Friday, August 16, 2013

A King Uncaged -- capture at sea

This is a draft of a WIP but has been pretty thoroughly proofread. The main character is 12-year old James Stewart, earl of Carrack and only surviving son and heir of King Robert III. Hope you enjoy reading it.

James scrambled up the slimy wood ladder to the forecastle and leaned on the rail near the high bowsprit of the cog. The wind ruffled his hair as it washed away most of the stink from the hides and fleece in the hold. Watching the endless gray sea was the only entertainment he had whilst Sir Archibald and the earl of Orkney huddled with the captain, muttering about English pirates and the English truce with Scotland. William came up to stand beside him, chuckling. “They’ll talk the pirates to death,” he said.

Foam splashed into James’ face and he smiled at his esquire. William was cheerful company but didn’t help the boredom of the journey to France. James sighed and scanned the horizon for something, anything, to break the monotony. He caught sight of a speck of white far to the right of the bow. “Wha' is that?” James pointed.

“I do not ken.” William frowned as high, white cliffs poked above the horizon. “But it isn’t France.”

The captain yelled a command. The sail creaked and snapped. The deck rocked beneath their feet as the cog changed course. Foam splashed high around the bow as they plowed into the waves. The turn put the barren, treeless headland abeam to the cog and James gaped at the first sight he’d ever had of England.  “’Tis bare. Not anyplace I’d want to go.”

Sir Archibald climbed the ladder to join them, forehead crinkled in a frown. “That’s Flamborough Head, so the captain says. From here, we’ll run straight south.”

James stretched over the gunwale to better see the cliffs that sparkled in the bright sunlight. He grunted. “I suppose it’s not more water. And waves. And water. And more water.”

“It is boring,” William said and yawned. 

The sea spray stung James’ eyes and wiped them clear to take one last look at the land of their enemies. As though he didn’t have enough enemies in his own lands. He turned his back, since the cliffs were no more interesting from a distance than was the sea, though the sailors cursing had taught him some words that might be of use to him one day. The thought made him duck his head and grin. The knight looked askance at him so he said, “How long until we reach France?”

“Depends on the weather.  Two  days… mayhap three,” Sir Archibald said.

 A sailor in the crow's nest shouted something that was carried away on the wind. The man pointed toward the rapidly disappearing coastline. The captain called out a command and the cog put about more to the south. Orkney strode to the rail. He grasped it, staring fixedly into the distance.  

Sir Archibald looked down from the forecastle and called out, “Wha’s to do?”

“They’ve spotted a sail. Just rounded the Head and moving this way.”

The captain was shouting commands and sailors swarmed the ropes. The deck lurched under James’ feet as the ship changed course slightly. James narrowed his eyes and tried to pick out a ship in the shimmer of the sun on the sea. There was nothing. “It won’t catch us.” He looked at Sir Archibald. “Will it?”

“Probably just another merchant ship and nothing to do with us.”  But he was frowning fiercely as he glowered at the sea.

“It’s matching our course,” the watch shouted down.

James spotted a speck of white, almost like one of the gannets that swooped over the sea at Bass Rock. “Look,” he said to William.

“It must be gaining on us then.” William pinched the skin at his throat. “That is… worrying.”

“I want to speak to the earl. And you need to go to the cabin, my lord.” Sir Archibald prodded James toward the ladder. “That’s the safest place for you.”

James meekly climbed down the ladder with no intention of hiding in the cabin. He’d go mad wondering what was happening on deck. The captain was standing beside the helmsman his mouth in a pinched line.

“This is not a place I would expect to sight another ship.” The captain frowned. “There are no ports near the Head.” Captain Giese yelled up, “Can you see what is the ship?”

“A ballinger—under full sail and oars.”

Orkney looked up at the sky and shook his head. “Too long until nightfall.” He shared a look with the captain who shook his head. “They will overtake us before we can escape in the dark.”

“We have some lead, but they are light and making good speed. We’re weighed down with cargo. If they are, as I fear, pursuing us--”

“Lord James,” Orkney said, “you should go below.”

“If they catch up to us, will we fight?” James asked, ignoring the order to leave.

“We must,” Sir Archibald said.

“Euer Hochwohlgeboren, on my ship the decision is mine.” The captain made a commanding gesture and silenced them. “I will arm my men but we must see more of what enemy we face.”

“Captain,” the watch yelled down, “they’re gaining fast.”

The ship was full of sound: the captain reeled off commands, swords and knives clanked as they were handed out, crewmen shouted encouragement, and waves slapped the hull as it ploughed through the water. James hurried to the rail. A rippling wake spread out behind the Maryenknyght but it seemed to move like a turtle. Foam curled around the high bow of the pursuing ship. Oars dipped and scooped, churning the water beneath a great square sail.

Orkney commanded William to bring their weapons and soon the three were buckling on their swords though none were in armor. When Sir Archibald said they should don it, Orkney scowled and asked if asked would be pleased to swim in a suit of steel. “I don’t swim at all,” the knight said.

“You can hold onto a piece of flotsam. But not in armor.”

Across the water, the ship was thick with men and bows, stirring as the ship neared. James heard the sound of a fast drum beat in time with the stroking oars. No one was watching him as they stared at the oncoming ship, so James dashed up the ladder and knelt by the rail. Shading his eyes against the sun, he peered at the ship. It was crowded with crewmen, many more than were on their own ship. Sunlight flashed on steel in their hands.

A shout went up from the ship behind and arrows hissed like snakes over James’s head. He flinched lower as the fearsome shower rained down. Men were scrambling to hide from it. A yard long shaft thrummed down a foot behind James and embedded in the deck. James pressed his body as close to the rail as he could, breath coming as though he’d run for miles. He heard an anguished scream as someone tumbled from the crow’s nest.  James turned and ran for the ladder. An arrow pierced a crewman through the throat as another tumbled from the rigging. Two crewmen lay moaning on the deck. Dimly, James heard cheers from the other ship. 

“Douse the sail,” the captain roared. “Throw down your swords.” Men leapt for the lanyards and the sail cracked and thudded as it was lowered.

Orkney spun on a heel and strode to hammer his hand against the railing. “Damn them. Damn them to hell.”

A few more arrows thudded into the deck.   Amidst the sounds of moans, weapons clattered to the deck. A shout came from the nearing ship, “Up oars.” A grapnel clanged onto the railing. Another and another followed. There were shouts and grunts as ropes were hauled until the hulls thumped and the two ships were bound together.  Men brandishing swords swarmed like ants over the railing. Archers aimed nocked arrows from the forecastle. 

A hand grabbed James’s arm hard. He was wrenched off his feet and would have fallen except he was trapped between Sir Archibald’s back and the wooden bulkhead. “Whesht! Stay still.” The knight threw down his sword with a clank. James craned to see around his protector’s back as Orkney raised his empty hands. Captain Giese stood grim faced.

The dozen remaining seamen of the Maryenknyght were herded together, the captain forced to join them, backed up by a scar-faced pirate holding a sword to his throat.

Then a spare, compact man jumped agilely over the railings to land, feet spread. He had black hair and eyes as hard and dark as obsidian. “This ship is now a prize of Hugh-atte-Fen,” he said. "I claim it by force of arms."

“It is a ship of the Hanseatic League!” the captain shouted.  Scar face slammed the flat of his sword to the captain’s head and the man went down to one knee, a gash on the side of his head leaking red.

“No longer,” Hugh-atte-Fen said sharply. “However, you may have a skiff. If you are any seaman, you can reach shore.”

Orkney stepped forward and said, “Sir, we are merely passengers--with safe conduct from the kings of Scotland and France. But if you would have ransom, I will agree to pay it for me and my few companions.”

“And who might you be, sirrah?”

“I am Sir Henry Sinclair, earl of Orkney on the business of the king of Scotland with whom your own King Henry is in truce, I remind you.”

The pirate shrugged. “Truces are of little moment to me, but one of your companions is another matter.” His hard eyes darted from William to Sir Archibald and stopped as he looked at James. “The young man yon knight is trying to hide. Now in him I have some interest for I have sought him for days.” He bared his teeth in a grin. “Lord James, earl of Carrack, prince of Scotland, if I mistake not.”

James squared his shoulders and pushed his way from behind Sir Archibald and past William who clutched at his arm. He wouldn't cower like a craven. Not for a Sassenach or any man on earth. If his stomach felt hard with fear, well, that was his business. He lifted his chin and looked the man in the face, anger making his face flood with heat. “Aye. I am he.”

Behind him, there was a splash as a skiff hit the water and muttering as the crew was driven into it.  But he couldn’t look away from Hugh-etta-Fen’s sneer. “Your servant, my lord earl.  And welcome to England.”

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