Monday, August 24, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Four: Unexpected Dunnage

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.






XX

Mate smiled an unfriendly smile at Clock Boy, Sparrow Boy, and Cricket Boy. He looked like the lender of a tool that was returned broken, unbelieving, sad, and indignant. "I thought what I asked was simple. I said to take your dunnage onto the Fortress."

His command was as he’d thought, but Trew guessed this man was going to growl no matter what they did.

"Sir...uh, Mate," Sparrow Boy stuttered. "I didn't bring my dunnage. I was told not to. No clothes, nothing."

"Those instructions were and are correct.” Mate still smiled, but seemed more unhappy because he couldn’t contradict Sparrow Boy.

Trew looked at his fellow student-sailors. What was going on?

The other two were also adrift concerning the Mate’s scheme.

Mate waited. His smile drifted into a glare which he turned upon each of them, Trew last of all.

His eyes froze there.

Trew fidgeted. He tried to work out what Mate wanted. They had no dunnage. They had nothing to haul aboard. What was he missing?

The facts weren’t much help this time.

The more he thought, the more he moved. Mate’s eyes noticed every twitch.

He wasn’t going to get the answer by noodling it over and again. He would have to ignite Mate’s inevitable, and unpleasant, scheme.

“Mate?” Trew asked, rushing the sound so it sounded a little like a belch.

“Spit it out, Boy.”

He would have to get used to that term. No, not term, it was a title. Right now, it poked him in the fury center of his noggin.

He had to go slowly and politely, Trew cautioned himself. Ask the question clearly. He was going to take a verbal switching no matter what he did, so he might as well be proud of it.

“If we have no dunnage, how can we carry our dunnage on board?” Trew asked, with more calmness than he owned at the moment.

Compass Mate nodded, like he was a sage of the riddling arts. “You have dunnage.”

“We didn’t bring any,” Clock Boy said.

“Listen. I just gave all of you your dunnage. You may not have noticed, but it’s critical you care for it in any circumstance.”

Trew looked around. What?

He noted that the loading of the Fortress had slowed. The ship’s company were paying them quite a lot of attention at the moment.

"Clock Boy, pick up the clocks." Mate tapped at one sealed crate with his boot.

Clocks for Clock Boy?

Of course.

Trew should have seen this coming as soon as Mate hung names on each of them.

"I didn’t select names for you at random. This one is Clock Boy because he’ll look after the clocks. They're the most precise chronometers we can construct that withstand salt water.”

The man glared at Clock Boy until the boy was straining under the weight.

Clock Boy moved over to his dunnage.

Mate walked to another crate. He kicked off its loose top, then plucked out a fragile structure of reed. It was filled with not quite two dozen birds that were small, sullen, and black of feather.

“Sparrow Boy, your cabin aboard is going to be filled with you and twenty four new friends. Yes, the black birds are sparrows, special kind. You keep them alive, no matter what.”

Sparrow Boy didn’t strain under his dunnage. But he quivered nonetheless.

Trew stared at the birds. He’d never seen a sparrow that looked like that. He wondered where Sea Guard had found them.

Mate cleared his throat.

Trew looked to him, only to find him staring back.

Daydreaming was a habit Trew had never been able to break. He might just have Mate to ‘help’ him with that now.

“Cricket Boy, you lucked out.”

Trew didn’t expect that was true.

“Small boy, small task, you see?” Mate laughed.

“You have this cage of bright red crickets, which are easy to see if you ever lose one. Feed them, clean out the dead ones, make sure you keep the population stable."

Trew had been concerned about the sparrows, but he was in horror at the crickets. Their colors and odd appearances meant they weren’t natural to the Red World. These had been distorted by someone’s faceting, taking a normal cricket and twisting it. The color and form were different, but who knew how deep the other changes went?

Mate opened another crate and pulled out a smaller cage, with a fine mesh on four sides and sturdy wood on the bottom and top.

He was slow to reach out and accept his new charges.

Fashioned crickets, facet-twisted crickets.

He shivered as he stood with his cage of red-devil crickets.

This was beyond cruel. Trew had known, in the way a reader of a book knows, that there was always trouble for new Boys on going to sea. But knowing and being prepared were two different beasts.

This joke wasn't very funny to Trew.

It was the opposite of funny.

Trew knew a few things well. One such lesson was: creatures fashioned by facet were dangerous.

Prime harped on it. Mother had talked about that. Trew had been to Gawgrie’s Hall often enough where some skeletons remained on display: a squirrel grown to the size of a mature peachwood, a preserved fish that had teeth longer than Trew was tall, a goose with claws and scales, like someone’s first attempt at fashioning a dragon.

Trew tried to push his distaste aside.

Complaining solved nothing.

“What are you waiting for?” Mate demanded.

No one was courageous enough to answer him.

“Up. Climb the net with your dunnage, my young students. Climb it fast because the eyes are upon you. You don’t want the ship’s company to think you weak? No. Up, climb, now.”

Trew possessed just the two arms and two legs. He needed all of them to scale the net.

So how could he and his crickets make it up the side of the Fortress?

If he threw the cage up, it might break, then Trew would be looking for red crickets until he was stooped and blind.

Trew saw the varied men of the ship’s company looking at all three of them. They’d known this was coming. So it was a rite of passage, miserable solace as that was.

Trew wondered how to show a bit of cleverness.

He thought his belt-looping trick might be the best one for this problem.

Trew pulled out some string from his oddments pocket. He concentrated for a few moments then the string danced off his hand, looped between the fine mesh screen and the dowels holding the top and floor together. Step one complete.

The string continued its sinuous slither until it climbed Trew’s chest and wrapped around his shoulder. A moment later the two ends met and tied themselves into a reef knot, which was the one Trew knew best.

Within a moment, he had a little sling for the cage and his ‘friends.’

That bit of facet was a little trick he’d learned from some of his mates in Prime for sending a string through the loops trousers. None of the actual lessons had been anywhere near that showy, but Trew was glad to know it today.

He knew what he’d done had been observed by Mate and several others.

Trew saw that Clock Boy and Sparrow Boy both carried oddments they could use to help them. He wondered what skills they’d learned from their mates.

Mate watched, but said nothing and allowed nothing to grace his face.

Trew tested his string and his knot.

The get-up wasn’t all that strong, but it should do as it needed for a few moments. Trew stepped to the net.

"Uh, Mate?" Sparrow Boy asked.

Trew paused with his hand in the air. If there were more tricks to this, he wanted to know before he started up again.

"What, Boy?" Mate asked.

"I've never had a pet."

Mate clamped his mouth shut.

Trew that Mate didn’t believe what Sparrow Boy had just said.

Trew did. He hadn’t had a pet, either. He didn’t consider crickets pets, never would.

“No pets?” Mate asked.

“No, Mate.”

The man began to nod, as if commiserating. "Remember that the Sea Guard Academy does do nice things for youngsters. You're welcome."

Sparrow Boy didn't look relieved.

Mate could sound so sincere, but still be an utter bastard.

"No, Mate," Sparrow Boy said.

"Speak up."

"Well, I don't know what to do."

Sparrow Boy gave his winged charges a pitying look.

Trew didn't think he would ever pity his demonic crickets.

"Feed them, clean up after them,” Mate instructed.

“Yes, Mate.”

“Maybe they’ll eat the greens off turnips. Ask the Galley Mate for some. Tell him why. He’ll help you or I’ll hear about it. These sparrows are important.”

“Yes, Mate.”

“If one of them dies, I want to hear about it.”

“Yes, Mate.”

“If I have to toss one of them over, I may just throw you over the side of the Fortress, though."

Trew listened to every word, wondering now what he’d have to find to keep red crickets alive.

While keeping crickets had to be a bit easier than keeping sparrows, Trew would have to figure a few things crickets would eat that he could find on the ship? Peaches, maybe. Cabbage if they were lucky. What else? Scraps of whatever meat Trew could beg?

“More questions?”

He again dared them to ask, though the penalty was unspecified.

“Clamber up, you boys. Up you go on the net with your dunnage.”

Trew didn’t look at his dunnage. Trew didn't hate bugs, though he might come to.

He'd chased enough of them when he was younger, especially the kind that hassled peaches or peach trees. But fashioned red crickets? His skin crawled. Did they spit poison? Did they bellow like a foghorn?

Trew allowed his hand to fall onto the net again.

"Faster, boys. You move like that in front of the Commander? Well, you'll feel what it's like to sit on the dock while the ship slips away. He's done it before, he has. He'll do it again."

The games and japes were just beginning.

XX

Continue to Chapter Five.

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