Dae wondered if it could be accurately be called sailing if the ship in question was born above the waves on the hands of powerful air spirits.
“Do even sky carriages fly this fast?” Jyl asked over the roar of the rushing wind.
“No,” May said, her veil hanging still and untroubled by the gale. “Sky carriage teams walk on the winds. They can’t outrun them.”
“First time on a Sunlost ship is it?” Noderick, the Sergeant-at-Arms, asked.
“First time on one that wanted to get somewhere in this much a hurry,” Dae said. Kirios noted the situation with delight. It was the first time the spirit had seen a naval vessel under such circumstances and new experiences were every pact spirit’s intoxicant of choice.
The Sergeant-at-Arms laughed a hearty bellow that fit his barrel-like frame.
“Count yourself lucky then,” he said. “We wouldn’t be going to these extremes if the damn Pax’ers hadn’t made such a nuisance of themselves.”
“Those weren’t the first ships they sunk were they?” Dae asked, keeping an eye on the Paxmer boats they were trailing.
“Don’t know if this lot here is to blame, but this is the third time we’ve scrambled to catch a fight and found only ash and char by the time we got there,” Noderick said. He was drawing a complex, interlocking pattern on the wide blade of his cutlass. His stylus was a black feather but it left a briefly glowing gold line on the blade as he traced it over the metal.
“Did you know anyone on the ships that sank?” Jyl asked. Dae envied the young elf’s natural balance. Jyl rode the turbulence of the Fearless’ wild ride above the wavetops with an unconscious ease. May was similarly untroubled though in her case, the stillness she displayed was oddly absolute, as though she was out of phase with the randomly bumps and waverings that passed through the deck.
“Knew some by name, some by sight,” Noderick said. “Not any I’d call friends, but the sea’s a dangerous place to name too many as friends. If it’s not the storms, it’s the beasts of the deep and if it’s not them it’s a careless accident, but whichever path she takes, the sea will pluck away all the souls from your life over time.”
“Why stay out here then?” May asked.
“For everything the sea takes, she gives back so much more,” Noderick said. “That and I’m not overly fond of people.”
“That why you’re the ship’s weapon master?” Jyl asked.
“And is that why you’re putting us on the ropes?” Dae asked.
“Yes and yes,” Noderick said. “Don’t take it personal, it’s just if anyone is going to get skewered or blown to flinders I’d prefer it be the newcomers who are as likely to be spies as they are to be interested in fighting for us.”
“That’s fair,” Dae said. “How many usually survive their first day on the ropes?”
“The one’s who know what they’re doing?” Noderick asked. “More than not. The others though? The one’s that can’t fight as good as they think they can? Well let’s just say they don’t suffer long before the sharks make fish food out of them.”
A thrill of fear tingled out to the ends of Dae’s fingers. For the battle, none of the three Queen’s Guards could afford to reveal their position as Pact Warriors, which meant no transformations. With Kirios’ overt aid, Dae was going to be much more vulnerable than she’d been in any battle she’d fought since she first formed her bond with him.
Jyl and May were in the same position, but in the former’s case Dae felt like Jyl’s natural aptitudes would be enough to see her through, and in May’s case, the former Duchess of Tel didn’t need to transform to draw on her pact spirit’s power. The difficult thing for May would be holding back enough to appear as nothing more than a normal, unenhanced fight.
“How far away is Windsmer?” Jyl asked.
“Not far enough,” Noderick said. “They’ve run faster than they should have.”
“Maybe they’re not eager to engage with us after their battle outside Brights Harbor?” Dae asked.
“That may be, but they don’t know we’re coming now do they?” Noderick said.
“They can’t see us?” Jyl asked.
“The wind spirits, the one’s that are moving the ships, they’re anchor posts for a glamour too aren’t they?” Dae asked.
“You’re a clever one,” Noderick said. “Don’t meet many from Gallagrin that understand how Sunlost magic works.”
“I had an erratic education,” Dae said.
“Didn’t know they taught Sunlost spell casting in Gallagrin?” Noderick said.
“It wasn’t a formal education,” Dae said. “I just read a whole lot of books I wasn’t supposed to.”
“Let’s hope those books told you how to fight,” Noderick said. “Cause how I see it, we’re not going to make berth in Windsmer before the Pax’ers get there.
“Why would we want to?” Jyl asked.
“To file a formal complaint,” Dae said. “Before the Paxmer ships get to unload any of their stolen cargo.”
“Would they honor a complaint like that?” Jill asked.
“They would if they want to stay on our good side,” Noderick said.
“They burned your ships,” Jyl said. “That doesn’t sound like they’re all that interested in your good opinion of them.”
“Oh they didn’t burn our ships,” Noderick said. “If they did that we’d raze Windsmer and collect our due from as many coastal town as we felt was proper.”
“The ships that burned were from Gallagrin weren’t they?” Dae asked.
“Yep,” Noderick said. “Bound for Brights Harbor to buy our good, so we’re out the coins they carried, but Paxmer hasn’t inflicted a direct insult on us yet.”
“But three indirect insults gets a little annoying doesn’t it?” Dae asked.
“A little privateering is all well and good,” Noderick said. “Keeps the crew’s morale up, and their pockets lined. The Pax’ers are getting out of line though, and getting as greedy as their blasted dragons. That’s ok though. We’ll put them back in their place and Gallagrin can send us some extra gold for the supplies they need.”
“If they have dragons on their ships, will not an assault on them go poorly?” May asked. She was looking forward, but Dae was fairly sure she wasn’t focusing on the same thing the rest of them were.
“They only bring the little ones with them,” Noderick said. “Tiny whelps are as big as your arm, but they can do a lot of damage with that breath of theirs.”
Dae frowned. If Noderick was right then the naval use of dragons was diametrically at odds with their land-based use. On land, only the big, adult dragons were employed in battle. Those dragons were roughly the size of a building and couldn’t possibly have fit on the Paxmer ships that were coming closer every minute.
From what Dae knew, the smaller dragons lacked many of their fully grown counterparts abilities, most especially the aura of fear which the adults could emanate. Having faced that power once, Dae was in no hurry to repeat the experience. Even years later, she could still feel the fracture lines in her mind from where she’d broken the last time she’d tried to stand against the supernatural malevolence of Paxmer’s primary defenders.
“They look bigger from here,” May said.
“She one of those Seers?” Noderick asked, addressing Dae.
“Something like that,” Dae said. “How soon until we’re alongside them?”
“I’d make it another hour,” Noderick said. “Might want to make sure those blades of yours are safe, and if you think your Sleeping God will wake for a spell, send a prayer or two their way.”
Dae didn’t pray. If Gallagrin’s Sleeping God ever woke, Dae figured that her list of sins would far outweigh any virtues that might earn her marks of Divine Favor. Trusting in her steel, her friends and years of repressed rage against the Paxmer military, Dae weathered the beginning of the battle as best she could.
The Fearless closed on the last ship in the Paxmer flotilla with a final burst of speed that made standing on the deck unsecured an impossibility (except for May). The glamour that cloaked the Fearless was torn to shreds by the maneuver, revealing the attack only a fraction of a second before the archers on the Fearless loosed their first volley.
The initial casualties on the trailing Paxmer ship were significant from what Dae could see. The sailors on deck were mowed down like tall grass under the scything rain of arrows that swept over them. The flaming arrows that were launched started small fires at various points on the ship, though none hit vulnerable areas.
In response to the attack a signal went up among the Paxmer ships and the course of the battle swung into the hands of the ship’s crews.
The Sunlost fleet outnumbered the Paxmer ships seven to three. Of them, the Fearless was the only one in striking range for the first barrage, but each of the Paxmer ships had to contend with the prospect of facing the rest of the Sunlost fleet within minutes of engaging unless they continued to flee towards the safe haven of a Paxmer harbor.
Dae wasn’t surprised though when the Paxmer ships turned to engage the Sunlost fleet. Flight was only an option when you could outpace your attacker. She reasoned that the Paxmer ships intended to cripple or at least slow the Sunlost ships somehow before resuming their flight to Windsmer. It didn’t seem like a winning strategy, Sunlost had the best ships and crews on the sea, but sometimes a losing strategy that let you lose a little less than your opponent wanted to take from you was the only one that was available.
Being on the ropes still wasn’t a wonderful spot even with the Sunlost fleet’s numerical superiority but since crippling three Paxmer dragon ships was a win for Gallagrin, Dae was glad to be in a position to strike a meaningful blow in the fight.
She looked for Noderick after taking shelter from the Paxmer return volley and located him across the deck just in time to see fire bath the deck. Neither Noderick or any of the other sailors near him had time to scream as the gout of flame burned through the top of the deck and punched a hole clear through the bottom hull.
“The dragons are here,” May said, pointing upwards as two of the beasts flew over them.
Dae noticed two things, dimly and through a wave of disorientation. First, the dragons were larger than her arm. Second, they were large enough to have riders and passengers.
She tried to rise from her hiding spot as the dragon riders leapt to the deck of the Fearless, but her limbs were frozen.
Dragon fear gripped her heart and refused to let it beat.
She reached out to Kirios’ power and felt it far too distant to call on. Jyl was in the same state, her eyes as wide as the moon and her breath caught in her throat. Even May was still, unhidden and unmoving.
Dae watched, screaming on the inside, as the three riders who dropped onto the Fearless prowled towards May with their swords drawn. No one else was moving on the ship, which made it easy for the dragon riders to dispatch sailor after sailor with quick thrusts of their blades. Men and women died as they curled into fetal positions or cringed frozen in terror.
Dae managed to force a breath out as the first of the dragon riders reached May. She knew she had to move. She’d faced dragon fear before. She’d withstood it’s power for a precious second and these dragons were nowhere near the terrors the one she’d seen at Star’s Watch had been. Even with that though, even knowing that one of her two charges was about to die, she couldn’t force her limbs to move.
She watched the sword blow descend towards May in slow motion, helpless to alter its course.
May however, wasn’t helpless.
Without drawing a weapon, the daughter of Tel slashed her hand downwards and the descending sword shattered into fragments.
So did the man who was wielding it.
And so did the half of the Fearless that May was facing.
As the real cold of the ocean surged around Dae, and the deeps reached out to claim her, the false chill of the dragon fear shattered, leaving her free but at the ocean’s non-existent mercy.