Monday, August 31, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Five: The Commander



Cricket Boy is a multi-chapter fantasy naval adventure (Horatio Hornblower with magic!) I'm releasing on my website, among other venues.

What's it about?

Trew Gawgrie wants to go to sea. That means joining the Sea Guard and starting with the worst job, but he's a dreamer and won't be dissuaded. Sea Guard is a much harder place than Trew can imagine.

New to the story? Start with Chapter One. You can also read the story on WriteOn.



XX

Trew was the first on deck. Having the lightest, though most disturbing, dunnage made that possible. He untied his string from the cricket cage and toed the small container away from him, because a few inches of separation made him feel a little better.

Only then did Trew look around.

The main deck of the Fortress was calmer than the dock. The Men who brought crates and casks up proceeded directly across the main deck to the hold opening.

Trew focused on the four people who weren’t moving cargo to the hold. All wore green uniforms so they were Mates. Trew tried to guess at what they were doing or why they gave the orders they did. To Trew, the lowering of the casks and crates into the hold looked like chaos.

Trew caught a flash of something different.

A man in neither a white nor a green uniform walked up the gangway. The gold buttons on his blue jacket marked him as one of Sea Guard’s Warrant Officers. Some had conducted the shore school Trew and the other Boys endured, but Trew didn’t recognize this one.

The Warrant walked past a Mate.

“Hold,” the Mate said. “Hold up.”

The Warrant didn’t stop.

The Mate shifted his body to where the Warrant intended to walk.

The Warrant stopped. “I need to see the Commander. Now.”

His annoyance carried as far as Trew.

“He’s not on deck.”

“I can see that. Is he in his office?”

The Mate shook his head. “Now’s not the time.”

“I’ll knock.”

“Look up, see the signal mast? Lighthouse Four is already attacking, signal after signal.”

Trew looked up at the single mast of the Fortress. It was glowing with symbols familiar and strange in a variety of colors. Trew couldn’t make sense of what he saw from the top of the mast to halfway down its height. That would come later, he hoped.

When he looked back down, his eyes landed on the Warrant. He had shifted enough to reveal he had but one shoulder and arm in his blue jacket.

Trew wondered what danger had caused it.

He was curious why the Warrant hadn’t tried to have his shoulder and arm regrown.

The rest of the conversation between the Warrant and the Mate didn’t reach Trew’s ears, but the Warrant soon disappeared inside a door at the rear — no, the aft — of the main deck. That must lead into the Commander’s cabin.

Trew suddenly realized he was the only one just standing on board. Everyone else seemed employed in some effort.

He thought he should do something, but he couldn’t lift a crate with one hand and some facet.

He had no orders other than to get on the ship. So far, he was the only Boy on board. He tamped down his nerves and tried to enjoy what he had. This might be his last moment of peace in some time.

He looked at the railing he’d climbed over. He could see the net tied there was wiggling furiously. Either Sparrow Boy or Clock Boy was getting closer.

Trew looked at everyone else on the main deck. He couldn’t see anyone staring back at him with resentment.

He wondered if Mother, Father, and Callie were watching him do nothing. Trew turned and could just make them out through all the obstructions.

His sister Callie looked like she could burst into flames. Perhaps she might, who knew what the hooligans in her year of Prime had whispered in her ear.

She could go to sea in two years when she was ten. Trew had had to wait, so could she. Though it was likely Mother would make her the next Duchess of Peaches.

Trew allowed his eyes to survey the other ship, the merchie. His new discovery there was a small blue-skinned man with hair like Trew’s, but his shoulder looked like it had been a holster for an ax or three. He had seen battle with pirates and barely survived it.

This was a more dangerous world than Trew had imagined. Reading of a battle with pirates was one thing — but seeing the aftermath written into someone’s body was horrible.

Trew wondered if they had a surgeon on board the Fortress. They must. Shore school hadn’t mentioned anything like injuries or illness. Trew wished they had.

Trew turned back.

The Warrant was back on deck, though he was speaking with someone who looked to have stolen a length of well-stained sayle and wound himself in it. It must have gone around him three or four times.

The two weren’t yelling.

The Warrant seemed, well, deferential to the living mummy.

Trew was slow to realize that the sayle thief was their Commander.

Which one was he?

The famous Commander Fitche had just become Captain of the Sea Guard, but there were nineteen other names, Trew knew. Plus some number of Acting Commanders. Trew didn’t think they’d put someone young in charge of the Fortress.

Trew began to wonder what this one would be like. Any of the possibilities could be great and cruel, or weak and distracted.

What would the Fortress feel like on this sailing? Trew hoped the Commander’s mood was stern and no worse.

“Hip! Huzzah!”

Trew startled, but looked over at the net.

“A little help?” Clock Boy asked, his head and shoulders were now above the railing.

Trew walked over to the railing. “You made it.”

“I tried about six different things.”

Clock Boy stuffed a rope in Trew’s hand. Then Clock Boy was up and over the railings.

Trew had to imagine that the crate was still on the dock. Clock Boy was going to lift his box of clocks.

“You’re not going to knock Sparrow Boy off the net?” Trew asked.

Clock Boy was tall enough to peer over the railing. “No.”

Trew hated being short, the shortest in his year at Prime. The shortest of the whole Anchor class, he’d bet.

“He’s still on the dock tying his wide cage to his back. Mate is staring at him with that frown of his.”

Trew knew that look.

“Would you help?” Clock Boy asked.

“All right,” Trew said.

They were uncoordinated at first, but they worked out a silent system to hoist the rather dense crate.

Trew wanted to see what was inside it one of these days. These clocks were going to be quizzical, like a red cricket or a jet sparrow.

Sparrow Boy made it to the top as Clock Boy and Trew got the clock crate squared.

He looked like an ungainly bird himself with the cage strapped to his back and much wider than he was, wings no use for flight.

“Can you?” Sparrow Boy started to ask. “It’s cutting into my shoulder.”

Trew put his hands on the cage and kept things from jostling as Sparrow Boy twisted himself onto the ship.

“Thanks,” Sparrow Boy said, reaching around to unlash the strings he’d used to tie the cages to his body.

Trew nodded.

Compass Mate appeared on deck, then deigned to notice them. “That was a disgusting effort. You haven’t impressed me or the Men of the Fortress. You’ll need to work harder and smarter if you want anyone to treat you as a sailor.”

Trew didn’t let Mate’s words shame him. He stared straight ahead. Mate stared right back.

“You want to learn, I’ll tell you how. First, listen. Then, assume nothing. You ask the question you have in your head. Someone might be in a rush, may not tell you everything.”

As he’d just proved with the dunnage.

“So, you speak up, then follow orders in a clever way. Be clever, in an orderly way.” He grinned.

Trew did not.

“It’s not easy, life in the Sea Guard, but we need clever crickets, sparrows, and clocks. Not dull clods.”

“I agree,” a deep voice carried over the deck.

Trew glanced to its source.

The sayle-wound Commander was coming toward them. He made a clap-slide noise when he moved, but Trew couldn't see his feet.

His face popped out of the folds of the material he wore, like he was part cowl-wearing monk, part startled sea turtle. The Commander looked as worn as the sayle wound around his body, his face was grayish though his mustache was the silver of melted coins.

He moved again, clap-slide.

Did he have strange boots, Trew wondered.

The Commander had, what, lost his leg to pirates? That should sound like step-stomp. Clap-slide… Did the Commander wear a caster?

He tried to imagine it and shivered a bit. Trew was fascinated and repulsed by missing or changed limbs.

One of Mother's helpers in the orchard had gone lushey on gawgrie, then fashioned four fingers of his left hand into a cup so he could drink more, faster. Sober the next day, he still had that flesh-and-bone cup and a thumb. Arded Minchin became just about the best peach picker Mother had.

The problem was that he couldn't get the fashioning reversed — and he'd tried. Everyone with some skill at healing near Gawgrie had tried to help Arded. Nothing. He was still Mother’s best peach picker, though the stories said he was less lushey.

Trew looked at the Commander. Up close he seemed tall and not tall, at the same time. This sea life had worn his height into the shape of a question mark, all crooked and puzzled. He was the oldest person on the deck, years older, maybe decades. Wrapped as he was, Trew couldn’t see anything else.

Clap-slide. Clap. The Commander stopped his noisy perambulation and looked the Boys over.

The Boys looked back as did the Compass Mate.

The Commander said nothing at first, but he stared at the Compass Mate.

Mate startled, then. He took a step forward and tugged on his greens. "These are our new boys, Commander. The first batch."

The Commander nodded to Mate. How Mate realized the Commander wanted an introduction, Trew didn’t know. Tradition?

The Commander pointed at Sparrow Boy. "He looks like he's from Twobay, though he’s rather scrawny. The other two. No one told me that one was blue.”

The Commander stared at Trew.

Trew willed himself not to flush with shame. Yes, his skin was blue. Did it matter?

"Small, aren't they? Petulant. This one’s full of rage already — after five words. Someone on shore bought a noddy’s bargain.”

Trew didn’t look away.

Mate shrugged his apology. All he could, wasn’t it? Commanders didn’t want excuses from Mates; Mates didn’t want excuses from Boys: the way of Sea Guard.

The Commander looked at their dunnage spilled about on the main deck. “Crickets, sparrows, and…”

Clock Boy’s crate was still sealed.

“Clocks,” Mate supplied.

The Commander nodded. “The new ones?”

“So I was told.”

“We’ll just see if they’re worth all the effort.” He might have meant the clocks or the Boys.

What a fine start to a sailing life, when the two people most in charge of him hated Trew Gawgrie.

XX

Continue to Chapter Six.

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