Excerpt from LORD OF THE CROOKSIDE – available first on Zackerium.com June 11th
His mother named him Jekkelin, but everyone who knew the man called him Stringy, on account of his exceptionally thin frame that never put on an ounce of fat no matter how much he ate. On this day, with the merchantman still caked in ice and rime, the captain sent him and Oswaler up the main mast to the lookout. There they huddled in the small cupola at the top, keeping close to drive away some of the cold while they stared out into the gray for any signs of trouble. Soft duty, some would have said…certainly a damn sight better than crawling over the deck with a scraper or pick.
On the other hand, they were far away from the oubliette on the lower desk, where men relieved themselves when they felt the need. And Stringy was starting to feel the effects of the morning grog ration, which he had mixed with water and lime juice, as was the custom, and drunk down in a single gulp…which was foolish in hindsight.
“Quit your fidgeting,” Oswaler growled at him.
“Bugger all, my bladder is about to burst.”
“So climb down then.”
“I do that, Captain will have me on my knees with a scraper, soon as he lays eyes on me.”
“So put a cork in it and stop moving.”
Stringy grumbled, but held his peace. He shifted about slightly, then paused squinting Something out there… “Hand me the spyglass.”
Oswaler passed it over. Stringy raised the instrument to his right eye, fiddling about slightly as it came into focus. He turned about back towards the patch of sky that had drawn his interest, Left…right…moved up slight… Then he froze. The glass lowered from his eye as his mouth opened and closed, trying to get the dreaded word out. “Puh…” he gasped. “Puh…puh…”
“What is it?” Oswaler looked at him. “Speak, man!”
Stringy handed him the spyglass and pointed a trembling finger towards that dreadful sight. Oswaler raised it to his eye and saw, in the distance and approaching fast, a winged figure…no, two of them…more, many more, hundreds spreading out across the Empyrean, wings flapping as they picked up speed, coming towards the convoy…
“Peradins,” he whispered. Then he shouted the warning. “Peradins!” Oswaler leaned over the cupola, calling down to the crew below. “Peradins, coming to the portside! Peradins! PERADINS!”
Gaebrel lowered the spyglass from his eye. “Suns and Spirits,” he whispered in horror, before shouting the warning to his comrades. “Peradins are attacking! To arms!”
The others quickly responded. Gerel and Morrec climbed back on the desk and ran below to get their weapons. Pohtolu came up to the quarterdeck, staring at the dark mass in the distance, now visible with the naked eye. “Peradins,” he growled, followed by something in his native tongue, words filled with hate and righteous loathing. He was an Iyantuan, and hated Peradins beyond all reason.
“To arms,” Gaebrel told him, pulling him back to the present. “And while you’re at it, wake Yasinnic.”
“Aye, Captain.” A vicious smile crossed Pohtoli’s, a hunger for battle that was completely out of place for a man who prized profit and commerce above all else.
As Pohtoli went below, Gaebrel to a pop sticking up from the deck. “Hurren!” he called down. “Get up here! And bring your ax.”
A moment passed, and then a large hatch in the backdeck opened. A long-handed battle ax was tossed up, followed by a big, burly ursuhli, the tusks jutting up from his jaw freshly polished and gleaming He wore no heavy skycoat, only a dark green kilt belted about his waist, the short haired fur and mane hanging back from his shoulders and head shifting as the breeze caught them.
“We have trouble,” Gaebrel said, pointing at the oncoming horde.
Hurren looked at the Peradins. He bared his teeth, the ursuhli equivalent of a wide happy smile. “Good!” he growled, picking up his ax with disturbing eagerness.
Bells were running, drums beating and shouts of alarm carried across the convoy, the merchantmen taking what measures they could to prepare. Gunports opened, though many ships were still iced over, and could only send men below with mallets to try and bash them open. Cannons were loaded with grapeshot, while weapon lockers opened, their crews taking up swords, spears and muskets. Men went up the rigging to defend the sails, for these would be the raiders first targets.
The crew of the Sparrow watched this, but knew it would not be enough, the merchant crews were moving to slowly. “Do we run?” Morrec asked as he came n deck. In one hand was a large gun whose broad barrel was marked with glowing runes. In the other he carried a bandolier with four holstered pistols secured by lanyards hanging fro the buttos, and a rapier at the end. He passed it up tp Gaebrel, whilo slipped it across his shoulder, buckling the straps that held it in place.
“We’re still heavy with ice,” Gaebrel responded, drawing a pistol and checking the priming. “They’ll catch us in minutes. No, we fight. We have no choice.”
The rest of the crew returned, armed and ready. Last to come was Yasinnic. The red-skinned kuyei yawned as he came up. Three loaded rifles were slung over his shoulder. He looked to the east and saw the danger, and without a word went up the mainmast to his post. He was a man of few words, and a deadly shot.
Wild, keening cries came over the wind, a howling shriek that rose and fell and rose again in unison. Mixed in with it was the thrumming sound of hundreds of wings beating furiously. Gaebrel raised his spyglass again, and this time got a clear look at them…the peradins, the scourges of the winds. They looked like men at first glance, like images of angels painted on the walls of a temple. But these were no servants of the Godhead…their bodies were covered with feather-like hairs, gray or dark green in color, their eyes large in their triangular-shaped faces, their noses snub-like. The long hair trailing behind their heads in the wind were bound into tails festooned with small amulets or rings, trophies of past battles. Their legs were long and trails behind them, the feather-hair near the feet long and wide to help them steer. In their arms were cradled long spears with-scythe-like blades, stolen muskets, or light javelin with bene tips hard as iron.
Sprouting from their backs were their winds, each one as long as his own body, or longer in some cases. Their shoulders and torsos were broad with muscle, each flap driving them onward, their mouths open as they howled their battle cry. A piercing shriek rose above the general noise…he looked about and saw one peradin hovering far above the others, his long braid glittering with gold and silver. A leader…he raised a long carved bone whistle to his mouth again and let loose another shriek, echoed a moment later by other shrieks within the horde. Some sort of order was given, because immediately the mass of peradins split in two, one group heading above the convoy, the other circling below. In response ships shifted their position, turning on their axis so that from Gaebrel’s perspective it looked like they were lying on their sides – in the Empyrean ‘up’ and ‘down’ were relative concepts at the best of times.
The keening rose up again as the two groups spread out. Fire and smoke flared out from those ships whose cannons were ready. Iron round shot flew out, tearing through the formations and killing any peradin who failed to get out of the way. Grape shot loads flew out as well, each cannon unleashing dozens of balls the size of a pebble. These did even more damage, each cannon firing the same weight of metal as a platoon of line infantry at the volley.
But it wasn’t enough. The leading peradins caught the brunt of it, but those who came behind pushed past the dead and dying, driven to greater fury by the deaths of their comrades. They came in close, and crewers ducked back as they swooped past the ships, moving quickly, speeding blurs twisting around and between the ships, their howls drowning out the commands and cries of the men defending their ships.
“Too soon,” Pohtoli cried out. “The fools! They fired too soon…the wajayar put their dishonored in the front to take the hits, then close after!”
“How do you know this?” Morrec asked curiously.
“Every Iyantuan knows this! Those panicked fools…lose your nerve before the peradins and they will cut you to pieces…”
And that is what happened. The gun crews on the various merchantmen worked as fast as they could to reload, even as their comrades on the deck and in the rigging fired off their small arms. But these peradins were experienced raiders and despite their apparent wildness, kept to their plan with an iron discipline. First in were those bearing javelins, flying past the ships, exposing themselves to gunfire as they hurled their deadly missiles, the throws given extra force by the speed of their bearers. Some struck men in the head, the arms, the chest, killing or maiming them. Others clattered on deck, burying themselves deep in the planking, impeding the path of the men and forcing them to duck down and find cover, leaving their ships open for the next wave.
Peradins with long spears were next. These were topped with long curving blades, sword-like in appearance. Their bearers swept past the ships, some sweeping their weapons along the decks, the razor-sharp edges cutting anyone in their path and forcing the rest to scatter. Others aimed for the rigging of the ships, slashing at the long ropes and lines, slashing the sails and the rudders, disabling their victims.
And then they closed in for the kill. Those peradins who carried firearms of any sort opened fire as they passed by. Others struck the hulls, stabbing into the gun ports and other openings with long spears, driving back the gun crews – a few misjudged their targets and were blown to bits as reloaded cannons roared in their faces. Others landed on the decks, wings folding in as they lashed out with axes and swords, or sweeping across the decks to grab men from behind, hurling them out screaming into the Empyrean, to be cut to shreds by their tormentors at their leisure.
They were coming towards the Sparrow…ten of the flying bastards, shrieking their battle cries. “Shoot them down!” Gaebrel shouted as he strode towards the railing, pulling and cocking a pistol. He took aim at the lead peradin and pulled the trigger, the pistol barking…missed, the ball went wide, the peradin looping about and dropping down, followed by two more. From atop the mast Yasinnic fired his rifles, picking two of them off with unerring accuracy, striking one in the head and the other in the chest as he swooped past.
On the foredeck, Pohtoli was shouting in his native tongue as he shot at a passing peradin, bellowing curses as he missed, his target letting cackling laughter in response. Morrec hunches down nearby, rune gun in hand. Only one shot, he was waiting for the perfect moment to fire…
“They’re coming from below!” Gerel shouted from the starboard side. Then he jumped back as the three peradns who dove below the ship shot back up. Gaebrel and his companions scattered as javelins rained down, striking the deck. Gaebrel gasped as one struck in the chest, knocking him back.
The peradins hooted and drew more javelins from the quivers bound sideways across their torsos. Then there was a flash and a roar…glowing bolts of blue-white energy shot out, exploding as they struck the peradins, blowing them apart like melons hit by a mallet. Morrec found his moment, the rune gun turning the buck-and-ball load he normally used into a magical blast of even greater lethality. Burnt feathers and flesh flew outward, along with the smoke.
“Gaebrel!” Morrec ran over, the runes on the barrel of his gun faded back to their pale glow.
“I’m alright…” Gaebrel sat up, pulling the javelin out and tossed it aside. “Skycoat blocked it…” He fingered the small hole torn in the thick leather, wincing at the bruise below. Better than it entering his flesh…but now there was a hole in his coat. “Filthy bastards…”
Morrec knelt down, beginning the complicated process of reloading. Gaebrel stood, drawing another pistol as a second wave of peradins closed in, these holding those cursed long spears. He aimed and fired, grunting as this time he hit one of the scum, clipping its wing and sending it twirling away, drops of blood trailing behind. The rest swooped across the deck, swinging the curved blades of their spears down. They missed the crew, though Gerel barely escaped having an arm cut off, but cut one of the lines on the main mast with a loud twang, then flew past the starboard side sail and arced about.
Coming up behind them was a straggler, swooping down towards the kneeling Morrec. The spear swept back, ready to cut the man down…then Hurren stepped into its path, ax swinging upward, shearing off one of its wings. The howling peradin tumbled, flying over the deck, and bouncing the starbard railing, spinning out into the Empyrean with a mournful death cry. The wind fell to the deck ny Morrec, who glanced at it before rapping down a small cloth bag of shot into the barrel of his gun.
“Thank you,” he called out to the ursuhli.
Hurren bared his teeth, about to laugh…just as another peradin flew overhead, grabbing him under the shoulders and carrying him off the ship.
LORD OF THE CROOKSIDE (Book Seven of the Nine Suns) available June 11th on Zackerium.com!