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PRINCE OF OUTCASTS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER THREE:

 

Pacific Ocean
Aboard the Tarshish Queen
Bearing south-southwest
August 26th/Haochizuki 26th
Change Year 46/Shōhei 1/2044 A.D.

 

Is this what drowning is like? John thought as the wave broke across the Queen’s stern.

He had time for that, because the whole process was somehow oddly passive from his point of view, given that there was absolutely nothing he could do but endure it. His lungs were burning and cold at the same time. It was black, utterly black, shocking an instant after even the dim storm-cloud light of day. Black and very cold, and the water tore and jerked at him—blows hugely powerful and diffuse at the same time, tumbling and turning him and ramming him against things hard and bruising. Something thumped him in the stomach and he could feel air burst out through his teeth and water come in on the uncontrollable choking reflex.

Weight fell away. Foam surged past him, the rope holding him as he skidded across the deck in the tumbling backwash of the wave, swinging like a pendulum while trying to cough and breathe and vomit at the same time. He settled on a mixture of all three that set him coughing again.

Perfect misery driveth out fear, he thought, as salt water and diluted stomach acids shot out his nose and mouth.

Then he stopped in the very act of retching. He could see a little forward of the south-pointing bow, and the angles and scale of what he was seeing were so alien that for a moment his mind stuttered, trying to picture it. Then it snapped into place as a volley of lightning-bolts gave the darkness a harsh blue-white illumination. They really were sliding backward down a mountain. The Queen had ridden up the front side, slammed backward through the crest with water running ten feet deep along the decks, and now the monster wave was running away southward beneath the black clouds.

He forced himself—it was becoming a habit—to look backwards. Mostly it was murk and spray driving hard into his squinting eyes, but he thought he saw another wave there that would have utterly horrified him if he hadn’t experienced the one that they’d just survived. The surface beneath the keel wasn’t smooth either; there was a cross-chop that made the planks beneath him buck and heave.

Evrouin was doggedly crawling towards him, and slumped in relief when John waved feebly at him, staggered erect and wound his arms through the ratlines that ran up to the mizzenmast. Deor and Thora were not far away, and they’d clipped their lines to the shrouds. The scop was staring transfixed at the lightning-shot sky and the monster swell racing towards them, and Thora was laughing with her water-darkened hair clinging to the handsome bones of her face.

“That was more fun than I’ve had with my clothes on all year!” she called to him, just audible through roar and howl and surf-blurr.

John suppressed an impulse to scream shut up, you insane bitch! back at her and laughed a little himself instead. The grin was forced, but somehow true at the same time.

“Brace for it, brace for it!” Feldman shouted—half croaking—through his megaphone, while he pulled up one of the helmsmen with his free hand; the man went to the aid of his partner, who had a bleeding scalp wound. “The sea-anchor will drag us through the crest!”

The crew on deck were huddled under the break of the quarterdeck; he saw Ishikawa dash down one of the manropes along the deck and do something that involved hitting what-ever-it-was with a mallet while looking over his shoulder. Either option was probably preferable to waiting below, without even the illusion of knowing what was going on, much less having the slightest control over it. The stern rose and rose, until he was looking up at the wheel and the folk behind it. The surface of the wave was white-streaked black, and the crest a tumbling wave of white.

This time he snatched a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut as the crest fell on the Tarshish Queen’s quarterdeck. It still felt like being hit by an enormous padded hammer, then by tentacles that sucked and dragged. But the solid water part—as opposed to the equally unbreathable but lighter froth—didn’t rise over his head. And he could feel the way the buoyancy of the ship pushed back against the weight of water on her deck, and how the sea-anchor jerked her backward through the sharp crest. It was a little like that long-ago day when he started feeling what the horse he was riding was doing, and why, as if its body and mind were an extension of his.

He opened his eyes in time to dash a palm across his face and catch a blurred glimpse of the white line of the wave running all the way down to the bow across the width of the ship. And then—faintly, like one of the Chinese line-drawings of things seen through mist his grandmother Sandra had collected—the bowsprit corkscrewing upwards as the wave ran away from beneath them.

He looked backward, and for an instant the ship was high enough that he could see a succession of waves marching towards them from the northward, each a black whale-monster topped with a bone-white mane of spume. Then they slid back down into the trough. It felt as if they were going backwards, but they weren’t—the ship was travelling before the wind, and quickly, but thanks to the sea-anchor they were going slower than the water they floated in. It wasn’t just the wave that was running away from them, the whole ocean was sliding forward even as he watched.

John felt a moment of profound vertigo, then shouted aloud with the wonder of it. Something seemed to awake in his soul. It was a line of ancestral seafarers beyond number whose blood lived in his. Warriors who’d shared snake-headed raiding boats with Thora and Deor’s ancestors in the cold North Sea; the little Dove that had born the first Arminger to Maryland in the train of Lord Calvert; a clipper hand named Whittle who’d beaten around Cape Horn two centuries past and ended his journey in Portland. And through brides of theirs from the potlatch tribes who’d driven their massive canoes down Montival’s coast, Tinglit and Salish and Maka.

The next wave wasn’t as bad; spray broke over the stern, but only a foot or two of water. Then they seemed to steady, each no better than the last, but no worse.

Feldman shook himself and gave a prayer of thanksgiving: “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, ha-gomel l’hayavim tovot sheg’malani kol tov!”

“Amen!” John said. “And hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea!

Radavindraban came up the companionway, as drenched as they were and timing his upward steps to the roll of the ship and the rush of water, sliding his belt line along the manropes.

“We—” he began, then paused as water swirled around their waists. “We’re leaking worse for’ard, Cap’n,” he said. “That wrenched the wretchedness of the cracked rib, and the staybars we spiked around the break are starting to tear loose at the fastenings, yes indeed. We should fother a sail over it outside, when the weather is better. I ordered the pumps rigged.”

“Injuries in the watch below, or our passengers?”

“A broken arm and a collarbone. Some bruises with the soldiers. Not too bally bad, eh, Cap’n?”

“Except for that, Mr. Radavindraban,” Feldman said, and pointed upward.

The First Mate looked up. “Anaathai kaluthai!” he blurted.

John assumed that was something naughty in Tamil, and looked up himself. Amid the driving spray and rain it was hard to see, but the golden-brown Douglas Fir trunk that made the mizzenmast showed a dark curving line ten feet up. Then it disappeared, appeared again, disappeared...

It’s a split, John realized. Opening and closing as the ship twists.

“Woold her, Cap’n?” Radavindraban said, after a long silent moment.

“That would be very good,” Feldman said and grinned, then waited until the next wave passed over the quarterdeck before going on: “I think highly of your shipcraft, Mr. Mate. But if you can think of a way to woold the mizzen in this, I’ll think more highly still!”

Radavindraban smiled, a white flash against the blurred darkness of his face. “What then, Cap’n?”

“We need to steady her motion, so that it’ll flex less and we can haul in the sea anchor. A steadying sail. And not on the mizzen!”

“Forestaysail?”

“The jib, I think. Just a scrap of it.”

John knew that meant the foremost sail on the line—the stay—running down from the foremast to the bowsprit. He looked south and swallowed, as they bit into the sea and the bow threw plumes of spray twenty feet high on either side.

“I’ll see to it, Cap’n.”

“No, Mr. Radavindraban, you have the deck; you’ve done very well with the leak. See to the helm, for the Lord’s sake keep her steady, and I’ll lead the working party.”

“Is there anything I... we... can do?” John said.

It had to be said, though he already knew the answer. John still felt a little silly doing it at the half-shout necessary with the wind this high and rain whipping down like a pump-driven hose at high velocity.

“It’s the cobbler to his last, I’m afraid, Your Highness. If we need sword-work, rest assured I’ll call on you and yours,” Feldman said, as he stripped off his jacket and shirt.

He nodded towards Thora and Deor: “Our friends are good practical sailors after their travels, but I’m not taking them either, nor the Japanese, who are fine seamen one and all. I need hands used to working with each other when they can’t talk.”

Feldman finished by pulling off his boots and socks and looping a sailor’s working knife around his neck on a lanyard; his bare wet torso was wiry with lean muscle, and the abundant body hair showed the white lines of scars unusual for a merchant captain, even an adventurous one—at some time he’d been flogged, and someone had branded something on his chest in a cursive script John didn’t recognize. Then he was away calling for the bosun, and John spoke:

“I’d better go below and check on the men,” he said. “We’re a long way from home, and getting further.”

Deor nodded. “I’ll help Ruan and the ship’s doctor. I’ve picked up a bit of that trade.”

“And then you and I should go to our cubby and dry each other off, Johnnie,” Thora said, and winked broadly.

Deor laughed and disappeared down the companionway with a wave, timing his steps as automatically as Radavindraban had done. John cleared his throat.

“Ah... now?” he said.

And thank... well, not God... that I didn’t squeak, he thought.

Then cursed; he’d headed down the companionway so heedlessly that his head was just at the height of the quarterdeck when a slug of cold seawater sluiced across it and right into the back of his head.

“It’ll be a lot more fun than staying here getting soaked,” Thora said cheerfully as he stood streaming under the break of the quarterdeck, waiting to open the doorway until the water had abated for a moment. “And who knows, every time may be the last!”

 

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Three days later he watched the woolding of the mizzenmast and thought how fascinating it was. Especially since they were still running before heavy seas and under grey skies that rained now and then. Not anything like the storm-black cover like a cast iron lid on the world, nor the size of the first half-dozen waves that had hit them off Topanga, but still steep enough that every time they went over a crest spray crashed the length of the ship, and the sensation of running down the slope was a lot like skiing on Mt. Hood in winter.

And it makes me think how glad I am I’m not a sailor, he added to himself; it was interesting to watch, but he hadn’t the slightest interest in doing it himself. And it would be nice to be really dry and warm for a change.

No matter how well-found, a wooden ship was always slightly damp below-decks in a blow, and the only really warm place was the galley, where it would have been an abuse of rank to linger. And you couldn’t spend all your time in the bunk with a nice warm woman, especially when the woman was alarmingly indifferent to hardship even for a Bearkiller. They were all wearing long oilskin jackets and sou’westers, smelling strongly of linseed oil and streaming with the wet over thick sweaters, and long underwear beneath canvas pants, and sea-boots—even Ruan had given up his kilt for now. It was still fairly miserable, like being on a hunting trip in the Willamette in the Black Months without the fires or the prospect of roast boar.

So it was just as well he had something interesting to watch. The detectable part of the crack where the great wave had wrenched the mast beyond bearing was about four feet long. The crew had taken a dozen of the spare twelve-foot capstan bars and packed them in a ring around the break, slathering them thickly with a melted tarry glue. Next had come three-inch cable wrapped around it in a solid coil two layers deep, stretched taut by a portable winch with offset cranks a bit at a time. And pacing it with the motion of the ship, so that the rope clamped bit by bit when the crack naturally swayed shut.

John watched as the sailor resting against the mast in a harness like that loggers used on tall trees made a final pull at the cranks and the little winch locked with a sharp clack sound.

“Done! Tight as she’ll go, sir!” he called down.

“Good. Nail it, Vitovski!” Radavindraban said.

The sailor hammered in a row of curved nails with broad leather washers around their flat heads, then slid down to the deck with a thump and unbuckled the crank from his waist. The captain, the First Mate and the bosun all took turns climbing up the rope—something they did as casually as a farmer trotting up the barn ladder to the hayloft—to go over the work with minute attention. After they’d thumped back to the deck Captain Ishikawa asked permission and then did likewise, nodding to himself as he returned.

They all do that, John noted privately.

He’d noticed since he first met them months ago that the Nihonjin carefully examined everything they saw done here in Montival—machines, tools, weapons, buildings, methods, organization. They were intensely proud, but didn’t let that get in the way of a relentless pragmatism; anything useful they saw would be taken to pieces, examined, and if they saw potential advantage in it would be modified, adapted and made their own.

When we get to Dai-Nippon, I think it would be a good idea if we cautioned our officers and engineers and artificers to do likewise, John thought. Because I don’t have the slightest doubt they’ll find tricks it would be to our advantage to copy. We’ve spent the last two generations learning how to do things in the Changed world, but I doubt we’ve found it all.

Feldman turned to the bosun. “Right, Smith, let’s finish up.”

The bosun nodded. “Aye aye, skipper.”

Finishing up turned out to mean another thick layer of the tarry, chemical-smelling glue applied to the rope, and then a cylinder of rawhide—bull-hide dragged overside a day to soften and stretch it, wound around the woolding and fastened with three rows of the nails from top to bottom. The whole affair looked like a bandage, or the splint on a broken leg, which he supposed was an apt metaphor; he peered intently to fix the image and the form of words away. Everything was grist to the mill...

Deor was grinning at him. “You have the poet’s itch, true enough, Prince,” he said. “Storing that up, weren’t you?”

“I was, fellow-guildsman,” he said. “Though it had also occurred to me that this is like nursing along a sick horse!”

Deor chuckled. “More like a machine,” he said. “As it was in the ancient days, a machine and we all depending on it for our lives.”

“Now that’s a striking image!” John said. “Unusual!”

I knew ships were machines, he thought, musing. I hadn’t appreciated how much sailing was like living in a machine. And we are the way the machine keeps itself alive, like the things inside our bodies that heal wounds and fight off disease.

They climbed another wave. Feldman trained his telescope to the rear. John did likewise; he was catching the trick of keeping his binoculars steady from a moving surface. The topmost sails on the masts of the pursuer showed for an instant against the dark water and iron-grey sky before they slid down into the trough.

“That Korean is persistent,” Feldman said.

Then he looked at the mizzenmast. “I’d prefer to wait for three days of hot dry weather, but only the Lord can deliver that, and He, Blessed be the Name, hasn’t seen fit to give us any.”

“His judgments are just and righteous altogether,” John agreed. “But this storm...”

“Isn’t natural,” Feldman agreed in turn. “It’s more like weather in the Roaring Forties than this part of the Pacific. Mr. Mate! We’ll see if she’ll bear sail. Raise the gaff; six reefs.”

Sailors hurried to the winches, and lined the boom for a moment to untie the reefs that held the sail down. The gearing whined, and the gaff began to rise; then they paid out, and the boom swung to starboard. The motion of the ship changed, and the Captain and First Mate spent a long moment staring at the woolding.

“She holds, Cap’n,” Radavindraban said. “Tight.”

“For now, Mr. Mate, for now. Binnacle!” Feldman said. “How many knots?”

“Twelve even, skipper!”

John did a quick mental calculation; he didn’t have any natural aptitude for mathematics, but his parents had seen that he learned the basics, which were essential for a ruler or a commander of warriors both. Sea-miles were a little over a tenth longer than the land variety...

He winced mentally. They were making better than two hundred and fifty miles a day, nearly as fast as a hippomotive. That put them a long way from home, and further every hour...

Feldman collapsed his telescope and stood tapping it into his left palm for a moment. “That Korean is hard to shake,” he said. “But there’s more ways of killing a cat than drowning it in cream.”

From the look on his face he had something unpleasant in mind for their pursuer and John heartily approved; he’d already come to hate the lookout’s morning call of sail ho to sternward!

And it’s not natural we can’t shake him, too, he thought. I wish the Sword of the Lady were here. And Órlaith to carry it. It would be a relief to have her being bossy! I wonder what she’s been doing?

 

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Copyright © 2015-2016 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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