John Flanagan: The Icebound Land

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John Flanagan The Icebound Land
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    The Icebound Land
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AUTHOR: John Flanagan

TITLE: The Icebound Land









To Penny, who set such a high standard


T HE WOLFSHIP WAS ONLY A FEW HOURS FROM C APE S HELTER 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 Wolfwind '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.

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