High above the deck, from the top of the tallest mast, I could see out for miles across the featureless desert of water. The sun sparkled from the sea and dazzled my eyes as the wind blew salt air in my face. Breathing deeply, I savoured the warmth of the sun and in the distance I could hear the Water Voices. Their chilling cries called out to me, whistling through the rigging and curling round my body. The ship rocked and I slipped. Grabbing the rough wood of the mast, I hauled myself in and clung on for life, suddenly finding a fear of heights. My head became light and I closed my eyes.
But the Water Voices laughed and I opened my eyes, staring at the horizon. The sails began to flap as the wind built up, but not enough to make a difference. Behind our ship, fifty other ships bobbed up and down on the gentle waves.
Then the Water Voices faintly called my name, “Gyvin!”
I ignored them and turned my eyes down towards the deck. Last night I had heard the priests discussing a sacrifice to the sea.
“The Water Voices are silent,” the Elder had said. “We should sacrifice.” The night had been still and the moon full. I lay still upon the roof of the captain’s cabin, my breath held as I listened to the midnight discussion, hoping they would not catch me up beyond the curfew.
Captain Rai gripped the wooden rail and stared out into the night. “The wind will pick up again. This morning at dawn I could hear the Water Voices calling.”
The priest, his hood up pushing his face into shadow, shook his head. “The voices are calling for more souls, for they are too weak to fill the sails with their breaths.” He looked around towards my hiding place, his gaze hidden beneath his hood. “We must sacrifice.”
My breath held, I had looked back at him, sure he was watching. I let the breath out when the priest looked back to the captain. Rai straightened and let out a sigh. “If the wind does not come by the end of tomorrow, we shall give the Water Voices souls.”
When the priest and Rai left, I slipped back below deck. I hurried to my bunk, careful not to wake anyone. I found my hammock and climbed in. In the hammock next to me, my mother gave me a stern look, but said nothing. She did not need to.
Sleep would not come easily, and I listened to the creak of wood as we rocked upon the ocean. When I did fall asleep, I dreamt of faceless ghouls swimming around the ships, calling out in the night.
Now in the warmth of the sun, the Water Voices did not scare me. They continued to call out to me in their senseless drones, but I ignored them. The priests said they could talk to them and at night they would sit upon the decks and commune. I had snuck out at night to watch them many times, and I wondered what the Water Voices were saying. Mother says we should not listen to the Water Voices and to leave such things to the priests. How I loved Mother with her superstitious ways.
“They are dark beings, my son,” she told me one night. “They are the voices of those lost to sea, calling out to the living. It is their voices that fills a ship’s sail and pushes it along.”
“Is father with the Water Voices?” I asked her. He had been lost at sea in a storm just three months ago and I remembered that night clearly, shutting my eyes tight below decks with the other children as the storm attacked us. The priests had told us the Water Voices were angry that night.
Mother’s hand stroked the side of my face. “Aye, but he watches over us, singing sweet songs.”
I did not argue back with her. In truth, I hated father for leaving us. But the hate had faded and I missed him. So many of us had been lost to the sea and sometimes I could identify the individual voices of lost friends and family. At night, they often sent me to sleep. Listening to the Water Voices was better than listening to the terrified screams of people waking from nightmares. There were twenty people in my section of the ship, and there were five screamers among them.
I almost slipped again and I looked once more out to the line of ships behind ours. Today I would jump ships and stay away until the sacrifice was over. The wind had not picked up and Captain Rai would have to give one of us to the sea; I did not want to be there to watch. Jumping from the mast, I landed in the rigging and climbed skilfully down. Now I was nearly sixteen, my arms had grown bigger and stronger, so I was able to get down quickly. Mother told me I looked like my father, but I thought she was just being kind. Finally I jumped onto the wooden deck. Barefooted I hurried down the deck, diving around the crew as they worked tirelessly, their faces grim.
“Watch it, young Gyvin!” one of the crew called out. “Don’t be in a hurry to join your father.”
I ignored his laughter as it rang cruelly out. I hated this place, like everyone. It had been a year since we had abandoned our lands, on a voyage to find the holy land. Those who stayed behind had watched us leave in our fleet of ships. They were silent as we left, as though they sensed our doom. And now I could not remember what it was like to feel sand and grass beneath my feet. Was it much different to the feel of wooden planks and rope rigging? Memories had a strange way of playing tricks and making things seem better than they were. Father had been a hero of mine all my life, but one day I had heard the helmsman laughing about how Father had screamed in terror as the storm rocked the ship that fateful night.
“Just like a little baby!”
Listening to them laugh, I had remained silent, realising my father was probably as scared as I was. There are no real heroes in life, I realised. My anger faded away and I was left with that emptiness we all had on the voyage.
There were just us and the Water Voices. Skidding to a halt, I stopped in front of a row of silent priests, their hoods covering their faces. Backing away, I felt them step close to me. My mistrust of the priests had grown along with everyone else. They had filled our heads with talk of death if we stayed home, but they could take us to a new land where death would not follow. Now there was death all around and it stank. Desperate to be free of them, I ran to the side of the ship and dived down into the water, plunging into the cold depths. For a moment I hung in silence, unsure which way was up. Then I burst to the surface and took a breath of freedom. I swam to the Sky Dancer where a rope was lowered. Grabbing it, I climbed up onto the deck where I was welcomed with a slap on the back.
I liked the Sky Dancer. There was always music playing and dancers. From dawn to dawn, people sung songs and told tales. Best of all, there were no dark robed priests watching us in their silent ways, judging us to decide who would be sacrificed next. No one made nasty remarks about father. Looking back at the Sea Horse, I saw Mother stood at the aft, watching me. Her expression was sad, her long black hair blown by a very slight breeze as though the Water Voices whispered just to her. I waved to her, but she did not wave back. For a long while we stood, staring at each other across the sea. Mother could not swim and had never been to the Sky Dancer, and I could sense her desire to be with me now. But she turned her back and went back down the ship.
The music swelled up and I was pulled into the crowds. A cup was pushed into my hand. The drink tasted both bitter and sweet and I felt it burn as it slid down. Coughing, I took another long sip. There was laughter and I was pulled into the party as a group of half naked women danced around me, laughing and clapping their hands.
So the party went on for most of the day. When I lay exhausted and light headed upon a pile of cushions, the sky had turned to dusk, and a warm evening was upon us. Sitting up, I looked around as the party continued and a sense of guilt at leaving Mother filled me. I staggered to my feet and almost fell back down as my head spun. I used the wooden rail to pull myself along the ship. Suddenly I felt sick and retched over the side. When I had finished, I rubbed at my eyes and looked towards the Sea Horse. My heart froze and the music and laughter had stopped upon the Sky Dancer. The priests upon the Sea Horse had gathered at the aft and people were passed to them. I was unable to hear their words, but I heard the screams of the victims as they were thrown to the sea. I saw them struggling to swim and found myself laughing, unsure what was so funny.
“Look away,” a woman said at my side, putting her hand on my shoulder. “It is not nice seeing people drown.” She spat the last words out with anger, her eyes focused on the priests. At least ten people had gone overboard and even though I had turned away, all I could hear was screaming. The screams faded away as the sea took them. When they called out again, they would be Water Voices and perhaps they would be able to fill the sails with wind.
Suddenly I was surrounded by people, their arms around me and their faces filled with sadness. Did they think I had never seen death before? I pulled away from them, staggering down the deck of the Sea Horse. All I wanted was to be back with Mother, and I was sorry I had jumped ship today. She would be angry with me for coming to the Sky Dancer, and she would scold me for drinking. I went to jump into the sea, where I saw a couple of women struggling to swim. I could try to save them, but the priests would punish me. I waited for them to go under. The final one clawed at the surface, screaming out. Stupid Water Voices, I thought, watching the woman’s final attempts to keep above the water. Then I saw her face and froze. Mother looked back, but sank beneath the waves. I went to jump in, but a hand pulled me back.
“They’ll kill you if you try to save her,” someone said. I struggled against their firm grip, but they were too strong. “Let her go, son.”
I screamed out, my tears filling my face. “Mother!” I called to the calm sea. But she had gone and the Water Voices whispered my name. At least Mother and Father were together, far from this wretched place of despair.