He stood on the deck, watching the water race by. This wasn’t Uduak’s ship, and thus they were passengers rather than crew. Still, they worked, lending a hand where they could. The knot lessons he’d been given to pass the time in captivity proved useful when he spent the morning untangling lines. The crew still stared when he spoke to them in their language, and as word had spread various crew had approached him speaking still different languages. They’d yet to find one he couldn’t speak. Uduak had taken to giving the captain of the ship, a woman named Anan, very smug looks.
The Ilael didn’t keep slaves. Uduak had actually been shocked when she’d learned he’d believed himself to be hers. She’d claimed him as her son. The formal adoption had to wait until they were back at the islands, as there were ceremonies involved, but she’d claimed him as her son. Enu had happily pointed out that now made him Lammert’s cousin, and had spent an hour taking him around the ship and teaching him the various terms for things.
Uduak kept him with her in her cabin. He still had to wear a gag so as not to wake everyone, but the dreams were waking him less often. Now and then he could even make sense of them. Most were remote and abstract, but he once again saw Enu being hung from the front of a ship, kicking and thrashing as he strangled. “The Ilael don’t do that.” Enu rubbed his shoulder comfortingly.
“I don’t think it was an Ilael ship.” Lammert swallowed.
“I…” Enu frowned. “Okay, just…” He exhaled. “If you see the ship, warn me?”
“I will.” Lammert nodded. He tilted his head. “What do the Ilael do?”
“There are islands scattered. Some have food and water. We put off offending crew on some of those. Depending on the offense, sometimes we go back after a while and offer them the chance to come back.” He shrugged. “Some choose to stay, and there are a few colonies.” He raised an eyebrow. “What do the Wilders do?”
“Well…” Lammert considered the question. “If the person offended doesn’t just kill the offender, they can bring it to their clan chief and then if the clan chief agrees, the clan chief will have them killed.”
“So…” Enu leaned back. “They kill people for stealing?”
“No, not always. Sometimes it’s just a flogging and you have to pay it back, or if you can’t pay it back you get sold into slavery and that money is used to pay it back. It sort of depends on who you stole from and whether they want to get clan justice or just deal with it themselves.” He shifted a little, then his voice became sad. “Mees and his friends stole a silver piece from me, and my brother Jurgen beat them all up.” He was almost surprised to feel the lump rising in his throat at the thought of Jurgen.
Enu rubbed his shoulder again. “You miss him?”
“Him and Koert. And Rutger I guess, but he’s just a baby.” Lammert sighed, then looked up at Enu. “I want to stay here, but someday, maybe, I’d like to go visit them.”
“We don’t trade with Wilders in general. Your people have a bit of coast, but in the past haven’t been interested.” Enu smiled. “Perhaps with you here now, that can change.”
Diantha leaned her head against his shoulder. Jurgen slung an arm around her. “Did we get them all?” He looked around at the corpses scattered around the field.
“Couple of them ran.” Diantha took a deep breath. “But we got the ones that mattered.”
“Next time…” Jurgen trailed off. He stared at the men leading horses toward the camp. Then he snarled, grabbed his axe, and headed in that direction. He was only vaguely aware Diantha was following him. “You…” He narrowed his eyes at the man holding the reins of a black and white mare. “Where did you get that horse?”
“Blood and ashes…” Diantha stared.
The man looked surprised to be accosted. “Found her in the pass…” He swallowed, shifting nervously in front of Jurgen. “She, uh…”
“Where…” Jurgen grabbed the man by the throat and yanked him closer. “Is her rider?”
“There was no rider, Prince Jurgen,” another voice spoke. He looked up to see an older man. The man gave him a wary look, but held his ground despite Jurgen’s glare. “We found her in the pass, with her halter tangled in some brush. She was half dead of thirst…” The man took a deep breath. “She had a saddle and some gear on her, but what food was in the pack was half rotted.”
He stared at the man he was holding. The warrior was struggling to breath. Jurgen exhaled, then released him. “The gear?” If the gods were merciful, he was wrong. If the gods were merciful, that was not his brother’s horse. If the gods were… He felt Diantha’s hand on his arm as he followed the older man back to their cart. At the sight of the saddle, he turned away.
“We’ll give you gold for the horse and gear.” Diantha stepped forward. “A reward for finding them.”
“I…” The man’s eyes suddenly widened. “Blood and ashes. The horse was…”
“That is the saddle I gave my brother.” Jurgen nodded.
“We tracked the horse back a way, my lord, but there’d been rain a fortnight past and she’d…” The man exhaled.
“Lammert would never have abandoned his horse.” Jurgen closed his eyes for a long moment. He’d known. Lammert had been gone too long for anything else to be possible, but seeing Tulip was… “Nor would that horse have abandoned him.”
“I’m sorry, Prince Jurgen. I…” The man sighed. “I have brothers of my own. Take the horse and gear.” He frowned. “There was also…” He went to the cart, and began digging. A moment later, he produced a pair of daggers. “These was slung from the saddle.”
“He broke my nose for insulting these blades.” Jurgen took the daggers from him. “Thank you.”
After so long aboard a ship, it felt strange to be standing on land that didn’t move. He actually felt a bit nauseous. “It passes.” Uduak’s hand came down on his shoulder, and she smiled at him. “You took to the water well.”
Lammert couldn’t help but feel a little proud at her words. Baako had taught him to swim. He could barely hold his breath half as long as the native Ilael, but he was getting better. Enu could hold his breath so long and dive so deep he was sure the man was half fish himself. “Where are we now?”
“On the map, these are the islands they label ‘Ilael’.” Uduak gestured, and his gaze followed where she pointed. The trees on the island were tall and thick. “We cut wood from other areas, but all our ships have their figureheads carved from island wood.” She led him further inland, pointing at the trees. “The builders take branches rather than cutting down the trees, so that there can be more ships as the years go by.”
“This is your land.” He nodded.
“No, my lamb.” She rubbed his head affectionately. The short haircut still felt a little odd to him, but after he’d noted none of the Ilael men wore their hair more than a finger-width in length he’d asked Efua to cut to match. The cut strands had been long enough that Baako had promptly claimed them to use to make cord. “The Ilael have no land. This is the land of our cousins, the Adebo. The shipbuilders.”
“Most outsiders consider us one people, but the Adebo are ruled by a different queen.” Baako fell into step with them. “Our children also live here, until they are old enough to have steady legs.”
He looked about nervously. Uduak caught his hand and squeezed it in hers before giving him a slight tug. “This way, Liam.”
Koert stared down at the daggers, tears clearly visible on his cheeks. That didn’t surprise him. What did was the sheen of tears in Thirza’s eyes. She held little Rutger to her protectively. “He was supposed to go to Akobul.” Thirza shook her head. “Akobul don’t…”
“They said they found the horse…” Jurgen took a ragged breath. “In one of the passes leading into the Unitafels.”
“Blood and ashes.” Koert followed that with more swears.
“They…” Thirza’s face showed fury. “They took my son into the Unitafels?”
Her son. Now she cared. If she’d let him go searching earlier, if he’d… He swallowed the bile before he could lose it. It wasn’t her fault. “It would seem that way.”
“Did any of them return?” Thirza’s eyes narrowed. She set Rutger down in his cradle.
“If they did…” He clasped his hands behind his back. “They were clever enough to ensure I not find out.”
“Spread word.” Thirza lifted her chin. “Fifty gold to any who brings me one of those…” She clenched her fists. “I want them alive.” She turned back to Jurgen. “So, I can kill them myself.”
“I…” Jurgen nodded. “I already did, among the border clans, though I told them seventy-five if they brought them in alive, and twenty-five for their corpses. I just…”
“Do they know what happened?” Koert’s voice was small as he set the daggers on the table. “The Unitafels…” He trailed off, swallowing as he closed his eyes.
“There was no sign of Lammert.” Jurgen exhaled. All the border clans knew what the Unitafels were. The thought of his brother in their hands… He could only pray that Lammert’s death had been quick. “The horse had been wandering for a time before they found her. There was no trail to follow.”
“Douse the flames.” Thirza drew a deep breath. “Let them know…” She looked down at her hands before straightening her back. “That a dragon has fallen.”
Uduak couldn’t help but smile proudly as her lamb held the queen’s gaze calmly, his head high and proud. Now that she knew, she could see it in him. A prince. Ama was staring as though she thought he’d vanish if she turned her eyes away. “You’ve stated you intend to claim him?” She raised an eyebrow, flicking a glance at Uduak before continuing to stare.
“I have claimed him. He is my son.” She nodded. She felt his hand tighten around hers just a little at the words.
“Daughter…” Ama exhaled. Then she straightened. “Child, you were not born of the sea. Are you willing to take to the water?”
“Yes.” His voice was firm and quiet.
“You choose to be of our people?”
“Yes.” He punctuated the word with a nod.
“Then I welcome you…” Queen Ama stood, and her smile was warm. “As the son of my daughter. May you always return to the sea.”
He sat in the room. Had it always been this empty? It hadn’t seemed that way while Lammert was here. Jurgen sighed, and set the daggers on the battered table. It had been his once. Most of what Lammert had were things he’d discarded.
Diantha’s hand touched his shoulder, and he wiped tears from his eyes. “I’m sorry, little brother.” He swallowed. “I…” He gave a small shake of his head. “Where ever the wind takes you, I hope you find a better place.”
Apparently, there was more to being adopted than just that brief exchange of words. A shaman dunked him into the sea and recited a prayer, adorning his neck with seaweed before pouring still more water over his hair. It was funny to him, that after all that he was still a prince. Just a prince of a different people. To the Ilael though, being a prince barely mattered. At least, not unless he ever got his own ship, which didn’t seem likely.
He watched as his new name was written in the sand, to be claimed by the waves and taken into the sea, that the ocean would know him for its own. He was Liam now. Liam son of Uduak. A host of cousins came out to greet him, and soon he was adorned with seashell necklaces and various other small gifts. Enu presented him with an Ilael style spear, one with three prongs.
The best part, however, was that even after having spent her shipbread to ransom him, Uduak was given her ship. She hugged him tightly as the sails were unfurled. The ship itself wasn’t new, but had been so heavily repaired it might as well have been. The figurehead was a bird, wreathed in painted flames. “The Phoenix.” He smiled.
“Our ship, Liam.” She put her arm around his shoulders, then looked down at him. “Tell me, my lamb.” She kissed his cheek. “Where should we go first?”