(Author’s commentary); Yes, I’m still writing my newest novel… just so you know…
The Seven Kingdoms
Chapter Thirty One
The fleet set sail at midday. It would take less than a day to sail to Middle, but almost another day and a half to sail almost halfway around the kingdom with the barges slowing them down. They would arrive outside the main bay in the middle of the night, and rendezvous with Tarry Oar, who would sail out to meet them in a small fishing boat. The Black Ship would join them from where it was hiding far out at sea after dropping the spy master off on a deserted piece of coastline earlier. The troops kept busy, training with their spears and trading Skull uniforms amongst each other, trying to find ones that fit them better.
Hildy held a staff meeting on the Wavebounder in the fleet commander’s cabin, which she had once again taken over. Hildy had decided that it would take too long to unload the army on a beach in longboats. They might be spotted before they were done. She planned to sail right into the bay, and unload at the docks and along the shore there. Hopefully, the Skull uniforms would fool the enemy, at least until there were enough men ashore that it didn’t matter. Prince Nudge was going to play a major role in this deception. He would wear his fancy Skull prince armor and uniform. Another man, a soldier from Smilingman, would be wearing prince Carmak’s armor and uniform, and looked perfect for the part. He had black hair and a rather sallow complexion. Since most Skull soldiers had never seen more than a few of the many Skull princes, they thought they could pull it off.
The captured ships were being sailed by sailors from the fleet and some fisherman who had volunteered, helped by soldiers who knew their way around a ship. They hadn’t spotted a single ship on the voyage. During the second day they could see occupied Middle as they sailed around it. Night fell again as they sailed around the top of the island. Towards midnight they drew near the entrance of the bay, and lookouts scanned the sea for Tarry oar’s boat.
A lookout called from the masthead. A small boat was sailing towards the Wavebounder. Hildy went to the rail to watch it approach. It seemed to her that the boat was following a road paved with reflected light from the fat moon above. Tarry Oar climbed aboard, and turned to wave at the little fishing vessel. A dark shape returned the wave, and the boat veered off, heading back towards the dark shore. At the same moment, the lookout sighted the Black Ship coming in from the open ocean. No lanterns lit the fleet, and Tarry Oar’s teeth flashed in the moonlight. “Just like I promised. commander, no problems at all.”
They went to the cabin. Nius Tar was there, as were four of the officers who had helped raise the army on Smilingman under Kellum Bloom. The men had been made troop commanders of one thousand men under the new ranking system. Prince Nudge was there, as well as the soldier who was to play the part of a Skull prince.
The spy master wasted no time. “Your instincts, as always, were quite accurate, commander,” he said to Hildy. “The Skull invasion of Smilingman, as we discovered, was made up of troops stationed on Middle, and they have only brought a few barges of fresh troops to make up the difference. There are only about four thousand enemy troops in all of Middle, and most of those are spread around the kingdom, keeping order in the towns and guarding the camps where they have locked up all the potential trouble makers. There are only a little over a thousand enemy soldiers guarding Middletown and the castle, and so far, no word of their defeat in Smilingman has reached them.”
“It all hinges on how fast we can land a large enough force to fight our way to the castle,” Hildy reminded them all. “If they lock the gates, we will be in for a siege.” She turned back to her spy master. “What of the king and queen, and Lawry’s sister? Are they all still in the castle?”
“They are, my Lady, and I have taken steps to prevent such an occurrence,” the spy master assured her. “When I went ashore from the Black Ship, the longboat that carried me also carried a large supply of knives. Trusted friends who work in the castle have been smuggling the weapons inside. The Skulls keep the kitchen knives locked up, so it was the only way to assure that, at the proper time, the castle gates will be secured and the king, queen and princess will be protected.”
Hildy was astonished. She wasn’t at all sure if this was a good thing. She felt a moment of panic at the thought of untrained citizens going up against Skull soldiers. “What if we can’t fight our way through the town in time? They could kill Lawry’s family!”
Tarry Oar smiled his friendly smile. “Not a single knife will be seen until your troops near the gate, I promise you. There will merely be a few people, casually loitering near the gate, people whom the guards see all the time, people who have been coming to watch the sunrise for quite some time now. People will be strolling through the courtyard, chatting or getting ready for their normal duties. Other people will be performing everyday tasks, cleaning and moving things about near the royal chambers and near the room where the king and queen are being held. Still others will be well hidden in the woods near the main gate, unseen in the darkness, until such time as they are needed. Timing is everything, as they say, princess, and I have been preparing for this day for some time now.”
Once again, Hildy decided she trusted the man, and those that he trusted. They discussed eventualities and methods for dealing with them for a while, and then fleet commander Reef entered. “We are rounding the headland and turning into the bay, commander. The men are ready. Each ship knows where it has to be. And we still have time to begin the landings before the sun begins to rise.”
Lanus Cooker shuffled slowly along the pier. Lanus hated the pier. Middle was one of the few kingdoms that had a port deep enough to have a pier that trade ships could tie up directly to and unload their cargos. Was it a pier or a dock?, Lanus paused to wonder. What was the difference between a pier and a dock anyway? Or was it a wharf? Or a quay? Why did sailors need their own language? Whatever the thing he was walking back and forth on was called, Lanus Cooker hated it. This was the third night in a row guarding it, and he had only done half his shift so far. What was he guarding it for? Was someone going to steal it?
When he turned back around to face the water, he was surprised to see ships sailing into the bay, backlit by the sinking and nearly-full moon. It looked like the fleet was returning from Smilingman. That seemed strange, but then again, now that the last kingdom had fallen under Skull rule, what good were a bunch of troop barges? Maybe they were going to be sent back to Skull and broken up, so the timber could be used for other things.
He watched as the barges began to fan out and move close to shore before dropping anchor. Three of the larger, faster trade ships brought up the rear. One of them anchored out in the bay, while the other two moved slowly past the two trade ships and a few barges already anchored in the bay, and made their way slowly towards the dock.
Lanus noticed that the arriving barges, now anchored in a neat row just off shore, had lowered their longboats, and these were now rowing to the beaches in and around the town. They looked to be full. Those soldiers can’t wait to get to town, he smirked to himself. Did they think the taverns would be open at this time of the morning?
“What’s going on?” asked Tinner Marsh, another soldier from Lanus’s troop unlucky enough to draw guard duty during the long, dull night and early morning. He had ambled over to stand by Lanus and watch the two ships as they sailed up to the pier.
“How should I know, do I look like someone who gets told anything?” Lanus snapped. He was about to tell Tinner to go get an officer in case there was anyone important aboard the two ships, when his grouchy sarcasm was interrupted by a sailor on the largest ship shouting at him to grab the line he was about to toss down. Lanus grumbled under his breath, handed his spear to Tinner, and did as he was told, tying the heavy line around a cleat.
A boarding ramp was pushed out from the ship, and a section of railing removed. The first two men off the ship were obviously two of king Nornan Skull’s many offspring, Lanus quickly realized from their fancy armor with silver fittings that gleamed in the light of the pier’s few lanterns and the setting moon. That and the natural air of superiority that the smaller of the two projected. Lanus grabbed his spear back from his friend and sprang to attention, regretting that he hadn’t called an officer while he had the chance.
“Is this my welcoming committee?” screamed Nudge, walking up to the two soldiers and standing so close that he sprayed spittle in their faces when he yelled at them. “Is this how princes of the Skull empire are honored? Where is your commanding officer?”
There is some irony in the fact that the question was asked so loudly that it actually woke up the person in question. The captain of the guard for the pier and that section of the town had been sleeping, curled up on a blanket, just inside the door of a nearby warehouse. He came stumbling down the pier, still buckling the straps on his breastplate, even as Lanus was trying to explain that he wasn’t sure where the man was.
The captain leaped to attention in front of the two princes even as troops began to file off the ship behind them and the other ship began to tie up to the other side of the dock. Before the captain could even begin to formulate an excuse, Nudge was in his face screaming at him. “You? You think I want you? A captain? Where is the commander of the garrison of this town? Find him, drag him out of bed, and have a suitable contingent for an honor guard assembled on this spot before I decide to have all of you assigned to cleaning the bilges on all my barges, and maybe hauling them out of the water on your backs, so you can scrape whatever grows on the bottom of a ship off with your fingernails!”
Nudge was enjoying himself. He had worked himself up to the point where his face had turned purple. There followed a confusing series of events, as the sun began to tint the sky. The poor captain and his two soldiers went running off through the streets of the town, rounding up other troops who were on guard duty, and yelling outside every inn, hostel and building being used to house Skull soldiers. They had no idea how many men would constitute a ‘suitable contingent for an honor guard’.