North Sea/Grand Canaria
August 21-30th, 2006 AD/Change Year 8
The captain's cabin of the Pride of St. Helens held a bunk, a desk, several chairs, and a curved couch running under a set of large portholes in the stern; drawers and cabinets were built into the walls and under the seats. It was an efficient use of space, giving an impression of room without actually being very large. Three shelves held books; a cutlass, crossbow, helmet and leather tunic with metal inserts were clipped to the bulkhead by the door. On the desk was a picture—post-Change from the slightly blurry black-and-white look of it—of a handsome middle-aged woman with an eight-year-old boy and a girl a few years younger standing beside her, and an infant in her arms. The other picture on the wall was an oil painting, a landscape with sheep and rolling green hills and a long masonry bridge with a village of stone-built Georgian houses in the background, all looking English but somehow not quite.
"Thank you very much," Sir Nigel said to Captain Nobbes, fighting down a slight pang of envy at the family portrait. Alleyne's alive; that's what really matters.
The Tasmanian was a slim man only a few inches over Loring's five-foot-five, snub-nosed, with graying brown hair and close-cropped beard and dark-blue eyes, his face tanned dark and lined from years spent at sea. He poured brandy into two glasses, then handed Nigel one before seating himself behind the desk.
"To your escape, Sir Nigel," he said.
Nigel lifted his glass, sniffed and sipped; the brandy was excellent, with a complex fruity aftertaste beneath the bite.
"A Tasmanian brand?" he asked.
"Kiwi. Nelson, South Island," Nobbes said. "I've Bundaberg rum, if you'd rather, six months old and fit to grow hair on yer chest."
He laughed at the flitting expression of distaste on Nigel's face, and went on: "The Kiwis helped finance this expedition—New Zealand's a sort of federation centered on Christchurch, nowadays. I'm afraid the North Island got knackered, with Auckland at one end and Wellington at the other, but the South Island took surprisingly little damage—about like Tasmania, in fact."
"Tasmania sounds rather paradisical."
Nobbes chuckled. "Maybe, compared to the rest of the world. It was tight, but we brought ourselves through with no famine or plague or warlords. Though you should hear how the folk from Hobart and Launceston complained at having to move out to the country and do some real hard graft."
Sixty million dead here would have been thankful for the opportunity, Nigel mused grimly, hiding his thoughts with a sip of the brandy.
He remembered driving refugees back into the waters of the Solent at pike-point, and improvised galleys ramming boats where gaunt women held up their children just before the steel-plated bows struck.
And towing rafts of bodies out to sea, with the sharks and gulls at them. You fellows had an easy time of it with the Bass Strait and distance between you and the worst.
The ship heeled a little more as a gust of wind struck her sails; Nobbes cocked his head at a volley of orders and rush of feet, and nodded absently in approval at the heave-ho! of a deck team hauling on a rope.
"Taking you in wasn't pure good nature," Nobbes admitted. A smile: "And not just that King Charles gets my royal Aussie hackles up. You've got knowledge and skills that'll be useful on the other part of my mission."
Nigel nodded. "What do you actually do with the nuclear weapons?"
"Put them in big steel boxes, fill the boxes with molten lead—the Pride's ballast is lead ingots in stainless-steel boxes—then dump them in subduction zones off the edges of the continental shelves," Nobbes said.
"Hardly seems worth the trouble," Nigel said. It will work; thank God for plate tectonics., but...
He went on aloud: "Seeing that even if the explosive triggers would function, which they will not, chain reactions are inhibited somehow. Certainly the power reactors just sit and glow, even without the cooling systems. The boffins in Winchester think they'll keep doing that until the isotopes decay."
Nobbes shrugged. "Prime Minister Brown is a raving Green with a bee in his bonnet, and he's popular enough that even those who disagree humor him. Certainly the plutonium is still just as toxic as it was before the Change, and radiation will still kill you just as dead. We did have problems with oil tankers, bulk carriers loaded with toxic chemicals, and so forth."
"British ships have orders to scuttle them too," Nigel said. And how nice it must be to have the chance to worry about environmental issues, rather than starving or having cannibal savages climb down the chimney. "We've more or less cleared the Atlanic as far south as Gibraltar, come to that."
Nobbes finished his brandy. "Another? No? ...and then there are the war gasses. We certainly don't want those to fall in to the wrong hands. We can't do anything about the ones stored in places like Kazakhstan, but those nearer the coastlines—"
Nigel smiled. "My dear fellow, you don't have to convince me. You've saved my life, and my son's, and Hordle's—and Hordle left everything behind and risked his life to save ours, which is a debt I can only repay through your generosity. You're offering us asylum in what appears to be the last outpost of civilization. I'm perfectly willing to work my passage, and I'm well used to implementing plans I consider total codswallop, simply because I'm told to do it. Dealing with the war gasses isn't even that dangerous, if you're careful. The organophosphate nerve agents can be neutralized with running water in quantity, it takes out the chlorine atom, and you can burn the others—though granted, you'd best be a good bit upwind when you do it. And you'd best be very careful about containers that have become leaky, what?"
"Beaut!" Nobbes said decisively. "I can't tell you how comforting it is to have a bloke who really understands this garbage."
Nigel went on: "And more concretely, Alleyne and I have both had experience at sea. Small boat training before the Change, and on sail since; we can both shoot the sun and lay a course. Sergeant Hordle... well, he can hand, reef and steer, and if you're in the habit of sending shore parties into danger, then you could travel about the globe twice before finding as good a man of his hands as Little John Hordle. Crack shot, too; he's been rated Archer Instructor for the Guard these three years now."
Nobbes eyes lit. "Now all that will be immediately useful. I lost my second and third lieutenants in a job-up with pirates off Diego Garcia this spring, and it's been a bloody nightmare with only myself and the XO as watchkeepers. Let's do a tour, shall we?"
The deck of the Pride was a long clear sweep fore and aft, a hundred and eighty feet of decking with only a slight raised coaming before the wheel, and another forward of the mainmast that lead down to the forecastle. Two launches lay keel-up on either side of the mainmast, and another hung in its davoits over the stern; under tarpaulins five catapults crouched with shrouded menace, two on either side and one abaft the wheel. Nigel strolled forward to the mainmast, returning cheerful smiles and nods—the crew had evidently taken to them after that little brush at the Wash
"That went rather well," Nigel said, after the captain had left, as his son and John Hordle joined him.
Hordle still had a chunk of bread in one hand and a chicken-leg in the other, not being afflicted with seasickness, and his hazel eyes shone with contentment. They leaned on the railing and watched the dark blue-green waters of the North Sea rushing past in a long foam-tipped curve down the gray steel hull of the schooner; the wind was out of the west where the low coast of East Anglia showed in the distance, and the deck's smooth yellow Huon-pine planking was canted like a low-pitched roof as the ship leaned away with her sails swelling in taunt beige curves. Bursts of spray sped back along the deck as the bowsprit pitched up at the top of every swell, tasting cold and salt on the lips.
"Positions on the Pride, and asylum and probably land if we want it at the other end," Nigel went on. "Tasmania's well beyond the King's reach—or the Queen's, more to the point."
Just then a voice rang out from the masthead a hundred and twenty feet above their heads: "Sail ho!"
The three Englishmen tensed. Beside the wheel the vessel's Executive Officer turned her head up and raised the speaking-trumpet in her hand; long strands of black hair flew out from under billed officer's cap as she called.
"Where away? What rig?"
"Nor'noreast, ma'am! Barque-rigged, three-master."
"I can't see... wait a bit! Well, fuck me! It's a jumbuck holding a flag, on their flag!"
The three relaxed. Nigel frowned as well; the Australian concept of discipline had never appealed to him, and this troop of merry-Andrews made the pre-Change Australian military look like the Grenadier Guards. Still, they got things done... And he knew who used a sheep holding a banner as their blazon.
"Lieutenant Flandry!" he called. "That's the Visby arms. She'll be a Norlander, a Swede out of the island of Gotland, probably heading for Dover with paper salvaged from their mills."
Flandry nodded. "Thank you, Sir Nigel. I remember that briefing paper you had done up for us when we made Southampton."
That had been back before his arrest; he'd done up an appreciation from the survey reports—some of them from survey parties he'd led in person. The Tasmanians had naturally wanted to know the state of Europe. That was extremely simple for most areas west of the Vistula: everyone died. There were exceptions, of course. Bornholm and some of the other Baltic islands like Gotland and Oland and the Alands were among them, analogous to the Isle of Wight as opposed to mainland Britain. And a fair-sized clump of towns in northern Norway had made it through the Change, courtesy of isolation and a huge NATO ration dump they'd discovered, along with villages in the more remote parts of Sweden. That came to a quarter-million in total, and lately they'd cobbled together a loose federation called Norland under a scion of the Norwegian royal house, to resettle the empty death zones of southern Scandinavia. They claimed adjacent Germany as well, and there wasn't anyone to say them no, except for a few thousand neo-savages.
"Nothing to worry about this time," Alleyne said. "But."
Hordle tossed the fleshless chicken bone over the side and wiped the dark-red furze on the back of one of his hands across his mouth.
"Right you are, sir. But. Twenty people knew what we were planning to get you out; there wasn't time to set it up bit by bit. What're the odds on a secret staying secret when that many know it?
"Somewhere between twenty to one against and zero, sergeant," Nigel said crisply. "For that matter, the Pride's course will look dashed odd, given that they were supposed to be heading for the Americas."
They looked at each other. "It depends on what the King decides to do," Hordle said. "He could just decide to forget about us, I suppose. Even though we've make him look a right burke."
"And the Queen. You'd be closer to the truth if you said it depends on what she talks him around to doing," Alleyne replied. "Having met the woman, I'd say that's pretty well anything, given time. And she's spiteful."
"Perhaps I shouldn't have lost my temper with her in public," Nigel admitted, remember eyes gray as a glacier. "And I should have remembered her namesake, and that her people's literature is entirely concerned with blood feuds and revenge."
They all looked at each other again, and then out to the English coast. "Not time to relax just yet," Hordle said with a sigh.
"I think we'd best acquaint ourselves with our duties on this ship," Nigel said. "And leave the matter of pursuit to the evil day."
Because there's damn-all we can do about it, he thought.
John Hordle sucked at a barked knuckle as they slid down the ropes to the waiting longboats. Above them the side of the Kobayashi Maru reared in a rust-streaked iron wall. The big tanker had been listing hard to port when the Pride's lookout spotted it, with an oil-slick behind it a hundred miles long. Even as the boarding-party left you could see how she'd begun to settle as water flooded into her spaces from the open scuttling cocks. For a moment he wondered idly where the crew had ended up. According to the log they'd rigged the ship's lifeboats with improvised masts and sails ten days after the Change, meaning to try for the coast of Argentina and then come back with help.
Must 'ave been a bit of a shocker if they made land, and found out the truth, he thought. Then he shrugged: if they'd survived at all, they'd done better than most of the human race.
It was a hot late-August day on the Atlantic; they were standing off the Portugese coast, with land out of sight on the eastern horizon. The water stretched like hammered blue-green metal around them, riffled by a mild breeze and a long low swell out of the west. Like many of the crew, he had a bandana tied about his head; like all of them he loose blue trousers and bloused shirt, belt with a sailor's knife, and bare feet. Most of them were Tasmanians, with Kiwis second and Aussies from the mainland third; a few were wildly varied, picked up all over the world on the Pride's great survey voyage.
Sir Nigel and his son wore the same outfit as Hordle, but with shoes and peaked caps—officer's garb. That had caused a few minor problems; the elder Loring was no martinet, but the Ozlander conception of rank was a still a little too casual for someone who'd started in the Blues and Royals. Also he didn't regard she'll be right, mate as an appropriate attitude to problems...
"That was a proper job of work," Hordle said; the supertanker's manual scuttling-cocks had been awkwardly placed in dark narrow spaces and rusted solid to boot. "Why bother? It was going to sink soon anyway. Hull must be like a lace tea-cosy beneath the water-line."
"British ships have the same regulation, sergeant," Sir Nigel said, taking the tiller with an expert's hand. "Hulks are a navigation hazard. Besides that, tankers do less damage if they sink in deep water rather than break up on a coast, and we're over the Iberian Abyssal Plain here."
"Ah," Hordle said; that made sense. Eventually the black goo decayed naturally, but it could foul a shoreline for years, and there had been a lot of tankers at sea eight years ago. "Funny how everyone wanted the stuff before the Change, and now we want to get rid of it."
There was a murmur of agreement as the longboat's crew ran out their oars and sculled for the Pride where she lay hove-to half a mile away. Some ships had cargoes that were still valuable even after all this time, medicines and luxury goods mainly, though even intact toilet paper was worth a fair bit; he knew men who worked full-time at salvage, although merchantmen still afloat were growing rarer and rarer as time and tide and storms had their way with them.
The only thing crude oil's good for is killing fish.
Hordle stood in the bows of the longboat, ready with the boathook. The Lorings and he had fitted easily enough into the Pride's crew, since their small-boat skills were readily transferable; they'd all gone together on expeditions up the Seine and Loire, and once overland to the Rhone, down it and out through the Med in a ship that met them there. The Tasmanians also struck him as being a little less belligerently Aussie than most Oz-landers he'd met before the Change, which was pleasant; he'd worked with the Down Under SAS on his single deployment east of Suez.
Good enough blokes, good fighting men, but always putting on the Digger and trying to show up the whingeing Poms, he thought. You'd think they'd all landed at Gallipoli last week, with a jolly jumbuck under each arm, straight up.
The ship grew from a bobbing toy to its respectable two-hundred-foot length. Hordle looked down the length of the longboat, to where his opposite number was ready to hook on at the stern; she was named Sheila Winston, a pleasantly-shaped brunette of twenty-two with snapping eyes whose usual job was in the galley. He'd had his eye on her, and he suspected vice versa. Being on a ship with a mixed crew did make things a little less dull, although he'd have liked it better if the mix had been more even instead of three men per woman, or the regulations less strict. Still, he had the advantage of not being in the Pride's chain of command—formally, that was.
"Oars... up!" Sir Nigel called.
The long wood shafts went up in bristling unison; where it counted the Tasmanians were perfectly capable of doing what they were told, quick and neat. Hordle reached out deftly and caught the boathook in the rope that ran along the scuppers. A petty officer on deck made a polite request that the boat not scuff the ship's paint, and added more obscene embellishments as the boat crew went up the Jacob's ladder and the smaller craft rocked and swayed; two stayed for an instant to hook on the hosting tackle. Then the cry of haul away came, and a dozen deckhands tallied on to the gear. The boat rose dripping from the water, with Hordle and Sheila Winston fending off still as it was swung inboard and hung from the davoits.
Think I'll go bother the cook, Hordle thought as he stepped down to the deck, the smooth-worn Huon pine smooth under the skin of his feet.
The Pride's chief of galley was a genial Fiijian who'd been in Nelson on the South Island at the time of the Change, and who outweighed Hordle though he was six inches shorter. It smelled like the midday meal was under way, and the fresh provisions loaded in Britain hadn't quite run out yet, plus overside fishing had yielded fairly well. They weren't quite down to salt pork and ship's biscuit yet.
You know, there's a good deal to be said for not having anyone on your trail, he thought happily.
Alleyne Loring turned at a nod from Captain Nobbes: "Set all plain sail," he barked.
The crew sprang to the ropes at a cascade of orders from the bosun and mast-captains; Hordle tallied on to the nearest. The Pride's sails unfolded as the gaffs rose up the masts, the free outer edges shaking and thuttering as they swung, then cracking taut. The schooner's nose turned south as she fell off the wind and the staysails up forward bit, and the movement grew swifter as steerage way came on her and the wheel turned. Water began to chuckle down the sides, and the bowsprit tracked a long slow corkscrew, a rise-swoop-and-fall motion instead of the short hard pitching she'd made with her nose into the swell.
A voice rang out from the topmast: "On deck there! Sail ho!"
"Where away?" Captain Nobbes called upward through his megaphone.
Good enough sailor, Hordle thought. Not that I'm any great judge. Thinks he's Horatio sodding Hornblower, that's the problem. Or that other one, in the books Sir Nigel likes, written by the Irishman.
"A bit north of leeward, skipper. Nor'nor'east."
"What rig? What colors?"
"Ship rig; three masts; all sail set. Flying the White Ensign. A bloody big drongo of a ship, skipper! Coming on fast."
Well, stone the crows. I shouldn't have tempted fate like that, not even on the quiet. He ducked into the forecastle. The crew racked their personal weapons under their bunks.
Nigel Loring adjusted easily as the Pride heeled, and watched the crew at work. They totaled forty-five, more than were necessary to work the schooner—this rig was economical of labor—but on an exploratory voyage these days you could expect to fight, and to lose some before you returned. Right now the booms of the big fore-and-aft sails were swung out over the water to port, and the schooner's sharp bows cut across the swell directly southward, at ninety degrees to the wind. Then that died down, stuttered back, shifted and backed, coming more from the north. The sky was cloudless save in that direction, an arch of perfect blue turning paler where shadows fell towards the west. In the north clouds piled like thick beaten cream, shading to gold and black where they towered high.
"Set gaff topsails!" the captain called. Then: "Lay aloft and lose main and fore t'gallants and square topsails!"
A topsail schooner carried square sails as well as fore-and-aft; in the Pride's case, two each on the upper mainmast and foremast. They helped considerably when you weren't working into the teeth of the wind, but they required more work—someone had to climb out the yards and let them loose, where the fore-and-aft sails on their booms could be worked from the deck. Crew rushed up the ratlines and out along the slender-seeming spars, their feet on the manropes, bending to wrench at the hard knots that held the sails bundled. Canvas thuttered and cracked a hundred and twenty feet up, like distant gunfire...
And that shows how old I am, Nigel thought.
... and taut beige shapes of New Zealand flax bellied out in the wind. The ship heeled further as the wind caught in the four square sails and levered down through the masts and keel. Nobbes kept a careful eye aloft, wincing at loud creaks.
"That's the disadvantage with wooden topmasts," he said. "They're just not as strong as steel."
"But more replaceable," Nigel pointed out.
It's all very well to love your ship, he thought. But Nobbes takes it to an extreme.
Of course, it was his ship in a very special sense; before the Change he'd owned it, and run it around the South Pacific on excursions for people who wanted a taste of life in the old days. He'd been in St. Helens on the east coast of Tasmania when the Change struck, and ended up in the Tasmanian Navy fairly quickly, albeit mostly running cargo and passengers. Some of his old attitude remained.
"Well, there is that," he said. "They're building a new class much like this back in Tassie, but wooden-hulled with steel diagonal bracing on the ribs. I'm supposed to get one, compensation for the government taking the Pride, and all the years I sailed her for 'em. I've some cobbers who'll help me find cargoes, then it's up to Malaysia for rubber, and over to Burma for teak and rice, Ceylon for tea and coffee and cinnamon and back again. I could use a good man or two to help with that—it gets bloody lively, what with the pirates and all. Couple of years and I'd go partners on a new ship."
"I'd rather thought I'd take up land," Sir Nigel said. "I understand there's a good deal available, and it's what I know, allowing for differences in the climate."
"Plenty of room on the mainland, sport, right enough, or on North Island," Nobbes said absently; his eyes were still on the rigging. "But the land's cheap for a reason; things can get pretty rough there. Tassie and South Island are full up, what with all the people out of the towns and on the farms and stations—there's agitation to break up the bigger ones. Fancy themselves as bunyip barons, some of the stationholders do; and over on the mainland, a lot of them are bloody barons. Accent on the bloody, too."
Nigel nodded. From what he'd heard, the big cities of mainland Australia and New Zealand's more densely populated North Island had collapsed as thoroughly as any in Europe or Asia or America, and they'd taken circles of countryside two hundred miles across with them. Of course, that left a lot of Australia untouched—the circles hadn't overlapped as they had in more densely peopled lands.
Still, Alleyne and Hordle and I could handle any roughness where we wanted to set up, I suppose...
The sound of the water slapping its way along the Pride's hull changed, becoming a little louder, a little faster, like palms beating out a choppy rhythm on a drum. The motion altered as well, turning longer and smoother, a rocking-horse surge that spoke of sea-miles gone away.
"With the wind on our beam like this, that'll give us an extra knot, setting the t'gallants," Nobbes said with satisfaction. He turned to the binnacle just forward of the wheel. "Eleven... eleven and a half knots."
Then he looked back over the fan-shaped rail at his ship's stern, over the tarpaulin-clad shape of the catapult crouching on its turntable.
"Odd running into another ship here," he said meditatively.
"Not so odd as all that. Southampton-Gibraltar is the busiest shipping route we have now... that Britain has now. Which isn't saying much, I grant you."
Nobbes grunted. "Bloody odd Gibraltar made it," he said.
"A combination of luck and geography," Sir Nigel said. "Though it took considerable ability to organize it all."
Nobbes brought up the heavy binoculars that hung around his neck.
"She's just hull-up now," he said. "Sailing with the wind abeam is the best point for a square-rigger, but even so she's very fast... she'll pass us in a day or two on this heading. There's not many ships could come up from behind on the Pride, if I do say so myself. They're cracking on, though. I wonder what their hurry is?"
A suspicion coiled in Nigel's stomach. "Hordle, step up here if you please," he said. The big man did. Nigel went on:
"You were stationed in Southampton for a while, weren't you? At the dockyard, while I was off on that diplomatic mission to the Principality."
"That I was. Didn't envy you a trip to Ian's Rump, either, sir."
Nigel frowned slightly; in fact, he shared the opinion. The Principality of Ulster might loudly proclaim its loyalty to the King, and to his brother Prince Andrew—chance had stranded the latter there when the Change came—but he didn't particularly like the bloody-minded military-Orange Order-cum-Free Presbyterian junta that had ended up ruling the northeastern quarter of Britain's sister island, or what was left of it between starvation and mutual pogrom.
"Take a look," he said, handing over his own binoculars. "Tell me if you recognize that ship."
Hordle looked for a moment, and pursed his lips. "No doubt about it, sir. Cutty Sark. I saw her in for repairs, after she shuttled in her last load of Icelanders, back in CY 3."
Nigel whistled silently, and Nobbes went slightly pale. Partly, Nigel thought, because that might mean the King had decided to give chase regardless, and to hell with offending far-off Tasmania; the Cutty Sark was a Royal Navy vessel now. And partly because the ship was legendary, the last and greatest of the China tea-clippers, brought back to sit in glory in drydock on the Thames after a career that had included record-breaking runs on every route she sailed.
"But sir?" Hordle went on. "They had us doing fetch-and-carry work there, and from what I heard of the dockyard maties talking, she wasn't what you'd call sound even then. Even for something a hundred and thirty years old."
Alleyne's regular-featured face was thoughtful as he nodded. "I read the report, father. Her keel—the wooden keel—is waterlogged, and the corrosion on her frame..." He turned to Nobbes. "Captain, you know she's iron-framed, with plank sheathing?"
Nobbes snorted. "Yes," he said, in a tone that also meant and the sun comes up in the east too, my gracious Pommie-lad.
"Sorry, sir. Well, the frame's been corroding—not just weakening it, they could cure that with riveted patches, but the rust is pushing the stringers away. She needed to be stripped bare in drydock, chipped down to solid metal, and rebuilt from the keel up. Instead they just did what they could from the outside, pounded in more caulking, and kept putting the basic work off. Perhaps they thought it would be easier simply eventually to scrap her and build new."
Good to see he's recovered so well, Nigel thought absently, looking at the keen young face. Better than I. Still, I suppose it's more natural to lose a parent than a spouse. I miss you, Maude old girl...
"She's still almighty fast," Nobbes said thoughtfully.
"Not as fast as she was once," Alleyne said. "They also cut down her sail plan, to lessen the strain on the hull and the working of the planks. Not so many studdingsails and such."
"What have they been doing with her?"
"Refugees at first, starting in March of '99. Then cargo on the Gibraltar run," Alleyne said. "Manufactured goods and settlers out, food and fiber back—sugar, cotton, wine, citrus, olive oil."
Nobbes grinned in a lopsided way. "England has an empire again, eh?"
"In a way," Nigel said; the irony of it had struck him too. "Interesting to see how that turns out..."
"It'll be interesting to see if the Sark's loaded with troops and out to see us knackered," Hordle said bluntly, jerking his head northward. "Sir."
Nigel winced slightly, but there was no point in delaying further:
"Perhaps it's rude of me to ask, but what will you do, Captain, if it is?"
Cobbes looked embarrassed, and spoke reluctantly: "I'll run like buggery, Sir Nigel. If they catch us up and it's just a matter of dodging, or trading catapult bolts at long range, I'll do that. But if it means saving my ship and crew, I'll have to hand you over, and that's the dinkie die."
"I appreciate your honesty, Captain Nobbes," Nigel said courteously.
And Hordle looks like he's thinking of ripping your head off in that event, and I think you're beginning to notice. Best defuse matters and change the subject.
He relaxed and smiled. "Let's hope we can avoid such a choice, eh? And that ship could just be running down to the Rock. We're... they're... resettling the choice bits of southern Spain and northern Morocco—the Gibraltarians and immigrants get farms, the realm gets trade, everyone's happy. Though the ghosts must be raining curses on us in Spanish and Arabic."
"Thought of moving there meself, sir, and taking up land," Hordle said, glad of a chance to break the momentary chill. "Nice climate and the brambles aren't as thick about the edges as back in old Blighty."
"Maybe God is an Englishman," Nobbes said. "The world drops dead, and the Poms get the whole of Western Europe out of it."
"Only if we breed very enthusiastically," Alleyne said. "Killing off all but one in every two hundred of us seems an odd way for the Supreme Being to show family-feeling, even if it does make many corners of foreign fields forever England in times to come. Though I think it's definite that He isn't French, what?"
Nigel nodded. "On the evidence, my boy, He seems to be Tasmanian."
"I thought Australia was bad, until I saw Europe," Nobbes said, with a gesture of half-agreement. "And America's worse if anything..."
"Most of the parts we can reach are bones," Nigel said judiciously. "Some islands did well and we don't know anything about the interior or the western portion."
Alleyne put in: "There's quite a few Italians left, though—ten thousand in the Alps, fifty thousand in that clump in Umbria, two hundred thousand on Sicily. A fair number of Greeks further east on Crete and Cyprus, and of course as you get east of central Poland... It will be interesting to see how things shape in the next couple of generations."
Nobbes nodded. "Right now we'll see if Cutty Sark really is chasing us. Clear for action!" he called. "Helm, come about—right ten degrees. Let's see how high that beaut can point."
"Damn my eyes, but she's fast," Nobbes said, standing by the wheel of his ship and watching the Cutty Sark in the double circles of his binoculars as she tacked, beating up into the wind.
For the Pride, that was easy—just put the helm over, let the fore-and-aft booms swing across the deck above head-height, and the ship was making another leg of its zigzag course upwind. A square-rigger couldn't point nearly as close to the wind, and it was much easier for her to be 'caught in irons', left bobbing helplessly with her sails pressed back against the masts and yards. The Sark was crossing her bowsprit over the eye of the wind nearly as nimbly as the schooner.
"and... mainsail haul," Nobbes murmured, the command that would set the crew to pulling the big square sails round on the clipper.
I think our good skipper is envious, Nigel thought, amused despite the tension of the moment. But then, what sailing-ship captain wouldn't be?
As they watched the tall sail-pyramid of the pursuer passed through the vertical and lay over; the sails that had been clewed up to the yards dropped down again and her bow-wave grew taller, until white water raced from her knife-sharp prow down the long sleek sides and her mizzen chains were nearly buried in the foam.
"My oath, but she's fast," Nobbes said again. "If she weren't sailing four miles to our three, she'd have caught us by now. And she's got three times my displacement and a crew to match."
"Do you think there's much hope?" Alleyne Loring said.
At Woburn Abbey, Sir Nigel and his wife had been under administrative detention on vague allegations of sedition. If the Lorings and Hordle were recaptured, they would face court-martial on very specific charges. Desertion, murder and levying war against the forces of the Crown for all three of them—a noose for Sergeant Hordle, the gentleman's axe for the officers. Swords and armor weren't the only ancient things that had turned up resurgent in the aftermath of the Change, and the Emergency Powers regulations were still very much in force. That had been one of the matters Sir Nigel had objected to.
"Well," Nobbes said, then unexpectedly grinned. "Not much hope on a straight chase like this. What's more, a few more hundred miles and we hit the westerlies, and running before a wind, we wouldn't have a chance in hell of keeping ahead. But the glass is falling, and those clouds look dangerous."
"Ah," Nigel said. "And in a blow—"
"Right, sport. I've a solid welded steel hull under me arse, and steel lower masts and steel-cable running rigging. That beaut old lady has fragile bones. The worse the blow, the better for us. Let's see what the weather has in mind."
Be careful what you pray for, Sir Nigel thought six days later. You may get it.
The bowsprit of the Pride rose and rose, until the onrushing wave seemed to tower above them like a mountain of steel-gray water, sliding down towards them with a ponderous inevitability. The top began to curl, collapsing under its own weight and the fury of the northerly gale. Long streamers of spray and foam flew out from its top, ghostly in the half-light through the dense cloud overhead. More surged down the slope ahead of the breaking wave...
... and struck.
White water leapt ahead of the surge as the bows went under, and the wave raced the length of the Pride's deck towards him. He braced himself, involuntarily flinging up an arm before his eyes, and then the water struck; first a foam like the head on a giant's glass of beer, then a solid smashing blow of cold sea. The cord that linked his belt to the safety line stretching fore and aft kept him from going over the taffrail as he was tumbled and pounded in the darkness, but when the wave passed he was on his knees, coughing the wrack out of his lungs as he blinked his eyes and checked that the two helmsmen were still on either side of the wheel.
They were; one of them was John Hordle, and he grinned under his dripping sou'wester. His mouth moved—he was probably shouting, but the keening wail of the wind through the rigging and the white roar of the water made it impossible to hear at all, much less to understand. One moment's error by either of them, and the Pride would broach to, tumble as the waves took her sidewise and sink like a rock with all hands in thirty seconds of terror.
Nigel scrambled up; the schooner was cresting the wave like a chip of wood washing onto a beach, and as she cleared the crest the force of the wind snatched the breath from his mouth and made the skin of his face burn. For an instant he could see for miles, across a seascape of waves three-quarters hidden by the white froth that tore from their tops, as if the ship was sailing through the stormclouds themselves rather than the ocean. Then the two scraps of staysail set forward to keep her nose into the wind caught the full force of the gale and jerked her forward with an acceleration that made his teeth snap together. She skidded down the steep north face of the wave like a skier down a mountainside, faster and faster, the high whine of the rigging turning to a deeper note as the walls of water gave a momentary protection from the storm. Another burst of seawater came over the bows and raced along the deck as they slid into the trough of the wave and dug in for an instant; this time the wave was only waist-hight when it struck the quarterdeck, and he kept his feet easily enough.
As the Pride began the long slow climb up the next wave rain slashed down. At first Nigel didn't notice it—everything was thoroughly wet as it was—but soon it cut visibility noticeably. The cold chill that made his bones ache in the spots where they'd been broken and put knives in his joints was no worse, but it felt so. It took him a moment to realize that the the two dim figures in their gray rain-slickers were newly on deck.
"You are a good relief," he said semi-formally to Alleyne, or as formally as you could when you had to shout to be heard, and then smiled. "And a very welcome one! Is the galley fire lit?"
"It is, father. And plenty of actual tea. I'm getting quite used to it again."
The other was Captain Nobbes. He shouted something, then repeated it as he came closer, snapping his safety-cord onto the lifeline with practiced ease.
"... you taste it?" he was asking. "The rain!"
Well, it's rain, Nigel thought, then concentrated; he knew better than to dismiss something an expert said about his own field. He took a mouthful of the downpour and ran it over his tongue—it was pleasant to get the salt taste out of his mouth anyway.
"Grit!" he shouted back. "There's grit in the rain!"
Nobbes grinned back under his sou'wester and came close enough to bellow into the Englishman's ear. "We're off the coast of northwest Africa, then—I thought so, from the way the wind was turning, and that clinches it. Read about the grit in an old book they dug out of a museum for us. It's Saharan sand. Means the storm will blow out soon."
"I hope God's listening, or Poseidon, Captain!" Nigel shouted back cheerfully.
And I actually feel cheerful, he thought in mild amazement, as he and Hordle went down the companionway. I rather thought that wouldn't happen again.
The bigger, younger man held the door open for him—no easy feat, with the wind this strong. The howl of it gave way to a low toaning moan as the rubber-edged steel shut behind them, and they hung their oilskins and sou'westers on a rack over a trough to catch the drips; a dim lantern behind thick glass lit the narrow corridor. Hordle hurried forward then, and while Loring was still struggling with his boots he came back with a geat covered mug of tea and a small basket of the scone-like soda bread the Austrailans were fond of, buttered and spread with marmalade.
"Thank you, sergeant," he said, yawning. "You should go get some rest."
Hordle's face was still running with seawater. "Going to go chat up that cook's apprentice some more, sir," he said. "Sheila, her name is. I can see she fancies a well-set-up lad, and I can sleep when I'm dead."
Or when you're fifty-two, Nigel thought, as he toweled himself down in the tiny cabin.
Weariness struck despite the strong hot tea, despite the pitching and rolling. He barely had time to finish the last scone—the marmalade was Royal Cornish Reserve, probably a gift from someone at Court to the Tasmanian emissaries—before his head hit the pillow.
"Sound as a bell," Captain Nobbes said happily. "Didn't even lose a sail."
The Pride's nose was west of south now, and the wind was behind them, on their starboard quarter. The sun was hot despite the fresh wind, and the ocean was a deep purple-blue frothed with lines of whitecaps; the schooner bucked almost playfully as they cut the swell. The deep iodine scent of the sea and the tarred rope of the running rigging went together well; Nigel found himself looking forward to lunch, which was to feature tunny-steaks in cheese—the lines trolled overside had been productive this morning.
"That's La Palma?" he asked. The mountain was rising gradually from the sea ahead.
"Unless we're all worse navigators than we're likely to be, or the chronometer's gone for a Burton," Nobbes said. "We stood further out to sea on our way up from the Cape, but we'll see about wood and water here this time. It's uninhabited now, eh?"
"Nearly," Alleyne said grimly. "Unless you count Moorish corsairs stopping in now and then."
"I thought you said... never mind. Later. We'll keep a sharp—"
"Ship ho!" called the masthead lookout, sitting braced where the t'gallant yard crossed the main topmast. "Over that spit ahead."
"What rig?" Nobbes called sharply.
"No bloody rig at all, skipper!" the lookout called. "And she's not alone, either. Looks like boats putting in and out from the shore, or something like that."
Nobbes looked at his XO without needing to speak.
"Helm, fifteen degrees west—thus, very well, thus," she said.
The schooner turned smoothly, falling off the steady westerly breeze. The island ahead was an irregular cone, greener higher up the slopes, arid-barren below where the irrigation systems had collapsed. Before the Change it had lived mainly off tourism with a minor sideline in exporting specialty crops; neither had proved much help afterwards. But there were still sheltered coves, and springs where you could get good water, and wood in the ravines if you didn't mind the scattered bones. There were even feral goats and pigs whose ancestors had hid very, very well, and a few villages of survivors further south.
"That's the Sark!" Alleyne said as they rounded the spit of land.
The bay beyond was a perfect semicircle, with white ruined houses on the shore above the rugged cliffs, and a fringe of palms at the top. The ship was afloat half a mile away from the northern point the schooner rounded, and anchored an equal distance from the shore.
"Poor bitch," Nobbes muttered.
It took Nigel a moment to realize that the seaman meant the ship; he leveled his binoculars for a closer look. The Cutty Sark certainly seemed deserving of pity; down by the head and listing to port, with all three masts off at the tops and the rigging a crazy tangle of broken wire and knotted rope amid a few jury-rigged scraps. Water spurted out from her decks as the pumps worked in what was obviously a losing race with the inrushing sea; her gunwales were far closer to the surface than they should be. At a guess sections of planking had come loose in the storm, and she'd limped in here hoping to make repairs—or at least find a spot where the crew could wait for rescue when she went under. Ropes over the side held sails fothered over patches of the bottom. Two longboats put off from the shore as he watched, pulling hard for the ship and abandoning a fire that sent a slim pillar of smoke up into the azure sky.
The other boats coming around the southern point of the bay were worthy of attention as well, and certainly why the shore party was hurrying back. The pumps also stopped as he watched, the jets of water pulsing and then dying to trickles as the crews went scrambling for harness and weapons.
"Moors," he said grimly to the Tasmanian captain. "And far too many of them for comfort."
The boats that spider-walked into the bay were long and low and narrow, with sharp knifelike prows and sterns that looked identical; they were giant versions of the Senegalese sea-fishing pirogue, and those ocean-going canoes had often been up to sixty feet long even before the Change. These averaged a hundred feet, fitted with twenty oars a side rather than paddles, and each had a single mast and lanteen sail. Their hulls were caravel-built, made from overlapping planks adzed to fit and painted a blue-green color that made them surprisingly hard to see even at close range; and they were dark with men. He suspected the interior bracing was salvaged metal, though that was much rarer in Senegal than Europe—still, there were the ruins of Dakar and St. Louis to mine.
"And there are a round dozen of them," Nobbes said. "How many men?"
"Alleyne?" Nigel asked, handing him the glasses.
"Rough-counting, sixty to eighty a hull," the sharp-eyed younger Loring said after a moment. "Call it between seven and nine hundred in all."
Nobbes grunted; half thoughtful, half sounding as if he'd been belly-punched. The Pride's total crew was less than a tenth of even the lowest estimate. The whole British Army wasn't much larger these days. Africa below the Sahara had suffered gruesomely in the Change and its aftermath, but not as badly as the lands further north.
"Well, we know we're not being chased any bloody more," he said. "Those poor bastards on the Sark aren't going anywhere."
"The Moors don't take prisoners," Nigel said. "Except as slaves. And they, ah, surgically modify those."
Nobbes winced and licked his lips, glancing around, obviously conscious of eyes on him from all along the deck. He looked at the calm surface of the bay.
"Not much wind in there," he said meditatively. "If we go in, we'll have to break them before we can get out—wouldn't be able to run if it went against us. The land shelters the bay from the westerlies... think they could hold out on the Sark until we arrived?"
Unexpectedly, it was Hordle who answered; the two Lorings stood silent, respecting the Tasmanian's authority as Captain.
"Yes, sir," Hordle said. "They might not be able to drive them all off, bunged about as they are, but they'll put up a stiff fight." Pridefully: "They'll know they've had English archers to deal with! Best thing Charlie ever did was make practice with the bow compulsory, and those'll be professionals, Regulars."
Nigel waited, willing himself not to tense. At last Nobbes shook himself and shrugged. "Blood's thicker than water," he said, and went on with a laugh: "Especially among the First Families of Tasmania—who were transported pickpockets married to whores, like my great-great-great-great granddad. Sound to quarters, Number Two. I want us two hundred yards off her stern, and we'll anchor with the bow to shore, make it a T. And get the toaster ready."
Nobbes glanced at Nigel as the hoarse beat of a drum and a volley of orders broke the immobility of the crew, turning them from spectators to a purposeful mass, breaking open the weapons locker and pulling the tarpaulin covers from the catapults. Others bustled about pulling bolts and raising what looked like sections of the deck. Those turned out to be heavy wooden screens, secured to the rail with quick-release metal clamps to make a continuous chest-high barricade around the bulwarks save where the catapults needed a clear field of fire.
"They'll come in on either side of the Sark?" Nobbes asked.
"Two deep," Nigel agreed. "They're a vicious lot and they hate us like poison, but they're not stupid in my experience. That'll let them maximize their numbers, and they'll try and finish the Sark before we can intervene. Alleyne, let's get into our harness."
"Those Ned Kelly suits?" Nobbes said. "You'll go down like Ayers Rock if you go overboard in those!"
Nigel grinned; he felt a good deal more comfortable coming to the rescue of his countrymen than he did running away from them.
"Well, Captain, we'll just have to make sure that the enemy are the ones who fall in, eh, what?"
"There they go," Hordle said, his voice taut.
The Pride was ghosting into the bay, with all sails set. That did less good than they had hoped, with only the faintest breeze from over the ridge to the west to help; the sails were hanging nearly slack, rippling at their edges with each puff. She moved with a dreamlike slowness, while the Moorish galleys darted like water-bugs. That made him feel like a spectator, and he didn't like that at all. The hot late-summer sun made him sweat like a horse, too; he could feel it soaking into the gambeson under his mail-shirt, and smell it along with the hot pine of the deck. The leather-wrapped grip of the bow made patterns in the skin of his left palm until he forced himself to relax.
The Moors were closing in on the British ship; the Sark lay silent. The schooner was close enough for them to hear the yelping, screeching war-cries of the corsairs, as they swung up on either side of the crippled sailing-ship. He could see a black giant naked save for a twisted rag loincloth in the bows of the lead pirogue swinging a grapnel on the end of a long rope, then tossing it with a shouted Wau-wau-ho!
A dozen more flew out from the pirate vessels, trailing their cords like a malignant spider's web. The rowers snatched their oars in, moving in trained unison, and then tallied on to the lines and drew them hand-over-hand.
"Are those useless Poms going to do anything?" Shelia asked, fingering the cutlass at her side. The crew waited, armed and tense.
"They will," Hordle said. Though I don't know how many are fit for duty, after the battering the ship took in that effing storm. "Just about—"
Scores of strong arms drew the corsair vessels in alongside the British ship, two on either side and one under the stern. More crowded in to grapple with those, making a bridge of boats for boarding. Men crawled over the long slender craft like flies on dead meat; each of the corsair craft had twenty oars a side, and most carried as many men again as the forty needed to row. Many of the pirates were olive-skinned Moors in long robes and turbans, some with an end of it drawn across their faces, or darker Peul dessed likewise; others were tall muscular ebony-black Serer and Wolof tribesmen in anything from scars and nakedness to long white nightshirt-like garments now kirted up around their knees. Some wore crude armor of leather with bits of metal sewn on and a few had helmets under their turbans; their weapons were broad-bladed spears, machetes, axes, some crude curved slashing-swords hammered out of scrap steel. Edge and point sparkled and swirled in the bright sunlight as they crowded forward screaming their war-cries, and a flurry of javelins went before them.
"And... about... now!" Hordle said, feeling his teeth skin back from his lips.
The sides of the Cutty Sark seemed to ripple for a moment in a wave of greenish-brown, as the men who'd been lying flat on their decks came erect, standing in three staggered rows on each side—forty to port and as many to starboard, drawing their bows to the ear.
The savage screaming of the corsairs cut off with a horrified suddenness, and the command came over the water, thin with distance but distinct:
Then a hundred bowstrings snapped as one, a massed cracking sound like bamboo breaking. The archers were shooting at point-blank range, and that close even the best suit of plate could not stop a shaft. The broadheads went through the simple hide-and-wicker shields and improvised armor of the corsairs as if it were the cloth and naked skin which was all the protection most of them had. Many of the shafts went through two men each in a quadruple splash of red, or through one man and through the planks of the pirogues' bottoms.
The archers drew and shot, drew and shot; the pirogues along each side of the ship were suddenly wallowing funeral-barges full of the dead, and of a heaving, moaning carpet of the wounded and maimed. The delta-shaped arrowheads slashed wounds the width of a man's paired thumbs through limbs and bodies, and almost instantly the water around the locked vessels turned from blue-green to pink. A few questing triangular fins were there already, as the first men staggered overboard and screaming into the water with arrows through limbs and torsos and faces.
If they break—Hordle thought.
That was probably why the Sark's commander had counted on and why he'd held fire until the last minute, the sudden massed shock at close range sending the rest fleeing. But they did not. Instead more men poured forward as the arrows slashed into them, leaping across the piled dead and screeching out the name of their god. The islanders answered them with a crashing threefold bark, a deep-chested hurrah!—and a hissing sleet of arrows. The honed edges of the arrowheads twinkled briefly as they flew, like the sun sparkling on bits of glass.
Hordle answered it with a shout of his own, half encouragement and half aching frustration. "Eat that, you sodding pirate bastards!"
At the stern, the Moors had no arrowstorm to face. Instead the full-armored men who commanded the company of bowmen stood along the rail, rising from their crouch with their shields up and their visors down. Most carried longswords, held up overhead with the blade parallel to the deck; a few had pole-axes, or war-hammers with serrated heads. He saw one of those come down on a pirate climbing up with a curved knife between his teeth, smashing the man's head like a melon dropped on concrete; the ugly thick wet pop-crack sound was clear to his mind's ear. The swords flashed, bright silver for a few moments, then throwing red arcs as they chopped and stabbed; the knights stood like a wall of steel along the rail, but a dozen spearpoints probed for each.
A pain in his jaw from the force with which he clenched his teeth brought him back to full awareness of his surroundings, and he made himself breathe. Not far away Sir Nigel and Alleyne stood; the younger Loring was literally quivering with eagerness, the plates of his steel suit rattling. His father stood in earnest quiet talk with Nobbes. The Tasmanian kept shaking his head, and then reluctantly nodded.
"Volunteers!" Sir Nigel shouted; he wasn't a large man, but the call went from one end of the Pride's deck to the other effortlessly. "Volunteers for a longboat sortie. No members of the catapult crews or the first deck watch—half with Lieutenant Loring, half with me. Quickly now, and we have them!"
There was a stampede; Hordle helped sort it out, and draw the two launches alongside. Alleyne took one, sliding down the boarding-rope with nerveless aplomb, as if he didn't have sixty pounds of steel strapped to him—and it was a long muddy walk across the bottom of the cove to shore. Hordle went into the other boat along with eleven of the Pride's crew and Nigel Loring. The little baronet was peering out from under his raised visor—and probably seeing things a bit blurred, but that never held him back...
"Stretch out," Nigel said. "We'll hit that clump of corsair boats tied up by the Sark's stern—take them in the rear. No shouts until we reach them."
The crew tumbled into their places, shoving off from the schooner's side with the long ash oars and then pulling in unison, quiet save for grunts of effort. Sir Nigel was at the tiller, his shield with the five Loring roses propped up against his knee, his face shining with sweat under the steel sallet. Hordle gave him a quick nod and went to the bows, holding his bow high to keep spray off it, then went down on one knee, with his right foot braced solidly behind him against the foremost rower's bench.
Two weeks since I drew bow, he thought, nocking a shaft. But you don't lose the knack that quickly. It had been old Sam Aylward who'd started him and Alleyne Loring, when the old soldier visited Crooksbury and the two of them were hero-worshipping youngsters. Gave me a headstart, you did, Samkin. Well, if thanks can do you any good where you are now, you've got them.
The ruined ship and the circle of corsair galleys grew swiftly as the clear green water hissed by beneath the longboat; he could see the bottom thirty feet down, clear white shell-sand and patches of waving green, and silver-blue fish flitted through it. The backs of the pirates came clearer as well; a great mob of them on four or five of their long narrow hulls, crowding forward towards the stern of the Cutty Sark. The rail was hidden, a broil of men and robes and swinging weapons; now and then a figure catapulted backwards with flailing limbs, trailing red as a sword took him, but there were scores of them crowding in. And more boosting them up to the rail, pushing forward despite their gruesome losses. Others thrust with long spears or poles over the heads of those in the front line, several men on each shaft, beating the knights back from the ship's edge by sheer main force.
One man chanced to look back, doubtless glancing to check that the other infidel vessel was still safely distant. His eyes bulged as he saw the longboats driving forward, and he opened his mouth to shout a warning.
It was near two hundred yards, and from a moving platform. Hordle gave a snarl of satisfaction as the arrow drove in between the gleaming white teeth and smashed out through the pirate's neckbone; he dropped as limp as a sack of grain, and none of his comrades noticed. The Englishman's hand flashed back to his quiver, and he set another shaft on the arrow-rest.
"Another conscientious cunt," he snarled quietly as a Moor in dingy white noticed him.
He shot, but the arrow flew over the enemy's shoulder—close enough for the flight-feathers to brush his cheek, and make him throw himself down in the bilge of his pirogue with a yell; then he was up, dripping and shouting, grabbing at shoulders and kicking backsides and pointing at the longboats, jabbing his finger to drive home his point.
"Faster!" Hordle shouted.
He emptied his quiver in a ripple of archery that sent forty shafts downrange in the time it took the longboat to reach its target. His target was densely massed, and even shooting into the brown every shaft would find a target.
The last went through a shield and twelve inches into a spearman's chest at pointblank range. Sir Nigel threw the tiller over, and the crew raised their oars and brought them down like wooden threshing-flails on the Moors crowding to contest the edge of the first pirate vessel. The heavy varnished wood cracked down on heads and shoulders and arms with the meaty sound of mallets hitting a chicken carcass. Alleyne Loring leapt from the prow of his longboat, Sir Nigel from the stern of his, and the crews followed with a shout and a flashing of cutlasses, making a blunt wedge behind the two full-armored men. Hordle followed, leaving his buckler by his side and taking the bastard sword in the two-handed grip, filling his lungs for a shout as he jumped and landed in ankle-deep water in the swaying fragile pirogue.
A spearhead slammed towards his face. He crouched and spun and cut diagonally, and it flicked away, leaving the pirate staring at the cut shaft until Hordle stabbed through his body on the return. Another step forward, another—
Sheila Winston stooped beside him and cut a man's ankle out from under him. A palm-broad spearhead took her in the face as she straightened, punching through nose and jaw with sharp crackling sound. She dropped with a bubbling shriek, cut off when another stabbed through her throat and into the wood of the pirogue's bottom. Hordle roared and swung the great sword in a looping cut that took both the man's arms off at the elbow; he turned, and tried to run backward, spraying blood into the faces of his comrades. Something struck the Englishman in the gut, a short-gripped spear whose point didn't strike hard enough to cut the links of the chain-mail. He snarled and struck downward with the brass ball on the pommel of his sword, driving it like a hammer onto a skull protected only by a matt of woolly hair...
Suddenly they were on the last of the pirate craft, under the overhang of the Cutty Sark's stern; the bulk of the corsairs had never realized they were under attack from the rear until the swords struck. Now they bolted for either end of their long slender craft, or leapt around the curve to those lashed on either side of the clipper. Visored sallet-helms showed above the rail, and then red sweat-streaming faces as the steel protection was pushed back. Rope ladders followed; Hordle stuck his sword point-down in the planks beneath his feet and paused to help the two Lorings up the swaying thing of wood and rope, then snatched it free and followed himself.
The deck of the Sark was chaos come again; bodies lying in heaps, on the poopdeck and down in the waist, all amid the tangle of fallen spars and sails and cordage from the storm. Archers held the sides and forward edge of the poop, but most of the center of the ship was a mass of men, Guards archers and corsairs and Royal Navy crewfolk, all locked together in a swarming brawl, naked extreme violence breast-to-breast, with superior numbers balanced against better weapons and training.
Nigel Loring paused only for an instant, surveying the situation. Then he clashed his visor down and shouted, pointing his sword forward:
"St. George for England! Follow me!"
A roar went up, short and harsh and savage. The knights formed beside him, and the Pride's crewfolk and the surviving archers in a wedge behind. The armored men smashed their way down the companionways, stabbing with shortened swords, battering their way with sheer mass and even with blows of their steel-sheathed fists and head-buts into vulnerable faces. The mass conflict on the main deck altered with the suddenness of a saturated solution when a drop of catalyst is added. All at once the corsairs clustered forward, the islanders below the break of the poopdeck, both in compact masses facing each other across a space empty save for the wounded and the dead. A moment of panting silence broken nly by the screams or whimpering of the hurt, and then from three hundred throats a call went up:
The crashing hurrah! answered it... and Hordle felt something change. He risked glanced over the side and saw a massive bolt from one of the Pride's catapults skewer four men still in the vessels lashed to the side of the Sark; its companion smashed into the bottom of the pirogue and cracked a plank clear across in a spray of pink-tinged water. Seconds later a glass globe struck, shattered, spread clinging inextinguishable fire. The schooner herself slid into sight, still moving with that stately grace. A figure showed in a gap in the protective shields, dressed in a pre-Change airport fireman's getup, complete to clear face-shield and silvery overrobe. Cradled in the figure's hands was what looked like a thick clumsy gun, with a tube running back to an apparatus of pipes and tanks; two more pumped frantically at that, swinging the levers up and down.
The silvery figure raised the weapon, and a long thin stream of amber liquid poured out of it, down onto one of the corsair galleys. With a pop the stream caught fire, then went up with a rush of orange flame and black smoke, playing back and forward along the hundred-foot length of the pirate craft. Wood and canvas and human flesh burned; men turned into torches that danced and leapt into the water shrieking, but the sticky, clinging flame floated there too. Beyond, the sea was thick with high triangular black fins...
Hordle's fighting snarl turned to a broad grin as his great red-running blade went up in a sweeping gesture of invitation, sending a spray of blood across the running planks of the deck as it did. He laughed as he shouted:
"After you, Abdul!"
Half the pirates bolted for their pirogues, dropping their weapons and running screaming to the bulwarks, leaping down and hacking at the ropes that bound them to the Sark and to each other, pushing with oars and throwing their own casualties overboard in their haste.
The other half knew themselves dead men and charged, shrieking. Hordle shifted to a one-handed grip on the long hilt of his sword and drew his dagger with his left hand...
Nigel Loring coughed to clear his throat; it was hoarse with shouting, and he labored to draw air into lungs gone dry as mummy-dust, air wet and hot and foul with the stink of blood and less pleasant bodily fluids. He pushed up his visor with the back of his sword-hand, heedless of the smear that left on his face, and peered at the blurred images.
The clash of metal had stopped for an instant, one of those odd pauses that happened spontaneously in hand-to-hand warfare as men stopped to breathe and shake the sweat out of their eyes. The last of the pirates grouped around a kneeling figure on the foredeck, a thin white-bearded man with a green-dyed turban. He bent in prayer, a small book done in delicate Arabic calligraphy open before him, a string of beads in his his left hand, a small carpet unrolled beneath him. When he rose again, his eyes met Nigel Loring's calm and unafraid.
Curse it, what's the word for surrender? the Englishman thought. My Arabic's completely gone... rendez, that's the French, would he understand that?
Then the moment of calm shattered as a crossbow bolt struck one of the men around the marabout. There was a last rush, surging past Nigel to be in at the kill; he saw Hordle's great blade swinging in a blurred horizontal arc, and the old man's head went bouncing to the rail and over; the body knelt upright for a moment, blood fountaining from the neck, then collapsed in an ungraceful tangle. The last corsairs died around it a second later, hacked into gobbets of flesh and organ and raw pink bone by dozens of blades swung with hysterical strength.
Nigel grimaced and slammed his sword point-down in the deck. An armored hand came into his field of view, holding a British-issue military canteen; he took it with a croak of thanks and splashed some onto his face before taking a deep draught. When he turned to return it, he saw that the man he'd taken it from was armored as he was, also with the visor raised. A young face, fair, blue-eyed and handsome—much like his own son, and nearly as familiar.
"Prince William!" he said, shocked. "What on earth are you doing here, your Highness?"
The younger man smiled. "Getting my life saved by you, Colonel Loring... again, it seems."
Their eyes met, in a flash of perfect mutual understanding. So the Queen has already started putting the heirs in harm's way. And the prince was unafraid—not young man's bravado, but coldly so. Sent south on this deathtrap of a ship...
Loring smiled. "I see I trained you well, your Highness."
"You have, Sir Nigel. I suppose that technically I should arrest you—"
They both looked about. The deck of the Cutty Sark was far closer to the water now; barrels bobbed and floated against the underside of the gratings that covered the hatchways, a bonging, rubbing sound like water-filled drums beating in the halls of sunken Ys. Alleyne had organized working parties, dragging the British and Tasmanian wounded from the piles, carrying them over to where the ships' medics and their helpers were bandaging and sewing at the long ghastly wounds made by scimitar and shovel-headed spear. The Pride of St. Helens edged closer, and so did her longboats.
"—except that I have no choice but to beg your assistance, if we're not all to drown."
"It's my pleasure to serve, your Highness. There's a village not far up the coast that will accommodate you all, and your wounded, until a cutter can reach Rabat and send a Navy ship down to fetch you."
"You realize this is going to make... certain parties at Court look complete fools," the prince said.
"All the better, your Highness."
"Sir Nigel—" the younger man stepped forward and grasped his forearm. "Sir Nigel, if you could come back—"
"That would mean open rebellion," Nigel said softly. "Are you willing to go that far? Do you want me to set you on the throne with the sword's point?"
"Well... no," the prince replied.
"I didn't think you would, somehow," the baronet said, smiling grimly. "And I don't think you need to, if you keep your wits about you. Build on this. Tony Knolles will help, and Oliver Buttesthorn. They're both good men."
"I'll remember that, Sir Nigel," the Prince said. "But where will you go?"
Nigel shrugged, and looked westward, blinking a little as he saw the sun was already setting. It made a path of blood and fire across the water, stretching clouds like hot gold and molten copper along the horizon.
"There, your Highness. This part of the Lorings' story is over, and we've pulled up our roots. Somewhere there's new earth waiting for them."
He looked down at the sword that stood quivering in the wood, and his steel glove fell on its pommel. Goodbye, Maude, old girl, he thought. I wish you were here. Aloud he went on as he tapped the sword-hilt:
"Tilled with this, I fear."
Behind him, his son also looked out over the long slow swell of the sea. "Dawns like thunder," he murmured.
John Hordle ran the swatch of raw fleece down his sword, swearing mildly as that revealed where the steel had taken a knick cutting through bone.
"Sort of traditional," he said. The younger Loring looked at him, and Hordle hefted his blade meaningfully. "Well, it's how we got England in the first place, innit?"
Copyright © 2004-2005 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>