“Oars, too. Ten to a side, maybe.”
Gerraint grabbed Gwillim by the arm. Something itched in the back of his mind. “Sails full against the wind?” He noticed that their sail looked full because they were with the wind.
“Yes,” Gwillim said, and then he paused as he thought about it.
“British? Amorican? Welsh?” He asked the man up the mast.
“No,” the answer came back. “Never seen the like. Long boats, like old Roman ships, but shallow draft. No rams. No height fore or aft either. No upper deck.”
“Norwegian?” Gerraint asked. The word Viking was not yet common, but Norwegian ships were not unknown. Thus far, however, they had been confined to the North Sea and the people who colonized the East coast of Britain around the Humber River had been brought to submission under Loth and Arthur’s sister-in-law, Gwenhwyfach, and their sons, Gawain, Medrawt, and his cousins.
“Could be Norwegian,” Trevor said. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Ready to come about.” The crew looked impatient, but Gwillim and Gerraint were eye to eye in thought.
“Hold to your course,” Gerraint said at last. Their ship was virtually round with a single main sail. It had been built to crawl along the coast, not for speed, but the sail stayed taught. The wind blew from their rear. The sails of the oncoming ships ought to be useless.
“Their sails are full?” Gwillim confirmed.
“Tight as a drum and coming on fast,” Trevor shouted down.
Gwillim nodded. “Hold to course,” he commanded.
“Captain!” The steersman wanted to protest. The only normal recourse for a merchant ship in the face of pirates was to make for the nearest coast, to a safe haven if possible, but at least to drop anchor, run for their lives and leave the ship to be plundered.
“You heard the order,” Gwillim said, and they watched as the ships began to draw near.
“Put up your sword,” Gerraint told Uwaine. Uwaine leaned on the railing, sword in hand. He expected to be caught and boarded at any minute.
As the ships drew closer, they could see the oarsmen and make out faces that were both grim and bloodthirsty. “Don’t look at them,” Gwillim ordered. “Keep your eyes to your tasks.”
Gwillim himself looked away, but Gerraint and Uwaine could not help staring.
“Our death, no doubt,” Uwaine whispered. Gerraint felt the same, but he gambled and his face was not going to show it. Right before the lead Viking ship reached them, right when they began to hear the screams and shouts of men ready for the slaughter, it was over. The ships vanished all at once, and several planks of some old merchant wreck floated by. Uwaine looked up in wonder.
“Manannan.” Gerraint named the god responsible for the illusion. “It’s an old trick.”
“If I didn’t know you, it would have worked, too,” Gwillim said, as he came up beside them. “But I’ve learned one thing. The sea can play mighty tricks on the mind.”
Gerraint ignored the comment from his friend and pointed to the sky. The clouds started coming up and darkening faster than possible. “You better batten down the hatches or whatever you do,” he said. “That’s no trick.”
Gwillim’s jaw dropped. “Come about!” He panicked. “To shore. Tie down the rails.” He ran off, and Gerraint’s advice to Uwaine was to hold on. They barely got the sail down before the storm hit them with hurricane force. The sun immediately got blotted out and their vision cut to half the distance of the ship. They got lifted on a monstrous wave and spun around so fast and so many times, no man could tell which direction was the shore and which was the deeper sea. Gerraint and Uwaine tied themselves to the ship in the stern, on the port side. Gwillim and his mate, Trevor, were tied to the starboard side. The rest of the crew tied themselves to the bow, except for the two men who were too slow and had already gone overboard.
It might have been half an hour. It might have been half a day. It felt impossible to tell how long it lasted. Their only saving grace was the oak and hardwood construction of the vessel made it nearly impossible to sink, and the round design made it equally impossible to swamp or turn over. They rode the waves like men on a roller coaster, lifted on mountains of water and sliding into impossibly deep valleys with mountains all around. Surely, Uwaine would have gotten sick if he had not been so petrified.
Nothing they could do but stay tied, pray and ride out the storm. They had no way to drive or direct the boat, and no one knew which way to go in any case.
“Rocks!” One of the crew shouted back from the bow. He saw the foam of the crashing waves and knew what to look for.
“Hold on!” Gwillim and Gerraint shouted at the same time. They slammed sideways into a boulder just beneath the surface. The sea drew them back and they slammed again and again into the same spot. They heard a terrible crushing sound which made several men scream. The mast fell toward the bow, crushed a man and knocked another over the side.
Men screamed in earnest, now, and Gerraint was about to agree with them as a sharp pillar of stone rose right up in the center of the ship where the mast had been. The waves began to crash down on them, and Gerraint felt sure they would all be drowned in a moment, but then the tearing of the ship ended. The stern and bow became completely separated, and the stern was pushed by a giant wave to crash against a rocky shore while the bow got pushed to sea. Neither the bow, nor the crew tied to it were ever seen again.
“Shelter of the rocks.”
Gerraint, Uwaine, Gwillim and Trevor all shouted at once. Miraculously, none seemed terribly hurt and in a moment, they scrambled over the slippery rocks and held on to stone and each other for dear life.
“Incoming.” Gerraint and the others yelled more than once as a giant wave came and tried to crush them against the stone or drag them back out to sea. Gerraint lost his grip on the rocks once, and lost hold of Uwaine twice. The second time he saved him by grabbing the Mate’s hand who grabbed Uwaine’s cloak.
There were taller rocks, deeper in, with coves in the rocks that offered some shelter against wind and wave, long ago carved out by just such storms on the relentless sea. They huddled for a moment before Uwaine found a hole he could slither through. It put the main part of the rocks between them and the sea, not that the waves were not crashing over the rocks, but at least they were no longer in danger of being carried back out into the deep. Trevor, the mate wiggled right behind him, and Gerraint navigated the hole well enough. Poor Gwillim got stuck around his middle, and he might have stayed there if a sudden burst of water had not pushed him through with a pop! Gerraint and Uwaine, who each had one of Gwillim’s hands, fell on their backs, and Gwillim fell on top of them. They got up quickly and put their backs to the rocks and shouted.
“Further in?” Uwaine asked. “Higher ground?”
The storm did not last much longer. Those four had clearly escaped the storm’s wrath, so it seemed the storm decided to give up. In a matter of minutes, almost as fast as the storm came up, it magically went away and left only a drizzle of rain against the night sky.
“Hours.” The mate spoke at last. They saw a three-quarter moon risen somewhere behind the clouds.
“Fire.” Gwillim suggested the more practical matter, and they let go of their shelter and stepped inland in search of wood. It seemed a difficult task, but the storm, for all of its violence, was quick enough to come and go. It had not stayed around long enough to really soak the woods. With the fire, Uwaine suggested they ought to reconnoiter, to see if they could find out where they were. The other three stared at him, blankly, until Trevor began to snore.
Hunger came with the sunrise. A cold wind swept along the beach in front of the edge of the forest in which they settled. Gwillim immediately took charge, as a captain will. He sent Trevor to search the shore and pools around the rocks for any fish which the water might have left behind while everyone else built up the fire. Once they had food cooking, it was Gerraint who really pulled things together.
“Uwaine.” He pointed up the hill out of which the great rocks, near cliffs along the beach, had been carved. Uwaine understood that he could get a good look at the lay of the land from there. “I’ll head up the beach and around the rocks at that hedge. Gwillim?”
“I think I’ll just see if there is anything salvageable from our half of the ship.” He said. Everyone said be careful, but then they started out because the smell of the fish cooking started driving them crazy with hunger.
Uwaine found the top of the hill cleared of trees. From there, he easily saw that they were on an island, but in the dim light of dawn, he was just able to make out the glimmer of another land to the south. Whether it was the mainland or another island, he could not say.
Gwillim found the ship caught handily on the rocks. He did not find much inside to salvage, most having been gutted by the waves, but the lumber looked strong, and he already had in mind the idea of a raft, should it be needed.
Gerraint, by far, took the longest time. Around the natural jetty of rocks, he found a seal colony. He saw another jetty a hundred yards up the beach and most of the noise came from there, but on his side of the far rocks, he saw several females and their pups, and one little girl with long brown and greenish hair. Even from that distance, Gerraint could see from her hair and her enormously round brownish-black eyes that she was not human.
“Hello,” he called. Several of the females began to bark, and the girl looked startled, but she did not move. Gerraint walked up the beach. He stopped when the girl appeared frightened and looked ready to run. He had to think about this for a minute. He heard a voice behind him.