Chapter 45: Signs of Betrayal
Balaam locked his knees to counter the ship’s sway, but he stumbled on the deck as a large breaker hit the side of the vessel. The journey to the Amorite ship had been uneventful. A barge had met Ananias and the rest of Mariselle’s servants on the coast only a mile from where they parted ways. With a good deal of grunting and cursing and Ananias nearly falling into the wash, the barge was able to break loose from the shore’s rocky grip and sail around to the harbor side of the city. The vessel’s captain cursed in his Median dialect and seemed even less pleased at having to sail into a naval battle than Ananias was at fumbling in the barge.
“Sit yer arse’ down, fool!” the captain yelled at Ananias, “Like as not we’ll take cannon fire off the port and starboard, and I’m not getting paid to deliver corpses.”
Ananias quickly sat on a coil of rope.
“Not there, ya fool!” the captain barked again and Ananias instantly moved. The deckhands worked silently round the captain as he steered the scow into the fleet of Amorite vessels. Balaam watched in horror as blazing fireballs catapulted from the riggings of all of the Amorite ships in view and blasted the docks and high walls of the city. In the dim firelight, he could see figures on each vessel working with expert speed preparing the next barrage of heavy stones covered in pitch and set ablaze before they were sent flying. As the barge weaved in and out of the anchored ships, he counted their number - at least twenty - but it was not until they had reached the back of the blockade that he saw the true threat. A massive vessel, easily the size of three of the others combined, with four masts and three rows of cannons protruding from the ship’s side gun ports came into view. Upon the masthead was a horrific face that Balaam could only glance at before turning away. A crane line dropped down from the huge galleon and a platform was lowered onto the barge. Balaam was pushed onto it along with several barrels and Ananias clinging to the ropes for dear life.
The crew of the black galleon wore the same frightful masks as the soldiers attacking Gilead. Balaam wondered if it had some other purpose besides putting fear into their enemy’s hearts. Perhaps the men were scarred or the faceplates kept them from feeling shame as they ravaged their victims. As he peered at one of the deckhands, his attention was instantly drawn to midship. There, between the masts was an altar of bone, easily five feet high and adorned with gaudy finery and fabrics. A green iridescent haze floated just above it, and Balaam sensed something very evil was somehow watching him, the deckhands, everything, through the miasma.
He saw the deckhands move barrels from below deck to the lift. The barge that had ferried Balaam, quickly moved away as small landing boats came up alongside the ship waiting for the powder kegs to be lowered to them. The captain opened one of the barrels and studied it. Black powder ran through his fingers. He sealed it and moved it into position to be lifted out. Within a moment’s time, the crew had lowered the barrels into the skiff and another small boat pulled up.
Bastards are supplying the whole fleet with mortar explosives. Balaam thought and stepped aside as Ananias moved past him, At this rate, they’ll not run out for a week.
“Well, I have a report. Where is master Dagon?” Ananias questioned one of the deckhands. The sailor nodded behind the counselor and Ananias turned. Dagon’s imposing figure loomed over the little man, his fierce glare bore into Ananias’ skull, and the counselor pulled back.
“Is this all she sent?” Dagon asked as he peered at Balaam and the other cargo. Balaam looked down, for no other reason than to give the illusion he was as absentminded as any beast.
“Yes, well for now, but you’ll be happy to know she’s storming the city from the east and--” Ananias started.
“Where’s the boy?” Dagon interrupted.
“The boy?” Ananias asked.
Dagon’s eyes widened.
“Oh yes, of course, well, her highness fed him to the beast in Korah’s Maw. Your uh, messengers didn’t seem to think that was sure enough, despite her majesty’s assurances.”
Dagon clutched Ananias by his arms and pulled him to within an inch of his face. “Her assurances are worthless,” he whispered, “I wanted him alive and brought to me. You have no idea what she’s let loose. Your services are no longer needed.”
Dagon grabbed the advisor by his throat. Ananias’ eyes went wide as he gagged for breath. Dagon opened his mouth wide and black bile gushed out, splashing across Ananias’s face and forcing its way down his throat. Ananias shook violently as the putrid essence invaded his body and streamed from his ears and eyes. Finally, Dagon closed his mouth and released him. The advisor’s body collapsed like a wet rag onto the deck.
Dagon wiped the sludge from his lips and turned to the altar. He began muttering strange words over it. Balaam watched as the green haze grew and then, as if the air itself were being warped by heat, shimmered as a dark fog appeared. The mast twisted as the haze floated up next to it. Even the deckhands momentarily stopped their duties and took a step back. A hollow crack echoed across the sky and in a flash of light Mariselle fell from the haze onto the deck of the ship. She lay at Dagon’s feet for a moment before looking up.
“I should have you killed, but you’ll serve a purpose yet,” Dagon said.
Mariselle cowered at his words as she lay at his feet.
Dagon walked past her to the altar. “This was meant to be a brief engagement, and now I find my warriors are whittled away by half measures of a rallying army.”
Mariselle slowly stood and with uneasy steps, cradling her wounded hand, she moved next to the ancient sorcerer. “Sire, I can tell you they’re not nearly as well-armed or cunning as you might believe. Their gates are garrisoned by harmless civilians and . . .”
“You let their greatest asset escape.”
“The princess is a child, lord. She’s no threat,” Mariselle continued.
“The boy! Since the horn’s call I’ve sensed him hovering, like a fly in my ear. There is something to him, something I can’t put my finger on.”
“The boy?” Mariselle shook her head, “The boy is dead.”
“And the horn? The old man’s scroll? Do you have them?”
Mariselle swallowed. “Lord, the scroll was lost some time ago and the horn…well, it’s only a shell. A poorly made trifle. I could have a grander one made for you . . .”
“You have no idea what it is, nor the wrath that will be unleashed on both our heads if we fail to obtain it.” Dagon growled and moved past her to the ship’s railings. He pulled a long silver chain from around his neck, attached at the bottom was a black bone whistle. Dagon pursed it to his lips and played a single note.
Balaam’s eyes widened as he saw a green glow emanate from the saddlebags across his back and echo back.
Dagon spun around and scanned the deck. “No, could it be?” He moved past Balaam and ripped open one of the crates lying on the deck. “I heard it!”
Balaam backed away and peered around, soon there would be no hiding it, and nowhere to run. The whistle glistened in the moonlight as it dangled around the sorcerer’s neck. Dagon turned to face the donkey, a questioning glance spread across his face.
“Could it be?” He grasped the whistle once more.
Mariselle motioned to Dagon, “I told you I found nothing in the castle. I suspect Samuel kept them in his shack.”
Dagon dropped the whistle to his neck again and glanced back at her, scowling.
“When we march into the castle and slaughter the last of the resistance, I’ll have a dispatch find them,” Mariselle continued. “It should be easy enough. The civilians are harmless at best.”
Balaam saw his chance. He leaned forward and wrenched the whistle and its line from Dagon’s throat. Quickly he bit down on the piece and felt it shatter in his mouth before he tried to swallow it. The shards caught in his gullet and he threw them up in an instant.
Dagon spun around, “Damnable beast!” He kicked the mule aside and stared at the broken instrument, lying amidst the bile.
He moved back to the bone table, “Pray you’re right, woman. The Fallen One requires them and he gives far less grace than I do,” Dagon said as he moved past her. Mariselle glanced back at Ananias’ lifeless body and took a breath to steady herself.
“See now.” Dagon motioned towards the haze still hovering above the altar. Mariselle turned to study it. The green miasma formed a smoky circle in midair. Figures came into view through the haze as if they were looking through a cloudy glass. Balaam moved from his corner of the deck unnoticed. He slowly made his way around behind the sorcerer and saw in the green vapor the silhouettes of Absalom and Rustag as they positioned powder kegs among houses within the city.
“Your harmless civilians are about to spring a deadly trap on my warriors,” Dagon breathed as he watched the figures intently through the haze. “They will fail, of course.”
“How?” Mariselle asked.
Dagon turned to face her and smiled. “Because you will keep my men alive.” He pulled a curved bone-handled blade from his belt.
Mariselle backed away, “I’m your chosen, your w-wolf.”
“Every dog has its day,” Dagon smiled, “And now yours draws nigh.”