The mad ship, p.68
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       The Mad Ship, p.68

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  More folk had emerged from the trees. Plainly, there were more survivors than he had first thought, but this whole confrontation was a foolish one. Even if they killed him here on the beach and wiped out his men, they could scarcely expect both ships to yield to them. They'd simply sail away. It was stupid; mobs were usually stupid. And deadly. He let his smile widen as he composed his words.

  “Hiding. Is that all you can think of?”

  The sound of Wintrow's voice shocked Kennit. It rang out, clear as a bard's, laden with contempt, and pitched, Kennit realized, to reach not just the men in front of him but those coming in from the jungle as well. Wintrow still held his knife low and ready; where had he learned that? But the boy obviously had other intentions than fighting the crowd.

  “Shut up, kid. No one has time for more talk!” Boj weighed his cudgel threateningly. He eyed Kennit over Wintrow's head. “Well, King Kennit? Easy or-”

  “Of course you have no time for talk!” Wintrow's voice rang clear over Boj's. “Talk would require brains, not brawn. No one here ever has time for talk, not even when it would have saved you. Kennit tried to show you. You can't hide from what is happening outside your little town. Sooner or later, the rest of the world catches up with you. Kennit tried to warn you. He told you to fortify the town, but you wouldn't listen. He brought slaves here and set them free amongst you, but you would not look at them and see yourselves! No, you'd rather hide here in the muck like some garbage-eating crab, and trust that the world will never take notice of you! It doesn't work that way. If you'd listen to him now, you'd find out how to be men again. I've seen the sketches in his room. This harbor could be fortified. Divvytown could declare itself. You could dredge this stinking slough you call a harbor and claim a place on the traders' charts. All you'd have to do is stand up and say, we are a people, not a band of outlaws and Jamaillia's outcasts. Choose a leader and stand up for yourselves. But no. All you want to do is splatter some more brains, work some more death and then go hide under another rock until the Satrap's raiders dig you out again!”

  The boy had run out of breath. Kennit hoped the others could not see his trembling. He pitched his voice low, as if for Wintrow alone, but he knew his words would carry. “Give it up, son. They wouldn't listen to me, they won't listen to you. This is all they know. Fighting and hiding. I've done what I could to try to teach them to be free men. ” He shrugged one shoulder. “They'll do what they'll do. ” He lifted his eyes and looked over the crowd. Some of the tattooed faces he saw were vaguely familiar. Slaves he had brought here as free men, he realized, as one after another they dropped their eyes from his gaze. One slave, braver than the rest, suddenly stepped apart from the mob.

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  “I'm with Kennit,” he said simply, and crossed the small space to stand with Sorcor's sailors. Half a dozen others followed him wordlessly. The mob began to shift restlessly as its numbers dwindled. Some of those who had come down from the jungle's edge stood apart from them, plainly reluctant to take sides. Nothing seemed as clear as it had a few moments before.

  A woman's voice was raised suddenly. “Carum! Jerod! Shame upon you! You know what he says is true! You know it!” It was Alyssum. She was standing in the Marietta's boat. Sorcor must have put her there. She pointed accusingly at the young men as she named them. “Vahor. Kolp. You teased Lily and me, saying Father had offered her hand to a madman and mine to his first mate. And what did my mother tell you? That they were men who saw how the future could be! Men who were trying to help us be more than a village on the edge of nothing. And now she is dead! Dead! Kennit didn't kill her. Our stupidity did! We would not listen to him. We needed a king to protect us, but we mocked his offer!”

  Kennit's shirt stuck to his back with perspiration. By now, both the Marietta and the Vivacia would have put out more boats. If he could just keep them from attacking him for a few moments longer, he would soon have enough men at his back to sway the odds more in his favor. He would still probably die. The boy in front of him and the woman at his side would at most slow down one or two of them. Then he would die, once they pressed him and he had to step away from the rock that braced his peg. He would die.

  Some of the folk in the back of the crowd were standing more loosely. They had stepped slightly apart from their fellows, and struck poses more listening than threatening. Boj was not one of them. He and the five or so men standing closest to him stood with their shoulders raised and elbows out, gripping their weapons hard. The resistance from the other survivors only seemed to inflame Boj's anger. The young man at his side was most likely his son. Boj's breath came faster and harder, while his mouth worked as if he could not find words sharp enough. “You're wrong!” he roared suddenly. “It's his fault! His fault! He brought them down on us!” His voice rose into a shriek, and then he leaped forward, cudgel swinging. The crowd behind him was suddenly in motion, surging forward like a wave.

  Boj's cudgel swept the place where Wintrow's skull had been. The boy had ducked, but not deeply enough. Kennit saw the glancing blow snap his head to one side. He expected the boy to go down. He planted his crutch and lifted his knife to defend himself. A young tough had engaged Etta's blade. She'd be no help to him.

  As Kennit raised his blade, Wintrow suddenly sprang up again between him and Boj. Like a sapling blown to one side but not snapped, the boy swept back to his stance. The shock showed plain on Boj's face, but the fool had already drawn his cudgel back for a blow intended to kill Kennit. His chest was wide open; no doubt the tavern keeper was accustomed to a bar between himself and his victim. Wintrow's knife slammed into the man, punching through his shirt and vest and into his hard belly. Wintrow screamed as he did it, a cry of both horror and hate. Boj roared, injured, but far from dead.

  The fighting closed in from all sides. Kennit could hear Sorcor roaring curses to encourage his men as they sliced through the crowd toward him. He heard the shrieks of women, and knew that some folk fled the fight. Everything was happening at once, yet Kennit felt he stood in an island of stillness. Etta was down in the mud with her man, shrieking, stabbing and wrestling. Kennit was dimly aware of the other fighting going on about him. He heard yells from the water, probably the men in the boats shouting their frustration at not landing yet. Behind him, two men grappled in the mud. One kicked out and clipped the end of his crutch, sending him staggering a half step into the mud. Boj's cudgel came crashing down on Wintrow's shoulder as the boy pulled out his knife and punched it into the man again. Kennit heard a solid smack as the cudgel connected and Wintrow's yell of pain and then he staggered into them. He caught himself on Boj and used his own knife. His crutch was gone; his peg sank into the mud, throwing him to one side. Boj's dying flail with the cudgel just missed him. Kennit fell across Wintrow, and then Boj came down upon them both like a tree falling. The weight of the tavern keeper slapped Kennit down into the shining mud.

  The sheer indignity of it energized Kennit more than any anger. With a roar, he threw the heavier man off him. A slice of his knife across Boj's throat made sure of him. He scrabbled up onto his good knee, and saw Etta back-down in the mud. She gripped two-handed the wrist of a powerful man who was trying to plunge a knife into her with one hand while throttling her with the other. Kennit shoved his knife into him just to the right of the man's lower spine. The man shrieked and spasmed in the shock of his pain. Etta used the moment to turn the knife from herself into the man's gut. With the same thrust, she rolled out from under him and came to her feet, crying, “Kennit, Kennit!” She was filthy. She scrabbled through the mud toward him, then stood over him protectively with her knife. It was too humiliating. Kennit struggled to stand.

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  As swiftly as the melee had begun, it was abruptly over. His pirates were left standing. Anyone in the mob who had truly wanted to fight was down. The rest had withdrawn a safe distance. Somehow, Sorcor had contrived to cut through the thick of it, as usua
l. As Kennit lost his balance and sat back in the mud, Sorcor casually dispatched a wounded Divvytown man and stepped across the remaining space between them, extending a broad hand dripping both mud and blood. Before Kennit could object, Sorcor had seized him by his jacket front and set him back on his feet. Etta found his crutch and offered it to him. It, too, was thick with muck. He accepted the filthy thing and tried to look nonchalant as he tucked it under his arm.

  At his feet, Wintrow had managed to get as far as his knees. In his right arm, he cradled his left, but he still gripped his knife as well. This Etta noticed and she gave a proud laugh. Heedless of his moan, she seized him by the back of his shirt and hauled him upright. To Kennit's surprise, she gave the boy a rough hug. “You didn't do too badly, for your first time. Next time, duck deeper. ”

  “I think my arm is broken,” he gasped in reply.

  “Let me see. ” She seized his left arm and worked her hands up it. Wintrow gave an involuntary cry and tried to pull away from her, but she held him fast. “It's not broken. If it were broken, you would have passed out when I did that. I think it might be cracked a bit, though. You'll get over it. ”

  “Help me get to firmer ground,” Kennit demanded, but it was Sorcor who took his arm and helped him along. Etta and Wintrow followed together. For an instant, that rankled. Then he reminded himself that it was his intention to throw Etta and Wintrow together. They passed the handful of men who had died, and one who sat with his head bowed over his slit belly. The other Divvytown folk had fallen back to a safe distance. One of his crewmen had been gashed on the leg, but for the most part, they were unharmed. The outcome did not surprise Kennit. They had had the advantage of full bellies and decent weapons, experienced fighters against town brawlers. Only the odds had been against him, and a few deaths had quickly changed that.

  Once he was where he could stand on his own, Kennit wiped his hands firmly down the front of his hopelessly spoiled trousers. He glanced past the crewmen who encircled him protectively to the ruins of the town. Nowhere to take a bath, nowhere to have a quiet drink, nowhere to sell his booty. Nothing left of Divvytown. No point in staying. “Let's get out of here,” he said to Sorcor. “There's a man in Bull Creek with a link to Candletown. Last time we were there, he was bragging he could get us better prices for our swag. Maybe we'll try a bit with him. ”

  “Sir,” agreed Sorcor. Then he hung his head as if studying the sand between his big boots. “Sir, I'm taking Alyssum. ”

  “If you must,” Kennit replied in some annoyance. When the big man lifted his head, there were glints of anger deep in his eyes. “And of course you must,” Kennit amended hastily, shaking his own head sadly. “For what is left for the poor girl here? You're the only protector she has now, Sorcor. I see it as your duty. You must. ”

  Sorcor was nodding gravely. “Just as I saw it myself, sir. ”

  Kennit looked with distaste at the trampled muck he must pass through on his way back to the boat. He must manage it so that it looked no more difficult for him than for anyone else. He took a firmer grip on his mud-slicked crutch. “Let's go, then. There's nothing left for us here. ”

  He cast a wary eye at the folk that still huddled in clusters, staring at them. None looked prone to attack, but one never knew. As he glanced at them, one stepped out boldly to stand before the rest. “You're leaving us here, like this?” He was incredulous.

  “How else would I leave you?” Kennit demanded.

  Again, Wintrow surprised him. “You've made it very apparent he's not welcome here. Why should he waste his time on you?” The boy sounded sincerely disdainful.

  “It wasn't us that jumped him!” the man cried out, affronted. “It was them other troublemakers, and they're all dead now. Why should we be punished for what they done?”

  “It also wasn't you that jumped in to save him,” Wintrow snapped back. “That shows you have learned nothing. Nothing! You still believe that the evil that befalls another is nothing to you. Let another man be taken slave, let another town be raided, let someone else be slaughtered on the beach right in front of you. It won't matter to you until it's your own throat being slit, and we haven't time to wait for that. Other towns are glad to listen to what he says, glad to profit from his leadership. Divvytown is dead. It was never on a chart, and it never will be. Because the people in it were already dead. ”

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  The boy's voice had a power to it. The very people he was reviling drew closer, moving as if drawn in like fish on lines. Some scowled, some looked shamed. Some still wore the dazed look of people whose bodies have survived some widespread disaster while their minds fled. They came toward the boy. Even stranger, the men of the crew parted, to let Wintrow stand before his audience unblocked. When the boy fell silent, the quiet that followed his words echoed his accusation.

  “Other towns?” someone finally asked from the crowd.

  “Other towns,” Wintrow confirmed. “Towns like Askew. They took the ship that Kennit gave them and put it to use. With the wealth that came in, they bettered the lot of all. They no longer hide, but venture out and declare to the world that they are there and they are free. They trade openly, and they challenge slaveships that seek to pass. Unlike you, they took Kennit's words to heart. They fortify their harbor and live free. ”

  “That won't work for us,” a woman objected. “We can't stay here! The raiders know where our town is. They'll be back. You must take us with you. You must! Our only hope is to flee. What else are we to do?”

  “What else?” Wintrow mused. He stood up on his tiptoes. He looked about the squalid harbor as if mentally comparing it to something. “There!” He pointed to a low bluff. “That is the spot where you could start. You rebuild, but you begin with a tower there. It need not be very tall to command a view of the lagoon. With a man keeping watch there . . . nay, even a child on watch there could have warned you all in time to flee or fight. You would have survived the last raid. ”

  “You're suggesting we rebuild Divvytown?” a man asked skeptically. His hand described an arc to indicate the remnants of the buildings. “With what?”

  “Oh, I see. You have better prospects elsewhere?” Wintrow asked him dryly.

  When the man made no reply, he went on. “Rebuild it with what you do have. Some of the lumber is salvageable. Cut trees now and put them to dry for more lumber later. Raise the ships in the harbor. If they will not sail again, put their planks to use elsewhere. ” Wintrow shook his head as if he could not fathom their stupidity. “Must it all be laid out for you? Make your stand here. Was this not your home? Why are you allowing them to drive you from it? Rebuild, but this time, do it right, with forethought for defense, for trade, for clean water. The docks should never have been built here! They should run out from there. You gave the best ground to the warehouses. Put your homes and businesses there, and build the warehouses on pilings over there, where a ship can come right up to the door. It was all in Kennit's plans; he saw it clearly. I cannot believe that you did not ever see it for yourselves. ”

  Few things appeal so much to the heart of a man as a fresh start. Kennit watched them look about with new eyes and then exchange glances. Almost as quickly, he saw a sly look steal over several faces. There was opportunity here, a chance to better what they had lost. Those who had been newcomers or poor were suddenly on an equal footing with everyone else. He would wager that whoever had owned the ships had been dragged off in chains. Someone would be smart enough to claim what was left.

  Wintrow raised his voice like a prophet proclaiming. “Kennit is a good man, who has always cared for you, even when you spurned his offers of help. You have never been far from his heart. I doubted his motives at first. I feared him. But I can tell you this now. I have seen into his heart, and I believe now what he believes. Sa has put a destiny upon him. Kennit will be King of the Pirate Isles. Will you be one of his cities, or will you vanish?”

  Kennit's ear
s rang. He could not believe for an instant what he was hearing. Then his heart seized it. The boy was his prophet. Sa had sent him Wintrow, a priest of his own, to open the eyes of others to his destiny. That was what he had felt, when he had first set eyes on the lad. The connection of king to soothsayer had linked them. It was not, as the charm had accused, some brutish urge to repeat the past. Wintrow was his prophet. His luck embodied.

  Even stranger events followed as the miracle unfolded. A man stepped forward, declaring, “I'm going to stay here. I'm going to rebuild. When I got away from my master in Jamaillia City and fled here, I thought I was a free man. But now I see I wasn't. The boy's right. I won't be free until I stop running and hiding. ”

  One of the freed slaves came to stand beside him. “I'm here. I have nowhere else, nothing to my name. I start again here. ” One of his fellows came mutely to join him. Slowly the whole crowd edged closer.

  Kennit set a muddy hand on Wintrow's shoulder. The boy turned his head to look up at him and the admiration in his eyes near blinded the pirate. For an instant, he truly felt something, a pang of some emotion so sharp he could not tell if it was pain or love. His throat closed. When he did speak, his words came out softly and folk drew nearer still to hear him. He felt like a holy man. No. Like a wise and beloved king. He smiled down on his people. “You have to do it together. It cannot be every man for himself. Begin with the tower, yes, but at its foot, raise a shelter that all can share until your homes are restored. Dig for your water instead of taking it from the slough. ” He looked around at the faces of the folk listening to him. They came to him like lost, bedraggled children; they were finally ready to hear him. He could correct their lives for them. They would let him show them how they should live. His heart swelled with triumph. He turned to Etta at his side.

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