Chapter

Twenty Six

 

Thub-thub. Thub-thub.

Pete was certain that his heart was beating loudly enough to wake the whole crew, but no one seemed to be stirring. He had slept a long time after freeing his hands of the bonds, or so he surmised by the crick in his neck and likewise by the fact that the blood was crusted on his wrists and where he had barked his shin. Mercifully, it had ceased to flow, and the heavy torpor that weighed upon him when he finally roused confirmed his lengthy sleep. Sitting up, he had groaned aloud at the various pains that still assailed him – and was answered by a growl even louder, stemming from his midsection.

Slowly, carefully, he had worked his way around the room once more, hoping for a crate or barrel with food that might be pried open, but eventually was forced to the conclusion that the spices he had discovered earlier were more likely destined for trade than the ship’s use, since it was the only foodstuff he could find. He would have to find the galley after the crew were all a-bed.

For he knew not how long – hours, it seemed – he sat with his back against a crate and waited for the sound of footsteps above him to cease. After he had sat for at least an hour more and could discern no sounds from above, he made his way to the door. It was a heavy door and his shoulders protested as he pushed upon it, but to his incredulity and great relief it was not locked, merely stiff. Quietly, he slipped out and pushed it closed behind him. He crept to his right, hoping he could get his bearings, find the galley, steal some food and drink, and hide himself once again in the crate room until he could devise some plan of action. It was still fairly dark, but after at least a day or possibly more in the pitch black of the crate room, his eyes were adjusted enough to make out shapes.

Seeing a wooden-runged ladder above which lay a hatch, he listened once more for footsteps, then climbed the ladder and lifted the hatch an inch. Seeing no light nor hearing any sound, Pete opened the hatch fully, letting it fall open with a gentle thud. Quietly, he lifted himself onto the floor above and closed the hatch.

He was in the mid-level of the ship. Small windows in each room which opened onto the corridor told him he was above water level but not yet on the main deck. He knew this to be the level of the gun-deck for most ships, and hoped that this level might also house the galley and mess. Carefully, he slunk along the walls, passing by numerous doorways leading - as he had suspected - to rows of stout cannon aimed out small, square windows through which shone a ghostly moonlight. By the position of the moonlight, he judged it to be at least after midnight, but could not tell by how much. Other hatch-like openings allowed for muskets, blunderbusses, and the like to also hold off a sizeable enemy. Poking his nose inquisitively into the room along the port side, he counted eleven cannon. Since most ships had the same number of cannon on each side, that made for twenty-two cannon in all.

‘Od’s my life, this is surely some raiding vessel or warship t’ be decked out as she is! Nay, ‘tis no warship, for what would the King’s own navy want wi’ me? ’Tis a bloody pirates’ ship, or I be damned.

Ordinarily, the thought would certainly have caused a sickening swoop of fear to curdle his stomach. Indeed, Pete could already feel the bile rising to his throat. But he was sick and tired of living in chaos and fear. In the past six months, he had been awakened by an angry, knife-wielding gypsy; he had been stabbed by a filthy, would-be rapist; whilst still nursing those wounds, he had become a drug-induced horse thief; he had narrowly escaped arrest or a beating at least three times for the stealing of pies; he had lived on the streets and had barely earned enough tip money to keep himself fed; he had been manipulated by the aforementioned gypsy and her pushy brunette friend; and he had been insulted and even threatened by both an unctuous violinist and a member of the King’s Royal Court! To have survived all of that only to be kidnapped and bound for who-knew-where (or what!) seemed to have used up his stores of outright terror. The fates – if not bearing him outright malice - were clearly oblivious to his plight, and Pete had had enough of counting on their kind intervention. From now on, he would count upon himself and no other.

Od’s blood on’t! From this point forward, I shall face what comes with my chin high and my stance brave, see if I do not!

Granted, that was easier said than done, but at least he would make a start.  So, swallowing past the lump in his throat, he continued to slink along the walls, searching for the galley. It was an extremely large ship, and Pete had to climb through several hatches, up and down and back again and getting thoroughly lost in the process, before at last he found what he sought.

It was a large galley, and well stocked. Fates be praised, he breathed before he remembered he was no longer beholden to the fates. But something be praised, for there was still food from that night’s supper laid out upon a wide counter. Two or three spare pieces of salted cod, a great mound of hard tack, the bare remnants some sort of pickled vegetable, and rum; not the sort of food Pete would have chosen were he on land, but at this point in his hunger, it looked like a king’s feast. Quickly grabbing three or four of the hard tack biscuits and stuffing them into his jerkin, he crammed a piece of salted fish into his mouth and was just reaching for another when he heard the sound of humming and footsteps approaching.

Quickly he looked hither and yon for a place to hide, but the galley was a windowless room off the main corridor, with not enough room in any of the well-stocked cabinets, barrels, or crates to hide. There was no place to disappear to, so he simply stood with his back to the wall nearest the doorway, hoping that he would be hidden well enough that the person humming might pass by the galley without noticing him.

But alas, the footsteps led straight to the galley doorway and a man of average size entered, with a black kerchief about his short, reddish-blond hair and a knee-length leather apron tied over his red tartan kilt. He continued to hum a pretty Scottish air as he wiped his hands upon a rag on the counter and smoothed his closely-cropped red beard. He then reached to untie the apron, but the knot seemed to be tangled and was giving him trouble.

Hoping the man was distracted enough not to notice his departure, Pete cautiously made to leave. But a pirate’s senses when not dulled by rum are keen, and the man swung around, having in that instant grabbed a carving knife from the counter. Before Pete could even move or speak, the pirate had him by the collar, his blade pressed to Pete’s jugular.

“Clearly yer new tae th’ ship, or ye’d know that nobody – nobody – steals food from th’ Barbarian’s galley.”

“Er…”

“G’on, get back t’ yer bunk an’ dinna let me catch thee again. ‘Tis yer last warning.”

The pirate shook Pete by his collar, which had the unfortunate effect of making the biscuits in his jerkin fall to the floor. The pirate looked at him oddly, then bent to scoop the hard tack from the floor, still keeping his knife pointed at Pete. He looked at the biscuits in his hand, glanced back at the stack on the counter, and eyed Pete with a mixture of suspicion and confusion.

“Are ye daft?”

“Er…”

“I explained tae every man jack on board t’night at mess that th’ weevils got tae this batch. Said I’d make another quick enough fer tomorrow, but that no one ought eat these ‘less they want a belly full o’ worms.”

Pete’s eyes strayed to the biscuits in the cook’s hands, but the man’s next sentence drew his gaze back again.

“So, either y’ were not at mess t’night – in which case, I am sure the Barbarian will wan’ tae know why, or…”

The pirate dropped the hard tack and grabbed Pete by the collar again, holding the knife again to his neck and whispering menacingly in his face.

“… or yer a stowed-away spy, and -”

“Nay!” Pete threw up his hands in the universal gesture of surrender.

“Then explain.”

“I…” With his new-made decision to be brave, Pete opted for the truth. “I do not know how I came t’ be aboard.”

“The men aboard the Moira are ample enough. We ’ave no need tae press men into service here, so if that’s yer story -”

The knife blade pressed deeper against Pete’s throat.

“Wait! In sooth, I do not know. Last I knew I was playing guitar in a London square, an’ th’ next thing I knew, I was bound an’ on your ship!”

“Where wast ye bound?”

“Er… my hands?”

The pirate rolled his eyes.

“Where on th’ ship, cur?”

“Oh, er… well below decks, as… as best I can guess. It was a storeroom – countless crates up to the ceiling and no windows.”

Sensing that the man was more concerned with him being a spy than with him having been kidnapped, Pete showed the man his badly scraped wrists.

“Y’ can see where I was bound. Took me more than an hour to scrape the rope off on the side of a crate. And me guitar’s down there, too, if you want to check me story.”

The pirate’s grip on Pete’s shirt loosened a bit.

“Ye may be sure I shall do that. Either way, ye’ll be taken tae see th’ Barbarian. If yer a spy, ye’ll likely have one end of yer innards nailed tae th’ mast and be made tae run around it until they’re all pulled out. ’Course, if yer not a spy, ye willna need tae worry about somethin’ quite so dramatic. The Barbarian may jus’ ask what yer doin’ on his ship. Dependin’ on yer answer, he may settle for jus’ runnin’ ye through with a cutlass.”

Pete did not flinch, which the pirate thought was awfully brave, considering the Barbarian’s reputation. But neither did he speak another word in his defense.

Not ungently, the pirate pushed Pete into the center of the room and ordered him to sit upon the floor. Pete’s stomach growled as he did so. Hearing it, the pirate spoke o’er his shoulder,

“Y’ may as well help ye’self tae th’ last o’ the fish an’ rum while y’ wait. It could be yer last meal.”

And he shook his head as he carefully locked the galley door behind him.

 

 

Earlier That Evening

So… what shall we do now?” Ariana whispered.

It was just barely twilight, and The Willful Dog was moored at a small dock in La Rochelle. Through the mist shrouding the aft railing, Ariana and Rosemary could see the Moira anchored nearly a mile away – too large a ship to fully dock at some of the smaller ports like this one. It was too far away and too dark for them to read the name on the ship’s side, but the colorful Arabian-maiden prow was all the proof they needed that they had caught up to their quarry, and much more quickly than expected.

Ewan would be well-paid for his speed in getting them so far so quickly to this south-of-France, mid-way dock. It was remarkable that Ewan had chosen to dock for the night at this particular port to give himself – as sole helmsman - time to rest. But an extra Our Father and Baruch HaTov V’Hamaytiv would be said by the two respective women for the good fortune that the Moira chose to stop for renewed supplies in this exact same spot.

By the sun’s dusky streaks of red and purple on the horizon, the girls could make out small figures on the Moira busying themselves at the rails, preparing dinghies for their shore trip. Though the October sun was setting, it was barely after six of the clock, and many of the port markets stayed open until at least nine, to allow for the extra business. And, of course, thought Rosemary wryly, some of the port “businesses” did not really start up until well after dark.

“I am thinking,” she said quietly to Ariana. Though surely they were too far away for their soft voices to carry to the pirate’s ship, still they both instinctively conversed in hushed tones.

“Shall we follow them, dost thou think, to Malaga?” Ariana whispered. “Or ought we try somehow to get aboard here, where we have already encountered them?”

Rosemary took a deep breath.

“Let me think on’t a while. In faith, I had not thought so far as what to do once we found the ship. We can do aught until full darkness, at any rate.”

“What might I do to help?”

“For now, see if thou canst get some sleep. If we do decide to approach the ship tonight, it cannot hurt to have one of us rested.”

Ariana turned from the railing, but Rosemary’s soft touch on her arm brought her back.

“On second thought, before thou sleep’st, repack all of our belongings. If we end up taking leave of The Willful Dog tonight, we shall want to waste no time.”

Ariana nodded her understanding and hurried off as Rosemary looked thoughtfully out at the Moira’s still busy activity.

Some two hours later, Ariana woke to see Rosemary sitting at the foot of their tiny bunk, picking out the stitches in the back seam of her petticoat with the point of Ariana’s dagger. Inhaling, she sat up, and Rosemary glanced up from her work.

“I have… a plan,” Rosemary said.

“Will I like it?”

Rosemary merely pulled out a few more stitches. Ariana flopped back onto the bed, thinking, Why do I e’en bother to ask?

“All right, so… what shall I have to do? Am I to find another filthy tavern and seduce a sailor? Because thou didst promise me -”

“Nay, no more seducing sailors. As they approached shore, I saw that several of the dinghies held, well, practically children – boys of mayhap ten or twelve whom I imagine serve in the Captain’s quarters or run as powder monkeys for the cannon. In any event, a few who were relatively small. With nothing better having leapt providentially to mind in the past two hours, here is the best plan I have at present.”

Rosemary pulled the last stitch from her petticoat’s seam, and, making a small notch with the knife on the side of the now opened garment, seized both sides and tore the fabric so that it created two long, rectangular strips.

“As the sailors return to the dinghies, I shall find some way of distracting one of the youths – I know not how, as yet. But as he becomes separated from his shipmates, I shall need for thee to move quickly but silently to strike him in the back of the head with a stout stick or other sturdy object. Not enough to kill him, but enough to cause him to fall insentient for a few minutes.”

“Why would -”

“After he hath fallen, we shall take his male apparel, and tie him hog-wise so that he may not escape and return to the Moira if he do wake.”

At Ariana’s horrified look, Rosemary said, “The whole point is that we need his clothes. These,” - and here Rosemary held up the two pieces of torn muslin - “are to bind thy bosom and tie up thy hair, so thou mayest pass with light scrutiny for a young member of the crew.”

“Me? Why is’t always me?”

“Canst thou swim?”

“Of course not! Canst… canst thou?”

“Aye. I have not done so in years, but aye.”

At Ariana’s surprised look, she shrugged. “’Tis Jewish law that a parent must teach his child to swim.”

Ariana tilted her head in disbelief, so Rosemary continued, “Aye, in sooth – ‘tis no jest. ‘Tis something about not courting death by failing to teach one’s child the means to survival. In my tenth year, my father had some business in Dover that kept us there for nearly three months. During that time, being so near the ocean, he took the opportunity to teach me, and I spent the better part of those summer months happily cavorting like Juno’s swan amidst the waves as he went about his business. In faith, it hath been a while, and therefore there is some risk, but …”

Rosemary sighed impatiently.

“In any event, my thinking is this: one missing cabin boy might be attributed to a loss of nerve and flight on the part of the lad. I imagine the junior members of the crew are not much thought of, for a ship that size surely hath enough hands not to miss one young crewman. If G-d is with us, they shall not bother to look for him, but merely plan to pick up another willing lad when they dock at their next port.”

“All right…”

“But two; now, two missing crewmates arouseth suspicion. Two means foul play, and will be investigated. So we must each board the Moira, but in different ways. After we get thee bound and dressed in the boy’s clothes, thou must needs find a way to get on one of the dinghies heading back to the ship. Thou shalt wear the boy’s scarf pulled well down over thy face, and pretend to be ill, that thou mayest spend as much time as possible with thy head in thy hands whilst in the dinghy. With G-d’s help, the youngest members of the crew are so interchangeable in their duties that each face is not truly well known to the men.”

Ariana set her jaw. Rosemary always had the most absurd plans. The mad part was that they often worked, which only served to encourage her. Ariana rolled her eyes dramatically.

“All right, so, saying that I get aboard the ship miraculously unrecognized neither as a maiden nor a stranger, then… what?”

“Find some good hiding place, and wait until all are abed. I shall need thee to carry the bulk of our clothes and belongings with thee. We ought probably leave the food here… if we manage to get safely aboard, we shall find a way to get some there, but taking it with us merely adds to our burden. I shall give thee all my raiment but my shift, for anything I wear in the water shall weigh me down.”

Ariana gasped.

“Meanest thou that thou shalt swim all the way to the Moira? I thought thou didst mean -”

“Aye, all the way. I see no other way of getting myself on board except to have thee already there, in place, to receive me. ‘Tis nearly a mile, I confess, but I used to possess the stamina for that and more. Pray G-d I still do. But e’en if that were no let to me, thou shalt need to procure some sort of thick blanket ere I arrive. These waters are icy, and in sooth, I know not whether I can simply survive the cold long enough to make it to the ship. Needless to say, if I do make it, I shall be chilled to the bone and in peril of death if I cannot warm myself quickly upon reaching the deck.”

‘Tis over, Ariana thought. The strain of sea travel hath put Rosemary completely out of her wits.

“And thou art willing to risk all of that, just to… save a friend who may or may not be in actual mortal danger? Merely to recover Pete so that we might have a chance to play before the King?” Ariana’s face was livid with fear and frustration.

Rosemary made a moue.

“He saved our lives.”

Ariana was unimpressed with that answer, and her face made her feelings plain.

Rosemary stood.

“In sooth, I have… begun to grow fond of Pete. I think we were wrong about him. I think he be a good man who… well, he hath a temper, I agree. But I think that the Pete who thought not about his own safety but leapt to our aid when he did barely know us; the Pete that promised us a new wheel simply because one good turn deserveth another… the Pete that seemed so very happy just to be playing for us inside the wagon! The joy on his face just to be holding a guitar? I think that be the real Pete. Methinks we have not yet scratched the surface with him! He talketh like a poet when he doth wish to! He works hard when work needeth to be done! And that day when he shouted at us and it came to light that he was just frustrated about his bootstrap breaking? The next day, instead of buying leather to mend his boots, he spent all his coin to bring us oranges, remember? Such is a man worth saving!”

“Aye, mayhap! I am not blind to how he hath seemed more kind of late, and how hard he works! And we do owe him our lives. But Rosemary -”

“I know. Why do we not simply report the abduction and hope for the Sheriff’s men to take on the peril? Why put ourselves in harm’s way? ‘Tis… well, frankly, Ariana, the whole thought of rescuing Pete myself rather… excites.”

WHAT???”

“I do not know! I merely know that most of me is sensibly scared, and sayeth ‘turn back!’ But another part of me is… well, invigorated by the thought of the adventure!”

“Thou art mad. Excited. To swim a mile to a pirate ship?”

“I have led a very sheltered life. What if this be my one chance to do something truly extraordinary?”

“And perish in the process!”

“Ariana, we have come this far – sold our belongings and left our home and -” Rosemary began to pace about the room, like a caged tigress.

“I simply cannot bear the thought of sitting still and doing nothing at this point! Merely going back to London and playing in taverns for the rest of my life and hoping that Pete is somehow all right without doing aught to make certain of it! Something truly courageous! Dost thou not see? Something so far beyond my ken that I may look back on it and say There. I did something no one, not even I myself, truly thought I was capable of doing. And in doing so, I saved the life of a friend.”

There was silence as Ariana mulishly digested that. Rosemary probed further.

“Hast thou ne’er had the mad urge to do something utterly insensible and wild, just to ha’ done it? Like jump off a cliff or, I know not… insult six of the king’s guards just to see if thou canst outrun them?”

Begrudgingly, Ariana nodded. She understood the passion in her friend’s voice, for she herself heard it in her own mind when the moon was particularly bright or the winds especially calm.

“Aye, I suppose I have.”

“Then?”

“But only in thought. Ne’er in reality!”

Rosemary simply looked at her friend.

“Thou art out of thy five senses!”

“Mayhaps.”

“Thou art a reckless idiot!”

“Mmmm… I shall own the reckless part, at least. Hast thou a better idea?”

Ariana muttered a Romnichel curse and looked daggers at Rosemary, but her friend simply returned her gaze with placid, cat-like eyes.

“All right, all right… I am still not convinced of the method, though I acknowledge the merit. Might as well tell me the rest of the plan.”

“We hide on the ship until daybreak, for I have no doubt that ‘tis too dark on board to find Pete in the night. In the morning, I shall remain hidden whilst thou, in the boy’s apparel, shall sneak about and see what thou canst find. I know not what we shall do once we find Pete, but mayhaps he shall know more about how we might escape the ship without detection. Assuming… that is to say, if…”

“If?”

“If…” Rosemary’s voice quavered slightly, “Well, that is, if he is still alive.”

Ariana’s mind conjured images of Pete as he lay on her bed, the wounds he received whilst saving them still oozing his blood. She remembered, too, a time she had played something difficult upon the guitar in rehearsal, something she had learned from watching his superior technique as he played, how he had nodded at her in approval... and how much that had pleased her. As she took a deep breath of the briny sea air, she also thought of how much she had already braved: bearing the taunting of her clan for her first eighteen years; leaving her mother; undertaking secret Druidic training in Cornwall; escaping the clan leader’s son and going without food for three days; finding Rosemary after months of searching; leaving John and Sarah; reviving Pete when, for all her training, she had never tended to a man as near death as he had been….

And she nodded.

“All right. Count me in.”