The King’s Ships – Chapter One




A heavy door slammed, and motes of dust swirled their petticoats in the pale rays of early sunshine.

Ranulf’s eyes snapped open. His dream-softened mind struggled to find the reason for waking with such a start, his hand slid easily along the side of the bed, seeking the familiar weight and smoothness of his sword hilt.

A cooking pot clattered to the floor and he heard the cook’s muffled voice as she slapped and scolded her new scullery boy.

Ranulf relaxed, gently eased the bolster behind his neck and, as he let his thoughts range over the events that had led him here, he gazed down at his wife. Hild’s red-gold hair spread across his chest like the waves of a sunset coloured ocean. It almost, but not quite, covered the gnarled blue-white patch of an ugly scar that puckered his skin.

~ ~ ~

Today was not going to be a good day he thought. Yesterday a King’s messenger had arrived calling me to go to Winchester. In the King’s absence, the councillors of the Witan had pushed their way into overseeing the planning and the building of the King’s ships. But they had run into a hundred problems, not the least of which being, that the craftsmen had disappeared from the job. They had packed up their tools and, in the silence of a dark night, had melted away into the surrounding countryside. So far, no amount of persuasion had altered the situation and threats of violence and hardship had fallen on stubborn British ears.

The King was away, travelling to see a French cousin who controlled a small fleet of warships for the Frisian court, but was thought to be due back soon. By all accounts these Frisians were a fierce group of very experienced seamen who, with the aid of a modern design of ship, had kept the lowland shores of their country free from Viking raiders.

I knew that, without any doubts at all, the weasely courtiers in Winchester would seek to lay the blame for their blunderings at my feet and would take any credit for themselves and their newly appointed commander. I would have to be wary and try to match their manoeuvrings with some foxy-cunning and, something that would be new to most of them, some country honesty.

But first of all I had to get through this morning. This was the last morning that we would all be together for some while. I hated the thought of leaving.

Evelyn, our baby daughter whimpered in her sleep as she dreamt and Hild’s eyes flicked open. Instantly they were lit with a smile as she saw me watching her. Then the same cloud that I’d seen before swept its wispy thoughts across her face and softly she said.

‘It’s today already isn’t it? I mean….’

A tear welled up in her eye and she pressed her face against my shoulder.

‘Oh Rannie, I promised myself I wouldn’t do that.’ she said and shook her head.

‘It won’t be for long, you’ll see.’ I said, but even to me it sounded unconvincing.

We had already said all the words that we needed to say during the early, dark hours of the night before. Silently we slipped into loose fitting robes and, hand-in-hand, stepped out into the early morning sunlight to do our customary stroll around Hild’s busy garden.

‘I shall really miss this.’ I said, breathing in the day’s early perfume of a honeysuckle.

‘Not half as much as you will be missed.’ she answered. ‘It’s all coming on quite well now. But I do miss the sea. I’ve lived all my life beside it, or on it, and now it’s so far away.’

I could tell from the look in her eye that she had more to say, so I remained still, silently pulling at a few small weeds.

‘Of course, while you’re away, I shall need something to do.’ she announced.

‘You could see if we can get a couple of new horses?’ I suggested. ‘I’m getting to be quite good at riding now and could do with something a little bit livelier.’

‘Mmm….I could have someone do that. But I thought I’d maybe go and see my father. He’s converted to a Christian now, and it’s high time Mum and Dad met their granddaughter.’

‘Oh! …. I don’t think that’s too good an idea.’ I stumbled over the words in my surprise. I hadn’t expected it at all.

‘What brings that thought?’ I asked.

‘It’s been on my mind for some time. And anyway, whatever he’s done, he is still my father.’ she said and her eyes flashed as she added. ‘I’m not like one of your simpering ladies of the court. I can look after myself. I can’t just…sit around waiting!’ she turned away, her shoulders shuddered with a stifled sob.

‘Come now, don’t lets argue, today of all days.’ I whispered and gently turned her towards me. ‘If you really think it will be all right, then of course, you must go. But, just for me, would you write to him first, to gauge the position?’

Hild nodded, a thin smile trembled at her lips.

‘Then if you still think it right, you must go. But you will take some of our men with you. I will tell those that I can be sure of.’

She nodded again and slowly, with her head resting on his shoulder, they continued their morning walk, wandering around the paths that bordered the brimming beds.

‘I’m sorry that I became angry. I couldn’t help it.’ Hild said. ‘I’ve something else to tell you.’

She stopped and looked into my face. ‘I’m pregnant again. And I’m sure it will be a boy this time. You are pleased aren’t you?’

The words tumbled out like water from a cracked dam as she sought to see into my thoughts.

I gently pulled her to me and held her tightly. ‘Of course I’m pleased. Are you all right?’ I held her away for a moment. ‘How long have you known?’

Hild giggled. ‘Which answer do you want first?’ she asked.

There were a hundred words of caution that I wanted to say, but decided to wait.

Slowly, arm-in-arm, we continued with the happy ritual of our morning stroll. Bending, we passed beneath some low branches of the garden’s great oak, the late Lamas growth was already losing its bright red colour.

Autumn soon I thought, as we paused for a moment to breathe the fragrant scents drifting up from a huge bed of herbs.

‘What a lovely smell, the thyme is really strong. And I thought that I knew a thing or two about herbs and healing.’ I sighed and thought of the old man that had taught me the ways of using herbs and wild plants.

‘I hope I’m back in time for the harvest!’ I said. ‘There are plants here that I’ve never heard of, let alone used.’

‘Ah.’ smiled Hild. ‘I had a pretty exceptional teacher. My mother was the healer for all our clan and she taught me everything so that, one day, I could take over.’

Patiently and with a passionate enthusiasm, Hild pointed out various plants and described their strengths and main uses. We were both quickly lost in their world of healing magic. Some folk, more ignorant than most, thought it to be witchery and the local wise-woman, who helped with birthing and the more serious wounding, proclaimed that she wouldn’t touch anyone that had been to see Hild for treatment. She said it was all foreign muck that would poison local people that were not used to such stuff. But Hild’s successes spoke for themselves of the remedies that had been given. Many of the country people had begun coming to her secretly, under the shelter of gloomy evenings and nightfall, and she could usually produce an effective remedy for them from her stocks of dried and pickled plant collections.

‘We must write a book.’ I said. ‘All this knowledge is too valuable to risk losing. I bet I could do some good drawings too.’

‘Good idea!’ agreed Hild, her eyes sparkling. ‘I’ve already got some scribbled notes that we could rewrite and use as a base to build on. It will be a big job though. We could have a whole section just for case-studies too.’

A cool breeze wandered through the orderly rows of the garden plants, swirling the skirts of their robes, Hild shivered and the chill reminded her that today was destined to be different from those she had been enjoying.

‘I know you are worried about me, perhaps I’ll put off my trip for a while.’ she murmured, then added. ‘But I must go before the weather turns and the winter storms fall upon us.’

‘I will try to find the time to come with you. The last time I heard any news, your father was still across the Severn Sea, but I did hear that he was preparing to move to the east. How’d you like to go by sea? You remember Peter, he has a fine, strong ship, a good crew and he’s a very trustworthy pilot.’

‘Oh yes.’ agreed Hild enthusiastically. ‘I’d not want one of your smelly little British fishing boats. If I travel by sea, it will have to be in some sort of style, or my old folks will laugh at us.’

A small, squeaky voice came from behind us, and we both turned to find a spindle-thin little girl clutching her apron front as she struggled a curtsy and began stammering through her message.

‘Excuse me Lady, but cook says your breakfast is ready.’

Hild reached down to the curly head and lifted the waif’s face to look at her.

‘Thank you Avril, run and tell cook that we will be right there.’

‘Where did she come from?’ I asked, as we walked towards the house. ‘I’ve not seen her before. She doesn’t look too well.’

‘She’s much better than she was.’ Hild said. ‘Her mother was a fatal victim of the old wise-woman’s treatment and little Avril had caught the same fever. She was on the point of following her poor mother to an early grave when her father brought her here. She’s almost ready to go home now, but I may ask to keep her on as a maid, she seems quite bright and she’s very willing.’

‘You must take extra care now not to catch any of the sickness that is brought to our door.’ I said. ‘In your condition, I mean. It could be serious…Do you really think it will be a boy?’

‘Of course I will be careful, it’s one of my first rules. And yes. I am certain that it will be a boy, but don’t ask me how.’ Hild took my arm and guided me indoors.

‘Come on, you’ve got to get a good breakfast inside you before you leave.’

Then she stopped me for a moment and turned to look into my eyes. Almost fiercely, she whispered.

‘I know the ways of men Rannie, and, although we will be apart during the long days we will be together in our dreams. And if I find anyone else there, you will be in more trouble than even you can imagine!’


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