63. Near the Mouth of the Blue River
Eudes Ridere knew nothing of warfare at sea, so he didn’t pretend to advise Gilles Guyot, captain of the Fair Wind, when the enemy sailed to meet them. All he could do was watch and hope.
The Fair Wind was one of twenty longships sailing as vanguard for the Herminian armada. The longships used sails when crossing the ocean, but in battle they relied on banks of oarsmen. With steel prows for ramming, archers, and swordsmen ready to fight ship to ship, the longships provided formidable protection for the forty fat cogs that made up the rest of the fleet. The cogs relied on sails for propulsion, no oarsmen, so they were slower and less maneuverable, but they were able to transport an army. Twenty of them carried five hundred men each: knights, squires, archers, pikemen, and swordsmen. The other twenty brought the paraphernalia of war: horses, food, weapons, tents, extra clothing, and many other things.
The success of the invasion depended not just on the size of Herminia’s army but also on its ability to sustain a siege over months, perhaps years. As Rudolf Grandmesnil’s “quartermaster general,” Eudes had perfected the art of the protracted siege, the only way to subdue a lord in his castle. Unfortunately, invading Tarquint greatly complicated the art of the siege, because the army had to be constantly re-supplied by ships. If the Tarquintians could defeat Herminia’s armada, Eudes’s invasion would fail before it started. But the greater worry was the sea-lane. Eudes was confident that once his army was ashore, he could occupy the town named Hyacintho Flumen and besiege the castle from which it took its name. Would the Tarquintians recognize his weakness, the long sea-borne supply line? Could the longships protect the Herminia’s supply ships over the long term?
Those questions must wait. At present Fair Wind was perhaps five miles from their goal. The forty cogs were spread out over three miles of water behind the longships. It was not yet noon, and Eudes hoped to put most of his army ashore before nightfall.
“Is good, yes?” Gilles Guyot pointed toward the harbor where the Blue River emptied into the sea. Several ships were moving toward the Fair Wind and the other longships. “They come out to us, and we crush them now!”
Eudes wasn’t so sure of this point. He had hoped that he might catch the Tarquintian ships docked at Hyacintho Flumen. His swordsmen and archers would make short work of sailors in an engagement on land. With no experience in battles between ships, Eudes couldn’t tell whether Guyot’s confidence was bluster or well founded.
“I am in your hands, Gilles. Bring my men safely to land. If you don’t, be sure I will cut your throat personally, if I have to swim the sea to do it.”
Guyot laughed loudly. “Do not fear, my general! Hoy, there! Vere, signal the captains! Battle formation!”
“Aye, Captain!” Vere De Fry was the first officer under Guyot on Fair Wind. He motioned to a sailor nearby and the two of them began waving red and black flags, signals that were acknowledged by flags on other longships.
Eudes counted only six ships sailing toward them. We vastly outnumber them. Do they really intend to fight? “Gilles! Do you think, perhaps, they want to talk rather than fight?”
“Is possible.” Guyot stroked his neatly trimmed beard; a few years before it had been black, but now it was streaked with gray. “But if they want to parley, why six ships? One would be enough. On the other hand, six is no match for twenty longships.” Suddenly he wheeled around and ran to Fair Wind’s stern. “By the gods! Clever bastards, they are!”
Eudes did not see at first the cause of Guyot’s imprecations. The captain was already shouting new commands to Vere De Fry. King Rudolf, Storm Cloud, Herminia, Gods’ Breath, Vengeance, Iron Bones, Queen Mariel, Victorious, Sea Booty, and Winter Wind were directed to attack the ships lying between the fleet and the harbor. The other longships, including Fair Wind, began peeling back, turning toward the nearer Tarquintian shore.
What is the matter? Eudes scanned the shore; he saw nothing. Then he noticed what looked like a wine cask floating on the ocean, then another, and then many of them, all gathered around the mouth of a tiny river that emptied into the sea six miles west of Inter Lucus. Moving quickly among the casks were little boats, like nothing Eudes had ever seen. “What are they?” Eudes shouted over the sound of oarsmen grunting in unison and the archers calling out to each other.
“Sea kayaks,” Gilles Guyot shouted back. “Little boats, low in the water, damned hard to see. One-man boats. But the danger is the barrels. You see? Is liquid fire, or I’m a fish!”
Eudes had heard stories about liquid fire, supposedly a weapon invented in Horatia, a landmass east and south of Tarquint. Eudes found it hard to believe all the claims made about liquid fire, that it could destroy whole ships in minutes, that it stuck to a man’s skin and could not be extinguished, that it could float on water and still burn, and that the secret for making it was a closely guarded secret. In fact, rumors said, in Horatia two sects of alchemists concocted the ingredients for the fire, and neither knew the proportions by which a third group mixed the fire. But if the stories were even half true, and if Tarquintians could make it, the implications were terrible.
He grabbed Guyot’s arm. “Liquid fire? Here?” If the Tarquintians could attack his supply line with liquid fire, how could he sustain a siege?
“Aye. Clever, they are. Six ships sail from Hyacintho Flumen; we see them; longships destroy them. Meanwhile the fire burns Mariel’s army.”
“And the sea kayaks will set them burning? How?”
Guyot shrugged his arm free from Eudes’s grip. “How it works, I know not. Some say water sets the fire alight; break barrel—fire! Lit by kayak men, maybe so. Fire spreads on ocean, lights other barrels.”
The rowing drum beat a fast rhythm and Fair Wind raced toward the barrels, but another longship, the Lady Avice, ran ahead of her. Most of the sea kayaks began retreating to the shallow water along the shore. On Eudes’s right, the Ice Queen turned into the surf, pursing the kayak men. When Ice Queen crunched into the gravelly beach, swordsmen leaped into water that reached their thighs, rushing ashore to chase the kayak men.
Directly ahead, the last kayak delayed its flight; the kayak warrior threw some projectile at the nearest barrel but missed. Lady Avice bore down on him, archers preparing to shoot. Still the kayak warrior would not flee. He used his oddly shaped double paddle to drive his tiny craft toward the barrel; coming alongside, he hit the barrel with something, maybe a hatchet.
The barrel exploded, throwing phosphorescent fire into the mid-day air. The warrior who ignited it was tossed across the surface of the sea, his tiny boat blazing. Eudes had seen thousands killed in battle, but not many by self-immolation. What did he hope to achieve? Glory? Rewards in the afterworld?
Liquid fire shot out from the barrel in every direction, but it fell short of the other barrels. Some of the devilish brew struck the side of Lady Avice, and it clung to her, burning and threatening to light the ship. Men threw water on the fire to no effect; panic began to spread. But then two quick thinking men brought out an extra sail—dry canvas—and blanketed the flames, lowering the sail like a patch on the side of the ship. Other men immediately joined the effort, helping to hold the canvas in place and beating the flames with oars.
Lady Avice altered course, bearing away from the barrels of liquid fire. Gilles Guyot ordered Fair Wind’s oarsmen to slow their speed. Floating islands of liquid fire dotted the surface of the sea, burning brightly, some of them dangerously close to other barrels. Shouting a stream of commands to the helmsman, Guyot maneuvered Fair Wind between the fire and the closest barrel. Experienced men, sailors and soldiers alike, tightened frightened grips on ropes and swords.
“Touch it not!” Guyot shouted. Eudes thought this was the most unnecessary command ever uttered. Grown men held their breath as the deadly canister passed within three yards of Fair Wind’s side. “Our wake will push it away!”
Fair Wind passed on. Looking back, Eudes saw Guyot was right. The ripples of their wake widened the gap between the barrel and the fire. Fair Wind came about. The islands of liquid fire were burning themselves out; the fleet had escaped one threat.
Signals flew from ship to ship, confirming what the captains had already concluded, that they should steer clear of the barrels floating on the tide. The wind from the south was steady in the fall, said Gilles Guyot; it would drive the barrels onto the shore.
To surround castle Hyacintho Flumen, Eudes had planned from the beginning to occupy land west and south of the castle. He had thought to take the town first and march from there. In any case, the bulk of his army had to go that way since the cogs needed proper docks. But he could not let opportunity slip through his fingers. Through signals to the other ships he commanded swordsmen from Lady Avice, Superior and Fair Wind to join those from Ice Queen who had already gone ashore, a force of about 160 men. He put Aewel Penda in command. “Make camp; set sentries; hold the mouth of that little river,” he ordered Aewel. “I don’t want any more kayaks launching from there. And collect as many barrels of liquid fire as you can.”
“My lord general? You wish us to keep them?”
“By the gods, I do! You don’t have to sleep with them, but I want them protected! Archard will relieve you in two days or less. I promise.”
Aewel saluted. “It will be done.”
From Eudes’s point of view, the other half of the battle was anti-climactic. By the time Fair Wind had deposited Aewel and his swordsmen on shore, all of whom had to wade through thigh deep ocean water, the battle in the harbor was over. King Rudolf, Storm Cloud, Herminia, Gods’ Breath, Vengeance, Iron Bones, Queen Mariel, Victorious, Sea Booty, and Winter Wind overwhelmed the six Tarquintian ships. Three were rammed and sunk. Three were boarded and captured. The cogs sailed unhindered into the harbor and tied up at docks already controlled by swordsmen from the longships. The town’s garrison surrendered as soon as the swordsmen leapt from longship to pier.
All told, the Herminians suffered 28 deaths. Herminia’s captains didn’t bother to count the losses of the Tarquintians, neither at sea or on land, which angered Eudes. The quartermaster general valued such information. One day’s triumph, he reminded his officers, did not end the war. Certainly not if the enemy could make liquid fire.
Eudes Ridere had use of the best bed in The Rose Petal, a fine inn. But he didn’t sleep well.
Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.