The Sir Ranulf slid quietly through the harbour’s narrow entrance and, with oars rippling each side of the sleek hull, it headed out into the open sea. The crew of thirty-five men and women were quickly becoming used to the fact that they were now outlaws, fugitives from the harsh laws of the late King Alfred’s royal court.
Hild stood tall on the raised master’s deck, acutely aware of the eyes that gazed at her. She’d strapped on Ranulf’s sword, Wolfbane, and felt self conscious of the unfamiliar weight at her side. She had what she hoped was a look of smiling confidence fixed on her face as she pressed on the handle of the ship’s steering blade making a gentle turn towards the west. She was meaning to hug the shoreline until she found a place where they could stop to rest up.
The ocean swell rolled smoothly under the keel, it seemed to have an oily texture, like it does sometimes on a hot summer’s day thought Hild, or like they do when a storm is brewing. It wouldn’t make for a good start to the voyage if we were caught up in the first storm of the coming winter.
~ ~ ~
How did I get myself into this I thought, as I looked at the rows of faces on the benches before me. I really don’t want to be here, there’s just no way that I want a life of violence, fighting with strangers for something so frail, so insubstantial as money. All I had wanted was to go home with my husband, my dear Ranulf, and our little daughter. And now that can never be. Ranulf is dead, killed while he, my dear man, was trying to protect me and our daughter.
And our home has been ruined, wrecked, by the same people who wanted to burn me as a witch. No judge, no trial, no appeal and no bloody truth…they were just going to do it. And they could’ve, they very nearly did, except for these lovely people here, who came to rescue me.
I’m not a witch of course. I have a lot of knowledge of healing and the use of herbs, it was all given to me by my mother, but I don’t want to think of her as a relative, not ever again. She tried to give me over to my father for execution…and why? For marrying a lovely man whose only crime was, that he wasn’t a Dane.
My Ranulf hated violence, wanted to be a scholar, an academic, we were going to write a book. But now he’s gone, it’s all gone and I really don’t know if I can do this without him. Lead these people into a life of….what should I call it…villainy, I suppose. We’re headed for a place that I’ve never been, recommended by a person that I don’t really know, a place that’s known as a den of pirates, corsairs and thieves. But what else is there? The King’s court has got long arms that’ll reach across most countries, so we can’t openly land anywhere civilised. We’d be recognised straight away as foreigners. And language wouldn’t be the only problem, it’d only take one person to get careless, speak to the wrong person and wham! They’d be running off to collect a monstrous reward and we’d be lucky if we were only dragged off to the nearest gibbet. Very lucky.
~ ~ ~
‘Hild…you look miles away. Want to talk about it?’
Gwen’s small, nervous voice came from the tiny deck-tent that we’d put up to give some shelter to the two children, Joseph, a delightful 5 year old orphan and Evelyn, my toddler daughter. Gwen was Peter’s husband, they are both good friends and, although she doted on Evelyn like a second mother, she couldn’t seem to get pregnant herself. Peter, like most men, had lain with several women before meeting his wife and he had no bastards in his closet, none that we knew of anyway. So it seemed likely that the problem lay in his body and not with Gwen. She looked up at me, and I could see in her pale round face that she was a long way out of her depth, the decision to come with us might have been more Peter’s than hers I thought. But I was selfishly pleased that she was here, the children would have need of her, a warship such as this one was no place for a nursery. I knew that I’d have to find them a permanent home, and soon. First though, I needed to tell her of my half-formed plans, in fact I needed to tell the whole crew. Maybe then some of them wouldn’t be so keen on pressing ahead with this adventure. Or maybe they would.
‘Aye Gwen, you’re right, I need to talk…but I need to speak to everyone. We all need to be sure of our position and what I’m intending to do. Where we will go. We all need to agree, I suppose.’ I said. ‘Can you ask Peter to takeover the steering from me. I know he’s asleep, but we need to do this, and now is a good time.’
‘It’s alright Hild, I’m only dozing. Can’t sleep with so much in my mind.’ Peter said and pulled his coat tighter about him as he stepped up onto the raised deck.
I went forward a little way and told the men to stop rowing, but to keep their oars ready in case we needed to power out of trouble.
What to say and how to say it, threaded through my mind. Start at the beginning…it’s always best I thought.
I started by quickly describing what had happened to me at the Norseman’s settlement and even more briefly, because most of them were there, what happened when I was rescued. That explained to them why we had to be extra wary of Viking ships, particularly those of Halfdan, but all of them really, because word would have spread like a bad smell and they’d want us, or me, very badly. That brought me to the events in Portchester market square where some of Ranulf’s enemies tried to burn me alive for being a witch. I told them that because they had been involved in stopping the proceedings and with the death of one of their courtiers, they would all be under the pointing finger of the law, so they couldn’t go back, or stay anywhere nearby, for a long time. In fact, if Bill, the old shipbuilder, had taken the ships to present them to the late King’s daughter, the Princess Aethelflaed, as he said he would, they just might have put to sea in pursuit. Could even now be heading toward us.
Then I told them of the fortified town that Sunn had described to me and suggested that we might find refuge there and a profitable use for our ship. A heavily built man stood up from his place at his oar and interrupted me. Anger seemed to radiate from his dark eyes that were deeply set under a heavy brow, the shadow deepened by the gathering gloom of the approaching night.
‘And all this fits well with you and your fucking troubles…’ he shouted. ‘Well, I for one would rather stay in British waters and with a man at the helm of this ere tub!’
There were mumblings and some nods from the group of men around him. In the back of my mind, I’d expected something like this, but my thoughts had pressed it to a far corner. My mind whirred. One bad apple, bad as far as I was concerned, could poison the whole crew. I took a few steps toward him and, although I’m sure my eyes reflected like chips of ice, I smiled.
‘Your name is Andy, isn’t it? You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m still learning all your names.’ I said.
‘Yes, Andy it is. And I were a sailor when you was still sucking your mother’s tit.’
‘Well now Andy. That’s good, you should have told me before. An experienced man in the crew is always a good thing.’ I said, putting a firm bridle on my gathering anger.
‘Wasn’t thinking of me being crew…Were we boys.’ he said glancing at those around him. ‘I’d do a better job of skippering this ere tub than you ever could.’
‘Oh…is that so, Andrew. What would you suggest we do now then?’ I said and stepped up onto the nearest rowing bench so he had to look up at me.
‘If it was you in charge of the Sir Ranulf, that is.’ I asked.
‘Well, that’s easy. We need food, we need money and we needs a good alehouse with clean women.’ he said with a broad grin.
I could feel his eyes probing my clothes and suppressed a shiver. You’re a brute I thought, and will have to go. Decision made, I started to walk away from him and called over my shoulder.
‘That’s fine Andy. If that’s all you want in life, we’ll set you ashore and you can bloody well go do what you want.’
As I knew he would, he stood to follow me. I turned sharply and, with a snake-like hiss, Wolfbane slid from its scabbard almost of its own volition. I wasn’t truly aware of it, but the razor-sharp point steadied itself at the centre of Andrew’s throat.
‘Ha!’ he snorted. ‘Women don’t know swordplay, specially jumped-up buggers like you…Look it’s falling already. Too bloody heavy for you ain’t it.’ and he laughed as he cautiously made a step toward me.
‘One more move, one more step and it’ll be your last. Want to try me…asshole?’
His laugh became brittle, but he didn’t back down, he couldn’t. Bullying brutes like him didn’t know how. His eyes fluttered, darting from side to side. I sensed that he was on the point of making a dive at me and lowered the vicious point of the blade to his groin. He stopped and took a half-step back.
‘Sit!’ I shouted. ‘Sit right where you are. On the deck.’
Slowly he lowered himself to kneel.
‘I said sit asshole. Do it…or your balls will await you in hell.’ I said.
My voice, like my anger, was under control now. I knew what I had to do.
‘Peter, would you make an easy turn to bring her bow head-on to the waves please.’ I said without turning away from the man before me.
When we’d completed the turn, the ship’s movement lost its rolling action and became easier.
‘I’ve a mind to have your hands tied behind you.’ I said to him. ‘But I’ll give you more of a chance than you would have given me. Stand on that rowing bench and move across to the ship’s side.’
‘I can’t swim ma’am. I know what you’re going to do. It’d be murder ma’am.’
‘Just do it. Wolfbane, my blade is getting hungry.’
I prodded him in the belly, hard enough to have scratched a cut. He looked around for help. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. His legs trembled as he stepped up onto the bench and shuffled slowly to the gunwale. He caught sight of the smooth, slippery looking waves as they rolled past and he began to turn toward me. I turned my wrist and, swinging the heavy sword with all my strength, I used the flat of the blade to send him over the side into the sea.
He disappeared without a sound into the purple-green darkness of the dusk coloured sea. He reappeared just moments later spluttering and splashing, fighting the water for breath.
‘Right…anybody else want to fight? If you don’t want to come with me…fine…you’ll be free to go when we stop later tonight. But I will not be threatened. Do we understand? Answer me damn you.’ I shouted.
Peter’s voice was the only one to break the silence. ‘Yes Hild…I think we all understand.’ he said.
‘Good!’ I said and pushed the sword back into its scabbard. ‘This ship is mine. I stole it from the crown and it is my responsibility if we’re caught. Does anybody want to argue?’
There was a silence, most eyes turned toward the deck, some glanced at friends, but nobody spoke. I prayed that that was the last time I’d have to do something like I’d just done. I nodded, sat down to control my trembling and told them about Ranulf’s treasure that he’d hidden on a small, uninhabited island. I told them about the journal that I had, with its details and descriptions of the hiding place where he’d hidden a king’s ransom in jewels.
‘That will be our starter. I’ll need to keep some to pay for our voyage, but the rest we’ll share equally. As we will everything from now on. Gains as well as crap, we’ll all take an equal share.’