I was neither so elastic nor so hardened, myself, but gradually weariness overwhelmed me, and even the prick of curiosity about the future was unable to keep me awake.
I woke to confusion. It was still dark, and there was noise all around, shouting and barking, and the deck beneath me trembled with the vibration of stamping feet. I jerked upright, half thinking myself aboard a sailing ship, convinced that we had been boarded by pirates.
Then my mind cleared, along with my foggy vision, and I discovered that we had been boarded by pirates. Strange voices shouted oaths and orders, and booted feet were heavy on the deck. Jamie was gone.
I scrabbled onto my hands and feet, taking no heed for clothes or anything else. It was near dawn; the sky was dark, but light enough that the cabin showed as a darker blotch against it. As I struggled upright, clinging to the cabin roof for support, I was nearly knocked flat by flying bodies hurling themselves across it.
There was a confused blur of fur and white faces, a shout and a shot and a terrible thud, and Ian was crouching ashen on the deck, over Rollo’s heaving form. A strange man, hatless and disheveled, pushed himself to his feet.
“Damn! He nearly got me!” Unhinged by the near miss, the robber’s hand trembled as he fumbled with the spare pistol at his belt. He pointed it at the dog, face drawing down in an ugly squint.
“Take that, arse-bite!”
A taller man appeared from nowhere, his hand knocking down the pistol before the flint could strike.
“Don’t waste the shot, fool.” He gestured to Troklus and Captain Freeman—the latter volubly incensed—being herded toward me. “How d’you mean to hold them with an empty gun?”
The shorter man cast an evil look at Rollo, but swung his pistol to bear on Freeman’s midriff instead.
Rollo was making an odd noise, a low growling mixed with whimpers of pain, and I could see a wet, dark stain on the boards under his twitching body. Ian bent low over him, hands stroking his head helplessly. He looked up, and tears shone wet on his cheeks.
“Help me, Auntie,” he said. “Please help!”
I moved impulsively, and the tall man stepped forward, thrusting out an arm to stop me.
“I want to help the dog,” I said.
“What?” said the short robber, in tones of outrage.
The tall man was masked—they all were, I realized, my eyes adjusting to the growing half-light. How many were there? It was impossible to tell under the mask, but I had the distinct impression that the tall man was smiling. He didn’t answer, but gave a short jerk of his pistol, giving me leave.
“Hullo, old boy,” I said under my breath, dropping to my knees next to the dog. “Don’t bite, there’s a good doggie. Where is he hurt, Ian, do you know?”
Ian shook his head, sniffing back the tears.
“It’s under him; I can’t get him to turn over.”
I wasn’t about to try to heave the dog’s huge carcass over either. I felt quickly for a pulse in the neck, but my fingers sank into Rollo’s thick ruff, prodding uselessly. Seized by inspiration, I instead picked up a front leg and felt up its length, getting my fingers into the hollow where the leg met the body.
Sure enough, there it was; a steady pulse, throbbing reassuringly under my fingers. I began by habit to count, but quickly abandoned the effort, as I had no idea what a dog’s normal pulse rate should be. It was steady, though; no fluttering, no arrhythmia, no weakness. That was a very good sign.
Another was that Rollo hadn’t lost consciousness; the great leg I held tucked under my elbow had the tension of coiled spring, not the limp dangle of shock. The dog made a long, high-pitched noise, halfway between a whine and a howl, and began to scrabble with his claws, pulling his leg out of my grasp in an effort to right himself.
“I don’t think it’s very bad, Ian,” I said in relief. “Look, he’s turning over.”
Rollo stood up, swaying. He shook his head violently, shaggy coat twitching from head to tail, and a shower of blood drops flew over the deck with a sound like pattering rain. The big yellow eyes fixed on the short man with a look that was clear to the meanest intelligence.
“Here! You stop him, or I swear I’ll shoot him dead!” Panic and sincerity rang out in the robber’s voice, as the muzzle of the pistol drifted uncertainly between the little group of prisoners and Rollo’s lip-curled snarl.
Ian, who had been frantically undoing his shirt, whipped the garment off and over Rollo’s head, temporarily blinding the dog, who shook his head madly, making growling noises inside the restraint. Blood stained the yellow linen—I could see now, though, that it came from a shallow gash in the dog’s shoulder; evidently, the bullet had only grazed him.
Ian hung on grimly, forcing Rollo back on his haunches, muttering orders to the dog’s swaddled head.
“How many aboard?” The taller man’s sharp eyes flicked toward Captain Freeman, whose mouth was pressed so tightly together, it looked no more than a purse seam in the gray fur of his face, then toward me.
I knew him; knew the voice. The knowledge must have shown in my face, for he paused for a moment, then jerked his head and let the masking kerchief fall from his face.
“How many?” Stephen Bonnet asked again.
“Six,” I said. There was no reason not to answer; I could see Fergus on the shore, hands raised as a third pirate herded him at gunpoint toward the boat; Jamie had materialized out of the darkness beside me, looking grim.
“Mr. Fraser,” Bonnet said pleasantly, at sight of him. “A pleasure to be renewing our acquaintance. But did ye not have another companion, sir? The one-armed gentleman?”
“Not here,” Jamie replied shortly.
“I’ll have a look,” the short robber muttered, turning, but Bonnet stopped him with a gesture.
“Ah, now, and would ye be doubting the word of a gentleman like Mr. Fraser? No, you’ll be after guarding these fine folk here, Roberts; I’ll be having the look around.” With a nod to his companion, he vanished.
Looking after Rollo had distracted me momentarily from the commotion going on elsewhere on the boat. Sounds of breakage came from inside the cabin, and I leapt to my feet, reminded of my medicine box.
“Here! Where you going? Stop! I’ll shoot!” The robber’s voice held a desperate note, but an uncertain one, as well. I didn’t stop to look at him, but dived into the cabin, cannoning into a fourth robber, who was indeed rummaging through my medicine chest.
I staggered back from the collision, then clutched his arm, with a cry of outrage. He had been carelessly opening boxes and bottles, shaking out the contents, and tossing them on the floor; a litter of bottles, many of them broken, lay amid the scattered remnants of Dr. Rawlings’s selection of medicines.
“Don’t you dare touch those!” I said, and snatching the nearest vial from the chest, I popped out the cork and flung the contents in his face.
Like most of Rawlings’s mixtures, it contained a high proportion of alcohol. He gasped as the liquid hit, and reeled backward, eyes streaming.
I pressed my advantage by seizing a stone ale bottle from the wreckage and hitting him on the head with it. It hit with a satisfying thunk! but I hadn’t hit him quite hard enough; he staggered but stayed upright, lurching as he grabbed at me.
I drew back my arm for another swing, but my wrist was seized from behind by a grip like iron.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Mrs. Fraser dear,” said a polite, familiar Irish voice. “But I really cannot allow ye to crack his head. It’s not very ornamental, sure, but he needs it to hold up his hat.”
“Frigging bitch! She hit me!” The man I had hit was clutching his head, his features screwed up in pain.
Bonnet hauled me out onto the deck, my arm twisted painfully behind my back. It was nearly light by now; the river glowed like flat silver. I stared hard at our assailants; I meant to know them again, if I saw them, masks or no masks.
Unfortunately, the improved light allowed the robbers better vision as well. The man I had hit, who seemed to be bearing a distinct grudge, seized my hand and wrenched at my ring.
“Here, let’s have that!”
I yanked my hand away and made to slap him, but was stopped by a meaningful cough from Bonnet, who had stepped close to Ian and was holding his pistol an inch from the boy’s left ear.
“Best hand them over, Mrs. Fraser,” he said politely. “I fear Mr. Roberts requires some compensation for the damage ye’ve caused him.”
I twisted my gold ring off, hands trembling both with fear and rage. The silver one was harder; it stuck on my knuckle as though reluctant to part from me. Both rings were damp and slippery with sweat, the metal warmer than my suddenly chilled fingers.
“Give ’em up.” The man poked me roughly in the shoulder, then turned up a broad, grubby palm for the rings. I reached toward him, reluctantly, rings cupped in my hand—and then, with an impulse I didn’t stop to examine, clapped my hand to my mouth instead.
My head hit the cabin wall with a thud as the man knocked me backward. His callused fingers jabbed my cheeks and poked into my mouth, probing roughly in search of the rings. I twisted and gulped hard, mouth filling with saliva and a silver taste that might have been either metal or blood.
I bit down and he jerked back with a cry; one ring must have flown out of my mouth, for I heard a faint, metallic ping somewhere, and then I gagged and choked, the second ring sliding into my gullet, hard and round.
“Bitch! I’ll slit your friggin’ throat! You’ll go to hell without your rings, you cheating whore!” I saw the man’s face, contorted in rage, and the sudden glitter of a knife blade drawn. Then something hit me hard and knocked me over, and I found myself crushed to the deck, flattened under Jamie’s body.
I was too stunned to move, though I couldn’t have moved in any case; Jamie’s chest was pressing on the back of my head, squashing my face into the deck. There was a lot of shouting and confusion, muffled by the folds of damp linen around my head. There was a soft thunk! and I felt Jamie jerk and grunt.
Oh, God, they’ve stabbed him! I thought, in an agony of terror. Another thump and a louder grunt, though, indicated only a kick in the ribs. Jamie didn’t move; just pressed himself harder against the deck, flattening me like the filling of a sandwich.
“Leave off! Roberts! I said leave him!” Bonnet’s voice rang out in tones of authority, sharp enough to penetrate the muffling cloth.
“But she—” Roberts began, but his querulous whine was stopped abruptly with a sharp, meaty smack.
“Raise yourself, Mr. Fraser. Your wife is safe—not that she deserves to be.” Bonnet’s husky baritone held mingled tones of amusement and irritation.
Jamie’s weight lifted slowly off me, and I sat up, feeling dizzy and mildly sick from the blow on the head. Stephen Bonnet stood looking down at me, examining me with faint distaste, as though I were a mangy deerhide he’d been offered for sale. Next to him, Roberts glared malevolently, dabbing at a smear of blood at his hairline.
Bonnet blinked finally, and switched his gaze to Jamie, who had regained his feet.