This is the second part of the short story The Battle of Crestley, which begins here.
The ruse was well underway by the time Thelius arrived at Calthisport. The towers lining the southern coast of the island had been dismantled and burned and the fleet was already sweeping out to sea. The oars of the last transport triremes were flashing in the Channel Profunda, sending flecks of spray high into the air. They would withdraw to the open ocean and wait for the signal to return: a column of smoke, lit from Crestmont Castle's bailey. Thelius had seen the bonfire built before he left for the port. He raised his wine cup to his lips and sipped at it. It tasted like salt and ash.
He stood upon the brick ramparts of the imperial naval commandery that overlooked the town. Calthisport was a protected harbor, hidden on the northern shore of the island, the main embarkation point for ships headed to the mainland. Ternport, its sister on the sandy shores of the Tern Hills across the bay, had been burned a few nights ago. The smoke was still smudged across the sky and Thelius fancied he could see the black ruin where Ternport had once stood. Thousands of farmers and fishermen had been taken across the channel before the reaver attack to bolster the imperial marines that had disembarked from their ships. There were some five or six thousand men, two thirds of that made up of poor bastards pressed into the levees, swarming on the isle.
Calthisport herself was a built on a shallow hillside and a stony gully. An ancient castle choked the bay with its slimy stones, the seat of the port's baron. Across from it, atop the cliffs on the eastern side of the town, was the commandery. The imperial navy, unlike her armies, was not filled by knights and feudal obligation; most of the marines were common folk who had taken the Oath back when their emperor was a king and vowed to serve twenty years upon the boards. It was a road little-trod, but those who advanced amongst their peers on the sea could become Triarchs, knights, and lords in time. The commandery was one of the stations where imperial Triarchs could put up and receive orders from the Masters of the Fleet—who were, Thelius noted, all noblemen as far back as he could remember.
The port had been evacuated. Lord Crestley wanted no chances taken with the citizenry, so they had been huddled and herded to the little interior towns, hidden behind breaks of shield pine. The houses were now staffed with marines in boiled leather and red sashes, with leveefolk wearing no armor at all and carrying not baldes but tridents, flails, sickles, pitch-forks, and whatever else they could find on their farms and in the bellies of their fishing ships. Interspersed throughout, Thelius knew, were Crestley's knights all clad in padded gambesons, shirts of mail, and heavy pot-helms. The ships had deposited all these folk on the island before they left.
The last galley rounded the island and left them alone. A sorrowful wind tugged at Thelius' cloak and whistled amongst the crenels of the commandery wall. There was naught now but the salt, the sea, and the distant line of the mainland from which plumes of fire were still rising. The reavers had sailed unopposed for days. How many monasteries have burned? Thelius wondered. How many men, women, halflings, have been taken to sea as slaves? Hundreds or thousands, no doubt. The slave trade was alive and well in the north, beyond the empire's borders.
He turned away from the wall at last. The wine tasted no better as he descended into the yard. He could hear a team of engineers arguing over how best to position the ballistae and scorpions so they couldn't be seen from the sea. "Worry that they will take the bait, first," Thelius muttered under his breath. The treasury ship had come and gone, offloading bars and bars of gold bullion from the Noranian supply vaults right there at the Calthisport docks. He hadn't been in the town to see it himself, but the great swaying purple tent set up along the water would ensure that any scrying eyes would be able to see that an imperial envoy was present and loaded to the gills with gold.
In the yard he paced nervously and listened to the sound of his iron soles clicking against the flagstones. The plan was set, so there was nothing to be done, and it ground on his spirit. The commandery was humming with activity as marines rushed to and fro with bolts and stones to fling down below. The same scene was undoubtedly playing out on the castle in the bay, its little stony island secretly bristling with weapons. Part of the plan included hiding their siege machinery until the reavers were already entangled in the narrow streets and alleyways. Marines in the upper windows would pour crossbow fire down on them and funnel their attack towards the switchback path that led up to the edge of town. There, some knight Epistene had been stationed. If all they say about those pilgrims is true, he will be able to hold the line... or at least tend those who are near slain by elvish blades. Paladins were an unknown element to Thelius—he had seen only a few of them in his life, and those at great distance in the imperial court.
When he had nearly paced a rut in the courtyard he decided to go down and check on the imperial nuncio. He hadn't seen the man yet, but he heard the fellow was sweating buckets and shitting water in fear. Downwards he went, following the steep stair-lined road from the commandery to the channel's edge. Overhead marines leaned out of windows to watch him go, houses and merchant's halls and workshops all filled with crossbowmen. Thelius smiled and saluted when he noticed them, though he wondered if they would feel any better at his forced good humor. I am grinning like a skull, he thought.
He forced himself to don a more sober appearance when he arrived at the envoy's tent. It was a huge purple pavilion with gilded wooden posts hammered into the soft mud of the embankment's edge. Thelius noted that they were each carved in the likeness of the Pillar of Miles. Figures—imperial power flows from imperial signs. The envoy was a nervous looking man with a foxy beard and twitchy hands. He was clad all in imperial red and purple, robes of such ornate ornamentation that he might be mistaken for a wizard. It occurred to Thelius that he might be a mage in truth, for sometimes the emperor dispatched minor magicians as his nuncios. Best to be cautious with this one, he reminded himself. You can never tell how a man will fare until he's in a battle, and even then he may surprise you.
"My lord," Thelius said as he approached, bowing briefly at the waist and touching his heart in a salute. "I am the captain of the escurae stationed on Crestley. I came to see if you needed anything."
The purple-clad envoy shook his head and his robes, mantle, and sash all quaked as though the ground were bucking beneath him. "No, no, and I am no lord. The proper title is—"
"Excellency," he interrupted. "Yes, I'm sorry. I knew that." And he did; the titles and duties of imperial officers of the civil service had been drilled into him by years of training. Only the nobility could take up service for the emperor, though few barons were fool enough to go themselves and most sent second or third sons. Dread of the attack must be getting to me. "Well, you needn't stay and submit yourself to danger."
"The gold... the gold is chained to my life. The vaultmaster at Noranos made sure to tell me that." He looked positively terrified, his foxy face all ashudder with twitches and tics.
Thelius couldn't help but chuckle. "If we lose the gold, we lose the island and then your life won't be worth much more than it will fetch on a slaver's block. Come, no one will steal the gold while the harbor throngs with imperial marines." He clapped the envoy on the back and startled the man almost to death. "May I ask for your name, excellency?"
"Tarquin," the envoy said nervously. So with Tarquin the envoy in tow, Thelius went back up to the commandery to find something to eat. His stomach was roiling uncontrollably and he felt he would barely be able to choke down a bite of bread, but once the board was set for them he found that he couldn't stop shoveling olive oil and fish down his gullet.
For two days he wandered the battlements, made certain Tarquin felt safe, and checked the men. On the third, the reavers came.