Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Fire arrows sizzled across the intervening sea in deadly, hissing sheets, so fast and well-aimed that the pirates again hauled wind, to repair and replan. Then Jeje, captain of the band aloft, shrieked, “Sail ho! Forward on the weather quarter!”

  Inda, Kodl, and the Loohan’s captain swung glasses toward the windswept bow to observe a small, fast schooner bearing up rapidly, white water feathering down both sides.

  “Delfs!” Niz cried.

  Three more behind—a fleet of four. As soon as it was within range the first Delf loosed a hissing canopy of arrows at the untouched third pirate, who had been hanging back as either reinforcement or to close with the Loohan’s stern.

  The pirates abruptly hauled off, this time sailing away in search of easier prey. Kodl grinned up at Inda.

  “Heave to!” the Delf captain roared.

  Soon a small party of poke-nosed, bandy-legged Delfs scrambled aboard, their weather-wrinkled eyes searching out the scrawny form of Niz, busy helping stow away their still-vast store of arrows while everyone laughed and chattered.

  “Hya, there,” said the leader, in the Delf version of Dock Talk. “Heard us there was a Fussef in these waters.”

  “No Gams among ye,” Niz replied, nodding in approval.

  The Delfs invited Niz and the Loohan’s captain over for drinks and the latest news, which Niz brought back aboard and shared, once he’d sobered up.

  While they waited, Kodl, almost giddy with triumph, said, “What amazes me is that on the sea they set aside their feuds. But they’ve been known to make dates a year ahead for duels on shore when they meet clan enemies. All quite cheerful.”

  Their ability to know all the current news on the seas extended homeward. That news was grim and getting grim mer. Niz ended his report by saying, “Venn—” He spat over the side. “Soul-sucking Venn, wardin’ off all else. Let red sails attack on shore. Hit Delfin Islands twice, hard. Venn wants ’em a land base in mid-ocean, and so they agreed to let Ghost Islands stay in pirate grip if red sails shits attack Iascan coast. So red sails fired the Nob. Delfs headin’ home after winter. Defend, if Venn come back in spring, try to take us while pirates busy ’gainst them horseboys.”

  “Prick Harbor? Gone?” Scalis asked, astounded.

  “So them sez.”

  Kodl murmured, “If the Brotherhood of Blood attacked it in force, you know they’d leave nothing standing.”

  No one spoke as they all imagined what it must have been like to see the Brotherhood’s red-sailed ships on the horizon, landing launches full of pirates . . .

  The Loohan set sail again in a sober mood. Later Scalis muttered when Niz was safely aloft, “Them Delfs is known to put a touch of color into their tales. It just don’t make sense to torch the Prick, when them Venn shits trade there too.”

  Inda glanced down at their hoard of feathers as they all worked on carving and fletching fresh replacements. It made sense in terms of army movement: the Venn were obviously making certain the Marlovans couldn’t launch armies from the harbors. He said nothing, though, even when Kodl joined him at the rail—they weren’t going home.

  Kodl sighed. “If the Delfs sail west, so go our allies.”

  Next hire: a wealthy Silk Guild schooner. Pirates, recognizing a fortune in ransom in the beautifully appointed craft, attacked under cover of fog-wreathed uncertain winds.

  This pirate ship was single, with only one cut-boom, but they were so skilled they did enormous damage along the weather side of the schooner, making escape impossible.

  Four times they tried to board, and each time they were repelled, after very hard fighting. Inda commanded the first two, and Kodl the next, once he saw the pattern of attack and Inda’s response; Inda learned that his much drilled signals worked, and that most pirates apparently had no training at moving in disciplined units, instead relying on noise, terror, and brute strength.

  But it’s not always going to be this way, he thought, prowling around the ship and trying to think of new defenses. If the next enemy were trained, what then?

  Kodl, standing in the middle of the sprawl of fallen rope, jumble of blocks and tackle, and splintered wood as the ship’s crew launched desperately into hasty repair, watched Inda with the same intensity the Loohan’s crew had watched the mariners one hire ago and when Inda looked up at last, and said, “We need our own cut booms, something we can carry and rig when needed. We need new defenses. Beginning with spiked shields along the rails, to be snapped over just before they board.”

  Kodl whirled. “Dun! Wumma!”

  One was helping with sails, the other at the helm. They both ran forward, and Kodl described the shields in a few words, then said, “Can you make us something to try out?”

  They looked at one another, Wumma muttered something about extra steel, then Dun said, in his even voice, “We will do our best.”

  They dropped down the hatch.

  Inda said, “Now for some drills to use ’em,” and he started walking back and forth, back and forth, unaware of this pattern he’d begun while thinking furiously.

  Kodl, seeing it, was reassured: when he stopped walking, Inda would have a plan.

  Summer lengthened into a very busy, successful autumn. Their cruises were all short, sometimes a matter of a single week when convoys broke up and single ships wanted extra protection. They had a few more brushes with pirates, but each time beat them off. The others crowed, but Kodl saw Inda sitting on the taffrail staring out, or prowling the deck moodily. Kodl watched, his feelings conflicted. He knew the boy had no ambition. He showed no interest in hiring out and stayed by himself or with his particular friends. The perfect first mate, Kodl thought of him, but for how long?

  “What’s wrong?” he asked abruptly one hot summer night, as the sound of singing rose from below.

  Inda’s profile was bleak, looking much older than his years in the swinging lamplight. “We haven’t seen the worst of what’s out there,” he said. “We have yet to face the red sails. But it is going to happen.”

  Kodl had no time to answer. Scalis, flushed with success, came up, motioning for them to listen. “We all did thumbs, and we don’t want to hire out over winter. No pullin’ watches in freezing storms.”

  Behind, his remaining forecastlemen gestured agreement.

  “All right,” Kodl said, doing a quick mental calculation. “I’ll set a goal. If we earn it, we buy winter free. But we’ll drill,” he added, remembering Inda’s words.

  The others agreed—winter training was nothing new—and Kodl drove their hiring price up. The only captain who’d meet it owned a weatherly independent trader called the Dancy, fast for a merch, and heavily laden with some sort of expensive cargo kept locked up tight.

  And just two days outside of Freeport Harbor dawn brought two narrow craft bearing down with all sails filled.

  Jeje and her band pounded up on deck, arrows ready, Thog with her lantern. Inda motioned them into the tops, then watched Kodl, who studied the oncoming pirates through the cold mist drifting across the blue-green waters. Those sails, a sweet, sharp-cut curve that was so expensive to cut and sew to precision they had to have been taken off a royal yacht, bellied in a way that worried him. Both ships’ foresails wore crossed swords painted on, licks of flame above and below. Fire Islands pirates.

  No cut booms on these. Inda had learned by watching that they required skillful handling—too close in to a much heavier ship and the booms just tangled, could even cut into the mast, immobilizing the pirate.

  These two relied on speed, then, so they’d be boarding, which meant—

  Kodl faced Inda, flashed his hand open: over to you.

  Inda turned his head up. “Jeje!”

  “I see it,” she cried down. “Cut-arrows ready!”

  “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” asked the cargo master, a nervous landsman dressed in Guild Livery, his fashionably short blond hair lifting in the wind.

  “Sails are wet,” Inda replied briefly.

sp; “That’s bad? That’s good?”

  “Go below and guard your cargo,” Kodl snapped.

  A sound like a whimper escaped the man, who wrung his hands. “You’re supposed to be the best! You were paid double—”

  “Get!” snarled Scalis, waving a freshly honed cutlass.

  “Dun,” Inda said, forgetting about Kodl being in command. He was too intent on watching the perfect tacking of those low, fast craft, narrow built, clean lines. Men, mostly young, crowded in the bows, armed and ready to leap over.

  “Wet sails,” Dun observed at Inda’s left, standing in his accustomed shield arm spot.

  Kodl frowned. “They planned for us.”

  That’s what getting a rep means, Inda thought.

  Up on the yard above, Tau leaned toward Jeje, who stared down, her face unhappy. “Worried?” he murmured.

  Jeje flicked him a glance. “About Inda. Why does Kodl watch him like that?”

  Tau laughed inwardly at himself. So much for thinking he was the only observant one. “Kodl doesn’t understand Inda. He doesn’t see that the problem, when it comes, will be Scalis.”

  Jeje glanced down at the forecastlemen, who laughed and joked, stroking their weapons. “You think he wants to turn pirate?”

  “Not yet, but—” No time to finish his answer. The first ship came in, as usual on the weather side, the other sailing for the lee. Inda signaled to Jeje and steel-tipped arrows whined across the intervening sea, all aimed at the weather-leech of the mainsails, the ones tightest and drawing the most against the wind.

  The arrows cut through again and again, making tiny holes. Inda forced his eyes away; though it was a desperate measure, it had worked twice against pirates who had attacked under the cover of rain squalls, but in sails that were worn, or badly made, causing them to rip and flag out, catching in shrouds and lines, and spilling way off the ship.

  Then he forced his attention away. It would either work or it wouldn’t.

  He signaled to Scalis and Dun. Both bands crept along the rail under the hastily put together spiked shields, bows and steel thrust in clothing, even clenched in teeth.

  Arrows whizzed overhead, some aimed at Jeje and her band, others shot high, with little licks of flame to catch in their own sails. Yan would already have the regulars organized into a pump team, so Inda did not even look; he gauged the oncoming ship, felt the wind, shook his head, and signaled to the helmsman to put the helm hard over.

  The heavily laden trader moved too slowly, and the lee pirate’s bowsprit caught in the foremast shrouds. The wood creaked and groaned, the ship’s own bulk worked against it, and with a rending crack the foremast came down, flinging the upper-yard sailors into the sea.

  The first pirate boarding party screamed in triumph, brandishing weapons as they stood on their rail or held onto the mainchains, ready to climb onto Dancy’s higher deck the moment the two ships came together. With a roar Dun’s band lunged up—Wumma, the Sartoran brothers, and Tau—shooting arrows with practiced, lethal accuracy directly into the pirates. Few were wearing mail, which was not liked at sea—no one could swim long with mail weighing them down—and they started falling. The spiked shields slowed the boarders. Scalis’ band hacked into the few pirates who actually made it over the rail and flung the bodies right back onto the pirates’ deck.

  Inda motioned to Hav and a forecastleman. Dun came, pushing Hav aside, who shrugged and rejoined his band.

  “Oil,” Inda said.

  Niz and his fighters flung lighted empty barrels and bits of flotsam down at the pirates, who were hanging back, many looking to their own captain for a change in orders.

  Dun led in bowsing up the mizzen course tight, then fashioning a net sling at the end of the boom. Arrows flew all around them, one hitting Testhy in the side. He staggered, but did not let go of his rope. Dun and a big forecastleman wrestled a barrel of oil into the net sling, set it afire. They waited to see the blue flame curling up from the surface and then Inda cut the rope holding back the boom, which snapped out, causing the entire ship to lurch. The barrel launched across the short distance to the deck of the pirate ship, where it broke, spreading flaming oil in all directions.

  Another barrel. They readied the third and the big forecastleman holding it recoiled, shot through the neck. As he fell, Dun caught the barrel, slapped it into the net. They released it upward at the long, beautiful curving mainsail of the second ship, setting it alight.

  A launch full of pirates shot around from the far side of the second ship, oars like beating wings. Scalis shifted his attack of fiery debris toward it, but it hit Dancy with a crash, sending a judder through the hull. The pirates climbed up in a tight mass, some wearing shields on their bent backs; hammers and carpentry tools took care of the spiked shields along the rail as arrows clinked and plinked unmusically on the shields the pirates wore, falling harmlessly into the sea. They swarmed up.

  Inda whistled sharply. Kodl’s own feet and hands obeyed, falling into position, cutlasses, knives, and the wickedly efficient dragoon staves that Inda had drilled them with at the ready. The Dancy’s sailors watched in amazement as their defenders charged the boarders, stabbed those in front, and the reaction rippled back through the pirates, who recovered in a few moments, stampeding over their fallen crewmates, roaring and shrieking, weapons high. In a single movement the defenders twisted their staffs apart and waded in swinging two humming cudgels with deadly effect.

  Inda led the wedge into the mass of attackers, Dun fighting shield-arm position behind and to his left; Kodl took a hard-held position at the right.

  They ripped into the enemy like a knife cutting rotten rope. A spike of sharp triumph flared through Inda, igniting bones and muscle with high-singing joy. The attackers began to fall back, some of them slipping in the blood of their fellows who fell with crushed throats and cracked skulls, hacked limbs, smashed ribs. Inda felt none of the blows and jars inevitable in hard fighting—his mind had disengaged, he had fallen into that cascade of events, only he was the power driving it, driving it—

  Up above, Thog, daughter of Pirog had been peering intently at the pirate ships between shots. Jeje, puzzled by the strange behavior of the Chwahir girl, was busy scanning for Inda and Kodl’s next signal, and so she almost missed it when Thog suddenly smiled—a horrible smile with her teeth bared—and raised her bow. She said something in her native language and then shot one pirate captain square in the chest. A heartbeat later she whirled round on the masthead they shared, aimed at the second pirate captain she’d obviously marked before, and shot. And as he fell, an arrow through his throat, Thog laughed, her voice high and shrill as the cry of a gull.

  Chapter Twenty-four

  THE next day they listed into Freeport Harbor, foremast fished with timber and rope, red flag at the mizzen and white at the main, sailors either cleaning or nursing the sails at the jury-rigged mast with tender care.

  Damage was always interesting. The docks and boardwalk lined with idlers and workers pausing in their labors as the Dancy was signaled for a place close in; they’d get a dock as soon as one of the refits warped out.

  “Ho Dancy,” came a bull’s roar of a voice from the dock as the oars on the first launch began to dip. “What news?”

  “Pirates,” cried Dancy’s first mate, in an equally topmast-in-a-squall voice.

  That was obvious from the damage.


  “No. Fire Islands.”

  “Brisk fight, eh?”

  “Brisk enough,” came the justly proud answer. “Burned one, drove t’other off, listin’ bad.”

  “This is going to kick our price up,” Kodl muttered to Inda and Scalis as they clambered into the second launch.

  Scalis chuckled at the thought of more gold to fling about, and Niz muttered, “Winter’s on us. You keep that gaff bowsed up tight, mate. Us’ll need t’make our pay last—Inda wants us havin’ all kinds o’ new weapons.”

  Scalis spat over the side, his gl
ee undiminished.

  Niz said to Testhy, their official purser, “Don’t let him chousel you outa no extree, now.”

  “I won’t,” Testhy said cheerily. “I know his tricks.”

  Scalis uttered an explosive snort.

  Inda, sitting at the bow oar, thought: You are not going to have time for tricks. And you’re going to be too tired for sex.

  Kodl thought, They say Inda, not Kodl. But he’s the one with the ideas. He’d already wrestled with his inward conflict: there was a way of military thinking he just hadn’t grasped yet. Inda saw a weapon, he thought of the easiest way to resist it. Spiked shields that flip up to resist cut booms . . . the cut arrows . . . This idea of force against force was simple when Inda explained it, but as for actually carrying it through . . . Kodl knew he just did not have the experience applying it in real terms.

  So where does a small boy get that kind of experience?

  To dismiss his uncertainty, he leaned forward. “Inda, what first?”

  By the time they reached the main dock, Inda and Kodl had begun revising the drill schedule.

  Inda, sore from the fight and desperately hungry, loathed the prospect of the long walk up to Lark Ascendant. At least this time it was Dun’s and Scalis’ turn to make sure the wounded got over the side and to their beds; though their injury count was about half the band, they’d only lost one of Scalis’ forecastlemen in that fight.

  The dock master was waiting as they tied up. Within moments he was in conference with the Dancy’s captain about harbor fees. Inda climbed up the slimy ladder, glancing at the dock support poles to check the height of the tide, an automatic glance. It would be months before they launched again.

  He hoisted his gear bag into a better position on his back as he passed the captain and dock master. Behind them lounged the assistant who kept records for the harbormaster, a tall, thin, young man dressed in plain sailor wear—long vest over shirt and loose trousers—but who always managed somehow to look elegant. Tau, who was always equally elegant, could have told Inda that that was what you got when you had your clothing tailored, but it had never occurred to Inda to ask. He had no interest whatsoever in clothing. Despite the others’ teasing he still made his own shirts the way Sails had taught him when he was eleven and a new rat on the Pim Ryala. It was something to do with his hands when he had watch on rainy nights, when he could revisit old memories and try to imagine where his friends were now: did Sponge ever get to Daggers? Did Tanrid stop going now that he was a Guard? And Tdor . . . she had to be . . . he mentally counted. He had turned sixteen sometime before they took the Dancy hire. So, if that was true . . . he was stunned to realize that if he was sixteen, she’d be eighteen come spring! Tdor seventeen? Not in memory. In memory, she was forever twelve.

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