The Great White Desert, Heart Of Lands, or, most commonly, the Flats, is a vast territory of thinnest silt dust, baked by the Sun into an immense ceramic plane, that spreads for thousands of miles in the very center of the Circle of Known Lands*.
For hundreds, if not thousands, of years it had been an unruled and unclaimed realm of desolation between the countries surrounding it.
The pale-gray, nearly white desert lies still as a motionless stone ocean, seemingly endless in the past-halfday hours, when the tired sky melts into land of the exact same shade of gray.
The rock-hard surface becomes scorching hot under the sunlight by midday and freezing cold by dawn. The land there is completely barren. There are no bodies of water and no rain ever falls on it. The birds that fly over the Flats never touch the surface during the daylight, with the exception of carrion eaters, drawn to corpses of stray animals that may venture too deep into the desert to escape predators, only to meet their demise under the merciless Sun and suffocating wind.
Even the very air above the Flats is deadly; infused with the thin ceramic dust, it slowly poisons anyone who is careless enough to breathe it without a thick veil over one’s face.
The air currents over the Flats are called Flows.
Unlike the ever-changing winds traveling over waters, the Flows have a very stable pattern, tied directly to the phases of the Moon**. New Moon awakens Westflow, full Moon—Eastflow, each of them swiftly increasing in intensity within the first couple of days, staying steady for a week, then slowing down to a still, and, finally, changing direction, as if the mass of dusty air is a gigantic pendulum, endlessly swinging over the land. The potency of the current lessens as one travels from the Flat’s Fringe*** inland, and while it is well noticeable all the way through Eastlann, it ebbs to a mere breeze on the border of Corealm and to non-existence on the shores of Westead.
No caravan is known to travel across the Flats directly—being unable to carry the necessary amount of food, fodder, and water to sustain travelers and their beasts of burden on such a lengthy journey.
The only known way to cross the area is by landship—a wind-driven transport equipped with sails just like its marine sibling, the sail boat, but quite different in appearance.
One shall not see a complex web of lines and cables, used by a crew of many to control an immense cloud of sails, which are needed to propel a large sailboat. Landships, being much smaller and lighter, rarely require more than a couple of cleavers to be brought to speeds three or four times greater than those known to aquatic sailors. Their crews are also much smaller: a pilot (usually the captain and often the owner of the vessel), and a couple of sailors, almost never more than one per mast, and one always doubling as shipwright, in case the rig breaks. The Flats are vast and merciless, and someone must be able to return the ship to a running state as soon as possible, for any rescue attempt would likely find no survivors.
The landships are built for speed and that means weight, or rather the lack of it. The body of a landship is not much more than a light, yet rigid framework; its only purpose being to hold the wheels, cargo hold, and masts together. There is no hull, for there is no need to protect the cargo from water, nor is there need for living quarters; when the ship stops for a rest, the crew, as well as the passengers, if any, simply make camp on the plane.
The wheels, or rollers, as they are commonly referred to, also set a landship apart from a boat. Each ship has at least three rollers—steering, located at the aft end of the rig and two more on the ends of the arms. The arm on one’s right, when facing forward, is called the swordarm, the one on the left—the shieldarm. The variations in the construction of the rollers and the way they are affixed to the ship’s arms are so distinct, that an expert can easily recognize the wharf where the ship was built, and many can often even name the master shipwright.
Although nearly each country bordering the Flats claims the origins of such a vessel to itself, it is widely agreed that Zurbahnian ships are superior to all others in regards to speed, agility, and load-bearing, thus making the shipwrights of Zurbah the foremost choice for anyone who desires a landship built, and many a vessel produced by the Zurbahnian artisans proclaimed to be nothing less than a lustrous gem of supreme craftsmanship.
* The Circle of Known Lands: the name, by which it is common to refer to Western Domain (Corealm, Eastlann, Rockshore, Westead, and Norlay), Ordth (Isles and Shore), Northern Barrens, Zurbah (including the province of Qiehly), Igoneqe, Kuomoqo, Wetlands, Highlands and Mountain Rim Territory.
** The Zurbahnian name for the Moon is Norphelail. Fairlight, our second satellite and second largest celestial body after the Moon, they call Aleff.
*** The Fringe: the perimeter area of the Flats, usually not extending deeper inward than half a mile, and the escarpment, immediately adjacent to the plane edge. The Fringe is quite often used for transportation between border settlements, since it is easier to haul heavily loaded carts and wagons over a perfectly smooth plane, while staying reasonably close to water and fodder, which can be found inland.
—Aerron Mistfall, The Western Domain and Adjacent Territories, Notes of a Traveler, 978.
Ethelle was a true beauty.
Two slender masts, reaching twenty-two feet to the sky, were ready to hum, squeak, and tremble under the strain of bright orange hemp-threaded cotton sails, which, for now, were snugly tucked to the booms in anticipation of a Westflow. The sixteen-foot span of the tilting fore axle held two four-foot bearing rollers mounted on blade-steel bow springs. The aft axle was fitted with two slightly smaller swivel followers, each independently cushioned. The steering assembly behind the pilot’s throne, also spring-mounted for comfort, was all metal, apart from the tail guide wheel that spanned a whole six feet in diameter. The spine of the ship was built double-rail between the axle hubs and was now almost invisible under an abundant load of cargo, firmly tied to the nether assembly of the vessel.
Ethelle was ready for the run.
In this early hour of the morning the port of Zafza was as busy as it could only be on the first day of the Flow. The Lull was nearing its end, Norphelail was new and Westflow was to start half an hour after the first rays of Sun would color the horizon. Hamulok Bay was filled with landships, forming a neat pattern of many rows and columns, each vessel meticulously lined up with its peers, all standing precisely fifty paces apart. Hundreds of people were scurrying about between them, affixing something to the cargo nets, greasing the roller hubs, coiling the lines, and adjusting the booms. There were many fires going in small portable braziers as crews were cooking their last civilized meals before departure. The chill morning air was infused with scents of spices and perfumes, and the occasional whiffs of exotic pet animals and messenger birds—those being customary cargo items transported over the Flats.
Ethelle was anchored at an enviable berth at the very edge of the bay. The spot wasn’t cheap, but it was well worth the coin, being both close to the road and in the very first line of vessels to comfortably depart as the Westflow matured.
Captain Barth “Barge” Claypitt, leaning on Ethelle’s steering assembly, was well known and respected among his Zurbahnian peers. This Westerner had been running his rig for a long time, and his reputation was as solid as the Flats itself. For the last several years Captain Claypitt was easily among the first choices for moving a premium haul across the Flats.
Barge was approaching his fortieth winter. He did not look like a common land sailor, most of whom seemed bred to be short, skinny and sinewy—the smaller one is, the more chances one has to be hired, for cargo takes precedence, when it comes to weight. Barge backed his nickname by standing one thumb shy of six feet, and being, in reality, even heavier than he looked—not fat, for he didn’t have a bulging belly or double chin, but rather dense, his thick arms and legs claiming almost as much of the weight, as his trunk-like body. The flamboyant Zurbahnian sense of fashion affected him greatly after years of traveling between Eastwell and Zafza. He sported bright, metallic-blue, wide trousers and a golden, silk shirt with fluffy sleeves—not that he secretly hoped they made him look slimmer, which they did not, but more of as an homage to the foreign culture he grew to appreciate and respect. His jerkin, however, was still a practical Western half-thigh length brown cowhide with belt hoops and cape buckles. Also Western-made were his sword belt and his land sailor veiled hat, which, for now, hung on the throne’s back. He wore no jewelry, save for his Guild ring and a captain’s earring. His black beard was closely trimmed, his hair brushed back and pulled into a short thick braid. Barge was neither handsome, nor comely, but he had around him that distinct air of solidity, which many women of a more mature age considered very attractive and worth pursuing. None of their recent efforts to secure the man bore any fruit, however. Barge, being a widower who lost his wife to an unfruitful childbirth several years past, while open to occasional romance, was very reluctant to engage in anything more serious than that.
The Captain was rather nettled by the fact that both of his sailors were absent from the bay plane, where they would normally be on the night before departure. Not only was there still some work to be done—there was always something to tend to or fix on a rig—it was also just not the way he ran his crew. The cargo was loaded the night before departure, and the night of departure was spent on the ship by the whole crew, taking overlapping four-hour watches each, including him; this ensured that the ship, as well as the merchandise, was always attended by at least two people. Despite the bay being guarded, thieves, disguised as sailors looking for work, would still try to get in, and one can never be too careful.
However, when he woke up at four in the morning to the howling cry of the city’s clock tower horn, to his surprise, there was only Squirrel who greeted him.
“Where is Duck?” Barge demanded, crawling out from the warm sleeping sack into a brisk, flatland morning. “Wen’ to the latrine’, he di’.” Squirrel answered. “He jus’ lef’, sur, a momen’ ago. Said he ate some’n baed, couldn’ hold it. I hadda le’ ‘im go, an’ it was jus’ like half-hou’ befo’ ye was suppose’ to rise, so I didn’ wan’ to wak‘ y’up early… ‘pologiss, cap’n, I’ll see to the shi’, if ye wan’ ter go, too. All’s quie’ ‘ere, an’ I know all tha folk fo’ three rigs each way, saw no strangers all nigh’.”
Squirrel was a short, thin and heavily freckled man of uncertain age—somewhere between thirty and fifty—with thinning hair of a rusty brown color. He had been working for Claypitt for quite some time now and had proven himself a skilled sailor, quick and compliant. He had a tendency to drink way over his fill and would do so as an opportunity presented itself with admirable ardor, but he’d never shown up drunk for duty, and never tried to drink on the run, and that was considered a fair enough arrangement by his employer.
Barge decided to let the deviation of protocol slide, put on short, suede boots and went to the outhouses himself.
He neither saw Duck in any of the stalls nor met him on the way. When he returned to the ship, Duck wasn’t there. Barge didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all.
“Are you sure, the stump said ‘outhouses’?” He inquired grimly, reaching for a waterskin.
“Ye’, sur, very clea’ so, sur.”
They waited for another half hour, during which Squirrel made a fire and started preparations for the tea. Barge watched him put the kettle with water on the brazier, then said, “I’ll finish this. Go there yourself. Ask the crews on the way if they saw where he went. Find the son of a cock and drag his ass here. We are leaving with the Flow, even if he’ll be spraying shit all the way across the Flats.”
“Yessur.” Squirrel nodded, put down the kettle, and trotted towards the nearest ship on the way to the dumps.
This is not good, Barge thought, measuring tea leaves for the foul brew, known as ‘sailor’s tea’. The recipe was primitive but effective: ten times the amount of leaves as in regular tea, boiled for a quarter of an hour. The taste was revolting, even with the addition of honey, but it gave one a hefty jolt of energy, often needed to stay awake during the hypnotizing monotony of a cross-plane run. Some recipes called for a pinch of baking soda to take away the bite and make the murky brown concoction clear, but Barge believed that it weakened the brew, and never used it.
Where could that idiot disappear to, two hours before departure, he hissed silently? I need to leave with the Flow. I am going across and I can’t linger here, waiting for his bloody stomach to settle…
The noise from the berth on his right caught his attention. Captain Zakhar Farrukh arrived at his vessel, followed by his wife and a flock of children, who came to see him off. He waved to Barge, smiling, and his wife bowed gracefully, right hand on her left shoulder, across her chest, left hand on her right hip, across her belly, in the local fashion. She was dark, pretty, and insanely young for having four kids.
Four or five? They move so quickly, it’s hard to tally. What is her name? Can’t recall. Pretty little thing.
Barge bowed back to them, and stood for a while, leaning on the steering roller, watching the noisy kids, and getting more and more worried. He hated when things did not go as planned.
All three of Farrukh’s crewmen were, of course, there since yesterday. Himamel was the biggest vessel in the bay, and, possibly around all of the Flats, so Farrukh had another sailor just to man the tilting hub. On Barge’s ship that job was Squirrel’s, along with the handling of the foremast’s boom and chute.
I wonder what his cargo is, he thought idly, looking at the neighboring rig. Ten casks, probably orange or rice brandy, the rest are cases—spices, most likely, hard to tell in the dark. Four crates with messenger birds and a few tight rolls of fabric. Silk. He’s heavy. I’ll beat him by at least a day, if not two. Ethelle is faster to start with, and we are only carrying two small casks of orange brandy, and no silk rolls. If only Squirrel finds that other idiot, so we can leave on time. Bad omen, too, to be late for the set departure time…
He turned back to his brazier and nearly cursed, startled.
There was a man standing next to the fire. He wore a dark hooded cloak, and his features were hard to make out in the dim light of the ship’s lantern. He had a pack strapped high to his back, and his sandals were covered with sandy dust from the plane’s escarpment.
“Captain Claypitt? I was told to come see you, sir. May I have a moment of your time?” He sounded like a Westerner, but without a clear accent of any particular region. And with a touch of something else, though Barge couldn’t tell what. The voice was that of a younger man, and when he removed his hood, he revealed a face that could almost have belonged to a boy. He was cleanly shaven; his head, too, much like the acolytes’ at the sanctuary. Despite having no hair, he wore a half-inch wide leather headband across his brow, almost invisible against his tanned skin.
“What do you want, kid?” Barge wasn’t a rude man, but neither was he really friendly to people he didn’t know.
Best to show them at once that they can’t ask you for anything they want just because they are polite. Being protected by the gated and guarded fence on the city side, the bay area was still open to the Flats’ basin, and hourly patrols couldn’t really weed out every person drawn to the ships for whatever reasons; begging being not the last of them.
“A passage to Eastwell, sir. A pressing family matter. I am prepared to pay…”
“…twice the regular fare, sir. It’s very important to me.” The boy had an honest and open face.
Probably telling the truth, Claypitt mused. Or really good at lying.
“No. I don’t carry passengers. Go talk to Farrukh.” Barge gestured towards the berth on his right. “He might make an exception for extra coin, though I doubt he will on such a short notice.”
“He is the one who sent me to you. Please, sir…” The lad sounded broken. Barge suddenly felt bad, but he still kept the cargo within his sight. Looked like the fellow came alone. All the people tending other ships around them were occupied with their duties, nobody hanging around idly enough to raise suspicion. Where is Squirrel, now? Lost, too?
“Things like this are negotiated in advance, son, you must understand.”
“I know, sir, but there was no knowing of this happening until two days ago when I got word from a Twinlink in Zuhle… Please. My father is on his deathbed, I’ve to see him before…” he trailed off.
Even if it’s true, which, most likely, it isn’t, I can’t help you. Just go away.
“Listen,” he said, “If anyone can pick up a cross fare on the morning of departure, it would still be Zakhar Farrukh of Himamel. I only run cargo for different merchants, he owns his goods himself. He could unload some, and make room for you, but if he said no, this is the way it’s going to be. It pains me to say it, son, but you have to find some other means of getting home.”
“I would be too late…” The chap looked utterly defeated. He stood next to the fire, absolutely motionless, eyes fixed on the boiling kettle—a tall and dark silhouette against the morning sky, which was starting to gently glow pink over the eroded line of mountains behind the Zafza’s rooftops. He was a good couple of thumbs taller than Barge, and very lean. Barge sighed and opened his mouth to ask him to leave when the boy suddenly turned his head towards the docks and squinted his eyes as if trying to see something. Barge looked as well, and in a moment or two saw Squirrel, running towards the ship. He was alone.
The city clock horn trumpeted five.
Barge crossed his arms on his chest and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.
“Son, you need to leave”, he said. He was never hesitant or shy about yelling at his sailors, but it was an internal matter. “Ship’s business. Good luck with your journey.”
The young man turned his head to him and looked him in the eyes. There was something peculiar in the way he moved. Barge couldn’t quite pinpoint, what it was. Too smooth? And yet somewhat familiar, as if I saw somebody move like that before… The youth managed a pained smile.
“Of course,” he said. “Thank you for your time, sir.”
“Don't bother,” Barge said, trying not to sound too sympathetic. Don’t encourage him to beg again. “Now go.”
The kid turned and stepped away from the ship as Squirrel approached the berth, still running, absolutely out of breath. It took him several seconds to regain his wind, during which Barge quickly grew more and more grim.
“So? Say something!”
“Bad noos…” finally coughed out the sailor. “I trace’ ‘im to the dump’, di’ tha’. He wa’ there, lik’ he sai’ he wou’be. Peopl’ saw ‘im com’. Only he din’ go in, peopl’ say he collap’d ri’ on tha stair’ and there wa’ bloo’ all ova’ tha place, comin’ ou’ his behin’ and mou’, so the’ call’d the guar’s, an’ the’ took ‘im to tha sanctuar’ fo’ monk’ to look at ‘im. He wa’ breathin’ still, he wa’.”
“Shit’n’blood,” Barge spat.
I am doomed, he realized. The sanctuary is ten miles away, and even if the monks will fix the dumb ass right away, we shall still be late. And from the way Squirrel described the situation, Duck, if he makes it at all, will be in bed for days. “Shit. And. Blood…”
“I cud go to tha bay gate’, sur…” offered Squirrel. “Ther’s alway’ sailor’ for hire…”
“The only sailors for hire left at this hour are drunken lowlives who will cut our throats on the first camp night and steal the cargo!” Claypitt uttered grimly. “That even you can understand. Shut up, and let me think.”
Squirrel padded to the ship’s tool compartment and took out three mugs, looked at them, then put one back.
Idiot, Barge sighed, rubbing his temples. There is nothing to think. Shit and blood. I need to depart today, or we simply do not make it across in time. Even today in the past-halfday may be too late. I haven’t missed the departure gong in years, and now I shall be embarrassed in front of the whole bay. And there are no reputable sailors to hire because they are all hired already.
Or shitting blood on the way to a Healer.
“I can sail with you.”
Barge turned to the sound of the boy’s voice. He was quickly striding back to them, returning from the side of Farrukh’s berth. Apparently, he didn’t go away fast enough and overheard the whole conversation.
“What are you still doing here? I told you to leave.”
“Captain Claypitt, sir, I can sail, I’ve sailed before, once last summer, and two times this summer. And you don’t have to pay me, I’ll sail just for the passage. Please, let me go with you!” The lad was smiling widely and confidently, as if he had found a perfect solution. “I won’t let you down, I swear!”
“You’re a sailor?” My ass you are, fellow.
“I have sailed. Three times, not across, only fringe runs, and the ships were smaller, but I can man a sail, I know how. And I can read the Skydial.” he lithely wiggled himself out of his backpack, set it on the ground and undid the ties. Thief knot, noticed Barge. Maybe he’s not lying.
“You don’t look like a sailor.”
“I’m not.” The kid was looking for something in his luggage. “I’m an apprentice to an Imperial mapmaker in Eastwell… I was working in the Parashann Library in Zuhle, copying maps… here…”
He offered Barge three sailing tags on a leather cord.
Barge inspected the thin hardwood planks with the burnt-in lettering. He knew Zurbahnian well enough to read two of them, the third one was in his native Western. They looked genuine; two cedar, one red oak. He was sure of at least one of the ships’ brands, and the others looked familiar. Cleaner, than usual, but real enough. All were made to the same name.
“Show me something else with your name on it,” Barge said, passing the tags to Squirrel. What am I doing? This is not smart at all. But what choice do I have? I have hired hands before only to fire them at the next port. At least this one doesn’t look like an unemployed pirate.
The boy unlatched buckles on the long flat leather case, strapped to his backpack. Inside it were several tightly bound scrolls of what seemed to be a fine parchment. He took one out and carefully unrolled it on the ground. It was a large and very detailed map of Zafza and most of the Qiehly province, masterfully done in colored inks. He pointed a finger at the crest in the corner. The last line read: ‘Inscribed by Daneal Siltbank, apprentice to Royal Scribe Ephim Freshett, under permission of Nhamar Ardukh, the Chief Dosselli of Parashann Library’.
“All’ loo’ goo’ ter me, sur,” Squirrel piped, returning the tags to the youth, “an’ I neva’ see’ anotha scrib’ who can sai’, seem’ strange to lie abou’ tha’, so he mus’ be tellin’ tha tru’… Now, tel’ me, brotha, hav’ ye’ bee’ prop’ly initiatee’?”
“Yes, Master Squirrel—and thank you for your inquiry—I have been given a fair chance to untie a dead knot, which was pissed upon and then dried rock-hard in the Sun,” the kid said, smirking, “With my teeth, of course, for I had no idea…”
Barge looked at the city. The sky over the mountain line was glowing red. The activity in the bay quieted. Most of the ships in the three outer lines were standing at the ready. Messengers, delivery boys, and other non-crewmen were leaving the basin. The bay patrol—six horsemen, enforced by two young sand dragon cubs on long chain leashes, muzzled and dressed in weighted training harnesses—was leisurely riding along the first row of berths. The officer was stopping often to chat with the captains.
“Pack your chattel, Master Siltbank,” he commanded, “we are to sail in an hour.”
“Ther’s on’ thin’ I don’ understan’,” Squirrel said. They were sitting next to the brazier, protected from the wind by a canvas tarp, stretched over the side of the ship. The night embraced the Flats, and the sky was dark over the eerie white plane, which seemed to glow dimly under the half moon. The Westflow was at its peak, and it was hard to hear his words through its powerful hum. “Ever’ tim’ someone’ goe’ to take’ a dum’ on th’ Flat’, hi’ shi’ lay’ ther’ till’ tha Sun com’ up, the’ it drie’ ter dus’ an’ get’ carrie’ away wit’ tha Flo’. By tha’ time, we are way gone, so issalrigh’, ‘cus we’re ahea’ of i’. Then, we come ter a fringe bay, an’ tha Flo’ change’. So, tha’ shi’ dus’ get’ carrye’ to tha othe’ side, bu’ issalrigh’ agai’ sinc’ we’re behind’ i’. So…”
“There’s one thing I do understand,” Barge interrupted, “whoever built this temple of wisdom, that tops your body, not only put it on slightly askew, but also forgot to tell you where the entrance is. That’s why this beautiful structure is currently unoccupied.” Daneal hid his grin in a bowl of soup. Squirrel, unfazed, continued, “All I’m sayin’ i’ we ar’ fa’ betta’ sailin’ wiss’ tha win’ all tha way acro’, tha’ inhailin’ somebody’ shi’…”
“Don’t listen to him, kid,” Barge said, “for if you do, you’ll get accustomed to him, maybe even start to understand some of what he’s saying, and that will only make it difficult to eat him later, when we are stranded in the midst of the white one day.”
“I’m no goo’ fer eatin’,” Squirrel said seriously, “too skinny. My mea’ muss’ be stringy an’ tuff. I say, in tha unfertune’ even’ of strandin’ we star’ with a much meatie’ on’? Sur?”
“Keep talking,” Barge suggested, “and I’ll cook you today.”
The kid was smiling, and working on his soup. They were one week into the Flats, and according to the captain’s calculations, just past the very center of it. That event was customarily celebrated by a hot meal, called “k’harch”, or “sailor’s stew”—which was essentially the same dried meat they were chewing for the whole week, boiled in a minuscule amount of water with some spices, kidney nuts, and a fistful of dried tomatoes, thrown in to create a semblance of real soup.
Daneal had proven himself to be a natural and quick learner—his eagerness to do well often being more than enough for any task given. And he did learn quite a bit on his previous runs, Barge noticed. I’ve seen guys twice his age, who did way worse than this skinny fellow. Maybe, for once in my life, I did make a gut decision, which wasn’t a complete disaster. Well, we’ll see when we reach the port.
“How long you’ve been together, captain?” asked the boy, “if I may ask, that is, sir…”
“Too long,” Barge replied, “Why?”
“You have that air… hard to explain. You talk to each other like a family, not just like people who work together. I hope I am not overstepping any boundaries, sir, for I certainly wasn’t going to…”
Barge huffed, “Twelve years or so, right, Squirrel?”
“Wussit tha’ lon’? Righ’ you ur’, righ’… ou’ firs’ run was rig’ afte’ tha’ war in Rockshor’. Yer wassen’ born then yet, were yer, kid?”
“I was six,” Daneal said. He turned to Barge. “You fought? In the Rockshore Rebellion War?”
Barge held a pause, looking into the kid’s eyes. Interested, are you? A boy likes a war story, is that it? Are you really eighteen? He suddenly realized, that he can’t be sure about the boy’s age—sometimes he looked very young, but sometimes there was something in his features, something you only see in the face of a man who’d lived. I wonder what you look like in the daylight without a veil on.
“No,” he said finally, “I was sailing between Eastwell and Zurbah. Squirrel was too. Duck fought, though. But he’s not here to tell his stories, so that concludes our entertainment for tonight. I have the first watch, then Scribe, then Squirrel.”
Daneal stood up. Barge, once again, marveled at the elegant strangeness of the single flowing motion it took the boy to erect himself from crouching before the fire, to standing straight. Who does he remind me of? Or what?
“Somebody is coming,” Daneal said, looking East over the ship, squinting against the wind. Barge stood up next to him, pulling his spyglass out of the throne’s sidebag. For several long moments he neither saw nor heard anything, except the wind. Then one of the stars of the Lion constellation right above the horizon moved. He peered in that direction through the instrument. “It’s a ship, you are right. Good eyes you’ve got, Master Scribe. They’ll pass us in half an hour at this wind. We might want to wait going to bed.”
Daneal looked at him. “Should we be worried?”
“We are in the middle—literally—of no man’s land, tending a rig, loaded with a small fortune in rare merchandise. What do you think?” He sat down next to the fire.
“I have heard of pirates,” the boy said. He sounded surprisingly calm. “I was under the impression that they keep to the fringe skirts, for they would be closer to the land, where they’re based. Isn’t that true?”
“It is. Mostly. That’s why the fringe runs are often accompanied by guards. But it isn’t unheard of for a cross-runner to disappear, either. There were at least three ships last year that ventured across and never emerged on the other side, and one this spring. You tell me if we need to worry. How are you with a bow?”
“Fair.” Daneal was still perfectly calm, but his eyes lit up with a hint of interest. “The wind might be a matter.”
“It will. Squirrel, get him a bow.”
Squirrel unlatched one of the long shallow toolboxes built into the swordarm, and produced a longbow, quiver, and a wooden reel with several strings. “This’s tha Duck’ one.”
Daneal took the bow and unwound one of the strings off the reel. He deftly strung the bow; first putting the string over the lower end of it and setting it against the arch of his right foot, then stepping between the bow and the string, bending it over the back of his left knee and putting the other end of the string on. Then he checked the clearance against the length of his palm. Satisfied, he did several quick half-draws, warming up the weapon, and finally drew the bow to his ear in a surefooted archer stance. Barge watched him, head cocked. You have certainly done that before, but why am I not surprised?
Daneal eased his tug on the bowstring and turned to Barge and Squirrel.
“Do you want me to pick arrows to go with it, or did you just want to see if I know my way around a bow?” inquired he, smiling. “Since neither of you are preparing for battle, I think it’s safe to assume, that we are not in real danger.”
Barge smiled back. Smart one, this one is. “No, we are not. I am moderately surprised, but I am quite confident that it’s none other, then our good friend Farrukh, finally catching up with us.”
“Poo’ baster’s’ muss’ no’ slee’ fer tha las’ two day’,” Squirrel giggled. “There’ no way he cud’ catch up with us othaway… afta’ we leff’em in a duss’ tha very firss’ day…”
“But even before you made us, you were not worried,” Barge continued, “care to explain why?”
The boy became serious. “They had their lights on, sir. I just thought that if they were pirates, they would try to sneak up on us in the dark…”
“They could’ve kept the lights on to appear friendly. It’s hard to sneak up on a guarded camp—when the moon is half-lit, you can see the ship clearly against the white plane. Look.” He offered the spyglass to the boy. Daneal took the instrument and stilled, looking at the approaching vessel. It was already close enough to be heard through the powerful hiss of the Flow, tiny rattlings and squeaks, like a grain of rice rolling on a heavy iron pan.
“I guess, I could have been wrong then, sir. Sir?”
“It they were, indeed, pirates, would we stand a chance against them?”
“If they were, indeed, pirates, they’d be twice our number and heavily armed with whatever each of them uses best to kill people. Our best course of action would be to drop the heaviest part of the cargo, put up all sails, and hope that they would slow down to pick up whatever we left behind. If we are slow and they would close in on us, they would kill all of us, as long as they have enough people to man this ship. Or, they would keep some of us alive under the promise to let us go if we help drive the ship to their base, wherever that is. Then they would kill the rest of us and carry on living and drinking our brandy. That’s why we keep overlapping watches, so two of us are always awake and ready to kick off the brakes and fly the canvas. This rig is the fastest one on the plane, and that’s our only hope to survive, if it comes to that. But it will only save us, if we give it the chance in time. And that’s why you have precisely one hour to nap before you get up and relieve Squirrel. Good night.”
“How did you know those are not pirates?”
“Cap’n noss’ all tha rigs who go thiss’ way an’ back.” Squirrel snorted, “I can tel’ moss’, too, juss’ by lookin’ at tha lites’…”
“Of course. Silly of me.” Daneal nodded and started unrolling Duck’s sleeping sack. It was a bit short for him, and he had to fashion an extension, improvised of his own rolled up robe. After a week of making his bed he became very efficient at arranging dusty rags with utmost comfort.
“No’ tell me, brotha, why der ya’ eveneed this thin’, if you hav’ no hai’?...” Squirrel pointed at the kid’s headband.
“I have hair. It’s growing out,” Daneal smiled. “Good night.” He covered his head with a blanket and turned away from the fire.
Zakhar Farrukh’s rig passed them about two hundred paces North without as much as slowing down, with a busy rattle, cutting through the purring of the Flow. Barge couldn’t see their faces, but he waved his lantern anyway. He stood for a while, looking at the distant lights of Farrukh’s ship, blue on the shieldarm, red behind the throne, orange on the swordarm. He is always a stickler for convention, and so proud of his pretty lanterns. I could swear he put the lights up just to show me he’s coming, dumb peacock.
Barge waited till the kid stopped stirring, and seemingly fell asleep, then stepped away downwind from the fire, still looking after the vanishing lights. Squirrel padded up to him, chewing on a piece of jerky from the soup.
“Somethin’ is botherin’ yer, I can see,” he said, “wha’ iss’i?”
“What’s your look on him?”
“He strings a bo’ like he’s wron’-handed.”
“So it would seem.”
“Whass’ wron’? Sur?”
“Nothing. That’s what’s strange. He is just too good at everything he does.”
“Well… Bein’ sailo’ iss no’ tha’ har’…” Squirrel smiled.
True, thought Barge. Not that hard.
“We decamp an hour earlier tomorrow,” he said, “since we now have a mark to beat.”
They caught up with Farrukh late past-halfday next day.
The heat was unbearable, like always at that time on the plane, when the Sun, tired of trying to melt the lifeless surface to non-existence, finally gives up and begins its descent towards the invisible horizon. They were sailing for more than ten hours, having started earlier then usual, and everybody was already dead tired. The tea wasn’t helping anymore, and Barge was struggling to stay awake in the rhythmic swaying of the rig. Running with the wind wing-and-wing was decidedly boring. And slow, since you could only go with the speed of the Flow itself. Barge was tempted to flip the aft boom to shieldarm, set the tilt to maximum and sail for an hour or so in a reach, going North-West, just to see how fast Ethelle could go, to shake off this dreadful paralyzing sleepiness. But he knew it would be childish and pointless, for they would then have to maneuver back, and eventually lose daylight.
He was abruptly awoken by Squirrel, who produced a shrill loud whistle and pointed toward something in the distance.
Barge fumbled for his spyglass, nearly dropping it, and cursing at himself in two languages. Lifting his veil, he peered into the milky nothingness and for a time couldn’t find anything resembling a sail. He almost gave up and was going to yell at the sailor for the false alarm, when something dark flickered at the edge of his vision. He immediately lost it, and spend a moment or two, looking for it again, afraid that they would pass it without making sure of what it was, because what looked like small dark spot was neither a ship, nor a torn-off sail. By the time he found it again, he needed only a quick glance, because he already knew.
A body. A body, laying prostrate in a dried puddle of blood. From this distance Barge couldn’t see the exact color of the sailor’s shirt, but he was almost sure it was blue, to match the sails of Farrukh’s ship.
“Bring in the chute!” Better to slow down a little. Squirrel hurried to tackle the chute sail, which they were flying off the bow rack in front of the foremast in addition to the regular set to take full advantage of the Flow.
“Captain!” that was Daneal, pointing almost straight forward. Barge glanced in that direction. Two more dark spots, several hundred paces apart. Three. Blood’n’shit.
“Strike sails!” Barge commanded. Both sailors dashed to the blocks. “Stand to break!”
The heavily loaded ship rolled, slowing down for several moments. Barge steered towards the first of the bodies.
By the time Ethelle came to a halt, squeaking and trembling, they had already passed the first and second body, but those were clearly beyond any help. Both sailors were dead, lying in pools of dried blood, black against the snowy white plane. Somebody had removed most of their clothing, boots, and any jewelry they may have had.
“To the ship! Lock the wheels!” Squirrel and the boy swiftly put wooden shims under the fore axle rollers, then under the aft axle ones, and stood, looking at the captain for further commands. Barge said nothing. He walked to the last body, laying about twenty paces ahead of them. They followed.
Captain Zakhar Farrukh, similarly stripped of all possessions but underclothes, lay supine, glassy eyes staring into the white nothingness of the sky. He was cut deeply across his chest with a sword or a saber, right through the collarbone and the ribcage, and his puddle of blood was the largest one. The usually dark complexion of the Zurbahni sailor turned olive green with the loss of blood. He was also missing three fingers on his right hand, probably cut off by someone who wanted the rings—they were all gone, except the guild ring on his thumb.
“They took everything,” Daneal asked, “why leave this one? Sir?” The boy looked strangely undisturbed by the sight of the dead body before him.
“It has no value,” Barge said, “it’s made of iron, and is engraved with his name and the day he was inducted into the guild.” He kneeled next to the body, and took the ring off the stiffened hand with some effort, trying not to touch the blood. “I should send it to his wife.” What was her name? Pretty little thing. “Man the ship.”
“That’s it? We aren’t going to do anything about the bodies?”
“We can’ bur’ ‘em, we can’ take ‘em with’s. The’ wi’ dry ou’ ter dus’ soo’ enuf…” Squirrel was already padding towards Ethelle. “Issa lik’ a crematia’ sorteef…”
Himamel, thought Barge. That’s her name, he named his ship after her. Himamel. He turned to his own ship.
“I said, man the ship, sailor. There is nothing we can do about this.”
“Someone is coming. Sir?” There was a sense of urgency in the kid’s voice. Barge looked around the horizon, seeing nothing, then turned to face the boy. Daneal stood still, and even with his veil on it was clear that he is looking at his feet.
“I see nothing.”
“Six people. Three and three. Two ships, closing fast.” Daneal lifted his head. “There and there.” He pointed to North-East and South-East with two hands.
Barge still could see nothing.
“There is nothing…”
“Please, trust me. I have no reason to lie. Six people, and they are not friendly.”
“How do you even…”
“I se’ on’!!!” yelled Squirrel, looking through his little spyglass. “The’ all whit’! Loo’!”
“’coupl’ a mil’! Closin’ fass’!”
They will be here in less than a quarter hour, whoever they are. We better not be here then.
“Man the ship, cast sails!” Barge turned to the ship and ran as fast as he could, struggling against the wind. Daneal effortlessly passed him, running lightly and quietly. By the time Barge reached his station, the shims were already removed, and the sails were flying up.
“Off the breaks! To the ship, stand to roll!” Both sailors jumped off their axles and prepared to push the rig into motion.
“Roll! Roll! Roll!” Barge roared, releasing the steering brake and pushing on the steering hub as hard as he could. Ethelle quivered and jerked forward, quickly picking up speed.
“Man the ship!” Daneal and Squirrel swiftly jumped back on the rig, Barge followed, not without an effort—the ship was moving faster and faster.
He threw himself onto the throne, fished his big spyglass out of the sidebag and turned to look at their pursuers. He found both vessels soon enough, knowing what to look for. They were, indeed, all white—sails, masts, rollers—which made them nearly invisible in the blinding past-halfday sunlight. The crews were clad in white as well, and if they had veils on, they were also white. The ships were about half the size of Ethelle, both one-mast, three-roller racer yachts, light and agile. They both had three man crews and no visible cargo.
And they were fast.
They were steadily closing on Ethelle, approaching in a broad reach on both sides of her, while all she could do was to run with the wind, slowly picking up speed. The three ships now formed an equilateral triangle with sides spanning about a quarter of a mile. Barge thought of jibing the rig in either direction in order to gain speed, going into a reach himself, but in this formation it was pointless—even if he could manage to distance himself from one of the pursuers, the other one would immediately jibe as well and might even get closer. The best he could do was to hope that Ethelle would pick up some more speed as she was running floward, so he could restore the chute, which was very risky with a Flow of this power, but what could he do? If it blows, it blows. If it doesn’t rip off half the ship, we’ll drop the brandy casks and heavier goods, and hope that that helps.
If it doesn’t, we are all dead.
He looked at the pirates again. They were now flying closer to each other, heading more floward. Maybe we have a chance. Looks like they are not gaining on us. He looked at the windplank. Almost there.
“Stand by to fly the chute!” He commanded. He saw Squirrel turn and look at him to make sure he heard right, then start his way to the fore rack to untie the chute sail, tucked in a roll across the spine, and prepare the kite used to fly it up in front of the ship. In a few moments he flagged with his left hand that he was ready.
Barge glanced at the windplank once more. Close enough.
“Crew, take holds!” he saw Daneal immediately go into a low crouch, grabbing the handrails with both hands. The kid was learning fast. “At ready!.. Kite out!”
Squirrel masterfully flung the small square sail, stretched on a pipewood diagonal cross, known as the kite, into the air. It flew up with a whip-like crack, dragging behind the huge orange bulge of the chute sail. It produced a manly low thud, catching the Flow, and Ethelle’s rigid body nearly warped itself with the powerful jerk it received. The foreaxle rollers cleared the surface for the longest moment in Barge’s sailing career, as the ship, looking like a rearing horse, dashed forward on the two aft followers and the steering. Barge held his breath waiting for something to snap, but the rigging held, Ethelle softly grounded, and in a matter of seconds they were making full wind speed. The windplank was now pointing straight down from its hanger, and one could easily tell they were making full wind speed by the sudden calmness of the air around them. Everything was quieter, the only noise now being the low wet rustle of the gumtree-sap-treated rollers, and the occasional squeaks of the framework.
“Aye-eee!” howled Squirrel, disengaging the kite and reeling it in, now folded. “Tha’ssa chut’ flun’ righ’!”
Daneal stood up and peered aft. Barge turned.
Both pirate yachts were raising their chutes as well.
Each of the white sails had an insignia with a red trident in the middle of it, and some words under it. They now appeared closer, at about three hundred yards, keeping the same equidistant triangular formation, now going parallel to Ethelle. They were easily matching her speed, making no attempt to come any closer, but it was obvious that they were not giving up the chase. What are they doing, trying to wear us down? Why are they not attacking? Barge moved the steering wheel a touch towards swordarm. The big ship obediently responded. At around five notches off the floward, Barge straightened the wheel and looked back. Both yachts smoothly followed the change of course, acting in a perfectly synchronized manner. Whoever piloted those ships knew what they were doing. They still maintained their distance.
Barge didn’t like the way he was starting to feel. He hadn’t had this sickening sensation in the core of his gut for over a decade, and now it was coming back, both unsettling and disgusting—just as he remembered it. He wasn’t a coward. Although he never liked to fight—his rather intimidating size usually made it easy to handle occasional confrontations without them taking a violent spin—he knew well enough that he could own a spot on the floor in a tavern brawl. This was different. The feeling growing in him was the hopeless anxiety of a man not in control of a situation. A very dangerous situation.
It was the same feeling, that gut-loosening anticipation of an imminent storm, that he had had so many times, so many years ago. Back when he was not yet a captain, nor even a land sailor, but a twenty-eight year old Barth Claypitt, archery platoon leader of the Rockshore Rebel Army, standing in ready formation on a battlefield, knowing that so very little depended on him personally, no matter what he did, how brave he fought, or how well he’d trained his men. The only thing that stopped him then from turning his back to the gray-and-red clad wall of Imperial Force soldiers and running away as far as he could, was a small group of people behind him, who depended on him to make those small and irrelevant decisions that were his to make. So he stayed. Time, after time, after time. Now I remember. Get angry, that’s the only thing that will help you to stay alive, and, maybe, to even not soil your pants.
Well, that, and the steady diet of beef jerky and kidney nuts for the last eight days.
He adjusted their course again, five more notches to the North. The yachts followed, but this time the formation changed shape, the rig following them on the swordarm side sped up, and started to come closer, flattening the triangle. He wants me to turn back to the straight floward, realized Barge. They are not chasing us. They are…
“They are herding us,” Daneal said. He came aft to the steering hub and was crouching in the aisle next to the wheel. “They are not coming closer for as long as we are going where they want us to go… sir.”
Barge couldn’t see his face through the thick black veil, but the kid didn’t sound scared, even a bit. You think it’s all a game, do you? Well, maybe, it’s better this way for now.
“You are right, Master Scribe,” he said, trying to sound calm, smoothly returning the ship to the initial course. “What are you suggesting?”
The closer yacht started to slow down, restoring the formation to an equilateral triangle, but smaller this time, about two hundred paces per side.
“I don’t think we should let them force us to go anywhere. Sir. I think we have a better chance, if we stop and fight them now. Sir.”
“There are three of us and six of them. We don’t have a chance.”
“The attacking party always loses more people than the defending one. But if we go where they want us to go, there will be more of them.”
“Scrib’s righ’” Squirrel joined them at the hub. “Gott’a face tha shiteata’s, I say’. Can’t outru’ ‘em, even if we dro’ tha goods…”
Barge knew they were right. Once again, decision time.
“All right. Listen and pay heed. First, string the bows, stay low, maybe they will not notice we are readying for a fight. Then, Squirrel cuts the chute, as Scribe flips the aft boom to shieldarm for the broad reach. Ethelle is fastest in a broad to axle reach, but we can’t tilt the frame in advance—they’ll see it and will know what we are doing. Scribe will have to weigh down the fore axle on the swordarm side with his body. Hold on tight, it will be bumpy. Then Squirrel brings in the fore boom, and we jibe to swordarm reach.”
Barge stopped. Both sailors nodded. Although he couldn’t see their faces clearly through the veils, they seemed to be listening. Good.
“Their yachts are of the racing kind—they are fastest in an axle reach, and that’s where one of them—the one on the swordarm side—will go to overtake us. The other will follow, staying in broad reach. This way, they have a better chance of flanking us and herding us back. They will also have to gain more distance between them before the first one will jibe again and pounce on us.”
I hope, they will. I can only hope.
The sailors listened closely. Nobody said a word. Good sign.
“Once they think they have us, we cut all canvas and halt hard. The first one to get to us will be the one following us. We shall have a very short window to fight only three of them, before the second yacht arrives, but it’s our only chance. Questions?”
“Have we any weapons beside bows?” the boy inquired in an entirely casual manner. Either he’s got orbs of the size of melons, or he doesn’t understand how serious our situation is, Barge thought.
“Yes. Two axes. I have my crossbow and my broadsword. How are you with an axe?”
“It’ll do.” Daneal said simply.
“Nock, draw and loose at will, as soon as we halt.” Barge continued. “If you manage to take out the pilot, they might even upend, but I would not count on that.” Barge stopped. This is it. Nothing to add, really. “Ready?”
Both sailors nodded.
“Prepare the weapons, stand to flip the boom and cut the chute.”
Squirrel dashed to the swordarm toolbox. In less than a heartbeat both bows were strung and put on the floor of the aisle, the light, long-handled battle axes went next to them. Barge reached under his seat, took out the crossbow, wound it up and nocked a heavy armor-piercing bolt, trying not to move too much out of the protection of the throne’s back. Both sailors returned to their stations. It’s time.
“Cut the chute! Aft boom to shield, one quarter!” He yelled at the top of his lungs. The chute collapsed as Squirrel released the lines to its top, and stretched forward, like a giant tablecloth, flapping madly, while Squirrel was reeling it in. The boy was spinning his winch with impressive speed, the aft boom quickly traveling to the shieldarm.
Barge glanced over his shoulder. The pirates were bringing in their chutes as well. As expected.
“Fore boom to shield, one quarter! Stand to jibe, wind to swordarm!”
Squirrel dove into the aisle to the fore boom winch, as the boy flung himself to the very end of the swordarm next to the roller.
Barge spun the steering wheel, watching the fore boom being brought in, and matching the motion.
Ethelle started to turn. The sails took the wind. He glanced at the swordarm roller—it was still catching the surface with Daneal weighing it down. Squirrel finished the boom move and looked at Barge. Barge briskly motioned for him to join Daneal, and he jumped on the arm.
Barge slowly steered the ship North-East, still watching the roller.
Ethelle issued a low grunt, and the roller went two or three feet up in the air. Both sailors were now crouched next to it, holding on to the spring mounts. The ship was quickly gaining back the speed she dropped during the maneuver. She was now flying on the shieldarm and steering rollers, trembling and shaking, but she was steady. The Flow hissed in his ears, going at an angle to the rig.
Barge looked back.
It worked. Shit and blood, it worked!
The yacht, which was on their shieldarm was now following them directly behind, one of the pirates was also weighing down their swordarm roller to keep it on the surface. The other ship also changed course. It was now traveling straight North in a perfect axle reach, opening the gap between itself and Ethelle. Barge couldn’t see the pirates behind the sails, but he knew that one or two of them were weighing down their swordarm as well. The yacht was already almost as far North as Ethelle.
Matter of moments until they change course and fall on us.
He looked again at the pirates, following them. He could now see one of them winding up a crossbow. Good luck taking a shot across this wind, shitfucker, Barge thought, judging the distance between the rigs. If I could drop the thug on the roller arm, they might upend. Too far. Not yet. I need all rollers down and all hands for the halt. Now.
He locked the steering and ran down the aisle to the tilting hub.
“Stand to unman the arm!” he barked, cranking up the mechanism. Moaning, Ethelle started to level. A few more turns, and the roller will catch the surface. A metallic clink cut through the howl of the Flow as a crossbow bolt bounced off the surface several yards shieldward. Barge looked back, still working the winch. The pirate ship was slowly closing on them. The shooter was readying his weapon again, and now Barge could see one more crossbow in the pilot’s hands. No time.
“Squirrel, man the mast! Stand to cut the sail!” The sword roller landed—and rose again, as Squirrel left the arm and dashed to his station. The boy’s weight was not enough to level the rig even at full tilt. Barge threw himself on the arm to weigh it down, and crawled to the end of it. “Man the mast!” he yelled in Daneal’s ear.
Another arrow clanked off the plane under them. The boy bolted to the aft mast. Barge’s weight kept the roller on the plane; it was skidding, but catching enough friction.
“Stand to cut canvas!” Once they do that, I can leave the arm and get to the steering to work the brakes.
The heavy crossbow bolt sunk into his right thigh with a wet thud. Barge hissed. Shit and blood. A flesh wound. It’s nothing.
“Cut canvas!” he shouted, feeling a wash of pain, slowly spreading through his right side. Both cleavers flew off the masts, another two tablecloths, flapping on the wind. The swordarm dropped to the surface, and Barge nearly lost his purchase on the wood. Ethelle was slowing down. I need to bring her up against the wind, it’s the fastest way to stop her without ruining the rollers, thought he. He tried to move. A wave of searing pain shot through his body. Right, I am hit.
“Scribe!” the boy looked at him. “Man the steering!” he realized, that the boy may not have any idea how to steer or even how to unlock it, but there was no time. Daneal was already at the assembly. “Unlock it and bring her up against the Flow! Gently, and stay low!”
The boy momentarily fumbled with the lock, but figured it out almost instantly. He crouched low between the throne and the steering wheel and started to turn it, his hands above his head. Smart. Barge looked at the pirates. They cut their cleavers as well and were mirroring their maneuver with skillful precision. Once we stop, they will attack. And I can’t fight. Shit and blood. He was crawling along the swordarm to the spine of the ship. His pant leg was soaked with blood, and his thigh hurt badly.
Squirrel ran up to him, and reached for his hand to help him back in the aisle. The ship was quickly loosing speed, squeaking and rattling.
“Stand to break!” Barge growled, limping toward his crossbow, both hands on the handrails.
“Break easy!” If the kid didn’t know how, he never showed it, deftly engaging the steering assembly brake. Barge pulled the brake on the aft axle, while stumbling over its hub, overwhelmed with pain.
Ethelle came to a halt.
“To the ship! Nock’n’loose, nock’n’loose at will as they come! Stay behind the frame!” Both men jumped down to the surface, as he finally reached his throne and grabbed the crossbow. He looked at the pirates. Their ship stopped as well, just fifty or so paces away, sail flapping horizontally, the crew also crouched behind the framework.
They were not attacking.
He glanced at the second ship. It was turning Floward, directly toward them.
Of course. They don’t have to. They will just wait for the rest of them to get here, and then they will butcher us like sheep. He looked at his crew. Squirrel had an arrow nocked, but did not draw. He looked at Barge and shook his head. What?
The boy wasn’t there. Shit, is he hit, too? He looked around, and then he saw him. Daneal was running to the pirate yacht, swaying under the heavy pressure of the Flow and awkwardly flailing his arms. He had no weapon, and it looked like he was surrendering. Barge saw the pilot raise his crossbow.
Farewell, Master Scribe.
The crossbow jerked in the pirate’s hands. Barge winced, expecting Daneal to drop, surely being hit at such a close range. He didn’t. He suddenly bolted forward. He was neither swaying nor stumbling anymore, and it now looked like he had something in his hand. He reached the rig in the blink of an eye and easily jumped on it, crashing into the pirate who shot at him and who was still rewinding his crossbow. They both fell behind the yacht, disappearing for a brief moment. Then one of them was back on his feet. The gray figure. Daneal. The white clad body of the pirate, barely visible behind the yacht’s frame, lay motionless on the ground. It all happened so quickly, that the other two brigands were just getting up on their feet. The one closer to the boy let go of his crossbow and reached for his sword.
He didn’t have a chance to draw.
In a swift and fluent motion Daneal pivoted on his left leg, turning sideways. His right leg shot forward and up in an unnatural angle, kicking the bulky thug directly beneath the white veil. The man slowly dropped to his knees, clutching at his throat. Daneal left him and dashed forward. The last pirate came at him with an axe, swinging it in a powerful ark, perfectly aimed to split the boy shoulder to hip.
Only the boy wasn’t there. The heavy axe bounced of the surface with a loud plonk, clearly audible even at this distance, as Daneal, somehow already behind the man, stabbed him in the neck with something that looked like a large dagger. The man fell almost at the same time as the thug with the crushed throat stopped fighting for air and collapsed.
Daneal jumped up the rig and turned to Barge and Squirrel. He raised his arm, pointing at something.
The other yacht. They were stopping about fifty paces East of Ethelle. Two of the pirates were already off the ship, and running to them with their swords drawn.
“Curse it, Squirrel!” roared Barge. “The spectacle is over! Kill at least one of those!” He aimed and shot, missing one of the attackers by a thumb, as Squirrel released three arrows in quick succession. Two of them found their target, and another figure in white tumbled to the surface. One. Barge was still feverishly winding up his crossbow, when the second pirate reached the ship. Squirrel dropped the bow and engaged him, axe in hand. The yacht stopped. The crossbow clicked, ready. Barge nocked another bolt. The third thug, the pilot, jumped off the steering, but stumbled momentarily, looking toward the other ship. That cost him his life. Barge aimed and loosed, this time hitting the pirate square in the chest. The man, thrown back with the force of the impact, hit the frame of the ship, then slid to the plane. Two. Barge turned to Squirrel.
Squirrel was losing.
His opponent was larger and stronger. He already managed to cut the scrawny sailor’s shoulder, and was swinging his curved blade vigorously. Squirrel could barely keep up, awkwardly parrying the blows with his heavier weapon.
Barge dragged himself off the steering assembly, pulling his sword from the scabbard in the sidebag. I am too slow, I can’t get to him in time, he thought, limping toward them. Ten more paces. Eight.
The thug swung again with a low grunt, this time slicing the head of Squirrel’s axe clear off the shaft. Barge threw himself forward. The knee of his injured leg buckled, sending him down.
He saw the pirate raising his saber over the sailor for a finishing blow.
A gray shadow rammed into the man’s side, toppling him down, saber clinking against the plane. Daneal rose first. He lost his veiled hat, and was squinting in the blinding whiteness of the Flats, but he seemed unharmed. He had no weapon Barge could see. The pirate jumped on his feet as well, and immediately thrust at the boy with fierce energy. The kid swayed, lightly and gracefully, and the pirate’s weapon pierced air. Another swing, again easily avoided by Daneal. A wild thrash into empty space. A faint, snarling smile flickered on the boy’s face.
The pirate was growing more and more agitated, hacking madly at the slender figure. None of his strikes connected, as if the boy was just made of air itself. Barge was watching the strange duel, still laying on the scorching surface of the plane.
I remember, thought he.
I have seen this before.
I know what will happen next.
He noticed Squirrel, bow back in hand, arrow nocked, tensely watching the deadly dance. He didn’t have a clear shot—Daneal was right between him and the thug.
The pirate was getting tired, and he knew that. His movements became more rational and reserved, as he was trying to conserve energy. He now realized, that he had met a worthy opponent. He will wait for the kid to make a mistake, to get overconfident, to lose concentration for a split second, and then deliver a fatal blow. He could still kill them all, if only he could manage to get rid of this boy. He froze in a guard stance. Daneal stopped moving. They stared at each other. Daneal was still smiling.
Then the smile left his face and he charged. The pirate’s weapon went up.
In what seemed to look like one long stride, Daneal dove under his right arm, instantly re-erecting himself behind him, facing the man’s back. A slender hand in an open-back sailor’s glove shot forward and gripped the bandit’s veiled chin. His head jerked sideways, revealing another gloved hand grasping the back of his head. Then the hands disappeared, and Daneal slowly stepped back.
The saber dropped on the ground as the pirate, head turned sideways at an odd angle, crumpled in a powerless heap in front of the scribe.
Daneal emerged from under the ship with his backpack, sat it on the ground and dug in.
Barge lay in the thin shade under the aft axle, blankly staring at the ship’s nether assembly. His tourniquetted leg and the whole right side of his body was on fire. The heat and the pain made it hard to think.
We won. We killed them. He killed them. We are alive. For now.
The kid was saying something. What. Can’t hear you. What?
“Have we any alcohol? I need to clean the wounds.”
No, no alcohol. Claypitt’s rules, boy. No spirits on the run. Why are you still looking at me?
“No”, he croaked, and tried to prop himself up on his elbows, regretting it immediately. “Open a cask of brandy.”
Daneal nodded and slid to the cargo hold.
“Squirrel, how are you?” Barge turned his head to look for the other crewman.
Squirrel was leaning at Ethelle’s shieldarm side, still puffing like a horse after a race and holding a rag to the gash on his left shoulder.
“Issa’ righ’, cap’n. Been wor’, yerremembe’…” I do, Barge thought. Private Lanuell Flint, an archer then, not Squirrel the sailor. Nearly died at the last battle for Skarn, taking a longbow arrow through the side of his narrow chest. Barge pulled him out of the battlefield, got him to a Healer, and never came back. He was finished with that war. And the war was finished, too. Rebels were scattered, hunted down and executed one by one, save a few, who made it to Highlands, and hid there.
“Make sure Squirrel doesn’t get any,” Barge said hoarsely, “if he starts drinking, he can’t stop.”
“I shall, captain,” Daneal said simply. He was back with a small cask of brandy. Squirrel snorted scornfully.
“We need to talk,” Barge tried to prop himself up on his elbows. This time it worked. “who are you, son? You are not a scribe, are you?”
“I am a scribe. Among other things, that is.” The boy was confidently arranging several evil-looking metal instruments on the small canvas rag he had soaked in the fine Zurbahnian spirit.
“Are you now a Healer, too?”
“I don’t have the Gift, but I know how to remove an arrow.” Daneal took out a pint-size marblewood jar out of his backpack.
“Spiderwood sap. From Igoneqe’s Lower Canopy. Stops the bleeding, numbs the pain, seals the wound. Best thing to have for such an occasion. I just wish I had more.”
“See to Squirrel first, then.”
“He has but a scratch, your wound is much more serious.”
“See to Squirrel first.” Barge’s voice was firm. Daneal looked at him, then nodded.
“Yessur,” he said, imitating the other sailor’s accent, and left. It took him only a few moments to cut the sleeve off of Squirrel’s shirt, clean the wound with alcohol, and spread the sap salve over it. The wound was, indeed, skin-deep. The amber sap quickly dried under the Sun, changing color to a darker shade, but remained flexible, as Squirrel moved his skinny arm.
“Dossn’ even hur’ nomor’!” he piped enthusiastically.
“Great.” Barge cringed, as another wave of pain rolled through his body. “Tuck the sails, then straighten the tilt hub to high up. Check the damage, if any.” The sailor went to work. Daneal returned to the captain.
“It’s in very deep.” he winced, examining the arrow. “I am not sure I can pull it out without losing the head.”
“I know,” Barge nodded. “Push it through.”
“You were a soldier in the past, weren’t you? An officer, I bet? The way you behaved under attack, the way you give commands, all of that?” Daneal asked, cutting off the pant leg with a small surgical knife. My favorite pair, thought Barge. Ruined. They were supposed to bring me good luck on this run.
Well… maybe they did.
“I was. Squirrel was, too.” He said.
“Why didn’t you tell me, when I asked?” The boy had removed the fletching from the bolt, and now was carefully spreading thick layer of sap over the shaft.
“Squirrel and I don't like to talk about it.”
“May I ask why?”
“We were fighting for the wrong side, that’s why.” The pain was slowly retreating. This thing really works, Barge thought.
“What’s the wrong side?” Daneal asked, gently working the sap into a spot where the bolt was supposed to come out.
“The losing one.”
“The Rebel Army.”
“Correct.” That sap is magic. I can actually think straight. Barge put his head back on the hot towel.
“That’s why you don’t talk about it… But Duck does, you said?”
“Duck fought for the Dynasty.”
“He fought against you? And you hired him as a sailor?” Daneal was incredulous.
“’e ha’ no choi’.” Squirrel said, padding up to them. “’is lor’ wussworn ter ’is ’premacy…”
“True. None of the men in his village had a choice. The Force came, rounded them up, dressed in red and gray, shove spears in their hands and marched them out to die.” Barge could now almost forget his wound, that’s how little it hurt.
“Still, I simply would not be comfortable around someone who was once an enemy…” The boy said reflectively.
“Life is never simple.” Barge said.
Daneal shrugged. “I guess. Can you feel that?” He tapped on the shaft.
“I feel it, but it doesn’t hurt. Your sap is working fine, get on with it.”
“All right. Captain, stay on your back, please. Squirrel, hold his knee.” Daneal kneeled over Barge’s belly, obscuring the view. “It is going to hurt. Just tell me…”
The boy’s elbow jerked. Barge suddenly felt as if he was struck again, as the arrow pierced the rest of his flesh on its way out. He grunted.
“…when.” Daneal stood up, holding the arrow he had already pulled out in his hand, and smiled.
“Thass’ cheatin’!” Squirrel protested. “ye’ sai’ yer gonna wai’ter he say’ whe’!”
“Good thing he didn’t.” Barge said, listening to his wound. The pain was subsiding—the sap from the shaft was working the insides of the extended wound. “Enough. Help me up.”
“Let me bandage the wound first. I am not going to stitch you up yet, I want to make sure the wound doesn’t fester.” The boy skillfully wrapped his thigh with a length of cotton cloth.
“Thank you, Master Siltbank. For this, and for saving our hides.” Barge crawled from under the axle with the help of both men, and realized that walking will be much more difficult than he thought.
“No need,” answered the boy seriously. “You fought for the Rebel Army. I owed you mine for twelve years.”
Barge leaned on the ship’s side, looking at the young man.
You just destroyed, single-handedly, four vicious brigands. With no weapon of your own. And you are as calm as a camel driver on a fringe run.
“Who are you, really, and where did you learn to fight like that?”
Daneal shrugged. “I was born in Rockshore, lost my parents to the Rebellion. A man took me in. Taught me everything. Taught me how to fight, too. There is really not much to tell. I am a scribe. Or I was for two years.”
“A few years back Zakhar took me to see the pit fights in Zafza.” Barge said, “There was a man who moved and fought like you. They told me he was an assassin from the Mountain Rim, who somehow dishonored himself and was reduced to pit fighting, but I thought it was just a tale to spice up the show… You don’t look like him, though. He looked like a Rimmer, short, slanted eyes and all… Do you know him?”
“The only person in Zafza I spoke to was the innkeeper where I spent a night before coming to the bay. I need to get across to see the man who was a father to me for the last twelve years, before he dies. This is all true. The Twinlink brought me a message a week ago…” he trailed off, staring blankly through Barge toward the first pirate yacht.
“What is it?” asked Barge.
“Did you ever wonder, how those two ships managed to maneuver so simultaneously?” Daneal asked musingly.
“I did. Do you think?…”
“I’ll be right back.” said the boy and darted toward the yacht. Barge saw him kneel for a moment next to each of the three bodies. Then he ran, quickly and lightly, to the second ship and unveiled two more. Squirrel undid the veil on the man, whom the boy killed last. A Highlander with a rusty beard and shaved head.
“I thought so,” Daneal said, approaching, and looking at the last corpse. “The pilot from the first ship, and that one, with a crossbow bolt in his chest, are twins. Zurbahni, from the looks of them.”
“He was a pilot, too,” Barge nodded. “Twinlinks.” This is how they were communicating, trying to herd us. But where? To their base? They were herding us directly East, there is no pirate lair there, the city of Eastwell is there. He saw in his mind again an eerie picture of two white yachts, raising their chutes in pursuit, white squares with a red trident… Why do I think this is so important?
“Master Scribe,” he said to the boy, who was all this time looking at him with avid interest. “I know you just ran all over this cursed baking sheet, but would you grace me with a favor, return to the closest yacht—that one—and read what the crest compartment on their chute says?”
Without a word Daneal turned and ran again. Barge watched him unfurl the chute, letting it spread horizontally, flapping in the wind, and sliding under it to read the words on the insignia. We need to get moving, but I need to know. This is important.
The boy was running back.
“I am impressed, captain!” yelled he, approaching. He was grinning ear to ear. “I didn’t think of that!”
“What does it say?”
“The Triumph of a Trident—One Strike, Three Feats. It’s a loose translation from High Zurbahnian, but the number I got right for sure. They are not twins.”
Barge nodded. “They are triplets. Triplinks. Or so they were. And they were herding us toward their third ship. Which is, probably tacking its way to us as we speak, under the command of one very pissed surviving brother. He knows exactly where we were seen last, and he knows where we were headed. They would expect us to try to get back on the original course. Squirrel, damage?”
“Tha sekkin’ lynchpin’ ’n tha swordarm fore wuz los’, bu’ I’d a spair’, fiss’d it ’llready! Shess’ fin’, sur!” the sailor yelped cheerfully.
“To the ship. Turn her to shieldarm broad reach, booms one quarter to sword. We are going South-East as fast as we can. If we don’t see any suspicious ships by the end of tomorrow, we’ll jibe to sword wind and with any luck reach Eastwell in time. Scribe, find your hat, or get one of theirs—you will not make it to Eastwell without a veil on. Move!”
“Beet soup,” Duck said, “t’was the beet soup I had the night before, you dimwit, not blood. You listen to people, they’ll tell you anythin’. I was fine the very next day. The monks kept me for another week just to make sure it’s not a plague or somthin’, but had to lemme go, for I was fine.”
“Ho’d I kno’?” Squirrel huffed.
They were sitting in a small tavern in Zafza, overlooking Hamulok Bay, drinking dark local ale. Barge had his leg stretched up on the bench—it still hurt a little, but it was healing well. Thank you, Master Scribe.
Duck, a compact and comely dark-haired man of thirty two summers, raised his mug. “Well, I can’t complain too much. If not for that beet soup—and that scribe boy—we’d all be dead now. There’d be your blood, Squirrel. Cheers.”
The others joined.
“Now, come again, how did he kill that first one?” Duck asked, dipping a piece of sourdough bread in spiced olive oil.
“Wittha’ arro’, ‘course.” Squirrel responded.
“What arrow, you just said he had nothing in his hands? Capt’n?”
“Tha pira’ loos’d a bol’ at ’em.” Squirrel said confidently.“Tha bo’ juss’ snach’d it ou’ of tha air. Then he stabb’d tha shi’fucka’ in tha eye, bu’ we didn’ see tha, fo’ t’wass all hap’neen’ behin’ tha yatt’.
Barge shook his head, “It was far away, and happened very quickly. I just saw the thug with an arrow sticking out of his face when we passed all of them, leaving. The boy must have picked it up from the plane on his way there. There is no other explanation…”
“Amm’ tellin’ you, he snach’d it…” Squirrel objected foggily, but Barge just waved him off, and continued, “…Then he kicked the second one in the throat, stabbed the third one with his own dagger, and broke the fourth one’s neck with his bare hands. All in less time than it takes to drop a sail. It’d have been faster, but he had to run a hundred paces or so to get to Squirrel to save his freckled ass. And mine, too.”
And then the kid was his regular self for the rest of the run, Barge thought. Quick, eager, dutiful sailor. As if nothing happened. He never said anything else about his past, or his parents, or the man who raised him, no matter how they’d ask. He’d just smiled tiredly and looked at them, and there was something in his eyes, which eventually made them stop asking.
“And then he just left.” Barge said. “I gave him his new sailing tag, he put on his backpack, strapped his mapcase across it, and left.”
Duck was staring into his mug for a while, nodding, then lifted his eyes. “His mapcase, what did it look like? Capt’n?”
“Why, just a mapcase. Flat case, light brown leather, would hold ten or so thin-rolled maps about four and a half feet long. Three buckles, local made.”
Duck’s eyes turned vacant, as if he was looking inside himself.
“I… saw him,” he finally said with amusement. “I saw him from the back. In this very room! He was here that night, before the Flow rose. When I had that cursed soup! Who knew? Huh?”
“Huh! I believ’ ‘em!” Squirrel exclaimed. He sounded tipsy. “Many of tha sailor’ com’ her’, iss righ’ nex’ ter tha bae’!”
Of course, it is, thought Barge.
He suddenly recalled the last words Daneal Siltbank the Scribe said to him when they were parting ways in Eastwell, placing his new sailing tag in his rucksack. A lightly dressed woman of unidentifiable age with camomile-bleached blonde hair and festively painted face, which appeared form nowhere, seemed to have become his new best friend and looked permanently affixed to his elbow.
“Fare well, Captain Claypitt. Thank you for letting me sail with you.”
“We are the ones who should be thanking you, son,” Barge said.
Daneal shook his head. “I've learned something I'll remember. Thank you for that. Best of luck and fair Flow, Captain. I am sure you’ll find Duck in good health when you are back in Zafza…” the boy grinned, bowed, and dissolved into Eastwell’s port crowd with a giggling girl friend in tow, leaving Barge with an uncertain and uneasy feeling, the true nature of which he couldn’t figure out, until now.
The feeling of being played.