Returned from their raids on the Kerdolak trading-holds, Krisnavn’s Alisime fleet finds its way barred by white-sailed longboats. Kerdolak mariners. To gain the safety of South Rivergate they first must defeat them. And they’re somewhat outnumbered . . . Read on
Megovis sat with the brazier between his feet. The Alisime seamen might think him crazy yet he laughed at how they had learned to raise swiftly those very same shields they had previously scorned. But it was the Kerdolan amused him most. He wanted to yell to them, “Hoi! We’re behind you.” For now this Alisime fleet was closing distance he could see those white-garbed mariners, every one of them, scanned only the western waters. And how close might they come before the block-headed Kerdolan thought to look behind them?
They were easing in with scarcely a sound. With the wind, the tide and the deep-arse currents all with them and carrying them in, the Alisime seamen need touch no oars. No plunk, no splash, nothing to draw their opponent’s attention. Yet, despite that Saram smiled upon them, this attack must be precisely timed. Between the five boats they had but fifteen left of the fire-arrows of Beli. They had improvised more, but these weren’t long-serving Regiment men used to the short-bows. Megovis wouldn’t rely on them hitting target.
Ah, and now they’d been sighted—and that by a mariner who’d turned away to relieve his bladder. Megovis cursed: fool man, pissing into the wind! It was too soon: those Beli’s arrows hadn’t the range; the improvised arrows yet less. But, to the agony of Alisime, the Kerdolak bronze arrows had.
The sudden volley, whipping like Regiment braids through the air, thudded mostly into their shields. But, Uath’s curses! One of his seaman had yelped. Poison, that’s all Megovis could think as he clambered seal-like over the seats to reach him.
“Came through a gap,” the Alsime explained, starring agog at the shaft sticking out of his arm.
“Think sweet thoughts of your woman, a moment, lad,” Megovis said. These Kerdolak heads were barbed, unlike the Alisime willow-leafed points. They weren’t intended for ease of withdrawal (as Glania had found). The lad let out a hollowing scream. “Apologies. But half an arm is better than none.”
They’d lost the advantage now of stealth. The crews of all ten longboats were alerted—and those not long in arming themselves. Next the sky turned black with arrows.
“We’re taking too many cuts in our hull,” Megovis’s boatmaster called.
“Rather those skins than ours.” But Megovis relented. “The commander will provide you with new.” Providing they returned safe to South River. And those cuts weren’t a problem as yet. Three layers of hide covered the hazel-and-willow frame. It was the underbelly that was vulnerable. If all three skins there were torn they’d soon be in Mistress Nod’s Arms. But it would take a very low arrow to slice through the water.
“Why don’t we let loose at them?” one of Megovis’s seamen grumbled, fingers twitching upon his bowstring.
“No, we do it as planned,” Megovis refused him. Though he didn’t much like how the Kerdolak arrows kept finding their marks. “Heads down!” he barked and himself crouched lower.
Saram and Nod, together, worked for them bringing them closer in to the Kerdolan. To his crew’s puzzlement, Megovis found himself chuckling.
“Not right in his head,” he heard a seaman mutter.
“Nay! I’m laughing at me saying Nod, not Murky.”
“But Murky’s Hiëmen,” said another seaman.
Megovis rolled his eyes. They weren’t quite catching it; didn’t know him so well.
He peered above the rim of the boat and again he cursed. How was he to give Biadret the sign when Biadret, too, was ducked low down? Yet their boats were so close they could have held hands. Behind them Ganros’s boat was almost upon them. Three boats now within range. It was time.
Now with no need of stealth, Megovis boomed out across the waves. Biadret’s head popped up. Megovis held up a finger. The sign. He waited while Biadret relayed the sign to Ganros. Then, head again down, he studied the arrows laid across his legs as a man might regard bread and cheese: which to enjoy first? He picked out the middle one. He touched its tow-bound head to the glowing coals. Flames roared, caught by the wind.
“You keep that away from my sail,” his boatmaster said.
Megovis nocked arrow to waxed hempen bowstring and raised the bow. Weren’t only the sail in danger. That wind now was strong. If his hair weren’t safely bound into plaits Beli would lick it. The bow’s wood, horn and sinew creaked as the tautened string strained its limbs back. Long experienced, he took less than a moment to aim. Beli’s fire arced from the black-sailed Alisime boat. Megovis grinned while the boatmaster and crew, breath held, recklessly peered over their shields to watch. The fire-headed arrow ripped through the longboat’s white canvas sail. Boatmaster and Alisime crew groaned.
“Sure,” Megovis answered them, “but now keep an eye on that trail of sparks it left behind.” Given a taste of that canvas Beli soon licked his lips. Sparks became flames. Flames became flares. Flares, a full fire. And the arrow, still carrying its hot cargo, buried its head into a Kerdolak mariner.
Satisfied, Megovis nodded. “And that’s the first strike in revenge for the deaths of our kinsmen.”
Again he studied the arrows though the choice now was of two. He picked the nearest arrow. He was singing now, his shoulders swaying to the rhythm. He touched tow-head to coal, nocked arrow to string, raised bow and pulled back, taking aim. “Ay-yi-yi! Look at that!”
His seamen cheered.
“Hush.” He held up a finger in warning. “I’ve yet another arrow. Fifteen arrows, only ten targets. Hoi, Saram, be with us!”
Of the five Alisime seaboats four were weighted with wounded crewmen. Yet each had a share of Beli’s arrows—three to each boat. Now Biadret and Ganros, Iusan and Ismelis, factored-in their fire. Such a glorious sight! The air between the Kerdolan and the Alsime seemed ablaze. Canvas sails, wooden boards, the Kerdolan’s clothing; Beli’s tongue tasted it all, hungered, consumed it. Bright beacons they made.
“Hey! They’ve abandoned their bows,” a seaman cried loud before continuing to bind his fellow seaman’s blood-oozing arm with leaves and with linen.
Alas, that was not true though their arrows were fewer. But they still presented a lethal hazard to dodge.
Megovis watched the Kerdolan, the mariners now frantic to detach their sails and be rid of the fire before could it spread and eat everything. He grinned.
“Your turn,” he told the seamen. They hadn’t the Regiment’s fire-arrows; theirs were only of common-had flint. Yet they released them as volleys, again and again.
“Fools!” Megovis laughed. “Don’t they know what targets they make while pulling at sails.”
“They’d as well leave them,” the boatmaster observed dryly. “Those tatters are spreading the fire yet farther.”
It was true. Megovis’s face hurt with his grinning. From prow to stern the Kerdolak boats were streamed with fire. “And that’s as well,” Megovis said for they’d only the improvised arrows left now.
The first longboat to take Beli’s fire now was groaned, and now keeled over. As it sank the Alsime were loud in their cheers. A second boat followed, clean disappearing though the water around it boiled with bodies scrambling, hands reaching, calling and crying for help. Most soon were silent.
“Take them, Mistress,” Megovis said to the sea that lapped at the black boat’s skin. “You’ve done us well, you deserve them.” He looked at the water, so cold and murky, and shuddered.
Then, in a moment’s lull, Megovis heard the Saramequai who manned the South Rivergate stations. Battle-spears banged against their shields, they chanted. Battle-trained, their voices; they boomed. He spared them a look. And again he grinned, now to see the fire-heron cloaked Detah sat high on her blood-coated horse.
“Alsalda!” he started a new chant. It made a heart swell to see her, her own life risked to be there. River Woman, innately a queen.
The battle once it started soon was over, perhaps in less than a quarter hand. Detah had dreaded to watch and yet found it impossible to turn away. What if the Alisime boats had returned only now to be slaughtered? Then had come the screams as the Kerdolak longboats took flame. She clamped her jaws not to reveal her weakness. And what was this compared with the massacre along the Waters? When set against the tale told by Stalun and Brestan? She need have no sympathy for these Kerdolan. Yet it swirled her bile to watch their suffering; glad for those who jumped into the water, water now speckled with Kerdolan, backs up and faceless.
“This I never figured into my plans,” Krisnavn admitted. “Though, Sweet Saram, our fleet has triumphed, as good as if planned. But, Detah, why don’t they sweep in with the tide? It’ll carry them far up river.”
Detah turned from watching the smouldering longboats, waiting for the remains to list, to take water and down. “My guess is they wait for the last of the survivors to die.”
Krisnavn’s frown deepened. “An arrow into them solves it.”
“It could have been them defeated, now waiting for Mistress Nod to take them,” she said.
“But an arrow takes them to Beli. It’s like they’re waiting for more Kerdolan to appear. Then they’ll be easy targets, and all will be wasted.” He called to Markiste Hildret. “Horses. Get some men into the water. As far out as you can. Shouldn’t take much, that tide is bringing them in. I want them all dead—now.”
As he ordered it, so it was done. Detah looked away. This was wrong; it wasn’t like killing in battle. She agreed with the Alisime crewmen that the Kerdolan ought to be left. Let Mistress Nod take them. Besides, would it have hurt to pull the survivors out of the water and allow them life? But once it was done the black-bellied Alisime boats turned gate-ward.
The crews sang; that helped wipe the grimace from her face. Ganros had taught them the Regiment’s song. But, though they sang it first in Uestin, they started again now with the Alisime words Demekn had crafted. She guessed that was Megovis’s doing. With his Hiëmen mother, he had a fair use of their tongue. Except, when gathered in sufficient numbers as they were now the Alsime had their own way of singing. They divided to groups and sang in rounds. And so, as they entered South River, Tamesen’s crew started the song.
I was there with Beli,
Beli, son of Sauën,
Sauën, seed of Saram,
Saram of wide renown.
As Tamesen’s crew started into the second verse, I saw Beli girt his loins, so Megovis’s crew started with I was there with Beli. Thus it continued until all five crews were singing, but each at a different verse. I saw the dragon slain, sang Tamesen’s crew while Biadret’s crew were only then singing of being with Beli. And it didn’t stop there. When Tamesen’s crew reached the final verse, I sing the songs of Beli, they began again with I was there with Beli. Round and round, the song cycled around.
The Regiment manning the stations either side of South Rivergate stopped their rhythmic clashing of shields and spears. As if enchanted, they listened as the deep Alisime voices rolled like the waves of the sea, on and on, with the Alisime tongue naturally susurrating the words of the song: Sauën, seed of Saram, Saram of wide renown.
Detah tried to blink back the tears. Krisnavn saw and offered his hand. She hesitated . . . yet took it, relishing its warmth and strength on this most disturbing of days. He smiled at her, encouragingly. Then he held up their joined hands so all could see Clan Querkan and Alsime here were united.
But this was only the first stage of Krisnavn’s Kerdolan Campaign. Yet to come is his attack on Liënershi and, as he hopes it, the surrender of the immortal Head of Kerdol.