“There is nothing slower than a vessel under full sail carrying important news.”
Old seafarer’s proverb
Sitting on his bed, Jake loaded his pistol and primed the pan. His face was blank as if his mind and his body were in two different places. Numb to his surroundings. Noises in the street were muffled echoes of some far off place. Jake stared at the floor in front of him. Perhaps because Jake wasn’t really there, or maybe because the empty place where Brom’s bed had been reminded him that this was all real, Jake’s numb indifference slowly turned to a hard focus on the floorboards. His face twisted into a grimace. The woodgrain, nails, scuffs, cracks or gaps grew sharper as Jake tried to free his mind. Then something drew his attention to the left. He darted his intense gaze to it. Blood. Just a drop.
Amir entered, and cleared his throat, snapping his comrade back to reality. Jake realized his finger rested on the pistol’s trigger. It had been two days since the attack. The knights had constantly been alert, either pulling guard duty or attempting to sleep and Jake knew they were all weary.
“Jake,” Amir said softly. “Count Varro has called for a meeting with the town council. He wants all of us to be there.”
Nodding and slipping the pistol into his belt, Jake stood up and followed Amir outside and down the muddy street. A low roar radiated from the town hall as they approached. The town council had already entered and taken their seats, but a large crowd of colonists formed at the entrance. As word passed around about a war meeting, it was needless to say their interest was piqued.
Jake and Amir snaked through the thick crowd to the double doors. A large rectangular room with benches and chairs lining the long walls on either side waited inside. A balcony wrapped all the way around the top of the room, lined with whitewashed railings and full of colonists looking down. Light cascaded in through the tall windows. Clouds of tobacco smoke swirled in the sunbeams, making the air thick and pungent. Jake nodded cordially to Captain Albreight who stood beside his officers along the wall. Perhaps he did not recognize Jake because he did not react.
Magistrate Black, acting as the colony’s governor, stood at an elevated podium. He wore a black robe and a powdered wig with curls reaching far down his chest and back. He was a fat man, with a big barrel chest and a double chin. In his plump hand, he held a hardwood gavel.
“Order,” he said with a loud commanding voice, rapping the gavel and the room fell silent. “Are all your knights here, Count Varro?”
“Yes, my lord,” Varro said.
“Then let the meeting commence. The purpose of this meeting, ladies and gentlemen, is to discuss what further action should be taken upon our island to further defend our people and the horrible terror that has been contained in the cave. Will you address us first, Count?”
“I will,” Varro said, positioning himself in the center of the room. “Citizens of Delwhick, I have called this meeting to discuss what must take place in order to successfully defend this colony from the imminent invasion at the hands of Spratzian forces.”
“And may I ask what makes you believe an invasion is so imminent, my lord?” a tall man sitting at the left wall asked. “How do we know Spratze will come here again?”
“The Spratzians know what power lies in that cave. Emperor Cedric Leone and his warlocks know what power that place holds. I know what interest the Emperor holds for the occult. I am certain he believes he can control that evil and that is why I know they will try again. They will expend whatever resources they can to take that place by force and trample over us to achieve that. Worse, they will use it against the Brenarian colonies. We have no way of telling what word has made it back to the Emperor’s palace in LaRea. Spratzian operatives have gone undetected on the island for an unknown amount of time and therefore we must assume they did get word to the Spratzian capital.”
Jake became suddenly aware of Anna, who sat across the room from him. She hung her head and shrunk in her seat, attempting to avoid the attention that would surely come with the Count’s last remark.
“Why have we not sent a boat for reinforcements?” another man asked.
“The Marion sets sail tomorrow for that exact purpose,” Albreight announced proudly.
“Depending on how available additional troops are, we may expect a delay of several weeks before they arrive back here,” Varro said.
Jake remembered the last time they had called for aid. Admiral Kro had sent an alchemist. Ridiculous. What would he send now? A fortune teller?
“In the meantime, I propose we militarize the island. Activate local militias and fortify points of interest. The Spratzians will be here. There is no doubt they will bring all they can spare. Emperor Leone values his warlocks and we have already killed one on the island.”
“Lies,” the tall man shouted. The room erupted into objections and shouts. The knights stood and defended their Count with more shouts and anger.
Somewhere in the crowd, Jake thought he saw Brom. Stomach churning and aching, his gaze darted from face to face, but no Brom. Must have been nothing.
“I will have order,” the magistrate yelled, slamming his gavel down several times. The room fell silent again.
Another angry man stood and shouted through cupped hands, “No such thing as warlocks.”
“Ancient superstition,” a woman called down from the balcony above.
“We will not be governed by an occupying military presence,” a sharp-dressed, young man spoke over the others.
“Here here,” several others agreed.
“We must not entertain the delusions of witch hunters and monster slayers,” the young man continued. “That’s right, Count Varro. History has not forgotten why the Order of Apollo was formed in the first place. We will not take part in you making your ancient order feel relevant again at the cost of our people. Let the Spratzians have the cave. Save ourselves the trouble.”
Argot DeRothe pushed his way to the young man like a barge plowing through the sea. He bumped him with his barrel chest, almost knocking him over.
“Who better t’ kill monsters an’ fight evil than the Order of Apollo?” Argot fumed as he jabbed the young man with his thick finger. He refused to look Argot in the eye and shrunk in front of him. “Smart man, are ye’? Too smart t’ believe en monsters, I’m guessin’. Ha’ ye’ forgotten already the hairy beast tha’ was dragged through town? How ‘bout the massive man who had been dead fo’ years jus’ poppin’ out o’ the grave t’ terrorize some farmers?”
Argot took a deep breath and addressed the rest of the crowd in his booming voice. “Ha’ ye’ forgotten my miners already, killed en their sleep an’ invaded by parasites from some nightmare? Witch hunters and monster slayers are all ye’ got right now an’ I think we’re better fo’ it. If they can kill these evil things, they can help us hol’ fast agains’ Spratze. Wake up, all o’ ye’. These boys need our help t’ keep this evil from the rest o’ the world. Man up, grab yer guns and fight. If ye’ won’t, get on a boat an’ get off the island. Yer dead weight anyway.”
Several uneasy moments passed as the colonists measured their own metal. In that moment, Jake suspected each asked themselves if they should stay and fight for their home, or flee. Most did not have anywhere to run too. Delwhick was their home. Some walked out, right then, the pompous young man included.
“We require the full cooperation of the colonists in order to construct more defenses and to man those defenses.” Varro paused for a moment and took a breath before continuing. “We also require the complete and detailed defense plan to remain with my men and me alone if we can ever hope to survive this.”
“You expect us to hand over control of the island to you and we may not even hear how our families are being kept safe? The Order of Apollo are witch hunters.” The tall man spoke out again. This time the room did not erupt into disorder.
“The reason for the secrecy is that we have no way of knowing how many spies we still have among us. By keeping the overview of our defenses secret, we have a greater chance of survival.”
“You have used the word survive twice, Count Varro.” Anna rose from where she sat behind several large men.
She had determination frozen on her face. Her love for this island and her people had trumped her shame and grief. Jake envied her.
“Is this the war on our doorstep or have they come to slaughter us all in their quest for power?” she continued.
“We have no way of telling, Miss Crane,” Varro responded. “I admit, it seems hopeless at this point. Which is why we must stand together and put forth all our efforts to repel the attack. Based on the history of previous Spratzian campaigns, we can expect to get the same treatment if we throw down our arms as we would if we stand and fight. More often than not, the men will be executed, the children will be enslaved and the women will pray for death. This is why we must not even give them the opportunity. Let us not trust the Spratzian army with our fate.”
Anna lowered her eyes. Jake could tell she knew it was true. The Spratzian Army burned, raped and pillaged.
“I know you all have fears of what lies ahead. Fears for your families, for your colony, and for your country. Some of you may lay down your very lives to save those you love from a much worse fate. You must cast these fears aside and focus on the task at hand. We all have a part to play. Mine may be to die in the service of our country and the gods. If my life is asked of me, I assure you, my slayer and those around him will join me on our journey to the afterlife.”
“There is another option,” the tall man announced. “We can still run and save ourselves.”
The room erupted once more. Count Varro lifted his hands to signal for silence. To Jake’s surprise, the crowd quieted.
“In most combat scenarios, one may have the options of fight or flight. We, however, do not have the luxury of the latter. For if we fly from this place, we surrender possibly the most powerful force in this world into the hands of our enemies. We must hold here and face our adversaries head-on.”
Count Varro lifted his chin and let his words sink in for a moment.
“Let us put it to a vote,” the magistrate announced. “All those in favor of placing full command in the hands of Count Varro, say aye.”
Twelve votes in favor of the motion.
“All those opposed, say nay.”
Six votes opposed to the motion.
“The ayes have it. Very well, Count Varro, you have our full cooperation. Gods be with us.” Magistrate Black slammed his gavel once and the meeting was adjourned.
On the ground floor of the blockhouse, the knights assembled to compile their defense plan. Master Salvo sat at the desk with a stack of blank paper and a map of the island laid out in front of him. To his right stood Count Varro. All around the room, Varro’s knights sat eager to contribute their thoughts, except Jake. He sat in the corner, cocking and de-cocking the frizzen on his pistol, eyes glued to the dirt floor. Dogwa elbowed him and Jake lifted his gaze sharply as if he had been there the whole time.
“The enemy will first try to cut off our supplies,” Varro said. “Without any regular army garrison or naval presence, we are already low on gunpowder and munitions. We have stripped what guns, ammo and powder we could from any merchant vessel in port. We have also discovered that the late Governor Bradford had been stockpiling powder. He was most likely skimming some off the top with each export to sell on the side for his own profit. Those supplies are safely stored in the Bradford warehouse in Adeline. He has no more use for them so we will use them to train the militia and to use in our defense. I have placed a constant marine guard there. They are armed but in plain clothes so as to not tip any prying eyes as to the importance of that warehouse. Still, the supplies should be moved and divided as soon as possible.”
Salvo transcribed his words as he spoke. The knights nodded in agreement. Splitting up the powder reserves would be the safest way to keep them from saboteurs.
“If Spratze does what I would do, they will first set up a blockade on the bay, cutting off the supply route. Like I said, we will have plenty of ammunition and powder. What worries me is the lack of food produced on the island. Most of the food is shipped in. The scattered farms and ranches may only produce enough to last us a week or so. Most of the crops have already been harvested and stored. We need to take account of how much we have in store. I will leave that to you, Master Salvo.”
Salvo nodded as he wrote.
“They will try to land their troops on the beach inside the bay. The rest of the island’s coastline is made up of sheer cliffs and muddy swamps. We will place several cannon, mortars, and howitzers at the top of the northern cliffs bordering the bay to bombard any landing craft.”
“We have no heavy artillery. Can we make howitzers?” Amir asked.
“Yes, we will collect any bronze we can get our hands on, bells, and whatever the Marion can spare before we send her out for reinforcements. I will place you, Amir, in charge of that operation. The blacksmiths in town should be able to smelt and cast the cannons. Once they are made you must train crews of three men to operate them.”
“Will do,” Amir said. “We will also cast shells from tableware and whatever else is lying around.”
“Very good,” Salvo said, not lifting his eyes from the paper as he wrote.
“On the beach, we will set up minor defenses. Just enough to make it difficult to get to dry land. With minimum fortifications it will allow us to sweep our cavalry from the north, pushing their infantry into the village.”
“Into the village?” Jorn asked.
“Yes,” Varro said. “The building will provide us with cover and concealment. Our first real line of defense will be positioned there. Road blocks, skirmishers, and ambushes.”
“Guerilla tactics,” Dogwa said. “Much damage can be caused by so few.”
Varro nodded deeply to Dogwa. Jake could imagine a hint of what dirty tricks the two could come up with.
“While they are held at the beach and in the village, the artillery will fall back to their next position here at the blockhouse. This will be our second layer of defense complete with trenches, barricades, and barrels of powder buried in the hillside. As they advance up the hill, we will light the fuses and hopefully keep them at a distance suitable for the artillery to rain on them. Dogwa, I need you to oversee the booby trap placement with the help of Mister DeRothe.”
“In the village too?” Dogwa asked.
“No explosives in town but do what you must,” Varro replied.
“We must have an aid station set up in the blockhouse to tend the wounded,” Jake suggested.
“Yes,” Varro agreed. “The local doctor will be in charge of that.”
“We must also fortify the monastery to the north,” Jorn said. “If they decide to land in the swamps, that will be a key point of defense.”
“Agreed,” Varro said. “Unfortunately we will have to split our forces. Once the village is taken, however, the personnel in the monastery must fall back. If they are under fire, they must perform a fighting retreat along the marsh road to the blockhouse so they are not cut off.”
“We might be able to cover them with the artillery,” Amir said.
“If they push us from our position here at the Blockhouse, we will destroy the howitzers and fall back to our final defensive position: the cave here.”
Varro pointed on the map and paused for a moment. The knights shifted uneasily in their chairs. Just the mention of that place made Jake’s hair stand on end. He thought for a moment that he could hear the voices. He tried to focus but could not hear them again. Perhaps he hadn’t heard them at all.
“We will construct walls using the surrounding forest, dig trenches and set up more booby traps from one side of the gorge to the other. Swivel guns will be mounted on thick bunkers. Towers will be constructed for sharp shooters. Jake, I need you to train as many men as you can to use a musket or rifle accurately and quickly.”
Jake nodded. He was a great shot, but Count Varro had placed a lot of faith in Jake’s ability to teach. Doubt filled Jake’s mind. Brom would have been a better teacher.
“If someone dies near any of you with a rifle in his hands, take it to the next fallback point. Leave the muskets behind.”
Those words felt heavy in Jake’s ears. He glanced around and he could tell the rest felt them too. Take the rifles. Leave the muskets. This also meant: leave the dead. Then Jake realized Count Varro expected losses. Maybe total losses. He could read it in his eyes, past his stoic determination. He doubted their success, perhaps their survival.
“A camp will be set up behind the cave, further up the mountain for the children. We will need the women to be running water, provisions, and ammunition to the fighters. Margaret, I need you to brief them on their duties. I don’t mean to assign you so lightly, but I feel they would listen to you easier.”
“I understand,” Margaret said. “Hearing all this might be easier from a woman.”
“Could you find one for us?” Amir said.
Margaret kicked the back of his chair and the knights shared a much-needed laugh. Even Jake felt the corners of his mouth curl up. Once the knights calmed down again, Varro regained his serious tone.
“Those who have not been assigned a task will oversee the construction of the battlements. Those who have completed their task will do the same. We must constantly improve our battlements until the attack has begun. In order for our layered defense to work, we must hold each position until just before we are overrun, before falling back to the next position. We will use flags and runners to communicate.”
“When the reinforcements arrive, where will they land?” Jake asked.
“If they come before the monastery falls they must land in the swamps. Pray they make it before we lose that position. Otherwise, they will have to retake the beach.”
The sun peeked over the eastern horizon. The brilliant orange orb illuminated the green water and the twelve ships-of-the-line forming a blockade at the mouth of the bay. Jake shuddered as he looked out at their twelve Spratzian flags flapping in the cool morning breeze. They had arrived in the night, much sooner than expected.
All around him, preparations were being made for the defense of the island. Trenches were dug, barricades erected and booby traps set. The distant popping of musket fire was just audible over the banging of hammers, calls, and shouts. The trainees were inaccurate and slow on their reloads. Dogwa had taken over their supervision so Jake could get away for a moment.
Amir stood on the docks with Captain Albreight supervising the removal and transportation of excess cannon from the Marion. These were being brought up the hill to be staged with those cannons already taken from the Albatross. Jake walked to the edge of the dock and pulled Amir aside as he passed.
“They will need every gun if the Marion is to get through that blockade,” Jake said in a low tone.
“You are right, Mister Zimmar,” Varro said from behind them.
Jake hadn’t noticed him there. The Count strode past Amir and Jake and approached Captain Albreight from behind as he oversaw the cannon being taken away.
“It is too late to get the distress call out,” Varro said. “Stand your men down.”
“Preparations continue, Count,” Albright retorted. “I will leave all my marines with you but retain my entire crew to operate the rigging and the cannon we have left. You may have the remainder of our ammunition. After this evening, no ship in the Spratzian navy will be able to catch us.”
“Perhaps you did not hear me, Damien. I am asking you as a friend to stand your men down. You can’t punch through their blockade. You will surely be sunk. You will be captured or killed. You can’t outrun their guns.”
“And if we stay here, we will all surely die and the well will fall into the hands of the Spratzians. I am asking you not to give me or my men orders. That power still lies with me. Please, Dante, as a friend, trust me. Those slow Spratzian men-o-war will not know how to react to what I have in store.”
Varro nodded and patted Albreight’s shoulder. “Then I may only wish you good luck and a speedy journey.”
The Marion floated out into the middle of the wide bay. Her crew scurried over the deck making preparations for some extreme maneuvers. The crew below decks made preparations of their own. They loaded the cannons and drew them to their gun ports. Others took doors off their hinges and removed hammocks and crates from the gun deck. The surgeon and a few assistants scattered a fine layer of sand and sawdust on the floorboards so the crew would not lose their footing should the floor be slick with blood.
Captain Albreight himself stood tall at the helm with his large feathered hat worn proudly. The ship crept forward, hardly making progress across the choppy waters although she had plenty of wind to use. The captain had ordered the sails to be drawn in. With no wind power whatsoever, their slow progress drifted to a halt.
The swells had begun to push them backward as one of the Spratzian ships coasted out to meet them. As the much larger man-o-war drew close its captain stood on its bow with a long cone. Albreight checked the sun’s position over his shoulder. It was low in the sky, about to disappear behind the island’s few mountains.
“Brenarian vessel,” the Spratzian captain spoke into his cone with a thick accent. “Surrender now and your crew will be spared.”
Albreight could feel the wind on the back of his neck. It had changed, making the conditions perfect for him to carry out his plan. The time had come. The Spratzian vessels in the blockade shifted their bows north to cut the Marion off as she made a run directly to the mainland. Albreight was hoping for this.
“Now,” he called, and his men snapped into action. The sails dropped and instantly inflated as Albreight turned the helm all the way to port. The Marion swept behind the man-o-war that had met them in the bay. The Spratzian gun crews fired their guns in a sloppy volley. They were obviously ill-prepared for such a daring maneuver.
Incoming shells tore through the Marion’s lower decks sporadically. Albreight suspected some crew was wounded but the attack failed to inflict any real damage to the vessel’s hull.
“Fire!” Albreight yelled over the commotion.
Officers echoed the order and the Marion’s gun crews fired the starboard side guns, completely disabling the enemy’s rudder. They cheered as they left the disabled ship in the bay.
Charging the northern end of the blockade, the Marion sped over the choppy water, now using all the wind she had sail for. Just before the Marion entered the enemies’ gun range, however, Albreight turned the helm all the way to starboard while barking orders to his rigging crew.
The Marion made the turn almost instantly and set off in her now southern heading. The clumsy Spratzian vessels bunched up at the northern end of the bay, thinning the line and leaving only one ship to cover the south. The men-o-war began their sluggish turns to match the Marion’s heading.
Albreight glanced back and forth between the enemy vessels on a parallel heading to the Marion and the sun, dipping behind the mountains on the south end of the island.
Three ships pulled into gun range and began firing broadside bombardments. Several balls ripped through the Marion’s hull and rigging. Wounded sailors called out in agony. The ship’s timber exploded into deadly shrapnel with each strike. One sailor was unlucky enough to be hit directly. The shell punched through him, swept him off his feet and threw him into the ocean below.
The captain’s palms grew sweaty as he waited for the precise instant to reveal the rest of his risky trick. His gun crews aimed for the enemy’s masts and scored several hits, felling three of them. One ship was brought to a complete halt as its mast fell into the water, anchoring it. Another lost its secondary mast and was able to cut it free, but it did not have enough sail to keep up and was left behind. Only one vessel remained between the Marion and the open sea.
Finally, they had reached the southernmost end of the island and the mountains were no longer blocking the intensity of the setting sun.
“All stop!” Albreight ordered. “Sheet in.”
The crew pulled the sails in so no wind pushed the Marion. She coasted for a moment as the stunned and blinded Spratzian vessel passed by.
“Sheet out,” Albreight commanded with a smile. “Shift colors.”
The pennant signaling a moored vessel was brought down as several crew members ran up the pennant signaling a vessel underway. Albreight’s way of taunting the Spratzians. The crew dropped the Marion’s sails again and Albright turned the helm to port. The starboard gun crew fired, raking the enemy vessel. Their rounds punched through the delicate stern and tore through the entire length of the much larger man-o-war.
With the Spratzian vessel’s rudder shredded, the Marion was clear to head out to sea, making a wide arc northward to avoid the cumbersome blockade ships.
Standing on the cliffs just north of the bay, the knights watched nervously as the Marion made her way northward, well out of range of the enemy’s guns. When they realized the ship was out of any harm and speeding to the mainland, they cheered loudly. Jake let out a sigh of relief. One by one the knights returned to their preparations.
Count Varro headed down the hill to where Jake continued marksman training, just as Master Salvo and Argot DeRothe approached from a different direction. Argot carried a small crate on his shoulder.
“Count Varro,” Salvo called. “We have uncovered something rather interesting.”
“What is it?” the Count asked.
Argot set the crate down roughly and Salvo winced as if it caused him physical pain. “Be gentle with that.”
Prying the lid off, Argot revealed twelve cast iron balls with fuses sticking out the tops.
“Hand grenades,” Salvo said with a satisfied grin. “It appears our late Governor Bradford had been stockpiling these as well. There are dozens of stacks of these crates in his warehouse.”
“Excellent work,” Varro said, returning the smile. “These will be invaluable for our defense efforts. Mister DeRothe, if you would be so kind to use the remainder of your explosives in the booby traps. Leave none to be thrown as planned. We have plenty of that now.”
“Right away,” DeRothe said with a wide grin under his thick mustache. “More trouble fo’ the Spratzians. Comin’ right up.”