In point of fact, the sentries on the pier had been doing their fellows an injustice. There were no dice games tonight, because their previous evening's entertainment had been interrupted by an unanticipated visit from the company commander, who had been less than amused. After a few pithy observations on their state of discipline, their readiness, and probable ancestry, Major Tyllytsyn had informed them of the unpleasant fate in store for anyone else he found diverting himself during duty hours. Despite his subsequent broken leg (which one or two unworthy souls had suggested might represent divine retribution), they had no doubt he'd passed his observations on to Major Harmyn. Who, unfortunately, had a reputation for being even less understanding than Major Tyllytsyn. Under the circumstances, it had seemed wise to exercise a little discretion for the next five-day or so.


            So, instead of clumping together in the middle of their barracks floors with their dice boxes and cards, they were engaged in dozens of homey little tasks — mending uniforms, polishing brightwork, cleaning gear, or honing the edges of cutlasses, dirks, and swords.


            The sound of breaking glass intruded rudely. Heads turned towards the sound and eyebrows rose in surprise that turned abruptly into something else as the iron spheres with their sputtering fuses thumped down on the floor.


            One trooper, faster than his companions, dove towards the nearest grenade. He snatched it up and whirled to throw it back out the window, but he didn't have quite enough time. He got the throw off, but the grenade had traveled less than four feet when it exploded, killing him almost instantly.


            It wouldn't really have mattered if the fuse on that particular grenade had been a bit longer. It was only one of a dozen, and the barracks' peaceful order disintegrated into chaos, horror, and screams as all of them detonated almost simultaneously.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Now!" Lieutenant Hahl Symyn shouted as the grenade explosions echoed from behind him.


            His waiting parties of seamen had already broken down into two-man teams. Now the member of each team with the slow match lit one of his fellow's prepared incendiaries, then stood back while doors were kicked in and windows were smashed. The blazing compounds of pitch, naptha, and a sprinkling of gunpowder sailed through the sudden openings into the dockside warehouses, while other teams charged the galleons and harbor craft tied up alongside the pier.


            Smoke billowed up and lurid flames began to leap, turning the pitch-black night into something very different. More flames erupted as other incendiaries ignited their targets, and scattered voices began to shout in alarm as the town of North Bay abruptly awakened. Muskets cracked as the Marines detailed to Symyn's support attacked the harbor batteries from behind. Only two guns in each battery were actually manned after nightfall, and the handful of sleepy gunners were no match for the Marines storming in amongst them out of the darkness. Still more fires ignited along the harbor front, and a sharp, thunderous explosion echoed as one of the incendiaries found an unexpected store of gunpowder in a harbor barge beside a galleon undergoing conversion into a commerce raider.The explosion set the ship heavily ablaze and hurled flaming fragments into three other vessels and onto at least a half-dozen warehouse and tavern roofs.


            "Look, Sir!" one of Symyn's men shouted, and the lieutenant saw the bright, sudden sparkle of more musketry against the pitch blackness to the west of the city.


            "It's the Marines!" he shot back. "No telling how long Major Zheffyr will be able to slow the bastards up, so hop to it!"


            "Aye, aye, Sir!"


* * * * * * * * * *


            Major Harmyn lurched to his feet as the explosions and screams erupted. He grabbed up his sword belt and dashed for the office door, swinging the belt around him as he ran. His clerk and orderly were still coming out of their chairs as he erupted into the anteroom.


            "Get your weapons, goddamn it!" Harmyn barked, and charged out the office block's front door onto the parade ground between the two long rectangles of the barracks.


            Flames were already beginning to dance and glare through the barracks windows, and he heard a second wave of explosions as the Charisian seamen threw another dozen grenades into each building. Some of the wounded's shrieks ended abruptly, but other sounds of agony replaced them.


            Harmyn's belly knotted as he realized the attackers had already completely eliminated his borrowed company as a cohesive fighting force. He didn't know how many of "his" men were actually dead or wounded, but even the ones who weren't would be too demoralized and terrified to offer any sort of effective resistance.


            And even if Tyllytsyn might have been able to rally them, I won't be, he thought grimly. They don't even know me, so why in Hell should they listen to me in a mess like this?


            The beginning sputter and crackle of musketry from the west told him no one was likely to arrive to reinforce him, so —


            Major Bahrkly Harmyn hadn't thought about the way he'd just silhouetted himself against the lit window of the orderly room behind him. Nor did he ever . . . just as he never heard the sharp "crack" of the rifled musket which killed him.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Sir Dunkyn Yairley allowed himself to feel a profound sense of relief as he observed the same musket fire Symyn had seen and Harmyn had heard. Obviously, the Marines had gotten into position to cover the road from the main fortress west of the town. According to their spies' reports, there were at least three thousand men in that fortress' garrison. It was unlikely Major Zheffyr's two hundred Marines could hold them off forever, but surprise and confusion ought to keep them tied up for at least a while. Besides, Zheffyr's rate of fire and ring-mounted bayonets ought to go a fair way towards equalizing the odds between them.


            A cannon boomed from the fortress. Yairley had no idea what the gunners behind it thought they were firing at. God knew the fortress' garrison had to be hopelessly confused by the sudden eruption of explosions and flames from the quietly sleeping town below its lofty headland perch. For all Yairley knew, they actually thought they'd seen Charisian galleons standing in to the attack.


            At least two dozen ships were thoroughly ablaze. More were smoldering, and the stiff breeze was blowing sparks, cinders, and flaming debris from one ship to another. The warehouses which served the harbor were taking fire nicely, as well. Yairley hoped the flames wouldn't spread to the city proper, but he wasn't going to lose any sleep over the possibility.


            He looked out across the black mirror of the harbor, painted crimson with the rising torrents of flame, and saw more of his boats pulling strongly towards the merchant vessels anchored further out. He also saw more than a few boats pulling away from those vessels, as their vastly outnumbered anchor watches of merchant seamen beat hasty retreats.


            They're probably going to hear about things like "deserting their posts" later this morning, Yairley thought. Not that they could have accomplished anything — except getting themselves killed — if they'd stayed.


            "All right, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk," he said to the midshipman at his side. "Let's see to starting a few more fires of our own, and then I think it'll be time to go."


            "Aye, aye, Sir!" Aplyn-Ahrmahk replied with a huge grin, and twitched his head at Stywyrt Mahlyk. "Come along, Cox'in!," he said, and went trotting along the waterfront, blowing on his slow match while Mahlyk hauled out the first incendiary and Yairley tagged along behind.




About Eric Flint

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