Flight of the renshai fo.., p.1

Flight of the Renshai fotr-1, page 1

 part  #1 of  Flight of the Renshai Series


Flight of the Renshai fotr-1

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Flight of the Renshai fotr-1

  Flight of the Renshai

  ( Flight of the Renshai - 1 )

  Mickey Zucker Reichert

  Mickey Zucker Reichert

  Flight of the Renshai


  When a man believes he lives only once, he becomes obligated to make that one life virtuous.

  -Knight-Captain Kedrin of Erythane

  A sea breeze riffled the black bangs of Prince Arturo of Bearn, carrying the rich, salt aroma of the Southern Sea. Overhead, the mainsail fluttered restively, and a cleat drummed against the mast. The young prince rested a booted foot on the gunwale, and his two-man Renshai escort shifted with immediate and effortless grace to the rail. Should the ship lurch, should Arturo slip, should some inexplicable madness drive him to leap overboard, they would rescue him with the same swift and bold dexterity that characterized their legendary swordcraft.

  Arturo studied a sea glazed with calm, the occasional puff of air chopping foamy wavelets into a rich blue span that might otherwise have passed for woven tapestry. The sailors aboard the warship worked with a leisureliness that suggested boredom, and the soldiers sat in conversational groups as they routinely sharpened and oiled their weapons. Two weeks upon the Southern Sea had revealed no sign of the pirates that had been plaguing the trading ships over the last several months. They had seen only one other vessel while guarding the docks, a cautious freighter from the East that had successfully delivered a load of spices, cosmetics, and fine fabrics to Bearn's port.

  The Bearnian ship, numbered Seven, might have seemed a dull prison to most of the men aboard her; but Arturo savored the dense salt tang of the ocean that flavored every bite of food and every breath, the rock and toss of the deck even at its most extreme, and the looming sky, whether bright sapphire and full of fiery sun or dark slate beneath a threatening network of clouds. At sixteen, he appreciated any real-life activity that rescued him from the monotonous lectures of his many tutors, the seemingly endless parade of hangers-on and malcontents through his father's courtroom, the pretty manners of the courtiers, and the delicate, fawning tiptoeing of servants in his presence. Here, the sailors mostly ignored him, not even bothering to curb their jargon laced with saucy talk well beyond that which would gain him a severe scolding from his nursemaids and mother. The soldiers accepted his presence among them, their hygiene nonexistent and their bodily noises loud, crude, and unpardoned.

  Only the Renshai maintained proper decorum, their demeanor professional and their competence unquestionable.The larger,Trygg, bore the classic blond hair, fair skin, and blue eyes that betrayed the Renshai's Northern origins. He carried more bulk than most of his kind, all of it muscle, though it seemed not to hinder the lightning refinement of Renshai maneuvers that relied on quickness and dexterity rather than strength. The smaller warrior fit the body image of Renshai better: thin and sinewy, fine-boned, his muscles totally defined but utterly lacking in bulk. Named Gunnhar, he had hazel eyes and sandy hair, hacked functionally short. Not a strand ever fell into his eyes. Each wore a sword at his hip, the leather of the sheaths and hilts smooth with use but without a hint of dirt or darkening. Renshai tended their swords with a fanaticism most men reserved for family.

  Prince Arturo considered moving to ease the watchful burden from his escort, then decided against it.The Renshai probably appreciated the need for some attentiveness. Though he knew they would have preferred charging into an army, mowing down enemies like wheat stalks before a scythe to protect him, he supposed worrying over his position and mental state proved more interesting than staring at him while he read or groomed or slept.

  Arturo blinked salt-rime from his brown eyes, then ran his hands over his coarse features and generous nose, glad he did not have to worry about his appearance on board. The hems of his blue-and-gold cloak had come undone in the drenching winds of the previous day, and his broad knees poked through tears in his britches. His thick, dark hair now lay in a thick, dark snarl. At the best of times, he barely resembled the massive, well-groomed bear of a man who was King Griff of Bearn.

  A shout wafted from above and forward. "Ship off the port bow!"

  The conversations in the stern cut off in mid-sentence. Every man whirled toward the sound, and several rushed forward. Gunnhar and Trygg displayed no reaction, other than to look askance at their charge. When he moved, they would also, far fleeter and with a natural, delicate grace that would make all the accompanying Bearnides, including Arturo, seem massive and lumbering in comparison.

  Heart pounding, Arturo lowered his foot. He turned, eager for more news from the forecastle.

  The lookout did not disappoint him. Over the deck-level rumble of new conversation, he cried out clearly, "Dark sails. No standard." His voice sank as he shinnied from the riggings, and his tone held admiration as well as a hint of fear, "Coming at a right goodly clip." Their own sails could scarcely find wind, moving at a snail's pace, if at all, in the quiet calm of the morning.

  Footsteps pounded from below, and the night crew spilled onto the deck. Captain Jhirban waited until the last man had joined them before slamming the hatch closed with a sound like thunder. Having seized every man's attention, he sprang onto an overturned crate with a spryness that belied his Bearnian bulk and his advancing age. Curls cascaded to his shoulders, a wind-tousled mixture of silver and black, and he wore Bearnian blue and gold, with the rearing grizzly on his chest.

  Arturo glided forward to join the rest of the men, the Renshai dogging his every step. He noticed that most of the soldiers' hands had instinctively drifted to their sword hilts and cursed his own inexperience. He mimicked their stances, but his hand fell on empty air. Three times, he reached for his broadsword and, three times, he missed. Finally, he took his eyes from the captain to look at his sword belt. No blade hung there; he had removed it while seeking a more comfortable sitting position earlier in the day.

  An icy bolt of fear spiked through Arturo. He tensed to turn, when something cold poked the back of his hand. He glanced at it, recognizing a familiar engraved hilt with a brilliant sapphire in the pommel. The split-leather enwrapping it looked stiff, unhandled. He followed the bright scabbard, its tooling still deeply fresh, to the pallid long-fingered Renshai hand that cradled the sheathed blade.

  "You might need this, Sire," Gunnhar whispered, making no mention of the prince's antics, though they surely amused him.

  "Thank you." Prince Arturo accepted the sword without a glance toward his benefactor. The Renshai's tone was flat, but Arturo dared not face the judgmental hazel eyes. A Renshai would rather enter a courtroom stark naked than unarmed. Their parents thrust swords into their fists the instant their pudgy baby fingers could close around a hilt, and they demonstrated the same respect for their chosen weapons, always swords, that other men reserved for royalty. If a man toppled overboard at the same time as a Renshai's sword, Arturo suspected the weapon would get rescued first.

  "Sailors." Captain Jhirban glanced around the gathering, his features squinted into wrinkles and crow's-feet. Salt crusted his cheeks, and the sun had baked his skin into leather. "Man your positions and prepare to back up anyone who needs it, but stay out of the soldiers' way should battle become necessary. Friendly deaths and hampered sword arms can turn the tide of a battle."

  "Aye," the fifteen sailors chorused, scurrying to the lines and tiller, attentive to the fighting men.

  "Your Majesty…"

  Still fastening his sword to his belt, Arturo froze, cheeks reddening. He wished the captain had not chosen that moment to draw every man's attention to him.

  If the captain noticed Arturo's unpreparedness, he gave no sign, continuing his speech without a hitch or interruption in the flow, "
I think you should go belowdecks. It's safer."

  "No!" Arturo wished he sounded more like a warrior than a terrified adolescent. His maturing voice cracked at the most inopportune moments. "If that ship is manned by pirates, every sword arm is needed, including my own."

  The captain frowned, clearly preferring to continue his speech rather than wasting time arguing, yet constrained by protocol. "Your Majesty, I must insist.You're too important to risk."

  Haunted by his earlier lapse, Arturo refused the demand. "Captain, I will not hide belowdecks like a coward while men…" He added emphatically, "… my men are fighting." He finished clipping on his sword and gave the captain his full attention. "Go on." He made a formal gesture that bade Jhirban to take his thoughts in another direction. "Command the soldiers."

  Captain Jhirban scowled. "Prince Arturo, you aren't welcome on deck during this exchange. If I brought you home dead, King Griff and Queen Matrinka would have my head, not to mention my title. You will stay below."

  Arturo planted his feet firmly on the planking. "When they sent me on this mission, Captain Jhirban, my parents knew the risks. I'm trained in warfare, and I will fight." His words and tone left no room for argument. No one knew if he would inherit the throne of Bearn; a magical test created by the gods chose the king's successor after the ruler died or stepped down. Though Arturo studied decorum and protocol, watched his father's judgments, and trained in policy as well as warcraft, he secretly hoped one of his sisters or half siblings would fill the future role. He preferred the outdoors to the stifling inner chambers of the mountain palace, and even the courtyard walls seemed too constraining. If he could prove himself as a warrior, they might groom him for a command position in the army or guard force instead.

  "Your Majesty!" the captain admonished, tone tinged with parental authority. "I cannot allow-"

  Arturo interrupted, "You can, and you will. This discussion is over."

  The captain's jaw clamped, and scarlet tinted the sunburned cheeks.

  The lookout shouted, "Captain, they're heading to our broadside."

  Captain Jhirban's nostrils flared. Several men ran to the gunwale to confirm the position and startling speed of the other ship. "How can it…?" he started, standing tall on his crated dais to look over his followers: soldier and sailor alike. His aura of command returned. "Come about, men! Quickly. Bring us bow to bow."

  The sailors scurried to work, attempting to move the ship though there was barely a hint of wind.

  "To the oars!" Jhirban shouted.

  His men responded instantly, several pounding belowdecks to obey his command.

  Captain Jhirban spared only a moment to scowl at Arturo before addressing the soldiers. "Bowmen, prepare your flights at the bow and port rail. Don't volley until I give the order." He dashed toward the prow and its massive carved bear. "The rest of you, stand ready for a boarding. Do whatever you must to keep yourselves safe, but take a prisoner if you can do so without too much risk. We need to know who these pirates are." He clambered onto the bear masthead while the warriors prepared. "I'm going to parley." He added, under his breath, "Mistaken us for a merchant vessel, the gluttonous fools."

  Arturo wondered how such a thing could happen. Seven's sails clearly identified them, with Bearn's colors as well as her name. Even the most illiterate pirates must know the familiar blue and gold of the West's high kingdom.

  The ship lurched sideways, sweeping Arturo's feet out from under him. He scrambled for balance, assisted by Trygg's steadying hand. The sailors remained upright, though some stumbled, and several of the fighting men went down.

  "Arturo," Jhirban shouted, without looking in the prince's direction, his attention glued to the sea and approaching danger. "Go below!" He did not turn to see if his command had any effect this time.

  Arturo remained in position, more from adolescent stubbornness than courage, the Renshai stepping in front of him. Though not yet fully grown, he was already taller and broader than his escort and had no trouble seeing over them. The sailors scrambled to bring the ship into better position. They could not risk a broadside hit. Their eight bowmen found positions at the rail, while the swordsmen shifted uneasily at the perimeter, waiting. Captain Jhirban stood firm upon the figurehead, despite the jerky movements of the ship, appearing composed and controlled. Though fully exposed to the other ship, he was in no current danger, so long as his balance did not fail him. Every country, no matter how hostile, obeyed the rules of parley, absolutely assuring the safety of any man who came forward to talk.

  Arturo studied the other ship, surprised to find he could not identify its construction. His schooling had included the crests, crafts, and colors of every country in the world, the designs of their buildings and ships among them. This ship looked like nothing he had seen before, its hull oddly angled, its planking so tight he could not identify the seams between them. A plain iron spike served as its masthead, and it carried three taut brown sails to Seven's two.

  As the ships settled into a skewed prow-to-prow position, Jhirban cupped his hands around his mouth so that his voice would carry forward. The bowmen tensed, arrows nocked but not drawn, equally constrained by the laws of the parley, unbroken for millennia.

  "Hail the other ship!" The captain's voice emerged in a deep and carrying tenor. "Are you friend or foe?"

  No answer came, though the unstruck ship continued forward at its tremendous speed. The captain tensed, prepared for a retreat. If the vessel rammed them, he would surely lose his perch and, possibly, the structural integrity of his own ship.

  Arturo tensed, hand tightening around his sword hilt. Bits and pieces of previously dismissed conversations drew together in one moment of stark and ugly terror. He suddenly realized that his parents had allowed him aboard only because no one expected the Seven 's voyage to be anything more than a routine patrol. Upon spotting anything suspicious, the ship had orders to return to Bearn for a hasty report. The soldiers were merely a precaution.

  Apparently, the shocking speed of this encounter had caught even Captain Jhirban, a thirty-five-year veteran of the sea, by surprise. Now Arturo understood why no one had directly seen the pirated trading ships go down, despite ever-increasing onboard security. No vessel had come through an encounter intact; no man had survived to tell the tale.

  The urge to scuttle belowdecks struck Arturo hard and low in the gut. His legs felt rubbery, unable to obey the sudden compulsion, and that gave him time to screw up his courage and force himself to remain boldly in place. You can do this, Arturo.You can do this.

  Then, an insectlike whine filled Arturo's ears. The captain staggered backward with a strangled noise. Something skittered across the deck, splashing scarlet droplets on the planking. Jhirban tumbled from the figurehead and collapsed, with breathtaking force, across the railing.

  The prince stopped breathing.

  Soldiers and sailors swore viciously, screaming their rage toward the approaching ship. Someone shouted, "Loose, gods damn it! Kill the dishonorable bastards!" A volley of arrows peppered the sea, falling short of their target. The bowmen hurriedly reloaded as the first mate screamed orders at the sailors and the second-in-command stepped in to bunch the soldiers as well.

  Trained in healing by his mother, Arturo tried to run to the fallen captain, but his path was blocked by the Renshai who forced him backward with the precision of herding dogs.

  Arturo froze, staring at the captain's body, hanging utterly still across the railing except for the relentless patter of blood from his neck to the gunwale. One of the sailors picked up an object from the deck that resembled a slender arrow but glinted like silver in the sunlight and bore no fletching. The captain's blood smudged the sailor's hands.

  "Let me help him." Arturo attempted to slip around the Renshai. "I know some healing." Though true, it seemed moot. He had no herbs, and every soldier knew enough to hold pressure on an open wound.Yet no one appeared to be doing so.

  Trygg nimbly shifted to block Arturo again. "He
's dead."

  "Maybe not." Arturo lunged for a hole, even as Gunnhar closed it. "I have to try."

  "He's dead," Gunnhar repeated. "Believe me, Sire, Renshai know dead."

  A cry sounded from the other ship, a single indistinguishable word.

  "Loose!" shouted Bearn's second-in-command.

  A hail of unfletched metal shafts whined onto the Seven as the bowmen's strings twanged. Four Bearnian bowmen collapsed as the arrows left their strings. Trygg and Gunnhar jerked Arturo nearly off his feet, Gunnhar swearing vehemently.

  At the mishandling, rage flashed through Arturo, but a glance at the smaller Renshai squelched it. Blood stained his tattered sleeve, and the fingers, still clutching his sword hilt, had turned ghostly white. Despite the wound, he had managed not to drop it. Without bothering to assess the damage, Gunnhar effortlessly shifted the hilt to his left hand. "Cowards!" he screamed. "Fight fair! Face-to-face! Sword-to-sword!"

  Arturo grabbed for the Renshai's arm, intending to wrap the sleeve into a makeshift bandage. Gunnhar moved faster, charging toward the port rail, where the clang of metal striking metal filled the air. Once again, Arturo's fingers closed on empty air, and he jerked his attention to a line of grapples hooking Seven's rail. The remaining bowmen retreated, and the swordsmen rushed in to sever boarding lines. Heart hammering, fear balling in his throat, Arturo chased after the warriors, intending to assist.

  More enemy missiles whined through the air, and the front line of Seven's warriors collapsed, tripping up some of those behind them. Both Renshai managed to keep their feet, flying over their own men to slash down boarding enemies with perfect sweeps of their swords. Arturo ducked in, treading more carefully, intending to unhinge grapples; but the Renshai wove a web of steel in front of him, blocking his advance even as they dispatched enemies.

  Others did not prove as swift or lucky. As Bearnides fell, to the volley or tripped up by falling companions, the enemy swarmed over the side. Arturo managed a glimpse through the whirling blur of Renshai steel, his own sword incapable of penetrating the protective barrier. The few enemies he saw wore tight leather helms, clots of thickly curled reddish hair escaping in places. Between leather gloves and long cotton sleeves, Arturo caught glimpses of medium-toned flesh with a hint of olive. Their swords were short, curved and serrated, and they spoke in a language he did not recognize.

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