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Each night for almost a month, the man's face had haunted the girl, Sisipher. At first, asleep, she was barely aware of the intrusion, but slowly the features of the face took shape, floating on the surface of her dreams. It was a strange face, full of contradictions, for though it was the face of a comparatively young man, it was somehow not a young face. Some private agony had aged it; its torment was evident in its eyes, but they also held a resolve, a remorselessness of purpose, so that it almost seemed as though the man could step from dream to reality without effort.
As if bursting from a pool, Sisipher woke, crying for air. Beside her it was not the intense gaze of that face that hovered, but that of Brannog, her father. He reached out at once with a sponge and gently dabbed at her forehead. Not seeing him, she did not respond, her mind clouded. He was about to speak, but he realised he would not reach her. Let her sleep if she can, he thought. In a moment her eyes closed and she sagged back among the twisted sheets. The face was no longer waiting for her. She seemed at peace.
Brannog, turning in the candlelight, motioned to another girl who waited by the door, her face white. Cautiously she came forward and took the preferred bowl. Her eyes were fixed on the now inert Sisipher as if expecting her to wake in confusion. The girl, Eorna, had watched Sisipher convulse with this fever (if fever it was) on several nights recently. It seemed unusual to her that by day Sisipher behaved as if nothing was wrong with her, yet by night there was an element of madness in her fever. Yet Eorna shared none of her conjectures with Brannog:he cared too much for his daughter.
'It grows worse,' he said quietly, his anger muted.
Eorna studied his broad back as he spoke. Even sitting his height was obvious; his arms were well muscled, his hands callused with years of working with nets and ropes. He had a weather-beaten, solid face, his eyes like the eyes of an eagle, always alert, and to Eorna (as to many others in the village) he stood out from others around him, a dominant but gentle man. And yet what warmth there was in him seemed to be directed solely at his daughter.
'What will happen to her?' Eorna whispered, drawing closer to his side. She wanted to place a hand upon his shoulder, but instead gripped the bowl tightly as if it gave her comfort.
'The dreams that troubled her as a child were never like this.' It was true, for Sisipher had often gabbled to him, sitting on his great knees as a child, speaking nonsense about other realms, which she conjured so vividly. Such things had never concerned him in those days.
Beyond the tiny window of the attic room the night winds raced down off the mountains and into the bay. For three days and nights these winds had gusted with uncanny strength, even for this stark coast in the winter months. Just as the winds raged, so Sisipher's nights worsened, as though the storm outside perfectly balanced that within. Brannog shut out the thought. Absurd. Coincidence. But Sisipher's invisible nightmare raised up in her father's mind ghosts that were never at rest. He could feel the power of the elements about his home and village, as though there was a purpose in their violence, yet he knew there was nothing beyond the raw power of the storm. Like the sea, it had no being, no divine will. Such things were not held within Brannog's world. There was no power, no magic, no gods. Yet he shuddered as he listened to the snarl of the wind, an echo of his daughter's turmoil.
Is this your mother's gift, curse of her blood? he wondered, thinking of her mother. He had found her in a coastal village far to the north, where she had lived in an isolated community, a remote village that clung grimly to its independence. In Frostwalk there had been an almost unique will to shut out the world. A squall had forced Brannog into its harbour, where the fishers had admitted him reluctantly.
He had been young then, hotheaded, and had defied his father by insisting on wandering the seas for a while before settling to the life prepared for him. Inexperience and poor weather had left him no alternative but to shelter in Frostwalk, where he had met Sisipher's mother. At once he had fallen in love. While her people were never hostile to him, they gave him no encouragement to stay. But the girl had. Later she told her people that she would have no one but Brannog for her husband. I can never leave Frostwalk, she told Brannog. You must remain here if you want me for your wife. He had argued, of course, but his love had been intense enough to triumph over duty to his home village. He had married and had stayed, masking what it had cost him, though his wife had understood such things and had loved him the more for his sacrifice.
The chain that bound him to Frostwalk was strengthened by the birth of Sisipher, and for a few years he had felt secure in the company of the taciturn inhabitants. He fished with them, never far from land, his skill and strength much envied, for he was shaped by the power of the sea, and he had laughed with them. Even so, their secretiveness sometimes disturbed him, as though they behaved differently when he was not with them. His wife shared this twilight secret of Frostwalk, though never fully with him. He could not touch this thing, but it touched him with fear.
Eventually his wife had told him that she had been born with a gift, rare but not unique. It was, she said, the gift of telling, though she had repressed it since birth. It is only because I love you that I tell you this, she said. Power. The impossible, his mind cried. Yet nothing could divert his strong love for her. Frostwalk, she had told him, had a claim upon her gift that she could not deny. He remained sceptical until the day she predicted the death of a child beneath a miniature avalanche: the child was made to take another path than the one it had chosen to play along, and later there was a fall that would have killed it as prophesied. To Brannog, the gift was a curse. To view tomorrow could not be right, natural. No good could come of such a thing, even though it had saved the child's life. His dark belief was vindicated on the day that his wife confessed to him that she had foreseen her own doom. He scorned both her tears and her insistence. Frostwalk had become eerily withdrawn, as if already in mourning. The fishers had known.
When his wife fell to the sudden sickness, Brannog's heart had frozen. In two days she had died. The elders of the village had covered her and taken her away for a secret burial, though not at sea, as was the custom with Brannog's people. Devastated, Brannog had shut himself away and had wept. He had never seen her again. Afterwards he was told nothing, but the people of Frostwalk shared his grief. Sisipher had been three years old. Her mother's final words to Brannog had been that Sisipher, too, had the gift of telling, which had been handed down over many generations, though for what real purpose, no one knew. You have a choice, she told Brannog. Stay in Frostwalk and help your daughter to fulfil whatever purpose calls her, or return with her to your father's home. Perhaps the gift within her will die if you leave. Brannog knew that it had cost Sisipher's mother much to say this, the final evidence of her unwavering love for him.
A few days after her death, he took the infant Sisipher to his boat, quietly murmured a farewell to the fishers of Frostwalk and set sail for his first home. No one had called him back, but he had read their unexpected deep sadness, for his going as much as for the child's. At home he had been welcomed heartily, and if his father's people had had any misgivings about his past and his new daughter (a Frostwalk child, no less!) they did not let them show. Very soon his people had made him one of them again, as though he had been away but a few days, and already the young bloods looked to him for guidance in times of decision.
He never spoke of the gift within his daughter to anyone, and said nothing to her. Fifteen years ago he expected it to wither and die, but the thought of it tormented him even now. This past month it had done so increasingly.
'What does she see in her dreams?' came Eorna's voice beside him. Her plump figure brushed him deliberately as she leaned forward, her bosom like an offering. She wanted to help, to please him, but he so rarely smiled, and gave her no encouragement. At least there was no other woman in his life, save Sisipher. Eorna felt the familiar stab of jealousy.
Brannog had been aware of Eorna's desire for some while. It needed no gift of telling to see it. But he did not want her. It was not possible for him to love any woman as he had loved his wife. Casual physical love he would not consider, not with a servant girl like Eorna. She was not beautiful, nor alluring, yet perhaps it would have been good to take her. But she wanted things he could not give her, and he had no wish to cause her pain or shame.
'See? If I knew that,' he said, 'I would put an end to whatever troubles her.'
Eorna nodded, eyeing the girl. Sisipher was a young woman, yet no more than a year younger than herself, pale-skinned and slender -- not quite beautiful (and Eorna's eye was honest, not marred by spite) but attractive in a subtle way that could, if she used it, turn the head of many a man. Her eyes were immediately arresting, like no other eyes seen in these lands, betraying her lineage. It was known that in her past the secrets of mixed races were buried, but no one ever dared speak frankly of this to Brannog.
'You have been with her for many hours, Brannog. Will you rest now?'
His eyes remained on Sisipher. 'Aye. You should not have roused yourself.'
'I do as I am bid,' Eorna sniffed, meaning, I am a hired servant, no more. It was true, for in return for her keep here, she worked with the other girl, Harla. Both girls had no other homes. Harla's parents were dead, as were Eorna's, whose only relative was her sister, who could not keep her. Brannog's home was an inn, though rarely used as such now except as a place for the men of the village to gather and to drink. Travellers were rare so far north, even in the summer months. The two girls kept the inn for its host.
Brannog ignored Eorna's pointedness, and she sensed that this was no time to press herself upon him. He turned to her, but movement on the bed alerted him at once.
Sisipher had opened her eyes. She gave the impression of someone looking vaguely across a landscape and seeing something in the distance. Her hand gently tugged at her father's sleeve, and as she spoke he heard the laughter of the storm.
'He's coming,' she said, but there was no hysteria, no frantic movement now.
'Who?' said Brannog at once.
For a moment she seemed anxious, frowning, but then her eyes closed. She was asleep again, if indeed she had been awake. Brannog turned abruptly to Eorna, who looked puzzled by what she had overheard.
'Another dream,' he said, getting up. 'This is some fever. I have seen such things before. Say nothing, girl, eh? It has no meaning. Don't speak of it beyond this room. You know how men will talk.' He gently gripped her arms and she made no attempt to move away, even though his fingers hurt her.
'As you wish,' she nodded, knowing that he could no longer ignore her and what she wanted for them both.
Even so, he loosed her, turned quickly and straightened the sheets. 'Go and rest. It is late.'
Dismissed, she withdrew. Something in Sisipher's words had worried him, she had seen that. But she smiled. At least she had something, a tiny hold. He wanted her silence. She became so preoccupied with trying to devise a way to use her fragment of power that she did not wonder why he should be so anxious not to have his daughter's words repeated outside.
Brannog's shadow danced on the wall and he glared at it. Who would be coming? What had his daughter seen? For years he had lived with the dread that someone would come from Frostwalk to claim her back, to demand the right of the village to her gift. Now the girl had been terrified, but of what? Brannog bunched his fists, straightening up his great frame as if preparing for a physical conflict. The storm roared, ignoring him. The village would have to sit out its rage. It could not last. He thought of the sea beyond the harbour, unchained, ruler of them all. No one could survive it in such a mood.
It had been a hard, cruel winter, far worse than any other that Sundhaven could recall. The stone houses, built into rock ledges that had been hewn from the lower skirts of the mountains, were safe enough from the excesses of wind and driving sleet and snow that alternated in gusts from the heights, or beat in from the sea beyond the jetty breakwater. Men of Sundhaven had died this winter, their fishing ships not returning, the small fleet decimated. It was rare to lose a single man of their hardy breed to the weather, for they had a strength of will to match the ferocity of the elements. Yet something in this cold season had turned upon them like malice.
Under the brow of sheer cliffs, the houses of Sundhaven were embedded in shadow, blending into the greyness like boulders. Only the arms of the breakwater and the sweep of cliffs on either side of the cove had checked the cutting edge of any seaward gale enough to permit Sundhaven's survival. As dawn fought for birth, the windows rattled, faces peering out at the attacking sea, the lash of waves. The thoughts of each man and woman who could not sleep for the din were that it must end soon. For three days the fishers had not been out on the water, and already the fish harvest had been a disastrous one. The warehouses behind the quay were not large, but were yet less than half full. Without fish -- the coin of Sundhaven -- the men would not be able to trade with the other ports for fuel for their fires, or for candles, or for clothes, or for food with the farmers of the coastal estuaries to the south. True, a subsidy might be negotiated, but it would have to be repaid in time. The promise of spring was not good. The threat of hunger swirled around the village with each freezing gust of the wind.
Brannog held up an oil lamp to a window of his drinking hall, scraping the frosted glass with his nails. He would not be returning to his bed this night. He stared out through the jagged hole he had made. The night was not pitch, but grey, half-lit, the white spume falling like snow beyond the walls of the quay. This was no place for Sisipher. She had never said so, but she was not content here. In a way, they were all penned like sheep on a mountainside. Brannog had left once, but his duty was to the fleet here now. He had no spirit remaining to try for a new life. What, then? Submit to Eorna's eagerness? She worked hard, and would doubtless be capable of bearing many children. He could never love her, which did not seem fair. But what of Sisipher? It was not too late to find her a better life. Small wonder she was visited by nightmares in this desolate place. Perhaps in the spring he should take her with him to the south on one of the trading voyages. Possibly she would find a cause in one of the towns to draw her, some better purpose. But he scowled. A girl alone in a place like that would be prey to many dangers.
Something raced across his vision. He squinted out at the jetty that ran around one arm of the cove. There were men there, bent over, buffeted by the wind, which threatened to cuff them over the side into the boiling water beyond. At once Brannog made for the door. He tore back the thick bolts, set down his lamp, and thrust his huge head into the icy blast. It was almost as though he had pushed it underwater as the shock of the cold hit him. His eyes narrowed to slits, but he could discern the men, fishers of the village. They were pointing along the curling arm of the jetty.
'A prow,' came a shout, heard only because of a freak twist of the wind, which flung it back into the snarl of another great gust. Brannog withdrew, but quickly prepared himself for a dash into the tumult outside. Dressed in thick, fur-lined skins, he stepped outside and fought hard to slam the door against the wind's determination. A dozen men were running now, and Brannog grimaced at the knowledge that others had not slept, but had been watching the play of the storm. But what had they shouted? A prow? A ship? Out in this madness?
Brannog felt himself hurried by the wind, as if it were eager to show him its spoils, his steps quickening along the slippery quay and on to the jetty. He joined the group of men and like them tried to study the heaving swells of open sea beyond. Each wave that rose up obscured that behind it, dashing itself at last into countless jeweled fragments against the jetty wall. The men felt the wall shake and the salt spray stung their eyes, but they ignored it as they had done since childhood.
'Who called prow?' shouted Brannog, his arm gripping that of a companion.
'Yarnol,' came the reply, almost a snarl. The man pointed. 'Out there!'
'Have you seen it?'
'Aye!' came a shout beside them. 'I swear it. A prow! No mast. Tom away, likely. But she floats.'
'She'll never make shore,' Brannog cried, and with the wind streaming like a torrent in spate off the land, the men all knew he spoke the truth. But they were fishers and could not help but search with their eyes for this doomed vessel, even though it would be sudden death to put out a ship to help. After a moment the distant prow rose up like a knife, slicing apart a rolling crest, black and glossy as a seal, and the men marvelled that it should be pointed towards the land. A freak gust must have sent the rudderless hull twisting around. Minutes later the prow rose up again, battering through the swells; still it faced the cove. The faces of the watchers were intent with disbelief. Brannog heard a voice within him, the calm voice of Sisipher as she spoke from her dreams. He's coming.
Copyright © 1986 by Adrian Cole