Excerpt from Book III, The Wanderer’s Curse
A Sneak Peek At
The Wanderer’s Curse
Book III of The Astreya Trilogy
“Around to the left,” she replied, as they sailed between the headlands. “Head for the lumpy bit ahead. It’s an island, even if it doesn’t look like it from here. Leave it to the left… um… starboard, and go on up where the river empties out.”
She spoke quietly, barely audible over the gentle noises made by Seafoam in the calm water. Astreya glanced over his shoulder to see that they were now encircled by hills that ran steeply into the sea everywhere but ahead, where the land rose more gently. He dimly noticed that she was alternating between enthusiasm and apprehension as they approached Matris.
“Over there’s a good beach for clams. That’s where we set nightlines. Just over the top of that little hill is where we go for firewood. When Mother was alive, she’d take us over to the island for a treat and we’d…”
Her voice tapered off. Astreya could not see her face as he steered up the long, narrow bay in the falling light. He felt sure that she had stopped talking because she did not want to share her memories with him. Astreya looked away as he had learned to do from the people with whom he had grown up. In the Village, emotions were private, save for when the whole community came together to celebrate or commiserate. The convention gave him a way to hide his conviction that she had shut him out.
Arneb’s eyes flickered from Lindey to Astreya as one after the other, they cast sidelong glances at each other – glances that neither saw.
They sailed on in silence, looking at the wooded shores on either side. Seafoam slowed as she met the current from a river that stained the water black. The northwestern shore was now dark from the waterline to the tree-fringed crest of a long line of hills that ran southwards until they were split by the gap through which they had sailed. Above, the sky shaded from pink around the setting sun to deepest blue-black in the east. A soft flap from the jib told them that the wind was failing with the light.
“Hug the right hand side of the channel,” said Lindey. “There’s an eddy that’ll carry us up to the landing.”
Astreya followed her instructions until they were within a stone’s throw of a shore studded with head-sized boulders. Seafoam barely responded to the helm as they slid noiselessly upriver, her sails catching the last puffs of the evening breeze. Astreya looked to starboard where a grass-green bank rose above the boulders and crested higher than the masthead. He realized that without Lindey’s confident directions, he would have concluded that this bay was as uninhabited as those he had visited in the Mollie. The thought gave him comfort, allowing him to slip back into the habit formed from his many sketches of the voyage south. Astreya looked for distinguishing features in the landscape, but saw only a high bank, flat at the top save for several regular shallow depressions. He began to count them, estimating that they were regularly spaced, about a dozen paces apart. When he reached eight, he knew what was bothering him.
“That bank – it’s not natural,” he said quietly. “But it’s too big to have been made – unless it took years and years.”
“You’re right,” said Lindey. “It’s man-made. It’s the rampart around Home. And you’re probably right about how long it took to build. But nobody knows, because it was all here from Before.”
Astreya heard a special meaning in her emphasis on the words ‘home’ and ‘before,’ but had to concentrate on steering, as the eddy turned to starboard. The bank above them, now in the shadow of the distant hills, curved back on itself. Astreya saw a pebbled beach perhaps a dozen paces long on their starboard side, and ahead of them, a massive pile of broken rock barring their way. There was just enough light for him to see the water curling through the huge stones that were the cause of the eddy that had brought them thus far.
“There’s a slow whirlpool,” said Lindey. “Go almost to the pile of rocks, let the current turn us to the right, and we should end up pointing between those two logs.”
“Cam, let the jib luff, find the mooring line and get ready to jump,” said Astreya quietly.
Cam balanced on the bowsprit, one hand on the forestay, the other holding the bow rope. Wondering why he was not more nervous about this tricky approach in the falling light, Astreya followed Lindey’s instructions. As promised, he saw two tree trunks a couple of paces apart, making the same kind of slipway that the Village used to haul its boats out for the winter. He could dimly make out the spokes of a windlass just beyond the ends of the logs. He headed Seafoam to put her keel between the two white logs, and a few heartbeats later, they felt the boat slide up the peeled wood, her bow rising out of the water. Cam’s feet crunched onto the small stones between the logs, and pebbles clattered as he made his way towards the windlass.
“We’ll slide back…” muttered Arneb, as Seafoam’s hull creaked against the logs.
Cam’s voice came from the gloom ahead of the boat.
“We’re secured to the end o’ a line on the windlass, an’ now I need some help to wind ‘er up.” He paused. “That’s you, Damon. Wear yer boots, and bring mine.”
“Your hands…” Lindey began.
“Gloves in the starboard locker,” said Arneb.
“Thanks,” said Damon, as he appeared up the companionway
Two pairs of boots in his gloved hands, he jumped down onto the shore. Astreya let go the main halyards, and the mast hoops rattled as the sail descended in a rush. They were enveloped in canvas for a few moments while he bundled the sail along the boom. Arneb would have helped them had not Lindey firmly shaken her head at him as she climbed forward to strike the jib. Ruefully, he kept his long legs out of their way and passed ties to Astreya. As they secured the sails, they heard a clicking sound from wooden pawls of a windlass. Seafoam rocked gently, and then slid forward with a jerk, stuck, and slid again.
“Should do ‘er fer the night, ‘Streya,” Cam called from the shore. “She’s more’n half way out o’ the water, an’ the tide’s turned.”
“All of you stay exactly where you are!”
The voice came from above them in the falling darkness. It a woman’s voice, but nonetheless commanding – the voice of someone used to having her own way.
A halo loomed over the crest of the bank, lighting the lower half of a long white dress and the blue-shawled arm that held the lantern.
“I’m… I’m home?” said Lindey, her voice unusually hesitant.
More lights appeared against the skyline. One by one, they followed the tall woman in white as she walked down a steep path towards them. Astreya saw female figures, all in white dresses that fell from neck to ankle. The moving, swinging lights dappled the figures of those carrying them, one moment illuminating swaying white material, the next shining on the long stems of tall grass gone to seed. In a strangely abstracted frame of mind after the day’s sailing, he counted more than a dozen women.
“How is it that you have so many people with you?”
“Sanctuary, Grandmother. Four men, two of them wounded. All exiles. All betrayed by false friends turned traitor. All have lost kin. They seek sanctuary under Matris custom.”
Astreya guessed that Lindey was deliberately choosing words which would be significant to her grandmother. She climbed down from Seafoam’s bow, paused to pull on her boots, walked across the clinking pebbles and up a steep ramp towards the woman, who raised her lantern to light Lindey’s face, and as a result, her own as well. Astreya immediately focused on the woman’s deep-set eyes, which glinted beneath arched eyebrows. Her white hair was twisted up onto the top of her head, and wisps had fallen toward her eyes, where they cast shadows across her brow. She was tall, lean and she stood straight-backed, unyielding, with something in her manner that reminded Astreya of the level look he had seen on first meeting Lindey at the ford. Where Lindey’s face curved softly, her grandmother’s face had aged like the blade of a well honed knife, the cheeks slightly hollowed, the lips thinned, the nose sharpened but not disfigured by the passage of time. Astreya stared so fixedly that he was surprised when another voice came from further up the path.
“You always have to do more than anyone else, don’t you, Lindey? Most girls have all they can do to find one man, and some come home alone. You return, barely decently clad, bringing four.”
A compact woman with neck-length brown hair walked swiftly around Lindey’s grandmother and came to a self important stop, holding her lantern ahead of her. Astreya noticed that she moved with a busy assurance just short of arrogance. When she stood still, lit by the lanterns of the women and girls behind her, he guessed that she was older than Lindey by a decade or more.
“There are reasons, Janice,” said Lindey evenly.
“I’m sure there are, Lindey. You always have reasons. The trouble is that they’re all about you, not the good of Matris. Sarah, with respect, these men must all be sent on their way.”
Astreya heard no respect in the woman’s tone. But whoever she was, it struck him that she offered him his chance to leave Lindey where she would be safe. However, even as he saw the opportunity, he desperately wanted to stay. He bent over to pick up his boots, wondering whether to put them on, or keep to his bare feet aboard Seafoam, cut the bow rope and sail away. When he straightened up, boots in hand, Sarah was speaking.
“If they seek sanctuary, and Lindey vouches for them, I don’t see how in good conscience we can forbid them from coming ashore. When they are healed, and if they accept our customs, they might prove to be… useful,” she said mildly, her words leaving room for a variety of interpretations. “Let’s take a look at them.”
Arneb climbed unsteadily over the side of Seafoam and almost fell headlong. Cam and Damon moved to help him, but he found his balance and waved them off. They stood together below the boat, their heads at gunwale height. Astreya slid his feet into his boots and jumped down beside them. The four stepped forward slowly to stand behind Lindey, who faced Sarah and the woman called Janice. Behind them stood a dozen or so people who Astreya now saw were mostly girls. He had the impression that many were young from the supple way they moved, and also because they were constantly exchanging whispers. The cluster was still being joined by older women, who were making their careful way down the steep path. Swaying lanterns patched the sloping path with light and shadow, making it difficult to see in more than glimpses, but Astreya noticed that their faces of those nearest him were pale, as was their hair. Despite the variety in their heights and figures, they all wore similar high-necked, shin- or ankle-length dresses, far longer and looser than everyday work clothes. He suddenly realized that under shawls or blankets they had thrown over their shoulders, they were all wearing nightgowns.
Sarah took a step forward as Arneb shuffled towards her, one hand on Damon’s shoulder and Cam at his elbow. She lifted her lantern to look into their faces.
“Creditable work on this man’s face. Your stitching, Lindey?”
“How can she vouch for them?” Janice demanded. She raised her voice to be heard by everyone, and her tone became self-consciously dramatic. “How can we believe that her word is enough…”
“He’s not going to fall over before we can get him up the hill, is he?” Sarah asked Lindey as if she had not heard Janice.
“He’s lost a lot of blood, Grandmother.”
“I can walk, provided it’s not too far, and I can sit down when we get there,” said Arneb.
“Is the one with the mustache hurt as well?”
“Both arms with superficial cuts from wrist to elbow. He’s wearing the lower third of my skirt as bandages.”
“I wondered how that happened,” said Sarah mildly, and then louder so that the women behind her could hear. “We’ll take them up to the Home.”
“I’ll ring the bell,” said Janice.
“I don’t think that’s necessary, Janice,” said Sarah. “It’s late, and most of the elders were on their way to bed.”
“But everyone must be involved in the decision-making if men are to be admitted. Consider the danger that…”
“Consider the danger that these two will fall over and we’ll have to carry them. Be calm, Janice. Nothing needs to be decided tonight.”
“This is outrageous. The rules are clear. They demand that we all participate in any decision about admitting any man.”
“So ring the bell, if you think everyone should be woken up and asked to decide these men’s fate while everyone’s half asleep. I, for one, would like to know a great deal more before doing anything drastic – in any direction. Lindey, will you show our guests to the Home?”
Janice looked this way and that, cleared her throat self-importantly, turned and pushed her way back uphill through the women, her skirt twitching back and forth.
“Yes, Grandmother,” said Lindey obediently, as if she had heard nothing but Sarah’s request.
Lanterns bobbed and light chased shadow as the women started up the path, leaving a respectful distance around Sarah, who walked with carefully measured steps, her head poised above her straight back.
“It doesn’t seem to be all sweetness and light here in Matris,” Damon whispered as they started up the path. “What was all that about?”
“No idea,” said Arneb, his voice expressionless.
“The fussy one thinks she’s real important, don’t she?” said Cam. “But it’s the old one who’s the real brains of the bunch.”
Before Lindey turned to go up the path, Astreya saw her teeth flash in a swift grin.
They followed the women’s swaying lights, Cam and Damon on either side of Arneb, who steadied himself with one hand on Damon’s shoulder. Astreya hesitated. He felt that he should have been the one to help, rather than Damon with his injured arms, but now it was done, he found himself walking beside Lindey, ahead of the three of them. She was so close to him that for a moment, he almost took her hand, but stopped himself in time.
“Astreya… um… everybody,” Lindey said quietly. “I should have explained more. But I hardly knew where to begin.”
“We’ll all pick it up as we go along,” said Arneb.