Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is the sequel to A Pirate's Treasure.
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Heads turned in Meg's direction and the conversation died as she lurched through the door into the smoke-wreathed bar of The Catt and Fiddle. Eyes widened as the regulars took in her battered appearance.
"Best not let Murdering Meg catch you staring," muttered someone. "She'll have your eyes out, and that's on a good day!"
The heads quickly turned away again.
"Over here, Captain!" came Mostyn's voice from the corner. The Kestrel's grizzled quartermaster was sitting at a table with Coke and two of her crewmen.
She raised a hand to acknowledge his hail and weaved between the tables and chairs towards him.
As she pulled out a stool and sat, the gaunt sailing master pushed the jug of rum punch towards her. "Look like you could use some of this, Captain."
"Thanks but no, Mister Coke." She shook her head and instantly regretted it as the throbbing intensified. "I have not the stomach for Kill-Devil." She focussed on not being sick. Not that there could be much left to throw up; she had puked up her guts twice already on the run from her house to the harbour-front tavern.
"Your head's bleeding." Mostyn frowned. "What happened?"
"Cut throats, five of them. Must have known it was the maid's day off. They stove in my front door and tried to stave in my skull too." She was lucky they had been content to use their cudgels rather than their cutlasses. "They took Mistress Digges." She kept her voice steady with an effort
The younger and beakier-nosed of the two sailors leaned forward. "She could still be in hiding—"
"What kind of fool d'ye take me for, Killigrew?" snarled Meg. "Think you I did not tear the house apart searching for her?"
When she had awoken on the floor of her drawing room hours after the attack, her head splitting, she had known at once that Alice was gone—the quality of the silence, perhaps. But she had checked the kitchen and upstairs chambers anyway. As she had feared, no Alice emerged from the shadows, smiling in the way that made Meg's heart sing.
Killigrew reddened and sat back. An uneasy silence fell, then Coke cleared his throat and ventured, "But what can they want with her, Captain?"
The memory of Alice's face, cheeks ashen, eyes wide with fear, made Meg's stomach churn. "'Tis surely someone's attempt to even the score with me."
The other sailor, Teach, gave her a nervous glance and gulped his rum before speaking. "No Tortuga man would harm a fellow Brethren of the Coast, Captain."
The quartermaster shook his head. "If the rewards were high enough he might."
"And risk word getting back, Mister Mostyn?" Teach's thick eyebrows rose. "'Tis too small an island for news of such treachery not to spread and fast."
"Ay," said Meg thoughtfully. "Which means the rogues are outsiders."
Killigrew licked his lips. "Could it be the Dutchman?"
She gave him a sharp look. "What makes you think 'tis him, sir?"
That 'sir' encouraged him. "The Evening Star was moored here earlier. Alas, she weighed anchor two hours ago."
The Evening Star was Pieter Hendricksz's brigantine. And Hendricksz's base was Port Royal not Tortuga. The timing was right too. Meg frowned. "But why would the Dutchman—"
"His men were in here earlier," broke in Mostyn. "I heard them talking. A Jamaican sugar planter has promised them a hefty sum. What the nature of their commission is, though—" He shrugged.
A revelation left Meg feeling winded. "For the love of God!"
All eyes were on her.
"'Tis Thomas Digges, lads. It must be." She sighed. "He's paid to get his daughter back."
"Ow!" said Meg. "Hold that lantern closer, Killigrew, so the Surgeon can see what he's doing."
The sailor obliged but it made little difference.
"'Sblood, but that bodkin of yours is blunt, Mister Avery!"
"Nearly done, Captain. Another stitch ... There." He bit off the thread and stood back to admire his handiwork. Then he patted her on the shoulder. "'Tis lucky you have so rock hard a skull. That blow should have killed you." He busied himself stowing needle and twine in his surgeon's chest.
She grunted and glanced up at the bellying topsails then astern to where the turtle-backed silhouette that was Tortuga was receding into the distance. Coke was at the helm and he had set the Kestrel's course west southwest, hugging the coast of Hispaniola before leaving the shelter of coastal waters and venturing out into the Windward Passage. At this time of year, the trade winds would sweep them to Jamaica at top speed, but that wouldn't help much.
"The Evening Star has half a day's head start." Meg balled her hands into fists. "God rot Hendricksz! If he so much as touches a hair on her head...."
"Digges will have stipulated she must be returned unharmed," soothed Mostyn, who had come up beside her.
Meg thumped her fist on the rail. "Plague take Digges and his poxy sons too!"
She should have known the old man wouldn't take the theft of his daughter and her dowry lying down. Alice's purpose in life was to seal the contract between Digges and a business partner back in Bristol, but Meg and Alice had had other ideas. She could kick herself. She had felt safe on Tortuga, let her guard down, and it was Alice who was paying the price.
Sailors busied themselves all about her, manning the Kestrel's ropes or scrambling up the rigging barefoot. She had expected problems mustering a skeleton crew at such short notice, for the gist of the Kestrel's articles was clear: "No prey, no pay" and the coins were meagre and coming from Meg's own pocket. But to her relief more than enough men had volunteered. Indeed some seemed only too eager to escape wives and whores that had apparently started nagging them after a mere week in port.
Familiarity breeds contempt indeed, thought Meg with wry amusement.
The quartermaster and sailing master clearly had everything under control, so there was nothing for her to do except twiddle her thumbs for a day and a half while the Kestrel covered the 300 miles to Port Royal. Which was a mixed blessing, as keeping busy would surely help to keep her from dwelling on Alice's plight.
With an irritated shake of the head she pushed aside the disquieting thoughts that had been her companion since she discovered Alice was gone.
Maybe sleep would help ease this pounding in my skull. "I'll be in my cabin, Mister Mostyn."
"Ay, Captain," he said. "Sleep well."
There was no sound from the quarter boat apart from the muffled swish of oars as it made its way between other vessels, which at this hour were little more than dark silhouettes with riding lights hanging from their rigging. Ahead, in the deeper section of the harbour, lay the brigantine that was their quarry, bobbing at anchor. As they drew closer, Meg skinned both eyes and ears, but there was no sign of activity on board the Evening Star.
The fox and his chicken have flown the coop.
She had to make sure before she went haring off to Digges's sugar plantation though. There was the faint possibility some other planter was behind Alice's abduction, though what his motive could be the Lord alone knew. There was also the fact, she conceded with an internal wince, that she'd rather not go back to the plantation if she could avoid it. To say it held bad memories was something of an understatement.
"Steady, lads," she whispered, as they closed on their target. " A little more to port. That's it. Rest your oars."
They came to rest alongside the brigantine's hull with barely a whisper. Meg held her breath and listened but heard only the slap of water, the creak of rigging, and distant, raucous voices carrying across the harbour. At this time of night Port Royal's streets and alleyways would be packed with those seeking entertainment at the taverns and brothels that were springing up everywhere.
"Killigrew, Teach," she murmured. "With me. The rest of you stay here."
Meg reached for the grappling iron then stood up, compensating automatically as the boat rocked under her. She let fly and a second later heard the barbs thud home. A tug on the rope satisfied her it was secure. Checking that her loaded flintlock was tucked safely in her belt, she took a firm grasp on the rope and hauled herself up it, hand over hand. It was hard work that made her head ache more than it already did, and she was soon out of breath. Before peering over the rail, she paused and listened for signs of activity. Was that the faint slap of cards on the deck and the murmur of men's voices?
The night watch. Preoccupied by the sound of it. Which meant she was able to slip on board without discovery and explore her surroundings.
Moments later the silent shapes that were Killigrew and Teach joined her, and she pointed to the open hatchway from which the voices were coming. She mimed instructions and received nods of comprehension in return. When they were in position she drew her cutlass and stepped boldly through the hatchway door.
"Well, well. What have we here?"
The three men playing cards in the lantern light looked as if they'd seen a ghost. One let out an oath, grabbed for his cutlass, and sprang to his feet.
"Steady," warned Meg.
Her men emerged from the shadows, pistols cocked. The card players froze.
"Murdering Meg, at your service." She gave them a mock bow, lifting her head in time to see the exchange of panicked glances. "You've heard of me? Good. Now. I'll wager you know already that your Captain has taken something that belongs to me. Something precious." She scowled and they took a nervous step back. "So we can do this easy or hard. Hard involves skinning you alive." She brandished her cutlass and heard audible swallows. "Which is it to be, lads?"
"E...Easy?" suggested the plump man with the plaited beard.
"A man of good sense. Excellent. Then answer me this. Where is the Dutchman, and where is the young woman he stole from me?"
"Ashore," he answered at once. His companions nodded.
"Ay." He glanced at the others. "He's taking her to some sugar plantation that lies between Port Royal and the Blue Mountains."
"Thomas Digges's place?" The location sounded right.
He shrugged. "Never heard the name."
"Nor I," said the skinny man with the scar on his temple. "'Tis the woman's father, though. That much I know."
Meg sighed. It looked like she'd have to face her unpleasant memories after all. "How long ago did they go ashore?"
The three men looked at one another, then the grubby one with the eye patch who had remained silent until now said, "Five hours ago, mayhap?"
His friends nodded. "Ay. About that."
"Plague take him. ... Oh, don't look so worried, lads. I may not like your answer, but I won't kill you for it." She nodded to Teach and Killigrew. "That concludes our business here. Let's go."
And with that she returned to the quarter boat.
Meg elbowed her way up the street, ignoring the oaths and exclamations that followed her. The quarter boat was on its way back to the Kestrel, having dropped Meg and her two companions ashore. Mostyn was in command of the ship now, with orders to give her two days before coming after her. If she wasn't back by then, something had gone seriously wrong.
"Where are we going, Captain?" asked Teach, as they hurried past a gunsmith's, an ivory turner's shop, and a door bearing a chirurgeon's brass plate.
"There's a livery stable here somewhere. We need horses," she explained. "'Tis a goodly ride to Digges's estate."
Thick eyebrows drew together at the prospect. "You know it?"
"Ay," she muttered. "For my sins."
The livery stable when they found it was closed and no amount of shouting or battering on the doors could rouse the lad in charge. Meg used her cutlass to force open a window, slipped inside, and unbolted the doors. They found the stable lad curled up on a heap of fresh hay, snoring loudly and smelling of rum. Killigrew tried to wake him but couldn't. Meg rolled her eyes, dropped a handful of silver reales on the boy's chest, then set about selecting and saddling a horse. The two crewmen sighed and did likewise. Around them the stable's occupants snorted, huffed, and moved restlessly in their stalls.
At last, the horse tacked to her satisfaction, Meg put her booted foot in the stirrup, mounted up, and guided it through the open doors. Outside, she waited, soothing her mount and trying to still her own impatience, for Teach and Killigrew to appear. When they did so she beckoned.
"With me, lads," she called, and dug in her heels. "Ha!"
Dawn was breaking, the bats flittering back to their roosts, the dawn chorus of parrots, finches, and parakeets well underway, when they emerged from the forest that bordered the Digges estate. Meg reined her mount to a halt and gave the cloud-covered tops of the Blue Mountains to the northeast a wistful glance. She had removed her doublet, but her shirt and breeches were sticking to her and she was missing a stiff sea breeze. Teach and Killigrew didn't look much better. They were redfaced and, from their constant shifting about, saddle sore.
A pineapple plant stood close by. Meg cut off the ripest looking of the fruits with her cutlass, sliced off the ridged skin, then bit into the tart, juicy flesh. When she'd quenched hunger and thirst, she handed what was left to Teach and Killigrew and wiped her sticky fingers on her breeches.
Blocking out the sounds of their slurping and chewing, she pondered which way to go. It would be best to avoid the manager's house, the workshops, and the street of shacks where the slaves and indentured servants lived. Not that many were likely to recognise her as the young white woman who had vanished in such mysterious circumstances five years ago.
The sugar works should be deserted at this time of day.
"This way." She turned the horse west onto a rutted track that skirted an area of recently harvested sugar cane. Teach and Killigrew threw away what was left of their pineapple and followed.
As she rode, memories mobbed her like unwelcoming ghosts, and when the sugar works came into sight she broke into even more of a sweat. The mill's massive iron rollers, powered by two oxen, had crushed a man's arm once, she remembered with a shudder. Their incessant rumble still sometimes invaded her dreams. And as she rode past the boiling sheds, she remembered the stinking heat of the interior, where workers scooped scum off the cane juice kept seething in the great kettles.
Those certainly had not been the 'good old days'! And yet, if she hadn't come to this hellhole she would never have met Alice and found to her delight that her feelings for the pretty young planter's daughter were reciprocated.
I'll get her back if 'tis the last thing I do!
"Where do they make the rum?" asked Killigrew, looking around. She pointed to the still house. He sniffed and looked unimpressed.
They left the mill complex behind, and rode past several fields of cane awaiting harvesting, then started up the hill that overlooked the plantation. Its lower slopes were densely wooded and as they wound their way between the tree trunks, Meg caught occasional glimpses of the great wooden house that was her destination. Alice's father had spent a small fortune carting in the seasoned timber needed to build it—nothing but the best for the Digges family.
He'd made several changes to the house and its environs, she saw, as the trees dwindled. The copse of lignum vitae to the east had gone for a start. She used to hide there, waiting for Alice to sneak down from her bedchamber—they had shared their first kiss there among the lavender-coloured blossoms.
The sky was growing brighter by the minute, and smoke was curling up from one of the chimneys. The servants must be up and about, getting the house and its inhabitants ready to face another day. As they'd seen no sign of the Dutchman on the way here, she presumed he had stayed overnight, enjoying Digges's hospitality. She rested her hand on the hilt of her cutlass and imagined slitting his throat, then sighed, reined her horse to a halt, and dismounted.
Teach and Killigrew halted too and looked down at her.
"On foot from here on, lads."
"Ay, Captain." They dismounted at once, clearly glad to give their aching backsides a rest.
Leaving the horses tethered to a branch, they slunk towards the servant's entrance, taking advantage of the natural cover when they could, sprinting when they couldn't. At last they reached the back door.
Teach drew his pistol, but Meg shook her head and put a finger to her lips. He shoved the flintlock back in his belt, and drew his cutlass instead.
Drawing her own cutlass, she eased through the door into the kitchen. A pretty young maid gasped at her entrance and took a step back. From the empty jugs lined up on the table, and the kettle of water hanging over the roaring hearth, she was heating water for the morning wash.
"Steady now," soothed Meg, giving the girl her most charming smile. "I won't harm you. My business is with the master of the house."
"Is it indeed?" The maid jumped as Teach and Killigrew appeared.
"Leave your work and sit over there." Meg indicated a chair, and after a moment the girl took it.
As Meg sheathed her cutlass, and told her men to do the same, the tension in the room eased perceptibly. She turned her attention back to the maid.
"What's your name?"
"Annie Chapman. What's yours?"
The spirited reply made Meg's lips quirk. "Margaret Etherege. But you may call me Meg." There was no recognition in those dark eyes, but then the girl had obviously taken up her employment with the Digges household after Meg left. "Tell me, Mistress Chapman," she continued, "did your employer have any visitors last night?"
The maid cocked her head while she considered, then gave a little shrug and a nod.
"Was one of them his daughter?"
She gave another nod.
"Ah!" Meg didn’t care whether her relief was obvious. "And where is Mistress Digges now?"
"Locked in her bed chamber."
He's taking no risks. "Is it still at the back? On the second floor? By the privy?"
The maid blinked at Meg. "Yes. But how—"
"The man who brought her here, the buccaneer. Was he alone?"
"No. He had a man with him. Shared a bedchamber last night, they did. Servant's quarters should've been good enough for the likes of them but—" She sniffed her disdain then glanced at the kitchen clock and frowned. "Mister Digges'll be wanting his hot water!"
"Let him wait."
Footsteps were approaching along the passageway and Meg signalled to Teach and Killigrew. They pressed their backs to the wall, and waited, cutlasses at the ready.
An old man in butler's garb stepped through the open door. He stopped at the sight of Meg, his face going ashen. "Good God!" Then Teach and Killigrew stepped into view and he went even paler.
"And a good day to you too, Mister Phillips," said Meg. "Come in, come in." She beckoned. Reluctantly he shuffled further into the kitchen and Teach pushed the door closed behind him.
Meg saw the butler glance at Annie. "Unharmed, as you see, sir. Only those who stand in my way will get hurt. I've come for Mistress Digges. "
"I knew Mister Digges should not have done it," he muttered. "Dragging her back here against her will. But he would have her, come hell or high water."
"Hell, undoubtedly," said Meg grimly, "if he won't return her to me."
He threw her an exasperated glance. "You know he will not. You hit him where it hurts, Mistress Etherege. In his pride."
"His pocket, more like. And if anyone deserved it, it was Thomas Digges. Not to mention those fine, upstanding sons of his. How stands the tally of those they have got bastards on these days?"
Phillips winced. "'Tis true they have no manners and no scruples."
"Like father, like son."
He gave her an owlish look. "You're a fine one to talk of scruples! Stealing his daughter and her dowry—"
"Oh!" Annie eyes widened. "You're that Meg!"
Meg ignored her. "Think you Mistress Digges was unwilling when I took her from the Bristol, sir? I swear to you she was not. She viewed it as rescue from an unwelcome marriage."
"Ask her if you doubt me. She was exceeding unwilling to go with the Dutchman, however! ... Oh. Did I not mention him? His men broke into our house on Tortuga, stole her, and near cudgelled my brains out. And now, sir, he is your employer's honoured guest!" Recounting recent events had made her angry, and she took a moment to regain control. "Digges loves his daughter only for the money and influence she can bring."
"I know." Phillips raised his hands and let them fall. "But what can I do?"
"Help me get her back."
He shook his head. "My allegiance must be to my employer."
Meg glared at him but saw he would not budge. But he was an honourable man, in his way, and she would not harm him for it. "As you wish. But stay out of my way while I get her back myself. " The butler hesitated then gave her a slow, grudging nod. It would have to do.
She turned to Teach and Killigrew. "Stay here and keep an eye on these two. I'm going to get Mistress Digges." The route to Alice's bedroom was branded into Meg's memory.
"What if someone should see you and raise the alarm?" asked Teach.
"Digges and his sons are still abed. And if any of the servants—" She shrugged. "I'll take my chances. I doubt they will intervene."
She cut him off with a slicing gesture. "Enough. There is no more time to be lost. If you hear a commotion, come to my aid."
Killigrew elbowed his shipmate into silence. "Ay, Captain, we will," he said. "Good luck."
Meg could hear the sobs even through the thickness of the door. She balled her hands into fists. They'll pay for making Alice weep.
The key was missing, so she drew her cutlass and set to work, digging the sharp edge into the area around the lock. Inside the bedchamber the sobs faltered then stopped, and she sensed its inhabitant listening intently. Wood chips and splinters showered the toes of her boots as she dug and hacked, until at last the door gave. With an impatient grunt she hurled her full weight against it and lurched through.
"Meg!" Alice flew at her. She was wearing an unflattering nightgown, and her eyes were red with crying, but to Meg she had never looked more beautiful. "I thought you were dead!" cried Alice, clinging to her as though she meant never to let her go again. "You were bleeding so!" She seemed torn between smiling and bursting into yet more tears.
"Shh! You'll wake the household." Meg stroked Alice's hair. "It takes more than a cudgel to put Murdering Meg out of action, my dear." She kissed Alice soundly on the lips then pulled back and gave her a grin.
Alice smiled at her in return, but then her smile faltered. "We must leave here at once, Meg. Before my father learns of your presence."
"Ay. Come, my—"
"You told me she was dead!" came an angry bellow from the landing.
"By heaven!" muttered Meg as Thomas Digges appeared in the doorway of Alice's bedchamber. The planter's grey hair was in disarray and his nightgown bulged over a belly even more prominent than the one she remembered.
"My men told me she was," said his companion, moving into view. He was a strikingly handsome man, as tall as Digges was short, with flowing brown hair and a neat moustache in the latest style. Muscled shoulders and biceps filled out his doublet and shirt, and a cutlass hung at his belt. "Did you not, Cawthorne?"
"We thought she was, Captain," came a man's voice from the landing. "Truly, we did."
"You must be the Dutchman," said Meg. "Margaret Etherege, at your service, sir. ... And my profound apologies for not being dead!"
"No apology is necessary, madam. And I am indeed he." Hendricksz grinned at her, a gold front tooth winking.
Meg urged Alice behind her and raised her cutlass. "Now if you'll have the goodness to step aside and let us through, gentlemen."
"Damned if I will!" said Digges.
"Damned if you won't." She took a step towards him, and he flinched and scuttled sideways, leaving her facing Hendricksz alone.
Meg halted and arched an eyebrow. "'Tis not your fight, Dutchman. Let us pass and I'll think no more of your part in this affair."
He pursed his lips then gave a nod. "As you wish." He prepared to move out of her way.
"Not so fast," came Thomas Digges' indignant voice. "I paid you to kill this... perversion, Hendricksz." Her father's words made Alice suck in her breath. "So do it, or I'll take my coins back!"
"Have a care, old man." Hendricksz turned his head to growl at the unseen planter. "No one speaks to me so and lives to tell the tale."
There was a tense silence, then Digges continued, "I meant no disrespect, sir." He sounded scared. "But you can surely understand the source of my dissatisfaction. For the terms of our agreement—"
At that Hendricksz gave his employer a crooked smile. "'Tis true that one particular clause remains unfulfilled." His head snapped round to face Meg once more. "Which, alas, forces my hand." He made her a mock bow. "My apologies, Mistress Etherege, but I have my reputation to think of."
He drew his cutlass, and as he did so Alice cried out, "Meg!"
Meg sighed and braced herself. "Fear not, my dear. For the Dutchman has his reputation... but so do I." She cocked her pistol and pressed it into Alice's shaking hands. "Take this."
"Now stand clear." Gently but firmly she urged Alice to one side.
The Dutchman grinned at Meg, stepped into the bedchamber, and closed with her at once.
That first encounter nearly cost her dearly. His reach was longer than Meg's, his strength greater, so that parrying his blade left her feeling both bruised and winded. After a little while, though, by mutual consent, they paused to recover their breath. She glanced at her bleeding right wrist—it was sheer luck he hadn't sliced through the tendon, or worse—and glanced at him.
"You're no match for me." He gave her a wolfish smile.
"We'll see about that!" Sparks flew as they engaged once more.
Up and down Alice's bedchamber they fought, lunging and grappling, slashing and hacking, jumping from floor to bed to dresser to floor again. Costly bedlinen tore under boot heels, candlesticks and precious ornaments went flying, and cuts and gouges marred furniture that had been shipped all the way from England at huge expense.
Hendricksz managed a glancing slash across Meg's right biceps. She clapped her left hand to the stinging cut then examined the blood on her palm. The wound wasn't deep. It annoyed her more to see the mess his blade was making of the shirt Alice had sewed for her.
The fight continued. Several times she tried to get behind him so she could hamstring him, but each time she failed. Then a moment's inattention saw Meg catch her heel in the bed linen and lose her balance. With a triumphant roar the Dutchman threw himself at her, but before his cutlass could strike the fatal blow a chamber pot sailed out of nowhere, struck his sword arm, and smashed into the wall. (The pot had been empty, fortunately.)
"Why, you—" Enraged that the distraction had enabled Meg to regain her balance, twist his sword arm away from her, and escape, he turned and swiped at Alice, who shrieked and only just got out of the way of the razor edge in time.
"Coward!" cried a horrified Meg. "Dog!" Then, to Alice, "To the door, my dear, and quickly." For now Alice had abandoned her neutrality Hendricksz would see her as fair game.
But Alice hesitated and when Meg glanced round to see why, she saw a nightgown-clad figure blocking the doorway, watching the fight with his arms folded over his fat stomach and a smirk on his face. Just then, two new figures appeared on either side of Digges.
Dudley and Titus. Meg's stomach churned. Devil take them!
Alice's shriek cut through Meg's paralysis. Some instinct made her duck and roll and the Dutchman's blade slashed through the space where her neck had been moments earlier. The hairs on the nape of her neck stood up. That was close!
"'Sblood, but you have the luck of the Devil!" he cried.
Meg bared her teeth at him. "And a miss is as good as a mile, they say." She glanced to where a now ashen-faced Alice had taken refuge in a corner. "The pistol, Alice. If he goes for you again—"
The other woman gave the heavy flintlock a doubtful glance and said, "But I don't think I—"
"You can," bellowed Meg. "Just aim and pull the trigger!"
From his expression, this byplay was amusing to Hendricksz, but she ignored him and glanced towards the door again, to check that Digges's sons had no intention of meddling in the fight. She blinked in surprise. The three men had vanished, and in their place Teach and Killigrew now leaned against the doorjamb, arms folded, relaxed grins on their faces.
Teach gave her the thumbs up. "All shipshape, Captain." He brandished his flintlock and looked at Hendricksz. "Shall I—"
She grinned at him but shook her head. "No, we'll fight this one fair, but you may protect Mistress Digges. ... Alice." She gestured at the younger woman and then pointed towards the door. "Take cover." Keeping one wary eye on the Dutchman, a visibly relieved Alice scurried to safety.
Now all Meg had to do was worry about herself. She turned to face her opponent, who was breathing hard and sweating as much as she was. "I grow weary of this," she called. "Let's finish it."
Hendricksz grinned, but this time there was no humour in it. "My pleasure."
He raised his cutlass and rushed her. For a moment they strained to and fro, then Meg pretended to give way and, in that instant when he was offbalance, ducked under his guard, straightened, and brought her knee up, hard.
Any normal man would have clasped both hands round his crushed genitals, but Hendricksz was made of sterner stuff, and though his expression was pained, he not only held on to his cutlass but brought it round in a sweeping cut, that would have severed her backbone had she still been standing there. She wasn't. She'd dropped to her knees, lurched forward between his legs, and given the back of his left thigh a vicious slash as she stood.
Flesh parted under her blade before bone jarred the cutlass to a halt, then came the hot gush of blood over her hand. Hendricksz screamed, dropped his cutlass, and twisted round, clapping his hand to the wounded thigh, from which bright red blood was already pumping. But it was too late, and as they locked gazes, she could see that he knew.
"You have done for me!" His tone was one of disbelief.
He staggered and dropped to his right knee, then, as though dazed, lifted a hand to his forehead, leaving a bloody smear. "'Tis my own fault," he muttered. "Brethren of the Coast." His eyes rolled up in his head and he crumpled forward, landing on his face with an awful crump.
For a few seconds there was no sound in the bedchamber except Meg's panting and, incongruously, a bird singing just outside the window. She wiped her cutlass on the back of Hendricksz's doublet, and cast an exhausted glance towards the door.
Alice was hurrying towards her, arms outstretched.
"Steady." Meg held up a gory hand in warning. "You'll spoil your nightgown."
"Think you I care about that?" Alice stooped and took her in her arms, and Meg sighed but didn't push her away. For a long moment they said nothing, letting their embraces and eyes speak for them, then Alice helped Meg to her feet.
On the landing just outside the bedchamber, a very satisfactory sight met her eyes. Digges and his two sons were kneeling on the polished floorboards, hands bound behind them. Teach and Killigrew smirked at her.
"Well done, lads." She pursed her lips. "But where's the other one? The Dutchman's man, Cawthorne?"
"Said it was his Captain's fight not his. Ran for it." Killigrew rubbed his jaw then grinned. "We let him."
"Your wounds need tending, Meg," interrupted Alice. "Annie."
Only then did Meg notice the huddle of servants gathered at the top of the stairs, watching events unfold. At Alice's hail, the maid started along the landing towards them. Meg shook her head and Annie Chapman halted in confusion.
"In a minute," explained Meg. "I have some business to attend to."
One by one she hauled Digges and his sons to their feet. They were trembling and couldn't seem to take their eyes off her bloody shirt, she noticed. Before she could address them, however, Alice elbowed her aside and reached for her father's neck.
"How could you do this?" she bellowed, hands squeezing, face the very picture of fury. "I hate you! I hate you. I HATE YOU!"
"Alice! Stop!" With difficulty Meg prised Alice's fingers from Digges's fat throat and pulled her away from him. He looked as taken aback by his daughter's transformation into an avenging fury as Meg felt.
"No." Meg's voice was firm. Her hands were resting on Alice's shoulders and she could feel them trembling from the strength of her emotions. She readied herself to grab hold of her again should she try to resume her attack. "Prithee, Alice. Do not stoop to your father's level."
Green eyes flashed. "He is no father of mine!" Alice turned to glare at her brothers. "Nor are they kin of mine. Not after what they did to you. To us."
The two brothers exchanged a sullen glance and the older and fatter one, Titus, shrugged. "Why should we care?" he muttered. "What's that to us?".
"What's that to you?" Meg pretended to take the question seriously. "Think on this, Master Digges. Your sister's renunciation puts me in something of a quandary. For I had resolved not to kill any member of her family in front of her. But as you no longer are a member of her family..."
Titus went so pale at the implication she thought he was going to swoon.
"Did I hear you right?" asked Alice, amazed. "You meant to let them live?"
Meg glanced at her, glad to see that the angry flush had faded and she seemed more in control of herself once more. "You heard me right."
"But— They don't deserve it, Meg. Not after the wrongs they have done you!"
"You want to avenge me, and I love you for it." Her answer made Alice's brow wrinkle in confusion. "But, my sweet," she continued, "much as I too want vengeance, in time memories of such a bloody deed would come between us, and I will not risk it... risk us. Not for scoundrels such as these. For if we were to part, would they not then have won?"
"Ah!" Alice's brow smoothed. "Very well." But she looked disappointed.
Killigrew had overheard their conversation and he patted the hilt of his cutlass. "I could finish 'em off for you, Captain! Then neither you nor Mistress Alice need be involved."
Meg stifled a grin. "Thank you, Killigrew. That is a generous offer indeed. But I cannot accept. You see unlike Mister Digges here," she fixed the planter with a glare, "I do my own killing."
Hatred filled Digges' gaze. "Murdering she-devil! I rue the day my family ever set eyes on you."
"Strange, for I do not. But then, that was the day I first met your daughter." Digges let out a frustrated howl at that and she smiled. "As for calling me a murderer? Was it not rather you who tried to kill me? ... And thrice at that?"
So fast, he had no time even to blink, she drew back her fist and punched him in the face. He staggered back and would have fallen had not Teach reached out an arm to steady him. Beside her, Alice gasped then smothered a laugh.
Meg shook her stinging hand and gazed with satisfaction at the damage she had wrought. His lip was split, his nose broken. It was well worth the minor discomfort of bruised knuckles.
"'Twould be but natural justice to take your life," she continued, her voice hard as granite. "But for your daughter's sake, I shall be merciful. As for your sons...."
Meg turned to face them and saw they were braced for a punch. So instead she gathered the saliva in her mouth and spat at them each in turn. As her spittle ran down their cheeks, and they screwed up their faces in disgust, she leaned closer and lowered her voice.
"'Tis not pleasant to be treated with such contempt, is it? But 'tis little enough considering what you did to me." She put her finger to her lips as if considering. "Too little, mayhap. Shall I thrust my sword hilt up your arses and make you shit blood?" The brothers blenched. "Or cut off your manhoods? ... You’d get no more bastards on any woman then, I'd wager!" Dudley let out a strangled moan.
Meg kept the two in suspense for a moment longer then stepped back. Their shoulders sagged with their relief. "Listen well," she said, holding each prisoner's gaze in turn. "If I ever see your faces again, I will not be so merciful." She raised her voice to a bellow. "Indeed I'll hang, draw, and quarter you! My word on it."
As she waited for her threat to sink in, someone took her hand and pressed the bruised knuckles to soft lips. It was Alice, and she was smiling at her.
"Ungrateful child!" cried Thomas Digges, sounding strangely muffled. Must be his flattened nose. Alice threw her father a stony glance and turned her back on him.
Meg chuckled. "Come, my dear. I need my wounds tended, and, more importantly, a clean shirt." She gave her own spoiled shirt a rueful glance. Alice nodded and signalled Annie to approach. "And you cannot leave here in your night dress! After that, we must be on our way. For 'tis a long ride back to Port Royal.
"Teach and Killigrew," she continued, turning to address her men. "You may search this house, and if you spy ought of value that belongs to the Digges family—not to the servants, mind, for we are not common thieves—help yourselves. They are hardly in a position to object."
Broad grins greeted that instruction. "Ay, ay, Captain!"
Meg held Alice close, nibbled a delicate ear, and breathed into it, "I'm never letting you out of my arms again."
A flock of green parakeets burst out of the forest on their right, calling loudly, and Alice followed their flight before twisting in the saddle to look at Meg. "Even so, we should have ridden separately. This poor horse!"
Meg gave their mount an amused glance. They had liberated it from Digges' stable. It was a strapping animal, well fed and in good condition, and no doubt accustomed to carrying much heavier cargo in the form of fat planters or sacks of sugar. "Spare it your pity, my sweet. For how could it wish to be anywhere other than between your thighs?"
Alice's cheeks flushed a pretty shade of pink. "Saucy jade!" But she seemed gratified by the remark, and the slap she gave Meg's leg was a playful one.
"Besides." Meg squeezed Alice's waist. "There are undoubted advantages to riding pillion." She raised her hand to a conveniently placed breast.
"Meg!" Alice removed it. "Someone may see us!"
"Who?" She scanned their surroundings. The bridle track was deserted. "We haven't seen a soul since we left your father's estate, and it will be an hour or more before Teach and Killigrew can tear themselves away from plunder, if I know them. As for there being anyone in the woods" —she made a show of cupping her ear— "from the birds' calls and the hum of insects, I'll wager no man is within a mile."
The horse checked as a gecko darted out in front of its hooves. Meg pointed at the disappearing lizard. "Or is it his feelings you seek to spare? ... Or hers?" But the streamer-tailed humming bird with the red bill was clearly more interested in an orchid growing by the side of the track than in either horse or riders. "What care they, my sweet, if we kiss and cuddle?" She laughed and bent her head to the delicious expanse of Alice's neck.
"Humph!" said Alice, but she conceded the argument by leaning back against Meg, and even moved her hair out of the way to aid Meg's nibbling. "I missed you," she murmured, closing her eyes. "And I missed this." She returned Meg's hand to her breast.
Meg smiled and caressed the swelling curve beneath the silk then slid her hand inside the low cut neckline. "Shall I find us a shady spot?" she whispered, as Alice's colour heightened and her breathing quickened. "Or wait until we are safe in my cabin on board the Kestrel?"
Alice swallowed. "Wait until we are in your cabin? 'Sblood, Meg, do you mean to torture me? Or was it not only moments ago that you promised never to let me out of your arms again?"
Meg laughed and began to look for a suitable trysting place. "I did indeed, my love. And as your word is my command, a shady spot 'tis."
My thanks go to the members of my Yahoo mailing list for casting a sharp eye over the beta version of this story.