William let out a slow aggravated breath. Trapped, with no plan in place for change, he felt a dangerous level of tension building up inside of him. He looked around the Maroon camp, its semi-circle of huts made nearly invisible by the camouflage of the surrounding tropical vegetation.
How long have we been here anyway? It was hurricane season when we were shipwrecked in the first place, but since then? Tess would know. She kept rough track of time with her woman’s cycling. Not that it mattered. Time seemed to stand still here. Every day was the same as the one before it. Except for the day they had gone to collect the croc teeth. Now that had been a break in the monotony. William sighed again.
So often, like now, he missed his family back in England so badly that he couldn’t ignore the burning in the pit of his stomach. And then the horrible weight of reality would come crashing down as it always did–his mother and little sister had been abandoned, forced to fend for themselves after both he and his father had been abducted by the British Navy’s press gang. A fresh bolt of pain seared through him–his older brother had not survived the gang’s attack.
William clenched his eyes shut in a useless attempt to stop the next memory from forcing its way to the forefront–that of the bloody escape from that captive pirate ship, the Mary Jane, and the ensuing fight in which William’s father had given up his own life to save William’s. Another one lost. The only person that he had left now was Tess.
He fumed. She was the only good thing to have come out of the damned sea voyage from England to these islands of the West Indies. And, William had to admit to himself, that violent journey stripped her of her family as well. Tess all alone now except for her grandmother, known to most as Emma, and Cassie. Sometimes, however, it was hard for him to share Tess’s attention with the others.
Tess was already a survivor. Courageous. Strong for a woman, William thought, and beautiful. He’d been attracted to her as soon as he’d first laid eyes on her–her copper ringlets curling deliciously over her shoulders, and her eyes as green as the emeralds in the peculiar ring that she wore–life in this wild place was so uncertain that it seemed to magnify every feeling that he had. Was it possible to care too much?
It was time to begin planning. Time to leave. Time to escape this island and make our way back home to England.
“Well begun is half done.” Emma’s words danced in his head. The older woman seemed to have an endless supply of folksy advice, but she was right–William knew that a change in events in his favor wasn’t going to happen unless he made it happen. Made a start.
So what the hell am I gonna do? He’d have to give it some serious thought. And Lord knows, there’s nothing much else to do here other than think.
His thoughts were interrupted by a piercing shriek that shattered the air.
Tess scrambled out of the hut’s open doorway and tried to place from where the outcry had come. Her heart thudded in her chest as her eyes came to rest on the scene at the foot of the path that led into the camp.
There, Mambo lay collapsed in a heap on top of something, and a strange keening wail throbbed through the air. Whether it came from her or from Jacko, who was kneeling beside Mambo, Tess couldn’t tell. The sound was raw, primal, and every nerve ending in Tess’s body fired in alarm. Even worse, as though the sound had awakened an omen of impending peril, the itch under her blue tourmaline ring, flared.
With no memory of having broken into a run, Tess stumbled to a halt only a few steps away from Mambo. Tess dropped to her knees, her eyes widening,
The heap that Mambo had gathered in her arms was the bloodied corpse of a young woman.
Turning his grief-stricken face towards Tess, Jacko held the squirming sling out and ordered, “Take to dat young one. To save.” At that moment, a strident squeal erupted from within the sack, and Jacko roared, “Take baby now!”
Cradling the squalling infant, Tess remained rooted to the spot, immobilized by her confusion. Take this one to Cassie? What is happening?
The sweat on her neck turned to ice as the band of blue stones burned on her finger, demanding her attention.
Not a good sign.
There would be a terrible vision soon.
The silver moon hung just above the horizon, draping her milky-white light over the small group that gathered in the small clearing further up the mountain. The rhythm of the wailing, a low moaning that alternated with bursts of high pitched trills, raised the hair on Tess’s arms. The woman’s corpse, lowered into the grave, settled on the bottom with a soft whumph.
The sigh of the dead, Tess thought as she watched the others gently toss in a selection of fruit, a roughly hewn spear, and finally the leafy amulet bag into which Mambo had put a short curly clipping of the baby’s hair.
This is how they bury their daughter. Not so different from us. The baby will be raised by Mambo now. His grandmother. Like I was … Tess watched as Jacko stepped forward once more and knelt by the pit’s edge. He reached up to accept the bundle offered to him by Mambo and held a dagger high above his head, its blade reflecting the moon’s silver sheen. A frightful noise escaped his lips, escaping in one strangled swoosh of air.
Raw grief. Tess recognized the sound. The intensity of his pain tore at her, but the sight of the knife blade hovering above the bundle gripped her with fear. The baby! Before Tess could move, or even call out, Jacko’s hand fell and the baby screamed.
Oh my Christ! Tess’s breath stopped, her own scream strangled in her throat. She stared, helpless. Reaching out, Mambo collected the crying infant and, bending forward into the pit, she held his tiny hand close to his mother’s face.
Crying! The baby’s alive? And then, clearly illuminated by the plentiful moonlight, Tess watched as the child’s hand bled from a tiny knife nick, dripping onto the small indent at the base of his mother’s throat. The drops made a small, dark circle, and although the actual intent was lost on her, Tess suspected that the circle represented a completion of sorts. She reached out and grasped William’s hand. He nodded ever so slightly as though agreeing with her thoughts.
It’s done. At that moment, the sky darkened as the silvery orb slid behind a layer of clouds. Jacko spun on his heels and slipped away from the gathered people. His torment was palpable, even in the dark and Tess shivered in spite of the evening’s warmth.