Scholars have long remarked on the convergence of history between alternate earths Hibernia and Tirdia, even after the long nexus completed in 1014 following the battle of Clontarf. One of the most astonishing parallels is that between Hibernia's Royal Army Naval Corps in the 1430s and Tirdia's British Navy in the time of Napoleon. Hibernian ship technology developed rapidly after the scientific revolution began in the early fourteenth century, and by 1434 was both comparable to that enjoyed by Nelson in 1800 and employed in approximately equal sophistication by all Ireland's contemporary European rivals.
As smaller wars simmered up to the big boil all the intelligence services knew was coming, France boasted the better frigates, Spain the largest men of war, but Ireland deployed the best trained and officered sailors, as did the much later England on Tirdia. While Spanish and French ship captains were often political appointees, their Irish counterparts began as junior ship's officers--either in the Regular Naval Officer Program (RNOP) as elite military academy graduates with substantial sailing experience, as midshipmen who'd received their education aboard ship from the age of twelve, then passed their exams and a board of review, or "mustangs"--enlisted men who had distinguished themselves, obtained the necessary education, and been reclassified--"come up through the hawse hole", though the latter were rarely given a ship larger than a frigate. Battle tactics were similar as well, with most engagements employing the costly but inconclusive "line of battle".
One significant difference was that Hibernia's Ireland had a single armed force--her Royal Army--and RANC, the Naval Corps, was ill-regarded by most RA officers, as were police, fire, and carters (black for undertakers, red for ambulance). Because so many preferred to seek glory in the cavalry and infantry, advancement at sea was often very rapid. A mere lieutenant might captain a ship, and some admirals were only majors, as there was only a rough correlation between army rank and ship's position. Indeed, technically most sloop and many frigate "captains" were "master and commander" as they had not yet achieved the rank of "captain". Only years later might they be "posted" to the navy list as such, guaranteeing them both a position and a pension, but not, as in Tirdia's England, automatic elevation to Admiral merely by surviving, as the latter appointments were nominally on merit.
On land, Spain and France had a substantial edge over Ireland and ally Hungary, whose numbers and equipment were decidedly inferior. Only distance kept Albert of Hungary from being overwhelmed after France took Germany, and only the ocean saved Ireland from invasion by and subjection to one of her continental rivals. As our account opens, the Spanish king lusted for a larger empire, and fractious France, only temporarily quiet, seethed with intrigue, and chafed that her Irish rival's prosperous merchant marine out-traded everyone.
The European world teetered on the knife edge of cataclysm, her wise men convinced that when it came, Ireland and Hungary would quickly be swept to oblivion in the dust bin of history.
Two remarkable Irish military geniuses changed everything in the seven years culminating in 1441--one at sea, the other on the land.
Amy Rea July 4, 1434, Dublin harbour
Heart in her boots, and bitter tears barely suppressed, freshly minted RA Captain Amy Rae stood near the top of the boarding ramp in the warm sun, back to her new ship, taking one last sorrowful look around the Royal Army dock compound. Just beyond the well-guarded gates she could see her escort mounting up for their return to barracks in Tara.
Ordinarily the noise and colourful bustle of three frigates and a cruiser being provisioned would soak pleasure into her sparse frame. Today the sight gave her no enjoyment. It was her nineteenth birthday, but she and her seven remaining friends had been too preoccupied that morning with their own survival and their new RA postings to mark her legal majority. No one would now.
Following her appointment to the Royal Army Naval Corps that morning, BuPers had spirited her away from Tara to Dublin on a circuitous route embedded in a cavalry patrol to avoid the scrutiny of "First Lord" Frederick Monde, and his puppet, brand new High King Dermot I. Question me about Dad's whereabouts my skinny fanny. If I once fell into their inquisitors' grasping hands, I'd never see daylight again on this earth. Well, they won't catch him. They'll never even suspect that dear old devious Da, master spy Carlan Rea morphed himself into Clement Tighen, MIS General, his office right under their noses at Maynard Park, blocks from Tara's palace.
She sighed. Will I see my home again? My friends? My enemies? She bottled up grief over long-ago companion Marnie McCan, who'd fulfilled the prophesy of old nightmares by trying to murder her that very morning, and over the betrayals of former classmates Thomas Rourke and Felim Monde, who'd turned their backs on the Diechara to side with the new regime--ten friends become eight. Felim she could understand. His ambitions exceeded his father's. But ah, Tommy boy. I would love you if I could. However, you are no believer in Christ, so I forbid myself. I must, I do forbid.
Dermot Jr., one of the Diechara, had shown more faith, broken with his father, married Fiona Kennedy, and they two had accepted an RA posting in Cork. Long standing sweethearts Eileen O'Neil and Aiden Reilly had married in the same ceremony, but the two Diechara weddings should have included them all and been joyous celebrations, instead of a furtive avoidance of Dermot's Da and the latter's master. Could it only have been Thomas and me for a third, but he not being a believer, and now betraying us... She looked up. Why, Lord. Why?
One could say that "Uncle" King Cormac's release from his long illnesses and personal sorrows was a mercy for him, though a disaster for Ireland. Would she ever see dearest Queen Mother Mary again? Or Aunt Jean, whom Carlan had spirited back to her native Poland just before the hilt came off?
Her thoughts turned in rapid succession to Fiona's late mother Alia, Lady Kennedy, Captain of the Citadel Guard until the succession riots three days before took her life and others', then to her many ChristChurch friends who'd coincidentally died after Madison virus got into the church air system. I daren't even attend their funerals to bid goodbye. Oh Lord of Heaven, what possible purpose have you in all this sorrow and pain? Have you any plan for me in this mess? Sure I may be safer away from Ireland, if anybody calls being Second Officer of a frigate in a shooting war "safe", but...
She sighed deeply, choked back tears over the harsh memories, aimed one last desultory prayer at an apparently leaden heaven, deliberately shook off her funk, hoisted her duffle, turned, and strode aboard.
* * * * *
The seaman who met her saluted perfunctorily, and took her duffle. Only the ship's captain rated ceremony. "Welcome aboard Boudicca, Officer Rea. Captain Lewis awaits your pleasure, Sir."
Which, translated to civilian speak meant "report the instant you come aboard".
And since a RANC ship's Captain, whatever his RA rank, was next only to God, delay was unimaginable. "Very well, Bosun Johnstone. Store these bags in my quarters, if you please."
He blinked and grinned. "Didn't think you'd remember me, Sir."
"The Celestes? I remember you all." Forget any detail of when the School Squadron took the Spanish treasure fleet that summer? Can't believe I was only a middie then.
Pleased to be noticed by an officer, Johnstone went off with a spring in his step.
Moments later she knocked on the captain's door, entered at his "come", positioned her head between beams, and stood to rigid attention before his desk--the usual knockdown affair that could be quickly removed when the cramped frigate cabin became station for four small guns.
"Amy Grace Rea, RA Captain, reporting aboard, Sir."
Samuel T. Lewis, RA Major and weather beaten veteran of numerous engagements, but at thirty five, embarrassingly old still to lack the coveted "Post" status that guaranteed tenure in the Naval Corps in case peace broke out, and retirement pay thereafter, looked up slowly and grimaced. He picked up the white beret that only a ship's captain is permitted, made to don it, then tossed it back.
One of the less formal ones--a thought he confirmed. "Stand easy, Rea, then sit. So these dispatches are to be believed, and the General Staff went through with it. God help Ireland." He shook his head. "They steal my first officer, and this is what I get back to cover promoting my second. And the tide is running. We need to weigh."
"Sir?" What's he saying?
"Do you realize, Rea, there has never been a woman officer on one of His Majesty's ships? Look at you. A skinny fresh-faced girl child out of an effete academy for pampered rich children, put aboard with hardened seamen, many of them criminals swept out of Ireland's jails in the last few days, men who will skin and eat you alive." He shook his head sadly. "Are you even a legal adult?"
"Yes, Sir." I'm nineteen today, but he can see that on the form. And skinny as a stick is accurate enough, but I've some fight in me. Dad saw to that.
"These papers correct? You're a medical and culmanic officer?"
"Ollamh in both, Sir. Music, too." Most people use my term 'science' rather than 'culmanic' these days, but I certainly won't bother correcting him.
Face florid, he was angry now. "Every ship needs a medic. But an Ollamh, culmanic, music? How many dead men have you seen? Do you even know how to navigate, much less fight a ship?"
"I have my sailing master's certificate, first class. I middied aboard Celeste when the Summer Squadron took the Spanish convoy, Sir. Our guns killed two enemy sloops."
His bushy eyebrows rose perceptibly, he leaned back, then forced the thinnest possible smile. "Only worthwhile action the channel fleet's seen in years, and it took the Summer School Squadron to make it happen, to do it right. Would the rest would learn from that. Medical?"
"I replaced the ship's sawbones during and after the fight and handled three ships' rota of casualties plus numerous of the enemy's. At Tara, I worked the event hall trampling two years ago as a physician, and fought with the police in the other night's riots. I've seen hundreds of shifts at Tara General, mostly emergency." Perhaps I oughtn't mention maternity. "Last summer, as her only surviving officer, I brought in the frigate Lady of Mayo following the pirate engagement. That's several thousand dead around me, Sir, perhaps two hundred I've touched with my own hands. I'd rather save lives than kill, but an officer of the crown must do both at times." She didn't mention the black knives in her sleeve and boot holsters. She'd removed the death head embossing, but a knowledgeable person would realize they'd been taken from members of the storied Assassins Guild.
He looked more closely, and his face softened. "You're that Rea? The gazette never said the Mayo's 'Lieutenant Rea' was a woman." He hardened again. "Suppose some sex-starved sailor attacks you?"
"If there aren't more than three at once, I'll try not to break both arms, Sir, so they can remain useful to the ship."
"Flogging, court martial and a hanging?"
"Not unless the conduct was repeated, mutinous, or otherwise endangered the ship, Sir." I've been flogged. I'll never order it if there is any alternative.
Lewis seemed momentarily pleased. "Says here you're a personal combat expert."
"All-Ireland for six years, Sir." Again, I omit the knives.
"You can instruct?"
"Certainly. I have for years."
"Know anything about gunnery?"
"I was one of Celeste's gunnery officers, Sir. Our gun took a sloop before I was called to the surgery."
He grunted. "Well, we've got eight new twenty-pounders aboard, sent down by the research department at the Park. They have grooved bores and shaped balls, A-class, they're called. Supposed to be cooler and more accurate, better penetrators. Seems the General Staff wants Boudicca to test them, send reports." He grimaced. "Bloody experiments could get us all killed. Ammunition has to be segregated, too. Waste of time and space if you ask me--and more paperwork, as if there weren't enough already. But if we must, it sounds like a job for a science and gunnery officer, assuming the new pieces don't blow their crews into glory before they can scratch the enemy."
"I'd be happy to take on their testing in addition to my other duties, Sir." "A" for Amy. So the boffins at Maynard Park finally got some of my new guns into the field after all this time experimenting on their own range. Maybe some royalties coming to my bank account if they buy more.
He shook his head sadly. "I assume I needn't read the articles of war."
"I have them memorized, Sir."
"It's crazy. But I have my orders, and you seem determined." He wrote in his log. "Very well, Amy Grace Rea, RA Captain-Physician, is hereby booked aboard HMS Frigate Boudicca as Second Officer with additional duties as ship's physician, combat trainer, gunnery experiments, and culmanic officer. Sign the log as acceptance of the articles of war."
He spun the book and she autographed it in the space indicated. Then, as if he'd forgotten his tirade, he got down to details.
"My first is RA Captain Ryan Burke, and we've been together on Boudicca for seven years. He was a middie when I was handed the ship. Officially she's a fifth-class, though at forty-two guns, small for that designation today. We're a two-watch ship. That means I sometimes take days, the first generally has nights, and you take days the rest of the time unless I relieve you to other duties. Boudicca's been in dry dock for a hull scrubbing these two months, so she's as limber as any frigate in the fleet despite her age--a sweet sailer too. But, she's been robbed of half her crew by other captains, and the raw hands include far too many pressed men. Moreover, we're short staffed, two hundred fifty out of two eighty, with only three middies, and no third or fourth officer, so you need to babysit the wardroom plus organize non-coms and the middies--when they're ready--to run gun crews. Your quarters are in the surgery as Sawbones and you have use of the area for your equipment. No guns there of course, it's a permanent surgery, unlike on line ships."
A neat solution to the problem of shared quarters but, "Equipment, Sir?"
"Six heavy crates of instruments, gear, and supplies with your name on them arrived from Tara this morning. Stowed in the small hold abaft the surgery."
So despite all his bluster, he assumed all along I was staying. "In that case, and with your permission, Sir, may I set up a small windmill on the deck above the surgery? I can catch spill from the foresails."
"A windmill? Whatever on earth for?"
"Electricity generation to keep the batteries charged for my experiments."
He shook his head slowly. "A budding Queen Kat no less. Well, as long as you can stow it when we clear for action..."
"Easily, sir. I'll pass plans to the carpenter."
He returned to his spiel. "I'll have Baxter, my clerk, bring you an annotated roster this afternoon. Memorize it. Burke will have their training as sailors, you as fighters. Sort out the veterans and have them assist, but there's a long go of it with this riffraff. Baxter will also handle your culmanic and other reports to the Park." He's already thought all this out.
"Aye, Sir. May I ask where we're cruising, if our orders aren't sealed?"
Lewis stood, ducking between beams, looking resigned. He's quite a solid fellow, nearly my height, well-proportioned, and I'll wager as fit and tough as any Diechara. "Not sealed, not even important, mere dull routine, though not as mind-numbing as blockade duty. After a month's shakedown, we train our crew on detached home duty patrolling the big island, keeping an eye on the English barbarians' ports as weather permits. Come spring and our crew properly shipshape, we sail around the south, stop at Shannon for supplies, then relieve Sophie on patrol in the southeastern fishing grounds. When ourselves relieved, we run the message and small supply circuit to bases in Atlantica, Madeira, Muscape, Malta, and Athens, fly the flag in Lebanon and Egypt, then return. Every squadron we meet will be short of frigates and may co-opt us for their own purposes, sending a lesser ship with our orders on the next leg, and resuming us if and as the commodore pleases, so we could be months at each station, like or no.
"Total mission from Shannon is supposedly two years, but could be half or double that. It will be Boudicca's fourth time around the same route one of His Majesty's frigates commences every three months to the day--a routine assignment. You'll be bored to insanity by the end--no action, no prizes, no chance of promotion."
He sighed deeply, then glanced up at a chronometer. "The tide turned ten minutes ago. Take her out, Rea. When we're well away, set course to the northwest, then call me. Oh, and welcome to Boudicca."
"Thank you, Sir."
He probably thinks I can't tack her out of the river. But I just need to remember she's got that much more sail and way than Lady of Mayo, and be sure to defer to the sailing master and the harbour pilot. A long way off indeed. Thanks for the posting, Dad. This is going to be very good indeed.
July 1434, The Irish Sea
Amy got a surprise when she opened her gear, for hidden inside was a small bag, containing the gems former Royal Academy language instructor Zera Yacob had given her before returning to Ethiopia. With them was a note: "You may need these." Thanks again, Dad. A selection of our best black knives, too. Well.
Next morning, Lewis excused her from watch to organize her charges. Her first stop was the gun room, where the middies sprang to attention at her entry, the taller forgetting where he was, so striking his head on a beam.
"Stand easy, gentlemen." She looked at her clipboard. "Names?"
"Brent McAvoy," the one with the fast-developing goose egg replied. She thought him about fourteen.
"Hank FitzPatrick," the shorter, but somewhat older boy informed.
"George Davis," answered the third, somewhat surly. Perhaps as youngest, the others haze him. Or does he object to a woman superior?
She spent a couple of hours assessing the three and laying out a program of education for the first few months. McAvoy was a merchant's son, sent into the navy as the cheapest and most reliable, if somewhat risky way of learning to be a marine sailor. His education was competent, his intelligence average, and his enthusiasm appeared commendable. FitzPatrick was the nephew and adopted son of the childless Count Donald FitzPatrick, of the ancient Osraige line, and was here to make him an officer and a gentleman. Her first impression was of a superior education and intellect, but a romantic idealist, for he several times mentioned the extinguished Osraige province with stars in his eyes. But both wanted to be here, wanted to learn. She would see it happened.
Davis was a potential problem. Son of a Tara-based baron, he seemed to have an attitude of entitlement. This was his third ship, his record on the previous two barely satisfactory, and he was at least a year behind where he should be. If he didn't shape up soon, Boudicca would be his last posting before being beached.
* * * * *
The ensuing days were heaven--long, hard hours being a soldier-sailor and training others to the same, the bitterness of sorrow and betrayals at Tara forcibly put to the back of her mind. The only intellectual stimulation was what she provided herself, but Boudicca was otherwise the Academy made practical, and Amy loved the sea and its people. She could cover her broken heart by working twenty hours a day, and eating accordingly.
The big, ruggedly handsome and affable twenty-five-year-old First Officer Burke was a gentleman's younger son, supposedly from Ulster, but whose speech patterns instead announced County Kildare, an educated, friendly man who treated her as a fellow professional and colleague. "Unlike my older brother, who inherits the family estate, I must make my own way in life. I have not the temperament for academics or most professions, so what better than the army, where better than at sea? And you?"
"I am a woman in a man's army, determined to succeed."
"Because my father is army and wishes it, my teachers would expect it, my country deserves no less, and the Lord of Heaven demands the best out of my life. Does anyone need other reasons?"
He grinned at her idealism.
Both Burke and Lewis were consummate sailors, knowing every rope and spar, every inch of Boudicca's boards, and every mother's son aboard with all his talents, faults, and failings. Amy made sure that what they knew, she learned.
Early on, she made an intriguing but inadvertent discovery. Ryan Burke was aloft with a raw hand coaching him in the proper way to furl the foretopsail when Boudicca took a lurch in a larger than usual wave. His chest scraped against a spar, pulling his shirt loose and dislodging something inside it. On deck, Amy had been watching how an expert instructed, and noted Burke lunge at a small object, miss, and then have to grab a rope for balance. She gauged the bit of metal as it twinkled in the sun and fell, extended a gloved hand, and caught it. A split second later, a small silver chain struck the deck, and she retrieved that also.
Curious, she examined her catch, which had evidently been strung on the chain around Burke's neck. It was a gold ring with a crest surrounded by precious stones--a family signet cast in the late fourteenth century style, and of considerable value even as jewelry. Even as she looked at it, she realized she'd seen a similar one before. The shield contained a pair of crossed swords in red, and the quadrants, clockwise from the top a harp, a horse's head, a cross, and two sheaves of wheat on black. Any novice heraldry student would know it immediately. Who knew what value it had as the signet of one of the land's leading royal families? Ulsterman my skinny fanny.
A few minutes later when Burke descended hurriedly to the deck bearing a worried expression, she put chain and ring in his hand, commenting laconically, "I take it Burke isn't your real name."
He bowed acknowledgement. "I am deeply in your debt, Amy Rea, and I must request your indulgence and discretion, indebting me further. If my brother knew this signet was not lost but our mother had given it to me when I was sent away to school to ensure there would be no unfavourable comparisons to the heir, I would fear for my life. It is my only possession from home."
"My much older brother is a giant of a man and an excellent sword, but a poor reader, ill-educated, a drunk, a wastrel, a brute, and a gambler. Worse, he is driven by ambition, knows no scruples of politics or morals, and has zero empathy. He has a nineteen-year old son he's raising to be worse than himself."
"Ambition? Does not the signet indicate he is already a high lord?" I won't say of what aloud.
"His kind of ambition has no limit. Once infected, the disease is incurable."
"I see. But surely the family can replace a signet."
"Indeed. But this was already a replacement for one more than a century older, and that vanished in my great grandfather's time. My father and brother were most possessive concerning this version, even though it is a copy, except bearing the newest version of our family arms."
And I once saw said original signet on a chain around the neck of a small boy who stayed in our home while in transit as the object of one of dear old spy Dad's projects. Well, well. Intrigues within enigmas.
"They do not know your assumed name and where you are, then."
"No, and his jealousy and hatred for me are such that matters best remain so. Neither should the ship's company learn of this."
"One of the middies is Hank FitzPatrick, his family party to an old rivalry."
"I understand." On opposite sides of one of Ireland's great feuds.
"Not that I have anything against the lad or he against me, but as his officer I must ensure it stays that way, so nothing interferes with him being made in a year or so. He has the makings of a fine commander, and needs no distractions."
"I will say nothing of it." I have enough secrets of my own I wouldn't want revealed. Keeping his is a trivial thing. Besides, given that older ring little four-year-old Johnny had when he came to our place in Tara, these trinkets embody more secrets than just Ryan Burke's. But I'm not telling him that.
Another secret presented when she started working with the gun captains. But this one seemed to have no occasion to warrant discussing, so she kept her lips sealed. I have no idea why Dick Cunningham, merchant's son and Royal Academy's top graduate from last year, is a mere able seaman under the assumed name of Derk Cunnie, but having a man qualified as first lieutenant as a gun captain and petty officer is a bonus. No idea what he did to end up here, perhaps ran afoul of the law, but I'll not ask. His disguise isn't a bad one, but wouldn't fool any Diechara, or Dad for that matter. After all, he worked out with us numerous times. And he's a better knife than any of us. Despite our official tie in the all-Irelands, he was faster then, though I've since bettered my time by thirty-seven milliseconds. Useful if we get into a fight. However, he's not a believer, and I don't know his character. But to think, his parents wanted to arrange our marriage. She blushed at the thought, for it brought Thomas to mind. But as a precaution, she kept her distance from Cunnie, avoiding meeting with him in private, but taking subtle advantage of his training, relying on him as a key link in her chain of command.
Once George Davis inadvertently called her "mother" to the vast amusement of the two older middies, and her mixed chagrin. I'd love to be a mother. I'd like Thomas to be the occasion of that motherhood. But...
Meanwhile, Lewis regaled them with decided opinions on the progress of the war and the employment of the Naval Corps.
"The General Staff, as the Court, are focused on beating the Spannies at their own game on land, a chancy proposition at best, for there our armies are outnumbered, not as well trained, and ill-led. They neglect the fleet and its proper role--dominating the seas, cutting the enemy's supply lines, starving the enemy's people if need be, prosecuting total war on the transport of soldiers and ammunition at least. Even the Admirals don't understand the concept. The channel fleet spends much time holed up in Belfast, Shannon, Cork, Dublin, or Muscape instead of maintaining an air tight blockade on the Spanish Coast. The men aren't trained to fight efficiently, and we're not ready to take the enemy on the way we should. Should France throw in with the Spannies, we could well lose this war. If Portugal or Holland also joined, we could be finished in a year."
Amy soon concluded that Lewis was on solitary patrol as a mere frigate captain partly because he liked and was suited to independent duty, but mostly because his opinions weren't welcomed by influential senior officers.
"What sea battle tactics did they teach at that school of yours, Rea?"
"The traditional line of battle, Sir."
"Describe and critique." He sounded sour.
Amy relished such a conversation. He has much in common with Aunt Jean.
"The opposing fleets line up in parallel and slowly drift toward each other under topsails until within range. This can take much of a day. Then they fire broadsides until dark, after which they retire from battle for repairs. Most such engagements are inconclusive."
"How would you make them conclusive?"
She couldn't doubt, hearing that, what he preferred. Besides, she knew his position.
She'd answer what she believed. "Attack bow on, Sir. Cross the enemy line in several places under full canvass at speed, and rake two ships at once, using all the guns instead of half. Only then take a turn, furl main sails, and engage at close range with broadsides. When you do, move the offside gun crews over and take turns, upping the firing rate."
"Conventional wisdom claims that tactic necessitates taking excessive damage before getting the main guns into action."
"But the Spannies aren't very good shots, and bow-on we'd present a far smaller target. Don't you think the risk is worth the chance to actually win the battle conclusively by damaging, destroying, or capturing most of the opposing ships? Besides, the new guns give us an additional advantage."
Later that day, Burke cornered her, sporting a broad grin. "Did you know Lewis wrote a paper advocating the very tactic you described? He called it 'crossing the T'."
"It wasn't in either the gazette or 'Military Matters'." Although Dad had a copy. Well, I wasn't just repeating back. I agree with him.
"Neither would print it. A few weeks later he was passed over for Post for the second time. He's up once more next year, and if it happens again, he'll be relieved of his commission when we return. He can't bear the thought of being put ashore to watch incompetents continue running RANC."
Six days they worked, and on Sundays, Lewis conducted services, gave no training, and allowed entertainments. Not all captains made attendance at divine services mandatory, and even fewer granted the men a day free of all but essential duties, but he did both. As at school, it made Amy uncomfortable to keep her hat on when all the men doffed theirs, but the Holy Books trumped the RA in this at least.
She gathered from his homilies that Lewis must be a believer, though he never spoke of personal things, much less spiritual ones. She wondered how he reconciled the "do no violence" commands in Paul's Epistle to the Hibernians with his role as captain of one of His Majesty's fighting ships, especially when Army regulations required him to review the articles of war immediately following the service. She wondered how she reconciled them. She'd dealt much death, and seen far more since the day she'd thrown up after killing those two assassins in a Tara alley.
For his part, Burke was a skeptic, an unbeliever. Not that he opposed Christianity. Rather, he affected not to care.
"There's plenty of religions all over the world. I say let people believe what they want as long as it's harmless, but I do tell them to make sail when they anchor in my face."
No amount of remonstrance that beliefs were never harmless nor neutral seemed to stick. He let her talk without interruption or argument, then laughed off the spiritual content of conversations as he did the political.
"Such things matter to others, I'll give them that. You must give to me that I care nothing for them, whether true or false. My brother and nephew attend church because it is politically expedient. Yet, they are pagans, and everyone knows it. I want nothing of such a Christianity."
"But Christianity is a matter of the heart, not of religion."
"His and my father's before him were of stone. So is my nephew's after him. I go my way more honourable in unbelief than most I've known who called themselves 'Christians'." He looked narrowly at her. "And only time will tell about the idealistic Amy Rea."
On all other topics Burke was open as a book, a mine of information about the ship, RANC (as its members called the Royal Army Naval Corps), the Spanish, French and Italians, whatever other topic of conversation she pleased, provided it lacked spiritual content for him to evade.
Contrary to what he'd initially said, Lewis generally stood his own watches, he and Burke busying themselves teaching city and farm boys how to sail a ship to their exacting standards, and, once they'd verified her skills, leaving Amy to relieve them four or five watches a week, and organize the fighting. Needing little sleep, she easily overlapped their shifts with her own, and once muster was over, took the men by halves to organize the gun crews, instruct hand to hand fighting, and conduct marksmanship exercises. Four times a day--to greet the dawn, on the shift changes, and at a random hour--Lewis had the bosuns pipe to battle quarters.
The captain's early greetings in mind, Amy was apprehensive of her safety at first, but it turned out that in addition to Johnstone, Boudicca shipped three other former Celestes and two of her Lady of Mayo crew, plus another six who knew her from Ariel or Pride of Dublin. They passed the word, and when she was all business all the time, ended up having no personal problems, particularly after she demonstrated by taking on three fighters at once hand to hand, then two with swords, and followed that up with four consecutive perfect targets at muskets and gave a demonstration of throwing knives the like of which few could have seen.
"You now know my standards. Match them," she said, noting a faint nod of approval from Cunnie, who she knew already did.
By the fourth day out, she had her gunnery crews and chiefs selected and training intensified. A week into their leisurely sail about the Irish Sea, she alternated gunnery with sword, musket, and hand-to-hand combat.
In contrast to her waking hours, bunk time was unpleasant, troubled by nightmarish thoughts that would not release her. Marnie was my friend. How could she betray me again, try to kill me? How could one who once said she was Christian become so proud, self-righteous, and vicious? Or was she ever? How could God allow such behaviour? What would happen if she died? Will I ever get a chance to witness to her again? If so, what could I say? What could I have said or done to make a difference? And what of Thomas? Oh, Tommy boy, how I long to love you. She tried to stay up late working on experiments, but had a hard time concentrating. Thoughts of Marnie and Thomas kept distracting her.
* * * * *
One morning, Amy was just leaving her bunk for another gruelling twenty hours when "all hands" were piped. Reporting to the deck, she took her place to the captain's left at assembly. They faced a husky young English sailor named John Savage, who was unhappily clenching his fists.
"Hands gathered to witness punishment," a bosun reported. He fingered the baize bag that contained the "cat", and she shuddered, remembering the last time she'd seen one of those all too well.
"Able Seaman John Quincy Savage, you are accused of disobeying a lawful order and striking Midshipman Davis, both actions contrary to the articles of war, duly signed under your hand. What have you to say, Savage?"
"Davis is a fool, ordering me onto that spar when he did. When it come around under my weight, it would have clubbed him senseless, perhaps killed him, so I kicked him over first."
"You did strike him, then?"
"Aye, and mayhap saved his life into the bargain."
"Very well, I dismiss the charge of disobedience, citing cause. For striking an officer, I assign ten." He turned to Cunnie. "Have his shirt off and lash him up."
"I reckon Sir," suggested Savage, "I can have my own shirt off, and stand up to the mast for ten."
"Very well, make it so."
Amy nearly cried out herself when the cat was applied to Savage's back. The man stood up to the first nine, but after the tenth, he slowly slid down the mast, collapsing insensate in his own torn flesh and blood. I know what it's like to take twenty, what would happen to a man flogged around the fleet for hundreds? This is barbaric.
"Punishment concluded, Sir."
"Dismiss the hands." Cunnie did so, but before Lewis turned to walk back to the stern, he glanced at Amy. Shaking from her own memories, she spotted Davis to one side, mouth open, apparently about to heave his stomach.
"Midshipman Davis," she ordered, as crisply as possible, "fetch a stretcher and another pair of hands, and bring him to the surgery. You'll help me patch him up. Once we're done, you've cost us a man, so you'll take his place on the lines until Savage can work again."
She caught a quick glance from Lewis, then a thoughtful nod.
Did I just do something right in his eyes, even though it wasn't by the book, to demote a Middie before the mast?
For the next several days, she conscripted the recovering Savage to help set up her surgery and lab equipment, starting with an inventory of the gear shipped aboard for her. Among it was her smelting equipment, carving instruments, her smallest mass spectrometer, a shiny new close glass of the finest quality as a graduating present from Da Carlan, test reagents and chemicals, glass vessels, small experiments she'd had in progress, electrical gear, extra surgical tools, two stethoscopes,--one of them new--batteries and bulbs, the latest model weldonscope, and a small coal-fired generator. Much she packed away, other pieces she secured around the surgery for easy access.
"This Belfast line of acids aren't much use," Savage observed, on opening the third of her crates.
"True, I have to purify most of them before I can use them. But your comment implies you know better." She looked at him more closely. "Ah, I see you have worked in an apothecary."
He expressed no surprise, just wiped stained hands on his overalls. "For me father. We bought apothecary grade chemicals from Sheffield. More expensive than the industrial ones, but ready to use. When we dock at Shannon to top up supplies, I shall introduce you to a supplier."
Of course. I never heard of the hospital having to refine its chemicals the way I have for both myself and the school.
"Very good, Savage. Now tell me how a bright lad with a profession awaiting him ended up a pressed hand in RANC?"
"I was out with some of the town lads, and we had a little too much to drink, got ourselves arrested. Press gang came by the lockup and took us all."
His story seemed pat and evasive, but she didn't pry. Most pressed men made light of the circumstances that landed them in RANC. "Want to assist me in a few experiments? It would be extra duty at times you could be with your mates. All you'd get out of it is knowledge."
"You could teach me more?"
"I have with others."
Savage extended a meaty paw. "Yer a regular fellow, Officer Rea. Deal." That's right. Gotta remember that aboard ship, I cannot be called "captain" even though that's my RA rank. A ship can only have one captain.
Amy barely noticed that the diligent application to work gradually improved the quality of her sleep, or that she was anesthetizing the pain she felt over Marnie and Thomas. She still prayed for her once friends every day, though not so intensely as before. She doubted she would see Marnie again, in this life or the next. But Thomas?