Many times I write a short story and find it deserves a full book. This story of two small forest folk fighting pirates is an example. Maybe one day I’ll write that book.
Night on the sea after the storm. The clatter and commotion of men working by lamplight to restore the shredded rigging of their crippled ship.
Lafttak climbs the ratlines, carrying whatever is needed to wherever the bigfolk want it. He may be a passenger, but he can help. Most laugh to see him lifting barrels of tar or coils of rope twice his height, and grunt their thanks, then make the evil eye when his back is turned. Greenfolk aren't very welcome on human ships.
He pauses on a crosstree and thinks of Rintikk, sleeping in their cabin below. He aches to hear her voice. If the wood of the ship was alive, he'd only need to whisper and she'd hear him. But deadwood like this, he'd have to shout; and after the pounding of the hurricane, she needs her sleep.
Belowdecks, Rintikk startles awake to a hand on her sleeve. Morwen, the bigfolk priestess, another passenger on the Kestrel, kneels by her.
“Something comes,” says the priestess.
Rintikk raises up on an elbow. Lafttak’s place next to her is empty. “Why tell me?”
“The goddess sent me a dream,” The priestess says. “Black wings spreading over a red sky. I was a mouse, and it caught me. I was a fish, and it snared me. I was drowning, and you, Rintikk, were the raft that saved me.”
“Couldn’t the goddess have waited until morning?”
Morwen smiles. “You don’t think much of my goddess. But she thinks much of you." Then she frowns. "Look west.”
Rintikk touches her fingertips to the hull of the ship. Her voice travels easily to Lafttak. He might struggle to speak through deadwood, but Rintikk's magic is much stronger than his.
-Heh. You missed me-
-Quiet, idiot. Go higher. Look west-
Lafttak climbs to the crows nest, surprising the lookout. The sky in the east is the powdery grey of the hour before dawn. The west is black, shining with stars. Something dark moves on the horizon.
Lafttak points. The lookout stoops to line up his head with Lafttak’s. He stiffens, and cries out. “Sail ho!”
Mid-morning. Lafttak, Rintikk, and Morwen stand at the stern, watching the pursuing ship draw closer. The Ketrel's captain and crew have done what they can, but the jury-rigged sails just aren't enough.
Rintikk runs a hand along the ship's railing. “She wants to run. I could help.”
Lafttak shakes his head. "Even you can't breathe life into a dead ship." Rintikk's woodsense is what he first noticed about her. That, and her glorious eartips. But still - she should know her limits.
A bell rings, and the Kestrel's captain addresses the crew. His message is stark. The pirates have canon, guns, men - we have less of everything. If we fight, we'll die. Stay calm. Obey your officers. They'll take the ship, but leave us the longboats to reach land. All will be well.
A canon booms from the pirate's bow, sending a ball screaming into the sea ahead. At a nod from the captain, the boatswain lowers the colors.
The captain turns to the two greenfolk. “I'm not sure what to do with you two. Some of the crew think you're bad luck. But you paid your passage same as the priestess here." He lowers his voice. "But these are pirates, and pirates are a superstitious lot. You'd best hide until we're safely away, then swim out to the boats."
The thought of running galls Lafttak - it's all he's done since he declared his love for Rintikk and had to flee his father's palace - but Rintikk pulls him away. They climb the ratlines and crouch behind the bundled course sail. Rintikk puts on a brave smile. Lafttak kisses the point of her ear.
The black ship draws even with the Kestrel. Ragged men line its rails. In the center, one figure stands heads taller than the rest, swathed in red.
Rintikk presses her fingers to the mast and sends her mind into the wood, listening. Morwen brings out a small gong and begins to chant while striking it with gold mallet. Rintikk goes deeper. Her fingers sink into the wood up to the first joint. She sorts frightened voices from secretive.
"Where'd those devils go off to now?"
"D'you think they'll pay for 'em?"
The pirate ship lowers its boats. Many crewmen join Morwen's prayer. They sing louder the closer the pirates come, then go silent at the splash of oars, the thump of wood, and the scrape of boots scaling the boarding nets.
Pirates pour onto the Kestrel’s deck, shouting and swearing, swords and pistols ready. Seeing the crew standing in sullen lines, they signal below. Their leader climbs onto the ship like a mountain, and takes in the scene with cruel eyes.
The Kestrel's captain steps forward, hat under his arm. "I am --" he begins, but the giant pirate swings a lazy blow that hurls him against a bulwark in a broken heap.
"I speak!" the giant roars. "I command! This ship, you men, you belong to me!" He rushes the Kestrel's crew, who stumble back, cringing with fear, then plants his hands on his hips and laughs.
Rintikk is the Kestrel. The keel is her spine, the braces her ribs, the deck and planks her skin. It's her deck the pirates are fouling.
Morwen starts toward the Kestrel's injured captain, but the giant blocks her way. She is as small compared to him as the greenfolk are to her, but anger fills her. "Let me pass! I am a priestess --" Again the pirate moves before the words are finished. He wraps one hand around her neck and plucks her from the deck, her feet flailing.
"I speak!" he laughs, wagging a finger in her face. He carries Morwen to the rail, displaying her to the Kestrel's horrified crew. "See me, weaklings! Would I kill a goddess-sworn? Would I kill a woman?" He holds the struggling priestess easily out over the water. "No! That would be bad." He opens his hand and she drops. "I let the sharks do it!" Morwen strikes the water; her heavy robes fill and pull her under.
Lafttak doesn't think. He leaps. The sea rushes up, then he's down in the depths. Where is she? Where - there. He kicks deeper, faster.
"What was that?" yells the giant, sweeping the crew with a look that promises pain.
"One of them greenfolk," cries a Kestrel crewman. Another cry goes up. "There's the other one up there!" They're suddenly relieved to have the giant looking at something, anything, else.
Rintikk is puzzling through the nails and oakum that bind the Kestrel together. The giant's steps move toward the mainmast. This worries her for some reason. Where is Lafttak?
He is clawing his way to the surface, dragging the priestess, lungs bursting, head ringing. Idiot, he thinks. Idiot. He breaks the waves and gulps air before Morwen's weight pulls him down again. In desperation, he reaches for the deadwood of the ship and pulls on it until his scrabbling fingers find the bottom strand of the boarding net. He is struggling to haul up the priestess when Rintikk's voice finds him.
The giant sends a pirate to pull Rintikk down from the rigging. "Why, it's a just wee girl!" he calls.
"Not a girl!" says a crewman. "Look at those ears."
"Goddess!" cries the man. "Her hands! They're stuck inside the mast. I mean, right up to the wrists!"
My hands? thinks Rintikk distantly. Oh yes. I pushed them in to see better.
"Who cares about her hands?" calls the giant. "She's not going to need them where I can sell her."
-Rintikk, I need you. I can't pull her up-
The pirate brings out a jagged rigging knife. "Well, fetch the sawbones then. He's gonna have to tie off the stumps."
As the knife cuts, Rintikk opens the Kestrel's woody skin. Water gushes in while living boards pull the net and two bodies inside, then seal themselves with suddenly sprouting branches.
Rintikk's connection with her body breaks as skin and bone fall away.
The Kestrel screams.
Lafttak checks Morwen, who is somehow spluttering and alive. The ship trembles around him. Heart pounding, he pushes through waist-high water to the ladder that connects to the ship's upper deck. He bursts into the clean air of day, his eyes going up to where he left Rintikk. The mast, crosstree and course sail are sheathed in blood, but Rintikk is gone.
-Lafttak- says the ship.
The deck is strangely peaceful. Thirty pirates are swimming back to their ship, and their giant captain swings gently from a thick rope of vines growing from a boom over his head.
Lafttak notices none of it. All he sees is the still form of his darling, his wife, his Rintikk, resting on a bed of fresh, green heather.
-Lafttak- says the ship. -I think I made a mistake-