Web stepped up to the ship's railing beside me, disturbing my fine wallow in melancholy. “I left Swift helping Thick get his shoes on. He'll be glad to be ashore again, though he doesn't admit it. He's not even really seasick anymore. It's his lung ailment that weakens him now. That, and homesickness.”
“I know. And little I can do about either on this ship. Once we're ashore, I hope to find him a comfortable place and offer him quiet, rest, and good food. They're usually the best hope one has for such illness.”
Web nodded in companionable silence as we drew closer to the shore. A single figure, a girl in blowing russet skirts, stood on a headland watching us approach. Sheep and goats grazed the rocky pasturage around her and on the rolling hillsides behind her. Inland, we glimpsed threads of rising smoke from cottages that snuggled tight amongst the furze. A single dock on stone pilings reached out into the tiny bay to greet us. I saw no sign of a town. As I watched, the girl on the headland lifted her arms over her head and waved them three times. I thought she was greeting us, but perhaps she signaled folk at the settlement, for a short time later people came down the path to the shore. Some stood on the dock, awaiting us. Others, youngsters, ran along the beach, shouting excitedly to one another.
Our crew sailed the ship right up to the dock in a brash display of seamanship. The tossed lines were caught and made fast, checking our motion. In a matter of moments, it seemed, our canvas was taken down and stowed. On the deck, Peottre surprised me by offering gruff thanks to the Boar crew who had sailed the ship. It made me aware yet again that we were dealing with an alliance of two clans, not one. Obviously, both Peottre and the crewmen regarded this as a great favor and possible debt between the clans.
That was made even clearer to me in the manner in which we disembarked. Peottre went first, and as he stepped onto the dock, he made a grave obeisance to the women gathered to greet him. There were men there as well, but they stood behind the women, and it was only after Peottre had been warmly received by the older women of his clan that he walked past them to the men to exchange greetings. Few of them, I noted, were of warrior age, and those who were bore the disabling scars of that trade. There were a few oldsters, and a milling group of boys in their early teens. I frowned to myself, and then tried to pass my thought to Chade. Either their men don't see fit to greet us, or they are concealed from us somewhere.
His returned thought was thin as a thread of smoke. Or they were decimated in the Red Ship War. Some clans took heavy losses.
I could sense that he strained to reach me and let the contact lapse. He had other things on his mind just now. It was more my Wit than my Skill that picked up the Prince's restlessness and disappointment. The reason for that was plain. Elliania was not among those who had come to meet us. Don't let it bother you, I counseled him. We don't know enough of their customs in this regard to know what her absence means. Don't assume it is a slight.
Bother me? I'd hardly noticed. This is about the alliance, Fitz, not about some girl and her ploys. The sharpness of his retort betrayed his lie. I sighed to myself. Fifteen. All I could do was thank Eda that I'd never have to be that age again.
Peottre must have advised Chade of their custom in this regard, for he and all our party remained standing on the deck until a young woman in her early twenties lifted her clear voice and invited the Son of the Buck Clan of the Farseer Holdings to descend from the ship with his folk.
“That's our signal,” Web said quietly. “Swift will have Thick ready to leave. Shall we go?”
I nodded, and then asked, as if I had a right to, “What does Risk show you? Does she see armed men anywhere about?”
He smiled a tight smile. “If she had, don't you think I would have told you? My neck would be in as much danger as yours. No, all she sees is what we ourselves have noted. A quiet orderly settlement in the peace of the early day. And a very fruitful valley, just beyond those hills.”
So we joined the others and trooped off the boat to stand a respectful distance behind our prince as he was welcomed to Elliania Blackwater's mothershouse and holdings. The words of the greeting were simple, and in their simplicity I heard ritual. By this act of greeting and granting permission to come ashore, the women asserted both their ownership over the land and their authority over any people who set foot in Wuislington. Despite this, I was still surprised when a similar ritual of welcoming was offered to the Boar Clan members who disembarked behind us. As they replied to the welcome, I heard what had eluded me before. In accepting the welcome, they also pledged on the honor of their mothershouse that each man would be responsible for the good conduct of all the others. The penalty for violating the hospitality was not specifically spoken. A moment later, the sense of such a ritual came to me. In a nation of sea raiders, there must be some safeguard that made their own homes inviolable to other raiders in their absence. I suspected some ancient alliance of the women of the various clans was at work here, and wondered what punishment a man's own mothershouse would mete out to him for transgressing the welcome of another clan's.