The Jaguar

A Short Story by Bekah Ferguson.

In a rock den, deep within the Amazon basin, three panthera onca cubs were born.

The middle cub’s name was Amias and for those first few weeks he did nothing but snuggle up against his brother, sister, and mother. His little sightless world, though simple and soundless, was happy. Their mother nursed and nurtured them all, nuzzling and licking their fur with great gentleness and care; she came from a long line of black panthers and this was the first litter she’d had. Soon Amias began to see and hear. He learned that his mother’s name was Genoveva, his older brother was Eduardo, and his little sister, Pabiola.

Their den remained dark at all times, save for the green-tinted sunlight peeking through the cleft opening. Amias could only make out the contours of his siblings and an occasional glint in their eyes. His mother he knew to be sleek and black, however, for sometimes the sun glistened on the fur of her back when she exited the den.

A few months passed by and the cubs had learned to walk around without falling. Each dawn and dusk, while their mother was away hunting, the three siblings stayed put, dreaming about the mysterious outside world as the cacophony of birds and insects continually filled their eardrums. Eduardo was the boldest of the three, being the oldest by merit of birth order, and he often went to the cleft opening to stick his head out and look around, even though their mother had told them it wasn’t safe to do so. Amias contented himself with the information his brother imparted, being too timid to go near the opening himself. One day Pabiola joined Eduardo’s side, which was a great comfort to Amias, for she assured him that what Eduardo saw was what she too saw. Like their mother, they both had gleaming black fur, visible only when they stood in the entrance of the den.

Soon Eduardo and Pabiola wanted to do more than just stick their heads out. So, they stepped fully outside one morning, disappearing from view.

Amias’ heartbeat quickened and he slinked toward the opening, not wanting to be left behind. He summoned all his courage, took a deep breath, and stepped halfway out. His brother and sister weren’t far ahead yet, picking their way through ferns and bromeliads. He let out a yelp and they looked back at him, gasping in tandem when they did. At first he thought they were surprised because he’d been brave enough to try and follow, but their stares were so wide-eyed, he looked down at his paws to see what was the matter. When he did, his own breath caught in his throat.

His fur was tawny, like a muted sunbeam, and evenly coated with spots as black as his sibling’s whole bodies.

Eduardo and Pabiola returned to the cleft in the rock and asked him to move into a patch of sunlight so they could see him better. When he did they confirmed that his whole body was indeed pale and spotted. They wondered if he was sick, or somehow less developed. Yet he could walk with sturdy steps just as surely as they could, and jump and leap too. He didn’t exactly feel ill but his heart fluttered in his chest now; tummy tight.

Mother won’t like that you’re different, they told him. You’d better hide it from her.

But how could he keep it a secret? Soon she would wean them and they would need to go outside together to drink from a stream. They’d all been anticipating the day. The moment she saw him in the sunlight for the first time, she’d know.

We need to find a way to cover you up, Eduardo suggested, to make you look more like us. They all agreed this was the only solution. But they didn’t know how it could be accomplished, since none of them had yet explored the territory. So for the next few days, whenever Genoveva was away hunting, they snuck out together and searched the areas around the den.

It wasn’t long before they found the wallow of a group of musk hogs.

The musk hogs were creatures with dainty hooves, tusked snouts, and bristly fur, and when the three cubs barged into their clearing, a foul-smelling musk filled the air as the hogs ran for cover. In their smelly wake was the mud puddle. Eduardo approached it first, testing the ground around it and dipping his paw into the water. He scooped up some clay from the bottom and coated one of his brother’s forelegs with the muck, letting out a whoop as he did. That’s it, he said, cover your whole body with clay. So Amias did. It wasn’t nearly as black as panther fur though, much more of a brown like the musk hogs, but it would have to do. Better than having these curious spots, he supposed.

Pabiola watched onward with a frown, but didn’t speak.

The mud dried as they made their way back to the cave and his limbs soon felt stiff. Bits of dirt crumbled off but enough remained intact to hide his fur. He was itchy all over by the time they were back inside the safe darkness of the den, as though zigzag beetles crawled up and down his skin. Despite being accustomed to the humidity of the rainforest, his body couldn’t breath under the coating of mud, nor could he lick his fur to cool down. But he tried his best to ignore it, languishing on the rock bed of the den and longing for relief.

The next day he snuck out for a new coating of clay while his mother was away. None of the cubs knew when their mother would finally take them outside with her and Amias didn’t want to risk being unprepared. But the day after that, he got caught in a rainfall on his way home, which washed all the dirt away. This filled him with dread as though he’d swallowed a stone; the clay disguise was not going to be enough. Nevertheless, he waited for the rain to cease, and returned to the wallow for another coat.

Up until now, Mother had been a safe bosom to him. The den being dark didn’t matter—just having her there, or soon to return with food, was all he needed. But now he had to sleep by himself rather than snuggling up to his siblings, for fear that his mother would sense the mud; and when he nursed, he stayed far from her face to avoid being groomed. This isolation and loss of nurture was a new experience for him, and the stone in his stomach grew heavier still. Now the darkness did matter: it pressed inward, threatening to engulf him entirely. He couldn’t even pounce around and play with his siblings anymore to pass the time—it would ruin his clay coating.

Then the much anticipated day finally arrived: Genoveva announced at dusk that it was time for them to learn how to drink from a stream.

His brother and sister left the den first and he reluctantly followed, hoping his costume was still intact. He trailed behind them, keeping within the cloak of fanning ferns and hanging vines. His mother’s round eyes, luminous like wet leaves, narrowed whenever she looked back and met his blinking gaze. His chest soon deflated. After a while, he avoided eye contact altogether.

When they reached the clearing, though shady and grey-cast in the setting sun, he could no longer hide behind his siblings. Genoveva stopped him short with a growl. Then, shoulders rolling, she moved around him with a penetrating gaze.

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She Hadn’t Expected This

An excerpt from the novel, “A White Rose,” by Bekah Ferguson.

Dakota Reilly hadn’t really noticed Ryan Hill when he first started showing up for her father’s poker games, but one night she’d bumped into him in the kitchen when she went to grab a soda.

Most of her dad’s friends were older, middle age, but this guy was much younger; like one of those hotties from Beverly Hills, 90210. She’d seen him from a distance before; he lived down the road in an old farmhouse.

Having thus seen him up close for the first time, she was star-eyed. From then on, she made a point of going to the kitchen for a glass of water or soda whenever she saw him head in that direction. She also stopped wearing shorts to bed with her over-sized T-shirt. She didn’t really know what she was doing, but she’d seen this in movies before and understood that long bare legs were sexy.

After one month of obsessing over him, daydreaming about him constantly and writing his name on every page of her diary, he asked her how old she was. For a moment she panicked, fearing he would think her a stupid kid, and blurted out that she was seventeen. His pleased grin indicated that he actually believed her and she almost giggled with excitement when he nicked her chin with his knuckle and gave her a wink.

The first time he kissed her took her breath away—she’d never been kissed before. It happened two weeks later in front of the kitchen fridge. The poker game had been going on for a couple hours already in the living room and they were well out of view of anyone who might happen to glance toward the closed-off kitchen. With one deft movement, Ryan pulled her against him and kissed her lips—hard and fast.

Before she could say a word or open her eyes, he slipped something cold and metal into her hands.

A key.

“Come see me tonight, baby,” he whispered, brushing his lips against her earlobe. “You know where I live.” He pulled away and moved to leave the kitchen, a sly grin on his face. “Three a.m., sweets. . . . Don’t disappoint me.” He left the room with a wink that turned her knees to jelly.

Continue reading She Hadn’t Expected This

I Was a Stranger

A blindsided young man can suddenly see the Other.

A Short Story by Bekah Ferguson

He knelt down next to the fireplace, stoking the coals and adding another piece of wood to the pile. A Christmas tree twinkled beside a wingback chair, and in the adjoining room, pillar candles burned atop the dining table. Two plates were set with a cloth napkin, Christmas cracker, and crystal glasses. The trimmings sat ready on the stovetop, the turkey nearly done.

But she wasn’t going to be there—she was never going to be there again.

“I wanted to tell you this in person,” she explained over voicemail, “but I just can’t bear to look into your eyes when I say it.”

He’d missed her call earlier while out walking the dog. There was a pause in the recording here and goosebumps rose on his skin as though the blizzard outside was still swirling around him.

“The thing is, Emerson,” she went on, “I can’t marry you. I wish I didn’t have to hurt you like this but I canceled my flight this morning and I’m not going to be moving to your province. I’ve unpacked all my bags.”

He swallowed, throat dry. The terrier lying on the wingback chair raised its head, gazing at him with intuitive concern.

“I hope you didn’t cook anything or go to too much trouble,” the message continued. “I figured you’d be ordering in. I’m so sorry—I shouldn’t have waited this long to call. You were probably expecting me to arrive by shuttle soon.” She let out an exhale and explained in greater detail why she was breaking off the engagement so suddenly. It wasn’t until she said her final good-byes that he realized he’d dropped the phone at some point in her message. It lay on the plush carpet next to where he now knelt at the fireplace, the screen black in sleeping mode.

He added one more piece of wood to the fire and anger sparked within him like the flames in the grate.

On impulse he grabbed his phone, donned his outdoor gear, and pushed into the snowfall. Tears froze on his cheekbones and he ducked his face down against the chill. He didn’t yet know where he was going but he walked with determination, boots crunching on the lamp-lit sidewalk.

After a few minutes he stopped at the end of a driveway and turned to face the shadowy bungalow. A faint inner light suffused one window, the rest of the house dark. His anger fading with a newfound resolve, he went to the front door and knocked, hoping his eyes weren’t red. It took awhile but eventually came the sound of shuffling footsteps, the thump of a cane, and the sound of a latch turning.

The door creaked open.

An old man blinkered at him with a single eye, the other sealed shut by the stretched and knotted scars consuming one side of his face.

“You don’t know me,” Emerson said, “and I don’t know you, but I’ve seen you around, and you’ve seen me around, and well, I’m alone this Christmas and if I’m not mistaken, so are you. Will you join me for dinner tonight?”

About a half an hour later, having called and caught a cab together, Emerson’s guest now sat across from him in the very seat intended for his fiancée. The food had been laid out, the turkey sliced, and the drinks poured. Carols and holiday hits played on the stereo while the dog strategically sat beneath the table in the hopes of falling crumbs. They said grace.

“Haven’t celebrated Christmas since before the war,” the old man said, his voice wavering. He cut his food with some difficulty before taking a bite, one hand stiff with more of the same knotted scars that covered half his body. “Swore I never would again.” His eye was milky with age but it glinted with some deep emotion. “Oh, this tastes so good.” He ate a few more bites with evident pleasure. “Young man, d’you know what, you’re the last person on this street I’d have expected to show up at my door tonight. I don’t have much longer to live . . . a few months maybe, is all. If I was ever gonna have a last Christmas, this is it. I never dreamed anybody could care about me again . . . I’ve been invisible all these years.”

Emerson looked down a moment and the fork trembled in his agile hand. He set it down. “You weren’t invisible,” he said, lifting his gaze. “I just couldn’t see you through my good fortune.”

The End.

The Art of Validation – how God’s silence is a sign of solidarity

Let’s talk about the art of validation. To validate is so much more than active listening. It’s not just repeating back to someone what they have just said, it’s taking the time to try to understand another person’s perspective – even when you disagree – especially when you disagree. It is temporarily putting yourself in their shoes and saying, “I would probably feel the same way if I were you,” or “I see why you’d feel that way under the circumstances.”

Think of good therapists, for example. They don’t argue or give unsolicited advice: instead they walk alongside a client, listening and validating. After a client has finished articulating their feelings to this non-judgmental listener, they’re ideally able to come up with their own solution to the problem. When it comes to friends and family, however, finding someone who’ll be a non-judgmental listener can be difficult, no matter how close we are. When someone interrupts us to argue or give unwanted advice, it feels like we aren’t being heard and we aren’t being allowed to express our true feelings. We end up debating in self-defense, or simply shutting down. In the frustration that comes from longing to be understood, we find ourselves stuck in feedback loops: sharing our view again and again in the hopes that they’ll finally get it. Ongoing invalidation can be greatly damaging to a relationship. We’ve all experienced being misunderstood, and therefore know how hurtful it is.

What’s more, it’s human nature to take a contrary view whenever we feel backed into a corner and put on the defensive.

Continue reading The Art of Validation – how God’s silence is a sign of solidarity

The Mind’s Eye

They say we don’t remember anything really prior to the age of three.

No doubt there are innumerable emotional memories from infancy, but in my case my earliest visual memory was the dedication of my infant sister: I was exactly three. It’s funny how the brain works though. I used to pore over my mother’s photo albums as a child, collecting all the images of those photographs – mental photographs of photographs – and arranging them chronologically in my mind. I can go back in time and enter the room of a home in which my relatives are compiled and see myself as an infant cradled in someone’s arms or sitting on someone’s lap. I can look around at the furniture and the faces and hairdos and fashion, can even hear some of their voices and laughter (which I’ve taken from later memories and projected backward into these ones), and those moments in time are stored with the first person memories that began in the preschool years. But they’re not firsthand memories – they’re only a memories of photographs.

The mind’s eye is a fascinating thing. Did the generations before me do the same thing with black and white photos, removing the grays in their mind and filling it all in with color, making that the superimposed memory instead of sepia? And before photography, did they take the stories about their toddler years, told them by relatives, and store them chronologically, as imagined, with their firsthand experiences just as I did with photographs? Probably. Indeed, even the stories my parents and grandparents told me about their own childhoods, teen and adult years, are stored chronologically in my memory as well, as though I really saw and heard those things happen with my own two eyes and two ears. Does everyone do this or is it the writer’s nature in me, the way I build scenes in my mind and freely wander through them exploring? But how accurate are those images? When I see my father as a boy, stooping with surprise to pick up a weathered human skull in the overgrown grass of a field in India, freckle-faced, brown hair slicked to one side, and a button down shirt tucked into his jeans, does that fabricated video reel look anything like the literal experience my father had? Either way, it’s the same story, regardless of the color of his shirt. Could I tell you what species of trees were backdropping the field or where exactly in India it took place? No, I don’t even know what trees grow in India, besides the rubber tree. But I nevertheless see his story like a memory. There are tangled trees and wheat-like grasses, a dry cracked skull in the palm of his hand. No doubt it’s an amalgamation of all the images of fields and skulls I’ve ever seen in my life. But somehow I feel like I was there.

Continue reading The Mind’s Eye

Experiencing God’s presence through love

Previously I wrote about ways to experience God’s presence through our senses. Today I’d like to look at another way, inspired by conversations I had recently with my sister regarding blessings and healings. We talked about how all good things come from the original source of good, God (James 1:17), and how many people interpret these good gifts to be answered prayer or blessings. Now, of course they can certainly be both, but I think they are also random in many cases as well. Here’s why:
Continue reading Experiencing God’s presence through love

Remember those in prison

This year for Lent I decided to try a spiritual exercise (rather than fasting) and chose to daily pray for the current victims of terrorism. I already do pray for them but on a sporadic basis. First, I was taken aback by how much of a burden it is to pray for strangers every single day. I don’t find it hard to pray for friends and loved ones regularly, but this was truly hard. And I know why.

Self-preservation keeps trying to kick in.

As someone who has long struggled with intermittent depression, it has been one of my coping mechanisms to say a prayer for the victims of violence/tragedies and then put it out of mind by choosing not to dwell on it. We call this “positive thinking.” Yet Hebrews 13:3 says:

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

For this reason I have always made a point of saying a prayer for the suffering people mentioned in the news. But while I might be heavy-hearted and haunted for weeks at a time, to actually pray every.single.day for these same people makes it doubly hard to mitigate disturbing thoughts. Those we fervently pray for, care about, donate to, and ponder the plight of, become part of us. Matthew 6:21 says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Second, I began to have nightmares.

Continue reading Remember those in prison

An Open Sesame

Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.
(Hebrews 12:28b)

Anything from a ray of sunlight warming my knees as I sit on the sofa, to the cheep of a chickadee, to a hot cup of tea, a tasty treat, time with loved ones, a good story, the hush of a snowfall, the laughter of a child, a power nap, a shared smile, and even the less obvious: enjoying clean floors after mopping, hanging fresh clothes in the closet, washing the pots and pans that made a meal, and neverending clutter (the evidence of a living family!). The simple (yet profound) act of saying, “Thank you, Lord,” for each and every gift has opened the door to a much deeper and more intimate relationship with God than I was able to have before. Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, enter his courts with praise.” It really is an open-sesame to the presence of God.

I know though, when life is grim, giving thanks can feel next to impossible. Food tastes like gravel, material possessions seem meaningless, and sunshine taunts an overcast soul.
Continue reading An Open Sesame

A Thorn in the Flesh, living with depression

Today I welcome guest blogger, Rachel Xu. She wrote and shared this with me this week, and I couldn’t agree more. I asked if I could post it on my blog and she agreed.

Since I’ve written here previously about my own journey through an anxiety disorder, I have kept the phrase in mind “the danger of a single story” as a constant reminder that we all have markedly different life experiences. I never want anyone to feel intimidated or disillusioned by hearing mine. Because that’s all it is: my story. And it is only one story.

Here is another:

As someone who has suffered from severe depression and anxiety for decades, I have spent a lot of time researching the condition and Christian views on the matter. What never fails to confuse me is that it seems the majority of Christian articles seem to claim that depression is the fault of the person afflicted with it. Some of the many causes these Christians seem to attribute to depression are living a sinful life, pride, lack of prayer, not being a real Christian, lacking the faith to be healed, and spiritual weakness for choosing to be depressed over choosing to have a positive outlook. I think this lack of support and understanding is very damaging to the many Christians that suffer from this disorder. Having depression is hard enough without the judgments associated with it.

Would you tell someone with cancer that if only they repented of their sinful life they would be healed?

Would you tell a paraplegic that their pride was keeping them in a wheelchair?

Would you tell a blind person that if they would just pray more they would be able to see again?

Would you tell someone in a car accident that it was because they weren’t a real Christian?

Would you tell an amputee that they would grow a new limb if they had more faith?

Would you tell someone with Down Syndrome to stop choosing to have Down Syndrome?

I would assume the majority of people would respond no to these questions, so why is it acceptable to say such things to someone with a depressive disorder? I think Christians need to remember that actual depression, not just a day of feeling the blues, is a medical disorder caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. That way they can be more sympathetic and less judgmental towards someone suffering from this condition.

Continue reading A Thorn in the Flesh, living with depression

The Belly of the Whale

The Belly of the Whale

A Short Story by Bekah Ferguson.

The midnight sun hovered over the sea horizon like a glowing pumpkin.

Stian anchored his clinker-built sailboat out of sight from the mainland and jumped onto the rocky shore, scrambling up over the outcrop on all fours and keeping cover behind spruce trees and towering pines. It didn’t take long to reach the sleeping village through the forest: a fenced-in cluster of longhouses surrounded by fields, forest, and highlands. Smoke billowed from holes in the thatched roofs and spitz dogs with pointed ears and curled tails roamed about behind the fence, keeping guard. Stian passed the village and went toward the nearest sheep pen where the night watchman lay fast asleep in his covered bed box. A roaming spitz dog served as a second set of eyes and ears.

Keeping cover, Stian pulled a poisoned chunk of whale meat from his tunic and tossed it near the bed box. It didn’t take long for the dog to sniff it out and eat to his demise; he soon lay in a heap in the grass, the hairs on his stilled shoulders twitching in the breeze.

Stian approached the sheep pen with slow steps, careful to avoid any sounds that might alert the shepherd, and took a little lamb from the group; killing it with a seax dagger. In the green shelter of the woods, he gnawed on the lamb’s body enough to make a mess, and pulled a vial from a pocket in his woolen tunic, filling it with blood. Tossing the carcass out into the open, he went back to the fence surrounding the longhouses, and set the dogs to barking. He then retreated to the forest to wait, inhaling the metallic scent of blood on his chin.

The village came to life as men left their homes and gathered together with the dogs, heading for the fields where they soon found the mutilated lamb. Knowing they would suspect a wolf or a bear rather than a man and would search the woods, Stian scaled the fence and went straight for the longhouse he’d scoped out days before.

He crept up to the door in the dull lighting and rapped the door with restraint, knowing the residents might not open it if he pounded.

It opened a crack and a maiden peered out through the gap. Before she could scream, he reached in, grabbed her by the neck with both hands, and kicked the door inward with his foot as he yanked her outside. She flailed but soon went limp with unconsciousness. He dropped her to the ground, pulled the capacious hood of his cloak up over his head and went inside.

A fire burned in the center of room, benches topped with sheepskin and woolen blankets lining the walls. A young boy was retreating to a far corner, his eyes wide with evident fear.

Without removing his hood, Stian dropped on all fours and lunged at the boy, his clawed nails scattering ashes and dirt on the packed floor as he went. If he didn’t grab the child immediately, the boy would cry out, alerting the men folk to his peril.

In a split second he was upon him, one furry hand covering his mouth, the other gripping the child’s torso at his side as he stood up on his hind legs and carried him from the room.

Outside, the boy’s mother still lay in a heap in the grass though her chest rose and fell with sound breathing. She would soon come to. Shouts and barks sounded from the hillside, indicating the men were on their way back, so with a quick look to and fro, Stian left the village and entered the forest path, sprinkling some of the blood from the vial here and there. When he reached the boat, he held the boy at his side, pulling a scarf and a length of rope from the pocket of his tunic. He lost no time tying the scarf around the child’s mouth and the rope around his wrists. He then removed the boy’s overtunic, replacing it with one of his own from the boat, and again took the vial of blood from his pocket. With quick movements, he shredded the child’s tunic, emptied the remainder of the blood on it, and tossed it up on the outcrop. He then plunked the boy down on a crate in the center of the boat.

After quickly adjusting the square-rigged sail and rudder, he unanchored the boat and sat down on a bench, taking hold of the oars and maneuvering the boat away from the shore. They were soon off, rowing toward the orange globe that hovered just above sea level. The men from the village might attempt to come after them on the sea once they discovered the child was missing, but he hoped the bloodied tunic would at the very least disorient and slow them. They would suspect the child was dead and hopefully waste time searching for his body in the woods; but if not, if they indeed thought him kidnapped, they hadn’t seen the boat, and wouldn’t know which direction Stian had set sail for. That is, so long as he could be out of sight by the time they reached the outcrop.

The boy’s expressive eyes, as dark as walnut, were as wide as when he’d first been captured, his skin chalky. But he made no attempt to speak or move, and sat solemnly beneath the sail. An hour of vigorous rowing later, when the shoreline was far out of sight and they were heading south, Stian let go of the oars and crept around the roped cargo to the center of the boat where the boy sat, about two meters or so away. He removed the scarf and untied his ankles. It no longer mattered if the child screamed—there was nowhere to escape.

“What’s your name?” he growled in Old Norse.

The boy blinked but said nothing.

Stian tramped back to his seat and reached into a nearby crate, pulling out a chunk of whale jerky and a loaf of bread. It was the last of the loaves he’d stolen after his body had been changed. Taking the seax dagger from his boot, he halved the jerky and offered it along with a section of bread to the boy, who caught each piece in his hands, set them down beside him, and made no move to eat. With a harrumph, Stian made short order of his own meal; tearing at the jerky like a savage and chugging from a waterskin as well. Once done, he wiped his hairy chin with a handkerchief and was half startled to see blood all over the handkerchief as he stuffed it back into his pocket—he should be used to that by now. The boy watched him with what seemed both curiosity and alarm, likely trying to discern his features beneath the shrouding of his hood. There was no hiding his grotesque hands.

“What’s your name?” Stian repeated in a low voice.

“It is Josva.”

“Eat,” he said, gesturing at the untouched food with an outstretched claw.

Josva’s eyes widened again but he did not move.

Stian held the child’s gaze for a long time, each surveying one another as water lapped the sides of the wooden boat and a breeze bathed their brows. He looked so tiny in the giant overtunic, not at all like a ten year old. His tawny hair hung straight to his chin.

“Can I see your face?” the child asked after a time, breaking the silence.

Stian hesitated, fingering the edge of his hood with a claw. He felt overheated keeping it on but didn’t want to be gawked at. After all, it was only because of his face that he’d abducted the boy in the first place. He could no longer trade on the coasts; his boat filled with valuable quarry he had no hope of selling.

“Here’s how it’s going to be, boy,” he said, leaving the bulky hood in place. “We’ll go from village to village, and make sales at market until all this is sold.” He made a sweeping gesture at the various crates cluttering the center of the boat. Crates filled with stolen wheat, wool, furs and pelts, honey, armor, and weapons. “After that . . . I’ll take you back to your family.” This was a lie but he needed the boy to cooperate. What he really intended was to eventually train the boy as a shipmate, the start of a new crew. That’s why he’d chosen him. An older boy would have been far too difficult to tame.

He lowered his voice to a growl: “But listen closely. If you dare to cross me, or try to escape, I’ll burn your entire village.”

Josva glanced around, a look of sorrow in his limpid eyes, but he said nothing. They were surrounded on all sides by Nile-green water; the sun darkened to an ember on the edge of the western horizon. Was the threat enough to keep the boy from running or yelling once they reached shore? Stian hoped fear was a sufficient rope for now.

Tears welled in the boy’s eyes and dropped to his lap when he blinked. He seemed so frail then, alabaster and innocent. A child missing his mother. Heat coursed through Stian’s veins, his breathing raspy as it picked up speed. With a roar he lunged at the boy and grabbed him by the shoulders, preparing to shake him for all his worth. “Man up,” he thundered, the hood slipping from his head. Cool air bathed the back of his neck and he let go. Grabbing an empty crate instead, he flung it out across the water with all his strength. It landed with a distant splash and bobbed on the surface.

Beside him came the sharp intake of breath.

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