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This Rough Magic: Chapter Thirty

       Last updated: Sunday, October 12, 2003 14:01 EDT



    "Up. Drill time."

    Benito groaned, but after nine days of Erik's discipline he knew better than to argue. The wind had been blowing steadily from west-southwest since yesterday morning and they weren't making good speed. It looked like this purgatory would continue for at least two more days.

    Oh, well. It was only purgatory, not hell. Besides, he'd realized the truth in what Manfred had said: Erik was savagely unhappy about some woman. Benito had exorcized his own demons in this respect with strong drink, wild antics, and occasional fights. Erik dealt with it by a regimen of training which would make mere war gods weak at the knees. He pushed Benito. He pushed Manfred. He pushed various of the Knight of the Holy Trinity. Most of all, Erik pushed himself.

    Personally, Benito thought his own method of dealing with the decisions of those irrational creatures was easier, if not better. It wasn't something he was going to point out to the Icelander, however. Erik shared the inclination to an occasional fight, and Benito had realized by this time that you really, really, really didn't want to fight with Erik. Benito understood now how the Corfiote seaman who had tried to rob him must have felt when he had seen his intended victim turn, and realized that what he faced was an unleashed wolf.

    Benito kept quiet, as quiet as ever he had in his life, maybe quieter. Manfred, however, was allowed to complain. So long as he actually did exactly what Erik demanded, of course.

    Just now, it was dark, and Erik was toeing them both in the ribs.

    "It's before dawn, you Icelandic madman," grumbled Manfred, in a voice like millstones grinding gravel. "This is a time for sleeping. For snuggling down next a warm cuddlesome woman. Just because you can't, don't take it out on me."

    The fulminating look that Erik gave Manfred promised that in fact the Icelander would take it out on him, which suited Benito just fine. However, on this particular occasion both of them were saved from being Erik's frustration-release by a yell from the masthead.

    "Sail ahead! Blessed Jesu—lots of sails!"

    Within a few minutes, the knights were all awake and on deck. The Capitano peered nervously forward from a perch on the bow. Erik joined him with Benito and Manfred in close attendance. "There's a lot of them," he said unhappily. "No reason for a fleet that size to be here, my Lords, except for trouble. There'll be cannon on them too."

    He shook his head. "We'll have to turn and run, my Lords-"

    "No. We won't," said Erik grimly, pointing to the north-east, behind them. Now that the gray dawn was breaking they could see a fan of other smaller vessels, under oars, stroking towards them.

    The Capitano turned, looked, and blanched. His lips moved silently as he counted. "Twenty-two galliots. No, twenty-three. Pirates, by the looks of them. That's the biggest fleet of galliots that I've heard of since my grandfather's day, when Admiral Gradineri broke their power off Otok Brac and burned their lairs on the Narenta."

    "They don't seem to have stayed broken," said Manfred dryly.

    The Capitano shook his head. "They're like rats, Milord. You can never find all the holes. What are we going to do? We're trapped between them."

    "Run with the wind and fight our way out of whatever trouble catches us," said Manfred.

    "No." Benito hadn't meant to say anything, but the words just came out of him without thinking. He couldn't believe that neither the Capitano nor Manfred nor Erik could see it—but it was so obvious. Maybe it was all that time on the rooftops as a boy, but he could see the battle in his mind's eye as if on a map.

    "Look at the pattern! The galliots are aiming to cut us off. Look at them! They're not rowing towards us at all. They're heading towards where we'll be if we turn and run. I'd guess we were spotted from the shore yesterday and this was planned between them. Those carracks there are bearing down on us with the wind. The galliots only have to burn our sails and stop the oarsmen from getting a good stroke with a peppering of arrows, and the carracks and their cannon will catch up with us. We need to drop the sails and bull straight into the wind."

    Erik's eyes narrowed. "We'll evade those carracks. They can't quarter close enough to the wind for that. But the galliots are smaller, lighter and faster. They'll catch us."

    Benito smiled savagely, seeing it all unfold in his mind. "They'll have to row a good dogleg to do it. And then they can face our cannon. We don't outgun all those round-ships, but we do those little things." Then he looked at Erik and said "Uh. Sir."

    Erik snorted. "That was for training. Speak if you have sense to speak, and it certainly sounds to me like you do."

    Someone clapped. It was Eberhard of Brunswick. "Well, he is speaking it now. That is the old Fox's grandson talking. That is thinking. Real strategy."

    Manfred nodded. "Give the orders, Captain. And make signal to the other vessels." He turned to the knights. "Right gentlemen. Below and arm yourselves! Into armor. They won't be expecting fifty knights on each of these ships."

    Erik held up a restraining hand. "Wait. Those galliots—the rowers fight too?"

    The Capitano nodded. "Yes. One or two of them might have small cannon, but they rely on boarding vessels and hand-to-hand fighting."

    "Good." Erik turned to Manfred. "I don't think we should have the knights don armor yet. If we give those galliots a long chase... They'll be good and exhausted by the time they do catch us." For the first time since he'd come aboard, Erik gave Benito an encouraging smile. "Or what do you say, young Benito?"

    Benito nodded, looking inwards at the map in his mind. "Yes. If we can keep up the chase for long enough we can turn again and quarter on the wind. We'll be upwind of the carracks. The galliots will change course, to cut the corner... But that'll mean that they have to keep rowing while we can rest on the oars."

    Manfred bellowed. "No armor, gentlemen. Not yet. You'll all be taking a turn at the oars."

    The grumble at this order was stilled by Falkenberg, who swatted an already gauntleted hand against his breast-plate. "You heard the Prince! Those of you already in armor, strip it off."

    "Falkenberg!" yelled Manfred.


    "I'll want a roster of what order the knights and squires will row in. I want them to spell the rowers but not exhaust themselves. Set it up for me."

    In the meanwhile, the Capitano had sailors on the rigging, with orders flying. A sailor on the poop-deck was making signals to the other vessels. As the sails came down, four steersmen swung the great rudder hard over. Oars came out and the steady drumbeat began.

    "The carracks are resetting their sails," said Erik, squinting across the water. The vessels were, Benito judged, still more than a league away.

    "Won't matter. They can't sail close enough to the wind."

    Eberhard of Brunswick looked thoughtfully at Benito. "Just how do you judge this? I know from speaking to your grandfather that you are not a sailor. You've never been outside of Venice before."

    Benito shook his head. "I... I can see it, Milord. In my head. I know how close to the wind the galliots can sail. We've done that for the last two days. The Capitano said to Erik-yesterday-that he was lucky this wasn't a round ship. They cannot get enough points to the wind." Benito shrugged and held up his hands helplessly. "It's a like a picture in my head from a high rooftop. I can see where people are going. I can see where they can go."

    The Ritter nodded. "I knew your Grandfather well. I was based in Milano some twenty years back and he and I met on a number of occasions. Once, when he had delivered a crushing defeat against the odds to Phillipo Maria of Milano in some minor border dispute, I asked just how he did it. He described something similar. Only he spoke of it in chess-terms."

    Chess had been one of few things Benito had discovered in his life as Case Vecchie that was more enjoyable than the way he'd lived as a messenger and thief. "It is a great game, Milord."

    Eberhard smiled wryly. "When this is over, you must give me a game. And if you desire a true challenge, that man is the master." He pointed to Eneko Lopez.

    The cleric looked away from the sea, raising his eyebrows. "It is a challenging game. But the only man I know who sees a battle like a map is Carlo Sforza." He looked very penetratingly at Benito. Someone had obviously been telling family secrets.

    Benito said nothing. So Eneko continued. "It is your birthright, boy. A God-given gift. See you use it wisely in his service." Eneko Lopez straightened up. "I will go below. Francis, Pierre, Diego and I will see if any protective magics may be worked."

    "Better if you could blast them all to ash," grumbled Eberhard. "The pagans I fought in Småland had a magician who could do that, until someone put an arrow through his eye."

    Eneko shook his head. "It is not fitting to destroy human souls, for thus is evil magic defined. In wars among Christian men, it is common for Kings to claim God is on their side, but that is vainglory. God is on the side of those whose souls need him. God decides on rights and wrongs of a cause, not Kings, and our magic will be as sand in the wind if we try to use it to attack. But evil magics—ah, now those are best countered by ecclesiastical power." He turned and went below decks.

    Eberhard snorted. "He said much the same thing to the Emperor, can you believe it? He's a stiff-necked man, that one." He looked wryly at Benito. "I don't think you got much else from Carlo Sforza, boy. You should be grateful for that skill—from both your father and your mother's side. Yes, I know too, Benito. Half the world does."

    Benito felt his face grow hot as he flushed, and he thought of Maria, and what she had said. "They keep expecting me to be like one or the other of them. I'm not! I'm myself."

    The elderly Ritter tugged at his white moustache. "Some of us struggle to live up to the reputation bequeathed to us by our blood. Others struggle to rise above that reputation. It can be done, boy. But we are shaped by it. It's whether we allow it to rule us or whether we direct it. That stiff-necked priest is right. You have a gift. Use it well. Use it as Benito Valdosta would use it, not the Wolf of the North—nor, even, the Duke of Ferrara."

    Falkenberg came up to the deck and spared him having to answer. "Milord of Brunswick, here is the roster for the rowers. Prince Manfred asks that you control this matter. He says it will take true statesmanship."

    The old Ritter smiled ruefully. "I detect Francesca's hand. I'm supposed to be training him and instead he's manipulating me." He took the list. "Well, you don't have a monk's fist, Falkenberg. What's this? I see Manfred's name heads this list."

    "Erik said it would set a good example, Milord. He said all chieftains take a hand at portage, and therefore Manfred could do some rowing. Manfred swore at him."

    The Ritter raised his eyes to heaven. "Well, I daresay if nothing else that will make it impossible for any other knight to claim rowing is beneath his dignity. Very well. Young Valdosta, I suggest you divest yourself of any extra clothing. Rowing is hot work, I've been told. You're also in the first shift."




    Manfred had had Von Gherens assign places to all of the passengers. Von Gherens had arrived at "where to put everyone" by the simple expedient of counting an equal number into each cabin. Under their vow, all of the knights of the militant order were officially equal regardless of former station, or present rank. So Knight-Proctors had ended up in broom-cupboards, while several squires had the third best state-room.

    Except, of course, for Manfred and Francesca's cabin. Francesca had smiled at Von Gherens. They had the very best stateroom.

    Eneko, Diego, Francis and Pierre, on the other hand, had nothing but some floor space—if they all exhaled at the same time.

    The others were waiting for him. They'd plainly anticipated what he would try to do: Scry to see if this was some part of a larger evil. Eneko knew the dangers here at sea. The alignment of the consecrated area wouldn't stay aligned.

    The candles were prepared. The incense was in the censer. Diego was taking a bottle of water out of his pack.

    Weaving the sevenfold circle in this confined space took care. But one thing Eneko had learned: Magic required precision. There was no room for mistakes.

    "In nomine Patri, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, fiat lux."

    Enclosed in the magical curtain of light the four joined hands and began the ritual of searching.

    This was not simple scrying; in scrying, one knew where one wanted to look, but not necessarily what one wanted to look for. Here, they knew, not only where, but (in general), what. This might be nothing more than the ongoing battles of Venice against pirates, or pirates and some greater enemy—but Lopez did not think so. Here they had one of the possible heirs to the Emperor and one of Chernobog's great enemies—more than that, really, in the form of Erik Hakkonsen and the four priests. These fleets, this alliance, might be what the Black Brain had been focusing on when it had let them go so lightly, back in the Jesolo swamps. This, then, might well be what Lopez had feared. And if it was, then there would certainly be an agent of the Black Brain somewhere nearby.

    That was what they were looking for.

    Each of them undertook the invocation to one of the four Archangels of the compass; this was no time for mere Wards. But not without a moment of thought.

    "You, Pierre, or me in the North?" he asked of the other. They all knew which creatures were the most likely to be under Chernobog's sway.

    Pierre considered it. "Perhaps six months ago I was your superior in combative magic, Eneko," he said, soberly. "But I think you have surpassed me. I will take the East, though, which is—"

    "Another source of trouble. Very well." This would mean that Pierre would begin the invocations, and Eneko would end. Pierre faced outward, raised his hands, and began to intone the prayer to request the presence of the Archangel Gabriel in their work.

    The fact that, instead of a simple Ward Pillar, they got something that was a towering blue flame, vaguely man-shaped, was not comforting. And yet, in a way, it was. They now knew, for certain, that this was what they had been expecting, dreading, waiting for. It had begun.

    When it was Eneko's turn to invoke the Archangel Uriel, he had barely intoned the first sentence of the prayer when his Ward roared up, in brilliant gold flame. Nevertheless, he completed the prayer, ending with a bow of thanks.

    It was Francis, as the representative of the West, who blessed the chalice of wine that they would use as their mirror—though it was not the standard shape of a chalice, being more of a footed bowl to provide a satisfactory surface to use as a mirror.

    They exchanged glances; Pierre looked fierce, Diego somber, Francis resigned. Eneko did not know what he looked like; his face just felt stiff. They focused their concentration on the chalice of blessed wine, and began the first careful probes for the taint of evil. Since there was no "earth" as such, and not much chance that even the Black Brain's creature could force a spirit of fire out over so much water, Eneko joined with Francis to search the waters, and Pedro with Pierre to survey the air.

    They expected that the creature would be subtle. It wasn't.

    Eneko felt the nausea, the icy chill, and the shock of encountering naked, unshielded Evil. The result was near instantaneous. The wine seethed and began to boil. The light curtain pulsed, as if sheet lightnings striated within it. And the North Ward was filled with the sound of great Angelic wings.

    All four of them reeled; Eneko was the first to recover. Perhaps Pierre was right; perhaps he had grown in skill! But this was no time for pride, though the confidence that the fleeting realization gave him was a bulwark under his feet.

    They were now no longer within the bowels of the ship. They, and their circle, Wards and all, were... elsewhere. Not quite out of the world, but not in it, either. It was a place of swirling darkness, green and black flame, and sickly, polluted clouds.

    Moving sinuously through it, looming over them, was—something. Serpentine, but it was no serpent. Black and green, with a mouth of needle-sharp, needle-thin teeth, long as stilettos and twice as lethal, piggy little eyes, and a strange, spiny crest. It confronted them.

    No. It confronted Lopez. It focused on him, and drew back to strike.

    "That which cannot abide the name of Christ, begone!"

    Eneko Lopez drew strength from his companions, strength from his faith, and from the Archangel of the North to strike at the thing.

    Perhaps it had not expected the blow, for it did not move out of the way. Perhaps it had expected that they would be paralyzed with fear. It neither dodged, nor did it invoke shields. The blow, a sharp lance of golden light modeled on the Archangel's own weapon, pierced the thing's hide. It opened its maw in a silent scream.

    Then, huge, slimy and vastly strong, the creature bled and fled, and they whirled away out of that not-world and were back in the belly of the ship. There was nothing left but the faintly glowing ward-circle, the overturned chalice, four thin Ward-candles, and a puddle of blood on the floor just outside the circle. The blood was black and stank.

    "Well, now we know that it is more than just a conflict between commercial rivals," said Eneko, grimly. "The eel-thing smelled of the far north. That is confirmed by the Archangel of the North's intervention. I perceive the hand of Chernobog."

    "But Eneko, there was more to it than that. It knew you—and feared you. The target of all these ships is nothing other than... you. We must pray and summon intercession," said Francis.

    "And that was no eel," added Diego.

    Eneko raised his eyebrow. "It was human, once. But it looked like an eel to me."

    "It was a lamprey," said Diego, with certainty. "A hagfish."

    "But it was enormous!" said Pierre

    Diego shrugged. "It is very old. Fish don't stop growing as long as they are alive."

    "Lampreys are parasites, aren't they?" Trust Pierre's basic curiosity to get him sidetracked.

    "They can be. They like to feed off living flesh." And trust Diego to follow him down that diversion.

    Francis cleared his throat. "In all of that... was I the only one to hear the panpipes? Further off but still distinctly."

    "Panpipes?" mused Eneko. "As we heard in the scrying in Rome?"


    Eneko shook his head. "No, I did not hear them, but I'd guess you were right. This is another attempt to either kill us or to lead us from the course again. And that course leads to the place where there is already some old power. Elemental, crude, and which does not love us. We know now where Chernobog and his minions focus their attention: Corfu.

    "Brothers," Eneko said, carefully, "I believe that the Lord will not be averse to the judicious use of magic in the material plane. After all, if this galley is captured or sunk—"

    Pierre grinned mirthlessly. "It will be, after all, purely in self-defense."

    "Purely," Eneko assured him. The Wards flared, as if in agreement.

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