Had such been gifted by Kithran, it would have been simplicity itself to rig a lift.
Lady Tyshanara was not of the breed of Montain nobles who pamper themselves to fatness. Within the curve of my arm was no feathered stick. Nay, the woman who clung to me was of sturdier stock who spoke true when she said that she would view my vine ladder as a great challenge. Thankfully, years of lashing heavy sail in all conditions had left me with more than enough strength to carry this burden.
Like all nobles, she had no reservations about speaking her mind.
“Put me down, Wilder! I will not be manhandled like a common sack of grain!”
The voice that had so charmed me aboard the wrecked ship now rang in my ears with a painful shrillness and almost caused me to drop her. Gritting my teeth, I continued to climb. Hair color notwithstanding, Tyshanara was a Montain lady while I was but a lowly Wilder. My place was writ in the stone of Kithranai history. My body, mind and soul are devoted to keeping such as she from harm.
Even if she were to blithely streak toward cliff’s edge, it would be my duty to catch her as she fell. The memories of unearned whipstrikes are still too close to abandon this responsibility lightly. The Writ of Caste is as much a part of our spirit as the worship of the blessed Mother Nai. Montains rule; Wilders serve.
By the time we reached the edge of the platform, it was clear that the noblewoman’s whip had not been lost at sea. Rather, her tongue was sharper than a fish gutter’s blade.
With the noblewoman still cradled against me, I attempted to toe the rolled bedding open. Having had enough of my manhandling, Tyshanara struggled to free herself, leaving us dangerously unbalanced. Knowing that we were going to fall, I twisted my body enough so that she landed on top of me rather than upon the unforgiving floor.
“Ow! You clumsy oaf!” she shrieked as a mask of sheer agony contorted her face. Struggling again, she struck me several blows about the head and shoulders, including two solid punches to the face that left my lower lip split and bleeding.
The pain was a reward well earned for my foolishness. After she had calmed it was easy to untangle our limbs and leave her sitting on the floor.
While she cursed my name, my ancestors and my sexual proclivities, I rolled out the bed.
“Please my lady, take your rest here. I have neither silk nor fine cotton, but the feathers are the finest the island provides.” My words were softly spoken. There was a smudge of dirt on the floor in front of my foot and it kept my gaze from meeting hers. I did not wish to see the disgust that all Montains had for those of Wilder blood alive in Tyshanara’s eyes.
She groaned softly and then moved toward the mattress. “Thank you,” she whispered as she lay down. “I must apologize for my behavior, Wilder. I do not normally eschew courtesy in my daily life.”
Gratitude and apology spilled from the tongue of a noble and heaped upon one of my station was so rare that I gaped in open shock. If she had given me a casket filled with the finest jewels and instructed me to treat the diseased to a good meal, I could not have been more surprised.
It was long moments before I found my voice. “It is nothing, la-Tyshanara.” She had given me this freedom and suddenly, the need to exercise it overwhelmed my natural caution. My heart skipped and pounded in a wild mixture of hope and fear. Would she take offense? Or had she been truly generous in the giving of her name?
The cloth of the mattress crunched as she shifted. “Wilder, look at me.”
With a speed that caused me to wobble dizzily, I snapped my gaze to hers.
“Thank you.” Her smile was the sunrise after a dark storm. “Please believe that I speak true when I say that I am not normally an ungrateful hag. Also, I would have it that you treated me as your equal for that is what I am – your peer.”
My mouth opened, but there were no words ready to escape my twice stunned tongue.
Tyshanara’s smiles were the greatest treasure I had yet gained from Kithran’s sea and she was not stingy with sharing them. “Close your mouth, Lyran. In good time, the story of my life shall be yours to hear and you will understand. For now, go to my ship and take what you will.”
“Of course, mm-Tyshanara!” My cursed tongue still stumbled over her name, but my feet knew their duty. I escaped before her strange words could cause my world to shatter completely.
We were equal? Never. It was blasphemy. Yes, there were those of Montain lineage that claimed that we of Wilder stock were of the same blood as they, but their words were held as base heresy. Tradition kept us separated into two castes – noble and common. Nothing could ever bind the two as equals.
My earlier footprints had nearly washed away. This was a good indication of the changing tides. Speed was of the essence if I was going to attempt a feat akin to surviving the Reefs of Kith. Running was good exercise, especially in the wet sand of the lagoon. It did not take long to reach the ship or find its hitching rope. Coiled neatly in the bow, it was one of the few items not scattered about on the storm-tossed deck.
With fingers driven to nimbleness by the need for haste, I loosely knotted the rope about my waist and leapt into the returning sea. The current was strong. Swimming forcefully, I reached inside and called upon the powers dormant within my soul. From ages passed, the thread of magick echoed softly.
Mother Nai was a devious goddess. To Kithranai came many gifts, but of them all, the ability to craft small feats of magick was the greatest. This capacity to manipulate the energies of the gods varied in us all. In some, the gift was so great that they fairly reeked of power. These served our people as mages, healers and priests. In others, like myself, the power was but the weakest of glimmers – barely enough to spark tinder on a cold night. In times of great need, we could call the power to rise and erupt into a flare to rival Solis’ chariot.
It was one of those times. As my hands parted the water with easy strokes, I felt my body stretch and change. Muscles twisted and rippled as magickal energy wrought the transformation. The wind tore away my cries of pain as Mother Nai’s touch shaped me from woman to leviathan. Roars replaced screams and echoed the crash of water, drowning out the sound of the ship as it shifted off of the rocks and into the sea.
Thrusting one flipper-like arm toward land, I dragged the ship behind me. It was a gargantuan effort of will. The pain was beyond mind shattering. Focus was my greatest foe for if I were to lose concentration even once, the monster would overwhelm the woman.
Two, three, four strokes and my fins brushed the sandy shore. Exerting every ounce of will, I ran toward the trees, energy fading with each step.
Just as I reached the edge of the beach, one last shard of pain ripped through me and knocked me to the ground. Darkness descended and I knew nothing more.
Consciousness came on muddy feet, and left my mouth tasting like the bottom of a chamber pot. The head that I had worn the day before had been replaced by an iron bell that clanged painfully with each heartbeat. Every muscle in my body felt as though it had been stripped from the bones, twisted into gitar strings and played for a year by a tone deaf minstrel.
I stood, groaned, and rubbed the grit from my eyes. From the sea came a breeze that was as sharp as a thousand knives come to flay me whole. Such a reaction was the price for my magickal stupidity. My clothes, not whole to begin with, were tattered beyond repair and my skin, once bronzed to a nutty darkness, now held the pale tones of childhood. If I did not find clothing soon, Solis’ chariot would burn me to a cinder before it had half crossed the sky.
To add to this cacophony of discomfort, my stomach rebelled, suddenly heaving and forcing me to my knees while I fought to keep yesterday’s grilled spuni inside. A quarter mark and more passed until the nausea was truly gone. Sheer willpower had conquered my unruly stomach. Exhaustion rippled over me, making a home within my tired muscles.
If you boiled everything that bothered me down, added in a dash of uncertainty about my new guest and topped it off with a hefty jigger of homesickness, you would have the recipe for the fear I felt when I finally turned my attention to the ship that was beached just yards from my shelter.
Studying it closely, I could see that it was a small, coastal yacht built for leisure rather than business. Rising from the center of the boat was a single mast, its sail still miraculously attached. Two decks – one for the master’s quarters and the other for supplies and crew made up what sat above the waterline while below was the bilge. Steering was done by sail and tiller rather than a wheel.
Battered and in need of repair, it was still the closest thing to a way home I had seen since arriving on the isles. The keel was solid. With work, she would sail again. Of course, there was a sword’s edge to my good fortune. Gazing westward, I could easily see the gate that barred my way home.
The Kith were a terrible chain of coral reefs feared by those who sailed the great Corryn Ocean. Speckling the southern tier of Kithranai, they were the teeth that all merchants fought hard to avoid in order to bring their wares to the northern cities of Auk, Teal and Croonan. To return to my home in Berry, all I would need to do is repeat the miracle that landed me upon the island in the first place. I would have to shoot the jaws and hope that they did not close on my flesh.
The thought made me queasy all over again.
Into my musings came her voice.
That simple word restructured my universe. Not one, but two such miracles were needed, and she had already been granted the same boon of life as I.
Again, Tyshanara’s soft voice crept out onto the beach. “Is there anyone out there?”
“I am here, my lady,” I called back. Today I could not bring myself to use the noblewoman’s name so freely. The enormity of our situation was too great. My feet carried me into her view.
Tyshanara was awake and seated on the edge of my shelter, staring at her beached vessel.
“Good morning,” she called when she spotted me. “How did my sh-“ As I neared the shelter, she stopped and looked me over closely. The signs of my magick must have been visible for she frowned and said, “You must be terribly exhausted.” She sounded disappointed, though I knew not why.
“Recovery is only time and time is something we possess in ample quantity.” A shrug accompanied my words. Almost lazily, I climbed the rope ladder up to my home. From a pile of clothes came another kirtle and more sailcloth. Chafed breasts were preferable to sunburn. The leaves of my kirtle rustled dryly against my legs. It would soon be time to make new skirts else my clothes turn to dust.
Tyshanara watched me in silence as I dressed. When the last tie was knotted, she said, “Have you found anything of use aboard the Eloria?”
Shame colored my face brightly. “I have just now awakened, Lady Tyshanara. My clothes were taken by Mother Nai’s change and the Chariot burns hot upon this isle. It seemed more important to cover myself against the heat. My apologies. I shall go now.” My skin tensed in anticipation of a blow that was never struck.
Lightly came the lady’s response. “That would take precedence, for surely. Go now, and seek what you will aboard the Eloria.” She fell silent.
Hesitant, I waited to see if there was more to follow. Regardless of her previous assurances of equality, I could not discard a lifetime’s worth of habit. She shifted in place several times as if thinking heavily upon some esoteric subject. What is wrong, my lady? The words dancing in my head nearly tumbled from my tongue. Clamping my jaw tightly, I waited until she spoke first.
Finally, she sighed. “When you return, we must have another conversation about our relationship. Before you go, will you assist me to the beach? I have the need to seek out a friendly bush.”
“There is a privy not far inland, my lady. I will be glad to carry you down.”
“Wonderful! That is welcome news indeed. Yet I should like to discover how restful my sleep truly was. Here’s to not falling on my face!” So saying, she stood and weakly made her way to the rope ladder. With methodical slowness, Tyshanara climbed down to the beach below, and then gave a little cheer when her feet touched the sand.
During the entire process, I hovered nearby and waited for her to demand my assistance but the order never came. She vanished into the underbrush, leaving me free to climb down and head for the ship. High hopes filled me with a yearning for things that had long been absent in my daily life.
Aboard the ship, the joinery alone made me swoon. Built as a pleasure craft for a Montain noble, the Eloria was a thing of beauty. Absently stroking a planed edge here, a dove-tailed joint there, I made my way across the deck.
The first discovery had me nearly falling overboard in paroxysms of joy. Not one or two but three sturdy harpoons with razor sharp heads were racked near the stern, ready for use. These would become the start of what was to be an enormous pile of treasure that I gathered that day.
Rope, hundreds of feet of it, came next. Then two whole bolts of unbleached sailcloth that was wrapped in oiled canvas followed. Three barrels of fresh water, two of salted meat and four of teas, spices and dried fruits were in the galley. Their discovery was so amazing that even while stuffing my face with the sweet fruit, tears of homesickness gathered in my eyes.
They spilled freely when I found seven full trunks of clothing. On my knees, sobbing like a newly born babe, the syddumwood scented garments brought memories of home so close that for a moment I mistook the sound of crashing waves for the drums of the city watch.
Silk, linen and even cotton clothes the like of which had not graced my body for nigh on four years were splayed before me like a fabric buffet. So lost was I in the choosing of my first real outfit in four years, that Tyshanara’s footsteps were as silent as ganat’s wings.
“Lyran, are you in here?” The Montain’s voice echoing so close caused me to hurriedly thrust the clothing I was fondling into a trunk.
Scrubbing away the signs of my weeping, I called out, “In here, my lady. I have found your clothing.” Perhaps the good news would prevent her from beating me too soundly.
Tyshanara stepped into the room, and sighed aggrievedly as she stalked up to me. Red-gold curls bounced around her face as she shook her head. “I see that you are thicker of skull than most Wilders. Come, Lyran. You must be disabused of these crazy notions of me if we are to exist together upon this wretched isle.” With that, she turned and marched to the upper deck.
Fear goaded me to hasten in her footsteps. The words that she spoke broke no ground within my habitual behavior. Her voice, her bearing, everything about Tyshanara spoke of Montain nobility, even, dare I think it, royal birth. I should have been struck down by the gods for even speaking a syllable of her name in a familiar tone.
On the deck, the lady captured my gaze with her own. “Gentle Lyran, all that you behold may not be all there is to see. Gaze upon the whole of me and decide for yourself whether I still earn the title of lady.” So saying, she turned away and let her tattered clothes fall to the deck.
Almost, I could not bring myself to look, for to view a noblewoman in such state was punishable by thirty strokes of the Whip. Yet something forced my eyes to rise and to let my mind absorb the vision before me.
My heart nearly stopped as I choked in stunned horror. Crisscrossing the expanse of Tyshanara’s dark flesh were dozens upon dozens of whip cuts. Some were fresh – no more than three days old and still raw. Others were pale, thin scars and all were of the stripe and style of a master of the Montain’s whip.
Whip-scar upon the flesh of any man, woman or child meant only one thing.
“You – you’re not Montain?” My voice cracked and broke in a strangled whisper. The punishment of the whip was given to Wilders, to war slaves and even to beasts of burden but never, ever to another Montain. It was unimaginable.
Tyshanara scooped her clothes up and put them back on with a slowness that was agonizing to my addled mind. When she turned back to me, her face was filled with such a profound sadness that for a moment, I thought perhaps she was Montain and that somehow someone had broken the unbreakable rule.
“No, Lyran, I am not.”
At her denial, my tongue thrust out the first thought in my head. “But you speak as one educated to the nobility.”
She flashed me a sweet, sad smile. “Aye, but my breeding is far less than noble, Wilder. At least, by Kithranai standards.”
“How?” It was the barest whisper. No matter who she was, I knew that Tyshanara was no ordinary slave. Nor was she Wilder born, not with her dark coloring. She was too unique, too alien to be of my people and yet she disclaimed a connection to the Montain.
Tyshanara stepped toward me, holding her arms out and turning slowly. “Look you, does my face look so unfamiliar, child of the wild? Do my features not recall the faces of foreign friends of the past? Am I a member of any nation that calls itself Kithranai?”
It was an invitation to drink in my fill of the woman before me. I gazed deeply into eyes that held the hue of the twilight sky. Her hair, waist-length ringlets of a ruddy color was so like the copper mined in the Taddythm Hills that I expected to see tiny Dyrfs clinging to the precious metal while drunkenly singing their bawdy working songs. Even her skin glinted like metal, golden and smooth like tree-honey.
Kithranai are a pale people. Dyrfs, the tiny mannequins that populated the mountains and hills of my land, are gray like the rock they quarry while Wilders, of the forests and plains, are as pale as rice. Montains, the nobles of the empire, are also pale for their lives are spent shaded by palanquin and home.
Tyshanara’s eyes, with their pale tone, were also a complete oddity. I am accustomed to meeting dark, opaque gazes, not looking into wells of jewel-bright clarity. My heart began to thunder as possibilities assaulted me.
Swallowing to wet my dry mouth, I spoke. “Who – where are you from, then?” Curiosity blossomed. Suddenly, I had to know. If she was not Montain, not Kithranai, then, was she a war prize?
War was a thing not unknown to my people. A large empire must deal occasionally with internecine struggles. The Kithranai are no different. There are those who do not accept their lot in life and take up arms against the ones who hold power. The last such conflict was held some leagues east of Berry, far away from my life and concerns. Perhaps Tyshanara was of some strange, eastern clan.
“My name is no mystery to you, Lyran. I am Tyshanara. In my birthplace the answers to me you will find. I am Solinori.”
The name rang bells within the halls of my mind. Solinori were a race of people so alike and yet so unalike to my people that they were our hereditary enemies. Those who had populated the massive empire claimed by my people had long since been taken as slaves.
Thinking I knew her story, I nodded. “You are a war prize then? From the northern provinces?”
“War prize yes, but not from Kithranai lands.”
Her answer startled me, and shook loose a bevy of whispered tales that had plagued the docks for the two years prior to my being stranded upon the isles.
Some years before, a brave captain had taken an armada of merchant ships and sailed into the west, in the hopes of finding a shorter route to the eastern seaboard. Failing that, he planned on discovering new lands for the Kithranai to claim. Rumor claimed that he had not found his short passage, but an entire continent of our enemy, the Solinori.
Warships sailed. This land, so far distant that it took nearly two years for the fastest of the ships to reach it, repelled my people but took heavy losses. Our warriors returned, covered in glory and rich with booty. Another war party left and again was rebuffed.
The trouble was that the land was too far away for the empire to control, even if conquered. Emperor Tlalas, may the gods bless his name one thousand times, signed a peace treaty guaranteeing Kithranai protection from Solinori retribution and brought the armies home. Or so the rumors held. Because no trade was permitted, and because Solinori war slaves were plentiful in Kithranai, the truth was as muddied as a market street during monsoon season.
My parents had owned a Solinori slave. Kishnafara had guided my first steps, taught me my first words and had kept me safe from the blows of whip-crazed nobles. Did Tyshanara know this? Could she reach into my mind and lift the knowledge whole to hold against me? Would she attempt to strangle me in my sleep?
Of its own will, my hand strayed toward my knife.
Tyshanara spoke again, her voice both wistful and angry. “Aye. A prize I was. Milord Keffir Na Douf’s favorite bed mate and whipping post. Though now some would call me his murderess and thief of his property.” She turned to watch Solis’ chariot return to its home under the sea. “They’d be right, too,” she whispered.
The eiderdown feather of a kacken could have laid me low with one puff of Mother Nai’s breath.
“You killed Lord Na Douf?” I squeaked. Keffir Na Douf, first Prelate to the Emperor Tlalas, was as well known to the citizens of Kithranai as day’s dawn and set. He of the thousand whips, each one embossed with the names of his favored slaves. Lord Na Douf was fond of flesh and the pain it could produce under his care. He was also, it was rumored, the emperor’s favorite punisher.
Punishers were those of Montain blood for whom the stroke of the Whip was an art and a religion. Those who followed the ways of pain were said to call the agony of five strikes for every one they delivered. To be bound to such a one – my mind whirled at what Tyshanara must have endured.
A twisted and crazed smile lit the Solinori woman’s features. “Oh, yes, I killed him.” She chuckled suddenly and the tenor of that laugh made my skin creep. “Ran him through, I did,” she spoke softly, but with conviction. “Three times in and three times out – stroke, stroke, stroke – the fireplace poker was best and only weapon available. He bleated like a frightened wooly. Poor little wooly. All that blood and still not one bit of it filled with enough power to stop me.” Her eyes were vacant and glassy, as if she were revisiting the past through memory.
The sing-song quality of her voice both chilled and drew me to the admitted murderer. Questions ran rampant through my mind. Had the lord beaten her one too many times? Or had she been given to the other slaves as a plaything to be raped until Kithran called her home? The possibilities for Na Douf’s evil were endless and yet, still other scenarios held credence as well. For perhaps Tyshanara was as twisted as her lord and had only done murder to revenge some imagined slight – the loss of a favored jewel, denial of some whim or even worse, for no reason other than to see a man bleed.
Bile rose in my throat, thick and sour. I swallowed and considered my next words with careful intent.
Placing none of the storm of thought that assaulted me into my voice, I calmly asked, “What happened?”
Tyshanara’s eyes, silver pale in the waning daylight, found mine and she smiled tightly. “You are imagining horrors, Wilder. It is betrayed upon your face. What then, I wonder, do you envision? No, do not tell me.” She shook her head slightly. “I will give you my tale, Wilder and then you can make your judgment.” Quicksilver bright, her smile flashed briefly. “If you find it an ill story, I will take my leave and trouble you no further.”
So hungry was I for company, that the presence of a murderess was a welcome thought. Tyshanara’s story would be heard, and no matter what my personal feelings were, she would be allowed to stay.
“I will hear your tale, my lady.”
She inclined her head, indicating her thanks.
“A year ago, I came to realize that I was with child.” Tyshanara’s hand drifted down to cradle her abdomen. “Growing within me was the heir to the ruling house of Solinori.”
“So you are noble,” I interjected, almost accusingly.
“Not as you know it, Lyran. I bear the title of princess, but my people do not give it the weight that it carries in Kithranai. Now hush and listen, for I will speak of this only once.”
“Yes, my lady.” She could tell me until Solis’ chariot wheels broke that she was not noble and I would still accord her that honor. The habit of a Kithranai life would not be broken in a day’s space of permissive words.
Tyshanara frowned, but continued. “My child was to be my greatest revenge upon the Kithranai, for I would have raised her to hate all that your people were. Yet her hatred would have gone unremarked for I would also have instructed her how to live with our despoilers and how to poison the tree from within until root and branch, it fell to the earth never to darken our sky no more.
But that was not to be. Milord Na Douf had no wish to sire a half-blooded brat and called upon the hags of Mother Nai to rend the child from my womb.” Anger lashed her words. “I have always despised him, but that night, when they laid my dead child upon the midden heap, my soul filled with the blackest hatred.
From that moment forth, I planned his death. It became my dream, my nightmare and my life to kill Keffir Na Douf.” Tyshanara’s eyes flashed brightly with tears.
I felt my own heart begin to break with the profundity of her sadness. In turn, anger welled and made me wish that the man were still alive so that I too, could spill his life’s blood. Family was of paramount importance to those of Wilder blood and to hear this all too familiar tale of Montain infanticide made my stomach churn nauseatingly. Tyshanara’s story could have been told by many a Wilder woman. Montains take what they want and leave nothing but shreds for the rest.
Power called and controlled whipped us both then. Tyshanara’s hair tossed wildly in the wind that her emotions had summoned.
“I grieved, Lyran Allar of the Kithranai,” she said raggedly. “I wept until my eyes bled and then, only then, when my pain was at its apex, did my lord take me back into his bed. Over and over, he gave to me the seed that could engender a new hope but each time, he made me wash with the hottest water and the strongest soap. I would be forced to drink vile potions so that no bastard of his loins would grow within my womb.
My desire to kill grew with the seasons. Spring came and gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dreams. Yearly, milord would go from Auk to Berry to oversee his holdings. Nori herself answered my prayers when I was included among the slaves that were chosen to amuse milord on his journey.”
Tyshanara was not still while she spoke. Striding to and fro along the deck, her hands described her tale in wild arcs as she spoke, keeping my attention rapt. Wind continued to dog her footsteps, tearing at our clothes and hair.
“On the third day out, I gave my soul into the care of Nori and Solis and then, I struck. In Auk, there is an apothecary that will give a beautiful woman any drug she craves, for the price of a kiss. Powdered leaf of kopil was easy enough to cache in my belongings. Into the soup went the poison. It is both deadly and efficient for it works fast and is quite potent.
All aboard Eloria save milord supped of that meal, and all but milord perished that night. Only I and he escaped. The gods were with me, for he did not notice the loss of his lackeys, so engrossed was he in administering his favorite punishments to my body.
When he slept, I crept from his cabin and retrieved the weapon I had chosen for his doom. No sword plucked from the scabbard of a dead guard would do. For this death, my soul demanded a weapon capable of inflicting great pain.”
Her gaze, which had flitted from corner to corner of the deck finally lit upon what it was seeking. With a cry, she caught up a length of metal. Encrusted with salt, rust and dried blood, Tyshanara brandished it before me. A part of me had to agree with her choice. It was a boat hook, a common enough tool aboard a ship.
“This was it. With this weapon, I had my vengeance.” She thrust the tool into the side rail in demonstration, gouging huge chunks out of the wood. “The first strike took him unawares, but the second he saw coming. He never had even the smallest chance. Keffir Na Douf, punisher to his eminence, Tlalas the Torturer, died bleating and begging for his life.
Afterward, I rolled in his blood, crying and shouting out my victory for the gods to hear and judge. Then to the sea I gave the bodies of Na Douf and his servants, watching while tarks swarmed around the keel of the Eloria, frenzied by the gift of so much fresh flesh.”
Nothing in my experience had ever exposed me to such violence, hatred and pain. Already unbalanced by the events of the past day, my mind refused to accept any more.
Falling to my knees, I buried my head in my hands and quietly begged Mother Nai to save me from the madwoman. Surely doom had set its hands upon my soul, to shackle me with such a cursed presence.
“Almost, I threw myself in after the others.” Her voice was a bare whisper. “I do not know what stopped me, but their deaths shall live in my soul to the end of my days and beyond.”
Prayer continued to tumble from my lips. I could hear no more from Tyshanara, for if her words continued to flow, my mind would shatter.
A dizzying silence rose, broken only by wave and wind and my breath.
Then, a ragged shout, followed by a splash broke my concentration. I looked up in time to see Tyshanara throw her head back and wail, “Why am I alive?” and then collapse in a heap of ragged sobs.
The Solinori woman clutched her stomach, whimpering and crying. The violent, painful gusts which had plagued us throughout the telling of her story vanished, leaving the lagoon wrapped in a hollow, dead calm. Only the sounds of our breathing and the far off call of a sea bird remained to remind us that we existed.
Numb, dazed and scorched by Tyshanara’s tale, I stood and stumbled to her side. Though her crime was terrible, the Solinori woman was the only other living, breathing and intelligent being upon the gods cursed island.
To return to civilization, I would need her. Besides, a secret and deep part of my soul whispered, you admire the audacity it took to destroy her tormentor.
Steeling myself, I locked away all the feelings her horrible story had engendered and spoke. “Tyshanara, the light is fading. We must take what we can to the shelter. There is rain in the air and Mother Nai is rarely forgiving.”
She did not move.
Courage was what you found when you stuck your hand in the tark’s mouth knowing that he would take your fingers, and yet you reclaim your hook anyway. Touching Tyshanara’s shoulder, I said, “Come, my lady. Na Douf is gone and you are free.”
The Solinori woman recoiled violently. “No! Lay not thy hands upon my flesh, Kithranai Wilder, lest my rancorous spirit betray thee and rend thy life from thy flesh!” Her words carried the inflection of old Solinori and her breath came in short, painful bursts. Empty, frightened eyes met mine. “I am poison, Wilder. Go, and leave me to the gods.” At the end of her statement, she bowed her head as if waiting for me to fulfill her impassioned request.
Indecision plagued me. To go would be to walk away from the first companionship I had enjoyed in four years, but to stay meant risking my spirit’s contamination by the crazed woman’s darkness. Oh, what I would have given to be gifted with soul-sight. With one touch, the colors of her essence would be open to my view. Discovering whether darkness poisoned her root and branch or if it was only the touch of Na Douf’s hand that flayed the sanity from her mind would be simplicity. Worry fluttered acidly in my stomach. Left to puzzle the situation on my own, I remained silent.
Regarding the broken, empty shell of a woman before me, pity welled within my heart. Here was a person whose life had been shattered so completely that she no longer had even the slightest memory to call home.
I at least had the scent of a good fire, the song of my mother’s love and the sight of fast ships in the harbor to visit within my mind’s eye. What memories did Tyshanara have? How long had she been a war prize? The scars upon her body had told a tale of punishment and pain that had lasted for years.
What would I do, riven from my home and enslaved in a land of hateful strangers? How would I react if my child were torn from my body?
You would go completely insane. The answer seemed to drift on the air around me.
“Will you leave, Wilder? Or would you slay me where I sit?” She looked up at me with an expression devoid of emotion. “You should hate me, Wilder. I killed one of your precious Montains.”
Did I hate her? Was justice served by killing the killer?
In Kithranai, her death would be assured and slow. Punishers would flay her alive and healers would keep her hovering at Kithran’s door for weeks as payment for her crime.
A crime which if committed by a Montain would be nothing more than justice, came the airy voice again. A Kithranai noblewoman in Tyshanara’s predicament would have acted the same, if not more viciously. Gossips were full of stories of revenge and murder among the high families.
Only race turned justice to crime.
If I were the one so wronged, my lot would be the same, for low-casted Wilders were hardly better than slaves to the Montain families. How many times had my thoughts turned to vengeance when the whips of my overseers fell too heavily? How many dreams of murderous revenge for petty insults had filled my head?
What right did I have to judge Tyshanara’s actions, when my own thoughts could have led me down the same road? Who was I to hold her to a higher morality than my own?
In my heart, the answer was already given. I could hate Tyshanara’s actions, but not the woman. In that moment of realization, it came to me that she would be her own worst judge. To spend her life with the memories of Na Douf’s death, and the death of all Eloria’s crew was punishment enough. Perhaps even the gods agreed, for they had stranded her here, upon my island, and not anywhere near Kithranai.
Schooling my face to stillness, I made my answer known. “I have no wish to kill you, Tyshanara of the Solinori. You are welcome on my island. Now let us return to the shelter before Nai’s tears drench the land.”
With an expression akin to awe, Tyshanara stood. “You are touched by the hand of Nori the Just, Lyran Allar. May her light always be clear and bright.” One of Tyshanara’s gentle, heartbreaking smiles banished her tears. “Knowing my crimes, you offer forgiveness. You are unique among your kind, Wilder of the Kithranai.” She held out her right hand, palm up in the traditional greeting of my people. “I accept your offer.”
Pressing my palm to hers, I gasped when she entwined our fingers and gripped my hand tightly.
“Come, my new friend, let us take what we can carry for now. On the morrow we will return to Eloria and strip her from stem to stern and make what will on this island.”
What else could I do but take hold of a pile of items and head for land?
Days came and went, spinning out a weft of time and clearing the skeins of a month of time. Eloria’s treasures were culled, catalogued and stowed for future use. The ship herself listed on the beach not a stone’s throw from our shelter, its graceful, damaged beauty a daily test of my will.
I was raised the daughter of a shipwright. The skills of a boatswain were well within my purview. It was Eloria’s size that mocked me. With work, she would be fit enough to sail but only if it was upon Kithranai rivers we wished to roam. Coastal sailing would also be completely acceptable, but not the deep sea voyage that would take us from these isles. Away and far from these strange islands were where we both wished to be. I in my home and she in hers, though the longer we companied the other, the more frequently our ideals of home became entangled.
It was only by miracle that the Corryn’s rage had not destroyed the ship when Tyshanara sailed the Eloria into the reefs. There would be no escape aboard her, no matter how well I repaired her hull.
I buried the idea in the back of my mind. To where would we journey, were we able to leave? Tyshanara was a fugitive and the tides in the southern Corryn had surely washed some evidence of Na Douf’s fate ashore by now. Low-casted crewmen were a half-copper a dozen. Indeed, the Montains would probably believe that I had somehow assisted Tyshanara in her murderous plan and brand me with the same iron that the Solinori would bear. It was the way of my people.
Away and far from these strange islands was where we both wished to be. The siren’s song of my homelands had dwindled with Tyshanara’s presence, yet still I craved more.
This was not the future my parents imagined for me. Though I might never see them or my home again, nothing could force me to ruin the dream of one day escaping the grasp of the tiny island. Another answer would have to be found.
I was knee deep in cool water. Solis’ chariot had just begun its daily ride over the body of Mother Nai. Under Nori’s light, rain had drenched our island in thunderous waves. A tempest of such magnitude would raise the deep water fish to the surface in a frenzy of feeding that made me giddy with delight.
As I have said, the taste of fish is not my favorite. By some twist of Kithran’s rare humor, the deep water swimmers held a better flavor – juicier and more akin to the ground dwellers that I prefer. Fishing had become the task for the day.
In my hand was a net, from my belt dangled a woven rope pouch. There would be plenty to fill our bellies that evening. The salted meats found aboard the Eloria were a wonderful change of pace, but strangely, I found myself missing the aroma of fried spuni. Would Tyshanara enjoy the fish as well? The small, brown, spiny fish had a piquant flavor that was an acquired taste.
After a storm, the lagoon was so still that I could count the beats of my own heart. It was one of the little things that had come to mean so much to me on my tenure upon the island.
I felt movement behind me and knew that my solitary morning had been broken.
“You are awake early this day.”
Tyshanara was a woman who clung to sleep like a child clutches a favored toy.
“I couldn’t sleep. You are always up before Solis. I felt...” She shrugged as she drew even with me. “Lazy. In Na Douf’s household I was required only to present myself to my lord’s bedchamber upon command. Sometimes weeks would pass before Keffir called for me. I spent my time locked away in a gilded suite.”
Senses honed by years experience told me that a school of fish was shoaling nearby.
“How is your side?” I asked tonelessly while launching the weighted net. It easily sailed the seven armspan distance and sank rapidly over the incoming seafood.
After a month, it was still difficult for me to talk to the enigmatic woman. Tyshanara walked, spoke and carried herself like one born to the nobility, yet she swore that she was nothing more than a casteless war slave. Her protestations of non-nobility fell upon deaf ears for I recalled that she had said that she was a princess of the Solinori. By all custom I held holy, she was as akin to noble as ships were to sails.
It did not help that she was the most beautiful woman to ever direct three words in a row toward me. To add to that complication, I would catch her staring at me at odd moments with a strange look upon her face. This expression came closest to being described as desire, which if directed toward me, was truly baffling.
Mother Nai was kind to all of her creations but I know that my face was not one for which duels are fought. Tyshanara was a glorious testament to the goddess’ deft skill at shaping a woman. Her beauty caught me off guard in unwary moments. In Nori’s light, she was quicksilver and silk, all shadows and ephemeral pieces that begged to be captured in a warm embrace. By day, under the glare of Solis’ chariot, she was glistening, glorious and golden fire that burned deep within the pit of my stomach. In her I could be lost to the looking. It was like seeing the finest work of the greatest artist of a generation and knowing that its price was above the deepest purse.
Her beauty was pure yet flawed, for it was alien. I believe that it was that very strangeness that made her so desirous to me. These were the thoughts that glided in my mind of a day. Oh, how deeply did I understand how a man like Keffir Na Douf could claim this glory for his bed. Honesty compelled me to admit that her presence in mine would not be rebuffed, were it offered.
It was the best of blessings that the reading of thoughts was a gift so rare, none but those who guard Emperor Tlalas had it, for if Tyshanara were to guess the direction of mine; I fear that she would have hastened to move to a lesser isle to escape them. Fear goaded me to wonder if my face ever echoed even the faintest hint of my desire. Perhaps that was what she saw, when she stared at me so oddly.
And the answering stare is but a trick of my imagination. I must not allow my loneliness to cast falsity upon the lady. No whip she bears but the strike of her tongue and still it cuts as deep.
“My body has healed as it will, Lyran. I think perhaps some ache will remain for all my days, a souvenir of Keffir’s undying love, no doubt.” Her lips twisted into a wry, self mocking grin. “It is an affection that is unreturned.”
Anger, a constant companion whenever Tyshanara spoke of Lord Na Douf, rose like a swarm of bees in my belly. I had to consciously force my fist to unknot before she noticed my agitation. The invisible scars ribboning my lady’s soul mapped more of her substance than she liked to admit. In the days since hearing my lady’s tale, my early disgust had melted under the Solinori woman’s gentle presence. I came to believe that Tyshanara’s gods had enacted their vengeance through the body of their subject. No more would my face hold fear or disgust for her. Only admiration for the woman who had survived such a terrible life would shine brightly from this Wilder’s features.
I had no more words to speak. The silence between us grew uncomfortable until I drew in the full net. Yellowfin, pinkback and the hoped for spuni were thickly tangled among the ropes and weights.
In a move that both amazed and startled me, Tyshanara took hold of one side of the net and silently offered to help drag it to shore. A smile threatened to shape my lips. With her help, the amount of food in one full net alone would feed us for almost a week; more if I smoked the meat.
“Should I pitch these back?” she asked, indicating the spiny bodies of the spuni. “They don’t look edible.”
“No, my lady. Those are spuni. They’re the sweetest fish in this part of the sea, once you burn off the sharp spines.”
Tyshanara smiled, and the brightness of it nearly stopped my heart. Real joy beamed at me and I did not know how to deal with such an overwhelming emotion. Breathing was suddenly an option lacking to me.
“I love sweet things. Honeyed dainties like sweetmeats, fried nuts and sugarballs were such a rarity in Na Douf’s home but the taste of them was like going home. My mother used to bake sweet cakes for my father and me. It was the one thing she could do in our kitchen that didn’t end up scorching the ovens. Cook would throw such a fit when that happened.” Now the smile turned sad and it was all I could do not to drop my end of the net and take her into my arms to offer what comfort she would accept.
“You had a cook?” It seemed like a good place to attempt a question.
She nodded. “Yes, two, actually and several pages as well. Meals always took different amounts of time to consume, so something was invariably being prepared or served.”
“Your mealtimes varied in length?” We made it to the beach and began to sort the catch.
“Certainly. If we had guests, then the head cook – Giorges – he would prepare something so dazzlingly epicurean that it would take marks to consume.” Tyshanara chuckled. “Once, during a meal with some diplomats, I saw a page change the day candle twice for one meal.”
Holy Mother Nai’s thrice pierced nipples! Pages and cooks and diplomats? Her caste is so far above mine that I should not even be allowed to swim in the same waters! What a horrible fate to have been a war prize. “You had many servants?” My voice cracked only slightly.
The roll of Tyshanara’s bronze shoulders indicated an attitude of pure indifference. “Of course. In Solinori there are always those for whom the handful of coins gained by service is an honorable form of employment.”
“What about your slaves?”
Tyshanara frowned darkly. “The keeping of one’s fellows in bondage is beyond illegal in Solinori. It is anathema condemned by the gods. We hold no ties with caste and class. Honor is accrued by what one earns by skill and service.”
This concept, so strange and unreal wormed its way into my head and made my thoughts dance in a whirlwind of emotion. Tyshanara continued to sort fish while my jaw dropped and gaped openly. I struggled to find words, any coherent thought that would capture the sense of my feelings, but failed. In Kithranai, one was born to live the life one’s caste created. A Wilder dockworker and seaman stayed that way until the day they died. That was as the gods decreed.
Finally, out of the maelstrom of my thoughts came a single question. “If there are no slaves, and no caste in Solinori, who does all the work?”
Tyshanara’s laughter was musical and infectious. A grin tugged at the corners of my lips as she brushed her hands off.
“We all work – priest, servant or queen, each of us takes the job that we are most skilled at.”
“Who makes your laws? Surely you do not live without structure and guidance.”
“Of course not. Those whose wisdom leads them to law are elected to advise the monarch. The role of the ruler in Solinori is more diplomatic than political. It is why your people could not destroy us, even though they killed the monarchs.” Tyshanara’s face had grown dark, and her eyes filled with a pain that was knife-edged and raw. My heartbeat trebled at the depth of agony that was exhibited. A leap of intuition exploded in my mind. The monarchs were her parents! It had to be. Tyshanara had said that she was a princess, and a war prize, logically, that would make the rulers of Solinori her mother and her father.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, as moisture gathered in my own eyes. The thought of losing my own parents was beyond devastating.
The tears that had leaked from her eyes were brushed away quickly. “It is of no moment,” she said firmly, ending that line of conversation. By the tone of her voice alone, I knew that it was not “of no moment”. She was broken in places that even a soul healer would have trouble finding. Perhaps the silent gift of friendship had been as great as she had made it. To one so hurt, even my shy comfort was a balm for which long prayer was given. If my presence alone could lend her some peace, then glad was the offering.
As this had been the most conversation we had exchanged since her arrival, I asked another question to push aside the dark mood and continue our discussion.
“Without those of low caste, how do your nobles live? Surely they protest having to work to earn their way. Have they not risen up in protest? I have always been told that it is the will of the gods that some should be set higher than others.”
“Kacken crap! That’s nothing more than the imbecilic mouthing of a culture that is too weak to do its own work. Your beliefs are based on pabulum force fed to you by lazy Montains. Since they first crawled from the hills of Kithranai and built their cities, they have been overly convinced of their own near-divinity.” The strident tone of Tyshanara’s voice forced me to consider her words in a way that would be heresy in Kithranai. “Not one Wilder, Dyrf or Montain among you is better than the other. Your precious Lord Na Douf was a man whose honor rivaled that of the slime on a public jakes. You, with your work-calloused hands and sun-lined face hold more worth than that!” Tyshanara’s hands were on my shoulders, shaking me fiercely. “All are equal in Solinori, even the queen is no greater a being than the lowest ditch digger! We are only people. Some of us just happen to have titles in front of our names.”
Like the rising tide, shock and fear crashed over me. Tearing away from Tyshanara, I sprinted down the beach. Escape was all that was on my mind. Getting away from the crazy woman before Mother Nai struck her down for heresy spurred me to run like never before. I could almost feel the clouds gather above me, smell the char of lightening and hear the distant boom of thunder.
Delighted laughter chased me all the way to the cliffs. Collapsing in the sand, I stared at the rock where the Eloria had beached and prayed for the gods to forgive the woman’s heretical words. The crazy Solinori would be the savior and destroyer of my sanity.
Even as far away as I was, Tyshanara’s laughter rippled down the beach. The musical sound – so real and so alive – drowned out the far louder crash of the ocean. My heart began to slow and keep pace with the rhythm of the earth under my breast. I breathed in and tasted the sea wind. It was clean, and filled with the briny crust of salt that.
There was no lightening, no thunder and no clouds ready to deliver the justice of the gods, and Tyshanara continued to laugh.
Inside, a chuckled bubbled up and fought to free itself from my fear-choked throat. A tiny peep escaped. Then another, and another until I had to sit and hold my sides to contain the gales of laughter that threatened to overwhelm me.
In that moment, I had begun to grasp that the world was not as the Montains would have me see it. There was something more, something ineffably beyond the reach of my people, but for me, it waited to be captured and held like the gentlest furling.
I could almost hear it purr as it grew and flourished within me, spreading the idea throughout my being.
My laughter died away as my thoughts sprouted wings and flew, reaching toward the heavens. Looking down the beach where sand and water conjoined I saw how Kithran’s breath shaped and changed the land – both taking away and giving with each draw.
My vision blurred and became overlaid with an image of myself upon that beach being pounded and shaped in the same way. I was changing and reforming into something more than a child of Kithranai.
A wave nudged something cool and smooth against my foot. Still lost in thought, I unthinkingly scooped it up and pocketed it. To one honed by years of surviving off the land, the gathering of sling stones was almost automatic and a habit that not even an epiphany could break.
“Lyran?” The call seemed to come from another world. “I know that I said my people are skilled, Wilder, but my talents do not lie in the direction of the preparation and cooking of fish!”
Tyshanara’s voice was light and the sense of her words picked through the crazed whorl of emotion that eddied around me. I stood in time to greet her. She had run from our shelter to my position and her chest heaved as she panted and wheezed.
“Are we going to let those fish rot, or will you teach me how to make supper?” she finally said.
Even with the haze of revelation still fluttering about in my head, I could not meet her gaze. Shrugging, I muttered, “Sure, it’s not difficult. A child could be tasked with it and not fail.”
“Wilder, Lyran, please, if my words have offended you –“
My stomach twisted into thousands of tiny knots at the note of dejection in her voice, yet I still could not look at her. “No, my lady. Nothing you have said has dishonored me.”
“Then why, Wilder, will you not meet me as an equal?”
“Oh my lady...” The hysteria I had felt before now made itself plain in my voice. “I – it, my life –“ My gaze drifted of its own will to her face. Helpless, I was trapped by the sad expression that rested there. Fish-like, my mouth moved but no words emerged. Tyshanara’s talent for leaving me speechless had struck again.
“You do not like me, do you Lyran?” she said softly.
“No!” Then, horrified by the tears that wetted her eyes, I stumbled to speak clearly. “Yes. Oh, Kithran’s golden balls!” Pacing, my arms waving akimbo, my heart took control of my tongue and out came the words that had been forming for days. “You madden me Tyshanara, with your strange speeches and fantastic tales of equality. This place you describe is myth! You speak of dreams and chanter’s tales, not of reality!” In frustration, my hands rose and threaded through my hair, tugging fiercely. “Nai’s breath, you’ve only touched my life for less than thirty races of Solis’ chariot and in that time I’ve been upended as easily as a split tale swamps a ship!” Turning away from her, I felt a sob trickle up from my chest and then covered my face with my hands.
Gentle yet strong fingers covered mine and revealed my face.
“I am regretful, Lyran of the Kithranai. My life should not be your saddle. If new words could erase those already spoken, say them I would. Just, know this – I would have been pleased to greet Nori in the Halls of the Moon the night I killed Keffir Na Douf. However, it seems that great Solis wishes to hold me in her light a while longer. Death, it seems, is not my path.” She gripped my fingers tightly. “I would be your friend, Lyran Allar, for my heart tells me that within you lies the key to my fate. Please, allow me this honor. I beg, humbly and without deception, that you will accept my hand in friendship.”
The hammering of a heartbeat drowned out the sense of the world around me. Lost to the waking dream, I watched Tyshanara as she stepped beyond the unseen walls that surrounded a low-casted Wilder even in the heaviest crowds. With clear purpose, her hands slid up my arms to rest on my shoulders. In their wake, a current of chills ravaged my body.
Our eyes met and I shook while she was as still as a mountain. That gaze held and captivated me. Tyshanara’s eyes were the color of a forest stream in sunlight. Their shape was upswept and curved into a seemingly perpetual smile that evoked gentle mirth that even then made me want to grin and laugh.
I felt an answering smile form.
She blazed with happiness. Suddenly, my arms were full of softness as Tyshanara came into full contact with me.
“I –“ Nervous as a bird, I fought to speak.
“Shh.” A single finger stopped my words and then, soft, warm lips replaced the finger. The embrace was not meant to enflame, but rather to welcome and reassure.
It did not matter. In the moment her mouth caressed mine, I was lost. Forever after, the current of my life’s blood ran only for her.
She stepped back a pace, still smiling warmly.
I took a deep, shuddering breath.
Tyshanara shook her head. “No, you must use my name proudly, Lyran. Call me Anara, as all my friends do.”
“Anara,” I said, rolling the word around in my mouth and getting used to its taste. It was sweet, and felt truer than the longer appellation that had been my bane for our short acquaintance. “I would –“ My voice cracked, causing me to wince. Heat rushed to my face and I smiled sheepishly. “Your friendship would be very welcome, Anara.”
Oh gods above and below, if she smiled like that all the time, I’d marry a kacken and call myself lucky. She is so beautiful.
She clasped my arm in the most ancient gesture of friendship. “I am glad. We must push aside this talk of differences now. We must not allow the dark history of our empires to destroy any chance for a lighter future.”
The future ... Sudden visions opened in my mind. A landscape filled by the vista of life spread before me; sunsets and sunrises where I, and my Anara were curved into each other in an embrace closer than a hair’s breadth. Our bed was a beach while the ocean blanketed our supine forms, wrapping our lives together. Overcome and filled with elation, I could do nothing but nod my acceptance. Was this love? Had my heart been entrapped by this foreign woman? Or was I so hungered for company that cavorting with a misshapen gnarler would be preferable to one more conversation with the local kackens?
Pale eyes held mine in a gaze that was as open as the endless sea.
Time, it seemed, would be the key to discovering this answer.
Days passed in a fluid of moments wherein everything was so ordinary it was not worth remarking. Marked by the rays of Solis’ passing, my skin returned to its previous hue and the tone of Anara’s browned flesh began to rival the color of good earth.
An observer perched comfortably in one of the many trees that line our beach, would perhaps have found it strange to note that our days were not filled with the bright chatter of friendly words. Our tongues shaped only what was necessary to speak. Yet within me, there was no void that ached for the lack of conversation and by her silence, I believed that Tyshanara felt the same. Somehow, in the stillness, we had created a friendship.
Futility was the fuel of creativity. The Eloria mocked me for weeks before I gave up and began to repair its hull. My father’s skills as a shipwright are not mine to command, but my hands know the shape of hammer stroke and tar brush. The ship would be sound. Whether we would be able to escape the grasp of the reefs was a decision left to the gods.
For three long weeks I worked on the Eloria. The first task undertaken was the removal of all items that had been destroyed or damaged during Anara’s vengeance. These were burned or buried as necessary. Then the entire ship was scrubbed stem to stern until the reek of death was nothing but a terrible memory.
This work I undertook alone, for Anara could not bear to touch the fruits of her anger. Instead, she spent the time alone, in deep contemplation and prayer. When the last of the cleansing was done, she appeared by my side and worked with me to gather the supplies that would be needed to repair the Eloria’s hull. A new peace had settled over the Solinori woman and she was able to enter the lavish chamber that had once belonged to her enslaver. By the skill of her hands alone, she gave to it a shadow of its former glory.
With Anara’s help, the ship was patched and tarred until it was seaworthy. As a test, I took the yacht out and fished the deep water. It had been weeks since a good squall washed the islands and sent fish streaming into our lagoon. We were hungry. Our stores had grown quite thin and were in dire need of replenishing.
Tyshanara had proven herself to be a deft hand with a needle and thread, a skill which had been put to good use. Some of the clothes aboard the Eloria had been fitted and sized to my frame, and to wear them was a pleasure akin to the touch of a lover upon my skin.
In the evenings, my habit was to wander the isle, seeking that which would make our lives more pleasant. Shells, rocks, and useful flotsam have all made their way back to our shelter with me. Once, I discovered a small stand of berry bushes on the other side of the island. It took me several candlemarks to weave a basket large enough to carry the sweet fruit home.
Once there, Anara pursed her lips in an expression of displeasure that could have melted stone. The hut was spotless, our hammocks were strung for the night’s rest and dinner – roasted kacken – sat upon the table. It struck me then that it had been my turn to do the domestic chores.
”I’m sorry.” It was the only thing to say, but she didn’t seem to accept the words. “I brought berries.” A part of me prayed that the statement didn’t sound as foolish to her as it did to me.
“I see that.”
We did not eat the berries that night, though Tyshanara’s gaze fell upon the poorly constructed basket many times during the evening.
Two days later, while finishing the work on a rope swing, Anara gave me a haversack.
“Here,” she said, eyes sparkling with mischief, “I don’t want to be stuck doing your work again.” The words lacked any real sting – there was too much laughter buried in her voice. I knew that she had forgiven me.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that my Anara’s skills with a needle were greater than Kassimul the Taylor’s, and he was a worthy hired by only the most noble of Montains. The haversack, beautifully constructed of durable sailcloth, leather and wool, was lined with an amazing assortment of pockets. It was nearly waterproof and resisted damage easily. An ingenious construction of straps and belts kept it bound tightly to my side, allowing me perfect freedom of movement.
The interior pockets were most suited for the keeping of such things as sling stones or protecting small shells from the crushing blows of larger objects. It became the place where I stored all my precious things, including the strange stone found the day Tyshanara kissed me.
The grace of her touch had not fallen upon my body since that day and the stone was my tenuous link to a memory that grew suspect under the glare of Solis’ chariot. Did I only imagine her kiss? The odd rock, a silt gray stone shot through with veins of gold and a speck of green, was solid confirmation that the day had passed and that the memories were real. Of all the gifts Kithran sent my way, the warm images associated with the pebble had banished the worst of my homesickness.
Home was a thought that had drifted away. Fragments of memory were harbored deep within my mind – father’s voice, mother’s hands, the smell of Market Street in the morning – these recollections were close to my heart, but held no luster and no draw to seek them again. Rootless I was, without the desire to return to a land where my friendship with Tyshanara would be labeled heresy.
There was a fetid odor clinging to every vision tied to home. The sting of a Montain’s whip, the pain of voices filled with hurtful words, and the casual acceptance of my people for their lot in life were things I never wished to experience again.
Four years had passed since my flesh had been scored by whip marks and my ribs had ached from unearned kicks. The freedom was almost intoxicating.
My haversack was a steady weight against my side as I boarded the Eloria. Behind me, Tyshanara followed, carrying our lunch. She would hear nothing of remaining behind for the ship’s maiden voyage.
I can still remember her face and the tone of her voice when she made her choice clear.
”If it is my power you request to launch her, then it will be my body that stands aboard the ship, and not upon the sand. I will not be left behind like some worthless noblewoman whose only duties are to stand as artistic testament to her lord’s bedroom prowess!”
Nothing was denied to my lady, especially not when she went beyond her pale to request something of me.
“As you will, Anara,” I said, fixing a smile to my lips. “Bring a blanket, for it will be cool tonight.” Her answering smile made my heart tremble.
Standing aboard ship, hands on the tiller, I watched as Tyshanara demonstrated the strength of her gift. No jealousy filled me as the stirrings of her power caused my own weak spark to flutter briefly.
I had never asked how Tyshanara had survived the reefs, but she had once offered a brief explanation.
“I carried Eloria through on the strength of my magick alone, Lyran. I thought I was going to die and it seemed like a good way to go to Nori’s halls.”
Why she had not used her power to free herself from Na Douf, I will never know. It was enough to know that she felt confident enough of her skills to help launch the ship.
Where I had undergone a complete transformation, Anara had only to raise her arms and the Eloria slid off of the beach. Her control over Mother Nai’s gift was that fine.
The keel dropped into the water and raised a considerable splash. Anara lowered her arms, stiffly walked to the mast and unfurled the sail. Wind caught and held, and soon, we were on our way.
It was late. The sky was spattered in an ocean of twinkling stars while beneath us Kithran’s abode gently rocked the tiny coastal ship upon its roof. The tiller was hard under my arm. Anara kept close to the sails, and made small adjustments to the sheets so that every gust of wind was caught and held. Her touch was deft and the breath of Mother Nai sat easily in the Solinori’s hands. Within the Eloria’s hold, a generous catch sat waiting to be taken to land, yet we remained upon the sea while Tyshanara recovered from her exertions. Her command of Mother Nai’s gifts was stronger than mine, but I could see that she was exhausted. Shifting the wind had taken much from her. After demonstrating her magickal skill, my Anara slept for nearly three candlemarks.
The decadent construction of the ship allowed me to place the sleeping Solinori into a room below decks. Opulence was a word invented to describe this cabin. Gilt carvings stood out in golden relief on the walls while on the floor lay a rug thick enough to devour small animals.
The centerpiece of the room was the bed that cradled Tyshanara. Large enough to sleep six, and covered with bedding made of the finest silk, it made for a perfect resting place. It crossed my mind to wonder whether I would ever lay my skin against its softness.
Mother Nai had blessed us with a beautiful day. I could easily see the jagged tips of the Kith as they broke the surface of the waters that encircled my isles.
Far away from shore, the fish were plentiful. I dropped anchor and settled myself against the mast to nap the afternoon away.
We both woke around suppertime and shared a meal of cold kacken and fruit. Tea steeped in the warmth of Solis’ chariot rounded out the night and allowed us to take our places aboard the ship.
Tyshanara sang softly while she worked. Her song made the marks pass freely and filled the night with a kind of tranquility that I had never before experienced. Aboard a merchant ship, sailor’s songs tended to be rough and filled with references to baser delights. Anara’s song was a wordless tune that wrapped about my heart and brought to mind the feel of the sun baking one’s skin brown while a cool wind kept the body from sensing the char of the heat. It was a balm that soothed and smoothed the roughened edges of my soul.
She braided rope while she sang. The seemingly usual chore became extraordinary, accompanied as it was by her voice. I found myself staring, drinking in the sight of Anara’s slender, skillful hands as they twisted and pulled on the heavy cording. It was too easy to imagine those fingers stroking my skin, instead of the green length of rope.
“Lyr-“ The word trickled in my direction, seeming almost to be a part of the song. The sound of my name on her tongue was a caress.
“Share a thought with me – something you would never speak of with one of Kithranai.”
The request both frightened and intrigued me. What could I possibly say that would elicit one of her wonderful smiles?
“I-I’m not sure what to
say. My tongue is more used to being curbed, then given
wings.” Turning away, I stared out at the moonlit
water. Shipfins followed the Eloria’s
wake. It was a good omen, if one accounted such things their
For a time, I watched them swim and play, silently delighting in their sheer freedom. Their silvery-gray bodies were built for the water and their shrill, high pitched chattering brought a contented smile to my face.
Tyshanara was silent. I dared not seek her face for surely she would be disappointed in me.
My mind tumbled as it sought something, anything to give to voice that would quell her sudden curiosity.
“I like to fish.”
Anara’s inane comment forced a soft laugh from me. In our first days together, the Solinori woman could barely hurl the net without tangling her feet. It had taken many weeks for her to be able to troll the waves like one beach born.
Her honesty forced my tongue to unlock.
“I like being free.” It was a whisper that cut through the soft whooshing of the ocean.
A breeze chilled my skin.
“Never did I imagine that my life could grow to something beyond that of a seaman. Now, the thought of returning to that life fills me with dread. If my fate is to be nothing more than that which is shaped by the Montains of Kithranai, then I do not wish to leave these islands.”
Suddenly, Tyshanara was beside me. Her gaze, silver in the moonlight, bored into mine with such intensity that I staggered back against the rail, stumbling slightly. Anara caught me, her hands feeling like hot irons against my cold arms.
“No! Do not say that, Lyran. We will leave this place! We will go home. Whether it is to Kithranai, or to Solinori – the land matters not – just do not allow yourself to give up and condemn us to these wretched islands!” The grip was very painful; crushing skin against bone with such force that bruises would rise by morning. Yet there was no part of me that wished to be released. It was as if the touch that so burned my skin fed fire into my soul, and filled me with such a passion for Tyshanara that sweat beaded up and dripped down my back.
“You wish to leave the islands?” I whispered hoarsely. “With me?” Never will I know why those words tumbled off my tongue, but forever will I be grateful to the capricious spirit that caused it to happen.
Her eyes fluttered closed and she stepped so close to me that we shared breath. “Yes.” Then she kissed me. Her embrace was hard, pressing and pulling simultaneously, as if she desired to blend our two bodies into one. Just as my entire being was engulfed in a balefire of passion, she pulled away, extinguishing the flames.
She drifted back a half step, a full step and I nearly let her go. Her hands slid down my arms until our fingertips barely touched and then I lunged, catching her and drawing her back to me.
“Anara, please – wait.”
Moonlight limned her beautiful face and in that light, I saw how nervous she was. That odd look was back – the one that mimicked desire, but that my head swore could not be a feeling directed at me. My heart overruled my head, and allowed me to act on the emotions that were thickening on my tongue.
I lifted my hand and cupped it against her cheek, brushing my thumb over her lips. “Twice, you have opened my soul to your fire. It has burned so hotly within me that I fear my heart will melt before I can share it with you.” Letting her go was the hardest thing I have ever done.
She bit her lip and smiled fearfully.
“Let me share that fire, Tyshanara. I want to burn with you.” Fear rippled through me. Would she run? My feet had a mind of their own and they carried me toward her. Anara met me half way, fiercely throwing herself into my arms.
We kissed again. Heat rose and banished any sense of cold that had bothered to chill our skin.
“I burn,” she whispered.
“I burn,” I replied, cupping her face with my hands. We shared a gentle kiss and rested our foreheads against each other. Her hands gripped my shoulders and our bodies fought to entwine.
“I will take you home, my Anara.” It was an insane promise, but how could I not make it? Within my arms was a woman whose heart struck the same drum as mine.. It was a perfect rhythm.
She trembled and then took in a long, shuddering breath.
“You will take me home, my Lyran, but not tonight.” She captured my lips in a provocatively tender kiss. The embrace left me breathless and shaking.
Our heartbeat sped up, echoing loudly in the night stillness. “No, not tonight.”
She led me from the tiller to the deck hatch. We paused and pitched the anchor overboard, furled the sails and then made our way into the overly decadent bedroom.
At the bed’s edge, Anara turned shy.
She looked into my eyes and licked her lips. “Will you hold me?”
I was blessed by another kiss when she pulled me down beside her. Our arms and legs twined into a puzzle of limbs that came so naturally, it was as if the gods had shaped our bodies for each other.
“There are no words to speak the flame that fills me, Anara. I only wish to love you until the gods call us to their heavenly halls.”
“Lyran, you are the balm that mended this broken soul. Your tolerant silence allowed me to find way back from the abyss that turned me into a killer. Your innocent nature showed me that not everything I had experienced was evil and your gentle friendship gave me wings. Willingly do I fly to your fire. We will love tonight and every night until the gods call us to their heavenly halls.”
Our lips blended easily. The kisses became hard and then soft, and then hard again as our clothes fell away under knowing, deft fingers. Her touch stoked the fire that that had burned since she had first kissed me. I was ice and she melted me. She was hot and my lips cooled her. We mixed and melded until she stopped and I began.
Loving Anara was like swimming in Kithran’s waters. On the surface, she was calm, soft and cool to the touch. Beneath the waves lurked a rising swell that captured and overwhelmed me. Willingly, I drowned in her touch, her kiss and her love.
To her I gave my love, passion and desire wrapped in a touch that bespoke of how deeply she was treasured.
Afterward, she wept as I held her.
“What troubles you, my Anara?”
In my arms, she shifted to look at me. “I am happy. You are so gentle, Lyran. No other has made me feel as you do. You have cherished me with your touch and now I am a broken dream made whole.” I brushed away her tears and she nuzzled my palm. “If love is a wish, then I pray that my heart grows strong enough to bear all my hopes for tomorrow’s tomorrow.”
I kissed her then. My throat was thick with feeling over the power of her words. Our speech, always so rare, gave everything we said an intensity that was unmatched by even the most eloquent of speakers. In the silence, our emotions soared and were clearly shared.
We had no need to speak. Everything I would say was already shining at me from the indigo brilliance of her eyes, the tender smile upon her face and the warmth of her hand entwined in mine. I felt certain that she would see her feelings mirrored in my own eyes and actions.
There were words that shaped what was in our hearts. Why we did not speak them I could not say. Perhaps it was a lingering fear of the past. Neither of us came from a place that left us entirely free to feel. Maybe it was a growing fear of the future. The unknown tomorrow that would guide us to life or death was enough of a fear to leave anyone without speech. I did not know.
At that moment, I only understood that my heart was filled with love for the woman fate had delivered to my beach. Peacefully sleeping in my arms, her breath mingling with mine, Tyshanara was the woman I would give every last drop of my strength to spend forever with, and it could never be enough time.
Outside, the call of morning birds told me that Solis’ rays had begun to caress the waters of our bay. Sleep crept over me and like the thief that it is, stole away my consciousness.
A week drifted by without notice. We lived in a dream where the flow of time held little meaning. We fished; I hunted; she sewed. A storm of terrible ferocity blew over the islands and gave us cause to fear for Eloria’s safety. To keep her from journeying to Kithran’s halls, we headed for shore.
My father has often spoken of the fortune that follows the heels of bad weather and he was once again proven correct.
The morning after the rains, a single seaman’s trunk washed ashore. Locked within we discovered a map. Preserved from the ravages of the ocean by layers of oiled cloth, this map was like no other that I had seen before, but Anara recognized it immediately for it was of Solinori. Drawn upon the thick parchment were both our lands, including the jagged teeth of the reefs that had become our prison.
Though I could not read the language of Tyshanara’s home, the map still gave up its secrets to my experienced eye. With my love’s help, it was easily to discover a route that even Eloria could sail. The journey from Ran’s Tears to Solinori no longer seemed a pipe dream, but rather a challenge to be met by courageous sailors.
Our loving grew fierce as we dove into the idea of leaving the isles. Of one mind, we worked day and night to provision ourselves for the voyage. Anara made garb that would shield us from the chill of night while I cured pounds of meat and dried barrels of seaweed and island fruit.
Fear drove me incessantly. Death held no worry for me. Rather, it was in the depth of night when my most secret fears came to the fore. Success loomed on the horizon. I knew this with a certainty. We would sail from Ran’s Tears and we would breech the Reef’s of Kith and make it to the open ocean.
Humility had always been second nature to me, but even with that, I knew that we would make to Kvisk, the port town we had chosen as our destination. It was this very goal that affrighted me so, for once she trod upon the lands of her home, would my Anara still love me? Would she wish to keep me, her foreign, Wilder lover? Or would I be pushed aside and left to defend myself against an entire land of angry Solinori nobles?
The only answer I could find in the deepest darkness of my heart was one. We must go to Solinori, for nothing else would satisfy the fire that consumed my soul. Anara would see her home, and whatever consequences befell me would be worth the journey.
At the end of a month, with nary a clucking kacken, stand of berries, or ripe ollanut left upon our island, we were ready to depart. Aboard the Eloria, five noisy kackens waited to join us on our journey. Their eggs would give us a welcome relief from the monotony of dried meat, seaweed and fish.
My home, the shelter I built with my hands, was no more. Nearly all of it had gone to prepare for the journey. All that was left was a barren place at the edge of the shore. Here and there, bits and pieces lined the beach, tossed about like so much flotsam.
In my hand, I held the coiled rope that had once been my ladder. Beside me, Tyshanara stood with one arm wrapped about my waist. She gave the scene of destruction a curious glance and then looked up at me.
“You aren’t coming back.” The words tumbled around in my head, but I could not puzzle out the meaning of her tone.
I shrugged while absently stowing the rope in my haversack and then gave what reply seemed appropriate. “No. Whatever happens, our path will only go forward. The time for this home has passed. There is no return.”
“Then let us take our first step toward our new home, my love.”
My heart was filled with song as we turned away from the idyll I had lived for nigh on five years. At that moment, the fears that had so dominated my nights seemed very far away. Together, we boarded the ship.
Anara was an apt pupil in the ways of the sailor. Before she came into my life, her skills aboard ship were minimal, but with little instruction she had easily learned the tricks of sail and tiller as well as the knack of catching the wind.
Perhaps we were not the best sailors ever shaped by Mother Nai, but with the blessing of Uncle Thed, we would make it.
The first day went swiftly. Fair weather heralded our voyage all the way to the edge of the reefs. An ancient god must have decided to curse any Wilder foolish enough to believe that their future is perfect. The moment the prow of the Eloria touched the water surrounding the first of the rocky, coral-encrusted hazards, a squall hit.
Navigating my way through the Teeth while fighting the wind of a ferocious gale was not the way I would have chosen to exit the Tears. My determination to succeed was far stronger than the power of ancient gods. Assault us they did, but we stood full face to their fury and held fast.
There is no doubt that our victory stemmed directly from the woman at my side. Bards will sing of Tyshanara’s magicks forever, and that day was no small example of her strength. With her hands locked over mine, her voice lifted in a song of ancient words of power, Eloria skimmed the waters of the Corryn. Through tide and current we sailed until the small ship broached the reefs and entered open sea.
As my lady rested her weary body, I set course for Kvisk. Alone, with my back to Kithranai, a new fear rose and held my heart in cruel thrall. Now that we had escaped the protective prison of the Kith, would the seers of Kithranai entertain visions of our freedom? Would Emperor Tlalas order fast ships led by powerful Montain mages to hunt us down?
Throughout that long, lonely night, the bitter taste of bile sat heavily upon my tongue.
Month upon month passed as we sailed west. A journey that should have only consumed three of those months had instead sent our tiny ship reeling about the Corryn like a child’s toy boat in a swimmer-filled pond. Storms were our greatest foe, but also prowling the dark waters were ships filled with men and women from my former homeland.
The Corryn was a harsh mistress. Three times were our lives placed in jeopardy. Once, when we escaped the Reefs of Kith, twice when a sudden squall ripped our mainsail nearly in half and finally a third happenstance that was the most dangerous of all.
We were spotted by a Kithranai warship. I will never forget the sense of dread that choked me when Tyshanara caught sight of the massive ship that loomed on the horizon. There was no doubt that they had seen us for their sails were up and turned to carve the winds in our direction. My imagination provided the sound of whips cracking and coarse voices commanding, “Lay on and take ‘em quick, lads!”
Tears gathered and spilled hotly down my cheeks. Fate was playing a terribly cruel joke on us, for we had just repaired the storm-torn sail. Tyshanara was still in the rigging, lashing the heavy canvas in place. There was nothing I could do until my beloved reached the deck.
Holding hard to the tiller, I drove my thoughts inward, seeking the spark of power that was Mother Nai’s gift. Another mage might sense my muddling with the power, but it would not matter if we could escape their grasp.
The tiny, glimmering fragment that answered my call however was not even a distant cousin to the power I had channeled just months before. The strength of the leviathan would not be mine to command again. There was not enough energy left to do more than shape my feet into a rudimentary set of flippers.
Cursing roundly, I opened my eyes to see that the warship was now close enough for me to make out the captain’s pennant. House Na Douf helmed the frigate. A sob was torn from my throat. There was a sound behind me and I spun to see my Anara deftly land on the deck. Her eyes met mine. When she saw my distress, she ran to my side and captured my face in her hands.
“Despair not!” she commanded fiercely, kissing me with such tender gentleness that I let go of the tiller to cradle her against me. “We will prevail, my love. Trust in me.” Anara sounded so self-assured that I believed her.
“As you will, my heart. Tell me what it is that you would have me do.”
“Take the tiller and keep us headed for Kvisk.”
I did as she directed and hauled the wooden lever against my body, and then locked it in place.
“Now, hold me.” She turned to face the other ship, placing her body in the circle of my free arm. Briefly, she looked up at me. “Don’t let me fall, beloved. I don’t fancy a bath today.”
Brushing my lips over hers, I said, “You will always find safety within my arms, my love.”
She smiled and returned her gaze to the ship that was dogging our wake. Anara grabbed the aft rail with both hands. I felt her body tense. A heartbeat, then two, then a dozen passed. Fear crept up my body, sending icicles of doubt to shred my every last nerve.
Anara began to faintly glow. A thin halo of bright green energy swirled about her body as she engaged Mother Nai’s gift.
The warship was so close that I could read the frigate’s name. The Farslayer loomed ever nearer. They must have had orders to take us alive, for they just kept moving closer without firing even a single ballista shot across our bow.
My beloved’s knuckles whitened as her grip tightened. “Just... a little... more!” Her voice was harsh and strained. The rail began to splinter.
Without thinking, I closed my eyes and again reached for that spark of power deep within my soul. Never before had my magick been mixed with another’s, but my fear of capture was so great, that anything was worth attempting, even something as dangerous as the sharing of Gifts.
“Beloved,” I whispered from behind gritted teeth. “Take this, and ram it down their throats!”
Power unleashed ripped through me. More magick than I expected was there for my love’s taking. The cool, deft touch of her hand in my soul soothed the raw, ragged edges that the force had torn and left me panting and gasping for breath.
I opened my eyes just in time to see my Anara’s hands come off the rail and lift skyward.
“Hold fast the tiller!” she screamed, and then the world shattered.
Rain, torrential and dagger-like, spewed from the heavens. Dark, ominous clouds loomed overhead; thunder roared and boomed all around us while giant waves tore up the Corryn like a twister eats the plains. Our sail was belled by a fierce wind that pushed us further and further away from the Farslayer. The Kithranai ship was caught in a hellish maelstrom of wind, water, and hail. In the middle of the chaos, a jagged bolt of lightning suddenly arced down and crashed into the ship’s central mast, and set it ablaze.
All pursuit of us was abandoned as the sailors aboard the frigate struggled to save their own lives. I know not what became of the vessel, but we were saved.
Neither Anara nor I had any strength left to command the Eloria so we trusted to the winds for the few hours it would take to get some rest. It seemed logical that any direction away from Kithranai was the safest to travel, and since the winds were pushing us that way, it was worth the risk to leave the tiller locked and the sail set.
Four candlemarks later, I stumbled to the deck, barely awake, but cognizant enough of my surroundings to recognize that we were on the open sea. Not a bird, cloud, or ship loomed on the horizon. That was all the luck I wished to burn.
Releasing the tiller and furling the sail, I staggered below decks once more.
A fourth time did fate contrive to put our lives in mortal jeopardy. After facing down the Kithranai frigate, I thought nothing could terrify me more. Mother Nai took that opportunity to prove that she is the Queen of the Gods by more rights than birth.
A week had passed since winning free of the Kithranai warship. The weather was as still as the stones of the Taddythm Hills and our tempers were as sharp as the picks the Dyrfs used to mine their precious stones.
“This day is ill, Anara. I do not like the looks of the sky.”
She looked up and saw only a stretch of blue that expanded as far as her eyes could see. Shrugging, she said, “It likes me just fine, my love. Clear days are precious at sea. Let us take joy in its sight.”
My love was not born to the whims of the Corryn as I was.
“Nay, my heart. Batten down, for ere long I fear worse than your gift-called storm will cross our path.”
I still thank Mother Nai every night for the faith that my Anara held in me. She did not question my order. Quickly, we furled the sails and raised the tiller. Then, we made haste to close every hatch and shutter the portholes. After that, we moved every unbolted item from the upper deck to the cargo hold and lashed them down tightly.
As we worked, my sense of imminent danger only increased. Everything I did was overshadowed by a sense of such flagrant urgency that my voice was hoarse from nearly shouting my orders.
It was almost a relief when the first winds gently caressed our faces. In that moment, Tyshanara’s gaze caught mine and she frowned.
“Your caution was excessive, my love,” she said sharply. Exhaustion made her muscles twitch as she stood next to me, watching the sky.
“Nay, love. Wait, and listen to the wind; hear what Mother Nai is saying.”
Cocking her head aslant, Anara smirked and said, “All right, my heart, I shall endeavor to hear your goddess speak.”
She closed her eyes.
Stepping behind her, I laid my hands on her shoulders and said, “Can you not hear the scream behind the wind? Do you not feel the fury of Mother Nai as she waits to unleash her ire upon her faithless mate, Lord Kithran? He has gazed overlong on the glory of Solis and her mate, Nori and now he must face the rage of Nai’s passion.”
Her hands slipped up to cover mine and she nodded in time to my voice. Her fingers spasmed jerkily. “I hear, beloved – I hear her crying out for her love. It is terrible.” Anara’s hands fell away from mine as she turned to look at me. “It is awesome.”
Our gazes met. Her eyes were as colorless as the sky. My heart began to bellow as my head told me to run to safety for the storm was upon us! Yet I stood fused to the deck, lost in the haze of Anara’s eyes.
Suddenly, she smiled.
My face echoed her grin.
As the first rain fell, we kissed. The embrace was filled with a gentle passion that ran counter to the fury of the squall, as if by our loving, we could soothe Mother Nai’s anger. Laughing, we parted and took our places at tiller and sail.
It was a long, terrifying wait. Thunder rumbled overhead and lightning danced about Eloria as we fought to keep her afloat.
Candlemarks passed as we worked, determined to outlast the tempest or die together. Toward dawn, it seemed as though Nai’s fury would abate, but her lord Kithran had an answering roar.
Tyshanara and I were resting after the last of the storm had passed when the surface of the Corryn was broken by a pod of giant split tails. The behemoths were so tightly packed together that three of them rose right under the Eloria’s hull! We rocked hard to port, tipping nearly perpendicular to the water. Both of us lost our footing and fell to the deck, rolling headlong for the rail. Death grinned wickedly as the black ocean waited to swallow us whole.
I would not go quietly. Always at my side, the haversack crafted by my love’s hands would provide our rescue.
“Anara!” My voice was a guide for my beloved. She looked to me and flung out her hands toward my outstretched arm. I caught her and now we tumbled together. My other hand was already in the haversack, searching for the coil of vine rope that had been in there since our last day on the island.
It was there! Flicking it out and over the rail, I prayed that the weight on the end – a bit of heavy stone – would be enough. It flew and wrapped about the rail once, twice, three times as we sailed over the edge and toward the yawning chasm of the Corryn.
Anara clung to me as we fell. I held both to her and the vine and prayed. The rope uncoiled its full length and we came to a sudden, wrenching stop just feet away from the surface of the ocean.
I realized that pain was in my immediate future as soon as the Eloria started to heave upright. The split tails were moving again.
“Hold fast, beloved!” I had time to shout as we swung headlong toward hell. In the halls of my memory nothing has echoed louder than the crunch of bone, flesh and wood meeting. Pain blossomed all along my right side and I had to fight to maintain my grip on both the rope and my beloved. Anara was saved much of the impact, though my own body paid for her escape in the coin of agony. My breath came in ragged gasps as we skimmed along the side of the ship.
Eloria bobbled again as the split tails moved off and my grip on the rope slipped. Anara shrieked and reached up to grab hold of the vine with one of her hands.
“Hang on, Lyr. I’m going to climb up and then I’ll pull you up after me.”
Nausea tumbled my stomach as another wave of pain washed down my side. Broken or bruised ribs quite likely caused the agony, but that was immaterial to the moment. Nodding, I used what strength was left in my right arm to give Anara a boost. Consciousness dimmed and sputtered within me as I watched my love climb to safety.
Now that the ocean was calm, it was easy for her to make it to the deck, but my grip was slipping further and further down the rope, even with my right hand to aid the battered left.
For the briefest of moments, I considered letting go. Release the rope, Lyran. Let it go and accept your fate. Tyshanara will go on – she’ll make it home and be all the happier for not having to explain the presence of a crazed Wilder who thought she was in love with her. The voice was hard to ignore. I slipped another foot.
“Lyran! I’m on the deck! I’m going to pull you up now, just hold on! Don’t let go, do you hear me! Don’t you give up!”
Her voice came from very far away. I was losing grip and slipping fast down the slick rope. Holding on was taking every ounce of strength in my body. It would be so much easier to give up... hands covered mine and heaved me aboard the ship.
“Lyran! Nori’s grace, beloved, look at me!” Anara held my face clasped within her hands.
I opened my eyes and gazed up at Tyshanara. Concern was etched deeply upon her treasured features.
“I love you, you gods be damned heroic Wilder!” Fear driven passion blended our lips in a kiss that left both of us gasping.
“I almost let go,” I whispered. Hot tears fell at the admission.
Anara pulled me into her arms and cradled me against her chest. “I know, my love. But you didn’t – you didn’t and that’s all that matters. Come, we must get you below. I’ll not lay odds against you having a broken rib or two.”
Hearing how my breath rattled in my chest, and feeling the pain that sparked down my side each time she exhaled, I could only agree. “If not broken, certainly bruised,” I said as we stood together.
“Which ever, you need rest.”
The strength of our bodies had allowed us to survive another day. My ribs were not broken, only sorely bruised, as we discovered once in our room. I took my rest and in the morning, we set to putting the ship to rights. Several barrels of our water were broken and it took many candlemarks to clean up the mess in the cargo bay.
During this time, I learned the shapes of my Anara’s smiles held more variation and depth than the lines incised on the palms of my hands. Even at the darkest moment when we realized how short our supply of water had been cut, her gentle grin brought Solis’ light into my life.
We could only pray that Kvisk was close, for without water, we would perish. Praying for rain, we set our sails to catch the wind and chased Solis’ chariot home.
As the days passed without rain or sight of land, I grew anxious. My face was lined with worry. Food we had aplenty, if unvaried in its plentitude. Fish, dried kacken, and more fish was our diet at that point. The live kackens had died after only a month at sea. The birds had proved unable to withstand the rigors of ocean travel. My hands gripped the tiller tightly while my eyes scanned the horizon for a cloud, a jut of land, or even a bird to indicate the nearness of shore.
“Relax,” Anara said softly as I stared up at the heavens for the hundredth time in as many heartbeats. “Nori will provide.” Her hands were gentle as they rubbed small circles over my back and shoulders. The touch made me crave for sunset when we would seek our bed.
“I want to believe in your gods, my ladyheart. We will need the blessing of all the gods if we are to have water in the next few days.”
She sighed softly. “I could use magick-“
“No!” I choked. It was still too soon, too close to the last sighting of the Farslayer and its crew. I would not see my love in chains.
“Lyr? What is it?” Anara’s hands ceased their petting as she moved to stand in front of me. “What troubles you?”
“They’ll know and they’ll come and they’ll take you away from me.” The words were wrung from me by the worried expression on her face. I could keep nothing from my Anara when she looked at me that way.
“No, my heart, they will not,” she said simply.
“They will. They will know we have escaped them and that we commit heresy and they will strike us down with the power of Mother Nai...” I was babbling. All the fear that had dogged me since leaving our islands came out in that simple, scattered speech.
Tyshanara caught my hand in hers and twined our fingers together, kissing my knuckles softly.
“No, Lyran, they will not. The Kithranai do not waste their resources so needlessly. What are we, a Solinori war slave and a Wilder seaman, worth to the Montains of Auk?”
A murderer and a rebel, I thought, giving myself the appellation that would see me hung in Kithranai. A warm tingle settled over me as my mind finally made peace with my heart’s newfound love of freedom. No longer would imaginary whip blows make me cringe for they would never again cut stripes into my flesh.
I looked into my beloved’s eyes and saw not contempt, nor pity, only the gaze of the woman who loved me with the same depth that I loved her. If my father knew of my thoughts, he would strip my shoulders bloody! Nor would Tyshanara escape the wrath of my people either, for the punishment for murder in Kithranai was death – immediate, painful and public.
Our gazes remained locked as I spoke. “It would break my soul to see you hanged, my lady.”
“It will never happen, Lyran. Trust to Solis and Nori to see us home to where we will be free. Now,” she brushed kisses over my face, “still your nightmare thoughts, love. There will be water and we will make it home whole. Failure will not darken our waters.”
I needed to believe in her. Tipping my head to taste deeply of her lips allowed me the time to push away my fears once again. Kissing Anara was like drinking a fine wine, an activity which must be savored for as long as possible and repeated often.
The heat of our passion rose and regretfully, I pulled away. She followed, covering me with so many kisses that my hands left the tiller and we stumbled into the mast.
“I,” I stammered between her wild embraces, “believe you, beloved. Please, we need to stop, or the ship will run off course!”
“Let it, my Lyran. Let the gods helm Eloria for I wish to have my way with you.”
I caught her against me and blended our bodies in a clasp that was at once so familiar and always so startling to me. “Ah beloved, I long for your touch, but we must press on toward home.”
She pouted a little, but stepped away. “As you will, my love.” With one last blown kiss, she leaped into the rigging and scaled the ropes like a silk spinning crawlie.
I took my former position at the tiller and kept course for Kvisk. One benefit came from the last storm we experienced. Now, whenever the weather changed, my ribs would ache.
“Drop the halyards, love, my ribs ache like the demons!”
Tyshanara worked feverishly to loosen the sail while I locked the tiller in place and ran for our harnesses. A lesson learned was one never forgotten. During storms, we wore harnesses lashed to the main mast. Being washed overboard had not been a joyful experience and we had no wish to repeat it.
“As I said,” Anara said as she fastened the final rope of her harness, “we will have our water.”
“Aye, that we will,” I said, and smiled as she dropped to the deck.
Giant drops of ran began to fall. Barrels lashed to the rails around the deck waited with open maws, ready to greedily drink all that Mother Nai cared to give.
The storm must have come from Tyshanara’s gods for it did not have the fury of one of Nai’s tempests. However the rain did come down quite thickly. Within a short span of time, I was soaked to the skin.
Anara started to walk from her post by the mast to join me at the tiller. The deck, freshly wet, was as slick as ice and she lost her footing. At the same moment, a wave crested and tipped the Eloria sideways, sending my beloved hurtling toward the rail.
Even though she was wearing her harness, I still leaped away from the tiller and caught her in my arms.
“Thank you,” she whispered, clinging to me and trembling slightly.
“No baths today,” I whispered, taking hold of the tiller and keeping Anara tucked against my body. Together, we waited out the squall. When it had passed, leaving us both soaked, we ran below decks and loved until dawn broke the night’s passing.
When morning came, I left my Anara asleep in the warm bed to go above and check our position. My reckonings put us close to land, though how close I could not know for sure.
Solis, lady of the skies, lead us home, I prayed. Mother Nai, Father Kithran, hold back the people who call you parents. We are not worthy of their care, we two who are dead to that land. Let our names be forgotten by the history keepers and let the song of our lives go unsung. Night dwelling Nori, thank you for the safety we have received in the cool shadow of your light. To all the gods of this world, I beg, let us live to love on Solinori shores!
It was my most fervent prayer. I ambled over to a barrel and took a long drink. The water was sweet and cold. It washed away the last remnants of weariness.
Digging around in my haversack produced a handful of berries and some jerked kacken. Eating slowly, I savored the remains of the sweet fruit while checking the tiller and rubbing a bit of fat on the wood to keep it lubricated. The last berry was much harder than the others. Curious, I looked down at it.
A laugh bubbled up from my chest and rippled out over the deck. It was no berry, but the strange rock that had washed ashore on the island so long ago. Rolling it around in my hand, I nearly pitched it overboard, but something stopped me.
Dirt had flaked away from the rock, revealing a large green stone. An emerald as dark as my own eyes glittered in the sunlight. Taking a bit of water from a nearby barrel, I wetted the rock and rubbed it briskly against my shirt. The dirt began to crumble away, revealing a beautiful ring. It would be worth a noble’s ransom in Kithranai, but it would never see the finger of any Montain in my land.
The only hand that would bear this emerald belonged to the woman who slept below, unaware of the morning’s discovery.
It was dawn. Anara and I went to our duties on deck with sleepy eyes and sore muscles. The previous day we had fished, hauling in a catch that included a pinkback that was half the length of Eloria. It had been quite a fight to drag the nets aboard, but we had. The massive pinkback we had returned to the ocean for neither of us could bear the thought of eating such a grand behemoth, and the rest of the catch was drying on racks at the front of the ship.
At my usual station, I waited for Anara to finish with her work in the rigging before calling her to my side. She came and we indulged in a long, warm hug.
The further north we sailed, the colder the climate had become. The warm clothes that Anara had sewn on the islands kept the chill from our bones. Sharing body heat helped to keep us even warmer, so we enjoyed long hugs and later mornings.
I buried my nose in Anara’s hair and breathed in her spicy scent. Something tickled my nose. Pulling back to run my fingers through her crimson locks, a puffy, gray feather fell away and floated to the deck.
Bending, I picked up the feather. It was like none I had ever before seen. Speckled and striated, it was neither a kacken’s, nor any of the other birds that had inhabited Ran’s Tears.
“Is this familiar to you?” I asked, showing the feather to Tyshanara.
She took it and examined it closely. “I think ... yes,” she nodded, “I do know this bird. It’s a marsh dweller. Oh, Lyr, we must be close!” She let out an excited squeal and squeezed me so hard, that I thought my chest would crack.
Was she right? Could be close to land, to Solinori? My heart was in my throat and my stomach afire with the possibility of it.
We were closer than we could have hoped. Anara translated as I made use of a compass and sextant and we discovered that we were near enough to land that birds, and soon, other ships would become an everyday occurrence.
The birds did not worry me, but the appearance of other ships did.
“Anara, what if your people mistake us for raiders? We are aboard a Kithranai vessel and surely it is different in style from your people’s constructions.” I had never seen a Solinori ship, but if shipwrights from Auk and Berry could argue from dusk until dawn about the correct placement of something as simple as a square nail, then surely the two peoples would have a differing aesthetic.
She pursed her lips and nodded. “I’ll think on that, love. Something will be done, I promise.”
Two days later, she presented me with a flag to fly should we see a Solinori ship. Made from scraps of fabric, it bore the unique design of a golden sun with a silver moon overlaid and set against a background of blue. I thought that the original banner’s colors were probably all one hue, but since our fabrics were limited, this one, made with patches of varying shades of blue, was quite attractive. The rippling colors reminded me of the night sky at moonrise.
“This is beautiful. What does it signify?”
Proudly, Anara said, “This is the flag of my House and all true Solinori will know it and for whom it flies.”
Curiosity filled me. “Why is that?”
“Some members of my family have the touch of fame about their names,” she replied evasively and then kissed me. Thoughts danced in my head, a memory, something I had learned on the islands tickled at the edges of my consciousness… More kisses rained down upon my lips.
In the past, I have mentioned how distracting those kisses are. This had not changed with the passage of time. My Anara knew exactly how to divert me from the questions that hovered just at the surface of my mind.
I did not think about her family, or House again until we set foot on Solinori shores.
The barrels were bone dry, but that lack no longer held the terror that it once commanded. Within sight was a large harbor and town. Kvisk beckoned to us like a long lost friend. Even the wind seemed to be hurtling us toward the shore with reckless abandon.
We had been spotted by only one vessel since coming within sight of land, and that one ship had quickly sped off once it saw the banner we flew.
Questions danced about in my head, leaving me dizzy and weak with the strangeness of it all. What would happen next? How would we pay our dock fees? Would Tyshanara claim her love of me when her people surrounded us? Would this land reject my body as anathema?
I looked over at Anara, deftly trimming the sail with a confident hand. She caught my gaze and smiled. All my questions melted away in the blaze of her regard.
As she ambled toward me, her hips swayed suggestively. I licked my lips and wondered if we would be able to find an inn with private rooms.
“Hey there, Captain Lyran,” it was the first time she had called me that, but I liked the sound of it. “Would you happen to have a spare moment for a lonely lady?”
I locked the tiller and met her half way across the deck, sweeping her up in my arms.
“I always have time for you, my lady.”
“Good.” Her fingers drifted over my face and soothed away the lines that had taken up residence. “Worried again, my love? Fret not, my Lyr, all will be well, trust me.”
We kissed. I did trust her. Would she trust me?
Reaching into my haversack, I found and withdrew the ring that had revealed itself to me not long ago. Holding it up for Anara to see, I said, “One day on the island, Kithran sent me a broken ship with a strange woman aboard who came into my life and turned it inside out. You became my friend, and so much more. To mark that moment, Kithran threw a stone at me, only it was no pebble that scored my foot, but this ring. Will you wear it, and show the world that you are my chosen partner for life?”
She chuckled. “Oh, my Lyran – you are braver than I will ever be.” Anara reached into her pocket and withdrew a tiny pouch. Carefully, she unknotted the strings and tipped the pouches contents into her hand. Gently winking in the sun was a ring, the night’s twin to my golden one, made of silver and sapphire. Looking down at her ring, Anara said, “Of all the things that bound me to Solinori, this was the one thing that Na Douf did not destroy. This ring, given to me by my mother, and to her by hers, was all I had left of a family torn from me by a cruel fate and I would give it to you, in trade for the one you bear. I will wear your ring, Lyran Allar, only if you will wear mine.”
My answer was simple.
“Well, lieutenant, what did she say?” asked a curiosity tinged voice.
“I’m sorry sir, but there’s nothing more in the record. The rest of the crystal is dead,” Lieutenant Kyan Toll, communications specialist for the Commonwealth of United Planets, space marines division, sadly replied.
“Damn! I’ll be a mudsucker! Just when it was about to get interesting, too. When will these damned aliens learn to leave us more than fragments? We need everything if we’re to learn anything from them!” Captain Elissa Crow shook her head and stared at the ruined building that she and her men were investigating.
The architecture was right out of one of Lt. Toll’s favorite holobooks, containing enough strange shapes and twisty curves to satisfy any fantasy junkie’s habit. Toll, a xenoarcheologist in training, had recognized enough of the strange crystals within the building to label it a library. There were two large continents on this world and both had similar structures and technology.
The larger continent was already crawling with enough xenoarcheologists, xenobiologists, and xenoanthropologists to scare any good marine back to space, so Captain Crow had taken her team to the smaller continent to do some exploring. Here in this library, among the fragmented histories and broken novels, they had found a set of crystals that seemed intact enough for their universal reader to scan.
The personal history of the alien contained within had held them in thrall for hours. Crow and her men found themselves looking about the library and trying to form a sense of what she and her mate had been like, and all they could come up with was a series of paintings that lined the walls.
When they were new, the artworks would have been lushly rich and colorful – similar, Lt. Toll said, to the style of art used by the old Terran culture known as the Minoans. Depicted in the pictures were two women who struggled against terrible trials and strange creatures, none of which currently existed on the tiny Class Six planet. The former alien residents held a strangeness that was at once attractive and disturbingly familiar.
It was Toll who had spoken it aloud. “They look like elves, ma’am,” he said, pointing at the people in the pictures.
Elissa shook her head, glad that the aliens were long gone from the little mudball that the Commonwealth had ordered them to secure. Elves in space would have been a little too hard to take, even after all of the strange beings the battle-scarred veteran had dealt with over the years.
Ah well, it was a good story, anyway. The captain shrugged mentally and then barked out, “All right everyone, pick up these data crystals carefully – bag them, tag them and get them ready to take back to the Starskimmer. The rest of this will be safe enough until Xeno gets here.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Toll replied, saluting briskly. The diary he had been reading from could be one of possibly thousands of histories that were lodged in the impressive library.
It wouldn’t take long for the marines to pack, so Elissa indulged herself in one more look around the library. The paintings on the walls were so well done that the captain found that she was drawn into the story once more.
Just as her men finished their packing, she came to one, final panel. In it, the two women were shown to be standing before what appeared to be a priest. Crowds of people were gathered around them, cheering and gaily dancing. One of the women, the one whose eyes were so green, Elissa wondered what the aliens had used for pigment to achieve such a depth of color, stood with a bemused expression while the other woman, clad in what could only be described as a crown and royal regalia, merrily laughed. Both women bore similar rings, and both had entwined their hands in a universal gesture that signified a marriage.
It was a touching scene, though the captain wondered what the queen found so amusing.
“Maybe the answer will be in one of the books,” she muttered, turning on her heel and leaving the building.
The passage of time had not dimmed the sparkle in the eyes of the women who gazed at the world through the painting. Though they were long gone, their story would be found among the myths and legends of the Solinai, for both peoples had long ago found peace and joined together as one.
Where were they now? Who knew? Perhaps they, like the humans who walked the alien’s homeworld, also roamed the stars. The universe was a vast place and stories can only be told one at a time.
I’d like to thank all of my beta readers who came along on this ride. You guys help me be a better storyteller, and for that, I give you my gratitude. ~Shay
As always, please feel free to Razz the writer: email@example.com