Friday, April 15, 2011

Into the Woods - 7

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"The first people to spring from His song were the Vishna; their skin was dark bronze and their hair was tangled blackthorn. Their voices were like music, and they spoke only in song. But those who came after the Vishna envied their beauty. The Vishna, who had not yet mastered the art of steel, fled across the ocean, where they hid on a distant island unknown to the other races of men."

"They stayed there for many generations, until the reason for hiding was lost to them, beyond knowing that the world across the ocean was a dangerous place. And so it would have gone, had it not been for one curious girl."

"Unlike the other Vishna, Isabella dreamt of traveling across the ocean and discovering what lay on the other side. So she fashioned herself a raft from timber and rope and set sail for the horizon, oblivious to the danger she was in."

"She traveled for three days and three nights, fighting ocean tides and struggling against the wind--on several occasions, she nearly turned around and fled back to her warm, comfortable home. But on the third day, she caught sight of something in the distance. Something other than more ocean."

"It was a ship! She had never seen a vessel besides her own, so the sight was quite startling--but not as startling as the pale-faced men who scrambled over its surface, crawling over its deck like fleas on the back of a rat. As soon as she saw them, she paddled furiously until her raft was besides it, and then she let loose with a terrific 'hello!'."

"Several minutes later, she pondered the error of her ways from within the belly of the pirate ship. They had chained her up and threw her in a cage without another thought. It had never occurred to Isabella that the outside world might be cruel, or that they might value her voice enough to chain her and sell her. At that moment, she felt more alone than she had ever felt before."

"But it was at that precise moment that she heard another female's voice croak out from the darkness. It said: 'Poor little duckie. Did you get yourself snatched?'"

"Across from Isabella, hidden in a dark niche, another cage creaked. Inside of it was a woman, but not like any woman Isabella had ever seen. She was dark-skinned stretch of muscle and grit, with a thick maze of brown-amber hair draped over her shoulders. She was not so much trapped in the cage as lounging in it, as if its presence was a mere inconvenience; as if, at any moment, she could merely pluck the door off from its hinges. She possessed only one eye--a cavernous hole sank deep into her socket where the other was due."

"Isabella did her best not to sniffle. 'Who are you?'"

"'Why, I'm the--' the woman paused, then smiled darkly. 'I was the captain of this fine vessel. Captain Rose, at your service.' She lazily bowed her head in an expression of mocking respect. 'Recently deposed.'"

"'What happened?'"

"'Oh, the usual," she said, looking suddenly bored. 'Traitorous dogs, midnight mutinies, backstabbing first mates. All very standard procedure.'"

"'So you're a prisoner here too?' Isabella asked, desperate for a friend."

"'In a manner of speaking. Although, not for long.' Captain Rose's smile grew. 'I'm to be executed soon. To 'solidify' my treacherous first mate's precarious position.'"


"'To keep him in power. He's afraid, you see,' Captain Rose showed Isabella a flash of silver and gold teeth. 'They all are.'"

"Isabella laid herself against the back of the cage. 'I'm sorry to hear that,' she said."

"'Don't be,' Captain Rose replied. 'Were I captain, you'd still be in that cage.'"

"'But why?'"

"'You're worth a fortune. A living Vishna? As rare as crow's teeth,' Captain Rose said. 'You'll fetch the ship's weight in silver.'"

"'Why?! I'm just--'"

"'They say spell-chuckers grind your bones to powder for exotic spells, while your blood makes for a powerful aphrodisiac. And your hearts! Oh, my, little duckie; your hearts are valued above all else.'"

"Isabella clutched both her arms and heart protectively. But Captain Rose only laughed."

"'Fear not, little duckie. They're of no use to me, not now. Not where I'm going.' She grinned. 'Though maybe we can make a deal, mm? Be friends of convenience?'"

"Isabella was not sure she wanted to be friendly with this woman at all. But still, she asked: 'Friends of convenience?'"

"'It means I'll be your friend to spite my enemies,' Captain Rose said. 'It means if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.'"

"'Can you set me free?' Briefly, Isabella's heart sprang."

"'No, duckie. Oh, but how I wish I could!' Captain Rose laughed hard and long. 'Just to see the looks on their faces! Just for the look, I'd die a hundred times. But no, I cannot. I can, however, give you invaluable advice.'"

"'What's that?' Isabella asked, grasping the bars."

"'First, my back,' Captain Rose said. 'Listen closely.' She hummed a tune. It was soft but driving, with an edge of inevitable melancholy. 'Can you remember it? Hum it back to me.'"

"Now, Isabella was a Vishna, and the Vishna are all extraordinarily clever with music; it took her no more than two tries to get it just right."

"'Can you whistle it?' Captain Rose asked."

"Isabella nodded. She knew how to whistle."

"'Then here is my favor. Do this thing for me and my spirit will be satisfied. Every night, when the shadows are longest, whistle this tune. Whistle it to the sailors above our hold. Will you do this thing?'"

"At this Isabella hesitated, but she nodded. She would."

"'Then you have my thanks, duckie. And now, for your advice.' Captain Rose leaned forward, face close to the bars."

"'My first-mate--the captain of this ship,' she corrected herself with a cruel smile, 'is not a clever man, but he is thorough. He has made a mistake with you, and he will soon see it. Why possess one fortune when you can possess many?'"

"'Soon after I am dead he will come to you clad in smiles and sorrows, speaking of mistakes made and apologies to be given. He will release you from your cage, and perhaps even from your chains; he will tell you he intends to deliver you home. You need only point the way.'"

"'Claim ignorance. Say a storm has flung you from your path. Say lightning has struck you dumb. Tell him you are lost, duckie, thrown out to sea. But do not show him the way home. If you do, your family will soon be rattling in cages besides you.'"

"Isabella's heart beat in her chest with the force of a thunderstorm. Her breath was quick and hard. 'How do you know this for sure?' she asked with a near indignant yelp."

"And oh, how Captain Rose smiled! It was all teeth, like a shark baring its jaws to some helplessly struggling fish. 'Because, duckie,' she purred, 'it's what I would do.'"

"There was a clatter from above. Men descended into the cabin, striking the slumbering guards on their ears. Much noise and yelling followed, until one of them warily approached Captain Rose's cage, unlocking it."

"'They're afraid of her,' Isabella marveled. The men kept their distance, their hands on their swords. As Rose stepped out of her cage, they flinched as one."

"'Is it time to die all ready?' Rose asked.

"'You'll soon be resting in the deep,' one man said, and he made a gesture before he spat."

"Rose laughed. The men hesitated at the sound, as if disarmed. 'Will I?' she asked. 'I was born in the brine. My mother was a hag of the sea and my father a drowned sailor's corpse.' She draped her lashes low and presented her wrists for their manacles. 'I'll come back for you all.'"

"'You'll do no harm once you've walked the plank,' the bravest among them said as he snapped on her irons."

"'Wait and see. I'll climb up the side of my ship and drown you in your beds one by one. Every morning you'll wake to find another corpse soaked in salt water and tangled in kelp.' And then she laughed."

"'Enough,' her guard said."

"Rose looked to Isabella and smiled. There was no malice there, no hate; it was the closest thing to a genuine look of friendship Isabella had seen since she left. 'Goodbye, duckie,' she told her. 'Thank you for the talk.'"

"'Goodbye, Captain Rose,' Isabella whispered."

"'Do not fret,' Captain Rose said as they clamped metal weights to her legs. 'Every dark cloud has a silver lining. You may get out of this yet.' And as they lead her away to be drowned, she began to whistle the same forlorn song she had taught Isabella."

"Hours later, the captain came to Isabella, clad in smiles and sorrows, speaking of mistakes made and apologies to be given. He released her from her cage, and even had her miserable chains removed."

"He begged her pardon for her rude treatment, and had a man fetch her fresh food and water. He told her that he had learned she was caged next to Rose--'a disreputable scoundrel and I am sorry to say, once my first-mate'--and hoped dearly that she had not frightened Isabella."

"Isabella responded politely that she had not."

"'Good, then. Allow me to make compensation for your cruel and unforgivable treatment,' he said. 'I shall take you straight home at once--without delay--if you merely point the way.'"

"Isabella paused to take the deepest drink of fresh water she could stomach, then the biggest bite of bread she could manage. Only when her mouth was empty and her stomach full did she respond:"

"'Nothing would please me more, captain, but I fear that I was caught in a storm and have lost my way.'"

"A long silence stretched out between them. When the captain at last grew tired of it, he told his men: 'Take her back to the cage.'"

"Isabella did not complain or fight. She stretched her legs and arms one last time, then submitted to the shackles. And then she waited for night to come. And when the shadows were at their longest, she whistled Captain Rose's song."

"When she was finished, she cried herself to sleep."

"The next morning, she caught a conversation between the men bringing her a pittance of food and water."

"'--happened! Turk heard it 'imself!'"

"'Turk can't hear cannonade if it goes off a quarter inch from his head,' the other said. 'He's drunk.'"

"'He said he heard the blasted song, he did! And now Snidely's gone missing!'"

"'Probably got drunk and fell off the bow,' the other said. They left Isabella with her food and drink, returning to their duties."

"She repeated the song that night again, and in the morning came more muttered worries."

"'Did you hear? Tom's been taken,' her guard told one of the men nearby. 'Captain's keeping it hush hush, claims it was the drink that did him in, but Willis says he saw something in his hammock--'"

"'--should never have thrown her to the brine, brought a damnable curse on the ship--'"

"By the third day, things had grown tense. No one came to bring her food and water, but she sometimes saw the men passing through--their eyes dark with sleepless circles and their hands close to their swords. That night, before she whistled the song again, their were sounds of violence above deck."

"Isabella strained to hear, but all she could make out was distant yells and shouts and the clang of swords. Someone screamed 'you fools!', and then there was a thunderous explosion--then splashes, then nothing."

"The men, driven by fear and superstition, had attempted another mutiny against their new captain; in the chaos and fury, the ship was lit aflame. Those who didn't die in the fire were forced to abandon the vessel, and would soon drown; soon, the only person left onboard was Isabella, locked away in a cage in the belly of the empty ship."

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