3 The Traders

The master of the trading ship would not take Ivy on as even the lowest cargo-monkey. That was what he said: I wouldn’t take you on as the lowest cargo-monkey, when she asked if surely there wasn’t something she could do to make herself useful. With her hair pinned under her cap, her face sunburnt and dirty, and her man’s jacket loose, Ivy looked, as she hoped, like a boy—but a boy, she realized too late, even younger than she was, surely too young to be of use to sailors.

She also looked as desperate as she felt. She had walked all night and most of the morning to the next village. Since travel by sea was so easy no roads connected the coastal towns of Acelia, and her skin was scratched and her clothes torn from climbing over boulders and hacking through brambles. It was pure luck that when she reached Engelica she found a crowd gathered on the beach and a trading ship arrived only that morning. She didn’t know when the next ship would be in, nor how long it would take to walk to still another town. She had nowhere to stay and nowhere else to go.

She looked at the ship anchored just offshore. Trading ships were all pretty much the same. Twenty paces long, low in the middle but rearing high at each end, with an enclosed cabin in front and a smaller one, little more than a lean-to, in back. A rough deck kept the cargo more or less dry, and the men could sleep beneath it in bad weather, though she didn’t guess they could stand up straight in the low hold. One great mast stood ready to hold the square sail that propelled the ship, slowly and steadily, through the coastal waters. It was not much to look at.

But the red-painted letters on the hull said Cenmere Ox, and Ivy knew that Cenmere was one of the Dragon Isles—and so the ship would have to make its way north eventually. If it could take her north, nothing else mattered.

She felt the weight of the gold in her satchel and said, reluctantly, “I can pay my way.”

The master’s eyes narrowed. “Where to?”

“Wherever you’re going.”

His eyes narrowed further. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen,” she lied.

“Try thirteen.”

“Fifteen. —It’s the truth.”

He regarded her silently. “Your parents know where you’ve gone?”

“My parents are dead.”

Another moment passed. Then the master shrugged. “How much have you got?”

Anticipating such a question she had divided her money into smaller sacks, and she offered one to the master. He loosened the drawstring and peered inside. Then he grunted.

“All right, here’s how this works. Passengers do what they’re told. First rule is stay out of the way. You get in the way, we throw you overboard. You understand me?”

The tone of his voice did not suggest that he was joking about throwing her overboard.

“Yes, sir.”

“We’re headed north as far as Alfland. You can get off anywhere between here and there. You’re still on board when we get to Alfland, I leave you there. You’re not booking round trip. Understand?”

No round trip. The master’s face swam before her eyes. Then it snapped back into focus.

“Yes, sir.”

“Passengers sleep in the aft castle. You’ll find you’re glad for the privacy, and you’ll be out of the way. But you eat what the crew eats.” He chuckled. “You’ll love it, I’m sure. You want to bring your own food, you’re welcome, but the boys’ll want to share, if you get my meaning.”

“I understand, sir.”

“If there’s a need, you work.” He looked her up and down, considering. “You’re a little scrawny for real work. Might ask you to mend the sails. Carry water.”

“I’m happy to work.”

“Aye, that’s what everyone says on shore.” He chuckled unpleasantly as he turned to go. “Ship leaves at dawn,” he called over his shoulder. “With or without you.”

Ivy swallowed her fear and excitement. The north, she thought, I am going north! What lay ahead she knew only from maps and stories. Her own country of Acelia, a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea, ended at the Great Bay two hundred miles north of Ennatin. Across the bay lay Northsward, where the mountains veered down to the coast and the land rose again in soft green hills. Great cities of five and even ten thousand people dotted its coast, and the weather there was so gentle, it was told, that the orchards rained apples and the fields grew grain all summer. Farther north the coast dispersed into a broken jumble of islands with names out of legends, lands of long-fingered people of astonishing craft and waters filled with pirates. From so far north she heard, as implausibly as tales of Tenadyne the Hero, that winter brought cold so fierce that the waters turned to rock and sprayed frozen sea-foam over the hills. The maker of her maps had colored the northern lands thickly with names, and there must be a hundred places for traders to anchor before they reached Alfland, the largest island of the archipelago.

Alfland was a journey of a thousand miles. She had two moons, maybe three, to prove her worth. If the ship’s master wouldn’t give her a chance, she would have to steal one.

Ivy sat under a tree behind the beach, watching the market. Sailing along the coast of Acelia the traders stopped at nearly every village to buy what the locals had in surplus and to sell them what they could not produce. They set up shop right on the beach, spreading their goods on rough boards laid across pairs of crates. The best ships set up canopies to shield their customers from sun and rain, but the Ox was not one of the best ships.

Even so, the villagers buzzed with an excitement that Ivy recognized. Trading days had always been Aunt Herrin’s favorite times. News of the traders’ arrival spread quickly, and women took holidays to examine the merchandise. During the harvest the men came too, to sell their surplus, but the spring harvest had long passed and the fall’s had not yet come. Between those times, with scarce cash and little to offer in barter, the women indulged in fantasies of buying rather than the act of it—weighing goods in their hands, unfolding fabrics to feel their drape, sniffing spices and herbs and perfumes.

Some brought fruit and fresh barley cakes to sell to the traders. Feeling her hunger, Ivy bought dinner from one of the women, who looked at her oddly, knowing her for a stranger and yet too young to be a trader. Ivy thanked her and returned to her tree to eat alone. In the warm shade of the scrub pine she drifted off once or twice, each time waking with a start and looking to make sure the traders were still there.

As the sun passed its peak and more villagers came and went empty-handed, the traders grew hot and grouchy. By mid-afternoon they began packing up their goods, nailing the lids on wooden crates and loading them into two long rowboats.

Ivy saw her chance to be useful. She ran to the water’s edge and bent to lift a crate, but before she could reach it, a man a full head taller than her stepped in front of her.

“Who in all the dry lands are you?” he growled.

“Passenger,” she gasped.

The trader looked her over and grunted. Then he barked, “Stay out of the way!”

She spent that night shivering under her tree while the traders sat around fires on the beach and laughed raucously in a way that was not at all welcoming.

Long before dawn Ivy woke, and afraid of missing the ship’s departure, she watched the stars over the sea until they faded and she heard the voices of the traders rousing themselves. Within minutes they packed what little gear they had and dragged it into the rowboats. Some of the men munched cold breakfast as they worked.

Ivy waited until they were almost ready to leave before approaching a tall man who was directing the loading of one of the boats.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I’m a passenger. Can I—”

The man cut her off shortly. “We don’t carry passengers.”

“But the master—”

“The master ain’t here.”

“I paid him yesterday!”

“Then you can pay us today, laddie,” said another man. He grinned nastily, showing missing teeth.

“The master didn’t say anything about additional charges.”

She knew at once that it was the wrong thing to say. “Oh!” said the toothless man, “additional charges! Ain’t we educated!

“Boat’s heavy enough as it is,” said the first man. “I don’t see why we don’t get a cut of whatever he’s getting.” He jerked this head toward the ship to indicate the master.

A voice came from the water, where four men were dragging the second boat into the water. “If he’s paying, I’ll row for cash!”

Mentally Ivy weighed her remaining sacks of coins. If she gave in, how many more little necessities would they demand money for? And how would she get more when she ran out? But she saw no other way to get on board.

She was ready to give in when a third man spoke up. “Ah, the kid can’t weigh much. Let him in the boat, and if the master don’t want him on board he can swim back.” He had been watching the other men with a disgusted expression, and Ivy guessed that he was less interested in helping her than in scoring a point on his crewmates.

The tall man scowled, but the toothless sailor grinned wider and made something between a chuckle and a grunt. He stepped aside grandly, waved Ivy toward the ship with an exaggerated bow, and said, “Yes, sir, we’ll see if the educated laddie can swim.”

The men standing around all laughed, but the one who had told them to take her said, “Aye, and you’ll be swimmin’ too, the lot o’ you, if you don’t get aboard quick. After that poor showing yesterday the master’ll be in no mood for layin’ about.” While the others grumbled and finished packing their gear, he watched Ivy with an expression that suggested she needed watching. Like most of the men he wore a rough brown beard, and the sun and salt had weathered his face to an age she couldn’t guess. His left ear was notched at the lobe, and a wide scar ran down his left cheek into his beard. Ivy stared back, trying to look unconcerned.

She perched on a crate in the rear of the rowboat, trying to make herself small. Four men rowed while a fifth scowled at them; all five ignored their passenger. When they reached the ship they left her last to climb the rope ladder onto the deck, then pulled it up behind her along with the boat. The other half of the crew had already arrived and were shouting to one another across the deck. One had shimmied up the mast and attached the sail at the top; two others were struggling to hold it steady while two more tied the bottom corners to the ends of the yard arm. The men from Ivy’s boat raced to join them. Eleven men in all, plus the master, who acknowledged her presence with a grunt and a jerk of his head toward the lean-to at the ship’s stern. She obeyed, but slowly, lingering to watch the activity, trying to memorize what everyone did, and when, and how.

She watched the work from the door of the lean-to until the anchor was weighed and the sail filled with wind. She watched the shoreline slip past, slowly, slowly at first, then faster, until the ship reached open water and the land diminished to a dark mass on the horizon, as featureless as the sea itself. Then she watched the bulging sail, its red traders’ emblem standing bold on the dingy cloth, the waves lapping at the hull and the white-foamed wake trailing behind. The wind blew steady from the southeast, and in a few minutes the beach at Engelica had disappeared around a bend in the coast.

Ivy had barely grown used to the motion of the great ship when they anchored at the next village. She knew from her maps that it must be Tanica, but she had never traveled this far north, and there was no one to ask. The crew were too busy scampering down ladders into the hold, hefting crates one man to the next, carrying them across the deck onto wide boards that when full they lowered by ropes into the waiting rowboats—and arguing, it seemed, about anything and everything, loudly and forcefully. Get those crates! No not those! Yes, the pots—no not the blacknut oil. How did this get broken? I sure didn’t— But the work got done, faster than Ivy would have thought possible, while she watched from the safety of the lean-to, which the master had grandly called the aft castle. If anyone might have rowed her to shore, she missed her chance to ask, and soon enough she was alone onboard with the master, who disappeared into his cabin at the front of the ship, and one old sailor who had supervised the unloading of cargo and now stalked sourly about the deck as if looking for someone to give orders to.

Ivy thought it best to wait in the lean-to until the old mate settled down, though she longed to stretch her legs. The space was barely bigger than her grandfather’s bed and half-stuffed with crates, and it stank of fish and mildew. Sunlight streamed between the rough boards of the walls. A good storm would soak her, she thought, if it didn’t blow the whole mess into the sea, and her with it. She hoped the rest of the ship was sturdier.

In her book of maps she leafed through the pages that showed the Dragon Isles until she found the island of Cenmere, decorated with a leaping red deer and a pair of green-inked trees. Then she studied the maps of middle Acelia, hoping to figure out where she was. The book opened easily to the page that showed Ennatin, and to the north Engelica and Tanica. Two more villages came in close succession, and then what looked like a full day’s sailing to Tokindon. She tried to guess when they would reach ports further up the coast, calculating in her head, but so much depended on wind and weather. The heat and her own exhaustion made it hard to concentrate, and soon she fell asleep.

When she woke the old sailor was gone, so she walked along the deck, examining everything as closely as she dared. The mast, the yard arm that turned the sail to catch the wind, the thick-braided ropes coiled carefully in piles and on hooks, the massive crank that raised and lowered the anchor on its chain.

She was leaning over the railing to see where the rowboats were tied when she heard a high-pitched shriek—a sound that anywhere else she might have recognized but that here almost pitched her into the sea. She slipped on the wet deck and sat down hard, clinging to the railing.

Bright green eyes watched her curiously from a jet black face, and a dark tail twitched. The ship’s cat, of course.

“You all right?”

The old sailor squinted at her under eyebrows wired with gray. His bushy beard was almost white, his lips all but hidden beneath it, and his nose was a red and pock-marked knob thrusting from the shadow of a battered cloth hat, its tip just catching the sunlight. He might have appeared comical if not for his expression, which was one of pure annoyance. He looked like a man who had been disturbed from the next best thing to a nap.

“Yes,” Ivy said. “I’m all right.”

“It’s just Panther.” The man’s mouth twitched as though he wanted to laugh at her, but he continued scowling.

“Oh!” Ivy said. “I know that story.” Her grandfather had told her, many a time. Panther, the great hunter-cat of the sea, stealthy as death and black as the grave, who stalked sailors and dragged them to their doom. “Tenadyne tamed him,” she said.

“Heh!” The trader laughed shortly without changing his expression. “Ain’t nobody tamed the panther. She’s out there still. Stalk you soon enough, you stay on this ship.” He turned his frown to the cat. “Only thing that one stalks is rats, and not enough of ’em!”

He gave another laugh that might as easily have been a grumble and stomped away.

At dusk the traders packed up their wares but, as before, settled in to sleep on the beach. Ivy, who had spent the evening watching gulls circle over the water, returned miserably to the lean-to and tried to sleep. The first stars were shining over the water when a shadow darkened the door.

“You had any dinner?”

The last of the daylight gave an eerie glow to the old man’s beard. Ivy roused herself. “No,” she said. She didn’t add that she hadn’t eaten breakfast, either, except for a crust of bread she had saved from yesterday’s dinner.

The trader grunted and disappeared as quickly as he had come. Ivy, who had stopped expecting kindness or even tolerance, lay down again. But he returned a few minutes later, illuminated by the yellow glow of a blacknut oil lantern, and handed her a wooden plate with some smoked and salted fish, scraps of dried fruit, and a short pile of the twice-baked cracker-like bread her grandfather called trunchet but the traders called dog biscuit.

“You got a waterskin?”

“Yes, sir.”

“There’s fresh water below. Be careful going down.” He gestured to the open door in the deck, from which a ladder protruded. He held out the lantern, but as she reached to take it he jerked it back. “Be careful with it,” he snapped.

“I will!” Ivy gasped.

“There’s a hook on the wall of the forecastle. Hang it there when you’re done.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

He handed her the lantern. “What’s your name, kid?”

“I’m…” She realized for the first time that she didn’t know what to call herself. If she was traveling as a boy, she would have to leave her own name behind. She blurted the first man’s name that came to mind. Her father’s. “I’m Kennell,” she said.

“Kennell.” The trader acknowledged the name but did not suggest that it was nice to meet her. “Name’s Mantry. I take care of pretty near everything on this ship.”

“Thank you, Mr. Mantry.”

He laughed, an odd sound more like a bark or a cough. “Just Mantry.” He turned and walked out of the circle of light into the darkness of the deck, and she heard him laugh again and mutter, “Just Mantry.”

Ivy set the plate on an empty crate in the lean-to and dug out her water skin. Clenching its cord in her teeth she made her way down the ladder with one hand on the rungs and the other clutching the lantern. A tall barrel sat at the bottom. She pulled its plug and filled her waterskin, and though the water reeked of oak and must she gulped it down and filled the skin a second time before climbing back up top. She could hear the master snoring in his cabin when she hung the lantern on its hook.

The apples were like leather, the fish almost putrid and the dog biscuit nearly unchewable, but she ate it all gratefully. She stretched out as best she could in the lean-to and fell asleep almost at once.

In the night she woke to see green eyes shining in the darkness.

“Hello, Panther,” she said. The cat leaned in for a closer look, but when Ivy reached out to pet her, she darted away. The deck of the Ox was still and dark, and Ivy drifted off again.