Sneak Peek Friday: Dark the Night Descending

ocean-33Hey there, guys.  As part of my subtle quest to urge on the warm weather by thinking warm thoughts, I wanted to offer you all a little melted-ice cream taste of what’s coming up from me this summer.

Dark the Night Descending is the first in a new trilogy following the misadventures of Arran Swinn, a ship’s captain who bites off a little more than he can chew when a mysterious cargo and an even more mysterious passenger show up on his doorstep offering too much tempting cash to turn down.

Check out the full synopsis here, and read on for an excerpt of Chapter One.

***

The lulling hiss of the tide creeping up the shore faded from the forefront of Arran’s hearing as he stood, motionless and unseeing, on the deck of the ship.  It was dark and quiet behind his closed eyes as he focused all of his attention on the slight rocking of the wood under his heels.  Was there the hint of a little sideways twist to the motion as the vessel bobbed fore and aft, up and down at anchor?  It would be magnified a hundredfold in a cross-sea, a bucking, braying ass that would not mind its keepers if the wind hit just right.  He smiled.  He liked a girl with an iron will.

“She’s got good bones,” Rickarde said, only the slightest hint of doubt creeping into his voice as the sharp shrieking of a circling gull brought Arran back to the task at hand.  “Clean as a whistle and twice as fast,” he added when his customer didn’t seem convinced.

“She’s a right rotter and you know it,” Arran replied, running his hand over the splintered beam of the ship’s rail.  “How much?”

“Three thousand.”

“You could at least have the decency to look optimistic,” Arran scoffed.  “I’ll give you one and a half.”

“You expect me to feed my family on that?”

“Feed them on these,” Arran said, shaking a termite from his hand and flicking it into the water.

“Two thousand and you can have the sails, too,” Rickarde said, grimacing as he moved away from the infested wood.

“You were going to charge me extra?”

“Think of my –”

“I know, I know,” Arran cut over him, digging around for his wallet.  “Your poor children.  Good thing they’re all grown and married off already or I don’t know how you’d live with the anguish in their little faces.”

“Shut up,” Rickarde grinned, watching Arran reluctantly count out gold from his purse and pocketing the coins.  “You best come in for a cup or my Mollie will have my hide.  Where you taking the old gal, anyway?”

“Who?  The boat or your wife?”

“The boat.  I’d give you the wife for free if it would get her out of my hair.”

“Just up to Paderborn,” Arran said, sitting down in the kitchen.  “Thought I’d see my Mum and take on a job or two.”

“Don’t ask me to find you a crew,” Rickarde warned, putting a kettle onto the stove.  “I have a reputation to protect.”

“Then try selling something seaworthy.”

“Try not sinking it.”

“Doesn’t really work for me,” Arran said, rubbing the healing scar on the back of his neck.  He hadn’t even seen the timber falling.  He hadn’t seen much after that at all, since the spar had knocked him out cold, but he had been told that the vessel’s demise had been slow and wallowing as the longboats grimly pulled into the darkness away from the smoldering wreck.

“How many is that, now?  Three?   I don’t know where you get the nerve to keep asking good men to risk their lives.”

“Because I pay them.  Besides, I’m only running across the bay.  It shouldn’t be too bad.  What’s she called?”

“Who?”

“The tub of rusting bolts you just sold me.”

“I don’t remember,” Rickarde said, as he poured the brewed tea. “The paint’s all rubbed off.  It was something stupid.”

“That doesn’t narrow it down much.”

“Pick a name.  She’s yours now, for what good she’ll do you.  The water has been quiet these past few weeks, but that could change in an hour.”

“I know.  How much is your brother going to charge me if I ask him to pretty her up?”

Rickarde shrugged.  “As much as he wants.  You ain’t going nowhere without a visit to a shipyard, and he’s got the only one in town.”

“So much for fairness,” Arran said, draining his cup.  “I better make sure she can limp that far down the shore.”

It wasn’t that bad, he tried to tell himself on the way back down to the marina for a closer look.  The boat was in the water, and it wasn’t sinking.  That was a good start.

But he missed his old ship, he sighed as he slid down the ladder into the fetid and muck-covered hold.  The Firedrake hadn’t been big or flashy or particularly fast, but it had served him well before its untimely end, leaving him stranded in the little town of Cantrid for the past six months.

It wasn’t a very safe place, nor was it a happy one, and the isolated region’s lack of reliable communication with the capital meant that it had taken him half a year to scrape together enough coin together to purchase anything, even such a disaster as the boat upon which he now stood.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered to himself as he took out his knife and pushed it into one of the ship’s knees.  The tip of the blade burrowed nearly an inch into the massive beam with no resistance, the crumbling wood and mold too soft to stop it.  They would all need to be replaced.  And the budding split in the mainmast needed fixing.  And the sails that Rickarde had so generously included in the price were riddled with dry rot.  Useless.

But he did have to acknowledge that the little ship did have fine bones.  He wouldn’t be wasting his time if she was anything but a corker with clean lines and a sharp bow.  There were good spars and good wrights to be had from Rickarde’s brother, even if they were exorbitantly priced for his captive customers. With a little spit and polish, she would spin like a top if he asked her.  She would have to.  If she didn’t, he’d be dead long before he could be disappointed.

Disappointment came to him anyway as the shipwright tugged at his beard and shook his head, consulting with a foreman who couldn’t seem to keep the wolfish grin off his face as the list of repairs kept growing longer.  There wasn’t even a penny left in Arran’s wallet when the pair of them had finished.  He had hoped to have a little left over to help pay for provisions, but he would need to dip into the last of his savings if he ever wanted to leave the village for more lucrative and exciting shores.

And it was still cheaper to pay for the work than it was to snatch a beauty off the market, where a boat that survived six months was hailed as too lucky to ever abandon.  He had almost gotten there with the Firedrake.  He had almost gotten a lot of things before the Siheldi took them away.

“It’ll be three weeks at least,” the foreman told him, spitting a wad of tobacco juice onto the floor of the office as the yard clerk wrote up a receipt.  “The freedom walk is in a fortnight, so you ain’t losing much.”

“I can get a crew,” Arran said defensively.  “I don’t need to stink up the place with prisoners who couldn’t buy their way out of the cells before their time.”

“Right,” the foreman smirked, shifting the enormous glob of crushed leaves and spittle from one cheek to the other.  “I’ll see you there, then, yeah?”

“Probably,” Arran muttered.

“What do you want me to call her?” the shipwright said as Arran folded the parchment and stuffed it into the pocket of his coat.

“Surprise me.  I’ll be at the club if you need anything.  Except more money.”

The foreman laughed and waved him off, leaving Arran to pace alone into town.  There wasn’t much of Cantrid, but what there was had seen better days.  It had been a popular fair weather retreat about a century ago, and still boasted a large square fronted by row houses that had, at one time, been quite elegant in their way.  But the intervening years had decayed them into a blocked up, knocked out warren for the poor, who had taken over the abandoned dwellings as quickly as rats multiplied in a sewer.

The old gentleman’s club was still in business, though, still maintaining the shreds of its dignity under the age-old name of Whitstone.  Anyone who fancied himself of any importance was a member, splashing out on a weekly supper or spending a few evenings every month in the smoking room.  The meeting house had turned into an unofficial marketplace, where trade was conducted and bargains sealed over brandy and clam soup.  A familiarity with the establishment and its clientele was essential for anyone looking to capitalize off the town’s modest maritime industry.

A crew to sail his new vessel could be found on any street corner, freed monthly from the debtor’s prisons, like the shipwright had mentioned, or culled from the constantly replenished ranks of disillusioned apprentices, runaways from angry fathers, or hard men of the sea living out hard luck on land.  But cargo and high-paying passengers were much more difficult to find, and in Cantrid, they had to be finessed from the tight grip of Whitstone’s preeminent patron, who went by the name of Roydin Balard.

“Can I buy an old friend a drink, sir?” Arran said brightly, making his best bow when he found the man in his usual chair, tucked into the corner of the room where he could observe his fellows without being disturbed by them.

“Oh, God.  Not you,” Roydin groaned when he saw who was addressing him.  “Get out.”

“Don’t be like that, sir,” Arran said, sitting down uninvited across from the portly, balding fellow.  He didn’t look like a very shrewd businessman, with the frayed slippers he wore everywhere and his ancient, greasy coats, but Arran had been left puzzled and penniless more than once after a so-called negotiation with Roydin, and this time he wasn’t going to be put on the back foot.

“You owe me six thousand pounds for that damned disaster last year,” Roydin told him.

“I don’t believe I do, sir.  Your insuring company paid you.”

“Yes, and now I have to give them an extra two hundred a month because they think I’m an extraordinary risk.  That’s your fault, Swinn.”

“Well.  Maybe.  But I’ve got me a new ship, and she’s as fast as the angels.  I just need a bit of something to break her in.”

“Like the five hundred bolts of fine satin that are now sitting on the sea floor because of you?”

“Exactly like that, sir.”

“Keep your dreaming.  You’re not getting another farthing out of me.”

“Please, Roydin?  Anything you’ve got.  Rice.  Pigs.  Your least favorite child. Anything.”

Roydin looked at him carefully, tilting his head.  “You’re begging me?”

“Apparently.”

“Well, I can’t say that’s not pleasing.  But it’s not going to be very effective.  You can stand a trip across the bay without a full hold.  Try cheating someone in Paderborn out of their money.  There has to be at least one natural-born idiot there you haven’t let down yet.”

“Come see the new boat next week, when she’s had a proper scrub,” Arran coaxed.  “I’ll show you what she can do.  I promise you’ll be satisfied.”

“I already am.  I get to keep my gold.”

“But –”

“Goodbye, Swinn,” Roydin said firmly.

“Thank you for your time, sir,” said Arran, forcing a smile.  “Maybe we can work together in the future.”

“Don’t count on it,” the merchant said as Arran bowed again, his false pleasantness fading as he left the room in defeat.

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