Twenty Years Ago
Lightcastle Island, Tanglesea
"The wail-beasts must sing," Ageana said, stretching herself out along the beam that supported the fury bird figurehead of the Sea Storm.
As if they heard her, the nerve-shredding wails and snarls that filled the night air grew louder, and the water between the ship and the shore of Lightcastle Island churned with writhing bodies. The wail-beasts had been roused long before the Sea Storm made its way through the secret channels of clear water that allowed safe passage through the weed-choked currents of Tanglesea. The reason for the unseen creatures' fury became visible with the first streaks of bloody sunrise, which revealed the wreckage of a longboat and the bodies of nearly a dozen men lying far too still within the reaches of the receding tide. All eyes had turned to Harper, Ageana's older sister and the acknowledged keeper of seafarer lore.
"They knew the law," the sharp-featured woman had said, her voice soft with sorrow. "Only smallboats anointed with the prayer oil may approach shore, and it's a one-way voyage until the high captain is chosen and confirmed. They tried to all come in a longboat, probably bringing weapons with them, to fight for the duty as captain."
The crew of the Sea Storm watched as the sun rose, waiting until other ships arrived before putting their smallboats into the water. Only two of the still forms on the shore stirred and moved out of the reach of the water, to stagger up and over the ridge of the shoreline that hid the interior of the island from view. When the other ships tried to put their smallboats into the water, slick with the anointing of prayer oil, the wail-beasts had grown even louder and troubled the water so that some sailors claimed they saw the huge, oval purple eyes, finned backs and claws of the beasts that guarded the island. Silas, captain of the Sea Storm by virtue of being the previous captain's son and heir, initiated communication with the other ships as they arrived. At midway between high noon and sunset, more than thirty ships of the seafarer nation waited at the edge of the clear water surrounding the island. They did not dare go any closer and put down anchor until the wail-beasts ceased thumping against the keels of the ships that drifted out of the weed-choked water into the clear.
Sunset approached. The wails and gnashing and snarling of the wail-beasts grew louder and more furious. Ageana, Silas's bride of only three moons, had stayed at the prow all day, silent and watchful. She didn't turn to her sister when Harper joined her, and leaned out a little further as if she would climb out along the beam supporting the figurehead as her husband approached.
"I need you to go below and look after Ebon," Silas said after waiting several long moments, when his wife didn't acknowledge him.
"He doesn't need me." Ageana smiled and finally turned to look over her shoulder at him.
Harper and Silas gasped in unison, making her smile widen. She spread her fingers, showing the webbing that had appeared between them, then fluttered her eyelashes, emphasizing the change from stormy sea blue to deep water green. Her pupils had elongated so they were horizontal slits.
"Am I?" she asked her sister. Harper could only nod.
"Ageana..." Silas's voice caught as if he fought not to wail fit to join the beasts that quieted, as if to listen to the conversation on the ship. "I didn't marry you for your sea-folk blood. You don't have to do this."
"What if this is what Yomnian gave me to do before I was born?" She stood, her long hair fluttering out behind her on the freshening breeze. "Silas, my love, even up here, I can hear what the crew are saying. They're afraid that Harper and I have angered the wail-beasts, because our sea-folk blood isn't pure. Or the greater fools have convinced them that the old prophecies call for a sacrifice of blood, rather than sea-folk blood risking all they are to reach the island and re-light the beacon."
"The blood of Sandor and sea-folk blood and the Sword Bearer's blood and Sword Bearer's blade will re-light the beacon," Harper said. "That is the prophecy. We only have half the required list." She sighed in response to her sister's challenging stare. "Yes, some prophecies speak of bringing the pieces together, one at a time, and testing each piece." She hunched her shoulders against Silas's glare that was half anger, and half pleading. "And some of the ancient tongue could be interpreted to mean several voyages here, testing, proving the blood, and generations before all comes together. There's only praise for those who try. Nothing about punishment for those who fail."
"Punishment for those who are unworthy," the captain growled. "Ana..." His eyes glistened and he blinked it away. "Yours is the purest heart I know. Don't break mine."
"Let the wail-beasts calm down from the sacrilege," Harper urged. "Let the smell of disobedience and fear fade from the air and the water. Tomorrow, all could be calm and clear, and we will go to the shore for the testing and choosing of the captain like we have done for generations, time out of mind."
"Nothing will happen if we don't try. Let the wheels of time and prophecy begin to turn once more." Ageana spread her arms and took a step backward, up the sloping beam. Her slim, bare feet were sure, and the legs of her borrowed trousers had been rolled up scandalously high, to her calves. She laughed as her husband and sister cried out and lunged forward, reaching to stop her. Two dancing steps further backwards and then she leaned out, arching her back, arms spread as if in flight.
Silas roared fury and fear and nearly fell in after her as she slipped gracefully backwards into the water. Kingsby, his First Mate, caught hold of his arm, stopping him, his face stark white in fearful contrast to his ebony beard.
Silence spread across the water, so that even the creaking of the boards of the many ships and the groan of the ropes and slap of the sails seemed to stop for a few agonized heartbeats. The water went still as the churning and thrashing of the wail-beasts stopped entirely.
The wails and howls and snarls of the wail-beasts shifted, first into discord and then into a chorus, a chord, a hint of song that grew louder, staying on that one perfect note until it vibrated through the hulls of all the ships. Silas and Harper went to their knees, pressing their hands to their ears as the wooden pegs holding the ship together vibrated and buzzed as if they would pop from their spots. The sound grew loud enough to overwhelm, to make gold teeth vibrate in their sockets.
Then--silence. As sudden and soft as a bubble of soap popping on the breeze.
Fifty paces out in the water beyond the prow of the Sea Storm, water churned and erupted in a spout. Ageana soared up in the air, laughing. Below her, covered by the falling water, were the humped, scaled, finned bodies and massive purple eyes of the wail-beasts that had thrown her out of the water. She arched backwards and dove down headfirst into the water. The water stilled once more, and those waiting on the ship held their breaths. Harper gripped her brother-by-law's arm, his muscles rigid and hard as sword steel.
Ageana returned to the surface and trod water for a few moments, wiping her hair out of her face. She turned until she found the Sea Storm, then beckoned, three waves of her arm, before stretching out and swimming for shore. Silas kept his gaze fixed on her as his crew lowered the specially prepared smallboats. No other waiting ship followed suit until his smallboat was halfway between the Sea Storm and the shore of Lightcastle Island.
The wail-beasts had vanished as if they had never been, though the vibrations of their single note of celestial song still thrummed silently through bones and flesh and wood.
By the time Harper and Silas joined Ageana on shore, she was dry and her eyes and hands had returned to normal. Silas growled and swept her up in his arms, while the crew climbing out of the three permitted smallboats cheered. Some laughed when she demanded to know why no one brought her a change of clothes, but the rest fell silent in awe and a little wonder, a little fear.
The other captains and crew who reached shore in the smallboats were quieter than normal for the regular gathering on Lightcastle Island. Some grumbled and insisted that tradition should be followed, and all the contending captains had the right to see how close they could get to the vine-tangled plateau before the castle's gates, to prove their worthiness. Others told them to shut up, to check with their ships' lore-masters for traditions older than the convocation of testing. After all, some of the better-educated reminded them, once they hadn't needed the testing of the vines and the plateau and the gates. Long ago, before the seafarers fell away from Yomnian's favor and grace, they had been able to go through the gates. Long ago, the captain who led them all had proved his worthiness by climbing the stairs all the way to the top of the castle, to relight the beacon.
Silas walked alone when he climbed the tangled pathway that was once clear and smooth, paved with crushed seashells in gold and white, and reached the plateau before the castle gates. Ageana and Harper and Kingsby walked fifty paces behind him, as tradition required, and all the other captains of the seafarers walked behind them, to stand as witnesses. He crossed the plateau that was covered with vines as thick as a man's torso, and was halfway across before the first leaf twitched without a breath of wind to stir it. He paused, waiting. More leaves, bigger than a man's head, twitched and raised, curling upward like cobras rising from sleep. On the far side of the plateau, the gates of the castle of their ancestors waited, dull and dark.
"Someday," Harper murmured after Silas rejoined the witnesses at the top of the pathway, "when prophecy has reached fulfillment, the stones of the plateau will be hot and the gates will shine like sea jewels once more."
"Perhaps our son will walk up to the gates themselves," Ageana said, and smiled up at Silas. He tightened his right arm around her, picking her up for a few steps so her feet didn't touch the ground. They laughed quietly together.
"Then we need to listen and ask questions and gather up all the news at every port, perhaps even go inland," Captain Lestob said, stepping up next to Harper, who walked on Silas's left. "The next element in the prophecy is the Sword Bearer's blood and the Bearer's sword. May Yomnian bless us that it happens in our lifetime."
"Yomnian bless us indeed," Kingsby said, and spat for punctuation, walking behind the four. "All the Spirit Swords have vanished. No word of them has come for centuries, except in Reshor. Common sense says we need Eretia's Spirit Sword. Even if we could find Rakleer, who hasn't been seen or heard from in decades, why should Reshor's Sword Bearer help us? Eretia's rulers are of our blood. We need Eretia's sword."
"Oh, Yomnian will bless us," Harper said. "If we have to, I will walk the entire kingdom on foot to find Rakleer and ask him to help us find Eretia's Spirit Sword. And if that is gone beyond all retrieving, then I will ask Rakleer to sail with us, for the next convocation and testing."
"If it is Yomnian's will," Silas said.
"If it is Yomnian's will," Lestob echoed. He let out a single bark of laughter. "If it is the All-Maker's will, Rakleer will come in search of us, in answer to a vision from the Spirit Sword."
Eight Years Ago
Swan let down the sail of her dayboat once it came around the protective walls of volcanic rock into the lagoon, and shuddered. The other ten children, who had gone out with her before dawn to fish, fell silent. They had come back around the island thinking the darkening clouds presaged an incoming storm, despite the gentleness of the warm breeze. Now, they could see the dark clouds hanging over the island sanctuary of the seafarers weren't clouds, but smoke. It curdled across the beach, hiding the wall-less shelters and the tents from sight, so that the lush jungle seemed to rise from stormy gray waters. The few shallow docks stuck out of the churning mass over the water, empty and somehow obscene. The swirling gray and black shifted for a moment, revealing the smoldering wreckage of the other four dayboats that served the island's inhabitants, sitting far from the reach of the tide, just as Swan and her playmates had seen them when they left that morning.
Her gaze followed the rising swirls and eddies of smoke, to the four towers built of volcanic rock that held the archives of the seafarers. The windows gaped empty, like eye sockets of skulls. No welcoming banners, no lanterns with colored glass shields, no garlands of flowers. A gasp escaped her when she saw smoke trickling from one window. No, two, three windows. Swan held her breath as she checked all the windows. No more windows released smoke, but any smoke at all was a bad sign. It meant fire among the archives holding the gathered history of the seafarers since the days of good Captain Sandor.
Who would attack Archive Island? Who would want to burn the archives?
There were always nations that tried to either coerce the seafarers into allying with them, or tried to turn to piracy. Perhaps the seafarers had diminished in strength so they didn't stand against pirates as Captain Sandor had commanded his descendants, but who would have the piloting skills to follow a seafarer ship here, in the first place? When they found Archive Island, who would have the gall and nerve to attack?
Why would the deep-darklings allow an attacking ship to pass the reef around the island, much less get close enough to let down their boats to attack? Not even Sendorland or Bayardain, the two largest and most bitter enemies of their race would be able to succeed.
So who had attacked? That question kept rising up through Swan's fiercest efforts to analyze and think and gather facts to find answers, as her father had taught her. She wished her cousin Ebon were here. He could get away with raging and spilling out threats against the enemy who had come and destroyed and, to all appearances, vanished. However, Ebon was on the Sea Storm with her father. Swan was in charge of the children in her boat. What was she going to do?
"What do we do?" Pearl said, turning from the sobering sight to look at Swan in the stern of the shallow-draft boat.
"We go for help," her younger brother, Peyton said. "Our ship is..." He sighed. "At least three days away."
The dayboat was called a dayboat because it was made for daytime excursions, for short trips, fishing beyond the barrier reef, but no further. Lightly built and shallow in the draft, with short sails, it wasn't made for long trips or crossing the vast distances between the archipelago, of which Archive Island was the northernmost tip, and the nearest continent or the next chain of islands. Its anchor chain was short, it had no sea anchor, and most important of all, no provisions for more than an overnight trip at best. Swan, ten years old, was the oldest of the children. Peyton was the oldest boy, and he was only six.
"We go in and we go in carefully," Swan said, "and we find out who needs the most help." She gestured to Seely, whose birthday today was the reason for the outing. "Navigator, take us to Sneakfoot."
Seely nodded soberly and shifted from her seat to take over the tiller, while Swan moved up in the boat to change her control of the sails. Sneakfoot was a narrow inlet that cut through the barrier walls of volcanic rock that ringed the island. Only a dayboat could navigate the stream that led into the heart of Archive Island. Eleven children, all under the age of ten, wouldn't weigh it down enough to endanger the bottom of the boat on the rocks. Seely was the best navigator among them all, and her night vision was so good that all their playmates teased her she had deep-darkling blood in her, rather than sea-folk blood.
Swan raised the small sail, keeping watch on the churning smoke that covered the shore. Sneaking into the center of the island wouldn't do them any good if the attackers who had set the fires saw them sailing along the rocky perimeter before they vanished into the darkness of Sneakfoot. The other children stayed silent and watchful, scouring the shore for signs of movement, watching the gap in the barrier wall for signs of other ships. When their boat slipped into the shadows of the inlet, they visibly relaxed. Then as darkness lit by streaks of phosphorescent lichen and seaweed enclosed their boat, and the current pulled it forward, they found their voices.
She wished they hadn't. In whispers, they voiced their fears for their mothers and older sisters and grandparents, the only inhabitants of the island this late into the sailing season. Everyone who could be out on the water, fishing or exploring or hauling cargo for landfasters or performing their duties as guardians of the far seas, was out. Only the keepers of the archives, students of the prophecies, and healers-in-training--and their children--inhabited the island. Swan's mother and aunt were here, serving their terms of duty as keepers.
A sob escaped her, which she muffled as quickly as she could and tried to hide under the sounds of lowering the sail. Swan had tried as hard as she could not to think of her mother, who was seven moons along with child.
"It's okay," Pearl whispered out of the darkness, and a little hand rested on Swan's knee. "Nobody would be so mean they'd hurt your mama. She's magic."
Swan patted the younger girl's hand, because she didn't trust her voice. The supposed magic that resided in her mother's blood was exactly why she feared someone would attack. Ageana had proven the purity of her sea-folk blood by calming the wail-beasts and ensuring Captain Silas inherited leadership of the seafarers. Swan listened when other captains met with her parents on board the Sea Storm and reported on the troubles throughout the alliance of ships. Too many captains wanted to break free of the alliance and the ancient vows. They wanted to shrug off the duties given them by good Captain Sandor and look to their own profit. Despite the tales of ships that turned to piracy and were abandoned, sometimes even wrecked by the deep-darklings who protected them, more the ships and crews allied with pirate fleets. Some of those crews who weren't punished claimed that the curse and commands placed on their ancestors by Captain Sandor had no more power over them. They laughed at the seafarers who tried to keep to the ancient vows. Their survival despite their treachery made others question what they had been taught all their lives, for generations.
When the convocation of ships met again at Lightcastle Island in eight more years, the next captain of the alliance could release all the crews from their vows, dispelling the alliance. Captain Silas was considered a threat and a danger by those who wanted to change everything. Those who looked far ahead were plotting now to keep him from reaching Lightcastle Island. His sea-folk wife and her lore-master sister, according to rumors, had given him the leadership twelve years ago. With a son to inherit his ship, strong in sea-folk blood, he would be almost guaranteed to continue his leadership, a direct descendant of Captain Sandor.
Ageana had lost two children since Swan was born, and the girl overheard enough whispers and rumors, asked enough questions, she feared her mother had been poisoned to make her lose those babies. This third pregnancy had been hard on Ageana, so she chose to take her duty on Archive Island earlier than normal, to be close to the healers, and to spend her days resting at the water's edge, protecting the child. Swan had nothing against her cousin, Ebon, but she hoped this baby would be a boy, to inherit the Sea Storm from their father and carry on the traditions and burden of leadership handed down by Captain Sandor. The law of the seafarers and of the sea-folk prohibited daughters of sea-folk blood from captaining a ship because of the sacred nature of their duties to all seafarers. And because of the hope that when she was grown, Swan would prove her sea-folk blood and perhaps even return to the sea, not bound to any vessel. That would signal the return of the glory days of the seafarers. There were few enough seafarers who could trace their line of descent to Captain Sandor's sea-folk bride, and as far as Swan knew, only a handful who were female. Sometimes she thought that the declining numbers of sea-folk daughters was a large reason why so many ships and crews wanted to abandon their traditions and duties. The old ways were passing away, so why cling to them any longer?
The darkness of the passage through the volcanic rock gave way to the thin, silvery light that filtered through the opening far above, in the chimney of the dead volcano. It hung thick with vines and foliage. The strongest healing plants grew here, inside the cone, nourished by the volcanic soil. Swan held her breath, waiting for the scrape of the dayboat's bottom on the crushed coral and sand of the hidden cove. When it came, Peyton and Pearl were the first to jump out and grab hold of the boat by its prow and pull it up out of the water.
"Knives," Swan whispered, as the other children grabbed the sides of the boat to climb up and over. She slapped the long knife hanging from her belt. All of them wore knives, to clean and gut the fish as they were caught. Swan met each one's somber, wide-eyed gaze, not moving on until they nodded that they understood. She pulled the basket of cleaned fish out of the boat and deposited it in one of the smooth, rocky basins dug into the landing space. The cool water and shadows would keep the fish fresh. The plan had been to have a feast tonight, for Seely's birthday. She thought a quick prayer to Yomnian that they would still be able to have a feast, with something to celebrate tonight.
Then, single-file, each child with a hand on their sheathed knives, they followed her up the wooden ramp that hugged the inside of the cone. Halfway to the top, a V-shaped crevice in the cone wall had been widened to create a passageway three men wide, to get out to the island.
Light flared inside that passageway when Swan was only a few steps away from it. She stopped and spread her arms, to keep the other children back. Something scraped against the rock, then there were footsteps.
"Thank Yomnian," Leisha, Seely's mother cried, as she stepped out of the passageway and lifted her lantern high to cast light on all the children. "Grandfather thought he saw your sail, but then you were gone and..." She went down on one knee and spread her arms wide, and sniffed to hold back sobs as Seely ran to her.
"What happened?" Swan asked, after giving mother and daughter a few seconds together. She spoke to hold back the other question pressing on her tongue: Was her mother all right?
Leisha explained as she led them down the passageway and the slope past the towers and healer's training hall. An unfamiliar ship had come in flying flags signaling disease and injury on board. No one responded to the queries from the sentinels, who assumed they were too busy dealing with the ill and dying. The ship was battered as if it had come through a terrible storm, missing even its figurehead. No one noticed until later that the name had been scraped off its prow and stern. That might have warned them, because a ship that tried to erase its name and identity was a ship and crew bent on the most heinous of missions, and tried to escape the cursed fate of traitors.
Harper had argued against sending the usual two boats of healers to offer help. She wanted to send fighters to check out the ship first, because she had had a dream several nights in a row of men all in black, with skulls for heads, bursting from a ship and attacking the island. The island's leaders had listened to Harper, sending fighters in the green tunics of healers. When they climbed up onto the deck of the ship, they were attacked. While the battle raged on the deck, more fighters came across the island, having landed at a minor cove, most likely during the night, when sentinels wouldn't have seen them. They attacked on the shore while most of the fighters were still busy with the ship. Only because they were warned by Harper's visions had the inhabitants of Archive Island been ready to defend themselves.
The smoke had dissipated during the time the children were inside the water tunnel, though acrid plumes and swirls still streaked the air. Parents and grandparents cried out when they saw the children and came running to greet them. Everyone had feared that the children had been captured when they set out on their fishing trip that morning, while the attackers were getting into position. In moments, every child had been taken away by their grateful families.
No one came running to Swan. She saw some of the answer in Leisha's gaze as the woman wrapped an arm around her shoulders and led her to the healer's hall. Half the cots in the long, airy room were filled with injured island defenders, their bandages streaked with blood or glistening with healing salve. Knowing her aunt led the island's defense, Swan wasn't surprised by her injuries. She shuddered when she saw the woman, unconscious, her face and her left leg hidden under bloody bandages.
Movement in the shadows startled her. Swan muffled a cry that was half-sob and half-wonder, as a tiny, white, long-tailed chirper monkey climbed up and settled on the pillow next to the undamaged side of Harper's face.
"Yomnian has called her," Leisha whispered, nodding at the monkey.
Swan held back a torrent of bitter words. Harper herself had taught her that when Yomnian called people to holy service, there was often some price to pay. The girl knew enough of healing arts from helping her mother on board their ship or listening to the healers teaching their students, she knew her aunt would be badly scarred from today's battle, maybe even lose her leg, judging by all that blood. Chirper monkeys lived only on Archive Island and could never be caught, only befriended. They were considered signs of a spirit of prophecy and vision, a gift sent from Yomnian, just like the fury birds that guided the seafarers since the days of Captain Sandor. Swan thought such an honor demanded too high a price. Then another question drove those thoughts from her mind.
"Where is my mother?"
The Sea Storm returned to Archive Island before dawn the next day. By then, Swan had struggled through her fury and tears to an exhausted calm, so she could help in washing her mother's body and gathering mounds of flowers to decorate the funeral pyre for the island defenders who had died in the battle. She couldn't find any tears when her father splashed through the surf, shouting for her mother and for her, but she found a strange kind of aching comfort in the bruising tightness of his arms as he sobbed and cursed the attackers who had violated the sacred boundaries of the island. Archive Island was a safe haven, neutral ground for all seafarers, where they came for counsel and for justice and to settle disputes.
Justice didn't wait for Captain Silas's curse. When the island's defenders left the ship to join the battle on shore, the invading ship tried to flee. The men who swam after it, or managed to get into a longboat and pursue it, were soon either lost to the waves or the arrows of the defenders. The island's defenders rallied to get their own longboats and row out after them, but Harper was still upright and able to shout loud enough to stop them. The chirper monkey sat on her shoulder, its long tail wrapped around her neck, and everyone who saw it stopped and listened to her. Then they saw the odd, distant light in her eyes, and quieted so everyone heard when she commanded them not to follow, but to watch for Yomnian's justice. Then she collapsed.
Those who weren't tending to the wounded and putting out the last of the fires stood on shore to watch the fleeing ship. The tide rose, out of its normal rhythm. The waves were huge and dark, and too smooth. Cries carried over the water from the ship as it rocked, not from side to side, in the action of the waves, but from prow to stern. One wave twice as large as all the others lifted the ship. The cries turned to shrieks as the wave kept growing, lifting the ship high. It toppled it onto its side, and then another wave folded over it and carried it down. Those with the sharpest eyes swore they saw a fin, a huge silver eye, and the tail of a deep-darkling, the silent guardians of the seafarers.
Swan supposed someday she would find some comfort in knowing justice had come swiftly by Yomnian's own hand. As she stood on the beach with Silas and Ebon, and waited for sunrise and the lighting of the funeral pyres, she couldn't feel much of anything. Ageana and the baby were dead, and Harper would lose both her left leg and her left eye. Ebon would be the next captain of the Sea Storm--if he passed the test at Lightcastle Island.
She wanted to open the gates of the castle at Lightcastle Island, relight the beacon, remove the curse that had fallen on the seafarers since they had fallen away from their vows, and have the power to bring punishment on all the traitors. To bring about the fulfillment of prophecy, she had to prove her sea-folk blood was strong. She had to find the Sword Bearer, Rakleer, and convince him to sail with them to Lightcastle Island. The Sword Bearer's blood and the Sword Bearer's blade were required to travel up the hidden pathway to the heart of the island, to the gates of the castle, before it would open. Then sea-folk blood would past the test and relight the beacon.
Swan had eight years to prepare. She hoped it would be enough.