A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 27

There’s a lesson there, Merlin reflected. Or a damned sharp bit of irony, at any rate, given how unpopular “reformers” like Cayleb Ahrmahk and Maikel Staynair are proving in the Temple just now!

“You realize,” the baron said after a second or two, “if he actually manages to get their navy reorganized for them, Thorast and the others will toss him to the krakens just as soon as they figure they can possibly get along without him.”

“Of course they will,” Merlin agreed a trifle sadly. “I think he knows it, too. Which only makes him even more dangerous, from our perspective.”

“So we’ll just have to do something about him ourselves,” Rock Point said more briskly. “Gwylym’s about ready to sail.”

“I know.” Merlin frowned. “In a lot of ways, though, I wish you were going, instead.”

“Gwylym’s just as capable as I am,” Rock Point pointed out. There might have been a touch of stiffness in his tone, and Merlin shook his head quickly.

“It’s not a matter of capabilities, Domynyk,” he said. “Believe me, no one has more respect for Gwylym than I do! It’s just that I’d rather the fellow in charge of singeing King Rahnyld’s beard had access to the SNARCs. Especially given how competent we’ve just agreed Thirsk is turning out to be.”

Rock Point nodded in acknowledgment, although the acknowledgment in question was obviously a bit grudging. Still, he really couldn’t argue the point. Admiral Sir Gwylym Manthyr had been Cayleb’s flag captain at the battles of Rock Point, Crag Hook, and Darcos Sound. He was an experienced seaman, possessed of a singular attention to detail and an iron nerve. He was not, however, one of the “inner circle” who had been cleared for the truth about Merlin, which meant he wasn’t going to be examining any “satellite imagery.” Nor, for that matter, would anyone assigned to his staff.

Unfortunately, Rock Point himself was the only one of Cayleb and Sharleyan’s senior naval officers who was part of the inner circle. Getting some of the others on board was a high priority, but, again, not something which could be rushed. Rock Point himself had argued strongly in favor of adding High Admiral Bryahn Lock Island to the list, and both he and Merlin were confident that the Brethren of Saint Zherneau would approve Lock Island’s admission quite soon. Of course, the question then arose of just who would inform Lock Island. With Cayleb, Sharleyan, and Archbishop Maikel all out of Old Charis, it would be virtually impossible to find the right messenger — somebody with the authority to make Lock Island listen if he didn’t take it well, and somebody he’d trust enough to believe when he did listen. Baron Wave Thunder might serve in a case of dire emergency, but still . . . .

“I could probably talk Bryahn into sending me, instead of Gwylym,” the baron said after a moment, but his expression was unhappy and his tone was tentative.

“No.” Merlin shook his head again. “Cayleb and Sharleyan are right about that. We need you right where you are, too. Or, rather, where you’re about to be. And, let’s face it, Dohlar’s a worry, but Tarot’s right next door. And White Ford is no slouch, either.”

It was Rock Point’s turn to a grimace, but he couldn’t disagree.

The Imperial Charisian Navy was the largest, most powerful fleet any single Safeholdian realm had ever boasted. It was rising rapidly to a strength of over ninety galleons, and it continued to expand. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to find itself matched against any other single Safeholdian realm; it was going to face the combined fleets of virtually every mainland realm. Worse, the Church of God Awaiting had poured out staggering sums to subsidize those fleets, although not all of the various kingdoms’ and empires’ building programs were equally advanced. The Temple Lands and the more northern ports of the Harchong Empire were considerably behind the shipyards of Dohlar and the Desnairian Empire, and that situation wasn’t going to improve for the Church any time soon. But the plain, ugly truth was that even with an unlimited budget (which it didn’t have) the Charisian Empire couldn’t possibly have matched the mainland realms’ combined building capacity. Nor was the Charisian supply of manpower unlimited, either. Ninety galleons, each with a crew of roughly five hundred, required forty-five thousand men. So far, the Navy had managed to meet its manpower requirements without resorting to impressment of its own, largely because it had always followed policies similar to the ones Thirsk had forced upon Dohlar and the Church. That was about to change, however, because there were only so many volunteers who could be attracted no matter what the inducement, and the manning situation was only going to get worse as the size of the fleet continued to climb.

And it was going to have to climb. Assuming the Church completed its current construction programs, it would command a fleet of over three hundred and ninety galleons — better than four times the current Charisian strength. A hundred and fifty of them would be converted merchant ships, but so were a quarter of the Charisian Navy’s galleons. And that didn’t even consider the two hundred-plus galleys the Church had built before it realized just how outclassed galleys had become. They might not be well suited to decisive broadside duels, but they more than doubled the total number of hulls the Church could throw at its opponents, and if they were free to operate while the Church’s galleons neutralized Charis’ galleons . . . .

The good news was that the ships in question were scattered between five widely separated navies. No single kingdom or empire could match the Charisians’ numbers, although Harchong would come close once it’s winter-delayed construction could be completed. Concentrating those widely dispersed squadrons would be at least as difficult as it had been to concentrate the forces detailed for the Group of Four’s original plans for Old Charis’ destruction. And even after they were concentrated, their companies would be sadly inexperienced compared to the Imperial Navy’s crews.

Earl Thirsk, at least, obviously recognized that fact. So did Gahvyn Mahrtyn, the Baron of White Ford, King Gorjah of Tarot’s senior admiral. Unfortunately, from the Church’s perspective, they were the only two fleet commanders still available to it who had ever faced the Charisian Navy in battle. The Earl of Black Water, the Corisandian commander at Darcos Sound, had died there, and Gharth Rahlstahn, the Earl of Mahndyr, and Sir Lewk Cohlmyn, the Earl of Sharpfield, who had commanded the Emeraldian and the Chisholmian components of Black Water’s fleet, were now in Charisian service. Even more unfortunately (for the Church), the fact that Thirsk and White Ford had been devastatingly defeated by then-Crown Prince Cayleb had caused their advice to be discounted by almost all of their fellow flag officers.

That was clearly changing in Thirsk’s case, but neither Harchong, nor the Desnairian Empire, nor the Temple Lands seemed overly inclined to profit by Dohlar’s example. Tarot did, but King Gorjah continued to languish under a cloud of disapproval. It seemed clear that the Group of Four continued to blame Tarot for the disastrous intelligence leak which had permitted King Haarahld of Charis and his son to deduce the Church’s strategy and come up with a counter strategy to defeat it in detail. That was grossly unfair, although with no knowledge of Merlin’s SNARCs, it was understandable enough. Particularly given Charis’ efforts to encourage exactly that reaction.

As a consequence, none of the Church’s galley fleet had been laid down in Tarotisian shipyards. Following the Group of Four’s belated switched to a galleon-based fleet, Tarot had been admitted to the building program, yet even then the Tarotisian component remained the smallest of all. And White Ford — who was quite possibly an even better combat commander than Thirsk — had been almost totally ignored.

Under the circumstances, the Church’s numerical advantage was considerably less overwhelming than it might appear. To set against that, however, the Empire of Charis was a very large, very vulnerable target. Charis and Chisholm, in particular, were six thousand miles apart, as the wyvern flew, and it was over two thousand miles from Port Royal, in Chisholm, to Corisande’s Cape Targan. A ship deployed to defend Charis was a minimum of a month from Chisholm under even the most favorable conditions of wind and weather, and it would take almost that long for a ship stationed in Chisholm to reach Manchyr, in Corisande.

Distances and transit times like that prevented High Admiral Lock Island from concentrating his own forces in a central position. In fact, he’d been forced to station twenty galleons in Chisholm, under Admiral Sharpfield and supported by the Chisholmian Navy’s surviving galleys. Another ten galleons and twenty-five galleys had been stationed in Corisandian waters under Earl Mahndyr, and Lock Island had retained twenty galleons under his own command, covering Rock Shoal Bay and the approaches to Howell Bay and the Sea of Charis.

That left barely forty galleons for other service, and freeing up even that many had been possible only because the Church’s war fleet was so widely scattered . . . and still so far short of completion. As more of the Church’s galleons became available for service, the various Charisian defensive fleets would have to be strengthened, which would reduce the strength available for other tasks still further.

Unless something could be done in the meantime to reduce the numbers opposed to them.

That was supposed to be Manthyr’s and Rock Point’s assignment. Manthyr, with eighteen galleons and six thousand Marines was bound for the Sea of Harchong. More specifically, he was bound for Hardship Bay, on the largely uninhabited Claw Island. There were reasons very few people lived on Claw Island. It wasn’t vey big — barely a a hundred and twelve miles in its longest dimension. It was also little more than two hundred miles south of the equator, and its barren, mostly treeless expanses of rock and sand were about as welcoming as an oven the same size. On the other hand, Hardship Bay offered a good deep-water anchorage, and the small city of Claw Keep would offer his squadron a home port . . . of sorts, at any rate. Even more importantly, it was better than twenty-one thousand sea miles from Tellesberg which put it “barely” five thousand sea miles from Gorath Bay. It also lay off the western coast of South Harchong, however, where a quarter of the Harchong Empire’s galleons were under construction, and it was less than fifteen hundred miles from the mouth of the Gulf of Dohlar.

The voyage to Claw Island would actually have been slightly shorter if he sailed east, by way of Chisholm, instead of west, past Armageddon Reef and around the southern tip of the continent of Howard, but he’d have both favorable winds and currents going west, especially this time of year. He’d probably average at least fifty or sixty miles more a day on his projected course . . . and it would still take him better than three months to complete the voyage.

Once he got there, his Marines ought to be more than sufficient to capture Claw Keep and garrison the island, especially since the only reliable source of water on the entire sun-blasted spit were the artesian wells that served Claw Keep itself. That would provide him with a secure base from which to operate against both Dohlar and Harchong. He’d be a long way from home, although he’d be within nine thousand miles of Chisholm, but he’d be well placed to blockade the Gulf of Dohlar and intercept any effort to combine Thirsk’s galleons with the Harchongese contingent building further south around Shipwreck Bay, in the provinces of Queiroz, Kyznetsov, and Selkar. Even if he did nothing but sit there (and Merlin was confident that an officer of Manthyr’s abilities and personality should find all manner of ways to make himself an infuriating pest), it was unlikely the Church — or King Rahnyld or Emperor Waisu, for that matter — would be prepared to tolerate a Charisian presence that close to them.

His galleons would be substantially outnumbered — by almost four-to-one by Dohlar, alone, assuming the Dohlarans got all of their own warships completed and manned — but the greater experience of his crews and captains would offset much of that disadvantage. And the simple fact that Charis was once again taking the initiative, despite its numerical disadvantage, would have profound implications for the confidence and morale of his opponents.

And if worse came to worst, he could always load his Marines back aboard his transports and withdraw.

That’s the idea, at least, Merlin thought. And as a way to throw a spanner into the Church’s plans, it’s got a lot to recommend it. But I’d still feel better with Domynyk in command. Or if we could give Gwylym a com, at least! I hate having that big a chunk of the Navy out at the end of a limb that long when we can’t even talk to its CO.

Unfortunately, as he himself had just pointed out, they were going to need Rock Point closer to home. He and the remaining twenty galleons currently available to Charis would be moving their base of operations to Hanth Town on Margaret Bay, which would put him across the Tranjyr Passage from the Kingdom of Tarot. His new base would be well placed to assist Lock Island in meeting any threat against Old Charis from East Haven or Desnair. More importantly, however, he’d be in a position to operate directly against Tarot.

And Sharleyan was right about that, too, Merlin reflected. It’s more important than ever to . . . induce Gorjah to consider joining the Empire voluntarily. Or, failing that, to present him with a somewhat more forceful argument. Neutralizing Tarot would be worthwhile in its own right. Gaining Tarot as a forward base right off the East Haven coast would be even more worthwhile. And getting our hands on the galleons Gorjah’s building for the Church wouldn’t hurt a damned thing, either!

“I’d like to be able to do a lot of things we can’t do right now,” he said out loud. “Desnair’s starting to worry me, for one thing, and I really wish we could get at Harchong and the Temple Lands yards! But we can’t afford to uncover Old Charis and Chisholm, and that’s just the way it is. If Gwylym can keep Dohlar busy long enough for you and Gray Harbor to convince Gorjah to see the light, it’ll help a lot, though.”

“Then we’ll just have to see what we can do about that, won’t we, Seijin Merlin?” Rock Point said with a smile. “We’ll just have to see what we can do.”