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This Rough Magic: Chapter Thirty One

       Last updated: Saturday, October 18, 2003 11:22 EDT



    "Benito was right," said Erik, up on the poop-deck after a spell at the oars. "The carracks will pass to leeward of our stern."

    "They might be in cannon-shot for a short time," said the bombardier, "depending on what cannon they have on board."

    "That would depend on who they are. Genovese most likely."

    Erik squinted into the distance. "The pennant on that lead vessel is a black horse in flames."

    Eberhard of Brunswick drew a breath between his teeth. "Emeric of Hungary! Our spies reported he was massing troops. But it was assumed that they were for his campaign against Iskander Beg. Where does he get a fleet from?"

    "And where is he going with it?" asked Francesca, from where she stood under the canopy.

    The old statesman narrowed his eyes and nodded. "A good point. Helmsman."

    "Yes, Milord."

    "Do you see anything that gives you any idea whose ships those are?"

    The helmsman, the sort of man who looked as if he'd been at sea on the very first hollowed log, and had only come ashore briefly since, nodded. "Aye. Not Genovese, Sir. Byzantine. You can tell by the way they rig the foresail."

    The old Ritter turned a grim face to Francesca. "Alexius has allied himself with Emeric of Hungary."

    Francesca frowned. "The only possible reason I can see for that is to attack Venetian properties."

    "I can see that Alexius might want to do that, but he's too weak to go on military adventures against Venice. Also, it puts Emeric at his throat instead of Venice—which if anything is worse. I must admit I can't see why Emeric would attack Venice's colonies by sea, instead of Venetian holdings nearer home. To come overland through Fruili would make more sense."

    Francesca nodded. "There will be a reason that is less than obvious. From what I've heard, the reason could be that Alexius is too weak-witted to see what he's doing."

    Eberhard snorted. "I don't know if you're joking, Francesca. But you are being too accurate. And now I think it is time for a change of rowers. These men have nearly learned what they should be doing. Therefore it is time to change." He walked over to fore-rail and began calling the next group of Knights and squires to oar-duty.

    It was mid-morning before the Knights were actually called to leave the oars and don armor. The round ships were well astern, by then. They'd turned and were attempting to take a tack which would bring them closer. The galliots, having started in a tight group, were now trailing out in a long arc. The knights had made strong if inept rowers, although they'd been getting better with practice. However, what this had meant was that the great galleys had kept going under oars for nearly three hours now, and the actual rowers—the Venetians who were professional at it—were still reasonably fresh.

    The enemy galliots were reasonably close now. The great galleys' sails were hoisted and they began to run with the wind. Now the galliot crews thought they would reach their prey, and their oarsmen began putting extra effort into their stroke.

    Manfred came up on deck. "If we can keep this up for another half an hour, we won't even have to kill them. The beggars must be half-dead already."

    Erik ascending the companionway behind him, smiled wolfishly. "And the fools have not had the sense to regroup."

    The Capitano shrugged. "They're pirates, Milord. They fight for loot. The best loot goes to the first ships."

    Manfred felt the handle of his great sword. "So does the best dying. All right, Erik. You too, young Benito, seeing as you seem to have developed a genius for this sort of thing, how do we deal with them?"

    Benito blushed and got up to leave. "I've only really been in the battle in Venice. And to tell you the truth that was all just hand-to-hand skirmishes. Our battle-plan went to pieces after the first few heartbeats."

    "He knows the difference between strategy and tactics anyway," said Erik dryly. "Stay and learn, youngster. You're not too bad when you're not out causing trouble." Erik pointed at the galliots. "They still outnumber us. If they want loot—let's give them some. Casks of wine will do for a start. Half empty ones so they'll float. Some of them will start on the jetsam. And that will break the followers up."

    "Well, at least you want to start on the half-empty ones," grumbled Manfred. "And what else?"

    "Tenderize them well with cannon when they get close. Keep the knights down until they're trying to board."

    "And keep lots of casks and buckets of water on hand for the sails," said the Capitano gloomily.



    "Fine horse-flesh" grunted Bjarni. "Like to take them home."

    Svanhild could only agree. She was having some difficulty riding, as the saddles were nasty, heavy things, and not the simple pads that the skralings used and had taught her to use. But the horses themselves were magnificent. The horses at home had been bred, for the most part, from chunky little Icelandic ponies, with the occasional importation of something larger or more exotic, or the odd Spanish barb taken from the odd Spaniard expedition come looking for gold and finding death. These, on the other hand, they were bred for war, not packing. Steady, patient, big, and strong. And smarter than they looked. Rather like her brothers.

    They rode northward along the high ground, keeping away from the smoke plumes, heading for the mountains.

    They did see some local peasants doing the same. They scattered the moment they saw the horses, leaving their goods and fleeing. "Real fighters," said Gjuki, disdainfully. Svanhild kept her own council; the peasants they saw were armed with next to nothing, and certainly not mounted. How could they even hope to accomplish anything by standing and fighting? Except to get killed, of course.

    "Why are they running away?" wondered Olaf, looking at the disappearing backs. "We could use some guides and we mean them no harm."

    "Don't be more stupid than you have to be," snapped Bjarni at the lanky duniwassal. "We're riding cavalry chargers, and we are plainly foreigners. How many blond heads have you seen here?"

    "Oh. I hadn't thought of that."

    "Your trouble is you seldom think."

    "It's going to make finding shelter difficult."

    Bjarni swore. "Fandens osse! I hadn't thought of that."

    Svanhild bit her lip. Suddenly, that nasty little inn, overrun with bugs and rodents, where she'd have had to share a bed with six other women she didn't even know, didn't seem so bad. "We'll manage, Bjarni," she said, stoutly. "We'll find something."



    The riderless horse joined up with another troop of Magyar cavalry. The officer in charge of this detachment of looters looked at it carefully. And felt his heart sink. It had once belonged to Hegedes—the commander who had promised King Emeric he'd be proud of the looting campaign. That everything would go well. It looked as if he had been wrong. It also looked as if he wouldn't be around to take the blame.




    The cannon roared, kicking back against the restraining ropes. "Venetian gunners aren't worth shit," said the high-voiced Knight bombardier, with dispassionate professionalism. He moved in shouting instructions, cuffing heads.

    The next shot hit the second of the galliots.

    The stern cannon, bearing now on the closest galliot, began firing.

    The nearest galliots' crews rowed frantically, pulling hard to close, to get near to the galleys so that the cannons could not be depressed enough.

    Some fifteen of the galliots were close enough to pose a threat. Others were so far back that either they would never catch up or they knew they would arrive far too late for the looting. You could see that their crews had already stopped trying.

    The gunners were now working as fast as the Knight's bombardier could drive them. And that wasn't going to be fast enough. The first galliots were already too close. Already burning, pitch-soaked arrows were being fired at the sails. Sailors scrambled with buckets of water.

    The arquebuses began firing in volley from the great galley. Despite this, there were wild-eyed men standing up on the bows of the first galliot, grappling irons in hand.

    Then the pirates weren't there anymore. They might have been safe from ship's cannon, but the bombardier had his own little two pound cannon loaded with fragments of steel and ready for them. To Benito it looked as if some giant blade had abruptly scythed through the crew of that galliot.

    But the second vessel was already coming. Plainly they had decided to concentrate their attack on this ship. The bombardier could not reload in time for that one. One of the Venetian gunners grabbed a cutlass.

    "Put that down you fool!" yelled the bombardier. "Reload! There are still other ships behind this one. You sink those and we only have this one to deal with."

    The Knights still waited silently behind the rampart of crates and boxes. The raiders targeted the bow—as far from the poop deck as possible. Grappling irons came along with a bunch of yelling, gleeful loot-hungry boarders.

    Then the knights stood up behind the rampart, and the yowl that went up from the mob of boarders was no longer one of glee. Even in the wilds of Dalmatia they knew the armor of the Knights of the Holy Trinity.

    To get to the knights they'd have to mount the rampart. The Narenta pirates were unarmored. They had boarding axes, a miscellany of swords and knives, and occasional pistols. The steel-clad knights with their broadswords were backed up by Venetian sailors with pistols and arquebuses. Manfred had positioned two further sets of ramparts up on the poop deck. From here the arquebusiers could pick their marks.

    Benito had elected himself an exposed but potentially death-dealing position. The great galley carried four grenadiers, and an ample supply of black powder grenades. Out on the end of a wildly swaying main-mast spar, with a bag of grenades and a slow-match, he could pick his targets. So long as he could cling to the spar with his legs, he could virtually drop grenades into the attacking vessels.

    "You'll be partly hidden by the bell of the mainsail, Benito," Manfred had said seriously, when Benito had suggested taking this position. "But you'll also be a good target. The canvas and the spar are no protection at all against arrows or gunfire. Also, if they succeed in firing the mainsail-you'll be fried. You work to my orders. Don't draw attention to yourself. Wait until the melee starts. No one will be looking straight up while they're fighting. Then you see if you can drop something directly into the attackers' boats."

    "But not before—have you got that?" demanded, jabbing a forefinger—to the first joint, it felt like—into his chest.

    "Yes, Sir."

    Erik snorted. "You can quit that right now. I don't know how well you'll fight in actual combat. But I do know you can climb things."

    Manfred grinned. "Yes. I've seen him do it. Don't take company up there, hear."

    Benito held his tongue. He'd never live that one down. But he was still thinking about it, despite the coming battle, when he reached the spar end.

    He had a birds' eye view of the boarders from up here. He also realized the one fault with his idea: the sway out here was wildly magnified. He clung, lit, and threw.

    Only he hadn't factored in the roll. To his horror, he saw that the grenade was going to hit the great galley, not the galliot alongside. He gritted his teeth and restrained himself from closing his eyes.

    It hit the rail, and bounced harmlessly into the water.

    He lit again, as fighting raged below him. Waited for the roll.... realized how short the fuse was and hastily flung the grenade as far as he could, not worrying about where he threw it, just wanting to get it away.

    It exploded in the air between two galliots. Not if he'd tried for a twelvemonth could Benito have used a single grenade so effectively. The explosion sent steel shards flying at those who remained on both galliots.

    Lighting the third grenade took immense determination. Especially as a couple of shots were now being directed at him. But he knew when on the roll to light and throw now. It landed in one of the galliots. A brief shower of sparks...

    And it failed to go off. He waited on the roll to light another. A shot burned across his shoulder, sending the slow-match spiraling downwards. He was left with a newly lit grenade in one hand and another four in his bag.

    He did something incredibly dumb, but the bullet graze had both frightened him and given him a rush of pure insane strength. He dropped the lit grenade into the bag; then, in a smooth movement, drew his main-gauche and slashed the strap with the other hand.

    He flung the entire bag. It splintered into the storm-decking on the prow of the latest galliot to join the fray; and, a moment later, erupted and blew a smoking hole in the bow at the waterline. The little vessel started to go down almost immediately.

    Benito began edging his way backward along the mainsail spar. His shoulder was oozing blood and didn't seem to want to take any strain. Out here he'd get shot again for sure. And there wasn't anything more he could do up on the mainmast spar, anyway. Looking down he saw it was still going to be a vicious fight. They'd sunk some galliots and simply outrun others. But because all of the little vessels were concentrated on this one, the Knights on board were badly outnumbered. They outclassed the pirates, to be sure. But sooner or later the mainsail would go down, more vessels would catch up, and eventually the carracks would get here.

    As he thought all that, he saw a little sortie of pirates had indeed managed to get up to where the mainsail was tied. Benito saw one of the band slash at the port-side mainsail rope. As the saber struck the rope the man was thrown back in a great gout of sparks. The cable was undamaged but the pirates who had fought their way up to the sail were shrieking and diving over the side of the galley, not caring whether they hit water or their own ships.

    Of course the shrieking wasn't in Frankish, but Benito was still sure he guessed what it was: "Witchcraft!" What had been a determined assault rapidly turned to a frantic attempt to reach their boats.

    Clinging to the ratlines, Benito noticed the mast was actually thrumming, and the mainsail was now cracking with the strain. It was hard to say where the wind was coming from but it was certainly driving the galley forwards. The sail was glowing a bright royal purple. The other galliots, which had been closing, were now beginning to fall back. By the boom of the cannon they were back in cannon-range.

    Benito just went on climbing down the mainmast rigging, struggling to do so with one arm not working properly. By the time he got low enough to jump down, the fight was turning into a rout, with pirates jumping into the sea rather than remain on board an accursed vessel.

    Superstition can be a wonderful thing when it is someone else's problem.

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