Hakon’s Hardy Helmsman
By Peter Longmire
All Hakon could taste was the brackish salt that seemed to encrust every surface around him below the June sky. The wood beneath his fingers was fresh and raw; some items had not been given a coat of paint, leaving the wood to become brittle and splinter under the raw force that powered the ever-moving threads of water below. The filaments tried to grasp at the hull of the small cog, their long fingers failing to find a grasp as the wood slit the water’s throat with its elegant prowl.
Hakon ðe Falcon lent against the railing along the side of the cog, steadying himself against the lumber of the timber as it rose and sank through the rolling clouds of the sub aqua steppe. He had the figure of an archer: barrel chest and broad shoulders. A linen bucket hung from his waist, holding its cargo of finely whetted shafts of ash bearing bodkin heads; aided by the white goose fletching, they would strike home wherever an archer chose.
Beside him, a stand bore a few larger shafts with crescent-shaped heads; these would be shot at sails where the head would tear a single slash down through the canvas, aided by the arrow’s weight. Another selection bore heads swathed in fraying wool that had been dipped oil and would be set alight in the brazier beside it. A wooden ship in the middle of the sea could burn into the sediments along the ocean’s floor very quickly indeed.
Resting against his person, and balanced on his boot, was his war bow. This stave of yew was crowned at each end with a carved slither of horn inserted to give a strong nock on which the string would rest, bending the wood into a precision string instrument of war; he could play it like an Irish harp. Some of the other sailors had tried to draw the bow to its full compass in pride rather than interest but, despite their muscular appearance and drilled endurance, none had managed to reach anything more than half-draw. Those two-or-so feet would mean the difference between an arrow reaching two-hundred paces or fifty; it would mean the difference between an arrow whispering through platemaille or making a very expensive bell chime.
There were, of course, other archers aboard the small cog. An archer was expected to be able to shoot more than a dozen shafts accurately within a minute. Each one had proven himself in the grounds of England. A few men-at-arms lazed about the poop decks of other vessels like sunbathing reptiles, folds of metal serving as scales and a longsword and a smaller sidesword serving as horns or claws; each would help as they scampered onto the French ships. Those that wore their armour with pride resembled chitin-clad insects and smelt like very successful dung beetles.
He considered the nautical term: Poop deck. He giggled; 'poop', he mouthed.
The ships were manned by either archers or men-at-arms in a ratio of about two to one. The archers would decimate the crew of the enemy while the men-at-arms boarded.
In the distance, the folds of the Flemish coast melted seamlessly into the blueness of the world. They had anchored at Blankenberge the day before and three men, two English Knights and a Scot, had been sent by King Edward the Third to observe the French fleet; driven into fervour, the King had ordered the ship Captains to sail into the roadstead of Sluys at the mouth of the river Eede. The sun was behind them and the morning weather pleasant.
The soldiers on the deck began to prepare for combat. The archers crammed the small deck and atop the castles on the prowl and stern of the vessel while the men-at-arms waited in the shade of the single sails on their vessels. Hakon joined the archers in the forward castle. The English fleet of more than one-hundred-and-twenty vessels glided across the morning water, resembling a flock of geese that soared in the heavens above. They rounded the coast and turned to face the town of Sluys. The French masts obscured the roofs of the seaside town. Hakon stared at the enemy fleet in disbelief. He made rough count and guessed at well over two-hundred ships.
Hakon’s ship was unique amongst the English, for its owner had rigged a ballista on the forward castle and its crew worked frantically, readying the weapon. This giant crossbow could shoot spears-like bolts with enough force to rip and disembowel a vessel such as the one that they now rested atop. Whilst no ships in the fleet carried catapults like their Mediterranean counterparts, many had spent hours having large rocks hoisted to platforms atop the masts for the archers there to drop onto the decks of opposing ships. Stone would crush a skull as good as steel.
The English ships had formed two lines; the first would go into the attack while the second either flanked or reinforced the first line. The ship that Hakon was on was at the far right of the English lines; they would engage the left flank of the French lines. The French, however, had formed three or four lines with several of the largest in the front; all their ships had been tied together with thick rope, adopting classical open sea tactics. On the right of the English lines, the French had formed up their captured English vessels from previous battles. Hakon’s heart sank into the waters below when he saw The Christopher; boasted to be the largest vessel afloat, it had been captured by the bastard French and forced against its makers.
Very few of the other English vessels bore any weapons besides their crews; one or two of the larger vessels wielded small-bored cannons on their decks. The piece was an iron barrel held together by hoops of the same metal. White smoke ripped from a ship’s deck like a dropped sack of open flour; the crack as the air spilt followed a fraction of second later. A plume of water rose near the French formation; the crew would adjust the elevation accordingly.
The archers waited; their eyes on their target; their ears waiting for their Captain’s order; fingers on string and nock. The English ships encroached on the French formation; the wind blowing from the sea and filling their sails propelling them towards the mouth of the River Eede. The Captain shouted the order for the archers to nock sail-ripper arrows to their bowstrings. Hakon selected one of the shafts sprouting a crescent-shaped head and slid the ash shaft onto the yew stave and the horn nock against the string of his bow. He ignored the salt billowing across the deck.
“Feed these meat-bags to the fish and ravens! Show them the Jaws of Geri and Freki, Archers of England!” cried the archers’ Captain.
The ship-Captain bided his time for the gap to close. The siege weapons mounted on ships on both sides had already readied and loosed a volley; the projectiles fell dolefully short. The Captain suddenly shouted for the archers to draw. Hakon pulled on his bowstring with his three fingers. The yew stave made an effort to refuse the force but yielded to bide its time until it could flex back into shape. The goose feathers brushed his cheek and the string kissed his earlobe. He could see the crew of the nearest French vessel.
The order came like thunder behind lightning. “LOOSE!”
All the archers on the deck released their grip on their bowstrings and a salvo of almost a score of arrows soared into the heavens like a divine hail to strike the French down. Hakon didn't look to see if they had killed but he did watch his arrow for long enough to judge where it would hit. He corrected his aim on the second volley accordingly.
The English ships closed on the French and the boarding ships’ Captain moved the vessels into position as to board the enemy. The men-at-arms stood ready; two waited with a gangplank to bridge the gap between decks; others waited with grappling hooks to bind the ships together in anticipation for the slaughter. The archery Captain declared that all the archers would choose their own targets as they closed.
They were still a distance off the French vessel and there were several more around them. Hakon took his order and found another sail-ripper in his bucket. He notched the arrow to his string and sighted the largest French ship on the flank, The Christopher, whom was positioned in the French vanguard. Several large hawsers hung from its deck, holding it in position with the other French vessels. The hawsers were exposed and within range.
He drew an arrow and noted the swallowtail head; obviously someone had not sorted the arrows properly. Carefully, he took aim. He loosed. The arrow soared across the expanse and the swallowtail head grazed the rope, fraying the outermost fibres. He drew another swallowtail, chuckled at someone’s inanity, and shot again. The arrow’s sharpened outer edges severed the rope and it fell into the water with a splash. He drew another and sighted the next shot; he had been the best shot up at Bamburgh Castle in Northumbria and was now putting that claim to the test. Another archer had the same idea and was working on another rope; after just two shots, the second hawser parted. The Christopher was caught in the current and drawn out towards the English fleet, its course uncontrolled by its French sailors.
Another English vessel moved to engage it; the ship that Hakon was on drew closer to the first French vessel. The Christopher would have to wait.
The current pushed the disabled French ship towards them from the River Eede as far as the ropes holding the French vessels would allow. Their Captain ordered his men to bring their vessel alongside it so the archers could unleash a volley from a closer range; as they did so, their prowl caught on the ropes binding the French vessel to its sister like a placenta; the pull bringing the French ship closer and distorting the line. A few ships with men-at-arms closed and waited for them to clear the French deck of crossbowmen. Almost immediately, the French crossbowmen in their ship’s forward castle released a volley of quarrels towards their vessel. Then those in the aft castle followed suit. Several archers collapsed after catching a quarrel; men-at-arms raised their shields on the other English ships to defend themselves against the missiles.
The English longbowmen released a volley of their own and the French infantry were cut down mercilessly. While the longbowmen exchanged missiles, the men-at-arms of the other vessels boarded the ship with their gangplanks. They charged across and hacked at anything that reared its ugly head. French crossbowmen occupied only their castles at each end of the ship; the French infantry guarded the mid-section.
The men-at-arms of under both banners clashed and ferociously slaughtered each other.
Hakon selected an arrow that’s had been swathed in frayed wool soaked in oil and held it against the brazier. The oil evaporated and exploded into flames. He fitted the shaft against his bow stave and the string into the nock. He drew the flaming missile to his nose and spied a crossbowman standing in the French castle. He loosed and the burning arrow impacted against the Frenchman’s worn chainmaille and exploded. Fire cascaded across his chest and the oil seeped through his chainmaille and set his tunic ablaze. Hakon ignored his screams and selected another arrow.
The current pushed against the line of French ships, whilst wind-filled sails pulled the English ships pass their opponent. The gangplanks that connected the ships twisted and fell into the sea; a man-at-arms atop it tripped and fell into the brackish water. He hit the bottom before the water filled his lungs.
Hakon took a shot and a Frenchman fell against the railing and into the depths below.
An archer beside him laughed in both pleasure and fear. “If the fish could speak, they would speak French!” he cried.
By the way the boarding action of the other vessels was going, Hakon would have suggested that they spoke English.
The remaining English soldiers on the French vessel were slaughtered without the remainder of their number supporting them. Hakon’s ship became tangled in the ropes that held the French line together; their Captain tried to turn the ship to more friendly waters but the ropes caught underneath their vessel and ground it to a halt. Seeing a chance to board a vulnerable vessel, the French extended a gangplank and boarded their vessel with a renewed vigour before goose-fletched missiles cut them down. Those that survived began slashing with reckless abandonment. Many archers fell when their chainmaille and padded vests failed to stop an axe or sword. No men-at-arms were there to stop the French assault. It was the Captain’s snafu that they were close enough to be boarded.
Hakon dropped his bow and reached for his belt. His hand found the handle of his axe and he drew and swung the weapon at a Frenchman donned only in a tight-fitting tunic. The blade tore through the Frenchman’s armpit and cut into his chest; he had his sword raised above his head, a reckless move if any.
After a mild effort to remove the soiled axe, Hakon swung with the strength of an English archer. His broad shoulders powered his arms, giving the axe blade enough momentum to fold and bite through another Frenchman’s thin breastplate. The blade stuck and refused to move as Hakon tried to excavate the axe from the still-very-much-alive Frenchmen; the pull dragged the man against the railing and into the sea where he sank to join his English foe on the bottom, his boots sank into the silt whilst his lungs filled with saline water.
A French man-at-arms swung a massive sword at Hakon, forcing him to leap backwards before he drew his axe upwards as if to parry. He miss-timed the block, completely missing the sword, and his axe impacted on the bottom of the Frenchman’s helmet; the sword parting only the air. The axe blade tore through the thin metal of the visor and the curved edge ripped through his throat. Blood pulsed out in a spurting fountain as the man’s helmet twisted upwards.
Hakon desperately tried to remove his axe but the curved blade of the axe had caught on the inside of the visor. He wedged his foot against the dying Frenchman’s throat and pulled. The axe blade ripped the visor off and Hakon stumbled backwards; the remains on the visor slid across another man-at-arms’s helmeted face. The Frenchman screamed as Hakon fell on top of him, the axe blade and ripped metal of the visor wedged firmly under his helmet.
The Frenchman landed on one of the pots of oil set out for the archers’ flaming shots, upsetting the brazier in the process. The oil exploded over him and enveloped him in a fiery haze and flame. The railing and deck caught as the oil spread. Flames licked the rigging and ran up like plague-infected rats. The thick canvas of the sail was enveloped in the French oriflamme.
The French crossbowmen released another storm of quarrels across the deck, ripping through necks with a splatter of ruby mist. Hakon dived behind the mast and other archers to avoid being struck. Seconds later, a burning shot from a French pot-de-fer shattered the mast and bit deep into the cabin holding their supplies, tearing part of the rigging and ripping the sail. Unexpectedly, the cabin and stores detonated in a carbon-black cloud, the remains burned in little piles.
The blast knocked everyone to the deck and a few unlucky ones into the water, more so the ones thrown into the air. The French gangplank was sent spinning across the deck in the confusion, knocking a few men into the water. Their English ship tilted towards the French vessel and the remnants of the mast and rigging fell and caught on the French ship, catching it alight. Burning rigging whipped down and became tangled. Smouldering fragments of the canvas sail fell like fishermen’s nets and snared unlucky archers and men-at-arms. The two ships collided and grinded along one another; their hulls splintered and caved like flowers at dusk.
The English ship seemed to pivot around the French vessel and the rigging was wound tighter; the ropes binding the French ships together caught and pulled the adjacent French vessels towards them. Torque shattered the French mast and the English vessel pulled it across the deck as it righted itself and then lent dangerously away from the French ship, nearly colliding with another French vessel that had been pulled towards them by the interlacing ropes.
Hakon fell to the deck and rolled through the burning oil. His padded tunic was engulfed in flame and he fell against the railing. He rose screaming, desperately trying to pat out the flames. A piece of rigging fell from above, still attached to the remains of the destroyed mast, and swung against Hakon, knocking him into the water with a ear-splitting screech.
He hit the cold water but it felt like rock. And he sank like one. In shock, he almost inhaled but common sense told him not to. The flames attacking his person had been extinguished. Although the thick cloth of his padded tunic was scorched, his skin was not. He had not time to count his fortune, or lack of, as he descended into the murky depths. His eyes stung from the saline water, but he could see the descending bulk of his former vessel sinking, almost suspended in the water, in pieces. Debris sank with it a much faster rate, namely the encumbered men-at-arms who hit the silt bottom in record time, throwing up impressive clouds of mud and sand.
Hakon kicked and pulled at the water around him in an effort to resurface. He could not swim, like most people including the sailors that barely set foot onto land in their life, but his efforts were only successful in slowing his descent. He dropped his belt full of knives and other assorted pointed edges, and discarded his unwieldy chainmaille tunic and his gambeson that supported a few pieces of platemaille. With the excess weight falling into the depths, his efforts were rewarded and the glittering surf above seemed ever so closer.
He kicked and pulled towards the surface. His lungs were screaming for air; bubbles escaped from his nose and mouth as he fought back the natural instinct to inhale at all costs. He neared the surface, exhausted. He must have been only a few feet. The sun played intricate chords of colour and light across the alternating surface; it seemed so beautiful that he didn't realize that he had stopped kicking.
Sinking slowly, the light ensnared him. He was too exhausted to move and he was failing to resist the urge to inhale. His eyes slipped shut. The effort was too much.
Something grasped his wrist and the water rushed past him. His head breached the surface and but his lungs were dormant. Something struck his chest and he coughed into the air; the stale air escaping his maw. He inhaled and filled his lungs. They burned. They burned like the ships around him, except he wasn’t sinking to the bottom with them.
A face stared down at him through glazed windows encrusted with salt. He made no effort to direct himself as he vomited. Everything hurt.
“You’re good,” cried a voice, its accent Welsh. “Try to breathe!”
Hakon coughed again and flopped like a flounder.
“Breathe,” the Welshman almost begged.
He breathed hoarsely and realized his surroundings. He was on a raft. No, it was a piece of flotsam. He didn't recognize the Welshman before him but the man wore the garb of an archer with a twisted reminder of a bodkin hanging from a strip of leather around his neck; the item looked as if it had impacted against something hard, maybe the side of a Frenchman’s head. A tabard bearing the Cross of Saint George hung from his shoulders with pride and was secured by his belt. Only an archer could have escaped from that sinking ship; the sailors couldn’t swim and the men-at-arms were merely paperweights for the oceanic plates.
“You’re Hakon?” the Welsh archer queried.
Hakon nodded. “Hakon ðe Falcon,” he spluttered.
He struggled to sit up; the water was rough and waves washed over their little splinter of flotsam. Around them, ships burnt; some could not be identified as fires had gutted them.
“Do you have a weapon?” the Welsh archer asked.
Hakon’s hand fell to his belt and found the site vacated and devoid of any sharp objects. He resorted to drawing a small dagger from the sleeve his shin-high boots; the blade could slide through a visor and occupy the space between links of chainmaille with exciting consequences.
“Perfect,” the Welshman mused. “I’m Cǽrdydd.” He extended a hand.
Hakon took it. He looked behind him and saw the French ship drifting away. Fire still burned on her deck and had already gutted the cabin and towers. Cǽrdydd smiled.
“At least we took the bastards down with us, eh?” he said. “Now, we wait here until we can be picked up.”
“By English, I’m assuming?” Hakon replied.
“If it isn’t, you’re going to have wished that I left you drown,” Cǽrdydd answered. “They hate us archers. I’m assuming that this is your first battle against the French.”
“You’re learning fast. The French hate us, English… Welsh… other people… But they hate us archers even more! If you prove yourself in the Hundred Array, you instantly qualify to be hated by the French.”
Hakon looked over the burning fleets and wished he hadn’t opted to replace that married archer whose wife was expecting. Bamburgh Castle would be somewhat cosy in summer provided that you were camped in front of a bonfire. Northumbria seemed safe compared to all this. But then again, the Pale of Dublin, An Pháil Shasanach, would have been pleasant compared to Northumbria.
Cǽrdydd produced a large hooked dagger that could have been suited to removing someone’s larynx via their throat, with maybe taking detour at the brain. Hakon’s eyes followed the blade’s tip as if it was a divine light or something equally shiny. “I wager that if we get close enough, we should board a French ship,” he suggested.
“We would be slaughtered!” cried Hakon. “A knight or man-at-arms would easily kill us. With an axe or sidesword, maybe. But with a knife?”
“Have you ever seen how fast a Welshman can move?’ Cǽrdydd asked.
“Not in the way that you are suggesting,” Hakon admitted.
“We can mine any mountain, therefore we can outrun our collapsing mines!” said Cǽrdydd almost proudly. It would take a little longer to realize that this was an insult Welsh mining.
Hakon nodded. The plan was plausible, providing that their enemies were very bad at killing and they didn't die. He didn't like the chances.
The Welshman looked across the water with a hint of displacement. “I wonder if Slepnir can run across water… as a Saxon like you with such fair hair might wonder …” Before Hakon could question his musings, Cǽrdydd laughed like a Frenchman cuddling his dying oriflamme. ”To your Valhalla, then; Annwn can wait!”
Suddenly, the bowls of a beast churned and exhaled. Both archers watched as French ship was gutted by a cannon shot; the stone impacted through the forward castle, skimmed along the deck, ripped through the cabin and aft castle. The mast was left suspended for a moment, displaying the French colours of blue before gravity reached up and dragged it to hell screaming; puncturing the hull. The spine of the vessel shattered and it broke apart lengthways. Several shapes were ejected from the dying ship and they flew majestically with the dignity of a drunken Irishman before hitting the surf, skipping like flat stones.
The projectile continued on its path and skimmed the water beside the two English archers. The wave created as it dived into the sea pushed them towards another vessel. Hakon hoped that it would bear the Cross of Saint George but was throwing into despair when he saw the bright red fire of the oriflamme. The Welshman screamed in delight, placing his knife between his teeth and failing to notice when it drew blood from the corners of his lips and gums.
Their flotsam bumped against the mid-section of the French vessel. Rigging hung over the side after part of the mast had been struck by some large projectile. Cǽrdydd leaped off their floating wreckage and ascended the bundles of rope as if he was lighter than air, his head obviously inflated. Hakon followed suit; his fear of remaining on that flotsam outweighing his fear of being slaughtered by a Frenchman.
At least with the Frenchman he could smell the garlic before he killed or was killed.
Cǽrdydd had reached the top and he peered over before ducking to avoid detection. He smiled at Hakon with a delight found only in the chaotic mind of a Welshman before using his archer’s strength to throw himself onto the deck. Hakon heard metal scraping across bone and then several thuds.
Fearing that Cǽrdydd had been killed, Hakon stole a look over the railing. He could see a few French crossbowmen shooting out of the ship’s castles, their eyes trailing nearby English vessel. The sailors working the vessel were preoccupied. He couldn’t see Cǽrdydd.
Suddenly the Welshman’s face exploded over the railings, a big smile of his face. Hakon recoiled in fright and would have fallen if Cǽrdydd had not caught him.
“Careful,” he warned in a whisper. “You’ll kill yourself doing that.”
Hakon resisted the urge to knife the Welshman right then and there. He climbed into the deck and saw the bleeding husk of no less than three men-at-arms at Cǽrdydd’s feet; the Welshman was already caressing a dead Frenchman’s massive broadsword with a deadly smirk. Hakon relieved a Frenchman of his sidesword, its size perfect for him but the broadsword that Cǽrdydd now wielded looked small for the Welshman; his broad chest and thick arms gave the impression that he could cut a bloody swathe through an army.
The Welshman certainly thought so.
“Right, now if we can…” Hakon began but Cǽrdydd refused to consider subtle options.
He approached the forward castle and charged the reloading crossbowmen. He had cut through half a dozen of them before any of them could draw their daggers or shortswords and then they were disadvantaged by about two feet of edged steel. Hakon watched as Cǽrdydd slaughtered them. He thanked his luck that this Welshman was on his side.
Suddenly the French sailors rushed Hakon. He lashed out with a few quick conservative slashes that easily slid through the rags that the sailors wore. The fight was over very quickly. Cǽrdydd stormed towards the aft castle and introduced the crossbowmen to the intriguing properties of sharpened steel.
Hakon reached the cabin door and kicked it down. Inside were several men-at-arms and Frenchmen donned in expensive and elaborate armour. They looked up from several large maps and charts stretched out across the table they all sat around. Silently, one removed a falchion from the wall mount. When no one came to Hakon’s aid, they barred their rotting teeth; the stench of garlic filled the chamber.
Hakon tried to shut the door but realized the lock and the mid-section was gone. He retreated from the cabin but stopped and flinched when he heard the shattering of wood and fell to the deck as the ship suddenly lurched. He found his feet and realized that the cabin that had hitherto been occupied was crushed by a fallen mast of another ship. The adjacent vessel was slowly being pulled down by the weight of another sinking ship
Cǽrdydd swore profanities from rear end of the aft castle, through luck alone it had not been smashed or dragged into the sea by the fallen mast and rigging. He edged across a few outstretched beams and descended the surviving steps and onto the deck.
The both laughed and bellowed to the wind and smoke their victory.
They were silenced by the scream of several dozen arrows that whistled overhead; they dived for cover and found it under the wreckage of the destroyed aft castle and cabin. A massive English ship was approaching them; Hakon could almost see the archers readying another volley.
“They do know that we’re…?”
“Quick!” cried Cǽrdydd. “Remove the banners!”
Hakon rushed to the railing and used the sidesword to cut away at the bonds holding the banners of golden French lilies on a blue background. He worked furiously. That next volley would be coming any minute now. Cǽrdydd rose up the remains of the rigging like a dexterous seraph. He drew his curved knife from his scabbard of his molars and severed the oriflamme, letting the wind take the roaring banner. He stripped off his tabard and desperately fumbled with the ropes on the mast. He finally gave up working the rope and thrust his knife into wood, pegging his tabard bearing the Cross of Saint George.
The wind rippled through the banner of red on white, like blood on sand. Cǽrdydd screamed his greeting to the English vessel while the oriflamme fell into the surf and sank as the rest of the French fleet would, finally extinguished. Hakon liberated the last French banner to a fate to the water below and waved to the English vessel.
The archers on the English ship cheered at the sight of the fluttering tabard. They removed the arrows from their bowstrings and replaced them into their arrow buckets. On the prowl of the vessel was the name in white paint: The Portsmouth; an archers’ vessel. The Captain of the English vessel waved to them and gestured for them to board. The English ship was near enough to jump to and both archers had to make a run to catch the vessel.
Hakon and Cǽrdydd landed on the deck and we helped up by their fellows. The Captain approached them; Cǽrdydd’s massive sword swung up and across his breast as he stood to attention. Hakon watched with a mild interest and then followed suit.
“How many of you boarded that vessel?” the Captain asked.
“Just us, Cap’in!” replied Cǽrdydd; the tone was patronizing.
“You look like archers. Archers are supposed to shot, not board.”
“We tried multitasking, Cap’in!”
The Captain nodded and turned to leave. “Get these men bows and find some arrows for them. Get ready, men. We are to retake The Christopher! And the rest of the Frenchs’ fleet!”
Those onboard cringed and looked for something hanging off their boots to distract them. The ship rejoined the remaining English formation; several vessels had already tried to take The Christopher and they surrounded her like ants around aphids. The Christopher dwarfed the English cogs and was now floundering in the English lines after its moorings had been severed. The remainder of the French fleet squabbled over their hulls with that of the English.
Several Genoese galleys were making a run through and around the English lines for the open sea, using their oars to sail upwind. Their flight hampered by barge loads of Flemings who had poled their way through the shallows and now smashed the galley’s oars with barge and axe before swarming over the gunwales to slaughter the crews. As the Flemings boarded their galleys the Genoese found that even gardening paraphernalia could till a chest as easily as it did soil.
The lethal battle allowed the others in the Genoese fleet to make their escape.
The ships were arranged like the walls and baileys of a siege; their castles serving as the towers and battlements. The Portsmouth drew closer to The Christopher’s flank and moved to box the monstrous vessel in so that the English men-at-arms could board it. Hakon and Cǽrdydd were given bows and a selection of arrows. Hakon strung his bow and drew it back to test the wood; it felt old and worn, like his first bow that he had been given by a relative, and the string twisted as he drew. He lowered the bow, chose a broadhead arrow and notched it to the string.
They closed on the French-held Christopher. They finally had a clear view of the deck and realized that they could not shoot without presenting danger to the English onboard. This did not remain a problem as the English boarders were quickly repelled again.
The archers on The Portsmouth, atop the castles and deck, took aim and loosed. The feathered missiles cut down the immediate French soldiers. The men-at-arms aboard the surrounding English ships readied gangplanks and grappling hooks. A second volley decimated the French ranks; those that survived hid behind great shields and tried to form a turtle-like formation and took the arrows.
The men-at-arms vessels received the order to board and they launched the grappling hooks over to the French-held Christopher and heaved. The ships edged closer respectively. When the distance was small enough, the men-at-arms dropped their gangplank and stormed across to the deck of The Christopher.
The archers picked off stragglers that turned their backs to them to face the men-at-arms or those that were foolhardy enough to leave appendages exposed. Hakon had an arrow notched and ready; he watched a Frenchman raise his shield to block a poleaxe blow and drew when he saw exposed chainmaille. Luckily he had selected a long bodkin. He loosed and the arrow exploded across the divide.
As the wakes of nearby ships rocked the ships, both The Portsmouth and The Christopher rode each wave crest; this movement disturbed Hakon’s aim and the long tip of the bodkin slid through a link below the Frenchman’s belt. He crumpled over and a man-at-arms finished him by a hacking blow with his poleaxe into his chest; Hakon’s original target.
Hakon winced and selected another arrow; this time, a broadhead. He sighted in a sailor trying to raise the sail; he wore minimal armour. Hakon drew and loosed. He watched the triangular head rip through the sailor’s flesh and the momentum knocked him down. Hakon took another arrow and selected another victim; the men-at-arms could finish the ones he downed.
With another arrow and the movement of the ships, he missed again only to sever another artery in a Frenchman’s groin. He muttered an apology and then realized his mistake. Deciding to redeem himself, he made several more shots and made sure that each was another blow to French pride.
“I saw that,” Cǽrdydd said before having to control his breathing to take a shot. A crossbowman fell off the aft castle. “The string is too long,” he muttered to himself; annoyed that he had to draw past his ear to get the bow’s true power only to rob it of its precision. He made a mental note to shorten it.
“Really?” Hakon asked. He drew a shot another, a purpose-selected sail-ripper; it tore another artery below a Frenchman’s belt. “Did you see that?”
“It would bring a tear to my eye if I could cry,” the Welshman replied, “unfortunately, all this French garlic has dried them up.”
Another English ship was brought parallel to The Christopher and they drew themselves close with grapples and lay a gangplank. Men-at-arms stormed the deck and supported those from the other boarding vessels. The Frenchmen in between were slaughtered.
The archers did not have a clear target and thusly ceased their shooting. Hakon and Cǽrdydd watched as Frenchmen after Frenchmen was hacked, sliced and mashed to death. After such a drawn out defence made by the French crew of The Christopher, they had lost so quickly. The men-at-arms cheered out their victory and began looting the dead. The Genoese were beginning to retreat from the battle early, some galleys holding off the localized English attacks while the remainder made a break for it. The French, who weren’t bankers, proved poor pickings so their corpses were rolled overboard for the fish and gulls.
The Christopher had been retaken; her crew now English.
Cǽrdydd removed the damaged bodkin around his neck and dropped it across Hakon’s shoulders. “This was the head that got me my first kill on French soil; it’s brought me luck so far. Take it; a young archer like you needs every shred of luck he can get.”
“Don’t you need it?” Hakon asked. The metal head felt colder and heavier than it should.
“Nar,” the Welshman answered.
It was still early in the battle but the recapture of The Christopher had given the Englishmen hope. The Portsmouth and her archer crew departed and provided support for the other boarding ships attacking the French host.
“The French Knights are much braver than our English brothers,” Cǽrdydd mused as their vessel departed The Christopher.
“How so?” asked Hakon, readying another arrow.
Cǽrdydd smiled and looked down into the water where several diminishing trails of bubbles rose. “We English do not dare to jump into the sea in full armour.”