Huw Ashe rested both hands on the ship’s rail and watched the coastline through the damp mist. The feeling of seasickness would not go away. All through the night as the ship sailed unsteadily from the Welsh coast to Ireland, Huw had the familiar, sinking, uneasy feeling of sickness. He had not eaten except for some hard dry bread before boarding. He didn’t join his half-brother Daiwin and the twenty-five other men in his band as they guzzled ale and sang through the night. Mostly he had lain on deck, close to the side rail, telling himself that the feeling would pass and that they would soon be on dry land. Now, having almost reached their destination he still felt sick. He peered through the mist and tried to imagine what Ireland might be like. He felt a pang of concern for his band of fellow archers and fighters. What if some large force of Irish soldiers were waiting to attack them as they tried to land? He wondered if his men would be in a fit state to fight after the journey and the drinking. His twenty-five were young men like himself and expert marksmen with the long bow. But this was a new experience for them. Most had never ventured far beyond their Welsh farms. Would they be able to fight and survive in this new land?
Huw turned his gaze as he heard his father’s strong voice amongst a group of Norman knights who had appeared from below deck and were gathering along the rail, down-ship from him. Their voices were quiet, whispers almost, as if they feared being heard by some unseen enemy on the shore. Huw studied the Norman men in their silvery chain mail. All were fully dressed and armed for battle.
‘Huw Ashe…..Huw Ashe!’
His father had to call him a second time before the voice registered in his brain. Huw staggered along the rail to the Norman group. There were smiling faces and a few back slaps as the men parted to allow Huw to reach his father.
‘Fish for breakfast, Huw, and a jug of ale perhaps,’ someone joked and laughed as he passed by.
A tall broad-shouldered man with jet-black hair and a trimmed beard, Giles fitz William smiled broadly as his son approached. Huw was built in the same manner as his Norman father, although he had his Welsh mother’s sallow skin and his shoulder-length hair was flaxen. Huw straightened his shoulders and tried to forget his queasy stomach.
‘How are your men, Huw?’ Giles asked as he put his hand on Huw’s shoulder and led him towards the bow of the ship away from the Normans, who continued to talk and joke in subdued tones. The sailors were moving about the ship in response to the captain’s barked commands. Unlike the Norman and Welsh soldiers, the captain made no effort to keep his voice down, realising that if an Irish army was waiting for them on shore, they would be aware since dawn of the large ship approaching through the mist.
‘Will the men be ready to fight if needed when we land?’ Giles studied Huw’s face as he spoke. ‘Are they prepared for what might lay ahead?’
‘Yes sir, we’re ready,’ Huw replied, as any soldier would to a commanding officer.
‘The men are in good spirits and know what is expected of them. We are well supplied with arrow shafts and I’ve made sure that all bowstrings were sealed in leather satchels. The bows were bundled and stored below to keep them dry. They drank some ale during the night, but that was better than thinking too much about battles and families back in Wales.’
Giles suppressed a smile at Huw’s lilting accent and felt proud of his son’s command of Norman-French. ‘Huw,’ Giles faltered as he sought to find the right words, ‘I’m sure you will do a fine job leading your twenty-five and I know that you will be prepared. But you are young and this expedition may seem like an exciting adventure.’ Giles paused as the ship’s captain roared at a group of sailors to move faster in drawing in a sail. The captain and crew were struggling to bring the ship to a halt and keep the vessel steady in the swell off the Irish coast.
‘I want you to take care when we land and not to do anything foolish. We do not know what is facing us and we are all unfamiliar with this land,’ Giles hesitated again. ‘I’m not sure how I would explain to your mother if anything happened to you.’
‘I’ll be careful, sir,’ Huw replied.
‘See that you do, Huw Ashe. I am unsure about this expedition. MacMurrough seems like a bit of a madman with a thirst for revenge against his Irish enemies. While we are duty bound to help him regain his lands, Maurice has made it clear we are to be on our guard and not to over extend our forces until we are sure of the lie of the land. Do you understand?’
‘Yes sir. Your cousin, Maurice fitz Gerald?’
‘Maurice, yes, he helped plan the expedition and raise forces. Our task is to undertake reconnaissance and pave the way for Richard de Clare to follow with a larger army. ‘MacMurrough has been vague about the strength of the Irish forces. It seems they are divided into factions and often fight each other. However, a number of Irish lords combined to dispossess MacMurrough and drive him from his lands. We should not underestimate them.’
Huw nodded. ‘Where is this MacMurrough?’
‘He returned two years ago and regained some of his territory. He is to meet us on shore, we think. Much is unclear.’ Giles smiled and looked out to sea. ‘We seem to have lost Robert fitz Stephen’s ship in the mist and rain overnight. We must wait here until they arrive. The ships’ captains will then put us ashore. I’m sure the sailors know what they are doing. They have been trading on these coasts for years.’ Giles tried to make his voice reassuring, knowing his son’s discomfort being at sea. ‘When we get ashore we must be prepared for battle. I believe it is fitz Stephen’s intention for me to lead the first party. You and your twenty-five will come with me.’
‘Yes sir,’ Huw replied. ‘We’ll be ready.’
It was three hours later before the second ship hauled alongside. The sun had burned off the morning fog and the day began to warm. Huw’s spirits lifted as the sea’s roll became gentler. In between checking his men and equipment, he had taken time to study the shoreline and the land beyond. The ships were in a small bay with a low-lying sandy island in front of an inner coastline which was partly obscured. Up beyond the coastline Huw could see that the sand gave way to a rising line of gleaming stones and rocks. These in turn rose up a short distance to a grassy ridge with clumps of bushes and trees rising a small distance inland. Huw examined the bush and trees for any glint of armour or weapons. All was quiet and he saw no sign of life on any part of the shoreline. All along the ship’s side men were watching the land. The heavily armoured Norman knights and men-at-arms began to sweat in their heavy chainmail as the sun rose in the sky. The Welsh archers were more lightly clad. Some had chainmail, but most wore lighter clothing with little armour protection. Archers preferred to be free of encumbrances to draw the cords of their long war-bows.
‘Greetings Giles!’ The ships were within easy hailing distance and Huw heard the voice roaring his father’s name from the newly arrived ship.
‘Robert, we thought you had turned back, or drowned.’ His father laughed as he shouted back across the water. There was laughter from the other ship, followed by loud banging and shouts, as swords were whacked on shields and on the ship’s railings.
‘We have yet to breakfast, so your ship goes in first.’ Robert fitz Stephen called from the upper deck of his ship.
‘God be with you, Giles.’
Huw was already down amongst his men on the fore-deck before any orders were issued. He could feel the tension as men spoke quietly while they checked their long bows. Some were pale and silent. Each archer had a leather satchel full of arrows slung on their belts with a separate smaller satchel for bow cords. The bows and satchels would be held high above their heads to keep them dry as they waded ashore. They would not string the bows until they were on dry land. John Daws grinned at Huw as he approached along the slippery deck.
‘I’m hungry Huw, sick of dry fish, I am. Do you think those Irish will have proper food. A rabbit or two would go down well, or maybe a roasted buck?’
‘Are you ever not hungry, John Daws?’
Even though Huw was tall and broad he had to squint in the sunlight as he looked up into his huge friend’s face. ‘Never mind about food now Daws, you just be careful you don’t get an Irish spear stuck up your arse. You’re too big for us to carry.’ Huw spoke quickly in his lilting Welsh accent. Daws and the men around laughed.
A sailor approached, running along the slippery deck in his bare feet. ‘Are you Huw Ashe? That Norman and the captain want you aft.’ Huw followed the sailor unsteadily up the steps to the higher aft castle-deck. Giles and the captain were arguing loudly. Giles in his heavily accented Norman-French and the Welsh captain in his lilting native tongue with a small spattering of Norman-French.
‘Ah, Huw, we need to be put ashore immediately, can you explain this to the captain.’
Huw could sense the anger and exasperation in his father’s voice.
Huw nodded and began talking to the captain in Welsh. The captain explained that he would have to bring the ship in as close as possible to the sand-bank island and he had to wait an hour or so until the tide was lowest, otherwise some might drown as they tried to wade ashore. He was also concerned about getting stuck on the sand bank and wary of an attack while the men and horses were disembarking. Huw quickly explained to his agitated father.
‘Perhaps a small force of archers could land on the island first and put up an arrow shield if there is an attack while the main force lands,’ Huw ventured. Giles tried to hold his anger as he stared at Huw. Then, realising that his son was being sensible as well as diplomatic, he nodded his agreement. Huw explained to the captain who seemed satisfied.
‘Tell the captain to make preparations to land as soon as he thinks it’s possible. I will call across to fitz Stephen that it may be better if both ships come it at the same time in one hour.’ Giles spoke more evenly now that a plan of action was in place. As the captain left to give orders to the crew, Giles looked into his son’s eyes. ‘Thank you Huw. I’m not sure if you are more skilled in diplomacy than archery. We will need to call on all your skills before we are through with this venture.’
‘Sir, can I go in first with my twenty-five to give the covering shield for the landing?’ Huw asked quickly before Giles had time to go on. At first Giles shook his head but then nodded his permission. ‘Make it so, Huw, and God be with you.’
An hour or so later Huw’s ship was rowed towards the sandy island with the other ship about 100 paces behind. His fear of water was forgotten as he and his men waited in silence, close to the ramp-opening on the ship’s side rail. The captain barked out an order and with a shudder the ship turned port-side to the shore. The rowers held the ship steady as its shallow bottom glided gently into the soft sand underneath. Another barked order and the sailors let go the heavy anchor. ‘Rail and ramp!’ The captain shouted. The sailors unhinged a section of the side rail and slid the heavy ramp across the deck and over the side. The ramp hit the water with a splash and the sailors fastened the heavy ropes that lashed the top of the ramp to the iron deck rings. Huw and his twenty-five milled around the ramp and for an instant seemed frozen to the deck, unsure of what to do next. Those nearest the side looked down to see if the ramp edge had landed on the sand or just floated in the water. With the waves breaking it was impossible to see how deep the water was.
‘My job’s done, the rest is up to you!’ The captain called again, as Huw hesitated by the side rail.
Before Huw could give the order, John Daws was over the side. In two seconds he was in the water with his bow stave and leather satchels held high over his head. The water barely came up to his waist. ‘All good here, Huw boy, the ramp is stuck on the bottom.’ Daws grinned up at the nervous faces by the ship’s rail. ‘Staves and satchels over your heads lads and down you go!’ Huw shouted.
They were quickly in the water and wading towards the sandy island. Huw was glad to reach the soft sand of the beach and gave the order to his men to divide and form two flanks on the highest point of the grassy sand dunes, either side of the small island. John Daws would take twelve men to the right and he would lead the rest on the left. ‘Right lads, string your bows, and take positions. Remember we are to cover the others as they come ashore, and not attack anyone. Keep a sharp lookout but hold fire unless I signal.’
The two groups ran across the beach and up the soft sand to the grassy ridge. When they were in position and Huw saw no sign of anyone approaching on the main shoreline, he waved his arms high in the air to signal the ships that all was clear.
In less than three hours all the men, horses and carts had disembarked from the two ships. Huw marvelled at the speed that the three hundred archers had got across from the ships to join his band on the dune ridge. He wanted to advance and cross the short shallow stretch of water between the island and the main shore, but his orders were to wait for the rest of the force to reach dry land. Looking back down the beach towards the ships Huw thought that there must be another hundred men in all, including commanders, knights and men-at-arms. In their heavy armour, they struggled through the waves and on the soft sand. In addition, Huw counted about fifty horses and ten heavy carts. The big war horses were spooked as they clambered from the ships, and the handlers tried to calm then when they reached the beach. The smaller number of work-horses seemed calmer, as if they were already resigned to their job of pulling the heavy carts. After a short while, when the squires and grooms had calmed and dried the horses as best they could, the Norman knights mounted and slowly climbed up the soft sand dunes. The men-at-arms formed into lines and followed. The Norman commanders dismounted on the ridge close to where Huw was stationed with his men. Giles beckoned Huw to join them. Robert fitz Stephen was talking as Huw approached. ‘It is likely that our approach has been observed by MacMurrough’s scouts, and others. We shall cross the small channel and set up defensive positions. Then we wait for MacMurrough’s arrival.’ Huw stood within earshot, just a few paces from the group.
‘Giles fitz William and Meiler fitz Henry will take an advance party of thirty men and fifty archers to find a suitable defensive position a small distance inland. The ships will stand off at anchor until we join with the Irish forces. Any questions?’ Fitz Stephen looked round the group. No one spoke. ‘Very well.’
‘Giles, where is this Welsh captain of yours who speaks many tongues?’ There were snorts of laughter at fitz Stephen’s biblical reference as Giles called Huw to come closer. ‘My lords, this is Huw Ashe,’ Giles announced formally as he put his hand on Huw’s shoulder. ‘He mightn’t look more than a boy, but he could take your eye out with a shaft from his long bow at a hundred paces. He could probably beat most of you with a broad sword as well, except maybe Meiler and myself.’ The Norman commanders laughed as they nodded to Huw. ‘I think he could probably take you, Giles. You’re not a young man anymore,’ Meiler fitz Henry spoke with a strong French accent.
‘Giles tells me that you speak Norman-French so you will have heard our initial plan, such as it is.’ Fitz Stephen looked intently at Huw as he spoke. A slight smile crossed fitz Stephen’s face as he continued. ‘We are to join with the Irish lord, MacMurrough, and assist him to regain his title and territory. In return we are to be granted lands here in Ireland. I cannot promise all of your archers that they will get land, but if they fight well, and we succeed, they will be well rewarded, possibly with tenancies on good farming land.’ Fitz Stephen paused again as they gazed across the small channel to the main shoreline and the green expanse of land beyond. ‘Will you convey my offer to your men and explain what we plan to do?’
‘I will, sir,’ Huw responded without hesitation in Norman-French. ‘Very well, Huw Ashe, I want you to take charge of the fifty archers to accompany Giles and fitz Henry in the advance force. We will also rely on you to translate and communicate all orders from the commanders to the Welsh archers. Is that understood and agreed?’
‘Yes sir, I understand.’ Huw glanced at his father as he replied.
‘Then go and choose your men and report back to Giles when you’re ready.’
By early afternoon, the advance force had been joined by the main body of men. The fifty archers still formed the vanguard, guarding the flanks of Giles’s men-at-arms and knights. Huw and his twenty-five were positioned in a raised wooded area overlooking an expanse of level ground to the west. The rest of the vanguard archers were some three hundred paces to the right, under cover from rough scrubland and small trees. The main force had established a temporary camp, two hundred paces behind. They were resting after eating a meal of bread and smoked fish. No cooking fires had been lit. The afternoon sun was pleasant and the men’s clothes had dried after the sea landing. Huw knew his men were hungry but he expected they would soon be relieved. He had taken two men and circled forward to scout around the tree line to their left. They climbed a small ridge which was covered in yellow bushes and lay there in the sun, enjoying the warmth.
‘I could get to like this place,’ Will Hen lilted in his strange north-Wales accent. Hen was one of the older men in the archer band. He was small and lithe with squinted eyes and a sharp pointed nose. He does look like a hen, Huw thought, a good hunter though, and deadly with a dagger at close quarters. ‘If you like it so much, why don’t you go and find us some food, Will Hen.’ Daiwin Ashe was the third man in the scouting party. He poked Will Hen with his bow stave as he spoke. ‘When will the relief come with our dinner, Huw?’
All three heard the sound of horses’ hooves at the same time and were instantly quiet. They strung their bow cords and had an arrow in the groove before they peered out over the brow of the ridge. There were three riders, no more than thirty paces away. The two groups of men, archers and riders, saw each other almost at the same instant. ‘Steady and hold fire,’ Huw spoke quietly to his companions, as the three riders reined in. The men on horseback did not draw their weapons. One of the men nudged his horse slightly forward.
‘I am Regan, counsel to Lord Diarmaid MacMurrough, King of Leinster.’ The man spoke slowly in Latin but with such a strong guttural accent that Huw struggled to understand him. ‘Are you men sent by Sir Richard de Clare? Strongbow?’
The name Strongbow was the first word to register in Huw’s brain. Then he understood the meaning of what the man had said. Slackening his draw on the bow cord and putting his bow down, Huw answered Regan in his best Latin. ‘Yes, we are from Strongbow.’