DR FRANK JACKSON 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
The Sea Fight
It is some weeks after the weddings of Morag and Simon. Their marriages, to Demos, the faery archaeologist, and to Ragimund, the youngest sister of the faery sisters that rule the land of Hyperborea, respectively, have made them both very happy. But a new and very serious threat to their land mars their new-found happiness. The emperor of a neighbouring land, Circlassia, has formally declared war on Hyperborea, and intends to attack with a mighty fleet of ships in order to subjugate the faerys. At the least, it threatens widespread bloodshed and the ravaging of their land, at worst, it could mean conquest of their land and total submission to a cruel conqueror, who will use any means possible to gain victory over the faery people, including the use of firearms or “fire-eaters” against which the faerys have no defence. Ragimund realises that she will have to accept what help she can from her new husband to stand any chance of defeating the invasion fleet at sea.
They stood on the doorstep of their parents’ house in Brighton, listening for a response to their frantic ringing of the doorbell. Simon desperately hoped his mother and father were in. He looked back at his companions. There were only four of them, including himself. He hoped that between them and his computer, still at home, and his parents as Watchers, they would find ways of fighting off this invasion. The future of Hyperborea depended on it. With relief, he heard footsteps from inside, and the front door opened. Christine, his mother stood there, her face alight with joy as she recognised them. ‘My children!’ she cried, and hugged Simon hard. then Ragimund, and Morag and Demos in turn. She had not seen them since their weddings. Their father, John, came from behind his wife and embraced them all. He looked at them shrewdly. ‘Something tells me that this is not a pleasure visit’. he commented.
‘No, Dad, it isn’t. We need to find a way of fighting off this invasion fleet threatening Hyperborea. We’ve heard that they’ve taken on cannon and shot, not to mention muskets! The faerys can’t fight those!’
‘I have heard this news from the Watchers. But your mother and I cannot help you, Simon! We are duty-bound by our Watchers’ oath not to interfere in any wars!’
‘I suppose it’s back to the computer then’. Simon said, dismally.
‘Yes, I think so. Simon, look up previous naval battles and see if there is any strategy you could derive from them’.
‘Anything I can find to make a plan’.
They all trooped up to Simon’s bedroom, and sat down around his well-loved computer. Ragimund looked at the machine in distaste. Normally, she abhorred such technology, but under the circumstances, with her beloved land in dire peril, she was prepared to overlook such sacrilege. Despite herself, she looked in fascination as images of battle plans and text magically appeared on the screen. To her, the idea that so much knowledge could be contained within wires and circuit boards inside a small box, was nothing short of magical, and nothing that her beloved Simon could explain could make her change her mind. So she sat back and left the whole matter to the humans. Demos, as a faery, could understand it much better, with his four years experience of living in the land of the humans, and Morag had been brought up with computers, though she frequently distrusted them as being fallible and over-logical. But Ragimund trusted all three to explain their findings to her in ways that she could understand, in spite of her deep hostility to machines.
At length, after looking at the accounts of several well-known sea battles, Simon closed down his computer, and they retired downstairs to the kitchen for a well-earned tea.
‘Any luck?’ their father enquired.
‘Sort of’. Simon replied rather miserably. ‘I’ve learnt that we’ve got to find a battle-ground of our own choosing, if we’re going to stand any chance of not being blown out of the water, or run over by larger ships. Our triremes aren’t up to fighting them on the open sea. We’ve got to confront them in our coastal waters, where it may be too shallow for them to go, if we’re going to stop them! But they still have cannon. They’ll just blow as away!’
Morag heard the slight note of hysteria behind his voice, and felt sorry for him. He was carrying so much responsibility, not only for his beloved Ragimund, but also for the land of Hyperborea and its faery people. Annie was gone on her last journey, and they all sorely missed her. Simon, her brother, was on his own now, and facing one of the biggest crises of his life. If she and her new husband, Demos, could help, they would.
‘Ragimund, what do your generals think?’ She asked. Ragimund looked up, her despair clearly showing in her face. ‘They know nothing of sea battles. They will fight them on the land, on their own land, but they have no experience of fighting at sea. Their only strategy is to allow these Circlassian scum to invade our shores, and then engage them in battle. But that means much bloodshed, our land pillaged, and our women and children raped and murdered! I cannot countenance that horror!’ She put her hands to her face and burst into tears. The other three were shocked and dismayed. They had never seen Ragimund in such a distressed state before. Simon, equally dismayed, put his arm round her shoulders and did his best to comfort her.
Morag looked at both of them with sorrow and sympathy. She knew that Simon was temporarily lost without the guidance of his sister, and that Ragimund was confronted with a major problem, which she was not equipped to deal with. It was totally outside her experience, and she couldn’t even begin to cope with it. She was totally helpless, dependent fully on her husband, who was also lost. She, and her husband, Demos, must try to help.
She turned to Demos, desperately. ‘What do you know about cannon?’ she asked.
‘A little, from the time I spent in your land. But we must find out more. Simon, let us go back to your computer and see what it tells us about mediaeval cannon. We must know our enemy!
A little more cheered, they hastened upstairs again, Ragimund still wiping her eyes, subdued after her outburst. Simon found the relevant websites and ran through them. They watched in silence as they saw filmed re-enactments of mediaeval cannon being prepared and fired, with a great deal of smoke and noise. Ragimund shuddered throughout, hardly bearing to watch. She hated these “fire-eaters”. But Simon and Demos were reassured.
‘Well’, Simon said finally, ‘They’re not so bad, are they?’
Ragimund glared at him. ‘They are filthy things!’ she spat. ‘Using such things is not the way of a true warrior! I want them destroyed!’
‘I meant they’re not as dangerous as they’re made out to be! They’ve only got a short range, about three hundred yards, to hit anything with accuracy, they take ages to load and fire, and they run the risk of blowing up or bursting, if they’re not made right! I bet the Circlassians are more frightened of their own weapons than we are!’
Ragimund subsided, still furious. ‘I will still not have anything to do with those accursed fire-eaters!’ she muttered, obstinately.
‘Please don’t quarrel! Morag said, quickly. She knew this threatened invasion had put them both under immense strain. it had started with an official declaration of war signed by the Circlassian Emperor himself, sent to Gloriana. She, in anger, had recalled both her ambassadors from his land. On their arrival home, they had both reported that the Circlassians had been secretly assembling a massive fleet of ships of all kinds for the purpose of invading Hyperborea, equipped with cannon, against which the faery people were helpless. Apart from merchant trading ships, and a large fleet of triremes which could only be used in coastal waters and in relatively calm weather, the faerys possessed neither a viable navy or apparent means of stopping such an invasion. Their wars had always been fought on dry land, with no experience of fighting at sea, least of all against the dreaded fire-eaters. Their generals were at a loss as what to do. Even a victory on land was in doubt because of the new factor of cannon being used against them. Gloriana did what she could. She had declared a state of full mobilisation under national emergency, and the entire land was now waiting for the intended invasion. The mood throughout the country was sombre and full of foreboding. It was against this background that Gloriana, faced with the inexperience of her generals, had charged her sister with the task of preparing a battle strategy, which would repel the invaders. Ragimund, equally inexperienced in sea warfare, had turned to her new husband, Simon, for advice. He, with little military experience, had asked Morag and her new husband, Demos, to help. Morag doubted that she could, but she was determined to keep their morale up, at least.
‘Please don’t quarrel!’ she repeated. ‘We’re all in this together. Let’s just decide what we can do’.
‘Morag is right. We must stand together and formulate some kind of plan on the information we have available. Why don’t we put together what we have learnt so far?’ Demos added.
‘Right’. Simon said, gratefully. ‘Well, we know we can’t defeat them at sea. Our ships just aren’t capable. What we can do is to attack them in our shallow coastal waters. We’ll have to devise a strategy where we can stay out of range until the point of attack, and then ram them from the front and the rear. I’m guessing that the range of their cannon is limited and their rate of fire quite low. So we have a window of opportunity to come at close quarters to ram them. What worries me is that they might have muskets as well. We’ll just have to risk them. At least I have the beginnings of a plan’.
‘I agree’. Demos said, unexpectedly. ‘But there are many things we do not yet know. It is crucial that we find out more about their fleet before we can formulate a full plan. And we must ensure that they aim to land where we want them to’.
‘Just what I intended to say’. Simon replied, grandly. He looked at his beloved Ragimund. ‘Is there any way we can get further information, my love?’
‘Yes’. said Ragimund, equally unexpectedly. ‘We have the Griffins!’ Her face was now alight with hope. Morag felt a surge of affection for her sister-in-law, now ready as a warrior for action. With a plan in mind, she had lost her original fear and trepidation. No wonder Simon’s so proud of her, she thought. ‘Gloriana has already approached them, and they are willing to help. They fly high regularly over the sea and their eyes are very sharp. They will be able to tell us what we need’.
‘Good’. Remarked Simon approvingly. ‘That’ll be a great help.
‘Do you think you’ll have enough then to make out a more detailed plan?’ Morag asked.
‘Of course he will!’ Ragimund snapped. ‘Simon can do anything!
Morag realised just what strain Ragimund was under, with her beloved land under threat, and the pressure, however well-meant, Simon was having to withstand.
‘I meant no harm, Ragimund’. She said as mildly as she could. ‘I’m sure Simon’s doing his best’.
‘Forgive me, Morag, I did not mean to shout at you. Only with my land and my people at stake, I….. ‘
‘It doesn’t matter, Ragimund, I understand’.
Simon gave her a thankful look, as they went down the stairs for supper. It was a sombre meal, full of tension. Their parents, Christine and John, put on a brave face, but their gaunt and anxious faces told otherwise. They were both desperately afraid for their children in the conflict to come, and could not conceal it. As for Simon, already weighed down with the responsibility of creating a plan of action, he missed his sister, and wished she was still here. But Annie had set off on her further travels, a week earlier, and no-one had heard from her. They all missed her presence badly.
‘Do you have a map of Hyperborea here, Simon?’ Demos asked, as they rose from the excellent fish supper Christine had prepared for them.
‘Yes, here’. Simon delved into the bag he had brought with him, and brought out a roll of paper that he spread out on the kitchen table. They all gathered round, and found themselves looking at the familiar map of Hyperborea with its long promontories stretching out in to the sea on its northern coast-line, and the jutting fjords of the lower Griffin Mountains in the south-east. Demos studied it carefully, then pointed a long finger at the north-east corner. ‘That is where we should fight our battle’. he said, flatly. They all looked at the map, and in particular, the north- west corner of Hyperborea that he had indicated. It was a large bay enclosed by a long curved promontory to the west, and another broader one to the east. Together they enclosed a bay, about forty miles wide at its broadest that narrowed down into thirty miles closer inland. In the north-west corner, the small city of Pulan was situated, in a smaller bay that opened off the larger.
‘Why there?’ Simon asked, suspiciously.
‘Because it is a good place to spring a trap’.
‘A trap! What trap?’
‘A trap to stop this invasion’.
Simon was lost for words. He stared down at the map.
‘Of course! Ragimund broke in, excitedly. ‘It is where our triremes are housed! There are over fifty of them there!
Simon found his voice at last. ‘What’s along the interior coast?’ He asked.
‘Small sandy coves and beaches. I know every inch of my province. Large enough to beach our ships for careening, and big enough to hide them’. Ragimund added, meaningfully.
‘How shallow is it?’
‘It is shallow, but not enough to affect our ships, even the shoals’.
‘Each side of the bay where it narrows. Here, and here’. Ragimund jabbed a finger at the map to show where she meant. ‘But our ships can still cross them. They only displace three feet of water’.
‘It sounds ideal’. His face fell suddenly. ‘But how can we ensure that they’ll land there, instead of attacking Druard to the west?’
‘I have an idea’. said Morag, hesitantly. She was conscious that she had had nothing to contribute so far, but this idea seemed so important that she should put it into words. ‘Why not put out some disinformation to the enemy?’
‘Disinformation? I do not understand that word, Morag’. Ragimund frowned.
‘I do. It means feeding the enemy false information that makes them do what you want to do’. Simon grinned. ‘It’s a great idea, Morag. But who can pass on this… disinformation?’
‘My sister, Gloriana’. Ragimund said, gleefully. ‘She is seeing the two Circlassian ambassadors tomorrow. We know they will pass on such information. She will agree to it. Our land and its people are at stake’.
‘Great!’ Simon said, in relief. ‘Thanks for that, Morag. It’s a really good suggestion’.
‘Glad to be of help’. Morag said, happily.
‘Oh, Simon, we now have a plan!’ Ragimund said, equally happily.
‘Well, a plan of sorts. I vote we go to bed now. We have an early start in the morning’. They all agreed.
Later that night, Morag could not sleep. She could hear voices from Simon’s bedroom, where he and Ragimund were supposed to be sleeping. At length, she got up, disentangling herself from her sleeping husband’s arms. Putting on a dressing-gown, she made for the door. ‘Where are you going’ It was Demos, sitting up in bed. ‘I’m going to see what Simon’s being up to. They’re both still awake’. ‘I shall come with you’. Demos said. They both stole out in their dressing-gowns, down the corridor to Simon’s room. Morag knocked softly on the door.
‘Come in’. They heard Simon say from inside. ‘We’re both decent’.
Morag opened the door, and stood there in surprise. Simon and Ragimund were still fully dressed. Simon looked up from his computer screen. ‘You’ve no idea how I’ve missed this thing’. He said, cheerfully. Ragimund just shuddered. ‘What are you doing?’ Morag demanded. ‘Just printing off multiple copies of our new battle-plan’. Simon grinned. ‘For the faerys’ benefit’.
‘Here, have a look. Tell me what you think’. Simon pushed a sheet from the printer into Morag’s hand. She gazed stupidly down at it, until the letters eventually began to resolve themselves into sentences, before her bleary eyes. She began reading it, with mounting excitement. After a minute or two, she looked up. ‘This is a full battle plan, for when they attack Pulan! It’s wonderful!’
Demos read it over her shoulder. ‘It certainly is a very detailed plan, and very sensible, too. But, Simon, you are forgetting a potential flaw. What if the Circlassians decide that they will land somewhere else, rather than Pulan? What will you do then?’
Both Simon and Ragimund looked crestfallen. ‘I don’t know. We’ve got to convince them somehow, that it would be to their advantage to land at a point which they feel is weakly defended. Otherwise, we fail Hyperborea!’
‘It is a tremendous gamble, especially so if we cannot contain them, if it works, in the bay of Pulan’. Demos pointed out, reasonably.
‘All battles are a gamble! At least this battle plan gives us some hope of our land escaping destruction and slaughter! And it gives us the opportunity to meet them on more equal terms, despite their damned fire-eaters!’ Ragimund exclaimed, hotly.
‘That is true. But we must also allow for the unexpected, and the element of luck and weather. We cannot afford to be complacent’. Demos replied, mildly.
Morag decided to say nothing. She felt it was an enormous risk to balance everything on one hypothetical battle, but she also realised the psychological value of having a well-thought out battle-plan, which at least, if all went well, would give the faery forces a fighting chance of defeating a superior armed foe. It gave them hope and a focus, if nothing else. If the battle was ever fought, it would be a savage conflict between two cultures, that would pit a technically inferior and outnumbered force against an overwhelming and better equipped one. The stakes were so high. She felt suddenly pessimistic about the outcome, but she had no doubts whatsoever about where her loyalties lay. Better to go down fighting, than just accept the inevitable.
She realised that Demos was speaking again. ‘All depends on persuading the enemy to fight in the bay of Pulan. If they do, we shall make a fight of it, that our people will recount for
‘That’s it, then’. Simon said proudly. ‘All we can do now, is to ask Gloriana to do her best, and prepare, and hope!’
They set off after breakfast to the hill-fort and the portal, eager to find out news and seek an audience with Gloriana, and the rest of Ragimund’s sisters. Simon looked back. He could still see his parents on the doorstep, come to see them off. His mother was in tears, being comforted by his father. He wondered sadly whether he would ever see them again.
As they walked through the portal and down the grassy slopes towards the multi-facetted Palace of Elsace, Morag turned to Simon. ‘You miss Annie, don’t you?’ ‘Yes, I do’. Simon replied sadly. ‘I miss her scoldings and her foul temper. But Annie and I have been through a lot together. I wish she was here’.
‘So do I’. Morag replied, softly, ‘But since she isn’t, we’ll just have to make do, won’t we?’
Simon didn’t answer. They walked through the outer gatehouse and towards the great main door of the palace. The two faery guards saluted them smartly. Everyone was alert with the threat of imminent invasion. As they proceeded through the grand hall, lined with kouroi statues and up the sweeping staircase in front of them, numerous scribes and clerks, some no older than boys, scurried back and forth up and down the stairs, clutching documents and scrolls. It was evidently a busy day.
Gloriana rose up from behind her large desk, facing them, in front of the large bright windows that overlooked the city of Elsace. Her long golden hair gleamed in the sunlight. She held out her arms as she came around the desk, and embraced Ragimund warmly. She embraced them all, one by one, then resumed her chair behind her desk.
‘What can I do for you, on this somewhat inauspicious day?’ She enquired. Simon bent down and pulled out the roll of his battle plans from his bag. He extracted a copy and passed it to Gloriana, who set it on her desk and began to read it in silence. Finally, she looked up. ‘This is a very fine and ambitious plan, but it is for the Bay of Pulan. All our information tells us that they will attack Druard. What do you intend to do about that?’
‘That’s where you come in’. Simon said, somewhat slyly. ‘When you see their ambassadors, you must somehow persuade them that Druard is too heavily defended to attack, and they would be better off if they knew of a weaker position, one with a harbour where they can anchor and replenish their supplies. Like the bay of Pulan, for example’.
‘I understand you, Simon. So I must play my part with lies and deceit. Is that what you wish me to do?’
‘Yes’. replied Simon, unhesitatingly. ‘Only you must plant the idea in their minds, so that they can claim the credit for finding our weak spot, only it won’t be, if you see what I mean’.
‘I do see. Do not worry, Simon. I know how to spin a web of deceit, especially if my land is at stake. I will do as you ask. I am seeing those Circlassian scum this afternoon. I will be very angry and defiant, in the course of which I shall, inadvertently of course, let slip that Pulan will only be lightly defended by triremes. They will take that bait, I am sure. Those filthy dung-eaters will hardly believe that a mere woman will artlessly lie to them!’ She added, bitterly. ‘Now go. I will play my part. But you must play yours. Simon, I want you to command my sea forces in this battle’.
Simon’s jaw dropped. ‘Me!’ He stammered. ‘Why me? I’m not even qualified as a trireme captain yet! This is blackmail!’
Gloriana smiled sweetly. ‘Of course, it is. I told you I was capable of deceit. Now be off with you, and put your battle into motion. I shall report the outcome of our meeting later this afternoon’. ‘
With that, they were dismissed, Simon still fuming. ‘Why me!’ He exclaimed furiously, when they were outside.
Morag decided to hustle her husband away from this emotional scene, to give their sudden affection some privacy. She had never understood how Ragimund could change so quickly from a feared warrior queen into a gentle, loving young woman. A faery gift, she supposed. Anyway, she didn’t want to intrude between Simon and his new faery wife.
Instead, she and Demos went to the cantina downstairs to have something to eat. As they ate, Morag had misgivings. ‘Do you think that Simon’s up to this’ She asked.
‘Of course. But we must go with him to give him support’.
‘ I know. Just what I was thinking. I knew there was a reason I married you’.
Demos just grinned.
Two days later, Simon and Ragimund stood on the hillside behind Pulan, overlooking both the town and the wide bay beyond, Simon assailed by doubts. ‘What if this doesn’t work!’ he exclaimed in anguish. ‘It will, my love’. Replied Ragimund, anxiously. ‘ It will, Simon. I’m sure of it’. Morag replied. In truth, she wasn’t sure herself. Gloriana had assured them only two days earlier that their ruse seemed to have worked. ‘You should have seen the ambassadors’ faces!’ she chuckled. ‘They couldn’t wait to get out and send their messages back, especially after I told them that if they landed and tried to take Druard, I would sweep them back into the sea where they belonged! But I think they have been persuaded to change their target to Pulan, especially since I inadvertently let slip that I would be bringing my triremes from Pulan to reinforce Druard. They pricked their ears up at that!’
As Simon stood looking down at the great bay stretching before him, he hoped she was right. But it was still going to be a very difficult battle, in which they were badly outnumbered. And he was responsible for the conduct of the battle. His head was filled with doubts and uncertainties, and he wished again that Annie was here, to reassure him. The bay was wider than he had imagined. It lay before him like a great shimmering blue bowl, framed by the great promontories on each side. The sea rose and fell in gentle ripples, but he knew that was only the effect of the tide. There was no wind to speak of, not even on the sea, a darker blue beyond.
He and Ragimund rode hard along the inner coast towards their ships on the Becon promontory. They were hidden in the little sandy coves and beaches along the coastline inside the bay. Melchior, the faery general in charge of land defences, would be busy deploying his companies of archers and other troops to meet a possible invasion on the beaches, though Simon could see no overt activity. Melchior, a plump and amiable figure, that Simon had liked at first sight, was, despite appearances, an efficient and very capable general, known to his faery troops as “the Barrel” due to his corpulence, but popular and well-liked, despite his nickname. Simon had full confidence in him.
He looked again at the bay of Pulan, as he and Ragimund rode along its coast. It looked pleasant and attractive, not at all like the scene of a coming battle. The sheltering promontories on each side were heavily wooded, with trees growing right down to the water’s edge, interspersed with shallow sandy beaches. The town of Pulan, set in a small bay opening off the larger, was a tumble of white cubic houses running haphazardly down gentle slopes to the small harbour and quayside to one side of the bay. Around its upper slopes, a great grey wall snaked, surrounding the town, with a gatehouse in the middle providing entrance to the town itself. To each side of the harbour, were great sandy stretches with large timber-framed sheds and workshops at the back, the dockyards for the triremes, which were winched onto dry land by a set of capstans set above the beaches. Two partially constructed triremes lay on their sides above the tide-line: another fully constructed trireme lay further up in preparation for careening: having its hull cleaned of marine life and debris.
Simon was still subdued, as they gradually rode around the bay over to where the triremes lay on the coast of the Becon promontory. Every now and again, they were challenged by faery sentries, who waved them on as soon as they were recognised. Melchior had made his preparations well. He suddenly appeared behind the last sentry, and approached them with a grin on his plump face. ‘I have good news for you, Master Simon! My lady Ragimund’. He bowed low to her. Simon was touched by his courtesy to his faery wife. ‘The dragons have sent a small force to our aid! They are due to arrive tomorrow, prepared to do battle alongside us. We received word from the lady Gloriana, this morning’.
‘That’s wonderful news!’ Simon exclaimed, delightedly. ‘What of your forces?’
‘Alas, we are thinly stretched along this coast line. But I have companies of mounted archers who can travel quickly up and down to use as reinforcements for my deployed troops as necessary. I also have trebuchets in specially dug emplacements along the coast, to pick off any of their ships that run aground in these shallow waters, and scorpios that can hit a vessel over a thousand yards away, with fire-bolts, if possible!’
Simon knew what these weapons were. They were among the arsenal of mediaeval weapons that the faerys possessed. A trebuchet was a large catapult, fired by dropping a heavy counterweight that propelled a large sling carrying a large projectile, weighing over a hundred pounds, towards an enemy fortress, with great force. It could also fire a heavy burning missile in the same way, usually with great accuracy, up to four hundred metres. He was not sure of how useful trebuchets might be in a sea battle, but the scorpios, effectively large mounted crossbows, used as field artillery, could fire large flaming bolts over a much longer distance, and might well be useful in the battle to come. He had guessed that the enemy would be fearful of flaming weapons, given the amount of gunpowder and shot they would be carrying.
Ragimund laughed quietly. She pointed at the thick clumps of trees that ran down to the water’s edge. ‘Do you not see them now?’ He peered more closely at them, and shouted excitedly, ‘I can see them!’ He could see the long, narrow outlines of triremes underneath the camouflage nets thrown over them. ‘That’s really good camouflage!’ He looked up just in time to see a retinue of mounted faerys coming towards them.
‘Good! Lead on, then’. Ragimund replied. The faery who had spoken, turned his horse without another word, and led the way along a narrow winding path through the dense trees up the slope. It emerged at last into a vast clearing in the heart of the woods, surrounded on all sides by rows of tents of all shapes and sizes, constructed of green canvas. Various campfires had been set up outside them, around which a large number of faery troops were squatting. As they saw Ragimund enter their camp, they all rose to their feet.
The faery in charge of the escort turned to Ragimund. ‘This serves as our trireme headquarters, lady. All the captains are based here for the time being. Do you wish to speak with them?’
‘Not now, no. Later this evening’. Ragimund said impatiently. ‘My husband, Simon, will address them. He has a plan which may well work against our enemy’.
‘I am glad to hear it, lady. For we have come up with nothing better than a general assault, which will cost us many lives’.
‘They are! Simon spluttered angrily. ‘Do you realise that not one faery today has even acknowledged my existence! Why is that? Don’t they trust me? I’m on their side, after all!’
‘It is because they are worried and anxious, and they do not know what to do. It is nothing to do with you. They are preoccupied with tomorrow. I am sure that if you outline your plan to them, they will be reassured. You and Annie must have had a logical plan, surely, in your previous conflicts with monsters?’
Simon laughed, bitterly.
‘Me and Annie? Logical? Hah! All that we‘ve done is just cope with whatever came at us! We never had a strategy or plan. We’ve just sort of drifted through whatever has been thrown at us! We’ve spent four years of our lives fighting the Wrists. Now we’ve got to fight a major sea battle against overwhelming odds, and I’ve got to waste time, winning their trust! Don’t they realise what they’re up against?’
‘No, but they will if you explain it to them. You must realise, Simon, that my people need a leader, in this battle, they can trust and have confidence in. Once you have explained your plan, they will follow you’.
‘I hope so’. he said, miserably.
Ragimund pulled him to her, wrapping her arms around him. ‘Please, for my sake at least’.
‘All right, I’ll do my best’. Ragimund kissed him tenderly, and then left to make last-minute arrangements for the battle.
‘Whoo-ee, Simon! Grabbing a little nooky before the action?’ He turned around in surprise. Morag and Demos were standing in front of him. ‘What are you doing here?’ he stammered.
‘Come to give you some moral support! Haven’t we, Demos?’
‘Yes, some reinforcement. Have you spoken to the trireme captains yet?’
‘Not yet. Probably later on this evening’.
‘You must ensure that they are with you. You will need to depend on them tomorrow’.
‘Don’t I know it’. Simon groaned. ‘I need something to eat’. They sat down around one of the campfires, and shared a plain, but satisfying meal with the faery soldiers. Simon was pleased to see that they all seemed to be in good spirits, though naturally apprehensive about the coming battle, as he was himself. He looked up, as Ragimund returned and knelt beside him.
‘The trireme captains are ready to see you’. She said.
‘Oh, are they! Well, I suppose I’m ready to see them!’ He snapped, and got up. He strode across to where the trireme captains, men and women, stood around a large map spread out in the open air, on a collection of wooden trestle tables. They looked up as he approached. ‘Welcome, master Simon’. One of them said. ‘Please tell us more about how you wish to conduct this battle’. He was a battle-hardened elderly veteran, his face tanned to the colour of mahogany, clearly the one in charge.
Simon heaved a deep sigh of relief. At least the first part of the plan had succeeded. Gloriana had convinced the Circlassians to attack in the bay of Pulan. But the most difficult part still lay ahead – to defeat them in battle and to prevent the invasion.
‘There is more! Ragimund carried on excitedly. ‘The dragons have arrived! A large force of them are camped in the fields at the back of Pulan! Their commander will be here tomorrow at dawn to receive orders!’
The faery captains chattered delightedly to each other in their own language, at this news. The mood around the table had lifted dramatically. Even Simon’s dark thoughts had now lightened. Having an aerial force of fire-breathing dragons would considerably shorten the odds against them, and for the first time, he felt they had a good chance of victory.
‘Where are our rowers?’ he asked, suddenly remembering. ‘In their own camp, a little way from here’. It was one of the female faery captains. ‘They prefer their own company before a battle, and there is no room for them in our camp’. Simon nodded. He could understand that. ‘They will be here at dawn’. She added, her brown, sun-tanned face lit up by the promise of action tomorrow. They all looked eager and ready, and Simon felt reassured. They would not let him down, whatever happened the next day.
The briefing was over, and he decided to get some sleep while he could. He walked across to their small tent and clambered into it. Ragimund, wrapped in blankets against the evening chill, was already asleep. Simon quietly undressed, wrapped himself in more blankets, and settled down beside her. He stroked her hair and kissed her gently.
‘I am not asleep’. Ragimund said, rolling towards him. ‘I have a gift for you. You will see her tomorrow’.
‘Her!’ Simon said, amazed. ‘You haven’t got me another woman, have you? Only, I’m quite happy with you’.
Ragimund laughed. ‘I have, in a different way. But you will have to wait until tomorrow, before you meet her’.
With that, she turned over and fell asleep. Simon stared at her sleeping form, slightly exasperated, then bent over and kissed her bare shoulder. ‘Sleep well, love’. He whispered, turned over, and fell into a fitful sleep himself.
He awoke the next morning to the sounds of activity outside in the camp – the clatter of utensils, low shouts, and the smells of cooking as the faery troops prepared the first meal of the day, all the murmur of a camp awakening. It was still dark, with only the glimmer of dawn, but the whole camp was up and ready, for a day of battle. He hastily pulled on his clothes and boots. The empty space where Ragimund had lain beside him, was still warm, but she was already gone. Yawning, he stretched, and crawled out into the chilly morning air. Faery soldiers were hurrying to and fro across the open clearing, carrying bundles of weapons, including sheaves of arrows and unstrung bows.
‘Simon!’ he heard Ragimund call. She hurried up to him, her face anxious. ‘You must come and look!’ She led the way up a narrow path on the other side of the encampment, that eventually emerged from the trees onto a grassy hill above the camp. Here they found other groups of faerys, among them some of the sea-captains that Simon had met the night before. They were all gazing out to sea, some with spyglasses. One of them turned to Simon and Ragimund, offering his own spyglass. ‘They come’. He said quietly. Simon quickly raised the spyglass to his eye, and hastily focussed it. The blur of dark shapes reassembled themselves into the distinct outlines of ships, a great mass of them. The horizon was darkened with their number. ‘Hell’s bells’ he muttered to himself. He wordlessly passed the spyglass to Ragimund, who hastily focussed the instrument and peered through it. She gave a little gasp of dismay. ‘So many! There must be half a thousand ships there! What are those big vessels at the front?’
‘Their warships. They’ve been equipped with fire-eaters’, he replied, so that she understood. She seized his hand. ‘Come with me!’ She ordered. Simon found himself being dragged back along the path back to the camp. But Ragimund dragged him further, back down the path to the camouflaged triremes. They halted at last. Simon looked around in surprise. There were hundreds of faerys along the bank, standing around gossiping, or else seated in small clusters, women and men together.
‘Who are they?’ He asked.
‘They are our rowers, our oarsmen and women’. Ragimund said, reproachfully. ‘I thought you knew that’.
‘Yes, of course’, Simon replied meekly.
‘Come’. Ragimund said, with a smile. They boarded the nearest trireme, walking up the gangplank onto the deck. Simon looked around with pleasure, feeling the deck move softly beneath his feet. It was twilight under the heavy nets of camouflage above them, but he could smell the resin of new wood, and the fresh smell of paint and varnish. This was a new ship, recently built. Ragimund was smiling at him.
‘Do you like her’, She asked. ‘She is your ship. I commissioned her for you. You command your own vessel now’.
‘Ahoy there! I see you’re at it again!’ It was Morag’s voice, sounding amused in the twilight. She hauled herself up the gangplank followed by two more figures whom he couldn’t recognise in the darkness. As they came closer, he saw that the nearest figure was Demos, who stood next to Morag. The second figure was a faery that he didn’t know. The man quickly introduced himself. ‘I am Pyclos the Navigator. I have orders to serve you during this campaign, from the lady Ragimund here’. He bowed to her. ‘She thought I might be of service to you’.
‘Welcome aboard, Pyclos’. Simon said, greeting him with the customary warrior’s handshake. Pyclos was shorter than most faerys, but tough and sinewy. His hair was cut extremely short, amounting to no more than a grizzled stubble framing his head. His eyes were a startling bright blue, all the more surprising in his tanned but heavily lined face. He looked as he was – trustworthy and competent. Simon was glad to have him on board.
‘I have told Pyclos of your plan, and he approves wholeheartedly’. Ragimund exclaimed, excitedly. Pyclos nodded. ‘Yes, I do. It stands a good chance of working’. He added, cautiously. ‘But it depends on precise timing and speed, together with the stamina and strength of our rowers. All will depend on that. It will have to be a hit and run battle’.
‘That must be the captain of the dragons that have just come’. commented Simon. ‘I’d better greet him’. He walked down the gangplank to find a very large dragon seated on the bank, with an apprehensive faery soldier beside him, obviously the one who had hailed him. Simon remembered that many of these faery soldiers had never encountered the dragons before, except in legends and stories.
The dragon bowed its head as he approached. ‘Greetings, commander. I am Balthasar’. It growled in a deep, husky voice. ‘Dabar has sent me to render whatever assistance you may need’.
‘Send my greetings to him also, Balthasar, and thank him for his aid. We will have need of you before the day is out. But for now, keep your comrades where they are. When we have need of you, I shall send you a signal’. He realised that he had no idea of what signal he should send. He looked at the faery soldier. ‘I can send up a signal arrow, sir, a green one. If you signal this shore from your vessel, I shall fire one up in the air. The dragons will see that’.
‘Good. Watch for my signal, what is your name?’
‘Peclos, my lord’.
‘Thank you, Peclos, watch for my signal’. The faery bobbed his head, and darted off along the bank.
‘What will you call her?’
‘Who?’ Simon replied, nonplussed.
‘Your new ship, of course’ Replied Morag, irritated.
‘Oh! Oh, right. The Ragimund. She gave it to me’.
‘You will not! My business is on land, not water!’ Ragimund said, heatedly.
‘Right, then. I’ll call her Annabelle!’
‘That is a good name! You are honouring your sister!’
‘Well, yes. But not just her’.
‘What! Another woman!’ Ragimund exclaimed, angrily.
‘Wait! You don’t understand!’ Morag interposed quickly. ‘It’s the name of a young girl who was cruelly beaten and murdered by one of the Wrist family more than a century ago. Simon’s always felt very strongly for her!’
‘That’s true. I never even met her!’
‘I see’. Ragimund said, now more subdued. ‘But we must return to today. What progress has the enemy made?’
At that moment, they heard a sudden explosive roar from the bay, followed by several more. There was the sound of splashes nearer the shore. Without a word to each other, they ran to the bow and peered out across the bay. The big warships, Simon estimated as large carracks, by their build, had entered the bay in an echelon formation, so that they could fire their cannon at will, without hitting each other. They stayed close to the centre of the bay where the water was deeper, which meant they were out of range of the shore. But he was dismayed by their size. Even at this distance, he could see that they would tower over the lower, smaller triremes. Worse still, he could see soldiers lining the sides, armed with muskets, which would be the biggest threat to their unprotected vessels. But there was no going back. They were committed to this battle, whatever the loss.
Pyclos was beside him, regarding the enemy with his professional blue eyes, appraising them carefully. ‘They are low in the water’. He said at last. ‘They must be heavily loaded with supplies and ammunition, not to mention the weight of their fire-eaters’.
‘Can they bombard Pulan?’ Simon asked anxiously.
‘Pah! They will run aground before they get within half a mile!’ retorted Pyclos, dismissively. ‘But we must make haste! Our rowers are here! It will soon be time to go forth and attack!’
The rowers stood in ranks along the bank, laughing and talking amongst themselves. They did not look at all apprehensive about the forthcoming battle, but Simon knew that rowers had their own esprit de corps which sustained them against all adversity. They trooped aboard in orderly files, down the open hatchways, and took up their allotted position on the angled rowing benches below the main deck. Morag could hear the rasp of oars being run out, and the occasional splash of water as the rowers tested their oars for freedom of movement. With their arrival, the Annabelle seemed to come alive, vibrating with the sound of laughter and noise from below, that she could feel beneath her feet.
‘I think it’s time you left. You can watch from the shore’. Simon said sharply. But neither Morag nor Demos moved. They stood, feet firmly planted on the deck, their arms folded in defiance. ‘We’re not leaving. Annie said I should keep an eye on you, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do’. Morag said, bluntly. ‘And I too.’ added Demos. Simon looked at them in despair, and turned to Ragimund for support. To his dismay, he saw her face set in the same expression. ‘Ragimund….’ He began.
Simon gave up. He was confronted with an implacable wall of stubbornness.
‘All right, I give in. But, for pity’s sake, please stay low behind that shield wall’. He pointed to the hasty wooden construction across the aft deck, hung with shields, to give some protection to those in the stern of the vessel.
‘Deal’. Said Morag, and instantly regretted it, seeing the misery in Simon’s face. ‘Look, Simon, we’re not going to be a burden on you, but I’m your elder sister now, whether you like it or not, and I’ve got a duty to look after you. Which I’ll do, equally whether you like it or not. Beside that, Annie would kill me, if I didn’t’.
She succeeded in eliciting a smile on Simon’s face. ‘She would, too. Right, but keep out of the way’.
Pyclos ran up from the bow, where he had been keeping watch.
‘Simon, it is time!’ He said, urgently. ‘The warships have passed us, and the rest of the fleet are a mile or two behind! We can strike now! We have open water! And there is no wind for them to manoeuvre!’
‘Cast off! We’re going into battle! Now!’ Simon ordered. The mooring ropes were cast off, and the Annabelle slowly moved out into the open bay. Then the oars dug into the water. Morag felt the surge and pull as they picked up speed. She felt excited, as she felt the ship move under her feet, like a nervous animal. It was the first time she had been on a trireme under its own power. She truly felt the surge of human muscle propelling the ship forward, as if transmitted to the vessel itself. She looked across at Simon. His lips were parted in joy as he felt his ship, his own ship, tremble, and thrust across the water, beneath his feet. He looked to right and left. His accompanying triremes were surging along with him. He felt a sudden pride as he saw their pale purple eyes painted on each side of the bows, coming into battle, their golden rams rising and falling through the sea foam. They closed on the enemy warships to their left.
‘Aim for the ship in the middle!’ Simon cried to the tiller-men. As they wrestled with their steering oars, he looked again at the enemy. Somehow, they had found enough wind to separate. They were now line abreast, moving towards the port of Pulan.
‘Turn to port! Quickly!’ He ordered. His little fleet of triremes turned with the Annabelle, now facing the tall, decorated sterns of the enemy warships. ‘Forward!’ He ordered again, and the triremes surged towards the enemy warships. As they closed on the enemy, Morag gasped in a mixture of fear and horror. The warships were so huge! They seemed to tower above the oncoming triremes like wooden cliffs. High above, on the decks, she could see men pointing at them, and raising long black muskets, taking aim. ‘Get down!’ she heard Simon shout, and she immediately crouched down on the deck behind the shield wall. A succession of sharp retorts sounded, and the shield wall shuddered, as the musket balls struck them, luckily without penetrating. She could hear Ragimund, crouching beside her, grinding her teeth in frustration. ‘This is not the way of a warrior!’ She eventually snapped. ‘On my hands and knees, cowering behind a shield!’ Morag lost her temper. ‘Just do as you’re told! Those things can kill you easily! Just like they killed my mother!’ She turned her head away, wiping her eyes with her sleeve, feeling Ragimund’s hand on her arm.
‘I am sorry, Morag. I did not realise’. She said, softly. Morag was about to reply, when she heard Simon shout. ‘Ramming speed!’ and felt the ship surge forward, beneath her knees. The drumbeat from below, became faster and more strident. Looking up she could see the massive decorated stern of the enemy seeming to loom high above them as they closed in to ram the ship. She could even see her own reflection in the leaded glass of the stern windows. ‘Brace yourselves!’ Simon’s voice shouted behind her. Morag and Ragimund just had time to clutch the shield wall, before, with a grinding crash, the whole vessel suddenly stopped dead. They felt the numbing shock through their very bones, as the Annabelle struck the stern of the enemy ship, with a great rasping and groan of timber. Even the drumbeat had stopped in that terrible moment.
‘Row back! Back’ They heard Simon’s voice shouting. ‘Get us out of here!’ After a few moments, the oarsmen recovered from the shock, and began to row the Annabelle back from the stricken ship, reversing their oars, as they did so. The drumbeat started again. Annabelle shifted from side to side, prising her great golden ram from the enemy’s stern, tearing out the pindles on which her great rudder was hinged, which now hung askew. With a wrench of tearing timber, she pulled free, and moved backwards, leaving a great gaping hole in the enemy ship’s lower stern, through which the sea boiled and gushed. The great ship heeled to starboard as she filled with water. She was crippled, badly holed and her steering broken beyond repair.
The Annabelle backed quickly away from the stricken ship, moving at a good speed. She was two hundred yards away when the impossible happened. Nothing had prepared them for what came next. Morag looked back at the enemy ship and as she did so, she saw it erupt in a great golden yellow sheet of flame, blinding her, momentarily. Moments later there was a deep rumble and then the sound of the explosion. a huge whipping crack of noise that threatened to burst her eardrums. She was thrown violently to the deck as the shockwave hit them, sucking the air from her lungs. She fought desperately to breathe as she slid down the deck towards the stern with the others in a tangle of arms and legs. As she tried to disentangle herself, Morag glanced back to the curving prow. It almost froze her heart. It stood silhouetted against the bright blue sky, pointing upwards. She looked quickly to port and starboard and realised why. They were poised on the crest of a giant black wave of water, taller than a house, created by the explosion! The Annabelle had been borne up like a cork, and was about to descend the back of the wave as it rolled beneath them.
Suddenly the world tilted. She crashed into the shield wall again, winding herself and grazing both her knees. As she cursed, she looked at the ship’s prow again, and found herself looking down at the smooth gray-green sea. They were sliding down the back of the giant wave into the trough beyond, She experienced vertigo as they plummeted down, hitting the water below with a great splash of spray that foamed over the bows, soaking the faery archers crouched in their shelter, and sluiced across the deck towards them, pouring in to the open gunwales below the deck. ‘Demos!’ she shouted in panic, fearing that he had been swept overboard. ‘I am here, Morag!’ He appeared and wrapped his arms round her, pinioning her body against the shield wall for protection. They both felt the ship judder and rock beneath them as she took the brunt of smaller, further waves, not as big as the first, but still sizeable enough to pose a danger. More worrying was the great bank of roiling clouds spreading outwards from the base of the explosion, moving more quickly than they imagined, Within seconds, they were enveloped in a damp, yellowish-brown fog which obscured everything around them – the other ships, the invading fleet, the coastline, even the very surface of the bay itself.
‘Yes, I am’. said Morag, unexpectedly. ‘I have training in first aid, if that’s any help. I’ll go down and see what I can do’.
‘I shall come with you’. Demos said, firmly.
‘And I. I can do nothing up here’. added Ragimund, bitterly. She had been shaken and depressed by the explosion of the enemy ship, and the nature of the sea battle had left her redundant. She welcomed the chance to do something – anything – that would make her feel useful.
As Morag descended the stairs, she felt she was descending into hell. She could just make out in the dark gloom, half- naked figures, sitting or lying next to their long oars, The stale stench of sweat, mixed with the sulphurous smoke made her gag and her eyes prick. Down here, the faery rowers could see nothing of the battle, though they could hear and feel its effects. They were all shaken and exhausted by what had just happened, and some of them were slightly injured by the battering they had received after the explosion. Despite the darkness and the crowded conditions, Morag got them to line up according to a priority list, with those carrying the most serious injuries coming first.
‘I’m going to try my talisman on you. You’ll feel a terrible pain at first, but I’m hoping it will cure you’.
The faery girl nodded and grimaced. Between painful breaths, she gasped ‘It can be no worse than my pain at this moment, lady. Do your best’.
Morag hesitated for a moment, then took the talisman from her finger and pressed it against the girl’s abdomen. The faery yelped, her body arching with agony. Ragimund held her shoulders down firmly. After a few seconds, the girl subsided, and lay back with a sigh.
‘I feel so much better now, lady’. she announced. ‘I can breathe properly, and the pain has virtually gone. I can feel myself healing!’
Morag leant over to listen to the girl’s chest. It was true that the wheezing she had heard earlier seemed to have disappeared, and her breathing appeared to be normal. The girl grinned at her, pleased at feeling so much better. She tried to sit up.
‘Wait a minute! Don’t overdo it! Ragimund, can you support her? I’m going to strap her ribs up’. While Ragimund supported her, Morag wrapped bandages around her ribs tightly to keep them in place to heal, then laid her down again on the bed.
‘My lady, I must return to my post!’ The girl wailed.
'No, you won’t! You’ll stay right there, and get some sleep! That’s an order!’ Morag said, firmly.
The faery grumbled a bit, then turned her head on the pillow, and immediately fell asleep.
Morag stroked her cheek, gently. ‘Are all faerys as stubborn as that? She asked.
‘I an afraid so’. Ragimund said, chuckling. ‘They have a strong sense of duty. Which reminds me, we must get back to the battle’.
They clambered back up through the hatchway onto the deck, and looked around. The battle had evidently moved on. The enemy fleet were densely clustered for protection in a large mass of hulls and sails, partly obscured by clouds of white smoke, firing their muskets at the marauding triremes who darted around the enemy like silver fish, occasionally overhauling a straggler and moving in to ram it. But the enemy were keeping up a strong resistance, with musket-fire. Morag could see bright orange spurts of fire erupting from the clouds of smoke enveloping their ships, sounding like a dull rattle. She could hear the drumbeats of their own rowers in the still air, and smelt the acrid taste of gunpowder, as the muskets fired again and again at the circling triremes. There were gaps in their banks of rising and falling oars, marking where the faery oarsmen had been killed or wounded, and their oars jettisoned, so as not to foul the others. The battle looked chaotic, with vessels milling in a random circle, with no apparent advantage gained by either side. So Morag thought, but she became aware of Simon and the others crying out in alarm, and pointing to the left. She looked across and gave a small gasp of horror. Four of the great warships had somehow turned around and were now bearing down on them! She realised, as did the others, that they were about to be trapped between the musket fire of the fleet on one side, and the warships, with their large fire-eaters on the other!
It was a desperate moment. She stared at Simon, seeing the look of despair on his face. She felt suddenly hopeless. ‘ What about the dragons?’ She muttered, somewhat stupidly. Simon gaped at her, then his face broke into a smile of relief. ‘Morag, you’re a star! Why didn’t I think of that? Pyclos!’
Pyclos appeared beside him. ‘Pyclos, can you send a message to the shore? Just “ Fire green signal arrow”. The dragons will know it’.
Pyclos just nodded without asking unnecessary questions. He reappeared with a covered semaphore lantern. Carefully lighting the mantle inside, which burnt with a bright white light, he pointed it towards the distant shore and sent a signal in code, by raising a shutter up and down. Almost immediately, a similar light flashed from among the trees on the coast. After a few seconds, a burning green arrow shot up into the sky from the woods on shore. It arced across the sky, visible to all, and plunged downwards in the sea. Peclos had kept his word. Simon looked towards Pulan. To his relief and joy, he saw a large group of dark shapes rise up from behind the town, and move towards them.
‘The dragons are coming!’ He shouted.
‘What good are they going to be? ‘ Pyclos yelled.
Morag looked quickly around the bay. From what she could see, the battle was entering a climatic phase. The Annabelle was hove to, in the centre of the Bay of Pulan, but nearer the Becon promontory. She was facing the enemy fleet, on the right, near the mouth of the bay, a large disorganised mass of ships, wreathed in smoke from the musket fire. To the left, approaching from the direction of Pulan, a smudge of white, on the distant horizon, were four large enemy warships that had managed to turn and were now bearing down on them. They
‘What?’ He yelled back. ‘Can’t you see I’m busy!’ She kept quiet, ashamed at her outburst of panic, but angry at him for his rude reply. ’Don’t you shout at me!’ she retorted, then she saw that his attention was on something else. She turned and gasped. The white billowing sails were now reduced to burning grey tatters, the remnants of which were falling onto the decks below. All four ships were now dead in the water, with the black shapes of dragons whirling and swooping around them. As she watched, one dragon lurched in the air, turned over and plummeted into the sea in a long fiery arc, disappearing with a loud splash. This clearly infuriated the dragons, who redoubled their attacks, diving and swooping on the ships, raking the decks with hot gouts of flame from their jaws, setting both men and ships ablaze. Morag shuddered. It was a terrible way to die! She could see the long lines of blackened and charred bodies along the sides, their hands, shrivelled and claw-like, still clutching their weapons. Others, fleeing the dragons’ s fiery breath, were outstretched like brittle twigs where they had fallen.
The enemy warships were doomed. One had finally run aground in the shallow waters, and now lay heeled over, and helpless, her cannon pointing impotently at the blackening sky. Of the others, two were on fire, the flames licking up through their decks into the ominously still air. A series of dull explosions echoed across the bay, from the fourth ship. The dragons’s fire had ignited its gunpowder stores, which were now exploding. Sheets of flame erupted through its upper deck, continuing to burn. A man, alight, ran to the side and threw himself into the water below, fizzling like a sputtering match.
Morag’s mouth was dry. She gulped, then again, so much so that Demos, standing beside her, put his arm round her shoulders. She leant against him, thankful for his concern.
Pyclos turned around and gave a shout. ‘Simon! They have embarked their landing barges!’ They all turned and looked back at the enemy fleet. Moving slowly towards them were scores of landing barges, no more than large rowing boats, but filled with armoured warriors. They were propelled by two large oars, on each side, which made their progress slow. But they were a major threat, especially since they also contained musketeers, who began firing at the triremes. By now, most of the remaining force of triremes had withdrawn from the enemy fleet and were gathered around the Annabelle, awaiting orders. It was then that disaster struck.
They were being hit by musket balls, both from the enemy fleet and from the landing barges. Lead balls ricocheted from the decks, gouging large furrows in the planks. The triremes’ hulls were already pitted and scarred from the numerous shots fired at them. They could even hear the whizzing of the deadly ammunition about their ears. Morag crouched down behind the shield wall, suddenly very afraid of sudden death, sucking the life out of her in a moment. Then, she heard a scream of agony behind her. She turned her head to see what it was. She saw Ragimund lying on the deck in a large pool of blood, clutching her left shoulder.
‘Ragimund!’ she shouted, frantically. Simon was already beside her, cradling her head. She ran, crouching, to her. Ragimund’s eyes were rolling in shock, and she was moaning in pain. Simon was clinging to her, crying. She separated them with some difficulty. ‘Go back to your command!’ she hissed. ‘Now! Do as I say!’ She hated herself for sounding so cruel. But she did not want a distraught Simon hanging around. She looked around for her husband, but he was there by her side. ‘Demos!’ She gasped. ‘Quick! Carry her downstairs, carefully!’ Demos said nothing, but lifted Ragimund up gently, Her left arm hung down, useless, by her side. Morag followed them down, desperately anxious. What if Ragimund died from her wound? How would she explain that to Simon? Demos laid her down, equally gently on the bottom bunk in the left-hand room, so that Morag could examine her.
‘Simon! The other ships are awaiting your orders! What must we do?’ She heard from the deck above. It was Pyclos calling out. Simon turned to him, ‘Ram them!’ He said savagely. The triremes, in response to his call on a bugle, immediately turned to face the enemy and surged forward, forcing Morag to stagger under the momentum. But all her attention was now focussed on Ragimund. ‘Strip her tunic off! I must examine her wound!’ ordered Morag. ‘But she is a woman, your faery-sister!’ exclaimed Demos in horror. ‘So what! This is no time for modesty, Demos!’ She snapped. ‘Just do it! We’re now medics, remember!’
Demos reluctantly cut away Ragimund’s tunic, leaving her stripped to the waist. Morag looked in despair at the bloody wound and began to pick out the fragments of bone with a pair of sterilised forceps. ‘I’ll clean the wound, and sterilise it’. She said as much herself as to Demos. ‘Turn her over onto her side’. There was a large gaping wound in Ragimund’s back as well. To her relief, she realised it was an exit wound, which meant that the musket ball had passed right through her body without lodging in the wound itself to cause infection. ‘We’ll have to use the talisman. This is beyond my skills’.
‘But she is in shock, and weak from loss of blood’.
‘I know, but we’ll just have to risk it’. Morag said helplessly.
‘Morag!’ She looked down at Ragimund, whose dark eyes seemed very large in her pale face. ‘I can withstand the pain – any pain, but you must promise me. Do not cut off my arm! I can bear anything else, but not that! Promise me, Morag! I beg you, anything but that! I cannot go through life as a helpless cripple, or face my husband again! Promise me, Morag! I beseech you!’ She sank down on the bed again, exhausted.
Morag leant over and affectionately pushed the wet strands of hair from Ragimund’s damp face. ‘I promise you, Ragimund. We’ll do our best to make you fit and whole again’.
She looked at Demos. ‘Best do it now, while she’s ready’. He nodded. They sat her up and pressed their talismans against her injured shoulder. Ragimund almost screamed in agony, but instead bit her lip so hard that it bled. The pain of the talismans was so great that tears began to well from beneath her eyelashes. After a few seconds, the searing pain disappeared and she could feel a gentle warmness creep through her shoulder – which seemed to soothe and heal at the same time.
‘Morag, it is working! I can feel it healing me! Morag?’ To her dismay, Morag seemed to be crying, her hands covering her face. ‘I feel like a bloody torturer’, she wept. ‘Demos, go and comfort her’. Ragimund ordered. Now she was no longer in pain, she was determined to regain command.
Morag found herself enfolded in Demos’s arms, which she found quite acceptable. She wiped her eyes, pleased that her faery-sister was making such a good recovery. ‘I still feel like a bloody sadist!’ She grumbled. There was a quick knock on the door, and Simon peered round. ‘Ragimund!’ He cried in joy. ‘You’ve recovered!’ ‘Yes’, she replied, smiling. ‘Thanks to my faery-sister and her husband’.
He ran quickly to her and embraced her lovingly. ‘Oi! Be careful! Don’t damage my faery-sister. She’s still fragile!’ Morag warned. Simon started back, guiltily. There was another knock at the door. It was Pyclos. ‘I am sorry to interrupt, but the storm is very close. We need to make for the shore before it overwhelms us! It has already engulfed the enemy fleet’.
‘All right, duty calls’. He said resignedly
Simon and Pyclos disappeared to the deck. Morag pointed at Ragimund. ‘You! Lie down, and try to get some sleep! You’ve not fully recovered yet!’
‘I can stand!’ Ragimund started to get up. ‘My place is on deck!’ But as she attempted to stand, her legs wobbled dangerously and she fell back onto the bed again. ‘What did I tell you?’ Morag cried in exasperation. ‘Now get into bed and do as you’re told!’ Ragimund reluctantly slid onto the bunk bed, but felt her eyelids drooping. Within seconds, she was asleep.
Morag gently tucked a blanket around her, and stroked her face affectionately. ‘Why are you faerys so pig-headed and stubborn?’ She asked her husband, reproachfully.
‘Because we don’t know where bravery ends and stubbornness begins’. Demos replied, grinning.
‘Trust you to give me an answer like that’. She said, grinning back. ‘Come on, let’s go up on deck to see what’s happening’.
They climbed up to the deck. Simon and Pyclos were standing on the aft deck, looking out across the bay, anxiously, towards the approaching storm. She looked around. The whole seascape of the battle had changed again, dramatically. Most of the promontories on each side were now lost to sight under a swirling grey fog. Rolling in, from the outer mouth of the great bay, was a seething, roiling mass of clouds, grey-black and angry. Overhead, the sky was now a dull leaden dark grey, blotting out the sun entirely. The whole atmosphere had darkened into a colourless waste, which seemed to weigh down on them. The sea had turned into a grey rippling sludge, only enlivened by small white wavelets that slapped angrily against the hulls of the triremes. It was a depressing scene, heightened by the sight of floating bodies and wreckage of spars and sails covering the surface of the sea, and the plaintive cries and shouts from the many bobbing heads in the water, floundering desperately, or clinging precariously to floating wreckage of ships and boats, that had disappeared beneath the surface.
The flotilla of triremes had turned starboard, and were now headed towards the shore and their safe havens, their oars dipping and falling, regardless of the bobbing heads of survivors that disappeared under them. Few, if any, would survive the oncoming storm. The boiling white waves under the base of the oncoming cloud storm would ensure that. Men, weighed down by chain-mail and weapons, would not survive.
Then, it started to rain. Not ordinary rain, but hard sheets of it, piercing their clothes, like sharp needles, drumming on the wooden decks in large droplets, echoed by the drummer below, who still sounded out a steady rhythm to guide the tired rowers. Within seconds, they were soaked to the skin. But the shoreline, dimly seen through the mist that covered it, was getting nearer.
On their way, they swiftly overtook a stricken trireme, scarred badly by musket balls. She lay deep in the water, almost sinking, and was propelled by only her uppermost bank of oars, the rest shipped and motionless above the water. The displaced crew stood on the deck, guarding the wounded and the dead, who lay or crouched beside them. They were being saturated by the rain, but their eyes were all on the approaching storm.
‘She is slowly sinking. Her timbers have sprung. See where the water is pouring out between her planks? That is why the captain has evacuated the lower crew. But if she gets to the beach, at least, they will be able to carry their dead and wounded ashore’. Pyclos concluded.
‘I hope they make it’. Morag said, sympathetically. She felt for this crew, after all they had been through.
‘I shall hail them’. Pyclos said, quickly. He cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted something in faery to the limping ship. The faery captain, standing on board, cupped her hands and shouted back a longer message, then raised her hand in acknowledgement. Pyclos turned back to them. ‘She says they do not require any assistance, though she thanks you for your concern. She is making for shallow water close to the shore, where she can beach her ship, and unload her crew together with the dead and wounded. If she can get that far’.
‘What about the landing barges that got past us? Will they have got to the beaches?’ Simon, asked anxiously.
Pyclos smiled mirthlessly.‘Look over there, captain’. He pointed to the long sandy beach further down from the cove from which they had set out that morning. Two or three of the enemy landing barges were drawn up in the shallow water that broke upon the shore, rising and bobbing in the swell before the storm. They were empty, but around them lay piles of bodies, all Circlassian. Arrows studded their dead forms, also embedded in the sand around. The beach had been churned up by many feet, and was discoloured by dark patches, which they recognised with horror, was blood, now drying to a dark brown. Some of the bodies had been transfixed by broken spears and one of the barges was still burning, despite the rain.
‘It seems that Melchior has made good his promise that no Circlassian who set foot on our land would return alive’. Remarked Pyclos, drily.
Morag stared at the bloody scene along the coast with horror and disgust. She was genuinely shocked at such slaughter, of which they had been part, not long ago. War was so evil and so unnecessary! She now at last understood the hideous face of war, which had claimed so many lives, deserved or not. She remained silent, in total revulsion.
‘Here’s our berth!’ exclaimed Simon, in relief. The rowers below shipped their oars and let the Annabelle glide silently alongside the grass jetty, under her own momentum. They chattered excitedly below, glad at their safe return. Pylos went down to the bows then back to the stern, throwing coiled mooring ropes ashore to faerys, who lashed them to the wooden bollards on shore. Outside the sheltered cove, the storm raged, with howling winds and torrential rain. Waves of water raged across the peaceful bay, lashing both shorelines with their great foamy crests. But in the cove, the ships, now moored safely, merely tossed and rattled against each other, secure in their sheltered havens. The bay was now shrouded in dense fog. Nothing could be seen from their protected small harbour, but the rain still deluged them, pattering fiercely on the decks of the triremes.
Morag went back down to the sickrooms, to look after her patients. To her relief, Ragimund was awake and sitting on the side of her bed, wearing her sling. The young faery with broken ribs was still sleeping soundly, oblivious to everything around her. Morag sat down beside Ragimund on the bed. “How are you feeling?’ She asked. ‘Well. I can still feel your talisman healing me, though I shall be incapacitated for a little while yet. But I thank you, Morag, for your efforts’.
‘That’s all right. Any time’. Morag replied awkwardly. She always felt uncomfortable at being thanked, especially when she thought of it as part of her job. But Ragimund went on, her smile fading.
‘Forgive me, I do not know how to express it, but I am ashamed – I was crying like a little frightened girl, when I was struck by that accursed fire-eater! I had never been wounded before and to be struck down by a weapon I could not even see….!’
‘Don’t be sorry. You were in shock and pain at the time. It’s hardly surprising that you cried!’
‘But I am a faery warrior! It is unthinkable….’
‘Rubbish! Even faerys have to cry at some point! Even you! She added. ‘Besides, I’m not going to tell anyone!’
Ragimund laughed, and smiled radiantly. ‘Thank you again, Morag! You are a true faery-sister!’ She tried to stand up, but failed.
‘Here, let me help you’. Morag offered. ‘Or are you faerys too arrogant to accept aid?’
Ragimund frowned then smiled again. ‘ I will be happy for your assistance’, she said, graciously. Morag hoisted her right arm around her shoulders and they moved rather gracelessly towards the stairs. The faery crew were also disembarking, so they waited until the ship was cleared. The rowers were tired but still exuberant at the victory they had had no chance to see at first-hand. They clattered out, chattering and laughing, glad to be out of their cramped quarters. Morag stopped two of the male rowers and asked them to make an impromptu stretcher and take the girl with broken ribs to the physicians, which they agreed to do, good-naturedly.
As they came out onto the deck, Simon saw them and hurried across, his face anxious. ‘Ragimund! Are you all right?’
Demos came across too. ‘Morag, how are you?’ he asked.
‘I’m fine’. She replied, pleased that he had asked. ‘I’m just going to take Ragimund to see the physicians. I want to make sure that she will be well soon’.
‘I’ll come with you’. Simon exclaimed, impulsively.
‘No, you won’t! I’m in charge of casualties! And I’m the chief medicus around here, remember? No, you two stay here. I’ll bring her back once the physicians have examined her’.
She left them there on the deck. She and Ragimund shuffled awkwardly down the gangplank and across the large clearing, which had now, because of the rain. become a sea of mud. They crossed it with difficulty, because Ragimund seemed, temporarily, to have forgotten how to walk. They were both exhausted by the time they arrived at the physicians’ large tent at the far side, their legs and boots spattered with sandy mud.
She found both in a large dark tent towards the back of the clearing. She thankfully relieved herself, and stared, aghast, at her dirty, blood-smeared face and hands. There were no showers or baths in a temporary camp, but she made do with sluicing herself down from the jugs and bowls of hot water provided on a wooden counter opposite the latrines. Feeling cleaner and refreshed, she ran through the downpour of rain back towards the physicians’ tent.
Ragimund was sitting just inside the tent’s entrance. She held out her arm to Morag, and hugged her fiercely. ‘The physicians were astounded! They could not believe how quickly I was healing! They said I would not even have any scars! And I owe it to you, my faery-sister! Thank you again, Morag! You truly are a healing angel!’
‘Not me! It’s all down to the talisman. That’s doing all the healing!’
‘But you took the decision to use it’. Ragimund pointed out.
‘Yes, I did. And I’m glad I did, because your being wounded has taught you a very important lesson’.
‘And what is that?’
‘Humility. Even you’ve realised that you’re not as invulnerable as you once thought you were’.
Ragimund glared at her at first, smiled, then broke into laughter.
‘You are right! Perhaps I am rediscovering a sense of humour also, to let myself be chastised like this!’
‘And by a bossy elder sister as well! But it’s good to hear you laugh again, Ragimund. You haven’t done that for a long time’.
‘That is true. Will you assist me to my tent, Morag? My step is still infirm’.
They began to walk across the muddy clearing, a borrowed blanket draped over their heads and shoulders as protection against the driving rain. Ragimund was walking more confidently now, but Morag sensed that she felt the need for her company. Simon crawled from their tent just as they got there. ‘Ragimund!’ He cried, joyfully. ‘Morag! Thanks for bringing her back!’
‘All part of the service’. Morag said grandly. ‘Now, you look after your lovely faery wife. She’s healing up well, but she’s still fragile. So none of your rough, boyish games until she’s fully recovered’.
Simon laughed. ‘I promise’. Then his face grew serious again. He waited until Ragimund had entered the tent. ‘Morag, I want to really thank you for all that you’ve done’.
‘Me? I haven’t really done anything!’
‘Yes, you have. You looked after the wounded, including my lovely Ragimund, and you and Demos were there to give me support today, which I really appreciate. It’s sort of lonely up there in command, not really knowing what to do. It helped me enormously to have you there, giving me, you know, confidence’.
Morag was silent for a moment. She was deeply touched at Simon’s words. ‘Well, that’s what elder sisters are for. And don’t sell yourself short, Simon. You inspired everyone today, and your plan really did work. The faerys will always remember that you stopped this invasion’.
‘I suppose so. But thanks for everything, Morag. You’re every thing I could want in a sister, including a lovely bum’, He added mischievously.
‘Be careful, Simon, don’t spoil it’. She said ominously.
‘I’m not. I meant every word I said’.
But as she left she couldn’t resist doing a little sashay. It drew a few wolf-whistles from the faerys crossing the clearing on errands. She chuckled to herself, and was still giggling when she reached their tent and entered.
‘I thought you might like to eat in here tonight, since the cantina is so crowded. I went to the kitchens and persuaded them to give me some food to bring back here. I did not think that you would want to eat in a crowd, not after today’.
‘You were right. I’d rather be here with you, than in a carousing cantina. Let me change my damp clothes, then I’ll join you’. She moved to the back of the tent and hurriedly changed her clothes, coming back to sit beside her husband, who handed her a goblet of rich dark red wine. They ate hungrily. They had not eaten all day and were ravenous. They finished off the hot food between them, leaving the cold for breakfast. Morag at last finished and leant against her husband.
‘What do you think the casualty list will be from this battle’ She asked him, sadly.
‘Very high’. He answered, equally sadly. ‘There will be high losses from the ships they have lost, including the explosions, together with the battles on the beaches. That is not counting the losses in the storm. These are all deaths, whether in action, or at sea. The sea is very unforgiving’.
‘Yes, Morag, I believe so’.
Morag stifled a sob. She could hardly bring herself to think about the dead. ‘I’m sorry’. She sniffed. ‘I’m just worrying about the thousands of wives that have been widowed, and the children who’ll never see their fathers again. It’s so cruel!’
‘I agree. It saddens me, when I think of the murderous despots who instigated this slaughter! My people were defending their land! They are not responsible. The bloody tyrant who set it in motion, and bankrupted his people and his own country to fulfil his own selfish desires and greed – he is the one who is responsible!’
‘I know’. Morag said, tearfully. ‘I can’t bear to think about it any more. I want to go to sleep, until tomorrow’.
‘Go and sleep, Morag, my love’. Demos said, gently. She slithered into the back of the tent, rolled herself into blankets, and fell asleep immediately, exhausted by the day. Demos stayed up a while longer, staring at the little charcoal stove. Then he rose, picked it up on its metal tray, unbuttoned the tent flap, and set it outside. Coming back inside, he blew out the lamps, rolled himself in blankets, and lay down beside his wife, and drew her protectively towards him. She stirred but did not wake. They lay curled up, like little animals, warmed by each other, in the dark of the night.
Frank Jackson- 21/ 06/ 1915 – Word Count - 15038