Sara C. Anderson
A Fantasy Novel
Sara C. Anderson
I bolt upright, shivering and peppered with sweat. Was that a man’s voice? The sleeping gown sticks to my body like a second skin and a breath is trapped in my lungs for several heartbeats. No. Just a dream. My fingertips fumble around the floor for the rough wool blanket, but find only discarded clothes and a sheathed filet knife. I prop up on one elbow and pull back the burlap sack that masquerades as a curtain. Taut muscles relax and I blow out a breath of relief—it’s still night—I can sneak out unnoticed. With knees hugged tight against my chest, another violent shiver racks my body. An ice-laced breeze snakes through the cracked glass.
Below my room in the abandoned pick-house, the town’s barter district and dilapidated fishing docks jut out at all angles into the darkness. I glance at the sky one more time and envy the distant stars so far from all the hurt and rot of this world. Both the prime and second moons have faded and hang like ghost circles in the sky, but the intense white light from the third and largest moon is still painted on the calm water. Soon, the red-orange rays of the first sun will appear on the horizon, but for now, Yilnet Bay’s harbor is quiet. I should be safe for another hour or so.
I inhale musty air through my nose, stretch, and swing my legs over the stacked wire crab pots and mountain of sail canvas I use for a bed. After pulling on wool breeches and both my shirts, I wrap mesh fishing net around my waist. I pull fingers through my matted hair and tie back a handful of unruly curls with a strand of cord salvaged from an old anchor rope. I should cut my hair soon, it’s a nuisance. I manage a thin smile. Fendell will have a fit. Last time I chopped off all my long curls he said I looked like a ten-year-old boy instead of a teenage girl. He wasn’t wrong.
My feet slide into eel-skin boots. Worn and soft, they mold to my calves. The mottled black and white stripes wrap around my legs like a coil. I grab the knife, strap it to my forearm, and reach behind the “bed” for my family cestor. The heavy fishhook is as long as my thigh. The tips of my fingers trace the ancient metal and I remember the day it became my responsibility. That hollow ache in my stomach, the one that always comes with remembering, makes my hands tremble. I’m careful not to nick myself on the wicked-sharp point. The black paint is thin in a few places near the tip and I make a mental note to fix that before we leave. I twist the cestor into my mesh belt so the point is secure and the bulk of the hook hangs just below my right hip. I jam the rest of my smaller fishhooks into my hair so they are secure and easily accessible.
One, two, three… I count the marks on the wall one more time. I don’t know why, I already know there are five. With my knife, I scratch another into the uneven wood plank. That makes six. One more day and it’s time to move again.
My knees dig into the wood floor boards and I whisper the morning mantra my mother taught me years ago. I don’t have to think about the words, they pour from my mouth. “Great One, grant me wisdom. I do not want to conform to this world, but rather, I ask to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. That I may know Your great will for my life. That which is good, acceptable and perfect.”
I grab my tackle-bag and shimmy under the lowest board that holds up the remains of a rust-corroded door. Only someone small like me could make it under without gutting themselves on the broken nails. It’s one of my security measures.
Once outside, the crisp air bites at my cheeks, and my breath comes out in foggy puffs. Winter months will arrive soon, but this year I’m not worried. We’ll be long gone before food becomes scarce. I glide down three sets of stairs and melt into the shadows while I jog past a wall of empty wire lobster cages stacked to the roof. Before the Great Purge, I’m sure this place bristled with activity. I imagine pickers singing with their deep soulful voices as their fingers deftly pried tender meat from the day’s catches. The thought of such delicacies makes my stomach growl, and then I inhale a deep breath of pungent air that wafts from the harbor and I force back a gag. The choppy water is dark brown with swirls of iridescent oil that churn on the surface.
When I was little, mother told me stories of how the waters around Yilnet were bright blue like the sky and that the Great One had tasked the Kelph lords to tend and protect the seas. In return, the seas blessed both Landers and Kelph with abundance. I can’t image an abundance of anything, especially food. Fendell says those old stories are true. Of course, he’s a Lander, so what does he really know about the sea. I laugh out a short breath. He knows just about everything. Fendell is never wrong. That’s one of the many reasons I love him.
I crouch bedside the fence of Yilnet’s only shipyard. My boots sink into gritty mud. It looks more like a graveyard. Many of the old boats have dry-rotted. Their broken wood hulls rest above ground like huge skeletons. I reach under the fence and grab a plank as long as my arm and scan the cobblestone streets.
All the squat board-and-batten homes still have their windows bolted shut. A few oil-lit lampposts cast dancing orange light onto the slick stones of the narrow streets. It must have rained sometime in the night. Ooh, rain! I bend down to wiggle loose a paving stone. Fat, pink, wigglers try to burrow into the mud. I scoop up a handful and shove them into my bag along with the plank. Satisfied that I have a little bait and new wood for the boat, I secure the bag around my shoulder, scan the streets one more time and sprint through town. Today, I’ll cut through Bakers Alley. It’s been at least three months since I went that way. By now, my scent should be long forgotten.
Bakers Alley is a narrow stretch of dirt sandwiched between soot-coated walls. It smells disgusting, like rotten fish and urine. I breathe through my mouth and quicken my pace. Halfway through the cramped passage a door creaks open and an old man shuffles out with a bucket of garbage clutched to his chest. His hunched back and gnarled fingers mark him as a Lander who once worked on a boat. Too many years hauling heavy nets has left him deformed. His head whips around towards me and he gasps.
A wet cough seizes his boney body. After the spasm passes, he hobbles towards me and almost loses his balance. My gaze darts around the dark alley. The town will wake soon and I don’t want to back track. Did he sense me? Fendell says most Landers can smell me, but I think it’s much more than that, except I don’t know a better way to describe it. This old man’s mind is so feeble I shouldn’t have an effect on him. I chew on my bottom lip. This could be a coincidence. Maybe he is always in the alley this early.
When he moves to within a few feet of me, I’m overwhelmed by the stench of spoiled meat and medicinal tonic. This is a mistake. I should leave—now. I step back and calculate the distance to the end of the alley. I’m fast. I could make it in less than a minute.
He says, “That feeling—it’s been such a long time since I’ve been in the presence of a…,” the old Lander stares off into space and smiles to himself. The few teeth he has left are stained dark brown and broken into jagged stumps.
I clench my hands into fists. This is wrong. If he can sense me, others will be here soon. I glance over my shoulder to make sure that no one has snuck up behind me.
“You’re hungry. I can feel it.” He’s wobbled a little closer. Old age has pasted a misty film over his green eyes and I wonder how well he can see. The pink puffy skin under his left eye droops so low that the wet blood vessels of the socket are visible. I imagine his eyeball falling right out of his head. “Come inside. Let me get you breakfast. I have bread,” he says.
If I use my voice it could cause a ruckus so I shake my head and take another step back. He doesn’t have bread. No one in Yilnet has bread, except maybe the families that live on the plantations.
“You’re worried. Don’t be. I only want to help.”
My heart speeds up. That’s what they always say. I don’t have a choice, I need him out of the way. I swallow hard, then concentrate to summon my Kelph voice. It’s lower than my normal voice and vibrates like one of the stringed instruments I’ve heard played on festival days. I say, “Step. Back.”
His leg muscles spasm and jerk. The old man stumbles backwards and crashes into a trash bin.
“I’m sorry,” I blurt out. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” I want to help him up, but my touch will only make things worse. I hop around his sprawled body and scattered bits of rotten vegetables.
Rage laces his raspy voice. “I can find you. I’m not too old to find you.” He coughs up something wet and spits. “Please stay. I need you. I love you!”