Chapter 13 - Raines
We remain docked on the southern shore of Volcin for several days, waiting for the Ordovician fleet to arrive. When they make their appearance, officials will be sent ashore to negotiate with Volcin leaders.
I’m scared for what they are attempting to work out. I’m scared of the fighting. I’m scared of…. Of the war that’s starting.
I’ve barely heard the word. I hardly understand it’s meaning. Mar has books of history. There are accounts of ancient masters of war - generals, they are called - who were battle-bound for years. Every day people fell. Lives lost on each side. Hundreds. Eventually thousands. And every night at dusk, the fighting stopped. Soldiers returned to camp to tend to their wounds and burn the dead. And yet, the next day, they would rise to kill again. Or be killed.
After a few days rocking on the harbor, Ordovician flags appear on the horizon. The masts seem to grow out of the waves, followed by sails, the bow, a hull. In a short while, a dozen ships throw down anchor.
A commotion on the deck behind me makes me turn
“You’re staying here, Captain. I’m the commanding head of this fleet. Keep this lot in order.” He gestures to those of us gathered on the deck.
With an annoyed scoff, the captain stomps away to the bow, looking over the sun-drenched water.
I watch the general cross the dark and clump down the gangway, touching shoulders with the Ordovician commanders.
They converse for a moment, then move as one to the large political building in the center of town. Over the next few days, as the politics and alliances are being discussed, we grow restless. It’s not long before the captain relents and allows us to disembark for several hours every afternoon.
“Keep your noses clean!” he hollers after us the first day and we rush into the city.
Apart from the marble capital building, the coastal town we’ve landed at is shabby and run-down; it’s the working class, the artists, and merchants who remain in small towns with their families. Townsfolk hustle about, smiling and chatting, slightly worn clothes, but happy.
Until they see us. Slipping back into the shops and stalls, stiff smiles, averted eyes as we pass.
I offer a smile to the shop keepers, handing him a copper coin for a small slice of sweet bread with a nut spread. The merchant hands it to me quickly and turns away. For what it’s worth, the slice is delicious.
As we make our way through town, we disperse, many slipping into small taverns for food or a brothel for their desires.
Cal. I think of him now. Is he already here on Volcin? Could he even be close?
The next step I take finds me flailing to catch my balance. When I stumble away, looking back, there’s a crumpled newspaper on the ground with my smeared footprint across the top.
Across the header, it reads Minta’s Record, labeled with yesterday’s date. I pick it up, smoothing out the creases and brushing off dirt.
I start reading, but there are carts and merchants jostling by, swinging shadows. Stepping off to the side under a little gathering tent, I begin again.
Only yesterday Athro Tiernan - Master of Caerini’s renowned Warrior Dance team - revealed that one of his top performers was violently attacked while the team docked in Rushes. On his way back to the ship after a day exploring the town (no doubt to gather insight on the potential for local alliance and rebellion), a group of locals accosted him. After realizing his rank, they politely asked the young dancer to leave. But, as the ever-arrogant performers will do, he refused. There are even reports he threatened Rushes with the military force currently bound for our very own Minta. The fleet hopes to make peaceful agreements, but after this infuriating incident, what can they ask for besides forgiveness?
The boy in question, one Calix Malea, was found early the next morning in an ally, bearing severe injuries. Athro Teirnan reportedly carried him back to their ship himself, where he’s being treated. Calix Malea’s current condition is unknown.
But there may be another bright side yet to come. After this blow to the team’s moral, and loss of a key dancer, Volcin is hopeful that the team’s ten dance winning streak will come to an end and Volcin can finally take the upper hand.
The next dance is to be held tomorrow, at 3:30 in Kiptor.
The paper is shaking in my hands. What have they done to him?! Minta’s report makes it sound like he’ll never walk again! And that he deserves it!
How much of this can I believe? Rushes wants to remain uninvolved from hosting dances, fine. But….
Gods, what really happened, Cal? Please be okay. I know you’re strong and…. I know you’re a martyr. You’ll sacrifice yourself if it means you can save your team. Please be safe. Please heal.
I skim the article again. The initial shock has passed, but my blood is running hot and fast through my body. Kiptor…. Kiptor. The workers on the docks have mentioned it. It’s barely a day’s ride on horseback from here. Cal. I could get to him. I could be with him, ensure he’s alright….
Pounding my feet across the packed dirt, tripping over people, I hastily apologize but I don’t stop. Running up the gangway, boards creaking, the captain hollers at me.
“Slow down, ya clotpole!”
I don’t head his words. Back under the quarterdeck, down the steps, bursting into my cabin. No one else is here. Good. I can’t be suspected. Wincing, I think of my conspicuous run through town and encounter with the captain….
I grab my leather pack to fill. Not too much. I have to appear as if I simply didn’t come back for the night, not that I prepared to make a day trip.
A set of clothes. A waterskin for travelling, a few of my meat rations. My small dagger. That’s enough. Alright.
Rising back up to the deck, I start the act.
“Cap!” I holler, waving. “I’m goin’.... Back to the bar!” I trip down the gangway.
“Stupid mule,” he mutters.
I’m out of sight. I speed up, stop stumbling. It takes almost all afternoon to find the stables; small, on the very outskirts of town. A few individuals wander across the yard, grooming their mounts after a day’s ride.
Crouching, I remain in the shadows of a tack shed, watching the sky dim. Clouds soak up soft pinks and blues, somehow calming the fluttering of my heart. It must be well past our allotted hours of freedom. Would they even bother to search for me? Would they even notice I’m gone?
The people at the stables scurry away as the world darkens, leaving me to my work.
Stars begin to sparkle across the blue velvety heavens. Mar must be hard at work reading the sky. What is it telling him? How is this war going to end? Or will it, ever? I haven’t paused to search the sky for answers. Once, it was as easy as skimming the pages of a well-loved book, all the letters clear and close, comprehensible ink. But the farther I’ve traveled from home, the more distant the stars have seamed to become. I no longer feel as if I can reach out and touch them. I no longer feel worthy of hearing their well-kept secrets.
Pulling my pack tight across my back, I slip across the shrubby, dry grass to the stable, dew beading my boots. The grass crunches beneath my feet.
A horse whickers softly as I near. Looking up, I meet the gaze of a dun mare. Her eyes are soft and kind, a sweet brown. I’m gripped with the sudden urge to cry. Swallowing, I push away, reaching a hand up to the mare’s soft nose. She melts into my energy, soothing my aching heart. Unprompted, I press my forehead to her. Wind swirls up around us. Breath enters my lungs, slipping out just as easily and, a moment later, back in again. When I pull away and open my eyes, the mare is looking at me. It’s as if she knows what I’m about to do and that…. That it will be okay.
She nudges me with her whisper-soft nose towards the other end of the stable. In the last stall is a short, muscled stallion, slightly scruffy, still with the remains of his shaggy winter coat.
Slipping his bridle from a nearby hook, I ease it over his head. He stiffens, but allows me to buckle it. Gently, I clip a lead to it and unlatch the stall.
He walks out easily, standing still as I exchange the lead for a set of reigns. Tossing a thick saddle blanket across his back, I mount clumsily. It has been a few years since I have truly ridden a horse. My hand strokes his neck a few times and he snorts softly, eager to move. I glance at the mare across the stable. Her eyes gleam at me in the dark. She stomps a hoof.
I nod, feeling the corners of my mouth lift into the ghost of a smile. “Thank you,” I murmur to her. With a tap of my heels, I pull the stallion around to the door.
“Hut!” I whisper, and we’re off. It takes me a while to settle into the rhythm of a horse again. Caerini is so forested where my tribe is located we haven’t got much use for them. I bump along for a while as we trot into thickening darkness, vaguely following the distant shoreline.
I lose myself in thoughts for a time. Thoughts of Cal and the dancers. Thoughts of Caerini and Mom and Niamh. I wonder if she’s been able to contact home. If she’s been able to tell mom she’s safe. I hope she’s safe. And Persie.
Oh, gods, Persie! I haven’t thought of her in days. Probably weeks. How could I….how could I? A wave of guilt washes through me. I’ve been selfish.
I wonder if she really ran from the draft. If she found a way to Ordovicia, where she can weave and sing like she dreams of. Persie dances through my head in a swirling magenta dress, beaming, chatting with shopkeepers.
The image fades. My body has started to move with the rhythm of the horse now. Even so, I feel the bruises already forming on the bottom edges of my pelvis.
We’re in a clump of trees. Far to the left, the moon glitters off the sea.
I ride on. My adrenaline is leaving my body, and weariness sets in. The reins begin to chafe at my hands and I have to keep adjusting the wool saddle blanket beneath me, made exceptionally more difficult by the lack of stirrups. I curse myself for not finding a saddle; I’ve never used one, but it sounds so much better than this, especially considering the long ride ahead.
The coast begins to change, forest thinning out, plants becoming dry and scrubby, small rocky outcroppings jut from the sand. We pick our way over the chalky rock piles and shrubs. The horse is sure-footed, requiring little guidance. After a long while, the sky begins to pale.
It is now that I realize my hands and ears are numb from the cold and my legs numb from exhaustion. My horse’s breath steams on the air. He snorts.
I pull him gently to a stop and hop off, knees giving way. I topple to the ground with an exhausted laugh. Standing , I take his reins and stroke a hand over his neck.
“Let’s go, buddy. We’re almost there. See that, in the distance?” We continue down the slight slope, turrets and cozy cottages coming into view.
People are already up and around, cheerfully walking through the streets.
The stables. Here. Right here, we’re here.
A short, squat woman sees us approaching and hurries over.
“My dear, oh goodness, you poor things.” She changes focus, taking the reins from my hands. “Have you been out all night? Where from?”
“Yes. Yes madam. From….it’s a long way. May I leave him here?”
“Of course, of course. Now run along to the tavern down the street, my dear friend, Nemia - they’ll take care of you.”
“Thank you, truly.” I stroke the horse’s flank and murmur a thanks.
It’s only a moment before I’ve stumbled to the door of the welcoming tavern.
Inside, Nemia rushes me to a room, fetching some food and, by the time they return, I’m asleep.