A Chapter covering Drustina's journey from Byzantium to Warsaw through the Pryapet Marshes.
The Angry Mermaid 45
Y Morforwyn Dicllon. 45.
Mabina. The youngest daughter and Twin to
Drustan Her twin brother.
Grandpa Erin the twins grandfather.
Giana The twins grandmother
Caderyn The twins father.
Herenoie The twins wise and beautiful mother.
Morgaran The Twins oldest brother.
Aiofe The twins oldest sister. Famous for her beauty.
Tara The twins second oldest sister. Famous for her grace.
Feidlim Twins aunt (Caderyns’ beautiful sister.)
Mogantu Twins uncle (Married to Feidlim.) Chief of the Gangani tribe.
Brun. Twins 2nd cousin and the Acaman clans’ blacksmith.
Feorin. Twins second brother. Also training to be a blacksmith.
Rhun Feidlims’ son and Feorins’ favourite 1st Cousin. (Both red-heads.)
Arina Child of a Demetae fisherman, (rescued by Aiofe, Drustan and Mabina.)
Penderol Dumnonii Minor chief.
Udris Young Dumnonii warrior.
Dryslwyn High chief of the whole Celtic nation. Dwells in Brithony.
Bronlwyn Dryslwyn’s wife (and queen.)
Magab The moor who taught numbers.
Eric Saxon galley slave rescued from Corsair pirates.
Carl Another Saxon galley slave rescued by Drustan.
Torvel Celtic galley slave rescued from the same captured corsair ship
Arton. Turdetani Chieftain Holder of Gibral Rock.
Carinia Arton’s wife.
Isobel. Arton’s adopted daughter.
Appotel King of the Turdetani Tribe. (Southern Iberia.)
Bramana Queen. (Wife of Appotel)
Pilus King of the Capetani.
Shaleen Pilus’s queen and sister to Bramana.
Pedoro Lord Marshal of the Southern border region.
Lady Shulaar Lord Pedoro’s wife.
Taan. The scullery maid.
Isaar. Pedoro’s oldest son.
Ferdie Pedoro’s 2nd son
Sular Pedoro’s 3rd son
Gontala Pedoro’s youngest son.
Shenoa Pedoro’s only daughter.
Portega. Tyrant King to the west.
Portua. Portega’s grandson.
Jubail. Old Fisherman.
Mutas Magab’s younger brother and usurper.
Walezia King of Malta.
Alviar Megalomaniacal bishop of Carthage. (Hates Drustina.)
Ethelia Female healer who treats Drustina during her pregnancy.
Seripatese Drustina’s faithful horse.
Astos & Amitor Minor royalty who govern Alexandria. King and Twin Queen.
Meronee Nubian Queen of Nobatia The northern Kingdom of the Nubians.
Horam The Egyptian master Boat builder.
Muraa King Astos’s male partner.
Tuk Makurian general.
Fantu. Makurian Captain.
Irene Emperor Leon’s only child.
Leon Byzantine Emperor.
Zano Byzantine general who defeats the Bulgars with Drustina’s help.
The trio of ships swept out of the Bosporus and into the Black Sea where the currents no longer hampered them. Soon the Byzantine coast was a thin whispy smear of grey to the south of the flotilla then it was gone as the grey to black waters of the Black Sea lived up to their name and the climate became distinctly cooler and damper. For the first day they made good progress while the southerly wind that had thrust them out of the Bosporus persisted. Eventually, during the night, the wind backed to a cool north-easterly breeze that enabled them to sail north whilst ‘close-hauled’ as tight as ever a ship could get in those days. Soon however, the cool breeze turned to an icy blast as the North easterly winter winds blowing out of the Crimea and Siberia, brought with it the inevitable discomforts. The bitter winds blowing over the still warm sea, brought fog and rain and then snow.
As visibility slowly reduced, the three ships stuck close together as the mists thickened until they were compelled to set long ropes between the ships and sail in single file with the long lines connecting them. It served in the lessening winds and thickening mists, to keep the ships in contact, however, if the winds freshened, then they would release their lines and sail as a normal flotilla. Usually, when the winds freshened on the inland seas that made up the Middle and Black seas the mists were dispersed.
As the winter chills began to bite into their bones, Drustina checked her twins and smiled as she found them snug as bed-bugs in the shelter of the forward cuddy with Tara lying cuddled up beside them under several thick furs. She smiled down at Tara who every day seemed to be relaxing a bit more as the effects of her newfound freedom sank into her psyche.
“How’re you feeling sis?”
“Cold but happy Dru, Darak says this wind is Admiral of the Russ.”
“How so big sister?”” Drustina frowned.
“There is an oft repeated maxim dear Dru. The Russ have two unbeatable generals named January and February and an admiral who commands both the Baltic and Black seas. That admiral is the East Wind for his weapons are ice and snow. Darak says by tomorrow, we will see Ice in our rigging, mark his words.”
Even as she spoke, Eric had slipped his tether line and came alongside ‘The Mermaid’ to talk.
His words only served to confirm Darak’s prediction. Darak was the Russ pilot who would guide them into the long deep estuary of the River Dnip. Drustina had hired him in Constantinople on the advice of trusted sources. He knew the river route across plains of Russ as far as the River Bug.
“We’d best be slacking the rigging sister,” Eric advised, “for the ice will be upon it come dawn. We Saxons know of these things, Drustina, just as Darak does. Winter in these parts is something you won’t ever have experienced. If we don’t ease the rigging and shorten sail, the ice will snap the lines or worse, topple us as it builds.”
“Is it that bad then?” Drustina asked.
Darak, Eric and Tara nodded for all had experienced the bitter Eastern winters. Drustina took them at their word and followed Eric and Carl’s examples. Before nightfall, the ships were sailing easily under shortened sail to avoid slamming into the waves to form spray and to prevent that spray from accruing as ice atop the rigging, spars and sails.
By morning Drustina saw her first ever signs of Sea Ice. Darak now explained as Carl brought the other ship close enough to call.
“We are getting close to the north shore. That shimmering glare to the north foretells ice. The Ice comes mainly from the fresh water in the rivers. It comes down with the currents so does not usually come out very far before it melts because the sea is normally too warm and salty. In the northern Baltic Sea, the ice forms for months and men walk the journeys though it is dangerous, the ice moves.”
Drustina looked at the shimmering haze that told of large ice flows and she turned to Darak for confirmation. He nodded agreement and the unanimity of her erstwhile Saxon friends agreeing with her pilot reassured her.
“Will that affect us travelling?” She asked Darak.
“Very much so,” he sighed. “The rivers freeze over completely and the delays will keep us in the Russ port until the spring thaw unless you would have us haul our ships along the river ice.”
“Damn!” Drustina cursed. “Still, I have a good relationship with the Russ for I helped them and the Moldova sort out the iniquities of that brute Oraxyis. We should be good for a safe winter stopover and I have funds enough to feed my own crew.”
Carl frowned at this news.
“I’m afraid Eric and I are not so well funded though we have food enough for a month.”
“Then perhaps we can earn our corn.” Drustina added. “When I was here last the Russ had suffered much from Oraxyis’s depredations. I noticed their wharfs and warehouses had suffered much destruction.”
“Yes,” Darak agreed, “they were wooden structures and easily burned or destroyed. That bastard virtually destroyed our town.”
“Well, if we set to with our one hundred strong men, perhaps we can build a stone wharf that endures.”
“Stone is scarce my lady. These lands are all soil and sand. Rich and fertile; yes ... but stone for building is virtually non-existent.”
“Then we can ship stone to and from the nearest mountains, why Byzantium itself is but two or three days away in these ships."
“And we can fetch food as well, but we’ll have to go ashore to determine their needs.”
“You are thinking like a true prince now Carl, a prince who serves his people. Yes, both the Russ and the Moldova will be short of food. The butcher Oraxyis destroyed much. . Fetching grain to feed the hungry is something we have done well before, remember Carthage?”
“And what you brought for the starving Bulgars this last summer. Yes, food from the granaries of Byzantium will serve our interests well.” Carl observed as he turned to Darak.
“Will the river be frozen already?”
“There will still be a narrow channel in the estuary where the current is stronger and mixed with the salt sea but it will be difficult to get alongside. We might have to tie up to the edge of the shore ice.”
“Damn!” Carl cursed. “That will mean lots of fendering and a constant mooring watch.”
Darak nodded more confirmation and Drustina was beginning to feel that her desperation to get home to Britannia might have been a step too early if not a step too far.
“Perhaps we should return to Constantinople.” She wondered aloud.
Darak wagged his head.
“We should be able to break the ice for it won’t be too thick yet. Then we can secure ourselves in one of the ice harbours. These are cuttings set into the river bank where ships can overwinter. The ice is static in the cut-outs and the ships get frozen in without harm to the hulls. If we can’t do that, then we return to Byzantium.”
Drustina seized the opportunity. Her desperation still drove her.
“Okay. We’ll try that.”
As she spoke there was a shout from Eric’s ship which at that point was the lead ship.
“Land, two points, port bow!”
Darak peered out but it was Eric’s masthead lookout who had spotted the land far off. It would be another hour’s sailing before Darak could confirm that the settlement was the town of the Odess, a place that had suffered enormously under Oraxyis’s heel. As they approached, they passed another ship outward bound who gave them a situation report. Odess was still ice free but the river it stood on would soon be frozen. Darak advised them to overwinter in Odess because it was directly facing the sea and there would be no estuary or river navigation from sea to town.
“It will make little difference. It’s only a few hours sail from Odess to the mouth of the Dnip.”
Drustina nodded and noted the smiles of relieved satisfaction from Darak and the two Saxons. It was a sound decision and removed the ships from any danger of damage by the River Dnieper’s notorious ice.
They entered Odess to find a still war damaged town with many of the buildings showing scars from Oraxyis’s depredations. Much of the damage endured because the Russ and some Molvans had little time and even less money to effect repairs. There was little love for the Bulgars and the people had been forced to trade further afield to trade for materials. The problem was that despite the vast richness of the Ukrainian plains much of that year’s harvest had either been stolen or burned by Oraxyis. It would take a full year before the agrarian side of the Russ economy could be recovered and during that year, the people were going hungry. Furthermore, many of their ships had been commandeered by Oraxyis and never returned. Ships big enough and seaworthy enough to trade across the Black sea were scarce and this was also hindering trade.
Drustina and her companions were quickly made aware of this and readily agreed to let their three fast ships be temporarily downgraded to ‘merchant vessels’ to enable the trickle of trade to be improved. These actions endeared them to the Russ who were eternally grateful because it meant the city fathers and tribal leaders could release grain from their meagre stocks sooner on the promise of grain to come sooner than expected.
The equation worked well because of Drustina’s powerful influences back in Byzantium and the three ships became legend during the remainder of that winter as they plied back and forth between Byzantium and Odess. Sadly, Drustina was unable to revisit Irene and Zano because they were far away progressing their tour in the eastern extremities of Byzantium.
As reports of plentiful food in Odess spread into the starving countryside, Russ and Moldovans stumbled into Odess to alleviate their starvations. The warrior queen had much cause to be thankful for the lessons she had learned from Queen Meronee. The Nubian Queen’s wise words echoed through Drustina’s brain like an anthem.
‘Send bread not weapons Drustina, for your subjects will remember your good deeds as well as your bad. More will live if starvation is alleviated and they will live longer to create longer and more enduring memories. Those memories will endear you to your people.’
Those words of wisdom; and others like them would ring through Drustina’s life in the future.
Drustina’s largesse in supplying stone and grain to rebuild the broken city of Odess proved to be a boon for in the following year. As spring approached and she prepared with her Saxon comrades to travel the great Eastern river portage, the tales of her goodliness travelled up the rivers ahead of her as their little flotilla later struggled against the floods of spring thaws. At just about every instance of difficulty, villagers appeared on the banks of the River Dnip and the River Prypiat to assist the craft through shallows and provide Darak with yet more local information of the situations further upstream. From this information Darak expanded his already encyclopaedic knowledge of the Prypiat marshes and because of the subsequent ease of passage afforded by the local peoples, he found much time to explore and learn of the myriad creeks and channels that meandered interminably through the vast Prypiat marshes. On many occasions the expedition was able to forge a new and shorter ‘portage’ across the muddy marshes as local people felt inclined to trust the travellers and show them the truly beneficial routes that would take them to the River Bug and whence via the Vistula to the Baltic Sea. Indeed, thanks to that local knowledge there was very little actual ‘portaging’ to do for in many instances a small channel cut into the slimy ooze of the marshes served to provide a slippery gulley along which the ships could be dragged with much greater ease.
During this portage, the horses, including Drustina’s faithful mare Seripatese, more than earned their corn.
In the heat of the summer the travellers were also grateful for the help offered by the villagers especially as Darak was able to explain the advantages.
While the corn and crops grew in the fields, the villagers and peasants had time to pitch in and offer their much appreciated efforts to drag the boats through the slippery mud. Several times as they laboured in the slimy ooze, Drustina let her flights of fancy fly.
“We should build a canal here Darak, so that ships may ply from Baltic to Black seas without hindrance.”
“But how would we defeat the slopes and different levels?” Darak challenged.
“The marshes are essentially flat and the changes of level are very small.”
She went on to explain about the locks on the Pharoic canal at Memphis and Darak listened fascinated as did several of the village elders and tribal elders. The idea was much applauded but Drustina did not stay to see it built. Nor in her lifetime, did she ever hear of it being built. Though the local people could readily see that if a more permanent trade route could be established through their lands, it would improve their lot.
Another aspect of Drustina’s journey was the lack of danger thanks to her earlier acts of magnanimity. Despite the travellers being well armed for protection, Drustina’s expedition was probably the first large portage conducted by entirely peaceful traders without recourse to threat or violence. Once again, Drustina had cause to thank Queen Meronee for her wise words. Her expedition had proved so successful that when they finally arrived in the city of Brest, Darak was sorry to bid them farewell. This was the first large settlement on the Polish River Bug.
After they had paid their respects and demonstrated their peaceful intentions to the Polish city burghers, they finally secured their travel worn craft to some safe moorings the riverfront. For several days they enjoyed excellent hospitality as the good people of Brest heeded what the travellers had to tell of their incredible voyage by water and mud. Sadly their stay had to end; Drustina was hell-bent on returning to her beloved Lleyn.
Firstly of course, there was the separation between Darak and the expedition. With a heavy heart, Darak prepared to return home the following summer whence he had come. He knew he would miss Drustina terribly but he now had enough local knowledge and local contacts to earn an excellent living as a ‘portage master’ guiding traders along the newly developed route. Amidst tears of comradeship and friendship he prepared to bid Drustina and her companions farewell as they set forth north and west downstream to the mighty river Vistula and eventually to the Baltic. Darak would eventually return east and south to Odess as soon as a new trade mission of Polish and Saxon traders could be formed to open up the trade. Darak expected that he would overwinter in Brest and lead the mission the following year.
It was now Autumn and because Drustina’s reputation had preceded her, they were relieved to be accepted as peaceful traders. The burghers of Brest had issued letters of pratique that would serve them as far as Warsaw. With the river Bug now assisting them they made fast time to Warsaw where they joined with the River Vistula. Drustina was detained by the king who made light of her urgency and demanded that she tarry awhile and tell of her adventures. On their first night in the city, the king made it his business to pump her of as much news as he could garner.
“You are famous maid. I have reports of your adventures coming to me with almost every caravan of traders that passes through our kingdom but especially those who come from the South from Rome and the Germanic tribes from the west. Now you come from the east with three ships no less and this after having dragged them through the dreadful Prypiat Marshes. That route has been virtually closed to us since the Bulgar wars with Byzantium.”
“Well it’s true your majesty,” Drustina admitted modestly. “The route should be opened again soon. Darak the Russ is organising a new trade mission as we speak. The lands of the Russ and the Moldovans are now peaceful.”
“And that, as I am told often by the Caravansary who have travelled through Carparthia; was entirely down to you.”
“No sir. It was down to an excellent Byzantine general called Zano.”
“But the Carpathians, the Russ and the Moldovans all speak of you. They call you many things; The Warrior Queen, the Lion of Carthage, The Wise Old Crocodile of the Nile, and I’ve even got reliable reports of your adventures in Iberia.”
“Of those titles your majesty they are but names. The Russ and the Moldovans speak of me only because my campaign relieved them directly from Oraxyis’s heel. It was Zano, who’s defeat of the main Bulgar army, that finally put paid to the Bulgar expansions and predations. He married the Byzantine Empress Irene and serves as her consort. He is a remarkable man who sets law and justice above his own ambition. Hence his wife still rules as sovereign.”
The king’s eyes widened with surprise.
“Sovereign you say! A woman as empress and sovereign, his wife no less? Then truly he is a remarkable man.”
“Yes. A man and a soldier that I grew to love and respect. You would do well to entreat with him for he is brave, honest and truthful and he abides by his treaties. His wife the empress hangs weightily on his judgement. Our previous guide, Darak of Odess, knows them well and will serve well as your emissary. He still rests in your provincial city of Brest where he recruits for a trade mission next spring or summer. You would do well to add a royal ambassador and diplomats to that trade mission and give it a proper governmental status. Darak has done much to smooth the passage.”
“As have you dear maid, though to listen to you, one would think you have done nothing. People like you are scarce, no wonder your men worship you... And yet my informers tell me you are just a score and two years old.”
“Yes, your majesty, I am but two and twenty years so perhaps a little less of the ‘Wise OLD Crocodile’.”
Her emphasis on the word ‘old’ set the king into gales of laughter. Finally he recovered himself and asked her of the other names.
“So tell me then, how came you by such names?”
Drustina would have shrugged but such a response might have seemed pretentious or condescending. Instead she stood silent waiting for the king to say more. It was an action that impressed him still further. He ended the meeting and dismissed his courtiers as he invited Drustina and Tara to join him privately at supper.
“Come we have much to talk about, let us do it over supper in the privacy of my chambers.”
Once in his private chambers he relaxed and threw off his courtly robes with an obvious sigh of relief. Tara glanced nervously towards her sister for this sort of action usually presaged some sort of salacious advance. Her years as an exotic performer had honed her wits to such dangers. As Tara prepared for some sort of ugliness she watched her sister simply settle into a large chair and sit opposite the king in front of the large fire that warmed his chambers.
“So your majesty, what do you wish to speak of?” Drustina asked.
Drustina’s words reassured her sister slightly. Normally, women grew tense in such circumstances unless they were of their own instigation and the woman intended for some action of her own choosing. Drustina had followed the king to his chambers without a seeming thought for her own safety and settled down to discuss whatever the king had in mind just as two men would have done. Tara became curious, it was a side to her sister she had not yet seen. Complete confidence in the presence of a man’s private chambers. Tara had always considered such chambers to be ‘lairs’. Now, unexpectedly, she felt secure. It was a feeling not entirely unassisted by the soft clunk of Drustina’s polished Toledo sword tip that rested on the flagstone floor as she sat with the sword still in its ceremonial hilt fastener. Her sister/brother was still armed and Tara had seen that sword arm practicing its skills with fully armed male companions like the Saxon companions Eric and Carl. Tara felt safe. The Polish king seemed entirely at ease and didn’t even seem to balk at the fact that Drustina was armed and he was not.
Tara had never shared the company of kings and she sat wonderingly as she slowly realised this was not some salacious invite to some bacchanalian orgy but a genuine talk about affairs of state. Tara felt she had little to offer and she offered to leave but Drustina reached out, gently pressed on Tara’s arm and smiled.
“No sister. If you stay with me, and I hope you will, then you must learn of such things. His majesty obviously has concerns to declare and if they are to affect our journey then we should know of them.”
“And affect you they most certainly will my young queen.”
Drustina was about to object to the seeming promotion but the king swept her words aside before she could express them.
“No! You are a warrior queen. My sources tell me that every man that follows you worships you and would fight to the death for you.”
Drustina paused then changed the subject. It would seem by objecting to his praises that she was perversely or inversely seeking more praise. Her next question went straight to practicalities.
“So what of these perils to our journey?”
The king looked concerned.
“There is trouble in the north of our kingdom.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“Trouble you will be well familiar with.”
Drustina stared hard at the king.
“Well sire, please don’t keep me guessing. I have been familiar with many different types of trouble in my short life.”
The king answered with one word.
After considering the reply, Drustina asked.
“That’s just it. We can’t be sure.”
“You must have some idea; some sort of evidence; a body, some weapons, a prisoner even.”
The king frowned.
“It’s not that easy Drustina, they move quickly and they invariably move by night. My subjects to the north swear that they are spirits. They appear from nowhere at the dead of night and attack single ships. Little or no noise, just a single brief attack and then quickly into the night. They steal what they can from the single victim ship, drown the crew and steal the ship or burn it. Traders are being forced to convoy but that is inconvenient and ships are beginning to avoid our ports.”
“Have these pirates attacked any towns or cities? Have they advanced up the river Vistula?”
“No. They are very clever. They appear only at night and move silently and swiftly.”
“Has anybody ever come back to tell of their tactics?”
“No. The only evidence has been a single blackened hull that fetched up near the Hel spit and some bodies floating inshore.”
Drustina listened as the king went into greater detail, describing the nature of the coast, the names of the towns and the shallowness of the waters in that area. He produced some maps of the area and Drustina sucked thoughtfully on her knuckles as she considered the quality of the charts. They were nothing like as good as the Roman charts of the middle sea.
“Are these accurate.”
“The land is,” the king conceded, “but the seaward parts are mainly guesses except for the prominent points and the townships.”
“So Gdyn and Gdan are approximately right?” She checked.
He nodded apologetically.
“We’ve never had need for sea charts. We are mainly a land based agrarian country.”
“But the people on the coast; do they not fish?”
“Close inshore, yes. The Baltic Sea has been the hunting grounds of the Norsemen for centuries. Mainly the Russ tribes and they are mostly an offshoot of the Sven.”
“Do you not trade with the Russ?”
“They are not welcome, the history has been hundreds of years of Norsemen raiding and then retreating. We are a large nation and very powerful so we could always defeat them on the shores. Eventually, they more or less gave up on raiding our towns, it was costing them too much in warriors and soldiers. They moved on further up the Baltic and invaded the more eastern lands. That’s why the country further east is called Russ. The Sven tribesmen settled there and gave it their name.”
Drustina nodded slowly.
“D’you think these pirates are Russ?”
“No. We think they must have a base nearer to Gdan but we have no idea where or who they are.”
“But they don’t attack the towns?”
“No. Our coastal towns are all fortified.”
“Hmmm,” Drustina sucked thoughtfully on the handle of her dagger that she was using as a pointer on the chart.
“And it’s the fishing boats they go for.”
“No,” the king corrected her, “I said our people mainly fish inshore. It’s the trading ships that get attacked; sometimes just after they’ve just left Gdan or Gdyn but more usually as they are arriving and ignorant of the piracy. Those trading ships are mostly Norse or Saxon. That’s why we believe the pirates are not Russ. The Russ are brothers to the Norsemen but they trade to the East of Danmark.”
“If the victims are Saxon and Norse then they cannot be easy targets.” Drustina observed. “The Norse and Saxons are pretty mean customers who are well able to defend themselves.”
“That’s why we think there is some sort of subterfuge and I personally suspect that somebody in Gdan or Gdyn is in league with the Pirates.”
“Hmmm. It makes sense. Have you tried to apprehend anybody?”
The king nodded dispiritedly.
“They are very cunning; I’m convinced they have some sort of assistance on the inside of either of those two ports. It seems that every ship that has trade with our ports risks some sort of predation unless they are convoyed.”
Drustina studied the chart thoughtfully.
“What about other ships, not going to Gdan or Gdyn?”
“Not in the Gulf of Dantrick my lady. These are the revenue posts for all ships trading in that area. Every ship has to declare its goods at either of the cities.”
“What even ships entering the Vistula?”
The king nodded and exchanged a knowing glance with Drustina as she remarked.
“So it’s obvious that the Pirate’s spy is in either of those two cities.”
“We know that,” the king agreed somewhat impatiently, “but the question is who. Both ports are very cosmopolitan cities and many different trading houses operate there from many different countries. It’s almost impossible to pin down a spy without a lot of undue force. We don’t want to restrict the trading. It’s the freedom enjoyed in those ports that has created so much wealth and trade.”
“Yes but do not all the trading houses operate in only one part of the city?” Drustina asked.
“Yes. We call it ‘The Compound’. The trading and exchanges take place there but if taxable goods are then to be entered into this kingdom, they are taxed at the gates of the compound.
“What of other activities? Money trading, precious metals and high grade artisans like say diamond cutting.”
“You’re anticipating me Drustina. You obviously know something of trade. Where did you learn of this? Normally our trading houses and money dealings are men’s affairs.”
Drustina gave the King a weary look.
“You know my history your majesty. I was born a boy, besides, I was born to trade. My people built ships and traded them for copper and other precious metals hewn from the mountains of Mon and Orm in my homeland Cymru. My own ship carried Bullion from Cymru to Carthage but only two of us knew of it; my sister Queen Mabina of Portua and of course, me. I split the gold to use as a dowry for my beloved sisters. I did not know that my other sister Tara still lived at that time.”
The king shook his head.
“Your story still amazes me Drustina. Every time we talk of things you come up with another remarkable aside. You’re now telling me your little ship carried gold across the great sea of Atlantis.”
“Well not exactly across,” Drustina corrected him. “Nobody knows where ‘across’ is when applied to that immensity. All we know is that if the waves are anything to tell then it is vast ... endless even. My sisters and I sailed with the little Demetae girl Arina from Cymru to Iberia that’s sort of along the edge of the great sea of Atlantis. But enough of my adventures, how do we tackle these pirates.”
“First we must find them.” The king offered.”
“Yes,” Drustina agreed, “So apart from finding their spies; the other action is to find the pirates lair ... or lairs, and smash them.”
“That would be my preferred option,” the king replied, “some concrete action to send a clear message to any other would-be freebooters.”
“But still we begin with gathering intelligence that might lead to locating the pirate lairs.” Drustina surmised.
“That’s the rub. So far there have been no survivors of any of the attacks. These pirates are ruthless and lethal.”
“I’m presuming though that their forces are small.”
“Why d’you think that?” The king wondered.
“Firstly they avoid convoys; that implies they are but a few ships. Secondly, they would have trouble hiding a large fleet of pirate ships. Thirdly they are keeping their identity and location well hidden. This implies that a few tight-lipped and loyal individuals are operating the piracy.”
“So d’you have any ideas; how we flush them out.”
“Firstly change your tactics; that is change your mode of operations. That will force them to change their tactics and that leaves room for mistakes as they have to re-adjust their methods.”
“And how can we change our modus operandi?”
“Well, like I asked before. Allow ships to bypass the two revenue ports, let them sail undeclared and unpublicised. That will add two extra risks to the pirate’s operation.
Firstly, they will have to widen their web of informers to include undeclared departures from the Vistula and other smaller ports in the Danzig Bay. Their greed will drive them to try and locate any ships trying to sneak away from a small jetty or quay without being noticed. That will force them to expand their spy ring.
Secondly there will be undeclared ships passing through the waters of the bay and they might come upon an act of piracy as it is ongoing. They might be able to lend assistance to the victim and even prevent the piracy from going ahead. That will surely cause the Pirates to adjust their tactics.”
“There are no guarantees though, are there? There’s no certainty of capturing one of the pirate vessels.” The king offered despairingly.
“No, but it increases the odds very favourably in our name. The pirates will never be sure if there are other legitimate ships trading nearby.”
The king chewed the idea over and slowly nodded his head.
“It means lost customs revenue and that’s certain, but the losses will be constrained to a few bags of money.”
“I’m not so sure,” Drustina sucked her finger pensively. “Firstly we need only risk cargoes of low or moderate value while high value cargoes remain convoyed. We’re still going to have to be well armed though, because we have no idea of their modus-operandi. We might have to attack or even defend from long range or fight them hand to hand. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. The first stage is to find out more about them without loss to our own forces.
“So what d’you suggest then?”
“Gather intelligence; force them to change their operation by secreting ‘our own spies, scouts and warriors’ into hidey-holes around the compound.”
“That will take manpower. Lots of soldiers. A hundred even. Tempus fugit.”
“Indeed it does, especially if I hope to escape this year’s winter ice before the midwinter solstice. However, by happy accident I just happen to have something in the order of two hundred souls who have either accompanied me all the way from Byzantium, or joined with us as we passed through villages and towns. You’d be surprised at the number of adventurous young men who have decided to join us and make their own way, not to mention a few maids. My reputation as a warrior queen encouraged them to join us and I suspect their fathers were glad to be rid of them. Of the two hundred or so of my band there are perhaps a score of women and a dozen children, including my own two and my beloved mare Seripatese.
“And that in three ships.” The king summed up.
“Well now it’s four ships your majesty. While we have tarried here in Warsaw, my men have purchased timber and built a fourth. You’d be surprised how quickly one hundred and fifty men can build a ship.”
“I’m impressed Drustina, perhaps I can add a ship to that number and increase our chances of finding these dammned murderers.”
“Better you didn’t your majesty. The band that follows me are all foreign to the lands of Pola. If we accepted anybody from Warsaw, then the probability is that one of them might be yet another spy for the pirates. Who knows how wide their net spreads?” The men I share this expedition with are men I have good reason to trust. We have shared much hardship and much comradeship as well as much pleasure. I trust them.”
Again the king nodded. ‘It was good to deal and treat with this famous maid. She spoke true and she was direct not to mention shrewd.’ He nodded agreeably and indicated that he was tired and wished for bed.
Tara tensed slightly for in her experience this was usually the time when salacious suggestions were made. Often in seeming jest but with the inevitable undertones of predation. This time however, to Tara’s immense relief, the words meant what the king said. He was ready for bed and neither of the sisters would be joining him. Drustina’s Toledo Blade brought that certainty of equality and respect. Tara envied her sister/brother that liberty to treat equally with all.
Drustina paid her respects to the king, glanced briefly towards Tara and they retired to their own chamber. Once abed, Tara pumped her younger sibling.
“I don’t get it. I wouldn’t have dreamt of trusting a man alone, in his own bedroom or apartments. How did you know he was only interested in affairs of state ... this piracy thing?”
“I didn’t know it was piracy. I just knew he had something on his mind. He was distracted at the dinner. That’s how kings ... oh and queens ... oh and empresses are. I’ve seen it before. There’s always something to occupy them, if it isn’t a threat to their lives, it's something affecting their country or their country’s security. I’ve been around kings and queens too dammned long.”
“Yeah. Tell me about it. So how would you solve this piracy thing?”
“Well, we certainly need a lot more intelligence, more information.”
“And how do we get that?”
“Pretend to be traders. The new ship the men are building is much bigger than the other two and bigger again than The Angry Mermaid. It will be finished in a week then we can sail downriver separately making sure we actually leave the river and enter the Danzig bay in darkness; even on different days if necessary. We can go in The Mermaid first and layover for a couple of days in Gdynia. We can make some pretence about having a valuable cargo concerning the King’s business and let it filter out into the trading community. I was pretty adept at flushing out spies and stuff in Carthaginia when I helped organise the guerrilla campaign. It just takes alertness and a quick eye to spot the shifty characters. Once I’ve got some sort of lead I can slip back to the mouth of the Vistula during darkness. Then we can rendezvous somewhere near the river’s mouth and organise our tactics. It will be best if we can lay some sort of trap; the Mermaid will be ideal as bait. She can play the ‘broken wing’ trick.”
Tara listened with fascination as Drustina elaborated on techniques and tricks to use when sowing rumours and feeding information.
“For example sis, you casually meet me in a restaurant or bar and ask me if I’ve got some extra cargo to fill our ship and I can say yes or no. Just simple information like that can flush out the spies. I know, I’ve done it.”
“Can you tell me more?” Tara pleaded.
Drustina sighed wearily and snuggled under the blanket.
“Not tonight sis. I’m tired. I’ve got my twins all day tomorrow because the two nannies want a day off to go shopping in the main market. I promised them a day off. Now go to sleep.”
Tara reluctantly fell silent and soon the sisters were cuddled up. Drustina found it strange to be cuddled up to a very attractive girl and yet feel no unsavoury urges. The fact that they were sisters put paid to any salacious curiosity. Drustina was puzzled that just simply knowing Tara was her sister was enough to stop all thoughts of intimacy dead in their tracks. It seemed as if there was some sort of sublimal, unconscious barrier ticking away in her brain. Soon they fell asleep closely spooned together and woke in virtually the same positions at dawn.
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