Bows for Thistles

"To pull a thistle wounds the hand. A broken thistle grows back stronger than before." - Practical Management of the Thousand and One Weeds

Chapter 1

4 Descending Water

RY 769

The clouds darkened high in the sky above the Blue Tern, portending a blow to come, a grim countenance to match the mood of at least one of the watchers. When it started raining a few minutes later the cold drops brought a brief smile to his face.

Harborhead awaits, and then they'll be little enough rain at that, Rafan thought with limited interest. His mind was rarely on his next duty, for it brought him no pleasure to think on it, and required only a tiny portion of his attention to fulfill at this stage. Duty was a generous description in any case. He was being disciplined, severely, and knew it perfectly.

Damn it all anyway, he groused, watching as the waves picked up. Wind from the south, odd, but no matter. He was stuck on this small, old vessel with a mere scale of soldiers, sent halfway across the South on a fool's errand to muster new levies. All so some idiot dynasts could throw them away as a monument to their own hubris.

Spurred by his dark thoughts to action, but stymied by the confines of the ship, Rafan began pacing back and forth across the foredeck, heedless of the spray and rain. No one bothered him, the sailors were busy, and the soldiers had known his mood was worsening the whole voyage, and stayed away when they could. He was past being bothered by this, the voyage had worn down the courtesies between them all, as extended travel inevitably did, and it would be let go when matters were done.

Blue Tern rocked suddenly in the middle of his brooding, and a massive blast of spray took flesh from moist to soaked in an instant. Shaking his head against the brine, the soldier turned to observe the sea had changed with unseemly swiftness.

Clouds black as pitch whirled above, and furious wind roared from the south, lashing the seas to fury. The storm was rising all about the little ship, creaking in pain already, anticipating the blows to come.

Crushed down a sudden wrench of shame at his failure to remain alert, Rafan vaulted down from foredeck to the main, where soldiers scrambled. "Captain!" he shouted, putting lungs taught on the battlefield to use against the storm.

The fair-haired westerner who was master of the ship acknowledged with a hurried wave from a position behind Blue Tern's single mast. He stood beside a veteran mariner at the tiller, shouting commands to his sailors.

Winds hollowed, and the vessel ran before them, so it was into the teeth of the rain that Rafan strode to meet the sailor, but he brushed aside the brine, ignoring it. He'd strode forward through arrow clouds and howling blasts of firedust artillery. This was not going to intimidate him.

"What comes captain?" Rafan questioned, as gently as he could when forced to shout above the elements.

"Elementals must be fighting, this is as demonic a blow as I've ever seen!" the sailor shouted back. "Can't hold to Harborhead my lord, have to let the wind carry us, the ship's not got the strength for more!"

"So be it," Rafan grunted, and saw open gratitude spread over the captain's face. Clearly the man had expected his passenger to attempt to overrule the order. Always trust the advice of a master in crafts one does not know, it had been a lesson from his first true teacher, and one the soldier had not forgotten in the years since. "What can my men do?" He was no sailor, but surely twenty-five disciplined sets of hands could be put to some use.

"Man the pumps below," the captain answered without a flicker of hesitation. "I'll need every trained man on deck."

"Sergeant Major!" Rafan called to the senior of his fang commanders. "All men below, work the pumps in shifts!"

The wind almost stole the words from his mouth, and he bellowed them a second time just to be sure, only content when the man saluted with a fist to the chest and started motioning to those few troops still on deck. Turning back to the captain, Rafan asked another question. "And myself?"

"Have you charms to avert this tempest?" the captain questioned, and looked disappointed when Rafan shook his head. The soldier had never served in the navy, and had not talents there. "Then watch the rails for spirits, surely some elemental rides with this storm, and we'd best be ready." Turning away at this admonition, the captain then turned back a moment later. "Watch the tiller too," he said, unexpectedly laying a hand on the soldier's wrist. "If we lack the strength to hold it, you must. Save the ship at least."

They were dark words, enough so that the touch went unremarked in Rafan's mind. The captain worries we will not survive. A terrible thing to hear. So he descended to the maindeck, letting the spray wash over him, and drew his bow. The green jade artifact glistened in the spray, but was in no way weakened by wetness. He notched an arrow and waited. Surely something would appear.

In time, as the blackness surrounded them and the ship rode the waves with crashing speed and power, the captain's prediction came true. Rafan knew the names and shapes of some spirits and elementals, but whatever this creature was he had no time to say. It was fish-like, in a sense, but had the snout of a wolf and jumped the rail to land on stout legs.

Then it flew back into the sea with a barbed broadhead shaft buried in its chest.

"Anyone else?" Rafan called the challenge to the watching spirits, wondering if there was a swarm waiting beyond the flashes of bright lightning that now blasted vision every handful of heartbeats.

None rose to the bait. The other elementals, it seemed, were content to let the storm bring the prize to them.

The mighty tempest looked unlikely to make them wait long.

From crest to trough Blue Tern slammed with each massive blast of water. Wood creaked and splintered, and the shock of each strike sent waves of force through Rafan's body. Sailors, awash in brine to their knees, where thrown to the deck again and again, but they soldiered on, exhorted by their captain's calls and the certainty that should they fail to keep running beyond the storm it would swallow them whole and leave nothing left.

Every man on the deck was tied in place by a stout line save Rafan. This was not a demonstration of strength on his part, no wooden deck would thrown him, not with the blood of Sextes Jylis in his veins, but even his steady demeanor blanched now as the walls of water rose high all about them. The furry of storm was not the furry of battle, it was majestic, not anarchic, and fully natural, the creation of gods unbound by the meddling of men, but it was no less terrible for this.

Dragons have mercy on us, he prayed silently in a moment of weakness.

Then lightning struck the mast.

The great pine, harvested in the far forests of Linowan over a century past and having traveled all the seas of creation in long service since, snapped at the power of the sky, cracking and breaking. The wind grasped the spars in the next moment, tearing them free. Unbalanced, Blue Tern lurched in the heaving spray, and doom descended around them.

"Dragon-blood!" the captain's hoarse cry echoed in the whirling fury of sea and sky struggling to merge in their wrath. "The tiller!"

Rafan's head snapped around to watch two stout sailors flung from the tiller and thrown back. One flew over the rail, gone for certain.

Striding against the wind, the soldier bound his bow to his back and ran for the loose column. He knew little of sailing, but he knew they must keep the waves before them or see the ship crushed. If he could just get there in time...

A mighty wave slammed the side of the ship, throwing men to the rails, or over. Rafan felt the blow course through the planking and knew he must act now. He let some of his power free, essence coursing down limbs, giving him strength and speed of limb in a manner no ordinary mortal could match.

His feet shifted with the strike of the waves, and he careened into the air, landing boot first and parallel to the decking against the struck mainmast. Then he jumped with all his strength, spinning through the air to grasp the tiller from above, grunting in exertion as it slammed him down and blasted the air from his lungs when he connected with the deck.

"Turn, damn it! Turn!" Rafan was a strong man, a soldier's life had seen to that, and he let loose more of his power to gain a moment of inhuman strength, but it was not strength to match the ocean, and in her rage her could not fight back alone. The tiller held steady, but it would not turn.

Waves rose on both sides, and then plummeted down, twin landslides with power greater than an army's blow.

Is this my fate then? Rafan thought as his eyes rose in his head to see the descending doom. To die in a storm, far from my troops, my duties, my purpose?

He knew a moment of despair.

The mountain of black-blown liquid torment landed.

Planks cracked, decks caved, and the Blue Tern gave her death cry in the tear of iron bracing.

Rafan sucked in a last blast of air and was hurled into the sea.

He plunged into the frigid water of the stormy ocean, chaos in the darkness.

Is this death then? Rafan wondered as he saw lightning illuminate the space below, filled with shards of ship and bodies. Am I to sink to the bottom, a lost soul to become nothing but a pretty piece of green jade for the fish to gawk at in the darkness below?

That armor belongs to the Realm soldier! The voice belonged to a nameless sergeant, a man who trained raw recruits at the Stair. The armor and the weapons too, and you'll bring them back better than you found them, or you'll be begging for a fate as easy as death!

Rafan's eyes snapped open. Maybe it is my fate to die today, but I will not loose what was entrusted to me! That is worth more than this life!

He kicked and thrashed then, letting loose as much essence as he could to bring his strength as far as it would go.

Lungs burned like a forge fire, but he broke the surface long enough to fill them before the waves washed over him in torrent again.

Dark though the sea was, there were darker shadows above. Planks! Rafan realized. Wood would float. He needed to find a piece to grasp.

On his third surge to the surface, green burs of verdant potency bursting to life around him from the exertion of his power, Rafan grabbed the piece he sought. He had time enough to notice, in bitter irony, that he clung to life on the fragments of the tiller itself.

Then there was time for naught but survival.

Dawn came upon an exhausted and semi-conscious soldier, adrift in the Inland Sea on the fractured steering column of a ship the depths had determined it was time to reclaim. Looking east to the rise of the daystar, he saw a shadow through salt-scourged eyes. A great shape rose in the distance.

A mighty peak, his tired mind reasoned.

Half a minute later it managed the connection.

A mountain...land!

The thought invigorated his wretched muscles, and he began to kick and push, hoping desperately to reach that promise of salvation, unbelievable though it seemed.

How long it took Rafan did not know, struggling there in the suddenly placid and serene sea.. His mind was burned and blurred, and he knew only to kick on and on, struggling for the shoreline, for the one thing that might save him.

In fits and starts, fighting exhaustion and the fetid desire to give up the fight as futile, he progressed, and as the sun fell behind him his ragged kicks failed one last time and sank to the depths his arm-hold on the log would permit.

Only to strike sand.

Half-blind and without conscious thought this contact spurred one last surge of energy, and Rafan charged forward, plowing halfway up the rocky beach, cutting his feet many times and ignoring the stinging pain until he collapsed in the shade of a tree there.

It was then, unable to muster the strength to move, looking out to the sun far beyond, that the soldier managed a grim laugh.

Sent away I was, and now I am! But I live! Others had died, surely the storm had been meant to claim them all, their fate come to an abrupt end, as it often did at sea. I live! He crowed. But why? Twenty-five good men of the Legions, and another nine sailors, all lost, surely, and only he survived. The blood of the dragons doubtless had much to do with it, but why had he lived on?

Rafan had brushed against death many times, but always in battle, never had he faced Heaven's wrath in this way. There must be some meaning to it, but what? He could see no answer, and as exhaustion took him he could only think on the events that had set him on this course. The memories rose up even as focus vanished.