The boat rocked gently upon the sea, like a babe in the arms of its mother. Ferowyn had always liked the feeling of the sea beneath him. It was a hard thing to explain, for he did not know why, but his father said it was only right. His family had roamed the sea since the days when galley, oar and prow had meant nothing. The sea had been their home as much as the land, and a part of Ferowyn lived out here also.
Even on the days when the sea raged and threw men hither and thither across the deck, Ferowyn’s stomach never turned. He would find the burliest battle-hardened soldiers doubled over the deck, returning fish to the sea, but Ferowyn had never felt the ‘blue’ as they called it.
On nights like this, when the wind was low and warm, he would often stroll along the deck. He’d never seen the point in sleeping, and though his father argued long and hard, it was not a rare sight to see him too on the deck, long after the other men had lain down to sleep. On this night, Ferowyn made out his father sitting at the prow of the ship, staring out across the open ocean. He had that glazed look to his eyes that Ferowyn knew well; his mind was far away.
“Fer,” he said gently, doing his best to pretend he hadn’t been dreaming.
Ferowyn took a seat beside him, by a table where men had been drinking not an hour before.
“You should be asleep,” his father, Ihonar, said after a while.
“Your need is far greater than mine,” Ferowyn replied, “I don’t have to shout at sailors and act all noble tomorrow.”
“It breaks me to say that comes easily,” he said, then he laughed and spoke with disdain, “Gods, I sound like your grandfather.”
Ihonar Gandinson was revered and respected by his followers, of which there were many. Since the day when Ferowyn had walked from his crib, every single man, woman and child had taken the opportunity to tell him of his father’s greatness. From wet-nurses to soldiers, no-one failed to remind him of their love for the Earl.
As if Ferowyn needed reminding. He saw that love every day; it wasn’t the sort of fawning courtiers played at to fatten their purses, it was genuine respect, from every person that served him.
Before Ihonar Gandinson, the title of Earl of the Island Realms hadn’t even existed. Their family stretched back as far as records had been kept, but to the people of mainland Egilthé they had been nothing but a pretentious joke on the edge of the world.
Before Ihonar’s eleventh summer his father had fallen with Red Fever, and though the illness had taken its time to claim him, he soon left behind a boy with a realm to rule. At first people had scoffed, and talked of the Islands collapsing, but the harsh game of politics turned Ihonar into a man long before he came of age. At thirteen summers old he had Sellvin’s Castle rebuilt on the highest hill of Orcleat, the central island of his realm. At fifteen, he had the Islands marked on every map drawn on the mainland. At seventeen, he sat in the Great Hall on Goldenhill, shouting above a thousand voices for the powers his realm deserved. At twenty, he was officially the ruler of an Earldom.
With fifteen springs now behind him, Ferowyn had done little more than learn the names of all the Egilthén earldoms and master the art of egg-boiling.
“So, fifteen springs old,” Ihonar murmured, echoing Ferowyn’s thoughts. “How do you feel?”
“No different. Mother said I’ll have to start shaving my face soon though, but I’ve decided I’m growing a beard like Captain Thorkson.”
Ihonar laughed at that, a welcome sound as the darkness grew ever thicker.
“Model yourself on Thorkson however you want, as long as it’s not his manner of speech.”
There was silence for moment, then Ferowyn said, “Thank you, for doing this.”
“It’s tradition.” Ihonar smiled, “It keeps people sane.”
For fifteen springs now, on each of Ferowyn’s birthdays, his father had taken him around the whole of the mainland, on the greatest galley in his fleet. The origin of this tradition was not exactly a pleasant story: Ferowyn’s mother suffered a rare condition of the bones, rendering her unable to walk in its greatest throes. Upon his first birthday Ferowyn’s mother had been struck particularly hard by her condition. His father, who did not deal well in situations of the sort, had done what he did best: he took to the sea, and with him he took a crew of his finest men and his one year old son.
It worked out rather well: the earl had a chance to test the seamanship of his men, and it gave him time to work in peace, though his piles of scrolls and letters never seemed to grow smaller. And so it had happened the year after, and the year after that, until no man questioned it: on the Earl’s son’s birthday the council split, and Ihonar’s ship was readied to sail.
Suddenly, Ferowyn felt his father’s eyes upon him. He knew that look; whatever he was about to say, they were rehearsed words.
“Look over the side of the boat,” he said, “and tell me what you see.”
At first Ferowyn did not move, but his father’s gaze did not break. So he rose slowly, moving to the ship’s prow.
In the blackness it was hard to estimate the distance to the sea below. Here and there, the moon caught on the rippling surface, and Ferowyn could hear its whispers.
“I can see the sea,” he said, smiling as to how the words flowed together.
“No you can’t,” Ihonar said, “it’s too dark. You cannot see the sea, you know the sea is there.”
“What’s your point?”
“If I was to push you over the prow right now, you’d fall into the water. That thing that was just an idea a moment before, would be all around you. You’d be drowning, with moments to decide what to do.”
Ferowyn didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking. “Explain,” he said.
“When my father died, I was pushed into an ocean. A sea of whispers and lies and subterfuge. A sea my councillors call politics. I’d always known that sea existed, but I’d never properly imagined having to… swim in it.
“One day you’ll be in my place Ferowyn, with a realm to rule. If the gods are kind then they’ll give you more time to learn than they gave me, but…” he broke off.
His father had never been good at speeches. Ferowyn was amazed he had kept it going this long already.
“What I’m trying to say is that I want you to be ready when your time comes to rule. I can’t tell you how to lead your people, because you’ll have a different audience to appeal to. But if I can give you one piece of advice, let it be this: We’re all fish in that sea of politics. The sharks aren’t the earls or the lords or the kings, they’re the men who sit beside them. The watchers, the clappers, the kneelers, the whisperers. Don’t ever listen to a word your advisors say Ferowyn, because they are all sharks, and they are very, very hungry.”
For a long time Ferowyn wasn’t sure what to say.
“I thought you liked your councillors,” he decided upon.
Ihonar smiled, “That doesn’t mean I listen to them.” He looked up then, as if he had only just realised it was night-time.
“You need to sleep.”
“I’ll just dream of councillors with sharp teeth now,” Ferowyn smiled.
“Better that than having to work with them. Come on, go. Don’t make me have to start sounding like your mother.”
Ferowyn laughed and got to his feet; he couldn’t deny he was beginning to feel tired.
“See you in the morning,” Ferowyn said, once he had reached the door to the sleeping quarters.
“See you soon,” his father echoed, turning his head, and smiling at his son.
But their eyes did not meet, for Ferowyn’s were elsewhere.
He had often found that the scariest thing about darkness was that you had no way of knowing what was in it. At first, he was unsure that he could truly see a great shape moving beyond the prow of the ship. But then a small light sprang to life, and another, and another, until twenty red pinpoints glowed in the darkness, like the eyes of an enormous beast.
Time slowed down. The scene froze in his mind: his father looking back, oblivious; a guard, probably asleep, just at the corner of his vision; twenty lights, bobbing like flames on distant candles.
Then they leapt into the air in unison, accompanied by a sound that could only have been one thing.
The flaming arrows fell across the deck without a sound. One buried itself into the cabin wall, a foot from Ferowyn’s shoulder, and for a moment he could make it out: head aflame, shaft lathered with something that resembled tree sap. Then the wind pushed the flame against the sap-like substance.
The sound was deafening, the light blinding, and the force so strong it threw Ferowyn off his feet. He hit the deck hard, and felt his head spin. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t feel anything but the hard wood against his side.
Slowly, his sight returned to him, along with the use of his legs. He scrambled to his feet, shock pulsing through him.
Fires danced across the deck where the other arrows had fallen. Some still hadn’t done their work; Ferowyn watched the part of the prow where his father had been a moment before explode in a fountain of fire, as flame met sap.
His father, where was his father?
He moved towards the prow, but was pushed aside by a strong hand: the commotion had awoken the sleeping sailors, who moved their lips as though they were shouting, but Ferowyn could hear nothing but ringing in his ears.
He looked through the figures who stumbled along the deck for his father, but it was too dark, there were too many people.
He had to be there. He had to be.
Ferowyn opened his mouth to speak, but the words caught in his throat as he looked to the sky. A second volley of arrows soared high, twenty more explosions waiting to happen.
Fear froze him. Even when an arrow buried itself in the deck, a step away, Ferowyn could do naught but stare until it was too late.
The explosion threw him over the side of the ship, and for a moment he felt air rushing past him. Then he smashed into the sea and the darkness swallowed him whole.