Chapter Nineteen: Being Followed



by

Josie Beaudoin







The ship continued on, making stops for water and food, and the days and weeks rolled by like waves. The crew slowly began to adjust to Ruby’s absence, and came to Galen for medical problems, but the one thing they needed most was the counsel of a spiritual leader, and this they had to go without. Jasper prayed with them at every meal, and often at other times, but it was just not the same, and never could be. Jasper knew perfectly well he was no substitute for a priest.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Well, there it is: Zamburrha. We’re here. You liked the name well enough, now how do you like the look of the place?”

“It looks jungle-y,” his wife answered.

“It does, a bit,” Baqeas said. “I’ll go ashore and find us some lodgings. Here, let me help you back into your crate, love.”

“I hate that thing.”

“Well, with any luck you won’t need it much longer. We’ve no idea what healing properties might lie on this continent. There, now lay back. There you go. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

“Baqeas?” The sound came muffled from the inside of the crate.

“Yes?” he said.

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Mjarni. You rest now.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“What’s wrong, Captain?”

“Something in the wind mislikes me,” he said. It was an old Rian saying meaning he was uneasy and unsure why. Jasper was by no means prophetic, but he was one of the best sailors in the world, and when he said the wind misliked him, there was a good chance something was wrong.

“A storm?” Emmy asked.

“Doesn’t feel like it,” Jasper said. “In fact, I can’t put my finger on what it is.”

They sailed on, Jasper being replaced at the helm by Bartok, who was replaced by Tural. Jasper was still uneasy when he went to sleep, but he did not enter it in his log.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Beloved! You’re not going to believe this!”

“Probably not.”

“They have a healing spring, some sort of magical well that cures people. Mjarni, we have to go!”

“Who made it, that’s what I want to know.”

“Well nobody made it, it’s a natural spring.”

“Then it’s just ordinary water, Baqeas.”

“Aren’t you the least bit curious? What if this is the cure we’ve been looking for all this time, and you refused to go at least try it?”

“Like I could stop you,” she said. “You’ve clearly already made up your mind. When do we leave?"

“Tomorrow, first thing. I’ve hired a sledge team (these people don’t seem to know about the wheel) to carry your crate, and from here they say it’s only a dozen days’ travel at most.”

“They do, do they? And who is translating for you? The Ria?”

“Of course they are, but I’m picking it up. Listen to me, though: this spring could hold the answer we’ve sought for millennia! If only fate had brought us here sooner...”

“Nothing’s going to change, husband. My putrefying body will foul up their spring and they’ll cast us out, you wait and see.”

“They say it has healed the most severe wounds, even for those on the brink of death. Surely it will do something for you.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Jasper, what is that thing off in the distance?” Paige asked.

“Where’s that, Dear Heart?”

“That way.” Paige pointed off the port bow. There was a jet of water rising up from the sea.

“Oh, you’re going to love this, Paige,” Jasper said, and called out “Hard to port!” before swinging the tiller that direction.

Paige thought the repeating water spout was quite near, but the longer they pursued it and the larger it grew, she realized it had been quite a ways off. She also noticed that it wasn’t just a white plume, but a bit pinkish. The water was black. Jasper noted it too.

“To arms!” he bellowed. “Everyone grab your bows!”

"Is it dangerous?” Paige asked. So far she was not liking this. Jasper took a bow and a quiverful of arrows from someone and strung the bow.

“No, Highness, but the things hunting it are. It’s bleeding.” Jasper nocked an arrow to his bowstring and began to search for a target. The rest of the crew did the same.

They did not have to wait long. The Mer came into sight soon enough. The great beast – for so Paige had at last realized it to be – had stopped, recognizing the ship as a protector, and the Mer chasing it quickly caught up.

They were quite the oddest looking people Paige had ever seen. Their skin was without exception so pale it was almost a bluish milky white, while their hair and eyes were black. Their hands and feet were shaped like any other human’s, save that there were webs between the fingers and toes. They were exquisitely thin, their ribcages too small for a normal human, and there were gills on their necks. Jasper had said the Mer existed, but up until now Paige had dismissed the stories as part of his religion mixed with tall tales. Now she saw they were real.

She also saw that they were all armed with vicious-looking weapons of various types, and that when they saw the ship and looked up at the Ria, their faces turned grim.

“Loose!” Jasper yelled, and the bowstrings sang as arrows hit the water with swishes, many finding their targets. Enraged, one of the Mer swam to the surface.

“Our kill!” it rasped so thickly Paige could barely make it out.

Jasper simply shook his head, aimed, and loosed as the man dove out of the way. A second volley of arrows slid into the water. The sea monster moved to the other side of the ship to be better protected during the battle, but the Mer were having none of it. They would not stop the hunt simply to fight. The Ria ran to the other side of the ship to battle over there.

“Paige, go below!” Jasper shouted over his shoulder.

She nodded meekly and made her way down into the hold, where she headed for the stern and Jasper’s quarters. On the way, she ran into her brother and Galen coming out of Ruby’s old quarters.

“What’s going on out there?” Morgan asked her.

“There’s a sea monster, and the Mer are trying to kill it,” Paige said. “At least, I think that’s what’s going on. The Ria are trying to protect the sea monster, I’m not sure why.”

“It’s a good creature,” Galen said softly. “It has no malice in it, but it’s frightened and hurt. It’s also very intelligent. I guess the Ria know all that without a Vada.”

“Like the turtles, you mean?”

“Very similar, actually, though Jasper did ask us not to talk about them.”

“Who’s listening to us here?” Morgan asked. “Everyone’s busy.”

“Someone’s listening, Magister. I’m not sure who, but I can tell.”

They came to the door of Jasper’s cabin and entered. Brand was crawling about on the floor, playing with Reina. Both of them were giggling at their little game of tag, Reina’s startling blue eyes glittering with the excitement. When he noticed he was being watched, Brand stood up at once and straightened his knee-length tunic, then looked about for his robe. Reina crawled toward her mother who picked her up and tickled her.

“You two seem to be getting on well,” she said to Brand.

“I can’t believe she’s crawling already,” he said.

“Nothing seems to mark time better than watching a baby grow up,” Paige agreed. “She wasn’t even born when we left Erlaya. It’s hard to believe we’ve been here so long.”

“Well we do stop a lot,” Galen pointed out.

“And we are going all the way around the world,” Kemen added, coming into the room behind them.

“How much farther do you think it is?”

“Oh I’m no sailor, my lady. I know we have to go to Fremere a few times, then we’ll be ‘among the islands,’ but what that means or how long it will take I’ve no idea. I’ve only heard the Captain talking to some of the others. I haven’t seen any maps, if these people even use maps.”

“You sell yourself short,” Morgan said. “You’ve become quite a competent sailor in many ways.”

“Well not in navigation, sir, but thank you.”

“So why did Jasper send you below?” Paige asked.

“Because of the battle, of course.” Kemen said. “Isn’t that why he sent you down here?”

“Yes, but I thought you could be helpful.”

“Apparently not.”

“What are you two talking about?” Brand demanded. “What battle?”

“Well they seem to have things well in control,” Paige said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Worry about what?”

“The Ria are fighting the Mer,” Galen supplied. “It seems the Mer offended the Ria by hunting a particular animal, and they’re fighting about it. The animal in question is still alive, lying alongside the ship.”

“They’re fighting over the life of a fish? This is absurd. Everything about them is abs–”

Just then the ship pitched and a deep, low groaning echoed through the room.

“I don’t think it’s ‘just a fish,’” Galen said.

“It’s huge, you should have seen how big it was,” Paige said.

“The lady is right; the beast is monstrous in size. It could easily capsize this ship.”

“But it won’t.” Galen said. “It has no intention of harming its protector. It knows the Ria are helping it against the Mer.”

“Do your powers tell you that, magician?” Brand was skeptical.

“They do.”

Brand was silent.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“We’ll be there soon, beloved. Tomorrow, the guides tell me.”

“I don’t trust them.”

“They’re afraid of you, that’s all. But this spring will fix everything, you’ll see. Get some rest now.”

“I don’t need to rest, Baqeas, all I do all day is lay on the travois.”

“And you’ll dance back to the ship. Just you wait and see.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


The battle raged on, but it was clear the Ria were losing. The water was red with blood, much of it belonging to the Mer, but the giant beast they fought over grew weaker. Its bellows became whimpers, and it surfaced for air less and less frequently. At length it gave a convulsive shudder which shook the ship, then lay still in the water. The animal Paige had spotted off the bow of the ship was no more.

The Ria continued to loose arrows into the water, attacking the Mer with ferocity, but the Mer now retreated. It was clear all they had to do was stay out of range and wait.

Galen, sensing indecision amongst the crew, went up top out of curiosity, and the others followed behind him.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“It’s nothing to concern you, Lander,” was Emmy’s reply. She turned back to Jasper.

“Captain, we could use it, making the loss less horrible.”

“An unsanctified hunt? Emmy, we can’t. We have no priest aboard, it would be unholy to take even the least bit.”

“But we need it.” Ever practical, Jasper’s first mate was stubborn.

“No,” Jasper said. “It’s bad luck.”

“Then we let the Mer just win without having lost anything?”

“They lost members of their party,” Jasper reminded her.

“But they succeeded in the hunt,” Bartok chimed in.

“She was probably already mortally wounded when the battle began,” Jasper said. “All we did was kill a few Mer. I doubt we could have saved her life even if we had killed all of them. Emmy, Bartok, I appreciate your practicality, but this hunt is not ours, the kill is not ours, and to take benefit from it is wrong. Think what Ruby would say if she were here.”

“Captain, that’s not fair.”

“I think it’s perfectly fair,” replied Jasper. “You know just what she’d say, and just because she’s not here to say it is no reason to ignore her words. It’s unholy, and it’s bad luck to boot. We leave the carcass where it is. The Mer won this round, but they paid dear for it. It’s ugly, but it’s the way it is.”

Reluctantly, the ship resumed her course, leaving the huge carcass behind. Paige looked over the railing sadly.

“What was it?” she asked Jasper as it faded into the distance.

“A whale,” he said. “We do hunt them sometimes, but they are a sacred animal, and hunts are limited. Every part of the animal is used, so you can imagine how much work that is. A ship as small as the Lady would be hard-pressed indeed to dismember a whale.”

“Every part?”

Jasper chuckled. “I know it’s a big animal, but it’s really no different from using a deer or other land creature. Bone, sinew, meat, fat - they all serve their purpose. There’s just more of it on a whale, that’s all.”

“So why didn’t we take any of it? Why is it unholy?”

“Because a hunt was never declared. There is no one aboard who can bless and thank the animal for its sacrifice. There are not enough of us aboard to use the whole whale. Parts of it would have to be thrown out, which would be sacrilege.”

“What will the Mer do with it?”

“No one really knows for sure. It could be that they eat it, it could be that they let it drift, content to have caused mayhem. Or, they too may find the whales sacred. There’s really no way to tell, we are too cut off from them as a peoples, and always will be. Some few of them understand Rian, and some of us know their language of gestures and signs, but as you can imagine, we do not sit about with them and discuss... anything. If we see the Mer, we attack. It has always been thus, ever since God divided Her peoples into three parts.”

“Your religion is a strange one, Jasper.”

“As yours is to me,” the Rian replied. “How one could conceive of more than one God is beyond my ability to understand, and yet you do.”

“Well I just don’t see how one God could do everything all by themselves.”

“That is what makes Her God,” Jasper said, and that was the end of the conversation.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


The road emptied into a huge clearing in the jungle. People scurried to and fro from one mud-brick temple to another, practicing unknown rites and rituals. There were also wooden houses built for visitors and pilgrims.

“Where is this famous pyramid?” she asked when he had settled her in their pilgrim’s cell.

“Invisible by daylight,” he answered. “It can only be seen by the light of the moon.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Who ever heard of such a thing?"

“You and I have,” he said, “just now.”

“Oh Baqeas, what am I going to do with you? You are impossible.”

“I love you too, dearest.”

Baqeas went outside and looked around. The buildings surrounded every side of a huge, open area, roughly square in shape. Pathways led around a well-defined square in the center of the clearing. On the north side of the square the grass was trodden down to dirt in a great semicircle as though in front of a door.

“That pyramid?” he asked a bypasser in his broken Zamburrhan.

“Go touch it and see,” the man answered with a smile on his face.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Captain, have you seen them?” The first mate sidled up to her Captain for a whispered conversation.

“Of course I have, Emmy, they’re not even trying to be subtle.”

“What should we do about it?”

“What can we do? If we slow, or stop, they’ll just stay out of range. If we change course, they’ll still come after us. We’re being followed and there’s not a thing we can do about it.”

“Well I don’t like it,” Emmy said.

“No more do I,” Jasper answered. “I just wish I knew why they were following. If they wanted a fight, they could just attack. I need to know how much they know and what they plan to do about it. Which means we cannot talk about it. I don’t think it’s a common topic of conversation, but perhaps I should address the crew.”

“Do you think they can sense that Ruby’s gone?” Emmy whispered.

“No, not with Galen on board. Fog, I wish she was here, though. We could use her advice right about now. She knew more about the Mer than any of us.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


There was a knock on Morgan and Galen’s door. A moment later Jasper came in.

“What can we do for you, brother?” Morgan asked. “We’re sort of in the middle of something.”

“You know I wouldn’t interrupt if it weren’t important.”

“Go ahead.”

“Well apart from my log, you’ve confiscated all the paper on the ship. I need to write a letter.”

“Out here in the middle of nowhere? Who are you writing it to?”

Jasper's voice dropped to a whisper. “The crew, actually. There’s a subject that’s come up which we must not discuss out loud, and I cannot tell them not to discuss it aloud aloud.”

“What is it?” Galen asked.

“Well, give me some paper and I’ll let you read the letter,” Jasper said.

“Oh. Right. Well that makes sense. Galen, give him - how much do you need?”

“One sheet should be fine, thank you.”

Jasper took the sheet of paper proffered and left their cabin. He proceeded to his own, sat, and began composing.

“Crew,” he wrote, “I ask you to be silent as you read this, and follow my instructions to the letter. As some of you may have noticed, we have been followed by the Mer since our battle for the whale (God rest her soul). Since it is possible they may have one or more of their number below the ship listening, there are some subjects we must not mention aloud.

1) The fact of this letter.

2) The fact of Ruby’s death. If this were to become known to them, they would surely attack without hesitation, and without her help we would be sore-pressed to keep them at bay. Although Galen is learning magic, it is not Rian magic, and would be of little use against the Mer.

3) The presence and identities of our passengers. The very fact that we have passengers could trigger an attack, let alone if the Mer were to know just who they are. Make no mention of ‘Landers’ or ‘strangers’ or ‘others’ being aboard the ship. Ask them no questions about themselves or their ways. It would be best if you speak to them as seldom as possible.

4) The presence of the Mer. Should they discover we know of their presence they may attack. This involves not only not speaking of them, but also not staring at them or watching them as they follow us. Please continue on with your days as you normally would, but keep your eyes on the ship and not the water.

The Eleli Rei is a small enough ship they must surely already know we are not built for carrying cargo. We have piqued their curiosity simply because of our size. This has always been a risk, a tradeoff for speed. If it becomes necessary, I may attempt to outrun them, but only if I must. I would much prefer that for now we remain simply interesting rather than a target. So I urge you again: do not speak of Ruby, our passengers, the Mer or this letter.

Your Captain

Jasper sent for Emmy waiting impatiently while the ink dried. His first mate came into the cabin and he handed her a short note:

Take this letter to every member of the crew, and the passengers. Do not leave it with anyone. When you’re done, bring it back to me.

Emmy nodded, took the letter and read it herself. Jasper took the note from her and threw it in his small heating stove, lit for this purpose on a warm summer’s day. Emmy excused herself and set out on her task. Jasper, determined to maintain normality aboard the ship, went above and took the helm for a while.

The crew’s reaction was mixed. Those who had not noticed the Mer were abashed. There were some protests, silent of course, and much grieving at the reminder of Ruby’s death. Regardless of their opinions, the entire crew obeyed the order and grew quite wary.

The passengers were another matter altogether.

“How can I teach Galen if I have to remain quiet?” Morgan asked, indignant.

“How can I stay quiet when I have a baby making a fuss?” Paige said.

“Women have babies, Paige, that’s perfectly normal, and babies make fusses. They don’t need to know anything beyond the fact that you’re a mother. Which is fine, I don’t care if they know that. Morgan, I don’t know what to tell you. Perhaps you can have Galen review everything he’s done so far, keep him busy reading. Or, can the two of you join minds again?”

Morgan shook his head emphatically, no. Galen said nothing.

“Are you out of your mind? I don’t take orders from you!” Brand was outraged. He drew himself up to his full height and glared at Jasper. The Captain considered for a moment, his blue eyes cold, then he drew back and hit Brand.

As punches go it was not very hard, but Brand was not a very strong man, and was unused to violence against himself. He fell to the deck cursing and swearing. Jasper bent down over him.

“I told you once,” he whispered, “that I will not have you whipped for a second offense. I won’t. What I will do is throw you overboard for the Mer.”

“You would not dare. Paige would never–”

“I also recall telling you that your relationship to Paige and Morgan would not be able to protect you again.” Jasper’s voice continued soft and low. “Think about this, Brand. If you defy me, if you disobey this order, you put Paige’s life, Reina’s life in danger. Is this what you want? I don’t give orders randomly, nor on a whim. Though you may not understand them, there are reasons for them, as there is for this one. I believe I explained it rather thoroughly in my letter, so I don’t see what the problem is. You want to protect your loved ones, don’t you?”

Brand stared up at Jasper, his eyes defiant, but Jasper just stared right back, unflinching but unthreatening as well. He waited while Brand let reason filter through his anger. At last, Brand dropped his eyes and nodded.

“Excellent!” Jasper said. He stood and held out an arm to help Brand up. Brand brushed away the hand and stood on his own.

“What am I supposed to do, then?” he asked. “Pretend I’m a member of your crew?”

“God forbid!” Jasper smiled, rolling his eyes. “Why don’t you go spend time with your family? Quiet time. Look, this won’t last forever,” he said, seeing Brand’s exasperated face,” but while it does, we need to be very careful.”

“How long?”

“I’m not sure. We’re about three weeks out from our next port, and we may be able to lose them then. They hardly ever come into shallow waters.”

“Three weeks of silence?”

“You don’t have to be silent, Brand, just avoid certain subjects mentioned in the letter. That shouldn’t be so difficult, should it?”

Brand snorted and walked off in the direction of the galley.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


The pyramid by moonlight was stunning. Try though he might, Baqeas could not discern how it became invisible in the day. Part of it was due to the language he did not speak, but part of it, he suspected, was that the natives did not know either. Nothing in his own knowledge of magics could turn anything - much less such a massive building - invisible.

Baqeas presented himself to a priest and attempted to explain his plight. Pilgrims came from all around to experience the healing powers of the well, but Baqeas knew if Mjarni just walked into the temple there would be chaos. He led the priest to their chamber and introduced his wife to the holy man, who blanched at the sight.

“She need healing,” Baqeas said.

“You’re telling me this thing is alive?” the priest replied.

“Alive,” Baqeas said. “My wife. She hurts, your temple cure. Yes?”

“Let me speak to my superior,” the priest said, and made a rapid exit.

“Is that the best you can do?” she asked in the silence.

“You expect me to just carry you down there?”

It was not long before the priest arrived with another in tow, more grandly dressed. He showed the other man the strange pilgrim who had come to their temple.

“How in the world did this happen?” The high priest asked.

“She die,” Baqeas said. “I bring back, but she still ...” he shrugged, pointing to Mjarni. “Your temple cure, yes?”

The two priests conferred together in low tones, and Baqeas could not understand them. At last they turned back to the anxious husband.

“We turn away no one,” the high priest said. "But this woman’s disfigurement is severe, and may frighten others. We shall close the temple complex for one night and block the roads. No one will see her. This is also for her dignity, not to be stared at. We can carry her to the well and bathe her. You be patient, we must let the current pilgrims be treated and leave, but will allow no more in until your wife is treated. When the complex is empty, then we will bring her out. Agreed?”

“Thank you, thank you!” Baqeas said, and even Mjarni tried to speak her gratitude, her voice unintelligible, but tears falling from her perfect eyes. The priests shuddered and looked away.

It took several days for the patients already in site to be treated and sent home. In the meantime, a guard was set on the roads and there were many people camped on the roads. Priests and acolytes were kept busy ferrying buckets of the healing waters to the roadblocks. It was not as good as being in the pool itself, but it kept the worst at bay. The high priest also offered to have healing waters brought to Mjarni, but she demurred. Half measures were to her worse than waiting.

At last the complex was emptied of pilgrims and patients. The priests had timed the ceremony well, making it coincide with the full moon. Mjarni, half walking, half carried by her husband, made her way across the empty square to the multi-tiered pyramid and entered. They were led straight back and down a long, unbroken flight of stairs until they reached the precise center of the pyramid. A shaft led from the top of the pyramid straight down to the well at the bottom, and the light shone down, slowly creeping down one wall.

“Get into the water,” the high priest said. “Disrobe first.”

Mjarni took off her clothes, and a murmur ran through the assembled clergy. Some of her “clothes” were rags packed inside her body to help it keep its shape. As Baqeas assisted her, she grew more and more grotesque in appearance. Only her eyes, clear and bright in her rotting face were perfect. At last all the clothing was removed and she stood naked, skin torn, organs rotting, her body the caved in shell of a woman.

“S-step into the water,” the high priest repeated. Mjarni turned her face to Baqeas, her eyes full of fear, but he answered them with confidence. With one arm around her desiccated waist, the other holding her hand, he led Mjarni into the holy healing waters of the great pyramid of Zamburrha.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Is that it, is that port?” Brand asked. Land had just been sighted.

“No,” Jasper answered, “just land. We’ll follow the shore for about a week or two until we reach port.”

“Why is this taking so long? Shouldn’t we be in Krisadon by now?”

“Brand, we’re sailing all the way around the world. Even without all the unexpected delays we’ve been having, a trip around the world is not quick or easy. These things take time. Don’t you think I’m doing my best?”

“No, I don’t. You said you could go faster if you had to. So this trip could have been shorter if you had gone faster the whole time.”

Not giving the Captain a chance to reply, Brand returned belowdecks to relay the news of further delay to Paige. Jasper swore under his breath and concentrated on his charts. Granted they were behind schedule, but speeding up now would only bring on an attack from the following Mer. Brand just did not understand that slower was safer, and the cargo Jasper was carrying was priceless. He would not risk losing Morgan for anything.














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