by Jeff Kuykendall
All of it was gone, even the memory of calamity. Before the gap in Rúni’s memory, he stood at the rail watching the fast approaching isle of Cairnobel, and after the emptiness he lay on an endless beach, struggling at a tangle of seaweed about his limbs. The tide was receding and all its prizes were lodged in sandy ooze: flotsam of the ship Olaf’s Charge, sea stars, and crabs under shells, glistening orange in the morning sun, struggling with their burdens back toward the waves.
There was also the girl who peered at him from a short distance while she grunted at the weight of a large cedar chest, leaving a broad trail through the wet beach. The chest had no markings or decoration, but he recognized it as the one from his quarters. The girl had long, uncombed, reddish hair, her face scorched with freckles, and she was surely no older than fifteen. She wore a shift — white but dirty, the sleeves rolled up and her forearms coated with sand — and a man’s trousers cinched tight with a belt of rope.
When she saw that he was looking back at her, she let one of her hands drop from the leather handle at the side of the chest and called out to him, “What’s your name, cast-off?” She had a sweet, lilting accent, Cairnish.
“Rúni Thjorstarsson,” he answered, and it was a wonder she heard him. He needed water badly. He scratched at his trim blond beard, and gently touched a stinging bruise above his right eye. He was twenty-seven, and he had lost everything. Why had he climbed to the deck? Only pride and selfish dreams had kept him awake, thoughts of his future career in the Southseas.
“An Icer,” she said, and then quickly added, “I claim you.”
Rúni found a sudden burst of energy and pulled himself loose from the sucking swamp of sand, kicking with his boots at the seaweed that bound him until he could rise. He ignored the girl for a moment and looked about the beach, then out at the white surf, the jagged rocks that punctured the sea for miles. The mainmast of the Olaf’s Charge jutted out of the waters, canted, sail and shroud of its yard pulled violently by the waves, the rising sun behind it.
Below that, somewhere, was his wife Salveig and their infant son Eyvind. They had waited for his birth before taking the voyage out of Torvald, one of the southern ports of the Ice, bound for distant, wealthy Lancirosa in the Southseas. They hadn’t even left the Tradeseas yet. In Lancirosa he was to be a great success, creating portraits in tempera for sale to the most powerful merchants, perhaps even the royal family. He had a gift for painting, for seeing the real character of the man, for bringing forth their ambitions, their kindness or severity, their humor or regality.
Rúni’s eyes scanned the sea. No survivors? There were thirty men aboard that ship. How could it be brought down so fast, so mercilessly? Salveig, in their quarters in the lower deck, would have stopped to gather their child and may never have made it to the door. It was only because he stood restless at the rail that he lived. He couldn’t sleep, for he was thinking of Lancirosa, of his coming fame. He was not a strong man. Even his father was relentless on the point. You’ll make a finer living as a whaler than an artist, if only you’d eat more. Surely someone else would have survived the wreck, someone robust, the men on the middle watch.
He saw nothing but bobbing debris. Salveig, Eyvind, lost forever.
One moment he stood there upon the beach, looking for other cast-offs, and the next moment the young girl was helplessly trying to stop him from beating his own face in with his fists. He might have broken his nose. Perhaps he was a strong man after all.
“Stop hurting yourself,” she said, “and if you lay a hand on me, I’ll scream and Woodcarver will come running. Woodcarver would do anything for me.”
He collapsed again, this time upon a rock, and looked down at a tide pool, at white anemones, spiky red chitons, green algae, and blue mussels. They were like colors arranged on his palette, but he was repulsed. He felt the girl’s slender arm loose upon his shoulders, and for a long while they said nothing while the blood from his nose trickled over his lips and spattered on his breeches.
At last she said, “Don’t take it too hard. We have at least one wreck a year.” She pointed east, toward the sloping mainmast of his ship. “That’s the Drowned Realm. It used to be part of Cairnobel, a thousand years ago. There was an old Cairn king lived there, in the days of Fafnir Worm-Slayer. A king and a fabulous city, but the sea rose and they got themselves drowned. Angered some god or another, I imagine. You can walk a good way into the water and go hunting; occasionally something wonderful washes up, and you can go south to the ports to sell it, or claim it and make your name out here in the Scavenges. But otherwise you’ve got to hold your breath and go diving.”
He tried to remember what he knew of Cairnobel. It was the least regarded of the island kingdoms in the Tradeseas. A dumping ground, but a favorite of merchant ships that would dock at the southern harbors, towns with names like Honest Men and Fair Deal and Princely Sum. Traders would unload their surplus goods and seek out bargains. The captain of Olaf’s Charge was going to anchor there at dawn, he remembered, to fill their stores for the long and treacherous journey into the Southseas. Salveig said she couldn’t wait to stretch her legs on solid ground. Salveig said—
“No one can hold their breath longer than me,” the girl continued. “I found six gold coins once, large as your hand, Icer.”
“And what did you do with them?” Rúni asked, listening numbly.
“Stolen off me, they were, by another Scavenger. I’m Catrin. Can you help me with the chest?”
I can do better than that, he thought, and he reached into the pocket of his breeches and produced a key. He walked her back to the chest and clicked it into the lock. Her little hands lifted the lid at once, and it creaked on its iron hinges. While she sorted through the clothes and belongings inside, he stared at the interior of the lid: an unfinished landscape in tempera, the trace of a shoreline and a castle with many parapets. A picture of Lancirosa.
“Clothes, clothes, clothes,” said Catrin, tossing them about her. He was able to snatch a dry pair of trousers and stockings, and a dry linen shirt. While her back was turned he changed his clothes. “Can you believe it didn’t sink straight to the bottom?” she said. “That the waves brought it all the way in? It’s like the gods carried it to me. I don’t understand it.”
He didn’t understand it himself. He was beginning to suspect that he might not have survived the wreck, that this might not really be Cairnobel. But his bleeding nose and the stinging bruise on his head told otherwise.
“Aha, at last!” she said. He wondered if she had found his purse yet, hidden in a subtle compartment, but the pouches she produced from the bottom of the chest were something else entirely. She began to untie one before he could explain.
“Careful,” he said, pulling up a fresh pair of trousers and buckling his belt.
A golden-colored powder spilled out to the sand. She quickly caught the pouch before she wasted it all. “Is this gold, you think?” she asked, sticking her nose in as though she had the talent to smell gold.
“Sure, there are traces of gold in it, for the sparkle,” he said. “But it’s pigment.”
“I can trade it,” she decided, and she tied the pouch up. “You think they’re all pigments?”
“I know they’re all pigments,” he said. “You’ll find ochres and carmine. Take it all if you want, along with the palette and the brushes.”
She stared at him curiously. “Those are your clothes, and these are your things.” He wondered if she’d even noticed that he unlocked the chest in the first place. “Whose is this?” she lifted a beautiful dress of red brocade, but dropped it just as quickly, as though finally realizing the import. She closed the chest. He continued to gaze at where the dress had been, at where his painting of Lancirosa had been, while the girl crossed her arms and fretted. “I won’t claim you,” she decided.
“All right,” he said.
“You should know, in the Scavenges there’s only one law here, established by someone who found a sceptre, some relic from the Drowned Realm that shone with green magic. But he was killed and the sceptre was lost, so we don’t have any ruler — well, except for the proper King and Queen of Cairnobel out in Coves Castle, but they hardly count. They never set foot here. In the Scavenges we hardly—”
“What’s the law?” Rúni prompted her.
“Oh, yes. The law is: What you claim defines you. So if I claim you, what does that make me? Cat the slave-owner?” She straightened her back and said, “I couldn’t stomach it, Rúni Thjor—son.”
“And the chest?”
She shrugged, as though she hadn’t seen the expensive dress. “Just colored powder and some clothes. I bet there’s more cast off from that ship of yours. You can have it.” She stepped away from the chest anxiously; it was a fearful thing now. “You can’t go about the Scavenges with nothing. You can’t be anybody if you’ve got nothing. It’s the law.”
For the remainder of the morning Catrin searched the beach and the shallow waters, at one point delivering him a bottle of rum as though it pained her to surrender it. “Guard it close,” she said. He uncorked and drank greedily.
Finally she dropped all her prizes in a pile on the sand, stripped naked, and waded out to go diving for something better. He paid no attention, but sat on his rock. There were intervals where grief overcame him again, but then there was too much numbness and nothing more could break loose of him. The fine brushes wrapped in silk, the wooden palette, the mortar and pestle, the pouches of pigments, even the stones of lapis lazuli which Catrin hadn’t found, revolted him as much as the tide pool just to his left, and he drank his bottle nearly dry before he saw two others coming along the beach, their voices rising in argument as they approached.
One held a red parasol above his head, which he rotated by its ivory handle as he walked. He wore the flowing cope of a holy man, embroidered with spun gold and silver in the images of eagles and suns, and upon his shoulders was a yoke of velvet with green thread and pearls. Some of the pearls were missing, much of the thread was dangling loose, and the cope itself was faded and worn to holes here and there. He was shaven entirely, without even the slightest smudge of eyebrows, and his cheeks were chapped red by the cold, for the wind was picking up and dark clouds were quickly overtaking the sun.
The one who walked beside him was a full head taller, with the build of an Icer berserker and a great black moustache that dominated his stony face. He carried a hatchet for splitting wood in his hand, but he wore the dark blue, long-sleeved jacket of a gentleman officer. The jacket didn’t fit, and the stitching was coming apart at the shoulders. Below the jacket he was bare-chested and draped with five or six necklaces of various origins — dull-colored stones, bronze coins, animal teeth — and his tanned flesh was marked with tattoos.
Catrin came shivering up the beach, in her white shift and trousers again but soaked through. She was carrying a sealed basket wrapped tight in a fisher’s net, and Rúni could glimpse some earthenware pots, a shark hook, and a spyglass pressing against the netting above her little fingers.
Rúni rose slowly, his balance uncertain as he cast down his bottle. He heard the man with the black moustache declare, “You’ve no right to claim it, Cleric. I’ve worked a full year on it. It’s for no one but me. It gives me status, how fine it is. It puts me higher than you. If we need to talk to Judge, so be it.”
“Woodcarver,” said the man in the tattered vestments, “I consult with all the gods in the Vale. I represent them, you could rightly say. If you need greater authority than that, you’re mad.”
“Don’t never call me mad,” said Woodcarver, but then his eyes lit upon Catrin, and he said, waving his hatchet, “It’s the Cat! Dear Cat, my own precious Cat.”
“Don’t claim me,” said Catrin cautiously, and she lowered her bulky net of prizes to the sand.
“Forgive me, I’d never presume,” said Woodcarver quickly, and he said to Cleric, “You’ve heard of what happened to the Cat, didn’t you? Her parents — oh, I won’t speak of it before the dear girl, though it was three years ago. The memory of it! The scum, the murderers, they were looking for treasures, thought the Cat’s mum and dad had it below their floorboards, slew ‘em in their beds they did. But I hunted them down, didn’t I Cat? I couldn’t recover what they stole, but I punished them, didn’t I Cat?”
Rúni came closer to Catrin, and she wrinkled her nose at his rum-drenched breath. She whispered to him, “He killed someone, all right, and you watch that hatchet. He’d never harm me, but everyone calls him mad.”
Woodcarver said, “You tell him that the holy spar’s mine, Cat.”
“What’s the holy spar?” Rúni asked.
Woodcarver blinked at Rúni, but hardly seemed to appraise him. He hurried on: “A year ago I found it on the beach, broken off some old vessel, and I dragged it to my home and carved it with the faces of all the gods in the Vale. It’s the finest work I’ve ever done. Now Cleric’s recognized its holiness and wants it for his own.”
“I claim it for the Church,” said Cleric.
“You haven’t got a church,” said Woodcarver, and he lifted his hatchet.
The Cleric didn’t flinch. He twisted his parasol in his hands and said to Catrin, “Your friend must listen to reason. What would the Scavenges be if our titles meant nothing? I am the Cleric, and Woodcarver, as talented as he is, has made a sacred relic. That yardarm should be the tentpole for my new temple. Everyone will come to worship beneath its shadow. What could honor your talent more, Woodcarver?”
“And what will you trade for it, eh?” said Woodcarver. “How do I get paid for all my labors?”
“Well that’s not how the Church works, Woodcarver. Be reasonable.”
Rúni said to Catrin, “I’m sorry about your parents. You’re on your own?”
“I can be whatever I make myself to be. Don’t you feel sorry for me, Icer. I can claim enough to become someone who’s never lonely, if I wanted it so. That’s what it means to live in the Scavenges. Was your ship bound for the ports on the southern end of the isle?”
“Aye,” he said. “The captain swung too close.”
“The land’s so low, sometimes there’s a trick where you can see the glow of the southern lighthouse as you approach from the north, like your ship did last night. And Cairnobel will slit the throat of any ship comes that way. I’m sorry for you too, Icer, but there’s no sense in grieving long, not when there’s enough wreckage to salvage. Say what you will about the Scavenges — and most don’t say nothing at all — but at least out here you can make yourself what you need to be to get by.”
“And what are you, Cat?” he asked her.
She was still shivering and sniffed a few times. “Haven’t decided yet,” she said.
Cleric and Woodcarver came closer, and Cleric lowered his parasol as he saw the bulky net at Catrin’s feet. “What have you got there?” he asked, lips pursed as he studied it.
“See?” said Woodcarver anxiously, his knuckles white against the haft of his hatchet. “Now he’s going to claim what you’ve got. Where will this end? This is well past the meaning of the law.”
“Easy, Woodcarver,” said Catrin. She knelt beside her prizes and peeled the net back from the basket. Rúni noticed she slipped free the shark hook first and set it carefully behind her out of sight. The other two never noticed, for they were fixated by the basket. She opened the lid, reached deep inside, and scattered dozens of gold coins upon the sand.
“There must be fifty bastions there,” said Cleric, and softly he murmured, “A tithe perhaps…”
“You let those alone,” said Woodcarver. “She claimed it, plain enough.”
Cleric sneered at him, “Aren’t you going to ask where the child got all this, you fool? These are bastions, so they’re not taken from the Drowned Realm, but a wreck.” He looked out to the sea, and at once saw the mainmast, though it was sinking deeper toward the horizon as the tide continued to pull the sunken ship apart.
“It happened last night,” said Catrin, “and I claim it.”
“You can’t claim a whole ship, girl,” said Cleric. “What’s still out there is free for any man to seize for his own. Woodcarver, it’s not far, we can easily get a boat out there. I’m not much use diving, but you can, can’t you?”
“I’m not done,” Catrin said. “I’m planning on diving all day. Whatever I bring back to this beach is mine.”
Cleric ignored her. He said to Woodcarver, “Whatever we recover, we can divide amongst ourselves.”
“You can tithe it,” said Woodcarver.
“Fifty-fifty, surely!” Cleric looked to Rúni, as though seeing him for the first time. “And what about you? How are you in regards to swimming?”
Rúni crossed his arms. “It seems you’ll need to swim if you want to claim anything. Catrin recovered all this by herself.”
Cleric looked to Woodcarver again, but the thick black moustache dipped in a scowl. “Fine,” he said, closing his red parasol delicately. “I’ve got six men who will do as I say. They have aspirations for the Church. We’ll get boats and begin our own salvage.” Then he saw the chest, dropped his parasol, and sprinted toward it. “Do you see this? I claim it!”
Catrin glanced at Rúni, then she went after Cleric and said, “That’s part of my own haul, Cleric. It’s off limits.”
But Cleric was already opening the chest, which Rúni hadn’t bothered to lock. By the time they reached him he had begun to pile the little pouches of pigment into the sand. “I claim all of this. This is mine,” Cleric said. One pouch in particular he turned in his palm, closing his eyes briefly as he weighed it, and then he reached inside to expose small stones of a lustrous blue that blazed even in the gray daylight. “My!” he marveled.
“Well that’s mine too, obviously,” said Catrin impatiently.
“Put that back,” said Woodcarver. His face had swelled with a scarlet color.
“Don’t you know what this is? It’s lapis lazuli. Very, very rare.”
Rúni knew that. He also knew lapis lazuli was his key into the merchant houses of Lancirosa — or had been, until he’d abandoned that along with all his other ambitions amidst the flotsam. With these stones he could add a precious, dazzling blue to his portraits, and the subjects could boast of the quality.
“I said put it down,” said Woodcarver. His voice had adopted a strange, trembling tenor, and Rúni noticed that Catrin took two steps back. Then he realized she was gripping the shark hook behind her.
“And I said I claim it, you daft lunatic,” said Cleric, He smiled defiantly at Woodcarver before the hatchet suddenly flashed, and the blade sank halfway through his jaw. Blue stones scattered softly in the sand.
As Cleric’s body crumbled, Catrin brought forth her shark hook and stepped closer to Rúni. “You shouldn’t have done that, Woodcarver,” she said, her voice quavering.
“I taught him a lesson,” the man protested, and he looked down at his bloody hatchet with astonishment.
“You could’ve just hit him with your fists. That’s how you teach lessons, big as you are. You don’t kill people. It’s not right.”
“Don’t say that, Cat. Oh Cat, what does this make me?” He stared at his hatchet as though it were permanently attached, some cursed thing that would never leave his fist now that it had drawn blood. “Am I mad? Cleric was right. I’m not the Woodcarver no more. I’m the Madman. The Killer. I never knew it ’til now. What I did to those men that took your parents, maybe — oh, Cat!”
“No,” said Rúni. He placed a hand over Catrin’s to gently lower the hook. “You’re the Warrior. No, you’re the Champion now.”
Catrin looked at Rúni as though he were the madman. But Woodcarver lifted his eyes and looked questioningly at the Icer.
“Twice now you’ve defended your Catrin,” said Rúni. “Seems that makes you the Champion. But you can’t be the Woodcarver anymore. That’s the law, isn’t it?”
“The Champion, yes,” said Woodcarver softly. He looked at Catrin, not seeing the hook in her hands, and said, “I must see what can fit this, Cat. I must go searching for anything else that fits what I am now. A sword maybe, and a shield and helmet. But I need to put all this together and consider, Cat. This is all new, but it’s what I always was. And I won’t kill no more, unless you ask it, Cat. I’ll try my best to do that. An oath, that’s what they call it. I must consider.”
He dropped his hatchet into the sand as though it no longer belonged to him, and walked south down the beach, staggering like a wounded giant. It took a while for his large shape to recede as the cold wind swept in colder.
“You lied to him,” said Catrin.
“It seems that’s hard to do in the Scavenges,” said Rúni. “What you lie just becomes the truth. He’s Champion now, if you can think of what to do with him.” He walked back to his nearby rock and sank down again, gazing at the tide pool and all its huddled life, the murk of different colors.
“Is that so?” said Catrin. She began to recover herself and returned to the chest to pick up the stones of lapis lazuli. The body of the Cleric could not be avoided — his shaven head, his wide-staring eyes, the terrible ruin that was his mouth. The sand absorbed his blood, swallowing it as eagerly as Rúni had swallowed his rum. Perhaps overnight the body would be swept away, the beach washed clean, and new treasures deposited: the cycle of the Scavenges.
Catrin closed the chest and sat on it for a while. Then she said, “If you decide to stay, you can stay with me. We’ll have to call you Painter. It’s easier to pronounce.”
“I haven’t claimed the pigments,” he said. “I’m not sure that I can. That dream set us off for Lancirosa, and brought my wife and son to those rocks. And that dream I may never have again. It was a proud notion. Selfishly, wickedly proud.” He looked down into the tide pool and saw something new there, at the very bottom of the blackness. Something that glistened blue like lapis lazuli.
“Sometimes it’s selfishness and pride that spares us,” said Catrin. “Or we’d all go mad. We’d all be washed away.”
“There’s a dress for you in that chest if you want it.” He reached down into the tide pool, reached for the thing that glittered blue, wondered if it was living.
“I’ll never claim that dress, Painter.”
He stopped when his fingers found an object, something hand-carved, for he could feel patterns. It was a band with sharp edges. He pulled at it carefully, finally dislodging it from the rock and bringing it into the light.
“Vale of the Gods,” said Catrin.
It was most certainly a crown. An ancient one, a thousand years old or more, made of coral and decorated with topaz, turquoise, and aquamarine. At the fore of the crown was a crest made of clamshells framed by pearls. None of it bore the slightest sign of damage. Every stone was intact.
“Is this from the Drowned Realm?” he said.
“Surely it is,” said Catrin, astonished. “I wonder how long it’s been stuck in that rock, and how many Cairns passed it over?”
Rúni held it up to the dark clouds and turned it around, watching the dim light touch the blue gemstones, and then he said, “You claim it.”
He placed it in the girl’s hands, still wrinkled from her swim.
“It should belong to a queen,” he said. “It looks queenly.”
Catrin’s freckles flushed. “Not since the sceptre was found, Painter! I could make new laws if I wanted. Unless they take this from me. And I suppose they will.”
“Then keep Champion close,” he said. He almost asked her to stop calling him Painter, but something inside relented by a fraction. It felt like too proud of a thing, calling himself Painter, dreaming of Lancirosa on a few stones of lapis lazuli and nothing more. But maybe Cat was right, and amidst all this wreckage, a bit of pride might be all that spared him, if he was yet worth sparing.
“The dress of red brocade will suit the crown,” he suggested.
“I will never take that dress, Painter.”
“Then come,” he said at last. “I’d like to find a spot on the beach to bury it.”
The rain held back just long enough for the task, and by the evening they had left the beach to find her ramshackle home amidst the Scavenges of Cairnobel, where her blue crown shone brightest. He carried her netting for her, what little they had salvaged of the Olaf’s Charge. A shark hook, some earthenware, gold coins, painter’s tools, and lapis lazuli.
Jeff Kuykendall has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington in Seattle. Recently he completed a fantasy novel as part of the Madison Writers’ Studio. He is a former award recipient in the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts’ Arts Recognition and Talent Search, and he writes about fantasy, science fiction, and cult cinema at MidnightOnly.com. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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