Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Grim reactions. Yan and Zimd, in charge of the marines on the Toola, were original shipmates. If Zimd was not at her post and Yan was not fishing, then it was very probable that they were dead. Neither would desert their posts for anything else.

  “I’ll go,” Inda said, thinking: If something’s wrong, I should have seen it. He dashed below to fetch his gear.

  Dun caught Kodl’s arm. “I’ll be one of that party,” he said, pleasant as always, but with the steady, unsmiling intensity that characterized him at times.

  Kodl opened his mouth to point out that he already had his orders, then hesitated. Dun only got that way if his action station was shifted away from Inda’s. They fought well together; during the battle aboard the Dancy Kodl had thought that Dun fought just like a bodyguard, an observation he’d forgotten when confronted by Ryala Pim. Over the winter he’d asked Dun a few questions, but, he remembered, somehow they’d always either been interrupted by something else, or some more pressing questions were raised that set aside the subject.

  Kodl, remembering the stunning revelation about Inda, wondered for the first time if Dun had a similar secret. Kodl now had enough military training to recognize that Dun had always been good—he’d just matched his ability to the skill level of the others. The way an adult with a secret might hide the extent of his skill, unlike a boy like Inda who revealed it in the first fit of anger.

  Maybe it was time to get Dun the Carpenter alone, no interruptions, and find out the truth.

  But that was for later. Kodl jerked his thumb, and Dun vanished below to fetch weapons.

  And so, as the first squall sent slants of rain to curtain them, they boomed the launch over the side and dropped in. The rain was warm, the wind unsteady, flinging gouts of water at them from east and south, so most of them had stripped off their shirts and wore vests only, stitched with sheaths for extra knives. Dun took a signal bow, though in this weather it would be next to impossible to shoot.

  They didn’t risk stepping the mast, not with the current moving so quickly. Each took up oars, and it seemed only a few sweeps later they slipped along the lee side past the second and third ships, all full of hands fighting snapping, whip-cracking sails, and Toola loomed, a silhouette, curtained by rain.

  Inda divided them into two bands with a wave and a gesture.

  One band climbed silently up the forecastle. In three surges the launch slipped aft, Dun hooked the launch onto the mainchains, and up they swarmed. Inda shook rain from his face, then peered over the taffrail at the sailor at the helm. He had made it a rule to learn the watch bills on their hires, and he expected to see a big, square older woman, cousin to the fleet captain. Instead there was a tall, brawny fellow with at least two knives evident. Bloodstains were all over the deck.

  The Toola had been taken by pirates.

  They had the advantage of surprise, but they were only ten. Dun landed lightly next to Inda as rain pattered all around them, washing rose-colored water down toward the scuppers.

  “None of ours aloft,” Dun said directly into his ear.

  No legitimate crew in evidence. Then it was easy: everyone was an enemy. Wumma appeared on the other side, and Inda motioned the teams to steal along the rail fore and aft.

  This, too, they had drilled. Rig, who was nearly as fast as Niz aloft, sneaked up the mizzen, knife at the ready, and Wumma vanished fore to direct the attack there. One by one they took the pirates, while Dun and Tau secured the hatches.

  Inda stood looking down at the hatches as rain poured off the sail overhead onto the back of his neck.

  “Set fire to ’em?” Rig asked, white around the mouth. Hav, his brother, had been part of Yan’s crew.

  Disgust twisted Inda’s insides. The pirates’ plan was lethally simple, and had nearly worked: take the ships from behind, one by one, under cover of darkness and fog, keeping station and signals. The crew had to be dead, including Yan and Zimd, but they’d had a chance to fight, however ephemeral. Trapped in a wooden box, there was no chance at all.

  “Pirates burn prisoners all the time,” Wumma muttered, his blue eyes shifting sideways.

  They were all waiting for his order, Tau lounging against the aft hatchway rail, arms crossed, face turned away. He would never say—for some reason he hated to be caught making any kind of moral judgment—but Inda could sense his repugnance at the idea of firing the ship with the pirates below.

  “We can save the ship if we fight,” Dun said mildly from the helm, which he had taken over. “Captain will be better pleased than losing a ship.”

  Inda said, “We don’t know how many there are. Dun, send an arrow forward for reinforcements. We can at least let them fight for their lives as they come up.”

  “ ’S fair,” muttered one of the boys everyone called the Fisher Brothers, their fishing smack from Geranda having foundered, their family name being Venn. No one really liked anything Venn these days, but Kodl had found the boys to be tough, resourceful, willing to work hard.

  The wind was veering again as the squall moved on. Wumma took the helm. Dun had brought oil-thread, and under the binnacle got it flaming well before he went forward, planted his feet and took his time to aim. For a moment all was still, except for the high plunging of the ship on the green-gray cross seas as the tall, blond man slowly drew the arrow back in a straight line from elbow to fingertip in long-practiced, perfect form. He sent the arrow whizzing through the air to arc over the second ship, where Thog would see it.

  Reinforcements arrived in the rest of the boats.

  It went as Inda ordered. Those who wished to fight pirates as they emerged did so. There were a lot of them. But they killed them all, until the deck ran again with blood, mixing with the rain, washing crimson out the scuppers. When they were done, and they stood about looking at one another, at the bloody deck, at their mates’ gear bags—mostly rifled through—quietly piled aft. There was no joy or even triumph, not in a fight like that, just a bleak satisfaction in some, and weariness in the rest.

  When the captain of the fleet arrived with a launch full of sailors, and gazed about appalled, Inda said shortly, “The pirates will be back.”

  Inda was in a bleak mood as he returned to the first ship. Guilt mixed with grief. He should have seen something was wrong. Thog’s happening to think about Yan’s habit of fishing was too accidental. Now Yan was dead; Zimd too.

  He brooded below as the others, minus the five who stayed to hold the ship, laughed, drank, talked the wild talk that always seemed inevitable after a fight, as on deck above, the captain conferred with his own mates in order to replace the dead hands for the rest of their journey.

  No one believed the danger was over: the pirates who had taken Toola were dead, but no one had seen their ship. Or ships.

  Inda brooded even after the scout craft showed up, blown far north by the squalls, and Jeje came aboard safe. She did not hide her tears when she found out about Yan. She and Tau and Dasta retreated up to the masthead with a bottle of distilled mead, and no one bothered them as they drank and Jeje and Tau sang wake songs, ballads, and old sea tales, her unspectacular voice harmonizing with Tau’s beautifully trained tenor weaving the melodies with heartrending intensity through the soft night air into the sailors’ dreams.

  Inda did not go aloft. In their cabin, alone with Kodl, Niz, and Scalis he said, “They knew about us. It’ll be that way from now on.”

  Niz rubbed his chin. “Rep, we got.”

  “Rep means others hear o’ us, like ye said once,” Scalis agreed, chuckling. “I just wish ye’d let me come along for the fun.”

  “Next one,” Kodl said

  Inda grimaced and left, mumbling about his snooze watch.

  Kodl took a pull of his ale and wondered if he should confront Dun now. Only what would he say? Dun never singled Inda out, had told everyone he was raised on the shore just below Lindeth as a carpenter. He’d never spoken about the Marlovans, not once.

  Marlovans. A Marlovan prince, and no one kn
ew. Kodl had started the marines thinking of Inda as a resource, but over the winter he’d begun to regard the boy as a weapon, one perhaps to be used for more ambitious plans—as long as the boy stayed loyal.

  He leaned forward. Time to sound out part of his idea, leaving Inda out. See what the others said. “I want to get us a ship. Build a fleet, even, protecting convoys. No more serving on someone else’s vessel, having to put up with their rules. Join Freedom as independents.”

  “Them raffee-sails we laugh about,” Niz said, as Scalis bobbed. “Them bein’ tricksy sails, lookin’ prissy. But the fact is, in these here tricksome airs, and with all them isles, speed is your first need. And a raffee becomes a good ship. Pirates like ’em. We could use ’em to chase pirates.”

  “So we take us a pirate ship. Set crew afloat.” Scalis chuckled. “See how they like it!”

  Scalis already thought like a pirate. Kodl thought, He might have gone his whole life as a forecastleman. Take away the rules, and see who begins to make new rules.

  But he only nodded. Unspoken was the obvious: here in the east, with the nearest land being Khanerenth, which was in a constant state of warfare, it seemed as if every local trader turned pirate when something slower or weaker hove up on the horizon. So they take a ship. First he would keep his promise to Beagar and repay the Pims. And then they could make themselves rich as convoy guards, using Inda’s brains and training.

  As for that Dun—

  Kodl sat back. Maybe it had best wait until they landed. There’d be plenty of time afterward to get the carpenter drunk enough to talk, and then figure out how to use what he knew.

  Chapter Thirty

  “ HEY’RE out there,”Inda said early one morning a few days later, hitching up onto the taffrail beside Kodl, a knife in one hand, an arrow in the other. They sat amidships on the weather side, their acknowledged spot by the ship’s regular crew when they weren’t drilling or on watch. As always they had something in hand, making, repairing, sharpening. “I wish the Delfs hadn’t all sailed west!”

  Kodl rubbed his hair, bleached nearly white by the sun, back off his brow before returning to knife sharpening. It was ferociously hot, the sky as clear as a burnished bowl, the sea placid and deep, deep blue. Sails thrummed with pleasant tautness. To starboard the scout craft skimmed through the water, graceful as a dolphin with the new, sweet-curved mainsail Jeje and her mates had made. The little craft, so battered and ugly when they first acquired it, so sleek and beautiful now, had been named Vixen by Inda. A few thought it odd, had wanted to name it after a fast-moving fish or bird, but it had been Inda’s idea to get it, he’d supervised most of the work on it, and no one was in the mood to argue since the killing of their mates on the Toola.

  Dun sat a neat coil of rope, sanding down new arrows and guiding Mutt in shaping them. He glanced across at Inda, perched there barefoot, wearing patched deck trousers, hair escaping from his sailor’s queue blowing back, rough shirt rolled to his elbows as he fletched arrows in the Marlovan spiral. He had left boyhood behind, and perhaps that mysterious boyhood scandal that had caught the royal eye. Dun had resolved, after that pirate attack, to tell Inda the truth about his oath to Jened Sindan, captain of the King’s Runners, once they reached land and could not be overheard. Perhaps Inda would respond with his own truth, and perhaps not. Dun realized he no longer cared what that story was. And he had accepted that Hibern, so sweet in memory, had most likely by now found another man. That was the way of nature.

  It was Inda himself who had his loyalty now: for the king’s sake, yes, but more truly for Inda’s, Dun would guard him until they both could go home.

  The time has come, he thought as he polished the wood on his sleeve. The decision released a tension inside he hadn’t previously been aware of: soon as they landed, it would be good to release the truth at last. To know, and be able to hear, one another’s true names, to be themselves, at least while they were alone.

  Mutt said with a grimace of both fear and excitement, “So who’s out there, you think? Fire Island galleys? Or those ones from down south that Scalis was telling us about?”


  The word snapped away the easy atmosphere as quick as a sail rips from bolt-holes in a high wind. Scalis’ raspy chuckle was the only answer, so familiar no one paid any heed.

  “How d’you know?” Kodl asked, stroking his chin with the edge of the newly sharpened knife.

  “It’s . . .” Inda’s face went blank, his eyes unfocused, and he shook his head. “It’s the way no one’s out there. Nothing happened after we took back Toola.”

  Wumma spat over the side. “You think them soulsuckers is massing against us?”

  Inda sighed. “Either them or someone as bad. It’s just too quiet. Independent pirates—the kind we’ve been facing till now—would have come against us right away.”

  Kodl and Dun both gestured agreement.

  “Cap’n says if the wind just stays steady we got two-three days till we hit Lands End,” Testhy offered, more as a statement of hope than as news. They all knew that depended not just on what ships appeared on the horizon, but if the wind shifted and began to blow offshore to the east, which was common this time of year. It could take up to two weeks of wearying, exacting sailing to beat that short distance directly into the wind’s eye.

  Thog didn’t speak—she seldom did unless she had to—but her expressive dark gaze lingered in Inda’s mind as he dropped his finished arrow into the bucket and climbed aloft. She’d been silent since Yan’s and Zimd’s deaths. He considered that. He had tended to avoid Zimd outside of duty because she had been so indefatigably nosy, but he’d seen her laughing and making merry with the others. Had she managed to make friends with the quiet Thog? And as for Yan, he and Thog hadn’t been twoing (Inda was pretty sure Yan preferred men to women in that way) but the Chwahir stuck together. Odd people, they were, hard working, whispering in their own language as if it were forbidden. He knew little about life in Chwahirsland except that they suffered under the double ax of Venn and pirates attacking from shore, and the harshness of their own government inland. Their rope was some of the best in the world, and they built fine trade ships. Their land supposedly wasn’t good for much, catching more storms than any corner of the continent; a good summer, Yan had said once, making one of his rare jokes, had seven full days of sun in it, never together.

  Thog’s grief was the angry kind, the thirst-for-vengeance kind. Uslar, too, young as he was.

  Inda looked down at the Chwahir boy, so similar to the other Chwahir: pale skin, round face, black hair. He was scrub age, but his back was scarred from flogging. Not just one, either. There was a lot of cursing about the Chwahir, here in the east; apparently they fought so hard and so consistently to take Colend, famed for its beauty and wealth, that mages had thrown up an entire mountain range to block them hundreds of years ago. They seemed to be as cruel to one another, in their bleak land, as they were to their neighbors.

  Inda, watching Uslar’s fingers plait his blue-black hair into a sailor’s queue, considered how coastal Iascans casually cursed Marlovans out in the west the way these easterners cursed the Chwahir.

  “Signal!” Rig called from the foremast. “Three sail, maybe more, comin’ downwind out o’ the northeast!”

  Inda scrambled out onto the staysail boom, squinting out at the Vixen, now slicing through the water in the path of the liquid light created by the newly risen sun. Up arched another arrow, following which the blue flag aft dipped four times.

  Four sail as vanguard between them and their safe harbor.

  “Anything on fores’l or tops’l?” the captain’s voice snapped. And, what they all dreaded, “Sail color?”

  No one spoke. The lookouts would be straining to peer directly into the morning glare, of course, but the marines all watched the Vixen. Skimming ahead, the scout craft would see first, and signal if there was real danger. The captain stubbornly maintained that ordinary pirates did not dare try flyin
g the colors of Jara or Khanerenth as a ruse, because the penalty in mainland courts was death. But first you had to catch them, and pirate life was a violent one by definition; Jeje would not just accept colors as genuine, she would watch for signs of preparation for battle.

  Rig drew in a breath. “Jeje’s raising something—”

  They all saw it: the red signal flag that meant pirates, and to make certain, Jeje dipped it three times in the age-old signal to flee! At least the black flag did not come after, the signal for the Brotherhood of Blood.

  They were hull down now, only the masts nicking the horizon. They’d appeared on the starboard bow—they had the wind for fire and chase. By the time Inda reached the deck, the ship’s crew was already hauling the sails around and forcing the ship to come about; the other three were almost as fast.

  Now they were running downwind, southward and away from Khanerenth and safety, the sails bowsed up as tight as they dared. The marine leaders lined the taffrail and smacked their glasses to their eyes. The vanguard appeared, sharp and clear, hull up now—they were terrify ingly fast—and behind them a fleet of smaller, equally fast sail.

  Tension sparked in the summer air, and except for Scalis’ low mutter of rough oaths, no one spoke. The only sounds were the creak of wood, cord, and sail, the percussive splash of water against the hull aas they strained every sail to escape to the south. All they had now was the wind, and in these seas, it was notorious for its treachery.

  Midway through the night the wind betrayed them, first dying, and then shifting around to the southeast to drive them toward their enemy, who had sailed easily down along the western and land side of their convoy. Though the captain called for all hands, and everyone, including marines, laid aloft to bring the ships about as fast as possible, the pirates had the advantage and they attacked before sunrise.

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