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Mordae NaNoWriMo

Mordae NaNoWriMo

I wrote this about 15 years ago now. It's pretty.. meh. But it's a good starting point for this year's effort.

Quite a few years ago, the continent upon which Lord Holt's realm sits was a vast, uncharted wilderness, completely untouched by humans. The vast, fertile fields lay empty, while various wild creatures roamed the lands in search of food, shelter, and some higher purpose.

One summer, a violent hurricane swept in along the coast of the southern sea. After the storm cleared, the creatures near the coast went out to survey the wreckage, and beheld an unexpected sight. Twisted and mangled along the shoreline were various piles of wood, and, standing in front of them, several hundred tall, thin, pale creatures. This was the first time that humans set foot on these lands.

The leader of this group was a knight by the name of Sir Holt. He and a few other knights had been embarked on an adventure, and had never completed it due to the sudden storm. Seeing that their ships were beyond repair, the knights took their people and set out in search of good land to build their own kingdom.

At first, the knights decided to settle on the small plains near the wreckage of their ships. But they soon realized that the land near the coast was unsuitable for farming. The knights counseled among themselves, and decided to each take a portion of the people, and spread out in search of more suitable lands. They then elected Holt, the eldest and wisest of the knights, to be their ruler, hailing him as Lord Holt.

Sir Malis, an experienced sailor, declared that he would stay along this coast with his people. They built the village of Malisa, and made their living plundering the riches of the sea.

Sir Sunim took his people eastward onto the plain, eventually finding good soil near the mountains to the south. His warlike people built a walled citadel, and pledged to defend themselves and the rest of Holt's peoples against all enemies.

Lord Holt, Sir Sarn, and Sir Korz took their people north, across a barren desert, and found a broad, fertile plain. Again deciding to spread out, Sir Sarn took his people east towards a forest. They built the town of Sarnville, and mined the resources of the mountains to the east.

Sir Korz, bravest of all the knights, took his people north, and into the mountains to the northwest. Word of their fate never returned.

Lord Holt took his people west, across a wide river. Atop a massive hill, they built Castle Holt, and settled in the valley beneath it. They called their town Holtsson, and farmed the fertile lands to the west.

After several years passed, a tall man in armor appeared in Lord Holt's great hall. It was Sir Korz, bearing good news from his people. They had found a broad plain across the mountains, and settled in it. They spent their time delving into the arcane arts of magic, and had achieved many remarkable feats.

As knights are wont to do, the four younger knights became bored, and set out adventuring across the world. Through might and magic, the four knights imprisoned many undead and dangerous creatures in a dungeon of their own devising, beneath Castle Holt. The knights would then amuse themselves by venturing into the dungeon to slay the powerful beasts.

It was this practice that lead to the decline of unity in the lands. On one of these trips, the knights did not return. None in the kingdom was brave enough to enter the dungeon in search of them, save Lord Holt, whose advancing age prevented him from joining the search. The towns continued on their separate paths, growing less and less unified in each passing year. The attacks of the monsters grew more and more ferocious, and it became apparent that the presence of humans was in mortal danger.

In the third year after the disappearance of the knights, Lord Holt sent out a call to all citizens of the realm. Those interested could apply to serve Lord Holt, and increase their prowess and knowledge as a reward. These adventurers would become the last hope for Lord Holt's kingdom.

Sorry, before I read on. Contextually- what's this for?

Just like to know what audience it's being aimed at before I judge

In fairness to myself, this was written as the background to a role-playing MUD I administered for more than a decade. Since it was intended to be the less-than-five-minute introduction to the world they were about to enter (and back in those days, we didn't have supporting web sites or wikis--hosting was expensive stuff!), it had to be kept fairly succinct lest it venture into tl;dr territory.

And quite a number of great campaigns did arise from this humble beginning: more than ten RL years of quests, intrigue, war, deific scheming, and mortal hijinks, involving somewhere upwards of two hundred players (not all at once!). But MUDding fell victim to MMOs for their graphical excitement, and synchronous role-playing became a luxury of time that I and the other staff could no longer afford. Fortunately, we found Myth-Weavers, and now we can create more great stories together.

For this NaNo attempt, I'm going to focus on the early stories that fill in the 650-word panorama above. I'm thinking of a format that consists of a page out of Lord Holt's personal journal, followed by traditional narrative to complete the chapter. My writing strength is in scene-setting, so the journal entry will allow me to indulge that, but my main goal is to improve the quality of dialogue.

OK, time to get off the snide. Here is the journal entry preceding chapter 1. It clocks in at 709 words and was written in about 90 minutes, which gives me hope that I can catch up on my days off next week.

Fifth Day of Battle, Month of the Stormy Winds, Year 874

It has now been a twenty-two days since we sailed from the harbor of Sunim's Hold under cover of darkness. The first four weeks were smooth sailing under strong westerly winds, and we soon left behind the jagged coasts of our ancestral homeland.

It was not without much lamentation that we marked the last moments, when the thin black line of the rocky strand slipped beneath the eastern horizon. Among the hundreds of refugees crammed aboard our small fleet of converted fishing sloops, there was not a man, woman, or child who had not left behind relatives in the doomed citadel. And the knowledge that our own mission may be sheer folly, a mad venture of slow starvation on a wide expanse of uncharted oceans, did little to ease the keen sorrow of our departing.

I must dedicate some words here to eulogize those who we will not see again 'ere we share in the embrace of the great Dark Shadow. The men-at-arms who guard the high walls of Sunim's Hold are perhaps the finest this world will ever know. For decades they have trained, fought, bled, and persevered, paying back the savagery of the Thullites double for every loss. It is a testament to their valor that their spirit remained yet unbroken even to the final seige. Were it not for the detestable methods of those who serve Fire, a victory of peace would be the laurel of our valiant defenders, for they were never the aggressors and ever honorable even in a war not of their own doing. I have no doubt that, at the last battle, they will show our enemies the true mettle of free men.

To our own journey upon the sea, I should be glad to die with such friends, dear as brothers, that have chosen to share this fate with me. There is in all the realm no finer sailor than Sir Bruce Malis, and in truth it is he that convinced both myself and my father the King that this venture was no fool's errand. His knowledge of the stars and their ways is matched only by the wisdom of my cousin, Sir Joseph Korz, whose talents of sage and spell will help to sustain our people through the days and months to come. The spirits of the faithful will be further bolstered by the presence of Sir James Sarn, whose kinship to the Lady of Sea and Sky will--I can only hope--bring us good fortune as we travel her ways. Last but certainly not least, Sir Derrick Sunim bears with him the physical might as has made his family famous for centuries and earned them the honor to lead the defense of the realm. So will it be among us, when and where we find new lands that can be settled.

Today, as I watch the rain lash at our ships and the waves roll beneath us, thoughts of a comfortable settlement are my constant companion. It is now the second day of ill weather, and the storm grows steadily worse. Even a seagoing man so bold as Sir Malis cannot be made to unfurl an inch more of sail under such dreadful conditions, and so we are beaten about by the gale with only a small fore-sheet guiding our rise and fall among the foam-capped swells. Praise be both the Shadow and the Lady that we have lost none, though few can hold down yesterday's dinner and only the stoutest can manage to eat breakfast this morrow. Were it not for those warm and cozy visions of home and hearth, I dare say that even I would despair. As it stands, I pray the Shadow's blessing that as night falls the storm will break and we shall see where his stars stand in the heavens once more.

Land must be near; I feel I can sense it, though I know not how. I leave this entry now to go above-decks, in the hopes that my presence will lend strength to the crew and that I may be the first to see the shores of our new home.

Sir Gregory Holt

Love it so far, Mordae! I literally cannot wait to read more. Don't leave us hanging! Haha. I've been wanting you to write something since I first joined this site and came across one of your games. Can't wait to see what you have in store.

Yeah, I decided to go in a different direction this year. I'll probably pick that story up some other time. So here's your starting tidbit:


The girl rolled over in her hammock, clutching her blankets and pulling them up over her face. The usual game of pretending to be asleep was underway.

One heavy, calloused hand reached to touch her shoulder, gently grasping it through the somewhat threadbare woolen cloth that was her shield against the early morning ritual. “Come on, Ellayne, it’s time for the sighting. You were the one who asked me to show you how to use the sextant.”

“But Daddy, I’m tired,” came the muffled complaint from within the blanketed mass. Her father’s hand took the edge of the blanket and peeled it down past her face, exposing tightly scrunched eyes and an upturned noise. Ellayne giggled once before yanking the blankets out of his grasp and back up over her head.

“Don’t make me tickle you.” The verbal threat was spoken with the usual humorous overtones that came with a parent coaxing their child out of bed, especially early in the morning. The girl began to laugh, giggling maniacally even before his fingers had begun probing for her sensitive sides and feet. “It’s only going to be up for a half hour,” he warned before the tickling battle began in earnest.

Five minutes later, her thirst for silly play sated and her father having left the room, Ellayne slipped out from under her covers and landed lightly on the floor. Her feet were practically noiseless when bare, which frequently enabled her to sneak up on her father--or anyone else for that matter--and the weather was easily warm enough that shoes were not required even in the hours just before dawn. It was practically pitch black in her cabin, the light of myriad stars providing only a faint glow through the small porthole that looked out over the starboard bow. The darkness didn’t matter; after many days of routine, she could probably walk the little space blindfolded without stubbing a toe. She slipped off her nightgown and tucked it under the cozy pink blanket that provided warmth, comfort, and security while she was asleep. Pulling open the top drawer of the built-in dresser, she selected a lavender tank-top with lacy ruffles along the straps and a pair of long shorts in a darker purple. Dressing quickly, she dashed to the door and through the narrow passage along the centerline of the little ship. She took the five steps up in three bounds and emerged, panting for effect, on the weather deck.

It was scarcely brighter up here than below, but the pale starlight now poured down from all directions instead of just one. From horizon to horizon, broken only by the black silhouettes of low-lying islands and the billowing canvas of the sails, Ellayne could see the black-and-white panorama of the cosmos stretching out over her head. Her eyes instinctively picked out the points of Orion, not far from the waxing gibbous moon, and looking to the north the Big Dipper guided her to the North Star. But her target was not the moon, or any of the myriad bright stars that dotted the celestial dome. She turned to the port side of the ship and scampered across the wooden deck to join her father at the rail.

“There it is, Daddy,” she told him triumphantly, extending her left index finger to a dull red spot hovering not far above the eastern horizon. The moon’s glow made it a little difficult to pick out; she had to shield her eyes with her right hand and not look directly at the dot to keep it from disappearing among the other lights, particularly the bright star next to it.

“That’s right,” her father confirmed, “just a little ways over from Spica. Right where the book says it should be.” He patted her head in affirmation, before his tone became somewhat critical. “You didn’t brush your hair. You know what Mom says.”

Ellayne made the scrunched-up face again, shooting a defiant look that was almost entirely lost in the dim light. “I know, I know. She’ll cut it off.” The girl hesitated, almost turning her shoulders to go back below, but she waited a beat or two for the other shoe to drop.

“You can do that later. Let’s take this sighting before Mars sets.” Her father was rarely a stickler for rules, and she knew it; she took advantage of it when she could, too. Instantly, she threw herself against his side and snuggled up, using every bit of her eight-year-old charm. He smiled, too; knowing the effect his daughter had did not convey the mystic power of immunity.

Reaching under his weather coat, her father produced the intricate contraption of metal and mirrors that was essential to navigating. He bent down to one knee and set the device in front of Ellayne’s face. “See, what you’re trying to do is make the planet touch the horizon. You can see over there on the left, where the water meets the sky. Keep that flat. Now, use the dial on the right to adjust that picture until Mars comes down and touches the water.” He gently took her hand and placed it on the knob controlling the precise worm gear, helping her turn it in the correct direction. “Whoops, not too far.” She had to take a few passes back and forth before the image of the red planet finally lined up with the water. “OK, now tilt it left and right. Make sure the bottom of the littlecircle is what’s touching the water. When the sextant is straight up and down, you should see a whole circle.”

Ellayne fiddled with the device a bit more. “Okay, Daddy, I’ve got it,” she said after another ten seconds of fiddling.
“Five-thirteen,” he answered her after glancing down at his watch to note the exact time. “Turn the sextant on its side and let’s look at the scale. See here? Count the degrees up: eight in total, plus a quarter mark. So it’s eight degrees and fifteen minutes off the horizon. We can go match that in our book and chart to help tell us where we are. But we’ll need one more sighting to be sure.”

Ellayne pointed up above, where the moon was near its apex. “How about the moon?”

Her father shook his head. “It’s too high in the sky. Also, it moves very fast, so it’s hard to use. We’ll do Polaris instead.” Together, they repeated the process to locate the north star and find its altitude. By the time they had it figured properly, Mars was increasingly invisible against the breaking dawn on the eastern horizon. As her father noted down the information in a little yellow notebook he kept always in his pocket, the little girl leaned on the port rail and stared out at the faint red dot.
“Do you suppose there are still people living on Mars, Daddy?” she asked suddenly.

The weathered mariner paused in his notations and turned to look more closely at Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor. He squinted against the growing brightness for a few seconds, then looked down to his daughter. “I don’t know, sweetie,” he finally admitted. “It’s been a long time since we could talk to them.”

“I’d like to talk to them someday,” Ellayne said, her voice earnest and betraying no understanding of the difficulty of what she was asking for.

Her father wrapped her up in another hug. “I’d like that, too,” he replied before finishing up with the notebook. “Come on, we’ll go mark the chart and get some breakfast.”

Ellayne was off like a shot, scampering across the wooden deck like some sort of sprite. “Don’t run!” he called after her, knowing it was as futile as telling the wind which direction to blow. She leapt over a coiled line and ducked under the elbow of one of the deckhands, who instinctively raised his mop up and out of the way to avoid her path, before disappearing down the aft stair toward the kitchen.

“You know you’re not supposed to run on the ship,” Mirelle’s voice called sharply from the little galley behind the stairs, even before her daughter came streaking into view. The woman had her long, ash-blonde hair tied back in a loose ponytail to keep it away from the floured table where she was cutting biscuits. Her lean, muscled arms were coated in white dust all the way to the elbows. Setting aside a half dozen doughy circles, she grabbed the scrap and began the process of rolling it out again.

Ellayne looked past the table to the wood stove, where the first batch of biscuits was already rising above the slow heat of the coals. She took a deep breath in, enjoying the smells of her mother’s baking, and ignored the pointed question. “I got to sight Mars this morning, Mom!” she said brightly.

Mirelle slapped down the gooey ball of dough on the table with enough force to draw Ellayne’s attention. Picking up her rolling pin, Mirelle pressed on her original topic. “I’m sure the barracuda will be pleased to know that you can manage navigation. That will make you much tastier when you slip and fall overboard.”

“I know, I know,” Ellayne groused, moving closer to the oven to watch the slow expansion of the light brown layers of goodness.

"If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times…” Mirelle’s voice rose in pitch, but cut off abruptly as her husband came down the stairs. In a slightly less strident tone, she changed her tack to address him. “Georg, tell your daughter she needs to use her walking feet while she’s on your ship.”

Ellayne’s father fixed the girl with an I-told-you-so stare as he took off his weather coat and laid it over the back of the bench nearest the galley. The right side of the ship’s stern was given over to cooking; the left, to eating, or meeting, or socializing, whichever purpose suited the crew’s needs. A long, built-in table ran along-ships, flanked by benches that were equally fixed to the deck. Only the captain had a chair, which sat at the stern-most end of the table underneath the leaded-glass window that let in the crimson light of the breaking dawn.

“I’m sure you heard what I said up above,” he addressed his daughter with a low, solemn tone that carried with it the weight of serious consequences.

Ellayne hung her head. “Yes, Daddy,” she said meekly.

George peeked around the kitchen table to meet the girl’s grey eyes with his own olive-hued stare. “And?”

The girl flinched back from the rebuke, inching away from the oven and cozying up against her mother. “Sorry, Mom.”

Satisfied with the limited apology, Mirelle stepped to one side to allow her daughter better access to the table. “Come on, breakfast won’t make itself.” She rolled her eyes at Georg’s silent smile as her hands worked to flatten the dough ball, but as he moved on she focused her attention on her daughter’s handiwork. Ellayne carefully pressed the circular cutter to divide the biscuits. “Make sure you put them close together, or we’ll be rolling all morning,” she warned her daughter. Freeing one hand from the rolling pin, she helped guide the metal ring until it was tightly pressed against the cut lines from the adjacent biscuits.

Georg stooped down to retrieve his coffee mug from its stowage underneath the bench. Gingerly picking up a wooden-handled metal pitcher from its spot atop the oven, he poured a healthy draught of the thick black elixir that lubricated the inner workings of the sailors manning his sloop. His personal mug was an aged ceramic stein that had a couple of chips missing from the rim, right above where the word “München” was embossed in the shellacked surface. The remainder of the design depicted an age-old Bavarian town that Georg had never visited, but from which his great-grandfather hailed. Pleasant reminders of the past were hard to come by, and so this one-time tourist trinket had found its way into near-constant service aboard ship.

The remaining minutes of early dawn were spent in quiet familial bliss. Mirelle and Ellayne continued their work in the kitchen, steadily churning out dozens of fresh biscuits to feed the hungry crew, while Georg sat in his chair and reviewed the morning’s charts and sightings. At length, the quiet was broken by the sizzling sound of bacon sputtering in the frying pan, and the smoky, greasy aroma gradually brought the crew down from their above-deck duties.

The first to arrive was Thom, the lanky carpenter whose father was the mayor of the little town they all called home. He doffed his cap as he ducked through the companionway and turned to join the leading family. “Mornin’, boss. Mornin’, missus. Mornin’, l’il miss,” he said with his usual perfunctory courtesy, though he threw in a final wink toward Ellayne. It was his arm that she had narrowly missed earlier in the morning, and at her impish returning smile he slapped his left hand against his right elbow as though to remind her. She giggled for a few seconds before returning to her task at hand, namely helping her mother collect the bacon onto a metal serving plate.

Bran and Corey weren’t far behind; the twin brothers could sense bacon from a mile away, and they only lagged Thom because he had finished swabbing amidships while they were still up at the bow, adjusting the jib to account for the changing morning winds. The two jostled for space on the companionway as they thundered down like a herd of elephants, their behavior reminiscent of Ellayne’s—they were only eight years her elder. The playful shoving continued until they had rounded the corner and found Georg’s eyes upon them from the dark corner of the ship, at which point they slowed to a more respectful walk and slipped into the bench opposite Thom.

By the time five other men had made their way from their stations to the cramped mess hall, leaving two of their compatriots topside to keep watch, both benches were crammed with bodies and Ellayne had brought over two heaping bowels of biscuits along with the metal platter piled high with bacon. The usual breakfast offering was supplemented with a wooden crock of creamy yellow butter and a half-full jar of Mirelle’s prized mango jam, which was shared sparingly as the supplies had to last until the end of the voyage. It was only a week-long fishing run, but none of the men wanted to be the one blamed for taking the last spoonful. What could not be sustained with sweetness was substituted with coffee, which was always available in plenty.

The feasting was a hasty affair, even more so this morning than usual, and it wasn’t more than ten minutes before the entire mess of biscuits and bacon was devoured—save the portions set aside for the fellows whose duties kept them above decks. Bran was the first to finish licking his fingers, and no sooner had he wiped them on his canvas jacket than he launched into questions.

“How long until we get to the rig, captain?” Bran inquired, leaning in to peer at the charts spread over Georg’s end of the table. The boy’s voice was a deep, resonant baritone that seemed out of place on his not-yet-filled-out frame; of the twins, his was the first to change, a fact often pointed out when the two got into arguments about which one would reach manhood first. They had gotten to the point of comparing their downy chest hairs before Georg had to put a stop to their public bickering. At the very least, they gave it a rest whenever Mirelle or Ellayne were around.

Corey gave his brother a soft elbow to the ribs, silently pointing out that their master was still savoring his last biscuit, but if the elder mariner was annoyed he gave no indication. Instead, Georg popped the last half of the biscuit into his mouth and stabbed one lean finger to the unfurled roll of paper.

Thom, who was seated on Georg’s right-hand side directly across from Corey, fielded the question. The mayor’s son was junior only to Georg among the ship’s crew, and functioned as a second-in-command when the situation required it. Using his fingers as a makeshift divider, he measured out the distance between the point Georg had indicated and a dark circle with an “X” drawn through it. “We’ve made good time,” he announced to the assembled crew. “If the wind holds and the horizon is clear, you’ll probably be able to see it once you’re back up on watch. By lunchtime, I expect we’ll be hauling in our first catch.”

Fishing was a critical industry to island life. The limited supply of livestock meant that goats, chickens, and sheep were reserved for milk, eggs, and wool. Only once the animals had produced for their useful life would they be given over for meat, a rare feast for the clan. For the most part, therefore, the clan’s protein intake came from the abundance of fish in the nearby sea. Georg had found the waters around an abandoned oil rig to be particularly fruitful, and after the island’s doctors had determined the fish to be clean enough to eat, his catches were always in demand. His lean-crewed ship was fast, and could make the run to the rig and back in six days even when fully laden with grunts, wrasses, and parrotfish. The only difficult work was segregating and throwing back the sharks that got into the nets; the big carnivores were plentiful enough but difficult to keep fresh even on the short journey.

From above, the sound of a ringing bell cut through the breakfast chatter. In keeping with maritime tradition, the bell rang to mark the hours of the day, even though every crewmember had a personal wrist watch to keep more accurate time. The men scrambled to their feet, though, as the ringing went on and on, a dozen peals in all. This was not the passage of time calling, but rather a warning signal. Ellayne had to jump off the end of her bench and into the gap between two of the ship’s ribs to let the crew get past her, and in her hurry she tripped and tumbled headlong into the side. By the time she rolled into a seated position, the eight sailors were already rushing up their companionway to see what the commotion was for. Mirelle strode quickly from the galley to help her daughter to her feet, and the two quickly followed the men at a distance.

“… on the western horizon. Looks like black sails to me, captain,” the burly fellow at the helm was saying to Georg. Watts was a smith by training, but metalwork wasn’t in demand for most of the year, so he found himself joining the crew of fishermen during the warmer months. He handed a long brass spyglass over to Georg, who took it to the starboard rail and spent a long minute staring out at the tiny specks visible in the deep azure water just below the cloud-studded sky. Finally, he let out a long sigh and slammed the glass into its retracted position.

“Damn,” he spat out, turning toward the bow. The oil rig was in sight just ahead, close enough that Ellayne felt she could almost reach out and touch it. Its barnacle-crusted concrete pylons thrust up toward the sky, where the rusty superstructure showed signs of severe disuse. Wiry antennae, satellite dishes, and weather gauges formed a miniature skyline above the metal-framed compartments that were once offices, living quarters, and working spaces. Ellayne tore her gaze from the fascinating shape to look at Georg. She could sense the temptation as her father assessed the situation, turning his gaze back and forth between the threatening ship to the west and the desirable destination to the south.

Thom stepped up to the rail, his sandy coif swept forward as the ship ran lightly before the wind. “Breeze is from the northeast, boss,” he supplied helpfully.

Georg turned to look at his principal assistant, considering the words even though he already knew what he had been told. Finally, he nodded. “They’re sailing a close reach. We keep going, they’ll cut us off and have the weather gauge.” Glumly, he tucked the spyglass into the pocket of his canvas weather coat and addressed the crew. “Bran, Corey! Get the sails trimmed to beat to the northeast. Watts, bring us about east-by-northeast as tight as you can while making six knots. Thom, get the nets primed. We’ll drag here and skedaddle as soon as they’re full. Jimmy… get the guns ready.”

The last order prompted a sharp intake of breath from Mirelle. Taking Ellayne by the hand, she pulled the girl aside and gave her a quick hug. “I’ll clean up down below. Do whatever your father tells you.” Then, releasing her grip, she went quickly back down to the kitchen to get the dishes put away.

In almost no time at all, the lithe sloop started to pitch over to port as the crew worked in tandem with Watts to bring their vessel into the wind. The decks were a welter of lines being hauled in and let out, and the triangular sails grew slack for a moment as the wind’s new angle across them caused them to flutter. Bran and Corey yelled back and forth, coordinating their actions at the two masts to bring the booms swinging around in tandem. Ten seconds passed, then fifteen; finally, the white canvas sheets bellied out and began pulling the ship along its new course. Beating was slower by far than the broad run toward the oil platform, but only a Bermuda-rigged sloop could make anything close to six knots this tight to the wind. This was the chief advantage of Georg’s fishing route: he could outdistance anyone, friend or foe, on the northward route home.

Ellayne found herself instantly busy. Rather than working the sails or the nets, which required great arm strength and comparable size to the men, she was sent back and forth from the hold to the weather deck. First, she brought up the long hooks that would be used to haul in the nets once they were full of fish. Then, she went even deeper into the ship’s belly to help Jimmy. It took her nine trips to bring up the full load: a small barrel of powder and eight iron balls, each about the size of her head. By the time she had lugged the last of the heavy projectiles up, Jimmy had finished rolling the ship’s four brass carronades to the stern end of the deck. Two of the carriages were positioned to aim over the port rail, while the other two were set up as stern chasers. Ellayne could see the black sails easily now, without the aid of her father’s spyglass; they bore straight toward the sloop, taking advantage of the favorable wind, but the girl could see that they were slowly passing to the stern. Georg had, as usual, made the right call.

Jimmy was a caramel-skinned young fellow in his mid-twenties, with close-cropped curly ebon locks and an infectious smile. His ancestors had lived on the islands for generations, and he still spoke their native tongue even though his English was impeccable. “Oi, lass, that’s well done,” he told Ellayne as she huffed toward him with one heavy iron ball in both arms. Her lightly tanned face was red and puffy from exertion as she handed over the black orb of cast metal, which he could easily hold in one long-fingered hand. “Here’s the way you want to stack them: a little pyramid, three on the bottom and the fourth on the top. That’ll keep them from rolling so much.” She helped him complete the first triangular pile and then did the second one herself while he decanted some of the grainy black powder from the cask onto squares of white paper. Once she was done with the cannonballs, he showed her how to wrap the paper, corners up and twisted together, so to form cartridges to propel the shot toward an enemy vessel.

“Let’s hope we don’t need to use these, right lass?” Jimmy said with a grin as he unrolled a canvas sack and opened it. Ellayne nodded once but said nothing as she gingerly lifted the cartridges one by one and stuffed them into Jimmy’s bag. Her shoulders drooped with near-exhaustion, despite having worked for only twenty or thirty minutes.

During this time, Thom and several of the other men had unfurled the knotted nets of hemp rope and thrown them over the starboard rail, where they dragged behind the ship’s leeward side as the sloop slowly made its way on a nearly northeast course. The pull of the cords in the water was strong enough that Watts had to set his feet and turn the rudder a good fifteen degrees to port to keep the vessel from turning, which would cause it to lose speed. Ellayne could see that the nets were dipping beneath the surface, already starting to fill up with fish. She wanted to keep watching, but her attention was drawn to her father. He stood between the two brass pieces on the port rail, watching intently as the other vessel drew closer and closer. She tugged on his jacket.

“Daddy, are you afraid of pirates?” Her blue eyes were wide as she looked up at him.

Georg pulled down the spyglass and looked gravely at his daughter. “Pirates are nothing to joke about, Ellayne,” he told her. “But the most important thing to remember is not to be afraid. When you’re scared, you make mistakes, and that only helps them. Keep your head and make good decisions, and you’ll be fine.”

The words were comfort enough, but the feeling of his arm wrapping around her shoulders helped make Ellayne feel better. “Okay, Daddy; I’ll be brave,” she promised.

Suddenly there was a flash of orange light from the black shape that loomed on the northwest horizon. “Get down!” Georg ordered, grabbing Ellayne and pulling her down to the wooden deck. She heard a splash from not far away. A fraction of a second later, there was a resounding thud, and the whole ship shuddered.

“Oi, they’re getting in close!” cried Jimmy as he pushed himself to a kneeling position next to the helm. He crawled over to his powder bag and retrieved a couple of cartridges.

Georg nodded as he released Ellayne from the smothering hug and inched over to the rail, looking down to the side. The girl drew in a deep, shuddering breath, no longer compressed under his weight, and watched from her prone position as he assessed the damage.

“No holes!” he shouted with barely contained glee. “Looks like it just bounced off the hull. Thom, haul up those nets. Watts, open up our course just a bit. It’s time to go home.”

The men hastily complied, as the chasing pirate ship, now big enough to distinguish its black-painted hull from its dark sails, continued to pass to the south and west. The angle would be good enough to fire a broadside, but Georg’s clever maneuver had increased the gap just enough that the shot would be a futile effort. Even though the bigger vessel turned to a trailing course, it had no chance to keep up the pace hauling close against the wind. The sloop’s speed increased noticeably as the last net was dragged up on deck, and before long the pirates were shrinking against the southern horizon.
Georg stood at the stern, watching the threat slowly recede from view. The crew let up a cheer, and Ellayne ran to wrap her arms around him in a tight hug. He smiled down at her for a moment, but before she could fully enjoy the moment he spoke. “Alright, brave girl. There’s fish to be sorted before lunchtime.”

Ellayne wrinkled her nose, squinting against the power of the paternal gaze. But when her father added, “Do I need to tickle you again?” she giggled and dashed across the deck, joining the other sailors as they picked through their wriggling catch.

Chapter 2

The pale blue light shone down through the glassy dome above, warming the air around the tall cornstalks growing in the dark red soil. Ellayne peered between the plants, holding her breath as she waited for her stalker to pass.

“I see you!” the other girl’s warning voice came from the dusty strand between the field and the nearby runoff pond. But the short, heavy-boned redhead continued to walk sideways away from Ellayne’s position, and she knew that she was soon to be home free. Standing up carefully, she took a few tentative steps to her right and then started to run, bounding along the gap between the rows. The scratchy leaves of the cornstalks bounced harmlessly off her long-sleeved flannel shirt as she picked up speed, covering three or four meters at a step. Her blonde hair streamed back from her face; there was little if any natural breeze beneath the glass enclosure, but Ellayne made her own wind.

“Oh no you don’t!” the redhead shouted as she wheeled and ran in pursuit. Ellayne’s spindly legs could carry her on long strides, but the other girl was powerfully built and could accelerate rapidly. She caught up only a half dozen paces from the end of the corn row and threw her arms around Ellayne’s nascent hips, tackling her to the dusty ground. The two girls rolled in a heap, laughing, as they came to a stop on the gentle slope.

“You win, Gael,” Ellayne said as she picked herself up off the ground and looked out over the water. The grain silo on the far side loomed over the pond, its reflection pale on the surface of the dark, still water. Farmers were hard at work putting the early harvest onto the elevator, which drew the laden ears up to the top of the tall structure where they would be stored until needed.

Gael grinned and put her hands on her hips. “Not as easy as it is on Earth, is it?”

Ellayne shook her head. “I’ll get used to the lower gravity, and then you’ll see. You won’t have a chance.” She stood to her full height, an inch or two short of five feet, and squinted at the glassy dome. A flash of silver light had drawn her attention.

Gael noticed Ellayne’s distant gaze and looked up to see what she was watching. In the distance to the east, a metallic crawler was rolling up the shimmering ribbon of carbon that led from the surface to the geosynchronous elevator platform high above the surface. “It doesn’t get old for you, does it?” she asked the taller blonde girl. “You don’t have anything like it at home?”

“No,” Ellayne admitted. “I’ve never seen anything go so high.” She watched the silvery machine as it slowly moved upward, growing smaller and smaller until it was a pale dot against the blackness of space.

The incongruity of the scene was starting to nag at her, and as she started to wonder how exactly it was she got there, Ellayne awoke with a start. The sky outside the window of her house was still dark, and the stars shown brightly with no moon to drown their glow. Peering through the glass, Ellayne could make out the small, blurry red disk of Earth’s planetary neighbor, about fifteen degrees above the horizon. She reached over to the nightstand and picked up her watch; the faintly glowing dials proclaimed it to be quarter to five. The air was cool on her arm now that it was out from under the warm confines of her blankets, and she quickly drew it back to enjoy the last few minutes of rest.

The neighborhood was completely black. Electricity was scarce, and there was no need to keep the streets lighted when nearly everyone was asleep. The faint smell of wood smoke lingered in the air, as the women of the clan always rose early to bank the coals and add fresh fuel to the wood stoves that were ubiquitous among the squat bungalows. The iron pots were dual purpose, keeping the houses warmed and providing even heat for cooking and baking.

Keeping the stoves running was nearly a full-time task on the archipelago. Mothers would carefully tend the fires to keep them running efficiently; daughters would bring in firewood from the dry sheds at the center of town; sons would pull cartfuls of logs from their point of origin to the sheds; fathers would chop the rounds into small chunks that would dry quickly and fit easily into the stoves. Wood was plentiful enough on the island where Ellayne’s clan lived, but the iron beneath the surface was far more valuable. More often, they would trade chunks of the red-black ore for bundles of dried firewood. Trade had the two-fold benefit of keeping the neighbors happy and saving the native wood for building ships.

Whatever the source, Ellayne knew her place in the system. The only chances for an hour or two of freedom were to go to sea or to get the chores done quickly, and the next fishing voyage would not be for another two or three weeks; besides, most of the time the men wouldn’t let her go for fear of pirate attacks, especially around the oil rig that was her father’s favorite fishing grounds. So she pushed her blankets aside and rolled out of bed. Her feet felt for and found her slippers in the darkness; sliding them on, she made her way to her dresser and pulled out a warmer over-shirt to ward off the slight chill of the winter morning.

The leather soles flip-flopped on the wooden floor as Ellayne made her way from her bedroom, which was at the far end of the single-floor home, to the kitchen. The growing sensation of warmth from the stove told her that her mother was already awake. Mirelle looked up from the hearth, her face aglow with the ruddy light from the small pile of coals that had survived the night.

“Happy birthday, sweetie,” she told Ellayne in a quiet voice.

Ellayne stuck out her tongue, a childish mannerism that had lingered over the years despite constant coaching from her parents. “Mom, I’m fourteen,” she protested.

Mirelle stood up; she was still a good eight or nine inches taller than her daughter, though the young woman was growing almost as fast as the willowy reeds on the shoreline of the harbor. “You’ll always be my sweetie, Ellayne,” she assured her daughter.

The thought was not comforting; Ellayne chose to avoid the sentiment and instead crossed the kitchen to the door, where her weather coat hung on a peg above her boots. The winter weather was generally proof against snakes, but there was no sense taking chances. She bent down and kicked off her slippers before jamming her feet into the wool-lined leather boots. As she laced them up, she snuck a peek over her shoulder. Her mother was still smiling; Ellayne suppressed a sigh.

“Can we have something special for dinner, Mom?” she asked, trying to escape the mother-daughter chat that she knew was brewing.

“Of course, dear,” Mirelle responded as she opened the wood box by the stove. “I think we need two bundles today, by the way. You know your cousin Emile is coming—he’s home from his voyage. I’ll pick up the most interesting things I can find at the market. Which might be fish, you know.”

The thought of Emile made Ellayne smile. The two of them had been playmates for years before he had been selected to join the archipelago’s navy at the age of twelve. Now he was almost eighteen, and carried himself with pride and a patchy beard. She made mental notes to tease him if it hadn’t grown in fully after six months at sea.

“Okay, as long as it’s spicy.” Ellayne finished tying her laces and walked to the door. “Hot enough to make him sweat.”

Mirelle laughed and reached up to open the pantry above the wood box. “I think I still have a few of this piquantos from the spice merchant’s last visit,” she said. “I’ll make a special batch just for Emile.”

Ellayne opened the door and walked outside into the dark street. The dirt road was dry, common for this season, and she skipped over the deep ruts that had been carved into the surface during the last rainy season. The ground was uneven enough that running was dangerous, which was a source of annoyance for her; if there was one speed she liked, it was a dead sprint. She made up for the lack of a breeze by turning pirouettes as she danced her way down the road to the wood shed.

Gathering wood was the standard chore of the morning, and the wood shed became the default gathering place for the girls of the town. About a block away, she could see that the doors were open and there were several people already there.

“Howdy, Ella,” said one of the younger girls as she peered over the armful of wood she was carrying. She was one of the dark-skinned island natives, and her features rendered her almost invisible in the starlight.

“Hi, Perlie,” Ellayne responded with a quick smile. “You sure you can’t fit a few more chunks on that pile?”

“Funny,” the little girl responded. “You could at least offer me a rope, or a wagon.”

“I’ve got some spare,” the other girl standing in the open space in front of the shed chimed in. “Let me help you wrap it.”

“Thanks, Lisle,” Perla answered, her white teeth emerging in a grin. She stepped in closer so Lisle, who was almost Ellayne’s height but not nearly so thin, could wrap up the bundle of split wood.

Ellayne skipped on past the duo to join the third girl at the door to the shed. Teresa was a close friend, the younger sister of Thom, but the other girl would rather stay on land than go to sea, so they hadn’t spent as much time together. Teresa’s mother was a weaver, and Ellayne could understand carrying on the family tradition; their family was the best producer of canvas on the island.

“Here’s the old maid,” Teresa teased her friend as she entered the wood shed. Her voice echoed through the dark structure. “And not a wrinkle in sight!”

Ellayne hesitated at the door. She was used to starlight, but the pitch black enclosure always gave her the creeps. “Thanks awfully. Mind handing me some wood?” she responded.

“Come in here and get it!” Teresa said, egging her on. “It’s not like there are any snakes or anything.”
Ellayne had taken two steps into the starlit space just past the door frame, but she froze at the mention of snakes. “Don’t,” she said in a pleading tone.

Suddenly, the interior was plunged into darkness as the door swung closed with a bang. Ellayne whirled and rushed for the entrance, but the door was held shut from the outside. She banged futilely on the portal. “Let me out!”

There was giggling laughter from outside; the other two girls were in on the joke and must have been leaning against the door to keep it closed. Ellayne doubled her efforts, lowering her shoulder and succeeding in budging the door an inch or two before it slammed shut again. Suddenly, she felt something scaly on her neck. She let out a scream of terror and threw her entire weight against the door. It swung open easily—Lisle and Perla had stepped out of the way—and Ellayne went tumbling out into the road. She grabbed the thing on her neck and felt it crumple under her grip. She threw it to the ground and saw it for what it was: a molted snake skin, no threat at all.

Her three tormenters had gathered outside the shed door, almost in tears from laughter, and Ellayne whirled on them with hot fury in her eyes and fists balled for a fight. They responded by serenading her with “Happy Birthday To You.” But Ellayne’s anger was slow in abating.

“You three are horrid beasts!” she raged. Turning on her heel, she started to stomp off toward home.

“Wait, Ellayne!” Teresa called from behind. She ducked into the shed and brought out an armful of wood. “We’ll help you carry this back.”

Ellayne sighed and trudged back to rejoin her friends. “I need two,” she said in a slightly mollified tone.

Perla picked up her bundle and offered it up to her light-skinned comrade. “You can have mine. I’ll get more.”

Ellayne managed a weak smile as she accepted the wood. Once again she started for her house, this time with Teresa walking beside her.

“That was a rotten trick,” Ellayne complained sullenly as Teresa fell in on her right.

Teresa laughed. “You need to be less sensitive, Ellayne. Everyone knows you’re claustrophobic, but you don’t have to act like a little girl anymore.”

Ellayne looked away; the truth stung more than the teasing. “I guess you’re right.” She stared down the road toward her house, where the slowly growing dawn was replacing black with grey and purple hues. “It’s just… you know, I am who I am, right?”

“A wild-eyed dreamer,” Theresa confirmed. “But you could still grow up a little.”

Ellayne fell silent at the mention of dreams. She had, years ago, given up telling her friends about the visions that came to her in the night; even her mother didn’t really understand. Only Georg really understood and listened without prejudice. Ellayne stretched out her strides to get home a little faster; thanking Teresa for carrying the wood, she brought it inside and deposited it into the wood bin with a plop. Mirelle was elsewhere in the house, and Ellayne headed back outside before she could be tasked with any additional chores.

The sun was just coming up over the horizon, and the scarlet light brilliantly illuminated the tall wind turbines that provided the town’s electricity. At night, there was little wind to keep the blades spinning, but as the air warmed and began to stir, the long vanes started to turn in response. Before long there would be a steady, if limited, supply of current for the clan to share. Each house had a strict quota, though Ellayne’s family almost never used any except in the wood shop that adjoined the back of their bungalow. Making parts for the ships was much faster with the aid of a lathe and band saw; likewise, Watts made use of the power in his smithy to precision-machine the metal parts that the town’s residents needed.

Slipping off her over-shirt so her arms were bared, Ellayne cast the garment over the edge of the empty rain-barrel by her front door and stretched her legs restlessly. Chores done, early morning was her favorite time of day. With the aid of the risen sun, Ellayne ran through the town, her honey locks flying behind her as she loped along her usual running route: south to the docks, east along the sandy beach to the edge of the harbor cove, north along the sugar cane fields to the windmills, and then west back through the town to her home. The half-hour loop was invigorating, and when she was running she could lose herself, forgetting the teasing and laughter and maternal attentions that plagued her life. By the time she made it home, sweaty and out of breath, she was feeling a good deal better.

Her father was sitting in his rocking chair on the porch, and as she slowed down to a walk, he stood up and walked out to join her. “Happy birthday, Ellayne,” he said with a smile as she took a few deep breaths, running her fingers through her hair to tame some of its wildness. “You have a good run?”

She nodded, pausing to snag the over-shirt from the rain barrel. The cool air was already starting to chill her arms, and she shrugged the loose outerwear over her head. “Always,” she answered tersely. Turning away from the house, she looked up toward the turbines and past them to the azure sky.

Georg looked closely at Ellayne. Over the years, he had come to recognize the distant gaze, and he stepped up closer to her. “You had another dream?” he said in low tones.

“I guess,” she answered quietly. “Really more of the same one.”

Georg nodded. “I’ve got a present for you,” he said with a smile. Taking her by the hand, he led her around back to the wood shop. Pulling open the door brought a fresh scent of sawdust, but also an unusual metallic scent. Ellayne peered through the doorway, her curiosity piqued.

Her father went on ahead, clearly excited, while Ellayne followed into the faintly sun-lit shop. There was a piece of canvas covering up something on the workbench, and next to it there were some tools that Ellayne had rarely seen: wire spools, needle-nosed pliers, and a soldering iron. “What are you up to, Dad?” she asked.

He didn’t answer, instead pulling back the canvas to reveal a metal box. The front of the box was crammed full of dials, meters, and small lights, while the top and sides were flat metal broken only by a few parallel rectangular slits. On the back, a black cord was coiled up tightly.

Ellayne turned to Georg with a suspicious look. “What is it?”

“It’s a radio transmitter,” he admitted. “I picked it up off the rig a year or so ago, about your last birthday. It’s almost working now; I just need an antenna.”

The girl’s brow furrowed; the word “radio” wasn’t one she was familiar with. “What’s it do?”

“It sends and receives signals over long distances. This one’s quite strong; I think we could use it to talk to space.”

“Space?!” Ellayne gasped, astonished. “You mean, like Mars?”

Georg nodded. “But it needs an antenna. That means another trip to the rig.”

Ellayne leaned in closer, looking at the box and its myriad controls. “And pirates,” she pointed out.

“Yes, and pirates,” he answered, putting his elbows on the bench and looking directly at the young woman. “You want to come along?” he grinned.


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