Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chapter 12 (concluded)

It was like time was suspended.  The ship pushed its way through the floating plants, and the “mizzle” eventually stopped.  The dragonflies came back, but the allsalve was apparently doing its job, because the mosquitoes kept their distance.  The bright blue water snakes, which Roger just referred to as “snakes,” swam around the ship, and occasionally did try to climb on board, but they just tossed them back.  This was sometimes difficult, as they had a tendency to wind around your arm and not let go.  They didn’t appear to be attacking, though, just getting comfortable.  More of the bat-like birds, always solitary, flew overhead now and again, and they had feathery batwings with a span longer than Johnny’s arm.  Their plumage was a soft gray, like mourning doves; Johnny wanted to ask Larissa if she still thought they were frigate birds, but suspected the question might upset her.  Larissa watched everything, but spoke little.

Since there was no day or night, they just slept whenever they were tired, at different times, so there was always someone guiding the ship and always someone watching out for hazards.  Often they slept in the cabin up on top of the deckhouse, which contained a sort of hammock, but sometimes they just laid down on the deck.  Roger taught them to recognize the land (mainly by the reeds and woodier plants), and she taught them how to operate the “wheel”, which worked more like a tiller, and also a bit like a motorcycle handlebar in that you twisted it to give it more gas (or whatever fuel the ship actually ran on).  The waterway they were travelling was wide, but it was definitely more river than lake, although there didn’t appear to be much in the way of visible current.  The curious Tiggery sound of the burrikits would ring out suddenly, and there were monkey noises when they were close to the land and frog calls when they weren’t.  Johnny wondered if the “monkeys” were actually creatures like Bones, but he never actually saw any.  The only fish they saw were the red and yellow striped ones—so large that they easily outweighed Larissa—which often leapt out of the water and flashed black tailfins at them.  Roger called them “tillocks” and said they were good to eat.

What they mostly ate, though, was a sort of jerky studded with bits of fruit, which Roger called pemmican.  Larissa looked dubious at this, but didn’t comment.  The taste of it was gamey, but not unpleasant.  This was supplemented with hunks of a sharp, greenish-yellow cheese, and dried fruits that mostly tasted like figs.  To drink they had water, which was brown but still tasted fresh and clean, and a type of very smooth, almost fruity liquor that Roger called “artan” (this was pronounced with a vaguely French accent).  Larissa sniffed it and pronounced that it was made from rose water and fermented plums, but she didn’t drink it.  Johnny found it pleasant to have a small glass after meals, but found that more than that made him a bit tipsy.  Roger kept a constant supply in a leather skin tied to her waist; she seemed immune to its intoxicating properties.

To alleviate boredom, Roger attempted to teach Johnny various things.  She showed him the basics of fencing, but he had little talent for it.  He was better at picking up the fundamentals of operating the ship, but of course there wasn’t that much to know: there were no sails to trim, he quickly learned all the knots, and operating the pole that steered the vessel wasn’t very difficult.  He tried to understand how she could navigate when there were no stars (or even any visible sun), but she couldn’t explain that herself—said it was something you felt in your bones.  The only thing Johnny felt (although it was more in his skin than his bones) was the strange black door they had come through, which he knew he could locate no matter how far away they travelled from it.  He almost thought he could sense something else occasionally, something up ahead in the direction they were pointed, but it was fleeting, and impossible to describe.  After a while Roger fell back on telling stories, mostly outlandish, many involving her father, who was apparently a notorious pirate.  Her mother she never mentioned.

Larissa never participated in these interludes.  She just watched in silence.

Johnny couldn’t sort out how he felt about the older woman.  At times he was very attracted to her, but it was also very easy to forget that Roger was female: she was something beyond what Johnny thought of as a tomboy.  She didn’t walk like any woman Johnny had ever known, and she certainly didn’t talk like any woman he’d ever known, and she didn’t even look like any woman he’d ever known.  He mostly viewed her as the captain, sometimes as a teacher, occasionally as an older brother.  But there was something about the way her eyes sparkled, and her easy smile, and most especially her laugh, that touched his core and stirred a manhood he’d barely noticed before.

At some point, which could have been the same day or a week later for all Johnny could tell, Roger stopped in middle of one of her tales and stood up, staring into the distance, the wheel forgotten and the fan idling.  She had her hands on her hips, very similar to how she’d stood when he’d first met her, and her head cocked slightly to one side.  Her lips were parted slightly, her cheeks flushed, her back barely arched, and her eyes were unfocussed.  They were light brown, Johnny noted for the first time, with the barest hint of yellow and green.

“Ah,” she sighed softly, her gaze returning to him and becoming sharper again.  “Methinks we’re here, finally.”

Johnny looked up at her curiously from his seat on one of the tied-down crates on the deck.  “Here where?” he asked.  Nothing looked any different to him than it had for the past ... however long it had been.

“Here where we’re needing to be, a’course.”  She pointed over to where a few reedy cattails, spaced some distance apart, indicated a tributary of the main waterway.  That much Johnny had learned to recognize.  “Down that rill is the way to Aidan’s.  We’ll need to let him know we’re a’ coming.  Johnny me boyo, can ye drive us into that channel?  Gentle and steady on the planks, mind: she’s shallow and ye’ll not see more’n an inch between bilge and bed.  Ketch?”

Johnny nodded and translated to show he had “ketched.”  “Drive the ship into the offshoot, but go slow because there won’t be much clearance between the bottom of the boat and the riverbed.  Got it.”  He grabbed the wheel and twisted the pole to goose the engine a little.  “But you were exaggerating about it just being an inch, right?”

Roger grinned back.  “A wee bit, aye.”  She clapped him on the shoulder.  “Ye’ll do fine.  Ye’re quite the sailor now.”  She turned and faced the bow.  “Bones!” she yelled.  “Git yer feathered ass out here!”

The red and blue blur shot up out of the hold.  “Helm’s a-lee!” Bones screeched.

Roger chuckled.  “Aye, we be turning.  Slowly, though, so naught for ye to worry about.  Fetch me a light whilst I bring out the flare.  Step to, matey!”

“Aye-aye cap’n!” he replied, then streaked off.  Roger strode off behind him.

Johnny concentrated on keeping the nose of the ship, with its protruding figurehead, pointed down the center of the channel.  This was harder than it looked, because the deckhouse was in the way, so he couldn’t sight down the front of the ship.  Larissa climbed up to the flying bridge where she could get a better view and help watch out for the banks protruding into the waterway or stray hummocks of land poking out of the water.  Johnny had just gotten the stern through the narrow gap to where the rill opened up a bit when Roger reappeared, carrying what appeared to be a heavy crossbow.  She put it down on the deck and planted a boot on either side of its center beam, standing on the curved part of the bow.  She then reached down and grabbed the heavy cable and heaved it taut until it clicked three times.  Picking up the crossbow again, she loaded it with what looked like a bottle with a stick poking out of it.  Bones appeared on her shoulder as if by magic and crashed his flint and steel together.  The giant spark sprang to the end of the stick, which started spitting and crackling like a 4th of July sparkler.  “Fire in the hole!” Bones squealed, and Roger shot the great crossbow straight up into the air.

The bottle streaked up about a dozen yards, then it began to trail green fire and emit a piercing shriek.  Executing a graceful arc, it abruptly exploded in a shower of green and gold and red that formed a pattern in the sky.  Johnny thought it looked like a fleur-de-lis with an X across it.

He had slowed the ship’s speed to nearly nothing to avoid crashing into anything while he was distracted by the flare.  Roger watched the fiery pattern overhead gradually fade away, her hand shading her eyes, and then gave a satisfied nod.  “That’ll give him fair warning we’re on the way or I don’t know what will.  Shall I take the wheel, Master Johnny?”  Johnny stood up and left the pole to her more capable hands.

“Mind if I go up on the bridge and see what I can see?” he asked.

“Surely,” Roger replied, settling into the seat and gunning the engine again.  “Holler out when you spy the dock, won’t ye?”

“There’s a dock?” Johnny asked, surprised.

“Indeed, me lad.  Got to tie her up good and proper while we run down the Guide, ain’t we?”

Johnny decided to take this as a rhetorical question.  “Okay, sure, yell when I see the dock, got it.”

Roger scanned the banks on either side as Johnny climbed the ladder to the flying bridge, and the ship moved slowly but surely down the channel.


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