Eight Bells And A Pyre

Two days later, Blessèd lay at anchor on a calm sea, just south of the port at Safe Harbor. The sky at zenith showed a glorious shade of purple and a fair wind breathed across the ship.

Tappitt sounded eight bells to mark Tuck’s passing, as six pallbearers came on deck carrying the remains. Captain Stern, surrounded by the ship’s ordained officers, waited amidships at the brass tub that served as the Brotherhood’s funeral pyre.

Stern spoke as the bell rang final toll. “Who brings the remains of this man before us?”

“His brothers bring him, sir,” Tappitt said.

“Was he a righteous man?”

The captain didn’t hesitate upon those words, despite what he knew.

“He was always mindful of the will of God,” the assembled crew intoned, as a canticle.

“Was he an industrious man?”

“He was always mindful of his duty to the Brotherhood.”

“Was he a humble man?”

“He was always mindful of the needs of his fellow man.”

No one snickered at those words. That told me none of the crew had been told about our kiss.

“Then lay him down to rest and prepare the way for him.”

I held my breath, as the pallbearers lifted Tuck’s remains from the litter to the treated wood upon the pyre. They smoothed the ceremonial robes about his shattered limbs and stepped back. Mr. Soon handed a lit torch to the captain. Stern held it aloft to finish the liturgy.

“Before we send this man’s soul upon its way, one of you must agree to do for him what he can no longer do himself.”

He studied each of us in turn. “Who will return him home?”

I finally drew new breath. I took two steps forward, fist over my heart. That I could move at all was testament to Eken’s skill.

I stuttered out the words. “I swear to you, I will.”

That wasn’t my idea, but if it would return me to the bosom of the brotherhood, I had determined I would manage it. Captain Stern nodded and handed me the torch. I touched it to the bier; The wood caught in a rush and smoke wafted shoreward.

The smell of the wood and the fire accelerant overpowered the not-quite-sweet odor of seared flesh. Even so, it proved all I could do to keep my feet, as the piper skirled the opening notes of Oh, Lad, We Sorely Miss Thee. The captain put his fist over his heart, too. The crew followed with a rustle and a thump.

As I watched the fire, I fought back tears, tried not to think of what Stern demanded of me. Before God and company, I had sworn to carry my friend’s ashes home or die trying.

I had become his Wayfarer.

#

Perhaps it was the hand of God; perhaps happenstance, but Safe Harbor was the port where Tuck had come aboard, when he joined the Brotherhood five years before. Safe Harbor was the southern-most port along the east shore of MacArthur, the biggest of the islands on Daniel and the first place humans settled when we first stepped through the crossing point from Earth.

Safe Harbor isn’t the largest city on the coast. That honor goes to Port Angeles, up the coast, with its two million people, all crowded in high skyreaches across the flatland marshes. Safe Harbor is one-tenth that size, with so much greenery it looks wild from the sea, and its clean-lined, red-roofed buildings squeeze against the towering mountains to the west. Coming into Campbell Sound, off the Eastern Ocean, is like sailing to a postal picture card.

It’s deep harbor, too, with fifty-meter depths, or more, to within a quarter mile from the shore. So Stern sailed Blessèd past the pincered headlands at the harbor entrance, and close enough to see the faces of men and women on the seawall. We dropped anchor and waited to reach the docks. Within the hour, a steam tug came along side and towed us in.

Eken stood with me at the rail the whole way in; neither of us talking. As we touched the dock, he said: “Can’t come with you, you know that.”

I nodded.

He touched his eyepatch. “I’ll be watching you with Second Sight the whole trip, though; seeing through your eyes, hearing through your ears and whispering just for you to hear. Whether you pay attention or not is up to you, but if you want to come back to the Brotherhood, you need to try.”

“I will,” I said.

Eken nodded. “I believe you, boy. You got the white in you, a thread as strong and thick as a cunningham’s eye.”

Soon came up behind us; not attempting to hide his steps. “Time to go,” he said. “We’ll be back in a month to pick you up – after you come back from your task.”

With that, he turned and stomped away. As I picked up my rucksack, Eken clasped me on the shoulder. “You’ve got Tuck’s crew-share of gold. Use it to pay for your needs. What’s left over give to his family. Remember. First order of business is to find a tracker to take you on your pilgrimage. You’ll never cross the desert on the other side of the mountains on your own.”

“I’ll find someone before I go to bed tonight,” I said.

He shrugged. “If you don’t, find yourself an inn to stay the night. You can’t come back to the ship.”

“I’ll find someone,” I swore.

I had to find an inn, instead. It took me six days to meet Del Benè.

Next: Vellum and Fish-Bladder Ink