The Bosun's Tale
The elderly woman, Elyna, spoke very little. She carried Kalen into an enormous chamber made of smooth stone. The floor was covered in intricate patterns he couldn’t understand at all. Some were painted on, others were made of colored sand, and two of the larger designs had actually been inlaid into the stone in gold.
In the center of the room, in the place that somehow seemed to be the focal point of all the patterns, there were three rectangular parcels made of paper and sealed with wax. Elyna sat Kalen down beside them.
“None should be terrible if he was this far into the scrying,” she muttered, staring down at the envelopes. “But perhaps we’ll leave this last choice up to your own luck, child.”
Kalen blinked up at her.
“Choose one of the three,” she said. “You can’t get it wrong, so don’t worry about that.”
Kalen stared at the envelopes. The center one had a pale blue seal on it. It reminded him of Tomas’s shirt. He pointed, and Elyna picked it up.
She cracked open the seal, and two small glass vials fell into her hand. One was full of thick brown liquid. The other seemed empty at first, but when it caught the light, a few silvery grains were visible at the bottom. Her eyes scanned the paper. “Well, it’s one of the more elaborate schemes,” she muttered. “But you’re the last, so I suppose there’s no use complaining.”
She picked Kalen up again. As they stepped from the room, they found a young man in gray robes standing in the hall. He placed his hand on one of the crystals set in the wall, and it began to glow. Then he moved onto the next and did the same.
“Senior Elyna!” he said in surprise when he saw the two of them. “Oh, I shouldn’t have said your name when you’ve got…”
He stared hard at Kalen.
“Not to worry, Cousin,” said Elyna. “We’re all too tired for perfection at this point. How are you at swimming?”
“Swimming, Cousin. Swimming. Have you any skill at it?”
“Er…as much as the average man, Senior?”
“Then I’ve a task for you this morning. One more important than turning on the lights in a building that will soon be abandoned. Take off your robes and join us in the sending room quick as you can.”
“My robes…?” The man looked at a loss.
“You may leave your undergarments on. Provided they aren’t embroidered silks or something equally fanciful.”
“Chop, chop,” said Elyna, her tone brisk. “We’ve a long day ahead of us after this chore is done.”
After the man disappeared, Kalen was taken to yet another mysterious room with patterns on the floor. This one was smaller, and it was full of men and women in long robes with dark circles under their eyes. They sat on cushions with their backs against the wall, some of them talking quietly to their fellows, others drinking from steaming mugs.
A kettle rested on a small glowing slab in the corner, and the air smelled of something richly spiced.
Kalen’s stomach rumbled. He wanted some of whatever the warm drink was, but he wasn’t offered any. Elyna set him on the ground while she spoke to several of the people around the room in whispers.
A few minutes later, the man who’d been turning on the lights appeared, looking mortified to be standing there in nothing but a breechcloth.
“That will do nicely, Cousin,” said Elyna. “Now, read this so you know how to play your part.” She thrust the paper Kalen had chosen in the previous room at him.
“Senior!” he said, his eyes widening as he read it. “I—”
“No need to worry. We’ll have you out of there before the temperature becomes a problem for you.”
The man grimaced.
Not long after that, Kalen found himself caught in the iron grip of Senior Elyna, being forced to drink the foulest tasting concoction in the world.
He’d been eager to drink the brown stuff in the vial when Elyna told him to. It was the color of the chocolate Tomas had given him, and he’d expected it to taste the same. It did not. It tasted bad, bad, bad.
He started to spit it out, only to have the wicked old woman shout, “Oh no you don’t, lad!” She’d wrapped her arms around him from behind, slapping her hand over his mouth, and now he was in an impossible predicament.
“Swallow,” the witch commanded.
Kalen would not. But she was pinching his lips so tightly that he couldn’t spit the filthy stuff out either.
“Swallow,” she said again. “I’m not letting go, so the only way to get it off your tongue is to send it down into your belly.”
Eyes beginning to water from the wretched taste, Kalen considered this. If he swallowed…it would at least be out of his mouth?
Working up every ounce of his courage, he gulped the potion down.
Before he could fully recover from the horror, the witch took out the vial with the silver grains in it. She dampened her finger with spit, let the grains fall on it, then tossed the vial aside. She grabbed Kalen beneath the chin.
Tipping his head up, she rubbed the grains firmly into one of his nostrils and then the other. It was unpleasant but hardly worth worrying over compared to the taste in his mouth. His tongue, perhaps irreparably damaged by the experience, had started to go numb.
He was plunked down into the center of the pattern on the floor, alongside the awkward-looking man in the breechcloth. The man was putting some of the silver stuff in his own nose, but he had not been made to drink the foul potion. Kalen glared at him resentfully until a yawn rose up from his chest.
He was sleepy all of the sudden. So…very…slee—
Kalen’s whole body jerked as something hit every inch of him at once. It was a feeling so shocking it had its own color. White.
“Fucking hells!” a voice bellowed right in his ear.
Cold. So cold except for the arm wrapped around his chest.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” said the voice. “Port me into the middle of the Northern sea first thing in the fucking morning! With a wooden fucking plank and an unconscious fucking baby!”
The voice continued shouting like this for a while until it became almost a peaceful noise. Kalen’s body rocked in the coldness, his eyes unwilling to open fully. For some reason, he tasted salt.
Eventually the swearing stopped, and his companion started talking in a different tone.
“Er…listen, Kalenerth…by the way, your name’s Kalenerth. Okay? Kalenerth, it’s bad news, I’m afraid. Terrible stuff. The whole ship went down in a storm, see, and everyone’s dead. Your Ma and your Da and…er…the captain and the person who works under the captain…the first mate. Yeah, that’s right. The first mate’s dead, too.”
The man continued rambling this way for a while, naming various people, seeming particularly pleased when he found a word that sounded sort of like “Boe’s son.”
“Yep, he died too,” said the man. “The Boe’s son died last of all! He was a very brave Boe’s son, though. You were crying in the ship’s lobby. Er…no…that doesn’t sound real. You were crying in the mess, Kalenerth. Remember, that’s your name. You were crying in the mess as the ship went down, and the water was rising high around you, and that brave Boe’s son found you there. He carried you up onto the deck, where the storm was raging, and his last act was to tie you to this plank here so that you might survive.”
This is a weird story, thought Kalen. And it simply wasn’t true. Was the man trying to confuse him?
“In fact!” said his companion, sounding suddenly inspired. “I’m the brave Boe’s son. That’s who I am. And my name’s…Davvy. Davvy the Boe’s son. I saved you as my last act in this world. You’re alive because of me, Kalenerth.”
You are the man in the breechcloth, thought Kalen. You didn’t die in a storm.
Maybe his sisters and brothers from the room called the Senior’s study might have believed this story? They hadn’t even known their own names after all. They hadn’t met Tomas, like Kalen had.
If Tomas had told Kalen a story like this, he might have believed it.
“Now, goodbye Kalenerth!” said the man in the breechcloth. His voice had an entirely different weight to it than it had at first. “I see a ship on the horizon. As my last act on this earth, I give you over to the gods of the sea. Remember the name of Davvy—bravest Boe’s son ever to sail these perilous waters! Farewell, little Kalenerth! Farewell, cruel world!”
And then, it was quiet.
It was a long while before Kalen managed to open his eyes. He expected to see the man in the breechcloth, but instead he saw...water. His arms were tied to a board, and he floated in it. It was cold and dark blue and endless. Kalen felt dizzy.
This is wrong, something deep in his heart said. How could this much water exist? It was a great evil. It terrified him.
Heart pounding, he screamed. He flailed and kicked his legs, trying to get away from the water that had covered the whole of the world. One of his arms came free from the bindings that tied them to the board, and he flailed it around, too.
He hated this. He hated it! He was going to die here! He wanted out!
He’d panicked himself to exhaustion after mere minutes, but he kept kicking his legs determinedly. He kept struggling until he was shocked out of it by the deep, thrumming sound of some kind of horn.
It broke the air and echoed across the water.
Unable to tell where the sound had come from, Kalen half-thought it must have come from the gods themselves. Maybe they were angry about the water that had swallowed the world.
But not long after, he heard shouts from behind him, and then a splash.
The boy’s sense of direction was badly confused by the vastness of the sea and the sky, and he had no clue how to turn himself around. So it was a shock when an enormous red-haired man with a thick beard and arms like tree branches swam up beside him.
“Stedyonthar, smolman!” he said, grinning at Kalen.
Kalen blinked. Perhaps the man was trying to say, Steady on there? Small man?
Steady on there. Steady on. Yes, that was what he was saying, but what a strange way for the words to come out of his mouth!
“Well’veyar owthere aninwrmshp soon!”
Well, that was almost too difficult. But something about trying to figure out what the smiling man was saying calmed Kalen. He let the man untie his arm from the board, focusing only on the words. We’ll have you hour? We’ll have you hour and in worship soon?
That didn’t make much sense.
“Holon myshldr and well’veyar owthere intawrmth soon!”
Hold on to my shoulder and we’ll have you hour…no, out of here! Out of here into warmth! The man was going to rescue him if Kalen held on to him.
Kalen was cold. His arms were weak. But the red-haired man’s broad back gave him something to cling to with his legs, and he held on to his wet shirt as best he could.
The man pushed through the water easily, never letting his head or Kalen’s dip under the small waves. They were headed toward a wall of wood planks. A ship. It was as big as a building, with a bird of some kind carved into the front and big white swoops of fabric hanging from poles in the air.
It was a welcome sight because it was something. Something not made of water or sky.
And Kalen’s rescuer spoke words of comfort as they traveled. He was getting easier to understand already.
“Poor smollman,” he said. “We’ll have hotsup inyarbellyee soon.”
“I l-like hot s-soup,” said Kalen, shivering as his hands slipped again.
“Sup wipigint tday. Gudferyar belly.”
Kalen wasn’t sure if he was being promised soup with pigeon or soup with pig in it. But he’d take either as long as it was given to him on board the ship that would save him from this freezing wet nothingness.
When they reached the side of the boat, which was lined with bearded men, a large woven basket on ropes was lowered into the water. If he’d been stronger, Kalen would have leaped into it. But his rescuer managed the job for him quickly enough.
He tossed Kalen into the basket, and began climbing another rope that had been dropped down the side for him.
He beat Kalen to the top and was there to pull him from the basket again when he arrived. In an instant, Kalen was surrounded by burly men with smiling faces, all of them clucking over him and patting him with their huge hands and calling him smollman.
“Whasyarnam, smollman?” asked his rescuer.
No need to bother with Kalenerth at all, since Tomas had said it was too long.
Kalen was very much the center of attention on board the ship.
He was stripped of his wet tunic and dried right there on the deck, then examined all over by a man who shrugged when the job was done and said, “Tootoosmoll but eesgot no frzn bitsalees.”
No frozen bits alees was apparently good news, because several of the men cheered.
Kalen was bundled up in a huge white fur pelt and toted below decks to the blessed indoors of the ship. His rescuer carried him to a dark and warm dining space where there were no windows showing the enormous watery world the sailors called the oshun.
This made the small dining area heaven, as far as Kalen was concerned.
His opinion of the place was further elevated by the appearance of a mug of tea, a bowl of thick pork soup, and some kind of hard cracker bigger than his hand.
Every time one of the sailors who had crowded into the space tried to ask him a question, the red-bearded one said, “Leim eedfirs, leim eed!”
He said it so many times, that to Kalen it started to sound perfectly understandable.
“Let him eat first, I said!” the man bellowed, chucking one of the crackers at a younger man whose beard was only just starting to grow in. “Gods o’ the sea, Dort, but you’re a pest!”
Dort was sent out of the room, hounded by the laughter of the other sailors. A white-haired man sat down across the table from Kalen and smashed a cracker for him, showing him how to dunk the broken pieces into the tea.
“Thank you,” said Kalen.
He was allowed to eat the whole meal before anyone demanded more answers of him, and that gave him sufficient time to figure out what he was supposed to say.
The sailors wanted to know how he’d gotten out into the terrible oshun by himself. This must be the point of the confusing story about Davvy.
Kalen still wasn’t sure whether the breechcloth man had meant for Kalen to believe the story, but at least now he knew what the tale was for. Since he wasn’t allowed to speak about Tomas, and since he’d go straight to the hells if he ever revealed the special name Orellen, he must be supposed to tell these nice men the story of Davvy instead.
A new word swam to the surface of his head. It had been happening a lot more often since he’d warmed up and gotten some food in his stomach. The word was lie.
So when he’d stuffed every last corner of his belly, and the time came to answer the sailors’ questions, Kalen rearranged the breechcloth man’s words in a more satisfying way and blinked up at the crowd of bearded men. He spoke the lie in a clear voice.
“It was that fucking Davvy, Boe’s son! He made the ship fall into the fucking oshun. The water scared my Ma and Da until they died. And then the captain got scared and died of water, too. And then the first mate died. And then Davvy tied me to a board in the ship’s lobby, and now he’s even more dead than everybody else. It was all his fault.”