Prologue. The Hag's Call.
Waves as monuments; vast, ever changing, and as cold and pitiless as the sea-hag's heart. Rolling breakers taller than the home islands picked up the Cruel Water and tossed the ship around like a leaf in a stream. Cruel Water's crew had worked together long enough to trust each other in any storm. They pulled together hard, fought the flapping wings of the ship as the howling wind threatened to rip them from the spines, hard, worn, women and men of the Gaunt Isleands, readying the ship to fight.
Over the scream of the wind through the ropes of the rigging Shipwife Arrin heard the groan of the gallowbows as the winders span the pulleys to draw back thick firing cords. He heard the comforting click of the retainer hooks snapping to and the warmoan as the cord vibrated in the wind. Despite the danger, the high seas, the biting cold, somewhere within he felt a shiver of pride for his crew.
'Half a shadow on the for'ard to seaward, Shipwife,' shouted his Deckkeeper. Like them all she wore a stinker, a shapeless gown of birdleather, greased with fishoil to offer some protection from the weather. Buffeting wind pressed it against her body and had ripped the hood clean from it, sending the material flapping away like a bird shot with a bow: mad with pain, directionless and doomed. The rain blackened her hair and plastered it to her head. He raised his voice in reply, even now, at this moment, knowing how a word of encouragement could work miracles.
'We can be proud of them, Deckkeeper,' a smile from her in return and then the Deckkeeper was gone, running off into the rain. No, not running, climbing into the rain, the ship so heeled over she had to practically pull herself along the bonerail with her one arm to return to the bowcrews. A deckwife stumbled past, holding a wingbolt. Arrin wished he had a gullaime windtalker, so when he fired the bolts it could guide them home, but if the sea hag cared for wishes he wouldn't be on the deck of a black ship being chewed up in the teeth of the northstorm.
'Where is it, my crew?' He screamed the words into the gale, mouth filling with water as a huge, grey wave of freezing water crashed across the ship. He heard-not-saw someone go overboard, the scream, the crack of a body against the bonerail and the splash. He wondered if it was only in his mind he heard the body hit the water. Then he was coughing, spitting out bitter salt water as he strode down the deck. Shouting, a shipwife is always shouting. 'Where is it? Find me that ship! A bolt's no good without a target! Find me something to loose at!'
He stared into the storm, grey seas rose, shifting, twisting, picking his ship up and thrusting it toward the dark grey sky before dropping it down and down into the troughs between the waves. His view then only water: water around the ship, water in the air, the slate deck beneath him a flimsy and delicate thing, running with water. This was the hagsbreath, the northstorm's wrath, the worst weather the archipelago had to throw at the ships that travelled the seas, but the Shipwife kept his calm, as he always had. The Cruel Water was a ship of the dead, crewed by criminals condemned to die – himself among them – and if the storm was their sentence then let it be so.
But surely, if the mother ever loved her people, she would give him a last victory? A chance to take a Hundred Islander ship with him to the Hag's embrace, far below the ocean.
He found Aspran, the Bowsell of the Maindeck, a woman as tall as she was wide, crouched behind her gallowbow at the aimer's point.
'Aspran,' still shouting to be heard above the wind and the creak of the ship's bones. She pushed her hood back to answer, face like bread-dough, heart as strong as a longthresh.
'Ey, Shipwife.' She had one eye closed against the water to keep it fresh for aiming. They bowed down, heads touching to be heard better, sharing a small privacy in the violence of the storm. Water running off them in rivers.
'Where did you see it? The ship?'
'Four shadowpoints off our beak to seaward.' Her voice already hoarse.
'And you're sure?' almost kicking himself for asking, of course she was, she was an old hand and a steady one, but he had to ask.
'And it was big?'
'Six ribber, I reckon, with corpselights glowing round it.' She did not add 'more than a match for us'. She did not need to.
'Well, the Maiden's smiled on us before, Aspran, let's hope she smiles today.'
Hag's Hands, it could be anywhere. A big ship would have gullaime windtalkers aboard so it had the advantage in manoeuvrability. Should he load the landward side bows as well? No, the last battle had left him shorthanded, better to have the crew to work the ship's wings. He stared up to the rump, four deckwives fought the steering oar, the rest busy with ropes, up the spines, furling the wings against the wind. They were a good lot despite their crimes and, even aboard a ship such as this, those whose crimes were deemed unacceptable had a way of vanishing, having accidents. A strong crew and he liked them.
'Ship rising! Ship rising to seaward!'
And there it was.
Rising above the wave like a cliff, all but its topwings furled, a tower of white bone, sixteen corpselights, balls of coloured light glowing around the decks. His bowpeeks open along his side, an inner light shining through them. The great skull of the araceesian, the sea dragon whose bones the ship was built from crowned the prow. Arrin's ears hurting as the air pressure around him changed, an effect of the gullaime aboard the bigger ship working the winds to steer it, and with a shudder he realised he knew that ship. Not only were they outmatched: the Cruel Water was a two ribber, no match for one of the ancient and huge six ribbed ships – but they were facing The Araceesian Dread, the flagship of the Hundred Isles fleet. Riding her prow, grey hair streaming out behind her as if she were born to the wind, sword held aloft as if she cut her way through the storm, was the shipwife, Meas Gilbryn, Lucky Meas, the witch of Keelhulme Sounding.
He swallowed. For moment on deck is seemed as if everything vanished, the wind, the cold, the constant discomfort of skin rubbed raw by damp and seawater. He was stood alone, one man with the responsibility of seventy lives resting on his shoulders and knowing it was a responsibility he could not live up to, not this day.
'Aim for the rigging!' No doubt in his voice. Act as if you've already won. 'If it can't catch the wind it can't steer and this sea'll have it over! Loose as we come to!'
He had a second to wish he had fired the bolts with oil, but knew it would have been impossible to keep a fire in such a storm, then the bows loosed. The heavy thud of the cords hitting the stoppers, the ululation of the bolts flying through the air, the howls of war. The bolts flew, all well aimed, all flying true and again, that moment of pride in his crew. As he watched the flight of the projectiles they were already back at work, spinning the bows back, bringing more shot. He let himself hope that they would do some real damage, but he should have known better. The bolts flew straight and true but the windtalkers aboard the bigger ship worked well, Sudden gusts blowing the bolts off course. One got through, but it sailed between the ships spines, damaging nothing more than ropes. They didn't call the witch Lucky Meas for nothing.
'Spin the bows!' he shouted, drawing his sword and holding it high in echo of the figure across from him on the prow of the huge ship. Spin the bows my deckwives! Lets get another shot in!'
As he screamed the Araceesian Dread heeled round, side coming up out of the water, showing the hundreds of spikes and hooks that covered its bone hull and the line of green weed across the ribs at the bottom as they left the comfort of the sea. Then the bigger ship straightened, he glanced at his crews, the gallowbows only half drawn. He wanted to salute them, to thank them for what they had done this day and on so many others.
Lucky Meas let her hand fall and he heard the call of the enemy gallowbows as they pronounced the fate meted out on him so many years ago by the Tenbern.
You will go to a Ship of the dead.
There to definitely die.
Only the day is undecided.
'Well, it is decided now,' he thought.