Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue
“Highness, you may wish to take cover.” Ptomamus said with a wry grin, hefting his oval shaped laminated shield. “Archers, take your mark!” Ahead of the Spear and slightly to one side one of the narrow, swift longboats was rapidly closing into bow range. Phil was well prepared, standing between the reassuringly massive frame of Rupert and the plotting table which was substantial in itself. He could hear the thin whistling hiss of arrows falling short of their mark as the enemy vessel engaged prematurely. On the forward castle the Spear’s small, but heavy, torsion ballista let loose with a rattling crash of wood, launching a heavy wooden spear tipped with iron at the foe. The shaft barely arched at all, flying on a swift, deadly course into the enemy ship’s bow just as it made a feinting turn. Screams issued from the stricken crew as the heavy shaft pierced the thin hull and rattled along the deck among the rowers. The longboat immediately stalled in the water and continued its turn on inertia as chaos erupted with crew attempting to dodge the last energies of the ballista shaft.
“Loose!” bellowed the marine commander. At the limits of their range the archers lofted a salvo of arrows high into the air. The injured ship responded to the incoming hail of steel tipped shafts, but only half-heartedly. A few shields were upraised just as the deadly rain of long shafts came down. Many fell short into the water or hammering into oars left floating untended. Some few found flesh with another rippling cry of stricken crew. A desultory response of arrows arced back toward the Spear but was met with a wall of shields and found no mark. “Rake her clean! Ware to port!”
The crew of the Spear rowed on, protected by a wall of sturdy shields against the broken assault of arrows lofted by the enemy crew. Another vessel closed opposite the first but abruptly burst into flame as a splash of searing fire crashed into it amidships from another ship in Phil’s fleet. The Singing Bird’s crew burst out in a raucous cheer as their first blow in the battle was stricken cleanly. Further down the line another Dromonai caught one of the enemy skirmishers attempting to cross it’s bow a moment too late. With a thunderous crack the heavy warship crushed the smaller ship’s bow, turning it across the Dromonai’s beam and then splitting it amidships. What crew that survived the impact attempted to board but were efficiently repelled by the Dromonai’s well trained crew of marines.
“Brace! Fire crews to the bow!” Phil heard the marine commander bellow from the main deck of the Spear and brought his attention back to their own situation. The burning longboat had turned abruptly attempting to escape the range of the Singing Bird’s forward projector, but that only brought it directly across the Spear’s bow. Phil felt the entire ship shudder from the impact and leaned forward with the resulting loss of forward speed. The impact had the same results; the longboat was sheered amidships by the Burning Spear’s bronze ram, the two halves rolling and spilling the screaming crew into the water where they continued to burn. Archers swiftly ended their cries and a small coterie of marines cast off those who attempted to scramble aboard. To either side the stricken remains of the doomed ships began to sink swiftly but the fire continued to burn, churning the water into which the broken hull sank. Black smoke boiled up from the depths and the driving wind swept it across the deck. Phil’s eyes watered at the oily acridness of it but he refused to look away. Men with buckets of fire sand moved along the deck pacing the ruin, ready to douse fires but other than a few singed oars no damage was sustained.
Throughout the one-sided battle the winged creatures wheeled overhead, occasionally making diving swipes but never low enough to be brought down by arrows. Even while they repelled the assault the ships kept an acute eye on the skies with archers ready to respond.
“That gave us a good softening up, aye Captain!” the marine commander whooped from the deck below with a leer. “Let the boys taste some blood, aye!”
“That’s just the hors d’oeuvres, Bethmaed, keep your eyes to the sky. Aramaes?”
“They’re coming into the forward line, Captain, shipping oars to slide through. Seven lengths. We shall be in projector range in moments.” Aramaes looked up at the creatures still circling in a ragged spiral several hundred feet above. “Wish those blasted beasts would make their play.”
“Fire crews to their posts! Charge the forward projector, aft projector stand ready!” Ptomamus called across his deck. From across the water Phil could hear the voices of other commanders, and the subsequent echo from their deck officers, giving similar orders. “Shield bearers make ready on the forecastle!” Phil moved out of the way as the specialized crewmembers filed up onto the aft castle and took up their posts at the heavy bronze projector. He started briefly at the strong hand that came down to clasp his shoulder. “Highness, I daresay that crossing of blades does not look to be your forte, but you’ve been touched by the dragon’s blessing. Could you master the aft projector?”
Phil looked from the captain to the heavy tube on its swivel, bronze gleaming with the polish of many loving hands. He noticed that the center man was missing from the small squad and remembered; the chief of their crew had taken a shaft in the lung during the night skirmish two days before. He stubbornly clung to life below deck with the other injured. “Honored, Captain, though I do not wish a second such blessing.” He moved to join the two men quickly checking over their weapon as they did each day. One of them opened a small bronze locker at the base of the pedestal and took out the intricately worked bronze handle that would work the siphon pump to pull the dangerous components up from the twin tanks below and combine them in the reservoir in the pedestal. There the two components would begin their inflammatory reaction needing only the kiss of air to ignite, pressurizing the bell while they mixed.
“Fire in the air!” cried out a watcher on the mid castle, arm outflung toward the half dozen arcing globules of brilliant scarlet climbing into the air from the lead element of the Marzac fleet. Black smoke trailed behind them defining the path of each toward its target. Ptomamus left Phil, eyes darting across the fusillade swiftly.
“Hard to starboard, port crews to shield!” One of the streaming gobbets of fire came toward them and from the port bow a second. As the Spear was the leading ship in their line, by a mere half length, she earned the first and most concentrated power of the enemy projectors. Phil leaned and the Spear listed sharply. Shield bearers rushed out among the oarsmen along the port bulkheads, interlacing their laminated square shields and sheltering below them.
“Captain!” a startled cry brought Phil’s head around, as it did the entire compliment of the aft castle save Aramaes and the captain. A man was mounting the rear rail, his black face and charred leather armor dripping water. One side of his face was seared to more cinder than flesh, the eye socket a glaring hole oozing a viscous clear ichor. The steersman who had called warning drew his short curved blade but did not abandon the tiller, moving to put the heavy beam between himself and the enemy boarder. Quicker than Phil would have expected of someone suffering such injuries the man surged over the rail and drew a pair of long, slender blades to advance on the startled steersman.
Rupert captured his attention before he could cover the two paces from rail to tiller, the heavy ape in the brilliant orange of a Whalish marine surged across the deck and collided with the boarder using his heavy shield. The fire charred man was sent reeling to the rail and lost one of his poniards but managed to rally without falling overboard. If the presence of several hundred pounds of ape clad in marine garb gave the man pause he did not seem to show it, nor injury for the deadly collision. He sprang toward Rupert with a quiet snarl, unarmed shoulder leading and poniard held low to make a thrust around the shield.
Instead Rupert threw his arms wide and stood upright, towering over the charging foe and with a deft twist avoided the thrust that slid across his heavy armor. Those huge arms closed around the hapless enemy with unrestrained force, the sound of bones snapping echoing loudly across the deck though the foe made no sound other than the gurgling rush of air being crushed from his lungs. Futilely he poked at Rupert’s back with his weapon until his failing hand let it fall. With a grimace of distaste Rupert hefted the still struggling body and hurled him over the rail.
“A half length more! Forward crew select your target!” Ptomamus was bellowing over the strangely organized chaos raging on the deck below. Phil returned his attention to the slightly less urgent danger only to see that it had already passed. One projectile of fire had landed among the oars along the starboard side while the other had glanced off of the layered shields and further coated those same oars with more fire. The fire crews were working to douse the oars while the burning shields were simply cast away into the water. A few of the crew seemed to have taken some of the splash from the gobbet that glanced from the shields but their heavy leather and cotton gambesons protected them from immediate harm.
Across the water and closing with ponderously slow deadliness the numbers of the Marzac fleet seemed insurmountable and Phil cowered where he stood, his clumsy paw-hands grasping at the handles of the projector and his tall ears backed in mounting terror. Fire blossomed among the enemy ships in a rapid exchange that erupted from aft of the leading elements. Five of their tainted Dromonai abruptly burst into raging flame and the others swiftly slowed as their crews, unprepared for the flank attack of Pythoreaus’ magically concealed line, were raked by arrows.
“Ramming speed! Loose the dragon!”
On the main deck below the aft castle the drummer’s beat increased swiftly, the oarsmen bending to their heavy beams, and the Spear surged forward. With a whistling thump the forward projector loosed its bottle of pressurized chemicals. With a consistency slightly less cohesive than tar the gobbet was spat forth, immediately bursting into searing flame. Some quantity clung to the flared bell of the projector but the heavy bronze withstood the heating unaffected.
Phil looked to the two men, hardly old enough to be putting on a good beard, working with him at the aft projector. He could see the fear in their eyes, but also the grim resolve in the set of their jaws and steady looks. He knew that fear, the first time he had ever stood crew on one of Whales’ greatest technological secrets, and loosed the deadly fire. He knew the fear of war, of true war and not the skirmish of a superior vessel riding down and burning an inferior one, of the war he had faced in the distant kingdom of Metamor and came away from so dramatically changed as to be truly a different man.
White, pitiable, unable to lift a fork or tie on his own doublet, but a Prince nonetheless. The one day ruler of these thin-bearded youths in their Whalish orange, and he could not betray them with the base instincts of the animal that he had become.
That he, Prince Phil of Whales, had become. It had not become him, it would not master him. He swallowed the painful lump in his throat and forced his ears upright fitfully. “Charge the projector.” He ordered with deceptive calm. The fear still coursed through his veins, but he cast a cloak of furious anger over it. Anger for what had become of him at Nasoj’s bidding. Anger for what had become of the world under the spreading taint of Marzac. Anger for all of those slain in the Whalish harbor attacked in the dark of night.
Anger, a furious boiling fury, for the absolute futility of war.
“Aramaes, convey open maneuver! Forward projector loose to port, take down that dromus! Aft, Prince, are you ready!”
“Aye, Captain! Charged and awaiting your order.” Phil called back over his shoulder. In turning his head he could see that one of their line was falling back aflame. Others had slowed and fallen back to fight lesser fires or deal with smaller ships charging past their larger, slower main battle craft like small dogs chasing horses. They were in the thick of the fight now, as abruptly as the time for two salvos to pass from fire ship to fire ship.
“Ships to the northeast, captain!” called out the spotter on the midcastle. “No masts, longboats! Coming fast”
“Damn!” Ptomamus spat as he took up his spyglass to gaze toward the northeast. Phil could make out a broadening line of fast moving, slender, low-riding boats as dark knives cutting rapidly through the wind rippled sea. “Not Whalish. More for Marzac. Aramaes, where is Stohshal?!”
“Behind yon rain coming on under full sail.” Aramaes, his head sweating with the effort to keep communication open between their disparate fleets. “They will cross through the rain in a few minutes yet, north of the Marzac line.”
“Fire forward, ware the skies!” someone, Phil did not identify who, cried out in fear. Forward he could see a arc of fire climbing upward from one of the Dromonai that had escaped Pythoreaus’ opening gambit. Now wholly among the enemy host Phil’s second had let his magic concealment drop. His fleet did not come around to engage the larger ships from the rear, however, only firing their aft projectors as they continued onward toward the bulk of the Marzac host, the wind driven galleass and other slower manoeuvring ships already hampered by the wind. Phil looked up and saw that the ragged spiral of flying beasts had broken up; they were falling from the sky like catapult stones with much larger shadows swooping down toward them from an even higher altitude.
In the mid-point of its arc the gobbet of fire loosed at them was suddenly haloed by a blinding coruscation of blinding white light that traced back to a fast moving shadow plunging from the storm clouds above. After a few brief seconds the orange fireball exploded in a broad fan of burning spume that was cast across the waves impotently. “Twenty degrees to port, avoid that fire. Archers attend the sky!” The plunging shadow resolved itself into a sleek bodied dragon as it closed swiftly with the creatures dropping down toward the broken Whalish line. “Fletch those feathered beasts, the dragons are with us! Phil! Eyes to our starboard beam, loose on that drom before she turns!”
Startled by the order and chagrined at his own unfocused gawkery Phil grasped at the handles of the projector and quickly sighted the low slung enemy attack boat turning aft of a Whalish ship, its own aft projector manned by someone clad in white, to make a strafing run with archers. Leaning against the weight of the fire-filled projector he spun it about, sighted across the curve of the bell and the flanks of the long tube to get the elevation, and with the wind in his ears he depressed the levers that would open the valves in the throat of the projector.
With a hearty thump the projector bucked against its pedestal and jumped in his hands but he held steady on his target. The burning gobbet of cohesive chemicals leaped across the distance between the Spear and the Marzac-tainted drom, crashing across its bow and spewing fiery tar across the length of the boat’s deck. The scattered chemicals roared skyward with a shriek that echoed the last cries of the stricken ship’s crew, consuming wood and flesh alike.
“Clear the throat, prepare to charge.” He ordered his squad, bringing the projector back into its stowed position. An arrow rattled off the bell of the projector but he paid it no heed as one of the feathered beasts loosed by the Marzac fleet came down upon the Spear’s forecastle in more of a crash than a landing. Its impact crushed the forward projector crew before they had an opportunity to escape and sent many others crashing from the elevated deck to land among the crew below or in the water. Floundering for a moment the beast thrashed its huge multicolored wings, sending the twisted projector upon its stand tumbling overboard.
A quartet of marines surged up the short stair onto the forecastle, three with swords and the last wielding a ballistae bolt as a spear. The monstrosity whistled a deafening hiss through a mouth more akin to reptiles than birds; long and narrow and studded with a daunting array of sharp yellowed-ivory teeth. With a wing it one marine over the railing negligently when the man leaped forward to stab with his shortsword. Another was caught in those deadly jaws and thrashed about like a rat in a dog’s muzzle. Sword and shield spun away in the water, the man’s screams silenced almost unvoiced by the violence of the attack. Staunchly the remaining two leaped in, sword and spear thrusting but without apparent result. The beast dominated the forecastle, its weight rocking the boat and dipping the bow deep into the water and slowing their speed despite the efforts of those still at their oars.
A shadow passed overhead prompting Phil to duck reflexively, his eyes cast up only briefly at the rainbow blur of feathers flashing by in a thunder of broad wings. The creature hissed its frustration having missed whatever its jaws sought and its broad wings dug at the air to swing it toward another ship in the fighting line. A plummeting blue shape, however, brought its flight to an abrupt halt when a dragon crashed down upon it, talons digging through feathers and flesh before driving the beast into the water. Before both sank out of sight Phil saw the dragon’s head snap forward once, twice, a third time with each bite coming back frothing blood.
“Aramaes!” Ptomamus bellowed over the chaos and tumult of the battle pitched on all sides, coming out of a crouch with only the most brief of glances at the airborne fight sinking into the sea. “Tell ours to switch away from the new longships, they’re battling the Marzac!”
Phil looked forward while rising to take control of the remaining fire projector aboard the Burning Spear, his ears flat back against his skull. A pair of Dromonai coursed side by side across the rear of the Spear and Phil turned toward them with the projector only to stop when he noted that commanding the projectors on each of those ships were white-clad sailors. The shoved aside the confusion at the change of uniform and looked for another target. On the forecastle the feathered reptile used its wings as impromptu shields against the arrows directed toward it by every able hand aboard the Spear. Few were able to penetrate the broad, brightly hued feathers deeply enough to find a mark. Meanwhile the fearsome head thrust forth, snapping at any who attempted to close for a more direct attack. Two had fallen to those jaws and some half dozen more struggled to regain their feet having been struck down by the heavy wings and sent falling into ranks of oarsmen.
The hulking, broad-shouldered girth of Rupert was among them, surging forward as implacably as a ram. Without bothering with the stairs he grasped a railing and hauled himself onto the forecastle before charging headlong at the beast. Phil could not help the startled sound that escaped his throat when he watched his friend of many years close to grapple with such a deadly menace. “Phil, amidships to starboard!” Phil wrenched his sight away from the orange-clad ape and rainbow hued bird grappling on the forecastle and spied the smaller vessel, a coastal oar-ship, closing swiftly either to ram or rake their oars. He swung the projector about and sighted at the enemy vessel, quickly scanning the deck for anyone clad in white though he did not immediately understand why that would be of any concern.
A sudden lurch of the deck at the moment he depressed the valve releases on the projector sent the viscous globule of fire high and Phil was forced to abandon his grasp on the projector to duck a responding salvo of arrows. The two crewmen tasked with assisting him at the projector couched their shields upon the wood and blocked a majority of the arrows. A few clanged off the heavy bronze of the projector without leaving any marks. A heavy cracking sound, not of breaking timbers but steady like the striking of a woodsman’s axe, issued from some distance away and did not abate. The pirate ship that had just dodged an eminent death by fire lurched out of line when a small explosion of splintered wood erupted from the stern. A second issued from the base of the tiller a second later, and a third a second after that took the head off of an oarsman positioned toward the vessel’s stern. The steady rattling sound continued with each sharp report of wood against wood followed almost immediately by another crash along the target’s hull. Phil was momentarily more concerned with holding the projector steady for clearing than finding the source of the smaller ship’s protracted demise.
On the forecastle the feathered reptile was in a sad state, one wing snapped and dragging and the considerable weight of Rupert astride its back. Though the creature’s frame was far larger than the ape’s, its weight was only half that of its attacker. Muscle against muscle it could not withstand Rupert’s enraged thrashing. The marines had withdrawn to direct their attention at other foes once they saw that Rupert had the creature well in hand. Those huge hands had finally managed to capture the head attempting to bite and, with one savage twist, wrenched it fully around so fiercely it was almost ripped off. Hefting the unwieldy bulk Phil’s bodyguard cast it overboard and watched it for a moment before stepping from the rail and slapping his chest with both hands once. A ragged and very brief cheer rose up and quickly faded under another heavy vibration through the deck.
The Spear lurched and wood creaked with a protesting groan but there was nothing visible to have caused such a momentous impact resulting in several seconds of confusion. Phil understood the nature of the impact, however, when a few of the marines leaned over the railing and thrust harpoons into the water. “We’ve been rammed by a whale, cap’n!” bellowed one of the marines as his comrades quickly rushed across to look over the opposite gunwale.
“Hold your stations!” the captain roared above the confusion, his attention focused on their next target, a Whalish dromon lacking any apparent fire projectors and running interference for the Iron King, the huge Pyralian flagship that formed the center of the Marzac fleet. “Ready for boarders from below! Marines protect our oars!” He thrust an arm toward a handful of oars tangled in what looked like the tentacles of a squid but far larger than any Phil had ever seen before. “Use the quicklime!”
The Spear shuddered once more and a spume of water erupted into the air from another cetacean assault. A handful of marines hurled harpoons at the beast before it could return to the depths. Others turned small casks of fire-sand, into which quicklime had been mixed, on the tentacles tangling their oars. Within seconds the steaming, frothing gray mixture had the intended result, freeing the oars as the tentacles withdrew. “Prince, prepare your fire. As soon as we draw abreast of the Iron King lay a shot along her upper decks!”
As if given orders by some unseen commander the ships nearest the Iron King began to draw together, focusing upon the Burning Spear and the last remaining pair of dromonai from Phil’s attack line coursing steadfast at their stern. Two more of the fey, feathered beasts came crashing down upon the deck and it looked, to Phil’s eyes, as if a score of small and medium ships were turning toward them with the enemy dromon charging directly toward them. The steady cracking of some unseen machine of war continued unabated and Phil could see impacts walk across the water and over one of the smaller long ships of the Marzac fleet, swiftly snapping its lightweight timbers. The small ship folded amidships like a child’s toy while the gouts of water sent up by whatever device caused its death tracked off toward another.
Phil leaned down quickly and tapped his projector loader lightly on the shoulder before the lad could charge the pressure bottle. “Short the charge, one second only.”
Calm despite the terror deep in the depths of his eyes the man blinked, “Highness?” Phil gave a quick nod and took up the handles of the projector once more. Unsure what was asked but given an order to follow the crewman grasped the injector handle and drew forth only a very small quantity from the twin reservoirs housed in their bronze kettles below the Spear’s deck. Grinding his teeth to fight back his own heart-crushing fear Phil ignored the chaos closing rapidly on their small island of wood, flesh, and bone. Screams rippled through the air mingled with the rattling crash of a siege engine, the whoop of fire projectors discharging from other ships, shrieking birds and dragons, and under it all the wind-driven susurrus of the ocean and creaking wood. After a few very long seconds Phil raised the projector and aimed along the length of the Spear’s main deck.
Rupert had once again closed to grapple with one of the flying beasts that had landed amidships somewhere between the mid and forecastles. Phil could only see brief flashes of colorful feathers over the railings of the mid castle, but the second of the birds once more reigned chaos on the forecastle. Wrapping his blunt fingers around the discharge handles Phil gave them a firm squeeze. Fire leapt forth, only a small gibbet of burning fury that arced from stern to bow, missing the single mast by the span of a single hand, and struck the winged beast broadside. While it shrieked and burned, sooty smoke torn by the wind and forward, Phil dropped the nozzle for clearing and sought other targets.
The entire battle seemed muffled, muted like sounds would get when he backed his ears but his ears were upright and his vision clear. He could see the travel of arrows from ship to ship, the floating puddles of wood and fire and flesh scattered across the wind-tossed sea. Creatures moved close under the surface of the dark, polluted waters but to his unsure sight they appeared to be more concerned with battling some other submersed foe than those above. A gleam in the air resolved itself into the polished edges of an arrow seen along the length of the shaft. Before his cognitive thoughts realized what his eyes were seeing the object had passed out of sight over his head. He twitched in reflex but by the time his muscles chose to react the danger had passed beyond him. Another caromed noisily from the shield upheld by Ptomamus who still stood his post at the forward railing shouting muffled orders.
One of those orders slowly wended its way through Phil’s battle-deadened senses, through the small blot of fear that he set aside negligently, and sank into his brain. “Brace! All oars ramming speed!” Ptomamus was yelling, his shortsword thrust into the air before him. Phil raised his eyes from his captain’s back, looking along the deck past the slumped, burning remains of the jungle-born rhukh, to the looming bulk of the Marzac-tainted Whalish dromon before them. It was ponderously turning broadside, making a target of itself for the Burning Spear’s forward speed. Arrows sizzled through the air, whistling past Phil, chirping as they struck the metal of the projector or the couched shields of Phil’s crew. Someone spun and fell, the mage Aramaes, an arrow jutting from the muscle of his upper arm.
With a curse the wiry, bald mage snapped the shaft and yanked it free before standing.
With a grinding crash that resounded through the hull like a crack of thunder the Burning Spear crashed into the enemy dromon amidships and came to an immediate halt. Sailors surged over the gunwales of the enemy ship only to be brought up short by the burning corpse on the Spear’s forecastle. “Full charge, now!” Phil commanded of his crew as he stood from behind their shields to grasp the handles of the projector.
“Already charged, highness.” The loader said as he stood slightly into a stoop and tried to cover Phil with his shield without blocking his aim. Under his feet Phil felt the deck tilt strangely, but it was a subtle change and he could account for it.
“Back all oars! Marines forward! Phil, to port aft!”
Phil caught the order with only one ear and after a moment of thought more brief than the heartbeat of a hare he chose to not obey. “Captain, move!” he called out. Ptomamus turned to look back and realized he stood looking down the polished bronze throat of the aft projector. He quickly darted to one side with Aramaes, still staunching the flow of blood from his arm, close at his side. Something stung Phil’s ear but he ignored the pain and loosed the contents of his projector.
Unlike the small discharge used to immolate the bird the full chamber threw forth a massive gobbet of fiery death. It flew over the heads of the Spear’s crew but grazed the mast sending a fan of fire across the deck from midcastle to forecastle before crashing into the side of the enemy dromon where the greater number of enemy crew were attempting to navigate their way onto the Spear. The stricken did not cry out, they had no opportunity to do so before they were immolated. Clad in their heavy cotton gambesons, by now thoroughly soaked with sweat and salt spray, the crew of the Spear largely ignored the spatter of fire raining down among them and fought on, the oar crews trying to back the Spear out of the burning remnants of the enemy.
A ship that, at one time, they may have sailed beside. Whose crew they may have shared cups with, or dice; brothers or husbands or fathers all. And yet they fought fire with fire, steel with steel, shedding blood of brother and friend alike under the dark touch of fey magic.
Sweaty, soot stained, and bloodied a crewman leaped up the stairs from the main deck and planted his sword, tip down, to the deck before sketching the most brief of salutes. “Cap’n, keel be snapped!” he croaked and then coughed. “Whale did ‘er crack, anna Hamish’s Folly there, she do ‘er alla way!” He jerked his chin toward the burning wreckage still firmly captured by the Spear’s ramming spar. “Takin’ on water, an quick!”
Ptomamus looked at his fighting men, then the ships around him, his gaze roving over the tangle of hulls and oars, before casting his gaze to the one dromonai of their line still holding close. The second had been separated from them by a smaller ship that had fouled their oars with an anchor line. That smaller ship, in turn, had been overrun by a handful of fishing boats. Reaching into his coat Ptomamus withdrew a white sash banded with red. With his arm raised he waved it side to side, indicating to any ship paying attention to them that the Spear had been mortally wounded and was sinking. Under normal circumstances a similar flag would be run up the mast.
“Ferth, get all you can from below to abandon ship. We’ll hold the decks until we’re treading water.” Ptomamus gave the man’s shoulder a clasp and vaulted the railing. Phil could hear him issuing orders from the deck below while he worked his way forward, sword held high.
“Highness?” asked one of his crewmen. Both remained at their post, shields held ready. Blood welled from a cut to the brow of one revealing the yellow-white gleam of bone. Though blind in one eye by the steady rush of blood he remained steady and focussed.
“Charge her up again, my brothers. Until she drowns let’s keep the dragon talking.” They both grinned fiendishly and, under the cover of their shields, resumed their posts. With a grinding shriek the Spear hauled itself from the guts of the Marzac-tainted dromon, Hamish’s Folly. It rolled into the waves immediately, throwing what crew that remained on the deck into the sea where they attempted to swim toward the Spear. Arrows, harpoons, and nets struck them or snared them within seconds. Phil waited while the pressure bottle charged and watched the watery melee.
Some strange looking boat, built along the lines of a longboat but much more broad amidships than any Phil had ever seen before, stroked forward from somewhere aft of the Spear. The middle of the boat was wider to support some strange rotating assembly upon which a curious mangonel had been installed. On each side of the mangonel was a massive wheel upon which a dozen men worked in well trained unison to keep the multiple arms of the queer siege engine rotating. As each arm came forward it hurled a small sphere from its bucket, once every second or so, with so much force Phil was unable to track the shot through the air. The arm then rotated forward, attached to a central spindle, and another smashed forward with another shot.
Phil was intrigued by the device, having seen the results of those high velocity shots, but could only examine it for a breath or two before the entire device and its crew disappeared under a charring splash of Whalish fire. He ducked reflexively though the attack struck almost a hundred yards distant, the prince’s lip curling in anger. That ship had been not been of the foe’s fleet, but it had also not been from Whales. Phil cast about hastily, seeking the source of the fire that had ended the smaller boat’s valiant, if strange, attack.
Beyond the burning hulk of Hamish’s Folly he spied the dromonai sliding out from the shadow of the Iron King’s stern, immediately noting that none of the crew wore white. Though the Spear’s deck was listing notably Phil was able to keep his footing steady. An arrow hammered the side of the pressure bottle but he ignored it. Taking several seconds to gauge his elevation, the wind, the direction of his target’s movement he took a long breath and let it out. A sting lanced his shoulder but, as with the arrow, he ignored it. The projector growled and spat forth the churning sputum building pressure in its gut.
“All hands abandon ship, fight in the water!” Ptomamus’ order was weak with distance but Phil set it aside for a moment, looking for more foes. His shot soared high over the smoking ruin of Hamish’s Folly and caught the aft castle of the enemy dromonai, not one Phil could put name to, at the steersman’s post. Much of the fire cascaded overboard in a spray but enough remained upon the deck to reduce the tiller to a cinder. It also immolated the fire crew and coated the enemy’s aft projector in a fountain of fire.
“Charge!” Phil cried out, trying to spy the enemy ship’s forward projector through the smoke and flame of the burning ship between them. “Charge, then abandon ship!” The Iron King was an arrow shot away but the archers on its decks were distracted by some foe on its opposite side. At least, they were ignoring Phil on his sinking ship, and the mob of smaller ships battling around the sinking Spear. The two young men exchanged a glance but did as Phil ordered, hastily charging the projector before scrambling up the listing deck and making their way over the railing.
Alone on the deck Phil hunkered down behind the projector’s pedestal and tried to track the bow of the enemy dromonai through the smoke and fire. With each passing breath the Spear took on more water, tilted further toward its port gunwale. A shadow across his gaze brought Phil’s attention to a man standing near at hand, water dripping from his dark leather armor and the ragged orange of an unkempt Whalish marine uniform. The man’s face was unshaven and twisted into a rictus of rage as he bore down on Phil. His upraised arm came down in a powerful chop just about the same moment Phil realized that the unkempt sailor was from the Hamish’s Folly.
Digging his claws into the deck Phil scrambled around the pedestal of the projector, avoiding the stroke of the man’s sword by a few inches. Grasping at the barrel of the projector Phil swung it as firmly as he could but the sailor only put up a hand and halted its swing easily. Stepping close the bearded foe braced the barrel of the projector so that he might swing over it and Phil could only dodge hastily to avoid the wild stroke of the short, broad blade that swept at him. The steep angle of the pitching deck caused him to slip, dropping to hands and paws to dig his claws into the age and salt hardened wood. His attacker had similar difficulties, but with the heavy bronze barrel of the projector to steady himself he kept on his feet and made a stabbing thrust after the fallen prince.
Phil twisted with a startled cry, his heart hammering in his throat, ears pressed flat back against his head as he twisted around to keep his eyes on his attacker. Others were coming out of the water as the far rail of the sinking Galleas dipped into the water. The man’s thrust struck the deck missing Phil by a mere inch and, reacting purely by instinct, Phil reached out and grasped at the hilt with one clumsy handpaw, pulling at the sword even as he raised his leg and lashed out with a kick toward the sailor’s knee.
Pushed by the power of a hundred pounds of rabbit the kick was far more than the sailor could have ever expected from another human. Phil’s foot slammed against the side of the man’s knee and the joint gave way with a loud, cracking pop. If the pain of it registered Phil saw nothing of it in the sailor’s face, nor did the man scream, but with only one leg he toppled when his knee folded sideways. With a snarl of rage the man slipped down the tilting deck and one of the sailors hastily clambering aboard rammed a makeshift spear, a salvaged ballistae bolt, through the man’s back.
Having dispatched Phil’s attacker the sailor yanked loose his spear and used the butt end of it to send another boarding sailor reeling back with a smashing stroke to his face. “O’er th’ rail, ‘ighness!” the Whalish sailor bellowed, scrambling back and striking out at another boarder. “On th’ ‘igh side, git ye o’er, I can nae ‘old ‘em all!” Sparring with two Marzac tainted sailors he worked his way toward the tiller bar that spun loosely, the rudder now almost fully out of the water. Phil slid down to the projector briefly and tried to turn it once more toward the Galleas beyond the burning wreck captured by the Spear’s bow, but the heavy bronze was too much for him. With one last thought he reached down and yanked the charging lever fully open.
Digging claws to wood Phil turned about and scrambled up the steeply pitched deck, hooking his handpaws over the pedestal of his spyglass and using it like the rung of a ladder to stand on while he reached up to haul himself over the railing. The Whalish sailor moved from tiller to navigation table in the same way, using them as platforms upon which to battle the increasing numbers of fury-faced enemies pulling themselves onto the submerged portions of the deck. “Come on!” Phil cried out, his voice sounding small and childish in the din of battle taking place around them.
Arrows whistled past and the air was filled with the screams of the dying, the roaring bellows of those engaged in the exchange of death. A shaft shattered against the rail leaving a few broken inches of wood attached to the simple steel arrowhead a hand’s width from Phil’s foot. Others whistled past him close enough to tug at the sodden fabric of his clothing, drawing his eyes up to the towering wall of the Iron King’s hull a couple of ship-lengths away. Other arrows responded to the King’s flight, sending those archers ducking back behind a phalanx of shields.
Thrusting out a hand while hooking one of his feet through the balustrades of the railing Phil helped the Whalish sailor climb up beside him. Half a dozen bodies floated in the water below, some charred, others trailing clouds of blood, and shadows moved beneath them in the battle-fouled water. As the Spear rolled fully onto her side the deck became too steep for the Marzac soldiers to climb, but they still made all due effort. One even approached from the bow with a sword in each hand. Before he had closed within a dozen feet, however, a fusillade of arrows sprouted from his body and sent him reeling off the curved hull and into the other flotsam bobbing against the Spear’s hull.
“Can ye swim, ‘ighness?” The Whalish sailor asked, not one from the Spear that Phil was familiar with, but with the blossoming bruises and welts disfiguring his face Phil could not have named him had they been brothers. He bled from numerous small injuries but still seemed to be in fighting shape. Phil looked back over the curving hull of the Spear at the distant water where bodies floated and shadows flitted about a few meters below the surface. The Burning Spear’s oars stood skyward like a futile picket line. Another ship had drawn up along the Spear’s keel and Phil could see where the stout wood had split a few meters aft of the ram. It was not a Whalish ship, and its crew was not in Whalish colors, but the line of archers manning its narrow center deck and lofting rapid flights of arrows at the deck of the Iron King told Phil that they were not allies of Marzac.
In such situations the Enemy of an Enemy could not be such a terrible foe, Phil thought. “That ship, there!” He pointed one paw at the vessel, noting only with a strange detachment that his fur was stained with pitch, soot, and blood. “We must get to that ship, I opened the projector valves!” The sailor stabbed at an enemy trying to use the navigation table as a platform to climb higher and gave the nearby ship a cursory glance.
“Get ye down t’ th’ keel, ‘ighness!” The ballistae bolt was captured by the sailor it was thrust at and abruptly yanked out of the man’s hands. “’Afore dey swim ‘round th’ hull!” Before Phil could suit suggestion to action the sailor grasped the collar of his uniform and hauled him down the curve of the hull in a barely controlled slide. Arrows whistled past, rebounding off the curved hull or sizzling into the water at large, dark shadows moving about just below the depths of boat keels. A massive gray shape passed below the rolled Spear and out of sight beneath the nearest longboat; a whale of some sort, trailed by a host of other figures and leaving a cloud of dark blood in its wake. The Spear’s keel was now a full man’s height from the water as the boat continued its ponderous, protracted death roll.
Phil stepped up to the edge of the heavy beam and looked across at the unknown longboat, the colors splashed across its bow and the pennant fluttering from its stern identifying it as a Sutthaivasse vessel. A gaily clad man standing amidships was watching Phil with a keen eye and leaning forward with one booted foot up on the narrow rim of wood. Phil noticed that the steersman of the longship was clad entirely in white.
“Gotta jump an swim fer it, ‘ighness!” barked the sailor at Phil’s side, “They’s comin’ up th’ bow!” Phil spied the half dozen soot blackened soldiers climbing to their feet on the curve of the Spear’s bow. One fell almost immediately, feathered by an arrow through his torso. Phil stepped up to the edge of the keel and tensed his legs, readying to leap from the dying boat’s keel toward the unknown safety of the Sutthaivasse longship, and then he glanced down at the dark water below.
A great eye was staring up at him, affixed in the center of a grayish monstrosity almost as long as the distant longship. Long tentacles stretched toward the Spear’s bow, moving slowly in the water while the huge squid regarded the tiny rabbit two meters above. Phil froze, his heart clutching in a spasm of terrible fear. Men he could face, fire and enemy ships he could face, but a monstrosity from the pages of sailors’ fables completely unmanned him, rooting him in place. The huge orb moved about within its socket with terrifying acuity, the pupil narrowing to a black point in which Phil saw himself reflected, rippled, refracted, and twisted into a vague white outline garbed in Whalish orange.
Other forms began to appear around the massive squid in the water; smaller forms human in shape but with pale faces full of menace. The Merai clustered about the huge creature in a swift moving mob, their short spears thrusting at its flesh while others surged up from the water in startling leaps toward the Spear’s slowly rising keel beam, spears out thrust toward Phil. Still more swarmed the Burning Spear’s crew as they struggled away from their doomed ship, trying to drag them below the wind whipped waves. Such a task was not quite so easy as drowning a hapless fisherman, however. The Spear’s crew were hardened soldiers and fought with the tenaciousness of angry cats using whatever weapons they could grab; daggers or arrow shafts and even sharp splinters of broken wood.
“Yahshua’s crutch, boy, now no th’ time fer fear!” Phil felt himself suddenly grasped by the scruff of his neck and lower back and thrown bodily through the air toward the waiting longship. He let out a startled cry and flailed through the air as chaos erupted around him. The spears of the Merai missed their mark, angry faces watching their small target tumble flailing through the air above their reach. The beast with the terrible eye rose up in the water, sending a frothing wave cascading from its blue-grey hide and its mob of attackers tumbling away in its wake. Huge tentacles rose up with deceptively languid sweeps, crashing over the attackers swarming across the Spear’s hull and sending them tumbling from the hull like tenpins and snapping stout oar shafts negligently. One hapless sailor was caught up and dashed with a meaty crunch upon the unyielding wood.
Their attack ruined by the swift anger of their monstrous target the Merai scattered, lost in a cloud of ebony ink fouling the water. A few made thrusts with their spears at the crew on the Sutthaivasse longship but their attacks were turned by the vessel’s hull or the swift reaction of shield bearers crowding close above the seated oarsmen. The squid’s tentacles dashed enemy sailors and sent waves crashing against both ships as it sank back into the depths, lost in the darkness of its own inky release. The Spear’s crew were pushed away from the Merai as well, those not dragged to their watery deaths in the depths, toward the dubious safety of the Spear’s sinking hull or one of the many smaller boats moving to cluster close about the wreck. More longships and smaller fishing boats were moving toward the sinking wreck.
Phil had little time to ponder which of those might be friend or foe as the water rushed up to meet the trajectory from one ship toward the next. Three oars from the longship drew together, laying spade over spade below his plunge, but he missed their support and splashed down into the water between the shafts. Inky black water blinded his sight as he was submerged, the sounds of the battle rushing into his sensitive ears behind a rush of water, reduced to the sharp sounds that traveled easily in water. Phil kicked at the enveloping water in a panic as he tried to sort up from down and eventually managed to grasp the shaft of an oar. By the time he found his head above the water his lungs were screaming for air and his heart felt like it was going to hammer itself through the restraint of his ribcage.
Wrapping both arms about the oar he pulled himself up as high as he could and coughed the water from his mouth as he dashed the water from his long ears and short fur with a violent shake of his head. He rubbed his face against the back of one arm to squeeze the tainted water from his eyes, the pollution of countless substances causing them to burn fiercely. Ink, blood, pitch, and spent fire chemicals clung to his white pelt turning him a foul gray. He felt a hand slip under his arm to pull at him and turned to find Whiett hanging from another oar closer to the hull of the unnamed longship. A long gash across his brow covered his face in blood but through the gore his eyes were bright and furious, his mouth drawn back in a leering grimace of rage and fear. With Whiett’s aid Phil worked along the oar supporting him until the gaily clad crewman of the longship could lean down close enough to grasp his hand. If he was put off by the fact he was attempting to rescue an oversized rabbit in a wet uniform he showed only a strange gleefulness.
An iron grasp suddenly seized one of Phil’s feet and haul him down so strongly he almost lost his grasp on the oar and squealed in terror despite himself. Whiett wrapped a leg over the oar he was holding to grasp at Phil’s shoulders with both hands, getting dunked for his efforts, and the aristocrat aboard the longship was almost hauled from his precarious perch but did not release Phil’s dangerously sharp-clawed hand. Between the three Phil hauled himself up despite the strong grip of hands pulling at his foot until he could get his free arm over the low gunwale of the long ship. The grasp upon his paw shifted higher and continued to haul at him about his waist, the fingers of the hands tipped with short claws that tore at the dyed cotton of his Whalish orange and hooked at the gambeson beneath. Twisting about Phil looked down to see the furious glare of a Merai hauling itself up his body, streaming blonde hair plastered over the all-too-human visage above flaring gills creating a disorienting ruff below the creature’s chin.
The gills, bright pink and fluttering, gave the Merai the look of a poorly beheaded corpse. With a cry half anger and half horror Phil raised up his free foot and gave the Merai two stout kicks to its face. Bones shattered beneath his powerful strikes and the Merai’s hands spasmed, the entire body going stiff and reeling back, knocked out or dead Phil did not care. Blood trailed across the surface of the dark water that swallowed the Merai with no further trace. Free of the seagoing anchor Phil dug his claws into the long ship’s hull and scrambled over the gunwale with the aid of the aristocrat. Whiett was helped aboard by other crewmen to join several other Whalish crewmen fished from the water. Phil saw none of the Spear’s other command crew aboard and feared for their fates. Nor did he spy his faithful bodyguard, the omnipresent shadow at his shoulder for over a decade.
“Rupert?” He asked hoarsely of Whalish crewmen but they could only shake their heads.
“Took that devil bird overboard when we listed, sire.” One of them offered wanly, “On our low side.”
The gaily clad man stood at Phil’s side and laid a hand upon his shoulder with strange familiarity, “We’ve many friendly boats in the water, Prince, I am sure that one may rescue him.” Phil turned to look up at the man and felt a falling sensation of startlement at the visage that regarded him. Clean shaven but for a narrow bit of hair upon his chin in the manner of a duelist or brigand his skin was not tanned as a sailor’s. Phil had seen the man’s face before, but he knew not where.
“He is an ape, sir, not a man as you may know.” Phil scanned the water but among the living and dead he spied no great form clad in orange among the waves. A susurrus of rain brushed across the battlefield, wind pulling at the many fires to send thick black smoke low over the wind pulled whitecaps and obscure his sight. “We must pull back, I opened the charging port on the projector. What of the sailor who threw me overboard?”
“A fishing boat plucked him from the water. Captain, withdraw from the wreck, recall the formation. Where is that Marzac fireboat?”
“Without a rudder it’s fallen behind the King, sire.” Reported the stoutly muscled commander of the long ship. “We can hope that her captain was on the aft when it was fired.”
“We can hope.” The man never took his hand from Phil’s shoulder and the young prince felt too exhausted to bother correcting the odd man’s overly familiar gesture. “Well, your highness, you’re down a flagship. Have you any other you’d like us to put you aboard?”
“What of the Singing Bird? She held our aft until we struck the Folly.”
“Other side of the King.” Reported the captain, waving off another long ship much like the one Phil now stood upon. How many, the prince wondered, of these swift boats were coursing through the Marzac fleet now.
Phil scanned the waters but saw only wreckage and small, swift boats darting among the hulks. Some few of the larger ships were still afloat, their crews battling upon the decks to keep themselves from being boarded. Phil had no way of knowing which of those ships were friend or foe. Others sat foundered, their oars sheered or fouled by drapes of fishing nets, crews expending their stores of arrows to carry on the fight. Eventually his gaze came upon the only vessel still capable of carrying a fight; the Iron King a few ship lengths away.
Raising an arm slowly he pointed a handpaw toward the huge Pyralian flagship. “There, let’s take her.”
With a gleeful leer and bright laugh the fop clapped Phil’s shoulder with a gloved hand. “Captain, flag for boarding, bring whoever is still afloat to the King!”
“Aye, sire!” The captain responded with a similar toothy smile of merry expectation. One of the deck crew fished an orange flag bisected by blue and handed it to another crewman holding a spare ore. The butt of the flag had been sewn to fit over the oar’s spade and, once fitted, the crewman raised it. A muffled crunch boomed through the air and the resultant shockwave sent the long ship tipping unexpectedly as the Burning Spear’s aft storage bottles, heavy bronze constructs designed to hold intense pressure, gave way to the unrelieved force. Under normal circumstances an accidental fuel backflow could be vented through the projector but Phil had left that valve secure while opening the charging handle allowing the fuels to mix uncontrolled within the storage bottles. Now fully submerged the aft deck of the Spear could only direct the explosion into the depths which was a small saving grace considering how close the Suttaivasse ship was. If there were any Merai in the waters around the Spear it would be far more damaging.
Freed of the weight of its aft castle the Spear’s bow, hauled by the weight of the massive bronze ramming spar, dipped into the depths. For a moment the shattered deck rose into the air roaring with fire before sliding swiftly into the dark water. Roiling bubbles followed its death plunge belching pitchy smoke. Phil watched quietly as did the unshipped Whalish crew, some of them crying out in anger and anguish at the death of their mighty warship.
“For vengeance!” Whiett bellowed, wreathed in thick smoke driven from the Spear’s wake, “For Whales!”
“For vengeance!” echoed the crew, arms thrust above their heads holding weapons brought with them from the Spear or provided by the Sutthaivasse crew, “For Whales!” Emboldened the couched themselves and turned their attention toward the swiftly approaching hull of the Iron King. There were already ropes dangling from the Pyralian warship’s upper deck, cast there by earlier boarding attempts. Several of its lower ranks of oars were fouled by tow ropes or anchor lines dragged across them by fishing boats. A fishing net had even been cast across an upper rank. As they approached a blue clad Pyralian soldier plunged from the upper deck, bounced from the shafts of oars, and splashed unto the water. He did not resurface.
“Fireship ahoy!” someone yelled as the ship Phil had earlier attacked came around the stern of the iron king. Arrows sliced through the air sending everyone ducking for cover. Cries filled the air as many found marks among the crowded deck. Phil heard the sharp reports of others striking wood, one of them slamming down within an inch of his nose as he huddled under a shield held over him by a crewman. He glanced up toward their attacker as a return volley was lofted by the long ship’s crew. He saw the forward projector swinging around to take a bearing on them but a dark form swooped low over head, a great red serpentine body canted sideways to skirt the Iron King’s hull and slam into the dromonai’s mast. The huge ship listed alarmingly under the added weight wrapping about the upper mast. Wood cracked loudly and with a roaring whoop the projector discharged. The burning globule of lethal fire missed its mark by several lengths to splash impotently into the water between two other long ships following close to their stern.
From its perch the dragon’s long neck swivelled around to bear the mighty head toward the ship’s bow, loosing a stream of its own fire. The dragon’s breath bathed the forward deck, immolating the fire crew and a score of archers. Before the surviving crew could reply to its attack the dragon launched itself from the mast further upsetting the ship and dropped back into the water with a mighty splash. The crew of Phil’s ship let out a victorious whoop and with a series of mighty yells leaped from the deck, casting themselves toward the rope-tangled lower rank of oars. No Merai rose from the depths to challenge them as they scrambled from the water onto the oars. A hand on Phil’s shoulder brought his attention to Whiett.
“Ready to take our new flagship, Prince?” the burly commander grinned, his face blackened by soot. “Just hang onto my back, aykay? I’ll get you up there in one piece.” Phil thought a moment and then nodded and looked up at the Iron King’s gunwale far above. As he watched another of the King’s crew was sent pinwheeling through the air with a cry of terror. He plunged through the first rank of oars and crashed down upon the second where he hung in the net thrown across the oars. Before he could gather his wits one of the Whalish crew clambering upward stuck him with a rapid half dozen thrusts of his dagger. Whiett knelt and helped Phil clamber onto his back. “Hang on tight, your highness.” One of the Sutthaivasse crewman held them up for a moment to strap a shield over Phil’s back. The broad leaf shield was larger than Phil but its stout weight was a reassurance against attacks.
Phil did as he was bade and clutched at Whiett’s neck and waist as the commander jumped overboard to grab at the rope draped between two of the King’s oars after only a brief dunking. The prince was thankful for the many years of hard seamanship that lent the muscular man’s almost indomitable stamina. Other members of the Sutthaivasse crew joined them, the gaily clad aristocrat among them with no regard to salt water fouling his garish raiment. The slender man moved more swiftly than Phil would have ever expected, eschewing the dangling ropes to clamber up the hull of the ship directly using the most spare of handholds as if blessed with the claws of a squirrel.
The deck of the Iron King was in absolute chaos by the time Whiett hauled himself over the upper railing. Orange clad Whalish marines and leather clad Sutthaivasse sailors battled hand to hand with blue clad Pyralian marines on the main deck while high on the forecastle a single orange clad form engaged a score and more of the blue clad Pyralians. If there was any coordinated response to the boarding action it had long since been broken; the upper rowers had abandoned their seats to join their brothers in the failing attempt to repel the boarders leaving the ship dead in the water. Reinforcements were blocked from coming to the main deck from below by knots of Sutthaivasse sailors at the gangways. Only the aftcastle remained as a redoubt with a few dozen sailors protecting the command crew tenaciously.
“Subdue the command crew if you can, Whiett.” Phil advised as the commander helped him down. “Pyralia will be in our debt for what little we can salvage of this debacle, especially their nobles.”
“Aye, highness. Stay close to me.” Whiett unlimbered his sword and took the shield from Phil’s back before moving toward the closest group of Whalish marines working their way toward the aft deck. Phil saw their goal; Rupert holding court with the remaining dozen sailors still fiercely trying to regain the high ground. With broad sweeps of his mighty arms, wielding some manner of bludgeon, Rupert pushed them back or knocked them to the deck where they seldom rose again. Those that did get within the sweep of his truncheon found themselves facing the crushing embrace of the gorilla’s thick arms or the easy strength in a single hand as they were scooped up and thrown overboard.
Within minutes the Sutthaivasse sailors outnumbered the Whalish marines in their bright orange but the gaily clad man who had pulled Phil from the water, to whom the western Pyralians deferred, ceded command of the ship to Phil’s forces without rancor. Securing the main deck was well underway before Phil had come aboard and within minutes the only bastions of resistance were the aft castle and gangways leading from the lower decks. Rupert made quick work of his aggressors when he spied Phil amidships, crashing through them with a furious sweep of the wooden spar he used as a truncheon. He crashed down from the forecastle and smashed his way through any who stood in his path not wearing Whalish orange. The Sutthaivasse sailors quickly got out of the way but the Pyralian sailors, under the dark touch of Marzac’s taint, rose up to challenge his course.
All such challenges were invariably brief.
The great ape was covered in cuts and under his coarse silvered black fur was an assortment of bruises that would have left even a toughened mercenary in convalescence for weeks. His uniform was more rags than clothing, the banded steel gleaming through torn leather under the Whalish orange. An arrow stood from one shoulder where it had become entangled in the ragged remains of the ape’s heavy armor. Phil gave his bodyguard’s thick, bloodied arm a welcoming clasp as Rupert came to a lumbering halt before him and slapped his other arm over his chest in a thumping salute. Whiett only shook his head and moved to join a group of Whalish marines forming up behind a shield wall and preparing to assault the aft castle.
Securing the last redoubt upon the main deck was a pitched affair but swift as the Whalish and Sutthaivasse numbers quickly swarmed the defenders. Rupert led the charge using two shields and no weapon at all, bulling his way through a half dozen Pyralian soldiers and breaching their defensive line. The uniformed gorilla easily subdued the captain with a single negligent back-handed swat when the man leaped at him with a poniard. The other members of the Iron King’s command crew suffered similar fates under the subduing blows of Whiett’s men when they fled from Rupert only to be pinched between two forces of superior numbers.
Phil stood near the midcastle and surveyed the waters around them as the battle reached its end and realized that, with the capture of the Pyralian warship, the Marzac fleet had been wholly routed. Off in the eastern distance a smattering of sails full of storm winds were all that remained of the tainted armada, harassed in their retreat by the wind ships and fishing boats of Whales. Dragons replaced the rainbow feathered reptile-birds in the skies overhead, the great beasts patrolling the scattered Marzac fleets left foundered by the battle. Trios of Sutthaivasse long ships slipped like barracuda through the wreckage bobbing on the wind whipped chop, riding up and down the waves in smooth unison. Several Whalish warships cruised the battlefield like hungry sharks, their crews challenging those aboard foundered ships.
“We have secured the ship, Highness.” Whiett, sweaty and haggard from the long day, reported stoically while standing rigidly at attention despite the steady rocking of the deck. The storm called forth by the cooperative effort of Whales’ dragons and mages had passed but the sea still rocked with wind pushed swells. “We’ve pushed the last of the Pyralian resistance into the storage decks. We can be under way within the hour.”
“Storage decks? They have control of the food and water stocks?” Phil asked wearily from his seat at the previous captain’s desk. The Pyralian royal refused to offer up his name and Phil had yet to find it on any of the ship’s manifests. Apparently the touch of Marzac’s influence did not prompt the captain to maintain any logs or journals that Phil could find. The surviving command officers of the Iron King were safely secured in the ship’s forward crew quarters.
“Aye, highness. We will have to provision from our escort.”
Phil shrugged slightly, “Let them stew there, unless they hamper us. Can they scuttle the ship from the storage deck?”
Whiett shook his head, “We could not find any access from the bilge or ballast decks to the stores. They are, for the time being, as secure as could be wished, without slaying them to a man. They fight like rabid beasts.”
“We’ll avoid that.” Phil shifted in the captain’s chair. It was a heavy, well upholstered edifice that dominated the desk behind which it stood and verily swallowed Phil’s slight frame. Only Rupert, standing to Phil’s right shoulder, was its equal for domineering mass. “What news of our own?”
“Pythoreaus’ fleet lost three vessels with much of their crews. Four others have been foundered.” Whiet did not soften from his stance as he delivered the grim numbers. “Our own fleet lost five, all of them Dromonai, and six have been foundered or damaged beyond any ability to pursue this war. With fair weather they may limp back to Whales. Stohshal lost two, one more foundered, of his windrunners. He reports his flota fully capable of continuing pursuit of the Marzac remnants.”
“Who is still in contact with him?”
“Aleid from the Mace, highness, running off our port bow.”
“Have him advise Stohshal, and any of the fishers with him, to hold station at seven leagues off the Marzac isles. No need loosing anyone else to that dark influence.” Phil leaned his elbows upon the heavy desk and ran his blunt fingers over his brow and ears. “Any news of the Burning Spear’s crew?”
Whiett heaved a sigh and frowned. “Ptomamus took a Merai spear and was fished from the sea by the Singing Bird. Captain Raemus’ physician says that he will survive if we can return him to the care of priest-physicians. Aramaes is said to have continued in pursuit of the Marzac aboard one of the fishing boats. Many others were lost to the Merai and their creatures.”
Phil sighed with equal weight as the numbers of the lost continued to rise. The black taint of Marzac drove the touched beyond any sane reason or acknowledgment of pain and loss. They fought without yielding until slain or incapacitated, and even bound or imprisoned fought their fetters beyond the limits of any sane warrior. The Whalish prince scrubbed at his face with both hands and winced as his fingertips agitated a cut he had received when –
When, he had to ponder but could not put a memory on the event that earned each cut or bruise or singe. At some point a burning object had even seared a finger-wide hole cleanly through one of his ears. “Once we are fit to get under way have our course set eastward with any ships capable of carrying the fight.” He touched the nick across his cheek gingerly with a fingertip noting how tender the flesh was. There would be a marked bruise accompanying the cut in the days ahead. “Have them re-crew among the seaworthy ships.”
“We are continuing after the Marzac fleet, highness?” Whiett frowned. The men were on the bring of total exhaustion and the mages who had carried their burden for days had been scattered or slain.
“Yes, commander. We must see this thing through to the dregs.”
Whiett gave a single nod and then saluted before turning crisply on his heel to exit. A shadow waiting in the hall outside stepped nimbly out of the sailor’s path. Once the doorway was clear the shadowy form approached, revealing the foppishly clad nobleman who had pulled Phil out of the sea.
“A word, Prince?” he asked. Phil sat a little more straight in the high-backed captain’s chair. He sensed in the raffish courtier more than he at first seemed. Rupert also shifted slightly where he stood at Phil’s right shoulder.
“Yes, good sir, enter. You command the Sutthaivasse fleet that came to our aid?”
The visitor gently closed the door before crossing to pick up a stool set to one side. With a shake of his head he set the stool down before the desk and settled upon it. “Nay, I merely pull the ears of their leaders, as do you. I lack the understanding of seamanship to do more than confuse myself.” The man smiled and rested his hands upon his knees. “Even the least of your deck swabs is the greater sailor than I, Prince Phil.” The noble’s eyes shifted their focus slightly, “Rupert.” He continued with a nod of greetings to the battle worn gorilla.
Phil twitched one ear in the manner others might raise an eyebrow. The man offered the greetings easily, without any apparent unease at addressing two pointedly atypical animals. “It is good that you know us, sir, but in the confusion of battle we were not likewise introduced.”
The raffish aristocrat smiled brightly with a soft laugh. Despite helping a battle-grimed rabbit from water tainted by oil, pitch, and blood, climbing aboard an enemy ship and doing battle with its darkly possessed crew, the foreigner looked completely unruffled. His hair was only slightly disarrayed and his finery barely smudged with only a single popped seam. “Ahh, indeed, your highness.” He bowed smoothly from his stool. “In the brief without the pedantic roll of titles, I am Malger, youngest son of Hendil Sutt, and heir to the archdukedom of Western Pyralia.”
So, Phil thought, the rumors of a surviving Sutt heir were proven true. That in itself tipped an entire new kettle of chum into the water considering the history of the man’s sire. “The Sutt line was severed near a decade past.” Phil said flatly, watching the young nobleman. “No word of any hidden heirs, or even bastards, has arisen since that purging.”
The archduke, so he titled himself, shrugged. “No bastard bythrow am I, as the old serpent was strictly adherent of his faith’s laws in that regard, I assure you, Prince. When word of this purging, as you call it, reached my ears I fled certain death by mere breaths. I have since been hiding in places few would dare follow.”
Another twitch of his ear revealed Phil’s scrutiny. “There are few places assassins fear to tread.” He pointed out blandly, “Especially those tasked with the death of the Bloody Fist and his line.” Hendil Sutt had been given many names over the years, and in Whales that name was the Bloody Fist, for obvious reasons. While he had maintained strict neutrality with Whales during his eastward expansion across the mainland Phil’s adoptive father had known that it was only a matter of time before his covetous eye turned westward, toward Whales. Phil understood that no small part of the destruction of the Sutt house was financed by Whalish gold through the house of du Tournemire.
“Of the last five years, however, I have indeed lived in a place where all but the most dedicated of assassins fear to tread.” Malger reassured him. Phil found the noble’s coquettish smile and dancing words evading the point of his explanation bothersome after the exertions of the day.
“Such place being?”
The man reached up to clasp a pendant that dangled at his breast. “Not a place unfamiliar to you, Prince, or your man-at-arms there.” Phil noticed that the pendant was a crescent moon, the symbol of one faithful to the goddess Nocturna. Upon the same golden chain was a silvery lump of some unrefined metallic ore.
Nocturna, Phil puzzled in his head. One of the Daedra though her role in the dark pantheon was oft seen as negligible, goddess of the First hell, the land of Dreams, nightmares, and omens. Or omens that were nightmares in themselves, depending on how well heeded the messages were. Phil’s eyes darted from the pendant to the man’s face and memory blossomed within his vision; that same face, the same coy smile, leaning on the tiller of his ship as a monstrous wave rose up to swallow it.
“The wave –“ Phil started to gasp but all thoughts upon the odd man being in his dreams were dashed when he drew the pendant over his head. He underwent a striking, and very startling, transformation when the magic of the pendant was removed. The angular face of a raffish mainland noble winked away to be replaced by the tapered angular muzzle of a predatory animal. Merry brown eyes deepened to the dark brown gaze of a beast while the moustache became a bristle of whiskers. Dark, dense brown fur covered the beastial visage across nose, brow, and short ears while pale cream covered chin and throat. His clothing, however, only changed enough to fit his tall, slender frame.
A breath hissed from Phil’s lungs and he pushed back into his seat. Had he been sitting upon a stool as Malger was he would have toppled backward. Rupert huffed an angry grunt and moved forward a pace. An upraised hand, brown furred with light brown palm fur between dark pads, paused the ape from immediate violence. “Your prowess in dealing with Loriod is well known, Rupert.” The dark eyes gleamed merrily above the sharp-toothed animal smile. “I would rather not enjoy a reprise performed upon my person.”
Phil spluttered, his ears flicking an agitated dance of chaotic emotions. “You are –“
“Malger dae ross Sutt, Archduke of Western Pyralia, at your service young Prince.” Malger sketched another fluid bow with a flourish of one hand.
“Dream Serpent!” Phil managed to pull the name from his memory, “Duke Thomas’ court bard!”
Malger churred a laugh, “No bard am I, your highness, nor direct retainer to the Duke though, yes, I have often attended the various functions of his court in my capacity of musician.”
Phil blinked and then guffawed loudly. “Ah, the fickle gods!” he shook his head and squeezed tears of near-hysterical laughter from his eyes. After the stress and strain of the day, thrown as an aperitif after months of worry and work, the revelation of the Archduke of Western Pyralia being as cursed as Phil himself was almost too much to take in. “To face war with a magical darkness, again, and find to my side sent not only the son of a long dead conqueror, but one that was a Daedra touched dream sender embraced by Metamor’s curse as well!”
Malger’s feral grin widened showing off the slender ivory spears the Keep’s touch had left to him. “It is good that you heed your dreams, too, Highness.”
Phil waved a paw dismissively, using the back of the other to wipe tears from his cheek fur. That only served to smudge the soot and blood fouling his white fur all the more. “We can thank your patroness ere we sleep, duke.” Phil slid forward in the huge chair and locked gazes with the foppish marten with a conqueror’s surname and title. “Tell me, archduke minstrel late of Metamor Keep, how come you across a continent and half an ocean to cast your lot at the side of a crown prince rabbit?”
“T’is a long and convoluted tale to spin, your highness.” Malger rose from his seat and crossed to the captain’s liquor cabinet. Finding an unopened bottle of Port he decanted it into three of the goblets taken from the cabinet, offering two to Rupert. While Phil’s bodyguard sampled each delicately Malger swirled his about languidly within his goblet. “It involves a young one-eyed mage, a bishop of the late Patriarch’s retinue, an assassin too dogged for even Metamor to sway, and a lot of misadventure.” Once Rupert had satisfied himself that the wine contained nothing immediately dangerous the three shared in Malger’s toast, raising their glasses in salute before partaking of the fine wine.
Phil let the wine chase the aftertaste of war from his mouth and could not help but smile at the odd marten’s effusive good cheer. “I am listening.”
Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue