Read Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) Online

Authors: McKenna Juliet E.

Tags: #Fantasy

Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) (7 page)

If he’d recalled the Caladhrian almanac correctly. If he’d kept his own count right. Was it tomorrow? Maybe yesterday. He frowned and recounted on his fingers before abruptly giving up.

What was the point? The Aldabreshi didn’t consider the solstice or the equinox as any more significant than any other day and they certainly paid no head to the divisions between the seasons framing those days, as decreed by the different mainland authorities, so often differing by a day more or less.

Hosh gazed up at the darkling sky. Why should the Aldabreshi heed the mainlanders with their almanacs and calendars constantly needing adjustment when their count governed by the moons slipped out of true with the sun’s aloof tally? The Archipelagans could trace and predict the path of every constellation as well as of the solitary coloured stars charting their own course through the heavens, named for the jewels which their colours recalled.

An Aldabreshin compass was an intricate marvel; an engraved disc overlaid with a pierced swirling lattice dotted with enamels and gemstones and revolving around a central pivot. Navigating the hundreds of domains in the Archipelago, the thousands of islands, barren islets and hidden reefs, was simplicity itself to a ship’s master who knew how to read one.

A Caladhrian compass was a box with a single needle pointing north. That was all the aid any traveller could hope for, from the Tormalin Empire in the east, where the mainland met the ocean, all the way to the Great Forest in the west, a trackless sea of trees by all accounts.

Every Aldabreshin child grew up watching the skies. This wasn’t only the business of scholars. Everyone from the lowliest slave to the Archipelago’s fabled warlords with the power of life and death over thousands knew where the stars and the heavenly jewels would be and how to read the portents seen in the different arcs of the heavens.

The best that Hosh could do was scratch marks on a wall and the mainlanders had the arrogance to dismiss the Aldabreshi as shoeless barbarians. He looked down at his toes squelching in the black mud. Didn’t anyone on the mainland know that going barefoot in these Aft-Summer rains was the only way to avoid foot rot? That could cost a man his leg if it didn’t kill him outright?

He looked warily around the anchorage to reassure himself that all the pavilions were truly deserted. No movement caught his eye and he breathed a little more easily.

Once the luxurious dwellings for some Aldabreshin noble family, the houses offered wide windows to catch the sea breeze in the punishing dry season heat and broad eaves offering shelter from the torrential rains which swept back and forth across the island since just after the Summer Solstice.

Then corsairs had seized this anchorage, slaughtering any who didn’t flee before them. Hosh had seen the splintered bones in the scrubby woodland. But now the corsairs had fled, abandoning both the pavilions which their galley and trireme masters had claimed and their rough-hewn settlement of huts built from driftwood, sailcloth and crudely shaped branches.

Hosh looked at his tally marks again. It was seventeen days now since he’d seen any of the raiders or their slaves. At first they had retreated to the trees, watching fearfully as the glow of magic showed them this unknown wizard searching their abandoned dwellings.

Some had tried to summon up the courage to attack that magical barrier. Such daring had rapidly failed for lack of encouraging omens. Some had waited, tense, for the wizard to send some word.

Nifai, Hosh’s former overseer at his slave oar aboard the
Reef Eagle,
and Ducah, the sword-wielding brute who backed him, had stayed close to Hosh at first. The wizard must be a mainlander, Nifai had reasoned, and so they would need a mainlander to act as their go-between. Whatever else he might be, Nifai was no fool.

But no summons had come and some portent or other had deterred Nifai from sending Hosh to open negotiations. So one morning, the overseer and the swordsman had simply been gone.

Slowly at first, and then more and more of them day by day, the Archipelagans had crept away. Because for all their wisdom in mathematics and alchemy and so many other skills, the Aldabreshi were as terrified of magic as some infant crying for fear of the dark.

At least Hosh knew better than that. Granted, wizards were frightening and certainly not to be trusted. He had learned that lesson in the hardest fashion imaginable from his one encounter with that treacherous bastard, Minelas, the renegade mage who’d so vilely betrayed Lord Halferan.

But he’d heard enough barrack hall tales before that to know that the mages were men and women much the same as any other. Except for their uncanny talents with air, earth, fire or water. Was that blessing or curse? Hosh had never really considered the question with the wizard isle so comfortably remote. There hadn’t been anyone mageborn in Halferan village in his lifetime.

But he certainly didn’t share the Archipelagan conviction that even a wizard’s presence irrevocably contaminated and corrupted the natural order and thus all the portents, from the flights of birds to the rhythms of the sea, that so wholly governed their lives.

That said, Hosh had to admit that the view down the long anchorage offered intimidating evidence of wizardly might. First there was the ravaged heap of stones that had once been the corsair leader’s pavilion. The terrace, the walls, the shutters and doors of oiled wood, the tiled roof, everything had been reduced to splinters and flinders by a single strike of magical lightning. The seething cloud of dust that followed had reached out with tendrils crackling with wizardry to murder any survivors trying to flee.

Then there was the impossible wave rearing up between the distant headlands of the anchorage’s entrance. Hosh had had no notion that a wizard could do such an astonishing thing. Taller than the baronial tower back in Halferan Manor, that curve of green water was topped by an ever-changing flurry of foam but the wave itself had remained constant for the past twenty-seven days.

It confined every ship within the anchorage; every raiding galley rowed by chained and lashed slaves, as Hosh had once been, and every fighting trireme with its oars manned by those eager to prove themselves worthy to join the ranks of the corsair swordsman and share in their plunder, as Hosh had sworn he never would.

Surely the incredible sight of that wave was proof that Captain Corrain had truly found his way back to the mainland? More than that, it showed that the captain had somehow secured a wizard’s aid even if the Archmage of Hadrumal was too callous or too cowardly to defend innocent Caladhrians.

Only wizardry could hold that watery barrier firm and no Aldabreshi could ever have woven such spells. Archipelagan superstition condemned any mageborn to being skinned alive, so Hosh had heard. Only their spilled blood could wash away their taint.

So Halferan must be safe at last and every other village along the Caladhrian coast who had suffered the corsairs’ raids this past handful of years.

Sweet as that consolation might be, Hosh couldn’t set aside his bitter self-castigation. If only he’d kept his wits about him, when Corrain had provoked such chaos on that Archipelagan trading beach, starting a brawl along with that Forest man, Kusint. If he’d only been that bit quicker on his feet, maybe Hosh could have reached home too.

Then he’d be celebrating the turn of this season with his beloved mother. It would be the two of them as it had been for so long but there’d be roast pork and foaming ale on their humble table at For-Autumn’s sunset. The turn of each season had its special meal. Sweetcakes and flower cordial with the For-Spring sunrise. Bread fresh from the oven and creamy cheese at For-Summer’s noon. Though Hosh had never been too keen on salt beef and pickles at midnight, he always welcomed the token of Maewelin’s pledge to see prudent households through For-Winter’s hunger.

If today really was the turn of the season, Hosh guessed his mother would be praying to the Winter Hag, even if For-Autumn was rightly sacred to Dastennin— and that was a good question, wasn’t it? What did the god of sea and storms make of that impossible wave?

But Maewelin was the goddess of mothers and of widows and Hosh’s father had died so long ago that he barely recalled him.

His throat ached with the threat of tears. He couldn’t set aside his fears and doubts. His mother would be praying for him only as long as she still lived. If the Halferan barony hadn’t been utterly laid waste by the vile corsairs who’d murdered their lord in the For-Spring of the year before, who had enslaved the few guardsmen who survived that slaughter.

Hosh gazed desperately at that wave. Had Corrain truly managed to escape and steal a boat, as he had sworn he would? Or had some other twist of fortune brought a wizard here while Corrain and Kusint’s bones lay mingled on the seabed, to be stripped bare by fish and crab claws and washed this way and that by the swell of the waves above? How long did it take for a drowned man’s mortal remains to crumble into sand? To release his shade from the torments of Poldrion’s demons, preying on all those unable to pass through Saedrin’s door?

His stomach growled. He heaved a heavy sigh, the breath rattling through his broken nose. If he could do nothing about anything else, at least he could do something about his hunger. While there was life, there was always something to thank at least one god or goddess for. That’s what his old mum always said.

He climbed warily up the steps leading to the terrace surrounding the pavilion. With the swift dusk of the islands deepening, he could hope he wouldn’t be seen. Better yet, he could see the tell-tale glow of magelight that showed him the wizard was safely ensconced in the furthest pavilion over towards the far shore of the thrusting headland. But he needed to be quick, before the impenetrable darkness made foraging impossible without a lamp that could so fatally betray him.

On this face of the building, the door of slatted wood opened into the kitchen. He crossed the room, careful where he put his feet since the tiled floor was littered with broken pots which the panic-stricken Archipelagan slaves had let fall as they fled.

The building was a hollow square with a garden at its heart and the jealously guarded well for sweet water. Hosh looked through the shutters. Sufficient daylight lingered to show him a few birds idly pecking at weeds sprouting in the gravelled paths before fluttering up to the shrubs growing ragged for lack of tending. After the islands’ brutal dry season, plants flourished astonishingly once the rains returned.

So he was still alone here. Hosh had guessed that he would be but it did no harm to be sure. Especially when all those countless folk, corsairs and their slaves alike, must surely be growing so desperately hungry wherever it was they had fled.

Even if anyone had bothered to plant crops or properly herd the feral goats, this little island would have been hard put to support the modest fleet of corsairs lurking here when Hosh and Corrain had first been captured. Through the year and a half of their imprisonment, the corsair leader’s successes had drawn ever more ships to sail in the wake of his trireme.

Old, grizzled, blind, the man held every ship master in thrall, apparently infallible as a soothsayer. Hosh grinned in the shadowed kitchen. The old blind bastard hadn’t foreseen this unknown wizard burning his warship to the waterline with sorcerous fire or blasting his chosen pavilion to the bare rock of its foundation with lightning ripped from a cloudless sky. Hosh relished remembering that.

He reached up for one of the lidded pots standing up on a long shelf. It was sealed with wax so he found a knife and ran its point around the edge of the lid. Not for the first time, he considered taking the blade away with him. But no. If some desperate corsair did come searching for food, Hosh couldn’t fight off a sword with a kitchen knife. Being found with a blade would surely get his throat cut. Unarmed, he could hope to surrender.

The pot held dark fish flesh preserved with brine and herbs. That would do well enough. Hosh opened the next jar. Some leaves, leathery and pickled. He dipped a cautious finger in the vinegar and touched it to his tongue. Sometimes the islanders spiced their food so fiercely it felt like eating a mouthful of the sticky fire their triremes flung in battle. But this proved mild enough.

Hosh set the pots on the table and crossed to the waist-high crock in the corner. Recoiling from the reek as he lifted the cover, he didn’t bother looking inside. Mould grew as swiftly as any plant in the rainy season and whatever cloud bread had been left in there was well beyond eating.

A small box tucked behind the crock caught his eye. He stooped to pick it up and twisted it open.

Dream smoke. It was a handful of days since Hosh had last found some of the fine-ground herbs which the Aldabreshi scattered on hot charcoal. Breathing in the fumes soothed mental and physical pain through the solace of waking dreams. So Imais had told him, one of the slave cooks to the
Reef Eagle
’s master, the galley where he and Corrain had been chained.

Hosh had tried the smoke once in the depths of utter despair after Corrain and Kusint had escaped. But returning from that temporary surcease had only made his miseries harder to bear. Worse, the acrid fumes had seared his broken nose and inflamed the whole imperfectly healed side of his face, where his cheekbone had been smashed by the pommel of a slaver’s brutal sword.

He missed Imais. She had saved him the pick of the ship master’s scraps in return for him scrubbing her pots clean. With her knowledge of healing herbs, she had given him leaves to chew and tisanes to drink that had reduced the intermittent swelling and perpetual pain from his injuries.

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