Raindrops fell from the clouds, starting as soft blips and growing into heavy javelins that quickly ran down Estienne’s temples, collecting in the feathery fibers of his beard. Feeling his face soaked from the rain, he stroked his chin and shook the drops off.
Estienne climbed the ladder up to the deck, and watched the crew of the Grendel panic as they hurried to secure crates, move the sails into the correct position, and herd all passengers down below.
A surly bosun in a patched raincoat stomped around the planks, and caught sight of Estienne.
“Get below deck ye’ blashy afterling! Dubh Lacha’s got a good storm for us.”
With an unholy boot to the forehead, Estienne was shoved down the ladder. Climbing to his feet, he saw Conrad and a few other knights be shoved below deck as well, falling down through the opening that separated the two floors.
“Estienne! This storm is going to be huge. We ne-”
Conrad’s words were cut off as the ship suddenly surged to the right, and they all fell to the floor.Estienne sensed what Conrad was going to say. Pointing at a young, quiet knight in a padded leather cap, he gestured towards some ropes.
“Hugues, pass those ropes around. We need to tie ourselves down to something or else we’ll be flung around like loaded dice in a cup.”
Hugues tossed bundles around the group, and they tied themselves down to the mast, large crates and various heavy objects.
Estienne pulled his browned rope into a more comfortable position, and whispered to Conrad, who had bound himself next to him.
“Let's hope the crew knows how to handle themselves.”
Through the planks on the ceiling, they heard a destructive wave pour over the ship. Multiple screams rose, then suddenly fell away, lost in the depths.
“Fils de pute.” Estienne swore under his breath.
Water leaked through the hatch door, dripping onto the floor and forming a small puddle. Another roar of thunder echoed, and they could all hear the rain intensify.
Conrad gave a weak smile through his blonde mustaches. “This’ll be fun.”
For the next fifteen minutes of watery hell that pounded the Grendel, the knights all stood strapped to objects, listening to the remaining crew struggle to keep her afloat over the immense waves that surged under and above. With a sudden supernatural rush that sucked all the energy out of the commotion around them, the scene fell silent. The knights could hear nothing outside but a quiet pattering of rain.
Some of the knights cheered, and quickly cut through their ropes, stretching their sore torsos.
Estienne felt a dark apprehension run over him, and cried out to warn them.
“LEAVE THEM! HOLD ON!”
With an immense crash, the Grendel capsized. A gargantuan wave soared above its tallest sails, and completely enveloped the cog.
Inside the hold, the unsecured knights were slammed to one wall, and Estienne cringed at the crunching noises. The entire ship was flipped to the side, and Estienne struggled to regain his senses. Conrad remained next to him, as well as the young Hugues across the room. With a silent seeping, murky sea water entered from cracks all over the ceiling, covering the floor in seconds.
A shipping crate slid across the upper deck, managing to block the opening from the outside. Despite this, multiple streams of sea water still spurted through, deepening the pool on the floor.
“Cut the ropes!” Estienne yelled as he fumbled to pull a dagger out of his belt.
After cutting loose, Estienne and Conrad clutched to the mast, wading in the ever deepening water.
Conrad spoke up. “How do we get out?”
“I don’t know, Conrad! I’ll figure something out.”
Estienne hastily searched through the haphazard crates, and found an exceptionally large one, marked with the emblem of some Italian craftsman. Prying it open, he found a ballista for use in naval battles. It was nearly six feet wide, with a simple, albeit huge, winding mechanism that pulled back the string. It was rusted all along its main mechanisms, but it would have to do. There were multiple deadly steel bolts in the crate as well.
“Conrad! Hugues! Help me with this!”
The water was now knee deep. They rushed over and heaved the siege weapon out of the crate, Estienne aiming it at the farthest wall.
“I like where this is going!” Conrad bore his yellowed teeth in a dangerous smile.
Conrad and Hugues lifted a steel bolt out of the crate, and placed it in the ballista.
Estienne stepped to one side of the weapon, and grasped the right half of the winding mechanism. Hugues moved to the left, and together they strained to pull the mechanism back with the power of torsion. Hugues was struggling to wind it back, something inside the machine was badly rusted.
Conrad smiled. “Move aside, junge.”
Wrapping his knuckles around the steel handle, he strained with all his might. His arm muscles bulged and surged, and the rusted mechanism was beaten.
With a loud crack inside the ballista, Conrad eased the mechanism into firing position, the bolt locked back all the way.
“Fire away, Estienne.”
Estienne struggled to slosh around the water that reached to his waist, and reached to grab the rope that unleashed the bolt, releasing all the built up energy of the mechanism.
“Step away, lads. As soon as I fire this, the entire hold will fill with seawater. Try not to die, and swim your way out. There’s bound to be debris everywhere, so don’t worry about drowning. We’ll all meet outside. Donne-nous de la force, Dieu.”
With a pull, Estienne fired the ballista. The entire weapon recoiled back, being unrestrained, and slammed into the crate, crushing it. The bolt flew through the air, ripping through the hull like it was parchment. It left a gap four feet wide, and the oaken planks around it were torn and frayed.
Sea water rushed in like a herd of buffalo, filling the hold in a split second, and widening the hole with its force. Estienne, reeling from the shock of the water, managed to swim across the hold, slipping out of the gaping hole left by the ballista bolt. The saltwater stung his eyes as he searched for the top of the water. He only hoped his friends were behind him.
Estienne burst up out of the ocean, gasping for air. He looked up to the skies expecting to see the storm continuing to rage, but the skies were only a light gray, with all the thunder and terror from earlier gone in the wind. He swam towards a section of planking that had been ripped off from one of the waves, and clutched onto its comforting buoyancy.
And then he noticed nobody was around him. Had Hugues and Conrad escaped?Were they still there, under the waves, trapped in the hold? What if his plan failed?He couldn’t bear another death to be on his hands. Only just then had he begun to forget the terrible pains of the past, when he abandoned the women and ch-
Hugues tapped on Estienne’s shoulder, and moved up to hang on the debris with him.
He wasn’t much of a talker.
Estienne was overjoyed to see Hugues had made it, and eagerly grabbed his shoulder.
“Where is Conrad?” Estienne asked, worried.
Hugues shielded his eyes against the torrid mediterranean sun that was peeking through the dispersed clouds.
“Dummkopf! Did you think the sea could ever drag down someone like me?”
Conrad pushed up to them in a small rowboat, grinning.
Estienne couldn’t help smiling back, and climbed into the boat along with Hugh.
The group remained silent as they floated off from the wreckage of the Grendel, glad to rest after the stress of the situation. They stayed adrift for over an hour in silence.
Estienne spoke up, eyes fixed to the horizon but his thoughts further away.
“Have I sealed my fate?”
Conrad and Hugues were startled, and looked up to see an Estienne with red rimmed eyes.
Estienne pointed to himself.
“I was the commander, the lord and the leader of the entire crusade. I was counted on by thousands. Thousands of people who spent their life fortunes to band together on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I remember hearing conversations and laughter. I remember hearing them talk about visiting Jerusalem, and carving a cross into one of the sacred walls of the Holy Sepulchre.
They’ll never get the chance, because of me. What if I had seen the Sipahis riders? What if I had devised a new plan, and saved us?
Or if our defeat was truly inevitable, what if I had made my last stand with them? That’s what I should have done. The pilgrims and soldiers may never have gotten the chance to see the Holy Sepulchre, but no doubt they found salvation in other ways. The Pope himself said,
‘All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins.’
I have sinned, too many times to be counted, and my cowardice only adds to my sentence.
How could the Lord, even the Christ who forgives many, how could he forgive a man who left thousands of his own to suffer and die because of his cowardice?”
A tear rolled down Estienne’s cheek, landing on his shoulder.
“Have I sealed my fate?
Am I bound to an eternity in the agonal flames of Hell?”
All was silent on the rowboat when Estienne finished his proclamation of guilt.
He was not the only one who had fled the battle.
Conrad spoke, his voice barely above a whisper, yet still managing to penetrate the sounds of the waves.
“The Lord always forgives, Estienne. He can always offer another chance, even to the most black-hearted of men, lost and wandering souls, and to the infidels in the East.
Estienne, the Lord will give us all a chance to redeem ourselves. A way to salvation. A path to forgiveness. When He opens that door for us to climb through, we must be ready.
He will give us another chance.”
Estienne hoped so.