Monday, September 28, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Eleven: Sayle Drill

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 Boys were quiet after seeing Mate partially defeated. Trew was the first to speak. “We’ll be busy all day.”

“We’d best get to the route question he asked. I know he’ll growl if we forget it,” Black said with no enthusiasm.

“I know what I’m doing,” Sprocket said.

The Boys each began their plans then.

Trew paused to look over the railing at the skiff. The Fortress was still tugging it from the starboard side.

Trew could see a strange kind of double-headed fountain rising up from the Purple Sea. It was following the skiff and one of its heads poured clear water onto the face of the ill man. The second arc spewed reddish-white material back into the Sea.

That was salt separation, Trew knew. Mother and Father and many of the workers at the orchard could do something like that, just not so elegant.

Trew looked around for the Mate or Man sending water to the ill man. Trew discarded a few people staring down at the skiff. There. Trew saw Cautery Mate standing close to the Commander’s cabin, but looking down at the skiff with no little concentration.

He had made this fountain.

A little water might cool the man and relieve his thirst. It wouldn’t heal him.

That was an old grievance by now, one which Trew didn’t think he could remedy.

Trew turned and took in the whole deck. Black had already sidled up to Chesty, which was a mistake. Sprocket had disappeared. Trew looked for Jock, the one that the Commander had tasked the night before to make an emergency signal.

He was finishing his meal on the port side near the bow. Seeing that meal reminded Trew that he had meant to save some of his food for the evening or the following morning. He’d saved nothing.

These were going to be hungry nights on the Fortress, weren’t they?

Trew began walking toward the bow.

He saw Jock pull up a fountain of water to wash his bowl and mug. He didn’t use the salt separating fountain that Cautery Mate had. Maybe that was why everything Trew had eaten on this ship tasted so much of salt. Every bowl, plate, and mug was rinsed in salt.

Trew began crossing the deck when the Commander exited his cabin and veered for the signal mast.

Trew paused so he wouldn’t get trampled.

“Ship’s Mate?”

Trew had to step out of the way not to be crushed by that Mate. A word from the Commander could set someone to a full run instantly.

“Have ye followed the signals?”

“No, Commander.”

The Commander grunted and jabbed his well-covered arm at the signal mast. “Lighthouse Four reports it observed me burning a book. It wants me to explain myself.”

He shook his head and laughed.

“They’re so set to spying on me, they don’t even notice how a skiff lands forty miles away from the nearest land. They didn’t notice how a dying man wound up inside it. The best facet we have, the best optics, all made worthless by bad orders from Northguard.”

The Mate seemed at a loss for how to respond. “Yes, Commander.”

Trew decided those were almost always safe words aboard the Fortress.

The Commander glared at the signal mast, then pivoted to look at the Mate. “We’ll have sayle drill now.”

The Mate nodded, but stopped halfway through. “The wind is becalmed.”

“All the better for training Landsmen how the sayles work. We have a bunch from Newdubbin, captives who’ve come to sea, if you noticed.”

“I did.”

“We rig our sayles differently from what they’re used to. Let them learn now before we have winds to contend with.”

“Aye, Commander.”

“As you plan the evolution, don’t forget that only one Man in four has facet to work with. It’s harder with so little facet available. They’ll have to use their arms, not their minds.”

“Aye, Commander.”

The Commander was one of the few watching the signal mast as Ship’s Mate began executing his orders.

Nothing much happened at first, Trew noticed. Not at the signal mast, not anywhere.

A few Men dropped what they were doing and set to their new tasks. Others observed and threw their bodies into fulfilling the unexpected orders.

Men opened recesses in the deck and in the front of the Commander’s cabin. Great masses of sayle landed on the main deck. Then others began working with rope.

Trew was cut off from where Jock stood, not participating. What was his role on the ship, Trew wondered.

Sayles began ascending.

The sayles working their way up the signal mast blocked most of the mast from most of the possible angles. The sayles generally were putting up a huge obstruction to most sightlines.

Trew caught onto what was really happening.

If a Lighthouse was sending a message, the Commander had a reason not to see it. He was positively enjoined from responding, as the sayle would block whatever Glows he might attempt to order.

This was the equivalent of a tantrum, but one that could possibly resemble a useful exercise for the ship’s company.

When the scolding came down for the Commander, he’d be able to respond that he’d been doing his proper duty. It was clever, Trew thought. Irritating, but clever.

“Get to your duties, Boy,” the Commander growled at Trew.

Trew skittered from the barking and hid for a moment.

The Commander began stomping around and underneath the signal mast, observing things and alarming the Men, making them quake.

Clunk-slide.

Clunk-slide.

The Commander was making plenty of noise. He was agitated and less hugger mugger now.

Trew watched the Commander pause and look over the side at the skiff still tethered to the Fortress.

Then the Commander returned to his cabin.

Trew ventured forward from his hiding nook.

It was like their Commander had had three personalities stuffed into one body. Well, maybe more than three. Five or seven or eleven. Trew did not doubt he would see more of them as the days drew on.

Trew looked for Jock. The man was still on deck, still fiddling with ropes.

Trew wondered what he should say as he zipped underneath the site of most of the ship’s activity.

When he approached Jock, Trew went with what was on his mind.

“Does he always shout so?” Trew asked, nodding back toward the Commander’s cabin.

“Ne’er served with ‘im bafore.”

The Man didn’t spare a glance for Trew.

“He trusted you last night,” Trew said.

The man paused in his effort. He seemed to be running facet through different segments of rope. He glanced at Trew for a second. “Ye’re ta nipper who were’t on deck, eh?”

“Aye.”

“Supposed ter only be responsible sorts put on Watch.” Jock shrugged. “He’d ha’ used a Mate ha’ he seen one not sodden in gawgrie. His own fault, ta supper he dished up and ta cask he unbunged.”

Trew finally saw what the man was doing. His facet was untwining the distant end of the ropes he touched.

Did they unwind and rewind ropes on the Fortress? Was rope in that kind of shortage now?

Little bits of string were always useful. “Can I sneak a bit for my oddments pocket?” Trew asked.

Jock pulled out his knife and cut a dozen little slivers of rope for Trew.

Trew stuffed the strings into his pocket.

Jock looked at Trew, expecting for Trew to skitter back to his duties. Or leave Jock to his.

“How was it working the signal mast?” Trew asked.

“Curious tot, aren’t ye?”

“It’s all so new.”

“Aye, suppose tis. Signal mast is intimidating.”

Jock hadn’t asked Trew to leave. He was becoming more and more verbose. This was what Trew had done with Bynes, in Mother’s peach orchard, when he needed to know something. Be curious, ask questions, and someone proud of his work would talk about it.

“Where’s the Lighthouse that’s watching us?” Trew asked. “The Commander was just complaining about it.”

“Aye, he was.” Jock shook his head. “So yer Compass Mate set ye ta problem.”

Trew felt a tinge of frustration. “You knew?”

“He might’a mentioned a few things yesterday. We’re na supposed to make it easy on ye.”

Compass Mate was fast becoming Trew’s nemesis. He was full of brains, a rum bite. “No, that wouldn’t be fair, would it?” Trew said, not meaning a word of it.

Jock laughed.

Trew spun around, looking at the horizon. “Can ye see it?”

“Aye. I know where to look,” Jock said.

Trew made his spin again, but slower. “There.”

There was a tall gray something in the distance.

“Ahh.”

That wasn’t a noise congratulating success. “Well, what is it, if it isn’t a Lighthouse?”

“Dun know. I just know that it’ain’t the Lighthouse.”

“So…”

Jock pointed in a different direction. Something in the far distance glimmered under the sun. Trew couldn’t even make out how high it was.

“That? They’ve hidden it?”

“Aye, a little. Sometime she’s hard ta see. Depends on ta Mate running ta Illusion Engine. Thi’un is new, I’d hedge. Not up to mark yet.”

In all his reading, Trew had never come across an Illusion Engine. But he could imagine it. He smiled.

“We’ve got to be twenty miles away,” Trew said.

“Closer to thirty-four…,” Jock said, then realized what he’d said. “My, ye’re a clever one, ain’t ye?”

“Thank you, Jock.”

“T’ain’t me name. I’m called Arkwright where I’m from. The dirty hocks on deck keep calling me Jock. Dun much care fer it.”

“Thank you, Arkwright.”

“Keep it ter yerself.”

“Aye.”

Jock glanced around the main deck. “Ain’t going to ask about our course last night?”

It couldn’t be that easy, could it? A little bit of kindness to the right person and…the vault opens? “You studied navigation?” Trew asked.

“I’ve been to sea fer seven years. Be a pur saylor if I ain’t know.”

Trew almost let himself smile.

“I know we started at Twobay then sailed west past Last Sayle…”

“Then ‘twere dark. No way to fix yer place.”

“Aye.”

Arkwright grunted. “We turned southeast, Boy.”

Trew tried to picture it in his mind. They were nowhere near where Floats was supposed to be.

“Why?”

“Commander’s prerogative.”

Trew nodded, not knowing what that meant. His interest might get Arkwright to explain.

“We’re doing broad loops now.”

“Oh. Out here?” Trew asked.

“Aye, well away from all eyes, save a Lighthouse.”

“Why?”

“Embarrassing how pur we’re moving. Commander’s letting the engine mucks figure out how ter run that new mistake.”

Mistake was a harsh term.

“It’s been trouble?”

“They lowered ‘er in a week before sayling. Nothing good’s come out o’ her since. ”

That didn’t sound good at all. “The engine doesn’t work?”

“When I ca’swim faster than ta Fortress can cut….”

Trew really didn’t want to know any more about the engine. He had enough to worry him as it was. “Thank you, Arkwright.”

“I said nothing. In fact, I ‘member just scolding yer about yer clumsy ways of gaining information.”

“Aye, I’ll remember the scolding.”

Trew had gotten what he needed for Compass Mate, but he was still plenty curious about other aspects of his new home. In particular he wanted to know more about sun spots or whatever they were called. Trew still hadn’t seen anyone other than himself venture down to the ill man in the skiff.

“What about that skiff and the sick man inside it?”

“Never did a turn in the cautery.”

“Oh, but what…”

Trew noticed movement. He looked over — and up — and saw that Black had climbed more than halfway up the signal mast.

“Excuse me,” Trew said.

Arkwright nodded. “Good luck wit tha Mate o’ yers. He’s a trickster-sort, I’d hedge.”

Trew supposed that was true as he ran to the signal mast. He saw only one other person looking at Black.

Chesty.

Chesty had to have put Black up to this for some reason. He was worse as a trickster than Compass Mate.

“Black,” Trew hissed.

Black was moving slowly. Trew thought he could hear his friend crying.

No one else noticed that because ropes and sayles were coming alive all over the signal mast. As Black pulled himself to stand on a yardarm, Trew trotted along in a similar position many feet below.

“Black, climb back down.”

The Boy didn’t hear Trew. He ventured out onto the yardarm. Trew guessed he was trying to speak to one of the Men up there. What in the whole Red World had Chesty stuffed into Black’s head?

Trew made a new discovery then. The yardarm spanned wider than the main deck.

Trew got up on the railing.

Trew craned his head so he could see between the monstrous sayles and all the ropes flying this way and fro.

A rope caught Black. He cried out and clung to the rope a moment. A second later his feet left the arm, then Black fell.

Trew was just underneath when Black fell on Trew. Trew cried out but they both went over the railing. Trew threw his arm out and caught a grasp of a balluster. It was much wider than his hand could secure itself to.

Black splashed into the Purple Sea.

“Help,” Trew called out.

It was a long drop to the Purple Sea. Black was already thrashing down there.

“Help,” he called out again.

Sprocket was on-deck now and running toward Trew. Trew looked down but couldn’t see his friend in the water. Where had Black gone? Couldn’t he swim at all?

“Throw a rope or something,” he called out.

Trew let go, then. He could have held on a little longer, but he dropped so he could help his friend.

The coldness of the water stole Trew’s breath from him. He bobbed to the surface but it was hard to stay afloat. He saw Black bob up. Trew swam toward him. When he got within an arm’s length, Black seemed to leap through the water and conjoined himself to Trew. The position was awkward as Black hugged Trew’s arms close to his body. They might not look it, but Black’s thin arms could wield some force when they wanted, especially when they tightened around Trew.

They were both sinking in the water, thrashing.

Trew could have survived that when he felt something heavy crash into his skull.

He felt stunned and went limp. He could see, though. He could feel the sting of the salt and facet in his eyes. He just couldn’t move.

He caught a glimpse of something floating next to him. It was attached to a puddle of rope floating on top of the water.

The next moment, the Boys sank. Trew felt as his lungs screamed. His muscles screamed. Black squeezed even harder. Trew felt the tickle of useless bubbles ejected from Black’s mouth and nose.

Trew hoped for help from above.

They plummeted in the water. Had Trew packed his pockets with stones? The water seemed determine to have them.

He didn’t think of Father or Ceal or anyone.

He didn’t think of the Fortress.

Trew didn’t think. He wasn’t a person just then. He was a bundle of fear sinking through darkening water. But all his fears were true. There was no help. There was only squeezing from Black and demands from his lungs.

As the pain crescendoed, there was a moment when their descent stopped.

Trew, with Black strangling him, hung in the water.

He could see something moving through the murk toward him. He could still see things even though he was so far from the surface and the facet was stinging his eyes.

Trew saw then felt something curl around him. He felt Black let go. He felt his arms free.

Trew reached out to touch the thing that had curled around him. That something was broader than the signal mast and smooth, ever so smooth. It held Trew more gently than Black had.

Their descent reversed.

Up.

Up.

Up.

Trew could see that Black was close to him. They flew upwards through the water. That thing, that arm, pulled them to where there was an infinite supply of air.

In the light, Trew’s savior — some kind of construct sent to help — was red as red could be.

A second…red something…held Black above the water. Trew vomited up the sea water once then again. He was facing upward, looking at the red sky and the reddish-orange sun. The glare hurt his stinging eyes, but it was a welcomed sight.

Trew turned his head this way and that. The Fortress was some distance ahead of them.

It took him a few seconds to understand it. The ship hadn’t slowed or stopped or attempted to turn.

The ship had just left Trew and Black to die…

Trew ignored that for now.

He took in the air. He took in the sky.

He glanced at the massive something that had plucked him from death and now held him aloft.

He had no idea what had saved him.

Trew could hear Black sobbing. Trew was smiling, laughing even. He was alive and had survived one thing that should have killed him. He knew he’d be far more solemn when he returned to the Fortress. For now he was alive and flying and he didn’t know how either of them were possible.

XX

Continue to Chapter Twelve.

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