by Jeff Baker
Chapter One: At the Holy Sword
I NEVER FOUND out whether I had been apprenticed or sold, but at the time it didn’t matter. I had just turned seventeen and my Great Uncle (who was the Patriarch of our family) took me in to The Holy Sword. I had been in the tavern before, usually with my Father for a meal, but I thought my Great Uncle was going to share the traditional celebratory glass as I had reached the Age of Ascension. Not that Ascension would do me much good as I was the younger son of the youngest son, and my future, as I imagined it, involved nothing loftier than being apprenticed to a merchant or working in the fields. Perhaps betrothals to the younger daughter or son of a family more prosperous than my own parents were.

I did not notice the stir when Besseron entered the tavern, and my life for that matter. I had been reciting the tribute in answer to the one my Great Uncle had recited to me and had drunk the small glass or the cool, sweet liquid somehow warming me when I realized that there was a quiet which suddenly swept over the room. My Great Uncle was talking and so I had to give him my full attention but I caught a glimpse of a tall, powerful figure out of the corner of my eye. I suddenly realized I could see behind me in the mirror.

The first thing I noticed was the sword. That and the tattoo on his powerfully-muscled arm. His garb looked like the usual attire favoured by merchants and tradesmen, but with a hodgepodge of styles from various regions. His ears were long and tapered, not trimmed and filed like mine and most city or town dwellers. He was leaning against the doorway of The Holy Sword, smoking the sort of thin pipe that I had seen skyfarers smoke. His own sword was in a long, leather scabbard at his side. I had trained myself to notice things and I saw the man’s eyes looking about the room.

My Great-Uncle raised a hand and for a moment I wondered why he would need to signal for one of the serving-people when we were actually sitting at the bar when, to my surprise, the man with the sword walked in to the Tavern and up to where we were sitting. My Great-Uncle introduced him as Besseron and he had the attitude of someone whose name was widely known. But I had spent my seventeen years mainly among my family, so I was not as familiar as I should have been with the outside world. Besseron, I noticed, smelled of spices and smoke and he and my Great-Uncle began to talk with him in low tones. I became distracted by the sight of a cat in the open doorway, its eyes yellow and gleaming.

‘It’s done, then,’ Besseron said in a firm voice. ‘Have you a name, Boy?’ This was the first time he had addressed me directly.

‘Aris, Sir,’ I said cautiously.

‘Aris,’ my Great-Uncle said. ‘Your future has been arranged. You will go with him now.’

‘Yes, Patriarch,’ I said, realizing that my life was changing fast.

‘But we must go quickly, young Aris,’ Besseron said. ‘My vessel is docked near here, and we must be off before the Night Watch gets a close look at the Ghannidor-Ra.’

The night was dark despite the stars and a chill desert wind hit my face. I could barely see the bulk of the ship hanging over my head. Beneath me a good and probably fatal drop away was the ground. I was dangling from a knotted rope which I was struggling to climb, trying to avoid either falling to my death or being skewered by Besseron who was beneath me on the rope, having no trouble simultaneously climbing and jabbing with his sword at the space where my tender behind had been a second earlier.

‘Climb, boy, climb! Put your weak muscles into it!’ Besseron yelled gleefully. ‘Move! Or you won’t live to hit the ground!’

My arms hurt, my hands burned, my eyes stung with tears. It was near pitch dark but I was certain my fingers were bleeding. The ship was continuing to rise into the night sky as I kept pulling myself upward, feeling like a fuzzy worm I had seen folding its entire body together to move slowly along the ground. I had climbed trees when I was younger but never anything like this. I was wishing I was back in The Holy Sword. Before I knew it my body was bumping up against the bulk of the ship I could barely see and I heard voices above me. In another moment hands grabbed me from above and pulled me up and I fell onto what I found to be a wooden deck surprisingly well-lit by lanterns. The rough men who surrounded me were dressed in the same sort of clothing Besseron wore, in varying states of disrepair.

One of them laughed and said, ‘Welcome on board the Ghannidor-Ra.’

‘What do you think of him?’ Besseron’s voice. He had climbed onto the deck behind me.

‘Are we ransoming him?’ one man said.

‘His buckle must be valuable,’ said another.

‘Hands off!’ Besseron shouted. ‘He’s crew now. We need every pair of hands!’

I suddenly grasped the horror of what had happened; through the offices of my Great-Uncle and Patriarch, I had fallen in with pirates!

Chapter Two: Flying by Starlight.
I LOOKED AROUND frantically. There was nowhere to run. I stared at the ship’s railing. Then a huge hand clapped on my shoulder.

‘It is a long way down, lad!’ Besseron said. ‘And growing longer still.’ The huge pirate pointed up at the familiar star groupings which seemed to be sinking downward. The ship was still rising. So smoothly I had not even felt it! Besseron barked orders and members of the crew began moving to what I assumed were their usual positions.

‘Stay out of the way, lad,’ Besseron said. ‘You’ll have plenty to do but for now just watch us.’

The ship began to move from side to side and I realized it was turning around until it was facing in the opposite direction. Then it began to move forward, slowly.

‘We’re in no hurry,’ Besseron said. ‘Not tonight anyway.’ He suddenly turned and shouted an order; ‘You there! Watch the sails! And keep an eye out for nightships!’

Nightships, I thought, wondering what they were.

‘One of the moons will be rising in an hour. None of them full this week,’ Besseron said. ‘Lucky for us!’

There was laughter from the crew at this which I did not yet understand. Nonetheless, I stayed on deck and watched as the ship began to travel forward. I glanced downward; we were travelling away from the town, across the barren desert which I had stared at every day of my life. I felt a cool breeze blowing my hair. I suddenly realized the breeze was caused by the forward progression of the ship as we sped onward, travelling faster than I ever had in my life.

‘Ho, there!’ The cry came from the front of the ship. I stared into the starlit blackness and noticed that some of the stars were swaying and that a large black bulk above them blotted out the other stars; an Air-Traveller! I had seen those ships, huge gasbags with a boat strapped to their undersides floating across the sky, propelled (my uncle had explained to me once) by some form of gas-propulsion.

‘Bring ’er down lower now, and stand ready!’ The voice was not Besseron but I saw him, smile glinting in the starlight as we approached the bulk of ship. He joined several crew members as they pulled out long black cables attached to the ship and at a cry of ‘One! Two! Three!’ tossed the cables at the black bulk. The ends of the cables had sharp, metal hooks which caught the fabric of the Air-Traveller and began to pull it in the direction the Ghannidor-Ra was flying.

‘Now! Go for them now!’ That was Besseron. He and several crewmen slid on the cables over to the other ship. They then crawled down to the wooden boat structure and I heard more shouting and the clang of drawn swords. After a few moments, a relay of crew members began passing things up to waiting hands on our ship. I recognized the glint of metals which could have bought the town I had grown up in several times over. Besseron jumped over the railing and hoisted his sword in triumph with a cry of victory. I stared down at the other ship: the last relay of plunder was being brought over and one of our crew hoisted his sword in response. There was a loud hissing; his sword had punctured the bag. There was a flurry of activity among the crew as the other ship began to lose altitude; I suddenly realized the one ship was going to pull the Ghannidor-Ra down with it. Confirming my feeling, the cables tightened and the ship lurched to one side. I heard cries and saw our crew members hanging on to the cables, one of th
em dangling by one hand. There was a scream and I saw several people fall from the wooden boat at the base of the Air-Traveller. It was a long way down.

Besseron began yelling commands and the ship began to descend faster but was no longer tilting. We were alongside the sinking Air-Traveller and Besseron and several others began pulling the cables taut. I glanced at where they were attached to the railing; they were welded there. I realized the cables were made of strands of metal woven together into a thin line; probably the reason they were not trying to cut the cables. That and the crew members still trying to make their way back to safety. One man clutched the railing and pulled himself onto our deck, leaving only one crewman in the gulf between ships, clutching the life-line with one hand and a glistening platter with the other.

Besseron yelled another order; the ships could get too close and crush the crewman even as he and others were pulling, keeping the line taut.

The man on the line drew closer. Besseron leaned over the railing, extending his hand. The man twisted, still holding the platter.

Suddenly, awfully the man dropped the glistening platter and lost his grip on the line a moment later. I heard groans from the crew and Besseron’s shout of ‘Pakriss!’ It blended with Pakriss’ scream as he fell to the desert floor. He was the first crewman whose name I learned.

In moments, the Air-Traveller’s gas bag was within reach; swords flashed, cutting through the fabric of the bag, emitting a gush of warm gas as the crew pulled the hooked ends of the cables onto our deck. Besseron shouted orders and the ship began to ascend even as the Air-Traveller fell. Then Besseron turned his attention to me.

Chapter Three: Plunder from the Desert.
BESSERON EYED ME up and down. He was silent for a moment, and then he spoke.

‘You have seen wealth and you have seen death. You have seen how we live; it is your life now. Taloch!’

In response to the last cried name, a lean, muscular man walked up to me.

‘Show Aris to his assignments,’ Besseron said. Taloch nodded.

‘Come, boy,’ Taloch said, without looking at me. I followed him across the deck.

In the days to come, I became accustomed to my duties. These included moving the plunder to the lower hold, keeping the crewmen supplied with water, helping move kegs full of I-didn’t-know-what (‘You are not in a position to ask,’ Taloch had said,) and hearing the laughter of the crew as I struggled, for I was accustomed to very little heavy labour in what I now thought of as my previous life. At times I would stare over the railing at the sand below, wondering how far we were from my old home. I wondered if I would learn to navigate by the stars; I only knew how to identify the Moons and tell when the Summer Festival was near.

I have not expressed how big the ship was; the deck immediately below was used for both storage and sleeping, except for Besseron who slept in a cabin beside the kitchen. Below the storage deck was an area that I was forbidden to even go near; a steel door on the very floor of the deck away from the storage and bunks. A crew member stood guard at all times with a sword and I was not the only one who was given a stern look whenever I even passed the steel door. Not that it would have done any good to satisfy my curiosity; the door was bound with a padlock the size of my head.

I was beginning to be able to ‘feel’ the ship, even when I was asleep but especially when I was standing on the deck. And on that afternoon I had started to feel hesitancy in our flight. It is something that cannot be explained or described to one who has never served aboard a ship soaring through the air. I noticed Besseron and Soma exchanging furtive talk, the way they would do when they did not wish to dismay the others, but sometimes I went unnoticed. I had been familiar enough with the wandering of the Ghannidor-Ra to realize our sudden change in direction masked an urgency that was being kept from the rest of my shipmates. I glanced over the side and saw large rocks and a thinning of the sand. We were at the edge of the desert, and the ship was slowly descending. I glanced ahead and saw a range of hills, made of the same colour of rock as dotted the desert.

The ship came to a halt, shaking as it hovered not too far from the ground. The usual ropes were lowered and Besseron delegated a small group of men to climb down. At the last moment, he pointed at me, indicating that I should join them. We climbed down the ropes as the crew lowered a large barrel beside us. Reaching the ground we quickly guided the barrel to our side and unhooked the ropes and I realized with some surprise the wooden barrel was empty. The men began to roll the barrel towards the first of the nearby hills and I joined them, realizing as we drew closer that the shadows concealed the entrance to a cave of some sort. When we reached it, I was told to wait outside with several of the others as two of the crewmen took the barrel inside. I heard a series of calls, back and forth, as if exchanging a code or passwords like the games my brothers and I had played as small children. Then we heard nothing.

As I waited, I watched the sun’s slow crawl behind the mountain, stared upward at the Ghannidor-Ra and stared at the far horizon. I thought I could see the thin crescent of one of the Moons rising. The sky was darkening when I heard another series of calls from the cave and my shipmates’ expressions brightened considerably. One of them waved up at the ship. I could barely make out somebody looking over the railing, but I heard a distant cheer go up from the Ghannidor-Ra. It was shortly thereafter that the other crewmates returned, rolling the barrel, making certain that they kept an extra tight grip on it. My fellows rushed to their side and grabbed the barrel, this time rolling it very slowly towards the ship. I pitched in, somehow realizing that not only was the barrel now full but it must have been with some liquid as it wobbled from side to side. I was instructed to hold tight to the barrel as we slowly rolled it towards the ship where other crewmen were lowering themselves on ropes to meet us.

I knew better than to question what was going on, even as we held the barrel as it was roped securely and I and several other crewmen were instructed to hang on to cling to the barrel and the ropes as it was raised carefully to the ship.

During this, I heard the whispered word: ‘Afrit.’

When we were aboard, the crewmen held fast to the barrel as they rolled it towards the door to the lower decks. I moved to help them, but I felt a hand on my shoulder holding me back.

‘Not now, lad,’ Besseron said. ‘What’s below there is for only a few. You are not yet ready.’

I walked out onto the deck and dwelt on Besseron’s words a moment, but then there was a sudden lurch as the ship tilted upward and began to move; we were soaring again! I saw the stars above, felt the breeze as we rushed through the air and there was no feeling of hesitation in our flight. Whatever had been installed below we were once again keeping company with birds and whatever else occupied the skies. My earlier curiosity was assuaged as the Ghannidor-Ra once again ruled the night sky. The ship was now flying level and I could see a thin layer of cloud overhead, lit by starlight. I looked around and grinned; this was my world now. I was staring into the distance to the side of the ship when I saw a shadowy shape, discernible only by its silhouette covering the stars. But I could see through it, the stars dimmed as it passed over them. More than one such shape, swiftly approaching. I was about to cry out when I heard our lookout call a warning.

There was a sudden ‘Clunk,’ and a low growl and the ship shuddered. A cry rose from the crew: ‘Nightships! ‘Nightships!’

I looked over the side: there was a long, thin vessel, smaller than the Ghannidor-Ra, its prow stuck to the Ghannidor-Ra’s hull. The vessel was dark and seemed to have a shimmer around it: I realized I could see stars partly through it. There was a repeat of the earlier sound as two more such vessels attached themselves to our ship. I also saw a line of black-garbed figures, swords glinting in the starlight, rushing along the top of the nightships, about to board the Ghannidor-Ra!

Chapter Four: ‘The Nightships.’
AS THE FIRST of the black-garbed men clamoured over the railing of the Ghannidor-Ra, Oranos hoisted his sword and I grabbed one of the poles. I swung it and luckily connected with a nightship sword. He swung the sword at me, this time knocking the pole out of my hand. I froze. There was a scream as Oranos’ sword slashed the man’s arm; he’d been trying to slice it off.

‘Aris! Below decks! Now!’ That was Besseron. I rushed for the cabin door but found my way blocked by two of the crew, fiercely parrying with one of the nightship men. I looked around; swords were flashing, the deck was spattered with blood. I saw Besseron using his huge sword to knock the smaller members of the nightship crew out of the way. I realized that for the time being, I was probably safer where I was, against the railing, if I kept my eyes open and my wits about me. I swiftly, but carefully reached for the wooden pole which had rolled near me; there were several cuts from swords on one end, I gripped it by the cuts and said, ‘Dolgna the Low take the splinters,’ waiting for an opening to at least pull my weight in this fight.

The deck was tilting slightly; I noticed our navigator near the wheel in a desperate fight with a black-garbed swordsman. All around me, I heard the clanging of metal and vicious cries. The deck tilted again. I quickly rolled the pole on the deck, towards two nightship swordsmen who had one of our crew pinned to the other side of the ship. One of them stepped back to deliver a fatal blow and stepped on the rolling pole, suddenly falling end-over-end, one of his feet connecting with the face of the other swordsman. In that instant, our pinned crewman ran him through. I forced myself to not look away; this was my life now.

A few feet in front of me there was a sizzle and a blur of gleaming white light. An instant later there was a small explosion and I turned in the direction the light had gone in time to see our navigator standing by a charred figure that had been one of the nightship’s crew, as it fell to the floor.

‘Gampu, Soma!’ the Navigator cried out.

I quickly looked in the direction the flash had travelled; a trail of dark smoke was visible in the lamplight, leading to Soma, the ship’s Mediciner. Soma bowed and smiled, acknowledging the thanks for the weapon he had used: a zelza ball! Such things were hugely dangerous and usually only used against other ships. I ducked down and ran to the other side of the ship and grabbed the wooden pole; it had served me well so far.

I heard a noise behind me and swiftly turned, accidentally smacking one of my crewmates in the head. As he fell, I felt a sudden blow to the back of my own head. Through a haze of blurred vision I felt myself dragged down the stairs by several of the nightship crew, down to the forbidden lower hold. The door was pried open and I was pulled inside. The stench almost rendered me unconscious as one of the nightship crew quickly shoved the lid on the open barrel. In that instant, I thought I saw a black, shadowy shape starting to rise from the barrel’s depths, but as the hold was nearly pitch-black, I could barely see. Quickly my arms were pinned behind my back and I was forced up the stairs, a blade pressed to my throat. As we arrived on deck, I heard commands barked out by Besseron as I began to lose consciousness. I saw the barrel being rolled behind me by the nightship crew. The blade was pressed more firmly against my throat and I could see the crew tense up. The barrel was quickly loaded over the side and Iwith it, as the nightship crew jumped over the side. My last memory was of the cries of my shipmates and the sound of weapons firing and then I knew no more.

Chapter Five: ‘Off on a Nightship’
I AWOKE TO see the stars streaking above me. I felt the curved wood that I was lying on and felt the wind rushing around us. Us! There were people sitting around me on a bench that ran the length of the nightship, as we headed to Altonach only knew where. I tried to sit up and found my arms were strapped securely to my sides. One of the men grinned at me and poked a sword in my ribs.

‘You’re staying there for now,’ he said.

I heard others laughing. I wondered how long I had been unconscious or how far away from the Ghannidor-Ra I was. Suddenly, there was a commotion from the far side of the nightship: cries and pointing, and several of the men rushed to one side. I was unattended suddenly and able to sit up enough to glimpse a familiar bulk approaching fast from the side: the Ghannidor-Ra! Even more importantly, I saw a small sword just to the side of me where it had fallen in the sudden rush to defend the nightship. I managed to twist my position until I could grab the sword—by the blade! Hand bleeding I managed to quickly cut through the rope that held me, as the men began firing at the Ghannidor-Ra. I remembered hearing that a small flyer-craft had to be careful because the discharge of a large weapon could knock it off course or even tip it over. Indeed the nightship shuddered with every blast. Then, just as I finally cut through the strap holding me, there was a distant booming from the guns of the Ghannidor-Ra and a moment later there was a huge impact on the underside of the nightship. I looked over the edge and saw a long cable stretching between the two ships, a cable held by a spear in the nightship! I rushed to the back of the ship where the stolen barrel was strapped next to the small hold. I looked out again; the Ghannidor-Ra had been moving faster than I thought possible, but the faster nightship was going to reach the end of the cable that now tethered the two ships together and the nightship would be the loser when the cable was pulled taut. I quickly cut one of the cables attached to the barrel and tied it to my belt. Then I set to the task of cutting the larger barrel from the ship: if I was right about what was in the barrel it was my only hope.

I clutched the barrel and cut the last of the cords, just as the nightship began to rock from side to side. The nightship slowed and the Ghannidor-Ra pulled close enough for us to hear Besseron’s powerful voice demanding surrender. The nightship rocked again and the barrel turned on its side and floated into the air, carrying me with it! As I had guessed, it was the afrit, the living propulsion system which allowed ships to fly! The location of the supply was a closely guarded secret, and the afrits were bred in darkness; bright light would render them powerless and the ship, or barrel, would fall! I saw Soma waving me away with a hand as he pointed one of the guns at me! I realized quickly he was aiming one of the grappling lines at me and needed a clear shot at the barrel! I clambered on top and hugged the side opposite the Ghannidor-Ra, as Soma fired and with a loud noise the hook attached itself to the barrel. Realizing I might not have any time before the barrel either cracked or burst, falling to the ground. I looped the strap from my belt across the cable from the grappling hook and wound the other end around my arm, then I slid down the cable towards the ship that was now my home. I fell into Soma’s arms and we fell onto the deck as I felt the cable drop.

I heard Besseron barking orders as the nightship crew was pulling close to us, again with swords drawn. I expected another fight and was looking around for a sword, when I heard Besseron give a shrill cry and point and the ship began to swiftly move downward, pulling the nightship by the attached cable. I saw the nightship crew frantically hacking at the cable with swords before the ship slammed into the ground with a splintering crash as the Ghannidor-Ra surged upward. I had no idea if we came close to crashing ourselves.

As we soared into the night sky, Besseron handed me a sword that had, he said, been the property of the previous Master of the Ship back when he had been property as well. Then I was escorted to the room above the afrit’s chamber and told to touch the sphere which guided their emanations and controlled the ship’s flight (under the watchful eye of Besseron, of course!)

Under that direction, I closed my eyes and willed the ship to push upward as we travelled ahead into my destiny.

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