Tag Archives: fantasy

Deadly Misfortune – Chapter 4 Preview

12 Sep

Chapter Four

Warm as it was, the damned wind on the island blew to some degree every day. William’s nostrils twitched as a wisp of breeze carried with it, the definite aroma of swamp rot. The morning rains saturated everything.

William, Smith, and the ship’s one-legged carpenter, Mr. Lancaster, had done what they could to reinforce their own pitiful huts, making do with the basics of nature that surrounded them.

But in fact, everything was in short supply–food, clothing, medicines, and weapons. In spite of the double thatching, both the swampy winds and the driving sheets of rain had managed to invade their primitive shelters. Lost in his own thoughts, William startled when a voice sounded behind him.

“It’s the swamp fever, ain’t it? It followed us back here. Can ya’ not smell it?” Smith spoke of the obvious odor.

William raised his face to the sky and sniffed. “I can. It’s been on the wind a week or more.”

With a sudden push, Smith lashed out and shoved William’s head facedown. “Ya’ crazy bugger!” Smith’s brown eyes were wide with disbelief. “Don’t be suckin’ that evil air into yer body on purpose!” He semi-crouched in fear of the unseen sickness. Releasing his grip on William, he nodded toward the outermost row of huts.

“Didcha’ not notice that them what’s most sick are the ones stayin’ in the outer rows?” He snorted in disgust. “That’s where the poison wind settles first. That’s what’s got me Cassie ill. Would’a been safer to be on an inside one,” he grumbled. “She didn’t even come to the swamp yet she’s got the fever anyhow.”

“Yeah, well, we’re lucky that these Maroons let us stay anywhere at all,” William reminded his friend. “If you remember, both of us would have been killed on the shore right where they found us washed up in that storm if it hadn’t been for Mambo taking a liking to Tess’s ring.”

“Yeah, that and Cassie’s brand matching the one that that friggin’ pirate captain burned into Mambo’s arm, too,” Smith recalled with a scowl. “It’s a damned right thing he’s dead, that’s all the good I can say about that one.”

But what about the child Cassie bore, sired by him? The son you now call your own? William didn’t dare ask out loud. There was no reason to bring up the baby’s parentage. Smith seemed as devoted to the child as he was to Cassie.

The three pairs of shipwrecked survivors–he and Tess, Smith and Cassie, and Tess’s grandmother, Emma, and the ship’s carpenter, Brigham Lancaster–had been ‘married’ by Mambo, shortly after their assimilation into the Maroon’s camp. They had substituted the priestess’s ceremony for the church ceremony that they would never have.

The marriage ceremony, if it could be called that–Crikey, it was a weird thing!–had been, at the same time, both frightening in its strangeness, and exhilarating in its ferocity. It had taken place under a shimmering canopy of stars, when the sky had been under the dark influence of a new moon. Each couple had been bound, tied face to face, in the centre of a circle, its boundaries outlined with a collection of fruits, giant seed pods, shells, and flowers. Led by Mambo, the Maroons chanted in a foreign tongue, and had begun to dance around them, with feet and hands keeping time to a steady rhythm played out by a trio of men who had clicked their tongues and pounded on a collection of hollowed out logs and dried stems.

Having grabbed a stick from the ever burning fire pit, Mambo had held it high over head and whirled around them, spraying the helpless couples with a shower of sparks and chunks of glowing embers. It had been unsettling for the three brides to say the least, but their screams had been drowned out by the increasing volume of the chanters. Instinctively wrestling against their tethers but helpless to escape them, the grooms had bellowed out some very un-churchlike phrases.

Heedless of their dismay, Mambo had then produced a dried seed pod containing a smoking wad of herbs, and she had blown the smoke into the faces of each betrothed couple. The rest of the ceremony was hazy to William’s recollection except for the sharp poke of a wooden splinter into his lower lip and the salty taste in his mouth of Tess’s blood from her own freshly pricked lip, as their faces had been forced into an awkward kiss.

Without warning, their bonds had been slashed and they had collapsed to the ground. William vaguely recalled that several pairs of hands had gripped him, and each couple had been carried into the dark interior of a hut.

Stark naked. That’s how we were carried in. I remember that part. Never did figure out how that happened though….

William smiled at the memory of it. Primal as it had been, he was sure their matrimonial ritual had been as powerful as a church’s and certainly as binding as any on earth. Literally. And the first few weeks with Tess as his new wife, or had it been months–he didn’t know and it didn’t matter–had been wonderful. Sensuous. Full of their warm bodies intertwining, slippery with passionate desire.

William loved lying beside Tess. The nighttime air of the island’s mountainous interior was chilly and the two of them slept curled up together, as much to share body heat as anything. However, having her wrapped up in his arms, with his body in full contact with hers, her firm backside pressed back against him and his top arm draped across her breasts–the position was just not conducive to sleep. No matter how tired the rest of him was, his manhood was always eager and, he thought, considering their spooned position, impossible for Tess not to notice.

When he kissed her neck and nuzzled his way down to the soft spot above her collarbone, her soft moans and gooseflesh announced her willing interest in him, too. Tess would turn towards him and slip her hand between his legs, and suddenly the chill of the night would be a forgotten concern as she straddled him. Her touch, her nearness–it was sheer pleasure and William never tired of it.

And then something had happened. Was it that there was absolutely no privacy here? Was it Tess’s strange dreams that scared her and occupied her thoughts? Or was it his greatest fear–that Tess was becoming tired of him as well as their life on this island? Whatever the reason, their intimate nights had nearly disappeared.

He replayed a favorite moment in his head. He and Tess had been walking along a high trail, hiking up the side of the island’s extinct volcano. On Mambo’s instruction, Tess had been looking for special herbs. They had picked handfuls of one already, a broad, glossy heart-shaped leaf that grew on a tuberous vine low to the ground.

“What’s this one for?” William had inquired.

“Mambo needs it for the women at the camp.”

“Women?” William knew intuitively that he should ask no further, but sometimes his intuition didn’t seem to shout loudly enough. “Heart-shaped. Must be to make a love potion with, eh?” He’d grinned his dazzling smile that he knew she loved to see.

“Actually, no,” Tess had replied. “This herb, contrary to its shape, is called the baby stopper. The Maroons don’t want to go through the heart-break of having children suffer the life of a slave as they have done, so ….” Tess had shrugged and at that moment, had tripped and fallen into him, sending both of them tumbling back down the precarious pathway. He’d wrapped his arms around her and shielded her as best he could, as they rolled and crashed down the jagged surface of the hardened lava pathway. They’d come to a sudden stop in a collision with a rather large boulder.

Breathless, she’d asked, “Are you alright?” There was a moment of relief when he’d realized that neither of them had suffered serious injury. Up there, they were completely alone. It had been a bit frightening. Help would have been a long time coming. Still, having had Tess in his arms with her heart beat pounding so intimately against his own chest, he’d barely noticed his bleeding cuts and scrapes.

And then, to his delight, Tess had lifted her sweet lips to his and had kissed him. Delicately, at first. She’d run the tip of her warm tongue over his own. Had sucked his lower lip into her mouth and then released it, before trailing her soft mouth past his ear and down the side of his neck, lifting his skin in goose bumps as her wet lips made their way across his skin. William had felt his body respond and he’d traced the outline of her breast and hip with his fingertips. Softly. Just the way he knew she liked to be touched.

“I’m fine,” he’d reassured her. He’d kissed her neck and shoulders, had lingered as he’d drawn his own lips across the soft swell of flesh below her collarbone, pleased and further aroused to have her breathing increase with his touch. “I think we should lie here a bit, though, just to make sure.”

And completely alone on that trail, but now awash in gratitude for that solitude, with their bodies in perfect rhythm and sunshine splashing on their naked skin, they’d needed no help from anyone. No help at all.

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Deadly Misfortune – Chapter 3 preview

4 Sep

Chapter Three

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.

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.

Deadly Misfortune – Chapter 2 preview

28 Aug

Chapter Two

There were many ways to die on an island. Boredom was surely one of them and Tess had thought it would be a most terrible way to die.

Until now. Now she was sliding though slime-coated water in which, she was sure, lurked invisible horrors.

The hand-gutted canoe, being nothing more than a fired and carved out rotting log that she and the three others sat in, floated low, its gunwale dangerously close to the swamp water’s surface. The opaque water through which William and Smith paddled was a thick, sludgy green, and the canoe left a dark cleft in the algae layer as it slid along the swamp’s edge.

It had been decided that the four of them would go. Mambo, the Maroon’s priestess, would navigate their way overland, from the camp down to the foul-smelling swamp and the waiting canoe. The two young men, respective mates of Cassie and Tess, would be needed to push, paddle, and steer the craft, and Tess had insisted in coming along, desperate to free herself from the boredom that she loathed.

Tess gazed at her husband, William, who sat in front of her. They had been together for a few months on this island, dirty and hungry most of the time, but if anything, life here had improved William’s appearance. His sun-bleached locks glistened in a mass of unruly curls mostly refusing to be held back in a loose plait of sorts that laid down the back of his neck. His shoulders and torso were tanned to a dark caramel and were etched with the contours of hard muscle. Only the jagged white strips of his whipping scars broke up the broad expanse of his back.

His eyes are just as blue as the day we met, though. Tess smiled to herself, remembering how polite William had been in the presence of her overbearing father. And she remembered how attracted she had been to the young press-ganged sailor even then. He’s changed since then, she nodded, but then so have I. She no longer wore her thick copper waves in a left sided plait. The birthmark on her neck – an acorn shaped brown mark with a trail of tiny teardrops beneath it–had been a thing of shameful imperfection to her family, but it did not have to be kept hidden here on the island.

Now she watched the muscles in his arms ripple in a smooth dance under his skin as he poled their precarious and quite water-logged vessel along. She had the sudden urge to reach out and touch those arms but at the last moment, the presence of the other two people made her blush with embarrassment that she’d even had the thought of doing so.

Instead she closed her eyes and let the sunshine splash down on her face and she replayed another use for those powerful arms. In her mind, they were wrapped around her, one hand locked in her hair and the fingertips of the other trailing so lightly down her neck and onto the small of her back that her skin buzzed with excitement. Her breathing deepened as his hand slid deliciously further down–

“Tess!” William had twisted around and was smiling his dazzling smile. “This is no time to fall asleep. Look!” He pointed straight ahead. Startled, Tess blinked and then stared. The canoe had stopped. Tess stiffened with alarm and sucked in a breath.

Twenty-five feet away, life and death played out before them. Crouched on an overhanging branch, two tree-dwelling rodents munched contentedly on the leaves of their chosen tree. Cat-sized and covered with coarse brown fur, the plump hutias seemed oblivious to the danger that had gathered in the watery mess of mangrove roots below them.

The attack came with stunning fierceness and speed. Without warning, a crocodile exploded from the water and, launching itself upward, snapped at the branch, narrowly missing its target. Beside it, a second reptile burst out of the turbid water and seized a doomed hutia, crashing back into the mucky liquid below, with the rodent captured and crushed in its tooth filled mouth.

The first crocodile leapt again, having re-estimated the branch’s height, and its eight foot long scaly body was propelled into the air by the enormous strength of its tail. Like its companion, the croc splashed back into the swamp, this time its bloody jaws full with its intended victim. In only a moment more, the two crocodiles and hutias sunk from view, the marshy water’s surface closing over them.

Sweet Jesus! Tess’s heart pounded in her chest. And we’re here to collect crocodile teeth! Why on earth does Mambo think that Cassie is in greater danger from a pirate’s spirit than we are from these ravenous, horrible creatures? And a dead pirate at that! Thank God, Cassie didn’t come! She doesn’t have the stomach for something like this.

Cassie, Tess’s adopted sister, had stayed behind at the hidden Maroon camp, high up in the island’s mountainous interior. Tess couldn’t blame her. Being a pirate’s captive as Cassie had been, had destroyed her sister’s confidence. Had nearly destroyed her life. Besides this was no place for a baby and Cassie never let her son out of her sight.

He has marked us both. Only something stronger can protect can protect from such evil, Mambo had insisted. It was either cut the pirate’s brand from both Cassie’s and Mambo’s arms so that they could not be tracked by the pirate captain’s spirit, now that he was no longer tied to a physical body, or wear an amulet containing the crocodile’s teeth which would hold a power greater than the brand. And Mambo was taking no chances on the pirate’s spirit tracking her and Cassie down.

Such strange beliefs. Tess shook her head. But who am I to judge? She glanced at her left hand at the three spinner rings that she wore. All of them had been fashioned by long ago forgotten crafters, to have moving bands or spinning parts. The one with blue tourmalines supposedly brought on prophetic visions, the emerald spinner healed in ways that were beyond normal explanation, and the third ring, the one with tiny ruby encrusted vanes was the ring of persuasion. That one had been the one she had obtained– no, taken–from Edward, but the words that he had used to activate the ring as he spun it had died with him.

The canoe bumped against something and Tess was brought back to the moment. She lashed out, groping for a handhold in the canoe. God! I hate being on water! She felt her chest tighten. I don’t think I can stand this much longer. I hope Mambo knows what she’s talking about.

The African priestess had explained that the “cocodrilo” as she called them, constantly shed their teeth–the crocodile teeth would be easy to find and collect from bits of logs and roots, or perhaps would have washed up along the swamp’s margin–but she hadn’t gone into detail about the giant reptiles’ actual presence. Tess thought that she would have rather taken her chances being back with the pirates. At least they were only six feet in length.

But now her chest was aching with apprehension and remorse. Nothing, in her short life of nearly eighteen years, not even in her wildest imagination, could have prepared her for this situation. She tightened her grip in an effort to control the shaking she felt and she snapped her head around to speak to Mambo.

“What in the hell have you gotten us into?” Swiveling around to face forward, she pleaded, “William! Please get us out of here!”

White knuckled, William poled the canoe slowly forward, his paddle being no more than a long branch. “Tess, sit still. We really don’t want to capsize.”

“Closer.” Mambo pointed to a half-submerged log to their right.

The log had an indent in its midsection. A large indent. Bumping along side of it, the canoe tipped to one side as Mambo leaned over to run her hand along the log’s surface.

“Hah!” Mambo cried out. “Cocodrilo bite here,” she explained.

She pulled and tugged, digging at the log’s depression with her fingertips. Water slopped over the canoe’s edge, pooling along its bottom. Tess looked down, horrified to see small, undulating bodies in it.

“Can we please go? There are worms in this water!” she shrieked, scrambling to raise herself up out of the collected water. It was one thing to plant fly maggots in wounds to harvest decaying and dead flesh, which, when he was alive, she had once helped her physician father do, and quite another to purposely sit with one’s unprotected bottom amongst a colony of probable burrowing parasites.

“An’ I’m guessin’ there’s plenty more in this swamp, if ya tip us,” Smith warned from the back of the canoe, his voice tight. Mortified at the thought, Tess sat back down.

“See?” Mambo cackled with delight. She held out her hand. Two long, pointy, hollow triangles lay in her palm, their white tips blending into a deep grey near the bases. “Now we go,” she announced, her fingers curling into a protective fist over the teeth. Satisfied and smiling, she nodded and remarked, “This be good trip.”

A good trip? Because none of us were eaten alive? Tess didn’t even want to know what would constitute a bad one.

This island is a giant death trap.

She mentally listed off the dangers–the things, that until now, she had purposefully tried to ignore–the swamp fever, the scarcity of safe water to drink, as well as there never being enough food. Then there was a different classification of dangers including the spotted wild cats in the jungle, the slithery things on the ground, and god-only-knew what other predatory creatures lurking around in the shadows. And now she could obviously add the monsters that cruised in the waters under them.

And it wasn’t just that. There was the strange plant life–trees growing along the beach, that oozed poisonous sap, and those in the jungle coated with thorns large enough to pierce a man’s hand.

From Mambo, Tess was learning to identify both the plants that had medicinal value and those that were deadly. Anything in between was just decoration for now. Tess needed to learn only enough to keep her alive until they could get off this damned island and back to some kind of civilization. And being stuck here revived the ever present fear she had, that before long that pirates would land and would somehow recapture them all.

Of course there was the plantation on the island’s other side, with its Big House. But it was run by slave owners. Owners whose overseers had found Tess’s grandmother and her husband, Brigham, washed up on the shoreline after the hurricane, and who had brought them back to the Big House as indentured workers. No, going to the Big House was not an option for escape from this island.

At first, having been washed up on its shore during the same hurricane, she’d felt only immense relief. After all, she had escaped impending slow death at the hands of the pirate crew of the Bloodhorn. Her skin prickled with the memory of it. And I escaped the clutches of Edward Graham. The man she had been forcibly betrothed to. The same man who had killed the Crone, a defenseless old woman, in an effort to steal the woman’s ring. Even he, a royal courtier, had believed that the ring had ancient prophetic powers when its inner band was spun by the wearer.

Well it’s my ring now. And good riddance to him.

The canoe’s nose bumped into the soft mud, jarring her once again from her thoughts.

“Well, that’s this trip done,” Smith said. “Everyone out.”

William slipped over the side and sank in the muck to mid-calf. He extended his arms out to Tess and smiled. She gathered up the tattered remains of her skirt in one hand and took hold of one of his hands. She was standing and debating about how and where to best step into his arms when the skin under her blue ring began to itch fiercely.

Oh my God! This is not a good sign! Tess jumped into the muck and screamed, “Hurry! Get onto the shore!”

The four of them scrabbled through the ooze and onto firm land just as the tremor hit, knocking them all to their knees. The swamp water rose and crashed against the shore as though trying to capture them and suck them back in.

Tess lay gasping on her back and was mentally adding this island’s increasing tremors to her list of dangers, when William, incredibly, began to laugh.

“So you chose the mud route rather than my arms, eh? That was the fastest exit I’ve ever seen anyone do, Tess. You’re getting braver by the day. Didn’t know you had such speed in you.”

Neither did I. Tess wondered about the itch. It was less now. Definitely less, but still there … and then her grandmother’s voice whispered in her head.

Ya never know what ya can do till misfortune comes nippin’ at yer backside.

 

Deadly Misfortune – Chapter One Preview of Book Two in the Quintspinner Trilogy

22 Aug

At the request and kind but persistent nudging of readers of “Quintspinner – A Pirate’s Quest”, ( I LOVE you all!) I intend to post previews from the upcoming Book Two in the Quintspinner series beginning…. TODAY!! And so, Wednesdays will be Chapter Days here on this blog, BUT only until the book is ready to be published. Keep in mind that the finished product (ie the published form) may undergo significant changes from what you read here, but, then again mebbe not! However, in exchange for  these previews, I would ask that readers ( again kindly, please, my ego is still kinda delicate…) pass on any thoughts you have about the characters, where the plot’s going ( like it? hate it?) typos, etc. Ready? Here goes …

Chapter One

The man stared at the woman, momentarily caught off guard.

She sat upon the ground, her torso resting against the moss covered tree trunk, and his eyes roved over her.

Such perfection. Attractive face with small nose and plump lips parted slightly as though poised to speak. Cinnamon skin dappled from the filtered sunlight in an intriguing pattern of tawny, dark, and gold. Thick tendrils of coal black hair curling softly over her bare shoulders, her breasts defiant and full in their youthfulness.

Perfect.

Except for the musketball hole blasted squarely into her shattered breastbone.

He blinked in surprise. Catching his breath, the hunter dropped into a crouch as he slid back into the protective camouflage of the jungle’s foliage. He reassessed the scene, his heart pounding, his senses on full alert.

Damn it! He cursed this part of his job. Competition. Incompetent fools! He was the best–everybody knew it–and if he had found this pretty little Maroon first, he’d still have her to collect the bounty on. An’ make no mistake about it, the bounty on this one woulda’ been worth plenty, that‘s fer sure. His annoyance at such a loss edged him towards a full-fledged temper fit.

I coulda’ kept her fer a little fun myself, fer awhile anyways! Shit! What the bejeezes happened here? She ain’t even armed. She escaped with nothin’ more than the rags on her back. What a total friggin’ waste!

He shook his head. What was there to salvage? He’d tracked someone, something, from the plantation in the lower land, up through this godforsaken hothouse–who knew it was gonna be so damned hot this far up the mountain–for nearly a day and a half, following subtle signs through the misery of clouds of biting insects and, in his haste, brushing up against clusters of poisonous leaves that caused his hands and arms to blister, only to come upon this disaster.

He peered over at her corpse. Now all that he had to show for his time and effort was the tiny scrap of a baby still cradled in the crook of her lifeless arm.

Mewing brat! That was what had drawn him in this direction in the first place, only a heartbeat before the sound of the musket blast.

An’ that sucklin’ ain’t gonna’ last long neither, he grumbled to himself. Unless he could find a wet nurse back at the sugar mill, there wouldn’t be a hope in hell. The thing would starve. And if it didn’t quit bawling right now, he might just have to put it out of its misery himself. He squinted over at the baby, its tiny mouth stretched open in a primitive howl. And then he saw it.

The sole of a boot.

Tension crackled through him, the shock of his discovery hitting hard. No Maroon, this body. The boot’s leather had been shaped by a reasonably skilled cobbler. Its style practically shouted ‘bounty hunter’ to him. His rival probably. He frowned, his forehead wrinkling up in confusion.

What the hell happened?

Cautiously emerging from his hiding place, he stepped forward for a closer look and squinted down at his newest discovery. His eyes suddenly bulged with comprehension, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling with fear. His rival’s shirt collar was wrapped around a bloodied stump of a neck, the slain hunter’s head nowhere in sight. He had only a moment to consider this as the swish of a machete blade closed in around him. The sharp blow to his neck felled him and he pitched forward, dead before his own body crashed down upon the corpse at his feet.

***

Laying down his machete, and repositioning the baby boy in the dead woman’s arm, Jacko held the infant in place while the child nursed greedily for what would be the last time at his mother’s breast. When at last the child’s belly was sufficiently full, Jacko dipped a moistened finger into a leather satchel tied at his waist, and slipped the powdered fingertip into the baby’s mouth, feeling the reflexive tug of the baby’s sucking. The calming effect of the powder was nearly immediate and he wrapped the now sluggish child in a chest sling, before turning his attention to the young woman’s body.

Glancing at the clotting wound in her chest, white-hot grief stabbed him in his own, and for a moment he clenched his eyes shut, dizzy with the effort to suppress his rage. Taking deep breaths, he forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand.

It would not do to have any bodies found so close to the secret village. The bounty hunters had nearly discovered the small encampment of Maroons, only another valley away from here. Making a separate trip with each head and a corpse, he dragged them deeper into the undergrowth.

Limping heavily with the exertion, he recalled his own near death during an attack from a bounty hunter. The flesh on his thigh and buttock had never fully recovered from the gunshot and knife wounds he had suffered at the hands of such a man, although he had miraculously lived through his injuries. Had it not been for his mate’s potions and prayers to the gods and the healing powers of the white woman who called herself Tess, Jacko knew he would have been just another body left to feed the jungle’s spirits.

He breathed up a prayer of thanks and a request for continued safety for himself and the village’s people, before rolling each set of body and head down into a steep crevice at the bottom of a narrow ravine. Not even the dogs would be able to track the missing slave hunters any further. And they would come, he knew. With more trackers. They always did.

Returning finally to the remaining body, he bent down and gathered the woman in his arms. Holding her close, her child between them, he nuzzled her cheek with his own, inhaling deeply in an effort to capture her scent one last time. His nostrils flared and the crushing grief returned, scalding him as it bored deeper into his chest.

She smelled only of death. Her spirit had left the body, but was hovering nearby he thought, waiting for the appropriate rituals to be performed by Mambo. Without those, the spirit could not be set completely free from the physical body, and it would be forced to roam in the darkness of night forever. Mambo, his mate, would know what to do to ensure that would not happen–she would ensure that this woman would not suffer such a fate.

Mambo would release their daughter’s soul.

With a heart that was as heavy as the body he now carried across his shoulders, Jacko staggered deeper into the foliage and up towards the hidden village. His sorrow drilled into his chest, morphing with every breath into a focused rage.

It was time.

 

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