The Shadow Without a Name
7th September 1362
The Emir, wives were safely accommodated in the main cabin. Concubines, servants and guards retired quickly below decks.
The guards reappeared almost immediately and made themselves as comfortable as they could on the weather deck. The supports for the rails, storage boxes and barrels and the mail mast itself all became impromptu backs for non existant seats. John and Yvette steadied themselves against the insistent motion of waves by leaning on the front wall of the main Cabin.
Ximene stood shoulder to shoulder with the captain of the ship as the orders which controlled the navigation and sail setting were made. She unceasingly shifted both her stance and her gaze. Her arm frequently threw out a finger pointing to every corner of the fluttering sails, but was occasionally withdrawn to touch her lip or slap her thigh. She was not just asking questions but making an input. How, John wondered, had she learned all this?
Once they had cleared the lagoon and were in the open sea of the Adriatic Ximene took a last look at the setting of the sails before leading him and Yvette down the narrow walkway at the side of the main cabin to sit on the upholstered seats on the stern balcony.
She smiled, leaned back and stretched her hands above her head.
‘We are so lucky, the wind blowing tonight is a southerly it is in exactly the right quarter for us to make a quick crossing of the Adriatic to Pula.’
John leaned forward ‘Why are we crossing, Aquila, why don’t we just sail down the coast.’
‘It is all to do with the variability of the winds . We cannot sail directly into the wind. To sail south we would have to change direction many times, Progress would be slow. On the other hand we want to get away from Venice as fast as possible. There is always a chance we have been followed.
She glanced over her shoulder. ‘No sign of pursuit but because we can’t see them does not mean they are not there. Add to that the fact that we try not to sail overnight and there was really only one destination available to us.’
‘ Could the find us even though they cannot see us?’
‘Of course.’ Clever captain could repeat the same logic I have just given you and realise that we would most probably head for Bora, however just south of Bora there are many islands and literally hundreds of coves. We could hide in any one of them.’
‘But they could then patrol off shore and wait for us to emerge tomorrow morning?’
‘ Yes they could but it would be risky for them in the dark.’
‘But they could do it?’
John jumped to his feet. ‘ Then I think we will take some precautions.’
He manoeuvred his way back onto the weathercock and sought out Alexan.
‘Alexan, it is not a great risk but there is a possibility we could be followed and attacked.’
‘ Yes, he nodded to the quarter deck, they are busy up there assembling what I take to be a trebuchet. from what I see the projectiles will be balls of iron liked by short chains. I take it they are intended to take out the sails of any ship which tries to attack us.’
‘Hmm they would make a nasty mess of anyone they hit.
‘ Good but we have another mode of defence available to us. Any attacking ship will try to close on us. The Emir told me that you have been armed with Long Bows?’
‘Yes they are stored below.’
‘Get your men to bring them up on deck, There is some spray and of course it could be worse at the time of any attack. We want to keep the strings dry until the last possible moment, but the Emir indicated that your men were inexperienced so I would like to watch them string their bows so that I can get a feeling of how long it would take.’
‘It will vary from man to man”
‘How many arrows have you got and what kind of arrows are they?’
‘ Don’t even understand the question’
‘Oh dear! Alexan there are broad headed arrows and bodkins. Bodkins are expensive but can penetrate armour.’
‘I will bring up what we have got.
‘Also can you give me a feel for who is most skilled. I want to pick out one or two capable of being used as sharpshooters, archers who can pick out specific targets.’
‘John I think you will be very disappointed, we have the bows we have the arrows but we are not very skilled.’
‘We will do our best.’
Alexan led several of the guards below and John went forward to the stable. He spent a few minutes chatting to Helios and then pulled two bales of hay out on the deck and placed them across the door to the stable. with the help of a sailor he placed one bale on top of the other.
Alexan reappeared with a collection of bows and arrows. John made an inspection. Alexan I am sorry this is all wrong. The strings for the bows are simply woven round the bow, presumably to keep them tidy. In fact skilled archers go to considerable trouble to keep the strings dry. They keep them in oiled skin pouches. If they are even damp they will not give the required tension. This is one of the major advantages of the longbow over the crossbow. because a cross bow is permanently strung it is almost unusable in the rain.
John shook his head. ‘How long have these been kept like this?
He rolled the strings between his fingers. ‘Quite possibly these are finished. Do you have spares?’
Alexan confirmed that there was in fact a barrel of spares, and ran off to get them. John went to the stable and located his own bow and half a dozed arrows and extracted the pouch containing his strings from his saddlebag.
He then waited until all the guards were in position bow and dry string in hand. He strung his bow, simply by stringing one end, putting that end on the floor and against his foot. In a smooth movement he pulling the top end downwards with one hand and slipping the string into place with the other.
He then gestured that the guards should string their own bows. Several of them had no difficulty but the rest struggled. John winced.
Alexan nodded ‘It is a great difficulty for us, it requires strength… in very specific muscles’
‘I know, in Wales, which produces the best archers, they claim that you must start at a very young age to become proficient’
‘So this is not going to work’
‘Yes it is. I did not use a bow seriously until I was seventeen and yet I became competitive within two months and competent within six months. I did yet some really useful help in that period with lots of tips I will be able to pass on.’
Now let us try a little target practice. He stood infant of the main cabin door and aimed at the straw bales, only twenty five feet away.
He pulled the bow back to his cheek bone and released the string. The arrow buried itself in almost the dead centre of the upper bale.
‘ Now you Alexan’
Alexan also hit the top bale, and the guards all cheered. Suddenly they seemed both intererested and excited.
John’s eyes narrowed. ‘Alexan do you have regular target practice?’
‘ No, then from now on you will – an hour every day. He picked up his own bow again and drew it without an arrow. This is what you must try to achieve The string drawn to your cheekbone with the leading arm straight and the elbow locked.’
Now off you go.
It was not as bad as he had anticipated. Two of the guards proved to be good shots and Alexan was reasonable. The rest could discharge an arrow but that was all that could be said, several of them missed the straw bales all together. John demonstrated the correct stance and profile once again. Now off you go, at least two more shots each.
He asked Alexan to bring the two best shots to one side.
“ We are the sharpshooters. Do not fire any long range shots but pick out specific targets and to then fire when they are at close range. There are four of us, we can probably make it work. Carry on, help the others.’
He glanced at the sky. “ It will be dark soon, two more shots each and remember to put the strings away in the pouches and store them carefully below, out of the weather.
He edged his way back to the stern balcony, where Ximene and Yvette were waiting for him.
Ximene looked at him curiously.
‘Just prey we don’t get attacked anytime soon. They will come good but we would struggle if attacked right now.’
‘Don’t forget, John that our major defence is speed.’
‘You ought to train all your crew members to be archers.’
Ximene pursed her lips. ‘ I was about to dismiss that out of hand But it is not a bad idea.’
John’s face lit up. ‘When I was in the king’s army in Occitan I saw fire arrows used. They were special arrows made with a cage just behind the arrowhead The cage was stuffed with torch material soaked in animal fat and coated with tallow. They were very unreliable, but did you say Don Ferdinando was experimenting with Greek fire? Potentially we would have a very destructive weapon which could be effective at a very long range.’
“ Well we haven’t got them now so we will have to manage with what we have got.’ She leaned over the side rail. ‘Look, there is our destination, Pula, directly ahead’. Lights flickered on the horizon and in the half light low lying land could be seen with a backdrop of a distant mountain range. The shore was lined with white sand.
She pointed to the right ‘Over there is a collection of small islands. The town it self is a Venetian base which in view of what has just happened we will avoid. Just to the south of Pula there is a coastline with many small coves. We will anchor in one of them.
Tomorrow we will Thread our way out of the islands before we cruise down the coast. There are a dozen different routes we could take. I still think the chances of us being intercepted are very low.’
Yvette frowned ‘ How far will we go tomorrow?’
‘I hope as far as Havar, but it will depend on the winds. There is always the Bora to consider.’
‘The Bora a very strong wind from the north. As a general rule if a strong Bora blows we don’t sail. The best anchorages to protect us against the Bora are on this side of the Aegean. Experienced sailors say they can detect the onset of the Brora from the shape of the clouds over the mountains.
So depending on the winds being favourable the day after tomorrow we will sail for Brindisi. where we will have a break and there will be an opportunity to exercise Helios. However I cannot hide the fact that from here to Brindisi it will be crowded. All our ships can be configured for either passengers or cargo but they were not designed for the number of people we have on board tonight. I have given the master cabin to the Emir so we will share cabins on the lower deck. It is not ideal as the cabins are very small and each cabin will only accommodate one person.
‘However.’ She yawned. ‘I can’t wait. ‘I desperately need some sleep. I want to be up early tomorrow to review the weather and the setting of a course.’
John smiled stood up and put an arm round her waist. ‘I will rise with you. I must know more about the weather, the winds trimming the sails and everything else about sailing. Just in case I will make sure the archers are on deck and fully prepared. But now I must spend some time with Helios and settle him down for the night.’
Ximene returned the smile. I will also spend some time with Helios, but first i will see that Yvette is safely settled below.
Fifteen minutes later she found John stood by Helios’ head muttering gently into his ear. The horse whinnied gently as Ximene approached, John turned to face her. ‘Helios has settled well but he is glad to see us.’
He stepped to one side allowing Ximene tostoke Helios neck.’I am glad you came Ximene, we must talk about our identities. Having an Alias’s is all very well, but letting the Emir know your real name was a big mistake.
‘Yes I know, but he was very interested in the source of my wealth. I simply told him I was the heiress to Occitan and was very close to the english royal family.’
John sighed ‘It was probably too much information and yet, for him, not enough. He decided he wanted to check your story and in doing so left a trail for Du Guesclin to follow. From now on when you are operating as the commander of “the shadow” you must be known only as the “The Eagle.’
‘John it is too clumsy, I use Aquila.’
‘Aquila then, and when I am with you whilst you play that role i will always be Prince Nadir.’
‘Permanently an eastern persona?’
‘I don’t think it would work, No Prince of Islam would ever allow me to do what I do.’
‘But would you crews care? They would simply think I was helping with trade’
‘Perhaps it would not concern the crews but what about this trip, what about the guards?’
Ximene yawned noisily.’Can we talk about this again in the morning?
John nodded and they made their way below and entered their tiny cabins.
Almost immediately John returned to the corridor and stuck his head into Ximene’s cabin. “ Ximene After all I think I will have to involve Alexan. I think perhaps we should take him to some degree into our confidence. Do you agree we should do that Ximene?’ There was no reply. She was fast asleep.
In the event they were all up early the following morning. It was perfect; clear sky’s, fresh but not strong wind from the north, small waves. John supervised the Stringing of the Bows and was pleased that it was very much improved.
Ximene had discussions with the ship’s captain. A course was chosen, sails were set. Ximene beckoned John to join them. I know you want to learn more about sailing so I will ask the Captain to explain about the course we have set to Havar.’
Ximene introduced the captain to John and waved gently as she walked towards the stern.
The captain, who’s name was Taviano Toscano eyed John curiously. ‘So Prince Nadir, do you want to become a sailor?’
John smiled, ‘Well, no probably not. However I am associated with Aquila in a number of trade ventures. Sailing is inevitably a part of that.’
‘Well Prince Nadir, there is not much to get excited about just now. The wind is in the correct quarter for us to have set a course south, almost directly to Havar.. I will let you know if anything changes. I am going below to move some cargo around but I will be back in about an hour.’
‘John waited until the sailors ceased to cross an recross the deck and then n reset the bails of straw and launched another archery tournament.
Ximene returned to watch the start of the competition. ‘They are much better than I expected, from what you told me last evening.’
It is true, but they need lots of practice. Don’t forget that this is at very close range.’
Ximene held her hand over her eyes to shade from the light. John could see her eyes flick from top to bottom of the sails and from sail to sail. She lowered her hand and smiled. ‘We are under way and making good speed, they have got the trim of the sails near perfect, it will still be light when we get to Havar.’
They returned to the stern balcony and were soon joined by Yvette. Ximene turned and pulled some rods and twine from a cupboard underneath the seat
‘Shall we catch a fish for breakfast?’
It became a competition. John caught the first fish, which Ximene dismissed as being too small.
Yvette caught the second fish, which Ximene again dismissed as being too small.
Yvette laughed out loud, ‘Ah! I understand, you are manipulating this small competition so that you will win. I challenge you; how big must a fish be to be declared a winner? Just then Ximene had a strike and slowly, laboriously, carefully, she hauled it in. “That big” she said. They all laughed.
The fish was cooked on an low open brazier; wooden blocks were allowed to burn until the flames died away and then charcoal was piled on top. When the charcoal glowed a wire mesh was placed on top. The fish was coated with clay and placed carefully on top of the wire.
‘Half an hour, it is crude but I think you will find very tasty’
They all drank beer as they waited for the fish to cook.
Ximene looked up ‘We can only cook like this because the seas are so calm’ In rougher seas there is always a risk the brazier will tip. There have been examples of ships catching fire and sinking due to fires caused by braziers.’
John enjoyed the fish, then excused himself and returned to the weather deck. He watched the competition and came to conclusion that the performances had dropped off. the guards were tiring. He sought out Alexan.’ They must exercise to build up their strength.’ He called the competition to a halt, looked around the deck, and cleared one or two obstacles . ‘We should make a start right now. Still in eastern dress, he found it easy to disrobe.
Alexan’s eyes widened in surprise.
‘Come on Alexan, get your clothes off and get your men to do the same’
‘We are going to exercise really hard and then we are going for a swim’
Suddenly John was back at Biscarrosse five years earlier with Lord James barking out the orders. Exercise had got him fit then and it would get these guards fit now. Press-ups, curls, sprinting on the spot, jumping on the spot, wrestling, squats, lunges, crunches and then the same again. John demonstrated the exercise and then joined in himself.
Half an hour later, the guards and John were sweating profusely.
John surveyed the scene with satisfaction. The guards, Alexan included, were certainly prepared to work hard. ‘Alexan please take over, we are ready to swim.’ he stopped, once again remembering his own training.‘Your men do swim?’
‘Yes, but not necessarily well’
‘Only the good swimmers then, we are a long way from shore.’
Almost as if it was intended Taviano reappeared on deck.
John approached him immediately ‘ Taviano is it possible to stop the ship. We want to go swimming and I do not want to loose anyone.’
‘ Does Aquila know about this request.’
‘ Well, No’”
‘Then I must see her then. This will loose at least an hours sailing time. Is she on the stern balcony’
John nodded and trailed behind as Taviano edged his way past the main cabin.
Ximene and Yvette were sitting on the upholstered seats.
‘Madame, Prince Nadir has asked that we heave to so that he and the guards can go swimming , do you approve?I have told him it will cost us more than an hour.
‘Tavino, I suppose it depends how long they swim for.’
‘It will cost us an hour.’
Ximene glanced at the sky. It is a beautiful day, we are ahead of schedule let them swim.
Again John trailed behind Trevino as he returned to the weather deck.
The guards were still exercising. Their bodies now gleamed with sweat.
The captain shouted at the top of his voice ‘Heave to.’
The crew furled the mainsails and tightened the aft sail before turning into the wind. The ship slowed immediately. A sea anchor was thrown over the bow.
One of the sailors threw a pottery ball tied in fine line over the side. He watched it’s drift, pulled it in and repeated the exercise several times. Eventually the ball bobbled almost stationary alongside the boat. Trevino peered over the rail. ’Safe for swimming’ he announced, ‘but to be absolutely sure we will put a boat over the side.’
He gave the orders and the boat was lifted over the rail and then lowered into the water. Nets were tethered to the handrail and allowed to drop over the side.
Trevino turned to John. ‘All correct’
John used the rigging to steady himself as he climbed the side rail and then dived into the water. The guards followed him, to a man, with Alexan bringing up the rear.
Ximene heard the spashing and ran to the side of the rear balcony. smiled and turned to Yvette ‘Come and watch’ She pointed at Alexan. ‘He cuts quite a figure don’t you think?’
Yvette nodded, watching attentively as the men swam back and to, alongside the ship.
Yvette looked at Ximene her eyes sparking . ‘This is a totally different world.’