Authors: John Flanagan
THE ICEBOUND LAND
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Published simultaneously in Canada. Printed in the United States of America.
To Penny, who set such a high standard
HE WOLFSHIP WAS ONLY A FEW HOURS FROM
when the massive storm hit them. For three days, they had sailed north toward Skandia through a sea that was calm as a millpond—a fact appreciated by Will and Evanlyn.
“This isn’t too bad,” Will said as the narrow ship cut smoothly through the waters. He had heard grim tales of people becoming violently sick on board ships at sea. But he could see nothing to worry about in this gentle rocking motion. Evanlyn nodded, a little doubtfully. She was by no means an experienced sailor, but she had been to sea before.
“If this is as bad as it gets,” she said. She had noticed the worried looks that Erak, the ship’s captain, was casting to the north, and the way he was urging
’s rowers on to greater speed. For his part, Erak knew that this deceptively calm weather heralded a change for the worse—much worse. Dimly, on the northern horizon, he could see the dark storm line forming. He knew that if they couldn’t round Cape Shelter and get into the lee of the landmass in time, they would take the full force of the storm. For several minutes, he assessed speeds and distances, judging their progress against that of the onrushing clouds.
“We’re not going to make it,” he said finally to Svengal. His second in command nodded agreement.
“Looks that way,” Svengal said philosophically. Erak was glancing keenly around the ship, making sure that there was no loose gear that needed to be secured. His eye lit on the two prisoners, huddled in the bow.
“Better tie those two to the mast,” he said. “And we’ll rig the sweep steering oar as well.” Will and Evanlyn watched Svengal as he made his way toward them. He had a coil of light hemp in his hand.
“What now?” Will asked. “They can’t think we’re going to try to escape.”
But Svengal had stopped by the mast, and was beckoning urgently to them. The two Araluens rose and moved uncertainly toward him. Will noticed that the ship’s motion was becoming a little more pronounced and the wind was increasing. He staggered as he made his way to Svengal. Behind him, he heard Evanlyn mutter an unladylike swearword as she stumbled and barked her shin on a bollard.
Svengal drew his saxe knife and cut two lengths of cord from the coil. “Tie yourselves to the mast,” he told them. “We’re in for the mother of all storms any minute.”
“You mean we could be blown overboard?” Evanlyn asked incredulously. Svengal noted that Will was tying himself to the mast with a neatly executed bowline knot. The girl was having some trouble, so Svengal took the rope, passed it around her waist and then secured her as well.
“Maybe,” he replied to her question. “More likely washed overboard by the waves.” He saw the boy’s face go pale with fear.
“You’re telling us that the waves actually…come on board?” Will said. Svengal darted a fierce, humorless grin at him.
“Oh yes, indeed,” he said, and hurried back to assist Erak in the stern, where the captain was already rigging the massive sweep oar.
Will swallowed several times. He had assumed that a ship like this would ride over the waves like a gull. Now he was told that the waves were likely to come crashing on board. He wondered how they could possibly stay afloat if that were to happen.
“Oh God…what is that?” Evanlyn said softly, pointing to the north. The thin dark line that Erak had seen was now a roiling black mass only a quarter of a kilometer away, sweeping down on them faster than a horse could gallop. The two of them huddled close to the base of the mast, trying to wrap their arms all the way around the rough pine pole, scrabbling for a grip with their fingernails.
Then the sun was blotted out as the storm hit them.
The sheer force of the wind took Will’s breath away. Literally. This wasn’t a wind like any Will had ever known. This was a savage, living, primeval force that wrapped around him, deafening him, blinding him, punching the breath out of his lungs and preventing his taking another: smothering him as it tried to claw his grip loose. His eyes were shut tight as he struggled to breathe, holding desperately to the mast. Dimly, he heard Evanlyn scream and felt her begin to slip away from him. He grabbed blindly at her, caught her hand and dragged her back.
The first massive wave struck and the wolfship’s bow canted up at a terrifying angle. They began to rise up the face of the wave, then the ship faltered and began to slide—
backward and downward!
Svengal and Erak screamed at the rowers. Their voices were plucked away by the wind, but the crew, their backs to the storm, could see and understand their body language. They heaved on the oars, bending the oak shafts with their efforts, and the backward slide slowly eased. The ship began to claw its way up the face of the wave, rising higher and higher, moving more and more slowly until Will was sure they must begin the terrible backward sliding motion again.
Then the crest of the wave broke and thundered over them.
Tons of water crashed onto the wolfship, driving it down, rolling it far over to the right until it seemed that it would never recover. Will screamed in absolute animal terror, then had the scream cut off as freezing salt water hammered against him, breaking his grip on the mast, filling his mouth and lungs and hurling him along the deck until the fragile cord brought him to a stop, swirling this way and that until the mass of water passed over and around him. He was left flapping on the deck like a fish as the ship righted itself. Evanlyn was beside him and together they scrambled back to the mast, clinging on with renewed desperation.
Then the bow pitched forward and they went plummeting down the back of the wave into the trough, leaving their stomachs far behind and screaming with sheer terror once more. The bow sliced into the trough of the wave, splitting the sea and hurling it high above them. Once again, water cascaded over the deck of the ship, but this time it lacked the full force of the breaking wave and the two young people managed to hold on. The water, waist-deep, surged past them. Then the slender wolfship seemed to shake itself free of the massive weight.
In the rowing benches, the relief crew was already hard at work, baling water over the side with buckets. Erak and Svengal, in the most exposed part of the ship, were also tied in place, either side of the storm sweep. This was a massive steering oar, half as big again as one of the normal oars. It was used instead of the smaller steering board at times like these. The long oar gave the helmsman greater purchase so he could assist the rowers in dragging the head of the ship around. Today, it took the strength of both men to manage it.
Deep in the trough between waves, the wind seemed to have lost some of its force. Will dashed the salt from his eyes, coughed and vomited seawater onto the deck. He met Evanlyn’s terrified gaze. Weakly, he felt he should do something to reassure her. But there was nothing he could say or do. He couldn’t believe that the ship could withstand another wave like that.
Yet another was already on the way. Even bigger than the first, it marched toward them across several hundred meters of the trough, rearing and massing itself high above them, higher than the walls of Castle Redmont. Will buried his face against the mast, felt Evanlyn doing the same as the ship began that awful, slow rise again.
Up and up they went, clawing at the face of the wave, the men heaving until their hearts might burst as they tried to drag
up the wave against the combined force of wind and sea. This time, before the wave broke, Will felt the ship seem to lose the last moment of the battle. He opened his eyes in horror as she began to surge backward to certain disaster. Then the crest curled over and smashed down upon them, and again he was sent spinning and scrabbling on the deck, fetching up against the rope that secured him, feeling something slam painfully into his mouth and realizing that it was Evanlyn’s elbow. Water thundered over him then the bow pitched down once more, and
began another sliding, careering dive down the far side, rolling upright, shedding the seawater like a duck. This time, Will was too weak to scream. He moaned softly and crawled back to the mast. He looked at Evanlyn and shook his head. There was no way they could survive this, he thought. He could see the same fear in her eyes.
In the stern, Erak and Svengal braced themselves as
slammed into the trough, sending sheets of water high either side of the bow, the whole fabric of the ship vibrating to the impact. She rolled, shook, righted herself again.
“She’s taking it well,” Svengal shouted. Erak nodded grimly. Terrifying as it might seem to Will and Evanlyn, the wolfship was designed to cope with massive seas like this. But even a wolfship had its limitations. And if they reached them, Erak knew, they would all be dead.
“That last one nearly had us,” he replied. It was only a last-minute surge by the rowers that had dragged the ship through the crest as she had been about to slide backward into the trough.
“We’re going to have to turn her and run before the storm,” he concluded, and Svengal nodded agreement, staring ahead through eyes slitted against the wind and the salt spray. “After this one,” he said. The next wave was a little smaller than the one that had nearly finished them. But
was a relative term. The two Skandians tightened their grip on the sweep oar.
“Heave, damn you! Heave!” Erak roared at the rowers as the mountain of water reared high above them and
began another slow, precarious climb.
“Oh no. Please, please, let it end,” Will moaned as he felt the bow cant upward once more. The terror was physically exhausting. He just wanted it to stop. If necessary, he thought, let the ship go under. Let it all go. Make an end of it. Just make this mind-numbing terror stop. He could hear Evanlyn beside him, sobbing with fear. He placed an arm around her but he couldn’t bring himself to do anything more to comfort her. Up, up and up they went, then there was the familiar roar of the collapsing crest and the thunder of water crashing down upon them. Then the bow came through the crest, slamming against the back of the wave and plummeting down. Will tried to scream but his throat was raw and his energy exhausted. He managed only a low sob.
sliced into the sea at the base of the wave again. Erak bellowed instructions to the rowers. They would have a short time in the wind shadow of the next approaching wave, and that was the time to make their turn.
“To the steerboard side!” he bellowed, pointing his hand in the direction of the turn just in case his voice didn’t carry to some of the forward rowers—although there was little fear of that.
The rowers set their feet against the wooden bracing boards. Those on the steerboard, or right-hand, side of the ship drew their oar handles back toward them. The left-hand-side rowers pushed theirs forward. As the ship leveled, Erak roared out his order.
The oar blades dipped into the sea, and as one side pushed and the other pulled, Erak and Svengal threw their weight on the sweep. The long, narrow ship pivoted neatly, almost in one spot, bringing the stern around to the wind and sea.
“Now pull together!” Erak roared, and the oarsmen went to it with a will. He had to keep the ship moving a little faster than the following sea or it would overwhelm them. He glanced once at the two young Araluen captives, huddled miserably by the mast, then forgot them as he went back to judging the ship’s movements, keeping her stern to the following sea. Any error on his part and she’d broach sideways, and that would be the end of them. They were riding easier, he knew. But this was no time to be distracted. To Will and Evanlyn, the ship was still plunging and rearing in a terrifying fashion, traveling through a vertical distance of as much as fifteen meters as she went from crest to trough. But now the movement was more controlled. They were going with the sea, not fighting it. Will sensed a slight easing in the motion. Spray and solid water still slammed over them at regular intervals, but the terrifying, backsliding motion was a thing of the past. As the ship coped with each successive mountain of water sweeping under and around it, Will began to believe that they
have a slight chance of survival.
But it was a slim
He still felt the same surge of bowel-gripping terror with every wave that overtook them. Each time, he felt that this could well be the last. He put both arms around Evanlyn, felt her arms go around his neck in return, her icy cheek pressed against his own. And so the two young people sought, and found, comfort and courage from each other. Evanlyn was whimpering with fear. And so was he, Will realized with some surprise—muttering meaningless words over and over, calling out to Halt, to Tug, to anyone who might listen and help. But as wave followed wave and
survived, the blinding terror lessened and nervous exhaustion took its place and, eventually, he slept.
For seven more days, the ship was driven far to the south, out of the Narrow Sea and into the fringes of the Endless Ocean. And Will and Evanlyn huddled by the mast: sodden, exhausted, freezing. The numbing fear of disaster was always present in their minds but, gradually, they began to believe that they might survive.
On the eighth day, the sun broke through. It was weak and watery, to be sure, but it was the sun. The violent plunging motion ceased, and once again the ship rode smoothly across the face of the rollers.
Erak, his beard and hair rimed with salt, hauled tiredly on the sweep, bringing the ship around in a smooth curve to face north once more.
“Let’s head for Cape Shelter,” he told his crew.