"Ah. Well, thanks. I'll keep an eye on him." Shandy started to turn away, but Skank stepped in front of him.
"Did you know," the young pirate went on hurriedly, "I don't think you know - he got Davies killed."
Shandy's impatience was gone. "Tell me," he said. A few heavy drops of rain fell through the still air to thump on the deck and make long dark streaks on the canvas. Rain before wind, Shandy thought, remembering old Hodge's long ago warning. "Loosen the sheets a bit," he called, then turned back to Skank. "Tell me."
"Well," said Skank quickly, peering fearfully at the dark sky as he spoke, "the dead sailor that killed him was going to kill you, a minute before - you was runnin' toward the girl in the air, and you didn't see this dead fellow waitin' for you. So Phil ran up to nail the thing and save you, no trouble - but Venner saw what he was up to, and blocked him - Venner not bein' glad you was made quartermaster."
The rain was falling steadily now, and still there was no wind. "Reef the main a little more," Shandy called uneasily. "No - lower the gaff entirely. We'll meet her with bare spars - and be ready to heave to."
"It threw Davies off his stride," Skank went on, "when Venner bumped him, and it let you get two steps further; but Davies kept running anyway, and by then the only way he could hit the thing wasn't good enough to kill it outright. His second chop cut its head off, but by then it had got its cutlass into him."
Then the wind hit them, and even under bare spars the Jenny heeled sharply, losing headway and leaning over so far that men had to grab rails or rigging to keep from tumbling up against the port gunwales. The mast was nearly horizontal.
Close behind the wind came high waves, and Skank scrambled aft to help the helmsman drag the rudder through the strong sea and get the bow pointed more directly into the wind. Slowly, against resistance, the mast came back up.
As the little craft balanced at the top of one foam-streaked wave and then slid down the far side into the trough, the rudder swinging free in the air for a moment and then the long bowsprit stabbing into the next steep gray slope of water ahead, Shandy held his breath, expecting either the bowsprit to break off or the bow and the whole hull to follow it in, and not come up again - but after eight rapid heartbeats the bow did rise, bowsprit intact, throwing off the weight of solid water like a man flinging away a pack off murderous dogs that had almost got him down.
Shandy exhaled. Evidently whoever had built the Jenny had known his business. He yelled the order to heave to, and when they had crested the wave the wind was on the starboard bow and enough of the mainsail had been unreefed to keep the Jenny falling back onto the same tack and making no headway. In principle they could ride out the storm this way.
Shandy climbed and slid back to the stern and the men laboring at the helm. There were no further orders to give now, and the wind would have torn the words out of his mouth anyway and flung them away unheard, so he just leaned against the transom and tried to guess how long the Jenny could continue to take this without breaking up.
The warm wind was still somehow strengthening, and spray flew past in fast clouds like grapeshot, and stung his face and hands; he licked his lips and the salty taste let him know that it was sea-spray and not rain. The waves were as tall and solid-looking as cliffs, and every time the Jenny slid down the weather slope of one and crashed into the next, she was jolted and shaken so violently that the mast swung wildly back and forth overhead. The splash spray instantly blew away behind them, and solid water swirled around Shandy's thighs and tugged ever more strongly at him.
He kept squinting against the lash of the wind to make sure they neither faced the wind too directly nor let it come around and hit them broadside, and for several minutes he was amazed at how perfectly the old sloop was riding; then he noticed wisps of steam fluttering away from the joint where the tiller bar was attached to the head of the rudder, and when he peered more closely he saw that the iron pin was glowing a dull red. Woefully Fat was standing braced on the other side of the helm, and Shandy cuffed water out of his eyes and squinted across the deck through narrowed, stinging eyes at the big magician. The bocor's eyes were closed and he was chewing the knuckles of one hand - and even though the rain and sea were scouring the brown hand, Shandy could see red blood springing from where the teeth were working - and he realized that the Jenny's progress was not entirely a result of the helmsman's skill.
Even so, each succeeding wave was taller, and when the little craft laboriously crested the next one, and Shandy blinked around at the sea, it looked to him as if the boat were attached to a vast shiny cloth that was being dragged over the Alps; and the shrieking of the wind was so furious that he had to keep reminding himself that there was no sentient wrath behind it.
They slid down the windward side of the wave and plunged into the next one - the old sloop heaved up, pouring solid water off to both sides - and when the Jenny climbed the lee face of it, Shandy could feel her forcibly shift around, and the gaff-saddle, lowered now to head height, glowed orange with the effort of it.
Then they were at the top, and the full force of the wind hit them again, and with a gunshot crack that was audible even over the wind the glowing gaff-saddle broke. The horizontal spar was now just a fire-headed spear laced to a big, fluttering flag - it slammed the deck under the mainsail boom, bounced up on the other side, spun all the way around like a crazy compass needle as the luff side of the sail tore, then flew aft. The boat shook as the spar thudded into the transom.
Shandy had ducked in the second when the thing was so violently tearing around, and now he looked up, fearing that it might have killed the helmsman, or, worse, wrecked the tiller; but the helmsman was still braced against the tiller bar - only after sagging with relief did Shandy notice that the iron-headed spar had struck Woefully Fat squarely in the center of his massive torso, and had nailed him upright to the transom.
"Christ," Shandy cried through spray-numbed lips. Could they survive without the bocor?
Shandy was anything but confident, but he pushed away from the rail and grabbed the mainsail boom and pulled himself forward along it, past the tied-down leech-end of the mainsail to the mastward end where the luff side flapped loose. Someone was with him now, on the other side of the swinging boom - it was Skank, his face emaciated with effort, and he had a knife and a length of rope. Together, as the boat skewed down into the trough, the two of them managed to stab several holes through the top edge of what remained of the sail; they held on while the Jenny crashed into the streaked face of another wave, and then when the water had swept on past them Shandy strung the rope through the holes. Then as the sloop leaned back, rising to meet the next crest, Shandy threw the end of the rope high toward the port bow - the headwind flung it back around the mast to Skank, who caught it and fell to the port gunwale and managed to flip two loops of it around a belaying pin before the wind hammered them again.
The couple of square yards of raised canvas caught the wind enough to kick the stern back, but Shandy knew it couldn't hold for very long. Several more men had crawled up the deck to help, though, and Shandy fell back to the rail and let them take his place - his stomach felt knotted up, either with tension or something rancid at lunch, and he hoped he wouldn't have to do any hard work for a while.
All at once he became aware of a weight on his jacket pulling the back of his collar tighter against his neck, and he glanced down - and then recoiled away from the rail, for clamped tight onto his jacket-front, from God knew where, were what seemed to be two knobby-headed gray eels; it was only when he grabbed one to yank it off that he realized they were two unfresh human arms, severed at the elbows, with the fingers tightly gripping the fabric of his jacket.
One part of his mind was just moaning with the horror of the thing, but after the first frozen moment of shock it occurred to him that this was the same jacket he'd been wearing on the day Hurwood took the Carmichael away from Leo Friend - and on that day one of Friend's crew of dead men had hung on to the jacket after being rolled over the rail, and had fallen into the sea only because its arms had parted at the elbows. The clinging arms had seemed to disappear shortly after that, but apparently they'd been ghostily attached to the jacket ever since, like ceiling cobwebs that can be seen only in a certain light.
The intensifying pain in his stomach made him hunch back against the rail, but he forced himself to go on thinking. What then, he asked himself, is the light that makes these grisly things visible? Well, obviously - hostile magic, unencumbered by being performed on land. You'd have known it by the hot iron smell, too, if it weren't for this wind. This pain in your belly is a gift from someone.
Sea water surged over him as the Jenny took another wave, and then he straightened up against the powerful preference of his body to fold double - cold sweat on his face made the spray seem even warmer - and he reached out and grabbed the nearest man and dragged him close enough to shout at. "Where's," Shandy roared, "Venner?"
The man gaped at the gray forearms swinging from his captain's jacket, but he pointed forward, then down.
Shandy nodded and let go of him and then, one agonized step at a time, hitched himself toward the hatch, bracing against anything he could reach; a sudden gust of wind at the crest of a wave punched him off his feet, and he crawled the last few yards flat on his belly, the spread-out arms giving him an insectlike look. With an effort that seemed to pull all his abdominal muscles loose he lifted the hatch cover and rolled himself in and half climbed, half tumbled down into the low-ceilinged hold.
It was dark, but he knew where the weapons rack was, and he let the next roll pitch him against it and he snatched a hilt and pulled a sword free; it was lighter than a cutlass, but it seemed to be the right length, and he let his hand settle comfortably around the grip. There was a dim red glow up in the bow, and he hunched toward it, his grisly lapel ornaments swinging wildly.
Venner was crouched over a little firepot, whispering and dropping shreds of stuff onto the glowing coals in it.
Shandy extended the sword and kicked himself into an agonizing lunge, but the Jenny abruptly rocked forward at the crest of a wave at that moment, and his lunge became a somersault - he collided heavily with the stocky figure of Venner and the two of them tumbled into the deep, swirling puddle against the bow bulkhead. Even over their gasping and the creaking of overstressed timbers and the howl of the wind, Shandy heard the firepot hiss for an instant as it was extinguished; and even crumpled nearly upside-down in cold water in the angle of canted deck and bulkhead, with Venner's elbow jabbing into his back, he felt the pain in his belly suddenly unkink and disappear, and the dead man's arms no longer tugged at his jacket.
The bow slammed into a trough, and for several seconds the two men were pressed even harder against the bulkhead - Shandy felt water thrusting in through gaps between the strakes, as if the sea were spitting at him between wooden teeth, and he felt the still-hot firepot roll scorchingly across his throat - and then the sloop tipped sharply back as it began to climb the next slope.
Shandy and Venner and a lot of salty water tumbled aft, and Shandy tried to keep his sword up and pointed at Venner; twice he felt the point poke something more yielding than deck timbers, and he tried to thrust, but sliding prone on the sloshing deck he could get no traction. Gray light from the open hatch silhouetted his opponent clearly for a second, but a moment later Venner had scrambled up the ladder to the deck.
Shandy got to his feet and followed him up, keeping his sword - which, he now noticed, was a spare rapier of Davies' - between himself and the light to block any blows from Venner; but when he reached the deck he saw that Venner had run forward and was now facing him from ten yards away, pointing at Shandy a pistol he'd snatched from someone.
Shandy throttled his instant impulse to dive back down the hatch, for he was the captain, and even in the midst of this storm most of the men were gaping at this confrontation - and a thirty-foot shot on a wet, pitching deck in hard rain would probably miss, and perhaps the rain had got in under the pan-cover to the powder. He did, though, allow himself to stand in profile, facing Venner over his right shoulder. He lifted his sword in a fencer's salute, both for the apparent coolness of the gesture and in the hope that the pistol ball, if well aimed, might strike the blade or the guard.
The rain had not got to the powder. At the same instant that he saw the muzzle flash Shandy felt the hot ball punch across the skin over his solar plexus; he flinched back away from it but didn't fall or drop his sword, and when he had regathered his scattered wits a second or two later he bowed as courteously as he could on the rocking deck - it required grabbing the ratlines with his free hand and planting his feet a little more widely than was customary - and then he advanced toward Venner.
The helmsman, distracted by the drama on the deck, didn't put the bow squarely enough into the next wave, and the Jenny took it on her port bow; she heeled ponderously as the solid green water surged over her deck, splashing up explosively at the mast and sweeping at least one man overboard.
Then she lay in the trough, abeam to the waves. More scared by this than by Venner, Shandy scrambled back to the stern, having to drop the saber in order to grab rigging to steady himself. Skank and the other men at the mainsail boom had managed to get several feet of the sail unreefed and threaded with rope, and one man was trying to shinny up the swaying mast with the end of the rope in his teeth, apparently hoping to throw it over the narrow topsail yard so that the men below could use it as a halliard. It was all they could do, and Shandy knew it wouldn't be enough.
Behind him, moving slowly because he didn't want to abandon the cutlass he'd picked up, Venner was picking his way aft.