She has the power to summon spirits, but only by the ocean…a mystery she’s going to work on solving, before it might be too late.
Author’s Note: A small boy is fishing with his grandfather; as they talk about life, thoughts and feelings emerge that make a lasting impact on the both. The story is told from the point of view of the young boy’s memory now as a grown man.
I was sitting with Grandpa as he cleaned his catch with a knife that he always had, seemingly forever.
The skritch it made against the scales as he worked it with expert hands was like the rhythmic slap of waves on the shore.
His deft fingers never seemed to get caught on the hooks, though he showed me where they had, when he was first learning. Callouses covered the tender skin there, but never covered over the lessons.
I watched the shallow water eddy about my ankles as I sat on the boat’s edge, watching the wheeling gulls hoping to steal a fish or two, though grandpa always left them something.
“What is it, sailor?”
“Why do you always feed the gulls?”
“Folks call ’em the rats of the sea. I call ’em good luck.”
“Why? The fish swim away when they see them.”
“Yep. Right onto my hook.” He leaned over to catch my eye and said with a wink, “Fish ain’t too bright.”
Then he’d laugh his gentle laugh, and give me a fish head to examine. Somehow, they always looked surprised to be dead.
A gull wheeled in close, and I threw the head into the water to watch them dive and scramble and chase, until finally a victor flew away, three others in pursuit, but there were always others, and they flew in close and bold, curious to see if I held any more treats, but I splashed at them, and they wheeled off, calling me names in their language.
I ran my fingers over the scales of one that was close to me, but didn’t pick it up. The gulls were big, and I was small. I wasn’t afraid, but I didn’t want to test how far they’d go.
“I wonder what they think about when you pull them up…” I said.
“Don’t guess they think much at all.”
He’d finished cleaning the fish, and walked slowly over, and carefully sat next to me, and dipped his ankles in the water next to mine, and the water sloshed in harmony around all the ankles now, and gently swayed the boat beneath our weight.
“I guess they’re in a lot of pain, and just want it to end…” his eyes got far away when he said that, and I knew who he was thinking about.
He nodded, and took off his glasses, cleaned them with his shirt tail, and dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve.
“Yeah, like Grandma.”
He looked at me then, and put his arm around my shoulder, and we watched the gulls for a while.
“And like me.” he said.
“Nothing in particular, and everything in general,” he chuckled.
I smiled, not fully understanding, but he knew that.
He cleared his throat:
“Life’s a lot like a boat,” he said. “You start out in a small craft, and as you travel further out, you take on more, and the craft’s got to get bigger, has to be able to hold all you get. But if you get too much, it slows you down and the journey takes longer. You make more mistakes because you’re always making adjustments for the things you have. You with me…?
“Yes, sir,” I said, proud of myself that I actually sort of got it.
“And then the storms come, and the stuff you have can help weigh you down, and keep you steady, or it can shift and help the waves flip your boat. If it does that, which is most of the time, you not only lose the things, you lose the people too, the people who’ve helped you to become a good sailor. Still there?”
I nodded, swinging my feet in the surging surf, making foam, dangling a piece of seaweed from my toes.
“And then, eventually, you have to get where you have to be. You have to take the boat home, and get rid of the stuff, because it’s just too much. Some of it you drop off along the way, and some of it you unload when you’re back. The journey’s over, and your stuff’s gone, and you’re just glad to be home, in the quiet. You like that?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “When I’m reading, or thinking about stuff.”
“You thinking about this?”
I looked up at him, because his voice had changed. “Yes, Grandpa, I am.”
He tousled my hair, and laughed his gentle laugh again. “Good man.”
“Are you sailing home, now?”
“I am, son.”
He sighed, and looked out at the setting sun.
“To her, and a whole bunch of other folk you don’t know,” and his sleeve moved again, but I couldn’t see if he was crying.
“You getting rid of stuff?”
He chuckled at that, and again, I smiled with him, unsure.
“Most of it’s gone now, but there’s a little more to go.”
“Oh. Wellll, could you tell her I said hello?” As I spoke I tried to write the word “Grandma” in the mud with my big toe, but the waves kept pushing new mud over it. I wrote it anyway, knowing I’d finished it, that it was still under there somewhere, and it would last for all time.
He smiled, a bit sad, “Ok, sailor. I’ll do that.”
We gathered up our catch.
As we walked home, me with my small sack, him with the bigger one and the fishing rods, I turned to look back at the empty boat, sitting empty on the stilling water, in the fading light, and thought about the time he wouldn’t be there with me.
I stopped, and gestured for him to bend.
He did, and I kissed his cheek.
He straightened, a bit puzzled.
“What’s that for?”
“In case you sail for home before I say good-bye.”
I was cleaning my catch, and he sat on the edge of the boat with his ankles in the water.
I threw him a fish head, and he caught it, turning it around to look at it as the gulls grew bolder.
Satisfied he found what he was looking for, he kicked his feet, making foam, and hummed a tune, looking at the sea birds.
He watched them for a time, turning the fish head like an hourglass, but he didn’t throw it.
The blue of the sky deepened as the sun dipped toward the horizon.
“What is it, sailor….?”
© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2014
She was in the servants’ quarters, taking comfort from a friend.
“That royal bitch, pouring wine on me!”
“Watch your tongue, Lydia. Tongues wag, and ears are on the walls.”
“I don’t care…”
“You will if the the princess gets wind of it; here, drink this, and hush.”
“Thank you, Gaile.”
“Excuse me,” Trace said.
Gaile jumped, and Lydia spilled a little of her drink; they looked at each other, and Gaile’s frightened eyes had an ‘I-told-you-so’ look in them, and then she gave the man in the doorway a challenging glare.
“I need to speak to Lydia, alone.”
Gaile huffed, looked again at Lydia, who nodded. “I’ll be all right.”
Gaile left. bumping the man’s shoulder as she pushed past him.
He ignored the not-so-subtle assault, and turned his attention to the girl sitting in the chair, wine cup in hand, trying to pretend nothing happened.
“The queen bitch poured wine down my blouse because the king stared at my breasts, sir.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “That only made him stare harder.”
“Call me Trace. And I’m sorry…”
“Why? Have you never been in a castle before? It goes on all the time, the abuse.”
Trace let that pass so he could get to his questions.
“Did anyone taste the wine first?”
“I wouldn’t have brought it out otherwise; yes, the taster did his job.”
“Where can I find him?”
“I…” she gave it some thought. “You’ll probably find him down in the kitchen, rifling through the silver before he leaves.”
“What does he look like?”
She gave that some thought, too.
“Short, round, wide, and pasty; he won’t be hard to spot.
Her brow furrowed as a change of thought came to her.
“Did you speak to the heirs?”
“I did,” Trace said. “They don’t plan to stay.”
“I hope the Council can convince them otherwise; if there’s no kitchen work, I’ll have to resort to…tavern work.”
“Thank you, Lydia.”
“Can I…can I go with you?”
“To find the taster?”
“I can help you with that,” she stood up, put the drink aside, “but I meant…can I come with you, travel with you?”
“We can discuss that on the way.”
She walked with him toward the kitchens, her large blue eyes focused on him with a hint of desperation.
“I can cook, clean your place, mend your clothing, wash…”
“I travel a lot, Lydia, and I don’t hang around nice places with nice people. I’m sure out there somewhere, there’s a price on my head.
“The things I’m involved in are high stakes and gruesome, with supernatural overtones.
“In short, as much as I’d love to have someone to talk to and share ideas with, I’m not someone to be around for the long term.”
“I understand, but-“
“No, Lydia. No, you don’t understand.”
“There he is. Walcroft is his name.”
Walcroft turned, saw the mage walking toward him, and was caught somewhere between frozen and bolting from the room.
Trace incanted a holding spell just as Walcroft decided on flight, and found himself held fast.
“Leave me alone! I didn’t kill them!”
“No one accused you of murder, so there’s no need to run, is there? If you promise to be still, I’ll remove the incant. If you try to run, I’ll bind you again, more thoroughly. Do you understand?”
“I understand, taint.”
“Walcroft doesn’t like magic, Trace.”
“Your kind are a blight on the land, and I would see you all dead, were the crown mine. Our king, gods rest his soul, had the disease of compassion on him, though he was a lusty man; the queen, not so much. She would have made a better ruler, but the law of the land being what it is, would not surrender the throne to a woman.
“Not here to debate the political merits of regicide, friend, I just need the cups they drank from. Where are they?”
Trace was as calm as Walcroft was agitated, and though the smaller man seemed to be spoiling for a fight, he could see that the mage would not indulge him, and something in his tone conveyed that Walcroft better not push the issue.
Trace walked to where they were, and Lydia followed.
He gave a cursory glance behind him, and she gave him a quick, nervous smile.
“Stand behind me.”
The cups were two different temperatures, and he saw the faces of those who used them.
The queen’s cup was hot with rage, and the king’s cool with drunken lust; in the vision, Trace could see the long line of Lydia’s cleavage, the slope of her breasts under the serving blouse drawing the king’s eye like a moth to flame.
There was nothing to be done for it, though he was embarrassed for her.
He could smell the poison in the wine, a bittersweet berry, tart and acrid, and feel it too; it was heating his blood, singeing his hands, and he began to sweat.
He summoned to go further back, and felt the energy drain from him: a blurred face could be seen, walking toward the cups with the bottle of wine, but whoever it was had their eyes covered by the top of the black hood they wore, so he couldn’t see if it was male or female, their hair, or the color of their eyes.
From the angle, he could see no good details, because he was looking up at the cups from underneath. Someone had been hiding there, someone who could see part of the poisoner’s face, though the poisoner couldn’t see them.
He focused on what he could see.
The lips were small, though, the chin not strong, but it was darker, as if the person spent their time in the sun.
It was either a woman or a thin man, which Walcroft was definitely not.
Lydia wiped his brow with a cool cloth, looked at his hands, and hissed in apprehension.
“They’ll heal,” said Trace.
She looked at him.
“They always do.”
He could see the fright in her eyes, see the things he’d told her about him sinking in as she watched the scars begin to recede and disappear..
“There was someone here, hiding under the counter, and someone in a hooded robe who poisoned the wine. Whoever was under the counter saw part of their face.
“Do any children hang around here, looking for scraps?”
She was finally able to tear her gaze away from his hands.
“It’s not encouraged, but we have a few adventurous ones willing to risk Kiyo’s wooden paddle on their backside.”
“The head cook?”
“The Giantess, we call her, but not to her face.”
“It’s late. I’ll need a place to stay.”
“I’ll make a room up for you.”
She walked past him, but he put his hand on her arm, and shook his head.
“It can’t be here.”
She sighed, took a step into his space.
“I have to come with you, Trace. There’s no future for me here, and I don’t want to be a whore.”
“Please don’t abandon me.”
“I’ll have to think-“
She kissed him, and he gently pushed her back.
“That’s not going to work.”
“Trace, it’s all over you; you need someone.”
She kissed him again.
“Stop it, Lydia.”
She stepped back, looked up into his eyes.
“You stop me,” she said, moving in once more.
He could have; he even wanted to…
But he didn’t.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015
Arlun encounters a fellow traveler, and the journey changes…
Across the African plains, the wind whispers her name through the tall grass…
As the stars glittered indifferently over the natural recesses that let in the chill air, the black-robed men gathered in the cave; the folds of their robes were over their mouths and noses, but their breath was still visible even though it was not winter.
The parents, also wrapped against the mountain cold, stood on either side of the basket that contained their twins, a boy and a girl.
Sensing they were no longer in the safety of their home, the babies began to stir and cry, opening their eyes and lifting their arms, but their parents remained looking at the black-robed men.
Reaching toward one another, their hands joined, and a warm glow lit the skin of their hands from the inside.
At peace now, assured they were not alone, they turned curious eyes on the black-robed throng before them, and their parents on either side of them.
A robed man stepped forward, broad of shoulder, tall and strong.
The mother, wide-eyed, began to whimper. “No, no please…” and stood in front of the basket, shielding the babies from his reach, as their father stepped into the man’s path.
The tall man stopped, and looked over his shoulder inquiringly at an old stooped figure lost in the folds of his own ebon robe.
The old man looked at the father and said, “We will keep them safe.”
“You told us you just wanted to see, and that we could keep them, raise them until they were prepared to come to you!”
“And now,” the old man said with something resembling compassion, “we have deemed that will not be necessary.”
The mother plucked the daughter from the basket, and the father his son, but the ensuing chase and struggle were tragically brief.
The tall man collected the restive infants from the arms of their lifeless parents, and the gathered throng left as quietly as they came.
The tall man returned alone to the cave entrance, casting light around his hand in order to see.
Finding the murdered couple, he put their arms around each other, propped up their broken necks so they faced each other, and closed their eyes.
He was surprised to find his voice raspy with emotion, the taint of taken lives like a thin layer of slime on his hands.
“We will keep them safe.”
As he walked away, leaving the bodies in the dark, the light around his hand dimmed, and went out as he left the cave entrance for the last time.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015