The Baron's Old Fleet


Many years ago, the Baron of Inselberg was born in Alexa. His family, the hereditary rulers of the faraway town of Inselberg, had lived in Alexa for generations; it was a fashionable place to be émigré nobility, and little remained for them in the quiet old country.

Royal titles did not hold as much weight, there in old Drumlind, as they used to. There was no Society, not anymore. Just village people, in village halls, drinking pints of village hops.

So the family stayed in Alexa. The Baron was raised on Cirwellan Wine and tomato pie, on great literature and great schoolyard pranks. He wasn't a pleasant child, or a reverent child, or a mindful child, but he was clever, and charismatic, and altogether a product of his upbringing.

When the Baron turned 20, he went to Inselberg for the first time. Ostensibly, to see his dear great aunt, but what he actually saw was opportunity.

Inselberg was perfect. An unplanted seed, an unwound spring, a ripe, low-hanging pear. It sat at the mouth of the Dun River Valley, around a stark and solitary knoll, the perfect perch for a castle. The Dun, there, fed into the tideless and bountiful Auburn Sea, where the whitefish and trout almost jumped into nets, where blueberries erupted on pillowy granite islands and trees leaned right down to the water's edge, where moose and mink and black bear and beaver lived unbothered and free. The low plains around up the Dun were wide and flat and fertile, and the Wencewood had all the lumber one would ever need.

But the town had problems. The folk there had grown satisfied and lazy in the face of such bounty. The townspeople, it seemed, were afraid of provoking a band of so-called druids who lived nearby, in the Oxfoots, and so they had not built in a long time. Despite the perfect topography, there was no castle on the Elberknoll. There were crop-thieves and brigands in the Wencewood, and bully emissaries who came down from Dunwald, and, worst of all, nobody had any intention of doing anything about them.

The place needed a leader, a spine. It needed its identity back.

The Baron left Inselberg for Alexa, but Inselberg did not leave his mind. He hatched a plan.

He would return, bring settlers with him to bolster the town, craftspeople, skilled farmers, mercenaries. He'd clear out the brigands, tax trade on the Dun, build the castle the town deserved. There were improvements to be made.

Alexa had an affinity for royalty, and an affinity for populism, and the Baron had little trouble finding support in the Drumlish part of town. Return triumphant! Recover the Homeland! That sort of thing.

He bought a fleet of five ships to patrol the Auburn Sea and trade up and down the Dun. The largest he named the Coronet, for it was to be under his personal command. In the end, one hundred settlers packed their things and climbed aboard. There were couples, cows, children, cornseed, ailing elderly who wished one last time to see their place of birth. Some came for the spirit of adventure, others with a more imperial bent, to be bigger fish in a smaller pond. Most were lured by the bucolic promise of village life. The Baron wasn't picky.

On the 9th of October, at the receding of the tide, they left Alexa. They sailed through Elewir and round Arieth and into the brackish estuary of the River Aín, and after three weeks of slow, windless sailing they entered the Auburn Sea.

The Baron took them straight to Inselberg. They moored in the mouth of the Dun, and the Baron took a small party ashore: Kelt, the carpenter, whose grandparents lived in Burl; Tick, the tavern guard, whose great uncle was a farmer by the Dun; and Mingle, the baker, whose mother came from Inselberg.

They landed at the dock, and were greeted by a man with a large, floppy hat.

"Who is the leader of this town?" asked the Baron.

"Oh, we don't really need one of those," said the man with the large, floppy hat. "We get along fine, you know how it is."

"Well, who makes the decisions?"

The man with the large, floppy hat thought about that for a second. "We all do, I suppose."

"But who –"

"When there's a decision to be made, we all make it. Sometimes we talk about it, first." He shrugged. His hat shrugged with him. "Over there, in that longhouse." He pointed to a squat yellow barn with a thick thatch roof, overlooking the bank of the Dun.

"May I come to a meeting?"

"Tonight, yes? The farmers come into town when the moon is bright."

Mingle the baker looked at the moon, full in the southern sky.

"Yes," said the Baron. "We will come."

That night, the Baron and his landing party returned to the town. Kelt brought a woodsaw, Tick brought an iron-tipped spear, and Mingle brought a loaf of bread.

When they arrived at the longhouse it was glowing like the moon. The Baron flung open the door.

"Hello, people of Inselberg."

The room fell silent. There were two long, full tables down the whole of the house. A fire was crackling against the far wall. The man with the large, floppy hat was in the corner.

The Baron stooped under the dark, heavy beams in the ceiling.

"I am the Baron of Inselberg. My ancestors were lords of these lands, but our family has lived afar for many generations. Now, I have returned."

The townspeople stared back at him.

"I have come with many of your kin. We arrived, as you may have seen, in a fleet of five ships. We are skilled craftsmen, and farmers, and fighters." He turned to his companions. "We bring gifts."

Kelt and Tick and Mingle laid their woodsaw and spear and loaf of bread on the nearest table.

The room was silent. A woman shouted from the back, "we already have a saw!"

"And what do we need a pointy stick for?" asked a scruffy old man.

"We'll take the bread, though," said another. "Thank you for that."

A girl at the front of the room tore off a chunk of the bread and smiled at Mingle.

"We come," said the Baron, "to join your town. In exchange for your hospitality, my craftsmen will build and my farmers will farm and my fighters will defend. We need only beds and a warm hearth."

Another pause. Then, the man with the large, floppy hat spoke.

"We hardly have room for ourselves, here. I do not think we could accommodate all of… how many are you?"

"We are one hundred strong," said Tick.

The townsfolk murmured. "No," said the man with the large, floppy hat. "We cannot accommodate you."

"But we can help," said the Baron. "My craftsmen have skill. My mercenaries have arms. We will make this town thrive and grow. You will flourish."

"We are happy here. We have everything we need. We have company and warmth and fish in our nets and plenty to drink. Our harvest is full. We lack nothing."

"You are missing my point," said the Baron. "We can improve this place. Wealth from trade on the Dun. An end to the thieves and brigands. A castle on the hill."

"A castle for whom?" shouted a woman in the back.

"I was not aware we needed improvement," said the man with the large, floppy hat. A chorus of aye's around the room.

Tick burst out, "You are damning yourselves! My great uncle farms the banks of the Dun. I was here, as a child, and I saw rough men come from the woods and reap what my own kin sowed! Will you let yourself be robbed by thugs?"

"Who is your great uncle?" asked one of the villagers.

"His name is Yelner."

"I know him," said the scruffy old man who had rejected Tick's spear. "Those folk are not thugs. They are woodsmen. They live in the forest east of here. We invite them to come and to share in our harvest."

Tick was silent.

"Perhaps you should come back in the spring," said the man with the large, floppy hat. "We have little to share in the winter, but come spring we will have more for you."

"We don't need your help! We are offering ours!" said the Baron.

Mingle put a hand on the Baron's shoulder. "Come," she said. "You have done all you can, tonight."

He knew she was right. The townspeople watched them leave and watched the longhouse door swing shut behind them.

They walked alone back to the dock. Tick rowed the skiff back out to their mooring. His strokes were shallow and fast.

"We should go back," he said. "They'll be asleep soon. We don't need them."

"No," said the Baron, tired.

"We don't. They are weak. We have more men. We could simply replace them."

Mingle looked out at the moon on the water.

Eventually, she spoke. "We should go home, to Alexa. While the weather is fair."

"Not yet," said the Baron. They reached the mooring and he led them over the gunwale of the Coronet.

"Baron." A woman, her voice urgent, came up from the cabin. "One of the old ones. Someone's grandfather. He died when you were away."


"Below. Others are sick."

"Of what?"

"We don't know."

The four of them followed the woman down the narrow stairs.

"It has only effected the old ones, so far."

Several hammocks had been hung in the hold. They were each of them full, and dripping with fever.

The Baron approached them. One of them he knew, old man Say. His skin was pale and it looked like wax in the candlelight. He was not awake. His eyes were closed but his mouth was open, dry, softly gasping. His leg twitched.

"It is spreading?"

"Maybe," said the woman. "It is hard to tell."

The Baron reached out and put a hand on the old man's wrist. The old man grabbed the Baron's hand, tight. His expression did not change. His eyes did not open. He moved like an invisible weight was upon him.

The Baron pulled himself away. It had been a long night.

"We should keep to the Coronet, tonight," he said. "Until we know more. Come, let us find our cabins. We should not be here."


The night was cold. A high wind swept clouds across the stars, dark shadows on the darker water. A loon called, lonesome, eerie. Someone hadn't properly rolled the topsail, and it filled and flapped, lazy in the night air. A child cried on one of the other ships. The ailing in the hold made no sound, save the slow creaking of the hammocks.

Tick paced in his cabin.

It wasn't right. Here on the water, cold, while the simple townsfolk sat warm in their hall. Giving their bounty to brigands in the woods, with none to spare for their homecoming kin. None to spare for those that could actually make something of that town, that bungling.

It could all be theirs. One night. One fell swoop.

The Baron had a plan. To bide their time, to let the people of Inselberg warm to his words. As much as the Baron stood to gain from all of this, he wanted to be let in kindly, to be welcomed back.

That would happen eventually. Well, probably.

The Baron had ambition. He had charisma. But he lacked one thing. Guts, he had no guts.

Tick had guts. He wanted what he came for. And he knew there were others, here, that felt the same.

That's what happens when you don't sort your apples before you bring them to market. You feel good about the harvest, feel proud bringing a basket so heavy, but who knows how they taste.

The Baron might not have had the guts to finish the job, tonight, but he'd had the guts, in Alexa, to bring Tick here with him. And wasn't that the same thing?

It would only take a little fearmongering. Villagers scare easy. A fire, a bit of shouting, a – yes! A brigand-raid. The accent was easy enough, the rough behavior. Slaughter a chicken. Run like thieves with a barrel of beer.

He could rouse a few to help him. Some would surely scorn at the force, the nerve of the idea, but that would be mock dismay. These Drumlind folk weren't really kin, not after so many generations, not after refusing their help.

He could end this. Inselberg would have a Baron once more.

Why shouldn't he?

He threw on an overcoat and took a bottle of oil from his trunk. He opened the door to his cabin, quiet, and went up onto the deck. He drifted over to the side of the Coronet and climbed down onto the skiff. Then the oars were in his hands, and he was bobbing across the water.

Up the side of the Silver Moon, where he found Gallin and Rub and Hickle, bored, up for an outing. They rowed to the Sandy, woke Nickel and Funt. Both had spears. In the hold of the Fairwind, they roused Yolky and Wigbin and Rint, and on the Dear Linda they found Spink, wiry, bony, sharp-faced, who was picking his teeth with a dagger.

They were ten on the skiff, low in the water as Tick rowed them to shore.

Their brigander-accents were not as good as Tick had hoped. Hickle and Rint could do it well enough, so they would do the shouting. Tick would set a fire. The rest would steal and make noise.

They stepped up onto the dock. The men were tense. They did not speak. After a moment, they split up.

Spink had a tinder-box, so he went with Tick. They ran down the shore. Tick scanned the houses for an easy fire. Something small, an outbuilding. Nothing anybody would sleep in.

They passed the longhouse. "Hold," said Tick to Spink. He ran into the longhouse. Where was the beer? A small cask would do. He looked behind chairs, under the tables. There, at the back! Three little barrels, each the size of a newborn. He cradled one in his arms.

He heard a crackle outside. A holler. The others must have started.

He popped the bung from its hole and took a sip. It was a fine brew, thick and strong, a warmth between his ears.

Right. Onward.

He stopped the cask and held it under his arm and hit open the door. The warm breeze rushed inwards.


Spink was knelt under the eaves of the longhouse. He had something in his hands. Something bright.

Tick called his name but it was too late. The roof was ablaze.

He dropped the cask and ran to pull Spink from the flames. Spink turned back and smiled. "Set fire, boss," he said.

It was too late.

Tick grabbed the cask and smashed open the end and threw the beer onto the longhouse, but the fire had spread too much. The river was close. He ran to the water and filled the cask and threw the water onto the flames. The fire raged.

What had he done?

He grabbed Spink by his bones and started to run back along the shore.

The others were between the houses, pulling up fences and posts, throwing mud at front doors. He heard Hickle and Rint, somewhere, shouting. They had forgotten their accents.

He couldn't leave them. Could he?

Suddenly, they reached the dock. There was the skiff, softly bobbing.

He looked at Spink.

The rest of the men, the ones who could not do the brigander-accent at all, had begun to shout as well.

Were there also the voices of the townsfolk? Or was he imagining?

His head was pounding.

"Spink!" he yelled over the sound of his ears. "We have to go back, we have to get the rest." He sent Spink down one street, and Tick went down another. When the bony man was out of sight, Tick turned back to the dock and ran.

When he was almost to the skiff, he heard a door open. He turned. It was the farmer, the one who had rejected his spear. He looked dazed, looked up at the sky. Then their eyes met.

Tick ran. He jumped in the skiff, shoved off and rowed faster than he ever had before. He could see the whole town, like this, from the water. Lit up in brilliant orange. The longhouse was no more than a pile. He saw the men he had roused, running and hollering.

Were those his men? There were women, too. They looked older, and were dressed in long clothes, and carried knotted sticks.

He saw a sliver of a silhouette that could only be Spink, standing in the center of the road, backlit by the fire of a burning bale of hay. There was another shape, there, behind him. Spink turned, and jumped, and started to run, but he went nowhere, and his knees knobbled and cracked like branches and he lay still in the mud.

The skiff hit the stern of the Coronet. Tick swore. He threw the skiff's bowline over the gunwale and climbed up onto the Coronet and tied off the line where it had always been tied. He felt his bottle of oil, untouched, in his coat-pocket as he slipped soundlessly into his cabin.

The door clicked shut.


When Mingle awoke, the next morning, they seemed to be underway. Bound for home, she hoped, although she knew they were not.

Most of the folk that had followed the Baron here, they had come to escape the city. For a simple life in the valley of the Dun, walking the same roads their grandmothers did, smelling the same air. They wanted to settle.

There were some, however, that came for the thrill of it. The adventurers, the opportunists, the carpetbaggers. They were the ones who would go to great lengths to be big fish in this new, little pond. They were also the ones in charge.

"It was Tick's idea," said the Baron as he watched the shore and the overcast sky and Mingle ate breakfast. "To pull all the ships together like this, into a long flotilla. A more permanent arrangement." They were not, in fact, underway. The Baron coughed, dry and hoarse. "The town was raided by brigands, you know, in the night. Tick was awake, he saw them come. He thought we might do well to go ashore again today, and see if they might reconsider our help."

At noon they once again set off in the skiff. The Baron and Mingle went, as well as a mercenary named Karst, who had experience dealing with thieves. Tick was in his cabin, feeling unwell.

The man with the large, floppy hat stood on the dock. "You return," he said.

"Yes. We come once more to ask your welcome."

"I am a kind man. I try to be. But it is hard to be kind when your village has burned."

Mingle looked back at their ships, the wide flotilla.

"Now, you see," said the Baron. "What you stand to gain from us."

"Gain," said the man with the large, floppy hat.

"This town will prosper. It will have a castle, be a proper port. Protected from the wild people. You will have industry, wealth."

By then, other townsfolk had begun to join them on the dock. Some Mingle recognized. Others she did not. There were two, towards the back, who wore long animal skins and carried knobbly staves.

"There is so much to do, here," the Baron continued, speaking more to the town than its people. "This could be a city." He coughed. "Imagine. There is granite of plenty for great city walls, and miles of woodland to be felled for lumber. With pines like these you could have shipyards! Home-built ships bringing Drumlish grain and fish to the world. And berries, oh, what a fortune could be made from blueberries sold in Daggard."

The Baron coughed again. He dragged his fingers across his forehead. One of the pair with the animal skins had begun to work his way towards the front.

"You look unwell," said the man with the large, floppy hat to the Baron. "I think, for your own sake and ours, you ought to leave."

"And after the forests are cleared," said the Baron, "there isn't a place in the whole valley we could not build." He coughed. He did not seem to have heard the man. His forehead was pale and slick. "A castle on the Elberknoll, great stone bridges across the Dun, roads north and east to the Cauldron. Tax from travelers and merchants. A proper Society."

He looked to the low grey sky, deep in dreaming. He squinted as if the sky was full of sun.

The man with the knobbly staff wore a blackberry crown, and had what looked to be a tear of pine-sap hanging around his neck. He looked like a druid, if druids looked like they did in old stories. His eyes were dark and cloudy.

Mingle grabbed the Baron's arm, tried to pull him back to the skiff, but he would not move.

"A proper society! Balls and horse-races and a court of golden chandeliers. Fountains, cathedrals, great marble squares. A city such as that would need not a lord, but a king."

The Baron's voice was feverish. The townspeople had begun to back away from the dock. Karst stepped between the man-druid and the Baron. The druid stepped closer.

"Not a lord, but a king," said the Baron again.

Karst put up his arm, as if to stop the druid, and his arm suddenly snapped. Like a tree-branch in a thunderstorm. There was no blood. It looked a natural thing.

The Baron froze, as if one trance has been replaced by another. Then he coughed, sputtered. Like a clock out of time, he died.

The druid looked at Mingle. She could see that he wanted to strike her down, too. But he stopped.

He gestured to the ships.

He blew a cloud of pollen from the knotted end of his staff and it drifted out over the water towards the ships. Half a beat, and the pollen settled on the hulls and masts and spars of the ships. And there suddenly was a great wind and through a crack in the clouds sunlight landed on the ships.

The other druid had come to the end of the dock as well and she stood next to Mingle and they watched the water and the Baron's fleet. And then, suddenly, the ships remembered themselves.

It was like watching a pot of water break into a boil. The whole of the fleet gnarled tree-like together, roots between the hulls and burls on the bowsprits and moss like beards from the tattering sails. Orange lichen streaked across shears, strakes, and gunwale like dye through fabric. The masts and the spars grew twigs and branches which budded and burst into needles and leaves and long pine-cones.

Mingle watched in awe. It was everything she loved about being a baker. It was like watching bread rise, watching a thing become itself.

"Go," said the druid, and she went, alone in the little skiff, fighting the waves back to the ships.

As she rowed away from the dock, she watched the town recede, watched the morning light hit the rocky crown of the Elberknoll.

She could see the druids on the dock, sitting to droop their feet in the water, their staves laid down behind them.

And she could see, there on shore, the man with the large, floppy hat. It made him look like a puzzled dog, long eared, head tilted. She smiled, thinly, though she knew he could not see it.


That winter, the plague befell them.

All hopes of returning to shore one day had been dashed, but it was ok. Their little island, adrift in the Auburn Sea, was a fine place to be.

The sickness was rarely fatal. A few of the elderly died, and were buried in the sandy soil of islands they happened to pass, but mostly folk turned a pallid bluish-green, feverish, gaunt and brittle, and just stayed that way. The ill still did things, cooked and looked after each other. There was no escaping it.

As the months went by they learned to survive. Mingle became a sort of surrogate leader for the fleet. The brood-mother, as Tick called her. She cooked and she bathed and fed the bedridden, and roused others to do the same. At her word, the woodworkers made fishing rods and the weavers made nets, the brewers and medicine folk made draughts and salves to ease the fever. They built easy boardwalks in the branches between the ships, and little shelters in the eaves of the masts, and hung hammocks everywhere. They had plenty of fish, and from gardens in old logs they had lettuce and potatoes and onions and herbs. Even in winter, they were rarely hungry.

Tick stayed in his cabin, mostly. His mind was nearly gone. He asked her, once, in a lucid moment, if they might return to Alexa. Maybe, she said, though of course they could not.

Each year was much the same on the Baron's old fleet. They drifted with the wind and the currents, sometimes in sight of land, often not. A few would succumb to the fever, a few children would be born. The children of the fleet were strange in that they were not strange at all. They had the same sickness as everyone else, had the same blue pallidness of skin, but in the context of the sickness, like everyone else, they managed.

As the years went by, word spread of the fleet of the feverish. People who had always been knobbly and weak came to join them. Merchants came, in small boats, to throw up grain and cotton in exchange for carvings, dried fish, jewelry made of sap. From that grain Mingle began again to make bread, and she was happy.

Ten years after the Baron died, the first new ship came to join them. It was a hospital ship from Vaggah, in the Evening's Empire, constantly harassed by the people of that city, and so it came, sailed up the Aín to find the Baron's fleet. They tied off to what had once been the port side of the Fairwind, and months later the roots of the fleet had stretched out to meet it.

The people integrated in much the same way. Mingle was initially hesitant to welcome other illnesses aboard, but, as illnesses do, they spread whether they were welcomed or not, and it turned out ok. Like the fleet itself, the illness adjusted.

Even now, many years later, the Baron's old fleet is still adjusting, still drifting. Mingle is long gone, as is the rest of the first generation, but the traditions they started are strong, and the people, there, thrive. There is rain, and thunder, and snow in the winter, and waves, sometimes, to wash the masts, but always the fleet floats on, proud and strong, like a castle on a hill.