Three Queens in Erin
HOB, A RÚN, HAVE A wee sip of this.”
Hob turned from the broad wooden rail and the sight of the horizon rising and falling, rising and falling. He took the cup from Nemain and sipped gingerly at the decoction. Immediately the mild nausea that had threatened to turn to seasickness began to subside. In the warmth that spread through his middle he recognized the base of uisce beatha with which Molly began so many of her remedies, augmented with a mixture of simmered herbs and spices, pleasing and pungent and so complex that he could not identify any single ingredient.
Beyond his wife, holding fast to the rail and eagerly scanning the view, was their daughter, Macha Redmane. At six years of age, she had very little fear
of anything, an intense curiosity about everything, and the digestive powers of a wolf—nothing upset her stomach, not even these choppy waves of the Irish Sea. Like her mother, she wore a voluminous traveling cloak; like her mother, she had thrown back the hood thereof; like her mother, her flame-red hair streamed back in the sea wind. A well-named child, he thought, not for the first time, though she’d been named for Macha Mong Ruadh—Macha Red Mane—the only woman high king of Ireland. She imitated Nemain in everything, and Hob’s life circled the two as a moth circles a lantern.
The waves were ridged with white foam, their sides veined with it. A rogue wave came in upon them slantwise; a sheet of water smacked up into the air and drenched the deck, the boom of its impact echoing through the hold below and setting up a chorus of bellowing and neighing from the animals penned down there. Nemain contemplated the cup in his hands, now half seawater.
“Come out of this; come under the aftercastle,” she said to Hob, taking Macha’s hand and tugging her from the rail.
“But, Mama, what is that, away there, do you see?” said the child, her attention on the northern horizon. They had been speaking in Irish, in which tongue Hob had attained a working facility, and now from the crow’s nest came a call in English: “Sail! Two sail!”
Instantly there was a bustle from belowdecks, and a series of stentorian commands from aft, where the captain stood with the steersmen working to control the rudder. Barefoot seamen boiled out of the hatch and onto the deck;
the soles of their feet, hard as leather from going unshod and from soaking in brine, made a muffled clatter against the wood.
Hob shadowed his eyes with a broad hand and looked out to where the Irish Sea met the sky. There, two long dark shapes drove westward in parallel with their own progress, and even as he looked they altered their appearance, coming round to a course that would intercept la Gracedieux, the cog in which he and his family rode. The ships had a lean wolflike appearance; as they grew nearer Hob could see the high prows and sternposts that gave them an air of sea-serpent menace, the triskelion symbols worked in red twine upon their broad sails. There were six oars to a side, but these were now shipped, since the full-bellied sails were propelling them at a good clip, faster than the heavily laden Gracedieux could move. Clustered along the sides were helmeted men; Hob could see the glint of weapons held at the ready.
Nemain hustled her daughter under the aftercastle and down the hatchway to the hold. A moment later she was back with two bows and two quivers of arrows. Molly, her grandmother, was descending the ladder from the aftercastle deck, followed closely by her lover, Jack Brown. A moment passed while Molly assessed the situation, looking from the rapidly closing ships to the bosun passing out short broad-bladed swords and iron-headed clubs to the crew, and then she began to deploy her little family.
“?’Twill be better for us to shoot from above,” she said to Nemain. “Jack, Hob, arm yourselves. Jack to stand here
and guard the hatch; let no one of these pirate swine who comes within your reach remain alive. Hob, range the deck and help the crew where it’s help that’s needed.” She looked out at the two ships: birlinns, the larger, broader descendants of the Norse dragonboats. “Manxmen, by the look of them,” she muttered; she spun on her heel and jumped onto the ladder, climbing rapidly upward at a pace surprising for such a large woman, and she well past her half-century mark. Nemain, ever lithe, was right behind her.
Jack threw himself at the hatchway and slid down the ladder, agile as an ape; in a moment he emerged again, tossing his crow-beak war hammer ahead of him onto the deck with a banging clatter, clambering out of the hatch with Hob’s scabbarded longsword in his other hand. A burly man perhaps eight years Molly’s junior, Jack was an experienced man-at-arms, a mercenary at times, a sometime Crusader, and something stranger as well.
Now he closed the hatch and stood in front of it, just beneath the overhang of the aftercastle. Hob took his sword and drew it; he tossed the scabbard behind the hatch coaming. The bosun and his assistants were back with armfuls of targes, small round shields with a spike in the center, and Hob and Jack each took one, slipping forearms through the first targe-back bracket and gripping the second.
There were two Irish merchants on board, Adam and Murchad, uncle and nephew: Adam a man in his forties, his nephew perhaps two decades younger. They imported silk, iron, and wine to Dublin, and brought away wool and hides from the interior of Ireland. They were soft unwarlike men,
and now crouched down by the rail near Jack, in hope of protection by the burly man-at-arms. Each clutched a long knife, but appeared to Hob as though they would have little skill at wielding a weapon.
The birlinns were close enough now that Hob could see the men lined up at the near rails; at prow and stern were handfuls of men with grappling hooks attached to ropes, the excess in coils at their feet. There were also capstans: two forward and two aft, with the capstan bars shipped and a man at each bar. If any grapnel caught and held, the line would be bent onto the capstan and tension put on the rope, drawing the two ships together.
The birlinns began to separate. One began an attempt to cross behind the cog’s stern, so to come up on the lee side; thus the two pirate crews could board simultaneously from both sides. The captain bellowed orders; seamen hauled at the ropes that altered the mainsail, and the steersmen wrestled the wheel around. The cog came about to starboard and drove between the two attackers, then veered to larboard. The three ships passed one another with archers, including Molly and Nemain, shooting at targets as they presented themselves. The two attackers now were placed on the lee side of the cog, and had to redirect their attack.
The three ships now sailed westward parallel to one another. The farther birlinn took in sail and ran out its oars, dropping behind and pulling north to regain the weather side of the cog. This left the first pirate ship running on a converging course with the cog, not far from her larboard side, and the second struggling to cross behind
la Gracedieux’s stern. The first ship now ran out its oars as well in an attempt to close the distance to its prey.
There was little hope of outrunning the pirates’ swift and lightly loaded craft, and the captain, apparently deciding that it was best to deal with first one and then the other rather than both at once, ordered the cog to larboard, turning toward the foe. The unexpected maneuver brought the two ships together before the pirate could ship oars, and the heavy hull of the cog snapped oars all along the birlinn’s starboard side. From within the pirate vessel arose a brief but distressing chorus of shouts and screams, as the flailing inboard ends of the oars broke ribs and battered skulls.
Those pirates not needed at the oars had been clustered at their starboard rail, and some of these were clubbed down by the thrashing oars and others felled by flying splinters the length of a man’s hand and the thickness of a man’s thumb. Those left standing roared war cries and clashed axes against shields. Their numbers were quickly augmented by the uninjured portside rowers, and as the two ships wallowed side by side, they prepared to board.
Hob was standing amid a loose line of armed sailors, close to the larboard rail, when a flying chunk of metal whipped past his head and was immediately jerked back on a line, tearing open the shoulder of the seaman next to him and snagging onto the rail: a grapnel, a three-pronged heavy hook attached to a sturdy rope.
Now a storm of whirling grapnels broke over the deck, a blizzard of ropes, most of the hooks catching in the rail with a chunk, their lines quickly belayed about pins on the pirate
ship or wrapped to a capstan and tightened by crewmen working the bars, the pawls clacking, the ship inexorably drawn near to the helpless cog. As the slack was taken up, the thick tarred ropes became hard as iron with the tension of holding the two heaving vessels together.
Every sailor who could be spared from working the ship now was massed at the rail, preparing to repel boarders; some had small axes and hacked at the grapnel ropes, protected by their shipmates, who contrived to cover the axmen from the pirates’ arrows, angling their targes to meet the incoming shafts. The axes were not making sufficient progress: one rope parted with a crack as the strain was abruptly released, the free end lashing back toward the birlinn and striking down two of the pirates clustered at the rail, waiting to board. But the other grapnels held, even as two more flew over the rail and were drawn back to snag on the yardarm and to tangle in the rigging.
Those ropes not bent onto the capstans to bind the ships together were left to hang down the cog’s side as scaling aids. And now there arose from the pirate crew another loud battle cry, heralding the rush to scramble up the cog’s side. The Gracedieux’s crew hurled abuse and baulks of wood down on the reavers as they climbed, acrobatic as macaques, clinging to the ropes, with knives and boarding axes and the heavy cutlasses favored by seamen slung to their belts.
The cog had a small galley in the forecastle, a circle of flat stones on a bed of sand, and when the coast-hugging cog put in each night to some baylet or quiet cove, a small fire was built to heat the crew’s meal. The cook had evidently
kindled a small fire, sufficient to light torches from, for here he came with two of his assistants, staggering from the galley with a cauldron of poppy oil and suet, the kitchen boy following with a blazing torch in each hand. The galley gang heaved the mixture over the side onto the low-slung birlinn deck, drenching the lower corner of the pirate ship’s sail. Thereupon the kitchen boy tossed the torch into the greasy pool, and a roar of flame shot up and caught the bottom of the sail, and a great cry went up from the birlinn’s aftercastle, where the master and mates began to bellow orders for buckets to be lowered and to those of the crew not actually in the assault party to contain the fire, every seaman’s nightmare.
And indeed there were curses and imprecations from the cog’s aftercastle as the captain saw the danger to his own ship that the cook’s action posed: the pirate ship’s sail was already aflame and the foredeck was beginning to catch here and there. The order was given to cut loose at any cost. The seamen hacking at the ropes were forced back from their task by the boarders swarming over the rail.
A line of grappling, cursing men swiftly formed just inboard of the rail, as sailor and pirate struggled to kill one another with dagger and short cutlass, in some cases mixing wrestling holds with stabbing and cutting. In a short time men from both groups were down in their own blood.
Hob dropped his targe to the deck and with his left hand drew the war dagger Sir Balthasar had given him. Now deadly with either hand, he began a charge: from the break of the aftercastle he trotted forward just behind the line of battle, attacking any boarder who broke through the line
of sailors. The pirates were Manxmen, big strongly made men: Norse-Gaels, the descendants of the Vikings who mixed with Scots of the Western Isles. But Hob was himself tall, and under Jack’s tutelage he had become brawny, and under Sir Balthasar’s instruction he had acquired the martial skills of the Norman knight from one of the great killers of the North Country, and from Molly and Nemain he had learned many little-known sleights and artful movements. There were now few who might best him: Sir Balthasar; perhaps Jack; and his little wife, Nemain, no match for him in strength but so deadly in her reptile speed and falcon eye that not a blow could be dealt her. Molly, of course—one never quite knew what that queenly woman was capable of, but she had lived a long time in a perilous world.
Now he ran at two pirates, axmen, and they set themselves to meet him. They wore vests of woven rope, light enough and easy enough to jettison that if a pirate fell overboard he would not be drowned as he would if he wore mail. The one on his right was slightly in advance of the other, and as the man brought his targe before him to protect his body Hob dipped and struck beneath the little shield, cutting the man’s right leg so severely that he crashed to the deck, dropping his ax and clutching his thigh in an attempt to slow the torrent of blood.
The danger in assailing two such warriors at once is that in dealing with the first, one must neglect the second. Now the pirate’s comrade swung a mighty overhand blow at where Hob’s head would have been had he straightened, but Hob had leaped backward as he rose, anticipating just
such a strike, and the ax hissed through empty air and stuck fast in the deck planking. The Manxman wasted no time in trying to free it, but ripped a sax from a sheath on his belt. He threw up the long knife in an attempt to block Hob’s sword, but Hob beat it aside, and with a circling flirt of the longsword lined the blade up and thrust it into the pirate’s throat. The Manxman swung the sax about erratically for a few brief moments, and then collapsed beside his shipmate.
Hob continued forward at a fast jog. He killed three men in succession, jumping each corpse and continuing to his next victim. He ran hard at a trio who had just broken the sailors’ line and had turned to attack the defenders from the rear. Hob sped along behind them; even as they became aware of him he slashed left-handed with the dagger at the first, skipped the second, and hewed right-handed at the third man’s neck. Few survived a full stroke to the throat with a longsword, and this man was no exception.
Hob stopped as quickly as he could; his thin leather boots slid on the planks, slippery with a mixture of seawater and the blood now beginning to overspread the deck. He was turning as he skated to a halt. At a glance he saw that the third man was dying and the first was down on one knee, gasping in pain, one hand to the back of the neck, blood sheeting down from the deep cut Hob had made with the heavy war dagger.
Hob swung a powerful blow at the remaining Manxman. The pirate tried to block it with the targe but he miscalculated. Hob’s sword swept in and caught him in the ribs. To Hob’s surprise the rope armor proved effec
tive: the sword sliced the ropes but failed to cut completely through. The force of the blow was transferred to the Manxman’s body, though, and he crabbed over with the pain in his ribs. Realizing his peril, he tried to straighten and back away and aim a blow with his ax; Hob caught the axhead on the quillons of his dagger and closed with the pirate. At so close a distance, the longsword was ineffective as an edged weapon: Hob smashed the side of his adversary’s skull with the sword’s heavy iron pommel, disengaged the dagger from the axhead, and thrust it up under the rope-vest armor. The thick knife-blade did appalling things to the pirate’s inwards; the man’s eyes rolled upward and he fell away from Hob.
A sudden bulk loomed at the edge of his vision. Hob sprang sideways, but he was off balance, staggering toward his right, and now he could see the pirate, a short heavy cutlass held over his head in both hands, aiming to cleave Hob’s head in two. He brought the war dagger around to block it—the sword was far out of position—but even the dagger was too late, too late. He tensed for the blow.
A black-feathered arrow pierced the bandit’s armpit, just above where the rope vest began, and he screamed and dropped the cutlass clanging to the deck. A moment later he sat down heavily and began to pull feebly at the projecting staff. But there are conduits beneath the arm that channel the all-important blood; once these are interfered with, life drifts away. The victim is outwardly almost unmarked; within, all is chaos.
Hob looked toward the aftercastle; Molly stood there,
sending shafts along the cog’s deck, striking down boarders; it was she who had saved him. Nemain, standing a little aft of Molly, shot down and forward, onto the birlinn’s deck and the pirates there attempting to quench the fire. He ran lightly back along the deck to kill any who opposed him, but between the fire on the pirate vessel and the resistance of the cog’s crew, there were only two brigands left, and he dealt with them swiftly.
He became aware that la Gracedieux’s captain was roaring at his crew to cut the burning birlinn loose before their own sail caught. The tarred ropes on the pirate vessel now were lines of fire from the deck to the yard from which hung the broad sail. The symbol on the sail, three conjoined armored legs within a circle, was enveloped in a sheet of flame, and the bottom half of the sail was already blackened, shredded to smoking ribbons that fluttered and detached, hissing as they fell into the waves.
There came a mighty whistle. He looked around. Jack was beckoning him urgently. He jogged over. The dark man pointed to the hatchway, then to Hob; he indicated himself, then mimed cutting the ropes. Hob nodded, and took up guard over the hatchway. Jack dropped his hammer beside the hatch and ran to the rail. He took axes from two of the Manx corpses and, shoving crewmen aside, began to chop at the first binding rope, left-right left-right, tremendous blows that no one could match. Jack’s strength was unparalleled in Hob’s experience, and in short order the rope parted with a bang! and whipped back onto the brigands’ ship. Jack moved down the rail, severing rope after
rope, and in a short while the cog was free, moving away from the birlinn, which, with its sail burnt and half its oars smashed, was crippled in the water, its crew trying to save itself from being burned to death, or drowned in the pitiless swells of the Irish Sea.