The Lost AbbeyA Covenant of Muirwood Tale
The prow of the Blessing of Burntisland pitched so suddenly that a sailor near Maia toppled over the gunwale. Salt water silenced his screams and foamed up onto the deck, forcing the other seamen to lunge for ropes or risk losing their footing as well. Maia clutched the webs of rigging, digging her fists into the slick ropes as a wave crashed against the hull, dousing her gown and cloak. She tried to breathe and started choking. The wind and rain lashed the sails, spinning the lanyards in a frenzy of wind and hurling the men’s curses in every direction.
“Are you all right?” A hand gripped her arm to steady her. Her protector—the kishion.
Maia nodded, coughing in spasms until she vomited, and finally felt the salty air go in right. Another lurch nearly threw her overboard. Holding on to the rigging tortured her arms.
“The dinghy is bobbing like a cork!” He pitched his voice to a yell to be heard over the storm and the cursing sailors. “This is as close to the rocks as we can get the ship. We cannot see another safe way to shore other than the dinghy. Must we do this?”
“There is no other way!” Maia shouted. She tried to look up at the kishion, but the salt stung her eyes. She wiped her face and pushed wet clumps of hair from her cheek.
“Give me your hand, then. I will help you down the ladder. Come on, we haven’t time to waste on this! Give me your hand!”
Maia pried her hands loose from the rigging, though she felt certain the ship would tilt again and send her into the sea. The kystrel around her neck felt as heavy as an iron yoke instead of the small bronze medallion it was. It burned against her skin, its magic seething like the storm’s fury—or the whispers in her mind. It wanted her to use it. It could banish the storm and calm the waves. She struggled against the urge, biting it down like she would a bad-tasting onion. Not in front of the sailors or the soldiers. They would kill her on the spot if they knew she wore a kystrel.
The kishion hooked his arm around hers and pulled her after him. She slipped on the wet deck and went down. Her skirts were already soaked through, and her cloak threatened to choke her as it flapped in the wind.
“Get up, woman! Take my hand like I told you!”
Maia grasped his calloused hand and forced herself to her feet again. The kishion brought her along the rail, clutching a guideline until they reached the rope ladder. Five soldiers had boarded the dinghy already and were struggling to keep it far enough from the jostling ship so it didn’t smash into pieces. Fear shook her resolve as she stared down at the slick and narrow rope. She had never done anything like this in her life.
“Here, I will tie this around you in case you fall. Raise your arms so I can get this around you—very good, there we go. I cannot carry you down there. Do your best not to fall.”
Maia nodded and bit her lip. She steeled herself, feeling the tickle of a cough threatening to rise and break through. She wiped her mouth and then slid her leg over the rail. Another wave bullied the ship, and she found herself gripping the rope ladder for her life. The leather soles of her boots slipped twice, but she recovered and scampered down as the ship rocked on the waves.
“There we are, Lady Maia!” One of the soldiers reached up around her waist and hoisted her down. Rain and waves drenched everyone. “There we go, sit over there. Help her, Verrick.”
Maia felt another set of hands clamp against her shoulders and shove her down onto a hard bench. The dinghy took the wave crests even more sharply, and she grabbed at an oarlock. It steadied for a moment, giving her enough time to tighten her cloak around her throat and raise the hood to shield her head. The boat rocked as the last man entered it. The two soldiers gripping the rope ladder released it and snatched two dripping oars from another man.
“All right! Dip and row! The water is calmer over there. C’mon, men, give it your backs. It is hard rowing, but we will get to shore. Watch for the rocks.”
Maia listened to Captain Rawlt’s voice, barking quick and rough and naming each man. By the third round, she had them all memorized: Verrick, Hsop, Adler, and Kent. Rubbing her temples, she tried to quell the nausea that had plagued her since she had boarded the Blessing of Burntisland and left Comoros. Looking back, she saw the sturdy trading ship lumber away from them through the choppy seas. She shook her head sadly and gazed into the waves for a sign of the sailor who had gone overboard. Seeing no mark of the man, she felt a pang of sadness and guilt. Though she had gone into this journey knowing it would be dangerous, she had hoped none of the men would perish. Forcing herself to look away, she turned and gazed at the shore they struggled to reach.
The captain wiped spume from his beard. His grit-colored hair was spiky and askew from the wind and waves. He muttered something under his breath and glared at her. “It is too far yet. By the Blood, it is too far!” The captain fished through his pockets for a wineskin. He gulped down a few swallows and wiped his mouth. His face was all seams and angles, gruff and angry. “Keep rowing, lads! Hard and long, it’s a way to go. Steer for those rocks over there. The ones jutting up like fingers.”
Maia hung her head and gripped the rim of the wood beneath her seat. She glanced over at the kishion and felt a shudder of disgust shoot through her. These were the men her father—the King of Comoros—had sent to protect her. Five soldiers who had been in the keep dungeon for drinking on duty and a kishion, a trained killer. She shook her head and swept strands of damp hair behind her ear. What did that say about how difficult he expected the journey to be?
She lifted her head, exhausted by the ordeal, and found it strange how choppy the seas were so near the land. The tide would bring them crashing into the rocks, so the soldiers began fighting more to control their course than before. Maia shielded her eyes and peered ahead at the rocky formation that rose from the sea in front of them. The formations were oddly shaped and frightening in their complexity. Short, stunted ones, tall, thin ones like wraith fingers—there were even rocks that had been hollowed out, allowing the tide to wash and swirl in the gaps. Strangely, one appeared almost like an arched window in a castle. Beyond the jagged rock towers, woodlands and mountains gripped the coast as far as she could see in both directions. The tall trees swayed with the storm. These were the cursed shores of Dahomey, a desolate kingdom whose southern half was uninhabitable.
“Steer to that archway! It looks wide enough for us! Careful with the oar, Hsop. Keep it steady!”
Captain Rawlt directed them near the arched rock. The soldiers craned their necks, looking up the heights at the moss-encrusted stone. Maia looked also, but did not whistle in wonder. The kystrel around her neck burned suddenly against her skin. She put her hand to her heart and shuddered as knowledge from the Medium flooded her.
“What is it?” the kishion asked, seeing her wince.
She shook her head. “I am tired. Just very tired. Are we almost to shore?”
His look told her that he did not believe her. Unable to bear the scars twitching on his face, she looked away.
“Near enough,” the kishion said. “Hopefully we will find shelter before dark.” He pitched his voice lower. “I will keep the soldiers at bay. You need not fear them. Why, just give them a pretty smile now and then, sway your skirts, and they will obey you like dogs.”
Maia grimaced at his words, trying to ignore him, and listened to the whispers of the kystrel. The mossy rock was deceiving. The shadow of the archway smothered the dinghy in gloom for a few seconds before sunlight spilled on them and revealed a bay with a calm sandy shore beyond, much different from the thrashing sea back near the ship. Maia looked back and up at the arch, recognizing it for what it really was. The rock formation was the corpse of a fallen abbey that had been built a thousand years before. The ruins whispered to her, and it was almost as if she could see the flesh that had once clung to the rotted bones. She longed to touch the rock and listen to its stories, learn its secrets. But she dared not. Only the Dochte Mandar used the power of the kystrels, and women were not allowed to study their ways. If she were caught, the retribution would be brutal, even though her father was a king.
Captain Rawlt called for Adler and Kent to go ashore first. The two soldiers looked reluctant, but they climbed over the edge into the waves. They both drew swords that had nicks from combat and curves where a whetstone had taken away the true edge. Each wore a sturdy mail hauberk, belted in the middle, and a gray tunic fringed with green instead of the uniform of her father. She felt the waves ease the dinghy even closer to shore. The two soldiers roved the beach, investigating, and then waved for the others to join them.
After all the soldiers had disembarked, Maia stepped into the water too, followed by the kishion. The water was much warmer here than it had been out at sea. Her dress was sodden, but the cloak above it was drying out quickly. Lowering her hood, she felt the sun beating down on her head. She took a look at the state of her long brown hair, clumped and wet, and chose to ignore it. Being kempt had not really mattered to her for a while. Where she was going might kill her, and her father had warned her of the possibility. How many more breaths did she have left? How many more sunsets? Despair rose like a wall before her, but she gritted her teeth and tried to summon the courage to climb it.
“Over here, Cap’n! Another dinghy!”
Verrick and Hsop were obviously good companions. They dragged the Blessing’s dinghy up near the trees and lashed it to a tall, plumed trunk. The captain and the kishion went to explore the battered dinghy left near the rocks to one side of the grotto. The other two soldiers—she thought a moment for their names before remembering them, Adler and Kent—had started off into the trees, probably looking for a place to set up camp.
Maia clamped her hand over the kystrel, feeling its warmth and shape beneath her bodice. The medallion was small enough for her to cup it in her hand yet still feel the bite of its edges.
A whisper from the Medium ran through her.
You will all die in this place. This is the place where death was born.
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