The Butcher’s Daughter

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BOOK I

The Síol Faolcháin

Chapter One

A man – I cannot say if he was wise or not – once said to me as he gently stroked my hair, as he slowly poured honeyed words into my ear with false affection: “Hush dear child, hush. ‘Tis best if you lay still. ‘Tis best you accept this gift I give you now without complaint my lovely, golden dove.”

I never knew this man’s name. Long years have passed since I heard those vile words. They haunt me still.

 

 

Blood. I saw a lot of blood as I stepped into my father’s shop that night.

I suppose the matter had to do with a debt unpaid, money owed to one clan or another. When I heard the voices of strange men inside our home arguing with my father, I had rushed downstairs out of curiosity with a candle in my hand, dressed only in my nightgown and barefoot.

And when I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw two brutes holding my father down against his wooden cutting table while a third man, a tall, sinewy fellow standing in front of him, stabbed him over and over again in the arms, the chest and stomach with a long knife. Then the tall man tossed his knife in the air with one hand and caught it by the handle with the other, as if he was performing some parlor trick, and slashed my father’s throat wide open with one, elegant swing. Sprays of blood spurted across the room. I watched my father’s eyes flutter for a bit before they closed on him forever.

But I am well accustomed with blood and gore. I am the butcher’s daughter.

No doubt I stared at my father’s three murders wide-eyed, confused, even in horror. But I did not scream. I did not cry out. I did not look or call for any help. I buried any urge to panic.

The tall, sinewy man with the knife fled when he saw me. His two companions did not. They had unfinished business. They released their grip on my father. They let his limp body slip to the floor with a dull thud and then slowly moved towards me – all smiles.

I was but twelve or so. I had never known a man before that day.

 

 

I cannot say if the man who commanded me to lie still after he forced me to the floor next to my father’s torn body, the man who thought of me as his lovely, golden dove, was wise or not for I only knew him for the briefest of moments. You see, that man died in my arms on top of me not long after he spoke those very words to me.

My memory of that night is clouded in my mind. No, that is not quite true. I have chosen to wrap that memory in cloud. But I can, if I wish to, remember that night – even now – with crystal clarity, in the most striking detail.

Aye, the man on top of me died in my arms that day. He died after he had torn my nightgown open, after he had thrust himself inside of me – he died after I removed his dagger from his belt and plunged it deep into his black heart. I can still hear the air escaping from his lungs. I can still smell the rot on his breath. I can still see the pupils of his eyes rolling up behind his skull as his life slipped away from him forever.

His companion had fared a little better. I stabbed him, skewered him really, through the mouth after he leaned over to pull his dying friend off of me. The blade pierced one cheek and sliced through the other. The man screamed and fled outside, running wildly down New Market Street with the dagger still lewdly sticking out of both sides of his mouth. Not a mortal wound perhaps, but a man with scars on each cheek like that is not a hard man to find as you might imagine. Time and patience is all that is needed. A little time, a little patience, and you can easily find a man like that with matching scars at your leisure.

I can say, with absolute certainty, that this day was the last day of my childhood. But it was also the day-of-days – for this was the first day of my liberation, of my awakening, as well.

I had forewarned her gentle majesty of course. I had told her that a highborn lady, especially a queen, should not hear of such things so foul and impure.

But she ignored my warning. She leaned close to me and squeezed my hand reassuringly. “It is, dear sister,” she told me flatly, “a pitiless and putrid world ruled by pitiless and putrid men, men who think of us as little more than chattel. We would know your story. From start to finish, we would know how it is you came to rule over such cruel and loathsome men in a man’s cruel and loathsome world.”

Yes, it is true. Sitting in a chair across from me in my drab lodgings in the Tower of London, a place of luxury compared to the dungeon I had only days before been released from, the great and mighty Queen of England addressed me, a lowly commoner and a thief, as her sister

 

 

My lads forced the big man down to his knees before me. They stretched his arms out taut and held him firmly in place.

“Why, Captain Dowlin,” I said and laughed, “you’ve gone and pissed yourself I see! You’ve gone and soiled my deck! And my crew scrubbed these planks down with holystones just this morning. They put their backs into it let me tell you. They scrubbed this deck down clean.”

“Please,” Dowlin pleaded, whimpering with spittle and snot running down his long beard. His eyes were nearly swollen shut from the good drubbing my men had given him. “Please, please, please…” he repeated over and over again.

“Please?” I asked. “Is that all you can say? How pathetic. I pray you can beg far better than that, especially when it is your own, pitiful life hanging in the balance. Come now, I know you can do better and I promised my lads a bit of entertainment tonight before supper.”

“Please, my lady, please spare my life. For mercy’s sake. I have gold. I have much gold!”

“For mercy’s sake?” I asked. “No, I think not for mercy’s sake. But for gold you say? Well now, you’ve piqued my curiosity there. And how much glittering gold is your miserable life worth to you, Dowlin?”

“Anything, name your price!”

I looked over at what was left of Dowlin’s bloodied and beaten crew herded around the main mast in a tight circle. They were bound in chains, intently watching my every move, soaking in my every word. After today they would be my men.

My own lads knew the drill. They forced Dowlin down lower, exposing the back of his soft neck to me.

I stood to the side and drew my sword. “The price Dowlin – is your head!”

“Nooooooooooooo…” Dowlin screamed just before I cleaved my way through flesh and bone. With one, clean stroke, his severed head rolled grotesquely across my deck until it came to rest at the feet of his defeated crew.

And then I pointed my sword at them, the bright, steel blade now dripping with Dowlin’s fresh blood. “As my men will vouch,” I told them, “I’m no purveyor of lies and because I do not lie I cannot say to you that killing gives me no pleasure. Your master was a wretched pig and it gave me great pleasure to kill him. Now you know why some call me Bloody Mary. Now you serve me and this ship – or not. You are free to choose.”

The upshot of my touch of drama was grand. The prisoners all at once dropped to their knees and groveled at my feet. They all at once pledged their undying loyalty to me.

“Master Gilley!”

“Aye, Madam?”

“Introduce the new lads to our ways.”

“With pleasure, Mum, with pleasure!”

Thomas Gilley was my rock. He had been with me from the beginning. For nearly two years we had crisscrossed the vast and perilous oceans together. For the past year we had sailed under Dowlin’s cruel shadow.

“And our course, Mum?”

“The new lads will tell you – gladly now I should think – what our new heading is to be.”

And by that of course I meant that Dowlin’s men would tell us where Dowlin’s gold was stashed away, or pay the awful price for their silence.

As my men went about their labors, securing the heavy guns and making repairs to shattered planks, to torn lines and sail, I went below to my great cabin, content with a good day’s work. Dowlin had thoughtlessly, and without good purpose, brutalized any who had crossed his path. Men, women, children, he cared not. Yes, Dowlin was a wretched, stinking pig who often killed for sport. I had done mankind a favor by dispatching him. But in my world, Dowlin had also been a lord and master, a prince. His death I knew could not be cheaply bought.

“An inspiring performance, Mum!” a voice called out, startling me as I stepped into my great cabin. The voice popped out from behind the door, closed it quickly and slid the bolt inside the socket.

I would not give the intruder the satisfaction of knowing that he had, for once, caught me unawares. “I’m glad you were amused,” I told him flatly.

He slipped an arm around my waist and pulled me close against him. “Do you,” he asked with a smile, “despise all men?”

“All but one or two,” I replied and kissed him lightly on the lips. Then I reached down between his legs and grabbed him by his privates. He was already stiff and eager. I couldn’t help myself and moaned with anticipation.

“Only one or two?” he inquired. “Dare I ask who?”

“Ah, you are safe for now my dearest,” I answered, batting my eyes flirtatiously. “Well, at least for a night or two. You have skills, remarkable skills worth keeping.”

“Aye, it was a splendid day indeed. I’ve always been exceptionally good at fighting, equally talented with sword, knife, or musket. I suppose one could say I was born to it.”

“You are a great warrior, James Hunter,” I replied honestly and squeezed him even harder. “But those are not the skills that interest me tonight. I dare say you have other skills that I’ve taken quite a fancy to, skills I wish to test.”

“Ah, now, that is why I’m here my lady,” Hunter replied and flashed his brilliant smile for me. “Not too tired from all that killing?”

“Shut up and take me you fool. Ravish me – I am hot for your wicked touch…”

Hunter obliged me gladly, with all he had to give.

 

 

I stood on the poop deck next to MacGyver, Michael MacGyver, my best man at the helm, watching the morning sun, dressed in brilliant red, rise majestically above the sea’s shimmering green waters. A good, flowing wind filled our sails and the ship was cruising along nicely. We had Dowlin’s magnificent ship in tow and I could hear my men with their saws and hammers working to repair her shattered rudder. It was a glorious morning. It was a hallelujah morning.

“Good day, Mum,” Hunter said with a mischievous grin as he made his way up the companionway and handed me a mug of steaming, black coffee. “Sleep well my lady?”

“I did indeed, Master Hunter, I did indeed. And you?”

“I have no complaints. I feel most refreshed.”

From the corner of my eye, I could see MacGyver crack a thin smile. A ship is a small place, too small for secrets. The whole crew knew that Hunter and I were lovers.

I savored the coffee’s rich aroma for a bit before I took a sip. “What course, MacGyver? Did old Gilley even give you one before he retired to his hammock or are you sailing aimlessly about on the open sea to only God knows where?”

“We sail for the Na Sailtí, my lady.”

“Ahhh, the Saltee Islands,” I said. “I thought as much.”

No one had ever accused Dowlin of being clever. The Saltee Islands, lying just off Kilmore Quay between Waterford and Wexford, was an obvious choice. The islands were remote and uninhabited and not far from Dowlin’s base at Youghal. Still, without a map or guide, one could roam those small islands for years and not find any buried treasure.

Hunter grabbed my mug of coffee from my hand and took a sip. “Dowlin’s brothers,” he said soberly, staring absently out at the horizon, “ghastly brutes the pair of them, will want revenge when they hear of what we’ve done, Mary. Righteous or not, the gods always exact a price for a killing.”

Only Hunter and Gilley ever addressed me by my given name. Mary had been my mother’s name. But I did not know her. She had died when I was very young. They say she had been a rare beauty. They say that before my father took her in and married her, she had been a whore.

“No doubt,” I said evenly, stealing a secret moment to admire Hunter’s exquisite face in the soft, morning light.

He had not yet shaved. He wore no hat and had neglected braiding his long, black hair into a queue. The breezes toyed with the loose strands, brushing them across his face. His eyes were striking blue. His chin was square and strong. I thought him the most handsome man in all of Ireland, perhaps in all of Christendom.

Hunter used his fingers to comb the tangled mess off his forehead. He turned to face me and gave me a puzzled look.

“Out with it, Hunter,” I demanded.

“I’d rather see it comin’ than get it in the back. That’s all, my lady.”

“I agree,” MacGyver chimed in, “with Hunter.”

“You agree with Hunter do you now?” I asked mockingly as I placed my hands on my hips. “As if I give a damn what you two agree on! Do I smell a mutiny brewing aboard my ship?”

Hunter and MacGyver exchanged knowing glances and chuckled. As every man in my crew knew, any one of them could speak his mind freely and without fear. Honest speech was protected by one of the Ten Rules, though precisely which one I doubt any of us knew.

Then Gilley, climbing up the ladder from the main deck, stepped onto the quarter deck carrying a basket of bread from the ship’s galley. The bread was freshly baked, still warm and smelled delicious.

“Mutiny is it?” Gilley asked while handing out his loaves. “Never trusted the likes of these two, Mum. Be happy to gut them both for you after they finish their breakfast. I’ll hang their worthless carcasses off the main yardarm to rot. Let them serve as a warnin’ to all other would be mutineers.”

“Hunter,” I said, “is worried about Dowlin’s brothers.”

“Ah, and well he should be, Mum,” replied Gilley with a serious nod. “Well he should be. Them two aren’t no better than Dowlin. Worse maybe. An ill-tempered litter sprung from the angry womb of an ill-tempered bitch.”

“Aye,” I agreed. “So gentlemen, we must be the first to strike. And when we strike we must do so with deadly purpose.”

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