Blackdragon – 11

Chapter Eleven

Anise scanned the yard carefully, her sharp brown eyes missing nothing. She’d snuck into places before, but never a ship. She cursed herself, the boy beside her, and the world in general under her breath, but though her words made Justin flinch, she didn’t even notice what she was saying, it was just a reflex she did when she was thinking. Justin was useless unfortunately. He’d been on more boats than she had, but only with his father or a guardian, and he hadn’t paid any attention when he had. He hadn’t even known where to go to find a ship upriver.

Anise cursed again as she scanned the space of beaten dirt that lay between them and the boat’s side. There were too many people. They’d been ridiculously lucky to get this close, and now, hiding behind this pile of crates, only four or five strides from the water-side, it felt like they’d never been further away. There were other ways to travel of course, but they had no money for a mule, or provisions for the journey.

Anise had only the vaguest idea of the value of the coins Justin had shown her, but he’d said they weren’t enough, and they certainly didn’t look like a fortune, laying there on the blanket of their bed like fallen leaves. Two youths trying to walk north would quickly starve, if they didn’t beg or steal from farms. And doing that carried its own dangers, far worse than hunger.

The boat was long and low, practically 20 long strides from bow to stern, and two or three wide. The space from its single mast to the stern was covered over with a halfdeck, and the space under it was fully given over to storage, the short cabins built atop, on the halfdeck. It was a good sized barge, and would almost certainly afford some hiding place if they could only get on board unseen by the sailors, merchants, clerks and servants that seemed to all desperately need to be in this yard all at the same time.

“Anise, my heart, perhaps we should…”

“Shut up.” She snapped in a fierce whisper. “Just get ready to move when I say.”

Justin went silent. Anise breathed in deep, trying to calm her pounding heart. She knew he’d be red-cheeked and upset now. But she couldn’t think about that right now. She hated the hurt look he got when she said something harsh to him. But this was important, and he wasn’t helping. But then, what was she able to do here. She’d led him here, where if they were spotted they’d be lucky if they were just thrown out. And she had no idea what she was doing. She’d had an idea that they’d just wait until everyone was busy, and they’d jump on board and stow away without any problems. But it had taken hours to find a boat they could even get close to.

And now it was practically mid-morning, and they still weren’t any closer to getting on board. When the master was busy, the bosun was watching, when the bosun was busy, there were merchants and their servants moving crates and barrels around and haggling over freight charges. And there were so many of them it was impossible to track who was looking where. And any moement someone would come to move these crates they were behind, and they’d be discovered. Anise could barely breath.

But the crowd was thinning now. Most of the crates were aboard, the sail was being unfurled by the sailors, the bosun was making his last checks, and the merchants were getting in their carriages with their servants and clerks and moving out of the yard. It was now or never.

“Get ready,” Anise hissed, and she felt Justin tense behind her. She half rose, ready to dart across the open space, she couldn’t be sure that no one was watching, but this was their only chance. And if there was any cry, they could run the other direction and try to escape. Surely they wouldn’t pursue them, now they were ready to go.

“Ready…” Anise shispered, “Aaand…” she was already moving when she heard the cry, and her heart stopped, her legs refusing to work, Justin bumping into her back and she tried to reverse her forward momentum, and drag them both back, fear raw in her mind as she saw them, actually saw them running towards her in her mind’s eye, cudgels and whips in their hands.

But the cry was from the river-side of the boat, and it was a woman’s voice. Anise collapsed, her heart threatening to burst out of her chest, as her ears tried to focus on what was really happening rather than the fears that were almost as real.

“Ahoy, Barge Master.” The voice cried again. “Do you take passage?”

“We do atimes, if the passenger has right coin.” The answer came, clear over the lapping water. Anise gasped, trying to force air into her lungs. It was okay, it was just a woman come to buy passage upriver. Anise dragged herself upright, trying to stop the shaking in her limbs. She grabbed Justin by his arm, ignoring him as he tried to ask her if she was alright.

“A distraction”, she muttered through teeth gritted to stop them chattering. “They’ll all be looking at the woman in the riverboat. Wait, I’ll check, then we go.” Anise peered out from behind the crates. The sailors were out of sight, all crowded on the other side of the barge, more interested in the new arrival than their work. In a second the Bosun would notice and shout them back to their jobs. But for this moment…

“Go.” Anise hissed, and the two darted forward, crouched over, blood pounding in their veins, as they reached the barge, and leapt up over the side, crawling into the storage area between the crates and the ceiling of the halfdeck above. Anise had a moment of terror as she kicked, halfway in and halfway out, her mind throwing visions of her legs, visible to any watcher who glanced in their direction. If they saw her now, she was helpless. But then she was inside, and squeezing down between two bales of cloth with Justin beside her breathing as fast as she was. She couldn’t see him in the deep gloom, but his breathing sounded like a bellows.

She heard the bosun yelling at the crew to get back to work just as they settled among the mud on the wooden planks, and the clatter of their feet above as they hurried to obey, hauling on the lines, and casting off the ropes tethering the barge to the shore. Dimly Anise heard the woman haggling over the price and terms of passage. Then, minutes later, the sound of her clambering aboard, the transaction complete.

Anise tried to peer through among the crates to the main deck, and she caught a glimpse of the woman. She wore a Prior’s habit, and seemed young, in her early thirties, Anise would have guessed. Anise slipped back to the cramped gap between two crates. And tried to relax her muscles. Her hands were visibly shaking now as the adrenaline slowly wore off.

“Are you okay?” Justin asked quietly. Anise grabbed him and hugged him tight, her head on his chest, tears silently rolling down her cheeks as he wrapped his arms around her and stroked her hair.

*** *** ***

The ship was set, the anchor raised, Akii and the ship’s boat had been hauled on board, to be tied down against the railings of the main deck after a space had been hurriedly cleared for it. The crates that had been all over the main deck had been cleared, great rope bridges strung up between the spars high above, where crates and bales were now precariously stashed, lashed tight to the masts.

The ingenuity of the crew in finding new places to store the barrels was bottomless. The small boat itself had been stuffed with barrels and covered over as soon as it was on deck. Now the bosun cried orders, and the crew hauled on lines, and the pilot, Andron stood at the stern, at the highest point of the deck, staring out at the waves and the piers and pinnacles of land before them as the ship turned into the tide and let the wind catch its sails. They filled with a roar and the ship groaned and creaked like it was coming apart, but it broke the waves open instead and lurched forward, the wind lifting it along.

Karl stared forwards across the maze of ropes and wood to the prow as it pierced the horizon before them. Gazing back at him was the ship’s figurehead, the Sankofafor which the vessel was named. It was a mythical bird in flight, with its head turned backwards, clutching a jewel in its beak. He had asked the Shipmaster what the name meant, and the man had taken him over to see the bird, carved out of wood and painted in gold.

Nash had kissed his fingertips before lightly touching the carved jewel in the bird’s beak. “Say-wo-were-fie-nay-wo-sankofa-a-yenk-yi” he had whispered. “It is a phrase in my language,” he told Karl. “It means, in translation, it is not wrong to go back to get that which you have forgotten. Sankofa, it means ‘to go back and grasp it”. A name I chose myself after we had left Ihona. I rechristened my ship in the middle of the Ocean.”

“I don’t understand.” Karl said. “You are going back to Ihona? But we are heading south are we not?”

“The bird faces back, while flying forward, my friend. And the jewel in its beak. Why that is worth more than this ship, its cargo, and all the lives aboard it.” Karl stared at him, not understanding. But the Shipmaster wouldn’t elaborate any more. He only kissed his fingers and pressed them to the wooden painted jewel again, and strode off, back to the stern deck where the pilot studied the ocean.

And the Sankofa caught the wind and flew.

Chapter Twelve (Coming Soon)

Chapter Ten <

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