by Stephen Kotowych
“So, shipwright, how would you work a man-‘o-war?”
The pirate asking had been addressed as ‘captain’ when Telig was brought into the ship-beast’s low, arched sternum cavity. His broad face, scared and tattooed with swirling, inky blue patterns, looked like an angry sea.
Telig rubbed the base of his skull where he’d be struck, tendrils of dull pain shooting forward to his eyes. “I wouldn’t.”
He was below deck in the ship-beast’s oppressive heat and humidity, but the way the vessel pitched and rocked told Telig they were already at sea, under full sail.
Kidnapped, he realized.
The floor of dark, calloused flesh throbbed with each beat of the ship’s heart. Inky blood pulsed in webbed patterns visible through the wall’s translucent membrane. The woman with the amber eyes–the one who had clubbed him and dragged him aboard–leaned nestled between two of the ship-beast’s upvaulting rib bones which supported the wall of the chamber.
“You claimed you were good,” she said.
Telig bridled. “With female ships, yes. Young ships, or recently moulted.” His bragging had seemed a good idea the night before on Qor at the moon festival, with she in her island finery. He’d told some tall tales. She’d laughed, started to whisper something in his ear, and then…
He rubbed the back of his head again.
“There’s no mind left to work with in a man-‘o-war after the Change. There’s only rage, violence.” Telig picked up a bottle from the rough wood table and took a swig of cane liquor. “That’s why pirates like them.”
“I don’t like him. We’ll find another,” the woman said to the captain. “He’s too young.”
“No. On every island we’ve been to in the last six weeks it’s his name I hear. He’s our shipwright.”
The woman cocked her head. “Are you willing to risk being wrong? You may want to make yourself a king, but the men have waited a long time for plunder. They won’t wait much longer.”
The captain raised an eyebrow and nodded to the exit.
The woman’s gaze lingered a long moment on the pirate. Then she looked Telig up and down and grunted. She touched the chamber’s sphincter door, which irised with a squishing sound, and left.
Taking a long clay pipe from the table, the captain packed shredded tobacco in the bowl and lit it with a taper. He took a deep draw, and exhaled.
“I’m Bollo,” he said. “That was my first mate, Harriga. You’re aboard Buckthorn, my ship.”
“If you want me as a shipwright this isn’t how it’s done.”
The captain exhaled a great billow of sweet smoke. “I’m sure it’s not. But I wouldn’t want you turning down my very generous offer.”
“I’m not interested.”
“Oh, I think you might be,” said Bollo, offering the pipe. Telig took it but didn’t raise it to his mouth.
“There are three choices, as I see it,” the captain said. “I can kill you now, and that’s that. I can let you live and drop you at the next dry land we happen on. But we head for the High South and will be many months before we return to the Islands. In the meantime, without my protection, you might become quite the source of sport for my crew.” Bollo sized up Telig’s youthful frame. “You might wish I’d killed you straight away. And the third choice–”
“Is to sign on with you.”
One corner of Bollo’s mouth crooked into a kind of smile.
Telig drew fragrant smoke from the pipe, and puffed it out in rings. It was a traditional sign of friendship when sharing a pipe on Qor. He hoped it meant the same wherever Bollo was from.
“Very well,” said Telig. “What’s your offer?”
Bollo led Telig through the ship’s smooth, muscle-walled tunnels by lamp light. In the Change, Buckthorn had lost the soft, interior glow given off by mature female ships. Up a bone ladder to the next deck and the throom of the ship’s heartbeat didn’t vibrate as hard below Telig’s feet.
The reek of unwashed bodies and tobacco assaulted him from the half-dark. Thin pallets littered a wide chamber stretching half the length of the ship. Hammocks were strung between bone pillars supporting the vaulting ceiling. The pillars were deep-carved with name glyphs from generations of mariners who had sailed this ship.
Flickering oil lamps revealed baskets of supplies stacked along the membrane walls. Their cream-coloured flesh was painted and tattooed with layer on layer of images. Wild swirling patterns that resolved into crashing waves. Erupting volcanos. Sharks and great squid. Giants lizards and terror birds. Men with spears, and ship-beasts clashing at sea. Telig couldn’t place the designs to any one Island.
“Tell me,” said Bollo as they made their way amongst the few sailors milling about, “what do you know of Leviathan?”
Telig took a moment before answering. “A story to frighten children.” A giant man-o’-war that ate ships in a single bite, as he recalled. “A myth.”
“A myth I’ve seen,” Bollo said. “And you will capture him for me.”
Bollo thrust out his jaw and wagged a finger. “I would’ve reacted the same way not long ago. But then I saw him with my own eyes. So did my crew.”
One deck above was the kill deck. The pirates had created an open chamber the full length of the ship-beast by cutting down the membrane walls that carved its interior into small compartments. Revealed was the forest of thick bone pillars and arched rib bones supporting the main deck above.
A thick haze of blue smoke whirled through bars of sunlight as men widened murder holes cut long ago in the man-o’-war’s side, through the thick hide between its outermost set of ribs. The sailors grunted and struggled to replace one set of stone hoops in the murder holes with a slightly larger set, the same way they’d used bone spacers to open holes in their earlobes.
All eyes followed Telig across the deck.
“There was a storm,” Bollo said. “A great-grandmother of a storm. We were blown off course for weeks, far to the south. When the storm finally subsided we were in the dead leagues. I feared us doomed.”
Telig’s wrightmaster spoke of ships that starved in the dead leagues, those vast tracts of open sea where no fish swam and no tangle kelp grew. Their skeletal hulls cast about the seas long after they’d rotted out.
“But Buckthorn caught scent of food at last and hove to over a finfish spawning ground. We spent a week there, Buckthorn feeding and regaining strength, before Leviathan came.” The captain’s voice betrayed unmistakable awe.
“He is the greatest brute I’ve ever seen, and more terrible than any tale you’ve heard. We tracked his migrations for weeks through the High South.”
Bollo handed Telig a papyrus scroll. Unrolling it, Telig found a compass star, lines denoting course changes, and dates scrawled next to each.
“You found some ancient man-‘o-war–that doesn’t mean it is Leviathan,” Telig said. Many of the oldest female ships were hundreds of years old before they underwent the Change.
They approached the stern and a bone ladder up into crisp daylight. From the deck above Telig heard the muffled shouting of commands.
“Oh, it was Leviathan,” said Bollo, taking back the map and rolling it up with care. “He has a fleet of ships stretching nearly the whole horizon.”
Telig nodded. “It’s said some wild men-‘o-war kept a harem.”
Bollo sucked at his teeth. “Leviathan’s fleet includes other men-‘o-war.”
Telig stopped short. “Impossible. They’d kill each other.” When the musth took hold and the killing frenzy was on them, men-‘o-war fought to the death.
Bollo’s mouth crooked. “If he were any other man-‘o-war I’d agree.
Climbing up into the bright sun and swirling ocean winds was a relief from the humid interior of the ship-beast. Squinting against the sunlight, Telig got his first look at the size of Buckthorn.
Bigger even than the oldest female galleons (the final life stage through which Buckthorn would have passed before the Change), thirty men could stand astride the main deck. From the bow rose a two-tiered forecastle of gnarled shiphide and smooth bone. The upper deck of the forecastle stood twisted and a-kilter; it was lower by a span on the starboard side.
An imperfect moulting during the Change from female to male, Telig realized.
Dozens of men moved about the main deck. Others scurried up Buckthorn’s three tall mast bones, climbing and swinging amongst the spider’s-web of sinew nets and ladders that wove between masts as they worked
Buckthorn’s tendon rigging. The ship’s square skin sails, set in three ranks up each mast, were crimson mottled and bulged with wind.
A network of thick ropes and pulleys crisscrossed the main deck, running down the side of the hull to bone hooks anchored deep and bloody into the man-o’-war’s flesh. Standing stacks of bone spears stood close to hand.
Harriga prowled the forecastle. “Heave!” she shouted at the hook men. The gang of sailors pulled the port lines and Buckthorn gave a great trumpeting cry.
Looks of suspicion passed between the men as they watched the shipwright head aft with the captain. Several looked up to Harriga, as if sussing out her opinion.
“I said heave, you whore’s sons!” Harriga leapt down the stairs to the main deck and grabbed one of the lines. The gang pulled again, harder, and a dozen prod men stuck Buckthorn with bone spears along the port quarter of his deck, trying to force a change in his direction.
Telig felt Harriga’s eyes on him all the way from the opposite end of the boat as he and the captain took up a spot next to Buckthorn’s tiller bone. It stood on the lowest tier of the ship-beast’s aftcastle, which appeared free of deformity.
A thick hedge of quills taller than a man erupted from the very top of the aftcastle’s top deck and beyond them Telig heard the slap of the ship-beast’s enormous flat tail against the water as he fought the urging of the hook lines. With a final bellow Buckthorn at last relented and tacked starboard.
“I think Leviathan can break men-‘o-war, tame them like the lead dog in a pack,” said Bollo. He took a ladle of fresh water from a bucket and drank. “So I mean for him to be mine.”
Telig scoffed again. “If you found a giant man-‘o-war count your blessings you escaped with your hide. Don’t chase after him.”
“To capture Leviathan is worth the risk!” Bollo said. “Think of it–a single man-‘o-war that can command all other ships.”
“And the man who commanded such a ship?” Telig asked.
Bollo glowered but continued his thought. “Our hook lines and spears can’t force Buckthorn close enough make our attempt. When Leviathan turned our way my coward of a ship–” Bollo kicked Buckthorn’s inwale “–tried to flee. Have you ever known a man-‘o-war not spoiling for a fight?”
“So you think you need a shipwright for this madness?”
“You will get Buckthorn close enough for us to board. And then you will command Leviathan as I direct you.”
Telig wrapped his hands around the man-‘o-war’s knotted tiller bone and reached out with the Wright. He couldn’t speak of thoughts from Buckthorn, just feelings: rage mostly, and the desire to lash out at…everything. As Telig engaged with the ship-beast’s mind, using the Wright to coax it to do his bidding, the ship’s fierce will crashed and battered against the Wright like storm surge against a ship in port.
“Sirrah,” Telig said after taking a moment to recover, “I can’t work him. I have no experience with–”
“None do!” said Bollo, grabbing Telig by the shoulders. “Think of the challenge! What greater shipwright could there be than the one who tamed the king of all ships? Fame, fortune, women: all yours for the taking when we do this. Your name will live forever.”
What did he know of men-o’-war? Buckthorn smelled all wrong–too musky, too peaty. Even the way he rocked and swayed on the open ocean was different from female ships.
Telig ran his hand along the deck rail, feeling the wrinkled skin and boney scutes of the shiphide. It reminded him of the scaly caimans he’d hunted in lagoons as a child.
Surely this was madness, Telig thought.
“Your hook lines are too slack,” he said. “You–” Telig shouted at a sailor in a woven reed hat “–tighten these lines! No wonder Buckthorn doesn’t obey. Deckboy!” A tall, scrawny child looked terrified at being singled out. “Grease these ropes. They’re fraying where they cross.”
Telig stalked to the bone spears and made a show of inspecting one. He spit.
“You let your men use these?” he demanded of Bollo. “My mother’s teats are sharper!” He snapped the shaft over his knee and cast the pieces to the callused deck.
The captain stood fists on hips, a crooked smile slashed across his face.
Catching the south’ard winds they sailed, out of all sight of the Islands and with little chance of seeing other ships on the voyage.
Drinking and dice games occupied much of the crew’s time when not manning their posts. Cane liquor was one thing not in short supply on a pirate vessel, it seemed. Most nights the men gathered on the berth deck amongst the pallets and hammocks, huddled around oil lamps to tell tales, to sing songs, and exchange bawdy jokes.
One night, as one of the mast men strummed a tortoise-shell kithar and sang a sorrowful song of a sailor and his drowned love, Telig caught the scrawny deckboy, Rold, eyeing a bit of salted turtle Telig hadn’t finished. He slipped him the rest along with one of his hardtack biscuits. The deckboy nodded in gratitude and disappeared down the ladder.
But cane liquor soured the stomach, and dice games wearied. Turtle stew and hard tack grew bland with familiarity. Men ran out of stories, or argued about their telling. More than a few fights started. Only the occasional storm broke the monotony.
A sailor’s life was fraught with boredom.
“For a shipwright you don’t spend much time at the tiller,” said Harriga.
Down in the freshwater bilge on Buckthorn’s lowest deck, the sound of the ship’s pulse strong and clear below his feet,
Telig hadn’t heard her come up behind him.
“I’m studying the ship,” he said, placing his hands on the wall and closing his eyes. He’d been from the bilge to the top of Buckthorn’s main mast bone and back again searching for insight into controlling a man-o’-war.
He had no more than when he’d started.
The wall was warm, and Telig felt the faint rush of blood through the ship’s veins. This kind of contact told him nothing, but he liked to employ such tactics when people watched. He’d found that a certain theatricality added to his reputation amongst a crew.
Harriga pursed her lips and hummed.
He was avoiding the tiller, though, and if she noticed then the captain may have, too. He vowed to be more careful.
He’d dreamed unsettling dreams of late, full of rage and hunger, and they were worst after a day spent handling Buckthorn’s tiller. Sometimes Telig was underwater, breathing the ocean, hooks tearing his sides. Other times he felt his arms turn to flippers and mast bones erupt from his back…
Waking he wasn’t certain whether he still dreamt, wasn’t certain his body was his own.
Was it unwise to attempt the Wright with a man-o’-war? He thought of the strain to keep control whenever he touched the mind of Buckthorn. Did it have to reach out and invade his sleep, too? Memories of the dreams welled in him, and not for the first time Telig wondered if madness lay at the end of his journey.
“Study faster, bright boy,” said Harriga. “However terrible Buckthorn is, Leviathan will be worse. You’ll understand when you see him. He’s out there, waiting for us.” She leaned in close behind. “And we must have him.”
“Why?” said Telig after a moment and Harriga drew herself up straight. “I know why Bollo wants him, but why do you? Simple plunder, or something else?”
Harriga’s gaze lanced through him. “Study faster, bright boy.” The chamber door squished shut behind her.
For weeks they had seen no other ship, and birds no longer appeared in the sky. The fins of sharks and the geysers of whale breath faded from memory. After a month at sea the mast men no longer reported sightings of tangle kelp beds or shoals of fish. Their whole world was the heaving ocean from horizon to horizon, and without the navigator’s star sightings to tell them otherwise Telig would have sworn they didn’t move at all.
They had found the dead leagues.
Losing the scent of even distant food, Buckthorn panicked. Without warning or pattern he shook his skin sails free of wind, kicked his flippers against their course, and gave the conch-like staccato cry that ships made only when terrified, fighting like a sea devil against going further south.
For weeks it was the same: Telig and the hook men fought Buckthorn back on course and the ship became deceptively docile for a time, as if hoping to catch them off guard before bucking and raging again.
Telig strained to recall everything–anything–Caspar had taught him. He pushed back against the thunderhead of Buckthorn’s fear and anger with the promise of food in the spawning grounds to the south. He coaxed him toward the many females, and the other males he would have to fight.
If the Wright was so lacking against Buckthorn, he wondered with what skill he could face Leviathan.
Telig leaned against the deck rail avoiding sleep one night, watching moonlight dance on the sea after a storm. The ship dreams were worse in unsettled weather. At least the rain had washed away some of Buckthorn’s musky stink.
“How goes it?” Bollo said as he climbed the stairs to the forecastle. “Rough day today.”
Telig nodded his agreement. Another fight with Buckthorn from dawn until dusk, wrestling the tiller and shouting orders to the hook men and the spear hands to try and keep the ship on course, Buckthorn bleating in pain all the while.
“Are you any closer to understanding them?” Bollo asked, motioning at the ship with a nod.
“A little, perhaps,” Telig lied. “He doesn’t respond to the Wright the way females do. Even the big, old females.”
Bollo shook his head. “Things will be different once we have Leviathan.” He produced a scroll and handed it to Telig.
“There is an island in the Steam Sea with the richest vein of iron in the whole world. Metal, Telig! Think of the rarity, the riches. But that mine hasn’t produced a single ingot in more than twenty years. Why? Because three neighbouring islands keep warring over it. The whole surface has been scoured by fire after fire set by the feuding sides in hopes of driving their enemies away. What purpose does that serve?”
Telig unrolled part of the papyrus. It was another map, detailing what looked to be hundreds of islands, and marked in red ink was the planned path of Bollo’s conquest. Among the first was the iron-rich island and its would-be claimants.
“They’ll soon be brought to heel. Once we have Leviathan.”
Telig was silent for a moment, considering the map. The captain had grand ambitions.
“This voyage is madness. Turn back, while we can. Cast this map into the sea!”
Bollo’s face grew dark. He tore the scroll from Telig’s hand. “If the winds hold we’ll be in the southern spawning grounds within a few weeks. You have until then. There’ll be no controlling Leviathan with hooks and trickery. It will be all up to you,” Bollo withdrew down the stairs. “Don’t fail me, shipwright. I will have Leviathan.”
In the seventh week of their pursuit, one morning as dawn broke, Telig was startled awake when Buckthorn shuddered like he’d run aground.
The ship quivered his mast bones, shaking the skin sails as violently as any storm, trying to deflate them. Their flapping and Buckthorn’s wailing drowned out the shouting of the mast man, who clung to his perch while pointing starboard.
Stretched across the southern horizon was a string of ships, some bigger, some smaller. Near the center loomed one like a floating mountain.
Telig pressed against the starboard rail along with half the crew, trying to get a good look. He counted eight mast bones, the green mottling of their massive skin sails recognizable even at such a distance. From the ship’s aftcastle sprouted a great fan of iridescent feathers, each tall as the masts, reminding Telig of a peacock’s tail. And were those a pair of tusks growing from his prow?
Black storm clouds of fear loomed on Telig’s awareness as he grabbed Buckthorn’s thrashing tiller. Flee was the only desire. It was base, instinctual, and not what Telig expected from a man-‘o-war.
The crew rushed to man the sinews and skin sails, working the hooks and spears, fighting Buckthorn’s escape. Harriga’s shouted orders were drowned out by the ship’s frantic bleating.
Telig squeezed shut his eyes, ignoring the growing fire in his arms and shoulders from the tiller’s frenzied shaking.
“Call for the captain,” he managed through clenched teeth.
Four young launches, heavy-laden with men and supplies, wound their way through the beast-ship’s fleet, baying in terror as they went.
Galleons and brigantines in greys and browns, streaked here and there with bird guano. Men-‘o-war striped in reds, greens, or blues that would deepen when the madness of musth took them. They rowed past a kelp-green man-‘o-war whose aft mast bone was only a jagged stump. From a fight with Leviathan? Telig wondered.
On every side rose walls of flesh and muscle so close the sailors could reach out and touch the tough, wrinkled hides if they dared. The stink of ships mixed with musk and estrus in the salt air.
On each launch stood men with spears and bows, ready to defend the crew should the wild ships attack, though every sailor knew there could be no defence if one of the men-‘o-war decided to make a meal of them.
The silvery splash of finfish was all around them, as Leviathan’s fleet had settled on a massive spawning ground. Gulls whirled in the sky above, calling to one another. So far from land, Telig realized a gull colony must live aboard the ships themselves.
The midshipman from Alti, who was always talking, now sat silent in Telig’s launch. The bos’n, quick with a joke, was grim-faced, his eye darting from ship to ship. Every launch was the same; the only noise of their passage the splash of oars and the cries of the launches.
He turned, looking back through the maze of ships to find Buckthorn, now little more than a speck on the horizon. He’d made incredible speed since the crew abandoned him, with not even the promise of a feast of finfish enough to keep the starving ship near Leviathan a moment longer.
Silently, Telig wished Buckthorn luck on his journey back to the fertile waters around the Islands. He’d need it to survive.
The oarsmen manoeuvred the launches tight against the towering black hull of Leviathan. A dozen sailors leapt from the gunwales, finding purchase on the ship’s craggy hide, and scrambled up the creature. Each had a rope tied around his waist, and the lines snaked behind them hauling cargo ladders.
Leviathan’s eight mast bones were each as big around as four men’s arm spans. Telig grew dizzy craning his neck back to take in their full height.
The beast-ship’s hide was hard as volcanic glass and drank in the heat of the sun, scorching the leathery soles of Telig’s feet.
The curved tusks on either side of Leviathan’s mouth were thick as palm trees and wickedly sharp. His great maw was as big as a ship, filled with row on row of long sickle teeth.
Telig thought back to all the terrifying bedtime stories he’d heard about Leviathan and believed them. Bollo and Harriga stood silent by his side, no doubt thinking the same.
The deck was thrice as wide as Buckthorn’s, dwarfing Bollo’s crew. The men formed a line to pass supplies, but the ship was so large they were too few to reach the ladders to the lower decks. Instead, they piled the supplies temporarily in the center of the main deck.
Bollo held out an arm for Telig, gesturing to the tiller.
Even if his hands weren’t raw from fighting Buckthorn, even if he wasn’t already exhausted, Telig knew he had no skills to match against the king of all ships.
Gingerly, Telig gripped the tiller only to stagger backward with a gasp. Buckthorn’s will had been a sun-shower by comparison! Leviathan was a hurricane of rage. How could he fight a contest of wills with this monster? Telig wondered.
“Time to show us your worth, shipwright,” said Harriga, her hand coming to rest on the pommel of a toothknife hanging at her hip.
Again and again Telig took the tiller, and each time Leviathan beat him back. Hours passed this way. Beads of sweat dripped down Telig’s forehead. Once, his legs gave out from the exertion.
Leviathan’s mind battered him at every chance, and he felt unable to escape even when he released the tiller. It made Telig think again of the dreams he’d had, and how Buckthorn’s mind seemed to reach out to him in his sleep.
And in that moment something changed in Telig’s thinking.
He’d been trying to work a man-o’-war the same way he would a female. They were calm, docile. You could dominate their will with the Wright. Men-o’-war were everything opposite. Perhaps the opposite tactic was needed to work them.
Exhaling, Telig closed his eyes, grabbed the tiller, and surrendered.
Water slid around Telig’s body as he kicked his flippers. Wind filled his skin sails, seawater passed cool and refreshing through his gills. Mounds of salty fish, shredded by his teeth, slid down his gullet. The air was alive with the swirling smells of males and females. He knew each by scent, knew their age, knew which females were in heat.
Low vibrations crisscrossed through the water. They buffeted his belly, and he understood a conversation that told him where each ship in the fleet was, told of their moods, their hungers, their feelings of distress or danger. His own bass rumble dominated them all.
He felt tiny creatures crawling his back, climbing his masts, infesting his chambers.
But he wasn’t a ship. Was he? No. No, this was Leviathan. But where did the ship end and he begin? He fought to pull back, to reclaim himself, repeating his own name again and again in his mind. He thought of Qor, of his parents, of his painful hands.
A rising feeling, then the sensation of floating.
Leviathan was still present, and Telig felt what the man-‘o-war felt, but it was overlaid with his own awareness of himself. His ship-self.
Telig smiled. Did Leviathan smile with him?
Rattling his mast bones, Telig felt–or did Leviathan feel? –his skin sails collapse and furl. He opened and closed all his sphincter doors in unison again and again, sensing the small creatures inside him reacting in fear. Telig let out a great baying sound of joy, his harem fleet joining in trumpeting chorus. The sound would carry leagues across the water, and to the very depths of the sea.
The power of the beast-ship flowed through him; the raw, animal rage, the absolute control of his fleet. Telig understood what it was to live utterly without fear.
But then he sensed . . . something. A holding back. A memory. Telig turned his inner eye toward the dark hole in Leviathan’s mind, and in doing so turned the ship’s inner eye as well.
Sorrow swallowed Telig whole, and he slid down the long black tunnel of Leviathan’s anguish, crashing into memory that surrounded him as lived experience.
Through the grief, an awareness that he’d been happy once.
He’d had no fleet then, nor battles to fight with rogue males. The seas were empty of other ships, save one–his companion, the female.
Long years they sailed the seas, making their home amongst the chain of islands in the warm, clear waters. He’d sired himself many times on her, she giving birth to a huge brood that sailed with them.
But then, after ages passed, the female grew ill. Shaking all over, bellowing with pain, she sloughed off hide as she started to grow. Suddenly there were new smells, strange and threatening. Gone was the scent of the female, and her vibration, too. In her place was one like him, a male.
Where was the female? What had this new ship done with the female?
Rage. He felt it burn in him for the first time.
He fought the creature that had taken the female’s place, goring him with tusk, biting him with tooth. It bellowed and bleated as the female had when she was sick, enraging Leviathan all the more, driving on the attack.
They fought for days and nights without ceasing, both wounded and tired. Eventually he’d chased the creature away.
Where was the female? Why did she not come back?
He fled south.
Many died during the long crossing through lifeless waters. Some of his brood stayed with him, others disappeared in search of food.
Leviathan cared not.
Wearied by his flight, once they found the spawning grounds in the south Leviathan ceased his wanderings. He sired himself on the remaining females, and tried to forget. Only when they, too, started to change after many years did he understand what had happened to his companion.
She was the new creature.
He had driven her away.
A white-hot flash of pain lanced across Telig’s face and he crashed to a hard, hot surface. His eyes ached in sunlight unfiltered by water. He gulped in air through his mouth, not water through gills. Wiggling his fingers he understood he had hands, not flippers. Memories thousands of years old lingered.
He was on the ship, Telig realized. He was not the ship.
“You were screaming,” said Harriga, rubbing the palm she had slapped him with.
Hot tears still rolled down Telig’s cheeks. “The guilt,” he managed. “The loneliness.”
He understood why Leviathan kept ships near him, even those who had undergone the Change. He could never chase another one away.
Telig took deep breaths. This sadness was not his own, it was Leviathan’s. Leviathan’s, he told himself.
Bollo was close. “Was that you, shipwright? The sails? The doors? Can you control him?”
Telig gave an exhausted nod.
“Men!” cried Bollo, cupping his hands before his mouth as he strained to shout across the vast deck. “He’s done it!”
A hurrah went up from those on deck.
Bollo pulled a papyrus scroll from inside his long jacket and held it high. “Behold the future we shall make!”
As the captain regaled the crew with his plans, Telig felt Harriga step behind him, her body pressing tight against his back.
“Listen carefully, bright boy,” she said, her breath hot in his ear as it had been at the new moon festival.
Her toothknife pressed at the small of his back. Telig’s posture stiffened as she applied just enough pressure for the tip to puncture his skin. He felt a single drop of blood trace a warm slick path down his spine.
“I told you this crew wouldn’t wait forever for its prize. Many better men than you–men I know and like–are about to die,” she said. “I have no qualms about adding one more to their number.” She twisted the toothknife subtly and Telig’s breath caught.
“But I’m your prize, too, aren’t I?” Telig risked, his mouth dry. “You need me. To control Leviathan.”
Harriga hissed air through her teeth. “Bright boy,” she said. “I do need your help, your Wright. And it seems to me you sense what’s good for you, yes?”
Toothknife in his back, Telig nodded.
In a single, fluid motion Harriga slid behind Bollo. A quick thrust, then another. The captain gave an excited gasp with each stab of the blade then folded over, falling down the stairs to the main deck. Bollo’s head smacked hard at the bottom but he did not wince or blink. He still clutched the conquest map in his hand.
A mix of terror and accomplishment filled Harriga’s eyes, but no joy.
Screams filled the air. Spears, clubs, and toothknives did their work as Harriga’s confederates attacked those loyal to Bollo. Perched at the rear of the ship-beast, from the high vantage of the aftcastle Telig watched mortal struggles, many of them lopsided, play out all across the main deck.
Two of Harriga’s men snagged a Bollo loyalist as he tried to flee below deck through an open hatch. They pried his fingers from the hatch frame, and as he thrashed and screamed for mercy they rushed him to the starboard rail and tossed him overboard.
Just past them on the mid-deck two men kept three attackers at bay with flaming brands. Telig couldn’t tell who was on whose side.
Cries from overhead drew Telig’s attention skyward, where crewmen fought life-and-death duels in the high sinew rigging.
A ship’s-length away, Telig saw the midshipman from Alti and the bos’n locked in a death embrace on the forecastle. The bos’n straddled the midshipman, his hands viced around the prone man’s neck. Purple faced, the midshipman desperately stuck his attacker over and over in the side with a bone knife until the bos’n slumped over and off him.
Telig grabbed the tiller and Leviathan washed over him. Knowing what was coming helped Telig pull himself back sooner this time, feeling his consciousness floating atop Leviathan’s like oil on water.
First, Telig sent his ship-self on a course deep into the heart of his fleet. Next, he turned his inner eye back to the hidden memory, and slid down the black hole of anguish.
Telig sought out memory of the battle with the female and tightened Leviathan’s attention on the battle, forcing the creature to relive it again and again–
Leviathan’s deck pitched up, throwing Telig to his stomach. As the ship shuddered and rocked, Telig watched pirates knocked to the deck, or cling to webbing and railings with whitened knuckles. Oil lamps spilled, washing fire over thedeck and filling the air with the acrid reek of burning ship flesh. Leviathan brayed in pain.
Telig tore strips from the hem of his shirt, wadded the cloth in his ears, and reached for the tiller.
A high-pitched keening split the air and the pirates grabbed at their ears, writhing about on the deck.
Telig dashed down the stairs from the aftcastle and stole bow-ward across the pitching deck to the stacked supplies, avoiding pirates and fire, trying to anticipate the ship’s lurching.
Casting side-long glances port as Leviathan, lost in his fugue, careened toward a nearby cutter, Telig grabbed what he could: a sack of limes, some hard tack and salted turtle, a net, and some fishing gear.
Seizing the longest line of rope he saw, Telig raced across the giant deck and braced himself against the port rail as Leviathan collided with the cutter. She bleated in panic but couldn’t escape as Leviathan pressed himself against her.
Telig tied off the rope and cast it over the side to the cutter, followed by the supplies. The sack of limes split on impact with the deck, and the fishing net tangled in the mast webbing.
It would serve.
A sharp kick to the back of the leg sent Telig to the deck with a cry. He got to his knees before Harriga was on him. She wrenched her arm around his neck, squeezing his throat. In that hand was Bollo’s papyrus map stained in his blood, and with her other she pressed her toothknife to his face.
“Stupid boy!” she said, tightening her arm. “Your journey will be a long one, now. My crew will see to that. You’ll undo whatever it is you’ve done to Leviathan, and then you’ll guide us home. You’re mine now, shipwright. And so you remember–”
Telig screamed as Harriga slid her blade down his cheek, and the taught skin split open.
A sharp blow smacked Harriga’s head into the back of Telig’s and they both collapsed to the deck. Telig pushed her limp form off and rolled over, gripping his face. The salt air stung the bleeding, throbbing flesh.
The pimple-faced deckboy Rold, cudgel in hand, stood over him. He nodded and extended a hand to pull Telig to his feet.
Men still fought on the deck. Others tried to put out fires. In the chaos, Telig and the deckboy had escaped notice. There was no need to discuss what happened next.
“Down you go.” Telig helped Rold over the rail. The lad disappeared down the rope with Telig following, the effort made more treacherous by Leviathan’s thrashing.
Half way down, his shoulders burning, Telig felt the rope go taut. Leviathan was already moving off. Looking down, Telig saw the boy struggling with the rope, as if he might hold Leviathan in place single-handed.
Telig closed his eyes and let go, falling forever.
He landed hard and awkward on the cutter’s deck, crying out as blades of hot pain shot through his ankle and up his leg.
The deckboy rushed over and helped him up, taking the weight of his bad side.
Telig grabbed the tiller and the ship veered from the fleet. Leviathan’s memory fugue would distract him long enough for their escape, as he recalled again and again how he’d driven the female away..
A slate-colored dawn greeted them.
Rold was asleep, curled along the deck rail. Telig sat next to the tiller, guiding the ship north.
His ankle throbbed. It was badly sprained but he didn’t think it broken. His face, however… The bleeding had stopped, and Rold said it didn’t look so bad. But the salty sea air made it burn and sting. Telig thought he might need to spend his days below deck until it had scabbed over. It would scar for certain; he hoped it wouldn’t fester.
Telig spent much of the previous night drifting in and out of sleep, woken intermittently by pain and by worry about whether their meager supplies would hold out until they reached the Islands.
If the pirates were smart they’d abandon Leviathan in favor of one of the females and try to escape the fleet. They might succeed, too, if they moved quickly. How long would Telig’s memory fugue distract Leviathan–a few days, perhaps a week? Without Telig, the pirates would be unable to control the beast.
But Harriga would have secured the support of the mutineers with promise of plunder. New pirate captains did well, he thought, to keep such promises to their crews, or end up with a toothknife in the gut.
If the pirates kidnapped another shipwright, if they did succeed in capturing Leviathan, then no island was safe. But if Telig could find Leviathan’s companion he might be able to fight them. He had an advantage they wouldn’t expect: he could become a ship-self, bending a ship-beast utterly to his will.
Once again he was a new thing: a shipbreaker. First of his kind.
Telig smiled despite his pain as he wondered how much of his desire to find Leviathan’s companion was his own, and how much came from having touched Leviathan’s mind and memory.
He had trouble thinking of Leviathan’s companion as him, something he’d picked up from the man-o’-war, no doubt. Telig did long to see her… If she was still alive, of course.
He meant to seek her in the High North. It seemed logical: the farthest place from Leviathan, somewhere she would flee to be safe. Telig wondered whether she–he–had assembled a harem fleet, too.
Perhaps he could somehow communicate Leviathan’s terrible sense of loss to the female. Could they live in peace? Be companions once more?
Telig steered north and hoped.
Stephen Kotowych is a Writers of the Future grand prize winner, and a finalist for the Prix Aurora Award, Canada’s top SF prize. His stories have appeared in Interzone, Intergalactic Medicine Show, numerous anthologies, and his work has been translated into nine languages.