The Queen of Mastaskara – Chapter 4

In which Granville makes a Catch

Macool could still see the distant arch of Hafver’s bridge. The company of solders had long since dwindled to the size of loose thread, heading it seemed for the castle. He gave them one glance and then sprinted down towards the shoreline and the retreating path of Granville.

Macool had also heard his oldest brother rise but that had been no awakening. Macool had been up before the sun had set its first tendrils out across the sky. He had also known of the fishing and he also wanted to catch a trout. Granville had told him all about it, conjuring images of still lakes, cool bursting springs and rivers, green moss and lichened stones with frogs, newts and other ghastly creatures inhabiting the banks of the Gorge Bendure waters. Macool could almost taste the wild strawberries and the freshly cooked trout. But his brother would never let him go for fear of his mother’s wrath and also by his own inclination. So many times had Macool asked, begged, pleaded for the chance to accompany his brother and so many times had he been rebuffed. Now he had no recourse but to follow.

Granville’s mind would be changed when he had no choice. It was a plan Macool had been concocting for a week and nothing would prevent it.

It was a very simple plan. An attacker might wish to spy out the castle but only a fool would really wish to sneak out. Macool was small enough to fit in an empty apple barrel and it as a matter of moments and he was through the front gate with a Meath farmer on his way back top the plains of Leath.

It had been simple enough to wait until he was well clear of the gates, flip the top off the barrel and leap from the cart. Macool could map Granville’s every move. Granville, never talkative, still confided his schemes in a joking manner to both brothers. Occasionally he would mention half-formed plans and these words were easy to link with the substance of rods and reels and worm bait. Macool knew where he was going and so with a little more caution he had made across Maggot’s farm to the fields beyond, where lay the Bendure Gorge with its scattering of distant pines. There he knew his brother would be persuaded to let him accompany the expedition or be forced to take him back. The latter proposition would never even occur to Granville.

But then, as Macool cleared the path and came to the first of the low hillocks where the burn deepened and widened, he saw a line of silhouettes on Hafver’s old stone bridge. From their regimentation, it seemed they were soldiers, so he proceeded with more caution, not thinking in his child’s way that they could be enemies but only that he might be sent home. He weaved his way over the first of the low hillocks and waited concealed in the gorse until the soldiers passed by. Then with his heart full of the news he would impart to Granville he chased up to Hafvers Bridge.

With some amazement he saw his brother’s form, framed as in a picture by the arches of the bridge miles way on the edge of the tidal mudflats, slinking across the salt marsh towards the sand dunes. The patch of open grassland between him and his brother was covered by scrub and small copses brushed away from the coast by the sea winds. Through these Granville had apparently chosen to go. Why had he avoided the direct route? He could simply have waited until the soldiers had gone. Macool was unaware that his brother knew the emotion of fear.

Unwitting he followed in the wake of his brother’s passage, a passage marked by the stirring of disturbed birds. Little Grebe, Shellduck and Eider, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Snipe and Redshank wheeled above and about the running Granville. While around Macool on the drier land Grey Partridge, and Meadow Pipit, Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcap and Spotted Flycatcher piped and crooned from hidden nests and concealment in the rushes as though chiding him for haste. But he heeded them not. All his concentration was for the leaping and the jumping from hummock to hummock. The swampy land here was not very dangerous but he could break an ankle or twist a foot should he slip on a hummock.

For a long time after Macool remembered the singing of the skylark. The bird piped its haunting melody unseen somewhere in the vast sky, and with the instinct of the country boy Macool knew that it had lost something, probably its young to a predator. He remembered the plaintive call more clearly than he did the first dead mariner lying face down.

He had broken out through the dunes from a jungle of spider grass onto a small gully. Here the sea met a small flat rivulet and the beach was narrow. And here by the wreckage of a boat, dashed into halves by the night’s tempest, the mariner lay sprawled, face down.

It was a moment where a world already wonderful became unknowable. The strange scimitar-shaped vessel, the outlandish checked pants of the mariner flaring out like a beached jelly fish, his broad brown back impossibly still in the sun, the long black hair spread like a ladies fan.

For a moment, but only a moment Macool hesitated. It was his first dead man – and then the shouting.

His eyes looked up at first dazzled. Another body, a mariner, a knight and there, scattered along the beach like so much salvage the black clad bodies of several armoured men. They were like a set of soldiers whose uniforms had been taken apart as though to display their function as each soldier had decided how much he could risk in the battle with the sea and the inevitable battle of the shore that was to come. They had all died; some clutching at seaweed, some still holding their swords as though they might cut escape-holes in water.

But not all. At last, through the bizarre mosaic of this new experience Macool saw the familiar: his brother Granville wielding a strange sword, his rod and reel scattered on the sand – Before him four soldiers, two standing one lying and one crawling to his knees. Around them disturbed terns and sanderlings cawed and wheeled as though mimicking rival supporters at gladiatorial games.

Macool had no time to think and he seemed to be guided.

By some magic of the mind, he heard always through the harsh caws of the seabirds the faint piping of the skylark. He was running but the sand was heavy on his feet. His brother had killed in battle but he had never claimed it was anything more than luck and the element of surprise. He was only after all a young boy. The livery of these soldiers was that of some elite guard, the armour finely cast, the black capes and brushes of their helms of fine cloth and horsehair. The physiques of the soldiers could be seen, even in death, as men of good years and goodly strength. As he jumped over the body of the mariner he could see that the man was a head taller than most Leathites and in life he must have been a formidable opponent.

Granville saw Macool. ‘Run you fool,’ his brother shouted, and in the same moment he thrust the unwieldy sword through the throat and up into the brain of his opponent. Macool half stopped by his brothers admonition, tried to pull a sword from a fallen soldier but the hand that clutched in death was not about to release it. It was too heavy in any case and he saw then the knives in the soldier’s belt.

Macool looked up to see that the sword had been wrenched from Granville’s grasp but his new opponent was also unarmed. The tall man had discarded his armour and all his weapons. He stood swaying in exhaustion and disbelief, looking at once to the kneeling figure, then to the soldier with the sword in his throat, dying on the sand and then with a sudden expression of horror he saw as though for the first time the smaller knight crawling to his knees on the tide mark.

‘Up Canin, my son,’ he shouted. ‘For the Queen and Mastakara.’ The strange dialect seemed at one with the seabirds. Granville had picked up his rod and with but-end threw it like a lance at the standing man. It struck him in the face. He clutched his eye and made an instinctive grasp for his knife. But the belt was empty. Through all this Macool ran forward, knives in hand.

The kneeling figure retched and spewed onto the sand. The crawling young man fell, turning on to his back. His hands reached for a discarded sword. Macool whooped and threw the knife to Granville. He caught it, in one scything motion, jumped forward, and cut the throat of the kneeling man. Then came a new sound amidst the moaning and the gurgling and the cawing and the sighing of the waves: a distant muffled drumbeat.

The big knight lurched forward and chopped his hand at Granville’s knife arm. The blow missed its intended target and struck Granville on the shoulder as he weaved away. The smaller knight grasped the sword and tried to rise. At that moment Granville struck in again with the knife trying to embed it in the eye of the big knight. But now, as though galvanized with a new urgency in the face of defeat, the knight caught Granville and beat him to the ground in a series of quick blows. Macool grasping his only opportunity thrust his own knife into the back of the knight’s neck. It was an untidy blow but by luck he hit an arterial vein. The blood gouted onto the sand, the Knight stood as a struck tree and then breathing heavily, sank slowly to the floor, blood bubbling from his mouth.

The drumbeats came nearer. Granville was rising from the floor, his eyes and cheeks bloodied. He watched Macool stagger towards the small knight. Macool came up to the knight, breath panting, heart racing.

He was no more than a boy, a child perhaps of ages with Macool, some untried captain’s son on his first trip. He was utterly exhausted. Macool raised his knife and bent down to hold the waif neck.

Staring into the willow eyes of the boy Macool experienced a strange lassitude. In the face of death the boy displayed no fear, only an acceptance neither active nor passive that he was about to die. Macool heard the resurgence of the waves on the sand, a sound as inevitable as the beat of his own heart; the breeze kicked up and with it the smell of the salt sea and the taste of salt on his breath and the sweet salt sweat of the exhausted boy. But there was no reek of fear and the waves seemed to dance slowly as through a glass in the retinas of the willow eyes ,and as though there might be some inconfutable relationship between the eyes and the sea. He heard in the distance the shouts of his own brother and further distant the beat of horses’ hooves muffled by the sand. Beyond these, in some ethereal world he heard the thin piping of the wading birds, the terns, the snipes and the plovers, as they picked at the shell fish on the strand. He thought in an abstarct distant realm of his own unknown father and how this boy’s father had encouraged him to the last.

And then he felt his left hand loosen his grip on the boy’s neck. His other hand reached out and stuck the knife in the sand, and he looked up to see the bodies scattered over the beach like dead black flies, Granville staring wildly in exultation and relief, holding in his hand his bright impossibly red knife stained with the blood of the dying knights. All around him like a sea tempest, the caparisoned horses of the knights of Lord Dugan cut up the sand in great flurries and the knights themselves held at rein looking on with a mix of emotions at the bodies and the two Leath boys.

Behind them came Lord Dugan himself cantering forward with profound interest, fully armoured and with his scabbard ungirdled. He cast a keen cormorant eye on the two brothers and immediately noted the exhausted prisoner. He dismissed any threat to his nephews.

As Dugan’s company dismounted and began to examine the enemy knights and despoil the corpses, the cries of the waders seemed to echo through Macool’s head like the sharp knives strewn over the sand. But piercing through these hollow sounds he still heard the solitary skylark somewhere in the unseeable distance.

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