Ship of the Desert

By Pete Sartucci

©2014, Pete Sartucci

This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Pete Sartucci in 2014, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

Spring, CY 25 (2023 AD)

On the north coast of Sinai.

Captain Demetrios Omerou gazed on Maria Chronis and suppressed a groan. Don’t drool over her, you fool, he told himself. She’s engaged to the Governor of Egypt!

In divided riding skirt and tasseled shawls under a broad–brimmed hat tied on with a colorful kerchief, she reined in her mount to walk next to his across the stony desert floor. “How long until we reach Pelusion, Captain Omerou?” she asked in that wonderfully musical voice that shamed the birds.

Her attention sent a warm surge through his blood, one that he hoped could not be seen on his deeply–tanned face.

“Another full day should see us there, Miss Maria.” Demetri tried to maintain a stiff formality and keep his eyes only on her horse, which probably cost more than the League paid him in a year. But his gaze wandered across her fine–gloved hands and up the rich fabric of her sleeves to her shaded face, where laughing dark eyes met his own squarely. She’s so beautiful… and so confident. What man wouldn’t want her?

Her smile blossomed as his eyes met hers; then, one of her father’s retainers called to her from behind. A resigned look flashed across her face, she lowered her reins and leaned back in her seat a little so that her horse dutifully dropped back amidst the caravan again. The plodding pack–mules and the wagon–oxen barely noticed, but Demetri suspected that every man in the caravan was cheered by her passage.

He had been doing his best not to think about her, but every time he saw the curve of that face his heart and loins ached anew.

Stop it, he scolded himself. You’re ten years older than her and have nothing to offer but a Captain’s salary! Since you joined the Army you’ve known no women but whores. You barely know how to behave around a lady! You’re so far beneath her that you might as well be a cockroach! Keep your mind on your duty — guard the caravan.

When he was first assigned to this frontier Hellenic League post, the landscape seemed achingly empty, of people anyway. There were plenty of relics from the crashed civilization that had once populated this desert, and then died when the Change struck, electricity ceased, pumps stopped, and machines halted all over the world. Cyprus had survived, barely, and Crete and a few other islands, to rebirth Hellenic civilization into the depopulated void of the Eastern Mediterranean. They’d found Gaza occupied only by skeletons and taken it into Greater Hellas once more. Ten years of plowing and sowing the weed–grown fields and rebuilding hollow shells had given thirty thousand Greeks a home amidst gardens and groves, until recently one without hindrance.

But lately the local sand–Arabs, the Bedouin, had reappeared out of whatever hiding place they’d used to survive the Change. Their nomadic journeys brought them near and then into the edges of the settlements. Stock and tools began to disappear, and lately, children and the occasional adult. After one outrageous kidnapping he gave up on talking and began to show the League’s steel fist to keep them in line. He’d lead three punitive expeditions this year to quell livestock–raids – they were calling him The Whirlwind now in their bastard Arabic. But even when Al–Hussein, the most recalcitrant Bedouin leader, finally bowed his stiff neck before Demetri and his armored troops, the man had still stubbornly insisted that the Greeks should abandon perfectly good crop land just so Bedouin goats could graze there. It struck Demetri as a dangerous kind of madness.

They’re forcing a struggle that only one of us can win, he brooded. But both can lose.

He shook off his melancholy as the caravan approached the long rows of dunes that had eaten the old highway they followed. He dispatched outriders to watch for trouble while he considered changing the caravan’s order of march, finally decided against it. Maria’s father, Constantine Chronis, grain magnate of Haifa, a merchant lord with financial fingers in thirty ships and a hundred shore–side ventures, was ensconced in a big carriage right in the middle of the twelve wagons, behind the pack–mules and ahead of the fifty–horse remuda. The man had brought along three servants for himself and his daughter, his own household troops (the ten sworn men that League law allowed a wealthy citizen), plus a few mercenary guards hired for the trip. Four of the wagons and most of the horse herd were his too, part bride–gift and part tax–payment to the League to support the new settlements; a way to flaunt his wealth and civic duty. He might not hold political office, but Demetri Omerou was well aware of the influence such a rich man could command.

Give up yearning for his daughter, or he’ll get you reassigned to the Danube where you’ll freeze your stones off! Demetri chided himself.

He shaded his eyes to check the sand ridge ahead — his forward outrider topped it briefly to wave an all–clear and disappeared back into the waste. The left–hand man had reported the same a few minutes ago. In this empty land it was probably unnecessary, but a teacher in the League’s War Academy at Heraklion had told him that fortune favors the prepared — and ill–luck stalks only a moment’s carelessness away.

Demetri directed the caravan up a long valley between two sinuous dunes — crossing the loose sand below the crests with wagons would be a nightmare; the packed sand here was much easier on the horses. He brushed away a couple of the ever–present flies and mopped his face with a salt–stained handkerchief. He hated the vicious dry wind that blew out of Sinai this time of year, draining the life out of men and animals alike. He knew the twenty–five men of his company detailed to guard the strung–out mass were struggling with it too. They’d already been two days traveling from Gaza to the new settlement at the northeastern fringe of the Nile delta, in what the now–extinct Egyptians had called Port Said.

“I wish we still had Lake Bardawil’s springs on our right hand, Captain,” his nephew Georgios Neophytou remarked, stiffly formal; he’d been tongue–tied silent while Maria was present. “I don’t like this being trapped between the desert and the sea, without a drop of drinkable water in sight.”

“Unpleasant but necessary,” Demetri agreed as their horses paced across packed sand. “There’s no water at all farther south, save right after a rain, and there won’t be any of that for months yet.”

Young Georgi — not long out of boyhood at eighteen years on this Changed Earth — scanned the constricted horizon while absently checking his shiny new Lieutenant’s stars with the hand that wasn’t holding his horse’s reins. He rode ramrod–straight, practically sitting at attention. Demetri suspected Georgi still didn’t quite believe his own promotion. With my help, he might grow into an officer who can become somebody… somebody better than his uncle.

“Don’t screw yourself up so tight, Georgi,” he advised kindly. “You look like somebody stuck a pike up your ass. It’s allowed, to be comfortable when you ride – we’re a lot less formal when we’re away from the post.”

Georgi let a chuckle slip and relaxed, slightly. “I don’t want the men thinking I’ll get special treatment because you’re my uncle, sir. They’d resent me for it, and learning to be an officer is hard enough without that, too!”

“Don’t worry yourself overmuch. I won’t hesitate to chew your ass if — when! — you pee on your shoes.”

Demetri chuckled to take the sting out of the words, glanced at the sun and said “The wagons are holding a good pace. In another hour we should make that sweet–water spring at the head of Cormorant Cove.”

Georgi started to speak when Maria passed them at a gallop, her grin huge and mischievous. Georgi visibly melted under her blinding smile as she passed, her silver crucifix winking from a chain about her neck.

Demetri suppressed his brief stab of jealousy and let it ripen into amusement. The girl’s riding skill spoke of discipline but her actions of a spoiled willfullness. Does Georgi see that too? he wondered. Probably sees only her beauty – she glows like a star! And does he understand that she is a prize far beyond either of our reach? Her father could buy our whole family out of his pocket!

Two of her guards trotted past, their own horses hopelessly outclassed. One man plaintively called after her while the other quietly cursed in frustration.

“She should not be riding beyond the caravan,” Georgi declared, glancing at his uncle.

“Agreed; go fetch her back here, and remember!” Demetri scowled quellingly at his nephew. “She travels to meet her betrothed — who is a damn fine swordsman. You give him any cause to feud with our family and I’ll let him mince you!”

Georgi grinned fleetingly; he was justly proud of his own swordsmanship. He also nodded in submission before he spurred his horse and raced off. Demetri watched him catch up to and pass the two guards, and overhaul Maria just as she passed out of sight behind the next curving dune. They both disappeared beyond the sand ridges.

I shall give them five minutes, he decided generously. Her guards were prodding their own tired mounts toward the slope at a walk, visibly abandoning any hope of catching their charge until she was ready to be caught. The long double line of horses and mules forged steadily onward, curving to follow a stretch of the old road and avoid the sea of soft sand. Now and then they kicked up desiccated bits of asphalt. Mules complained and oxen plodded.

A pair of dark birds wheeled overhead.

Demetri scowled at them; he disliked vultures. They reminded him too much of comrades lost during the long Greek colonization push into the eastern Mediterranean, spreading Cyprus’ too–crowded survivors out into lands emptied by the Change. The tiny half–savage tribes that haunted the ruins of Aleppo, Beirut, and Tel Aviv had not submitted to Greek rule peacefully. He had spent the better part of a decade teaching them manners with sword and shield before landing the plum post of empty Gaza. Ugly memories tried to fill his mind but he dashed them aside with a snort. No. You soiled your soul to advance the League, long may it live! You can’t call the dead back to life. Kyrie Eleison! Lord have mercy!

He crossed himself and checked the sun again; it had moved a few degrees closer to the horizon ahead. Enough time — more than enough. Georgi should have brought her back by now! Demetri called to one of his men: “Go forward and fetch Lieutenant Neophytou and Miss Chronis back—”

The top of the dunes erupted. Men and horses boiled over the crest, screeching in Arabic as they brandished swords and bore down on the caravan.

“Bedouins! To arms! To arms!” he bellowed, snatching up his shield and drawing his own sword.

His men responded with gratifying speed. The raiders charged recklessly in among the caravaneers. The long regular formation of men and beasts became a chaotic storm of blades and blood.

A pair of attackers recognized his officer’s garb and charged him. The first had raging eyes glaring out of a matted beard above a frayed and filthy robe; the man hacked powerfully at Demetri with a notched hand–made excuse for a sword. The Greek blocked it on his boiled–leather–and–salvaged–steel shield and stabbed his own blade into the raider’s unprotected armpit, severing tendons and muscle. The man’s shout turned to a choked gasp, and he sagged aside as his blood spurted. Demetri barely had time to whip his sword around and knock aside a vicious stab from the second rag–clothed figure.

That’s a Greek sword he’s using! The captain realized, reversing stroke to lay the second bandit’s arm open to the bone. These sons of whores have slaughtered other soldiers! The Bedouin’s fine blade slipped from a now–nerveless hand and landed point–first in the sand. Demetri reversed his sword and slashed again, and the bandit toppled off his horse, which promptly bolted. He pressed with his knees and brought his well–trained mount up behind the first bandit, chopped at the wounded man’s neck and dropped him too. Only then did he dare look around.

Screams of men and of horses rang through the churning dust. He saw two more bandits trying to bracket Nicholas Pharos and spurred his own mount at the nearer of them. He drove his horse against the other, spoiling the bandit’s stroke, and then when the bandit rounded on him, hacked off a forearm and the sharpened spike that it held. The bandit shrieked in a shockingly high–pitched voice, wheeled his horse aside and tried to bolt, but the beast stumbled and lurched. Demetri’s sword helped the bandit out of his excuse for a saddle — the Greek captain just had time to notice that it was made of rawhides wrapped around old blanket scraps — and the Bedouin’s head met a wagon–wheel hub with a sound like a melon dropped on a tile floor.

Pharos was a good fighter; he’d already taken down his opponent. A third bandit looked at the now–reversed odds and rode away seeking better ones. Demetri swiveled his head frantically, trying to make sense of the combat.

“Pharos! With me!” he shouted and charged at four Bedouins mobbing two other Greek soldiers. He and Pharos hit them from behind and in moments there were three dead Bedouins and one fleeing, while one of the Greeks lay on the sand and bled. The other swore over a nasty gash in his off–arm.

“They’re stealing the remounts!” Pharos called.

Hooves thundered over packed desert soil as the Bedouins yipped and ululated, leading the entire string of horses away. They vanished between the dunes before Demetri could get his own horse turned around, and then he had to charge another bandit stabbing at a driver, who avoided the stroke only by throwing himself off the far side of his wagon. The Bedouin snatched something out of the wagon–bed before riding off. That gave Demetri time to catch up to him and they traded fast sword–strokes before Pharos caught up as well. Then the two of them taught the Bedouin elementary mathematics. Demetri panted as the corpse hit the ground and looked around again.

Chronis’ guards had fended off half–again their number of attackers, and then resisted the temptation to be drawn away by an artful retreat. Stymied by the too–disciplined guards and the fierce Greek soldiers, the raiders were breaking away up and down the line, too often leaving wreckage and death in their wake. Wagons were stopped in disarray, a couple mules had gone into wild frenzies of bucking that threatened to unseat their packs. Three other mules lay dead on the sands, along with at least one driver. More animals were simply missing.

Pharos drooped, hissing as his arm bled crimson.

“Get that treated!” Demetri ordered, then cantered down the length of the caravan, estimating damage while keeping a wary eye out for any remaining bandits.

Four more of his men lay dead on the ground; he’d lost one in five of his troops. It was little consolation that over thrice that number of attackers bled out onto the Earth. Two wagon drivers were wounded and three of the mule tenders were dead, a fourth wounded. Five of the mules and their valuable packs were gone, along with all fifty of the garrison horses.

“Captain! Captain Omerou!” A voice called urgently from the top of a dune, one of the Chronis guards. The man squeezed a bleeding right arm in his left hand, jerking his head at Demetri in a shivering summons as his nag staggered on the treacherous footing.

Demetri gulped hot dry air, spurred his horse into motion as sick dread welled up from his liver. No! Maria! Georgi!

He took the loose face of the dune at a rush, his mount fighting the clinging sands; at the top the Chronis retainer was already riding down the hard–packed windward side. A lower dune beyond made a little basin, the sand churned by hundreds of tracks. The other Chronis guard lay at its foot, and atop it sprawled a familiar form.

“Georgi!” Demetri charged the new slope, and then flung himself out of the saddle and onto his knees beside his nephew’s still body. His hand trembled slightly as he smoothed the crusted black hair, blood already dry in the hot wind. Something heavy had caved in the back of the boy’s skull. Sightless eyes gazed on eternity now.

Demetri’s own eyes stung from more than sweat. Georgi! Fool that I am, I shouldn’t have sent you alone!

Another horse came struggling up the dune. Constantine Chronis dismounted gracelessly, panting from unaccustomed effort.

“Maria!” he gasped. “Captain, where’s my daughter?!”

Demetri Omerou stood up, gazed down the far side of the dune. His advance scout lay crumpled in the valley beyond, sand already drifting over his body. Tracks led off into the desert, vanishing as the hot winds rolled grain after grain.

“Out there.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Seven of my men dead, and three mule–drivers,” Omerou reported in clipped tones to the Governor of Egypt at his office in Pelusion, standing at attention and staring straight ahead. “Three more soldiers wounded enough to be off the duty list, and two wagon–drivers the same. Mister Chronis lost one guard and had another maimed. They ambushed us brilliantly, taking out both of our advance scouts without any warning.”

He swallowed through a mouth gone dry as Governor Nikephoros Christoforo simply stared at him expressionlessly, and then continued.

“Collectively we killed twenty–three of the raiders. However, their survivors, who numbered somewhere between sixty and seventy men, made off with our entire fifty–horse herd, five loaded mules, several minor pieces of loot — and your betrothed, sir.” Maria, Maria — your lack of discipline put you in their reach, and killed Georgi, yet I can’t be angry with you even now. I’m only sorry.

A snarl twisted the Governor’s expressionless face. Christoforo, a lean, hard–bodied man, just turned thirty, barely two years older than Demetri, showed his ruthless streak in that moment. The man had been born five years before the Change and probably remembered the loss of the Old World. Demetri resisted the temptation to hang his head, instead staring out the window behind the governor.

The two of them stood in Christoforo’s private office, a cool, breezy, high–ceilinged room on the main floor of a renovated structure in the older part of the ruined Egyptian city, with a view of the sea. Christoforo wore a simple tunic but it was made of the very expensive fine cotton these new Egyptian fields had been producing, with an elaborately–tooled leather belt sporting gold–chased scabbards for knife and sword. The young Governor had met him standing and pacing, which made Demetri even more nervous. Now the man sped up, pacing like an angry cat.

“Continue, Captain Omerou,” he snapped tersely.

Demetri swallowed again — Christoforo couldn’t dismiss him outright, but certainly had the influence to get a mere garrison commander stripped of his post and demoted in rank. “They didn’t catch us unprepared; my men were all alert and gave a good account of themselves. But we certainly weren’t ready for the size and stealth of their attack. I’ve had no reports at all about such a large force anywhere this side of Mesopotamia!”

Christoforo’ expression moderated, assuming a slightly rueful look for a moment. He uncrossed his brawny arms and gently kneaded his forehead with the back of one hand as if his head hurt. “That, unfortunately, is partly my fault. We’ve had two similar attacks on new settlements in the last nine days, one just three days before they attacked you. I sent out scouts after the first, and lost most of them, but one made it back. I delayed my own report so that I could send his with it. They went out to you on the next packet–boat after he returned, but with the winds this time of year — it probably arrived at Gaza the day after you left.”

Demetri fought back a furious retort and cursed inwardly, but kept his face impassive while he swallowed his rage. Damn you! Half a warning would have been better than none! But on the list of acts that courted career suicide, punching the Governor of Egypt was surely near the top.

He finally said, “It likely wouldn’t have changed much. I took all the men my garrison could spare. My only other choice would have been to forbid the caravan to depart.” Though I’d have kept Maria inside her father’s carriage if I had to bind her hand and foot! And Georgi might still be alive….or not. A third of my command died as it was. Θεέ μου συγχώρεσε με — God forgive me.

“My esteemed father–in–law–to–be wouldn’t have been happy about that,” Christoforo remarked distantly. “Shipping horses by boat is likely to kill too many of them, and holding them in Gaza for an unknown time would eat money like hay.”

Decision firmed in the Governor’s face and he nodded. “It’s all in the hands of God. You did your best against long odds and got most of the caravan here — for that I’ll commend you. Now it’s up to us to get Maria back if we can — and take vengeance regardless.” His eyes turned very cold and Demetri was reminded that Christoforo’s father had been called the Butcher of Kyrenia, back when the Greeks finally drove the Turk invaders off of Cyprus in that desperate first year after the Change. A man more drenched in blood than me. The son looked to be even harder than the father, a thought that was both comforting and nerve–wracking.

“Us, Governor?” Demetri asked carefully.

“You are now the only military officer in the League who has any experience fighting this band of sand–raiders.” Christoforo’s intent stare bored into Demetri’s eyes. “You and your seventeen surviving troops. I need you — my own garrison has cleaned up the mess after two attacks, but never managed to damage them the way you did. We’ve got to know what you have so painfully learned, so we can use it ourselves.”

“Use it how, Governor?” Demetri asked, though he’d begun to suspect the answer.

“To carry this fight to them.” Christoforo’s even white teeth flashed in a bitter grin. “My surviving scout found their citadel. I’m calling up every man we can spare, and laying siege to it before they can attack us again.”

“Citadel?” Visions of some ruined desert city danced before Demetri’s eyes. “Have they fortified something out in Sinai?”

“They have indeed.” Christoforo was no longer grinning, merely bitter. “You’ve heard that a camel is also called the ship of the desert?”

“Aye, Governor.”

“They’ve got a real ship.”

“A ship — in the desert?” Demetri stared at him in astonishment.

“You’ll see it yourself, Captain. We leave at dawn the day after tomorrow. Go get cleaned up and see to your men — tomorrow I want every one of them that’s hale, and the walking wounded too, on my practice field with my own forces. I’ve been preparing for days, it’s time to move.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“You were serious.” Demetri blinked as he lowered the telescope, a salvaged pre–Change wonder that must have cost a small fortune. “It really is a ship of the old world!”

Christoforo nodded. “One of the older men says it’s a cruise ship, whatever that means.”

“But what is it doing here?”

“Besides rusting, it’s giving shelter to those jackal Bedouins that kidnapped my bride.”

“Have they sent you a ransom demand yet?” Maria would surely be wise enough to tell them who she was — to give them incentive to keep her alive and… intact.

“Yes.” Christoforo’s scowl grew bleaker. “They demanded the League withdraw from inland Egypt to the coast, abandon all we’ve built south of Pelusion in the last five years, in exchange for Maria. I cannot agree to that — the League would replace me and disavow any such pledge — and they must have known it. I sent them the rejection they had to expect.”

Demetri stared at him in horror.

“Perhaps they prize revenge for their dead above wealth,” Christoforo continued harshly. “Legends say Bedouins were like that, even before the Change.” He took back the telescope and put it to his eyes again. “So we’ll feed them revenge ten times over.”

Demetri shaded his own eyes and stared, his heart wrung. Oh Maria, I’m so sorry.

The massive thing before them was obviously another ruin of the pre–Change world. Demetri had seen wrecks much like it in the harbors of Beirut, Piraeus, and half a dozen other decaying cities. But those had lain mostly–submerged, savaged by storms and tides into two, four, sometimes dozens of pieces. This ship plowed dunes like waves, whole, upright and arrogant in its decay. The forward deck loomed forty feet or more above the desert floor. Superstructures rose higher still, coated with rust and scraps of peeling paint and lined with rows of windows that mostly still held glass. Some of those were propped open, admitting whatever breeze there was to be found that far above the burning desert floor. Twin black funnels jutted rakishly skyward, striped orange by rust. A tall thin needle of a mast was broken off a third of its length above the deck, the upper part smashed into the face of the superstructure by some past windstorm. He thought the whole proud, decaying mass must be nearly a three hundred meters long.

Motion caught his eye and he sharpened his gaze. Men moved there, on that deck and inside the upper works. A couple of crude sheet–metal chimneys belched greasy black smoke into the sky, along with the faint smell of roasting goat. Washed clothing flapped on a line.

“People are living in that thing?!” Demetri asked incredulously.

“I prefer to think of them as enemies, Captain,” Christoforo answered coolly. “They’ve seen us, but they don’t appear to be doing much but watching. I didn’t expect it to be so big. Can we encircle it, with the men we’ve brought along?”

Demetri thought a moment. “I don’t think we need to, Governor. Position the men as four camps — one before, one behind, and one on each side. Each will be close enough to easily watch the land between camps, and we can set up patrols; you’ve got more than six hundred men. The hull is almost vertical and the moon is waxing — even at night we’ll be able to see if they put a rope over the side and try to slip anybody out. Right now I want to know what they’ve done with their horses — they can’t very well be hauling them in and out over that railing!”

Christoforo put Herakleous, his senior captain, in charge of organizing the army into camps while the two of them and a small band of troops slowly rode circuit around the giant artifact.

Mocking jeers floated down from the Bedouins above, and twice arrows plowed into the sand close enough to startle the horses. After that Demetri made sure they stayed out of range as they rode. On the far side of the ship, the desert wind helped, blowing out of the east across a stony plain spotted with grass and brush. It made his nose itch and put grit inside his armor to add to his misery.

The giant ship turned out to not be alone; two others, much smaller, trailed in its sandy wake. The second was turned several degrees to the side and the bow thrust up higher than the stern, which was sunk almost below the dunes. The third was, if he remembered right, the kind called a tanker, though he vaguely thought they were usually bigger. But the center of mass of all three lined up straight as a spear–shaft, rigid as an engineering drawing from Demetri’s War Academy schooling. He wasn’t sure but he thought there was a fourth ship on the southern horizon, in line with the rest. He mentally projected the line straight ahead, north, toward what must have been these ships’ destination.

“Sir; are we not due south of Pelusion’s harbor?”

“Yes.” Christoforo nodded. “I think this must be the old sea–level canal that started there and ran to Suez on the Red Sea. It was dug before the Change to link the Middle Sea and the Red. Most of it is filled with sand now and can hardly be found.”

“Hmm. Then the bottom of this ship must have been riding in seawater.” Demetri frowned. “So even if they had a well, it should be brackish or salty. What are they doing for drinking water now?” He waved an arm at the high deck, where more than a hundred ragged Bedouins lined the rails and jeered at the Greeks. An Arabic voice rose in authority only a little diminished by wind and distance, and many of the men began to leave the railing.

Christoforo shrugged as their horses plodded on, slowly circling the immense ship, and finally said, “Catching the winter rains on the deck, and putting it into cisterns inside? There are water–tanks in some of the old wrecks in my city harbor. Or distilling fresh water from brackish — they could do that using some of those missing glass windows.” He pointed to a suspiciously–uniform row of gaping frames all bereft of even shards.

“Must be,” Demetri agreed, waving at the desert around them. “They’ve grazed down the land, but not as badly as they will if allowed to stay; our fifty horses alone would eat up what grass remains. To last, they must take control of much more than a few hundred paces around their steel walls. That’s the reason for the ridiculous ransom demand.”

Christoforo’s face turned thunderous. “The future of the whole League plan for Egypt could be undone by these jackals. They must die for this insolence, and as an example to their kin, no matter what it costs us today. Or it will be our farmers and herders who do the dying in the years ahead.”

And in revenge for not being able to ransom your bride. “You’ll get no argument from me, Governor,” Captain Demetri Omerou answered grimly, remembering his smiling nephew. Maria. I’m so sorry. What will those savages do to you? He could guess, and the thought made a sick, helpless rage churn in his gut. They plodded on in silence for a while.

“How do we assault such a thing?” Christoforo demanded abruptly, startling Demetri out of his brooding. “Fifty–foot ladders?”

“No, Governor, too easy to push over.”

“Can our field catapults hit that superstructure?”

“Yes, Sir, but not if they have to stay outside arrow–range — the deck’s just too high. We could build a trebuchet, but we’d have to haul rocks from miles away to get decent ammunition — this local stone is too soft. I have no idea how much pounding that steel hull can still take and we could be a month finding out. We need something taller.”

Demetri thought back to his War Academy books, straining for something that teased at his memory. “We need something that protects the men right up until the moment they engage the enemy, to minimize our losses and magnify our fist when it lands. I remember reading about a wheeled device, a tower with stairs inside it; I think we could build one, if we can bring wood from the settlements.”

“Ah!” Christoforo’s face lit up. “An excellent idea, Captain!”

“Look.” Demetri pointed to the big ship’s stern when they were three–quarters of the way around. A suspiciously–regular dune piled against it like a ramp. “Part of the hull opens, there, see the gap? Some kind of door or doors into a cargo hold, I’d guess. Looks like they deliberately enlarged that dune to give them a ramp in and out.”

There was a sudden long groan of tormented steel as a door bigger than a house was forced open by dozens of straining figures. It swung out half way, almost perpendicular to the flat stern, and a torrent of horsemen poured forth.

“Ride!” Demetri shouted, spurring his own mount. “They’ve guessed that we’re the commanders and they mean to kill us!” Someone in there is too clever by far, God damn him!

Christoforo followed his lead without question, and the rest of the troop pounded after. Demetri led them in a shallow arc toward the main force, praying that the nearest Greek unit commander had eyes to see and a brain to think.

Fortunately a block of Greek cavalry swung into motion within moments and pounded toward them.

Rams’ horns blew from the ship. Most of the pursuit broke off and curved sharply back toward their refuge. The handful that didn’t, berserk or fanatic or merely hard of hearing, closed on the Greek leaders only minutes before the cavalry would get there.

But even one minute’s a damn long time in a fight! Demetri turned his horse to meet the threat with shield up and sword out, guiding his mount with knees alone. There were ten bandits charging at six Greeks, not impossible odds if they could just hold out until rescued —

The bandits drove their horses right at him, shrieking and brandishing swords and spears. Demetri shed a spear point off his curved shield and chopped the shaft in two, then stabbed the rider before he could sheer off. Christoforo cut down a swordsman coming in on his shieldless side, only to find himself over–extended when the next jabbed with a spear. The blade caught at the edge of the Governor’s chest–protector and nearly un–horsed him. He managed to keep his seat, barely knocking aside the shaft, but another attacker drove his horse in close and stabbed with a long knife. Demetri lost sight of their struggle as he parried his own attackers just before Herakleous’ troop arrived and a cavalryman obligingly speared the Bedouin down. When Demetri turned his attention back to the Governor, Christoforo swayed in his saddle as blood ran down his side.

“Captain Omerou,” he groaned. “Take command, and get my bride back.”

Herakleous caught his lord as he toppled, staring at Demetri over the unconscious form.

Demetri coughed, his throat gone dry, and groped for a canteen. “By all the saints!”

❀ ❁ ❀

“He will live,” the physician pronounced, washing his hands in a basin under the hospital tent’s red–stripped roof. “But he won’t be riding a horse this month. I gave him an opiate for the pain; he should wake up around dawn.”

Herakleous and Demetri Omerou crossed gazes.

“You outrank me in the League Guard,” Demetri said slowly. “But I am a regular officer and you are a reservist.”

Herakleous nodded, staring back. He was a man of middle age, approaching forty or already there with gray at the edges of his hair and beard. He had dark eyes and an air of unflappable calm.

“I heard my lord appoint you commander. And you are a graduate of the League War Academy, who also has fought these sand–scum before, while I can claim neither. I only commanded the Kyrenian garrison before following Christoforo to Egypt. His other captains have less experience than you, and are younger. I hope you are not a fool, for in honor I must subordinate myself to you.”

Demetri’s lips twisted in a wry grimace. “I too hope that I am not a fool, for this opponent is too smart by half! He ambushed the caravan perfectly, if my men and I hadn’t been there all would have died or been taken. He saw his chance while the Governor and I rode out there unprotected,” — like fools — “and nearly killed us both. He and his steel fort call for methods nobody in the League has tried since the Turk War.”

Herakleous nodded again, this time in approval. “What are your orders, Commander Omerou?”

“I need the scouts first, and then the quartermaster and the chief carpenter.”

Three hours later the scouts reported back. Omerou was gratified by their news, the first good thing he’d heard for the expedition.

“Do we have enough amphorae?” he asked the quartermaster, who averred that he would get them if he didn’t. “Good. Start filling them immediately, but test my idea first to be sure!” Demetri turned to the carpenter. “Can you build it?”

“If I get the materials. We’ve got plenty of wood stockpiled in Saint Anastasias for the church project. If I’m allowed to use it, I can have everything I need here in two days.”

“Good, do it — use the Governor’s authority. And the kites?”

“That I’ll have later today. We can experiment with them while we wait for the rest, and God willing, get them right.”

“Do your ‘experiments’ behind the second ship, where these jackals can’t see.” Demetri scowled. “I don’t expect complete surprise, but I want every bit that I can get. Meanwhile, Herakleous, start the distractions; I want their eyes focused close to home as often as possible.”

“It’ll cost some men,” the older Greek warned. “No matter how cautious we are.”

More souls on my conscience, Demetri thought sadly. “So be it. We won’t crack this steel egg without loss of life; we’ll simply have to make sure the Bedouins do most of the dying.”

“I’ll see what I can do about that,” Herakleous answered in grim satisfaction, and left to start the plan.

Please, oh Lord God of the Hosts, cradle Georgi’s soul to Your heart. Protect Maria from these savages, and send us victory! Demetri prayed before donning his helmet and going to join his men. They would need to see confidence in their new commander.

❀ ❁ ❀

Six days later everything was ready. The carpenters had performed a miracle, aided by every man in the army who knew how to handle a hammer and saw.

“I hope the Patriarch won’t be too upset at what we did to all the copper meant for the roof of his new church,” Herakleous remarked.

“The souls of the whoreson Bedouins can console him while they burn in Hell,” Demetri answered, wiping his face with his thoroughly stained handkerchief. They’d had to haul water all the way from the nearest Delta settlement, and nobody in the army had quite enough. The Bedouin had taken to pouring streams of water off the high deck in mockery — brackish or pure the Greeks could not tell, but the sight filled the army with a bitter anger every time.

The Governor was right, they can distill the brackish local water. Do they understand that they are teaching every man among us to hate them, heart and soul? Demetri wondered. When our attack comes my men will not be swayed by cries for mercy. This will be a battle to the knife, the winners will leave none among the losers still alive.

There had been no screaming in the night from the big ship, but still his dreams had been bad. He knew nothing about what was happening to Maria and had only fears setting into grim resignation. A week with no new ransom demand. The bastard sons of whores will have raped her by now. She’s as soiled as me… He dashed that thought aside; she was still a rich man’s daughter and he was still just a soldier. There is no hope — only duty — and vengeance!

“Are we sure the weapons will work?” Demetri demanded.

“You designed them, Commander, you tell me.” Herakleous‘ tired smile took the sting out of the words. “The first one did when we tested it behind the second ship, and the other is a close twin to it. The smith swears they will hold long enough.”

“Everyone’s done what can be done — the rest is in the hands of God, Commander Omerou,” said Christoforo, settling heavily into a canvas chair while the physician fussed around him. His face was paler than it had been and he’d lost weight. His fever had only broken last night but he was determined to watch the assault.

“There is one matter that I have hesitated to raise with you, my Governor,” Herakleous said formally, eyes fixed intently on his superior’s face. “These vermin have had your bride–to–be in their citadel for a week. From what little we know of them, it is not likely that… she has been unmolested.”

“I know.” Christoforo face looked gray. “Her father has already sent me a message, offering his other daughter, who is a little younger, and perhaps a bit less comely, as a substitute bride. I have accepted — a man in my position must. But I am not going to abandon Maria to those jackals, honor won’t allow it. However… ” He made a small gesture at his wound, then looked at Demetri. “Will you redeem my honor for me, Commander Omerou?”

“Glad to, Governor. For myself, and for my nephew.” And for her. Demetri barred his teeth in an expression that was not a smile. Herakleous bowed his head.

“On my authority,” Christoforo said. “Do it.”

Demetri settled his helmet and picked up a red flag off the map table, stepped out from under the command tent’s awning and waved it twice in the air. Horns blew — the scream of good Greek brass instead of the rams–horns the Bedouins used.

On the east side of the huge ship, kites began to mount the sky. Clay amphorae dangled beneath, swaying in the harsh desert wind. Omerou hoped the twin lamps mounted in each one didn’t both go out. The wood–and–fabric devices, each eight feet across, climbed the air until they were directly over the ship. While they jockeyed for position he waved the flag again, three times, and four hundred soldiers picked up ropes and began to pull — three hundred forward, a hundred back, keeping the structure stable. Two hundred more stood by, waiting, while a hundred cavalry screened the ship’s rear exit and a handful patrolled the far side and bow. The Greeks were grimly determined that there would be no break–out for the Bedouins.

There was a long groan as the tower rose off the sand, creaking and shedding stray puffs of sawdust. The carpenters stood by with mallets, ready to break lose the chocks when the front wheels hit the soil. Each wheel was six feet in diameter and three feet thick, to roll over the sand rather than sinking into it. The peaked top climbed higher, slowly at first and then faster, wheels striking the ground with a dull boom more felt than heard. For a few minutes the top swayed, the copper roof and front and sides winking in the sun, and then it settled as men swarmed over and into it. The first few carried cylindrical copper vessels as big as kettles and copper tubes as long and thick as a man’s arm. When those were mounted others followed with more amphorae, carefully stoppered and handled gingerly by men who understood the danger.

“Our enemies might know this trick too,” Herakleous warned. “And they had plenty of time to explore that tanker before we got here.”

“Then you may end up in command of this army after all,” Demetri answered, handing him the flag and picking up his own shield. He made sure his sword was loose in its scabbard. “Give the third signal when you see I’m in position, and the fourth exactly ten minutes later.”

He hurried then, to cross the two hundred foot distance to the tower’s base. Men were already hooking up the long push–poles and tallying on to the handles notched into their sides — two ship–masts had been sacrificed to make these. Others raised brass–faced shields over their heads, ready to protect themselves and those doing the pushing. Still more hefted forty–pound sacks of sand — every man had good thick ox hide boots, but tests had shown that the contents of the amphorae could burn through those in under a minute. Demetri ducked under the nearer push–pole, mounted wooden stairs to the second level, and waved. The red flag answered and brass horns screamed again.

Kites jerked and soared higher as their burdens were released. Clay jugs smashed against rusting steel and dozens of fires bloomed across the ship’s decks and superstructure. In several cases the candles had failed and the bombardment left merely oily patches, but a few of those caught fire anyway as flaming gobbets splashed from other hits. A dismayed howl rose from the Bedouins as unquenchable fire stuck to their clothes and flesh. Black smoke billowed on the wind.

The horns screamed again and a great shout went up from the Greek men as they put their shoulders to the tower and the poles — and pushed. The structure groaned into motion, rocking over the lumpy terrain — they hadn’t been able to smooth all of it, the defenders rained javelins of scrap iron down on any Greek seen working too close to the hull.

Demetri rode it like a sailboat in a storm and he’d done that many times in his youth. He checked to the left and right — the men were maintaining discipline, long oval footmen’s shields in front or held overhead to shelter them from missiles. Moments later the tower rolled into range of the defenders, and arrows began to patter off the shields like rain. As they got closer, javelins were added — some of those stabbed through the thin metal shields, points probing for hands and arms and faces beneath. Demetri held his breath. If any of the men panicked now the whole formation could disintegrate.

The shields stayed tight save for a few unlucky piercings; wounded men fell and their comrades stepped over them and closed up the holes again. The tower rolled forward, then rang suddenly with a great Bong! as something heavier hit it. But the thrown mass of iron didn’t penetrate the copper–covered timbers, and the tower groaned closer. Demetri climbed to the top level.

The young corporal in charge of the weapons oscillated nervously between two peepholes, gauging the distance. His hand went up, poised, and Demetri took a firmer grip on a crossbeam. The hand flashed down and two men poked long–handled torches into pre–set troughs, and two others began to pump levers set into the tops of the bulging copper vessels. Acrid smoke swirled as half–jellied gasoline, extracted from the tanker, jetted through the torch flames and burst into hellish life. The flaming liquid splashed over the ship’s railing and into the faces of the whooping, crowding defenders as they brandished weapons. Screams rang out as sudden bursts of flame ran up on Bedouins carrying jugs of similar flammables. They dropped them to dance and scream in agony.

They were going to toss those through the front the moment we dropped the ramp, he realized. My opposite commander had a few tricks ready for us, too!

More such jugs smashed against the front of the tower, ancient oil running down the metal face; some of it caught fire from their own dripping weapons. Men were pounding up the stairs as the tower closed the last gap. The pumpers sucked their vessels dry and dismounted the levers to stand aside. The four lead men crowded against the big hinged door, swords and shields at the ready. Two immediately left and right of them had bags of sand ready to help smother any flames that got inside the tower’s fireproof shell. Behind them more sword–and–shield pairs were lined up, running up the stairs into the tower. It groaned the last foot forward and the corporal signaled again, then raised his own shield and sword. The lighters and the pumpers grabbed the quick–release handles and strained.

Bolts popped free and the heavy front of the tower fell forward with a crash, over the ship’s railing to crush burning foes beneath it. The vanguard leaped forward as unburned foes surged toward them, javelins flew and steel rang on steel. Momentum carried the vanguard onto the deck, then the next four and the next and the next. Demetri inserted himself between those and joined the swirling shrieking battle.

His feet trod on burning bodies, some still writhing. He struggled for footing and drove forward. A gap appeared between two of the vanguard and he immediately filled it, screaming as he stabbed past a handmade sword into a howling bearded face. More Greeks pressed up close behind him, pushing him forward as the tower funneled his army onto the deck. Heat and smoke clawed him as he pushed through the remnant of a kite–borne bomb — they had been timed to burn out as the main attack began. The stench of burning oil and flesh and soiled clothing mingled with blood and shit from opened bowels as he stabbed and slashed in a frenzy, barely knowing that he screamed “For Georgi! For Maria!” over and over again.

The metal shields, the disciplined phalanx of armored troops, and the fire–induced panic broke the mob of defenders. The Greeks pushed the width of the deck, turned and drove down its length in both directions. Some defenders vaulted the rail and took their chances with the forty–foot fall rather than face those merciless swords. Little knots formed around obstructions, ancient pipes and less–understandable objects offering brief respite to the defenders and briefer obstacle to the attackers.

Demetri found himself with three others driving a dozen stinking robed defenders back into an open corridor, back and farther back. Once a door slammed open at his elbow and he struck to the side more by instinct than design. A face erupted in ruin, a knife dropped and the ambusher fell back screaming.

“Watch both sides!” Demetri howled in warning, and pressed on more cautiously after that.

The fight devolved into a vicious hunt through dark corridors into dimly–lit rooms; the old ship stank of decay and under–washed bodies, soot from burning oil in crude stoves, stale cooked food, hate and fear. Demetri lost his shield, fought on with sword and belt–knife alone, and didn’t know how long it was before he found himself with two others battering down a door that suddenly opened into a big opulent high–ceilinged room more brightly lit than most.

Somebody important lives here, Demetri knew even as he panted from the effort. The man with enough charisma to pull all these different Bedouin into following him.

A man faced him, better dressed and groomed than most of his followers, holding a sword and a knife with the arrogance of a chieftain. His hard flat eyes gazed out of an open–faced helmet above a polished metal chest plate. Two flankers immediately engaged his companions and the raider–lord advanced on Demetri, growling in barely–intelligible Greek.

“Don’t you recognize me, Whirlwind? I told you our land would be ours once more.”

Demetri coughed in surprise. “Al–Hassan?! You gave me your oath not to fight Greeks ever again!”

“No promise to an infidel is binding,” Hassan sneered, raising his weapons with the light of fanaticism in his eyes. “I united six tribes under my banner after I found this place. Die now, you and all your pig–eaters! Egypt will be Bedouin!”

They closed, weapons ringing; the other lacked the Greek’s strength but was fresh to the fight. Demetri barely parried the first rush, found his own thrusts blocked once, twice, thrice. The Bedouin’s sword locked with his and a wicked knife probed for his groin, barely turned by his armor’s metal codpiece. He slashed back, felt cloth part and flecks of blood fly as the tip of his blade sliced between straps on the man’s leg–coverings. The bandit lord grunted and stepped back, then back again, trying to lure him deeper into the room. Suddenly Hassan jerked, arms spreading wide as his guard dropped for a critical second, and Demetri thrust his sword with all the strength left in him, not caring if it opened him to a flank attack.

His blade rammed through the gorget under the Bedouin–lord’s helmet, opened the man’s throat, and blood fountained out. Demetri felt the pop as his point severed the spinal column and his enemy’s head flopped aside. Hassan crumpled, to reveal a very bruised and disheveled Maria Chronis behind him holding a small but bloody knife.

A wrinkled woman in colored drapery shrieked and clawed at Maria — Demetri couldn’t understand a word of her Arabic. The younger woman slashed with the knife, opening her attacker’s arm, and then stood panting as the woman fell back swearing. Abruptly the hate–filled Arabic voice changed to bad Greek, screamed through stinking air.

“Bitch–dog! Whore! My husband will rape you forever in Paradise!”

The Greek girl kicked her tormentor viciously, with a pent–up rage he’d never seen in any young woman before, and stabbed anew with the knife, again and again as Demetri panted and leaned on his knees. His companions had finished the other two guards and one was tending the other’s wounds. At last, her hatred finally sated and the wrinkled woman bleeding out from a dozen wounds, Maria staggered back away from the dying woman. She stood tense, bloody knife at the ready while her head jerked from side to side and her wild eyes sought more foes. Demetri cautiously tucked his weapons under his arms and held out his empty hands. For a long moment the fierce eyes stared at him, then moved on.

He was finally able to take in the room, the big bed, the draperies and fripperies of a desert–lord’s harem. Two terrified serving–women, or maybe junior wives, cowered in a corner and wept. A brazier in another corner lofted scented smoke into the fetid air, almost making him gag.

The bedlam ringing through the ship’s hull was dying down. The last of the defenders must have fallen to Greek swords. We’ve probably killed three hundred men or more, he thought wearily. This will teach them to stay out of our territory for a generation… I hope.

Demetri marshaled his courage, handed his weapons to his men to clean, and offered her his right arm. “Lady Chronis,” he finally managed to say. “Let me escort you from this place. The Governor awaits you.”

The feral glare on Maria’s face faded slowly. Abruptly the tension ebbed and she lowered the knife. For a moment she staggered as the revenge–madness faded and her abused body made its pains known again. After a long moment she haltingly laid her bloody left hand on his offered arm, no less covered in gore, and walked with Demetri out of the stinking room, through the charnel house of the rotting ship, and into the desert sunlight of the deck. Her bruised face was irregularly swollen — one cheekbone might be fractured, he couldn’t tell, but the way she walked indicated painful injuries not severe enough to do more than handicap her movement.

Faintly from the south end of the ship he could hear whinnying as the captured horses were led out of the hold. Maria looked around the blackened deck. Several Greek soldiers were busily pitching dead bodies off the sides. She looked at the knife in her right hand and a long complex shudder ran down her whole body. It was some sort of Bedouin knife, she must have acquired it on the ship; blood congealed on the blade. She twitched in disgust and threw it aside.

“C–captain,” she spoke haltingly. “Thank you.”

“It was my duty, Lady, and my — my own vengeance, for, for my nephew.”

She nodded slowly. “Georgi. He was c–courteous and kind to me, and he d–died trying to protect me. I’ll pray for his soul, Captain, from whatever convent my father sends me to. I’ll pray for your nephew, and for you.”

“And I for you, Lady.” He hesitated, exhaustion and shame and caution all warring in his veins. I’m still a cockroach compared to her. But this cockroach is not a coward.

“But a convent is not your only choice. There is still one who would gladly have you for wife even so. I know it is too soon to ask, you need time to heal and to rest. Just hold to the thought, I beg of you; there is still a man who would love you for yourself, not caring about what has been.”

Maria turned wondering eyes on his battered, filthy face. He met her gaze unflinchingly, feeling naked as a babe despite his armor. Another shudder went through her and he cringed.

Fool, fool, you should have kept your mouth shut! He bit his lip till it bled and lowered his eyes.

Then she surprised him.

“Thank you, Captain; I will remember that. In time…” She turned her ravaged face from him, straightened painfully and walked to the ship’s railing, where she stood silent and gazed out over the desert. Any tears she shed would wait for solitude or the support of other women, he realized. Only then could there be a release of pain and grief, pouring out to make room for something new.

Demetrios Omerou stood there while blood dried and black ashes blew away on the pitiless desert wind. But spring comes even here, he thought. And there are gardens in Gaza…

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀