When young elven Star-Pilot Shaundar Sunfall lies about his age to join the Avalonian Imperial Navy to fight his people's ancient enemy, the orcs, all he wants is a chance to prove himself.
He's going to get his chance.
“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 Blood Moon, 5041 A.C.
My dearest Shaundar –
Forgive me for being grateful that the rumor 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 Yuletide 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 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 color, and while fair, he was not as glowingly pale as most moon elven Sidhe. Was he, Shaundar wondered, of mixed blood like himself? A blend of Sidhe and Alfar?
He was dressed in Navy officer’s uniform but without the fancy feathered hat that Captains sometimes affected. His only mark of rank was the silver 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. “Aye, 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, Mr. Yathar?”
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 Oleander’s tone was dry. “Well, I will speak with the Exec about Mr. 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. “Aye, 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 Oleander 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 nectar-grog ration 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 Weeping Moon, 5042 Avalonian Calendar
To Midshipman-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 Yuletide, 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 and midshipmen they’d known since childhood, 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 have met 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, 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 Navy 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 Yule 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 Yule 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.”
“Aye, 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, Alfar and Nunnehi,” 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. “Aye, 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.
“Aye, sir!” they chorused. Eyes glittered and the smiles were jovial. They were ready to fight!
“Mr. Yathar, you are also certified as a Skald, are you not?”
The Captain 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!” Oleander nodded and Yathar went to do so.
“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 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 helmsmen to stick their heads in the pilothouse at least once per watch to see to the needs of the elf at the helm, since he or she 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; Yule 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. “Mr. Oakheart!”
Garan grabbed the other end of the tube and bellowed back, “Sir!”
“We’re releasing the mooring lines."
“Aye, 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, aye,” 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 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.
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