Boarding Party (93/141)

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Hiring a boat and men to man it the day after Ascension had taken far too long. It was expedited by the copious funds Justin kept on his person: the sight of a hundred-mark note was enough to motivate any man on the docks to any legal activity within his power. Still, it took time to track down a boatswain willing to let his boat be used for the purpose. Justin’s mounting impatience was allayed, slightly, by assurances from the first group he spoke with that they knew the Little Lassie belonged to the Gentle Marie, that said ship was visible moored out in the bay, that the Little Lassie was rowing for her, and – most importantly – that the Gentle Marie could not sail until after nightfall due to the tide. “Nor then neither if’n the wind don’t change, which it ain’t goin’ to today or I’m a greatcat,” the man had explained.

“Most of er crew’s on leave too,” another dockman had added.

Still, that Wisteria’s abductors – and Nikola’s as well, one hoped – could not escape did not preclude the possibility of other horrors being visited upon their captives. Justin sent boys to take messages to the Watch, the Vasilvers, and Anverlee Manor. Irritatingly, there was no sign of the other three greatcats and their riders who were supposed to be following.

The sensible thing to do would have been to wait on the dock for support from the Watch or at least his own household.

Justin was not feeling in any part sensible. “Murderous” was more accurate. Anthser was of similar mind, so Justin had bribed and bullied their way onto a largish rowboat sort of thing, with a boatswain who was responsible for it and a crew of six men recruited at random from those present on the wharf. Their boat was pulling for the Gentle Marie, while Fel Fireholt lay at the center with his forepaws on a bench, keeping still to avoid rocking the boat or disturbing the oarsmen. Only his tail moved, lashing against the boat’s wooden floor.

Justin was exercising tremendous control just to keep his mouth closed, not to shout curse you lazy ignorant brutes are you men or girl-children row faster! at the men helping him. If he’d had a whip he would have been tempted to flog them. Every time he did speak, his mounting fury was evident despite his best efforts to avoid unleashing it on those around him. He kept reminding himself of his diatribe against Southing, of telling Nikola that he’d think more before lashing out the next time he was angry during a dangerous situation. I have a right to be angry, but these men are not the proper targets for this wrath.

He occupied himself by scanning the horizon, as if he were a tourist or naturalist on a hired boat heading for one of the harbor’s small islands. They were not the sole boat in the harbor: a few other vessels were moored out in the bay, and a handful of smaller boats were moving between ships and shore, people whose leisure or business requirements did not permit them rest on this day. Justin had no idea if the crew of Gentle Marie were the paranoid sorts, or if they’d assume the worst when it became obvious his craft was pulling for theirs. Granted, one greatcat and seven men did not look like much of an invading force, pitted against a ship.

But his informants had been right about the Gentle Marie being almost deserted. While he was looking around through the spyglass, Justin saw Wisteria escorted aboard by four men. In other sweeps, he counted only three more different men. And however many below. The Gentle Marie was armed with several ballistae, giant crossbows mounted along the deck, but they did not have anything like the manpower to crew them all.

As they drew nearer, Justin strung his bow. It had the heaviest draw of any in his collection, designed to have the stopping power to drop a charging boar in addition to the greatest range. It was also slower to fire than his fowl-hunting or racing bows, because even with his strength it took him longer to draw. But he wasn’t going to stop a human with a target bow.

Anthser’s ears flatted. “Two whistles.”

Justin swore. “Is this as fast as you—” he bit back on the oath that tried to escape “—men can row?”

The men glowered at him but did appear to put a little more back into it. Justin was tempted to kick the smallest man from his oar and take over himself, but he’d little experience with rowing and didn’t want to risk throwing the rhythm of the boat off. Another scan of the ship when they were no more than a few hundred yards away showed that, to Justin’s surprise, no one aboard was paying any attention to them. They’d not been hailed, and the few men visible on deck looked distracted, as if listening to something.

“Do you want to hail them?” the boatswain asked.

Justin looked at him as if he’d gone mad. “No,” he snarled, managing to contain the insults that leapt to mind.

Slowly they drew nearer, rowers fighting against both tide and wind. Justin waited for the inevitable hail, watching the ship, sure they’d be noticed soon. But still nothing.

Anthser rose to all fours, ears flat again, boat rocking with his shifted weight. “Two whistles. Get on, Lord Comfrey.” Justin eyed the distance remaining between them and the ship, the greater height of the Gentle Marie in the water. Could even Anthser make that jump? “Get on or I go alone,” the greatcat growled, rocking the boat again as he moved to a jumping crouch. Justin scrambled into the seat, bow slung across his shoulder, dueling sword against his hip. The oarsmen looked worried but not enough to protest. Anthser gave the boat a moment to settle in the water, then leaped.

It is like flying, Justin thought as they soared together across the blue waters, the greatcat’s paws outstretched as he reached higher. They reached the summit of their arc a yard or so above the level of the vessel’s deck and a couple of yards short. Anthser’s foreclaws sank into the rail as the rest of him dropped parallel to the ship’s side. Two tons of warcat attaching to it made even a vessel its size rock at the impact. Justin’s mind flashed back to the cliffside, to Southing bucking him off as she scrambled over the edge—

—Anthser did not kick off with his hindlegs, but pulled himself up the side roaring. “Surrender yourselves and produce your captives unharmed or die!”

Justin kept his seat, unshipping his bow as Anthser landed flat on the deck. There were four men in sight: one was yelling an alarm and running away, one was ordering the men to station with sword drawn, running himself to the nearest ballista. Two other men were following him with less alacrity. Justin nocked his first arrow (kill them all) and loosed it into the leader, taking him through the neck (higher than intended). Blood spurted from the wound, the man staggering with a hideous bubbling gasp, clawing at his throat before toppling. Justin was already nocking the next arrow when Anthser pounced for the second man. The warcat landed with claws in the man’s leg, knocking him down, leg making a grisly snapping sound as the greatcat’s full weight fell upon it. The third man dropped his weapon, screaming “I surrender! Mercy, have mercy!” as Justin drew on him.

It would be so easy to kill him anyway. “On the deck!” Anthser roared. “Down, now! Weapons over the side!” The man went prone, tossing his sword over the rail. The sailor with the broken leg under Anthser was also crying mercy.

A twang off to Justin’s left, followed by a meaty thunk nearby. He whipped about and loosed an arrow as a man with a crossbow ducked behind the wall of a raised cabin. Anthser snarled, but instead of leaping for the cabin he loped. His gait was wrong. They were almost to the cabin before Justin’s anger-fogged mind grasped why: the greatcat had been hit and was limping, albeit still faster than a man could walk. They were only a few yards away when the crossbow wielder poked his head back out; Justin took him in the eye with an arrow. Justin looped his bow over his shoulder and slid off to check Anthser’s injury. The quarrel was stuck in the greatcat’s left shoulder. Anthser took a deep breath. “Crap. Can you get it out?”

Justin grimaced, putting a hand on Anthser’s shoulder at the base of the injury. The fur mixed with blood felt hot under his fingers. “It might be better to leave it,” he warned, wrapping his fingers around the wooden shaft.

“Pull it!” Anthser ordered. Justin didn’t argue further, jerking his hand back as fast and evenly as he could, trying to pull it out along the path it had taken in. Anthser gritted his teeth, snarling in pain. The bleeding worsened: Justin put his hand against the wound in a vain effort to staunch it, and Anthser growled, stepping back. “No! Let it bleed.”

“What?” Justin’s mind felt slow and stupid. He forced his gaze from Anthser to scan the deck for more hostiles.

“’S poisoned, I can smell it.” He lapped at the wound, took a few halting steps, spat. “Catsbane.”

“What? What is that?” Justin took his bow in hand again, but before he’d taken more than a step he saw a hatch in the deck open. He shot into it, missed whoever it was, drew another arrow, and moved towards the uninjured surrendered man.

“Paralytic.” Anthser was moving sluggishly now, and Justin had the awful sense it was not caution slowing him. “Go. Find Lor’ Nik.”

Nikola will kill me if I get his warcat killed. “I can’t leave—”

“GO!” Anthser roared, ears and whiskers flat, enormous mouth baring jagged teeth. The greatcat sank to the deck, licking at his wound. “You can’t help me here GO!”

Curse it all. Justin pulled his quiver from Anthser’s seat and slung it over his shoulder as his gaze swept the deck again. He put another arrow into the hatch as deterrent and reached the surrendered sailor. After seizing him by the collar, Justin hauled the man to his feet. “Where are the hostages? Show me.”

“Cap’n’s dining cabin,” the sailor said, pointing to the hatch that Justin had been shooting at. “That way.”

“There’s another way.” Justin had no idea if there was or not, but assumed so. He shoved the man. “Show me.”

“Yes – yessir.”

“And you—” Justin glowered at the one with a broken leg, who was lying on the deck moaning. “If you ‘forget’ that you surrendered you’ll wish I’d killed you.” He followed the other sailor into the upper cabin. Anthser had crawled over to the hatch to lie on top of it, which ought to stop anyone else from coming that way.

The cabin had a ladder leading to a lower deck: Justin sent his prisoner down first. He only climbed down a couple of rungs himself, jumping the rest of the way to avoid sheathing his sword. He landed in a crouch, straightened, and pushed his prisoner ahead. “Show me.” Partway there, they ran into another two sailors with weapons drawn. Justin shoved his prisoner into one and thrust at the other. The other man had no concept of dueling, attempting to close so he could batter Justin with swings using the edge of his sword. Justin kept him at bay with the tip of his own; the sailor did manage to parry a few thrusts, but Justin ran him through before the man’s comrade had managed to disentangle himself from the prisoner. The second man surrendered after taking a stab to the hip. Justin’s reluctant guide pointed to the door where the captives were held. He tied the two men to the ladder and pressed on alone, not wanting to try to control both.

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