Eastern Venârian Sea; 20 Halánè TR715
Tára looked out over the handrail of the Kald Blyst, back towards the Degéla estuary and the rapidly fading outline of the islands and docks of the city of Janôra. It had been good to see her old city, and her family, once again after many years away.
They had left the Janôra docks with the rising tide towards the end of the afternoon watch, and were now making their way south, returning to the port of Kôlvis on the island of Menêma.
The bosun of the Blyst called out orders to the crew as the ship tacked in the freshening breeze. Tára felt the presence of someone at her shoulder, and turned slightly to see her master, the pilot of the Blyst, Ertâr.
"Sad to say goodbye once more?", he asked gently.
"Yes. But also pleased to be at sea again...", she replied.
"Good. And I'm have no doubt, knowing you, that the fact that more time at sea brings you ever closer to the end of your apprenticeship has quite some bearing on the situation", he grinned.
Tára could do little more than join him in a wide grin. The two of them understood each other, and got on just as well.
“You should get below and get some rest. I shall take the evening watch”, Ertâr said.
Tára thanked the master pilot, and made her way to the pilots’ cabin she shared with her master beneath the forecastle. She pulled her cot out and was soon resting easily, rocked to sleep by the easy motion of the waves.
Afternoon Watch; 23 Halánè, TR715
Tára woke with a jolt, and nearly hit her head on the edge of her master’s bed as she sat bolt upright.
She heard shouts and yelling from the deck. She rubbed her eyes, and wondered what the disturbance was that had woken her.
As quickly as she could she rose and dressed, and rushed to the cabin door.
Outside was a scene of organized chaos, as crew members ran back and forth across the deck. She heard the voices of both the ship's mate and the captain rise above the din. She could not help but notice the strain in their voices. Something was clearly wrong.
A light rain was pattering on the deck, and she moved as quickly as she could, doing her best to keep out of the way of the crew as they moved to comply with the captain and bosun’s orders. She saw her master at the helm, and made her way towards him.
As she was making her way up to the aft castle, she heard another cry from a crew member aloft.
“She’s gaining, Captain!”
Tára looked up then back behind the ship, and saw the source of all the commotion - a sleek, dark vessel, cutting fast through the waves towards the Blyst.
A shiver ran through her at the sight of the vessel. It was bearing hard towards the Blyst, and clearly intended to close. No vessel would take such an action unless its intentions were malign.
She ran the rest of the way up the stairs to the aftcastle, and joined her master beside the helmsman. The captain and Ertâr were conferring, and both looked up as she approached.
“Tára… Get below! This is no place for you!”, Ertâr said urgently.
Tára was shocked. Her master had never excluded her from any matter before.
“Go, girl”, he said, “I have no time to argue!”.
His words stung her pride, but the urgency in his voice brooked no argument. She spun on her heels, and raced back down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, her foot hit a pool of water, and she toppled forward, grasping for the railing, but missing. She fell, flailing, to the deck, and hit her head with a sickening crunch.
Blackness took her.
She came to with a pounding headache, and lying on the deck, saw footsteps running back and forth, heard yells and smelled a sickly, acrid, odor… smoke!
Despite the grogginess she felt, she dragged herself up, and looked around. Smoke filled the air all around, and shapes moved quickly in and out of view.
It was then she noticed that she sat next to a form sprawled on the deck beside her. One quick glance and she realised the person beside her was almost certainly dead, and lay in a pool of thick and spreading blood.
She stifled a cry, and pulled herself up to try to get a better view of what was going on.
All around her was literal chaos. One of the sails from the main mast had fallen to the deck, and several forms lay beneath it. She heard more sounds of running in the smoke and evening gloom, then turned rapidly as she heard a blood-curdling cry from the aftcastle deck.
Without thinking, she leaped up the aftcastle stairs, towards the cries.
An awful sight greeted her, a jostle of men, ropes and weapons. The raiding ship lay close beside the Blyst, and several grappling hooks held the two vessels fast.
A viscous battle was in mid flight. Several of the Blyst's crew were seeking to repel a small boarding party. In their midst, and leading them on, was the ship's mate, Hârgen, brandishing his shortsword.
Tára stopped in her tracks, wondering what to do. Then she realised that someone lay at her feet. She quickly crouched down to help them, but saw that the crewman was quite dead.
In his hands, however, he clutched a shortbow, and to his side lay a quiver of arrows.
Tára hesitated for only an instant, then grabbed the bow from the dead sailor’s hands, and snatched up the quiver and arrows. She had often used a shortbow out hunting with her father, but she had never used a bow in such circumstances; she didn’t stop to think on that.
Taking a moment to steady herself, she drew an arrow and notched it to the bow. Aiming carefully, she scanned the press of men. Suddenly she saw her target; a large raider standing on the railing, about to jump down onto the crewmen defending the ship.
She released the arrow, and it flew to its target, hitting him in his left shoulder. The impact halted his jump, and he teetered on the rail, then fell backwards into the sea.
She quickly drew another arrow, and scanned for another target, seeing instantly that the ship's mate was hard pressed by a much taller raider. Sending up a prayer to Laráni, she unleashed the arrow, and held her breath while it flew over the mate's head and into the neck of the raider.
Blood gushed from the mate's attacker and he stagger backwards, clutching the arrow. The mate lifted his short-sword and hacked down and through the raider's arm and into his shoulder, then kicked him backwards and pulled his sword free. Tára was momentarily frozen in equal measure by the horror of the raider's death, and by the copious amounts of blood the mate's attack had sprayed all over the deck.
She shook herself out of her daze, and realised that the raiders had been pushed back to their ship.
She looked around for her master, or the captain, but could see neither of them amongst the fray. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something on the ground to her left... with a shudder she realised it was Ertâr, sprawled face upwards, several arrow shafts protruding from his chest. He was, clearly, quite dead.
She almost slipped back into her shocked revery, but the shouts of the mate yelling to the crew; "Cut the ropes! Cut them!" snapped her back to her surroundings.
She saw the crew members struggling to both hold off the raiders, whilst severing the various cables that held the ship fast to the raider's vessel. Once again she raised her bow, and let fly several shots at raiders on the ship opposite, forcing them to duck for cover, allowing her crew mates to sever the final ropes.
With a shudder and a heave, the Blyst separated from the raider, and the sweep of the waves pushed her up and away.
Tára dropped her bow, and raced for the ship's rudder. "Help me!" she called to two of the crew nearby "Heave her starboard, and away!"
The three of them pulled the rudder, the Blyst turned away from the raider. She saw the confusion on the raider's decks as the sudden separation knocked most of the raiders off their feet, and as the waves pushed the attacking vessel up and away to port.
Tára looked up for the mate, and saw him rushing to organize the crew to raise the main sail and tack the ship in concert with her directions.
"Hard to starboard!" she yelled to the crew once the sail was raised, all the while frantically looking around for the captain, but seeing no sign of him. She tried her best not to look at the spot where she knew her master lay, his eyes wide open and mouth gaping.
As the ship tacked to starboard, she heard orders being shouted on board the raider as that vessel scrambled to re-engage with her prize.
Leaving the two crew members to man the rudder she rush to the mate's side. Hârgen was yelling orders at the rest of the crew as they struggled to tack hard away from the raider. He glanced at her in the midst of a flow of curses, and she saw he had a messy gash along his brow.
Seeing her concern, the mate scowled. "It's nothing. Bastard nearly got me, but I'll live.... If we can keep free of those devils!"
"Where's the Captain?", Tára said breathlessly. Pulling the rudder had been much harder than she had expected.
The mate pointed to the sea, and shook his head. "It's just you and me left, lass. So ...", he said as he wiped the blood that trickled from his wound into his eyes, "we had better be getting busy!"
Tàra felt a wave of fear wash through her, but then it was gone. Glancing back at the raider she saw they too had restored order, and were now tacking towards the Blyst. The raider was only a ship-length astern.
Tára felt a shift in the wind, and immediately knew what to do. "Hârgen! Tack to port! Cut off their wind!"
She rushed back to the rudder, and yelled at the crewmen to reverse it's direction. She grabbed it herself, and felt the enormous strain of the sea. "She'll break!", one of the crewmen yelled.
Tàra yelled back, "We tack or we die! Turn that rudder!"
The Blyst shuddered and the wood of the rudder screamed, but miraculously, it held. As the mate and the rest of the crew brought the main sail around, the Blyst caught the wind shift, and leaped forward and to port.
Tára looked back at the raider, and saw to her delight that the sudden change of tack had stolen the raider's wind, and was even more delighted when the raider's crew fell into disarray as they struggled to execute a similar tack, luffing the raider's sail and causing her to drop back several boat lengths.
"Hârgen! Trim the sail, if you will", Tára called out to the mate.
"Aye, aye", he called back, and passed on the order to the remaining crew.
For a brief moment Tára realized that she was commanding the ship, but as she watched the raider tack again, she gave it little further thought. As soon as she felt a wind shift yet again, she ordered the mate to tack once more.
This happened several times more, and each time Tára seemed to judge the wind-shift faster and better than the raider, and soon the raider was disappearing far astern.
The mate came up to join her on the aftcastle. She saw that someone had wrapped a bandage round his forehead.
"Well... Mistress Pilot... that's quite some sailing... I scarcely thought we would loose that raider...", said the mate, shaking his head.
Tára said nothing, and continued to concentrate on feeling and sensing the flow of the wind.
"Mistress...", he gently touched her elbow.
"Yes...", she said, somewhat sharply.
"Permission to gather up the dead. That raider is now far behind".
She shook her head. "Not yet, Hârgen. The dead aren't going anywhere. We can move them when the raider is out of sight".
The mate nodded. "As you say, m'am."
He returned to the main deck, and she noted he was careful to avoid looking at the dead bodies on the deck.
About a bell later, the raider dropped so far behind that the vessel could no longer be seen.
Tára then allowed the crew to gather up the dead. Of the ship's original complement of 20, they had lost six, including the captain, the bosun and Tára's master, the pilot Ertâr. They had just enough crew to manage the vessel. Ertâr and four other crew members were buried at sea, as was the custom; the captain had been lost overboard, trying to repel the raiders.
As Tára set a course for Menêma and the city of Kôlvis, she wondered if she was cursed. It seemed she brought misfortune to all she came close to. Perhaps it would be best is she simply kept to herself, she thought as the ship headed southwest, across a wide and desolate sea.
❧ ❧ ❧ ❧