Chapter One: Survivors



by

Josie Beaudoin







You have to go back now, Jasper heard a voice say, but his strength had left him, and he was turned around, unable to find ‘up.’ His head was spinning and he began to feel his panic give way to a soothing calm. When he felt something brush against his arm he expected it to be a shark or another Mer, but it was Bartok. Confused, he grasped his second mate’s hand and let Bartok lead him to the surface. He seemed to remember a vague reason he was supposed to live.

“There they are!” someone shouted. It might have been Kemen.

“Did he find her?” This was definitely Paige.

Then everyone was talking at once. Bartok was drawing him toward the lifeboat, for he was too weak to swim. The others dragged and pushed him into the boat and he lay face down, gasping like a fish. Through his dizziness, the water in his ears and his unbearable despair, Jasper could barely make out what was being said over the sound of his own retching.

“...don’t see her...” “...he alright?” “...back, let him alone...” “...is she?” “Paige, she’s...” “Oh God, he’s bleeding!” “Let me see.” That was probably Galen. “...of the way...” “... Morgan needs...”


Morgan needs. Hold on to that, Jasper thought. You have to live because Morgan needs you, and you made a promise. It was the only thing that kept him from jumping back in the water. He could not believe the horrors of the day, but one thing stuck with him clearly. Jasper had broken a promise, and that was the end of his life. Funny, he thought, I always expected to die at sea, but not like this. Never like this.

He vaguely felt the boat lurching as Bartok tried to climb aboard but fell back in the water. Exhausted from the battle and diving after Jasper, the second mate was holding on to the gunwale but his massive bulk precluded him hauling himself back on board.

“Go,” Bartok said. “I’ll hold on.”

“No, let us haul you back in.”

“Row!” This time it was an order, not a request. Kemen, Galen, even Brand and Morgan were armed as well as his own people, and someone was rowing towards the shore.

“They’re leaving,” someone said.

“Too many sharks,” came an answer from someone else. “Even the Mer can’t stand against this many hungry sharks.”

“I hope they all get eaten.”

“They won’t. They’re very good at what they do.”

“I wish the one who - who took...” The voice broke off in tears.

“So do I, Paige. So do I. She’ll get her reward sooner or later. God will see to that,” Bartok said.

“That’s not good enough!” Paige shouted, then returned to her sobbing.

Jasper cringed and curled into a ball on the floor of the boat. It rocked violently as a shark bumped it. We’re going ashore, where I belong. Jasper wept in his heart. No, I can’t bear it.

It was not very many moments later that Jasper heard Bartok scream. It was hardly unexpected, but it was frightening all the same. Galen and Thele grabbed onto him and tried to pull him on board forcibly, while Bartok screamed, “No! No!”

At last they got him hauled up into the lifeboat, and immediately wished they had not. Quite apart from his conventional battle wounds, Bartok was simply missing from the waist down. Gore and viscera splatted on the floor of the boat, and several of the occupants screamed, men and women alike. Jasper never looked, he simply lay in the bow and shook. He did not need to see to know what had just happened.

“Vatha have mercy!” Morgan cried.

“No mercy,” Bartok gasped with the last of his breath. He slumped dead in the remains of his intestines, out of pain at last.

“Let them have the rest of him,” Thele said. “We cannot take him ashore.”

“But surely someone has to bury him?” Ashia said.

“Yes, I’ll do it,” said Thele. “Burial at sea, the only decent way for a Rian to return to Tschari.”

“What about Jasper, shouldn’t he do it?” Kemen asked.

“It would not be proper,” Thele answered. He hefted the still substantial weight of his former shipmate over the edge of the gunwale and let him drop into the sea with a prayer. Bartok vanished into the darkness and was not seen again.

“What do you mean ‘not proper?’

“Pull on those oars, we’ve got to reach land. It’s not far away. In the meantime, let him alone,” Thele said with a jerk of his head in Jasper’s direction.

“Do as he says, Aiyana,” Galen said softly, putting a gentle hand on her arm.

#

They rowed until they came at last to a low, rocky shore. The Ria, of course, had no shoes on, but everyone else did. This did not stop the Ria from jumping into the waves and hauling the lifeboat as far out of the water as they could. As soon as the boat was secured, Jasper sprang from the bilge, which was pink with Bartok’s blood, and ran as far as he could until he was lost to sight in some distant trees. The Landers exited somewhat slower.

“Oh, I’ve been too long on that ship,” Brand said. “I declare, the ground is moving.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to adjust to solid land again,” said Thele. “We’re not going anywhere for a while yet. We must wait and see if any other lifeboats made it or if they were all sunk. We must also wait until he,” again Thele nodded toward the direction Jasper had disappeared, but did not say his name, “comes to terms with reality and is able to travel. We may be here for quite some time.”

“Sir!” called Kemen. “I see another boat!”

“Only one?”

“That’s all I can see,” Kemen said. “There may still be more.”

“You were a scout, right, Lander?”

“Yes, sir, I was.”

“Good. Keep your eyes on the horizon and let us know if any other boats appear.” Thele looked around at his fellow survivors. After helping pull their few belongings out of the lifeboat and securing them above the high tide line, Kemen climbed to a nearby high rock from which to get a better view of the sea. Paige had given herself up to tears, sobbing in Ashia’s arms. In fact, everyone present seemed in tears or on the verge of tears, Ria and Landers alike. At last the silence was broken by Morgan.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” he said, “but I’m cold. I’m going to gather some firewood. Would anyone care to join me?”

A pair of Ria agreed to join him as long, they said, as they did not have to enter the forest. They scrounged along the beach for dry wood, eventually coming back to the others with rather meagre armfuls of fuel. Galen, still shaken from his part in Emmy’s death, lit the fire and they all gathered around it for warmth.

“We ought to light one up on the rock, too,” Morgan said. “As a beacon for the others. Kemen did say there were more coming.”

“Yes, they should be here soon. There’s still plenty of daylight left for them to find us.”

“And another boat?” Morgan asked.

Thele sighed and rose from his spot by the fire. “I’ll go,” he said.

“I’m going too,” Morgan said, getting to his feet. “I don’t think I’m being of much use just sitting here. I need to move, to do something useful.”

Thele nodded and they set off together in companionable silence.

“You know, we can use slightly wet wood as well as dry,” Morgan said. “It’ll smoke like anything and send up a beautiful beacon. Everyone in the vicinity will see it.”

“Everyone? Even the local Landers? I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” Thele said.

“Why? Do you know of them, are they hostile?”

“I don’t know, I just don’t trust Landers. Present company excluded, of course.”

“Oh, well thank you very much.”

“My captain trusted you. That is worth much, that he took you aboard his ship and has willingly carried you all this way. Now that he’s gone, it behoves me to –”

“What do you mean ‘gone?’” Morgan asked. “You’ve acted as though he’s dead ever since we pulled him into the lifeboat, but he’s still very much alive. He’s still your captain, isn’t he?”

“He’s no longer a Rian, much less a ship’s captain,” Thele said.

“Is this because the Lady sank?”

“Hardly.”

“Then what is it?”

“Your friend,” Thele said with a grimace, “is an Oathbreaker.” He seemed to think that explained it all, but Morgan was confused.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“Let us speak of it no more,” Thele said. “Look, there’s some wood.”

They got a fire going on top of the lookout rock. Green wood was thrown on the fire once it was well established, and the smoke signal rose into the sky.

“Now what about finding food?” Morgan said. A small stream had been located during the hunt for driftwood, and going upstream a way gave them fresh water, but there was nothing to eat. “Kemen, Galen, you two are in charge of hunting. Go find us a meal.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And while you’re out there, see if you can find Jasper and bring him back. I don’t know what’s gotten into him, but we need him here.”

“He won’t come,” one of the Ria said.

“Damn you to darkness!” Morgan said. “My brother must have gone mad to run off like that, and I know a bit about madness myself. He’ll come back because I say he must.”

“We’ll look for him, Magister,” Galen said.

“Oh, Galen. All our components... all gone. There was just time to grab the writing, and our clothes, but not all the spell ingredients. We shall have to begin again, and I know nothing of this land or its culture. I’m not even sure what land this is.”

“It’s Fremere,” Thele said, “and we have better things to worry about than your magic spells right now. You two know how to find food? Go find it.”

The scout and the huntsman nodded and left, heading for the forest. Morgan watched them go, then turned on Thele.

“A bit harsh, don’t you think?” he said.

“This whole situation is a bit harsh,” Thele said. “Why should we be soft and gentle at a time like this? We’ll be eaten alive out here in this wilderness.”

“I think you’re overestimating the dangers of land,” Morgan said. “Luckily, you’ve got Landers here with you. I think we can begin to earn our keep at last.”

Brand and Ashia were comforting Paige, who hugged Willow tight to her body while she wept. Morgan quickly decided they would not be of much use until some of the grief had softened. He was confident that Kemen and Galen would bring back something, but in the meantime that left him to prove Lander usefulness.

“Will we be needing this lifeboat any longer?” he asked Thele, who seemed to speak for the other Ria.

“We’ll need it for fishing,” Thele answered. “If your hunters don’t bring anything back, we can find something in the sea.”

Morgan thought anything coming from the sea after that bloody battle would be unclean. Besides, he was very sick of fish, but he said nothing. He had eaten worse in his day.

“Alright, then we’ll need more wood if we’re going to keep the fires burning all night, and to cook whatever gets caught by whoever. We’ve combed the beaches pretty thoroughly, why don’t we look inland a little way?”

“Not in the forest.”

“There is a quarter mile of scrub and small trees between here and the forest,” Morgan insisted. “Plenty of room for there to be dead wood lying about. Why are you so afraid of the forest, anyway? They’re just trees.”

“The Oathbreaker is in there,” Thele told him.

“You mean Jasper? If you ask me we should all be searching for him to bring him back, but none of you seem to want anything to do with him. What’s this all about, anyway?”

But the Ria turned their backs to him and would not answer.

“Fine,” Morgan said. “Go find some fish then.”

This, at least, the Ria were willing to do. Four of them trooped back to the lifeboat without a word and pushed off into the water in search of their prey. Morgan was left standing with his companions wrapped up in their grief, but he could not join them. If he allowed himself to break down now, they would all be useless. Morgan’s years of leadership training as the Shield would not let him fold now. He left the others to their grief and headed for the woods where he knew there was... well... wood.

As he walked, he looked about for familiar plants and animals. It may not concern Thele that their magic supplies were all gone, but Morgan was worried. Some of the Ria were wounded, and more were coming who might also be hurt. With or without magic, Galen was the best healer Morgan had ever met, but the magic would unquestionably help. At the very least it might impress the Ria into admitting that they were useful members of the group and not merely luggage. Morgan had been luggage before, and had no intention of repeating the role, especially if Jasper were in crisis of some kind, which seemed to be the case.

As he wandered in the direction of the forest, Morgan became distracted by the abundance of flora and fauna in the area. Much of it was familiar, and most of that was useful. There were ferns, chamomile, what looked like aspen and scrub willow dotting the strip of land between the ocean and the woods. Dandelions he found in abundance, and several types of grasses. He found spiders and flies, dragonflies and grasshoppers, and several mosquitoes found him. He had no jar to capture any of the insects, though.

Once he stepped and nearly tripped in a hole which, upon closer examination turned out to be a burrow for some sort of animal. He collected a tuft of fur that it had left on a thistle near the entrance.

So entranced was Morgan in collecting specimens that he quite forgot to look for wood. He returned to camp with his arms full of various items and found that no one else had yet returned. Paige slept in Brand’s lap, a sleep of sheer exhaustion. Willow and Ashia were removing stones and other debris from the area around the fire, urgent as Morgan was to look useful.

“What is all that?” Brand asked.

“Ingredients for Galen,” Morgan said.

“He’s going to cook?”

“He’s going to cast spells.”

“Oh. Well that’s alright then, I suppose.”

“I’m glad you approve.”

“I’m glad you care.”

Morgan looked at Brand closely. It was the first time since Barkarnas Island that Brand gave any semblance of caring what Morgan thought. The copies from the walls of Barkarnas were one of the survivors of the shipwreck. Morgan had not had time to do more than glance at them since writing them down. When told the ship was going down, Brand had grabbed those copies before even his own spare clothing, only checking to make sure that Paige had Reina and was being helped by Ashia.

Brand, though very bedraggled, looked the same as always, but there was a vulnerability on his face that Morgan guessed could only have come from the grief of losing Reina. He went over and squatted down next to his cousin.

“Are you feeling alright, Brand?”

“How can you even ask that,” Brand said. “Of course I’m not feeling alright. The Aiyana has lost her child, my own cousin. I loved that baby too, you know.”

“And the fact that she was the Emperor’s only daughter has nothing to do with that, I suppose.”

“Well that’s sad too, of course, and he’ll be furious when he finds out, but that’s... not... I don’t know. Somehow that doesn’t bother me as much as losing her for myself.”

“He never knew she existed,” Morgan said. “You did. It makes all the difference in the world.”

“Why aren’t you upset?”

“I am. I’m horribly upset, but someone has to keep his wits about him while everyone else grieves. It just turned out that that person is me, since everyone else is upset for one reason or another. Go ahead and indulge yourself now. I’ll grieve later, when there’s time.”

There was laughter coming over the water, and both men looked up to see the longboat returning. The boat slid up on the rocky shore and the Ria jumped into the shallow water to pull it up on the gravel beach. Then they picked up something large and began carrying it up to the campfire. It was a shark. Morgan looked at it queasily.

“You must be joking,” he said.

“Shark is good meat,” Coi said as he selected several branches from the wood pile and fashioned them into a simple spit. “There’s no reason to turn your nose up at it.”

“Those things nearly killed us - did kill Bartok. How can you even consider eating them?”

“Circle of life. I actually find it most appropriate,” Thele said.

“Is it - are there any human parts in its stomach?”

“It was empty. This one must have arrived on the scene late.”

“That thing’s as big as me,” Brand said. “How much of it can we eat before it goes bad?”

“I doubt it will,” Thele said. “That other longboat is getting closer, and there’ll be plenty of hungry mouths to feed.”

“Did you see them?” Morgan asked.

“Yes, they’re not far behind us.”

“Good. Start cooking then. I wish Galen would hurry back.”

#

Galen stepped into the forest and paused to get the feel of the land. The undergrowth was thick and green, the trees tall and leafy. The place was scurrying with life but catching it would be tricky. He reached out with his Vada, trying to sense the life around him.

What he found was a ball of pain high above the forest floor. It had to be Jasper. Galen tracked it to its source and indeed found the captain of the wrecked ship perched in the branches of a tree.

“Sir?” Galen said softly.

“Don’t call me that!” Jasper snapped. His pain roiled inside him.

“I’m sorry,” Galen said. “I didn’t know. May I call you Jasper, then?”

“Jasper. Now leave me alone.”

“Would you let me look at your wounds? I saw you were bleeding earlier, but I haven’t had the chance to see how severe it is.”

“No. Go away.”

“Your brother is very concerned. He would like to see you.”

“Morgan.” Galen felt a stab of guilt rip Jasper’s mind at the name. There was a long pause punctuated by grief, then Jasper said, “No. Not yet. Too soon. Go away.”

Galen nodded and walked on, further into the forest, continuing his search for food. There were numerous berry bushes, but he had no way of knowing whether they were poisonous or not, so he left them alone. He could clearly hear many things skittering along the ground and moving through the trees, but he could not glimpse any of them. He tried something that had often helped him before, in the hunt and avoiding Laric’s men: he used his Vada to blend into the forest so thoroughly that he became nearly invisible. In the past, men had walked past within two paces of him and never seen a thing. Animals were a bit more aware and more skittish, but they too found him difficult to locate. Galen waited.

#

“Where are they?” Morgan asked nobody in particular. “They should be back now.”

The second lifeboat had arrived as dusk approached, its crew exhausted and bedraggled. Several of them had bad wounds that Galen would need to look at. Morgan knew something of the healing arts, it being part of his training as a magician, but Galen had a natural knack, not to mention the power to implement healing spells. In the meantime, the newcomers were huddled around the campfire and eating the cooked shark meat. Paige could not be brought to eat, but the other Landers nibbled a little.

Jasper was, briefly, the subject of intense conversation. The Ria from the first boat explained the problem to the rest, who were shocked and dismayed. Several wept, mourning the loss of their captain and friend.

“I can’t believe it,” a woman sobbed. “Jasper would never do that!”

“Amber,” Thele said, “I was right there. I saw it happen with these two eyes. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

“You must be mistaken.”

“If I were, Jasper would be here now arguing his innocence. All of his actions since that moment have proven his guilt.”

The other Ria from the first boat nodded their agreement, and Amber ran from the campfire into the deepening darkness.

“Somebody should go after her,” Morgan said. “This isn’t a ship, it has no edges, no railing. She could well get lost or hurt in the dark.”

“She’ll find her way back,” one of the Ria said. “What would be the point of two of us getting lost?”

Morgan said nothing. Like Bartok’s “burial,” like Pearl’s initiation into womanhood, this seemingly uncaring attitude was simply a part of the Rian culture he would never understand.

#

Galen came back perhaps half an hour later with several small animals slung over his shoulder. They looked something like rabbits but were larger and had much longer legs.

“I’ve never seen anything like them,” he said, “but they’re plant eaters. They should be plenty edible. I also found ... oh. You’ve already got meat. Well that’s good.”

“Shark,” Morgan said. “I think I’d prefer something a bit less fishy.”

“Let me just skin these and put them on the spit, then. They’re already cleaned.”

“Have you seen Kemen?” Morgan asked.

“No, but I saw Jasper.”

“You saw him? Where is he?”

“Hiding in a tree,” Galen said. “And he’d really rather be left alone. I’ll try to talk to him again tomorrow, see if he’ll let me tend his wounds before they go septic, but I may not be able to. He wouldn’t let me look at him today. Do you know any long-distance healing spells, Magister?”

“There are a few, but I don’t know what we can do with the ingredients I’ve found today. Perhaps we can go searching for something useful tomorrow.”

Two of the strange creatures were on the spit while the third lay next to the remaining shark meat. Galen wiped his knife clean and sheathed it. It was a simple knife, plain and functional. Galen had used it for years. “Hello, Kemen,” he said, not turning around.

“What?” Morgan said, just as Kemen walked out of the darkness and into the pool of light cast by the fire. Morgan shuddered. Of course. He should have known Galen would sense the scout’s presence before he became visible. He was becoming used to being powerless, and this was a sharp, bitter reminder. It stung, like a slap in the face.

“What did you find?” he asked, regaining his equilibrium.

“The coast continues like this for many miles in either direction. The beacon is visible a long way off, and I’d say that’s a good thing. There was no sign of humans to be found.”

“Still,” said Morgan, “I think it would be a good idea to keep watch through the night. Are you up to taking a shift yourself?”

“Of course, sir,” Kemen said.

“Good. How about you, Galen? Where is... oh, there you are.”

Galen had slipped off and was tending to the worst of the wounded.

“Yes, Magister, I can watch,” Galen said without turning around. “I’ll most likely be up anyway keeping an eye on this one. I don’t like the gash on his arm. Can we work up some healing spells with what you found? I’d feel much better if I could -”

“Not yet,” Morgan said. “Yes, we can, but it’s just so dangerous experimenting in the dark like this. It’ll have to wait. Can you wait?”

This last was addressed to the wounded man. The Rian nodded.

“I don’t need Landers to keep me alive,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Good. I don’t want you to be too stoic but hold on if you can. Besides, Galen will know how you feel, you can’t fool him. Now Paige,”

“Sshhhhh...” Brand whispered. “She’s fast asleep, don’t wake her.”

“Has she eaten yet?”

“No.”

“Then I need to wake her.”

“Be gentle,” said Brand. “She’s been through a lot today.”

“Haven’t we all?” Morgan said.

“Why do you do that?” Brand asked. “You talk like her pain is the same as everyone else’s. It’s not, you know.”

“Brand, just wake her.”

“I’m awake,” Paige said, annoyed. “I wasn’t asleep. What do you want, Morgan?”

“It’s beginning to get cold,” he said. “I’d like you to move over there, near the fire. It’ll be both safer and warmer. I’d also like to see you eat something.”

“I don’t care, and I’m not hungry.”

I care, Shadow. Please come over and try to eat just a few mouthfuls.”

“More fish? I don’t want it.”

“No, Galen found some game. It’s really quite good.”

“Meals? You’re tempting me with meals? All you can think about is your beacons and your watch and your dinner - yes, I’ve been listening to you. People are dead! My baby is dead! And you don’t give a damn about any of it, do you?” Paige was fully awake now, and her anger and pain were clear in her voice and face.

“Paige, I care about the dead, but right now I don’t have the luxury of grieving like you do. While you weep, someone has to take care of the living.”

“And that always has to be you?” she sneered.

Morgan shrugged. “It doesn’t have to be, but it is part of my job. I’ve functioned with blinding grief for a long time now, and I’m used to it.”

“You couldn’t be more heartless if you tried, could you?”

“Paige, I’m sorry that people are dead. I miss Reina too, and always will. But you’re still alive, and now I have to take care of you, so I don’t lose you both, don’t you understand?”

“You miss her? You haven’t even wept one tear for her!”

“Would it make you happy if I did?” he asked, slightly irritated.

“Oooh, you’re a beast!” Paige shrieked. She stood up and ran at her brother and slapped him, hard. As he stood there in shock, Paige pushed him with both hands on his narrow chest. Morgan went down, his arms windmilling for balance before landing hard on his back, the air whooshing out of his lungs. Paige spun on her heels and marched off into the darkness with Brand close behind her.

“Aiyana, please,” Brand said as they disappeared. “Do let’s go back to the fire. Even if the company is rude, it’s warmer and safer there.”

“He let my baby die!” Morgan heard his sister shouting from the dark as he climbed slowly to his feet. “Jasper promised, and now she’s dead! When I get my hands on him, I’m going to rip him apart! And Morgan’s the whole reason for it, I ought to kill him too. I hate them both, Erris!”

Brand’s voice was talking low and fast, but Morgan could not make out what was being said. The quiet words were punctuated by Paige’s hiccoughing sobs and the occasional “I hate him!” It was unclear who she hated more, Jasper or Morgan himself, but it was clear that her grief was blinding her to everything else. With a sigh, Morgan turned back to the fire to confer with the others.

The Ria were severely shaken up now that their losses began to sink in. Not only was Jasper gone, but they had lost their ship, their loved ones, and their confidence. The wounded submitted to Galen’s hands numbly. Only the Landers retained any sense of order in their new situation. Morgan particularly was relieved to be ashore again. Ruby had given him a potient to ward against the motion sickness from the rolling of the ship, but he had never been fully comfortable with it. It was good to have solid land under his feet once more. He took stock of their situation.

Galen, Ashia, Willow, himself, Kemen, Paige and Brand. Galen and Kemen were the most competent members of the Lander contingent right now, a woodsman and a scout. Paige and Brand would most likely be useless. Ashia would make good use of herself looking after Paige and Willow, and Morgan would direct it all until Jasper returned to take back his leadership role. If he could.

Morgan was unsure about some details of the Rian culture, but from what they had said amongst themselves this evening, they spoke as though Jasper were dead. It was a worrying problem. Would they follow him? Would they kill him on sight? Would he even be willing to re-join the group? Morgan desperately needed to talk to his adopted brother and learn these things in detail, since the Ria seemed to consider it a taboo subject.

One thing he knew for certain was that the Landers would not leave the area until Jasper re-joined them. The Ria could go fend for themselves if they chose to, but as long as Jasper stayed put, Morgan would remain by his side. Some bonds of loyalty were unbreakable. Morgan had made sure of this one when they were thirteen, when they adopted each other as brothers forever. Sealed with a small magic spell, their friendship was quite permanent. Paige and Brand emerged from the darkness and made their way towards the fire. She seemed sullen and withdrawn, letting Brand lead her as though she had given up all her willpower to him. Brand sat her near the fire and took a hefty portion of the meat that Galen had caught. He coaxed Paige to eat a few bites, then ate much of it himself. He had not eaten since morning either.

Morgan stayed clear of them. It was obvious that Paige was angry with him, and he did not want to provoke her again. She was reverting a bit to her Erlayan ways, and saw Brand, not Morgan, as her comforter and protector. It stung more than a little, but at least she was being taken care of.

“And that,” he said softly, “is what matters the most.”














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