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This Rough Magic: Chapter Thirty Four

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 28, 2003 03:05 EST



    Swimming silent and deep and as far behind the ships as he dared, while still keeping some kind of trace on them, the great hagfish followed. The encounter with the adversary had been terrifying—all the more so because the adversary had been not only supported by his companions but linked to them, in a way that was as alien to the shaman as mother-love. To link together thus was to open your mind and will totally to your companions. The shaman would never do that voluntarily. He could think of no one he would dare trust like that.

    He soon realized that the vessels above and ahead of him had diverged. Hagfish can pick up blood and other scents in a part per million. The darkness above was no cloak at all to the chemical-sensitive barbels around his mouth.

    For a moment he dithered, before deciding. Make it his Master's problem. His master's slave Aldanto had virtual control of all of the Byzantine ships, and by virtue of exploiting ignorance, control over the galliots. The captains of those little vessels were superstitiously terrified of Aldanto. He could direct pursuit of the other ships. The shaman could tell the master where they were heading.

    A little later, after this was done, the shaman returned, determined to follow and if possible arrange an attack on the two vessels heading for Corfu. The adversary was in one of them.



    Brother Francis frowned, bracing himself against the bulkhead while the vessel lurched. "Much of this plan relies on the enemy not being forewarned. But, Eneko, if we are being followed by some magical creature, and it was able to direct those fleets to attack, will it not warn the besiegers?"

    Eneko nodded; he was tired, and he had rather not do this now—but there was certainly no time to wait. "So we shall have to try and drive it away."

    Diego stretched. "Bah. So we have to deal with that thing again! You know, Eneko, I think I can still taste the slime. Well, soonest done, quickest mended. When will we try it?"

    "Before the ships turn to make the tack back towards Corfu. It may conclude that we plan to make landfall. That is well and good. If it is in contact with the land-troops, let them patrol there while we attempt to reach the citadel." He stood. "Brothers, let us cast the circle and call the Wards. I believe that we will have much the same aid this time as the last. Perhaps, forewarned, we will make better use of it."

    Perhaps, he thought, This time the surprise will be on our side.



    Two hours later the shaman had retreated with desperate haste to deep water, and was begging the master to open up a passage. Jagiellon answered, with the same twisting passage through the spirit-world, but it seemed an eternity to the shaman. He fled up it, and was spewed out onto the stone floor in a heap, gracelessly.

    The hag-fish transformed into its human form, and the shaman started screaming. His wrinkled skin was blistered, with long raised lash-marks. Even transposition could not heal them.

    Jagiellon allowed him to scream for some few moments, before commanding: "Be still."

    The shaman had little choice but to obey despite wanting to scream, and scream, and never stop screaming. It had not been a sword nor a lance that met him this time, but a great fiery form that had dragged him into some neutral part of the spirit-realm, and lashed him with a many-tailed whip while he frantically tried to crawl away. He had not gotten in a single blow of his own. He'd barely managed to escape.

    "Eat skin," commanded Jagiellon. "Come. I go to eat some myself."

    The shaman picked up his quodba drum with blistered fingers. He could not help noticing that the skin of his one-time foe, now the drumhead, was singing. Vibrating just faintly all by itself.



    Benito, a Corfiote seaman, Capitano Douro and Erik stood in the captain's cabin, peering at a chart of the island. "If they have patrols out, it will be here, Milord," said the seaman, pointing. "Between Kavos and the mainland. It is only, oh, maybe three leagues across the strait there."

    "They'll have lookouts on both sides, I presume?" asked Erik, studying the chart.

    The seaman shook his head fiercely. "Not on the mainland! The Lord of the Mountains would never allow that."

    "The Lord of the Mountains?"

    "Iskander Beg. He is chief of the Illyrians over there. He is a very bad man." The Corfiote shuddered.

    "So there will be a watch on the Corfiote shore," mused Erik. "But probably just a ship at anchor well off the other shore."

    "Do ships sail this strait at night?" asked Benito.

    The sailor managed to look shifty, evasive and shocked, all at the same time. "Oh, no! It is dangerous. It is not allowed. The Podesta has ordered—strictly—that there is to be no shipping in the straits at night."

    "But you just happen to know how to sail it," said Benito, dryly.

    The sailor shrugged. "Fishermen do it. There are some fish best caught at night."

    "Ah. Fish which would pay taxes if they were landed by daylight? You needn't worry my friend," chuckled Benito. "I'm not a tax collector. In fact a good friend, a very, very good friend of mine, used to be involved in smuggling stuff into Venice. Someone all of us here know, in fact, except maybe the Capitano, and I wouldn't be too certain about that."

    The sailor looked hastily at the Venetian captain, and said nothing.

    Benito looked at the captain too. "Capitano Douro. Unless I'm a lot stupider than I think I am... you've got some goods you weren't planning to pay taxes on when the ship reached Ascalon?"

    The Captain looked startled. "Well..."

    "I'm not planning on telling anyone," said Benito. "And this ship won't be getting to Ascalon. I just wish to reassure our guide."

    The Captain nodded. "A matter of some amber... just a few small choice pieces."

    The seaman looked at Benito, shook his head and chuckled. "You're too sharp for one so young, Milord. Yes. We'd bring cargo in and land it right on the wharf in Kérkira. I've been up the strait in the dark more times than I can count. There are a few places you need to avoid. This time of year the current runs strong. The worst piece will be the last bit. We need to approach close to the mole. Further east, we'll rip her guts out. But as I said to the skipper: I can get us in."

    The captain grunted. "Not as well as you could if we had a load of taxable cargo on board," he countered, but he did so with a smile.




    The oars were bound in sacking. Men sharpened weapons. The gunners prepared the cannons, though they were not to be used, except as a last resort. Armor was readied but not donned. If they got through the screen of guard boats, then the armor would be hastily put on. Boarders and armor did not go together, and they might have to board a guard ship.

    It was an awkward combination of circumstances. The moon, a hazy object often hidden behind gathering cloud, was slipping beneath the horizon. It was going to be as black as the inside of a cat out there. If they came upon a guard-boat suddenly, the knights would act as boarders—no firearms, just swords and murderous haste. A single shot fired would mean retreat, and landfall elsewhere.

    After that, if they were spotted they'd run for shore and try to beach the vessel. The knights had already planned to smash out the cladding timbers between the ship's ribs and swim their horses to shore. Once again armor was likely to drown both the knight and the horse. So, for that it would be helmets and shields only. But in the final attempt to reach the Citadel, they aimed to bring the ships to rest on the shingle just off the northern side of the islet. Sea access to this was between the islet and castle on Vidos and the Corfu Citadel itself.

    The biggest difficulty was going to be keeping two silent, darkened vessels in touch with each other. They had one steersman, and two ships. A long line between the two helped. A man on the bow of the second ship kept a coil of this line in his hand, keeping the line tight without allowing it to pull. He had to feel whether it was pulling away to any direction or if the front vessel was slowing or speeding up. A second man in the bow of the second ship was ready to listen to softly made gull cries. One for port, two for starboard. Gulls shouldn't be calling in the small hours of the night, but Benito's ingenuity deserted him on this one. At least it wouldn't sound as unnatural as voices.



    By the time they reached the southern channel it was so dark that all you could see was a shape of deeper darkness where the landmasses lay. Well... except for the cheerful lanterns that burned on the four equidistantly placed watch vessels.

    How nice of them to show Benito where they were!

    It was all Benito could do to stop himself laughing helplessly. They slipped through relatively close to the lantern-lit vessels, just in case they enemy had put unlit vessels between.

    In the tense darkness, Manfred snorted. "We're past. Let's give a rousing cheer to celebrate."

    "There are more hurdles," said Benito. "Listen. You can hear the cannon fire."

    You could. A distant deadly rumble. The steersman pointed. "Those lights are Lefkimi. We're passing Lefkimi point now."

    "How long is it going to take us to get to Kérkira?" whispered Erik.

    The man looked at the sky. "If we get the sail up now, we should be within hailing distance just before dawn." Benito caught the flash of teeth. "Or within cannon shot. I hope those priests can come up with the magic they promised, Milord, or the Venetians' own fort and Vidos castle will blow us apart."

    "They're very powerful Christian mages, those priests," replied Erik stiffly.

    The Corfiote didn't seem especially impressed. "I've no faith in priest's magic. On Corfu we have some real, old magics. Scary things, but powerful, sirs, maybe more powerful than anything you've ever seen."

    "Eneko Lopez is one of the most scary men in the world. And he is not going to let us down." Benito spoke quietly, with a faith he hoped he felt.

    "I reckon we'll get a chance to see if that is true. If he fails we're shit. Fish-shit, soon enough," said the steersman with morbid humor.

    On the main-deck the seamen were raising the carefully blackened mainsail. Under oars it had been tricky to keep the two vessels running in tandem. Under sail it would be virtually impossible. The second vessel would just have to do its best with a helmsman following the dark patch that was the sail of the lead vessel. They still had a good few leagues to go before the final dash.

    "There's a small vessel ahead! Also running without lanterns. Running away from us."


    "Must be. We've made someone shit themselves." The seaman grinned.

    Manfred came up on deck. "What was that?"

    "Smuggler-ship. Avoiding taxes," said Benito knowledgeably.

    Manfred half-choked. "And just who is collecting taxes right now, Benito?"

    "Oh, hell! Do you think it was a watch-boat? We'd better run for shore."

    "No," said Erik decisively. "If it was a watch vessel, someone would have fired off a signal. What you saw there was a sign that things are pretty bad on the island. That 'smuggler' will have a human cargo. He's taking refugees away, not bringing illegal goods in."

    "I've got three sisters and a brother in Achilleon," said their steersman, quietly. "I wonder what's happening to them."

    "It's to be hoped that your brother was also involved with the night fishing, sailor," said the Captain, dryly. "Emeric of Hungary has a vile reputation for how he allows his soldiers to treat conquered citizens."

    There was a chuckle. "Spiro is my older brother. That's how I came to be involved in the first place."

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