Alymndes 20: Battle At Sea

The cold winds of winter were whistling and hissing over the top of the ramparts overlooking the ocean off the harbor city of Villefranche. In spite of the cold blustery weather, half a score of Dwarves were busy at work shoring the defenses with local engineers and gangs of laborers.
The Dwarves had arrived from Dunlago with the first winds of the cold season.
More would join them when their kin in Beaucastel would be apprised of the situation at hand.
The very day the ship had come back from the successful mission in the mangrove, Petracan, its Captain, had been informed to make ready to immediately depart again for Villefranche. His irritation had been somewhat compensated when he saw his small friends marching towards the jetty in a straight line, each Dwarf carrying an enormous backpack topped with tools and weapons.
What Petracan did not know was that the decision had been made no earlier than the evening before.
Customers had almost scrambled out of their seats when they saw Marcus Vanenklaar and his wife materializing in front of the Blue Mermaid without any escort.
The King had raised his hand and smiled around, making it clear he did not expect any special show of respect from his citizens. Everyone nonetheless had stood up in turn and saluted as the couple climbed the short flight of stairs, walked through the verandah and entered the main room.
They had gone directly to a very large table where an outlandish motley of guests were sitting, chatting and savoring tankards of ale or flagons of wine.
Petren was enjoying the company of the six members of the Golden Dragon Squad and of the Dwarves staying at Dwarven Crafts, which used to be called the Green Anchor before its owner was sent to the gallows.
They all rose from their seats in deference as the Royal Couple came in.
“Please, all of you sit down,” Marcus started, “ or we will have to go through an endless series of salutations and pretend we show the good manners that we already have! That long walk from the Palace has made us thirsty, so would you mind if we sat down at once!”
His audience made room for the two of them to join their group on one of the simple long benches that were used inside the inn main room.
Marcus asked:
“Petren, what is the lot of you drinking? From the look on your faces, my impression is that you have access to better fare than we are allowed at the Palace!”
An amused Constable replied:
“I might agree with you here, Sire! Master Turgas brews the best dark ale in the whole city, and the red wine our friends from Beaucastel are drinking has just arrived from Villefranche. To tell the truth, I wish I could drink both at the same time!”
“I think Atraxa and I will start with the wine. But I shan’t leave before I have tasted that beer of yours! Talking of Villefranche, this is the real reason for wanting to meet you all in person around the same table in public”
Petren knew the real justification for Marcus’ coming to the Blue Mermaid. The Golden Dragon Squad members had probably already guessed. But the Dwarves had little clue of what the King was speaking. The Judge had suggested again to the monarch that a personal visit to the Blue Mermaid instead of an official invitation to the Palace might prove the best way to convince the denizens of the Iron Crags that their help was sorely needed.
By the same token, Marcus was showing his genuine concern for his nation and people. All classes of the citizenship of Dunlago were represented among the customers of the establishment, which was always full at this time of the evening. Nobody could remember a time when a King of Dunlago had allowed himself to join them without any escort to share a drink with evident pleasure, the real reason behind it notwithstanding.
Some noble guests sitting on the verandah began to regret that the words spoken around the common table could not reach them in spite of the markedly lowering voices inside the whole inn.
Marcus waited until he and his wife were served their wine before raising his goblet:
“To your health and to that of all people of Alymndes!”
Everybody around their table lifted their tankards or goblets and replied the same.
After a long appreciative sip, the King put his drink down.
“Well, I’ll be damned if I drink better wine at the Palace! One more reason for us to ensure its safe transport!”
Quartz Bronzeglaive was the first Dwarf to react to Marcus’ allusion to a fact unknown to his community.
“Sire, what do you mean by securing the transport of wine? Is carrying it by ship unpractical or unsafe?”
“Not at all, Quartz Bronzeglaive. Interestingly enough, you are the only one I know among you because we are buying your exquisite glass cups. I sincerely apologize for not paying you a courtesy visit earlier to acquaint myself with you all. I hope I will be able to redeem myself in the near future. No, shipping is the best and cheapest way to transport wine from Villefranche to Dunlago. But unfortunately, the seas are not safe any more!”
“In this particular season? I’ve heard it’s almost winter now down in Beaulieu. But surely, this is only a temporary nuisance!”
“I’m afraid not! Actually it is not wine, but all the trade between Dunlago and Beaulieu, which is being jeopardized!”
Quartz Bronzeglaive, suddenly very concerned, asked:
“If I catch your meaning, something or somebody is interfering with the good running of business. And since you’ve come to us to talk of this problem, this involves us as well. Am I right?”
“Yes, you are, I’m sorry to say!”
“But who dares meddle with our livelihood?” inquired an increasingly angry Dwarf. The same sentiment was clear for all to see on the cragged faces of the other Dwarves.
“Slavers?” Anger had turned to incomprehension.
“Do you understand the word “slave”?”
“No, I don’t! The word does not exist in our language!”
“A slave is a man or woman or a member of another race who belongs to someone else as their property and has to work for him or her.”
“But how can you belong to another one?”
“If you are bought or made a prisoner.”
“But prisoners do not belong to anybody!”
“Except if you are taken away by force, kidnapped or stolen! Now, we have been beset by these men we call slavers for ages. They attack defenseless villages to take away our people. Your friend, good man Jonas, actually single-handedly prevented such an occurrence before he came to Dunlago. Petren and the Golden Dragon Squad have just eradicated a hideout of theirs along the coast of Beaulieu. But our information shows that what had been periodical raids so far, is bound to develop into full-scale assault, coming Spring. Villefranche and the neighboring shore will bear the brunt of their offensive. If we do not help them, we all go! We are already building war ships as fast as we can to fight them on the sea, but if they secure a foothold on the Eastern Shores, we are lost! So it is imperative tha …”
“You don’t have to explain any further, Sire! If a King comes to us in person to ask for our help, we will be proud to grant it in any case! But those slavers made a grave mistake when they decided to come across the path of Dwarves! Sire, your people and those of Beaulieu have been good to us beyond compare. We owe you all a debt of honor! It shan’t be said that the Dwarves were not the best or the most dedicated when it came to the defense of Alymndes! We will all leave tomorrow by first ship to the port of Villefranche! We will send messages to our kin to come to us, and no slaver will set foot on our lands as long as a Dwarf is still standing!”
Marcus rose on his feet and bowed to the Dwarves. A hush came through the whole room to spread as far as the verandah. The citizens of Dunlago attentively listened. They felt concerned.
“Quartz Bronzeglaive, Dwarves of the Kingdom Under the Mountain!” he began. “As a citizen of Dunlago, I pray you to accept my most solemn thanks. We will be proud to fight by your side, and it shan’t be said that we were not equal to the Dwarves against a common enemy!”
He rose his glass.
“To Alymndes!”
The Dwarves, Petren and the Golden Dragon Squad raised theirs in answer:
“To Alymndes!”
The cry was shouted over again by all the guests present in the inn.
Quartz Bronzeglaive was shouting through the wind to Alfred de Vigny and Hildegard standing behind the parapet of the main wall facing the sea off Villefranche.
The King’s Delegate had just arrived following Gerhart’s orders to abandon all current business to coordinate and report the work done for the defenses of the largest harbor city in Beaulieu.
Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright had come, too. They had had to give up their planned roaming over the land, and instead had sent messages for all members of the Golden Dragon Squad to move to Villefranche to receive their orders, except for Frenegond’s platoon who stayed in Dunlago.
“The walls are sound enough!” Quartz shouted. “What we have to do is build light catapults at regular intervals on top of the rampart. As it curves around the inner harbor, we should obtain an adequate vantage over the sea. As for the portal, we just need a couple of heavy chains over sea level to bar the way to flat-bottomed boats. The chain already in place under sea level should take care of any ship with a deeper draught. But I have an idea as for the water surface just ahead of the gate!”
“What is that?”
“There is no point in spending the whole day here! Let’s go to our planning room where I will explain around a warm tankard of mulled wine!”
“Good idea!” replied Alf. “I’m not keen on freezing myself! It might be nothing for you Dwarves, but we humans do not possess your thick hide!”
Moments later, they all stood around a large square table on trestles, where a clay map of Villefranche stood beside a smaller one of the Beaulieu southern coast.
The room provided a warm shelter. The humans had discarded their cloaks and gloves and sipped a hot grog of wine while Quartz explained his projects with the help of a stick. The other Dwarves had remained outside with their work. Being one of a mind, Quartz had been deemed enough to brief their allies.
“We will build wooden platforms or pontoons just wide enough to let them through the gate and drag them against the wall, to which we will secure them. They will support a few larger catapults that we will use for heavy bombarding. We will also conceal them under oiled sailcloth to keep the catapults dry and reveal them only at the last time. We will do likewise with the lighter ones on top of the walls.”
“But won’t those platforms provide assailants with a solid foothold under our ramparts?”
“Only momentarily. If their ships come too near, all the defenders manning the catapults will go back behind the walls through the gate. We allow our enemies to board the platforms in numbers as great as possible, and then bang!”
“Then bang?”
“We will have rocks suspended inside rope nets under the machicolations. We will hide them in cloth, too. When the invaders are standing unsuspecting under our walls, a few cuts here and there, and the rocks will fall down and break the platforms under them! That is, for the ones who will have survived the rain of stone! As for the space left by the portal, the two towers protecting it should be sufficient, unless they wish to swim underwater with a full war gear!”
“That is wicked!” Alf exclaimed.
“Isn’t it?” a beaming Dwarf retorted.
“Now, what if they break our walls?” Maheut asked.
“I very much doubt they will!” Quartz commented. “Villefranche is pretty safe. But you will have to organize the defense along the shore. Especially between here and where Beaulieu ends against the Fire Mountains!” he said, going to the other map.
“Maheut, what do you think?” Alf asked.
“The shore is quite rugged along that part of the coast. This is why Villefranche is the last harbor to be found in the south. I don’t believe the enemy will be able to get a foothold large enough to mount a threatening attack on land there. We ought to build fire beacons along the waterline to signal their arrival and follow their progress. Light patrols by our Tribesmen should do. They can always call on us if our foes are foolish enough to try and land at the base of cliffs or through immerged rocks! On the other hand, I have a question of a different nature for our friend.”
Turning to the Dwarf, she asked:
“Quartz, when you were in Dunlago, did you notice any soldiers carrying bows and arrows?”
The Dwarf smoothed his beard pensively.
“Now that you mention it, I never saw any archers back there.”
“That’s what I feared.” Maheut commented. “I didn’t see any on their ships. Now, catching our enemies in a crossfire between land and the sea could provide us with an invaluable advantage!”
He-Who-Stands-Upright said:
“Since our warriors are not keen to venture on the seas, why don’t we divide the Golden Dragon Squad? The Tribesmen can patrol the shore and lead any counterattack on land if needed. They then will man the ramparts and give our defenders a good cover with their arrows. The Royal Guards can board the main Dunlago ships and contribute the same from the sea. Using long bows, we can easily cover a span of four hundred lengths. Lighted arrows can set fire to their ships as they pass between us!”
Quartz intervened:
“This a bright notion indeed! We can improve on it with the catapults if we can impede their movements and speed!”
“Well, that settles it!” exclaimed Alf. “Maheut, do you agree?”
“Definitely! As soon as the whole Golden Dragon Squad has assembled here, I will order all the Royal Guards to Dunlago. With the three already there, they should reach a total of sixty. If my information is correct, they plan to build three war ships there. So twenty archers on each vessel should form a force to be reckoned with! As for the Tribesmen, they will be more than happy to run along the shore and harass our foes from solid fortifications than to venture on the sea where they run the risk to lose face because of seasickness!”
The mood was sober and quiet inside the Embassy main hall.
Gerhart had called for a war council, bringing the usual meeting routine to a brutal halt.
All representatives were present. Among them one could remark a complete change of faces in the Dunlago delegation. Its members appeared more keen and committed than the bunch of pleasure-seekers they had met before. A lady stood out in their group. What was her name? Gladys Vanenklaar, or something like that. He still experienced problems to memorize all those exotic names. Talking of exoticism, the female Representative provided plenty and more. He would have to keep an eye on her.
As soon as Gerhart thought everybody was settled, he stood up and addressed his august audience.
“Embassadors, Representatives, Ladies and Gentlemen, greetings! I have called for this war council because I judged the time had come to share knowledge about the pending situation affecting the whole of Alymndes, which concerns all our nations and subjects! I do not wish to alarm you more than needed, but I’m afraid that the present state of affairs calls for everyone’s immediate attention and action! As you all hold your own kind of information, I would like to complement it by first painting a general picture of the situation at hand!”
A large tapestry hung on the wall behind his back. It represented a map of the continent of Alymndes. The Elves had brought it with them as Queen Ellana’s goodwill present.
It was proving a great help for Gerhart in this particular moment as he pointed at it with a long stick.
“Let me start from the Western Shores. An invading party from the south has just been eliminated to the last man thanks to the Tribesmen and the Elves. They have made sure that all traces of fighting have been erased. As for the invaders’ ships, they have been taken undamaged to safety about two hundred miles north, in case we need them for our own use. Unfortunately, we doubt it will be the first and last hostile force we will meet along the Western Seas. On the other hand, the Elves and Tribesmen keep a constant eye on them and are ready to intervene again at any time in large enough numbers! Even if enemies somehow managed to secure a foothold, we can either harass them or draw their forces inland where they don’t stand a chance! A more preoccupying matter, and Prince Consort Allaert will confirm my information, is that an Elf Prince had to be killed as he was possessed by an alien evil. The same phenomenon occurred to a Duke and his whole army in Montjoie. If it had not been for the providential help of the Tribesmen and of some faithful Beaulieu subjects, I would not be here to relate it! Before we exterminated them to the last one, they had raped and devastated a whole city and were heading to this very place. As if it were not enough, the Elves have intercepted an incursion into their forest by a score of alien soldiers who had seemingly crossed the Fire Mountains on the back of winged horses!”
Allaert interrupted Gerhart:
“But Sire! How could you know that? I was not even informed of this invasion until very recently! And nobody has told me the invaders had used Pegasuses to cross those cursed mountains!”
Voices began asking questions in earnest all around the table.
Gerhart raised his hand.
“Please! Ladies and Gentlemen! I will answer your queries one by one and at your convenience as soon as I have finished my summary of the present crisis! Now, Prince Consort Allaert, as for that particular information, I received a personal message from Queen Ellana last night! One more reason to call for this meeting at once!”
Which was true, although he would not tell that Amrel had brought that missive herself. As for how the Blue Dragon had come into the possession of such a document, he certainly was not going to investigate. And let the Elves explain later the nature and existence of a Pegasus to a captivated audience!
He had the impression of repeating the same lesson all over again to a bunch of unruly apprentices. Or was it the result of the growing influence of Jay and Arnaud in his everyday life? Some hard thinking was in wait for him.
He stolidly continued:
“Now, let me go to the eastern coast line. As you probably know, slavers from the South have beset Dunlago for ages. We have determined once for all that they can only come from the lands south of the Fire Mountains. The Dunlago Constables and a special force from Beaulieu have teamed up to destroy a hideout of theirs in a mangrove located between the cities of Anse and Valmoray. More of their ships have recently been spotted roaming the seas. Dunlago and Beaulieu expect an imminent assault of unseen proportions, probably starting with Villefranche in early next spring. King Marcus Vanenklaar has ordered the building of three war ships and the preparation of a flotilla of lighter vessels to harass and confront our enemies. Beaulieu is already providing logistical support for the war ships with Royal Guards bowmen while the Tribesmen will assure the patrolling along the coast. Dwarves have been shoring our fortifications in Villefranche. Knowing that the ships from the South cannot navigate far from the land, I have suggested the following strategy in a letter to Marcus Vanenklaar: the three Dunlago war ships will turn around the invading fleet to push them against Villefranche where the Dwarves will greet them with a few nasty surprises of their own making, while the smaller ships harass them from the north to block their escape. This way, either they turn back to where the hell they come from, or we give them a lesson never to forget!”
Anthony Vanenklaar raised his hand for attention.
“Yes, Ambassador Vanenklaar!” Gerhart encouraged.
“I tend to think that you are depicting the present situation as if an enemy was taking a concerted action to have us occupied on as many fronts as possible at the same time. Why would it do that, and what other proof do you have?”
“The enemy, that is all what we can call it so far, has tried twice to significantly destabilize Beaulieu. The Montjoie incident unfortunately was only the second one. Had it not been for Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur and her drastic intervention, Beaucastel would have been wiped out by a black plague of origin we haven’t been able to fathom yet!”
Anthony pressed on:
“If I understand well, our foes are trying to spread our defenses of Alymndes as thin as possible to concentrate its true assault on Beaulieu. Where would that most likely occur?”
“Have you heard of the Pass?” Gerhart answered, moving the tip of his stick to a point in the Fire Mountains south of Montjoie. “Here you have the only direct land access between Alymndes and the South. We know where it opens in our continent, but we do not have a clue as to where it ends up, as mists have hidden the land beyond for eons. Whatever the time of the year or the prevailing weather conditions, those impenetrable clouds have not moved so much of an inch. Now, if somebody can come up with a plausible explanation of that unnatural phenomenon, I’m ready to revise my opinion of the whole situation!”
Prince Consort Allaert, who, like every Elf, was fiercely protective of his Forest and lands, seemed to hold a better grasp of what Gerhart was trying to infer to his audience, remarked:
“Unfortunately, I have to concur with you, Sire, for we have also been the recipients of such invasions and assaults. We know the Pass and our subjects have perceived increasingly threatening signals from that particular area. Whatever the decisions from other nations, we will give all possible help in defending the Beaulieu border. Now, how do you plan to protect that sensitive spot?”
“That has already been taken care of, thanks to the Dwarves and the contingent of laborers contributed by Dunlago and Beaulieu. The wall closing the Pass has just been finished. Barracks and more facilities are being built to accommodate the army, which will man the rampart!”
“Sire, if I may?” asked the leader of the delegation from the Kingdom under the Mountain.
“If you please, Forge Harkan!”
The Dwarf stood up. He was old, even by Dwarven standards. His beard and hair were entirely white, and his craggy face bore more wrinkles and scars than an old vine stump. But for all the seemingly rough appearance, Harkan has the reputation of a comparatively sedate Dwarf, highly respected in his community for his wisdom and counsel.
“It seems to me that all our nations have already had inklings of impeding trouble, and I would like to offer my public thanks to King Gerhart for having invited us to his Embassy, thus giving us all a chance to compare notes for the first time ever. And not too early, apparently! The Dwarves are certainly not ready to let aliens impede our newly found prosperity or the friends who have contributed to our wealth. As King Gerhart has said, our kin has moved to Villefranche and the Pass to help reinforce the defenses there. We have moreover been informed that a column of our best soldiers is already marching to the Pass! I have spoken!” The last was uttered to the sound of grunts of approval from the other Dwarves.
His intervention made any other comments irrelevant, as he had clearly pointed out the common interest for all to consider. The inferred losses were too great for any nation or people to further ignore the dangers lurking in the South. A concerted action had become paramount to the success of the defense of Alymndes.
Gerhart briskly summarized the tasks and responsibilities best suited to each nation and people’s abilities and capacities. These were the more readily accepted, not only because the monarch of Beaulieu had proved that he had the best understanding of the crisis, but also because he was fast becoming highly recognized for his organizational and diplomatic skills.
Even the dour Prince Consort had come to reassess his previously low opinion of humans in general.
The Free Tribesmen of the Steppes agreed to guard the Western Shores in the company of the Elves who patrolled the Fire Mountains border south of their Forest. The Races of the Desert and the Sea were best suited for sea warfare and would insure the safety of the Eastern Seas and shores. The Dwarves assumed a direct hand in the fortifications of Villefranche and the Pass, and would stay to provide their engineering and fighting skills. Beaulieu, apart of insuring their own defenses, would provide liaison and communication with the help of the Tribesmen. Every nation agreed to dispatch any forces they could spare to the confrontation expected at the Pass, although Gerhart had doubts whether their numbers would be sufficient in that trouble spot. Most of his own forces, led by the d’Estrees brothers would have to land a hand to the garrison in Villefranche. He would have to throw in all his elite Royal Guards at the Pass, then.
Ekan was standing near the dry docks of Dunlago. The breeze in the air felt different this day. It must be almost Spring in Beaulieu by now. Many men were toiling hard on the three new war ships. They had been at work day and night for the last four moons, and their constant efforts had at last paid off. The ships were to be launched the next day. All kinds of cargo waited piled in long lines along the piers and the wharfs of the harbor. Petren had been spending every day recruiting and training sailors and soldiers who would take part in the fights ahead.
A few days ago, fifty-seven Blue Knights and Walkyries of the Royal Guards forming the Golden Dragon Squad had arrived and immediately joined the quarters reserved for the military of Dunlago, with whom they were actively making acquaintance with. No special instructions had been needed from Petren. The reputation of the newcomers was by now well established thanks to the Constables who had taken part in the mangrove fight. Each Royal Guard had brought three bows and one hundred arrows each in addition to their usual weapons, mainly swords and maces. They all wore steel-studded leather armor over their silk shirts instead of the finery and heavy plates Royal Guards wore back in Beaulieu. They had carried supplementary equipment of the same kind inside their baggage: cuisses, greaves, gloves and other padded leather protection for their limbs as well as a round helmet. They were better armored than their Dunlago counterparts as they would be more exposed, assuring the cover of their new comrades who relied more on speed and brute force provided by their bulk.
“Jonas!” a voice called behind him.
The Black Dragon turned back. Captains Adir and Petracan had arrived in the company of a third man, obviously a sailor of high rank.
“Adir!” he greeted his old friend. “It has been a long time, has it not?”
He embraced the grizzled captain, before shaking hands with Petracan.
Adir introduced the third man:
“Jonas, this is Kamran who is going to be the officer in charge of the Black Adder! Kamran, meet Jonas, the scourge of the slavers!”
Ekan shook hands with the new face, a massive man with a grayish scar cutting across his left sunburned temple and cheek.
He welcomed the sailor:
“Now I know who leads that ship! As for the Seadragon and the Hope, I did not have to wrack my brains to understand that Adir and Petracan could obviously not forget the name of their previous vessels! The three of you certainly make for a nasty-looking team!”
“Do we not?” Adir laughed. “But we would make a far more unpleasant bunch if you were to join us!”
“I am!” the Black Dragon resolutely countered.
A cruel smile materialized on the Captain’s rugged mien.
“Then you come with me on the Seadragon! I haven’t forgotten your promise yet!”
“Neither have I!” Ekan answered, noticing puzzlement in the other sailors’ eyes. Adir apparently had not told everything about their encounter with that slavers’ ship, although it seemed like yesterday.
He did not know whether he would be able to contain himself the next time he met those abominations, and he did not care.
That same day in the afternoon, he was sitting at the main work table in the kitchen, sharing coffee with master Turgas and Naeem.
The Taverner was aware of what Ekan was about to declare, but it came as a surprise to the young apprentice:
“Naeem, I will sail with the Seadragon tomorrow and be away for some time, maybe as long as a full moon. Therefore, you will be in charge of the kitchen for the whole period as well as from the moment I come back.”
“But, …” the young man started.
Ekan raised a placating hand.
“Master Turgas and I have come to the conclusion that you are more than capable of looking after the Blue Mermaid’s excellent reputation and build on it. Moreover, even after we have finished that disagreeable business with the slavers, I will still be on the move for some time, as I have to travel to Beaulieu and other parts of Dunlago. Do not worry, I will come back some day, and I intend to realize some projects of mine to contribute to the aggrandizement of Master Turgas’ venture!”
“Why not ask Grazel? She has been working here longer than I!” Naeem insisted.
“Grazel is a very fine woman,” Turgas replied for Ekan, “but I need her to keep a watchful eye on our growing staff. I already have enough work at the bar! It is about time that we allocate different duties to some of our more experienced employees. Naeem, do you have a clue of how much work is involved to keep our customers both in the tavern and the inn happy?”
Not waiting for Naeem’s answer, Jonas further remarked:
“Which means that yourself will also have to assume more responsibilities as to the organization and improvement of the meals for our clients. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels. Somebody is bound one day to take example of the Blue Mermaid and open an even better establishment. We have to stay one step or two ahead of the competition. We will always expect first choice from your father’s fish, but keep an eye open on any other good fisherman or farmer. I should be able to come up with new ideas and better produce at the end of my coming travels. I also have a couple of notions for trade. This is why I have to take part in that expedition!”
Naeem’s curious nature took the best of him:
“May I ask what your ideas are?”
“In good time, Naeem! In good time!” the black giant laughed.
That evening, Frenegond and her five companions were sitting around drinks on the verandah when Petren came to join them at their table.
He waited for his ale to be served before he spoke to them.
Raising his tankard, he proposed a toast:
“To Alymndes!”
“To Alymndes!” the Golden Dragon Squad soldiers answered.
Frenegond asked the question all of them had on their minds:
“Petren,” she began informally, “you haven’t come tonight for the sole purpose of sharing a drink, or you wouldn’t have offered such a toast. What’s up?”
“We are leaving port tomorrow, and that includes you, Tristan and Thibault. You are joining me on the Black Adder led by Captain Kamran.”
He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms said:
“Which means the three of us will leave for Villefranche by land tomorrow!”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. So this is good-bye for a while. Let’s hope it won’t be too long before we all meet again!”
That night Frenegond and the three warriors locked themselves up in the same room until morning. Tristan and Thibault chose to sit all night long on the cool verandah, sharing thoughts about the recent events and future happenings.
Mareeva was still awake in her bed when Wolf called her:
“Good evening, Mareeva! You’ve had an eventful day, have you not?”
“Yes, Wolf! Father told me he was leaving on a ship tomorrow!”
“Do you know why?”
“Yes. He said that he was going to help our people punish very bad men!”
“Why are they bad men?”
“They take people away!”
“And it has to be stopped, has it not?”
“Yes. But I worry about Father. Everybody says there will be a big fighting. People will die!”
“I know, but that cannot be helped. People die to allow others to live. But I can already promise that your Father will return.”
”Thank you. But I don’t like that friends must go to war. Some will not come back!”
“Mareeva, when war cannot be avoided, it is best to do with it as quickly as possible. If your Father’s friends wait any longer, more of you will suffer!”
“I know, but I don’t like it!”
“Nobody does, Mareeva. But one day, we will be grateful for the peace that will come out of that sad business that is called war. But tell me: what else has your Father told you?”
“He said that when he comes back, he will take me to the land of the pink people. I can’t wait to travel with him!”
“We will be able to meet again, then!”
“Are you going to Beaucastel, too?”
“Yes. But before that, we will walk to the sea to a place called Villefranche. Now, say good-night to me. Little one!”
“Good night, Wolf!”
Spring had almost arrived when Amrel and William entered Villefranche at the head of a train of horse-drawn carts. Their trip had been a long one all the way from Beaucastel. But now the days were growing warmer and the cold winds had receded to leave place to a gentle sea breeze.
They had a lot of work ahead of them. Royal Guards were helping their retainers unload the contents of the carts on a cleared area near the harbor. The soldiers were directly concerned by the task as they were aiding the erection of a field hospital in preparations for the inevitable future conflict.
“I wonder how big we should devise this field hospital.” William said to Amrel, as they were directing their helpers. “After all, we do not know the extent of the enemy’s invading force.”
“Do you mean, “we people in Alymndes”? You ought to be more knowledgeable of the people south than us, ought you not?”
“Jay! How can you be so careless?” he remonstrated her in a low voice.
“I’m certainly not! That is for our ears only. Nobody can hear us! Now you should be aware that all what you told my sister is known of me! It’s time we get some information. And by “we”, I mean different people, as you might have guessed. How much can you tell us about these slavers? “We” are all listening!”
William closed his eyes.
For all his experience of dragon’s magic, or at least what the likes of She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons were capable of, he had difficulties to grasp the mere fact of many individuals listening to him thought he one single woman’s ears. And they could probably see him as well. The notion sent a cold chill along his spine.
“Jay, one day I will hold you accountable for keeping me in the dark. I understand that for the moment my human failings will prove detrimental to the higher purpose, and the less I know, the better. You should have realized that I have lost all reasons for going back to where I used to call home, in spite of the horrors befalling us. Thirst for revenge is what has kept me in a whole piece until now. But soon I will need more from you, your sister and who else if you wish to retain my commitment to your cause!”
Amrel was about to retort, but William opened his eyes. His face had turned pale and his lips were pinched in an effort to control himself.
“Please!” he uttered. “This is what I can tell you, although I possess scant knowledge as distances are vast in the South. The continent there is roughly parted into seven kingdoms constantly at war with each other. The realm south of Villefranche is called Thalamus with its capital of the same name. But I would presume that the slavers come from a large harbor city in the north called Morenin. Unless an order comes from the Inquisitors or the Commanders, I very much doubt any other nation would join Thalamus in any invasion of Beaulieu or Alymndes. Of course Rasgon came from Andragon, my land located on the west opposite of Thalamus. The land directly south and west of the Pass is called Drastan. All the tales I have heard so far about that particular place speaks of all kinds of mysteries and strange creatures.”
“Like flying horses?”
“Yes, and many more.”
“And all seven kingdoms are under the sway of the Inquisitors and Commanders?”
“As far as I know. But my impression is that if those monsters disappeared, all those realms would most probably fall into anarchy or worse. For all the so-called Kings and noble families, none of them has a hierarchy remotely as effective as in your lands!
Glamrun’s voice resonated inside the Blue Dragon’s head:
“Amrel! This is good enough information for now! You ought to protect William instead of putting him through more suffering!” Do I have to remind you he is our sole link with whatever lurks behind the Fire Mountains?”
Amrel took the young physician’s shoulders in her hands and pulling him close, she kissed him on the cheek.
“Our thanks, William!”
He kissed her cheek back.
“You are welcome, sister of my lover!”
Geoffroy d’Arcourt, Alfred de Vigny and Hildegard happened to walk up the main street of Villefranche, surveying the general outlay of the harbor city, when they met a procession moving in the direction of the main city gate. A richly dressed man rode in the company of a bejeweled lady on two beautiful palfreys ahead of three carts drawn by sturdy horses. Each vehicle was handled by servants and retainers and was full to the brim with personal belongings. A couple of riders ostentatiously hired as private guards were closing the small column.
Geoffroy called the wealthy man:
“Good man, good day to you! May I inquire as to where you are heading for?”
“Good day to you, too! In turn, may I inquire as whom I am speaking to?” haughtily answered the man, who nonetheless reined in his mount.
“Geoffroy d’Arcourt, Captain of the Royal Guards. Now, may I reiterate my question: where are you heading to?” he testily replied.
“I see! The Royal Guards are now coming in force to our good town of Villefranche!”
Turning to his companion: “Wife, wasn’t I right when I told you that I felt the wind changing for the worse? All those soldiers and strange aliens could not bode any good! We are departing not too early, as it seems!”
Facing Geoffroy, he concluded: “My dear Captain, as you can see, I’m leaving this city because of the coming war. I hope you have nothing against my finding a safe haven for my person and that of my spouse?”
“Do you not feel secure inside Villefranche since we are helping its citizens to defend it? I doubt you will see a more efficient and better equipped garrison in the whole of Beaulieu!”
“And what is it to me? I’m asking you! What proves me that it will be so? No, Captain! I’ve been able to reach my status because I’ve always known when to stay and when to get the hell out! Now if you don’t mind, I offer you my good-byes!”
A disgusted Geoffroy let them go.
But Alfred was not ready to accept that gracefully.
He turned to his Walkyrie companion:
“Hildegard, could you at once begin a survey of the whole city, noting which merchant or trader has elected to stay and contribute to the welfare of the city? I will recommend a two-year tax exemption for them as soon as we have taken care of this sorry business. As for the cowards who have left us, Gerhart would do well to have them banned from venturing within a hundred miles of Beaucastel or Villefranche for the next twenty tears!”
“I will second that!” Geoffroy icily approved, as the Walkyrie was already on her way.
The twenty-one envoys of the Free Tribes of the Steppes were studiously listening to the words of She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons. They had learned to pay great attention to her teachings and orders, so quick and sharp her tongue was when she caught anybody straying from the matter at hand.
The Golden Dragon was giving little heed to niceties that day as she was tackling the thorny problem of general hygiene and basic care. She had found that too many young lives in particular, and, more preoccupying, also those of expecting women were needlessly lost because of ignorance or neglect.
Women were slowly coming to assert themselves in the tribal societies, and men, forbidden to engage in feuds and petty fights, spent more time with their families, sharing the chores and actively participating to the care of children.
She-Who-Smiles-To-Danger had secured the presence of six more talented women of all ages to attend the lectures of She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, and was working hard to promote the Golden Dragon’s ideas. These were more widely received thanks to the attitude adopted by younger warriors taking her companion, He-Who-Speaks-His-Heart, as a model.
Umatar was explaining the importance of good food for pregnant women when a Tribesman entered the yurt.
She interrupted her lecture to ask:
“Yes?” She kept her relations with all Tribesmen as informal as possible.
“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons! A man has come to seek an audience with you! He comes from very far, as far as the sea. We cannot make half of what he is trying to tell us. When we asked how he reached Trade Fair City, he answered he begged his rides from Tribesmen.”
“Let him in!”
“But, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons! He is only a beggar. He couldn’t even tell his name! Can’t he wait outside until you finish your teachings?”
“This man is a beggar indeed, and he has lost his first name. But he has gained a lot during the last moons of his life and could teach you much in return! I will see him right away!”
The Tribesman, after a last dubious look at the Golden Dragon, lifted the cloth barring the entrance and called outside.
Soon a Tribesman of unusual appearance penetrated the yurt, attracting everybody’s eyes onto his person. He only wore a loincloth and a blanket on his shoulders. In his left hand he held a staff with a small bundle tied to its extremity. His feet were bare.
He bowed low to Umatar.
“My Queen! I have come as ordered!”
The Golden Dragon had increasingly heard that title of late, and was not pleased. She wondered if she would have to prohibit her people to utter the word, at least in her presence. Though she knew too well she could not prevent the Tribespeople to revive the old tales of a Queen reigning over the whole expanses of the Steppes and of the prophecy that said she would come back again to reunite all the Tribes.
She greeted the Shaman formerly called He-Who-Knows-All:
“Greetings, He-Who-Bears-No-Name! You have done well and I am pleased! Be seated behind me, and open your ears and eyes!”
The assembly gasped at the words. Whereas most other societies in Alymndes considered sitting at the back of anybody else a demeaning situation, the denizens of the Steppes considered it the greatest honor, as the person sitting in front of you fully trusted his or her unprotected back to your care.
The Shaman obediently moved to a secluded spot behind the Golden Dragon and sat directly on the soil, ignoring the cushions scattered around him. He kept silent and immobile for the whole session.
After the envoys had left the yurt, Umatar addressed him:
“He-Who-Bears-No-Name, how do your people fare in your village by the sea?”
“They have become prosperous beyond their wildest hopes, thanks to your generosity, My Queen!”
“I would be grateful if you could drop that title!”
The Shaman faced her squarely. For once pride took over humility:
“My Queen, all of your subjects honor you with this title when they think you cannot hear them! You have bestowed us peace, unity and dignity. How could we not call a woman Our Queen when she is listened and obeyed by all?”
“You perfectly know that most deign to consider my suggestions for the sole reason that they fear me! Only when Tribesmen and Tribeswomen show a healthy sense of responsibilities and assume their own initiative that I will let them call me whatever they fancy!”
“My Queen, fear is the beginning of wisdom. Is it not?” a smiling shaman replied.
Umatar laughed.
“He-Who-Bears-No-Name, you are becoming too sensible for your own sake! By the way, do you still have to go along barefoot and unclothed?”
“As long as I need to be reminded of my past failings!”
“Well, there is no longer any need to chastise yourself. I want you to learn from now on, not to lose yourself into indefinite penitence!”
“What will you have me do, My Queen?”
“Just keep close to me. I will find plenty of work for you! But before that, find some clothes and wash yourself! You stink like an old goat!”
On a moonless night, the dark shapes of a small fleet materialized around the cape found at the end of the Fire Mountains range, moving at a safe distance from the spewing volcanoes and the lava pouring into the sea. No lanterns or lights could be seen on the vessels. Whether they wanted or not to penetrate the waters of South Beaulieu undetected soon became a moot point as the Tribesmen spotted them from their vantage point on top of the very last cliff not endangered by the toxic fumes or hot ashes. One of them ran to light the beacon located behind a boulder. The Tribesmen had devised a line of very cleverly concealed fires all along the Beaulieu coast up to the northernmost city of Anse. These beacons could only be seen from inland. Any enemy trying to invade from the sea had no way to understand that they were being monitored all the time.
An hour later, Petren saw a light from the shore near Anse appearing and disappearing at regular intervals.
“Frenegond, we are receiving messages from the shore!”
The Walkyrie had been waiting for that signal all night long. They had been navigating the seas of Dunlago for the last three days and had just reached this point in the company of the Seadragon and the Hope ahead of the fleet of smaller boats forming the Dunlago armada.
She reached for a signal lamp, lit it, and raised and lowered its cover a number of times. The signals from the shore changed in rhythm.
The crew were awake and on the upper deck watching the horizon.
After a while the Walkyrie closed her lantern a last time before turning to Petren:
“Constable, twelve vessels have been spotted entering the Beaulieu waters an hour ago and proceeding north a few miles away from the coast directly into our direction. The Tribesmen think they are big enough to carry a crew of twenty to thirty in each. As far as they can figure, they do not sail that fast, Anyway more slowly than our own vessels. He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer sends you his greetings!”
“Good work! Now, let’s inform the Hope and the Seadragon, and hear what our orders are!”
Light signals were soon seen going and coming between the three war ships. The last message came from the Seadragon, the leading vessel Ekan had boarded.
Captain Kamran had come near Petren. His grey scar could be clearly seen in the dark, snaking along his face.
“Petren, what are the orders?”
“The three war ships move away from the shore in a file while our fleet progresses along the coast in a tight pack. We should reach Valmoray by morning. Until then, all crews to rest in shifts. Tomorrow, all hands to wear battle gear!”
The orders had been uttered loud enough for all to hear and were obeyed without comment, although Frenegond sensed a thinly contained excitement among the Dunlago men pervading the atmosphere over the ship. She personally had felt such an emotion before a fight only on very rare occasions. The last time had been in Montjoie when they had taken the walls at night. She had been motivated by a righteous thirst for revenge at the time. She could understand her new comrades’ mood. But she would have to keep all her wits if she was to cover them efficiently. As she was in charge of the Royal Guards contingent on the Black Adder, it might prove a good idea to have a quiet word with her men and women on the morrow.
Ekan was standing in the stern in the company of Captain Adir who manned the wheel himself when morning came. They were alone.
“It seems that we will at last get a chance to pay back all our debts to that scum!” the old sailor as a way to start a conversation he had long been meaning to hold with the enigmatic giant.
Ekan was not fooled. In any case, the time had come to offer explanations to Adir who deserved them. They would probably not find a better occasion for a long time to come.
“And answer your questions as well?” he replied.
A smile came on the Captain’s rugged face.
“Why do I suddenly feel that instead of answering questions, you are going to talk me on your own terms?”
“Adir, you might be a veteran of the seas, but all those years away from the land haven’t blunted your wits!” Ekan laughed before continuing: “Could you please leave me the wheel? Not only have I things to tell you, but also a few to show you.”
A puzzled captain switched places with Jonas. What was he in for? He realized too late that he was probably in for more than he had bargained for.
Ekan begun:
“Instead of wasting time in long-winded explanations, I might as well show you something that will immediately convince you of who or what I am in spite of my appearance. First look at the wheel!”
The Black Dragon released the large unwieldy contraption from his grip.
It did not move.
Adir could not help shout:
“Jonas! Grab the wheel! I don’t need an accident as an explanation!”
“Do not worry! It will not change by even half an inch! Why don’t you try and change the ship’s course yourself?”
A slightly panicked Captain rushed to catch the wheel. But try as he may to steer it, it would not budge.
“How can you do that? Are you a magician?” he sputtered.
“More than that, Adir.” Ekan answered as he took the wheel back and maneuvered it without any apparent effort. “Look at my hands.”
A more and more worried Captain complied with Ekan’s request.
The Black Dragon went through the same demonstration for the second time since he had come among the creatures he had been asked to look after. He sincerely hoped it would be the last one. But after the Judge, Adir became the second most important Dunlago individual in his plans, present and future.
The captain saw with growing horror the hands of Jonas slowly transform. First the fingers around the handles grew into long alien black-scaled digits, like those of one of the giant marine lizards seen on half-submerged rocks along the northern reaches of Dunlago. Next the nails became onyx black talons with sharp pointed extremities. In an instant of surreal clarity he noticed that the surface of the nails in contact with the handles was serrated and slowly penetrated the hard wood.
“Touch my hands, Adir!” he invited.
But the Captain stood unmoving, transfixed by the sight.
“Touch my hands!” a low rumbling voice ordered out of Jonas’ mouth.
Adir stretched a trembling arm towards the steering wheel. His fingers tentatively touched the black-scaled skin. Intense heat radiated through it. He let his hand slide till they rested on the evil-looking talons. They felt hard and cold as if they had been carved out of stone.
His snatched his hand back as if it had been burnt.
“Jonas, who are you?” he croaked with great effort.
Ekan looked at the Captain for a while. Would the man prove as solid as the Judge?
“Adir, what possesses scaly skin and talons like these and wields such magic?”
Sweat was running down Adir’s temples and cheeks in spite of the cool sea breeze.
“But, …, but you are …”
“A creature of legend? I’m afraid you will have to revise your beliefs. Forgive me for being brutal about it, but the faster you understand the situation, the better for your sake and that of your people!”
Something clicked inside the Captain’s head, helping him to control himself at the same time.
”Our people”?” he asked. “But if my eyes or other senses do not betray me, you can’t even say you are of our own kind!”
Ekan welcomed the argument. Captain Adir was showing a rare courage to dare and gainsay a dragon.
“Adir, I was ordered the mission to look after the Races of the Desert and the Sea. How could I do that without becoming one of you? I adopted my daughter who was born in the same village as many of your crew! Why should I bother with Master Turgas’ inn, the Guilds and what else?”
Adir looked at him Things started falling into place in his mind.
“Who else know what you really are?” he asked.
“Only one person. If you think a bit, you should easily discover who he is. You had a lot of questions to answer from one individual after you arrived in Dunlago, had you not?”
Adir shook his head in disbelief.
“The Judge! He must have had a hard time to believe you, if I consider my own reaction!”
The sailor ruminated on his thoughts for a while.
He squarely faced the Black Dragon.
“Jonas, being what you are, why haven’t you dealt with the slavers yet? It should not be a physical impossibility! And why haven’t you gone south of the Fire Mountains to strike them a telling blow, either?”
“For the same reason, Adir. We have come, note the “we”, to fight off an evil threatening the whole of Alymndes. We know for sure that it originated in the South. But since we do not know its true nature, we may not reveal ourselves in full, lest we lose the main advantage of our own concealed identity!”
Adir took some time before venturing:
“Therefore, our troubles are only beginning?”
“Unfortunately, you are right. And the two of us will be in the middle of the fray for still a long time to come!”
The sailor cogitated a while more. He blurted his last question out with great difficulty:
“Jonas, the true reason for boarding the Seadragon is to lead us into battle, is it not?”
“Yes and no. I will help you with information nobody else has. I will participate into the actual fight as I have to find the answers to my own questions. But you are leading the Dunlago fleet into the present battle. We work as a team for now, although I will not be always on hand in the future. So you had better get used to that notion!”
The two of them went back to their thoughts.
Ekan stayed at the wheel while Adir kept an eye on the sea ahead.
The upper deck was witnessing a great activity as the Dunlago soldiers and the Royal Guards were making ready for the expected confrontation. Last commands were given as regards to the fighting order. The Dunlago men were posted along the starboard bulwark while the Beaulieu Knights and Walkyries prepared bows and arrows. The latter were stored inside twenty tall boxes safely secured on the deck beside a small, elevated platform to allow shooting over the soldiers manning the bulwark. The Dunlago men had brought large shields to protect themselves against eventual enemy fire until engagement could be effected. Coils of rope fixed to hooks had been installed at regular intervals for assault. Finally pots of pitch were brought at the feet of the archers. Arrows with heads wrapped in cloth would be dipped in them and set fire to before shooting them at whatever enemy boat which happened to come within range. The same arrangements were made along the port bulwark in case fighting also took place there.
An hour passed had passed when Ekan addressed the captain:
“Adir, take your telescope and watch ahead!”
The Dwarves had manufactured one such instrument for each boat in the armada, and three more extremely powerful for the war ships.
Adir took his out of a long box he had carried out of his cabin before taking the wheel that morning.
The Captain espied the small shapes of twelve sailboats beyond on starboard side.
“Here they come at last! Jonas, do we sail and meet them at once?”
“No. I sense a trap here. They are too obvious decoys. Look at their formation. Instead of coming at us in a compact bunch, they move in a staggered line. If we chase them, they can easily turn back in good order and lure us into a battle on their own terms! Let’s keep together and progress at the present speed. Send flag orders for the three war ships to stay aligned while the fleet continues along the coast as close to each other as possible!”
Adir realized at this instant they were in good hands. If he had let his blood boil and ordered to immediately engage, they could have ended up in quite a mess. He ought to leave all strategies to Jonas. Nobody would be the wiser anyway.
The whole armada moved at a steady pace all day and the following night, ignoring the enemy vessels, which turned back in the afternoon, before making a second apparition just before dusk.
The next two days witnessed a similar game of cat and mouse with the only difference that Jonas orchestrated a slowdown of the war ships so as to allow the other vessels to follow within distance of their leaders.
On the fourth day Adir espied the fortifications of Villefranche. They were still a few hours of sailing away from the city, but thanks to his telescope, he could make out some of its features.
“I can’t see much from here, but the walls didn’t look the same when I visited the place last time!” he mentioned to Ekan.
“They shouldn’t look the same if our good friends the Dwarves have finished their small modifications!” the black Dragon replied with a smirk.
“By the look on your face, I surmise that our enemies are in for a few nasty surprises!”
“Yes, indeed! And I intend to help them make acquaintance with them!”
Adir moved his sight to the ocean beyond.
“That could happen earlier than we thought!” he said seeing the enemy reappearing on the horizon.
A moment later, the old sailor uttered an obscenity.
He handed his instrument to Ekan.
“No need, I’ve seen them!” retorted the latter. “What is the name of those vessels?
“Yes, they are large ships using both sails and oars. They are called so because they sport three rows of oars on each side to compensate for lack of wind, or when they need more speed. How many do you count?”
“Twenty. They have a flat deck on top of the galley. I can see many soldiers on the deck and under covered platform in the forepart of each vessel. They are very large indeed. I can count twelve oars per row. That would mean at least seventy-two men manning them! There must be three scores of soldiers aboard. A total of sixty score of enemies on those triremes. Why don’t we have any of those in Dunlago?”
“They became obsolete when slavery was abolished, and we just don’t have enough convicts to replace them. They might come in handy to transport troops, but as vessels, they are cumbersome and may only be used in quiet weather!”
“So this is why they are so much in need of slaves!”
“Surely. Although I doubt the men at the oars are from Dunlago. They haven’t abducted large enough numbers! My impression is that those bastards are not beyond enslaving innocents in their own lands!”
Ekan reflected for a while.
“These triremes are therefore aiming at Villefranche while their other sailing ships are covering them. How many boats do we have moving along the shore?”
“Thirty with twenty soldiers aboard each!”
“I see. Here is what we are going to do: I don’t think those triremes will run the risk of losing themselves on high seas. Signal for ten of our ships to sail in a single line between them and their sailing ships while the other twenty engage the triremes and push them either against the walls or back to where they come from. The three war ships proceed directly against their faster ships, but we move along their starboard side at the last moment and fire them with lighted arrows!”
“Good enough plan!” Adir commented.
He left Ekan at the wheel, while he went down on deck to relay orders.
Dunlago sailors were renowned for a very original and effective way of communication through flags fixed to a rope between the top the highest mast and the stern or the prow for all to see.
The message was quickly acknowledged as ten vessels sailed out of the armada aiming between the triremes and the sailing ships.
The distance separating the two opposing fleets rapidly decreased.
Either the command of their foes did not realize the strategy, or they did not care, as they kept course, unless they felt overwhelmingly confident of their superiority.
From his past experience, Ekan presumed that most of the sailors or warriors aboard those ships were under the influence of some evil power rendering them oblivious to dangers or sufferings.
Adir climbed back on the stern to stand beside the Black Dragon.
Jonas’ eyes were intently watching the coming boats.
“Adir, tell the Royal Guards archers to aim their lighted arrows at the top sails! Tell all the ships to avoid collision for the moment!”
“But, …”
“I know. You want to fight right away, but there are things we have to ascertain before running headlong into the brawl these thugs are looking for! Make one pass, shoot arrows and turn around! Be kind to give orders at once!”
“What about our line of lighter ships?”
“Tell them to observe and report!”
Ekan’s eyes wandered to the harbor of Villefranche. The triremes seemed to have their own orders as they all glided straight towards the ramparts.
Geoffroy was standing on top of the walls in the company of Forge Harkan, the Dwarf who had organized Villefranche’s defenses. The denizens of the Iron Crags and his kin had adorned their stocky frames with impressive battle gear. There were only a score of them, but everybody certainly knew who was in charge.
“That’s a lot of ships and enemies to deal with!” the Royal Guards Captain ventured.
“The more interesting it will become when they impede each other! Unless they have planned to use their boats as assault platforms!”
As if whoever was in charge of the command of the triremes fleet had heard him, they saw the ships veer as one towards their walls. On the left, the Dunlago armada, which they had observed since that morning thanks to the Dwarves’ telescopes, was still at least an hour away.
The triremes would reach the harbor in half that time.
“Our Dunlago friends will never arrive on time, I’m afraid!” Geoffroy said.
“I beg to differ!” gruffly retorted the Dwarf. “Those stupid slavers don’t realize that our allies will catch them against our walls and prevent them from fleeing. They are diving into a trap of their own making!”
“Thinking of it, you are definitely right!” gleefully replied the Captain.
But his face hardened.
“This also means that these bastards are intent on breaking our walls, or die to the last one in the process!”
“What are you complaining about? If they wish to make our job easier, let them!”
The triremes had come within a hundred yards.
Geoffroy turned to the Tribesman at his side:
“He-Who-Stands-Upright, have the Tribesmen fire lighted arrows at those ships!”
The warrior shouted an order. Soon trails of fire were seen arching over the sea to land on the sails and decks of the triremes. Arrows falling on the wood were apparently swiftly dealt with before they could cause any damage, but sails burst aflame, provoking pandemonium on the decks. Men hacked at the masts and hastily pushed the useless burning sails overboard, some of them falling onto the oars and breaking many of them. The Tribesmen continued shooting for a while before Geoffroy ordered them to stop as he noticed that all the triremes had got rid of their masts and sails, and solely relied on their oars. He invited the Dwarf by his side:
“Quartz, your turn to play has come!”
The latter, who had impatiently waited all that time with a derisive smirk on his craggy face, came to life and shouted at the men standing below him on the platforms in front of the walls:
-“Unveil the catapults!”
The covers were taken off the hidden war engines installed on three of the floating decks secured to the ramparts.
They were ready to fire. Dwarves directed men to load the spoons with round rocks arranged in neat rows nearby.
Quartz commanded:
“Fire at will!”
The catapults were unleashed with a sharp twang. The water under the platforms helped cushion the shock. But it took some time before they could be reloaded. Meanwhile, the projectiles had reached and broke through their objectives with a sickening crash, throwing men and debris across the ships. Soon three of the triremes were brought to a halt, making them sitting targets for the next volley. This time the three ships started listing as the boulders had gone through decks and bottom. Panicked soldiers tried to scramble onto other ships. Geoffroy shuddered at the fate of the oarsmen as he saw the three vessels slowly go under water. The bottom of the sea rapidly sank down off Villefranche, and it was deep enough for boats to disappear and be caught in undercurrents.
But the three catapults rapidly became useless as their loads landed beyond their targets.
Quartz called as the triremes had come within thirty yards of the walls:
“Abandon the platforms! Climb the walls!”
The men below did not need to be told twice and soon hurried up the ladders and ropes lowered for them. As soon as they had all safely returned onto the parapet, the ladders were hoisted up.
The Dwarf shouted again:
“Catapults on the wall, fire!”
The lighter engines, devised for a shorter and more direct aim, were heard releasing their loads.
But instead of round heavy rocks, they were throwing a rain of incandescent metal balls, which had been heated on braziers installed next to the catapults.
The red-hot pellets pelted the decks of the coming triremes wreaking horrendous havoc. Enemies began falling in droves, while their comrades pressed forward under the slim protection of the covered platforms in the forepart of their ships.
Five triremes had caught fire and enemies were seen evacuating them in a hurry, although a few of them made it to the other vessels as those desperately tried to avoid contact, lest they caught fire, too.
In spite of impeding each other, the remaining twenty-two triremes doggedly kept moving forward. Soon the catapults would become of little utility.
Geoffroy barked:
“He-Who-Stands-Upright! Order the Tribesmen to shoot at will!”
A deadly rain of arrows began flying from the ramparts. But the triremes carried their own archers, and shooting from the parapet became a dangerous proposition.
Geoffroy suddenly discovered that the ships were inching forward into a solid front against the walls. Soon they would crash against their defenses, immobilizing their boats in the process. Risky and wasteful as it seemed, their entangled mass would provide their enemies with a makeshift platform from which they could conduct a concerted assault.
The two fleets were fast closing the distance separating them.
Adir ordered:
“Archers, light your arrows!”
Each Royal Guard dipped his or her arrow inside the pot of pitch installed beside them. A Dunlago soldier assisted each of them and lit their darts.
The first enemy ship had almost come alongside the Seadragon.
The captain shouted:
“Aim at the upper sails! Let fly!”
Either such tactics were new to them or they chose to ignore the danger, but their foes did not so much veer an inch off course. Only the combined speed of both fleets contributed to the escape of some of their enemies. Even so, half of their ships were rapidly becoming floating infernos as the top burning topsails began falling on the large ones below to form a fire umbrella over the unfortunate crews.
As soon as the Dunlago war ships were all gone past their opponents, Ekan called Adir:
“Captain! Order all three war ships and the Dunlago fleet to turn tail. We have a second go at them! This time, signal to the lighter ships to come closer and lend a hand in case of an all-out fighting!”
It took them some time accomplish the maneuver as sails had to be trimmed many times before t hey could make a complete about turn.
But when they had achieved their tricky operation, they found that the remaining enemy fleet, instead of trying to flee, had done likewise and were deliberately coming at them at full speed.
Ekan knew that they faced the certainty of a battle this time.
The six burning enemy ships were lost and would sink within a matter of time, but they still had to deal with the same number of unscathed vessels, probably full to the brims with fanatic warriors. The fate of Alymndes depended on that first contest.
His fears found their confirmation when he saw the enemy ships veer as one in the main direction of their port sides.
”Adir! Move all archers to port side! No lighted arrows this time! We can’t run the risk of incinerating ourselves! Have them aim at human targets! All Dunlago soldiers to get ready! Signal the lighter boats to attack, too! We have to take tem into a pincer before they can break our line!”
Orders were shouted again and the crews moved to the port bulwark.
The three war ships kept their line as tight as possible to prevent any enemy boat to go between them.
The Dunlago soldiers picked the hooks that they had readied.
The two fleets rapidly closed the gap.
Ekan, and the other sailors to be sure, could make out the men aboard the six enemy ships. They were uniformly clad in black like the slavers whom he had encountered before. Black could be a necessary color for their malevolent deeds, but he was getting sick and tired of that particular color, which had also been worn by the Montjoie fanatics. As for physical features, their foes came in various sizes and looks, although they all sported a sunburned skin. Either the climate was hot in the south, or these humans spent most of their lives at sea.
His thoughts were aborted when the first enemy ship crashed alongside their port side.
Hooks were thrown and ropes secured. The Royal Guards let fly their arrows.
The Black dragon called:
“Adir! Take the wheel! I’m going to lend our men a hand! Make sure to stay alive!”
“But, Jonas, I have to be with my men!”
“Somebody has to make sure that this ship stays in the proper hands! Stop talking and come here!”
The captain hesitated and was about to retort when Ekan’s voice changed to a rumble:
“Adir! This is an order!”
A furious captain ran up the stairs to the stern to take the wheel from Ekan. The Black Dragon slapped him on the shoulder.
“Sorry, Adir! But you are vital to us! I’m not going to risk both your life and our ship!”
Without waiting for an answer, he jumped over the rail onto the deck, and swiftly moved to the port bulwark to participate in the fight.
Just as he reached his destination, the Seadragon was rocked by a second collision. Looking ahead, he realized that each enemy ship which had docked to each of their war ships had been in turn joined by their remaining own boats whose crew were now boarding their comrades’ vessels to add their strength to the assault. A clever strategy, he thought. But if they could manage to hold them long enough, their lighter vessels would catch their backs unprotected.
The Seadragon and the Hope were apparently holding their own, but the Black Adder was caught in the middle and its crew was facing higher odds. They were containing their enemies only thanks to the dogged courage and discipline of the Royal Guards who kept shooting in spite of their enemies making use of the same weapon. The fight at the bulwark left them more and more open.
Some Knights and Walkyries started falling.
Petren momentarily turned back to check their situation when enemy fire seemed to concentrate on the middle of their archers’ line. He saw Tristan and Thibault collapse almost simultaneously.
With a scream of rage, he ran to them. Just as he reached his friends, he heard a muffled cry above him. Raising his eyes, he discovered Frenegond who had crumbled on her knees, the shafts of two arrows sprouting from her chest.
He barely managed to catch her before she hit the deck.
He shouted at her:
The Walkyrie’s face rose to meet his eyes.
Recognizing the Constable, the woman weakly smiled:
“Ah, dear Petren! Thanks for coming to me! I will die happy now!
“Don’t talk! I’ll take care of you, you silly girl!”
The Walkyrie’ eyes were growing vacant.
“No, Petren. I know I’m finished. Grant me a boon. I’m a Walkyrie! Put my sword in my left hand!”
Petren mechanically obeyed her wish.
Once she held her sword safely in her grasp, Frenegond opened her eyes wide, and with an excruciating effort asked:
“Petren, I’ve loved my men too much to go without the blessing of one of them! Kiss me good-bye, will you?”
A trembling Constable bent to the Walkyrie’s beautiful face and brought his lips against hers. He felt her right hand clutching his neck hard onto her. Her body tensed a last time in his arms before falling back limp. Frenegond’s eyes had closed, but he saw a smile adorn her mouth. Her flame-red hair was curling around her face under the breeze.
He gently released her.
As he stood up, he found that Tristan and Thibault were dead, too.
Sweat and tears were mingling over his ebony face. But whoever saw him that moment would never dare say later that the Constable had cried.
Petren brandished his sword and roared above the fray:
“Royal Guards! Drop your bows! Take your swords! Today we avenge our friends!”
With a great cry he rushed to the fight at hand.
His sudden contribution backed by the remaining Royal Guards seemed to tilt the fragile balance of the fight in favor of the Dunlago soldiers for a short while. But the sheer numbers and madness of their of their foes were on the verge of shifting the advantage away from them again, when they heard a commotion coming from behind the mass of their foes.
The lighter Dunlago boats had finally joined the fight.
Ekan had noticed the Dunlago counterattack, too. He decided it was time for him to interfere in the course of things in his own manner. But just as he was about to jump over the bulwark to follow the sailors of the Seadragon who already had surged aboard the enemy ship, he head Adir calling him:
“Jonas! One of the ships is escaping!”
Truly enough the vessel, behind the one that floated along the Seadragon, had cut the ropes linking the two enemy ships and was sailing away from the fight in spite of the new Dunlago assault.
Ekan ran up the stairs to the stern.
“Will we order a chase?” Adir queried.
The Black Dragon had a long look at the fleeing vessel.
“No, let it go! We cannot afford to hunt it south of the Fire Mountains anyway! We practically know nothing of what’s in wait for us there! But one day will come when we will bring the war into their own lands!”
And the first city he would visit was called Morenin, he thought.
But he had other concerns to worry about.
“Adir, stay at the wheel until we have finished the present business!”
The enemy ship, which had managed to escape, had done the right thing.
The battle had rapidly turned in favor of the Dunlago sailors. Their foes nonetheless would not give up an inch and died on the spot in spite of their suddenly untenable situation. They would have to be killed to the last.
Ekan jumped over the bulwark, and, swatting aside any enemy foolish enough to face him, went in a straight line to what he thought to the ship captain’s cabin.
He opened the door under the stern platform. Nobody was there. It was dark inside, but his dragon sight had no difficulty to make out any detail. He saw only a cot and a small table by a case, which made for a seat. There were no parchments, documents or writing tools. He opened the case. It contained nothing but a few change clothes. No map hung on the wall. He wondered what kind of orders the captains of the slavers had received before they left for their dreadful mission. He did not believe he would find anything of significance. He remembered that all searches had been in vain in that slaver boat they had taken on his maiden voyage.
He went out.
The fight had almost reached his conclusion. The five enemy ships were being systematically cleaned of all foes. It was only a matter of time before the last slaver would be dispatched.
He briskly walked through the carnage, climbed over the bulwarks and rejoined Adir at the stern.
“How is it going?” Adir asked with some asperity.
“As if you didn’t know! We have won the day, but to grievous costs! Now I think is the time we helped Villefranche, but I have work for you!”
“Cleaning up, I suppose?” retorted the still grumpy Captain.
Ekan ignored the cheap taunt.
“There is nothing worth keeping in those ships. We could make them our own, but cleaning them and taking them back to Dunlago will tax our abilities to the extreme. Therefore, have those five ships towed to sea with their dead crews, burn them and sink them!”
Adir saw the good sense in Ekan’s orders.
“Will do immediately! How about you?”
“I’ll join the lighter ships! Flag them to all leave at once for Villefranche. Once you have finished with those slaver ships, come and join us over there. Some of our injured have to be treated at their field hospital. We also have a lot of funerals to go through, too!”
Ekan stretched his hand to the Captain who took it.
“Captain Adir, you have my most sincere thanks. I’m asking you a lot, and will ask even more some day. Can you reconcile yourself with your new tasks?”
Adir gruffly replied:
“It will take some time to get used to, but I promise I will give you my best! But next time, may I ask you for more precise planning?”
Ekan laughed:
“Well, from now on, you will find yourself stuck with so much homework that you will wish to be back to your fishing days!”
As Geoffroy had feared, the first triremes had crashed directly onto the pontoons and against their walls, the other ships piling behind with the ensuing entangled mass providing a solid platform for their enemies.
The ships had not immobilized that the assailants were already pouring from under their forward shelters onto the pontoons.
When Quartz had judged there were enough of them under the ramparts, he ordered the ropes holding the nets full of rocks to be cut. The carnage below soon reached horrifying proportions. But their enemies, after all, still numbered to almost a thousand, and they quickly threw planks they had brought aboard over the mess of dead bodies and floating platforms debris.
All the while, their archers had covered their advance, and it had become increasingly difficult to shoot at them from the parapet. After witnessing Royal Guards and even Tribesmen fall under enemy fire, Geoffroy had judged prudent to switch to a protracted defensive strategy to contain their enemies until the Dunlago armada arrived to succor them.
It proved more successful than shooting or throwing all kinds of projectiles over the walls. The Royal Guards and the Villefranche militia helped by the Tribesmen and the Dwarves formed a formidable combination to breach or bypass. While the Beaulieu soldiers provided the main body of their defenses, the tribesmen’s agility and the Dwarves’ brute strength filled any gap and cut down any assailant who had managed to set foot on the parapet. In spite of their numerical disadvantage and the many ladders erected against the ramparts, they were holding firm. The gate was not breached either, as the slavers had not found a way to break the chains across the water.
Suddenly a great shout rose from the walls.
The Dunlago armada had finally come to rescue.
Tall and burly black men were seen jumping from their ships onto the abandoned second row of triremes, running across them, bounding onto the front row and engage the slavers from behind with blood-curdling screams and oaths of death and retribution.
The fight on the ramparts ceased all at once.
The slavers were on the defensive. It soon became a general massacre as Dunlago men kept pouring into the melee. The defenders watched in awed silence the berserk black men recklessly throwing themselves at their nemesis with all the pent up rage of a people who for the first time was offered the chance to return years of misery and pain onto their elusive persecutors.
The last slaver was hewed down.
After an unreal lapse of silence, the Dunlago brandished their weapons with a thunderous cry of triumph. The defenders on the ramparts shouted in response, accompanied by the ululating voices of the Tribesmen and the beating of Dwarven axes on shields.
Ekan had reached the triremes shortly after the assault by the Dunlago soldiers. Petren had joined him in his boat at the very last second. The two men were walking across the upper deck of one of their adversaries.
Petren suddenly stopped in his tracks.
“Jonas! There is something really unusual about this trireme!”
“Are you going to ask me why, for all the numbers of oarsmen below deck, we can’t hear a sound from them?”
“Yes, and nobody is going to make me believe they are cowering in silence. Unless somebody has cut their tongues!”
“Or worse!” Ekan glumly added.
“What is on your mind, Jonas?”
“Let’s find out! Come!”
They found the trap door to the galleys and opened it. A ladder led downstairs. They strained their ears, but could no catch any voice or other sound. They climbed down to find themselves standing on a narrow plank stretching from end to end of the ship and looking over three tiers of seats occupied by oarsmen on both sides. But the men manning the oars sat immobile. Their mouths and eyes were wide open. But they were speechless and unseeing.
“What’s the hell is going on? Are they all dead?”
“Worse than that!” Ekan replied.
The men had long been dead in mind and soul. Their bodies had been kept alive, but whatever had been their identity had been snuffed out of existence long ago. Some were of Dunlago, others from unknown races.
Ekan felt a wave of revulsion submerging him.
They would never learn what kind of dark magic could take the lives out of humans and keep their bodies functioning at the behest of their tormentors. No slaver would be alive to tell them, and from his past experience Ekan knew too well none would have done so if spared.
He turned to the Constable:
“Petren, this stays between us! All these men are dead. Have you heard of necromancy, the dark arts, which keep the deceased alive? Well, you have examples around you, although whoever mastered them is dead, too. These are long-gone corpses of men! Have all the dead slavers piled onto these triremes, tow tem away as far as possible and put fire to them!”
“There is no way to save them?” The Constable hopelessly ventured.
“None, whatsoever! In fact, it would become highly dangerous to keep them among us any longer! What would happen if someone found a way to put life back into them?”
Petren shook his head in loathing.
They climbed back onto the upper deck and closed the trap door.
The fight had ended.
After the shouts of victory had abated, Petren shouted orders in his no-nonsense stentorian voice:
“The battle is over! Let’s clean that mess! Bring our dead and injured, if any, aboard our ships! Pile the dead slavers on the triremes and tow them as far as possible, and put fire to them!”
An officer shouted:
“But Chief constable! What about the oarsmen?”
“They are all dead! Sorry, we have no time to check who they were! Let’s get that filth out of the way! Now, move!”
The Dunlago soldiers were too disciplined to vent any further objection. But Petren would feel a pall of unanswered questions hovering over his head for the rest of his life.
Thirty-three pyres lined the wharf of Villefranche harbour.
A herald shouted each of the names of the men and women lying on the faggots to the ears of a vast silent crowd formed of all the survivors of the Free Seas Battle, as the fight was already called. Twenty of them belonged to the Royal Guards including ten Knights and seven Walkyries who died at sea and three Royal Guards who perished on the ramparts. Ten militia soldiers and three Tribesmen joined them in death. Most of the Dunlago sailors attended the ceremony, but their dead would be buried at sea during a funeral held later in the day.
Petren stood in front of the audience in the company of Maheut, He-Who-Stands-Upright and Frenegond’s three warrior comrades, who had just arrived from their watch along the shore. The three Tribesmen had cut their braids in mourning and shaved their temples. Each of them had deposited a strand of their hair on the bodies of Tristan, Thibault and Frenegond. Other members of the Golden Dragon Squad who had died, including the three warriors killed on the walls, had been offered similar tokens of their bonds in grief.
Faces grew tense and forlorn as the herald proceeded to light each pyre in turn. The whole crowd, helmets under their arms, stood in mute observance, paying their least respects and farewells as the flames rose high in the sea wind.
Finally, Geoffroy stepped forward, drew his sword and brought it across his heart.
His voice resonated over the crackling of the burning wood:
“Soldiers and friends, salute!”
Everyone present brought swords, axes, or hands across their chests in response.
The crowd broke ranks. The ashes of the departed would be gathered and dispersed later in the sea they had fought to keep free.
All the surviving Golden Dragon Squad members and the Royal Guards filed to board the lighter Dunlago boats to join a funeral held on the war ships to bury the deceased Dunlago sailors at sea.
The Races of the Desert and the Sea had suffered grievous losses. Nearly four score had succumbed and ships would be sorely undermanned on the way back home.
”Nearly six score of good men and women we lost!” Maheut uttered between gritted teeth.
“Maheut, you ought to feel lucky, considering we killed almost twenty times that number of our enemies!” He-Who-Stands-Upright tried to comfort the Walkyrie, a hand resting on her shoulder.
“For all I care!” she shouted, throwing her goblet of wine across the room.
“Sergeant, take a hold on yourself!” Birghit shouted back. She had returned that morning from an inspection tour of the Pass. She was greatly vexed at not having taken part in the battle. “This is war. And losses are part of it!”
“I still don’t have to accept them!” Maheut stubbornly retorted.
“Nobody does! But these soldiers died protecting our freedom. What would have happened to the citizens of Villefranche if you had not been there? We are professional soldiers and our duty is to serve our countries and families, even if we have to die for it!”
The room went momentarily silent. Petren was there too to offer his last greetings before sailing back home. Quartz Bronzeglaive was waiting for instructions. They were all expecting Alfred de Vigny and Hildegard. The d’Estrees brothers had already gone back to Montjoie.
A knock was heard at the door.
“Come in!” Geoffroy ordered.
A Royal Guard opened the door.
“Captain! Three warriors of the Golden Dragon Squad are asking for an audience!”
“Let them in!”
He-Who-Runs-Like-A-Deer, He-Who-Rides-The-Wind and He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms entered.
“Good day, warriors of the Steppes! What is it?” asked Geoffroy who knew that formalities were lost on the Tribesmen most of the time. The more direct you behaved with them, the better communications you achieved with them.
He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms replied for the three of them:
“Good day, Captain! We have come to ask a boon of She-Bows-To-No-Man!”
The Captain had heard that name of late. He did not know what to do with it, but he kept his counsel.
Maheut answered in his stead:
“Yes, He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms?”
“The three of us want to be posted indefinitely in Dunlago to learn the ways of the sea!”
The Sergeant eyed the three Tribesmen for a while. They did not flinch.
“And get your revenge, or I don’t know you!”
Her remark met with silence.
Petren intervened:
“Sergeant Maheut, it would be a boon for Dunlago, too, if you grant the wish of these exceptional soldiers. They would have so much to teach us! Moreover, I can vouch for them and send you regular reports!”
Maheut looked at Geoffroy and Birghit. They were her superiors. A slight nod came from both of them.
“So be it! You may go to Dunlago! But you are still soldiers of the Golden Dragon Squad! Is that clearly understood?”
The three warriors gravely bowed
“Our thanks, She-Who-Bows-To-No-Man!
They exited after a last salute.
Maheut turned to Petren:
“Constable, you understand that these three will also officiate as liaison agents between our two countries?”
Petren chortled.
“We understand each other well, Sergeant, do we not?”
Alfred de Vigny and Hildegard penetrated the room at that moment.
“Good day, everybody! Captain, could you read this open letter from King Gehart? It has just reached us by fast courier!”
Geoffroy took the proffered document and perused it before reading it for the attention of all present.
“We, the Council of Beaulieu and King Gerhart of Beaulieu, for the invaluable help freely offered to our nation in times of dire need, grant the following rights in token of our gratitude:
Any ship of Dunlago bearing a letter of introduction from King Marcus Vanenklaar or the Chamber of Representatives will be exempted of all port duties and customs taxes for the next two years.
The citizens of the Kingdom Under the Mountain are made honorary citizens of Beaulieu.
Any warrior of the Steppes bearing an authorization from Queen She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons will be granted the free entrance of our nation.
Moreover, as we consider the inhabitants of the Elf forest as our friends, they will also have the freedom of our nation.
Lastly, any citizen of Beaulieu wishing to visit any of the four nations announced, will have to apply for a letter from the Council of Beaulieu asking for the permission of such reciprocal privileges!
Petren commented:
“Your King is truly generous! This will surely provide great opportunities for establishing trade right away!”
Alfred said:
“A copy of this letter is already on its way to each friendly nation. Captain, this letter is to be read to the Council of Villefranche. I have one more letter from the King to the citizens of this city to be read conjointly. It says that all citizens who stayed and helped with the defense of their town will be exempted of all taxes for the next two years. Moreover, Villefranche will be the next city to be modernized on the model of Beaucastel, Montjoie and Montreduc as soon as the Kingdom under the Mountain can help us!”
“Consider it agreed! We will start tomorrow!” Quartz declared.
”But what of your own trade?” asked Alfred.
“That can wait! We live long lives after all!” The Dwarf answered with finality.
“What of those who chose to leave the city before battle started?” Geoffroy queried.
“I was coming to that! Apparently we were given a sympathetic ear! Such individuals will be forbidden to come within a hundred miles of Beaucastel or Villefranche for the next twenty years! A list has been communicated to the King, the Council and all garrisons!”
Fair as it was, this was a harsh punishment, effectively granting or denying the right of trade for a whole generation, depending on which loyalties you had chosen.
For all the benefits of this decision, Geoffroy wondered whether it might alienate some influential spheres of the Beaulieu citizenry.
Probably, more work for the Royal Guards, he ruminated.


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