Steel Tide – Natalie C. Parker

The stars felt close tonight. From his place cradled in the nest, far up the mainmast on a night as dark as this one, Donnally felt they were especially near, almost within reach. He loved that illusive, unsettling feeling of suspension. If he held still, breathed just right, he could convince his mind that it was as possible to sink upward into the sky as it was to slip into the sea. For a split second, his body was as light as air, and the entire universe was at his fingertips. When he reached up to pluck a single star from the glittering array, the illusion broke. In a flash of disorienting dizziness, he was part of the earth again, with feet firmly planted on the floor of the nest and head tipped up. “Would you quit picking at the sky?” Ares slumped against one side of the protective bowl that encircled them both, bored and tired. The combination made him irritable. Like his older sister, he was destined to be tall with broad shoulders and long arms. His skin was the same sunny brown as Pisces’s, and his hair was long and black. “Why does it bother you?” Donnally asked, tipping his head backward over the lip of the nest so that the ocean became the sky. He heard Ares sigh and crack his knuckles. The truth was it probably didn’t bother him. What bothered him was being awake at this hour and the way the nest tipped back and forth like a pendulum.

At twelve turns each, the boys had been friends long enough for Donnally to recognize when Ares’s irritation was an arrow in need of a target. And he’d been the target frequently enough to know he’d rather avoid it, so when Ares didn’t answer, Donnally didn’t press. They’d been posted as lookout for nearly an hour, long enough for Caledonia and Pisces to reach the nearby island called the Gem and start foraging, but not quite long enough to expect them to return anytime soon. Donnally leaned even farther over the edge of the nest, letting his arms hook around the railing and the blood rush to his head. The ocean was all gentle black chop. It lapped against the hull of the Ghost as the tide swept in, pushing them back and forth. Suddenly, Donnally felt a foot hook beneath his own and kick upward. The force lifted his whole body, and he began to slip over the edge of the basket. He shrieked, arms flailing. Then hands gripped his knees and tugged him right back into the nest, where Ares was hooting with laughter.

“You know you’re strapped in, right? You can’t actually fall?” Ares laughed all the harder, bending over to brace his hands against his knees. Donnally didn’t find it funny in the least. He lunged for Ares, aiming a fist for his face. But Ares was taller and stronger. He deflected Donnally’s blow easily, snatching the arm of his gray jacket and whipping it off him in one smooth motion. The jacket flew into the air and fluttered toward the ground, where it landed in a heap. Now Donnally was mad. He felt his temper burning in his cheeks and in the curl of his fists. He roared and dove for Ares again. “Boys!” The voice belonged to Donnally’s dad, and it stopped them dead in their tracks.

They’d both be in trouble for this. It didn’t matter that Ares had started it. There was no roughhousing in the nest. “Sounds like you need something else to keep you occupied.” Donnally peered over the edge, sure to keep a firm grip on the railing this time. He spotted his dad standing near the port rail, chin tipped up to watch the boys, a gray coat pulled over his shoulders. “Found your coat,” he called to Donnally. Ares laughed again while Donnally fumed. “Thanks.” They were definitely in trouble.

Donnally could see it in his father’s expression. They were going to be on kitchen duty for weeks, peeling and canning whatever fruits and vegetables the girls brought back, forced to endure Cook Orr’s protracted stories about the way things used to be. It was going to be hot and boring and tedious, and it was all Ares’s fault. “Hey,” Ares said, voice capped with humor. “Donnally, I’d never let you fall. I was just playing.” Donnally was preemptively plotting his revenge when three gunshots pierced the night sky. The entire ship went still as a stone. Donnally met Ares’s eyes for one brief second, then the two of them turned to search the waters around the Gem. They looked for anything—light, movement, their sisters—but there was nothing for them to find.

On the deck below, the crew vaulted into silent action. They moved in all directions, readying the ship for sail. The laundry lines came down, the goats were taken below, the box gardens were carted away, and it was all done without a word, every single command given without making a sound. It was a familiar sight. Rhona ran this drill regularly, kept the ship parts seamlessly oiled and cushioned. They would be ready to go in moments. The stretch of ocean between the Ghost and the Gem gave no indication of the little boat that carried Caledonia and Pisces. Donnally watched the choreography unfolding below him in a sort of suspension, stuck between the comfort of routine and the fear of knowing this time it was real. They were preparing to flee. Ares gripped Donnally’s shoulder, alarm making his eyes wide.

He whispered, “We won’t leave them, will we?” Donnally wanted to deny it, but there was a coil of dread in his stomach, writhing like a snake. “Never be seen,” he said, citing the first rule of the ship. The strength leached out of Ares’s grasp. He looked horrified and then suddenly angry. “No.” Before Donnally could stop him, Ares had unsnapped his harness and climbed out of the nest. Without taking the time to hook on to the safety line, he began to climb down. Donnally followed. He detached his own harness and moved down the mainmast as quickly as his shaking hands would allow. They reached the deck to find their world unraveling.

Their parents stood near the bridge with their shoulders together, engaged in tense conversation. The boys made straight for them, pushing into the circle just in time to hear Ares’s mother say, “And what if it’s nothing? What if they fired at an animal and we abandon them?” “If that’s the case, they’ll survive two days.” Rhona Styx stood with her arms crossed and a rifle slung over her shoulder. “I don’t like this any better than you do, Agnes, but our girls know what they’re doing. They’ll wait for us.” “But we should be the ones waiting for them.” Agnes planted her hands on the round curve of her hips. “Boys!” Donnally’s father cried in alarm. “Who’s on watch?” Whatever happened on Donnally’s face was answer enough. His father cursed and raced toward the mainmast, but it wasn’t soon enough.

“Captain,” a young man named Bandi called from the bridge tower. “We’ve got trouble. An assault ship. They’re close, and they’re on course to box us in.” “Damn.” Rhona’s jaw fixed in place as she swiveled to search the ocean. Each and every time the Ghost had encountered a Bullet ship, they’d taken a single course of action: run. While Donnally was too young to remember any of their more narrow escapes, he’d been raised to believe that running was the only way to ensure they survived. Right now, running was the furthest thing from his mind. All he could think about was his sister.

Had she fired those shots? Or had those shots been fired at her? Would he ever see her again? “Rhona?” Donnally’s father asked, coming to stand at her side. “Captain, your orders?” Rhona’s eyes fell on Donnally. Her gaze was as powerful as the sun, and he felt warmed and emboldened at the same time. He feared for his sister almost more than he could stand, but he smiled for his mother, to show her he was afraid and also brave. Rhona nodded and swallowed hard. “I’m afraid we have no choice,” she said. “Weigh the anchor and grab your guns. We’re going to fight.” In the wake of those words, the ship seemed to transform. Commands were shouted in all directions, the anchor clanked in its channel, even the sea seemed to slap at the hull with more vigor than just a moment ago.

Rhona swept forward, gathering her son into her arms and holding him tightly. She kissed his head and released him, saying, “Do as your father says. I love you, my brave boy.” “I love you, too,” Donnally said, and then she was gone, climbing toward the bridge and disappearing inside it. “Let’s move.” Donnally’s father caught his hand and pulled him toward the quarterdeck, where the rest of the children were being herded by a few tight-mouthed adults. Agnes was there, helping each of them over the side railing and into the remaining bow boat on the water below. “I don’t want to go,” Donnally protested, fear spiking through him. “I want to stay with you.” But Donnally’s father pulled him along, stopping only when they reached the railing.

“You must go. We’ll come back for you, but for now, you need to get as far from this ship as you can. Head for the Gem. Find your sister.” In the distance, a deathly crooning pushed through the air, growing closer and louder. The crew of the Ghost had lost all pretense of quiet now. They’d become a different kind of machine right before Donnally’s eyes, one that sounded like bullets snapping into chambers. “Tagg!” called Agnes. “We’re out of time.” Suddenly, Donnally was pressed against his father’s chest.

“Find your sister,” he repeated, squeezing the boy more tightly than ever before. “Find your sister and live.” Before he knew it, Donnally was over the side of the ship and tucked into the boat waiting below. There were eight children already aboard. Astra, Derry, Lucero, and Jam sat silently, their eyes pinned to the hull of the Ghost, while the others searched the darkness for the approaching ship. Ares and Lucero, oldest and strongest of the small group, took up oars, and soon their small boat was cutting a shallow path through the water, heading for the same small island as Caledonia and Pisces. For a few precious moments, there was nothing but that steady wail of the ghost funnel and Astra’s sniffles. Time felt like a vise around their little vessel. Donnally kept his eyes on the dark outline of the island just ahead, wishing they could stay locked in this moment indefinitely. Then, a flare of light.

The terrible cry turned into a deafening roar. Donnally couldn’t help himself. He turned to watch as the Bullet ship closed in on the Ghost. Red dripped down the nose of the Bullet ship like a bloody gash. Men swung in harnesses, armed with magnetic bombs and roaring with fury. Spikes studded the ship’s perimeter like thorns, bodies in many stages of decay impaled on each one. Every muscle in Donnally’s body clenched. The little boat was moving faster now, assisted by the wake of the Bullet ship. Behind him, Donnally could hear Ares calling a rhythm to Lucero, keeping their oars synchronized. In the next minute, the Ghost was in flames, and the children knew speed would not save them.

There was a small but bright part of Donnally’s mind that was as calm and distant as a star. It was the part of him that marveled at how quickly the Bullet ship subdued the Ghost. The seeming chaos of their fury was only an illusion. In reality, they were an expertly conducted choir, striking the deadliest of notes at precisely the right moment. After their magnetic bombs weakened the Ghost and forced half the crew belowdecks, the attacking Bullets easily bested those who remained topside. Donnally watched the battle unfurl with sense and strategy, and slowly, his body began to still. “Stroke!” cried Ares. But Lucero’s oar slowed. One thing Bullets knew how to do was find running children, and a bow boat was already in the water, racing toward them. “Stroke!” Ares cried again, panic making his voice thin.

The approaching Bullets pulled alongside, and still Ares kept rowing. He didn’t stop until the Bullets circled them twice, then fired a single shot into the nose of the small boat. Ares’s fingers tightened around his oar as though he were considering whether or not to fight. His rebellious thoughts were clear: if they were going to die, they might as well take a Bullet or two down with them. “Two choices, recruit.” The Bullet who spoke had fresh blood smeared across his cheek. Choices. Live or die. “Ares,” Lucero whispered from the rear of the boat. In a few short moments, they’d become their own small crew, and every child on this boat now turned to Ares to lead them.

Donnally put a hand on Ares’s back, and the older boy’s grip loosened. He shook his head and lowered the oar. The Bullet smiled. “Good choice.” The Bullets lashed the children’s boat to theirs and sped across the water toward the ship with the red stripe across its nose. The Ghost slumped awkwardly in the water, smoke curling away from the deck, a hole ripped into one side. The closer they got, the more Donnally’s mind clung to that distant star. He smelled the smoke, heard the screams, and when the gentle thump of a body against the side of the boat made the other children cry, he thought only that whoever it was would probably prefer their watery grave to what awaited the rest of them. His gaze drifted toward the steel pikes studded around the perimeter of the Bullet ship. One by one, they were plucked from their brackets, like the petals of a flower, and placed on the deck where he could not see.

He held his eyes wide as the stakes were lifted once more, this time with the skewered forms of people he loved put on display for them and for any others who might dare evade the Father’s arm. His heart fluttered in his chest, signaling a great swell of something hard and unfamiliar pushing up from the bottom of his lungs. But in his mind, that star cast a cool, soothing light, and he remained still. It wasn’t until he saw a gray coat flapping loosely around a familiar shape that his first tears fell. As the Bullets lifted the boys and girls onto a ladder and told them to climb, he saw them impale his father’s body on a pike near the front of the ship. That distant star in his mind crashed to the ground, and in a single disorienting moment, Donnally was on his feet and running toward his father. “Don’t touch him!” he was shouting, he hardly knew what. “I’ll hang you! I’ll drive your bodies on spits and roast you!” The Bullets abusing his father’s body ceased their work long enough to watch his approach with bemused expressions on their faces. Donnally stood before them, angry that they touched his father, angrier still that they didn’t think him more worthy of respect than amusement. His mind spun until all that was left was perfect fury.

He drew a deep breath, and he roared. The sound filled him up. It was raw and ugly and loud. It was like a fever racing through every part of him, changing every part of him. “Now, that is a battle cry.” An older boy came to stand before Donnally. He had a crown of blond hair and a face like a collection of knives. He met Donnally’s glare with piercing blue eyes of his own. “That kind of rage will serve you well,” the boy said. “What’s your name?” Donnally raised his chin and sharpened his eyes.

The boy was suddenly very close. He gripped Donnally’s jaw and tilted his head back, exposing the tattoo at his temple. Recognition lit the boy’s eyes, and he released Donnally. “Your sister was very brave.” At first, the words didn’t make sense. Donnally assumed he was speaking to someone else. Then a new, horrible reality ripped through his mind like a wind scouring everything in its path. “Will you come with me, little brother?” the boy asked, not unkindly. “Come with me, and I will teach you to be just as brave as she.” An image of Caledonia appeared in Donnally’s memory.

She was laughing and proud and her hair tossed behind her in a friendly wind. How had she died? The boy standing before him wanted him to ask. Wanted to tell him. He was sure of it. “Don’t you want to be brave?” the boy asked. “Tell me your name.” Tears slipped down Donnally’s cheeks. He felt them on his skin, but not in his heart when he answered, “Donnally.” The knife-faced boy smiled again. “Hello, Donnally.

I’m Lir,” he said extending a hand. “Your new brother.”

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