There is a heavy poison in my guts. The bile rises and burns my throat. My head is heavy on the sacking. People move near me and the movement is a torture. I want them to stop! They pace, they grunt and spew while I am like a flower seed tossed in a massive north wind. My mind struggles to remember why I am here; if it is better here than it was before. How long was before? Did I live any of it? When was my skin last clean? When did I last eat food I did not want to immediately vomit up? But most of all, I want to know what it was I did to come here, to deserve this living death? I scream now and the poison in my guts comes up at last in violent heaves. I splutter and drop exhausted on the decking. Fryth, her face chalk-white catches my eye and murmurs: “Isla, death would be easier.” I smile at her in acknowledgement.
I cannot tell how long we have been heaving around in the boat’s hull, covered by the thin woollen cloaks allowed us. As I sip water, I wonder when my stomach will be still. In between the long sleep of the nauseous, I notice the sky is sometimes blue but most often yellow-laden grey. Yesterday I saw a bird, a thin black bird that flew with a fish hanging out of its mouth. A bird I had never seen before. We are near land and the sailors, our gaolers, are suddenly more urgent in their movements. Arguments banter amongst them. I cannot understand any of them fully, only the word for ‘money’.
Not long after sunrise, the longboat is beached on an island. One of the sailors runs off down the beach and up the hill. We are made stay in the boat so we sleep without the awful motion of the sea. We are yelled at to wake. Mossy rocks and flat green turf is all I notice of the landscape for coming up the beach is a party of men. They are all tall for the most, with blond or dark hair, dressed in cloaks and breeches in varying shades of orange and brown. My eyes squint to see weapons. They have none, not even daggers on their belts. About half are clean-shaven. When they are close to the boat, I notice one man, taller than the others with dark hair and a thin black beard. He has piercing green eyes, a smallish nose, a red mouth. His hands are big but the fingers are tapered and he wears a gold ring on the right one that the sun’s rays have caught for a moment. The flash of sunlight from the ring illuminates the brooch holding his cloak and sets the ruby there on fire. The others, I notice, have such booty displayed as well but none wear it as he does with such confidence.
The captain of our ship, the greasiest of the sailors, yells at us to disembark motioning with his hand. We all, all us women get up and clutch each other to steady our legs. Most trip on ropes or their own feet in our effort to leave this tortuous vessel. I want to throw myself on the sand and not move again. When my feet finally feel the sand beneath them, I splay out my legs to stand still and fix my eyes on the man of the ring and ruby brooch to stop from falling down. There is a flicker in his green eyes. The captain pushes us into a line. Our rag bundles, our only possessions are thrown onto the beach in front of us.
He begins to speak to the party of islanders, pointing at us and raising his eyebrows. He pulls out a leather bag from his shirt and indicates the emptiness of it. The man of the ring steps forward and gives the captain a handful of hack silver, bent and twisted ring money with a few gold coins among it. The captain shakes his head and the Ring Man steps back. He is smiling as he does so. Then the next man steps up and throws his own pile of bullion at the captain. One of the sailors hurries to get a sack and put it before the captain and each of the other eight men in the line now throws their hoard onto the sack. When the last is done, the pile reaches to above his boots. The captain is laughing now, and the other sailors’ eyes are popping with greed. The Ring Man speaks now to the captain and the captain receives his message with great amusement, snorting as he gets the idea, whatever it is. The captain, his black eyes dimmed with perverse pleasure, turns to us women and says one word: “Choose!” He holds his hand flat indicating the men. My ‘sisters’ are confused. I tell them. “We are to choose a man!” They giggle in astonishment. Fryth says aloud, to me, “Isla, it your right to go first.”
I look at the men and stare at their faces, full of lust and the need to appear unperturbed by the circumstances. They stand steady, their shoulders a little straighter than before.
The first man, the Ring Man, stares at me as if to mesmerize me. I stare back at him and frown and for a moment his gaze falters and he looks at the ground. I step forward and taking up my bundle, I walk towards him and reach my hand out to him. He takes my hand in his and we turn and walk back along the beach.