“Galwyn’s feeding the fishes again,” the mate called as I emptied the odorous bucket overboard. I ignored him, rinsing the bucket in the strong waves that were following us from Isca Dumnorium.
By now, I was some used to crossing the Narrow Sea, but to have to tend to six grown men who were not, made me as ill as they. And made me, once again, the butt of jokes for my uncle’s crew. It had taken me a while to learn not to rise to the mate’s lures; he’d leave off his taunts sooner. “Have ye no sea blood in ye at all? Ye’re no use in the rigging, little use on deck, and ye can’t even keep b’low decks clean.”
I was hauling the bucket up, had it nearly to the rail, when a particularly hungry wave caught and filled it. The line pulled burningly through my hands. I barely managed to belay it on a pin and thus not lose it entirely. The mate roared with laughter at my unhandiness, encouraging the other men of his watch to join him.
“Galwyn, I’d want proof that y’are indeed Gralior’s nephew if I’d one like ye on any ship of mine.”
The bucket forgotten, I whirled on him for that insult to my mother.
“Ah, lad, we’ve sore need of the bucket below,” said a deep voice in my ear. A hand caught my shoulder with a powerful shake to gain my attention and curb my intent. “Such taunts are the currency of the petty,” our noble passenger continued for my ear alone. “Treat them with the contempt they deserve.” Then he went on in a tone meant to carry, “I tried the salted beef as you suggested, and it has succeeded in settling my belly. For which I’m obliged to you. I’ll have another plate for my Companions.”
I could not recall the Comes’s name—a Roman one, for all he was supposed to be as much of a Briton as the rest of us. My uncle treated him with more respect, even reverence, then he accorded most men, fare-paying passengers or not. So I was quite as willing to obey this Briton lord without quibble, and to ease his Companions’ distress in any way I could. I hauled up the bucket, which he took below with him. Then I got more salt beef from the barrel before I followed him back down into the space assigned the passengers.
Warriors they might be, but on the sea and three days from land, they were in woeful condition: Two were green under their weathered skins, as they lay defeated by the roll and heave of the deck beneath them. I did not laugh, all too familiar with their malaise. They were big men, strong of arm and thew, with callused hands and arms scarred by swordplay. They’d swords in their baggage, and oiled leather jerkins well studded with nails. Big men in search of big horses to carry them into battle against the Saxons. That much I had gleaned from snatches of their conversation before the seasickness robbed them of talk and dignity. Then they clung to their crosses and made soft prayers to God for deliverance.
“Come now, Bwlch, you see me revived,” the war chief cajoled. Bwlch merely moaned as the salt beef was dangled in front of his face and gestured urgently to me to bring the bucket. There could be nothing now but bile in the man’s stomach, if that, for he had drunk no more than a sip or two of water all day. “Bericus, will you not try young Galwyn’s magic cure?” The second man-at-arms closed his eyes and slapped a great fist across his nose and mouth. “Come now, Companions, we are all but there, are we not, young Galwyn?”
I was mortified that he had remembered my name when I could not recall his and started to duck my head away from his smiling face. Now I was caught by the brilliant blue of his eyes and held by an indefinable link that made of me, in that one moment, his fervent adherent. Ah, if only my uncle had awarded me such a glance, I could have found my apprenticeship far easier to bear.
“Aye, sir,” I said with an encouraging smile for the low-laid Bericus, “we’ll make port soon, and that’s the truth!” For landfall was indeed nigh. I’d seen the smudge on the horizon when I emptied the bucket, though the mate’s taunt had driven the fact out of my mind till now. “We should be up the river to Burtigala by dusk. Solid, dry land.”
“Artos, if the rest of this mad scheme of yours is as perilous as this . . .” Bericus said in a petulant growl.
“Come now, amicus,” their leader replied cheerfully, “this very evening I shall see you served meat, fowl, fish, whatever viand you wish . . .” Each suggestion brought a groan from Bericus, and Bwlch tossed his soiled mantle over his head.
“We’re in the river now, lord,” I said to the Comes Britannorum Artos—for his full style came back to me now. I could feel the difference in the ship’s motion. “If you’d come up on deck now, sirs, you’ll not find the motion so distressing as lying athwart it down here.”
Lord Artos flashed me a grin and, hauling the reluctant Bericus to his feet, said, “That’s a good thought, lad. Come, clear your heads of the sick miasma. Fresh air is what you need now to set you right.” He gestured for me to help Bwlch as he went to rouse the rest of his Companions.
They staggered onto deck, almost falling back down the ladder at the impact of the cool air. One and all, they reeled across, with me hard put to get them to the leeward rail, lest they find their own spew whipped back into their faces.
“Look at the land,” I suggested. “Not the sea, nor the deck. The land won’t move.”
“If it does, I shall never be the same,” Bericus muttered with a dark glance toward his leader, who stood, feet braced, head up, his long tawny hair whipping in the wind like a legion pennant. Bericus groaned. “And to think we’ve got to come back this same way!”
“It will not be as bad on the way home, sir,” I said to encourage him.
He raised his eyebrows, his pale eyes bright in amaze- ment. “Nay, it’ll be worse, for we’ll have the bloody horses to tend . . . on that!” He gestured behind him at the following seas. “Bwlch, d’you know? Can horses get seasick?”
“I’ll be sure to purchase only those guaranteed to have sea legs,” the Comes said with a wink to me.
I looked away lest any of the others misconstrue my expression. For this was August, and the crossing had been reasonably calm. In a month or so the autumn gales could start, and those could be turbulent enough to empty the bellies of hardened seamen.
“Have you far to travel on land?” I asked.
“To the horse fair at Septimania,” Lord Artos said negligently.
“Where might that be, lord?”
His eyes twinkled approval at my question. “In the shadow of the Pyrenaei Mountains, in Narbo Martius.”
“That far, lord?” I was aghast.
“To find that which I must have”—and his voice altered, his eyes lost their focus, and his fists clenched above the railing—“to do what I must do . . .”
I felt a surge run up from my bowels at the stern purpose of his manner and experienced an errant desire to smooth his way however I could. Foolish of me, who had so little to offer anyone. And yet this Britic war chief was a man above men. I did not know why, but he made me, an insignificant and inept apprentice, feel less a failure and more confident.
“And it is mine to do,” he added, exhaling gustily. Then he smiled down at me, allowing me a small share of his certain goal.
“I need big strong mares and stallions to breed the warhorses we need to drive the Saxons out of our lands and back into the sea,” he went on. “Horses powerful enough to carry warriors in full regalia, fast and far. For it is the swift, unexpected strike that will cause havoc among the Saxon forces, unaccustomed as they are to cavalry in battle. Julius Caesar used the alauda, his Germanic cavalry, to good effect against the Gauls. I shall take that page from the scroll of his accomplishments and protect Britain with my horsemen. If God is with us, the mares and stallions I need will be at that horse fair in Septimania, bred by the Goths from the same Libyan blood stock that the Romans used.”
“Will not the legions return, lord, to help us?” I asked hopefully.
Lord Artos gave me a kind smile. “No, lad, we cannot expect them. This we must do for ourselves. The horses are the key.”
“Do horses get seasick?” Bericus asked again, this time pointedly.
“The legions got theirs to Britain. Why can we not do the same?” the Comes asked with a wry grin.
“But how, lord, will you transport them?” And I gestured at the narrow hatch to the lower deck. Not even a shaggy Sorviodunum pony could pass through it.
“Ah, now that’s the easy part,” Artos said, rubbing his big, scarred hands together. “Cador and I worked that out.” My eyes must have bulged at his casual reference to our prince of Dumnonia, for he gave me another reassuring smile that somehow included me in such exalted company. “We lift the deck planks, settle the horses below in pens well bedded with straw, and nail the planks back on. Simple, sa?”
I was not the only dubious listener; Bericus shook his head and Bwlch covered his mouth for a cough. But the Lord Artos seemed so sure, and Prince Cador had the reputation of a formidably acute man.
“How big are the horses from Septimania?” I asked.
Artos put his forearm at a level with his eyes. “That height in the shoulder.”
I could only stare at him in amazement. “Surely horses are not meant to grow that big?”
“Whyever not, Galwyn? When we have”—and Artos gestured to his Companions, all of whom towered above me, though I was considered the tall one of my kin.
Then my uncle came on deck as the Corellia ran up the mouth of the broad Gallish river to the harbor at Burtigala as if eager to end her journey. I hoped that there would be a cargo for us to return with, or my uncle’s humor would be sour indeed. On this outbound trip, there had only been a load of bullhides, though the seven passengers had been a godsend and made the sailing worthwhile.
“Bring down the mainsheet,” shouted my uncle, and he grunted with approval as the mate sent a kick after one of the sailors who moved too slowly. “Stand by the anchor and the landing lines. Do you have to be told every time? You, boy, what are you staring at? Lend a hand. You’ll never make a seaman at this rate!”
I raced to grab up the line, which I was expected to take with me when I jumped ashore to the wharf, to help secure the ship. In my mind, I rebelled at “making a seaman,” even on a ship that had been bought by gold from my father, who was helping his wife’s brother up in the world: a fact I knew but was astute enough never to mention even if the knowledge galled me.
“Look lively, you lump of a lad,” he shouted at me, though the wharf was still too far away for me to jump. I’d fallen into the cold waters of the harbor often enough not to wish to do so now in front of Lord Artos.
I’d never make a seaman, not the sort my uncle wanted. My real value to him, and the reason he had taken me on in the first place and tolerated my other shortcomings, was my skill with languages and my ability to translate some of the barbarous trading dialects. This fluency allowed me to help him find good cargoes, and thus maintain myself in his good graces.
From childhood, I had been exposed to many foreign tongues. My father, Decitus Varianus, had been a factor and met folk from as far away as Egypt and Greece to the east, and some of the roving Nordic folk from the north. An outgoing, curious child, I had picked up snitches and snatches of many languages—sometimes hardly knowing what I was saying—but the facility remained and was improved upon by tutors in Greek and Latin, the Gaelic of our hill farmers, and indeed, whatever outlandish speech was spoken around me.
“What are you waiting for, Galwyn?” my uncle yelled at me as the distance to the pier narrowed slowly. It was still too far away, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lord Artos extend a hand as if to stay me from jumping at that command. “Scared, are you? Son of a bankrupt, taken in by me out of kindness to my sister-in-law! Are you going to be as much a failure as your father? Spoiled you are, and I trying to make a man out of you. Jump, I say. Jump!”
The ship was close enough now and I gathered myself for the leap, although, once again, Lord Artos’s hand lifted to forestall me. But I knew my own abilities, even with all my limitations being shouted out in a litany.
I landed safely, whipping the line around the bollard and securing it in the bowline as I had been taught. I was rather pleased with myself, actually, since the jump had been wider than usual. When I looked back to see if Lord Artos approved of my feat, my chest swelled a bit to see him nod. Then I noticed that both Bericus and Bwlch looked less wan and pale. The ship still rocked in the current, but the fact that they were securely fastened to dry land again must have nearly restored them.
There was the usual bustle at the pier, with hawkers trying to sell fresh food and wine, and others offering their services in unloading cargo. My uncle gave unnecessary orders in a loud voice to impress the landsmen, but he was in no hurry to off-load the bullhides and show the Corellia to be carrying so little of value.
My main duty in landing done, I hovered around Lord Artos and his Companions, helping them with their packs and gear. I was unwilling to leave their company. Well, his company.
“Galwyn,” my uncle bawled, “make yourself useful for once. Help the lords with their baggage. And lead them to the Golden Swan. It’s the only place in the port that would suit friends of Prince Cador’s. Go with them so the landlord knows he’s to give them his best . . . Only thing you are good for,” he went on, though not as loudly, “is cackling in whatever it is they speak here! How you know what’s what from all that gabble, I wouldn’t know.” He shook his finger at me. “See that you listen well and make sure this Comes is well taken care of. You hear me, now, Galwyn.”
“Yes, uncle . . . Of course, uncle . . . I understand, uncle,” I said whenever I could insert a word.