On Stranger Tides Page 40


Shandy glanced at the helmsman, who had the tiller all the way over to port, and he knew he should be there to help the man hold it when the full wind hit them at the crest, but then he saw Woefully Fat.


The big bocor had pulled himself away from the transom, and was now standing on the deck and grasping the wooden shaft that impaled him; and even as Shandy watched, Woefully Fat bent it in front of himself - the wind took all sounds, but splinters began to spring up between the two black hands. Shandy assumed the bocor was using magic to accomplish it, but Woefully Fat had to shuffle around as the spar was bent farther, and Shandy felt his arms prickle with awe, for he could see the bloody gaff-saddle protruding an inch or so from the broad back, and though the iron still steamed, it wasn't glowing - the bocor was breaking the spar with nothing but his own physical strength.


Finally it broke, and the bocor fell to his knees. Shandy rushed up to help him, but Woefully Fat one-handedly lifted the gaff-spar and shoved it toward him - an impressive feat in itself, for, even broken off, the thing was a good six feet long, and draped with rigging and the sopping head end of the mainsail.


"Sea anchor!" the bocor shouted. "Throw it over the starboard quarter!"


Shandy understood at once, and took the spar from Woefully Fat - he had to use both hands, and still his teeth ground together at the weight of it - and he turned and heaved it over the starboard rail into the sea.


In that moment they crested the next wave, and the Jenny heeled sharply as the wind hit them on the port beam, and then they were sliding down the weather side, the helmsman straining to keep the tiller over. Shandy hastily untied the mainsail halliard and let it play out over the rail to give the sea-anchor line some length.


The Jenny hit the trough only slightly straightened out, and again the sea surged entirely over the deck. Shandy clung to the rail underwater, wondering if they had been rolled over, if the Jenny was simply going to implode and sink without ever bobbing up again; but then the water became heavy on his hunched shoulders and sluiced away, freeing his head first, then his arms, and when it was still sloshing around his knees he resecured the halliard, for nearly all of the line had been played out.


The spar itself was somewhere behind the last crest, and even as they climbed the next one Shandy could feel the tug of it, could feel the old sloop pulled more straight, and then begin to respond to the sail and the rudder. The bow was coming up into the wind.


Through his fingertips he had been paying very close attention to the feel of the deck, and when he felt a faint scratch nearby he looked up - and then flung himself flat. Venner's cutlass split the rail instead of Shandy's head.


Shandy rolled away while Venner was rocking the heavy blade loose, and when he got up in a crouch Skank took time out from improvising a mainsail to toss him the dropped saber.


The deck was heaving, and rain and spray were in his eyes - he missed the toss, heard the sword clank and slide across wet deck, heard too the creak of the cutlass blade levered free, and Venner's sliding footsteps approaching.


Shandy dove after the saber just as the bow plunged into a wave - he shut his eyes and braced himself against the gunwale as the water crashed over him, then shook his head and blinked around frantically. The light was bad, but he saw the sword rolling in the water, and he went after it in a half-swimming crawl and caught its hilt.


Venner struck as Shandy was trying to stand up, but the deck rocked sharply back just as Venner lunged, and he lost his balance, and though the blow numbed Shandy's shoulder, it was the flat that had hit him, not the edge.


It knocked him back down onto his knees, but Venner had fallen too, and Shandy took a moment to drive his own sword point into the only reachable part of Venner - his knee - before wearily hauling himself to his feet one more time.


Venner was up too.


Shandy realized he might not be able to beat Venner, that this interminable fight might end with that damned cutlass breaking open his head or splitting his abdomen - but he was too exhausted to derive anything more than an oppressive unhappiness from the idea. He leaned back against the transom and flexed his hand on the slippery saber grip.


Venner swung the cutlass at Shandy's head, and Shandy made his numb arm lift the saber to deflect the blow, but he only succeeded in turning the heavier blade, so that once again it was the flat that hit him - squarely on the side of the head this time. His knees gave for a moment as the hot, nauseating pain seemed to ring in his sinuses.


He tried to straighten, but Venner's blade was driving in point-first now - Shandy let himself slump further and then barely managed to jerk his body aside as the blade struck - it scraped his ribs and caught in a loose fold of his jacket, nailing him to the bulkhead and stopping his fall; but he had raised his own sword in a parry that, while late, had put his point more or less in line. As cloppingly as a carelessly worked puppet he got his feet under himself.


His shirt tore as he lunged forward, and then the front of Venner's jacket was punctured to admit two inches - then four, as Shandy caught his balance and remised - of rusty steel.


Suddenly pale, Venner reeled back, off the blade, and the cutlass slipped out of his hand and rang on the deck. The Jenny crested the next wave and tilted sharply back for an instant. Everyone except the two combatants grabbed for a handhold or tried to make the tumble a controlled one, but Shandy lunged forward again, in midair as the deck dropped away beneath him, and drove his point into Venner's broad chest with such force that the blade snapped off and both of them sailed through the rainy air toward, and higher than, the port rail. Shandy let go of the broken sword and grabbed the rigging, but Venner and Davies' sword went spinning away over the side. Then the bow fell and the stern rose, tearing Shandy's grip loose and flinging him hard down onto the deck.


Chapter Twenty-Six


He came back to consciousness in slow stages, reluctantly abandoning the dreams that were so much preferable to the cold, aching situation that seemed to be reality - memory dreams, like traveling with his father and the marionettes, and wish dreams, like finding Beth Hurwood and finally telling her the things he wanted to tell her. At first it had seemed that he might be able to choose the situation he would wake up to, just by concentrating on it; but the wet and cold and rocking one became more and more insistent, and when he opened his eyes he was on the Jenny's deck.


He tried to sit up, but sudden nausea pitched him back flat, weak and sweating. He opened his eyes again and saw Skank's concerned face. Shandy started to speak, but his teeth were chattering. He clamped his jaw tight for a moment and then tried again. "What ... happened?"


"You hit the deck pretty solid after you killed Venner," said Skank.


"Where's Davies?"


Skank frowned in puzzlement. "He's ... uh, dead, cap'n. When Hurwood took the Carmichael. You remember."


It seemed to Shandy he did remember something like that. He tried to sit up again, and again flopped back, shivering. "What happened?"


"Well - you were there, cap'n. And I told you about it today, remember? How one of Hurwood's dead sailors killed him?" Skank looked around unhappily.


"No, I mean what happened just now?"


"You fell on the deck. I just told you."


"Ah." Shandy sat up for the third time and made himself stay up. The nausea surged up in him and then abated. "You may have to keep telling me." He struggled to his feet and stood swaying and shuddering, clutching the rail for balance and looking around dizzily. "Uh ... the storm has ... stopped," he remarked, proud to be able to demonstrate his awareness of things.


"Yes, cap'n. While you was out cold. We just kept her hove to and rode it out. Your sea-anchor made the difference."


Shandy rubbed his face hard. "My sea-anchor." He decided not to ask. "Good. What's our course?"


"Southeast, more or less."


Shandy beckoned Skank closer, and when the young man had crouched beside him he asked quietly, "Where are we going?"


"Jamaica, you said."


"Ah." He frowned. "What do we hope to find there?"


"Ulysse Segundo," said Skank, looking more worried every second, "and his ship, the Ascending Orpheus. You said he's Hurwood, and the Orpheus is really the Carmichael. We followed reports of him out to the Caymans, where you heard he was heading back toward Jamaica again. Oh, and Woefully Fat wanted to get there, Jamaica, before he died." Skank shook his head sadly.


"Is Woefully Fat dead?"


"Most of us think so. The gaff-spar speared him like a spitted chicken, and after he broke the big piece off and gave it to you he just flopped down. We got him below, for burial when we get to shore, 'cause you don't just pitch a dead bocor into the sea if you know what's good for you - but a couple of the men say they can feel a pulse in his wrist, and Lamont says he can't keep his mind on his work because Woefully Fat keeps hummin' real low, though I don't hear nothin'."


Shandy tried to concentrate. He remembered some of these things, vaguely, when Skank described them, and he remembered a sense of desperate urgency about them, but he couldn't now remember why that should be. What he most wanted at the moment was an impossibility - a dry place to sleep.


"That storm," he said. "It was very sudden? There was no shelter we could have taken?"


"We might have been able to run back to Grand Cayman," Skank told him. "Venner was for doing that. You said we had to go on."


"Did I ... say why?"


"You said the storm would get us anyway, and we may as well go on after the Orpheus. Venner said you wanted to because of that girl. You know, Hurwood's daughter."


"Ah!" He was beginning to see some hints of pattern in his concussion-shuffled memories. "What's the date today?"


"I don't know. It's Friday ... and, uh, Sunday's Christmas."


"I see," said Shandy tightly. "Keep reminding me of that, will you? And now that the storm is past, get up as much canvas as you can."


The next morning at dawn they spied the Ascending Orpheus - and there was no disagreement about what to do, for they'd spent all night bailing water out of the Jenny, and in spite of having pulled a tar-smeared sail around under the forward keel, and hammering rice-filled rolls of cloth into the gaps between the strakes, the water was coming in faster every hour, and Shandy doubted that the battered old sloop could hold together long enough to make another landfall. Maximum canvas was crowded on, and the Jenny lurched unevenly across the expanse of blue water toward the ship.


Crouched in the sloop's bow, Shandy peered through the telescope, squinting against the blinding glitter of the morning sun on the waves. "She's suffered," he remarked to the haggard, shivering men around him. "There's spars gone and rigging fouled on the foremast ... but she's still solid. If we do this next hour's work right, there'll be rum and food and dry clothes."


There was a general growl of approval, for most of his men had spent last night laboring over the bilge pumps in the rain, looking forward to the occasional brief break in which to swallow a handful or two of wet biscuit; and the rum cask had come unmoored and broken apart during the storm, filling the hold with the smell of unattainable liquor.


"Did any of our powder stay dry?" Shandy asked.


Skank shrugged. "Maybe."


"Hm. Well, we don't want to wreck the Orpheus anyway." He lowered the telescope. "Assuming our mast doesn't snap off, we ought to be able to cut south and head her off - and then I guess just try to board her."


"That or swim for Jamaica," agreed one ragged, red-eyed young pirate.


"Don't you think he'll try to run when he sees we're after him?" Skank asked.


"Maybe," said Shandy, "though I'll bet we can catch him, even busted up as we are - and anyway, we can't look too formidable." He raised the telescope again. "Well never mind," he said a moment later. "As a matter of fact, he's coming at us."


There was a moment of silence. Then, "Lost some men in that storm, I daresay," commented one of the older men grimly. "Be wantin' replacements."


Skank bit his lip and frowned at Shandy. "Last time you tangled with him he picked you up and dropped you into the ocean. You ... got some reason to think it won't happen that way again?"


Shandy had been pondering that question ever since they had set out from New Providence Island. Blood, he remembered Governor Sawney saying, obviously there's iron in it. Link your blood to the cold iron of the sword. Make the atoms of blood and iron line up the way a compass needle lines up to face north. Or vice versa. It's all relative ...


Shandy grinned, a little sickly in spite of his best efforts. "We'd all better hope so. I'll be at the bittacle - have somebody bring me a saber ... and a hammer and a narrow chisel."


The Orpheus had turned and was charging straight downwind west toward the Jenny, the morning sun behind her casting the shadows of her rigging and masts onto the luminous sails. Shandy kept an eye on her as he worked with the hammer and chisel over the grip of the saber Skank had brought him, and when she was still a hundred yards away he straightened and held the sword up by the blade.


He'd cut away the leather wrapping and half of the wood grip, exposing the iron tang that linked the blade to the pommel-weight, and, just where the heel of a swordsman's hand would press, he had chisel-punched a narrow crack into the metal.


Shandy stood up and leaned on the bittacle pillar, looking down through the glass. "If it should ... go against us here this morning," he said to Skank, who had been staring at him uncomprehendingly for the last several minutes, "get east of him - with the state the Carmichael's in he can no more tack than fly - and try for Jamaica."

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