Mad Kestrel - A Preview!

A number of folks have asked for a taste of the book, just to see what all the fuss is about.  Since y'all asked so nicely, how could I refuse?  Here's Chapter One of Mad Kestrel- I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

Chapter One

And now the storm blast came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong;

He struck with his o’ertaking wings

And chas’d us south along.

--- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

 

Cold waves splashed across the railings, nearly knocking Kestrel over. She gripped the wet wood tighter, squinting into the rain-whipped darkness. Lightning split the sky, and Kestrel began counting under her breath. One…two...three…four… Thunder rumbled suddenly, loud and gut-shaking, but one second further away than it had been moments ago. She breathed out in relief. Whether they were outrunning the storm or it them, they were finally on the safe side.

The storm had been a killer, whirling out of the night like some giant beast and taking the crew of the pirate sloop Wolfshead completely by surprise. If they’d only changed course, they might have been able to skirt its edges, but the captain was insistent. Changing course would put them an extra day away from their destination, and he refused to consider any delay.

They trimmed the sails and battened down to ride out the fury. Sheer luck that they’d lost none of the men over the side. As soon as the weather began to ease, she relieved as many as she could afford to. Some of them had tucked themselves into their hammocks for the night, the rest were belowdecks cleaning up and resecuring crates and barrels that had shaken loose.

"Kestrel! Get up here!"

The captain’s bellow was a beacon through the pounding rain and roaring wind. Kestrel moved cautiously across the main deck to the bow, grabbing lines as she went to steady herself. She’d kicked her boots off below long before the rain started. Her toes had gone numb, so she stepped carefully across the slick deck. The worst of the weather was over, but the sloop was still a bucking horse in the wild seas the storm had churned up.

"Kestrel! Damn your eyes, where’ve you got to?" Captain Artemus Binns was holding the wheel with both hands, his big arms straining to keep it steady. He shook his head, flinging rain-soaked strands of his gray hair out of his face, and caught sight of his quartermaster. "Nice to see you, lass," he yelled. "For a time there, she was fightin’ me so hard I almost thought she wanted to go to the deeps."

"Need me to spell you for a while?" She reached for the wheel, but he didn’t let go.

"Storm’s easin’ up; I can handle her fine. Unless you think you can whistle me up a prevailin’ current?"

Kestrel glanced around, but no one was close enough to have overheard. "Artie!" she scolded.

He laughed. "Just toyin’ with you, my girl. I thought I saw something. Be my eyes," he said, turning his chin toward the long brass scope tucked under his left arm.

Kestrel took the scope, slipped behind him, and braced herself against his broad back. "Where am I looking?"

"To starboard."

"And I should see what?"

"Another ship."

"Is she foundering?"

"Nay, I think not. I’m not in the business of rescuin’ anyway." He grinned. "Tell me whose colors she’s raised, if any."

"Aye, captain." Pushing her black braids away from her face, she raised the scope to her eye, and peered into the distance. The Wolfshead was still rocking hard up and down, her timbers groaning in an eerie music Kestrel knew well. Rain had smeared the telescope lens, but neither that nor the rolling seas disguised what she saw.

A huge three-master, painted black and red with vast red sails, matched their course. She cut the choppy water smoothly, looking for all the world like a queen making her entrance. The flag fluttering heavily from atop the ship was a red field with a black flaming eye.

"Damn, Artie, she’s sporting twenty gunports on this side alone. Fancy painted or no, she’s a powerful beast."

"Can you see her crew?"

"Aye. Fellow on the quarterdeck appears think he’s in charge."

He was tall, his honey-gold hair flying loose in the breeze, mimicking the flap of the dark cloak that hung from his broad shoulders. His legs were wrapped in boots that came halfway up his thigh, and a glint of steel winked from his hip. One foot was propped on the railing. He stared into the distance, looking like a posed painting.

Suddenly, he turned his face in her direction. Very handsome, as far as she could tell from the distance, with a devilish cast to his smile. Stepping down from the railing, he crossed his arms and squared his chest, staring at her so intently that she grew uncomfortable. It was as if he could see her, out here in the dark, without a glass to aid him. Cocking one hand rakishly on his hip, he raised the other in front of him, making a ‘come here’ waggle with his finger. Kestrel’s eyes widened. Slowly she dropped the glass to her side.

"Well? Whose colors is she flying?"

Kestrel swallowed. "No colors I’ve seen before, Artie. I’d have called her a merchant ship, except she’s armed to the teeth. If she’s a warship, she doesn’t belong to any navy I’ve heard of. And that captain of hers turns my stomach."

"The captain?" he asked. "What’s wrong with him?"

Without the glass, the ship was a shadowy bulk in the water, the people aboard only moving shapes with no way to distinguish them. So why did she still feel that bold stare, like an unwelcome touch on her skin? She could think of only one reason the other vessel’s captain could see her so well without a spyglass. Or stayed so dry.

She didn’t fear much of anything, but magic, and the men who practiced it, made her skin crawl. Popular rumor insisted the Magi never set foot off land, one of her prime reasons for choosing a life on the water. But rumor had been proven wrong before.

"Take the wheel," Binns ordered, before she could phrase an answer. She did as he said, handing him the scope. He raised it to his face, and whistled appreciatively. "Damn fine ship, that."

"Could he be someone who’s just come to the seas?" she grunted, the wheel pulling against her grip.

"Mayhap. That’s a lot of money to spend on a ship. If he’s not a merchant, and not a warrior, there’s only one other kind of sailor I know. Men with cash enough to afford a vessel like that usually don’t go on the account." He chuckled. "I wish you could see this, Kes. He’s waving at me, as if we’re friends passing in the street!"

"Passing is exactly what we ought to do."

"Yonder boy doesn’t even know who he’s facin’!" Binns grinned suddenly, and Kestrel’s heart dropped. She knew that look in his eye too well.

"Captain, with the weather like it is…" she began, but he interrupted her.

"Could be entertainin’ to show this amateur a thing or two." He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Don’t you think?"

Kestrel groaned. Binns was a fine captain, kinder and more fair than most in the Nine Islands, but his greed was a source of infinite frustration. He’d been on the verge of losing the Wolfshead when she met him. Serving under Binns was a far better life than she could ever have hoped for back on Eldraga, and he’d kept her secret even in times when it could have benefitted him to reveal it. But it was moments like this when she wondered if she shouldn’t have stayed ashore.

"We’re not in any condition to take a ship, least of all that one. Look at her - she’s got forty guns at least!"

He turned to her with a wounded look. "I don’t intend to take her. I figure on playing with her a bit. Just a warning shot, across her bow. To watch the jackanapes dance."

"And what if he’s not some fop?" Kestrel snapped. "What if he decides to blow us out of the seas?"

"His ship’s a monster, Kes, I’ll grant you that. But it’s too big. Even tore up like we are, we can still outrun him easy. Besides," he raised the glass again, and licked his lips. "I’m the captain and it’s an order. Pass it down."

No way around it. Binns would listen to her opinions, just as he would any member of the crew who had one to voice. But once he gave an order, he expected it to be obeyed without further question. Argue the point too far, and she’d risk a public flogging. "Aye, captain."

Returning control of the wheel to Binns, she crossed carefully to the midpoint of the deck and leaned over the hatch. "Get Shadd up here, you lads!" A moment later, a great blonde bear of a man poked his head through, blinking at the stinging rain.

"Aye, Kes? What’s the word?"

"Roust your gunners, tell them the captain needs their ladies warm and willin’."

"Aye, quarter. Got a target in mind?"

She pointed in the direction of the three-master. The rain had abated enough for an easy view across the water, and Shadd frowned. "We’re firing on her? Is he out of his wits?"

"No more than usual." She clapped him on one massive shoulder. "It’s an official order, so best get to it."

"Aye, Kes, that I will." He dropped back down the skinny ladder, roaring the order as he descended. Rising to her feet again, she returned to Binns’ side.

"Ready when you are, captain."

He rubbed his hands eagerly. "Relax, lass, this’ll be a bit of sport, is all. Something to boast about in the pub tomorrow." His eyes narrowed. "Fire starboard guns."

"Fire starboard guns!" Kestrel cried. The order was echoed down to the waiting gunners. Binns raised the telescope.

With a heavy deck-shivering thump, the guns answered the command. Smoke belched from the gunports, sweeping over the deck in a wave of warmth. Kestrel drew a long breath, enjoying the smell of the spent powder.

Binns was watching the big vessel intently. He barked a laugh, and turned to his quartermaster. "Kestrel, lass, I think this is something you’ll want to see."

"Me?" She took the offered telescope, and warily placed it to her eye.

The three-master’s gunports remained closed. The cloaked fellow had moved to the main deck, and was standing with both feet on the railing, only the length of line he held onto keeping him from tipping over into the black water below. He touched one hand to his lips, then with a gallant sweep of his arm, waved it her way.

Blood rushed into Kestrel’s cheeks. The nerve of him - blowing her a kiss as if she were some bar wench. She dropped the telescope. Binns was chuckling, careful not to look her in the face.

"You think that was funny?" she snapped. He glanced toward her, and exploded into full-out laughter, bending over and slapping his thigh.

"He was … pointing towards you, lass … wanted me to … give you the ‘scope…" he managed to force out between breaths. "I wish you … could have seen … your face…"

"I’ll show him where he can plant those lips," she muttered, raising the glass again. The warship’s captain, wisely for him, had climbed down from the railing. As she watched, he strode across his deck toward his helmsman, waving his arms. The warship responded to the helmsman’s turn of the wheel, steering off and away from the Wolfshead.

The deck crew began cheering, some shouting insults at the retreating ship, others launching into random verses of drinking songs. Binns chuckled. "See, Kes? Just a rich popinjay with more money than sense. You were worryin’ about nothin’. One little howdy-do shot and he runs like a baby."

Kestrel didn’t say anything. Running he seemed to be, but that fellow hadn’t acted like a coward. She couldn’t believe he’d take Binns’ insulting shot without an answering volley.

"Come on, girl, he’s gone." Binns nudged her shoulder. "Go below and get a cup of rum, warm your bones."

She was about to drop the scope, and do as her captain suggested, when, to her horror, out of the rainy darkness, the warship reappeared. Bearing straight for them, a monstrous red juggernaut cutting through the water at top speed. Ramming speed. It was big enough to slice the Wolfshead completely in half and never even feel the impact.

Kestrel leaped toward the railing, not waiting for Binns to give the order. They had mere seconds before the warship crushed them under its keel. "Shadd!" she screamed. "Fire starboard guns!"

The giant man, head and shoulders out of the hatch, didn’t repeat her order down the line. He was staring transfixed across the water.

"Fire guns!" Kestrel swung herself over the railing and ran for the open hatchway. She grabbed Shadd’s hair, yanked his head back and let go. "Damn your eyes, wake up, man!"

Shadd’s head snapped forward, and he seemed to focus on her for the first time. "What’d ye do that for?"

"We’re going to die!"

"No, we’re not. There ain’t nothin’ there." He pointed, and she turned to follow his shaking hand.

Kestrel’s eyes widened. She scanned the horizon, looking left and right. The big ship was gone, vanished into the stormy night as if it had never been there at all.