The Fleet #3

The Cure (2)

Previously

The next morning was much the same. I awoke bathed in my own sweat with the bedsheets peeling off my back.

Théa had while I slept and had returned when I woke, carrying in a waterskin. She tossed it to me and I gulped it down greedily. “What news?” I asked, breathlessly.

“Father still wants the Queen to apologize. He says he owes her a debt that must be repaid one way or another.”

I barked out a laugh. “One way or another? Our options are little and less.”

“That is so. I must tell the High Queen of this news. Or lack of it”

“She won’t like it.”

“I’m not asking her to.”

“Mayhaps the wind will return tomorrow?”

“Mayhaps,” she said and then withdrew. I was smart enough not to ask if I could join her.

The wind did not come the next day, nor the day after that, and the High Queen returned to the center of camp each midday to announce our lack of progress. After the third day Théa had challenged her to commit troops, but the Eldish were already assembling their archers, and her threat was emptied.

Soon, she promised, again and again, the wind will return, and we’ll resume our attack, retake my daughter, my treasure and theirs—then leave as Morgad, one empire, united.

Untied, most like, I would think as she finished her speech. Théa had little to report on council session, save the bickering. Lines were being drawn amongst the Kings and Queens as the whose side they would be on in this war: Maev’s or Théa’s.

#

The wind would not return return and we were hot all the time. It was beginning to burn even to breathe.

“Have you asked your father to let the debt go?” I would ask Théa. She wasn’t enjoying the situation as much as she used to, of late.

“He says the gods don’t forget their debts. He won’t listen to me.”

My senses expanded in the days to come. I started to notice how hot the sand could be–and how scratchy my clothes. Men and women alike had stopped wearing shirts altogether when some ended the day with their chests bleeding from them.

Tempers frayed among our ranks. In the beginning it would come to blades at least twice a day.

Every day Théa waded into the sea and watched the horizon, waiting for his father to bring her his news.

After a month, our anger had increased but our fights were gone. It was too hot for that.

At last, Théa returned to camp, and sat on our damp bed, far from me. I didn’t mind–it was hot enough without her closeness.

“My Father has relented…somewhat.” She said. The words tip-toed from one to the next. She didn’t look me in the eye and was quick to fidget. I felt my stomach rise into my throat.

She was keeping something secret, I knew. But I was too weary to ask what it was.

I would come to regret that decision.

“Should we go to the High Queen?” I asked.

“We should,” he said and set out.

We met Maev in the center of camp. Her mood was as irritated as her skin, red and raw and sweating. He glared hatred at anyone unfortunate enough to look him in the eye.

“I’ve spoken again with my Father, your Majesty.”

The High Queen snarled, but quickly regained his composure. “What news?” Her voice sounded thin.

“My father and cousin ask a high price. May we speak in private?”

Maev glared at me. “The bitch stays.”

“Fitz comes.” Théa had her hand on the hilt of her longsword.

Maev mirrored the motion. “Don’t be a fool, Lordess.” The two glared at each other, neither drawing their sword. Muscles tightened. Knuckled whitened. Both of them assessed the other.

“I’ll go,” I said, and turned away to be by myself before Théa could protest.

I waited alone by the shore; heard men arguing amongst themselves. Some put their blades to whetstone; others diced or played cards. I heard two men shouting, far off, and then the scrape of steel against leather, and then one man made a wet sound, like a bucket dropped into a well.

There was no more arguing after that.

#

Théa returned after sunset, silhouetted by moonlight.

“What news?”

“The High Queen and I have reached an agreement.” She stopped, looked down and collected her thoughts.

I could fell something like a fish wriggling in my stomach. “Tell me more.”

“The High Queen and I have spoken. It is generally accepted that royal blood has power,” she said. “And the blood of two royals—however petty they may be, could produce a…desirable heir.” Her voice cracked. “The High Queen has a son.” She murmured the rest, but I knew what she would say—and that she was asking for my permission.

“Our agreement hinges on this,” she explained. “The wind must return.” She looked like she wanted to kiss me—an undesirable thought. I’d seen some try it. The heat had made all of us sticky. “What will become of me?”

“There’s no dishonor, Fitz. We do our duty, nothing more. We will still have each other. Nothing will change but names and titles.”

“But—”

“A wedding would do us all good,” Théa said. Her fingers curled around the back of my head. My thoughts frayed held me by the back of my head, such that his breath tickled my lips. “You need not be jealous. Nothing will change, save morale.”

She was waiting for my consent, I realized. “You haven’t given the Maev my answer yet?”

“It is not my place to speak for you. Give me your decision and she’ll have her answer.”

I turned her words over in my mind, and then: “Tell her I consent to the arrangement.” A fish wriggled in my stomach as the words left my mouth. Before she could respond, I kissed her, despite the heat. I could not let her have doubts about where my loyalties lay.

We parted. Breathless, Théa answered, “I will.” But wasn’t smiling. He kept his gaze on the ground, lost in his own thoughts.

I would come to remember that look.

Next

The Fleet #2

The Cure (2)

Previously

When I awoke, I felt a great wrong. I didn’t understand it at first. My breaths came heavy and humid, and I tossed aside my wolfskin blanket. I was sweat-soaked down to my smallclothes—and Théa was gone. I jerked about like a marionette as I looked for her in the seconds after waking.

My flesh peeled off the bedsheets as I rose, and I stumbled out of the longhouse in search of her. That aside, my skin was dry and my hands were so sweat-soaked that they’d wrinkled like raisins.

I needed a breeze off the water.

But even as I bust out the door the air was claustrophobic. My breaths came heavy—and the air felt thick as butter. I wondered if I’d been poisoned.

I realized there was something wrong with the way things sounded, too. Or rather, there was a distinct lack of sound. My footsteps felt hollow. There was no hiss of waves, nor the flap of war banners.

I crested a dune overlooking the beach to find the ocean was as flat as polished steel.

I saw Théa out there, naked and chest deep in the sea. I rushed down the dune to join her. I discarded my smallclothes, picking them off like dead flesh.

I waded out—the water was warm as piss, though the lack of waves made it easy to close the gap between us.

I seized Théa’s forearm. “What’s wrong?”

“I was talking with Father,” she said. She cloaked her face in impassivity. “The High Queen should not have offered me insult so close to the shore. He heard her.”

“Has he done this? I wasn’t aware he had control of the wind.”

“He’s not alone in his anger. He’s enlisted the help of my cousin, the Lord of Wind. He’ll give give speed to Eldish arrows, save any toward me.”

“We have to get back to camp, warn the others, tell the High Qu—” Realization dawned on my face, and Théa nodded along.

“The outcome will be the same regardless of what she thinks. They’ve bottled the wind until the High Queen apologizes.”

“She’s not like to apologize if she thinks you asked this of him.”

Her dispassion cracked for and a smile bled through. “Does she have a choice? Let’s tell her this news.”

#

We waded onto shore, dripping wet. The heat had baked us dry by the time we reached the longhouse where I helped Théa into her finest armor. She was meeting with a High Queen after all. Comfort was secondary to appearances.

We exited the longhouse as others were beginning to wake, calling to others in confusion. Men and women scrambled about the camp. Messengers ran from longhouse to longhouse. And Théa and I approached Queen Maev, leaning against the outside of her great walls.

“I think she expects us, my Lady.”

“Then I don’t doubt she knows why this has happened. Mayhaps this is a sign of a hasty apology.”

I looked from Maev to Théa and back again. “That’s doubtful, my Lady.”

Every shout had no echo, every footstep rang hollow. It was as if some force moved to silence all sound the moment it noised itself.

The High Queen stood straighter as Théa arrived, attempting to wipe the sweat from her forehead with her sweat-soaked forearm. “What are your terms?”

“Cutting straight to business, are we?” Théa said.

“What. Are. Your. Terms?”

“The gods have stopped the flow of wind where walks a woman or man of Morgad.

The High Queen made a noise like a support beam before it snaps. “How do you know this?”

“My Father told me, your Majesty. He said he cannot countenance your slights against me last night, and holds the wind hostage until you make a public apology.”  Queen Maev made to speak, but Théa interrupted her, “My cousin, the Lord of Wind, has also promised to aid Eldish arrows until the aforementioned apology has been made.”

The Queen slitted her gaze. “You cannot fool me, Lordess. I order you to set this to rights or—”

“What will you do?” Théa spread her arms wide, this time shouting, “What will you do?

Red-face, sweaty men and women were turning to watch the two women. There was a crowd drawing. A deliberate act, I realized.

The Queen closed the gap between them, still squinting and still not acknowledging my presence. “What I will do, Lordess, is give you three sunrises to set this to rights. After that, we ride out against the Eldish. And any casualties in battle are on your head.”

I didn’t realize I’d spoken until the words left my mouth: “Even the High Queen can’t make demands of the gods.” I offered a belated, “Your Majesty.”

Théa and Maev turned to look at me. Théa eyes were as wide as Maev’s were narrowed.

The High Queen’s knuckles cracked against my jaw and the ground rushed up to meet me. I pushed myself to my knees, spitting sand and blood.

Above me, Maev shook three fingers in Théa’s face. “Three days,” she repeated. “And see to it that your whelp holds her tongue in the future. I have no words for the base born.” She turned to leave as Théa helped me to my feet.

When I had my feet solidly beneath me, Théa turned to shout, “You arrogant bitch!”

Maev whirled around and sauntered back to us. “What did you call me?”

“Would you like me to say it a little louder?”

“I’m giving you a chance to redact them, Lordess.”

“Why redact them?” She turned to address the crowd that had formed. “It’s on display for everyone to see!”

“You called this down on us. You will not shift the blame onto me.” She left without another word. I turned to the crowd, trying to see where their favor lay, but decided not to chance it. “We should get inside,” I said, and half-dragged Théa to our room.

When we arrived Théa pinched my chin and turned my head sideways. She brushed a finger against the bruise on my jaw.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

“I’m fine, Théa.”

Another bruise-brush. “This…” Théa said, thinking aloud, “She’s marked you. She will not do this again.”

“There’s nothing you can do if she does.”

“I cannot allow this to pass.”

“Do you have a choice?”

She sat on the bed and wrung her hands. “Yes,” she said. “I always do. Don’t you remember last night’s song?”

There would be no further incidents that day, save that Queen Maev marched out to the middle of our camp to announce our predicament, for the few who hadn’t heard.

Next

The Fleet #1

The Cure (2)

It began with a visit from the Lord of Letters. He was a god, modestly garbed with worn-thin sandals from his endless travels. He was not a powerful god, but he was necessary.

The great halls of Balor were one of his last visits. We were a city-state of the Valyran Empire. And our great halls were not so great as befits its Queen. We were a petty Kingdom, with a timbered, low-ceilinged hall that housed more cobwebs than men.

But the Lord of Letters visited us all the same. We had been expecting him for weeks, after word spread of his visits to Valyra’s highest Kings and Queens.

He had unrolled his parchment, dusted it off and read it as loud as trumpets. “The gods command you send your fleets to the Eldish Empire!”

“We’ve only one ship,” said the Queen of Balor. The Lord of Letters did not seem to hear her.

“The High Queen Maev’s daughter and riches have been taken! You are commanded to dispatch your forces to Eld and join the cause against its Empire!”

“We’ve heard—” Others had said their message stopped there, but the Lord of Letters continued. “The Lord of Waves sends his favor, and will grant you safe and swift passage—on the condition the Queen send her daughter in her stead.” Then he rolled up his parchment and walked out of the hall, sandaled feet slapping the floor.

I never said he delivered long messages. Only important ones.

#

Not everyone called their banners. For Eld and Morgad had been building their empires for centuries. Our forces were so evenly matched that there were whispers that even the gods were divided on which side should be taken. I remember one man swearing he saw the Lord of Letters after we set sail, his worn-down sandals keeping him afloat across the expanse toward Eld to deliver a notice to begin their defenses.

Some Kings and Queens wished to stay out of the conflict, or found better chances in the Eldish cause.

Nevertheless, ours was an army the likes of which the world will never see again. Kings and Queens across Morgad came with an army at their backs.

Balor had listened to the Lord of Waves—for it was a generous offer and a great risk to deny her. So she sent Lordess Théa in her stead, who chose me as her shieldmaiden. We had been friends since childhood. We knew each other well.

Too well, maybe.

Eld’s walls were far inland, though you could see them from the beaches if you didn’t mistake it for the skyline.

We beached on Eld with a few other small fleets and gathered our soldiers together to join with what men and women of Morgad had already arrived.

Many of the High Kings and Queens had access to better shipwrights or materials. We did not all arrive in a cluster. We came ashore to find three large, timbered longhouses ready for the Morgad’s armies; made partially from some of the longboats in the High Kings’ and Queens’ fleets.

“That seems a poor choice,” I had told Théa.

“Nonsense, love,” she told me, arching an eyebrow like a bowstring drawn taut. “Do you think we’ll be leaving Eld with all of our forces?”

“How many longboats did it take to make all this?” I had to arch my neck to see the roof as we came into its shade.

Théa didn’t smile. “We have a long war ahead of us.”

The High Queen, Maev, hosted a feast for us newcomers, though it was a scant one with strips of meat thin as tree bark dripping with pink juice. Théa insisted I sit with her on the dais with the rest of the Kings and Queens.

“My Lady, I do not belong there,” I said. “That dais is for Kings and Queens and men and women of status.”

“Are you not my shieldmaiden? You’re my right hand, Fitz.”

I bowed my head. “As you say, my Lady. But I am also a bastard. My name itself will remind your company that I do not belong there.”

She seized me by the back of the head and pulled my forehead toward hers. “Then we will watch them cast their scornful glances, and when their tongues turn leaden on the name of my personal shieldmaiden it will be our turn to glare.”

And so, we did. If ever there was a moment I was glad to be a bastard, it was when I watched Kings and Queens trip over their tongues trying to say my name or address me.

Queen Maev cast the most glances. I was grateful she did not acknowledge my presence, for it would not do to upset the High Queen of Morgad.

Well into the night, after the halls were clearing, Théa had a red-brown trunk brought to her. Even Maev had heard of the petty-Lordess’s red-brown trunk. It was adorned with no locks and the wood was inlaid with no scrollwork. But it was said that the lid was heavy—like the ocean rested on top of it.

Théa lifted it without any trouble. I watched Maev as she opened it. To her credit, she kept her face almost implacable. The surprise on her face was there and gone quick as a candle-flicker.

Théa produced the trunks contents—a small thing, wrapped in white linen that made a tingly sound when she touched it. She poured herself into the task of unraveling it, savoring the reveal of her lyre. The headstocks wound or unwound, tuning itself, and she played a song about the daughter of the Lord of Waves, said to have to choices in all of life’s offers: one would lead her down a path of peace and long life, to be quietly forgotten—while the other lead to a path of war and a young death, upon which she would become a legend remembered for all time.

She played her lyre like it was a stage; and the strings were her dancers; pirouetting and singing their notes.

Fingers of moonlight filtered through the longhouse, striping Maev’s face as she watched Théa play. I lost track of time listening to her music tell its tale. But when the last echoes faded there seemed an emptiness that stayed with us.

All eyes went to tight-lipped Queen Maev, gauging her response. It was now the Queen’s turn to hold all breath stoppered.

Unsmilingly, she began clapping, never breaking her gaze from me. Slowly, the rest of the hall followed her applause.

She wrung it at the neck when she spoke. “Kings and Queens—to me, she called. All others leave immediately. I do not care how high or low your station is. I would like to be alone with our Empire’s rulers.

#

Théa and I lodged in the smallest longhouse in between the tallest and widest and one slightly skinnier. We’d been gifted a bed smothered in animal hides. It was there that I awaited her return. It was almost dawn when she entered.

I threw my arms around her and she stumbled back, laughing. “Beloved! What news from the council?”

She squeezed a little tighter and then let go and began helping her out of her armor. “She had few kind words for me, Fitz. She said I offered her great insult today. That I was given an honor to sit amongst such great Kings and Queens. She said she did not like having her kindness returned by seating a bastard at her table.” She brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “They were her words—I’m sorry.”

When she’d on only her tunic I sat her down on the bed and took her hands in mine. “For what?”

“For saying her words. I shouldn’t have repeated them.” She lowered her head.

I pinched her chin between thumb and forefinger and tilted her head up. “Would that I could know myself what they say about me. Since I cannot, I would have you tell me. I’m not upset. Did she say anything else?”

“She has her doubts of me. Others seemed to agree. High King Elias even said most of the council were rulers of empires and great cities. But not only was I a mere Lordess, my Mother is but the ruler of barren rock and infertile soil. They called her the—the—” Her thoughts seemed as frenzied as a bag of wet cats, so I finished for her:

“The Queen of Goats.”

“You know?”

“Bastards tends to have ears in dirties places than Lords or Lordesses—or at least tend to hear things their spies aren’t like to report to them.” I grabbed a fistful of her tunic and pushed her back onto the bed. “That said—” I leaned over her “—They seem to forget about your Father’s rule.”

Théa’s eyebrows cut into a V shape. “They know all too well.” She spoke as if bringing him up imbued her with his authority. “They’re wise not to name him. That would draw his attention. And I doubt they want him joining the Eldish cause and taking his daughter with him.”

“Why don’t you do that?”

She shrugged. “Because that’s the wrong path.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do. But we’ve time enough to discuss this tomorrow.” She clasped her hands together around the back of my neck. “Shall we turn out the light?” She nodded to a candle, grinning.

“I’d like that,” I said. “I’d like that very much.”

Théa was wrong—though neither of us new this at the time. We had no time to discuss Queen Maev’s wroth the next day—nor the day after that. For some time in the night some of the gods decided to intervene on the Eldish side.

 

Next

Hush Little Baby

Between Death and Dreams

The woman stood over the boy’s bed, choking back the sobs. The sharp smell in the air didn’t help her tears.

“Hush little baby, don’t say a word”

The woman gently stroked her son’s hair as he lay down in his bed. She fought to keep her hand steady.

“Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.”

Her voice shook with fear, and she looked at the window to see silhouettes swiftly strutting across her field of vision like moving shadows.

“And if that mockingbird don’t sing”

The child stifled a yawn, and she continued to stroke the side of his head. With her other hand, she took his, and ran her fingers along his knuckles.

“Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.”

The woman could not hold back tears now, as she heard the familiar footsteps approaching the door.

“And if that diamond ring turns brass”

She heard a loud thumping sound as the doors banged open and hit the walls. Still she continued her song, trying to swallow the bile of her thoughts.

“Mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass.”

The woman choked on her words in a moment of fright. On a thought of what might be.

“And if that looking glass gets broke”

The sound of heavy footsteps greeted the other ones. The woman’s heart beat heavily in her chest. The footsteps’ owners talked in hushed tones outside her door.

“Mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat”

The mother watched her son sleep peacefully; the innocence on his sleeping face made the palpitations of her heart all the heavier.

“And if that billy goat don’t pull.”

She caught a lump in her throat when she saw one less shadow from beneath a crack in the door.

“Mama’s gonna buy you a cart and a bull.”

Her voice quivered. Her resolve was all but gone.

“And if that cart and bull turn over.”

The shadow owner’s whispers were barely audible. She could not control her trembling hands.

“Mama’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover.”

The door screeched open, but the mother continued singing softly to her son. Tears came, now, despite her best efforts to restrain them.

“And if that dog named Rover don’t bark”

The woman looked upon the man with sandy brown hair with harsh green eyes. He wore what looked to be an expensive suit, which he straightened upon entrance. His entrance broke all resolve.

“Mama’s gonna buy you a horse and cart.”

The man looked down at the woman and her son.

“And if that horse and cart fall down…”

The man put a long, bony finger to his lips. His footsteps echoed through the room.

“You’ll still be the sweetest little boy in town…”

He knelt next to her and put a slender arm around her.

“So hush little baby…”

Gradually, the woman took her hands off her boy and buried her face in them. Her word came muffled.

“Don’t you cry…”

The man pulled a plug, and the line went flat. His smile vanished, and he sang.

“Daddy loves you and so do I.”