Aren clamored down the gangway to the lower deck where the crew slept. A lantern that hung from a hook over the door provided the only light. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the semidarkness before heading toward a hammock hung from the overhead near the port side. A shadowy form lay under a cotton blanket.
"Bennor," he whispered, and crept over to touch the arm of the gray-haired man in the hammock. "Are you asleep?"
The old sailor opened one blue eye and peered at Aren. "No, lad. Only resting."
"Are you ill? I was worried when you didn't come to supper. Cook sent me below with some bread."
He lifted a grubby hand and unwrapped a slice of the soft Rordorian bread they'd picked up at the last port. He held it out to his friend.
"Thanks, lad, but I've no appetite today. My chest has been paining me again, and I couldn't get my breath. Your father told me to get some sleep."
Aren's dark eyes widened with concern. He set the bread down on a chest behind him and stood on his tiptoes to get a better view of Bennor's bearded face. The sailor's cheeks looked gray and sunken in the dim light. Frowning, Aren reached out and patted the sailor's arm.
"Father says we'll be back in Chitan tomorrow. Then you can rest in your own bed."
He loved to visit Bennor's cottage. It nestled in the shelter of the cliffs near the House of Lohenrin and Bennor often took Aren fishing in a little rowboat he kept tied to his pier.
"Aye, lad, that will be good. It's three generations of your family I've sailed with, counting you, and I wanted to make this one voyage at least." He grimaced and gasped for breath. "But I'm beginning to think this will be my last trip out to sea."
"No, Bennor!" A stubborn defiance rose up in Aren. He put his fists on his hips in imitation of the commanding stance his father took when in charge of the ship. "You can't stop sailing just when I am finally old enough to go with you on your voyages. I am nine now," he added, with pride in his voice.
"I know that, lad. Your father will be braiding these curls at the end of this voyage." He lifted a gnarled hand and tugged at the mass of coal black hair that hung loose around Aren's shoulders. "You've earned your apprenticeship. Time for these child's locks to go."
"I'm ready." Aren pushed the tangled hair out of his eyes. He relaxed his stubborn stance, and curved his mouth in the imploring smile he used to win his mother's consent to his requests. "But I want you to get better and sail with me."
"I'll do my best." The old man tried to sit up in the hammock, but a tremor shook his body and he flopped down, fighting for breath.
"Are you cold?" Aren glanced at the portal, open to the night and the damp sea air. He ran to close the shutters, then came back and took Bennor's hand in his. "I can warm you for a while."
Without waiting for permission he grabbed hold of one edge of the hammock and swung himself up. He was tall for his age and he wiggled in beside the old man so his body heat would spread to his friend. Although he was an only child, visiting cousins had taught him this trick for cold winter nights. He laid his head on Bennor's shoulder and rested a hand on his chest.
"You go ahead and sleep. I'll stay until you're warm again."
As he lay in the hammock he felt the muscles of the old man's body begin to relax. The shivering subsided. He snuggled closer, then stiffened. Something felt terribly wrong.
He spread his fingers over Bennor's chest, probing through the rough cloth of his tunic, but his exploring hand couldn't find the source of his uneasiness. The curious warmth he'd felt for as long as he could remember began to tingle at the tips of his fingers. It spread to the palm of his hand as he traced the old man's shoulder bone under the cloth. He'd felt the warmth before when he touched people and now he lifted his head in the darkness and was startled to see a dim golden glow at the tips of his fingers. He stared harder and the glow vanished. He glanced over to the lantern. Maybe it was a trick of the light.
Beside him, the old man sighed. "I feel warmer, my lad," he murmured. "I think maybe I can sleep."
Once he was sure Bennor had fallen into a deep slumber Aren swung out of the hammock and hurried back up the steep companionway to the spar deck. Taking a deep breath of the sea air he ran toward the rail. Even in the dark he could see the swelling waves as the ocean rose and fell under the lash of the salt-laden wind.
A glance toward the main mast showed that the sails were set. The ship felt as if it was flying over the water. Ahead of him white-topped, wind-driven waves merged into the night sky. High above him the stars filled the heavens and cast their shimmering light on the black waters beyond the ship. Aren slapped both hands on the solid oak railing and leaned far out over the waves, letting the clean night wind blow away the darkness he'd felt inside Bennor's body. Wind-borne spray splattered his face and the bow seemed to lift from the water. He laughed and imagined the ship rising from the waves and sailing up into that sky that reached into infinity. This world beyond his home was vast and there was so much to discover. He heard the slap of sandals on the deck and then his father stood at his side, legs spread in the easy stance the sailors used for balance on the rolling ship. Rossar Lohenrin was a tall man, his face burned to a deep bronze and his muscles hardened by a lifetime spent at sea.
"We're making good speed." Starlight gleamed on his father's face as he turned to look at the banner of the House of Lohenrin rippling in the wind off the stern of the Far Voyager. "If the weather holds we'll be in Chitan by dawn."
Aren was glad for Bennor's sake, but he couldn't keep the disappointment from his voice. Although his father had taken him out on the ocean many times this was his first true sea voyage and he wanted it to go on forever. He felt as light as a bird balancing on the air as he released his grip on the railing and imitated his father's stance. Voyager moved like a living thing under him. Laughing, he spread his arms wide for balance. His father joined in his laughter and tousled his hair.
"Your child-years are done. There will be many voyages to come. My fleet will be yours one day. In fact, your first task will be to learn the names of those stars up there." His callused hand made a sweep toward the heavens. "Soon you will steer by them when you are out of sight of land. We will go much farther out later this summer, I promise."
Excited by his father's challenge Aren scanned the dark realm above him. Stars sparkled in the velvet blackness, silver and crimson and blue and gold. There seemed far too many to count, much less name. Despite his desire to conquer the world opening before him he faltered at this immense task.
"Will I have to know all of them? There are so many."
Rossar grinned, his teeth a white flash in the darkness. "No, not all -- only fifty-seven or so, the ones we use for navigation when we venture out of sight of land. Although you will sail with your men those stars will be your true companions and guides, pointing the way to safe harbor. I call them my secret sky." His voice dropped as he spoke the last three words.
Thrilled to share his father's confidence Aren stood a bit straighter. This easy, man-to-man tone was new to him. It made his head dance with thoughts of what was to come. At last he would get to know the father who was so often away at sea. And one day they would be true equals and partners in the fleet.
The ship lurched to portside and he grabbed the rail. The hull creaked as the ship settled into the waves again. Above him the great red and gold sails of the House of Lohenrin swelled with the wind that drove the ship back toward Chitan and home. Above the billowing sails the stars blazed. Fifty-seven stars. Aren drew his eyebrows together in a frown and his eyes grew serious.
"Father, why do you call those stars your secret sky?"
His father dropped a hand to his shoulder. "Because they speak a language known only to a select few. Even though we live on a great island, most of the people of Atlaua are content to stay in the cities and never venture out to sea. They can show you the great blue star that points ever north, or Romu, the star that rules the western sky. Beyond that, they are lost. But those of us who know the secrets of the sky are always able to find our way anywhere in the world."
Aren's eyes widened as he pondered the power hidden in the heavens. He pointed at a blue-gold cluster of stars that hung above the tallest mast of the ship.
"The home of the Sky Gods is up there. Mother says they write the fate of each man and woman down in a book and keep it sealed up in the Timeless Sphere."
"Does she now? Those are Perxan and Jordo, twin stars that circle each other, and their neighbor, Deemis. They are notable stars, but I very much doubt the Sky Gods live there."
Aren's frown deepened and his heartbeat quickened. There was so much he wanted to know; and his father seemed to be in a mellow mood tonight. He turned his gaze up to the stars again and asked the question that so often bothered him. "Are the Sky Gods real, or only a story?"
His father sighed. "They are real enough, Aren, but their ways are beyond our understanding. The priests say they watch over Gaea because long ago -- so long ago you cannot imagine how many years -- they lived upon this world."
"My teacher said that, too, and told me the Wanderers are named for them." Aren pointed to a bright red star that glowed above the sea on the eastern horizon. "That's one, isn't it?"
His father nodded. "Yes. It's easy enough to spot a wanderer. Most stars seem motionless, but the Wanderers move swiftly across the heavens."
"My teacher said the Wanderers are worlds like Gaea, and they circle around the sun. Do people live on them?"
"That I do not know." Rossar shrugged his broad shoulders. "As I said, the sky is a secret place, full of mysteries."
Another thought occurred to Aren. "Can't the Sky Gods tell us the answers to whatever we need to know?"
His father made a choked sound as he spat over the railing. "I imagine the Sky Gods have their own concerns. Do you always have so many questions?"
"Yes, but usually you are off to sea so I ask Mother. I think of them when I lay in bed at night."
Rossar squeezed his son's small shoulder with a work-hardened hand. "I can't answer your questions, Aren. I am a sailor as my father was before me. I have sailed around Atlaua countless times now, visiting her many cities, but I have never seen the Sky Gods."
Aren frowned. His father's fifty-seven stars might one day guide him in his journeys, but there were other secrets in the sky that not even his father knew the answer to. As the deck rolled under his feet, a sense of infinity loomed over him. He shivered with a chill that was not born of the salty wind. The universe was vaster than he had ever dreamed. He clutched the deck railing again, glad of its solid support, and squinted up at his father.
"You know the stars, though. You learn things from them. You said so."
"So do all men. The priests use the movements of the stars to tell the times and the seasons. I use the stars to find my way. Both of these are different parts of the secret sky. But the deep heavens, where the gods live, are a mystery."
"Has anyone ever gone there?"
Rossar stared down at him with an affectionate smile. "Perhaps the priests in the Temple of the Sky Gods in Ruthher have tried."
Ruthher. His mother mentioned the name of that city sometimes, always with reverence shining in her eyes. "Can we sail there?"
His father shook his head. "For what I paid your tutor, he should have shown you a map once in a while, boy. You can't sail to Ruthher. It's a landlocked city west of the Daspair Mountains. It's a minor town, unimportant really, except for the Temple."
"Then why is the Temple there and not in Chitan or one of the other great cities?"
"Why indeed? I don't know." Rossar stared off into the distance where a fish broke the water and leaped into the air before splashing back into the sea. "You would have to ask the priests that."
Aren tried to imagine the sacred Temple. Would he feel closer to the Sky Gods there, closer than he did here under their wide heavens? The thought filled him with excitement.
"Maybe I will."
His father's dark brows drew together. Aren knew that expression well -- when his father's rugged features wore that stubborn look it was useless to argue. "It is unlikely you will travel to Ruthher anytime soon. You must learn about the ship and the fifty-seven stars to steer by."
"I will learn them as fast as I can." He drew a quick breath and flung out his secret desire. "But first, I would like to go to Ruthher and find out about the Sky Gods."
Rossar's face grew still. He slid an arm about his son's shoulders and gazed into his eyes. "We each have our destiny, Aren. You are the heir of the House of Lohenrin and your destiny is to be a captain of a fleet of ships. It does not pay to try to be what we are not."
His father looked surprised when Aren nodded. "You are right. Everyone does have a destiny. Is there a House where priests are born?"
"No, son, priests come from throughout Atlaua, but to enter the priesthood is a sacred calling. Only those with the khi power may go."
"You mean to the Temple in Ruthher?
"That's right. The priests are trained there in the healing arts. Ruthher is a great center of healing."
Aren nodded again. It made sense. Not everyone could see into the secrets of the Sky Gods, only those with this khi power. And that was not a choice you could make. You were either born with the khi power or you weren't. He sighed, not sure whether he was disappointed or relieved that he was an ordinary boy. He must content himself with learning the names of the stars. Only the priests would know their meanings.
The deep rumble of his father's voice interrupted his thoughts. "The priests use the khi power to heal and to contact the Sky Gods, who speak to them about many things. In turn, they share that wisdom with Atlaua's people." He gripped Aren's shoulders with his two calloused hands and turned him away from the railing. "We've had enough questions for one night. Time to get some sleep. We must be up before dawn. In the morning we reach Chitan, and I want you to learn how the ship is brought into the harbor."
Aren looked up at the crest of the House of Lohenrin -- a sea lion surrounded by twelve stars representing the greatest cities of Atlaua -- on the main sail high above him. Someday, this ship would be his. Sailing seemed a simple enough thing, straightforward and easy to understand. Not half as interesting as discovering the secrets in the sky.
"Maybe if I pray very hard to the gods they will give me this khi power."
His father's fingers dug into his shoulders. "You have no need for khi to sail the sea. No one on my side of the family has ever had the gift."
"What about Mother?"
The fingers gripping his shoulders dug even deeper. He winced and squirmed away, then pivoted to look up at his father. He sensed his father's tension as he braced his feet against the tilting motion of the deck again.
"What is it?"
Even in the dark he could see the scowl on his father's face. "There is some khi power in your mother's family."
"But I was born without it."
Disappointment colored his voice. Possessing the khi power would be marvelous. He imagined raising a staff such as the priests in Chitan carried and hurling lightening up to the sky.
"It doesn't always manifest right away. A boy's body undergoes many changes as he grows..."
His father's words trailed off into silence and Aren knew better than to pursue the topic. He would ask his mother to tell him more about this mysterious khi force when he got home.
Copyright © 2004 by Jeanine Berry