Three leagues off the southern coast of Arquay, on an especially chilling April evening, a ship was being beaten mercilessly by a northwesterly tempest. She was not a large ship that might easily withstand such gales, nor was she a small ship that would otherwise be tossed and broken by the swells of the rolling sea. But she was an average merchant ship that had departed southward from Saltwash Isle in a bustle of urgency. The Sea Wing, as was her name, was short of crew and taking water from the high waves. All aboard had been long without sleep under the weight of what seemed to be an ever-growing inevitability of becoming learned in the breathing in of cold water and flailing in the deeps for the feeling of wind on one's skin, but only ever knowing the quiet dark until all is passed from knowing. None felt this stronger than the Captain who had been seventeen hours at the helm without rest, and though his years at sea had hardened his will and seasoned his fortitude, his threshold to abide the fight was waning.
The cargo was a sparse load, but it was of great consequence to one Lady Mabel of Gadion House, a passenger onboard. It was uncommon for the Sea Wing to carry cargo of the human sort, but this was no common voyage. Three nights prior, the Captain had been commissioned by the lady's coachman to take her, along with a handful of servants and belongings, from Saltwash Isle, through the South Passage, between Enberlot and the lesser land of Fisk and out into the Ocean of Atleas. From there they were to sail eastward to the Continents—the Motherlands and Fatherlands; a sixty day journey in all.
Now the Captain had been eager to take his pay and be off without question of his passenger's requests for haste and secrecy, but he now cursed the need that drove him to such unguarded dealings. For he had found little sleep since departure and he was now sickened with worry that without warning his ship would rend her hull against the outlaying reefs that guarded the northern shore of Fisk like ageless sentinels, laying in wait to sink even the rumour of land-hunting fleets from the north. He had seen them before, like pillars, or great blades of obsidian rising from the foamy waters, but only from afar, and the memory caused him to shudder. It was at that moment that such a sight arose from the mist that the Captain shouted a startled warning to the crew and wheeled the Sea Wing to port. There, out of the black water stretched ridged silhouettes; looming towers of pitted rock that held no mercy, but only promise of death, should any vessel grace their sharp walls.
With some skill the Captain turned the ship back to the open sea, but as others aboard would later say, it seemed like some greater will that sent them speeding on the back of an outgoing surge, further out to safety as high-flying waves danced off the colossal stones and rained down on their heads. They were now passing smaller pinnacles that reached at them from the rioting waters and teased of danger. As the rain lessened it was clear to see that they had, without knowledge, sailed into a great cluster of reefs and jutting pillars. Suddenly, though the storm had eased it's wrath, all aboard found words for a prayer or clung tight to rope or wood as a terrible screech rang out from below; the hull had at last found a reef to chafe against. But at length no leak sprang and all returned to breathing and contending with the great waves that still tossed them to and fro.
Less then an hour passed before the Captain dropped anchor and prepared to wait out the storm. Before the crew had time go below and latch the hatches, Lady Mabel and her coachman appeared on deck. She had dressed for travel, no doubt, but she and her servants were yet in the finest garments the crew had ever beheld, and her countenance was an agitated one.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded she. “Perhaps you do not understand, Captain, that I mean to put as much ocean between myself and Saltwash as humanly possible, and as swiftly as the wind will take us.” Her tone was resolute and she carried her aged self with poise; unblinking at the stinging rain and unfaltering on the tossing sea.
“Those may be your wishes, my Lady, but this wind will have us toppled into the sea or turned out of our skin on the rocks if I raise the sail again before she has had time to go back to sleep,” the Captain had little patience by now for quarrelling and was focused more on the doings of his crewmen than the concerns of Lady Mabel.
“If my memory serves me properly, and it most certainly does,” the lady began with a flash in her eyes, “It was agreed that double payment for a trip such as this would ensure a discard of the usual halts and time consuming rituals, Captain. An insult indeed to see my confidence squandered the moment you grow weary of a meager storm. Have you no other seaworthy young men who might keep this poor vessel afloat while you rest your dishonest eyes?”
At this the Captain, tired and busy as he was, turned his attention to Lady Mabel—and with no lack of wrath. “If the good Lady bargains her life at a keeping price, then she would do well to make her way below. For I assure you that this is no modest rainstorm, but rather an Enkurn, a ship killer, my Lady. No man aboard is more seaworthy than myself, and it is my honesty—which you so swiftly tread upon—that will not allow a lesser seaman to take the helm in such a hateful sinker as this!”
“Tell yourself what you will,” the lady coldly replied. “But if this cursed little boat is still laying dead in the water come morning I will demand a complete return of the wages I so wrongfully entrusted to you when you spat promises that you had no intention of keeping.”
“Cursed little boat!” The Captain shouted. “I'll have you know—”
But Mabel's attention was drawn elsewhere as her gaze trailed off into the night. “Hush Now!” she said. “Did you hear that?”
“You can count yourself fortunate that I accepted your employment,” continued the Captain. “No other captain with half a wit would have cast off in such hastiness!”
“Harken for moment, my dear half-witted boatman!” shouted Lady Mabel in her frustration. “I tell you I hear someone out there.”
“Of all the madness!” shouted the Captain in return. “You hear voices on the water amidst this storm, do you? Below with you! It's plain to see you need more rest even than I.”
But Lady Mabel would not bend. “Don't be a fool, Captain! I tell you I hear a child's cry. How far are we from land?”
“One can't be certain, but more than two stone's throw,” returned the Captain. “Tis the barren, northwesterly coast of Fisk: the kingless island. You hear no children out there, my lady. Surely you hear your servants below, quailing at the angry sea.”
“My servants do not quail,” Lady Mabel retorted, glaring bitterly at the Captain. “Now, you put a boat in the water at once!”
The Captain was now more surprised then ever. “I will not have a dory sunk and crewmen drowned because the wind plays tricks on an old ladies ears!”
At this moment the Lady's coachman, who, until now had remained silent, lurched forward like an unleashed animal from the shadows and shouted viciously at the Captain—baring his teeth and clinching his fists. “And I will not have my Lady spoken to in such a fashion by so lowly a water dog without reprimand!” He said no more in his foreign and cutting accent, but it seemed to the Captain that he grew in stature, and his weathered, stone-like face was fiercer even than the Lady Mabel's. His grey and golden hair fell about his head and tossed in the wind while his dusky eyes laid heavy upon the captain, as a lion fixed upon his prey and caring naught of the world around him. The Captain was a thin, proud-looking man, not altogether young but younger than a life at sea would permit him to appear, and he fancied himself more hansom than he was. And though he carried himself high and had never lost control of his crew, the coachman stood taller, his shoulders were broader, and the Captain shrunk back at his booming voice, bewildered, and gave no reply.
“Do you think a mother does not know the sound of a child in distress?” said the Lady. “There is a young one coming to harm on that shore. Will you do nothing?”
The Captain remained silent for a moment, stumbling on his thoughts after being shaken by the voice and gaze of the coachman. “Fine. Hear what you will,” the Captain began. “But I've a ship of souls and cargo that are well nigh to harm as it is without sending men out to certain death to see after someone, who—if at all they exist—are most assuredly safe on land.”
“You command the guise of man, Captain. You are, however, but a sheepish boy!” Lady Mabel jeered. “I'll be going, myself. And my coachman will row me.”
“In no dory of mine will you do this!” the Captain shouted back at her as she and her coachman made their way to port-side where one of the small boats was stored.
“Bear in mind, Captain,” said the Lady. “My fortune is stored below in your hull—indeed if there is else down there it is but refuse. Should I not return, which you say is so certain, you will be a terribly wealthy man. This should be a hundredfold of an adequate wager for the use of your dory. However, let not that thought nest in your mind, lest you cast off when I've gone.”
The Captain gave no reply but ordered two men to help them into the boat and lower them into the vengeful waves. A lantern was lit and hung on the bow and they were off. The Captain stood watching. A bitter taste in his mouth was the dark hope that welled up in him every time the dory crested the shoulders of another angry giant: the hope that the dory would capsize and the Lady's fortune would indeed become his own. And though he hated this hope, it was nonetheless very real, and his hate for it was but a play for the easement of his own conscience; or the smouldering remnants there of. For the dark paths that he had chosen in his years had earned him even darker depts of the most burdening sort. His eyes were heavy with unrest, yet there he stood until all the crew had gone below and the dory's lantern climbed up and down until it was all together swallowed up by the night.
It was evident that the coachman had some skill in the water; he rowed with a strong back and gained great distance in the tossing sea with long strokes. Over his shoulder he kept watch, steering here and there between the rocks until at last they came to a sandy shore, shrouded by rising reefs and dark pinnacles that were hammered by tall waves that struck without warning. Once out of the boat they had only to go left or right, for a grand wall of black stone, carved by the restless sea, rose from the sand and stretched upward into the clouded night and out of eye's reach. They turned right.
“It is a strange place,” said the coachman. “Let us not stay long.”
“It is a place and that is all, Armel. Now, let us find this child.”
It was not long before they heard the cry again—ahead of them—this time as clear to Armel as it was to Lady Mabel. It was a dreadful wailing in the black night, as of someone who was hurt or even mad, and it grew louder and shriller as they made their way along the beach and between the rocks. They were bested by the waves no few times, and keeping the lantern lit proved a difficult task for Armel. Lady Mabel uttered remarks of her displeasure under her breath, and of her inconvenience at being wretchedly cold and wet, and how she had never been so utterly miserable in all her years, but she plodded on nonetheless.
How far they had landed from where the ship was anchored would have been hard to relate. And where about it lay waiting for them in bearing to where they stood would have been even harder to know, for the shoreline darted this way and that, sometimes deceiving them so that it seemed that the voice came from out upon the ocean itself. And it was at these moments that Armel pressed Lady Mabel to return to the dory for fear that some evil thing was leading them to their doom, but the Lady was certain of her resolve and pressed on.
Soon they came upon a short length of shore that was bare of boulders or jagged stones and there, against the white sand, a long shape stretched from the seawall out into the falling waves. Armel knew it at once to be a fisherman's boat, for the better part of his life had been spent as a fisherman in warmer sea's; though this boat was larger, and of strange fashion to Armel. It was all of two times the size of the dory they had come to shore in and had strange engravings on the bow and about it's edges. In the lantern light, reels of line and tackle could be seen but the boat was draped mostly in a tarpaulin, and it was from under this that the cries came. And now, between a wall of black rock and a ghostly, restless sea, standing on the shifting sand, from which stood tall and looming figures in the mist, the cries seemed evermore haunting and they both silently wondered if some outlandish devilry had not indeed led them here for unthinkable purposes.
At length Lady Mabel managed to bellow out two words with some amount of commanding presence, “You there...” but her voice wavered and she said no more.
At once the wailing ended and all was quiet, save the sea. After a time of waiting for a rift in the silence, Armel stepped forward and crossed the length of shore that lay between them and the boat—the Lady followed a few paces behind. He hesitated for a moment and then with an unsteady hand quickly withdrew the tarpaulin. He was at once relieved and, perhaps, felt a bit foolish to find a young boy no older than six years lying in the boat, staring up in bewilderment through tears and red curls that hung wet about his face.
“Pray child, you haven't even a frock!” exclaimed Lady Mabel. “Where are your parents?” But the boy only stared and said nothing. “Your mother, or father?” she continued. “Is your home near to this place? Are you lost?” But still the boy said nothing and only studied their faces with frightened eyes.
“Could it not be, my Lady, that he speaks another tongue?” suggested Armel.
“Doubtful.” replied Lady Mabel. “To my knowledge Fiskans have spoken common language for centuries. Unless, of course, he knows only the olden tongue, Aershia, and that is doubtful. I've known few who still speak it. In any case it is plain to see that the boy is cold and frightened. Leave your greatcoat and carry on down the shore some distance. Try to find another sign as to where this child belongs. Here there is a fisherman's boat: somewhere there is a fisherman.”
With some difficulty Armel lit another lantern that was uncovered in the boat and he was off. Lady Mabel wrapped the boy in her coachman's coat and did her best to make him feel at ease. But at length it seemed that her presence only distressed him all the more; as it had been many years since she had had a child in her keeping, and simple, warm words of assurance seemed to have deserted her. And so she let him alone under the tarpaulin in what she could only guess to be his father's boat. But though the rain had eased to all but naught, she found it a difficult task to make even herself feel at ease in this vexing place where the wind on the stones seemed to whisper a curse; the rumor of crushing waves was ever echoing in the darkness and the thought of the untrustworthy Captain raising anchor and sailing on danced heedlessly about her mind as she paced from the boat to the crag and back again.
After a worrisome amount of time Lady Mabel caught sight of a light flickering between the tall stones that riddled the shoreline. She could soon make out Armel hastening towards her. As he approached she could see that his face was flushed, he was short of breath and his close were soiled with mud.
“Where in all the world have you been?” she demanded. “Do you realize how likely it is that our dear friend, the Captain, has cast off by now?”
“I found a stair cut into the stone,” Armel began, speaking as quickly as he could and trying earnestly to catch his breath. “It climbed very high, and many times the wind came near to plucking from the face of the precipice and throwing me down upon the rocks far below.”
“Yes, yes.” interrupted Lady Mabel. “But did you find anything? A house? A village?”
“Well,” began Armel, trying still to breathe rightly. “After I had reached the top there was a path, but on and on it stretched across an open plain of green turf. And just when a thought it hopeless I saw a flame in the black mist. It was a cottage, and therein I found a fisherman, the boy's father.”
“Are you sure?” asked Lady Mabel. “Did he say it was so? That the boy is his own?”
“There was no other. Who else could it be?”
“Well where is he? What had he to say for himself?”
“He was dead, my Lady.” replied Armel in a dismal and fading tone, glancing at the boat to see if the boy was listening but he lay still under the tarpaulin.
“Preserve us! And his mother?”
“There was no sign that a woman had been there. It was a crude shack. I find it doubtful a wife would endure such an unrefined dwelling.”
Lady Mabel was silent. She had been pure of intent when she insisted on coming to the aid of this child, to set to rights whatever could be mended or to help him find his way home. But this was a condition that could not be cured, and a bitter reluctancy crept over her.
“Fever, I believe, was his murderer.” Armel continued. “I made a burial for him, callow as it was, I could not disgrace his remains so as to be left for animals.”
“Yes, of course.” the lady replied distantly, and there was a long silence as she seemed to strive for some resolve to the status of things. Whether she fought against her conscience or her reason Armel could not say, but long it seemed to him that she stood unmoving in the biting wind and let her gaze wander in the dark. At last she spoke again, and, as was her custom, with sternness and purpose rather than emotion.
“Get the child and let us be off. He is our charge now.”
It was a fair distance back to the dory, but none felt it more than the boy as he watched his father's boat disappear into the night and all familiarity dissolve, replaced by strange, harsh voices and cold faces, speaking of things he did not understand. Nor did he desire to understand. He wished merely to be lying in his own bed, his father recounting stories of far off lands as he mended his nets and tackle. How exciting those stories had been, even only three nights before, when his father was yet well, and how he had fancied himself roving those far off worlds, but not now. Not like this.
It was with great relief that they found the Sea Wing where they had left her, and once aboard, Armel took the boy to where the servants were lodged and ordered two girls to clean him and make him ready for sleep. But as he crossed the deck with the boy in his arms, the Captain laid a long, almost horrified gaze upon the child until he was below and out of sight. It was a strange and frightening place for the boy. Many faces peered at him from hammocks that hung from the ceiling. The air was clammy and the water in which the servants bathed him was cold. When at last he had been clothed in a dressing gown, the older of the two girls led him between two rows of hammocks, from which eyes still gazed at him, and to the very last hammock on the left side that hung next to a door that Armel had passed through, and so far had not returned.
“Here now.” said the girl. “This is where you are to sleep tonight. Do not fear. The ship may pitch this way and that at times, but I find it quite peaceful really. I am reminded of when I was little and my mother would lull me to my dreams. Have you a mother?”
The boy said nothing.
“Nor have I. Not anymore, at least.” said Ena. She pitied the boy but she wished to go back to her hammock, for she stood outside the chambers of Armel. In addition to holding office as the Lady Mabel's coachman he was also headmaster of the other servants, and Ena, like the other servants, revered him greatly and did not wish to annoy him. But as she left there came the sound of a small and timid voice.
“Please.” said the boy, now with tears welling in his eyes. “Don't go. I am afraid. I want to go home.”
“Come now,” said Ena, moving to his side. “What is your name, little one?”
“I am Olafur.” he replied, finding his voice.
“You need not be frightened, Olafur. The Lady Mabel is an honorable master, and Armel is her most trusted of servants. They would most assuredly not have born you from your home had it not been the best and most right deed that could be done. With us you will be looked after in such a manner as most will never know. Now, sleep and dream well, my dear Olafur, for when we make land we will all have a new home. And one can guess it will be most glorious or Lady Mabel would not be going there at all.”
Ena left him, and for some time Olafur lay wide awake, trying to make out figures in the dark, or counting the hammocks that swung all about him. At last exhaustion found him and he fell fast asleep. But his dreams only took him back to the morning before.
Olafur was accustomed to being wakened by his Father before light but this time it was he who woke Father. And when Father did not feel well enough to rise he sent Olafur out to play. Now Father had been ill for two days, and so Olafur worried for his father and did not play long. When he returned he found Father still in his bed, not moving or moaning as he had before, but still and quiet. And when Olafur lay his hand in his father's, because he did not wish to leave his bed again until he was well and eager to go fishing, his hand was cold. Olafur did not know of death, but he knew that once the fish was taken from the sea, and it lay still and cold, that it would never wake again. Olafur was afraid to see his father like the fish that were brought home at the end of the day, and he fled from the cottage and down to the sea where he hoped his father—the only one he had ever known—would come and fetch him home again. And though he lay there until day had passed into night and a terrible storm blew in from the sea, he did not come.
Olafur woke in his tears and suddenly hushed himself for fear that he had been crying aloud and might wake the mysterious figures that hung about him in white canvases. He wished that he knew where Ena had gone so that he could climb down and go to her, but then he heard the creaking of a latch, and light came from the foremost end of the long room. He peered from his hammock but he could not yet see anything. Then came the sound of soft footsteps as the light grew closer, and long, strange shadows were cast from floor to ceiling, and Olafur was frightened. A robed figure passed where he lay, and he could see in the light of the flickering candle that it was the Lady Mabel, but she did not turn her grey eyes to look at him. Forward she walked and forward she looked, until she reached Armel's chamber, and there she stopped and lay a quiet rap on the door. In a moment the door was opened and as she entered, it was quietly shut behind her. Olafur then heard a great many things that he did not understand. But whether or not he comprehended it all, this is what he heard:
“I have made arrangements with the Captain,” said the Lady. “There is a port two days north of here, the southernmost port in Arquay: a place called Seven Rivers that lies within The Green Lands. There we will discharge him and make for ourselves what we can.”
“Turn back to the north?” returned the coachman. “This is dangerous. And what of the south passage? Do you mean for us to reach the eastern sea by land?”
“No, of course not! We will simply not be returning to the Continents, that is all. I am told that The Green Lands are a quiet and respectable place and perhaps there we can be left in peace to pursue our lives as we will.”
“I would pursue my life according to the plan that we set into action when we left the shores of Saltwash,” the coachman quickly replied. “What of your estate on the Continents? The vineyards in the south lands and Cogne Hall? You would abandon such things to dwell among simple strangers? They are but hunters and unlearned fools.”
“You dare try and frighten me with ignorant information? You know as little of said place as I. Yes, my dear, late husband had in his possession a domain of considerable grandeur, far away in the south lands of the Continents, and since his untimely passing, and under most any other circumstance, it would customarily be relegated to my tenure. But must I really remind you that these truly are extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves adrift? I think it less than likely that our presence at Cogne Hall would be expected or welcomed at all, especially given our unique and bothersome status which, to all persons of past and present—excluding those onboard—is quite assuredly deceased.”
“You fear your son would return there, my Lady?”
“I'll hear no such thing! My son went to sea with his father four years passed and there he died. It is a bitter pang to me and I wish never to speak of it again. Real concern I have, but a son I do not.”
“As you wish it. But why, if I may be so bold as to ask, has this plan arrived only now, when you were ever so intent upon sailing for the Continents just three days ago? Have the dangers behind us become less real in your mind? Because they have not in my own.”
“Do not be indignant, Armel. And do not think for a moment that I have lost hold of our delicate situation. I have but strengthened my grasp round it. Upon our departure I was sorely vexed, and it seemed that only distance from Saltwash could remedy the state of things. But now, after striving long in thought and prayer in the belly of this tossing vessel, a brighter and sharper plan has sprouted in the shaded confines of my hope. For you see, while it may well be guessed that we would sail for the Mother and Father Lands, it would be far from reason to search for us in the nearby south of Arquay where we have no alliances or bonds. I see no reason why we could not fare just as well there as elsewhere. And even still I have hope that the honorary man who bore us our ill news before turning us from our home will not waver when he stands before the serpent and is pressed for truth; he risked much to see us to safety—arson as he was.”
“Your trust in such a creature is as frail as your hope of finding this foreign wilderness to be a suitable home. Long have I awaited the day when I would be told that the winds of fortune would take me back to those fair vineyards and kind skies. I have forsaken much to honor my Lady, but the hope of seeing that golden land being first given and then plucked from my hand is a cruel thing, and I am pained greatly by this.”
“I know it is your home and so I will this once overlook such intentional enmity. But you likewise know that it is not my home, nor any of the servants. Do not be so selfish to fill your longings that you would place innocent lives in danger. I daresay it is a great deal more than fortune that takes us to the Green Lands, all that lives and grows within me is pressed to seek refuge in this place—though it is strange to me, and I admit that I am not without fears or doubts. But alas! I have such peace and complacency at the thought of obliging this notion as I have not known since before my good husband took to the sea.”
“None of this folly clouded the air until we discovered that foundling on this most haunted night. He has bewitched you.”
“That is most certainly enough, Armel! You shame yourself. A slave you are not, and if you so wish to walk among your vines then be free of my employment. But do hold yourself in higher regard and do not dishonor your only name by cursing those who have most faithfully blessed you.”
At this there was a long silence and Olafur thought that he may drift back into his sleep, for while it was plain that Armel and Lady Mabel stood firmly upon opposite ground on the subject of destination, he had little idea what this would mean for him. He knew only that he was being taken far from his home, and whether it was to a place called Cogne Hall, or the Green Lands of Arquay, was of little consequence to him.
At length the voice of Armel came softly, “I beg your forgiveness, my Lady. I know not what possessed me to speak thusly, and I do not wish to be parted from your service. One day I may see my homeland again, but this day I am your trusted coachman as I have been these eighteen years.”
Lady Mabel did not speak as though she were satisfied with Armel's apology, nor did she speak as though she were still annoyed by his previous behavior, she merely transposed the exchange into one concerning the onboard goods and the manner in which things should be packed and transported when the port of Seven Rivers was at last reached. It was at this time that the dialogue of adults, murmuring away in the distance as Olafur retreated down hazed halls of slumber, were cast like the discursive songs of birds against the ever-ebbing and suppressed crashes of the waves against the hull, like the constant tossing and turning of trees in the wind, and Olafur fell fast asleep.
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