From the author: When the battered remnants of the English fleet limped up the Thames, fleeing before the might of the advancing Spanish Armada, fourteen-year-old Robin refused to flee to safety. His life--and his magic--are too valuable a weapon to set aside in this, Protestant England's desperate last stand.
On this day, his fourteenth birthday, Robin Dudley knew he was finally a man in the eyes of his father.
When Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Queen's Armies and Companies, had given his base-born son permission to join him at the Tilbury encampment, Robin had at first been thrilled. He'd spent the entire trip from Oxford imagining the stories of heroism and valor he would be able tell his friends after he helped Leicester repulse the Spanish invasion. He would fight bravely, of course, and Queen Elizabeth would reward him with lands and riches and titles, just as Queen Mary and King Philip had rewarded Leicester after the Battle of Saint Quentin. He could hardly wait.
Robin had only begun to understand the danger when he arrived at Tilbury and saw the old, D-shaped blockhouse had been reinforced by new earthworks and a wooden palisade, all of which stood guard over a boom of chains and ships' masts that now stretched across the Thames to Gravesend. He felt the first stirrings of true fear when word came that the Duke of Parma had made landfall in Kent, at Margate, with an army that outnumbered Leicester's six to one. And when the battered remnants of the English fleet limped up the Thames, fleeing before the might of the advancing Spanish Armada, Robin had stood before Leicester – his knees and voice shaking – and refused to join the Queen in the relative safety of Richmond Palace.
"I have to stay and fight," he'd told Leicester. "What message would it send to your men, if you sent me away on the eve of battle?"
"That you are still a child," Leicester retorted.
"Maybe I am today," he shot back, "but tomorrow I won't be."
And so the next morning he stood atop the earthworks with Leicester, amongst a score of extra cannons scavenged from the broken fleet, shading his eyes against the rising sun and watching for the Armada that would soon be upon them.
Waiting for a battle to begin was equal parts terrifying and boring. Robin tried not to fidget in front of Leicester, but failed miserably. The fourth time he caught himself checking the sharpness of his sword's blade in the space of a quarter hour, he jammed his sword back into its scabbard with a growl of annoyance. If he didn't do something soon, he would go mad with waiting. So he closed his eyes and reached with his mind.
All around them, Robin could feel the heavy metal of the artillery, each cannon filled with black powder that cried out to be set alight. The reassuringly familiar sensation helped settle his nerves a little. Calling fire to such a ready vessel would be child's play; it was a game Leicester had taught him when he was only seven years old and it had first become apparent that he'd inherited the family talent. Neither wind nor rain ever silenced Leicester's cannons.
When he came back to himself, Robin saw Leicester watching him. So his inattention had been marked. He felt heat rush into his face, but braved it out. "The cannons are still ready."
"So they are." Instead of chastising Robin, Leicester pulled a handful of straw out of his pocket. He plucked a few pieces free and held out the rest towards Robin, who took it obediently. "I find it can be helpful to have something to concentrate on, to focus the mind before a battle."
Leicester suited action to words, holding up a single piece of straw between his fingertips and calling the tiniest spark of fire. It traveled with unnatural slowness up the straw, a feat of awesome control that Robin couldn't possibly hope to match. Still, he tried, dutifully pulling out a single piece of straw and concentrating as hard as he could on calling only a little bit of fire.
With an audible whoosh, the entire piece of straw went up in flames.
"God's wounds!" Robin swore as the flames licked his fingers. He flung the straw into the air where it quickly burned out and became only a scattering of ashes.
"Language," Leicester said, mildly. "It's only a matter of practice."
It was more than that, Robin suspected, but didn't argue. Leicester's talent was rather weak, as such things went. Even if the old King Henry hadn't dissolved all the monasteries and sent the talented back to their families, Leicester probably wouldn't have been forced to take holy vows. Robin, on the other hand, was both extremely strong and illegitimate; he'd have been an oblate the moment his talent manifested.
Thirty-four straws later, Robin still had not managed the trick, though he had mostly avoided singing his fingers any further. He would have kept trying, but the wind suddenly began to pick up and he didn't want his bits of straw to accidentally be blown into something important – or worse, flammable.
It wasn't just the wind, Robin realized, as he shoved the last of the straw into his pocket. Thick clouds had gathered in the sky above them, making it almost as dark as it had been an hour earlier, in the dim light of false dawn. His stomach lurched and he fought down renewed fear. "This is their doing, isn't it?"
Leicester nodded. "I expect they're almost to the bend in the river. We'll see them, any moment now."
It could only have been a minute or two later when the cry went up and the Spanish Armada appeared.
They flew upon the wings of the storm, the winds puffing out their sails. Rank upon rank of them, bristling with guns and soldiers, filled the river for as far as the eye could see and beyond. Four proud galleys lead the Armada, each one's canvas sails emblazoned with a different emblem. Three of their emblems were much the same in shape and design – some sort of Greek cross that differed only in color. The fourth was shaped more like a bloodied sword – the Cross of Saint James, sign of the Order of Santiago.
The holy monks of the four Spanish military orders had not marched to war together since the last of the Moors were driven from Granada, almost a hundred years ago. This wasn't just an invasion – it was a crusade.
He was looking at the Wrath of God, made flesh and blood.
Robin didn't realize he was trembling until Leicester clapped him on the shoulder. "Imagine, embroidering on sails like they were your Sunday-best gown!"
The thought of hundreds of women sitting around those sails, chattering as they embroidered, startled a laugh out of Robin. He wasn't the only one; everyone within earshot joined in, breaking through the nervous tension. Robin felt the worst of his fear begin to slide away and even the rumbling of distant thunder couldn't bring it back. The militant monks were just men, for all their God-given talents. And didn't Robin have a talent of his own?
A shift in the wind made the sails abruptly go slack and the galleons slowed to a stop just before the first one would have hit the boom of chain-wrapped masts. Another rumble of thunder filled the air, louder and closer this time, like the sky itself was growling the Armada's challenge.
"Robin," Leicester said, his gaze flickering up to the sky for a moment. "Did I ever tell you of the battles I fought for the King of Spain, when he was wed to our Queen Mary?"
"Only Saint Quentin," Robin answered, surprised by the question. Leicester rarely volunteered to speak of his life before Queen Elizabeth took the throne, especially the years when Queen Mary and King Philip ruled. "Where your brother Henry died."
"Hmm. I'm beginning to think King Philip recalls me with about as much fondness as I recall him." Leicester reached out and ruffled Robin's hair, before he could duck away. "Run, find Sir Norreys, and tell him I sent you to help with the blockhouse artillery." Then Leicester was striding forward, shouting orders to his men.
Robin felt a thrill of mingled excitement and terror; Leicester was trusting him with almost half the army's artillery. Part of him knew it was not so great a confidence – Leicester's martial hardly needed assistance managing a mere twenty-six cannons, tucked safely behind the fortified walls of the blockhouse – but the rest of him was determined to make his father proud, anyway. He turned and ran down the earthwork just as the first drops of rain began to fall. In moments, it was a downpour that he could barely see through and he had to slow to a trot to keep from running into anyone.
Behind him, he could hear the boom of Leicester's cannons and the answering cannons from Gravesend, across the river. He was just beginning to wonder why the Armada hadn't yet returned fire when he heard Leicester's cannons fire a second volley.
Then the world exploded.
Robin found himself face down on the ground, his ears ringing. He pushed himself to his knees and instinctively looked back towards the earthwork.
Several of Leicester's cannons were smoking, blasted ruins. It looked like half their artillery had been destroyed in a single moment. Robin didn't understand, at first. Then lightning flashed down on the Gravesend side of the river, thunder filled the air again, and he knew. The Spanish monks had called down lightning – this was their response to Leicester's attack.
Slower than he should have, Robin realized there were bodies scattered on the ground around the cannons. In fact, not a single man remained standing.
A strangled cry tore out of Robin's throat. It wasn't possible. His father couldn't dead, he couldn't be.
Robin lunged to his feet, then froze. All around him, his father's men were watching with fear in their eyes. Lightning had just struck their ranks, like the punishing hand of God Almighty. The men didn't know how to respond, which meant they would take their cue from him. If he wailed and cried like a child, if the men lost heart, then the battle could be lost before it had truly begun.
Robin swallowed hard and drew his sword to mask his hesitation. If his hands shook a little, at least his voice came out steady and confident. "The Spaniards' tricks won't take out the blockhouse artillery so easily!"
He could see the men slowly begin to rally their courage as they recognized the truth of his words; lightning could hardly do much damage to a stone building, not in comparison to cannons laid out on open ground. His father would have known that, too, Robin realized. Somehow, his father had guessed what was coming and had sent him away to save his life.
No. He couldn't think about that right now. There was still a battle to be fought.
Robin turned towards the river to take stock of the situation. The storm seemed to be dissipating, the rain becoming a mist and the rumbles of thunder dying away entirely. The Spanish cannons were firing now, and soldiers were pouring ashore in the Armada's longboats. He ought to run to the safety of the blockhouse, while the fighting was still confined to the riverbank. That was where his father had ordered him to go.
But instead of moving, Robin's gaze was drawn to those first four ships, the ones closest to the boom. That was where the lightning must have originated – with the monks of the four Spanish military orders. And as if the monks weren't deadly enough, each of their galleys also had a full complement of cannons, mercilessly pounding away at the English defenses.
An idea occurred to him, then, and Robin felt his mouth drawing back in a mirthless grin. It was reckless and foolish, and he didn't care; the Spanish monks were not the only ones whose talent could destroy an enemy's cannons.
"Droit et loyal," Robin whispered his father's motto, then took off at a run for the river.
If it weren't for the Spaniards, he never would have made it. But the English troops were too busy returning enemy fire and defending the riverbank to concentrate on stopping one half-grown boy who barreled through their lines like a cannonball, only without doing as much damage.
Robin only slowed in his headlong charge when he neared the river and ran into a knot of hand-to-hand combat that he couldn't simply dodge around. He'd often wondered what it would be like to kill a man – he'd heard that the first time was always the worst – but the moment came and went in a blur. A Spaniard stepped in front of him, sword raised. Robin side-stepped to avoid the attack, then slashed his own blade across the man's neck, half severing it. He kept running and never saw the body hit the ground.
He angled towards the flat-bottomed barge that anchored the boom on this side of the river, trying to get as close to the galleys as possible. His father had detailed a group of veteran infantrymen to protect the boom, and Robin had a bad moment when he belatedly realized they might not want to let him through to the barge. But one of them recognized him and waved him aboard, calling out to the others, "It's young Robin, the earl's son!"
Robin leapt onto the barge and crossed to the far side, already reaching out with his mind towards the galleys. This would be close enough – it had to be, he couldn't get any closer.
"Have you come about the boom?" Another of the men asked, anxiously.
Startled, Robin tore his attention away from the galleys and looked down at the boom. A greenish film had begun to cover the chains and the ships' masts had odd pock-marks on them, as if they had begun to rot from within. Whatever was happening to the boom, it wasn't natural.
"God's wounds," he swore, then winced, remember the last time his father had chastised him – had it only been an hour or so earlier? – for his language.
"It's been getting worse ever since the lightning stopped." The man glanced over at the galleys and made a sign to ward off evil.
Robin bit his lower lip and tried to hide his uncertainty. If the man was right, then the storm hadn't lessened because it had accomplished its deadly purpose. Instead, the monks had become distracted by a more pressing need for their collective talents – the boom. Without it, there would be nothing to stop the Armada from continuing upriver to sack London, and maybe even take the Queen herself.
He couldn't do anything to reinforce the boom – he hardly understood how the thing had been constructed in the first place. The monks, however, were another matter entirely.
"I'll take care of it," Robin said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. He closed his eyes and sent out his mind again.
The first galley was well within his range; he sent his mind through every inch of canvas and wood and powder, finding everything that was flammable. The second was difficult, but he only had to push himself a little more to reach it. When he reached farther, trying to touch the third galley, he missed entirely.
Robin swore under his breath and tried again. He stretched his mind out as far as he could, pushing himself harder than he'd ever done before. He thought his head might split apart from the strain, but he kept on trying until he managed to just barely brush his mind against the bow of the third galley. The contact only lasted a second, perhaps two, and then he lost it again.
Panting hard, Robin opened his eyes. It wasn't going to work, not from this far away. Destroying three of the galleys might have been enough for revenge, but it wouldn't be enough to stop the monks from breaking through the boom. But how could he get any closer to ships stretched out across the entire width of the river?
The barge wouldn't move for him – if they deliberately opened the river, then it didn't matter whether or not the boom failed. There was no way he could get near any of the Spanish longboats either – that was where the fighting was hottest.
Then there was the boom itself.
Robin didn't think twice, afraid that reason might reassert itself and make him lose his nerve. He climbed onto the first of the ships' masts, rotten wood spinning and giving way beneath his feet. The men from the barge shouted after him, but no one dared follow.
A rod. Two rods. He scrambled from mast to mast, feeling horribly exposed. The Spaniards onboard those galleys had to have noticed him, out there alone. But no lightning struck him dead. No rifles or bows shot at him. They didn't see a threat, just a harmless, helpless boy.
He'd show them how wrong they were.
A quarter of the way across the river, Robin slowed, then stopped. Once again he closed his eyes and this time he found all four galleys with ease. Canvas and wood burned so nicely. Powder burned even better.
He started the first dozen blazes in the middle of their sails, burning the emblems of their Orders to a crisp.
The Spaniards were just beginning to shout in alarm when he redirected his attention and started his next blazes below decks. He made sure to put several in the middle of their powder magazines.
Then Robin turned and ran at full, reckless speed towards the barge.
The world exploded for the second time.
The force of the explosion sent Robin flying through the air. He missed the barge by several rods and landed in the river itself. Luckily, he held onto his wits enough to thrash his way into shallow water and get his feet underneath him. He stumbled onto the muddy riverbank and turned to see what his talent had wrought.
All four galleys were doomed. The two in the middle, which had borne the brunt of the simultaneous explosions, had already mostly sunk. Men were leaping off the flaming ruins of the other two galleys, which looked like they weren't going to be far behind. Those shipwrecks would block the river almost as effectively as the boom, making it impossible for all but the smallest of boats to safely pass. No matter how many of the Spanish monks survived, the sunken galleys wouldn't be going anywhere soon.
Not that losing four galleys would do anything to stop the thousands of soldiers pouring ashore from the rest of the Armada's ships.
Robin's head pounded with the strain of working fire at such a distance, but when he closed his eyes he could still sense the flames of the nearest galley, ready and willing to obey his commands. He encouraged them to spread, leaping to adjacent ships that hadn't – quite – gotten out of range yet. The Armada's tightly-packed formation would be their undoing... if he only he could reach more of the ships before their formation broke apart.
He instinctively reached for his sword, only to find that he'd lost it. For a moment, his resolve wavered. Maybe he'd done enough. Maybe he could find somewhere safe – and dark and quiet – to rest his head until the battle was over.
But his father wouldn't have let a little thing like a lost sword stop him.
Robin headed back into the fray, darting around active pockets of fighting whenever possible. When he did have to go near the fighters, he let half his mind roam – turning swords and knifes and rifles red-hot – and kept only part of his attention on where his feet went. Whenever he drew near to a new ship, he turned his talent on them instead. He burned the longboats, too, to keep them from going back to ferry more soldiers to shore.
After the first five or six ships, the fighting around him died down. Robin didn't understand at first, though he was grateful that no one was trying to kill him anymore and that he could direct more of his attention towards the true enemy.
Then there was a flash of motion to his right – sunlight glinting off bared steel as it swung towards him. Before he had time to do anything more than flinch, the Spaniard was cut down by three different blades. Only then did Robin realize that there was a circle of his father's men around him.
I have an honor guard. The idea struck Robin as both amusing and proper. He had been wrong, before. He had thought the four Spanish galleys represented the might and the glory and the wrath of God Almighty, but if that was the case then why had he been able to strike them down?
No, the Spanish monks were not the Wrath of God incarnate – he was. And he rained the fires of heaven down on those false prophets who dared to claim God's power for their own.
The world burned and burned until, quite suddenly, there was nothing left to burn.
Robin snapped all the way back to himself and nearly collapsed from the blinding agony in his head. But that was hardly surprising, after what he had done. Everything had a price.
So long as the price was not his talent! Robin's hands shook a little with sudden fear as he pulled out the last of the straws his father had given him. The effort of calling fire to those straws nearly made him weep, but he did call fire and he imposed his will on it, forcing it to creep slowly up the straw before burning out.
Robin grinned at his accomplishment. His father would be so proud when he saw.... No.
Slowly, he turned back towards the blockhouse and the earthwork where the artillery had been stationed. His heart pounded almost as hard as his head. Surely, if he was the Wrath of God, if he had done God's Will this day, then God would see fit to make his father alive. Wouldn't He? After all, men survived lightning strikes all the time. Well, not all the time, but Robin knew it could happen.
At first he walked, but then he picked up his pace to a trot. His honor guard followed him, keeping him safe from any Spaniards who might still be alive and fighting on the riverbank. But as he neared the blockhouse he broke into an all-out run; he left most of his honor guard behind before he reached the earthwork, and lost the last few in the scramble up its steep slopes.
He picked his way through the bodies, searching for survivors – searching for that one survivor who he knew had to be there. Finally, he caught a glimpse of his father's white-and-gold doublet, on the far side of one of the ruined cannons.
"Father!" Robin cried, staggering into a run one final time. He rounded the cannon to find his father sitting almost upright against the barrel, eyes wide open – and filmed with death.
Robin stared, trembling, then spun to look out at the battlefield again. As far as his eyes could see, there were flames and smoke and ruin. They had won. He had won. He would be rewarded beyond his wildest dreams. His name would become a legend and the story of his triumph would be told for hundreds and hundreds of years to come.
But it wasn't enough to balance what he had lost. It would never be enough.
On this day, his fourteenth birthday, Robin Dudley knew he was only a man in the eyes of God.
And he fell to his knees, amidst the ashes of his victory, and wept.
This story originally appeared in Cirsova.