Author: Paul aka Darth Pacula
Tara came awake with a start, clawing her way past the last lingering fragments of the phantoms that haunted her dreams. Long years of experience let her instinctively smother her scream into a whimper; more than once had she been beaten for letting her nightmares wake her masters.
The darkened room was utterly unfamiliar to Tara in her sleep befuddled state, and panic flared inside her like a cornered rat. Scrambling backwards, she pressed herself even further back into the corner she'd been sleeping in, hunching up with her knees pressed against her breasts.
Her breath came fast and shallow, nearing hyperventilation as her eyes flickered over every point of the room. Only after convincing herself for the third time that there was no-one else in the room did Tara's pulse and breathing begin to slow towards normal. Her grip on her own knees relaxed, but she stayed curled up in her protective huddle.
Back in her former master's home, Tara would have been awake before dawn, preparing his breakfast, and putting out his clothes for the day. She would have had a myriad of tasks to perform, drudgery for the most part, but work nonetheless. But here, in this strange new environment, she had nothing. Nothing to occupy her mind, nothing to busy her hands with, nothing to help drive the memory of her nightmares back.
All she could do was sit in the dark, with only her memories for company.
Xander's prediction of a beautiful day had held true for roughly two hours. But by that time, storm clouds were thickening on the western horizon, leaden and forbidding. The wind had picked up sharply, setting the Wild Rose's rigging to thrumming with kinetic energy, and the scent of rain was heavy in the air.
Willow glared at her first mate from beneath a furrowed brow as she sulked at the rear of the bridge, slumped against the rail that looked out beyond the Wild Rose's stern. "Beautiful day, my dainty white arse ..." she muttered beneath her breath, arms crossed petulantly beneath her breasts.
To be fair, Willow had to admit that her current mood was less to do with the inaccuracies of Xander's weather prediction than her conflicted feelings over Tara. She could admit that ... to herself at least. Poor Xander had to make do with the sharp side of his captain's tongue.
Xander sighed heavily where he stood at Willow's side, watching as the crew hurried about their work. Glancing at the darkening horizon, he sighed again. "Okay, not my best prediction, I gotta give you that, Will. But that storm's coming up real fast like. We planning to ride it out?"
Willow looked offended. "Do we look like a pack of coast hugging land lubbers? The kind who run for cover at the slightest hint of a blow? Of course we bloody well ride it out!"
But despite her angry words, the prospect of the approaching storm seemed to break Willow out of her doldrums, and she strode forward bellowing orders with renewed energy. The Wild Rose's crew intensified their scurrying about the deck and rigging.
Remaining where he stood, Xander watched the commotion briefly before gazing mournfully at the horizon once more. "Well," he quietly remarked to himself, "at least one of us is going to have fun." He sighed a third time. "We are gonna get sooo wet."
The storm came on exactly as it had promised, straight and hard up the center. The sky darkened ominously, thick scudding slabs of cloud racing from one horizon to the other, gray and pregnant with the portent of the torrential downfall to come. Rain and wind came next, together, the wind whipping the ocean into a wild tempest.
Fat raindrops that chilled to the bone when they struck came sleeting down at an ever shallower angle, until the rain was almost horizontal. It never came from the same direction for more than a handful of minutes either, and combined with spray from the heaving waves battering against the Wild Rose's hull, her sailors were soaked from every direction.
Sound was not slighted either in this tempestuous display of nature's fury, for forks of lightning split the sky, followed as always by the rumbling howl of thunder, rolling across the heavens like the war-chariots of the gods.
The galleys and triremes that made up most of the coastal nations' naval power would have turned back and fled for shelter long since. They were coast hugging vessels for the most part, too vulnerable to storms such as this upon the open seas to do more than dart between the mainland and the closer island nations of the Endless Sea.
By and large, the sailors that manned the deep water ships ridiculed their coast dwelling fellows for such timidity. But even amongst their number, there were few that would have dared such recklessness as Willow was now displaying.
Eager to distract herself from her own emotional turmoil, Willow had flung the Wild Rose headlong into the teeth of the storm. Disdaining Xander's worried advice to trim canvas and ride out the storm's fury at a slower pace, Willow had chosen to maintain her speed ... in fact, to increase it.
The Wild Rose flew across the ocean's heaving surface, shuddering deep in her hull as each rolling swell hammered angrily at this insolent interloper. As the Wild Rose's deck heaved, tossing to and fro, her crew slipped and skidded around, fighting to keep their vessel afloat in the face of such fury.
Willow stood at the helm, legs spread and braced as she hauled the wheel about with a strength belied by her slender frame. The wind whipped her hair about like a thing possessed, and rain and salt spray alike had drenched Willow to the bone, but her teeth were bared in a feral grin of defiance.
Between them, Xander and Mockery worked the crew, both men seemingly everywhere at once. Though they differed vastly in their style of leadership, they were both master seamen, and Xander's jokes and quips blended with Mockery's threats and insults to drive the crew into a heroic effort.
Even still, there was deep concern on Xander's face as he caught Mockery's arm in passing. "We can't take much more of this!" he shouted, leaning in towards the other man's ear to be heard over the fury of the storm. "We've got to cut canvas before she's torn apart!"
"Cap'n ain't in no mood to play it safe!" Mockery bellowed back, glancing back at the frenzied figure of their captain as a bolt of lightning illuminated Willow in stark relief. "And if ye try broaching the idea, she's as likely to heave ye overboard right now!"
Even as worried as he was, Xander doubted that. But not enough to try his luck. "We have to do something!"
Mockery shook his head, water flying from his ragged hair and dripping from his tattooed nose. "Leave her be!" he suggested loudly. "Her choler'll burn out fore long, and this old girl has lived through worse!"
"I just hope we're as lucky," Xander muttered in reply, but the wind ripped the words from his mouth before Mockery could hear them, and the two men got back to the business of keeping their ship afloat.
Ever since the Wild Rose had set out to see, Tara had felt ... off. Her balance was compromised, which had left her usual graceful movements slightly clumsy, and her stomach had been queasy at even the slightest motion.
At first, the terrifying notion that she might be pregnant had come to her, but Tara dismissed the idea almost as soon as it occurred to her. The herbal remedy taught to her long ago by a fellow slave meant that there was no chance she carried a child, a fact she was halfheartedly glad of. Tara wanted no such reminder of her former owner ...
Once that possibility had been eliminated, Tara recalled the tales of a 'sea-sickness' she had heard from some of her fellow slaves who had traveled upon the open seas. Tara had never experienced such a thing herself; until Rren had brought her to Devastapol, she had never even so much as seen the ocean, let alone sailed upon it. Even though she had lived for a time in a coastal city, Tara had rarely been allowed outside the walls of Rren's estate, and never for such a frivolous pastime as a pleasure cruise.
No, her duties had rarely required Tara to leave the bed chamber ... or her back.
That thought brought a swell of nausea cresting, and Tara gagged, threatening to vomit on her own bedding. Only the fear of what punishment such an act might bring let Tara force her gorge down. Several years ago, with the master who'd owned her before Rren, Tara been beaten for a similar act, and she was nothing if not a quick study.
The rolling of the ship was growing ever more violent as the minutes passed, and Tara was finding it even harder to keep her rebellious stomach under control. It was rapidly reaching the point where she would start rolling about the room herself if she didn't find something to hold on to.
A heavy-handed rap sounded on the cabin door, and Tara flinched at the sudden interruption to her thoughts. Before she had even had the time to consider replying, the door fell open and a broad figure blundered inside, indistinct in the darkness.
"Umm ... dark in 'ere," noted a clumsy, yet oddly gentle voice. "You in 'ere, miss?"
Shuffling to one side, the intruder was revealed in a sliver of light from a lantern set into the hall outside. Atop a beefy body with a prodigious belly sat a wide, moon-like face with thick lips and a bald pate. As the light revealed where Tara lay huddled in her corner, the newcomer beamed with childish delight.
"There you are, miss!" He held up one hand, revealing a twine cradle hanging from his fist, the sealed terracotta pot it carried swaying with the movement of the ship. "I brought you a spot of lunch, miss!"
It was the last straw; Tara doubled over and vomited.
Cooke, for that was his name, turned out to be a kindly soul, and Tara's fears of punishment were proved unfounded. With nary a harsh word, Cooke had stowed away Tara's unwanted meal and cheerfully helped her clean up the mess.
"S'alright, miss," he kept insisting in his deep, but child-like voice. "Happens all the time inna gale like dis 'un."
But Tara still shied away from him. It was only when he was about to leave that Tara mustered enough courage to speak to him.
"Cooke?" she asked, her quiet voice a whisper compared to the roar of the storm outside. "Are you a slave too?"
Cooke's warm brown eyes blinked in surprise. "Course not, miss!" he replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Ain't no slaves on the Wild Rose!"
True to Mockery's prediction, the Wild Rose and her crew came out the other side of the tempest considerably wetter, but in largely one piece. The Rose's sails were ragged, and her normally pristine rigging tangled, but no-one had suffered anything worse than bruises or a chill that was easily chased away by a generous tot of rum.
Willow had stayed at her post for the duration, her expression wild and exultant the whole time, and she had only retired to her cabin once her ship had well cleared the storm's edge. Her departure had proved to be brief, for Willow took only the time to wring the water from her hair and change out of her drenched clothes before returning to the deck.
Still driving her crew like a woman possessed, Willow took advantage of the strong winds cast off by the storm to send the Wild Rose skipping across the waves even faster than she normally managed. This was where her daring paid off, for where a more cautious captain would still be skirting the boundary of the storm, Willow was free and clear.
As the storm had continued on it's path, roughly at right angles to the Wild Rose's course, the winds had gradually died down, leaving the smuggler's barque to slow to its normal, not inconsiderable pace. But by the reckoning of Willow and her officers, the brief burst of speed had potentially taken a full day off their journey.
Keeping their course fixed directly towards the small island nation of Kes, the Wild Rose had surged onwards as day turned inexorably into night. Day followed after day with the regular monotony of life at sea. The weather stayed relatively fine for open water, which was to say that there were no more storms, and after ten days at sea, the Wild Rose was roughly halfway to its destination.
And for all that time, Willow and Tara had seen neither hide nor hair of each other. For her part, Willow had thrown herself into her duties with paranoid zeal, standing twice as many shifts as anyone else on board, and when she wasn't on deck, Willow was locked in her cabin with her books.
Tara, on the other hand, hadn't even left Mockery's cabin, not once. In fact, she had hardly moved for the entire ten days, preferring to stay huddled protectively in her corner, even when Cooke brought in her meals. Meals that more often than not went uneaten. The sickness that had assailed her during the storm had only grown worse, to the point where Tara could barely take a sip of water or a nibble of stale bread without being violently sick.
And that nausea wasn't her only symptom.
Cooke rapped softly on the cabin door before opening it. It had taken some doing, but he'd finally figured out that Tara had been upset and scared every time he'd entered without knocking, so Cooke had scrupulously knocked ever since.
As always, there was no response. The knock was more of an announcement than a request for entry; Tara rarely spoke unless asked a direct question.
Nudging the door open, Cooke ambled inside, carrying his usual terracotta pot suspended in one hand. What he found froze him in his tracks. With a worried expression on his moon-like face, he placed Tara's dinner on the cabin floor and quickly retreated. Breaking into a shambling run, Cooke made his way towards the main crew quarters.
Given the less than neat attire of those who dwelled within it, the main crew quarters were surprisingly organized. A long series of galleries, lines of hammocks lined the walls, with occasional dividing partitions giving the semblance of privacy. An open space down the room's middle had been fashioned into an impromptu lounge, with barrels and crates standing in for chairs and tables.
Pausing to survey the crowded room, Cooke wove his way through his crew mates, unintentionally ignoring the odd greeting called at him. At the center of a knot of boisterous sailors, he found Mockery lounging indolently atop a barrel as he took part in a heated card game.
Heedless of the muttered imprecations left in his wake as he pushed through the crowd, Cooke leaned over and hissed into Mockery's ear.
"Mister Mockery, sir? I need ta speak ta ya!"
"Not now ..." Mockery mumbled in reply, glaring at his opponents. Then he caught sight of Cooke's worried expression, and sighed, laying his cards face down on the barrel they were using as a playing surface. "Fine ... come on then."
As Mockery rose and turned to lead Cooke to where they could speak privately, one of the other players surreptitiously inched sideways, leaning over to peak at Mockery's cards. Without so much as blinking, Mockery spun and pinned his cards to the barrel with a dagger he plucked from his belt. The attempted cheat retreated with a sickly grin, and Mockery chuckled to himself.
Once they had cleared the crowd, Mockery impatiently turned to interrogate Cooke. "Well now, what's so dag-blasted important then?"
"It's the Miss, sir!"
Mockery frowned. "The what?"
"The Miss! The Little Miss, sir!"
"The miss what?" growled Mockery, confused. "Make sense, ye daft bastard!"
Cooke shrugged, his broad shoulders bobbing like the Wild Rose herself. "I dunno."
"I dunno, boss."
One of Mockery's hands tightened convulsively into a fist, but he kept his temper with a deep growl and dragged his other hand down his tattooed face in exasperation. "All right ... we're chasing our own tails 'ere. Start from the beginning; what the bleedin' hell is this 'little miss'?"
Blinking, Cooke chewed at his own lip as he considered the question, Mockery tapping his foot in ill-concealed impatience. Cooke beamed as the answer finally occurred to him.
"The Captain's passenger, sir!"
Mockery rolled his eyes. "Then what's wit' this 'little miss' bollocks then? Why not call 'er by 'er bloody name?"
"I don't know it, boss."
Grinding his crimson-stained teeth, Mockery squeezed his eyes shut and slowly counted to ten. "Did ye try asking her?" he finally asked, even though he was sure he knew the answer.
"Uh ... no?"
Mockery nodded; Cooke's answer was exactly what he'd expected. "Nevermind. What's the bleedin' problem then?" His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "She ain't broken any o' my gear, has she?"
Cooke shook his head vigorously, eyes wide. "No, boss!"
"Then what in Sithaer's hairy ball sack is the bloody problem!" exploded Mockery.
Cooke gulped, suddenly wary in the face of his superior's wrath. "It's the Little Miss, sir. I think she's dying ..."