The eastern horizon had turned gray, and the six figures who came onto the beach looked like dark shadows in the gloom.
"Wait," hissed Tewer, "we don't want to shoot until they're right opposite us on the shore."
He could see both girls shaking from the corner of his eyes, but he could do nothing about it. He tried to remember they had never fought before—they had spent all their lives sheltered behind high walls and strong men. Then he decided he could do something about it after all...maybe.
"Keep steady, my brave girls," he said softly, "you seized your chance when it came, and never gave up. You won't give up now. Aim true!"
They still shook, so he didn't know whether he'd helped or not, but he'd done the only thing he could think of. The pirates came nearer, slowly and warily, and Tewer smiled to himself. They weren't wary enough. They stopped for a moment around the dead man, then turned towards the ship. They were still about seventy yards away, well within range, but Tewer wanted them closer.
"If they stay that far away, aim for the group," he whispered, "we'll just take our chances. We want them closer, right at the edge of the water."
The pirates appeared to be discussing something, and Tewer began to shake too. The tension grew, and he really wished they'd get on with it. The waiting seemed unbearable, and as he willed himself to calm down, he heard Darah's taking a deep, stuttering breath.
"Not yet," he hissed, and turned slightly so he could see her. She nodded, trembling, and he smiled. "I know," he whispered, "the waiting is terrible!"
"I wish they'd hurry up," Nimianne breathed.
"Take some deep breaths," said Tewer, "Krasten always said deep breaths steady you."
"I read something about that," said Nimianne, "when you breathe in air, which is a chaotic element, your body breaks it into gasses, which are lawful. The gas that plants breathe comes out of you when you breathe out, and the gas that we need stays in. Plants take in chaotic air and keep their gas and breathe out ours. The author called it a symbiotic relationship between animals and plants."
"Very helpful," said Tewer, "thank you for the lesson. Maybe someday you can tell me what sim-be-a-tick means..
All three began to laugh as quietly as possible, and Tewer felt a great sense of relief. Laughing broke tension like nothing else.
At that moment the pirates began walking towards the ship, stopping right on the shore, but spread out. At the center stood Captain Rask, his arm in a sling, his black brigandine glinting a little in the dawn light. He had three pirates on either side, all about four or five feet apart. Rask remained no fool.
"Ho, Tewer," called Rask, "you lied to me."
Tewer said nothing, but took another deep breath.
"Ready?" Both girls whispered assent, and he let out his breath slowly. "Loose!"
Three bolts sped downward and two pirates dropped, one on the far right and one on the far left. To his astonishment Tewer himself had missed! His quarrel stood out from the shoulder-plate of Rask's armor, but had not harmed the pirate captain. The other pirates raced for the woods as Tewer brought another quarrel to bear, but his second shot missed as well, slamming into the sand between Rask's running feet.
"I can't believe it," he said aloud, "what the darrow happened?"
"We have more shots, though," said Nimianne, "would you span this for me?"
Tewer spanned the four crossbows they had used, and grumbled wordlessly.
"Damned pirate is charmed," he muttered finally.
"It's not like you missed," said Darah, "he wasn't standing still, unlike the others. He kept jerking around."
"I know," said Tewer, "but it still rankles." He scanned the whole of the beach, then sighed. "Doesn't matter. Nimi, you twist around a bit until you're down in the corner," he said, "I'll take this upper corner, and Darah, you keep watching the water and beach farther off. They know they have to be sneaky, now, so they might appear anywhere. Keep a watch on those rocks especially, Nimi," he pointed. "And Darah, you watch the water over by that cliff, and those rocks there." He pointed to a group of rocks not a hundred feet away. A man couldn't throw a knife so far, most of the time, but a boarding axe, maybe.
"We should get down from here," Tewer said, after they had waited for many minutes without seeing any sign of the pirates, "we don't have any water, and this may take hours." The sun hung a good handspan above the horizon, and it had begun to feel warm.
"I'll stay up here," said Nimianne, "since I think they're most likely to try this way."
"You're probably right," said Tewer. "We'll leave you four crossbows, so you can keep shooting. I'll rig this rope so we can send up some food and water for you too." He lowered two of the crossbows and two spears while Darah descended, and he followed her a moment later, making sure he could sway up a bundle for Nimianne.
Setting Darah to watch the rear of the ship, including the entrance into the cove, Tewer gathered up some food and water, bundled it up, and added a large cloth to keep Nimianne out of the sun. He hoisted the bundle up to her, and explained softly how to set up the cloth. She called out her thanks, and he got some food for Darah as well, then settled down in the prow, crossbows close to hand, watching the whole shore while he chewed on some dried beef.
Hours passed, and he could hear the sounds of trees being felled and an occasional shout, but nothing else. He wondered what they hoped to build, and what could possibly help them. A raft would leave them exposed to the crossbows, and if they built a raft with a shelter it would be too heavy to move. He looked again at the three dead men that lay on the shore and smiled to himself.
"I should mention," he called, "that I'm not the only slayer on this ship now!"
He didn't know if it would help, but to his surprise he heard Nimianne weeping softly high above him. He shouldn't have brought it up, maybe, but he had given up trying to understand how the girls would react, or at least, why they did what they did. He could guess at some of their reactions, but why they acted the way they did remained a mystery.
He saw movement at last, but only for a moment as a pirate darted between two trees, looked at the ship, and then vanished back into the forest.
"Scout," said Tewer, "just looked us over. They'll be coming."
"Do you want me to move?" Darah's soft call sounded almost like a man's as she pitched her voice as low as she could.
"No," said Tewer, "wait there for now, you can reach me in a second or two if you must."
"I'm ready," said Nimianne, in her lowest voice as well.
"Didn't mean to upset you, when I said you're now slayers," said Tewer, "but remember what it means. You shot true, and you can do it again. Be ready!"
"Tewer," came a shout from the forest. It was Rask. "I liked you, boy! Too bad you had to betray me."
"Right," said Tewer, "you would've let me keep the ship if you knew I had it. You would've cut my throat."
"Still going to," boomed Rask, "we'll tie you to the mast and make you watch while we rape your little friends."
"More fool you," said Tewer, "I've killed ten men, and my mates have killed two more. You've only got five left, Rask, including you, and you're hurt. Run away."
Rask cursed, long and loud, and Tewer, looked around carefully, knowing the man had to be goading him for a reason. Then he heard the snap of a crossbow and looked west. Nimianne had only wounded the pirate as he crept along the ridge, but he retreated at once, favoring his left leg.
"Good shot, Nimi," he called softly.
"Didn't kill him, though," she replied.
"Wounded men aren't as brave," said Tewer, "and that means they've only got three able-bodied men now."
"More than we have," said Nimianne with a laugh.
"I'll take the two of you over them any day," said Tewer.
He heard a good deal more cursing in the forest, and then two men ran out onto the beach, dragging a raft–a raft with a sturdy shield built onto the front of it.