Chapter 54: Burning the Past
Alexandra winced as she watched Egan dodge a blade aimed at his neck. With a quick turn, he outmaneuvered his attacker and planted his sword into the man’s back. A hand grabbed her shoulder from behind and without thinking she elbowed her attacker in the face, knocking the sailor over the side railing. Avery guarded her flank, holding off two more men.
“This is insufferable, they’ll just keep coming!” Alexandra called to them.
Egan looked past the broken mast to the jib sail in the bow, it rustled loosely in the wind. He called to a sailor nearby, “Send a man to the jib line and make it taut, then go to the stern. Work the wheel as best you can, we have to dislodge from the galleon if we’re to target more ships.”
Egan turned to her. “The forward sail won’t bring us much closer but it may be enough to help dislodge us.”
Alexandra peered over the fighting men and across the railing to the high deck of the galleon. “I don’t see their commander, Dagon, but I have no doubts this is his vessel.”
“You’d be right!” A voice called out from the black galleon’s bow. She turned in time to see a donkey leap from the railings and crumple on the schooner’s deck before her.
“What in the nine hells?” Avery yelled, his mouth wide as he held his sword towards the beast.
Balaam shakily stood up onto all four hooves, his balance uneasy from the saddle and the pouch that still hung from his side.
“Balaam!” Alexandra ran to his side.
“Would you mind sticking that at the actual threat?” Balaam nodded at the sword.
“How are you even here? I sent you to find the boy!” She pulled his attention back.
“A fool’s errand to be sure since I got little more than a league outside of the city before I was captured,” Balaam replied. “I have no idea where our friend is, but you should know old green eyes may soon wake from my little kick, and he won’t be happy.”
“Dagon? So, he’s aboard?” Egan pressed the donkey.
“He is, but your greatest threat still lies in the city. Dagon used some sort of black magic, and those that fell are rising again to attack the king.”
“Does he live?” Alexandra asked.
“I can’t say, the glance I had of it all was cursory. But I’d wager if he does, he needs our help.”
Alexandra turned to Egan and pointed towards the boats lashed to the deck. “We should take these skiffs to shore. We can’t take down any more of their fleet. Let your men handle their crew!”
“I won’t leave soldiers behind,” Egan replied, “not again.”
She paused and surveyed the loyal men on the deck, leaving them here would mean their death. The old feeling of panic washed over her again. She had to choose and there were no easy answers. Are these the decisions father faced? I never understood.
The men turned their gaze to her and nodded, awaiting her command.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, but before she could continue. Five of them stepped forward.
“My lady, we will serve however you see fit.” One of the men said.
“No!” Egan took the man’s arm. “I can find another way. I’ll not have your blood on my conscience.”
Alexandra shook her head. “And what of your king? My father, your lord, is facing their entire legion in the streets. This isn’t a play at honor and I’m not asking you! Chief, set down the dinghies!”
Egan studied her face for a second and then nodded, “Yes, Your Highness.” He turned to Avery. “You and the men will have to make do.”
“Go then, Chief,” Avery saluted. “We’ll do our best to dislodge or at least scuttle the ship long enough to give you a window.”
Alexandra grimaced as she saw what remained. More of Dagon’s warriors had latched onto their vessel’s sides and were climbing to the railings. Soon they would be outnumbered. Other vessels in the fleet had changed their trajectory since the galleon had hit them. Still more ships were landing on the shores and unloading reinforcements. Whatever foothold Gilead had gained in the last hour they would soon lose.
Avery turned to Alexandra, “I will stay and fight my lady, but I fear it will make little difference.”
She knew he was right. Dagon’s forces on land and sea were unending. She felt as if she were standing on a crumbling sandcastle, defying the rising tide. She looked to the Lion’s Maw high above them. The last symbol of her home that had not been destroyed. Would it weather the destruction of their land? Would its mouth be silenced?
Mouth silenced. Shut the mouth.
Alexandra turned to Balaam. “Do you still carry the conch?”
Balaam snorted. “And the scroll, yes. Dagon was within mere inches of finding them but I improvised. You should know he was able to call to the horn until I ate his whistle. Samuel was right. I think there’s more to that old shell than we understand.”
“No doubt, but now is not the time to unlock its mysteries,” Alexandra looked back to Avery. “My father would give his life to protect Gilead and I must follow suit. We’ll move ahead but when you hear the horn’s call . . .” she nodded at the deck guns and then looked to the grand staircase, “do your duty as well. Fire all remaining cannons on the Lion’s Maw until it comes down on them.”
“My lady? What if you . . .”
“Do it!” She said without hesitation.
Egan and Avery quickly lowered the deck dinghy off the starboard side to the water below. Alexandra climbed down into it. Balaam was another matter and took few missteps before finally jumping into the little boat with a holler. Egan quickly followed and the three steered their boat away from the wrecked schooner. They watched from a growing distance as Avery rejoined his men fighting the attackers on the port side of the ship.
“He’ll be lucky if he can get to the cannons at all,” Balaam said as they neared the shore.
“Avery’s a survivor. He won’t fail us,” Egan replied as he paddled.
Amid the confusion of the battling ships, the trio was able to make their way to the sand without incident. Egan helped Balaam disembark after Alex jumped onto the shore. He pulled his blade from its sheath. The trio looked farther up the shoreline to the grand staircase at the base of the stairwell. Two platoons of warriors were forming at the water’s edge, helping to unload barrels and supplies from one of the corsairs.
“I ran from this spot only hours ago, now I scuttle by again,” Egan sighed and turned to the others. “Stick to the cliff walls and shadows as much you can.”
Within a few moments, they slipped by the warriors unnoticed and ran up the staircase. As they climbed the steps, Alexandra wondered if the terraces would become her tomb.