Witchy Winter – Snippet 03

Witchy Winter – Snippet 03

Landon went down again.

Nathaniel ran. “Charles! Charles! George!”

No sign of them.

Far away, he thought he heard drums, and the roll of thunder. A dream? His own blood, sounding gigantic in his ears?

Then, definitely, he heard running feet in the autumn leaves behind him.

But Landon could never catch him. Landon’s feet were bare, and the forest floor was jagged with sharp mountain pebbles, twigs, and splintered fallen branches. His vision wasn’t as clear as he could want, but Nathaniel lengthened his stride to a run —

Nathaniel ran into a tree.

He smelled ash wood, and absurdly thought it was a nice change from the reek of pig droppings — and bounced backward, falling to wet earth again.

“Laugh at me, will you, George?” he heard Landon shriek. The other boy’s voice sounded far away, but then suddenly hands grabbed Nathaniel, picked him up, and shook him. He saw Landon’s face close up, smelling pig shit and anger.

He smelled blood, too. But Landon wasn’t bleeding.

White light flashed.

“I’m not George,” Nathaniel said weakly.

Landon hurled him to the ground again.

Nathaniel screamed. This was it. He was going to die.

“You will never!” Landon kicked Nathaniel in the ribs. He felt one of them break with a wet crack.

“Ever!” Another kick, this time to his face.

His limbs began to tremble.

“Please,” Nathaniel murmured. “Please stop hurting me.”

“Tell!”

Landon dragged Nathaniel to his feet again. Nathaniel tried to resist, tried to embrace Landon defensively, but he was weak from loss of blood. The other boy threw Nathaniel down again —

And this time, he kept falling. He rolled down a slope. Rocks battered him, branches tore at his flesh.

“Landon,” he murmured as he tumbled end over end.

He came to a stop, unable to see anything.

“Charles,” he murmured. “Charles.”

Nathaniel’s body shook uncontrollably.

##

The chevalier’s yacht laid alongside one of the prison hulks and dropped anchor. The hulk stank of rotting flesh and bilgewater, but Montse’s attention was drawn to the other side of the yacht, where a mass of blackened stones beneath the waterline and scorched timbers jutting up above the waves suggested a hulk had burnt to the waterline. In the clear waters of the Pontchartrain, she saw a sharp-toothed eel gnawing at skeletal remains that might be those of a man.

A recent event, then.

“The Incroyable,” the chevalier said. “Who would believe it?” He smirked gently at his own pun, then invited Montse to walk up the gangplank to the hulk.

Montse wasn’t tied or shackled. She didn’t need to be, since the chevalier had Margaret back at his palace under guard. Montse was on her best behavior. She was also looking for a way to get a message out.

The gangplank was sturdy and had a handrail that Montse, river- and gulf-rat that she was, didn’t need. She scampered up to the hulk, noting the name painted on the side in faded letters: Puissant.

No longer, she thought, but she kept her own pun to herself.

On the Puissant, she waited until the chevalier joined her. His gendarmes remained on the yacht, and the hulk’s crew of jailers, who muttered and chirped like idiots, mostly kept their distance, skulking at the edges of the ship’s deck.

“If you’ve brought me here to imprison me,” she said, “you’re taking very little care to prevent me from jumping into the Pontchartrain.”

Gaspard Le Moyne smiled, like a fox. “Isn’t the child’s welfare enough?”

Montse shrugged, pretending a nonchalance she didn’t feel. She and Margaret had both denied that the girl had any connection with the Penn family — Margaret sincerely and with growing bafflement, since Montse had, true to her charge, never told her. “My niece Margarida is a good hand, and I’d be sad to lose her.”

The chevalier chuckled. “Good. You’re not here to be imprisoned. You’re here to meet someone. Follow me.”

He descended a steep ladder below decks. Montse followed, wishing her weapons hadn’t been taken away.

The hulk retained its individual cabins, though many of the doors were rotting on their hinges and some of the walls themselves had been eaten away by the salt water of the Pontchartrain. The holes in the hull and in the deck above let in enough light to see. The chevalier led the way aft, to a large cabin. Montse had never served in any navy, but she had captured enough naval vessels to guess that this cabin would once have belonged to the captain of the Puissant.

Perhaps a quarter of the windows retained their glass. Others retained their wooden shutters. Many were now simply gaping holes, and a breeze came through the cabin. In hot weather, those shattered windows would be a blessing to anyone in the cabin, but in a storm, they would let in all the Pontchartrain’s fury.

The cabin’s single occupant lay chained in the corner, sprawled on his back out of reach of the door and the windows alike. He was old and thin, and the faintest smear of rouge persisted under a crust of grime and salt. His breeches, once fine and black, were stained with gray spots by the sea, and his once-white shirt was mottled dark brown with old, dried blood. His face was built on fine, high bones. Wispy hair circled his skull like a tangled cloud.

“Don Luis Maria Salvador Sandoval de Burgos,” the chevalier said. “Until recently, a prominent merchant in our international shipping trade. Silver and rum imported, and cotton taken away, mostly.”

The Spaniard raised a single blue-veined eyelid and stared at the chevalier, a faint smile curling his lip. “Y ahora, gracias a Dios,” he said, “a man who has again found his soul.”

“Though not, as you might suppose, through monastic spiritual exercises aboard my ship,” the chevalier said. “Rather, Don de Burgos regained his soul, if that’s how you wish to describe his change of heart, by attempted murder.”

The Spaniard spat, a tiny spray of spittle that settled on his own chest. “I should have killed your son myself. That would have been an honorable duel.”

The chevalier nodded. “And we would be here, in exactly the same circumstance, no doubt.”

“It’s against the law to duel in New Orleans,” Montse said. She wasn’t a duelist herself, favoring poison or a knife in the kidneys to giving an enemy an open shot at her, face to face. “Shouldn’t you hang this man?”

“Perhaps I will,” the chevalier admitted. “But not yet. He has a nephew who claims he can raise a ransom, in which case I may yet free Don de Burgos to ply the waters of the Caribbean and the Atlantic, provided he no longer sets foot in my city.”

“In case you and I are to become fellow-ascetics,” Montse said to the old man, “I have something to confess.”

“Something against me?” Don de Burgos smiled. “I forgive it, freely.”

“I’ve stolen from you. I know your name, Don. Also, I’ve competed against you, and unfairly. I have . . . not fully cooperated with the chevalier’s customs men.”

De Burgos chuckled drily. “If not you, then your cousin. I hear Catalonia in your accent. I forgive you still.”

“You aren’t going to become a nun of the Puissant, Mademoiselle Ferrer i Quintana. At least, not unless by your own choice.” The chevalier leaned against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’ve brought you here so you could see your choice clearly.”

Over the cypress trees on the far side of the Pontchartrain Sea, storm clouds gathered.

“One possibility is to be chained in this wreck,” Montse said. “You brought me to see Don de Burgos so I’d understand that you’re willing to imprison even powerful and wealthy men aboard the hulks. If you’d do this to the worthy don, how much worse would you do to me, a common criminal?”

 

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