Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Battle of Crestley, part 1

This story is a sequel to The Storm Breaks, and follows the imperial escurus Thelius through his trials and tribulations during the Autumn of the Reavers in X.502.

Part barracks, part infirmarium, Crestley castle was crawling with the wounded. Triarchs from the imperial fleet lounged in her upper halls, growling about the massing refuser attacks. The entire coast was burning, from the tip of Mermarche to the shores of Rûn. Villages had been sacked, monasteries turned to smoldering ruins, and fortresses harried until the knights and barons had near lost their minds. Thelius and the other escurae were stationed in the castle, but hordes of imperial marines were stuck down in the town. There was simply no room for them all, and the numbers of wounded were growing. For each ship they sent down to Vodei the toll on their side was enormous. Reaver-sorcerers with hideous wyrmish magic worked their spells against marine, ship, and escurus alike. The Blessed Emperor had been hulled by blasting-magic just a week before and now clogged the channel between Crestley and the mainland along with four sleek refuser vessels.

For his part, Thelius had seen three small scale battles since the sinking of the Emperor. Refusers were starting to learn that Crestley was not a place where they could land, strike, and disappear again. Triarch Velmus of the imperial galley Blacksword had built a crude series of wooden towers on the coast and in the event of an attack, local garrisons were summoned at once by the booming of bells borrowed from the local temples.

They had wizards of their own now, more and more filtering down from the great cities. Sea battles would erupt not far from the coast. If you were out beyond the castle walls or high up enough you could see the flashing lights of opposing magecraft flaring out on the channel. The escurae would, from time to time, limp up to the wallwalk and cheer on the triremes and galleys of the empire. Sometimes the galleys and triremes came home unharmed—but often, at least one of them was destroyed. Thelius tried not to think about all the years of training those wizards were taking down into the deeps with them. More than his whole unit combined, he mused.

Eighty escurae had come south, out of the emperor's thousand and twelve. Fewer than forty were left, and of those only seventeen unharmed. Many of the survivors had been drawn back northwards, called to Miles. In their place, the emperor raised new fleet levies, called ships from the Mermarche, and sent knights from the capital. Rumors persisted that he was going to dispatch the imperial tagmata as well. Thelius wasn't certain what a land army could hope to do against these sea-going elves. He prayed every day to the soldier-god Halor that the elves of Oronia would sail forth to oppose their murdering kin, but he knew there was no help from that quarter.

Stonemark must be rejoicing, he thought. The imperial fleet was run ragged, and the winds of trade had shifted. Ninfite ships couldn't count on making it safely into port through imperial waters; the emperor had to increase the grain payments he made to Khewed and send galleys to guard their ships. Stonemarchers must be dancing in their swoop-bellied ships, happy to finally see the imperials humbled, the Thyrnessan ships tied up with foes.

Castle life had begun to grate on him. He had never thought of himself as pampered—he! an escurus! hours of training with steel and wood!—but he missed the comforts of the court. Crestley Castle, at the remotest tip of the long Isle, was a cold hard place. Sea winds found their way everywhere, and there was no sheltering from the taste of salt on your lips. These lords were sailors, not soldiers, and old Sereus Crestley himself was the king of all shipmen. Dour and grim as the profound depths, he dressed always in sea-greens and blues. His three leaping fish of silver were cut into every archway and above all the unleaded windows of his castle. He wore a fish at his throat to keep his ragged leather cloak in place, and his gray beard was forked like a merman's tail. The few times the escurae had been invited to the high table in the Leviathan Hall Thelius had felt Lord Sereus' cold eyes on him like spears sliding between his guts.

The barracks were little better than a stable, all covered in straw and sweepings. Spring on Crestley would bring new rushes, but for now they stank of death and blood. The stink was pervasive. The Avaunite priests were forced to carry pomanders wherever they went, muttering about bad humors and ill winds. Even outside the barracks, the castle was awash in the scent of fish and spume, of sea-kelps and oysters.

The town was somewhat better. It was built on good soft earth, and the creaking shield pines and junipers gave it a fragrance not unlike home. In the palace, of course, incense was burned at every state event and in every great hall. There was not a place that had not been perfumed, censed, and daubed with sweet-smelling oils. Bad smells were evil on one's health, and played havoc with manly vigor, or so the surgeons and physicians said.

There were a few things to make up for it though. The first was Alia, a scullery maid with nimble hands and a playful mind. The second was his duty. Thelius knew he could not abandon the people of Crestley, nor would he have been happy about being recalled. The other escurae might fight for the body of the emperor, but Thelius knew that the people were his body. If the empire bled, the emperor bled too. It had been one of the clerics who'd taught him that—a peaceward that attended on the court as a scribe. Those words had always stuck with him. As a bodyman of the emperor, his duty was not only to his lord, but to everyone within the borders.

It pained him to see the lights of fires along the coast where he knew reavers were striking. Sometimes the air was acrid with smoke rolling off of the mainland. The south hamlets were burning, the ancient orchards and olive groves watered in blood. Worse still, the reavers were taking prisoners to sell as slaves. Many would buy them abroad: Essadi, Solothens, Khewedi, and leagues of other cruel lands. Some would till the vast spice plantations of Ralashar before the year was out, and others would die in freezing holds as the betrayer elves sailed ever northwards to Kallatha and Shelterwind Bay.

His black mood began to lift one evening at dinner. He had been called to the Leviathan Hall to dine with the castle and its lord, and his remaining men came with him. They were seated at the high table, on a platform above the press. The hall was large enough to fit five hundred men, and most of the castle was there. The bones of great sea-beasts were pinned to the walls with iron hooks and pegs, high above the diners. Centuries of tallow-smoke had blackened them, giving them the appearance of grasping skeletal hands and fingers, clawing their way up from the grave.

Lord Sereus seated Thelius near at hand Triarch Velmus and the mage called Alanus the Abstemious. Velmus was a loud southerner from Regan's Crown, prone to much back-slapping and joke-telling of the off-color variety. Alanus was his polar opposite: thin as a rail, white as milk, and picky. Thelius was clad in his ornamental garb of purple and gold with the ancient Varan sword that lent its name to his position, the escurus, hanging at his hip. He waved away the cupbearer who came to refill his wine—it was a Rhûnish vintage, which were all unbearably bitter.

It was when Lord Sereus stated his intentions that Thelius' dark state began to fade. The old man gestured with a pheasant-bone, "We're of little effect the way we fight now. We must draw the elves into a decisive battle, else we'll watch as the emperor's fleet is whittled away. A man can bleed to death from scrapes and bruises."

Velmus agreed at once, pounding his fist on the table. The silver goblets at the high table jumped. "And so? We must strike back, at one of their islands! Raid a camp and draw our their ships! All this hiding and defending grows tiresome."

"And risk the wrath of their sorcerers on the open sea?" Alanus asked glumly. "That would be the height of folly."

The Lord of Crestley fell silent then, brooding over the pheasant stew on his trencher. He seemed to be mulling something over in the way that old men had, deciding whether or not to foray it. Thelius could see the battle plans behind his eyes, the way he moved the cubes of onion as though they were ships. "We could entice them to land on Crestley," he said at last, "but have a reserve force waiting here that they don't suspect."

"Yes," Thelius nodded at once. "I see it plain. The fleet will draw off from Crestley, and we shall pretend to be loaded upon it, leaving a skeleton garrison at the castle."

Sereus nodded. "A few well-placed rumors... perhaps an official transfer of a fleet treasury-ship to the castle..." He could see that Velmus was getting it now, and even Alanus appeared to be won over. Yes, they could surprise the elves and force a battle that would turn the tide: lure them onto dry land and make an assault against them that would break their strength. Thelius was elated. That night he sought out Alia in the servants rooms, drew her out by the hand, and they were one as Raya behind the wood pile in the bailey. He smiled at her afterwards, wondering if her fair eyes would shine so brightly for the next soldier boy who came along, the next knight who was stationed on this lonesome isle.

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