Gayl led Naltu to the harbor after breaking fast on boiled eggs. A single ship was tethered to the piling there, and a squat figure sat on a stump on the deck. Naltu followed Gayl up the ramp and onto the deck, and the pair approached the figure. Gayl spoke first.
"Hello. Are you the captain of this ship?"
The stocky woman laughed. "And you're not a sailor. I am. What can I do for you?"
"This is my friend Naltu," Gayl said, turning to the tall man beside her. "He wants to cross the sea. He's exploring."
Naltu bowed, face stern and full of respect. The woman was short but her arms were thick and covered in green ink and scars. Her clothing was made of thick felt, held in place with buttons made of bone and wire, and the color was mottled and dirty. She relaxed, letting lacquer flow from a thick bristle brush onto cleaned wood.
The stocky woman laughed. "Call me Bonham. No cargo, no crew. The winds are good, but we'll not be sailing anywhere for some time."
Naltu nodded. Gayl explained, and he understood.
"No cargo?" he questioned.
"The other ships carry cages full of goblins across the ocean, to work the mines in the west. I won't. Turns out there's not much else out here, and no one wants to sail a ship without cargo. I'll be waiting for summer, for the harvests, and maybe I'll get enough to go home."
"Slaves," Naltu agreed. "Fight men who take men. I go north."
Gayl turned, mouth open. Bonham laughed.
"You don't like slavers. I've heard the tribesmen befriend the goblins. You're running in the wrong direction, boy."
"Slavers take tribesmen. Women."
"No, they don't," Bonham insisted. "Only goblins, not that it's right."
"Yes," Naltu pressed. "Slavers take Tlictal women, green men. I go north, find out why."
Bonham turned her head. "Not now, you won't. The military's gotten in the way of the slave trade, and the homesteaders made those buildings out of the ships they came in."
Gayl stepped back. "Naltu, are you alright? I need to get back to the tavern. My dad is going to be mad if I'm not there to set up. We'll make a roast for tonight, so come back, alright?"
Naltu spun and pressed his forehead to hers. "Gayl, thank you."
Her mouth split into a wide grin, and she kissed him on the cheek. She left down the ramp.
Bonham laughed. "How'd you pull that off? Half the men in this city tell lies about her."
"How many crew?"
"Thirty. You got any friends who know how to rig a barque?"
"You teach. Green men?"
Bonham cackled, almost falling from the barrel. "Green men would gut me in my sleep, no?"
"Green men have honor. Follow words of... master. Better than slavers. Naltu trust."
"I don't think so. I've had trouble enough with crews that I'm wary."
"More green men than pink like us. They have villages below the mountains. They grow food. They sing songs of green men in the north. Is this true?"
"There are plenty of slaves in the north, and free goblins. The military keeps them in check. Truth be told, they seem very peaceful. The raids here in New Odrin were a shock, but enslavement's not legal in the other parts of New Spheria and Fashil where the green men are known to live."
"New Spheria? Is this north land?"
Bonham laughed. "You don't know much, do you? Yes. What do you know of the world beyond these waters?"
"Little," Naltu admitted. "Tell?"
Bonham handed Naltu the brush and pointed at the deck.
"I suppose I can take a break. Well, you're doing well enough in New Odrin. Have the people here treated you badly?"
"I don't understand." Naltu dipped the brush into the bucket.
"That's good. Spread the lacquer out until it soaks in. Anyone fight with you?" Bonham asked, making an aggressive gesture with her fists, as if to box with Naltu.
"No. Stare only, like Rush when met."
"There's stories about your people, you know. They say you're all cannibals, that there's no food in the tundra, and so you eat each other."
"No," Naltu laughed, and touched his coat. "Eat wolf. Eat mushroom and goat and egg."
"You'll like Libbonese goat. They have strange spices. I don't have any, but I'm fond, for the spices are used to hide the flavor of old meat on long trips."
"Libbonese in New Spheria?"
"Libbon is a country to the west of Spheria. Not New Spheria, but the original one. There's Libbon, and Spheria, and New Spheria, Fashil, and Sath."
Naltu painted the last of the lacquer onto the wood. "And Ghidiun?"
Bonham grinned. "Yes, and Ghidiun. There are other countries, too, but we don't trade with them. It's said the people who live there are not human. Maybe green men? I don't know. If you're leaving Ghidiun, you'd be sailing to New Spheria, where Gayl was born. It's warmer than here, but there's still occasional snow in the summer. Your green men slaves probably aren't ending up in New Spheria, though, otherwise I imagine we'd hear of raids from the cities. They must be shipping the slaves to Libbon or... I don't know, Sath? Spheria, too. As I said, enslavement is illegal, but slavery isn't. You could sell yourself in Spheria, maybe get a few pieces of full silver."
Naltu tugged at his purse. "How moon worth less than sun?"
"Um, tell you what. I don't mind talking with you, but we've got wood to finish. Go fetch us bread and a bit of meat and a small cask of ale for lunch, and we'll talk until the work is done, alright?"
Naltu returned after a while, and Bonham had laid out sharp tools on the ship's deck. She gave him six copper pieces in exchange for the food.
"So you want to go after the slavers in New Spheria? You said a crew of green men. If they go, you'll not find someone who would take them back here. They'd be able to make a home, if you survive..."
Naltu nodded. "This is good."
"I should be more careful. You see all the armed men here?"
"Yes. All carry weapons in Ghidiun."
Bonham frowned and rubbed her face. She opened a pitch-soaked cask of sticky brown ooze and another cask, half-filled with white spirit, and mixed the spirit into the ooze, thinning the lacquer. She waited for a moment, inspecting, and then lifted a long metal pole from the deck, and made Naltu follow her. She scraped at the deck with a low angle, chipping any fragments of lacquer that were loose away from the wood. She gave the tool to Naltu, and he worked, learning to identify the bubbles and sheen where the lacquer was failing.
She worked behind him with her brush and cask, and filled the holes with the syrupy lacquer. She thought about his intent and grumbled and meant to warn him. He worked well and did not slow, and the quality of the deck was greatly improved.
"Naltu... listen. If you go and do what you want, the military might come after you. The other countries aren't like this one. If you kill a slaver in New Odrin, no matter how foul a person he is, those military men with guns will shoot you down. Understand?"
Naltu laughed. "Kill bad man in hut, not demanded of chieftain, strike down, too."
Bonham sighed and pointed to the plume of smoke coming from the Yellow Grouse. "Time for dinner. Question. How much money you got?"
Naltu shrugged and opened his purse. He poured the coins into his palm. "This."
Bonham pieced through the money and grinned. "That's quite a bit of loot, boy. You get all that by scouring decks?"
"Yes," Naltu laughed. "Enough to go north?"
She picked out the marred tin coins and tossed them overboard. "You don't want to be caught with those, not by anyone. But the rest, well, enough to hire sailors and buy food. You sure about this? It'll take us a few weeks to hire a crew and get some cargo."
"Have green men. Trust more than crew. Come, meet friends?"
Bonham spat. "Let's find that roast. You willing to hand over that purse to convince me? All your gold, money for supplies and maybe even some cargo. If we can find a crew and cargo, we won't have to pay them until we arrive and sell everything."
Naltu gave her the shining coins. They walked to the tavern.
Bonham shook her head and examined the gold, clean and minted fresh. Her eyes grew wide. "I mean to be an honest sailor."
Naltu bowed again. Bonham left him in the tavern and found her own solitary seat near the hearth. He spent dinner with Gayl hovering about, quaffing ale until he was dizzy. He stood and she gave him another kiss. Her father looked scornfully, and Naltu left and pushed south. He walked during the night, howling the yips of the green men, and he was found.
"Ychatl," Naltu asked, and the green men let him wait until the moon rose fully.
The green man appeared. "You stink of the northerners."
"I've been in the northern city."
"Ychatl, old friend. Some men are pink, some men are green, yes?"
Ychatl wore armor, old stuff made of plates of brass riveted to leather, but Naltu understood. The green men made such armor to protect against the stone-cutting axes they forged in the caves, but it would not help against the carbines of the northmen. Ychatl would not go into battle in such gear, and wore it only to impress his men. The green men favored tales and deeds over the passionate wars and scars of the tribesmen.
"Yes, Shaman. What does Naltu mean?"
"Some men are slavers, some men are friends. I have found friends. Will you send warriors north? Hunt the slavers to their home?"
Ychatl's eyes grew wide. "Hunt the slavers in their homes? I would do this. What is the cost?"
"Many men cross the sea with me. Eight trusted men who obey. Men obey you first, and me second. We reach the north shores and your men go hunt. They bring your name to the mountains across the seas. Men without children to feed. They will not return. I will give them arms once we cross the sea."
"I won't go with you," Ychatl sighed. "Let me think on this."
Naltu smiled and turned. He found New Odrin in the morning and he helped Bonham scrape and lacquer her ship. A man in ornate clothes of lace and felt found him in the Yellow Grouse as they lunched on a porridge-stew with butter and goat.
"Jyuk hai," the man said.
"Hello," Naltu replied.
"What're you doing in town?"
Bonham stood. "Why're you bothering my laborer, Mallard?"
Mallard waved his hand. "So he speaks Spherian?"
"I speak many tongues," Naltu said through a proud smile.
"You've seen the walls. The goblins throw burning shit into the town at night. What do you know about that?"
Naltu swallowed a slug of ale. "Slavers took green children north."
"So they want revenge? But those slaves are gone." He turned. "Bonham, I'm being rude. Could you introduce us?"
She was annoyed. "Naltu, this is Mallard, leader of the men who guard the city. Mallard, this is Naltu. He's a savage trader."
Mallard nodded and sat on the bench. "Good. Surely a savage knows the need to protect women and children. The people are terrified." He flashed a gold coin. "Can you help us find the goblins, so we can put an end to this?"
Bonham and Naltu whispered to eachother.
Mallard raised his forehead.
"I had to explain what you said to him."
"You speak their language?" Mallard asked.
"No," Bonham laughed. "He just doesn't know all our words."
Naltu grunted. "Green men terrified. Know slavers behind walls. Want people return."
"The slavers in the jail? If we gave them up, would the attacks stop?"
Naltu thought for a long moment. "No. Green men not care slavers. Green men care child."
Mallard's face blushed. Bonham intervened, explaining what Naltu had told her, what she thought he meant.
"We can't get the children back," Mallard responded.
Naltu shrugged. "Make offering. Rifle to fight slavers. Rifle outside wall tonight with Gayl fruit pie. With slavers. Peace fire burn opal flower. Green men see, green men take, talk tomorrow."
Mallard let Naltu finish then shook his head. "We can't give the rifles. We don't have many. Maybe we could bring the slavers to them? Into the swamps, right?"
Naltu chuckled, not a jovial laugh, but mocking. He pointed to his feed. "Slavers go to swamps, die, maybe peace. Mallard men go swamps, Green men crack rock under Odrin."
Bonham shook her head. "You don't understand. Do you have the authority to give the slavers over to the goblins?"
"They're to be hung next week. I don't think that's a problem."
Bonham explained this to Naltu. The savage laughed. The three drank and talked until sunset. In the morning, Naltu left the city and moved into the hills, followed by four guards and twelve slavers in chains. Naltu built a fire as the sun set and the moon rose.
Ychatl came with his whole legion.
Naltu rose and ordered the guards to remain at a distance.
"These are slavers who did not go north. New Odrin is men and women and children. Kill these slavers, we'll go north, brother, stop the rest. They will tell stories of us."
Ychatl pulled his armor to the side, exposing his heart. A white film was forming on his chest, thick with small black buds. "Ychatl can't go north. If those pink men hate these slavers, they kill them. I smell the corruption. I will know, but I won't defile my people."
"You will have your own children soon?"
Ychatl nodded. "From the pain of my men we make children. Forty will go with you."
"That is your army."
"If the slavers who raid Ghidiun dead, those broken with need for vengeance have no purpose here. They shall sprout elsewhere."
Ychatl gave Naltu a heavy pouch full of round stones. They weren't the rough rocks he had bartered from the Ghislail, but translucent orbs of many colors. Ychatl promised that the stones took only a moon to dig from the earth, but could buy as much Opal as a hundred men might burn in a year. Naltu knew this to be true.
Naltu agreed. "They will come to the city and watch these slavers destroyed. They will go north and make names and plant seeds."
He explained part of this to Mallard, that the green men wished to watch the slavers hung, that there would be peace afterwards. He did not speak of the voyage north. The guards were confused when Mallard ordered them to return to New Odrin with the prisoners.
Three days passed. Naltu explained the situation to Bonham, and she agreed. Gallows were erected outside the walls of the town. The green men watched the slavers turn blue and black. They did not speak or shout. When the slavers died, they erupted in a melancholy hymn. They marched two days to the east and boarded a dinghy, and forty men were ferried to Bonham's ship, listing beyond the sight of New Odrin.
Naltu translated as Bonham spoke.
"I'm the captain. While we're on the sea, my orders are law, and punishment is swift and severe. Dan is the mechanic and first mate, and Naltu is the second mate. One of us will always be on the deck. The rest of you will take shifts on the deck, rigging, rudder, and at the mess. Everyone works two shifts."
"Only two mates?" Dan asked. He was a bald-headed man well into his fifth decade. His skin was wrinkled like leather, and he reeked of smoke.
Naltu glanced at a green man. "Ingram will learn and speak for me. He is leader of green men."
"Fine," Bonham agreed. "Ingram, you'll serve as the third mate once we're comfortable. The seas are urgent and our supplies are not well-stocked. We've purchased nets and you deck rats will fish when you're not scrubbing."
The ship sped across the calm waters and the green men did not grow sick even as Naltu heaved over the stern. They drifted with the current for days with furled sails, though the sea moved in their favor, until the green men began to master the rigging. They found great enjoyment in the activity, climbing the masts and sliding down ropes, crashing into the deck with a roll.
The ship was small, Bonham explained, but Naltu found the hold expansive. The hull was made of wood, covered inside and out by thick tar that was different from the flammable stuff that came from the swamps. Above the highest point where the waves would crash into the ship, the wood was coated in lacquer. When the green men were not at the masts, they scraped flaking tar and lacquer from the ship, replacing the rotted surface with fresh stuff taken from the barrels in the hold.
Naltu spent the first days with Bonham at the aft of the ship and she showed him the levers used to steer. Two rudders hung below the hull, one attached to each lever. The rudders were long and shallow, and the ship was made more stable for the design, though slower and more difficult to turn.
"It was once a passenger ship," she said. "Not a comfortable one. She's been mine for less than a year and through three trips. Libbon where I bought her, to New Spheria, and then here."
"What cost ship?"
"That's a rude question," Bonham said, grinning. "Are you asking if I'm a pirate?"
Naltu frowned, not understanding. She continued.
"I'm not, though I've crewed with privateers. The Libbonese build most of the ships on the seas. Not because the Spherians can't, but... Libbon's a strange country. They used to make fancy silks, but they've got too many people now. So they make ships and many men live on the seas and return occasionally to trade fish. When the ships age, the state sells them for gold, and then use the gold to buy, well, they've got a very large military. If you're a man in Libbon, you're a soldier, a fisherman, or you build ships."
"Not go there."
"You asked about my ship," Bonham scolded. "New Spheria's a nice country. It's not crowded like Spheria, the old country, but it's not very civilized either. You won't understand that, you might think they're oppressive."
Naltu sighed, not understanding many of Bonham's words.
"How Spheria new?"
"There's the old country and the new country. The Spherians share the old country with the Nilanese in an uneasy truce. New Spheria was established a hundred years ago."
Naltu's eyes were wide. "Spherians made new land?"
Bonham cackled at the absurdity. "No! They discovered it. They made settlements. You'd understand if you'd been to Spheria. It's very crowded near the sea because the core of the country is all dead sand."
"What is truce?"
"They agreed not to fight anymore. They still do, but not as much."
Naltu produced the black book from his coat and asked Bonham of it.
"This is a pretty thing," she laughed, and opened the cover. "The collected works of the Poet Diana, printed 1820, and numbered. This is worth a bit of coin. You shouldn't keep this with you, it'll be ruined if you get soaked."
"Numbered 1820? There are that many others like this?"
Bonham closed the book and burst into laughter. "1820. That's the year, and six years past. It's numbered, though, and there are one hundred and ninety-nine other copies. Printed in the city of Seat, New Spheria, 1820. Can you actually read this?"
"No." Naltu said, sad.
She returned the book to him. "You could sell it for silver. Maybe even gold. It's rare that a poet achieves notoriety in six years, but New Spheria's a small country and there's not much competition. I'm surprised you found this in Ghidiun?"
Naltu nodded. "Gift from Molly Kinson. Help feed and fight beasts with husband Rush. She told stories at night. Stories are wealth for Ghislail, like gold to you. You read to me?"
"Not a chance," Bonham said. "You should sell it when we arrive. You'll have enough money to buy weapons for those green men."
"Why sand dead in Spheria?"
"No one really knows. War, maybe? Old maps show forests, but... have you ever heard how they cross the desert?"
"They once had beasts the size of a small ship. Four-legged behemoths with legs as tall as a tavern is wide. These things could strip a field and swallow a river, then walk the desert without eating for a month. Maybe that's what happened. Maybe the behemoths ate everything."
Naltu was excited by this. "You ride beast?"
"Me? No. I've seen the bones of the dead ones, but never a live one. I think you have to get pretty far into the sands and away from the cities before you find the behemoths. Or perhaps I haven't seen one because they all starved to death after they ate everything. What did you think of New Odrin?"
"New Spheria's a lot like that city. Peaceful, no raids from the green men. Food's quite scarce in Libbon, but never in New Spheria, even though it's so cold. Have you ever tried sweet grass?"
Naltu nodded. "Pipe in my cabin."
"Go get it, let's smoke."
Bonham fished in her pouches and retrieved a pipe made of copper and clay. She filled the pipe with crushed flakes of some weed. She pointed to an unlit lantern and Naltu retrieved it. He lit the lantern for her, and she roasted a small pebble of coal inside until it was hot, and then placed the coal gently on top of the pipe. When the grass was lit and smoldering, she gave the coal to Naltu.
His own mix was black and sticky, fermented in the way of the south. He puffed and the syrupy-sweet smoke filled his mouth, and he exhaled through his nostrils. His pupils dilated at once and pleasant warmth filled his fingers and toes. Bonham sniffed at his smoke and took his pipe and tried the strange grass.
"This is not Opal or anything, is it?"
"No," Naltu laughed. "No dry the grass. That makes bitter. Mix under sun. Calming."
"You let it rot?" Bonham said, glaring.
Naltu shook his head. "Not rot. Calm."
Bonham walked to a buttress and poked at a soft spot seeping with resin. "Rot. It is fine, though."
"Knights, hmm? Well, when you do engage the slavers, the knights won't be your friends."
Naltu seemed sad and waited for a moment before speaking. "Know. Knights should fight slavers. Knights bad?"
"Not bad. Do you understand how one becomes a knight?"
"No," Naltu admitted. The conversation left him feeling foolish.
"Do you have any children?"
"No," Naltu said again.
"Oh, well... in the north, dammit, now I'm using your words. In your tribes, you have rich men and poor men?"
"Old men poor? Young rich?"
Bonham grinned. "And that's it. If you're an aristocrat, you're expected to give wealth to your children. What if you don't want to? You buy them a commission in the military. Knighthood. Costs far less, and your son is likely to end up with a plot of land in New Spheria or Ghidiun. All that honor business is so much tripe."
"Ghidiun? How give tribe land to knights?"
Bonham's eyes rolled. "New Spheria had green men when the knights first came there, too. Remember what Mallard said about the mountains? Knights forced them out of the wetlands. A hundred years ago. Now the families of the knights there are powerful aristocrats. Seat and Arbor are military cities, every tidbit of land is owned by some high-ranking knight. Krigsgud's owned by the merchants, and the rest of the cities are all established on granted land."
"Gun not hunting wolves. Gun hunting men."
"Hunting men, like you. And you and your army of little green men are going to kill the slavers how?"
"Hunt wolves with knives. Bears smoke. Beavers traps. Guns. All, knives, smoke, traps. Stop slavers Ghidiun. End slavers New Spheria same."
"You realize you're going to be raiding a camp, not a wagon, right? It's going to be a place like New Odrin."
"With friends... Gayl not sell men. Bonham not sell men. Not like Odrin."
"New Odrin. No, maybe not the Yellow Grouse, but I mean fortifications. It's said there's a slaver's town near Krigsgud. There could be a hundred men there."
Bonham produced a small piece of wax and scrubbed the mechanism of her pistol with it.
"Wax gun? Naltu wax food."
She gave him the pellet. "You should keep the metal coated in wax, or the salt spray will make your gun rust. I should have said something, but... I didn't feel good with you being so well-armed on my ship.'
Naltu finished the grass in his pipe and stood. He went to his cabin and sipped a flask of liquor and slept. In the morning, the skies were clear, and the sun was warm, and the sails billowed with a steady wind. He found Bonham on the deck.
"You learn to talk green. Mate Dan learn from Ingram."
"What? I don't know. That's what I have you for, right?"
Naltu shook his head. "Listen. Hooks have numbers. I teach you Ghidiun numbers, you call, they obey. Dan knows."
Bonham listened as Naltu explained the words. She worked with them, and they did obey her, and she grew confident. Two days passed, and she could command them to configure the rigging in the most basic ways. The green men trusted the captain and her mate as Naltu promised, and so she shared a bit of luxury taken from the hold.
She tapped a small cask of Spherian rum and shared the sweet liquor with the green men. The green men were grateful and enjoyed the rum, and she was glad that not a one would drink to intoxication. They appreciated the gift and became more daring in their willingness to climb along the outside of the hull.
Bonham panicked when she saw this, for she was scared the ship would rock and the wiry men would fall. They could not swim and they seemed to enjoy tempting fate, but no men drowned, and the soft spots on the hull were replaced with fresh boards and tar.
"If you don't get yourself killed, you're going to like New Spheria," Bonham mentioned to Naltu.
"Land of slavers, I like it?"
Bonham grumbled. "You need to listen to the short words I use. They're important, or else you sound like an idiot."
"Sorry," Naltu said, bowing with a mock apology.
"Ten years ago there was a great war. All the men, even the boys of New Spheria went to the shores of Fashil to fight... there are more women than men. It's ironic in a sense, because Libbon is full of men, with no women. Not a good place for you!"
"Why Libbon... why is Libbon men?"
"Because there's too many people to feed in Libbon. You can't have babies without women, so there aren't many girls. They drown infant girls. I won't crew with Libbonese men for that reason. I'll trade with them, but not sail."
"Cruel to drown infants. Wrong."
"Yes. I hope you find them in Krigsgud. You'll hear of the silks of Libbon, I'm sure. I'll tell you the truth, I'd sail with your green men as long as they'd stay, Naltu. You, too. Just not for blood. Maybe you don't have to start a fight? We could go to Fashil and trade with Nilan."
Bonham waited for a response, but none came, so she returned to the levers. He sorted through the chests on the deck, emptying contents and then neatly replacing things. The green men took after Dan's precise manner and the ship began to roar through the water.
Naltu found thin cord and began to weave a cage. He tossed the cage into the water and let it drag behind the ship, and pulled it above when the sun fell, and the cage was full of fishes and crabs and pulsing yellow blobs.
She watched for a while, bored with the steady winds that drove from the south. After a time, Bonham helped Naltu sort through the harvest, teaching him the things that were good to eat and those that were not. He went to toss the blobs overboard and she stopped him.
"I know those don't look appetizing, but jelly-fish are good to eat."
Naltu picked up one of the blocks by the mass of tendrils at one end. "Fish?"
"Don't touch the big ones, they'll burn you. But the small ones can be boiled and they're flavorful and salty. You'll want to pick all the scales off these fish before eating them. They're not like the clean fish near New Odrin."
There was an iron stove below the deck. Dan fidgeted with a small rock. Naltu watched with amazement as the rock became the color of fire, and the old coals within the stove were prompted to life. Naltu placed fresh coal in the stove and made a pot boil above it. One of the green men cleaned the harvest and boiled the meat until it was good. The green men all enjoyed the food and did not grow weak as they would on the meat of the land.
The green men remained cautious as Bonham shared more rum and opened a cask of cider made strong in the ice of the south. The green men preferred to cook with the cider in the boil-pot rather than drink it. The fish and sea-jellies and crabs were made into an ever-present stew. Bonham taught the green men to drag the kelp from the waves and they did, and the green sea-grass made the stew hearty and thick.
The sun set fifteen times and food was plentiful before the cold rains came. With the rain, driving wind gusted from the west. Naltu and the green men were warm, and spent much time on the deck wearing only cloths around their waists, though Bonham and Dan shivered around the stove.
The day came but the rains remained. The ship sailed towards skies that would shift from blue to gray and back as quickly as the sailors could adjust the rigging. The men ate heartily until the sun began to fall. Bonham brought Ingram, Dan, and Naltu to the deck and pointed to the distance. She showed them the cloud through a lens and they saw the vertical streaks of rain.
Naltu and Ingram did not understand the sight, but they knew the faces of the others.
"Old ones," Dan whispered.
"I wonder if Fashil stopped the airships."
Ingram glanced sideways, not understanding. He wrung his nervous hands. Naltu noticed and asked.
"What is this?"
"You know the jellyfish we've been eating? That's the parents," Dan laughed. "Come for revenge."
Bonham shook her head. "Not the same thing. These ones float on the clouds over there and will tear a ship mast from keel. The Nilanese and Spherians pay the Fashil airships to drop firestones so we can sail. Well, that's what they tell us captains."
"Not good," Ingram chittered.
"We have firestone in stove?" Naltu asked.
"How d'you propose to get that to the top of those clouds?" Dan chided. No, we'll have to set the ship alight."
"This ship doesn't have a brazier. Shit," Bonham shouted. "Well, send the men to work."
Dan shrugged and turned to Ingram and Naltu. "Have half the men furl the sails as tight as can be. The others need to rest. If we want to see morning, we won't be sleeping tonight."
Naltu discussed this with Dan and then translated for Ingram.
The green men refused to sleep. They helped Dan mix the tar with spirit, forming a foul substance that refused to extinguish once ignited by the fire stone. The sun fell beyond the horizon and the tendrils drew close. The barrels were arrayed along the bow of the ship, stuffed with whatever clothing and felt could be found, and set ablaze. Bonham, red-faced, ordered the men to eat if they refused to sleep. Ingram and Dan distributed machetes to the men.
The sun set and the waves crashed into the bow. The ship listed, rolling from side to side. The winds and the currents pushed the ship and the bloom together. Bonham worked the levers, but the sea would not cooperate, and so the ship was thrust into the center of the cloud.
A filament of blue hung from the fog and then crashed into the deck. The filament was as wide as a man's arm and covered in hairs that ended in engorged pustules. Bonham struggled to turn the ship into the wind. Ingram ordered two men to her side. The levers groaned and the rudders moved until the ship shifted.
The first tendril brushed across the bow. The ship pitched forward under the weight. The tendril slid between two barrels, flames licking the exploding capsules, and then moved towards the mast. Impacting, the pustules burst. Sticky threads pierced the mast and the wood of the deck. As the tendril moved aft, the threads tightened and the ship heaved. The barrels slid away from the bow.
More tendrils undulated, erupting against the tarred hull and slippery deck. The ship leaned and the barrels slid to the railing. Half of them toppled into the sea, fire erupting on top of the water. The others tipped, dumping contents onto the deck. The ship burned.
Ingram ran to the foremast. One of the tendrils touched the green man's arm and the limb withered and blackened. The man screamed and cut the threads that had speared his arm. He climbed and the ship creaked. He swung at another tendril, severing the skin, and stinking air rushed from the wound. The air erupted in a fireball. Ingram was thrown from his place on the mast to the deck, too near the fire.
The tendrils were slow and did not chase, but the ship could not turn with ease, and so they bit with cracks of thunder. Bonham cried as the muscles in three strong backs tore, rudder refusing to steer against the grasp of monsters. Sails were torn, fragments of oiled cloth falling into the sea. Naltu rushed to the main mast and placed foot on the pegs there. The ship shifted and he lost his balance and fell, his legs falling to the deck and filling with splinters.
Dan moved to the barrels, followed by two green men, and began to upright them. The tar was thick and did not burn quickly, and so they avoided the most severe of injuries. Hammers pounded nails and the burning barrels were tethered to the wood of the starboard deck, halfway between the mainmast and the stairs to the lower decks. Other green men were scorched as they scraped at the tar with shovels and brooms, though they managed to contain the spread of the fire.
Naltu was helped to his feet, and then again to the mainmast. He climbed, a green man under his feet. He saw the carnage, Ingram writhing on the deck, Bonham unconscious, the fire below. He pushed higher and then lashed himself to the mast with a length of rope.
He reached inside his body. Green lighting flashed through the sky. The expense was great as he filled the sky with the will to rot, hatred and fear scalding the tendrils within ten wide paces. The effect was not severe, but the tendrils were bloated and vulnerable. The pustules burst. The swollen core of the tendrils split apart with a loud crack, deflated to a thin membrane, and fell.
He sensed the life of the things from behind closed eyes. The beasts hungered, blood sought out blood. Green men hung from the hull, machetes heavy in their hands. The tendrils fell to the ocean surface and the thread-filled sacs burst as they sank. The water boiled and the ship groaned. The sailors shouted and swung their dull blades, then threw the flailing threads that touched the deck into the angry sea.
He stared up at the swollen gray circles overhead and saw more tendrils dropping, unraveling, released by the damage wrought. They glowed dim and blue, spitting the fog that obscured his vision. Hungry mouths squirmed from the tips. A green man was occupied with the fire when the tendril kissed him. His arm vanished, sucked inside, swallowed upwards. He screamed as the rest of him was torn apart similarly.
The disks shifted to move ahead of the ship. They floated through the air, swimming like the jellies in the sea, and gray light flashed inside of them. With the light, the jellies swelled. Naltu reached out with more green light until his vision grew dim, but the tendrils were weakened.
Bonham woke and scrambled for a burning fragment of the railing. The green men saw her and followed. She pushed the fire against the thinning skin of a pustule, and the enemy's weapon melted. She pushed further, burning the skin of the tendril until it erupted in a yellow flare.
More of the tendrils were burned so, by the fires of the deck, and by the actions of Bonham and the green men. The explosions traveled upwards into the core of the gray disks, and the jellyfish erupted. Viscera, translucent and electric, falled into the sea and the deck.
Naltu felt hunger as the things died, and he pulled. The energy flowed through him, falling like water, onto the deck. Small wounds began to knit. The burnt boil on Bonham's face diminished, and Ingram's breathing slowed. The blooms sickened and fell into the sea. Naltu stared down again and vomited.
Dan shouted orders to exhausted sailors. Ten had been lost, without bodies for show, and another eight were wounded, groaning on the deck. Bonham, Naltu, and Ingram were among these. Naltu had lost control and green light flowed onto the deck, mixing with the rain, and the most grievous injuries of the others were knit enough that they would live. He withered and fell into deep sleep.
Ingram carried him down and fed him the liquor of boiled fish. His appetite was known to Ychatl's men, and they cooked stew and forced the meat down his throat. His head lolled for two days until consciousness returned. Five days passed before Naltu had restored his body, and the green crew sailed while the pink men slept.
The shore was in sight when Naltu awoke and returned to the quarterdeck. Bonham was silent and the green men were in awe. He wandered the deck, eating biscuits stolen from a barrel, watching birds call from overhead. Deep scars as wide as his leg covered the hull and the deck, and brown stitches marred the ivory sails, though the ship moved quickly. Bonham's cheek was marked by a red streak. Ingram watched him through a glassy eye, a patch of yellow foam marring his face. The green men healed similarly, many already whole, the rest growing fast.
"The rest is easy," Bonham promised him. "The hull's rotten, but the sky's clear. We're near land, yes, but the shores will be too rocky to approach for another few days. We'll sail east until we find the port city of Krigsgud. I'd meant to make for the trade city of Arbor, but your men explained their intentions well enough, and while the slavers lay anchor at Krigsgud, so shall we. Promise me you'll never mention my name. There are innocent people in the cities, Naltu, you shouldn't harm them. And you owe me a new ship."
Naltu agreed, exhausted. The fish was scarce so he ate dried meat with biscuits. The burned ship moved grudgingly. Bonham explained that the soldiers of Krigsgud would not let the green men roam free. Naltu told the green men this. Bonham found a sandy beach and beached the ruined ship.
The green men followed Ingram into the plains and the reeds. Dan led Bonham and Naltu to a road, and they walked to the city. They carried little beyond weapons. Naltu's furs had been preserved, deemed unsuitable for the fires. The linens and felt worn by the others were ruined and filthy. They reached the city and made a bribe to enter. Arrived, Naltu pressed two round stones into Bonham's palm. She held the stones between her eye and the sun, then glared at him for a moment. Emeralds the size of chestnuts would be worth her trouble. Dan crossed his arms and followed Bonham as she moved towards the docking district, hoping to hire a caravan to move her cargo from stomped reeds where the green men had left things.
The size of the city gave pain to Naltu's mind. He could not see the sun to find his way. The roads were not those of the trampled dirt and frost of the south, but crushed stone, packed tightly by the passage of iron-hoofed horses and carts with wheels clad in metal. The roads were wide enough for two large carts to pass side-by-side, but the largest carts were drawn by four horses, and enclosed, and carried enough to feed the Tlictal for a season.
The men were thin and tall and wore wrappings of felt and linen. Naltu had hoped for the scented air of the tales. There was none of this. Horse droppings were left in the roads to cook in the sun. He traded a silver coin for many round fragments of clay coated in glittering blue enamel, and then traded these for strips of gristly meat cooked on metal skewers. The fat was long melted away. He wondered if the northerners truly subsisted on such fare.
The sun was hot and the pack was heavy. He wandered through the city for the day and then passed beyond the west wall to place his tent. There was no wall of trees like in the south, but stone, only high as a man's head. He found crowded farmland beyond. The men were harvesting with metal sickles. The plants were small and round. He was watched, and ignored stares from stoops and cabins. He decided that the ways of the north were inferior to his own. The sun fell and he returned to Krigsgud. He walked until his nose was not fouled by the horses, then found an inn and hired a room.[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]