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Prologue

Prologue   Lucia kept her face still—neither smiling nor frowning. Her muscles ached to show expression but she dare not or she’d lose the game. The other three card players would know what hand she held— almost a full house. They sat around the rough, plank of a table on crude carved chairs. Her butt was beginning to go numb from not having a lady’s cushion to sit upon. She swayed from side to side with the motion of the ship, working blood into her bottom, least her legs start to fall asleep.   A pile of copper coins grew in the middle with each man betting on his hand. They often gambled. Lucia had lost a few coppers and gains some over the last few days.   Captain Geovan was good to his crew. He gave them a fair wage and breaks from their duties. He was one of the top merchants to ever sail the seas. When the crew had breaks, four of them liked to play cards with her in the ship’s kitchen. The smell of greasy meat, bread, potatoes, onions, and ale lingered in the air around them.   Lucia’s one-year-old child curled against her front; head resting on her ample bosom, and hand entangled in her dark, green tunic. She wore thick, woolen breeches that itched her calves. With a hand holding cards and a hand holding her babe, she couldn’t spare a hand to itch herself. She held her tongue between her teeth, to refrain from wiggling all over in her seat.   Petrel played the mouth organ in the corner of the kitchen. His back was pressed against the rough board of the ship. He didn’t like gambling or cards. He entertained them with his music. Some of the other crew went to rest. Soon their break would be over and then they would need to relieve their other mates from their duties so they could eat, sleep and have a bit of free time. Petrel changed his mournful tune to a zippy jig.   A few of the men slapped their thighs to the beat. They were enjoying themselves. “So Missy, whatcha ye gonna do when we land on shore?” Harold asked. He was Captain Geovan’s second mate. His had bushy salt and pepper brows. He used them to his advertence when the crew got out of line. One formidable glance had the men quaking. His reputation was said to be fierce.   Lucia shrugged. “I’m not sure yet but I’ll figure that out once I land. How long will the trip take?” “By ship?” Jairo said. He was tall and tanned with coal coloured hair. He gave her lopsided grin, his dark eyes twinkling. “About a month. Maybe more if we hit a storm and are blown off course.”   Lucia arched her brows. “Captain Geovan didn’t say anything about being blown off course,” she said. As the ship tipped on the waves, their mugs slid on the table. The men caught them with one hand before they could spill. The cook pulled at his mustache.   “It’s possible to be blown off course but that hasn’t happened to us in quite some time, Lassie,” Cook said. “So don’t ye worry none? We know the way like the backs of our hands, we do.”   Lucia nodded. She glanced down at her babe. The child’s deep inhalations told her that toddler felt safe. The wee one had cherub cheeks that dimpled when she smiled, tiny dark ringlets encircled the child’s head. The babe was clothed in brown breeches and a heavy woolen, blue tunic.   Lucia’s own dark hair was cut short so she could masquerade as a man. She would have to bind her bosom before departing the ship to give her chest a flat appearance. She drew a card while balancing the babe against her. The ten of hearts completed her full house. “I will put in ten coppers,” she said and pushed the money forward.   Harold raised an eyebrow. “Only ten? I’ll see yer ten and raise ya ten.” He deposited twenty coppers in the middle. The cook shook his head. “I’m out!” he said, tossing his hand down.   Jairo grinned. He plunked in twenty coppers, then added five more. “Ah, yer are bettin’ like a scared babe!” Harold jeered him. Jairo just grinned. Harold and Lucia added five more coppers. Harold called the bets closed. The three of them laid down their hands.   “A full house?” Jairo quibbled. “Dang woman, yer luck is blessed.” Lucia laughed. She pulled the coins towards herself from the center of the table. She began diving them up into four piles.   “Yer not supposed to do that, Missy,” Harold said, giving her a grim look. She grinned. “I can and will. After all, I won them fair and square.” “But that’s Harold’s point. Yer to keep the coins and spend them as you like,” Jairo said.   Lucia shook her head. “I don’t have need for drink or women,” she said and winked at them. Their mouths fell open and then they barked a laugh. Lucia pushed the piles, one towards each man. “Your hard earn coins should stay in your pockets!” she told them.   Harold pointed towards the child. “What will the wee one eat when ye get to shore? Surely, after paying the Captain for passage, ye don’t have much on ye?”   “We’ll get by. I have friends that will help us,” Lucia said. Harold grimaced and counted out ten coppers. He pushed them towards her. “Ye put that in yer purse. I won’t take no for an answer either, least ye want me to turn ye over me knee and spank ya.” He said, a gave her one of his serious looks.   Her face flamed. She collected the coins, tucking them into her belt purse. “Thank you, Harold and God bless,” she said.   “Think nothin’ of it. Starvation is a terrible thing,” he said. “I’m just looking out for the wee one’s belly.” Jairo and the cook counted out some coppers as well. A bang shook the ship. The babe, startled out of sleep bawled.   “Sh-sh-sh!” Lucia hushed. She patted the child’s back, rocking back and forth. “What’s going on?”   Harold put a finger to his lips, his eyes wide.   “That don’t sound good,” Jairo whispered. “That sounds like cannon fire.” Another bang shuddered the ship’s haul. A group of men yelled a war cry. Jairo, the cook, Harold and Petrel all got to their feet. Heavy boots hurried down the stairs. Captain Geovan appeared. His face was pale and coated in sweat.   “Cook, hide her and the babe in the cargo hold,” he ordered, panic coating his voice. “Harold get all me men on deck now, we’re being invaded by mercenaries.”   “Mercenaries?” Lucia echoed.   Captain Geovan nodded. “They must have followed ye to me boat. They got a fine, fast ship that caught up to us. Me men are trying to hold them off.” Lucia felt her mouth go dry.   “Come on ye scurvy dogs,” Captain Geovan shouted. “Ye wanna live or not? Get a move on!” “Aye Aye, Captain,” Harold answered.   The room cleared. Captain Geovan hurried back up the stairs, each thud of his boots was like a hammer to Lucia’s heart. Petrel and Jairo followed him. “Come on Lassie,” the cook said. “We’ve got to get ye hidden.”   Lucia heaved herself off the chair and lifted her babe up to shoulder. Feet thudded the upper deck, knocking dust from the kitchen rafters. The scuffling sounds, shouts, and the clash of steel. Lucia hurried after the cook. They headed into the main haul of the ship. The sword fighting sounded so loud that it was as if it was right outside of Lucia’s ear. A man yelled in pain.   A rhythmic thudding drew Lucia’s attention to the stairs. One of the crew was falling down on his back. He landed at the base of the steps. His throat gushed blood. Bile hit the back of Lucia’s throat as she stepped over the poor man. Oh God, what have I done? She pulled her child off her shoulder and cradled the babe. The child stared wide-eyed up at her, too startled to cry.   “Check below,” a dark husky voice ordered. “Find the wench and the babe now!” Lucia gulped as she hurried after the cook. Thuds ricocheted down the steps. “Come on Lassie, this way,” the cook motioned with his hand.   She ran the last few steps to him. He stood outside an iron door. He lit a tapper and handed it to her as he pushed the door open.   “Get in, quick!” he said.   She dashed into the cargo hold. The scent of exotic spices, starchy smells of vegetables and grains filled her nose. The soft glow of the taper illuminated many tripping obstacles like barrels of ale, trunks, sacks. The place was packed with supplies and goods.   She rushed deep into the hold. She found a hiding place at the back behind some barrels, sacks of spices and a mound of linens. She blew the taper out and clutched her child close to her chest. The noise overheard raged like mad thunderstorm.   Her nerves her taught and ached to put the babe down but she feared the child would wonder off in the dark. Silence pressed against her ears. Confused at first, she strained her ears, listening for signs of the cook or Captain Geovan coming to get her—to tell her that she was safe.   The cargo door banged open. She gasped. She instinctively put her hand over the child’s mouth, squeezing babe tight. Sweat beaded on her brow.   “Sh-sh-sh,” she whispered in the babe’s ear. “It’ll be alright.”   A soft, orange glow illuminated the blackness. She tried to count how many pairs of boots she heard but lost her track. Her heart sped. She took short gulps of air.   “Come out, come out wherever yer are!” the husky man’s voice boomed in the dimness. “Wench where are ye?” About of male laughter filled the room. Three men? She wasn’t sure. “Give yerself up and the rest of crew lives. Don’t and we’ll kill ‘em all!” he said.   Another round of laughter filled the cargo hold. The soft glow illuminated an empty sack, not far from her. She crept towards it, careful that she was still hidden and snatched up the sack.   “Be very still and very quiet,” she whispered to babe. “Please, for mommy, be good. Listen to what I’m saying. Still and quiet.”   She opened the sack and stood the child on it. She pulled the gunnysack up around the babe’s body. She pulled the drawstrings just enough to cover the child’s head. “Look, boss, loot!” one man said. “Can we take it?”   “Take whatever ye can carry. But find that Wench while yer at it!” replied the husky man.   Lucia shivered. She glanced around her hiding spot and saw a mound of linen. She crept forward, made a hole in the linens and stuffed the sack in. She covered it. She snuck back to her hiding spot. Assessing her situation, she saw an opening to creep out of the cargo hold while the men were distracted by pillaging. If she could make it to the door, perhaps she could lure the men away from her baby.   She tiptoes towards the door, using the mounds of spices, chests and sacks to hide her presence. She peeked around a pile of vegetables. Two of the men had a chest of gold open. They stuffed money into their belt purses. She strained her ears to hear the husky-voiced man. She couldn’t hear or see him anywhere. He must be further in the cargo hold, looking for her. The door was but a few feet away but not much to hide her. She gave them men once last look as she slunk towards door.   A board creaked beneath her weight. She froze, glancing back at the men. The noise the coins made must have drowned out the creaking board. They paid her no heed. She took another step. A hand latched onto her wrist. She was spun around, her arms pinned against her chest. A strong, muscular body held her hostage. The smell of spiced colon filled her senses. One arm was released, while a hand grasped her short hair, pulling her head back. A tongue snaked along her jawline carving a stripe of drool all the way up to her earlobe. Teeth nipped her earlobe forcing her to squirm with disgust. A husky laugh penetrated her ears. Lucia’s guts turned to ice.   “Well Wench. Say let’s have a little fun,” said the husky man, voice full of mirth. “Tell me, where’d hide the babe?” Lucia gulped. Her scalp hurt from him pulling what hair she had, and her ear throbbed where he nipped it. The other two men rushed forward. Their torchlights harsh on her eyes. Her heart fluttered so hard that she thought it would pop out of her chest and fly away.   “He don’t look like he’s going to talk, boss,” one of the men said. “Is he mute?”   The boss laughed. “Ney, she’s not mute but she is as stubborn as a mule,” he said. “But not to worry, I know how to break stubborn animals. Toss me the rope.”   “Aye, boss,” said the other man. He took some thick cord from his belt and threw it to the boss.   Boss let go of her hair as he caught the rope. She spun around and aimed a good kick at his shins. He jumped back and twisted her arm up behind her back. She gasped as pain exploded in her shoulder. He wrestled her other hand behind her and fastened the ropes to her wrist. The cord bit her wrists as she wiggled her hands. Boss smacked her rump. She shrieked as she jumped.   “Search this place for the child,” said the boss. “I’ll take this wench to the deck and make her talk.” “Move wench,” he said.   She turned and glared at him. Boss was a tall, lean man with more muscles than any of the king's guards. His clean-shaven face gave him a young, hard look that reached his eyes. This man grew up hard, fighting for survival, and winning. She tried to kick him again. He just laughed.   “My dear, ye are but a mouse trying to fight a large cat,” he said. His eyes darkening as he drew his face to hers. “I’d like to thank ye for yer services to the country, Wench.”   She scowled at him. “Please let me go!” she said. “You know this isn’t right. The right thing is to let me and the crew go.”   “I see, I’m gonna have to this the hard way,” he said. He picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. He whacked her backside, causing her to squeak, wiggle about and kick in the air. She got a clear view of the men, slicing open sacks, spilling grain and vegetables. They tipped barrels of ale, washing the floor in the booze.   The boss hauled her out of the cargo room at a quick pace. He grunted a bit under her weight. When he got to the stairs, he stepped over the body and took the stairs two at time.   They emerged onto a bright, sunny deck that looked like it had been washed in red paint. Blood! Lucia’s stomach clenched. So much blood. She felt sick. What had she done? These poor men.   The boss heaved her off his shoulder, standing her on her feet. She caught a glimpse of a slender ship meant for speed. Three masts towered above it. There were men onboard. Mercenaries waiting for their boss’ orders. He spun her around, gripping her by the shoulders. Lucia gasped. Captain Geovan, Jairo, Harold, the cook and a handful of crew were tied to the mast. A small group of mercenaries stood guard over the prisoners.   “Let us go,” Lucia said. “My husband will…”   “Hold yer tongue, wench,” replied the boss. “Yer husband hired us! Last time, where is the child?”   Lucia clenched her jaw. She stared at Captain Geovan. He raised his head, one eye was missing, the socket a mulled, gruesome mess. Bile curdled Lucia’s stomach.   “Don’t tell him, anything,” the captain said. “Please let the light reign.”   Lucia’s mouth went dry. These men were willing to die to protect her baby. Her heart twisted. The sight of Harold’s gray hair, hanging wet and pink around his face. Jairo had a red spot blooming over his torso. The cook looked beaten to a pulp. This was all her fault. These men fought to protect her and her child. Tears prickled her eyes. These poor, innocent men suffered because of her.   “It seems that you need some convincing,” Boss said, close to her ear.   She shuddered.   “Take that one and make him walk the plank!” Boss ordered.   One of the mercenaries cut Harold loose. He sagged to the deck. Another mercenary helped the first one shove Harold to his feet. As they turned Harold around to face the plank, red mass was matted in the back of his head. Harold staggered all the way to the board that was fastened to the side of the ship to serve as the plank. “Please no!” Lucia pleaded. “Please let him go. They had nothing to do with me. I’m a stow away, please.”   The boss laughed like he was watching a comedy skit performance for the king. Harold was hauled up to the plank. He swayed at the end.   “Walk!” ordered the first mercenary. Unsteadily, Harold shuffled towards the end of the plank.   “Please, leave him alone!” Lucia cried. “He’s just an old man! Have mercy, please!”   Harold shuffled to the end. He toppled off like a broken doll. His body made a huge splashed when it hit the water. Lucia screamed and bawled. The boss backhanded her, stopping her grief as she crashed to the deck’s rough floor. Stars swam in her sight. The taste of metallic blood coated her tongue. She spit it out.   “Now, tell me, where is the child?” he bellowed.   She swallowed the lump in her throat. Her sight blurred from tears. Boss grabbed her roughly, pulling her to her feet. “I said tell me where the baby is? I’m losing my patience, wench!” he shouted. His breath smelled like rotten meat and stale ale.   She gagged. He shook her, making her dizzy. The babe’s cry lit the air. Lucia’s bowels went slack. The boss laughed. The child howled.   “It looks like we’ve found the child, after all.”   He spun her around to see her babe in the arms of a mercenary. The baby’s nose was red and running, eyes puffy as tears streamed down cherub cheeks. The child leaned out, opening and shutting chubby hands. “Ma’ma!” the babe cried. “Ma’ma, ma’ma!”   “Toss the rest of the prisoners overboard,” Boss ordered.   “What? No, please,” Lucia cried. “You got what you wanted. Please, leave them alone.”   Boss belted another laugh. “What I’ve got is pay to collect and a contract to fulfill,” he said. “Me contract states no survivors. I’m to bring the child back alive but everybody else is to die.”   Simultaneous splashes punctured the air. The boss walked over to the mercenary and gathered the child in his arms. He shushed the babe, singing…or whispering softly in the babe’s ear. The child squirmed, wanting to be let down. He held the babe captive, rocking the child back and forth. Tears ran down Lucia’s face. She sobbed. “Get her too!” Boss said. “Let her see what walkin’ the plank is like.”   He laughed. The grabbed Lucia under the arms and hauled to her feet. She screamed and thrashed. Her feet thudded against the end of the plank. She sobbed silently as she gazed down at the churching ocean.   “Hush now me babe,” the Boss sang, his voice clear and pure, “don’t ye cry. Let me tell ye a lullaby. The light once reigned o’er man, and now darkness governs the land. Hush now me babe, don’t ye cry. Listen to what’s been prophesied.”   Lucia could feel the boss standing behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that her baby was watching, wide-eyed. Boss mechanically waved the child’s tiny hand.   “Bye-bye mommy,” he said with a sneer. “Bye-bye!”


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