Ship of destiny, p.40
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       Ship of Destiny, p.40

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “They plan to stay. ” Grag’s deep voice was soft but clear. “After they’ve killed or enslaved everyone in Bingtown, the Chalcedeans will settle here, and Bingtown Bay will be just another part of Chalced. ”

  “Did I wake you, tossing about?” Reyn asked quietly.

  “Not really. I can’t find true sleep. I’m so tired of the waiting. I know that we needed to organize our resistance, but it has been hard to watch all the destruction in the meantime. Now that the day is finally here, each moment drags, and yet I wish we had more time to prepare. I wish Mother and the girls would flee to the mountains. Perhaps they could hide there until all this is over. ”

  “Over in what way?” Reyn asked sourly. “I know we must have heart for this foray, but I cannot believe we will succeed. If we drive them from our beaches, they will simply retreat to their ships and then launch another attack. While they control the harbor, they control Bingtown. Without trade, how can we survive?”

  “I don’t know. There has to be some hope,” Grag insisted stubbornly. “At least this mess has brought us together. The whole population now has to see that we will survive only if we stand together. ”

  Reyn tried to sound positive but failed. “There is hope, but it is faint. If our liveships returned and boxed them into the harbor, I think all Bingtown would rally then. If we had a way to catch them between the beach and the harbor mouth, we could kill them all. ”

  Worry crept into Grag’s voice. “I wish we knew where our ships are, or at least how many still float. I suspect that the Chalcedeans lured our ships away. They ran and we chased them, possibly out to where a much greater force could destroy us. How could we have been so stupid?”

  “We are merchants, not warriors,” Reyn replied. “Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. All we know how to do is negotiate, and our enemies are not interested in that. ”

  Grag made a sound between a sigh and a groan. “I should have been on board Ophelia that day. I should have gone with them. It is agony to wait and hope, not knowing what has become of my father and our ship. ”

  Reyn was quiet. He was too aware of how the knife-edge of uncertainty could score a man’s soul. He would not insult Grag by saying that he knew what he was feeling. Every man’s pain was personalized. Instead, he offered, “We’re both awake. We may as well get up. Let’s go talk in the kitchen, so we don’t wake Selden. ”

  “Selden is awake,” the boy said quietly. He sat up. “I’ve decided. I’m going with you today. I’m going to fight. ”

  “No. ” Reyn forbade it quickly, then tempered his words. “I don’t think that is wise, Selden. Your position is unusual. You may be the last heir to your family name. You should not risk your life. ”

  “The risk would be if I cowered here and did nothing,” Selden returned bitterly. “Reyn. Please. When I am with my mother and my grandmother, they mean well, but they make me… young. How am I to learn to be a man, if I am never among men? I need to go with you today. ”

  “Selden, if you go with us, you may not grow up to be a man,” Grag cautioned him. “Stay here. Protect your mother and grandmother. That is where you can best serve Bingtown. And it is your duty. ”

  “Don’t patronize me,” the boy returned sharply. “If the fighting reaches this house, we will all be slaughtered, because by the time it gets here, you will all be dead. I’m going with you. I know that you think that I’ll be in your way, someone you have to protect. But it won’t be like that. I promise you. ”

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  Grag took a breath to object, but Reyn interrupted them both. “Let’s go down to the kitchen and discuss it there. I could use some coffee. ”

  “You won’t get it,” Grag told him grumpily. Reyn saw his effort to change his mood. “But there is tea, still. ”

  They were not the only restless ones. The kitchen fire had been poked to life and a large kettle of porridge was already simmering. Not only Grag’s mother and sister but also the Vestrit women moved restlessly about the big room in mimicry of cooking. There was not enough work to busy them. A low mutter of voices came from the dining hall. As food was prepared, trays were borne off to the table. Ekke Kelter was there as well. She offered Grag Tenira a warm smile with the cup of tea she poured for him, then seated herself across the kitchen table from him and said matter-of-factly, “The arsonists have already gone. They wanted to be certain they’d be in position before the attack. ”

  Reyn’s heart give an odd little hitch. Suddenly, it was real. Smoke and flame rising from the Drur family warehouse by the docks was to be the signal for all the waiting attackers. Daring spies, mostly slave boys, had established that the Chalcedeans had amassed their loot there. Surely, they would return to fight a fire. Bingtown would burn its stolen wealth to draw the Chalcedeans to a central location. Once that fire was burning, they would attempt to set the Chalcedean ships ablaze with flaming arrows. A team of Three Ships men, their bodies well-greased against the cold waters, would swim out to the Chalcedean ships and slip some anchor chains as well.

  The various Bingtown groups had planned this diversion to disorganize the invaders before they made a massed dawn attack. Each man had armed himself as best he could. Ancient family swords would be wielded alongside clubs and butcher knives, fish bats and sickles. Merchants and fishermen, gardeners and kitchen slaves would all turn the tools of their trades to war today. Reyn squeezed his eyes shut for an instant. Bad enough to die; did they have to be so pathetically ill-equipped as they did so? Reyn poured himself a hot cup of tea, and silently wished well to all the grim saboteurs slipping quietly through the chill and rainy night.

  Selden, seated beside him, suddenly gripped his wrist hard under the table. When he looked at the boy questioningly, a strangely grim smile lit his face. “I feel it,” he said in a low voice. “Don’t you?”

  “It’s natural to be afraid,” he comforted the boy quietly. Selden only shook his head and released his grip on Reyn. Reyn’s heart sank. Malta’s little brother had been through far too much for a boy of his years. It had affected his mind.

  Ronica Vestrit brought fresh bread to the table. The old woman had braided her graying hair and pinned it tightly to her head. As he thanked Ronica, his own mother entered the room. She was not veiled. Neither of the Rain Wilders had covered their faces since the day Reyn had removed his veil at the Council table. If all were to be a part of this new Bingtown, then let all meet eyes squarely. Were his scaling, growths and gleaming copper eyes all that different from the tattoos that sprawled across the slaves’ faces? His mother, too, had confined her hair in securely pinned braids. She wore trousers rather than her customary flowing skirts. In response to his puzzled glance, she said only, “I won’t be hampered by skirts when we attack. ”

  He stared at her, waiting for her smile to make her words a jest. But she didn’t smile. She only said quietly, “There was no point in discussing it. We knew you would all be opposed. It is time the men of Bingtown remember that when we first came here, women and children risked just as much as their men did. We all fight today, Reyn. Better to die in battle than live as slaves after our men have died trying to protect us. ”

  Grag spoke with a sickly smile. “Well, that’s optimistic. ” His eyes studied his mother for an instant. “You, too?”

  “Of course. Did you think I was fit only to cook for you, and then send you out to die?” Naria Tenira offered the bitter words as she set a steaming apple pie on the table. Her next words were softer. “I made this for you, Grag. I know it’s your favorite. There is meat and ale and cheese set out in the dining hall, if you’d rather. Those who went out before you wanted a hearty meal against the cold. ”

  It might be their last meal together. If the Chalcedeans did overrun them today, they would find the larder empty. There was no point in holding anything back anymore, whether food or beloved lives. Despite the hovering of destruction, or perhaps because of it, the warm
baked fruit, redolent of honey and cinnamon, had never smelled so good to Reyn. Grag cut slices with a generous hand. Reyn set the first piece of the warm pie before Selden and accepted another for himself. “Thank you,” he said quietly. He could think of nothing else to say.

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  AS TINTAGLIA CIRCLED HIGH ABOVE BINGTOWN HARBOR, THE SIMMERING anger in her finally boiled. How dare they treat a dragon so? She might be the last of her kind, but she was still Lord of the Three Realms. Yet at Trehaug, they had turned her aside as if she were a beggar knocking at their door. When she had circled the city and roared to let them know she would land there, they had not bothered to clear the wharf of people and goods. When finally she had come down, the people had run shrieking as her beating wings swept crates and barrels into the river.

  They had hidden from her, treating her visit with disdain instead of offering her meat and welcome. She had waited, telling herself that they were fearful. Soon they would master themselves and give her proper greeting. Instead, they had sent out a line of men bearing makeshift shields and carrying bows and pikes. They had advanced on her in a line, as if she were a straying cow to be herded, rather than a lord to be served.

  Still, she had kept her temper. Many of their generations had passed since a dragon came calling on them. Perhaps they had forgotten the proper courtesies. She would give them a chance. Yet when she greeted them just as if they had made proper obeisance to her, some behaved as if they could not understand her, while others cried out “she spoke, she spoke,” as if it were a wonder. She had waited patiently for them to finish squabbling amongst themselves. At last, they had pushed one woman forward. She pointed her trembling spear at Tintaglia and demanded, “Why are you here?”

  She could have trampled the woman, or opened her jaws and sprayed her with a mist of toxin. Yet again, Tintaglia swallowed her anger and simply demanded, “Where is Reyn? Send him forth to me. ”

  The woman gripped her spear more tightly to still its shaking. “He is not here!” she proclaimed shrilly. “Now go away, before we attack you!”

  Tintaglia lashed her tail, sending a pyramid of casks into the river. “Send me Malta, then. Send me someone with the wit to speak before she makes threats. ”

  Their spokeswoman stepped backward to the line of cowering warriors and conferred briefly there. She only took two steps from the shelter of the mob before proclaiming, “Malta is dead, and Reyn is not here. ”

  “Malta is not dead,” Tintaglia exclaimed in annoyance. Her link with the female human was not as strong as it had been, but it was not gone, either. “I weary of this. Send me Reyn, or tell me where I may find him. ”

  The woman squared herself. “I will tell you only that he is not here. Begone!”

  It was too much. Tintaglia reared back on her hind legs and then crashed down on her forelegs, making the dock rock wildly. The woman staggered to her knees, while some of the warriors behind her broke ranks and fled. A lash of Tintaglia’s tail swept the dock clean of crates and barrels. Tintaglia seized the woman’s puny spear in her jaws, snapped it into splinters and spat them aside. “Where is Reyn?” she roared.

  “Don’t tell!” one of the warriors cried, but a young man sprang forth from them.

  “Don’t kill her! Please!” he begged the dragon. He swept the other spear-carriers with a scathing glance. “I will not sacrifice Ala for the sake of Reyn! He brought the dragon down on us; let him deal with her. Reyn is gone from here, dragon. He went on Kendry to Bingtown. If you want Reyn, seek him there. Not here. We offer you nothing but battle. ”

  Some shouted that he was a traitor and a coward, but others sided with him, telling the dragon to leave and seek out Reyn. Tintaglia was disgusted. She levered herself back onto her hindquarters, allowing the pinioned woman to escape, brought her clawed forelegs down solidly on the dock, dug in her claws and dragged them back, splintering the planking of the dock. It crumpled like dry leaves. A lash of her tail smashed two rowing boats tied to the dock. She let them see that her destruction was effortless.

  “It would take nothing at all for me to bring your city crashing down!” she roared at them. “Remember it, puny two-legs. You have not seen nor heard the last of me. When I return, I shall teach you respect, and school you how to serve a Lord of the Three Realms. ”

  They rallied then, or tried to. Several rushed at her, spears lowered. She did not charge them. Instead, she spread her wings, leaped lightly into the air and then crashed her weight down on the dock once more. The impact sent the humans’ end of the dock flying up, catapulting would-be defenders into the air. They fell badly, landing heavily. At least one went into the water. She had not waited for more of their disrespect, but had launched herself into the air, leaving the dock rocking wildly. As she rose, people screamed, some shaking fists, others cowering.

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  It mattered nothing to her. She sought the air. Bingtown. That would be the smelly little coastal town she had flown over. She would seek Reyn there. He had spoken for her before; he could speak again, and make them all understand the wrath they would face if they did not do as she commanded them.

  And now she was here, riding a chill winter wind over the huddled town below. Fading white stars pricked the winter sky above her; below were a few scattered yellow lights in the mostly sleeping town. Dawn would soon stir the human nest. A foul stench of burning wafted up to her. Ships filled the harbor and, along the waterfront, watch fires burned at irregular intervals. Beside the fires, she saw men pacing restlessly. She dug back in her memories. War. She witnessed the stink and clutter of war. Below her, thick smoke from a dockside building suddenly blossomed into orange flame. An outcry arose. Her keen eyes picked out the shapes of men running furtively away as a much larger group converged on the fire.

  She dropped lower, trying to discern what was going on. As she did so, she heard the unmistakable hiss of arrows in flight. The flaming projectiles missed her, striking instead a ship where they swiftly went out. A second volley followed the first. This time, a sail on one of the ships caught fire. Flames from the tarred and burning shaft ran swiftly up the canvas toward her. She beat her wings hastily to gain altitude, and the wind of her passage fanned the racing flames. On the deck of the burning ship, men yelled in astonishment. They pointed past their burning sail to the dragon silhouetted above the ship.

  She heard the twang of a bow, and an arrow sang past her. She sideslipped the errant missile, but others took swift flight against her. One of the puny shafts actually struck her, pecking harmlessly against the tight scaling on her belly. She was both astonished and affronted. They dared to attempt to harm her? Humans sought to oppose the will of a dragon? Anger flared in her. Truly, the skies had been empty of wings for far too long. How dared humans assume they were the masters of this world? She would teach them now how foolish that concept was. She chose the largest of the ships, folded her wings and plummeted down toward it.

  She had never battled a ship before. In all her dragon memories, there were few in which humans had opposed dragons. She discovered quickly that seizing rigging in her talons was a bad idea. The rocking vessels did not offer satisfactory resistance to her attack. They swayed away from her, and canvas and lines tangled around her clawed feet. With a wild shake, she tore herself free of the ship. She flapped her wings to gain altitude. High above the harbor, she divested her claws of the tangled mess of lines, spars and canvas and with satisfaction watched it crash down amidships of a galley, foundering the smaller craft.

  On her second pass, she selected a two-masted ship as her prey. The men on board, seeing her stoop toward them, filled the air with arrows which clattered against her, falling back onto the ship below. As she swept by the ship, a slash of her tail sliced both masts. Tangled with sails and rigging, they fell, but Tintaglia flew clear of them. She passed low over a galley and the men on board leapt over the sides into the sea. She roared her del
ight. So quickly they learned to fear her!

  The beating of her great wings set smaller craft rocking. A chorus of shouts and screams rose in homage to her fury. She drove herself skyward and then swung back over the harbor. As the winter sun broke free of the horizon, she saw a brief, dazzling reflection of her gleaming body on the dark water below. Her keen eyes swept the city. The fires went unfought, the battles of mere humans unjoined. All eyes were lifted to her, all motion suspended in paralyzed worship of her wrath. Her heart soared on their awestruck regard. The bouquet of their fear rose to her nostrils and intoxicated her with power. She drew breath and screamed, releasing with the sound a mist of milky poison. It drifted on the morning wind. A few seconds passed before the satisfaction of agonized shrieks rose to her. In the ships below her, the droplets of poison ate skin and sank deep into flesh, piercing bone and eating through gut before passing out the other side of the victims’ twitching bodies. Battle venom, born in the acid waters of her birth, strong enough to penetrate the layered armor of an adult dragon, passed unspent through the watery flesh of the humans and sizzled through the wood of their ships. The tiniest drop created a wound that would not heal. So much for those who had thought to pierce her flesh with arrows!

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