The boat moved easily in the rising swells, adopting a long slow rolling gait. My initial concern over entering this disturbed water was assuaged by the calm normality of the crew. Their easy movement about the deck and practical attention to every detail of the myriad of ropes and ties, each minor alteration adjusting the set of the enormous wind catching cloth which propelled the vessel.
Some craft it was too. In size it would dwarf the largest barges on the rivers of Nul and Enar. In complexity it were as if they came from different times.
In truth, some of the methods used to manoeuvre were of the old order, like the pulling away from the harbour wall. This was done by means of a small boat rowed by crewmen dragging the front of the ship clear of the wall before even the rearmost tethers were released. Once this was done, a small cloth was raised right at the front of the ship to assist the rowing boat to pull the ship to a safe position. This seemed to be particularly necessary as the harbour was choppier than lake Bayom and the rowers appeared to be having a difficult time of it.
On board the ship however it was as steady as being on land. Once safely away from obstacles, the rowing crew were retrieved and the main cloths hoisted. These bellied and flapped, then once secured, stiffened to their task and almost immediately the ship began to move purposefully out to sea.
As with the onset of the swell, any trepidation's as to entering the domain of the open sea were quelled by the easy acceptance of the crew. If they were not frightened or concerned by this passage, why should I be? I envied their knowledge and ability for there was hardly a word spoken in command, each crewmember checking the ship as if it were their own. For all I knew it might be a jointly run craft for the master of the vessel seemed more a coordinator than captain.
Most of all I envied their agility and assurance in moving, for although the movement of the ship was regular it required a deal of concentration to counter it. One distraction and you would be unceremoniously dumped on the floor.
After this happening a number of times I concluded that my best course of action would be to stay sat. This decision taken, it allowed me to watch the interplay of wind and cloth, rope and wood. To hear the gurgle and swish as the water streamed past and to acclimatise my senses to the rhythm of the sea. Adapting to it, not fighting it.
This also gave me time to ruminate upon my good fortune over the past few days, culminating in obtaining this passage.
The land had come to an abrupt halt, falling away swiftly to a shingle beach upon which the waves beat their steady and incessant rhythm. Off to the left and right the cliffs stretched in a long arc, undulating gently in their course. In places as high as the walls of Pom, sometimes sloping down almost to the waters' edge.
There was no sign of habitation or occupation save for some buika like animals which did not look wild, grazing on the lush headland grasses. I had crossed a well-used trackway about a greatpace inland, but despite its obvious usage I had seen no one on it. I was happy to have the land, sea and sky to myself, and had camped on these bluff cliffs to enjoy their solitude and to ponder what I should do next.
It occurred to me as I sat roasting some gartak flesh, that returning to Valev would not be out of the question. I had not found answers, or even indicators that an answer may be solicited over the question of population disparity. But there were some possibly useful information to be had from my travels so far.
Thinking on this I of course accepted that Harnen of Flens would carry most of that knowledge for me, and furthermore arrive in Valev long before I could. That nullified the reasoning to return. I was glad, for in myself I felt the task and my personal quest unfulfilled. There was within me a previously unrecognised or unadmitted desire to go onward, to see and to learn more. Well, that is probably a little high minded. I wanted to just to keep going, to experience new and different things.
On then, but on to where? I could not go ahead, so left or right? The last rays of the setting sun on my back provided an answer as they illuminated a small bright patch far out on the water. Unmistakably a sailcloth, just as those I had seen on the Einul river barges.
Now I had a direction to go. Immediately I was faced with a problem of getting aboard this vessel to go where it was going. For sure it would not conveniently come and stop here. Watching it as darkness fell, a tiny light indicated the boats' position. A minuscule glimmer, winking in the night.
To me, it appeared to be travelling slowly left to right before it became too faint for me to see, and then disappeared completely. So,the question was, was the boat coming from somewhere on this coastline to the left of me or was it going to a haven to my right. There were no glimmers of light on the shore in either direction, and so still undecided I settled down to sleep.
Waking with the breaking dawn I looked eagerly out to sea for boats, but none were to be seen. Dawn did reveal however, a faint wisp of smoke far off to my left, and so that was the direction in which I strode out after breakfasting.
At great length I came across a small fishing village. Some of their boats were up on the beach. There was no harbour, and of a consequence nothing of any size could land there. I imagined that a sea going vessel must have a bulk at least that of the river barges I had seen in order to be safe.
The village was so small and remote I considered it unlikely that word of my warrant would have come here so I chanced on entering it. These people were simple and plainspoken. I was greeted and treated with courtesy but without ceremony. I got what I asked for and nothing more. Proper washing facilities and a good meal. Both were paid for.
They did not ply me with questions and averted the enquiries of their children whose curiosity in this stranger was obvious. It was not that they were uncommunicative for when I asked a question the answer was always forthcoming. The question had to be short and direct however, for that was the form the answers took. Thus it took no time to solicit the information that the boats I sought harboured at a place called Tuorom, some two days walk from this village.
Armed with that knowledge, I thanked these people for their help and bade them farewell, stepping out in the direction of Tuorom. I had been advised that it was quicker to go inland to the main road and use that, rather than stick to the coast. I chose the latter for two reasons. Firstly because I had seen the road, and it was not much of one. I did not believe it would be that much quicker. Secondly, I was less likely to come across mail carriers or other government agencies who may, or may not cause me problems.
Also, the cliff way was by far the prettier route. Two days I had been told, and two days it took me before I breasted the last crest and looked down upon the haven of Tuorom, the first fortified town I had seen since the Nul / Latii border.
Its harbour contained a number of boats, but none larger than those I had seen in the smaller port I had passed en route to here. I felt deflated, let down, disappointed. Nevertheless, I went down and into the town.
Lodgings near the harbour were neither difficult to obtain, nor expensive. I gained a few odd looks but was not accosted or more importantly arrested. I had passed the office of the militia and had been almost too afraid to look. But my likeness was not there. Perhaps it had not been spread beyond Dema, and my furtiveness and caution had been a folly. If so, it was too late to rectify that or go back and at any rate I did not have the inclination to do so.
The town was like an armed camp, and in answer to my subtle enquiries as to why this should be so, was told that the Niisk border was less than a days march from here and of consequence a large garrison was needed, particularly as this was now Enars' major port on this coast.
Comments to the effect that I was plainly not from around here preceded, interspersed and succeeded nearly all conversations I had at that time. For the locals, every question I asked was to them common knowledge. Like the fact that another seagoing boat (or ship, as a boat of this size was called) was due in within two days.
When it did come, it was so routine to these people that no fanfares, nor exuberance's were made. I was set agog. The ship was enormous. It had vast expanses of windcloth set upon two tall posts, one behind the other and each as tall as the tallest trees I had ever seen and easily half the height of the bridge pillars at Beda. As I watched, these sailcloths were being brought in and the ship turned to reveal its odd construction.
It was as if two large boats had been lashed together with the sailposts in the middle. It seemed strange, but then I know nothing of the sea so I suspect there was a good reason. This gigantic vessel slowed to a stop a short way from the inner walls of the harbour and lines were thrown out to people waiting on the shore to pull the ship closer in order for it to be unloaded.
There was no more willing back than mine for this task and I was quickly insinuated into the ranks of those involved in the unloading and reloading of the vessel. My first time on board revealed another surprise. The crew of this ship were not Enaran.
They were all smaller people of about my stature, but were not of Surian stock. If anything, they vaguely resembled pictures I had seen in school back in Vasny depicting the Old People, the original nomadic inhabitants of these lands. This was a turn up, for it was widely believed that all the Old People had been pushed out by Sur and eradicated by Lowlanders and the Dark Scourge, more correctly known as the Einul People and Latiians.
This looked like they had not only survived, but were doing well, for I asked one of the fellows on this unloading party if foreign ships often docked here. His reply was that all the 'ships' were foreign. All from Lobdi. Why this was so, neither he nor a number of others knew.
I was deep in the storage space within the ship, which I was told was called a 'hold', when one of the crew called out in a strange tongue. All three of us who were stacking sacks looked up, all thinking that the loading was somehow wrong. The crewperson gestured to me and spoke in Enaran.
''You're not one of these people. What are you doing here?" This was said inquisitively and without malice.
"No." Said I. "I am not of Enar, but from far off and I am making my way to see all the world."
"Are you neut?"
"I am that." I answered.
"Oh." An elongated word accompanied by a raised eyebrow.
"All right.! All right.! Well don't let me stop you!" This said with a dismissive flick of the wrist. So back up on deck I went, for more sacks.
By now I was acquiring a vocabulary of the correct terms associated with a ship and was watching out for the keepnets swung from the dock to the tweendeck on the load arm. It was from this tweendeck to the port and starboard holds that the cargo had to be manhandled as soon as the keepnet was freed from the yard line, which was quickly swung back ashore for another load.
Although this process was long and laborious, it was vastly quicker than the alternative procession of porters cluttering the decks and gangplanks. Why had the Nula not thought of this method of loading for their barges? If I passed that way again I would surely tell them of it. It looked as if I might for the ships' master was no where to be seen and of a consequence I was unable to entreat him for passage. Instead, when a break was called at midday, I was left with no choice but to approach the one crewmember who I knew spoke Enaran.
I put it to this fellow that I would like to journey with them and see their land, and asked for advice on how to go about achieving this. His reply was vague and noncommittal and I was bid to go for lunch with the others or the loading might fall behind schedule.
As we struggled with sack after sack, barrel upon barrel that afternoon, I asked what was the importance of loading up this ship in a specific time. The answer was grunted by one of the working party I was with, that no loading was done at night, because of the danger of injury or fire and that the ship wanted to catch the tide early next morning. I did not understand, so it was explained to me that the water level in the harbour rises and falls, so with the ship fully laden it is best to come and go when the sea is deepest at the mouth of the estuary. If 'the dawn high tide was missed, then the ship would have to wait until early evening or the next day to leave.
The loading of the ship was at length completed, and that before dark. It had been a more lengthy process than the unloading and of a consequence the ship was noticeably lower in the water. I queued with the others for my share of the workers' payment and with that ate heartily, after which, I collected my possessions and returned to the dockside. Where, learning that the ships' officers were not available I settled down to wait.
A fine drizzle came on and I found a place to unroll my sleeping pack. This would keep me warm and dry during my vigil. It was full night by now, the only lights being the lanterns on board ship, one hung from the foremast and one at the rear, and a guttering torch on the dockside tavern. The drizzle thickened and turned to rain. The tavern closed and the dockside patrol ceased to brave the elements. Still there was no return to the vessel by its captains.
I dozed intermittently and must have fallen to sleep. I was woken by soft voices. It was still dark, but the rain had eased. The voices were the ships' crew receiving sailing orders from the returned captain. Quickly I was up and packed, and presenting myself at the gangplank, I was bustled aboard just as the plank was withdrawn.
Already the tug crew were in position and the slip lines prepared. The bow drew clear as the first grey pall of dawn came on the blustery wind. First the bow slip line went, then the stern. The steersail creaked as it woke to its task, then shortly afterward the front mainsail was dropped wetly from its ties by the scurrying crew. As soon as this took the air the tugboat was retrieved and the ship made way up the estuary and out to sea.
In deeper water more sails were unfurled and set sideways to the ships' motion. Three turns were necessary before the ship could clear the river completely and a further two were made before the captain was happy that the ship was far enough from the shore for safe passage.
I had been largely ignored while stood, and then sat on the deck, watching the proceedings and now that the ship had settled down I considered it wise to present myself to the Captain. I had not done so before as everyone had been so busy and I had no desire to get in the way. Standing up again, I found that the motion was actually not that difficult to adjust to and started toward the rear of the ship. I almost immediately came face to face with the fellow who had spoken to me in the hold. His face registered surprise, but this was quickly overcome with the question as to how I had come aboard. I told the truth. At which he muttered something under his breath and then took me to the ships' master.
At my presence a short debate took place and then I was permitted to thank the Captain for allowing my joining the ship. Once again I was asked how I came to be here. Once again I told them. It became obvious that the ships' master had originally denied my request and that I had been allowed on board by mistake. This was easy to understand. It had been dark. I was the same build as the crew that was noticeably different to that of the Enarans. Furthermore I had come up the gangplank just behind some of the ships crew. The crewperson in charge of the plank had been summoned and was given a dressing down for the error.
I did not comprehend the words, but understood their meaning and so interjected on behalf of the crewperson (incidentally, a neut), saying that I had not intended this as a deception, but merely that I wanted to be aboard for this journey and took my chance. I added that I would be happy to make payment for the trip and would further be willing to undertake any task should that ease matters. With this the Captain relented, saying that he would think on a price and that I should go with the offending crewneut, who would find me quarters and for his pains, instruct me in seafaring that I might not be a complete nuisance.
Fortunately this neut spoke some Enaran and of a consequence I was able to follow his guiding and instruction if with occasional difficulty, for if the truth were known my Enaran was still not that good. After all, I had only been in these lands for two months.. The first thing was to take me down and find a corner to leave my bags, and then I was taken on a tour of the ship.
I already knew the layout of the hold and now was shown where I was and was not allowed, and also told when. Of primary importance was that I did not disturb the left watch. I had been allocated a bunk and drawer in the right watch. This was a sleeping room located low down behind the hold and as is suggested, in the right hand section of the ship.
The right watch contained twenty four bunks, all empty, and I presumed correctly that the left had the same. This arrangement was explained. The ship was divided into two watches, one off duty, the other on. The day and night was divided into three watches. The rules were, when a watch was off, they were not disturbed unless the ship was in peril. Thus, I would only see the left watch people when changing over or in port.
Behind each crew quarter were the washtubs and latrines (just a hole into the sea). Below them was the fresh water store and above, the oversirs quarters. The crew ate and relaxed on the tweendeck, which had covers for when the weather was inclement. Up forward on the left was the cookhouse and foodstore and on the right side, the sail and rope workshop and equipment store.
Above all this was the maindeck, which at its rear had the master’s cabin and command rooms. The roof of this served as the steering platform, where the Watch captain stood to control the ship. I was not allowed in this section at all (except when ordered so on duty) but had the run of the main and tween decks.
Meals were prepared at watch changes, with broth at half watch. These were the only times the crew were allowed at the cookhouse door. The hold was strictly out of bounds while at sea, so all in all it was a limited space to be in. As a consequence, with nowhere to go, and nothing to do I followed Oggla around, trying not to get in his way and to help when possible.
It quickly became obvious that although there were places for a crew of forty-eight not including oversirs, the actual crew was less than half that. The right watch consisting ten crew and two oversirs. The left watch numbered one less. Thus, including the three cooks and the ships' master, the total crew was twenty seven. I asked why all the extra bunk space and was told that there were times when it was used. It was made plain that I should not ask when those times were.
Most of the time was spent on the main deck, and each crewman took turns to do each of the necessary jobs. There was little ordering or instruction, each person knowing when to change things and what was needed in each task.
The half watch broth was most welcome as I had become quite cold working the deck. The luxury of sitting on a bench on the tweendeck to sip the broth out of the wind was excruciating. That is when I wished I still had my coarse Valev clothes. For at sea the wind is unceasing, and cold. Not as cold as a Hivalev midwinter storm, but every bit as cutting. Even the Surian warcoat was not protection enough, although it helped. And so the ship drove on under leaden skies, back along the coast I had walked down and ever more out to sea.
I hauled on ropes, helping to adjust the sails, it seemed they were never quite right, tidied the ropes up looping and lashing them. Then when that was done another adjustment needed elsewhere. Always there was something that needed tidying or cleaning until at last the left watch came up and released us to a small meal of bread and stew.
Then to our bunks. Well, not quite. Oggla insisted that I clean myself first. He had seen me scratching and was having none of that. With the rest of the watch concurring I could not refuse. One of them brought hot stones from the kitchen to warm the seawater and I was cleansed again.
They took my clothes and de itchered them. My belongings were rifled unmercifully all the grain samples and food was thrown overboard, as was the bag itself and my sleeping sack. They were very sorry about it as it looked a fine warm sack, but it was ridden with itchers. A Legny ship was a clean and tidy ship. There were enough problems at sea without itchers and illness. They were the rules. They were happy to have me, but if I was on their ship I had to live by their conditions. No questions, that was it.
From that position on I was one of the crew. So much so that a ballot was held and one of this watch packed his gear and moved to the left watch. I asked why and Oggla replied that it was obvious. Now the watches would be even. The right watch had had an easy time of it for a while with an extra crewman. It was only fair now that I was here to even it up.
I questioned the lack of consultation with the oversirs, to be told that it was not necessary. The Job of the oversirs was to guide the ship and keep it safe. If there was a problem with the watches, it was up to the master to sort it out if the crew could not. This crew had, so he need not be bothered with it. Of course he would get to know. There was nothing he did not know and that is the way it should be. But now to sleep for the next watch came all too quickly.
They were right. It seemed that my eyelids had hardly shut when I was roused from my slumbers, half a subspan before the change. In time to dress in the warm clothes that the watch members had found me and to get another meal before mustering on deck to see that darkness was falling and the ship was anchored in a bay, with all sails furled.
This was when the Watch captain took the opportunity to speak to the watch. Letting them, us know what was expected. Just a few words then to stations, relieving the left watch. There was not much to do after the initial tidying. Everything was checked then double-checked. After that it was just wait.
The wind was wrong for the crossing I was told, and a storm was brewing. So the ship would wait at anchor overnight. I asked was it not safe.
"Yes." Came the emphatic reply. "But why take chances, and anyway the cargo of fruit did not like being bashed about."
With only three crew and one oversir on deck at a time, the rest of the watch clustered forward on the tweendeck close to the kitchen’s warmth. In this time of waiting, a few songs were sung, stories told and Jokes exchanged. Presently it could wait no longer. One of the watch just had to know what these strange things in my possession were and where they had come from.
Via Oggla, the Watch captain and the Deck Controller who in turn came for warmth and who both spoke better Enaran than either Oggla or myself, I told once again my story. I refrained from divulging the reasons for the journey save that I was sent to seek the knowledge of the world. As on previous occasions the relevant parts brought raised eyebrows and open mouths. Curiously enough there were none who did not believe me. Or at least who showed or spoke it. My story had come as far as Nul when it was my turn to go on deck.
On deck, Oggla indicated that I should first stand anchor watch. Dutifully, I climbed over the front rail and stood in the teeth of the wind, watching the sea bludgeoning itself against the twin bows and seeing the anchor rope diving into the swells. After a short while the Deck Controller came to check on me, and asked if I knew what I was looking for. I answered truthfully that I did not for sure so he spelled it out in simple terms, with the added note that if I were unsure of anything I should yell out. In short, if the rope went slack.
I was as cold and tired in the short time (about half a subspan) that I was on anchor watch as I had been all the previous full watch. When Oggla came to take my place I was only too glad to struggle back over the rail and back to the steering platform.
Here I could move about in the lee of the wind and get some warmth back in my bones, for I was now the runner, or odd jobber until my turn came round to stand the helm. This involved nothing more than standing literally at the wheel that turned the rudders. Ordinarily this meant steadying the wheel to keep the ship on course, but as it was now at rest this was not necessary. The presence was a precaution against a storm. The wind worsened and rain sleeted in, but no storm came.
I returned to the tweendeck to warm up and dry out, then later did another stint on deck, with conditions worse than before. I had seen the others come in from their turns with smiles and japes, and so hardened myself to the task. I was as good as they. If they could come in dripping, with eyes red from the wind and rain and still laugh, so could I.
Towards the end of the watch the weather cleared. It was still raining but the ferocity had gone from it as we went down to our beds. I slept as if drugged, to be shook awake again in the blinking of an eye. Miraculously in such a short while, it had turned to bright day, the sun dancing on the water interrupted in bursts by white clouds scudding across a clear blue sky.
All the sails were set and solid, with the wind angled to the ships' path and bearing hard as if trying to tip us over. With that notion came the realisation as to why twin hulls. There would have to be an unbelievably strong beam wind to tip this ship over. Coupled with that was the thought that ships must have been tipped over, and that winds strong enough to do it must blow. Both of these concepts caused a shiver down my back.
As before, the watch had been an endless routine of trimming and tidying, with the addition that I took a turn on the wheel for a subspan and had to climb the foremast to be top lookout for another subspan.
The wheel I would happily do again, for although it required real physical effort at times, it was rewarding and gave a sense of power, of being in control of this huge device. Top lookout was different. The climb up the lines was hazardous and when up it seemed impossibly high and isolated. Every movement of the ship was magnified greatly and that with the groaning of the sail tackle was positively frightening. It was from here however that I caught my first glimpse of Legny.
It was just a dull smudge on the horizon, but there. I called down and received acknowledgement in the form of a wave. On my return to a more sensible level I found out that the rest of the crew knew of it before I, for they had seen the clouds that form over land even before I had gone aloft. The deck controller had passed the word to keep quiet and see what I would do. I felt thoroughly belittled, then caught myself. This was another lesson. Treat it as such and not as a slight, for I did not really think it was meant that way.
As the ship closed in on the land, we passed a number of small fishing boats, some of which hailed us. After one such shouting match across the water, the crew of a sudden perked up. Oggla came up to me to explain. "We're off down to Aponia, great eh?"
I looked blankly at him
"It'll be great, you'll see. They're at it again and we'll teach them good this time!"
A change in tone as my face failed to register comprehension.
"You are coming with us aren't you?"
"I do not know." I said "I."
"Don't worry I'll fix it!" He interrupted and was gone. Straight to the steerdeck oversir, leaving me baffled with a half coil of rope. I had barely finished coiling when He returned.
"Its done. No problem." He announced "I've even seen the Master and he says you're just the job. If anyone gets boarded he'll send you over with that Latii thing and that'll be an end to it." Even more dumbfounded, but with a sinking realisation as to what was going on I stared back at Oggla standing there beaming at me, and others of the crew coming over and laughing and slapping my shoulders.
"No need to be so modest." Oggla grinned. "You're one of us now."
How could I tell them the last thing I wanted was to get in another fight? How could I let that exuberance down? In short, I could not. A fellow called Affal called across from checking the anchor rope and Oggla translated.
"He says you'll have to teach us a thing or two on how to handle those weapons then maybe we'll fill our hold before all the good stuff gets burned!"
I blanched. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe this time we'llboard them.Eh?" Oggla cried to the cheers of the watch.
"Now just hold it . " I said defensively. "Why should it be thatIchange things?"
Oggla's face clouded and I hurriedly had to add, "Look, I did not say I was not willing. I just don't know anything about warring at sea."
The disappointment went. "Aah! I understand. Well, we'll just have to exchange ideas then eh? You teach us how to beat ten bells of shit out of someone twice your size, and we'll teach you how to do the same to their boat!"
Thankfully, he padded off to check again the readiness of the mooring ropes. It had already been done twice but that was the ways of it on a ship. I was not given time to reflect on the vicissitudes of circumstance as sail was reduced in preparation for harbouring.
Easing the split sternsails was a simple task. It required nothing more than lengthening the stay ropes and allowing the two halves of the sail to pivot so they had less cloth directly into wind. Easing the foresail was not so straightforward. It involved slackening the lower stay ropes and then climbing the mast, walking out on the sail arm guys and manually dragging the sailcloth up to the sail arm and securing it. An arduous task that took a team of six crew to do, for the sail was heavy particularly so if wet.
I had been told that there are advantages and disadvantages to both sail types and this configuration made the best use of wind and crew. I was also told that there were only five ships like this. All the others were rigged with two of the foresail type sails.
The harbour we finally entered was on a river mouth. An enormous wall had been built in the water to protect the ships within from storm. Even from outside the wall, tier on tier of pink walled, grey roofed buildings could be seen stretching up the hillsides away from the water. The wall itself was fortified and there was a keep high on the main hill overlooking the town, but otherwise there were no indications that this place had undergone turbulence in its history.
The harbour was deep and large, much larger than that at Tuorom. There were empty berths for ships even though there were another three of the same, or similar size to this already there and a part completed one that sat on a ramp at the waters edge. A steady flow of returning small fishing vessels were cramming one section behind the wall. A busy place this was indeed, with all its coming and goings and the throng of people unloading the fish from the small vessels and goods from the large ones.
During the final manoeuvres I was sent up to stow the foresail and so went out onto the guys for the first time albeit in an inboard position. The sail had been "let go" and so there was no wind in it save that causing the cloth to flap, and still it was unbelievably heavy. Hauling on the ropes that ran down the front of the sail and clipping the loops sewn into it at intervals onto the beam hooks wore my arms out. But at last it was done and the return to deck without falling achieved, only to be asked by the Watch captain if I could row.
"I have never done it, but I do not see why I should not be able." I replied.
"Very well." He said. "You and Zimla take the Master ashore."
I ran to the small boat that some of the others were preparing to lower into the water, and leapt aboard. It was a wild sensation as the load arm was raised and the boat and I were swung over the water and then lowered into it. I later learned that it was normal to wait until the boat was brought back to the side before entering, as did Zimla and the Master. The crew had thought it a fine jest to swing me out with the boat having seen me jump in it prematurely. The Master was impressed though, for the load arm hook was already away and the oars in their locks when he came down the rope ladder.
I did not have Zimlas' style but I did manage to keep pace and the Master did not have to adjust the rudder too much to account for the differential pull. The dockside was reached in no time, and the Master leapt out and ran up the steps. After tying up the boat I went to follow, but was restrained by Zimlas' words. I did not understand the text, but the meaning was clear. "We wait in the boat for the Master."
Very well, in that case I would use the time to learn from Zimla the correct way to lock and unlock the oars as he had done approaching the dock wall. I also gained a few points on getting the most from rowing.
The wait was not long, but instead of coming back to the boat the Master called down from the wall top and strode off. Zimla indicated that we were to return to the ship without him. We cast off after locking the tiller, and rowed back to the ship that was now berthed. I was at first a little confused as to which ship was which. They all looked alike. Zimla had no such problem, and indicated without hesitation, which was ours. Sure enough he was correct.
On arrival, the Master was already on board and as we approached the side he called for us to stand off. The load arm was swung out and we connected the hook and guide ropes as normal. Zimla looked unhappy about it, but the Master called for us to ship oars and sit tight. They would swing us aboard as we were.
Up we came, and were delivered on deck swiftly and safely to Zimlas relief and the grins of the Master, Watch captain and crew. The fun over, everyone went back to work. I helped to stow the boat whilst the tween deck cover was removed, and despite the proximity of darkness, unloading began.
As a crewperson I was not expected to partake in this, other than to take a turn working the load arm or its guide ropes. Alternatively, I was told to oversee the labourers, ensuring that nothing got in their way and that the holds were unloaded evenly. It was not long before the left watch came up to relieve us.
We were sent ashore to eat and sleep as there would be no rest on ship with the unloading / loading going on all night. I had thought that Legny buildings were in the same style as Valev, for at first sight this is how it looked. Not so. Where ours were hexagonal in plan, these were quite round. All built of stone with pink plaster covering the roughness, and strip stone roofs.
We, the crew, followed our Watch captain into one, larger than those surrounding it and where we were clearly expected. Bowls were laid out on a bench and two apronned females quickly got to work filling them as we trooped in. Fresh breads were brought in and foaming mugs of ale handed out.
A deal of ribaldry came up. Some obviously sexual in nature as both our oversirs and two of the watch were male. The neuts were not left out of the jollity though, for a watch was like a family and everyone in it, high or low, looked to each other. Naturally, I was having a quiet time for I could not understand the language, although Oggla or the Watch captain would translate a particularly funny joke for me. This eccentricity was noted by the females, one of whom whilst fetching more ale passed me and ruffled my hair. She said something jovially homely and a ribald retort came from across the bench, causing howls of laughter. I understood none of it and turned to her to indicate so.
Looking straight at me, her face paled and her eyes went wide. The mugs she carried clattered to the floor. Backing away, her arm came up, the hand pointing at me. Her lips blabbered something and the Watch captain was there reassuring her and turning her away. I looked around at the watchmembers uncomprehendingly.
"It's your eyes." Said Oggla. "They're blue."
So what? I thought, but looking round saw that no‑one else's were. All were dark, as in truth they had been since leaving Valev. I had become so used to it I had not even thought about it before. The room had gone quiet.
"All right." I said. "So I have blue eyes. You all know I am not local, so what is the big deal?"
A silence, then Oggla announced. "No one has blue eyes. I mean nobody."
Another long pause, then; "There is a legend. A superstition. That the great destroyer can be recognised by his blue eyes. But it’s silly talk. Stuff to frighten children. Take no notice."
"That I will." Said I. "For should anyone think I am a destroyer of any kind I am afraid they have come to the wrong person. It may be that here there are no blue eyes, but in Valev where I come from it is not unusual at all. So I am a person just like you, except from a Long way off. See. My hair is different in colour too. Where is the harm in that?"
"There is none." The returned Watch captain replied. "And in the gloom of this room we cannot even see any difference. Now and tomorrow you are one of my watch. We are kindred of the sea and a new watch calls, so to sleep my good fellows. Go on! It's all right. The females are placated and will clear up. Go!"
I was woken from my bunk long before it was light to go down to warm washing water and a mug of broth. The females were not in evidence, just an old neut who looked closely at me but said nothing. As we came back to the harbour and boarded our ship. the night was dry, with the wind crisp and cold. It is amazing how more aware of the weather you are when associated with ships.
Loading was completed and the tweendeck cover in place as the watch was taken over. The word was passed that we were to sail with the tide, so preparations were started as that would be only another half subspan or so. I volunteered for the rowing party of four that would pull the ship clear, and so once again went over the side. This job did not require finesse, although all oars had to dip together to avoid chaos. The need was for brute strength.
The ship came away from the dock and instead of raising the guidesail, we had to pull it well clear for two others were performing the same manoeuvre. At last the guidesail snapped out and the tow line slackened. We rowed to one side to allow the ship to catch us but instead of stopping it lumbered straight past, the Master’s voice coming down and saying that this boat would be retrieved in mid stream of the river. So, there would be more rowing, when my arms felt like they would drop off. At least this was easier with no ship to pull.
We were recovered as promised, in mid stream. We could have got there before the ship because the wind was not right for an easy exit but we lay well clear to give all three ships room to position themselves. Retrieval was by the "new" method of bringing boat and crew aboard together on the load arm. With four in the boat it was a bit shaky and I could easily see a situation turning disastrous.
As we stowed the boat, Oggla said to me.
"The Master's well happy with you my good fellow. He reckons with the new method he can lay the line without stopping."
I begged his pardon, so he explained that part of the battle plan was to lay a line of fire barrels interlinked with rope and with a small boat every twelfth barrel. It was the manned boats that normally had to be stopped for. Now that would not be necessary.
"Better make them more stable in the lift then." I said.
"Tell me!" Said Oggla, who had been in the rowing party as well.
"Somebody had better say something." Said I. "And you have his ear better than I." Indicating the Master.
"But what should I suggest?" Oggla asked. "I do not know." I replied. "Maybe ask his advice. But let him or the Watch captain know before someone gets needlessly hurt."
Off Oggla went, reluctant to be the bringer of a complication to a grand plan. I was interrupted from my thoughts on how best to steady the boats as lowered by the shuffle of feet moving to stations preparatory to getting under way.
The other ships were leaving the harbour now, they would need room, and anyway the 'fleet' could depart now all together. I thought my arms had had enough, but there was more to come. Up the foremast I went to let out the foresail. This was easier than dragging it in but was still heavy to pull off the hook. Once off, it had to be let go simultaneously by all the top hands to avoid catching and tearing. The thump as it dropped nearly had me off the guy. Nearly, but not quite.
A little weak legged, I came back to a normal level. There was to be no let up. Constant manoeuvring was needed to gain sea room. First one tack, then another. Then an adjustment to give more room to one of the other ships, then another tack. So it went on for at least two subspans, even as the dawn came up.
Course was at last set but even then it seemed that the wind changed every two moments. There was a steady procession of strangers up on the deck for air but none of them got in the way or asked questions. Well not of the crew anyway. We were all too busy to answer if they had and it was obvious that the sea was new to none of them. I took my turn at the wheel and it was here that I saw the questions asked. Only one or two even then, and of the Watch captain or Master when he was on deck.
It was during this time as well that the lookout called that signals were coming from the land, far off to our right. Just discernible, a flickering light on the horizon and almost lost against the climbing sun, which fortunately for the signallers was obscured by cloud. Two fellows came from below and started up an odd device that had been installed on the rear of the control deck. I had my back to it so could not see what they were doing but it made a weird hissing and clattering. Then after an exchange of dialogue more hiss and clatter.
Logic said it must be a signalling apparatus. Unfortunately the exchange was completed before I changed positions so I could not satisfy my curiosity as to its working. I observed it on a latter occasion however and this is exactly what it was. The device consisted of an oil lamp in a box with one side glassed. In front of that glass was a shutter that caused the clatter when opened and closed. The hissing was from a bag beneath the lamp assembly, the bag being inflated by a pump and supplying a steady stream of air to the flame, thus increasing its luminosity. I was later to find also that the inside of the box was mirrored, again improving the light source.
Whoever thought that up must have been a genius. But then these people seemed to be remarkable in their ingenuity to make things that work. The ship itself was testament to that.
The watch ended at midday and I went below to an amazing sight. The tweendeck was full of people, all eating. Room was made for us to get our endwatch meal and sitting eating this I could see that at least part of the hold had been boarded over to make sleeping quarters for all these extra people. Going down to our bunk room, even that was filled now albeit with very deferentially quiet occupants Our rest month was undisturbed and once again I dozed off.
Whether it was movement or sound that woke me I do not know, but looking round I saw that all the others around me had woken as well.
"Anchoring." Muttered Gomla from the bunk opposite, then turned over and went back to sleep.
I had learned a few pertinent words by now and anchoring was one I understood. I thought about going up to see where we were, then thought again. I would see soon enough when the watch changed again. So like Gomla, Zimla, Oggla and the others I went back to sleep.
It may seem strange to you, or others that we should sleep in the day. After all one only needs to sleep so much, and then at night is that not so? Well for one, although the watches did not individually take up all the day. It was equivalent to it, and when the watch was through the night, when would you sleep then? Added to that the physical work involved, that there was nothing else to do when off watch and it is conveniently dim below decks, sleeping is the obvious thing to do.
I once asked Oggla if this was how his entire life was made up. He replied that of course it was not. Usually after any trip there were days at home with the ship in harbour, one day for every six or part of six away. This was different though. This was war.
We had anchored to await someone with the imposing title of Grand Strategist. All night we waited. A clean calm night in sheltered water well away from the access routes to a large town with its own harbour. It was from this town with the dawn that this individual came in a small fishing boat. He went straight aboard another of the ships, the one which loosely translated was called "The Islands' strength"and I was told, the leader of the fleet.
Our ship was called "The Lord of Lobdi", and together with "The might of Donar"formed the rear of the fleet. I know it is another case of 'who am I to judge' but it seemed to me odd, for although larger, the three lead ships were not as manoeuvrable. This may be because none of them had split rear masts. It may not be. At any rate, the "Islands" as it was called in short, the "Lady Kanna"and the "Pride", more properly, "The Pride of Legny", had better speed but only if the wind were from their stern third.
Thus, the four or five days and nights sailing it took, (to be honest I cannot remember clearly, on board one loses track of time) with the only view of land from the top lookouts station I learned of the battle plan. The first thing was to rendezvous with the watch ship "Navy Three",in the bay of Aponia and find out if we were too late. If not, we would work down the coast until we found the Aponian ships coming up. Then the fleet would split.
TheLobdi andDonarwould lay barrel lines to force the Aponians into a position where the Islands, Prideand Lady Kanna could run them down with fire boats. The problems lay with timing. The lines had to be laid as late as possible to avoid drifting, with the possibility of leaving a gap, and retrieved as soon as practical to reduce over exposure to the elements of the igniting crews in the link boats. The attacking ships must not reveal themselves too soon, or the Aponians will scatter, or at least be able to take avoiding action. Nor must they be too late, or the line layers will be attacked by the Aponians and overwhelmed.
The watch ship was a tidy vessel, smaller than ours and glad to see us. Theirs was a lonely life sixty days on station, back and forth across the bay of Aponian with rarely any action. The picquets away down coast had most of that, and there were two of them. Well, usually two. Unless like now, the Aponians collected too many ships for them to handle, then one would run for Legny and reinforcements. The other would sweep before the enemy, trying to slow them and if they got into the bay of Aponia take some of them with that watch ship if the Legny fleet was too late arriving.
By all accounts this was a rare occurrence, but it had happened for the main fleet were all traders. The Legny armed forces had only six ships, all the same. Three of which were permanently on station, the others swapping over or refitting in Vlas.
The fact that this ship was alone and undamaged said that we were not too late, and integrating it into the fleet we set off once more down the coast. Integration was really a misnomer, for it sped off, I was told by Oggla, to find the enemy. When I say 'sped' I mean it. Within a subspan the warship was easily two long paces ahead of us.
Because Oggla had not known, I asked the Master when he was on deck and I was on the wheel one day, how long this had been going on. His answer staggered me. Twenty-seven years. Ever since the Aponians had gained the Enaran land of Niisk and denied Legny access to the port of Nabori.
"The Aponian rule is 'their traffic only'." He had told me in explanation. So Enar and Legny had an unofficial pact, and Legny did its damnedest to ensure Aponian ships not only never got to Nabori or Zoma, but to any Aponian port on this coast.
This had the added bonus for Enar in that nothing came from distant lands to Aponia for although faintly visible when on top lookout, the land had a pallid brown yellow sheen that I was told was the great desert. Across this barren waste nothing could survive long enough to make the journey. It was just too big and dry.
The signals came when I was off watch, so when I came back up on deck in the darkness before dawn 'visibles' were already being laid. These were longer chains of barrels with larger boats that had two crew and a sail. The idea was to let the enemy see these and so channel them to where they would be bunched and the fire-boats would do most damage.
The instability problem had been solved by adding an extra sling, and the boats were being lowered into the water smoothly and without fuss. As dawn came up we changed course, and leaving a gap for the Donarto come through, began laying the invisibles. These were so called because the barrels and attendant boats were so low in the water that any swell quickly lost them. If these had been laid as visibles, then the enemy would not go into the trap. Not seeing them until too late deluded them into not realising the nature of the plan.
This plan called for the laying of a large funnel into which first the enemy came and the mouth of which was then blocked by fire ships. The wind then took the fire ships onto the enemy trapped in the funnels' end. If the enemy tried to go through the barrel lines, the link boat crews would ignite the barrels and the enemy burned. If they sat in the funnel, the fire boats would come and the enemy burned. I was told that on occasion Aponian crews mutinied at this prospect and then that ship would be let through the lines.
The real threat of retaliation came only to the three big fire laying ships, and then only from Aponian war galleys which were capable of out-manoeuvring the fire ships and would sometimes try to ram and board the big Legny ships. If they succeeded, and it had happened at least once in the last ten years, the Legny crew stood no chance and rather than let the Aponians gain a Legny vessel, both were burned as they lay locked together. This apparently never happened to the 'layers' as they were always outside the net.
Halfway through the run we passed the Donarlaying inside us in the opposite direction. (Two lines were laid across the end of the funnel in case one was blown). Shortly after that the top lookout called that the enemy were in sight. Laying could not be completed any faster, and by the time it was done the Aponian ships were visible from deck.
Why, I do not know, but I had been expecting maybe as many as a dozen of them. But there were more than double that. Our job done, the sails were eased and we drifted on the guide sail only as the Aponians approached. It was an eerie sensation as across the water could be heard the Bom-bom-bom-bom,Boma-boma-bom-bom as the oars on the ten galleys rose and fell.
The deck of our ship was packed. Both watches were up on action stations together with the remainder of the boat persons. Closer and closer the Aponians came, and then the lead galley caught a barrel. It dragged for a while then suddenly a loud
A huge yellow flame leapt into the air.
WHOOMF! WHOOMF! WHOOOMF!
The rest of that chain went up. In what seemed an instant the galley was ablaze from front to rear. Already a pall of smoke was coming off of it and blazing bodies were leaping into the sea. We were some third of a longpace distant but I could feel the heat coming in waves.
I was awestruck and horrified at the same time. This must have been the effect on the enemy, for there was a sudden lack of pace, all their ships turning away from the horror. The noise coming from the burning ship was immense, and steadily growing in volume. From within was coming a terrifying stomach turning scream. I looked at Oggla, the question writ large on my face.
"That's the rowers." He said. "Burning."
"Why do they not jump like the others did?" I asked, holding down the nausea.
His reply appalled me. "Because they're chained in."
"What?!! They chain their own people in?"
"No." He replied. "They have slaves."
Seeing the incomprehension, Oggla explained. The Aponians do not have neuts to do their work so they raid other lands and take the people from them and put them in bondage. Work or die. Because there are so many on a galley they chain them in to prevent insurrection.
I was prevented from being sick by a shout from the top lookout.
This galley had breached the first chain and enemy ships were getting through. Our sails cracked into life as we came around ready to lay another barrel line. The smoke from the burning galley was obscuring events from those of us on deck, even though Oggla and I were right at the front of the ship. Then,
It seemed far too close. The brightness of the flame piercing the smog.
WHOOOMP!! WHOOOOMP!! WHOOOOOOMPF!!
Our barrels were going over the upwind side of the ship as we entered the pall of acrid fumes. Coughing and covering our faces, the ship emerged for us to witness at close quarters a second tragedy. Despite it being a duplicate of the first occurrence it did not diminish in its effect.
"I don't believe it" Cried Oggla. "Look! There's another !"
Sure enough, a third galley was churning up the water. Gaining speed and heading straight for the second barrel line.
"Are they stupid or? Oh! Shit !" He exclaimed, and ran back along the deck.
I had seen just what he had. The Aponians were deliberately going for the barrels. They were sacrificing ships to break the lines, intending that by using the width of the extended oars and the galleys momentum the barrels would be dragged clear. They were succeeding. Furthermore, I could see that this was preconceived, for the galley's deck was quickly cleared with the crew, excluding rowers, throwing off a raft before leaping clear of the ship.
My revulsion grew as the screams came up anew from the two newly burning galleys. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the smoke coming from the blazing hulks in great black clouds seemed unnaturally thick and heavy. Whether that was deliberate or not, it obscured the enemy from us.
I was expecting another explosion at any time, but it never came. The run finished, our master had the ship come downwind and off from the conflagration a little. He was now faced with a dilemma, for four of the enemy had found the gap left for the Donar. They were well clear, and being harried by that ship, but the Donarcould not cope on its own. So, should our master trust that this last line had held the enemy to accept the fire ships, and give assistance to theDonar, or wait and be sure here.
The answer came for him once again from the top lookout. The enemy had come through the gaps and were going round the far end of our last line. The report also came that at last the fire ships were doing their work on the last of the Aponians trapped in the net. Thankfully we were speeding clear of the carnage.
It took time for the smoke to thin enough for us to be able to see what was going on, and then there was shock and anger, for of the original twenty-one enemy ships, thirteen had got clear. The Legny were appalled that so many had escaped. I was appalled that so many had burned. I was all for winning a fight, but to me this was murder, particularly so for the captive rowers.
This was the point when a new tactic was exhibited, for Navy Threecame over to us and stood in front of the Aponian lines. First it would turn one way then drop two barrels. The Aponians would turn to avoid these then Navy Threewould turn the other way and drop two more. This action radically slowed the Aponians down and put them at real risk, for the barrels were linked and so would drag onto a hull that snagged the joining cable. They were also fused, and erupted into violent flame at seemingly random intervals. The galley at the front always managed to avoid them, but the following ships came close on occasions.
Our master, seeing the lead, took up the practice, but with a twist. He had delayed pull fuses fitted. These initiated on the link cable being tightened but had a delay that allowed the barrel to get closer to an enemy ship before deflagration. Our combined jinking and dropping caught first one, then another of the ships down the line. Two more collided and became enmeshed, their crews abandoning the ships in fear of being mined and thus fried. That left two war galleys and three other ships in the packet we were dealing with.
The Donar was now practising the same manoeuvre, so far with less success. The tactic had its dangers for Legny however, for the jinking was done just in front of the line in order to force an enemy turn. This meant a sudden speeding by one of the war galleys would, or could catch an unwary master. These galleys had ramming snouts, and the effect of these on the side timbers was easy to imagine.
We came very close a few times, and then having picked their time and target, one of the two galleys lunged at the rear of the Lobdi. They missed, but only just, and this left the way clear for the second. The ram horn of that one failed by a whisker to do its deadly work but the crash as our two hulls collided knocked nearly everyone flat on the deck. The top watch lookout came flying down and split with a sickening thud on the deck, his innards spreading in bright crimson.
The grapples came looping over and embedded in our woodwork, closely followed by Aponian boarding troops. Our crew was by this time armed, the master foreseeing this possibility and encouraging everyone by saying that it was a precaution, but adding that if it did happen to take as many as possible with you and give our scuttlers time for their duty.
It was well accepted that the size and strength of Aponians made a three to one contest the only time the Legny had a chance of winning. As the Aponians surged aboard it was obvious that the odds were markedly on their side. They knew it and so did the Legny, who stood bravely but lacking conviction and were trampled down. Some of the Aponians fell too, at least four of them to my arrows as they climbed their own side rails. I dropped the bow and pulled my club, wading in to the melee using all the skills I had learned from my father.
I struck and parried, jabbed, dodged and ducked. When the club broke I used its stump in one hand and the Latiistabber in the other. I slashed and hacked, swung and stabbed as the Latii do. The anger and fear driving me into a frenzy of hate and destruction, oblivious to the crack of breaking bones and the screams of my victims as flesh sliced open and blood spurted. The crush had forced me back into a corner of the deck, but my flailing created room. On every side Aponian faces appeared then went down, to be replaced by another.
I came out of the trance slowly. I stood alone at centre deck among a sea of bodies. Everywhere was moaning, retching and the stink of blood. I looked around. We had been saved by the ships bouncing apart with the Aponian tide cut off, now as the vessels came together again, readied on the Aponian deck were more soldiers, all suddenly hesitant to commit themselves.
On our control deck were the few Legny survivors, hard and unbelieving in their success. Looking up at them I said. "Well, am I to finish these shit heads by myself?"
It was said in Surian, so they would not have understood the words. But the intent was clear, and as I climbed the side rail a ragged cheer came up and the Legny were beside me.
There was no real fight left in the Aponians and resistance was short lived. Twelve bodies washing the decks with their blood were enough to convince the enemy master to lay down arms. The initiative had once again changed hands. I hefted Latiistabber appreciating its effectiveness, and thanked my dancing stars that I was in possession of it this day.
During this action all the other vessels had carried on, leaving these two ships locked together in embrace of death. The fighting over, we had become an isolated island of calm.
The Watch captain came over to me, remarking. "That's some bloody weapon you have there. It must have some special powers, for I have never seen the like."
"Perhaps." I replied. "But that did not do its previous owner much good."
"I'm not surprised." He came back. "If you were against him, for you're the nearest thing to the great destroyer I've ever seen."
"Do not be daft." Said I. "I was just saving my neck, the same as everyone else."
"Come away." He responded. "Look at the others. They're afraid to come near you. But enough, there's work to do."
I followed him below decks to a vile odour and darkness. Even when my eyes became accustomed to what light there was, I could not believe them. Here was the most miserable scene I can imagine, and yet it was real. Row upon row of terror stricken and cowed emaciated unwashed half naked beings..
The beat master and whipping boys were by contrast over nourished and clean, but they too were cowed now for the sounds from up above had come to them only too clearly. The Watch captain gave all assembled a quick speech, then turned to me.
"With your permission, for this is really your ship now even though the master has given me control of it until we are in port, we'll go back and pick the barrel line people for we can do that quicker in this ship."
"I do not understand." I said.
"All you need to know now is that I've told this lot here that you will kill anyone who steps out of line. All right?"
"What about getting these poor souls out of their shackles?" I asked.
"All in good time." The Captain replied. "First things first, eh?"
"All right then." I replied, still confused. "But what about the crew?"
"We will deal with them. But first things first."
Off he went, leaving me to watch over the oars. There were some changes to be made, for a few oars had broken when the ships collided and therefore the numbers on each side had to be evened up. When the call came to make way, no persuasion was necessary. In fact, quite the opposite, the whipping boys laying in quickly and violently.
That did not take much to stop. Just my raising Latiistabber gave one the message. The other needed a little more. Perhaps my shout may have been misinterpreted. The point at his throat was not. I set these two at unshackling the unused slaves. The first time we stopped to retrieve our own crew I swapped the 'rested' slaves for others and unshackled them. So it went on until all the slaves were out of their bonds.
Three of the retrieved barrel people came to relieve me. They looked in surprisingly good shape for being in tiny boats that long. All were taken aback at the scene before them. I handed over and went on deck for air. The deck was clogged with barrels, boats and crew. Mugs of broth were being handed out and I took one thankfully. Looking around for my watch mates, I could find none of the close ones. I presumed at least some of them to be still aboard the Lobdiand went over to the Watch captain to ask him if this were the case.
"They're all gone." He told me. "There's only you, me and Zolal on this ship, with Orkat and Volan on the Lobdi. That’s all that’s left alive from our watch."
I had seen Gomla fall, but the others?
"I don't know for sure all of them." He said. "Zimla and Affal died protecting me. Oggla went to try and help you, but you didn't need much protecting. I haven't seen him since. The rest just got overwhelmed." Seeing my look, he continued. "Don't be despondent. They wouldn't have asked for more." Then changing tone, "See! What do you think of our standard?"
He pointed to the mast top. The red and gold banner of Aponia had been replaced by a huge white sheet with a pale blue ovoid centre.
"That is not the usual flag of Legny." I commented.
"No. Legny is all blue with three black fishes. See, over there on theLobdi. This is what we thought the sign of Valev would be. Sorry, but I thought it would be a nice surprise and we didn't know if there's an official insignia."
"It is a nice thought." I said. "But it was not just me, and it is yourship anyway."
"That's not what the Fleet master says." He replied. "I am to continue control of your ship. Those were his orders."
"He says that if we can, with your permission, we are to catch up with the others and he'd like you to board them."
"All the fleet and the enemy too, know what happened here. The Fleet master thinks that with you, we don't need barrels anymore. Just the threat of the Blue Eye up their arses will make them surrender."
“Oh.” Said I.
That is pretty much how it went as well. The Aponian ships had been slowed enough that we caught them in the bay of Aponia, almost within sight of their destination. For the six remaining merchant ships, the sight of the entire Legny fleet plus three captured ships was too much. Each cut down their colours as we approached.
I crossed onto the first deck with a little difficulty as we had not rammed it. It did not matter. If I had swum across it would have presented no more of a problem to the taking of the Aponian vessel. The Master had me stand on the side rails in full view before each boarding so the enemy could see what they were going to get. He wanted to dress me up in a helmet and gaudy cloak, but I refused on the grounds that if someone actually put up a fight they would get in the way. I felt that this reputation building had gone quite far enough as it was, and only went on with any of it so far as it actually prevented bloodshed. I had seen too much of that already.
The two war galleys were not so keen to give in, but were stuck. They had expended themselves lunging at the Legny ships and now all the fleet were there, they were surrounded by a ring of barrels. Whichever direction they went in, they would burn before they got near a Legny ship.
The Fleet master called for their surrender again and again. Again and again it was refused.
"There's nothing for it." The Watch captain said at length. "What do you want? The Fleet master has signalled that it's up to you. Do we burn them or board them?"
I had no desire for more fighting, but then I could not have those slaves' hideous deaths on my conscience.
"Will anyone come with me?" I asked.
He nearly fell over laughing. "Try and stop them! Hey! Oshoi takaka a Valeva?"
A huge shout came up. "VALEV! IP VALEV! GOG VALEV NO LEGNY!"
I got the message.
"Let us do it then." I said.
The call went down, the oars churned, the barrels parted and the first galley struck their colours.
We nosed up to the desperately manoeuvring second galley and I was carried aboard in a wave of bodies. The deck was full of Aponian warriors and this fight became just as bloody as any before it, but lacking the immediacy of the previous one I became almost detached, clinical, as I watched myself chopping the Aponians down. I felt sorry for them as they fell to my blows. Fate preserve them against meeting Latiians in combat. Size for size they were equal, but in fighting ability there could be no comparison. I wondered then what it was that made them seem so invincible to the Legny.
Of a sudden the deck cleared. Facing the panting elated group around me was a group of armoured soldiers, their shields interlocked and their faces grim. These then were the hard core, the ones who would not give in. To break them they had to be somehow unbalanced. This was a case for arrows, but I had none. Steamrollering them would be costly in lives and might just not work. So? The pause was already too long, the impetus fading and the initiative moving to them.
Shit! I swapped hands with my weapons and flung the metal bar I had taken for a second device straight at them. Up went a shield and the bar banged off. But it had broken the wall and unbalanced the victim. A hail of other objects flew across the gap. The wall was in disarray, shields and bodies in every position. Hurling myself at this confusion with a blood-curdling yell, I cannoned into a body and Latiistabber struck bone. I did not get a chance for a second strike. The Aponians were beaten to a pulp under a tide of Legny blows.
It was over at last, and the Blue Eye was hoisted here as well. Looking round, I found that Valev had acquired a fleet of three war galleys and six merchant ships. For all their efforts, Legny had prize flags flying on only two merchants. The Watch captain came aboard this newly won vessel and with exaggerated courtesy brought this message.
"Our honourable Fleet captain respectfully requests that the combined fleets may now return in consort to Legny."
"Hold on." I questioned. "I thought he was in charge of this?"
"Why yes." Came the answer. "Of our fleet. But as yours is now the larger, he seeks your compliance."
"Get away with you!" I laughed. "It was a good joke, but let us end it before it becomes silly."
"It is no joke." Came the retort. "This is serious. Well, for now anyway. You see, our constitution forbids slavery so they cannot be ours. But then we cannot row the galleys either. Thus, in order that control may be exercised, the slaves have to be yours. At least until we get to Legny."
It was completely crazy, but I could understand the politics of this and assented, but questioned how situations of this nature had been handled before. The answer, quite simply was that it had not occurred before. These were the first galleys the Legny had ever managed to take. My presence had not only facilitated the taking, but had proved very convenient in the management. The merchant ships that carried the Blue Eye flag were the ones that had surrendered at my presence, and wore it as a compliment rather than a necessity.
And so the journey back began. It took longer than the trip out because the winds were not right all the time and although the Legny ships could cope reasonably well with this, the ex Aponian vessels had difficulty. They were not so sea worthy, their sail arrangements being rudimentary in comparison, and all being single hulled. The fleet however, stayed as one, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the ex Aponian vessels were crewed by scratch crews taken from the Legny ships, and were therefore under crewed by people not experienced in the handling of these vessels. I had wanted to return to the Lord of Lobdias there were hardly enough crew people to go round all the ships, there having been so many more captured than ever expected. This was forestalled by the requirement of the Legny for my presence among the captured Aponians. The feeling was that without me, the Aponians might by weight of numbers conceive and succeed in insurrection.
I seriously questioned this, and so a count was made. The result of which amazed me and made me realise how narrowly won, and for the Legny how great this victory was. The closeness of victory and disaster was emphasised by the information that at the time the Lobdi was boarded, a barrel fuse was lit in the hold and only cut off a fingers' length from igniting the charge.
Distributed now among the ships and captured with them were six hundred and forty-seven slaves, and five hundred and sixty-eight Aponians. A further sixty-three Aponians and twelve slaves had been recovered from the sea. This was a massive problem, for although the slaves were no trouble; there were not many more Legny among all sixteen ships than Aponians in eleven. That there was no attempt at insurrection was to me a further irony to the curious anomaly that existed over the capability of each race to war.
The Legny had not needed any lessons in hand-to-hand combat, acquitting themselves well, with verve and valour. Yet even after the fighting they still retained an inferiority complex against the Aponians, who had in the event collapsed into a rabble once the bubble of morale were burst, and remained subservient thereafter. Most strange.
The welcome in Vlas was tumultuous. The fishing boats that had come out to meet and escort us were festooned in bunting of every colour imaginable, and filled with cheering, shouting, laughing people. The noise from the crowds thronging the dockside could be heard from outside the harbour, which was rapidly filled to capacity, forcing the Lobdi, Donar andLady Kanna to anchor in the bay.
First ashore were the Fleet Master and ships' Masters, who were all mobbed as heroes, as were to a lesser extent each and every one of the crewpeople who followed them. Next went the Aponians, who to their surprise, and mine as well, were cheered too. Then went all the slaves. These were now in considerably better condition than they had been, for during the voyage I had insisted in them being freed from their shackles, cleaned, fed properly and rested frequently. Additionally I had ensured that each galley had been scrupulously cleansed on the rowing decks. All this had taken time and effort but had paid off for the improved conditions promoted an improvement in performance. The slaves too were feted as they went ashore to join an immense orgy of celebration.
There was no way I was going to slip ashore unnoticed, but I managed to blend in a little and so was in receipt of a similar welcome to the other crews, though a little muted for by that time the revellers were becoming hoarse and tired from all the cheering and backslapping.
Lodgings were becoming difficult to find, all being full, when I was saved from this search by being recognised in the street. This person, who had been given command of one of the galleys thankfully did not make a fuss, but directed me to where I was expected to lodge. Right next to the Halls of Assembly.
The accommodations were comfortable. Too much so, although not on a par with the hotel in Dema. Even so, after that episode I could not settle in such sumptuous surroundings. In the event, I did not spend much time there. I was dragged from one banquet to another over the next three days. I was fed, filled with ale and generally shown off. It disgusted me.
All around were strangers, the high echelons of Vlas society, basking in the glory of the fleet. Not a single sailor did I see, and only rarely even a ships' Captain or Master. On the second day I was stood outside breathing in some fresh air when to my dismay I saw that the only Legny ship left in harbour was the Pride. All the others were gone.
In the short time that I had been with them I had become quite attached to the Lobdi and its crew. Their parting without me caused me a great sadness. I was now trapped by language. Not speaking enough Legnish to make conversation, let alone find out what was going on, I was unable to gain the ear of any Legny that spoke Enaran who could or would tell me.
I had diligently taken up what I saw as my duties over this time and the following four more days, visiting each ship which was still under my flag twice daily. It was just as well, for the welcome given on arrival had soon worn off. Because insufficient lodging was available ashore, all the slaves were housed on the three galleys. The Aponians were confined to three captured merchant ships moored in a segregated clump to the far sea wall, guarded and with their sails removed. There had been a great eagerness among the citizens of Vlas to visit these captured ships whilst emptying their holds, but that had dissipated somewhat when it became necessary to send foodstuffs back to these same vessels.
On more than one occasion already I had been forced to cajole some petty official or other to supply me with provisions.
I knew that the Aponians were being treated very shabbily, and whereas foodstuffs for the slaves were reluctantly forthcoming after the application of persuasion, for the Aponians this was not so. The Legny had no use for them nor could a rationale for their survival be found. They had not eaten in the main for at least four days, in some cases longer and I could detect no intent on Legnys part to rectify this.
It was these issues that I intended to resolve, when at last I gained access to the Hall of Assembly. A full week after landing I achieved it, but only by force. Each time I had gone to its doors I had been turned away, until finally my frustration peaked. There were two guards who attempted to physically restrain my getting in but deferred on production of Latiistabber. My entry to the assembly could not have been more dramatic if deliberately staged.
The hubbub of discussion had immediately silenced, all staring in shock at me. Of a sudden I felt extremely embarrassed and very silly.
"Look." I blurted. "I just want someone to talk to me. Tell me of your plots and plans."
Silence still. Raising Latiistabber so all could see, I continued more confidently.
"With this, I have done your dirty work."
"In other circumstances I would just continue along my way, but not this time."
"A curse on you! You are keen enough to palm off responsibility and the bad odour of slavery onto me, then you cannot be civil enough to inform me of, let alone include me, in your policies and decisions."
"Well, is someone going to speak ?"
A long pregnant pause ensued, then at last one of the councillors spoke up
"We are greatly affronted by this armed entry to the assembly. We will not parley with it."
"No?" Said I. "Well if you had bothered to talk to me, or let me in these past three days I have knocked politely at your doors this would not have happened... So what about that?"
'It does not change the fact."
"Right! In that case, I thank you for your initial hospitality, but now I shall take my fleet and.."
"You cannot do that!" Blurted out another.
"Oh no? Who is going to stop me? You?" There was of course no answer and so I turned and strode out.
Fortune would have it that I could carry out this threat for in my visits to the ships I had found an Aponian who spoke some Enaran, and trailing this individual around as an interpreter I had the galleys prepared as best I could. Thus, as I strode onto the quay, calling in my loudest voice to cast off, the galley moved off exactly as I steeped aboard. I noted that the other two did the same, having surreptitiously "been allowed" to wander clear of the dock. In no time, all three ships were pulling clear and into the centre of the harbour. Too late came the officials of the Assembly, with their armed escorts, furiously gesticulating from the quayside.
Manoeuvring the three vessels was no easy matter, for the Aponian interpreter was with his kind, aboard one of the merchant ships, and none of the slaves were accomplished seamen, the hierarchy being established by ballot. However, by prearranged signs and signals control was established and we were ready to leave the harbour.
The Legny had seen their chance and taken it. A string of barrels was being placed even now across the harbour mouth. Swiftly, I sketched my plan to the galley Commander. He understood and we went into action.
Oars raised and dipped. The galley gathered speed. I saw the torch drop, and screamed. The oars bit as one. Shuddering the galley as we slowed. Closer, closer, waiting for the terrible noise and heat. Then it came.
W‑H‑O‑O‑O‑O‑O‑MMPHH ! ! !
Unbelievably hot, incredibly close. But not close enough. The ship stopped, and actually backed off a little.
The barrels had to have been fired early, or our rush would have taken the flames beyond of the mouth and allowed the other two galleys clear exit. I had guessed that this might happen and had deliberately given instruction that the oarsmen should not to go all out in case we needed to quickly stop. So it was. A wall of flame confronted us, for the barrels were always fired in a string of six. Such was the violence of the conflagration however that they only burned for about half a subspan. No more were laid beyond them, for none of the Legny ships could leave harbour either.
All we did was wait for the fire to die down and then pass easily through the mouth into the channel and thence to open sea. No attempt was made to raise sail and the pace was almost leisurely, because as expected, hotly pursuing us came The Pride of Legny.
My visiting had also taken me aboard that vessel and I was aware that all the artefacts of war had now been removed in order that the ship could resume trading. The Legny aboard could manoeuvre and harry as much as they wished. They were harmless. It was just as well for confrontation was not my intention.
It did not take much. A subspan or two of jinking and charging, manoeuvre and counter manoeuvre. The slave Commanders began to get a feel for their ships, and acting in consort almost rammed the Pride twice. It took effort on their parts to refrain from the action, having been downtrodden for so long. To feel they were becoming masters of their situations, albeit with a little tactical help from me, was doing wonders for their morale.
At every move of the Pride, the signal lamp was making furious flashes to the shore. It was a shame that I had not learned their meaning, although I could guess it, for it became obvious that they too knew that we knew they were unarmed and intended no harm ourselves. At first, when passing close, the faces of the Legny sailors had been stern. Now there was catcalling from both sides. Laughs and rude signs. It had become a game, which, when you analysed it, it had been all along.
Presently, a small boat was despatched from the Prideand came over to us.
"We seek to talk." They hailed, and so a place was made.
The Legny came aboard and we sat on opposing benches on the open deck, basking in pale winter sun. No pomp or arrogance here, just the orderly purposefulness of the fleet.
"We suppose," Was the opening gambit of the Prides' Master after formal greeting was completed. "As you avoid combat and are not set on a path of escape, that this is to gain our attention and make us concede some point or other."
I would not have used those words, but that pretty well summed it up.
I countered with, "Well, to some extent it appears to have worked, for here you are, and I presume from the signalling, with the approval of the Assembly."
"Well met! Well met!" The Master burst out, laughing. "And so, your demands are?"
"My requests." I corrected. "Are that a just and responsible solution be quickly found. For these people." Indicating around me. "Who are not my enemies, nor yours, but by the assemblies indifference could make them so."
"Will you then come back to Vlas to discuss this?"
"I think not." I replied. "For being at sea is our bargaining counter."
"How are we then to reach a solution?" He questioned.
"You and I can do that here, and you can get the Assemblies' approval by signal."
"Or what? You can't stay out here for ever."
"We will not need to." Said I. "Aponia is not that far off, and my guess is that we can get there before you can arm or the Lobdi or Donarcan reinforce you."
I had no need to continue as his face betrayed him, but I did anyway to ram home the advantage. "And that is your real worry is it not? War galleys in Zoma. Just a few days sailing from Lobdi and Vlas."
"Pahh!" He cried. "Why should we care? They'll burn just as well here as they did short days ago in the bay of Aponia !"
"So what are you doing here now then?" I asked.
"We... We're stopping an escape of course!"
"Of whom?" I queried. "Me? Your ally, and my slaves?"
"But you just said !?.. Curse you! You're no friend of Legny!"
"You, my fine friend, would not have such a victory under your belt were I not a friend of Legny. Perhaps the boot would be on a different foot then. If it were, I would be arguing for your health and welfare."
"Hrrump." He said. "So. I have no stunning ideas. Let's hear yours."
"Well it is obvious really." I said. "These slaves must be given Legny citizenship or allowed to go home. I suspect the latter to be the better course, but they will need help to find the way, or be taken. Try asking them which they prefer. As to the Aponians, I would suggest sending them home as well."
"What !??" The Master exploded. "Are you mad?"
"Calm down!" I said. "Not at all. If you do not do as I suggest, then you will either have to feed them or kill them, neither of which will be an easy solution. So use them. Take them to Zoma. The tales they will tell will make the King there think twice about angering Legny, and the gesture may free the trading."
"But they cannot have the galleys."
"Oh, you can have them. And all my other ships as well. You have had all their treasures already. Burn them if you like. I do not mind."
He thought for a while, then agreed and sent across to the Prideto signal for confirmation.
"And what then of you?" The Master picked up.
"I still have much to learn." I replied. "And would seek passage to beyond Legny."
"He looked quizzical, then said. "There is nothing beyond Legny."
"What? Nothing?" I countered. "That is hard to believe."
"The sea yes, but nothing other than that. Our people have been out twenty, even thirty days, but there's absolutely nothing but water. Water going on for ever."
"By the throne! That is amazing." Then. "But where do the Aponian ships come from then?"
"Way down the coast, beyond the desert. But I would not advise going there."
"And why not?" I asked.
"You referred earlier to the King of Aponia. Well there isn't one. The place is called Anapes and he's a Governor. Or was. We've heard that he's dead and at present there's a stand in. Anyway, Anapes is a colony, a province of the Aponian Empire. An empire so vast and strong and evil it defies description. Ask those slaves."
"I cannot." I said. "None of them speak Enaran."
"But that cannot be. How did..?" His eyes furrowed. "You're a clever little shit for a neut. Anyway, Latiithing or no Latiithing, they'd have you for breakfast."
Translators had been converting these proceeding into Legnish and to Aponian, for that was the only common language of the slaves, and the salient points had been called over the water
to the other galleys. By the time the reply came from Vlas, a consensus had been reached. Most of the ex slaves did not want to go home, for there they would be taken into slavery again. Some of course were prepared to risk that, but they were in a minority. The bulk were for accepting Legny citizenship and settling there.
This was not to be. The Vlas Assembly were agreed only on sending all away from their shores. There would be no non Legny born Legny. The slaves would haveto go with the Aponian prisoners to Zoma or find their own way home. That was as far as the assembly would go. Even the Pride's Master saw the problems with this and between us we arranged a compromise.
One at a time the galleys would return to port to be re victualled and have their ramming horns cut off. This would eliminate them as threats to Legny and thus predispose acceptance of them to remaining in slave hands. The other two galleys would stay at anchor in the bay with thePride until all were completed. The Aponian prisoners would then be loaded and when everything was ready all four ships would sail to Zoma. The Pride would carry some prisoners and some trade goods, looking for an exchange of goodwill. After that the galleys would have a Legny Sea Master for one hundred days or until the slaves could reasonably be expected to sail the galleys safely by themselves. Throughout this time the galleys would remain under the banner of the Blue Eye and the protection of Legny. After that they were on their own.
All this was done. It took five days before we could set sail to Zoma, all of which I spent at sea, switching from one ship to another. For two reasons, one to keep morale up and ensure sensible order and fairness were maintained. The second, because the Assembly of Vlas in their spite, had prohibited my ever again setting foot on Legny soil.
The crossing caused no serious problems despite the weather, which not abnormally for the time of year was overcast, blustery and rainy. It was through this rain that the coast of Anapes appeared, dark and forbidding in the failing light. The ships were all brought to anchor at sea for there was a channel to negotiate before Zoma, and although they would have done it in their own ships, the Legny did not want the galleys to make that passage in darkness.
The slaves, or Citizens of the Blue Eye, as they were now calling themselves, had acquired the ways of the sea with disarming speed. Perhaps not surprising when one considers their previous employ. A watch system with its own hierarchy and responsibilities had been established, with everyone taking their turn at all tasks. There were exceptions of course, the few females not rowing or taking part in deck work and those not able to comprehend figures or to smell the wind change not standing as Watch Captains.
This had already produced permanent positions at the top of the order by the time the fleet had reached Legny and by now everyone had a place and task most to their ability. There were orders and arguments, but no bullying, for I had ensured that a sensible means of government and control be established on each ship.
Whether it would last I could not tell, but I had my hopes. For some it only had to survive until they were home. Perhaps when they saw their homelands they would change their minds. For the others, who knows? As it was, a sense of foreboding crept over the ship as we layoff the coast of Anapes that wild and dark night.
Dawn came with leaden skies and more rain. As visibility cleared anchors were weighed and our convoy made its way between the hills that marked the channel to Zoma. It was not by any means narrow or fraught with danger and the only real reason I could think of for the delaying had been to put us into Zoma in the early morning.
Proceeding down the channel, it gradually narrowed and then suddenly broadened as off to our left what turned out to be an island came to an end. It was replaced soon by another, then another until a second broad section came. Here, hard on the right bank lay the watchtowers of Zoma.