Art by Lars Opland
Danny O’Leary leaned out from the airship’s balloon rigging, inhaling deeply of the ozone in the afternoon thunderclouds, and reveling in the rising winds. He watched the rig-rats, envying the duties of those sailors that clambered about the rigging, raising and lowering sails, and repairing the outer skin of the balloon.
In the near distance, lightning leapt from one cloud to another. The resulting thunder made Danny scream in joyful terror as he hooked his peg leg behind the spar of a stud sail for a more secure hold.
Their airship frigate, His Eminence’s Ship-HES, Grief, pursued a fat Dwenorian merchant ship into a thunderstorm. Danny had hoped they would battle it before his watch began. Far below the airships, the Niriad Ocean tossed whitecaps and promised a wet welcome for either airship, should their balloons deflate.
Danny’s gaze shifted to his own airship. Triangular stud-sails sandwiched a huge melon-shaped balloon between them. The balloon felt solid beneath him, but Danny knew the truth. It could deflate quickly if punctured. The merchant ship’s harpoon cannons would keep the rig-rats busy patching holes when they engaged with it.
Behind and below him, four large steam-driven propulsion propellers cut through the air, churning the air like giant windmills. Smaller propellers fore and aft on the wooden airship corrected and adjusted their course to face into the wind.
A sharp steam whistle penetrated the air above the rumbles of the thunderheads ahead.
That’s it then. Change of the watch and I’m late, again. He waved an acknowledgment to Delvin Sorden, the Rigging Master, who shook his head at him with a wry grin. He knows Master Sten is going to punish me.
Danny counted on some leniency from Master Sten. His Master understood the lure of the rigging, having once been a rig-rat himself. Had Sten not lost an arm in battle against a Black Fleet harpoon, he still would be.
Danny owed Master Sten his life. A year ago in Brogen Town, Danny had been standing on the gallows platform with a noose around his neck, a condemned thief. He picked pockets well enough, but hadn’t been able to run away when caught at it.
The Emperor’s Air Corp and Merchant Air Masters stood before them and chose amongst the twelve condemned. The chosen would get another chance at life, pressed for a five year indenture aboard an airship, then a clean slate.
Only four escaped the gallows that day. Two of them had ended up on the Grief. Danny and an older lad, Nevan, a rig-rat and knife murderer.
Eight trapdoors swung open. Eight men and women died. Danny’s throat had closed up when he watched the eight swinging on their short ropes. He vowed to make his life count for something.
Danny scrambled spider-like across the rigging and worked his way around to the rope ladders, then down to the deck. Once on deck, he lost the agility he thrived on in the rigging and (started limping./limped across the deck. He’d been born with one leg. His wooden peg, too small for his size, adorned the stump of the other.
Sailors scrambled to stow lines and loose articles on the main deck, Danny, short for his twelve years, stayed out of their way as he made his way to the deck ladder to descend below.
He opened the hatch leading to the gun deck and secured it behind him as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light. The gunner’s and mates dashed about, stowing their hammocks and running out their powerful steam-harpoon cannons in preparation for the battle. Once in their new positions, they secured lines across them and the holing harpoons as well, preparing for both battle and storm.
Danny rounded the corner at the next ship’s ladder and hobbled down the rungs to the crew and steam-works deck. He swung the hammocks aside, climbing over gear and scurrying to the steam works hatch. He opened the hatch and secured it behind him and reported to his master, Steamfitter Manson.
“O’Leary reporting s-s-sir,” he said, raising a hand to his brow in salute, wincing as his stutter manifested again.
“You’re late again, Danny.” Sten Manson cuffed him on the head. It stung, but by rights he could have had him flogged. He had done it before. Sten was a strict master, but fair. “Aloft again?” Sten Manson asked.
“Aye, s-s-sir. We’re headed into a nasty one, this time.”
“Good, to know. Now, get to greasin’, lad. We don’t want the races heatin’ up whilst we point her into the wind; hop to it! There’s a good lad.” Sten yelled after him as he took a mock swipe at him.
Danny grabbed a small keg of the whale grease and poured the lighter oil off into the brass race wicks before brushing the heavier grease onto the gear works of the four propeller shafts. The smell of frying blubber permeated the close confines of the steam works as the grease hit the hot metal.
Danny sweltered under the heat of the huge brass oil boiler. For the next six hours, he would be drenched in sweat. Along with lubing, he rolled out and replaced the heavy whale oil kegs to keep the boiler fired up. An airship without steam was only a surface ship, and that surface lay a long way beneath them.
Danny jumped as loud steam explosions came from the deck above him. The steam harpoons were being launched. They had engaged the merchant. Danny wished he could see the action.
Two other steamfitter hands worked alongside Danny. Lars and Jon; both grown men that moved the oil kegs easily. They had watched Danny struggle with them when he first joined them, but never offered to help. Danny resented the ease with which they were able to move the kegs.
It had taken Danny a few days to realize that they were showing him respect in their own way, treating him as a man instead of an orphan thief. Danny grew stronger over time, and kept up as well.
Danny heard shouts and the sound of running feet. The boarding was underway, now. If all went well, the crew would seize the merchant airship as a prize and take captives for ransom.
Danny might even be allowed a share in the spoils if it pleased his master to offer him one. As often as he had been tardy of late, he wasn’t too optimistic on that count.
Sten stood watching the three of them work, rubbing his chin with his single hand as if in thought. “I suppose we have enough of us here to allow one of you to go topside and help out. I wonder which one of you should go?”
Danny tried, but failed to keep the hopeful expression from his face. By rights, Lars, as the senior steamfitter should be allowed the choice to go above. Lars looked at Danny, then winked and nodded to Sten.
“Okay, lad you go up topside. Try to stay out of the way,” Sten said.
Danny couldn’t believe it. This would be the first battle he would be allowed to witness. He saluted. “Thank you, sir!” He tore off through the hatch as the master shouted after him to grab a sword.
* * *
In the steam works the three men chuckled as Danny shut the hatch behind him.
“Were we ever that young?” Lars said.
“I can’t recall it, but we must have been sometime. Once he sees what a battle is really like, I think he won’t be so eager to charge off next time,” Jon said.
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that. Something tells me the lad has got the winds in his heart and veins. I think he’s a lifer,” Sten confided. “Thanks for giving up your spot, Lars. There’s something I wanted to discuss with you two, with the lad away. Top off the boiler and let’s take a break.”
Lars and Jon each grabbed a keg and refilled the fuel hopper, then the three of them pulled up kegs and sat down. They pulled out their pipes and smoked, Sten offering his Mellowherb to the others. Once each had lit up and drawn on their pipes, Sten spoke again.
“It’s the lad’s Gallows Day, gents. One year, since I got his scrawny neck out of the noose. He hasn’t had many breaks in life and I would like his first Gallows Day to be a good one.”
Lars fingered his own five-knotted hangman’s noose earring in his left ear, then spoke. “Have you made him a noose?”
Sten reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a silver earring shaped into a noose. “Aye, here it is.” He passed it over to Lars and Jon for their inspection.
“That’s a mighty nice knot you tied onto it. I think you left enough room for the other four knots,” Lars said.
“That I did,” Sten said, fingering his own noose earring. “How many years has it been since we were pressed by Master Sinder, Lars? Fifteen, or sixteen? I misremember.”
“Going on sixteen. Master Sinder was a good man to have picked up two brothers and kept them together. I miss him.”
“As do I, brother. As do I,” Sten said with a faraway look in his eyes.
* * *
Steam and smoke filled the air on deck. Fire arrows whizzed back and forth between the ships. The Dwenorians would not yield their prize easily.
Danny swished his sword in front of him. A rapier, there hadn’t been much left to choose from. He would have to lunge if he fought anyone. Dwenorians used heavy sabers that would snap his rapier like a twig if they crossed swords.
Bleeding bodies of shipmates and Dwenorians littered the decks of both ships. Danny heard the groans and shouts above the sound of the harpoon cannons. A scream from aloft made Danny look up, then quickly dodge a body hurtling towards him from the balloon rigging. It was Sorn Nervid, one of the rig-rats. He wouldn’t be getting up again.
Above him, and below the balloon, the flag of the Emporate of Delphinius, tattered and holed, flew proudly, its golden dolphin rampant on a field of azure blue. He looked across at the colors of the Dwenorians. They had yet to strike their colors; a silver pitcher on a lavender field, from their flag mast.
A piece of burning rope hit Danny on the shoulder, driving him to his knees. He looked up; the rigging smoked and the outer skin of the balloon fluttered under the netting, deflating. He grabbed a bag of balloon patches, glue brush, and the pail that Sorn had dropped and scrambled up the rope ladder onto the balloon rigging.
Several harpoons stuck in the balloon, their cone-shaped mid-sections holding the holes open, allowing air to escape. Danny looked down at the ocean. Much closer now and grown extremely rough since the exchange had begun, white caps rising as if to snare them. It would be best to avoid it, if at all possible, even though frigates could sail. Storing the deflated balloon in the rough weather was a nightmare he never wanted to experience.
The balloon’s surface felt mushy under him. They’d already lost a lot of lift. He would have to hurry. He glanced over at the Dwenorian ship’s balloon. At least it looked as bad, or worse, than their own.
He crabbed his way up to the first harpoon, removed it, and tossed it over the side. I should have pitched it at a Dwenorian.
Danny quickly glued both patch and main balloon, eyes wide at fire arrows that struck around him. Holding the sides of the patch down to bond, he jerked back when an arrow punctured the balloon near his head.
He reached up and pulled it out, burning his hand. The balloon wasn’t flammable, but the wet glue would burn like pitch. He applied a second smaller patch and held it in place all the while wanting to dodge arrows. He focused on the repairs in spite of the Dwenorian archers targeting him.
The second harpoon went the way of the first. And the third. He lost track of time and the number of repairs he’d made, and only noticed there were no more arrows coming his way when a ragged cheer went up on the deck below him.
The Dwenorians had struck their colors. The flag of the Emporate of Delphinius soon took its place. They’d won the battle.
* * *
The crew celebrated their victory over the Dwenorians later that night by lantern light. Danny rode on the shoulders of Rigging Master Delvin Sorden. He drank his first sip of ale offered him by none other than the Captain of their frigate, Selvis Nordstorm.
The crew shouted out “Well done!” when Danny grimaced and grinned after swallowing the bitter brew.
Sten clashed mugs with Danny and they drank another swallow.
“Here, here. All of you.” It grew quiet. All respected the Steamfitter Master. “Not only did we capture a rich prize, but we have two lads celebrating their Gallows Day. Apprentices O’Leary and Durvid step forward.”
Master Sorden lowered Danny to the ground as Nevan Durvid stepped to the front of the group. Master Sorden removed an earring from his pocket and motioned Nevan towards the main mast.
A rig-rat handed the Master a sewing awl. He pushed Nevan’s head against the mast and quickly plunged the awl through his lower earlobe, then hooked the earring in place. Cheers went up as Nevan grinned at everyone while fingering his new mark of valor.
I must be brave, I must be brave! Danny steeled himself against the pain that was to come as his own Master stepped forward and showed him both earring and awl.
“You ready lad?” Sten said.
“Aye, s-s-sir.” Danny replied.
Sten quickly made the puncture and another cheer went up as Danny rubbed his ear, feeling for his earring. After a few seconds, Sten held his arms up for silence once again. When it grew quiet he spoke.
“You all know that this was a hard won prize. We lost many good hands claiming it for our own. The rig-rats were especially hard-hit.” He waited as the crew murmured and nodded in agreement.
“Master Sorden and I have come to an agreement. He will send me Marley Torvidsen for my own Danny O’Leary in exchange if that is also agreeable to the parties involved.” Sten looked over to Marley.
Marley hobbled forward. His infirmity was age, not lack of a limb. “Lordy knows I am getting to arthritic for the riggin’. Let it be as you say.”
Danny couldn’t believe it. His dream was coming true. He was going to be a rig-rat!
“Apprentice Danny,” Master Sten said. “Are you willing to transfer your apprenticeship to Master Sorden and become a rig-rat?”
“Aye, sir,” Danny said without stuttering. His chest swelled, and he reached up and touched the first knot. He had made his life count for something.
Biography: Mark lives in a tiny shack on the slopes of Mauna Loa, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and writes stories inspired by the fires of creation bubbling beneath him. In his other incarnations he has snared pigs, built houses, worked oversees as a missionary, fought forest fires, planted trees, and built wilderness trails. His published work has appeared at: Static Movement, 69 Flavors of Paranoia, Aurora Wolf, and a First Place finish in Liquid Imagination’s Beginner Writers Contest (Issue #5).
He is on Facebook as:http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Keigley/100000176382713
Art by Lars Opland – Copyrighted 2011