This is one section of a serialized novel presented by Black Gate magazine. It is offered at no cost and appears with the permission of Mark Rigney, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016 by Mark Rigney.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or current events is purely coincidental.
This is Chapter Fifteen. To read Chapter Fourteen, click HERE.
Progress toward Sindar was maddeningly slow. Day after day, uncooperative currents combined with obstreperous winds to bring the Star Of the North to a crawl. At best, the ship made progress by tacking; at worst, they dropped their sails and rode out the latest angry zephyrs, nose to the wind and bobbing like a cork. Doss’s temper was short, not least because supplies were running low. He wasn’t used to having so many on his boat, and over the first two days of their voyage, the portions doled out had been much too large. Now everything except fresh-caught fish was being rationed, water especially. Land was not, and was not likely to be any time soon, in sight.
As for private space, none existed. The Star Of the North, designed for a crew of four, now housed six, one of whom, Bethanian, evinced no understanding whatsoever of how to live in tight quarters. Indeed, she seemed to Maer to have no social graces at all. She made demands, she made threats; she complained as if constant complaint was her primary mode of thought. She threw tantrums and sometimes objects. She insisted on elbow room when there wasn’t any, and if anyone touched her, especially if that contact was unexpected––someone jostling her in passing––she let out a pained squawk of protest, as if she’d been smeared with acid.
She calmed at night, if it was clear, and the stars were out. Reading had kept her settled for the first days, but she’d long since poured over what manuscripts and abstracts Maer had rescued from Lelanarshik and loaded aboard. Even before she’d read them through, the lensmaker had collared Maer and demanded, “Where are the good ones, you stupid girl? Where are the documents I actually need?”
Even when Bethanian was at her worst, Maer could not bring herself to blame the woman. She’d been kidnapped, after all. Twice. As it turned out, the lensmaker had never left Vagen before, not even for an hour. To hear her tell it (which she did, loudly and often), she’d never even set foot in a boat. She professed to a mortal fear of deep water, and refused to look over the sides. If she was forced to be on deck, which she avoided except after dark, she kept her eyes up and fixed her gaze on the skies. It went without saying that she couldn’t swim, and as for fish, the Middle Isle’s undisputed culinary mainstay, she detested it. “Revolting,” she announced, whenever Cullen or Felson slapped a fresh dish on her plate. “I want duck. Why isn’t there duck? Can’t anyone here catch me a duck?”
“Bottom of the sea,” Doss murmured, whenever he thought Maer was in earshot. “That woman deserves to join the blackpowder cannons, right at the bottom of the sea.”
For moments like these––private even in public, the rush of intimacies shared––Maer could almost forget the tortures of having Bethanian aboard. She had thought of little else besides what Doss had said the night they’d set sail from Vagen, his brash, impossible claim that he could love two women at once. True, he hadn’t named her as one of the two––and she’d tossed her way toward sleep mulling that omission ever since––but who else could it be? Kryssa was one, that was certain, and Marlie didn’t count––did she? Doss hadn’t meant parental love. He’d meant something grander, riskier, an obsession that ought to be tactile, carnal. She’d heard it in his voice, she’d seen it in his movements, and she could hardly swallow, some moments, for thinking about it.
Bethanian only made things worse. Since no one wanted to be near her, the rest of the ship’s complement flocked to the deck, or even the rigging, whenever possible. For Maer, this meant that there was simply no chance of being alone with Doss, not so long as they were at sea. She longed for a port, any port. On shore, she could envision any number of ways to get him alone, to engineer some sort of assignation, but the winds and water refused to cooperate, and Maer chafed the more with every passing hour.
“Bottom of the sea,” whispered Doss, again in passing. “Although, come to think of it, I might like it there, too. Nothing but blessed solitude, hey? And no women, not for as far as the eye can see. By Fengreth, that does begin to sound like my kind of paradise.”
She could have slapped him. She could have kicked him, tackled him, knocked him down and kissed him. Instead, she turned her back, picked up a fishing rod, and threw a baited line over the side. Waiting, she thought, was the greatest curse in life. At least at the Spur she’d been kept busy. At least at the Spur she’d had space.
Ruminating on her life at the Spur was one of the few distractions that kept her mind off Doss. It hadn’t been so very many weeks, really, since she’d left, but the gulf that had opened between the Maer of old and the Maer she knew now was vast, deep, and difficult to accept. What struck her most often was how she’d spent her Beacon Tower years at another’s beck and call––and not only Elsbeth but, by extension, the State. She’d been expected to remain attached to the Beacon Tower until her legs and body gave out, until it was no longer possible for her to scamper up and down the Sea Steps or deal with the endless tasks of maintaining and repairing the tower. Had life gone on its projected course, how long could she have lasted? Elsbeth had made only veiled, vague references to her predecessor, but she knew from these and the tower’s log books that the previous keepers’ girl had not been old when they moved on. Twenty-five, perhaps. Thirty? And what then, Maer wondered? If the Spur had remained her life, would she have been relieved of her duties and sent elsewhere, forced next to a sitting-down job? Carding wool, scaling fish? She’d have been handed something, that was certain, and she’d have had no more choice in the matter than a waterbug caught in the downdraft of a whirlpool.
Was she any more free now? This thought, too, was recurring, never quite leaving her when she reminisced about the Spur, and it vexed her. Some might have said she was in charge, now––in charge of a great and vital destiny––but she didn’t feel as if she had charge of anything. So she’d told Doss to sail to Sindar. So what? So long as she was Maer of the Spur, a name people knew––a commodity, even––she wouldn’t be free. Not really. Not the way, now, for the first time in her life, she could begin to imagine she might be.
Just before dawn on their sixth day out, the winds subsided. Cullen had the tiller, and since the night was uncommonly warm, Maer and Rinehl had both chosen to bivouac on the foredeck. Neither was asleep in the rosy-gray half-light, although Maer would not have claimed to be fully awake. The waves had been angry with the hull for so long that it had begun to seem as if they’d never consider forgiveness, but now their gentle lapping was pleasant, soothing. She thought that at any moment, she might drift back to sleep, but then she heard Rinehl stir, a whispered scrape of cloth dragging over cloth.
“Listen,” said Rinehl.
Maer listened. Again she heard the wavelets, and a distant cough from Cullen, away at the far end of the boat. “Sorry,” she said, “I don’t hear anything.”
For a moment, Rinehl said nothing, and again, Maer slid to the verge of sleep. Then Rinehl said, “Doss is very special to you.”
So much, Maer thought, for sleep.
“Don’t be angry. I’m not wrong.”
“No. And I suppose the whole boat knows it.”
Rinehl gave a small laugh. “Well, Bethanian’s very odd, and the rest are men, who I think must be the most unobservant creatures on the face of creation. So no, I think your secret’s safe with me.”
Grumbling, Maer said, “So you don’t think Doss knows, either?”
“Oh, I wasn’t speaking of the captain. He knows. Without a doubt, he knows.”
Considering the cramped environment on board the Star Of the North, Maer had spoken very little to Rinehl. The astronomer did not keep to herself, precisely, since that was impossible, but she had become adept at keeping out of the way. She claimed to be seasick at least twice a day, a condition that Felson scoffed at, saying that no one, not the weakest, prissiest land-lubber of all time, stayed seasick for five days on end. Sea legs, he claimed (sometimes loudly), came along whether you wanted them or not, and sea stomachs, too. But whatever the case, Rinehl avoided interactions whenever possible––except, on occasion, with Bethanian. She was the only person aboard who sought the older woman out, who tried to engage her in discussions, who talked with her about her passions, and her craft. They had some common ground, of course, though it became apparent to Maer (eavesdropping was impossible to avoid on a ship so small) that Bethanian knew precious little of the stars themselves, or the laws that governed their movements. All she knew was how to bring them closer.
Now, faced with a beautiful morning and a peaceful tail wind that filled the sails and pushed the Star Of the North rapidly eastward, Maer wished she felt readier to talk, but she didn’t. Perhaps if she knew Rinehl better? It would have been nice to have someone, some other woman, as a confidante.
“Maer.” Rinehl was lying on her back, staring at the lightening sky.
“Would you say that it’s normal to find a great many fishing boats, all banded together, this far out from the Middle Isle?”
Maer frowned. What had happened to the one topic she cared about, Doss? Annoyed, she propped herself onto one elbow and shot a penetrating look at Rinehl, who continued to stare down the sky. “Sorry,” she said, “I’m not really a sailor.”
“I suppose not. You’ve mostly lived on Aylis.”
“And not just anywhere on Aylis. On a bit nobody liked or came to. So if you want to know about fishing boats, the behavior of fishermen, you need Felson, or maybe Doss.”
The astronomer sighed and folded her hands across her stomach, fingers interlaced. “I suppose we’re getting closer to the coast of Sindar. So maybe a large number of fishing boats all clustered together isn’t so unusual. If, for example, they happened on a large school of fish.”
Maer thought she sounded anything but convinced. Her wish that she could confide in Rinehl shifted to wanting the other woman to simply make sense.
“Rinehl,” she said, “why are you fixated on these boats?”
“It’s nothing, I’m sure. Just…you know. Waves.”
After struggling to her feet, Maer looked out across the water, over the bow. Still no land in sight, although if she understood Doss’s talk the night before, the Straits of Sindar, the channel that separated that island from the northeast tip of Farehl, were not far off. Nor were there any ships in sight. They’d passed plenty of vessels even on the choppiest days––without a vigorous maritime trade, Vagen would founder in a matter of weeks––but now, nothing.
“Which way are these ships of yours?” Maer asked.
Still on her back, still watching the sky, Rinehl said, “Ahead. A few degrees to starboard.”
A few degrees. Maer looked again, and wished (not for the first time) that she’d thought to salvage even one of the Spur’s many pocket spyglasses, but no matter how she tried, no matter how she squinted, there was simply nothing in view but water and sky.
“Rinehl,” she said, “I hate to say this…”
“I’m not inventing.”
“Okay.” The astronomer’s level, dispassionate tone, as if she was stating that water was wet, was unnerving. Maer checked the horizon again, then said, “So…you can’t see these ships, either.”
“Rinehl. If you can’t see them, how do you know they’re there?”
“The waves tell me. They tell me everything. It’s like––in a way––it’s like they’re singing, and when the tune changes, when the notes change, or speed up, or gather together…I can’t explain, and it doesn’t matter, the how of it. But we should tell Doss.”
Crouching, Maer gave the astronomer a long, assessing look. “You’re a wavereader.”
At this, Rinehl smiled. “Well, now, I can’t be that, can I? Being a woman and all.”
Maer’s head cocked to one side. “But you are.”
“Why do you think I ran away from the ocean? I was first mate for my family’s boat, remember? The Bay Of Kezsh was supposed to be my home, and the State said the same. Fishing: that was to be my life’s work, ‘til the day I died.”
Puzzled, Maer said, “The State knew you were a wavereader?”
“No, of course not. Only my family knew. Nobody else. To the rest of my town, I was just a sailor, a good one. First mate by age ten. But of course the State didn’t know. Wouldn’t have wanted to know if we’d told them. Our local prayer mother would have had a fit. Which I still don’t understand. Why can’t women be wavereaders? Where is that written? Not scripture, I can tell you that. I’ve looked. And there’s nothing in the Academy’s library, either.”
Shrugging, Maer said. “Maybe it’s a trade-off. Men can’t be extricators.”
“Now there’s a thought.”
“So why stop? Why leave?”
The beatific smile on Rinehl’s face faded. “I couldn’t stay on the water. The sensations, the sheer volume of information… It got worse in my teens. Your age, I suppose. I couldn’t stop hearing them, every little wave. All day, every day, the pounding, the echoes. Sometimes even on shore, if I wasn’t high enough up, far enough inland. Waves don’t stop, you know. They bounce around, rebounding, glancing off this or that. I was sensing storms, shoals of fish, reefs, boats. I read waves washing in all the way from Grandfather Mountain. It got to the point…well. You’ve seen me here, on board. Half alive. Slinking around. It’s all I can do to stay standing up.”
“So,” Maer said, thinking it out, “you ran off to the Academy, and aimed your gaze at the stars.”
Rinehl’s smile returned, and she sat up. “Nicely put,” she said. “Poetic.”
“Sounds more like irony than anything else.”
“It’s that, too––especially now. Here I am, back to the sea. For now, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
Rinehl’s smile hardened, soured. “There’s no reason for ships to cluster, not like what’s ahead,” she said. “No normal reason, anyway. Except one.”
Automatically, Maer said, “Rescue. One ship’s in trouble,” then regretted it. She knew she had it wrong even as she said it.
“They’re all in motion,” Rinehl said, “and they’re headed this way. I think perhaps they have a wavereader, too.”
“Who? Who has a wavereader?”
“The pirates, of course.” The astronomer stood, and Maer scrambled to follow. “I do think it’s time that we warned Doss. We won’t be able to outrun them––they’re fanning out, making a kind of noose, and this boat couldn’t outpace a turtle––but he’ll be angry if he doesn’t get the chance to try.”
They went below, found Doss in his hammock, and woke him. To Rinehl, he listened with a drowsy, inattentive ear, but when he looked to Maer for confirmation, and all she gave was a sober nod, he was on his feet in an instant. “Everybody up!” he roared. “Everybody up and at the ready!” Then, changing his mind, he whirled on Bethanian, who, groggiest of all, was only just managing to open her larger eye. “Everybody except you,” he said. “You stay in that cot.”
In the pandemonium that followed, thanks to Bethanian keeping to her bed, only Maer was in the way. To the captain’s surprise (though not Felson’s), Rinehl made swift, efficient work of every order Doss gave, and in tandem with the two mates, the Star Of the North unfurled every possible sail, made every conceivable adjustment, and caught the best of what little wind there was.
“Hard about!” Doss cried to Cullen, still at the tiller and looking white-faced. “Aim this tub north!”
Their pursuers, said Rinehl, were spread in a quarter circle, a wide net ranging from south to east. Twelve ships in all. A raiding party, if such it was, of fantastic, unheard of, size.
“Can you see them?” Doss called to Felson, who was at the top of the mainmast.
“Aye!” Felson called down. He didn’t have a spyglass, but he had the advantage of height. “Five so far, and she’s right about their position.”
Doss threw up his hands. “Why?” he demanded, of the world at large. “Why so many, and why here?”
“Seven now,” Felson called out. “Strike that. Eight.”
Ignoring Felson, the captain turned to Maer. “I’m not kidding,” he said. “Makes no sense. Pirates come into the Circle Seas in ones and twos. They bring fast boats, built for a quick strike and run. Numbers like this? They’re not even aimed at Vagen! What in the bloody salt-wave deep are they planning to invade?”
From above, Felson called again. “Ten, Captain. No––an even dozen, just like she said.”
Doss muttered a curse under his breath, and whirled to find Maer, who stood with Bethanian at the top of the hold, Bethanian who had tired of staying in her bunk in the midst of such activity. Doss grimaced at the sight of her. “I told you, stay put.”
“I will not!” Bethanian snarled. “I will not be confined!”
Shifting his attention to Maer, the captain said, “Find what weapons you can, of whatever kind you can. Hurry.” Then he glanced back at Bethanian. “And get her below. I said confined to her bunk, and I meant it.”
“Don’t you touch me!” the lensmaker shrieked. “I don’t like to be touched!”
“Maer.” Doss’s tone was grim. “Deal with her.”
Before she could second-guess herself, and before Bethanian could put up a fight, Maer grabbed the older woman from behind, lifted her bodily into the air––thanking God and the stars that Bethanian was bird-boned and scrawny––and somehow hauled her down the steps without falling. Once there, she wrestled her back onto her cot, then stepped clear.
“Don’t move,” she hissed, one arm outstretched, a single jabbing finger pointed. “Don’t make me pick you up again.”
Threats and curses poured from Bethanian’s mouth, but she remained where she was, and even curled her way, by degrees, under the top sheet. Maer, confident that she’d cowed the old woman, scurried around, opening chests, prying into duffles of personal belongings, digging through all the places she wouldn’t normally have dared to go. It seemed that everyone aboard had weapons of some sort, though they were admittedly minor: a slingshot there, a dagger here. Only Cullen had nothing, which made no sense. After emptying everything the man owned onto the floor, she stopped, hands on hips, dead positive that she’d missed something. Where on a ship could a man hide something bulky? Of course: she glanced up, and there, directly above Cullen’s hammock was a second hammock, tightly rigged between two joists and open at one end so that it made a net basket, storage for all manner of things including four swords of varying lengths and thickness. Handling them gave her chills––she kept thinking of the Sindarin she’d slashed in Bethanian’s lab––but she gritted her teeth and stuck to her task, and soon enough she and her discoveries were on deck, ready for inspection.
Doss was unimpressed, as she’d expected. “Not a single bow,” he said.
Defiant in the face of his gloom, she said, “A bow, sure. A bow that you can’t shoot anyway.”
He flared in response. “I could damn well try!”
The wind had picked up as the sun rose, and the calm seas had transformed into low, rolling whitecaps. The sails were filled and taut, but it wasn’t enough; the Star Of the North had been built for hauling, not speed. To the stern, all twelve of their pursuers had risen into clear view, and the nearest vessels, every single one larger than the Star, were close enough now that Maer could make out their flag: a pair of crossed hatchets on a field of pale blue. Up until that moment, the notion that it was pirates they fled from had seemed unreal, a plaything of an idea, and one entirely without consequences. Now she knew better: those flags announced the coming of the Oars Of the Free Rim, real life Outer Shore pirates. They were coming, coming for them all, and bearing down fast.
Cullen had seen their colors, too. “Captain!” he called. “Do something!”
Blinking, Doss strode closer to his second mate. “Aye, sure, I’ll do something. I’ll ask you what in the name of Fengreth’s bloody toes do you think I should do that I’m not already doing?”
Maer had observed Cullen in many situations, but she’d never seen him like this, rattled and sweating, all but abandoning the tiller in favor of a caged animal’s need to pace.
To Doss, Cullen said, “They can’t catch us. They can’t. I’m not going back.”
“I’ll ask you again, what do you recommend, hey? That we grow wings? Fly this tub to Pelger?”
“Captain! They’ll kill me!”
Doss went right up to Cullen and clapped both hands on the mate’s shoulders. “The only way they kill you is if you let them, and you are never going to let that happen. Clear? Do I need to make that an order?”
The captain’s back blocked Maer’s view, but she imagined she saw Cullen nodding. Doss was looking past him now, over the stern, assessing the situation. After a moment, he stepped clear of Doss, said something Maer couldn’t hear, and then called up to Felson and Rinehl, both of whom were in the rigging.
“Drop her sails! Furl the lot!”
“Sir?” queried Felson.
“You heard me! Drop her damn sails!”
As if he were only now registering what Doss had said, Cullen, frantic and red-faced, cried, “Captain, you can’t!”
Doss whirled to face him. “Listen, man. Do you want them angry when they catch us? Hopping mad that we made them spend half a day chasing us down? Or do you want them calm? I say we make this as business-like as we can, hey? Because we can’t outrun them, that’s plain. So you tell me. You know these people. Which is the better choice?”
“We can alter course. Pick up speed. Outrun them a different direction!”
The captain gave up, reiterated his order to the other two, then went to Maer. “Forget the weapons,” he said. “Put ‘em right back where you found them.”
“Back?” She felt stupid––childish, even––for replying with nothing better than an echo, but surprise gave her no choice.
“Aye. In fact, if you can, hide them. Sorry to disappoint, but we’re not going to fight our way out of this.” He hesitated, a half-dozen different impulses playing across his face. “Listen,” he said, for her ears alone, “this might go well and it might not. Can I assume you’ve never met a pirate, face-to-face?”
Mute, Maer shook her head.
“Most of them aren’t bad folk, in their way, but hard living makes for hard people. They don’t take guff or back-talk from anyone. What they’ll want is supplies, anything they can get, really––and of course we don’t have a thing on board, so barring goods and provisions…”
He trailed off, and he took a quick moment to check their pursuers’ progress.
“Doss. Say what you’re trying to say.”
Doss tested the wind and licked his lips. “Look. The thing of it is…”
“What? Say it!”
“God, child, don’t rush me. What real pirates do, what the State doesn’t tell you…they deal in people. They’re slavers. Not for profit––who would they sell to? But for muscle, for labor? That’s what they wanted with Cullen, when they had him. And that’s most likely what they’ll want with us.”
Above her, the sails were coming down, the heavy canvas collapsing in loud, defeated folds. Behind her (she refused to look) she could hear Cullen crying. Cullen, crying. The whole situation was incomprehensible.
“I don’t understand,” she said, and when she looked up at Doss, she forgot to be guarded, or strong, or anything else except impatient. “There’s still something you’re not saying.”
Doss licked his lips again and glanced around, as if there might be pirates sneaking over the gunnels this very moment. “What I’m trying to say––oh, Fengreth. Look, Maer, the odds are, they won’t keep us together. Do you understand? We’ll be separated. And me rescuing Cullen? That was an accident. Luck. Bad or good, I don’t know. I was in the right place at the right time, and he was there, and it was clear he needed out, so I took him, hid him on board––a story for another time. This much I know for a fact: when you’re taken by an Oar Of the Free Rim, that’s it. You don’t come back.”
A quiver of dread ran down Maer’s legs; she was amazed to discover one of her hands gesticulating of its own volition.
“Maer? Tell me you heard me.”
She got a grip on her straying hand; she forced her legs to steady, or tried to. Ignoring a trembling lip, she managed to say, “It’s not true. They can’t just take you…”
Doss responded by seizing her with both hands, one to either side of her head, and kissing her hard on the mouth. He broke the kiss as abruptly as he’d begun, stepped back, and said, “Maer, out here, just us against all of them––they can do what they like.”
Then he was gone, striding off toward the bow, and shouting orders to turn the Star about and hold her in position.
Maer stood very still. She’d closed her eyes in the instant before the kiss had ended, and she kept them closed a moment longer, more from shock than any attempt to savor the moment. When she opened them at last, she discovered that the entire crew, Bethanian excepted, had served as witnesses. Cullen, tremble-lipped and teary-eyed, looked away, refusing to meet her gaze, but Felson stared, jaw hanging. As for Rinehl, she was grinning from ear to ear; she clasped her hands and shook them at shoulder height as if to say, “Well done! And what took you so long?”
Mortified, Maer bolted for the hold and sought the safety of dim light, shadows, and the grumpiness of Bethanian.
She couldn’t stay, of course. With the sails down and the Star Of the North adrift, it took no time at all for the first of the pirate vessels to pull alongside. Maer couldn’t help a peek through the starboard porthole, and was amazed at just how large the intercepting ship was, with four full masts and the deck divided into three sections of varying elevations. Especially given the limiting frame of the porthole, it was like looking at the illustrations in a story-book, except that with this illustration, she could see motion––the pirate crew scurrying back and forth––and hear voices, real voices. Not a story, she told herself. Not a tale, and not a rumor. This is happening right now, to me.
They came aboard from three directions at once in a veritable swarm of rowboats and skiffs, and Doss ordered Maer and Bethanian on deck to receive them. The entire complement of the Star huddled together near the tiller––Bethanian had to be restrained to prevent her from bolting, though where she would have gone, no one could say––and they waited in anxious silence as the pirates, scores of them, closed in.
That they weren’t abnormally filthy or threadbare interfered only somewhat with the vivid picture Maer had in her head of all things piratical, but she was more than a little disappointed that their leaders didn’t dress with theatrical flair. No, these people looked rugged and tough, and they dressed only for that: for work, and work, and more work. Most were pale-skinned, southerners from Farehl, but not all. At least two were Sindarin. One could only have been, like her, D’rekaani.
The greatest surprise was that all were men. Without exception. Where were the women? Maer couldn’t understand it. And why hadn’t anything she’d ever read about pirates ignored this salient, obvious detail? She’d long considered herself to be an expert on the subject of pirates, thanks to her endless diet of romances and fiction, and it was off-putting––crushing, even––to discover she knew nothing, nothing at all. It was poor consolation to realize that she knew why her actual knowledge was so lacking: every book, dispatch, and report she’d ever read had been published and sanctioned by the State. Every page, every word. Perhaps what she’d read––devoured, even, back on the Spur––hadn’t been lies, exactly, but it was more clear by the moment that she’d been the victim of a great many sins of omission.
The pirates were armed, of course. Short swords and axes, small clubs and truncheons. A crossbow or two. That much, at least, matched her expectations to a tee.
Shouldering through the mass of silent, hostile pirates came a short, stocky man with frizzed, graying hair and several days’ worth of beard stubble. His jaw was pronounced, his eyes belligerent, and when he planted himself in front of Doss, it was as if he and the Star Of the North had simultaneously dropped anchor.
“So,” said the newcomer, looking up to fix Doss with a steely, unsympathetic eye, “I’ll wager you’re the captain.”
Doss responded with a curt nod.
“Not a talker, eh?”
Again, Doss said nothing.
“Listen, no need to be unfriendly. Let’s hear your name.”
Doss told him, and the man responded in turn. “Thresk,” he said, “Admiral. You’re aware of who we are? That you’ve been boarded by an Oar Of the Free Rim?”
This time, Doss didn’t even bother with the nod. “I’m aware, aye.”
“Then you’ll know that you’re not a ship’s captain any longer.”
Doss chewed on his lip.
A subordinate stepped up and whispered in the admiral’s ear, and the admiral, looking displeased, returned his attention to Doss. “You’re not much of a catch, are you? A bizarre crew, but nothing to speak of aboard. You want to give me a reason why I shouldn’t just sink you where we sit?”
As Doss stumbled through an explanation of why the Star Of the North, a supplies boat that (in theory) never had an empty hold, was now devoid of anything bulkier than two satchels of astronomical gear and a dwindling supply of food, Thresk studied each of the Star’s crew and passengers in turn, settling at last on Bethanian. Holding up a hand to silence Doss, he said, still staring at the lensmaker, “You. What’s wrong with your eyes?”
Bethanian hissed a one-word answer, “Nothing.”
“How old are you?”
“Fifty-one.” Thresk nodded as if this was an answer that bore careful consideration, but then he straightened up, hands on hips. “A little old for serious work.”
Doss tried to intervene. “Now wait a minute––”
Thresk pressed a finger to Doss’s chest. “Didn’t I just explain? You’re not captain of anything, not anymore, and you’ve got no authority here.” Turning, he jerked his head to the men behind him, two of whom stepped forward, ready to do his bidding. “The old woman,” he said. “Chuck her over.”
“No!” Maer cried. “You can’t!”
The gathering erupted into chaos. Bethanian tried to shrink, backing into Rinehl in the process, and as the two pirates advanced on her, Cullen bull rushed the both of them. By charging between them, he got his arms around each and drove them into the ship’s rail. The taller of the two, winded, didn’t move; when the shorter man let out a snarl and threatened to rise, Cullen stamped hard on his ankle, breaking it. The snapping sound was awful, and the man screamed in pain, but there was no time for anyone to dwell. Cullen had unleashed a full-scale brawl, and the only non-participants were those too far back to find an opponent––also Bethanian, who’d curled into a ball at the foot of the bowsprit and, in real danger of being stepped on, was mewling like a terrified kitten.
Thresk attempted to draw his sword, but Doss, stepping in close, got his hand on top of the admiral’s and drew the blade for him. Surprised at the ease and speed of the draw, Thresk’s gaze focused on Doss’s grip on the pommel, and Doss took advantage by kneeing the man hard in the groin. Thresk folded like crumpled paper, and Doss, amazed to find that his tactics had worked, wound up with the sword in his hand.
Meanwhile Felson, having thrown a useless haymaker of a punch, took a fist to the stomach and another to the jaw and dropped to the deck. Rinehl tried to intervene, but was scooped up bodily and dumped next to the first mate, where two pirates straddled and sat on her, leaving her nothing to do but squirm.
Maer took one look at the tight quarters, rejected the whole situation as indefensible, and leaped onto the ship’s rail. It was beveled and sloped, no wider than one of her feet, but thanks to a lifetime spent on the Sea Steps, it was more than flat enough for her purposes. With the bulk of the pirates’ attention fixed on Cullen and Doss, she raced past the lot of them like a cat on a rooftop ledge, springing back to the deck only when there was no one left to oppose her.
The question was, where to go? Into the hold? A dead-end, though there were weapons there. Up the rigging? Another dead end. She could go over the side. Not a dead-end, no, but she’d likely wind up drowned for the doing. Should she steal a skiff? Row to Sindar?
Behind her, several husky pirates had turned to pursue her, and far off in the bow, Cullen and Doss were fending off one attack after another, Cullen with his fists, Doss with steel. So far, they were holding their own, but they were outnumbered twenty to one, and two men at the back were loading crossbows.
The rigging, then. There was nothing else for it.
Up she scrambled, faster than she’d ever taken the ropes before, and yelling all the way to Doss, yelling for Doss, demanding that he stop, lay down his sword, accept a surrender before someone shot him through the heart.
Amazingly, Doss heard. Even as he threatened the pack of pirates with his sword, even as they pressed closer, circling like wild dogs snapping their way toward a kill, he raised his head and met her eye. It was only a flash of a moment, over and done in an instant, but it was enough. He stepped back, raised his off hand in a pacifying gesture, and let his sword relax until it pointed not at his opponents but at the deck.
Maer, with three pirates scrambling up behind her, turned her attention to them, calling, “I surrender, I surrender! I was just trying to stop the rest of them!”
Suspicious, they slowed almost despite themselves, and Maer, her palms spread (she had her arms jammed through the rigging to support herself) made it clear she wasn’t going higher, that she wasn’t holding anything sharper than her fingernails. The Star tipped on a swell and swung Maer out over open water, and for a moment, she thought about jumping. If she could leap far enough out, they wouldn’t come after her––would they?
The voice of reason caught her just as she was about let go. Do it and you’ll drown, it said. Do it and you’ll learn with stern exactitude the limits of how far you can swim.
The swell rolled on, and the mast tipped back toward vertical. The moment passed.
“I’m coming down,” she announced, as “Just give me some room.”
The only person who hadn’t stopped fighting was Cullen. He was laying into every opponent he could find, delivering hammer-blows with his fists and, when one of the pirates leaped on his back, flipping the man right over the side. The rest retreated, no longer interested in tangling with the second mate, not when they had their crossbows loaded at last. Cullen, left alone, encircled, stood panting like a tuckered ox, his shirt torn in three places, blood on his knuckles and blood on his chin, his lip split.
“Come on,” he growled, “what are you waiting for?”
“They’re waiting,” grunted Thresk, as he pushed himself to his feet, “for my signal. Want to watch me give it? Want to see the sign that means you die?”
Doss tried to intervene. “Let him live,” he pleaded, and he tossed the sword at Thresk’s feet. “He’s a good worker. Never tires. You can see that. No need for killing.”
The pirate leader still couldn’t fully straighten, but he moved a boot forward just enough to prod the sword out of Doss’s reach. He said, “Know what I see? That tattoo on the back of your man, there. Two crossed hatchets. We don’t often find runaways, but I can tell you this, when we do, we don’t treat them to sugar-sucks and honey.”
Still panting, Cullen swung around to face Thresk. “I’m not going back,” he said, his voice a rebellious, husky mumble. “I’m never going back.”
The pirate admiral gave Cullen a long stare. “You sure about that?” he asked.
Cullen looked to Doss, exhausted and fearful, but also apologetic. “I can’t. You understand.”
Eyes welling, Doss nodded.
Cullen returned his gaze to Thresk, drew a deep breath, and narrowed his eyes. Then he charged, bellowing as he came, ready to rip to pieces whichever pirate he met with first.
Thresk stood his ground and waved a tired hand. The two archers took aim and loosed their bolts. Cullen staggered as both bolts hit home, one in his heart, one just below his rib cage; the thwang of release and the twin thuds of impact drew a scream from Maer, and, as if riding on the echo of that scream, Cullen fell, landing on his side at Thresk’s feet. As both Doss and Maer hollered their frustration, Cullen got a grip on the bolt through his heart and gave it a tug, as if meaning to pull it free. Instead, a sense of wonder crossed his face, and his eyes went wide. He tried to speak, managed a sound like water bubbling in a drain, and collapsed face down on the deck.
Ignoring Maer’s cries and Doss’s cursing, Thresk turned to a man at his shoulder. “See to whoever it was went over the side.” To a second man, he gave different orders. “Load the two men onto the Breaker. We’ll keep the women with me.”
The lieutenant, furrowing his sandy eyebrows, said, “I thought you said, with the old one…”
“Did you hear me change my order? No. Ditch her, keep the other two.”
“Wait!” Doss, now being manhandled by three of the biggest, swarthiest pirates aboard, tried to struggle toward Thresk. “You can’t just throw her over the side! That’d be murder!”
Thresk didn’t even bother to shrug. “Have you looked at her lately? She’ll die on her own in six months, even if all she did was lie on a feather bed.”
“Don’t do it, man. We need her. You need her!”
Curious despite himself, Thresk stepped closer. “How do I need her? She’s a mite too old to breed.”
Maer, also restrained by a pair of pirates, jumped in. Her cheeks were slick with tears, and more were coming. Her knees would barely hold her––she wasn’t sure she’d recovered from Doss’s kiss, and then with Cullen shot right there in front of her––it was a wonder she could stand at all. Half-leaning on the pirates who held her, she called out, “Her name’s Bethanian. She’s the greatest lensmaker who ever lived.”
The admiral’s stony glare turned to outright derision. “Lensmaker?” he scoffed. “Lensmaker?”
“She’s on a mission,” Maer insisted, wondering if this was true––and whether the spinning of such a lie might somehow be useful. “A mission from the new rulers on Vagen, and they’ll pay handsomely to have her back. She’s the only person anywhere who can build what needs building.”
After a cogitating pause, Thresk said, “And what is it that needs building?”
“A spyglass. The best one ever built. One you could put to use, I bet. If you had it.”
With a grunt, Thresk left Doss and walked to Maer. He looked her up and down, then caught her jaw in one strong, callused hand. “Aren’t you the opinionated spitfire. What’s your name?”
She hesitated, wondering if she should answer or make up an alias, but Thresk gave her jaw a hard shake, demanded her name a second time, and when her eye fell on Cullen, she said, without thinking, “Maer.”
The admiral’s eyes narrowed. “Maer,” he said. “Unusual name.”
Behind him, Doss shifted to speak, and she could feel a proclamation coming, a prideful explanation. Every fiber of her being willed him to stop. She was all but screaming, but whatever sound there ought to have been stuck in her throat, plugged by a dreadul certainty that it was already too late, that her name was on his lips, and that he wasn’t going to be any quicker than she’d been to lie and fake a name, any name, if only because he was proud of her. Don’t do it, she pleaded in silence, don’t tell them who I am. Her lips half moved, words half formed, but the din in her head was beyond cacophonous, and all she could manage were thoughts, furious thoughts, all directed at Doss and entreating him, imploring him to shut his mouth. Don’t claim me, don’t you dare give me that title. I refuse to be a harbinger, I refuse to be a leader, I have no business being anything. Let me go back to being a keeper’s girl, hauling water, beating the sheets, scrubbing the walls with brushes and bleach to keep down the mold, don’t do it, don’t say it, stop!
Doss spoke. “She’s Maer of the Spur,” he announced, and she’d pegged him exactly, he was proud as a peacock, defiant for its own sake. “Heard of that name, I hope––‘cos if you haven’t, you’re the most ignorant pirate alive.”
Keeping his eyes on Maer, Thresk said, “I don’t believe in pirates.” Then he paused––a murmur of comment had run through the circle of onlookers––and he let go of Maer’s jaw. “Maer of the Spur,” he repeated, as if the saying of it gave him unexpected satisfaction. “It’s a funny thing,” he said, quirking a smile toward Doss, “but as it happens, I’m not the most ignorant pirate alive.”
Maer swallowed. Was she supposed to be bold now, make threats? Or plead for mercy, release? But she had no context. So this man had heard of her––maybe. But how? And what, for him, did her name mean?
The pirate leader solved her dilemma for her. He said, eyeing her as he might a new and dangerous weapon, “Durnian’s people talk about you non-stop. Every village of ours they take, every homestead they burn, all we hear is ‘Maer, Maer, Maer of the Spur. We do this in the name of Sister Blue.’ Whatever that means. Who burns anything in the name of a planet? But perhaps you know the answer to that, little Maer, little Maer Spitfire. Perhaps you’d like to tell me why so many people think you’re so damnably important?”
Her mind was racing. It was impossible to settle on what to say, especially with Cullen simply lying there, the blood pooling under him and seeping like red syrup across the decking.
Her hesitations mattered not in the least. Thresk, so taciturn until now, put his face close up to hers; his eyes glittered like cold, dark stars. He said, “If you really are that Maer, the Maer that Durnian’s used to light up the whole of Farehl, then I should kill you where you stand. Slit your throat so slowly you can actually feel the life drain out. And I’d be in my rights, too. I’d just stand here and watch. Let my boots turn red with your blood and thank God and the deep that the waves sent you to me. As a present. Divine justice.” He paused, nodded approval for his own plan. “I tell you, a knife to your pretty throat––that really is what I should do.”
Such hatred. She’d felt anger before, as well as cold fury, and even murderous intent, but never such pure, unleavened hate. This man, and presumably all those who backed him, hated her beyond all reason. And for what? What had she done? And what did any of it have to do with Durnian?
What was it Elspeth had said, all those weeks ago? To make the greatest leaps, you need only stay still and think.
Maer made her leap, and trusted that she’d land on steady ground.
“You,” she said, fighting like mad to keep her voice steady, “you lost your home. It’s why you’re out here, all these ships at once, all together. You’re not all the way here in the Circle Seas looking for plunder. You’re running. Escaping. You fled from some army cooked up by Durnian, and you think I’m the one that got him started.”
A feral, feline rumble rose in Thresk’s throat. “I don’t think that,” he said. “I know it. So listen to what I say, and listen well: what you’re doing here, I’ve no idea, but either you’ll tell me, or I’ll find out, and I can promise you, if you’re counting on Durnian for a rescue, you can forget it. One thing we know how to do is burn ships in their harbors.”
He turned on his heel, and marched off, making for the rope ladders by which he’d boarded.
“Sir!” called one of the others. “What are we doing with…?”
“Did I belay a single order?” Thresk, still walking, kept his back resolutely turned. “The corpse and the crone go over the side! The others, separate them! And as for this pathetic excuse for a boat, put her in tow. Who knows, maybe we can salvage a board or two.”
At this, even Rinehl strained against her captors, and Doss actually managed, for a moment, to break free, howling the louder as he watched Cullen’s bloody body bundled over the Star’s rail like so much unwanted baggage. Before the splash of his landing had died away, Bethanian made a break for freedom, scuttling like a rat under the legs of the first man who grabbed for her, but it was no use: there were too many, and they seized her by ankles and wrists and flung her overboard right after Cullen. She sailed toward the waiting ocean in a high, limbs-flailing arc. The last Maer saw of her, her enormous eye was glued to the Star Of the North, as if by affixing itself to something solid, she would never, could never, enter the waiting water.
But she did, with a light, unimpressive splash, and after that, she came up only once. Maer, even as she was being marched to the opposite rail, heard her plaintive scream, and a final waterlogged cry of, “I can’t swim! I can’t swim!” Tuning her out was easier than she would have expected; she heard her own voice, instead, a clarion call that skimmed over the rising tumult of her thoughts, a cry that insisted she herself had caused Bethanian’s death, then twisted itself into a question: I kidnapped you for this? And what of Cullen? Had she done for him, too? Once again, everything that could possibly go wrong could be laid at her feet, at the heart and conscience of Maer, Maer of the Spur. Maer, who brought death and destruction in her wake.
“Doss!” she cried, as she was forced, hand over hand, over the rail, down the ladder, and into a waiting skiff. Her voice sliced the air, a keening, hopeless shriek. “Doss, don’t leave me! Where are you?”
But he was elsewhere, out of sight, maybe with Felson, and she couldn’t hear him. He certainly wasn’t calling her. Was he out, unconscious, or did he simply not care? Her one constant since leaving the Spur was being ripped away, and the cacophony in her head was back, roaring like a tidal wave. The only friendly face left was Rinehl, and Rinehl had been bound and gagged, just as Maer herself was being gagged now. Helpless, grief-stricken, infuriated, she tried to stand, to catch one last glimpse of Doss, but strong hands shoved her down. When she kept squirming, someone cuffed her, hard, on the side of the head. Bright constellations spun through her vision, and she blinked to shut them out, and then, shuddering with despair––an emotion she’d read of in books but never, not until now, experienced––she let herself roll onto the bottom of the skiff, in amongst the boots and gear and puddled salt water, and cried and moaned and wept.
The skiff cast off. Oars hit the water.
Someone gave Maer of the Spur a perfunctory kick in the head, and after that, she was quiet.
Once, it was said, pirates had come to the Circle Seas, all for the sake of plunder and hoard. But they hadn’t, not really, because pirates didn’t exist. A malicious falsehood, insisted the State authorities. After all, pirates, like cannons, hadn’t existed for hundreds of years.
But then, neither had monarchies.
In the waning distance, Sister Blue sailed along on its calm, soundless journey around the sun. To those who knew where to look, she was still visible by nights, a gem-like gleam too big to be a star. At this point, she was still receding, and long months would pass before she even began the process of heading back.
But back she would come, inexorable and on schedule, back for another revelatory pass. Back she would come, without any understanding of the chaos she’d already caused. Back she would come, wanted or unwanted, soon.
End Of Book One
Maer’s story will conclude in Book Two, tentatively entitled:
Signaling Sister Blue
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.