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PRINCE OF OUTCASTS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Aboard the Tarshish Queen
Ceram Sea
October 12th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

“Kill,” Thora Garwood said.

John reeled backward; her wooden practice blade had come in just over the curve of his shield and thumped him behind the ear in the gap between the bevoir and the edge of his sallet helmet. It wasn’t a dangerous blow from a blunt stick wound with cloth and muffled by the padded coif under the helm, but it hurt like blazes for a moment and made his knees wobble. There were men standing by to make sure nobody went over the side by accident, but by now he was as used to the pitch of the deck as he’d ever been to solid land. Which was fortunate, because besides the risk of drowning the ship had picked up the usual hangers-on common in these waters, and tall stiff triangular fins broke the long low ripples of their wake now and then. The crew amused themselves and provided some fresh food by fishing for them, if you could call hooks as long as your arm reeved through pulleys on the boom and raised by geared winches fishing.

He brought his own lath sword up in acknowledgement and knocked up his visor, blinking as the world expanded from the narrow bright slit to a wider field that included Thora’s grinning face and Deor leaning against the rail behind her; he had stripped, doused himself with buckets filled overside and was wiping his wiry, muscular torso down with a wet cloth soaked in a small amount of their precious fresh water. Fighting in armor always made you sweat like a steam-bath, and the sun here had a tropic bite not quite like anything he’d felt before, even in south Westria.

“I don’t think that would actually have killed me,” he added, probing at the new bruise with a gauntleted finger and wincing.

“No, but you’d have been frozen for long enough for me to stab you through the eyeslit,” she said.

He sighed, handed his shield and wooden sword to Evrouin and moved aside to let his valet strip off the armor. The stiff breeze cut through the sodden clothing beneath like a benediction; it was warm here, but that felt cool as his body shed heat and ached with a good tiredness. He stripped down to the skin too and emptied three buckets over himself; the water was deliciously cool but not cold.

Deor wrung out the towel, dunked it in a bucket and tossed it to him before he went to assist Thora with her gear.

“That was the thing that struck me most when we got south of Gibraltar,” he said. “Warm seawater.”

Ruan came over—he’d been doing the routine Mackenzies did when they couldn’t actually shoot, drawing his bow and then slacking off, over and over—and said:

“Bend your head forward, Prince...” he prodded at the mark where the blade had struck with a healer’s care. “No, I don’t think it’s serious. Any dizziness? Pain in the head?”

“Both but just for a moment, I feel fine now.”

“Good, but tell me or the ship’s physician right away if that comes back, the which it probably won’t but might, so.”

John nodded. He’d had mild concussions, and it was something you had to take seriously. You also had to practice frequently to keep up yourself honed sharp, and they were all quite conscious that two of the enemy ships who’d pursued them all the way from Topanga were still there, doggedly on their tracks. They might be fighting for their lives at any moment.

“You’ve got an edge on me in speed,” John said to his partner, and was surprised to see her shake her head.

Thora Garwood, called Swiftsword, took anything martial very seriously. From sheer love of the craftsmanship of the thing, he thought, as well as the way Bearkillers were raised. She was a warrior born; St. Michael must have blessed her in her cradle.

“No, not as we stand. A few years ago, yes, I was faster than you are now, by a hair. I never had the sort of speed your sister’s friend Heuradys does, she’s almost freakish that way, and I think Órlaith has a tiny bit on me, even as I was at my peak.”

“How’d you get that cut in on me, then?” John said in frustration. “I saw it coming—part of me did—but I just couldn’t get anything in its way in time, or me out of it!”

“I moved my sword through a shorter distance,” the Bearkiller said. “Mind you, you’ve probably improved a lot in the last six months. Some real fighting will do that. Training only takes you so far.”

He finished with the towel, repeated Deor’s wring-and-rinse, and handed it to her as the scop shrugged back into his breeks; he left the long shirt-tunic off for now, in weather so fine and mild. Thora rinsed and wiped down as he had while John dressed; Bearkillers didn’t have much in the way of inhibitions about skin and didn’t make much of a distinction between men and women that way. Mackenzies even less so, and he’d spent enough time in the dúthchas that he could appreciate the view without it disturbing him. The Guard crossbowmen had spent most of their lives in the Association territories before this venture, and were carefully not staring as they practiced with wooden sword and buckler.

Beyond him came a shout of disssaaa! Captain Ishikawa was practicing too; if anything, he was more conscientious than the Montivallans. In his case he was having four of his sailors throw pieces of firewood from the ship’s galley at him, and converting them to useful kindling with swift turn-and-strike routines. The wood was light pine, unlikely to damage an edge.

“Besides,” Thora said, as she twisted back into her knit-cotton drawers and halter.

Which oddly enough was more interesting than nakedness in a way, particularly purely utilitarian nakedness. She went on:

“Unless you’re training as a duellist, there’s a limit to how much one-on-one like this does you good in a real fight—a melee, I mean, a battle. Yes, it keeps up your speed and endurance and blade placement, but there’s too much time to think and make plans and it gets you used to having everything important right in front of you. Bad for your situational awareness.”

John nodded as he thought back to the scrambling chaos of the fighting on the Bay, and the night raid in the Chatsworth Lancers’ territory down south.

“I can see your point,” he said. “But what’s to do about it? Something like the melee event at a tournament, I suppose...”

She tied the cloth belt of her long-sleeved shirt, which she wore to protect her redhead’s skin from the savage equitorial sun, and nodded.

Deor chuckled softly. “Oh, you may regret asking that, brother bard,” he said. “You just made a suggestion for more arms-play to Thora Swiftsword. I’ve had her beating on me the world around...”

“Keeping you alive the world around,” she retorted with a smile.

Then: “What we’ll do about it is have our own miniature melee. You and me and Deor. Two against one, and so on. That’ll be fun, and useful too.”

“Yes, lots of fun,” John said hollowly, and Deor laughed aloud.

“Sort of like an orgy, but with swords,” the scop said.

“I wouldn’t know,” John said, trying to summon Christian rectitude. “Never been to an orgy.”

“It’s overrated,” Deor said. “Two is company, three is choreography and while I’m fond of dancing I prefer to do it upright.”

John found he could blush, tropical tan or no.

Thora snapped her fingers. “We’ll get Ishikawa in on it too. Completely different style, that will be useful; the katana’s a bit like a kriegsmesser, but faster. It doesn’t do to teach your reflexes as if you’ll always be up against people who fight like your sparring-partners. And Ruan and some of the crossbowmen, a couple at a time. And Ishikawa’s sailors use the naginata, defense against polearms is good...”

John nodded; that would also make the whole process more interesting, like a jam session with a strange musician. Fighting drill was an acquired taste for him, but he’d long ago decided that since he had to do it and quite often, he might as well like it.

“I’d better go up and see what’s happening with our enemies,” he said, settling his real sword in the frog of his arming belt.

The Tarshish Queen was a merchantman, not a naval vessel, but he still went up the starboard gangway to the quarterdeck, and saluted the Crowned Mountain and Sword flying from the gaff at the stern. Ashore the position of honor for a flag was a matter of height, but at sea it was the rearmost that took precedence; hence Benny the Beaver, Corvallis’ national ensign, was at the mizzen, and the Feldman & Sons house flag of a stylized schooner slanting upwards was on the main.

“Your Highness,” Captain Feldman said gravely.

“They’re still there, I see, Captain,” John said with a sigh.

The two hard-to-see dots to stern were about a mile apart from each other and a mile and a bit behind their ship; their hulls were blue and the sails a neutral faded gray, hard to pick out. He hadn’t expected the two Chosŏn ships to be gone, though it would have been a profound relief not to have three or four hundred cannibal savages and disconcertingly civilized diabolists—who were also savage cannibals—on his tail.

He said so, and Moishe Feldman shook his head. “Closer to two hundred by now,” he said. “They couldn’t have had enough rations in store to feed crews that size, not when they’d already just crossed the Pacific east-to-west, and probably not enough water either, even with full tanks to start with. What’s that Mackenzie story, about the cats trapped on the island with nothing to eat...”

“The Kilkenny Cats,” John said hollowly.

In a way it was reassuring to have enemies who were just unambiguously evil. On the other hand, it was obscurely disgusting—it made you feel hating them was a sort of loathsome intimacy. It was even more upsetting when you realized that basically it was sheer luck who’d ended up like them and who hadn’t. There was nothing about Koreans or the former inhabitants of Los Angeles that naturally inclined them to become puppets of the Adversary. It might just as well have been him, if things had gone differently in Montival...

“That still gives them an edge of four to one. I take it they’re not going to give up,” he said.

“Not while they have enough hands left to tend the sails,” Captain Feldman said, then added casually: “I hate stern chases.”

There was a crack-tung sound, faint over the distance. A finned bolt splashed into the cerulean blue of the waves several hundred yards behind his ship. He gave an ironic wave.

“Fire away and waste your ammunition, you overoptimistic mamzrim... But I don’t dislike the chase nearly as much as getting caught.”

John nodded, looking around at the Tarshish Queen. The weeks since the unnatural storm abated had seen her transformed from a near-wreck to something much more like the taut ship who’d dropped out of Newport several months ago. If you looked closely you could see evidence of the long hard grind of skilled effort that had repaired the storm’s damage, or much of it. The mizzenmast above their head creaked ominously every once in a while beneath the woolding...

“What about the Stormrider?”

Feldman shrugged eloquently, ending with a gesture that flipped his hands palm-upright.

“Your Highness, the only thing we know about where she is, is not here. If she came through the first blow she might have run back to Topanga—we told Captain Russ that the Princess was there—or he might have tried to follow what he thought might be our course. Since we didn’t know what that was for a couple of days, how could he? Could be anywhere from Hawaii to Cairns by now, or show up in an hour... but I wouldn’t bet on it. Not anything I couldn’t afford to lose, at least.”

The bosun padded up and knuckled her brow, blue eyes worried in her weathered pug face and her striped cotton shirt and pantaloons sopping and clinging to her stocky, knotty frame. On this merchantman she doubled as master-wright, in charge of underway repairs under the ship’s officers.

“Cap’n, Mr. Radavindraban’s compliments, survey complete, and we’ve done everything we can with that leak from the sprung strake for’ard.”

“Details?” Feldman said.

John recalled that they’d taken an enemy roundshot at the waterline back in the Bay and the storm had worsened the damage. Beyond the fact that it was the reason they were leaking he hadn’t paid overmuch attention, except to do what the experts said he should, which was mostly pull a spell on the pumps every day.

“If we tighten the jacks any more on the stick she’ll crack out, right through the hull. Isn’t just bashed in anymore, it’s flexing both ways with every pitch, you can hear the sodding thing crunch and the planks creaking, spewing oakum. And it’s no good spiking bars across the gap, that’s just chewing at the parts as aren’t busted. We need to beach her and come at it with some of the planking off, scarf in a join and peg it, then re-plank and caulk, if we can’t get at a shipyard. Otherwise it’ll get worse as she works. If it comes to another blow...”

She shrugged less elegantly than her captain but just as eloquently; she wasn’t telling the owner-commander of the Queen anything he didn’t know, but evidently she felt it bore repeating.

“Water in the hold?”

“Gaining on the pumps now, but slow, skipper. A couple of inches in the last day, more or less. But we’re a little down by the head, I’d say. It’s going to get worse every bloody day until we fix her. Or we sink.”

Water was jetting over the side, pushed by the pumps rigged in the hold. John flexed his hands, which were more callused than sword-drill had made them; everyone took their turn. Though that continuous telltale jet itself was information to the enemy. Every inch of sail was set, and the wind was steady but light, the sails just taut and making the ship a thing of geometric grace as it went forward with a roll that took the bowsprit in a slow hypnotic rise and fall against deep-blue ocean and pale-blue sky. There was very little pitch, since they were running only a little off the wind and the swells were long and smooth with only an occasional whitecap.

The First Mate came on deck, stripped to a twisted loincloth and beads of water glistening on his lean dark body; he’d been leading the team working on the leak personally and hands-on.

“Cap’n!” he called. “Permission to move stores aft to dress her trim!”

“Make it so, Mr. Mate,” Feldman replied and gave him a wave.

He nodded back and disappeared back into the hold with a casually agile hop. Orders sounded down there, and after a while thumps and the rumbling sound of barrels being rolled.

“They’re going to catch us, Captain, aren’t they?” John said, looking aft and raising his binoculars.

The two Korean ships didn’t look as tidy as the Tarshish Queen. There were rattails and loose lines in their rigging, and one of them canted visibly. They’d been damaged in the howling storm that blew them south and west from Westria too, and hadn’t done as much to repair it.

Or possibly they just don’t care about appearances. We haven’t been able to shake them, after all.

“With this much water in the hold, and if they don’t founder before we do, yes,” Feldman said, stroking his beard. “In about three days, give or take, if this wind holds. Unless we do something about it.”

“And not what Captain Ishikawa proposed, either,” John said.

They smiled at each other. The Nihonjin sailor had said they could do a quick turn and let him and his Imperial Navy sailors board one of the enemy ships to smash incendiaries on the deck and fight off the crew until the flames had taken hold. He’d been perfectly serious, too, though he hadn’t fought very hard when they turned him down.

“This is becoming... monotonous,” the captain went on, as the First Mate reappeared and paced slowly from bow to stern, checking the waterline’s tilt against the ship’s Plimsoll Line and hence their trim.

John snorted slightly. That was one way to put it. They’d tried dodging the pursuers before but the two of them were enough to bracket the course of the Queen. If the Montivallan schooner turned either way, one of them could cut the chord of the course and overtake them, and if they tried to fight past the other one would come to its aid before they could sink it; the Queen had heavier broadsides, but wooden ships were very difficult to destroy except by fire. There wasn’t much between the three vessels in speed; the only safe course was to continue directly away, with the wind on the starboard quarter, which was their best point of sailing.

That meant continuously heading south and west; they’d crossed the equator some time ago, and hadn’t been able to make the waters that were occasionally patrolled by the friendly Kingdom of Hawaii.

“Or they could run out of food and water,” John said hopefully.

“Water, possibly. With them, they only run out of food when the last man finishes gnawing the bones of the second-to-last,” Feldman said.

John winced. That was only a slight exaggeration. He’d seen things through the binoculars that he really would rather have not added to the images in his mind.

“And I think they topped their water tanks just before we left,” the merchant skipper added. “While they were hiding amid the wrecks in San Pedro.”

“We could try and turn in the night again,” John said.

Feldman shook his head. “The sky’s clear, the moon is full, and the weather in this part of the Pacific is pretty consistent this time of year. We lost distance the last time we tried and we haven’t made most of it up.”

There was a gap in the rear railing not far from the sternchaser catapult where a six-pound roundshot had come home that night and left a deep dent in the catapult’s shield before it went off into the dark amid a sound like a hammer in God’s smithy. If it had cut a backstay or hit the mast, or even crippled the wheel and made it impossible to maneuver quickly for a crucial few minutes...

He looked around, and John could see the maps in his head. “If we could shed them for a day or two, we could make landfall. Mind you, it’s best to be careful in this neighborhood even with a fast well-found ship, much less beached and doing repairs. Very careful; put up a palisade, remount the catapults ashore to cover it, the lot.”

“Pirate waters?” John said.

“Yes, and bad ones. This whole part of the world fell apart like a pot dropped on a rock after the Change and it hasn’t got any better. Worse, because the knack for building modern ships has spread.”

“Not to the Death Zones?” John said.

Feldman shook his head. “No, Java was wrecked like California, and most of Sumatra and big chunks everywhere around the major ports; you don’t put in to those places, unless you’re a salvager working the dead cities. And you’re insane, which is why most of them are from Australia. The rest is a crazy-quilt, apart from a few places like New Singapore, and Bali and its possessions, and Capricornia. Those are as civilized as home is, in their way. Elsewhere one little stretch may have palaces and scholars and artists and dance festivals, and a day’s sail away it’s jungle and swamps with dugout canoes festooned in skulls trying to swarm you at midnight, bones through the nose, knives in their teeth and showers of poisoned darts from sumpitan.”

John made an enquiring noise, and Feldman translated:

“Sumpitan, blowguns. And everything in between. There’s enough trade to sustain a lot of pirates, and enough ordinary fishermen and farmers for longshore raiding for slaves and loot, but nobody strong enough to keep order. The Sulu Sea and south Mindanao just northwest of here are very bad, corsair nests. Nobody honest goes there, though somebody is selling them catapults. Then there’s the Bugi men...”

“Bogymen?” John said, blinking.

Then he crossed himself. Ships decorated with skulls... warm seas... this is starting to remind me of that dream I had. Maybe next it’ll be that old man shouting. Not good, John, not good! Órlaith and Reiko had prophetic dreams and look what it got them into! They got out again, but that’s no guarantee I would.

Feldman went on, answering his last word rather than the thought:

“Bogymen? The Bugis are where that word comes from! Sea-nomads, some reasonable enough, some reasonable as long as you look heavily armed and alert, some very dangerous even then; and there are the Iban too, the Sea Dyaks, and then just all-round pirate sons of bitches from no place in particular. So those Koreans on our tails aren’t the only potential problem. If it’s any consolation, the local lowlife would attack them, too. For their catapults, mainly, those are worth more than gold out here.”

“Not much consolation. What’s right ahead?”

“Maluku and then North Sulawesi. But there are islands close, this area has them like a teenager does pimples, and we could sail reach across this wind easily enough.”

His eyes narrowed a little. “Now, if these Koreans were ordinary pirates, we’ve been using our navigation lights every night, there’s a little trick you can play—put a raft astern with lights rigged so that they look the same, douse our own, and then cut it loose to draw them while we sail off darkened. It’s surprisingly convincing, if you’re used to seeing the real lights.”

Suddenly Feldman stiffened, dropping the abstracted air of someone speculating.

“Wait a minute!”

He leveled his telescope again. “Beshum ofen lo! They’re shooting, broadsides, and at each other!”

“Yes, they do that!” Radavindraban said in glee, running up and using his own glass. “Bloody fool, bloody fool!”

Feldman kept the telescope stead for a long moment. “No... one of them’s firing into the water and the one to the southward is firing in the general direction of the one to the north!”

John used his binoculars again. The two Korean warships had changed course, slanting towards each other, and they were shooting their broadside catapults at something between them, something he couldn’t see. They were shooting rapidly, too, one discharge after another. Water fountained upward, white against blue, as roundshot struck. Then a streak of yellow fire and black smoke as flames played across the water; a napalm shell. Sharper splashes as they switched to bolt that zipped into the sea like needles.

And then one of the ships staggered in the water. He could see cables snap and writhe, and the foremast went over, beginning slowly and then gathering speed until it crashed into the bowsprit with a crunching, tearing sound audible even here.

Feldman nodded crisply.

“They ran into something. All hands on deck, action stations, fighting sail only. Helm, come about!” he barked and followed it with a volley of nautical jargon whose gist was turn right around and head for them. “Catapult crews, load firebolt!”

Sailors ran past him and flung themselves on the sternchaser catapult. John hopped down from the quarterdeck, taking the four-foot drop directly so as not to get in the way on the companionways. More sailors, including Ishikawa and his Nihonjin, were tearing the covers off the broadside catapults and the bowchaser, unlimbering the pump-handles that powered the hydraulic jacks to cock the weapons. More tallied on to the windlasses and deck lines that controlled the fore-and-aft gaffs, or ran up the ratlines to furl the square sails on the main and foremast tops.

Dodging the working parties on the main deck wasn’t easy either, as the ship heeled sharply to starboard and then steadied on its new course. John filled in the others as they edged forward to the space in front of the foremast, which was the nearest the ship had to clear when everyone was in action. It also gave them a better view, though Radavindraban pushed by supervising the opening of the arms chests and the racking of gear where it was easy to hand. The sailors slipped the scabbards of their bell-hilted cutlasses through the loops on their belts as they had the opportunity and they always wore at least one knife as a working tool, but the rest was clipped where it could be grabbed easily—boarding pikes and crossbows, bucklers and helms and reinforced walrus-leather cuirasses.

John felt the situation catch up with him, a combination of excitement quickening his pulse and a twist in the stomach at the thought of edged metal and strangers with murderous intent. He understood Feldman’s actions perfectly; anything that altered the balance like this gave them a chance to settle with the pursuers. Then they could repair the ship at leisure—or labor, rather—and go home.

Fayard had his crossbowmen formed up—crowded together, in fact—and looked a question. John replied, to him and Evrouin who had the sack with his suit of plate.

“Just helmets and weapons now,” he said. “We’ll let the situation develop.”

They could get into half-armor quickly, helping each other, and with luck the action wouldn’t come to boarding. If it did, the protection would be worth the risk of ending up in the water with steel strapped to you. If it didn’t... well, every naval weapon that had a range of more than a hundred yards would go through ordinary armor as if it were cloth; they were designed to injure the massive fabric of ships. Fayard looked slightly dismayed, since the doctrine of the Protector’s Guard called for armor in all combat situations, but he obeyed.

“Different rules at sea, sergeant,” John said; his parents had always said you should tell the why of an order if you had time. “We know Captain Feldman isn’t going to get into a boarding action if he can help it; those enemy ships have around three times our total numbers. Each.”

Plus, he thought but didn’t say, we have no earthly idea what’s going on there.

“I have an ill feeling,” Deor said quietly, touching the triple triangles of the valknut hanging at his throat, the mark of Woden. “There’s something at work here, but it doesn’t... taste or feel of anything I’ve felt before. And Thora and I have sailed these seas. If these were northern waters I’d be thinking of etins or trolls”

John crossed himself and touched his crucifix to his lips, wishing he’d had time to be confessed and take the Bread and Wine much, much more recently than many weeks ago.

The distance between the ships closed with that shocking suddenness that came after intervals when nothing seemed to happen at all. Soon the clanging thumps of the catapults were clear, and so were screams—war-cries and plain raw terror. Whatever it was, they were fighting something.

“Fighting and losing, I think,” he murmured to himself.

Radavindraban came by, hopped up onto the rail with his binoculars to his eyes, then blanched. That wasn’t easy for someone of his shade of very dark brown, but his skin turned muddy grey in spots.

Bujang senang!” he screamed as he let the glasses fall and pointed, in no language John knew.

But not his native Tamil either from the sound.

Bujang senang—Bujan senang raja!

John felt like screaming himself, as they closed rapidly on the action. The first Korean ship lurched again, as if it had struck a rock, and it was further down by the bows now. Something shot out of the water as if propelled by an invisible trebuchet, spray exploding forward with it. Scores of feet of scute-armored muscle, tons of weight crushing down on splintering wood as it sprawled across the forecastle of the ship, jaws the length of a man lined with serrated ivory knives. They gaped and clamped down on something that rolled sprattling and down the slanting deck towards it, ignoring the double-headed axe he cut with. Then it tossed the man up like a gobbet and swallowed him whole save for the arm holding the axe. That fell down on the deck, a tidbit ignored.

A bristle of long spears pointed towards it, which was remarkable discipline when you imagined this thing exploding out onto the deck you were standing on. It turned and the tail swept sideways like a flexing war-hammer. Pike-shafts broke like straws, and bodies went tumbling through the air like leaves. The beast turned and clamped its jaws shut on the edge of the deck as it threw itself into the water, spinning. Wood parted with shrieks louder than the voices of the damned, and the water flowed in as it disappeared beneath the surface again. What had been a warship was now a stationary hulk, sinking by the bows and heeling far over as the sea unbalanced her.

Crewmen fled wailing up the lines to the mastheads, clinging in struggling clumps that dipped further and further towards the surface as the ship bent. Then it rolled on its side. But before they could strike the sea the beast came out again like a projectile launched from the deeps, its jaws closing on the mass of struggling humanity and disappearing with a cataclysmic impact that sent water higher than fountains, incongruously beautiful as the bright sunlight turned the drops to a thousand sparkling jewels. Some of them were ruby-red.

“Salt-water crocodile,” Deor said, his voice oddly flat with awe. “We heard of them, lm liczba mnoga they say in Bali. In Darwin... there they call them salties.

“We saw their hides and bones,” Thora said. “They said they could grow to twenty feet long or more. But by Almighty Thor! That’s forty feet if it’s an inch, it must weigh... tons. Njord, stand by us!”

Feldman’s voice came through his speaking trumpet; the Tarshish Queen heeled until it was running at ninety degrees to its previous course, but it slowed as sail was reefed. John’s head whipped around to look at the quarterdeck as he heard that order; so did Radavindraban’s. Feldman’s voice had an edge of strain in it, but only an edge.

“We can’t outrun that thing, not with the wind this light, shipmates. If it comes at us all we can do is try to fight it. Stand ready all!”

The second Korean ship loosed a broadside at the ripple of water streaking towards it, and spray exploded upward again as the creature writhed. Then it dove, into the crimsoned water that rose in pink froth. Silence fell for an instant, save for the shrieks of the men swimming. The waiting fins were closing in from every direction. The Korean apparently thought this was a good time to leave and paid off to the north, the booms of its sails swinging as it went into a reach across the wind.

Then it lurched, bow dipping down and stern rising. The monstrous paddle-like tail rose up and smashed sideways into the warship’s rudder, and the metal-bound wood splintered and cracked and pieces of it fell away while the bulk of it sagged, useless. Instantly the ship started to slow and fall off before the wind again without the leverage that held its bow pointing up, the sails slatting and thuttering.

“Broadside catapult-captains, fire on the Korean’s stern as you bear!” Feldman’s voice cracked out. “Reload will be with solid bolt!”

There was an eightfold chorus of TUNG-WHACK, earsplitting loud, and then another two even louder as the eighteen-pounder chasers at bow and stern cut loose. The firebolts arched out over the three hundred yards, seeming to slow as they approached the target. Three missed, ending in puffs of steam as they struck the surface and the warheads ignited their thermite filling. Seven struck the Korean, from the waterline alongside the broken rudder to the quarterdeck, and two disappeared through the sterncastle windows.

Instantly white-hot bursts of incandescence lit, and then the yellow flame and black smoke of burning wood. Captain Feldman had gotten the less useful firebolt...

Less useful against an insane aquatic behemoth! Some distant rational part of John’s brain gibbered.

... out of the catapults, replaced it with solid bolts that might retain sufficient force through several feet of water, and made sure the Korean wouldn’t be a problem if they survived the monster. It was an impressive display of quick thought under pressure, or perhaps of lunatic optimism.

Nobody on the Korean warship seemed to be paying attention to damage control, either. Firebolts had to be cut out and quenched in the crucial moments after impact, before it was too late.

The Queen’s crews didn’t even pause to cheer as they flung themselves into the rhythm of reloading, though the Nihonjin managed a breathless Tennō Heika Banzai!

Extra sailors leapt to grab onto the pump-handles that powered the hydraulic jacks and bent the throwing arms back against the massive coil springs. The chunk of the mechanisms locking was overridden by the metallic clatter of the four-foot bolts of forged, finned steel being slapped into the troughs.

“Here it comes!” Radavindraban shouted. “Boarding party to me, pikes, pikes!”

A score of crewmen, those whose battle station was repelling boarders or swarming onto another vessel, ran along the deck to the First Mate’s side. He snatched one of the half-pikes from the rack beside him, not trying to take enough time to fit the bottom section into the metal sleeve; that left him with seven foot of Montivallan mountain ash and a foot of heavy double-edged steel blade. He poised it, leaning over and ready to thrust downward.

John could see from his face that he was just as terrified as he’d been at the first glimpse of the massive creature, and realized the First Mate wasn’t the sort of man who lost himself in the heat of battle and the rush of adrenaline in the blood so that reflex took over and spared mind and heart. He was doing this cold, purely as an act of disciplined will, and even at that moment the prince dipped his head in a little gesture of acknowledgment, fixing it in his memory as the image of an act of chosen, deliberate courage. If John lived to make the song, unlikely as that seemed at the moment, at least Radavindraban’s name would survive. Perhaps someday his kin might hear it and know he had died with honor.

A long ripple in the water, across the swell. Something was breaking the surface and leaving a narrow frothing wake; the broken stub of a catapult bolt lodged in that mass of hide armor and bone and gristle. It didn’t seem to be slowing the creature down.

“You will be aiming at that wake, catapult fellows!” Radavindraban called, his voice high but tightly contained with the liquid singsong accent much stronger. “As you bear, fire!”

The catapults went off one after another, in a close-spaced ripple but not all at once. It was a testament to the Queen’s picked crew that each catapult-captain waited until his best shot despite what was bearing down on them. At this close range—less than a hundred yards now, down to twenty before the bow-chaser loosed last of all—the bolts were only flashes, flattened streaks through the air. Each pitched into the water close to the onrushing streak with its black core, but it was impossible to see of any hit.

Then they were out of time. The Tarshish Queen slammed backward in the water and John would have fallen if he hadn’t grabbed a line; several did fall, skidding on their backs across the deck. The king crocodile burst out of the water again, throwing a storm-surge of water at them that battered and stung. The Korean catapult bolt stood out of one shoulder, and another from the Queen had sunk half its length in the monster’s flank, but the pain had put it in a fimbul-cold rage. The pink gape of the mouth came at them, shreds of flesh hanging from the great curved daggers of its teeth. It bellowed as it came, a huge guttural sound in a wind that stank like old wet death.

Radavindraban shouted: “Adi kollu!

And lunged, aiming the knife-edged steel at the hinge of the thing’s jaw. The head of the beast alone looked longer than the half-pike, and gaped impossibly broad. The spear seemed no bigger than a twig, but it flexed without breaking in Radavindraban’s grip as the crocodile tossed its head and threw him high into the air. At the top of the arc the steel slid free of the joint in a spray of blood-drops red against the white frothing water. Radavindraban struck the surface and disappeared; so did the crocodile. An instant later the ship shuddered again, more faintly this time, as something massive brushed against the keel.

“Plenty of slack, and be ready on the winch!” John shouted to the bosun, who seemed to be one of the few not transfixed and frozen.

That was what he was shouting aloud; some distant portion of him was silently screaming nononononono! Several of his companions were shouting at him too as they realized what he was about to do, but there was no time to stop him.

He vaulted to the rail, grabbed the shark-fishing line just behind the heavy steel hook—more steel wire was wound around the wrist-thick cable for a yard above—and hit the water in a creditable dive, given his burdens.

Salt stung his eyes, and the light upper waters faded quickly to a darker blue; John was conscious of two more bodies hitting the water seconds after his, but he had no time to spare for more than the hope neither of them was Evrouin, since the man couldn’t swim well at all. He spotted Radavindraban’s limp form sinking rapidly, still clutching the half-pike in a death grip; the brightness of the steel was really what caught his eye. He dove, kicking powerfully in the stroke his parents had taught him, and caught the sailor around the waist. Deor and Thora were suddenly with him; they helped him slip the hook through a loop on the man’s belt and tug strongly on the cable to signal the deck-crew to spin the windlass.

Something brought him around as they did, something that made him ignore the burning in his lungs. He could see the hull of the Queen above them, slowly passing. And from beneath it a shape, sculling its tail sideways and back like an oar, driving at them like an arrow. Despite the growing absolute need for air the three of them hung motionless for an instant, until they realized in the same moment and all together that the creature was going for the moving target, for Radavindraban’s limp body shooting upward with the speed the high-geared winch made possible.

John kicked out strongly. Thora was beside him, her knife in her teeth. What she thought that was going to accomplish only her Gods knew, but if the crocodile had gulped her whole she’d probably have stabbed it on the way down. Deor was an eel-swift form on his other side. They reached the side of the ship just in time to seize ropes and see the crocodile rise half its impossible length out of the sea with its jaws agape beneath the dangling form of First Mate Radavindraban.

They slammed shut, and just as they did the half-pike fell from his hands. Fell with malignant precision into the beast’s maw, and jaws that could crush teak drove it through its own lower mandible. The beast bellowed again, even louder, and on a different note.

It was about time they had a stroke of luck.

A dozen crewmen were thrusting their long pikes at the white, softer skin of its throat and chest, and Fayard gave a crisp order and his men volleyed. Ruan was shooting his longbow in a steady ripple, bodkin-heads designed to punch through steel armor, and the Japanese leaned recklessly over the rail to thrust with their naginatas, screaming their warcry: 

Banzai! Banzai!”

Another bellow and the monster crashed backward into the water... and vanished, diving deep, even as the wave of its passage thumped the three of them heavily against the sheet-metal covering of the ship’s hull.

John clung; his mind felt like an eye that had stared too long at the sun. But he had seen what he had seen, a metal armband around the thing’s forelimb. And graven on it a sigil, a three-armed thing like writhing, curving tentacles, in yellow gold on the black surface of the band.

Thora’s hand slapped on his bare shoulder, painful enough to jar him back to the world of common day.

“On deck before the sharks arrive, lover,” she said; he was aware of himself enough to recognize the look in her eyes, and be warmed by it. “You’re either very brave or very crazy.”

“Or both,” Deor added with a slightly crazed grin. “Well, you’re a maker of songs, so it’s probably both.”

Many hands pulling made climbing back on deck easy enough. John slumped down, letting Evrouin pour a slug of rum down his throat and begin to rub at him with a towel, perhaps a little harder than necessary to express an anger he couldn’t put in words. Several experts were pressing the liquid from Radavindraban’s lungs and breathing into his mouth with his nose pinched shut. He coughed seawater, retched more and began to revive.

Everyone else kept their eyes on the water around them; the first Korean warship had vanished, and the second was a smear of smoke several miles away. Azure silence broken by the creak of wood and cordage reigned, until Feldman’s voice came sharp, giving the helm directions and setting the deck crew to the ropes and rigging. The motion of the ship picked up as more sail sheeted home and caught at what wind there was; he was vaguely aware of Ruan scolding Deor, and of Thora sitting quietly by his feet with her arms around her knees looking at him and smiling.

John came fully out of his shivering stupor when he saw Feldman’s sea-boots standing beside him. He looked up at the bearded face; the captain had his thumbs hooked in his belt again.

“That was... interesting,” the merchant skipper said. “Thank you for saving Mr. Radavindraban; he’s the best First Mate I’ve ever had. We’re going to need him on the repairs, too.”

“Where are we headed?” John asked.

“The closest dry land we can find. The leak’s much worse; that thing rammed us as hard as a ship could have done. I appreciate irony as much as the next man, but just sinking and getting eaten by ordinary common sharks after all that would be... excessive.”

John managed a small chuckle, then sank back again and closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth. He felt bone-chilled as he hadn’t since a memorable bear-hunt in County Dawson by the Peace River February last. And a weariness as deep as a day spent fighting in armor might have brought. He waved aside the flask of rum.

Still and all, I’d rather be here than back home in Orrey’s shoes, explaining to Mother why I’m not there.

Behind his eyelids, the yellow sigil turned.

I should mention it, he thought as thought slipped away.

 

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