(Go back to Part 35)
Captain Eskar was a tall, thin rail of a man from the West Isles. His hair was gray and bristly as a scrub brush, and he had forearms like leather wrapped over iron. The captain had the unnerving habit of standing absolutely still when listening to a conversation or watching his orders carried out on deck. Only his eyes moved when he stood like this, one hand on the opposite elbow and the other raised to the stubble on his chin.
He held that look a long time after they showed him the supplies on the raft. “Will this get us to Antioch?” asked McCann.
Captain Eskar’s eyes darted from crate to cask and back again, silently tallying. Finally he gave a curt nod and a single syllable in reply. “Yes.”
Fortunately the crew of the Olive Bough were more talkative than their captain. She’d been named by a more fanciful man, but its owners had been bankrupted by the West Isle Guilds and the ship had been sold at auction. Eskar emerged from the crowd and bought her in one bid, paid cash, and most of the crew had come with the ship. The taciturn captain had commented on her name only once, saying “If she can keep the sea, she can keep her name.”
And she did keep the sea. They found out less than a week later, as a terrible storm caught them off the coast. The Olive Bough spent a desperate day and a half clawing her way away from a lee shore and a line of jagged rocks, black and menacing through the wind and rain. The storm broke as quickly as it had come, and they spent another day anchored behind a nearby headland repairing the damage before continuing down the coast.
The Olive Bough stopped at a dozen small trading posts as they followed the coast west, but none of them were as small and poor as Mudfort. Most of them sat on small creeks or rivers where they emptied into the ocean. Eskar exchanged food and tools for boxes of rarities found only in the jungle. They shipped three huge chests of strange orange powder, dozens of rolls of gummy tree bark, and wax rolled up into long sheets and wrapped in canvas. One large trading post (a complex complete with a sprawling Curate chapter house and library), put aboard a collection of preserved lizards in jars for the librarians at Antioch.
Eventually the land began to rise and the trading posts disappeared. Soon a line of rough, broken cliffs stared back at them along the coastline, backed by tall hills. “The Eastreach Cape,” explained McCann. “On the other side lies the Gulf of Rothos. Once we pass Falcon’s Watch we’ll be in the straits.”
Falcon’s Watch reared its head the next day. A towering natural pillar rose from the surrounding hills, the only remnant of the heart of a great mountain. Waves smashed the black rocks at its base, and seagulls whirled from nests on its pockmarked face. It was the end of the Eastreach Cape, and the Olive Bough left it astern as they stood out to sea. By nightfall it had disappeared.
The moon was full and bright that night, lighting the ocean as if it was day. A long silver finger reached out from the horizon to brush against the bow of the Olive Bough. Alex stayed on deck, trying to wrap her head around the vast expanse of water around them in every direction.
It was chilly on the ocean in autumn, even this far south, and so Alex was glad when McCann appeared on deck with a borrowed blanket. A single man stood watch at the wheel, reading the binnacle by the light of the moon, but otherwise they were alone with the sound of wind and waves.
“How’s your hand?” asked McCann after a time.
“Better. It doesn’t bleed as much. Still stiff.”
“It always will be.”
“Yes, I imagine so.”
Silence. McCann broke it again.
“When we reach Antioch . . . we’ll have to go our own ways.”
“I thought so. What’s going to happen?” she asked him.
“They will want to talk to us about Sinclair. But after that, you’ll have to enter the trials to take the precepts, and I will have other duties,” he told her.
“What are the trials like?” asked Alex.
“The things you’d expect. Swordplay. Grappling. Medicine, woodcraft. And there are some things you wouldn’t think of.”
“Like what?” she asked.
McCann shook his head. “You’ll find out. But you should know that you’ll be competing with Acolytes older and stronger than you. You’ll have to be fast and smart.”
“It can’t be any worse than the swamp,” she said.
McCann grunted. “Not everything is swords and danger, Alex. There are other tests.”
“You’ve been teaching me the old language. And I know some of the Southern tongue,” said Alex.
“Not just languages. Other things,” he added.
“Well, I’ll figure it out,” she said.
“Yes, you will.” McCann shifted into his familiar careless slump, back against a hatch cover. “You have a good chance of passing.”
Alex didn’t know what to say. It was the first words of encouragement that Sergeant McCann had ever given her. “Uh . . . thanks.”
“Sergeant?” she asked.
“What happens if I fail?”
“No one fails. You mean if you don’t make knight?” he asked her.
“Then the Curate will find some other job for you. Footmen, archers, cooks, librarians, smiths . . . all have a place within the Curate.”
“I don’t want to be a cook,” said Alex.
“No one can fight on an empty stomach,” replied McCann.
“Sergeant?” asked Alex.
“. . . Aye?” McCann was getting drowsy.
“Were you really a testing-master at Antioch?”
A long silence followed Alex’s question. She began to think that McCann had fallen asleep, when—
“But aren’t testing-masters—” she started to ask.
“They’re always at least field lieutenants.”
“But now you’re only a—”
“—a knight-sergeant,” he cut her off.
“I broke my vows.”
Alex didn’t know what to say to this. She tried to imagine McCann breaking his vows—the scruffy, harsh, hard-as-iron knight-sergeant.
“The scars on your back . . .”
“The Grand Master was merciful. I have been allowed to serve in my own way.”
He had little respect for etiquette, that was certain, but no one was flayed for profanity. He drank wine sometimes, too, but most knights broke that rule from time to time. Sleeping with prostitutes could get a knight flayed, but McCann showed no interest in any of the women they’d seen on the road.
Alex opened her mouth to ask how McCann had lost his rank, but as she did the sergeant broke out into a long, loud snore. She took the hint.
(Go on to Part 37)