Merlin the Archer part three: Shipwrecked


4

Tarn and I kept rowing most of the night. There was no wind at dawn, so we angled in to the rocky shoreline and found a small cove backed with high cliffs. We pulled our boat up on the shore and slept. We woke later; clouds were building up from the north, and the wind was blowing steadily. We rowed out and set the sail and were soon going fast along the coast. It felt good to put some distance between us and the city. I had no idea whether the slavers would bother looking for us, but hoped they wouldn’t. The boat owner was probably more upset about losing his jana than the bad men would be about losing two boys. We laughed about Big Man getting his manhood sliced.
“The gods guided your hand!” grinned Tarn.
“Maybe they were just saving you for themselves!” I laughed back, though at once we both realized that this thought was a bad idea. It could bring the wrath of the gods on Tran and on me. I saw a cloud of fear cross Tarn’s face.
“I just got lucky.” I said quietly, “thank Awa. We both spat on ourselves for luck. We needed to put this all behind us.
As it began to get dark, we put in again. The clouds and wind had become heavier, and besides, we were hungry. There were large nets and long ropes as well, in the boat. We found a good spot beyond some big rocks, where the waves were spent themselves before reaching the shore. There weren’t high cliffs to protect us from people who might live along the shoreline though. We just had to take a chance.
We tried throwing the nets between the rock and caught a few small spider-like creatures I later learned were called crabs, which were very funny creatures to watch and awful to eat without a fire. Then we found a spot where we could stand above a deeper pool and lowered the net down with ropes. This time we caught three fish as big as our forearms. We had no way to make a fire, so we cut them up with the flint blade. The meat was fresh and tasty.
We talked about what to do next. I knew that if we headed back up the coastline on land, we would eventually come to our lands again. It would be dangerous passing through so many places of strange peoples. Also, we had nothing really to go back to. Our village had been burned. Mata was dead. We didn’t know what had happened to Belit. I said nothing of my encounter with her to Tarn. He looked sad, and I guess I was, too. But I also wanted to see what was ahead of us, down the coast. We decided to sail again in the morning.
The north wind was still blowing in the morning. The clouds were thick and low. We set out and soon were flying along, racing the waves. It was exciting; we laughed and shouted to each other to steer or loose or tighten the ropes that held the sail. But the clouds were getting darker. The coast was nothing but tall cliffs here, with no coves that we could see. The waves began to crest a little and get bigger. I was working hard to keep the boat going straight on them. They started to break over us. The air got suddenly colder and the wind began to sig through the rigging lines. Tarn looked scared. My careless remark about the gods hung in my heart. The swells grew higher and higher. I tried to get closer to the cliffs, looking for anyplace we could land, but the waves crashed in great, thundering power against the rocks. It started to rain, blowing across us and making it hard to see.
It looked as if ahead there was a point sticking out. I was afraid we wouldn’t clear it, but I hoped there would be calmer waters beyond. I couldn’t turn the boat much for fear that we’d be rolled over if we got sideways to the steep swells. Tarn was bailing out water with the boat’s bucket, but far more was coming in then he could bail. The boat was becoming heavy and unresponsive to the steering sweep. The point drew quickly closer. The waves were towering up as they smashed into the rocks. We slid up the face of each breaker and then back down the other side. A big wave would swamp us. Neither of us had ever swum further than across the small pools of the Voda back home.
I could see that unless I could turn further to the right, we would be thrown upon the rocks, so I dug the steering sweep into the cold, gray water and hung on as hard as I could, praying to Awa. Save us! Save us! I glanced back over my shoulder and saw a huge wave rising up. It was sucking the water off the rocks right in front of us. The boat rose on the face of the giant and turned suddenly sideways and rolled. I looked up and saw the wave falling down on us. I heard Tarn cry out, “Stek!”
I was thrown into black, churning water, tumbled like a stone in an avalanche. I know I came up and took a breath at one point, and then was sucked back under. That’s all I remember.

“He’s alive”
I heard a girl’s voice. It was close by my head.
“Then let’s see if he can be awakened. The animals have to be taken in.”
A man’s voice. He didn’t sound unkind. Where was I? At once it hit me. Tarn! I struggled to get up, but felt greatly sick. I got to my knees and threw up, and threw up again. I looked up.
A short, but strong-looking man, dressed in a long shirt and leggings, wearing a woolen cap, stood looking down at me. Next to him was a young girl, maybe just older than me. She had black hair and eyes. She wore a cloak, but her hair was uncovered. The wind blew through it. The sky was stormy.
“Where’s Tarn?” I blurted out. “My friend!” I stood up. I had my shirt on, but nothing else. I turned to look at the sea. The giant waves rolled by. I was on the far side of the point, on a sandy beach beneath low cliffs. Some sheep were huddled halfway up the cliffs, tails to the wind and rain.
“We don’t see your friend, I fear.” I realized that I understood the words the man was saying. His language was almost the same as mine, though it sounded strange. Tarn was gone. I ran in panic back to the rocks at the point. There was no sign of the boat, no sign of Tarn. I had lost my last connection with home.
“You must come, boy, “The Man said.”U- Dan has taken your friend.”
I fell to my knees on the sand. I had cursed him. The gods had wanted him for themselves after all. If I hadn’t spoken, he would still be here.
“I should be dead, not Tarn!” I cried.
“The gods have something else in mind for you, boy. No one could have survived rounding that point without their favor.”
The kind man reached out and helped me to my feet. The two of them clucked and prodded the sheep away from the stormy shore and up a path that led up into the hills. I looked back at the shore. The eaves swept by relentlessly. Tarn was gone.

I had nowhere to go now, and no one to go there with. Since they treated me kindly, and then for another reason, I stayed with Pelop and his daughter Pelopa for the next two years. I tended sheep, protecting them from wulfen in the hills and driving them in for shearing. Pelop had chickens and pigs as well. Once in a while we slaughtered one for our cooking pot. There was a garden and a small grove of trees that grew a green fruit called olives, the like of which I had never tasted. It was complicated to soak and treat the olives so you could even eat them, but when the process was done they were tasty, and we used the oil from them for cooking, for lamplight, and for easing sore muscles. Here, as at home, a braid of skorda, or garlic, was hung above the door to keep away evil spirits and the vaskania, as they called the evil eye. Their language was similar to my own, though many words were different and the way Pelop and his daughter pronounced the ones I did know sounded strange at first. There was a small town at a day’s walk. I avoided it for fear of the slavers and pirates who sailed this coastline of rugged shores and rocky inlets. Pelop and Pelopa said there were witches and shape-changers. They also feared the kailkatza, little men or demons who came out at night to cause problems for people. Every big stone or old tree was bewitched; every path a danger if a hare or cat crossed it.
I never did find Tarn’s body, though for some time there were pieces of the jana on the rocks. Poor Tarn; he was a good friend. But the gods are jealous, they say, and won’t let you keep anything you value more than them. But I was beginning to feel that the gods would take from even those who did put them first. Pelop called the sea-god U-Dan or sometimes Pozdeon.
Pelop was a simple enough man. His wisdom he guarded like his good vanna. He worked at his sheep and land and provided for Pelopa. His wife had died years before. “From a curse,” He said. He bartered the wool in bales at the town for fish and wares. We didn’t need much, because we hunted and made and grew almost everything we needed, as was the way of people. My prowess with the bow made our stew-pot much better, Pelop said. The land was rich with game and deer. Forests came down from the mountains nearly to the sea. Clear streams tumbled in waterfalls from gaps I the rocky heights. There were trutta. Pelop taught me to fish and gather crabs and shellfish along the shore. I had never known such a good life.
Pelopa and I were shy at first, but nature has a way with young things, and we soon discovered each other, first with talk, later with our natural impulses.
“I’m faster than you are, “she laughed, and she took off down the rocky hill toward the sea. I chased after her, determined that she would not beat me. We were children, playing a game. She disappeared and I paused, unsure if she was up to some trick. Suddenly, she bolted from behind a big rock, her dark eyes flashing in laughter. I yelled at her, calling her a sheep, but I was hard pressed to catch up to her before she reached the thicket of scrub trees above the sea-cliff. I entered the wood stealthily, creeping forward like a nema-cat. Then she lunged out from her hiding place and grabbed me by the waist, throwing me over. I grappled with her and we rolled, holding on to each other until the game became kisses and passion and we were spent. The wind blew through the little trees. I could smell the salt of the sea on our skin. She looked at me sweetly.
“I caught you, “she whispered.
“No, I caught you.” I laughed. But she was right, she did catch me.
I had never known this feeling. I didn’t know what to name it. We held each other until we knew Pelop would be looking for us, and then walked above the sea-cliffs back to the house on the hill. Pelop was there with the sheep. He had a pot of stew bubbling. It soon grew dark and the moon began to rise above the mountains. A wulfen howled far away up in the crags.
“Wulfen, “said Pelop as he stirred the coals with a stick, “was once a god, an handsome fellow. He fell in love with Awa’s sister, Kula, the Goddess of Dreams. Though he was in love with her, he was jealous of Kula’s night voice, which was sad, terrifying, and beautiful all at once. He begged Awa to give it to him, so that he could sing things to sleep. Awa said Wulfen could have anything he wanted, said Awa, except Kula’s song. Poor Wulfen. This made him crazy with desire for her song, so he stole it. When Awa found out she changed him into a slinking beast and threw him from the home of the gods. She said, “You will have Kula’s song forever, and forever you will wander the hills singing it.”
I carried my bow and sling with me in the hills. Wulfen would have my arrow if he came too close. I had already seen enough to know that there were some real things to fear, but the worst fear was in your mind.

In the second year, Pelopa began to show with child. Pelop wasn’t angry. He seemed glad. I was like a good son to him. I think he saw that I would provide for him as he grew old. The little house above the sea would hear the small voice of the new child. U-Dan’s wind blew gently through the olive trees. It wasn’t an unhappy place at all.
Pelop and Pelopa worshipped Awa in the same ways we had in the mountains. Our people were related, it seemed. After all, the brown Mountains beyond the coastal hills were just a southern reach of the high snow mountains. Pelop said he had been two moon’s journey further down the coast, to where the language changed, but even there they still worshipped Awa above all others, though they had other names for her. Here there was also U-Dan of the Sea, Dyaus the Thunderer, and a host of other gods and goddesses. Pelop would tell tales of the gods and heroes at night, around the fire. He had a good way with stories. I felt as if I was in the time of giants and one-eyed men and goddesses who became snakes. For Pelop, this was the world as he lived it. He made offerings every time he left to walk the hills with the sheep, every time he went to the sea to fish. I made the offering s as well, but I noticed that it didn’t make that much difference when I failed to make the sacrifices because of my youthful desire to go more quickly to my destinations. Or so I thought.
I built another room of stones and turf for Pelopa and the baby and me. Around our three-room house were several olive trees. A small stream was just down the hill. The sea stretched out in the distance, the mountains rose behind. Below the house in a fold along the stream we grew barley and grapes. Pelop showed me how to brew bir and vanna, which I came to enjoy.
I grew taller and stronger. I was in my ten and six year now. My beard was noticeable, though Pelop laughed at it, because my hair color was not black like his, but a lighter shade of brown. Pelopa made me fine clothes of wool and skins. I carved bows from hard wood I got in the mountains. I made flint-tipped arrows and knives of antler with flint inserts. I used my sling to hurl rocks at varmints that came near the sheep, and to take hares and birds for our pot. Sometimes I shot a hart. Killed wulfen were left for the Nightwind to scavenge.
In the fall, Pelopa gave birth to a little girl, which secretly disappointed me, as like any man I wanted a son, but I had nothing but fine words for her. Pelopa named the girl Mata, which did please me.
As the seasons passed I grew less fearful of the town and possibility that the Big Man with his little manhood and the others would find me, though traders were frequently there in town. Itak was only five days journey to the north. Even Pelop traveled there once or twice a year to buy copper blades and trinkets. He also liked to get away for serious vanna drinking sometimes. I didn’t grudge him that. In the local town, called Mirat, there was a temple to Awa on a hill above the center. There were only fifty houses in the village, and the temple was small, but it had a priestess. Her name was Alta. She reminded me of Belit. She was older, but still had her beauty. Like Belit, she was without fear, and therefore she was feared and respected. Simple-minded villagers made sure to give her offerings against the evil eye and other sicknesses. I knew that men lusted for her, because I did, though in secret. One day, when we were at market, we went to the temple, a square building held up four large posts made from great tree trunks, painted red. An oil lamp always burned in front of the carved stone offering bench. Alta took the offering of a jug of vanna and a young sheep. She ignored Pelop and Pelopa and the baby, which Pelopa kept swaddled, and gave me a long look that went right through me and made me a bit uncomfortable, as it caused my manhood to respond. I hoped Pelopa didn’t notice, though I am afraid she did. No one would talk badly of Alta, not even two people as close as Pelopa and I were. She couldn’t accuse a priestess of Awa of trying to seduce her man, could she? She would be afraid to for fear of the evil eye and other curses, especially on our child.
Alta did curse me. For it was about that time, as Pelopa was nursing little Mata and not laying with me, that I began to feel an urge to wander. I took the sheep up in the hills and stood on the ridge tops, gazing into the haze- shrouded south, along the mountains, down the sea. There were islands at the edge of vision on a clear day, and I wondered what lay beyond. But I still brought the sheep back, and farmed the barley and grapes and cucumbers. But I also found myself thinking of Alta: the way she looked at me. I wanted her, though I knew that was wrong.
Do the gods hate us, or do we bring our own ruin on ourselves? I grew slowly sullen and distant from sweet Pelopa. I stared out at the sea. Pelop could see this change.
“Why don’t you go into Mirat and get yourself some vanna with the young men?” he said one night as we sat, the two of us, by the fire.” We can tend the place for a couple of days. You can take our honey in and trade for something for Pelopa and little Mata.”
It was a deal. I could go and be wild and then make it good with presents on my return. Pelop went off two or the times a year all the way to Itak to do whatever he did. I knew it was drinking. I think it kept him from going crazy, ever tending to sheep. The women had their feasts of Awa, where no man was allowed to go near. It was only fair. I watched everything when he was gone. It was my turn.
The next morning I made a pretext to Pelopa about trading for a copper axe. She was sitting on a rock in the sun, singing a simple song and bouncing little Mata on her knee. She smiled at me in her usually easy way. It was fine.
As I walked down the trail, Pelop caught up to me and said quietly. “One thing.”
“Yes?”
“Be careful of the priestess. She’s a witch. Dangerous.”
He looked me in the eyes and then smiled, “and don’t get so drunk you end up with a sheep!”
“I’ll try not to.” I laughed.
I headed to town. Behind the folds in the hills, I couldn’t see the sea and the long brakka with the red sail that was coasting in from the north.

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