The rats had ceased their gnawing at last. The silence struck her first. She peered out from beneath the dingy blankets that brushed the filthy floor. There was a strange sucking noise, like the snores of some giant beast. She slid back under the low bunk, clutching the reeking rags of her clothes around her wasted form. Her eyes, grimed with salt, and dirt fluttered shut as she curled around the pit of hunger deep in her belly. A thud roused her from her stupor and a whimper escaped her cracked lips. There were shouts and more thumps on the ship’s deck and she quivered.
“Gods, the smell.”
“They call it quarantine. If the people could see this—it’s not the plague that does them all in.”
“At least it looks like this lot chose starvation.”
“Starvation is the only real option.”
“You say that now…hunger so bad, weeks on end, turns some rabid.”
The voices and the footsteps grew closer and the door to the close little cabin swung open, letting in a draft of damp, nearly fresh air.
“By all that’s holy,” the footsteps froze and there was the sound of retching.
“Slit the babe’s throat and her own wrists; and I thought I’d seen it all.”
“Nothing here but rot and putrefaction. We’d best go down to the holds—see if there’s anything to salvage before we burn it.”
One of the men took a step closer to the bed and she shied away, her foot striking an empty tankard and sending it rolling across the deck floor. The filthy blankets were shoved back and a face appeared. She pushed herself back away from the bearded face, scrabbling against the wooden planks.
“Hush, now, little one.” The man’s voice was soft.
She heard people speak that way to animals as they cuddled them. She stared at the man mutely. He held out a hand to her as though he wished her to take it.
“Come out, poor thing, come out of there,” his lips curved up in a smile and she put her trembling, dirty fingers in his.
“Gods above.” The other man swore as the first lifted the little wraith into the crook of his arm. “But, Will, the plague…”
“She breathes still, Thomas. Any still living this long have no plague in them. Think of what she must have endured.” William brushed the matted, stinking hair back from the child’s face.
“Be it on your head, then,” Thomas said.
The rowboat carried them back to shore and William shielded the child’s face from the ash as the pitch and old wood caught and the funeral pyre burned high. She did not speak or cry as the smell of ash filled her nostrils.
“But who is she?” Thomas asked as he and William waited.
“I have checked the ship’s manifest. Only four children were noted—the cabin boy, and the three Martinus children,” William said.
“And?” Thomas eagerly took the manifest and skimmed it.
“The babe—a boy—and two girls, Lila and Jordana.”
“Which is she?” Thomas asked.
“She must be Jordana. Lila was a girl of sixteen and the poor waif can be no older than twelve.”
Both men stopped speaking as the door opened. One of the Sisters ushered out a small girl in a clean dress with her dark, damp hair curling around her thin shoulders. William looked down into the huge dark eyes and remembered how they first looked when he pulled her from under the bunk. He shuddered at the memory. The poor girl must have been there for weeks, hiding beneath the bed that held the corpses of her family.
William bent down to meet the little girl’s eyes. “Jordana?”
Her eyes grew round and her face drained of color; she shrank back against the Sister.
“No need to fear, child.” William softened his voice. “You are Jordana Martinus?”
The little girl just stared at him, her hands clutching the front of her frock as the Sister drew her back protectively.
“Sir, this child has seen things no living creature should bear. I have not heard a word out of her and I would ask you not to frighten her.”
William stood, chastened. “My apologies, Sister, I mean the girl no harm. Her aunt and uncle live here—the family was coming to join them—if she is Jordana Martinus.”
“If she is, then her aunt and uncle will surely know,” the Sister kept a firm hand on the waif’s shoulder.
William bowed and departed with Thomas, casting a glance back over his shoulder at the dark eyed little girl.
Mahlah lay in the giant bed, rubbing her fingers across the silken coverlet. The aunt and uncle were kind. The aunt wept and pulled Mahlah into her arms and the uncle patted her head. They touched her hair and compared it to Lady Martinus’ and said she had Lord Martinus’ eyes. Mahlah remembered those eyes—black as night and always full of anger. He did nothing when Jordana struck her slave, when his daughter hit Mahlah so hard blood ran from her ears.
He was the first to fall ill on the ship and when they dumped his body into the water, Mahlah knew it would poison the whole ocean. The Lady refused to leave her room after, even when the girls began to cough and vomit and when the servants fled in panic. Jordana kept Mahlah close, her fevered strength blazing from her black eyes and limbs. Lila did not last a week and the Lady turned her face aside when the sailors drug her body out. Jordana’s breathing grew labored and Mahlah clamped her hands over her ears to shut out the sound.
Jordana only wanted a breath of fresh air, she said, one glimpse of the sky. And meek, obedient Mahlah half-carried her to the deck, let the girl lean on her shoulder. Jordana’s flailing body barely splashed when it hit the water. Mahlah snuggled into her pillow and smiled.