(This sea battle originally had both Mohammed and Zoe in combat, but Mohammed's hacking and stabbing parts were removed.)
[ this piece fits between the end of "leaf-shaped blades prepared to strike the water." and "The Quraysh captain smiled grimly to himself." ]
Mohammed glanced across the line of his fleet. Thirty ships led his first wave, all holding roughly even with their black-painted hulls hissing through the water. On their foredecks, men hurried to wind the scorpions that were housed behind wooden panels. In a peculiarly Roman touch, the platforms were painted to look like fortress towers of stone. Marines – more Sahaba in shining helmets and bulky armor – swarmed on the decks. On each ship, like on the Khuwaylid, were a pair of boarding ramps. The long ramps, modeled on the ancient corvus, were lying respectively to the fore and rear decks. An anchor pole with a fitted iron ring allowed the ramps to swing to either side, supported by a pair of corded ropes that fed through pulleys on the mast. The beak of each ramp was armored with iron spikes that, when the ramp was dropped, would pierce the decking of the enemy ship.
[ This section fits between "Now, she thought, the fight begins." and "Zoe's patience was rewarded..." ]
Mohammed saw the scorpion stone plunge into the sea, throwing up a tall gout of water. It was short of the lead Roman galley. The bloom of spray cascaded down, splashing over the deck of the dromon. The rowers on the enemy ship didn’t break their stroke, plunging ahead through the boil of water. The crack of scorpions on the other Arab ships sang in the air. Stones flickered through the air. Some of them crashed into the foredecks of the Roman ships. Most fell into the sea between the flashing banks of oars.
Mohammed raised an eyebrow, seeing that the Imperial galleys had not yet fired back.
Sahaba marines crowded forward on the Kuwaylid, their round shields raised. More than half of the men had arrows notched to their bows, waiting for the word to loose. The men that controlled the corvus stood ready, their hands on the guide ropes. Hanging over the edge of the fighting platform, the Yemenite captain shouted down to the flautist that controlled the stroke of the oar-banks.
“Prepare for double-time!”
Then he turned, calling to the men at the steering oars.
“Prepare to heel right!”
Mohammed braced his legs wide. The two ships rushed towards each other at a dizzying rate. From his high perch, it seemed that he could look directly into the eyes of the Roman soldiers on the foredeck tower of the other ship. They were shouting, their shields raised. The Imperial captain would be watching, even as the Yemenite master was, waiting for just the right moment.
“Double stroke!” The shout rang down from the rear deck. Flutes shrilled and the Sahaba on the rowing benches gave an answering yell, hauling fiercely at their oars. Leaf-blades flashed in the water, spilling sea-foam as they rose, then plunging down into the dark water again.
“Heel! Ship right oars!”
The steering oars bit the sea, digging deep on the right side of the ship. Sunlight flashed on the bronze beak as it cut up out of the water. Khuwaylid heeled slightly, swinging to the right. Oarsmen in the right rowing gallery hauled feverishly on their oars, sliding them inboard. Smoke rose from the thole ports as the waxed oars squealed in. The Sahaba raised a great cry and shook their spears and swords in the air. On the deck of the Roman ship, the Imperial marines, responding to the chopping signal of their centurion, loosed a cloud of arrows into the Arab galley.
Gray fletching suddenly sprouted from the mast and the fighting platforms. Sahaban fighters too slow to raise their shields in time toppled backwards, limbs askew. Blood suddenly puddled on the decking. The Khuwaylid turned in savagely on its enemy, but the Roman captain and crew were already in motion. With a great squeal of wood on wood, the three banks of birch oars on the near side of the Roman galley slid inboard. At the same time, the enemy ship heeled and turned as well, trying to swing away from the Arab ram.
“Corvus away!” Shouted the Yemenite captain.
The flank of the Khuwaylid surged past the rising oaken wall of the Roman ship. Sailors in the rowing galleries stared across as each other, catching a glimpse of white and brown faces as the ports whipped past. The Sahaban archers loosed at point blank range, sending their iron-tipped arrows into the mass of Roman marines. The legionaries had raised their rectangular scuta as well, though some of them fell back, blood gouting from wounds, as well.
The ramp of the corvus plunged down, loosed from its restraining ropes and splintered through the railing of the Roman ship. Soldiers leapt away from the heavy spike, stumbling into their fellows. The spike struck the deck of the Imperial galley with a screeching sound, then bounced back. Mohammed flinched back as the two ships rushed past each other. The corvus failed to get purchase on the Imperial deck and slid along the aft decking, bouncing and jiggling. Roman marines screamed in fear, but the impromptu scythe mowed down a dozen men. The iron spike tore through four men, gutting them as with a giant flensing knife. Then it slammed into the aft piloting deck, the planks of the corvus snapping like an over strung bow. Splinters knifed across the Roman deck, cutting down one of the pilots.
On the Khuwaylid, the restraining post that held the base of the corvus groaned under the sudden stress, then cracked lengthwise with a bang. The iron ring twisted into a figure eight, then burst its bolts and decapitated the nearest sailor before he could flee. It bounced away across the deck, then plunged into the rowing gallery. Mohammed heard shouts of alarm rise up from below. At the same time, he ducked and a gray fletched arrow spiked into the wall of the fighting platform beside his head, humming like a lyre.
His own archers continued to fire as fast as they could draw and loose, littering the Imperial deck with dead marines. The Romans gave as good as they took, too, the Khuwaylid’s deck was slicking with blood and urine. With a splash the corvus, now loose from either ship, plunged into the sea. The Yemenite captain cursed, staring ahead. The bulk of the Roman fleet was upon them.
“Keep turning!” The men on the steering oars held on, digging the planes into the water.
A sharp crack echoed from the Roman ship and Mohammed looked up in time to see the Imperial galley continue turning. The ships were parallel again, but rapidly reversing their course. Now the Imperial scorpion fired, hurling a stone at point blank range into the Arab galley. The missile crashed into the starboard side of the Khuwaylid, ripping through the railing and smashing six Sahaban marines into a gray-red paste. Then the stone bounced across the deck, skipping on the hardwood and sailed off the opposite side and fell into the water.
[ This section goes between "...that we can
accommodate." and "Eager to keep the Roman thaumaturges
The big quinquereme continued to burn like a star, even as the sea swallowed it. Zoë had to block it out of her perception, for the fury of the combusting tar was furiously bright in the hidden world. The golden sphere around the ship had winked out just a grain after the ship had exploded, which filled Zoë’s heart with a grim humor. The other four-banker had swerved away from its stricken sister and the glitter of its protections had doubled or tripled at the same time.
[ Sadly, Mohammed is denied his opportunity to smack some Romans. This section goes between "...they were very close indeed" and "Zoë felt light..." ]
The Khuwaylid shuddered, oars snapping as the lead Roman galley swerved into its side. In the rowing gallery, men were crushed between the twenty-foot long oars. A dreadful screaming rose up, but Mohammed blotted it out. He had been a grain slow to call for them to ship oars. Bitter anger at his failure welled up, but he pushed it aside. There was no place for hate or anger in this business. He willed himself to be cold, to ignore the dead and the maimed that thrashed in the bloody gallery below his feet.
“Ship oars,” he called at last, his clear voice carrying well over the tumult. “Weapons!”
On either side, the Roman galleys were sliding closer, their decks filled with armed men. Arrows soared from both ships, plunging down onto the deck of the Khuwaylid. Some of the Arab archers returned fire, but most of the fighting men still on the deck crouched down behind their shields. Below the deck, the remaining rowers stowed their oars, then scrambled to pull on helmets and find their weapons. Like the tribes of the far north, Mohammed’s rowers were soldiers first. The Yemenite crew scurried out of the way, gathering on the rear deck with their own arms and armor.
A grinding sound cut through the noise as the port side of the Khuwaylid felt the brush of the Roman galley. It had shipped oars as well and iron grapples flew across the shrinking distance between the two dromons. Neither Imperial ship was equipped with a corvus, but they had plenty of rope and shorter ladders. The two ships ground belly to belly and the first of the Roman marines sprang across the gap, shouting fiercely.
“The Emperor and the City!” shouted the man, just before the Arab fighters on the deck rose up as one. The marine was flung back against the railing by a dozen spears and died, bright red blood flooding from his mouth as his armor was pierced again and again. Then a flood of Roman marines and sailors swarmed over the railing, stabbing swords flashing. The Arabs raised their own cry in return, the rowing benches emptying. “Allau ak-bar!”
Then a din of metal on metal and the cries of the dying and the wounded drowned the sound.
On the rear deck, Mohammed drew the sword of night, eliciting a gasp from the Yemenite sailors around him. Even in the bright sunshine, it gleamed like the dark vault of heaven. The sun reflected in it, a dim and bloated orange disk. In it, Mohammed felt the hopes and dreams of his city and his people. As ever, it quivered in his hand like a live thing. Strength seemed to flow from it and memories of his daughters, his wife, his friends came to him.
Then he staggered, feeling as if the voice had come upon him, but there was only a great roaring sound in his ears. The Yemenites, shouting in dismay, leapt to support him. A gray haze seemed to cloud his vision and he glimpsed the second Roman galley swinging alongside and its crew preparing to leap aboard the Khuwaylid.
“At them,” he croaked, pointing with his sword at the new enemy. The Yemenite sailors turned, their faces painted with indecision. “At them, by the great and merciful lord!”
The Imperial ship was only a dozen feet away, it’s crew hanging on the railing, quiet as wolves. The Sahaba fighters on the deck of the Arab ship were fully engaged in a pitched battle with the other crew. Finally, the Yemenites mustered themselves and leapt down the steps to the main deck, howling a warning to their fellows. Mohammed, struggling against this strange weakness, lurched to the opposite rail.
An arrow flashed in the sun, spiraling in towards him. It seemed to be moving so slowly. He could see the fletching turning as the bolt flew towards his chest. Mohammed dragged at the sword of night and it leapt in his hand, vaulting up to slap the arrow aside.
Normal motion resumed with an almost audible snap and the broken arrow fell into the sea. Mohammed found himself on the lower deck, running towards the starboard railing. Already some of the Romans from the new ship had leapt aboard and were trading swordstrokes with the Yemenites.
“Allau ak-bar!” His voice boomed like a roll of thunder over the dry desert.
At the same instant, blue-white flame jetted from the windows of the rear cabin on the Imperial dromon. The back quarter of the ship shuddered and cracked, lifting skyward. Smoke billowed from the gangway and the oar tholes. Roman sailors, perched on the railing, were pitched violently into the sea. The Yemenites howled in laughter, shaking their spears. Some of the Arab archers took the opportunity to feather those men still clinging to the railing of the enemy ship. The Imperial galley slewed drunkenly, loosing way as its steering oars, burning, fell into the sea. The dry wood and caulking tar of the liburna caught alight with wicked speed.
Mohammed spun in surprise at the shout, the slim ebon blade knocking aside a spearpoint. Some of the Roman marines had broken free from the mass of struggling men and ran at him. Mohammed felt old skills, now rarely used, spring to life. He slapped aside the spear, then lunged. The black sword screeched through the marine’s armor, then slid into his chest. Mohammed drew back violently, feeling the edge of the blade catch on a rib, then shear through the bone. Two more marines attacked, one from either side, crouching slightly behind their shields. Mohammed plowed into the one on the left, beating aside his blade, then powered the blade sideways through the man’s helmet. The poor quality iron, quartered and riveted, sparked as the edge of the blade cut in, parted and then the man’s skull took the rest of the blow.
The second marine lunged, stabbing with his gladius. Mohammed tried to turn back to block his thrust, but the blade of night snagged in the heavy bone behind the dying marine’s brow. He felt a freezing moment of anticipation, waiting for fatal metal to penetrate his side.
Lightning blazed instead, booming across the deck and the Roman was silhouetted for a moment in actinic light. Then his corpse was flung across the planks, smoking and hissing. The metal buckles on his leather armor scattered in molten droplets. Mohammed stood back, the blade of night dripping blood in his hand. He was half-blinded by the violent radiance, but his vision began to clear after a moment. Zoë was standing at the top of the steps from the cabins, her hand raised, her hair fanned behind her in a dark cloud.
“My debt, lady Zoë,” he said, raising the sword in salute to her.
“I am still in yours,” called the young woman, but there was an odd double echo in her voice.
Mohammed started, sheathing his sword with unusual speed and stepped quickly to Zoë’s side. She stared up at him with wide liquid-brown eyes. He made to speak, but saw the edge of fear in her pale face. He realized that he was looming over her, beard bristling. There was no time for this mystery now. The fleets were still locked in battle all around them. He squeezed her hand briefly, sketching a quick bow.
“Seize their ship,” he shouted, turning back to the melee that still surged back and forth across the bloody deck. “We’ve need of swift hulls!”
The Arabs, seeing that their captain was with them, raised a great shout and stormed forward, all eagerness for battle. The Romans, seeing that their fellow ship had foundered and was now afire, fell back. They still fought fiercely, but their hearts were no longer in the struggle. Mohammed waded into the fray, his long blade drinking deep of the enemy. None of the leather and cork armor could blunt its edge or still his overhand stroke. Within moments, the Sahaba were leaping across the gap into the other galley, their war cries shrilling loud in the smoky air.