Kushiel's Justice (Page 92)
And it was cold, no matter what the Vralians said.
Out on the open sea, there was no respite from it. We felt the wind cutting us before the boat was even launched, trudging across the broad expanse of ice while ponies dragged the boat alongside us.
Some yards from the edge, the ponies were unhitched. There were only two men serving as Skovik's crew; we would have to make up for the rest. The boat wasn't large enough to carry more. We took hold of the boat on its stern and sides and pushed, sliding it over the ice, which I prayed would hold us.
The ice held firm beneath our feet. The Vralian seal-hunters had a great deal of experience in gauging such matters. I grunted and pushed, the worn soles of my boots sliding. The boat grated over the ice and slid into the frigid water with a splash. Skovik's men grabbed barbed pikes and hooked the boat's railing with a practiced movement, securing it. It bobbed in the sea, looking little larger than a child's toy.
Skovik clambered aboard and beckoned. “Come.”
Joscelin went first, stepping deftly over the railing and into the boat, steadied by Skovik's hand on his arm. The boat dipped and wallowed under Joscelin's weight and his face took on a greenish tinge almost immediately. He swallowed and stood with one foot on the railing, hoisting Phèdre aboard by main force. She was shivering, no longer amused. The rest of us followed. Urist, who still needed a walking-stick and had a difficult time navigating the ice, was the hardest, but between the three of us, Hugues, Ti-Philippe, and I managed to wrestle him aboard, as well as all of our baggage.
I went last. We stowed our gear as best we could and arrayed ourselves along the narrow benches at Skovik's directive, ensuring the boat's balance; and then he gave an order to his men, and they stepped aboard with careless ease, using their barbed pikes to shove off.
A narrow strip of grey water opened between our boat and the shore. Skovik gave an order. His men obeyed with alacrity, raising the square sails. They caught the wind and bellied. The expanse of water between us and the icy shore grew wider. Skovik took the rudder. He glanced at the sky and gave a hard, fierce grin.
“Seems your gods are with you!” he shouted. “Wind's blowing from the north!”
“Blessed Elua be thanked.” Huddling in the prow, Phèdre wrapped her arms around herself and sought to sink deeper into her fur-lined coat. “I think.”
It was by far and away the most perilous sea crossing I'd ever made. The wind stayed brisk and true, and our little boat ran easily before it. But the ice floes were a constant danger. Some of them were quite massive, looming above the grey water. Those were the ones on which we made camp at night, searching until we found an incline shallow enough to permit us to drag the boat atop the solid ice.
Sleeping was cramped and uncomfortable. Once the sails were stretched across the boat and lashed into place, our body heat warmed the trapped air, but it soon grew to smell stale and rank. Our meals consisted of salt cod, hard biscuits, and starka, which we drank in sparing amounts.
There was no way to carry water without it freezing solid, and nothing with which to build a fire on the floes. Skovik showed us how to scrape ice and pack our waterskins with it, wearing them under our clothing so the ice would slowly melt over the course of the day or night. Between that and the starka, it was enough to keep us from growing parched. I'd thought the melted floe-ice would be salty and unfit to drink, but strangely, it was only a bit brackish. When I dipped my hand into the sea and tasted the open water, it was bitter. Why that should be true, I cannot say, but it was.
The worst danger was the smaller floes, the ones that lurked at the surface of the water, barely visible. They didn't look like much, but they were larger beneath than above. With a strong wind at our back, if we struck one, it might breach the hull.
And if that happened, we were all dead. I was a strong swimmer, but I had no illusions on that front. The winter sea was deadly cold. If we were pitched into it, we'd freeze and drown in a matter of minutes.
On the first day, Skovik posted one of his men, an experienced spotter, in the prow. By the second day, he realized that Phèdre had grown as adept as a Vralian sailor at spotting dangerous floes and let her take over the task. She had a keen eye, trained to observe since childhood, and the patience not to be distracted. More than once, we were saved from a collision by her warning.
There were a few close calls nonetheless. With sufficient notice and a good wind, Skovik was able to avoid most of them, but when we came up hard and fast on a wallowing chunk of ice, we had to take to oars, rowing frantically to help change the boat's course, while his men balanced perilously, shoving at the ice with their barbed pikes.
Those were terrifying moments, the grey water rushing past our hull, the boat lurching precariously as Skovik's fellows leaned on their pikes. The first time it happened, I thought for sure we were doomed. Wood scraped along the ice, groaning. I was on the side nearest the floe, so close I couldn't even put oar to water. The pikemen shoved and grunted. Seawater sloshed over the railing, soaking our feet.
And then we were past it, sailing onward. The floe spun lazily behind us, barely visible, awaiting its next unwitting victim.
“By Lug the warrior and the Black Boar himself,” Urist said with heartfelt feeling. “I swear, if I get my feet on Alban soil, I'm never leaving again.”
We all felt it. But there were times when it was glorious, too, in a stark way. The nights were grueling and unpleasant, but the days could be lovely. Our luck with the weather held. We sailed through a world of empty sky, grey water, and ice. Farther north, we saw seals from time to time, although not often. They were comical creatures, ungainly on the ice, but graceful in the water, with dark, plaintive eyes and whiskered faces. Skovik and his men eyed them with regret, but with nine people in the boat, there was no room to take on additional stores if they'd gone hunting. I wasn't terribly sorry.
Later, as we went farther south, the ice ledge began to retreat and there were fewer floes and more birdlife. Great flocks of gulls and terns wheeled overhead, and we saw ducks and geese taking wing from the water.
“Spring's coming,” Skovik observed.
It seemed hard to fathom. I'd lost all track of time. It felt to me as though it had been winter forever and would always be winter. He was right, though. By midway through the second week, we'd travelled far enough that the cutting wind no longer bit quite as deep. The ice ledge shrank farther; fifty yards instead of a hundred, betimes less. We were able to sail close enough to the coast that folk in the towns there waved to us as we passed.
And then one day we approached a port we didn't pass.
“Norstock,” Skovik said briefly.
I wouldn't have recognized it from the sea. The harbor where Urist and I had booked passage with Captain Iosef was still frozen solid. We trimmed our sails, gliding gently until we bumped up against the ledge. Skovik's men reached out with their barbed pikes, securing the boat. They prodded the ice, testing, then dared scramble over the side, one holding the boat in place, the other grinning as he stamped on the ice with his sealskin boots, making sure it would hold.
Skovik tossed a pair of lines ashore, while Ti-Philippe struck the sails and lashed them. As the only experienced sailor among the lot of us, he'd been a valuable companion on this journey. One by one, we disembarked. We'd gotten fairly good at it by now, although I was concerned about the thickness of the ice ledge. Joscelin and I made sure Phèdre and Urist were well away before we attempted to haul the boat atop the ice.
A good job we did, too. When we hauled on the lines, the boat's prow rose out of the water and lurched onto the ledge. The ice crumbled beneath it.
“Back, back, back!” Skovik shouted.
It needed no translation. Half terrified and half laughing, we scrambled backward, digging in our heels and falling over one another, tugging on the lines, chased by the receding edge of ice. For a time, the boat forged a channel of open water. At last the ice grew thick enough to support its weight, and it slid atop the ledge with casual ease, resting there. We hauled it a few more yards until we were sure it was safe.
I flopped down on my back. “Name of Elua!”
“So.” Skovik's face appeared above me. “Here you are.”
“Here we are,” I agreed wearily.
He smiled beneath his mustaches. “We go now to find brave men to sail north to Vralgrad with us and hunt along the way.”
I got to my feet and extended my hand. “Safe travels to you.”
He clasped it. “And to you.”
I appreciated the sentiment. We'd made it safely to Norstock, for which I was grateful, but it meant we were back on Skaldic soil. I thought we stood a good chance of finding safe passage to the Flatlander border—Maslin had managed it alone, and the area seemed open to trade and well under Adelmar's control. Still, we were on foot, with a good deal of baggage. Somehow, I doubted we were going to find eager assistance in gaining transportation back to Maarten's Crossing.
And I doubted Adelmar of the Frisii would be glad to see us when we did.
I was wrong.It didn't take long to discover it. Skovik and his men headed into town, but it took us a while to get our gear unloaded and sorted. We'd barely finished and begun trudging across the ice ledge toward the town when the harbor-master of Norstock came out to meet us, a pair of armed guards at his side.
All of us dropped our packs and tensed.
“Don't.” Phèdre shook her head when Joscelin's hand rose to reach for his sword-hilt. “They'd have brought more men if they meant violence.”
She was right.
The harbor-master was a tall fellow in his late fifties or so. He had a deep scar that sliced his cheek and dented the bridge of his nose, and he looked to have seen his share of battles. But his grey eyes were calm and his manner was unthreatening. When he addressed us in Skaldic, Phèdre stepped forward and replied fluently in the same tongue. I watched her expression shift to one of bemusement as they spoke. He gestured in my direction several times. I tried to make out what they were saying, but after long months in Vralia, I couldn't summon the wits to follow in my rudimentary Skaldic.
“He says they've kept an eye out for you, Imriel,” Phèdre said. “On Adelmar's orders.” She sounded puzzled. “It seems he's had a change of heart. He's offering assistance.”
“Why?” I asked.
She put the question to the harbor-master, who gave a brief reply and a shrug. “Orders,” Phèdre reported. “He doesn't know why.”
“Could be a trick,” Joscelin observed.
“What would be the point?” Phèdre spread her hands. “He's got a whole town at his back. There's no need to trick us.”
It was no trick. The harbor-master gave all of us a curt bow, then gestured to his men. They approached to assist us with our packs, making careful gestures to indicate that this was goodwill and not thievery.
“Huh.” Urist leaned on his walking-stick. “Passing odd.”
“Mayhap Queen Ysandre pressured him,” I suggested.
“To help you?” Urist's gaze slewed around at me. “Not likely, lad. My money's on Drustan. Don't know how he took the news you're bedding his daughter, but at least it's his niece you're avenging.”
I hefted the sack with Berlik's skull. “There is that.”
The harbor-master, whose name was Ortwin, was as good as his word. He and his men led us to an inn, one of the only ones still open during the winter months. We weren't exactly welcome—the innkeeper looked unhappy at our presence—but no one offered any threat. We kept to ourselves and passed an uneasy night there, and woke on the morrow to find that Ortwin had assembled a company to escort us to Maarten's Crossing, with guards and mounts and pack-horses.
I asked Phèdre to thank him for his kindness, since she'd be able to express it far more eloquently than I would. She did. The harbor-master made a long speech in reply. At one point he nodded toward Joscelin, sitting impassively atop his loaned mount, the hilt of his sword jutting over his shoulder. At another point, he touched his own scarred cheek. Phèdre listened gravely to his words. She leaned down in the saddle to clasp his hand, speaking a few quiet words in Skaldic.
“What was that all about?” Hugues asked when we departed.
“Forgiveness.” She glanced at Joscelin. “He knew who we were.”
Joscelin raised his brows. “And forgave us?”
“He said he'd known peace and war, and peace was better,” she murmured.
“Can't argue with that,” Ti-Philippe offered.
Even so, it all seemed somewhat too good to be true. We rode warily, keeping a sharp eye on our escort. There were six of them and six of us, but the Skaldi might reckon the odds uneven, since our numbers included Phèdre, who was no warrior, and Urist, who was injured. They would be wrong, of course. Urist was uncomfortable riding astride, but an aching leg didn't render him less dangerous. And then there was Joscelin, who might well have taken on the entire company by himself.
There was no trouble. We crossed the narrow peninsula in good time. Ortwin's escort delivered us to the gates of Maarten's Crossing before the sun had set, and the guards posted outside the wooden stockade fence admitted us without a challenge.
Urist grunted. “That's a change.”
The area where we'd made our camp was deserted save for a few fur-traders, who shot us dour looks. I wondered if it meant that Talorcan and his Cruithne, and Kinadius and the last of Clunderry's men, had given up and gone home. But when we made our way to the inn where a few of us had lodged—Halla's place, with the sign of the rooster—we found it wasn't so.