The Queen's Dirk
Blood Moon, 5041 Avalonian Calendar
Fifth-Month, Year 350 from the Founding
“Mail call!” the Quartermaster bellowed into the first helmsman’s quarters. “I have mail for Oakheart and Sunfall.”
“Thank you, Chief,” Shaundar replied. “I’ll take both.”
The Quartermaster piled a few letters on top of two brown paper wrapped packages and pressed them into Shaundar’s hands. “I do believe I recognize a certain girl’s handwriting on one of those.” He smiled as he continued down the passageway.
Narissa had sent something? Shaundar went through the letters and packages, placing his friend and shipmate Garan’s letters, and one of the boxes, directly on to his hammock, and sat down on his own. Garan was currently manning the helm, and there was no one else in the cabin.
Since his posting, he had been enjoying the relative luxury of simple privacy. Used to the crowded midshipmen’s berth for so long, they had almost too much room for all their things, and so their quarters had also become the place where the young officers met to play board games and card games, since they had the space.
The ship that housed those quarters, the Queen’s Dirk, was currently on quarter watch, “at dock”— if you could dignify the arrangement which attached them to the station as being docked. For that matter, calling the hastily cobbled-together collection of derelict dreadnaughts a station was at most a courtesy. They were in the back of beyond here, at the far reaches of the solar system, circling the Sun in an orbit that was directly opposite his homeworld’s.
Still, mail had been waiting there for them. The Navy was a bit obsessive about mail; the Admiralty believed it was vital for morale. Shaundar could see that he had indeed received a letter from his betrothed Narissa Elkshorn, and one from his father, and the package was from his mother and grandmother.
He opened the letter from Narissa first.
19 Hunter’s Moon, 5041 Avalonian Calendar
My dearest Shaundar –
Forgive me for being grateful that the rumour of orcish activity near Overdark turned out to be just that. I’m sure you must be straining at the anchor by now, so to speak, but I am not eager for you to see action. Your mother is sending Year’s-End gifts for you and Yathar. I’ve placed something of my own in the package for you. Well, a couple of somethings, actually. I guess you’ll probably get that about the same time, mail being what it is.
Shaundar glanced over at the package. No, he was going to save the best for last.
Selena is becoming impatient with academics, I’m afraid. She may well end up following her older brother’s bad example. She fails to see the point of it all. I am beginning to weary of it myself. I miss my Great Uncle and his skill and cleverness.
I am thinking that perhaps I’ll go back to Glimmerfell for the summer. Maybe I’ll be able to go on your ship! Then I can meet Lieutenant Sylria and Captain Oleander for myself. They sound wonderful. It’s good that they don’t seem to mind your “monkey wrestling” too much; I doubt they could stop you if they tried!
Shaundar couldn’t help but smile. That had been the second or third day of their deployment. He and Yathar had not seen much of each other during that time. Shaundar had been living in the helm room while doing Pilot’s orientation, and Yathar and the three other marines that had been assigned by then had frantically been trying to figure out how to do eight jobs with four people, what with the ship being shorthanded.
So, when the two of them met up on the deck – Shaundar looking to get some exercise after being cooped up for days, and Yathar looking to stretch out sore muscles – they found themselves high in the rigging, chasing through the ship’s yards as each attempted to lock a hold on the other, like they had done since they were small boys together.
“Gentlemen, on deck, if you please.”
Captain Yvoleth Oleander had called loudly so that he would be heard up in the sails, not with anger, yet something in that voice commanded obedience. The two of them scrambled down at once, bracing before the captain while trying to hide their chagrin. They saluted sharply.
The Captain was plain-looking, as far as elves went, and he wasn’t Alfar nobility, either. His hair was a simple brown and his eyes a dark olive colour, and while fair, he was not as glowingly pale as the average moon elf. Was he, Shaundar wondered, of mixed blood like himself? A blend of Nunnehi and Sidhe?
He was dressed in Navy officer’s uniform but without the fancy gold-trimmed tricorn hat that Captains usually affected. His only marks of rank were the commanding officers’ great-coat, and the silver-blue crescent at his collar.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “what, may I ask, are you doing exactly?”
“Monkey wrestling, sir,” Shaundar explained.
He raised an eyebrow. “’Monkey wrestling’?”
Yathar nodded. “Av, sir. Keeps us in shape so that we’re ready to go topsides quickly and fight the orcs, sir.”
“You don’t feel you’re getting enough exercise, Ensign Yathar?”
“Well, I do, sir,” Yathar said slyly, “but Shaundar is sitting in the Pilot’s seat all day.” He smiled a little at the corner of his mouth, and Shaundar recognized that his friend was setting him up for physical training punishment. He determined that he would make him sorry for that later.
“I see.” Captain Yvoleth’s tone was dry. “Well, I will speak with the Exec about Ensign Sunfall’s physical training, and in the meantime, I find myself wondering about the condition of the sail compartment. Since the two of you seem to have some free time on your hands, and a need for exercise, you can inspect the sail compartment and report to the Exec next watch. That ought to keep you both in great physical condition.” His eyes were twinkling.
Shaundar groaned inwardly at the thought of the sheer physical labor of turning over the folds of the spare sails looking for mildew. But somehow, for the first time ever, when assigned some sort of extra duty because they had been horsing around, Shaundar was not in the least angry or resentful. “Av, sir,” they chorused, and set out to the job.
Lieutenant Sylria caught up to them both a few minutes later. She watched as they began hauling the carefully folded sails from their shelves, folding her arms, and leaning against a bulkhead.
“Are you lads actually old enough to be on this ship?”
“You have to be at least forty years old to join the Imperial Avalonian Navy, elana,” Shaundar said carefully.
She eyed them with skepticism. “Well, stick with me when trouble comes, lads. Keep your heads and you’ll do fine.” She walked over to bend beside Yathar, grabbed an edge and said, “Haul away, lad!”
Shaundar had liked her immediately. She reminded him of his formidable grandmother, who had been a legendary battle maid in her youth.
The next day, Shaundar was assigned to a split shift of Piloting around the dog watches, with a four-hour interlude of mizzensail crew command between them, and that had remained his routine ever since.
He smiled to himself and turned his gaze back to Narissa’s letter.
I hope that Yathar, Garan and Sylria are well, and I hope you are well too. I’m glad to hear that you’re still getting along with your Captain. To be honest, I feel better knowing that he will be commanding you when battle does come your way. He seems a good, stalwart elf from everything I’ve heard from you and others.
Captain Yvoleth was, in fact, very popular. He seemed to be more in touch with the needs of the crew than the aristocratic Seelie commanders that Shaundar had served under; even his own father. Perhaps that was because, unlike most of the other Mithril of the Navy, he was a commoner, and had clearly not acquired his position due to nepotism.
Or perhaps it was just a keen sense of the needs of his people. Knowing that they were restless, waiting for the war, he granted leave whenever an opportunity arrived, but ran a tight ship, with an expectation of proper dress and behavior that was reinforced more by social expectation than by fear.
Being unmarried (Shaundar had heard a rumour that he was a widower) he was not above dallying in the same establishments where Yathar spent his time on leave, but he never gambled with the crew and he drank nothing save the daily tot, and a single glass of wine or beer while on leave, which he typically nursed all night.
The trees have lost their leaves and it has started to snow already. I just want to curl up by a warm fire in your arms and drink hot cider. I want you to know that I love you and I miss you fiercely, and I am looking forward to the day when you are home again so that we can be together. I’m praying to Freya to watch over you.
Shaundar missed Narissa intensely too. Yathar teased him for not pursuing other dalliances while on leave – “We’re elves, not humans, Shaundar. We know better than to confuse sex and love. Why not have a little fun in your life? Narissa wouldn’t begrudge you.” – and he knew that Yathar was right, but he just didn’t have any interest. If he couldn’t have Narissa in his arms, he didn’t really want anyone else there, either.
Love always, Narissa.
He kissed the letter gently and smelled light rose perfume. For a moment, his homesickness was more than a miasma; it was a wrenching in his belly. He folded up the letter and put it in his belt pouch to keep it with him.
He moved on to the letter from his father next. His father rarely wrote so he was keenly interested in what he might have to say.
25 Hunter’s Moon, 5041 AC
To Ensign-Pilot Shaundar Sunfall, the Queen’s Dirk – Vice Admiral Lord Ruavel Sunfall, the Arianrhod’s Pride, sends greetings –
Shaundar blinked to be sure he had read that correctly. No, he was right; it did say “Vice Admiral.”
I hope my letter finds you and Yathar well, son. I am pleased that things have been so quiet in your realm, though I am sure you are less pleased by this. I have not been so fortunate.
Shaundar leaned forward, eager to read of the situation.
As if we needed something else on our doorstep with the orcs on the march, the human nation of Wa Chun on Telasia has built new warships and, drunk with their own cleverness, they decided to challenge our supremacy of space. We defeated them, of course, but they managed to take us completely by surprise.
The Wings of Honour was destroyed and the Vice Admiral was slain by a catapult stone. So, I have been promoted and the humans continue to be an irritation in the Brisingamen Cluster which we are forced to deal with. Of course, this means that I now command the battle fleet should we find ourselves engaged in tests of arms, so if (and when) the orcish horde find their way to our system, we may be fighting side by side.
Shaundar was sorry to hear of the unexpected reduction of their forces, but the thought of fighting at the side of his father was rather appealing. He could almost hear the irritation and disgust in his father’s voice.
You will be displeased to hear, I am sure, that Captain Lord Goldenbough is next in seniority among the Captains of the Fleet, and despite my recommendations to Imperial Command and the Admiral, he will be promoted to Rear Admiral from his position as a Post-Captain.
Shaundar resisted the urge to begin gagging in his disgust.
I am consoled by the knowledge that as Rear Admiral, it is the NON-combat fleet that he will command. That means that he will not likely encounter you or Yathar either.
“Well, that’s good,” Shaundar muttered. He would fear for anyone directly under the command of Yathar’s father, Lord Goldenbough.
Keep on the alert, my son. Madrimlian says that there are rumours of strange ships in the system.
Shaundar tensed up and nodded to himself. Madrimlian was an old family friend, and he was involved in Intelligence.
I have given the details, as much as we are aware, to your Captain in a dispatch. You will also have orders based on that dispatch, which I leave in the hands of your Captain to divulge as he wills.
Shaundar figured that this was only appropriate.
If all remains quiet, I am sure we will see each other for Year’s-End, but since your mother feels that it will not be so, I have sent along a gift for you. I have learned to trust her intuition and I hope that you are as wise.
If he were being honest with himself, Shaundar felt the same sense of building tension and had for a couple of weeks. He had chalked it up to being restless and eager to engage the enemy that they had been awaiting these past two years, but perhaps there was something more to it, especially if his mother had the same feeling.
In either case, I do hope to see you and Yathar soon. Stay out of trouble. And for gods’ sake, tell Yathar to keep his fraternizing to when he is off-duty.
Oh, he’d heard about that one, had he? From the beginning of their posting, the officers had trouble prying Yathar and Tyelatae, an old friend they’d known since their childhood as midshipmen, apart with an eating knife. Part of the problem, Shaundar recognized, was that that their restless souls chaffed at the routine boredom of picket duty.
One day, Shaundar was treated to the sight of the two of them swabbing the decks and peeling potatoes wearing nothing that they hadn’t been born in. The Captain had said, tongue-in-cheek, that he didn’t figure they would mind, since they obviously viewed this as proper attire for active duty.
Oh yes, and thank you for the drawings that you made. I know Captain Oleander and the likeness was incredible. I was amused by the sketch of Yathar having his face slapped by the barmaid. I sincerely hope that was an actual event you depicted and not a fabrication of your imagination, as I think some humility would do the lad some good. You can tell him that I said so, too.
Shaundar laughed to himself. Yes, it was an actual event that he had sketched. His caricatures of the crew were beginning to see circulation amongst them, and many stopped him in the passageways to ask him to do more.
May the Airts blow fair and free until we next meet!
Shaundar folded up this letter too and moved on to the package. He tore off the paper with eager anticipation. There were gifts in there for Yathar as well, Shaundar was pleased to note, and he set those aside for him.
From his mother, and from Narissa also (which was nice; Shaundar didn’t know that she even knew how to cook,) was a whole tin of butter tarts and honey cakes. His grandmother sent his copies of some of the portraits that they’d had commissioned when they’d received their posting, finished at last, along with a smaller one of just Narissa in a wooden frame under real glass.
He placed that on his night table with a smile. It seemed the family had forgiven the two of them for enlisting despite their family’s wishes. It remained to be seen whether Narissa had, but she didn’t sound too angry, and the baking was a hopeful sign.
The portraits were of him and Yathar in their crisp new uniforms, featured in various combinations with Shaundar’s family. He sighed. It was unfortunate that Lord Goldenbough was so terrible to his son that Yathar had disowned the family name entirely and cut all ties. It must be especially hard on Yathar’s mother.
Suddenly Shaundar was grateful that the only crosses he bore with his family were the stigma of their mixed moon and sun elven heritage, and his inability to stay out of trouble or make his father proud of him.
Speaking of, his father had sent a sampler of fine tobaccos, something that was especially welcome, since they had spent little time in port and good tobacco was in short supply. And best of all, his little sister Selena, who shared his mischievous streak, had sent miniaturized alchemy equipment in a suitcase. It was what had taken up the bulk of the space in the heavy package.
He hid that in his locker, certain that the Exec would not approve of its presence, and have it removed if he could. He munched cheerfully on a butter tart and filled his pipe with a blend of tobacco containing dried fruit, which was quite pleasant.
Yathar tapped on the door. “Hey,” he said by way of greeting, “leave has been cancelled. The skipper wants us at our stations.”
Shaundar tapped the pipe out as quickly as he had lit it. “I’m not surprised. Dad said he’d left orders. He’s the Vice Admiral now.”
“Damn, what happened?”
“Tussle with a new human power claimed the life of the Vice Admiral and Dad was promoted,” he said. “I have worse news for you though. Lord Goldenbough is now the Rear Admiral of the Fleet.”
Yathar looked at him incredulously. “You’re not serious, are you?”
Shaundar nodded. “But the family sent Year’s End presents; yours are there. You should try some of this tobacco when we have a moment. Or maybe Dad sent you some of your own.”
“We’ll check it out later,” Yathar promised. “Let’s go stand to our stations. Thanks for saving my presents.” He clapped Shaundar on the shoulder and they headed to their posts.
The Captain was standing in the passageway between the man-o-war’s fore and aft, where the “wings” extended. Elven ships resembled nothing so much as a giant maple seed, or perhaps a winged insect. “Mr. Sunfall, come up on the deck, lad. It’ll be easier for you to hear there.”
“Av, sir,” Shaundar affirmed, and he followed Yathar up topsides and stood near to him at the edge of the gangway at attention when the boatswain whistled up the rest of the crew.
“Sidhe and Alfar,” Captain Oleander began as he paced the fo’c’sle, rounding the catapult turret, while the Exec, whose name was Solahlyn Brightstar, lurked by the hatchway with his arms folded, “I have just received orders from the Admiralty. Strange ships have been sighted in the rings of Wylinta. They may be orcish.”
Shaundar let out a low whistle. Well, that would complicate things. Wylinta was known to be a colony of Cthulans, who kept humanoids of all sorts as “cattle” on the surface of the planet. They were also known to patrol local space to add to their collection, despite the efforts of the Navy to curtail this. Furthermore, the rings of Wylinta were made up almost entirely of several small rocks and ice blocks, dangerous to navigate and often difficult to see.
“As the closest Navy ship, we have been ordered to investigate,” the Captain continued. “If there are enemy ships present, we have been authorized to engage them.”
The blood started pounding through Shaundar’s veins. Was this going to be it at last?
“So, I’m sorry, leave is cancelled for now. We need to see what’s there before they have a chance to move or hide. We’re three days to Wylinta from our present orbit. Lieutenant Sylria, plot us a course.”
Sylria, Second Helmsman but Primary Navigator, saluted. “Av, sir. I’ll head to the wardroom now, sir, with your permission.” The Captain nodded and she climbed down the hatch.
“Many of you have never seen combat before,” the Captain went on, fixing each of them with his kind but dark hazel eyes, which came to rest on Shaundar and Yathar. “If this turns out to be the opening gambit of the war in our system, keep calm, do the jobs you have been trained to do, and trust your crewmates, and all will be well.” He smiled at them encouragingly.
“Av, sir!” they chorused. Eyes glittered and the smiles were jovial. They were ready to fight!
“Ensign Yathar, you are also certified as a Skald, are you not?” the Captain inquired.
He grinned. “I’m sure you know a few rousing battle ballads in addition to all those bawdy tunes you sing at the tavern. Let’s hear one; that should put us all in the proper frame of mind.”
Yathar beamed. “I’ll fetch my lute, sir!” The skipper nodded.
“Ensign Sunfall,” Captain Yvoleth said.
“Sir!” Shaundar replied, immediately at attention again.
The Captain cast him a knowing smile. “I’m sure sleep will not come easily to you with a hot head to match your hot blood, but do your best. We’ll be running full Pilot’s shifts until we reach the rings of Wylinta.”
The Captain returned his nod sharply. “All right then. All hands to stations.”
The bo’sun piped the order and the crew fell in as commanded. Shaundar checked the pocket watch his father had bestowed upon him when he became a cabin boy, and he headed down to the helm room.
There had been a time when the Pilot’s station had been on the bridge, with the rest of the ship’s officers. But because a Pilot did not actually have to see to fly, and because his connection with the ship was necessary to keep it travelling with any sort of purposeful motion, all ships-of-the-line now kept their interface deep within the bowels of the craft, where it was protected by thick walls and many other sailors. It was variously called the helm room, the wheel- or Pilothouse, or, in a fighter or small corvette, the cockpit, even though there was no actual “wheel” in it, and a Pilot did not actually “steer,” except through the power of his will.
The “helm” was just a chair – or, Shaundar had heard, sometimes a pile of cushions, a hammock, or a day bed (he rather thought the last might be comfortable) – it really didn’t matter. It was an established place for the Star-Pilot to sit, bolted down in such a way that the vicissitudes of Airt travel would not dislodge it easily, where the ship and Pilot could connect. Why it needed to be in a single location, Shaundar didn’t know. Perhaps the leaves and tendrils it used to make the connection were highly specialized and difficult to grow.
Shaundar knew this room now as well as he knew the shape of his hands; he spent eight hours a day in here. The walls were papered with star charts, and there was a chest of drawers that contained many of their personal belongings so that they were ready for each shift. Shaundar had a small library of books on alchemy, starfaring ships, space survival and magical theory and, he would only confess under duress, a pin-up magazine or two filled with images of scantily-clad maidens, elven and otherwise.
Garan’s collection of such things, on the other hand, was truly prestigious, overflowing the bottom drawer, which Sylria studiously ignored. However, Shaundar did notice that she kept a copy of the Gnomish Book of Love in the middle drawer, along with some long-winded printed stories that seemed to be more about how often the heroine got laid than any real plot he could discern.
Garan was currently reading one of Shaundar’s books on magic. This one had been a gift from Narissa which she had acquired from her great uncle on the Isle of Glimmerfell, detailing secret magic of the elves that had almost been lost with the Ancient Kingdoms. Shaundar had agreed to allow Garan to read it, provided it never left the Pilothouse.
The Queen’s Dirk was equipped with a backup helm, which had a separate room in case the first was destroyed, but it was newer – freshly grown by the ship – and thus, it wasn’t as powerful. If forced to use it, a Pilot would find the empathic link much harder to establish. There were star charts in the backup Pilothouse too, but no one ever spent any time in there.
“Ahoy,” he said, tapping on the edge of the door to alert Garan to the fact that he was there. He put down his book and looked up at Shaundar. “Did you hear all that?”
Garan smiled. “Guess it looks like we might finally see some action at last! I’m just waiting for my heading and bearing.”
“Do you need anything before we get underway?” Shaundar asked him. It was customary for the off-duty Pilots to stick their heads in the Pilothouse at least once per watch to see to the needs of the elf at the helm, since they could not leave the chair. Not only was it extremely dangerous unless the ship was at anchor, but that Pilot would be unable to make the empathic link again without a full night’s rest. It was an amazing experience, but it taxed the nervous system.
“I could use a snack,” Garan confessed. “And I forgot to grab the urinal before I sat down, so would you mind making sure it’s in the helm pocket for me? I’m sure I’ll need it later.”
Shaundar handed him a handful of butter tarts. “Here. Year’s-End present from my betrothed and my Mom,” he announced with pride.
“Well, that’s kind of you to share, mate; thank you!” He bit into one and pronounced it delicious.
In the meantime, Shaundar double-checked and yes, the urinal was tucked away in the pouch on the starboard side of the helm chair. “You’re all right,” he told Garan. “The urinal’s right where it should be.”
Garan thanked him, and that’s when the voice of the Captain came down the speaking-tube. “Lieutenant Oakheart!”
Garan grabbed the other end of the tube and bellowed back, “Sir!”
“We’re releasing the mooring lines.”
“Av, sir!” Garan called back. Living sprouts from the Starseed that was their ship coiled around Garan’s legs and wrists. He gasped as the connection deepened. The Queen’s Dirk shuddered and began to vibrate with a low, oscillating musical hum that was something like a finger on a crystal glass, only pitched down several octaves.
“All right,” came the Captain’s voice down the tube again, “take ‘er out; pitch forty-five, yaw five o’clock, and roll ‘er as much as you need to. Steady as she goes.”
“Pitch forty-five, yaw five of the clock, roll as I will, steady as she goes, av,” Garan echoed back, and began the turn gently, timing the roll so that gravity shifted only slightly as they pulled away from the station. His eyes glazed back over in the strange double vision of an active Pilot.
In Shaundar’s opinion, that was the most beautiful part of the magic of starfaring. The bond between the Pilot and the living intelligence of the Starseeds that formed their ships was something truly unique. A Star-Pilot caught glimpses of infinity through the symbiotic link that they shared when they manned a ship’s helm.
And a Pilot’s ability to see and sense the Airts that wound through the Void like trade winds, or perhaps river currents, guided the ship through space at incredible speeds; much faster than it could travel alone. Shaundar privately suspected that this was the real reason the Starseeds consented to being used in such a fashion, though his instructors at the Navy’s elite flight academy known colloquially as “Aces High” thought he was being somewhat fanciful.
“I’d better go,” Shaundar told Garan. “The Old Man told me to try to sleep.”
Garan snickered. “Doesn’t know you very well then, does he?”
Shaundar smiled. “He did say to try.”
“Skipper’s got damn good reasons for his orders, I find. You’d best go do it.”
“Okay, see you later. Fly Queenie nicely; I want her to be in one piece when it’s my turn to fly!”
But rest did not come. Shaundar tossed and turned on his hammock for half an hour before giving up and joining the crew on deck. He figured the hard work might tire him out. Yathar was still singing rousing tunes of battle and strumming his lute.
Shaundar had never actually seen an orc face to face, though he had once seen a couple of ogres loading a privateer’s ship (and he shuddered at the thought of facing them in battle) and a goblin or two while they were docked at Phoenix Rock for resupply last year. He wondered if they really were as frightening and horrible as had been described to him.
Their first sight of the rings of Wylinta came just before shift change at the helm. The outer ring, from a distance, looked like a wheel. Beyond it, Shaundar could see a shimmery band that might have been a ring or a trick of the light through the etheric membrane that sustained their air, and then something that looked like a band of coloured ribbon. According to the charts, there was a fourth ring beyond that, but Shaundar couldn’t see it.
He did, however, make out the rolling balls of two of Wylinta’s four moons. The third and fourth were not currently visible from their approach, so he assumed they must be orbiting the far side. The planet itself was an odd purplish colour that could have been any number of odd chemicals, or maybe some kind of algae.
“Ensign Sunfall!” called the Captain. “Stand to the helm, if you please.”
“Av, sir.” Sightseeing was over; time to go to work. He made for the helm room with a side trip to the head on the way.
“Lieutenant,” he said with a nod, coming in. “I am ready to relieve you.”
“Av,” Lieutenant Sylria returned, closing her book with a snap. She looked weary. “I am ready to be relieved. Maintaining course for Wylinta. Ship’s attitude and pitch as per orders, no immediate deviation in local Airts.”
“Course, attitude and pitch as ordered, no immediate deviation, av,” confirmed Shaundar as he squatted down to the starboard of the helm.
“Other than that, I have nothing to report. Do you want me to give you a chance to go to the head first?”
“Right then. Three, two, one, switch.”
Shaundar fell into the helm with the ease of long practice, took hold of the vines to encourage the link, and reached out his consciousness to join with their Starseed man-o-war. He sensed her warm welcome as the vines closed over him and he began to feel his arms as her wings, his head as her bow, his torso as midships, and his legs and groin as her stern. He could sense the crew moving about the decks, which his brain translated as a sort of all-angles vision, and he could sense the rings in front of him.
Shimmering bands of colour swirled throughout the space around them and spiraled slowly around Wylinta in a pool. These were the Stellar Airts. Only Pilots, and possibly the Starseeds themselves, could see them.
They seemed to be related to gravity, but they weren’t dependent on it. Some scholars said that they created gravity. But one thing scholars knew for a fact was that they allowed a ship to travel between stars and planets, in some cases faster than light. They knew this because sometimes, stars would explode and when one arrived at a distant planet, one might still see it glimmering in the night sky.
The closer one travelled to multiple large bodies close together – such as between planets in a system, or even asteroids in a belt – the slower the Airts flowed. This wasn’t to say that it was slow; not in the least! But compared to interstellar Airt travel, it certainly took a greater amount of time to cover a shorter distance. Even proximity with another starfaring ship would limit the speed of nearby ships to interplanetary, rather than interstellar, velocities. Which was fortunate for safety; otherwise, what would happen if one crashed into a tiny asteroid at interstellar speeds?
It was said that great world-trees with roots as broad as their branches formed the Starseeds, which navigated space naturally by tumbling along the Airts. Shaundar suspected they could not navigate them by choice without the aid of a Pilot, but no one could be sure.
“Has the transfer been made?” the Captain asked through the speaking-tube.
“Av, Captain!” Shaundar replied. “I’ve made the link; I have the helm!”
“All right, Ensign Sunfall. Begin a cautious approach to Wylinta. Pitch forty-five down, yaw ten o’clock. Bring ‘er in as close to the edge of the ring as you can.”
“Pitch forty-five, yaw ten o’clock, aye,” he responded, and began a rapid approach along the edge of the ring. It didn’t take long for Queenie to slow to tactical speeds in the shifts and eddies of the closely-packed gravity wells of the ring fragments.
Shaundar guessed at what the Captain was up to. He was hoping that if there were orc ships hiding in Wylinta’s rings, approaching along the edge of the wheel would disguise them enough that they might not be noticed.
They ended up closing in on the outer ring in a tight counterclockwise spiral that skimmed along the inner edges of Wylinta’s spiraling Airt pool. They made a complete circle, a process which took about an hour, and found nothing.
“Very well; if they’re here, they’re deep inside the rings,” the Captain observed. “Let’s start an approach to the second ring in. Yaw ten degrees larboard. Stay as close to a smaller Airt you can, Ensign Sunfall.”
“Av, sir. Should I go into the second ring or travel over or under it?”
“Good question, Ensign. How do you feel about it?” the Captain asked.
Not at all used to being asked his opinion on such things, Shaundar considered it. Travelling along its surface would give them a better overall view of what was going on in the ring, at least from a distance, and they were likely to notice ship movements and the like, even if they were too far away from the ships to make out their configuration.
The ring was just over twenty star-leagues across—meaning that light took a full second to get from one side to the other, if one could bend light in such a way. Although, according to the charts, they would certainly not see everything from that vantage point.
But the Skipper might expect more than just a flight path analysis in his answer. An officer as junior as Shaundar was light-years away from commanding anything more than a deck crew, but Aces High graduates were often assigned to one-elf fighters or dispatch craft, so OCS courses were included in the curriculum.
A grin swallowed his face as he realized the Old Man was putting him to the test. Was the Captain considering training him, of all people, for a future command position?
Going into the ring would provide more concealment should there be an enemy force, but they might not notice the enemy’s ships until they were right on top of them. But were they likely to see or sense the enemy from outside of the ring? If there were enemy ships here, there was nowhere else for them to hide.
“I think we should go in, Cap’n,” he answered.
“All right, make it so, Mr. Sunfall. Fly ‘er as you will, but let the sail crew know which way to turn. I understand they train you to do that at Aces High.”
“Av, sir, they do.”
It was a difficult exercise. It meant taking command of the sail crew to aid in the maneuvering of the ship so that they would turn when the Star-Pilot needed them to, rather than going through the Captain. It increased response time, but the Pilot really had to know what he was doing.
Very specialized training. It was kind of like playing a chess match entirely in your head. He hoped he was up to the task.
“All right, Ensign Sunfall has the helm and the deck!” Shaundar could hear the call echoing up and down the ship through the brass speaking-tube. “Stand ready!”
Shaundar drew near to the second ring. He sensed the unusually direct path of the Airt was disrupted by rolling asteroids. They were tiny, no more than twice the size of the Queen’s Dirk at the most.
“Slowing to two leagues!” he called out. The Captain repeated this and it was taken up throughout the ship while he did so. “Entering the ring field!” he bellowed. “Roll fifteen down, yaw ten larboards!”
“Haul up the spanker!” cried Sailmaster Lyathali. “Slack off the heads’l sheets!” Queenie began to roll and turn accordingly.
They traversed the asteroid field slowly. Shaundar did not find it nearly as challenging as the Brisingamen Cluster. He took his time so that the Captain, Exec and barrelman could comb the field with their spyglasses.
A couple of hours went by as Shaundar directed Queenie up and down the thickness of the ring, negotiating its circumference at a crawl. Eventually they started edging cautiously closer to one of the moons, since they weren’t finding anything on their side of Wylinta.
About three hours into the search, Shaundar sensed something. He wasn’t sure what they were, exactly, but he knew that several small bodies, each maybe less than a hundred feet in length, were clustered too close together near to one of the larger three-hundred-foot-long asteroids. Asteroids would naturally separate if they were that close. They would collide and bounce off each other, forcing them apart.
“Captain!” he bellowed. “Eight degrees off the port bow, ten up; what do you see, sir?”
There was a long moment of silence as the Captain trained his glass in that direction. Then he roared, “Bring ‘er about! NOW, Ensign!”
Shaundar willed Queenie to roll backwards and tack against the Airt. The sails, not set yet, strained against the current. As he did so, he sensed the objects moving. They moved like ships, not rocks.
One came around the large boulder on their portside, another on the starboard, a third above and a fourth below. Shaundar kept willing Queenie backwards to keep them at a distance. Still more emerged from behind other nearby asteroids.
“Captain!” Shaundar heard Yathar’s voice, sounding almost panicked. “I count ten sail, sir!”
Shaundar felt the blood in his veins turn to ice. Ten! All man-o-war class ships, every one of them. It was a whole blasted flotilla!
Strangely, they looked to Shaundar like flying insects made of metal, and they had metal, geared grapples that resembled mandibles. Bees, or hornets, maybe. How had they harnessed the power of gnomish spindizzies to fly such monstrosities?
“They’re hailing us, sir,” the yeoman announced. She hesitated and then said, “They want us to strike our colours, Captain.”
They continued to tack against the current as the flotilla of “bugs” advanced. The legs of the insectoid ships flexed and contracted in a sinister fashion, creating thrust, like oars in water. One hornet-shaped craft started creeping around behind them, to prevent their escape.
On the quarterdeck, Shaundar could “see” the Captain outlined by his own Airt-flow. He stood with his head lowered and his hands in the pockets of his coat, contemplating. Commander Brightstar leaned in close. The balance of their body temperatures had shifted to concentrate heat in their heads and torsos, which told Shaundar just how frightened they were. They conferred quietly for a few moments. Shaundar held his breath.
The Captain raised his head and addressed the crew on deck. His growl was as fierce as a hunting tiger’s. “Well, what say you, lads? Do you think I would surrender to a bunch of pig-faces?”
The resounding “NO, SIR!” reverberated through the ship. Shaundar’s heart answered in kind. He could swear that he even felt Queenie’s agreement.
“All right then! All stop on my mark. Let’s make them think we’re thinking about it...”
Shaundar waited, straining to hold the ship steady against the local currents. The crew ran to brace the mizzensails. “Step lively, there!” the Sailmaster called. The gravitational waves kept trying to push them towards larger bodies.
Vastly outnumbered, the Captain was making it look as though they were considering surrender to draw the orc fleet in closer, giving them less time to react and making them more vulnerable to weapon strikes. Shaundar could sense that the insectoid ship that come around abaft was very close.
“All right, all stop, Ensign Sunfall!”
“Av, sir! All stop!” Queenie floated obediently.
“Yeoman, start pulling down our colours. Do it slowly, and leave them about half-mast. It’s very important that they not be entirely down.” Shaundar smiled at the ruse.
“Weapons crews, stand to your arms discretely. Marines, if you’re not already on the fo’c’sle, stand to the hatchway and prepare to draw crossbows on the enemy crew. Wait for my order before shooting anything. Ensign Sunfall!”
“Av, sir!” Shaundar called back.
“On my mark, dive at full speed,” the shrewd Captain commanded, “and then you’ll have command of the sail crew again. Understood?”
“Av, sir!” He took a deep breath to steady his body. He was vibrating with the adrenaline. “Sir, are we fighting or fleeing?”
Shaundar could almost hear a predatory snarl in the Captain’s voice. “Word must reach the system fleet,” he said, “but we can’t lead this flotilla back to base, either. We must lose them or sink as many as we can. So, Lieutenant Oakheart, stand by the Shrike.”
Shaundar heard Garan distantly calling back his affirmative.
“When the fight begins, stand by ‘er helm. Your orders are to launch if the Dirk takes significant damage, evade the orcs, and make it back to base. Understood?”
Garan scurried down into the lower deck, located on the underside of Queenie’s rather un-boatlike keel. The Shrike, their tiny pinnace, was lashed to the keel like some odd kind of baby at Queenie’s belly, accessible via a trap door in the devil.
You could go the long way instead if you wanted, leaping over the rail, but the gravity well created by the Starseed’s heart only went in one direction, so access via the trap door minimized the amount of time you had to spend in microgravity conditions.
All the while, the strange wood and metal ships drew nearer.
The vibration in the Airts from the ship behind them shifted in the bow, forming a kind of “arrow” in its gravity well. Was it extending its “mandibles?” If so, they must be a kind of grapple. Shaundar knew that if they fastened onto the Queen’s Dirk, all was lost.
“Steady,” the Captain told his crew. Shaundar was as tense as an overwound watch spring as he awaited the Captain’s order. He strained like a horse at the start line and prepared to fly for their lives.
“Yeoman, run up the colours!” the Captain commanded. “All hands; shoot at will!”
The yeoman yanked their ensign back up the mainmast. The rear ports burst open to reveal the aft ballista, which shot a bolt directly into the belly of the biting hornet. The catapult on the fo’c’sle launched a stone at point-blank range. Shaundar felt the vibration of the recoil like a slap between his shoulder blades.
At the same time, the topside ballista drove a bolt into the enemy’s bridge with a terrible shriek of tearing metal and the crash of smashing glass. The light ballistae concealed in “eye-ports” at the bow each put a bolt into the ships flanking them. Incredibly, Shaundar could even hear the bolts strike home because the enemy was so close to Queenie that their etheric membranes intersected hers.
The marines and all spare hands aimed their crossbows at the orcs and goblins who were preparing to board them on the deck of the wounded ship abaft. A score of springs twanged in unison and several of the goblin crew cried out and fell back.
“NOW, Ensign Sunfall!” roared the skipper.
Shaundar pitched Queenie’s nose down and, with the crew tilting the sails, bore away at the best speed he could muster.
The three ships directly surrounding them let fly with their ballistae and catapults. Shaundar felt one of the stones graze Queenie’s aft. But the rest careened uselessly into space, except a catapult stone launched from the portside ship, which scraped one of the mandibles of the bug-ship that had been at their stern.
The orcish ship listed to port and began to drift aimlessly. Shaundar realized that they had taken out its engine with their topside ballista.
The crew cheered. The Captain called, “Well done! Reload!”
Shaundar fled into the rings. By the time the flotilla had sorted itself out to begin pursuit in earnest, he had built up a good lead between them.
“Outrun them if you can, Ensign,” the Captain commanded. And Shaundar ran.
“Roll larboards twenty,” he cried as they skimmed around a big asteroid. “Pitch down twenty-five,” he called as they dodged another.
But he sensed the pursuing ships drawing nearer. “They’re gaining, Skipper!”
The Captain peered through his glass. “Some of them are, av.” He grinned in that fierce, almost predatory way again. “So, you’ll just have to out-fly them, Ensign. See if you can separate them into two groups. And stay within the ring.”
“Av, sir!” Shaundar continued to flee along the flow of the Airts.
“Roll starboard fifteen!” he called as they dodged a rolling rock. “Yaw larboard fifteen!” They skimmed around the edge of a chunk of ice.
He knew the Captain was right. Elven ships were legendary for being more maneuverable than anything else that flew, and Shaundar knew his training made them more dexterous still. If they could not outrun the enemy, keeping them busy trying to dodge asteroids was their best chance.
Four of the insectoid ships drew away from the others and began to close the distance to the Queen’s Dirk. One Pilot was amazingly fast and soon on their tail.
“Weapons aft; shoot!” the Captain said.
Both the top and bottom-mounted rear ballistae, the catapult on its swiveling turret, and their “stinger” behind the aft doors, launched their missiles at the pursuing ship. Shaundar shuddered with the recoil, but all four made contact. The catapult stone bounced off the insectoid ship’s deck. It shattered the ladder that led up to a “stinger” platform above the orc-ship’s quarterdeck. Ballista bolts punched holes in its bow.
The “hornet” returned shot. “Brace for impact!” bellowed the barrelman.
An enormous catapult stone bounced off the edge of the ballista mount on their topside stern. A piece of its bulwark broke off. Shaundar yelped as he felt Queenie’s pain like a sharp stab in the back of his knees.
A second stone collided with their larboard wing, which felt to Shaundar as if he’d been punched in the shoulder. While the pain lingered, indicating a large bruise, nothing cracked.
Their foe also fired a ballista bolt from its bow. The bolt skimmed across the fo’c’sle and across the whole length of the ship, slightly left of center. It missed everything.
“Reload!” the artillery commanders called. The ballistae crews lifted more bolts into place and cranked the firing mechanisms back. The catapult crew levered the beam and spoon down to fill its cup with another boulder.
Shaundar wasn’t going to give them another chance if he could avoid it. He was just waiting for a suitable large asteroid… there! The Airts swirled around it in a mauve loop of gravitational and inertial forces.
“Cap’n! I’m bringing ‘er about!” Shaundar called. He shifted sideways in the chair and braced his feet against the port arm and his rear against the starboard, so that he was firmly wedged in place.
“You heard him, lads! Forward weapons crews; prepare to fire!” Captain Yvoleth commanded.
“Sails!” directed Shaundar. “On one, pitch down fifteen; on two, pitch ninety up and follow the curve of the asteroid. All hands brace for gravity shift.”
“When we come around the asteroid, shoot at will,” the Captain said.
“Av, sir!” the gunny acknowledged.
The Queen’s Dirk barreled at the mountain of stone, metal, and ice tumbling through space towards them. “Ready for my mark… one!” The sail crew dipped the sails as they skirted the tumbling stone. Shaundar directed Queenie along this trajectory for the count of a breath.
“Two!” The crew luffed the topsails and the Queen’s Dirk swung up and around the curve of the asteroid. Gravity shifted towards the ceiling, but Shaundar tensed his thigh muscles to bracket himself in place and did not budge. Shaundar noted the Captain had wrapped his arm up in a safety line. His boots lifted off the deck.
The catapult crew swiveled the turret to aim their weapon forward. They came around the curvature of the asteroid and found themselves facing the Hornet that had pursued them head-on.
“Eyes and midships; shoot!” cried the gunny. The midships ballista just before the fo’c’sle, along with the catapult and the two light ballistae in the eye ports, all let fly at once.
The orc-ship was not expecting this sudden turn of the table and had no way to avoid the attack. The ballistae bolt punctured its bow. Better yet, a catapult stone landed with perfect soaring aim directly on one of the enemy’s catapults, smashing the mechanism.
Orcs scattered along the decks. Some aimed crossbows, but they missed due to the sudden burst of speed from the asteroid’s gravity slingshot.
As they rocketed past, the gunny cried, “Aft weapons, shoot!” The three abdomen-mounted ballistae let fly, and all the bolts found purchase. “Reload!” roared the gunny.
Shaundar now found Queenie facing the other three ships in the leading group; one each to the port and starboard bow, and one approaching them head-on that obviously intended to try to overtake them from above.
“Dive!” yelled Shaundar. The sail crew yanked in the mainsails as Shaundar drove Queenie downward at the steepest possible angle. A ballista bolt from the ship they had just about rammed tore a hole in the mizzensail.
Both the port and starboard hornets put on a sudden burst of speed in hopes of catching the elven man-o-war. Shaundar laughed aloud as the mandible of the portside one clipped its companion’s mandible right off.
To add insult to injury, the catapult stones fired at Queenie continued their trajectory through space. One of them took out some of the port ship’s rigging. The other scraped the deck of the starboard ship, smearing one of their crew over the surface like a streak of red paint. Shaundar shuddered.
“Nicely done,” said the Captain.
But the ship that had almost collided with them tacked sharply starboard and was right on their tail. Shaundar swore as they fired off a ballista bolt. It caught Queenie in her rear door, causing a corresponding sharp pain in Shaundar’s left buttock.
Their catapults were fortunately less accurate. The loosed stones sailed clear over their heads. Shaundar waggled Queenie’s wings and avoided them.
“Return shot!” the Captain commanded. The three aft ballistae let fly.
The topside ballista bolt shaved a line down the main deck of their pursuer, while the other two punched into their underside somewhere. Slower than the ballistae to reload, the catapult fired next. The stone ricocheted off the deck, taking some rigging and a couple of orcs and goblins with it.
But the orc ship shot back with its ballista again. This time Shaundar was ready for them. He jinked so it only scuffed Queenie’s surface at the starboard stern. “Reload!” cried the gun-captain.
Shaundar could sense the Airts parting for the lead ship of the second flotilla up ahead, just on the other side of an especially large asteroid in his path. Maybe the Pilot thought Shaundar would be confused by the swirl of its natural eddies, but Shaundar could sense the disruption like ripples on a pond. He had an idea.
“On my first mark, pitch up forty-five,” Shaundar bellowed. “On my second mark, climb for all she’s worth.”
“Av, sir!” the Sailmaster called back.
He made a beeline for the asteroid. “Ready… Now!”
“Heave!” cried the Sailmaster.
Just as it seemed they would crash into the great rock, they pulled up and came around its other side, their pursuer still fixed on their six. The second flotilla’s lead ship filled his forward senses.
“CLIMB!” he howled. They pulled up as hard as they possibly could. Queenie’s wings groaned under the strain and all the sails filled.
They passed closely enough to the oncoming ship that Shaundar could hear what he assumed were Orcish expletives. There was a tremendous crash behind them and a sound like fingernails on a slate board, magnified about a thousand times.
It was exactly as Shaundar had hoped. Their stalker, following too close to stop and not as maneuverable as Queenie, had collided head-on with the lead ship of the second flotilla and impaled itself on its jaws. Neither was going anywhere for a while. Cheering rolled through the Queen’s Dirk.
“Three down, lads!” Captain Yvoleth announced. “Well done!”
The three ships they had left behind had regrouped and were now bearing down on them again, and Queenie was still on a direct collision course with the second flotilla. But none of the pursuing ships were undamaged. One was missing a grappling ram. The second had damaged rigging and was missing its stays. The third had taken a brutal beating and was minus a catapult.
Still, when all three of them loosed their shot on the elven man-o-war, it was almost a disaster. Five catapult stones and three ballistae bolts came at them from the aft firing arc.
There was no way to avoid them all. Shaundar dipped low as he bellowed, “Hard down!” figuring the bolts would do less damage.
The stones all miraculously missed, save one which clipped the lantern off their foremast. But all three of the bolts made contact.
This translated to Shaundar as an excruciating sciatic pain all up and down his right leg. He gasped and clutched his upper thigh as though it would help.
It took a moment to register the damage through the pain. One bolt had smashed a window in Queenie’s stern. One was thrust into the cargo hold. The third had clipped off the topside ballista mount.
And the hit was not without at least one casualty. Someone in the stern was screaming.
But Shaundar had no time to think about the casualties now. They were just about on top of the rest of the fleet. “Captain!” gasped Shaundar, “I’m going to buzz the leader!”
“Av, Ensign Sunfall!” acknowledged the skipper. “Mages, to the decks and prepare crew strikes! Aft weapons, return shot on the ship directly on our six only!”
Shaundar felt the pounding of boots on his decks as the crew mages ran for topsides. He could hear them beginning their incantations as they lined up behind the other marines at the rails.
In the meantime, the artillery crews with rear-facing weaponry returned shot, though the “stinger” ballista was a little slow on the draw. Two of the three connected, but they only dented the hull.
“Sails!” the Captain called. “Prepare to roll one-eighty larboard on Ensign Sunfall’s mark.”
“Mages! When you see the enemy’s deck above you, fire!”
“Av, sir!” Shaundar could make out Yathar’s voice among the responses.
The lead ship was closing fast. The gun-captain bellowed, “Forward weapons; shoot!” The ballistae in the eye-ports, the forward ballista, and the catapult all let fly.
But their enemy must have shot at the same moment. Miraculously, their catapult stone and one of those fired from the orc-ship collided and sprayed debris everywhere. Neither found a target.
Shaundar bellowed, “Roll!” The crew hauled up the sails to dead center. The second stone clipped the railing surrounding the fo’c’sle. A bolt missed entirely as they rolled around its trajectory.
Then they were upside down to the other ship and passing over it as their bolts punctured its bridge with the groaning of torn metal. The Captain called, “Mages! FIRE!”
Lightning bolts and fireballs, along with something viscous that was impossible to make out through ship senses, slammed into the deck of the enemy ship. For a moment, orc and elf eyes met as they stared up at each other.
Then one of the fireballs ignited the splattered substance. As they finished the pass, the elves could see plumes of thick black smoke already fouling orcish air. The flames spread to the sails.
“Nicely done, and well done to whoever cast that grease spell!” the Captain complimented them.
Yathar laughed. “Thank you, sir!”
The ship on their tail barely managed to pull up in time to avoid a head-on collision with the burning Hornet. But since the burning ship’s crew was blinded, it made no effort to avoid the inadvertent ramming manoeuvre. Some of the now-burning rigging got caught on the rudder of the other ship and the smoke began to poison their air as well.
Then Queenie was almost on top of the last three ships, the ones that had been the slowest in the initial pursuit. “Hard starboard!” Shaundar banked sharply right and passed between two of them.
“Shoot at will,” the Captain said.
The keel-mounted ballistae each took a pot-shot at the two ships they passed between, while the catapult swiveled to the aft and let fly on their smoldering pursuer at the same time as the “stinger.” None of the forward-facing weapons had a good target, so they held their shot.
Shaundar couldn’t tell whether the ships they’d passed between had taken any damage, and the stinger missed. But with amazing good fortune, the catapult stone aimed at their pursuer carried burning rigging with it into the hole it punched in the cargo hold.
Something inside exploded. The entire quarterdeck flew into space in flak and splinters, destroying their ballista and setting the ship ablaze.
The two ships they had passed between returned shot, but they could each only bring a single catapult to bear. One stone missed. The other rolled along the bottom of the hull and smashed the landing gear out from underneath the Shrike.
She jerked against Queenie’s belly with a crash. “You and you, help Lieutenant Oakheart tie that down!” commanded the Captain.
“Captain!” the yeoman cried. “The two burning ships have struck their colours!”
Queenie’s crew shouted their approval.
“Good work,” the skipper said. “Now let’s worry about the ones that are left. Hard to port, Ensign Sunfall.”
“Hard to port, av!” He veered left. The sail crew heaved to accordingly.
“Larboard weapons, loose!” cried the gun-captain as they swung around the hindmost of the enemy ships trying to turn away.
Both aft ballistae and the light ballista in the portside eye let fly as they passed by. They didn’t seem to do any appreciable damage to the ship, but they did scatter the weapons crews on the decks, preventing return shot. Shaundar could see their previous ballista bolt had made a small hole as well.
Rolling naturally to port, they passed over one of the ships of the second flotilla that had not been damaged yet, once again facing deck to deck.
“Mages, fire!” Captain Yvoleth commanded. Once again, a magical holocaust rained down upon the beleaguered orcs. One of the enemy’s catapults went up as though someone had covered it in powder and struck a match.
Queenie’s catapult and forward ballista twanged as they flew by. Both missiles scoured the weapons deck and scraped off a couple of orcs.
“Finish the roll, Ensign Sunfall,” the Captain said. Shaundar did so, feeling gravity shift as they passed over the other ship.
This brought their starboard weapons to bear on another Hornet, which was almost on top of the one they were blowing up with magic. Shaundar realized this was the heavily damaged ship they had pounded on earlier with the missing catapult, no ladder, and several ballista punctures.
“Starboard weapons, shoot!” the gunny cried. The fore-mounted ballista punched another bolt into it, while the light one in the starboard eye tore sails and knocked down an orc.
This proved to be the figurative nail in the coffin. The larger bolt struck the stern of the ship, sheering it off. The Hornet broke up after that.
“Loose the stinger!” cried the gunny. Their stinger ballista drove a bolt directly into the ship they had blasted with spells. Within seconds it was striking its colours as well.
Out of nowhere came another insectoid ship, which made to ram. “Evasive manoeuvres,” the Captain said. Shaundar was already moving, spinning out of its path.
One of its mandibles, which had been gored with several long marks, sheared off some of their rigging. Shaundar realized this ship was the one that had accidentally rammed its fellow. It had finally managed to pull itself free.
“Hard to port,” Captain Yvoleth commanded. Queenie struggled to answer with her torn sails, but the crew beat close to the Airt to come up on their attacker’s stern.
“Bring ‘er up on their starboard side,” the Captain told Shaundar. “Marines, stand by to board!”
“Av, sir!” they all acknowledged in unison. Yathar drew his sword and perched at the ready. His other hand curled into a ball. A spot of light formed in it.
The other mages also began their incantations. The warrior marines readied crossbows in one hand and boarding axes in the other. Other crewmates prepared boarding pikes or grapples and stood alongside.
With the Sailmaster shivering a sail here and hauling one close there, Shaundar managed to pilot his way gingerly through the debris of the shattered ship to come up slightly beneath their attacker’s center of gravity, where its whirlpool formed spiral arms. None of its armaments were in any position to shoot at them as they made their approach, for fear of taking out their own people as well.
The gravitational Airts of the elven ship reached tendrils out to the spiral arms of the orcish one, for all the Universe like joining hands. When they aligned gravity wells, they found a line of orcs standing on the quarterdeck with crossbows aimed down at them.
The elves let fly with their spells and crossbows. Several orcs grunted or howled and fell from view. The orcs also let fly and a few elves screamed, struck with bolts. Blood splattered. It was hard to tell if anything might be lethal. The Commander drew his sword and cried, “Follow me!”
Yathar released a blast from his hand. It exploded on the deck and electrocuted a handful of their foes. Without even waiting for the grapples to finish connecting he leaped onto one of the legs that served as oars.
Crossbow bolts fell all around him as he ran up the leg and vaulted onto the enemy ship with a leap and a tumble. Then he began to dance on the deck of the enemy ship with a song in his throat. His sword blurred into a graceful fan of moving steel. Orcs and goblins began to die around him.
To his credit, the Commander was right behind him. More marines quickly joined them. As swords and spells began to fly, Shaundar lost his awareness of them.
“Hold position, Ensign Sunfall,” the Captain said, and Shaundar did. He waited for the three remaining ships to attack. But the attack never came.
It felt like forever, waiting there, holding Queenie as steady as he could in the gravity currents. But his watch told him only a few minutes passed before the colours were struck on the boarded hornet-ship.
“I count three surrendered, three sunk, one boarded,” the Captain said. “That leaves three. Where are they?”
It was Garan who replied. “Skipper, I think they’re routing!” He had his spyglass pointed towards the edge of the band of rings.
Captain Yvoleth peered through his own glass. He smiled. “Confirmed! Ensign Sunfall, do you think you can catch them?”
“Are they out of the ring yet, sir?”
“Av, Ensign, they just reached the outer edge.”
“Then no, sir, I don’t think I can,” he admitted.
The skipper nodded. “All right, all hands not otherwise engaged, board the enemy ship and help the marines take prisoners. Miss Naliatha, see to the butcher’s bill. Lieutenant Oakheart, I need a damage report. See the Druid gets it so that we can start repairs immediately.”
He smiled broadly and clapped the shoulder of the yeoman, who happened to be the nearest crew-member to him. “Congratulations, Queenies. We have won the day!”
The whooping and cheering rattled Queenie’s windows. Shaundar could not believe they had succeeded! He found himself trembling and pale with adrenaline. His stomach lurched and he grabbed the chamber-pot and vomited into it. But instantly he felt better.
“How are you doing, lad?” came the Captain’s voice from the door.
Embarrassed, and worried that the Captain would think him a coward, he hid the chamber-pot behind the helm. “I’m all right, sir.”
Captain Yvoleth came over and put a hand on his shoulder. His eyes fell for a moment on the chamber-pot, but he said, “That was a fine piece of flying, Ensign. I’m sure we wouldn’t have gotten away as clean as we did without you. Well done.”
Shaundar smiled back thinly. “Thank you, sir.”
“I need you to continue to man the helm for a few more hours. Are you able to do that?”
“I’ll man the helm as long as I need to, sir.”
The Captain chuckled. “I have every confidence you will, Ensign Sunfall! Good then, I’ll send someone back in about an hour to see what you might require.”
“Thank you, sir,” Shaundar said with gratitude.
“Carry on!” Shaundar saluted.
There was a great deal of shouting and commotion aboard the ship for several more hours. In stories and ballads, everything was always well after the battle was done, but real life was a lot messier.
Shaundar focused his awareness on the forward section of the upper hold, which had been converted to an infirmary. There were many wounded in there, bleeding all over the floor. Naliatha, their Chiurgeon, worked with a grim fierceness as her assistants spread scratchy sand on the floor to soak up the blood.
Without commands and responses being shouted through speaking-tubes, Shaundar was able to pick up snippets of muffled conversation through vibrations on the infirmary walls. Most of the wounds seemed to come from splinters and shattered glass, though one of the catapult crew had taken a nasty bump on the head.
There were a couple of crossbow bolts that had to be removed from shoulders and bellies. Someone else had taken a laceration to the face which, Naliatha explained to the patient, might have meant a lost eye if the shard that had caused it were just a fingernail’s breadth to the right.
Then Shaundar, still through Queenie’s senses, noticed Tyelatae. They brought her in on a stretcher, moaning and cursing in her particularly blue way. “Ma’am!” cried a tremulous voice Shaundar couldn’t quite identify. “Ensign Vesper’s leg… it’s flat between her knee and her foot.”
Naliatha grunted. “That will have to come off. Get me the amputation knives and the nectar. Opium too, if we have it.”
“Ah, balls,” swore Tyelatae. “The war just started and now I have to go home?”
“I’m sorry,” Naliatha said. “I don’t have the means to regenerate that. You’ll either have to wait for someone who can to be available, or you’ll have to get fitted for a prosthetic.” Her tone was sympathetic.
“Well,” Tyelatae said weakly, “at least we won the day! Shaundar can really fly, huh?”
Guilt washed over Shaundar in a wave. Obviously, it had not been good enough, or Tyelatae would not be so injured.
At about that time, Garan stuck his head into the helm room, mercifully distracting him. He tipped his uniform hat to Shaundar. “That was amazing, lad!” he said with a grin. “I came to see what you might need, and whether you could give me a damage report from your perspective.”
“Tyelatae’s really hurt,” Shaundar told him through tight lips. “She’s going to lose her leg.”
Garan cursed. “That’s a rotten spot of luck!”
“It’s my fault,” Shaundar groaned. “I chose to take the ballista bolts instead of the catapult stones. I deliberately put her in harm’s way.”
Garan blinked. “I imagine you did,” he said, seething incredulity, “and thus, we still have a ship and we’re all still alive!”
Shaundar started as if slapped.
“Ten man-o-war class ships versus us; we’re lucky to not be smashed to flinders,” Garan sputtered, “Except that luck had nothing to do with it. The Captain’s command and your skill at the helm, and everybody working together as a team – that’s what saved us.”
Shaundar nodded slowly, not sure of what to say.
“So then; damage report, Ensign Sunfall.”
He cleared his throat. “Damage report, right. The rigging is shorn and will need repairing. The aft door on the portside has a hole in it, and so do the aft starboard window and the upper cargo hold. We’ve taken some hits on the top aft ballista mount, the catapult turret and the fo’c’sle. The Shrike you already know about, of course, and we have a hole in our mizzensail and I think we lost the lantern on our foremast. Oh yes, and there’s a big bruise on our larboard wing, which hurts something fierce, I don’t mind telling you. But I don’t think it cracked at all.”
“I think you’ve confirmed everything I saw or suspected,” Garan agreed. “Okay, don’t forget to enter all of this in the log.”
Yathar appeared at the door, looking ragged and with blood splattered all over his face. “Hey, just making sure that you guys are okay,” he said.
Shaundar’s emotions washed in seconds through relief to a jolt of fear. “I’m fine, but you’re bleeding.”
Shaundar indicated his side, where a patch of blood was spreading over Yathar’s silver and red uniform.
“Oh,” he said in a strangely mild tone. He put his hand on the wound and blood came away on his fingers, “I guess I’d better get that looked at.” He smiled at Shaundar. “Turns out we boarded the flagship! One of those ‘Balorian’ orc leaders the Mithril have been talking about was commanding the fleet. He’s dead but the Old Man thought we should bring him aboard and all have a look at him, so that we know what it is we’re fighting. He’s in the garden when you can get free.”
“Thanks.” Shaundar thought he might very much like to have a look at the face of their enemy. Then he asked Yathar cautiously, “Have you heard about Tyelatae yet?”
Yathar obviously had not, because a look of fright came over his face. “No, what’s wrong with Tyelatae?”
“She’s really hurt,” Shaundar explained through tight lips. “She’s going to lose her leg.”
Yathar’s expression both paled and relaxed into relief at the same time. “I guess I’ll go hold her hand,” he said, and he made for the impromptu hospital.
“Ensign Sunfall!” came the Captain’s voice through the speaking-tube.
“Sir!” answered Shaundar.
“It looks like we have survivors from the burning ships who are desperately trying to get our attention. I’m curious about just who these people are. Let’s go pick them up, shall we?”
They maneuvered around the wreckage of the Hornet that had lost part of its stern and threw lifelines to the survivors clustered among the flotsam. Most of the survivors of the burning ships had abandoned the smoking, toxic wreckage, trusting in their mithril and starmetal talismans to protect them against the vacuum of the Void. But some had stayed, so the Queenies threw grapples to them before they did anything else.
Shaundar caught a quick look at their enemies as they were hauled onto Queenie’s deck, before they were shuffled off onto the husk of the boarded ship to become prisoners of war. Goblins were little creatures that cringed whenever an orc spoke to them. They were orange or green in colour and had large eyes and squashed faces.
Orcs were green, orange, grey or black-skinned. They were taller and broader than most elves, between six and seven feet tall, and solid, like workhorses. They had thick body and facial hair and they pushed air in front of them when they walked.
Shaundar realized where the epithet “pig-face” had come from, though it wasn’t what he expected. The description had led him to believe they had porcine, boar-like faces. They didn’t, but the enormous tusks jutting from their mouths where their bottom canines should be, combined with their pressed-in snub noses, did suggest a resemblance when compared to an elven or even a human appearance.
Their language was guttural, almost primeval, and it differed from the language of the goblins, which hissed sibilantly.
Commander Brightstar was quite pleased with this turn of events. Perhaps he had a good reason to hate the goblins and the orcs. He kicked goblins that were slower than he liked and spat in the face of orcs that looked at him balefully. Some of the crew laughed, equally amused by the degradation of their enemies.
Shaundar squirmed in the Pilot’s chair. It made him uncomfortable. How would the Exec like to be bullied and abused like that? Shaundar knew what it was like. But when the Exec pushed one of the orcs hard enough that he sprawled on the floor, the skipper grabbed his arm.
Commander Brightstar was surprised. He spun around with fury in his eyes. But seeing it was Captain Yvoleth, the fury faded. The Captain’s quiet tone told Shaundar immediately that he was biting down on pure rage.
“We will treat our prisoners with dignity and respect,” he growled.
Brightstar sneered. “They would not treat us with respect were the tables turned, sir.”
“That doesn’t matter. Whether our foes choose to act honourably in war, or not, we will do so. And if you have a problem with that, perhaps you should seek a new commission.”
Shaundar hitched in his breath. No one ever made such threats! The Brightstars were an influential family. Did he mean it?
The Commander looked at the Captain for a long moment. “I don’t have a problem with that, sir,” he said at last. He looked away from the Old Man’s fiery gaze.
“Good.” The Captain watched the transfer of the prisoners for a few minutes before he headed back up to the quarterdeck.
Shaundar grinned, satisfied, but he was pleased the Exec could not see him down here in the helm room.
There was some discussion around what to do about the enemy’s helm and engine while they had their ship in tow. They finally decided to seal the door to the Pilothouse and conjure runes upon it, just to be sure the prisoners had no chance of escape if they made a break for it. They also made sure to take anything that could be used as a weapon from the ship, including the belaying pins.
Shaundar would have loved to have a look at their helm and engine, but he knew there was no way they’d let a mere ensign in there anyway.
Garan came to relieve him, and his long shift was finally over. Before he did anything else, he went to see Tyelatae.
Yathar was still in the infirmary, shirtless and with a bandage around his midriff, though his face had been cleaned up by this time. He was sitting beside Tyelatae. Her leg was tied up in bandages and it had indeed been amputated.
“I came as soon as my shift ended.” His shoulders hunched.
She looked up at him with the dazed expression of the heavily drugged. “Don’ worry about me, Shaundar,” she slurred. “I’m tough, I’ll be fine.”
Yathar smiled encouragingly at him. “Naliatha says that it’s easier to make prosthetics if you don’t have to build a knee, so she’ll be back on two feet in no time, one way or another.”
“Well, I am glad to hear that!” He swallowed, relieved. “I came to say I’m sorry. I chose to take those ballista bolts instead of the catapult stones, so this is my fault.”
“To the Void with that!” She swore as she sat up. “This is the orcs’ fault.” This was too much effort and so she collapsed back into her pillow. “They’re gonna tell stories about this day, Shaundar.” She sighed. “I really wan’ a pipe,” she lamented with a wistful expression. “Mine broke, damn it.”
Shaundar produced his pipe and shared a smoke with the two of them in contemplative silence. “Have you had a look at the Balorian Commander yet?” Yathar asked.
“No, I came right here. I’ll go do that and I’ll be back.” Shaundar got up, leaving them his pipe, and headed into the garden on the other side of the hold.
Elven ships kept a garden when they could for many reasons. Not only did it provide them with fresh fruit and vegetables during a voyage, but they had noticed a ship’s air lasted longer with several plants to renew it. Besides, they nourished the soul. The Ship’s Druid added its tending to their duties, along with ship repair after a battle. Druid’s going to be busy today, Shaundar thought grimly.
They were chosen to be both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Currently, there was a large planter lying fallow in the center of the garden, and that was where they had laid out the body of the enemy Captain.
He was larger than even other orcs—at least seven feet tall, maybe seven and a half—and broader too. But he seemed less savage, somehow. Maybe it was that he had less of that strange fur-like hair, or maybe it was his smaller tusks, which were encrusted with jewels. Shaundar noted, looking closely, that one had been carved with a rune and then gilded.
The Balorian Captain was wearing red leather armour, studded with the teeth or claws of an unfamiliar animal. The same rune as the one on his tusk was also tooled into two patches on his armour at the shoulder-joints.
His skin was charcoal gray, but his eyes were closed so Shaundar could not see what colour they were. Around his neck, he wore a leather string threaded through a hodgepodge of different sized and shaped teeth.
Wondering what had killed him, Shaundar inspected the body and found a congealing bloody patch between leather plates in the armour.
“Fearsome brute,” Lieutenant Sylria remarked, studying him from a distance.
“They’re pretty big,” Shaundar agreed.
“Why do you think they hate us so much?” She touched one of the enormous steel-toed black leather boots that their dead foe still wore.
“My father said it’s because we humiliated them in the last war, and no one can stand being humiliated.”
“I suppose I can see that.”
It felt indecent, somehow, for the two of them to be poking at the high orc’s body as if he were some kind of insect dried and pinned to a display board.
Suddenly Shaundar was ashamed. “I’m going back to the infirmary,” Shaundar said. “I’m going to sit with Tyelatae.”
Sylria winced. “Yes, I heard about that. Is she going to be okay?”
“She says so.” He laughed aloud in appreciation of his friend’s resilience. “I imagine it will take more than a lost leg to keep Tyelatae down!”
Sylria smiled. “Well, I’m glad to hear that! Just don’t forget to get some sleep in at some point. And thanks for flying us out of that, Ensign Sunfall.”
He smiled just a little. “My honour and pleasure, elana.”
They towed their prizes back to the lively free port of Phoenix Rock. Shaundar was secretly pleased by the agog expressions of his fellow sailors, and less secretly pleased by the tall, regal form of his father waiting for them on the dock.
“Admiral,” he said with a hopeful smile, offering his father a crisp salute. There was a new crescent at his father’s collar to mark the recent promotion.
Admiral Sunfall saluted back. “As you were, Ensign-Pilot,” he gruffed, and with that he clasped Shaundar in a hug.
This was extremely out of character for his often-stiff Alfar father, and he wasn’t sure exactly what to do first. But then he hugged him back.
“I have heard the scuttlebutt,” said the elder Sunfall, backing off to meet his son’s blue eyes with his golden ones. “I’m proud of you.”
Shaundar choked back the lump in his throat. “Thanks, Dad.”
“You too, lad,” he said to Yathar, who was right behind him.
A slow grin spread across Yathar’s face. His shoulders straightened. “Thank you, sir.”
That evening was given to much frivolity and merriment, as Yathar composed a ballad on the spot to regale the Navy bar where the crew gathered; this time not just the officers, but all together, as one.
The following evening, they shipped out, but only as far as Glimmerfell. Shaundar’s father accompanied them on their ship. When asked what was going on, Dad just smiled.
“The King and Queen? But what for?” Shaundar was suddenly very nervous.
Yathar laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “There’s only one possible reason, mate – we’re getting medals!”
Fair Glimmerfell! The last refuge of elvenkind! A place where only Sidhe and Alfar could go. Its magical defenses were formidable, but the Queen’s Dirk knew the way, and they passed through the mists, the gates, and the guardians without being molested.
Shaundar had never been so happy to see his family’s quiet, leafy green home. They spent the evening together catching up at the Sunfall family estate, as Garan and Tyelatae stayed with their respective families also, and Lieutenant Sylria, he was surprised to learn, stayed with Garan. Well, he guessed they were the same rank, so he supposed it was none of his business.
The boys thought it would be several hours before they could sleep, if at all, but their bodies were still young enough to enforce their need on their busy minds. They passed out whispering together in the bachelor’s rooms, with the rain drumming on the roof, almost as if they were small children again.
They were awakened in the morning by the smell of Lianna, his father’s cook, making breakfast. Crepes, covered in a smothering of fresh fruit. Shaundar and Yathar devoured them. Fresh fruit was not something they’d had more than a taste of in the past several months.
“Hope you lads are ready for court!” Lianna teased them.
“Court?” Shaundar blinked at her.
“You’ve been summoned before Their Majesties this morning,” Shaundar’s father said with a rare smile. “You and your whole crew.”
“What’s this all about?” Yathar asked Shaundar quietly as they put together their dress uniforms.
Shaundar shrugged. “Hell if I... ow!” He had managed to stab himself with his rank insignia pin, he was so nervous. He looked down at his finger. A drop of blood welled from the wound. “Would you mind helping me with my pin, Yathar? I don’t want to bleed on my uniform.”
Tidied and neat, they took a coach to the centre of elven power in the Telasia System: The Crystal Palace.
According to Shaundar’s grandmother, the palace rivalled the splendor of the Ancient Kingdoms of the broken Avalonian Empire. The palace grounds alone were a marvel of engineering, with small parks and groves, lakes, hedge mazes, gardens, and statues of ancient heroes and deities. The palace itself was a soaring multi-level structure of towers, buttresses, keeps, cupolas, landing platforms, and domes. The entire structure was carved – or perhaps grown – of pure quartz crystal and had been shaped over thousands of years.
They were joined at the grounds just in front of the palace by the entirety of their crew. Tyelatae bumped along on her crutches, accompanied by a small Alfar man whom Shaundar assumed to be her father. She waved merrily when she saw them and came over to where they were standing. She introduced them all.
“I have met Yathar,” he said quietly, fully possessed of Seelie dignity despite his short stature. “We shall have to discuss your intentions towards my daughter later.” Yathar, to his credit, just nodded.
Seeing Shaundar, he continued, “And you must be Ensign-Pilot Sunfall. I would like to thank you for getting my daughter out of that scrape. If you ever have need of anything, do not hesitate to ask.”
Shaundar could hardly believe it. He stammered his thanks.
But then Shaundar’s eyes had caught a vision even more delightful.
Then he saw Narissa, with her lovely flaxen hair and gleaming gold-green eyes, her delicate hands and her perfect smile. She was accompanied by her father. Shaundar bowed respectfully, though his eyes were only for Narissa and full of more than he could say. Stifled by the formality of the occasion, he said nothing. Instead, he took her hands and kissed them with as delicate a brush as he could manage.
Narissa winked. Then he couldn’t help but grin, and even Lord Elkshorn’s stern, disapproving gaze softened. That surprised him. He wasn’t sure how to react. Perhaps he had made some headway with the father of his betrothed through this, despite his disapproval of Shaundar’s mixed race.
They were joined forthwith by the lovely and intractable Admiral of the Glimmerfell Fleet, Sora Evenstar. Shaundar had met her once when he was much younger. He saluted crisply. “I remember you,” she said with a smile. “An energetic young lad, as I recall.”
Shaundar winced. Yes, he’d been disciplined for climbing the palace rose trellis when he’d last seen her, he just remembered. She would have to remind them all of this in front of Narissa’s father, wouldn’t she?
Seeing his chagrin, she added, “I think we’re all grateful for that energy today, Ensign Sunfall.”
Captain Yvoleth made his way over to where they were standing and saluted. “Admiral Evenstar,” he smiled, “you honour us with your presence.”
She returned the salute. “It is I who am honoured, Captain.”
The doors to the central dome of the palace opened and two guards in mithril plate armour appeared. “Are you ready?” one of them asked the Captain.
“Queen’s Dirk!” he called out, “marching formation! Line up in order of precedence!” Garan and Sylria joined them as they filed in as commanded along with the rest of the crew. Lord Vesper squeezed his wounded daughter’s shoulder and Narissa kissed Shaundar quickly on the mouth, earning a frown from her father. “See you inside,” she promised.
Shaundar’s father, Admiral Evenstar, and Lord Elkshorn lined up in front of them. Trumpets sounded from within the building as the troops began to march.
They were trumpeted into an enormous, vaulted throne room, past assembled dignitaries. Two delicate crystalline thrones at its end were occupied by two Alfar whose images Shaundar knew very well. These were King Xerxes and Queen Vonvin Radiant, sovereign rulers of elvenkind in the Telasian System.
The Ruaalfar Queen’s silver hair flowed around her beneath her golden circlet, and her amethyst eyes sparkled. She was well-padded for an elf. One might even unkindly call her “plump.” Shaundar had met her once before, and he remembered thinking how beautiful she was even then. She smiled warmly at them.
The party of Admirals and the Captain who marched ahead of the other ship’s officers stopped about halfway up the promenade and bowed. Shaundar immediately followed suit. Even Tyelatae made an effort to duck politely. As they continued to approach the thrones, the King and Queen stood up to greet them.
The Mithril stepped forward and bowed again, and the King took Shaundar’s father’s hands while the Queen took Lord Elkshorn’s.
“We are pleased to see you again, Admiral,” Her Majesty declared.
“I am pleased to see you as well, Majesty,” Narissa’s father smiled in return. “We are honoured to continue to serve the Elven People of the Telasia System.”
King Xerxes had the golden hair, intense yellow eyes, and bright gold-tinged complexion of most Alfar; only with him they seemed even more striking, somehow. Perhaps it was the intensity of the fierce personality that blazed from behind those eyes. But now they warmed in recognition. “It’s good to see you Ruavel,” the King greeted him with familiarity and friendship.
“Majesties,” said Lord Sunfall respectfully, but his eyes also gleamed with warmth. They clasped each other’s hands. Shaundar recalled that they had served together as marines during the First Interstellar War.
In the meantime, Captain Yvoleth filed the crew into a line and faced them towards the audience, so if there was any further exchange between his father and the King, Shaundar missed it. When they were all in place, the trumpets sounded again.
Their Majesties and the Admirals came around to stand in front of the assembled crew. “Herald, if you please,” commanded the Queen in a soft voice, and one of the trumpeters cleared his throat and unrolled a scroll, from which he began to read:
“It is rare that the deeds of a crew of a starship reach Our ears. Yet We would acknowledge all worthy deeds of the Sidhe and Alfar of the Telesian System. Thus it is that We have heard bards tell of the legendary heroism of the crew of the Queen’s Dirk, who fought bravely against the foes of the People, though vastly outnumbered and alone. This conspicuous heroism is worthy of Our respect. And thus, We bestow Our personal commendation upon the crew of the Queen’s Dirk, along with Our gratitude for your brave defense of elven sovereignty. So say We, King Xerxes, and Queen Vonvin Radiant, lawful sovereigns of Glimmerfell.”
As he spoke, the King and Queen, with heralds at their sides, began to move along the line, bestowing a scroll and a pin to each sailor. It was Queen Alasstriana who found Shaundar, Yathar and Tyelatae, though King Xerxes came to Sylria and Garan. Above each of their uniforms’ left breast pocket she fastened a tiny golden pin in the shape of a five-pointed star, which Shaundar guessed to be the Radiant house emblem. She bowed to each of them. Stunned, Shaundar bowed awkwardly in return.
Then Admiral Lord Elkhorn stepped forward. “The Imperial Avalonian Navy also has tokens to award for this heroic action. We award each member of this crew the Bow of Herne, for heroic bravery against overwhelming odds. Congratulations to all of you.”
Shaundar just about choked. There were three awards for great bravery in the Navy, known in ascending order as the Bow of Herne, the Sword of Brighid (given for great acts of potential self-sacrifice,) and the Spear of Lugh (granted for bravery of truly legendary merit, more often given to relatives of the recipient posthumously).
The two Admirals moved through the crew, handing out the medals in boxes and returning salutes. Shaundar received his from the hands of his smiling father. Venturing a look at it, he saw that it was formed of silver or steel, with the enameled image of Herne’s symbol, a set of antlers and a broken black arrow, at the end of a black ribbon.
Shaundar remembered the legend. Herne was a wood elf and warden of Lugh’s own preserve, whose family were slain by Sluagh. He had declared Wild Hunt upon the Sluagh and descended into the underworld to eliminate every dark elf he could find. Though he finally met his end at the hands of an overwhelming Sluagh force, his legend had grown sufficiently by that time that he became a deity in His own right.
The Admiral continued, “To all elves wounded in the conflict, we award the Drop of Lugh’s Blood; that we may acknowledge the shedding of elven blood in our defense. Would the following elves please step forward...?” and of course, among the names she mentioned were “Midshipman Tyelatae Vesper,” and “Ensign Yathar Goldenbough.”
Yathar and Tyelatae came forward and accepted their medals with crisp salutes. They consisted of enameled red drops at the end of a red ribbon.
Then the Grand Admiral said, “Ensign Yathar, and Ensign Shaundar Sunfall, please step forward.”
Shaundar and Yathar looked at each other with a questioning glance but, finding no answers there, they stepped forward and saluted.
Lady Evenstar smiled and the corners of her blue eyes crinkled. “For cool command under fire, on recommendation of your Captain, you are each being awarded a battlefield commission to the rank of Lieutenant. Congratulations, Lieutenant Goldenbough, and Lieutenant Sunfall.”
It was Admiral Lord Elkshorn who stepped forward to present them each with the Lieutenant’s silver double-crescents. As Shaundar saluted him and he fastened the insignia onto Shaundar’s collar, he smiled and gave him a barely perceptible nod of approval.
As they turned to return to their place in the line, the Glimmerfell Admiral commanded, “Stand fast, Lieutenant Sunfall.”
Surprised, and wondering what was up now, he did so. “Av, elana.”
She smiled again, just ever so slightly. “Also on your Captain’s recommendation, for superb piloting which your Captain assures me was, and I quote, ‘easily the equal of the greatest aces of the First Great Space War,’ we award you the Wings of Rhiannon. I understand that you are, in no small part, responsible for this great victory, Lieutenant. I fear that this may well be only the beginning and that we will need your skills again many times before we see the end of this war.” She presented Shaundar with a medal in the form of a pair of silver wings on the end of a dark blue ribbon, spangled with silver stars.
Shaundar could hardly believe it. He took the medal with trembling hands and saluted the Admiral almost automatically.
She returned it. “Congratulations on your spectacular deed and victory, Queen’s Dirk. We are in your debt.” And the gathering erupted into tremendous applause.
Standing right in front of the assembled nobility and dignitaries, applauding heartily, Lord Vesper and Narissa beamed. And Shaundar could not remember ever seeing his father look so proud.