by Meryl Stenhouse
People who lived on the land, who saw the changing of the seasons, who heard the rush of meltwater over the soil did not know, would never know, that ice had a voice. Sometimes it sang under the iron runners, a grating harmony that you heard through your ears and through your bones. If the sails were belling full its frozen voice would rise to a scream that travelled faster than your ship, faster than the wind.
At night, docked in a sheltered harbour, the old blue ice creaked and moaned as the temperatures dropped, squeaking against the wooden pylons as it expanded, so strong that sometimes it would push rocks up the old levee walls. In the summer, when the top of the ice melted and refroze into a surface like old glass, the pallid sun would heat the new ice until it cracked like the trunk of an old tree, sending a fountain of powdered ice and snow into the sky.
And sometimes, when the sky darkened and the breeze stirred the crystals into shifting clouds, to be thrown rat-a-tat against the hull of poplar and oak, the voices of dead sailors claimed by the ice would whisper and beg for release from their servitude to the cold gods.
Only in the deep, deep dark of winter was the ice silent, while the world held its breath, waiting under ash-choked skies for the sun to rise again.
The ice was blue today, the roaring wind sweeping it free of slush and snow so that, if Marta looked behind them, the edge between the ice and sky blended into a narrow, hazy band. She glanced at the compass, her hand in its heavy fur mitten clamped around the tiller of the Jirina. They were eight hours out of Gothenburg, sweeping across the frozen North Sea with a hold full of Nordic fur. The pale sun wore a halo born of ice and ash. It warmed her face, unusually strong for March, and she turned instinctively to it.
The wind shifted suddenly, snapping the mast pennant crosswise. The Jirina jibed, the boom sweeping across the deck, a danger to unwary sailors. Marta hauled on the tiller, turning the ice-cutter into the wind. The vagrant gust dropped as quickly as it started. The mainsail luffed and Marta struggled with the tiller, now heavy and unresponsive.
Roza, on fore watch, left her post and darted across the deck to pull down the mainsail sheets. Tight once more, the sail caught the wind and Marta could finally bring her back to their original heading. Marta glanced at the hazy sky. Wind driven ice peppered her skin like tiny hornet stings. The wind dropped, rose, dropped again. The Jirina shuffled on her runners, the steady hiss of her passage fading.
Roza crossed the open deck to join Marta. “Devil in the winds, today,” she said.
Marta glanced up at her eldest daughter, blond hair cropped short, broad shoulders obvious even under the heavy coat. Roza had been taller than Marta at fifteen, and as a grown woman threatened to equal Marta’s husband in stature, if not breadth. “As long as it doesn’t die completely. I don’t want to be caught out here in a calm.”
“No calms in March, Ma. It won’t stop blowing until nearly June.” Roza stiffened and pointed to starboard.
Marta spotted movement among the broken ice to the north. A white bear lumbered between the ridges, followed by her three cubs. Marta watched the little family until the Jirina left them behind.
“Never seen one this far south before,” said Roza.
“Hunting the seals, maybe.”
“Still. Not usual to see them outside of Scandinavia. They must have crossed a lot of ice,” said Roza. “There’s the Dunedin, Ma.”
Marta tore her gaze away from the horizon and looked to port. The wreck of the HMS Dunedin marked the last leg of their run. The harbour at Den Helder was only two hours away. Marta shifted her hands on the tiller, flexing fingers gone stiff from gripping too tight. She’d been feeling the cold since they left Gothenburg, digging into her backbone, even through her coat. The sky was oppressive, bleached almost white, the clouds high and racing, faster than the Jirina could go. She squinted against the cold sting on her cheeks. She’d felt something behind them ever since they left the coast of Sweden.
Marta eased the Jirina to starboard. Around the wreck shadows stained the ice; sometimes debris, sometimes the swollen corpses of dead sailors. There was good iron on the massive battleship, even after a hundred years, but no sailor would take their ship near, afraid of waking the frozen souls from their sleep.
The towering hull loomed over their tiny ice-cutter. A hundred years ago the Dunedin had run aground on the edge of the ice shelf. Now the shelf stretched further, until the rolling sea was a glimmer and flash at the horizon, where blue ice turned to grey ice and water at the edge of the shelf, marked by the flickering wings of the kittywakes, and below them lurked the brown bodies of the seals.
“Take the helm,” she said. “I’m going to check our position.”
Marta went down the little steps into the main cabin, where the chart was pinned to the table. There were cups in the galley sink, and the smell of chicory filled the room. Out of the cold and the wind her nose heated up as if a coal rested on the tip. She bent over the chart, fretting herself into a lather with distance and speed and her fear that something was behind them. She pulled off one mitten and rubbed her thumb and forefinger together until heat warmed her skin. No chance for a roaring fire here, only the little stove with their meagre supplies of coke to stop the cold from getting in.
She hadn’t been born a sailor, like her husband Berghund, like her three children. She’d married the great, blond Dane and stepped from the church onto the ship, or so it seemed when she looked back.
Her youngest son Caran came out of the tiny cabin he shared with his brother Micah, his fingers stained with ink, his gaze faraway, still existing in that place he went to when he wrote. Somewhere warm, she thought, where the ice couldn’t touch him. The flush of warmth on his cheek reminded her of her own cracked and stinging skin, grown hard with the onslaught of wind and cold.
“What are you scribbling now?” she snapped.
Caran blinked and came back to himself with a hiss of indrawn breath. “I spoke to a man in Gothenburg, a trader. He said he came across a village that lived under the protection of a volcano; Semyachek, and his brothers, Kamen and Ogon.” His gaze drifted over Marta’s left shoulder, his lips parted, his eyes dreamy. “He said if you climb the mountain to the top, there’s a lake there, a green lake, that smokes and bubbles, and the air makes you cough, and if you drink the water you will die.” His eyes widened. “But then on the other side, the southern side, there are stands of trees, and lakes filled with fish, and the soil is so rich that you can push a seed into it and you will have fruit the next year.”
Marta snorted. “Tall tales.”
“He saw it, Ma. I believe him. And tunnels under the ice sheets, carved by hot water.”
“Put hot water on the ice and it will freeze.”
Caran shook his head, lips pressed together. “It’s too much heat, Ma. It melts the ice.”
“Nothing melts the ice,” she said, turning away. What point in these bitter dreams? A thousand years ago Grimsvoten and his brothers had tried to fight their masters, sending fire into the air, flooding down into the sea, blacking out the sky with their anger. But the cold gods had fought back, and as the days darkened the ice had crept down the world, until you could walk on the sea from Umeo to Lisbon.
Marta shivered and crossed herself. This was all long ago. The world was quiet now, but still sometimes the ice would go black when ash fell out of the sky, and the babes and the old people would die in their beds at night.
“Stop dreaming and do something useful,” she said over her shoulder. “Coil the aft ropes that you left in such a mess.”
The stairs creaked as he made his way on deck. Marta scowled at the chart. Dreams. Berghund had been a dreamer, and where had that brought them?
Feet stamped urgently on the deck, echoing in the cargo hold. Marta ran up the steps and stuck her head out of the hatch.
“Storm behind,” said Roza. She pointed to the east.
A low bank of cloud raced across the horizon. The masthead pennant dropped, flapped, dropped again and Jirina‘s deck trembled beneath her boots. Marta felt a moment of relief, as the rabbit does when it sees the fox bearing down, when the trembling agitation changes to the need for flight, before adrenaline kicked in and they ran, ran before death.
The powdered snow beneath the ship’s runners blew across the deck in sheets, driven by the wind that tugged at her hood, tried to push her off the deck with the force of its anger. Still nearly two hours to the safety of Den Helder. Roza leaned her weight to the tiller as the Jirina heeled before the onslaught.
Marta hauled on the ship’s bell. “All hands, all hands!” she cried. She took the tiller from Roza. “Reef sail,” she shouted as the mainsail belled out with the weight of the gale. An admonition hovered on her lips for Roza, that she had waited so long to call her captain, but another glance at the racing clouds stilled her voice. It would catch them in moments. She searched for the dark shape of the Dunedin, saw it swallowed by the driving snow.
Micah hurried on deck, pulling on his mittens, adding his weight to the tiller as they tried to keep the Jirina from jibing as the wind shifted around the compass points.
“Where’s Caran?” she shouted.
Micah jerked his chin to the rail.
Caran was leaning over the rail, hood thrown back, staring behind them at the racing storm, shielding his eyes against the stinging ice crystals carried by the wind.
“Caran!” she shouted, but the wind whipped her voice away. She dared to release one hand from the tiller to hammer at the ship’s bell, until finally he heard.
“Reef!” she snarled at him, and flung an arm out at the staysail.
The wind chose that moment to decide on a direction, catching the mainsail and sending them lurching across the ice. Marta and Micah hung on to the tiller as the boom swung across the deck. Even with the mainsail reefed, the Jirina raced across the frozen sea.
Roza struggled over to join them, leaning down to shout over the wind. “We need to reef the staysail!”
“Caran is doing it!” As she said it, she turned.
Caran was not there. The staysail sheet was still in full canvas, the driving snow dancing across the deck, now empty of her youngest son. Micah took two steps forward, releasing the tiller.
The Jirina lurched and the tiller jerked from her hands. Pain pounded her fingers. Roza and Micah threw themselves on the tiller as the ship heeled before the force of the storm. The wind tore at the staysail, dragging them on at a reckless pace. They huddled together on the deck, holding on to the tiller as the ship sliced across the snow, away from her son.
Marta tore the scarf from her face, let the wind scratch her cheeks with icy claws. No way to turn back, against this screaming wind, with the sails full to bursting. No way to find him in the driving, blinding snow. But still her hand wanted to haul on the tiller, to turn them around, to fight their way through the storm.
The runners screamed on the ice. They would go over, if she turned, and that would be the end of them.
Die quickly, she prayed. Let the cold cradle you into death. It was the only kindness she could count on. She bit her lip until the blood ran hot down her chin.
The Jirina‘s smooth gait faltered as they hit the younger, ridged ice to the north. Marta’s face burned, but worse than the freezing gale was the cold in her guts. Too far out onto the younger ice and they risked hitting a weak spot. The hiss of the Jirina‘s runners changed to a shriek as she sheared across the ice. Marta leaned into the tiller, teeth clenched, anticipating every moment the crack of a broken runner, or worse, the crunching, deep note of breaking ice.
Micah tied a rope around his waist. What Caran should have done. What he had always been told to do. She cried at Micah to stay with them, but he didn’t hear her, or didn’t want to. He struggled out to the bow, his shape fading to a dark blob through the sheets of driving slush. The staysail came down and they slowed, but the wind against the hull carried them on, the runners thumping into ridges and hollows. A shape loomed ahead of them out of the snow. Marta hauled on the tiller, screaming at her children to pull, pull. The Jirina turned; a thud, a crack and snow fountained over the deck. The ship slewed in the wind, runners grinding across the ice.
“Anchors!” she cried. “Go!” She leaned on the bench, tore the glove from her aching hand, waited for the cold to numb the pain.
Micah and Roza grabbed the forked ice anchors and jumped over the side. Ropes flexed, tightened. The Jirina jerked to a halt.
Roza climbed back over the rail. “It’s a berg,” she said, grabbing stakes and a hammer and diving over the side once more. The clang of the hammer rang out over the wind. Micah hauled himself over the rail, faceless and shapeless under furs.
“Stow,” she yelled, though there was no need. They worked together in the cold with fingers going numb, stowing ropes, tying down the sails. Roza came back up and nodded at her. She said no word, just unhooked the starboard lantern and took it with her below, Micah on her heels.
Marta lit the helmsman’s lantern and stood alone on the deck. She looked back into the driving ice, face frozen and burning hot. The icy wind crawled into her bones. How far had they come since Caran went over the edge? How many miles? Ten? Twenty?
She hung over the rail, fighting a wild desire to jump down onto the ice, retrace their path, find Caran. Would it take him minutes to die, or hours? Would he huddle in his furs, trying to fight the cold? Would he be on his feet, following them into the storm? The wind made figures in the driving snow, or maybe her own desire did. He could be behind them. Not far at all. Or lying on the ice, back broken. Needing her to come for him.
She was ready to leap when Roza’s arm wrapped around her waist.
“He’s gone, Ma. Let him go.” The wind tore her words away.
“He’s not dead yet. He’s not dead.”
“You’ll never find him.”
She fought Roza every step of the way down the stairs into the cabin. She sank onto the bench, tasted blood on her cracked lips. The storm pounded against the hull. The Jirina, even without sail, would not keep still, pulling and fussing at her anchors, as restless as Marta was herself. She put a hand on the hull, felt the cold seeping into the wood.
Roza and Micah huddled together at the table. Roza’s shoulders shook and Marta realised she was weeping for her brother lost on the ice. Marta saw Caran’s face, the warm bloom of his cheeks fading as the ice crept into his veins. In her vision he had taken off his coat and lay outstretched on the ice, welcoming the cold into his heart.
She reached inside herself for tears, but found her heart had frozen into a cold, grey lump.
Marta leaned against the cabin wall, feeling the wind against the wood. The roar of it sunk into her bones.
They sat in the yellow light of the paraffin lantern, bullied into silence by the pounding storm. Slowly the roar faded to a hum, then a whisper, then silence. She should stir herself to put more coal in the stove. She should get up to do that, to keep the cabin warm.
But it was Roza who lifted her head, wiped her nose on her sleeve and went to the stove. Marta listened to the clunk and hiss as the lumps landed on the ashes. She should get up and make them all cups of hot chicory.
Roza came up behind her. The weight of her hand, her expectations, roused Marta. She shook herself, got up from the table, wiping bloody lips on her hand. She pulled her hood off, and snow fell wetly to the floor.
Micah came over to her with a towel and water, and pressed it to her cheeks. It came away bloody. He folded it and wiped her chin. “He should have worn a rope.”
“He never remembered,” she whispered. She took the towel and the bowl from him. “Check the coal supplies.”
“Three days.” He never had to check. He always knew.
It wasn’t good news. The storm could run for longer than that, long enough to freeze them. It had happened to too many other ships, caught out on the open ice.
They ate, the hot soup tasting like ash in her mouth. Roza strapped her hand, swollen and red though not, thankfully, broken. A claw was no good on the ropes. She must have her hand.
When it was tied tight and swollen like a dead cat, she went into Caran’s cabin, fetched the small wooden box that held his personal belongings, as was her duty. Roza and Micah watched, silent.
Her fingers rested on the smooth wood. She knew what would be inside.
Roza was beside her. “Let me.”
“No.” The word grated in her throat. “No.” It was her duty as captain. Her duty as his mother. She opened the box.
Paper filled the space, pages and pages of Caran’s scribbling. Stories about far away lands, myths, tales he had heard and written down. Poems about the beauty of the ice. Not the sort of writing that would earn him a rich patron, fame, a pampered life. The sort of writing he would read to other dreamers, other searchers, in the dark bars around the harbours; about cold wind, and hot lava bubbling over glaciers, seals upon the ice shelf and sharks below.
She pushed it aside, found his naming-rune at the bottom. Her fingers rubbed across the pale wood that she had not touched since he had come of age. On the back was Berghund’s name, and hers. She dropped it back in the box. Her fingers lingered on the handwritten sheets, the words blurring, shifting in her vision, though her eyes were dry, dry as the cold-blistered skin of her cheeks. She wanted to read them, wanted to absorb his words one last time before consigning them to the fire.
His money she gave to Micah to return to the family fund. The wood pen, the rune, the pages, all went back into the box. She closed it with trembling fingers.
Every head bowed as she said his name for the last time, clear and loud, with not a tremble in her voice. The box went into the stove, flames taking his possessions, his soul from them, forever.
Do not carry the dead. That was the rule, out on the ice. The souls of the dead were heavy, and would drag a ship to its end. So they burned their possessions, let their names soar on smoke and ash to the flaming heart of Grímsvötn, protected forever from the ice and snow by the heat of the great volcano across the sea.
Marta watched the flames, empty and cold inside. Caran, Caran, foolish boy with his head in the clouds. She clenched her good hand under her coat. Words wouldn’t get you a job, or put food on the table. Berghund had said once, raging at Caran’s inability to remember the simplest instructions, that they should apprentice the boy to a clerk. But Marta had stood firm. Caran came out on the ice with them, where the air was clean and not choked with smog and grit, where he had a chance at a good life, not an early death, coughing out his lungs in some tiny room, or losing fingers and more in the stinking factories that tore men apart like the sharks that lurked at the edges of the ice. No, she had wanted him by her, where she could keep him safe.
Too late now to regret that decision, but still the tang of it rested in the back of her throat.
No-one spoke until the box was ash. “Off watch,” she rasped. Micah handed her a cup of water and she drank. “Bank the stove. We may have to hang on for days.”
They turned off all the lamps but one, piled up furs to keep themselves warm as the coals burned down. Marta pulled the covers off Caran’s bunk to add to her own. Something clattered to the floor.
In the dim light she saw a pen and a single sheet of paper. She bent down to pick them up. A half-finished poem that he must have been working on when they called him on deck. She moved to the stove, opened the door to throw them in. For a moment the pen hovered in her fingers. She hesitated, then slipped pen and sheet into her shirt.
She would burn them tomorrow. Just for tonight, she would hold them close. Let the cold dead come knocking if they would.
Marta stood on the deck in the grey dawn, shivering with the weight of the cold night air pressing down around her. Snow piled in drifts across the Jirina‘s decks. Frayed rope ends stuck out of the snow and one of the mainsail blocks, hanging loose from a snapped rope, tapped against the mast. Marta sucked in a lungful of icy air, gritting her teeth against the sharp pain in her lungs. At least the mast was intact, and there was enough of the mainsail left to bring them into port.
Roza and Micah came on deck, and as the pallid sun crept up into the white sky, they warmed themselves by digging the decks and hull clear of snow, dumping it aft.
To the south, a dark shape appeared out of the morning gloom, resolving itself into a ship, a double-masted cutter flying across the ice, full sails making the most of the light early winds. She waited for them to slow, watched for the flags to go up, asking if they needed assistance. Toyed with accepting help. A tow would get them out on the ice faster.
But no flags went up. The ship stayed on its course. As it swept past, a mile or two away from them, she saw the white pennant at the masthead with the stylised black bull at the centre.
“Caring,” muttered Roza.
“They’ll not dare stop or they’ll be late and their pay docked,” said Micah.
Marta grunted. Every sailor had their tales of woe about the unfortunates working for the Black Bull, but the Bull’s sailors were notoriously close-mouthed about their business, out of loyalty, or fear. When you worked for the Bull, he owned your soul as well as your ship.
Still, there was the unspoken law of the ice. You stopped to aid a ship in distress, because one day it could be you out there. Every death on the ice was another soul gone to the cold gods, more frozen bodies to walk south, bringing the cold further. And for those unlucky ships, foundered or lost, the cold dead whispered, tapping on the hull, come out, come out. They sent ice creeping up the side, cracking the timbers so the cold dead could crawl in and take sailors in their bunks, leave them stiff and dead-eyed in the morning light. The only cure was fire. Out away from the main routes over the ice you would find the dead ships, the burned hulls clutching at the sky with blackened fingers.
Marta turned her back on the ship. When their path was clear of snow they raised the mainsail, sliding the point down and rolling up the boom until the remaining sail, small and oddly-shaped, was free of large tears. The fresh wind tugged at the sail, but the Jirina didn’t move.
“Give her a hand,” said Marta.
Roza and Micah climbed over the side and set shoulders to the hull. The runners squeaked over ridged ice. Marta lashed the tiller and went forward to haul on the sheets, tightening the sail as much as she was able.
Slowly the Jirina inched forward, scraping, jerking, pushed as much by the young, strong backs of her children as the damaged sail. Finally they reached smoother ice, and the Jirina slid forward.
Marta jibed, bringing the ship sliding to a gentle drift to let Roza and Micah catch up and climb aboard.
“Damaged boards on the starboard side,” said Roza as she came over the rail.
“Not yet, but they’ll need to be replaced as soon as we can.”
Micah grunted. “Let’s hope they hold, then.”
The sun was high in the sky by the time they came into the sheltered bay at Den Helder, the slush and ice from the storm pushed to the harbour walls by the activity of the town. They moved slowly in among the slender Danish bilanders and found a berth at the south end of the docks.
Roza crossed the deck, tugging her hood down. “I’m going down to the boatbuilders to see if I can source a new sail. I can see the harbourmaster on my way.”
“Good. You do that and I will buy some rope.” Marta leaned down the steps to call out to Micah. “Get fifty gilder from the box, Micah.”
Micah appeared at the bottom of the cabin steps, a frown on his face. “What for?”
“Repairs,” she snapped. What else would she be asking money for?
“Fifty is a lot, Ma.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Twenty for the rope, and the canvas for the new mainsail, not to mention the making of it, wood for a new block, though at least she could get Denny to carve that for her, and she’d forgotten to ask Caran if he needed new paper, and–
Grief like an avalanche. “Just get the money. I don’t have all day to stand here arguing with you!” She turned away and leaned on the rail. Why did she have to argue with him for everything?
Roza came over and handed her a pouch of money, and the damaged block.
“Thanks,” she grunted. “Take thirty for the sail.”
“I already have. Should I come back here, or go to Evonne’s?”
“Evonne’s. I’ll be there.”
Marta walked along the docks, jostled by tall Danes in their long coats, leather boots thudding on the planks. The sun glinted off the icicles hanging from the eaves. She pulled her coat around her, shivering as the wind whipped powdery snow up from the bay and into the town. Someone ran into her, knocking her injured hand. The rumble of a barrow, a harried apology and they were past her. She would go to Evonne’s and get the block started, then pick up rope. Evonne would make soup, and they would sit around the table as a family, Roza silent and calm, Micah grumbling and Caran laughing and reading out his terrible poetry–
The wind cut through her coat, filling her chest with ice so that she could barely breathe. She pushed her way through the press of hurrying people to the wall and leaned on it.
“All right, missus?”
She looked up into a stranger’s eyes, hidden behind a grubby beard. “Fine.” She pushed herself off the wall and went on. Block, rope. There were things to do. No time for malingering.
Evonne and her son lived in three gloomy rooms over a shop. Evonne opened the door, a bright smile in a worn face. Berghund’s sister was so like him, like Roza, tall and blond and broad shouldered. But the years had carved their mark into her face, and though her skin wasn’t reddened from the wind and sun as Marta’s was, her cornflower eyes looked out from furrowed fields and there were deep valleys either side of her mouth.
Still her embrace was warm, though not enough to melt the block of ice in Marta’s chest. Marta let herself be wrapped in strong arms for a moment, before turning away and pulling the door closed against the driving wind.
“I have some work for Denny,” she said, holding up the block.
Evonne called her son, leading Marta through the tiny front room to the kitchen at the back. Marta looked through the grimy window to the soot-smudged bricks of the shop across the lane. “How are you?”
“Keeping warm,” said Evonne, busy ladling water into the kettle. Marta sat on a chair at the worn kitchen table, one end taken up with Evonne’s repair work, canvas pants folded over to expose the tears.
Denny wandered in, his face creasing into a smile. She held out the block for him and watched his big hands turning over the block, his tongue protruding between his lips, his slanted eyes almost hidden in the puffy face. He could copy anything at all, but if asked to create something from his head, would mumble and walk away, or on the bad days, bang his head upon the wall in frustration.
Evonne’s husband had dreamed of a son to take over his land, but had gone away chasing that dream when Denny was five and it was clear to everyone that he would never be right. Berghund had dreamed of a fleet of ships, until the boom broke his back one night and she found herself a widow. Men and dreams never came to much good.
“Did you find a buyer for your cargo?” Evonne’s voice was light, but there was tension in her shoulders.
“Micah is selling it this morning. Gone down to Nelson’s. He always gives a fair price.”
“Nelson has been bought out,” said Evonne. “He’s got the Black Bull over his shop. Says he can only sell to approved ships now.”
Marta blinked. Nelson’s had bought their last cargo, not two weeks ago. “Oh approved, is it?” Marta folded her arms and glared. What was he playing at?
Evonne looked up. “He means Black Bull captains.”
Marta resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I know that. But there’s Holm’s.”
“Boarded up. And Eindecker’s has a black bull as well.”
“What about Van Arnen?”
“Burnt out, and half the street, too.”
A chip of worry settled in Marta’s chest. She imagined Micah out there this morning, taking his barrow-load of furs from shop to shop, being turned away, or finding them empty. Where would they sell to? No, surely not all the traders had been bought by the Bull.
Denny came back with his leather bag and sat at the table with the piece of wood she had bought for him. He brought out his chisels, placing them down in descending order of size, carefully lining up the tips. With delicate, meticulous movements, he cut into the wood, curls and chips falling to the floor.
Marta watched his progress, slow and painstaking. Evonne had tried to apprentice him, but he’d never lasted long. Shops wanted someone fast and flexible. For Denny, everything was at his own pace. But he survived, and gave his mother as much love as he gave trouble.
She suddenly had an image of Caran sitting at the table beside Denny, crippled but alive. He could stay with Evonne while they went out on the ice. Could sit in the warmth and write his poems. The fantasy gripped her, dragged her along through years where she got older, but her son’s smile never changed. She reached into her coat, felt the smooth barrel of the pen. Pages crinkled beneath her fingers. She pulled them out, looked down at the words, but the black squiggles wouldn’t come together, wouldn’t form meaning for her.
“What are you reading?” said Evonne, putting a cup of chicory in front of her.
“Nothing.” She cleared her throat, put the pages back inside her coat and bent over her drink.
Evonne opened the stove door and tossed in the chips of wood fallen from Denny’s hands. It took Marta a moment to recognise the shape of wood, not coal lumps, in the orange flames. She glanced around, noticing now the lack of the sideboard that had been part of Evonne’s wedding gifts.
Lean times. Marta and Evonne existed on the edge, like the kittywakes, darting in for a scrap fallen from the predator’s mouth. But lately, the scraps were fewer and further apart, the predator larger and less willing to share his kill.
As the chips fell softly to the floor and Evonne’s sideboard charred to ash, she told Evonne in halting, gasping words of the loss of her son.
The top end of the docks, where the big freighters unloaded, was a different world. Steam hissed and roared as the cranes worked to transfer boxes and bales from the ships to the waiting haulage trams, for their journey through the streets and out to the main train line. From here they would go south, and east, and north, into the vast, sprawling Teutonic conclave, the trading giant that kept ice-locked Europe alive. The clouds of steam, the heat, the stink of metal were a thing alive.
Along the walls of the shops and warehouses the detritus of the wars crouched, shivering; men and women and children bundled up in whatever cloth they could find to fight off the cold and survive another night. Marta felt the weight of them in her chest, a tightness born of guilt, and gratitude that her family, at least, had a trade and a chance at life. The children, rake-thin and blue-lipped, held out their hands to her, dead-eyed and listless with hunger and cold. She kept her hand on the pouch under her coat, well aware that desperate scavengers could be deadly if they sensed prey. She couldn’t feed all of them, couldn’t feed any of them, but the guilt and horror was too much. It numbed them all until the daily arrivals became no longer people, but nuisances, like the ship rats. They lived on a day’s pittance from working on the docks, and endured the kicks and abuse from the locals until the cold defeated them and their bodies were slipped under the ice.
She turned away from the docks and headed into the town. Here were gathered the more genteel aspects of the shipbuilders’ trade; the carpenters, ropemakers and provisioners. The steaming and greasing yards occupied the longer arm of the bay, where their effluvia floated out over the ice, except in the evenings when the on-shore breeze brought it streaming in to choke the impoverished families crowded at the bottom of the town.
The shop bell jangled as she stepped through into the warmth, pulling off her gloves. A mean fire burned in a little stove in the corner, filling the room with the sharp scent of coal. A little bent man shuffled through from the back, wiping his mouth, leaving a trail of sauce.
Lunchtime already? Marta’s stomach clenched, but she had no time and less money to stop off and buy something from a street vendor.
“Good day,” he said in brusque Teuton. Marta explained her requirements, they haggled over the price. Marta handed over the final tally and pocketed the copper she had left.
“I can call you a carter,” said the man, as Marta slung the heavy rope over her shoulders. She grunted, and hefted it a little higher.
“No, thank you.” She had been hauling rope since she was a young woman, and besides, a carter was a waste of a few pennies that could be spent elsewhere. She pulled on her gloves and picked up the lighter ropes in her hands. Her injured hand caught and she hissed, slipping the coil up and over her wrist so she didn’t have to grip it. “Good day.”
He nodded as she stepped out of the shop. Bent under the weight of the rope, at first she didn’t see the man leaning against the wall.
Marta tilted her head up. A tall man, with a generous brown beard, long coat and sea boots. Not a sailor she knew, but clearly a sailor. She took in the cut of his coat. A well-paid sailor. She managed a short ‘good-day’, moving on to discourage further conversation.
But the man didn’t take the hint, falling into step with her. “That looks heavy, captain. Let me help.” Before she could dissent, he had lifted the heavy rope from her shoulders. She couldn’t hang on to it without wrestling with him. Captain. Did he really know she was a captain, or was he just buttering her up?
He slung the rope easily over his shoulder, a demonstration of strength. If it was meant to reassure, it failed.
“Stormy last night,” she said. She could stand straight now without the weight, but was less comfortable. Her head only came up to his collarbone, and she was aware of her wrist, held at an awkward angle to protect her injured hand.
“Ah. Storm’s no good. Puts you behind.”
She hated that people were watching them as they walked down the dock together. It was him. He was huge. No, there was something else.
“I’m sorry, have we met?”
“No, but I know of you by reputation.” He stopped and held out a hand. “Captain Rogers.”
Maybe a friend of her late husband. She shook his hand awkwardly with her left hand.
“Black Bull line.”
Marta yanked her hand away. Too late. She had shaken the hand of a Black Bull captain, right there on the docks for all to see.
She saw the gleam of triumph in his eyes. He had tricked her. And now the rumour mill would start.
“I’d love to stay and chat, Captain, but I have a ship to repair.” She held out her hand for the rope.
He slung it off his shoulder and gave it to her without a fuss, but with her hands full of other rope, she fumbled it and dropped it. Damn. She would have to pick up the heavy mess. If she left it here it would be gone by the time she got back. Should have spent a damn penny for a carter.
She put down her lighter ropes and recoiled the big shank.
Rogers leaned on a bollard, offering no help. “Puts you behind, a storm. Eats into your profits. And then there’s repairs.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Perhaps I can help out.”
She got the rope up on to her shoulders, then looked down at the lighter rope on the ground. If she bent down for it, she would tip over. There was no doubt of that.
“Here.” Rogers bent over and picked up the lighter rope. He didn’t hand it over though. “I have a load of ceramic, just up from the south, lighter stuff. It’s barely worth my time to run. But a ship like yours could have it in Gothenburg in a day.”
Marta snorted. “For what price?”
“No cut.” He looked shocked. “Would I stiff a fellow sailor in distress?”
Marta bit back a sarcastic response. On the surface it looked like a kind offer. But that was how it started. You accepted the Black Bull’s offer once, and you were his for life. “No, thank you. Now give me my rope.”
Rogers stayed where he was. “Here’s the thing now, Captain. The Bull wants to run this route. You can join him, or you can get run down.”
“No law says I have to join him. I’ll go to the League offices. I pay my dues.”
“So does the Bull, and pays a lot more than you.”
Marta gritted her teeth, ready to argue that the League treated all ships as equal. But she knew, as well as Rogers did, that the League would look more favourably on the substantial dues paid by the Bull than on the pittance from one small cutter.
“Listen,” said Rogers. “I remember Berghund. He was a good man, a fair man. Wouldn’t he like to see his family safe and looked after? Wouldn’t he love to see his children with ships of their own?”
“I remember him too,” she snapped. “Clearly a lot differently than you. Berghund would never sell out to the Bull.”
“He might now. He’s a sailor, and the son of a sailor. He can see the way the wind blows, maybe better than someone less experienced.”
The insult burned its way through the cold block in her chest, straight to her heart. Less experienced, was she? She’d been running the Jirina since Berghund had died, and kept her family warm and fed. She knew the traders and the routes. She might not be as weather wise as her daughter, but she could run a profitable trade route.
She pulled herself up to her full height, wishing he was shorter, wishing she was younger, because then she might not hesitate to knock him down. “Give me my rope,” she said. “I have a ship to run.”
For a moment she thought he would make things hard for her, but he did worse; he bowed, made a big show of handing her the rope, making sure she was holding everything, then encouraging her on her way. Marta gritted her teeth, contemplated dropping the lot and kicking him in the shins.
So she did the only thing she could; she turned her back on Rogers and walked down the dock toward her ship, fuming.
By the time Marta reached the Jirina she had worked herself up into a state. She threw the smaller rope aboard and climbed the ladder, an awkward endeavour with one hand, and she used it more than she should in her determination not to ask for help. Roza met her on the deck.
“The big coil is on the dock. Get it installed. I’ll be in the forecastle.”
Roza shut her mouth as Marta stormed past. In the tiny galley she made herself an indulgent cup of tea, cupping her hands around it and listening to the thump of the crew working above her.
Damn the Black Bull. His captains were all the same. Smooth talkers, hard liners, owing their fealty to the Bull. And loyal. Once you were the Bull’s man, you were his for life. There were enough stories about captains wanting out, and their ruin, for the remainder to toe the Black Bull line. It was a hard line, but then none of them starved.
Rogers was of the type, and she bet he’d never had to choose between rope and rations. She didn’t know his ship, but it could be moored down the low end, or lined up behind the cranes to pick up or offload cargo. She grimaced. How had he known she was late with her cargo? He must have seen the Jirina limping in and thought her an easy mark. Well, she hadn’t bowed to the Bull yet and she never would.
Footsteps tapped on the stairs. “Enough for two?” asked Roza, ducking her head under the lintel.
“No, but have a gulp.” Marta passed the steaming cup across to her. Roza stripped off her gloves and grabbed the cup, blowing the steam off. “I ran into a Black Bull man down at the sailmakers.”
“Oh, you too?” Marta snorted and reached out to get her cup back. Roza took a huge gulp before handing it back.
Marta looked at the remains of her tea. “You used to take smaller gulps.”
Roza grinned at her and Marta’s heart constricted. Was a time when all three of her children could share her precious tea and there’d still be enough for her. Two children, now. The ice crawled back into her chest, cracking bone. “What did the Bull’s man say?”
“He asked if we were late. Said they might be able to take our cargo and sell it on for half price. Said he could talk to his traders for us.”
“Ha. I’ve already run into their captain. He offered us a free cargo. What did you say?”
“I said I didn’t have any choice in the cargo, and my captain was a tyrant who beat her crew.”
“You awful child.” Roza was her father through and through, tall, genial, with a terrible sense of humour. “I should beat you. You might be more obedient then.”
“When have I ever disobeyed my mother.” Her face sobered, and Marta knew that Roza, too, was thinking of Caran. Marta put her cup down on the bench with a clatter.
“Ma–” Roza’s hand landed on her shoulder.
“Go on.” She shook her off. “Go on up. I’ll just finish my tea.”
When Roza left she wiped her eyes, gulped down the tea too fast, a waste of something so precious. She followed Roza upstairs, found her threading the new shank through the blocks. Roza jerked her chin to the west.
Marta looked out across the bay. A ship eased slowly onto the ice, the Lujayn, with only the foresail up. The pennant snapped in the breeze, the Black Bull stark against the white background, hoof smashing the ice.
“He hates the ice,” said Roza.
“Don’t we all?”
“Not all of us. Ma.” Roza said, her voice soft.
Marta’s hand went to the narrow shape of the pen in her coat. She clutched it through the thick fabric and turned away to hide her movements from Roza. Out in the open part of the bay, the crew of the Lujayn scurried to raise sail and she picked up speed. By the time she went between the heads she was moving at a good clip, the sun shining on her white sails. She would be sailing into Gothenburg before the sun again, and reaping the benefits of a full hold.
Marta sighed and turned away from the tiny pang of regret. “You pay your own way, and you are yourself,” she muttered.
“What?” said Roza.
“Nothing. Let’s get these sails threaded.”
They worked through the morning, Marta glad to keep hands and mind busy on repairs, ignoring the ache in her hand. The sail, and Denny’s work, would be another day away at least. Micah climbed up over the rail mid-afternoon. He took a step toward her, then swung around and headed down the steps into the cabin.
Marta’s stomach growled and she straightened a back stiff from bending and the chill wind. The sun barely touched them, its warmth gone, all colours muted, soft.
When they went down into the cabin, Micah had their bills of sale spread out on the table, staring at them as if they held a thousand secrets. A meagre pile of copper sat at his right hand. Micah was always the one to deal with the money side of things, quick and clever and knowing what everything should cost, with a nose for sniffing out a bargain. Now he looked like the papers had betrayed him.
“Bad trade?” Marta asked, moving to fill the kettle.
“No sale,” said Micah.
He flinched, and kept his eyes on the papers. “I couldn’t find a buyer.”
Marta opened her mouth to ask who he’d tried, then remembered Evonne’s words of the morning, the traders they had known now bought out or moved on. “No one?”
Micah shook his head, his lips pressed together.
“Well,” said Marta. “Well.” She tipped some water in the kettle and put it on the stovetop. They’d never had a problem before, finding places to sell. And even late, their cargo was worth something. They just had to sell it. Otherwise they might as well toss it out on the ice for all the good it would do them.
She flung herself away from the stove. Marta couldn’t pace in the cramped galley. She longed to walk, to be moving. She always thought better when she was moving. Her mind churned through options, but there were precious few. Could they sell the wares on the streets? Not if they wanted to get any money for them. She had a sudden vision of herself carrying the precious furs to the cold and starving refugees at the top of the docks, flinging the dark skins up in the air, the refugees reaching for them with thin grey hands, her children there with them, reaching and grasping nothing.
“Maybe we should have taken the Bull’s offer,” said Micah into the silence.
“What?” Marta growled and slammed her palm on the table. “Micah!”
“Well, why not?” Micah’s expression was mutinous. “Why shouldn’t we consider it?” He gestured at the account books on the table in front of him. “We’ve been making less and less of a profit each run, and this time we’ve made no profit at all. We’ve got a hold full of goods that no one will buy.”
“They won’t buy them because they’re all in the Black Bull’s pockets! And you want us to go there too?”
“At least we’d be able to afford to eat!” he snapped.
Marta stared at him. “We can’t buy supplies? Well, dip into the safe.”
“I have. There’s nothing left. The money for repairs wiped us out.”
Marta stared at her son, the ice creeping its way up her chest and into her throat, sharp, painful. “Why didn’t you tell me.”
“I did!” Micah dragged a hand through his hair.
“You never listened! I need this, Micah. Dip into the safe. We’ll make it up on the next run.” He let out a long breath. “That’s what Da always said. We’ll make it up on the next run. And we used to. But not anymore.”
“I mean there’s nothing left, Ma. That pile,” he pointed to the meagre pile on the table beside him. “That’s it. That’s all we have.”
Marta sank onto the bench. They were skint. How did this happen? Anger rose at Micah for not telling her, for not making it clear.
“This would never have happened in Da’s time,” said Roza.
Marta flinched. No, it wouldn’t have, that was true. Berghund had a way of finding the good runs, picking the cargo and suppliers. He’d been a big, genial man, and everyone wanted to be friends with him. Marta sighed. In those days she had managed the money, and kept them all tight. There’d never been a time they couldn’t afford to buy what they needed.
But in those days, the Black Bull had been a captain with only one ship, but a lot of ambition.
“It wouldn’t have happened, because I would have kept a tighter rein on spending,” snapped Marta.
“Oh, so this is my fault now?” said Micah.
“You’re as culpable as the rest of us.”
“If Da were here–”
“Well, he’s not.” She swallowed against a dry throat. How could she fail so badly?
“Ma, you have to take this offer seriously.”
“Your Da always said freedom was more important.”
“Freedom doesn’t fill bellies.”
“And what about your dead brother?”
“Maybe if he had his head in the business and not in dreaming up poems, he’d still be alive!”
The sharp sound of a slap filled the cabin. Marta looked into Micah’s shocked face, realised her palm was stinging. A red mark bloomed across Micah’s cheek. Micah stood with his hand on his cheek, breathing hard. “I’m out.”
“Micah–” Her throat closed over, the ice stilling her tongue.
Roza grabbed his arm. Micah shook her off and pushed past them up the companion steps. She heard the thud of his feet on the gangway.
Marta sank back onto the bench. How had she made such a mess of things? She’d only done what they’d always done. Fair prices, honest trading, taking the runs that the big companies weren’t interested in.
But now that market seemed to have dried up.
Roza sank onto the bench beside her, arms crossed, silent. Marta’s breath filled the cabin, harsh like the sweeping winds. “Where did it go?” she said, more to herself than to Roza. Repairs. Food. Clothing. Paper and ink and sometimes a little something to help Evonne along. It all added up. “We never used to have this problem.”
“We’re getting less money for things now.” Roza’s canvas pants rustled against the bench as she shifted. “Maybe sell the ship. Do something else.”
“What? What are we good for?”
“I can get a job–”
“And you’ll pay for all of us, will you?”
“I can work for the Bull, Ma. If I have to.”
“Over my dead body, you will. Drives his captains out in all weather. How many have died? But he always has more ships, more fools willing to risk it all for money. Money. What use is it?”
“Plenty of use when we need to buy food.”
Marta glared at Roza. But her daughter wasn’t cowed by her stare. She looked back, even tempered, steady.
“You want to be free, or bound?”
“Free, poor and hungry.”
“But you make your own choices. Nobody tells you what to do.”
Roza considered, her head down. “Is that all it is? Not being able to take orders?”
“You want to take the money of a man who would burn down a shop, destroy a man’s livelihood, just to make a point?”
Roza breathed out. “No.”
“I brought you up to make the hard choices. To consider others.”
“To go down for my beliefs.”
Marta looked up, ready for a fight, but Roza had her chin up, a quirky smile on her face. “Go on, Ma. Have a go. Life is full of storms.”
Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes. That was Berghund all over. She reached out to touch Roza’s arm. “And the sun shines brighter after the storm.” She heaved herself to her feet, felt the pull of Caran’s pen shifting in her coat pocket. “Come on.” She reached over and grabbed some money from the meagre pile of coin on the table.
“Ma.” Roza grimaced. “We can’t afford to spend anything right now.”
“Your Captain needs a drink.”
Shea’s had smartened up since she and Berghund had been regulars there, coming in for a drink and a meal in the days when a good run meant enough profit that they didn’t have to get straight back on the ice. Marta was halfway across the room before she registered the change, the fresh whitewash on the walls, the floor now wood planks, not the gritty cast offs from the furnaces that turned everything black.
At the bar there were drinks in bottles, but she ignored them. Who could afford to pay for glass? She ordered two pints, her mind on the problem of her cargo, so she didn’t notice the mark on the glass until Roza’s hand was on her arm.
Roza’s pint sat on the bar, untouched. Roza’s eyes were tight. Marta looked down at her beer. A bull was embossed into the glass.
Showing off, that’s what it was. The Black Bull put his mark on everything he touched. Marta put down her glass as if it had burned her, and only then did she take in her surroundings, the cleanliness, the hard lines, the dark oak. The unfamiliar publican behind the bar, lazily wiping a glass.
“Where’s Shea?” she asked him.
The man shrugged, as if the name Shea wasn’t over the door in big white letters. Was there nothing that man wouldn’t put his mark on? Like a fox, pissing on his territory.
Someone leaned on the bar beside her. “Hello again, captain.”
She looked up into Rogers’ genial face.
“I’d buy you a drink but I see you already have one.”
“So I do.” She left it untouched on the bar. Damned if she would drink a drop of anything touched by the Bull.
“Good to see you made it, at last. Did you find a buyer for your cargo?”
Of course she hadn’t, and this man knew it. “We’ll find someone.”
“Drink up,” he said.
She couldn’t refuse now without giving offense. She looked him in the eye and pushed her pint away.
But he didn’t seem offended. He laughed. Roza’s hands were on her shoulders. She pushed her back.
Rogers shifted lazily, still smiling. “I can make an offer. Talk to the Bull on your behalf.”
She snorted. What he meant was talk to one of the Bull’s army of agents. The man would never do business himself. Always an intermediary.
“It’s a good life. No need to hunt for cargo, that’s all arranged.”
“You mean he tells you what you can run, and from who.”
“Is that so bad?”
Marta grunted. On the face of it, it sounded fine. No more hassles with hunting out cargo. Suppliers needed a ship, and ships needed cargo. But if you gave your cargo to the Bull it ran on his terms. Suppliers earned less, and buyers paid more. And the profits went not to the ships, but to line the Bull’s already bulging pockets. And so people got desperate, started to cut corners, eking out the money from wherever they could.
“I run what I want, and the price the suppliers want to sell for, and the buyers want to pay.”
Rogers spread his hands. “So do we.”
“No you don’t. You have no control over anything. You might as well burn the ship and go work in a factory for all the freedom you have.”
There was a flash in Rogers’ eyes. She’d hit something there, wondered if he regretted the loss of his freedom. “At least we can afford to pay for the rigging on our ship.”
Marta pushed herself away from the bar. “I think I’ll drink somewhere else from now on.”
“Suit yourself. But the offer might not be so good next time.”
“The offer won’t be good at any time.”
Outside Marta sucked in cold air as she stormed down the street, trying to cool the churning fire inside. He wanted her ship, did he? That was her family’s inheritance. She would hand it over clean and clear, not weighted down with obligation.
The next bar they came to was warm and smoky and smelled of stale beer, as did every dockside bar Marta had ever been in. She ordered a pint for herself and Roza, at a price she couldn’t afford after the untouched pints in Shea’s. “Not a word to your brother,” she said. Roza nodded, her mouth twisted into a wry grimace. Always her right hand, Roza. Marta felt a sudden pang at the thought that her tall daughter was getting older, would be looking to find a partner, one day soon. Would have children of her own.
“You should be settling down.”
Roza rolled her eyes. “Ma.”
“You’re not getting any younger.”
“Well, you’re not.”
“If you want grandchildren, better ask Micah.”
“He’s worse than you are.”
She shrugged. “What is there for a child in this world?”
“I brought you into it.”
“It’s different now.”
“The world is changing, Ma. The hungry centre is bleeding us dry. The mines are closing. It’s too cold. Everyone is moving south.”
“Yes, and starving in the cities because there’s not enough land, or joining the armies and dying.”
Roza shook her head and pushed away from the bar.
Marta looked around the room. The crowd was thinner here, but at least they were people like her, none of them wearing the Bull’s mark. It was a mean place, crammed with dockworkers, dirty and stinking as they crouched over their pints.
They found a seat on the end of a bench, next to a group quietly playing dominoes. Marta sipped at her pint.
“How much longer are we going to do this?” said Roza quietly. She ran a finger around the rim of her glass.
Marta looked up at Roza in surprise. “What do you mean?”
“It’s not the same anymore, Ma. Not since Da died. It used to be easy in those days. We’d do a run, take a few days off. Never scraped for money. Now it’s rushing all the time. Pushing for that extra cent to keep us from going under.”
“I can’t run the ship, is that what you’re saying?”
“No, Ma, you know it isn’t. It’s the world has changed.” She looked down at her beer, drew lines on the table with a damp finger. “The Bull owns most of it now. There’s no room for us, anymore. I just wonder–”
“What do you wonder?”
“With Da gone, and now Caran–”
Marta’s hand jerked, slopping beer onto the table.
“It’s fine.” She buried her face in her beer. In the old days it was no trouble to indulge Caran in his learning and his writing and his books. With Berghund alive, there would have been no need to have Caran up on deck where he could be distracted by the words in his head and forget to put a rope around his waist.
She wondered now what was the point? What was she trying to do? She’d held on to the ship for Roza and Caran and Micah, in the awful days after Berghund’s death, wanting them to have something she could pass on, something to give them a living, keep them out of the factories and their slow, choking death.
But what was the point of that now?
Marta tensed, but when she looked up it was no Black Bull lackey, only Piers, an old friend of her husband’s. He shook her hand and sat down when Marta gestured at the bench.
“Glad to see the Bull hasn’t bought you out. There were rumours you’d been approached.”
“We have, but we’re not going.”
Piers grimaced. “Nor am I, but I’m not running any more, either. What’s the point? Only one man in this town I can buy from, now. They’re all either Black Bull’s men, or they’re scared to buy, or they get burnt out, like Van Arnen.”
What could they do? Run? To where? It would mean starting again, finding a new route. Marta rubbed her face. France, with its warmer southern shores, was choked with people trying to escape the frozen north, and mostly living in poverty and working in the same, or worse, conditions, competing with the refugees from the Spanish wars.
Wait, did he say supplier? “Who’s your supplier?”
“Madman. Greek I think. Are you interested?”
“Then go down the lane behind the soapmakers, right down to the end, turn left and keep going until you get to a plain door with no handle.
Marta blinked. “Really?”
“Knock on the door. If he thinks you’re okay, he’ll buy. Good luck.”
The address they’d been given led them down a little alley to a black door, bolted shut. Marta blinked at it, looked up and down the alleyway. There were no signs, no evidence that this was a trader’s shop at all.
“False lead?” said Roza. She had her hand in her coat, resting on the cosh tucked into her belt.
“Must be.” Marta shook her head. Had she got it wrong? Piers had been adamant that the trader didn’t want anything written down. She was sure she was in the right place. Well, might as well knock.
She banged on the wood, listening to the dull echoes from within. Nothing. She gave it a good hammer once more, then gave up. She had turned away when there was a snap of wood behind her.
The little peephole had opened. She could just make out a pair of eyes peering at them. “Who’s there?”
“Marta, Captain of the Jirina,” she said. “We were told there was someone at this address who buys–”
“Shh shh shh.” The peephole closed. There was the rattle of bolts being drawn, then the door opened. “Quick!”
Marta stepped through the door, bemused, Roza behind her. The man slammed the door almost on Roza’s heels. “Not so loud! Do you want people to hear?”
“Well, uh–” The skulduggery put her off. She stared at the man. Short, with powerful arms bulging out of his shirt, thick with black hair liberally sprinkled with grey. Of his face she could only see the eyes and an impressive nose, the rest buried under a mop of bushy hair and a thick beard.
“What do you have to sell?”
Marta was taken aback by the sudden change. “Finnish fur this load. Sometimes paper, whale oil, liquor. Nothing big.”
“I don’t deal in food.”
Marta shook her head. This was all expensive stuff, cargo that attracted the bigger companies, now mainly the Bull. Her ship took the small things, the stuff that wouldn’t bring in a big price, but had given them a living. Until now.
“Good.” The man seemed to relax. He nodded in the direction of a curtained recess. The curtain stirred, and a pair of boots disappeared into the dimness. “Can’t be too careful. Damn Bull agents try to get in here all the time.”
Marta stared at him, horrified and appalled. “They know about you?”
“Of course they do.” He turned and made a rude gesture in the direction of the docks. Roza snorted a laugh. “Doing their best to run me out of business. Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em I say.” He turned and limped toward a long bench. “Come on.”
Marta hurried after him, torn between disgust at his crudity and admiration for his defiance. The room was bare, the only way out the curtained recess or the door they had come through. Chills ran up her back as she realised it was a room designed to trap people. Whoever he was, he was paranoid. “You know they burnt down a shop a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh I know.” He bent under the counter, grunting, then came up with a ledger. “Bastards. How much fur?”
Marta rattled off their loads. The man named a price. Marta’s heart sank. Micah was right. It wouldn’t cover the cost of the run, let alone the damage from the storm. She sighed. What choice did they have? “We’ll take it.”
“You can read?”
He wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to her. “This is the password. Don’t hand your cargo over to anyone else.”
“Is this really necessary?”
“To keep ahead of that damn Bull? Oh yes.” He grunted. “He’s after me all the time. Always. But I’m the flea in his ear.” He grinned, tapping the side of his nose. “Gonna bite him. Gonna make him itch and dance.” He laughed and broke into a wild caper.
Roza was grinning at the antics. Marta shook her head.
The Greek stopped dancing and leaned over the bar to her. “I can get you goods to run. Plenty of people being hurt by the Bull. Plenty who’ll gamble on a trader who won’t gouge them for the privilege of selling.”
Marta stared at him.
“That’s if you’ll do the run.”
“And if word gets around that we’re running against the Bull, he’ll do us in.”
“Word won’t come from here.”
No, it wouldn’t. Marta chewed her lip. Honest, and open. That’s what they had always been. This smacked of underhanded work. Still, it was underhanded work that would help others, like her, who were being squeezed out. “I’ll think about it.”
They found Micah passed out on the deck. Marta sighed in pretend annoyance, but inside she felt a wave of relief. Micah had gone and drunk off his temper and was back. He wasn’t going to leave. She and Roza manhandled him down the companion steps and into his bunk.
Marta tucked the blanket in around him to keep him from falling out, something she hadn’t done since he was a child. She rested a hand on his head. Grown up boys were still boys, after all. Her husband had been a boy at heart, a big, friendly boy who took his knocks in stride and got back up again. Well that’s what they would do. Take their knocks, and get back up again.
Roza came down the steps and Marta pulled her hand away. “And if you throw up in here, you’ll be the one cleaning up your mess,” she said.
Roza chuckled and sat down on the bench. “Is there anything for supper?”
Tinned beef and biscuits, it turned out. Marta made a pot of gravy and they sat at the table.
“So what do you think?” asked Roza.
“Crazy.” Marta pushed her biscuit through the gravy. “But he just might be mad enough to outwit the Bull.”
“And what about us?”
Marta sighed. She’d hoped to eat her dinner in peace, have time to think a bit, but no, there was no luxury for that. She pulled the ledgers closer.
The numbers were all there, the slow decline of their savings. She sighed and rubbed her eyes. Micah was right. It was her fault, for not listening, for refusing to open her eyes to their situation. She’d left him on his own to deal with this, and him not yet twenty-one. She should have been more vigilant. But it had been such a relief to leave him to it, when she’d had to take over as captain after Berghund’s death.
She pulled out a sheet of paper and scrabbled around for a pen. She froze, remembering the one in her pocket. Deliberately she got up, went to the drawer in the cupboard, pulled out pen and ink and sat down again.
She did some quick calculations, working out how much they would need to earn on the next run to break even. Impossible. She calculated it out. They would need at least two runs just to pay off the damage. She clenched her fist around the pen. At least they had a supplier now. If the Greek could get the wares, they would run them. They had to.
“Well?” said Roza softly.
She nodded. “Let’s do it.”
Micah snored from his bunk. Marta rose and picked up Micah’s coat by the hem. A stream of coins clattered onto the floor.
She and Roza stared at them. There was silver there, and a flash of gold. Much more money than the tiny pile that had been on the table when they left. Marta gathered it up and counted it. She stared at Micah, snoring off his drunk.
“Where do you think he got it?” said Roza, rubbing her thumb over the shining surface of a gold coin.
“Sold something?” She hoped so, trying not to think about the other ways he might get money. She hung up his coat and put the coins back in his pocket. She would ask him in the morning.
Roza left to tell the Greek they would run his cargo. Marta puttered around the cabin, clearing the table, tidying away the ledgers. When the table was clear, she pulled out the maps and checked their route. Nothing new there; it would be the same route they always took.
She sat at the table and listened to Micah’s snores. She pulled out Caran’s sheets and slid the lamp closer. The words wavered, then came into focus.
On the edge of the shelf the sea is ice, and yet it moves like water, like oil. A man going into this ice will slide through it and never come back to the surface. She blinked and shook her head. To the south, where the sun shines brighter, the new ice turns green in the Spring, and the snow melts and freezes until the surface is like glass. Marta looked at the hull, eyes not seeing the wood, mind seeing the vast and sweeping ice around them. Living on the white, surrounded by it, and Caran wrote about it, pages and pages. If she was writing, she thought, she would write about warm fires, and hot tea, and beds deep with furs. She pulled out another page. The Norsemen call it endelige varen, the Final Spring, when the fire gods lost and blacked out the sun with clouds of soot and ash. They attacked the sky, but they destroyed the world.
Grímsvötn is the father of them all.
Marta shivered in the pre-dawn chill. The Greek’s men had appeared at four bells, just as they said they would, oozing out of the shadows, pushing barrows with well-oiled wheels down the docks toward Marta’s ship.
Marta pushed down her irritation as she watched them load. She had expected them at dawn, but Roza had told her the Greek was adamant; pre-dawn.
She hated this skulduggery. This creeping about, as if they were doing something wrong. And for what?
“He says it’s for his own protection,” Roza said, her breath making clouds in the sharp air.
Marta shook her head, but held her tongue. It was his life, after all. So she would put up with this. The important thing was that they had cargo, and had been paid. The Greek had a contact in Sweden who was expecting the goods, solid metalwork from the Saarland factories.
They loaded the last crate and then disappeared into the night again.
“Do we wait for dawn?” asked Roza.
“No. We’re up now, might as well sail.”
They lit the running lights on port and starboard. There was a good wind in the morning that would take them out onto the ice. The secrecy had affected Marta and her voice seemed unnaturally loud as she gave her orders. Not that her children needed them. They knew what to do.
The wind caught the foresail. Roza threw off the ropes and climbed aboard. The Jirina started to slide, softly at first. Then they were out of the lee and the wind caught them, pushing them along. The ice hissed under the runners.
Marta guided the ship along the ice, her eyes on the lights at the tip of each head, keeping the Jirina well clear of the rocks. At least there was no traffic at this time of the morning.
Once they passed the heads they lifted the rest of the sail and the Jirina picked up speed, her runners singing on the ice. Marta glanced back to the town.
A light glimmered down on the docks. Someone else was an early riser. She felt a twinge of concern, but dismissed it. Maybe the Greek had other customers, up early to avoid the Bull’s notice.
The sun was high in the sky before Micah staggered up the steps, groaning and holding his head. He made it to the rail and vomited over the side. Marta pressed her lips together with little sympathy for her son.
They headed north along the coast, keeping east of the rough ice at the edge of the shelf. Some of Marta’s tension lifted as the Jirina flew across the ice. She breathed out in a long sigh. They had cargo, they were running, they would make up what they lost. She would take more care, now, watch the accounts closely. They could do this. They could keep going. The Jirina picked up speed, as if she heard Marta’s thoughts, and was determined to do her part.
Roza came up beside her. “Breakfast in the cabin. I’ll take over.” Marta went down and got herself a bowl of oats, stirring in a scant spoonful of preserves, noting with a twinge the mostly-empty cupboard. It would be all right. They would stock up in Gothenburg.
Micah stumbled down the steps and collapsed at the table, his head lying on his crossed arms. Marta looked at her son. She only had two children now. She had lost too many family to the ice. She reached out and patted his arm.
Micah raised his head, his eyes bloodshot. “Ma, I’m sorry.”
Marta nodded once, sharply, then sat down across from him, stirring her porridge. “No, I am,” she said in a low voice.
Micah looked up in surprise.
Marta clenched her hand around her spoon and forced the words out. “I dumped a lot on you when Berghund died, because I felt I had to be him, to be big and busy and fill his space.” She spooned up some of the porridge, glad of the warmth. “But that’s not me. I should have known better. Should have made better decisions.”
Micah’s gaze dropped to the table. “Da always said, you can’t tell when the wind will change.” He glanced up at her, his face worried.
“So he did.” She sighed. “Well, I’ve made a bad job of sailing with the wind. Never changed direction when I should.”
“We can’t beat the Black Bull.”
“We can’t. But we’re not trying to. We just have to sail around the outside. We’re too small to be a bother to them. So, we’ll take the jobs that no one else wants, and we’ll make do. Easier now, with one less.” Her throat closed over.
Micah reached out and touched her hand. “Ma–”
She waved him off, pressing her lips together.
“It wasn’t your fault. Caran never was focussed on what he was doing, unless it was words.”
“I know.” She felt the tears fall, scrubbed them away with an impatient hand. “I knew that, and I didn’t do what I should have done. Should have got him off the boat, should have ‘prenticed him out as a clerk.”
Micah snorted. “What kind of a life is that?”
“One where he won’t fall overboard and die on the ice.” She looked at her hands, red, rough, scarred from cuts. Caran, Caran, I’m sorry. “I should have let him go.” She looked up and met Micah’s gaze. “And you, too, if you want. You’re good with numbers. You could make a life. Not the factories.” She didn’t want her sons in those smoky maws. “In the south, maybe.”
“Ma.” Micah’s mouth twisted. “I’m still a sailor.”
He was. He could climb the mast as well as any of them. He didn’t dream of words like Caran had. She sighed.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Well, and good, where would you go anyway?” she said to hide the lump in her throat. “And you got us a bit of money, though I don’t want you selling your things, Micah. We’ll manage.”
He blinked. “What money?”
“In your coat.”
Micah stood, winced, and staggered over to his coat. He scuffled in the pockets, then pulled out the handful of coin. He stared at it. “I don’t– I don’t know where this came from.”
“You don’t? Where did you go last night?”
“Maybe you won it at cards.” She frowned at him. She’d always warned them against gambling.
“I don’t gamble, Ma.”
“Well, where did you get it?”
He shook his head. “Ma, I don’t know.”
“Who gave it to you?” She was on her feet now. Micah looked scared. “Who, Micah?”
“I don’t know!”
“Where did you go?”
“I went to Shea’s, then I went to The Berg, then, I don’t know.”
She strode across and grabbed the money from his hand. “You don’t get money for nothing. What did you sell, Micah?”
Misery coursed across his face. “Ma, I didn’t sell anything.”
“Did you sell out your family? Did you?”
“I don’t know!”
She could feel the weight of it in her hand, remembered Rogers’ sly smile. “Too late now, you’ve got it.” Her breathing was harsh. “If it’s dirty money, it’s dirty.”
Micah wiped his hands on his pants, his face stricken. It was her fault. Micah wouldn’t have gone if she hadn’t blamed him for their money troubles. And he wasn’t a drinker, that was the problem. She and Roza always had a pint, but Micah rarely indulged.
“Well,” she said, ashamed of her harsh words. “Well, what’s done is done. You can’t have sold anything too bad. You don’t own the boat.” Information though, that could be sold. But Micah hadn’t known about their deal with the Greek when he left.
She relaxed a little and handed the money back. “Put it in the safebox. We won’t waste it.”
Micah nodded and took it from her, his face troubled. She thought about what Berghund would have said. Something reassuring. Something to make him laugh.
“Be more careful next time.”
The bell rang harshly. That was her call.
Roza was still hauling on the bell as Marta came on deck. She opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, then she saw it.
A Black Bull ship was coming up behind them, a big sloop under full sail. She frowned. They were close, far closer than they needed to be on the open ice.
“What are they playing at?” She muttered imprecations at their captain. Showing off. She wouldn’t put it past Rogers to be the captain, rubbing it in that they would get to Sweden first. But no, they had left yesterday.
“What do I do?” asked Roza.
“Ignore them.” She looked around. There were no other sails in sight. They were running north now, out on the open ice, doing the long crossing over to Scandinavia. To the west the smooth shelf became pitted and warped, the rough zone between the shelf and the open sea. No one could run along there. She could see the glimmer of the sea in the distance. Five miles of rough ice between them and it. The Jirina could run closer to the rough ice, being lighter and smaller than the big barques, which tended to keep to the east and the main channel. The Jirina did better without competition.
“I wish they’d ease off,” muttered Roza. “I keep wanting to give way.”
“Aye, me too. Which is probably what they want. Show us what they can do.”
“Should I run up a flag?”
“What for? Their captain isn’t stupid, and they’re not blind. They can see us as well as we can see them. If he wants to show off, good for him.” She turned away.
Roza’s warning shout made her turn back. The Black Bull ship had turned and was running straight for them.
“What the hell is he doing? Damned fool.” She ran to the rail, waving her arms. “Hey! Turn to the lee side! What are you playing at?” She saw the sailors on deck, scarves wrapped around their faces so she could only see their eyes.
That was when she realised they were going to ram them. “Roza! Turn! Turn!” She bolted back toward the helm.
Roza hauled on the tiller. Too late. The Jirina turned slowly. They were on the wrong side of the wind. She lost way. The Black Bull ship slammed into her side.
Marta was flung to the deck by the impact. There was a crack of timber. She looked up.
The mast leaned, creaking and groaning. The Black Bull ship butted up against them, the tearing sound of timber shrieking over Roza’s shouts.
Like a tree falling, the mast came down. Marta scrambled up and ran out from under it. The sail fell over the deck, burying the hatch.
She reached Roza’s side and leaned into the tiller, but it was no good. The larger ship had them, was pushing them out towards the rough ice. Without the mainsail, they had no momentum, no leverage. What would happen when they hit that ice? She imagined the cracked runners, the broken hull. They hung on as she ship was driven forward.
The first thud shook them to the core. Then they were bumping over the ridged ice. The Black Bull ship turned and shot away.
The Jirina ground to a halt, the ice snarling under her runners.
Marta staggered to the rail. The Black Bull ship had full sail up and was driving north-east, away from them. Stranding them here on the ice.
She screamed at it, though she doubted they would hear. She also doubted they would tell anyone. There would be no rescue ship coming for them.
The wind picked up, caught the staysail, dragged the Jirina around.
“Roza, help me,” she said. They had to get that sail down before they were dragged, helpless, further out onto the broken ice. They fought their way along the deck, tangling in ropes, tripping over canvas.
When the staysail was down they cut the mainsail free. Marta cried to see the tears in the new canvas. They pulled it away until the hatch was clear and Micah could come up to help.
The weak sun made the world a dull grey. There were no gulls out here, so far from shore, and the silence was broken only by the wind.
“I think I know where that money came from.” Marta looked at her son.
Micah flushed, his eyes darting to the side.
“Tell me where you were last night.”
“I went to Shea’s.” Micah swallowed.
“Who did you speak to?”
“A man. Name of Roberts.”
“You damn fool. What did you tell him?”
“I didn’t know, Ma. I didn’t know what he was going to do–”
“Even more reason you should have held your tongue!” She raised her hand.
He ducked away from the blow. “I’m sorry!”
But she didn’t bring down her hand. What was the point? They were stranded now. She couldn’t lose another son. “I didn’t give you the support you needed. Too focused on what had been, not what is.”
She rubbed her face and looked out at the ice. The wind had picked up, blowing the snow into clouds. They had to cut through, had to get the Jirina moving before nightfall. Marta was aware of the weight of Caran’s pen in her coat.
She turned to find Roza and Micah watching her, tense, waiting for her orders. “Get the tools,” she said. “We have to cut free before nightfall.”
With ice saws and picks they hacked away the worst of the ridges beneath the runners, until the Jirina started to slide. Then they put out the ice anchors, stabbing them into the ice while they cleared a path before the ship.
It wasn’t far. That was the maddening thing. They had come only a hundred metres over into the rough ice, but it might as well have been a kilometre. Hacking and smoothing a path over the old, rough ice, blue and hard, until the sweat pooled under their furs and ran down into their eyes and soaked their mittens, until the flea-bitten itch of frozen sweat stung their skin.
The wind rose as the sun crested the sky, whistling across the ice, setting them gasping until every breath was painful, until the sweat dried to icicles in eyebrows and hair. The gale caught the discarded ice and blew it into their faces in stinging, cutting clouds.
“We’re not going to make it,” said Roza, glancing to the west.
Marta could see that, but pressed her lips together and said nothing. They were so close. Give up now and wait out the night, or keep going? But if they stopped, the wind would blow more ice across their path and they would have to do more work in the morning.
“Keep going,” she said, grunting as she drove the blade of her axe into the ice.
They brought the lamps out. Micah cut his hand. Roza slipped and fell onto a sharp ridge of ice, a red flower blooming on her forehead.
But the cold beat them, numbing hands and feet and faces, weakening their blows. It was no use. The last light shivered across the ice and the world closed in around them, a blanket of wind-born snow.
“Inside,” she rasped, her throat raw from the cold. They didn’t hear her. She had to shove them with her tired body, push them toward the ship until they understood, climbing over the rail with arms trembling, staggering along the deck and down the steps into the tiny cabin.
Roza stumbled to the stove to throw in more coal. The flames licked at the black lumps, but the heat barely reached them. Marta pushed Micah closer to the fire. Tired. She should move herself. But she was so tired.
The wind rose, the Jirina shaking on her runners, jerking between the ropes that pinned her down. The gale flung ice at her hull, stuttering against the wood, building slowly to a roar.
“What was that?” Micah’s head jerked up.
“Nothing,” said Marta. She shifted, felt the weight of the pen in her coat. She had meant to burn it. She looked at the little stove. She should get up, throw the pen into the flames. But if she did that, what would happen to Caran’s soul? Would he fly away?
“Ma,” said Micah. Roza’s head came up. Marta heard it too, over the roar of the wind. The soft, hissing whispers of the dead.
Timbers creaked in the hull. Marta turned. Where the hull had been damaged by the storm, ice was forming, creeping in through the cracks, even as they watched. Roza pushed herself to her feet. “Canvas. We need canvas. Ma. Ma!”
Marta jerked herself out of her trance and stumbled to the bulkhead locker. They had canvas there, heavy stuff for patching. Every ship did. To close the holes in the hull to keep the ice out. To keep the heat inside.
When a ship burned, the canvas flared quickly into ash.
They grabbed nails, hammered the canvas onto the wood, but it trembled under their blows. Should have stayed to repair it. Should have replaced the damaged boards. No money. No time. And now they swelled and spread as the ice forced its way into the crack, sticking and growing and spreading, opening the wood more until it would crack like a gunshot and let the cold dead in. These were their fingers, reaching in for them, long white fingers of heart-stopping ice. A long, low moan rose outside, pitching high and then low, swelling then sinking again to a soft whisper.
She missed the nail she was hammering and slammed the head of the hammer into the board, which shuddered. Had she really heard that? She strained to hear the voices over the roar of the wind. Just sounds. That’s all it was. Just sounds.
Caran. Caran was out there.
She flung down her hammer and ran on deck, ignoring the shouts of her children. The blown snow and ice hammered into her. She flung up an arm to protect her eyes and struggled to the railing, looking for Caran. Only blown ice, snow, shapes, moaning. She fumbled in her coat until her numb fingers closed on the pen.
Marta held the pen out in the dark.
Roza and Micah appeared at her side, shivering, lanterns held high.
“Caran is out there!”
They leaned over the rail, staring into the white. He was out there. Marta turned and saw Roza’s desperate face. The guttering torch flung dark shadows across her face, made caverns around her eyes. Like a skull, dead and frozen.
This was how it ended, she thought. The cold dead reaching in. The only salvation was to burn the ship, let the flames reach high.
The lantern flickered and went out.
She turned and flung the pen out into the darkness, into the shapeless faces in the snow. She grabbed her children and dragged them away from the rail, shoved them down the steps, slammed the hatch behind her. They sank to the ground, arms around each other, snowblind and numb.
Marta opened the stove door and threw on coal, lump after lump, until the light blazed out between the grill and the heat bathed her face. She grabbed Roza and Micah, bullied them over to the stove, as close as they could get without burning. She pulled the covers from the bunks and threw them over her children.
“Ma,” said Roza, blinking up at her. “Caran … did you see him?”
“No.” He was out there. She had heard his voice. “No. And I won’t. He’s not part of this world, now.” She turned away. The warmth of the stove was only skin deep. The ice at her centre, hard, cold, was impervious to the light. But it could take the cold, could stand against it.
She flew about the cabin, keeping away from the walls, closing her ears to the whispers as she made soup and boiled the kettle and kept herself and her children warm. In the morning they must fight their way out of the ice. But first they had to survive the night, had to keep the ice outside.
She pressed her hand against her coat, where the pen had rested against her chest. Caran, my son. The ice had got into his head, made him snowblind, always looking into the white, never looking at the warm, living world. She should have kept him warm, should have known the ice would take him as it took his father.
The ice in her belly solidified, a weight heavier than a child. She had carried him, and now she would carry his memory. But she would not lose another child to the ice.
They sat by the fire in Evonne’s kitchen. Denny patted Micah on the shoulder in his quiet, solicitous way. Micah’s head was on his arms, his fingers twitching. Roza, her head bandaged, sat with her eyes closed. Were they thinking of happier times? That had been her mistake. Trying to hold on to the past, to Berghund and Caran and a life familiar and easy. Blinded by the storm so that they didn’t know they were in the middle of it.
And her drive had nearly cost them their lives. They had been so close to being lost, to being just another ship, lost and burnt to bones on the ice. How was she better than the Bull, then? Forcing them to run, and run, and run, until they died.
She reached into her coat and pulled out Caran’s writing. The world is changing.
“You can stay here,” said Evonne. But the tiny flat was too crowded for them all, and that would mean Roza and Micah would need to find a job. “We’ll manage.”
Micah raised his head, Roza opened her eyes. It would be easy, right now, to settle into this warm room and turn their backs on the ice.
Until Evonne ran out of wood, and food.
“Roza. Micah. Sit up.”
They exchanged a wary glance, but attended.
Marta grimaced, tried to turn her expression to something kinder, but failed. She was not Berghund. She had no far-reaching dreams. She could not paint them a rosy picture of the future. All she could see in the future was ice, and everything through it was hazy and unclear.
“Should we keep the ship?” she asked, throwing the words at them.
Roza sucked in a breath. “Of course, Ma.”
“No.” She leaned forward, held their gazes. “Don’t say what you want me to hear. Say what you want. Should we sell it? Buy a shop? A farm?” She had a moment of horror at the thought of seeing the same horizon, the same sky, every day until she died.
Roza’s expression dissolved into laughter. “Ma, your face.”
Her lips twitched. “All right. Well, you tell me. What do you want?”
Roza opened her mouth but Micah cut across her. “Southern Britannia is crying out for goods.”
“Trade with the Britons?” She shook her head. “The Bull will be all over that.”
“No he won’t.” Micah shifted his chair closer to the table. “There’s more money running armaments down to Pertuesa from Aberdeen. That’s what the Bull does. But it’s been rumoured that they’re making cloth again in Bremen.”
“Too far south for the ship.”
“They’re bringing it north. There are caravans running now.”
“Well and good, but who can afford fine cloth?”
“Britons, Ma. That’s what I’m saying.” Micah’s eyes lit up. “The arms factories at Aberdeen are rolling in gold, paid by the Spanish king. Briton is rich. They want luxuries. The Welsh Queen has set up court in London, and they say–.”
“Not for the likes of us.”
“Trade, Ma.” Micah’s impatience came through in his voice. “That’s what I’m saying. If we can find a buyer–”
“Across the channel?”
“Yes. If we can–”
“If, if.” She clenched her hands, wincing at the dull pain in her fingers. The pain cut through her fear. She opened them slowly, spread them out on the table. “If we can find a buyer. How much, would you say?”
“We’re talking gold, Ma.”
Gold. How long since they had been paid in gold? “How long have you known about this?”
“A couple of months.”
Why didn’t you tell me? she wanted to say. It was on the tip of her tongue. But she stilled her voice, afraid that he would say I tried to tell you, Ma… And maybe he had, and she just hadn’t listened.
She looked around the little flat, thought of Evonne and Denny, burning furniture to keep warm. Four more hands for the ship, and both of them skilled. Denny could be taught to work the sails. She breathed out against the sharp pain in her chest. And he would never be asked to go on deck in a storm. “Evonne,” she called. “Come sit with us.”
Evonne came through, wiping her hands on her apron. Marta looked at her sister-in-law. “I want you to come out on the ice with us.”
Evonne drew in a breath. “You’re going out again? Against the Bull?”
“No. We’re keeping out of his way.” She grinned, and a flame started in her chest. “Out of his way, and his sight. We’ll find a new harbour. One to the south, where we can reach the coast of Britain quicker.”
Micah leaned in. “Cloth, Aunt Evonne. It’s where the money is.”
Roza nodded. “Shorter runs.”
She forced her gaze up, forced her mouth into, if not a smile, at least not a forbidding line. Forced lightness into her voice. “Where do we start?”
Marta sat back and listened to her family, let them wander down dream roads. Berghund, she thought, would have been right there with them. She looked at their faces, animated, alive, Roza’s blond hair, Micah’s blue eyes. Maybe he was. Her throat tightened, iced over. She let herself imagine Caran sitting in the empty chair. But no, he wouldn’t be laughing, offering suggestions. He would be staring into space, dreaming about the ice. Lost to the wind and the sky, then and now. She let the snow blow up, let him fade from her sight, but never her heart.
Like the kittywakes, they would survive by keeping away from the predator’s jaws. The ice was their home, and always would be.
Meryl Stenhouse lives in subtropical Queensland and has never seen snow. She loves boat stories but has a phobia about drowning at sea. She likes to write stories about older women, and she is one, so that’s lucky. You can follow her on Twitter @merylstenhouse if you like rambling and dog photos.