The midday sun reflected off the sea in a thousand broken glimmers, belying the cutting chill in the early spring air. Salt scoured Alrik’s nostrils, the burn setting his nerves at ease. The vessel rocked casually amid the rolling waves, slowly inching its way to the black mass of clouds that hung off in the distance.
He scanned the islands that stood around them. More than a half a dozen jagged, rocky outcroppings where the gulls would gather and only the toughest trees could set root in the iron sheets.
He shook his head. This was a stupid place to be, especially now, at this time of year. He had heard once that a sailor should fear when springtime danced with storms, yet here he was on a ship with dark clouds looming in the distance.
“Time’s up, snakes!” the captain roared.
Alrik turned back to the deck. The chains rattled as the Medmanari shuffled back into the deep dark belly of the ship. They dragged their feet slowly, trying to breathe in as much sea breeze as their lungs could carry before they were submerged in the stink of must and mildew again.
Medmanari were thin-framed to begin with, and the many weeks at sea had made it easier to see. Their scaled skin was wrapped tight around waning muscles and frail bones, and many had to cover their serpent eyes against the sun’s harsh light after days of being mostly in the dark. The ship carried males, females, and younglings, all of whom received a few precious minutes each day to stretch their legs and clean the stale air out of their lungs.
Some of the crew herded them on, sabers in their hands, while the captain watched from the wheel. He was young and as brash and bold as the mustache that trailed across his face. And that brash boldness had led him here, taking cargo for some lord Alrik didn’t care to know. The captain had said the Medmanari were servants, but an old sailor didn’t split hairs. Alrik knew slaves when he saw them.
Whether or not he liked it, the captain was still the captain, and he was just a deckhand, and deckhands didn’t voice whether or not they liked to sleep with slaves beneath their beds or talk about negotiating prices when they reached port. Deckhands just did what they were told to do, keeping whatever thoughts they had for themselves.
The ship rocked backwards as a large wave crept beneath it. A deep rumble shook the ship’s wooden frame. Crewman looked off the deck. Medmanari began to murmur to one another.
Alrik peered off the railing. Bubbles streamed up and trailed off from his side of the ship, leading his eyes to a gathering swell. A dark, shifting shadow seemed to crawl beneath the waves. Alrik’s breath frosted on his lungs when the shape grew greater and he was certain his eyes were right. He turned to the crew and shouted, hoping they could hear.
A finned sail exploded from the surface, raining seawater down on them in sheets. The waves ruptured and sputtered and bled. Alrik gripped the railing as the force of the beast began to tip the boat. The spines between the webbed fins grew taller, casting a dark shadow on them. One of the crewmen flipped over the guardrail, catching the other side just in time to hang on. The Medmanari were tossed to the floor of the deck, tumbling and rolling. The ship sank sharply into the pit of a wave and another wall of water slammed them. The captain shouted for his men to hang on. Alrik gladly listened as the vessel tilted farther and farther on its side, almost certain it would capsize.
And then it was over.
The ship settled. The water sloshed back into the sea. Alrik’s guts eased into place again and everything seemed much like it had moments before that spiny fin burst from the surface. The other members of the crew gathered themselves and set to undoing the mess the monster had made, righting barrels that had fallen over, re-coiling ropes, and untangling pieces and parts of the sail. Between the sound of sailors working and Alrik’s heartbeat in his head, the scream almost went unnoticed by him.
“Nakir!” a Medmanari woman shrieked. She lunged toward the railing, but the chains on her wrists and blades at her chest kept her back.
A sailor cupped his hands around his mouth. “Snake in the water!”
Alrik scrambled. He moved almost without thinking, grabbing a long coil of rope from between some nearby barrels. He tied the one end to the railing and began to wrap the other around his waist.
The captain’s voice boomed above the clamor. “Any man jumping off gets flogged!”
Alrik faced the man, whose eyes were locked on him. His long wispy mustache hung low with water, and his blue coat was soaked to the shirt beneath.
“You aren’t worth losing, sailor.” The captain’s eyes fell to Alrik’s waist. “Throw him the rope, but you stay up here.”
“Help him!” The woman reached out to the water. “Help!”
Alrik flung the rope overboard. The Medmanari boy howled, hands flailing and head bobbing amid the monstrous whitecaps.
“Grab the rope!” Alrik snapped the length as best he could, trying to lead the rope to the boy. “Grab it!”
The boy tried to clutch at the lifeline. A current wrenched him under for a moment before letting him back up with a choking gasp.
Alrik should’ve jumped in. He knew that as he fished the rope around, trying to get the boy to grab it like a kitten with some string. He should’ve taken the flogging, it wouldn’t be his first time feeling the lash, and he could think of few things that seemed more worth some scars than the drowning boy below. Alrik’s hand pulled at the railing, his arm trying to wrench the rest of his body over and into the ocean. His muscles burned and fire ran in his blood. The Medmanari mother continued to scream, begging for someone to save her son.
Alrik didn’t, and neither did anyone else. Despite the screams of a despairing mother and the howls of a drowning son, Alrik was still a deckhand, and deckhands didn’t save drowners over the captain’s command. Six ropes were thrown down to the boy, but they might as well have waved goodbye. Alrik watched as the boy’s hands stretched out and another wave swallowed him. This time, he didn’t see a head break the surface.
He turned back to the crowd and slowly shook his head. The woman crumpled, as if his head had been a hammer swinging at her legs. Her wail hung long and loud in the air and her sobbing never ceased, even when two crewmen dragged her below deck.
“That boy was a good thousand marks we lost.” The captain stood at the end of the table, his hands spread over some ledgers and forms that meant little and less to most of the crew. He shrugged, as if he’d merely lost a bad bout of cards. “Have to charge a little bit more for the others to make up for it.”
Alrik stared into his bowl. Chunks of old dry carrot and hard chalky bread filled the brown slop. One of the pieces drifted in a slow, soggy circle. He pushed it under with his spoon, not feeling hungry anymore.
A crewman pounded his fist on the table. “Damned sea snake.” He pointed his spoon around. “Breeding season brings ‘em up to shallower water and makes ‘em come up more often.” A devilish smile came on the man. “I say we hunt it. That’ll bring in a few marks.”
Laughter took the cabin. One of the men wiped his eyes. “I’d sleep with a wyrm before going fishing for a serpent.”
Alrik looked around. They were all laughing, draining beer mugs and picking at their teeth. All of them save the captain, who stared at the wall across from him, his eyes far off and empty. The hair on his upper lip curled in a wane smile.
“We can’t hunt a Siruveil,” he said, lifting a finger into the air, “but we can get the eggs.”
The laughter stopped.
The captain took the silence in stride. “They’re worth a fortune, boys. Lords and ladies would pay good coin for Siruveil eggs.” His eyes seemed to glitter. “Even just half a dozen of them eggs would pay off that snake-boy many times over.”
“Speaking of snakes,” a crewman muttered, “did anyone bring the pot to them?”
They looked to one another silently.
“I’ll feed them,” Alrik said, eager to leave the table. He got up and headed towards the door.
The captain pointed to the deckhand. “See? Couldn’t let a good man like that go fishing for some snake-boy. He’s worth two of them at least.”
Alrik closed his eyes and saw those hands reaching out of the water again, looking for something to hold onto before being dragged into the depths. He shuddered, grabbed the pot of feed, and headed out of the cabin.
The night air was a welcome change from the stuffiness of the cabin. Alrik wished for a clear night sky, but the weather had decided otherwise. Inky clouds so dark that they could be seen even in the night hung low and full like ripened blackberries on the vine, and the moon and stars were held back from sight. A few lamps offered bare slivers of burning light while the sound of waves lapping against the ship’s wood helped soften the silence.
Below deck, sweat and salt mixed with urine and shit in his nose. Hacking coughs filled his ears. Some of them were getting sick. Hopefully they’d reach port within the week; the thought of tossing bloated corpses overboard brought bile to the back of his throat.
He lugged the pot down the steps, lit by dim lanterns dangling on heavy hooks. The eyes were there to meet him at the bottom from behind the iron bars, staring with fear upon their faces.
It was the eyes that bothered him, shining from the light of the lanterns. Some of them were hollow, others full of anger, but most of them were just uncertain. None of them knew much of anything. What would happen when they finally reached port? Would they divide them up by group? Would families be able to stay together? What if the nobles traded them? He sighed and shook his head. Questions a deckhand didn’t have answers to.
“Bowls out,” he said quietly.
He pulled off the lid to reveal a bland, lukewarm paste of sweet-grain and water. Claw-tipped hands held out cracked cups and broken bowls. One by one, Alrik ladled the slop in and handed it back before grabbing another dish.
It took a long while to feed them, and Alrik felt himself lose track of time. His head was filled with the sounds of scraping steel, clattering bowls, and the sucking sound the paste made as his ladle dipped beneath its grimy surface. Fingers brushed and fumbled at him, eager to grab hold of whatever food they could have. He almost didn’t notice when a hand latched to his wrist and held on tight.
He would have been surprised, but the grip was weak. Small, delicate claws tickled his dry skin. Her face was stone-cut. Her eyes flowed like rivers. They were yellow, bordered by patches of scales, rippling beneath a veil of tears. The mother’s thin lips pulled back as her flat nose flared.
“You let him die,” she said. Her voice was cold.
He looked at her for a long time. Her hair probably looked nice when it was well-kept, but the long, midnight colored locks were matted and tangled beyond what any comb could do. They’d cut her hair when she was sold.
“Nothing to say?” she asked.
The words sat in his mouth, making it slick with something bitter. “I tried.”
She dashed the bowl against the wall behind him. Her face twisted into a snarl and she screeched like metal grating against itself.
“You tried?” Her voice ripped through the muffled quiet. “I saw the captain stop you. Some skin on your back was all it took for you to let him die.” She shook against the bars, nails clicking on steel. “How many lashes would it have been? Ten? Twelve?”
He looked at her quietly. Standing there, skin and bones wrapped in a moth-eaten dress, fed by grief and fire. She knew right. Ten lashes was standard.
“Answer me,” she said. “And don’t you dare tell me that you tried.”
He stayed quiet, picked up the bowl, and filled it again, holding it out to her. “I won’t,” he said. “If you don’t believe me, I won’t try to tell you any different.”
She grabbed the bowl, handing it off behind her. “Feed someone who needs it,” she told them. Her gaze came back to Alrik. “I hope whatever gods you have give you more mercy than you gave my son.” The words were venom, dripping and smoking as they fell from her mouth and scorched his ears. “I hope they let you keep whatever you hold close to your own heart.”
He didn’t say anything. Alrik turned back to the stairs, the empty pot hanging in his hands. He pulled open the door. The air rushed in, cool and wet. He was glad to be gone from that place, which smelled so foul and stared with so many empty eyes.
He never told her the truth sailors learned about the gods. He didn’t speak of the hurt in his heart when they would ferry him out to sea, setting his wife and boy to worry if he’d ever come back. He’d kept quiet about the time another man on another boat had gone overboard, and how his fingers had slipped through Alrik’s hand because the gods had wanted him, too. There was a time long ago when Alrik had his own boat, even, but the gods had decided that his ship would look better on the ocean’s bottom and that he’d do better as a deckhand for the rest of his days. He didn’t tell her that story either.
He didn’t tell her, but she had gotten a piece of the truth all sailors knew. The gods wanted many things, and they craved nothing more than what men held close to their own hearts. When they found what they wanted, there was little way to stop them. The waves had been ravenous, the wind too strong for the ropes, and a deckhand felt ten lashes was too high a price. The gods had a hand in all of that, and in the end, they got the soul they sought.
The storm greeted them in the morning with a booming voice and roaring downpour. Within the first hour, Alrik was drenched down to his bones. It was only rain yet, but he saw that the storm-clouds had more to give from their swollen, bloated bodies. The Siruveil’s fin cruised off in the distance, and much to his displeasure, they were still following it.
He’d only ever seen the fins of the serpents, but this one was by far the largest. Its shadow beneath the waves easily ran six or seven ship-lengths, lending belief to the stories he’d heard of whole fleets being destroyed by a Siruveil they’d accidentally come too close to.
He set to tying some barrels down. The Medmanari wouldn’t see the sky today. They’d sit below deck, breathing fear-filled gasps of moldy air as the boat rocked in the raging waves, every tilt reminding them that the boat could capsize and they would drown behind those bars.
He thought of the boy again. Was his hair black, like his mother’s? Had he even had hair? He glanced over the railing, watching the whitecaps, imagining the body beneath them. Had the fish started to pick at his corpse? Were the eels already making their home in his bones?
The captain shouted from the wheel. “Keep the sails open, boys!” He uttered a voice-cracking bellow, challenging the storm. His yellow mane whipped in the wind and a mad smile sat across his face. “We’ll get our gold yet!”
The crew roared back, smiles beaming amid the torrent. Alrik looked at them all. They were young, with hard lean bodies and smooth skin which had yet to spend many years beneath a seaward sun. Young and foolish men who should have known better, who should’ve been braver than he was, and who should’ve told the captain to turn their ship around.
Alrik sighed while he worked and the sheets of rain continued to fall on his back. Thunder boomed from someplace deep in the clouds, and he spat.
Lightning cracked the sky, giving Alrik the briefest glimpse of where they were going. They were skirting dangerously close to the islands now. The beast had submerged hours ago, leaving them to sail at the captain’s direction. The man was certain that the serpent would emerge again before night’s end. Alrik hoped he was wrong.
The night dragged on and the storm stayed strong. It held the stars out of sight, and the moon was nowhere to be found. Alrik worked for what felt like forever, losing himself to the thunder and rain and lightning, along with the images of reaching hands and dangling rope.
Someone gripped his soaking shirt. Alrik turned to see the captain.
“You haven’t taken a break yet,” he said. “You’re no good to us too tired to stand.” He motioned below deck. “Feed the snakes and then go rest for a few hours. I’ll send for you when we need you.”
Alrik nodded, and when the captain turned his attention elsewhere, he shut his eyes, breathed deep, and fetched the pot.
Rain misted the steps that led below deck, and more than once he nearly fell down with the stew-filled pot. The stink returned, but at least it was dry. He lit a few more lanterns, letting more dull orange light bleed out.
“We lost one,” she said, her voice cutting through the eerie quiet.
He shut his eyes. A wet, weary breath escaped him before he turned to face her. She was at the front of the mass, clinging to the bars while the clanging waves of bowls moved around her.
Her eyes were ringed with red. She hadn’t got much sleep. “Died this morning.”
He began to fill the bowls. They got fish today, drowned in some briny mix of cabbage and carrots.
“I’ll tell the captain,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed. “You’d leave him in here with us?”
He handed off another bowl. “I’m sorry.”
“No you’re not.”
More bowls, the scraping ladle, the smell of fish.
“Will you throw him overboard?” she asked. “Mark it off in one of your ledgers?”
The captain would do that. Deckhands didn’t write in the ledgers.
“You don’t want to be here,” she said. “Down here, with us.” Her hands wrapped around the bars. “Yet you’ll come down here every night, won’t you? You’ll do whatever they want you to do, whatever they tell you to do.” She sneered. “Maybe that makes you worse than that captain, you having a will as brittle as black-bread.”
He handed out another bowl.
“If they told you to beat me, would you do it?”
He looked deeper into the pot.
“If they wanted you to kill me, would you?”
He turned, the ladle rattling around inside the cauldron.
“Would you?” she asked. “Would you do it?”
He slowly climbed the steps.
He pulled the door open, her question trailing behind as he stepped beneath a quiet sky. The wind had settled and the rain had stopped, leaving only the sound of waves. Even the moon, full and bright, had managed to break through the clouds. The captain waved to him, laughing loudly at the helm.
“Go to bed! Seems the weather turns fair when you disappear!”
The crew chuckled.
Alrik smiled weakly, lifting his hand to indicate his surrender to the cabin. The thought of a bed, scratchy and stiff as it might be, was one that he found hard to resist. He moved to the cabin, footsteps echoing loudly in the calm quiet.
Something began to hiss.
Alrik turned. The noise continued. The captain shouted for them to find a leak in the hull. Deckhands peered over the railing, ears trying to point out the sound which was steadily growing louder. It seemed to surround the ship, closing in on them. Rain began to patter on his shoulder. Alrik looked out to the sea and noticed how it was moving. The waves weren’t reaching their ship any longer, as a ring of a billion bubbles blocked their way, uttering a hiss as they died.
Thunder boomed, and not one fin, but two, broke through the surface. A deep, groaning rumble shook the ship, rattling Alrik’s knees. The moon faded, covering them in darkness. Spouts of water shot up like geysers. The fins rose on either side of the boat, revealing the large, notched scales they were burrowed into, which ran down the length of the creatures’ serpentine necks, ending just above their brows where the sword-sized teeth began. The Siruveil eyed one another, lips curling, with growls that sounded like grinding boulders.
Their roars brought his hands to his ears and his knees to the deck. The noise rippled through him, his chest feeling like it was going to fall to pieces. The serpents began to circle one another, snorting their nostrils and snapping their jaws. The waves pushed harder against the boat. The rain returned and the moon was stolen away again. The creatures’ white-fire eyes narrowed and drew closer. Alrik grabbed hold of something. The captain jerked the wheel one way, the crew tugged at the ropes of their sail. Their boat began to turn, edging itself out of the path of the serpents.
It wasn’t enough.
The shoulder of one Siruveil clipped the bow, sending chunks of wood into the water. Their ship spun sharply. The beasts were upon one another. Fangs settled into flesh, bodies writhed and twisted. The water whirled in frothing splashes. Webbed claws swiped at underbellies, tails slammed down like lightning bolts. The two would fall beneath the boiling waves before rising back up with ear-splitting screams, their skin adorned with bleeding gashes and leaking wounds.
The vessel tumbled helplessly; being pushed, pulled, tugged and lifted any which way. The captain screamed out orders Alrik could hardly hear, while crewmen scrambled to do whatever they thought was going to save them.
He looked down at his hands, pale and pruned; gripping the railing so tight he could feel the wood shear beneath his fingernails. He thought of that boy’s hands reaching out, hoping that there was something, anything to grab on to. The Siruveil rose again. Deep rents marked their hides, long sailing fins torn and tattered.
He imagined what it was like beneath the waves. He thought of currents, more powerful than any stormwind there would ever be, scattering things to the deep dark places that the ocean kept for itself, the invisible hands of the gods pulling and placing their property where they saw fit.
One of the serpents held the other’s neck between its teeth, shaking and snapping its massive skull. The other flailed and writhed, roars shifting into screams. The ship strayed closer to the serpents. A stray claw came down.
One side of the ship was pulled messily away. The boat buckled, sending Alrik smashing into the deck. White flashed across his eyes, followed by blue and purple pulses. He touched his forehead and his hand came back streaked with blood.
A man screamed. Lightning spiderwebbed the night. Through his swelling eye, Alrik saw the captain, foot caught between the railing, ankle twisted painfully as he hung above the rabid waves. The rest of the crew moved to fix whatever they could of the ruined ship. What the claw hadn’t eaten away, the waves were eager to lap up, pulling planks and splinters back into the ocean. The captain stared at Alrik with fear-filled eyes, hands outstretched and reaching.
Alrik turned and ran the other way, bolting to the stairs below deck. Most of the lanterns had fallen. Glass sliced his boots and bit down into skin. The scents remained as full and foul as ever. Medmanari chattered and screeched with fear at the noises outside. Alrik fumbled for the key in darkness before his fingers found it. Fighting the grasp of hands, he slid it into place, turned it, and flung the door open. The ship shuddered a sing-song scream.
She stood there, still like stone, as the horde around her poured out of the cage. Her eyes were fixed on him, the anger still nestled deep within, but sharing space with fear. He reached for a hand that once held a child’s, shoving through every slave that tumbled past. Medmanari tripped and trampled over one another. Alrik felt like a stone in a swift stream as he shoved his way towards her. Her delicate, claw-tipped fingers twitched at empty air. The heat of her palm was a whisper’s width from his own.
The ship exploded. Water gripped and tossed him against wood and steel, turning him end over end amid the murk. A searing pain exploded in his leg as something sharp and heavy hooked itself into his flesh. Thrashing bodies collided with him, gripping for brief moments before being pulled away.
Inky blackness was all around him. His chest began to burn. Metal fangs had sunk themselves in his flesh. Warmth leaked from between his fingers, while splinters buried themselves in his skin.
More wreckage brushed by him. Pieces of boat and bodies, drifting in the currents of every direction while he continued to sink. He beat his arms, but the metal tore at his leg in protest, dragging him deeper down instead. His head swiveled, looking for something. Pressure began to build on his ears, pushing in towards his brain. The light above grew fainter. A chill squirmed into his wound, spreading through his leg. The dark swelled with each passing second. Fewer and fewer bits of ship brushed by him. Numbness crept up from his foot.
He thought of screaming and letting that cold black water take whatever breath he had left so he could die and be done with it. He hadn’t saved anyone. The gods had wanted them all, and they always got what they wanted, no matter what men did to stop them. Who was he to think himself any different? More heat drained from him as the dark closed in. The water wrapped itself around him, invisible fingers squeezing out his life.
Something bright appeared, and a deep groan ran through him. It looked like the moon, full and bright and broken. A current brushed him and he realized what glowed before him was an eye, almost as tall as he was.
The Siruveil floated in the darkness, its massive, hulking form hanging gracefully in the depths, kicking its legs slowly while its tail flicked from side to side, ignoring the debris that fell like snow around it.
Alrik wondered if the creature knew who he was. Had it known they were following it, and that they planned to steal its children away and sell them for however much they could get? Had the gods whispered to it as a plan to take them all?
Alrik glanced upwards to the surface he’d never break again, and watched as shapes moved amid the moonlight. Silhouettes began to gather, fighting against the waves and holding to flotsam they could find. More and more of them collected. First only a few, and then a dozen, and then a dozen more. Soon, there were more bodies above than there were members of the crew. He found some solace in that.
He struck bottom, plumes of silt caressing his face and finding its way between his clothing and his skin. Lightning flashed from above, illuminating the massive rock shelf he’d landed on. Jagged teeth of twisting stone and ruined shipwrecks surrounded him, rivers of sand flowing on invisible currents.
The Siruveil groaned again, staring down at him with a tilted head, as if wondering what the man was doing down there. It slithered through the sea, seeming like it belonged more in the calm stillness of the deep than in the raging storm at the surface. The force of the monster’s movement swayed Alrik gently, like a feather-worm drifting from the tide.
It was a good place to die; a fitting place where the gods would be quick to find him. His lungs were alight inside his chest, and his blood caught fire and fought to escape, bursting through vessels and leaking out of his ears and nose and eyes.
He scratched at his throat, not knowing what else to do as he slowly died, except to claw and clutch for a breath that wasn’t there. His body would not yield itself so quickly to death, even if his mind knew there was little left to do. The water forced his lips open and slipped behind his teeth to take whatever space it could in his lungs.
He screamed, the last of his precious breath spewing out of him in a stream of bubbles. The numbness pulled its way into his chest and his limbs had gone dead cold. He knew he did not have much longer.
The seconds stretched into long strings, and the pain gave way to an unfeeling chill. His mind caught hazy fire as it slowly died inside his skull. Ghosts appeared from the dark, clad in skins of seaweed, covered in protruding coral bones. They waded gracefully towards him, hundreds of the deep-sea shades, guided by the glowing lures of man-sized anglerfish. Their faces were sullen and sunken, pale and withered flesh beneath kelp hoods, with eyes that glowed like moonstone.
He greeted them, his lack of breath no longer a bother. He was either dead or dying, and he knew why these wraiths had come. These weren’t wandering souls, eager to feast on dead man’s flesh, but heralds. The gods were coming to collect what they wanted, and they had brought their collection with them.
Alrik found himself smiling. The gods would have him, but they had been shorted in their deal, and were denied some of what they wanted. He could not see them, but he knew slaves and sailors swam above him yet, freed from the fate that Alrik had met.
The gods would come for him, and in their fury and their rage, he would suffer for all the souls he’d stolen away. Kraken beaks would slice him open, spilling his guts before they used sea snakes to knit shut the wounds. Burrowing lancelets would scurry beneath his skin, laying eggs inside him that would hatch and chew their way to freedom. There would be many more things, awful ones, but there was little the dying deckhand could do about that now.
The light of the lures shined on his drowned face, and the ghosts continued to pass him by, giving only bare-bone glances. Their faces said enough. They did not enjoy their fate, but they would pity him for his.
One of them stopped. A little ghost, with a flattened nose and scales upon his face. The wraith asked Alrik what had happened, silent words somehow making sense inside his mind.
Alrik recounted the raging Siruveil and storm.
The little ghost asked him if he’d saved his mother.
Alrik told him that he’d tried.
The boy said he was tired of being so lonely down here, saying it was cold and dark and scary.
Alrik offered to wait with the boy, to see if his mother would join them down here yet.
The ghost smiled, nodding his hairless head.
Alrik nodded as well.
And as the rest of wraiths kept walking, the both of them waited, holding one another’s hands.