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.