I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed that my sister didn’t turn green with envy, but no triumph is ever total, is it?
Anrak’s face grew melancholy, and he sighed. He explained to Riva how much he regretted not having pressed his suit.
Isn’t that an absurd turn of phrase? It makes Anrak sound like a laundress with a hot flat-iron.
His rueful admission made my morning complete, and it opened whole new vistas to me. Being adored is a rather pleasant way to pass the time, wouldn’t you say? Not only that, both Anrak and his cousin automatically ennobled me by calling me ‘Lady Polgara’, and that has a rather nice ring to it.
Then Riva’s cousin came up with a number of profound misconceptions about what father calls our ‘talent’. He clearly believed that my transformation had been the result of magic and even went so far as to suggest that I could be in two places – and times – simultaneously. I rather gently tweaked his beard on that score. I found myself growing fonder and fonder of Anrak. He said such nice things about me.
It was perhaps noon by the time we went down to the harbor to board Riva’s ship. Beldaran and I had never seen the sea before, nor a ship, for that matter, and we both were a little apprehensive about our upcoming voyage. The weather was fine, though there were all those waves out there. I’m not sure exactly what we’d expected, but all the ponds in the Vale had absolutely flat surfaces, so we weren’t prepared for waves. There was also a peculiar odor about the sea. It had a sharp tang to it that overlaid the more disgusting smells that characterize every harbor in the world. I suppose it’s human nature to dispose of garbage in the simplest way possible, but it struck me as improvident to dump it into a body of water that’ll return it to you on each incoming tide.
The ship seemed quite large to me, but I found the cabins below decks tiny and cramped, and everything seemed to be coated with a black, greasy substance. ‘What’s that smeared all over the walls?’ I asked uncle Beldin.
‘Tar,’ he replied with an indifferent shrug. ‘It helps to keep the water out.’
That sort of alarmed me. ‘The boat’s made of wood,’ I said. ‘Isn’t wood supposed to float?’
‘Only when it’s one solid piece, Pol. The sea wants to have a level surface, and empty places under that surface offend it, so it tries to seep in and fill up those spaces. And the tar keeps the wood from rotting.’
‘I don’t like it.’
‘I’m sure your opinion hurts its feelings.’
‘You always have to try to be clever, don’t you, uncle?’
‘Look upon it as a character defect if you like.’ He grinned.
After Beldaran and I had deposited our belongings in our tiny cabin, we went back up on deck. Riva’s sailors were making the vessel ready to depart. They were burly, bearded men, many of whom were stripped to the waist. All that bare skin made me just a little jumpy for some reason.
There seemed to be ropes everywhere – an impossible snarl passing through pulleys and running upward in an incomprehensible tangle. The sailors untied the ropes that held the ship up against the wharf, and then pushed us a ways out and took their places at the oars. One ruffian with an evil face sat cross-legged in the stern and began to pound rhythmically on a hide-topped drum to set the pace for the oarsmen. The ship moved slowly out through the crowded harbor toward the open sea.
Once we were past the breakwater, the sailors pulled in their oars and began hauling on various ropes. I still don’t fully understand exactly how a sailor can tell one rope from another, but Riva’s men seemed to know what they were doing. Large horizontal beams with tightly rolled canvas attached to them crept up the masts as the chanting sailors pulled on the ropes in a unison set by the rhythm of the chant. The pulleys squealed as the canvas-bearing beams rose to the tops of the masts. Then aloft, other sailors, agile as monkeys, untied the canvas and let it roll down. The sails hung slack for a few moments. Then a breeze caught them and they bellied out with a booming sound.
The ship rolled slightly to one side, and then it began to move. Water foamed as the bow of the ship cut into the waves, and the breeze of our passage touched my face and tossed my hair. The waves were not high enough to be alarming, and Riva’s ship mounted each one with stately pace and then majestically ran down the far side.
I absolutely loved it!
The ship and the sea became unified, and there was a music to that unification, a music of groaning timbers, creaking ropes, and booming sails. We moved out across the sun-touched waves with the music of the sea filling our ears.
I’ve frequently made light, disparaging remarks about Alorns and their fascination with the sea, but there’s a kind of holiness in it – almost as if true sailors have a different God. They don’t just love the sea; they worship it, and in my heart I know why.
‘I can’t see the land any more!’ Beldaran exclaimed that evening, looking apprehensively sternward.
‘You aren’t supposed to, love,’ Riva told her gently. ‘We’d never get home if we tried to keep the Sendarian coast in plain sight the whole way to the Isle.’
The sunset on the sea ahead of us was glorious, and when the moon rose, she built a broad, gleaming highway across the glowing surface of the night-dark sea.
All bemused by the beauty around me, I sat down on a convenient barrel, crossed my arms on the rail, and set my chin on them to drink in the sense of the sea. I remained in that reverie all through the night, and the sea claimed me as her own. My childhood had been troubled, filled with resentments and a painful, almost mortifying sense of my own inadequacy. The sea calmed those troubled feelings with her serene immensity. Did it really matter that one little girl with skinned knees felt all pouty because the world didn’t genuflect every time she walked by? The sea didn’t seem to think so, and increasingly as the hours passed, neither did I.
The dawn announced her coming with a pale light just above the sternward horizon. The world seemed filled with a grey, shadowless luminescence, and the dark water became as molten silver. When the sun, made ruddy by the sea mist, mounted above the eastern horizon, he filled my heart with a wonder such as I’d never known before.
But the sea wasn’t done with me yet. Her face was like molten glass, and then something immense swelled up from beneath without actually breaking the surface. The resulting surge was untouched by foam or silly little splashings. It was far too profound for that kind of childish display. I felt a sudden sense of superstitious terror. The mythology of the world positively teems with sea-monsters, and Beltira and Belkira had amused Beldaran and me when we were very young by telling us stories, usually of Alorn origin. No sea-going people will ever pass up the chance to talk about sea-monsters, after all.