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This Rough Magic: Chapter Thirty Six

       Last updated: Friday, November 14, 2003 04:04 EST



    Benito was nearly thrown overboard when they struck the rock. He knew straight away they were in trouble. The galley had a draft of one and half fathoms, when she was this heavily laden. They were relying on hitting the shore at speed to beach the vessel so that the men could emerge without swimming. Now they'd lost their momentum and she was holed. The ship would ride deeper than her one and half fathoms. The sailors could easily manage the twenty yards to shore... if they could swim. The knights in heavy armor had not a chance.

    "Get them to strip their armor!" yelled Benito.

    "Takes too long!" bellowed Manfred, above the bedlam of screaming horses and shouting men.

    "Get a rope to the shore!" commanded the Captain.

    Benito took the end of a light line. "Get the anchor rope on the other end!" he shouted, and dived overboard.

    On the beach, he saw he'd arrived in the shallows just ahead of the Corfiote steersman who also had a rope.

    "Hands to these ropes all of you. Move!" he commanded.



    Maria saw how the port gate had opened further up the shore towards the Hungarian trenches. Great balks of timber were being thrust out and now, in the shelter of these, hundreds of men and women from the Citadel were streaming to help.

    Maria ran to join them. It was only when she was out on the shingle that it occurred to her that a woman with a baby on her back shouldn't do this. It was too late by then, though, so she ran on. By the time she got there, the men were hauling at the anchor ropes—twisted hempen lines as thick as her arm—of the galley still wallowing and sinking further out. They were using the second galley as a bulwark. And by the looks of it, the Arsenalotti who had pushed out the timber barrier were extending and raising it. Still, shots whistled overhead as, handspan by handspan, they hauled the other galley closer. Someone had unlimbered a small boat from the first galley and it was hastily paddled out the fifteen remaining yards or so, to begin bringing people in.

    "Get men with shovels and start digging a trench, we need to unload!" shouted a voice Maria recognized. Erik Hakkonsen!

    What a bitter irony. Svanhild was not in the Citadel but out there somewhere. Hopefully safe...

    "What the hell are you doing out here, Maria?" Benito looked anything but pleased to see her. "And—Jesus wept!—with your baby! Get back! No, stay here! It's safer here."

    "I've come to help you out of your mess!" she snapped back. "And my child goes with me. At her age she has to."

    "Merde! Well, just stay behind the Dolphin. At this range they're not going to get a bullet right through her." He ran out, regardless of his own safety, getting into deeper water. "Come on! She's only neck deep on a short Knight. Let's have what people we can off and then we'll haul her a bit further in. Another five yards and we'll get the horses out."

    Maria saw Francesca and Eneko Lopez and some other clerics coming ashore in the small boat. She waved, but they didn't notice her. Well, there'd be time for greetings if they survived all this.




    A group of very brave Magyar cavalrymen, or perhaps just very stupid ones, had swum their horses across the channel between the Citadel and Corfu Island. The cannon and gunfire from above had had a devastating effect on what had been perhaps four hundred men who had set out to cross the gap. Now the remainder had won the sand strip and were charging down it.

    A handful of arquebusiers had taken up position behind the balks of timber. The gate swung hastily shut behind them ... but there was timber in the way. It could not be closed. What had started out as a glorious rescue mission was fast turning into a fiasco.

    And then Maria realized that Knights of the Holy Trinity were already swinging themselves into the saddle. Perhaps only thirty of them were ready to mount, but they were up and riding, broadswords out, hurtling towards the oncoming Hungarians. When the Hungarians had begun their charge they'd outnumbered the Knights by five to one. By the time they clashed, however, those odds had been viciously reduced. The wall on their right was lined with people—some soldiers, firing, but the rest just men and women throwing whatever they had in their hands. Even cobblestones.

    The Knights were still outnumbered three to one. But these were the Knights of the Holy Trinity, perhaps Europe's finest. They hit the Hungarians on a narrow strip of beach, too narrow for either side to ride more than eight abreast. For the swim across, the Magyar knights had reduced the weight of their armor to breastplates. They were very much at a disadvantage compared to the Knights in full armor.

    Even as the first handful of Knights charged, more Knights were mounting, yelling and swearing at the Venetian sailors in their way. The sailors, too, were running to the timber-balk barrier with arquebuses, pistols and cutlasses.

    If the Magyars could have carried their charge to the open gate, it would have been a different story. Speed had lent them some protection from those on the wall. But now, stopped and completely defenseless against the attack from above, they were being annihilated. And the second galley was now discharging more wet, angry Knights.

    "Let them handle that!" roared a bull-like voice. Manfred strode through the small waves, and grabbed the anchor rope. "Haul! On the count of three!"

    Manfred had both the voice and the presence for command, so more men rushed to seize the ropes. The ship however was filling up, settling, heavier. Much heavier. Maria, who was now hauling the water for their little house daily, knew just how much water weighed.

    "One, two, three! Heave."

    The vessel moved sluggishly. It wallowed like a drunken cow.

    "And again! One, two, three."

    Out beyond the ships, the Magyars were being reduced to bloody fragments. Maria promptly dismissed them from her mind, and went back to something she could do something about.

    The rope snapped. Manfred's first heroic impression made on the Corfu garrison was of himself sprawling on his backside in the shallows, legs in the air. The roar of general laughter was inevitable, if hardly kind to his dignity. Because only one rope was now hauling the boat it slewed sideways a bit, till the prow touched the stern of the other vessel. "I wouldn't have put my nose there!" said one wag.

    Erik had returned to the scene. "Up, all of you. The ships must be unloaded." He, too, had the presence of command. Those who had been hauling on the first rope, if they could not find space on the second, fell into a line heaving bags and boxes and unidentifiable bits into the fortress.

    Maria found herself sharing a burden, carrying in a grain-bag with another garrison woman. The woman looked at her with the liveliest of curiosity. "You look terribly ordinary after the stories I'd heard."

    "What stories?" asked Maria warily. "What have you heard from whom?"

    "I had it from Rosalba Benelli, who heard it from her maid, whose sister is one of the poor girls who work for Sophia Tomaselli's friend Melina, that Milady Verrier had been seen in an alley in Kérkira with your dress up and two sailors." She snickered, clearly not in the least inclined to believe it—not now, at least.

    Maria snorted. "She's talking about her own daydreams. I'm a respectable married woman. Besides, when would I have time? I do the work of my household myself, and thank you. I don't need twenty little girls to do it for me."

    She felt slightly guilty saying that, since Alessia wasn't Umberto's child. But she owed it to Alessia—Umberto too, for that matter—to kill any such rumors.

    The woman, slightly plump and with a distinct twinkle in her expressive eyes, clicked her tongue. "Tch! And there I was going to ask how you managed two." She rolled her eyes. "I can't even manage my Alberto. He keeps falling asleep, especially now they're doing these guard shifts."

    Maria grinned. "I think we women should complain to the Captain-General."

    The woman at the other end of the sack snorted. "And have randy Tomaselli offer to help out? No thank you, very much!"

    Maria's mouth twitched. "Maybe we should suggest to dear Sofia that he needs a little..."

    The other woman began giggling. "What? That would be beneath her dignity. Besides it would spoil her make-up."

    "Only she if she smiled, which seems unlikely," Maria said, thoughtfully, as they tramped over shingle that slipped and rattled under their feet. "Or maybe she doesn't just plaster her face... does she have to do the whole body?"

    The plumpish woman looked as if she was going to fall over and drop the sack. "Oh Lord and Saints! If she could hear you..."

    She went off into shrieks of laughter. They reached the gate and the pile of food-bags just as Maria was beginning to think the woman would kill herself laughing. They dumped the bag. And the woman hugged Maria. "You can't know how nice it is to hear someone being malicious about Milady Sophia Tomaselli for a change. My name is Stella Mavroukis. I don't care if we've been told by 'her ladyship' not to talk to you."

    "Maria Verrier. I'm married to..."

    Stella grinned wickedly. "We know all about Umberto. I even know what you send him for lunches. That's the trouble with Corfu. Small community. Not much to do but gossip. But it used to be fun back before 'her ladyship' got here. Come on, let's fetch another sack."

    By the time they got back with the next sack, Maria knew the names, ages, childhood diseases and mischief of all five of Stella's brood, as well as several intimate details about her Alberto that Maria was sure would never allow her to meet Alberto without blushing, or at least laughing. She also knew that Alberto was a "Greek" Venetian, son of one of the many craftsmen that the Republic of Venice had seduced into her state with offers of citizenship, money and employment.

    Also, of course, they'd torn Sophia Tomaselli's character, appearance and morals to shreds, very pleasurably.



    Benito staggered under his load. Falkenberg in full armor was no lightweight. He was also not helping much.

    They'd been up on the beach, where the battle-hardened knight had just gotten his precious horse to shore. He'd clapped Benito on the shoulder. "Well. We made it. Although this last bit has turned into a horse's-"

    Then a stray ball hit him. It was one of those flukes that happened. It had hit his visor, which had shattered. The knight had fallen slowly... so slowly that Benito had been able to catch him.

    Now they staggered towards the fortress. Benito no longer thought of strategy or tactics, just of getting the bleeding man to help, and off this beach. A Venetian came and took the other side of Falkenberg and together they staggered to the gate, while the fire-fight raged and the knights ripped the Magyar heavy cavalry to pieces. Falkenberg was now totally unconscious and lolling between them.

    "What happened?" panted the Venetian. With a little sense of shock, Benito realized it was Umberto Verrier. The man who had married Maria.

    "He was hit the face by a ball." They were inside the gates by now.

    "Let's put him down. See if we can stop the bleeding."

    They lay Falkenberg down on the cobbles and Benito bent over his face, feeling sick. If only Marco was here!

    "My God. What a mess." Fragments of steel had torn into the eye and right side of Falkenberg's face and head. The inside of the helmet was a mess of blood and flesh-shreds. It was still bleeding. "What the hell do we do?" he asked the older man.

    For an answer, Umberto had already run over to two other men. He brought them over to the Knight, with a couple of broad slats. "These men are from the hospital. They'll take him up there. The chirurgeons will help him."

    "Will he live?" whispered Benito.

    "Too early to tell," said one of the hospitalers critically. "But we'll have him on these planks and up there in two shakes of a lambs' tail. If you'll get out of the way, Sir."

    Hastily, Benito complied.

    Meanwhile, Umberto called to two of the men who were struggling to push the timber further out so that the gate could be closed.

    "The timber at the bottom is not going to move, Alberto! There's too much weight on it."

    "So what do we do?" asked the other. "We need to be able to close this gate."

    Umberto took a critical look. "They're still using it as a shelter. Let's move what we can on the top. It's only two or three of the lower balks that should be a problem. Maybe if we can get a lever of some sort to them."

    Benito found himself manhandling huge pieces of keel and strut timber, when Maria came past. She was so busy talking to another woman that she didn't notice her husband, or Benito.

    Working side-by-side with Verrier, Benito was finally coming to accept, not simply acknowledge, the truth of what everyone had always said about Umberto. He was a quiet, good man who loved his craft. And he was, by the looks of it, very good at it. Benito had met Umberto once or twice over the years, briefly, if not socially; a bridge-brat went everywhere and saw everything. He knew him to look at if not to talk to. But everybody always said the man was a solid fellow.

    Working with him, Benito had to concede that they were right. He'd prepared himself to find reasons to dislike Umberto. Now he found that it was impossible.

    And it stuck in his craw. And he hated that it stuck in his craw. Did life always have to be such a confusing mess?

    Benito left organizing the off-loading of the galleys and the orderly retreat from the beach to Manfred. He concentrated instead on helping to lever the pile of timber a little further out, while Umberto organized ropes on each timber so that they could be snaked back over the wall. Umberto was a typical Venetian in that way. Not wasteful.

    Benito was rewarded, when, a little while later, he saw Maria, still walking with her friend, still talking, stop abruptly and gawp at the two of them, working next to each other.

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