River Great Ouse, Cambridgeshire, England
August 20th, 2006 AD/Change Year 8
“Why is it called adventure,” the elder Loring asked. “Instead of—”
“Discomfort? Fear? Unending toil?” his son called back over his shoulder.
“Being stuck in the middle of a complete balls-up?” John Hordle grunted in agreement and took a hand off his paddle long enough to swat a mosquito. “I’d rather be sitting in a good pub with a girl, sir,” he said. “Say that Gudrun from Bob’s place. Talking about me adventures.”
The three men paddled in silence for a moment; the three canoes were traveling roughly abreast, usually close enough for easy conversation as the winding banks of the Great Ouse passed by slowly on either side… except that those banks were far less firm and definite than they had been a decade earlier. Most of a millenium of banking and diking and drainage had been undone in eight years, as the waters broke the bonds men laid on them and sought their own level.
Then Hordle chuckled. “What a bunch of bloody liars we are,” he said. “If we wanted it all that much, we’d be in the bloody pub right now. Nice enough now and then, but right boring if you do too much of it.”
“Speak for yourself, sergeant,” Nigel Loring said. “I’m at the memoir-writing phase of life’s progress. Good God, man, I was writing my memoirs just last month.”
There was a hint of returning life under the mock-severity of his tone. Glad to hear that, Hordle thought. I can understand it and all, but I don’t half like the way he’s acted so… not-quite-there when nobody’s trying to kill us. A smile: Of course, someone’s been trying to kill us far too bloody often just lately.
“You and Alleyne are still young enough to be accumulating interesting incidents,” Nigel went on.
“Interesting like this bloody swamp, sir?” Hordle asked. “Reminds me of some book my mum read me when I was small… well, when I was young… what was it called?Swans and Amazons?”
“That’d be Swallows and Amazons, sergeant,” Sir Nigel said.
“About a bunch of kiddies mucking about in boats around here, any rate,” Hordle said. “Certainly has changed a bit, eh?”
They all smiled. Even in the dry months of late summer, the stream’s course was often not where twentieth-century convenience had put it, and the land on either side showed the glint of shallow open water and patches of green reed-bed—patches that had grown larger as they passed ruined Bedford and came closer to the Wash. The standing water and warm weather also bred mosquitoes in stinging swarms, not to mention gnats, and a pervading smell of rotting vegetation filled the hazy air.
“I blame you, father,” Alleyne Loring said. “Watch out, there’s a dead tree-trunk just under the surface ahead.”
They all slowed and carefully swerved to the right; the tree was a large oak that had tumbled downstream in one of the floods that had ripped uncontrolled through the Ouse basin in the years since the Change, and planted itself with the root-ball upstream. That held a dozen sharpened spikes waiting just below the surface.
“You blame it on my bad example, eh?” Nigel said.
“No, it was all those copies of the Boy’s Own Paper you kept in the attic for me to discover when I was eight,” Alleyne said. “Not to mention the stack of Henty, and the Haggard and Kipling. Other boys of my generation learned to be sensitive and socially conscious, and I was marching to Kabul with Roberts.”
“That’s right, sir,” Hordle said. “Fair turned our heads, they did. I’d have been a Labor MP, else.”
“Oh, rubbish,” Nigel replied. “It’s your own dam’ fault, my boy; I inherited all that from my father. I didn’t make you take up all those books with the wizards and elves, at least—you came to that entirely on your own.”
“Oh, I’d say those were rather useful. Certainly the hobbies they encouraged were.”
It would be a bit intimidating having Sir Nigel as your Dad, Hordle thought, not for the first time. I can see why young Mr. Loring would hang out with those re-enactor burkes. Mind, some of the girls looked good in those low-cut blouse things, and the beer was better than passable.
He dug his paddle in to turn his canoe aside from a sunken cabin cruiser whose crumbling prow reared above the slow-moving brown water, trailing long streams of algae.
Thank God my Dad just owned a pub. Talk about pop-u-larity!
“At least it’s an open swamp around here,” he said aloud. “Less stressful, like, when you can see what’s coming.”
Dead trees stood in the fields about, their roots killed out by winter’s spreading water, and the floods had kept brambles at bay as well; the more so as this had been corn-growing land, much of it in great hedgeless fields. Most of the lowland was tall open grass; taller brush and trees survived and thrived rankly on bits of higher ground—ground that often showed the snags of ancient buildings, built in an earlier era where experience showed floodwaters were less likely to reach. Birds swarmed overhead and on the water, mallards the most numerous, but also tall grey herons and snowy swans, grebe and the Canada geese that seemed to flourish like bindweed everywhere on the island. Their gobbling and honking was occasionally loud enough to drown the sound of the water and wind; overhead a hawk floated with the noon sun on its wings, feathered fingers grasping the air. Native otter and alien mink slid down the banks with a plop and flash of sleek fur as the canoes ghosted by.
There weren’t any of the feral cattle and Père David’s Deer in sight that they’d noticed off and on the past few days, but something was cropping great stretches of the tall grass.
“Watch out!” Alleyne Loring called again, but there was excitement in his voice this time.
A snorting sound followed, like a great bellows being pumped… or pumped slightly underwater, because there were splashes with it.
“Ahead, to the right, about two hundred yards,” the younger Loring said.
Hordle gaped, then shut his mouth with a snap and a deliberate effort of will. Ahead was a section of bank still standing, the left a cluster of buildings and the right now a curving island in the midst of marsh. In the deeper water just below the middle of the curve structures topped by gray knobs and pits floated, like some uncouth driftwood sculpture; for a long moment his mind rejected the sight, despite having seen it before.
Seen it in Kenya, he thought, feeling his inner voice gibber slightly. But… hippo in Cambridgeshire!
“I’m surprised they can endure the winters,” Nigel Loring said, curiosity in his voice.
“Anything that lives in the water most of the time must have good insulation,” Alleyne pointed out; as you drew closer you could see the massive tubby bodies below the surface. “I don’t know how well they’ll do in the long term, but these seem to be flourishing as of now. We’d best be careful—that female has a couple of… what do you call them? Calves? Cubs?”
“Call them bloody dangerous, sir,” Hordle said fervently.
He’d visited Kenya before the Change at the Crown’s expense—the British army had long-standing arrangements there to secure open space for training unavailable in the then-crowded homeland. He’d mixed enough with the locals to learn that the comical-looking animals were in fact as belligerent as wild boar, and when you scaled one of thoseup to five tons and gave it four giant teeth like ivory pickaxes a foot long… the fact that it ate grass by choice and would spit you out after it bit you in half was no consolation at all.
Just then another sound rolled across the open ground to their left, one he recognized from the same memories as the hippo. A hoarse grunting moan, oouuughh… oouuugh…, building up to a shattering roar.
“Lion. Just what the country bloody needs,” Hordle said disgustedly. “Not to mention all the lovely sweet wolves and cuddly little bears noshing on our ruddy cows.”
“God damn all safari parks,” Sir Nigel said crisply. “And double damnation to their curators for living long enough to set all the beasts loose.”
“They make good hunting,” Alleyne said judiciously. “On the whole, I can’t disagree, though.”
Hordle nodded. That’s the Lorings for you, he thought. None of this, let’s hunt it and damn the farmers for them.
“Watch out below,” he added. “They can walk on the bottom and come up right beneath you, hippo can.”
Now that people were thin on the ground again and most worked the land for their livelihood, nearly everyone had adopted the farmer’s fiercely protective attitude towards his crops and stock. Not to mention that the carnivores had all turned maneater during the first Change Year when the wandering masses of starving refugees were the main food-supply available, and many hadn’t lost the habit yet. A big animal with teeth and claws was no joke, when all you had was a spear or a knife.
He drove his paddle into the water, angling over northwards, towards the left bank of the river. One of the hippo raised its head and forequarters out of the water as they came closer, opening its barrel-shaped head in a raw bellow of warning, the four giant yellow teeth framing the huge red gullet. The others rotated their heads like submarines swiveling a periscope, their twitching ears showing the focus of their attention. Hordle grinned and ducked down to get a better look at the infants—at that stage, even a hippo could be cute.
The arrow went through the space he’d been an instant earlier. Reflex kept him crouched as he dug the paddle into the muddle water of the Ouse with all his strength. The tough wood bent and the canoe surged forward as the skin crawled up his spine and his gut twisted. Being shot at by people he couldn’t see was among the many familiar experiences he had no desire to repeat.
Fwwwtp. Fwwwtp. Fwwwwtp.
The last hiss of cloven air ended in a ptank! as an arrow arched down and slammed down into the bottom of the canoe not far from his right foot, standing in the thin aluminum. Water began to rill in around the edges, and along the slit the broad triangular arrowhead had cut. He dug harder at the water, switching the paddle back and forth from right hand to left to keep the canoe on a steady path, and looked behind him. A boat had come out from around the stretch of island-bank, a crude flat-bottomed thing of planks and plywood and plastic sheeting. It was large enough for a dozen men—just—half of them poling it along with long wooden rods, and the rest with bows, shooting as fast as they could draw.
Maybe they’ll ram a hippo… no such sodding luck, Johnnie. Not quite that stupid.
Luckily between the crowding and the uncertain footing, they couldn’t shoot very well—the range was respectable, over a hundred yards. Another flight rose from the punt as he watched, twinkling in the sun, then fell all around the three canoes. The hissing of the shafts ended in a series of sharp wet slapping sounds, like hailstones in a pond. He thought about reaching for his own bow; he’d have to draw awkwardly, underarm, with the canoe’s rocking would throw his aim off. Still—
“I can plink a few, sir!” he called.
“Not here!” Nigel Loring snapped. “We’ll draw them to the buildings. You flank them on the right. Go!”
Nigel Loring drove his paddle into the water, gasping slightly with the effort, feeling the burning strain in his back and shoulders, the thudding of his heart at the—literally—life-and-death effort, the hissing wheep of passing arrows. The teeth beneath his graying blond mustache were barred in a snarl of effort; you might not think you cared much what happened to you any more, but the body had its own logic and its own priorities.
Beside him Alleyne paddled with smooth quick competence, face set with strain, and the building grew ahead of them—an old brick lock-house, the roof collapsed but the walls still standing, with scorch-marks above the empty windows. There had been other buildings round about, but none of them were more than brushy mounds; there had also been a couple of big trees near the lock-house, but the fire that brought down the roof had killed them all, except for a few branches on the far side of one oak. The wooden doors of the mitre-built locks were slightly open, and water poured through them in a sluggish current, pooling below where the lower ones were still mostly shut, though sagging.
Curse it, Nigel thought, as another flight of arrows came up—and fell short; the canoes were faster than the punt. They picked their spot well.
The canoes might be faster, but not so much faster that they wouldn’t be caught if they stopped to heave them past this lock. Then the pursuers would catch up and riddle them with arrows at point-blank range. They couldn’t turn about either with the savages behind them, and it would it do much good to try and don their armor; the enemy could ring them in…
…and in any case, wading around in this liquid muck with sixty pounds of steel on your back…
Past here they would be into the fens proper, first a narrow cone of them and then opening out into nearly a thousand square miles of reed and pool and mere. It had been farmland before the Change, some of the richest in the world—but kept that way only by pumps and drainage, a good deal of it below sea level because of the shrinkage of the peat soil.
The prows of the canoes slid into the soft mud of the bank. Alleyne and Nigel each leapt out of their craft, gave a swift wrench to slide it higher so that it wouldn’t float away when relieved of their weight, then snatched up their personal weapons and extra bundles of arrows and ran for the lock-house. The mud sucked at their feet, slowing his more than his son’s which were young and on the end of longer legs. Arrows whickered down behind them, hitting the bundled supplies in the canoes with dull thud-shunksounds, and the thin aluminum of the hulls with unpleasant metallic pops. Alleyne drew ahead. Even then, with his heart pounding and lungs heaving Nigel knew an instant’s pride that the younger man didn’t slow—instead he did the tactically sensible thing, and sprinted up the last stretch of tall grass and brush to dive head-first through the window.
A second later he popped up behind it, drawing his bow—from firm footing, protected to the waist, and with room to work. The arrow that he sent whickering past Nigel brought a yell from behind, faint with distance but sharp with pain. He vaulted through another window himself an instant, later, stumbling on the broken boards and rubble within as two arrows followed him in and vanished with snapping and cracking sounds in the tumbled wreckage of the interior, and another slapped into the window-frame and stood humming with an evil descending note. Then he forced himself erect and wheeled. It was the work of a moment to string his own bow; you had to be careful with that, though, and the mental effort helped him slow his breathing. The interior of the lock-house smelled of ancient wet ash and mold and rotting wood; he put his feet carefully on the floor, lest a foot go through the boards and trap his leg. He slung the quiver over his back, drew a shaft and shot—the bow wasn’t his primary weapon, but he’d practiced a good deal since the Change and some before it.
There were two of the flat-bottomed boats now, but they were both moving backward rapidly to get out of arrow-range. One halted, and a white cloth went up on top of a pole, waving back and forth. When no more arrows snapped out from the lock-house the clumsy craft edged forward a little and halted within speaking distance.
Nigel blinked in surprise, as his breathing slowed. Sweat soaked his uniform in the muggy heat, and he ran a sleeve over his face, then looked cautiously around the edge of the window. Generally the Bushwood men simply killed anyone from the settled zone—what they called King’s Men—they came across. The antipathy was entirely mutual, fueled by disgust on one side and frenzied hatred on the other, born of the days when the island refuges had closed their borders to the starving masses of refugees and enforced it with pike and club and museum swords.
“Keep an eye on the other one, and around us,” he said, and Alleyne nodded silently. Then the elder Loring went on, shouting out the window:
“What do you men want?”
He recognized the pack leader they’d seen in Newport Pagnell, thin-faced and slight and with his nose bristling with rings; someone had cut Archie MacDonald’s stolen clothing short in arm and leg but it still hung on him like a tent. He stood and cupped his hands around his mouth, while the rest of the savages in his craft crouched behind crude shields.
“We wants our kids back! Give them us and we’ll let you King’s men go!”
Nigel’s eyebrows went up further. Wouldn’t have believed family affections were that strong among the Brushwood Men, he thought. After all, these are the people who atechildren to survive.
“This is a bit awkward,” Alleyne said as he peered out the west-facing windows to make sure a party weren’t sneaking around to take them from that direction. “Yes, our friend Grishnàkh from Newport Pagnell… very awkward, seeing that we don’t have their children and can’t go back for them.”
“Let’s hope they don’t realize that the government probably would trade them for us,” Nigel said, thinking hard. Then: “It’s fairly obvious we’re fugitives ourselves. Nothing for it but the truth, or at least part of it.”
He shouted again: “We don’t have them with us. You can see that—there isn’t room in these canoes.”
“Where the ‘ell are they then, you bastards?”
“We sent them into the settled zone for fostering. They’re south of Winchester and they’ll be split among a dozen farms by the end of the week, where they’ll have plenty to eat and wear, and a good education. And be better off than they were with you! Now get out of our way, or you’ll get more of what we handed out in Newport Pagnell church.”
The leader of the Netherfield Avengers screamed with rage and snatched a bow from one of his men. The arrow rapped off the stone wall of the building, and the two Lorings shot in return. Nigel’s arrow stood quivering in a shield; Alleyne’s flicked between two and set up a shouting and thrashing as the flat-bottomed craft was poled back to join its companion.
“You give me back my boy! Give me back my ‘arry, or I’ll eat your fuckin’ liver and lights while you watch it!”
“So much for the repentance of the Netherfield Avengers,” Sir Nigel muttered, and shot back; the arrow thunked into the side of the crude barge, and the men with poles frantically redoubled their efforts.
He still felt a little uneasy at the raw grief and rage in the voice of the savage. That is not a man who intends to give up, he thought.
Faint and far, Nigel heard the leader shout as his boat halted again out of range: “Take ’em alive, anyone scrags ’em, I’ll scrag him myself!”
“Diplomacy never was my great strength,” Nigel said.
“And I’m afraid they’re not as stupid as we hoped, eh?” Alleyne replied calmly. “They’ll wait for night, then, and come in under cover of darkness. I count twenty of them, all fighting men.”
Nigel nodded; they were a blur to him, but Alleyne’s eyesight was considerably better than normal. “We could probably eel our way out past them once night falls,” he said. “But we’d have to abandon the canoes—which would leave us stranded. Our ship isn’t going to wait forever.”
“Let’s see what Hordle comes up with,” Alleyne said, climbing a sloping section of collapsed roof for a vantage-point above the level of the windows. “He’s quite a resourceful chap.”
“Good man,” Nigel agreed. “Good as any I’ve ever served with, poor old Aylward excepted.”
With a last savage dig of the paddle, Hordle forced the prow of the canoe into the reed-grown mud at the stream’s edge. Then he leapt over the side, instantly sinking calf-deep, grabbed the thwarts and wrestled the little craft forward by main strength, over a ridge of dirt and into a shallow water-and-mud patch the consistency of thin porridge. The sucking sounds his feet made as he struggled towards the higher ground of what had once been the stream’s bank were like porridge cooking, as well.
Blighty doesn’t want to let me go, he thought whimsically.
The thick glutinous mass tried to suck the boots off his feet as he waded forward with his sword and bow lying across the crooks of his arms; the sewer smell of marsh was thick around him. Reeds swayed on either side; his head would have been above them if he hadn’t bent over, which made his progress slower yet. When the ground grew firmer he went down on his belly and eeled forward, over the low ridge and into what had been the field beyond. The edge of that was a ditch, and water and silt coated the front of his body like thick paint. The whole field was more like swamp than dry land, but not as bad as the river side of the bank. He stopped as the coarse grass waved over his head, ignoring the hum of mosquitoes stabbing into the soft skin behind his ears, and listened as he forced his breath to slow.
Wind in the tall stems. Voices shouting, muffled by several hundred yards’ distance and the slight ridge of the former riverbank with its willows and alders. That let his mind paint a picture; the water came in behind the shallow C-shaped section of riverbank, making an embayment behind it where the savages had hidden their boats. The water there must be very shallow, less than a foot deep, but that would be enough for something flat-bottomed and broad.
Have to be ruddy careful with this, he thought, and raised his head for an instant’s scan before pulling it down again fast but smooth; jerky motions attracted the eye.
They’d left no sentries on dry land he could see, save for one in the limbs of a tree on the former riverbank who must have been their lookout. The tree was thirty yards away, and he was standing on a bough twenty feet up, hugging the treetrunk with one hand and peering out around it to keep track of the action. Hordle checked his bow, but the string was a precious pre-Change one, absolutely waterproof—not that well-waxed linen took much harm from anything but a thorough soaking. He leopard-crawled a little further forward, trading distance for angle, then brought his feet carefully beneath him and took a deep breath. He’d have surprise on his side, for thirty seconds or a minute…
But twenty-to-one odds is a little steep, even for Little John Hordle.
Stand, feet already planted in the T he’d learned before the Change when it was just a hobby he shared with the heir to Tilford Manor, Sam Aylward instructing them both on visits. Draw—
Snap. The first arrow took the sentry in the back of the head, slanted up through the brain and broke through his forehead from the inside; he was using the bodkins designed to punch through steel plate, and the impact was an unpleasant triple crack, bone-bone-tree-trunk, less than a second after the shaft left the string.
Snap. Snap. Two more, one in the upper torso and one through the lower back, balancing the noise of the bowstring and the sound of arrows thudding home against the attention that would be drawn when the sentry fell out of the tree. Pinned thrice to the living wood he slumped instead, twisting very slowly. The body would fall, but only when the arrowheads pulled free of the trunk, or the shafts broke, or the body’s weight pulled them entirely through.
He sprang erect and raced for the low ridge, teeth showing in a mask of dark-brown mud that coated him to eye-level. Though what I’m supposed to do when I get there… maybe I can take half a dozen with me—
His rush broke through a screen of young willows, the flexible stems beating at him like whips; he held his bow at arms length over his head, which put it nine feet up, to keep the string safe. There were the two boats full of savages, not fifty yards away…
Ah. Yes. Bloody hell, that would be ruddy entertaining, wouldn’t it, then?
The hippos were between him and the Netherfield Avengers, their backs out of the water where they’d backed up, but their attention firmly on the dangerous, noisy, annoying humans in boats; pretty soon one of them would get the idea that discretion was the better part of valor and they’d all come out of the water and walk away into the fields behind him.
Unless something hurt one of their precious calves. “I hate to do this to the little kiddie, I really do, Mabel. But it’s him or me.”
The arrow flashed out in a long shallow curve and plunged into the right buttock of the nearest hippo calf with a wet smacking sound, like a soaked towel flicked onto a man’s back. The little animal opened its broad mouth and screamed, as only a three-hundred-pound baby could do when it called to its mother in distress.
Mother weighed four tons. Taken with her sisters she had about the same mass as a medium tank.
The hippos had been resting quietly, their big rounded feet touching lightly on the mud of the river bottom. The sound of the infant’s pain, seconds later the scent and taste of its blood through air and water, sent them bellowing and shaking their heads, roaring out their challenge to the world. The savages probably hadn’t much noticed the big beasts, with their mind on human prey. Now the shallow-draft boats rocked as they looked around, eyes going wide at the sight of the animals lashing the water into silt-choked foam less than half a bowshot away.
They responded as undisciplined men always would, keyed up for a fight and with weapons in their hands, presented with a fresh danger. At least half a dozen of them drew their bows and shot at the massive weight of enraged aquatic mammal.
“That’s right, you dim Herbert, let Mum know who hurt her darling little babykins,” Hordle chortled
The hippos lunged forward, mouths gaping as they headed towards the threat in a torrent of spray and hoarse squealing. The screams of the savages added to the tumult; half of them tried to pole their craft away, while the quicker-witted jumped overboard and swam for it, and a few simply stood and shrieked out their terror.
Behind him the sentry’s body pulled loose from the tree and dropped. Nobody noticed, or saw Hordle’s tall troll-broad shape as he spun and ran crouching through the trees and brush to his canoe. A heave and two lunging steps brought him into it, paddle driving him towards the locks. He gave a whoop and waved as two smaller shapes darted out of the lock-keeper’s house and launched their own. There was no need for words in the quick hard coordinated work of getting the canoes over the locks and into the broadening stream below. Half an hour later only an endlessness of reeds surrounded them, waving well above their heads.
“That was inspired, Hordle,” Sir Nigel said as they paused in a broader open stretch, and leaned over to shake his hand.
“Just making use of opportunity, sir,” Hordle said, grinning broadly. “The hippo’s great fat arse was there, me bow was to hand…”
Alleyne chuckled. “Got us out of a very sticky spot,” he said. “Speaking of which, I think my canoe is sinking. Those arrows, don’t you see.”
His father gave it a quick look. “We can patch the other two, but this isn’t worth salvaging,” he said. “I doubt we’ve seen the last of our friends from Netherfield, either; they seemed far too full of civic spirit to me. Alleyne, you take the bow position in my canoe. We’ll redistribute the loads and discard most of the food—weapons and armor are the first priority.”
Hordle gave a mock-whimper, but joined in tossing the rations overside. Even working hard, fit men could go several days without eating before they lost much strength, and at a pinch they could forage. When the damaged canoe had been stripped, he took a moment to smash a hatchet through the bottom in several places; there was no sense in giving the Brushwood Men a free gift of it.
Sir Nigel looked ahead, to where the tall gray tower of Ely’s cathedral rose above the marshes. “We’ll stop there to repair the canoes and take a look about,” he said. “I’d like to keep to the levels beyond, but…”
“But probably the river’s changed course,” Alleyne nodded. “The canals are all above general ground level. Pity Hereward the Wake isn’t about when you need him,”
The paddles flashed as the first arrow went by, throwing drops of spray in arcs to the sky as the two canoes drove desperately northward through King’s Lynn. The Lorings were propelling their canoe Canadian voyageur-style, kneeling in the bow and stern; Hordle sat in the rear of his, alternating strokes to either side and making about the same speed by raw power. All three men were gaunt and filthy and haggard, dark circles of exhaustion under their eyes, their uniforms caked with dried mud and stained white with rimes of sweat; fresh patches showed damp under arms and around their necks.
“They’re gaining on us!” Hordle said, as the snap of bowstrings came from behind them.
Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt.
Nigel bit back a desire to shout: Well, that’s ruddy obvious, isn’t it, man?
The flight of arrows hit the water of the Great Ouse only a few feet behind them, stuttering in like hail. About twenty of the savages were still on their track, but they had switched to another boat some time ago, one they’d had hidden somewhere. It was a pre-Change hull of some sort, cut down and rerigged for oars, and it was fast. Six long sweeps worked on either side, which let the Netherfield Avengers’ chief steer and six of his band shoot. Which they were doing with dismaying frequency and accuracy; their only problem was range, and the rowers were about to solve that.
Nigel’s head whipped back and forth as he looked for a spot they could land and make a stand, even as arms and shoulders and breath worked on automatically. Leftward was only flooded rubble with an occasional snag of wall standing, densely overgrown where it wasn’t standing water covered in ten-foot reeds. Eastward the old medieval core of the little city still stood, as was often the case—most of it was on a natural levee, above the usual flood line. He could see the bulk of the old Hanseatic warehouse, and beyond it the barley-sugar columns and waterfront tower of Clifton House, which had been used as a lookout for ships in the old days, and the Purfleet Quay jutting out into the river beyond it. Ships sunken or canted at their moorings hid much of the shoreline, and others stood awash in the stream, their upperworks making obstacles the canoes had to dodge with loss of precious time.
Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt.
One of the shafts went into the bag of armor ahead of him, a dull chunk sound as it hit a piece of Nigel’s harness. It would be suitably ironic if one hit him, went through and then stopped against the protection he couldn’t wear. The rest fell all about them, plunking into the turgid water of the river and floating away head-down with their draggled flight-feathers bobbing uppermost.
“There!” he called. “Head in for the quay. We’ll make a stand in the customshouse tower.”
In fact, we’ll be shot down like dogs well short of there, but one has to try, he thought, as he bent to the paddling. What an end for the Lorings! Killed by swamp-cannibals not forty miles from Cambridge…
It was Hordle’s happy shout that alerted him, so total was the focus of his concentration. Two longboats were pulling out from behind the quay, a tow-rope lifting from the water as they did. At the end of it was a ship, a three-masted schooner with her poles bare. A banner broke out from the mizznemast, a blue background with the stars of the Southern Cross on it in silver and a Union Jack in the top corner. The Australian flag, and nowadays that of the Tasmanian Commonwealth.
Her name was The Pride of St. Helens after her home-port, and he’d last seen her tied up at Southampton when King Charles went aboard as part of the diplomatic formalities.
“We’re not there yet!” he called, feeling an absurd impulse to laugh welling up under his breastbone, suppressing it lest it break the rhythm of breath and effort. Then, more quietly to his son: “Just like something out of Haggard, eh?”
“Not… if… we’re… killed… at… the… last… minute!” Alleyne panted, timing the words to the stroke of his paddle. “That… would… be… entirely… too… ironic… and… postmodern… for… my… taste!”
Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt. Fwwwpt.
Something scored across his shoulder, white-hot chill, then pain and a trickle of blood. Alleyne almost looked around at the involuntary hiss of pain.
“Flesh-wound,” Nigel bit out. “Ignore it.”
It hurt like fire, with the salt of his sweat running into it and the coarse cloth of his jacket rubbing the abraded flesh with each stroke of the paddle. The edge of the arrowhead had sliced the taut flesh of the shoulder-muscle like a razor, and working it hard wasn’t doing it any good at all.
The next volley would have them bracketed. Men were clustered at the rail of the big schooner ahead of them; then they stood back from around some piece of equipment that crouched there.
It was a deep metallic sound, like a huge sawblade being wobbled between the hands of a giant. Something went by overhead, moving in a blurred streak faster than an arrow. His head swiveled involuntarily to follow it. The line of its flight bisected one of the rowers on the savage’s boat, and his head went tumbling overboard while his body thrashed and spouted.
The sound was different this time, and the missile. A globe flew wobbling through the air, trailing smoke from a ring of tarred hemp. It went overhead as their eyes swiveled to track it, and then struck the surface and burst not far from the savage’s prow. With a loud whoosh! the contents spread out on the water and roared into orange flame, trailing twists of black smoke into the bright summer air.
The improvised galley was a little over a hundred yards from the three fugitives, two hundred from the schooner. Both weapons looked as if they could shoot considerably further than that, and the savages seemed to realize it. There was a brief squabble, and one of them pushed the chief aside from the tiller; the dead oarsman’s body was tumbled overside, and an archer flung himself into the vacant position. One side of oars backed water, the other plunged theirs deep and heaved, and the new steersman threw his weight into the effort as well. The boat turned in its own length and began to flee south, the blades of the oars beating froth from the water.
And the chief stayed on his knees, staring at his escaping enemies, both fists clenched and shaking as he screamed a curse; the voice was thin with distance, but Nigel could hear sobs in it as well.
Beside him, Hordle had turned his canoe and come up precariously on one knee. His great yellow bow bent into a perfect arc as he aimed…
“No!” Nigel called.
The archer looked at him incredulously. “Sir, I swear I could put one—”
“No, sergeant. Let him go.” At the wide-eyed question in the other’s eyes. “We took his son.”