The Dark Tide, Part One

A sharp cry, repeated over and over, pulled Iain from sleep. When he opened his eyes, he knew it had been his voice. Though the sound seemed to linger, it echoed only within his mind and not the air. His throat did not ache with it; he'd not been yelling.

For a few seconds he hovered in that place between sleep and wakefulness, the vague memory of his dream clutching at him as he tried pull away. Then, blinking into the grey, predawn light, he listened for other sounds, those not a part of his nightmare; the breaths of his sleeping fellows, the press of the ocean against the hull, creaking timbers, the footsteps and low voices of the night watch. Hearing none of these, he sat up with a gasp and his hands reached or the sides of his hammock only to meet nothing and fall back to the bedclothes. One landed against warm fur and he finally breathed a sigh of relief. He'd not had a cat in the dungeon.

After a moment of disorientation, Iain remembered he was at home, in Stormgard. Oddly, this thought did not immediately soothe him. Home felt unfamiliar for a few minutes until he recalled the easy pace of his days and the time spent with family. The sound of his grandfather's quiet breathing beside him calmed him immeasurably, as did the soft, rumbling purr emanating from the cat beside him.

In the dungeon he'd listened for the whisper of breath from the man in the next cell, until that man had died. Then he'd had to strain to listen for another. It had always been a fear, beyond the pain and anguish, he might find himself alone down there. That he would be the last man left alive. He did not actually fear being the only one left to torture, he'd not have lasted long and that thought brought with it only relief. More, he feared being alone. Iain had never been alone in his life. He had a twin.

Like most men, he did not mind an hour or so to himself, a bit of a quiet time to explore his surrounds, think his occasional thoughts. Being more of a doer than a thinker, however, he did not crave solitude. He sought noise and presence. He'd loved the beach at Highever because of the sound of the wind and the ocean. He'd loved the market place for the press of people and song of varied voices. He liked the barracks and the yard because it was never quiet. And when no one was around, he made his own noise, he hummed and sang. He didn't mind Rafi's quiet. Her presence had always been enough.

It had never been truly quiet beneath Vigil's Keep, even at night. He'd not really known night from day; he guessed it mostly from the frequency of the guards' visits. The quiet hours, when the sounds of torture and screams, jeers and harsh laughter did not fill the air, were the night hours, and they were filled with different sounds; weeping, moaning, pained gasps and laboured breaths. Shifting and muttering and, when he was able, his own voice, quietly singing.

Pulling Socks into his arms, Iain shook off the memories and listened to the rumbling purr. He let it echo through him and calm the rapid flicker of his pulse. The warmth of the cat soothed as well and his breaths soon became soft sighs. Blinking into the dim light of his old bedroom, Iain worked to let go of the nightmare; he'd learned not to recall or examine his dreams. It had been vague, he remembered that much. If a dream managed to break through the heavy somnolence of the bitter tea, it was always an ethereal thing, terrorizing him with sound and sensation rather than clear imagery.

Another sound edged its way into his consciousness and Iain listened to it a moment before deciphering the soft and steady beat: rain.

The first time it had rained out on the ocean, Iain had been astounded by the sheer volume of water. Before his incarceration, rain had never struck him as so wondrous a thing - an unlimited supply of water to slake his thirst and wash the blood and grime away. Though he had no longer been dirty or maddened with thirst, still he went out onto the deck in only a shirt and shorts and laid there for an hour until he felt sodden. He drank the rainwater as it washed across his face and let it soak his clothes, reveling in the weight of wet material against his skin. The steady drum against the deck timbers and the heave and sigh of the ocean sounded like music and he sang along with it until Shy'danu pulled him back below once more, her voice softly scolding.

He caught a chill and thrashed for three days in fevered dreams, but it had been worth it, just to feel so completely wet.

Now, while the steady soft sound of the rain against the roof served to calm him, it did not entirely soothe. They could not build in the rain, but they could saw. His father would go to the mill again today. A small twitch became a shudder and Iain swallowed against the sudden fear roaring in his mind and curling in his gut. He could not go back to the mill.

Relinquishing the warmth of his bed, Iain put his feet to the cool floor and felt the oddness, as always, as the scarred skin on the sole of each foot connected with the smooth wood. The increased sensitivity of his feet, combined with the tremble of his hands and the bleakness of his thoughts, was enough to warn him that this would be one of thosedays. The dark tide tugged at him and he'd fight it through the hours, exhaustively. He'd not be able to talk or listen for the dialogue within, the battle against self. He would drop things and break things; he would start at loud noises and simple touches.

The first time the bleakness and despair enveloped him he'd fought with the cook's son, Reyes. The kitchen hand treated him as an underling and when he dropped something, Reyes cuffed him, knocking him back against a stout pillar. Iain hurled himself at the larger man, defiance singing in his blood. He had no shackles at his ankles and wrists; he had no reason not to defend himself. In the five minutes they traded blows they managed to destroy the crews' breakfast. When the cook, George, returned, he pulled them apart only to throw them back together again, their heads connecting with a sound crack. Iain woke up in the infirmary only to find he'd been spared twenty lashes – that time. His light treatment did not endear him to Reyes. The next time he felt the pull of the dark tide he'd withdrawn. He went to the hold of the ship, the small space he'd curled up in when he first climbed aboard, and retreated.

Sometimes it lasted hours, more rarely days. He had no way to tell, he merely stumbled through until he found the end.

Pushing himself to his feet, wincing at the soreness of his limbs, the residual ache in his left hand, Iain went into the dark kitchen. Socks pawed at the door and he cracked it open to let the cat out and then followed his friend, stepping into the rain. He scanned the yard, looking for a retreat. He could see little through the grey sheets of water but dark shapes and shadows. He looked towards the east and guessed dawn might be about an hour away. Where could he hide?

"Iain?"

Iain jumped, a startled cry falling from his lips. His feet landed in mud and he slipped and might have fallen if his grandfather had not caught him in a strong grip.

"Come inside, lad. Wait, stand there..." Gavin went to get him a rag and Iain stood there, as instructed, shivering in the draught between the warmth of the kitchen and the cold rain outside. Looking down, he saw that his pants were wet and clinging to his legs and he'd forgotten to put on a shirt. His scars stood out against his cold skin, all of them. His grandfather must have seen them.

Panic took a swift hold and Iain ran from the doorway, tracking mud across the kitchen floor. He slid and collided with a doorframe before pulling himself around it, absently rubbing his shoulder. When he reached his room he grabbed a shirt from the floor and stuck his arms into it and pulled it roughly over his head. In his haste, he tugged too hard and felt rather than heard the material give along one seam. His shirts were somewhat weathered, it had happened before.

"What in...?"

"Fuck!" As he spun around his legs caught the edge of the bed and Iain sat heavily, his wet pants immediately soaking the sheets and blankets beneath him.

His grandfather's eyes were wide with shock – either at his language or the fact he'd run through the house with muddied feet and proceeded to sit on a clean bed, his pants wet and filthy. The old man stepped into the room and offered him the towel.

"They teach you to speak like that at sea?" he asked gruffly.

"No, sorry, grandpa." Iain felt somewhat contrite, but not fully. It was hard to feel anything properly beneath the swirl of panic and despair. He bent to wipe the mud from his feet, a somewhat futile gesture given the state of his bed. He closed his eyes a moment, imagining his mother's displeasure; she'd not be able to wash on a rainy day. Feeling like a resentful child, one who did not want to be scolded, Iain opened his eyes to scowl at his feet and shifted so that he couldn't see his grandfather standing just off to the side. He pretended the old man wasn't there.

Gavin spoke anyway, dispelling the weak illusion. "Quite the collection of scars you got there."

Iain flinched and turned a little further, almost curling into himself. He grunted a soft, wordless response. He did not want to talk about the marks decorating his skin. The seam across his ribs, a battle wound, would be alright, but not the myriad smaller scars or the deliberate marks, the brands. Not the reminders of pain and himself screaming (and he'd tried not to... he'd tried so hard), not the shame of having to carry the brand of the Howe family imprinted in his skin so many times.

After a few moments of very deliberate silence, he heard Gavin leave the room and he stood up, pulled off his pants, leaving them in a wet heap on the floor, and reached for a dry pair. He dragged the material over his wet legs then pulled his half clean feet into the bed, tugged the covers over his head and curled into as small a shape as his large frame could manage. He couldn't hide outside in the rain and he could not spend the day in the kitchen beneath the watchful eye of his mother. He would stay here, in the dark cave of his bed clothes.

He heard someone come into the room, hover for a few minutes, and leave again. When he peeked out from the covers, he saw a mug of warm water sitting beside the bed. He could retreat further... he took the gesture as his grandfather's permission to do so. Iain found his small packet of bitter herbs and measured them out. He drank his tea and then he curled back into his damp bed. Soon enough, he drifted away.