Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 24
The Black Sea
“I suppose,” said Admiral Lemnossa, looking at the sails on the horizon, “We’re lucky to have avoided them for this long. I hoped that jig out to sea would avoid them entirely while they searched the coastline for us. Still, we’re not more than a day’s sailing from Herculea. It’s to be hoped that we might see some Byzantine vessels if we get in sight of the port. Not a very large hope, I admit. In the meanwhile we’ll sail in as close a company as can be managed. I leave you to the thankless task of getting them into some kind of formation, Henri. And get the cannon loaded and the men armed. It’ll be a fight. I’m going to sit here, and do some thinking and praying. That’s a fair number of galleys out there.”
He said it all with the sort of tranquility that had made the admiral a byword in Venice. He was not a military commander, as he had assured them repeatedly. He was a Venetian who liked to see his cargo safely landed. Sometimes that meant sinking a few interfering vessels or some fighting.
Soon there were men with crossbows, pistols and grenades up in baskets on the masts, and barrels of seawater were being filled to deal with potential fires. Men strapped on swords, women and children went below — but their very presence lent steel and anger to the resolve of the Venetians. The pursuing galleys were being rowed hard, and were gaining on the round ships. That didn’t stop the Venetians looking at them with disdain. Scows compared to their own galleys. The Venetians swung their fleet to run toward the land, which brought the attacking galleys almost at right angles to them, and having to row into the wind. Soon the cannon fired some ranging shots. And then, all too quickly, battle was joined, with a return of cannon-fire.
Only it wasn’t quite as simple as it seemed. The broad spear of the oncoming galleys continued to run at the flank of the fleet, roughly five wide by six deep, not so much in a formation as riding in the wakes of the front-runners. They were war-ships — galleys under oars and some sail and much faster than most of the fleet of trader-vessels. The Venetian and Genoese round ships under sail lacked their speed or maneuverability but had size, height and also broad-side cannon — mostly smaller caliber cannon, true, and very inaccurate. The chasing galleys had only stern and bow cannon. That was something Admiral Lemnossa had gleaned from his conversation with the Genoese from Theodosia, and on which he had based his strategy.
Looking at the way the enemy attacked, he’d bet they’d struggled for sea-captains with battle experience.
“The testa di cazzo are idiots!” said his captain incredulously, looking at the oncoming ships. “Most of them can’t fire without bringing down the masts of the ships in front. Did no one ever explain line abreast to them?
“They’re trying to fan out in the front. Give the signal, captain. Let’s go about.”
The admiral had gambled that the Venetian and Genoese sailors could still work the sails while the air was prickled with arrows. It wasn’t much of a gamble. He knew his sailors. The oncoming raiders were approaching the flank rowing hard almost straight into the wind. It was not a very strong breeze, not enough to hold the rowers back.
The raiders had expected the fleet to turn away and try to run. What they hadn’t expected was for the prey to turn towards them at the last minute, using all of that slight wind. Instead of striking a running fleet in the flank, their own flanks were now exposed. Their bow-chaser cannon were no use, whereas the cannon on the broadsides of the round-ships could fire into the mass because they were bunched, and they could not turn without hitting the oars of other ships in their fleet.
From the castles, and from the baskets and barrels on the masts, fire poured down on the attacking galleys. The attackers became the attacked. Boarding had been their plan of attack and that still happened here and there. But the battle had become something of a melee, and the initial shock and damage of the broadside fire had been quite decisive. So had been the fury of the Genoese and Venetian sailors.
The other factor, of course, was the slave-rowers. The four Venetian galliots had freemen-rowers. They could and would fight. The slaves on their opponent’s ships took up space that could have been used for fighting men.
What had been planned to be a vicious butchering of a merchant fleet turned into a fight, and one in which the attackers lost vessels and a lot of men even before the enemy had been engaged. As the battle raged on, a number of the galley-crews decided that it was a choice of sink, be overcome, or flee. Some didn’t get that choice, but the numerical odds shifted rapidly away from the galleys to the Venetians and their Genovese allies.
Less than three hours after it began, the battle was over. The Venetian and Genovese fleets limped their way onward — not unscarred, but comparatively unscathed. Of the thirty attacking galleys, some seven had been sunk, four captured, and the rest had fled.
The freed oar-slaves provided some more information. This was only part of the galley fleet — the admiral’s feints and ruses had drawn off some of attack. But that wasn’t all. They seen large-scale ship-building on the Dnieper. But the numbers of vessels was unclear and the intent of the project remained unknown.
The fleet sailed on toward the Bosphorus, with some relief.
Admiral Lemnossa buried his flag-captain with honor, and sadness. “The young should outlive the old,” he said as the cold water took the captain’s body.
Benito had discovered that he loved the Arsenal. The last time he had been here he’d worked desperately to avoid thinking about Corfu and Maria. The work had been a catharsis even if it had driven Admiral Douro and the senior masters a little mad. But he had not realized how much he had missed the work, the place, the smell of wood-working, pitch, new cordage — and, by the cheering, how the place had missed him. They carried him around on their shoulders, and even the masters had a good word and a smile for him. That would wear off, soon enough. In the meantime he would take advantage of their goodwill to get things done. Benito knew that there had to be spies, agents of Jagiellon, Milan, Aquitaine, the Holy Roman Empire, and probably agents of Alexis in Venice, and possibly even here in the Arsenal. There was no way that they could keep progress a secret, although there would be no harm in trying. But really, speed was of the essence. The forces marshaled against them could do little about that. And once the fleet was at sea communication with their principals would be more difficult.
He could only hope that these feints within feints would work. Benito knew that lives rested on that. Some of those cheering for him here would not come back. It was not a light responsibility. He preferred risking his own neck. At least he knew his own skills and his own limits.
He’d even talked it over with his brother. Marco, normally soft and gentle, shook his head. “Stop being a fool, Benito. Some men will die, yes. But if the evil that is Jagiellon, and the thing behind Jagiellon, got loose in the Mediterranean, many more would die.”
That was the Lion of the Lagoon talking, the magical guardian of Venice that his brother shared his life with, Benito knew. It had more steel than Marco. And it was right. Soon he was discussing the casting of 48-pound bombards, and how best to put these into the ships — something to which they were as ill-suited as the ships were. Some had been put into vessels as bow chasers before, but they were hard on the ships structure, and the masters at the Arsenal had put a stop to it. They were devastating…to both the ships they hit with their cannon balls and the ships firing — and they were not accurate.
“It’s just not practical,” protested master Giobrando. “It’s going to strain every plank and every seam and every strut on the vessel. If you must have more cannon, keep them to twelve-pounders.”
“What do you suggest that we do, Master? Bombard them from the beach?” said Benito.
“It would work better than putting those cannon on the ships,” said the Master, stubbornly. “You’ll just sink the vessels. On land at least the crew won’t be drowned.”
Benito sighed and rolled his eyes. He hoped it was with a suitable display of longsuffering exasperation, a show that he hoped was being appreciated and noted. “And what would we be doing on land? But if that is your opinion, then you’d better make it possible for us to un-ship them easily. But still so that they can be fired from the vessels.” Brass cannon were expensive, and Benito hoped that that alone, plus the performance about putting them on the ships would convince the spies and those who they reported to, that Venice planned to reduce the walls of Constantinople from the sea.
By the venomous look that he got from the master shipbuilder, Benito was fairly certain that the man would be telling everyone who would listen, just what an idiot Benito Valdosta was being this time. “I will make sure they can be unshipped. And if you’d take my advice Milor’ Valdosta, you’ll make sure that they are.”
Benito put on his most annoying smile. “I’ll ask for you advice if I need it, Master Giobrando. We are making certain magical preparations to strengthen the ships.”
Giobrando’s snort was the only comment of what he thought of the efficacy of such magic. All he actually said, again, was: “I’ll make sure that they can be unshipped easily.”
Benito shrugged as if the idea was simply irrelevant. “Whatever you like, Master Giobrando.”
“I’d like to leave them here.”
“That is not an option. We’re going to need those cannon.”
Benito did not say what they were going to need them for. He just went to go and talk with the apprentices pushing tow into the chinks in the timber-cladding, and to join them at it, falling into the pattern of working while he talked as naturally as if he not been away from the Arsenal. Benito knew he was playing a dangerous game. He really didn’t want Giobrando as a lifetime enemy. But a deception works best if you have a truly believing shill. Besides it gave them something to talk about beside the horse-transports. There was nothing that unusual about horse transports. Slow and unwieldy, they were still often used.