ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 43

 

      The water was cool, but not a brutal shock, like the water in the English Channel, when one was forced into it by exigent circumstances.  Nonie struck out underwater for as long as she could, then surfaced as quietly as possible to take a breath, and regain her bearings in the darkness. The kaftan was actually easier to swim in, than the skirts in which she had taken that initial midnight swim; the silk was light, and there were no petticoats to bundle up around her legs.  The crests of the waves around her reflected the orange light from the burst of flames on deck, and she quickly averted her gaze to the horizon, hoping that her people had seen her jump. On cue, a man’s voice could be heard in the darkness, coming over the water from a point nearby. “There she is—hold right there, ma’am.”

     Turning toward the voice, Nonie continued to tread water as she watched a fishmonger’s boat advance upon her, Saba sitting in the bow, and holding a shaded lantern at arm’s length so that he could see Nonie in the dark water. 

    “You were supposed to take her to shore,” Nonie admonished the man, who brought the boat alongside her.

     The fishmonger shrugged his shoulders in apology, as he gave Nonie a hand to hoist her into the rocking vessel. “She asked if she could stay to help.”

    “And she’s very pretty,” Nonie added, as this was the most significant factor.

     “And she’s very pretty,” he agreed.

     “The ship—it is on fire,” Saba interrupted in her halting Italian, trying with only moderate success to hide her alarm.

     Nonie wrung out the skirt of her soggy kaftan, and kept her gaze on her knees. “Yes—don’t worry; that was Tahriz’s doing, and I’m sure he has everything well in hand. Has someone found poor Fatima? Jamie had to be cruel to be kind, I’m afraid.”

     The man nodded, his expression impassive in the dim light. “She has been brought to shore, and is safe.”

      This was a bit unexpected; the fishmongers would have no particular interest in Fatima, and should have waited for Nonie’s order.  Nevertheless, it was welcome news, and letting out a breath, she lifted her face for a moment, to give Saba a reassuring smile, and say to the fishmonger, “We should hear Jamie shoot the necromancer at any moment, and then he’ll need to be fished out, too. Stand by.”  She was striving mightily not to listen to the alarmed cries of the sailors; the crackling of the flames.

     “Where is Jamie? Where is Tahriz?” Saba turned to watch the ship with a worried frown.

     In a reassuring gesture, Nonie touched the girl’s knee. “Listen for a gunshot; it should be at any moment.”

     The three of them sat quietly in the darkness, listening to the sounds of panicked, shouting voices echoing over the water as the sailors battled the spreading fire. Finally, Nonie turned to look, her skin suddenly turning clammy, as she viewed the flaming vessel.  “I can’t see them—get closer,” she directed, through a clenched jaw. “Do you have a scope?”

     “No, ma’am,” the man replied with regret, as he took up the oars. “Should we board for an extraction?”

     She turned to look at him, and thought, thank God for the courage of ordinary people. “Yes; if the fire reaches the armory in the hold, there will be an explosion like the crack o’ doom,  so we must get them off before then—by hook or by crook.”

     The man nodded, and began to row them toward the ship. There was no longer a need to be quiet, as other small boats in the area were also approaching to offer assistance to any who wished to abandon ship. Confusion reigned, as would-be rescuers called in Arabic to the frantic French sailors.

     “I—I don’t see them,” Saba stammered, her face pale in the reflected light of the flames.

     Nonie turned to the fishmonger, as she ruthlessly tied her incorrigible hair into a wet knot at the nape of her neck. “I need to give her some instructions. Do you speak Italian?”

    “No,” the man admitted. “But I speak Maltese.”

     Nonie’s face jerked up to his, and he met her eyes with a wooden expression. So, she thought—the fishmongers have been infiltrated by the Maltese contingent.  Her husband was a wily one, and it appeared the Home Office’s spy network was nothing compared to his. It was lucky she and Jamie never told anyone anything ahead of time—mainly because they made it up, as they went along.  “I see; could you translate for me, then?”

     At the man’s nod, she took a shuddering breath, and tried to hold her voice steady.  “You’ll be stayin’ in the boat, Saba, while we go get the two men. Stay back at least fifty yards—there may be an explosion. Watch for us—stay on this side, and wait. Don’t allow anyone else to get close enough to see that you are alone. Do you know how to row? We can’t have you driftin’ out to sea.”

    Her troubled gaze resting on the fishmonger as he translated, Saba nodded in understanding. She spoke a few words, and the man translated, “She says you are not to worry.”

    “Never for a moment,” Nonie responded grimly, fighting nausea as the acrid smell of the smoke drifted toward them.  She glanced up quickly, as they came alongside the ship, close enough to hear the now-roaring flames.

    All right, she thought, as she lowered her gaze again; all right—you can do this. Something’s amiss, and Tahriz needs to know about the armory—he may not be as familiar with the anatomy of a warship as you are—and you are not going to lose him because you are being utterly stupid about something that happened—for the love of Mike—a thousand years ago.  And Jamie—Lord, poor Jamie is in that inferno—

     “I’ll be needin’ a dry pistol,” she said in a brisk tone to the fishmonger, depositing her wet one on the seat beside her with a clunk. “Do you have a spare?”

    “I have only the one.”

     She held out her hand, which was trembling. “Give me yours, then.”

     After only the barest moment’s hesitation, he handed it over, and with a final, tremulous smile at Saba, she turned and quickly mounted the rope ladder to climb aboard, determined to shut out the sounds and smells of the fire, and clenching her jaw so hard that her teeth ached.

      The scene on deck was not as chaotic as she’d expected; the disciplined crew was manning a bucket line, and attempting to contain the fire to the bow area, but the roaring flames had already snaked up the foremast to the yardarms, so that the furled sails were ablaze; it was evident that the crew fought a losing battle.

     Of Tahriz or Jamie there was no sign, and she quickly looked away from the fire and took a shuddering breath to calm herself; there—you see? It’s not the same at all; there is no one screamin’ and the lovely, lovely sea is all around you. Take hold of your foolish self, and get your business done; there’ll be plenty of time to be as missish as you please, once everyone is safe.

     In the general chaos, no one paid the smallest attention to her, and so she said to the fishmonger, “They must be below decks; follow me.”  But as she walked across the deck to the companionway stairs, she was forced to retreat back to allow Le Capitaine to pass, flanked by several of his officers—his face set in grim lines as he barked orders at the sailors; it appeared the good captain was abandoning ship.  Even more ominous, Jamie was not sticking to him like a burr, but instead was nowhere in sight.

      “Follow him,” she instructed the fishmonger in a low voice. “It is very important that we keep track of that one.”  She waited, not certain—now that she knew his allegiances—that the man would obey her. But he only nodded, and quietly moved to join the Frenchman’s retinue.

      With a monumental effort, Nonie turned back to the companionway, feeling the tremendous heat of the approaching flames on the side of her face as she hurried down the stairs. Emerging onto the gun deck, the first thing she noticed were hundreds of loose pearls, scattered across the deck as several men frantically worked to scoop them up into the basket before the fire reached them—that she had come upon the aftermath of a first-class donnybrook appeared evident.

     Carefully creeping forward so that she could peer down the cannon line, she beheld an alarming scene; Tahriz stood framed in a gun-port, the unconscious figure of Jamie slung over his shoulder, as he was confronted by the Agha, who was triumphantly wielding a pistol.  Jamil stood beside Tahriz, his hands spread in a disarming gesture, but the look in his eye was a familiar one to Nonie—he was going to inch forward, and then lunge for the weapon.  Another brave man, she thought distractedly; I need to pull myself together, and pretend to be equally brave for the space of ten minutes at a time.

     A loud crash could be heard above decks, and involuntarily, she flinched.  Tahriz’s gaze flew to her, and with a barely perceptible movement, he tilted his head, directing her to retreat.

     In a strange way, it was just what she needed to provoke her into action, and she strode toward them.  “Is it mad, you are?” she exclaimed, hearing the overloud thread of hysteria in her own voice, but unable to control it.  “The ship is afire, and you fools are fightin’ like fishwives at Lent.”

     Startled by her voice, the Agha whirled around to back against the bulkhead, so as to include Nonie within the ambit of the threatening pistol. Warily, he looked behind her, but saw no one else. “What do you do here? Get back.”

     “God in heaven, you idiots—the ship is going to explode.” Distractedly, she ran her hands through her hair, her voice overloud and uneven. “There is—there is black powder, here in the cannons, and in the armory, below decks—”

    “Hurry,” the Agha barked at the men who were gathering up the pearls.

    “It’s madder than a March hare, you are,” Nonie exclaimed in wonder. “Much good the pearls will do you—the ship’s goin’ to blow.”

     “I believe,” Jamil offered, addressing the Agha. “I believe the lady herself has several very fine pearls, tied up in her hem.”  He then met Nonie's gaze with a great deal of meaning.

     Exasperated, she chided him, “I don’t have time for that, Jamil.”  Drawing her weapon, she shot the Agha through the heart, before he’d even had a chance to react.

     As the Agha collapsed to the deck, his men leapt to their feet in alarm. “You’re next,” she threatened, and the men bolted up the stairs, nearly falling over each other in their haste to get away.  “It’s a single-fire pistol,” she called up after them, with all due scorn. “Bloody idiots.”

     “Come, Nonie.” With Jamie’s heavy form still prone over his shoulder, Tahriz gently pulled on her arm with his free one. “We’ll go, now.”

     Trembling, she turned to him, and wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry I up and killed him. I’m stretched a bit thin.”

     “No matter,” he said in the same gentle tone. “We’re all going to jump, now.” With Jamil’s help, Tahriz, propped Jamie into the gun-port opening, preparing to push him through. 

     With a mighty effort, Nonie pulled herself together. “No—Saba’s waiting in a boat on the port side. I’ll—I’ll go get her, and we’ll come around to pick you up. We can’t leave her alone, and we can’t swim around to her—not with Jamie out cold.”

     “Go with her,” said Tahriz to Jamil.

     Taking a breath, Nonie replied as calmly as she was able. “No—you need Jamil to help keep Jamie afloat.  I’ll run across, and jump off in two shakes, I promise. We should be around within twenty minutes, but get as far away from the ship as you can—you’ll need to be avoidin’ the masts, if it heels over in this direction.”

     She didn’t wait to see if her husband would protest; she’d always relied on her instinct, and her instinct told her it was time for action.  Whirling, she sprinted up the companionway stairs.