The mad ship, p.75
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       The Mad Ship, p.75
 

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Etta's hands came up to rest on his shoulders. She kneaded gently at his flesh. Her cool hands were pleasant. “I tried to comfort him. I tried to tell him it might be chance, not destiny, that has put him here. Do you know what he said?”

  “That there is no chance, only destiny. ”

  Her hands paused. “How did you know?”

  “It is one of the cornerstones of Sa's teachings. That destiny is not reserved for a few chosen ones. Each man has a destiny. Recognizing it and fulfilling it are the purpose of a man's life. ”

  “It seems a burdensome teaching to me. ”

  Kennit shook his head against the pillow. “If a man can believe it, then he can know he is as important as any other man. He can also know that he is no more important than any other is. It creates a vast equality of purpose. ”

  “But what of the man he killed today?” Etta asked.

  Kennit snorted softly. “That is Wintrow's hurdle, isn't it? To accept that someone is destined to die at his hand, and that he is destined to wield the knife. In time Wintrow will see that it was not his doing that slew the man at all. Sa brought them both together, to fulfill their destinies. ”

  Etta spoke hesitantly. “Then you, too, believe in Sa and his teaching?”

  “When it fits my destiny to do so,” Kennit told her loftily, and then laughed. He suddenly felt inexplicably good. “This is what we shall do for the lad. We'll get the Divvytown construction under way, and then we'll take Wintrow to the Others Island. I'll let him walk the beach, and have an Other tell his fortune from what he finds. ” He grinned in the darkness. “Then I'll tell him what it means. ”

  He rolled over into her reaching arms.

  AT LEAST ONE BARREL OF THEIR SALT PORK HAD GONE BAD. THE CASKS that held fatty pieces of meat floating in brine should have been tight. The smell meant that the cask had been broached, either in loading or by other cargo shifting against it. The leaking brine and rotting meat not only stank, it would contaminate any other food it contacted. The stench was coming from a forward hold, one with little headspace. Food supplies in kegs, boxes and barrels filled it snugly. The cargo would have to be shifted, the offending cask disposed of and anything it had leaked onto would have to be cleaned up or discarded. Brashen had discovered the stench on one of his prowls of the ship. He'd given the task to Lavoy, who had passed it on to her. She had put two men onto it at the beginning of her watch. Now, as dawn reached over the face of the water, she had come down to see how they had progressed.

  The sight that met her eyes infuriated her. Only about half the cargo had been shifted. The stench was as strong as ever; there was no sign that the cask had been discovered, or any cleaning done. The hand hooks they should have been using to move the kegs and crates were both sunk into an overhead beam. Lop sat on a cask, hunching his tall, skinny frame over the crate before him, his pale blue eyes intent on three walnut shells. Opposite him was Artu, his dirty fingers flickering and dancing over the shells. “Which one, which one,” he was humming in the old trickster's chant as he deftly shifted the shells. The slick scar of the old brand on his cheek caught the lantern's fading light. This was Brashen's rapist. Lop was merely stupid, and prone to idleness, but Althea hated Artu. She never worked near him if she could help it. The man had glittery little eyes, dark as a rat-hole, and a puckered mouth that was constantly wet. So engrossed was he in cheating Lop out of his money that Artu was completely unaware of her. He stopped the shells with a flourish, and his darting tongue wet his lips again. “And which one has the bean?” he demanded, wiggling his eyebrows at Lop.

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  Althea strode up and kicked the crate, making all the shells jump. “Which cask has the rotten meat?” she roared at them.

  Lop turned amazed eyes up at her. Then he pointed at the overturned shells. “There's no bean!” he exclaimed.

  She seized him by the back of his shirt collar and shook him. “There never is!” she told him, and then shoved him to one side. He gaped at her.

  She turned on Artu. “Why haven't you found that cask and cleaned it up?”

  He came to his feet, licking his lips nervously. He was a small, bandylegged man, more quick than strong. “ 'Cause there ain't one to find. Me and Lop, we shifted all the cargo in this hold, looked at it all and found nothing. Right, Lop?”

  Lop goggled at her, his large pale eyes wide. “We didn't find it, ma'am. ”

  “You didn't move all the cargo. I can smell it! Can't you?”

  “Just ship stink, that's all. All ships smell like that. ” Artu shrugged elaborately. “When you been on as many ships as I have,” he began condescendingly, but Althea cut him off.

  “This ship doesn't stink like that. And it never will as long as I'm a mate on it. Now get that cargo shifted, find that rotten meat and clean it up. ”

  Artu scratched at a boil on the side of his neck. “Our watch is almost up, ma'am. Maybe the next watch'll find it. ” He nodded to himself in satisfaction and gave Lop a conspiratorial nudge. The lanky sailor echoed Artu's grin.

  “Tidings for you, Artu. You and Lop are on watch down here until you find it and clean it up. Clear? Now get on your feet and start shifting this cargo. ”

  “That ain't fair!” Artu cried out as he came to his feet. “We worked our watch! Hey, come back here! That ain't fair!”

  His grubby fingers caught at her sleeve. Althea tried to jerk free, but his grip was amazingly strong. She froze. She wouldn't risk a struggle she might not win, nor a torn shirt, with this man. She met his gaze with narrowed eyes. “Let go,” she said flatly.

  Lop stared, wide-eyed as a boy. He'd caught his lower lip between his teeth. “Artu, she's second mate,” he whispered nervously. “You're gonna get in big trouble. ”

  “Mate,” Artu snorted in disgust. Quick as a flea's hop, he shifted his grip from her sleeve to her forearm inside it. His dirty fingers bit down hard on her flesh. “She ain't no mate, she's a woman. And she wants it, Lop. She wants it bad. ”

  “She wants it?” Lop asked dimly. He looked at Althea in consternation.

  “She ain't screaming,” Artu pointed out. “She's just standing here, waiting for it. I think she's tired of getting it from the captain. ”

  “She'll tell,” Lop complained in confusion. It took so little to confuse the man.

  “Naw. She'll scream and wiggle a bit, but we'll leave her smiling. You'll see. ” Artu leered at her. He wet his pursed little mouth. “Right, matey?” he taunted her. He grinned, showing brown-edged teeth.

  Althea met his gaze squarely. She could not show fear. Her mind was racing. Even if she screamed, no one would hear her down here. The ship might be aware of her, but she couldn't count on Paragon. He had been so spooky lately, imagining serpents and floating logs and yelling out sudden warnings, that most likely no one would pay attention to him. She would not scream. Artu was looking at her, his little eyes shining. He'd like her to scream, she realized. He and she both knew that when he was finished with her, he'd have to kill her. He'd try to make it look like an accident, falling cargo or whatever. Lop would say whatever Artu told him to say, but Brashen would not be fooled. Brashen would likely kill them both, but she wouldn't be around to watch him do it.

  The cascade of thoughts tumbled through her mind in less than a breath. She was on her own here. She'd sworn to Brashen she could handle this crew. Could she?

  “Let go, Artu. Last chance,” she told him evenly. She managed to keep the tremor out of her voice.

  He backhanded her with his free hand, the blow so swift she never saw it coming. Her head snapped back on her neck. She was stunned for an instant, dimly aware of Lop's distressed, “Don't hit her,” and Artu's, “Naw, that's how she wants it. Rough. ”

  His hands scrabbled over her body, pulling her shirt loose from her trousers. Her revulsion at his touch was what brought her back. She struck out at him with all her strength, body punches that he
didn't seem to feel. His body was as hard as wood. He laughed at her efforts and she knew an instant of despair. She couldn't hurt him. She would have fled then, but his grip on her arms was tighter than a vise, and the disarray of cargo made a quick escape impossible. He forced her up against a crate. He released one of her arms to grip the front collar of her shirt. He tried to tear it, but the stout cotton held. With her one free hand, she punched hard in and up at the base of his ribs. She thought he flinched.

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  This time she saw his blow coming. She threw her head to one side and he punched the crate behind her instead of her face. She heard the wood splinter with the force of his blow and heard him shout hoarsely. She hoped he had broken his hand. She tried to gouge his eyes, but he snapped at her, biting her wrist hard and drawing blood. They overbalanced, and went down. She twisted desperately, trying not to land beneath him. They fell on their sides amongst the crates and boxes. It made for close quarters. She drew her arm back and delivered two short, hard jabs to Artu's belly.

  She had a glimpse of Lop towering over them. The great dolt was hitting himself in the chest in his distress. His mouth hung open, wailing. No time to think.

  She grabbed a handful of Artu's hair and slammed his head against the keg behind him. For an instant, his grip on her slackened. She did it again. He kneed her in the gut, driving all the breath out of her. He rolled on top of her and pressed her down. With a knee, he tried to force her legs apart. She cried out in fury, but could not draw her arms back to get in a decent punch. She tried to pull her legs up to kick at him but he had her pinned. He laughed down at her, his breath foul in her face.

  She'd seen it done. She knew it would hurt. She threw her head back as far as she could, then tried to slam her forehead against his. She missed and cracked her forehead against his teeth. They cut her forehead as they broke off in his mouth. He screamed high in pain and was suddenly leaning back from her, his hands to his bloody mouth. She followed him up, hitting him as hard as she could, not caring where her punches landed. She heard one of her knuckles pop and felt a flash of pain in her hand, but kept hitting as she managed to come up to her feet. Once she was standing in the confined space between the crates, she kicked him instead. When he was lying on his side, balled up and moaning, she stopped.

  She pushed her loose bloody hair back from her forehead and stared around her. Hours seemed to have passed, but the lantern still flickered and Lop still gaped at them. She had never realized how half-witted the man was until now. He was chewing on his knuckle and as her eyes met his, he shouted at her, “I'm in trouble, I know, I'm in trouble. ” His eyes were both defiant and scared.

  “Find that keg of rancid meat and get it overboard. ” She stopped to catch another breath. “Clean up the mess. Then you're off watch. ”

  She suddenly hunched over, hands on her knees, and took several deep breaths. Her head was spinning. She thought she would throw up, but managed not to. Artu was starting to uncurl. She kicked him again, hard. Then she reached overhead to the freight gaff. She grabbed the hook by the handle and twisted it free of the beam.

  Artu rolled his head and stared up at her with one blood-caked eye. “Sar, no!” he begged. He threw his hands up over his head. “I didn't do nothing to you!” The pain of his broken teeth seemed to have completely disabled him. He waited for the blow to fall.

  Lop gave a wordless shout of horror. He frantically began moving crates and kegs, looking for the spoiled meat.

  For answer, she grabbed a handful of Artu's shirt, and punched the freight hook through it. Then she headed toward the ladder, determinedly hauling him after her. He came kicking and squalling and trying to get to his feet. She paused and gave the handle of the hook a twist. The canvas of his shirt twisted with it, binding his arms in tight to his body. She dragged him on, almost a dead weight behind her. She supplemented her ebbing strength with her anger. She could hear Paragon shouting but couldn't make out his words. By this time, a few heads had appeared at the hatch and were peering down curiously. They were from Lavoy's watch. That meant the first mate was most likely on deck now. She didn't look at them as she clambered up the steps dragging the struggling Artu behind her. She put all her determination into reaching the deck.

  As she finally emerged above, she heard muttered comments as the hands asked one another what was going on. Those about the hatch fell back. As she hauled Artu up behind her, the exclamations became curses of awe. She caught one glimpse of Haff, staring wide-eyed at her. She headed for the port railing, dragging Artu after her. He was moaning and mewling, “I didn't do nothing to her, I didn't do nothing!” His complaints were muffled by his own hands held protectively over his broken teeth and bloody mouth. Lavoy looked at them incuriously from his post on the starboard railing.

  Brashen suddenly appeared on the deck. His shirt was open and he was barefoot, his hair unbound. Clef trailed after him, his mouth still tattling. The captain took in the situation at a glance. Brashen stared in horror at her bloodied face and disheveled clothing, but only for an instant. Then he glanced about for the mate.

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  “Lavoy! What is going on here?” Brashen roared. “Why haven't you put a stop to this?”

  “Sir?” Lavoy looked puzzled. He glanced over at Althea and Artu as if he had only just now noticed them. “Not my watch, sir. The second seems to have it well in hand. ” He hardened his voice to that of command as he asked her, “Am I correct? Can you handle your task, Althea?” She halted where she stood to look at him. “I'm throwing the rotten meat overboard, like you ordered. Sir. ” She put another half-twist on the hook as she spoke.

  For a moment, all was still. Lavoy transferred his quizzical look to Brashen. The captain shrugged. “Carry on. ” He began fastening his shirt as if it did not concern him. He lifted his eyes to look over the water and see what sort of weather lay before them.

  Artu howled like a kicked dog and began to struggle. She dragged him closer to the rail, wondering if she would really do it. Suddenly Lop appeared on deck. He was carrying two buckets; the smell told her what they held. “I found the bad meat. I found it,” he bellowed and rushed past her to the railing. “Cask was smashed. It is all over down there, but we'll get it cleaned up, right Artu? We'll get it cleaned up. ” He heaved one load over the side. As he lifted the second bucket, a serpent's head broke the water.

  It snapped at the fall of foul meat as Lop staggered back, screaming.

  “Serpent! Serpent!” Paragon added his roar to the sudden commotion.

  Althea let go of the cargo hook. Artu scrambled backwards from the railing, the hook handle clacking against the deck as he went. For a long instant, she and the serpent stared at one another, eye to eye. Its scales were the green of new spring foliage, with immense eyes as yellow as dandelions. Each individual scale overlapped two others in a precise pattern that begged the eye to follow it. The largest scales on its back were bigger than her hand, while around the eyes its scales were tinier than grains of wheat. For a moment, the beauty of the immense animal transfixed her. Then it opened jaws that could have easily engulfed a whole man. She looked into a shockingly red mouth edged with rows of teeth. It shook its head back and forth with a questioning roar. She stood stock-still. It closed its mouth and stared at her.

  She caught movement from the corner of her eye. A man running with a boat hook. At the same instant came Brashen's shouted warning, “Don't anger it! Leave it alone!”

  She turned and flung herself at Haff. The sailor brandished the long gaff like a weapon, shouting, “I'm not afraid!” The pallor of his face told a different story. She caught at his arm and tried to stop him.

  “It just wants food. Leave it alone. It might go away. Haff. Leave it alone!”

  He shook her off impatiently. Her bruised hands were suddenly too sore to grip. She fell away from him as he spurned her. In horror, she watched him swing the h
ook.

  “No!” Brashen roared, but the gaff was already in motion. It struck the animal on the snout, glancing harmlessly off the overlapping scales until the hook reached a nostril. More by chance than aim, the hook caught there and dug in.

  In horror, Althea watched the creature throw its head back. The gaff went with it and Haff held on with the game stupidity of a pit dog. In an instant, the serpent seemed to double in size. Its neck swelled, and an immense ruff of poisonous quills suddenly stood out stiff around its face and throat. It roared again, and this time a fine spray flew from its mouth. Where it struck the deck, the wood smoked. Althea heard Paragon cry out in distress. The drift of poison stung Althea's skin like a sunburn. Haff shrieked as he was engulfed in a fog of the stuff. He let go of the gaff and fell bonelessly to the deck. He was either unconscious or dead. The serpent abruptly cocked its head, eyeing the prone man. Then it darted its head at Haff.

  She was the only one close enough to do anything. Even if the only thing she could do was stupid, she could not watch the serpent just eat the man. She sprang and caught the wooden handle of the gaff. It felt pitted and splintered from the serpent's breath. She grasped it, and threw her weight against it to jerk the creature's head off target. From somewhere, Lop had appeared. He flung an empty wooden bucket at the serpent's head. In the same motion, he grabbed Haffs ankles and dragged him back.

  That left Althea as the serpent's sole target. She tightened her grip on the gaff and shoved with all her might. She expected the wood handle to give way at any moment. Momentarily, her push and the serpent's pain turned the creature's head away from her. It breathed another rush of spittle that pocked Paragon's deck. The liveship shrieked again. Behind her, other voices were raised, Lavoy commanding men to put on sail, men yelling in anger or terror, but above all was the ship's amazed and furious cry. “I know you!” Paragon roared. “I know you!” Amber shouted a question but Althea could not make it out. She gripped the hook desperately. The haft was weakening in her hands, but it was the only weapon she had.

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  She did not know Brashen had joined her until he struck the serpent with an oar. It was a pitiful weapon against such a creature, but it was all that was close to hand. Abruptly, her hook came loose from the creature's nostril. Unencumbered now, it shook its maned head, spattering the deck with smoking poison. As the head came toward them, Althea leveled the gaff like a pike and charged. She was aiming for the great eye, but missed as the serpent swiveled its head toward Brashen. Instead, the tip of the boat hook struck a color-spot on the creature just behind its jaw hinge. To her shock, the tip of the hook plunged into the flesh easily, as if she had stabbed a ripe melon. With all her strength, she shoved it as deep as it would go. The hook followed the tip into the animal's flesh. With a jerk, she set it.

 
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