THE SAILWEAVER'S SON
The Sailweaver's Son combines epic fantasy with a dash of steampunk and creates a world unlike any other - Etherium. A world where mountains rise like islands above a sea of clouds and adventurers travel the sky in sail-driven airships.
When fifteen-year-old Tak rescues the survivor of an airship destroyed by one of the giant flammable gas bubbles mysteriously appearing in the sky of Etherium, the authorities react like a flock of startled grekks.
Admiral Scud accuses Tak of sabotage and treason. Tak's father grounds him for reckless airmanship. Rumors spread that the bubbles are weapons devised by the Gublins, a race of loathsome but ingenious underground creatures. The King's advisors call for war, hoping to win much-needed Gublin coal.
To prove his innocence and prevent a misguided war, Tak must do what anyone knows is suicide - visit the Gublins and find out what they know. When the wizard's adopted daughter, an oddly beautiful and irksomely intelligent girl from the Eastern kingdoms, asks Tak to help her do just that, he can't say no.
The adventure will take Tak from the deepest underground caves to a desperate battle on Etherium's highest mountaintop. It will force him to face his worst fears, and to grow up faster than he expected.
The day the giant airship exploded and sank beneath the clouds, Tak was one of the few people to see what happened. He was following the ship, one of the royal fleet’s battleships, in his own small craft, the Arrow. He should not have been doing this. Tak had been told many times—by his parents, the Admiral of the royal fleet, even once by the King himself—not to slink along behind royal battleships.
Tak flew a half mile or so behind the ship, so it appeared no bigger in the sky than one of the models hanging from the ceiling of his bedroom. He would have liked to get closer, but the wind was tricky that day. The updrafts, downdrafts, and side currents kept shifting, which made it hard to keep the Arrow steady—she bobbed and lurched, her wing-like sail fluttering and snapping overhead. A close approach would be too dangerous.
So Tak sat in the stern of the Arrow, trying to keep her steady with one hand on the tiller and his feet on the wing flap pedals, and he spied on the battleship through his looking glass. He could tell by the shape of the hull, the number of guns, and the configuration of the masts and sails that this ship was the Vigilance, commanded by Captain Adamus Strake. Tak could identify most royal battleships by sight and tell you the names of their captains, if you cared to hear.
Like all airships of Etherium, the Vigilance looked something like an old-fashioned, wooden sailing ship—except that she was much, much wider and shallower in the hull, her keel plunged much deeper below her, and her huge triangular sails looked and worked more like wings, all the better to keep her upright and stable in the thick atmosphere. And while large battleships like the Vigilance often flew by sail alone, they were also equipped with powerful propellers in the stern, fueled by steam boilers built below their decks.
Tak was hopelessly in love with the big ships, as many fifteen-year-olds in the Kingdom of Spire were, which is why he stalked them. He watched the Vigilance for hours as she patrolled the sky, fascinated. Her polished wooden decks and rows of bronze cannons gleamed in the sun. Men in smart blue uniforms climbed the complicated rigging to trim the sails. The crew ran through a fire drill, hauling buckets of water up the masts and dousing the sails. The lookouts sat in their crow’s nests, scanning the sky.
It was a gorgeous summer afternoon. The sky was rosily purple, and the cumulus clouds high up in the stratosphere were white and plump and peaceful as lambs. Even the thick gray clouds far below that always covered the surface of Etherium didn’t look as sinister as they usually did. The sunlight had turned them into silver and gold. In the distance, Tak’s home mountain range, the Highspire Mountains, rose above this blanket of surface clouds in vivid shades of pine-covered green. Flocks of birds and other flying creatures swirled in the open sky, their flapping wings or shimmering scales glinting and sparkling as they caught the sun.
Tak could never say what made him turn his spyglass down toward Etherium’s blanket of clouds that day. Most sky riders prefer to avoid looking down at those surface clouds. It makes them uncomfortable. Sky riders know very little of the world beneath those clouds, but one thing they do know is that Gublins live there. They know this because Gublins have a tendency to climb up out of the clouds onto the mountainsides at night and snatch goats—or children, or anything warm and edible, but mostly goats—from the fields and pastures of the lower villages. Maybe Tak sensed movement or the glint of sunlight below him. In any case, his spyglass swung downward and Tak gasped as he saw something emerge from the cloud cover below.
He’d seen nothing like it in his life. No sky rider ever had. It was an enormous bubble. Twice the size of the battleship. As it rose into the sky, the bubble wobbled and shimmered, squished into lopsided potato-like shapes then snapped back to roughly round. It was more or less transparent, but its rippling surface glistened with a rainbow of colors where the sunlight played on it. The bubble rose with alarming speed, rolling this way and that with the wind. It was not on a collision course with the battleship—yet. It was some distance off the port bow.
The lookouts didn’t see it until it was too late. As the giant bubble drew level with the battleship, Tak heard the faint ringing of alarm bells. The ship came to a full stop, propellers going still, sails slanting upward to create drag. Tak could imagine the startled looks on the faces of the men on deck. He was wearing such a look himself. Then the wind shifted and gusted again. The sky riders have an old saying: Our lives rely upon the wind, and the wind is not reliable. The saying proved true for the men on the battleship. The wind took hold of that bubble and hurled it directly at them.
Too late, the captain cried the order to turn hard to starboard, trying to veer away. Too late, the propellers leapt to life and the ship lurched, listing heavily with the effort of making the turn while men scrambled in the rigging to adjust the flapping sails. Large battleships like the Vigilance are known for their strength and forward speed, but they are not known for their maneuverability. The bubble hit the ship broadside and enveloped it entirely.
And then both ship and bubble exploded into a burst of fire that left a glowing yellow spot like the sun behind Tak’s eyes, which had snapped shut. When he opened his eyes, blinking, the bubble was gone and the ship was engulfed in flames. The sails were ablaze. Horrified, Tak watched as burning men leapt from the deck like showers of sparks, their flaming parachutes useless.
As Tak sat stricken in the stern of the Arrow, gaping in shock and disbelief, he felt the first rumbles of the giant explosion in his chest. He felt hints of its heat on his face. And then he saw the shock wave expanding in all directions from the ruined ship.
The atmosphere of Etherium is thick enough that under certain conditions it becomes visible to the naked eye. This was one of those conditions. The distant cumulus clouds in the stratosphere wavered and rippled as if they were reflections of clouds on the surface of a pond into which someone had dropped a large stone. Few of even the oldest and most experienced sky riders had ever faced such a wave. Tak had never seen anything like it. For a moment he froze. But then his training kicked in and he did his best to prepare himself. He made sure his lifeline was clipped securely to the belt on his waist and fastened tightly to the ship. He checked his parachute. No sky rider ever sets foot on an airship without making sure that he or she is wearing a well-functioning parachute. Tak would have liked to take his sail down but there was no time for that. The wave was almost upon him. He turned the Arrow to face it directly, angled the bow of his ship as high as he could, and held on tight.
The wave tossed his ship around like a leaf in a storm. The air became oven hot. The Arrow tumbled end over end. Tak was thrown from the deck. The lifeline yanked on the belt around his stomach so hard it squeezed the breath out of him. But it held. Eventually, Tak and his ship stopped tumbling. The air cooled. Tak ended up hanging by his lifeline below the completely capsized Arrow, nothing below his dangling feet but clouds.
One might think that hanging by a slender lifeline below his upside-down ship would be a frightening situation for a boy like Tak. In fact, he was used to it. Small airships regularly capsized, especially when raced and pushed to their extremes by reckless boys. And even if his lifeline had snapped, Tak still would have had his parachute. Sky rider parachutes are cunningly built. In the buoyant atmosphere of Etherium, they can keep a person aloft indefinitely, like an airship sail keeps a ship aloft. And they’re equipped with toggles for steering. Many lost overboard airmen have caught lucky currents and steered themselves home by parachute, sometimes landing on the roofs of their own houses—tired, hungry, and cold, but otherwise not much the worse for wear.
Climbing up the lifeline hand over hand and righting the capsized craft was also a familiar task. Tak had done it countless times. Once he’d reached the overturned hull of the Arrow and planted his feet on it, he stepped out onto one of the short wings that extended from either side of the ship, got a good grip on the long keel, bent his knees and rocked and leaned until the craft righted itself. The sail—still in one piece—flapped and filled as it caught the wind. As the Arrow righted and began to rise on the wind, Tak flipped himself over the side and onto the deck in one deft movement.
Now all he wanted to do was go home. His heart pounded and his hands shook as he tightened his lines. The capsizing of his ship may not have frightened him, but a giant bubble causing the Vigilance to explode into flames certainly had. He knew he needed to tell the authorities what he had witnessed, as soon as possible.
He would get into trouble again—it would be pretty obvious that he’d been tailing the Vigilance. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near it. His habit of stalking royal battleships had landed him in trouble before. Lookouts were trained to sound an alarm when unauthorized airships came too near, even small ones like the Arrow. More than once, Tak hadn’t been able to resist stealing in for a closer look and had triggered a general alarm. A lot more than once. When this happened, he would tighten his sail, lean on his tiller, find a fast current and be away on the wind in a wink. The gleaming red Arrow making an escape was a familiar sight to lookouts in the royal fleet.
But Tak never managed to outrun trouble. His ship was too recognizable.
“I see you Taktinius Spinner!” ship captains would roar, leaning over command deck railings and bellowing into the wind. “You’ve been warned before! Your father will hear about this!”
What Tak wanted most at that moment was to sit down in his family’s kitchen and have some of his mother’s egg soup. Have her fuss over him. He was in shock, which made the things around him seem unreal. He couldn’t take his eyes off the ruined, smoldering battleship. The initial force of the explosion had pushed him farther from the ship, but then the air had reversed direction, sucking in toward the ship to replace the oxygen that had been burned up. He’d ended up closer to the Vigilance than he’d been originally. It was badly scorched and burning in places, but it hadn’t caught fully afire. Royal battleships are made from wood that is prepared to be fire resistant. There were holes in the deck and hull, rimmed by jagged planks blown outward, and smoke billowed from all the ship’s open hatches—some or all of the powder kegs below must have ignited. The masts had all snapped and hung trailing over the sides, their stays burnt away. Tak shut his eyes. He couldn’t get the image out of his head of those men leaping overboard all aflame.
The men! Could there be any left alive onboard? Maybe some who’d been in secure holds below decks when the bubble exploded? In his haste to head home, this thought hadn’t occurred to Tak. He steadied the Arrow, took out his spyglass, and scanned the deck of the ship more closely. The cannons, snapped free of their breechings, were strewn about like so many broken toys. The ship’s once neatly stored gear and tackle were also scattered about the deck. Most of the rail and deck wood had blackened. Here and there, stray flames or coals flickered redly. Tak held his breath against seeing bodies. But he let it out in relief when he spotted none. The deck appeared lifeless…
There! A man! A man struggled up out of a smoking hatch onto the deck. He crawled clear and fell onto his belly. His hand scrabbled weakly at the parachute pack on his back, trying to pull the cord. He tried. And tried again. If the chute would open, it would lift the man off deck.
“Come on,” Tak muttered to himself, willing the parachute to work.
It didn’t. The man either gave up or passed out. He lay face down on the deck. But his sides heaved with breath.
The man would need someone’s help to get off board. Tak looked to the sky, hoping to see countless large airships already speeding to the rescue. The explosion must have been seen and heard for miles and miles around. Half the royal fleet should be there by now. Or at least several merchant or fishing vessels. But the sky was empty. Birds and other flying creatures had disappeared, frightened off by the explosion. The only sign of life was a few sailweaver spiders drifting nearby on the silken parachutes they’d woven, looking agitated and disoriented. The creatures were a common sight. There were no other ships coming to the rescue. Not even the glint of a sail in the distance. If that man were to get off the Vigilance, Tak was his only hope.
A large part of Tak urged him to just go home. No one would blame him for not trying to rescue the man. That kind of thing was not something a fifteen-year-old boy was meant to do. In fact, his mother and father would be furious with him if he tried. It would be dangerous. For one thing, a stray flame might ignite the Arrow, which was not especially fire resistant. For another thing, there was no telling if all the smoldering ship’s powder kegs had ignited or if there were still some waiting to explode. And finally, without sails to help keep what was left of the Vigilance aloft, the ship was slowly starting to sink. The stern dipped toward the surface clouds first, as the stern was heaviest because of the steel boilers there. And little by little, the stern was dragging the rest of the ship down with it.
No one would even have to know about that man, a part of Tak whispered. You wouldn’t have to tell anyone about seeing him. By the time anyone else gets here, the Vigilance will be long gone beneath the clouds.
It would be a secret.
With a guilty conscience, Tak pointed the bow of the Arrow toward home. He was already choosing his words for the authorities about how he’d scanned the deck of the Vigilance with his looking glass and found no survivors. As Tak angled his sail to get some lift, preparing to find his way out of the south-flowing current he found himself in, something soft, wiggly, and definitely alive came out of nowhere and smacked him in the face. It was one of the sailweaver spiders—black and glossy, about the size of a chicken egg—that had been drifting nearby. The spider landed on its back in Tak’s lap, parachute deflated, legs kicking.
Tak yelped, jumped up, and swatted the creature to the deck. The idea of a spider crawling on him made him shudder. Tak raised a boot to squash the stunned spider under his heel, and hesitated. He brought his boot down, and took a deep breath. For almost any other boy in the kingdom, being afraid of spiders would’ve been okay. Not something you’d advertise, of course, but something you could get away with when no one was looking. But Tak had been born into the Spinner family. For generations, the Spinner family had farmed sailweaver spiders, harvested their superbly strong and water-resistant silk, and woven the material into sails. Being part of the Spinner family meant you had to learn to care for sailweaver spiders, feed them, even milk them for silk—all without any yelping or squashing.
When Tak was little, his father had taught him to sing a children’s song to help calm his fear of spiders. Letting the Arrow drift in the southerly current, Tak sang softly to himself.
Spider, spider it may be true
That I’m a hundred times bigger than you
But I’ll not mash you, or smash you, or turn you into goo
So don’t fear me, and I won’t fear you
The old song always helped. Tak was in control of his fear, instead of letting it control him. He knelt on the deck and peered at the spider. It was no longer stunned, and it hadn’t been injured. It busily wove a new silken chute, legs moving in a flurry of precise action like so many miniature knitting needles, strands of silk stretching from the glands on its abdomen and forming into a tiny, dome-like web on its back. Tak coaxed the spider into the palm of his hand. Its prickly touch wasn’t so bad. When the parachute was finished and the spider ready, Tak stood and held out his hand, helped the spider on its way with a gentle breath. The creature floated off his palm, sailed south with the current, back toward the Vigilance.
Tak narrowed his eyes at the Vigilance. Took another deep breath. His fear about trying to rescue the man on the sinking battleship was still there. It sat in his chest like a lump of cold steel. But it, too, was no longer in control of him. Instead, it centered and steadied him, gave him weight. Tak knew what he had to do. He was sure that one day he would serve on a ship like the Vigilance. One day he would be a man like that man. And if he were trapped on that burning, sinking ship, he would want anyone at all to try to help him.
So Tak made himself do it. It was as if he were watching himself from outside. He pushed on the Arrow’s tiller until the bow came around, pressed the foot pedals that worked the wing flaps—banking the ship into a sharp turn—and steered himself toward the Vigilance. He came as close to the battleship as he dared in the buffeting wind, then threw a grappling line. It caught, and he pulled himself closer, until the hulls almost touched. He unclipped his lifeline. Checked his parachute. Then he leapt across the small gap onto the deck of the battleship. It leaned at an alarming angle. He scrabbled across the deck to the man and rolled him over. Gasped.
The man was a fright to look at. His hair and eyebrows were gone, burnt away. His uniform was singed and blackened. The exposed skin of his hands and face blazed an angry bright red, bubbling with white blisters. The man opened his eyes. They widened when they saw a strange boy with brown eyes and shaggy brown hair leaning over him, a partly determined, partly disgusted expression on his hawk-like face. The man’s blistered lips worked, trying to form words. “Stupid boy,” he managed to say, trying to push Tak away. “Leave me. Get off this ship.”
Tak rolled the man back over onto his belly with an effort. He was a large man, much broader in the shoulders than the usual sky rider, who tended to have light builds. If Tak could just get the man’s parachute to work, he would float off the deck. Tak could then retrieve him with the Arrow.
But the parachute pack was badly damaged. The cord had been burned down to a charred stub. The leather harness straps were cracked and blackened. And what was worse, there were holes burned through the sturdy canvass of the pack itself, suggesting the parachute inside would be full of holes as well. Even if Tak could get the chute open, it would no longer hold the man’s weight.
“Get off this ship,” the man wheezed. “It’s going down.”
Tak knew what the airman said was true. He couldn’t see over the side of the ship, but he knew it was dropping steadily toward the surface clouds below. The increasing pressure on his eardrums told him so. Tak’s eyes watered with the sting of wood smoke. Stray tatters of sail and snapped ropes flapped in the wind as if in alarm. The ship’s wooden beams creaked and groaned as if gasping their last.
Tak’s mind raced. If he were not going to abandon this man, there was only one option. He would give the man his chute. He would get him safely off the burning ship, then make it back to the Arrow and retrieve the man from the sky. Tak unbuckled the harness of his parachute without thinking about this plan of action further, because he knew if he stopped to think about it he would never do it. Sky riders don’t like parting from their parachutes.
Sky riders are fearless when it comes to heights. They consider the sky a second home. They grow restless and impatient when confined to the ground for too long. However, sky riders do have the good sense to be afraid of falling. Objects fall slowly in the thick atmosphere of Etherium. Still, a drop from airship height would be fatal. So any sky rider would be uncomfortable—to say the least!—with the idea of taking off his chute for any period of time, even if he were standing on the deck of a sturdy ship in fair weather. To take off one’s chute on the listing deck of a sinking ship and give it to another, with one’s only chance of survival a leap across the gap to one’s own nearby ship—that would be crazy.
Getting his chute onto the injured man was much harder than Tak thought. The buckles had fused on the man’s harness so Tak had to cut it away with the knife he wore at his belt. Tak’s own harness had been fitted to his tall, lean frame, so getting it around the man’s thick shoulders and waist, adjusting the leather straps and tightening the buckles, was almost impossible with his shaking hands. On top of that, the man fought him, struggling weakly to push him away. When Tak knelt on his chest to hold him down, the man made awful sounds of pain. And he smelled of burnt hair. Tak’s face screwed up tight as he struggled to complete the task. Tears of frustration and panic leaked from the corners of his eyes. The pressure bored into his eardrums and he was sure that any minute he and the battleship and the man would sink beneath the clouds. But his hands kept moving somehow, and finally he had the parachute harness more or less secured around the airman, who had largely given up the fight, his head lolling back onto the charred wooden planks.
Tak rolled the man over onto his front and pulled the cord of the chute. The chute blossomed open and lifted the man off the deck, his arms and legs dangling limply. Tak scurried up the tilting deck to the rails where the Arrow sat just a few feet away. Tak climbed up onto the railing, then hesitated. Everything in his body told him not to jump. His back felt strangely naked without the familiar weight of the parachute pack. He looked down. The stern of the Vigilance was just starting to disappear into the top layer of surface clouds, which had become a sinister gray mist.
He landed chest-first squarely on the deck of the Arrow with his arms around the foremast. The ship lurched. Don’t think! he told himself. Just act. Move! He picked himself up, grabbed his lifeline and clipped it to his belt. He didn’t waste time trying to yank the grappling line free. He cut it with his knife. Then he climbed into the stern, took hold of the tiller, and urged the Arrow to climb as fast as possible.
When Tak looked down again, the Vigilance was nothing more than the gray ghost of a ship disappearing beneath the surface clouds.
Tak looked up. The man in the parachute drifted far above in a fast northeasterly current. For a skilled sky rider like Tak, it wasn’t too difficult a matter to find that current, climb beneath the man, keep pace with him, then gently ease the Arrow upward until the man settled down onto the deck and his chute went limp. Tak cut away the chute so it wouldn’t fill with wind again and drag the man off deck or tangle in his rigging. The man lay on his side, groaning. At least that meant he was alive. Tak clipped a lifeline to him.
The northeast current was a mercy. That was the direction Tak needed to take him back to Selemont, his home mountain and home to the kingdom’s capital city, Selestria. Tak pointed his bow toward home. The Arrow flew.
X X X
As Tak approached Selemont with the half-conscious airman still sprawled and groaning on the deck of the Arrow, the sight of the green mountain comforted him. It was the mountain on which he’d been born and called home. The base of Selemont, as near to the surface clouds as the inhabitants dared, had been carved into terraced fields planted with potatoes, onions, cabbages, carrots, and other crops. There were also sloping pastures where herds of goats, pigs, and sheep grazed. Winding paths climbed up through the fields and pastures. Wide, paved roads wound in spiraling paths up the mountainside. At points along these roads, houses clustered into villages. About three-quarters of the way up the mountain sat the great wall of the city of Selestria. This wall stood thirty feet high and ran the entire circumference of the mountain. It had been built with carved blocks of mountain stone, and it was dotted with watchtowers at regular intervals that flew the flag of the Kingdom of Spire.
Inside the city wall, the fields and pastures were replaced with tightly packed stone houses and paved streets. The houses became larger and more ornate and the streets busier with traffic the closer you got to the top of the mountain until, near the very top, they butted up against a second wall, the wall of castle Selestria. The castle sat atop the peak of the mountain like a shining crown. It appeared as if the battlements and watchtowers had grown out of the mountain itself. And in a way they had. Like the city wall, castle Selestria had been built centuries ago from mountain stone, laboriously carved and carted up the mountainside from quarries below. The highest towers and spires of the castle were often lost in the clouds, and on cloudy days you could see nothing but mist and fog from their windows. On sunny days, you could see all of the Kingdom of Spire.
Tak headed straight for the castle’s main dock. No sooner did he get within sight of the castle walls, however, than a four-man sentry ship intercepted him. It shot straight at him, forcing him to veer off course and slow down. Two sentries stood on the foredeck with nocked arrows, although their bows were not drawn. “Tak Spinner!” the sentry leader called, “By wind and weather you turn that ship around this instant! We’ll have none of your blasted games today!”
Tak and the Arrow were as familiar to castle sentries as they were to lookouts of the royal fleet. On summer afternoons when there were no lessons, and he grew bored with the races and games the other boys were playing, and there weren’t any girls to show off for, Tak enjoyed playing a little game he called “testing sentry responsiveness.” This involved buzzing the castle walls and taunting the sentries into a chase. Sometimes they caught Tak. Mostly they didn’t.
The sentries weren’t nearly as fond of this game as Tak was.
Tak slowed his ship to a crawl, let it drift closer to the sentry ship. “Help!” he called. “The Vigilance has been destroyed! I have an injured man here!” Tak’s voice had only recently deepened into that of a man’s, and it cracked wildly in his excitement.
The sentry leader frowned. “What new game is this…?” he muttered. But he could see the crumpled form of a man in a blue airman’s uniform on the deck of the Arrow. The sentry ship edged alongside the Arrow. The leader boarded Tak’s ship, which rocked briefly with the extra weight. He knelt down next to the airman.
“What in the heavens?!” the leader exclaimed when he saw the state of the injured man. “What happened here?”
Tak tried to explain. But the words came out all in a jumble and refused to make sense. On top of that, his voice was still cracking and his body shook.
“Okay, take it easy boy,” the sentry leader said, laying a hand on Tak’s shoulder. “We’ll get this sorted out.” Another sentry ship had pulled up alongside the first, and the man shouted to it, “A surgeon! We need a surgeon on the double!” The men on that ship nodded in acknowledgement of the order. The ship made a graceful dip, turned, and glided away.
The man Tak had rescued started to stir. He gripped the arm of the sentry leader and pulled himself partly up. He struggled to speak. At this moment, both Tak and the sentry noticed something about the man they hadn’t before. His shoulder epaulets, which bore his insignia of rank, had survived the fire more or less intact. The insignia was that of four golden feathers.
It was the insignia of a battleship captain. The man was Captain Adamus Strake.
“The King,” he sputtered. “Take me to the King. Now.”
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