The Birth of Èrainn
Observations of a Spy
Nita breathed in the stinging salt air. She loved the smell of the sea and the fresh bite of the wind. The creaking of ropes and the rushing sound of the Catellina driving through the sea sounded like freedom to her. It had been many years since Nita had tasted freedom. Now every cloud in the vast sky delighted her. The diminutive woman knew that many of the passengers on board and a fair number of the crew were terrified to be headed straight away from land, into the limitless unknown of the open sea. Nita welcomed it. Nothing had ever felt so liberating and possible to her. Nita smiled wryly when she thought of the sequence of events that had taken her from a dungeon in Ludlow, on the Welsh border, to the deck of a ship in just seven days. Her gaze traveled to the aft castle of the Catellina, to the face of Diarmait FitzGerald, the man who had bought her freedom.
Diarmait had spoken with Nita just once before—for about fifteen minutes—ten years ago. The Irish lord was visiting Ludlow Castle on business, and had come down into the dungeons to see the Earl’s infamous prisoner. While Diarmait waited to see Ludlow’s most important guest, he had looked into Nita’s cell and begun a conversation with her. At first, Nita assumed that the noble bastard was just bored, and maybe surprised to see an attractive young woman in the dungeon. Diarmait preserved this illusion until the last minute of their conversation. Then, he told Nita that he would free her. She had laughed in his smiling face. After that night, Nita had held on to hope for over a year. She had held onto anger for several years after that first one, then she had simply become numb.
Nita had survived her long incarceration by imagining all of the stories that her grandmother had told during her childhood. She spiced the stories with variations from her own imagination, and with her hatred of the English crown. The stories had helped to keep her mostly sane. The hatred had kept her alive. She refused to relinquish control, keeping careful track of all of the comings and goings in the dungeon. She marked passing days and counted them carefully. She convinced the taciturn jailer, after months of trying, to speak with her periodically, and so she learned some things that had passed in the world. Nita went over all of the people that she had known in the vast network of spies across Europe. She constructed elaborate scenarios and tried to determine who among her peers might still be alive or successful, and who might be dead or jailed.
When freedom came, Nita had watched it unfold like a simple-minded farm girl, unable to speak or to aid her benefactor. A tall, plump noblewoman had come to the dungeon. Visitors were regular here in Ludlow’s deepest basement. Many highborn people wanted to see for themselves just how far the mighty could fall. Nita ignored the noblewoman after noting that she had extremely bright, almost glittering eyes. When the jailer slumped to the floor silently, Nita just sat there like such things happened every day. It took several seconds for her to register the event. When the tall woman opened the door of her cell, Nita just looked at her. The woman actually had to pick Nita up like a baby and carry her out of the cell. The woman splashed water from the jailer’s cup in Nita’s face, and then slapped her. Nita had felt like she was emerging from a dive in deep water.
The woman was Diarmait FitzGerald’s mother. With the aid of a gnomish woman from Diarmait’s retinue, Dame FitzGerald smuggled Nita out of the castle in the span of ten minutes. It was all a blur then, and still felt far away in Nita’s mind one week later. When Nita had met with Sir Diarmait in person following the escape, she had had a chance to get her wits about her. Diarmait did not disappoint. He had not spun a tale of pity or of altruism—he wanted Nita to work for him. This was the language that Nita understood and preferred. That she would promise to work for him was never a question in Nita’s mind—she owed him the most profound of all debts. What surprised Nita was that, after all of the years that she had been involved in espionage, after all of the betrayals, double-deals, and surprises—she somehow knew that she would never betray the big, jolly Irish knight. Before her incarceration, Nita would have been hyper-aware of her internal boundaries with the man and with the situation. Now, she had a stone wall in her mind that prevented her from even imagining a betrayal. Amazing!
Nita allowed herself to emerge from her reverie slowly. She gazed around the deck of the big nau, taking in detail as only she could. The crew was the stereotypical hodge-podge of humanity. What was not stereotypical was the efficiency and competency of the sailors. Nunez ran a tight ship, indeed. His officers were very sharp. The ship’s bosun was both terrifying and irresistibly friendly. Nita had never been on a ship so clean and so well-managed. The passengers on the Catellina fell into two large groups. Diarmait had brought along his entire personal retinue and what seemed to be most of his friends in the world. These, Nita placed into the first group. Some were members of the Teutonic Order, like Diarmait. Some seemed to be childhood friends that had become political allies—illegitimate but connected members of the gentry like Diarmait himself. Some just seemed to be adventurers along for excitement. The second group of passengers were the retainers and allies of Clement, the great Abbot of Tintern. Nita had only seen such a large number of important priests and knights of the Church in one place when she had last visited Rome.
Both groups contained people that Nita put on her “watch-it” list. In Diarmait’s retinue, Nita took note of his lieutenant, Sir Robert FitzHenry. The Teutonic Knight was quiet, and drew almost no attention to himself. Nita doubted that anyone else could see all of the tiny markers about the knight that told her to keep an eye on him at all times. Of course, she kept track of the spell-casters. Ilaisa, the gnomish woman who had aided her rescue, was a skilled wizard who had obviously also spent time on the wrong side of the law. James O’ Riordan, Diarmait’s foppish cousin, hid his considerable abilities under a façade of drunkenness and gambling. Ahni, the elven bard, was older than she looked. Nita’s keen eye picked out the materials used to make the elf woman’s lute, and the obvious skill of the instrument-maker who had made it. Nita would be very careful anytime the woman chose to “entertain” the group! The followers of the Abbot also included exceptional individuals besides the Abbot himself.
The impossibly tall Father Ivan was one of several of the Catholic Church’s so-called “bound wizards.” Nita had noted the St. Jude medals that were somehow bonded to the flesh on the back of the men’s left hands. Ivan seemed friendly and even shy, but Nita did not trust that impression. In her experience, these men always turned out to be trouble for anyone not devoted to the Church. Father Duncan Leys, one of the paladins from St. Malo, struck Nita as a man of many talents. She had no doubt about the veracity of his holy orders or his devotion to the Church, but she had also seen evidence of a more shadowed past. Father Duncan was far too attractive for his own good, and his singing voice rivaled Ahni’s for sweetness. The Scribe of St. Malo was trouble on two legs, as far as Nita was concerned, an assessment that was supported when Nita was able to look at his eyes. She gave the leader of the holy warriors, Father Simon, as wide a berth as possible on the ship. He was just the type of man that had gotten her imprisoned—inflexible, fanatical, and powerful. Nita had heard of Father Simon’s exploits for years even before her incarceration. His achievements on some of Europe’s most terrible battlefields were difficult to credit, but after meeting good Father Simon, Nita believed most of the stories.
Nita’s running catalog of the personalities on board the Catellina was interrupted by shouts from the crew. Looking toward the bow, Nita could see a dark mark on the near horizon. Most of the crew seemed to be going below decks, leaving only some of the more experienced hands and the officers above decks. Nita could see Captain Nunez, the first mate, and the old helmsman on the aft castle. Also present in the stern area were Sir Diarmait and some of his retinue—the tall, half-elven monk named Berengar and a dwarf called Störvik. Another dwarf, Sir Rorik, stood with his back to the mainmast. Nita suddenly recalled that Rorik was sworn to the Teutonic Order. That was stranger than anything she had seen on the ship so far. The Catellina was rolling smoothly over large waves. Nita made her way to the starboard rail nearer to the prow of the great nau.
Soon, Nita was able to make out a giant pillar of natural stone rising from the sea. The Catellina seemed to be making for a close pass just to the port side of the stone. Nita blinked her eyes and then rubbed them. There seemed to be great waves of heat rising from the ocean next to the pillar, shimmering like the air of a desert horizon. Nita glanced back to the aft castle. Captain Nunez stood behind the wheelman, his arms extended, his eyes closed. He seemed to be speaking to himself. Nita shivered and pulled her veil down in front of her eyes. A great aurora of blue-green magical energy swirled out from Captain Nunez, reaching tendrils into the rigging, and encompassing both rails. Nita felt a rhythmic thrumming through the deck at her feet. As she turned back toward the prow of the ship, Nunez raised his voice in an inhuman shriek, pronouncing words that were in no language that Nita had ever heard.
With her veil in place, Nita could see a great bow shock of the turquoise energy riding in front of the Catellina, and a vortex of violet energy just above the water next to the stone pillar. She could not keep her eyes on the violet vortex for long—it was akin to looking straight at the sun. Nita felt a deep ache stealing over her bones, settling in her shoulders and producing nausea. She gripped the starboard rail with both hands and fixed her gaze on the carved maiden on the bow of the ship. The magical energy pulsed around the figurine of the Catellina’s namesake. The ship continued to roll over the great waves, making good speed with a steady wind in the sails. Nita braced herself as if for impact. When the sea-colored energy enveloping the Catellina met the violet vortex next to the pillar, Nita felt as if the entire Earth were snatched out from beneath her feet. Her senses reeled and she fought a more powerful wave of nausea. She was able to keep her feet by clinging to the rail with all of her strength. Her vision closed in a dark tunnel for several moments, and then she was able to stand up and to take a deep breath.
Nausea still swept over Nita in waves. Her head pulsed with pain and dizziness. All evidence of magical energy was gone. Captain Nunez slumped on the aft rail, silent. Everyone above decks stood quiet and seemingly stunned except for the helmsman, who leaned against the wheel and stared stoically forward. Nita rubbed her eyes again. The sea was very calm, and a light breeze touched her left cheek. Dark, menacing clouds hung on the horizon off to port. Nita had traveled the length and breadth of Europe, and had seen many wonders in her eventful career as a courtesan and a spy. She had witnessed spectacular duels between wizards on three occasions. She had suffered magical attack. Never had she witnessed such a strange and powerful display of the arcane arts. Nita now understood why this Irish colony could remain secret—she doubted if anyone besides Nunez could accomplish what she had just witnessed. She understood that a very great distance had been spanned in an instant, and she was not certain that other dimensions had not been spanned as well. Nita filed this information away with all of the other details she had absorbed. Her work for Sir Diarmait FitzGerald had become more interesting than she had imagined it would be. It brought a broad smile to Nita’s face.