Chapter 19
The Seafarer's Nightmare

Porto Sul, Arma

"I know I was not born to be a mariner. I have not been out on the sea many times in my life and the experiences I've had were far from pleasant. The sea is no place for those not attuned to it. Too many people learn that the hard way."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

It took the magistrate's caravan two days to return to Porto Sul. The group probably could have made it back in the same amount of time on their own, but it was nice not having to walk for a change. It was a time to recuperate and it behooved them to take advantage of it, for they would not find any such luxury in Gladius. Once they set foot on Gladian soil, they would be in the fight of their lives. There would be no rest for them until they were either victorious or dead.
When they arrived in Porto Sul, the group suffered from the hopelessly optimistic expectation that they could set out that day. It took two days to assemble the crew and make all the necessary preparations. It was a bit of a nuisance, but such a delay was unavoidable.
The Scotian fleet consisted of six twin-masted galleys. Although no one could describe them as top of the line, they were nevertheless sturdy vessels fit to convey the Scotians across the sea whenever their nation had need of it. When they were brought to the docks, they were introduced to the captain hired by the magistrate. A Scotian himself, he was a man of wide frame but without much girth to him, ruddy-cheeked and sporting a bushy red beard and balding pate streaked with lines of grey.
"Graytin's, sirs," he said cheerily. "Ah'm cow'd Mael Giric. Ah'll be gettin' ye tae whar ye're gang. Gladius, wis it? No' too mony bodies left wha remember that root. Ah'll get ye there. Dinna fash yersel' aboot that. Ah piked oot the creu mesel'. Thay'll doe thir job. Ye've got me guarantee."
Apparently Mael Giric was a veteran of the Scotian army who switched to a life at sea after his discharge from the King's service. He already had ten years experience at seafaring, four of them as a captain of whatever ship would take him. If anything, the time made him more attentive to all the little details, not less. In addition to hand-picking the crew, he personally oversaw the loading of the provisions and cargo. Mark figured the group was in pretty good hands.
They set sail before dawn, before the sea lanes became crowded with merchant vessels. With little to do on board, most of the group slept in, the exceptions being the sleepless Adrienne and Edward and Ignatiy, who were both struggling with a bad case of seasickness. Around noon, the Captain called them into his quarters. He was waiting for them with a large map spread out on the table.
"I thocht I shuid till ye the root we're takkin'," he said. He tapped a stubby finger on the map. "This here's Porto Sool." His finger then traced the path as he was talking. "We're gang tae follae the cost 'til we reach the Cap, then we'll cross the strait and hug to cost 'til we reach Eshkelon. 'Tis the closest harbor afore crossin' ower tae the Sooth. 'Tis a wee roondaboot, bot 'tis no' guid fra yer health tae stray ony farther frae laund than ye maun."
"How long will it take?" Mark asked.
The Captain stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I' the winds favor us, Ah'd say aboot three weeks."
"Three weeks!?" Edward exclaimed. "That's too long!"
This was not the first time Edward had complained about the timetable. No doubt he was eager to finish things with Randwulf, but looking at his sickly pallor, it was a safe bet to say he simply wanted off the ship as soon as possible. All the drinking he did surely couldn't help, even if it seemed to be a time-honored tradition among men of the sea.
Mark decided to make a concession on Edward's behalf and asked the Captain, "Isn't there a more direct way we can take?"
"No' i' ye value yer li'es," the Captain replied matter-of-factly. "Unless ane o' ye is kin tae Auld Shellback, Ah say ye shuid leive the sailorin' tae me."
"Of course," Mark said. No one could say he did not try.
The winds did indeed favor them and they were moving along at a good clip. While it was tempting to loaf around, the group could not afford to be idle. In addition to keeping up their training, they needed to work on a strategy for their confrontation with Randwulf. To that end, they gathered after supper to discuss their options.
"How are we going to do this?" Sonia asked. "The odds are even worse than when we fought in the Crimson Field, right?"
"If the Marauders have returned," Giles mused, "and the Gladian Guard assembles en masse, then there will be over three thousand of them to only nine combatants on our side." He nodded to Mark and Sonia. "Even if we were all Elemental Knights and all of them were nothing more than ordinary people, it would be next to impossible. Of course, they're not all ordinary people at all. They have two Elemental Knights on their side, the warlock, his six apprentices, the Dark Knight, and all the elite troops of the Marauders." He shook his head. "Honestly, I don't see us standing any chance."
Edward snorted. "If that's how you see it, you should've stayed with those fish people. We don't need your defeatism here."
"Giles is just letting us know what we're up against," Mark argued. "His knowledge as a former Marauder is invaluable to us. You'd do well not to dismiss him out of hand."
"Hmph," Edward snorted again, all he had in the way of a response. "Besides, he's forgetting something: the people." The Prince thumped his chest. "The people of Gladius, my people, will stand behind their rightful lord when the time comes. The sight of a proud citizen army will blanch the livers of Randwulf's hired dogs and match his army man-for-man."
"Hah!" Stefan sneered. "Even if the people sided with you, I've seen what happens to citizen armies against those people. It'll be total slaughter."
Although Stefan spoke in Byrnan, he had just proven to Mark that he could understand Everardian to one degree or another. As justified as his bitterness against Randwulf and the Marauders was, it was nothing more than pride that kept him from communicating with the rest of the group. It was all the more frustrating now that they were so close to the final confrontation. Felix's admonitions against disunity rang louder than ever.
"What did he say?" Edward growled, able to discern Stefan's mocking tone if nothing else.
Mark did not feel like answering, so instead he changed the subject. "I had hoped Catherine would be awake by now," he said. "Her powers have gotten so much stronger. We could really use that strength now."
"What powers?" Edward scoffed. "I don' t see how lying around like a corpse is going to help us. Let's just say I believe your fanciful stories about her so-called powers. Answer me this: If she was cursed so easily once, what keeps it from happening again?"
Once again, even if the words were stopped at the language barrier, the sentiment behind them had no trouble crossing over. Actually, it was probably a blessing that Stefan's understanding of Everardian was limited, lest the Prince whip him into a frenzy. The fighter was angry enough as it was.
"Don't insult Lady Catherine!" Stefan snarled. "In Byrn she was holding back and that worm Brenok took advantage of it. It won't happen again. You'll eat your words when you see the legions fall to her might, you stupid Gladian pig."
Having had his fill of insolence in a language he could not understand, Edward was up like a shot. "Do you want to fight!?" the Prince snapped.
Accepting the challenge, Stefan sprang to his feet as well. "Any time!"
Everyone had to come together to keep the two hot-headed men from tearing into each other, their combined strength barely enough to keep them apart. Risking the brunt of any violence if one of them happened to break free of their restraints, Mark put himself directly between Edward and Stefan.
"Stop it right now!" the swordsman shouted. He gave both of them a hard look. "I've just about had enough of you two. Our chances are slim as it is. There's no hope for us at all if we keep on bickering like this.
"You both want your revenge, to get back at Randwulf and the Marauders for what they've done to you. If that's going to happen, you're going to have to learn to work together. Not should, but have to. We will not survive if we don't fight as a team. Do you really not get it after all this time?"
Both of them stopped struggling against the people holding them back and were promptly released. Too proud to apologize, they turned away from each other with a mutual 'hmph'. It was hardly an ideal resolution to the conflict, but the group could hope for little better considering both Edward and Stefan's inflexible pride.
To head off another fight, Mark went ahead with the discussion. There was no point in wasting what little daylight was left. He cleared his throat to get everyone's attention.
"First off," the swordsman said, "we need to make sure our priorities are straight. Our main targets are Randwulf and the warlock. Without them, our enemies should falter. After them are the special operatives: Brenok and the other apprentices, the Dark Knight, the Assassin, and anyone else with powers above and beyond normal humans. Last among the high priority targets is the senior leadership: the commander of the Marauders, the Captain of the Guard and the Five Generals. We shouldn't waste time with anyone else unless we're under direct attack.
"Next, as far as any elaborate strategy goes, we really have to get a better idea of the situation on the ground before we make our move. I've thought about and there are four scenarios I see as been the most likely. First scenario: the Marauders are still in Byrn and Darkwall is practically empty. This was what we faced several months ago at the Crimson Field. The Palace Guard should be the only defenders of the castle. As far as we know, the warlock never leaves his tower and, Giles, you told me that the apprentices were deployed with the Marauders. The warlock is our greatest threat, but we should be able to overcome him in a concerted attack. After that, we rout the Palace Guard, free the prisoners in the dungeon and do as much damage to the castle as we can. This will leave Randwulf without a base of operations when he gets back. It'll put him off-balance and force him to push forward with troops that are bound to be exhausted. From there, it's simply a matter of striking at Randwulf directly the first opportunity we get. Without Randwulf or the warlock, the Marauders and the Guard should crumble.
"The second scenario is what Giles imagined: the Marauders and the Guard all gathered together in Darkwall. I don't think there are any plans that could lead to our victory in this case, at least not through conventional means. It would take more time, but we'd have to draw out Randwulf's forces, pick our battles until we get the opportunity to hit our main targets. I'm hoping we don't have to deal with this one.
"The third scenario follows Giles' information about Randwulf's plans. He said that the Marauders were going to go on the hunt for rebels once they got back from Byrn. In this case, they and most of the Guard will be deployed throughout Gladius. If Randwulf takes as active a role as he's played in previous campaigns, he'll be personally spearheading the main force. We play this one a lot like the first scenario. Attack Darkwall and take out the warlock before moving on Randwulf himself. Either Darkwall will be reduced to a bare-bones defense or a contingent of relief troops will bolster the Palace Guard's ranks. Either way, our priority is the warlock, and only afterward do we worry about the castle's defenders.
"The fourth scenario is like the third, only Randwulf is directing operations from Darkwall instead of leading from the front. In this case, we'll have to divide our numbers between the two targets. I'll face Randwulf myself and Sonia will be in charge of taking on the warlock. We'll have to move quickly to get to the targets before too many other people get in the way."
For all Mark's exhaustive strategizing, Edward was not very impressed. "Instead of all these sneak tactics, why don't we ride out like men with an army at our backs?"
"Well, for starters," Mark said, "I seriously doubt we can raise a large enough force, no matter how people feel about Randwulf. Second, even if we could rally enough people, where will they get arms and armor? Who will train them how to be soldiers in so little time? They won't stand a chance against the hardened troops of the Marauders. They'd be butchered outright. And I could never conscience sacrificing so many people as a decoy, if that's what you were thinking." The lack of a rebuttal from Edward did not encourage Mark any. "No," the swordsman said firmly, "the risk needs to be on our shoulders alone. No one else stands a chance."
The Prince was hardly satisfied. "What are our chances with so few of us to so many of them?" he asked.
Edward's antagonism was starting to get on Mark's nerves.
"Have you not been paying attention?" the swordsman asked irritably. "I have no intention of taking on all Randwulf's forces head-on. We focus on the leaders, hit hard and fast. Everything else should fall into place. If the most dangerous of our enemies are gone, we'll be in a much better position to finish off what's left if anyone thinks he can continue Randwulf's legacy."
"Okay," Sonia said, "so it looks like all roads point to Darkwall. Do you have a plan for getting in?"
Mark nodded. "Yes, I do." He looked to Ignatiy. "Ignatko, do you think your bombs could breach the castle wall?
"Maybe," Ignatiy replied, scratching his head tentatively, "but it'd take a lot of 'em. I could probably boost the power with my pendant. It might be enough."
"Can you make slow-burning fuses?"
"I can. Why?"
Mark took a stick of charcoal and made a quick sketch of Darkwall and the surrounding area. He had already talked to Giles, Adrienne and Ignatiy about the castle and had a good general idea of the layout. He pointed to the diagram.
"Here's my plan." Mark drew an arrow pointing to one of the outer walls. "We enter from the northeast. There's the least number of buildings there. We won't have much cover, but we can see our enemies coming and it should take them longer to mass on our position." He marked two of the walls on the western side of the castle. "To buy us some time, we'll set charges here and here. This will make them think they're facing a concerted attack. We actually blow the northeast wall first, but we don't go in until the other charges are set off. This should put them under the impression that the real entry point is a decoy. I'm hoping it'll buy us enough time to get into position before the enemy regroups. If we're only after the warlock, we all go in together and rush him before he can react. If Randwulf's there as well, I'll have to borrow Ignatiy to blow the wall of the keep and then have Jasper pick any locks between me and Randwulf. Once the wall to the keep is blown, Ignatiy will rejoin the rest of you and Sonia will lead the attack on the warlock."
"Wait," Sonia interrupted, "you plan to fight Randwulf alone?"
"Yes," Mark replied. "If the warlock is anything like he's feared to be, you need everyone you can get."
Unsatisfied, Sonia frowned and crossed her arms. "I don't like it. What if he's laid a trap for you? For all we know, he could be expecting you."
"I'd rather you have the best possible chance against the warlock," Mark said.
Just then, Mael Giric walked up to the group. When he saw the sketch Mark had made, he was less than pleased.
"Och, whatten ye daein' tae me deck?" the Captain cried. "A ocht tae ha'e ye swab it, ye hallion."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Mark said, bobbing his head apologetically. "I'll clean it up."
Surprised to be taken seriously, Mael Giric laughed. "Dinna fash yersel' aboot it, sir. Ah wis juist teisin' ye. Ah cum tae till ye that we recht the Cap an' we'll be crossin' the strait."
There was something about the way the Captain said it, a sort of hesitancy. It was as if something was bothering him.
"Is anything wrong?" Mark asked.
The Captain shook his head. "No' rilly, no, 'Tis juist that thaim cloods oot there fash me a bittie. I feir we're i' fra a muckle storme. No' that 'tis onything tae be ower muckle afeared o'. Me an' the creu ha'e ridden thro' mony a storme i' oor time. Naething tae feir." He nodded to his passengers. "Sleep weel, sirs."
As the Captain was walking away, the group realized how late it had gotten. It would soon be dark, so it was agreed to postpone any further discussion until later. It was going to be a long journey and there was no need to have everything worked out on the first day.
The group's quarters were on the first deck, rooms that ordinarily house the officers leading a contingent of Scotian troops. The furnishings were limited to a few simple cots and footlockers. Of course, the rooms were nothing more than places to sleep. They did not need any luxury, nor did they expect it.
Ignatiy was still rather sickly, so Mark helped the firebug onto his cot before settling in himself. While he felt sorry for the companions who were struggling with seasickness, the swordsman actually found the gentle undulations to be relaxing. It almost felt like the sea was rocking him to sleep. He was out in no time at all.
The same rocking that had helped Mark fall asleep wound up waking him up in the dead of the night. He had gotten use to the normal lurching, but this was much more intense. A loud thunderclap ripped through the air, followed by the sound of a heavy rain battering the decks above.
As Mark got up off his cot, he saw that he was not the only one who had woken up. He shared quarters with Ignatiy, Jasper and Stefan. Ignatiy was curled up in a ball on the floor, racked by a fiercer bout of seasickness than before, and Stefan was probably sitting outside Catherine's quarters. Since Ignatiy was in no condition to go anywhere, Mark and Jasper went into the hall, where they found the others assembled.
"What's going on?" Sonia asked.
"A storm, I'd say," Giles replied, "and a bad one at that."
The ship made a sudden jolt, nearly knocking them off their feet.
Sonia looked around suspiciously, as if she was trying to anticipate the next shock. "It looks like those clouds were as bad as the Captain thought."
"Let's go up and take a look," Mark said. "The Captain might need some help."
Teresa took a step back, withdrawing halfway into her quarters. "I'd better stay with Miss Catherine."
"Lady Catherine," Stefan corrected, "and I'm not leaving her." What he thought he could accomplish by correcting her in Byrnan eluded Mark, but now what not the time to worry about that.
"Not that it has anything to do with that woman," Adrienne added, "but I'll pass, too."
"Alright then," Mark said, "we'll be back in a little bit."
Excepting the five individuals who were either unwilling or unable, the group went up top to see what was going on. Mark did not properly appreciate the situation they were in until he took his first look outside. The seas were surging, high winds lashed the deck with torrents of rain while lightning streaked across the sky. As they were watching the crew scramble about, a loud voice challenged even the thunder.
"Whatten ye daein' up here!?" the Captain howled. "Git daun ablo decks, ye graet fuils!"
It was too late. A strong wave crashed against the side of the ship and sent everyone tumbling head over heels. Not having the luxury of time to waste on his passengers, Mael Giric barked orders to the crew, screaming above the noise of sea and storm.
The wave had gotten high enough to break over the wales. Any higher and they could sweep anyone on deck into the sea. With all the ship's pitching and rolling, getting back below decks was all but impossible. Taking a more pragmatic alternative, Giles looped his arm around the rigging and urged the others to do the same.
"Brace yourselves on something!" the pikeman yelled.
The others complied as best they could, clutching any rope or protrusion for dear life. A bolt of lightning struck the middle mast, felling it like a timber. It crashed onto the deck, quickly rolling across during a dip to pin one of the crewmen against the wale.
Mark, Sonia, Jill and Giles joined about ten crewmen to free the trapped man. Mark climbed over the mast, wedging himself between the wale and the mast to take advantage of the superior strength of his legs. While he was struggling against the great weight of the mast, he saw Edward still holding fast to some rigging a short distance away. They could have used his strength right then.
Mark called out to the Prince, "Edward! Help us!"
Edward did not budge. "Leave him!" he shouted. "He's as good as dead anyway! You're all going get swept over!"
However unsurprising it was, Mark was nevertheless galled at Edward's total devotion to self-preservation. The ship rolled in the other direction, causing the broken mast to move just enough for them to extract the crewman. Sadly, his ribcage had been smashed in and he was already in his death throes.
Much to the shock of his fellow crewmen, Sonia put him out of his misery with a jab from her sgian dubh. Although mercy killings were far from rare on the Continent, it did not seem to be the case in Arma. Fear and the immediate danger of the storm kept the crewmen from giving a voice to their outrage. Seeing the look on their faces, Mark knew he had to do what he could to make sure it did not happen again.
He put his hand on Sonia's shoulder. "I'm going to get help."
Before Sonia could protest, he was already on his way. Clinging to the wale, Mark pulled himself forward hand over hand to get back below decks. It was slower than making a run for it, but given how the ship was rolling, he probably would have never made it. He found Stefan sitting outside Catherine's room just as they had left him.
"Stefan," Mark said, "the ship can't take much more of this. We need your help."
He had hoped the Water Pendant would have some effect on the waves, but the way Stefan looked at him, he might as well have asked the fighter to beat back the storm with his bare hands.
"Fool!" Stefan snapped. "How do you expect me to take on the entire sea!?"
Mark did not waste any time arguing with him. If Stefan was unwilling to even try, there was nothing Mark could do about it. Trying to figure out what he should do, the swordsman decided that the best thing was help get the others back below decks. If they could not help the Captain and crew, they could at least get out of the way.
Just as he emerged up top, the ship leaned hard to port but did not right itself. Mark could hear shouts from the Captain and several crewmen, but he did not know what they were saying.
Giles seemed to know what was going on and shouted to the others, "It's a hull breach! We're taking on water!"
The situation had just gotten dramatically worse. If they were taking on water, there was not much to stop the ship from sinking. It was no safer below decks than up top. Mark's mind raced. What to do?
There was a single longboat, but it could not hold any more than twelve people. It would fit everyone in the group, but it would be at the cost of the entire crew, some sixty souls in all. Even if Mark could conscience such a thing, there was not much guarantee the longboat could survive the storm any better.
In the end, the storm decided for him. The ship was now on its side. Anyone who did not have a firm grip on something slid into the water. The ship continued to tip. The snapping of the foremast was the last thing Mark remembered before the ship completed its roll. Once the ship capsized, there was nothing to save them from being claimed by the sea.