“What in the name of God—” Jamie began. A rending crash drowned his words, and he pitched sideways, eyes wide with alarm, as the cabin tilted. The stool I was on fell over, throwing me onto the floor. The oil lamp had shot from its bracket, luckily extinguishing itself before hitting the floor, and the place was in darkness.
“Sassenach! Are ye all right?” Jamie’s voice came out of the murk close at hand, sharp with anxiety.
“Yes,” I said, scrambling out from under the table. “Are you? What happened? Did someone hit us?”
Not pausing to answer any of these questions, Jamie had reached the door and opened it. A babel of shouts and thumps came down from the deck above, punctuated by the sudden popcorn-sound of small-arms fire.
“Pirates,” he said briefly. “We’ve been boarded.” My eyes were becoming accustomed to the dim light; I saw his shadow lunge for the desk, reaching for the pistol in the drawer. He paused to snatch the dirk from under the pillow of his berth, and made for the door, issuing instructions as he went.
“Take Marsali, Sassenach, and get below. Go aft as far as ye can get—the big hold where the guano blocks are. Get behind them, and stay there.” Then he was gone.
I spent a moment feeling my way through the cupboard over my berth, in search of the morocco box Mother Hildegarde had given me when I saw her in Paris. A scalpel might be little use against pirates, but I would feel better with a weapon of some kind in my hand, no matter how small.
“Mother Claire?” Marsali’s voice came from the door, high and scared.
“I’m here,” I said. I caught the gleam of pale cotton as she moved, and pressed the ivory letter-opener into her hand. “Here, take this, just in case. Come on; we’re to go below.”
With a long-handled amputation blade in one hand, and a cluster of scalpels in the other, I led the way through the ship to the after hold. Feet thundered on the deck overhead, and curses and shouts rang through the night, overlaid with a dreadful groaning, scraping noise that I thought must be caused by the rubbing of the Artemis’s timbers against those of the unknown ship that had rammed us.
The hold was black as pitch and thick with dusty fumes. We made our way slowly, coughing, toward the back of the hold.
“Who are they?” Marsali asked. Her voice had a strangely muffled sound, the echoes of the hold deadened by the blocks of guano stacked around us. “Pirates, d’ye think?”
“I expect they must be.” Lawrence had told us that the Caribbean was a rich hunting ground for pirate luggers and unscrupulous craft of all kinds, but we had expected no trouble, as our cargo was not particularly valuable. “I suppose they must not have much sense of smell.”
“Never mind,” I said. “Come sit down; there’s nothing we can do but wait.”
I knew from experience that waiting while men fought was one of the most difficult things in life to do, but in this case, there wasn’t any sensible alternative.
Down here, the sounds of the battle were muted to a distant thumping, though the constant rending groan of the scraping timbers echoed through the whole ship.
“Oh, God, Fergus,” Marsali whispered, listening, her voice filled with agony. “Blessed Mary, save him!”
I silently echoed the prayer, thinking of Jamie, somewhere in the chaos overhead. I crossed myself in the dark, touching the small spot between my brows that he had kissed a few minutes before, not wanting to think that it could so easily be the last touch of him I would ever know.
Suddenly, there was an explosion overhead, a roar that sent vibrations through the jutting timbers we were sitting on.
“They’re blowing up the ship!” Marsali jumped to her feet, panicked.
“They’ll sink us! We must get out! We’ll drown down here!”
“Wait!” I called. “It’s only the guns!” but she had not waited to hear. I could hear her, blundering about in a blind panic, whimpering among the blocks of guano.
“Marsali! Come back!” There was no light at all in the hold; I took a few steps through the smothering atmosphere, trying to locate her by sound, but the deadening effect of the crumbling blocks hid her movements from me. There was another booming explosion overhead, and a third close on its heels. The air was filled with dust loosed from the vibrations, and I choked, eyes watering.
I wiped at my eyes with a sleeve, and blinked. I was not imagining it; there was a light in the hold, a dim glow that limned the edge of the nearest block.
“Marsali?” I called. “Where are you?”
The answer was a terrified shriek, from the direction of the light. I dashed around the edge of the block, dodged between two others, and emerged into the space by the ladder, to find Marsali in the clutches of a large, half-naked man.
He was hugely obese, the rolling layers of his fat decorated with a stipple of tattoos, a jangling necklace of coins and buttons hung round his neck. Marsali slapped at him, shrieking, and he jerked his face away, impatient.
Then he caught sight of me, and his eyes widened. He had a wide, flat face, and a tarred topknot of black hair. He grinned nastily at me, showing a marked lack of teeth, and said something that sounded like slurred Spanish.
“Let her go!” I said loudly. “Basta, cabrón!” That was as much Spanish as I could summon; he seemed to think it funny, for he grinned more widely, let go of Marsali, and turned toward me. I threw one of my scalpels at him.
It bounced off his head, startling him, and he ducked wildly. Marsali dodged past him, and sprang for the ladder.
The pirate waffled for a moment, torn between us, but then turned to the ladder, leaping up several rungs with an agility that belied his weight. He caught Marsali by the foot as she dived through the hatch, and she screamed.
Cursing incoherently under my breath, I ran to the bottom of the ladder, and reaching up, swung the long-handled amputation knife at his foot, as hard as I could. There was a high-pitched screech from the pirate. Something flew past my head, and a spray of blood spattered across my cheek, wet-hot on my skin.
Startled, I dropped back, looking down by reflex to see what had fallen. It was a small brown toe, calloused and black-nailed, smudged with dirt.
The pirate hit the deck beside me with a thud that shivered the floorboards, and lunged. I ducked, but he caught a handful of my sleeve. I yanked away, ripping fabric, and jabbed at his face with the blade in my hand.
Jerking back in surprise, he slipped on his own blood and fell. I jumped for the ladder and climbed for my life, dropping the blade.
He was so close behind me that he succeeded in catching hold of the hem of my skirt, but I pulled it from his grasp and lunged upward, lungs burning from the dust of the choking hold. The man was shouting, a language I didn’t know. Some dim recess of my brain, not occupied with immediate survival, speculated that it might be Portuguese.
I burst out of the hold onto the deck, into the midst of a surging chaos. The air was thick with black-powder smoke, and small knots of men were pushing and shoving, cursing and stumbling all over the deck.
I couldn’t take time to look around; there was a hoarse bellow from the hatchway behind me, and I dived for the rail. I hesitated for a moment, balanced on the narrow wooden strip. The sea spun past in a dizzy churn of black below. I grasped the rigging and began to climb.
It was a mistake; I knew that almost at once. He was a sailor, I was not. Neither was he hampered by wearing a dress. The ropes danced and jerked in my hands, vibrating under the impact of his weight as he hit the lines below me.
He was coming up the underside of the lines, climbing like a gibbon, even as I made my slower way across the upper slope of the rigging. He drew even with me, and spat in my face. I kept climbing, propelled by desperation; there was nothing else to do. He kept pace with me, easily, hissing words through an evil, half-toothed grin. It didn’t matter what language he was speaking; his meaning was perfectly clear. Hanging by one hand, he drew the cutlass from his sash, and swung it in a vicious cut that barely missed me.
I was too frightened even to scream. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do. I squeezed my eyes tight shut, and hoped it would be quick.
It was. There was a sort of thump, a sharp grunt, and a strong smell of fish.
I opened my eyes. The pirate was gone. Ping An was sitting on the crosstrees, three feet away, crest erect with irritation, wings half-spread to keep his balance.
“Gwa!” he said crossly. He turned a beady little yellow eye on me, and clacked his bill in warning. Ping An hated noise and commotion. Evidently, he didn’t like Portuguese pirates, either.
There were spots before my eyes, and I felt light-headed. I clung tight to the rope, shaking, until I thought I could move again. The noise below had slackened now, and the tenor of the shouting had changed. Something had happened; I thought it was over.
There was a new noise, a sudden flap of sails, and a long, grinding sound, with a vibration that made the line I was holding sing in my hand. It was over; the pirate ship was moving away. On the far side of the Artemis, I saw the web of the pirate’s mast and rigging begin to move, black against the silver Caribbean sky. Very, very slowly, I began the long trip back down.
The lanterns were still lit below. A haze of black-powder smoke lay over everything, and bodies lay here and there about the deck. My glance flickered over them as I lowered myself, searching for red hair. I found it, and my heart leapt.
Jamie was sitting on a cask near the wheel, with his head tilted back, eyes closed, a cloth pressed to his brow, and a cup of whisky in his hand. Mr. Willoughby was on his knees alongside, administering first aid—in the form of more whisky—to Willie MacLeod, who sat against the foremast, looking sick.
I was shaking all over from exertion and reaction. I felt giddy and slightly cold. Shock, I supposed, and no wonder. I could do with a bit of that whisky as well.
I grasped the smaller lines above the rail, and slid the rest of the way to the deck, not caring that my palms were skinned raw. I was sweating and cold at the same time, and the down-hairs on my face were prickling unpleasantly.
I landed clumsily, with a thump that made Jamie straighten up and open his eyes. The look of relief in them pulled me the few feet to him. I felt better, with the warm solid flesh of his shoulder under my hand.
“Are you all right?” I said, leaning over him to look.
“Aye, it’s no more than a wee dunt,” he said, smiling up at me. There was a small gash at his hairline, where something like a pistol butt had caught him, but the blood had clotted already. There were stains of dark, drying blood on the front of his shirt, but the sleeve of his shirt was also bloody. In fact, it was nearly soaked, with fresh bright red.
“Jamie!” I clutched at his shoulder, my vision going white at the edges. “You aren’t all right—look, you’re bleeding!”
My hands and feet were numb, and I only half-felt his hands grasp my arms as he rose from the cask in sudden alarm. The last thing I saw, amid flashes of light, was his face, gone white beneath the tan.
“My God!” said his frightened voice, out of the whirling blackness. “It’s no my blood, Sassenach, it’s yours!”