First Blood of Battle

Ranthe 1, 5682---The Queen of the Sea paced the deck of her ship as they sailed toward the southwest. It was the first day of the year, and many crewmembers on her many ships were in various states of celebration. She was little more than a month from her destination, but the horizon to the south showed the tiniest sliver of the land where she was going. It was only the northernmost peninsula of the land, but it was still the correct place. As if to put a damper on the day, two swift ships tasked with being the vanguard of her advance toward Irata returned to her with news of the Overlord’s ships assembled just offshore, the type of news the Queen of the Sea both expected and dreaded. Conflict was inevitable, but the uncertainty of the outcome troubled her. The first battle for her cobbled-together alliance would either strengthen the resolve of her fleet, or cripple it beyond any hope of assaulting Irata.

She looked at Ila’Mun. “Any response yet?”

“No, my Queen,” the woman replied. “I expect the Great King plans to sample several fine wines before committing his ships to battle,” she laughed.

The Queen of the Sea frowned. “His behavior is unfitting of his position. If he didn’t keep sending me bottles of his finest vintages as a reminder of our need for his support, I might even pity his ill health.”

Ila’Mun leaned over the railing, and looked down at the waves. “What do you do with the bottles he sends you?”

“Nothing yet,” the Queen of the Sea replied. “What would you expect me to do with them?”

Ila’Mun shrugged. “If you’re not going to drink those, I will.”

“Not before battle, you won’t,” the Queen of the Sea said. “Signal the Great King again. The enemy is as unready as we are, and I intend to take advantage of that. If the Great King is unwilling to fight, we will go without his ships.”

“Is that wise?” Ila’Mun wondered, turning around to look at the Queen of the Sea. “How would he react to that kind of dismissal of his support?”

“He’s unpredictably one step ahead of me,” the Queen of the Sea answered. “Every time we try to move without him, he knows the plan before we do. Suppose he knows our plan to engage the enemy today. Is he holding back so he can come to our rescue, or is he trying to dissuade us from battle by his lack of involvement? Either way, he maintains a superior position at our expense. Sometimes I wish I never requested the support of Atalan. Send the signal. The worst he can do is withdraw his support and leave since our numbers are too great for his fleet.”

“As you wish, my Queen,” Ila’Mun said. She started walking quickly toward the stern of the ship to issue the command.

“Wait,” the Queen of the Sea said loudly.

Ila’Mun turned. “Yes, my Queen?”

A smile crossed the Queen of the Sea’s face. “Go below and fetch me the largest bottle of wine sent from the Great King. If he thinks to spend the day celebrating the start of a new year, we’ll show him we can do the same in battle. He’ll never anticipate that from me.”

“I wouldn’t anticipate that from you, either,” Ila’Mun said.

While Ila’Mun disappeared into the ship’s cabin, the Queen of the Sea pulled out her sword, and examined the edge of the curved blade. It was sharp and polished smooth enough to see the blurred reflection of her blond hair moving in the breeze. She ran the side of her left hand along the edge just enough to break the skin. “The first body pierced in battle will always rise again,” she whispered to the weapon. “Let that taste whet your appetite for the feast ahead.” She put her sword away, and quickly wrapped her hand in a strip of cloth. There was no sense in letting it continue to bleed following the ritual.

As she looked over the deck, she was certain the other woman on the ship were beginning to realize her plans for the day. “Course to shore and steady,” she shouted toward the stern of the ship. She turned around, and faced her destination. “The time is now to increase our scores. Ready the oars, and fasten the stores. Prevail the sail! May all you avail. The Queen of the Sea wins all her wars!” A cheer spread across the deck at her use of the song to give orders. She slowly started walking toward the bow of the ship.

As the crew rushed to carry out the orders and prepare for battle, Ila’Mun returned and handed the Queen of the Sea a bottle of wine. “I heard the song,” she said. “I couldn’t have done better.”

The Queen of the Sea pulled the cork out of the bottle, and sniffed the wine. “When your entire reputation comes from a song, it helps to use it from time to time,” she said. “Besides, it’s the start of a new year, and song is just one of the ways people celebrate.” She lifted the bottle to her mouth, and took a drink.

“I suggest pacing yourself,” Ila’Mun said. “We won’t reach the enemy for another hour or two. Do you really think you can keep up this act for that long?”

The Queen of the Sea put the cork back into the bottle, and shook her head. “I won’t be the only one aboard this ship acting,” she said. “Distribute wine throughout the crew, and make sure they know what we’re doing. There are many ships sailing with us to Irata, but their captains are uncertain of our resolve. The world is watching the Queen of the Sea as we head toward our first challenge, and I intend to make certain they never forget this day.”

“Is wine before battle such a good idea?” Ila’Mun asked.

“Just enough to limber up the crew,” the Queen of the Sea advised. “Make sure everyone knows if I find anyone drunk during the battle, I will personally throw them off the ship.”

“I will tell them,” Ila’Mun said, “but perhaps a level of tolerance is advisable. I’d hate to lose a valuable crewmember because she inadvertently paid more attention to the contents of her bottle than battle.”

“Very well,” the Queen of the Sea agreed. “Make the threat, but I won’t actually carry through. Besides, if this goes well, I expect we’ll have reinforcements very quickly.”

The ship turned toward the land south of them, and began bobbing up and down the waves with a rolling motion instead of cutting through them. As the Queen of the Sea grasped a rope to keep her steady, she turned to look toward the stern of the ship. Her crew was busy preparing for the battle. Several of the nearby ships in her fleet seemed to be waiting for orders or a signal to learn what was happening before taking any action. The Queen of the Sea decided it was time for the rest of the fleet to learn her intent. “Hoist the colors, raise all banners high; we’ll liven the mid-morning sky. The enemy fears, as battle nears, the Queen of the Seas’ battle cry!”

“I love how you manage to do that with the rhyming,” Ila’Mun admitted. “I don’t think I could do that even if I had time to plan what I would say.”

The Queen of the Sea grinned. “It’s one of the requirements to captain a ship or command a fleet. Have you ever wondered why there are so few captains on each ship? You’ll find plenty of crew with the experience or knowledge, but it’s rare you’ll find a tongue with colorful eloquence. A slow wit and a dull tongue can keep a ship on course, but it’s the quick wit and sharp tongue that keeps the ship together.”

“Why not get a jester?” Ila’Mun joked.

“Because I’m so much better,” the Queen of the Sea replied flamboyantly. “I don’t think any jester could send someone walking off the plank.”

“I’d better make sure everyone is prepared for battle,” Ila’Mun decided. She turned, and walked toward the stern of the ship, stopping to talk to several crewmembers along the way.

The Queen of the Sea looked across the waves at the rest of the fleet. Her ships already realized her intent, and were following close behind. The royal navy and the other random pirates she’d managed to coax into supporting her were still holding back without so much as a sign that they noticed anything happening. “It’s only morning, but they’re probably too preoccupied to notice,” she said to herself.

The ship buzzed with activity. The small banner used to identify her ship at sea was coming down. Taking its place at the top of the mast was a larger banner, a massive flag she only raised for battle or special occasions. There would be no mistaking the Queen of the Sea during this battle. The crew was also raising a line strung with every signal flag on the ship, an action that was usually a maritime tradition reserved for movements in friendly waters. By raising the banners for battle, she hoped to demonstrate her resolve and intent to win at all costs. It was no longer possible to signal a retreat or surrender.

Looking across the seas to the south, the Queen of the Sea could now see the enemy ships just off the coast. They appeared to be positioning for battle, so they knew she was coming. It was time to live up to the rumors and songs of the Queen of the Sea’s terror and storm. “Hang up the smoke pots upon every spar. We’ll darken the sky near and far. It’s the Queen of the Sea they know they should flee, or find their ships starting to char.”

She smiled as the crew cheered her orders once more. The next hour involved all the preparations for the battle. All the ships she directly commanded moved into positions to either side of her flagship, and making most of the same preparations. Pots of burning, oily embers hung from the end of each spar, emitting clouds of black smoke to frighten the enemy. They frightened her too, but only because of the problem one of those pots would cause if it fell onto the ship. She hoped that the archers tasked with staying in the rigging and tending the pots could prevent such an accident. Fortunately, they knew their task, and were far more likely to drop the pots onto the enemy if she managed to tangle the rigging of the two ships. So far, throughout all her previous battles, she’d only lost one ship to an accidental fire, although most of her enemies ended up adrift and burning. Other preparations before the battle involved preparing boarding parties of heavily armored warriors, filling barrels with water to fight any fires, and launching several small boats to pick up anyone who fell off her ships into the water during the battle. The tasks were many, but improved upon and practiced by the crews after countless battles over the decades. It would take the most skillful opponent, such as these ships from Irata, to pose a significant threat to the Queen of the Sea.

As the battle neared, the royal navy and the other ships changed their course to follow the Queen of the Sea. She couldn’t tell if they were arrayed for battle at that distance, but hoped they were. If the battle went worse than she expected, she would need the reinforcements. The enemy was very ready. She could see their archers in the rigging, and their soldiers on the decks. The sails were only partially unfurled and the oars dipped worthlessly into the waves as the enemy ships positioned to meet her. It was her favorite tactic. Almost every ship captain preferred to keep the ship perpendicular to the direction of the waves during battle since a ship rocking as it bobbed up and down with the waves made it harder for soldiers to maintain their balance. They also feared tangling the rigging of two ships rocking side by side in such a manner. By forcing such a position on her opponents, the Queen of the Sea had the advantage. The enemy would be cautious and distracted by the added danger posed to their ships whereas she had no qualms about ripping a ship to timbers so long as she was victorious in the process. She had plenty of ships to spare, and supplies to make enough repairs the ships could at least reach a safe harbor.

Shortly before the ships neared enough for the archers to begin firing, Ila’Mun returned to the Queen of the Sea at the bow of the ship. “Our allies are splitting up, but there’s too much smoke to make out anything else,” she advised.

“Good,” the Queen of the Sea decided. “Even if they miss the battle, we can hope they still get the flank on any ships that evade us.”

“At least it demonstrates they don’t plan to attack us while we’re in a weakened state,” Ila’Mun added.

The Queen of the Sea looked at the enemy. “We’re getting close. Return to your place at the wheel. Take us between two enemy vessels, and get as close as you can to the ship on our portside. If we tangle the rigging on the first pass, hard to starboard. They won’t have a double mast like we do, and I intend to rip theirs from the deck. I will stay up here at the bow. I want the enemy to see me so they know who to fear.”

“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Ila’Mun asked.

“We’ve never attacked this many ships at one time,” the Queen of the Sea said. “I intend to be bold. The faster we win this battle, the greater our reputation of a swift and furious battle. I want Irata to quake at our approach, to panic as we near, and flee our sails when we’re in sight.”

“You’ll also be the first target for their archers,” Ila’Mun warned.

The Queen of the Sea shrugged. “I’ve had a few arrows in me over the years. You keep the ship on course and floating, and I’ll make sure of victory.”

Ila’Mun frowned. “I’d hate to lose my closest friend after all these years, but if you stay up here in a battle of this magnitude, I just might. There is something I think you should have for this battle. When we were girls, your mother told me to keep it safe, and give it to you at such a time as this.” She pulled out a silk bundle, and handed it to the Queen of the Sea.

The Queen of the Sea took the bundle and pulled back the silk. It contained a silver diadem crafted to appear as waves breaking on rocks. “Thank you,” she said. “I am sorry I have no gift for you at this time.”

“Victory is all I ask,” Ila’Mun said. “Take us into battle, but bring us back out afterward.”

The Queen of the Sea smiled, and put the diadem on her head. “To your post,” she ordered.

“Yes, my Queen,” Ila’Mun replied. She turned and hurried toward the stern of the ship.

It was only moments until the first arrows began to fly. The Queen of the Sea stepped up onto the side of the ship, and faced the crew. With some struggle to maintain her balance on the rocking ship, she pulled out the cork, and held up the bottle for all her crew to see. “I’m Queen of the Sea, with a ship and a crew who follow me hither and to. We’ll sail the waves, the Queen and her knaves, drinking our savory brew!”

She put the bottle to her lips, and took a long, slow drink while the crew cheered. When she was done, she put the cork back into the bottle, and set it aside. She pulled out her sword, and brandished it high. “There is no option but victory,” she shouted, the few rays of sunlight to break through the smoke glinting off her diadem and golden hair. “Fear no ship and fear no sword. The world must see us succeed.”

An arrow flew between her legs and skittered harmlessly across the deck. Several others passed nearby. Just as she was about to turn and face the enemy, an arrow struck her firmly in the back, sending a jolt of pain through her body. She doubted it passed far through the leather armor she wore beneath her clothing, but the force of the shot still knocked her off balance “That hurts,” she grunted to herself, grabbing hold of the rigging with her left hand to keep herself steady.

She took a deep breath, and turned to face the enemy. “The Queen of the Sea is a tempest to flee. You’re going to weather her storm!” she shouted, brandishing her sword once more. She knew everyone aboard her ship could see the arrow sticking from her back. They would fight twice as hard to prove they were just as brave as their queen was.

Arrows were soon thick in the sky, but it wasn’t as dangerous for the Queen of the Sea who was at the bow of the ship since the archers were trying to target the center of the deck. “Stow the oars,” she ordered. This was another of her unconventional tactics. The enemy would keep their oars out for maneuvering, but she would sail close fast enough to splinter the oars and send shrapnel flying throughout the inside of the ship.

One of her crewmembers came up to assist her, but she shirked off the help, refusing to let the woman remove the arrow. As the ships neared, the Queen of the Sea pulled the cork from her bottle, and took another drink. She picked an arrow off the deck, pulled off the point, wrapped a rag around the shaft, and stuck it down the neck of the bottle. “Bring me fire,” she ordered the woman behind her. Moments later, the rag stuffed into the bottle was burning.

The ships began to pass close enough to cause alarm among the enemy. The Queen of the Sea grinned as her ship began to slip down into a trough between the waves. She could hear the enemy’s oars breaking. “I have a surprise for you,” she said, not caring that the enemy probably couldn’t hear her. Moments later, the rigging of the two ships collided, and sent shudders through the ship, causing it to jerk back from the strain. The Queen of the Sea’s crew knew to expect this, but the enemy was unprepared, and many of them fell to the deck or into the sea. The Queen of the Sea tossed her bottle onto their ship. At the same time, several of her crew in the rigging dropped down their pots of fire onto the enemy ship.

As fire spread across the deck of the enemy ship, Ila’Mun did as instructed, and began to turn the ship away from the enemy. Shouts and cries from the frightened enemy rang out across the waves, and with a loud crash, their mast snapped from its base, leaving the enemy ship disabled and burning. It was time to move to the next enemy vessel.

Blood dripped down the Queen of the Sea’s back, staining her cloak, and making it stick. The barb stuck in her flesh pained her greatly, and she wondered if she would be able to fight when they reached the next enemy ship. After seeing the quick destruction of the first ship, the next ship would be less likely to provide her with the opportunity to destroy the mast. Eventually the battle would come down to boarding parties and fighting across the decks. “Bring me another bottle of wine,” she ordered the woman standing with her. “I need something to keep me standing.”

“You should go to the helm, my Queen,” the woman urged. “You’re in no condition to fight.”

“Do as I say and bring me that bottle, you miscreant eel,” the Queen of the Sea growled. She frowned as the woman turned and ran to the cabin. “Children these days, they’re too soft,” she grumbled.

The ship shuddered as it scraped against the helm of the next enemy ship. The Queen of the Sea preferred not to ram ships, but bumping them was often useful since it knocked the enemy off balance. With any luck, the maneuver would also break off the enemy’s rudder, and leave them without control.

As the mast passed the enemy ship, she looked up into the rigging. “Drop fire,” she shouted. One of the pots flew through the air, and landed on the enemy ship, spilling its burning contents across the helm. If the fire took, that would be a second defeated enemy vessel. If not, then another ship would come around to finish them off.

The woman returned with the bottle of wine, and handed it to the Queen of the Sea. She uncorked the bottle, and took a long swallow before handing it back to the woman. “That’s all for me,” she decided. “Go tell Ila’Mun to bring us beside that ship ahead of us.”

It was the third enemy ship she would directly confront, and turning beside it would put her against the wind. “Reduce sail, and prepare for full,” she shouted to the crewmembers in the rigging. She knew Ila’Mun needed as much speed as possible for the maneuver to work. Once again using the rolling action of the waves, the goal was to overlap the rigging from the two ships, this time after passing the enemy’s mast instead of from the front. It was difficult to time the maneuver, and only worked half of the time. However, if it did work, they would return to full sail, and let the wind push them in reverse so they could drag the enemy ship with them, and perhaps destroy its mast in the process.

As they neared the enemy ship, the smoke was thin enough to show another of the Queen of the Sea’s ships attacking it from the other side. The enemy was distracted, but she knew they would soon notice her approach. “Boarders prepare,” she ordered.

Several arrows flew toward the Queen of the Sea, but missed her. As the ship turned, she was the easiest target for the enemy. Ila’Mun was unable to turn the ship as fast as she’d hoped, and the bow bumped harder than usual into the side of the enemy ship with the sound of cracking timbers. The ships bounced apart, but Ila’Mun still managed to bring the ships side by side, but couldn’t get the rigging to tangle.

The Queen of the Sea waved her sword. “Boarding ramps,” she shouted. “Drive them from their ship!”

Her warriors on the deck went into action. They placed boards to bridge the gap between the two ships, and rushed across, spears first, followed by swords.

The Queen of the Sea came behind them, somewhat slower in her movements since the arrow in her back seemed to drain her energy. The pain didn’t seem as great, making her thankful for the wine. Ignoring the calamitous fighting across the deck of the enemy ship, the Queen of the Sea slowly made her way to the helm. It was always at the helm where the real battles took place, the battle for control over the vessel.

She thrust her sword through two enemy crewmembers, and continued toward the helm, staggering more than walking. When she reached her destination, she found the captain of the enemy ship with two defenders. The woman who had stayed near the Queen of the Sea throughout the battle following her injury rushed past to attack the two defenders. The Queen of the Sea joined her, and together they fought the two soldiers and the enemy captain defending the helm. After several moments of vicious struggle, they pushed the enemies over the side of the ship, and into the sea.

“Victory,” the Queen of the Sea shouted, brandishing her sword over her head. “I pillage and plunder, and leave men in wonder with chaos I bring to the sea!” She heard several cheers in the area.

She looked back at her ship, and saw Ila’Mun lying bloodied on the deck while another woman steered the ship. “Take control of this ship,” she weakly told the woman with her. Her head seemed to be starting to spin. “I need to go see about Ila’Mun.”

“My Queen,” the woman began, “you’re in no condition to...”

The Queen of the Sea dropped to her knees, and set her sword beside her. The woman knelt down beside her. “This is not good,” the Queen of the Sea mumbled. “Everything is... Everything is...” She fell forward as everything faded.