Julius was polishing his helmet absently. He'd been making the same repetitive motions for nearly an hour, his oilcloth sliding mutely over the riveted steel crest. Olandus kept adjusting the belts on his gear, as though to make certain it was all tightly stowed. In a corner, huddled against the wooden swell of the hull, Durius was trying hard not to be sick. Thelius looked around at his brothers-in-arms, cast his eyes through the little group. There were twenty of them, each man dressed in heavy white-lacquer lamellar with chain beneath. Poleaxes lay akimbo all throughout the hold, the distinctive weapons of the escurae.
The ship creaked and groaned like a living thing. Somewhere below the clack of the oars thrummed up through the floor. There were eighty slaves down there, criminals who had been sentenced to rowing the imperial galleys, alongside eighty free rowers. Thelius did not envy them. The slow thud of the drums beat out the rowing rhythm; anyone who did not row at the proper time (particular to each oar) could not only endanger the ship, but risked breaking their hands, arms, or ribs against the trunk-sized oar.
There were ten imperial marines with the escurae and probably more on deck. Unlike the emperor's chosen, the marines wore light or no armor. Some were in simple tunics, short for better movement in combat. Some wore light leather cotes that laced up the back and kept their vitals safe. Not a one had anything heavier on. The marines all seemed to be in own of the escurae not least of which because they were wearing their full gear. Even a shirt of mail could drag a man down into the briny depths to meet Vodei; a full suit of lamellar with all its attendant fastenings... there was no way to escape a death by drowning if you fell into the ocean wearing that.
Fog had begun to creep into the hold from without. They had chosen a foggy day for a purpose, Thelius had been told. The Triarch of the ship, Sieur Lanus, had explained the entire concept of the pursuit to Thelius and the other escurae before they set out. Reaver ships were fast and small, slender and made for pursuit. An imperial galley large enough to do one harm would never catch it. So instead they were going to pin the damn pirates against the shore. They had waited for weeks until a good morning came. This was that morning. The lights on Crestley isle had been lit, signalling the sighting of a Refuser ship—or more than one. The fog was thick enough that the sea-elves wouldn't see the imperials until they were bearing down onto them, and by then they would have enough momentum to simply cut off the pirates' retreat.
At least, that was the plan. It was impossible to tell how well it was living up to expectations stuck here below. The other part of the scheme placed the escurae in the belly of the trireme in the hopes that the Refusers might think the imperials under-manned. They would be less eager to get away if they thought they could capture an imperial ship and all the people aboard to sell as slaves in some far-off shithole in the Free Cities.
The marines looked worried. There was not a knight among them, save for the Triarch, and he was on deck. The reputation of the emperor's praesental guard was well-known but Thelius doubted if he and his fellow escurae could live up to the legends told about them. The others looked equally doubtful; grim men with grim deeds ahead, they were paralyzed by the battle-fear. The hours before a battle were always the longest, and men did whatever they had to in order to whittle them down. So, Julius obsessively polished his helmet, Olandus checked and re-checked his pack, and even doughty old Theolus was twisting the ends of his gray beard into knots.
A look passed amongst the escurae, one that they had shared many times before. It was the harried, weary look of men about to pass into battle. They were brothers. They knew not only each other's names, but the little marks on every other man's armor that spoke of who he was. The dints and notches of near-deaths that were as unique as a face or the whorls on their hands. They knew the poleaxes of their brothers, could tell who was coming to their aid by the length of wood they saw from the corner of their eyes. They were the gods-damned escurae varani, the emperor's personal guard, and they would not shrink from this or any other duty.
The hold allowed not wisps of fog alone: one of the marines turned and leaned against the hull, pressing his ear to the cold wood. "What's about?" asked Theolus. He seemed to be both excited and angry, as though whatever it was would be bound to displease him.
"Fighting," the marine said softly. "I hear fighting out there."
Soon enough the escurae could hear it too. The sounds of screaming and the ringing of a temple-bell. They must be close to shore, now, which meant they were almost ready to engage. There was a thunder of footsteps above as a marine ran down into the low holding chamber where the escurae were waiting. "There's three ships," he said, breathless.
"Say again?" Thelius asked as he rose. "There's how many?"
"Three raiders, sieur," the marine babbled. "One's drawn up on the shingle and they're killin' everything in sight. A few knights've come down from Crestley Castle, but it's not enough."
"What about the other two, what are they doing?"
"Protecting her, sieur. I've never seen anything like it. These elves must have a new commander, or I—" the marine was cut off by the sudden booming of drums. Oh Gods, thought Thelius, the rowing drums. The soft and distant clacking of the oars became a thunderous roar as the oarsmen moved into high speed. "We're going to ram them, sieur!" the marine shouted. "You'd best hold on and be ready to get on deck!"
"Up! Up on your feet! Get ready to rush to the deck!" Thelius commanded. His men began to rise. He slipped his helmet over his head, the dark comforting blackness of the chain first obscuring his eyes until he found the eye-holes and twisted them into position. He could hear his men securing their helm-straps and attaching their aventails.
"HOLD ON!" the marine shouted as the ship pitched perceptibly forward.
There was a splintering sound as loud as the voice of the gods. The floor jumped beneath them, sending many escurae and a few marines to the ground. Thelius was one of them, the weight of his armor thudding into his chest. That would leave bruises and mayhaps a broken rib, but there was no time to worry about that. He struggled to his feet even as the deafening sound of shrieking wood stilled.
"Quickly, men," he called, and then like a bolt of lightning he was bounding up the near-vertical stairs to the deck, his poleaxe on his back.
When he reached the open sky, he saw that the fog had yet to lift. They were surrounded on all sides, like a wizard's toy, by a deep wall of fog that encompassed the heavens and the sea alike. The imperial galley had spitted one of the little Refuser-ships, raking through their gunwale and snapping their mast. The deck was some ten feet below, as the little raiders ran low in the water while imperial galleys were many-decked and tall.
He could see the other two ships, one pulled up on a stony beach, the other shielding it from the far side. He wondered if they would scramble to get away or come to help their companions fight. Beyond the beach was a little village; it had a pikewall that looked badly damaged. It's gates were thrown open and men lay dead and dying amongst the sea-grasses. There was fire behind the wall, and the temple bells were still ringing, ringing, ringing for help that was not coming. If there had been knights there, there was no sign of them now.
But the thing which stopped Thelius and drew his eyes were the elves. He had never seen sea-elves before, Refuser-elves, who hated men. Wind elves had come to the imperial court on many occasions, indeed some elvish nations maintained permanent embassies there. Wood elves he had heard tell of, but they were not supposed to be frightening to behold. These elves, these sea-elves, were.
They looked like their landborne cousins in many ways. Sharp ears, angular features, thin bodies. Yet they were pale like ash and they had brilliant eyes of many unpleasant colors: bright blue, purple, vicious acidic green. They were shorter than wind elves, and they had taken the elvish love of silver to a grotesque degree. They were studded with silver studs, some had split tongues and others whorls of silver-ink on their faces. They were monstrous beyond imagining, and they snarled and spit up at the galley that had rammed their ship.
"Come on, before they slip away!" Thelius shouted. Marines were already tossing grapples down to the lower deck. Thelius felt his guts wrench in anticipation of sliding down one of those ropes to confront murderous elves, but he saw no choice. If they hesitated, the crippled elvish vessel would slip away from them while those on land put to sea again and then they would lose them all somewhere out in the Neck. The sea-elves might be vicious, but they were just like any other elves when it came to birth rate and longevity: cut the life of a sea-elf short, and you could be sure that another wouldn't come to replace him for a hundred years.
He grabbed one of the ropes and swung over the side. Escurae were not trained for boarding actions like this. He felt a sudden deep and horrific fear as his feet scrambled for purchase on a ground that was not there. His gloved hands twitched and for a moment he was sure he was going to let go and tumble down to the deck. He saw Julius do just that and before the man could get his feet, refuser elves were all over him, swarming like locusts.
He waited, hanging onto the rope nervously, hoping the elves didn't come loose and sail off. "Nock and fire!" called a voice from the imperial deck. "Keep your heads in!" Thelius did just that as a barrage of crossbow bolts thumped down into the waiting reavers. They withdrew a little ways from where the grapples had fallen as the imperial marines wound their arbalests to unleash another volley.
Thelius knew what that meant: the time had come. He loosened his grip on the rope just a bit and slid down until his booted feet thumped on the ash-gray deck of the elven craft. He unslung his lone poleaxe at once and bounded to wear Julius had fallen. The man was still alive though he had been badly wounded by long wicked elvish knives. "Someone get him back to the ship!" Thelius howled at his comrades. He saw the bulk of Gravus' armor step in the way and kneel down over the wounded man who was by now laying in a pool of blood.
Then he turned to the elves. They leapt back, hissing and shrieking curses in their own language. Some bore long falchions and light cutlasses, some had bucklers, but most wore only light glimmering silvered mail and knives. He advanced, keeping the axe down and level with his foes. At his left came Olandus, another axe joining his. At his right appeared Vaelus, a third axe now making for a formidable front. They moved forward together, in lockstep, slowly.
The elvish ship was listing, taking on water from the damage to her gunwales, sinking into the imperial trireme. This tilted the deck gently upwards and away from the imperials, forcing the escurae to climb a shallow slope as they advanced on the elves. But it also meant that the elves had bad footing as well, and one fell in a spray of blood that seemed vividly red in the foggy morning. Olandus' axe jumped forward and another elf clutched at his throat where the blade had left a nick the size of an open palm. He gurgled as he fell and was trodden beneath the heavy boots of the escurae.
"The ship is ours!" Thelius shouted. "But she's going under! Finish them and head back to the grapples!" The huddled mass of elves was surely done for, all that remained was to get amongst them and either drive them into the water or batter them down into bloody ruin. The deck lurched again as the elvish raider put on more water.
Somewhere in the distance, off towards the shore, there was a tinny sound that Thelius did his best to ignore. It sounded again and again, but he kept his focus on the elves before him. Four more had gone down, and the elvish crew was worn thin by fighting. More and more of the escurae had boarded their sinking vessel to assist their brothers in arms and the lightly armored elves were no match for the brutal pounding of the emperor's chosen guard.
"They're coming toward you!" a marine's voice screamed from the deck. "They're not fleeing!" Thelius withdrew from the fight, allowing Theolus to take his place, and wheeled around to see what was happening. On the shore there was an imperial trumpeter blowing the call to some of the Crestley knights who had appeared and were fighting in a furious battle with the raiders that had landed. That wasn't what the marine was screaming about.
The third ship was rowing with haste towards its sinking comrade. There, in the prow, stood a sight that Thelius would remember for the rest of his life: an elvish wizard. Refusers had never learned magic from men, unlike the wind elves. Instead, when they took to the seas and began their eons-long campaign against mankind they were taught in dark places by the dragons. Wyrmish magic was their craft, and their spells were mighty and strange. Thelius had seen a few wizards in his lifetime, but never on the battlefield.
This one wore a long seal-skin cloak that billowed out behind him. His fingertips had been replaced with silver nibs, sharp and dangerous looking. His chest was hollow and weak, his face drawn and thin but possessed of a mad strength that looked fevered and ill-cast. Light flickered around his outspread arms, played across his far-flung fingertips of silver. It came from nowhere, for there was nowhere it could originate. It was brilliant white, yellow, green, silver, red. Thelius could hear the voice of this elven magus pounding against the sea like a drumhead. It carried over the winds and redoubled in volume; it was as though ten men were shouting all at once from atop a mountain.
Then the light coalesced before the elven wizard, sickly green light. It swirled and bubbled into what Thelius realized was a form like a stroke of lightning. The blast washed across the ship, the stroke shattering into waves of shimmering green bile. The remaining elves and five of his escurae were submerged in it, lost from sight. When it washed over the deck and hissed into the sea it left behind shrieking ruins of men and elves, blistered skin sloughing from roasted muscle; no armor or dexterity had protected any of them.
Thelius turned away from the slaughter of his men, trying to put out of his mind that Olandus, Vaelus, Theolus were amongst those taken by the elvish magic. Why hadn't they hired a wizard of their own? Fighting a ship thus armed was madness! What if that elf had some way to call forth fire and lightning? That one foe could sink the trireme and kill every man aboard!
Thelius hauled the grapple down from the deck of the imperial ship. "Escurae Varani!" he shouted, "We will silence that sorcerer! Close and engage!" He whirled the iron hook above his head and tossed it at the fast-approaching reaver ship. When he had it secure upon the gunwale he waited for an answering blast of crossbow fire, which came and cleared the deck around his grapple, giving him time (or so he hoped) to cross to the foe.
Others under his charge did the same, and he saw a foolhardy marine had joined them. He nodded at his men and then began the crossing. Elvish darts hissed into the water around him. He heard the sorcerer drawing in a breath to begin another incantation. As a second volley of bolts thudded into the ship, the sorcerer unleashed another mighty spellwork; a howling wind sprang up between the trireme and the sorcerer's ship, and many of the quarrels were scattered before they ever reached their target.
No, thought Thelius, but even as he watched an elf darted forward to unhook Galius' line. The escurus had no chance to even call out before the icy sea swallowed him. Hand-over-hand foot-over-foot, Thelius was almost there. But the wailing wall of spume and spray that had sprung up between the ships prevented the imperial crossbowmen from protecting the grapples.
He swung over the side onto the elven deck and brandished his axe. It was up to him to defend the grapple-lines and prevent the elves from tossing his fellows back into the sea. He swept his axe in a long low arc, hoping to slice through shins and boots; the elves wore hauberks, which while they protected their torso had no defenses down along the feet. Not Thelius, for he had hammered strips of iron into his boots along the shins and had commanded the rest of his men to do the same.
The elves kept their distance even as the marine thumped down next to him. "Right trouble," the marine muttered.
"Can you hold the ropes?" asked Thelius. His own voice sounded hollow and strangely metallic coming from behind the curtain of chain that covered his nose and mouth.
The marine looked dubiously at the grapples and then at the elves. "Best you stay with me, sieur," he said, dodging and elvish blade even as it came for him. The marine was slow and ill-trained in close-quarters fighting, but his counter-stroke did its work and the elf fell with a fountain of blood pumping from his throat.
"Do you know what makes the escurae so great?" asked Thelius.
"Yer trainin?" the marine asked, laughing, "Yer fightin' kit? I dunno, yer big bloody shoulders?"
"We don't yield," said the escurus. He chopped with his poleaxe even as Landus arrived on deck and he growled, "Landus, stay with this marine and make sure the others make it across. I have to go and put a blade in that sorcerer or we're all dead."
"Captain," Landus said, "You'll stay here with us, else you'll be cut down."
As they spoke, more elves pressed in. Thelius felt the burning pin-prick of a sword slice into his thigh. His poleaxe was no use in these quarters; the elves had pressed too closely while the two escurae wasted their time talking. He dropped his weapon and drew the arming blade from his shining gold-paneled belt. Landus did the same. "For Miles!" Thelius shouted and Landus echoed his cry as they plunged forward onto the deck. Even the marine shouted, "Crestley! Crestley!" and followed behind.
Other escurae were climbing aboard now, even as Thelius, Landus, and the nameless marine cut a bloody swathe through the deck. Thelius took a blow to the head from an elvish blade that dented his helmet and sent a gush of hot blood down his face. Before it surged into his eyes, he answered by chopping the elf in the groin where his hauberk was no protection. Then, he could see no more.
He threw the helm from his head in time to see the marine lose a pair of fingers, sheared away against the grip of his sword. He lunged in to the poor bastard's side, his own hair wet with blood, and gave death at every quarter. The marine seemed unphased by the loss until Thelius said, "Staunch that blood before you pass out!" Only then did the young imperial seem to realize that his fingers had been crushed and lopped nearly clean off.
And then Thelius and Landus were face to face with the sorcerer. The elves had cleared a path for him, gave him a clear look down the deck at the escurae. Landus was a heavyset man, two hundred pounds of muscle and bone. He charged across the deck and Thelius felt compelled to follow though he himself was more wiry than large and had doubts about his ability to overbear the foes that would surely spring at them from the side.
But no foes did. Instead, the whip and crack of wyrmish magics whistled down that empty corridor, that space of the deck devoid of foes. Thelius threw himself down to the ground, but Landus was simply too large and lumbering to do the same. He heard a sizzle and a crackle overhead, and when he looked up Landus was smoking and staggering forward, making the final few mocking feet of his charge before he fell, charred, to the deck.
Thelius screamed and drove forward. All thought of tactics or of his training in the yard had left him. Anything left was instinct and hate. Blood pumped from the wound on his scalp, painting his white armor slick with red. Somewhere behind him he heard the young marine screaming; whether he was fighting victoriously or being messily murdered, Thelius could not tell.
The sorcerer began to speak again and Thelius knew that he could not reach him in time. Whatever spell the wizard had in store would catch him before he could close the distance and that would be the end of him. Perhaps if he'd worn less armor he would have been able to reach the mage; it was a matter of seconds, of fractions of seconds.
He stopped charging and flinched only to hear the shrieking burbling cry of the marine ahead of him. When he opened his eyes he saw the young man had rushed past him and slammed his blade into the wizard's chest. They were both toppling over, falling over the gunwale, and then they were swallowed by the sea.
The battle was won. Oh, there was butcher's work to be done yet, but the elves were outnumbered now by escurae and marines on deck who must have used their small rowing ships to cross the distance. Thelius flexed his hand to get a better grip on his sword wincing at the sodden feeling of his blood-soaked glove.