A brilliantly imagined saga of honour, glory and warfare, Call of the Bone Ships is the captivating sequel to David Gemmell Award-nominated RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships.
Brought Up on a Hard Wind
Waves as monuments: huge and uncaring, crowned in furious white. Freezing salt water ripped across the decks of Tide Child, grasping careless feet, numbing hands. Wind; all noise and anger, rigging singing the high-pitched song of rope on the edge of panic; the lone topwings bellied out, on the edge of cracking. Ice on the ropes and the decks and the faces of the crew, making every movement treacherous. The bone hull of the ship groaned in complaint at the treatment of the waves. Women and men, wrapped in stinker coats, pulling and pushing ropes and windlasses, tying knots with cold and nerveless fingers. Tired after days of this, weeks of this, a lifetime of this. But no rest, because one moment of inattention was all that was needed and then the ship would be gone. Turned over, bone keel sticking up into the air while the crew tumbled down through the grasping water into the waiting hands of the Hag.
This was the Hagsbreath, the Northstorm’s fury.
In the midst, one figure stood unmoving and uncomplaining – but watching, always watching. She stood at the rump of her ship and it was as if the storm could not touch her. The ship bucked and rocked as towering waves pulled him seaward to landward, landward to seaward, but she did not move.
Lucky Meas, the witch of Keelhulme Sounding, the greatest shipwife who ever lived.
The call from the topboys – amazing that a human voice could cut through the noise and fury of the storm – and in that moment Meas went from stone-still to action. Passing her deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, shouting: “The rump is yours, Joron!” And she was gone, up the mainspine as if the wind did not threaten to rip her from it, as if the stressed rigging may not snap and cut her in two.
Far below, Joron dragged himself across the deck. A word here, a nod there, and in return a strong hand helped him across the constantly shifting slates. All the time his eyes scanning the horizon – grey water and black skies.
“Steer four points to the for’ard shadow, Deckkeeper.” Her voice calling from above; his own voice hoarse as he relayed the order to Barlay at the steering oar behind him. The battering of the sea, constant, fighting Tide Child as he began to turn. Orders given, stolen from his mouth by freezing wind, ice in the corners of his eyes making the shape of the descending Meas waver in his vision.
“Deckkeeper!” That voice, able to cut through any storm. “There’s a ship in trouble out there, trader of some sort, near to foundering on the rocks of a small island.” One hand on her ornate two-tailed hat, holding it in position, just as Joron was doing with his one-tailed version. “We’ll need the gullaime on deck. Bird needs to make us some slack water or we’ll be on the rocks ourselves.”
“Ey, Shipwife. We shall attempt a rescue then?”
“Or die trying, for that is our lot.” She smiled the words at him as she shouted them through horizontal, icy rain: because Tide Child was a ship of the dead, and all those aboard were condemned to fly the seas of the Scattered Archipelago until they found themselves in the Hag’s embrace. “Ready the flukeboats and crews.” Water poured from the braided edges of her hat, from her nose, gathered on her lips, droplets chased across her weathered face by the wind. “We’ll throw grapples on board and tow them away from the rocks.” The ship lurched, hit by a rogue wave. A groan ran through Tide Child’s bones. Meas turned from Joron to Barlay on the oar. “Keep him steady, Barlay!” Then she screamed into the wind: “Solemn Muffaz!” The deckmother, a giant of man, appeared from the fug of driving rain. “Help Barlay on the oar, I’ll not want us drifting onto the rocks.” She turned back to Joron. “Take Dinyl, he can command the oared flukeboat. You take the wingfluke.”
“Ey, Shipwife,” he shouted, rainwater filling his mouth. The coldness of it nothing to the cold he felt at Dinyl’s name. Once he and the deckholder had been friends – more than friends – but no longer, and what lay between them now was as cold as the Hagsbreath. He crossed the deck, guyrope to guyrope, and passed the gullaime; the bird-like windtalker was wrapped around the mainspine, its robes and feathers plastered to its spiky frame, and though the creature was anything but human, if anything on this ship embodied the misery they all felt in the constant wind and cold it was their gullaime, pressed against the spine.
“Do not like, Joron Twiner,” it screeched. Then snapped its beak shut to stop more freezing water getting in its mouth. There was something of the land to the gullaime, something of southern islands, places of heat and sand that made its being here in the wet and ice and cold all the more alien.
“It will pass, Gullaime,” he shouted. “Help Meas keep us off the rocks.”
“Not like, Joron Twiner.” A screech into the wind. “Not like!” Then Joron was past.
“Farys! Farys! Get me a crew for the wingfluke.”
The girl – no, a woman now – appearing from the rain, her scarred face almost invisible under the stinker coat’s hood. “Ey D’keeper,” said Farys. “Won’t be much fun on the sea in this.”
“I cannot disagree, but go out we must. Have Dinyl ready the flukeboat.”
“I’ll tell the d’older, ey,” and she vanished into the rain. Water swept the deck once more. The ship rose and fell and rose and fell. He was cold and damp but had been that so long that he could not imagine being any other way – though it was not really that long, six weeks only. Six weeks combing the most northerly parts of the Hundred Isles for a ship Meas was sure did not exist. A Gaunt Islands four-ribber that Kept Indyl Karrad, spymaster of Thirteenbern Gilbryn, swore was up here waiting to raid. But this had been their lives ever since Tide Child had been refitted, mission after mission supplied by Indyl Karrad, make-work rather than real work. It was becoming clearer to Joron and Meas that, whatever his reasons, Karrad did not want them in Bernshulme. Joron believed it was simply punishment for not killing the arakeesian sea dragon as they had been ordered, which Karrad had seen as the quickest way to the end of war. Meas, ever one to look on the gloomiest side, was sure she saw darker purposes in these missions. She had also dreamed of peace – an end to the war with the Gaunt Islands that had raged for as long as all could remember – but in the end had spared the keyshan, let it go to whatever waited it beyond the storms. Now she worried that their shared goal of peace was to be put aside, that Karrad had placed his ambition on another course.
Yet Meas had not abandoned her dream of a sea where warships no longer roamed. In the time since they had let the keyshan go she had introduced Joron to Safeharbour, and he had been stunned by what Meas and Karrad had wrought. For eight years they had been putting their energies into a freetown, built of the rejects, the lost, the unwanted and unwelcome. A place Meas barely ever set foot on herself, wary of the inevitable spies, but a place of succour and safety for those that desired to escape the grind of the Hundred, or Gaunt Islands, and a place that continued to grow. It was not a great or beautiful place – the roads were more mud than stone, its people rough, life hard and its Grand Bothy not that grand – but Joron had walked its streets, and marvelled that this place could exist. He knew Meas felt a quiet pride for it, and he shared it with her, as did all the shipwives of the black fleet that had come into being around Meas. It felt like something solid, something real that made their struggles worthwhile.
“Flukeboats are ready, D’keeper.” This from loyal Anzir, shadow to Joron. “Dinyl is already in the water and rowing. Here is your sword.”
“Well, the d’older is efficient, he knows his work.” He buckled the sword to his belt, a straightsword of great workmanship, given to him by Meas and his most prized possession. Sooner see himself go to the depths than lose that sword. Sooner run into the Hag’s arms than let his shipwife down.
Tide Child bucked and reared on giant waves, the space between the big boneship and the smaller flukeboat opened and closed like a hungry mouth. Anzir’s strong arms helped him across and hands reached for him because, despite his rank and his familiarity with the sea, he had never quite got the hang of crossing from ship to boat – the spines and spikes of Tide Child’s sides engendered a certain timidity in him. But despite this strange inability Joron had become well-liked by his women and men, and they helped, as to go into the water in weather like this was death. A kind death maybe, where the cold would take you before the creatures of the sea found you, but death nonetheless.
“Row, my girls and boys,” he said, once safe and sat, “let’s see if we can catch the d’older. No, better than that.” He raised his voice into the storm as the boat was raised up on a wave, “Let us see if we can outpace him.”
“That’ll annoy Cwell at his helm,” shouted Farys, “and who does not enjoy annoying Cwell, ey?” Laughter at this, smiles beneath hoods, grins as aching muscles pulled on heavy oars and the movement of those muscles chased away some of the ever-present cold. Joron stood in the beak of the ship, the sea so much fiercer and more dangerous in this small boat: picking them up, throwing them about. Two of the crew were forced from their oars to bail water from the hull as the waves threatened to swamp them. The flukeboat, usually so responsive, was unwieldy, weighed down by the coiled rope they carried in the rump. There were, he knew, deckkeepers who would have managed every oar sweep and movement of the tiller in weather like this, but not Joron; he knew those with him and he trusted them to keep the little boat afloat and headed in the right direction. He stood, staring into the ever-changing landscape of whirling water, looking for the stricken ship. In his mind was the deckkeeper’s voice, his father’s voice in many ways: If it is this hard to row now, how will it be when we are paying out rope behind us, trying to tow some unwieldy brownbone merchant? How much more likely we will be cast over, our sentence of death finally carried out?
And behind that voice was another, the one he had heard more often and more clearly with every day. The one he never spoke of. The song of the windspires, the song he somehow shared with the gullaime. Once he had loved to sing, and then for so long hated it, the memory of singing for his lost father too raw. But his voice had returned, and there were those among the crew who believed he had sung a keyshan into saving them from certain doom. Then, for a short while, he had loved to sing again. Though he felt his melodies subtly distorted and changed by the alien melodies of the windspires which recharged their gullaime’s ability to control the wind, and which he now had some link to. A constant awareness, as if something vast and, for now, placid moved through the matter of his mind, and though he felt great joy when he sung, it scared him also.
Glimpsed through the weather, a shape he knew well, the torn wings of a ship rising from a deck, wingcloth flapping and cracking in the high winds.
“Two points on the for’ard shadow to landward!” The boat moving to his call as Farys leaned into the tiller. The shape in the mist becoming clearer, no sign of the other flukeboat, no doubt lost in the troughs of the waves. Then he saw it, rising above him on a wave, women and men pulling hard as they drove the rowfluke up the sheer water. Hag’s tits, it was dangerous, the merchanter was big and if they judged this badly it would smash the delicate flukeboats to flinders.
The boy came forward, keeping low so as not to tip the boat.
“How far can you throw a grapple and keep it on the target, Gavith?” The rowfluke vanished over the crest, no doubt racing down the other side of the wave while his boat now fought its way up the side of a wave which was steeper than any hill. Vertigo span in his chest, stealing breath already thin with cold.
“I can throw it twenty-five spans, I reckon, D’keeper.” The boy screamed the words through vertical rain, sheets of water running off him, glazing his skin. Joron nodded, water falling from the hood of his coat. Reckoned in the usual overstatement any deckchild gave their skills when they were young. They would have to be far nearer than he liked; the flukeboat was what, ten spans long? Even side-on they would be nearer than anyone with a mind would choose in a sea such as this. Two good waves and they would be smashed into the side of the merchanter.
“Be ready then.” He took the grapple, a thin rope tied to the end of a thicker towing rope, and pushed it into the boy’s hands. “The sooner we are rowing away from that great lug the better.”
They crested the great wave and Joron was looking down on the merchanter. Its women and men – not many, maybe twenty – ran hither and thither over the slate of a deck crusted with ice. It had two large spines but both were broken and dragging in the water, the crew trying desperately to cut them free with axes. Behind it was a small, shallow island, one of a thousand that showed up as little more than smudge on the charts, but it had rocks enough to break a ship and with sight of the island the song within Joron became a little louder. Then the flukeboat tipped and he was screaming at the crew to row against their speed as the boat careened down the wave toward the blocky merchanter, but no matter how hard they rowed the boat continued to gather speed.
“Farys!” Water breaking over them. Wind grabbing at them as he scrambled for the rear of their boat over women and men grunting and fighting the oars. “Steer for the beak!” Screaming it through wet air. Picking up speed. The wind changing, coming from the front. The merchanter growing bigger, bigger. “Get ready, Gavith!” Skearith’s Eye, if they smashed into it they were done.
The wind screamed.
The grapple whirled.
Speed picked up.
“Row hard my girls and boys! Slow us or we’ll be food for longthresh!” He didn’t need to shout, his little crew knew the danger, strained at the oars while the cold sea tried to smash them against the bigger ship. The grapple spun in Gavith’s hands then flew through the air. “Turn, Farys! Turn!” he yelled, and the flukeboat was rushing on, the side of the merchanter growing in his vision as it raised up on a wave.
Not enough time.
Sure to die.
But the rising wave slowed their boat, just a little, and they flashed past the beak of the merchanter; a brutal, blunt and stubby prow. Gavith watched the rope fly. Joron saw the boy’s face light up, knew it for a hit.
“I got him! I got him!” He held up the looped cord of the grapple in victory.
Joron dove forward, fist lashing out to knock the boy flat as they sped past the merchanter and the cord the boy had been holding was stretched taut as the thick rope tied to it was pulled from its coil. The boy’s face a picture, looking hurt, insulted by his deckkeeper’s attack until one of the deckchilder, pulling hard on an oar, shouted at him.
“D’keeper saved your arm, boy! You didn’t let go, the rope would have had it off.” Gavith’s eyes widened, then he looked from the deckchild to Joron and nodded, started to get up but Joron knelt by him.
“Wait,” he said, watching the rapidly shrinking coil of rope. “Wait.” The deckchilder rowed hard. The wind howled and the waves swelled and the rain beat upon them. “Row my girls and boys. Row.” The rope spooling out. “Row hard.” More rope, hissing as it passed. The merchanter looming behind them as it rose up on a wave, and though it lacked the keyshanskull front of their own warship, it was just as threatening, just as hard and unyielding. The spool of rope ran out. “Brace!” shouted Joron, and the crew threw themselves forward over their oars. The flukeboat jerked to a halt and the rope was ripped from the sea in a curtain of water as it came tight, throwing the braced crew of the boat hard against the woman or man or hull in front of them. A great groan coming up from the small vessel as its varisk skeleton was tested. Then Joron was up, despite his chest throbbing from where he had been cast against the side of the hull.
“Row! Row or that great brownbone will be on us. Row for your lives!”
Then the real work, and the real danger, began. It was as if they sought to drag a huge and angry keyshan from its slumber. When they wished to go to landward it pulled to seaward, when they wished to go to seaward it pulled to landward. Communication between the two flukeboats and the bigger ship was impossible with the whipping wind and driving rain. Occasionally he would see the merchanter’s shipwife on the beak of the ship, plainly shouting something, but what they said was heard only by the Northstorm, which stole words and hoarded the secrets of storm-wracked deckchilder.
They fought on, pulling on the oars, muscle set against storm winds, against the sea, against the weight of the ship, and with nothing to fight the tired ache of their arms but their will. With the howling wind and scudding clouds no landmarks could be made out. All Joron had was that sixth sense that a life on the waves had given him – a mixture of a million intangibles: the cut of the waves, the direction of the wind and rain, even the smell and the taste of the water on his tongue. He felt it, felt the way to go, felt Tide Child out in the storm, not as a real thing, not something he could touch. But he knew where he had left the ship, knew the speed of the ship and the strength of the wind and the likelihood and length of drift in the howling gale. But he doubted, even as he screamed through the freezing rain for them to row, shouted directions at Farys on the tiller. Worried the rope would rip their boat in two if he misjudged the pull of the huge ship. Worried he misread Tide Child, that he sent them heading heedlessly out into the ocean.
And then there was relief as he felt a dot of warmth in the storm, a pulsing tiny dot of heat he had come to associate with the gullaime. Sometimes he felt it out there, sometimes not. But it provided him a point of reference. He knew if not for that he would have doubted more, worried more about his mental calculations, his instinct; but with the dot out there he knew he was right.
Rather not have it, rather get it right himself and know he had done it. Rather do that again and again and again until the doubt was worn away like rock by the tides.
But if wishes were wings gullaime would fly. This was his world and he must live in it, could not change it any more than he could rid himself of the slowly growing sores on his shoulders and legs.
Then, as if she could tell the deckchilder were finding the end of their strength, that the ropes were chewing through the soaked varisk of the flukeboats, that tiredness was beginning to mask his ability to react to the movement of the waves, Meas came.
The black ship, Tide Child, Meas Gilbryn on the prow and her grey hair, black with rain, streaming in the wind.
“Throw me the ropes!”
No storm could hold her words, no wind could steal them nor woman or man deny them.
For she was Lucky Meas.
She was the greatest shipwife who ever lived, and she would be a legend.