Sunday, 23 November 2008

Chapter Thirty Six

Donatella pulled away from the arm on her shoulder, but she had no where to escape in the crowded tavern. She automatically reached for her dagger with her free hand.

“I'm sorry Miss – I did not mean to startle you. It's me, Benito, from your father's ship La Serenissima” he hissed.

Donatella heaved a sigh of relief. At last, this was a man she knew that she could trust. Benito Parese had worked for her father for many years and she knew him well. Many was the time that he had dandled her on his knee on a warm afternoon by the docks as she listened to tales of his exploits on the high seas.

“Let's find somewhere out of sight to talk” she said and they found a free table at the far side of the room where they could watch the door and still remain out of sight. They also had the benefit of a blazing log fire which was more than welcome given the cold and the rain outside.

Benito purchased two mugs of a weak local beer which was considerably safer than drinking the local water, and also a plate of bread, oil and salt, and some pickled herrings to eat. Donatella realised that she had had practically nothing to eat in days and tucked in greedily, wolfing the bread down. Benito waited patiently for her to finish and then asked.

“What are you doing here in Ravenna?”

“Looking for my father,” she replied, “although it all seems to have got a lot more complicated than that. I could ask you the exact same question?”

“I am doing the same thing, more or less. I wasn't sure what to do after your father disappeared. We were anchored off shore and your father came here to negotiate with his business partners, and we haven't seen him since. He told us to keep La Serenissima safe, so we've been sailing around the Adriatic hiding in smuggler’s coves in the islands hereabouts.”

“How do you know about the smuggler’s coves?” interrupted Donatella

“It's probably best that you don't ask about things like that Miss” replied Benito, “You don't captain a trading ship without knowing where you can hide when things get a little tricky. The Serenissima is a fast ship, probably one of the nippiest in these waters, but you can't keep running forever. I've been coming back here every so often to look for your father, but I wasn't expecting you to be here – you looked as if you were on the run from somebody”

“I was, but I killed them.” she replied with a wolfish grin. “I suspect there are more of them on the way though. There's a whole Papal army marching on its way to Venice, and I don't think they are going to best pleased when they find out what I did to one of their financial backers”

“What do you want to do then?” Benito asked. “As your father's daughter, I reckon that makes you the boss of company in his absence”

“Venice” she said with finality. “We're going back to Venice, and the sea is our only option – there's a whole army on the road ahead of us.”

“Very well. La Serenissima is moored just up the coast. We have a boat that can take us there. It will be a rough trip, mind. The seas are up, and there's a hell of a storm on the way if I'm any judge of the weather.”

“What are we waiting for then? Let's go!”

o o o o o

They left the tavern and Donatella once more pulled her cloak hood up to hide her face. She didn't imagine that the disguise would be effective for very much longer but at least it would deter casual identification. It wasn't far to the dock and they made their way to the jetty where the boat was waiting, with two sailors ready to row them to the Serenissima.

Benito had, if anything, understated the weather as the storm was steadily growing in intensity.

“You'll have to bail” Benito told Donatella, handing her a leather bucket. “Hold on tight and don't, whatever you do, let yourself get swept overboard. We'll never find you in this weather”.

She did as she was told and concentrated on fighting the waves that crashed over the side, filling the bottom of the vessel with sea water. It was hard work but it kept her mind off the violence of the storm and the precarious situation that they found themselves in. The small boat bobbed and dipped between the huge waves that were crashing on to the shore, but they made good time with the two sailors sculling hard and taking advantage of the racing tide to speed them forward. They approached the Serenissima from the lee ward side which provided enough respite from the storm to allow them to climb safely aboard with the crew hauling the boat after them and lashing it to the deck.

Captain Benito Parese ignored the fact that he was soaked to the skin and ordered an immediate departure from their mooring.

“We'll be running ahead of the storm in full sail. Trim the rigging for speed as tightly as if the Devil himself were on our tail. Every man to his station and do your duty. Batten down all of the hatches and make everything secure above and below decks. We're going home boys!”

The crew gave a resounding cheer and set to their duties. They were not a full compliment, but they were all experienced enough to squeeze the last ounce of speed of the ship given the limited numbers that they had. In a remarkably short time the ship was ready to sail and as they weighed anchor La Serenissima sprang forward as she were a race horse ready for action at the start of a prize race.

The deck of the ship heaved and bucked with the waves and Donatella clung on for grim death. Benito had offered her space in a cabin below decks, but she was feeling queasy and being confined inside would make it worse. At least when she could focus on the horizon she could anticipate the action of the waves and the wind. This was certainly a wild ride.

O o o o o

The sun was not far off rising, but the storm meant that it was almost as dark as it had been during the night. They had started tacking before making the turn to head directly west into the mouth of the Venetian lagoon. The lookout from the crows nest at the tip of the mast sang out as the ship heeled into the wind.

“Ships ahoy! Ships ahoy! Flying the papal flag”

Benito cursed with the fluidity and floridity that a lifetime before the mast had given him. He could see a blockade of three papal ships across the mouth of the lagoon. They were broadside on, and having a rough time being battered by the wind and the waves, but they would be able to loose a vicious volley of cannon fire at any approaching vessel.

A sensible Captain would, in this situation, furl the main sail and run parallel to the blockade, staying out of range of the guns. He didn't have time for such a lengthy manoeuvre and he made the decision to gamble. They would run the gauntlet and damn the consequences!

“Keep the sails at full stretch – we're aiming for the gap between the two ships on the left. If we continue at this speed they'll only be able to get one broadside off apiece before we are past them. Load our cannons and we'll give them a taste of round shot as we pass them by.”

The crew readied themselves for action as La Serenissima flew towards the line of ships. Every timber shivered from the strain and the main mast was dangerously bowed and making ominous creaking noises as the storm force wind pressed into the billowing sails.

“Steady lads, steady!” said Benito and he lashed the wheel into position to keep them on course. He ran to the fore deck to look at what they were facing. The furthest ship at the end of the line could not bring her guns to bear, but feverish activity on the two closest vessels indicated that they were preparing to loose a volley.

“Prepare for incoming fire!” he yelled as he returned to the wheel and his post.

The first ship fired a rolling volley of round shot, each gun firing one after the other. The ship was rolling heavily in the swell and most of the shots went astray, either going far too high or plunging into the sea. Three shots landed though. Two went through the upper decks sending a deadly hail of splinters flying through the confined space, killing three of the crew in a instant. The final shot skated across the deck leaving a trail of devastation as it bounced and finally carrying a hapless sailor through the side railings to his merciful death.

The second ship delayed firing and then unleashed a volley of chain shot. Chain shot consisted of two smaller cannonballs joined by a six foot length of chain. When fired the balls would separate and then spin through the air scything through anything they touched. They were particularly effective against sails and rigging, although they had an equally devastating result when used against personnel.

In one blast the mainsail of the Serenissima was reduced to tattered shards, and one shot struck the mast, wrapping around and fracturing the wood. The strain from the on rushing gale was too much and the mast toppled forward on to the deck with a sound like the end of the world.

The momentum of the Serenissima propelled her through the gap running on her remaining canvas. As the ship passed between her two attackers she was perfectly positioned to unleash a double broadside of her own, which her gunners did with relish in revenge for the devastating attack inflicted on their own vessel. For such a short range attack they had selected grape shot – a collection of metal scraps, musket balls, rocks and other detritus sewn into a canvas bag and fired from the mouth of a cannon where it would wreak a swath of destruction at anything in its path. The decks of both enemy vessels were simultaneously scoured of all life, and the timbers of the Serenissima groaned in protest at the strain of the recoil.

Then they were past the blockade and skimming across the surface of the lagoon towards the docks. They had survived against the odds, although the Serenissima was in a sorry state and would need extensive repairs before sailing again. The ship retained enough manoeuvrability to steer for the docks and Captain Parese ordered a Venetian standard to be run up a jury rigged foremast so that the guns of the city would not open fire on them as well.

The Serenissima limped into the jetty and the men leaped to tie her safely to an anchor in the teeth of the howling storm.

They had made it. They had returned to Venice.

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