All week Shaundar had been at the docks, lending a hand with the loading. It was a mind-boggling process, keeping track of all the provisions, which had to be taken into orbit bit by bit in flitters, since elven Armada-class ships were incapable of landfall. It was amazing how many things were required to feed the crew of a dreadnaught! First there came the dried provisions; waybread, dried fruits, peas and beans, pemmican and cornbread (innovations of the green elves borrowed by the Imperial Elven Navy,) and these in scores of enormous wooden crates. Next were the preserves; fruit preserves, pickles of all sorts, magically-sealed and preserved citrus fruits to prevent Sailor’s Disease, these in scores of slightly smaller crates that were easier to carry. They were followed by barrel after crate full of baking and cooking supplies: flour, honey, baking powder, yeast, spices, and butter in magically-preserved containers. After that came crates and crates of various kinds of nuts. Then came all the fresh foods, some of which were in the form of items that kept well (such as apples, potatoes and cheeses,) some in the form of carefully-tended live plants (like the miniature orange trees and the potted beans) and some were in the form of live animals (domesticated fowl for eggs, rabbits for fresh meat.) Flitter after flitter carried the items and creatures into the stars, where a large butterfly appeared to be hovering. Shaundar knew that was his father’s – and now, his – ship, the Aerdrie’s Pride.
Ammunition for the siege weaponry went up after that. Shaundar’s young eyes had never seen so many ballistae bolts and catapult stones. The large bolts were crafted with wicked-looking sharp heads that had all the care in their creation of legendary elven arrows. The catapult shot came in three sizes; boulders, bigger boulders, and shot-put-sized spheres that Uncle Madrimlian referred to cheekily as “grapeshot.” Each stone was carefully shaped to be as properly round as possible, so that it would fly with little resistance or change of course. Of course, that didn’t matter once the stone had left the air envelope of a ship, but even a little wind resistance in the wrong place could change a trajectory just enough to ruin the shot, or so Shaundar’s father had told him.
After that, the sailors were directed to roll hundreds of plum-wood barrels onto flitter after flitter. Most of them simply smelled like spring water, but maybe a third smelled of quesstiasa, a potent elven spirit distilled from fruit nectar and honey under moonlight. “Why so much quesstiasa?” Shaundar asked of Lianna, who was rolling barrels with him.
She laughed out loud. “It’s the taut of alu’quesst!” she explained. “It comes from groundling sailor tradition, I think. Each spacehand gets one taut of alu’quesst a day. It’s about half water and half spirits, with a dollop of sweet. It’s easier and cheaper to make than wine, and it keeps better.”
Shaundar had heard of alu’quesst, but he had no idea what was in it. He supposed that explained why his father and all the other Navy officers he knew drank it.
Lianna smiled widely and added, “Humans use rum instead, and they call it grog.”
Shaundar made a face. He could not imagine why they would drink rum, himself; to him, the stuff smelled vile.
Last came flitters full of shipbuilding supplies; huge coils of rope as thick as Ruavel Sunfall’s arms, wood planks in various sizes, thick and heavy sailcloth, and vats of some sticky, dark amber coloured, resinous substance that the spacehands simply referred to as “putty.” It smelled like pine trees to Shaundar.
“If you think that smells funny,” Lianna laughed, “you should smell the stuff the humans use. They make it out of tar!”
Shaundar wrinkled up his nose. He could not imagine putting tar in the creases and chinks of elven ships. Since they were living plants, they would no doubt be poisoned.
The Aerdrie’s Pride awaited them, her great wings extended like a canopy. She was golden and green, but in most other ways she simply appeared to be a larger version of the flitter that carried them. Her wings were tilted and extended so that they stretched out more like a bird’s at full extension, and a command post – a small keep, actually – was perched in between them on what would have been the thorax, if the craft actually had been the butterfly it resembled. Beneath her on the port side, to which she was attached by great thick hawser ropes, Shaundar could see a great twisted length of wood; one of Garden’s many incredible roots. He noticed several people moving in and out of a small building perched on a disk far below from which the root seemed to be sprouting.
The pilot steered their flitter along the port side of the Armada’s abdomen and beside one of those great wings. “Coming level to the gravity plane, sir,” the pilot reported. Shaundar nodded. Basic spelljamming metaphysics: all things had gravity. Larger objects had more gravity than smaller objects. A spelljamming craft’s gravity plane ran parallel to its helm and out to the distance of its air envelope; as a matter of fact, the gravity caused the air envelope to form. So, if a smaller object were to approach a larger object in a way that was contrary to its gravity plane, it would change the gravity plane of the smaller object, and the passengers of the flitter might find themselves falling suddenly towards the starboard wing, for example!
“Slowing to tactical one,” murmured the pilot. Spelljamming ships all travelled at about the same rate when they were covering long distances, but when they came into range of any other gravity well, they slowed to a speed dependant on the magical abilities of the spelljammer flying the craft and the power of the helm in use. However, a jammer could voluntarily travel more slowly; often a good idea when docking, Shaundar would imagine!
Now that they were close to the Armada, Shaundar could see that the wings were actually straightened into flight decks, which were covered with a small swarm of flitters with several elves moving about between them. “Coming in for docking, sir,” their pilot announced, gaining back just a little bit more of the focus in his expression.
One of the elves on the deck raised two torches limned with faerie fire and began to wave them to their starboard side. Obediently their pilot swung the flitter slightly starboard. The signaller waved them forward, and then Shaundar noticed an empty spot on the deck, which she indicated. The pilot hovered the flitter gently over the deck’s empty spot, and when the signaller crossed her arms, he landed. There was barely a shudder.
“Touchdown, sir,” he told Shaundar’s father with a smile.
“Stand down, Sy’Ruan,” the Admiral nodded.
“Av, quessir,” he replied, and he stood up from the helm and shook himself like he was shaking off water. A low thrumming noise that Shaundar hadn’t noticed until then ceased. He found he missed it immediately.
“Will our duties include piloting flitters, sir?” Yathar inquired hopefully. “We’re Sy’Ruani too, aren’t we?”
The Rear Admiral laughed. “Well, we’ll train you to do it, if your magical abilities are sufficient to the task. But it won’t be part of your official duties, no. Not until you officially join the Navy in about sixty years – if you choose to do that.” With that, he stepped off of the flitter and onto the deck of the Aerdrie’s Pride. The pilot smiled. “Welcome aboard, boys,” he said. “The name’s Garan Oakheart. We’ll probably be bunking together.” He followed the Admiral. Yathar looked at Shaundar with a raised eyebrow, and they both stepped onto the deck behind them.
A small sun elven woman was approaching them briskly, followed by a larger moon elven male. She was wearing a variation of the officer’s uniform, with crescents at the collar. He was clad in a much-more practical looking uniform with less buttons and embroidery, and more solid wool and leather. They both saluted the Rear Admiral.
He returned it. “Welcome back, sir,” the gold elven maid smiled. “It’s been pretty quiet; you’ll be pleased to hear. The pirates out of Darkroot have been keeping a low profile since the incident at H’Catha, the beholders are keeping their wars to themselves for the moment, and aside from the usual smuggling attempts for contraband, we’ve had no real trouble.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” he nodded. “A good time to train new Midshipmen, then! Aliatha, this is my son Shaundar, and my son’s best friend, Yathar Durothil. Boys, Aliatha Leafbower, First Mate.”
They both saluted immediately. She acknowledged with her own and there was a flash of approval in her cinnamon coloured eyes.
Lord Sunfall indicated the rougher-looking silver elf. “This is Bo’sun Naivon. I assume you’ve found them quarters?”
The silver elf nodded. “Av, quessir. Should be easy enough to bunk them with the other Sy’Ruani. Might be a bit of a tight squeeze with Stretch, here –” he indicated Shaundar – “since I was expecting boys, but we’ll manage.”
“Well, it won’t hurt them to learn that things have to fit in small spaces aboard ship,” the Rear Admiral noted, “and let’s face it. Aerdrie’s a bit of a luxury liner.”
“Av, quessir,” the Boatswain agreed.
“Are you ready to get back at it, sir?” the Matey inquired of Lord Sunfall.
“Av, Aia’Ruan,” he replied with a single nod. “I am ready to relieve you.”
“I am ready to be relieved,” recited the First Mate with all the reverence of ritual.
“There’s nothing else?”
“Our position is in stable orbit above Nedethil on the periphery of the dark side, local time 9 p.m., ship time three bells of the forenoon watch, and Lieutenant Wintervale is in the helm.”
“Excellent!” exclaimed the Rear Admiral. “Then I relieve you, Matey.”
“I stand relieved, sir.”
“I have the deck and the conn.”
“Av, quessir, you have the deck and the conn,” she affirmed.
The Boatswain raised a horn to his mouth and bellowed, “Attention to the bridge! Skipper’s got the deck and the conn!”
The cry was repeated by other crew members, who yelled it still further down the line, until, Shaundar was certain, the whole ship was informed.
“Go stow your gear, boys,” Shaundar’s father instructed them. “I have to get to work. Bo’sun, did you bunk them with the other Midshipmen?”
“Av, quessir,” he affirmed.
“Right then; back to your station. Sy’Ruan, you can show them where to hang their hammocks.”
Garan Oakheart saluted. “Av, quessir,” he acknowledged, and when the Rear Admiral nodded his dismissal, he smiled at the boys and said, “We’ll find you room; come on.”
Obediently Shaundar followed the senior Midshipman as his father and the First Mate headed for the bridge.
Yathar was suspicious. “Are you related to Laeroth Oakheart?” he inquired.
“My brother,” the Midshipman nodded. “I understand that he’s a bit of an ass, though, so I hope you won’t hold that against me.” His green eyes sparkled.
Yathar grinned. So did Shaundar.
He headed to the center of the deck, in front of one of the command post buildings, and pulled a trap door open to reveal a hatchway leading down. Shaundar cast a look into its depths dubiously. He shouldered his bag and hoped that he would fit.
They followed Garan down, almost (but not quite) getting stuck, through four decks. Shaundar caught a glimpse of crates, a ballista, and a passageway full of very official-looking doors before they reached the passage that Garan was looking for. He hopped off the ladder into it like a monkey. “This way,” he said to the boys. Shaundar shrugged and followed, with Yathar right behind him.
He led them down a claustrophobic corridor into an alcove where several hammocks were dangling from the roof. A sphere of light, which Shaundar knew from his magical studies was known as a Nchaser’s Glowing Globe, swung from a corner in a buoy net, providing light. Below them, a hodgepodge living area of blankets, board games and random personal items was laid out on the floor, where a pair of gold elves, a boy and girl slightly older than the boys, were playing at dice and passing a pipe back and forth. They looked up when the three of them came in.
“Junior Midshipmen’s Quarters,” Garan announced. “Those look like new hammocks there and there –” he indicated them – “so I guess that’s where you’re bunked. There’s lockers below to stow your gear in. And these are our bunkmates, Casaro Auglamyr and Tyelatae Dahast.”
Tyelatae wrinkled up her nose. “What kind of elf are you?” she demanded of Shaundar.
“Have a care,” Garan said to her in a cautionary tone. “The skipper’s son, that’s what kind of elf he is.”
“Oh,” she exclaimed, suitably chastised. “Well, make yourself at home then, boys.”
Shaundar suppressed a smirk. Sounded like things were going to be much more fun on ship than they were on land! He found an empty locker and started stuffing his things into it. Yathar did the same.
Garan reached for the pipe in Casaro’s hands, which Casaro passed over, and he took a couple of draws off of it, filling the close quarters with smoke. He passed the pipe over to Yathar with a questioning look. Yathar looked at him, looked at the pipe, and with twinkling eyes he took it and puffed at it. He managed not to cough despite the fact that Shaundar knew that this was the first time he had ever tried tobacco. He then passed it over to Shaundar with a challenging grin.
Shaundar knew perfectly well that all of their parents would roast them alive if they were caught smoking, but he had always been curious. Besides, he was being included! He took the pipe, which was a simple wooden piece, put the stem in his mouth and drew the smoke without inhaling it, just like he had seen his father do a thousand times. He didn’t cough either. The smoke tasted faintly of roses. He liked it.
He handed the pipe over to Tyelatae, who fastened it between her teeth firmly and puffed steadily at it as she took her turn at the dice. She rolled two sixes. “Hah! Double crowns!” she cheered. “Hand over your money, Casaro.”
“Hmm, smoking and gambling,” Yathar snickered. “So we’re trying to annoy our parents, I guess?”
“Don’t tell me that you’re afraid of your parents,” Tyelatae sneered.
“Hey, this is Yathar Durothil,” Garan informed the Midshipmen. “Have you met Captain Durothil?”
“Yeah, he scares me,” Casaro admitted.
“To answer your question,” Yathar piped up sourly, “in this case, not particularly. I am sure my father wouldn’t care if I chose to smoke or gamble, as long as I didn’t do either in polite company.”
Tyelatae nodded thoughtfully as she collected her winnings. “So, what’s your name, Skipper’s Son?”
“Shaundar,” he replied.
“Nice to meet you, Shaundar,” she greeted him. “You want another pull on this before you have to go up on deck? You two should be by Navigation sounding us out of harbour right quick.” She offered the pipe back to him.
“Thanks,” he smiled, and just to be polite, he did take another puff at it.
“She’s right,” Garan confessed. “We should probably hurry. I’ll show you lads what to do.”
“See you after your watch!” Casaro mumbled, watching mournfully as Tyelatae collected his coins.
The boys followed Garan once again, as he came back up the corridor and passageway and marched out onto the deck. He led them over to a large silver bell in a wooden frame, big enough to fit both boys underneath it, covered by a sort of half-dome. A rubber-tipped striker was dangling from the frame beside it. There was also a very large hourglass in a wire frame pouring sand busily into its other half. It was just about halfway through this process.
“Do either of you remember what time the Admiral said it was when you came aboard and the Matey was giving her report?” Garan queried.
“Local time 9 p.m.,” Yathar answered.
“Ship time three bells of the forenoon watch,” Shaundar responded.
“Good!” Garan beamed. “So that means that the next time it’s time to strike the bell, it will be four bells of the forenoon watch, so you strike the bell four times; that’s twice, pause, and twice again. You lads know how to keep ship time, don’t you?”
“Av!” the boys confirmed, nodding. There were six watches on a ship of four hours each (or seven, if you counted the two half-length dog watches), and the bell was struck to keep time every half hour; once at the half hour, twice at the hour, three times at the hour and a half, and so forth, to a total of eight bells at the end of the watch. The glass was turned at each time that the bell was rung. And this was all very important, because distance was measured by time spent travelling, and its accuracy was essential to successful navigation.
“Well then, I won’t go into it any further,” said Garan. “The junior Midshipmen keep the time by tradition, and that’s you lads.”
“Av, quessir,” they chorused.
Garan laughed. “I’m the same rank you are, don’t quessir me!”
“Sorry,” Shaundar smiled. “I knew that; it’s just that it’s habit.”
“So what do you think?” Yathar asked Shaundar. “Do you want to split it up at the dog watches?”
“You don’t have to do that,” Garan interjected. “Casaro’s still junior enough to take a shift at that too. Why don’t you split it into three two-watch shifts? Or, you could split it into two three-watch rotations.”
That made sense to Shaundar. He looked to Yathar and shrugged.
“Av, sounds good,” he agreed.
“Now then, we await the skipper’s word, and then we sound us out of harbour,” Garan explained. “You know how to do that, lads?”
“Av, Garan,” Shaundar nodded. “The bell is struck in three patterns of three strikes, separated by a pause between them. But isn’t the Yeoman supposed to be doing that job?”
“He reads the field manual,” Yathar explained with a teasing smile.
“Wouldn’t hurt you to do that either, Durothil,” Garan admonished gently. “Your friend’s research is paying off for him.”
Yathar was almost startled. He wasn’t used to being the one that was chastised! He smiled. Garan was right; he really should have been studying more. It was nice to be treated fairly for once, even if he was being scolded; and Shaundar was glowing under that small bit of praise. “Av, Garan. I’ll try to follow his example.”
Shaundar cast a quick sceptical glance in his direction. Was Yathar making fun of him? But then he saw the serious expression in Yathar’s eyes and smiled a bit more.
Garan smiled back. “And to answer your question, Mr. Sunfall; yes, but it’s our tradition to let our newest greenhorns sound us out of harbour when we have them. It’s our nod to Aerdrie, who respects change.”
Just then, the Boatswain appeared on the deck with his horn and he called into it, “All hands to your stations! Prepare to make sail!”
Garan cupped his hands to his mouth and hollered down the deck, “All hands prepare to make sail!” It was repeated somewhere out of Shaundar’s sight, and again somewhere beyond that in both directions.
The deck came alive with spacehands climbing rigging, securing and releasing lines, opening sails, checking the landing gear of the flitters, and fastening down anything loose on the deck. Shaundar tried to watch it all at once.
“Stand to your lines!” bellowed the Boatswain, and sailors headed out on the port side wing to stand by the thick hawser lines.
Boatswain Naivon then turned to face the boys. “Which one of you young lads would like the honour of sounding us out?” he asked with a smile. “Garan did explain about that, didn’t he?”
“Av, Bo’sun,” Shaundar and Yathar said as they met each other’s eyes. “Go ahead,” Yathar encouraged Shaundar.
“Are you sure?” Shaundar questioned uncertainly.
“I’ll take first watch,” he smiled back. “So I get to ring the bell next.”
Shaundar grinned at Yathar and clasped him on the shoulder. He took the striker in his hand.
The Boatswain nodded just once and then looked to the bridge. On the other side of glass windows stood Shaundar’s father, proud and firmly in his element in his Navy uniform. Boatswain Naivon saluted, and the Rear Admiral returned the salute and nodded.
“Mr. Sunfall,” said the Boatswain, “sound us out of harbour.”
“Av, Bo’sun!” he affirmed, and he struck the bell; three times, then a pause, then thrice more, and a pause, then three more times. Two of the strokes caught the edge of the bell and came out more muffled than the rest, but he thought he managed all right.
“Not bad, Mr. Sunfall,” said the Boatswain encouragingly. Shaundar grinned.
Boatswain Naivon put the horn to his mouth again and roared “Cast off!”
“Cast off!” went the call up the deck, and the spacehands standing to the hawsers unfastened the knots holding them.
Slowly, the Aerdrie’s Pride began to move forward.
“Pitch five degrees up, yaw ten degrees starboard!” the Boatswain directed. This, too, was repeated down the deck. Through a complex symphony of ropes being moved by several sailors, some of the sails on the port side unfurled and some of the sails on the foremast were tilted slightly to face more upwards, like wings. The Aerdrie’s Pride began to turn up and to the right. She also began to increase her speed.
“Straighten the yaw!” the Boatswain cried, and the spacehands began to reel in and fasten down most of the port sails they had unfurled. The Aerdrie’s Pride stopped turning to the right, though she continued to climb. She pulled away from Garden’s root to reveal a whole field of stars in every imaginable colour; infinite possibilities just waiting to be discovered.
Shaundar was grinning like an idiot. He laughed out loud! Yathar was cheering. Garan and the Boatswain laughed with them. “Think we’ve got some more starhands here, sir,” Naivon grinned at Garan.
“Poor lost fools,” he chuckled conspiratorially in return.
Rear Admiral Sunfall strode out onto the deck and was greeted by a round of salutes. He folded his arms. “Not bad, Mr. Sunfall,” he said, “But in the future, be mindful of striking the bell on her edge.”
Shaundar’s smile disappeared. “Av, quessir,” he sighed.
– from A Few Good Elves (Toy Soldier Saga book 1).
Diane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author. Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012). Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power will be published by Red Wheel / Weiser in September of this year. Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.