I have been a member of the Fantasy Faction forum for getting on for five years now and one of the best things about the community has been the writing contest – it’s only 1500 words so come give it a go! Contest winners were posted on the website but that hasn’t happened for a while, so I’ve been asked to fill in. It’s an honour to do so, and here is another winner.
The theme for the competition when this story won was the following image and the winning story – one of two, the other of which will be posted next week – is “Seedships” by Carter.
The fickle wind turned at last. For weeks, the ships had idled at harbour, their hulls creaking and groaning in frustration. The swells were too high, the winds too strong and biting. Few had dared to whisper against the Regent’s decision to delay the latest exodus.
But now Aliona joined the throng lining the harbour. At her back the wind brought the heady aroma of the besieging woodland; all pine and redwood, loam and mulch. All told, an auspicious omen.
The latest round of lottery winners and irreplaceables crowded on the decks. They pushed and struggled against each other, competing for the best final view of a loved one, of their homes, of all they left behind. Just like all the fleets that had gone before, so few looked forward.
Her eyes scanned the decks, searching. All around her others did the same. A forest of arms rose and fell in silent salute, bidding swift sailing. Only Aliona’s remained still by her side.
“You could have had a place.”
Varek’s voice was as brusque as ever. He had been there when the Regent had brought the offer in person, an honour afforded to so few, especially one comparatively new to the city. But despite herself, she had laid down roots here, tying herself inextricably to the stones and the cobbles.
“He will offer it to you next,” she said.
He grunted, disbelief evident in his sneer. She did not attempt to argue further. She understood his reasoning all too well. He was too old for the lottery, his skill at woodwork rudimentary next to hers. Yet for all that, he was the second-best shipwright left. It was his yard she had requisitioned. His tools that graced her hands. His apprentices that bowed to her wishes.
And when the Regent came again, it would be his hands that would be deemed irreplaceable.
Canvas cracked as sails unfurled. The Regent’s rising sun billowed out, straining westwards. Once, when the hope had been strong, when the forest had still been leagues distant, voices might have erupted into song; a traditional farewell to questing heroes.
Now, after so many fleets, after so many departures, few had the resilience for such things. Where once there had been joy and hope, now there was only stoic acceptance. Some faces betrayed a desperate dream of distant reunion but most now understood the slim chance that governed their fates.
After all, everyone knew the next fleet would be the last. The Regent had announced as much a month before. Their safe wood stocks had dwindled and all trade cut off. And with the tendrils of the forest creeping at the base of the city’s walls, there had been no surprise, no panic, only grim fortitude.
“Come. Let us return to work. They are safely away. As yours always are.”
Varek plucked at her sleeve, his staring out not at the scene before him but at one from years before. Her roots tugged at her.
“Even now, it haunts you still?”
His eyes hardened.
He would say no more. He never did but she knew the tales. Of how tainted wood had contaminated the stocks. Of how a mere handful of planks had made their way into the prow of a vessel. And of how, amidst the salty sea spumes, those planks had contorted, twisted and breached the hull, dragging all aboard to their deaths.
His hands had wrought the wood. His word had sent the ship to sea. His shoulders bore a blame none but he ascribed.
It was why he had ceded the yard to her. Why he doubted still. And why she took extra care with every ship.
Around her, the crowd thinned. A handful would linger until the ships disappeared beyond the horizon; well-wishers, masochists or those too disheartened to do anything else. She licked the salt from her lips, shuddering at the taste, at the thrum that passed all the way through her like a crackle of lightning or the quickening of life.
“The wall first.”
It had become a ritual. Every day she walked between the two walls of wood and water. At one time others had joined her; a show of defiance against their increasing isolation, a stirring of action to pierce despondency. Now, only her and Varek trod the lonely path.
The walked in strained silence. As ever, Aliona could see the question budding within him. Would this be the day it finally blossomed?
She ascended the stone stairs ahead of him, the steel tips of her boots ringing out. Almost she felt an answering echo ripple through her feet.
“Why do you come here?”
Apprehension flooded her. Part of her exulted while the rest shrank from it. She felt her roots snarl and twist within her, knotted and confused. She felt a stiffening in her shoulder,a twinge of discontent.
“It is what I always do,” she said as she crested the wall.
Below and before her, trees spread in all directions. This close, she could smell the sap and the boughs. Almost the earthy taste of the rich soil danced across her tongue. It was intoxicating. Yet beside her, Varek stood stiff and unbending. A man of flesh and stone, and steel.
She swayed with his tone. So harsh, so unyielding, it demanded answers. For a heartbeat as long as the turning of the world, she pondered the truth. She imagined his reaction and the consequence and such thoughts dried to a husk.
She could never understand and she could never explain. Instead, she allowed the wind to respond on her behalf. It shook branch and twig and leaf. It brought all the quiet, all the life of the woodland to their ears. It was the only answer she could ever give.
There was no sudden epiphany. He did not suddenly understand. He merely stood, stared and shivered in the cold. His eyes told her that this would be the only time he would ask. That this would be last time he accompanied here.
“Come. Let us finish the final fleet.”
She was stiff and sore but at last her task was done. The winter wind whipped and howled around her. Flurries of snow speckled the cloaks of all around her. The ships danced a mad, dangerous jig on the waves as they sailed away.
If not for the roots breaching the walls, if not for the vibrant shoots of new life between the cobbles, the Regent might have waited longer before the final departure. But time had run out.
She searched the decks for Varek and found him stood on a bow, his eyes fixed on an unseen, unknown shore. If she had still had the use of her muscles, she might have been able to smile. She half-expected him to turn, to cast a last, lingering glance at the city,at his yard. At her. But he did none of those things. He alone stayed still and silent.
She wondered if he found her gift yet. If his hand had delved into the deepest corners of his jacket and discovered the truth she had finally granted. She doubted it. She doubted too that he would realise its significance until it was too late.
Unlike all the others she had not taken great pains to hide it. Most she had secreted between timbers, in hollowed crevices carefully plugged with resin and tar. Only one kernel had she dared to leave unguarded in all those she had sent forth. And only then because he deserved that much of her.
She tried to move her leg but it remained stuck against the stone. Her roots were too engrained in the essence of this place. Time it seemed, had elapsed for all of them. The xylofication was too far gone now. She could no longer move, no longer hide what she was.
She tilted her head back to stare at the low, life-giving sun. She raised her arms to the world and unfurled her fingers.
Pine kernels cascaded down to the cobbles.