Her total possession of him was an odd, yet not unpleasant sensation, similar to the intimacy of the height of passion in sexual intercourse, the closest a man could get to the woman he loved. But this ecstasy was a step beyond the exquisite fulfilment of lovemaking. This, was a consuming, slow-motion explosion of awareness that had the brilliance of the sun and the eternity of the universe about it. He became acutely conscious of how it felt to be a woman; the fine lightness of her bones and the softness of her hair – the absence of itching beard-growth and tender, scraped skin after shaving. The moustache trailing above his upper lip, his body hair on his chest, beneath his armpits, pubic hair, all so much coarser than hers. The swell of her breasts, malleable but firm, the spread of hips designed to support and protect the depth of her womb, a sheltered cradle where one day, he hoped, his child would grow. And the powerful muscles of her vagina that could stretch and push the child into birth; a place he had only known through the intimate pleasures of intercourse.
This inwardness of a woman intrigued him. Tiola’s whole being felt as if she were wrapped in a comforting fur of luxurious sable. Her tender internal secretiveness a peculiar sensation to a man so used to his sexuality being worn and openly displayed on the outside. What surprised him, despite her apparent feminine frailty, he suddenly realised her enormity of strength. The endurance that could sustain her through a lengthy, agonising labour, the monthly acceptance of her flux that tightened internal muscles into cramps and acute discomfort. A quick, assessing mind that could deal with a multitude of emergencies at once. Agile hands, supple, curved body. All of it so beautiful so gentle, soft, and so, so, unbreakably strong.
This, then, was how it was to be Tiola. To be a woman and to be one of the semi-immortal Wise Women of the Old Ones who passed the gift of Craft from grandmother to granddaughter, down and down and down through the aeons of time. From before the first dawn to when the very last sunset would sink as steam into the sea.
From inside her mind he heard the voices of those ancestors, her grandmothers and their grandmothers, the sound whispering and rustling in the distance, as if someone far away was shuffling through piles of autumn-gathered leaves. Only one could he hear clearly enough to understand; her immediate grandmother, also named Tiola; as they all had been, for in reality they were all facets of the one, same, immortal spirit.
You are a good man, Jesamiah Acorne. Into your care I place my granddaughter. Her incarnation carries the accumulation of our wealth of wisdom and knowledge. She must be protected. At all cost, she must be protected, for she is the last of us made mortal. To her falls the responsibility of shielding humankind from the terrible destruction of evil.
A question flooded into his head, a question of self-doubt that he suddenly, desperately, needed to ask.
How do I protect her
? ~ And then, ~
What do you mean, the last
Fear touched him, alarming in its abrupt intensity. What if he failed? Because of his ineptitude, would she die? He could not bear that, could not endure being without her!
But the awareness of being wrapped in the comfort of another’s loving soul was shifting balance and the voices and his rise of panic disappeared. The light and perspective was changing.
As if looking through Tiola’s eyes, the world glowed a little brighter than perhaps it was, broader, higher. Fleetingly, he touched the wide spread of the oceans scattered with bejewelled islands, and then the sweep of the continents; the New World, Africa. Europe, Asia. The misted, faint edge of the unexplored places that made up the Australias – no, one place! It was one huge continent, not a scatter of small, unconnected and isolated islands as everyone thought! But the images had swept on, now he was gazing at an expanse of white, blinding ice at the southernmost edge of the world. Upward, travelling upward around the Earth – mountains, jungle, desert, fertile soil and arid plain – then more ice stretching away over the roof of the World. All of it, the entire globe was embraced within the eternal depth of her mind, and passing for this moment only, into his. He would forget most of it when she left him, she would have to ensure he did, for it was not for mortal humans to be knowing of these things before they were ready to be known. But some of it she would allow to remain as a dream, a dream that felt as comfortable as an enveloping shawl made from finest cashmere, a dream half remembered, half forgotten…
Willingly, she showed him the familiar patterns of the eternal tread of the stars; proud Orion, the Plough, Cassiopeia. The Southern Cross – and the ponderous turn of the planets. Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and more! Jesamiah caught his breath – those watching assumed it was for the ninth lash – he frowned in puzzlement. Surely there were but six planets? He had no time to ponder the anomaly for Tiola’s united, possessive, soul was taking him further out into the hollow of the Universe, beyond the solar system, to the very edge of existence.
He felt huge, magnificent and immortal, yet so infinitely small and vulnerable. Smaller than a grain of sand upon the shore, one grain among the many, many thousand, one alone except for his woman. His beautiful, beautiful witch-woman, Tiola.
No pain. Only vaguely, in this exhilaration of being one with her, was he aware of the sting of the lash on his back. Only partially was he aware that it was going to hurt like hell once she left him.
Joy flooded into him as he recognised the presence within Tiola’s existence of his second love, his ship, the
. Tiola and she had once been similarly combined, and after souls had been joined a severing was never made fully complete. Through Tiola, he felt the smoothness of the sun-bleached decks, the soaring height of masts; the neatly furled canvas sails and the taut, tarred, rigging. Was aware of the gentle lift and swell beneath her copper-coated keel, the ripple and tug of the tide nudging at her. She was restless, uneasy at the pain her consort was enduring, was bored with being in harbour. She wanted to run, spill her sails, feel the wind and the sea hurtle past; wanted, like any woman, to show off her beauty and be admired. Jesamiah smiled.
Soon, my pretty one,
~ he murmured in his mind. ~
Soon shall I be with you, and set you free
Fleetingly, very distant, very quiet and momentary another presence touched him, unfamiliar and disquieting. An overwhelming sense of drowning, of being pulled down and down into the depths of the ocean, the sun sparkling on the surface far, far, above and the blackness closing in around him. He struggled, fear rising. This was not pleasant.
He heard a voice that sounded like the hush of a white-tipped wave running up onto a sandy beach: ~
Jessh… a..miah? I want you my Jessh…a..miah. I ssshall have you.
It was cold down here; cold, frightening and dark. Jesamiah did not like the dark. His elder brother had often shut him, screaming for mercy, in the loneliness of the dark.
A sudden squall of rain hissed across Nassau harbour, coming from nowhere. And then another voice, not so menacing, quicker, lighter, with a staccato cadence.
Perhaps I want him Mother. Perhaps I shall have him, not you.
Aware of the two intrusive presences slithering into Jesamiah’s consciousness, and of his scudding fear of dark, confined, places, Tiola lost her concentration. To keep him safe she had no choice but to step outside of his existence. Quickly she murmured the command to forget, and withdrew, leaving his quivering body vulnerable to the final two strokes of the lash.
As the last one burst into his torn flesh, the full scream of pain hurtled into Jesamiah like a storm-wracked tide frothing into the lower decks of a sinking vessel. He began to sag, but Rue was there, his arms going to support his Captain, to pull his shirt on over his head, hiding the mess that was now his back from public view.
’s first mate, the African, Isiah Roberts, untied Tiola’s wrists, both men immediately chaperoning their charges through the press of the crowd with angry glares and poking elbows.
Planting himself four-square before them, his arm outstretched towards Governor Rogers, van Overstratten raised his voice in protest.
“You are not permitting Acorne to return to his ship? What surety is there that he will not break his amnesty and make sail? He has already made a mockery of me, are you to permit him to do the same to you?”
The Governor could not respond for he was harbouring the same thought. He had made a deal with Acorne, but there was nothing to guarantee this rogue of a captain would keep it, and Rogers did, desperately, require assistance in this thing concerning Hispaniola. He lumbered down the steps and gruffly approached Jesamiah, slumped against Rue.
“I expect you to be in my office tomorrow morning Acorne. Ten-thirty sharp. If you do not attend I shall declare your pardon invalid. Understand?”
Tiola tossed her rage at him, an overspill of her own fear and apprehension, her anger at pain endured because of her. The savage cruelty of the human animal and the bestial undercurrent of the male craving for sexual pleasure, in all its forms.
“He will be unable to move tomorrow, Governor, as you well know,” she snapped, anger swirling into her voice and eyes, sparking and crackling like a charge of lightning.
Rogers coughed, hesitated, unused to this slender, timid-seeming woman stamping her foot at him, her expression openly hostile and glaring. He appreciated the dilemma, but van Overstratten was a man of wealth and influence and his own position as Governor was not as sturdy as he liked to publicly pretend. There were those in England who ridiculed his idea of amnesty, who were waiting the first opportunity to pillory him for gross ineptitude. Making contact with the Spanish rebels, for several reasons, most of which had not been divulged to Acorne, was imperative. And Jesamiah had been right; there was no one else.
A little harshly he replied, “Then he ought have thought of that for himself, Ma’am, before he acted so rashly to save your discomfort. A noble gesture but misplaced and foolhardy. Government business cannot wait upon the actions of the brash. He will be in my office tomorrow or I shall have him outlawed. Ensure he attends.” He paused, conceded, “Later then, three-thirty.”
To the crew of the
gathering closer, their hostility rippling like a rising wind, Rogers announced; “If you sail without my express authority and without your captain carrying a Letter of Marque, I shall deem you to have returned to piracy. There will be no pleas for clemency. You will hang.”
Behind him van Overstratten mocked laughter. “Do you seriously expect complicity from thieves and murderers? His ship will be hull down over the horizon by sunrise.”
Tiola’s eyes blazed at him. More than ever before the desire to blast him into eternity swelled within her. Why in all the names of all the gods that were and had ever been had she decided on the fool idea to become his wife? She fought the anger down. She could not entertain hatred, for it was an evil brew that could so easily feed upon itself and grow, consuming all within its path with a rapacious, unassuaged appetite. Why had she wed him? Because at the time, she had not dared risk giving away her ability, because at that time her physical strength had been weak and vulnerable – and because she had desperately needed to get here, to Nassau, to help Jesamiah.
She took several calming breaths, regained her self control, said. “And do you call me too, a thief and a murderer, Stefan?”
Van Overstratten regarded her with disappointment. Whatever had initially lured him into wanting this woman? She was pretty, but what use were looks if the belly was empty? She gave no pleasure in bed, was as cold as a fish to his touch.
Tiola guessed what he was thinking. He was not a man to query that perhaps the fault was his own lack of skill. He would have been surprised had he been given the opportunity to witness the intense passion that burnt between herself and Jesamiah during their lovemaking. But then, Jesamiah was a different man entirely. A man who truly understood what it meant to make love; who knew how and where to touch and caress, who knew when to be easy and gentle or to push, hard, and bring that final thrill of consuming ecstasy to its release. Momentarily lost in thought, Tiola smiled.
Her expression increased the Dutchman’s anger. How dare she look at him so! With contempt, he insulted her; “You, Madam?
. I call you whore.”
Jesamiah lifted his head, sight and senses swimming against the carol of pain; glared at the Dutchman. “Then you will not be wishing to keep her as wife, will you?”
He glanced at Rogers who was trying his best to bring law and order to these pirate-riddled Caribbean waters. He would not succeed. He was too indecisive, wanting to please all sides at once, and Rogers assumed all men followed the unwritten code of honour and unswerving loyalty. He was unaware that chivalry had vanished centuries ago. If it had ever truly existed. But Jesamiah also conceded that Rogers had integrity, faith and guts; he held fast to his personal beliefs whatever carnage was happening around him. Even if he failed here in Nassau, Jesamiah admired him for at least caring enough to try.
Pushing himself, with effort, and with a strength of fortitude that came from God-alone knew where, from Rue’s supporting arm, Jesamiah stood as straight as he could. If nothing else, Rogers was a man of his word.
“Can you assure me, Governor, that you will see to it that Tiola is set free of her marriage bond? If I come tomorrow, will you give me her divorce?”
For his part, Rogers knew his limitations and his fallibilities. He also admired bravery; what Acorne had done here today was foolish, but undoubtedly brave. To expose your back purposefully for a flogging to save a woman’s honour placed this rogue high in the Governor’s esteem. He knew, full well, that had he been called upon to do such a thing for his own wife she would have been abandoned to a flogging.