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Authors: Nicholas Anderson

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BOOK: The Silent Isle
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"But the symbol?"
Leech asked.

"Maybe it's
something the priests divined would stave off sickness or death."

"It didn't
do him much good," Leech said.

Dane was silent
for a while.  "Could it be a bird?"

Leech
shrugged. 

“House
Felcrist's symbol is a bird, right?" Dane pressed.

Leech
nodded. 
"A falcon, yeah.
  But it isn't
this simple.  It has a triangular tail and upswept wings."

"But it
could also be an ‘F’," Dane said.

“More of a lower
case ‘F’; unlikely a house would use anything but a capital letter in their
insignia.  It suggests dominance." 

"But is it
possible Felcrist created a new symbol, a mix between a falcon and the letter
‘F’?"

Leech shrugged,
"It's possible, but if they were going to go through the trouble of
branding our man and sending him back, why would they use a symbol we're not
familiar with?"

"Good
point," said Dane. 
"Could it be that, though,
a new symbol?
  Something two or three houses created to be the
insignia for a new alliance?"

Leech
shrugged.  "Your guess is as good as mine.  But as far as House
Felcrist is concerned, do you really think they’d do something like this after
what they did to your family at Loshōn? 
After what
you did to them at Loshōn?”

Dane did not say
anything.  He never said anything about Loshōn.

Dane realized
Leech was looking over his shoulder.  He turned to see Bailus Conley, his
father’s weapons master, walking towards them.  Bailus halted a short ways
off and gave a slight nod.  “Master Dane, your father wishes to speak with
you.”

Dane rose. 
"I guess he wants to know what we’ve divined by our secret arts.” 

Leech
grunted.  "That'll be a short conversation."

"Yeah,
well, when it comes to dealing with my father, that's the way I prefer
it." 

“Better not to
mention your thoughts about the other houses,” Leech said.  “It’ll only
rile him up.  And besides, I don’t think we’re up against one of your
father’s rivals.  Something tells me it’s something older. 
Something worse."

“Worse?”

“Up till now,
we’ve only been discussing what’s possible and rational.”

“I thought you
prided yourself on being rational,” Dane said.

“Dane, that ship
came in here against the wind, with no one at the oars, no one even at the
tiller.  That’s not rational.  It’s not even possible.”

Dane started up
the beach.

"Hey,"
Leech called after him.  

Dane turned.

“Regardless of
what this symbol means, you know what it means for you don't you?"

Dane sighed and
studied the toes of his boots.  He nodded.  "Yeah, I know.”

II
Marked
to Die

"When can you leave?"
Arvis Hallander asked his son.

Dane had been
contemplating his answer while walking up to his father’s court.  He knew
how this conversation would go.  For Arvis Hallander, confrontation was a
foregone conclusion.  He was sure one of the hostile houses had taken the
island, and he was already preparing his counterattack. 

“We don’t know
what the symbol means,” Dane had said.  “We don’t know who they are.”

“It doesn’t
matter who they are,” his father had said.  “Not for us.  But we’re
sure as hell going to make it matter for them.”

"I'll need
to get a crew together; stock our ships,” Dane answered.  “It will be a
few days."

“You’ll leave
tomorrow night," Arvis said.

"That's
impossible; I don't even know who I'll ask to accompany me."

"You don't
need to think about it, I already have.  And we won't be asking. 
Here." 

His father
handed him a paper.  It was a list.  Glancing over it, Dane guessed
it held about thirty names, maybe a shade more.  He didn’t recognize all
of them, but he recognized the one at the top and that was enough to tell him
what kind of mission this would be.  He turned back to his father. 

 
“One ship?
  You’re giving me a single ship’s worth of
soldiers to do this with?  What do you expect me to do with thirty men?”

“It’s not like
royalty to complain, Dane.”

"And you
want me to tell these men they have to be on a boat tomorrow night, headed for
the unknown?"

"This is
too urgent and important a matter to leave it solely in your hands.  I've
already sent runners.  They'll report at the docks tomorrow morning to
load their things."

“This is the
stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Arvis nodded
towards the list.  "Don’t act so neglected, Dane.  I didn’t put
this list together haphazardly.  I'm sending some of our best men. 
Try not to waste them.”

"Wasted or
not, thirty men won't be enough," Dane said.  "If an enemy's
taken the island and they sent someone back to tell us so, it stands to reason
they'll be waiting for us."

"It also
stands to reason they could be trying to draw us into committing a larger force
to the island so they can strike us here unprotected."

"Well, if
they've taken the island at all, it's beyond question they have a lot more than
thirty men."

Arvis
sighed.  "Land on the island undetected and survey the situation in
stealth.  If you can't take it back, return here and we'll put together a
larger force if possible."  Arvis paused and looked out the
window.  "But, Dane, understand what I'm doing for you here. 
I'm giving you another chance.  There are many men who are going to
question my decision about putting you in charge of this mission.  I'll
probably question it myself. 
Especially in light of
your performance at Loshōn.”

“So you’re
throwing away the lives of thirty men to give me a chance to prove myself to
you?”

“It’s not me you
need to prove yourself to.  It’s the people.  The people you will one
day rule.  Don't let your weaknesses become their burden again.  This
is your chance to prove you can lead our
people, that
you deserve to lead our people.  Don't scorn it.  Don't spurn
me."

“Is that
all?"

His father took
a deep breath and Dane used the silence to turn towards the door.
 "Dane," his father called.  "I still believe in
you."

Just what is
it you still believe about me?
Dane thought as he headed out the hall.

***

"No,"
Dane told the man in front of him. 
"Absolutely
not."

 The
morning sun rose above the hills behind the docks where the chosen men were
assembling and loading the
Bloodwake
,
the ship which would convey them to Haven.  Will Thatcher, one of the
senior men on the list, had spent the last several minutes trying to convince
Dane to acquiesce to a most unusual request.  Will’s wife, Molly, wanted
to accompany him.

“But, sir,” Will
said, "She'd be a big help to us."

"We're
beyond help, Will," Dane said.  "For all we know we're walking
into an ambush.  We might not even get off the boat before we're all
corpses."

"But, Dane,
sir, I think that's part of why she wants to go so badly."

"If she has
a death wish why doesn't she just stay here?  My father will have his
house cut to pieces the way he's attacking the others."

"That's the
other reason I think she should come.  She's not any safer here, and,
whatever we face, we want to face it together.  Isn't there anything I can
do to convince you, sir?"

"Stop
calling me ‘sir’," Dane said.

"I'm sorry,
sir?"

"Stop
calling me ‘sir’.  You’re twenty years my senior and if you were twenty
years my junior you still wouldn't be my supplicant."  Dane
sighed.  Last night, as he lay on his bed, he had come to grips with the
fact the voyage to Haven might be a one-way affair.  He had steeled himself
for the inevitable confrontations there would be with the men who tried to
refuse the risky assignment.  He had mulled over what he would say to
them.  He would say the only thing he could, the truth.  The future
was an unknown.  By the time the sky grew light and it was time to head
for the docks, Dane felt he was ready to lead the men onto the ship and comfort
and coax the fearful into joining him (they did not, after all, really have any
choice in the matter).  What he hadn't expected was for men to ask him to
allow their family members to join them.  But Will seemed to know what he
and Molly were getting into.  And they certainly knew what they
wanted.  The couple had no children.  Molly had no other life to live
if Will never came home.  Dane shook his head.  “Can she cook?” 

“Like an
angel.” 

“Alright, then.”
 

“You mean she
can come?” 

“If my father’s
expects us all to go and die on some godforsaken rock in the middle of the
ocean, at least he’d better not expect us to do it on nothing but Fish’s
cooking.”  (Trenton Fischer, the company cook, had earned his nickname
less on his surname than on the soldiers’ claim that all his cooking smelled
like
dead sea
creatures).

"Yes,
sir!" said Will.

Dane frowned and
Will gave a grimace that couldn’t help twisting into a smile. 
"Sorry.  But thank you, sir."

Bailus Conley
strode up to Dane with the list in his hands.  "Everyone's reported
except Joseph Leit,
sir .”

Dane took the
list and looked it over, as though hoping it might give him a different report
than Bailus.  There was a check by every name but Joseph's.  That
didn’t leave a whole lot of room for other interpretations.  "Thank
you."

Bailus nodded
and walked away.  Dane folded up the paper and put it away with a
sigh.  He was afraid he knew why Joseph had not come.  At any rate,
it fell to him to find out.

It was noon by
the time he made it to the Leit’s farm.  He found Nora Leit hanging the
washing behind the house and told her he was looking for Joseph.  Joseph’s
mother didn't say anything.  "Can you tell me where he is?"

“No," she
said, but without looking at him.

“You know me,
Mrs. Leit."

She
sighed.  "He headed for the barn, I think.  You might catch him
if you hurry.”

Dane found
Joseph in the barn.  He had a canvas pack with him stuffed full of
apples.  He was wrestling a bag of oats into it when Dane said his name
from the doorway.  “I’m not going.  There’s nothing you can say to
make me change my mind.” 

Dane
nodded.  He did not think Joseph a coward. 
Realist
was
probably a better word for it.  He was one of the few men Dane had ever
trained who had not maintained silly, romantic illusions about combat before
his first fight.  “Well, let’s talk about it anyway.”

Joseph let go of
the pack and slumped down on the hay against a stall panel.  “You can kill
me now if you want.  It’ll just save time.” 

Dane let out a
long breath; it was a placeholder, something to give him time to think and get
his words in order.  He hunkered down beside Joseph.  "There's a
chance we may all die out there.  Maybe it's a pretty good chance. 
But it's still only a chance.  But you know what'll happen if you stay
here.  There will be no chance or further choice.  At the very least
my father will hunt you down.  I won't be here to speak up for you, and
you know he wouldn't listen to me if I was.  But it won't be just you;
your family will have to live with the sorrow of it, and the shame.  If he
lets them live."

Joseph glanced
into Dane's eyes and then turned away.  The glance only lasted a second
but it was long enough for Dane to see Joseph knew he wasn't speaking idle
threats, that he wasn't speaking threats at all, just being honest.  And
Dane knew then Joseph already knew these things, he'd already been thinking of
them.  That was why he’d given Dane time to catch up to him, even if he
hadn't realized he was doing it.  Dane let out his breath again. 
"I'll give you the afternoon to think it over.  We shove off at
dark."  He laid his hand on Joseph's shoulder and squeezed.  He
rose and turned towards the door.  "I know you won't let anybody
down."

"I had a
dream."

Dane paused in
the doorway. 
"Alright?"

Joseph was
staring at the wall in front of him but his eyes weren't focused on anything in
particular. 
“A dream about the island.”
  He
glanced in Dane’s direction.  "I saw a whole bunch of bodies. 
Impaled on spikes on a wall.
  Just hanging there, limp
and lifeless as scarecrows; hung there like swine in a slaughterhouse."

“I won't lie to
you,” Dane said.  “We don't know what we'll find.  The colonists
might all be dead.  But they might still be alive and in need of our
help.”  He turned to leave.

“You don’t
understand,” Joseph said.  Dane halted once more.  Joseph looked him
in the eyes.  "Those bodies I saw hanging from the wall.  They
weren't the colonists'.  They were ours."

***

"Can we
talk?"  Dane asked when the door was opened to him.

Elias Wick, the
man on whose door he had knocked, took a split-second to recover from his
surprise on finding Dane on his doorstep.  The two men had never spoken to
each other, but Dane had decided last night this was a conversation he needed
to have before leaving for Haven.  "Of course,” Elias said. 
“Come in.  I can put some tea on."

Dane shook his
head.  "No thanks.  Could we take a walk instead?" 

"Great
idea," the priest said, "The late flowers are blooming on the
downs."

Dane smiled,
relieved.  He felt what he had come to talk about would be best gotten out
in the open, beneath the sun, instead of shut up in the dark.

Dane stood aside
to let Elias pass through the door and then followed him up the path the priest
had worn to the low grassy hills that overlooked the sea.  Elias walked
with a slight limp, the result of a horseback riding injury several years ago
that had never fully healed.  Still, Dane had often seen him walking on
the downs, with his hands clasped behind his back or swinging lightly at his
sides.  But Dane had never walked with the priest and he was a little
concerned about the best way to do it.  He feared walking too fast would
be inconsiderate while walking too slow might be insulting.  He settled
for a normal, leisurely pace, which seemed most natural in the sunny, breezy
afternoon, and Elias had no trouble keeping up. 

Elias was pale
but his eyes, like his hair, were bright and dark.  He was tall and lean
with a slender, hollow-cheeked face Dane thought women must have considered
handsome.  It was common knowledge he had been in love once.  He had
courted a certain wee girl for many long days until she had repaid his
attentions by marrying someone twice his age and many times as wealthy. 
There were people who said, especially before the event on the mountain, that,
being ruined for war by the horse and ruined for love by the girl, Elias had
had no choice but to enter the priesthood, as though it was some kind of inferior
station filled by broken men who were too proud to beg.  But it seemed to
Dane as though Elias had been born for it and he appeared to have moved towards
it not as a comfortable career but as a calling.  Dane thought Elias had
not chosen the priesthood, but the other way around.  Unlike most people,
and even many of the priests, who left well enough alone when it came to the
spirit world, Elias wanted to do more than just appease the gods; he actually
wanted to know them.  He sought the gods with the same fervor, or perhaps
more, with which he had pursued the girl.  And Dane guessed that, in some
small way, the gods had broken his heart, too. 

Elias was no
more than two years older than Dane, but Dane considered him his elder and
better in every way.  Suddenly conscious of this, he wondered if it would
not be best to walk behind the priest. 
And even if he
figured out the walking, what about the talking?
  How was one to
address a priest? 
Your reverence?
 
Your holiness?

"What was
it you wanted to talk with me about?" Elias asked.

His words shook
Dane from a daze.  He had been trying not to think about it. 
It's
not what I want to talk to you about
, he thought.  He realized
suddenly he'd let the silence drag on another minute.  "Sorry, I
didn't mean to be rude," he said.

"I'm not
offended by silence," Elias smiled.  He turned towards the Seat of
Kran and added, more to himself than to Dane, "Not usually, anyway."

BOOK: The Silent Isle
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