The Island In the Sky – Pt 5

The Sky-men

Previously, captured by savage natives, the boy loses hope of finding the man. Only the company of his new friend, Sparks, gives him courage, though she is little help otherwise. Across foreign lands his captors lead him, until they come to a mountain village where is anchored a ship in the sky…

The boy had never seen a ship that could float in the sky. He had seen balloons, but this ship had no gas bag, only great canvas sails that fluttered in the wind, for they’d been furled. And he’d only ever seen one wooden ship when he was very young: all the ships at the port in Saint Anna now were iron steamers that streamed long trails of coal-black smoke. But here was a small sailing ship, her canvas hanging limp and her mooring lines running taut high above the stone houses to the boulders only just above the town where they’d been anchored. To the bronze men and the little mountain people it seemed the most natural thing in the world that a ship would drift in the high mountain wind over the hillside.

There was a stranger in the camp. He was there when the boy awoke, and though the boy didn’t know his face, he looked rather like the bronze forest men: he might’ve been one of their tribe. He stood by the fire speaking with his fellows. When he saw the boy he said, “Fell to the earth, didn’t you, little bird?” And the boy was surprised to hear words spoken in English.

“Where am I?” asked the boy in reply.

“In the village of the Stone-cuts, Son,” said the bronze man.

“And that?” asked the boy of the ship.

“Why, they’re your people: Englishmen!”

The boy stared at the ship in wonder, for he’d no idea how an English sailing boat had been made to fly, or how it had found its way to this strange land. When his captors came for him he was still staring, transfixed and ignorant of the chilly wind tearing at his dirty face.

“Come, boy. Englishmen pay handsomely for their own. You are going home, and we are going to be much wealthier than the Mud Breakers,” said the stranger with a gleeful smirk.

The houses of the mountain folk were much too small for a man to live in, their doorways being only as high as the boy’s shoulders. But they dug their streets low amidst the stone huts, and these ran like war trenches, walled and paved. In these low alleyways the wind whipped by harmlessly over their heads in howling gusts, and the boy began to realize he’d been quite chilled. The misery of the cold sight of those solemn hovels on the hillside wasn’t lost on him. If he’d been forced to stand any longer on the open mountain slope with the wind tearing through his thin trousers, the boy thought he might be very sick. But he and the bronze men were allowed to pass freely by the stone people; and as they tromped by the low doorways and dark windows, the boy saw the beady eyes of the Stone-cuts looking out at him. He wondered what kind of people they were to live in that place so far above the trees.

When they came to the small open courtyard at the base of the village, only just beneath the ship, there were three Englishmen waiting there to meet them. One threw a coat of fur over the boy’s shoulders. That was when he began to feel safe at last.

“I’m Captain Colder,” said the man. “You’re safe now.” He looked at the boy with the kindness of a good heart, and the boy thought he’d had the fortune of coming among people he could trust.

It wasn’t gold or jewels with which the Englishmen paid the natives, but rods of blue steel. The bronze men of the forest greedily took these in their fingers and turned away, having forgotten their prisoner, delighted in their prize. They caressed the steel like it was very precious; and the boy supposed it might be, for he’d noticed they had none of their own.

The wind was ripping at the clothes of the boy and the Englishmen as they left the little stone village on the mountainside. The men were dressed in warm soft furs, though, for they were accustomed to the climates of that land. They said nothing to the boy; but when they were standing beneath the ship with the mooring lines singing in the wind above them, the boy found an elevator was waiting to take them up. It was a wooden cage bound in iron, and it was raised by a capstan from above: for the ship had no boats nor need of them.

There was no crew on the deck, but the wind was terrible: it rang the taut rigging like the strings of an instrument and tore at the ragged canvas where they hung. The boy wondered that it hadn’t turned the vessel from its anchors and dashed it into the far mountain slopes.

They led him to the captain’s cabin, and there he was left alone with the man who’d called himself Colder. Now the Englishman poured the boy a mug of liquor, made him drink it, and said in a cold and deliberate voice, “How did you fall in with those heathens, Son?”

The boy hesitated, for he wasn’t certain what to believe, nor whom he could trust. At last he answered, “They took me in a forest while I was looking for someone.”

“Who were you looking for?”

“My friend.”

The captain studied him cautiously. “And who is this friend?”

“A man, the one who brought us here.” The boy didn’t like the captain’s tone and wondered if he might think him an enemy. He didn’t want more enemies.  Certainly the bronze men of the forest might be wicked, but Englishmen were much more civilized: therefore he must tell them about the old man. So he said, “He flew the plane.”

“Hmm,” said the captain thoughtfully. “I don’t suppose you know where he is now.”

The boy shook his head. “The Forest Men sold him to the tree men just like they sold me to you.”

“And these tree men had brown skin like the forest men?” asked the captain. “They were natives?”

“No, they are white men.”

The captain was thoughtful for a moment, and he stroked his dark beard. “There are no white men in Antaria but me and my crew, and the villains that follow Captain Joyce.”

“They were white,” the boy insisted.

“Then those men couldn’t have been any other than Joyce’s bastard crew, and you are lucky they hadn’t got their nasty hands on you.” He paused a moment and studied the boy with renewed interest. “Then if you aren’t from The Iron Dog, you really have come here on your own,” he said. “And you said you flew?”

“Yes,” agreed the boy. “In a seaplane from Norward City.”

The captain frowned at him. “And what would a boy be doing at the World Prison?” Certainly Captain Colder knew a great deal about the world.

They were interrupted just then by one of the crewmen who thrust his face in at the door and said, “The wind has changed, Captain. We’re dropping the canvas and setting course for the Rift.”

The captain nodded his approval. Then, back to the boy, he said, “What do you know of Antaria?”

“I know nothing of it,” the boy answered. “What is Antaria?”

“This land is,” answered the captain. “Come, look and see with your own eyes, boy.”

The captain went to the window of the cabin and, pushing back the curtain, he pointed out the black-toothed spires that bordered the world. “There is the edge of it, and it can’t be too much to ask that you believe there are no mountains like that in our own world.”

“I have heard of none,” agreed the boy. “But that does not tell me anything of where I’ve come to. Or how I should get home.”

“There is home,” answered the captain, pointing to the sky.

“You mean to say we’ve fallen to some depth? Or off the edge?”

“We have,” answered the captain. “You, like I, I’m certain. We’ve both had the misfortune of coming into this timeless world so far from home. Where the portal is precisely in our world I don’t know. It’s always difficult to find. We’ve made the journey through the arctic ice into Antaria six times now. I’ve tried to chart the path with my best cartographer, but we still use our luck more than anything else. It’s the same luck, I fancy, that brought you and your pilot through.”

“How far is it?” asked the boy, for he was already calculating how he might make his journey home.

“It took us many weeks to find a way through the ice, for the passage we’d used before is closed,” answered the captain sadly. “And I fear we cannot easily go back the way we came, either. My crew wants nothing more than to go home, for we only came back to recover Mister Erickson – our mate – but though I’ve been working my brain and my maps to find a way, so far I’ve found none. The spring will see us through – if not before.”

The boy was puzzled. “You’re speaking of ice and arctic seas, but you’ve just told me the way home is up, and I’ve never heard of any arctic seas in the sky.” It seemed to him a very logical argument, and he felt pride in saying it.

The captain laughed a little to himself, but it seemed a weary laugh to the boy. “It must be very strange to someone who’s just discovering it,” he said. “It’s been so long since we first came through to Antaria that I forget what it’s like.” He’d been smiling ruefully, but now he became quite serious, and he said, “The rules you learned at home in school don’t work here, so when I point up you mustn’t think I mean to sail into the sky, for while my ship is not earthbound here, it is no zeppelin or aeroplane. You will better understand what I mean when the time comes—and now,” he said rising to his feet from the desk where he’d been sitting, “I imagine you’re hungry from living with those savages as a prisoner. Go to the galley and Erickson will find you something to eat.”

As the captain clearly had nothing more he wanted to say, the boy left him alone at the chart table and returned to the deck.

If he’d thought himself free when he breathed the clear cold air over the mountains of Antaria he’d have been wrong, for his every move was watched by the crew who were at their stations. It might’ve been curiosity for the new white boy their captain had bought from strange men in a strange world. But he pretended not to notice: the time he’d spent in the world prison had accustomed the boy to living under scrutiny.

The canvas was full, and the breeze over the deck caught at his hair and face in icy gusts. He was alarmed to see only a dense white fog beyond the bulwarks, but he supposed they were high in the clouds now, the world below gone for the moment. It was comforting to be so alone among men again – men of his own race who spoke his own language.

In the galley he found the cook. A Dane, he said his name was Erickson. “Bjorn Erickson. Officer First Class in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy before they court marshalled me and I jumped ship to stay out of irons.” He laughed, but there was no humour in it.

“Court marshalled!” cried the boy in alarm, for he knew it was a serious thing. “What had you done!”

But the sailor laughed again, and his eyes twinkled this time. “You are as guiltless as I, boy.”

But the boy, who would dream at night of the still white face of the man he murdered, thought it likely the sailor was oversimplifying the matter. He said instead: “The captain told me they came back for you.” Mister Erickson had just given him a loaf and ham, and the boy took it eagerly, but kept his eyes on the sailor: he was hoping to hear the story. And he wasn’t to be disappointed, for Danish men will readily tell a story if it’s good.

“Did he now?” returned the cook. “It’s true I fell behind on our last journey, and that for me it has been one adventure and then the next.”

The boy said nothing, hoping the story would go on. The cook looked up and down the galley suspiciously, then leaned across the table, as if they two were conspirators on the most clandestine mission.

“I fell in with the Cap’n Joyce and his devils,” he said, his voice as angry as his eyes when he said the name of the hated captain and his crew. “Cap’n Colder sent me and Jackson and Mass down this little valley where the natives said we’d find an old castle from long ago, for the cap’n has been keenly interested in learning all there is about the people who’ve come here before. You’ll see why soon enough, I’m sure. The castle was there, but Joyce had got to it first with his iron pig: the lizards had shown them the way. His devils fell on us in the woods. They killed Jackson and Mass – and would’ve killed me, too, if I hadn’t promised to take them to the gate, for at that time they didn’t know where it lay. They are so desperate to get home, see, they believed me. But I couldn’t get them to the gate anymore than they could get there themselves, so I just kept making promises till Cap’n Colder came back. He found us still in the shadow of the fort, and a barrage of canonfire nearly pierced the hull of the iron pig. Then I jumped ship when they were busy on the reload. Had I not learned a little woodskill when I first fell behind here I would’ve been murdered by wild beasts; but I fought through by crafting my own spears and arrows, and I met up with the Valantis three weeks ago on the edge of Faring Wood, where the heathens camps are strongest. Joyce had followed me, for he knew I could tell Colder how to hit the iron pig to hurt it, and they nearly caught me.”

“But your friends rescued you?” asked the boy excitedly, for he thought it a wonderful story.

“Oh, yes!” answered the cook. “Cap’n Colder brought the Valantis down the mountainside where Joyce had made an encampment. The guns were pounding the earth to bits, and that great iron thing they call a ship took a second beating. We exchanged some small arms fire and burned their camp, and in the end I slipped away into the woods at night and the Starlights led me back to the ship. Been here ever since, and will be till the cap’n says the word to go home, for I’ve had enough of this place.”

The story sounded rather exciting to the boy, who loved adventure as much as anyone, even though he’d seen more than most; and when the cook paused for a breath he just kept looking on eagerly, hoping for more.

“Anyway,” said the cook. “You can believe the cap’n will take care of you too, for that’s the sort of man he is. That’s why he bought you from those natives. You’ll be coming back with us when we go, you have my word.”

That was good news, but the boy wouldn’t have left the old man behind if he could help it; so he was glad to hear the captain wasn’t expected to order them home anytime soon. “He’s dreadful set on stopping Joyce and his horrid machine from getting back through the Rift,” said the cook.

“Is that where we’re going now?” asked the boy. “To fight Joyce?”

“Odin’s beard, no!”  cried the sailor. “And I hope it’s a good long time yet before we go up against those devils again. No, the captain’s headed for Heimlark’s Rift. It’s the only place we can do our calculations, see.”

The boy desperately wanted to know what the Rift was and why it was so important, but certain of the crew came in just then for breakfast, and he hadn’t the opportunity to press the matter.

The rest of the men aboard the Valantis were kind to him, and he quickly learned them all by name. He really was free, he soon discovered, and the captain told him as much; but though he was free and safe, the boy still had no idea of where his friend was or how to recover him.

There was one other of the crew the boy liked very much. He was often on lookout, for his eyes were very good; and so it wasn’t that first day they were introduced, he and the boy, for he was high in the crow’s nest. But when he came down for supper the day that followed, and the boy saw his ungainly figure stalking the deck, he thought at once the man had stories to tell.

“I’m Cooper,” said the sailor, pushing his goggles up on his forehead and peering down at the boy through the sparkling points that were his eyes. “You’re the boy the natives had. I’d say you’re a fellow Englishman, too. But what you’re doing here I couldn’t guess.”

But when the boy told about the seaplane sitting in the far valley where it’d crashed, the sailor’s eyes nearly bugged out of his face. “An aeroplane, you say? Here in Antaria?”

“It’s ruined,” answered the boy, sorry to destroy the man’s excitement.

But the sailor was unperturbed. “Hardly!” he cried. “Few things are really ruined beyond repair. And if the engine is still intact then the rest can be rebuilt.”

“But can you fly it?” asked the boy, who thought that a simple seaman wasn’t likely to make a good pilot.

The sailor laughed aloud and looked offended. “I’m a pilot before I’m a sailor,” he answered, “and would be flying still if the damned Farlong hadn’t brought down my plane!”

“Did you fly here, as I did?” asked the boy.

“Certainly,” answered the sailor. “I’ve flown everywhere: over Europe and Africa, America and Asia. I’ve crossed the major oceans; and the arctic sea was my final flight, the last great undertaking for the world-renowned James Cooper, the first man to ever fly over the arctic ocean!”

“What happened!” asked the boy excitedly.

The airman leant forward, until his scraggly beard and leathern nose was just in front of the boy’s face. His breath was hot and his eyes sharp. He was very keen. “I don’t remember,” he said.










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