"Ship ahoy!" The shout drifted down from the crow's nest.
Catalina de Valasco secured her needle and looked up, shielding her eyes.
The mast was a silhouette against the bright Caribbean sky. The sailor on lookout was obscured by the billowing sails, but Catalina caught sight of his outstretched arm, pointing north. Was it worth going to see? Regardless, her fingers were stiff and a break from embroidery was due. Catalina folded the material, placed it on the bench, then went to stand at the railing. The other ship was no more than a speck on the horizon.
As ever, Lucia dogged her heels. "Who do you think it is, my lady?" Her voice was an octave higher than normal. Lucia had been living in dread of pirates ever since the Santa Eulalia de Merida left Spain, and Catalina's willingness to humour her maid had long since run out.
"How would I know?"
"I'm sorry my lady, I was just—"
"It will be a merchantman, going about its lawful business. Pirates don't attack ships going to New Spain. They want the gold and silver on the way back." How many times did Lucia need to be told?
"If you say so, my lady. But supposing—"
"Then your repairs to my wedding gown will be wasted. Which would be a shame, after all your work." Fortunately, the rats' taste for silk had been discovered before too much damage occurred.
"Oh yes, my lady. It's nearly finished. Nobody will ever notice. I've taken lace from your second best nightgown and..."
Preparations for the forthcoming marriage could be relied on to divert Lucia's scatterbrain thoughts. Catalina herself was less obsessed with the subject. There was nothing worthwhile to add, and nor would there be, until the galleon reached port at Veracruz.
Instead, Catalina did her best to block out the maid's chatter and let her eyes take in the scenery. It was idyllic, making any talk of danger seem ridiculous. The deck rolled gently beneath her feet. Wisps of high cloud broke the pure blue dome of the heavens. Afternoon sunlight glittered on the waves between dazzling white crests of surf. Catalina leaned over the side, hoping to spot more flying-fish. Strands of seaweed swept through the dark glass troughs in the bow wave, and were gone in an instant.
When she looked up again, the other ship was close enough to pick out its three masts. It was gaining on them apace. To her annoyance, Catalina felt a clenching in the pit of her stomach. She was getting as bad as Lucia. Her eyes were unable make out the standard flying above the crow's nest. The royal astrologer had recently demonstrated a clever spyglass at court, a tube with a lens at either end which made distant objects appear close. Catalina would have appreciated one now, to dismiss her foolish worries—a shame ships did not carry them.
On the quarter deck, Captain Giraldo was also studying the unknown ship. Perhaps she should mention the spyglasses to him as an idea for the future. He frowned and rapped his knuckles on the rail, then shouted, "Bear hard to port."
The sails rippled as the helmsman pulled on the wheel. Briefly, the distance between the two ships widened, but then, unmistakably, the other ship changed tack to follow the Santa Eulalia.
And still it was gaining on them.
Despite the warm sunshine, a prickling of ice washed over Catalina. She could not tear her eyes from the pursuing ship and felt, rather than saw all action still around her. Sailors hung motionless in the rigging.
Ironically, after weeks of anxiety, Lucia was last to react. The maid was drawing patterns in sea-spray on the handrail while prattling away. "...but if it does, I'll carry a spare pair, in case you—", until finally the silence caught her attention. She looked up and squealed, "Oh no! Oh no, no, no!"
The sound of her voice snapped the spell. "Man the guns." Captain Giraldo's command was echoed by the first mate and others.
A maelstrom of activity surged across the deck. Sailors dropped from the rigging, hand over hand. Others burst from every hatch and doorway. They threw open lockers, passing around swords and muskets. Cannons were hauled into place, gunpowder kegs rolled from storage, breastplates adjusted and tightened.
"Goddamned, whoreson pirates." A sailor spat a curse that normally would have earned a rebuke, but Catalina ignored the coarse language along with the bleats from Lucia whimpering beside her.
Her hands were clamped around the rail so tightly her knuckles ached. It took an act of willpower to loosen her grip, yet still she stayed where she was, unable to stop watching the ship get ever nearer. It sliced gracefully, majestically through the waves, and it meant them harm.
The ship was so close Catalina could spot figures standing on the deck. A flag with red, white and blue bands fluttered atop the highest mast. Everything was moving so slowly, yet with each beat of her heart, the gap between the ships narrowed.
Somebody was talking at Catalina's shoulder, and had been for a while, although it took a light touch to fully claim her attention. "Please, madam, you and your maid should take shelter. I beg you, go to your cabin, now. Here is not safe for you." The officer's words were polite, but his tone and his eyes added, and you will get in our way.
At some point, Lucia had collapsed in a trembling heap. Catalina urged her to her feet and took her hand. Their path was a chaotic dance, sidestepping and bobbing around the scrambling sailors. Before entering the passage under the quarterdeck, Catalina paused for one last sight of the looming ship with its taunting rebel flag. It was now close enough for her to hear the enemy shouts over the hubbub around her. Catalina flinched as the first musket shot rung out. Lucia took the lead and jerked her through the narrow doorway and into the tranquil gloom below deck.
Their cabin was familiar, exactly as they had left it a couple of hours earlier, with her book open on the table, and her nightgown folded on the bunk, but now it felt like a prison rather than a refuge. The walls and ceiling pressed in on her. Sounds from outside were muffled through the stout timbers, shouts, screams and musket-fire—all suddenly drowned out by the thunder of cannon. Even were she deaf Catalina would have felt the galleon lurch with the recoil. She staggered and put her hand on the table.
Lucia screamed and flung her arms around Catalina's knees. Once again the maid was on the floor.
Catalina tried to free herself. "Please. It doesn't help."
"Oh, my lady, they're pirates."
"Privateers. They're flying the flag of the Dutch Republic."
Admittedly, any difference was quite abstract as far as anyone aboard the Santa Eulalia was concerned. If the other captain had a letter of marque from the Dutch renegades, it was merely an excuse to steal and murder.
The cannons continued to roar, sending shocks through the ship as if it were running before a storm. Lucia loosened her grip, allowing Catalina to keep her balance more easily, but then a new quake sent her stumbling against the wall. The jolt was accompanied by a boom and the complaint of strained timber. Shouts from above reached a new crescendo. The attacking ship had made contact with the Santa Eulalia, ready for boarding. One way or another, the battle would soon be over.
Lucia knelt beside her bunk, praying like a child before sleeping. Her eyes were scrunched shut as she recited the words, clicking through the beads on her rosary. Catalina knew she should join her. What else could she do, but pray? And yet it was impossible to think of anything other than the battle outside.
Catalina stared at the ceiling, tracking the sounds. The uproar on deck surged back and forth. Who was winning? She tried to pick out words amid the chaos. Were the commands still being shouted in Spanish? How long would the fighting last? Yet, surely the tumult above was beginning to slacken. Instead of a continuous uproar, the clamour came in bursts, with the gaps between growing longer and quieter—quiet enough to hear Lucia embark on her next Hail Mary.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women.
One last gunshot, and then there was silence.
Lucia opened her eyes. "Have we won?"
Another foolish question. Catalina bit back any answer, not that Lucia waited for one. She kissed her rosary. "Our Lord would not let the fiends and heretics win. We are fighting for the true faith."
Lucia had not been paying attention to the state of the war if she placed any trust in divine intervention. In Catalina's opinion, the toss of a coin was as likely to be right. However, if Captain Giraldo and his men had won, someone would soon come to share the good news. And by the same token, the longer the wait went on, the worse the outlook was. Either way, hiding in the cabin was futile.
Catalina put her hand on the door latch but then heard voices—laughter and talking, too faint to make out the words. She strained her ears, hoping for Captain Giraldo's bellow, a familiar voice, a phrase spoken in Spanish. Instead there were footsteps, coming closer. Another burst of harsh male laughter, but still no clue as to the victors. The footsteps paused in the passage outside.
Catalina backed away. "Who's there?"
The door was flung back. Framed in the entrance were two men. Each had a pistol in his waistband and a sword at his side. Their shirts and breeches were dishevelled and blood splattered. One had a neckerchief knotted at his throat. The taller man had a scar running the side of his face. Neither was a member of the crew.
For a moment nobody moved and then Lucia screamed.
The scarred pirate stuck his hands on his hips, while a broad smile creased his face. He spoke in English. "Well. What have we here?"
The scene on deck was surprisingly similar to before. Everywhere, a riot of sailors made busy, some still flourishing swords, while others dug through storage lockers. Yet the atmosphere and the voices had changed. The mood was now one of celebration, and instead of Spanish, the sailors were speaking a mixture of English, German, and other languages Catalina did not know. Presumably Dutch was one, but her parents had not included it in her otherwise comprehensive education.
Other differences were also apparent. Streaks and puddles of blood stained the decking red. A knot of prisoners, two dozen or more, sat hunched in one corner, heads down. None met her eyes, although the faces were ones she knew—as were others, on bodies lying motionless, with frozen expressions and blank eyes.
Catalina watched two pirates swing one corpse by hands and feet, then toss him overboard. The following splash was almost lost in the hubbub. Catalina tasted bile, rising in her throat. Matias, that had been his name, she remembered. He had poured her wine the previous evening. Catalina summoned her courage. She would face her fate. Giving in to panic was not only unworthy, it was also pointless.
Her captor raised his voice. "Hey, lads. Look what I've found!"
At first, only a few heads turned in their direction. But there was no mistaking the reaction. Within seconds, silence swept across the deck, all motion stilled. And then, starting at the back, a wild chorus of cheering erupted, ending in laughter and shouts.
"There was me thinking I'd have to wait till the next whorehouse."
"Who gets first dibs?"
"I'll arm wrestle you."
"Careful. You don't want to strain your wrist in case you don't win."
"Nah. I think Mrs. Palm and her daughters will be having a rest tonight." The laughter reached new heights, while the mob drew closer, forming a densely packed ring.
Of course. What else would pirates do with women they captured? Catalina heard a wail. It was questionable how much Lucia understood—her English was weak—but the tones and expressions were unmistakable. Catalina tightened her jaw and drew her shoulders back. The blood of kings ran in her veins. She was a true daughter of Spain, who could trace her ancestors to El Cid, and beyond. Whatever else, she would not let this rabble see fear on her face. They deserved nothing but contempt, and that she would grant them, in abundance.
A man on her left pawed at her, clamping a hand over her breast and squeezing. As calmly as she could, Catalina turned her head to bestow her iciest stare, and was rewarded when he blushed and fell back, giving rise to the loudest burst of laughter yet.
The braying faded to a rumble. Pirates shuffled aside, allowing a new man through—the captain, judging by the way others yielded their place in the front row. He was far from being the tallest man present, and his clothing would have shamed a shopkeeper, but he projected an air of command.
Like his subordinates, the captain had a smile on his lips, but it did not reach his eyes. This was a man who would always think, plan and calculate, Catalina recognised. He was more dangerous for it, yet she found his arrival strangely comforting. He could be reasoned with, although when he spoke it was in parody.
He swept off his hat and gave an exaggerated, low bow. "Madam, allow me to present your humble servant. Captain Edward Williams, at your service. But you can call me Ned."
"I am Doña Catalina de Valasco, daughter of Vizconde Pedro de Valasco. You can call me, your ladyship."
"You're Spanish." A statement, not a question.
"And you're English, although you sail under a Dutch flag."
"Yes. I admit I'd rather serve my country. Alas, my country's not quite so keen on me. The Dutch West India Company is more generous with its letters of marque."
"The Dutch renegades are traitors, with no authority to issue those letters."
"I'll pass on your opinion next time I'm in port, but I think they might disagree."
The matter was not worth arguing. The outcome would be decided by armies, not lone women prisoners. "What do you intend to do with me?"
His smile did not falter, but something else flickered in his eyes. Was it regret or depravity? "I'm sorry, but the life of a sailor is hard, lacking in amusement. We must make the most of whatever we find. I'm sure you understand."
"I understand that you do not deserve to be counted as men, and trust the demons of hell will make you pay for your crimes, once you improve this world, by leaving it. I can only pray this happens soon."
"Indeed. Praying is the only option available to you." Captain Williams nodded to the man holding Catalina's arm. "Take her, and the other one, below deck and keep them safe. And I mean that. No sneaking in a quick poke. We divvy up all loot fairly while I'm..."
The end of his words was lost in a roar of catcalls and whistles. More hands grasped Catalina, hauling her back through the doorway. It seemed as if half the pirates on ship were trying to squeeze into the narrow passageway.
Over the turmoil, Lucia screeched in Spanish. "You'll regret this, you will. She's on her way to be married. When Don Perez, finds out he'll make you sorry. He'll hunt you down and hang you...hang every last one..." Her cry ended in an incoherent wail.
Catalina looked up, to catch a last sight of God's clean sky. Would she see it again? Would she want to? The unwashed bodies of pirates pressed hard around her.
The blast of a gunshot made everyone freeze. Captain Williams was holding up his pistol. A halo of smoke drifted away behind him.
"Wait on a minute lads. Let's not be too hasty."
Catalina tugged herself free.
"This bridegroom of yours, would that be Don Miguel Perez of Veracruz?" Captain Williams evidently understood Spanish, although he continued in his native tongue.
"Yes, I'm betrothed to him."
"Ah." He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Well, I guess that changes everything."
"You're not scared of him, are you Cap'n?" someone called out.
"Oh no, not scared...never scared. It's just the only thing that gets my juices going more than a pretty woman, is a big pile of money." Calculations were running behind his eyes. "You're marrying a very, very rich man, you know."
Catalina did know. Half the silver leaving New Spain ran through Don Miguel's hands. It was the main reason her parents had agreed to the match, overlooking his less than impressive pedigree.
"How much do you think your husband would be willing to pay to get you back—completely intact, shall we say?"
"That would be your area of expertise. I've never held anyone for ransom."
Captain Williams threw back his head and laughed. "God's blood, you're a cool one. I'll say that for you."
"Cap'n, you saying we can't drill her?" A confused, plaintive voice in the crowd.
"Yes. That's just what I'm saying."
"How 'bout the other one?"
Catalina resisted the urge to look around. Was Lucia still on deck? The absence of a squeal might only mean she was not keeping up with the conversation.
"No. Best leave her alone too."
"Because we're going to send her with the ransom demand. If she's been humped to hell and back, Don Silverarse Perez will never believe his darling bride is untouched." Captain Williams' eyes never left Catalina.
"Think of how many whores you can buy with your share of the ransom. So just keep it in your breeches for a while."
"Or go complain to Ellis." The call from the back was greeted by more laughter.
"Karl, take Nick and Sam with you, and find somewhere safe for her ladyship and the maid. The rest of you, I don't want to see you anywhere near the ladies. Understand me?"
A grumble of agreement answered him.
Three pirates left the crowd and ushered Catalina and Lucia back down the passageway. Once again the muted underdeck swallowed them. Annoyingly, Catalina's legs chose now to start shaking, and nausea swirled in her stomach. She braced her hand against a wall, while fighting to regain her self-control.
The youngest of the pirates was a scrawny, tow-haired boy, who looked to be fourteen at most. His face had no trace of a beard. The oldest could have been a great-grandfather, and limped as he walked. Yet both were as blood splattered as everyone else. They had clearly played an active part in the fight. The last was the scarred man who had first dragged her out.
"Where are we going to put them?" the boy asked.
Scar-face pointed. "That's where I found them."
"Then might as well stick them back again." The oldest pirate pushed the cabin door open. "There you go."
Lucia rushed in, dived onto her bunk and pulled the blanket over her head. The chances of this being a successful hiding strategy were further reduced by her loud sobs.
Catalina tried to follow more sedately, but her legs had lost all strength. Why? It made no sense for her body to betray her now, when it seemed events would turn out favourably. Surely Don Miguel would pay her ransom. She just needed to hold herself together a while longer.
When she did not move quickly enough, Scar-face grabbed her shoulder and shoved her through the doorway. Without the bolstering from a flare of anger, Catalina would have fallen. The boy started to say something, but stopped. She turned and glared at the pirates. Scar-face smirked back at her. Only the boy had the grace to look ill at ease.
"We'll be standing guard out here," the elderly pirate said.
"I assure you, I've no plans to go anywhere." Did he think she would try to escape in the rowing boat?
"We'll get you some food once everything's sorted."
"Thank you." Although why should she thank the old man for returning goods he had just help steal?
Catalina watched the door close. Standing in the corridor outside, the blond boy was staring at her with wide open eyes, as if he had never seen a woman before.