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All the Heavens - Title

Chapter 15

The bandit’s trail was easy for Mira’s trained eyes to follow. The outlaws hadn’t made any attempts to cover their tracks and they didn’t seem to be in a hurry either. Mira told her companions they were gaining fast and urged them to greater speed. They bent low over their horse’s necks and pounded after her. The minutes and leagues flew by under their flashing hooves. The trail got warmer and warmer to Mira’s keen eyes and soon she was unsheathing her sword for combat. The others followed her example and prepared for war.

They came around a bend and saw the bandits half a league ahead, heading for a millpond outside a small village. There was a two-masted galleon, its sails tightly furled, floating on the pond, a ship far too large for such a small body of water. Huddled on the shore were several villagers being guarded by six or seven heavily armed bandits. Behind them were several rowboats drawn up on the bank of the pond.

The bandits they were pursuing were heading straight for the strange assemblage on the bank.

When the Knights rounded the bend the bandits were plodding along just as Mira had prophesied, but the ones guarding the villagers saw them and began yelling to their companions. The bandits took one look behind them at their pursuers then spurred their horses to a gallop.

Mira yelled in dismay. “They've seen us! Faster, ride faster!”

She flogged her horse to even greater efforts and her friends followed close behind, their weapons at the ready. The distance between them and the pond disappeared at a furious rate. The bandits reached the pond first and threw themselves off their horses. One of them, a mage by his robes, pulled a struggling woman off her horse, dragging her toward one of the rowboats. The others slapped their horses away from them and yelled something indistinct at the huddled villagers who sprang to their feet and bolted for safety.

The bandits turned toward the waiting rowboats but before they had taken three steps the Knights of Gaia were on them.

Mira plowed into them like a juggernaut gone mad. One of the bandits fell beneath the savage hooves of her horse and another dropped to the ground like an unstrung puppet, his head spinning through the air from her sword stroke. Sheer speed and weight sufficed to carry her through the first three ranks but the fourth turned with a spear aimed directly at her horse’s heart. He died as the horse trampled over him but not before the spear had done its deadly work. The horse shrieked and fell, pitching Mira heavily to the ground where she lay stunned.

Aaren was right behind her and when she went down he leapt from the saddle, standing guard over her, swinging his hammer like a man possessed. Three times the bandits tried to overwhelm him, and three times they pulled back leaving dead comrades behind. A wall of bodies had grown up around him by the time Mira recovered enough to stand again.

The rest of the Knights hadn’t been idle. They too attacked the bandits with a vengeance. Elric took the lead fighting the enemy mage, hissing bolts of brilliant power leaping from his fingers to slam unerringly into him. The man staggered and lost his grip on the woman. She sprang away from him but he dove after her, both of them falling to the ground. The surging bodies of the bandits and the Knights came between them and he lost sight of them.

Horace and Katrina drove a wedge all the way through the bandit ranks, turned, and drove back through again, Jon hot on their heels. Twice more they crossed the bandit line, each time leaving a trail of death behind.

Elric wheeled his horse around to the side of the fight, searching for the enemy mage, standing up in the stirrups for a better vantage point. He saw the mage and they locked eyes across the battlefield. Steel gray eyes flickered with triumph and he cast a quick spell. Elric gasped in fear and fell back hopelessly then gasped again, this time in relief. A luckless bandit had stumbled between them at precisely that moment and the lightning bolt veered toward the man’s metal armor. He danced a sudden, furious jig then dropped to the ground in smoldering ruins, portions of his armor fused to his flesh.

Blanrus cursed at Colins’ interference, ignoring the fact the man’s clumsiness had already cost him his life. He grabbed the girl and pulled her toward the waiting rowboats. He had to get out of here! He’d already used most of his power fighting the caravan and had nothing left for another battle so soon. Illene struggled furiously, her clawing fingernails almost putting his eyes out. Where had these blasted interlopers come from, he wondered furiously? This wasn’t supposed to happen. Curse Bashaak anyway! This was his job! He spun Illene around and threw a solid punch to her jaw. She sagged and he tossed her into the boat, uncaring if she was hurt or not.

Elric saw Blanrus getting away and spurred his horse through the middle of the battle, parrying stray thrusts with his enchanted dagger. He broke through just as Blanrus was pulling away from the bank. He stood up in the stirrups again and incanted quickly before the boat was out of range. A sheet of flame jetted out from his hands catching the fleeing mage full in the face.

Blanrus fell backward in the boat screaming in agony, clawing at his face. He scrambled awkwardly, tripping on Illene’s body and getting tangled in the oars. Finally, he succeeded in plunging his head over the side of the boat into the water. He raised his head a moment later, his face a blackened ruin, one eye melted and oozing. Bone white with pain he groped for the oars and pulled like a madman.

Elric yelled in despair, “He’s getting away with the girl! Somebody give me a hand!” He flung himself from his horse and shoved one of the other rowboats into the pond. Behind him, he heard a sudden, deadly thud and a bandit’s body toppled into the pond with a mighty splash. Aaren dropped his hammer into the boat and shoved with him.

Mira sprang past them into the little boat and grabbed the oars. “Get in!” she shouted.

They gave the boat a final shove and leapt in. Mira braced her feet and put her back into it, pulling on the oars until they fairly flew through the water. Over Aaren and Elric's shoulders, she could see the final two bandits surrendering. Jon threw them to the ground and stood guard over them, waving Horace and Katrina after the rest of the Knights. They leapt into the remaining boat and sped after them.

Elric pointed ahead. “That way! He's almost there!”

‘There’ was the ship on the millpond. It was a short galleon, around 86 or 87 cubits long, with sails made of a strange shimmering material. The material seemed to be every color of the rainbow, and none of them, changing its hue depending on what angle it was seen from. There were strips of the same shimmering material, each about a span and a half wide, attached to the hull of the ship starting at the railing then going down under the hull and up to the railing on the other side. They were spaced about 4 cubits apart, from the bow to the stern.

There were a fore and aft, castle decks above the main deck, each accessible by short flights of stairs. The forecastle deck had two ballistae mounted on it and two catapults were mounted on the aft castle deck behind the ship’s wheel. The bow was sheathed in steel for use as a ram. It was painted bright red and had the name ‘The Claw’ painted across the bow just behind the ram.

It was completely out of place on the tiny millpond.

Elric saw the enemy mage reach the ship and begin clambering aboard with the help of two crewmen on the main deck. Together they pulled the unconscious woman aboard. Elric incanted and two more hissing bolts leapt from his fingers. They hit the wizard. The mage rocked backward from the impact, staggered, and nearly fell. He kept his feet though and lurched away from the side of the ship, out of Elric’s line of sight. The two crewmen turned fearful eyes on the approaching Knights and began backing away from the railing. The wizard was yelling something at them, but Elric couldn't tell what it was.

Their boat touched the side of the ship. Aaren leapt up and grabbed the railing. A moment later he gained the deck and threw a rope over the side to his friends. A shadow fell across him and he wheeled just in time to parry a vicious blow. The ring of steel echoed over the water and Mira and Elric hurried to scramble up the rope onto the ship. Horace and Katrina were right behind them a few moments later.

The enemy wizard was standing on the far side of the ship, next to a canoe with a shiny metal chair in it. Illene was slumped over the side of the canoe. He was digging frantically in his robes but as soon as he saw the Knights he gave up looking for whatever he was after and leapt into the canoe, roughly pulling Illene after him.

Mira and Katrina sprang to Aaren’s side, attacking the two bandits. Horace dove past them to close with the wizard, yelling, “The Knights of Gaia,” as a battle cry. The wizard saw him and flung himself into the metal seat. Without warning, the tiny canoe soared up into the air.

There was a moment of stunned silence. Before any of them could recover their wits or try to grab it, it accelerated swiftly into the skies above. In less than a minute it was out of sight.

*     *     *     *     *

They stared after it, dumbfounded, looking toward the sky in blank confusion.

Finally, Katrina broke the silence. “What was that?

“Weird?” Mira ventured.

Katrina gave her a withering look. “Come on.”

“How about really weird?” Horace gasped painfully, suddenly aware one of the bandits had managed to wound him.

Aaren shot him a concerned look and knelt to heal him. “Don’t talk for the next couple of minutes while I work,” he ordered him gently.

Katrina ignored them. “I want to know what that was,” she insisted. “Did you see the way that canoe took off and flew away?”

“Of course we saw it,” Mira told her. “We were right here. But we don’t know any more than you do. What about you, Elric?” she asked the slender mage. “You’re our resident expert on magic. Have you got any idea what that was all about?”

He gave her a troubled look. “Maybe. But it’s not something that Zorn was interested in, so I’m not sure how accurate my information is.”

“If you know anything at all, it’s more than the rest of us know. Out with it,” she urged.

“In a few minutes. But first, somebody help Jon bring those two prisoners over here. There are some questions I want to ask them before I make any comments one way or the other.”

Mira and Katrina protested but he was adamant. “I’m not saying anything until I have some more information,” he insisted. “And the sooner you get the prisoners here, the sooner I’ll have it.”

They finally gave in and rowed back to shore to collect Jon and his prisoners. They tied their hands securely behind their backs and put a noose around their necks to prevent any escape attempts. But the two men were thoroughly subdued and offered no resistance. The moment they were on board the strange ship Elric descended on them with a barrage of questions.

While Elric was interrogating the prisoners, Jon told the rest of them that a couple of the braver villagers had ventured out after the battle was over. From them, he had garnered the information that the galleon had simply appeared overnight on the millpond and the bandits had stolen some horses to use while raiding the caravan. According to their story, they had also overheard the guards talking about leaving once the wizard, Klee Blanrus, got back with the girl.

“Stranger all the time,” Aaren commented thoughtfully. “It’s obvious they were only after the girl, they don’t have any horses, Blanrus runs away in some kind of bizarre, flying canoe and this ship just appears out of nowhere on a tiny pond. I don’t understand it.”

“It must all tie together,” Katrina added, “but how?”

Aaren shook his head mutely. He started to say something when Elric’s voice interrupted him excitedly.

“I can explain it. I can explain everything!”

They turned and saw him running his eyes over the ship they were on in fascinated awe. He tore himself away with difficulty and addressed his friends. “This,” he stomped his foot on the deck, “is a starship!”

“A what?” Jon asked him.

“A starship! A flying ship for going to the moon and planets and stars!” he exclaimed. “Zorn only had one short scroll on them in his study, he didn’t think they were any use. That’s why I had to question the prisoners to make sure before I went and spouted off at the mouth. Imagine it,” he breathed in wonder. “A ship that can go to the stars!”

An excited babble broke out among them. Finally, Aaren shouted them down. After a moment they quieted down and Aaren turned a reproving eye on Elric. “Now why don’t you take it from the beginning and tell us what’s going on,” he suggested.

Elric nodded. “I only know a little. Starships are made from skyships. Skyships are flying ships that have sails made from lacewing silk. They sail through the air on magical currents, just like a ship at sea, only in the air. It takes a bunch of wizards all working together to cast the spell to make it work, but even then it has to have some kind of reactor or something to provide enough magical power to get off the ground.” He looked puzzled. “We’ll have to look around and find it. This ship has to have one.” He waved it off.

“But a skyship can’t fly in space because there’s no air or gravity. So they have to add something called a life chest.” He glanced at the prisoners for confirmation and they nodded quietly. “It creates air and gravity for the ship. Then you add another reactor or whatever to make the ship jump between the stars.”

“Jump?” Mira asked.

“The way I understand it, it’s like a teleportation spell for a whole ship instead of just one person. One minute you’re here, the next, you’re somewhere else around a whole different star. And the reactor can make the ship fly really fast between planets. Or something like that,” he trailed off uncertainly.

Horace was examining the ship with a soldier’s eye. “You know,” he said meditatively, “this ship is rigged up pretty good for fighting; lots of armor plating on the hull, crew-served weapons fore and aft, plenty of cover for bowmen and spear throwers, it’s even got a ram on the front, but what is that crazy wing for?”

Elric was confused. “What wing?”

Horace led them over to the rail and pointed toward the stern. There, just above the waterline was a short stubby wing. The trailing edge of it looked like it was on hinges so it could move up and down.

Jon hurried to the other side of the ship and peered over the edge toward the stern. “There’s another one on this side too,” he called. “What are they for?” he asked, rejoining them.

“How should I know?” Elric shrugged. “Zorn only had the one scroll.” He turned to the prisoners. “What are those wings for?”

After a moment, one of them ventured an answer. “They make the bow of the ship go up and down. Blanrus called them ailerons.”

“Are you sure about all this?” Mira asked doubtfully. “I mean, what if the scroll left something out or didn’t cover something fully? What then?”

“I’m as sure as I can be,” Elric answered. “And our prisoners confirmed everything I’ve told you so far. They’ve been to the moon and the Pebbles many times. The Pebbles are where Blanrus is taking the girl.”

His friends turned to eye their captives with new interest. The Pebbles were a group of asteroids that orbited Gaia in a loose cluster. They had been torn away from the moon during the Chaos Wars at the end of the First Age. They appeared in the night sky as dozens of bright spots of light and were sometimes visible in the early dusk.

Jon stretched and pulled the prisoners up to their feet. “This is all very interesting,” he said, “but right now I feel like stashing these guys somewhere safe and finding the kitchen, I’m starving.”

Katrina slapped at him playfully. “On a ship, it’s called a galley,” she teased.

He stuck his tongue out at her. “That’s the dining room dummy, not the kitchen.”

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