Lord Admiral Sunfall staggered as the Arianrhod’s Pride took a direct hit from a forty-pounder. Three of the large rail-guns were already gone, and the starboard wing was so damaged that for the first time in memory, the Pride was missing her stays. One more direct hit from its deadly forty-pounder cannon would blast what was left of their ship to flinders. But the locust-shaped dreadnaught they had to destroy was right before them, just slightly off the starboard bow.
The Admiral gritted his teeth. “All hands,” he said, “prepare to ram that dreadnaught.”
His Exec gave him a sideways glance. She knew, as he did, that the Arianrhod’s Pride would likely not survive that either. But she just nodded. “Av, elan.”
The call ran up and down the decks. The sail crews rolled out all the canvas the Starseed dreadnaught would take.
The Pilot cried, “Accelerating to full speed, sir!” The sails filled. The sheets and the masts groaned under the strain. Even through their etheric membrane, a wind picked up. The Admiral’s golden braid whipped him in the face.
“Eight knots, Skipper!” cried the sounder. Then a moment later, “Nine knots!”
The Locust bore down on them. The two great ships were going to collide head-on. The Admiral leaned forward into the wind, grinning. With his fiercely burning amber eyes, he looked like a stooping hawk.
Shaundar tried to cry out, to warn him—but no sound came out.
And then the locust dreadnaught turned hard to port, and their starboard battery let fly.
Cannonballs smashed into the Arianrhod’s Pride on all decks. Half of the mizzensail crew tumbled out into space. Flinders peppered everyone standing on the fo’c’sle. The Admiral was pierced with a thousand wooden needles along his flank. He closed his eyes against the barrage. As he did so, the ship began to decelerate.
“Helm down, Skipper!” cried one of the secondary Pilots.
He tried to yell a command; coughed, and when his throat cleared, he tried again. “Take the secondary helm now.”
As the dust settled, Lord Sunfall searched with his eyes, and his gaze was drawn down to the deck at his feet. Aliatha Leafbower, his loyal Number One, lay on the planks, shredded by flak. A piece of the railing was buried her temple. Her eyes were wide and staring blankly at the stars. He lowered his head.
The enemy dreadnaught edged past the wreckage of their dead-in-space ship, passing close along the larboard flank. A dragonfly-shaped man-o-war closed in for the kill.
For the first time in more than a hundred years, the Admiral drew the runesword that was his family’s legacy. Its blade burst into rolling flames.
“If we have any weapons left, fire on that dreadnaught,” he commanded. “Open the armoury and prepare to be boarded.”
Once again, Shaundar tried to cry a warning, to no avail.
Instead, both Fomorian ships fired a full volley into what was left of the Arianrhod’s Pride. The foremast took a direct hit at its base with a forty-pounder. It fell like an ancient tree, slamming into the Admiral’s spine and pinning him to the deck like a squashed bug.
Then the deck collapsed beneath him.
Shaundar burst out of his nightmare with a cry, soaked in sweat.
It wasn’t the first time he’d had this dream. Ever since his father had arrived on Freebooter’s Rock, this was a recurring night-hag that rode his rest. He reached over to the bowl of water on the tiny shipboard nightstand and wrung out the cloth in it, to splash lukewarm water on his face. He tried to blink away the last image he’d seen before he’d managed to scream himself back to consciousness; his father lying dead on the wreckage of the bridge, buried underneath a pile of rubble, with his runesword fallen at his side and his stiff, pale and unmoving hand still reaching for it.
Shaundar’s father wordlessly handed him a towel.
“Thanks, Dad.” He swept it over his sweaty head while he studied the rings under his father’s eyes. They were dark enough to seem like bruises. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather I slept on the deck, sir?” he asked again.
“Av, son, I’m sure.” As tired as he looked, Shaundar read only sincerity in his father’s golden eyes. Something else too, maybe. Was it pity? Or guilt?
Shaundar turned away from those fierce raptor’s eyes and started wiping himself down with the washcloth. His body was a roadmap of scars, pink and new-looking, but starting to close, now that the scurvy had been cured. He washed the furrows between his ribs; grotesque, but no longer horrific. There was another new purple bruise in the diamond shape of his hammock weaving on his flank. There was still so little fat on his body that his skin had no resistance to the gravity of his own weight.
“Son,” said Admiral Sunfall in a more gentle tone than Shaundar could remember ever hearing. He looked up. “Rualith,” he said, “you’re going to get open pressure sores if you keep sleeping in that hammock. If you won’t take my bed, at least let me have a cot brought up from the brig for you.” He sighed. “It can’t be doing any good for your leg, either.”
Shaundar’s leg had recently been rebroken by the healers on Freebooter’s Rock. The original injury had happened... three years ago, now? The Queen’s Dirk, his ship, had gone down with all hands, save three. He thought bitterly, and not for the first time, that his fallen shipmates had been the lucky ones.
He realized now that once again, the metal braces that were holding the bones where they ought to be, so they could heal properly this time, had tangled in the hammock ropes. If he were to try to get up suddenly, he would end up on the floor. And likely break my leg again, he thought with a sigh.
“Okay, Dad,” he relented. “Thank you.”
Admiral Sunfall went to the door and called for his steward. “Get Thersylvanna to bring up a cot from the brig, please.”
Thersylvanna gave Shaundar an appraising look as he bullied the cot through the hatchway, but to Shaundar’s relief, it wasn’t an overly long one. Even in the relatively spacious quarters due an Admiral, it took up a lot of room. Shaundar had been hoping it wouldn’t be necessary. After all, he’d been sleeping packed in like tinned fish on hard wooden slats for the past three years; you’d think he’d be used to rough quarters. But either not being able to move around much had prevented injury, or he had gotten used to the bruising.
“Thank you,” he said to the bo’sun as he hobbled onto the cot. He had to admit, the sheets felt like clouds against his skin.
“Glad to have you back with us, sir,” he said with feeling.
Shaundar smiled. Thersylvanna had called him “sir” even back when he was a Midshipman, which wasn’t required of Warrants—and they didn’t tend to have a lot of respect for Ensigns or Lieutenants, either. Ever since he’d offered coca leaves when Shaundar was court martialled and flogged, and Shaundar had refused—that was when it had started. The irony was that in retrospect, he probably would have taken the leaves.
He settled into the bedding and his father turned the light down again, but sleep eluded him for a long time. Being back on the Arianrhod’s Pride, when he’d spent so much of his childhood here, felt surreal. And he wanted Yathar and Sylria by his side again, packed in like they were in the prison camp. He felt naked without them.
Shaundar thought about Sylria for a long while. By now she was probably on her way back to Gorna, her homeworld. Should he have tried harder to convince her to come back to Peridot with them instead?
He was glad they’d made love when they finally realized they were going to live. That they were free. It wasn’t uncommon for elves to tryst casually, but it still had felt like something more.
Should he feel guilty, he wondered? Did doing this constitute a betrayal of Narissa? He thought she’d understand, but he wasn’t sure he did.
Then again, it was his first time.
Well, his first by choice, anyway.
He flinched away from the memory. There were so many memories that he was flinching from. At least we’re finally going home, he reminded himself. But even though he was here, sleeping in his father’s cabin like he had as a little boy, he just couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it.
Sleep continued to elude him for most of the night.
Blood Moon, 5045 Avalonian Calendar
The first sight of Yggdrasil’s Sprout should have brought a rush of ecstatic joy. How many times had he dreamed of just this moment, only to wake again once more to pain and cold and bitter acorn coffee?
The Tree of Life lifted its branches into the cosmos, so vast they disappeared into darkness and starstuff, and its roots coiled around the dwarf planets it sheltered like protective arms. Why its inhabitants couldn’t see those roots blotting out the stars when they stood on the surface of those planetoids was a mystery that stymied even the Druids, but out here they were radiant and silver, reflecting and refracting the heat and light of the distant sun to the tiny worlds nestled in the roots.
And there, gleaming among them like a tiny jewel in the vast dark of the Void, was Peridot.
But he was only numb. He was... detached from it all, like when he’d been taking poppy blood in the Rock’s Navy hospital, just after the surgery on his leg.
Yathar squeezed his shoulder with his remaining arm; too hard. The sleeve of his ill-fitting red uniform jacket dangled loose from the stump of the other; he had yet to master the art of pinning it to his coat. Shaundar wished he could feel what his best friend and blood brother was feeling, because his face was wet with silent tears. “We’re really home,” he murmured.
Shaundar reflected on the contrast between them. They’d all been shaved bald in Raven Talon, but now Shaundar’s corn-silk yellow hair was almost long enough to be tied back into a short regulation pigtail. Meanwhile, Yathar’s had grown back into an untidy black mop with a gravity-defying cowlick, just as it always had. Shaundar’s eyes, the bane of his life, were a pale indigo shade, like chicory or cornflowers, flecked with unusual pyrite sparkles that suggested water and winter. They clearly told the story of his mixed Alfar-Sidhe heritage for anyone and everyone to see. Yathar’s, on the other hand, were the rich hazel-green of summer, and flecked with the fiery gold sparkles common to the most pureblooded Alfar families.
“Would you care to Pilot us in, Lieutenant?” asked his father, with the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
That broke through the cold and cotton in Shaundar’s head like perhaps nothing else could have.
“Av, sir,” he said, surprised into a smile.
He took the helm chair of their pinnace, the Starshine, as though he were trying to soothe a frightened stray. But the vines that made the connection to the Starseed engine wrapped around his arms with the haste of an eager lover. Just like that, the senses of the Starshine overwhelmed his own. The purple and indigo currents of the cosmic tree’s gravity well spiralled around her, guiding her in on the Airt they were sailing. He plunged into the current eagerly, reaching out with the Starshine’s tiny seed-wings.
With agonizing slowness, the Starshine made her descent. Shaundar was rusty, and almost miscalculated the angle of re-entry. Their etheric membrane flooded with light, and sweat beaded on their brows as the temperature climbed. He corrected for it. “Sorry, sir,” he said as the dangerous heat of atmospheric friction cooled.
Shaundar and the Starshine found their way to the dock that was used primarily by the Arianrhod’s Pride. The mist of Skyreach Harbour’s salt air soothed his burning face. He carefully set down one landing gear foot, then another, then the other two. His heart was pounding in his chest. “Touchdown, sir,” he said. His voice cracked.
Dad cleared his throat. “Stand down the helm, Lieutenant.”
“Av, sir, standing down the helm.” He got up from the interface chair so awkwardly he almost fell over. The vines that connected him to the pinnace loosed themselves reluctantly.
Suddenly, Shaundar wanted to turn tail and run. Was he ready for this? Could he handle the strain of Narissa and his family seeing the wreck he had become?
But his father had already started down the ladder.
Yathar clasped his shoulder. “For courage,” he said, echoing Sylria when they had plunged into the market of Freebooter’s Rock, just after their rescue.
Shaundar let the vines release him and followed.
His first view of the Peridot docks was surreal. They should have been as familiar as breathing, but they seemed so strange. People came and went as if nothing had happened and no time had passed at all. He trembled as he saw the leafy roof of their family manor reaching out from behind the dockyard buildings. He almost fell off the ladder.
Yathar reached out to steady him. His broken leg hit the platform hard and shot a jolt of pain through his body. Ironically, that made it all easier to believe.
Now his eyes combed over the docks, desperate to see the familiar faces that he loved. At last he noticed them.
Like Valkyries coming to take the dead to the Summerlands, there was his sister. And his mother. And there was Yathar’s mother. And, standing beside them, waving vigorously, was Narissa.
Narissa! Her beautiful flaxen hair, her clever oceanic eyes. His beloved, his betrothed, the guiding light that had kept him alive through three years of misery and hell. Lovely, and untouched, and perfect.
No, she couldn’t possibly be real.
Her arm fell as saw his hesitation. His father stopped and turned back to look at him.
Go to her, you fool! he admonished himself with something like real anger. He made himself put the crutches out, made himself lean on them to propel himself forward. Crutches, foot. Crutches, foot. One step at a time.
He stopped just short of them, drinking them all in. They looked at each other across the veil of a thousand years.
Tears began leaking silently from Narissa’s eyes. “Shaundar,” she breathed. She choked on a sob.
That broke the spell at last. Lady Goldenbough rushed forward to gather Yathar into her diminutive arms, crying, “Oh, Yathar! Oh, my son!” And Narissa rushed to him and nearly knocked him over as she buried her face in his chest.
He didn’t know how to respond at first. He wanted to do something, but he was frozen. So many times he had dreamed of this moment, and now it was here, and he didn’t know what to do.
Narissa pulled back from him to meet his eyes. “Shaundar?” she whispered through her tears.
Leaning on one of his crutches, he brought his fingers up to her cheekbone and touched it hesitantly, as if she were glass he might shatter; as if she were a bubble he was afraid to pop. Then he ran shaking fingers along the edge of her jawline, and then through her hair. It felt like silk against his calloused fingers. He did it once, twice, thrice, trying to reassure himself that she was, indeed, real.
She reached up a hand to touch the side of his face, and stopped when she reached his scarred ear and the black pearl earring, commemorating the wreck that only three had survived.
“I love you,” she choked out. “I’ve been waiting for you! Shaundar, it’s me.”
At last he believed it. He threw his arms around her, dropping both crutches, jarring his broken leg, and folded her to him in a tight embrace. “Narissa,” he sighed. Now the tears came, running free like blood gushing from a wound.