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Excerpt for Ocean of Grass: Petrellan Saga 1 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Ocean of Grass


Gordon A. Long



Published by

Airborn Press

4958 10A Ave, Delta, B. C.

V4M 1X8

Canada


Copyright Gordon A. Long

2018


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


ISBN: 978-1-988898-10-0


Smashwords Edition


Cover Design by Mihaela Voicu


This is a work of fiction. All of the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.



Contents

1. Suicide

2. Beached

3. Conclave

4. Holy Works

5. Horse Hunt

6. Look Ahead

7. Captains’ Conclave

8. Flight

9. Books and Horses

10. Solen

11. Captains Meet

12. Night Battle

13. Reconnaissance

14. The Great Pairie

15. Victory…

16. …and After

17. Diplomacy at its Worst

18. Diplomacy Works

19. The View from Shore

20. Red beard

21. The Eye of the Storm

22. A Visitior

23. Peace

24. From an Exposed Anchorage to a Lee Shore

25. Fleet in the Offing

26. Battle on the Beach

27. Ghosts

28. Bitter Triumph

29. Further Ahead

30. Last Move

31. Costly Win

32. Final Reckoning

33. Funeral Fire

34. Roundup

About the Author


Thanks


To all my beta readers for their gentle criticism



Doing your duty for your Family and Crew brings the greatest fulfillment.”

Can I quote you on that?” Leide reached for a pen.

Don’t you dare.”

from The Teachings of Sarasha the Lame, by Kendie Palawan


Suicide

Sarasha dragged the bowstring back and loosed another shaft, cursing when a gust of wind wafted the arrow aside from its intended victim to drive harmlessly into the deck of the approaching Mastership. Tugging her bandana down to dry the sweat from her forehead, she glanced at her dwindling supply of ammunition as she nocked the next one, then peered down, searching for another target.

There were plenty to choose from. The bowcastle of the approaching Mastership bristled with archers, sailors, and the surging throng of its boarding party, screaming and stamping, preparing themselves to swarm over the rail and down onto the deck of the Sea Eagle when the hooked ram pierced her hull.

“Come on, stand still a moment. It’s just a little battle. You look like idiots, jumping up and down like that. I just want to stick an itty-bitty arrow…right…there!” Her remaining three arrows hit their marks, but the boarding party closed over the injured as if her efforts meant nothing.

As she retied her bandana over her unruly hair, Sarasha allowed herself a brief glance aft to where her father stood at the Eagle’s helm, swinging the big wheel over. From her high vantage in the foremast crow’s-nest, she could see there was no chance. In the crush of battling Ships there was scarce room to maneuver, and the Sea Eagle responded sluggishly, despite the spread of battle canvas surging her through the water.

Slowly, painfully slowly, the Eagle’s bow edged away, but the metal-sheathed battle ram of the huge Mastership tracked her. Four cables of choppy water between the two Ships became three, then two. Fascinated, Sarasha let her useless bow sag in her hands as she watched her Familyship’s doom run down upon her. What’s wrong? Why doesn’t the Eagle respond? She turned to Priest-Captain Tourn again, standing stock-still at the wheel, his eyes roaming from the sea to the sails, but always returning to the death bearing down on his Ship. She pounded the rail of the crow’s-nest in frustration. What is he doing? He doesn’t even have the helm all the way over!

Then her father made his move, and it all became clear.

Just when the collision was imminent, when the bolder Raiders of the boarding party balanced precariously on the rail of the Wolverine’s high bowcastle, eager to swoop down on their prey, her father shouted a command and spun the wheel to port.

The foresails below Sarasha flapped, and the Ship, released from their pressure, spun far faster than any Captain had a right to expect. Instead of presenting her side to her attacker, she spun her bow into the collision so the rams of the two boats met at an angle. As they slid across each other, the bowsprits tangled, tearing rigging and spars from both Ships and sending splinters and flailing canvas in all directions, but mostly down onto the boarding parties.

After that, Sarasha had no time to watch. The jar of the collision whipped the Eagle’s mast forward and she clung to the rail, her right arm wrapped through a rope-end. Then a sharp crack sounded behind her. Horrified, she glanced back to see the maintopmast toppling forward. She threw herself frantically away, but the crows-nest gave her no room. The huge spar leaned into the foretop on her side, slithering down upon her. There was a rending crash, and fiery pain shot through her right leg.

For a stunned moment, Sarasha stood there. Somehow, she was still on her feet. Her bow was gone, but it was useless now. She scrabbled away the tangle of ropes and torn canvas and started to climb clear, but was stopped by agonizing pain in her ankle.

She looked down. The maintopmast had missed her, but her foot was pinned under its bulk. She carefully tried again, but the pain returned. Gritting her teeth, she took hold of her leg below the knee and pulled. Nothing moved, but a stab of agony dropped her to the planks.

This made the pain worse, and she struggled back up. Placing her weight on her good foot, she stared around. Crashes continued to shake the Ship as spars and pieces of rigging showered down to the deck far below. The foretopmast still stood, held up by one inner forestay that had miraculously escaped the ravaging prow of the larger warship.

The two vessels remained locked together, and far below, the boarding parties clawed towards each other with single-minded purpose. More attackers scrambled down from the other Ship. It was only a matter of time before Sarasha’s people, fighting in the tangle of the bowcastle, would be outnumbered and overrun. After that, the Ship was done.

Then, through the crashes and screams and the howl of the wind, came a familiar voice:

“Foretop!”

She twisted to peer back and down to her father, still at the wheel, his face tilted up to her.

“Back the foretops’ls.”

She understood. The wreckage had cut control of the yards from the deck, but if she could back the sails, the wind would push the bow of the Eagle away from the other Ship. The weight of men jumping from the Wolverine onto the Eagle, plus the rush of the Eagle’s own party forward, had lowered the smaller Ship’s bow, and the huge Mastership had risen enough that the Eagle’s ram could slide out from under the downward hook of the other Ship’s beak. Sarasha struggled again to free herself, but was again decked by the pain.

“I’m stuck! My foot!”

Her father’s head came up, and she screamed her message down to him again, pointing at her foot, making a futile pushing motion against the spar that held it trapped.

He left the wheel, staring upward, oblivious to the chaos around him, scanning the rigging for other crewmembers. There was no one near. Then he held up his hands and tilted his body to the right, the signal for “heel to starboard.” She returned him an enthusiastic positive.

He raised a hand to her, “message received,” and returned to the wheel, calling instructions to the handful of sailors aft who still stood to their posts. They hauled in on the sheets; the spars on the upper mizzenmast, uninjured by the collision, creaked around. The huge mizzen boom inched to windward. One by one, the sails caught the wind, and the Ship heeled ever so slightly to starboard. There was a brief, sharp pain in her ankle, and then she was free.

She tossed a “thank you” gesture to the Priest-Captain and scrabbled her way into the rigging. Once her feet left the planks, her hands took over and she moved out smoothly, swinging from rope to rope, her practiced eye surveying the wreckage, tracing intact lines, assessing broken spars. It took longer than she wanted, with her people dying down on the deck and more enemy boarding each moment, but finally she had a network of sheets snagged together. Swinging out to the end of the tops’l yard, she signalled to the deck below.

“Haul away the upper sta’b’d sheets!”

The deck crew responded with desperate strength, and she watched anxiously as the belaboured foremast pivoted, its spars dragging the detritus of the maintop with them.

But all held, and then the wind caught. The Ship heeled as the high sails took the strain. There was more grinding and ripping, and then the injured Eagle began tearing herself free.

Sarasha saw the problem before her father’s shout could reach her. Grabbing that last remaining forestay, she slung herself below it, her useless leg dragging beneath her, and slid forward and down to where a twisted web of rope held the Eagle tangled in the rigging of the larger Ship. Her knife was hacking the moment she reached the first line, and she clove her way downward, leaving a widening gap in the jumble above her.

As she worked, a new danger threatened. She was sliding down towards the struggling mass of soldiers on deck, and an archer from the Wolverine had spotted her plan. She kept moving, aided by the swing of the Ship, but his arrows buzzed uncomfortably near. As long as they kept missing…

Then a lurch, and the Eagle was free. A wild cry of despair went up from the Wolverine’s boarding party, drowned by a wave of cheering from the Eagles who stormed forward, pinning their trapped enemy against the forward rails, hewing them down.

Sarasha pried her gaze away from the slaughter, scanning for danger upwind, but the Wolverine had problems of her own. Her forestays were down, and she was forced to bear off the wind to keep the pressure from her masts. This left the Eagle room to maneuver. Sarasha clambered painfully back aloft, scanning the thinning pack of Ships around them.

The battle was not going well for the rebels. The superior tonnage of the Priest-Admiral’s fleet had taken its toll. She looked below, to where her father snapped orders to the Signals page. Soon the flag she had hoped never to see crawled up the mizzen signal halyard. It was black, unrelieved by any other emblem.

Beach the Fleet.

Horrified, she gazed around the battle again and understood. She had sat with the rebel Priest-Captains at their final Conclave, scribing their grim words. This was their last stand. If they could not break through the Priest-Admiral’s blockade, they would take the only freedom available: the land. The unthinkable solidity of rock.

Tears blurring her vision, she began to cobble together whatever canvas she found, cannibalizing the lines from the torn sails, patching what she could. She knew they needed all the power they could scrape up. Her father had reconnoitered the shoreline in the preceding days, and he knew the exact point to run aground, where the receding tide would leave them with access to land. She remembered his bitter laugh the day before.

“That’s one place they won’t dare follow us, one order the Priest-Admiral won’t dare give. There’d be Fleet-wide mutiny!”

A younger Priest-Captain, Tory of the Osprey, nodded. “Especially to follow some of their own people.”

Priest-Captain Tourn shook his head sadly. “We aren’t their own people any more, Tory. We’re heretics.”

There was glum silence at that, broken by her father’s hand slapping the table. “No matter which way it goes, we’ll be free of the Masterships and their tyranny.”

There were brightening nods, and the meeting broke up on a lifting note.

Now, the moment had come. The wounded Sea Eagle heeled under the force of the increased sail, straining towards the threatening, rocky coastline. Two of the lumbering Masterships of the Priest-Admiral turned to cut her off, but Priest-Captain Tourn had an answer for them. Four funeral lanterns - huge, fragile pots of volatile fluid - were brought on deck, their oiled wicks lighted. With straining muscles, the sailors hoisted them aloft to hang out to either side on the longest spars fore and aft. The Eagle had made her intentions clear. If any Ship grappled with her, the torches would drop, immolating both vessels in a suicidal inferno.

Sure enough, the Masterships sheered away, and an open lane appeared.

Sarasha stood as straight as she could, tears streaming as she watched her father preside over the death of his beloved Eagle. Standing stiffly, his the only hand on the helm, he steered her, perfectly straight as ever, towards her doom. The dying Ship responded as she always had, cleaving the water cleanly, riding smoothly, as proud in her final moment of defeat as she had been in all her victories.

Once they were clear of the battle, however, her father handed the wheel to Chan, his Chief Helmsman. Issuing orders in his calm voice, he strode the deck. The funeral lanterns were hauled down, their oil poured into leather bags. The Eagle’s crew was going ashore, and nothing would be wasted. Plans, long prepared in the apprehension of disaster, now swung into action. The elderly and the young filed on deck clutching their personal belongings and mustered silently to their stations. Sarasha watched as if from a dream, her high vantage giving it all a surreal aspect.

She lifted her gaze. Seven other rebel Ships were breaking free, arrowing for the rocky beach. A huge cloud of black smoke rose to the south, where the Masterships had called the old Condor’s bluff. The ancient warship had taken two of the enemy with her to her grave. Sarasha watched numbly, unable to find sadness in the midst of this upheaval.

Her lower right leg had become a mass of hot throbbing. Without another task, she had to look at it. The shoe had been torn off, ripping the skin, but she could see no bone sticking through and there was blood, but not much . I suppose that’s a good sign. The Surgeon will tell me the rest, but I have faint hope. It feels really mashed.

A grinding noise beside her drew her sharp glance. The broken maintop had started to move with the rhythm of the waves. Now, it was imperative that nothing should change the delicate balance that kept the dying Ship on her course. Sarasha gathered broken line and lashed the fragment as securely as she could to the foremast. The grinding slowed, then stopped, as she wrapped rope after rope around the two spars.

When she had finished, she glanced down again. The deck was returning to its usual order, save for the chaos of the broken bowsprit.

“Mast’n to the deck!” The Priest-Captain’s voice cut through the bustle as it always did. Sarasha began her painful scramble down, seeing only four figures in the rigging: herself on the foremast, one on the main, and two on the undamaged mizzen. It had been a long, hard-fought battle, starting at dawn when the rebel fleet had broken from shelter and tried to force a way through the encircling blockade. Enemy archers and battle damage had taken the rest of the high rigging crew. She hoped some of them were on the deck already.

She also hoped they had good reason to be there. No sailor deserted his post in battle and lived to celebrate with the Ship.

She reached the rail and stood, weight on her good foot, balanced by a hand on the ratlines. Instead of that last, graceful leap to the deck, she had to climb down carefully. Then she stood still again, leaning on the rail, wondering what to do now.

“Mast’n to the helm.”

She eyed the rods of bare deck between her and her father. Hop? Crawl? Her dignity seemed the only thing she had left. Then a hand gripped her elbow.

“Need a lean?”

She glanced over her shoulder. “Yong! Where were you?”

The boy grinned down at her from his considerable height. “The maintop almost got me. I was out on the end of a yard that broke. I had no choice but to ride her down. Dropped me in the middle of the battle on the bowcastle.”

She tried to check him over. “How did you get through that?”

“Luck.” He tossed his mop of black hair aside. “I landed right on top of one of them, flattened him, grabbed his sword and got in the fight. Next thing I knew, a bunch of canvas swept across the deck right on top of me. By the time I got untangled we were swinging clear, so I helped mop up the boarders and tried to get some order on the bowsprit.” He held out a hand. “Coming?”

“As long as you’re not expecting a hornpipe.”

They reached the Priest-Captain and stood in a broken row. His quick glance assayed their condition. “There’s no hurry now, but I want to run her in as far as I can. That means we take time to prepare, then pile on the sail at the last moment. She’ll hit hard, with the waves lifting her. I want no one in the rigging at that time, in case another mast goes down. Sarasha, are you fit? Can you go aloft?”

“Slowly, sir.”

“Then you take the mid on the foremast, and Yong can do the foretop. Firm it up, bend on all the canvas that still works. You two,” he indicated the next sailors in the line, “get as many of the lower mains’ls ready to unfurl as you can. Pers, you could splice that crack in the mizzen boom if you can find a piece of spar long enough. All of you keep an eye out for weak spots. There’ll be the gods’ own crash no matter what, and we have a lot of people on deck. Keep in mind that the pressure will be forward, but there might be a whiplash back. Bosun!”

“Aye, sir!”

“You heard their orders. Two men on deck for each one aloft. You supervise the main and keep an eye on the mizzen. Sarasha will call the fore. Carry on.”

There was a ragged chorus of “Aye, sir,” and the sailors sprinted for the ratlines. Yong helped Sarasha forward to the rail, where she pushed him ahead.

“You get up there. Start by doubling the lower aft stay; the upper aft went with the maintopmast. Replace the upper stay if you can. I want to check it over from down here first.” She turned to the two deckmen. “Yong needs you to watch the halyards. Any that aren’t working sails, he’ll be using to stay the mast. Figure them out while he climbs. I’ll call you when I need you.”

They nodded and spun to their tasks, and she turned to regard her mast.

The foremast was a sorry jumble. The foretop was cleaned off on the port side where the other spar had scraped down. All the rope and canvas from that collision lay atop her crow’s-nest, along with the splinters of the yards. Cleaning those up would be Yong’s next task. She worked herself up into the forward rigging, her eye tracking the lines she would need. Most of the jib halyards were still in place, and if she could tie them off on what was left of the bowsprit…

“Twenty cables to shore. Spread all sail!”

She looked up from her work, muttering a curse. The rocks seemed much closer than that.

“Mark ten fathoms!” A leadsman had found a clear space on the bow to swing his sounding line.

The bosun strode into sight below her, with two deckmen. “We’re done aft, Foremaster Tourn. We’re to help you.”

I’ve been promoted. That won’t last long. Not if the Surgeon’s word is against me. She pushed that thought aside and started giving orders. Soon, every possible piece of canvas she could carry plunged the Eagle towards the unforgiving shore.

At three cables from the rocks and in four fathoms of water, the Priest-Captain ordered all hands out of the rigging. The Crew stood on deck, clinging fast to whatever they could, mesmerized by the shoreline approaching closer and closer.

A rugged skirting of rocks fronted a sloping beach of sand dunes. Beyond them, a smooth green expanse stretched towards the horizon, the grass rippling in the gusts of wind. The Great Prairie. Their new home.

With a dull scraping sound, the graceful forward motion of the Ship hesitated, then continued. Lifted by the next wave, she sailed calmly on towards her doom.

The next one wasn’t so easy; the wave dropped out from under her, and she crashed into an underwater reef. A shudder ran from the keel upwards, and debris rained to the deck. There were a few sharp cries from the children, but no other sound. Another wave, and she was lifted onward. A splintering from aft told the destruction of the rudder, and the wheel spun in the Priest-Captain’s hands.

“Sheet trimmers stand by.”

Steering the Ship by sails alone was a skill in which her father had some pride. It was perhaps fitting that the Eagle should end her life so. Under the Priest-Captain’s quiet orders, the sailors trimmed their lines: now tightening, now slacking, and the crippled bow again pointed towards the rocks.

When the end came, every soul on board felt it. A larger wave lifted the Eagle, but instead of falling, she continued to climb out of the water in a long, slow slide that rose and rose until the bow pointed far above the horizon. The screech and grind of protesting timbers intensified, then died away.

“Haul in the mizzen. Loose all foresails. Harden the mainsheets to port.” The change in pressure slewed the stern around, and the Ship settled sideways to the shore, listing towards the rocks she had spent her lifetime cheating.

Sarasha was thrown, her injured foot striking the deck, and hot fire raced up her leg. She found herself doubled over the rail, staring down at white surf boiling around the hull. A grinding, crunching sound arose from deep inside the Ship, the planks twisting beneath her feet. The bow began to drop, but the stern stayed fixed on the rocks. A jagged line splintered across the deck, beams punching up like bones through skin. With a grinding roar, the foremast tore free of its stays and toppled, descending in a mass of flaying lines, ribbonned canvas and broken spars.

There was a sudden, awful, stillness, disturbed only by the rumble of the receding waves and the cry of a gull. Sarasha stared at her mast, the mainstay of her life, lying across the bowcastle. Her topmast, with the maintop still lashed beside it, rested…

on the rocks! Cursing her injury, she hauled herself forward along the rail. “Mast’n forward. Lash her down!”

Generations of training paid off; nobody questioned her order. Everyone leaped to do her bidding. They hacked off the twined rigging and shards of the crow’snest, lashing the fallen masts firmly in place. She sent a party out along their length to clear away loose ends and splinters. When she was satisfied, she turned to the Helm with the traditional call.

“Gangplank secure, sir. Ready for lading.”

The Priest-Captain’s mouth twisted in irony, but his only response was a nod to the bosun. The officer strode forward, his voice ringing out. “Abandon Ship routine. Portside Families forward will begin!”

With quiet precision, the crew of the Eagle filed out along the masts, carrying their assigned possessions. They moved surely, showing little emotion as they trekked down the slope to the rocks. There, the orderly line scattered as they continued inland, clambering over the ridges that lined the shore.

A shout from ahead signalled a better path, and soon the speed of the evacuation picked up. Sarasha leaned against the rail, wondering what she could do. A familiar voice caught her ear.

“Permission to adjust procedure, sir.”

What is Yong doing?

“Is your assigned task covered?”

“Aye, sir.”

She craned her head around. Her father and her friend regarded her.

“Permission granted, Yong.” The Captain nodded to the bosun. “One deck hand.”

The bosun pointed to a man about Yong’s height, and the two sailors stepped toward her.

“Let’s go, ’Rasha. Time for shore leave.” Yong grinned at her, but his lips curled down.

She slid her arms over their shoulders, and they easily boosted her wiry frame across the deck. It was no difficult matter for the sailors to walk as wide a path as two masts with so light a burden, and they made quick work of it.

Soon they were on a sandy path winding inland. They had not even set her down for a breather when they reached the first refuge. Deep in the tangle of rocks and sand that fronted the beach, in an easily-defended swale, the Crew-Families were setting up temporary shelters of sailcloth organized into specific areas: supplies, families, injured, cooking. Yong and the other sailor, a Shipwright's helper that Sarasha did not know well, deposited her in the line of wounded outside the Surgeon’s tent and returned to the Ship to continue the final off-loading. With a pang, Sarasha knew she would never sail in the Eagle again. She would certainly never walk her deck.

The Surgeon’s Assistant checked her over briefly and determined that her injury was not lifethreatening. He gave her a potion to ease the pain and moved on. She wriggled herself a hollow in the sand, lay back and drowsed.

Screaming pain awoke her.

The Surgeon, a gruff, clean-shaven man who had never spoken to her before, observed her face as he manipulated her ankle. “Hurts?”

She gritted her teeth, not trusting her voice, and merely nodded. Cold sweat broke out on her brow, and nausea churned her stomach. His fingers prodded, producing a lesser pain overlying the background throbbing caused by the original movement. She could not bear to see the swollen, bleeding, mangled mass at the end of her leg, so she watched the Surgeon’s face closely. The next word he said might be the one that sealed her fate. She also watched his right hand. If he reached for his scalpel, it would be even sooner.

To her relief and dismay he shook his head, but he did not speak to her. He gave thorough instructions to his Assistant, and was gone before Sarasha got up the courage to ask the question.

The Assistant immediately got to work, binding her ankle firmly in a wide cloth bandage. When he had finished, he propped her leg up on a rolled blanket, nodded to her and went about his business.

She regarded this new development. At least it was better than before. It was a neat, white bundle, with only her bruised big toe sticking out the end. She could bring herself to regard it in a drowsy way. Gradually, the pain faded as the drug reasserted its hold on her.

She was just waking when her mother stumbled, disheveled, dirty and exhausted, into the refuge. “How goes it, daughter?”

Sarasha slowly raised her eyelids, then her head. Verlene’s dark hair stood out in coils and a smudge of oil covered her cheek. “Mother. You look like a rough day of fishing, and you were the bait.”

The older woman dragged out a smile and reached out to pat Sarasha’s own dark curls into place. “Well, at least you sound normal. How is the foot? Your father told me.”

Sarasha shook her head. “The Surgeon wasn’t too happy, Mother. He frowned and shook his head.”

Verlene winced, then smoothed her face. “He has a lot to deal with right now, none of it happy.”

“Happy or not, it still isn’t good, Mother.” Sarasha shrugged. “I don’t see myself running any races soon. Or ever.”

“Is it that bad?”

“You didn’t see it when it was unwrapped. Like last year’s salt cod.”

Her mother slid down beside her, a strong arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, dear. There won’t be any decisions made in a hurry. Not about an injury like this, and not in this situation.”

Sarasha frowned. “I was just thinking. If we have to move in a hurry, I’m definitely excess tonnage.”

Verlene gave her daughter a small shake. “Don’t think like that. We won’t be moving in a hurry.”

“Won’t the Priest-Admiral send a shore party?”

“So far, he hasn’t. We gave the Fleet quite a tearing. The Condor took two Masterships down with her.”

Tears prickled behind Sarasha’s eyelids. “She was a fine old Ship.”

“One of the best in the Fleet. They were fools to divide us. They’ve lost a great deal.”

“Not as much as we have.” She peered down at her foot, then out at the orderly camp, the tired, dejected people.

“Sarasha, we all agreed. It was a life we could not bear. We knew there was a chance we would lose the good as well, but it couldn’t be helped. The tyranny afloat was worse than being ashore.”

“We went over that often enough.” A brief memory flashed through her mind: her pride at the brave array of their little fleet as they sailed into the uneven battle this morning.

Her mother’s back straightened. “Standing up against tyranny was the best thing we’ve ever done. No matter where it ended us.”

Sarasha studied her bandaged lump. “You may be ashore, but I may be Beached.”

Again, her mother shook her. “Don’t borrow trouble before it happens. You just lie there and think getting-well thoughts. I have some things to do.”

“Haven’t you done enough for a while?”

Her mother smiled wearily. “When the watches are set, and the Families are in their Cab-… their tents asleep, then I rest.”

Sarasha reached up and squeezed her mother’s hand. “Priest-Captain’s wife as always.”

“I know it’s been hard on you, Sara.”

“Never regretted it a moment. Not since I was old enough to understand what it meant.”

“Thank you, Sarasha.” Her mother gave her a final squeeze, then turned away and clambered slowly to her feet. Not before Sarasha noticed the tears glistening on her cheek in the rays of the dying sun.

Beached

The following days were a blur to Sarasha. The Surgeon’s Assistant continued the doses of potion, which deadened the pain but also killed all her feelings and her interest in what was happening around her. He sounded pleased that there was no more swelling. She clung to that small solace in her waking moments. Someone moved her to a bunk in her Family tent: not a bunk, but blankets on the soft sand, which became hard if she lay in one position for any length of time.

Yong and Pers visited often, telling her what was going on, but she couldn’t remember what they told her. She did recall the alarms and shouts when a probing landing party from the Fleet was repelled. She woke up fully for that one, grasping her dagger and sitting up in bed. Then the shouts faded, as did her awareness. All the rest was lost in a hazy dream where her leg took on huge, throbbing dimensions, dominating her whole being. Somehow, it became a separate entity, and she was Beached: alone with no one but this massive, painful companion.

She awoke one morning aware that she felt different. The Surgeon’s Assistant was there, unwrapping her foot. He glanced up from his task to see that she was awake, and nodded to her. “We’ll just have another look at this. The pain seems to be better.”

“It does?”

A wan smile. “I’ve been reducing your pain-killing dose the last two days. Haven’t you noticed?”

“I feel like I slept properly, now that you mention it.” She stretched her arms, dismayed at how weak they felt.

The Assistant unwrapped the binding, gently tugging where the ends had stuck to the healing flesh. It took a soaking in warm water, but finally the last bandage came free, and her injury emerged into the daylight.

It wasn’t good.

Her foot was mottled blue, yellow and green from above her ankle to the tips of her toenails, with especial darkness between the toes and under the anklebone. She grimaced.

“Don’t worry. That’s only the bruising. It will go away. No infection. Can you move your toes?”

Sarasha had a vague memory of him asking that before, but couldn’t recall the result. She clenched her toes and was rewarded by a spike of pain and a small tremor in her foot. Gritting her teeth, she tried again, slower this time. Her big toe definitely moved: once, twice, then again, until the tears streamed down her face.

His hand on her shoulder brought the trial to an abrupt stop. “Don’t try too hard. It works. That’s a good sign.” Then he grasped her whole foot in both hands. “Can you move the ankle? Push against my hand.”

This time the pain was worse, with less result. Once again, he stopped her when the tears flowed. He moved the ankle himself, watching her face.

“Let me know when it hurts. Otherwise I can’t judge your progress.”

She felt her lip curl. “It always hurts. There’s only less and more.”

He smiled again, that tired lifting of one corner of his mouth. “Then let me know when it hurts more.”

“It hurts more when you move it side to side. Up and down is painful, but not so bad.”

His nod brought a stab of hope to her heart. “I’ll just wrap it up again, not so tight this time, now that there’s less worry of swelling.” He suited actions to his words, then shot her a piercing glance. “Do not put any weight on it at this time. That is an Order.”

Hearing the authority in his voice, she searched for a witty retort, but her mind failed her. “Aye, sir.”

He nodded, finished his job and left. She leaned back in her bed, aware now of her surroundings. The sun shone through the canvas, making the tent a bright, airy place, like lying in the crow’s-nest. Fresh stitching on faded canvas showed that the Sailmakers had been working hard to create new accommodation. Now that she was aware, the old outlines of a hatch cover showed in the ceiling of her shelter.

Another stab of reality pierced her. She had ordered the wreckage of her crow’s-nest cleared from the fallen mast so the Families could leave the dying Ship. A grin twisted her lips. She had been promoted to Foremaster, then watched her mast fall, along with her promotion, less than a glass later.

She grieved the loss of her mast. The foremast crow’s-nest had been her sanctuary, away from the closeness of the Families, the careful coldness of other children, the delicate course she had to sail: always the Priest-Captain’s daughter; never accepted, ever feared.

She had loved the new forward rake of the mast, which had moved her refuge out closer to the bow. Many hours she had spent staring straight down at the sea frothing around the forefoot, the dolphins splashing and squirming ahead. The rake had been her father’s idea. He had shortened the bowsprit as well, and while the Ship had lost its former long, racy lines, it moved the whole rigging forward and straightened up the luff of the foresails, giving them better draw to windward. The Priest-Admiral had not liked the idea that a mere Familyship could sail closer to the wind than his Mastership. Her father and the other captains who had followed his lead were ordered, upon threat of Beaching, to put their Ships back into “Traditional Form.” When they refused, they were branded heretics, and the power of the whole Fleet was turned against them.

So here we are, Beached after all.

And that was the lesser of her problems. She glared down at the bundled foot in front of her. If the foot did not heal enough for her to perform her function in the Crew, she would be Beached with a week’s supply of food and water and left to her own fate.

She snorted in derision. That was one of the reasons her whole Family was on the beach. The desires of the Fates had seemed too often to coincide with the fortunes of the Priest-Admiral and his cronies on their huge, luxurious Masterships. The smaller Familyships, like Eagle and poor old Condor, who made their living by fishing, raiding, trading and carrying cargo for the Landbound, seemed to be always paying, always obeying, yet receiving little in return.

And now, even that was finished. They were branded heretic by the Priest-Admiral’s Conclave. The Eagle lay on the rocks, her back broken, her single intact mast reaching forlornly back towards her home: the great, cold Southern Ocean.

And Sarasha’s foot hurt.


* * *


“Father, I have to be there.”

“Is that wise, ’Rasha? Do you want to show everyone your condition?”

“I want to show them I am alive, alert, and ready to stand up for myself!” She tossed her hands up. “Even if I can’t Scribe for the Conclave while I’m under threat of Beaching. Or stand up on my own.”

Her mother nodded. “I believe she’s right, Arlijn. The truth is stronger than gossip. Word is going around the Lower Decks that she is incapacitated.”

Her father copied Sarasha’s gesture, exaggerated by the size of his hands. “I am overwhelmed by superior numbers. How will you get there?”

“I have friends.”

His face cleared. “That is also a good idea. Display your forces.”

“Father, trust you to find a political slant. I wasn’t considering it that way.”

“You should be. Politics becomes doubly important when the fabric of the Crew is strained.”

“I bow to your superior knowledge, my Priest-Captain.”

To her dismay, this lighthearted gibe brought a cloud to her father’s face.

“No longer a Priest, no longer a Captain.”

“Father, that’s not so!”

“Yes, it is, Sarasha. Our Families have no use for Priests any more. Neither do I, as you well know. And since there is no Ship, there is no Captain.” He spread his hands in a gesture of finality.

“But the Families still need leadership.” Her mother placed a hand over his. “More so than ever.”

“Perhaps. But the form that leadership takes will be different. It must be. We are trying to break away from the old forms that were destroying us.”

Verlene smiled calmly. “Wait and see, my dear. The more things change, the more people cling to the forms with which they are familiar. Priest or Captain or whatever the name, you have been a good commander, strong, intelligent and fair. There will be few who would seek new leadership.”

“That is probable. We shall have to see.”

Yong showed up to take Sarasha to the Conclave. She had expected him to bring someone to help carry her, maybe one or two more, but he showed up with a small crowd of the younger Crew: twenty at least; men and women. She watched them from her couch under the sailcloth awning as they approached. The presence of the Priest-Captain’s tent caused them to settle somewhat, but there was still an aggressive swagger to their step. When her father stepped out to speak to them, they positively swelled.

He looked them over for a brief, silent moment, then greeted them more formally than Sarasha had expected. “Good day, Crew members and Family.”

Yong was equal to the occasion. “My greetings, and those of my friends, to you, Priest-Captain Tourn. We have come to take our friend to the Conclave.”

Her father gave each member of the group a moment of personal regard. Then he turned to Yong again. “I am pleased to welcome my daughter’s friends.”

Yong’s head dropped in a slight formal bow. “We believe there will be changes, Priest-Captain.”

“There have been grave changes already. More must follow.”

“Be aware, Priest-Captain Tourn, that your daughter’s friends will give good heed to her counsel.”

“My daughter is a thoughtful Crew member.”

“Then it is important that her counsel be heard.”

Her father nodded. “I understand. It has been good to speak with you, Crew members and Family.” He bowed and faded back into the tent as the young Crew gathered around her.

Yong and Pers made a chair with their hands and scooped her up. As they walked across the swale to the Conclave, she twisted to get a straight look at their faces. “Yong, what was that all about?”

“Do you know what an election is?” Yong tossed her his usual grin.

“Of course I know what an election is, you idiot! What has that got to do with me?”

“What it has to do with you, my dear idiot, is that we all got together and had an election.”

“And what were you electing?”

“We were electing our spokesperson.”

“Elections? Spokesperson? Where did you learn words like that?”

He stared ahead smugly. “Your father.”

“What?” She also looked forward and saw how close they were to the assembled Families. “Wait a moment. Yong, Pers, you just put me down right here. We are going to talk about this.”

“Why?”

“Because you have some kind of plan, and I’m some part of it and I’m not going into the most important Conclave of our lives with no idea of what’s going on!”

Yong stopped and grinned over her head at Pers. “Should we put her down?”

Pers pretended to consider, his blond mop of hair tossing. “If she gets real mad, I don’t want to be this close to her with my hands occupied.”

“All right, you two comics. Stop fiddling around and put me down on that piece of driftwood over there.”

They complied, and the group knelt and sat around her.

“Now, I will ask you one more time. What is going on?”

“Doesn’t she sound like her father when she gets mad?”

“My father doesn’t get mad. Don’t change the topic.”

Yong’s handsome face sobered. “We got together, Sarasha, because this is a very important Conclave. Our whole way of life is changing. Look around you. Our friends are the offspring of the most important people on the Ship: Officers, Rigging, Auxiliary and Belowdecks. Sooner or later, we will be the leaders. We want to have our say now, because whatever the Crew decides, we will be the ones who have to live with it.”

“Fair enough. And where did you hear all those heretical ideas? My father doesn’t talk like that.”

“He does in Captains’ Conclaves.”

“But those are always secret. I was only there because I’m his Scribe.”

Pers grinned, but his pale blue eyes did not lose their sharp regard. “But they often took place on the Eagle.”

“Oh.” That explains several things. “You took some serious risks, you realize. If you’d been caught in that old companionway that everybody thought was boarded up…”

“We weren’t caught. And we’ve had our own conclave, and our own election for our spokesperson. And you’re it. I mean, it’s you.”

“Me!” She stared at her bandaged foot. “I may not even be around a half-moon from now.”

“You will if we have anything to say about it.”

A warm glow suffused her chest. “Well, thank you. I didn’t really think…well, …thank you.”

“Some spokesperson,” Pers sniffed. “Can’t even find anything to say.”

“All right. I’m your spokesperson.” She shot him a withering glance. “What do you want me to say?”

“We don’t know.”

“You have nothing to say and you have me all primed to say it. Great. Are you setting me up to look stupid? That’ll be really useful in the Conclave.”

Yong’s face lost its humour. “That’s the problem, Sarasha. We don’t know enough about what’s going on. Nobody does. Not until the Conclave. You think fast. You’ve had more information than we have for a longer time, and you’ve been considering it. We trust you. Speak for us.”

She considered a moment, running through all the ideas her father had spoken of. “Very well, but you realize the danger. That kind of attitude is what allows people like the Priest-Admiral to take over. If the Crew gives the right to talk to one person, and lets that person say what will happen, then that person is very dangerous.”

Instead of making them reconsider, this brought smiles to their faces. “See? I told you. She’s always coming up with things like that.” Yong leaned forward. “That’s why we want you to speak for us. You can try to let us know what you plan to say ahead of time, but you say what you have to, when you have to. We’ll back you.”

She nodded. “Fine. But if I say something you don’t like, you haul me down quick and straighten me out. Deal?”

A glance passed through the group. “Deal.”

“Fine. Now that we have created enough suspicion by having a strategy meeting where everyone can see us, we might as well go in as a group. We’d be fooling no one if we tried anything else.”

They picked her up again and moved at a confident pace toward the large, dished curve in the lee of a dune where the Crew was formed up. She couldn’t help but note that as her supporters started forward, they fell into raiding party formation: scouts, main body, flankers, rearguard. Her group contained some of the finest of the young Raiders in the Crew: those left after two months of running skirmishes and that final, destructive battle.

She pointed to a position that was just right: an open area they could command without disturbing anyone already seated, just close enough to the Chart Table to be noticed and far enough to the side for a view of the Crew. As Yong and Pers set her down, two others brought a piece of driftwood, and there she sat, head and shoulders above the rest.

This exposure made her uneasy, but she had no choice. No point in trying to conceal my infirmity. If I sit on the sand, I’ll have an awkward struggle to get up. Better to have it out in the open, but no reason to make it obvious. She used her position to advantage and gazed around.

Hers wasn’t the only group that entered and sat together. The next thing she noticed was that the Captain’s Scribe was her younger cousin, Leide. The girl entered behind the Priest-Captain and Captain’s Wife, looking self-conscious and a little afraid, although her Scribe’s tabard was sharp and spotless as usual, her auburn hair slicked down under a formal kerchief. Sarasha sympathized. If things went badly for the Priest-Captain, his Scribe would find it difficult to distance herself from him. Also, any mistake she made at this important Conclave could haunt her all her life.

Priest-Captain Tourn sat at the Chart Table, a huge, carved monolith that must have taken a great deal of trouble to get out of his cabin and across the beach. As he sat, silence descended, until only the sighing of the wind in the sea-grass, the rumble of the breakers and the odd seagull cry could be heard.

He sat there, gazing out at his Crew, his craggy, weathered face calm.

“My people. There is no sense in trying to cushion the blow. I have never lied to you, and I will not start. The Eagle is no more. Her back is broken, and she will never sail again. We are Beached. We knew this might happen, and it has. No one need apologize. We all did our best, but we were throwing against loaded dice, and we lost.

“Now, there are decisions to be made. Many of what seem to be decisions are really not. In many cases, we have no choice. For example, it has been suggested that we stay here, use the timbers from the Eagle to build a town, and start a trading port.

“I cannot think of a worse choice.”

A mutter arose from a group to the left of the Table. Sure enough, it was the Quartermaster and his brothers. Trust them to want to become merchants.

Her father ignored the interruption. “Don’t think the Priest-Admiral has forgotten us. We dared to defy him, and we still live. We did him enough damage in the final battle that he is unwilling to risk an immediate foray against us. His confidence in his control of the Fleet has also been shaken. How many others might be disaffected? For the moment, he does not know. He does not dare give an unpopular order in case it brings him down.”

He paused, staring around.

“Do not fool yourselves into thinking it will take him long to reaffirm his grasp of the Fleet now that his main detractors are crushed. Do not dream he will not come searching for us, the first moment he is able. When he comes, we must not be here.”

Again, he scanned the crowd, waiting for dispute that did not come.

“Ask him where we’re going.”

Sarasha leaned down to return the whisper. “I can’t do that, Pers. I don’t want to seem like his stooge in the crowd, asking the obvious questions so he can answer them. Don’t worry, I won’t have to.”

“Where are we going?”

They grinned at each other as the question, from a woman on the other side, was taken up by several voices.

The Priest-Captain held up a hand for silence. “That is a point where we have choices. Of course, we must go inland. However, there are three routes.”

He gestured with one hand. “To the west of us lies a fair land, well-watered, with good soil. It is peopled by a race of Farmers, not fierce, but stubborn in the defense of their homes. We should know; we have raided them often enough.”

A grim chuckle ran through the crowd.

“There is no room for us there. We would have to push them out and fight a continuous battle to keep them out. They are many, and we are few at the moment.

“The next choice is to the north. In that direction lies open prairie: dry grassland, rising slowly to a huge mountain range many leagues inland that cuts off all congress with the more civilized peoples to the north, around the Inner Sea.”

Another murmur. To hear the fabled Inner Sea mentioned so casually, as if it were reality!

“The third choice lies to the east, where the mountains approach the ocean, and high valleys might afford a sparse living. Our scouts have found a narrow inlet we could fortify without too much effort, to give us limited access to the sea. There, if all the Families from all the Ships that died here put their boarding parties together, we could probably fight off any attack the Priest-Admiral is likely to mount.

“Those are the three choices we have discovered. I would like to invoke a quarter-glass recess, so you may discuss them among yourselves. In a quarter of a glass we will reconvene, and you may have your say on these options or on any other ideas you may have.”

He rose and turned over the small sandglass, placing it in the middle of the Chart Table where everyone could see.

Conclave

In the buzz of conversation that followed, Sarasha turned to her group. “Well?”

“What do you say, Sarasha?”

She considered. “You are some of the best young Raiders in our boarding parties. As the Priest-Captain said, with help from the other Ships, we could thumb our noses at the Priest-Admiral for years to come.”

“But…”

“What do you mean, ‘but’, Yong? I didn’t say ‘but’.”

“I could hear it in your voice. What is the other side, the one you didn’t say?”

“We have always lived a precarious life. There are storms and riptides, and the young men go raiding. The chances of death and life are about even. Our advantage is that we are in control. When a storm comes, we can ride it out or run for shelter. We raid when we wish, and we can retreat at any time.

“If we pen ourselves up in a fortress, we will put our lives under the control of the Priest-Admiral again.”

“How? You just said we could thumb our noses at him.”

“Yes, but it would always be his choice when he would attack. We would forever live in fear of the next foray. That is the life of the Landbound.”

She flipped a hand to the east. “It would be the same if we ran the Farmers out. We would create a neighbour who was our enemy. We would always be awaiting the next attack. Shipfolk have always lived on the offensive. You wouldn’t like defensive warfare.”

They nodded. Yong looked over his shoulder and pulled his faded canvas smock tighter. “So you think we should go north, into the plains.”

“I do. So does my father, you can tell. It would be very different from our lives now. If we hit a few bad years, we could starve. But we would control our own lives. We are strong, and we are together. I’m sure we would do well.”

Yong laughed. “And there’s one other thing. Have you ever seen a horse?”

For a moment, Sarasha glared at him. “What do you mean, ‘Have I ever seen a horse?’ I’m not a complete sea-slosh. Of course I’ve seen a horse.”

Yong smiled again. “Not those awkward creatures the Farmers use. Real horses. I was on one of the scouting parties. We walked for two days out into the plains. There was a herd of wild horses out there. Not too big, but shaggy and tough. They live out in the plains, winter and summer. They know the water holes and the sheltered spots for weathering storms. We shot one for meat. It seemed a shame, it was so beautiful.”

“All right, so there are horses. What does that have to do with us?”

“Horses are for riding on, Sarasha. Have you seen one run?”

She nodded. “I see. You figure we can net some of these horses and use them to ride on as our transportation, instead of a Ship.”

He nodded enthusiastically, flexing his big, work-scarred knuckles. “That’s right. We met a man out on the plains who told us all about it. He’s sort of a hermit: lives all alone, but he was riding a horse. Taller than the wild ones, but kin to them. He said it was crossbred, mating a domestic horse with a wild one, and had the qualities of both: the length of leg of a carthorse, the lean speed of a plains pony. It ran like a rain-squall across the face of the ocean.”

She looked around the group. “So we are all agreed? We support the northern plains? Horses or not?”

Enthusiastic nods all round. She turned back, scanning the crowd to see if she could read anything. There were tight clumps, big and small, but many sitting in pairs or threes, as well. Good. Those are the undecided. They could be swayed by reason.

Or else they were already decided, in which case there was nothing you could do about them. She looked at her father, sitting relaxed behind the massive Chart Table, in casual conversation with her mother and Leide. How does he tell? How does he read the wishes and needs of his Crew? He’s always one step ahead. Where is he now? He always has a plan. Many plans. I’ll have to watch him more closely, learn more from him, if I’m going to be a leader in this new Crew.

As the sands trickled down, the Conclave quieted. She could understand what that meant. Within the groups, the discussion was already over. Concurrence. The opposing factions were ready to bring their opinions before the Crew.

As the last grain of sand dropped, the Priest-Captain rose, and the silence was complete. “Is it the desire of the Conclave that the Deck be clear for all to speak?”

There was a brief murmur of assent.

“Is there any discussion or call for a vote?”

There was silence.

“I then declare the Deck clear.”

Several men jumped to their feet. The Priest-Captain considered each one before he spoke. “Precedence to Family Heads. Armourer Kyso of the Yonghal, will you speak?”

The others sat, and Kyso, a burly man of about forty-five, moved forward. “The Family Yonghal and the Armourers concur. We will follow the majority. These are our reasons. If we stay and fight, or go either east or west, the armourers will have occupation. However, our arms are in sore condition, and we question our own ability to comply with the demands of another battle. Thus, while it will mean great change in our occupation, we are willing to go north. If we stay and fight, we will do our best, as we always have. That is all. May the Lo…” He cut off the usual final blessing, bowed to the Table and sat.


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