Inda by Sherwood Smith

  “Why?” Dasta asked. “Most of it sounds like ale talk.”

  “And if Ramis is fighting pirates, he’s no threat to us.”

  “Anything to do with Norsunder is a threat,” Inda stated. “Norsunder wants power. That means war. He might be taking pirates because they fight hard. What if he wants us for the same reason? We need to find out what we can about him.”

  No one argued with that.

  Zimd chortled, “If there’s any real news, I’ll find it!”

  “So what if there’s snow falling outside?” Kodl roared. “If pirates attack under cover of snow—and I would—are we going to ask them to wait until the weather is better? I said, get outside! It’s nearly sunrise!”

  Kodl, Scalis, and Niz, strong and tough and experienced on the sea, took to the training with the ferocious enthusiasm of those who meant never again to face the fears of their recent journey. Kodl was worried at first that they had too large a force. Aware of the costs of hiring, he knew that a large force could only be considered by captains of capital ships, and those mostly had their own protection. We will have to be not just good, but the best, he thought, and every day, no matter when he’d retired the night before, he was the first one awake.

  Before the snows came and covered the ground Niz and Kodl were even willing to spend time each day scouring the island for the right feathers, the ones that fletched arrows, and to spend evenings learning how to string a bow, aim, and release, arm snapping back in a line from fingertip to fingertip, all in one smooth motion, over and over, though their arms already protested from the morning’s weapons practice.

  Scalis and Niz were determined, and Kodl passionate with the peculiar focus of the man with a vision. When the hard snows came at last, and they could not search for fallen feathers, Inda’s drill began to mean all day, sometimes war-gaming all day and night for two or three days.

  Kodl was surprised to see the mids all stick with it, even Testhy, who had hoped to replace the purser’s mate in preference to the strenuous outside work. He became the purser of the marines, scrupulously keeping books, and scouting bargains whenever possible when Dun needed more wood and good steel for their weapons; as for his training, he toiled away grimly, never standing out but not falling behind either. Jeje brought to archery the same precision of eye she brought to sailmaking, and she rapidly became the best in the group and stayed that way until one came along who was better. Zimd (who spent most of her free time roaming the King’s Saunter and even less savory dens and listening with unending interest to every bit of gossip anyone would tell her) turned out to have an unexpected flair for staff work, being short and strong and very light on her feet. Yan and Dasta showed steady improvement in all areas. Tau excelled. In part because he was naturally strong and quick, but also because he was a close observer—after each lesson, he withdrew somewhere alone, drilling himself until he had mastery of the new lesson.

  “We lost another one last night, sir,” Testhy said after the second snowfall.

  “Who?” Kodl asked, with less interest each time; by the end of Firstmonth seven of Scalis’ forecastlemen and one of Niz’s topmen had taken their share of their pay and vanished aboard one or other of the ships coming and going.

  Kodl reported each loss to his mates, and though Niz snorted with derision and Scalis cursed each fluently for cowards and traitors, Kodl laughed inwardly at his worries about his marine troop being too large a number.

  But no more left during Secondmonth, and by Third-month’s first day the troop had gained four new recruits.

  First came a pair of big, smiling, round-faced young men from Sartor, who’d arrived at Lark Ascendant with pockets full of coin from their first journey. Raised to be bakers, they had run away to sea in search of adventure. After a wild weekend at the Lark Ascendant they were down to their last couple of coins, and wondering what to do. They saw the marines leave early in the morning, weapons in hand, to troop over the hill to the meadow and begin practice.

  “Hi! Hey! We join ya?” came the pure Sartoran accent, startling them all.

  Everyone looked at Inda, who turned to Kodl. “You can try,” Kodl said, and waved back at Inda to take over.

  Half a day later both volunteered with enthusiasm. “We do anything,” Rig said. Then frowned. “As long it’s not hire on as cooks.”

  Rig, the youngest, was the smart one. Hav, his big, even-tempered older brother, seldom spoke, but he adapted to the training rapidly, exhibiting enormous strength.

  Wumma appeared next, brought by Niz. Wumma and the Delf had engaged in a drinking contest the night before, and though few could beat Delfs in that regard, Wumma was one of those few. He was welcomed by Dun as he’d had training in woodworking. He was even faster than Dun at making smooth, straight arrows for their stash. Dun had more than enough work for a mate. Wumma was tall, lean, strong, tough, dark of face and hair with startling pale blue eyes. He hated pirates with the passion of someone with personal experience.

  “I heard you be training to fight pirates.”

  The soft voice was almost inaudible, carried away by the cold winter wind, but Tau’s hearing was acute. He lowered his weapon when he saw the tiny, platter-faced Chwahir girl by a scraggly tree, her lank black hair half-hiding her face.

  She looked about twelve.

  The others also stopped, and Kodl looked pained, calling out, “We don’t hire children.”

  A thin hand pointed at Jeje, who wore her old winter smock to fight in, and then opened toward Inda.

  Zimd muttered behind her hand, “I know who that is. Got stranded here by Windskimmer. Picked up from a pirate wreck.”

  And Yan said, almost a whisper, “Her family was destroyed and she was forced on a pirate ship.”

  Zimd snickered. “So you’re the one who’s been slipping her extra coins to keep her out of the workhouse. I heard about that. You tell her about us?”

  “Everyone knows about us,” Tau said in Dock Talk, sparing Yan, who studied the ground. “They all think us crazy.”

  Kodl snapped his fingers and they fell silent. He faced the girl. “Look, you’re just too small, too young.”

  “You want to die?” Scalis shouted, hoarse, derisive.

  She lifted her voice. “I want to fight pirates.” That voice, so cold, so quiet, gave them all pause.

  Kodl waved to Inda to resume the session. Inda sent a sympathetic glance at the girl, who just stood there, watching, no expression on her round face, and he snapped his staff out and tapped Dasta’s.

  The girl stood there all day. Next day she was back, and the next. The fourth, Inda said, “At least let her show us what she can do.”

  Kodl rolled his eyes upward.

  The girl did not smile, or frown. She just ran down, held out her hand for Jeje’s composite bow and a handful of arrows. Then, with a speed and exquisite precision of form that silenced them all, she sent all six shots squarely into the center of the clout.

  “What’s your name?” Inda asked, glancing Kodl’s way.

  Her chin lifted. “Thog. Daughter of Pirog.”

  Kodl said, “Welcome, Thog, daughter of Pirog.”

  Jeje said kindly, “You can stay with us, if you don’t have a better place.”

  Flower Day.

  In Iasca Leror, the first day of spring was celebrated with the last of the winter’s hot spiced wine, with cakes and dancing and song. To the Marlovans spring had meant the year’s first war games. In Sartor and Colend, the first day of spring brought out flower boxes and flowered silks; on that day, all distinctions of rank ended, and anyone could flirt with anyone else. And where Sartor and Colend led, the rest of the eastern end of the continent followed.

  “Why would anyone here care?” Inda asked, as they met just after dawn on the hillside above their meadow. He looked in some bemusement at Freeport Harbor down below; rails and balconies draped, flower boxes put out overnight, people strolling about dressed in formal fashions of different lands. “Why celebrate? There i
sn’t any rank here. Or any one custom. People do what they want anyway.”

  Tau laughed. “Why does anyone celebrate anything? It’s an excuse to have fun.” His brows twitched upward on “fun.”

  Dasta hunched his bony shoulders and began swinging his sword. “No consequences.” His voice had of late taken to growling more than squeaking. Tau had noticed, with private amusement, that Jeje no longer had the lowest voice among their particular group.

  Inda hadn’t seen any evidence of consequences either, but then he didn’t really understand what Tau meant. He was fourteen, busy running drills by day and roaming the docks by night, studying the ships that came in, from round-hulled merchant vessels to narrow-built, rake-masted pirate ships with overlong jib booms with sharpened steel affixed to the end, as were the other boom-ends, to cut up the rigging of their prey. Sometimes, for a coin or two to the mate of the watch, Inda was even able to get on board and climbed the masts, so he could look down, envisioning where one might strike—and where one might repel strikes—and then he’d apply what he’d seen to the drills on their hulk. He was too busy to think, to dream.

  Kodl appeared at the top of the rise and exchanged looks with Scalis and Dun. “There are a couple of contests,” Kodl said, “we ought to enter.”

  “Like?” Tau crossed his arms, the brisk morning air bringing magnificent color out along his cheekbones, his fine-cut lips curled sardonically. Jeje glanced away, down into the harbor, ignoring Zimd’s knowing snicker.

  “The weapons competitions?” Inda said, looking doubtful. “But the prize is so small, and if any of us get hurt—I’ve heard how they cheat—then we have to wait for recovery.”

  “Time,” Kodl said, “to measure ourselves against others.”

  Niz growled. “Cheat fightin’ is part o’ war on the seas.”

  Kodl lifted his hands outward, fingers spread. “Let’s enter a band for the gold bag run.”

  They had all heard about this—it was one of the popular entertainments of Freeport Harbor. The biggest ship at anchor was always chosen, or as near the biggest as was willing to trade the trouble of a messy deck for the best anchorage Freeport offered, directly out from the boardwalk. A bag of gold was suspended from the tallest mast; bands of sailors launched in boats from the dock, and the first one to get to the ship, board it, and reach the bag of gold got to keep it. People lined the King’s Saunter, the nearest docks, and the windows of the shops on the other side of the Saunter, laying sizable bets, laughing and hooting and cheering as the boat bands attacked each other on the water, and then as they tried to board, and finally when they reached the decks—those who even made it that far. Real weapons were allowed, though there were supposed to be no fights to the death; about the only rule was you couldn’t use fire. Damage to the contestants was expected, but no one wanted damage to a ship.

  Inda said, “But from what I’ve heard they don’t fight so much as cheat. Throwing pepper. Soaping ropes. Twice I’ve heard about people killed, just for a stupid bag of gold.”

  Dun hoped the others didn’t hear the aristocrat in Inda’s “stupid bag of gold” remark, the boy who’d come from royal rank who never had to think about money.

  “It’s also a hiring test,” Niz said, looking from Kodl to Inda and back again.

  Scalis was rubbing his lined cheeks. He added, “We’d be up against some of the toughest privateers. Maybe even that big privateer brigantine down at the south end, if they put up a team.”

  Everyone paused to consider that. They’d discovered that some privateers were little more than pirates with a scrap of paper claiming legitimacy—a scrap of paper they couldn’t always prove was genuine. But these were always escorted in by the harbormaster’s ever-watchful fleet, and their captains had to undergo a sweatbox of questions, so gossip along the Saunter said. If permitted to land they were enjoined to obey the rules of Freeport. They had to know that not just Freedom Island’s defense—which used to be a royal navy—but everyone in the harbor would go after them if they didn’t.

  Kodl said, “We’d be watched. And also we need that gold. Testhy says we’ve about a week left in our pool. Five days, if we drink anything tonight.”

  Several of the men gasped, two or three looking guilty as everyone looked Testhy’s way, and on his nod, back again.

  Dun spoke up. “Think of it as a kind of war game.”

  Kodl said, “And if we win, we might just be able to use it to get us our first hire.”

  Inda said, “But we’re not ready! Not for real warriors.”

  “No one’s ready for war except those makin’ it. What we need is experience,” Scalis said, making a spitting motion.

  Dun watched Inda, sensing the inner debate: the scrambling drills on the hillside and aboard the hulk would take years to match what Inda remembered of Marlovan standards. Meanwhile, Inda was still a boy. Did he not understand the real issue here?

  Niz said to Inda, “Us can’t win against ’em, you mean?”

  Inda’s expression hardened, eyes narrow, jaw jutting out, a look Anderle-Harskialdna would have recognized from the morning he tried to persuade Inda to submit to public dishonor for something he had not done and that Fassun saw on the first Restday when he threw the stupid scrub out of his bunk just for laughs and ended up flat on his back, a finger’s breadth from death. Dun had never seen that look before, and once more he wondered what exactly had happened three years ago, on the far side of the world.

  “That’s a different question,” Inda said. “We can win against anyone here. Whether we are good enough yet to win against pirates out on the sea is . . .” He opened his hands. “Moreso as we don’t really know exactly how pirates fight.”

  Niz just cackled. “Maybe time for practice, yez? No learning like practice, is what us Delfs sez.”

  Jeje looked troubled; Tau laughed.

  Kodl glanced about with a peculiar air, a familiar air, that brought to Inda’s mind his first glimpse of Captain Beagar walking his ship on Restday. “Let’s make up our band.”

  And Inda remembered that he was not in command.

  Chapter Eighteen

  KODL stood on the boardwalk, looking over the competition ship once more, a long, narrow, flush-decked trysail, the bag of gold tied to the top of the mainmast. The ship had been stripped clean fore and aft, and had been anchored at both ends, sails stashed below. It lay alone, stern on toward the boardwalk, which had been built out over the water between two rocky fingers of land, forming a small inner bay.

  The competing teams waited along the wall, fingering weapons, some talking and laughing, others exchanging insults, some, like Kodl, studying the ship.

  About the only rule the harbormaster’s people insisted on was that the launch boats of each team be the same size, or as close as could be managed, oars only, no stepping of masts. Teams could be as large or as small as competitors wished.

  Someone blew a horn, and a man on the balcony outside of the harbormaster’s office roared, “To the dock!”

  The teams scrambled toward the pair of stairs leading to the floating dock directly below, where all the launches had been tied up. As the teams ran, the spectators crowded in behind them, lining the boardwalk, elbowing and shoving as enthusiastically for a good view as the competitors did for position on the stairs. As Kodl fought his way down the dock to their launch, the noise rose behind him, spectators howling, cheering, jeering, shouting advice and insults.

  Kodl shut them out and flung himself into their launch. The positions had been assigned by drawn lot; they were slightly downwind of the best launch spot, the current against them, but a mild current, near the height of flood tide.

  The next boat up had only six people, but all six were huge, brawny, tough-looking privateers bristling with weapons, including suspicious-looking bags and ropes, probably pepper to fling in faces, or soap, or honey.

  Well, Kodl thought, turning his gaze away, his band had their own pepper, Scalis had one or two suspicious bags of his ow
n, and they had Kodl’s bag of weapons at the bottom of the launch, which he was now uncovering and laying at the ready: one long staff, assorted knives, grappling hooks, and rope.

  The launch on the other side was crowded with an equally rough-looking gang of over a dozen, its rail just barely clearing the water. Their strategy was obvious; to overwhelm the competition by numbers.

  Kodl looked at his band as they set their oars and lifted them, Scalis, Niz, Wumma, and Hav leaning forward to get that heartbeat’s extra time. “Remember,” he murmured in Iascan, meeting each pair of eyes. In the other launches, others were also talking, except for the crowded one, where half the crew seemed to be drunk, shouting insults and laughing at their own wit. “Stay with your team, don’t get separated. You older hands be shields for the mids. Watch me for navigation.”

  “And you take good care o’ my gear, you,” Scalis growled, pointing at the grappling hooks and coiled rope at Kodl’s feet.

  They all agreed, including Inda, who had taken his usual place at bow oar. He had accepted Kodl’s commands without a word of opposition, despite half a year’s command, despite Kodl following his orders for that half year. Inda had never shown any ambition whatsoever aboard the Pim Ryala. He had accepted promotion with the same blank-faced sobriety he had accepted everything aboard the ship, never talking about the future or the past. The night after the foiled mutiny Kodl had lain in the captain’s cabin staring at the swinging lamp and thinking back through memory for anything Inda had ever said about his past. Hitherto it had been a subject of no interest; Kodl had noted but not pursued the fact that of all the crew, Inda alone never spoke about his home or previous experiences. Even Yan had let things slip—it was clear he’d been a runaway from the Chwahirsland coast—but as far as Kodl could remember, the single inadvertent revelation Inda had made was their very first winter, when they stepped ashore in Sartor, and Inda had gazed at the signs, exclaiming, Oh! It’s the modern script! He’d then shut up and wouldn’t say anything more.

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