|Pam Brophy, (Wiki.)|
Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from a work in progress and is subject to change, revision, retitling, etc.
“Two miles, sire. Ah—maybe a bit less.”
The captain’s voice carried the length of the ship. A quick mutter went through the men before their serjeants settled them down again.
“All right. I’d better get ready.”
“No, Kann. You have your orders.”
In the event of disaster there would be, must be, leadership that would be obeyed.
Kann didn’t argue, knowing it would only irritate his king at a time when Lowren needed all his wits about him. That’s not to say he didn’t have a peculiar look on his face as they quickly grasped hands and Theo stepped in for a quick hero’s kiss.
“You’ve got a fine lady there, my friend. My brother.”
It was true. Theo had quickly become a part of Lowren’s extended family, and he had somehow drawn closer to Kann as well. Lowren had been at a loss for words, and yet he was still hoping that somehow they would know what he felt.
Kann couldn’t speak.
Theo looked upon him with shining, frightened and yet wondering eyes.
He gave them a quick nod, closing down his thoughts and his fears for the future. He turned away.
Lowren dropped carefully down the steeply-angled short ladder to the duckboards below the helm.
There were soldiers here too.
The one on the right handed him his helmet. The one on the left had his sword and buckler, displaying Lowren’s arms of a golden eagle on a black field. Everyone else was ready and with their weapons and equipment in good order.
He heard a voice up above.
“One mile, sire. Our fire-ships are about to engage.”
Lowren raised his voice.
There was not a moment’s hesitation.
He didn’t care who heard him now. With men slapping him on the arms, slapping him on the butt, slapping him on the back, he stumbled and lurched to the front of the ship with the two young soldiers right behind. A ragged babble came from off to the right and there was the sound of booms coming down and oars hitting the water. Men were shouting to the right and from up ahead now as someone up on the battlements caught on.
“All set to go, sire.”
He grabbed a man.
“Out of the way, son.”
The fellow snarled at him, but then saw who it was and hurriedly dropped his case.
“It’s all right, boy. You’ll get your chance some day.”
“Yes, my King!” The kid had tears in his eyes...
“Half a mile, sire!” The captain meant to be heard.
“Who are we?” His voice rang out into the night, and the first echo of it was coming back from the hard walls ahead of them, when the stunned troops around him recovered from the shock.
“We are the soldiers of Lemni!”
Off in the distance came snatches of song and the clearly made out word Heloi!
Similar calls and battle-cries came from behind and all around them now as the men on the fire-ships, the bravest of the brave, gave it their all.
Torn on the wind, there were further shouts from the ships behind. There was a commotion off to the left, as the first fire-ship rammed itself into a fat merchantman and the two ships, one big and one ridiculously small, shuddered in a death grip. It would be an uneven battle...
The wind was gone and all of a sudden the captain was barking orders.
The men on the oars dropped them into the water and threw their backs into it. The mate and a trio of boys dropped the boom. The sail settled over the heads of a few oarsmen in the centre of the boat and the ship slowed as if confused.
There were curses and shouts all around now as they struggled to get the sail and mast stowed, or at least out of the way. The rowers were trying to keep time as one of them shouted out a song of defiance and Lowren took one last look.
There was the captain, there was the helmsman clinging desperately to his rudder, white and pale in the face, with the predawn light or perhaps the angle making him seem bigger than he was.
Theodelinda was staring up at the tall stone walls of Sinopus, practically hanging over their heads, clinging to the captain’s arm. Kann was in front of the mast now, directing someone on the ballista. They had it elevated and pointed at a guard tower just to port of their bow. A boy struck flint and steel expertly. He lit a brand and as it blazed up, touched it to the point of the projectile. They were all fully exposed now in its lurid light.
“Hey! Wake up in there!” Kann’s eyes and teeth gleamed and the other man yanked the lanyard as the boy ducked away.
“Ten pieces for the lad! You have the honor, son!”
There was a loud spanking sound as the spring-catch was tripped and a heavy javelin hummed away, to twang off of the highest of the battlements.
The second of the fire-ships hit home and grappling hooks were tossed, the ships were pulled in close, the ropes were tightened and tied off.
Men were yelling and screaming and jumping overboard from the first victim already—it was a seaman’s worst nightmare, a fire at sea. There were many slaves below decks, and many a man that had been impressed into service against their better sense. More than one would fight half-heartedly, or so they felt reasonably assured...
Orange blossomed and the harbor lit up on the instant. There were a few fires going now.
The harbor was unprotected by a chain. It had been dislodged by the Horde themselves, and the city’s engineers had pronounced it unsalvageable before the spring. Spring had sprung, but they hadn’t made any sort of a start at it, as spies had revealed. It was amazing, literally amazing what a few gold pieces and a little hate could do for a liberator. This was especially true if the right people knew you were coming and could keep a secret. The sort of people, who once bought, stayed bought. They had a plan to overcome any chains, of course, but this was almost looking too easy.
An agonized glance revealed the hot and predatory shapes of more fire-vessels coming into view, the glare lighting up their sails and forepeaks and the small golden glow-worms in the mizzen-decks foreshadowing an ugly fate for any ship they managed to entangle. Even as he watched, the fires in the midsections flared higher. The shapes of men dropping into the boats were perhaps more sensed than actually seen...
“A hundred yards.”
Something hissed past the gunwale and plunked into the cold, dark surf. Another hit the deck and someone jumped in their surprise.
There were heads bobbing around on the top of the wall.
Bows bent, they were ready and waiting for the order.
The men all around Lowren began emptying their quivers of arrows, swords in their scabbards and bucklers handily lined up along the inner gunwales.
The twang of the bowstrings and the thrum of arrows and quarrels filled the air in pulsing waves.
“Ladder—ladder.” Four men dropped their bows and began shoving it upwards, desperately trying to clear the obstruction of the stem and its dragon-head decoration. “More men! More men!”
Lowren was almost blinded by something in his eyes, a suspicious moisture that spurted when he heard Kann and Theodelinda calling his name and the name of his country. He used his free left hand to guide the ladder past his head. They got it to the upright position as a total of six husky soldiers sweated and cursed and others yanked ropes and lines out of the way. They had it up vertical and one man looked at him...
“Go! Go! Go!” The captain was yelling and the men were cussing and with a crunch the ship ran aground a good twenty feet before the base of the walls. She only got a little further. The bows lifted and that was all.
The battlements were about twenty feet high along this part of the shoreline, fronted by a small, steeply sloping beach of gravel and dead seaweed.
It was high tide and this was as close as they were going to get...
The bow sat with her nose on the gravel and the men, not unnaturally, were hesitant to let the ladder fall down. It would be impossible to recover.
“Ladder! Ladder! Damn it, I need the ladder.”
Run hard ashore as they were, there was nothing for it but to let it drop...
The ladder fell forward, and Lowren could hear men’s voices and running feet and the clink of weapons and steel up above. Someone pounded him on the back. It was a sublime moment when he realized the ship was almost silent and the men up above shouting in pure consternation, looking out at the harbor and yelling their fool heads off. The ladder leaned crazily upwards, slanting slightly to the right but oh, well.
“I’m right here, sire!”
“Good for you, son. Good for you! Lowren comes! Lowren is coming! Prepare to die, you wretched foes, for Lowren himself now comes this way!”
Gripping his sword in his right hand, and with his small round buckler pulled hard on its strap as far as he could up the left arm, Lowren took the rung strongly in his left hand and carefully with the fingertips of his right hand. With the sword gleaming in front of his face in its rhythmic movement, Lowren, King of the Lemni began to climb.
The archers focused their efforts on the battlements at the head of the ladder, with the clinks and snaps of hard maple arrows hitting and throwing sparks from their steel heads as he came to the last few rungs. The walls were three or four feet thick and enemy troops from one or two firing positions over would never be able to shoot at the top of the ladder. The ladder was a foot and a half short. If the boat had hit a little farther out, it would have been a damned difficult climb to get up and over. As it was, they were lucky.
The sounds of men shouting orders and observations from right in front of him, and the gleam of weapons was all he needed to know. He paused, hunkering there, and another volley of arrows smashed into the cold white stones of the crenellation he was aiming for. His ladder was just short, and there was no way for them to know it was there, if not for the ship below. They seemed rather reluctant to stick a head out and have a proper look...
Someone up there screamed, mostly in fright, as an arrow bounced off the inside of the firing slot and went on, eventually to strike home somewhere off in the distance even as another volley was loosed upon the slot.
A glance to the right showed at least three ships, tucked right in against the walls, each a hundred feet apart, and Lowren picked out at least one man almost as high up a ladder as he was. Even as he watched, another ladder went up...shouts and cheers came on the light morning breeze.
The sun was just breaking the horizon and the tag end of the columns were lit up, standing out in stark relief against the unbroken green of the hills straggling off to the southwest.
There was a whole line of ships coming in and his heart exulted in the madness of their success so far.
There was no going back down, as the ladder heaved under him from more troops, eager to get to grips with the enemy.
It’s probably that damned kid again.
What kind of example is this...???
He waved his sword, shrugged his buckler down into position, exhaled and sucked in cold, clean air. His powerful upper legs, all trembling in the knees as he was, forced him up over the edge and into the clear view of the man right there.
The man had his shield up, he had his head down, and yet he was still peeking around the corner of the big stones, trying to get another look at the ships and the situation below. He was also blinded by the glare of the now roaring fires off to his immediate right.
“Oh! Ah! Ye Gods.” The fellow reared up and back as Lowren gave one final kick, hoping the ladder didn’t fall and that he didn’t follow it.
He was up on the wall and there was no going back now.
“Here I stand. I is I, Lowren, King of the Lemni!” He jumped at the dim paving stones below.
The man was backing up and heading to the left as fast as he could go; and it was a long drop to the ground below.
The walkway was a good eight feet wide. Spinning in place, Lowren saw it with a corner of his awareness.
He kept the wall as close to his left as he could, even then hearing more feet drop over the wall fifty or a hundred yards further down the wall to the southeast. The man pulled and yanked and finally cleared his sword, backing up all the way.
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