Last week, we started the story of the Pirate Yule. If you haven’t read it, follow this link, since I’m not giving you a synopsis. I hope you enjoy the story, and have at least as much fun as the pirates this holiday season, whatever it is you celebrate. This is our last post of the year, too, so for our Green Willow Day we will be looking forward to bringing out book 7, Willoughby the Narrator, and maybe even book 8, The Princelings of the North, as well. And if you’re behind with your ebooks, check the link to the Princelings of the East Box set Books 1-3, available on Smashwords for Kindle as well as iTunes, B&N and Kobo.
Happy new year!
A Pirate Yule
Part Two – Castle Marsh
On a two day trip, ten men could handle the sailing barque, and Captain Argus knew it. He could even give them time for sleep by taking the wheel himself, which he did. They were all hardened sailors, ex-pirates, if only they could lose that tag now they were honest people living in a castle and trying to make their living within the strange customs of the Realms.
One of the few people who treated him as an equal was King Fred of Castle Marsh, and most of his people, come to that. Like everywhere, Marsh took in travellers, people who had lost their homes in the troubles further north. Some of them treated Argus and his men like dirt, but most realised that being homeless was not in itself a reason for contempt. They were, in fact, in the same boat, so to speak. There were even people in places of responsibility that had once been pirates, Frankie being one of the blackest both in deed and appearance.
“Where are you berthed?” Frankie asked as Argus entered the castle gates with four of his men.
“Down at Brey. In case of more storms.”
Frankie nodded. “Wise. We’ve no spare accommodation, though, and I reckon there’s going to be more snow.”
“We’ll go back once we’ve seen King Fred. It’s urgent, or I wouldn’t have come at Yule.”
“Of course. I’ll tell Haggis you’re here; there’s a new thing about ID cards, I don’t suppose you’ve got them?”
Argus screwed up his face. Why on earth would a free man want an ID card? Frankie laughed at his expression. “No, well, we’re not worried about people we know.”
“That’s why I want to talk to King Fred. Keep an eye out for people you used to know. Tell you more afterwards.”
Frankie nodded. “Fred’s just about to open the Narrathon, you’ll find Jupiter’s Tavern pretty empty, although most of the waiters are up in the tent in the courtyard. You can go to the Narrathon, of course.”
Argus looked at his men. The sparkle in their eyes told him the Narrathon took priority. Frankie saw that too, chuckled and waved them through.
“Is Willoughby speaking?” Argus checked.
“No, the legendary Willoughby has got too many old promises to fulfill this Yuletide that he can’t even attend his home castle. We’ve got other good speakers though,” Frankie added as their shoulders sagged.
“Ar wer lookin’ forrad ter ‘earin’ ‘im,” grumbled Bodger.
They made their way to the upper courtyard, although there were so many makeshift dwellings in the lower one, it could hardly be called a courtyard any more. It all looked clean and tidy, with a light covering of snow, and the paths between the various entrances had all been swept clear. ‘Very shipshape,” Bodger muttered to Archie.
“I’ve always liked Castle Marsh. Very clean.”
Bodger nodded, looking sideways at him. They hadn’t been in many castles, except in the old days, when they raided them.
In the upper courtyard King Fred had finished making speeches and was listening to a story-teller. They settled down to enjoy themselves, realising this was one of the better ones from Marsh, a youngish person with ginger hair, who spoke well. The story was about flying, and every now and then he put his arms out straight to imitate wings, and moved around on the platform as if he was in the air.
“He’d best not fall off, or he’ll ruin t’effect,” Bodger whispered, and they giggled, earning them some stern looks from their neighbours.
“Thank you, and well done, Geoffrey!” said King Fred as Geoffrey finished amid loud whoops and cheers. “Our next narrator is Nesta, who’s been practising for weeks, as those of you in the north tower will know!” A group of people cheered and laughed, and shouted encouragement to Nesta as she took the platform.
“You stay here and listen,” whispered Captain Argus. “And be polite.”
He nipped off round the back of the platform and said something to the tall person standing behind it. Bodger could see the tall chap step up to whisper in the king’s ear. He spoke to the person next to him, another ginger-haired fellow, and then quietly stepped off the platform, beckoning to Argus to follow him.
“Cap’n’s got his attention, anyway,” Bodger said.
In the quiet of the corridor of the west tower, Fred turned to Argus. “Let’s sit here,” he said, pointing to a bench. “What brings you all this way? Can’t be our Narrathon!”
Argus did not waste time in chitchat.
“Had a visitor. Washed up on the sandbanks in the storm the other night. Got his crew off as we went out to save them, but spent a few hours drying off with us. Did a swap, one of our ships for the rest of his journey, and we’d salvage his, and get some of the booty he’d got aboard.”
“Aye, and one you know well. Too well, perhaps.”
Fred frowned. “Apart from you and — you don’t mean Ludo, do you?”
“Aye.” Argus’s face was grim.
“Oh, heck.” Fred’s face fell, while Argus broke into a smile.
“That’s the best reaction to his name I’ve ever heard.”
Fred sighed. “Where’s he gone, do you know?”
“He was going north from us, but he said three to four days. I was worried he might try something here with you, being he used to be king afore your uncle, but you’re only two days from us, max.”
“So where would three to four days get him?”
“Somewhere up Humber way, I reckon, maybe a little further.”
“Come and look at my map.” Fred led the way to his office, where he pulled out a large piece of paper with lines curving all over it, and some symbols here and there with small writing next to them. “Here’s Humber, look.”
“Yeah. I don’t reckon he’ll be doing much with them fellas, though. Somewhere further up the coast, maybe. What’s this place?”
“It’s just a small place, fishing place, harbour in a storm, though, I thought you’d know about it.”
“Not me, I kept to the Sleeve mostly. Could he beach up around here?”
“I think the beaches would be further up or further down. It’s all cliffs along there—oh, except for these places.” Fred pointed to an inlet and also a wide bay.
“Yeah, he could land there, although he’s only got one tender if it’s for the beach. Why, though? There’s nobody of a real sea-faring mind up there. We’d have met them.”
Fred stared at the map. Puzzlement changed to some sort of comprehension. “Did he say if he was coming back, and when?”
“No. Oh, he said he was seeing some rebels, but I don’t know if he meant it.”
“Yes, I bet he is,” muttered Fred. “Well, thanks, Argus, this is important news. I think he’s gone visiting family that live in the forest up there. I just hope he doesn’t want to come visiting what’s left of his family here afterwards.”
“Do you need some extra fighting men, in case he does?”
Fred chewed his cheek, as he did if he was seriously worried. “No. I can’t see why he’d benefit from letting us know he was around. I’ll just warn Haggis to put his people on the alert. I’m really glad you came, though. Thank you. How long do you want to stay?”
“Well, if you’re doing food after the Narrathon, we’d like that, if you don’t mind. Then we’ll get back to the ship and get home before the weather gets worse.”
They left the office and went back to the courtyard.
“Looks like the weather’s worse already.” Fred brushed the snow out of his eyes; it was snowing hard. “Can you shelter in the food tent if you need to stay the night, or..”
“Aye, that’ll be fine. Frankie said you were pretty full.”
“I must get back. See you later, and… thanks.”
Fred shook his hand and scurried back to his platform. Nesta had finished, and Bronwyn had taken over. They were all much improved with just a few months of Willoughby’s tutelage. He hoped their new steward had reached his next engagement safely. Willoughby had set up their own festivities then left to fulfill engagements at Arbor, Longmoor and the inn of the Seventh Happiness. I could always send Victor a note, Fred thought.
The applause for Bronwyn’s story took him by surprise. George, sitting next to him, saw he was in deep thought and stood up to thank Bronwyn, and introduce the next speaker. Fred’s thoughts turned to Kira, who was resting in the warm. I’ll take her some food later.
“You okay, brother?” George asked as he sat down.
“Yes. Just some odd news from Roc. Tell you later.”
Captain Argus sat back with his men to listen to the rest of the stories. He watched their faces in the candlelight, lit up from imagination and not just the flickering flame. When the Narrathon ended they crowded into the food tent with the others, and ate hot stew, with warm bread, and drank mulled ale made in the traditional way. Some of the bolder girls came up and spoke to them, and they chatted about the stories and where they were from.
“My dad was a pirate,” one of the girls said. “He’s a carpenter now. Makes lovely tables and stuff.”
“I do that too,” said Bodger. “Mebbe I know ‘im.”
“Maybe,” she said, smiling at him, and then she slipped away through the crowd. Bodger saw her with an older woman and a man with a scar on his ear.
“Do you know that guy with the scar?” he asked Archie.
“Looks familiar. Why?”
“Just wondered. Wouldn’ it be nice ter have families around at Roc.”
Archie looked at him, but he privately agreed. The men enjoyed their own company like on board ship but increasingly, when they saw other castles, they knew they were missing out. How could they ever persuade some family people to stay with them, though?
“If you were getting a yuletide gift from someone,” Bodger asked, “what would you want?”
“A nice new hat and a pair of handwarmers,” said Archie immediately, although the idea had gone straight from seeing someone dressed up warmly, via his brain, to his mouth.
“Yeah.” Bodger watched another young woman taking off her hat and handwarmers in the cosiness of the tent.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have some of these people at Roc,” said Argus eventually, voicing all their thoughts. He got up and went in search of Frankie.
Eventually, as all parties do, the energy dropped and people started to leave. As the throng thinned, the pirates were left in their little group, and they moved over to sit nearer the fire.
“You staying the night, then?” asked the woman in charge of the catering.
“Aye, reckon we’ll leave at first light,” Archie replied, then added, “I don’t suppose you know a few families who’d like to come and join us at Roc, do you?”
Jupiter, the caterer, smiled at them. “You feeling a little lonely this Yuletide? From what I hear it’s a tough life you have there.”
“I don’t think it’s any tougher than anywhere else. Not really, although I suppose if it’s just one or two women, it might be.”
“Tell you what, if I hear anything, I’ll get the word out that families are welcome at Roc, and you never know, come spring you might get some people wanting to give it a go. Winter, they stay put. Too dangerous travelling in the wilds. Oh, and by the way, it’s still snowing. You might be here a few more days.”
“Oh, we’ll be okay. Never let a little weather stop us.”
Jupiter nodded and said goodnight.
“Now there’s a fine woman,” Archie said, eyes following her.
“I ‘spect she’s taken, Archie,” Bodger said, his eyes on one of the other women who left with Jupiter. He sighed.
Argus came back in. “Had a good evening, men?”
“Well, we’re here for the night. I reckon it’ll be settled and frosty in the morning, so we’ll make good time getting back to the ship. Then home, eh?”
But the usually cheerful word ‘home’ had a certain wistfulness about it.
The next day they set off, if not at the crack of dawn, then at an hour suitable for the tide. Frankie came down and saw them off, handing them bags of spare provisions and having a quiet word with the captain just before they left. Argus grinned, then set his face to a neutral expression as he ordered the men off down the track to their wild harbour.
The marsh was quiet, not even the reeds crackled under the ice, with the weight of the snow lying them sideways and a lumpy path showing the way ahead and scrunching under their footsteps. Their breath steamed, and most of them pulled a hat or scarf around their ears to stop the tips freezing.
They shared the food with the men who’d guarded the ship, and cast off from the banks, to slip through the narrow entrance to the harbour on the ebb tide.
The wind was light, but the tide was with them, and by the time it turned they were far into the river estuary they had to cross to get home. It was an easy journey, and they made it in record time.
The next day Argus called all the men together, around a fire.
“Men, we started this Yuletide a day early, so I’m going to end it a day early too. You’ve done a fine job with the ship, bringing it off the sandbanks, and making it watertight again, and we’re going to need it in the near future.
“We went to warn King Fred, which we did, that Ludo was in the area. Now it’s possible that Ludo may be back to plague us all, but we don’t want that, we want peace with the Realms, and it’s King Fred who is our best chance. But more than that, we want some of the things we saw at Marsh. Families, kids running around, people enjoying themselves and things we miss. And I have some great news, news that makes this our Green Willow day, when we look forward to improving our lot here at Castle Roc, to living a respectable life, with fun and food and friendship.”
“And fish!” called out one wag, which made everybody laugh.
“Yes!” Argus laughed with them. “Never forget the fish. But my news is this. Our friends at Marsh, Frankie and his mates, spoke with us, and they spoke with the king, good King Fred, and a few other people, and they suggested, and I agreed, that when the spring comes, all those who want more space, and that includes three families with fourteen girls between them, and another group of six women who stick together since they were exiled together, all move down here to Castle Roc. What say you to that?”
But he didn’t need to ask, because the men were already cheering. So many people joining them would be a message to others that Roc was a good place to live, despite its past.
It was the best present they could have, promise of a life as a community, not just as ex-pirates.
Everyone at Castle Roc now looked forward to what spring would bring.
At Castle Marsh, Fred held Kira’s hand and told her of events. She approved, as he knew she would. If Ludo was around they were prepared for him, as they were for many things, including the new children as and when they would be born. Jasmine, Arthur and Young George would have new siblings in the spring, as long as Kira saved her strength and let others do the work. It had been a good Yule. Now for whatever the new year would bring.
© J M Pett 2016