I realize I’ve been tardy in getting The Following Sea finished, but life has this odd way of interfering. Things happen. Things fall apart. Things get put together again and just when you think they’ve been fixed, they fall apart again. No, that’s not supposed to make sense, just know that I am working very diligently to try to get the book finished soon. Very soon. As my little Valentine’s day giftie to all my loyal readers, here are the first two chapters. I do thank you for your patience and hope you can wait just a little bit longer
The Following Sea
Spanish Wells, November 1623
“You will tell me what I want to know, little puta.”
The words vibrated against her ear and sent cold shivers scratching down her spine. There was a frightening edge of pleasure in the huskiness of his voice, as if he was hoping she would remain stubbornly quiet. She suspected that he derived pleasure from the fear he instilled in others and she knew he would use it against her if her courage faltered by so much as a quivered breath. Determined to deny him, her teeth were set in a hard clench. Her fingers were curled around the cords of the ropes that were twisted around her wrist and draped over a low-hanging branch. The ropes had been pulled taut, forcing her arms apart and her body up onto the tips of her toes.
It had taken three of them to subdue her: two to drag her across the packed earth while she kicked and hissed and clawed at any exposed flesh. A third had punched her brutally across the jaw, rendering her dazed long enough for the ropes to be secured around her wrists and ankles. There were others standing in the darkness. Unseen faces, shapes without substance that watched and whispered from the shadows. Light from a guttering fire barely touched them, glinting instead off flashes of metal from pistol-barrels and swords.
She was the focus of their attention. Some sat cross-legged on the ground, others leaned indolently against the wall as if anticipating a long enjoyable process.
“You show courage, puta. Far more than is wise or necessary.”
The words were burdened under a heavy Spanish accent. The threat behind them was stark and needed no interpretation. Estevan Quintano Muertraigo had been the military commander of the port of Havana. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, he might have been considered handsome if not for the huge, misshapen portwine stain that covered the entire left side of his face. Marked thus from birth, he had compensated by honing a reputation for brutality that made grown men quake.
She had to close her mind to the terror and try to focus inward, to block out the voice… as well as the feel of the cold sliver of steel that was placed against the side of her neck.
The ferret-like eyes roved over her face, staring at the blood that ran down from her split lip. They moved on, glittering with interest when they touched upon the tiny tear at the top of her shirt.
“Tell me where the Wolf’s cub is, puta. Tell me the location of his camp.” He leaned close enough she could taste his breath. “Tell me and it will go easier on you, this I promise.”
“I told you, I don’t know. I was left behind and I don’t know where they have gone.”
“Left behind?” A thoughtful frown brought the point of the knife dragging downward to the rent in the garment. “Now you lie outright, puta, and that disappoints me very much.”
A deft twist of his wrist sent the steel sliding into the frayed seam on the collar of her shirt, slicing it open all the way down her back. As the cloth parted, the whispers and murmurings from the onlookers ended abruptly, leaving only the soft ssssssssssssss of the blade to fill the silence.
She drew a slow breath to calm the pounding in her breast. The blood was flowing hot and fast through her veins, flushing her skin a mottled pink even though the air was chilled where it touched her exposed flesh.
“Because I am in a generous mood, puta,” his lips scraped across her ear, “I will give you one more chance to tell me what I want to know.”
She steeled herself to keep from flinching. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
The dark eyes narrowed and studied her intently as he came around in front of her again. There was a hint of appreciation for the defiance he saw in the taut lines of her body, but it was not enough to keep the tip of the knife from sliding down to the waist of her breeches. It slivered through the cloth with a quick flick of his wrist then tore downward, following the slender curve of her hip to her thigh, then down to her ankle, leaving the moleskin split wide open.
She would have liked to kick out at her tormentor, to twist free of the ropes and run like the wind, but the bindings around her ankles had been looped around the rocks and pulled tight. Splayed and vulnerable, she could do little more than writhe and thrash her head, scattering her long blonde hair wildly over her shoulders and back.
Muertraigo smiled and with another downward slicing of the knife, cut through the other leg of her breeches until it too hung open over her pried-apart legs. He slid a hand between her thighs and stroked back and forth, watching the disgust, humiliation, and anger alter the expressions on her face as his fingers explored the sensitive flesh.
“So. You refuse to make this easier on yourself?”
She made a sound in her throat then spat the words free. “I told you, I don’t know where the camp is. It could be half a mile away, it could be ten miles away. I don’t know.”
Muertraigo’s eyes crinkled at the edges. “We all know something, my dear. And I can promise with some certainty that you will be screaming everything you know before the sands fall through the hour glass.”
“Then do your worst, capitan,” she whispered, lowering her eyes and squeezing out a tear. “For I have no knowledge beyond what I have told you already.”
The Spaniard chuckled low in his throat. “One should indeed be careful what one wishes for.”
He withdrew his hand and gazed at his fingers a moment, then lifted them to his nose and breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of her fear. Three quick slashes saw the rest of her clothes lying in a heap at her feet, causing the watchers in the shadows to offer up a collective murmur of appreciation. Her body was slender and pale, her breasts small but firm, crowned with soft pink nipples that had shivered into exquisite little peaks. The thatch of hair at the juncture of her thighs was softly curled yellow down. There was a small puckered scar over her ribs that had the look and shape of a bullet hole, but she was otherwise a flawless beauty.
Muertraigo walked another full, slow circle around her, his eyes lingering here and there, gauging, speculating. The look caused an involuntary reaction in her flesh, making her skin feel as if it was shrinking everywhere on her body.
The knife came up again and was used like a hand to caress her. It skimmed down the side of her neck and onto her chest following the stretched curve of her breast to push aside the tangled waves of her hair. A speculative grunt saw the point rest against the raised peak of one puckered nipple and, with a slight tilt of his head, he pressed the steel inward, dimpling the flesh until there was no more give.
Despite her resolve, a faint sound escaped her lips as the tip of the knife pressed again and the skin gave with a small pop. Almost instantly a small bead of blood welled and parted in twin rivulets to trickle down either side of the knife point.
“A pity to damage such perfection,” he murmured. “Are you certain you have nothing you wish to tell me?”
Muertraigo’s voice was smooth as silk, almost paternal in its concern, while hers came out a dry, scratchy whisper. “I know nothing more than what I have already told you. No matter how many times you ask, I cannot tell you what I do not know.”
He smiled and leaned close, breathing garlic and olive oil against her ear. “How I wish I believed you, puta, for it will be a shame to destroy something so… magnificent.”
He straightened and nodded to someone in the gloom. An iron rod had been placed in the fire, the tip glowing red. As the man lifted the rod from the flames and walked slowly forward, the silence became so ominous she could hear the tiny grains of sand beneath his boots cracking and grinding.
Muertraigo took the rod and brought the tip close enough to her cheek that the fine blonde hairs at her temple sizzled and melted.
“I had to take your father’s eye before he told me what I wanted to know. Shall we see if the same means of persuasion works for you?”
“No,” she whispered, her voice shaking as badly as her body. “Please.”
Muertraigo smiled…and brought the iron closer.
The Florida Straits
It had been a good day to die.
Gabriel Dante had convinced himself of this when he had been bound hand and foot to the rigging of his own ship. The Spaniards had captured the Valour and used her crew and captain as hostages in a battle that had appeared to be lost before it had ever begun. Flanked by two galleons bristling with cannon, laden with soldiers, the Spanish commander had led his small force into a confrontation with another of the Pirate Wolf’s ships: the Iron Rose. Gabriel and his crew had been tied to the shrouds and used as human shields against any attempts to attack or rescue. Spitting in the face of horrendous odds, his sister Juliet had ordered her ship and crew forward to what should have been certain doom.
Despite the hopelessness of their situation, Gabriel’s chest had swelled with pride as his men had hurled insults at their captors. Even when their Spanish captors had fired grapeshot into their midst, slicing them to shreds, the crew had not stopped jeering and baiting.
A good day to die with good men to die alongside him.
The words had been echoing in his head as Gabriel watched in amazement and disbelief as his sister brought the Iron Rose cutting in recklessly beneath the Valour’s guns to lay a full broadside into the hull. Timbers had splintered, guns had been blown off their carriages and Spaniards had screamed as bloody body parts flew through the air. The Spanish gun crews, unaccustomed to the design of the English mountings, had fired wild and wide, allowing Juliet Dante the precious seconds needed to ram the Valour.
While her crew launched a spider’s web of grappling lines to the Valour, a second Dante ship, the Avenger, had come streaking out of the clouds of smoke and sulphur to rake the Spaniards on the larboard beam and from one blink to the next, the tide had turned. The captors had become the captives. They had thrown down their arms and fallen to their knees begging for quarter.
Gabriel, bloodied from savage beatings and barely able to stand on his own, cheered alongside the survivors as they watched two more ships from the Dante fleet emerge from hidden ambush to slice across the turbulent waters and attack the hastily retreating escort galleons. Further along the miles of scattered islands, more ships, more privateers eager to engage the heavily laden ships of the Spanish treasure fleet, ran with the wind in their sails to win a resounding battle and declare a victory that would firmly entrench the day in legend.
When the smoke cleared, the survivors had been transferred off the crippled Valour and onto the Iron Rose. Simon Dante, the patriarch of the clan, had paced from one side of the great cabin to the other, his steps slow and measured, his head bowed, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. On each turn he glanced at the berth where the ship’s carpenter-cum-doctor was in the process of sewing a deep gash in Juliet Dante’s temple.
“Skull might be cracked,” Nog announced casually. “Nay doubt she’ll be hearin’ bells and walkin’ into walls the next few days, dizzy as a wench on a whirligig. Shoulder is blacker than Lucifer’s hoary arse too, but if she’s not plannin’ on t’rowin’ herself at any more Spaniards wearin’ steel breastplates, she should heal up nice.”
“She will have plenty of time to heal back at Pigeon Cay,” the Pirate Wolf declared. He saw his daughter’s eyes swim open and he narrowed his own in a warning. “There will be no arguments either. Your quartermaster has a hole in his ribs. Half your crew is licking wounds. Gabriel’s ship is bound for the bottom of the ocean and between the pair of you, we couldn’t manage one captain with enough common sense to know when to run and when to fight. Which brings me to the other demented female in this family.”
He turned the full power of his silvery blue eyes on his wife Isabeau, who was sitting on the corner of the desk winding a clean strip of bandaging around the stump of her left arm. She had lost half the arm in a battle several years earlier but the disability rarely slowed her down.
“That I, of all people,” Simon muttered, “should have been cursed with two addle-witted women who—”
“Love you dearly,” Isabeau said sweetly, “and tolerate your bouts of ill temper with enduring patience.”
“My ill temper? Your patience? Madam! You took my ship into battle! You risked your life, the lives of my crew, the well-being of my Avenger—”
“To go to the rescue of your daughter and your son.”
“To go to the…?” He stopped and clamped his jaw tightly shut. When he found the patience to loosen it again, he snarled. “I should send you back to Pigeon Cay in irons.”
Isabeau smiled. “You could certainly try.”
He muttered a curse and aimed the silvery glare at the next victim. The cabin on board the Iron Rose was crowded and he had plenty to choose from. Gabriel and his brother Jonas stood in one corner slouched against the wall, the former almost unrecognizable beneath a swollen, closed eye, multiple cuts and bruises, and lips that looked like two slabs of raw meat. Jonas had fared little better. He had a gash down his cheek, another on his arm; his hand was wrapped in a wad of linen and was cradled against his chest. A grin a mile wide split the red fuzz of his beard, however. His good arm was draped over Gabriel’s shoulders and every now and then, he ruffled his brother’s dark chestnut hair as if he still could not believe the Hell Twins were alive and together again.
“You find something amusing?” Simon asked.
“Aye, Father, I do,” Jonas boomed. “A brother who smells like a vat of pickled herring, for one thing. For another, a sister who has ballocks the size of Gibraltar, inherited from a mother who can outsail, outshoot, and outwit any bloody papist on the Main. Add to that two fat prize galleons loaded to the hatches with treasure, and I’d say we have a fair bit to put a smile on our faces. Oh, and did I mention a father canny enough to find the wife to give him the sons and daughter able to accomplish these feats?”
Simon glared at his eldest son a moment longer.
“Oh, do strut over here and sit down, my love,” Isabeau said, patting an empty corner of the desk beside her. “You’re as proud as a peacock and you damn well know it.”
“I will be prouder when we get these ships back to home port. There is still a fleet of Spanish galleons out in the Straits, any one or ten of them could come upon us at any moment. The Valour is sinking faster than we can offload her cargo.”
Jonas nodded. “Of the two galleons we captured, the strongest looks to be the Santa Maria, which will have to serve my little brother for the time being. At least until we get back home.”
Gabriel spoke up through a frown. “I have no intentions of returning to Pigeon Cay and even less of running before the wind. As you say, there is still half a plate fleet out in the Straits.”
Simon Dante shook his head. “We are all going home, Gabriel. Captain David Smith has already led a fleet of fifteen privateers north to blockade the exit from the Straits. More of the Brethren have been attacking in deadly skirmishes up and down the line, picking off the galleons and scattering the remnants of the flota. My guess is the ships that have been unscathed will turn tail and run back to Havana rather than risk further losses. Chances are we’ll not see another Spanish flag between here and Pigeon Cay.”
“From your lips to God’s ears,” Isabeau said quietly.
“God gave us a victory today,” Simon told her. “We should accept it with grace and not test His generosity.”
Two hours later the Santa Maria weighed anchor and unfurled her sails to catch the wind that would carry them south and east through the Providence Channel and home. Dawn was painting the horizon a watery pink and as Gabriel leaned on the upper rail, he drew a crisp, clean lungful of the salty air. All that remained of his beautiful Valour was a wide ring of iridescent bubbles marking the spot where she had given a final sigh before slipping to her silent grave in the deep blue waters. She had been a fearsome, spirited lady who never balked at a good fight whether the odds were in their favor or not. She had been sleek and fast and had flown over the waves like a seabird.
The galleon by contrast, swayed and creaked with every crest that rolled beneath her hull. She was heavy and awkward, hampered by square-rigged sails that sent her plowing into the trough of each wave like a lumbering sow. Gabriel had already set the carpenters to work on the Santa Maria’s yards and rigging in the hopes of improving her steerage, but there was nothing to be done about the towering fore and after castles that made her so unwieldy.
Gabriel had personally torn down the huge square of white silk emblazoned with the former capitan’s coat of arms. High on the main mast, the galleon now flew the distinctive flag in crimson on black that identified the ship as a prize of the Dante clan. The crew had set to work clearing the decks of debris and scouring the oak surfaces free of bloodstains. The gilded letters across the stern had been hastily covered with a sheet of black canvas upon which her new name, Endurance, was being painted in tall, bold characters. There was not an idle hand below or above decks, for each man knew the importance of becoming familiar with every aspect of the galleon, as well as the need to prime her for any potential trouble that might cross their path.
The former quartermaster, Riley, had died on board the Valour and Gabriel assigned one of his best gun captains to the position. Stubs MacLeish—so named because of the three half fingers on his left hand—was short and stout, with a face that resembled crumpled canvas. He had been in the thick of the fighting and half of the dark cropped curls on his head had been scorched off by an exploding shell, making him look like two different men, depending on which profile was in view. He had proudly assumed Riley’s place beside the captain, relaying each of the Dante’s orders with enough vigor to make Gabriel’s head pound like a drummers snare.
“Full and by, Stubs,” Gabriel ordered quietly. “Take us home.”
“Aye Cap’n!” Stubs formed a cup with his hands and shouted aloft. “Man the braces! Look alive there! Full an’ by, lads, full an’ by. We’re goin’ home!”
The men on the yards cheered as they strained on the lines, heaving and panting until the great sheets of canvas were unfurled and lashed to the rigging. The sails luffed like curtains in an open window until the wind became trapped and began to bell them forward. Lines were winched tight and whined like a throng of sin-eaters. The men heaved on the braces again and with sequential booms of thunder, the sails exploded full-bellied before the wind, curling out hard as marble.
The Endurance balked a moment, as if unsure of her new masters, but in the end, she responded and glided forward, groaning and creaking her way toward the southern horizon.
The distance of a pistol shot ahead, the Iron Rose was making similar headway. Off the starboard bow, the Avenger—carrying the Pirate Wolf and his wife Isabeau—and the Tribute, captained by Jonas Dante, were both surging forward, tall pyramids of white sail against the shocking blue of the sky.
“You have the helm, Stubs,” Dante said wearily. “Try to keep this beast apace with the others and on course. East by southeast until we reach the Providence Channel.”
“Aye Cap’n.” Stubs touched a finger to the melted stubble on the left side of his head, scowled a moment as he groped the singed patches, then cursed and turned his attention back to the setting of the yards.
Gabriel moved painfully across the deck and down the ladderway, ducking through the hatch and following a companionway into the stern where the captain’s quarters were located. As on most Spanish ships, the great-cabin was lavishly decorated in velvets and gilt, with ornately carved furnishings better suited to a royal brothel than a warship. The capitans were mostly figureheads, members of court who were appointed by the king and not accustomed to suffering the hardships and discomforts of common seamen. Most surrounded themselves with rich trappings from home, placing creature comforts well above practicality.
Directly overhead was a smaller, far less pretentious cabin assigned to the ship’s sailing maestro, the true commander of a galleon. Gabriel briefly debated abandoning all the crimson velvet and gold curlicues for simple wood and wool, but his knees had barely held up coming down the ladderway and he did not think it prudent to be seen crawling along the companionway on hands and knees.
Gabriel scanned the luxurious cabin with his one good eye and grimaced… a painful gesture which sent him searching hesitantly for a mirror. He spied one, cracked with battle damage, hanging over a porcelain washstand. He approached it with no small amount of trepidation, for his captors had applied both the lash and their fists, beating him savagely for three days and nights. His back and shoulders were whipped raw and if the widespread patches of black and blue flesh on his chest, arms, belly and legs were any indication, his face was likely just as grotesque.
Jonas often mocked his younger brother’s cavalier good looks saying there was no place for vanity on board a fighting ship. Bracing himself, Gabriel inched up to the mirror but the thing that stared back at him was even worse than he expected. His left eye was purple, swollen to the size of a small coconut, sealed shut with a crust of dried blood that had leaked from a deep cut across the eyebrow. His right eye was red with broken blood vessels, making the tarnished amber iris look inflamed. A second deep gash along his cheek puffed and distorted the square lines of his jaw. Lips that could normally make a wench lick her own in anticipation were split and scabbed. The long thick waves of chestnut hair were caked with blood and filth, and hung in dirty strings to his shoulders.
A wave of nausea swept through him. There was water in the pitcher and he poured some into the basin then took a square of linen and began to carefully wash away the layers of dried blood and grime. When he finished, there was not much of an improvement; he still resembled one of the gargoyles mounted on cathedral roofs to scare off the demons.
He tossed the cloth aside and looked around. He could not remember the last time he slept, and every muscle and sinew in his body was crying out for rest.
The Spaniard’s berth was no berth at all but an actual four-poster bed draped in a crimson canopy. Gabriel stared at it a moment, then went to the desk instead and began to sort through the piles of maps, charts, and logbooks that had been salvaged from the Valour.
He was interrupted once by the cabin boy, Eduardo, who brought in a tray laden with biscuits and cheese and heaps of cold mutton. There was a pot of broth too, which was steaming hot and coursed through Dante’s battered body with much-welcomed restorative powers. The Spanish capitan had had good taste in wine and after several goblets, with his belly full and his aches starting to go numb, Gabriel gave in to the temptation to rest his head on the desktop for a moment.
At some point he woke and found himself on the bed under a thickly quilted blanket. The cabin was dark save for a single glowing lantern that flickered above the desk, suggesting he had slept through the entire day. Since there were no sounds of gunfire or thundering footsteps overhead, he surmised their progress out of the Straits was steady and uneventful. His eye closed again and he buried his head in the feather bolster, letting the motion of the ship rock him gently back to sleep.