A brilliantly imagined saga of honor, glory, and warfare, The Bone Ships is the epic launch of a new fantasy from David Gemmell Award-nominated RJ Barker.
“Give me your hat.”
They are not the sort of words that you expect to start a legend, but they were the first words he ever heard her say.
She said them to him, of course.
It was early. The scent of fish filled his nose and worked its way into his stomach, awakening the burgeoning nausea. His head ached and his hands trembled in a way that would only be stilled by the first cup of shipwine. Then the pain in his mind would fade as the thick liquid slithered down his gullet, warming his throat and guts. After the first cup would come the second, and with that would come the numbness that told him he was on the way to deadening his mind the way his body was dead, or waiting to be. Then there would be a third cup and then a fourth and then a fifth, and the day would be over and he would slip into darkness.
But the black ship in the quiet harbour would still sit at its rope. Its bones would creak as they pulled against the tide. The crew would moan and creak as they drank on its decks, and he would fall into unconsciousness in this old flenser’s hut. Here he was, shipwife in name only. Commander in word only. Failure.
Voices from outside, because even here, in the long-abandoned and ghost-haunted flensing yards there was no real escape from others. Not even the memory of keyshan’s rot, the disease of the boneyards, could keep people from cutting through.
“The Shattered Stone came in this morran, said they saw an archeyex over Sleightholme. Sent their windtalker fell mad and it nearly wrecked ’em. Had to kill the creature to stop it bringing a wind to throw ’em across a lee shore.”
“Aren’t been an archeyex seen for nigh on my lifetime. It brings nothing good, paint that on a rock for the Sea Hag.” And the voices faded, lost in the hiss of the waves on the beach, eaten up by the sea as everything was destined to be, while he thought on what they said – “brings nothing good”. May as well as say that Skearith’s Eye will rise on the morran, for this is the Hundred Isles – when did good things ever happen here?
The next voice he heard was the challenge. Delivered while he kept his eyes closed against the tides of nausea ebbing and flowing in hot, acidic waves from his stomach.
“Give me your hat.” A voice thick with the sea, a bird-shriek croak of command. The sort of voice you ran to obey, had you scurrying up the rigging to spread the wings of your ship. Maybe, just maybe, on any other day or after a single cup of shipwine, maybe he would have done what she said and handed over his two-tailed shipwife’s hat, which, along with the bright dye in his hair, marked him out as a commander – though an undeserving one.
But in the restless night his sleep had been troubled by thoughts of his father and thoughts of another life, not a better one, not an easier one, but a sober one, one without shame. One in which he did not feel the pull of the Sea Hag’s slimy hands trying to drag him down to his end. One of long days at the wing of a flukeboat, singing of the sea and pulling on the ropes as his father glowed with pride at how well his little fisher boy worked the winds. Of long days before his father’s strong and powerful body was broken as easily as a thin varisk vine, ground to meat between the side of his boat and the pitiless hull of a boneship. His hand reaching up from black water, a bearded face, mouth open as if to call to his boy in his final agonising second. Such strength, and it had meant nothing.
So maybe he had, for once, woken with the idea of how wonderful it would be to have a little pride. And if there had been a day for him to give up the two-tailed hat of shipwife, then it was not this day.
“No,” he said. He had to scrape the words out of his mind, and that was exactly how it felt, like he drew the curve of a curnow blade down the inside of his skull; words falling from his mouth slack as midtide. “I am shipwife of the Tide Child and this is my symbol of command.” He touched the rim of the black two-tailed cap. “I am shipwife, and you will have to take this hat from me.”
How strange it felt to say those words, those fleet words that he knew more from his father’s stories of service than from any real experience. They were good words though, strong words with a history, and they felt right in his mouth. If he were to die then they were not bad final words for his father to hear from his place, deep below the sea, standing warm and welcome at the Hag’s eternal bonefire.
He squinted at the figure before him. Thoughts fought in his aching head: which one of them had come for him? Since he’d become shipwife he knew a challenge must come. He commanded angry women and men, bad women and men, cruel women and men – and it had only ever been a matter of time before one of his crew wanted the hat and the colours. Was it Barlay who stood in the door hole of the bothy? She was a hard one, violent. But no, too small for her and the silhouette of this figure wore its hair long, not cut to the skull. Kanvey then? He was a man jealous of everything and everyone, and quick with his knife. But no, the silhouette appeared female, undoubtably so. No straight lines to her under the tight fishskin and feather. Cwell then? She would make a move, and she could swim so would have been able to get off the ship.
He levered himself up, feeling the still unfamiliar tug of the curnow at his hip.
“We fight then,” said the figure and she turned, walking out into the sun. Her hair worn long, grey and streaked in the colours of command: bright reds and blues. The sun scattered off the fishskin of her clothing, tightly wound about her muscled body and held in place with straps. Hanging from the straps were knives, small crossbows and a twisting shining jingling assortment of good-luck trinkets that spoke of a lifetime of service and violence. Around her shoulders hung a precious feathered cloak, and where the fishskin scattered the sunlight the feather cloak hoarded it, twinkling and sparkling, passing motes of light from plume to plume so each and every colour shone and shouted out its hue.
I am going to die, he thought.
She idled away from the slanted bothy he had slept in, away from the small and stinking abandoned dock, and he followed. No one was around. He had chosen this place for its relative solitude, amazed at how easily that could be found; even on an isle as busy as Shipshulme people tended to flock together, to find each other, and of course they shunned such Hag-haunted places as this, where the keyshan’s curse still slept.
Along the shingle beach they walked: her striding, looking for a place, and him following like a lost kuwai, one of the flightless birds they bred for meat, looking for a flock to join. Though of course there was no flock for a man like him, only the surety of the death he walked towards.
She stood with her back to him as though he were not worth her attention. She tested the beach beneath her feet, pushing at the shingle with the toes of her high boots, as if searching for something under the stones that may rear up and bite her. He was reminded of himself as a child, checking the sand for jullwyrms before playing alone with a group of imaginary friends. Ever the outsider. Ach, he should have known it would come to this.
When she turned, he recognised her, knew her. Not socially, not through any action he had fought as he had fought none. But he knew her face – the pointed nose, the sharp cheekbones, the weathered skin, the black patterns drawn around her eyes and the scintillating golds and greens on her cheeks that marked her as someone of note. He recognised her, had seen her walking before prisoners. Seen her walking before children won from raids on the Gaunt Islands, children to be made ready for the Thirteenbern’s priest’s thirsty blades, children to be sent to the Hag or to ride the bones of a ship as corpselights – merry colours that told of the ship’s health. Seen her standing on the prow of her ship, Arakeesian Dread, named for the sea dragons that provided the bones for the ships and had once been cut apart on the warm beach below them. Named for the sea dragons that no longer came. Named for the sea dragons that were sinking into myth the way a body would eventually sink to the sea floor.
But oh that ship!
He’d seen that too.
Last of the five-ribbers he was, Arakeesian Dread. Eighteen bright corpselights dancing above him, a huge long-beaked arakeesian skull as long as a two-ribber crowned his prow, blank eyeholes staring out, his beak covered in metal to use as a ram. Twenty huge gallowbows on each side of the maindeck and many more standard bows below in the underdeck. A crew of over four hundred that polished and shone every bone that made his frame, so he was blinding white against the sea.
He’d seen her training her crew, and he’d seen her fight. At a dock, over a matter of honour when someone mentioned the circumstances of her birth. It was not a long fight, and when asked for mercy, well, she showed none, and he did not think it was in her for she was Hundred Isles and fleet to the core. Cruel and hard.
What light there was in the sky darkened as if Skearith the godbird closed its eye to his fate, the fierce heat of the air fleeing as did that small amount of hope that had been in his breast – that single fluttering possibility that he could survive. He was about to fight Meas Gilbryn, “Lucky” Meas, the most decorated, the bravest, the fiercest shipwife the Hundred Isles had ever seen.
He was going to die.
But why would Lucky Meas want his hat? Even as he prepared himself for death he could not stop his mind working. She could have any command she wanted. The only reason she would want his would be if . . .
And that was unthinkable.
Meas Gilbryn condemned to the black ships? Condemned to die? Sooner see an island get up and walk than that happen.
Had she been sent to kill him?
Maybe. There were those to whom his continued living was an insult. Maybe they had become bored with waiting?
“What is your name?” She croaked the words like something hungry for carrion.
He tried to speak, found his mouth dry and not merely from last night’s drink. Fear. Though he had walked with it as a companion for six months it made it no less palatable.
He swallowed, licked his lips. “My name is Joron. Joron Twiner.”
“Don’t know it,” she said, dismissive, uninterested. “Not seen it written in the rolls of honour, not heard it in any reports of action.”
“I never served before I was sent to the black ships,” he said. She drew her straightsword. “I was a fisher once.” Did he see a flash in her eyes, and if he did what could it mean? Annoyance, boredom?
“And?” she said, taking a practice swing with her heavy blade, contemptuous of him, barely even watching him. “How does a fisher get condemned to a ship of the dead? Never mind become a shipwife.” Another practice slash at the innocent air before her.
“I killed a man.”
She stared at him.
“In combat,” he added, and he had to swallow again, forcing a hard ball of cold-stone fear down his neck.
“So you can fight.” Her blade came up to ready. Light flashed down its length. Something was inscribed on it, no cheap slag-iron curnow like his own.
“He was drunk and I was lucky,” he said.
“Well, Joron Twiner, I am neither, despite my name,” she said, eyes grey and cold. “Let’s get this over with, ey?”
He drew his curnow and went straight into a lunge. No warning, no niceties. He was not a fool and he was not soft. You did not live long in the Hundred Isles if you were soft. His only chance of beating Lucky Meas lay in surprising her. His blade leaped out, a single straight thrust for the gut. A simple, concise move he had practised so many times in his life – for every woman and man of the Hundred Isles dreams of being in the fleet and using his sword to protect the islands” children. It was a perfect move he made, untouched by his exhaustion and unsullied by a body palsied with lack of drink.
She knocked his blade aside with a a small movement of her wrist, and the weighted end of the curving curnow blade dragged his sword outward, past her side. He stumbled forward, suddenly off balance. Her free hand came round, and he caught the shine of a stone ring on her knuckles, knew she wore a rockfist in the moment before it made contact with his temple.
He was on the ground. Looking up into the canopy of the wide and bright blue sky wondering where the clouds had gone. Waiting for the thrust that would finish him.
Her sword tip appeared in his line of sight.
Touched the skin of his forehead.
Raked a painful line up to his hair and pushed the hat from his head and she used the tip of her sword to flick his hat into the air and caught it, putting it on. She did not smile, showed no sense of triumph, only stared at him while the blood ran down his face and he waited for the end.
“Never lunge with a curnow, Joron Twiner,” she said quietly. “Did they teach you nothing? You slash with it. It is all it is fit for.”
“What poor final words for me,” he said. “To die with another’s advice in my ear.” Did something cross her face at that, some deeply buried remembrance of what it was to laugh? Or did she simply pity him?
“Why did they make you shipwife?” she said. “You plain did not win rank in a fight.”
“I—” he began.
“There are two types of ship of the dead.” She leaned forward, the tip of her sword dancing before his face. “There is the type the crew run, with a weak shipwife who lets them drink themselves to death at the staystone. And there is the type a strong shipwife runs that raises his wings for trouble and lets his women and men die well.” He could not take his eyes from the tip of the blade, Lucky Meas a blur behind the weapon. “It seems to me the Tide Child has been the first, but now you will lead me to him and he will try what it is to be the second.”
Joron opened his mouth to tell her she was wrong about him and his ship, but he did not, because she was not.
“Get up, Joron Twiner,” she said. “You’ll not die today on this hot and long-blooded shingle. You’ll live to spend your blood in service to the Hundred Isles along with every other on that ship. Now come, we have work to do.” She turned, sheathing her sword, as sure he would do as she asked as she was Skearith’s Eye would rise in the morning and set at night.
The shingle moved beneath him as he rose, and something stirred within him. Anger at this woman who had taken his command from him. Who had called him weak and treated him with such contempt. She was just like every other who was lucky enough to be born whole of body and of the strong.
Sure of their place, blessed by the Sea Hag, the Maiden and the Mother and ready to trample any other before them to get what they wanted. The criminal crew of Tide Child, he understood them at least. They were rough, fierce and had lived with no choice but to watch out for themselves. But her and her kind? They trampled others for joy.
She had taken his hat of command from him, and though he had never wanted it before, it had suddenly come to mean something. Her theft had awoken something in him.
He intended to get it back.