Chapter One

"Are you daft, girl?!"

Branwen ignored the shout which chased her out of the rickety birchwood door on the seaward side of her family's inn, The Driftwood. Heavy rain lashed her face like stinging flails and she drew her thick wool cloak close under her chin. Loose tendrils of nut brown hair were torn loose from her work braid by the relentlessly swirling winds, and silent tears ran down her face, mingling with the coursing rivulets of rain that slid down her cheeks to fall from the tip of her pointed chin.

The door slammed shut behind her and she did not look back as she fled down the rocky path towards the cove and the solitude of her small skiff. How dare they?! How dare they tell me that Garbin is a traitor? That I cannot see him again!

Waves swept restlessly against the shore, sending the boats moored to the floating dock to crashing up against it, the din of wood against wood competing with the howling of the wind for supremacy. On sure feet, Branwen stepped out onto the rolling planks, her knees bent to counter the rise and fall of the swells.

"Branwen? Is that you, girl?" came a shout from Eli the Boatman's cottage. "What're you about? You cannot take the skiff out into this!"

Damn him! You'd think this dock was one of his own limbs the way he knows when it's being trodden.

Ignoring the boatman's warning, Branwen continued on to her own boat, nothing more than a shell, really. Rainwater was two fingers deep in its bottom already, and the heavy surf threatened to swamp over its gunwales.

"Stop her, Eli! She's mad!"

No madder than you, Da. Garbin is no more traitor than I am fish. If you cannot see that, then you do not know me well enough to call me daughter.

A guttering flame caught the corner of her eye, and she smiled ruefully through her tears. Poor Eli had no chance of stopping her. His rheumatic body could never move fast enough to reach even halfway down the dock before she was asea.

Grasping the gunwale firmly with her left hand, Branwen skillfully unwound the rope that held the skiff captive with her right. The moment it was free, she leapt lightly down into its belly, sending the pooled rainwater radiating from her feet in agitated ripples.

Eli's torch had reached the land end of the dock, and Branwen could hear her Da screaming as he ran down the pebbly path, "Bran! Let's talk about this! You'll get yourself killed." Perhaps she would have relented if he stopped there, but his next words raised her ire to match the fury of the gale about her, "That boy's not worth your life!"

Furiously, she pulled the oars out of their bindings and shoved off from the dock with the butt end of the starboard oar before securing the pegs into place and pulling back against the weight of the small boat with all the strength of her small body. The notoriously calm waters of the cove were strangely heavy, even given the gale that swept them up into a frenzy, and Branwen was forced to exert every ounce of muscle that she had just to put distance between herself and the dock, so she wouldn't be dashed up against it.

"Bran, if you go out in this, there's none that'll come to save you!"

The innkeeper's voice was closer than she expected, and Branwen turned her head to look towards the spot that she had so recently vacated. Her Da's tall, broad figure was clearly illuminated by the flickering torch that sputtered in the heavy rainfall. His thick, curly hair was plastered against his head, small ringlets stuck against the skin of his furrowed brow. Eli was barely visible limping down the swaying dock, having surrendered his torch to the innkeeper.

"I don't need to be saved, Da!" Branwen was forced to shout to be heard over the clamor of waves, wind and crashing hulls.

"You've missed that part where I became a woman! I make my own choices! I go where I will, when I will! I choose whom I will see!"

"Both those choices'll be the death of you, girl! Come in this minute!"

Branwen felt her shoulders scream in protest as she heaved against the current that swept in towards shore. "I'll return when I choose! I love him, Da!"

All her years of labor at The Driftwood had left Branwen a very strong woman. Although her frame was petite, the muscles that corded as she stroked out towards the center of the cove were well toned and she had no fear that she would not have the strength of control her skiff, no matter the power of the waves. She reveled in her own supremacy as she battled the elements; daring the rain to drown her, the waves to swamp the skiff, the wind to blow her to the Outer Sea.

Before long she noticed that she was no longer crying, that the frustrated anger that driven from the inn was falling away in the energy it took to pilot the skiff. Good. It's what I need.

Allowing herself a moment to rest her burning arms, Branwen pulled in the oars and glanced back towards Gowan. Through the curtains of spray and rain, and the heavy shadow of night, all that was visible of the small fishing village was the fire burning brightly in the watchtower at the end of Cove Point and another fire, smaller, but equally important to the innkeeper's daughter. It was the great bonfire at the garrison post of the Fallatine soldiers.

"Garbin," she whispered, her thoughts bent on the local boy who had volunteered to join up with the regiment, "I know you're doing what you think's best. But, oh, Garbin, can't you see what a hornet's nest you've stirred up?"

For a long moment, Branwen closed her eyes, allowing the heavy rolling of the skiff to lull her. Her lips still tingled where his had touched them, warm and real, his sky blue eyes smiling down into her own as her fingers curled spontaneously in his flaxen tresses. "Mmmm," she sighed, smiling at the memory.

A sudden sensation of wrongness brought her out of her reverie, and she glanced about her. The watchtower flame was still burning brightly, but it was much smaller than it had been just minutes before, and the regiment's bonfire was nearly invisible.

Quickly, Branwen again locked the oar pegs in place, and tried to turn the skiff about, pulling hard with her right arm, but the boat stubbornly refused to obey. With a muted curse, she gave up on the right, and began to scull with the left oar. There was only a minimal response and the boat did not come about. What sort of current is this? I've never felt anything like it!

As the skiff drifted out of her control towards the heavier surf and rocky islets of the Outer Sea, Branwen shipped the right oar entirely and pulled desperately against the left with both arms. All she managed to do was minutely slow her headlong rush towards the perils ahead, outside the protective arm of the cove.

A tall roller loomed into view and Branwen hardly had time to grab the gunwales before the little skiff lurched crazily up its leading edge, and back into the trough behind. The innkeeper's daughter released her grip on the boat and moved to grab hold of the oar again, but to her dismay, found that it had been knocked free with the violent motion of the boat.

Another great wave bore down on the storm-tossed skiff and Branwen clung with a vise-like grip to the edges of the boat, braced for the impact. She had to be past the cove arm. There was no other reason to encounter such seas. Her single-person skiff was not built for heavy weather in the best of times, but in the Outer Sea?

She closed her eyes tightly as the wave struck. Up the leading edge rose the skiff, angled precariously upwards, and then the wind caught the protruding edge over the top of the breaker. With breath-stealing speed, the small boat toppled, stern over bow, and Branwen found herself struggling to reach the surface of the sea.

The cloak which had been a relief just minutes before was now a stone weight, bearing her downwards, and she fought to unfasten the tie at her neck. Salt water burned inside her nose, and the chill of the surging sea made her fingers as useless as stumps. Kicking desperately, she struggled with the cloak, and when she thought that her lungs would burst, the great weight fell free, and she shot towards the surface.

Branwen broke through the waves with a gulping gasp that became a choking sputter as salt water forced its way down her throat, swimming in her lungs, gagging her. Flailing her arms and legs to remain afloat, she spotted the upturned skiff a good boatlength from her. Desperately, she struck out against the overpowering seas which seemed intent on dragging her down into the waiting depths. Even her honed muscles were beginning to scream and cramp by the time she laid hand on the slippery hull of her skiff.

Relief coursed through her like hot brandy through the veins. With the support of the boat she was able to take a moment's rest, but still the waves pounded her, driving her on, into the perilous Outer Sea.

Too weary even for tears, she clung to the tiny skiff, aware that her limbs were losing feeling, that her breath was slowing in the frigid waters. A heavy crashing sound pounded in her skull, and for a moment she thought that she was hearing her own heart beating in her ears. Soon, however, she cast that notion aside. The pounding grew louder, more intense, and, in a treble countermelody, came the sound of heavy rain splashing off of rock.

Gathering what little was left of her strength, Branwen hauled herself higher on the hull, grasping with her fingernails to counter the slip of sodden wood. For a long moment she stopped breathing. Islet!

The craggy outcrop loomed up from the seething waters like a great sea-serpent's tooth, eager to bite down and crush the frail skiff. The current swept Branwen onward, straight towards the sharp promontories where surf crashed in great bursts of salt spray.

Through her animal terror, the girl became aware of a strange music, like distant bells and the mournful call of the pipes. The modal tune rose and fell with the waves, as if it were a part of them, directing their motion, driving them forward against the sharp stony points as a percussive accompaniment.

Branwen could give no credence to her ears. Even if there were some strange power at play, there was time for nothing more than a desperate scream before her small boat was hurled against the first line of rocky outcroppings.

The loyal skiff surrendered the fight, splintering into a multitude of sharp boards, and Branwen was thrown free. Still she struggled, knowing it was futile, but unwilling to give up the fight. Briny liquid splashed down her nose and throat and she choked, gagging, and she fought against the unrelenting current that dragged her towards the rock and death.

Darkness swam in the corners of her vision as she struggled to draw breath, and it was with dwindling consciousness that she felt a strong grip on her hair, pulling her back from the crushing convergence of waves and stone.

A breaker crashed over her head as she gasped for air, and she stopped breathing entirely, salty death filling her lungs. The world went black.