Paul Kearney: This Forsaken Earth

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Paul Kearney This Forsaken Earth
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    This Forsaken Earth
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Paul Kearney


This Forsaken Earth

PROLOGUE

In the end, man dies like any other animal: alone, and raging against the dark. I know this. I know there is no God, no trusty patchwork of angels to speak for us. We are but cages of flesh, waiting for the worm.

Some things endure. Love, hate. These can be passed down through the lives of many men. They can become more important than life itself.

Only to fools.

This love-this hate. It has endured within you. You think of her still.

I-I dream of her. At night-when the moon is a long broken gleam on the black waters of the sea-then she seems close. She was a thing of the night always. A creature of shadows.

Can you feel her?

Sometimes. It is like the flash of a star, which fades if one looks too close. She lives. She is alive-and she thinks of me yet.

She hates you. She would see you dead.

No. Perhaps. And yet she may love me too. That is the way she was made.

A pause.

Will I see her again?

Silence.


PART ONE

One

SIMPLICITY ITSELF

Imagine five hundred great trees, embedded in the good earth of the world and watching some two centuries go by, in happiness and woe. War and peace, winter and summer, they are nothing but some thickening of the rings. And let us say these trees-a moderate wood-were cut down by men, and put aside for twenty-odd years, set on stilts to allow the air of another quarter-century to come at them. And after that, they were hewn, and sliced and steamed and nailed into something else. Something to last beyond the lives of the craftsmen who had wielded plane and adze and axe on their enduring flesh.

A man might say they were more than the sum of their parts.


The Revenant was a ship-rigged man-of-war of some three hundred tons-a vessel constructed to bear guns and the men who served them. Built out of black Kassic teak, she was broad in the beam, but with a fine, narrow entry that spoke of speed, and despite the fact that she was getting old now, even in the lives of ships, her timbers were still hard as iron, sound right through.

She had been afloat for the better part of eight decades. A thing of purity, of severe beauty, she had been built solely for the waging of war.

Such was the measure of her conception.

On her gun-deck were a dozen twelve-pound sakers, each nine feet long and a ton and a half in weight, whilst on her quarterdeck four two-pound swivel-guns protruded from her larboard and starboard bulwarks. To bear this mass of metal, she had been built with a pronounced tumblehome, which is to say that her hull widened as it approached the waterline, and in her hold there was room to provision her crew for a year or more.

That crew consisted of ninety-seven men, or things approximating men. Of those, over forty served the guns, some thirty the sails, and the rest were officers, warrant officers, and artisans of many trades. TheRevenant ’s needs were manifold. On board were carpenters, sailmakers, smiths, coopers, and a brace of ship’s cooks. Some of this assorted company knew elements of navigation, others could point and load a great gun, and yet more could fashion brand-new masts and spars out of raw wood. The ship’s company was a self-sufficient community in which every man had a place and a task to take his hand. A community that looked to one man alone for orders, and a direction in which to point this floating battery, this beautiful seaborne engine of destruction.

Elias Creed, second mate. A sturdily built man of medium height with a head and beard as brindled as that of a badger. One eyebrow was cloven by a skinned line, and more scars marked his wrists and ankles, the legacy of eleven years in the penal quarries of Keutta. A quiet man with dark, thoughtful eyes, his life had been spent as either pirate or convict. He stood now by the taffrail of the ship with an axe in his hand, ready to bring it down upon a taut cable, waiting for a word from his captain.

Peor Gallico, first mate. Nine feet tall, olive-green and long-fanged, the halftroll stood by his captain on the quarterdeck, fiddling with an earring. His legs were short, his immensely powerful torso long in compensation, the arms reaching to his knees and culminating in knotted fists as wide as shovels. In the deep-hollowed sockets below his bald forehead two jade-green eyes burned, the pupils lozenge-shaped, and when his tongue licked about the tusks protruding from his lips, it was black as that of a snake. Despite this, there was humor written across the halftroll’s face, a willingness to be pleased with the world. Humanity, compassion-etched across the face of a monster.

And finally the lord of this little wooden world, dwarfed by his towering first mate, and yet a tall man in his own right. Captain Rol Cortishane, a broad-shouldered, fair-haired fellow whose eyes were as cold as a northern sea in midwinter. There was something in his chiseled, wind-burnt face more unsettling than anything in the fearsome countenance of the halftroll. Those eyes had known murder, and would know it again.

They closed now, as if the vivid afternoon sun was too much for them, and the face aged for a moment, becoming that of an older, careworn man. A leadsman was at work in the forechains, calling out the depth of the water beneath theRevenant ’s keel with increasing urgency. It was a beautiful day, a stiff inshore breeze hastening the ship landward with steady ease.


Rol opened his eyes. Blinding bright, the sun bounced off the waves as they came jostling toward him. He blinked to ease their bitter light from his head and squeeze away the dregs of his thoughts. I sleep awake, he thought. More and more, I dream in daylight. What is it now, eight years? Enough. It must be enough.

Memory is the mind’s assassin. It will lie quiet for months, years, then sidle up quietly on a sunny day to plunge its knife deep. And no armor is proof against it.

Memory is the enemy of happiness.

He bared his teeth in the effort to wipe his mind free from the smear of his past, and the quartermaster at the wheel spoke to him with outright nervousness.

“Three fathoms, sir. They called three fathoms.”

“I heard the goddamned call, Morcam. Hold your course.”

TheRevenant cruised on implacably, the sea a hissing shimmer of sound as her beakhead cut through it. The Inner Reach, one of the ancient oceans of the world, deep and blue and wicked and entirely beautiful.

There was blood on Rol Cortishane’s face. It had stiffened into a mask, and it soaked his clothes, made black scimitars under his nails. Looking along the crimson sheen of the deck, he saw a severed hand lying there forgotten, browning in the sun. Momentarily, the violence of the morning came back, bright and unbelievable. As he shifted, easing his shoulders out from under the memory, his boot-soles came off the soaked deck-planking with little sucking rips of sound that made his stomach turn. His face never changed. Far astern, a pack of gulls shrieked greedily as they feasted on the corpses.

“Two fathoms and a half!” shouted the leadsman in the starboard forechains.

“We’ll scrape the arse out of her if we’re not careful,” Gallico said, his voice a deep burr.

Rol glanced aft, to where a tense group of seamen was standing with axes, ready to send the kedge plunging from the quarter and bring them to an undignified halt. Elias Creed stood amongst them, blood matting his brindled hair, and he nodded gravely as he caught Rol’s eye.

“We’ll rein her in quick enough, if it comes to that,” Rol said. And he managed something like a smile for Gallico.

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