Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Battle of Crestley, part 3

This is a continuation of The Battle of Crestley part 1 and part 2.

Thelius stayed in Calthisport. That was where the heaviest stroke would fall—besides, Tarquin seemed almost frantic when he suggested that he might withdraw to Crestmont. The emissary was fretful and nervous and spent a good deal of his days talking with the other imperial wizards. Thelius, for his part, instead paced the defensive works and made certain the thousands of soldiers squirreled in the city were not visible from the sea. Each night he dined at the Fleethaven Inn, a huge taphouse that had been built to serve the imperial naval fortress outside the town. It's owner, Harloman Bamburh, had no intention of leaving even with the elvish reavers growing ever closer. He had agreed, for nominal reimbursement by the throne, to allow the knights, escurae, and triarchs to quarter there and use the massive common hall as a war room. The tiny little map chamber in the fortress was inadequate for the task, designed in a time when Miles had no care for Crestley or reason to suspect it might be the sight of a great battle.

Out in the port, the castle of Sparstone was being garrisoned with imperial troops and local sailors. Scorpions peeked from its crenels, hidden by canvas bags that would be ripped away when the elves presented themselves. On the night before the attack, as though anticipating it, a lone silver elf took anchorage at Crestmont. Thelius was eating dinner at Fleethaven when he heard: a magus of considerable power, dispatched from Oronia to help make up for the sins of his kin. That made him feel a little better—but only a little.

The following afternoon, the elves came. The sky was leaden grey and the nine wizards had long since taken their stations. The nuncio had holed himself up in the belly of the brick fortress on the cliffs, intent that he not be seen. Thelius' stomach felt sour though whether it was from Tarquin's cowardice or some evil premonition, he could not say.

He himself took up a position at the forefront of his men. The closest to the dock were stationed in the old Red Dog Tavern. It's wooden posts were swollen with age, the jettied upper floor spilling drunkenly out over the road. He and eight crossbowmen from some imperial barque sat crouched in the hall of its owner, a waddling squint-eyed little merchant named Corporus. He'd left behind his two gnomish servants, undoubtedly to keep the marines from breaking or stealing anything. So far Thelius had seen one unchary marine knock over a jug full of beer and another foul his blade in a tapestry, ripping its fringes to shreds. Corporus'll be lucky if that's all the damage that happens up here. When the reavers came, there would be spellwork afoot. Spells always meant pain and suffering for peasant and townsman alike. Only wizards could boast a benefit from them, and often not even they.

A few fat droplets of rain splattered the muddy street. There was a chill and smoke from the mainland could clearly be seen in the slate colored sky. Let the fleet not mistake that for the signal, Thelius prayed. Good Halor, give us some luck today. On the horizon there was a sudden bloom of light: reavers were taking the opportunity presented by the undefended channel to raid the southern shores. Thelius was suddenly afraid that they had done all this for naught: that the reavers wouldn't take the bait and would instead strike deep inland into Paix and slaughter the defenseless shore folk. There, isn't that Ternport burning? His heart sank and that churning sour feeling in his stomach forced him to pull his head back inside and sit in one of Corporus' chairs, gasping for breath.

"Sieur Thelius?" one of the marines asked. He waved at the man, trying to tell him that everything was alright, that he just needed a moment. The fear was strong, though, and the wave only brought more concern. "Are you feeling alright, sieur?" He heard the marine start to stamp across the floor when another hissed, "Shut yer filthy fucking mouth, the ships come!"

Thelius rose to his feet at once and struggled to the open window. He thrust his head from it, nearly banging his brow on one of the wooden shutters. DOOM. DOOM. DOOM. DOOM. Drums. There were war drums in the channel. DOOM. hisssss. DOOM. hisssss. The slithering sound of the elvish oars provided counterpoint. Forty—no fifty!—ships were drawing near to the island. They were white or gray and long. Sinuous and slender, sculpted from lightning-blasted wood and carved into all manner of snakes, worms, and dragons, they broke the water with their prows.

A chill went through the marines. Thelius felt it too. There was something evil, something sinister about those bone white ships. He had seen them before, seen them up close, but this was different. This was a whole fleet of them, maneuvering through the Channel Profunda as though it belonged to them. Never before had the marauders gathered in such numbers to strike at one spot. Never, at least, as far as he knew. What lurked in ancient histories was beyond him. I deal with the here and now, not the past.

DOOM. The drums grew closer as the ships rounded Sparstone Castle. DOOM. The water was thrumming with their passage. DOOM. They shook the shutters. DOOM. They shook his bones. DOOM. DOOM. DOOM. And then they stopped. The streets of Calthisport where ghostly silent save for the slither and slap of oars upon the waves. There was a smell in the air like magic, and Thelius watched the hairs on the back of his hand come and stand on end.

When the first ships beached, he had his men quietly winch their crossbows. The tak tak tak sound seemed to stand out as incredibly loud to Thelius' ear. Halor, don't let them hear this. He kept his eyes squeezed shut and tried to still his breath. He knew that in other houses, taverns, and halls across the town the other marines were winding their shots.

The quiet (waves lapping, breath held in the dark hall, the cry of a distant sea bird) was split by the clatter of one of the elvish ships driving straight up onto the sandy shore off to the left. They weren't used to bump-docking, Thelius realized with a start. They were avoiding the Stone Harbor altogether. That damn harbor is why I chose the Red Dog! He pulled his head inside. "They're docking at the fisherman's market!" he said in a low hiss. "We need to draw them here!"

The gold, he realized. The gold will bring them deeper into the knot. He had stashed it here, in the Dog, in the cellar below. It would have been better if he could have paraded the nuncio around with it, but Tarquin was safely squirreled away in the naval outpost. Don't let anyone start the fighting before it's time. They needed to draw the elves deep into the town, where they would be surrounded. Otherwise, there was nothing to stop them from taking to their ships in flight.

Each step that Thelius took down the staircase to the common room was like thunder to him. Carefully, carefully. When he reached the landing he paused, caught his breath, and quietly slunk even lower. Like most buildings in the empire, the Red Dog was elevated on a stone undercroft, and it was there he needed to go. A hatch in the broad beams of the wooden floor gave him access and down in the darkness he fumbled around and filled his arms with sacred gold.

There was a door out to the street down here, if only he could find it. It turned out to be easier than he thought, as the thin planks let beams of light in through their slats. When he couldn't find the latch he grumbled and simply put his shoulder to the door. His enameled armor crunched against the wood as the leather thong that held the door ripped in twain and let him stumbling out into the street.

Two or three gold bars dropped into the mud, splattering his boots. There, at the left end of the winding street, was a contingent of three elves. They were hunting, he saw, looking for the gold most like. They wore heavy shirts of silvered chain and chausses of the same stuff. Over their shoulders were thrown cloaks of seal and otter. Their faces were chalk white, painted with ash, their eyes turned into deep and evil pits filled with droplets of glowing amber, venom, or tar. Silver studs had been driven through their ears, noses, tongues, lips. Reavers.

Thelius dropped the gold. I must hold them here until the rest come for the treasury. He struggled to draw his sword. His pollaxe was above, in the hall. The elves saw him, smiled to one another, spoke in their musical tongue of hisses that sounded like a hearthfire trying to sing. They broke into a trot, each baring two weapons: a long slender sword and a knife. Thelius finally drew his own blade seconds before they tumbled into him. Before they could make contact the mud boiled to life with thumping quarrels. One of the elves jerked and dancing like a mouse being dangled over a fire. A quarrel ripped out his throat, punched into stomach, and another pierced his leg. The other two came on.

CLANG! The first sounds of combat would surely draw the rest. Thelius pushed a blade away with his own, shifting his feet to get more traction on the slippery wet earth. As the second elf ran up, he planted his boot on the reaver's shin and pushed. He watched as the elf twisted and fell hard to one knee, but he didn't have time to deliver a killing blow—his helmet rang with a stroke from his other foe and he winced at what would have otherwise been a slice to cut open his skull. He felt the elvish knife punch his armor, but it did little more than bruise him.

Whirling, he closed his mailed fist on his hilt tightly. He prepared himself for the pain by wincing, and then his hand connected with the reaver's jaw. It didn't hurt half as much as he thought it might, but there were still blossoms of angry throbbing in his hand and wrist. The elf got the worst of it, for he stumbled and went down.

Thelius turned to face his second foe again, but a pair of marines had emerged from a nearby house and where taking turns stabbing him beneath his mail. Thelius did the same with the elf moaning in the mud before him, and then the street was silent again.

A dull sort of roar was echoing from the buildings on every side. The fighting is joined, he knew. The elves must have begun to spread out across the city. Over the roofs of straw, of turf, and of slate he saw the battlements at Sparstone where now alive with men. Canvas covers had been drawn aside to reveal small mangonels, scorpions, and ballistae. They thrummed and thunked and flung, battering the elvish ships on the sandy shore with more or less accuracy even as marines loaded into slips to come sailing over. They'll sink them and strand the elvish force here, Thelius thought triumphantly. We're going to win.

Then the potent thunder of a voice speaking magical tones, words that had not been heard by human years in a millennia, crackled across the rooftops. Dragon magic. Thelius shivered. As their echo died out, the ground was rocked with a distant blast. Tongues of flame leapt into the sky. The bloody work has just begun.

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