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The First Betrayal
By Patricia Bray
Random HousePatricia Bray
All right reserved.
The lantern flickered as a gust of wind blew through the lighthouse tower. Then the flame died, plunging Josan into darkness. His right hand searched the floor beside him till he found the sparker, then he groped for the base of the lantern with his left. Using the edge of his cloak to protect his hand from the heated glass, he removed the chimney. His hand trembled so much that it took three tries before he was able to relight the wick. Finally, it caught, and with a sigh of relief he carefully replaced the glass. The soft light illuminated the small platform for a few brief moments before succumbing to another draft. This time, Josan did not bother to relight it.
He told himself that he did not need to see, but could not repress the shiver of unease as the darkness engulfed him. Before tonight this had always been a place of light, the large windows letting in the daylight, and at dusk the three great lamps would be lit, powerful beacons that filled the platform with their radiance as they guided ships far out at sea. But tonight the signal lamps were dark, for not even the most sheltered flame was proof against the howling wind. Now darkness had consumed the light, just as the sea outside threatened to devour the tower.
In the dark, every sound was magnified as the rain lashed against the woodenshutters, and the merciless wind sought the cracks in his defenses. Strange drafts swirled inside the tower and he drew his knees to his chest, pulling his coarse woolen cloak more tightly around him. The wind outside intensified, howling until he could scarcely hear himself think. From far beneath him, he heard a crash. Startled, he began to stand, then common sense reasserted itself and he resumed his seat. There was nothing he could do until the storm passed. Instead he listened intently, and underneath the sound of the wind and rain he heard the relentless crashing of the waves. It sounded as if they were breaking all around him, and he knew the lighthouse was being swallowed by the angry ocean.
He wondered if the ocean would eventually release its prize, or if the stone tower would crumble beneath the fury of the storm. He tried to view his situation dispassionately, the question of his survival as a mere intellectual exercise, but none of the tricks he had learned in his years of study could dispel his fear. He could almost taste the terror as it rose up and threatened to overwhelm him, just as the sea threatened to overtake the tower.
It would be easier if he could pray. If he were one of the fishing folk, with their simple faith in the gods of the sea and storms. Gods that could be placated by offerings and rituals. Gods that were petty enough to care if a single man lived or died.
Josan's faith allowed him no such comfort. He served the true gods: Zakar, the giver of life, and his brother Ata, the giver of knowledge. The twin gods concerned themselves with the affairs of the heavens. They were far too lofty to care about the fate of a simple monk.
He recalled the face of Brother Thanatos as he lectured his young pupils. "Remember, we serve the gods. The gods do not serve us." It was the first lesson he had learned from the monks, and the most important one.
The true gods were the masters of all knowledge, and the Learned Brethren of the collegium served their gods through scholarship and the accumulation of wisdom. Before his exile Josan had served them well, but he knew better than to expect that this had earned him any favors. The gods were indifferent to Josan's peril, as indeed they were indifferent to the fate of all men.
Instead, Josan must put his trust in the skills of those who had built the tower. Two hundred years ago, Prince Txomin's ship had run aground on a nearby sandbar, then broken apart under the relentless pounding of the waves. Forced to swim for his life, the prince had promised his gods he would build them a great monument if he survived.
The lighthouse had been built near the spot where Txomin was said to have come ashore. Nearly a hundred feet high, it was made of massive granite stone blocks quarried far in the south. Wide enough at the base to contain a small storeroom, it tapered as it rose until you reached the platform at the top, which was barely twenty feet across. Starting at the base of the round tower, a steep staircase wound three times around until it reached the first course, which consisted of a half-circle wooden stage and the lowest rung of the iron ladder. As you climbed there were two more courses, each progressively smaller, which were used for storage and as a place to rest for those wearied by the climb. Finally, at the top of the ladder a trapdoor led up to the platform, with its three great lamps. Pulleys at the top allowed a man to hoist heavy or bulky objects up the long shaft, though Josan had seldom found a need for this.
The repetition of threes was a sign that the builders had been followers of the old Ikarian religion, with its belief in the mystical powers of that number. Josan, of course, knew that the only number with true mystical significance was the number five.
Still, despite their quaint beliefs, the builders had constructed a solid structure that had endured for centuries. In some ways the tower was a relic of past glories, when such an extravagant undertaking could be commissioned on behalf of one who was merely sixth in line for the throne.
In the beginning, the priests of the old religion had served as lighthouse keepers, then when Emperor Aitor had assumed his throne, the old religion had fallen out of favor and the Learned Brethren had taken over the task, in return for imperial consideration. Chanted prayers had given way to meticulously recorded observations of the weather and the tides.
Before he had come to this place, Josan had paid no heed to the weather. And why should he? Most of his life had been spent indoors, studying in the great library or visiting with scholars when he had journeyed to Seddon and Xandropol. But since his transformation from scholar to lighthouse keeper, he had developed an uncanny sense for the weather.
He had known this storm was coming since yesterday, when the dawn had revealed long waves breaking on the shore against the direction of the wind. The very air had felt strange against his skin, and he had known that the clear sunshine was a false prophet, giving no sign of what was to come.
Josan spent that morning making his preparations, moving what supplies he could from the storeroom to one of the three courses that bisected the tower, filling every inch of available space. His duty done, he'd then made the long trek to warn the villagers who lived on the island during the summer and autumn. But with the skies still clear, they'd eyed him askance. It seemed incredible that these folk, who had lived here all their lives, could not see the danger signs. They had been polite but skeptical, trusting in their own instincts and the bright sun that shone above.
At last, he'd reminded them that he was a servant of the twin gods. When asked if the gods had sent him this warning he had not agreed, but neither had he denied it. He had salved his conscience with the thought that in a way the gods were responsible for his knowledge, for they had given him the wits to study the weather and read the messages of the wind and tides.
By the time he'd returned to his lighthouse, clouds had covered the sky. The tide that night had been unusually high, and when the dawn came, so too came the first drops of rain. The storm had grown during the day until the skies were so dark that he could not tell when the sun had set. The winds raged so fiercely that there was no point in trying to light the great lanterns. He could only hope that there were no ships caught in the storm.
He wondered how the villagers were faring. Had they heeded his warning and moved to higher ground? They, at least, could flee the storm, leaving nothing behind but their fishing shacks.
Josan had chosen to remain in the lighthouse, despite its proximity to the sea. But what had seemed an admirable devotion to duty was now proven sheer folly as the waves broke around the tower and he swore that he could feel the massive stones trembling under the onslaught.
He realized that he would die here, a victim not of the storm but of his own miscalculation in thinking that the massive tower would be proof against the forces of wind and water. Anger mixed with fear, as the irony of his situation sank in. His life had been spared once, when against all odds he had survived a disease that was nearly always fatal. He had been given a second chance, and now even that would be taken from him.
With morbid fascination, he wondered if he would be crushed to death by the stones as the tower fell, or if he would be swept out to sea and drowned. It was a puzzle that required far more knowledge of engineering than Josan possessed; nonetheless, he began calculating the odds of each event, as if this were an exercise given to him by his tutors.
As minutes turned to hours, he came to the conclusion that it was most likely he would be injured when the tower fell-perhaps even trapped under debris-and only then would he drown, unable to free himself.
Having reached this conclusion, he settled himself to wait until events would prove or disprove his hypothesis. But as he listened, he realized that the wind had changed direction, and had become merely loud rather than deafening. Gradually the wind calmed, and only the occasional wave broke around the tower. He could still hear the rain, but it fell more softly, as if this was an ordinary storm. This time when he relit the lantern, it stayed lit. Cautiously he made his way to the edge of the platform and peered down the shaft, but it was too dark to see what lay beneath him.
He was forced to wait until the rays of the sun crept through the broken shutters on the eastern face of the platform. Rising to his feet, he pushed aside the damaged boards and looked outside.
The ocean still churned, frothy whitecaps dotting the broken swells. But the rain had stopped, and the sky above held only scattered gray clouds. He looked down and saw that the waves had retreated, now breaking on the sandy shoreline a good sixty paces from the base of the lighthouse tower. The ocean had given back the prize it had so briefly claimed, but it was only a temporary victory. Before the storm, even at high tide, the waves had come no closer than a hundred paces. Now that distance had been cut nearly in half. The next storm might well claim the tower permanently.
But that was a worry for another day. Josan made his way to the ladder and began the long climb down, to see what damage the storm had wrought.
There was not a single trace left of the wooden cottage that he had called home for the past five years. Even the very impression of its foundation was gone, and Josan felt strangely saddened by its loss. As a member of the brethren, it was not fitting that he had become attached to a mere dwelling, but the cottage had been his home from his earliest days on the island, when the waves had seemed so loud that he could not sleep unless he stuffed thistledown in his ears.
He felt empty, almost numb, as he observed the destruction. The beach was dotted with strands of sea kelp, broken shells, and a few bits of driftwood that might have been from his cottage, or from some long-ago sea wreck only now being washed ashore. Seabirds quarreled over the carcasses of fish that had been stranded by the high waves, their familiar calls sounding strangely loud in the absence of the wind.
The sea itself was dark, murky with all that had been churned up. More bits of wood were scattered on the waves, including a large pine bough that made him wonder just how far inland the storm waves had reached. He had done his part in warning the villagers; still, he could not help thinking of them, even as he set about cleaning up the mess the storm had left behind.
The lower stones of the tower were still damp, showing that the waves had reached twice the height of a man before retreating. The wooden door at the base of the tower had held, but the glass that had once lined the window slits on the lowest level was gone, which had allowed the storm waters to pour into the tower, leaving several inches of brackish water in the base and the adjacent storeroom. The wooden barrel that held his freshwater was contaminated by brine, and two of the empty oil jars had tipped over and smashed, but the full jars had remained unbroken, their wax seals intact.
The loss of the cottage was a blow to his comfort, but he would be able to survive with what he had stored.
Freshwater would be more of a problem. He had a small firkin on the third platform, which would serve him for a day, but soon he would have to make the trek up over the dunes to the nearest clean well. It was a long walk, and he spared a moment to hope that the dunes had been enough to shelter the well from the storm waters. Checking on the well would be his first priority, once he had set the lighthouse tower to rights.
He began by bailing out the seawater from the base of the tower and mopping it dry with a rag that had once been his second-best tunic. Behind one of the jars he'd found a dead fish, and so he'd carefully moved each jar in turn to be sure there were no other hidden surprises. Then he'd climbed back up to the lighthouse platform. He was no carpenter, but he did manage to repair one of the broken shutters. It was a trifle crooked, and it took two leather cords to hold it in place. The other shutter was too damaged and he set the scraps aside for later.
Excerpted from The First Betrayal by Patricia Bray Excerpted by permission.
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