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Hunting in Ember - Chapter One

    • 89 posts
    February 21, 2021 4:22 PM PST

    Chapter One

     

    Soril holds tightly to the railing on the quarterdeck. A rope around his waist runs to a capstan as a last resort if a wave should send him over the stern. He knows that Inithkennin is above clinging to the shrouds on the mainmast—or he hopes the man hasn’t been swept off and into the sea. Lann’forrow is at the helm. The Tree only knows where anyone else is.

    He blinks rain out of his eyes and tries to peer along the path the Naantali has taken. The waves are now some twenty feet in height, so he can only glimpse the lay of the sea whenever the Naantali crests another wave. Then the vision is lost as they descend into a trough.

    The captain is shouting something behind him. Whatever will keep them moving without catching so much of the wind that it shreds the sails or topples a mast, or worse, blows the ship onto its side.

    The sea is no place for an Elf.

    As they reach another crest, Soril squints into the wind and sees it: two triangular sails barely visible through the rain.

    The captain shouts something in his ear. Soril sees him gesturing aft, and he nods, yes they’re still following. The captain pulls him away and down toward the main deck. He opens the door to his own cabin and ushers Soril inside.

    He quickly loosens the rope to the capstan, and the captain takes it for himself before closing the door.

    The rain pounds on the deck above, but down here he can almost breathe. He lifts a hand to steady himself against a wall before he can trust his legs enough to carry him further. The captain’s cabin is small and packed with objects large and small, lit only by a stonelight lantern that swings back and forth with the rocking of the ship.

    “It’s getting worse.”

    Soril looks up and sees a shadow sitting on the floor next to the bed fixed against the back wall of the cabin.

    “Erenoth,” he says. He moves toward the bed and falls onto it as the Naantali rocks again. Water crashes up against the stern windows. Soril reaches for the wall beside the bed and finds rungs he can hold onto as the ship leans far to starboard.

    “You’ve been out there a whole watch,” says Erenoth. “I don’t know how you did that. Captain says storm watch is half a watch long, no more.”

    “I didn’t realize I was out there so long.” He tries to dry his face with a nearby blanket.

    After a moment, Erenoth asks, “Are they still there?”

    Soril nods, then realizes the other man probably can’t see it. “Yes,” he says. “The same ship. Two-masted, fast.”

    Erenoth laughs without humor. “I wouldn’t have imagined the Skar could build a ship.”

    “Maybe slaves built it. Whoever pilots the ship, it’s the Skar that will board if they reach us.”

    “I’d rather they didn’t,” says Erenoth, then laughs more loudly this time.

    Soril shrugs. “Maybe they eat one another before they reach us. Or they’ll eat their slaves and have no one left who can pilot the ship.”

    “Can we go any faster?”

    Soril shakes his head. “We only have one sail out now, sheeted. Captain says if we raised more sail to the wind, we’d risk capsizing.”

    “Ocean or Skar,” mutters Erenoth. “Ocean might be quicker.”

    The sea smashes once more against the windows, and Soril reflexively shrinks away.

    “I hope this journey was worth it,” he says.

    “It has to be. For this.”

    Soril turns toward Erenoth and sees that he is holding the item they crossed the sea to find. It almost seems to glow softly in the near-dark. Erenoth gently runs his fingers down the metal.

    “We both agreed that we had to come,” says Soril. “But I’ve never heard of Skar chasing someone across the sea. Do they know its worth?”

    “I believe we angered them.”

    “Of that I have no doubt, but this is…” Soril sighs. “We’d better hope the wind favors us. They’re running with two full sails. From what the Captain told me, I don’t know how they’re still afloat.”

    “So they’re maybe the same size as the Naantali. At least seven crew, surely, to sail a ship this size, leaving how many Skar?”

    “However many can fit on board with enough food.”

    A sudden jolt sends them both against the side of the captain’s bed.

    “What was that?”

    “Felt like we ran into a wave.” Soril looks out the windows and sees water running down from the quarterdeck. “We’re still afloat.”

    Erenoth laughs again. Soril doesn’t know what to say. He tries to make himself more comfortable on the floor and holds on to the rung beside him. Never away from Faerthale until this journey, he cannot help but be consumed by thoughts of his fate at sea. Perhaps his body will wash into the ocean and drift slowly downward, his long graying hair draping upward as he slowly sinks toward hungry mouths and biting things. How long would he be aware? Is it over quickly, death at sea, or will he have time to be devoured whole by the great beasts of the deep?

    “How do we even know we’re still on course for Faerthale?”

    Soril thinks about this. “We don’t,” he says at last.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Erenoth is shaking him awake.

    “What?” Soril blinks his eyes open and braces himself—but the ship is rocking gently.

    “They want you on deck.”

    “All right.”

    Soril rises and runs his fingers through hair tangled with sea salt. He follows Erenoth out of the door and into the sunlight. As usual, bright days on the sea are too much for his eyes, better accustomed as they are to the light of forest and library. It takes him a long moment to realize what is wrong.

    “Where’s the Captain?” he asks.

    “In the sea,” says Inithkennin. “Along with Lann’forrow.”

    Soril lets out a long breath and composes himself. He looks around at the faces of the surviving crew of the Naantali and sees grief, exhaustion, and no small amount of anger.

    “I know that you grieve for your people,” he says, “and I am sorry for their loss.”

    “So are we,” says Inithkennin. “Twelve of us took you to Reignfall. Two we lost to Skar. Eight of us bring you back to Kingsreach. I hope whatever you found was worth it.”

    “As do we,” he says.

    They join the crew to say the words that will send those who were lost onward to the next part of their journey.

    When it is done, the sailors return to their work.

    “How long…”

    Inithkennin turns and points east. The air is hazy after the storm, and though it’s difficult to see very far, Soril can just make out the darker line of what must be the coast in the distance.

    “Still a good part of the day, since we lost our mainsail.”

    Soril looks up and sees very little left of the sail that should be on the mainmast. What is left is one lateen sail on the foremast, pulling them slowly eastward. The Naantali is an Elven caravel, quick and sturdy for ocean exploration but not very large. And now, not as fast as it once was.

    Erenoth is standing at the bow, eyes searching the line of the coast. Soril turns and walks onto the quarterdeck. Though he stands at the stern for a long time, he sees no sign of pursuit. He decides to return to the captain’s cabin to rest his eyes.

    The rod is in Erenoth’s bag. Soril carefully draws it out and sets it on the bed. Then he looks over at the bedside lamp and waves a hand toward the wick. A small flame leaps up within.

    Then he reaches into his own bag and withdraws a small leather sack, out of which he takes a pair of old glasses made for him in Faerthale City. He puts them on and turns back to the rod. About the length of his forearm, made of what might be starmetal. At one end is a head and face carved in porphyry that seems to shine softly as if reflecting a lantern even in the dark. The head of the figure is hairless, with no visible ears, and he cannot tell what race it was meant to represent. The eyes bulge from the head like the eyes of a fish. Though the rest of the head appears to be red porphyry, the eyes are some dark material that he finds unsettling, as if the darkness waiting behind the stars was given form and now watches him from these rounded orbs. Even though there is nothing that could be called an expression, he feels as if the face is looking at him with something between indifference and disdain—though perhaps that is his imagination.

    Letters gleam along the side of the rod, as if they were inscribed into the metal, then filled with liquid silver and hardened.

    Ishme-dagan eribun… watchful… something,” he strains to read what he recognizes. “Ushpia arik-nirari… threads of… tearing?”

    He shakes his head. So much of deciphering the ancient Imsu language is guesswork. His master would know.

    Weeks on the sea, and four people dead, for this. Red Lauta hung low in the sky and watched as they fled from the coast of Reignfall, leaving the bodies of two of the crew behind. Seven days into the voyage came the first sighting of the pursuing ship. Sometimes Haneval keeps watch himself, perhaps to atone for the disaster of their time in Reignfall.

    But even when he is on watch, he never looks down into the sea, tries not to gaze into the endless deep, except once when he thought he glimpsed something huge below the ship, a giant shifting oval pulling parts of itself behind and thankfully paying no attention to the tiny thing of wood and canvas on the surface of its realm. As if the ship and all of those aboard are too small for its attention.

    He never mentioned this to Erenoth for fear the man would scoff and say he had only imagined it.

    Though he knows he didn’t. The sea is no place for an Elf.

    He doesn’t know how long he sits there studying the artifact, tracing his fingers along the shape of it and lost in thought and regret. Is it his imagination, or does it seem warm to the touch?

    A scraping sound beneath the hull, and the ships grinds to a halt.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Some of the crew are looking over the side of the ship in dismay. Inithkennin is yelling something on the quarterdeck.

    “What happened?” says Soril.

    “We have a problem.” Erenoth’s eyes are wide, and he gestures vaguely beneath them.

    Soril looks over the side and sees something just below the ship. It looks like the ground.

    “Dark sand,” says one of the sailors. “We didn’t see the sandbar until we were on top of it.”

    “Can we get off of it?”

    “Can you get out and push?”

    Soril looks around and sees shock on the faces of the crew. He looks to the shore, maybe two hundred yards away to starboard. Giant trees like those of Oldwood, and he feels a sharp yearning for home, so very close.

    “We were running north,” says Inithkennin as he walks up to them, “looking for landmarks, or at the very least heading toward Faerthale City. Now we’ve run aground.”

    “They found us,” whispers Erenoth. He points toward the southwest.

    Soril turns and squints across the sea, sees two lateen sails in the distance. As he watches, a square mainsail is raised.

    “Three masts,” says Inithkennin. “Bigger than we thought. Dythiir, Aellos, and the Tree, it’s big. Thirty or forty people, maybe.”

    As Soril watches, the sails appear to converge, and he realizes that the Skar ship is now heading straight for them.

    “Lower the boats!” shouts Inithkennin. Then to the scholars he says, “Whatever you haven’t gathered by the time the boats are in the water, you’re leaving behind.”

    They run to the captain’s quarters and throw everything into their bags: maps, papers, the Imsu artifact. Then they’re back on deck and running toward the side.

    Only two boats remain after the storm.

    “When you get to the shore, run,” says Inithkennin. “Run into the forest. Run north, as fast as you can.”

    With five to a boat, they ride low in the water. Once or twice they scape against the sand, and those with paddles use them to push the boat along.

    At last they’re out in deeper water. The distant shore approaches so slowly that it’s difficult to tell if they’re moving at all. Soril looks back at the poor Naantali, left to whatever the Skar will do to the ship.

    At that thought, his eyes move left and he sees the ship of those who chased them across the long sea. In his imagination the ship is made of bones and skulls and the skins of their enemies, but he cannot tell. The ship is certainly closer than when he last looked.

    “Don’t stare at what’s following you,” says one of the sailors. Inesna is her name, he remembers.

    “Very good advice.” He turns back and watches the coast.

    Never again, thinks Soril. Bring me back into the shade of the Lucent, among my people in Faerthale City, and I shall never leave again.

    Drums sound across the water. Many drums. Now Soril cannot help but turn back to see the Skar ship, closer now, with something strange at the front. A carving—or a person tied to the bow.

    Soril pulls his eyes back to the coast. His heart beats quickly.

    Still the drums sound.

    As the boat runs aground in the shallows near the shore, he climbs out and falls into the water, disoriented. Someone—Inesna—helps him up and walks with him onto the land. With his feet on the ground, he allows himself one more glance back toward the sea, and the ship that is much, much closer than it should have been.

    Then someone is yelling at him, and he runs into the welcoming shadows of the wood.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Leviathan trees loom in the mist with vines draping down like sheets of rain. The vast forests called Oldwood by the Elves sleep mostly hidden from the rest of the world. Cherished, protected. The music of countless creatures calling to one another pulses and fades with the passing of predators through the wood. And here and there a Spriggan watches and tends and waits.

    Hiisekesifesholisueferakandolin looks up from blossoms of dryad’s throne. Something stirs at the edge of the wood. The verdant shard within her shivers, recoils. She stands very still for several hours, sensing the currents of life and magic at the borders of this land. Something new flays the western woods, tendrils of rotted magic feeling their way through the far leaves.

    It comes again, after so long. It should not be here.

    The Spriggan turns and runs swiftly toward her grove deep in the wood.


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at February 21, 2021 4:36 PM PST