The Excalibur Alternative
By David Weber
Baen Books ISBN: 0-671-31860-8
Demon wind greeted pallid daylight with hell howl fury. It was no true daylight, although somewhere above the clouds of seething black the sun had heaved itself once more into the heavens. It was only the devil's own twilight, slashed with body-smashing sheets of rain and spray, the rolling concussion of thunder, the bellow of wind, and the endless keen of rigging, all punctuated by the sodden percussion of torn canvas flailing to destruction.
Sir George Wincaster, Third Baron of Wickworth, clung to a stay, feeling it quiver and groan with strain while he kept to his feet by raw, hopeless force of will alone. The lifeline the vessel's captain had lashed about him when the hideous gale first burst upon them yesterday morning had ringed his chest in bruises, salt sores stung his lips, and rain and spray had soaked into his very marrow. He felt as if heavy horse had charged over him and back again, and despair was a leaden fist about his heart. He had been too ignorant to understand the captain's terror when first the weather broke, for he was a soldier, not a sailor. Now he understood only too well, and he watched almost numbly as the battered cog, creaking and groaning in every frame and stringer, corkscrewed down yet another mountainous, slate-gray wave, streaked with seething bands of spray and foam, and buried its round-cheeked prow deep. Water roared the length of the hull, poison-green and icy as death, plucking and jerking at his limbs and groping after every man on the staggering ship's deck. The hungry sheet of destruction smashed over Sir George, battering the breath from him in yet another agonized grunt, and then it was past and he threw his head up, gasping and hacking on the water which had forced itself into his nostrils and eyes.
The cog fought her way once more up out of the abyss, wallowing as the water cascaded off her deck through buckled rails. Broken cordage blew out, bar-straight and deadly as flails on the howling torrent of wind, and he heard the hull crying out in torment. Sir George was a landsman, yet even he felt the ship's heavier motion, knew the men-and women-laboring frantically at the pumps and bailing with buckets, bowls, even bare hands, were losing ground steadily.
The vessel was doomed. All the ships of his expedition were doomed... and there was nothing he could do about it. The unexpected summer gale had caught them at the worst possible moment, just as they were rounding the Scilly Isles on their way from Lancaster to Normandy. There had been no warning, no time to seek shelter, only the desperate hope that they might somehow ride out the storm's violence on the open sea.
And that hope had failed.
Sir George had seen only one ship actually die. He was uncertain which, but he thought it had been Earl Cathwall's flagship. He hoped he was wrong. It was unlikely any of them would survive, but Lord Cathwall was more than the commander of the expedition. He was also Sir George's father-in-law, and they held one another in deep and affectionate respect. And perhaps Sir George was wrong. The dying ship had been almost close enough to hear the shrieks of its doomed company even through the storm's demented howl as it was pounded into the depths, but the darkness and storm fury, broken only by the glare of forked lighting, had made exact identification impossible.
Yet even though it was the only ship he had seen destroyed, he was grimly certain there had been others. Indeed, he could see only one other vessel still fighting its hopeless battle, and he ground his teeth as yet another heavy sea crashed over his own cog. The impact staggered the ship, and a fresh chorus of screams and prayers came faintly from the men and women and children packed below its streaming deck. His wife Matilda and their son Edward were in that dark, noisome hellhole of crowded terror and vomit, of gear come adrift and washing seawater, and terror choked him as he thought of them once again. He tried to find the words of prayer, the way to plead with God to save his wife and his son. He did not beg for himself. It wasn't his way, and his was the responsibility for bringing them to this in the first place. If God wanted his life in exchange for those so much dearer to him, it was a price he would pay without a whimper.
Yet he knew it was a bargain he would not be permitted. He and Matilda and Edward would meet their ends together, crushed by the soulless malice and uncaring brutality of sea and wind, and deep within him bitter protest reproached the God who had decreed that they should.
The cog shuddered and twitched, heaving in the torment of over-strained timbers and rigging, and Sir George looked up as the ship's mate shouted something. He couldn't make out the words, but he knew it was a question, and he shook himself like a sodden dog, struggling to make his mind function. For all his ignorance of the sea, he had found himself doomed to command of the ship when a falling spar killed the captain. In fact, he'd done little more than agree with the mate's suggestions, lending his authority to the support of a man who might-might!-know enough to keep them alive a few hours more. But the mate had needed that support, needed someone else to assume the ultimate responsibility, and that was Sir George's job. To assume responsibility. No, to acknowledge the responsibility which was already his. And so he made himself look as if he were carefully considering whatever it was the mate wanted to do this time, then nodded vigorously.
The mate nodded back, then bellowed orders at his exhausted, battered handful of surviving sailors. Wind howl and sea thunder thrashed the words into meaningless fragments so far as Sir George could tell, but two or three men began clawing their way across the deck to perform whatever task the mate had decreed, and Sir George turned his face back to the sea's tortured millrace. It didn't really matter what the mate did, he thought. At worst, a mistake would cost them a few hours of life they might otherwise have clung to; at best, a brilliant maneuver might buy them an hour or two they might not otherwise have had. In the end, the result would be the same.
He'd had such hopes, made so many plans. A hard man, Sir George Wincaster, and a determined one. A peer of the realm, a young man who had caught his monarch's favor at Dupplin and the siege of Berwick at the age of twenty-two, who'd been made a knight by Edward III's own hand the next year on the field of Halidon Hill. A man who'd served with distinction at the Battle of Sluys eight years later-although, he thought with an edge of mordant humor even now, if I'd learned a bit more then of ships, I might have been wise enough to stay home this time!-and slogged through the bitterly disappointing French campaign of 1340. And a man who had returned with a fortune from Henry of Denby's campaign in Gascony five years later.
And a bloody lot of good it's done me in the end, he thought bitterly, remembering his gleaming plans. At thirty-five, he was at the height of his prowess, a hard bitten, professional master of the soldier's trade. A knight, yes, but the grandson of a commoner who had won both knighthood and barony the hard way and himself a man who knew the reality of war, not the minstrels' tales of romance and chivalry. A man who fought to win... and understood the enormous changes England and her lethal longbows were about to introduce into the continental princes' understanding of the art of war.
And one who knew there were fortunes to be made, lands and power to be won, in the service of his King against Philip of France. Despite the disappointments of 1340, last year had proved Edward III his grandfather's grandson, a welcome relief after the weakness and self indulgence of his father. Longshanks would have approved of the King, Sir George thought now. He started slow, but now that Denby's shown the way and he's chosen to beard Philip alone, the lions of England will make the French howl!
Perhaps they would, and certainly Edward's claim to the throne of France was better than Philip VI's, but Sir George Wincaster would not win the additional renown, or the added wealth and power he had planned to pass to his son, at his King's side. Not now. For he and all the troops under his command would find another fate, and no one would ever know where and when they actually perished.
* * *
The corpse light of storm-wracked afternoon slid towards evening, and Sir George realized dully that they had somehow survived another day.
He was too exhausted even to feel surprised... and though he tried to feel grateful, at least, a part of him was anything but. Another night of horror and fear, exhaustion and desperate struggle, loomed, and even as he gathered himself to face it, that traitor part wanted only for it to end. For it to be over.
But there would be rest enough soon enough, he reminded himself. An eternity of it, if he was fortunate enough to avoid Hell. He hoped he would be, but he was also a realist-and a soldier. And Heaven knew that even the best of soldiers would face an arduous stay in Purgatory, while the worst...
He brushed the thought aside, not without the wistful wish that he and Father Timothy might have argued it out one more time, and made himself peer about. The second ship was still with them, farther away as darkness gathered, but still fighting its way across the heaving gray waste, and he could actually see a third vessel beyond it. There might even be one or two more beyond the range of his sight, but-
Sir George's stumbling, exhaustion-sodden thoughts jerked to a stop, and his hand tightened like a claw on the stay. A cracked voice screamed something, barely audible over the roar of wind and sea yet touched with a fresh and different terror, and Sir George clamped his jaws against a bellow of matching fear as the shape burst abruptly and impossibly through the savage backdrop of cloud and rain.
He couldn't grasp it, at first. Couldn't wrap his mind about it or find any point of reference by which to measure or evaluate it. It was too huge, too alien... too impossible. It could not exist, not in a world of mortals, yet it loomed above them, motionless, shrugging aside the fury of the gale as if it were but the gentlest of zephyrs. Gleaming like polished bronze, flickering with the reflected glare of lightning, a mile and more in length, a thing of subtle curves and gleaming flanks caparisoned in jewel-like lights of red and white and amber.
He stared at it, too amazed and astonished to think, the terror of the storm, even his fear for his wife and son, banished by sheer, disbelieving shock as that vast shape hung against the seething cloud and rain.
And then it began to move. Not quickly, but with contemptuous ease, laughing at the gale's baffled wrath. It drifted over the more distant of the cogs he'd seen earlier, and more light appeared as portions of its skin shifted and changed.
No, they're not "changing," Sir George thought numbly. They're opening. And those lights are coming from inside whatever it is. Those are doors, doors to chambers filled with light and-
His thoughts stuttered and halted yet again as more shapes appeared, far smaller this time, but with that same unnatural stillness as the storm howled about them. Some were cross shaped, with the grace of a gliding gull or albatross, while others were squat cones or even spheres, but all were of the same bronze hue as the huger shape which had spawned them.
They spread out, surrounding the half-foundered cog, and then-
Sir George turned his head, too shocked by the lies of his own eyes to wonder how Father Timothy had suddenly appeared there. The snowy-haired Dominican was a big man, with the powerful shoulders of the archer he'd been before he heard God's call decades before, and Sir George released his death grip on the stay to fasten fingers of iron on his confessor's arm.
"In the name of God, Timothy! What is that thing?!"
"I don't know," the priest replied honestly. "But-"
His voice chopped off abruptly, and he released his own clutch on the cog's rail to cross himself urgently. Nor did Sir George blame him.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God," the baron whispered, releasing Father Timothy and crossing himself more slowly, almost absently, as an unearthly glare of light leapt out from the shapes which had encircled the other ship. Leapt out, touched the heaving vessel, embraced it...
... and lifted it bodily from the boiling sea.
Someone aboard Sir George's own vessel was gibbering, gobbling out fragments of prayer punctuated by curses of horrified denial, but the baron himself stood silent, unable to tear his eyes from the impossible sight. He saw streams of water gushing from the ship, draining straight down from its half-flooded hold as if in a dead calm, only to be whipped to flying spray by the fury of the wind as they neared the sea below. Yet the shapes enfolded the cog in their brilliance, raising it effortlessly towards the far vaster shape which had birthed them, and he winced as someone aboard that rising vessel, no doubt maddened by terror, hurled himself bodily over the rail. Another body followed, and a third.
"Fools!" Father Timothy bellowed. "Dolts! Imbeciles! God Himself has offered them life, and they-!"
The priest broke off, pounding the rail with a huge, gnarly fist.
The first plunging body struck the water and vanished without a trace, but not the second or third. Additional shafts of light speared out, touched each falling form, and arrested its deadly fall. The light lifted them once more, along with the cog, bearing them towards those brilliantly lit portals, and Sir George swallowed again. A mile, he had estimated that shape's length, but he'd been wrong. It was longer than that. Much longer, for the cog's hull finally gave him something against which to measure it, and the cog was less than a child's toy beside the vast, gleaming immensity that rode like a mountain peak of bronze amidst the black-bellied clouds of the gale's fury.
"Were they fools?" He didn't realize he'd spoken-certainly not that he'd spoken loudly enough for Father Timothy to hear through the crash of the sea and the wind-shriek, but the priest turned to him once more and raised an eyebrow. Even here and now, the expression brought back memories of the days when Father Timothy had been Sir George's tutor as he was now Edward's, but this was no time to be thinking of that.
"Were they fools?" Sir George repeated, shouting against the storm's noise. "Are you so certain that that...
Excerpted from The Excalibur Alternative by David Weber Excerpted by permission.
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