The English Channel, December 27, 1170
For all his twenty-three years, Sir Benedict Palmer had heard priests preach that hell was hot. But he knew they were wrong. Hell was towering, smashing water. And he was near in it. He and his four fellow knights fought alongside the crew to bail out their small craft. The flat-bottomed sailing cog pitched under his feet as it crashed into another deep trough.
“Someone grab the sheet!”
He tipped his head back at the thin shout from above. Icy rain and spray slashed his dark hair across his face. He could scarce make out where the young sailor clung halfway up the wooden mast, the rescued rope dangling from one hand. Palmer stretched to his full height as the dark snake of rope thrashed above him. A fresh howl from the gale spun it out over the foaming waves.
“Pass it again!” said Palmer. The loose heavy canvas sail hammered, battered, drowned out his call to the boy. He swallowed deep as he went to call again. Though he’d emptied his stomach five minutes after he’d stepped aboard, his guts still churned up choking bile. “Pass it.” Bitter spittle cracked his voice.
The sailor swung the rope back again. Palmer’s fingers stung as he got a hold with his right hand.
“Look out, look out!”
Palmer looked over his left shoulder at the lad’s shrill scream. A giant storm wave surged toward the ship, grew above him to the height of the mast. The cog began to climb the steep gray sides of the mountain of water, the bow rising higher and higher. Men shouted, yelled, cursed as Palmer too tried to keep his footing. The wooden hull squealed and protested as the ship tilted up on its stern. Palmer crashed onto his back on the deck, rope still in one hand. The wave broke above him and tons of white foaming water roared down, washing the boy from the mast before striking Palmer in a freezing, pounding wall. Sightless, suffocating, he slid across the listing planks, sheet still in his grip.
His palm ripped and burned as the ship heeled harder beneath him. Water poured from the decks, sweeping him with it. His shoulder slammed into the wooden deck rail, and he jolted to a stop. With his numbed free hand, he grabbed for it. Palmer hauled himself out of the emptying torrent and into the salt-filled gale. He coughed and spat as he clambered onto his knees and let go the rail to grasp the rope with both hands. Then the world dipped beneath him as the cog swept down the other side of the wave, righted again now that he had control of the sheet. The ship hit the trough in another shuddering blow, but kept upright, drawing its balance from the set sail. He bit down hard against the pain and held the sheet firm. If he loosed it, they’d all be lost. As he tightened his grip, the wind howled harder and the rope tore deeper into his injured flesh. “Succor!”
“Are you a maid at a maypole, Palmer?” A soaked Sir Reginald Fitzurse scrambled to his side and grabbed onto the rope too, breath jagged, fine features drawn in a deep scowl.
“Sorry, my lord. My hand’s bad.”
Fitzurse hauled hard alongside him, palms safe in his leather gauntlets. “This thing pulls like the devil.” The scowl disappeared. “You’ve the strength of three, man.”
Relieved at his leader’s praise, Palmer still held tight, the sodden cord staining with his seeping blood. “That sailor lad. We need to start a search.”
“In these seas?” Fitzurse’s unmoved blue eyes could have been wax.
“But couldn’t we — ” Another wave sluiced over the deck and rocked the ship hard. Pain sparked through Palmer’s hand, and his grip threatened to give.
“Hell’s teeth.” Fitzurse looked toward the rear of the ship. “Le Bret! We need you, sir!”
Richard le Bret’s huge, hulking frame straightened up from his work at the stern. He handed the swinging tiller to two crewmen, who grabbed it between them. “Aye.” He stumbled across the deck and landed next to Fitzurse and Palmer.
“Relieve Sir Palmer,” Fitzurse said to le Bret, “and make that sail secure.”
Le Bret took hold of the sheet in his massive fists.
Fitzurse nodded to Palmer. “Get yourself below, fix up your hand.”
“It won’t hold me back, my lord.” Palmer let go with his good hand, but his injured one stayed stuck to the soaked thick hemp. Bracing himself, he yanked it free without a blink, aware of Fitzurse’s sharp-eyed appraisal.
Bent low to keep his balance, Palmer went to step to the hatch that led below decks. His boot met something soft on the rough wooden planks, and he picked it up. It was the boy’s red wool cap, swept from his head as the wave washed him to his death. The poor wretch had joked to Palmer as they set sail, Me mam made it special, thinks it’ll keep me from catching a chill.