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 2015 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 Seven. To read Chapter Six, click HERE.
Belner awoke from a fever dream of entrapment, and he shot up, clawing at sheets that even in waking seemed to be trying to pin him, strangle him, or both. He was in a room he didn’t know, a dim, candlelit vault of a room with no windows, and he had the sickening sensation that he’d been asleep for far longer than was normal––a day, perhaps? Longer? He was panting, sweating, and he felt sick to his stomach. The back of his neck ached and stung at the same time, as if he’d been worried there by a dog, and when he reached around with one hand to check, his hand came away flecked with dried, scabby blood.
“It’s all right,” said a woman’s voice, from some shadowy recess. Her voice echoed off the brick-lined walls. “You’re safe.”
Safe? He didn’t feel safe. Where were his clothes? How had he gotten here? He’d been talking with Mother Coal, that he remembered––sort of. He’d allowed her to pour him wine, and he’d had a cup, maybe two…and before that, hadn’t he been running? Fleeing? That was it: men were trying to kill him. And he’d run, run downhill through the tightest streets in Vagen, trying to lose them, and then––what?
The woman. The woman who’d helped him escape. He recognized the voice.
“Who are you?” he asked.
She stood, rising from a low, colorful couch and setting aside a cutting board, on which she’d been slicing yellow cheese with a knife. She picked up a silver candleholder, a heavy and decorative disc. Atop that burned a candle as thick as his forearm. Two more like it winked at him from a stool set beside his bed. Besides these, there was no light in the bare, tunnel-like room. The roof was arched, the floor made of earth; a shallow nook in the wall displayed the Twins. Underground, he decided, but perhaps not far. The air smelled of earth and cobwebs, but it was fresh enough that the candles showed no signs of going out.
“My name is Arjay,” the woman said. “I’m a friend of Mother Coal’s, and she asked me to watch over you until you woke up.”
She was short, athletic, and blonde, her hair a loose mop of kinks and curls. Her clothes bore a vague resemblance to the white robes of a novitiate, but hers had been divided into a separate shirt and linen trousers. The more he looked at her, the more aware he became that he was naked.
“You have many questions,” she said. “I’ll answer as best I can.”
His eyes darted past her, checking the room again. Yes, there was a door. Closed. Locked?
“My neck,” he said. “What happened?”
“You submitted to an extrication. You don’t remember?”
He was stunned. An extricator? An extricator had done her work on him? He had no memory of that, none at all. And such people were made up, just tales. Folklore to amuse the children.
He said, fumbling the words, “I…submitted?”
“You did. At Mother Coal’s urging. We needed to know what happened at the Spur, and your memories––those you could find on your own, at least––were foggy.”
This made no sense. If extricators ever had existed, they’d (surely!) never had the actual power to siphon up experience and memory, then separate facts from fictions, lies from truth. No. Extricators were like wood-haunts or stone-babies, a relic from the land of make-believe. And yet, he remembered his father reading aloud to him, once (and far too long ago), that for an extricator to do her work, she didn’t whisper mumbo jumbo or stock a boiling cauldron with weird roots and snips of hair, no. All she had to do was bite you in the back of the neck. “They bite,” he’d said, looking up from the page, “right into your spine.”
To Arjay, Belner said, “I have to go,” and he tugged the sheet to cover himself as he swung his legs to the floor.
Arjay backed up, but didn’t have the modesty or the courtesy to avert her eyes; the traitorous sheet, to Belner’s shame, left very little to her imagination. Why couldn’t the useless thing cooperate, just for a minute or two?
As if he were very stupid indeed, Arjay said, “A better plan might be to wait here. I can bring food, drink.”
At the mere mention of food, his stomach lurched. Was he about to be sick, or was he starving? The fact that he couldn’t tell sent him into a panicky search for his clothes.
Guessing what he was after, Arjay said, “They’re not here.”
He was looking beneath the bed frame, down on hands and knees. A new fear hit like a punch: extrications were supposedly infallible, which meant that someone (perhaps a lot of people) now knew the grisly details of what had happened on the Spur. Of what he’d done. Of the people he’d killed.
He clambered up, nearly fell, and lost his grip on the sheet. He faced Arjay nude, trembling, pale and perspiring. “Where are they?” he demanded. “I have to get out of here.”
“Belner, you’ve been sleeping for two weeks. Longer. We didn’t know if you’d ever wake up. What you need is food, not clothes. You need to rest.”
Two weeks. That didn’t compute. Was it even possible to sleep so long? What in the name of Fengreth’s black beard had they done to him?
Arjay was talking again, explaining that she’d been sitting vigil for his entire convalescence, or most of it, taking it in shifts. What else was she babbling about? Something about how, if she’d meant to hurt him, she could have done it long ago, before he was up and about. All she wanted was the best for him, truly, if he would just––please, Belner––sit back down.
“Clothes,” he demanded, through gritted teeth. “Now.”
He leaped at her, knocked her into the wall––the Twins went flying, ricocheting to the floor––and he tore the candleholder from her hands and beat at her face with it. She raised her arms to protect herself, and he straddled her, still flailing. The flame guttered and spat, but didn’t go out; instead, as he got a good blow in past her defenses, the wick ignited her hair.
“Get off!” she screamed, and she wriggled at last to where she had the leverage to bring a knee smashing into his groin. He dropped the candleholder, clutched at his privates, and toppled sideways. She scrambled past him, panicked by the scent of burning hair, and threw herself into the bed, smushing her head into the remaining sheet. It worked. The tendrils of flame snuffed out, and she rolled, breathless, off the far side of the bed. In an instant, she was on her feet and in a fighting stance, the guarded crouch of an experienced wrestler.
But Belner had regained his feet, too, and he’d found a new and better weapon: the knife from the cheese board. It wasn’t much, a kitchen knife with a two-inch blade, but he figured it would do. Blood was blood, and he knew how to spill it, knew how better than most. It was time again to put into practice what he’d learned at the Spur.
For half a heartbeat, he heard his father’s voice, counseling caution, caution always, caution even in emergencies. “Or perhaps most of all in emergencies,” the old man had said. “The Devoted find few enough of these, but when they come, it’s the coolest heads that prevail, you mark me. Always the calm ones who survive.”
Belner dismissed the thought and drove forward, doing his level best to plunge the cheese knife into Arjay’s heart. He feinted, swung, and missed. Arjay danced away, plucking up the fallen sheet as she did so, and trailing it behind her. For a moment, he found himself focusing on the sheet, lunging for it instead of her, losing track of her in the gray-white folds of motion. Then he realized she was making for the door, and he dashed to intercept her, made it in time, and cut her off.
“No, no,” he said. “You’re staying right here.”
“I’m your friend,” she pleaded, backing away. “I’ve been taking care of you!”
“I’m under orders,” he said, and he knew it was true, indubitably true. “Mother Sand said.”
“Mother Sand?” The incredulity in her voice almost halted him. Almost. “Belner, Mother Sand’s gone! Missing! She’s got nothing to do––”
He lunged, roaring, but again she dodged away, rolling this time, and as she did so, she dropped the sheet and grabbed the cutting board. As he spun to drive home a final blow––no sheet to protect you now, he thought, smirking––she brought the cutting board up and rammed it straight at the blade of the knife, which stuck in it point first, then snapped. Surprised, he stepped back, staring at the jagged, sheared-off remains of his weapon. Arjay seized the opportunity. She raised the cutting board over her head and brought it down full force on top of his. The sheared-off knife, still trapped in the wood, embedded itself in the top of Belner’s skull.
He let out a surprised burping grunt, and staggered against the bed. For a moment, he managed to prop himself with one hand on the straw-filled mattress, but then he sagged, listing along its flank until he was lying prone and gasping on the dirt floor.
Her voice sounded very far away, so distant that he doubted he was hearing it at all. Arjay stood on a mountain peak somewhere, and he was in a remote valley, a dark valley with a huge and setting sun licking its edges, and he couldn’t hear at all.
His head hurt. So did his neck.
He was hungry.
It was Mother Sand calling now, and he hurried across the meadow grass to the top of the stair, where she was waiting. The sun had long since set, but orange light flickered over both their faces, a yellow-amber warmth whose source was the pillar of flame that only minutes before had been the Spur’s Beacon Tower. The heat that radiated out from the fire was like a furnace, and he wanted nothing more than to be gone from the Spur, any way possible.
“It’s done?” Mother Sand demanded. “You found her?”
By this she meant, had he found the keeper’s girl? The one called Maer.
“Yes, lady,” he said. “She was hiding behind the tower privy.”
And. She hadn’t been there, of course. He hadn’t spotted her at all, and he was so tired, tired from the climb, tired from swinging his sword, tired from having obeyed her in the first place. He said, “Don’t worry, lady. I stuck my sword through her throat.”
Mother Sand gave a curt, satisfied nod. “Then your work is done.”
He smiled like a puppy, well-loved by its mistress––but then, unexpectedly, she reached out with one hand and slid his eyelids closed. Odd, he thought. They had the Sea Steps to descend, difficult enough by lantern light, and with his eyes shut tight, harder still. Impossible, even. What did she think she was doing?
“Your work,” she repeated, from a jagged knife of a peak far beyond Arjay’s, a distance so great that she might as well have spoken from the far side of Sister Blue, “your work, good Belner, is done…”
Kehlen let himself inside the grubby little fourth-story room, made sure to pocket the key, and slid the bolt shut behind him. It wasn’t much of a room, no more than twelve feet on a side, but it had a nook for the Twins and plenty of windows, which meant a good view of the goings-on below and plenty of light. Not that Mother Sand was grateful, no. She was drumming her fingers on the sill of the north-facing window, and he wondered, not for the first time, if the woman had the capacity, even a little, for thankfulness.
“You certainly took your time,” she said, not looking at him. So far as he could tell, she was staring at the distant domes and towers of the Church Complex. Pining, he figured, for something that at least for the present, she couldn’t have.
“Bread, fruit, cockles, vinegar, salt. All the necessaries.”
“How about incense? So I can summon you more quickly.”
With a smile that wasn’t a smile, Kehlen set the basket of supplies down on the one rickety table. Between that, the lone chair, and the cot of a bed, there wasn’t room for much else. “No incense,” he said, as if even he were surprised. “Seems they were all sold out.”
She shot him a jaundiced glare, focusing, as she often did, on the ruins of his cauliflower ear. He turned his head to block her view, and she pouted, as if he’d denied her a treat.
“Followers?” she demanded.
By which, he knew she meant, “Who followed you?” The answer to that, on this day, was no one, but even on the days when he had been tailed, he’d always answered in the negative. He understood (as she, perhaps, did not) that for him to do the sorts of work she required of him, his hands did, on occasion, have to get dirty––or bloody. The first man who’d tried to follow him back to Mother Sand’s fourth-story tenement, he’d dragged him into a doorway and slit his throat without so much as asking him a question. The second, he’d sent packing with a hurled dagger (it had lodged in the man’s bicep) and a threat: “Next time, it’ll be your heart.” To the third, a girl this time, and a beggar, he’d been more kind, for he had a daughter of his own, back on Farehl. Like him, the beggar girl looked to be Farehli: pale skin, raven hair. She was so young that he couldn’t yet tell whether she’d have his type of beaky, hawkish nose, but she had his eyes, heavy-lidded and untrusting. So he’d led her on a merry chase, then ducked at last into the kitchen of a pie maker, and caught her from behind as she followed him in. Brave girl, she hadn’t even cried out, not until he stuck her left hand within inches of the oven’s fiercely glowing coals.
“Who sent you?” he’d asked, and when the girl squealed and struggled, he’d lowered her hand until he’d pressed the tip of her index finger, just for an instant, into the red-hot embers. When she screamed, he pulled her hand back and held the scorched finger in front of her face, so she could see the damage, the blistering, instant pinkness.
“Once more,” he’d said. “Who sent you?”
“A lady,” the girl whimpered, “from the church.”
“I don’t know. She gave me coin and a time to meet her, that’s all.”
He believed her. When he’d been a beggar, he’d have done that and more, for coin. For coin, for food: anything. Not that there were any beggars on Vagen. Not officially. It was, after all, against State policy to beg, and besides, why should anyone do so? The State still promised jobs to all, and did, more or less, live up to that promise. Provided you were registered, listed, known, and accepted. To be fair, most were. But for those who slipped through the cracks…
To Mother Sand’s question, he said, “No one followed. No one knows you’re here. Although if you insist on spending so much time at the windows…”
She snorted with disdain. “I wear no scarf. I don’t even wear my headband.” She gestured to the bed, where the three ebony stones lay on their silver circlet, looking abandoned. “People can notice me all they like, and all they’ll see is a nameless old woman with nothing to do.”
Even so, he wished she’d stay back a bit, or wear a hat. Something, anything. Not that he cared much for her safety, not at a personal level, but he knew he’d miss her gold if she were to vanish or die––as she would, of course, and not so very far down the river, either. Was she fifty-five? Sixty? He’d been in her camp for so long, there were times he forgot that he’d eventually have to root around in the muck for other employment. But not yet. Not this day, at least.
“News?” she asked. “Anything?”
She sniffed, and picked out a grape from the basket. “An explosion of that size…you’d think someone would want to claim responsibility.”
“Well,” she said, “I don’t want to keep you. Empty the chamber pot, and you’re free to go.”
He did so, taking it down to the alley, dumping its sweet-stinking contents into the provided barrel, and rinsing out what remained at the nearest downspout fountain. One thing you had to say about Vagen and all its senators: they knew how to make water run. Downhill, at least. It was fortunate that the island’s central mesa had a sinkhole lake on top. Kehlen had often thought that had Vagen lacked this massive natural reservoir, the whole city would have long since been on a steady diet of salt water.
On the way back up the stairs, he did his best to think out, for the umpteenth time, the correct way to ask for some actual, ready money. He had no plans to beg, but in the aftermath of the common market explosion, when he’d pulled Mother Sand from the wreckage and dust, she’d of course had nothing of value with her. Why should she? She’d been out for a quick morning assignation, and had expected to be home in no time. But now, with her daily expenses (and his) mounting, he was feeding her out of his own pocket, and that, as his lightening purse well knew, could not go on much longer.
He tramped up the stairs, all set to demand that she reveal where in her official apartments he could find a proper stash of State-sanctioned coin, but he hadn’t so much as opened his mouth before she shushed him with a raised finger. She’d changed windows now, and was looking southwest, out to sea.
“Look, look there,” she said. “Am I dreaming?”
He turned and stared hard at where she was pointing. Far beyond the buildings, the sloping roofs dropping one to the next like unruly stairs, lay the Circle Sea. He supposed that if he were to stare hard enough in that direction, or if the grandmother were not a globe and had no curvature, he could see right to the Aylis coast. It was a good view, certainly, with no clouds above or fogbanks below. In fact, he could see pretty much to the horizon, all the way to––by Fengreth. He stopped breathing.
“Yes. Now you see.”
“Ships,” he said, squinting for a better view. “A whole fleet.”
“Good,” she said. “Perhaps my eyes aren’t as old and tired as I think. Because that’s what I see, too.”
It made no sense. Ships came to Vagen from all directions, and the capital’s own fishing fleet was out and back every single day, but to see so many vessels all headed in one direction, all at once, defied sense. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have said that the fifty- to sixty-odd boats he could now make out looked exactly like…
He cut himself off before he could even think the words invasion force. Who in the name of God and Sister Blue would be invading Vagen? If there was one universal truth throughout the Six Lands, it was that peace reigned. Peace had reigned for centuries, and peace, the Sindarin notwithstanding, was not going to stop reigning any time soon.
Mother Sand said, as if it couldn’t possibly matter, “I suppose they’re pirates.”
“Lady,” he said, “stay here.”
“What, again? You surprise me.”
He was halfway through the door before he even thought to ignore her amused sarcasm. “Lock up behind me,” he said. “Don’t open for anyone but me.”
She rolled her eyes. “A princess in a tower. My days become more ironic by the moment.”
The temptation to tell her to shut up was strong, but he resisted by slamming the door in her face and clattering away down the stairs. His destination: the harbor, where he knew the city watch at one particular tower, and they’d let him climb up, get the best possible view. After that, after he’d had a chance to assess what was coming? As to that, Kehlen was already of two minds. If the threat either wasn’t a threat at all or at least looked manageable, he’d head back to guard Mother Sand. On the other hand, if things looked bleak, he had a boat of his own, more or less ready to go, at a smaller launch point on the opposite side of the island. Vagen wasn’t overlarge; he could cross the whole city in an hour. Once at sea, if the weather held, he could make Farehl in less than a week, even on his own. He could, God willing, pay a surprise visit to his daughter.
One thing for certain: Mother Sand didn’t pay well enough to tempt him into laying down his life. Not that he thought less of her for this; in his experience, no one ever had.
Standing on the foredeck of Vashear’s “flagship,” Karai thought she’d never seen a more magnificent sight than the motley array of boats sailing like a maritime wall toward the domes, towers, and ramparts of Vagen. The sun was out, the breeze so easy that each of the fleet’s captains could keep almost shoulder-to-shoulder with their neighbors, and sail by dropped sail, they were slowing now, drifting toward the harbor like giant, leisurely sea birds.
The wharf and piers were crowded, not only with the usual boats, merchandise, and stevedores, but with gawkers of all stripes. Senators in a knot over there, and, farther along, a gaggle of church folk. Traders and money-folk in clumps. Hundreds of faces had come to see what would happen next. Perhaps thousands. How many people lived on the Middle Isle? Fewer than thirty thousand, she was sure, but if that guess was right, then fully half had turned out to greet or flee from the incoming flotilla.
She looked over to Vashear, resplendent in sky blue robes. He stood at the prow, one hand on the rigging, one foot on the rail. He had his shoulders thrown back and looked less like a conqueror than an entertainer at the peak of his powers. All these people had sailed because of him, and now thousands more had arrived to hear (though they didn’t know it yet) the message he brought. Had the bowsprit turned into a spear, she had no doubt he’d launch it, not in order to kill but to hear the whole throng gasp in unison at the wonder of what he’d done.
What, exactly, he’d done was still obscure to her, but it involved, at the least, a march from Ferth to the Aylis port of Squall. They’d picked up converts all along the way, and more in Squall itself. The seizing of the vessels that now made up their fleet hadn’t been without violence, but it had been kept to a minimum by sheer force of personality, by the gleam in Vashear’s eye and the power of his claim: that Sister Blue was a harbinger, that change was in the air. A deadline loomed, and the State must acknowledge what the Spur’s Great Spyglass had revealed, and so, too, must the Unified Church.
The bulk of Squall’s State employees opposed them, of course, as did several of that city’s leading prayer mothers, but both Karai and Vashear had warned their followers to expect this. Apparatus and habit die hard, they said, and Vashear added a stinging critique. “The State rules like ivy,” he pronounced, “by swallowing all it touches. Easy paychecks, a functionary for every last detail. Who can afford to rebel? Take pity on them, my friends. They’re blind as newborn kittens.”
In the end, most of the various boat captains had surrendered their vessels voluntarily, though whether it was to protect them from damage or because they had fallen as one under Vashear’s potent spell, she couldn’t be sure. What she did know (to her shame) was that she’d fallen herself. She’d allied herself to Vashear as a double-agent, a church loyalist out to infiltrate and defuse any threat from the enemy camp. For better or for worse, her intentions had metamorphosed into a feverish devotion, the same she’d had as a child for the church. If this did not yet translate into whole-hearted belief (for Karai could scarcely countenance the idea that anyone, much less brash, erratic Vashear, had spotted signs of intelligent life on Sister Blue), it most definitely did allow for attraction, fervent, inappropriate, and carnal. Selnin, though always nearby, no longer had any place in her affections or fantasies. She spent her nights by and with Vashear, and she walked or rode with him as they traveled. She had become––overnight, it seemed––his most trusted lieutenant, and no one was more surprised by this development than herself.
What, she wondered, would Mother Coal say when they next met?
As to what Selnin would say, this was no mystery. He let her know at every possible turn that she was being an irresponsible little idiot. “Sleep with the enemy,” he’d said, one morning over drae, “and you’ll do more than burn your fingers.”
“He’s not the enemy.”
“I know which side I’m on,” Selnin had said, keeping both his chilled hands wrapped around the mug of hot drae.
Stiff-necked and sick of Selnin’s tone, she’d said, “I am of the church and of my word. Always.”
“Please. Even you don’t believe that, not anymore.”
He was right. She didn’t. Perhaps simply choosing up sides, as Selnin would have her do, was too simplistic, but once they’d set sail for Vagen, there was no escaping the basic, incontrovertible truth that Vashear and his rag-tag Pilgrims Of Sister Blue wanted to tear down everything the capital stood for, beginning with the church. Her claims to be of the church and of her word meant less with every passing mile, and now, here in Vagen’s southwest harbor, it seemed they would carry her into a storm from which escape would prove impossible.
The storm, however, had not yet broken. As they inched closer to Vagen’s piers, the world had become remarkably quiet. Waves lapped, people shifted and shuffled, but even the gulls had subsided, as if aware that their complaining shrieks would add nothing to the encounter to come. Those on the boats watched those on the shore; those on the shore watched those on the boats.
Vashear turned to Karai. “I should begin,” he said, earnest and trying to gauge her reaction. “Before we land.”
“Sound,” she replied, “travels well over water.”
Vashear gathered himself, took a deep, sustaining breath, and gave a quick touch to the soft spot on his head. Karai took an instinctive look at the decking beneath his boots. Sure enough, a puddle was forming, a gentle rain of urine. She looked away, ignoring Selnin, who stood at her opposite shoulder and was grumbling some half-intelligible complaint about women who lay with men who couldn’t keep control of their own bladders. She hissed at him to stop, and he did, but the damage was done; Selnin was an expert at getting under her skin, in part because she’d become such an easy target. She could put up with Vashear’s fits (infrequent) and ravings (very frequent), but his incontinence bothered her more by the day, and the guilt she felt for this gnawed at her from the inside out. He was young, that was the difficulty––or so she told herself. Had he been old, or at least older, she could (she thought) have accepted almost any infirmity. But in a man so vital and handsome, so potent in his ability to sway people to his cause? Lust and love-sick crushes aside, every time he pissed himself, she wanted to turn away and run.
“Good people of Vagen!” Vashear’s voice rang clear and pure, a human bell. “We bring news, good news, mighty news! News from the Spur of Aylis and the heavens above!”
He received no reply beyond the lonely screech of a single impatient gull.
Beside her, Selnin leaned close and whispered into her ear. “Lady, once we’re ashore, stay close. We’ll work our way straight to the complex.”
Not much caring who heard, she said, “We’ll do no such thing.”
“The prophet is speaking. Why are you, out of all these thousands, the only one who can’t keep his mouth shut?”
Vashear had continued, delivering his message in blunt, simple terms, as he had everywhere he’d gone: time was short, Sister Blue was soon to return, and the way must be paved. Divine visitors were at hand, and there was no time now for the usual foot-dragging, the habitual idleness of a city so steeped in bureaucracy. He called out the Unified Church directly, claiming that though they were loath to admit it, they, too, were in on the game. It was time to force their hand. It was time for their secrets to be bathed in the daylight of truth.
From the moment they’d come in range of the piers, Karai had been scanning the crowd, searching for any sign of archers. She didn’t think harpoons could be brought to bear, even if there was a whaler present, and she was fairly sure that the harbor wouldn’t have any other weapons that could harm them, at least until they landed––but then, she wasn’t certain what to look for. She knew of cannons as a concept, but with the Blackpowder Treaty in place for so long, all she’d ever seen were sketches in a history book. (What few actual cannons had survived the wars of yesteryear had long since been dumped into the sea, into the deep gulf off the southeast point of Lemphier.) Of catapults and their ilk, she was equally ignorant, which left only bows and crossbows, or perhaps a slingshot, but none of these were in evidence, so far as she could tell.
No. There. As Vashear carried on, exhorting those on shore to be welcoming and accept his wonderful message of hope, peace, and divine visitors, six Devoted stepped to the forefront of the crowd. Each bore a sizable bow. Each had a quiver of arrows strapped over his shoulder. One of the men she recognized: Trudek, who’d been in charge of her mission to the Spur, the man she’d ordered home at the top of the Sea Steps. His curled and fanciful mustache was unmistakable, and he wore a blue-tinted breastplate, an officer’s uniform reserved most often for dress parades.
“Vashear,” she said, stepping closer, knowing how much he hated to be interrupted in the midst of any peroration, “there are men with bows. You need to step back, take cover.”
“Step back?” he cried, whirling on her so fast that he all but knocked her down. “I am the prophet! I step back for no man, do you hear? No man!”
On the shore, the six men nocked their arrows in perfect, lethal unison.
Trudek found the wall of ships unnerving. Not only were they no more than a hundred feet distant from where he stood, they were presenting themselves like some sort of hostile herd, bowsprits aimed forward as if they were spears––or worse, tusks. Several of the boats were so close to each other that their gunnels were touching, bumping one off the next and making muffled wooden booming noises that nearly, but not quite, drowned out the crazed red-head who was still––still!––speaking. Vashear, he’d said his name was. “The prophet.” Hadn’t there been a Vashear in the senatorial guard? And wasn’t he also a red-head?
Whoever the man was, he seemed ready to jump from the prow of the largest vessel, a ship that Trudek estimated ought to have held thirty souls but now appeared to be carrying a hundred or more.
The front row of ships formed a barricade at least twenty vessels wide. Behind that, how many more? Even the harbor watch hadn’t been able to provide an accurate count, even with the height advantage of their quaint little towers. Forty boats total? Maybe sixty?
Despite the fact that none of those on board appeared to be armed with anything more fearsome than a boat hook, it was very hard indeed not to view this as an invasion force, and that was clearly Mother Coal’s perspective. Mother Coal, whom he’d helped into her litter not an hour ago, and had raced with her to these very dockyards, so that she and he could stand together and repel whatever was coming. For a time, as he’d trotted along beside her litter, huffing and puffing––he wasn’t as young as he’d once been, not by a wide margin––he’d entertained the notion that she would pull some outrageous church trick, work a long-forgotten magic and send the Aylis fleet to the bottom of the harbor, but no. She had one trick up her sleeve, and only one, and it was a stratagem that he knew well himself.
“Don’t forget, Captain,” she’d said, once she’d arrived at the harbor and clambered out of her litter. “Ships are made of wood.”
Indeed they were. Better yet, for his purposes, their sails were tinder.
Mother Coal, pushing herself and her walker to the front row, met his gaze and held it. He and his men had their arrows nocked but not drawn, and were waiting for his command––just as he was waiting on Mother Coal.
He said, no longer looking at her, “Karai is on that ship.”
“Oh, even my old eyes can see that.”
He almost said, “I should have stayed,” but thought better of it. He’d been berated enough already for having left Karai at the Spur. No need to bring it up again, no matter how sharp his pangs of contrition.
“Your orders, lady?”
She pursed her lips and got a fresh grip on the bars of her walker. “If they come ashore on their terms, they’ll have half the island converted within the day.”
A punctilious man, Trudek hated it when the various church mothers did their thinking out loud, as most of them seemed to do. Mother Coal was perhaps the worst offender of all. He said, this time with undisguised impatience, “Lady. Your orders?”
Her sigh was rumbling, animal, like a hibernating bear disturbed and woken sooner than it would have liked.
“You know my orders,” she said. “Do it.”
He licked his lips, glanced again at the largest of the sailing vessels, and spotted Karai at the rail, with Selnin behind her. The two appeared to be holding a whispered, not altogether amenable conference, and he wished with all his heart to know what they were saying. Of all his recent recruits, Selnin, sulky and entitled, had had the most potential. Now?
Mother Coal had already tracked his gaze. “Captain, honestly. If they can’t swim, what good are they? Now get on with it. Fire that ship!”
Could Selnin swim? Probably. And likely Karai could, too. Theirs was a culture built on and around water, after all. Well, then. Orders were orders.
“Flame,” he demanded, in his most brusque, officious tone, and two subordinates hurried forward, bearing lit torches. Trudek and his archers (the only five he’d been able to find who had any confidence with a bow) dipped their pitch-coated arrows toward the flames and waited for them to catch, which they each did in seconds. Six coils of tar-black smoke feathered up from six burning shafts.
“Draw,” Trudek said, not bothering to raise his voice. “Target the largest ship, and aim for what sails are still up. The sails only, you hear? Not the people.”
“Clear,” said one of the five, while the others settled for adjusting their aim.
“On my mark. Ready. Set. Fire.”
They released as one, each drawstring returning to rest with a satisfying snap. The arrows, hissing, arced up and out, tracing the sky like angry, black-tailed snakes. On Vashear’s ship, panicked screams broke out, and then the arrows hit––or failed to hit––their targets, and the lowered and half-furled sails caught fire. The screams grew louder.
“Next,” said Trudek, as out in the harbor, the first of the milling, frightened voyagers leaped overboard, plunging and splashing into the sea. “First ship to the right. On my mark. Ready. Set. Fire.”
To read Chapter Eight, click HERE.
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.