ZIHAEN, The Shadow of the Revenaunt, Book 2


The Orange temple of Hathnorm looked deserted, as if everybody had fled. Ghyll heard Bo’s disapproving sniff. The heavy bronze doors stood open, and through them, they entered a pungent fog hanging between the buildings. One of the horses whinnied in protest.

Ghyll sneezed twice. Then he looked up and his eyes widened in dismay. The night sky above the city was red and everywhere columns of black smoke climbed upward into the windless air. ‘Dear Gods!’ Without another word, he threw himself into the saddle and rode as fast as the uneven cobblestones allowed in the direction of the glow.

The streets were empty except for a stray dog ​​searching the dark corners for something edible. At this hour of the night, most houses had their shutters closed, and Ghyll supposed the good citizens were praying the fire would keep to the harbor side. He understood their fear; Yanthemonde was old, and though it was the largest port on the continent, most of its houses were made of wood, with thatched roofs, and built so close together that the tops of the sagging facades were almost touching.

After a fast ride through the winding streets, they arrived at the naval base. Here, the road ran steeply down and offered a good view over the northern dockyard.

‘Oh no!’ Ghyll reined in his horse and stared at the burning chaos. The others gathered around him. Nobody said anything – no expression was strong enough for the spectacle below them. Central to the harbor was the long stone quay, following the coastline for a distance of at least a mile. From it, long wooden piers ran into the sea, each flanked by one or two war caravels. Thirty ships in total, half of Rhidauna’s naval fleet, they were burning like so many haystacks. The piers with their wooden cranes had collapsed and were drifting like smoldering wreckage between the skeletons of vessels. On the landward side, with their backs to the city, were the bulging warehouses and workshops for the maintenance and supply of the fleet. Luckily, most of these were stone-built, and it was clear that all available manpower was directed into trying to prevent the flames from spreading to the wooden houses on the other side of the palisade.

Mo said something in an Opitian dialect, while he touched one shoulder and then another.

‘May Dragos support you,’ echoed Zino.

A safe distance from the flames hung a skyboat, which meant that the troops had arrived. The glowing night sky was free of enemies and all the Guards Ghyll saw were helping the sailors fight the many fires.

Slowly they rode through the base, while the smoke penetrated their elegant court dresses. Here and there, someone looked up and rubbed his eyes as he saw them pass, but most were so busy they had no eyes for anything but their share of the fire. Too late for the ships, Ghyll thought. Maybe they could save the warehouses and their precious stocks.

At one point, they came to a group of sailors taking a breather. When the men saw Ghyll, their eyes went wide with amazement. They didn’t recognize him, but a group of richly dressed nobles amidst the burning wreckage was beyond their comprehension.

‘Who are you?’ asked Ghyll, and hastily they snatched their caps off.

‘We’re the crew of the Aweel, lord,’ said one of them, a bearded, older man. ‘Were the crew, I’d say.’ He gestured to the burnt ribs of a small ship visible in the water. ‘That was her, lord, the fastest cog ship of the fleet.’

‘Your vessel wasn’t laid up?’ asked Ghyll in surprise.

‘Oh no, lord, we didn’t belong here. The Aweel was the post ship of the Southern fleet. The messengers of the Admiral, we were.’ He glanced proudly around him, but then his shoulders slumped again. ‘Ah well, our ship’s on the bottom just like the others. Zoander’s holy balls, who expects a fire ship in Yanthemonde?’

‘You have seen how it happened?’

The men all began talking, but the man with the beard motioned for them to shut up. He pointed at the sea. ‘There’s the harbor mouth, lord. Strange enough, the chain was down and the ship came in under full sail. It was a merchant ship; she shouldn’t have been here. She carried Opit’s flag, lord, and we supposed the skipper mistook the right entry. This has happened before with strangers. When she got closer, we saw smoke coming from the hatches and then the sails began to burn. Her bowsprit smashed into the ship next to us and a horde of black-clad figures clambered over our deck to the jetty. We had nothing to fight with, lord. We are messengers, nothing more. We all jumped overboard and that saved us, because then the birds came, burning birds! You will not believe me, lord, but I swear it’s the truth.’

His mates began to mutter, nodding affirmatively.

‘I believe you,’ said Ghyll. ‘We have seen these birds before. They are a vile magic we will exterminate. Do you know where I can find the harbor master?’

The man pointed to a smoldering building. ‘That was Harbor House, lord. The capt’n and his staff were there; no one escaped, it happened that fast. All that tarred wood burning like a torch, woof.’ The man waved his arms in imitation of the flames. ‘They were working through the night, to be free tomorrow, you see. Then’s the coronation celebrations and everyone wanted to be there. The fleet had to be readied first, admiral’s orders, so they worked extra shifts. It was all for nothing, in the end. Navy Guard’s in charge now, lord.’ The man spat into the water and mumbled something unintelligible. ‘We’ll all be laid off,’ he said sourly. ‘No ships, no work. Who will be the dupe? The sailors.’

Ghyll shook his head. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be discharged. We’ll rebuild the harbor and the fleet and you’ll still be required. Until then we’ll find something else for you to do.’

The bearded man looked at him skeptically. ‘You think so? I hope the admiral agrees with you, lord.’

Ghyll grinned. ‘You can bet on it, man.’ He nodded and spurred his horse. As they drove away the sailor cried, ‘How can you be so sure, lord?’

Torril lifted the banner up and shouted, ‘He is the king!’

While the sailors gaped after them, Ghyll went in search of someone in charge.

At the end of the harbor, where the quay ended in a mountain spur, was a single, undamaged two-master. It lay with sails furled, a sleeping sea draken. On deck were two men caught up in a heated discussion.

‘Is that the commanding officer?’ said Olle doubtfully.

‘At least it’s an officer.’ Ghyll dismounted and limped up the ramp, with Torril on his heels. On board, he looked around. Everything seemed orderly, but apart from the two men, there wasn’t a soul in sight.

‘Lieutenant, I must have my people back,’ said the first one, a man in a naval captain’s uniform. ‘The admiral is waiting for my report.’

The Guard officer shook his head. ‘Impossible, Captain; the firefighting has priority. The entire base is at stake. My instructions are clear: We’ll need your sailors here as long as there’s a spark to be seen. If you want to reach your admiral, use a portal.’

The ship’s captain looked stubborn. He raised his chin and clenched his fists. ‘I can’t leave my ship, man; that’s against the fighting instructions.’

Before the Guard lieutenant could answer, Ghyll had reached the quarterdeck. ‘Who is in charge here?’

The two men turned around. They saw the squire with the royal banner and the blond young man in his court clothes, and their mouths dropped open in surprise.

The young Naval Guard officer had a quicker wit and jumped to attention. ‘Lieutenant Sellain of the Naval Corps, Royal Highness. I’m speaking for Captain Theverain, who leads the fire fighting. This is Captain Stelborg, the skipper of the carrack Queen Milliane.’

‘Welcome aboard, Royal Highness,’ said the ship’s captain hastily. ‘I’m sorry that I cannot receive you officially, but my crew…’ He gestured over the railing into the smoking ruins.

‘I understand your men are doing their duty, Captain Stelborg. I got the impression there was a problem?’

‘Well, you see,’ began Sellain carefully. ‘Captain Stelborg’s sailors are required to help against the fires. But…’

Stelborg interrupted him. ‘I have an urgent message for my superior, Admiral Marhaunse, Sire. Only I can’t sail without a crew and Captain Theverain refuses to let them go.’

Ghyll looked straight at him. ‘Under the circumstances, I can imagine that your men can’t be missed here. What have you to report, Captain?’

The ship’s captain hesitated, but then he realized to whom he spoke. ‘We were on our regular patrol, Sire, from our home port of Ribarin through Stormaire Island to here and back. Just before we reached Stormaire Bay, we saw a strange sail to port. A drakenboat, Sire. We have the strictest instructions to stop those ships, so I set off in pursuit. Unfortunately, the drakenboat was faster than we were and after a while, we lost sight of her at Despraine, a hundred miles off the coast of Mathauna. Are you acquainted with Despraine, Sire? It is a large island, rising from the sea like an upturned bucket, with a ring of reefs and rocks that makes an approach dangerous. The water is too shallow for the Milliane, so I had to give up the chase. My lookout in the mainmast reported smoke over the island. Strange, because Despraine has been uninhabited ever since that terrible epidemic killed all the inhabitants, and no sensible person will set foot ashore. There was not enough wind to sail all around the island, so I decided to go directly to Yanthemonde, in the hope of finding one of my superiors here. Instead I found… this.’ With a gesture of frustration, he pointed around.

Ghyll looked at him thoughtfully. A drakenboat at an island off the coast; that called for further investigation. ‘Thank you, Captain, an interesting report; I will discuss it with the admiral. You can rest your mind; you have done your duty. No doubt you will get your men back as soon as possible.’

Sellain nodded vigorously. ‘Certainly; once the fires are extinguished. You can count on it, Captain Stelborg.’

‘Good,’ said Ghyll. ‘Now this is settled, Lieutenant, would you bring us to your commander?’

The young lieutenant saluted. ‘Of course, Royal Highness.’

Ghyll gave a nod to the distressed ship’s captain and left the ship. The Guard officer led them to one of the few buildings that had escaped the fire. Koordwauns Ropewalk, it said with large letters on the whitewashed wall.

Through the low doorway, they stepped into a large open space where rope-makers normally produced the lines, cables and hawsers for the fleet. The pleasant smell of hemp, tar and linseed oil masked the outside reek of burning. To the left was an office, for the owner or perhaps the master rope-maker. In his place, they found Captain Theverain, a graying Naval Guard officer. His report was broadly the same as that of the Aweel’s crew. The one new thing he told them was that the attackers had seized the flagship Prince Halban and three war caravels, the only ships ready to sail.

‘Seen enough?’ asked Ghyll, when they got outside.

Mo nodded. ‘I never thought those birds were so dangerous. I’m afraid I’m cutting my visit short, Ghyll, this is something I want to discuss with my own generals.’

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