The Luu’tre lilted to her side, spraying water up onto the deck and drenching anyone who wasn’t already soaked from the rough seas. The Loe Straight was a brutal, treacherous, and otherwise unfriendly passage for any ship to take lightly. But the Luu’tre never took any trip lightly; her captain saw to that. This was a trip that could end good or bad and nowhere between, because as she was forced hard by the rapid currents, plunged into a relentless expanse of ocean that would fight with all its might to keep her from finding her way across into calmer waters, her captain had wild, slightly crazed ambitions that couldn’t be quenched by the physical demands of the world. Men pulled and vied for control of the massive sails that flapped and snapped as wind tore them one way and then another.
It was here, just below the captain’s deck, where the giant wheel tipped and turned even in the stern grip of a madman, that James Fortright sat, huddled beneath a long set of stairs and hanging on to one of the support beams. He was wrapped in all manner of warm clothing, including a thick, manky cap of dirty gray and brown material. It looked itchy, and indeed it was, as he tried to reach up and scratch himself while winds and water sprayed against him, even in the shelter of the stairs. His left hand was bandaged, but the cloth that covered his wounds, wounds of battles long since ended, was tattered and falling from his grip. He groaned as a new spray of wind and bitter sea water slapped him in the face.
Someone bellowed above and he looked up instinctively. Captain Norp was arguing with the rudders, with the violent winds and the otherwise unfriendly sea. And the sea responded by pushing the Luu’tre so she suddenly leaned to the other side. It was clear to James that this ship, no matter how strong and sturdy, couldn’t afford to argue in any fashion with a sea that could easily crush this pile of floating wood.
James looked up into the sky. Gray clouds created a narrow strip of violent weather, but in the distance he could see the bright blue of the clearer skies and rays of sun. Here, in the Loe Straight, it seemed, a deeper magic lay. The sky was a torrent, an angry invisible god powered by long lost magic that James knew he would never understand, and with this invisible entity came a perpetual grayness and a never-ending, writhing sea.
What have I gotten myself into, he thought, pulling his jacket tighter around his body. It seemed like ages since he had last put his feet on sturdy ground. He had lost count of the days he had been at sea, with the Luu’tre and her otherwise insane commander, and his companions, and Laura. Laura. She’s safe now. His face warmed at the thought of completing at least one part of what he had promised.
Pain surged through his hands as the ship rocked. He tightened his grip. His wounds had never truly healed. Some still bled from time to time. Magic had torn him apart more than once. He hadn’t tried using his magic recently. The last time he remembered having utilized his abilities was when he and Pea had crashed an anchor into the dock in Sempur, subsequently allowing all of them to escape by sea. Luthien would be after them and he knew it. There were plenty of ships in Sempur for the man to use. But could any of them catch the Luu’tre?
“What are you doing up here?” a familiar voice said.
He turned to face Triska, her plump, motherly face pursed with concern. She gently took hold of his arm.
“Get back inside before you catch cold.” Then she tugged him back and he followed her through the door at the center of the bridge and into the captain’s quarters.
There was one large bed covered in what used to be white sheets. Now they were a dull gray from years of use and abuse. A long wooden table, dresser, and various other household items filled the rest of the room. This was a room that could have been fit for a king once, if not for the dust and the cracking wood beams that were ugly marks on an otherwise well rounded space. A grand window filled the back, silver curtains strung over the square panels to obstruct the view. The ship rocked and flung him sideways into the side of the wall near the door. He grunted and shook his head, spraying water everywhere.
“You should take better care of yourself,” Darl said—the grumpy one. His aged face looked even more worn than it had before and the old man hadn’t taken the time since leaving Sempur to clean up his scraggly beard and hair. James thought about the first time he had met Darl and how much the old man had changed inside. Darl was still the same angry, bitter, and otherwise grumpy old codger, but James had earned the old man’s respect, something he sorely needed.
The others were in the room too: Pea, the tiny Erdluitle, sitting in a pair of grayish children’s clothing that had once been owned by the Ship’s Boy, the likes of which had long since fallen overboard on one of Captain Norp’s crusades for greater adventure; Iliad, sitting in a corner wrapped in matted fur, stringing his bow and testing his arrows. And Laura.
Laura, he thought, allowing himself to smile for a brief moment as he looked at her blonde hair that couldn’t be tamed with sea water. She was his friend and the reason for coming to this dangerous place; his only friend. No, not my only friend. I have Pea, Triska, even Darl. He scoffed at thinking of Darl as his friend, but reprimanded himself for doubting it. Darl had been a good friend, even if his attitude needed adjustment.
“Sit down would you?” Triska said, pushing him over to a chair. He let her guide him and fell down in the seat with a squish. “You’re about as difficult as looking after Darl.”
“Well, I wouldn’t got that far, my dear,” Pea said. “At least James bathes.”
Darl grumbled and tossed something across the room at the tiny Pea. Pea dodged and everyone else had a good laugh.
Laura stood up and pulled a blanket around James. He shivered and let her wrap him up. “You know,” she said, “if we’re ever going to get home you’re going to have to start taking better care of yourself.”
“You’re all starting to sound like my mother,” he grumbled.
“Yes, and you’re starting to sound like Darl,” Pea said. “Still can’t use your magic, can you?”
He nodded. “It feels like my fingers are shattering every time I do. Ever since those wounds fully healed…”
Pea frowned, but didn’t move from his seat. James knew that Pea was thinking the same thing he was: will he ever use magic again? He prayed that it would be so. Some part of him missed wielding magic, as if it were truly a piece of his existence, of his being. But something had gone wrong with him since they’d tossed the anchor at Luthien. Long burn marks appeared on his hand where old wounds had healed, making them red like a lobster, and painful. If he even tried to use magic to so much as move a chair unbearable pain ricocheted through every bone in his hand until he could take it no more.
“Captain Norp is having problems with the current again,” James said, changing the subject.
“Figures,” Darl said with a grunt. “Getting out of this blasted current is proving more difficult than expected. It’ll probably drive us all the way to the Muértland before letting us out.”
“It’s the winds too. They’re pushing us in all directions. The current is the only thing driving us forward right now. The sails are useless.”
“Norp will figure things out,” Laura said. “He may be mad, but he knows how to sail a ship.”
James nodded. The Luu’tre shifted suddenly, rocked, and fell back in its original place, riding up and down the great waves. Droplets of water fell from his hair; he watched them dribble down his arm and to the wood floor.
Then an echoic boom roared and the Luu’tre suddenly stopped, lurching with cracking wood to the side and flinging everyone from their seats and to the floor. James tumbled, crashed into the side of a chair, and cried out as something round and large dug into his back. Then he slammed into the wall and Laura tumbled into him. He grabbed her and tried to keep anything from hitting her. Then everything stopped and the Luu’tre lurched back until it was straight and stopped moving but for a slow up and down motion.
“We hit something,” James said.
“No, not at all,” Darl said, “ships just stop and throw people around of their own accord.”
James looked for Darl, but glared into nowhere when he couldn’t crane his neck the right way to face the old man.
“You can let go of me now,” Laura said, pushing against his arms until he let her go.
“I think so.”
James stood up and started to help Triska up from the floor nearby. Darl tugged Pea up by his color at the far end of the room and was met with flailing arms and loud protests about the proper treatment of Littlekind, to which Darl only grinned.
His hand suddenly shot with pain and he winced. When he wasn’t hurting, he was numb, and when he wasn’t numb, he was hurting. It was a vicious cycle that never seemed to end, even as his wounds healed. Except, his wounds never truly healed. They bled constantly from cuts that were supposed to have sealed up, or new cuts miraculously formed overnight. They didn’t bleed enough to make the others worried, but regardless, he was worried. He wondered if he had used his magic too much, if he had pushed himself too hard or if the magic within him had injured him too greatly. I can survive without magic, he thought. I can.
“I think a better statement,” Pea began, brushing himself off, “would have been ‘we hit something large and cumbersome and otherwise unfriendly to the necessary requirements of smooth and unhindered sailing.’”
James didn’t try to digest that, but instead gathered his coat around him and headed for the door.
“James,” Laura said. She came up next to him and tried to pull him back. “You need to rest.”
She jumped in front of him and forced him to halt. “No you’re not,” her voice choked. “You’re bleeding from wounds weeks old. You’re in constant pain. You’re not sleeping. Nothing is fine with you. It’s all wrong.”
“I’m fine.” He tried to move around her, but she stood in his way again.
“Lay down and let Pea or Darl talk to Captain Norp.”
He wanted to tell her to move again. She wouldn’t move; she was as stubborn as he, only worse. When Laura wanted something she got it. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place, he thought. You and your stubbornness. Anger welled up in him and he tried to control it.
“James, stay here.” Darl came from the back of the room to the door, pushed James aside, and struggled against the powerful winds rushing against the wooden door. Wind and rain roared into the room and then abruptly ceased as the door came to a clinking close.
James walked back into the room, his face a furor of irritation. He found a chair, righted it from the floor, and sat down. The others watched him; he could see them out of the corner of his eye. Pain poured through him like a river as he unraveled the tattered bandages from his hand. A myriad of scars, lobster red where some cuts had failed to heal or new cuts had arrived, covered his hand. Fresh scar tissue ran in cross-crosses over the tops and bottoms of his fingers, along his palm and the top of his hand, and even along his wrist. Old blood was crusted rusty-red to where some of the scars had split, bled, and healed. Freshly opened cuts dripped blood, rolling from his hand like a little crimson river and falling like a globe made of a red sea.
He sniffed as a sneeze found its way into his sinuses. He stifled it, thrusting it back and demanding it stay where it came from. With his right hand holding up his left, he examined the wounds.
“Still not healing?” Triska said, having come up next to him, her plump frame now firmly planted in his vision. She took hold of his hand and turned it. “I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know what I can do.”
“You’ve done enough I think. This is something I have to fight on my own.”
She patted him on the shoulder and looked at him with saddened eyes. “So long as you have friends like us, we’ll never have done enough for you.” Then a smile graced her face that glimmered.
James was warmed by the gesture.
“It’ll be fine,” Iliad said reassuringly. “It’ll just take time. Like any wound. I’ve had a few myself. None of them heal swiftly. Always a long haul.”
Like an infection, James thought. “Like having a cold, or something.”
“Exactly.” Iliad nodded gently. “Time will tell.”
But James wasn’t so sure. The wounds were related to magic, some sort of backlash of energy. He wasn’t sure it was like any other infection; it was too strong and it didn’t seem to mater what Triska or he attempted to do to make it go away. This was worse.
Darl burst back into the room, flinging the door all the way against the wall. It ricocheted with a wood-splintering crack, and slammed shut of its own accord as Darl stepped fully into the room.
“We’re grounded,” Darl said, grunting with the effort of slamming the door on the wall.