What if? Alternative History of the discovery of the new world.
Admiral Columbus tested the bonds that held him, finding they still held fast, just as they had when he’d tested them previously. The guard watching him spoke warningly and put a hand on the axe fixed to the broad leather belt of his waist. The hard guttural words were indecipherable, but the meaning was crystal clear, especially with the headless example of the navigator still lashed to a post beside him.
That he was still alive gave the admiral a small hope. It was obvious these savages recognized him as a person worthy of capture and ransom. At least in this regard the enemy demonstrated they understood the rudimentary rules of modern warfare.
When Admiral Columbus had returned to the newly established colony of Saint Eustatius his fleet had found it in ruin. The well fortified settlement, with thick walls and cannon to protect it, had been a smoldering ruin when they arrived. Heavy acidic smoke mingling with the thick morning mist coming in off the harbor.
The men under his command had fanned out, searching without hope the wreckage for survivors. To their surprise one was found, a badly injured woodcutter trapped under the remains of the cart he’d been sleeping under when the attack had come. Of the attackers he could provide little information, only describing them standing twice the size of ordinary men, Demons with red hair and beards and horns on their heads who laughed as they chopped down the ill prepared settlers and plundered the town.
Sending for a priest to cleanse the man’s soul, the admiral had retreated to his flagship to receive the reports from the rest of the searchers, reports that confirmed the settlement had been raided just as the colonies of Saint Croix, Saint Martin, Saint Kitts, and a dozen others that used to exist among the islands had been. Thriving little footholds of Spanish expansion into the new world that had been wiped off the face of the imperial maps almost before the ink was even dry.
Although loathed to admit he had no firm knowledge of whom this enemy of Spanish expansion was, the admiral dispatched the Mensajera to sail east with news of the unfortunate fates of their lost colonies. Then he dispatched a series of orders to the rest of the Armada. With any luck he himself would be able to locate and eliminate the source of this threat for good, returning to Spain once again as the hero.
Deciding to split the flotilla into groups wasn’t hard. Sailing as a fleet provided the superiority of numbers against a rival navy that didn’t exist. Two galleons, with their massive gun complement, would be more than invincible against whatever forces the unarmed and unsophisticated savages could possibly bring against them. In groups of three and four the Galleons set sail for the remaining known colonies with orders to defend, or bring back news of their destruction.
The raiders came just before dawn in a long low ship that hugged the water and moved against the wind without a sound. The only warning the men had of the attack was when grappling ropes landed and the deck was suddenly swarming with warriors. Taken by surprise the sailors on deck suffered heavy losses and were being driven back when a horn sounded, and just as suddenly the enemy vanished, swarming back across the railing and leaving the bloodied and bewildered crew behind. The single square sail eclipsed the darkness as the raiding ship and its load of laughing, taunting warriors sailed towards the open sea.
Seeing the enemy escaping the moored ships responded, setting their own sails and raising anchor. With the wind from behind them the pursuing galleons would catch the smaller ship within minutes, flanking their quarry as soon as they cleared the harbor. Caught between two ships with their bristling walls of cannons the raiders and their pathetic little boat would be matchsticks moments later.
As the ships sailed passed the narrow inlet to the harbor, rows of fiery arrows rose from the forest on either side to descend into the rigging and fully deployed sails. Crewmen frantically scrambled upward to put out the flames, only to fall burning as they were cut down by more flaming arrows, setting fire to the coiled rope and stored canvas on the deck below.
On the lower decks the cannon ports opened, the squat dark muzzles indiscriminately firing into the trees, hoping to drive back whatever forces were hiding there. These ports proved a boon to the enemy, who took advantage of the openings to send fire arrows into the lower decks. Within minutes all three ships were fully ablaze.
The indignity of having to jump overboard was spared the admiral, who instead clambering down a rope ladder to where the captain’s gig was waiting. Once aboard the small crew rowed back towards the colony and safety. It was then that another of those ships materialized out of the darkness, pulling alongside the little gig and capturing the hand full of men.
Admiral Columbus’s first real look at the enemy was when a man hauled him out of the gig. In the light of the burning ships the man’s face was pale and effeminate, with eye sockets lined by black paint and stripes of blue streaked diagonally downwards as if applied by tips of fingers dipped in paint. His reddish hair was braided and tied back out of the way. The ragged hide of some long haired animal draped across broad shoulders, leaving bare arms whose skin bore scars that told of a man who was no stranger to fighting. From the way he had plucked the admiral from the gig one handedly there also spoke of a strength that few men he knew possessed.
The man’s armor looked to be leather plates, and as the admiral’s eyes dropped lower he saw that the form of the chest plate protruded forward in a way no man had need for. Startled, he looked back up into the eyes of the woman just as the side of her axe came around and darkness fell. When he woke up he was laying in the bottom of a boat, tied and bundled like the dozen or so other captives moaning around him.
Movement by the stockade’s gate dragged his attention back to the present, and as it pushed aside three people entered. The first was tall with long blond hair hanging loose on his shoulders, little different than most of the people the admiral had glimpsed passing by the enclosure. In addition to the ever prevalent leather armor and battle axe he had a short sword hanging from his belt. The second man was shorter with dark hair, wearing a simple spun wool tunic of a slave. The third, the admiral realized, was the woman he had seen, however briefly, just before being clubbed into unconsciousness.
At a sharp command the slave approached the pole where Columbus was tied, carefully stepping around the navigators head but seeming indifferent to the sticky mud surrounding it.
“They want to know if you are a captain from the ships they sank.” The man said.
“You speak the civilized tongue?” Columbus asked, realizing the man had the familiar look of a Spaniard.
“Of course.” The man said. “Also Spanish, Latin, German, and English. Languages are a gift of mine.”
“You’re a slave.”
“A thrall, slightly higher than a slave.”
“Traitor to your people is more like it.”
“As we say in my village, ‘Better your head on a pillow than a pike’. I provide a service, and in return they let me keep my head where it is happiest. Speaking of which, they are still waiting for your answer.”
“Tell them that I am Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the open seas.”
As the thrall repeated his words the two looked at each other and shrugged, then asked another question, which the thrall translated. “They wish to know if Admiral is greater than Captain.”
“Tell them that I am the ranking authority of all of the Spanish colonies of the new world. I command the captains.”
When the thrall repeated this the woman reached into the air, clenching her fist and bringing her arm down elbow first as she broke out in a wide smile. The warrior slapped her on the shoulder, letting out a loud barking laugh as he did so. As they turned they spoke to the guard, giving instructions as they left.
“What’s going on?” the admiral asked, seeing that the thrall had stayed behind.
“It looks like you are going to tonight’s celebration.” The thrall said as the guard began cutting the admiral free. “I have been ordered to get you cleaned up and presentable.”
The long house was filled with the smells of ale, smoke, and cooking mutton when they entered. Long low tables of hewn logs were surrounded by men and women, all laughing and talking in that guttural language of theirs. One warrior was standing on the head table, making a speech.
“He’s talking about the battle.” The thrall said, chewing on a piece of mutton he had snatched from a table as they’d passed. “Glory and bravery and fierce fighting of valiant warriors and such.”
All talking ceased as the admiral was led in. After a moment the warrior helped another up onto the table. Columbus recognized her as the woman who had visited the stockade. As she stood up and held her hand in the air the throng cheered.
“What’s that about?” Columbus asked.
“Warriors gain respect by taking captives. By single handedly capturing you she has gained a great deal of status.”
The throng of revelers pushed the admiral forward until he found alone in front of the table. The standing warrior took a drink from the clay mug in his hand and looked down, firing a question at the admiral.
“He wants to know why you have come into these lands.” The thrall translated.
“I am Christopher Columbus,” The admiral declared. “Admiral of the open seas, and I have come in conquest to claim these lands on behalf of the Spanish Empire.”
As the thrall translated these words there was a pause, then the entire hall erupted in laughter. When it died down the warrior spoke, and again the thrall translated.
“Ragnor, son of Sigurd, son of Thorsen, says you’re too late. These lands are already the raiding grounds of the great nation of Western Sealand.” More laughter accompanied these words.
The woman jumped off the table, speaking a challenge as she unrolled a fur wrapped bundle at the admiral’s feet. To his surprise an array of weapons tumbled out.
“A man who claims property of another is expected to fight for that claim.”
“Admirals do not fight like lowly soldiers.”
“Warriors who challenge then fail to back that challenge up are seen as less than men, and often made so. I advise you to do your best. If you fight well they may let you live. But if you refuse, it can take a long time to die.”
“You fought well tonight.” The chieftain said to the woman beside him at the table.
“Bah.” The woman replied dismissively “The Spaniard was weak. All the work to make it look good I had to do myself. Their lowly sailors fight better. What kind of men are these, who allow the weak to command?”
“Easy fruit to train our warriors. And soft women to swell the ranks of our thralls.”
“You think they will continue to come?”
“As surely as Odin wears an eye patch.”
“You shouldn’t speak so.” the woman teased “The Allfather could be listening.”
“The Allfather wouldn’t be upset, not after the sacrifice tonight. Especially the way you separated that Spaniard’s head from his shoulders.”
“I did want the ending to look good.” The woman smiled “For Odin’s sake.”
“I’m sure he was very pleased with the show.”