It made no sense, Aithne thought. The crow’s nest was the highest point on the ship, which meant it was the closest to the sun. That should make it the warmest spot, shouldn’t it? She glanced off-port at the distant mountains of Skyrim. They stared back, their icy crowns glittering in the bright light of day. They were even taller than the crow’s nest – they should be the warmest spots on the planet. Instead, they were the coldest.
It made no sense.
She sighed and re-focused on the task at hand. These northern waters were treacherous, with icebergs that could tear the bottoms out of the strongest ships in seconds. For instance, that one.
“Berg on port, five-one-three degrees!”
She waited for the subtle feel of the ship’s turn to starboard. After so long at sea, her body had become acclimated to even the slightest shift in direction. So it was with some concern that she failed to notice a difference. Perhaps the pilot hadn’t heard?
“Berg on port! Five-one-three degrees! Divines, Lakon, are you asleep?!”
As if in response, the ship turned. But it clearly was not in response because, “WRONG WAY, YOU LUNKHEAD! BERG DEAD AHEAD! TURN STARBOARD! THAT MEANS TURN THE WHEEL TO THE RIGHT!”
The turn put the ship at full sail and it lurched forward as if kicked. “LAKON! HARD TO STARBOARD! TURN, YOU SLIMY BASTARD, TURN! SOMEONE NEEDS TO DROP THE SAILS!”
Panic began to overwhelm her as the ship careened forward, and she gripped the mast with one arm as she watched doom approach. Shouts of alarm and fear rose from below and she peered down, but all she saw were taut sails that seemed eager to speed them to their demise. Three heartbeats later, she knew they had passed the point where anything could save them, so she began muttering prayers to every divine she had ever heard of while she slashed at the nearest ropes with her knife until she had two lengths. She slung them around the mast then clove hitched one around her thighs and the other around her sternum, yanking them as tightly as she could.
A terrible screech and then a BANG; the ship shuddered and skewed to port, then listed starboard as it ground to a halt amid screams that were swallowed by a horrible grinding. The crow’s nest wavered and shook, and Aithne wished she had tied herself to the mast facing toward it instead of away from it so she could cling on to it with her arms.
The ship continued its tortured roll to its side and she screamed as the mast toppled Aithne-first toward the iceberg. She struggled to release the lines with panic-frozen fingers as the mast hurled her toward the ice with increasing speed. At the last moment before getting crushed between the heavy wood of the mast and the solid surface of the iceberg, she closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands.
Another BANG as the mast stopped. Aithne cried out as her body was jerked and pain lanced through her chest and thighs. She took a few labored breaths before daring to uncover her face and open her eyes.
The iceberg’s surface gleamed at her, still a good four feet away. Aithne looked around and discovered her salvation – the mast had fallen sideways and the top yard had hit the ice first, keeping her part of the mast in the air. At least for awhile.
She took a few moments to breathe, trying to get her heart rate down to a reasonable level, then released the rope around her sternum.
In retrospect, she realized as the top half of her body swung suddenly downward, she should have released her legs first. She bent upwards and yanked on the rope, though the release was harder since her body weight erased its slack, then yelped when it loosened and she fell. She had just enough presence of mind to keep her head up so it didn’t smack the ice, but the impact drove the air out of her lungs and sent a flash of blinding pain through her body. She waited the few seconds it took for the worst of the pain to recede before trying to push herself up. A repeat performance of the pain staggered her back to the ice and she gripped her sternum with one hand. Every breath was torture. She was certain she had broken a rib.
Still, she had to get up, to move, or she would be just as dead as if the mast had crushed her. She gritted her teeth and shoved her way to her feet, then scrambled toward the ship.
What remained of it. The “Jaunty Spirit” lay shattered, only a couple of feet of the port side still above water, and only the hidden shelf of the iceberg keeping it from sinking to the icy depths. Even as she watched, it shifted, easing off its precarious perch a few inches at a time.
Aithne’s pace slowed as she approached. Something seemed…off. Sure, she had just been in a shipwreck and was stranded on an ice floe in the middle of the ocean, but even with that backdrop, something was wrong. It took her a few heartbeats and another five steps for the problem to register – there were no other people.
She assumed many of them had died, especially those below decks at the time of the crash. She winced a little at the thought – the prisoners they had been transporting had been chained and caged. They hadn’t stood a chance. Still, there had been plenty above decks, and it was hard to imagine that not a single one had managed to survive. Sure, the ship had run onto an iceberg at thirty knots but, still, at least a handful of people could have been expected to live. Or, even if not live, surely some of their bodies would have been thrown forward, just as she and the mast had.
It made no sense.
She stepped to the edge of the iceberg and looked at the tenuous floor of wood that had once been the proud port hull of the company’s flagship. Did she dare to step out there, to try to find the others? The ship was silent, as if already resigned to its grave. Aithne shivered, not just form the cold, and began to step forward.
A sound to her right stopped her. Instead of stepping forward, she pivoted toward it. Bubbles broke the surface of the water just a few feet away and she scrambled toward them.
“Captain Terrik? Hogan?” She shouted the names, every name she could remember from the crew, hoping, encouraging the bubbles to become them. She nearly squealed when a head surfaced from beneath the ship’s bulk. She heard a great in-drawing of breath, and arms scrabbled for purchase on the ice.
The squeal stopped and got stuck in Aithne’s throat when the owner of the hands was revealed. It was an orc. A giant of an orc, huge even for their species. He was dressed in plain, water-soaked linen and she knew who he was in a panic-soaked instant. At the same time, inspiration flashed through her like a chill flame. If he was free, he was probably the reason she had seen no other survivors. In fact, if he had managed to free himself before the crash, there seemed an excellent chance that she was staring at the direct cause of the crash.
She took an unconscious step back and her foot slipped on the ice. She fell and the pain that lanced through her ribs brought out a yelp that she could not hold back. The orc’s head snapped in her direction and Aithne tried to make herself invisible as Borkul the Beast smiled.