In this chapter, Drustina captures the pirates then finds herself having to advocate on their behalf to ensure justice is done.
The Angry Mermaid 47
Y Morforwyn Dicllon 47.
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.
Urthos The Gaul elected captain of the 4th ship. Ex Barbary galley slave.
Horus Horam the boat-builder’s son.
Sister Catherine Leader of the pirate nuns.
Drustina’s flotilla, now numbering five ships soon arrived in Hel before the forenoon. The sudden appearance of an unexpected show of force caused consternation in the smallish town until Drustina went ashore with Carl and Urthos to explain the purpose of the visit. To back up her authority she brandished the King’s letters of marque that were still valid throughout Pola. She met the burgomaster and council in the state house at a hurriedly convened assembly.
“The convent you say. But it’s leper colony!” They protested in a collective shout of pure fear.
“Who told you that?” Drustina demanded.
“The Priest; Father Prezitch. The confessor to the sisters.”
“Do you mean this priest?” Drustina demanded as Carl pulled the man’s decapitated head from the tarred waterproof canvas bag he was carrying.
There was a roar of shock and disbelief as pandemonium broke out amongst the burgers.
“You have murdered him!”
“Like hell we have!” Drustina growled back before anybody had a chance to start any wild rumours with unfounded allegations. “Do you think we would have come to your town if I had this beast’s blood on my hands? I would have thrown him to the crabs and the fishes! No! He committed his own suicide, a heinous crime and for a priest a blasphemy no less!”
There was slow settling of chairs as order was restored and Drustina continued.
“Now. I have on my flotilla, the captured pirates and I am come to seek evidence of their claims of enslavement.”
“Explain yourself,” the burgomaster demanded.
Drustina did, relating the whole sad litany of Sister Catherine’s story.
“We will try them for murder and piracy here and now if they are the pirates.” The burgomaster bellowed.
“You will not!” Drustina replied softly but with equal determination. “I will establish the facts first, then we will hold a court.”
“You have no authority here woman. This is men’s business!”
“This is God’s business my friend. These are holy women and I will see truth before God; not you and this council! Now I’m going to investigate that convent and establish the facts. Carl. See to it that these vermin don’t harm the nuns. Alert the crews then join Urthos, me and Sister Catherine where she says these women are buried.”
Then she turned to the council and addressed the burgomaster.
“Burgomaster, you will accompany me into the convent. We shall see if the stories this nun tells of are true.”
“But it’s leper colony!” The overweight, florid man protested.
“Then we shall see if that is true as well. Come on, you will accompany me. I’ll brook no objections.”
The fact that the two hundred battle hardened sailors outnumbered the menfolk of the town was a powerful motivator to the councillors and they looked at their burgomaster to lead them by a show of courage. The man had little option but to follow Drustina as she rejoined her escort in the town square and marched off to search the convent grounds. With Sister Catherine’s direction, they quickly found and exhumed the shallow graves. The Burgomaster stared at the bodies and protested his doubts.
“These bodies could have died of natural causes.”
Drustina sneered disgustedly as she held up a woman’s skull.
“Methinks not Burgomaster. The lioness of Carthage has seen plenty of violent deaths. An axe made the hole in this woman’s skull. She was hacked to death and less than a year ago I’ll warrant. The vestments, skin and ligaments still cling to her bones. Yes ... she was a nun and she was murdered ... less than a year ago. I’ve seen plenty of graves like this in Moldova and Russ to name but two countries. This is proof of butchery and that’s proof enough for me that the sister is telling the truth.”
The burgomaster tried to bluster but Drustina’s knowledge of battle wounds left the jumped up cleric floundering.
“How do you know it was an axe?” He squawked.
Drustina gave him a contemptuous glare then called Urthos and Carl to the exhumed graves. As Urthos picked yet another skull from the mass grave, he and Carl pursed their lips angrily.
“Yes,” they confirmed in unison, then Urthos continued a little insensitively; “only an axe could cut like that. See here, (he held the skull up,) the force you can see by the edges where the bone splinters — a lot of force was used, most probably a man’s hand -.”
“Yes, yes. That’ll do Urthos” Drustina restrained their insensitive descriptions to save Sister Catherine and the nuns who had accompanied her, any further distress. “I can see for myself boys; I’ve also seen fatal head wounds as you well know.”
Drustina had curtailed their confirmation because she could see Sister Catherine and the accompanying sisters were becoming severely distressed. Nevertheless, the evidence had to be documented and preserved and it was a gruesome task. Drustina turned to Sister Catherine, placed an arm around the nun’s shoulder and asked compassionately but still loud enough for the burgomaster to hear.
“Who swung the axe Catherine?”
“The priest father Prezitch, while the Bishop Walivitch condoned it and ordered it. That’s — that’s Sister Maria, the last to die and the oldest.”
“What was she accused of?” Drustina was forced to continue for justice’s sake. It was a duty she hated.
“Witchcraft.” Catherine finally managed to choke out between despairing sobs.
Drustina gave a long sigh of resignation.
“What else? I should never have asked. The twin horns of the religious dilemma I suppose.”
Sister Catherine shrugged and sagged with resignation as she confirmed.
“Either way there is no escape from the charge. If they survive the tests they are proven to have survived using black magic, if they die it’s because they were innocent. Either way they end up dead.”
“You don’t have to elaborate sister, I know of the twin-forked hypocrisies surrounding the one church and its damnable witchcraft charges.”
Drustina hugged Catherine tight around the shoulders before turning impatiently to the accompanying councillors.
“Well Burgomaster. What think you now?”
“There still has to be a trial and the Bishop must preside. This is an ecclesiastical matter.”
Drustina expression soured with disgust.
“There’s nothing ecclesiastical about murder Burgomaster, but I’ll accept these murders happened on consecrated ground. If the church is to try these women then they’d better send an honest bishop Burgomaster or even he will answer to my sword.”
The burgomaster paled with fear, for anybody to even think of censuring a bishop was tantamount to blasphemy in the burgomaster’s eyes. He found himself studying this ‘warrior queen’ as though she was some sort of freak; but a very dangerous freak. The trouble was she had the king’s letter of marque not to mention over two hundred armed men at her back.
“Do you not fear the wrath of God?” The burgomaster asked nervously.
“I have done nothing wrong Burgomaster. Just remember that! I am on the road to exposing the piracy organisation, I have captured the pirates and I have killed nobody. Why should I fear God’s wrath?”
“You spoke of putting a bishop to the sword.”
“I spoke of seeing justice done and justice with compassion. If the bishop who presides over this case is honest and fair, I will have no qualms. But I will see justice and even-handedness prevail.”
“The bishop of Gdan is believed to be a fair man.” The burgomaster offered.
Drustina smiled enigmatically.
“You mean you and your cronies believe him to be fair. I don’t. I think I would prefer the King’s appointee. The Archbishop of Warsaw perhaps. I know him well and he is amenable to reason.”
“The Archbishop!” The burgomaster almost shrieked.
Concern was writ large over his face and that made Drustina even more suspicious. She pressed a little harder.
“Well why not. This is a very serious case. Upwards of a hundred nuns, Sisters in Christ no less, face serious charges. The case must be seen to be fair and transparent.”
The burgomaster could find no flaw in Drustina’s proposal. To object to the archbishop, a cardinal no less ... a prince of the church; would leave him looking suspect and while he had acted for the murderous priest in all innocence by persuading the town to cut off the convent’s water supply; he was innocent of any more sinister involvement. To avoid further suspicion he made a public showing of full agreement to the archbishop presiding but underneath his facade of compliance he was seriously worried that he might somehow be implicated. The irony was that he now wanted a truly fair and transparent trial for he had, in truth, had his own suspicions about the information web being run by the local priests but he had kept his mouth shut for fear of offending the powerful Bishop of Gdan.
Drustina sensed that the burgomaster might yet prove to be a useful source of information about the spy network so she trod carefully to reassure him.
“Do not worry Burgomaster; I know the archbishop well. We met and dined many times when I was the kings’ guest in Warsaw. He was intrigued by my duality but he proved to be a logical and fair-minded man. Unlike previous bishops and holy men, he did not condemn me for having woman’s parts in fact he rather envied me. He was more curious about the dichotomy of my having been a mother and a father.
As a soldier and proven warrior, I was yet able to give him a deep insight into how a woman feels about her children and how a woman will make huge sacrifices to protect those children. Then to show the other side of the coin, I was able to demonstrate how my need to recover my homeland reflected my male side, a man’s need to recover his self respect by regaining his tribal lands and thus serving his people.”
The burgomaster visibly relaxed as Drustina made an account of the number of women’s bodies her men had recovered. Carl and Urthos the Gaul were visibly saddened by the sight and the men packed the bones into boxes that would later serve as coffins after having been presented as evidence to the court. Drustina found herself hugging a tormented Sister Catherine as she tried to comfort the woman and reassure her that the trial would be fair.
“What d’you think they will do to us?” She whimpered nervously.
Drustina shrugged apologetically then leant in closer to continue in a reassuring whisper.
“I don’t know. I believe that Archbishop Crawklow is a compassionate and logical man. He didn’t strike me as cruel or vindictive. This much I do know for he told me. He doesn’t believe much in the witchcraft accusations that were brought before him and he’s never sent a woman to the stake. Secretly, that is why I suggested him to preside over your trial. I just don’t trust the local bishops.”
Sister Catherine hugged Drustina tighter then kissed her passionately on the cheek before signing a cross on each of the boxes of bones and watching them being placed aboard The Mermaid to be taken to a secure place away from the risk of tampering by the local priesthood’s Mafiosi.
With the evidence thus secured, the fleet sailed south to the Vistula to arrange for the trial to be held in a neutral city well away from the coast and the ungodly piratical conspirators. A fast horse was sent up the River Vistula valley road to Warsaw ahead of the ships. By the time The Angry Mermaid and her sister ships had worked their way upriver, the Archbishop met the little fleet at the newly formed town of Torun.
The archbishop had wasted little time after reading his personal mail and also being shown Drustina’s covering letters to the king. A king who was furious when he learned of Drustina’s declared suspicions. He commanded the Cardinal-arch-bishop.
“You’d better sort this out your grace! I tasked Drustina with solving this piracy and that’s exactly what she has achieved, namely stopping the piracy and finding out the truth. If this priestly conspiracy is the truth, then woe betide those holy bishops.”
The archbishop was left in no doubt that if he was to save any vestiges of respect and faith in his church then he had to act quickly. He had galloped out through the city gates of Warsaw the very next morning with but a skeleton entourage, a couple of clerks and a dozen men at arms. He arrived in Torun with little fanfare to find Drustina already waiting for him. The archbishop set up his ecclesiastical court a scant two days later.
It is amazing how amenable a recalcitrant organisation like the church can become when confronted with a ‘force majeure’, namely a feared and proven warrior with a known penchant for even-handedness towards women and, more importantly, with a force of two hundred battle hardened warriors at her back. Drustina was something even an Archbishop could not ignore. Furthermore he had huge respect for the young woman. A scant two and twenty years old, yet already a name to conjour with all over Europa.
The first conundrum the archbishop faced was to find an individual with real clout advocating for the accused nuns, all one hundred of them.
Not for these women was there to be an arrogant assumption of male supremacy that disregarded the crucial factors that separated women from men. When men and women were confronted with few choices and all of them life threatening; men might plunge straight into their preferred ‘death or glory’ option without regard for their lives and safety. Not for men the responsibilities of babies and nurture.
For women their primordial nature was to somehow survive first, then protect any children they had. For women the natural choice was survival for men it was fight. The trouble was it was men who ran the courts and men who therefore adjudged women to be weak because they usually chose the ‘survival’ route. The early church and its misogynistic episcopalia reflected this arrogant presumption. The main conundrum for the Archbishop was that the nun’s advocate, though having the appearance of a tall, slender, beautiful woman, also had the heart and fighting skills of a warrior; and a great warrior to boot. This was not going to be a pushover where accusative threat and bluster could cow the defendants into submission and defeat. The archbishop had already met with Drustina and been severely tested by her intellect and argument during their earlier fireside chats when she had stayed as a guest of the king.
Firstly the charges of witchcraft were utterly destroyed by Drustina’s very presence. When the prosecuting bishop tried to accuse Drustina of being a witch by saying she must have used magic to protect herself from injury Drustina let out a squeal of contemptuous mirth and did something she rarely did those days. She exposed her numerous battle scars to prove she had suffered plenty of injuries and come close to death from some of them. Having thus proven that she was mortal and a warrior, the next problem was surmounting the argument that she was not fit to advocate because she was neither man nor woman. She argued logically that she had born four children as two sets of twins. One set, her first-born, were accompanying her as she spoke and Drustina duly promised to produce them as evidence she was a woman. When the court then learned that her second twins were heirs to the Pharoic throne they were forced to concede that Drustina was a woman and a mother. The next part then completely flummoxed the prosecutors. Drustina declared that she was also a father for she had fathered Queen Meronee’s child in Nubia and that child also was heir to the Nubian thrones. However, she had no proof of this and only one witness in Horus, the Egyptian boat-builder’s son. However, the court was forced to accept Horus’s word for want of any provable contradiction.
The first day of the trial was spent establishing Drustina’s right and suitability to advocate in the court, mainly because, as an ecclesiastical court, it was supposed to be run entirely by the church and its holy men. This was the first nail in the coffin of the church’s supremacy in all things moral and godly. Drustina literally told the court that she would advocate for the nuns and her sword would brook no argument. However, it was truly a useful to have a small army at her back.
The following day the court tried to claim that the priest father Prezitch had been murdered but Drustina soon won that first argument. She had nearly thirty crewmembers from her own ship who had all clearly seen the priest stab himself through the chest. This coupled with the nun’s testimony left the church prosecutors with a huge problem. By committing suicide, father Prezitch had committed a serious sin and that would bode badly for his reputation when it came to establishing who had murdered the nuns. At every juncture, Drustina was able to present evidence and or testimony to support her arguments and this left the court floundering. It soon became obvious that this case was not going to be a misogynistic ‘walk-over’. When the prosecutors tried to browbeat the less confident nuns, Drustina could raise forceful objections and as often as not, produce clear evidence to contradict the prosecutor’s bullying. As the days progressed, the trial became a nightmare for the church as priest after priest, not to mention several bishops, were implicated in the conspiracy ring. The case raised so much controversy that word eventually got back to the king’s ears in Warsaw and he decided to brave the deteriorating autumnal elements to come and witness the trial for himself.
His royal presence alone was enough to unsettle the ecclesiastical nature of the court and that additionally lent further power to Drustina’s elbow. The secular power of the king was supported by arms and the king had a mutual affectionate respect for Drustina’s many military achievements. He was amused and fascinated to see that sharp brain also enjoy the same success during intellectual arguments with the ecclesiastical prosecutors.
However her finest hour came when she managed to get the court to accept that women were very different from men when it came to facing danger or death. Their responses invariable inclined towards survival because of the natural drive to nurture even though, as nuns, they would never enjoy that fulfilment. This successful argument finally established that it was unfair to accuse women of complicity and conspiracy to murder after they had seen their companions murdered and been threatened with all sorts of excommunication. For women, it was all about survival.
After nearly a month of tempestuous argument, the church was left with one argument, namely that these women had broken the vows of their holy orders in choosing to align with the priests and follow their directions whilst knowing those directions to steal and kill were ungodly.
Unfortunately for the church, even this argument was weakened by the fact that the priests had instigated the actions. Finally the day came for summary and the archbishop’s hands had been well and truly tied.
In truth, the archbishop was secretly glad that Drustina had decimated the church’s case for it allowed him to show an infinite degree of compassion whilst still being seen to act in the interests of the church.
He sentenced the nuns to be stripped of their holy orders and banned from serving the church in any capacity in the future. At first, Sister Catherine was devastated by this news until Drustina pointed out that this gave the nuns freedom to address any iniquities that might have precipitated them into the church originally.
“But Drustina,” Sister Catherine protested. “How will we support ourselves now we are alone and unprotected?”
Drustina shrugged apologetically.
“I didn’t say it was going to be easy. Most of you are young and pretty, I noted that most of the murdered nuns were the older women and that in itself is an obscenity. That sick priest knew exactly what he was doing to get the younger fitter women to do his dirty work. Older people are harder to browbeat into submission. They tend to be a bit more cynical and harder to persuade. He knew which nuns to kill. But it is over now. Those murdered nuns will be buried in consecrated ground and the mother convent can do as it wishes with the buildings. Anyway, you are free now, surely you can find husbands; as I said, most of you are young and pretty.
“But in our homeland, we will be pariahs. People will despise us and you know how the church can poison people’s minds.”
“Well, I’m sorry Sister Catherine; I can’t help you with that.”
The sister departed looking very depressed and Drustina felt useless. She was in that same mood when Tara came in with the twins.
“What-ho younger sibling of mine. Why such a long face?”
Drustina smiled and shrugged as the twins clambered into her arms.
“I feel so useless.” She told Tara.
“Oh it’s these nuns ... or should I say ex nuns?”
“What about them?”
“They face a life of censure and persecution, plus the guilt thing. They did, after all, kill a couple of dozen ships crews; it was about a couple of hundred people in all.”
“Well that’s not your problem. The court accepted your arguments. You did well to get them off alive.”
Drustina shrugged dismissively, sometimes she got angry with her own sisters ... her own sex; then she had to stop and do a double take. Some would say they were only partly her own sisters for there was another part to Drustina that made her a half-brother to men. She had long ago realised that that other part had made her more independent, more obstinate, more self-reliant, more adventurous and more aggressive. She did not have much respect or affection for that ‘male part’ of her but it was something she could do nothing about. It was nothing to do with the lumpy dangly bits between her legs, it was the inexplicable duality that was lodged firmly between her ears. The bits between her legs could simply be removed if that offered a solution but it didn’t. Drustina knew it was more than that and she was not prepared to undergo a painful mutilation with serious risk to her life simply to try and address the strange duality inside her head; a duality that paralleled the double deformity between her thighs. Besides, it was no concern of anybody else’s. She was what she was and no superstitious holy man was going to ever be allowed to condemn her for what she was born with. Her masculinity and her Toledo blade would make sure of that until she was too weak to wield it. She smiled to herself and for a brief moment she savoured the male parts within her that protected her femininity and gave her resolve.
These thoughts unsettled her and there was little more she could do so she distracted herself by enjoying the antics of her twins on her lap. They ended up playing ‘tickle’ and Tara watched a little enviously as her own clock began to ‘tick’.
The following morning the church relinquished all holds on the detained nuns. Thus excommunicated from the church they became vulnerable to persecution and they knew it. The proceedings of the trial had not been made public for it had been an ecclesiastical court so commoners and secular citizens had little idea why upwards of a hundred nuns had suffered the serious penalty of excommunication. They were allowed to walk free from the large hall where they had been remanded and more or less cast loose upon the streets. It wasn’t long before they were enduring abuse and assault as rumours flew and whispered charges of ‘witchcraft’ began to circulate. Fearful for their very lives, the nuns inevitably, gravitated to the only chance of security they could recognise, the ranks of Drustina’s band of warriors. The men had taken up camp in the port area where their ships were moored whilst Drustina had advocated in the court. Slowly, in dribs and drabs, the nuns had been forced to gravitate to that same port area which was usually thought of as the worst area of the town where prostitutes, pimps and thieves abounded.
Ironically Drustina’s warrior band had unwittingly brought a semblance of order to the immediate area around their temporary settlement just down river from the main port. Their tents and ships provided a safe haven of security and, being a tight-knit group of trusted friends amongst themselves, the encampment itself was thus safe and secure for the original wives who had accompanied their husbands all the way from Constantinople. The nuns were quick to realise this and within a Day of their release, Sister Catherine made a tentative approach to the leaders Carl and Eric.
“You ask that you might live amongst us!” Carl expostulated.
“We would be better served than if we tried to find acceptance among our own people.” Sister Catherine declared.
“But what happens when we leave?” Eric asked. “We might be stuck here now for the winter because of the delays of this confounded trial but come the spring, you can be assured woman, we will be off again to return to our homelands.”
Sister Catherine sighed.
“By then sir, I am hoping our band of sisters might have found a more secure circumstance, perhaps set up a hospice or something.
We are capable women; we can still do good work even if the church rejects us. We are young and strong and capable.”
‘And pretty’, thought Eric and Carl simultaneously, without either having confessed their thoughts to the other.”
The two Saxons glanced towards Urthos who shrugged as the Saxons’ gaze fell possessively upon Sister Catherine’s long lustrous hair, now visible to all since she no longer wore the nun’s habit and wimple. Urthos the Gaul returned the glance with a frown that confused the Saxons and they dismissed the nun so that they could discuss the situation. Sister Catherine was waiting nervously outside the leader’s tent until Drustina appeared with her toddlers at her knees. It was getting dark and she was making her way to her tent pitched right beside her beloved ship to settle with her children for the night. She squinted through the darkness before recognising the familiar figure.
“Hello Sister Catherine. I thought we’d seen the last of you.”
Sister Catherine hesitated nervously before explaining about the nun’s plight.
“We have nowhere else to go. The people of Torun despise us and it is not safe for us.”
“I know that,” Drustina replied, “but our protection is but temporary.”
“Yes, your lieutenants have already told me this. They are inside the tent debating our fate.”
“Drustina smiled knowingly.” She knew her lieutenants to be fundamentally good men but Drustina was not slow to spot the temptations that one hundred young virgins might put in the way of her loyal band.
She had Sister Catherine take care of her children and put her finger to her lips before silently creeping up to the flap of the tent to eves-drop on her lieutenant’s conversation. Urthos the Gaul was talking.
“You’d better put that out of your minds right now. These are honest women not whores and anyway, I for one am married.”
Eric replied with a snort of amusement.
“I wondered why you frowned just then. I wasn’t thinking of that you randy old boar I was thinking about a more honourable estate.”
Urthos paused before replying.
“I’m already wedded so that’s a non-starter for me. You lecherous pair can try them if you want. Offering marriage doesn’t seem like a bad solution and it would make honest women of them. Better than being reduced to prostitution or something.”
Carl let out a rough guffaw before agreeing.
“Ha. There’s a fine bevy of beauties and that’s no mistake. If they were to become prostitutes, we’d need the old convent at Hel to house the brothel. A hundred virgins though! They’d command a fine price. Mind you, there’s many a man amongst us who’d have any one of them for a bride; and another thing, we know they can crew a ship so they’ll be useful on the voyage home.”
“And no father to have to go begging cap in hand to, for permission to marry.” Eric added.
“Nor proving you are able to afford a bride.” Urthos added. “These women have no family now to demand a bridal price. They’re free, available and needy.”
Carl fell to chuckling again as he mused.
“I wonder what the old lioness would say to that.”
Drustina took it as her cue to surprise them and she slipped silently from the outside shadows to step grinning into the lamp-lit circle.
“Uhm, less of the old please gentlemen. This lioness is but a score and three years this past summer.”
All three startled lieutenants span around and scrambled to their feet as Carl was first to find his voice.
“Bloody hell Drustina! Don’t creep up on people like that!”
“And how much have you heard?” Urthos asked.
“I’ve heard enough you old lechers. You sounded like bloody farmers discussing a pedigree herd of cattle!”
“There was a brief embarrassed silence until Drustina grinned.”
“I must have been bloody blind. These nuns have appeared to me so holy and righteous that I had forgotten they were still women and pretty ones at that!”
“They are that!” Eric confirmed.
“Aye. Well just you mind that and you can forget about any bloody brothel full of virgins! I can’t think of a dafter concept. I think taking them for brides is a far more acceptable option.”
“D’you think they’d find us acceptable,” Carl wondered, “I mean we are little more than water-born vagabonds, footloose adventurers. I for one haven’t got much to offer a bride.”
Again Drustina grinned then her expression softened to a smile.
“Oh Carl, you sell yourself short. You can offer these women more than their wildest dreams cold ask for. They are pariahs in their own country, you offer them escape. They are vulnerable to every danger a woman can face, you offer them security. They faced years of seclusion and isolation as nuns, often forced there involuntarily, you offer them freedom and fulfilment.”
“Fulfilment? Eric asked with puzzlement wrinkling his brow.
Drustina let out an exasperated snort.
“Children you idiot! Motherhood! Matrimony. Do I have to spell it out!?
“Oh! I see now,” Eric replied as Carl wagged his head.
“Shit Eric! Sometimes you can be soo-oo dumb!” He turned to Drustina again. “Are the nuns amenable to this?”
Drustina corrected him.
“They’re ex-nuns now Carl and ex-nuns who go in fear of their lives and their safety. Bloody hell Carl did you not listen to a word of what I said in the trial? Women seek security; it’s a tough bloody world out there being a woman!”
“I dunno Dru, you’ve done okay!” Carl countered.
The familiar term of affection was something only her two oldest male companions Carl and Eric were allowed to get away with.
They had fought side by side with her through many a battle and she knew she could depend on them. More importantly, they had never censured her for her duality, in fact they held her in higher esteem and that counted much in Drustina’s heart, not to mention her head. Women were allowed to use the term of endearment liberally but familiarity by women rarely invited unwanted attention. Drustina replied thoughtfully.
“As a woman, I’m the exception Carl, but nobody knows that better than you and Eric. I count your comradeship amongst my highest blessings. Besides there are still parts to me counted as manly and you have respected me for that, but believe me, all three of you will know this. A woman’s lot in this country, where priests and bishops hold the people in superstitious bondage, is a perilous one. You saw how those priests in the trial held women to be the lowest of the low. For that alone, I detest them.”
The three lieutenants fell into a contemplative silence. They had hailed from a more liberal Saxon and Gaulish culture and they had not failed to see how women were treated as drudges in these Slav countries. Carl and Eric in particular had always been secretly amused and pleased when presumptuous men were put in their place by their warrior queen and her deadly sword. Drustina sensed the introspective mood settling upon the group so she decided to lighten it.
“Come comrades. I shall invite Sister Catherine to join us. Perhaps it might be instructive to ask her opinion. I warn you, she has told me how and why she joined a closed order and you will understand better of a woman’s plight.”
She added another goblet to the table and stepped outside to invite the sister to join them. For a moment Sister Catherine hesitated as deeply instilled habits fought with her instincts. Drustina sensed her reluctance and told her bluntly.
“Come Catherine! You are no longer Sister Catherine; you are no longer a nun. The vermin in that court made sure of that. You have only the archbishop’s magnamnity and compassion to thank for you and your companions very survival. You are a woman now, a free woman to choose her own path.”
“But what path oh Warrior queen? What path. We have nothing but the clothes on our backs. We are virtually beggar women.”
Drustina smiled knowingly and gently took Catherine’s hand.
“Oh I think not my girl. Come inside my lieutenant’s tent and we shall see.”
“But that is a man’s tent. I am a wo-!”
“A woman,” Drustina finished for her, “just as I am Catherine, just as I am! Now are you going to stand out here forever? There is a threat of snow in the air and you will freeze if you persist in standing out here all bloody night!”
So saying, Drustina gripped Catherine’s hand and literally dragged her into the tent. As she entered her nose wrinkled. The smells of fire smoke, roasting meat, men’s sweat, animal skins and leather were odours foreign to Catherine’s delicate nose and she bit her lip. The fire however spread a warmth that gave invite to Catherine’s chilled bones. She cast about nervously before Urthos relinquished his rough-hewn log and offered it with rough fatherly words.
“Dammit child! You look frozen. Sit here, close to the fire and out of the smoke.”
Catherine was about to scold the man for calling her a child but when she looked more closely, she realised he was older than the two Saxons. Instead, she smiled gratefully and moved close to the flames then took her seat by settling modestly with knees together and her habit arranged decorously about her legs and feet. Meanwhile, Drustina pulled a ferocious looking dagger from her belt and casually sliced some smaller, more delicate portions off the wild boar joint roasting over the open spit. Catherine studied the sharp edged dagger that Drustina had used without any second thought to its fearsome appearance as she tapped the pewter plate meaningfully to signal her message to Catherine.
“Eat woman, you look just about all in.”
Catherine teared up with appreciation then smiled with embarrassment as her belly rumbled in a most un-lady-like manner. She had not eaten all day. Drustina handed her some bread to accompany the delicious meat and invited her to take more if she wanted it. Something Catherine did with relish for the pangs of hunger gnawed at her vitals.
The next act however told Catherine lots about the famed warrior queen. Drustina returned to the roasting haunch of pork and proceeded to hack off a substantial flense of flesh then simply speared it on the vicious point of the same dagger as she joined the three men sitting with ankles crossed and thighs apart. If Drustina had been wearing a dress it would have been a most unbecoming, un-lady-like arrangement, but with britches, tights and a short embroidered tunic she looked every inch a man except for her obvious feminine curves and beauty.
As Drustina gnawed on her outsized portion Carl responded to Catherine’s obvious surprise and slight discomfort. Carl spoke softly so as to reassure the nun.
“Fear not good lady. Drustina is our comrade and leader. When amongst us, she dwells as a man but you could not ask for a better nor trustworthy female chaperone. That dagger you see has killed many a foe and yet protected many a maid’s virtue so eat up and enjoy what we have to offer.”
So saying, he filled Catherine’s goblet with more wine and sat drinking in Catherine’s beauty. Catherine recognised the attention and admiration and blushed but in the dim firelight it was not apparent. Drustina however, sensed the atmosphere and glanced aside to catch Catherine’s nervousness. Catherine caught her eye and Drustina nodded imperceptibly. She swallowed the piece of pork she had been chewing and asked Catherine bluntly.
“Have you and your sisters a place to sleep tonight?”
“No your majesty!”
This address brought gentle laughter from the three men as Drustina quickly put the nervous woman at ease.
“Ye Gods Catherine. I am amongst friends and companions here; comrades I trust implicitly. There is no need for such high born titles here. Besides I am not a queen. Call me Dru; Eric and Carl do.”
“What of Urthos?”
Drustina smiled again.
“Urthos is older; he treats me more like a daughter so he calls me dear or darling. It works; we are friends in this tent and also on the battle field. Now back to my question. Where will you and your companions sleep tonight?”
“I don’t know ... Dru,” Catherine answered hesitantly. “We throw ourselves upon your mercy.”
“Yes,” Drustina mused, “that’s what I thought. Well, there’s little I can do tonight. I can ask some of the men to relinquish their warm beds but space is at a premium. You can sleep in my tent tonight.”
This brought a chuckle from Carl and Eric and Catherine looked askance. Drustina flashed her lieutenants an angry glare.
“Brook no heed from them! They are dirty-minded buggers. Yes, I have a cock for I am dual but you will be sharing a bed with Tara my sister. I will have my children with me. They need their mother!”
Catherine looked even more concerned.
“I learned of this in the court hearings but now I see it at first hand. It is hard to encompass. I would love to see your children.”
“You will shortly. Finish your food and I will introduce you to my sister. There is also room in my tent several more of your companions but it will be a tight squeeze.”
“A warm crowd is better than a frozen isolation.”
“Well we’d best see to it as soon as.”
She turned to Eric and Carl authoritivly.
“For your dirty thoughts, you can organise the sleeping arrangements. Go and see the women safe.”
Carl and Eric grinned and Catherine noted there was no resentment. As the two lieutenants set off about the task, Catherine looked quizzically at Drustina.
“They must worship you. They left without a peep or a groan.”
Drustina smiled knowingly.
”D’you want to know a secret?”
“Those men were discussing you and your sisters earlier, d’you know what they were mooting?”
Catherine squinted and pursed her lips.
“I think I’ve got an idea. Something salacious I’ll warrant.”
“Uuhhm no actually. They’re not those sorts of men; well most of them are not. Don’t forget these guys have been through some pretty tough stuff. Eric, Carl and about fifty of them have been with me since they were freed in the Iberian anti piracy conflict. We got separated and met again occasionally as our paths diverged then rejoined. The rest sort of joined along the way since then; the Carthage campaign, Egypt and the Nubian battles, Constantinople and the Bulgar wars. All of them have fought alongside me at some stage. I know all of them by their first names; I promise you they’re not bad men.”
“So what were they discussing?”
Drustina wagged her head as she considered Catherine’s seeming naivety.
“Have you not got it yet?”
“Don’t play with me,” Catherine snapped, “what is it these rogues want?”
“They are not rogues Catherine. They are honest sailors, warriors and adventurers. I see you and your sisters are grateful for the protection they offer you now, so how is it you think of them as rogues.”
“They protect us, yes; but at what cost? What will be their price, our purity?” Catherine frowned.
Drustina lost her patience. She could not believe the ex nun could be so thick-headed.
“Dammit woman! They were discussing marriage. Can’t you get it through your stupid head, these men are returning to their homes. They are finished with wild adventures. They want to settle down! They will be looking for wives and partners to go forward with their lives! They’ve seen enough of wars and the world. Most of them have land and villages to return to; others are tradesmen with skills hard-won on their journeyings. All of them are proven soldiers who will be able to protect their wives and daughters from abuse or assault and all of them would treat their womenfolk fairly. I know these men Catherine, I know every one of them and I have fought beside them. They will see fair-play and justice done for they have mostly suffered injustice at some times in their youth; just as you and many of your sisters did. They were forced to leave their villages to find new lives; you women were forced into a closed order convent to get you out of the way.
My men simply want to return to their homelands and put down roots. What’s more, most of them have got nest-eggs accumulated from their successful battles. These men have prospects and some modest wealth despite their having been adventurers, rovers and wanderers. Your sisters could never again find a better opportunity to find safety and security. For God’s sake woman go and tell your sisters!”
“But we are excommunicated. We are condemned. What decent man would take us? The church has put a curse on our heads. Despite your wonderful advocacy we are still deemed to be murderers and criminals; witches even, by the superstitious ones.”
Drustina wagged her head as weariness overtook her.
“Would this damnable church ever forgo it’s maltreatment of women?’ She wondered. She spoke again sharply to Catherine.
“Listen woman for this is the last time of telling! These men do not give a toss for the church and its hypocrisies. They have seen plenty of murder and cruelty committed by the church in God’s name. This god, they preach as being peaceful and forgiving, is hypocrisy. Did those churchmen offer you forgiveness at the trial? No! They certainly didn’t, it was forced upon them by my advocacy and the swords at my back. The Archbishop knew this and in truth he secretly agreed with me. He knew full well that if he had sentenced you to be burned, my men would have gone wild. My men will not see healthy, pretty women wasted in the flames of some wicked witch-burning. They’ve seen enough of wanton slaughter and they all know that the church has been as guilty of instigating slaughter as the butchers who committed it. Catherine, you and your sisters were safe from the moment my men caught you and noticed your beauty. THESE MEN SEE YOU AS WIVES! NOT WHORES!!”
Catherine’s eyes first glistened with moistness then slowly, the tears began to flow. Tears of relief, tears exhaustion and finally tears of joy. Drustina frowned patiently then sighed.
“Aaahyyee. Go to bed woman. Sleep there in Tara’s bed. I’ve got work to do. I’ll be up half the bloody night sorting out safe beds for your sisters. Eric and Carl are good lieutenants but there’ll not be many of my men willing to give up good warm beds without some sort of price. They’ll more likely ask why the women cannot sleep with them tonight and marry in the morning. But I’ll see things done properly. I’ll not see the priests with ammunition to charge my men with immorality and I’m sure your sisters would prefer it done so that there can be no charges of nullity in any marriages they may enter if they choose. These are arguments I must put to my men now, now in the late of night when they would prefer to be abed. I think I would prefer to be encouraging them on the eve of a battle for that I am used to.”
Before Catherine could respond, Drustina threw on a cape and stepped into the cold of the approaching winter’s night. The sister was left staring at the swinging tent flap and an inviting bed. She was utterly relieved that another generous soul had taken on the responsibility for her sisters’ welfare and she was so tired, she immediately availed herself of Drustina’s invitation. She was so exhausted she did not even stir when Tara arrived to put the twins in Drustina’s bed and then crept into her own bed beside the ex nun. When Drustina crept back after the midnight hour having finally silenced the grumbling men and temporarily allocated safe berths to all the women she found her tent floor covered with grateful sleeping bodies and she had to pick her way carefully to her own bed and sleeping twins. She was the last to stir in the morning for Sister Catherine was quick to realise the organisational efforts by the Warrior Queen must have been wearisome duty. Sister Catherine had not lost the early rising habits of a nun and she had silently evicted her sisters without a murmur as she made sure Drustina slept on. Outside, as the sisters gratefully took on the domestic cares of the camp, Sister Catherine turned to Tara.
“Your sister is an unbelievable woman.”
“Don’t I know it sister!” Tara grinned back as she stirred a pot of inviting porridge mash. “Can you lay out the bowls on these tables?”
Sister Catherine was more than grateful to be of use for she had the security and pleasure of looking forward to a good hot breakfast. From another cooking fire where Eric and Carl sat laughing at some private amusement she also smelled the delightful aroma of cooking bacon. After doing as Tara asked she stepped over to the lieutenant’s fire. Unlike the warrior queen, Eric and Carl had no table and they were sat on their favourite log seat with their plates on their laps whilst demolishing the bacon with relish. She smiled inquiringly and they invited her to join them whilst offering her a thick slice of delicious bacon. Sister Catherine glanced over to Tara who nodded encouragement so she settled gracefully on the log. She nibbled appreciatively on the bacon rasher and blushed as she sensed Eric and Carl’s eyes land covetously again upon her. It was her intention to sound them out tactfully about Drustina’s words concerning marriage the previous evening.
“Are you happy to have us amongst you gentlemen?” She asked. “What I mean is; are we too much of an inconvenience?”
“Not if these women cook as they have this morning. It’s one of the first times I haven’t had to light my own fire and prepare my own food. I could grow to like this.”
“Look at those two over there.” Carl added. “Already they are airing the bedding and cleaning the ground around Frank and Harald’s tent. You’d think they had already married that pair of crazy buggers. Oops! Sorry, I must learn to moderate my language.”
“Where did Harald and Frank sleep last night? Eric grinned.
“Amongst the spare sails on the boats, like a lot of the other men.” Carl replied.
“Oh. I’m so sorry my sisters caused you so much discomfort.” Catherine apologised.
Carl let out another guffaw.
“Don’t worry girl. We men sleep that way every night when we are afloat and at sea. They’re well used to a bit of roughage. As of course, is Dru.”
Catherine’s eye teared up again in gratitude as she spoke again softly.
“Your queen is right. You are good men.”
“Speaking of queens,” Eric looked up, “here she comes. You’d best make room for her on our log. It’s also her favourite breakfast seat.”
Catherin eagerly slid her posterior along the log and patted the comfortable hollow invitingly. Drustina smiled appreciatively and took the most comfortable section of the log. It rocked slightly before Eric and Carl used their weight to stabilise it again and Catherin reciprocated the courtesy of the previous evening. She offered Drustina a generous portion of porridge and several rashers of the bacon hot from the pot. The mood around the breakfast fire improved considerably as the two women sat between the men and chatted about future plans.
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