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She-King of the Irish Seas
By Morgan Llywelyn
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1986 Morgan Llywelyn
All rights reserved.
THE FIRE WAS ONLY A SPARK AT FIRST. ANYONE WHO SAW IT could have extinguished it. But no one did.
In the darkest watch of the night, a sailor from the forecastle had crept to the rail and glanced around nervously, making certain he was unobserved. From beneath his tunic he had slipped a small metal case, a pierced-brass body warmer given him by his wife. Her man suffered chills and fever but had insisted on going on this voyage anyway. Their cottage overflowed with children, and a crewmember's portion of the profit the captain so generously shared would support the whole family.
The sailor had concealed his illness as best he could when he came aboard, for he meant to haul his share of tackle. But soon after they set sail his bones began shivering in their envelope of flesh. When the ship anchored off the coast for the night, he sneaked below to the brick cooking hearth, bedded on gravel ballast in the hold, and stole some hot ashes for his warming pan. Wrapped in flannel and pressed against his chest, the warmer offered welcome comfort.
He knew he was breaking a cardinal rule of the sea. None but the cook was allowed access to the hearth, for fire was the terror of timbered sailing ships. When his pan cooled, the man had surreptitiously emptied the ashes over the side and replaced them with a hand fishing line and some bobbers, innocent equipment most seamen carried in packets on their persons.
He was so concerned about being discovered he did not notice that a small coal among the ashes was still warm. As he pitched it over the side, the wind caught a living spark and blew it back inboard, dropping it into a coil of tarred rope in the waist of the vessel, out of sight behind the ship's boat.
The sky paled and the wind calmed, then freshened, making the great sails creak overhead. The half-hour glass, made in Venice and so fragile the ship carried several spares, was turned and turned again. The watch bell sounded. Seamen exchanged places. Some went to their hammocks in the forecastle or their favorite corner of the deck where they could brace themselves against the pitch and roll of the ship; others, rubbing their eyes, went shuffling to the break in the poop to relieve themselves and then lined up for a meal of oatcakes, cheese, and onions. A fresh lookout was posted fore and aft, and the ship's boy made his way to the captain's cabin, carrying a meal in a wooden bowl. The anchor was hoisted, the ship under way.
And in its hiding place the spark grew a little red tongue and began tasting the frayed fibers of its rope nest. The waist of the caravel was low and often awash in a high sea, and the rope was far from dry. But the tiny fire was stubborn; it meant to survive.
A fair wind was blowing by now, and the caravel was an eager ship. Accompanied by two galleys, she was on a trading voyage intended to follow the southern coast of Ireland as far as Wexford harbor, having originated northwest of Galway bay. Wool and tallow from Iar Connaught waited in her holds for eager southern customers, and the clansmen of Iar Connaught waited just as eagerly for the goods she would bring back in return.
The older crewmen were hard at work manning halyards and tending tacklings, while their younger, more agile mates served as foremastmen, furling and slinging the foresail as needed or scrambling aloft to tend the great fore-and-aft lateens that furnished the ship's principal motive power. On a tossing deck, footing was precarious enough, but for a foremastman aloft, with bare prehensile toes clinging to ratlines or muscular torso stretched out along a yardarm, life was uncertain from one heartbeat to the next. A misstep, a lost handhold, and the sailor could be pitched headfirst into the sea. In common with seamen everywhere, the crewmen of the caravel were not swimmers. Their trust was in their ship and captain ... and their God.
On the morning watch, the youngest apprentices scrubbed the decks with seawater carried from a tub amidships. Keeping that tub filled was hard work, and dangerous, because the boys had to lean far out in order to lower their leather buckets into the sea, and if the caravel wallowed it was easy enough to go overboard. Once the tub was filled there was no danger but the tedium of the task, which the apprentices relieved by singing and joking as they worked, sweeping the planking with coarse brooms and taking up the remaining moisture with mops made from rope-ravelings.
There was always one boy who held his mop to his head so the ravelings lay like curls against his cheeks, while he pranced and played the girl and the others cheered him on. The decks rang with laughter and the old seamen scowled, but their eyes twinkled with memories of their own as the lads frolicked. The apprentices were mostly red-cheeked young Gaels from the hills of Connaught, with a taste for adventure. The sea had not yet turned on them, and it was a fine thing to be part of a bold venture off the coast of Ireland on a summer morning.
One freckled boy, naked except for a pair of woolen trews chopped off at the knee, trotted up to the tub to refill his bucket for deck swabbing. He hesitated, wrinkling his nose at an unfamiliar smell. He was a rawboned, merry lad, and the sea was new to him. Until he came aboard for this voyage he had never been off dry land, and he did not yet know what sights and scents were commonplace to a four-masted caravel under full sail. But instinct warned him the odor of scorching rope and charring wood was wrong here — terribly wrong.
Taking another sniff, he tried to isolate the smell from that of salt and tar and bilge. "Something's burning," he said tentatively. He did not want to make a fool of himself over nothing. The men who sailed on ships such as this — ships that sometimes engaged in piracy as well as trade — were the cream of their profession, hardbitten and courageous. They would make life miserable for anyone who acted timid, crying false alarms.
But the smell was growing stronger.
Then a shrill voice screamed, "Fire! Fire!" The boy did not realize it was he who screamed. He stood rooted to the deck, staring in horror at a sudden banner of red flame leaping above the ship's boat and dancing in the seawind.
"Fire!" cried a dozen other voices at once. There was no hesitation, because every man on board knew what fire could do at sea, where there was no way to escape from it. Men came swarming from every direction, ripping off their clothes to beat out the flames, shoving the boy aside in their hurry to get at the mop water in the tub. Somebody grabbed the bucket out of his hand and filled it and then threw the water at the fire in one smooth gesture, and the boy heard the fire hiss. But one bucket was not enough to drown it; the contents of the depleted tub were not enough to drown it.
The fire took a deep breath and roared.
"Send for the captain!" shouted the boatswain's mate as he began trying to haul the ship's boat, his particular responsibility, out of the way. The waist of the vessel was crowded, and there was little room to work. Other men joined him and grunted and tugged until the boat scraped forward, but the fire billowed into the cleared space like a beast released from a trap. It had already ignited the far side of the ship's boat, and from there was reaching for the mainmast.
"Keep it out of the rigging!"
Sailors pressed forward, beating at the flames, as an acid, tarry stench seared the nostrils. The rising wind encouraged the fire to leap higher, snatching at the lateen sails.
An inferno was being born. It exploded savagely, driving the men back. If fire got into the sails the ship was lost; falling spars and burning sheets would set the whole caravel ablaze.
There was more to fight than fire. Panic rippled through the crew, and they reacted reflexively, without plan, running from this spot to that and getting in each other's way. The country boy who had first spotted the fire had no idea what to do, and no one was able to tell him. He looked longingly toward the gunwales and imagined plunging into the cold sea. Drown or be burned.
His eyes dilated with terror.
"Look out, boy!" cried a voice roughened by years of shouting commands. Hands gripped his shoulders and flung him violently to the deck just as a burning shroud snapped overhead and whipped through the air.
The apprentice was thrown forward. His cheekbone struck planking, and stars of pain shattered in his skull. He heard the vicious whoosh of the blazing line as it passed over him. He heard the scream of agony as it hit another man full in the face, searing his eyes.
"Get up now, you're in the way lying on deck," demanded the boy's rescuer. He recognized that voice, for he had heard it often since coming aboard, giving orders or requesting information or whooping with a great wild peal of laughter. Everyone knew the distinctive voice of the commander of the fleet and captain of this ship, a being with one foot already planted in legend.
The commander grabbed the boy under the arms and hauled him upright, where he stood shivering and speechless, mouth agape.
"You could thank me," he was told. The eyes that met his were the shifting color of the sea, but he caught a glimpse of laughter in them.
"Th ... thank you," the lad stammered, hating himself for his awkwardness.
The fire would not wait for formalities. The commander could not waste time with an apprentice while the greater life, that of the ship itself, was threatened. She turned away abruptly to take up the battle for the caravel, and the boy stared after her, blushing crimson.
"Gráinne Ni Mháille," he whispered in Gaelic. "Grania."
The commander of the fleet was tall and lean, taut-muscled. The English would translate her name as Grace, but she was no milkskinned girl in a laced bodice. Aboard ship Grania, in her early thirties, wore a man's sleeved shirt, a fustian jerkin, and worsted trews. Her coarse black mane was knotted at the neck to keep it out of her way. Heavy eyebrows cut a straight line across her strong-boned face, and her complexion was weather-beaten, squint lines framing the eyes. At a glance she could be mistaken for one of the Gaelic warlords who still struggled to hold their native Ireland against the encroachment of Elizabeth Tudor's England.
To the boy she had just saved, Grania was beautiful. His awed gaze followed her until she plunged through a wall of smoke and disappeared; his shoulders prickled where she had touched him.
She could not help seeing the admiration in his eyes, but she had been thinking of her ship; nothing else mattered just then.
The caravel had been Grania's special joy since the day its keel was laid to her order in the shipyard at La Coruña, the same Spanish port from which the first Gaels had set out to colonize Ireland two thousand years earlier. The chief shipbuilder had personally conducted the formalities of turning the completed vessel over to her new owner, because he was an old friend of Grania's father, the redoubtable Gaelic trader Owen O Malley. Dubhdara, in Gaelic — the Black Oak.
Everyone for miles around came to the harbor at La Coruña to admire the black-hulled ship, graceful as a tern, with her spars of golden wood gleaming in the sunlight. Adhering to tradition, the wives and children of the men who had built a caravel for Dubhdara's daughter threw armloads of flowers into the water; there were bonfires of celebration, and singing.
The old master shipbuilder told Grania, as she took possession of her new vessel, "The ships I build are demanding children. You cannot abuse or deceive them or they will find the weak planking in you and split you wide open. But if you treat them well, they will support you handsomely in your old age."
This was not Grania's first visit to Spain, for she had come on trading voyages with Dubhdara, but it was her first caravel, and she thought it the most beautiful vessel ever launched. She had worked hard to acquire enough money to commission it; she had earned every timber and line herself. Herself.
The caravel belonged to the general family of round ships but had narrower quarters and was faster than many of her contemporaries, better fitted for maneuvering. Grania's new ship had a square stern, fore and aft castles, and a foremast raked well forward, giving her a jaunty look. Her cargo holds were capacious, and her forecastle bulkhead had been pierced for cannon. She was a serious ship, a cargo carrier with teeth.
Dubhdara, who relied primarily on galleys, as did most Irish seafarers, possessed a caravel or two for voyages to Spain and other distant ports, but nothing in his fleet was as fine, as modern, as Grania's new flagship.
"Mine," she had breathed with delight as she took possession.
Before they were outlawed entirely, the few remaining bards sang in her honor in the peat-smoked meadhalls of Ireland:
By rock-ribbed Connaught my swift vessels glide,
Like swans they are breasting the full-flowing tide.
Warships and Gaels all ready to sail,
To sweep the salt sea from Cape Clear to Kinsale.
Warships and a warrior woman to lead them: the numerous songs sung of her were repeated across the west country, from the time she took command of that first splendid caravel.
And now the very survival of the caravel was threatened. Flakes of wood ash fell like bitter rain. Greasy particles of burning hemp writhed in the air like tiny blazing snakes and clung, stinging, to human flesh.
The first mate caught sight of his captain and ran to her side. "What are your orders?" Tigernan wanted to know as he rubbed the smoke from his eyes.
"If we bring her up into the wind," Grania replied, "we might be able to drive back the fire and contain it."
Tigernan shook his head. "We can't bring her about — the running rig's already too damaged. And many of the shrouds are burned through. We could be dismasted by the next real gust of wind. As for the helmsman ..."
"I know, I saw him aft, with his hands like cooked meat and his mustache half burned away. But we have to save the ship. And if we can't use the sails ..." She tilted her head back and gazed aloft, narrowing her eyes. "If we throw them overboard with the rigging still on them, they won't be burned and we can retrieve them later," she decided swiftly. She raised her voice to a commanding bellow. "Dowse all sails and pitch them into the sea!"
Tigernan repeated her order, a necessary precaution aboard ship, where a misunderstood command could lead to disaster. The crew immediately began lowering the sails, foremastmen swarming up the ratlines on the windward side to free the sheets from their yards.
Grania watched the big lateen sails being thrown into the sea. They lay outstretched upon the water like the wings of a fallen swan.
She blinked hard, then shouted the next order. "You there, find every bucket or bowl or cask on board, get them over the side and filled with water. And you to the forecastle; those other men to my cabin. Strip out every piece of material that can be used for beating the flames. And hurry, it's gaining on us!"
Putting word to action, Grania pulled off her own jerkin and shirt and whirled bare breasted to lash at the fire.
Yet with every blow she struck she felt a thrill of fear. She had watched from the shore of Clew bay as burned bodies were washed in by the tide from a ship that blazed and sank within sight of land, a doomed ship not one survivor escaped. The story was commonplace enough: a mast struck by lightning or a lantern carelessly handled. But the memory of those charred, twisted bodies stayed with Grania a long time, and it came back now in a sickening wave.
For one moment her mind was blank with terror. Then she gasped and beat at the flames with redoubled effort, submerging memory in motion. Fear had to be set aside or it would swamp her — and the caravel too.
Excerpted from Grania by Morgan Llywelyn. Copyright © 1986 Morgan Llywelyn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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