Ships From The West Monarchies of God Book 5 Paul Kearney ? For Peter Talbot ? Acknowledgements to: John McLaughlin and Jo Fletcher, for their enormous patience. ?
Year of the Saint 561
Richard Hawkwood hauled himself out of the gutter whence the crowds had deposited him, andviciously shoved his way through the cheering throng, stamping on feet, elbowing right and leftand glaring wildly at all who met his eye. Cattle. God-damned cattle.
He found a backwater of sorts, an eddy of calm in the lee of a tall house, and there paused tocatch his breath. The cheering was deafening, and en masse the humble folk of Abrusio were nonetoo fragrant. He wiped sweat from his eyelids. The crowd erupted into a roar and now from thecobbled roadway there came the clatter of hooves. A blast of trumpets and the cadence of bootedfeet marching in time. Hawkwood ran his fingers through his beard. God’s blood, but he neededa drink.
Some enthusiastic fools were throwing rose petals from upper windows. Hawkwood could justglimpse the open barouche through the crowds, the glint of silver on the grey head within, andbeside it a brief blaze of glorious russet hair shot through with amber beads. That was it. Thesoldiers tramped on in the raucous heat, the barouche trundled away, and the crowd’s frenzywinked out like a pinched candle flame.The broad street seemed to unclench itself as men andwomen dispersed, and the usual street cries of Abrusio’s Lower City began again. Hawkwood feltfor his purse - still there, although as withered as an old woman’s dugs. A lonely pair ofcoins twisted and clinked under his fingers. Enough for a bottle of the Narboskim at any rate.He was due at the Helmsman soon. They knew him there. He wiped his mouth and set off, a spare,haggard figure in a longshoreman’s jerkin and sailor’s breeks, his face nut-brown above thegrizzled beard. He was forty-eight years old.
‘Seventeen years,’ Milo, the innkeeper, said. ‘Who’d have thought he’d last so long? Godbless him, I say.’
A rumble of slurred but cheerful assent from the men gathered about the Helmsman’s tables.Hawkwood sipped his brandy in silence. Was it really that long? The years winked past soquickly now, and yet this time he had on his hands here, in places like this - the present - itseemed to stretch out unendingly. Bleary voices, dust dancing in the sunlight. The glare of theday fettered in the burning heart of a wineglass.
Abeleyn IV, son of Bleyn, King of Hebrion by the Grace of God. Where had Hawkwood been the daythe boy-king was crowned? Ah, of course. At sea. Those had been the years of the Macassar Run,when he and Julius Albak and Billerand and Haukal had made a tidy sum in the Malacars. Heremembered sailing into Rovenan of the Corsairs as bold as brass, all the guns run out and theslow-match smoking about the deck. The tense haggling, giving way to a roaring good fellowshipwhen the Corsairs had finally agreed upon their percentage. Honourable men, in their own way.
That, Hawkwood told himself, had been living, the only true life for a man. The heave and creakof a living ship under one’s feet - answerable to no one, with the whole wide world to roam.
Except that he no longer had that hankering to roam. The life of a mariner had lost much of itsshine in the past decade, something he found hard to admit, even to himself, but which he knewto be true. Like an amputated limb which had finally ceased its phantom itching.
Which reminded him why he was here. He swallowed back the foul brandy and poured himself somemore, wincing. Narboskim gut-rot. The first thing he would do after - after today would be tobuy a bottle of Fimbrian.
What to do with the money? It could be a tidy sum. Maybe he’d ask Galliardo about investingit. Or maybe he’d just buy himself a brisk, well-found cutter, and take off to the Levangore.Or join the damned Corsairs, why not.
He knew he would do none of these things. It was a bitter gift of middle age, self-knowledge.It withered away the damn fool dreams and ambitions of youth leaving so-called wisdom in itswake. To a soul tired of making mistakes it sometimes seemed to close every door and shutterevery window in the mind’s eye. Hawkwood gazed into his glass, and smiled. I am become asodden philosopher, he thought, the brandy loosening up his brain at last.
‘Hawkwood? It is Captain Hawkwood, is it not?’ A plump, sweaty hand thrust itself intoHawkwood’s vision. He shook it automatically, grimacing at the slimy perspiration which suckedat his palm.
‘That’s me. You, I take it, are Grobus.’
A fat man sat down opposite him. He reeked of perfume, and gold rings dragged down hisearlobes. A yard behind him stood another, this one broad-shouldered and thuggish, watchful.
‘You’ve no need of a bodyguard here, Grobus. No one who asks for me has any trouble.’
‘One cannot be too careful.’ The fat man clicked his fingers at the frowning innkeeper. ‘Abottle of Candelarian, my man, and two glasses - clean ones, mind.’ He dabbed his temples witha lace handkerchief.
‘Well, Captain, I believe we may come to an arrangement. I have spoken to my partner and wehave hit upon a suitable sum.’ A coil of paper was produced from Grobus’s sleeve. ‘I trustyou will find it satisfactory.’
Hawkwood looked at the number written thereon, and his face did not change.
‘You’re in jest, of course.’
‘Oh no, I assure you. This is a fair price. After all—’
‘It might be a fair price for a worm-eaten rowboat, not for a high-seas carrack.’
‘If you will allow me, Captain, I must point out that the Osprey has been nowhere near the
high seas for some eight years now. Her entire hull is bored through and through with teredo,and most of her masts and yards are long since gone. We are talking of a harbour hulk here, amere shell of a ship.’
‘What do you intend to do with her?’ Hawkwood asked, staring into his glass again. He soundedtired. The coil of paper he left untouched on the table between them.
‘There is nothing for it but the breaker’s yard. Her interior timbers are still whole, herribs, knees and suchlike sound as a bell. But she is not worth refitting. The navy yard hasalready expressed an interest.’
Hawkwood raised his head, but his eyes were blank and sightless. The innkeeper arrived with theCandelarian, popped the cork and poured two goblets of the fine wine. The Wine of Ships, as itwas known. Grobus sipped at his, watching Hawkwood with a mixture of wariness and puzzlement.
‘That ship has sailed beyond the knowledge of geographers’, Hawkwood said at last. ‘She hasdropped anchor in lands hitherto unknown to man. I will not have her broken up.’
Grobus pinched wine from his upper lip. ‘If you will forgive me, Captain, you do not have anychoice. A multitude of heroic myths may surround the Osprey and yourself, but myth does not
plump out a flaccid purse - or fill a wine glass for that matter. You already owe a fortune inharbour fees. Even Galliardo di Ponera cannot help you with them any more. If you accept myoffer you will clear your debts and have a little left over for your - for your retirement. Itis a fair offer I am making, and—’
‘Your offer is refused’, Hawkwood said abruptly, rising. ‘I am sorry to have wasted yourtime, Grobus. As of this moment, the Osprey is no longer for sale.’
‘Captain, you must see sense—’
But Hawkwood was already striding out of the inn, the bottle of Candelarian swinging from onehand.
A multitude of heroic myths. Is that what they were? For Hawkwood they were the stuff of
shrieking nightmare, images which the passing of ten years had hardly dulled.
A slug from the neck of the bottle. He closed his eyes gratefully for the warmth of it. My, howthe world had changed - some things, anyway.
was moored fore and aft to anchored buoys in the Outer Roads. It was a fair pull inHis Osprey
a skiff, but at least here he was alone, and the motion of the swell was like a lullaby. Thosefamiliar stinks of tar and salt and wood and seawater. But his ship was a mastless hulk, heryards sold off one by one and year by year to pay for her mooring rent. A stake in a freightingventure some five years before had swallowed up what savings Hawkwood had possessed, and Muradhad done the rest.
He thought of the times on that terrible journey in the west when he had stood guard over Muradin the night. How easy murder would have been back then. But now the scarred nobleman moved ina different world, one of the great of the land, and Hawkwood was nothing but dust at his feet.
Seagulls scrabbling on the deck above his head. They had covered it with guano too hard anddeep to be cleared away. Hawkwood looked out of the wide windows of the stern cabin withinwhich he sat - these at least he had not sold -and stared landwards at Abrusio rising up out ofthe sea, shrouded in her own smog, garlanded with the masts of ships, crowned by fortresses andpalaces. He raised the bottle to her, the old whore, and drank some more, setting his feet onthe heavy fixed table and clinking aside the rusted, broad-bladed hangar thereon. He kept ithere for the rats— they grew fractious and impertinent sometimes - and also for the odd ship-stripper who might have the stamina to scull out this far. Not that there was much left tostrip.
That scrabbling again on the deck above. Hawkwood glared at it irritably but another swallow ofthe good wine eased his nerves. The sun was going down, turning the swell into a saffron blaze.He watched the slow progress of a merchant caravel, square-rigged, as it sailed close-hauledinto the Inner Roads with the breeze - what there was of it - hard on the starboard bow.They’d be half the night putting into port at that rate. Why hadn’t the fool sent up hislateen yards?
Steps on the companionway. Hawkwood started, set down the bottle, reached clumsily for thesword, but by then the cabin door was already open, and a cloaked figure in a broad-brimmed hatwas stepping over the storm sill.
‘Who in the hell are you?’
‘We met a few times, years ago now.’ The hat was doffed, revealing an entirely bald head, twodark, humane eyes set in an ivory-pale face. ‘And you came to my tower once, to help a mutualfriend.’
Hawkwood sank back in his chair. ‘Golophin, of course. I know you now. The years have beenkind. You look younger than when I last saw you.’
One beetling eyebrow raised fractionally. ‘Indeed. Ah, Candelarian. May I?’
‘If you don’t mind sharing the neck of a bottle with a commoner.’
Golophin took a practised swig. ‘Excellent. I am glad to see your circumstances are notreduced in every respect, Captain.’
‘You sailed out here? I heard no boat hook on.’
‘I got here under my own power, you might say.’
‘Well, there’s a stool by the bulkhead behind you. You’ll get a crick in your neck if youstoop like that much longer.’
‘My thanks. The bowels of ships were never built with gangling wretches like myself in mind.’
They sat passing the bottle back and forth companionably enough, staring out at the death ofthe day and the caravel’s slow progress towards the Inner Roads. Abrusio came to twinklinglife before them, until at last it was a looming shadow lit by half a million yellow lights,and the stars were shamed into insignificance.
The lees of the wine at last. Hawkwood kissed the side of the bottle and tossed it in a cornerto clink with its empty fellows. Golophin had lit a pale clay pipe and was puffing it withevident enjoyment. Finally he thumbed down the bowl and broke the silence.
‘You seem a remarkably incurious man, Captain, if I may say so.’
Hawkwood stared out the stern windows as before. ‘Curiosity as a quality is overrated.’
‘I agree, though it can lead to the uncovering of useful knowledge, on occasion. You arebankrupt I hear, or within a stone’s cast of it.’
‘Port gossip travels far.’
‘This ship is something of a maritime curiosity.’
‘As am I.’
‘Yes. I had no idea of the hatred Lord Murad bears for you, though you may not believe that.He has been busy, these last few years.’
Hawkwood turned. He was a black silhouette against the brighter water shifting behind him, andthe last red rays of the sun had touched the waves with blood.
‘You should not have refused the reward the King offered. Had you taken it, Murad’smalignance would have been hampered at least. But instead he has had free rein these last tenyears to make sure that your every venture fails. If one must have powerful enemies, Captain,one should not spurn powerful friends.’
‘Golophin, you did not come here to offer me half-baked truisms or old wives’ wisdom. What doyou want?’
The wizard laughed and studied the blackened leaf in his pipe. ‘Fair enough. I want you toenter the King’s service.’
Taken aback, Hawkwood asked, ‘Why?’
‘Because kings need friends too, and you are too valuable a man to let crawl into the neck ofa bottle.’
‘How very altruistic of you’, Hawkwood snarled, but his anger seemed somehow hollow.
‘Not at all. Hebrion, whether you choose to admit it or no, is in your debt, as is the King.And you helped a friend of mine at one time, which sets me in your debt also.’
‘The world would be a better place if I had not bothered.’
‘Perhaps.’ There was a pause. Then Hawkwood said quietly, ‘He was my friend too.’
The light had gone, and now the cabin was in darkness save for a slight phosphorescence fromthe water beyond the stern windows.
‘I am not the man I was, Golophin’, Hawkwood whispered. ‘I am become afraid of the sea.’
‘We are none of us what we were, but you are still the master mariner who brought his shipback from the greatest voyage in recorded history. It is not the sea you fear, Richard, but thethings you found dwelling on the other side of it. Those things are here, now. You are one of aselect few who have encountered them and lived. Hebrion has need of you.’
A strangled laugh. I am a withered stick for Hebrion to lean on, to be sure. What service hadyou and the King in mind? Royal Doorkeeper, or Master of the Royal Rowboat perhaps.’
‘We want you to design ships for the Hebrian navy, along the lines of the Osprey here. Fast,
weatherly ships which can carry many guns. New sail plans and new yards.’
Hawkwood was speechless for a while. ‘Why now?’ he asked at last. ‘What has happened?’
‘Yesterday the arch-mage Aruan, whom you and I know, was proclaimed Vicar-General of theInceptine Order here in Normannia. His first act in office was to announce the creation of anew military order. Though it is not generally known, I have been able to find out that thisnew body is to be composed entirely of mages and shifters. He calls them the "Hounds of God".’
‘Saint in heaven!’
‘What we want you to do, Captain, is to help prepare Hebrion for war.’
‘What war is that?’
‘One which is to be fought very soon. Not this year perhaps, but within the next few. A battlefor mastery of this continent. No man will be unaffected by it - nor will any man be able toignore it.’
‘Unless he drinks himself to death first.’ Golophin nodded sombrely. ‘There is that.’
‘So I am to help you prepare for some great struggle with the warlocks and werewolves of theworld. And in return—’
‘In return you will attain a high position in the navy, and at court, I promise you.’
‘What of Murad? He won’t like my . . . elevation.’
‘Murad will do as he’s told.’
‘And his wife?’
‘What of her?’
‘Nothing. No matter. I will do it, Golophin. For this I’ll crawl out of that bottle.’
The wizard’s grin shone in the gloom of the cabin. ‘I knew you would. How very fortunate thatGrobus offered so paltry a price today. We will have need of the Gabrian Osprey. She is to be
the prototype for a new fleet.’
‘You knew of that. You had a hand—’
Nothing changes, Hawkwood thought. The nobility have sudden need of you, so they pluck you outof the gutter, peer at the disappointed little life they pinch twisting between their fingers,and set it down on their great gaming board where it can be put to use. Well this pawn has itsown rules.
‘It’s dark as pitch in here. Let me light a lantern.’ Hawk-wood fumbled for his tinderboxand after striking flint and steel a dozen times was able to coax into life a ship’s lanternwhich still had some oil in its well. The thick glass was cracked, but that was of no moment.Its yellow kindly light illuminated the creviced features of the wizard opposite and blackedout the sea astern.
‘So may I expect you at the gate of Admiral’s Tower tomorrow morning?’ Golophin asked.
Hawkwood nodded assent.
‘Excellent.’ The mage tossed a small doeskin bag on the table that clinked heavily. ‘Anadvance on your wages. You might want to outfit yourself with a new wardrobe. Quarters will bearranged in the tower.’
‘Will be arranged, or have been arranged?’
Golophin rose and donned his hat. ‘Until tomorrow then, Captain,’ and he held out a hand.
Hawkwood shook it, rising in turn. His face was a stiff mask. Golophin turned to go, and thenhalted. ‘It is no bad thing when personal inclination and the dictates of policy go together,Captain. We need you, it is true, but I for one am glad to have you besides. The court is fullof well-bred snakes. The King has need of one or two honest men around him too.’
He left, stooping as he entered the companionway. Hawkwood listened to him stride forward tothe waist, and then there was that scrabbling seagull on deck again, and then silence.
Later, he lay on his oars a cable’s length from the Osprey and watched her burn. Somehow the
ship reclaimed some of her old beauty as the flames swept up from her decks and roared brightand blazing into the night sky. The fire reflected wet and shining from his eyes and he satwatching until she had burned down to the waterline and the sea began rushing in to quench theinferno. A hissing of steam, and then a murmuring gurgle as what was left of her hull turnedover and sank beneath the waves. Hawkwood wiped his face in the choppy darkness.
He’d build their damn navy, and jump through whatever hoops they put in front of him. It was away of surviving, after all. But his brave ship would never become a mere blueprint in somenaval surveyor’s office.
He picked up his oars, and began the long haul back to shore.
? The Fall of Hebrion ? He uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings great darkness to light. He makes nations great, and he destroys them; He enlarges nations, and leads them away. He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth, And makes them wander in a pathless waste. Job ch.12, v. 23-24 ?
14 thForialon, Year of the Saint 567
The knot of riders pummelled along the sea cliffs in a billow of tawny dust. Young men on tallhorses, they came to a thundering halt scant inches from the edge and sat their snorting mountsthere laughing and slapping dust from their clothes. The sun, bright as a cymbal, beat down onthe sky-blue sea far below and made the glitter of the horizon too bright for the eye to bear.It caused the sere mountains behind the riders to ripple and shimmer like a vision.
Cantering up to join the horsemen came another, but this was an older man, his dress sombre,and his beard gun-metal grey. His mount came to a sober halt and he wiped sweat from histemples.
‘You’ll break your damn fool necks if you’re not careful. Don’t you know the rock is rottenthere at the edge?’
Most of the younger men eased their horses away from the fearsome drop sheepishly, but oneremained in place, a broad-shouldered youth with pale blue eyes and hair black as a raven’sfeather. His mount was a handsome grey gelding which stood prick-eared and attentive betweenhis knees.
‘Bevan, where would I be without you? I suppose Mother told you to follow us.’
‘She did, small wonder. Now get away from the edge, Bleyn. Make an old man happy.’
Bleyn smiled and backed the grey from the brink of the sea cliff one yard, two. Then hedismounted in a motion as easy as the flow of water, patted the neck of the sweating horse andslapped dust from his riding leathers. On foot he was shorter than one would have guessed, witha powerfully built torso set square on a pair of stout legs. The physique of a longshoremantopped by the incongruously fine-boned face of an aristocrat.
‘We came to see if we could catch a glimpse of the fleet,’ he said, somewhat contrite.
‘Then look to the headland there - Grios Point. They’ll be coming into view any time now,with this breeze. They weighed anchor in the middle of the night.’
The other riders dismounted also, hobbled their horses and unhooked wineskins from theirsaddles.
‘What’s it all about anyway, Bevan?’ one of them asked. ‘Stuck out here in the provinces,we’re always the last to know.’
‘It’s a huge pirate fleet, I hear’ another said. ‘Up from the Macassars looking for bloodand plunder.’
‘I don’t know about pirates,’ Bevan said slowly, ‘but I do know that your father, Bleyn,had to call up all the retainers on the estate and tear off to Abrusio with them in tow. It’sa general levy, and we haven’t seen one of those in ... oh sixteen, seventeen years now.’
‘He’s not my father,’ Bleyn said quickly, his fine-boned face flushing dark.
Bevan looked at him. ‘Now listen—’
‘There they are!’ one of the others shouted excitedly. ‘Just coming round the point.’
They all stared, silent now. The cicadas clicked endlessly in the heat around them, but therewas a breeze off the barren mountains at their backs.
Around the rocky headland, over a league away. Coming into view was what resembled a flock offar-off birds perched on the waves. It was the brightness of the sails which was striking atfirst - the heavy swell partially hid their hulls. Tall men-of-war with the scarlet pennants ofHebrion snapping from their mainmasts. Twelve, fifteen, twenty great ships in line of battle,smashing aside the waves and forging out to sea with the wind on their starboard beam and theirsails bright as a swan’s wing.
‘It’s the entire western fleet,’ Bevan murmured. ‘What in the world . . . ?’
He turned to Bleyn, who was shading his eyes with one hand and peering intently seawards.
‘They’re beautiful,’ the young man said, awed. ‘They truly are.’
‘Ten thousand men you’re looking at there, lad. The greatest navy in the world. Your— LordMurad will be aboard, and no doubt half the Galiapeno retainers, puking their guts out I’ll bebound.’
‘Lucky bastards,’ Bleyn breathed. ‘And here we are like a bunch of widows at a ball,watching them go.’
‘What is it all for? Is it a war we haven’t heard of?’ one of the others asked, perplexed.
‘Damned if I know,’ Bevan rasped. ‘It’s something big, to draw out the entire fleet likethat.’
‘Maybe it’s the Himerians and the Knights Militant, come invading at last,’ one of theyounger ones squeaked.
‘They’d come through the Hebros passes, fool. They’ve no ships worth speaking of.’
‘The Sea-Merduks then.’
‘We’ve been at peace with them these forty years or more.’
‘Well there’s something out there. You don’t send a fleet out to sea for the fun of it.’
‘Mother will know,’ Bleyn said abruptly. He turned and remounted the tall grey in one fluidmovement. ‘I’m going home. Bevan, you stay with this lot. You’ll slow me down.’ The geldingpranced like a sprightly ghost below him, snorting.
‘You just wait a moment—’ Bevan began, but he was already gone, leaving only a zephyr ofdust behind.
Lady Jemilla was a striking woman with hair still as dark as her son’s. Only in brightsunlight could the grey be seen threading it through, like silver veining the face of a mine.She had been a famous beauty in her youth, and it was rumoured that the King himself had at onetime honoured her with his attentions; but she was now the dutiful well-bred wife of Hebrion’sHigh Chamberlain, Lord Murad of Galiapeno, and had been for almost fifteen years. The colourfulescapades that had enlivened her youth were now all but forgotten at court, and Bleyn knewnothing of them.
Murad’s fiefdom, tucked away on the Galapen Peninsula south-west of Abrusio, was something ofa backwater, and the high manse which had housed his family for generations was an austerefortress-like edifice built out of cold Hebros stone. In the heat of high summer it stillretained an echo of winter chill and there was a low fire burning in the cavernous hearth ofJemilla’s apartments. She was running over the household accounts at her desk, whilst besideher an open window afforded a view of the sun-baked olive groves of her husband’s estates likesome brightly lit fragment of a sunnier world.
The clamour of her son’s arrival was unmistakable. She smiled, losing ten years in an instant,and knuckled her small fists into the hollow of her back as she arched, cat-like, from thedesk.
The door opened and a grinning footman appeared. ‘Lady—’
‘Let him in, Dominan.’
Bleyn blew in like a gale, reeking of horse and sweat and warm leather. He embraced his mother,and she kissed him on the lips. ‘What is it this time?’
‘Ships - a million ships - well a great fleet at any rate. They passed by Grios Point thismorning. Bevan tells me that Murad is aboard, with the retainers he took to Abrusio last month.What’s afoot, Mother? What great events are sailing us by this time?’ Bleyn collapsed on to anearby couch, shedding dust and horsehair over its antique velvet.