11

Dragon Ships

Work on the terraces had been suspended, and all the Arktos set about carrying provisions into the citadel. Fletchers went to work swiftly making arrows, while the few smiths among the humans-Highlanders, most of them-got busy making arrowheads, sharpening swords, repairing armor. Word had been carried to the outlying villages, and within days more Arktos arrived at Brackenrock-fathers in bearskins, carrying spears and harpoons, sturdy mothers carrying heavy packs, while children pulled light sledges of their own. At last, the fortress was fully garrisoned, as ready for war as it could be.

“Why don’t they just come?” demanded Moreen impatiently. She paced back and forth in her bedroom, while Dinekki clucked disapprovingly.

“Be careful what you wish for, child. There’s always more thinking and preparation to be done.”

The chiefwoman nodded, even smiled slightly. There was no one else in the world who would dare to call her ‘child,’ yet when the old shaman said it the word immediately lightened Moreen’s spirits. She was able to ask the question that had been burning since the shaman had climbed to the platform a few minutes earlier.

“What did you see when you cast the bones this morning?”

Dinekki sniffed, then shook her head. “Dark omens, I saw… there are forces gathering against us now. The threat is imminent, more so than when I cast the auguries last week.”

Moreen looked across the green fields of the terraces, thinking how deceptively peaceful everything looked, even though the planting had been delayed and the sheep, goats, pigs, as well as the few precious dairy cows, had been brought from all the pastures, herded into the citadel. Already the courtyard was a makeshift corral, a crowded mingling of bleating, mooing, and snorting as the last few animals were herded through the gate.

“I was thinking about something,” the chiefwoman said. “We would be planting now, fishing along the shore, tanning hides, just like eight years ago, before the ogres came. Because Kerrick chose to leave here when he did, because he encountered a dying walrus-man and came back, we have a chance to defend ourselves.”

“Thanoi. For generations they have been our enemies,” the shaman noted.

“I know. Ironic, isn’t it?”

Dinekki chuckled. “Yes. The gods like irony, in my observation. I imagine they are highly entertained by this spectacle.”

“It’s too bad the bones didn’t say anything about this new weapon we have to face,” murmured Moreen. Dinekki had no answer, and the chiefwoman looked again at the peaceful fields, the dazzling ocean.

She wrestled with her impatience, wanting the fight to start right now. Silently, she wondered, are we truly ready?

Kerrick and Mouse raised the mainsail and drifted away from the wharf. They planned one more quick run across the strait to Tall Cedar Bay to load up a dozen barrels of oil that Strongwind Whalebone was donating to the cause. The wind was out of the west, so they turned south as soon as they left the harbor, commencing one leg of a long tack across the Bluewater narrows. Kerrick was distracted and didn’t really want to leave Bracken-rock. He knew the oil would be useful, however, and there was no faster way to fetch it than with his sailboat. But he couldn’t shake his misgivings.

“Look-there!” Mouse cried, pointing south.

He saw the prow of the first ogre galley coming around the point, barely three miles away, and immediately he felt that stomach-clenching thrill of terror and excitement that for him always preceded battle. The trip to Tall Cedar Bay was forgotten. He made to turn his boat-Brackenrock would have to live or die with the oil currently on hand.

The tall prow of the lead vessel boasted the curling head of a gold dragon, skillfully rendered by the Silvanesti woodcarvers of his homeland. The twin ramps, raised now to flank that figurehead, were later additions, designed to facilitate the landing of raiders. Kerrick had long thought these ramps the marred the ship’s once graceful lines. Long banks of oars stroked the water on either side of the ship, propelling the great hull with rhythmic force.

“Come about!” Kerrick called, and Mouse threw his athletic body to the deck as the boom swept past. Cutter heeled through a sharp turn, and by the time the huge raiding ship came fully into view the nimble sailboat had wheeled around to mark a straight line back toward the harbor mouth, three or four miles distant. Mouse dashed to the bow, unleashed a fresh roll of canvas, smoothly hoisting the jib into the freshening air.

The sail instantly caught the wind, bulging over the prow and puffing the vessel forward with lurching acceleration. Kerrick kept his hand on the tiller, exerting all his strength to keep them on a course. At the same time, the wind, like a capricious force, tried to push them past, steering them toward the blue waters of the Courrain Ocean, dazzling in the summer sunlight beyond the strait.

Together, elf and human forced the keen hull to slice through the waters, keeping the boat aimed toward the Signpost and the harbor, coaxing her away from the great ocean.

“Is it Goldwing?” Kerrick asked, concentrating on holding their bearing while Mouse looked towards the stern.

“Yes. With Hornet right behind. She’s not as fast-Goldwing seems to be pulling away.”

Already they were so close to Brackenrock that the view of the battlements and towers of the great fortress was blocked by the looming promontory of the nearest ridge.

“The boom! Has the watchman seen the galleys yet?” cried Mouse.

As if in answer, a long horn blast, followed by a second, brayed across the sea. Fortunately, the wind-for all its capriciousness-was now aiding them by filling the sail with relentless power. The galleys, propelled only by oars, rapidly dwindled astern, even as the spire of the Signpost rock loomed ahead. The lookout had already run up the warning flag, and continued to blow his warning horn. Kerrick imagined that he could hear the braying of other, louder trumpets from the mountain-top fortress. He knew Moreen’s people would be racing to close the gates, to move weapons, fire, and oil into position.

Moreen Bayguard, the Lady of Brackenrock would be the least flustered of all her people. Her orders would be direct and unambiguous, and the Arktos-and those Highlanders who had come to help-would hasten to obey.

Kerrick turned the tiller, and Mouse trimmed the sail, as Cutter went gliding through the narrow gap between the Signpost and the opposite sheer cliff. Barely a hundred feet of water spanned that entrance.

He saw with satisfaction that a few men, Highlanders who had been learning the craft of the boatwright in Brackenrock’s yard alongside a couple of young Arktos apprentices, were gathered around the boom winch, working on the crank. They were gesturing frantically, however, and when the elf looked closely he saw they were pulling loose links of a broken chain from around the capstan.

“The winch broke!” Kerrick cried. “They’ll never be able to free the catch-lever by hand!”

“Can we do it with the boat, from this side of the bay?” Mouse asked, echoing the elf’s thoughts.

“The boom! Get over to it-we’ll certainly try. We’ve got ten minutes at most!” shouted the elf, steering the sailboat toward the end of the sturdy construct. With a sharp turn, he brought the boat to an easy stop, as Mouse leaned over the gunwale to seize the lead rope.

The boatmen were too far away to lend assistance. The ogre ships, by keeping close to the shoreline on their northward sortie from Winterheim, had indeed burst upon Brackenrock with more surprise than the Arktos had anticipated. Now all the plans, all the work that had gone into this untried harbor defense, seemed doomed-unless they could free the heavy boom with the help of this brisk wind.

The wind ruffled canvas, and Cutter started to slide past the shore, into the harbor. Mouse secured the line fast to a deck clamp. Beside them loomed the end of the beam, supported in a cradle of heavy chain, floating just below the surface of the water, against the rocks of the shoreline. It was secured in place by a heavy lever that was designed to be released by the winch across the harbor mouth. When the chain was released, the heavy beam would float freely in the water, and men hauling on the other side of the entrance could pull the boom across the opening, where it was intended to block access to any vessel trying to pass.

There were simply not enough men now, not with the winch broken and the boom firmly locked in place. They would not be able to release the heavy catch or pull the massive weight across the narrow gap. And they required a wind gust of such power that it seemed hopeless.

Mouse was working hard. He looped a second, then a third line over the end of the boom until the sailboat was lashed with enough rope to support a monstrous load. Kerrick looked at the big, rust-covered lever and made a decision. He ducked into the cabin, quickly went to his sea chest and tossed his clothes out of the way, fumbling to open the little wooden box. Without thinking-because thinking could lead to doubt-he slipped the circle of gold, his father’s ring, over his finger and returned to the cockpit.

He could feel the magic, the warm pleasure of pure strength permeating his flesh, tingling his nerves, stiffening resolve. Mouse was at the boom, ready to release the sail to catch the wind. Kerrick pointed at the lever, and the young man nodded.

“I’ll take the tiller as soon as you go!”

Feeling a surge of power, the elf leaped toward the rocky shore, making a balanced landing on a flat-crested rock, dry and sunlit above the surging breakers. Another spring took him to the nest of chains that bracketed the end of the boom in its cradle.

Behind him the mainsail snapped taut, and Mouse clutched the tiller, as the boat strained against the multiple lines connected to the boom.

Kerrick grabbed the lever, the metal cold and rough under the skin of his palm. He pulled and strained, feeling the metal, creaking and reluctant, begin to move. His flesh, stiffened by the power of the ring, was corded wire, his will a furnace of determination.

Slowly, the mechanism began to open. Chain spilled through the sprocket, at first one link and then a breathtaking pause before the next. He heard another sharp clack, then another, finally a steady cadence of moving chain. Faster, then, like the pounding of his heart, the metal links tumbled past until the gear was spinning free and the boom lunged outward eagerly, free from anchor.

A great splash of water rose across the stern, drenching Mouse and releasing Cutter. The boat sprang forward, pushed by the wind, dragging the massive weight of the boom through the seas swelling into the narrow harbor mouth. Across the harbor, Mouse saw the tower watchmen waiting to lash the boom in place. The sailboat strained and moved slowly closer, as some of the men waded into the cold water, reaching with gaff hooks to haul the heavy barrier into its socket. The boom stretched fully across the anchorage now, steel spikes here and there jutting above the surface of the water, a menacing line vaguely suggesting a formation of underwater pikemen.

Kerrick looked to sea then, saw the looming prows of the two galleys, each cutting a white swath through the rolling swells. A momentary hatred seized him, making him tremble. He wanted to hurl himself against those ships, his weapon being his own flesh. It took all of his will to check the impulse and keep his feet planted on the slippery rocks.

The ogre king, Grimwar Bane himself, judging by his golden breastplate, stood on the deck and glared at the harbor. The elf grinned fiercely, imagining his enemy’s displeasure. Would the galleys try to charge through? If they did, would the boom hold? It had to hold! Furiously, he thought of leaping into the sea and reinforcing the boom with his own enhanced strength.

Only then did he realize his foolishness and immediately pulled off the ring. It was cold and deceptively light in his hand, yet it had almost overcome him with its seductive power. He felt immeasurably weak now, sapped by a depression that tempted him to collapse, to rest and sleep. All his body called out for him to lie here on these rocks.

At last his mind took over, reminding him that there was plenty more work to be done. Stumbling, taking great care with his balance lest his enfeebled legs betray him on this rough ground, he made his way along the shore, past the great stone mount where the boom was secured, and into the fragile security of Brackenrock’s port.

“Sire! We must turn!” Argus Darkand shouted over the din of the rowing drums, as the galley surged forward.

“By Gonnas, we will not!” roared Grimwar Bane, glaring at his helmsman until that veteran ogre sailor nodded his acquiescence. “Take us forward, through that toothpick of a barrier!”

The king squinted for a better look, not entirely sure what the elf and the humans had just done. He saw a long shaft floating in the water, sensed that it had been pulled across like a gate. Surely there was no threat in that, nothing that could harm his mighty flagship!

He stood above the great gap running along the center of the deck, looked down onto the shoulders and backs of his straining oarsmen.

“Row, you louts!” he bellowed. “Row like the wind-show these humans the power of ogre brawn!”

The ship made another surge, but once again Argus Darkand found his way to the king’s side. The helmsman was nervous, his normally florid flesh now grown pale. Angrily the king pushed him away, strode back to the bow.

“My husband, consider.” He recognized his wife’s voice, but was so preoccupied he didn’t turn to acknowledge her. “Have patience, Sire. We can win this fight in good time-we do not need to take a rash risk now, in the opening movement.”

He saw the metal barbs, waves lapping just over the tips. They were arrayed with their points jutting toward his ship. Possibly Goldwing could smash through that boom with only a few scratches, but what if he was wrong and one of those stout shafts punched through the hull?

“Slow!” he roared, and immediately Argus Darkand echoed the command to the rowers. The cadence of the drums fell off. “Stand off!”

Grimwar Bane scowled at the vast hooked timber that floated, just below water level, across the mouth of the bay. He had scuffed his ship on a rock, once, and it had taken a whole summer to repair the hull-he could vividly imagine what damage those barbed links might wreak on the planks of Goldwing’s hull.

“Come around the point. We anchor off the beaches below the citadel farms and attack by land,” he ordered. “The humans have bought themselves another few hours. I hope they enjoy them, for they will be their last hours upon Krynn.”

The lookout on the high tower blew his trumpet, three long, braying notes that meant the best news Moreen could hope for, under the circumstances.

“They’re quitting the harbor!” she cried.

Once again the Lady of Brackenrock stood atop the highest tower of her citadel’s gatehouse. She looked down into the great courtyard, where her people were running back and forth in well-ordered chaos. “Archers, bring the extra arrows up to the walls!”

She spotted a lithe farmwife coming through the gate directly beneath her. “Martine, start bringing the people up from the lower terraces. We’re closing the gates, but we’ll leave the sortie door open until the last minute. Tell everyone they have to get up here now!”

“Yes, m’lady!” called Martine, and immediately raced off on her errand.

“They’re coming for real?”

Moreen recognized Bruni’s Voice and turned around with relief. The big woman emerged from the stairwell. “Yes, the signals say ‘two ships,’ but also that the boom stopped them at the harbor mouth. So they’ll be coming by land-which gives us a little time. Are the Highlanders ready?”

“All six hundred, including Strongwind’s heavy axemen. That’s fifty more strong, big men. Gustav the White was here with a load of gold from his mine, and dozens more came in his caravan. They’re anxious for the chance to fight some ogres.”

Moreen smiled grimly. “That will come to pass soon enough,” she said. “If we’re lucky, we match them in numbers now, but that counts our women, children, and elders, while they are seasoned warriors and brutes under a king who will not tolerate defeat. What about their secret weapon? Do we know anything more about it?”

“Not yet,” admitted Bruni, “but Dinekki continues to cast her bones.”

Moreen looked to the north, toward the deceptively peaceful waters of the Courrain Ocean. Sunlight reflected from the waves in shimmering patterns, and the blue sky mocked her with its promise of a beautiful day ahead. It had been a day like this, eight years before, when the ogres had attacked her village with disastrous results. Now all of these people were gathered in this cherished place, and all she could think was that the stakes were so much higher and it was her responsibility to command. If she lost this fight, it would not be just a small tribe that suffered. She was keenly aware that the stakes were nothing less than the future of all humans in the Icereach.

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