Nineteen – The Storm

“That is not what I remember.”

Jeik smiled faintly, strands of his patchy beard grown out long enough to see in the sunlight. His eyes scanned the sky, the yoke to the rudder murmuring as he made minute adjustments on the wheel to keep the power of the wind in the sails. The sun-browned cloud of his hair was starting to grow downward instead of out.

“Well, he did,” Trich said. He glanced behind the stern out of habit , seeing only clear skies, open crystal water, and an empty horizon. Down on the main deck a huddle was still going through the nets, patching anything that had worn thin the past few days trawling.

“Doesn’t really seem like Fis,” Jeik commented.

“I bet if you ask ‘im, he’ll say the same.”

“I am not taking that.”

Trich gave a short laugh, unconsciously shifting his weight as the ship heeled over a little more. Past small crowd around the nets, he saw a figure clamber out of the main hatch, standing awkwardly.

“Hey, there she goes.”

“I heard she didn’t want any of you.”

“Not a finger,” he agreed.

“Maybe breeders go crazy the opposite of Sergilé women.”

“‘Course I also didn’t offer to lick her. That coulda changed everything.”

“Oh, I believe you.”

She was standing with her legs braced at odd angles and arms out slightly with fingers spread, peering around her. Trich hoped she didn’t fall back down the hatch the next hard wave. After a few breaths she went around the shady side of the longboat and wedged herself against it for her nap. The stump of his leg buried under the trawling net, Ecrembl shifted slightly to keep an eye on her, trimming cordage with his knife.

A new breeze fluttered across the drive of the main wind, curling around them, then disappearing. A memory of a years-ago woman with strong hands in Dorth played idly behind his eyes, intercut with nearer memories of skin against skin and the smell of wood and pitch and salt. Catching a shadow in his peripheral vision, he glanced up to watch the wavering flight of a broja, red wing-stripe almost visible.

Mina ormiet,” Jeik said, turning the wheel a handspan. Trich focused on him, his attention sharpening on the winds and Jeik’s face. “Put up the storm sails,” Jeik told him. “She’s shifting.”

Trich felt his heart pace faster, his whole body snapping to full alertness. Nothing hinted to him of rough water.

“Put ’em up now?”

Now, while we still have time.”

Werse, Gerril, we gotta put up storm sails,” he yelled, jumping down from the stern deck. Both their faces looked at him before they made for halyard block. He jogged past them, going for the storage under the forward deck. Heaving it open, he hauled out the neatly folded sails. The main yard was already half-lowered, and someone was starting on the mizzen. They were dragging almost to a halt, beginning to bob rather than break against the fair-weather waves.

Men were already pulling out the shorter yard for the mainsail, and Tande helped him lay out the heavy stiffness of the storm sail. They began attaching the head of the sail to the beam with quick, short loops of line, and at Trich’s signal Werser began hoisting it up, using his massive weight to haul the halyard through the sheaves of the block. Dangling from the yard, the heavy sail flapped weakly in the breeze, beginning to fill as they trimmed the lines.

Back on the stern deck, he heard the scooting thunk of a porthole being plugged with its cover, the garble of activity below. Lam and Eana were pacing down the deck, coiling up extra line and checking that every cleat and block was in place.

Jeik began wearing, pulling the ship about then looping around so their tack was more westerly than easterly. The shorter yards still needed help around the masts. They were barely moving, only a kerchief of sail catching the driving power of the wind. The day was still bright, and clear, the blue-green waves almost translucent.

Someone had woken Clisand, and he and Jeik were watching the northern horizon, talking low. The first shift of the storm crew was climbing skyside, and Eana was passing out measured coils of line. He saw Ashur down on the main deck staring out across the bow, arms folded across his chest.

A pod of whiteblades swam by, sharp, pale fins slicing through the waves in swooping braids into the landless waters. An abrupt wind out of the land-side of north fluttered the waves, heeling the ship over and plastering Trich’s tunic to his skin.

The whole eastern half of the sky began to turn a depthless blue-gray, smudges already reaching for the west. The first flash of rain was soft and sudden, then disappeared after only a breath. The wind began to whip up the water, little whitecaps licking over the tops of the waves.

“Hey, Trich!”

His head snapped around to a tall figure frozen awkwardly in place, arms half-spread for balance.

Laberd.” It was soundless, the wind stealing his breath.

Jumping down from the stern deck, he took the two paces to reach her.

“What’s going on?” She pushed her voice over the wind, hair snapping in all directions, hands gripping one of the mast stays for balance.

“Storm. Get below. We can’t afford you being in the way.” He could feel the thin, long braid at the base of his neck whipping against his back.

“Okay, so, storm. Bad storm?”

“Hurricane.”

He watched her take it in. She seemed to understand.

“Hell, if I’m gonna die, I wanna watch.”

Trich grinned at her suddenly, and started knotting the rope Eana had given him around her torso, then looping the the harness between her legs. “Whoa.” She stiffened in surprise, but let him position her to finish the knots.

“Whoa,” she said when he pushed her toward the mast and down on her knees. “Whoa. Oh. Okay. Wow.” Wrapping the line around the mast where it leaned against the end of the hatch, Trich knotted it to the harness around her chest, then around again. The next flash of rain hit like a mallet, heavy and thick, not quite dense enough to soak them instantly. The straining sail above them began to darken in rough patches, her voice reached muddily through pelter.

“Oh shit, man, this is for real.”

~~~

They were flying into her and there was no way to stop it.

Ashur pelted up the ladder to the stern deck as the rain finally hit and grabbed one of the lines from Lam. Litin and Alan were ready for wounded in the sick cabin, and the second storm crew waited in the hold.

Can you help keep us straight?” Jeik yelled, fighting the rudder, legs tense as he struggled for balance.

I have to talk with her!” he shouted over the wind, looping rope around his hips, over his shoulders, tying the strongest knots he knew at each point to bear his weight without crushing him.

A gust made the ship lurch onto its side, Jeik struggling against the the yoke to keep them from broaching against the heightening waves. Ashur clung to the stanchion until the deck leveled, edging down the steps and grabbing the wiry tension of each mast stay as he passed it. The deck bucked underneath him, and he stumbled to a crouch on one hand, forcing himself back up. He crawled past Gerril, onto the forward deck, rain dripping from his eyelashes, barely able to see his hands as he lashed himself to the beam. Vicious, jagged whitecaps frothed around them, pitching the ship higher and higher.

Water ran down his arms in sheets as he braced himself on all fours, staring into the blackening horizon, depthless, featureless. A silent beat of fierce, muted white resounded in his body like a drum, then another, another, revealing the mass of cloud that ate the sky. Thunder, too far away to be heard, danced along the nerves in his neck, pierced the inside of his skull.

Letting go of the eye-searing winds and darkening water, Ashur let himself expand out, outward until he met what he was seeking: A center of attraction pulling everything toward it, shifting the patterns of the world into its own. She drew her power from how many times she had come before, generation after generation, before the first woman bore the first daughter, before the River.

Colossal. Passing. Immortal.

And then he was caught, sucked into her inevitable attraction.

Turning. Turning.

Join me.

Join me. Join me.

Join me. Join me. Join me.

We meet and we turn.

I move. I turn. I am moving.

Join us.

The wind pounded him flat against the deck, water stinging his skin, streaming down his face around his nose, swallowing air through his mouth.

You are moving. We are moving, he said.

Join us.

It whispered along his skin, a caress into his body.

We could move part. We could move away.

Meet us. Join us.

They were joining the hurricane, being pulled into her influence like the ocean, like the sky, into the incomprehensible immensity of her power. He had no concept of how many heartbeats, how many breaths, how many nights had passed since he reached for the storm. The ship rode the peak of a swell as high as the mainmast and opening in front of him was the gaping trough before the next. Jeik took them down the slope of the swell at an angle, then turned them back up. The ship plunged nose-first into the wave, drenching him, drowning him, hurling his body against the strength of the harness, leaving him unable to tell the difference between the ocean and the rain, choking, gasping, burning, fingernails digging into the wood.

We could part. We could move.

Parting like streams of water, like long hair and the fronds of the trees with draping branches, like air, like the parting of brief friends on journeys. Apart growing together and apart again, a desperate flurry of images and feelings and thoughts from parts of his life that had never met, coming together in accordance to say this one thing, make this one plea-persuasion-bid.

Growing. Stretching. Reaching. Turning.

We reach and grow and stretch and all things become me.

Turning. Turning. Pulling.

All things to the center.

Around, he begged. Moving around, skirting, edging, like hunters and prey, like a stream bending around a rock, like clouds around mountains and siblings on the day the sharp flowers wilt.

Growing. Birthing. Reaching.

We turn.

A silent flash of lightning brighter, whiter than day burned a roiling landscape that would never exist again into his eyes. He saw it, could feel it now, growing out of the thrashing ocean around them, a slippery ribbon reaching from the swells, flaring to meet the dense weight of the green-tinged clouds.

Waterspout.

There was a yell, visible to his hearing for only heartbeat through sheets and sheets of noise, slicing water and ripping winds. There was no way to alter its course, no time to try to move what was immoveable, no surety he could try without breaking himself.

Where will you go? he asked, a steady whisper in the raging winds. Will you move away?

It writhing through the margins of the greater pattern of the mother storm.

Birthing. Living. Turning. Joining.

Move away? he asked.

The waterspout twisted along the edges of his senses, snaking through him, around his spine. The world lit white again, then a crack of thunder beat into his bones.

The presence consumed him, and he could do nothing but change himself, shift his pattern to match the storm. Terror thrilled through his blood, the inevitability of his helplessness.

The whirlwind was sucking the air away, drawing the rain and them with it, turning the ship parallel to the next deadly wave—

Please.

Already moving. Spinning. Turning. Falling. Slowing. Already moving.

He felt the waterspout collapsing, a brief, whirling life spent and ending, being swept again into the cycle of the storm.

We are moving apart?

Already moving.

Already away.

Turning, moving, new meetings, new joinings.

He could feel an arm of the storm meeting land, could feel it batter sand and trees and rocks and birds and burrowing, skittering legs, all washed away, pummeled leaves ripped apart, roots gripping and holding and remaining.

When they broke into clear skies tinged pink and orange, there was a curling line of beach limning the east and north, barely visible against the morning sun. A breeze riffled the waves, a caress of leave-taking.

Words unfolded in his mind, not entirely his, not entirely tradition.

Bless the storm and her destruction. Bless her coming, and her going.

Bless her coming and her going.

May her passage cleanse the world.

He laughed, forehead pressed against the deck, hands limp beside his ears. Laughed again, the feeling bubbling behind his ribs as he shakily pushed himself up, flopping onto his back, rope digging under the lip of his shoulder blade. Crowed to the deepening sky and couldn’t stop laughing.

Hey, Ashur? Ashur. Laberd.

A hand pressed against his leg, firm and living, not wood not water not rope not wind. Jormrher’s pale, strong, sharp face and naked head, prickly yellow hair spiky wet and beaded with morning light.

The dawn turned the clouds pink and orange and purple in bands, like swirls of silt on the delta.

He’s moving!” Jormrher called to a blur of voices and movement Ashur couldn’t quite see.

His voice was gummed up in his throat. “My mother’s father was a fish.

I was more afraid you’d break your—

“Holy fucking shit! Motherfucking hell!”

They looked over to find the Crazy lashed to the mainmast, clothes plastered to her skin or about the fall off depending on where you looked, her dark hair a snarl over her face. They stared at her together for a breath.

What is she doing up here?

I have no idea,” Jormrher said slowly.

“Holy shit man! Oh my fucking god!” Jormrher was turning back to him, jerking the release of the knot binding him to the beam, jerking it again when it didn’t loosen.

Come on, let’s get you below.

No,” he said, and curled into a ball, dissolving into blankness.

~~~

Alan and Lamdek carried Aaric between them into the sick cabin. Stripped to the waist with black hair braided out of its usual disarray, Litin had finished easing Naal’s shoulder back into the socket. Naal used his good hand to free his brushy beard as Litin slipped the arm into a sling. As they helped Aaric to the table, Litin assessed the blood and Aaric’s yellowed face, and passed Naal on to Dhomlar to help him down into the hold.

“Hey Litin,” Aaric said, words tight through gritted teeth. Alan supported his arm as Lamdek shifted out from under Aaric’s shoulder to help him on the table. A yell from skyside penetrated the walls of the sick cabin, answered by a two others, fainter.

“Come on, in here,” came from the hall, someone shuffling by, holding his arm.

Aaric lowered himself carefully onto his belly, getting one leg up on the table, the other hanging, long lines of sticky blood running down his thigh and around the curve of his calf. Alan carefully lifted Aaric’s leg next to the other, and settled his hands around the wound, cautious of the jagged shard of wood protruding from his thigh. He sank beneath his senses into Aaric’s flesh as Litin gathered bandages, seawater, needles, then stood on the other side of the table. When Alan pulled his hands away, Litin felt the puffy heat around the wound with his fingers, leaning in to smell it.

“It’s close to the artery.” Alan ran his hands outward from the puncture, tracing the flow of blood and tension as Aaric made measured breaths against the table. “Ashur?”

Lamdek said, “Down like a navgh in the droughts. We’re not gonna to be able to wake him up.”

“There’s the rethor,” said Litin.

Two breaths of silence.

“Where’s Efeddre?”

“Prob’ly in the bilge.”

“Find him.”

A solid body flashed past the open door, brown skin and hair.

“Toney,” Alan called, with no reply. Lamdek stuck his head out of the door and called his name down the hall. A suggestion of an answer reached through the walls, then a heavy, quick pace. Toney jerked to a halt in the doorway, face blank, grey smudges deep around his eyes, coming in when Alan beckoned.

“How do we use the rethor?”

Toney blinked, staring into the air for a long breath. Suddenly he scraped a hand through his lank brown hair. “Um, all right. You won’t have to use much. Less than blood. S’not going to be as strong as it should be. But it’s still strong. Thick. Um… You’ll have to dilute it.” Alan looked at him questioningly. “Um, maybe half? I don’t know. Yer gonna have to see, it’s, that stuff’s, not normal. Healthy.” Litin had already taken out a bowl with a wide base and jar of water.

“How much?”

“Just enough to cover half the bottom,” Toney said. Litin was retrieving a clay flask from one of the chests, uncorking it and tipping it carefully over the bowl. A viscous, dribbling stream plopped in the hollow of the bowl. He tilted it toward Toney.

“Yeah. And that much water.” A musical splash. When Alan looked at him, “And now… now yer just gonna have to see.”

“Can anything go wrong?”

His rounded face went blank again, and he seemed almost about to blurt a negative. Then he suddenly hesitated with his entire body, drawing back into himself. “Maybe.”

“And if it does?”

“Wash it out.” He looked grim. “I dunno else. It’s been— It’s a long time, and that…” He was staring at the flask, something unreadable drawing his brows together, changing the shape of his mouth.

They turned back to Aaric, Alan distractedly half-signing ‘Have what I need’ to Toney, who moved as if to make for the door.

“Hold him,” Alan said, and settled his hand around the wood. Litin gripped Aaric’s dark calf with one hand and pressed down on the back of his knee with the other as Lamdek moved to put his weight down on his shoulders.

“Hahhh. Hahhh. Ah— Ahha— ha-ha ha—”

Alan eased the jagged edges out with steady pressure, shifting the angle as he felt nerves flare, splinters hooked into muscle, watching the artery beneath the sensation of pull and resistance and slick blood.

“Ha ah ah— Hah. Hah. Hhhrrrrg.

The wood separated from Aaric’s flesh with a sensation almost like a sound, a sucking gasp that traveled up Alan’s arm. Blood was pooling rapidly in the hole, spilling over, but not spurting. He pushed his fingers in, searching. There were tiny pockets that evaded his senses, islands that were not flesh. Barely aware of the cabin around him, Alan found a splinter, picked it out carefully by feel with a needle, then another, almost too small to be seen, red welling around his fingers. Aaric started slapping the table, releasing a long groan between his teeth.

Turning toward the bowl Litin offered him, Alan saw Toney had not left, but stood, watching. Dipping his fingers in the puddle of wetness at the bottom on the bowl, Alan sank them into torn muscle. Aaric forced out a strangled gurgle, fingers digging into the edge of the table as Alan worked his fingers deeper, edging it into the recesses of the wound.

Aaric gasped, and Alan pulled his fingers out abruptly as something began to change, to build and fold and stretch and regrow. Activity was raging beneath his hand, not Aaric’s body healing, but his flesh being swept into the momentum of sheer vitality that assaulted it. Muscle found muscle, bonding, building, tissues connecting, grasping, drawing together.

Planting his hands on the table, Litin leaned over to watch, then pressed one hand on the inside of Aaric’s thigh, feeling the shifting in the muscle, tiny clusters of spasms. Aaric clutched his arms to his chest, barely able to keep himself flat on the table, letting out long, hard whimpers, shaking. Litin’s other hand went to the small of his back.

Easy.

Aaric was breathing quietly ragged, the vitality diminishing, slowing until it became inert, present without moving.

Alan stared, transfixed, looking underneath his senses at the jagged hole in Aaric’s thigh now half closed, only a suggestion of scar in how the muscle did not align quite as perfectly as it had.

Litin unstoppered a jar trickled seawater into the gash.

On my mother and my aunt!” Aaric yelled, beating the table with a fist. Pink water trickled onto the table, dribbling rapidly over the edge, slithering across the floor to make its way through the cracks to the bilge. Taking a smooth-woven bandage and dampening it with seawater, Alan draped it over the wound.

“Who’s next?” asked Litin.

“Odul popped his elbow out,” Lamdek said. “And Egreall cut his side up.”

“Give me Odul,” Alan told him.

Lamdek moved toward the door as Alan bathed his hands, red lingering in the creases of his knuckles and nails.

A scrape below hearing shivered up the hull, almost overlooked, and the cabin went abruptly quiet. A muddy drawl of voices out on deck, continuous. A creak in two parts, pitch moving upward. The ship rolled faintly, and the scrape deepened, resonance moving lower, and Alan caught himself from stumbling as the cabin lurched to a suddenly more extreme angle. And then they were still.

Absolutely still.

Lamdek moved rapidly to the porthole and turned his head sideways to peer out. They waited, the silence strange and suddenly obvious.

Tsunami are like rocking cradles,” Alan heard, hissed under his breath. Then aloud: “We are very, very aground.”

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