My new book, River of Stones, is in the final stages of the production process. It will be a book and an ebook in February 2020, and an audiobook later in the year.
Meanwhile, you can read the first chapter here at SeymourHamilton.com, or hear the chapter read by me at SoundCloud https://soundcloud.com/user-228066456
River of Stones begins 20 years after the end of The Astreya Trilogy. Mairi and Trogen, the twin daughter and son of Astreya and Lindey are 18, and have risen up the ranks to second mate.
Only three stones of power remain, and only the eight descendants of Zubin can wield them. Mairi, Trogen, and two of their cousins have the last four.
A ruthless and power-hungry man is intent on stealing the stones, murdering the three leaders of the fleet, and torturing the secrets of navigation from the next generation.
Grand master Astreya gives Mairi command of a ship with instructions to keep the younger members of his family far from danger.
Mairi must face political turmoil ashore, resolve conflicts with her twin brother Trogen, and lead her young crew through storms, dangerous passages, and battles at sea before she can discover the mysterious river of stones.
Here’s Chapter One
In which Cygnus suffers an unprovoked attack
The three-masted schooner Cygnus slipped her hawser from the buoy, her mainsail creaked aloft to catch a light wind, and the steersman spun the wheel to port. Helped by an ebbing tide, the vessel headed down the long narrow bay. Sailors hauled on the throat and peak halyards at the mizzen and foremasts, the two sails filling with a soft flap. The staysail and jib caught the evening breeze and the great ship gathered way, her soft-filled canvass providing just enough steerage way to avoid the clutter of small boats anchored in the harbour. Gathering speed on the port tack, she slid majestically past lighters, barges, coasters and fishing boats, her mast-heads higher than the crests of the steep-sided granite shoreline.
Mairi, first mate and daughter of Grand Master Astreya, stood beside the binnacle, watching the sails belly out as the wind freshened. Strands of her neck-length blonde hair escaped its tight braiding and blew across her face.
“Breezing up,” she said to the old sailing master who stood beside her.
“Enough to flutter the tell-tales,” said Betel, cocking his head to one side so that he could use his good eye.
Mairi knew that Betel was no longer able to see the threads of wool that waved from the shrouds to help the steersman, but the old man could tell the set of the sails from the wind on his cheek. After a long lifetime aboard, Betel was almost a part of Cygnus. Mairi understood the relationship between ship and man better than most, since she, too, was sea-born aboard the great ship.
Betel was one of the last of the Men of the Sea who had kept the great ships sailing for more than a century. She was part of a new generation, most of whom were land-born, but in that she and her twin brother, Trogen, had started their lives afloat, she shared a bond with the old man. Betel’s birth had been at least eighty years ago, whereas her nineteenth birthday was less than a week away, but all three were sea-born, and that made the ship their home and the sea their country.
Mairi took six steps to the port rail and looked along the length of the ship. Astern of the mainmast, the other second mate was tugging a tarpaulin over the main cargo hatch. Cam was a small, agile man in his late thirties. Mouse-coloured hair topped a clean- shaven face that wore an almost perpetual grin. As Mairi watched, a tall sailor came up the aft companionway, stopped beside Cam and knuckled his forehead. Ropes of hair that framed his stern black face were swept back and tied behind his neck. His impassive expression was that of a man who had been disciplined by disappointment.
“Seaman Marley, sir. Lookin’ for the mate of the starboard watch.”
Cam glanced up from his work, his hands still busy, then looked again. His eyes skimmed over a new shirt and breeks, standard Cygnus issue for all aboard, and then scanned a second time, noticing how well the man filled out what for most people was a comfortably loose uniform. He looked up into the man’s face, and raised his eyebrows a fraction: the new sailor was the first black man to serve aboard the big schooner.
“That’s me. Secure the other corner of this tarp. We’ll stretch it over and wedge it down. What ‘cha doin’ wi’ your hand?”
“I was saluting t’show respect, an’ that I’m followin’ your order, sir.”
“Well, stop it. I don’t care what you did on your last ship, but aboard Cygnus, I just want to hear you say, ‘aye’ or ‘right’ and get on with it. ‘Streya told me to expect a new man an’ that’s you, I’m thinkin’. I’m to show you the ropes. But since you’ve served on a schooner before, you know them all already, right?”
“No two ships belay their halliards the same place, sir.”
“The name’s Cam. Save the formalities for the mucky-mucks. That was a good answer, by the way. Now let’s get this cargo hatch covered. ‘Streya wants all secure afore we get to open sea. He’s standing lookout at the foremast shrouds, and any moment now he’ll be on his way to the quarterdeck. He’ll be walkin’ where you’re standin’ doing nothing, if you catch my drift.”
“The master’s standin’ lookout?”
“We’re light on crew, there’s small craft milling about, and he likes to see for himself. He’s on the port side, Navigator’s got the lee. First mate’s astern with the steersman. T’ other mate is on the quarterdeck, doin’ somethin’ important. You’ll know the navigator when you see her. Lindey looks a bit like her daughter Mairi, the mate what’s watchin’ us not workin’. Here, pull that strop over the coaming, and I’ll drive in a wedge to keep it there.”
The schooner gathered speed as she approached the buoy that marked a shoal at the harbour mouth. She heeled to starboard a few degrees as her sails caught a northwest sea wind. Astreya glanced at Lindey, mother of their twins Mairi and Trogen, who was crouched to look under the foresail boom. The wind off the sail blew her earlobe-length blonde hair back from her face. She raised an arm to point toward a little skipjack, idling under only one sail just beyond Cygnus wind shadow. Astreya nodded, and they both started for the quarterdeck. They were dressed alike in blue officers ’shirts and breeks, but in all else, they were a contrast. Astreya’s hair and beard were black, his skin dark tanned, and his green eyes were set amid lines drawn by staring into wind and weather. Lindey matched his stride beside him, though the crown of her head barely topped his shoulder. Different as they appeared, when they glanced at each other, understanding flowed between them.
At the aft cargo hatch, Cam drove in the last wedge. He cocked his head sideways to look up into the tall man’s eyes.
“Good job, Marley. But yer looking puzzled. What’s wrong?” “I’m not used to working alongside a mate.”
“The job takes two. The rest of the watch is securing the other hatches.
“Me last ship’s mate would’ve been tellin’ me what to do and watchin’ t’ make sure I did it the way he wanted. The ship before that, the bugger would have given me a clip over the ear to get me started.”
“That ain’t my style. Or the way this ship works. But don’t expect me to take your turn cleaning the heads or hold your hand when we’re thrashing around in a nor’easter. Look alive, ‘Streya’s coming aft, an’ we’ll have sails to trim in a jiffy. Me an’ you have the main.”
Since a course change was imminent, Mairi headed for the companionway to the navigation space, traditionally called the Forbidden Room. She saw a seaman nod to Lindey as he passed her on his way towards the bow.
Nobody saw the skipjack hoist her jib and change course to cut across the big schooner’s bows, because the little boat was concealed by the big schooner’s foresail and jib. The lookout’s shout came as the boat’s mast fouled Cygnus’ bowsprit. The schooner barely slowed as she first dismasted and then crushed the skipjack, which disappeared under the port bow. Astreya leaned over the rail to see what had happened.
The skipjack exploded.
Cygnus’ bowsprit shattered into shards of wood. Jibs and foresails bellied out of shape, no longer sustained by the mainstay. Debris rained into the sea and onto the deck where Astreya lay sprawled on his back. The ship’s side gaped, the bow festooned with the remains of the bowsprit and dolphin striker. Above, the severed end of the mainstay flailed as all three masts sagged sternward, robbed of support.
Mairi barely paused when she heard the first thud of impact with the little boat, thinking it perhaps caused by a random piece of flotsam that had escaped the lookout’s notice. She put her hand on the metal door and focused her mind to use the power of her clasp. Then came the explosion. Her hands flew up to her ears as the big vessel reverberated like a beaten drum. When the deafening moment passed, she heard shouts, the sound of running feet overhead, and a deep groaning like a huge animal in pain. Mairi turned and ran up the companionway. Betel, the most experienced man aboard, stood with his head thrown back, peering up at the masthead.
“What’s happening?” Mairi demanded.
Betel pointed to the three masts sagging sternwards. The mainstay hung slack from the head of the foremast, swinging uselessly. Again, Mairi heard groaning above the noise of wind and water. She felt vibration under her feet and realized that the masts were swaying, rubbing against the decks, and grinding in their steps on the keel. She ran to the port rail. Ahead, the bowsprit was a splintered stump. She struggled with a dilemma. The obvious response to trouble aloft was to turn head-to-wind. But if they luffed up under full sail with a broken mainstay, even a light wind could collapse all three masts.
“Turn downwind. Relieve the masts,” said the steersman quietly. She swung around, recognizing Marley, the new man.
“You’re right,” she murmured, and then raised her voice in command.
“Stand by to jibe! Brail up and strike sail! Haul them down!”
Sailors ran to obey her order.
“Jibe!” she shouted.
Marley nodded and spun the wheel. Betel’s mouth hung open in disbelief. To his mind, Mairi’s maneuver was the exact opposite of the tried-and-true response, which was to head upwind and then locate, confine, and deal with whatever had gone wrong. Ignoring his distress, Mairi encouraged men and women who were struggling to strike wind-filled, flapping canvass that resisted their efforts and threatened to toss them into the sea.
“Good call, Mairi.” Cam’s voice at her elbow calmed her.
“Cam! What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“Damn great ‘splosion. Holed the bow. ‘Streya’s down. Lindey lookin’ after him. Gotta go help her.”
During their exchange, confusion began to resolve into order. Men and women at the halyards, brails, and sheets collaborated to collapse and lower the sails until they could be manhandled into folds around the booms. Sailors loosed halyards and topping lifts and brought spars and booms amidships, tugged the foresails inboard and bundled them. With the sails no longer blocking her view, Mairi saw that the mainstay was looping from mast to mast to mast to the free-swinging length of heavy, tarred rope, that was no longer connected to the missing bowsprit.
What she saw still threatened disaster, but the masts no longer groaned. Cygnus was stable under bare poles, wind-driven south-east, out to sea.
“Steersman, hold her on this course.”
It was her mother’s voice, uncharacteristically shrill. Mairi looked along the deck and saw Astreya being carried astern, his head supported by Lindey, his body cradled in the linked arms of two sailors. Something wooden stuck out of a bloody smear on his right hip. Mairi stood, torn between love and duty. As the human stretcher carried her father towards the companionway, Lindey bent over Astreya, her face invisible behind her hair. She spoke without raising her head.
“Mairi, you’re in command.”