Click here to read Episode 3
The cabin shutters were closed, slicing the the sunlight into a gridwork of thin lines: thicker verticals at the hinges, or where the two leaves met, and fine horizontals that passed between the boards. Ashurra’s eyes traced the lines across the wall, and abruptly out, around the lean knots and cords of her brother’s chest and arms. The swell was a nurturing, hypnotic regularity, in contrast to the chaotic chop that had carried them north up the Gulf Of Dorna, away from their destination; it helped her to lose herself, but it hindered her focus, and she realised with a small sting of frustration that she had allowed herself to be distracted by the pattern of the light. Her eyes de-focussed as she tried again to grasp the whole energy of their working, and that alone, to hold in her mind the elemental nodes of her body, and of Maghîllin’s body, the subtle meridians that connected them, the powerful vortices where the meridians converged at their sacra, her nukhstra enfolding and receiving his dhwimtra, and the blissful dragon energy that flowed over and through them, trets-üvse, the Wave. And as she became more fully aware of it, in concord with her brother, it grew and flowered, and enveloped them, glowing and pulsing, as he throbbed inside her, and she pulsed around him, balanced on the very point of ecstasy.
Energy flooded them, healing and empowering, energy that would stay with them for days, enhancing their will; they had worked their magic twice before since the Yellowbird had been at sea, and already Ashurra’s arm was nearly healed. It was badly bruised, not cut, and although it was possible that the big Suluf’s blow had broken the bone, it was not broken now; she could move it freely, and felt no discomfort unless she overloaded it. She and her twin saw the swirling network of energy flows all around them, connecting them to the other beings in and around the ship, and to the great flows of the world itself, but most intense around themselves, luminous skeins of colour and subtle power. Most others would see only them, copper skin beaded with sweat, seated facing on the floor beside the bunk, their legs entwined, Maghîllin penetrating her deeply, their eyes locked, breathing heavily in unison, not moving.
Gradually, as she restored her connection to the Wave, Ashurra allowed her attention to return to the room, to the physicality of their bodies, and her twin began to move inside her; with the slightest of adjustments she released her ecstasy, and her breathing became softly vocal. Maghîllin showed no change in his expression, and continued the most gentle movement, with perfect regularity; pleasure flowed through her in waves, but her brother did not release his own, retaining his dhwimtra, his solar energy, behind a dam of willpower so strong that it frightened her. When she had ceased, he withdrew, and moved to sit beside her, kissing her face, and caressing, as he always did, the battle-scarred ruin of her left ear.
The ship’s crew believed them to be husband and wife, but their fellow Blackswords knew the truth of it, and most of them feared them both for their incest and for their sorcery. In their homeland it was not a matter of morality, but here in the North it seemed that there was no way for two people to touch that did not offend some religious stricture: it was forbidden for brother and sister; for parent and child; for old and young; for two women or two men; for more than two people; for the unmarried. Even a woman’s naked torso was morally disturbing to the Roganid and the Kraikh. Their comrades had abandoned the cabin to them in the daylight hours, sitting with Ukhand in his stateroom when they were not on deck.
‘We must be passing Tortenos,’ said Maghîllin. ‘Shall we dress and go on deck?’
The caravel was beating against the wind, no longer from due south, a stiff breeze rather than the unexpected gale that had blown them north from Dorna. There had been no intention in the gale, at least none that had any interest in them, she knew that now, but she had been afraid to begin with; any unforseen adversity reminded her of the power that pursued them, the darkness that had hounded them so far from their home in Híghunîl. She reached for her pipe, still panting, before she realised she would have to leave the cabin to find fire for it, so she dressed. Her brother dressed as well, and she could see in his movements what he no longer bothered to speak, his disapproval of her expending the power they worked so hard for on her bodily pleasure, and by drugging herself with opium. His opprobrium was not moralistic, but practical, a concern for their survival, and his view of the danger was more relaxed than hers; he favoured her with a grin when he saw the belligerent response that was written on her face.
‘Spend your energy how you will,’ he laughed. ‘I’m sure all our enemies now can be defeated as well by steel as by subtle means.’
She disagreed, but said nothing; opium had been her faithful companion throughout their exile, and the cost of using it was a price she paid willingly for the comfort it brought her. The two cabins that had been given over to the Blackswords were the two best on the ship, the captain’s and the owner’s, and were the only ones that did not open directly onto the deck. The galley was reached by the same passageway, and in the middle of the day it was the only place Ashurra knew she would find a fire burning. There was a sailor standing in the doorway, and when she made to enter he moved to block her path, speaking in Roganid too fast, and with too many sailors’ words, for her to follow him. She moved the other way and he moved to block her again, laughing. She growled at him, baring her teeth and several inches of steel; the man was clearly taken aback, but then he laughed louder, and pulled the heavy hanger at his belt partway from its sheath. She had forgotten how blind men were in the North, the simple fact that she was a woman completely obscuring what should be obvious from her appearance and demeanour, that she was a battle hardened warrior who could cut him to ribbons in seconds. Her brother pulled her away before she could decide to correct his error.
On deck it became apparent that the wind was now coming from the direction in which they wished to travel; she begged Maghîllin to call a fair blow from the west, but he demurred, saying that he was no weather-worker, and lacked the understanding to reverse the wind’s direction without causing chaos. Ashurra disliked his response; she had had enough of being aboard the Yellowbird. Energy was coursing through her, strength and flow demanding action, but she had no opportunity to act, and there was need as well, for the acrid smoke that would soothe and calm her. She looked up and down the deck in irritation, wondering where she would find a candle burning, but it was plain day; she and Maghîllin had both lost their tinderboxes in their hurried departure from Dorna, and it seemed unlikely that there would be a brazier alight, warm as it was. The ship was large for a caravel, but still too small, and on too short a voyage, to carry a smith. Belowdecks somewhere? It must be dark, and the sailors must need to work there, but she didn’t have the patience to warp her mouth around their slushy, vowel-ridden language. She glanced at Maghîllin, but she knew he would tell her to find her fire for herself; she turned, and strode back into the aftercastle.
The sailor in the galley door was thin and sallow skinned, a drooping moustache obscuring most of his mouth. He regarded Ashurra with an expression that mingled contempt and lasciviousness as she hurried towards him.
‘I want the fire,’ she said, and made to pass him on his left.
He blocked her path, and said something about giving her his fire, before laughing, and throwing words over his shoulder to the cook, too rapidly for her to grasp. She stepped to his right, and when he moved to block her, stepped back to his left and into the galley.
His sneering smile became a snarl; she thought it unlikely he would behave this way towards any of the other female passengers, but to him she was a savage, a foreigner who dressed as a man, and shaved her head, and he may even have assumed she and her brother were Ukhand’s slaves. She gave him a warning glance, not bothering to parse his stream of words, and took a pace further into the galley. He aimed a backhanded blow at her face, hard enough to knock her across the room if it landed.
Which it did not. In one moment he was disciplining an unruly fighting slave, or whatever he took her for, a man in command of himself and his situation, beating a woman who would not obey him, as he had doubtless beaten others before; in the next moment he was listening to a gentle thump as three of his fingers struck the deck, his left hand pointlessly gripping his right wrist as he watched blood spurt from their stumps, fountaining improbably high, while Ashurra tilted her head sideways, observing him curiously as she licked the edge of her dagger.
She heard a shout from behind her, and turned. The cook was making his way around the table at which he had been chopping vegetables, brandishing two large knives. She put her sabre through his midriff, roughly where his liver should be, noting the change in resistance as her blade slid through fat, then muscle, then something less consistent, and grated between two ribs on its exit. She yanked it out firmly, drawing it crossways as she did. While the cook was contemplating the loops and coils of his viscera spilling to the deck, she noted the presence of a cabin boy cowering behind him, and turned back to the other man, the one who had tried to strike her. He opened his mouth in wordless horror, turned and ran straight onto her brother’s sword.
‘You stupid fucking child,’ said Maghîllin, making it sound more like an observation than an accusation. ‘What have you done?’
She considered that. What had she done? She turned back, to see the cook on his hands and knees, struggling to find purchase on a deck slick with his own juices, reaching for a hand-bell that stood on a cabinet at the back of the room. She took a swift pace forward and put a stop to him, pressing the tip of her sword expertly between two vertebrae in the back of his neck with a loud crack. The cabin boy was gathering breath to scream; he sprouted the hilt of her twin’s dagger from his left eye and slumped back, twitching.
She turned back to look at Maghîllin; he was tight with anger, barely able, and still unwilling, to believe the situation. He mastered himself quickly, as he had needed to do many times before, and Ashurra could see the mechanism of his tactical mind whirring into action.
‘Now at least it is only us that can say what happened here,’ he said coolly. ‘The only thing we can do now is to go to Ukhand and tell him how we were attacked. The moment we go trailing this blood across the deck there will be a panic, but we have no time to clean up. All we can do is hope we can gather the Blackswords fast enough to keep the upper hand.’
Ashurra nodded, and opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a hand to silence her.
‘Don’t speak. The captain will want us hanged, and Ukhand may be inclined to indulge him, but our best hope still lies with him. Be ready for anything, but don’t do anything unless I tell you to.’
He didn’t need to berate her; he didn’t need to tell her what he thought of her, and her appetites; even had there been the time for words he would not have needed them. He almost glowed with anger and indignation. Ashurra threw a coal from the stove into her opium pipe and sucked greedily at smoke from the oily residue that coated it, while he retrieved his dagger from the cabin boy. They cleaned their blades cursorily and went on deck.
Ashurra stayed close behind Maghîllin, her head down, trying to move fast without appearing to hurry. They came out of the doorway from the aftercastle, turned immediately left and mounted the steep steps onto the quarterdeck. The captain of the ship stood near the tiller with his mate, the man Ukhand had knocked out when he had boarded at Dorna, and Ukhand stood nearby, at the rail, with Irtain and Umbaral. Wooded coastline slid slowly aft on both sides of them now, as they navigated the strait between Tortenos and the mainland Barony of Minessor.
They quickly crossed the deck and Maghîllin stood close to Ukhand to whisper.
‘Call the Blackswords together,’ he told him. ‘Keep ship captain here close.’
Ukhand looked at him as though he had lost his wits; he looked him up and down, then looked at Ashurra, seeing the blood, and Ashurra’s obvious distress. He was a man who quickly assessed information, and rejected that which was not immediately relevant; this skill had saved the lives of every Blacksword on the ship, more than once, and the twins trusted him to direct them now. What might have sounded to an outsider like a subordinate giving orders to his commander, Ukhand identified instantly as the delivery of urgent intelligence: these things were needed, and the Blackswords’ captain trusted Maghîllin’s judgement enough to act on it. The precise nature of the situation, and what had caused it, were things he would learn later, when the danger of a crew-member overhearing them was no longer important; even if Ashurra and Maghîllin were at fault, and in need of punishment, that was a decision he would reserve to his own authority, and to ensure that he would need to control the situation.
Ashurra saw all this, but she was in the passion of battle, the blood mist that had descended with the first blow she’d struck, and couldn’t anticipate his decisions; her brother was the master of his passions, but she knew only how to channel hers with her will, not how to subject them to it. Ukhand told them to stand at the rail, facing the sea; Irtain was still unable to speak clearly, so he sent Umbaral running to gather the others, three of whom she could see lounging on the bow rail. The other two must be below with the horses.
The speed of Umbaral’s passage drew attention, and sailors noticed the blood that the twins had trailed across the deck. It was obvious where it led, and a shout went up, so Ukhand moved the four of them into positions around the captain, to his consternation and his mate’s fury. Men came running, but the captain had a great deal of respect for Ukhand’s abilities, and he ordered them to keep their distance, with their weapons sheathed. Soon six more Blackswords made their way to the stern, shouldering their way through a mass of angry sailors, who had not forgotten that the sellswords had boarded by force, and had made their resentment obvious throughout the voyage.
Ashurra felt the tension building, until it was an unbearable roiling storm inside her skull; her first sight of blood had told her body that it was time for battle, and she struggled to convince it otherwise. Rows of angry faces ringed them, mostly from the main deck, with a railing and a six foot drop between them, but there were some six or seven men on the quarter deck behind them, three of the Blackswords facing them off. The Blackswords had swords or sabres, and daggers, but no armour, except one of the men who had been below, who had grabbed a shield on his way up to the main deck.
There were other passengers on the deck as well, wealthy ones at the stern, a few poorer labourers at the bow, all of them cowering at the rails. The sailors were armed with vicious knives, used for trimming ropes and dressing fish, and around half of them carried heavy curved hangers, short swords that could sever limbs with ease and required little space to swing.
Two men came running out from the door below the quarterdeck, screaming murder, pointing at the trail of blood. The storm burst in Ashurra’s head, and she drew both her blades with a snarl. The air was split with a ringing scrape, as every sailor, and every Blacksword followed suit.