The small company made its way towards the harbour of Alaris. Several large ships dominated the harbour. Their shadows dwarfed the smaller ships that lay in wait.
Even at this time of night there was still plenty of activity amongst the docks to hide their presence. Sailors were walking in and out of taverns. A few ships were being loaded. And several fishermen where already offloading their catch.
They cautiously made their way through the winding streets towards the city walls. There, it turned out that getting into the city was trickier. When they reached the city gates they learned that the gates were closed until sunrise.
“Time is starting to run out,” Spires said to Anlar’Sel. “We need to get to Demon Isle as soon as possible. We can’t afford to wait out here until dawn. We need in the city looking for Aithlin’s contacts.”
“There is always a way into a city,” Anlar’Sel replied. “You just need to know where to look. Follow me.”
Sel took off at a jog down a side street that ran along the wall. Here some of the houses ran right up to the city wall itself.
“There.” Sel pointed to a non-descript house standing amongst similar houses against the wall.
“What are we looking at?” Spires asked Anlar’Sel. “Why that house?”
“Several reasons. For one, it’s about halfway between the different watchtowers. So it offers the smallest chance of being seen. Although I doubt anyone is watching.
For another, it offers an easy climb up the wall.”
Spires looked up at the vertical stones rising above him. “Strange definition of easy.”
The scout gave an amused laugh. “Watch and learn”
Anlar’Sel used a barrel and a windowsill to reach the roof of the house in two easy bounds. Keeping his head down, he made a dash for the wall.
There he waited for a cloud to obscure his presence.
In the dark, Sel ran his hands across the polished white surface. After a moment he seemed to find a handhold for his left hand. Apparently satisfied with his grip he stretched his right hand higher, repeating the process.
Methodically, he worked his way up the wall. In some places he could use both his hands and feet. In others, he hung from a single hand while his other hand looked to the next handhold.
To Spires, watching from below, Anlar’Sel stood out like a beacon in the night. Anyone looking up at the wall would easily spot him. Impatiently Spires waited in the shadows until Anlar’Sel finally reached the top of the wall and snuck over the crenulations.
Spires and the rest of the scouts hurried towards the base of the wall. Anlar’Sel tossed down a rope and one by one the group moved into the city beyond.
Back on the ground on the other side of the wall, Spires asked Anlar’Sel “How did you manage that?”
“As I said, it was an easy climb. Any Narathi scout could have done it.”
“And what was the trick? What you did should have been impossible. The wall should have offered no handholds.”
“No fooling you, sir.” Anlar’Sel said. “The house out front was marked. The path up the wall was laid out by Narathi scouts in years gone by for just such an occasion. You just need to know what to look for.”
“That explains,” Spires said. “Thank you. Let’s move on and find this merchant Aithlin referred us to.”
They spent the better part of the rest of the night looking for the merchant’s house. Alaris was a sprawling city on the coast of the White Sea full of canals and winding streets. This made locating the wool merchant district without be able to ask for directions a difficult task, which was further exacerbated by regular patrols which were roaming the streets of Alaris.
When dawn announced itself in the eastern sky they finally found the house they were looking for. It was a tall, narrow building which dominated an enclosed courtyard. Empty stables lined one side of the courtyard. The other side was open to a canal which ran past the back of the house.
Nothing moved as they made their way to the side entrance next to stable. Here they knocked as Aithlin had told them. Three knocks, then a pause, then two knocks.
Huddled together in the shadows they waited for a reaction from within.
They started thinking either nobody was home or they hadn’t heard. Then they heard the distinct shuffle of feet on a marble floor within. A small window in the door was opened the tiniest of margins.
“Who is it? What do you want?”
“We are friends of Aithlin,” Spires said. “He told us the master of the house could help us with a small problem we are facing.”
“How do I know you’re not lying?”
“Aithlin said to remind master Calmir that Calmir still owes him twenty-seven sovereigns for that one time in Erinis.”
“Nonsense. He earned a multitude from that deal. Quid-pro-quo and all that.”
“That is not for me to decide,” Spires said. “Can we come in to discuss a sensitive matter?”
No reply was given to this. Inside they heard three bolts sliding back. The door was opened just enough to let everyone enter in single file. This took them into a sparse kitchen. Bread dough stood rising in front of a small wood stove.
The elf who had let them in locked the door again. “Follow me.” Without looking to see if he was followed, the elf led them through a series of corridors and chambers to a small sitting room on the second floor of the house. There he motioned for them to sit around low burning fireplace.
“I am Calmir. What is this sensitive matter that has you knocking on my door in the middle of the night?”
“I need ships. I have some sensitive cargo that urgently needs to be transported across the White Sea.”
“Ships?” Calmir raised an eyebrow. “How many do you need? And what is the cargo?”
“I need enough to transport what remains of the first Colonial Legion. Which is about four hundred fifty men and three cavalry contingents’ worth of horses. And all the odds and ends that come with an army.”
Calmir exhaled through his teeth. “Four hundred fifty men. Even under normal circumstances that wouldn’t be easy. And these are far from normal circumstances. I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“Rest assured that the pay will be sufficient. I can get you 5.000 sovereigns up front. And twice that when we’re done.”
Calmir shook his head. “I think for that kind of money almost anyone in the city would sell you their fleet. It’s not the pay that is the problem. I don’t have any ships anymore.”
“What? Aithlin said you had more than enough ships for our purpose.”
“Indeed, I had more than enough. When the Agladorians took over, they confiscated all the ships they didn’t burn. No merchant has any vessel worth the name left in the harbour. Of course, it matters little that they did so, since they also conscripted all the crews not fast enough to hide.”
“There must be a way,” Spires said.
“Unless you plan on stealing one of the ships, I don’t see there is one,” Calmir said.
At this Anlar’Sel’s eyes lit up. “Why not?” he said to Spires. “I’m sure we can take on whoever is on board.”
Spires rubbed his chin. “That wouldn’t get us very far. You and your team know next to nothing about piloting a ship. We would also need a crew.”
Both Sel and Spires looked at Calmir. “Could you get us a crew capable of manning one of the galley’s in the harbour?” Spires asked.
Which one did you have in mind?” Calmir asked.
Spires looked at Sel, who nodded.
“The big one,” Spires said. “It was named Aglador’s Benevolence.”
Calmir whistled through his teeth. “You’ve got taste. I’ll give you that. You’ll need a fair-sized crew in that case. I could find some men I think. When do you want to leave?”
“Ambitious. It will be tough on such short notice. And it won’t come cheap.”
“The must be enough sailors in the city who are none too happy about Aglador.” Spires said. “I would start with them. And, as mentioned, cost is not a problem.”
“We’ll best get to work then” Calmir said.
Night had fallen again when Spires and Anlar’Sel left one of the key-side taverns. They made their way down the docks until Aglador’s Benevolence lay ahead of them. There they met up with a small, rough looking group.
Several Narathi scouts were lounging against some bales of wool. In front of them a group of sailors tried their best to look inconspicuous and failed miserably. All told there were perhaps fifty elves in the group. It seemed a pitifully small number to take over a warship which could house ten times that number.
“Is everyone clear on what they need to do?” Spires asked. Nods all round. “Time to move out then.”
The scouts disappeared into the night. A dozen of them went into the harbour. Some others made crawled along underneath the dock towards the ship. The last handful found another route towards the warship.
Spires walked up to the ship together with Anlar’Sel.
At the bottom of the gangplank leading up to the deck the pair of them halted.
“Ahoy there!” Spires cried. “Inspection. Permission to come aboard?”
A head came up over the railing. “Who is it? And what are you doing here at this time of the night?”
“Readiness inspection. Committee of naval affairs. It’s your choice to allow us on board. Just know that Aglador will hear of the next few minutes.” Spires said.
“All right, all right,” the elf replied. “No need for threats. Come up already. I’ll get the men out.”
Spires and Anlar’Sel walked across the narrow gangplank. The deck of the ship was neat and mostly empty. Both the prow and the aft castle sported a pair of ballistae. A main hatch in the centre of the deck led to the lower decks. Three large masts were spread out evenly across the deck.
Several elves were coming out of the hatch in the middle of the ship. They assembled into a line next to the main mast. One of them yawned, another was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
As Spires walked towards them another group came out of the door at the base of the aft castle.
Dark shadows were starting to move along the railing on the far side of the ship. Several of the scouts were crawling aboard.
Spires halted at the middle of the line of elves, looking from left to right along it. He gave a short nod, as if to himself.
Without warning, Spires drew his magical sword and slashed it along the chest of the elf right in front of him, who dropped in with a look of surprise on his face. Without pausing, Spires brought the sword down on the neck of the second elf. He took two steps to his right, spinning as he went and took down the third elf.
Only now were the other elves in the line starting to move. The next one in the line almost managed to get his sword out before Spires ran him through. The one after that exchanged a few blows with Spires before suffering the same fate.
Only after that did the defending elves manage to coordinate a defence. Three of them circled Spires, trying to draw him out. Spires feinted to the right, lunged to his left, drawing his opponents on. Then, he threw one of the daggers hanging from his belt at the elf on the right, who staggered as it clipped him in the side. Spires’s sword finished him shortly thereafter.
The remaining two took a small step back, even more wary of Spires.
“You’re welcome to surrender now,” Spires said. “That, or die. The choice is yours.”
“There is still only one of you and two of us. And we’ve got more men on the way,” one of the two elves said. “You surrender.”
“You might want to look around you,” Spires said. “There is no help coming. My men have taken the ship.”
The other elf glanced over his shoulder. And dropped his sword. “I surrender,” he said.
Spires’s scouts and the crew Calmir had arranged had rushed onto the deck. All defenders were either dead or overpowered. The colonial elves were rushing below to find any remaining defender.
Spires motioned to the leader of Calmir’s crew. “Handreth,” Spires said, “start preparing the ship. We are not staying here any longer then we have to. I want to be underway in half an hour.”
“What? You want to navigate the Bitter passage in the dark? It can’t be done. You must be joking.”
“I am not joking,” Spires said. “I do indeed want to navigate the Bitter passage in the dark. It can be done. And in fact, I have already done so in the past. Now, I suggest that, unless you want to wait around until several Agladorian detachments come streaming out of Alaris to find out what all the noise was about, you get us underway.”
With that, Spires turned around and walked to the aft castle, leaving Handreth to start organising his men.
Commotion broke out along the waterfront as they pulled away from the docks. Their theft had been noticed. And it sounded like pursuit was already being organized.
The harbour entrance crept closer. They reached open water as behind them in the dark sails were being hoisted.
“We’ll never make it,” Handreth said. “Those are the fastest ships this side of the White Sea. “We needed to be out of sight before they got underway to stand a chance.”
“Steady as she goes, Handreth,” Spires said. “Get ready for a hard starboard turn on my mark.”
“Along the coast?” Handreth asked in disbelieve. “What? You mean to kill us before Aglador’s men get to us?”
“Just follow my lead and we’ll be fine. Starboard turn is coming up. Aim for Arloth’s peak you see in the distance there. Mark”
Handreth started shouting to his men on the deck and in the rigging at the same time as he spun the wheel. The big galley inched to starboard, aligning its bow with the peak ahead.
So they went on into the night. Spires gave short course indications. Handreth and his men worked in the darkness. Hours later, the first light of day revealed a narrow passage ahead, running between islands and the coast. Turbulent white water betrayed an uneven seafloor below.
Behind them, the first light also showed a pair of sails following close behind. The Agladorian ships had tracked them through the night.
“This is the last stretch Handreth,” Spires said. “I doubt they will be able to follow us through this stretch of the Bitter passage. Take heart.”
“If you say so,” Handreth said doubtfully.
“Secure everything not yet tied down. I’ll take the wheel from here. You aid your men. They will need all the help they can get.”
At that moment a ballista bolt hit the deck next to Spires, showering him in splinters.
“Tighten the rigging!” he yelled. “Give me more speed! We need to enter the passage before they can get a clear shot at us.”
Another shot hit the water near the ship, sending up a shower of salt water.
The white water crept closer.
A bolt hit the side of the ship, burying itself deep in the side of the galley’s aft castle.
And then they were in. Waves rocked the ship left and right. The wind kept changing directions between the islands.
Spires laid out a zigzag course, navigating the turbulent waters. At one point he almost doubled back on himself.
At first the Agladorian ships tried to get off a few more shots, sending them well wide of their targets. But soon they were both too busy with their own survival to pay much attention to Aglador’s Benevolence.
“Hold on!” Spires shouted. “Tight port turn coming up!”
Spires dragged hard on the wheel. The ship groaned in protest as it tilted on a sharp angle into the turn.
“It’s going to be tight! Brace for impact!” Spires tightened his hold on the steering wheel.
The ship shuddered as its keel dragged across the seafloor with an ominous grating sound.
Slowly the ship finished the turn and righted itself.
Ahead the water became calmer. They had almost made it out of the Bitter passage.
A large crack went up behind them. One of their pursuers had missed the turn and smashed itself apart on the rocks. The other ship slowed down as it approached the tight gap and let the Benevolence increase its lead.
The Benevolence cleared the Bitter passage, rounding the bend around Bitter island.
“Pull up. Sharp Starboard!” Spires shouted. “Ready ballista’s!”
As the remaining pursuer cleared the bend around the island, it found Aglador’s Benevolence lying in wait.
“Take aim!” Spires shouted. “Fire!” At Spires’s command the repeater batteries aboard the Benevolence unleashed their deadly salvo on the approaching ship. Several of them struck home just below the waterline.
“Reload. Fire at will!”
The enemy ship began to list as it took on more water. It desperately tried to turn away from its oncoming death. Then the second salvo struck home. Slowly, the ship started going down.