THE WRECK OF THE BENT WING – Part 1
(A companion story to Book 2, The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice)
The command was delivered on the eve of the fleet’s departure, the message borne by a boat flying the royal colors; it drew alongside the Bent Wing just as the sun was setting over the Golden Millpond.
Captain Altona received the letter duly, and noted with some surprise the Sea Lord’s official seal on the envelope. Upon breaking that seal he found within a simple but rather extraordinary directive. The Bent Wings’ scapegoat, Celestine of the Misthrown, was to report immediately to the Twelfth Kingdom – indeed, she was to report to the palace itself, and to the Sea Lord’s very own apartments.
The captain lifted an astonished gaze to the capital ship floating half a mile away across the placid waters, the great brazen dome of its palace glowing warm in the sunset light. Now what in all the deeps could the Sea Lord want with Celestine? She was as faithful a scapegoat as any ship could hope for, no doubt – why, she had served on board the Bent Wing longer than anyone, even Altona himself. But she was as slow and simple as a child, and hardly one to discuss high policy with the likes of Ibanez the Third, ruler of all the known Oceans and Isles.
Nevertheless, a command was a command; and anyway Captain Altona had little time to waste on idle speculation. There was still so much to be done before morning. His gaze shifted to the two ships that were riding at anchor alongside his own, their decks as busy with final preparations as were the Bent Wing’s. At dawn, all three ships would raise sail and set forth on what was surely destined to be one of the most important voyages in all history.
Two voyages, actually. But that particular fact was as yet a sworn secret.
Heaving a sigh, Altona folded the letter away. He sent a lieutenant off to inform the scapegoat, then returned to his own pressing business.
Celestine of the Misthrown was no child, even if everyone – the captain included – often treated her as one. In truth she was over sixty years old, and there was little she did not know of the sea and ships. In her time as scapegoat – she had first set sail at the age of eleven – she had served on three different vessels and under at least a dozen captains, and seen officers and crew beyond count come and go.
But the mistake was perhaps forgivable, for her body was indeed as shrunken almost as an infant’s. Some affliction had warped her in her mother’s womb, and she had emerged wretched and bent, and had never grown properly. Hence her name; for misthrown was the title bestowed upon scapegoats who had been born with their infirmities, rather than earning them later in life by accident or illness.
Only her skull had ever attained adult size, but that made it overlarge for her thin neck, so that her head drooped to one side, giving her a deranged look. But she wasn’t mad, or even simple. True, the affliction that had twisted her body had also stiffened her tongue, making it hard for her to form words. And she had never been taught to read or write. But her thoughts, locked away behind her peculiar eyes, were wise enough in their own way.
Even so, she didn’t know what to make of the Sea Lord’s strange summons any better than had Captain Altona. At first, she only eyed the lieutenant disdainfully when he brought the news, as if he was attempting a joke at her expense. But no, it was all in earnest. The royal boat was waiting. Before she knew it she was bundled up and loaded on board and launched off to the Twelfth Kingdom.
At which point dread took hold of her. She was really being taken to meet with Ibanez the Third? But why? Celestine could think of no explanation. She was nobody of any importance, after all. The royal court was hardly her fit place. Why, she’d never set foot upon the capital ship before, or even glimpsed the mighty Sea Lord from a distance!
So what could the invitation signify? Did it involve their impending voyage? Tomorrow the Bent Wing and its companions sailed for the Unquiet Ice, under command of the Sea Lord’s own son, the Lord Designate Nadal. As a father, Ibanez would doubtless be concerned with the fate of such a voyage, and fate was a scapegoat’s province. But the Bent Wing was the fleet’s smallest vessel: a mere merchantman. If the Sea Lord wished to discuss fortune, why not summon the scapegoat of the battleship Tempest Nadal’s own craft and flagship of the expedition?
Ah, if only she was foresighted, as some scapegoats were, then she might know.
But Celestine possessed no foresight; or more correctly, the one occasional (and terrible) form of foresight she did posses was of no use to her right now. She could only clutch her scrawny arms to her chest, and watch wide-eyed as the Twelfth Kingdom rose up like a mountain before her.
They berthed at one of the floating docks, where a somber looking courtier was waiting. The man extended a hand to help Celestine from the boat – embarrassing her into a bark of laughter, for she was not used to such politeness. But the courtier bowed, and said, ‘I am to lead you to the Sea Lord’s quarters, and the climb is a long one. I can arrange a sedan chair for you, if you would prefer.’
A sedan chair! Celestine shook her head. She was old, and her legs were unsteady at the best of times, but she wasn’t helpless; she could clamber up and down between decks on the Bent Wing just fine, thank you very much. Anyway, she’d feel ridiculous being carried around like a princess.
‘Very well then,’ nodded the courtier, and so led her off along the gangway.
It was indeed a long climb, up through the capital ship’s cavernous lower decks, then out onto the vast open spaces of the main, and so on into the palace. Celestine would have found it exhausting, if not for her fear and curiosity. What a marvel the Twelfth Kingdom was! And what a monument was the palace! It towered taller than any castle from her poor home kingdom of Malmonte; and inside everything was so golden, so shining, so solid in the illumination of the great chandeliers. She had known many ships, and seen them grow old with internal rot and then disappear into the shipyards to be dismantled – but that would never happen to the Twelfth Kingdom. It felt as eternal as any city upon the land.
And yet death had not been banished here; not even amid so much enduring grandeur.
As Celestine and her guide ascended a stairway in the palace, they passed by a young woman in the company of two high ranking officers. She was arrayed in dazzling finery – her dressof rippling silk, her neck draped with strings of pearls and diamonds – and she was beautiful too, laughing brightly with her companions. But her lovely face bore a grey cast over it like a shadow, a grey cast that Celestine knew only she could see, invisible to all others. It turned the girl’s glowing cheeks hollow to the scapegoat’s gaze, and dulled the brightness of her eyes, making them look to Celestine waxen and empty.
That shadow only ever meant one thing. Whoever the girl was, royal princess or admiral’s daughter or king’s consort, the pretty young thing would be dead within a month.
Celestine bowed her head and passed on without a word, betraying nothing of her vision; she no longer tried to warn such unfortunates of their impending fate. There was a time when she had attempted it, but even on the rare occasions when she had managed to make herself understood, and had been believed, it had served no purpose anyway. Nothing could help those marked with the grey cast; no warning could enable them to avoid their doom, nor did it seem to give anyone any comfort, to know that their end was approaching.
It was useless, indeed, her one gift of foresight; to know when those around her were to die, and yet be unable to do anything to prevent it. Years ago she had decided to spare herself and others the pain. Now, when the grey cast appeared over the face of this sailor or that aboard her ship, she merely nodded and kept silent, interested only to learn how death would come to the fellow; by disease or accident, or maybe in battle. For the manner of a victim’s demise was never revealed to her. Only its imminence.
The doomed girl danced on down the stairs with the officers, heedless of her fate, and Celestine and her escort continued their climb.
Several stories up the crowds of courtiers and officials had thinned out; they were nearing the rarified heights of the Sea Lord’s apartments. The fear in Celestine – forgotten as she’d pondered the girl – returned now, intensified. Had she done something wrong, she wondered; committed some crime or treason all unknowingly? She’d heard tales of dungeons deep in the holds of the Twelfth Kingdom; was she being brought before Ibanez so that he could pass judgment on her? But again, it made no sense. She wasn’t important enough, surely, to commit any crime the Sea Lord would care about.
They came to a wide landing; Celestine could see that the stairs only climbed two floors higher from here, they must almost have reached the great golden dome that crowned the palace. But the courtier paused on the landing. ‘Yonder,’ he said, pointing up, ‘lies the residence and audience hall of Ibanez the Third. However, it will not be necessary for you to climb any higher, for it is not to Ibanez himself that you will in fact report. It is another who has summoned you, in the Sea Lord’s own name, as is permitted to this individual, and to this individual alone.’
He went to a great pair of doors that opened from the landing and swung them wide, revealing darkness within, and releasing a strangely humid breath of warm air. ‘Enter, and await by the well. Your summoner will be with you shortly.’
Celestine only stared at him in confusion. Not the Sea Lord, but in the Sea Lord’s name? And she was to enter alone, to wait by the well? What could that mean? But the courtier merely bowed once more, and swept his arm, ushering her inwards.
She had no choice. Her tired legs shaking, she limped through the doors into the dimness; heard them click softly shut behind her.
Where was she? The air felt thick, as if with steam, and the darkness was diminished only by the dim glow of shaded lamps upon the walls. Water glistened ahead, and she walked towards it. An arc of marble columns rose to the high ceiling, and as she passed between them the shadows drew back, revealing an enormous round pool set within the greater circle of the pillars.
The well, she thought in amazement.
It was sunk deep within the tiled floor, its dark surface calm and steaming slightly. Its rim was fashioned as a circle of steps leading down, broken only in one place, where a ramp descended more gently into the water. And all of it, of what immense weight and genius of construction Celestine could not begin to guess, was somehow held atop a palace atop a ship that itself rode upon the ocean!
Why had she been brought to such a place? She was quite alone there. Ornate couches waited in dim corners, and a table held a neat pile of linen towels, suggesting that at times the Sea Lord and his courtiers must bathe here, but for the moment the great chamber was deserted and silent. An echo seemed to ring in the noiselessness, as if a drop of water had just fallen into the pool, though in fact so calmly did the Twelfth Kingdom ride upon the Millpond, not a ripple showed on the well’s surface.
But then a sound did come; from above began a subtle grinding of gears, and a soft clanking of machinery. Celestine’s gaze went to the far side of the pool, to where a framework of stout beams rose to the ceiling; to her further astonishment the ceiling-panels there abruptly slid apart and a platform descended through the opening, lowered by cunning runners and cables set inthe wooden frame.
Two people rode upon the platform. One was a male attendant in royal household garb; the second was a figure seated in a wheeled chair, but hidden by black gauze hanging in curtains from a canopy that rose about the seat, leaving visible only the vaguest suggestion of the occupant within; the blunt outline – oddly disturbing – of limbs.
Celestine’s heart shrank. She had never beheld this wheeled apparition before, but she knew who it must be, for rumor had travelled far and wide across the empire of the mysterious shape that waited always at the Sea Lord’s right hand, seated in a black-draped chair. So this was her summoner.
The platform came to rest flush against the floor, and the machinery fell silent. With practiced ease, the attendant pushed the wheeled chair around the rim of the pool – the gauze undulating eerily – and positioned it in front of Celestine.
‘Be welcome, child,’ came a soft voice from behind the curtains, light as an infant in pitch, neither male nor female, and yet somehow so old that Celestine for all her sixty years indeed felt like a child in comparison. ‘I am Axay, scapegoat to the Twelfth Kingdom, and also Seer and Advisor to His Majesty, Ibanez the Third, Sea Lord.’
Celestine bowed in her quiet terror, though why exactly she was so afraid she could not have said; after all, was she not a scapegoat herself? Ah – but Axay was no ordinary scapegoat, at least by repute. No one, the stories went, other than the Sea Lord himself, had ever seen what lay behind the gauze, but Axay’s deformities were held to be the most hideous ever known, and likewise Axay’s powers of foresight were said to be far beyond all other seers and prophets.
‘Be calm please, little one,’ said the voice from behind the curtain, its tone very gentle. ‘You will come to absolutely no harm here. I wish only to speak with you, scapegoat to scapegoat.’
Celestine straightened, reassured somewhat, but still nervous. She waited.
‘Are you capable of speech?’ Axay inquired. And when Celestine gave a hesitant nod, added, ‘But not easily? I see. Again, do not fear. I require no lengthy words from you. Although I must confess, it is not easy to describe what it is I do want with you. I am a Seer indeed, but my vision is seldom clear. All I know is that my dreams have been disturbed of late by many dire signs – and just today the thought came to me that I must see the scapegoat of the Bent Wing before the Lord Designate’s fleet sets sail, and that there is something I must share with her.’
Celestine considered this uneasily. So, she had not been summoned for any fault on her own part. It was a relief in one way, but only deepened the mystery in another. Share what with her?
The shape behind the curtain shifted subtly, and a sigh was audible. ‘But first; if you’ll forgive me, I must get out of this chair. Alandro,’ this last was addressed to the attendant, ‘the water, please.’
Smoothly, the attendant spun the chair and rolled it towards the ramp that led down into the pool. Celestine was frozen with astonishment once more. Axay was going to leave the chair?
‘You are surprised?’ the voice inquired, raised slightly to be heard, but still unnervingly infantile. ‘You think I live eternally in this device? It is not so. Indeed, I suffer it only while I must; in public, or in council with my Lord. But it is wearying and painful to do so, and I have already been trapped too long in the chair for one day, having sat all this afternoon in final discussion with Ibanez and his son Nadal.’
The attendant had positioned the chair at the top of the ramp, facing away from Celestine. Now he lifted the curtains, bundling them safely at the top of the canopy. Axay remained hidden however, for the rear of the canopy was a solid panel, with wings extending forward, so that Celestine still could not see anything of the seat’s occupant.
‘To be truly at ease,’ Axay continued, ‘I must come here, to this precious well. Its waters are heated by fires beneath, and in its warming depths I am all but weightless, and hence free.’
Deftly, without having to look, the attendant reached around to the front of the chair and withdrew a dark robe, bunched up, and a cushion, all of which he placed on a nearby table. With that, he eased the chair down the ramp. It was only then that Celestine noticed the man was barefoot, the better to wade in the pool. The wheels broke the surface, and the chair sank steadily until the water rose to the seat – then, several yards out into the well, the ramp came level and the attendant let the chair rest.
‘You may leave us now, Alandro,’ said the voice, ‘and return when I call.’
The attendant bowed and withdrew up the ramp. He bowed also to Celestine, then disappeared off into the shadows. In a few moments more a door could be heard opening and closing. The two scapegoats were alone in the chamber.
‘Ah,’ sighed the child voice.
And with a soft splash, something pale and naked swam out of the chair.
Celestine hardly dared look, and in any case the light was dim, and steam was drifting; she caught only a glimpse before Axay has no more than a blur in the dark water. But that one glimpse was as profound a shock as she had ever received.
The voice came again out of the mist, and it was somewhat deeper now, as if a constraint had been removed from the lungs and throat that produced it. ‘You set sail on the morrow; three ships to the Unquiet Ice, under command of the Lord Designate, to go in search of ancient mysteries.’
The terrible figure flickered in and out of view in the steam. Celestine searched for arms, or a face; any shape that would be reassuring and familiar. But her eye was granted no such relief.
‘A historic voyage, or so at least Nadal hopes,’ Axay continued. ‘As indeed it will be, I feel in my heart. Great consequence will flow from it, perhaps greater than Nadal or even I can know. But there is confusion too. I admit myself perplexed as never I have been perplexed before. You sail to the Ice, and yet why do I feel that Nadal’s fate doesn’t lie in the Ice at all, but somewhere altogether different? Why do I feel that the Lord Designate is full of deceit in regards to this voyage? What is he hiding?’
Celestine could only listen in fascination and dread. That Axay, Seer to Ibanez the Third himself, should talk thus to a humble commoner about the motivations of the high Lord Designate – it was unthinkable. And all the while the monstrous form flirted in and out of the shadows.
‘But enough of Nadal,’ the voice dismissed. ‘I cannot read minds, or learn secrets if they are properly kept. Nadal’s fate lies where it lies, hidden from me. But you, little Celestine, your fate I see more clearly. The Ice awaits you and your ship, and it will be a cruel welcome I’m afraid. I see much suffering and long captivity in the frozen wastes, and I do not know if any of you will return alive. But nor do I predict certain doom. It is not one of my gifts, thankfully, to foresee death, or at least not often.’
No, thought Celestine even through her fear and awe, that is my gift.
A splash came from the pool, and Axay swam a little closer through the steam. ‘But whatever the fate of the Bent Wing, what I have seen is that our entire empire approaches a crisis; a convergence of forces that may well lead to not only our own destruction but to the decline of all civilization. There is a youth who will stand at the crux of the matter – I will meet him, I think, though he is no Ship King – and there is a girl too, a fellow scapegoat, though a false one. Her too I will meet. And somehow, out of all the ruin that shall come, these two together will hold forth the sole hope to the world of better things.
‘In these great doings, even you Celestine shall have a part to play – and that is why I have called you here. The girl I mentioned, the false scapegoat – you are linked to her, I feel. I don’t know how it will come to be, but it is a message from you that will set her on the path to becoming a true scapegoat; and it is vital that she discover that truth, if there is to be any chance for the world after ruin falls.’
Celestine’s frown was hopeless. A message? What in all the oceans could she have to say to a scapegoat girl she didn’t even know?
Regret sounded in Axay. ‘I cannot say what your message will be. Ice and darkness hide it. All I can hope is that your own powers of foresight will provide the answer, when the time comes.’
Celestine shook her head, so alarmed that she must finally speak. ‘But … I have no … foresight,’ she protested laboriously, her tongue clumsy in her mouth, the sounds she made – as always – painful even to her own ear. ‘I’m not … like you.’
‘I know, little one. But I can help with that. Undress now, and climb into the pool.’
Horror. Celestine backed away a step, her hands raised protectively to her chest. No one had seen her naked since she was a child!
Sad laughter came from the pale shape in the steam. ‘There is no need for shame here. After all, even your poor bent body is a thing of beauty compared to mine. And with foresight I say now that though I will be the first to see you so, I will not be the last; one day, three more people will see your naked form, whether you would have it or not, and yet you will not care by then. So come, enter the well. It is warm and not deep, and the waters are reviving.’
Despite their disturbing tenor the words were strangely soothing, and Celestine’s embarrassment began to abate. They were alone, after all, and the steam drifted thicker than ever. Of course, if Axay had been a man it would have been improper – but Celestine now knew that such classifications were meaningless. For years she had heard the whispered wonderings; was the mysterious Axay male or female? But Celestine had seen, and there could be no talk about man or woman in regards to a creature that was not even recognizably human…
She moved to the pool’s edge and carefully removed her clothes, setting them on one of the benches there. Then, awkward and covering herself, she descended the steps to the water.
Ah! Axay spoke truly. The pool was wonderfully warm, as warm as a bath – and in her long life at sea, Celestine had known all too few of those! She took a few luxuriating steps away from the side, the water barely reaching her shoulders – but then she hesitated; she could feel the bottom falling away towards the middle, and she could not swim. Also, Axay was out there somewhere in the steam.
The voice came, sounding close. ‘One other power I have, of which few know. It was taught to me by my predecessor here as scapegoat on the Twelfth Kingdom. But to exercise this special power, I must touch you, child, flesh to flesh.’
Celestine’s insides curled up, chilled, for all the warmth of the water. No. She was not ready for that. But regardless, the steam seemed to draw apart like a curtain, and Axay emerged, gliding forward – slowly, inexorably – into clear view at last.
‘And so you see me,’ the thing said, inhuman eyes bright with all-too-human sadness; fleshless non-human lips bent into cruel imitation of a human smile, achieving only self mockery, ‘as almost no one ever has before, free of all veils and hiding.’
Celestine felt robbed of even the little ability for speech that she possessed. What was this creature? How did it exist at all? And live?
‘And yet live I do,’ said Axay. ‘As for what I am –who knows? My predecessor too suffered this terrible condition, as have all scapegoats who have served this ship and the Sea Lords. Indeed, it is the affliction itself that marks us for the high position, for it is so rare that there has only ever been one of us born to each generation. Precious, hideous children.
‘But what are we? Many are the scholars who have asked that question, but none have plumbed the mystery. Certainly it is no ordinary malfunction of birth that shapes us, as your birth shaped you. Instead, it is as if some other entity entirely is trapped within our bodies, trying to break out, and in doing so, has destroyed our human form.’
In her horror and wonder, Celestine could almost agree. But what other entity?
Axay seemed to hear her every thought. ‘There is one legend, passed down from royal scapegoat to royal scapegoat, that may give answer. Whether it’s true or not is impossible to say; but it gives me comfort at times to believe it, if only because it suggests I am not merely a hideous mistake.
‘Consider. Ours is a watery world, is it not? Land takes up but a tiny fraction of the surface of the globe, and mankind, for all our intelligence and glory, can stake claim only to that tiny fraction. We sail upon the sea, yes, but the sea is alien to us. It is not our native home. The greater part of the world truly belongs to others it is the domain of the fish and the whales and the deadly monsters of the deeps.
‘And yet they are all un-sentient things, even the most giant of the sea monsters. They are unthinking; beasts of instinct, not of intelligence. Does it not seem strange to you, little one, that this greater part of the world has not produced a species that is the equal of us? That in all the widths of the sea, teeming with life, a realm so much vaster than our slivers of land, there are no beings as aware as is mankind?
‘At least, so everyone believes. So everyone is told. But is it true? Ah, now – the legend of which I speak begs to differ. It harks back to the earliest days of sail, when our mariners first dared the corners of the earth in their thirst for knowledge. They came across many strange and terrible places, and most terrible of all, the Barrier Doldrums. Many tried to cross those stagnant waters, and failed, and died. But some returned alive, and brought with them fearful reports that haunt mariners to this day.
‘Monsters there were, and mires, and clouds of maddening poison. But rarest of all, legend says, and most disturbing, found only in the deepest Doldrums, were other creatures; things with faces and limbs that while not human were somehow like human; things that swam as humans would in the sluggish water, and that even climbed aboard ships and stood upright like men on the decks, though they were loathsome to the eye; things that while they did not speak in voices any could understand, nevertheless did speak, with apparent thought and meaning.
‘Things that sound – if the old tales describe them truly – somewhat like me.
‘And so I wonder. Is there indeed a species in the wasteland of the Doldrums that can reason as humans can? And are we akin to them in some way? After all, where did life itself first begin? On our tiny scraps of land – or in the endlessly larger oceans? Surely the latter is more likely. Our furthermost heritage, eons and eons past, must lie there, and in some arcane way we may even now be more related to creatures of the sea than we think.
‘Am I then an echo of that ancient kinship? By an accident of blood does my kind appear once in a million births, delivered of a human mother, but ourselves only half human – and half something else? Ponder me now, little Celestine. Why am I more at ease in water than upon land? Especially such warm water, so like that of the Doldrums?
‘And lastly, consider my powers of foresight, so much greater than any other’s. Where does such a rare ability come from? Is it owed perhaps to my inhuman heritage, to the otherness in me? Does all foresight, maybe, in whomever it appears, signal a mixing of human and inhuman blood in that person, to a greater or lesser degree? It would explain why I’m the foremost of Seers, being the least human. And it would mean that even you, child, share – ’
But no, Celestine would not have that. Her gaze skittering away in confusion and denial. It was all too fantastic, barbarous even. She was misshapen and ugly, true enough, but she was human, not some half bred thing of the Doldrums. No.
A fire had grown in Axay’s awful eyes, an excitement reaching out to Celestine in fellowship; now that fire died, the excitement fading away in regret, recognizing her incapacity.
A sigh came. ‘Never mind, little one. It was unfair of me to ask so much. I forgot myself in my enthusiasm.’ Pale limbs rearranged themselves in the water, and Axay slid closer. ‘I will waste no more of your time. The source of my special abilities is of little relevance anyway; what matters is that I have the power to share those abilities with those I touch. To … donate them. And you are weak, child. You have the sight, but only dimly. You will need deeper vision, if you are to know what message it is that you must pass on to the false scapegoat girl. I have called you here so that I can give you that power.’
Celestine had not realised it, but she had been slowly backing away all the while; suddenly her shoulder blades touched against the upper step of the pool, and there was nowhere further to retreat. Naked terror filled her again.
Axay slid closer still. ‘Don’t be afraid. It will not hurt you; it is I who will hurt, for I am surrendering part of myself. You may find it overwhelming for a time, but when you are yourself again you will discover that your own abilities are magnified tenfold. Look about you then with your new vision, and hopefully – for this is our only hope – when the day comes, you will see clearly what it is you need to see, and what you must pass on to she who follows.’
With that, the thing was only inches away, extending its freakishly jointed limbs to embrace Celestine. She recoiled against the steps, eyes closed tight, her every fiber stiff and refusing.
Then came Axay’s touch, in too many places at once to be mistaken for human; cool compared to the water, and somehow both repellent and enticing, a gentle stroking upon her skin by fingers that were not fingers; but sure, and confident.
‘Ah,’ whispered the voice, in Celestine’s ear now, low and intimate and wise. ‘How beautiful you are, and how soft your skin. I have not touched a fellow living creature in longer than I can remember – it is too sweet to bear.’ The voice broke with a sadness so vast and wild that Celestine felt grief swell in her own throat. ‘Too sweet … ah, but I see death in you too; my own death approaching, soon, too soon, a few years only, and a great, great burning …’
Dizziness assailed Celestine, and suddenly the caressing fingers felt hot, hotter than the water, as hot as flame, and yet wonderful too, terribly so. Something feather-light was on her lips; Axay’s mouth, utterly alien, but a kiss; a kiss to poor Celestine who had never been kissed in all her life. The pleasure spun her deeper and wider and faster.
‘So it must be,’ mourned Axay, lips against lips, and breathed into Celestine; a sigh, a groan of joy that became a moan of suffering, of agony, and then Celestine was whirled away on an irresistible tide of rapture and pain, and knew no more.
She woke with a start and found herself in her own little cabin aboard the Bent Wing. She blinked at the low ceiling above the bed, wondering. She had no memory whatever of returning there. And what was this? She could feel the ship moving beneath her, a steady rolling and pitching, and could hear the timbers about her creaking and groaning – familiar sounds and sensations, but ones never experienced upon the turgid waters of the Millpond.
They were at sea!
Celestine threw back the blanket – she was fully dressed, she noted, as a memory flashed of steam and nakedness and a terrible embrace – and climbed from the bed. She staggered a little; not from the ship’s rolling, which was second nature to her after a life afloat, but from an attack of vertigo, along with a sudden awareness of great hunger and thirst. How long was it since she’d eaten? How long had she slept? It must have been some days at the least, if they had meanwhile sailed from the inner waters of the Millpond all the way to the open ocean – and how far out to sea were they anyway?
She pushed the door open and went tottering along the passage to the stairs, then with difficulty climbed to the main deck hatchway. Grey daylight dazzled her as she emerged to the air, but she stared to the right and left to confirm the impossible fact; yes, they were out upon the ocean proper. A salt wind was blowing, low cloud rolled overhead, and grey green waves were streaming alongside.
She hurried to the rail. She could see no land anywhere – for all she knew they were weeks out to sea! But no, there, thank the deeps; directly astern a blunt headland was just visible, receding on the western horizon. Celestine’s tilted world settle back a little. It was not so long then that she had slumbered. Two days sail, perhaps, from the Twelfth Kingdom to the eastern entrance of the Millpond, and only another half day’s sail beyond that …
Still, what had happened to her?
What had been done to her?
Belatedly, she noted the other two ships of their small fleet, both running ahead of the Bent Wing, each a fine sight with sails full set in the fresh westerly wind. The closest was the second supply ship of the expedition, the Bullion, a stout merchantman somewhat larger than the Bent Wing. And farthest ahead, leading the column, was the magnificent Tempest, half as large again; the great battleship and flag vessel of the Lord Designate himself.
Nadal. She had heard something about Nadal. He had a secret of some kind…
Celestine shook her head, the memories of her time on the Twelfth Kingdom a jumble, much more like a dream than reality. Had it happened at all – or had she merely been sick with a fever of some kind, and imagined the whole affair in a delirium? It would explain why she had been abed for so long …
‘Celestine, girl, you’re up!’
She turned. It was the ship’s second officer – Commander Gabriel. Her favorite. He wasn’t even half her age, for all this girl nonsense, he’d served for barely a year on the Bent Wing, and his nature was much too lighthearted for command rank. Nevertheless, Celestine liked him, sensing something rock solid at his core. He was a man to be trusted.
Now his smile grew abruptly serious, as if reading the confusion and bewilderment in her. ‘You’ve only just woken?’ And when she nodded tautly, he gave a half bow of apology. ‘Then you’ll hardly know what’s happening! Don’t be alarmed. You were brought back from the Twelfth Kingdom on the morning we sailed, fast asleep and unable to be woken; but the messenger from the Sea Lord said that you were not ill or in any danger, and that you would awaken in time, a few days at most. We were told to merely put you to bed, and check in on you now and then. I visited you myself. You seemed simply to be sleeping deeply. Are you well then, now that you’re awake?’
Celestine considered. Was she well? She had been promised … something. By the creature in the steam. Axay. Yes, the memories were sorting themselves out. Axay had spoken of special power, of sharing it, of donating it to her…
But she felt only her usual self! She stared at her hands, her feet, at the inquiring face of the second officer. No, nothing felt any different, nothing looked any different. She was hungry and thirsty, and stiff from the long sleep. But that was all.
Had Axay failed then? Had Celestine proved too slow and stupid in her mind, or too weak in her body, to receive the intended gift?
Commander Gabriel was watching her with concern. ‘It must be disturbing, to lose several days like that. But you’ve missed nothing of any importance; why, we only cleared the Millpond at dawn this morning. So you see, the voyage and the expedition have barely begun. We haven’t even turned north for the Ice yet, though we will do so soon. We await only the Lord Designate’s signal.’
But Nadal has a secret, Celestine thought again. Though what it was, Axay hadn’t known …
‘I cannot linger,’ Gabriel added. ‘Is there anything you need from me?’
She shook her head, preoccupied, and with a nod in farewell the second officer continued on his way. Celestine turned to study the sea once more, the waves rolling off white-flecked to the grey horizon. She was facing north; somewhere beyond the curve of the world the Unquiet Ice waited.
Axay’s words came to her. … it will be a cruel welcome I’m afraid. I see much suffering and long captivity in the frozen wastes …
Foreboding bit. Ah… she had never liked the cold, her frail bones always ached in the winter months of snow and ice . And now it was her ill luck to be bound for a winter unending.
Her gaze drifted to the other two ships. At least the fleet was well provisioned for such climes. Immense stores of food and warm gear had been crammed into the Bent Wing’s hold, and the Bullion’s hold too, no doubt. The Ice might indeed trap them for a season, for a year or even two, but they would surely not starve or freeze, they would surely endure and survive the trial; three such big, brave ships. Axay had not said they would die there…
Another wave of dizziness made Celestine sway. She should go below right now to eat and drink, she knew, before she collapsed. And yet something, some sense of expectation, held her there.
Time passed, and the fleet sailed on. She glanced back beyond the stern and saw that land was no longer visible on the western horizon, it had sunk from view. She supposed that from the crow’s nest high above it might still be glimpsed, but not for much longer. Likewise, for any watcher back on land, the fleet itself would soon be lost to sight.
A coldness grew in her, a loneliness, though she had never felt lonely at sea before. A clang of the bell marked the passing of an hour. Celestine found herself watching the flagship, aware of her own increasing impatience. Commander Gabriel had said that soon the signal to turn north would come. Was that what she was waiting for? But why?
A pennant was being run up the main mast of the Tempest. A cry came from the Bent Wing’s crow’s nest, echoed by shouted orders from the high deck. The three ships eased sail, and then one by one they swung northwards, first the battleship, and then in line the two merchantmen following.
But now… what was this?
The Tempest and the Bullion were continuing to turn. The Bent Wing held north, but the other two ships came further and further about, until their bows were aimed southward. Still with reduced sail, they passed in line by the Bent Wing; the one ship pushing north, the other two directly south.
Puzzled murmurs arose among the crew on the Bent Wing’s main deck. Staring across to the rail of the Tempest as it came level with them, Celestine could see sailors there looking back with expressions that were likewise bewildered. Whatever was happening, it seemed that the common crew on none of the ships had any fore-knowledge of it.
She looked to the Tempest’s high deck, where splendidly uniformed figures were gathered about the wheel. No confusion was evident there, only calm assuredness. One man – tall, posed slightly apart from the others – she guessed to be Nadal, heir to the Sea Lord’s throne. When the Tempest had almost passed by, this figure raised a hand in salute. From his own high deck Captain Altona returned the gesture calmly, his expression quite unsurprised.
A single cannon shot rang out from Tempest, solemn and flat under the grey sky, and then the battleship was sliding away behind. Next, the Bullion passed by, its captain likewise saluting Altona; then it too receded off southwards. Now the mutter of puzzlement about the Bent Wing had grown to an alarmed clamour. What was happening? Where were the other two vessels going?
The questions were silenced by the ship’s bell, abruptly clanging out; the captain was calling the entire crew to the main deck.
Celestine gathered with the men, a small, fragile shape among them, but as always they were careful to leave a space about her, uncrushed; she was, after all, their guard against ill fortune.
‘Seafarers!’ cried Captain Altona from the high deck rail. ‘Heed me. There is no need for alarm; this is a development long planned. And for our part, nothing has changed. We set out to voyage to the Unquiet Ice, and to the Ice we will voyage.’
He paused, and Celestine noted that even the first and second officers, who were by the captain’s side, looked as mystified as anyone.
Altona took a deep breath. ‘But we will do so alone! Hear me clearly – I said alone. The Tempest and the Bullion have business elsewhere. This was a strict secret that could not be revealed to any of you until we were beyond sight of land. A deception, I freely admit. But a deception that was necessary, for the Lord Designate’s father would never have granted his son permission to sail if he’d learned the true direction and purpose of Nadal’s voyaging.
‘So where have the Tempest and the Bullion gone? It will suffice to say for now that they are bent upon a mission that may change our very conception of the world. And good luck to them! They will need it. But that mission is not our concern; put it from your mind. Our task remains unchanged, and is undertaken so that the Sea Lord’s original wish will still be honored and fulfilled. To the Ice we go.
‘But this will be no mere consolation prize of a voyage. We too go in search of discoveries that will change the world as we know it. All of you have heard the tales of the strange warm currents that have been encountered in the far north of late, and of the distant glimpses some have received of an opening in the Ice Wall. It is in search of those currents, and of that opening in the Wall, that we sail.
‘And we will find them, if I have anything to do with it! So I say to you – fear not the dangers, and instead imagine the fame and fortune that will be ours, when we are the first to find the fabled way through the Ice and so discover the route to the Pole! That fame and fortune will be all the greater as it will be ours alone, not shared among three ships!’
The crew was murmuring, men glancing at each other speculatively, but with a degree of acceptance too, it seemed to Celestine. After all, said the glances, nothing had changed that much. It was the other ships that had hared off on some new expedition; themselves, had they not always been bound for the Ice anyway? And truly, the rewards to be won would be all the richer if not divided by three …
But Celestine looked now to Commander Gabriel; the second officer was gazing at the captain with undisguised disbelief. She could well imagine his thoughts; she shared them. Alone. They were now venturing off to the most forbidding place in all the world – alone. With three ships it had been a perilous enough prospect. But for a single ship, with no help at hand should they strike trouble…
A dreadful sense of confirmation possessed her; Axay had warned of secrets, and now a secret stood revealed. All the more likely then that Axay’s other foretellings would also prove true.
The Bent Wing would be trapped in the Ice! And Celestine was helpless to do anything about it. She had suddenly become the sole scapegoat of the expedition, rather than one of three, the voyage’s fate resting on her shoulders alone. But where was the new strength that Axay had shared with her; where was the new sight Axay had promised her?
Captain Altona was not finished. ‘The Ice,’ he declared. ‘A barrier that has defied our greatest mariners for half a thousand years – and we will be the ones to penetrate its mysteries. Our fellow ships have gone south in the hope of new lands, but before they come anywhere near their goal, we will have made a discovery equally as great. If there is warm water and dry ground at the Pole, then I swear that it will be us who finds it! Are you with me, men?’
The mutters among the crew rose to an approving half cheer. They were mariners, where they not? What mariner’s blood could not be stirred at the thought of new seas unsailed and new lands unbeheld. Aye, they were with him…
‘North we sail then, lads!’ approved the captain. ‘Fear no cold, dread no storm, and fly not from winter’s darkness. We will conquer all. And keep an eye out as we go. A prize I offer.’ Here he plunged his hand into his jacket and brought forth a small leather sack, bulging full. ‘Fifty gold coins to he who sights the first great berg of the voyage!’
Another cheer rose, full throated this time. Gold coins – that was more like it!
But a nausea like sea sickness had gripped Celestine now, caused not by any motion of the vessel, but by fear – for a shade had fallen over the captain’s face, even as he triumphantly raised the coins. A grey shadow that Celestine knew well; why, she had seen the same only days before, on the face of the young woman on the stairs, aboard the Twelfth Kingdom. Death. It meant death was coming…
Except it was different now.
The cast over the captain’s face deepened, grew almost black, leeching the color from his flesh. His cheeks became hollowed out as if from starvation and thirst, the skin growing dry and leathery and taut, and then splitting open like old paper to reveal bone beneath. His real face was still there, uncorrupted, but in a double vision Celestine now saw a long dead skull, jaws agape, staring with empty eye sockets around which only shreds of flesh clung.
A cry choked in her throat, for now she was looking at the first officer and he also had two faces, one overlaying the other, and the second was a bloated, swollen ruin of a face, pallid white from long immersion in the sea, its eyes and nose and tongue eaten away by underwater things.
Corpses. Both men were corpses. She was seeing their future deaths – but not as she had once seen death, as a vague shadowy indication, its cause hidden from her; this was death depicted damningly clear, its manner explicit. The captain would die of long, slow starvation, and the first officer would die drowned. Celestine knew it as truth.
She found herself backing away from the vision, not wanting to see. She had never desired to foretell death anyway, even in the old fashion, but this … this was too terrible. If this was what Axay had done to her, changed her powers this way, than the creature had cursed her, not helped her…
But new horror rose in her gullet. The men around her, they too were blurred with double versions of themselves. Corpse versions. They stared at her in curiosity as she stumbled backwards through their midst. Some had leathery, skull-like faces, as the captain; starved men. Others had the fish eaten faces of the drowned, like the first officer.
But by far the majority were different again; their dead faces were white, but not the pale white of the drowned, instead it was a hard bright marble white, a cold glitter. It was ice. Ice filled their eyes and made shining disks of their gaze; ice choked their mouths solid. Their limbs were alabaster stone, their clothes torn by bitter winds, their expressions contorted and unyielding.
They were frozen.
All these men would die frozen.
Celestine reeled in terror from face to face, but at every turn only more corpses greeted her; she rode on a ship manned entirely by the dead. Every single soul on the Bent Wing was going to die. It was a fact. It had been decided the moment the fleet had separated, and could not be altered now.
A wailing was escaping from her throat. Hands reached for her in concern, but she shrugged them aside. Lifting her own hands she saw them bent and coated in ice, the nails and fingertips worn down to bone. As dead as all the others.
Now she was screaming. Not words, she could find no words. Just screams. The crew had backed away from her in alarm, and someone was yelling at her angrily, but she couldn’t stop.
Her fingers – how had her fingers become so torn and broken? It wasn’t the ice that had done that, it was as if she had been digging in solid stone for something, wearing the flesh away –
Her head rocked. Someone was slapping her across the face, shouting.
She stopped screaming, stared. It was Commander Gabriel. Her friend. He was gazing at her wild eyed, while behind him the crew gathered, muttering uneasily at her display.
‘Celestine!’ he demanded. ‘What in all the deeps is the matter with you?’
For a moment she couldn’t answer. Gabriel’s corpse face was frozen too, and somehow it was the worst. It wasn’t as ice covered as the others, but its rigid expression was one of such frustration and bitterness that she knew he would die betrayed and thwarted and despairing.
‘You,’ she whispered, voice too sure to be her own; a vision voice. ‘You will be one of the last alive. And I with you. No rescue will come.’
Gabriel paused, taken aback, and Celestine turned to the waiting crew.
She said, ‘The Ice will eat us all.’
Then she fainted dead away.
End Part One.