By Katie Sullivan (a.k.a. Snowfur)
It was just after sunset. Increasingly high waves battered the Waveworm and the wind had risen to an eerie whine. The ship's sails flapped and billowed in the gale, and sea spray filled the air, soaking everything in the open. Romsca hurried from her cabin, weaving with practiced ease to stay upright on the swaying deck. "What's going on?" she shouted above the wind to the searat at the helm.
The rat struggled to keep the ship on course. "We've sailed into a whalloper of a storm, Cap'n!" he yelled, his sinewy arms straining at the wheel.
"I can see that, addle-brain!" Romsca shouted back. "Why didn't you sail around it?"
"It came up in an awful hurry, Cap'n. There wasn't time," the helmsrat replied.
Another searat came running toward them, stumbling as the deck moved beneath his paws. He was young, and this was his first long sea voyage. His greenish eyes were tinged with fear. "Cap'n!" he said desperately, his voice a high squeak of terror.
"What now?" Romsca asked grouchily, turning to the trembling rat.
"Cap'n, we're taking on water!" he squeaked, wringing his paws in worry.
"Show me," she said quickly, rushing after the rat as he headed below decks.
They jogged down the stairs into the lowest level of the ship. Heavy barrels full of seaweed grog and water lined the walls. A flickering lantern hung from the ceiling. It swayed along with the ship, casting moving, grotesque shadows against the timbers. "See, Cap'n," said the young rat, his whiskers trembling with fright. He pointed a shaky claw at the brackish water that lay on the floor.
Romsca blinked in astonishment at the rat's stupidity.
Searching his leader's face for emotion, the rat said timidly, "It's bad, isn't it, Cap'n? We're all gonna die, ain't we?"
Romsca bonked the young rat playfully on the head and lowered herself into a sitting position on the stairs. "Thintail, sit down."
"Yes, Cap'n," said the rat, instantly obeying. He looked like his knees were about to give out on him, anyway.
"Thintail, that's bilgewater."
"What's that?" he asked dumbly.
"Bilgewater is...just bilgewater. It's supposed to be there. I've never been in a ship that doesn't have it."
"You're not just saying that to make me feel better about drownin' and all, are you?"
"Gosh. Thanks, Cap'n. I sure was worried. I didn't want to drown on my first voyage." Thintail wiped perspiration from his brow with a still shaky paw. A look of new terror crossed his young face. "You ain't gonna tell anyone about this, are yer, Cap'n?" he asked falteringly.
"It can be our little secret, Thintail," Romsca said, stifling a laugh at the quivering, inexperienced searat.
"Thanks, Cap'n. Thanks a million. Yer a real matey."
She gave a rare smile. "If you don't mention it, I won't mention your mistake." No need to let the crew think she was going soft, she reasoned.
"Sure thing, Cap'n. You can count on me!" Thintail gave an awkward but heartfelt salute.
"Now get on with yer. There's work to be done."
"Yes, ma'am!" Thintail said eagerly, scrambling to his feet and dashing up the swaying staircase to the deck.
Shaking her head with reluctant fondness, Romsca returned to the surface. There was a ship to be battened down, and they were still two days out from Sampetra.
Story © 1997 Katie Sullivan, revised 2003
Redwall characters © Brian Jacques
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