Chapter Two: La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Elizabeth thought something was wrong when she heard strange thuds and thumps coming from the deck above. The Countess peevishly asked, ''What in God's name is going on up there? I've a mortal ache in my head, b'Christ, and whatever games those damned sailors are playing, I'll see them hanged, I swear it!''
Elizabeth tried to sooth her mistress but only succeeded in irritating her further. The young maid was on her knees, trying to repair a ripped hem on one of Margaret's Court gowns. The elaborate dresses had been put away into the cargo hold, but the noble lady's strident, near hysterical insistence on having a gown suitable for meeting possibly important (and young and virile) Dutch merchants had driven First Officer Nesbitt into assigning two sailors the task of entering the hold and locating the Countess' trunks.
Finally, the Countess pushed Elizabeth away, deliberately driving her dainty foot into the maid's midsection. Ignoring Elizabeth's stifled whoop of pain, she snapped, ''Oh, get out! I'll finish it myself. Go up to the deck and see what's going on!''
Elizabeth left the cabin and began mincing up the ladder, nearly falling when she caught her skirt beneath her heel. Cracking open the hatch, her ears were immediately assailed by screams and barking gunfire.
Elizabeth poked her head up, consumed by an almost morbid curiosity despite her fear; the first thing that greeted her eyes through a haze of smoke was the face of the second mate leering at her sightlessly, blood trickling from a scorched hole in the middle of his forehead. With a shriek, Elizabeth toppled back down the ladder and landed with a thump on her backside.
Her mouth opened and closed a few times, heart hammering painfully in her chest. Visions of death and torture swirled through her fevered brain and she gasped for air, struggling to breathe against the wire-tight terror that gripped her entirely.
The Countess sidled out of the cabin, voluminous skirts rasping on the narrow walls of the small hallway. Catching sight of her maid sitting on the floor, she demanded to know what was wrong.
Elizabeth couldn't speak. Finally, the Countess gripped her by the back of the head with one hand and with the other dealt a stinging blow across the girl's face. ''Speak up, you pox cursed sow! What in God's name is happening up there?''
Elizabeth gulped, then burst into tears. ''Pirates! Oh, my lady, the pirates are attacking!,'' she squeaked.
For once, the Countess was nonplussed. She absently loosed her grip in Elizabeth's hair and paced quietly backwards until she reached her cabin. Fumbling for the doorknob, she managed to turn it and get the door open, then whirled inside and slammed it shut, dropping a stout oak beam into brackets and bracing her back against the wood. Her exquisite face was squeezed tight in a mask of fear; amethyst eyes filled with a mixture of terror and loathing.
Elizabeth somehow managed to get a grip on her emotions and rose to her feet, swaying inelegantly from side to side as she lurched to the relative safety of the cabin. When she found it was locked, she lost all control and began hammering on the door with her fist, crying and sobbing uncontrollably.
The Countess ignored the cries of her terrified maid... until she heard a man's voice barking, ''Aye, gents! Here's a prize indeed! And I'm the first, d'ye hear?''
Her eyes narrowed further as she waited for Elizabeth's screams. Despite herself, the Countess felt an almost sexual excitement beginning to blossom as she tried to imagine precisely what was going on in the corridor. She licked her lips and pressed her ear tightly against the door, hoping to hear the exact moment when the Great Gawk lost her precious maidenhead to a band of cutthroats.
She was thrilled right down to the tips of her rosy little toes at the prospect.
''Oh, no, please,'' she finally whispered, hands out in a futile gesture of denial.''Don't... please...''
One pirate looked at his mates and his grin widened. ''C'mon, mates. I won the toss fair an' square... I gets first try on the little filly, an' the rest o' ye can take seconds and thirds.''
''Dinnae worry,'' said a nut-brown man with a Scottish brogue, hitching up his ragged trousers. ''I'll find a tight hole in her if I have ta make it myself!''
The men roared with laughter and their eyes glinted with anticipation.
Elizabeth did the only thing she could do... she threw her head back and screamed.
Despite the valiant efforts of the merchant crew, Graciela and her pirate band swept through the defenders easily. The surprise had been total; the British captain hadn't had any idea of their true identity until the Quartier was already drawn up alongside The Queen's Grace. By then, it had been too late. Grappling irons ensured that the Britisher couldn't escape; the Quartier's crew stormed across hastily erected boarding planks and took over the ship with no casualties and minimal injuries.
Graciela swiped at her face with the back of her hand; sooty with gunpowder and wet with blood from a superficial cut on her forehead, she was a fearsome sight. The survivors of the attack were gathered on the foredeck, some weeping and some stoic, but all awaiting their fate at the hands of the pirate captain.
Seven-Finger Harry, Graciela's quartermaster, hurried up on deck. The wizened old man had been down in the hold taking inventory. ''Cap'n!,'' he called, hastening to her side. ''I thought you'd want to know; the manifest lists two passengers...''
''Later, Harry,'' Graciela said, waving him away. ''What about the cargo?''
''Cap'n...'' He leaned closer and whispered, ''They're women.One's a Countess.'' He waited for a reaction and smiled toothlessly when he got it.
Graciela's pale blue eyes narrowed and she quickly counted heads. ''Where's Black Michael, James Rawlins and Gerry-Boy?''
Harry shrugged. ''Ain't seen 'em since we boarded.''
Graciela gripped her cutlass until the hilt creaked and her teeth ground together in rage. ''Mierda!,'' she spat. ''Those bastards! Get some men, Harry, and find them afore they damage valuable hostages!''
Just then, a woman's shrill scream reverberated up through the deck, sounding like the eerie wail of a banshee.
Graciela barked, ''Harry! Miguel! Caspar Marlin! Jack Dark! Get your arses below and fetch me those passengers! And if those three sons of bitches give you any trouble, you can carve out their livers and lights for all I care! Now, move!''
The men she'd picked went below. They returned soon escorting their sullen crewmates... and two women.
Graciela stalked over to the three unrepentant pirates. ''Well?,'' she asked, hands on her hips, eyes flashing with icy rage. ''Didn't feel like obeyin' orders, eh?''
Black Michael looked down at his captain and shrugged. ''Finders keepers,'' he replied.
Immediately, Graciela drove a fist into his face, grinning with satisfaction at the feel of bone crunching beneath the powerful blow. She stood over Black Michael, who lay on the deck, dazed and bloodied. ''That's for disobeyin' orders, you scurvy bastard!'' She stared at the other two men until they dropped their gazes to the deck. ''Well, now.'' Graciela stepped away from Black Michael and said to Miguel in a voice loud enough to be overheard by the entire crew, ''That's ten lashes apiece, no grog ration for a fortnight, and they forfeit their share of the cargo.''
Gerry-Boy, a slender youth with doe eyes and wet, liverish lips, opened his mouth to protest, then thought the better of it when Graciela cocked an eyebrow in his direction.
Graciela waited a moment to be sure she was understood and the lesson driven home. ''All right, gentlemen,'' she said at last. ''Get back over to the Quartier and make yourselves ready for Gunner Jim's lash. Jack Dark, you and Caspar Marlin hold their hands and make sure they don't get lost.''
The other pirates guffawed at this crude jest, and the three disobedient men were marched away by their crewmates to await a buccaneer's rough justice.
Graciela turned back to the waiting Seven-Finger Harry. The old man had a hand wrapped around the upper arms of two young women; one of them, a honey-haired beauty wearing a sumptuously embroidered dress, aimed a kick at her captor, and was rewarded with Harry's heavy boot flicking up and thumping her solidly on the shin.
''I am Margaret, Countess of Moresby,'' the woman shrilled, trying to twist out of Harry's grip without success; Seven-Finger might have been old but he was more than a match for the soft, young Countess. ''Release me at once, God damn you!''
Graciela dismissed the obviously spoiled and arrogant Countess from her mind; as long as she was confined to a cabin and guarded well against predators - namely, the captain's crew - she was worth at least a small fortune in ransom money. Although she was beautiful, possibly the most beautiful woman Graciela had seen in a long, long time, the idea of having any sort of relationship, beyond the absolutely necessary, made the pirate captain wrinkle her nose in disgust.
The other woman, however... she was unimportant, merely a servant. Or so Graciela thought, until she truly looked at the unusually tall maid dressed in a simple, dark gray gown.
She was clearly younger than the Countess; tall, stoop shouldered, an expression of utter misery and resignation on her tear stained face. Her loosened red-gold hair blazed like a bonfire in the sunlight, suddenly transforming her from a very pretty girl into a woman of heart-stopping beauty.
Graciela studied the young girl, every detail making her heart pound faster. Rounded bosoms, small waist curving to luscious hips, that utterly glorious hair... even her height made Graciela lick her lips unconsciously and shift on her feet. She'd always been attracted to taller women, and this one - with tiny freckles on her nose, b'God! - looked to be a mouth-watering handful. No, Graciela decided. This delicious prize would NOT be used and abused by her men... let them suffer until they reached port.
Graciela would use her not inconsiderable charm and woo this lovely maid into her bed.
That mouth-watering expanse of ivory flesh... that fiery hair... those full, berry-ripe lips would be conquered and consumed with all the flame-bright passion at Graciela's command. It wouldn't be the first time, and the prospect of ravishing the maid until she begged for release made Graciela's mouth turn dry.
She stalked over to the red-head, totally conscious of the deck beneath her boots, the dried blood crusting on her face, the warmth of the sunlight and the waning smell of gunpowder. The pirate captain was at her most dashing and debonair, and well she knew it.
Graciela swept the hat from her head and bowed deeply to Elizabeth, saying, ''Good morning, fair lady!,'' then reached out and grabbed the girl's lax hand, raising it to her lips for a lingering kiss.
She didn't quite get the reaction she expected.
Elizabeth burst into tears and the Countess spat in the crown of Graciela's hat.
Graciela stood stock still, smile frozen on her face. Finally, she said through gritted teeth, ''Take the blonde bitch to the Quartier, Miguel, and assign some men to guard her. The other...'' She hesitated, then turned her back and added casually, ''Have the other one taken to my cabin.''
Miguel grinned in understanding. ''Aye, aye, cap'n!,'' he said cheerfully, reaching for both women.
Graciela continued to stare into space until the sound of the pretty red-head's weeping and the Countess' screams of rage had faded. Once both women were aboard the Quartier, she said to Seven-Finger Harry, ''Hurry up with that inventory, m'lad. I want to the cargo transferred and us away from this damned Britisher as soon as possible.''
Harry nodded and scurried away.
Graciela strode to the rail and, with a rueful grimace, dropped her hat into the ocean.
''Aye... the sooner we're underway, the sooner Miss
Flamehair and I can get properly acquainted,'' Graciela said softly to
herself... and her lips stretched into the feral grin that had earned her the
nickname of the She-Wolf of the Caribbean.