'Look 'ere, Jack, it's a mermaid.'
'Nah. Got legs, ain't she? No tail. Never got that. How do you swive a mermaid if she ain't got legs?'
Not a dream nightmare. Wake up. Eyes won't open. So cold. Hurt. Afraid, so afraid.
'Is she dead, do yer reckon?'
Uncomprehending terror ran through her veins in the dream. Am I dead? Is this hell? They sound like demons. Lie still.
'Looks fresh enough. She'll do, even if she ain't too lively. I 'aven't had a woman in five weeks.'
'None of us 'ave, stupid.' The coarse voice came closer.
No! Had she screamed it aloud? Averil became fully conscious and with consciousness came memory and realisation and true terror: shipwreck and a great wave and then cold and churning water and the knowledge that she was going to die.
But she wasn't dead. Under her was sand, cold, wet sand, and the wind blew across her skin and wavelets lapped at her ankles and her eyes were mercifully gummed shut with salt against this nightmare and everything hurt as though she'd been rolled in a barrel. Wind skin. She was naked and those voices belonged to real men and they were coming closer and they wanted to. Lie still.
Something nudged her hard in the ribs and she flinched away, convulsed with fear, her body reacting while her mind screamed at it to be still.
'She's alive! Well, there's a bit of luck.' It was the first speaker, his voice gloating. She curled into a shivering ball, like a hedgehog stripped of its prickles. 'You reckon we can get 'er up behind those rocks before the others see 'er? Don't want to share, not 'til we've had our fill.'
'No!' She jerked herself upright so she was sitting on the sand, her arms wrapped around her nakedness. It was worse now, not to be able to see. She dragged her eyes open against the sticky sting of the salt.
Her tormentors stood about two yards away, regarding her with identical expressions of lustful greed. Averil's stomach churned as her instincts recognised the look. One man was big, with a gut that spoke of too much beer and muscles that bulged on his bare arms and calves like tree trunks. The one who had kicked her must be the skinny runt closer to her.
'You come along with us, darlin',' the smaller one said and the wheedling tone had the sodden hairs on her neck rising. 'We'll get you nice and warm, won't we, 'Arry?'
'I'd rather die,' she managed to say. She dug her fingers into the wet sand and raked up two handfuls, but it flowed out of her grasp. There was nothing to use as a weapon, not even a pebble, and her hands were numb with cold.
'Yer, well, what you want don't come into it, darlin'.' That must be Jack. Would it help if she used their names, tried to get them to see her as a human being and not just a thing for their use? She struggled to get her terrified brain to work. Could she run? No, her legs were numb, too, she would never be able to stand up.
'Listenmy name is Averil. Jack, Harrydon't you have sisters?'
The big one swore foully and she heard the voices at the same time. 'The others. Damn it, now we'll 'ave to share the bloss.'
Averil focused her stinging eyes along the beach. She sat on the rim of sand that fringed the sea. Above her a pebble beach merged into low rock outcrops and beyond that short turf sloped up to a hill. The voices belonged to a group of half-a-dozen men, sailors by the look of them, all in similar dark working clothes to the two who had found her.
At the sight of her they broke into a run and she found herself facing a semicircle of grinning, leering figures. Their laughter, their voices as they called coarse comments she could barely understand, their questions to Jack and Harry, beat on her ears and the scene began to blur as she closed her eyes. She was going to faint and when she fainted they would
'What the hell have you got there?' The voice was educated, authoritative and rock hard. Averil sensed the men's attention turn from her like iron filings attracted to a magnet and hope made her gasp with relief.
'Mermaid, Cap'n.' Harry sniggered. 'Lost 'er tail.'
'Very nice, too,' the voice said, very close now. 'And you were about to bring her to me, I suppose?' 'Why'd we do that, Cap'n?'
'Captain's prize.' There was no pity in the dispassionate tone, only the clinical assessment of a piece of flotsam. The warm flood of hope receded like a retreating wave.
'That's not fair!'
'Tough. This is not a democracy, Tubbs. She's mine and that's an order.' Boots crunched over pebbles as the sound of furious muttering rose.
None of this was going to go away. Averil opened her eyes again and looked up. And up. He was big: rangy, with dark hair, a dominant nose. The uncompromising grey eyes, like the sea in winter, looked at her as a man studies a woman, not as a rescuer looks at a victim. There was straightforward masculine desire there, and, strangely, anger. 'No,' she whispered.
'No, leave you to freeze to death, or, no, don't take you away from your new friends?' he asked. He was like a dark reflection of the men she had come to know over the past three months on the ship. Tough, intelligent men who had no need to swagger because they radiated confidence and authority. Alistair Lyndon, the twins Callum and Daniel Chatterton. Were they all dead now?
His voice was hard, his face showed no sympathy, but for all that he was better than the rabble on the beach. The big man had his hand on the hilt of a knife and her rescuer had his back to him. 'Behind you,' she said, ignoring the mockery.
'Dawkins, leave that alone unless you want to end up like Nye.' The dark man spoke without turning and she saw his hand rested on the butt of a pistol thrust in his belt. 'There's no money if you're dead of a bullet in your fat gut. More for the others, though.' He raised an eyebrow at Averil and she nodded, lured into complicity. No one else was touching a weapon. He shrugged out of his coat and dropped it over her shoulders. 'Can you stand?'
'No. T-t-t-too cold.' Her teeth chattered and she tightened her jaw against the weakness.
He leaned down, caught her wrists and hauled her to her feet as she groped with clumsy fingers for the edges of the coat. It reached the curve of her buttocks, she could feel it chafing the skin there. 'I'll carry you,' he said as he turned from raking a stare over the watching men.
'No!' She stumbled, grabbed at his arm. If he lifted her the coat would ride up, she'd be exposed.
'They've seen everything there is to see already,' he said. 'Tubbs, give me your coat.'
'It'll get all wet,' the man grumbled as he pulled it off and shambled down the beach to hand it over. His eyes were avid on her bare legs.
'And you'll get it back smelling of wet woman. Won't that be nice?' Her rescuer took it, wrapped it round her waist and then slung her over his shoulder. Averil gave a gasp of outrage, then realised: like this he had one hand free for his pistol.
Head down, she stared at the shifting ground. The coats did nothing against the cold, only emphasised her essential nakedness and shame. Averil fought against the faintness that threatened to sweep over her: she had to stay conscious. The man she had hoped would be her rescuer was nothing of the sort. At best he was going to rape her, at worst that gang of ruffians would attack him and they would all have her.
Last nightit must have been last night, or she'd be dead of the cold by nowshe had known she was about to die. Now she wished she had.
The sound of crunching stones stopped, the angle at which she was hanging levelled off and she saw grass below. Then her captor stopped, ducked, and they were inside some kind of building. 'Here.' He dropped her like a sack of potatoes on to a lumpy surface. 'Don't go to sleep yet, you're too cold.'
The door banged closed behind him and Averil hauled herself up. She was on a bed in a large stone-built hut with five other empty bed frames ranged along the walls. The rough straw in the mattress-bag crackled under her as she shifted to look round. There was a hearth with the ashes of a dead fire at one end, a wooden chair, a table with some crockery on it, a trunk. The hut had a window with threadbare sacking hanging over it, a few shelves, the plank door and a rough stone slab floor without so much as a rag rug.
Rather be dead The self-pity brought tears to her eyes. The room steadied and her head stopped swimming. No, I wouldn't. Averil knuckled the moisture out of her eyes and winced at the sting of the salt. The pain steadied her. She was not a coward and lifeuntil a few hours agohad been sweet and worth fighting for.
An upbringing as the pampered daughter of a wealthy family was no preparation for this, but she had fought off all the illnesses life in India could throw at her for twenty of her twenty-two years, she had coped with three months at sea in an East Indiaman and she'd survived a shipwreck. I am not going to die now, not like this, not without a struggle.
She must get up, now, and find a way out, a weapon before he came back. Averil dragged herself off the bed. There was a strange roaring in her ears and the room seemed to be moving. The floor was shifting, surely? Or was it her? Everything was growing very dark.