The Mercenaries

I was sitting on a rock under a tree, leaning back against the trunk and admiring the view. Where I sat, Pa’adhe was clearly visible over the roofs of the buildings covering most of the hill as it dropped away from me. She lay at rest at one of the Ogra Port harbor piers down near the base of the hill, the water glittering like jewels around her. In one hand I had a cold mug of mead from the tavern across the road behind me. Idly I watched a shadow appear as a man came around the tree.

I glanced at him, mentally marking him as some kind of fighter then returned to enjoying the view and my mead. He stood there quietly, apparently also enjoying the view and the mug in his hand. When I moved to get up and go to the tavern for a refill, he spoke.

“Innkeep says you’re the Captain of that ship. Pa’adha is her name, I think?”

I turned on the rock to face him. His accent was a little odd, one I’d not heard before but familiar somehow. “Yes, Pa’adhe is my ship.”

“I seek passage for my crew around the Spine ta Bolac, between the Toes of the Spine.”

I leaned back against the tree, studying him. He merely stood there, studying me in turn. A voyage around the Spine to Bolac would take some time from here, maybe two weeks. “How many in your crew?”

“Four.”

“How much gear?”

“Well, now, all of us be fighters. Pretty much just our kit, say two bags about so….” He held up his hands about an arms’ length apart then moved them to about half an arm’s length to indicate how thick.

I nodded. “We can handle that. Meals?”

“How long’s the trip?”

“Fourteen days good weather, eighteen if not.”

He ran his hand over his shaved head. “Dunno if we can pack that much. Being mercenaries, we be more used to living off the land when we travel.” He looked at me thoughtfully. “Gonna have to say we’ll need meals.”

“Are all your crew as big as you?”

He chuckled. “Nah, the rest of them are more like you.”

I grinned at him. “I think we can carry enough food.”

“What’s the damage, then?”

I’d been working that out in my head while we’d been talking. I wasn’t overly fond of mercenaries, but for some reason he struck me as more trustworthy than others I’d met. I shrugged. “Fare’s the same, big or small. For the five of you, five gold. Add in the meals, six gold total. Two gold now to cover the food, the other four when you board.”

We haggled for a bit and finally settled on five gold total. I looked at the sun low in the sky. “We sail a hand after sunrise. Be at the ship before then.”

He nodded, handing over two gold coins and held out his hand. “Name’s Tharad.”

I grasped his hand, “Lliom. Call me Captain.”

* * *

Cook and Xinu were still loading supplies when Tharad and his crew arrived. When they paused at the pier, I sent Scarle to help them get everything squared away. Tharad hadn’t been kidding about being the only big one, but the others weren’t exactly runts either. They might be my size, more or less, but they were still big in comparison. I did a quick calculation in my mind, and called Cook over to verify we had enough supplies. Fortunately, Cook had already seen them in town and everything was covered. We wouldn’t have to delay sailing on the tide.

As soon as Scarle had Tharad and his crew settled in, I began giving orders to take us out of the harbor. The sea breeze meant we had to tack several times before we could clear the harbor entrance but once we were out on the sea we were able to settle into a more or less northwesterly run. I looked around at the sky and sea. If this kept up we should be sighting Ja’yka Point early the fourth day.

* * *

Tharad and his crew had enjoyed lazing about the first two days, but by the third they were obviously bored. They’d been good about staying out of the way as we worked Pa’adhe but truth be told there hadn’t been much to do other than tweaking and general maintenance.

I wasn’t overly nervous when Tharad and the rest pulled their weapons out of their packs. Over the last two days I’d gotten to know Tharad a bit better and though a mercenary, he appeared to be an honest one, unlike some I’d met. As I correctly assumed, they just wanted to relieve the boredom and set to practicing. I settled back to enjoy the show. At first all went well, but when one of the mercenaries pulled out a spiked ball my nervousness returned. His first practice movements were careful and I had just started to relax again when he paired off with another wielding shield and sword.

It started out relaxed and controlled but the more they sparred, the harder they began to fight. I called Xinu over and gave him instructions to stand the crew by the lines. I trusted Tharad, but I didn’t know him so I intended to be prepared. When the second hit to the deck from the spiked ball happened, I rose and approached the two. Seeing me coming, Tharad halted the practice.

“Ha, Captain! This isn’t a problem, is it?”

I shook my head as I looked up at him. “No, the practice isn’t. I know it gets boring for passengers. But this,” I said as I gestured at the gouges in the deck, “definitely is not acceptable. Practice all you want, but don’t hit my ship.”

His eyes squinted, whether against the glare or to glare at me I didn’t know. It was obvious, though, that he’d dealt with Captains interfering before. I wondered what he was going to do. When he spoke, his voice was reasonable enough. “Ah, Captain! Sorry, but we got to practice. We paid fair and square for passage, and we’re going to practice.”

“Aye, you paid fair and square for passage, and you can practice, but you’re not to damage my ship at all. There’s no give on that. Take it or leave off practice.”

“And if we don’t leave off?”

He made no move but I felt more than saw the other mercenaries shift. They had their weapons out already whereas my crew and I didn’t, though we had our working knives on us. I didn’t let that bother me. I simply said, “If you don’t, you die.”

“Ah, aye? You think you can take us on?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

I raised my hand and the crew let loose the lines. It was a risk, but I’d been carefully watching and evaluating the mercenaries the first few days. I’d also eased Pa’adhe off the wind a little so nothing would break. The sudden suitably loud crack of the sails, the abrupt change in the tilt of Pa’adhe’s deck, and the groan of the boom were enough to make Tharad and the other mercenaries to look alarmingly at the uncontrolled, flapping sails. I hoped this didn’t take long or I could be out a set of sails.

“Like I said, it doesn’t matter,” I said reasonably. “If you kill us, you still die out here. None of you are sailors, you’d never make it to land trying to sail this ship yourselves.”

Tharad was definitely glaring at me now and the weapons I could see in the hands of the other mercenaries shifted slightly. After a few heartbeats of him glaring at me and my just looking back at him a slow smile spread across his face.

“You got a point there, Captain.” He chuckled. “Your reputation be well deserved.” He looked at the other mercenaries and said, “Practice, but don’t harm the ship or you’ll answer to me.” Turning back to me, he continued, “More reasonable than some other captains, you are. I was curious to see what you’d do. We’ll be careful, Captain.”

I nodded, knowing that was the best I could hope for. As the mercenaries went back to their practice, the crew and I quickly got Pa’adhe trimmed and under way again. As I returned to my spot by the steering oar and resumed watching the mercenaries practice, I noticed they were definitely being as careful as they could. I knew some nicks would be inevitable, but at least there wouldn’t be big gouges from unrestricted sparring.

* * *

Over the next few days we settled into a routine. The mercenaries practiced every day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. In between they gamed, usually playing either sticks or dice. Sometimes one of my crew would join in the gaming or practice. Those of us not on watch generally ate our meals with the mercenaries and some friendships developed between the two crews. Scarle taught two of the mercenaries how to fish from a ship. One of the mercenaries, also from the Southlands, turned out to be from the same area as Xinu.

Towards the end of the trip, three days out from Baloc, Tharad approached where I was leaning against the sternpost. I nodded a greeting which he returned similarly. For a while he just stood there, watching the ship as I was. Finally he spoke.

“Your reputation says you’re a skilled fighter as well. I want to try your skills against mine. What say you?”

I thought about it for a while as we stood there in companionable silence. I noticed Cook on the steering oar was paying as much attention to us as to his course. Indeed, it seemed everyone but Tharad was busily trying not to show interest in what was happening between us. I glanced at Tharad and saw a faint grin on his face.

“Oh, it’s like that?”

“Aye. Seems the two crew got it into their heads, like two kids. ‘Mine’s better than yours’ then they got insistent like. Got to admit, though, I be curious about the point myself.”

“It could be fun.” I let the crews simmer in their curiosity for a bit before continuing. “Aye, let’s try it and see how it goes. I’ll get my weapons and meet you forward of the mast.” Tharad nodded then we both grinned as the two crews promptly began preparing a space before the mast. “Clearly, it’s something they want to see!”

Tharad laughed. “Aye. I’ll fetch my weapons.”

When I returned to the cleared space before the mast with my long knives in hand, he grinned, a little scornfully, saying, “Them aren’t going to be much help!”

I said nothing but just set myself and waited for him to attack. We circled several times, feinting back and forth. Finally, his patience wore thin and he attacked first. Each time he attacked, I deflected his blade but made no move to counterattack. Getting bored with this, he finally began attacking in earnest, attempting to mark me. As each attempt failed with no retribution he began extending himself more and more. I waited until I judged the time ripe and when he made yet another thrust at my face, I made my move.

As his blade came at my face, I again blocked it with the knife in my right hand. This time, however, I slid the knife up and caught its edge between my guard and blade. Twisting into the blade as I directed it past my face, I brought up the knife in my left hand on the other side of his blade, again catching the edge between blade and guard. Slipping my left blade behind my right, I trapped his blade and lowered my knives out and away from me, twisting his blade in his grip and stressing his wrist. At the same time, I stepped into the trapped sword and began to twist around to my left, using my entire body to force his sword out of his grip. As his hilt was forced ever further from him around the fulcrum of my body, he lost his grip completely. Feeling the sudden release of pressure on his sword, I slid my knives apart, allowing the weight of his sword to throw it away from me. Completing my pivot, I slammed my left elbow against the side of his neck, just below his ear, stunning him. Before he could react I stepped fully behind him, bringing my right knife around to his throat, the guard just touching the right side of his neck. Even as the right knife got into position, the left knife had dropped across the back of his neck, its guard similarly just touching the left side of his neck.

He recovered quickly from the blow to his neck and began to twist to face me. Before he could move more than a finger or two, I said pleasantly, “You do realize, don’t you, that the next move I make would be to slice the two knives out?”

He froze instantly, suddenly fully aware how my long blades lay against the front and back of his neck. We stood there unmoving for several heartbeats as he quickly evaluated all options. As each ran through his mind they were quickly discarded. With no other option available he finally relaxed and said, “I yield.”

I removed my knives from his neck, at the same time pushing him away from me lightly. He took a few steps then turned to face me. The look in his eyes showed he now regarded me as a much more worthy opponent. “I shoulda known better, Captain. That there was a good one. I aren’t going to trust any with two knives like them again.” He grinned and held out his hand. “Peace?”

I grinned back and shook the offered hand. “Peace.”

* * *

That evening at watch change I was staring almost directly into the setting sun. Cook came to take over the steering oar and noticed my frown. “Problem, Captain?”, he asked.

“I’m not sure.” I handed off the steering oar to him, never taking my eyes off the horizon. “I thought I saw a sail I recognized.” I went to stand on the rail for a better look, holding onto one of the stays for balance. Calling for Xinu, I sent him up the mast to see if he could see anything.

Xinu wasn’t up there long before he called down, “Sail!” and pointed where the sun was right on the horizon.

“Where headed? Do you recognize it?”

“It’s headed the same…wait! It just changed course more towards us. I can’t tell, the glare from the sun is too much to make out more than a general sail shape.”

I motioned for him to join me. When he did, I asked, “How could you tell the course change?”

“The shape of the sail changed. It could be adjusting for the wind or it could be sailing more towards us. Either would account for it, I couldn’t see the hull.”

That matched my conclusions. I rubbed my chin as I thought about the possibilities. I was fairly sure, but only fairly, that I’d recognized that sail. If I was right, it was hopefully a good thing Tharad and his crew were passengers. If they’ll help, that is. I made my decision.

“Tell Scarle to have his weapons to hand. Get yours and get Cook’s to him. All watches to keep eyes and especially ears open, in the night we may hear them before we see them if it’s who I think.”

As Xinu headed off to attend to his orders, I went to talk to Tharad.

Tharad and his crew were resting against the forward bulkhead, tending to their weapons like they did every night. As I approached, Tharad spoke first.

“Ay, Captain! Looked like something going on. Should we be concerned?”

I squatted down by him. “I don’t know. I thought I recognized a sail in the sunset and sent Xinu up to see if he could see better. It’s so far away we can’t even tell if it changed course towards us or not.”

Neither of us said anything for a bit. I was thinking and Tharad seemed to be waiting. Finally I said, “If, and I may be wrong, that sail was the one I thought, we may have pirates after us. There’s a chance they didn’t see us and just set their sail for a change in the wind.”

“But you don’t believe that?” It was more a statement than a question.

I gestured at the last of the sunlight fading from Pa’adhe’s sail. “No, I don’t.”

He grinned. “More practice for us then.”

I nodded, relieved but not letting it show. “Aye, we may all be fighting for our lives before we get to Bolac.”

“Well, Captain. It’s your ship. Where do you want us? How can we best work together?” he asked, the grin gone from his face.

I noticed his crew were still tending to their gear, but were now paying close attention to our conversation.

“Well, ship to ship combat…have any of you experience with that?” I gave them a chance to respond. When they all shook their heads, I continued.

“OK, then. I don’t expect them to be a problem until several hands after midnight. Get what sleep you can before they get here. We’ll keep watch as usual and will pass word to you if we sight them in the night. They may never show. If they do and they’re the pirates I think they are, they’ll give no quarter.

“During the first part of the fighting, we’ll be using bows. If you have any, feel free to join in then. Otherwise, I’ll need you to stay clear of the rails until the ships are locked together, if it gets to that. They will definitely try to board us. If you see a chance to repel a boarder and we’re all occupied, go for it if you think you can. Likewise if you have a chance to cut a grappling line, do so as soon as you can. But watch out for the ships lurching under you, especially close to the railing. If you go over, you’re likely done for. You’re used to the motion of Pa’adhe now, but that will change drastically when the two ships are that close together. I’d hate to lose any of you over the side.” I looked at each in turn, making sure they understood.

After each nodded, I looked at Tharad. “You’re used to fighting together, so I’ll leave that to you. We’ll take care of Pa’adhe so don’t worry about any of that even if it looks like we can’t handle it. If we need to, we will. We’ll try and stay out of your way to give you clear room to fight but we’re not used to fighting alongside you. We’ll have to be spread along the rail to handle lines and such, but we’ll be mostly fighting as well. If we see you go down, we’ll try and cover until you can get back to your feet or one of you gets there. Other than all that, it’s going to be pretty much a free-for-all. I’ll leave you to your planning now. Let me know if you need anything.”

I rose to my feet and turned to leave before turning back to face them. “Oh, one other thing. Under no conditions leave Pa’adhe. We are only fighting to live, not to capture their ship. If you go aboard their ship, you risk being left behind.” I nodded to them and left their group. As I walked away, I heard the quiet tones of men preparing for battle.

I conferred with Xinu and Scarle and set them to setting out the bows and placing bundles of arrows where we would need them. With Cook at the steering oar, the three of us prepared Pa’adhe for the coming fight. When all was done that could be done, the two of us not on watch settled on deck to sleep.

* * *

It was still dark when Scarle nudged me awake. A glance at the stars showed it was two hands before sunrise. As I stretched, Scarle gestured off behind us. There, in the near distance, I could just make out the shape of a dark ship but I recognized the sail immediately. I sent Scarle to wake Cook and any of Tharad’s group still asleep while I went to join Xinu at the steering oar. When I reached Xinu, I told him to keep the other ship port-side and away from the steering oar. He nodded and as I turned to survey the other deck I felt a slight change Pa’adhe’s tilt as Xinu began the dangerous game of staying to the steer-board side of the other ship. The wind had shifted during the night and the seas were confused. This is going to make for interesting footing was my first thought. That thought made me look to where Tharad and his men were getting ready.

I watched with interest as one of Tharad’s crew, Wynup, unwrapped what appeared to be a child’s bow from its leather wrappings. I was amazed to see his muscles bulge as he strung the bow and found the resulting shape intriguing. I’d never seen a strung bow with the shape of the horns of the wild wooly oxen of the far north. I went to where he was testing the bow, pulling it back and easing it forward.

As I approached, I saw that the bow was made of an unusual material. A closer look showed it appeared to be made of bone. Seeing my interest, Wynup grinned and held up a quiver, nodding at the approaching ship. “Finally! This should be a nice challenge, this rocking deck. Almost like horseback in the steppes!”

“That explains your shorter size compared to your companions. You’re a Steppeman?”

“Yea!”

“That bow’s pretty small.”

“Yea! Small but powerful. Want to try?” At my nod, he handed me the bow, saying, “However far back you manage to pull it, do not release it. Ease it back down.”

“However far, eh?” I said as I took the bow. He just grinned at me. I raised the bow and bringing it down pulled the string back. Or at least tried to. I got maybe two fingers worth of draw. Handing it back, I said, “I’m impressed! That’s more powerful than it looks. What’s it made of?”

“Strips of horn glued and bound.”

“When I first saw it I thought it a child’s bow but knew you wouldn’t likely have that. How good are you?”

“I hit what I aim at. With these,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice, but with the quiet pride of a master, as he held up an arrow easily twice the thickness of those I was used to.

A thought formed in my mind. Maybe there’s an easy way out of this, then! Glancing at Tharad getting ready nearby, I said, “With Tharad’s permission, I’d like to give you specific targets. If you can shoot certain targets, that would help us all out greatly.”

Tharad said nothing, just nodded and kept on sharpening his sword. I felt Pa’adhe shift underfoot as Xinu changed course yet again while Cook and Scarle handled the sail. Satisfied everything was under control, I continued, “Two targets more than any other may take the fight from them.” I heard a snort from Tharad as he expressed his opinion of my taking away his fun. I grinned at him. Turning back to Wynup, I said, “The man on their steering oar. If you can take him out and those that replace him, they will have a difficult time controlling the ship. Then the wind and seas may play to our advantage.”

Wynup nodded as he turned to study the other ship. I also turned to look at the men just becoming visible on the other deck. “The second target is that man there in the red shirt and the feathers braided in his hair. That is the captain.”

“You have good eyes to see those feathers from here!” said Wynup.

“I don’t see them. I know him.”

At that moment another of Tharad’s crew said, “I count ten.”

“Fifteen, more like,” I said. “Ten in view, five more at least below the railing waiting.”

Beside me, I heard a strange thrum and before I could look to the source I saw an arrow arcing over the water, it’s white shaft lit by the first light of the coming dawn. It struck home in the prow of the other ship, about a hand above the water curling back on either side.

I looked at Wynup. He shrugged, saying “A ranging shot. Now I have the measure of the other ship. You can consider at least one of those two men dead.”

I nodded, as much at what he said as in admiration at the long shot. “It won’t be long now, maybe a hand or so at most.”

I left them talking and went to stand by Xinu. Looking at the encroaching ship, I said, “We may have to let them come alongside to keep them off our port side.”

Xinu glanced briefly at me but made no comment. I waved Scarle over and gave him instructions on how to handle the sail at my signal, at the same time making sure Xinu knew what I intended. With nothing more to do but wait, we sailed on in silence, the two steersmen jockeying for position.

Soon enough arrows began falling as the bowmen on the other ship began getting our range. So far, we’d not replied though all of Pa’adhe’s crew had bows and arrows to hand. At this range, a hit was likely to be more luck than skill on the tossing decks. From the corner of my eye, I saw Wynup raise his bow, sight, and release all in one smooth motion. I watched the arrow fly straight to the middle of the pirate sail and through to the mast, sticking there. Everyone was keeping an eye on the other ship, so far easily dodging the arrows.

All too soon, though, it was becoming harder to dodge the arrows. They were now fully in arrow range. At that moment, I signaled Cook and he and Scarle let wind out of the billowing sail. The sudden loss of wind caused Pa’adhe to lose enough momentum that thanks to Xinu the other ship had no choice but to come up on our port side. As soon as the other ship turned to better come alongside Cook and Scarle sheeted home the lines, allowing Pa’adhe’s sail to fill again. I felt the lurch as she began running again.

Immediately, both ships were shooting at each other in earnest. I could see Wynup’s arrows amongst those that were streaking to the other ship but either he didn’t have a clear shot or he was biding his time for none were near the two targets I’d given him. I raised my hand to Tharad and when he nodded I gave the final signal to Scarle and Cook.

Immediately my hand dropped, Scarle and Cook let loose the sail lines to allow the sail to spill half it’s wind. The sudden second slowing of Pa’adhe caught the other ship unawares and they were alongside before they could react. They, too, lost momentum as they came into our wind shadow. At that moment the battle was joined and we began to fight for our lives.

From the other ship came three lines, two forward and one amidships. No sooner did the grapnels land on the deck than the lines were pulled tight, the hooks catching on Pa’adhe’s railing. Scarle and Cook each darted forward and chopped two loose while one of Tharad’s men cut the third. But even as those lines were cut, four more were sailing through the air. Two men had dropped on the other ship as they sought to throw their lines, one dropped by an arrow from me, the other dropped by Wynup. More lines were thrown and though we tried, we were unable to cut them all free. Men dropped on the other ship as they hauled us tight. I felt a sting in my side and wondered how many of us were hit as well.

Tossing my bow aside, I drew my long knives and attacked the nearest grappling line. I had just cut it free when I saw one of Wynup’s arrows hit the lower back of the steersman, causing him to drop free from his steering oar. Before anything could happen, a nearby sailor leapt to the oar and managed to keep the pirate ship under control.

I deflected an axe strike with one knife and rammed the other into my attacker’s guts. Even as I ripped the knife in his belly out to the side I saw another white arrow streak by my head. Risking a quick glance, I grinned wickedly. Wynup was doing his best to foul up the enemy ship…his latest had pinned one arm of the new steersman solidly to the steering oar. Before I could look away, that same steersman seemed to sprout a white stick from his leg. My inattention almost got me killed, a flash of steel under my arm and into the man in front of me reminding me to pay attention. Muttering thanks, I finished dispatching the man before me.

Slashing the grappling line in front of me, I glanced along Pa’adhe’s rail. Amazingly, there was only one line holding the two ships together. Dispatching yet another enemy sailor back to his own ship with a thrust through his arm, I took a quick look just in time to see another of Wynup’s arrows sprout from the steersman’s other leg, crumpling him by the steering oar in agony. At that moment another arrow struck home into his back, exiting through his chest and pinning him to the steering oar. As the steersman collapsed backwards from the deadly shot, he pulled the steering oar causing, the pirate ship to turn abruptly away from Pa’adhe. Anxiously looking along Pa’adhe’s rail, I saw Tharad slash the final grappling line just in time.

I roared to Xinu to turn us away and felt Pa’adhe heel sharply as she leapt forward, freed from the other ship. At that same time, that turn brought the other ship out of our wind shadow and the full force of the strong breeze immediately filled their sail, the boom of the suddenly taut sail clearly heard over the quieting battle noise. I grabbed my bow and began shooting anyone trying to man the enemy sail lines or steering oar, yelling for the rest of the crew to do likewise.

As we pulled further and further apart, we continued denying them control of either their steering oar or the sails. Between the inability of the other crew to handle their sail properly, the inability to regain control of their steering oar in time, and the wind filling their sail the wrong way, their ship was forced over so far the lee rail finally went underwater.

I stopped shooting and just watched, mesmerized by the slow rolling of the other ship. Almost gently, it laid the sail down on the water, the rent in the sail allowing water to flow over the sail, submerging it. As I watched the pirates climb up on the side of the hull above water, I saw the enemy captain. Quickly I raised my bow and loosed an arrow. Even as I saw my arrow splash into the water just short of the other ship I heard a quiet whistle and saw Wynup’s arrow hurtling away, as if it had sprouted from beside my head. It struck home right in the middle of the pirate captain’s chest, knocking him backwards into the water.

“Both targets taken care of, Captain.”

At Wynup’s quiet voice right behind me, I turned to look at him. The short man was standing when no normal man should be. He had two arrows stuck in him, one in his left side and one in his right thigh. A broken shaft protruded from his other thigh.

As I started towards him, I yelled for bandages. Reaching the Steppeman, I ordered, “By the Gods, Wynup! Lay down!”

He looked at himself, then at me. Grinning wearily, he said, “You’re not looking so good yourself.” Carefully, he lowered himself to the deck, leaning back against the railing.

At his words, I looked at myself. I had a gash on my right forearm, a broken arrow through the fleshy part of my left side, and two slight but messy cuts on my left leg. Looking back at Wynup, I said, “I need to guard my left more, eh?”

Grasping the shaft behind the arrowhead where it stuck out my back, I quickly pulled the broken arrow through, glad the other half had broken off outside my body, and tossed it overboard. I began tying a strip ripped from my shirt around my belly to close off the arrow holes as I turned to take a final look at the pirate ship. I saw it was fully turtled and beginning to sink as the hull flooded through the deck openings. Already, the bow was under water and she was starting to dive. There would be few if any survivors. Most sailors couldn’t swim, which I thought was stupid. Every one of my crew could swim; I’d seen to that, in case of just such a situation. I turned away, ignoring the cries fading into the distance behind us.

Looking over Pa’adhe I saw that my entire crew had wounds, but we were all alive. As to Tharad’s crew, I wasn’t sure. Every one of them was bloodied, but I had no idea if they were wounded or not, aside from Wynup. Glancing down at Wynup, I was still amazed that he was alive. “I was busy, what’s your excuse?” I asked.

He grinned. “I had to stand still to make those shots to the steersman. I’d watched you sail enough to know I had to have him fall away from the steering oar, not into it or that ship would have hit us.” He paused briefly before saying, “That took some skill. Thank you for the challenge, Captain.”

I was about to quip back when I realized he was serious. I racked my mind for what little I knew of Steppeman customs. “You are welcome, Wynup. I am honored to have presented you a suitable challenge. I thank you for your effort and admire your skill.”

He bowed, as well as he could sitting there against the railing. One of Tharad’s men arrived with bandages and a pail of water so I left them to it, telling them to call Cook if they needed anything.

The rest of that day and well into the afternoon we spent cleaning and repairing the ship and ourselves. I told Cook to prepare a bigger meal than usual, only to have him look at me like I was an idiot for having to even suggest that. I chuckled as I left to continue checking things and relieve Xinu at the steering oar. As evening settled there wasn’t the normal give and take between the two crews but it was obvious there was a new camaraderie between our two groups. I smiled at the stars, thanking them and the gods for our good fortune.

* * *

By the time we entered the harbor at Bolac, we’d resumed our routines. Amazingly, only Wynup was seriously injured, but even he was up and about already, though limping. Everyone else had minor wounds, more painful than debilitating. We had truly been lucky, and I knew that without Tharad’s crew to help we’d have been lost.

The harbor was quiet and it wasn’t long before we were tied up. I was standing on the pier while Xinu, Scarle, and Cook took care of securing Pa’adhe when Tharad and his crew tossed their gear onto the pier and came off Pa’adhe. As they gathered up their gear and prepared to head into Bolac, I went up to Tharad.

Holding out my hand, I looked up at him. “It was good having you along this voyage.”

As he shook my hand, he glanced down, surprised, at the gold piece I’d palmed to him. Before he could say anything I said, “ I can’t always promise this much practice, but I can try. Any time you want to sail with us, you’re welcome.”

He grinned, nodding his understanding. “We can always use more practice. Thank you for the voyage.”

I nodded back as he quietly pocketed the coin and gathered his gear. As they headed down the pier, I turned to look at Pa’adhe. Already, most of the signs of battle were taken care of but there were one or two deep gashes that needed attention.

With a sigh, I headed into Bolac to find a ship builder.

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