‘Only a death can calm a storm at sea.’
Elam taking part in the ritual of blot aesildur, discovers Coiran on the beach miraculously alive, despite her injuries. With even the doors of temple hospices barred for the night, Elam has no choice but to take her into his household in order to save her life.
But no good deed goes unpunished.
When the king is killed in a hunting accident and the man responsible is found dead in his cell. Elam suspects a coup. A worrying possibility, especially when he finds himself named heir to the throne.
As the body count rises, the lord witan arrests Coiran. Is she involved? Or is she innocent of the crimes of which she is accused? Elam must discover the truth, before he becomes the next victim.
Innocent or guilty, one thing is clear. There is more to Coiran than meets the eye.
Targeted Age Group:: YA and above
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Inspiration comes from music lyrics, locations I’m working in or places I’ve visited, interesting architecture, historical documentaries, sagas, myths, folklore, my love of thrillers and crime dramas, sleep deprivation from working nights, and boredom from being stuck in hotels and B&B sometimes for weeks at a time by myself.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Coiran is kind of me when I was younger. I was shy and quiet and a bit of a push over (though I’m not anymore).
Elam I think grew out of all my favourite heroes I had growing up (Robin Hood, Vincent from beauty and the beast, Beowulf etc).
I clung to the bunk with white-knuckled hands as the Roscaran ship, lurched down one wave, only to climb, staggering, up the next. All around me, the timbers of the hull groaned in tortured protest as the wind howled about the small vessel, and rain hammered against the deck overhead.
My reflection, shaved-headed, and gaunt stared back at me from the silver mirror affixed to the wall; amber eyes wide with fear. I looked away. Something about my reflection viewed in the half-light of the cabin made me uncomfortable. Maybe it was the illusion that I was a disembodied head, created by the black tunic I wore. I looked like a ghost. I hoped it wasn’t a premonition.
Nu-wer, I prayed silently, flinging out my arms to brace myself against the walls of the cabin; as the ship seemed to drop out from beneath me. Cup this ship within the safe harbour of your hands, and bring us safely to shore. I wasn’t sure that Nu-wer could help, since she was a goddess of rivers and floods; but being unfamiliar with the Roscaran god of the sea, I had no one else to call on.
Stomach fluttering in fear; I bit back the bile that burnt my throat, grateful that I had not eaten in several days. I didn’t have the stomach for food suffering as I was from seasickness. The smell of unwashed bodies damp wool and the pungent odours from the commode that permeated the cabin didn’t help.
The cabin door slammed open, startling me. I looked up to see a hulking figure silhouetted in the doorway; a pair of canine-shaped ears standing proud of his head. I forgot my earlier fear in the terrible certainty that Jakhal, the god of death, had finally come for me.
A flash of lightning split the sky, briefly alleviating the false twilight created by the storm. Now, I could see the ears and muzzle weren’t real, but part of a mask. Water stained the brown leather; and a tiny patch of sea salt, crusted at the corner of one eyehole, sparkled like a lone tear.
I could feel the weight of the priest’s gaze behind his mask as our eyes met. He smiled, and I looked quickly away, my skin rippling in fear. A slave did not look upon the face of her betters. I hunched my shoulders, expected the priest to beat me for my transgression. The blow did not come.
Screwing up my courage, I risked a quick glance in the priest’s direction. He was busy shouldering the door shut against the weather.
‘The ship’s wizard says this storm will last for four more days.’ He informed me as he secured the latch at last. Stripping off his sodden black wool binnish, he turned away from the door. His mouth was a grim line beneath his mask.
I watched from beneath lowered lashes as he wrung out the robe; the muscles of his arms and chest bulging with the motion, before he pulled it back on with a grimace. After days of rain, everything was damp, and there was nowhere to hang clothes to dry.
‘We’ll either have to outrun the storm, or the wizard will need to try to calm it; though I don’t know whether he will have the strength to do so.’ He continued as he rummaged through his bags
‘Na’heshi?’ I murmured. When he looked up I offered him the drying cloth he had left on the bunk earlier.
‘Thank you,’ he said, taking the towel from me, and tucking his bags under the bunk. Pushing up his mask he dried his face. He froze in the middle of replacing the mask as the ship’s timbers gave a particularly loud groan of protest. Standing with his head cocked to one side; he listened intently for a moment.
I was suddenly acutely conscious of the fragility of the vessel in which we sat. I gave another shudder of fear, and wished fervently that this storm were over. If we made it to land, I was never willingly setting foot on a ship again.
The priest relaxed after a moment, and started toweling his hair dry. He seemed unconcerned that the ship could sink at any time. He looked up as someone knocked on the cabin door.
The ship’s captain entered, without waiting for leave to do so. Gone were the fine silks he had worn when we boarded the vessel. Instead, he wore oiled linen beneath a leather cape. The storm had pulled strands of hair from his dark braid, and water had plastered them against his high forehead. Stubble covered his square jaw, and the once neat beard, that framed his mouth, needed trimming.
‘Forgive the intrusion, kahnis.’ He said with a bow to my companion. ‘We require your assistance.’
‘A storm is a strange time for a funeral, Captain Salihah.’
The captain shook his head.
‘Indeed there has been a death, but I did not come to speak about a funeral. My wizard informs me that only a death can calm a storm of this magnitude.’ His jaw clenched in anger. ‘Unfortunately, the dead man was the slave we carried should such a spell be required.’
‘You need a new sacrifice.’ The priest guessed as he folded his arms over his chest.
‘I would more than match what you paid for the girl.’
I shrank away from the captain, not liking the turn the conversation had taken. I had always expected to die young. Drowned in a bog maybe, or killed by an overseer. I had come to accept that fact. I had never once expected to be given in sacrifice to the gods.
I need not have worried, for the priest was already waving his hand, signalling an end to the conversation.
‘Forgive me, Captain Salihah. Her sale is not possible. She is to join the priesthood at Chi’gyn.’
The captain scowled and pursed his lips in an unhappy moue.
‘You drive a hard bargain. Fifty gold Siliquae? That is surely double what your temple gave you to buy her; including what you would have received in expenses.’
‘I am not haggling.’ The priest explained patiently as he spread his hands apologetically. ‘I am not authorised to sell her.’
‘Your temple need not know,’ the captain hastened to reassure him. ‘People fall overboard all the time during storms. I will pay you a hundred gold Siliquae.’
I stared at the captain. Was he mad? I was not worth such an outrageous price. He could buy a dozen slaves in the markets at Thinis for what he was offering for me. He must be desperate.
Of course he is. They would need every sailor to work the oars and sails. I didn’t think the captain could spare even one for sacrifice. Would he even dare? Surely the rest of the crew would revolt if he tried. The ship’s wizard was needed to cast his spells; and no one would think to harm a priest, for the gods jealously guarded those that served them. I could not see the captain offering himself up to save his ship and crew. That left only me. I was a passenger and a slave. I was disposable.
The priest hesitated as he considered the offer. I guessed, by the hint of a smile that curled the captain’s lips, that he knew what the priest’s answer would be. Unfortunately, so did I.
He surprised us both when he shook his head.
‘There is no certainty the spell will work.’
‘You would kill us all for her?’ The captain asked incredulously. ‘She is a slave. She is nothing!’
The priest shrugged
‘Our fates are in the hands of the gods.’
The priest doubled over with a grunt of pain as the captain struck him a blow to the body. It was only as he went to hit him a second time that I saw the bloody, square-bladed knife clenched in his fist.
The priest caught the captain’s knife hand by the wrist and twisted the blade from his grasp. ‘Get out!’ He hissed softly as he shoved the captain towards the cabin door. ‘If I see you again before we reach our destination, I will report you to the temple authorities.’
The captain paled as he realised what he had done. Turning on his heel he fled the cabin.
‘Hold this.’ The priest passed me the knife before stripping off his binnish with shaking hands. ‘Shit!’ He murmured softly as he examined the freely bleeding wound. ‘There’s a leather healer’s kit in my bags, would you fetch it for me, please?’
I scrambled beneath the bunk for his saddlebags as he sat. My hands were trembling as I fumbled to undo the straps. I could not believe the captain had tried to kill him. I pulled the healer’s kit free of the bag; sending his shaving mirror and folding razor sliding across the cabin floor as I did so. He took the bag from.
I caught the odour of faeces as I retrieved the scattered items and put them away. Was the smell from the commode or his wound? If it was from the wound he would die of infection. I had seen it often enough in the slave markets amongst those taken in battle.
I trembled. If he died before the storm abated, there would be no one to stop them sacrificing me to the sea god.
‘Should I get the wizard, kahnis?’ I asked hesitantly.
‘Stay away from him and the captain both.’ The priest ordered as he lifted out a small copper bowl and a roll of linen bandage from the bag.
Pouring vinegar into the bowl; he soaked the linen in it. The acerbic scent was overpowering in the small space. ‘They mean you harm whilst this storm is raging.’ He was silent for a moment. ‘The captain more so, for you saw him stab me.’
Swearing and cursing as he worked, the priest packed the linen into the wound, and wrapped a clean bandage around his abdomen. Finished, he packed his supplies back into the healer’s kit.
‘The crew is scared,’ he continued. ‘They should be. That idiot captain is using the stars to navigate by, rather than following the coast like most traders.’
Moving stiffly, he crouched to put the healer’s kit away and pulled out a clean tunic.
‘Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with stellar-navigation; the Whyrians have been using it for centuries. Yet even they follow the coast when sailing in the Strait. The storms in these waters are too fierce, and too unpredictable. Far safer to put into a port or cove and wait out a storm than to try to sail through it.’ Pulling on the tunic he rose. ‘Unfortunately, at the moment, we are at least a day from land in any direction.’
I shuddered at the thought of all that water around us. When the priest seated himself on the bunk once more I offered him back the blade. He shook his head, surprising me again.
‘Keep the knife. You may need it.’ He told me as he shifted to rest his back against the bulkhead. ‘If you must fight, aim for the throat, or here.’ He touched my chest lightly just beneath the centre of my ribs. ‘Drive the blade upwards; you want to take out the heart and lungs.’
I trembled at his words, certain the priest expected to die of his wound before we made landfall. ‘Get some sleep.’ He ordered as I stifled a yawn. ‘Nothing more will happen tonight.’
I tucked the knife down beside the straw tick that covered the bunk. I made sure the handle was angled upward, so that I could grab it quickly, should I need to. Wedging myself into the rear corner of the bunk; I closed my eyes without a word of protest, though I knew I would be unable to sleep. Even if sleep were possible on such a wildly pitching ship, my thoughts were scampering like terrified mice.
The clang of the ship’s bell roused me mid-morning; we had survived another night. Sitting up, I rubbed at the crick in my neck, surprised that I had managed to sleep after all.
The priest had his healer’s kit on the bunk beside him and was busy unwrapping his bloodstained bandages. My breath hitched in my chest as I caught sight of the wound. The flesh around it was a swollen, angry red. When he removed the dressing, he had packed into the wound, it came away covered in pus.
I watched as he added herbs to the vinegar, to help with the infection, before packing in a fresh dressing. Seeing my worried look he forced a laugh.
‘Don’t look so grim,’ he told me as he wrapped the wound once more. ‘It’s not nearly as bad as it looks.’
I didn’t believe him. Even if I had not seen the pus his eyes were fever bright behind his mask.
‘We should make landfall sometime today. The captain is, surely, not foolish enough to try to outrun this storm all the way to the port in Calistis.’
The fear that constricted my chest eased a little. Once we made land, he would be able to seek the aid of a healer temple. As proficient as his herb-craft seemed to be, he needed a healer mage.
With nothing to do in the cabin we dozed on and off; the priest sleeping for longer and longer stretches as the day wore on.
The crash of the cabin door as it was thrown open, startled me awake. I sat frozen with fear as a half-dozen brawny sailors rushed into the cabin. Four of their number pinned the priest to the bunk as the other two advanced on me.
I grabbed up the knife as one of the sailors yanked me to my feet.
Following the priest’s advice, I slashed the blade across the sailor’s throat; wincing as hot blood sprayed across my face, and pattered against the bulkhead beside me. The sailor slumped to the floor dead, and his companion recoiled from me with a surprised oath. They had not expected me to be armed.
‘Out of the way!’ I recognised the jahesta, the man in charge of the ship’s rowers, as he stepped into the cabin. He pushed his dark curly hair back from his eyes and glared at me. ‘I’ve got her.’
‘Le- leave her alone.’ The priest ordered through chattering teeth as he struggled and failed to free himself. I could hear the shortness of his breathing, see the sheen of sweat on his skin. He would be dead by moonrise if not before. The sailors knew it too; for they ignored him.
I settled my grip on the knife as the jahesta advanced. He grabbed my knife hand when I tried to stab him; his fingers digging into the soft flesh on the underside of my wrist. I dropped the knife with a cry of pain; he kicked it out of reach beneath the bunk, before backhanding me across the face. I fell to my knees, my ears ringing, as spots danced before my eyes. Jerking me to my feet, the jahesta swept me up over his shoulder, and carried me out into the night.
Cold rain pummelled my back as the jahesta carried me across the pitching deck. At last, he set me down in front of the captain where he stood before the bipedal mast. A man I took to be the wizard, stood at his side; lean and wiry, the wizard reminded me of a half-drowned vulture with his bald head and feathered cloak.
‘This had better work.’ The captain warned the wizard, his hair whipping in the wind as lightning split the sky. ‘I crossed the priest to get her. Fail me, and I will hand you over to the constables at Thinis.’ Leaving me to the wizard, he stalked off back towards the tiller.
The jahesta held me steady as the wizard started to chant; the soft, sibilant words somehow carrying above the howling wind. He swayed in time to his chanting, waving his hands before him in ritualistic gestures. I tried to pull my gaze away from him and couldn’t. The jahesta finally released me as I began to sway as well.
Suddenly the wizard reached out to tap me sharply on the forehead between my eyes. His power struck me with the force of a hammer blow; stealing my breath and stilling my heart in my chest as it washed through me, driving my souls before it.
Disconnected from my body, I watched helplessly, as the wizard led me to the starboard rail. Wrapping his off-arm tight about me, he pinned my arms to my sides. Drawing a blunt-tipped, gold-bladed knife from the folds of his cloak; the wizard laid the edge against my neck, tight beneath my jaw.
The ship jerked timbers shrieking a protest as the wizard drew the blade across my throat. I heard the sailors cry out in fear as the wizard released me letting my body tumble over the rail.
I hit the water with a solid slap. The shock of the frigid water jolted my consciousness back into my body. I gasped for breath, shocked to discover that I could still do so, and inhaled saltwater. The brine burnt in my wound, and stung my lungs and sinuses, as the storm dragged me down; tumbling me like a rag doll.
I screamed as the sea slammed me against a rock and I inhaled yet more water. Red-hot pain flared over my back and hips as razor-sharp coral sliced into my flesh. Lungs aching with the need for air, I kicked off from the rock; ignoring the pain as the coral sliced deep into the callused soles of my feet.
Breaking the surface, I sucked in huge gulps of salty air between wracking coughs as my body rid itself of the water I’d inhaled.
A new wave slammed me into the rock once more. This time I clung to it desperately, despite the sharp edges that cut my hands. The sea plucked at me; dragging at my borrowed tunic and trousers as it sought to sweep me off the rocks, so it could dash me to pieces on them.
My teeth chattered with cold. Already I was losing feeling in my fingers. I could not remain in the frigid water for long. I would freeze to death if I didn’t bleed out first.
Lightning split the sky, revealing the ship shattered on nearby rocks. Bodies floated in the water amongst splintered planks and fouled ropes. Sailors clung to the wreckage, shouting to their fellows, too worried about their own survival to notice me. Not that they would be looking; as far as the crew were concerned, I had been dead when the wizard tipped me into the sea.
I smiled at the thought of Captain Salihah’s body floating amongst the wreckage; soon to become food for the fish, and other sea creatures, that fed on the dead. I hoped the wizard was dead alongside him. My only regret was that the Jakhal priest was keeping them company. I did not doubt for a moment that the priest was dead, and his god had sunk the ship in vengeance.
The sea no longer felt as cold as it had; though it was still icy compared to the almost scalding blood that trickled down my back, and ran down my neck.
Didn’t reefs and rocks only occur close to land? Tearing my gaze from the wreckage of the ship, I looked around me; In the near distance I could see the welcome gleam of firelight. I estimated the coast to be no more than a league away. The crew of the Ameri had been so intent on sacrificing me, they had not realised how close they were to safety.
Could I swim that far? Did I have a choice? It would be churlish not to even try, after all the priest had bought my freedom with his own life. Better to die trying to reach safety than to give in and remain here to die a certain death.
I forced my stiff fingers open. Pushing away from the rock, I timed the movement so the receding waves would carry me away from the wreckage; silently thanking the slave who had taught me to swim as I did so.
My joints felt frozen, stiff, as I started my first stroke. My movement was jerky. I floundered, swallowing saltwater as I struggled to synchronise the movements of my arms and legs to allow me to move me smoothly through the water.
Too late, I realised I had made a deadly mistake. Cold and blood loss had affected my ability to swim. Suddenly certain that I would drown before I could make it to land; I wanted to turn back, return to the safety of my rock and await rescue. Yet when I looked, the sea had already carried me further than I thought. I wasn’t sure I could make it back to the rocks either; swimming as I would be, against wind and current.
I hung in the water, racked with indecision. Should I go forward or back? Nothing but death waited for me on those rocks. Even if I were rescued; the crew of the Ameri would kill me. The golden glow of the fire at least offered the hope of freedom. If I failed, well, death was the only real freedom a slave could expect.
Decision made, I gritted my teeth and started swimming towards the light once more. Cold and exhaustion added weight to my limbs. More than once I sunk beneath the waves. Each time, it took a little more effort to struggle free of the sea’s embrace; to break through the foaming waves, into the chill air above.
Come on it’s just a little further, I cajoled myself. Driving myself to make one more kick, one more stroke, when I didn’t think I had the strength to move any more.
Slowly the cold slipped into my mind; numbing my thoughts, until I could not remember why I was in the water, or how I got there. The only thing I did know was that I had to reach that light.
The sound of the surf was suddenly loud in my ears. I had been hearing it for a while, but had mistaken it for the sound of the blood pounding through my veins.
My feet touched bottom. I staggered out of the sea, the hungry waves dragging at my body, reluctant to give me up. Finally free of the drag of the water, I dropped to my knees in the sand, trembling with cold and exhaustion.
I swayed where I knelt; listening to the angry hissing of the waves as they stretched themselves over the sand in an effort to reach me. Now and then, a wave would reach high enough to lick at my toes before running back to the ocean with a self-satisfied sigh. I needed to get further up the beach. The thought of moving brought tears to my eyes, yet somehow I found the strength.
I crawled as far as I could; collapsing at last into oblivion amongst the bladder rack and wire weed that marked the high tide line.
About the Author:
Sarah was born and raised in England. She has a background in ecology and countryside management.
She is a member of a traditional English martial arts school, studying both armed and unarmed combat, including English country backswording, Cornish wrestling and even shin-kicking. Sarah also does the occasional re-enactment.
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