Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold: extract #2

This is an extract from my latest novel Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold, which has been out for six months, I discover with amazement. I’m heading off for a week’s holiday in Cornwall tomorrow, so I’m thinking about the sea and I thought I’d post something vaguely aquatic for you to read while I’m away. Should you be so inclined, you can buy a copy of the book here.

This extract occurs about two-thirds the way through the story, and – Spoiler Alert! – may give some plot details away. But nothing crucial, I hope. Our Sherwood friends are in a dhow – a large Arab sailing boat like the one pictured below – and heading north to rejoin their comrades from the Third Crusade, who are heading for Marseilles and then home to England. They are on the run from various enemies with a huge haul of stolen gold. Just off the coast of Sicily, they are ambushed by a Cretan galley, commanded by an old adversary, Nikos. I think that’s all you need to know for now . . .

Extract begins:

It was a weak plan. But the best that could be managed. I saw Robin conferring with Ricky at the tiller, agreeing something between them.

Ricky had told us that Nikos had about a hundred marines on board the galley; we had a mere two dozen fighting men. I said as much to Little John.

“What are you complaining about?” he said. “We only have to kill four Griffons each. I’ll have some of yours if you’re going to be soft about this.”

I felt a great hot wave of affection for Little John just then. Nothing daunted him. Not ever. Not overwhelming numbers of enemies, not Death itself. Just the sight of his huge, happy, beaming face made me feel a hundred times braver. Just four men. I could do that. I could manage four.

The galley was forty yards away now. I could see the faces of the marines in the front rank, I might even have been able to identify them, had we met before. There was no sign of Nikos. Perhaps he knew that the front rank faced the most danger. No. He was no coward. Of that I was sure.

There was a blast of whistles. With no more warning than that, the ship went about, the heavy booms of the two sails swinging dangerously over our heads. I ducked only just in time. The ship changed its direction in the alarmingly sudden way of vessels at sea. The prow swung round and we were suddenly heading towards the galley, fast, like a thrown spear; the dhow leapt forward with the wind full behind and, with the galley coming on at a cracking pace, the blue water between us was shrinking fast.

Robin was shouting: “Brace yourselves. Brace, men, brace!”

And I knew what was in his mind.

We were going to ram the galley, slice into her like a battering ram, and hope to sink Nikos’s ship before her Cretan marines could get over our side.

Closer, closer; a flight of javelins soared up from the enemy vessel, scores of light spears arcing up into the pale sky, and raining down on the ship. Our men had their shields up, over their heads, and the steel javelin heads clattered against our wooden protectors. But I heard one man scream, “Jesus God!” and out of the corner of my eye I saw a Sherwood man with a yard-and-a-half long shaft sticking out of his leg above the knee.

We endured only one more shower of javelins and then, with a tremendous crash, the pointed nose of our dhow punched into the side of the galley. Our momentum crushed the double bank of rowers, snapping the pine oars like kindling, tossing them this way and that – I could heard the poor slaves screaming inside the body of the ship – and the dhow carried on, forcing its way into the side of the galley like an axe strike. With a shriek and groan of rending timbers, the galley seemed to open under the assault.

But before the dhow had come to a halt, their marines were leaping at us, crossing on to the beak of the dhow where only Hanno and a handful of his men-at-arms were there to oppose them. 

But these were Locksley men.

The Cretan marines – in leather cuirasses and kilts, with red-plumed steel helmets and bronze greaves on their shins – boiled out of their vessel and leaped across to ours and they were met with a barrage of crossbow bolts and our own javelins, hurled at a distance of only two or three yards. The Cretans were spiked and skewered, some slain in mid-air as they jumped from one ship to another, the quarrels smashing through their leather chest armour and penetrating deep beneath. Three or four men never made it to the dhow, swept aside and into the sea. One man, a giant, a fellow who perhaps thought himself a hero, landed on the prow, raised his sword with a cry of rage – and Hanno put a crossbow bolt neatly through his open mouth. 

But more marines were coming behind. More heroes. With a shower of enemy javelins that knocked two of our men to the deck. The two sides clashed then, mashing together into a knot of struggling bodies in the confusion and timber wreckage where the two ships were enmeshed. It was hard to tell friend from foe. But our side had only a few men still standing, Hanno was slaying left and right, axe and shield. Gore spraying everywhere; men falling like bowling pins in an ale-house alley to his lethal skill.

I shouted, “Westbury!” and flung myself towards the prow, fear giving my feet speed and sureness. I was aware that Little John’s great bulk was beside and slightly behind me. His bellow of “A Locksley!” was deafening.

I sensed rather than saw an arrow whistle past my waist. It took a marine officer in the groin, just below his cuirass. The man tugged at the embedded shaft, tripped and fell into the sea. Hanno was still fighting, his blood-covered face in a snarling mask, hacking wildly into the mass of foes like a woodsman tackling undergrowth, when I hurled myself into the melée beside him. I fended off a sword strike from a screaming man, and jammed the crossbar of my sword hilt into his face. Another fellow sprang up before me, and I sliced him down with a looping backstroke. A marine jabbed at me with a spear, I fended off the strike with my shield, the point skidding across the painted leather – and before I could riposte an arrow thumped into his cuirass-covered chest with the noise of a drum and plucked him away. I could hear Robin yelling: “Push ’em back, men. Push them all back.”

His bowshot had carved me a little space. I swung the sword full strength at the next man, slicing through helmet and lopping the left ear clean off his head. He screamed, helmet falling apart, blood pissing from his ruined head and turned away. Disappeared into the crush. Another man reared up before me and I felled him with a straight lunge to the throat. 

We were holding them, I realised. They could only come at us across a narrow bridge of broken timbers over the tossing sea, and we had stopped their attack dead. But it was not enough. It could not be enough. We were losing men – and we had none to spare. The space between us was filled with writhing bodies, wounded and dead, marine and outlaw. They had coalesced, formed a line of sorts. No more reckless diving on to our blades.

“Push forward, lads,” shouted my lord. “Take the fight to their ship.”

I realised he was right on my shoulder, the bow abandoned, and striking doubled handed over my head with a long spear he’d gained somewhere. Jamming the point into enemy faces. Dropping their men, one after another. 

But it was Little John who broke them. He simply jumped across the wrecked timbers and crashed straight into the midst of their line. It was a bizarre, almost suicidal move, to hurl himself bodily into the crush of scores of his armed enemies. No man could reasonably expect to do that and live to tell of it. Yet fearless John Nailor did so and he broke their cohesion. His huge mail-clad bulk crashed through their front line – half a dozen marines, shoulder to shoulder – then he shoved a man away and started swinging that huge hellish axe. He took wounds, for sure. I saw a dagger plunge through the iron mail and deep into his broad back, and a spear piece his massive thigh. Yet he simply ignored the pain and hurt and carried on swinging that devastating axe, slaying his foes, splashing their blood in great red sheets in all directions. And, of course, we Locksley men came charging after him.

Now we were on their deck – and killing them. 

My wooden shield took blow after blow, and I felt each ringing strike reverberating up my left arm. But with my right, my strong sword arm, I was slaying, chopping, killing, putting down man after man. And all about me were my comrades. Hanno on my left, Little John on my right – and behind us Robin and the rest of Sherwood crew, bloody-faced, raging, spitting, snarling, ever surging forward to kill and maim and slaughter our enemies.

We were greatly aided by two things: the design of the galley and the proximity of the Sicilian coast, which was no more than half a mile away.

The galley had no deck to speak of in the waist of the ship; just a central walkway over two cavities on either side where the slaves toiled at their benches. The walkway was only wide enough for two or three men to walk abreast, and Hanno, John and I filled it completely with our bulk. 

And we advanced – slowly, surely, killing them all as we came.

The Cretan marines came at us in twos and threes, urged on by their screaming officers, and Nikos, who I could now see at the far end of the galley on the quarterdeck, shouted louder than them all. 

They all died. Even those lightly wounded.

The galley slaves, still chained to their benches, played no part in the battle above them, except when a marine slipped from the walkway, by a misstep or from being wounded by one of us, and fell among the slaves – upon which he was immediately kicked and stamped and punched and torn until he was a tangle of bloody rags: a horrible way for a soldier to perish.

Behind us, Robin and his men were loosing crossbow bolts and javelins, showering the mass of enemy on the rear deck, but we were taking missiles too. Hanno took a javelin to his helmet, which caused him to stagger, and Robin seized him and pulled him back into the crowd of our fellows. My lord himself took his place in the line of three, and on we went.

I chopped and hacked, sliced and slew, cutting out way forward. The noise was hellish – screams and cries and the clash of steel, and the smell of opened bowels, and piss and fear clogged our nostrils. But we were moving forward. I saw we were nearly at the end of the walkway at the galley’s quarterdeck itself. Some of the marines, I noticed, and there were only a score or so left, were slipping off their leather cuirasses and greaves and diving into the warm blue sea, swimming hard for the safety of the Sicilian shore, but Nikos was still there roaring for his men to stand and fight. They outnumbered us, even then, yet we clearly had the upper hand – then Little John stumbled, fell to his knees, the loss of blood taking its toll even on his great strength. And Gareth immediately stepped over him, into his place.

We surged onward. More and more marines were quitting the quarterdeck, embracing the safety of the sea. And we were there, at the end of the ship, and Nikos standing with only two terrified marines beside him. 

My arms and legs felt like lead. My shield was a crumpled mess. I shrugged it off my arm. And I pulled the janbiya from its sheath and advanced on Nikos, sword in one hand and Arab dagger in the other. The two remaining marines were surrounded and overwhelmed by our men in a few moments. I yelled, “He is mine, I claim him.” And advanced on Nikos. 

The Cretan knight was slack-jawed with amazement, but he had a drawn sword in his hand, unsullied and shining bright. He stood alone on the blood-drenched quarterdeck of his own galley. His marines were all dead, mortally wounded or had fled into the sea, and he was confronted by a dozen blood-soaked savages, who had just ripped his little command to shreds.

“Surrender, my friend,” I said. “Or you will surely die.”

Nikos gaped at me. I was covered in blood, with a dagger and sword in either hand, and I must have presented a terrifying sight.

Robin said, “Dispatch him, Alan. We cannot take prisoners. End this foolishness now.”

I ignored my lord. I looked into Nikos’s terrified eyes. “Throw down your blade,” I said, “and I swear you will be well treated. Surrender – now.”

And Nikos’s sword clattered on to the bloody deck.

Robin sighed. “Why, Alan, why do you always have to make things so much more complicated?” Then he gave orders for the Cretan knight to be securely bound and taken back to the dhow.

I sat down on the side of the galley, utterly spent, and gazed at the bloody carnage we had wrought. The timbers of the galley were thickly painted with gore. There were dead and dying everywhere I cared to look. But there was no time for maudlin reflection – one of the Arab sailors on the dhow was yelling something, something urgent. 

“Alarm! To arms!” Was that was he was saying? It seemed absurd – the battle was over. We had won. I could not understand what he was shouting, or why. There was a sudden current of activity all along the two vessels, still mashed together, inextricable entwined. Men were running here and there. Shouting. Even the wounded were sitting up and looking wildly out to sea. 

To the west. 

I got wearily to my feet, grunting with the effort, looked west and saw, with a plunge of my heart, the dark shape of a galley, larger than the one on which I now stood, heading directly towards us, and no more than a quarter of a mile away. With a pair of demonic eyes painted on its jet-black prow. 

The Emir of Valencia, it seemed, had finally caught up with us.

Extract ends.

If you would like to buy a copy of Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold, click on the Amazon link here.

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