Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chapter 16





Upriver

Things soon settled back into the bizarre rhythm that passed for normal on the ship, while the strange pirate flag flapped continuously overhead.  Everyone ate whenever they were hungry, all at different times.  Everyone likewise slept whenever they were tired, again at different times.  There was but one bed on the ship anyway (and that was the hammock in Roger’s cabin), so if you got tired when someone else was already sleeping, you just made a makeshift pallet of whatever you could find.  As always, it was impossible to tell how much time passed.  It might have been days, if there had been such a thing as days in that place.

The time began to be liquid, each moment melting into the next and running backwards into the previous.  Johnny began having trouble remembering what order things had happened in, much less how long ago it was.  There was much time spent at the wheel, some time spent standing in comfortable silence at the railing with Larissa, some time spent chatting amiably with Roger (who was still trying to teach him how to fence, and still mostly failing), some time spent watching Aidan perform some sort of ceremony in the bow of the ship, which wasn’t quite prayer and wasn’t quite invocation and wasn’t quite ritual.  Random scenes jumbled together in Johnny’s mind.

“Are there cannons?” he asked Roger.

“Cannons?”  Her tone was puzzled.

“You know ... big guns.”

“Piffletwat.  What do we be needin’ guns for?”

“I dunno.  I just thought pirate ships had guns.”  Johnny shrugged.

“Ye know, I never actually said The Slyph was a pirate ship.”  Roger’s eyes twinkled.

“Oh.  Well, I just ... oh, c’mon!  What is that thing if it’s not a pirate flag?”

Roger glanced up at the fleur-de-lis-pierced skull.  “Aye, ye got me there, boyo.  Buccaneers we be, I can’t deny it.  But there’s other ways to get what ye want besides shootin’ a fella.”

He stared more closely at the trees.  There were flashes of bright colors accompanying the monkey shrieks, and for the first time he caught a glimpse of Bones’ wild brethren.  They were mostly larger than Bones, some with even longer tails, all with the same parrot beaks and combination wing-hands.  Where Bones was red and blue, these were red and blue and green and yellow and white, and even a few touches of pink and orange and purple here and there.  They burst forth from the heavy undergrowth near the edge of the river for the first time and swooped and dove around, screeching loudly.

Bones scampered up Johnny’s back and screeched right back at them.  “Worms, curs, and scoundrelous scallywags!” he added, for good measure.

Johnny was taken aback, and laughed in spite of himself.  Larissa said nothing, of course.  “Friends of yours?” he asked Bones.

“Lazy lagabouts!” Bones squawked.  “Bring the bosun ‘is starting rope!”  Apparently he felt this was sufficient comment on the topic; he took wing and disappeared around the corner of the deckhouse.

Johnny smiled at Larissa, who was still staring out at the banks of the river gliding by.  He noticed that the little blue snake was still wound around her wrist.

“So, what does that mean?”

“What, ‘Shall├ędanu lei shonta’?” Aidan asked.

“Yeah, that.  You say it all the time, and I’ve even heard Roger say it a time or two.”

“It’s a brief orison.  A benediction, a request for the goddess to lay her blessing on you.  Means, may the Lady of the Waters see my hood.”

“See your hood?”

Aidan smiled his small smile.  “May she recognize that I come with bowed head, is perhaps a better translation.”

Johnny nodded.

Roger poked him with the wooden sword.  Again.  “Ye’re woolgathering again, my little he-wench.”

Johnny’s mouth fell open, then he snorted.  “Oh, I’m your ‘he-wench’ now, am I?  Is that pirate talk for ‘boy toy’?”

Roger flashed her teeth at him.  “Oh, ye’d like that, wouldn’t ye?  Now pick up that waster and show me ye can block with it, or I’ll have you over my knee and show ye what he-wenches are good for.”  And then she lunged at him.

Johnny opened his eyes.  Something was wrong, but at first he couldn’t put his finger on it.  Then he realized: the ship wasn’t moving.  That was certainly unusual.  He rolled out of the hammock and came out onto the flying bridge.  He was about to thumb the brass speaker to ask Roger (or Aidan, if he was on the wheel) why they’d stopped, but then he saw Roger and Larissa down on the deck.  Roger glanced up and waved to him.  ”‘Hoy there, sleepybones.  Come watch the show.”

He followed their gaze and saw Aidan in the bow of the ship, holding his staff over his head with both hands.  He was chanting in that liquid language with its ancient tones, and the floating plants were swirling in little circles around the ship, some clockwise, and some counter-clockwise, alternating.  As he watched, fish started to rise up out of the water.  They were mottled, darker brown on tan, narrow, but heavy and long.  Their open mouths were full of jagged teeth, and Johnny knew these were the barracuda.  There were a dozen at least, all around them, standing on their tails and dancing slowly to and fro.  Suddenly smaller fish, flourescent green, shot up between every pair of barracuda, pectoral fins thrust out like wings, and began gliding in complex figure eights around the predators.  They were obviously flying fish, but flying fish shouldn’t be able to stay aloft like that, much less turn and swoop in those intricate patterns.  This amazing tableau continued for a few breathtaking moments, then the ship shuddered and actually rose up from the surface of the water.  Johnny could hear the water being thrashed about underneath the ship, then the whole strange menagerie began to move forward.

Johnny had learned to recognize the local flora well enough to know that the ship was now moving over solid ground, or at least as solid as the ground ever got in this swampy place.  The barracuda continued to dance along, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were leaving their watery home behind.  The flying fish continued to weave in and out among them.  After a few mintues, they reached the edge of what seemed like a large, open body of water.  The terrestrial plants gave way to the more familiar floating vegetation again, but it seemed less thick here than in the river.  Johnny could actually see the surface of the water in various places.  Suddenly the ship was thrown forward and hit the water with a huge splash.  Looking behind them now, Johnny could see that the ship had been borne on the backs of twenty or so serathodonts.  They were like a cross between an alligator and a dinosaur, with little evil eys set back in their crocodilian heads, dark blue and glistening, and walking on their hind legs.  They turned and began strolling casually back they way they had come.  The flying fish left off their figure eights and soared back towards the river.  The barracuda, apparently freed from their spell, now fell back to earth, snapping at the flying fish and the serathodonts and each other, then twisted their way back to the river, moving like sidewinders.  Soon the whole piscine parade was lost in the distance, and Johnny turned back around to find Aidan leaning wearily on his staff while Roger pounded him on the back in apparent congratulations.

Johnny descended the ladder to the deck and made his way through the maze of crates to the bow.  “Ye did it!” Roger was saying over and over.  “Aidan, me bucko, ye really did it!”

“What the fuck was that?” Johnny managed.

Roger turned and grabbed Johnny by the shoulders.  “We’ve crossed the riverhead,” she said, a fierce light burning in her eyes.  “We’ve reached Breen Lagoon!  We’re almost there now, by the goddess.  We’re almost there.”

Johnny looked around.  Wherever “there” was, it was certainly somewhere different.  Not only were the floating plants not abundant enough to completely cover the water, but he could make out the occasional outcropping of rock, and there was a thin mist hovering over the surface.  The sounds of screeching parrot-monkeys and hunting burrikits were gone, replaced by an occasional whistle of unknown origin, and faint yipping from far ahead of them.  The smell was less muddy earth and fecund vegetation and more clean water, with the faintest hint of salt.  When he consulted his new sense, the door behind them was just a pinprick of heat on his back, and the thing ahead was an icy spike in his core that sang to him, calling him forwards.

He felt as if they were in a place now between two worlds: the swamp world, with its muck monsters and burrikits and serathodonts and barracuda was behind them.  A fresh new place lay before them, its dangers as yet unknown.


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