La Reina Corsaria

Copyright 2017 by Linda Crist


PLEASE read the disclaimers and potential triggers below.


This is the story of Megan O'Brien and Isalba Cortez, two characters featured previously in five short stories available online: Rituals (2004), Moondancer's Delight (2002), Soul Vessels (2001), Peril on the Pearl (2009), and Chapter 11 of the 2003 Orlando BardCon Round Robin.   La Reina Corsaria (The Corsair Queen) is their novel-length story, and is loosely based upon the ideas in those earlier stories.  Rituals, which was first posted for the 2004 Royal Academy of Bards Halloween special, has become the prologue for this story. I began writing this story in October 2008, and for several reasons, set it aside for a long while without completing it. My gratitude goes out especially to all the readers on my Yahoo lists who have been waiting patiently for me to finish it.

Pronunciations and Terms:  Megan (MAY-gun); Isalba (E-SAHL-buh); Firinne (FEER-in-y
eh); Peadar (PADH-dar); Slaine (SLOYN-ye); Beibhinn (Bay-ving); Liam (LEE-uhm); Jacquotte (Jock-COAT); Pater Noster (Lord's Prayer); Chincoteague (Shin-kuh-teeg); Assateague (Ass-uh-teeg). 

My Website:


Violence/Sex/Lesbians/Pirates/Rum/Theft/General Mayhem/Cheeky Blonde Uber Gab: Yes/yes/yes/yes/yes/yes/yes/yes.

There is not a rape scene in this story, but rape of a couple of minor characters is strongly implied. The rape does not involve either of the major characters. There are also some fairly violent scenes. It is after all a pirate story, mixing drama, adventure, romance, and humor.

This is a very long story, over 200,000 words. It is a historical romance set in the 17th century, during the Golden Age of Piracy.  Because of this, the character dialogue is more formal than modern fiction and contains few contractions. Some of the characters are Irish, French, and Spanish, and speak with their respective accents. I have tried to remain loosely true to historical accuracy, but not at the expense of a good story, so there may be a blending of centuries from time to time. If you watched six seasons of Xena, this should not be an issue for you. :-)

There is one f/f sex scene between one of the primary characters and a character who is not the other primary character (prior to primary character consummation), and a few light dom/sub scenes involving primary characters, but not all love scenes are dom/sub. One of the primary characters is 16 years old and would be considered a minor in modern times, but of marriageable age in the time of this story. It is overall, a mushy lesbian romance, and readers familiar with how I build a long romance should not find this story to be too far out of my usual ballpark.

For the Xenites, this is very much an uber, although uber Xena is a hybrid of the Warrior Princess and the Conqueror. For those who began reading this story on my list 9 years ago, it has been cleaned up but it is the same story, almost completely unchanged from back then.

I've put all these things in the disclaimer, up front. E-mailing me to tell me you don't like any of these aspects of the story is futile. It's written.  It's finished. It's posted. I'm not changing it. :-) Positive and/or constructive feedback is of course, welcome.


Prologue (the sort story formerly known as "Rituals," with very slight variations.)

All Hallows' Eve — Chincoteague Island, Virginia Colony — 17th Century

"Meg!  Megan O'Brien!  Get yourself inside, lass.  The spirits will be a-walking this night."  Firinne O'Brien wiped her hands on her apron and ducked back inside the three-room cottage that had been home for their six months in the new world.

"Hush, woman!"  Peadar O'Brien chastised his wife.  "We're no longer in the old country.  The likes o' our English neighbors won't be takin' a shine to the old ways. They were kind enough to allow some Irish among them.  We mustna be upsetting them."

"You hush yourself, old man.  Our neighbors are nowhere in hearin' distance," she snapped back, but the sparkle in her eyes conveyed her affection.  "And did not my Slaine find herself a good husband by the old ways?  And our middle daughter, Beibhinn, betrothed she is to another fine man, first seen in the Hallows' Eve vision?"

"Aye, 'tis true enough, but our Slaine, she's back in Dublin, and Beibhinn performed the rites on the shores of the old country, the night we set sail.  Our Megan, she is of this world now.  We'll not be testing the men of God in this country, my love."  Peadar looked around, and assured of their privacy, slid in behind his wife, wrapping his arms around her and nuzzling her neck.

"And what if I'd abandoned the old ways, Peadar?"  Firinne closed her eyes, leaning into his embrace.  "Did I not first lay eyes on your face in my own vision?  Had I not seen it, would I've recognized you, when first you came a calling?"

"Ah, that is also true enough, my love." Peadar chuckled, his breath sending tingles down her spine.  "But Megan, 'tis her twelfth year.  Surely the child is too young for such doings?"

"She's no child, Peadar.  No longer.  Our Megan has twice seen the cycle come and go.  She's a woman now, a daughter of the earth mother."

"Shhhhhh,"  Peadar whispered.  "These walls have ears, I swear they do.  No mention of the ways of the Goddess.  No druids in this country, Firinne.  Here we are of the Church of England, and nothing more."

"And why did we have to come to such a strict land, Peadar?"  Firinne slipped from his arms, moving to a large kettle in the fireplace, stirring the contents of a hearty, fragrant stew.  "I've no understanding of it, the church and the Goddess, why they canna live side by side."

"My love." Peadar blew out an exasperated breath.  "The tenth son of a poor potato farmer can scarcely hope for an inheritance of the land, now can he?  There was nothing for us there. No living to be made, once Pappa died.  I couldna live out my days working as a shopkeeper or working a trade.  My hands —" he held them up, clenching his fists for a moment, "they were made for the helm of a boat and my lungs to breathe the salt air.  I have my fishing boat here, and we have our little dairy farm as well.  'Tis the best of both worlds for us.  Better than the living offered by Ireland."

"I know." Firinne sighed.  "But my girls, I shall bring them up to remember the old ways and pass them on, even if they must do it only behind the walls of their own homes."

"Ma."  Megan eased inside the door and removed her bonnet, wiping the barn floor dirt from her shoes onto a braided rag rug.  "Do you think I shall see him tonight, Ma?"  She gazed dreamily out the window.  "The man I'll marry, will I see him Pa?"

"If your mother has any say in it, lass."  Peadar gazed warmly upon his daughter.  With a lump in his throat, he noted the first telltale signs of womanly curves, and a sharpening of the planes of her face.  Gone was the long blonde girlish braid down her back, her golden tresses now pinned up on top of her head in a style not unlike her mother's.  "Though any man who comes calling after my youngest will have to answer to me first."

"But of course, Pa."  Megan turned and faced him, her green eyes shining in the firelight.  She strode toward him and hugged him briefly, inhaling the scent of tobacco and sea salt that clung to his clothing.  "I'll not be betrothed to any man without your blessing."

"Aye, you are your Pappa's girl, are you not?"  He kissed the top of her head, smiling down at his youngest daughter.

"Am I not your girl, too, Pa?"  Beibhinn entered the room from behind the curtain that separated the girls' bedroom from the common living space.

"But of course, daughter."  He opened up his free arm and she slipped under it.  "You are my sleeping beauty.  Is the headache gone, Beibhinn?  Did your mother's powders work?"

"As always, Pappa.  There is something to be said for the old ways."  She smiled up at him.  "Besides, I couldna miss Megan's first night of the ritual, now could I?"  She ruffled her sister's head, snatching a few hairpins from the thick coil of hair at the back of it.

"Oh, you!"  Megan stepped back, trying to catch her hair, but it was too late, and the mass of thick blonde tresses tumbled down around her shoulders, to her waist.  "Now look what you've done."

"Just giving you a helping hand, baby sister.  The ritual calls for you to be maiden-like, your hair down and your nightgown of purist white."  She chuckled at the blush that crept across her sister's cheeks.  "Now, we'd best be helping Ma get the supper on the table.  At moonrise the ritual shall begin."


Pale moonlight spilled over the land, lighting the trees in a fairy-like glow.  Firinne ducked behind her daughters' bedroom curtain and paused, leaning in the doorway for a moment of observation.  The two sisters sat side-by-side in companionable silence at the windowsill, Megan's long blonde hair spilling down her back, and Beibhinn's equally long red next to her.  Her daughters had been spared no blessing in comeliness, both fair of face and slender of build.  Beibhinn had a rash of suitors in the old country, and upon arrival in the new, had an equal number of young lads smitten with her in short order, until finally she accepted the proposal of Liam, the son of a fellow Irish fisherman who lived nearby. It was Liam's face that Beibhinn had seen during her All Hallows' Eve ritual.

"'Tis a glorious night for the ritual, Ma."  Megan turned, her eyes glowing with wonder and anticipation.  "Did you bring me the ball of yarn?"

"Aye, my daughter, that I did."  Firinne handed her a large roll of thick blue woolen yarn.  "Now I shall leave you and your sister to perform the ritual.  Your older sister Slaine did sit by Beibhinn at this very time last year, and the luck was with her.  Perhaps the sisterly luck shall run down your way, child."  She cupped her daughter's face and studied her eyes for a long moment.  "You'll be breakin' hearts soon enough, Megan.  Your Pappa has already turned down a passel of callers.  The twelfth year is still too young to be marrying you off just yet."

"But not too early for the ritual?"  Long pale lashes blinked over solemn green eyes.

"Nay.  Beibhinn didna see the face of her love until her fourth Hallows' Eve rites.  'Tis soon enough to begin to search your heart, Megan."  She leaned over and kissed her head.  "Now I'll leave the two of you.  Your father has left his shirt hanging by the fire, and a fresh pail of water from the well, for the second part of the ritual.   Goodnight, my lovely lassies.  May you have sweet dreams of handsome faces."

"Goodnight, Ma," Megan and Beibhinn answered in unison.  They watched her leave, the curtain luffing behind her as it settled back into place.

Megan held the ball of yarn in her hands.  "Shall I begin?"

"Aye!"  Beibhinn laughed merrily.  "May the Goddess smile upon you, little sister."

"Here it goes."  Megan flung the ball of yarn out the window, holding onto one end and watching as it uncoiled, and began rolling across the yard behind their house.  When she was confident it had unrolled completely, she began to wind it back in.

"Megan, the Pater Noster!" Beibhinn tugged at her nightgown sleeve.

"Ah, yes."  Megan slapped her forehead with her hand and closed her eyes, whispering as she continued to re-wind the ball of yarn:

"Ár n-Athair, atá ar neamh: go naofar d'ainm.
Go dtaga do riocht.
Go ndéantar do thoil ar an talamh,
mar dhéantar ar neamh.
Ár n-arán laethiúl tabhair dúinn inniu,
agus maith dúinn ár bhfiacha,
mar mhaithimid dár bhféichiúnaithe féin.
Agus ná lig sinn i gcathú,
ach saor sinn ó olc.
Óir is leatsa an Ríocht agus an Chumhacht
agus an Ghloir, tré shaol na saol.

"No, no!"  Beibhinn wailed.  "You must say it backward for the ritual to work."

"Backward?"  Megan paused in the task of re-winding the yarn.  "But the sisters, they say in the catechism class that only witches say the Pater Noster backward."  Her eyes filled with tears.  "How can I?"

"Megan, you must!  You've already started.  You might bring a curse upon yourself.  The Goddess will protect you.  There are no saints of the church in this house."  Beibhinn gave her sister a side-hug.  "Come on, I'll say it with you."

"Alright," Megan peered at her uncertainly, and they began to chant slowly, concentrating on getting the words right, "Amen. saol na shaol tré, Ghloir an agus …"

Megan closed her eyes, the words they spoke rolling over her.  As they finished, she ran out of yarn and tucked the end back into the ball.  Before she opened her eyes again she jumped, a flash of a face appearing in her mind's eye.  Her eyes flew open.  "I think I saw something."

"Shhh."  Beibhinn covered Megan's mouth.  "Look outside and say nothing until the vision passes."

Megan nodded and looked up at the full glowing moon.  She blinked, and a form began to take shape — an indiscernible face, surrounded by long dark flowing tresses.  She swallowed hard and her eyes narrowed, but the image remained.  It appeared decidedly feminine, and she tilted her head to the side, watching as murky facial features took shape, eyes that shone bright blue, and full pink lips that curved up into a brilliant smile, before the vision vanished in a vapor of clouds that blew over the moon.  "I —" she stopped, and turned to face her sister.  "It was all wrong, Beibhinn."

"What do you mean, 'all wrong'?"  She took Megan's hand and squeezed it.  "What did you see, little sister?"

"I think it was a woman."  She closed her eyes, the image still imprinted in her sight.  The face warmed her all over, sending a jolt of tingling chills all up and down her back.

"A woman?"  Beibhinn practically hissed.  "That canna be right.  Perhaps you shouldna have said the Pater Noster in the correct order first.   Pappa's shirt, maybe that will set things right.  Come, Megan.  Let's hurry and undo what has been done."

Megan stood mutely, carrying the ball of yarn with her, her eyes thoughtful.  In a daze, she wet the left sleeve of her father's shirt in the pail of water, and hung it before the fire on a sturdy nail that had been driven into the thick wooden mantle.  "There," Beibhinn soothed her.  "Now the vision of your love-to-be will come at midnight and turn the shirt so the other side of the sleeve can dry.  But you must not fall asleep, Megan.  Do you think you can stay awake?"

"Yes," Megan nodded slightly.  "Good-night, Beibhinn.  I'm certain the Goddess will make all things well."

"Then I bid you a good All Hallows' Eve, little sister."  She kissed Megan's cheek and helped her settle into a rocking chair by the fire, tucking a soft old patchwork quilt around her to keep her warm.  Megan watched her disappear behind the curtain and sighed, her thoughts turned toward the face she'd seen over the moon.

It was a strong face, full of beauty and courage, and the memory of that smile — she shivered, an involuntary smile gracing her own lips.  But a woman?  It made no sense, and she contemplated that.  In truth, Megan O'Brien had little fancy for the ways of the women around her.  It was one thing to dream of meeting her husband and falling in love, but quite another to envision a life of birthing babies and keeping house.  Men had all the fun, she was quite convinced.  They were outdoors all day long, and could joke and smoke and drink ale at the tavern, and learn all manner of interesting subjects in school, while she was allowed only the religious training taught to her and the other girls of Virginia Colony.  She could not even read, but was only allowed to recite the lessons they memorized in the long tedious afternoons with the ladies of the church.

Her thoughts drifted back to the fire and the clean shirt her father had left her.  She could see the water dripping from the wet sleeve back into the pail, and if she listened carefully, she could hear the plink, plink, plinking of the drops over the low crackle of the brightly burning fire.  She closed her eyes, her thoughts flitting from the fire, to the cows in the barn that she would be milking at dawn, to the lads of Chincoteague Island, and which one might be her future betrothed.  Slowly, her legs and arms relaxed, and she had almost fallen asleep when a cool breeze drifted across the room, brushing over the top of her head and disturbing the edge of the quilt tucked under her chin.

Megan's eyes popped open and she gasped softly, as a translucent figure stood by the fire, its back turned to her.  Long dark hair tumbled wildly down the figure's back, and she could just make out dark trousers tucked into high polished boots, their silver buckles glinting in the firelight.  An arm lifted up, a white blouson sleeve ruffling slightly, as the figure took the shirt from the nail and turned it, hooking it back down in front of the fireplace.

"Oh."  Megan's eyes widened as the figure slowly turned and moved in her direction, gliding soundlessly a little above the wooden floor.  As it drew closer, bright blue eyes bore through her, and a long arm reached out toward her.  Megan felt the gentlest of touches against her face, sending a skittering of sensation across her skin, as goose bumps danced down her arms and legs.  It was the same woman she had seen over the moon.  She gazed at Megan intently, then vanished, seemingly sucked up the chimney along with the pine smoke.

Had it been a dream?  Megan blinked and closed her eyes, drawing in a calming breath.  Her eyes flew open as she sucked in another lungful of air, the scent of salt water and warm sand lingering in the room.  How had such fragrances entered the house?  Was it her father's scent or that of her vision?  She thought of the mysterious woman in her vision and sighed, still feeling her touch against her cheek.  It stirred something deep inside, a warm spark in her heart, and she knew that no matter whom she married someday, she would never forget her All Hallows' Eve visitor.


Beach on Chincoteague Island — same night


Steady drumbeats sounded on the shore and a rhythmic rattle shook, shattering the silence of the night air.  The full moon shone down on the beach, where several figures gathered around a prone body that was laid out next to a bonfire.  The figure, a man, groaned in agony, his face pale from sickness, his body emaciated and his features gaunt.  Another figure in a mask knelt over him, chanting words in an unfamiliar language and sprinkling herbs along his body.  The masked figure moved closer and gently lifted the man's head, placing a rawhide string around his neck.  Tied to the string, resting in the hollow of his throat, was a fetish, a small packet of herbs and other mystical ingredients, tied up in a soft suede leather pouch.

The masked figure stood and glided silently toward a basket near the fire.  The figure squatted down next to the basket and carefully opened up the lid and reached inside.  Slowly, it drew out a coiled body, which quickly lengthened, the body of a fat smooth snake slithering in the masked figure's hands.  It made no sound, but settled into the figure's grasp as the snake was lifted high overhead amidst more chanting.

The masked figure moved toward the prone man and held out the snake.  "Touch it," a velvety voice purred in a heavy Spanish accent.  "Touch it and feel the power of the Goddess as she heals your disease."  The man reached out and with a shaking hand, trailed his fingers along the serpent's surprisingly soft body.  Exhausted, he fell back against the sand, his arm flopping down next to him.

"We've seen enough!" A group of armed men stepped out from behind the trees at the top of the beach.  "Arrest the witch doctor."

"Run!"  The masked figure yelled.  "Do not look back!"

The drums were dropped into the sand, along with the snake, which took the opportunity to escape into the woods.  One man stopped and touched the masked figure's shoulder.  "What shall I tell the cap'ain?"

"Tell him I will catch up in the next port if I do not escape before you must set sail."  The man looked uncertainly into the eyeholes of the mask.  "Go, before they take all of us!  It's me they want."  The man found himself shoved in the direction the others had run.

The armed men circled the witchdoctor, standing out of reach until they were certain the masked figure bore no weapons.  "Do not hurt him," the figure glanced at the sick man still lying by the fire.  "He has done no wrong.  I — I brought him here against his will to try to heal him."  The ill man began to protest and stopped as the masked figure shushed him, and kicked a bit of sand in his direction.

"We shall see."  One of the men stepped forward and jerked the mask off, gasping in surprise.  Long dark hair tumbled out from the mask, the moonlight dancing off it in blue and mahogany highlights.  ""Tis a woman!"

"A witch of the devil, no doubt."  One of the men spat in the woman's face.  Her eyes narrowed in anger, but she remained otherwise still.  "Take her victim into town and see to it the doctor takes care of him.  As for her, take her out back o' the jail and give her twenty lashes.  Bring her up before the elders for witchcraft charges on the 'morrow."

The woman briefly struggled with her captors, then gave in, meekly allowing them to lead her into town, her hands bound fast behind her back and her ankles shackled together by a length of chain that barely allowed her to walk.  It was dark out, cloud shadows chasing across the moon, and the sounds of a light wind blew through the chilled air.

One of the men took her behind a low barred building and rough hands shoved her to her knees before a large flat-topped tree stump.  Two thick metal loops jutted up from the stump, and the man took her hands, only partially untying them and shoving them painfully over her head, until she felt one shoulder pop out of the socket.  She cried out only briefly, as daggers of agony shot down her arm and up into her neck.

"You're an un-natural one, dressing in a man's clothing."  The man chained her wrists to the metal loops and pushed her face down until it almost touched her hands.  "You go against the ways of God Almighty with your filthy witchcraft and your trousers."  He ripped her shirt open from behind, baring her back to the cold air.  She shivered, hearing his feet crunch through the dead leaves on the ground.  "You heard them.  I have the lash here with me."

She gritted her teeth and heard the whoosh of air, just before the fringed leather end of the whip snapped loudly, and flicked over her back, flaying her skin open.  She whimpered once, then made no more sound, enduring ten strikes without a word.  The man stopped and moved around, standing in front of her where she could see his boot-tops.  He grasped her face in one hand and tilted her head up.  Tears were streaming down her cheeks but she kept her mouth closed.  "What's your name, lass?"

Her nostrils flared in anger and pain, but she kept quiet, her breathing coming hard as her body fought the pain.  She could feel blood trickling down her back, an odd mixture of warmth with the cool breeze that brushed over her skin.  He slapped her across the face, knocking her head to one side.  "Answer me, woman.  What's your name?"

The woman's tongue poked out, tasting blood where the blow had split her lip.  She glared up at him, refusing to speak, and he struck her again.  "Tell me your name, or we'll bring the man you were treating out here, and try him for witchcraft along with you."

"Isalba Cortez," the woman rasped softly.

"You are unknown around these parts, lady.  Where are you from?"  The man knelt down.  "You speak as a Spaniard."

Blue eyes sparked to silver in the low light, peering angrily up at the man.  "I spit on Spain and its king and queen."  For emphasis she did just that, spitting on the ground, tasting more blood.

"Are you certain you're not a Spaniard?  You have a Spanish name," he goaded her.  "Maybe when we try you for witchcraft tomorrow, we will wrap you up in a large Spanish flag.  Maybe after we burn you at the stake, we'll send your ashes back there."

"Spain is dead to me," she looked steadily into his eyes.  "I serve only England."

"That will gain you no sympathy here," he answered.  "Beg me for mercy now and admit you are guilty of witchcraft, and I shall lay off the lash.  No less, and you shall suffer ten more strikes."

She glanced up at him one more time, then lowered her forehead to the stump.  The man made an unintelligible surprised sound, then shrugged and moved behind her, laying into her with the full force of his body for ten more strikes.  When he was done, she was panting, blood streaming down her back in rivulets, staining the ground below her.  Sweat covered the rest of her body, and close scrutiny revealed that she was shaking all over, tiny controlled movements of her body as she reined in the urge to scream out in agony.

"Silas," another man rounded the building.  "Be done here.  Lock her in the stocks in front of the jail until morning.  Perhaps a night out in the cold will make her see the error of her ways."

The second man moved in front of the stump and knelt down, waiting. "Woman, look at me."  Slowly, tear-filled blue eyes rose, glaring at him with unbridled pride and fury, as full moonlight spilled over her face.  "May God forgive us," he gasped.  "She's a child."  She was tall, as tall as some of the men who had captured her, but on closer inspection, her body bore the lankiness of a still-growing girl.  Her eyes gave testament to experience beyond her years, but there was a roundness to her face, a softness that would disappear with her womanhood.  "How old are you, child?"

"I'm in my fourteenth year." her chin jutted out.  "I'm no child."

"Still, we should not have whipped you."  He stood, his face lined in worry.

"Ah, Jacob."  Silas re-coiled his whip and clapped him on the shoulder.  "The girl is old enough to marry.  Old enough to bear brats, I'd wager.  Younger than her are hanged and burned up north, in Salem.  She's old enough to stand trial and old enough to know better than to go against the ways of good Christian folk."

"True, I suppose."  Jacob studied the girl for a moment.  "Put her in the stocks.  We'll let the elders decide her fate.  Although what we saw was clear enough — snake handling and calling out to a pagan Goddess.  More than enough evidence to forfeit her life."

They unchained her and jerked her to her feet, mindless of her dislocated shoulder.  She groaned in pain but followed compliantly, in hope they would spare her friend if she was cooperative.  In short order the heavy top beam of the stock dropped over her neck and wrists, the clank of the key turning in the locks sounding loudly in her ears.  Jacob un-shackled her legs, and moved in front of her, scooting down until she could see him.  "I sadly inform you, girl, your friend died at the doc's cottage only moments ago.  Think on that and on your pagan ways.  Worshipping the devil will bring you no good in this world.  You've cursed your friend and cursed yourself."

"Bastards," she snarled, all restraint gone at their news.  She began chanting in a language they did not understand, her eyes sparkling with intense anger and concentration:

Babe wetfu losezulwini,
alingcweliswe libito lakho.
Umbuso wakho awute.
Intsandvo yakho ayentiwe emhlabeni,
njengobe yentiwa ezulwini.
Siphe lamuhla kudla kwetfu njengasemalangeni, onkhe.
Sitsetselele tono tetfu,
njengobe natsi sibatsetselela labasonako.
Ungasingenisi ekulingweni,
kodvwa usisindzise kulokubi.
Ngobe umbuso wakho, nemandla,
nebukhosi, kuze kube phakadze.

"She curses us with her devil tongue!"  They stared at her but for a moment, then scurried away in fear, disappearing into the darkness and leaving her alone as the cold settled into her bones. 

She laughed as they ran, stopping only when her shaking sides caused her too much pain.  "Fools," she mumbled.  She had merely recited the Pater Noster in Swazi.


An insistent knock at the door drew Peadar O'Brien from his warm bed.  As he stepped into the main room, he smiled briefly at the sleeping figure of his daughter, who was curled up in the rocking chair near the fire.  "Ah, sweet Megan, I hope you had yourself some nice visions on this night."  He walked quietly to the door and opened it a crack, holding a finger to his lips as he recognized Silas and Jacob, two of the village elders.  "Quiet iffen you will.  My daughter fell asleep in the chair over there and I've not the heart to wake her."

The men spoke low, describing the girl in the stocks in the village square.  Megan awoke and opened one eye, just long enough to identify who was speaking before she closed it again, feigning sleep.  Strange words washed over her … "witchcraft" … "stocks" … "trial" … "woman in man's clothing" … "just a girl, really,"  but her heart lurched into her throat on Jacob's description of their captive, "she'd be a beautiful lass if she were to reach her full womanhood, long dark hair and eyes as blue as the summer sky, a tall one.  Most unfortunate it's almost a certainty she'll not live to see another night."

Peadar nodded solemnly.  "So you need me at dawn for a meeting of the elders?"  The men shook their heads affirmatively and bid him a good night.  Peadar closed the door and went to bank the fire, then moved to the rocking chair and lifted his daughter, carrying her into the next room and depositing her into the bed she shared with Beibhinn.  She barely stirred and snuggled down beneath the covers, not moving again until she was certain he had left the room.

Inch by careful inch, she slipped out of bed, stopping and waiting without breath until she could see her sister's breathing, a slight shifting beneath the covers.  She located her shoes and stockings, and a shawl, and crept out into the main room where she grabbed up the quilt still draped across the rocking chair.  Listening for any sound of her parents waking, she edged the door open and stepped out into the cold night air, and struggled into her stockings and shoes.  Drawing the shawl around her, she folded up the quilt and began the long trek to the village square.

The night was eerily quiet, save for the wind brushing through the few dead leaves that clung bravely to almost winter-bare branches.  An owl hooted and flapped away at her disturbance, almost making her shriek in fear before she realized what it was.  Something was driving her to the village square.  It was madness, she knew, and forbidden, but she had to see the girl the elders had described.  Her vision — she shook her head and hunkered down against the wind, almost running in her eagerness.

In no time at all her steps slowed, as the jail came into sight, and she spied the lone figure hanging from the stocks out front.  She stopped and swallowed, a mixture of fear and anticipation coursing through her veins.  She could hear her own heartbeat in her ears, and her legs suddenly felt like liquid.  Girding her loins, she moved on resolutely, quietly approaching the girl, who was visibly shivering.  "Hello?" Megan crooned softly.

The dark head turned toward her, two eyes studying her intently.  The eyes narrowed.  "Should not young girls like you be in bed asleep?" a deep rich voice responded.

"I'm only two years younger than you," Megan answered, moving closer.

The head turned toward her again, and a brow quirked upward.  "How do you know my age?"

"Two of the elders came by our house and talked to my Pappa.  They thought I was asleep, but I was listening."  She drew in a shaky breath and stepped up on the platform that bore the stocks.

"So you sneak around in the darkness to get an eyeful of the wicked pagan witch?" Isalba hissed out.  "Stare at me all you wish.  You cannot hurt me little girl.  Not any worse than they already did."

"No.  I — I came because …" her voice trailed off as she knelt down and sat down on the ground below Isalba, so they could see each other face to face.  She gasped softly.  It was the face and eyes in her vision.  A face that was bruised from Silas' severe slapping.  "Look what they did to you," she whispered sadly.  "I —"

"Came because why?!" Isalba barked.  "You itching to dance with the devil, little girl?"

"N — no!"  Megan edged back a little.  "Do you truly engage in snake-handling?" she asked curiously.

"Yes."  Isalba's voice hinted at danger and her eyes held the slightest suggestion of mischief.  "But it is not what they think it is.  It is something I learned in the islands."

"Islands?"  Megan sat up, her head tilted in curiosity.

"West Indies." Isalba's eyes took on a faraway expression.  "It is a kind of religion.  A black magic.  They call it Voodoo.  I have seen it work miracles.  I only wanted to save Cookie.  He was one of my best friends, and his body was raging with the fever.  But I needed a place to build a fire, so we took him to shore when we landed near here.  I live on a ship.  I'm a cabin boy."

"But you are a girl," Megan teased slightly.

"Yes, and they know of that, now.  But when first the captain took me in, he thought I was a boy."  She grinned wickedly.  "By the time they discovered my secret, the captain had decided I was indispensable, and so he allowed me to stay on.  He raised me, I suppose, more so than anyone else has."

"But your parents?" Megan asked softly.  "Such an adventurous life you must lead, but what of  your parents?"

"Murdered by the king and queen of Spain, along with my entire family," Isalba growled.  "I escaped. Someday —" she studied Megan, wondering if she could trust her, then she snorted softly, realizing nothing mattered anymore.  She was condemned and with dawn all her dreams would perish.  "Someday," she continued quietly, "I had hoped to have my own ship and crew.  I wanted to exact my revenge on Spain for what they did to my family.  The captain of the ship I live on, he has taught me everything I need to know.  All I needed was a bit more time, but now …" she trailed off and looked down.

"You're shivering."  Megan stood up and moved behind her with her quilt.  She cried out when she saw the bloody crusted whip lacerations on Isalba's back.  "What did they do to you?"

"Is that not at least obvious to even a girl like you?" Isalba shook her head.  "I am a witch to them.  They whipped me, little girl, and on the 'morrow they will burn me at the stake."

"You were only trying to help a friend." Megan began to cry.  "They canna do this thing.  I've only just met you."

"You are a curious girl." Isalba continued to shiver.  "Make yourself useful and bring me a dipper of water from that well over there."

Megan sniffled and wiped her face on her shawl.  "Oh. Of course."  She scurried over to the well and brought up not only a dipper, but a pail full of water, lugging it back to the stocks.  She held up the dipper, watching as Isalba's full lips closed around the edge and she slurped thirstily at the cold, clear liquid.

"Thank you." Isalba finally indicated she was full.  "Blood loss, I think.  Makes a body thirst."

"Will you let me clean your wounds?"  Megan tore a strip of cloth from the bottom of her nightgown.  "Please?"  She moved closer, resisting the urge to touch Isalba's face, instead stopping short, resting her hand on the wooden stock.  "I know it shall probably hurt terribly, but perhaps it will make you feel better once it is accomplished."

"Why such kindness to me?"  Isalba's eyes narrowed and she turned to find green ones boring through her.  It touched something inside and she bit off a gasp of surprise.  "I am a witch to you, am I not?  A pagan of the devil?"

"No."  Megan gave in to her instinct, brushing a hand across the dark head.  "No.  You will surely think me mad if I explain myself to you."

"They think I am mad," Isalba laughed bitterly.  "Why should it matter to one such as you, what I think?"

"Because.  It does.  That is all."  Her hand trailed down and cupped Isalba's face.  "Please.  Let me take care of your back."

The touch was comforting, warming her and driving back some of her fear of the coming dawn.  "Alright."  Isalba jerked her head back a bit.  She felt the air moving as Megan stepped behind her, and she closed her eyes, determined not to make a sound, as cold water was drizzled down her back.  A gentle touch of the rag to her back felt like fire, and she squeezed her eyes shut more tightly, waiting for an eternity until Megan finished, and draped the quilt around her.

She felt immediately warmer, though her skin was still twitching from the pain at her back.  Megan moved back around and stooped down so they could see one another.  "Oh."  Megan touched her face again, catching a few tears as they trailed down Isalba's cheeks.  "That must have hurt terribly, but your back is all clean now.  We have some herbs at our cottage.  I could go get them, but I fear the sun shall be up soon."

"Ale?"  Isalba asked hopefully.

"You wish for ale?"  Megan frowned in consternation.  "Ladies don't —"

"I am no lady.  I drink ale and I smoke tobacco.  Ale would take the edge off the pain."  Isalba winced as she shifted slightly, reminding her of her still-dislocated shoulder.  "It would be most welcome if you could locate some."

"I shall be back quickly."  Megan trotted back to the well and pulled up another rope.  At its end was a small keg.  She smiled back over at her surprised new friend, as she untied it and lugged the small vessel to the platform.  "The elders believe no one knows of this, but all the village children have seen it, though we don't dare touch it.  The water in the well, it keeps it cold."  She uncorked the round wooden container and poured a full measure into the dipper.  She held it up and watched in fascination as Isalba gulped it down in only a few swallows.  "More?"

"No, thank you ever so much."  Isalba shifted again and turned her head, watching Megan's face.  A tear escaped and rolled down Megan's cheek.  "Why?"  Isalba longed to catch that tear.  "If they find you here, they shall burn you with me.  I do not understand.  You know me not at all."

"I do know you."  Megan balled her hand into a fist and held it over her heart.  "I know you in here."

Intrigued blue eyes shone back at her.  "Go on."

"It is difficult to explain."  Megan swallowed and moved closer, touching Isalba's face once more.  Blue eyes closed and Isalba soaked up the comforting contact.  "I saw you, Isalba, in a vision.  I knew I would meet you one day.  I just did not think it would be so soon."

"A vision?"  Isalba opened her eyes.

"Please.  Do not ask me to explain," Megan answered softly.  "Will it suffice to say my mother, she practices the ways of the old country?  It sounds not so different from your, how did you say it?  'Voodoo'?"

"Ah, my pagan comrade.  We all have our secrets, do we not?"  Isalba smiled sadly.  "I shall think of you and your kindness always, and upon my death tomorrow, I shall see you in my own vision."

"No."  Megan began to sob, covering her face with her hands.  "I canna allow you to die.  Not now.  Wait here."

Isalba chuckled.  "I do believe I shall still be here, should you go away and return."

"Oh."  Megan managed a smile.  "'Tis true.  But you shall not be here when the sun rises.  That I promise you."  She took off at a run, disappearing behind a building in the darkness.

Isalba drew in a breath, grateful for the warm quilt, and the cold ale in her belly, the alcohol settling into her blood and easing the pain just slightly.  Far off, she heard a ship's bell, recognizing it immediately.  It was the signal for all who had gone ashore.  The ship would be leaving in an hour.  "Hurry back, little one," she whispered into the night.

Almost as if she had heard her, Megan returned momentarily, dragging a crowbar and a mallet with her.  "I took these from the Smithy's.  I believe if I wedge this bar into the padlocks, and beat them with this mallet, I can break them."  She eased the long metal tool into the lock mechanism, and hefted up the mallet.  "I do hope I do not hit you."

"You can do this," Isalba encouraged her.  "I shall say a prayer for you."

"You pray?"  Megan's eyes widened incredulously.

"When it seems fitting, yes." Isalba smiled.   "Go on."  She closed her eyes and winced, as Megan slammed the mallet against the crowbar several times.  Each blow shot through the wood and through her shoulder, and she bit her lip until it bled.  Finally she heard a loud crack, and the clunk of metal hitting the platform at her feet.

"It worked!"  Megan moved to the other padlock, repeating the process, doing a little dance as it too broke off.  "You shall be free, just as soon as I can get this off of you."  She reached up and pushed against the heavy wooden cross beam with all her weight, shoving mightily until it teetered and fell off, just missing Isalba's head.

Isalba stood stiffly and moaned in agony, looking around wildly until she spotted the jailhouse wall.  Closing her eyes she lunged for it, ramming her shoulder against it and crying out as it popped back into the socket.  She turned and saw Megan cringing back from her, her eyes full of fear.  "I shall not hurt you." Isalba rubbed her shoulder.  "They pulled it from its joint when they whipped me.  I had to do that to put it right again."

"Oh."  Megan stood taller and cautiously approached her friend, reaching up with her hand and touching her face once more.  Isalba also reached across, mimicking her touch.

"What is your name, little one?"  Isalba stroked her cheek softly.

"Meg.  Megan O'Brien."  Megan smiled up at her.  "And I'm not so little.  You could take me with you.  I could be useful at sea."

Isalba laughed heartily.  "No.  That I cannot do."  The ship's bell rang out once more.  "That is my ship.  If I run, I can reach them before they leave."

"But —" Megan stopped, as Isalba ducked down, quickly brushing her lips against Megan's.

"I shall never forget you, Megan O'Brien."  She stroked Megan's soft hair.  "May the Goddess bless you, all of your days."  Isalba smiled once more and reluctantly stepped away.  She trotted to the edge of the village square and stopped, turning around once more.  Lifting her hand to wave, she watched as Megan blew her a kiss.  Isalba blushed and turned resolutely toward the sea, running into the woods and out of sight.

Across the eastern sky, Megan saw the pink edge of dawn, and she sighed.  She picked up the quilt and folded it carefully, then walked down past the town to the shoreline where she spotted Isalba, running down the beach in the lingering darkness toward a tall-masted ship.  "You'll be back with your own ship someday, Isalba Cortez.  By the Goddess, I know you will be."



Chapter 1

Off the coast of Assateague Island, Virginia Colony — 17th Century, 4 years later

The three-masted warship HMS Langley crested a wave and then dropped with sickening force, rolling with the motion of the unforgiving sea and sending many a seasoned sailor to the rails.  Below decks men clung to beams, barrels, or anything else they could grasp in an attempt to avoid being flung about the belly of the ship.  An October nor'easter, early for the season, had battered them for two days of blinding rain and sleet, driving the ship far off course. 

Once a prize Royal Navy vessel, the ship was now the domain of rogue pirate turned privateer, Captain Henry Covington, who had long since tossed his charts aside.  They were useless, as were any other navigational tools.  Heavy clouds blotted out the stars by night and the sun by day, forcing him to guide the ship by guts and luck, amid prayers to God to spare them all.  In the ship's hold was precious cargo, a small herd of Arabian ponies, sturdy and sure of foot, perfect for working the mines of South America.  They would fetch a fine profit for King William and Queen Mary, the English monarchs who had hired the captain to transport and sell the captured cargo. 

The captain was English to the bottom of his heart, his ship crafted in Nelson's Yard, the Crown's finest.  The crew was a rag-tag mix of privateers, out-of-work sailors, and less-honorable pirates, culled from harbors across Europe.  Hard workers, the lot of them, if a profit were involved, and at the end of the day they could be found even harder at work in the taverns and brothels of seaside villages on both sides of the great Atlantic Ocean, with occasional forays to ports more exotic.

"Captain Covington!" The first mate climbed from the hold below, up into the pelting fury of the sleet and rain.  With a flick of a wrist, she drew her cloak across her body and followed a trail of stays for support, taking confident but careful steps across the icy-slick deck, until she stood by his side.  "The cook, he is running short of food stores that do not require the cook fires." Her heavy Spanish accent carried softly on the blowing wind, barely reaching the captain's ears.

"Aye, 'Salba, I know the men are hungry."  His sorrowful brown eyes met Isalba's pale blue ones only for a moment, before gazing farther out, past the bow of the ship into the darkness.

" 'Twill be dawn soon." She followed his gaze, widening her stance and taking a firmer hold on the gunwale she clung to for balance, as a nasty wave slapped the ship from off the starboard rail. "Any sign of land?"

"Aye.  A small bird flew past me a half-hour ago. Cannot be too far from blessed shore."  He gave a turn to the wheel, one of hundreds of constant adjustments made in response to the sea's continually-rocking dance.

"Then we must keep a constant lookout."  Isalba looked up to the tall top of the foremast.  "Why no man in the nest?"

"Too dangerous."  The captain gestured toward the sparse crew manning the deck.  "'Twould be fool-hardy for anyone to climb up there in this fury."

"And yet more fool-hardy to risk missing land and continuing on a death mission toward the open sea," Isalba argued.  "If no man will go, I will."

"No!"  Captain Covington briefly touched her arm.  "If anything should happen to me, the responsibility falls to you to get this ship safely to land."

"Then allow me my duty."  She stepped back, removing her cloak and shoving it into a barrel bolted to the deck.  Long, dark locks flew back in the wind and she grabbed at them in agitation, twisting them into a tail at the back of her neck and shoving it into her collar.

" 'Salba." The captain shook his head gently.

"I know." She touched his shoulder.  He was like a father to her, and putting herself in his boots, she knew his heart like her own.  Were their places reversed, she'd no more risk losing him than he would her.  He'd taught her everything she knew about ships and the sea, but most importantly, he'd taught her to lead by example.  "Listen to me."  She leaned in close and cupped her mouth with her hand so he could hear her.  "If ever I am to lead these men, they must know I would never ask of them what I would not ask of myself.  Let me go."  She waited, unwilling to defy his original orders.

After a very long pause he looked up, studying her face like that of a child.  "I cannot look at you and not see the young girl who came to me begging for work on this ship."

"You mean 'young boy'."  Isalba smiled in memory and winked at him.

"Yes, lass, and had I known —"

"Had you known," she cut him off.  "I would not have come to know the finest swashbuckler on the seven seas.  Look me in the eye and tell me that you are sorry."

"That I cannot."  He smiled warmly upon her.  "My cabin girl has sprouted the fine feathers of a woman.  A woman as good as any man on this ship. I grow old.  The both of us, we know as much.  This ship is all but yours, and the crew as well.  Soon —"

"Soon you will be sitting in the sun, fat and happy on your island in the West Indies, far from the bitterness of England's winters.  One last venture, was this not?"  She shifted again with the wind, the rain plastering dark bangs across her forehead.

"Aye.  With profit enough to round out my personal coffers nicely.  Then my island paradise beckons.  Go then."  He waved her away.  "Before I change my mind."

She nodded in understanding, the mantle silently passed privately between them, there on the deck in the deadly gale.  With one last touch to his coat sleeve she was off, ducking low between shrouds and stays, dodging around the first two masts until she reached the forward one, twice as thick around as her own body and many times over her height.  Quickly, she unwound a line from its cleat on the mast and lashed it securely around her waist.  Wiping the rain out of her eyes, she grabbed the first rung on the mast and began to climb. 

It was fiercely cold, the rain freezing her wet eyebrows and hair and the wind stinging her cheeks until they grew numb.  Drawing a deep breath, she focused inward, finding a place of calm until all was blocked out, save the motion of her arms and legs, the sureness of her feet, and the cold, metal rungs that were her lifeline to the crow's nest.  She slipped only once, her boot flying off a rung and leaving her hanging, holding on with both hands as the rain pummeled her.  On brute strength alone, she muscled her way up, her back and arms straining against the wind and the tossing motion of the ship. 

Finding her footing once more she paused, heart pounding and blood pulsing in her ears, willing her body to slow down.  There was no room for error, no place for even such the slightest slip of her boots.  The rope that held her was no guarantee.  If she were to fall in such weather, there was every chance she would be slammed against the mast or gored through with any number of sharp objects.  If the ship were to keel over far enough, she might even be dunked into the icy sea like a teabag on a string.

And so she climbed, half-blind from rain and sleet, her hands all but void of feeling.  Relying mostly on instinct, she labored on until she reached the yard arm, where she paused for only a brief rest before finishing the arduous journey, her feet finally planted firmly against each side of the crow's nest in a wide stance.  Careful not to trip on her own safety rope, she looked all around, squinting into the full fury of the storm.

Dawn was coming and for the first time in two days, far on the horizon behind the ship, she saw a sliver of light.  "Sun!" she cried out in triumph.  Even as she spoke, it became more obvious that the storm was at last clearing.  While the rain still beat down upon her bare head, away to the east she saw heavy clouds, outlined in the silver of a new morning.

"Captain!" she yelled as loudly as she could.  "Bear west and we will surely find land."  She pointed directly across the ship's bow as her instructions were painstakingly passed across the deck from fore to aft by the men below.  While there was no land visible, there was no doubt the colonies were somewhere ahead of them.  Even in two days of storms, it was impossible they could have traveled far south enough to pass the long stretch of shores now claimed by England from Massachusetts Bay to the Carolinas.

Confident they were at last headed in the right direction, Isalba settled into the crow's nest for the long haul, arms and legs still braced to hold her against the slowly-dying wind.  The rain continued to fall, steady and hard at first, and then it began to ebb as the sky above them hinted at a visible sunrise.  It was still dark, but frequent glances toward the stern heartened her as the light on the horizon continued to widen and reach higher across the mostly cloud-covered sky.

Then she smelled it, something other than the salty sea — a hint of sand and wood on the wind.  Willing the morning to hurry, she squinted dead ahead, watching darkness give way to light, and with the light, the faint outline of trees formed across the skyline.  "Land!  Land, ho!"  She waved joyfully, pointing ahead toward the mostly-darkened landscape in front of them.

"I see it, 'Salba," Captain Covington responded joyfully.  "We shall be building a fire soon on the sand."

"Aye, and it cannot be soon enough."  Isalba turned back to her watch, the ship racing with the sun toward land.  As the first hint of sunlight touched the shore ahead, it became apparent they were much closer than she had first thought, but she had little time to savor the promise of sand beneath her feet.  As her eyes adjusted to the rising sun, a terrifying sight caught her eye.  "Captain, rocks, dead ahead!  Bear away! I repeat, bear away!"

"Bear away!"  The captain barked his command, and the crew sprang to life.  As the command made its way below decks, the number of men topside grew, and they set to work at the rigging.

From her perch, Isalba knew it was too late.  Turning such a large ship was not a quickly-accomplished task.  They were fast approaching the rocks, and then they were upon them.  "Impact imminent!" she yelled, and tightened her hold as a sickening crunch greeted her ears and the ship staggered, then lurched to a stop, throwing her against the mast, which she clung to until the ship began to settle.  The cries of men rang out, some thrown overboard, others slammed across the deck, while still others cries drifted up from below deck.

High waves continued to crash against the ship, rocking it and wedging it more firmly against the rocks.  She could not see the damage, but a dozen bodies spilled into the sea, indicating a sizeable hole in the hull off the port side bow.  Below her the captain was yelling orders right and left, and men began to launch the lifeboats.

Isalba shimmied down the mast as quickly as she dared, running on slick wood toward the captain.  "I will go below to help the men!"

"No!"  The captain grabbed at her, but she avoided his reach.

"You care for the men up here, I will care for those below."  For the first time in her life, she defied him, and his eyes met hers in weary consent.

"Godspeed, 'Salba," he called out after her, as she mounted the steps and descended into chaos and darkness.

Men were crying out, as the sea rushed to fill the hold and drag the ship under.  Then she heard it — the screams of the ponies.  Grabbing the sleeve of one of the panicked crewmen, she slapped him hard across the face.  "Gather your wits, man!  Get these men up top and to the boats.  That is your duty, so help you God.  Do you understand?"

"Yes ma'am!" The man peered at her, his eyes fearful but much clearer than they had been.  "You!  Up top!"  He yelled to his nearest companion, and then he was off, gathering the men and urging them toward the stairs up toward the pale light of dawn.

Isalba half-walked, half slid aftward, her boots struggling for footholds at an awkward angle, the ship now leaning decidedly toward its port side, its aft decks already dragged down.  Descending down to the second level, Isalba followed the terrified whinnies of the ponies and the cries of men afraid of drowning.  When she reached the cargo hold, she grabbed an axe, as water rushed up to meet her at waist-level.

Dodging floating boxes and barrels, she threw off her jacket and made her way to the hull's outer wall, judging for a spot she hoped was still above the water line.  Swinging the axe back, she made contact with the thick wood, hacking at it over and over again until she created a hole cut clean through the aged boards.  No water spilled in, but an abundance of sunshine did, illuminating the small space and revealing the rising water.  She tore into the wood with all her might.  "You!"  She yelled at an onlooker.  "Find you as many axes as you can and help me."

"But the life boats!"  The man cried out in fear.

"To hell with the life boats, man.  They will be full and gone by now.  Do you want to live?"  He shook in fear and she slammed the hilt of her axe into his gut, forcing the wind from his lungs.  He coughed violently.  "Do you want to live?!"

Doubled over, the man nodded his head vigorously.

"Then do as I say!"  She lifted the axe and lit into the hull once more, her energy renewed as soon three others joined her.  Gradually a man-sized hole appeared and one of the sailors tossed his axe aside and started to dive through it. "No!" She grabbed him by the seat of his pants, hauling him back in and rescuing the axe as it started to sink.  She pressed it back into his hand.  "Make the hole pony-sized."

"Damn the ponies!  It's the men that must be saved!"  The man tried to push her away.

"You do what I say!"  She slugged him with a hard left hook to the jaw, snapping his head back.  "These ponies are your only chance.  Save the ponies and you may very well save your own sorry hide, but you cannot make it to shore on your own.  It is too far away."

With wary eyes, the man obeyed and they hacked away, wood chips flying and littering the surface of the water as it rose around them.  The ship groaned and shifted, and suddenly the hole dropped to water level, a steady stream pouring in to mix with the water running downhill from the gash ripped through the forward hull.  "Hurry!"  Isalba hacked with her axe and kicked with her boots, tearing at thick boards and willing the hole to grow larger.

At last a sizeable gap was made and she mostly swam toward the terrified ponies, releasing the gates on the stalls that held them back.  Instinctively, they scrambled for the hole and the daylight shining in from outside, struggling up the slope of the sinking ship.  "Every man of you, grab yourself a pony and hold on!"  Isalba slapped the rump of the next-to-last horse and tangled her hands in the mane of the last one, a white and gold pinto pony that barely noticed her presence in its desperate quest to get out of the dying vessel.

They cleared the hull and swam out into the yawning mouth of the hungry sea.  The water was icy-cold, and now that she was done with her axe, she had time to truly notice it, her legs quickly growing numb. Seeing the rocks ahead, she somehow managed to guide her pony well-around them.  "This way!"  she yelled, hoping the men would hear and follow, if they were able.

Ahead of her, the lifeboats sliced through the water, as oarsmen struggled to avoid those same rocks.  Behind and above her, she could hear the chaos on the ship's top deck, as the last of the men who had not made the boats dove for the water below.  Waves crashed against the rocks with a roar, and above the din, the ship creaked and groaned loudly.

Isalba held on and looked back, watching in horror.  After so many days of darkness, her first vision in the light of day was the Langley, as it dropped downward and in slow motion, slipped off the rocks and tilted to an almost vertical angle, before it slid almost silently out of sight, swallowed up by the sea.  It was the only home she had known since the age of ten.  Only a moment was spared for mourning.  She and her pony were in a race for life with the angry waters that battered them from all sides.

Saying a short prayer to both God and the Goddess, she buried her face into the pony's mane and summoned all her courage.  If there were still men on deck, she knew in her heart that Captain Covington was one of them.  He would never have taken a seat on a life boat unless he was the last man on board.  Struggling to hold the tears at bay, she set her jaw firmly and looked up, setting her sight firmly on land.

Assuming the worst, she was now a captain without a ship.  There was no time to cry for the dead.  Her job now was to live, and lead the surviving men to safety, whose care was suddenly and cruelly thrust upon her.


Chincoteague Island, Virginia Colony — 17th Century, same day:

"Think of it, Megan. We could be married and settled in our own home before the first snow falls.  I even laid a wooden floor for you, and turned the soil over, so come the spring, it willna be so difficult to plant the seed."  Patrick looked around and seeing no one before or behind them on the narrow path, he took Megan's hand and twined their fingers.

Megan was silent for a bit, the stillness of mid-morning broken only by the sound of their feet crunching through dry, fallen leaves.  The unusually early winter storm had passed and the ice had all melted away, leaving a fresh, clean scent upon the sandy loam and the nearby marsh grasses.  It was still cool out and Megan reached up with her free hand, wrapping her shawl more tightly about her arms and shoulders.  "We already discussed this.  I thought we had made a firm decision."  She frowned, squinting against the low-slanting eastern sunlight they faced while they walked.

"I know, but the spring will be a busy one, what with me planting the fields and you planning a wedding.  It will force me to make many trips back and forth between the island and the mainland.  Please, Megan.  Why canna we have a simple ceremony sooner?  Why do we need to wait?" he beseeched her, his large brown eyes sadly begging her to change her mind.

"I want a proper June wedding."  Megan put her foot down.  "And my sister, you know that Beibhinn is due to give birth to her first little one, come the new year.  I want to be nearby when the child comes, not far away on the main land.  Why must you take up the farming?  Fishing has been fair enough a trade for my father.  Why is it not good enough for you?  Are you so much better than he is now?"

"No!" Patrick let go of her hand and stomped ahead of her a few steps, then turned to face her, crossing his arms.  "Your father is a fine man. I hold him in the highest esteem.  But the going to sea and the long days away — the toiling away mending nets and haggling with the ships that come and go, to sell our catch.  I need something different for my life.  I want to leave the field at the end of the day and come home to you, not be sitting on a boat out at sea, wondering how you be fairin'."

"Farming is a hard life, Patrick."  Megan released a frustrated breath.  "Before we came to this land, we lived in a wee cottage on my grandfather's farm in Ireland.  Some years the potatoes, they didna grow so well.  Some winters we suffered terribly with the hunger.  The fishing, it has been the better path for us.  The fish, they are always there and if you canna sell them, then at least they are there for the eating.  We've not gone hungry in this new world."

"And you willna be going hungry married to me." Patrick's tone softened and he drew closer, taking both her hands in his own.  "I would not stand by and see you or our children go without.  I love you, Megan.  Had ma sights set on you for longer than I am willing to admit.  It is our land, free and clear.  Good, rich soil, darker than this sand we walk on here on the island.  We shall have cows and goats and chickens.  Even if, God forbid, the crops should fail, we will have eggs and milk and fowl to set on our table.  Please, my love. I need you to stand by me in this."

Megan closed her eyes, feeling a familiar sense that all was not well.  Opening them again, she looked down, crossing her own arms.  She was sixteen years old and already, her entire life was settled.  "When I am married to you, I will follow you as you see fit to lead, but —"  She reached out, touching his arm.  "You came courting me two years ago.  A lesser man would have let you have my hand much earlier than this, but not my father.  He always told me that any man worth marrying me would be willing to wait, and wait you have."

"Peadar O'Brien is a man to be reckoned with," Patrick agreed with her.  "Put the fear o' God in me, he did.  When he told me I had to wait until your sixteenth birthday had passed, I feared I would not survive the torture, but I did."  He grasped her hands once more.  "And I came to love you more with each passing day."

"If you love me as much as you say you do, then you can wait until June."  Megan held her ground.  "Me mother said if you marry in haste, you'll be repenting at leisure.  Patrick, I want to do this the proper way. I hold out hope —"

"For your oldest sister to make the journey from Ireland," he finished her sentence.  "Megan, she'll be understanding. 'Tis a long and uncertain voyage to make, only for a wedding."

"I've not seen Slaine in many years," Megan responded sadly. "And it wouldna be for the wedding alone.  She wrote us, not so long ago.  She and her husband, they want to come be near us, to live.  They might be making the journey in time for our wedding, but not if we marry now.  Patrick, please.  We shall have the rest of our lives together.  Can it hurt so much to wait eight more months?"

"Do I have a say in the matter?"  He asked her, his tone gently teasing.

"Does that mean you'll be willing to wait until June?"  She smiled at him charmingly.

"Ah, sweet Megan.  The truth is, for you I would wait a dozen more winters."  He smiled warmly upon her.  "Very well.  For you — for your happiness, I shall endure the torture of eight more months before I make you my wife."

"Thank you, Patrick."  She kissed him lightly on the cheek, blushing slightly.  By tradition, they would not share their first kiss on the lips until their wedding day, their physical contact limited to occasional hand-holding, and on very rare occasions such as the one at hand, an affectionate peck on the cheek or the hand.  "I owe you my gratitude for your patience.  It will be better this way, with things more settled between me and my family. You shall see."

"Shall we turn back now and I will walk you back home?  Your mother has invited me to share supper at your table this evening.  I must get back and tend to my chores, and my horse needs shoddin' at the smithy's. I do not want to be late."  He held out his arm and she rested her hand on his forearm.

As Megan turned with him, way off across the channel, the slightest motion caught her eye — a gray wispy movement across the blue sky.  She glanced at Patrick and realizing he had not seen it, kept it to herself.  "Can you find me a pretty shell or stone before we arrive back at home?"

"Are you challenging me now?"  He grinned broadly and looked down, carefully studying the path as they walked along, searching for a prize among the leaves and pebbles.  "Very well, I accept, my lady."

"You never fail to find one," she encouraged him, glad to keep him distracted, his eyes off the sky.  Megan, however, watched intently, looking over her shoulder as much as she dared.  There it was again, the faintest hint of smoke drifting over the tree tops.  Perhaps a fire on the beach on Assateague.  Perhaps… Megan drew in a deep breath and released it slowly and silently.  Perhaps it was time to put away her foolish girlhood notions and be the grown woman she was supposed to be.  Maybe the old ways were best forgotten.


There was nothing but cold, salty water, and the struggling pony she clung to.  Isalba's fingers felt as if they had frozen, curled tightly in the poor beast's mane.  Waves washed over them, bobbing them up and down as land slowly but surely grew closer.  "Come on you fine piece of horse flesh," she talked to the frightened pony, encouraging it.  "You can do it.  I know you can.  Get us both to that blessed beach."  The cries of the men had subsided, replaced by occasional groans, all of them working toward the same goal.

Miraculously, after what seemed hours, Isalba dared hope they might survive.  Reaching deep inside, she called up her remaining stores of energy and forced frozen legs to life, kicking, doing her share of the work.  Keeping hold with one hand, she used the other, paddling hard against the brutal sea, refusing to let it win.  "Blast you!" She spit out a mouthful of cold, brackish water.  "You'll not be getting the best of me!"

Suddenly, the pony's hooves touched bottom and Isalba realized that she, too, could stand.  "Thank the goddess."  She stumbled, going under only once, then rose out of the water, thrashing and cursing, fighting to gain solid footholds on the shifting ocean floor.  She let go of the pony but he stayed close by, his eyes wild and terrified.  He peered at her and she gave him a pat on his rump, which was now above the water line.  "Go on.  We made it.  I owe you my life."

Seeming to understand, he snorted and passed her by, whinnying loudly as other ponies ahead of them came ashore.  Isalba herself finally reached the shallows and then the dry beach, falling to her hands and knees on the sand, retching and releasing a belly-full of salt water.  "Ugh."  She swiped the back of her hand across her mouth.  It was warmer out of the water, but not by much.  Slowly she rose to her feet and weaved her way down the shoreline toward some of the men.  "Cooks!" she cried out, hailing the ship's cook.

" 'Salba!"  He met her halfway, engulfing her in a rare hug.  "Ouch."  He reached down, pushing the hilt of her sword out of the way.  "I see your blade lasted through this bitter journey."

"Always, it is strapped securely to my side."  She patted his back and released him.  "Cooks, we need to go to the trees over there and dig beneath the damp brush for dry wood.  These men, they are not yet out of danger.  I will not have them survive the wrath of the sea, only to die at the hands of the wind.  We need to build a fire, and quickly."

"I shall have some of the men go with me to search."  Cooks looked past her and down the beach.  "More have lived than I would have thought."

"Aye," Isalba agreed with him.  "I fear the lot of them will be in shock and half-frozen.  I should like to count heads and determine who is alive, and who is missing.  Maybe the captain —"

"Lass."  Cooks studied her sorrowfully.  "I would not hold out hope for Covington."

"I know."  Isalba responded, her heart heavy with a truth she could not yet plainly speak.  "I cannot but hope that we shall find him somewhere along this godforsaken beach.  He was an honorable man."

"That he was." Cooks clapped her on the shoulder.  "I will be about wood-gathering."

"I will have some of the others dig a fire pit, and set some of them to fishing.  The men need something warm in their bellies."  She turned, shading her eyes and peering out across the water toward the fully-risen sun.  "We shall also need to build a shelter for the coming night.  Once we have eaten and have secured a break from the wind, we should comb the beach as far up and down as we are able.  There will be men who drifted farther away, and the ship will be coughing up her cargo.  'Twill be washing ashore."

"As will some of our fallen comrades,"  Cooks gently pointed out.  "Under other circumstances, they would be getting a proper sending away at sea."

"We have no ship."  Isalba gestured toward the rocks.  "No, we will need to bury the bodies of the dead.  We do not know yet where we have landed.  There are savages in this land.  We must stay close to the shore and determine what we shall do next."

Slowly, other men made their way to where Isalba and Cooks stood, all of them automatically looking to Isalba.  She had been in charge before, at the captain's bequest, but this time was different and they all knew it.  "Matthew."  She greeted a familiar face. "Byron.  Thomas."

The three men, followed by others, all quietly returned her greeting.  " 'Salba, I am glad to see you standing on solid ground." Matthew greeted her.  "What would you have us do?"

"Cooks will be leading some of you to gather wood."  She pointed to a few of the men, each in turn.  "Thomas.  Robert.  Giles.  You all will go with him."

"Yes, Captain," Thomas responded.

It threw her off and she paused, blinking as the knowledge of who she now was began to sink in, unless by some miracle the captain turned up alive.  Silently, her eyes met Thomas's and she ducked her head slightly in acknowledgement. 

Standing taller, she continued.  "Harry and Samuel, find yourselves sticks or shells, or engage your bare hands if you must, and dig us a fire pit far enough up and away from the beach that it will not fill up with water.  It must be deep enough to shelter the fire from the wind, and to hide it once darkness is upon us.  The rest of you, divide into two groups.  One group shall use whatever you will to try to catch some fish.   The others are to find branches to build lean-to shelters, and gather whatever edible nuts and berries you may find in the woods.  Go on, the lot of you. One more thing — should you come upon spoils from the Langley, you are to bring them to me. We are to share equally in whatever bounty the sea shall see fit to relinquish."

Several solemn voices responded, all of them to their new 'Cap'ain.'  Once the men had set about their assignments, Isalba walked away from the water and toward the edge of the nearby woods.  Partly she was cold and sought the shelter of the windbreak the trees would provide. But something more was driving her — the need to determine where they were.

From conversations with Captain Covington, she knew they had been blown south of their course.  Their original plan was to cut directly across the Atlantic and hug the coastline as much as they dared.  The closer they remained to civilization or even uninhabited land, the less they had to conserve their supplies and stores.  But how far south had they traveled? 

The trees were a mix of deciduous and evergreen, and were of little help.  Adding to the confusion was the unusually early winter storm, driving temperatures lower than normal. The wind had the bitter bite of the Massachusetts Bay area, but perhaps they were much farther south. She sighed.  They could be on the mainland, or on any of dozens of small barrier islands that dotted the colonial coastline.  Such islands were often havens for pirates and privateers, and Isalba had spent her fair share of time on them over the years.  Some were readily familiar, some were not.

Making her way deeper into the trees, she spotted a relatively tall one with low branches and hefted herself up, climbing until the trunk became fairly thin relative to her weight, and she dared not climb any higher.  Mostly what she saw was a sea of tree-tops, but far on the horizon away from the shore, she thought perhaps the trees thinned out.  "Very well."  She climbed down, carefully placing one foot after the other on the branches, testing each one to make sure it would hold her before letting go of the one above it.  "I must walk farther west."

Getting her bearings, she pushed through heavy undergrowth and eventually came upon what appeared to be a path leading in the direction of the clearing she thought she had seen.  Perhaps they were not so far from a supply source after all.  Sniffing the air delicately, her nose told her the men had gotten a fire started.  She picked up her pace.  The quicker she could get back to them, the sooner she could get warm again, and hopefully bring them good news as well of their location.

The path was faint, but definitely one that had been used more than a few times.  There were no recent footprints to be seen, and no debris of any kind, but she was almost certain it was a man-made trail.  The light grew brighter and she did indeed come upon a break in the trees.  At the trail head, buried deep in the trunk of a tree, was a small hatchet.  She tugged it free and studied it.  It was plain, with a smooth metal head lashed to a simple wooden handle. It could have been made by almost anyone.  Shrugging, she shoved it into her belt and kept walking.  They needed all the supplies and tools they could find.

A lapping sound caught her attention and she made her way across a low meadow and through another thin row of trees, before she reached open space and another beach.  There was a narrow channel separating the land on which she stood, from more land on the other side, and even denser woods.  So.  They were on an island or a peninsula of some sort, and judging by the path and the hatchet, she was even more certain they were not so far from other people.

That could be good or bad, depending upon where they were.  She started to step out of the trees, when the low hum of conversation caught her ear.  Ducking behind a tree, she knelt down and looked around, then closed her eyes, listening for its source.  Slowly, she opened her eyes and realized there were people talking across the channel. At first she couldn't see them, only hear, and she couldn't make out their words.  Squinting, she caught a flash of un-natural color, a bit of blue moving away from her, mostly obscured by the trees on the other shore.

It was difficult to determine how many people were over there, but she didn't think there were many, at most three.  One of the persons talking was female, and she finally determined that there were only two individuals, one man and one woman, judging by the timbre of their voices.  Both of them sounded upset and she wished she were close enough to hear them.  Had their ship been spotted before it sank, and that was the source of their upset?   But surely if there were a village nearby and their ship had been seen, they would not have allowed a woman to come so close to potential danger.  No, she decided, their ship hadn't been spotted, at least not by the two people she observed.

Isalba sighed.  Come nightfall, she would have to find a way to get across the channel and find out how many people were on the other side, and what supplies she might abscond with.  Hopefully she could capture a renegade pony and get a ride, but she feared no matter what, she was going to be cold and wet yet again before morning.  She waited, watching until the people were no longer in sight, then quickly made her way back to the men.


As the day wore on, more and more debris from the shipwreck washed ashore, littering the sand with wooden planks, pewter mugs, lengths of rope, assorted weapons, and several barrels of stores that were mostly ruined by seawater, having been smashed open against the rocks.  Isalba organized the men into search parties, which combed the beach, gathering the booty and stacking it in neat piles beneath makeshift shelters constructed of tree branches and the lengths of wood that had once been part of the ship's hull.

" 'Salba."  Harry, one of her closer comrades came trotting toward her, his head ducked down against the wind, which had picked up again.  "We found something, Matthew and I did.  You need to come see it."

"What is it?" Isalba rose from her kneeling position in front of a stack of swords and daggers.  "What did you find?"

"Come see."  He spoke low, looking around furtively and beckoning with one finger.

"Very well."  She shoved a newly-found dagger into her boot and wrapped a length of nearly dry burlap around her shoulders to ward off some of the chill wind.  She'd found a nice, thick coat that would fit her, but it was soaked through and drying beside the fire. "Show me." 

Isalba stepped over a pile of seaweed and worthless trash, and followed after the two men, glad her boots no longer made a squishing noise when she walked.  She'd removed them, along with her stockings, and sat by the fire for an hour to keep her feet warm while they dried to a tolerable level.  One great find had been a stash of a dozen jugs of rum, wrapped up in a net, all washed ashore together and intact.  Ten jugs had been stowed away for future use, but two were passed among the men to warm their blood and calm their nerves.  Isalba had managed a few swallows, enough to take the edge off, and was feeling somewhat better about their situation, anticipating the potential source of supplies across the channel

"We found two things, one a great find, and one a curious one."  Harry led Isalba and Matthew into the woods for several yards.  Bending over beneath a tree, he removed a stack of freshly-cut brush.  "What do you think?  Quite a find, no?"  He laughed, a throaty chuckle that made his entire torso shake.

"The captain's gold chest."  Isalba knelt down, removing the dagger from her boot and jimmying the already-rusting iron lock on the battered wooden box.  After a few jiggles and jerks, she worked it open, careful not to break it.  Looking up momentarily at the two men, she lifted the lid, revealing shiny gold coins mixed with a few precious gems, nearly filling the interior.  "Blimey," she exclaimed, using one of the captain's favorite expressions.  "If we cannot manage to steal another ship, we shall be able to buy quite a fine one with this.  Quick."  She closed it quietly and hooked the padlock back through the clasp, clicking it shut.  "Bury it good and deep, and the three of us, we need to remember this spot well."  She stood, as the men grinned.  Having anticipated her request, Harry produced a small shovel from inside his coat.  "You said you had two things to show me. Where is the other?"

"Come with me while he buries the loot."  Matthew led her just a little farther into the trees, but not quite out of Harry's sight.  "That be your signal carved in this tree trunk, is it not?"  He pointed to some etchings just below the first branch on a tall oak tree.

Isalba squinted and drew closer, breathing in sharply.  There on the trunk was an inverted triangle, a symbol for the female. Directly below it was etched a dagger bracketed by a heart and a skull.  "Aye." She nodded.  " 'Tis the glyph the captain gave me when I turned twelve.  He said at twelve I was no longer a girl, but a woman grown. He also said I was a fierce warrior, with a balance between my heart and my head." 

She traced the carvings with her fingertip, closing her eyes in memory.  "I know this place."  She opened her eyes once more.  "I almost died not far from here, then an angel with hair of spun gold saved me."

"An angel of our Holy Lord and Savior?"  Matthew's eyes grew wide in wonder.

"No." Isalba's eyes glittered.  "An angel of flesh and bone, warm and firm, with lips like the softest silk of the Orient."  It was well-accepted among the men that Isalba's tastes were decidedly feminine. "Chaste as it was, it is still the kiss I have the most fond memory of."  She traced the glyph one more time with the lightest of touches.  "I placed this here.  Coming back some day, I was."  She waved a hand in the air.  "Foolish dreams and notions of a girl.  But memories of my angel have saved me once more."  She spun around, peering back toward the barley-visible beach.  "I know now where we are."


"Virginia Colony, on the far eastern shore."  She started walking back toward Harry, with Matthew on her heels.

"God's nightgown!" Matthew almost jumped up and down in his excitement.  " 'Tis friendly to the Crown."

"Aye."  Isalba features grew thoughtful.  "But not to the lot of us.  The Captain had the charter of the Crown.  'Twill be lost in the belly of the sea by now.  We are our own people now, Matthew.  Can go wherever we desire.  Do whatever we wish."

"But what of England?"  Matthew frowned, his voice rising and drawing Harry's attention as they reached him.

"Buried it deep, Cap'ain."  Harry pointed to a pile of brush laid carefully over the freshly-dug sand.

"A fine job," she praised him.  "The three of us, 'tis our secret for now.  I fully-intend to share with the men, but 'tis too much temptation buried here.  'Tis no need for the others to know of the chest until we have a use for it.  Agreed?"  Isalba eyed them sternly.

"Agreed," both men answered in unison.

"Good enough.  Now."  She looked around, then bent closer, talking low.  There were still men combing the beach not far from where they stood.  "I need to form a party to go exploring across the channel after the sun sets.  Harry, I would like for you to stay here and keep watch over the men who remain behind.  Matthew, choose two others. Instruct them that at sunset, the four of us shall quietly slip away.  Once upon a time there was a village of fair size across the way.  'Tis another island like this one.  With luck we shall secure additional food stores and perhaps some clothing, maybe even a small boat if the goddess is smiling upon us."

"What shall I tell the men if you be missed?'  Harry rubbed the spot between his eyebrows, as if he had a headache.

"Tell them the truth, that we went across to the other shore to explore.  I do not want to get their hopes up that we will find anything until after we see what might be there."  She started walking again, and the two men fell in on either side.  "I prefer not to tell them in advance.  The men are tired and many are chilled to the bone.  Until I know exactly what our circumstances are, I do not want anyone trying to join up with us.  A crew of four is a good size.  Any more and we risk making too much noise, should we find anyone over there."

"Very well," Harry agreed.  He reached up, brushing long red hair out of his own eyes, and tugging at his full beard. "Blast this wind!"

"If that village is at least the size it was before, we shall not be imprisoned here long," Isalba advised him.  "Ships do come and go from the island.  I plan to make one of them my own."

" 'Salba."  Matthew tugged at her shirt sleeve.  "What you said about the Crown."

"What I said is truth."  Her voice grew hard.  "We are left to our own devices. That is also between the three of us.  Once we have supplies, and a plan, and a ship, then I shall gather the crew and lay out our options.  But think of it Matthew. What we take would be all ours.  No sharing with the Crown.  There is a vast amount of bounty to be had along these shores and in the islands farther south.  Great riches and other crowns."

"We could play Spain against England," Matthew joined in excitedly.

"No."  Isalba grabbed his collar, giving him a shake before she let go.  "I will never deal with Spain.  Spain is the vermin beneath my boot heel.  No."  Her eyes narrowed.  "Spain will come to know the name 'Isalba Cortez'."

With a huff she strode ahead, leaving the two men staring at each other, an air of danger trailing behind her.


Twilight was upon the island and a small number of heartier water fowl that had not flown south for the winter settled in the channel, floating on the surface of the tranquil water in preparation for the rest of nightfall.  The sun had already set over the tops of the tall trees on nearby Chincoteague Island.  Isalba , Matthew, and two other men, Bradon and Louis, carried one of the surviving lifeboats between them.

Coming to the end of a path through the woods, they cleared the trees and crossed an expanse of open land that led to the beach at one of the narrowest points between the two islands.  "Let us put her in here."  Isalba led the men over low scrub and a short length of sand to the waves gently lapping at the shoreline.  They slid the boat into the water and all four climbed aboard.

Using oars and one long sturdy branch that served as a pole, they shoved off across water almost as smooth as glass.  The moon was rising, reflecting off the water's surface and casting odd shadows through the trees in the distance.

Isalba vaguely remembered the area, though it had been four years since her one and only visit.  She'd lost a friend there, Cookie, the ship's former cook, who had been from Italy and as he was able, had mixed up concoctions wonderfully-different from the bland English fare familiar to most of the men.  He had died of a fever that took out a third of their crew.  Now she'd lost another, closer friend, the Captain, her father for all intents and purposes.  

They had searched up and down the beach on the eastern shore of Assateague for a few miles in each direction, and his body had not washed ashore.  A small part of her wanted to hope he had been swept farther away than they had been able to search, and would find them, but her practical side supposed anyone who stayed in the water for very long would have succumbed to hypothermia.   There had been no time to mourn and now, in the stillness of the early evening, her heart was heavy, missing the man who had taught her how to thrive on the high seas and saved her life more than once.

Now she was poised to try to fill his boots.  She had been his first mate for two years, since she'd turned sixteen.  As hired privateers for England, there had been little love for ships traveling the Spanish Main, but for Isalba, a hatred born in childhood had festered.  She could still remember the screams of her mother and sisters and the cries of her baby brother as her family had been dragged away to be burned as heretics before the church and the Spanish monarchy.  She had been hidden away, shoved by a servant into a secret compartment in the back of the fireplace, where she'd remained for two days, curled up in the darkness, shivering from cold and waiting until she could stand it no longer.

In truth, the name Isalba Cortez was already a hissed curse among crew members of certain Spanish trading companies.  She'd been allowed free rein by Captain Covington, slashing and stabbing away at her enemies, exacting a vengeance for her murdered family, her stolen childhood, and a country she would call home no more.  Now… she closed her eyes, inhaling the marshy scent of the water and the heavy fragrance of storm-bruised greenery wafting across from Chincoteague Island. Now her fury had matured.  With a wicked grin, she opened her eyes, as the boat reached shallow water once more.  Now there was no English crown dictating her path.  It was time for Spain to pay in full measure.

"Careful." She dug the end of her oar into the soft ocean floor, muscling the boat forward until it shoved up onto the beach, hard-packed from the morning's rains.   There was no sign of rain at present, as the first few stars began to twinkle in the dusky-dark sky.  Leaping out of the boat, she landed solidly on the shore and turned, waiting until the three men joined her, dragging the boat up out of the water.  "Blessed be for the fullness of the moon.  We shall leave the torches be, for now."

" 'Salba." Matthew settled his sword at his belt.  "I smell wood burning."

"Aye." She smiled and nodded in agreement.  "The village is not far from this beach.  Through those trees is the village square.  The furthest edge 'tis at the next cove down. We should find a larger skiff or two tied up there."

"Skiffs." Louis wrinkled his French nose.  "Surely we could find much finer a boat than a skiff."

"That we could," Isalba answered cheerfully.  "And in due time we shall, but not on this night. Remember our goals."

"Food stores, medicine, weapons, and dry clothing," Bradon dutifully recited.

"I do not want to draw attention to our presence."  Isalba led the men toward the trees.  "With any luck, we shall be in and out of the village with them none the wiser.  Everything we need will be in the buildings on the village square, if they have not changed any great degree from the layout four years ago."

" 'Cap'ain."  Matthew finished covering the boat with dried brush, and joined them at the tree line.  "There be fire nearby."

"Yes."  She clapped him on the shoulder. "We can smell it.  We shall follow our noses.  Come."  She motioned with one hand, pushing past low-hanging branches with the other.  An owl hooted in disapproval at the disturbance and fluttered his wings, resettling on his perch high overhead.

They glided through the trees in silence, careful to avoid snapping twigs or rustling underbrush.  As had been the case on Assateague, there was a clearly-broken path leading away from the beach and toward a now-visible clearing.  They broke the tree line and came upon the village square, bathed in moonlight.  Just as Isalba had remembered, the square was lined with a blacksmith's shop, a village granary, a small general store, and a church meeting-house. 

Glancing across to a free-standing platform near the center of the square, Isalba shivered. The stocks were still there, along with the huge tree stump where she'd received the one and only whipping of her life.  She still bore the scars, several on her back and one on the side of her neck where the stocks had dug in. 

"Gather round." She crouched down behind the wall of the closest building, the church.  "We need bags of cornmeal from the granary.  Bradon, that shall be your task.  Louis, the store will have tea, sugar, medicines, and if luck is with us, coats.  Matthew, there is a shed for curing meat behind the granary.  You know what to do."

"Aye."  Matthew rubbed his hands together.  "Side of bacon and slab of beef."

"Aye," she echoed him. "I will gather tools and weapons from the smithy's shop, if there are any for the taking.  Be quiet," she warned. "Families will be living above the stores. Any weapons you see, take them all.   Bring what you find back here.  Louis and Matthew, guard our takings.  Bradon, you and I will hurry and then find the skiffs we need to haul our prize, and row them back to the beach at the end of the trail.  Go."  She waved them on, then trotted toward the smithy's shop, sticking to the shadows as much as possible.

When she reached the shop she looked around, then gave the door a push open. It wasn't locked, and she remembered back to her first visit, when the girl who had saved her had retrieved an axe from this same building.  Megan.  She remembered sparkling green eyes and warm, gentle hands, treating the wounds on her back.  The inside of the shop smelled of wood shavings, metal, and leather.  Blinking until her eyes adjusted to what little light was left, she took a quick look around, grabbing an empty grain bag and filling it with a hammer, two large knives, and a small hatchet she found on a work table.  Folded up on a bench were three soft clean horse blankets and she took those as well.  "Someone will sleep warmer tonight." She smiled.

There wasn't much else to be had, as they had no need for horse shoes or buggy harnesses, though she did snag a few long strips of leather that might come in handy for something.  As she prepared to leave, two tin mugs and a coiled rope hanging on pegs near the door caught her eye, and she bagged them up as well.  Halfway back to the church building, she passed the well and stopped.  "I wonder —" 

Two ropes dangled from the side of the stone structure, both tied off on the outside of the well's wall and disappearing into the water.   Pulling the first one up, she found a bucket on the end and shrugged.  The second rope was tied to the prize she was hoping for, a small wooden keg of what she assumed was ale.  "People of habit, I see."  Hacking both ropes free, she added the bucket and the keg to her armload of treasure and quickly ducked behind the church where she stacked everything neatly against the worn wooden surface.

Bradon came shuffling around the corner of the building, two large stuffed sacks balanced, one on each shoulder.  He hefted them down.  " 'Salba." He proceeded to untie several smaller bags from his belt.  "Walnuts and apples." He carefully set five more bags down, then straightened up, standing tall now that he was relieved of his burden.

"Well done."  Isalba smiled broadly, clapping him on the arm.  "Let us go find some boats, shall we?"

They took off, past the village and through trees on the other side from where they had entered the town.  In short order they reached the next cove, which was lined with several docks.  At the end of one dock, three row boats were tied and at another, a few larger fishing boats sat, bobbing in the twilight.  Bradon stooped down and started to untie one of the smaller boats.

"Wait."  Isalba pointed to a tall shed nearby.  "Let us look in there first."  Lifting a crossbar closure, she pulled the door open to reveal five skiffs stacked neatly inside, stored away for the coming winter.  "These.  Help me." She eased her way inside, hugging the wall in the small space and lifting the end of the top boat.  Bradon helped her and soon they had moved three of the boats to the water, along with three sets of oars.  "They will not be missing these until spring."

"Clever, 'Salba."  Bradon stepped into one of the boats and tied another off to it, then took up oars and began rowing back northward to where they had crossed over in the life boat. Isalba followed him, after backtracking and covering their tracks leading from the village to the docks.  There was no doubt the villagers would miss their belongings, but with enough trickery, perhaps she could throw them off their trail for a few days and make them first believe there was a thief among them, rather than looking outside the village for the culprit.

The night was still pleasant and she breathed a sigh of relief.  The men needed a good night's rest and sleeping on an open, windy beach wasn't always the most pleasant of circumstances.  With no wind and tolerable temperatures, at least they would not be so terribly cold and would perhaps be spared an overnight scouring of sand and pebbles.  They reached their destination, and Isalba waved Bradon over.  "Stay here and keep watch over the skiffs.  I shall go get the others and bring the stores down here.  If there is trouble, signal us."

"Aye, Cap'ain."  Bradon touched the edge of his hat and caught the rope she threw to him, tying her now empty boat next to the other empty one.

Isalba walked briskly back toward the village, disturbing the owl yet again.  Through the trees she could see the glow of a pipe and realized Louis had found tobacco in the sundry shop.  Inhaling, she could smell it.  A smoke beside the fire when they returned to the men would be a welcome way to end a very long day.

" 'Salba. We have five hams. And a treat."  Matthew raised the pipe as she approached them, and handed it over to her.  She took it, pressing it between her lips and sucking at the sweet smoke, releasing it slowly through her nose.

"Nice." She handed it back. "We have three skiffs.  Let us put our take in one and we shall ride back in the other two."

"Cold ale, Cap-i-tan," Louis hoisted the keg.  "The men will be most delighted."

Isalba merely smiled and shouldered the burlap bag full of smithy supplies in one hand, and two other bags full of mystery items in the other.  Matthew and Louis both filled their arms with as much as they could, leaving only the two bags of cornmeal behind to retrieve last.  "Coats, 'Salba."  Matthew gestured toward a bag he carried.  "Six of them, and dry stockings, enough for twelve men."

"Very good," she praised them.  They hurried down the path, stepping over low branches and kicking up sand with their boots as they reached the beach and the waiting boats.  "Bradon, Louis, load up the skiff. Matthew and I will go back for the meal."

Following patches of shadow and moonlight, Isalba led the way back, glad they were nearing the end of their task.  She was weary.  Her lungs still hurt from inhaling and coughing up sea water, and her eyes burned.  Rest would be welcome, but brief.  They had food and more clothing, but her biggest task was yet to be accomplished: stealing, buying, or borrowing a ship big enough to carry all of them. 

The eastern shore of Virginia was no place to spend the winter.  It had been almost a year since she had last visited Port Royal.  She could think of no better place to wait for spring, lying on the beach by day and carousing in the taverns by night.  Perhaps she would find luck with a lady and have a warm body to curl up with at night.

Coming out of her musings, she covered the last few yards with Matthew close behind her.  A rustling noise ahead of them caught her ear and she stopped, dead in her tracks, so quickly that Matthew ran into her, shoving her forward.  She stumbled, managing not to speak, but it was too late.  They had been heard as well.

A tall figure standing next to the sacks of meal turned, facing her.  "You!" He hissed.

In a flash she remembered him: sagging jowls, large cold eyes, and a snarl revealing a missing front tooth.  It was the man who had whipped her four years earlier.  All of this seared through her mind as she charged him, tackling him and landing on top of him, clapping her hand across his mouth to silence him, even as she whipped a dagger from her boot with the other.

Their eyes met, her steady blue locking with his cold brown.  Slowly she lifted the blade and grinned as she watched his eyes widen in comprehension and fear.  She slammed the dagger into his throat, slicing it from ear to ear.  Blood spewed everywhere, hot and sticky across her face and arms.  She sat back on her heels, panting, wiping the back of her hand across her forehead and smearing blood with sweat.

Matthew stood nearby, still silent.  "He knew you."  He stated the obvious.

"Aye."  She stood up, wiping her dagger off on the man's pants leg, before tucking it back into her boot.  " 'Tis the bastard who laid the stripes across my back."  Drawing a deep breath, she surveyed the damage done.  Though revenge was sweet, it would not have mattered who he was. The moment he spotted them, he had been a dead man.  "Well."  She gave a kick to his lifeless body.  "This changes everything."


Chapter 2

Peadar O'Brien brought in an armload of wood and stacked it neatly near the small stove next to the fireplace.  Firinne, his wife, stood in front of the stove, stirring a pot of porridge and tending to a pan of sizzling bacon.  "Tea pot is on the table, my love." She glanced over her shoulder, just as Peadar looked around, then pecked her on the cheek.

"Aye, and a fine morning it is for hot tea and your porridge.  'Twill stick to my ribs in this cold snap."  He poured a cup of tea and dropped two cubes of sugar in it, stirring it before he took a sip.  "Sweet, just like you." He grinned at Firinne, who beamed back at him.

"Good morning, Pappa, Ma." Megan entered the room from her bedroom, giving a pat to the mass of hair piled up at the back of her  head.

"Good morning, Megan," Peadar returned his youngest daughter's greeting.  "You look lovely.  Are you expecting to go walking with Patrick after breakfast?"

"No, Pappa."  Megan took three bowls from the cabinet and held them up one by one for her mother, as she dished up the porridge.  "He has chores to keep him busy here in the morning, and in the afternoon he is going to the mainland to work at the new house."

"Did he talk to you, then?"  Peadar accepted a bowl from her and dropped a dollop of butter into the bowl, mixing it up.  "Regarding moving up the wedding?"

"He spoke of that to you?"  Megan frowned, as her father nodded affirmatively, his mouth full of porridge.  "I told 'im I want to wait for a proper June wedding."

"Megan, Megan, Megan."  Peadar shook his head.  "The man is to be your husband, for life. When will you cease brow-beating the man and listen to him?"

"The day we stand before God and say our vows," she replied sweetly.

"I fear we've spoiled you."  Firinne set a platter of bacon on the table and joined her family.  "You are to obey your husband, Megan, you do know that?"

"He is not yet my husband, Ma."  Megan looked down, stirring her tea and wishing her ire would pass.  "I told him of Slaine's letter, and reminded him Beibhinn's baby is to be born at the new year. I must be here for her."

" 'Tis Beibhinn's first child. We would send word to you. 'Twould be plenty of time for you to get here.  We have a good midwife. There is nothing you could do, were you to be here before the baby comes."  Firinne's tone was gently reproachful.  "As for Slaine, they are talking of coming here, but have yet to make plans.  To put off  Patrick for something that may not come to pass is wrong.  You need to begin to put him first.  He loves you, Megan.  Not so many lasses are fortunate enough to be married to a man who loves them from the start. For most, the love hasta grow."

"Did it have to grow for you and Pappa?" Megan asked, her tone slightly sarcastic.

"No. I loved your mother when I first laid eyes on 'er.  And you will not use that voice with your mother again,"  Peadar chastised her. "You may have one foot out the door, but your head is still under my roof."

"I am sorry, Ma.  Sorry, Pappa."  Megan sighed quietly. 

"After breakfast, you should go talk to Patrick."  Peadar pointed his empty spoon at her before dipping it into his porridge. "He is a busy man, but he should have time enough to hear you tell him you have had a change of heart about moving up the wedding."

"But tradition, Pappa.  Weddings are to be in June.  What of that?" Megan's voice rose in alarm.  Her porridge stuck in her throat and she had to stop eating and concentrate on breathing, waiting for the lump to slide into her belly.  The room felt small, the walls as if they were closing in on her.

"People marry at all times of the year in this country. 'Tis a hard land," Firinne advised her.  "Many times our circumstances take precedence over tradition.  Do not set your heart on Slaine, Megan. Finish your breakfast and go talk to Patrick.  When you return, we shall walk into town and pick out material to make your wedding dress.  That will cheer you up, will it not?"

"Yes, Ma," Megan answered, knowing she would have to ask God's forgiveness for lying.  "May I be excused, Ma? Pappa?  I will go change into warmer clothing for my walk."

"Yes." Peadar smiled as he answered.  "That is the daughter I raised. You are a good girl, Megan, nay, a grown woman.  I shall be proud to give your hand over to Patrick. He is a fine man."

"Yes, Pappa."  Megan pushed back from the table and took her bowl over to a pan of water sitting beside the fire.  She was in no hurry to talk to Patrick, but rather desired the solace of her room. 

She pushed aside the privacy curtain hanging in the doorway and moved to her bedroom window.  It was a clear, cold morning, the sky blue as far as she could see.  She was usually cheerful on such days, but on this one, her heart felt as heavy as the kettle full of porridge sitting on the stove in the next room.  "I know Patrick loves me," she whispered to a squirrel sitting on a branch just outside the window.  "That isna the problem."  She wiped a hand across suddenly damp eyes.  "I do not love him." Shuffling over to her dressing table, she sat down and reached up, plucking the hairpins from her hastily-done knot.  Slowly, she brushed out her hair, its shimmering blonde tresses falling past her waist.

As she finished brushing, a loud knock sounded at the front door of the house and she paused, cocking her head to one side to listen, as Peadar answered the door.  "Jacob!" She heard him greet the village smithy.  "What brings you out this way on this fine morning?"

"We've had a thief in town overnight."  Megan heard the door close and footsteps as the men crossed the front room, most likely to sit in the two chairs beside the fireplace.  Quietly she stood and moved to the doorway, stopping just inside and pressing against the wall so she could listen.

"A thief?"  Peadar exclaimed.  "What did they take?"

"Stores are missing from the sundry shop, and there are tools gone from my work bench.  Goody Jameson said half a dozen pairs of stockings have gone missing from her clothes-line, and hams are missing from the smokehouse," Jacob informed him.  "There may be more. We have not taken full stock. But there is more."

"More?" Megan heard Peadar respond, and she all but leaned past the curtain, the better to hear.

"Silas is missing as well." Jacob's voice grew low.

"You are not thinking to accuse Silas, are you?"  Peadar asked in surprise.  "Silas is a hard man, but he is no thief."

"We know not what to think," Jacob responded. "There be no pirate boats over at Assateague, and no tracks from the other way.  It does not appear to be savages sneaking into the village by moonlight."

"Who do you think it is, then?"  Megan heard a rustling sound in the fireplace, then smelled the sweet spicy scent of her father's pipe smoke.  "Smoke?" Peadar offered Jacob a pouch of tobacco and Megan waited, hearing Jacob tamp tobacco into his pipe.

"Thank you."  Jacob sucked at his pipe.  "Silas had a poor crop this year.  We do not want to think ill of him, but what else are we to think?  Both he and some of our stores disappear overnight.  Perhaps he took some things over to the mainland to trade with the savages."

"Is his wagon missing?" Peadar asked.

"That is the mystery."  Jacob sucked at his pipe again.  "We canna determine how the stores were carried away.  Every wagon, every beast, every boat in the harbor is accounted for.  Maybe the thief built a litter and dragged it out, then covered his tracks. But circumstances do not look good for Silas."

Another knock sounded at the door and Peadar got up to answer it.  "Chester, come in." The door closed. "Are you here about the stolen goods?"

"Nay, not exactly," a gruff voice answered, and Megan listened as the whoosh of Chester removing his coat reached her ears.  "Jacob, Peadar, we are calling a meeting of the elders in an hour.  My Sally and Benjamin were out this morning to fetch water for their mother. The bucket is missing from the village well.  Silas' wife has taken to her bed.  Benjamin found a splatter of dried blood on one side of the well."

"What are you thinking has happened?"  Peadar asked gravely.

"The men are forming up a hunting party to go to the mainland.  They believe savages came in the night and took our stores and perhaps harm has come to Silas at their hand,"  Chester responded.

"We can not go jumping to conclusions."  Megan heard the scrape of chair legs as Jacob stood.  "The savages have not done harm to this village in many years. They come from time to time to trade, but they have let us be otherwise."

"Perhaps there is new blood in the tribe," Chester hazarded a guess. "Young bucks anxious to prove themselves."

"Perhaps," Peadar half-heartedly agreed with him. "But we should not assume the worst until we have ruled out other possibilities.  Firinne, I shall be going into town."

"Be careful." Megan heard another whoosh, knowing  her mother had retrieved her father's heavy coat for him.

She eased away from the wall and tiptoed back to the dressing table, where she hastily put her hair back up.  Rummaging through a trunk at the foot of the bed, she drew out her warmest stockings and petticoats, and shivered out of her dress long enough to don the warmer clothing.  Quickly, she tugged the dress back on and managed to get it buttoned up the back without help.

A shuffle of boots and mixed male voices reached her ears, and then the front door closed and silence descended.  Megan took a deep breath to settle her nerves, then entered the main room.  "Ma, I'll be going to visit Patrick now."

"No." Firinne turned from the stove.  "You heard, no?"

"Yes."  Megan shook her head sadly.  " 'Tis dreadful."

"True, and 'tis not safe for young girls to be out and about alone."  Firinne removed her apron and folded it up.  "Not until your father returns and we know more."

"Pappa can not be too far ahead."  Megan responded as casually as she could.  "May I at least go into the village and see if there is anything that can be done for Silas' wife?  I will follow right behind Pappa."

"You are a good daughter."  Firinne smiled.  "I suppose it should be safe enough.  Button your coat up all the way and keep your bonnet tied over your ears. It is not freezing yet, but the cold, it is biting this morning."

"Yes, Ma."  Megan slipped into her coat and pulled on her bonnet.  "Bye, Ma." She kissed her mother on the cheek, then stepped out onto the porch.

With measured steps she made her way down the path toward the village, stopping as she rounded a bend and the house was no longer in sight.  She closed her eyes, seeking inner courage.  "Forgive me, Father, for the lies I have told and the lies I have yet to tell."  Opening her eyes, she looked all around, then turned, cutting back behind the house and through the woods, away from the village.

Soon she was running toward Assateague Island.