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Hawkwood and the Kings

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Hawkwood and the Kings

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Author: Paul Kearney
Publisher: Solaris, 2010
Series: The Monarchies of God

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Historical Fantasy
Sword and Sorcery
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The world is in turmoil. In the east the savage Merduks, followers of the Prophet Ahrimuz, have captured the holy city of Aekir. The western kingdoms are too distracted by internecine bickering to intervene and the Chruch seems more obsessed with rooting out heresy. It is an age where men go to the stake for the taint of magic in their blood, where gunpowder and cannon co-exit with werewolves and sorcerers. It is the turning point when two get reilgions will fight to the death and the common folk will struggle to merely survive.

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The wind picked up as the crew were unfastening the sail and sent it flapping and booming across the waist like some huge, frightened bird. The ship gave a lurch, staggering Hawkwood at his station. He looked over the side to see that the waves were transforming themselves into vast, slate-grey monsters with fringes of roaring foam at their tops.

The Osprey was plunging into a great water-sided abyss every few seconds, then rising up and up and up the side of the next wave, the green seas choking her forecastle and pouring in a torrent all the way down her waist. And the light failed. The clouds seemed to close in overhead, bringing on an early twilight. The storm Hawkwood had expected and feared was almost upon them.

'All hands!' Hawkwood roared above the screaming wind. 'All hands on deck!'

The order was echoed down in the waist by Billerand, thigh-deep in coursing water. They had the sail in a bundle and were dragging it below-decks. A forgotten keg rolled back and forth in the scuppers, crashing off the upper-deck guns. Hawkwood fought his way over to the hatch in the quarter-deck that opened on the tiller-deck below.

'Tiller there!' How does she handle?'

The men were choked with the water that was rushing aft, struggling to contain the manic wrenchings of the tiller.

'She's a point off sir! We need more hands here.'

'You shall have them. Rig relieving-tackles as soon as you are able, and bring her head round to larboard three points. We have to get her before the wind.'

'Aye sir!'

Men were pouring out of the companionways, looking for orders.

'All hands to reduce sail!' Hawkwood shouted. 'Take in those topsails lads. Billerand, I want four more men on the tiller. Velasca, send a party below-decks to make sure the guns are bowsed up tight. I don't want any of them coming loose.'

The crew splintered into fragments, each intent on his duty. Soon the rigging was black with men climbing the shrouds to the topmasts. Hawkwood squinted through the rain and the driving spray, trying to make out how much strain the topmasts were taking. He would put the ship before the wind and scud along under bare poles. It would mean they would lose leagues of their latitude, but that could not be helped.

A tearing rip, as violent as the crack of a gun. The foretopsail had split from top to bottom. A moment later the two halves were blasted out of their bolt-holes and were flying in rags from the yard. Hawkwood cursed.

A man who was nothing but a screaming dark blur plunged from the rigging and vanished into the heaving turmoil of the sea.

'Man overboard!' someone yelled, uselessly. There was no way they could heave-to to pick someone up, not in this wind. For the men on the yards, a foot put wrong would mean instant death.

The men eased themselves out on the topsail yards, leaning over to grasp fistful after fistful of the madly billowing canvas. The masts themselves were describing great arcs as the ship plunged and came up again, one moment flattening the sailor's bellies against the wood of the yards, the next threatening to fling them clear of the ship and into the murderous, cliff-like waves.

The wind picked up further. It became a scream in the rigging and the spray hitting Hawkwood's face seemed as solid as sand. The ship's head came round slowly as the men on the tiller brought her to larboard, trying to put the wind behind them. Hawkwood shouted down into the waist.

'You there! Mateo, get aft and make sure the deadlights are shipped in the great cabins.'

'Aye sir.' The boy disappeared.

They would have to shutter the stern windows or else a following sea might burst through them, flooding the aft portion of the ship. Hawkwood railed at himself. So many things he had left undone. He had not expected the onset of the storm to be so sudden.

The waves around seemed almost as high as the mastheads, sliding mountains of water determined to swamp the carrack as though she were a rowing boat. The pitching of the ship staggered even Hawkwood's sea-legs, and he had to grasp the quarterdeck rail to steady himself. They had the topsails in now, and men were inching back down the shrouds a few feet at a time, clinging to the rough hemp with all the strength they possessed.

'Lifelines, Billerand!' Hawkwood shouted. 'Get them rigged fore and aft!'

The burly first mate went to and fro in the waist, shouting in men's ears. The noise of the wind was such that it was hard to make himself heard.

She was still coming round. This was the most dangerous part. For a few minutes, the carrack would be broadside-on to the wind, and if a wave hit her then she might well capsize and take them all to the bottom.

Hawkwood wiped the spray out of his eyes and saw what he had dreaded- a glassy cliff of water roaring directly at the ship's side. He leaned down to the tiller-deck hatch.

'Hard-a-port!' he screamed.

The men below threw their weight on the length of the tiller, fighting the seas that swirled around the ship's rudder. Too slowly. The wave was oing to hit.

'Sweet Ramusio, his Blessed Saints' Hawkwood breathed in the instant before the great wave struck the ship broadside-on.

The Osprey was still turning to port when the enormous shock ran clear through the hull. Hawkwood saw the wave break on the starboard side and then keep going, engulfing the entire waist with water, swirling up to the quarterdeck rail where he stood. One of the ship's boats was battered loose and went over the side, a man clinging to it and screaming soundlessly in that great chaos of wind and water. He saw Billerand swept clear across the deck and smashed into the larboard rail like a leaf caught in a gale. Other men clung to the guns with the water foaming about their heads, their legs swept out behind them. But even as Hawkwood watched the wave caught one of the guns and tore it loose from the side, sending the ton of metal careering across the waist, devastation in its wake. The gun went over the larboard side, tearing a hole in the ship's upper hull. Even above the roaring torrent of the water, Hawkwood thought he could hear the rending timbers shriek, as though the carrack were crying out in her maimed agony.

They were almost swamped. Hawkwood could feel the sluggishness of the carrack, as though she were doubly ballasted with water. The deck began to cant under his feet like the sloping roof of a house.

There was a tearing crack from above. An instant later the main topmast went by the board, the entire mast with its spars and yards and cordage coming crashing down on the larboard side. Blocks and tackle and fragments of shattered wood were hurled down round Hawkwood's ears. Something thudded into the side of his head and knocked him off his feet. He slid along the sloping deck and ended up in the lee scuppers, entangled with rope. The falling mast had crashed through the sterncastle and was hanging over the side, dragging the carrack further over. He was dimly aware that he could hear horses screaming somewhere down in the belly of the ship, a wailing like a multitude in pain. He shook his head, blood pouring down across his eyes and temples, and reached for one of the axes which were stowed on the decks. He began to swing at the mass of broken wood and tangled cordage that was threatening to pull the ship over on to her side.

'Axemen here!' he shrieked. 'Get this thing cut away or it'll take us all with it!'

Men were labouring up out of the foaming chaos of the waist with boarding axes in their hands. He sawVelasca there, but no sign of Billerand.

They began chopping at the fallen topmast like men possessed. The carrack rose on the breast of another gargantuan swell of water, tilting ever further. She would capsize with the next wave.

The topmast shifted as they hacked at it. Then there was a cracking and wrenching of wood, audible above the wind and the roaring waves and the sharp concussions of the biting axes. The mass of wreckage moved, tilted, and then slithered over the ship's side into the sea, taking a fife-rail with it.

The carrack, freed of the unbalancing weight, began to right herself. The deck became momentarily horizontal again. Then it began to slant once more, but from fore to aft this time. She had turned. The ship was before the wind. Hawkwood looked aft over the taffrail and saw the next wave, like a looming mountain, rear up over the stern as if it meant to crush them out of existence. But the ship rose higher and higher as the bulk of water slid under the hull, lifting the carrack into the air. Then they were descending again- thank God for the high sterncastle, to prevent them being pooped- and the ship was behaving like a rational thing once more, riding the huge waves like a child's toy.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kearney


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