A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 38

Coris had never heard of something a native of Old Terra would have called a “hydrofoil,” but in many respects, that would have been a reasonable analogue for what he was looking at. Hornet’s outriggers extended much further beyond the footprint of her hull, because unlike a hydrofoil, they had to plane across the surface of the ice, rather than relying on hydrodynamics for stability. Aside from that, however, the principle was very much the same, and as he’d looked at the iceboat’s lean, rakish grace, he’d realized Hahlys Tannyr was exactly the right sort of man to captain such a vessel. In his case, at least, the Church had slipped a round peg neatly into an equally round hole, and Coris had found himself wondering just how typical of the Lake Pei iceboat captains Tannyr truly was.

The under-priest’s pride in his command had been readily apparent, and the earl’s obvious admiration — or awe, at least — had clearly gratified him. His crew’s cheerfulness at seeing him had also been apparent, and they’d gotten Coris, Seablanket, and their baggage moved aboard and settled quickly.

“The wind looks good for a fast passage, My Lord,” Tannyr had told him as the two of them stood on Hornet’s deck, looking out across the frozen harbor. Despite the snow which had fallen overnight, wind had kept the ice scoured clear, and Coris had been able to see the scars of other iceboats’ passages leading across the wide, dark sheet of ice and out through the opening in the Lakeview breakwater. At the moment, there had seemed to be very little breeze stirring at dockside, however, and he’d quirked an eyebrow at the under-priest.

“Oh, I know there’s not much wind right here,” Tannyr had replied with a grin. “Out beyond the breakwater, though, once we get out of Lakeview’s lee . . . Trust me, My Lord — there’s plenty of wind out there!”

“I’m quite prepared to believe it,” Coris had replied. “But just how do we get from here to there?”

“Courtesy of those, My Lord.” Tannyr had waved a hand, and when Coris turned in the indicated direction, he’d seen a team of at least thirty snow lizards headed for them. “They’ll tow us out far enough to catch the breeze,” Tannyr had said confidently. “It’ll seem like that takes forever, but once we do, I promise, you’ll think we’re flying.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Now, remembering the under-priest’s promise, Coris decided Tannyr had been right.

The earl had declined Tannyr’s offer to go below to the shelter of Hornet’s day cabin. He’d thought he’d seen approval for his decision in the under-priest’s eyes, and Tannyr had entrusted him to the charge of a grizzled old seaman — or was that properly “iceman,” Coris had wondered? — with instructions to find the earl a safe spot from which to experience the journey.

The “tow” away from the docks hadn’t been nearly as laborious-seeming an affair as Tannyr’s description might have suggested. That could have been because Coris had never before experienced it and so had no backlog of wonder-dulling familiarity to overcome. Unlike Tannyr and his crew, he’d been seeing it for the very first time, and he’d watched in fascination as the snow lizards were jockeyed into position. It had been obvious the lizards had done this many times before. They and their drovers had moved with a combination of smooth experience and patience, and heavy chains and locking pins had clanked musically behind the frothing surface of commands and encouragement as the heavy traces were attached to specialized towing brackets on Hornet’s prow. Given the complexity of the task, they’d accomplished it in a remarkably short time, and then — encouraged by much louder shouts — the snow lizards had leaned into their collars with the peculiar, hoarse, almost barking whistles of effort with which Coris had become familiar over the last month or so. For a moment, the iceboat had refused to move. Then the runners had broken free of the ice and she’d begun to slide gracefully after the straining snow lizards.

Once they’d had her in motion, she’d moved easily enough, and as they’d eased steadily away from the docks, Coris had felt the first, icy fingers of the freshening breeze which Tannyr had promised waited for them out on the lake. It had taken them the better part of three-quarters of an hour to get far enough out to satisfy Tannyr, but then the snow lizards had been unhooked, the senior drover had waved cheerfully, and the tow team had headed back to Lakeview.

Coris had watched them go, but only until crisp-voiced commands from the cramped quarterdeck had sent Hornet’s crew to their stations for making sail. The closer-to-hand fascination of those preparations had drawn his attention away from the departing snow lizards, and he’d watched as the iceboat’s lateen sail was loosed. In some ways, his familiarity with conventional ships had only made the process even more bizarre. Despite the fact that his brain knew there were probably hundreds of feet of water underneath them, he hadn’t been able to shake the sense of standing on dry land, and there’d been an oddly dreamlike quality to watching sailors scurrying about a ship’s deck when the gleaming ice had stretched out as far as the eye could see with rock-steady solidity.

But if he’d felt that way, he’d obviously been the only one on Hornet’s deck who did. Or perhaps the others had simply been too busy to worry about such fanciful impressions. And they’d certainly known their business. That much had been clear as the sail was loosed. The canvas had complained, flapping heavily in the stiff breeze whistling across the decks, and Hornet had stirred underfoot, as if the iceboat were shivering with eagerness. Then the sail had been sheeted home, the yard had been trimmed, and she’d begun to move.

Slowly, at first, with a peculiar grating and yet sibilant sound from her runners. The motion underfoot had been strange, vibrating through the deck planking with a strength and a . . . hardness Coris had never experienced aboard any waterborne vessel. That wasn’t exactly the right way to describe it, but Coris hadn’t been able to think of a better one, and he’d reached out, touching the rail, feeling that same vibration shivering throughout the vessel’s entire fabric and dancing gently in his own bones.

The iceboat had gathered way slowly, in the beginning, but as she’d slid steadily farther out of Lakeview’s wind shadow, she’d begun to accelerate steadily. More quickly, in fact, than any galley or galleon, and Coris had felt his lips pursing in sudden understanding. He should have thought of it before, he’d realized, when Tannyr first described Hornet’s speed to him. On her runners, the iceboat avoided the enormous drag water resistance imposed on a normal ship’s submerged hull. Of course she accelerated more rapidly . . . and without that selfsame drag, she’d have to be much faster in any given set of wind conditions.

Which was exactly what she’d proven to be.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Enjoying yourself, My Lord?”

Hahlys Tannyr had to practically bellow in Coris’ ear for the question to be heard over the slithering roar of the runners. Coris hadn’t noticed him approaching — he’d been too busy staring ahead, clinging to the rail while his eyes sparkled with delight — and he turned quickly to meet Hornet’s captain’s gaze.

“Oh, I certainly am, Father!” the earl shouted back. “I’m afraid I didn’t really believe you when you told me how fast she was! She must be doing — what? Forty miles an hour?”

“Not in this wind, My Lord.” Tannyr shook his head. “She’s fast, but it would take at least a full gale to move her that quickly! We might be making thirty, though.”

Coris had no choice but to take the under-priest’s word for it. And, he admitted, he himself had no experience at judging speeds this great.

“I’m surprised it doesn’t feel even colder than it does!” he commented, and Tannyr had smiled.

“We’re sailing with the wind, My Lord. That reduces the apparent wind speed across the deck a lot. Trust me, if we were beating up to windward, you’d feel it then!”

“No doubt I would.” The earl shook his head. “And I’ll take your word for our speed. But I never imagined that anything could move this quickly — especially across a solid surface like this!”

“It helps that the ice is as smooth as it is out here,” Tannyr replied.

He waved one arm, indicating the ice around them, then pointed at yet another of the flagstaffs, all set upright in the lake’s frozen surface and supporting flags of one color or another, which Horent had been passing at regular intervals since leaving Lakeside.

“See that?” he asked, and the earl nodded. This particular staff boasted a green flag, and Tannyr grinned. “Green indicates smooth ice ahead, My Lord,” he said. “Only a fool trusts the flags completely — that’s why we keep a good lookout.” He twitched his head at a distinctly frozen-looking man perched in Hornet’s crow’s-nest. “Still, the survey crews do a good job of keeping the flags updated. We should see yellow warning flags well before we come up on ridge-ice, and the ridges themselves will be red-flagged. And the flags also provide our piloting marks — like harbor buoys — for the crossing.”

“How in Langhorne’s name do they get the flags planted in the first place?” Coris half-shouted the question through the exuberant roar of their passage, and Tannyr’s grin grew even broader.

“Not too hard, really, once the ice sets up nice and hard, My Lord! They just chop a hole, stand the staff in it, then let it re-freeze!”

“But how do they keep the staff from just keeping going right down into the water?”

“It sits in a hollow bracket with crossbars,” Tannyr replied, waving his hands as if to illustrate what he was saying. “The brackets are iron, about three feet tall, with two pairs of crossbars, set at right angles about half way along their length. They bars are a lot longer than the width of the hole, and they sit on top of the ice, holding the bracket in position while the hole freezes back over. Then they just step the flagstaff in the bracket. When we get closer to spring, they’ll buoy each bracket to keep it from sinking when the ice melts, so they can recover them and use them again next winter.”

Coris nodded in understanding, and the two of them stood side by side for several minutes, watching the ice blur past as Hornet slashed onward. Then Tannyr stirred.

“Assuming my speed estimate’s accurate — and I modestly admit that I’m actually very good at estimating that sort of thing, My Lord — we’re still a good eleven or twelve hours out from Zion,” he said. “Normally, I’d be guessing even longer than that, but the weather’s clear, and we’ll have a full moon tonight, so we’re not going to have to reduce speed as much when we lose the daylight. But while I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself up here, you might want to think about going below and getting something hot to drink. To be honest, I’d really like to get you delivered unfrozen, and we’ll be coming up on lunch in another couple of hours, as well, for that matter.”

“I’d prefer arriving unfrozen myself, I think,” Coris replied. “But I’d really hate to miss any of this!”

He waved both arms, indicating the sunlight, the deck around them, the mast with its straining sail braced sharply, and the glittering ice chips showering away from the steadily grating runners as they tore through the bright (although undeniably icy) morning.

“I know. And I’m not trying to order you below, My Lord!” Tannyr laughed out loud. “To be honest, I’d be a bit hypocritical if I did, given how much I enjoy it up here on deck! But you might want to be thinking ahead. And don’t forget, you’ve got a full day of this to look forward to. Believe me, if you think it’s exhilarating right now, wait till you see it by moonlight!”