© Fiona Honor Hurley
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*Indicates italics in the text*
*West Cork, Ireland. April 1604.*
Captain Ben Pascoe grabbed the handrail as the *Bessie* tilted to starboard.
Some of his men were not so quick and slipped sideways on the deck. The next wave broke on the boards, seawater and rainwater mingling. Ben licked cold salt from his lips as he steadied himself for the next swell. God Almighty, this was a vicious night!
He’d known they were in for a storm at sunrise when the eastern horizon blazed scarlet. They should have been safe in this bay, out of the open ocean. But the coastline ahead was jagged, its rocks the same grey and black as the sky. They needed to pull the mainsail in and slow the ship, or the *Bessie* would meet those rocks too soon.
“Reef the main!” He yelled over the raging sea. “Quickly, by Christ!”
He didn’t know if anyone could hear him, but Jameson saw where he pointed and started ordering the rest of the men. Young Robin lost his balance, flailing his arms like a seagull. Ben caught the cabin boy before he collided with the rail.
“Will we find a place to anchor, Captain?” Robin’s voice cracked, the high pitch of his last syllable lost to the shrieking wind. His thin body shivered, and he pulled his soaking hat further down onto his ears. The youngest of the crew, but as likely to die as any of them.
Ben must not show fear. Any lack of confidence would trickle down from the captain to every member of the crew. His leather jerkin kept his midriff dry and almost warm, but his woollen breeches and stockings were soaked, and his hair dribbled freezing water down his back. He’d left his sword and gun in his cabin. Not that any weapon was useful when their foe was the sea itself.
“We’ll find a place to anchor.” Ben slapped the boy gently but firmly on the arm. “Now go and get your orders from Jameson.”
The bosun was easy to find; Jameson was burly and wild-bearded, one of the few crewmen taller than his captain. He bellowed commands over the roar of the storm, where necessary grabbing the man and propelling him in the direction of his duty. The men of the *Bessie* worked as one body. If any crew and any ship could make it through a storm, Ben would wager his life on this one.
He prayed that wager would not be called in tonight.
He tried to note where the shore seemed less treacherous, but the squalling rain obstructed his vision. Earlier that day, the crew had spotted a huddle of thatched cottages on one side of the bay and a square castle on the other. So the coastline was inhabited, but God alone knew whether the locals would be hospitable or murderous.
The bow dipped. Each time Ben thought he’d hardened to the cold, another biting wave taught him otherwise. The wind increased, billowing the sails outward.
“Hard to starboard!” he yelled.
But the next wave was larger than any they’d experienced yet, shoving the *Bessie* too far and too fast, lifting her and then letting her fall with a sickening crack. Ben fell arse-sideways onto the deck; the pain and lack of dignity might have bothered him more were the situation not so desperate.
What made him realise the sea would have no mercy for them tonight? Was it the moans and prayers of his men? Was it the grey of that sky, hanging over them like an anvil? Or was it the gurgling of water rushing in beneath deck?
“Man the bilge pump!” Jameson yelled. “Now, you beef-witted louts!”
The *Bessie* had run aground. Ben pulled himself upright and prepared for one last effort to save his ship and his men. God help them all.
Ailish Sullivan poked a stick at the crackling turf on the hearth, and watched the milk in the pot begin to simmer. Smoke curled around the room and upwards towards the ceiling, where it met whistling gusts coming through hollows in the thatch. She had to raise her voice to be heard above the roaring wind and sea.
“The magic of his song parted the storm and let them sail their ship to land.” Ailish finished the story.
Young Bridie yawned like a cat and laid her head on Ailish’s lap. Conor sat cross-legged on the other side of the fire, the flames reflecting in his auburn hair and ruddy cheeks.
“Getting worse out there.” Nora stood up and shook the ashes from her hem. She looked so like Conor, a stranger would have mistaken her for his mother rather than his aunt.
Only four in the house tonight. On a normal evening, the cottage might be full of neighbours, or the family might have gone visiting. But who would be fool enough to venture outside in such weather? Inside, Ailish and her little family were sheltered by four thick walls, warmed by the fire that never went out. Inside, they were safe.
“That wind would blow you halfway to the Americas.” Ailish stroked Bridie’s dark hair and leaned a hand against her warm cheek.
A bubble popped on the surface of the milk.
“Where are the Americas?” her daughter murmured.
“A long way away,” said Conor. “Where beasts and wild people would eat you.”
Bridie sniffed, inured by now to her brother's attempts at frightening her. The rooster shook his tail feathers and settled himself between the two hens under the table. Rain came down in torrents, splattering against the oiled cloth that covered the window. It was near sunset, but neither sun nor moon would be visible out there.
“The men made the right choice to leave off fishing for the day,” said Nora. That morning, when the sky gave a scarlet warning at daybreak, the men of Ardnamara made the hard decision to go without the day’s catch.
“I saw a ship on the bay earlier,” said Conor. “Not one I’ve seen before.”
A stranger’s ship? Could mean trouble. Maybe this storm would blow that ship out of the bay, away from Ardnamara. God forgive Ailish for wishing harm on strangers, but her life didn’t need such complications.
Nora poured a little ale into the warm milk. She ladled some of the posset into two mugs and handed them to her niece and nephew. When the children finished the drink, Ailish ushered them to the other room.
The rushes on the floor smelled sweet and fresh, laid earlier that day before the storm set in. As Conor tugged off his breeches, Ailish knelt behind Bridie and began to unravel her braids.
“We don't see as many ships as we used to.” Conor pulled on a nightshirt. It used to belong to his father and was long enough to cover his legs. “Where do you think this new one came from?”
“Most likely from the sea.” Ailish ruffled her son’s curls. He grimaced but didn’t pull away. At eleven, he could still tolerate her teasing, but how much longer would that last? “Now, prayers!” She made a sign of the cross, and the children knelt beside her on the rug. “We call upon the Holy Trinity to shield and to surround this hearth and household. This eve, this night, and every night.”
“God and His Holy Mother bless our Mam.” Bridie’s little voice was barely audible over the storm. “And our Auntie Nora, and my friends Peg and Sheila.”
“And our Da in Heaven,” Conor nudged her. “And Uncle Aidan.”
“And our Da in Heaven.” His sister closed her eyes and pressed her hands closer together, praying for a man she could have no memory of. “And Auntie Nora’s Aidan.”
The wind bellowed louder, and a tumbling branch smacked against the side of the house. Just as it had howled that night, when Bridie had been just a babe and Conor a small boy. That night when Tomás and Aidan were on the sea, and never came home. Ailish shook the sorrow from her head. Mother of God, you’d think she’d be used to being her own woman after seven long years. Every man knew, when he kissed his wife at the doorway, it might be their last kiss. Every woman knew, when she watched her husband walk to the boat, it might be their last goodbye. You could wail to Heaven, but it wouldn’t bring him back or put food in your children’s bellies.
“And God bless the men on the sea tonight,” said Ailish.
“God bless the men on the sea tonight,” the children repeated.
“Amen,” said Ailish.
Ailish kissed Bridie’s forehead as she tucked the rug around her, inhaling the sweet scent of her hair. May God and His Holy Mother watch over them all. Outside, the sea continued to churn and crash against the shore.
Ben lifted his head and gulped the air greedily before another ice-cold wave engulfed him. He was on his knees, something wooden – a mast? a plank from the deck? – pinning his left calf to the seabed. Saltwater filled his throat; seaweed swirled around him. Was this how Ben would die, held down and claimed by the sea?
When the wave passed, he had a moment to breathe again. By Christ, that was the sweetest-tasting air. Through dripping hair, he watched the shadows of his men rush around the remains of the *Bessie*. So they’d breached in shallow water – that was small comfort as another freezing wave swallowed him.
He needed to keep calm if he was going to survive. Grabbing the plank with both hands, he lifted it enough to move his leg. As the sea pulled back from him again, he pushed himself to his feet. He almost collapsed on the first step; a shot of agony ran from his ankle all the way up through his body. The next wave almost dragged him under again, but he pushed forwards against the furious sea. God’s bones, but it was cold!
The evening was darkening; all colour had drained away and only shapes could be seen. Was that Jameson, a few feet away? Ben opened his mouth to call, but his bosun stopped to pluck someone else up -- a slightly-built person, probably young Robin. Ben put his hand to his temple and found it sticky. What in the devil was that knocking sound? Could it be his own chattering teeth? Each time his left foot touched ground, it spasmed with pain. If he kept moving, one agonising step at a time, he would make it to that shore. If he kept moving. Shadows and voices whirled around him, and he couldn’t be sure which were outside and which were inside his head.
One figure passed near enough for him to shout hoarsely.
His lieutenant caught him just before he stumbled again.
“Who’s missing?” Ben’s voice croaked through salt-dried lips.
“I’ve counted sixteen men still here.” Samuel Bright shook his head, anguish and disbelief spreading across his tanned face.
He was a stocky man, but his muscled arms struggled to keep his captain upright. Ben pushed him aside and fell forward, barely feeling the impact as his knees hitting the jagged shingle. The *Bessie* was on her side, one of the masts cracked in two and jutting at an odd angle from the rocks. A shadowy hulk of wood and nail, no longer a ship but a giant coffin.
Sixteen men left. Out of fifty. Christ! He had never failed so badly as he had this night.
The wind had eased but the cold rain kept falling, seeping deeper into Ben’s bones. The night air grew more frigid with every breath, the last blue of the sky seeping into black. Robin’s skinny figure came between him and the half-moon.
“The village, is it far from here?” Robin shivered, rubbing at his reddened forearms in some effort at keeping warm. The boy’s shirt had come loose from his breeches and dripped water to the sand. “Are the people friendly?”
Ben pushed his hands against his thighs, not wishing to admit he had no more answer to those questions than his cabin boy did. According to his navigations, they were on the southern coast of Ireland, somewhere west of Kinsale. He’d been close to here some years ago, delivering soldiers to a battle. Back when he and the men of the *Bessie* were on the side of the English Crown. Back before they were outlaws.
Now, they would be detained by His Majesty’s authorities, if such authorities existed in a place as wild as this. Ben suspected they were a long way from any such powers. The Irish locals would hold sway in such a place, if only because there was no-one to control them, and they were a notoriously unpredictable lot. They might kill the remaining crew for what remained of the ship’s cargo, or simply for being English.
Or they might not. In any case, more of his men would die if forced to spend the freezing night in wet clothing.
“Go and get help, boy,” He nodded at Robin. “Tell them there’ll be a reward for them.”
“Aye, Captain.” Robin began racing towards the cliff.
When the door swung open, Ailish assumed it was the wind. She hurried to close it and almost collided with the ghost of a drowned boy.
She stifled a scream and threw her hands backwards to shield her household. Seaweed clung to his shoulders; water dripped from scraggly brown hair and the hems of tattered breeches. His skin was sickly green beneath a suntan. What had she done to deserve such a visitation? He let loose a string of gibberish, and she blessed herself before realising what he spoke was English.
“M...mistress? M...my n...name is Robin. Our ship….”
His teeth chattered. A ghost’s teeth didn’t chatter. She placed a hand on his sodden arm. A ghost would not be so wet and solid.
“Let him in, for pity’s sake,” said Nora from behind her.
Ailish led the boy to the bench by the fire and draped a cloak over him. Nora ladled him out a mug of posset from the pot.
“Where is your ship, Robin?” Ailish asked.
He was just a boy, not much older than her own son. Wasn’t she the fool to be frightened of him?
“Over the cliff. The beach.” Robin cradled the warm mug in both hands. His limbs were as thin as kindling, his elbows and knees scraped raw.
“Trabane?” Nora asked. “But the tide is in!”
There was a rocky route that led to Trabane beach, but it was only accessible within three hours either side of low tide. Otherwise, there was a fifty-foot cliff. Young men climbed it -- for seabirds’ eggs, for bragging rights -- but in daytime, and when they knew the footholds.
“You came by the cliff?” said Ailish. “In the dark? By yourself?”
The lad was hardier than he looked. Would he have known how high the cliffs were as he scaled them? What had kept him climbing, hanging on each time the ground crumbled beneath his hand or foot, pulling himself in the dark towards a high point beyond his sight until he reached it?
“There are other men on the beach.” His upper lip was stained with hot milk. “There…. there’ll be a reward if you help us, says the captain.”
The cloak had slipped from his shoulders, so Ailish pulled it up around him and patted the milk from his face with the corner of her apron.
“Last low tide was in the afternoon,” Nora calculated. “We won’t be able to use the path ‘til after midnight.”
The wind had lessened and the rain was falling softer than before, but it remained a night to be indoors.
“We’ll have to wait ‘til then,” said Ailish.
“Please.” Robin’s lip quivered and he grabbed Ailish’s hand. “Some of the men are injured, and I don’t know if they’ll get through the night. And it *will* be worth your while! Captain Pascoe keeps his promises!”
Robin was so young. In a few years, Conor would be his age. A few years ago, those men waiting on the beach might have been Tomás, and Nora’s husband Aidan, and the other men swallowed by the sea. How many times had she watched and waited for them to be spit back out? There had been no bodies, just a few splinters of the boat washed up on the shore. Seven years later, whenever she looked at waves cresting on the horizon, the thought still took her that they might return.
“Whisht, boy.” Ailish put her other hand over his. “We’re not stalling without reason. We’ll go as soon as we can. We’ll fetch the rest of the villagers and when the tide goes out, we’ll find your crew. Meantime, we can pray, can’t we?”
Robin nodded and finished the last of his posset.
“Mother of God, Star of the Sea, protect those who sail on the ocean,” Ailish began, before seeing the boy’s eyes widened in confusion.
Of course, most of the English were heretics, weren’t they? How did they expect to sail the oceans without the protection of Our Lady and the saints? Although they had the luck of the devil these past years, crushing each rebellion by the Irish who remained faithful to the old beliefs.
“There was a prayer my mother used to say,” said Robin. “They go down to the sea on ships, they see the works of the Lord. Something like that. I don’t remember all the words rightly.”
“I suppose that will have to do for now,” Ailish grumbled.
“He raises the stormy wind and lifts up the waves,” Robin continued. “They cry unto the Lord with their trouble, and He makes the storm calm.”
The weather eased slowly as midnight came closer. To the men washed ashore on Trabane Strand, she would give the help that her Tomás would have needed, if he’d ever found land. And that reward -- if this captain meant what he said, that reward would be welcome indeed.
Fireflies. Those orange lights bouncing their way towards Ben must be fireflies, like those he had seen on a night much warmer than this. But that had been in Barbados. There were no fireflies in England, nor any in Ireland either he would bet.
The rain had finally ceased, and sound of waves grew more distant. He had been propped up with his back against a rock and his legs stretched out on the sand. Did his head or his foot hurt the most, or the aching dryness in his mouth? No, what hurt the most was his helplessness. He had led his men into this storm, and now he was too crippled and dazed to help them out of it. Samuel Bright’s voice came through the dark, giving orders with a calm authority that belied their urgency. Bright would salvage as many men and goods as was possible. Ben trusted his lieutenant more than any man, had trusted him with his life more than once, and would do so again no doubt, if they both survived this night.
The lights appeared to be floating over water, but that was a trick of the retreating tide. They were coming across the beach, filtered through waxed paper and swung at about the height of a person. Lanterns then, not fireflies. Many of the shadowy figures were in skirts. Was this how Ben would die, flayed alive by a mob of Irish women?
The moon hovered over him. No, not the moon: a white face, heart-shaped, surrounded by a shawl. A fairy woman, come out of the night to lead him to the mountains.
“I’m told you’re the captain.” She squatted beside him.
Her arm brushed his ear as she placed the lantern on the rock by his head. It took him a moment to realise she was speaking English, albeit in that lilting accent of County Cork. No reason an Irish woman would care for him or his countrymen -- quite the opposite. Might she have a knife hidden about her clothing, to kill him while he was defenceless? He readied his hand to protect himself if she made any sudden movements.
“I am Captain Pascoe.” His voice came out in a croak. “I will… if you help us… make it worth your while.”
The expression in her eyes was hard to discern in the half-light. As was their colour. Blue or green, light-coloured anyway. A fine lady might have envied those thick, dark eyelashes.
“Are you thirsty?” she asked, holding up a jug.
In the stories, the fairies would offer you food or drink if they wanted you to be theirs. They would do you a favour when the breeze blew one way, and turn against you fast as a cross-wind. But his throat was salt-parched, so he nodded at her. She tilted the jug towards him, and a waterfall of fresh water came pouring into his opened mouth. Malmsey wine would not have tasted sweeter. He could have drained the jug, but his men might have more need, so he pushed it away when he’d taken enough.
“Is there a way off this beach?” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Well, I know there must be. Robin found you, and you found your way here…”
His mind was a jumble. Behind her, shadows and lights raced to and from the ship. Shouts and negotiations swirled around them. Someone dragged a body that might be alive or dead.
“You hurt your head.” Her fingers touched his temple and came away darkened with blood.
“My foot also.” He tried to rotate his ankle, and pain shot through him.
“Can you walk?” She took up the lantern.
He was about to say *I can try*. But he said “Yes, I can.”
He put one arm around her shoulder as she helped him to stand. He tried to keep most of his weight off her, but it was difficult when his ankle screamed torture at every step. She was of medium height and womanly build, but her grip was surprisingly strong.
Perhaps she was a fairy woman, and her lantern had captured a firefly from the other side of the world. At this moment, he had no choice but to let her lead him where she would.
A rooster crowed, and Ben jolted awake. The ground was unnaturally still, the air filled with smoke, and a blaze flickered at the edge of his vision. It took him a few seconds to realise he wasn’t about to burn to death along with the crewmen around him. The floor beneath was dirt, not wood. The fire burned in a hearth at the centre of the room. They were not on the ship, but in the place where the fairy woman had led them last night.
But if she had brought them to the Otherworld, it bore a strange resemblance to a rural cottage. He took a deep breath, his lungs filling with the turf smoke that hovered all around. The room was sparsely furnished: a table, a few stools, and some shelves with wooden bowls and spoons. A boy of about ten years sat by the hearth. Was there a reddish tinge to his hair, or was that a trick of the firelight?
Some of the men were already awake; Bright was nearest to Ben, pulling on his boots. Seven men had slept on the floor of this house. The other survivors had been shared between the homes of the village. Twenty-four in all, including Ben himself, were all that remained of the *Bessie*’s crew. If the villagers had not come to their aid the previous night, there might be fewer still. They owed these people their lives. Ben would think on the implications of that later.
“The women of the house have left,” said Bright as he buttoned his jerkin.
“Is there not a man of the house?” Ben asked.
“That would be me.” The boy spoke in the same accent as the fairy woman.
“And what’s your name, lad?” said Ben.
“Conor Cleary. My Mam fetched you here last night.”
So the fairy woman was flesh-and-blood enough to have given birth to a son. Apparently there was no man in her life older than this boy. She was a widow, perhaps?
“You must be sure to re-introduce us to your mother later,” said Ben.
“You can ask young Robin,” said Bright. “He spent the whole night in her room. It seems the lusty lady likes them young.”
“With the *family*.” Robin protested as the men jeered and whistled. “With Conor and his little sister and his aunt.”
So there was more than one room in this house, which made it a cut above the usual Irish hovel. It might almost be an English home; but even the meanest English cottage would have a chimney instead of letting the smoke disperse itself into the thatch.
“Hope she broke you in well.” Ben winked at the blushing Robin.
“I’ll thank you not to talk about my Mam like that!” Conor responded with surprising ferocity.
“My apologies,” said Ben. “We’re a rough lot, I’m afraid. I hope we haven’t scared your womenfolk away.”
“They’ve gone to mend the nets.” Conor hesitated just a second, enough for Ben to suspect he was not quite truthful. “They needed to mend the nets, after the storm.”
“We need to check on the *Bessie*.” Ben addressed his men, but didn’t take his eyes from Conor’s. The boy broke his gaze first. *Oh, you’re quick, lad, but not too quick for me.*
Ben put his hand on the stool nearest his head, and tried to push himself to standing. The pain screamed through him, and he only managed to sit. The ankle was broken for certain. How he had walked on it, he couldn’t fathom now.
“Best you stay here,” said Bright as he and the other men got ready to leave.
“Afraid you’re right.” Ben lay a hand on his knee to stop the leg from trembling. “You lot check on the *Bessie* and report back to me. Conor can keep me company.”
Captain Ben Pascoe had not reached his position in life without knowing how to get information, and who to get it from. Sometimes the apparently unimportant people turned out to be the most important sources. So it was that an enthusiastic Irish boy provided him with just the knowledge he needed about the place he’d landed and the people he’d landed among.
The place was called Ardnamara, relatively pronounceable as Irish place names went. Its people numbered about fifty, the size of the *Bessie*’s crew before last night. They earned a living mostly by fishing, which might explain the prevalence of widows. The names and relationships were a tangle that Ben managed with difficulty to unravel from Conor’s narrative.
“My Da was Tomás Cleary, God rest his soul. Lost at sea, he was. My Mam you already met. Ailish Sullivan is her name.”
So Conor had a different surname to his mother?
“Your parents were married?”
“Indeed they were!” Conor protested.
“And your mother hasn’t remarried since?” Ben asked.
A remarriage might explain the name change, although it seemed exceptionally bad luck to have lost *two* husbands by her age.
“She has not,” said Conor. “She was born Sullivan.”
Perhaps it was the custom here for women to keep their birth names after marriage. Ireland was rather primitive, after all.
“You mentioned an Auntie Nora?” said Ben. “Your mother’s sister?”
“My Da’s sister. Her husband was on the same boat as my Da.”
Conor was the only living male in the family, unless you counted the rooster -- which explained why he called himself the “man of the house”. Most of the other villagers seemed related to either Mistress Sullivan or her sister-in-law. Perhaps it was charity from relatives that helped the family to feed and clothe itself. There was another obvious way that two young women might earn their meals, but this remote place hardly contained enough unrelated men to make that profession worthwhile.
Ben knew that information came at a price, even from a small and enthusiastic Irish boy. Fortunately, Conor’s price was easily paid. He was also hungry for information -- or more correctly, he was hungry for stories of what lay outside Ardnamara, beyond the confines of the bay. Ben knew that hunger well. His hometown of Penryn had not been not too dissimilar to Ardnamara, a village hooked in by mountains and facing out to the sea. How keenly the young Ben had listened to the old salts by the harbour, their words bringing the world to him and filling him with the desire to go out into it.
“In the Caribbean,” said Ben. “The trees are taller than five men, and the flowers bloom bright as the sun. The sea is clear as glass and warm as a king’s bath. The natives are dark as oakwood and wear hardly any clothes.”
Conor’s eyes became round with wonder. Oh to be young again, with only the anticipation of adventure and not the knowledge of its price!
Morning dawned grey-pink through thinning clouds as the women and children made their way to Trabane. The day held promise of good weather; the wrecked ship, and the flotsam it had strewn across the beach, were the only remaining evidence of the previous night’s storm.
“We’ve half an hour or so.” Nora nodded at the advancing tide. “What do you think the ship was carrying?”
“We’ll find out soon,” said Ailish. “When we --”
She drew back and blessed herself. A body blocked her way, a man of similar build and colouring to Tomás. *Sweet Saint Brigid, patron of sailors, bless him and all who are lost to the sea.* His loose red hair was threaded with seaweed; he lay face-down in the sand so they were spared the sight of his bloated features. As Ailish stepped around him, a crab scuttled out from his breeches and towards the sea.
A few children ran ahead, yelping as they crossed the shingle, laughing as they reached the sandy foreshore, squealing again as they paddled into the cold water. Bridie stopped at the sand and bit her lip, rolling up her hem slowly to postpone the moment when she would have to brave the cold. If Conor had been there, his teasing would have urged his sister forward, but he had stayed at home that morning; the events of the previous night had disturbed his sleep, and Ailish hadn’t the heart to rouse him.
Ailish’s own bare feet were toughened enough to barely feel the sharp pebbles, but when she reached the foreshore, she enjoyed the squelch of sand between her toes.
“Don’t dawdle, *a chuisle*,” She touched the chilly tip of her daughter’s nose.
“It looks freezing.” Bridie shivered as she watched the other children wade in.
“It *is* freezing. All the more reason to get in quickly. Some pain is worse in the waiting than the feeling.”
One of Bridie’s age-mates — young Peg O’Driscoll — called out from the water. Bridie breathed deep and took a few tentative steps forward. Peg smirked and flicked water towards her, and Bridie screeched at the cold. Bridie narrowed her eyes, kicked the water, and drenched the other girl. Peg shrieked, and the two were soon engaged in a contest of splashing and giggling.
“The children are growing so fast!” Nora stopped by Ailish’s side. She had dragged a large bolt of cloth out of the sea, and now offered it to Ailish. “What does this feel like?”
Ailish bent down and ran her fingers over the smooth material. She had once touched a ribbon that felt something like this.
“Silk,” she said.
The next wave rolled closer, left a white foam that dissolved an inch from the cloth. Saltwater had altered its texture, probably ruined it, and yet it still felt like luxury, like another world.
Ailish had rebuked her daughter for dawdling, and here she was doing the same! She stood, tucking up the hems of her kirtle and shift so she was bare to the knees. As she waded into the shallows, the first icy wave made her wince. Why was it that the sea gripped onto winter long after the land bloomed with spring?
She picked something glittering from a rockpool — not a fish, but a coin. When she bit, it tasted brackish but didn’t break. Real silver, then. She slipped the coin into her pocket. Why was it that some folk sweated to get a crust of bread to chew on, and others rolled themselves in silk and silver?
She came within yards of where the retreating tide had nearly uncovered the ship, now tilted at a sharp angle against the sky. As the sun rose higher, it lent a golden light to the wooden beams. The figurehead was a wooden mermaid with yellow hair and nipples like pink berries, carved by an artist who had never seen a real woman in his life. Its hull was ripped apart like a pig’s belly on slaughter day, its cannons aiming futilely at the ground. A well-armed ship, for all the good it did them.
On shore, the other women and children picked up whatever flotsam they could find in the seaweed and foam. Cloth had unravelled in the water; the women rewrapped it and and hoisted it over shoulders. Bridie and Peg were tucking small items into their aprons and pockets. Further down the beach, other bodies had washed up, now being relived of shoes and buttons by children.
Although Ailish’s legs were now numbed to the cold, she couldn’t wade farther without soaking her clothes, and she didn’t fancy dragging wet skirts after her. She paused for a moment, closing her eyes as the sunlight sparkled back at her from the water. When she moved again, she stubbed her toe on something square and man-made. At first she thought it was a book; she’d have to show it to the priest to read. But then she saw it was a box, half-wedged in the sand. She pulled it from the sea, and touched a small clasp to open it.
A necklace. A double row of pearls and a pendant shaped like a flower. The type of jewelry that a rich woman might wear. The type of jewelry that the likes of Ailish shouldn’t touch, if she didn’t want a beating or a gallows rope.
She touched the pearls; they were smooth and cool. The pendant was gold, studded with stones that were hard but not sharp. When
she held them to the light, they sparkled like pieces of crystallised water, some clear and some intensely blue.
The hook was small and tricky, but eventually she managed to fasten the necklace around her own neck. *My name is Lady O’Sullivan -- pleased to meet you.* She curtsied, wetting the rolled-up ends of her shift. That wasn’t right. They would be curtsying to *her*.
“Mam!” Bridie yelled, pointing to the top of the cliff. “They’re coming back!”
Men, booted and sworded, looked down on them. Everyone on the beach grabbed what they could and hurried towards the path.