Monday, September 21, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Nine: The Men on Watch

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 remained on deck, enjoying the lack of crickets and thinking about pirates and Last Sayle. He’d never been to the infamous village. No one he knew had. There was a road there from Twobay, but still…no one from Gawgrie ever went.

Pirates.

Smart pirates.

He looked out between the balusters of the railing to the water. The Purple Sea was visible in spots where there were roaming Glows from the Men on the Watch.

One of the Glows stopped above the calm sea. Trew tried to see what the Watch saw.

"Ship’s Mate?" the Man on Watch called out.

Several other Men repeated the call so it slowly echoed, in different voices, over every section of the ship.

A man came up the stairs in an instant. If Trew hadn’t seen him rise onto the main deck, he wouldn’t have detected it by listening. The Mate moved with an impossible silence and honed in on the first man who had called for him.

Trew was some distance away. He began moving closer as the Men on Watch and Ship’s Mate peered out into the darkness.

“There, sir,” the Watchman said.

"I see it," the Mate said. “I don’t understand it, though.”

Trew looked, or tried. The railing kept him from seeing much.

What he did see was a Glow, in green, paused in its watch-rounds.

The Fortress was pushing past and the Glow remained fixed. Why? Trew couldn’t make out what lay in the darkness beyond.

Something had to be there.

Trew looked more intently. He thought he saw something. A fanciful idea popped into his head.

Could it be a porpoise?

Trew had seen engravings, but no... A porpoise had no bow.

"Identify," the Watch called out. "Identify, skiff."

A skiff.

Trew had been right, sort of. On his second try he had thought bow — and boat. He wouldn’t have gotten to skiff, though, which was a boat not uncommon on a lake, but wrong on the Purple Sea. If a Rift opened and the winds blew, a wave could swamp a skiff with no trouble.

How did it get here? They were at least thirty miles from Last Sayle and it was unattended.

"Identify," the Mate called out. His voice had been enhanced with facet, which projected volume and urgency.

Trew wanted to answer even though he knew the demand wasn’t directed at him.

The response was more of nothing.

Into that vastness and silence, the Ship’s Mate threw something. A larger Glow in golden yellow moved out on the water. It got to the skiff and circled around it.

Why couldn't the Watchman do that...oh, Trew realized. The distance was part of the problem as was the size of the Glow. The Watchman had stretched his facet as far as it would go. The Ship’s Mate was just better, more practiced.

Trew looked forward to lessons on the morrow.

Then he shifted to get a better look between the balusters.

“There's a man in there, still alive,” the Ship’s Mate said.

A man? Trew abandoned all pretense of stealth and moved closer to where the Watch stood. He tried to see what the Ship’s Mate saw.

“He's alive enough to tend.”

Trew tried to look inside the skiff… The angles weren’t cooperating. Trew wasn't much taller than the railing.

"Cautery Mate?” The call started with Ship’s Mate and went around through several voices.

Trew looked around. No one on the main deck moved.

“Already gone to his cabin… Well, Dawes, go wake him up. The man in the skiff has a story and I want it.”

Trew was still looking toward that darkness. He couldn’t see a man. He could barely make out the skiff, even with the larger yellow Glow.

“If there are pirates working this close to shore..."

Trew’s hands tightened on the rail, but they shook, too.

Pirates…

Pirates from Last Sayle. Trew had just been thinking about them and now…

Someone shouted something from the stairs.

Trew didn’t catch it.

Ship’s Mate did. “Drunk,” he groused, though he didn’t sound surprised. “That’s the last time I permit him some of the Commander’s bounty.”

He wasn’t joking.

“Dawes, get Compass Mate, he was a fair healer on his tour in the cautery. I can do a little healing, but he’s better.”

A call went out for Compass Mate.

Trew didn’t understand that. Compass Mate had done a stint in the cautery?

“Let's get that skiff closer. Men, cast that line, get it to stick. We'll drag the thing closer. Ready all of you,” the Mate called out.

Trew felt someone shove a segment of the rope into his hands.

The rope was dry and scratchy — and the best thing Trew had ever felt. A real rope on a real ship connected to pirates, maybe.

"We're going to pull,” Ship’s Mate shouted.

“And, now. Slow, steady. More hands, more hands to the rope. Keep pulling.”

Trew wasn’t adding much, he knew, but the rope was tearing at his hands just the same.

“She's a hog in the water, some facet-work is fighting us, but pull. There's a man we're going to save if we can."

Trew had a peach-picker's arms, which was an insult where Trew came from. He’d never look like a bronze candlestick or a foundryman.

"Pull. Together, Men.”

Trew could see the skiff now. It wasn’t close, but he could see it well.

“Listen. Together. Pull together. One, two, pull!”

Ship’s Mate wasn’t the only one Glowing from the strain. He was pouring in muscles and facet. Hard work it was with the Fortress cutting through the Purple Sea and all of these men trying to haul this skiff in.

“The Bully Beggar take ye. Pull.”

Trew could see the Landsman in front of him bleeding onto the rope. Trew wasn’t able to work around it. He hoped his own hands hadn’t started bleeding yet.

“No,” the Ship’s Mate shouted.

“No. No, stop, men. Stop pulling.”

Those who did were incredulous. They were huffing and bleeding and now they were supposed to stop. Was the Mate addled?

Ship’s Mate pointed. “Disease.”

A few more slowed.

“Look at him,” the Mate demanded. “Look at his face and hands.”

Trew could see nothing. He hated being short.

“What is it?” Trew asked.

No one answered. At the same time, no one continued pulling on the rope. The engine that these Men had provided for reeling in the skiff was dead.

Trew let the coarse fibers drop from his bloody fingers.

“Disease,” Ship’s Mate said.

No one understood what he meant.

He waved at one of the Men, then mimed some falling or chopping action. He started walking to where the rope was pulled taut over the railing. It had traveled a good distance during all the pulling.

“Cut the rope,” Ship’s Mate bellowed in desperation.

The Man closest to the rope finally understood his order.

He reached for the knife he carried. A hand came from out of the darkness to grasp the Man’s wrist before he could sever the line.

“Belay that, Ship’s Mate.” Clap-slide. Clap-slide. Closer to them.

Trew turned his stare to the Commander. He had shed his outermost layer of clothing, that dirty sayle he favored. It was cooler now and he wore fewer clothes?

“What do we have?” the Commander asked.

The Mate looked less crazed now. There was someone he could report to. “A skiff.”

“Aye, with a man inside it, I understand?”

The Commander made slow progress toward Ship’s Mate. Trew scrambled out of his way at one point.

“Yes, Commander.”

“I didn’t have a pleasant post-prandial, rather more decyphering of idiocy.” He waved his hand at the signal mast.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” the Mate said.

“My feud with the Captain can wait. It’s serious, chopping loose someone we’ve rescued. Why are you proposing it?”

The Mate in question pointed overboard.

The onlookers had grown. Trew noticed that Compass Mate was now standing next to him. Compass Mate gave a brief, unhappy glare at Trew, then focused his attention on the goings-on.

“Ah,” the Commander said. “I'm seeing puckers and pustules. He’s been there some time. Our red sun has worked him over.”

“Yes, the disease rules say…”

The Master of the Fortress shook his head. “He’s still breathing. We have a duty.”

“What if it’s catching?” Ship’s Mate asked.

Trew finally managed an angle so he could see what everyone else was looking at. Trew looked at the man's face. Then his exposed hands. Yes, there were oozing bumps on the man's skin. Disease.

Trew shivered just from what he saw.

“We can assist him from a distance. We don’t have to haul him up on the main deck. Remember your oath,” the Commander said.

“Aye,” Ship’s Mate said, quietly.

The Commander looked at the dissenters in the crowd, not a small number. “We have facet, do we not? Let’s get him some water, shuttle out some food.”

Trew barely listened. He was still looking at the oozing bumps. Could a healer do something with a disease like this one where the bumps weren’t just bumps, but oozing bumps? Trew thought that made things harder.

The Commander pointed at two Watchmen. “Tie the skiff to something sturdier than the railing. Our boys at the engine are having trouble enough without tearing up the Fortress.”

“I can help,” Compass Mate said to the Commander.

The Master of the Fortress turned and nodded. “Aye, I know ye can. Thank ye for offering. But that was yer last post. We make Mates here, as well as Landsmen and Boys. This is something to learn from, isn’t it? Get Cautery Mate on deck. Now.”

There was no fear or indecision about him. He was a hard one, but Trew thought he might be able to trust him when the worst happened.

Compass Mate moved away from the crowd to carry forth his duty. He’d asked to help, but had only been sent to carry an order.

The Commander then deigned to notice Trew. He pulled Trew off the railing and thumped his shoulder. "Below with ye. I'll not have ye catching bumps to decorate yer blue skin, Boy. Get to yer cabin."

Every time Trew tried to think fondly of his Commander, the man opened his mouth.

"Yes, Commander."

Trew still hated the man, but he complied, a little. He walked to the stairs that led into the belly of the ship, but ducked into the shadows close by.

The Commander looked at the Men still on deck. He picked one of them. “They call ye Jock?”

“Aye, sir,” the nervous Man said.

“Get a signal up to Lighthouse Four.”

“Commander, I don’t know the cyphers.”

“No fussing around. Just a straight signal. You know your letters?”

“Aye.”

“Send it clear. Any pirates out here, let them read the interrogatory.”

“Aye,” Jock said, confused.

The Commander wasn’t done laying on orders. “Have them wake Captain Fitche or the First of the Twenty Five. We need to know if there was a recent ship sinking or a pirate attack. If there was, why in the Red Sun’s spite didn’t we hear it straight off?”

Trew could tell that Jock had no intention of adding that part.

“The lazy sots should have been watching it happen from their perch, but didn’t.”

“Aye.” The man looked baffled. He’d probably never communicated with a Lighthouse, Trew thought.

“This skiff came from somewhere. Those bastards should be looking, not throwing bones or cheating at cards. Enough betting on when the next Rift opens. Let's find out now if we're starting a pirate hunt…"

Trew watched and kept quiet.

Jock went off to make his uneven report. He stood in front of the signal mast. Trew watched where he put his hands. He watched how the different Glows turned on and what colors they were. Trew could make out a few of the symbols. The beta was clear enough. Most of them were less comprehensible. When it was cyphered communication going out, the signal mast looked more like random spots of Glow.

Blue beta for five seconds. An orange something with horizontal bars — right, xi — for ten seconds. Then it was a green…was that phi?

It seemed like code. Those weren’t the components of any word Trew understood, but he wasn’t getting every letter.

His inspection of the signaling operation ended when Cautery Mate — the rat-faced one who had grumbled at Trew earlier — stumbled onto deck, swaggering. He had consumed a considerable amount of gawgrie. Compass Mate was clever enough not to return to deck.

The Cautery Mate was not well received by the Commander. Trew couldn’t hear the dressing down, but he could see how the rat-like man cowered before he fled the main deck.

The Commander leaned over the railing, but his feet did not leave the main deck. There was something Glowing in front of him. Was he looking? Was he healing?

Trew couldn’t tell.

The Commander left the group first. A few Men of the Watch took that as the signal to return to their duties. The others remained a little longer, peering over the railing.

The skiff became of less interest or of greater unease — and everyone else departed in pairs or singly.

Trew couldn’t see a single green-uniformed Mate on the main deck.

No one had gone down to the skiff to really look.

No one had sent the man the promised water or food, not that Trew had observed.

No one had helped the man, not with the healing that might vanish the oozing spots nor even to ask his story.

Trew might have recoiled from the disease he bore on his skin, but he hadn’t wanted the man to just die in that skiff.

It seemed that was his fate. This treatment of the sick man…it disturbed Trew. The same Commander who had done little for the helpless man with the pustules had also made threatening noises about Trew’s blue skin.

For a moment, for that moment, Trew felt like a boy with pustules dying in some ragged boat with people staring at him not wanting to help.

No.

He wouldn’t stand for it.

He looked around. No one. The Watch were actively avoiding that part of the main deck now.

Trew slunk over to the railing.

There was a glow just off the skiff.

Trew lifted himself onto the railing so he could look down.

The man wasn’t moving much, just his chest.

Maybe he could still talk. Maybe he knew how to cure his own disease. Or, if he was damned, maybe he wanted to say a few final words to someone willing to listen to them.

Damn the Commander.

Damn his cutting words.

None of these ‘great’ Men, Mates, and that Commander would do anything but peer over the railing.

Trew could. He would.

It was the only fair thing to do, the only charitable thing.

He climbed off the railing and onto the line that connected the Fortress to the skiff. Trew moved slowly down the line, one hand, one shin, the other hand, the other shin. It was slow, but being dressed in oversized rags slowed him down further. He had to keep from snagging the billows of his own uniform on the rough line.

When he touched the skiff, Trew clung to the very edge of the boat.

This close, Trew couldn’t but see the pustules on the sick man. They were large and terrifying to him. He thought he could smell the foulness of those oozing blisters.

The man felt the motion of the skiff as Trew secured himself in the bow. He opened his eyes a moment before they closed again. The sick man was alive. Someone should be helping him, not leaving him here to succumb.

Now he would…

…do what exactly?

Trew had climbed down here with a good intention, but he hadn’t thought about what came next. What could he do to help?

He didn’t know much healing — and certainly nothing about pustules like these.

“Sir?” Trew whispered.

The man just continued to breathe. He must not have heard.

“Sir?” Trew asked with more force.

Nothing.

What now?

Trew had begun to feel the danger he had taken on. He had also begun to feel the sting of a fool’s bargain.

The man in front of him couldn’t even respond to someone speaking with him.

“I can tell them what you need,” Trew said.

Still nothing.

“If you know,” Trew said, babbling on.

The man made no sound, but his eyes opened and fixed on Trew. That was something, at least.

“Do you want water? Some food? Is there some facet that can help you?”

The man didn’t look pleased to see Trew. In fact, he looked angry. Maybe Trew had asked a dumb question. Maybe everyone but Trew knew this man suffered from a fatal condition.

Maybe the man was only reacting to the pain he was in.

Maybe he had already been driven mad.

“Is there anything you can say?” Trew asked.

The man continued to make no noise.

Trew felt a little stupid for making the effort.

“I’ll go. Keep your eyes open if you want me to come back. I can bring food.”

The man continued to stare. Trew thought that was a good thing.

“I just want to help.”

It was strange talking to a person who couldn’t or wouldn’t respond. “Bye.”

With some effort, he turned his body around without venturing within an arm’s reach of the sick man. He crawled back up the rope and stepped lightly onto the main deck. His hands, knees, and shins were stinging. Maybe bloody.

He looked around the main deck.

The Men of the Watch were purposefully not looking to where the skiff was tethered. All the better for Trew at this moment. He had no one to catch him for doing something foolish.

He knew it had been a fool’s task. A little anger over the Commander’s disinterest and he’d lost his mind. He’d had no plan and he’d risked himself if those pustules were catching.

He had tried to offer a little help and now felt — what? — unhappy. No, angry. He felt angry that the sick man hadn’t even tried to say something.

It was like he was resigned to dying.

Trew kept to the shadows as he made his way to the underdeck stairs. He descended them and inched along in the dark to the ladder then to his cabin. He lay on his cot and listened to cricket music.

Fool, he thought. Bamboozled fool.

Cake. Chub. Cork-brained. Coxcomb. Cully. Empty garret. Gabby. Gamoned. Grinagog. Jack Adams. Jacob. Mud. Nincumpoop. Ninny. Noddy. Nokes. Paper scull. Ralph Spooner. Rocked. Sammy. Sapscull. Simkin. Simple Tony, Simpleton. Singleton. Squirish. Windy-headed. Vacant.

The accusations haunted him because he knew them true.

Trew was a long time getting to sleep that night. Every noise he heard on the ship made him think of a Watchman ignoring the man in the skiff. He yawned so many times, but didn’t fall asleep. He was so tired and so unhappy with himself.

XX

Continue to Chapter Ten.

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