Hand troops streamed onto shore from the galley that had already docked, while a twin ship provided cover fire with her forward and aft ballistae. They could all see Alfred right enough, I mean, he’s rather hard to miss being a frost giant even if he is on the smaller end of their typical height. Of course, he assured me only last year that he could grow another foot or so. I hope he’s as large as he’s going to get, frankly. It’s difficult enough sitting down to a meal with him without getting a crick in my neck.
What really caught the Hand troops off guard, however, were the croakers. When the enemy can just jump over your defensive positions, or off the end of a quay and onto your boat a dozen strides across open water, you find yourself baffled and confused. When they bring along half a dozen giant toads that can snatch your weapons out of your hands with their tongues, and even swallow smaller individuals whole, things get a go from confused to chaotic.
That skirmish didn’t last long. I think Alfred may have taken a ballista bolt to his left leg, by the way he roared and limped toward the crews trying to ready their crossbows. The ship crew was responsible for his pain, but the marines suffered the brunt of his rage. Several of the Hand troops flung their weapons down and dove into the bay. Likely drowned with that chain armor on, but mores the pity.
I saw one giant toad fall under a flurry of bolts, but the enemy was overwhelmed pretty quickly. The second boat fared no better. Once the croakers saw that Alfred had the land battle under control they descended on the second boat like a plague. I had a strong feeling just then that we’d add a crew of croakers to our fleet before the night was through.
I let the sergeant hand pick a squad to follow me down to the docks and we made our way to see to the two prize ships. With the burning of the Fair Wind, Martin would be happy for a replacement, and those galleys would prove a good trade. He could rename the first at his whim. The second would be called something that no one could pronounce. Croakers would definitely make boarding other ships a sight easier. Why hadn’t I considered that before?
Well, I hadn’t seen any of these folks in months and months. Maybe a year for some of them. My how the world has changed since I left the safety of your caring gaze, Father Mulcahy. You would not recognize the world.
When he saw me approaching, Alfred came to me, cursing. There was indeed a rather long bolt in his thigh, and three crossbow shafts in his left arm and chest.
“Most deflected off this fine armor,” he said, tapping his chest where I saw black scales under his jacket. “Dragon hide,” he said with a grin. “Black as night, and tougher than steel.”
“I am glad to see you turning that moldy hide of Cassandra’s into something of value,” I said as he eased himself to the ground. Between the two of us we removed the offending steel tipped shanks and I healed him as best I could I was bone tired and not nearly as strong as I had been even an hour ago, but it was enough to stop the bleeding and ease his pain a modicum. He is a stout young man. He’d tough it out.
Once Alfred was settled and resting, I went to the first galley and boarded, only to find that the reason Alfred had found his fighting as light as it had been, was in part due to the fact that the rowers had revolted and killed much of the crew while the hardened soldiers were making their way onshore. I had the hobs strike their chains and offered each of them a place in our fleet. More than half cheered and rejoiced, while a decent contingency opted to try and return home to their families. I can’t say that I blame them. Life at sea is not easy, and being a captive rower would not make the rowing as a free man that much more palatable.
I told those who chose to leave that they should stay until we had secured the fortress and we would see to providing them with clothing and food. Most were willing to take a few days rest as well, and I told them our healers would look after their ailments once the battles were over. This heartened a few who were recalcitrant to change their minds and join us. I just nodded and took all who wanted to join, knowing after a full belly and a night sleep, some would opt for home after all.
We repeated the process once the croakers had the second ship to the docks. I met with their leader, Borcus, a large mottled black and green fellow who had spots running down either side of his wide face. His eyes were steady and thoughtful as we talked and he agreed that he and his fighters would be claiming the ship as their own and joining me in my adventures if that would please me.
I consented with the understanding that the rowers were to be set free and any that wanted to join would be doing so as free men and women. Borcus looked affronted that I would think they’d do any less as his people were already among the rowers, striking bonds and supplying succor. I apologized for my rashness, but Borcus clasped me on my right shoulder and accepted my apology with grave and solemn words.
“We know of your quest, Worldbreaker. We know of your generosity and your redemption. We have each one of us been reborn, as if fresh tadpoles, in the image that you have made for us.” He bowed then and took my left hand between his own two.
“You are he who freed us from our wicked ways and showed us the path to righteousness which you have blazed before us. We have taken up your cause and do battle against the oppressors in your name as the wise Nebuchadnezzar has guided us since that day you spared his life.”
And I thought back to the Hallowed Fortress and the croaker priest I had spared in order to avoid the slaughter of a misguided and ignorant people. Who knows what sort of civilization they would have built had they not been influenced by the selfish and damnable interference of certain wizards who now feed the worms.
I shook his webbed hand and our pact was sealed. The Leaping Tadpole was christened right then in the blood and fire of battle. She will be a fine addition to our cause.