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the air like a cricket ball and dropped out of sight down the smoking galley
stack. Blade was already backing away, dueling
furiously with three sailors, when the galley stack spewed black smoke and
orange flames. Screams floated up from below as the galley fires erupted all
over the cooks. Smoke was already beginning to billow up through the hatches
as Blade ran lightly up the ladder to the foc'sle, locked both arms around the
windlass rope, and slid down it to the sea.
He landed near Charger's stern, to be almost at once nearly knocked
silly by the body of a mercenary guard that came sailing over the stem
railing, a cutlass firmly rammed through its chest. He swam forward to the
waist, keeping on the side of Charger away from the flagship for safety's
sake, then seized the mooring line of one of the boats bobbing there and
hauled himself furiously up the side onto the deck of his own ship. It was the
first time he had stood there in nearly ten days.
Another mercenary ran at him as he got to his feet. Blade, seeing that the man
was trying to flee rather than trying to kill, sidestepped his clumsy lunge,
tripped him, and pitched him head first over the side. It seemed now to Blade
that all his trained perceptions and reflexes were operating at a higher pitch
than ever before, now that the final moment of action had arrived. So it was a
fighting machine that saw and heard and felt everything, and killed nearly
everything in its path that sprang into combat.
One of the crew was trying to hack through the hawser holding Charger to the
flagship. A soldier ran at him, ran him through, then died with Blade's sword
jutting out through his chest. Blade whipped the sword free just in time to
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hack down a javelin thrust at him and take off the wielder's arm on the
backswing. Another man darted past Blade, snatched up the fallen axe, swung it
down on the hawser.
Blade in his turn snatched up the javelin and hurled it to bring down a
soldier backing a sailor against the foremast, then whirled around to face two
more soldiers.
One was apparently the commander of the guards aboard Charger, judging from
his gilded helmet and jeweled sword hilt. He was also a dangerously effective
opponent. His long sword darted in and out;
Blade frantically parried both the officer's lightning thrusts and the
clumsier slashes of the soldier then the hawser parted with a twang. The deck
lurched slightly, throwing the officer off balance long enough for the man
with the axe to whip around and bury the head in the other's back. Going down,
the officer blocked his subordinate for long enough to let Blade get through
the man's clumsy guard and take him in the throat. The two soldiers fell
across each other, writhed briefly, then lay still in the blood sluicing
across the deck.
Blade suddenly realized that the man who had chopped through the hawser and
then cut down the officer was Brora, that the deck was clear of living
soldiers, and that Charger was now nearly fifty yards clear of the flagship.
He looked back toward the bigger vessel in time to see the foremast boom into
a column of flame that spouted above even the black smoke pouring up from
below, then turned back to
Brora. The sailor was drenched with sweat and the blood oozing from half a
dozen minor wounds, but grinned as he looked at Blade.
"Back to our true colors, aye, Captain Blahyd?"
"Yes. Order the men to the oars. I'm going aloft." Blade dropped his sword to
the deck, grasped the ratlines, and scrambled upward toward the maintop. Once
there, he at last had the view and at least a little of the time he needed to
look about him and see what was happening.
The far northern end of the pirate fleet had dissolved into a chaos of burning
ships and others that moved purposefully among them galleys of all sizes,
painted a green so dark that they were barely visible against the sea. The
shorebased siege engines had apparently ceased fire, because of too much risk
of hitting friendly ships. Farther out, off the tip of the peninsula, a mass
of merchant vessels and sailing warships was sliding into view, following as
close on the heels of the galleys as the fluky wind would permit. War engines
on their decks were still busy, and Blade saw more of the white spouts of
falling projectiles creeping down the pirates' line. The royal navy of Royth
was riding in to the attack.
And if he could persuade his crew to resist the natural temptation to simply
out oars and run for it, Charger could do her share and more. If the galleys
on the beach and anchored at the south end of the line had a chance to pull
themselves into battle formation, short-handed as they were they might put up
a murderous fight. The fleet of Royth might be crippled beyond repair even if
victorious. But if Charger lived up to her name, hurling herself into the
middle of the assembling galleys, she might sow mighty confusion among them.
And the royal warfleet might well sweep the whole length of the pirate fleet
before effective resistance developed. Blade decided it was worth trying, slim
as it left their own chances of survival. He scrambled down to the deck, and
called Brora to him.
"Brora, we're going to attack the southern end of the pirate fleet."
Brora turned pale and swallowed, then nodded. He didn't need to spend much
more time than Blade thinking out what Charger might do and at what cost. He
turned away, bawling orders to the oarmaster and the rowers. The beat of the
oars quickened, and Blade felt the timbers under his feet begin to throb with
that beat.
So far, no one had connected the sudden attack from Royth with Blade, and
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Charger was moving away unmolested. Behind her the flagship was now ablaze for
nearly half her length, and Blade could see the splashes made by sailors
hurling themselves from her high decks into the sea. On shore, people were
swarming down the beaches and scrambling aboard ships, and a number of the
anchored galleys of the inner line were already underway. There was no sign of
Sea Witch or of Cayla's allies. When Cayla appeared, with or without allies,
Blade knew he would have a fight on his hands.
A large galley with black and orange checked sails was turning almost
broadside to them as her oarsmen settled to their beat. Blade ran aft and
stationed himself alongside the tillermen, while Brora ran forward to speak to
the oarmaster and then manned the catapult on the bow. Charger's head came
around slightly to starboard, aiming for a point nicely calculated to
intercept the other galley. The oarsmen bent to their work, the oars thumping
in their sockets and the foam curling higher and higher alongside as they
worked up to their racing stroke.
The men of the galley ahead had only a brief minute to realize that the other
galley racing down on them meant to attack. Blade saw men running on her deck,
heard Charger's catapult twang and spray a shower of lead slugs into the men
on the enemy's deck. Some of them died, others threw themselves flat.
Those who had thrown themselves flat were just beginning to rise when
Charger's ram crashed through her opponent's oars and into her side amidships.
Oars cracked, timbers splintered, the enemy's mainmast snapped and went over
the side, dragging half the tiller crew with it, men mangled by the ram or by
the flailing oars howled and screamed below decks. Brora snapped out orders,
and Charger's oars went into reverse, pulling her free of the other galley.
She was heeling over and sagging low in the water even before Charger had come
about on a new course in search of a new victim.
This new victim was a smaller galley, as nimble as Charger and expecting the [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]