Morning light crept in through the port-hole. Rachael watched it crawling down the far wall of the bedroom. She’d spent most of the night tossing and turning, the sheets too warm, the mattress too soft. Sick of lying in bed with only her own gnawing anxiety buzzing away at the back of her brain, she finally pulled the covers aside and got to her feet. Sifting through the clothes that Arsha had left in her cupboard, she found a practical looking pair of brown trousers and a plain white tunic.
Feeling less conspicuous than she had in the brightly coloured silks she’d been wearing yesterday, Rachael decided that she might as well try to find something to eat. She slipped out into the corridor and made her way up towards the mess hall.
At the doorway she paused. Sitting at the table, facing towards the cooking range, was a man she didn’t recognise. He was dark skinned and heavy-set, with a tight mat of silver-grey hair. His hands, folded on the table in front of him, were large and muscular. He was leaning forward over the table, listening intently as Milima’s voice came from across the room. From where she was standing Rachael couldn’t see the woman, but she could easily hear how agitated she was. The man at the table didn’t seem to have noticed her, and Rachael stayed put, not moving a muscle as she listened.
“…and maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess if you didn’t follow every order damn Rishi gives you without question.”
When the man spoke, his voice was cavernously deep, a soft rumbling tone, like mountains moving.
“We did the right thing Milima. Rishi wasn’t the one who covered up a prediction, and he didn’t open a Seed in the middle of London. At least the girl is safe with us now.”
She heard the clatter of a pan being slapped down on the iron cooking range.
“Even though the man who’s supposed to be our friend still won’t tell us why she’s so important,” Milima snapped. For a moment the man at the table said nothing. The sound of clattering cookware ceased.
“Abasi what is it?” Milima said, her voice quieter, but no less angry, like the sound of a knife being sharpened. “What aren’t you saying?”
The man glanced away for a moment.
“Do you think we should just hand her over to the Guild?” he replied.
“Seven, Aba, you know I don’t. The damage is done now. We’re responsible. And that poor girl… She’s been through hell. You can see it in her eyes.”
Rachael’s throat felt dry, but she forced herself not to make the slightest movement.
“So she stays with us,” Abasi said.
“You’re still not answering my question. Why did we ever go chasing off after this girl in the first place?”
“Someone had to. Guild doesn’t know what she is. And Lord Bhandari knows all too well.”
“And what exactly is she?” Milima said, her soft tone becoming, if anything, even sharper. “I expect all this secrecy from Rishi, but not from my own husband.”
From his expression, it almost seemed as if the man was unable to speak. As if the words had simply caught in his throat. There was something in his eyes, like sadness, or even fear. Then she heard Milima’s voice, trembling with concern.
“Oh Abasi, no. Of all the things for you to get caught up in again…”
“It was my choice,” he said, firmly, but with an unmistakable catch in his voice.
“The hell it was,” Milima hissed angrily. Rishi had no right, dragging you back into that madness. He knows damn well what you went through.”
As the woman spoke, she stepped forward across the room, now in Rachael’s view. Her anger was written plainly on her face.
“Melaku, love, it was my choice,” the man said, heavily.
“Don’t do that,” Milima snapped. Don’t use that name just because you know I’m angry with you.”
“You never let me use it any other time,” Abasi said, the words curiously soft for a man with so heavy a voice. As she watched, Milima’s expression seemed to melt. The woman stepped forward, leaning over the table to kiss the man on his forehead.
“Almost never,” she said with a smile. Then she seemed to take notice of something. “But I don’t think Rachael wants to hear us talk about that,” Milima added, laughing.
The man quickly looked up, masking his alarm with a cheerful expression.
“Good morning Rachael,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
Not really sure what to say, she just shrugged.
“I’m Abasi Bira,” he said, standing up to walk around the table towards her. “I’m the captain of this ship.”
He offered his hand. She took it, her tiny fingers entirely enclosed in his grasp, but his touch was almost too gentle, as if he was afraid he might break her. His skin was rough and calloused.
“Rachael, if there’s anything at all you need,” he said, “don’t hesitate to ask me, OK?”
“Sure,” she nodded.
“Well, I should go check on our course,” Abasi said, turning to nod to Milima as he left.
“So,” Milima said, getting to her feet, “Do you feel like you could manage some breakfast?”
“I guess,” Rachael said.
She took a seat, feeling all too much like an intruder in someone else’s home. It was strangely quiet, just the sound of Milima humming softly as she bustled in and out of a larder on the far side of the room. Soon a bowl of yoghurt and an open jar of honey were set down in front of her, followed by a mug of tea poured from a large pan that was simmering away on the stove. Then Milima poured another tea for herself and sat down across the table from her.
Cautiously, Rachael mixed a little honey into her yoghurt and started to eat. She kept expecting Milima to say something, but the woman just sat in silence, sipping her tea and staring off into the distance.
“You not gonna ask how I’m settling in or something?” Rachael said at last.
“I don’t know. Do you feel very settled right now?” Milima said, taking another sip of her tea.
“Not really,” she mumbled, staring down at her plate.
Milima just nodded, without saying another word.
As the woman drank her tea, Rachael toyed with her spoon, and listened to the distant hum of the engines.
“Honestly,” Milima said, watching her from over the rim of her mug, “if it was me in your position, I’d be looking for the first chance to get off this boat. Even out here in the middle of nowhere. It’s easier to be lost on your own terms than on someone else’s, right?”
Rachael scowled, and sipped her tea, trying not to meet the woman’s eyes. The taste of cinnamon, liquorice, and a host other spices flooded her mouth. For a moment she gagged at the sweetness.
“I know you don’t have much reason to trust us,” Milima continued, “and I don’t expect that you should. After what you’ve been through recently, I can’t imagine trusting anyone comes easily.”
“Jesus, could you not?” Rachael growled. She could feel herself losing her cool, but she was past caring. “Stop trying to pretend like you know what I been through. Like you ever had to sleep in the rain or dig food out of rubbish bins cause you’re so hungry you’d eat the first thing you found. Like any of my life even matters to you.”
Her voice rising to a shout, Rachael slammed her cup down so hard that it spilled, throwing the contents across the table. In silence that followed, she heard the slow drip of the tea splashing on the floor.
She was fuming, staring the woman right in the eyes, feeling her hands shake against the tabletop. Milima looked back at her with a strange calmness.
“Shouldn’t I care?” she said. “Suppose you’re right. Suppose I’ve never known anything like the hardships you have. Should I not care about the things you’ve been through, just because they’ve never happened to me?”
Rachael searched the woman’s eyes, not even sure what she was looking for. Some sign that she was being lead on, that it was all a trick to win her trust. Some glimmer of a lie. As Milima stared back at her, she saw only a stillness. Calm, patient, and kind. At last, Rachael looked away, unable to hold the woman’s gaze any longer.
“Sorry about the mess,” she mumbled.
“It’s fine,” Milima said. She saw the hint of a smile as the woman stood up and went to get a tea-towel. As Milima began to mop up the spilled tea, Rachael found herself staring down at the table. The woman stood up and went back to the counter, where she began filling a bowl in the sink.
“What’s it mean?” Rachael said, over the sound of the pouring water. “That mark, around your eye?”
Milima turned to look at her with a thoughtful expression.
“It means I was a soldier,” she said.
“You were a soldier?” Rachael’s eyes narrowed. “Did you fight in any wars?”
“I’m from the Herdlands, Rachael. It’s all we’ve ever known.”
Before Rachael could ask what the woman meant by this, she heard a movement in the hall and then Arsha appeared in the doorway. She was noticeably subdued as she entered the room. Her hair was a mess and she looked as if she hadn’t really slept.
“What can I get you to eat, love?” Milima asked as she set a mug of tea down in front of the girl. Arsha shrugged, face mostly hidden as she lifted the mug in both hands and took a large gulp. Rachael began to eat a little more of her yoghurt, as Milima brought another bowl out for Arsha. The girl picked up her spoon, but seemed to do little more than push the contents of the bowl around.
Rachael scraped her bowl clean, whilst Arsha ate barely half of what was in front of her before pushing her bowl away. With a tutting sound Milima scooped up the girl’s leftovers. Though she said nothing, Rachael couldn’t help but notice the quiet look of concern in the woman’s eyes.
“Arsha, love, how would you like to show Rachael around, give her a proper tour of the ship?”
Arsha looked up at Milima with a puzzled expression.
“I’ve still got chores,” she said.
“Oh don’t worry about that. I’ll see to the dusting today. You look after our guest.”
Rachael tried not to think about how much the word ‘guest’ chafed at her. The sneaky voice in the back of her head reminded her that knowing her way around the ship could turn out to be very useful.
“I’d like that,” she said, “if it’s alright with you.”
“Sure,” Arsha said, with that same thin smile. “We can start down in the hold, I guess.”
The hold was enormous, and incredibly dull. Rachael looked out over the rows of wooden crates and barrels covered in netting and saw nothing of interest. Still, she decided she would have to come back later and look for hiding spots, or something useful in the cargo.
The hold occupied the front half of the ship, whilst the back half was divided into decks. The lowest deck seemed to be the sleeping quarters, eight cabins lining a narrow corridor, four to a side, with the bathrooms and laundry near to the back of the ship; the stern, as Arsha insisted on calling it. Staircases at either end lead to the decks above. As they made their way up what Arsha referred to as the ‘aft stairwell’, Rachael noticed that the two bedrooms furthest back seemed larger.
“Captain’s quarters, for Abasi and Milima, and Dad’s room,” Arsha explained.
“So how comes he gets a bigger room all to himself?” Rachael said. Arsha made a frustrated sound.
“He does all his work in there. It’s mostly full of books anyhow.”
“He’s in there now?” Rachael said.
“No, he’s up on the bridge, I think. With the others,” she said.
Following the stairs up past the dining room, which Arsha referred to as the ‘mess hall’, they came out in front of a large door, made of steel, with big wheel locks like something on a submarine. To their right, another narrow staircase continued upwards.
“That leads out to the deck,” Arsha said, gesturing at the door. “The stairs go up to the bridge. I think Micah has the tiller right now.”
“It’s the wheel that steers the ship,” Arsha said, with an exasperated sound.
“Oh. The steering wheel. You could have just said that,” Rachael said, feeling just as frustrated as Arsha sounded. “Why do you gotta call everything weird stuff, and then act like I’m some kind of idiot for not knowing what everything’s supposed to be?”
“Because that’s what it’s called,” Arsha sighed. “You’ll get used to it.”
“Yeah, well I’m not exactly planning on sticking around that long,” Rachael snapped.
“All right, you don’t want to be here, I get it already,” Arsha replied, her voice rising as she threw her hands up in aggravation.
“You think?” Rachael snapped back at her. “Hey, here’s an idea, let’s head up and ask your dad how long he’s going to keep me prisoner for. What do you think he might say to that?”
“Fates, would you just stop? You’re always acting like he’s the bad guy, and you haven’t even met him.”
“Exactly. I got knocked out, kidnapped, hauled away, and the guy who’s supposed to be doing all this ‘cos its what’s best for me won’t even give me a damn explanation. I been here a full day now, and I ain’t even met the guy, but you want me to be grateful for that? Well screw you, and screw him,” Rachael yelled, feeling her nails digging into her palms.
“Shut up. Just shut up.” Arsha’s voice rose to a shriek. “You’re so horrible. He’s going to go to jail because of what he did for you, and you don’t even care. You don’t care about anyone but yourself.”
The words hit her like a blow to the chest. Rachael felt herself stagger back a step.
“He’s what?” she said, blinking. For a moment Arsha just glowered at her.
“I heard Milima saying it yesterday,” she said, her voice dropping to a low snarl. “Him and Abasi, because of what they did. Dad’s probably going to prison, and Abasi will lose his ship… All because they broke a few stupid rules trying to rescue you.”
“Good,” Rachael heard herself say.
It was as if the word was past her lips before she even had a chance to think about it. She saw the shift in Arsha’s expression, felt something inside herself recoil at what she had just done. Then a wave of white hot anger seemed to rush through her, surging up from her gut and spilling out over her tongue. “Well it serves them both right. Someone should have to pay for all this. For all of what’s happened. They had no right to do none of what they did, and now they’re both getting what they deserve.”
For a moment, the silence was deafening, as the girls stared at each other. When Arsha spoke, her voice was barely more than a whisper.
“You fucking bitch.”
Rachael could only stare as Arsha turned on her heel and stormed away, vanishing down the stairs to the lower deck. Moments later she heard more footsteps from the stairway leading up to the bridge, and then Micah appeared, looking worried.
“Hey, what’s happening here?” he said.
“Nothing. Nothing’s happening,” Rachael said. For a moment he regarded her silently, as if trying to decide whether or not to press the point.
“Well?” she snapped, her patience giving out on her. “You got something to say?”
He scowled, but said nothing. Rachael turned away, taking the stairs two at a time, just as Arsha had done. She soon found herself down on the bottom deck, in the empty corridor between the cabins. It was strangely quiet. Even the distant sound of the engines barely seemed to register. She pressed her fingers to her temples and leaned back against the wall.
“Christ almighty,” she muttered to herself, “you really screwed that one up.”
After a while she got to her feet and took a breath, trying to steel herself against what she knew she had to do next.
Arsha’s room was empty, but a glance towards the far end of the corridor told her where the girl had gone. The door to the hold was slightly ajar. In the dim light she wandered through the stacks of supplies. Compared to the cramped confines of the rest of the ship, the hold seemed vast. The smaller vessel, suspended in its cradle above her, seemed a little like a beached whale. She saw the name painted on the side. ‘Zephyr’. She wondered what it meant.
At the far end of the room she spotted a ladder leading up to a small loft space. When she reached the top she found a small nook, formed where the walls of the hull met at the nose of the ship. Two portholes and a single lamp provided light to a space that had been mostly filled by a beaten up old couch and a pair of well worn armchairs. Arsha was huddled up against one arm of the couch, eyes red, wetness glistening on her cheeks.
“Go away,” she said.
“Look, I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” Rachael said. Slowly, she eased herself down into the nearest armchair. “I didn’t mean it, what I said. I was just… I didn’t mean it.”
Arsha’s eyes seemed to study her for a moment.
“Yes you did.”
“Yeah. Alright.” Rachael pulled her knees up. “Maybe I did a bit. But it wasn’t right to say it, so I’m sorry for that.”
“Fine. What’s it matter anyway, if you’re sorry or not? Dad’s still going to go to prison, and Uncle Abasi’s still going to lose his ship, and Micah and Ilona won’t have jobs, and everyone’s going to leave, and I’ll just be…”
As her voice choked off into a sob, Arsha wiped a hand across her reddened eyes, leaving a damp smear across her cheeks.
“They shouldn’t never have come for me,” Rachael said. “Your dad, and the others. Even if they meant right and all, even if I’d wanted ’em to… It weren’t worth it. Not for me. Putting all these people through this. Taking all those risks. And putting you in the middle of it and all. He didn’t have no right to do that,” she continued, growing agitated as she spoke. “Why’d he have you out there nearly getting killed and all that? Why did you have to be a part of it?”
She saw the girl’s expression shift slightly, anger turning to resentment.
“Because I asked to. Because I wanted to help you,” Arsha said, bitterly.
“Help me? Why?”
“I don’t know. Does there have to be a reason to want to help someone?”
Rachael said nothing at first, as she struggled to wrap her head around this.
“Yeah, well, I don’t want no help.”
“Right, I get it. You’re tough.” Arsha turned away, staring at the wall. Stranded in the silence, Rachael gazed out of the porthole at the endless blue sky beyond. She wondered how high up they were.
“I guess it must be easier for you,” Rachael said, at last. “Asking for help.”
“What do you mean?” Arsha said, turning to her with narrowed eyes.
“I dunno, it’s just… You’ve got all these people around you, all this… Family. I never really had that. It must be nice, trusting people. Being able to make friends easy.”
Though she couldn’t say what sort of reaction she had been expecting, Rachael was completely taken aback as Arsha threw her head back and laughed. It was a sick, bitter laughter that seemed to rattle in her throat, even as her shoulders shook with the force of it.
“You… You really think I know anything about making friends? I grew up on a ship. My dad’s an archaeologist. I’ve never been more than two months in the same place, and most of those were in the middle of a desert somewhere. You know why I really wanted to help you so much?”
Arsha turned to look her square in the eyes.
“Because I honestly thought there was a chance that we might be friends. Fates, how pathetic is that? I mean, seriously. This…” she gestured at the two of them, “This is the closest to making an actual friend that I’ve ever been in my life.”
Silence followed, broken only by the sound of the wind against the hull, as Rachael looked into Arsha’s eyes and was met with only a cold challenge as the girl stared back at her.
“Yeah,” Rachael shook her head, sadly, “you and me both.”
To her own surprise, she found herself smiling at the appalling awkwardness of it all. With everything else that had happened, it seemed like such a foolish thing to get hung up on.
For a moment Arsha just blinked in surprise. Then, slowly at first, she began smiling back, almost as if she wasn’t aware of it herself. Quietly, falteringly, they both began laugh. Rachael felt the laughter grow, rolling over her in waves. Each time it came close to fading, the sight of Arsha’s expression seemed to set her off again. In that moment nothing else mattered. The past two days, the past few weeks, the past years, all of it fell away, and there was nothing but the infectious joy of Arsha’s smile.
“I really am sorry, for what I said before,” Rachael said at last, as she wiped her eyes and tried to put on a more serious face. “I’m still not cool with your dad, or nothing, but you didn’t deserve me laying all that on you. You’ve been so nice to me, and I shouldn’t have been so mean to you. Especially not with all you’ve been dealing with.”
“It’s OK,” Arsha said. “I guess you don’t have a whole lot to feel good about right now.”
“Not so much. But thanks, for trying to help.”
“Yeah, well, it turns out you’re not completely horrible,” Arsha said, still smiling.
“Did… Did you want to finish showing me around?” Rachael ventured.
“Nah,” Arsha said, her smile widening. “Let’s do something fun.”
The heavy iron door made a clattering sound, as Arsha spun the wheel lock. The girl kept glancing over her shoulder, at the stairway that lead up to the bridge. Then they slipped through the doorway, and Arsha swung the hatch closed behind them, careful not to slam it. They had stepped into a room that was nothing more than a few feet of hallway with a door at either end. The outer door, like the inner, was of heavy steel with another wheel lock. Arsha turned to one side and pulled open a set of cupboard doors set into the wall.
“Here, you’ll need this.”
Arsha thrust a full length coat into Rachael’s arms. She pulled out another for herself, and quickly shrugged it on.
Rachael fumbled with the heavy coat. The cloth was stiff, with a prickly texture, laden with buckles and straps. Cursing, she shifted around inside it, but couldn’t get the massive thing to sit right.
“How am I supposed to wear this thing? It’s huge.”
“Give me a minute,” Arsha said. “I just need to tighten it up for you.”
She set to fussing with the various straps, tightening here and loosening there according to some strange formula known only to herself.
“Try it now.”
Rachael shifted her arms experimentally. She had to admit it really did feel quite comfortable.
“See?” Arsha said, a little smugly, as she set about doing up the clasps on the front of the coat.
“Hey, I can handle that by myself. I’m not five,” Rachael said, fending the girl off. “Just because I don’t understand your crazy adjustable coats…”
Soon they were both safely ensconced, and Arsha pulled back the bolts on the heavy outer door. Then she worked at the brass handle by the doorway, and with a clatter of spinning gears it swung ponderously open. A wall of light burst through the crack and Rachael was hit full in the face by an icy blast of wind. She pulled the goggles on and tugged the collar of the coat up around her face, suddenly glad of both.
Blinking away the spots from her eyes, she looked through the open door. The deck of the ship was as long as a football pitch, bordered on all sides by open blue sky.
“Come on,” Arsha bellowed over the roar of the wind, and waved her out onto the deck.
The sun burned down at them from a clear sky. Tiny wisps of cloud whipped past the ship on either side. Running to the railing that surrounded the deck, Rachael leaned over, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ground below. Peering through the rigging that bedecked the underside of the hull she caught only glimpses of a deep blue ocean. It was staggeringly beautiful. She had never even been on a plane before, but she imagined that even that could not compare to standing out on the deck of a ship, seeing open sky all around and below you. Something impossible, incredible, and utterly beautiful.
“Where are we?” she yelled at Arsha.
“We’re in the Ways,” Arsha yelled back.
“You’re saying that like it’s supposed to mean something,” Rachael replied, struggling to keep shouting over the wind.
“The Ways are like…”
Arsha grimaced, and gestured towards the tower behind them. At first Rachael thought she meant for them to go back inside, but instead Arsha lead them around the side of the tower and up a small flight of steps, towards the huge tail assembly of the ship. Sheltered below the back part of the bridge, behind the bulk of the tower, the wind died off and they could talk normally.
“So where on Earth are we, exactly?” Rachael said, as Arsha leaned out over the back railing.
“Well, we’re not. We left the Hearth… I mean, Earth, like you’d call it… We left there while you were still out. We’ve been travelling through the Ways for most of a day now. We’re heading for Tiras,” the girl said, as she fumbled around for something in the mass of rigging that trailed off the ship.
“Is that a country? And what do you mean about leaving Earth?”
“It’s not a country really… It’s, well… It’s a world,” Arsha said, as she turned around with a couple of lengths of steel cable caught in one gloved hand. Looking up, Rachael saw that the cables ran all the way from the top of the tail fin and down past the edge of the deck.
“Wait, you mean like…” Rachael paused, as she recalled some of what Justin had told her. “So these way thingies, they’re like the places where you can slip between these worlds, right? But I thought they were supposed to be… I dunno… Like stepping through a door or something.”
“It’s not that easy. If you could walk through the Ways, we wouldn’t need ships, I bet.”
As Arsha spoke, she reached for the front of Rachael’s coat, and fished out several large metal clips on thick straps. She began to methodically attach each of the clips to the first cable.
“So how does it work then, flying through these things?”
Arsha smiled and shrugged.
“Sorry, I really don’t know that much about it. You should ask Abasi some time. He’s an expert navigator. He knows all about the Ways. But even he says there’s lots about them we just don’t understand.”
“So you have, like, maps or something?”
“Well, something like that. The Ways are complicated. They shift and change. Sometimes the patterns are predictable, sometimes they aren’t. So travelling from one place to another, it’s not always the same.”
“So why’s it look like we’re over an ocean then?” Rachael said, as Arsha tested the last of the clips. Apparently satisfied, the girl produced another set of clips from her own coat.
“Dad says that the Ways are sort of… They don’t have a proper shape. Stuff that you can see and touch. So, they build themselves out of bits of other worlds. Like a whole bunch of random pieces of stuff thrown together,” she said, as she began to attach herself to the other cable.
“That’s insane. How can all this be hiding, like no one ever sees it? How’s no one from my world ever found them?”
“Because you have to know where to look. They’re not something you can see. You just have to know where you’re going. People from your world, they don’t even know the Ways exist,” Arsha said, as she tested the last clip.
“Doesn’t anyone ever just find one, by accident?”
“Sometimes? Dad says it’s very rare, but it does happen.”
“And what happens to them after that?” Rachael said.
Seemingly at a loss for words, Arsha just gestured in Rachael’s direction.
“Oh. Right,” Rachael said. “So… What are we doing here anyhow?”
Arsha grinned and hoisted herself up to sit on the railing, with her back to the open sky.
“Something fun,” she said. Before Rachael could ask what she meant, the girl spread her arms, raised her head, and fell backwards off the deck.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.