Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Eight: Last Sayle

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

The moment of sailing was glorious…

The sun shone. Trew could see Father, Mother, and Callie on the now-clear dock. He was waving and everyone else on the main deck was waving. There was a little music coming from somewhere Trew couldn’t identify.

…for about a minute.

The Fortress was under way, but Trew realized they weren’t moving at even a piddling pace. Father could walk on the dock faster than the Fortress could cut through the Purple Sea.

There was much grumbling on the main deck even before the music cut off. The Mates who were on deck shifted and looked uncomfortable, Compass Mate and Ship’s Mate most of all.

The Commander was nowhere for Trew to see.

The only thing that was working was the signal mast, which continually lit up in bright colors and with odd patterns Trew didn’t understand.

Getting away from the dock took many minutes and Trew’s face hurt from holding a smile for Callie so long, not when he had long ceased to mean it.

It was not an auspicious start.

Trew allowed himself to forget when he first saw Twobay Castle from the sea. He’d never gotten such a look at Admiral’s House and Steward’s House and all its other structures. If Twobay wasn't the nicest city in the Red World, Trew didn't know what was. He'd see them all before he was done with his tour. That comforted him.

Also, he realized he didn't feel the slightest derangement of his senses. He had heard that some did from the ever-so-slight motion of a ship on even calm waters.

Trew chatted a little with Sprocket and Black. No one else spared them a word. Not a Mate nor a Man deigned to look at the Boys. No one even informed them of the start of supper. They figured out how the line worked by watching.

Like everyone else, Trew, Sprocket, and Black ate their supper on the main deck. It was goose stew with turnips and radishes. There were dark rye rolls, cups of watered gawgrie, and a fresh peach for each of them. Only Trew didn’t gobble the fruit down first.

What impressed the others didn’t impress the Boy who had picked a thousand thousand of the blasted things.

Trew noticed that a few of the Men, and one harried Mate who stumbled onto the main deck, were allotted two bowls of goose stew, a half-dozen rolls, and two peaches each — though no more watered gawgrie. He wondered why.

No one else objected so Trew didn’t overhear the answer to his question.

At this point, he wasn’t going to ask anyone.

No.

He sat with Sprocket and Black mostly looking. As they got away from Twobay, there was less to see. The Purple Sea was flat. They talked a little about Floats or seeing Northguard. They talked a little about what they’d have to learn: compasses and Glows and whatever unfamiliar terms they had glommed from the shore school.

By the time the red sun began to dip in the west, they were away from any land at all. Whatever the trouble was with the ship’s engine, the Mates were setting it to rights.

Trew took in nightfall. The red sun burned orange for a few moments, then yellow for the briefest flash. The dusk transformed quickly to darkness. The stars were faint and muddled, even far out from the lanterns and Glows of houses. The sky was little dots of red light against the conflict-black until the moon began to rise, full red.

The Boys only got up to return their wooden plates. They kept to a quiet spot of the deck otherwise. Tonight they were Know Nothings. Less than that.

Trew came to resent his ignorance. He promised he would learn something the next day. He also thought that this mass ignoring of the Boys wasn’t accidental.

This was as planned as that rehearsed stunt earlier when Mate embarrassed them in front of the quiet onlookers. This was something else to overcome. It might even be their first true lesson on the Fortress. They had to travel from Know Nothing to Know Something without much assistance, with only a desperate desire for a little recognition to drive them.

Trew watched everything he could. Much of it made no sense, but tomorrow and in the following days he might begin to fit what he’d seen into some order.

Compass Mate might be just what Sprocket had predicted, as engaged as driftwood when teaching. Trew could survive that. They weren’t babbies and Mate, with his bronzed arms, was no mothering sort.

The solitude broke then. “You lot are quiet as a paymaster,” one of the Men said, ambling over to them.

He’d had more than watered gawgrie for his supper, Trew surmised. Had he a full cask of his own hidden somewhere?

Trew thought he shouldn’t admit to much of anything. He wasn’t quiet so much as trying to learn when it was all so foreign. He had the sense he would always feel behind on the Fortress.

“We’re watching everything,” Trew said.

The huge man crouched down more to their level. Even much reduced, he still loomed over their seated figures. “Thas’a smart thing, little un. Dun tryta figure’em out. Most a’em re new here, too. Lots of stumble’n’bumble right now. Embarrassing fer a man who spent time on tha Purple’n’tha Blue Seas.”

Trew was impressed despite his desire not to be. This Man was a real sailor.

“Who are you?” Trew asked.

“Me name’s…Well, let’s say thay call me Chesty.”

Trew could see why. The man must clear out a tailor’s stock whenever he needed a new shirt. He was even more massive than Compass Mate, taller and broader.

Chesty’s skin was red, though, not bronze.

“Thank you for talking to us, Mr. Chesty,” Black said.

The massive man roared with amusement. “Mistur. Mistur Chesty. Polite mite, ye are. Chesty ain’t what ma Da picked fer me. Call ma Chesty, ma ship name.”

“My name is…,” Black said.

The Able waved his hand. “Keep yer family name to yerself, understa?”

Trew shrugged. He’d heard the admonition but didn’t understand it.

“If I dun know it, I can’t tell it ter anyone else.”

Oh.

That was a good idea, in a horrible way.

Trew could just imagine when his name could be a problem. He was no heir to Twobay Castle, but he knew the secrets of an orchard and a foundry, some of them at least.

“Pirates from Last Sayle can and have taken Sea Guard vessels before, including the Fortress. They’ll do it again, I expect.”

Trew noticed Chesty’s sloppy language had become tighter. This man was another put-up, perhaps from Compass Mate. He liked a bit of acting, it seemed, though when he got swept away with his role, he forgot what he was doing.

“You don’t want to have some expensive name well known to this lot. You Boys coming on in Peacetime all had someone kick at the Sea Guard a little to get you on. In war, they’ll take everyone. In Peacetime…”

Trew hadn’t known that. Had Father or Mother had to beg for Trew’s spot on the Fortress?

“Ye get taken, ye might sit fer two years for a ransom to happen. If ye care about yer life and health, ye have no name when ye’re on the sea — unless other men of the sea give itta ye. Understand now?”

Chesty was working back into his drunken accent. Trew really was enjoying this — though learning about ransoms while on the sea was jarring.

“Yes,” Trew said.

“They never explain how dangerous this is. Boyos think where there’s no wind, no waves, all’s safe. Here, men are more dangerous than the weather. And pirates are the most dangerous of all.”

The Boys were silent then. Trew was beginning to wonder if he’d made a sound choice. He loved the sea, but…

“Are you stretching out some tales, making them quiver in fear?” Compass Mate demanded.

Trew hadn’t heard him coming. He moved softly for a huge fellow.

“No, sir.”

“Don’t listen to Chesty,” Compass Mate said to Sprocket, Black, and Trew. “I know him, I’m shamed to say. I’ve served with him on three ships.”

His tone might be mournful, but he had a jesting glint in his eye, Trew saw.

“Yeh, that ye hab. Ye were a Boy the first time. Now ye’re Compass Mate and I’m an Able.”

“An Able and the best storyteller I’ve ever known. Or liar, if I’m being uncharitable.”

“Nah, sir.”

“I once tried to teach you to read. You could have been a fine Engine Mate,” Mate said.

“Nah, I’m more for gunnery. Let me hab at a facet cannon.”

Compass Mate shook his head. He looked down at Sprocket and Black, but not Trew.

“He’s a storyman, the scarier the better.”

Chesty grinned. “Ther’re things I love better thun a story.”

Trew knew his type. A drinker and a wencher. He heard that tone at the foundry. “I heard we get a day or two at Floats — and Boys shuld know about Madame…”

“You keep those stories for older ears,” Mate said, interrupting. “I’ll allow you the scary ones, though.”

Mate looked at Black. “If he gets tears out of a little one like you, he’s all the happier. You steer clear of him.”

“Yes, Mate,” Black said.

Mate looked at Sprocket and Trew. They nodded.

Maybe Trew had been wrong about his superior.

Mate looked at Chesty. “You scare them if you catch them.”

Nope, Trew realized. He wasn’t wrong. Mate was just a little devious after getting some gawgrie in him.

“Ye know I will.” Chesty barked with laughter like one of the dogs out of a story.

“Putting a Boy into fears is th’most fun you can have a’board ship.”

“Off you go,” Mate said.

The Able walked to his duty station and started untying ropes that someone else had tied together.

Trew figured he’d understand why later. Maybe when he knew why Mate had arranged all of that.

Mate waited until he had their attention. All the mirth was gone from him. “Tomorrow you’ll study the maps and the compass in a serious way.”

That Trew was gladdened to hear.

“One thing I’ll say tonight. There's Last Sayle.” He pointed to the horizon where there were some Glows visible in the darkness.

“A Sea Guard ship leaving Twobay always sayles by Last Sayle, always, before heading off to her duty.”

Trew knew why. He strained to see a little. It was just some light in a lot of dark.

“That's the southern most land of the Red World, Boys. We won't see it again for some time. You won’t see anything there, save for a few hard people and a dilapidated mooring for ships. I mention it now because Chesty wasn’t wrong. What you don’t see about the place is that the southern pirates base there, we think.”

“Haven’t you caught them?” Sprocket asked.

“A hundred hundred times, aye.”

“They hide, don’t they?” Trew asked.

Mate frowned but acceded to the unpleasant conclusion. “They’re cleverer than we are. Any time we find their hiding hole, they make three more. So that’s why Last Sayle is a place you must know and be wary of.”

“Yes, Mate,” the Boys said.

“Back to your duties.”

Black shook his head. “We don’t have…”

Mate didn’t bother to glare. His voice was loud enough to tromp over a simple question. “Boys, ye’re taking space on the deck. If ye’ve no duties, ye’ll get below.”

Trew noticed that Mate went saltier when he was forcing people to do things. He was an actor, too.

Then there was that thing he said about their duties… Of course they had no duties. Mate hadn’t assigned any.

Neither thought mattered just then. An order was an order. Trew, and the others, scampered out of the Mate’s line of sight.

"Hold up. One last thing.”

Trew came back. The others were a little slower.

Mate threw a pile of gray cloth into each of three sets of arms.

“Get in uniform before ye return to deck in the morning. Otherwise the Commander’ll declare ye addle pates and drop ye in the Purple Sea.”

Trew didn’t like the coarseness of the cloth. Ceal, his sister, had made better at eight years of age. He should know, the shirt Trew wore had been worked by his sister.

"From this moment, ye'll be in uniform if ye’re out of yer cabin. Commanders of the Sea Guard won’t permit anything against the rules."

“Yes, Mate,” they said as one. They were getting good at one necessary skill, at least.

Trew held the uniform close to his body. He didn’t let himself dwell on how the horrible, scratchy uniforms hadn’t appeared until they’d sayled from the dock.

“Sleep well. The Mates and a few of the Men will have a long night working out the troubles with the new engine. Perhaps by dawn we’ll be moving at a fair clip.”

Mate waved them off.

Trew thought there just might be a person inside that grumpy green uniform. Maybe. It could be all of his facets were actor’s roles.

Sprocket and Black descended. Trew followed behind. He got into his cabin and tried on his uniform. He hoped for something decent, but his first characterization — rags — was basically right. Baggy rags. They must have been expecting a ten-year-old colossus. Instead, they got Trew.

He looked like a tiny lump in a great, gray sack with an orange vertical stripe down the front of his tunic.

He felt like someone bound for Newdubbin Prison.

Maybe that’s what a student in the Sea Guard was, a prisoner.

Trew transferred the items from his oddments pocket into his uniform. He used his little rope-snake trick to thread a bit of twine into his trousers so he had a belt.

He still had a sack full of coins to deal with. For now, they’d fit into the baggy uniform he had. He needed a better place to keep them safe.

He threw his home clothes into the chest at the foot of the first cot in his cabin. They seemed lonely at the bottom. He didn't have anything else that counted as a possession.

He sat on his cot.

He could hear the red crickets moving around in their cage. He moved the cage further into the cabin.

He thought he could still hear them.

Trew didn’t take long to make his choice. He didn’t want to be alone in his cabin just then with only hundreds of crickets for company.

He snuck back up to the main deck.

He had just the one close call. “Off. Off you go,” some Mate said before he moved on to another bit of trouble.

Trew didn’t know what that Mate did. He looked like he could have been ratcatcher or a sewer man for Twobay. Trew hoped he wasn’t in charge of the galley. Perhaps their dried goose was actually something else?

Trew continued up to the main deck. He smelled the air and listened to the sounds of the ship moving through the water. He heard no crickets.

He had made the right decision.

At the end of that first week, Trew would ponder how his life might have changed if he’d kept to Mate’s order. He never did decide if he’d have made things better or worse.

XX

Continue to Chapter Nine.

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