SONS OF THE SEA
The galley’s sleek hull sliced through the green sea like a dagger through frothing ale. It’s pointed bow, painted like the beak of a giant hawk, cut through the waves as if it were a predator about to pierce its prey. That prey was just visible from the Raptor’s fore deck. Captain Tilla glowered at the billowing red sails of the Sea Elf fleet on the horizon. His own sails hung limp, unable to find the wind. Tilla spit on the deck and turned on his second in command. “Rilk, double the oars.” Tilla spoke calmly, but he was seething inside. “Aye, Sir!” Rilk spun about and marched smartly, confidently, toward the mid ship and shouted down to the oar deck. “Oar master! Double time!” “Double time, sir,” the oar master acknowledged the command and nodded at his drummer to set the faster pace with his massive kettle shaped drum. “Alright, you scum. It's time to work!” The big oar master stalked down the gangway between rows of benches and cracked his whip to make sure that the one hundred fifty slaves on two rowing decks were paying attention. The fleet had picked up fresh slaves in its last port just two weeks ago and the oar master knew how to get speed out of them. A ship was never faster than when it had fresh slaves. Of course, having any wind at all would have helped too. The lack of wind was not the only source of Captain Tilla’s anger. He felt like he was wasting time, and effort. Tilla, was a professional though, and kept his thoughts to himself. Those that knew him already understood what was on his mind anyway. Admiral Thuril, for all of his strengths, was a better politician than a sailor. His orders, disregarding the advice of several of his seasoned captains, Tilla included, had been to separate into four commands and pursue the small enemy raiding fleets. His intent was to destroy them before they could withdraw to friendly seas or join together into a force comparable to Thuril’s own large armada. Tilla and others preferred a naval blockade of Atlean, the elven capitol. Expensive though it would be, a blockade would force the elusive elven ships into a decisive fight. A fight which the heavily timbered northern war galleys would have an advantage in. Instead Tilla’s command of twenty-seven heavy war galleys pursued a smaller fleet of ten sea elf ships. The sea elves in their famously fast and nimble galleys easily outmaneuvered Tilla, as they did the other commanders, time and again. The strength of Thuril’s Armada, assembled at great expense by the coastal kingdoms, was certainly not in its speed or maneuverability. Even the smallest of the one hundred forty three galleys under Thuril’s command were floating fortresses of thick oak, and Iron. Tilla’s ship, the Raptor, was one of the armada’s largest and fastest and boasted two hundred fighting men, well armed and well trained. One hundred fifty slaves helped move the Raptor at faster speeds over short distances, and the ship itself was designed as a weapon to pierce or crush enemy ships by ramming into their sides. In contrast, the largest ship of the sea elves only carried seventy-five warriors, but even that vessel, slow by elven standards, was still quicker than the fastest ship Tilla now led. The ships Tilla was now pursuing were riding a weak wind from the east that carried them west, but in order for them to continue to evade him they would have to turn south again, around the large peninsula they were now skirting. Elven ships carried rowing slaves as well, but their speed was in their sails and when they turned south they would have no more help from the wind, giving Tilla a chance at catching them due to his superior oar banks. There was a chance that his prey would attempt to keep running west, but more specks on the western horizon told him otherwise. Although he could not make out their descriptions, Tilla counted at least fifty ships shadowing his movement south and was certain it must be either Captain Voss, or Admiral Thuril, both having had the two largest battle groups out of the divided Armada. He wasn’t sure if they were intentionally helping him hunt or pursuing victims of their own, but he was sure that the fleeing sea elf commander would have no choice but to assume the worst and try to avoid heading towards them. With a little luck, and some hard rowing he would have some loot to divide up and maybe even an elven ship to sell to merchants back in port. Tilla searched the cloudless sky for an omen and rubbed the copper sun amulet at his neck for good luck. The hot sun had moved more than two hand widths before the elven ships rounded the end of the peninsula and started turning south. Tilla was pleased with their direction, if he was able to catch them he wouldn’t have to divide the loot with the commander of whichever group was to his west. He had closed some distance by correctly anticipating the direction his adversary would turn, not much but it was enough to give him the hope of a catch. Glancing west he studied the horizon again. The battle group shadowing his had moved a little closer, seemingly headed for the peninsula as well. It didn’t matter what they did now, there would be no way for them to assist him. Any fight would likely take place to far south for them to affect. Tilla turned his gaze south again and studied the red sails. They still looked full of wind. Damn, but elves were good sailors. A glance up at his own sheets told him that the wind had not shifted. They were headed southwest, in an attempt to keep their speed up and still be far enough south to avoid the larger force in the west. Tilla cursed and sprinted up the few steps behind him to the aft deck pushing the rudderman out of the way. Leaning on the rudder, he brought the Raptor’s nose around to the southwest until the sails began to ripple. Eyeing his prey and the western ships again Tilla was confident that he could still intercept the ten elven ships. The elven commander was either very brave or very foolish. What the elves were attempting was the equivalent of a fly attempting to pass between a smith’s hammer and an anvil. He may end up having to share the plunder after all. “Hold this course,” Tilla patted the rudderman on the shoulder, and forced a smile, as he handed the rudder back then turned to face the main deck. “Master Rilk, ready the marines.” Tilla knew this was about to be a massacre and he relished the thought of slaughtering his enemy, even if it wasn’t how he wanted it to work out. For the moment he wasn’t bothered by the inevitable squabbling over credit for victory and over shares of plunder, because he could smell victory. The other twenty six ships under Captain Tilla’s command followed his lead and turned south west. Moving back to the foredeck Captain Tilla watched his two hundred warrior marines assemble while he waited for his armor to be brought to him. Like all of the galley captains from the coastal kingdoms of Rhodia Tilla was nobility. The custom in Rhodia as in many civilized realms was for the eldest son to inherit the entirety of his father’s estates leaving other sons with no land to provide them wealth. This is just, and as it should be. To break such reasonable traditions of civilization is to threaten its foundation and very existence. The wise rulers of Rhodia had long ago expanded the tradition of the eldest receiving his father’s property. Rhodian nobility had assigned rights to each son of a landed noble based on their order of birth. Second sons, like Victor Tilla, were reserved the right of the sea. The right of the sea gave a nobleman the privilege of owning warships and of plunder. By specifying these rights, Rhodian nobility had provided young nobles with a means to become wealthy and powerful without fighting their brothers. Another result was an incredibly large and strong navy. Rhodian war galleys had dominated the coasts of the Emerald Sea for centuries. Even the indomitable Kingdoms of the Titans had abandoned their own naval ambitions and now entirely relied on Rhodian merchants for what little trade they conducted. Rhodian fleets had served as mercenaries in dozens of conflicts across the realms of men and elves. There was only one other navy of significance that remained among the nations that surrounded the vast green waters of the Emerald Sea. That most ancient race of elves, the sea elves whom, if you believe the legends, first taught man to grow, build and sail, was still superior in both its seamanship and at building ships. Though now their fleets were reduced in size through lack of timber. Until recently the Sea Elf kings of Atlean had been valued trade partners, allies and even friends to the kings of Rhodia. That changed when Captain Tilla was still a boy. The High King of Rhodia, the Ever King, had decreed that wood, as well as some other materials were no longer to be traded with the elves of Atlea. The metropolis of Atlea was larger and grander than any city of man, and its wealth was truly immeasurable, but it did have one need that it could not easily meet itself. Timber was virtually non-existent in Atlea, and the best place to get it was Rhodia. When the Sea Elves started settling and harvesting timber in the wild lands, a realm claimed by, but not controlled by the Rhodian Ever King, they were asserting their own ancient claims on the great western forests. The Ever King had responded by cutting off the trade of timber to Atlea and by decreeing that Rhodian “sons of the sea,” or second born nobles, were free to capture, plunder and enslave any ships illegally harvesting timber from the realm of Rhodia. Retaliation upon retaliation had mounted until ships of Atlea and Rhoda both raided, plundered, looted and burned merchant ships, towns and settlements of their neighbors across the sea. Tilla’s armor arrived, carried by his page, Valik. The young man was tall, strong, and obedient. Victor Tilla was proud to call Valik family. The second son of Victor’s cousin, Valik Tilla did honor to the family’s name. He was youthful and needed the hard lessons that days like today would bring if he were to successfully command his own galley one day, but he already showed aptitude and potential. Valik began lacing Victor’s steel scaled leather armor up after helping Victor pull it over his head. It was not the best protection he could have worn, but Victor knew he needed to be faster more than protected when he jumped aboard an enemy ship. His oath sworn warriors close by his side, shields interlocked, were better protection than any armor. Waiting for Valik to finish fastening the leather straps to his Armor, Victor watched his only other family member on board the Raptor. His second in command, Rilk Idan, was his mother’s brother’s second son. Rilk inspected the marines who now stood in formation. He was thorough, focused and friendly while simultaneously projecting his ability for unrestrained savagery. Men followed Rilk naturally, and it had crossed Victor’s mind several times that the younger man was probably already one of the best galley captains in Rhodia; he just needed a ship. Victor contemplated rewarding Rilk with his own ship, instead of selling it if they captured one. Perhaps if Valik proved himself capable of assuming Rilk’s role as second today, then it was time for Rilk to have his own ship. After all, having a second warship sworn to him would certainly not hurt his own standing, Victor thought. Valik finished fastening the armor and began to place Victors helmet on. He took it from the boy’s hands. He had been a year younger than Valik for his first boarding. “I’ve got this boy, get your gear on and report back to me,” Victor did not have to watch the boy to know he was excited. Valik ran past the ranks of marines to his small cabin without saying a word. He was sporting a grin that only the youth can muster. The Ship’s were all starting to close in now. The elve’s ships kept steering farther south and losing the wind, allowing the hard work of the pursuer’s slaves to draw Tilla’s force steadily closer. The larger force of galleys to the west was still at a considerable distance, but now close enough to clearly see the cross sparring of their masts. The western ships were now fighting the wind so their sails were furled. Tilla’s rudder man knew his job and was keeping the Raptor and the ships following her, just to the west of the elves, in case they turned west again in an attempt to flee. They were almost close enough now that for the Elven ships to turn would mean they would be rammed in the side. Now was the sprint for the finish line. “Ramming Speed,” Victor called out from the fore deck, his back to the enemy, taking in the glorious sight of his warriors arrayed for the butchers work. He felt his heart start to accelerate, but forced his speech and demeanor to remain steady. Men needed their captain to be unflinching. To show excitement told a man's warriors he was inexperienced. “Ramming Speed!” Rilk echoed to the Oar Master down below. Victor, heard the drums quicken and the whip crack. He had pushed the slaves hard to get this close and knew he would probably have a few die from this final effort. It was unfortunate, but winning required pushing harder than your enemy. “Archers to the fore deck!” Victor moved to one side of the deck to make room for his warriors who carried short bows in addition to their round shield and short sword. Then the Elven ships turned west. They had waited until the last moment Tilla thought, trying to get as far south as possible to avoid the larger group of galleys to the west. For a moment the sleek Elven galleys almost stopped in the water, before the wind caught their sails and they started gaining speed. That short moment was all Tilla’s ships needed to close the final distance. The Elven galleys loomed large on the waves in front Tilla's force. Gold patterns reflected the day's dim light from their red sails. The Elven decks sat low in the water. They were sleek and fast. Like smooth balanced arrows with deadly steel tips. Arrows that Tilla anticipated breaking in half. Whips tore slave flesh and warriors on Raptor and the other leading galleys of Tilla’s force braced for the impending impact. Taking a knee and gripping nearby rigging Victor was aware of Valik’s presence nearby. He glanced to his rear to ensure the boy was bracing himself and not about to be thrown overboard when they hit the smaller Elven galley centered in the enemy fleets formation. Valik, was kneeling, still grinning. Victor looked over the rail of his foredeck. Elven warriors and crew scrambled to brace themselves on their own deck about the height of a man below the deck of the Raptor. Elven oars snapped and splintered like ribs hewn by a great spiked ax as the Raptor's pointed steel covered prow crushed them before hammering a gaping hole and lodging into the Elven hull. Victor was on his feet, shield in hand, before the ships had stopped rocking from the great collision. The noise had been like thunder, but Victor hadn't noticed. His mind had already discarded unnecessary details so that it could focus entirely on killing, on victory. He stood on the very front of his deck, overlooking the scene just below him. His archers were pressed behind him, ceaselessly pouring arrows into the Elven warriors below who had not recovered from the impact of Raptor's crippling blow. The warriors of Victor Tilla had defeated over a dozen enemy war crews in the last three years and raided countless ports, cargo ships, and coastal towns. His men knew their work. Although his approximately fifty Rhodian archers were no match for the legendary Elven archers they now fought they still had the advantage. Not even elves could aim well with a deck nearly capsizing beneath them, and at this extremely close range his archers didn't need to be very accurate. Most elves on the deck were dying or fleeing over the far side of the deck into the sea. Some organized themselves behind their shields at the bow of their doomed ship. Arrows wouldn't be any good against a shield wall, but Tilla had an answer for that too. Covering his body with his round shield, against any lucky Elven arrows, Victor looked back over his right shoulder and drew his short sword, making eye contact with Eager Valik, Rilk and the sword warriors pressed behind them. The archers on either side of the boarding party continued to clear the deck of any opposition. Without a word Victor turned back to the enemy and stepped off into the air dropping to the enemy deck as calmly as if he were stepping out of bed in the morning. His warriors followed him, hungry for blood and loot. Victor took in the scene on the roiling green waters around the Raptor and it's listing victim as he fell. To his left other galleys plowed into the column of fleeing ships. Smoke rose from one of them. On his right three Elven ships had narrowly avoided the same fate as their peers. No less than ten of the ships from victors force now pursued them into the jaws of the larger western fleet, that drew ever closer. On the deck Victor directed his killers. "Rilk, take twenty and clear the rear, then start unloading her. The rest of you with me. Shields up!" The growing number of men formed a shielded mass from one side of the dying ship to the other. They methodically moved toward the bow killing the wounded. Rilk would clear the cabins behind them and search for anything valuable. Victor would deal with the warriors. The deck between Victor's men and the Elven warriors was clear except for broken timbers and writhing enemy pierced by arrows. Those had their throats cut by the marines. The killing was not out of mercy, but experience. Even a mortally wounded enemy could find the will to inflict a killing wound when he was ignored. The marines tightened their formation as they closed with the cornered Elves. The deck beneath their feet rocked on the waves, and spreading blood made the oak planks slick. Spike soled boots gripped the deck as men and elves alike leaned into their front ranks, shields held high to protect those ahead of them. Victor lost sight of the elf to his front as the enemy shields pressed against each other. His own men were just as tight around him. He could barely move, but managed to stab his short sword over his shield in the small opening between it and Valik's. He struck something, drew back and stabbed again harder. Again he drew back but dropped his arm low and stabbed from under his shield through the hole where it's rounded edge overlapped his neighbor's. He felt flesh, twisted the blade and withdrew it. The elf had raised his shield to protect his face from Victor's first thrusts. It was a natural reaction but in a shield wall one had to learn to trust his brothers. The man behind you had to protect your head. If you didn't trust him you'd only make yourself vulnerable. Victor had placed Valik behind him in his own shield wall. That was as a sign of trust to his cousin's son but also showed his men that he would not ask them to trust the unproven warrior if he was not willing to first. Victor felt his enemies shield shift against his as it dropped to cover the leg wound he had inflicted. Victor stabbed at the elves face again and struck him in the mouth. After a fight Victor could never remember the sound of battle. The metal on metal, the splintering wood, shattering bones and the shrieking of the dying and the enraged alike. He could remember how these things felt though. Although he didn't hear it Victor felt the breaking teeth and tearing flesh as he pulled his sword free from his opponent. He felt his own shield shudder from an axe blow. The elf still stood but swung his ax wildly screaming an unintelligible elven threat through his mangled face. Victor held fast, pressing his shield into the enemy. The marine to his left, Garl, a big man from the northern tribes, stabbed between their shields and buried his short sword in the flailing elve’s armpit. The elf wriggled uncontrollably trapping the sword in his body as the shield that had been protecting him from overhead blows pushed him down and took his place in the front. Garl let the stuck sword go before his exposed hand was hacked off and drew his heavy bladed knife. The fight continued as men and elves cut and stabbed at each other in a desperate struggle. A deck fight was always bitter and ruthless. There was no escape, no out running an overpowering foe. There was no way to describe the joy and pride of triumph. Victor's men knew they would win and the elves knew they would die. It was just a matter of heartbeats until the elves were pounded and ground into their own deck by the spiked boots of the marines; either that or pushed wholly into the sea. The marines had found their rhythm and pushed the ragged and outnumbered Elven warriors closer to the bow. Their rear rank cried out as they lost their footing and started to fall. Some frantically grabbed at the back or legs of their comrades. Panic gripped the elves and they were slaughtered. Some tried to surrender, and a few succeeded. Most were cut down by the Raptors warriors in their blood fueled frenzy. At the bow Tilla’s warriors came to the narrow stairs that turned back to the stern of the ship as they descended. Below would be the slaves and any warriors who had hidden below deck. Blood spattered men pressed past Victor and down to the hold. He let them go and turned to Valik. The youth was grinning from ear to ear. "See to the oar deck and the hold. Ensure it is clear and then get everything valuable to top deck to be loaded." Victor turned away before Valik could respond. It was good for the youth to be excited. Victor knew his veterans would take care of what needed to be done, with or without direction. He pointed at one of the warriors waiting to get down below. "Grab four others and strip the dead, then run the nets," Tilla diverted the man. If the archers had done their secondary job the cargo nets should already be hanging off of the Raptor on to the slowly listing Elven deck, ready to receive plunder. Weapons, armor, slaves, gold if he was lucky, and if there was time food and cargo from the hold below the elve’s oar deck would provide enough wealth to pay Victor's warriors for several months. It was apparent that he would not be capturing a ship this day. The enemy fleet was being torn apart too quickly. Victor started walking toward the stern to see how Rilk and the other warriors had fared, but not before glancing west at the three elven ships. He wondered if there was any chance that the vessels had surrendered instead of trying to fight through superior numbers. Maybe he could demand one as plunder. There were too many ships on the sea to distinguish them now. Bending to examine a Richly armored corpse Victor dismissed the three ships that had evaded him. Judging from the intricate mithril helmet he picked up this must have been the ship’s captain. An arrow protruded from the dead elf's face. Victor laughed to himself, at the irony of such a lucky arrow shot by one of his men. He thought he must reward his archers, they had made this an easier victory. He sheathed his sword and walked to greet Rilk who emerged from a cabin, covered in blood, grinning and carrying a small chest. "Gold" Rilk hefted the box, as if he needed to explain why he was carrying it. Victor nodded, not showing his pleasure. "Get back on Raptor and keep track of what we send up. Any casualties?" "No, sir," Rilk responded passing the chest up to a leaning archer before pulling himself up by the ropes that held the netting. Men began making their way to the nets from the cabins with bags, chests, and arm loads of all variety of trinkets. Clothes, armor, candles, scrolls, even the elf captain's mistress found herself in the Raptor's nets. Weapons and more armor filled the nets gathered from the deck. Then the slaves were lead up from below, compliant and terrified. The slaves were a ragged lot. They stumbled across the deck, seemingly dumbstruck and half blinded after too long in the dark. Waiting nooses were fastened under their arms and hauled up by the archers. About half of the slaves were elves. Some were dark men from the distant Southlands and others were the red haired men from the wild lands a few even had the blue eyes and golden hair of the Northmen, many more were men from Rhodia or the Titans' realms. All of them were gaunt and frail looking. The slaves had no shackles but each wore the iron anklet common to galley slaves. The anklet had an iron ring that a chain could pass through to lock a gang of rowers into their bench. These would be sent to the hold and not the bench. They were worn out and most would be sold. Rilk shouted something from the Raptor's deck, interrupting Victors study of his new cargo. The words weren't clear but Rilk waived emphatically toward the west. The scene to the west made no sense to Victor. The ships under his command were tangled with the nearest ships of the western fleet. As he pushed his way through slaves and warriors Captain Tilla realized what he was seeing. Disaster, Tilla saw disaster. The large western fleet he had counted on blocking his fleeing prey had been hunting him. The Elves outnumbered him two to one and already the twelve of his galleys who had pursued the three fleeing ships were being overwhelmed. The Elven galleys rowed steadily approaching the surprised Rhodian ships who had expected allies. Elven archers slaughtered exposed Rhodian warriors as they passed them leaving the weakened galleys to be boarded by the rearmost ships in the Elven fleet. "Back up! Back up!" Victor yelled at his men, pointing them back to Raptor. He could not keep the emotion from his voice. Men were suddenly scrambling, pushing the frail slaves out of their way. Victor ran to the Elven ship's hold where Valik still searched the decks with some of the men. He jumped down the steps, knocking warrior and slave a like, out of his way. "All hands!" He bellowed, "back to Raptor!" Men started towards him quickly, alarmed at his uncharacteristic urgency. Victor moved to the side to let them pass. Where was Valik? He saw Garl pull the younger man up out of a cargo hold by the arm. "Let's go!" He waived up the steps, not responding to Valik's questioning look. Back on deck the situation was only worsening. The Elven fleet had drawn up on line reversing their oars to stop dead in the water. Behind their line twelve Rhodian galleys sat still surrounded by yet more Elven ships, their decks swarming with the activity of boarding parties. Surprised and overwhelmed the first Rhodian ships were completely cut off from Tilla's remaining fifteen ships still mired in the wreckage of their victim’s hulls. There was no hope of escape. The Elven warships remained on line. Tilla would have rammed head on into the exposed Rhodian flank had he been the Elven commander. As Tilla climbed the netting back to Raptor's deck he saw the first volley of arrows arch into the sky, their trails marked by lines of black smoke. The flaming missiles smacked into his hull. Men hollered and ran to extinguish the flames. "Reverse oars! Reverse oars!" Victor shouted cresting the deck of his ship. Rilk had anticipated the order and was yelling at the oar master when a flaming arrow knocked his left leg out from underneath him. He fell violently into the open hold, his helmet bouncing hard off of the upper deck’s edge before he crashed below, arms flailing. Victor didn't bother to see if all of his men followed him or if any were stranded on the sinking Elven hull. There was no time. The Raptor slowly withdrew its prow from the entangling elven wreckage. Victor ran to the spot Rilk had stood, to direct the oar master. "Left bank forward!" Victor forced himself to regain his composure. If Victor Tilla, second son of Lord Illian Tilla was to die today then his enemies would remember it as a day of loss and recall to their children the spiteful defiance that the Rhodian warriors showed. The Raptor slowly turned its armored hull towards its assailants. Flaming quills struck the great ships deck and crew. Tilla’s warriors massed on the fore deck, shields held high against each other, determined to weather the storm of fiery darts until their own ship would have a turn to punish their tormentors. The fear and threat of panic faded from Victor's consciousness replaced only by pride, resolve, and anger. Finally the galley faced the enemy. Flaming arrows continued to rain down on the Raptor and the other Rhodian galleys. "Forward! Ramming speed!" Victor ordered the oar master before going to join his men on the fore deck. Below Rilk groaned on the deck floor. Blood oozed from his head as the oars moved rapidly around him. As the Raptor bore down on the smaller Elven galleys the withering fiery arrows suddenly stopped. The world seemed still for a moment save for the rhythm of the Raptors oars that matched her big drum. The sky was clear, Victor remarked how blue it was, not even a cloud he thought. Victor watched as the clay pots lofted into the air, seemingly floated in that flawless sky and then plummeted toward his deck. The clay vessels launched from the Elven decks smashed on the Raptor spraying oil across its strong oak planks as well as the shields faces and legs of its warriors. Instantly the countless small flames threatening Captain Tilla's galley erupted into fiery demons that flung men clear of the deck and lit its timbers into a blaze fit for a nobleman's funeral pyre. The oars stopped and hung limp in the water as slaves panicked and pulled at their chains. A sail burst into flames. Black smoke poured up into the heavens. From the water where he had landed Tilla would have seen the rest of his ships flee away from the elves, but his eyes were gone, burned like the rest of his face. He was barely aware that he couldn't breath as the weight of his armor pulled him deeper into the green waters of the Emerald Sea. He was a second son, a son of the sea, and she had summoned him to her realm.