Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Turtle in the Sea of Sand” — Comments

Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Turtle in the Sea of Sand” — Comments

By Mary Catelli

This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Mary Catelli and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.

The sea of sand touched many shores — the meanest beggar’s brat knew that — and many sands drifted up from them, but Persinette always maintained that black sand meant death, and mingled with red, a bloody death. Kyre jeered at that: as if someone wasn’t always dying in the city, and most of the time, dying violently.

Still, his heart jumped when he came out in the gray of morning, and the black and red lay tangled in the port, beneath the eggshell sky of morning. Around them spread the dips and rises of tan, touched with yellow and brown, that usually filled the harbor, but the red and black lay like the wake of a boat.

He watched only a moment before he walked down the shore, staff in hand, looking for work. Violent death always lurked, but so did starvation, and the latter took longer. He scouted along the docks, where the merchants moored. Many a man had started unloading before the sky had even turned charcoal gray, but the longshoremen were men, and solidly built. A youth, and one small for his age, had no hope for work there. Kyre walked through the crowds of plainly clad vendors, sailors, and artisans; he glanced at the brightly dressed, but every time, the man was about his business and would hire no one now.

His eyes narrowed when he reached the smaller boats, where the young and well-to-do sailed for pleasure. Errands on the other hand, or messages, he could do — or better yet, guiding through the city, or his height was enough to guard a boat. He tapped his staff against the wood of the docks. Better pickings here than with the merchant ships.

Kyre appraised the boats. Rich young wizards arrived, full of exclamations on how strange the sea of sand was, and how the magics on it must work. He did not have to listen to receive his pay, and that they expected water in a sea did not keep them from paying well.

Sand hissed in the sea, the small dunes approaching the shore and falling back. A couple of the boats had not been there yesterday. Kyre walked toward them.

“You!” A shout came from one. Sand had not even started to gather in its windward side — a new ship. The only sailor, wearing fine greens and gold, stood with one foot on the gangplank. “You, in the blue vest.”

Kyre’s vest had been blue, once, and looked blue in the drab crowd of the docks. He hurried through the crowd, before anyone else offered to do the job instead, and better, and eyed the sailor: a young man, and if the clothing had not shouted his birth to the four winds, his lean hands bore no calluses. Kyre checked again. Except on his index finger, from the pen. Though he didn’t look too pale, Kyre conceded. He must not shut himself in his study.

“I need someone to guard my boat.”

Kyre straightened, looking bright-eyed and attentive. Old Anzar had taught him a few tricks with his staff and, if it came to that, with his knife. He could guard a boat.

“A silver star, and a copper bit for each hour.”

Kyre did not move. A copper bit an hour was generous in itself.

The man looked at his face and paused. “And a second silver star if you have to watch until nightfall.”

Far, far, far too much — but a dozen folk must have seen him get the offer. If someone else took it, he would be scorned the length of the docks as a coward and fool. He might never work again. “Anything about the boat I should know?”

The man grinned. “Not much.” He stepped aside and bowed Kyre to the gangplank. Kyre walked up. The boat was small, and held only a few chests besides the sails. “A poor thing but my own,” said the man.

Kyre looked at one of the chests: black, bound with iron, and nondescript, but he had not survived long on the docks by not trusting his instincts.

The man laughed. “I see your prudence is sufficient to the task. That chest is enchanted, but will harm neither you nor any other.” He swept Kyre another bow. “Here is the silver star — the first.”

Kyre bobbed his head and took it. Another wizard, more foolish than most. Kyre hoped he found the sea of sand fascinating.

Persinette, her hands filled with the charms she peddled, her lined face thoughtful, appraised the boat. “Who’s the owner?”

Kyre shrugged. “Didn’t ask.” When Persinette lifted her eyebrows, he shrugged again. “So he doesn’t pay me. Think I’d go to court over it? You got to pay the judge.”

Persinette snorted and hobbled off. Then, thought Kyre, no wizard would buy her charms, and she needed to sell them. He sat back, not feeling the confidence that he showed Persinette. The coin seemed to burn in his belt. Paying in advance — something was wrong here. The sky had barely turned blue, but he watched the dock more warily than ever before.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw two urchins, too young for their sex to be clear, giggling and pressing near the boat. Probably daring each other to touch it. But even urchins could be trouble. He walked over, staff in hand. One child wriggled back at the sight. The other stared, mouth agape. When the staff tapped the dock, he bolted.

Man won’t complain about not getting his money’s worth, thought Kyre, sitting again. He leaned the staff against the side. And there was no way quicker to draw thieves than to appear asleep.

Or even to sleep. He rose to pace along the boat. Keeping watch was weary enough business that he had to keep awake. He considered vendors as the hours rolled by and the sun rose, but he could not haggle much, not when he could not leave the boat.

He bought some water midmorning, from a vendor who smiled impishly at realizing she had him captive.

Men came by the boat soon after, and stood about, talking. Their clothing was not fine, but better than a dockhand’s. Kyre watched them with narrowed eyes. After a third sidelong glance he stalked over and summoned his memories of how the boat owners talked. “My lords, the owner of the boat has left, and I do not know when he will return.” His voice rang out and turned more than one head. “Leave me a message, and I will get it to him. After all, my lords, I would not like to keep great men such as yourself waiting like messenger boys.”

A vendor snickered. Angry color in their faces, the men retreated. Kyre sat. The sun was still climbing, and having made his position clear, he was likely to have a long day. Many a man had hired a less watchful guard and not suffered for it.

He rose before an hour had past, and continued to walk. He could wear himself out that way — he would need even more water, as well — but if he grew stiff, he would have no chance should an attempt be made on the boat in earnest.

And there was nothing like an alert guard to prevent an attack before it happened.

Kyre grinned, turned, and saw something out of the corner of his eye: a shimmer. Like and unlike a mirage — the sunlight was wrong for one — and Kyre knew of thieves with enough coins to buy invisibility spells. He laid on to the thin air, and his staff hit a solid body with a thud. It yielded like flesh, and a grunt came out of the air before him.

Something cracked on his head from behind. The staff fell from his fingers as he collapsed to the deck, too dazed to rise.

“Knave,” muttered the thin air.

“Going to blame him for your folly? You knew he was a guard. Give me a hand.”

“This damned turtle had better be worth it.”

The second speaker snorted. “Wait till we get to the island before you maunder. Now, we have to act.”

Invisible hands took him up — he smelled the men he could not see — and dropped him to the dock. His staff clattered beside him. His stomach wrenched. About, he heard exclamations from the vendors, and the boat cast off, the ropes undone by invisible hands. Someone bolted, shrieking about ghosts and monsters, and Kyre heard others hurry off more quietly. Wincing, he pushed up off the dock. The boat had already set sail, though he could still see no one on board. About Kyre, those who had not fled gawked.

Wincing from bruises, Kyre rose to his feet. He had never seen such a thing before. And then it struck him: they had stolen the boat. The boat he had been hired to guard.

Kyre did not move. That had never happened to him before, either. If it had, he would not have been hired for this, because he would have starved. No one would hire a failure.

His hand went to his belt. No one stole from him, either the boat he guarded or his good name. He would follow and retrieve the boat, and win back his reputation. His fingers picked out the silver bit. Though his good pay would not be so good. He would spend most of the money renting a new boat.

How long can you live on one silver bit? came a sardonic thought.

When Kyre sailed up to the dock, set to follow the thieves, the vendors shouted from their stalls. Even a couple of the richer merchants emerged from their stores’ shade. One — Benya, Kyre recalled — raced out to grab his arm. “He was here. The man whose boat it was. We told him.” Her eyes were large. “He cursed himself. Said they were too much for you, and he shouldn’t have left you where you had to face them.”

And after I asked if the boat had anything I should know about. Kyre grimaced. Benya looked impressed now, but that would not help him when all they remembered was his failure.

She shook her head. “He was a wizard — had wizard things on that boat. And he said it would be hard to follow the thieves.”

“But he could?”

“Wizard,” said Benya. “And he said it was the island, and he could get there today.”

Only one island within a day’s journey, thought Kyre.

The rented boat sailed over the beige and yellow sands, if a little slowly in the low wind. Kyre surveyed the horizon. A wizard might find the thieves easier than a boy of the docks could, but the boy, who knew where the island was, might find it more easily than a man who didn’t know. Kyre snorted. He hired me, he thought. He should have waited for me.

The sun loomed, orange and enormous, in the west. A ship stood black against it, and Kyre turned his boat to avoid her path, but not too far. A low island stood against the sky, too.

“Ahoy the boat!” A sailor waved to him as he slid by.

Kyre’s eyebrows went up. He waved back.

The sailor gestured at the island. “‘Ware the island. Magic’s afoot!”

They revealed themselves, thought Kyre, feeling stunned. Whatever they did, they were not afraid to show that magic was being worked here.

He waved back, and the sailor went off, seeming content that he had done good for his fellow man. Kyre grinned. So he had. Even if his intention had been warn him off, not to tell him where he needed to go. Kyre looked up at the sail and whistled. There might be nothing in the tale that it could summon a wind, but there might be, and he could use haste in getting to the island.

And once he had recovered the boat from thieving wizards, everyone on the docks would want to hire him.

The island was low, with gaps of orange-red sand here and there in a shore of orange-red rock. The setting sun cast enormous shadows. Kyre crouched in the boat as he picked out one space as sand, not the fine stuff of the sea but a shoreline, a place that would not swallow him. He beached the boat there. It took care to find where the sand would let him stand, but Curgan would listen to no pleas about his boat being damaged, and the stone looked jagged. He pulled the boat further up on the beach, listening.

No sound came over the wind. If he were too coward to leave the boat, he should never have wasted good coin on hiring it. He went to hunt.

He crouched low among the stones. The island had enough gullies and ravines that he could sneak about, and a handful of bushes or two, though short on leaves, handed him more places to hide. It did not take long to find the stolen boat. The thieves had drawn it up on a larger beach. Once he got to the right ravine, the thieves’ voices echoed against the stone, disputing how to break the spell on the chest. The breeze came from them and smelled of heated metal.

Kyre edged closer. He had to see them to plan.

A hand slapped over his mouth, and a strong arm went about his waist. Kyre started to struggle, but his assailant got him off his feet, and with no leverage, almost before he knew what had happened. He still struggled, out of pride, as he was dragged into the shelter of the rocks.

“Be still,” the man who had hired him said.

Kyre stopped fighting. The man released him, and Kyre looked at him with wary eyes. He acted as if he knew the thieves. He had to know them better than Kyre did.

“Leave.” His voice was low but intense. “You should not have come. These wizards are beyond you.”

What did this man know of the docks? Thinking that hiring Kyre meant that Kyre could let him be robbed and do nothing?

“No one robs me,” said Kyre, drawing his knife. The man looked taken aback. “Don’t you know how much my name means to me? Did you think I’d let these knaves drop it in the dust? I took your coin.”

The man’s tongue touched his lips. After a moment, he said, “You’ll not stop them with only that knife.”

Kyre shrugged. He could not let this man know that he had never killed before. “I’ll help you.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

Kyre’s lip curled. “Like you knew when you left me to guard? Without even a warning? Didn’t know there’d be magic till I saw them shimmer. If I didn’t know the spell, I’d never have guessed. I’d have let them steal the boat without a blow.”

The man looked strangely at him, and then at the knife.

“Learned to use it from a soldier,” said Kyre. “He always said, it was amazing how little it took to kill a man.” He met the man’s gaze. Old Anzar had also said, it was amazing how much it took to kill a man, but he would not repeat that here.

The man looked at the sky. The sun had turned almost scarlet. “Go home. If you wish to serve me, you can bear back news of my doings. My — house might be glad to hear –”

“Don’t know your name,” said Kyre.

After a long minute, the man said, “My name is Trist of Blaike.”

“Your house going to pay enough for me to live on? Forever?” When Trist flinched, Kyre said, “Starving will kill me just as dead.”

Trist’s face worked, and he turned to Kyre as if he had made a decision. “They wish to cast death magic. The — thing in the box will help them.” He met Kyre’s gaze. “They will get into the box, but then I will be able to use the contents as well — provided they do not stop me.”

“Let ’em try to stop you. I’ll knife them,” said Kyre. He stifled his qualms. He had never needed to kill before, but when he need to fight, he had. When the man said nothing, Kyre said, “You going to say that’s –” He remembered how wizards talked. “Not wise.”

Slowly, Trist shook his head.

A good way to deal with wizards, then, Kyre thought. I’ll remember it, next time a wizard tries to steal from me. Then —

“What happens when a spell stops?”

Trist ran a hand through his hair. “You shouldn’t come; you should go home. It’s ugly when a spell stops. Worst for the spell-caster, but it’s hard on anyone –”

“Harder than starving?” His hand tightened on his knife.

Trist studied him. Then he said, “Follow me.” He walked on without glancing back to see if Kyre obeyed. He kept to the ravines, as if he feared being seen — and then a light, like a fire, flared ahead. Trist let his breath out, slowly.

Kyre studied it. Then a breeze came toward them. It stank like a graveyard, and Kyre gagged.

“Go home,” said Trist. “It will only get worse.”

Kyre shook his head. Trist did not look surprised.

Kyre and Trist sat in the ravine, as far back as they could and still see the beach. The two wizard thieves emerged from the boat, into the firelight. With some awkwardness, they carried a large turtle, carved of stone. Firelight gleamed on its smooth surface and made its color impossible to tell. They laid it down by the blaze.

They started to chant.

After a moment Trist said, in grim confirmation, “A death spell.” He started to chant as well. Kyre left him and slid closer to the fire. Spells might range far, but throwing his knife was a good way to lose it. He held the blade low, where it would not catch the firelight, and recalled everything that Anzar had told him of knife fights, and every time he had had to use it. The night breeze smelled of smoke, and another, charnel stench. His hand tightened on the hilt. He wasn’t going to show himself where those wizards could see him.

The chant broke in half suddenly, one voice going silent. One thief rose. “Somebody’s interfering.” His voice was low with menace, and he surveyed the rocks.

The other thief, still chanting, nodded. The first one started into the stones, as if into the alleys of the city. Kyre looked about. Nothing handy for an ambush, and no telling what spells that man could cast if given a moment.

Kyre looked back where he had come. On the other hand, if something distracted him… Kyre crept back toward Trist, keeping to the shadows.

The thief followed but did not seem to spot him. He stopped and looked about, and then, as Kyre heard Trist’s chant, the thief leapt forward, toward the sound. Kyre pulled back, with care to be quiet. The thief did not glance aside as he rushed toward Trist. Even when Kyre’s foot scrapped on stone, he did not turn. Kyre lunged and clamped a hand over his mouth, to keep him from spells. The man thrashed against him, Kyre did not think he could hold him a minute longer, and then the man muttered words against his hand. Kyre pulled the knife up and into his throat. The flesh gave, and the knife drove deeper. Whatever the man tried to shout, it drowned in a gurgle, and blood splattered over Kyre’s hand. And then, as suddenly as a match lighting, the knife seared his hand. His fingers jerked away before he could think; then, feeling colder than a winter night, remembering Anzar’s tales of men trapped under corpses, Kyre jumped back. The body fell.

Kyre stood a minute. He had never killed anyone by that trick before. His heart beat faster than it had when he struck the blow. He had never killed anyone before.

He had remembered every trick Anzar had taught him. He dragged in a deep breath. The graveyard smell was bad, again, but he could not take his eyes from the body. He had seen men stabbed before, and even with the blade in the wound, the body did not bleed much. Kyre swallowed and crouched to retrieve the knife. It felt cool again, but the sand under it — even by the fire’s stray light, it looked scorched. His hand reached for it, hesitated, and touched. He jerked it away. He felt glass.

Trist had warned him that breaking spells could be bad.

And the graveyard smell grew worse.

He yanked out the blade. The blood on it already looked dried, but he looked about. Death spell, he thought. Somebody was going to die, any way it fell out — maybe several somebodies. And chanting rose behind him. The surviving thief chanted as loudly as both of them had, or louder. The stones hid everything but the firelight, striking the higher rocks.

Kyre’s back prickled. That didn’t mean the thief hadn’t seen him kill the other. The man was a wizard — no telling what he could see. Kyre crouched and hurried to Trist. The firelight showed how pale his face was. He chanted and did not stop even to look at Kyre.

Only a damn fool gets himself between two wizards, Kyre thought. He’d tell the brats at the docks that, when he got back. He looked down at the bloodied knife. Too late now. If he tried to run, the wizard-thief would see him sail, and the wind wouldn’t move him fast enough to get away from the spell. He doubted any wind could move fast enough.

If he attacked, the wizard would see him coming. The fire sat in the middle of the sand. But Trist’s spell might strike while the wizard was casting his — on him.

Trist’s spell might not strike in time to save him.

Got any better ideas? Kyre asked himself. He walked back through the rocks. They were high; he had no need to crouch.

At the beach, Kyre stopped in the rocks’ shadow to look once more. The charnel smell hung heavy on the air. The wizard thief had risen to his feet and chanted on. He looked toward the rocks.

No surprise there, Kyre thought. I’ll have to be quick. He looked down. The sand was packed. The other thief had moved quickly.

A loud crack came from the fire, and logs settled into place. Distraction, thought Kyre, and leapt across the sand. A knife in his throat would still his spell-casting.

The thief glanced at him. Kyre ran faster, his feet thudding on the sand. The thief’s voice rose louder, and his hands went up. Kyre ran faster — he had never run so fast, not even fleeing bullies three times his size. His hand tightened on the knife. The thief’s hands moved. For a moment, his words faltered, but Kyre only watched his hands. They did not shield his throat.

Kyre struck from the side. They collided, and Kyre drove the blade into his throat. It resisted harder than he would have dreamed, his breath felt knocked out of him from the collision, but his hand moved, driving the blade deeper.

It felt like a dark cloud swooped by him.

The thief made choked noises but did not fall. He pushed at Kyre.

He did not bleed, not even as much as the other one in the first moments. The blade was still in the wound. Kyre pulled at the knife. It had driven deep and did not yield easily, but the wizard’s hands moved, and Kyre did not want to find he could cast spells by gesture. He yanked the blade out.

A gush of blood sent the wizard to his knees, and then to the sands.

Kyre drew a deep breath. The knife did not burn him, though he held it tightly. The other one must have done some kind of spell with heat, worse to break than this one’s; that must have made the knife so hot, then. He looked down, at the blood that had splattered him. He shivered and thought of Trist. Best proof that he had, that he didn’t let stuff be stolen, or he might end up having killed two men and still starving. He hurried through the stone, still crouching now and again, as if the fire could strike him down.

He almost stumbled over him. Trist lay silent, slumped on the rocks. Kyre touched his hand. It felt clammy.

He swallowed. The second thief had faltered in his spell before the knife had stopped it finally. Maybe — maybe Trist had broken the spell, and it had come after him.

Kyre shoved his knife back into the sheath. Not good, having the man who hired you die, even when you weren’t a bodyguard. He rose. The boat had blankets. He could get those before he got the turtle back in the boat, or tied his hired boat to the stolen one.

The dawn was charcoal gray as Kyre set sail. Curgan’s boat trailed behind the stolen one, and Trist, wrapped in blankets, lay on the deck with the turtle beside him. The breeze felt cold, but Kyre only moved the quicker to set the sail. When the boat sailed over the sands again, he sat in the prow and cleaned the knife. He felt colder than he had in the breeze. Had to kill them, he told himself. They would have killed Trist and me both. Had to kill them.

The litany did not warm him.

The light grew. When the island was only a line on the horizon, and they sailed over beige sand, Kyre looked at Trist. Pale. Paler than he had been, stopping the spell.

He stirred and looked at Kyre. “Paper. In that chest.”

Kyre pulled out the paper, and the pen beside it — no inkwell. He laid them down.

Trist looked at his face and smiled. “Magic.” He started to write. Ink flowed from the pen. “For you. For your services, and for arranging for my burial…” He looked sharply at Kyre.

Kyre nodded. He could have Trist taken as a pauper, if worst came to worst; the priests buried enough of the port’s dead as a good deed.

As if he had read Kyre’s thoughts, the man smiled. “Coins in the chest. Enough to pay. After that — I bequeath to you the rest of what the boat holds, and the boat.”

Kyre stared at him.

The man sank back. “The chest…” He gestured at the magical one. “Once I die, it will open only for you.” He closed his eyes. “And the turtle — the turtle will make you rich beyond your dreams.”

He said nothing more. He still breathed, but he seemed asleep. Kyre went back to the sails. He might get him help on land; if he did that, Trist might survive and leave him nothing. If he dallied…

Kyre tried to win more speed from the wind.

With the slight wind, the boat did not move quickly. Land had not come back into sight when noon came, and Trist died without speaking again.

Kyre warily took up the paper and tried the chest. It opened, and he put the paper within. He considered the turtle a minute longer.

He had a boat. Magic or not, he was rich beyond his dreams. The pen was more than he dreamed of.

And who needed thieves?

After a minute, Kyre put his hands on either side of the turtle. The polished stone felt slick. He took it with care to the side of the boat. Sand slid by him. He lowered it. For a moment, the stone sat on the sand like a turtle swimming.

Wouldn’t last long, Kyre thought.

And it did not.

The turtle lifted its head as if sniffing the breeze. Its flippers moved against the sand. Swimming, Kyre realized blankly. Then it blinked its stony eyes and dove into the sands with a toss of its flippers. It left a ripple for a moment, and then the sands sealed up after it.

Kyre stared after it. It took a long time before he realized his mouth hung open.

Wonder if any of the wizards knew that, he thought.

Mary Catelli started writing in her teens, when deprived of books to read. After a while, she started finishing the stories. Since then, her short stories have appeared in various Sword and Sorceress anthologies and Weird Tales. She is working on a novel.

She lives in Connecticut, where she works as a computer programmer.


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