June 8th, 1701
Thurio DiCesare, the world-famous fencing maestro, felt his heart beat a staccato rhythm as he hurried toward his mother's house. Chaos filled the narrow, cobbled streets packed with horse-drawn carts. Men and women ran in and out of houses piling wagons with belongings. Children wailed. Men driving carriages cursed as they tried to squeeze between other vehicles and became wedged, bringing traffic to a standstill. Voices rose, fist fights broke out.
Fools, thought Thurio. Their avarice will doom them. If they left their belongings and fled they might have a chance.
He turned a corner and entered the blue door of a gray stone house. He called out as he rushed up a staircase two steps at a time. "Mary! Mother! Where are you?"
Two women appeared at the top of the stairs, their faces pale.
Mother wore a navy-blue dress that, along with her gray hair, was so tidy as to be severe. She leaned on a carved-wood cane. "What has gotten into them?" she asked. "The entire town is in the streets!"
Thurio reached his wife Mary and took her in his arms, relieved that she and their unborn child were safe for the moment. He buried his dark face in her red hair and breathed in her earthy scent. She pressed away and looked up at him with spring green eyes.
"What is it this time, my love," she said. "Is the world ending yet again?" There was bravado in her light tone, but the narrowing of her eyes meant she was frightened and her heart pounded. The Scottish accent to her Italian words reassured him as nothing else could.
"Barbary corsairs," said Thurio, moving past them into the bedroom. "They've raided Amalfi and are headed this way."
"Slavers," hissed Mary, putting protective hands around her swollen belly.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death," mumbled Mother.
The corsairs were pirates out of Algiers. They raided in fleets of ships, ravaging the coasts of the Mediterranean, attacking villages and rounding up townsfolk to sell into slavery. Few victims ever returned.
Thurio knew without looking that Mother was making hurried signs of the cross. He glanced up from the drawer he was ransacking for valuables. Mary leaned against the door frame, a hand supporting her eight-month pregnant belly.
"What's to be done?" she asked. "Should we head into the hills?"
Salerno was nestled between steep hills and the harbor. Few roads led out of town, and Thurio knew from experience that the fleeing citizens would clog and block the roads in their panic. The three of them might have climbed into the hills and hidden, but Mother's fall four months ago had broken her hip. She was healing, but slowly.
The Maestro ripped open another drawer, stuffing jewelry into his pockets.
"I've arranged passage aboard ship." He hated sea travel, but had no choice. "I pray God we're in time. Captain Sabatini promised to wait for us." He has his own family to worry about, he added to himself. He may still leave without us.
"I'll pack my things," said Mary.
"No," said Thurio. "There's no time. Take Mother's jewelry, I'll get my sword and pistols. Then we must go."
They picked their way through the panicking townsfolk and their horses and carts. Mother was slow, and groaned in pain when someone bumped her, so Thurio lifted her in his arms, carrying her. She felt like nothing, so frail and delicate.
Mary hurried along with a hand tucked inside Thurio's elbow. He glanced at her and she gave him an encouraging smile. My brave girl.
He remembered the day they met. She'd appeared in the midst of battle with a sword at her side and a healer's bag over her shoulder. Despite the spattered blood, she was beautiful, her deep red hair swirling about her. "My little Paprika" he would come to call her, teasing her about her hair. She'd sewn up his injured leg with artillery firing not fifty yards away.
That was six years ago and there was still no one he'd rather have at his side in a crisis. He could count on Mary to keep her head no matter what befell them.
Thurio was glad that they had left their boys home - two hundred miles north in Tuscany - before coming to Salerno to help Mother convalesce. Antonio was four and Sebastian two. With Mother injured and Mary to have the child, the boys would only have added to the difficulty. He and Mary had missed them horribly, but now he was glad they were out of harm's way.
"How much time do we have?" asked Mary as they ducked between carriages. She had to shout over the street noise.
The maestro shook his head. "I've no way to know. The wind is against them. That at least is in our favor."
Mary gasped and her step faltered. A dart of fear lodged in Thurio's chest. "What is it, my dear!"
She regained her pace and smiled. "Our little one is complaining about all the commotion."
Thurio returned her smile, but hurried his pace with his heart racing. Everything depended on reaching the ship before it departed.
He jogged the last few blocks with Mary panting as she struggled to keep pace beside him and his mother bouncing in his arms.
They turned a corner into the harbor. It was nearly deserted. Three ships remained in the bay, their crews working feverishly. Only their ship, the Anglia, remained at the wharf and a crewman on the pier was casting off ropes. Thurio's heart froze.
"Oh dear Lord, they're leaving," gasped Mary.
She broke into a labored run with Thurio at her side.
The last crewman boarded and the ship began to move as their footsteps echoed hollowly on the dock.
"Wait," yelled Thurio.
"Com'on then!" yelled the captain. A dozen weathered, crewmen's faces crowded at the side and tar-stained hands extended over the rail.
The Anglia slid forward along the pier. Thurio reached the side and thrust Mother's slight form upward. Sturdy hands caught hold of her and hoisted her up. She cried out as she disappeared over the side. Thurio and Mary hurried along the dock as the ship gained speed.
"Up you go," he said to Mary as he grabbed her hips and lifted her up toward the waiting hands. She raised her arms and curled her legs to protect her stomach. In a moment she too was aboard.
Thurio reached the end of the planking and leapt for the outstretched palms.
Thurio stooped as he carried Mother into a low, dark cabin and placed her gently on the cot. She stifled a cry of pain. Mary, carrying a glowing lantern, and three other women followed. There was barely room to move in the cramped space. Shadows swung across the bare wood walls as the occupants swayed with the ship. Mary set the lantern on a wooden chest beside the cot. She was a spot of calm among the flustered ladies with pinched faces and wringing hands.
"You should be lying down as well," said one of the women to Mary. "It must be well past time for your confinement. The baby could come any moment."
The others nodded their heads and murmured agreement.
"Now don't fuss, ladies," said Mary, wiping her forehead with the heel of her hand and leaning against the wall to brace against the rocking. "I found the whole escapade rather invigorating. And the child will let me know when it's time."
She said to Mother, "I'll get you some water and see if they have a doctor. He might have something for the pain."
"Thank you, my dear," she replied.
Mary turned to go but Thurio took her hand and brought it to his lips. She smiled and stroked his cheek before hurrying out with the other ladies following.
Thurio fought down a wave of seasickness. He sat beside Mother and smoothed back her disheveled hair. The last half hour had etched the lines in her face deeper.
"Are we safe now?" she asked wearily.
"I hope so," he said, taking her hand.
Tears welled in the corners of her eyes but she blinked them away. "I couldn't bear to lose you or Mary to those dirty pirates as well."
"You won't. I promise."
The last time the corsairs attacked he'd been fifteen. His father tasked him with leading his mother and two sisters to safety in the hills. His father and two older brothers had gone to fight. Father and his eldest brother never returned.
Thurio had watched from their hiding place above town as the corsairs rounded up everyone they could catch. The pirates weren't after treasure, though they took what they could find. They were after able bodies - men, women, and children that they could sell as slaves in the Ottoman Empire. Friends and neighbors were snatched, chained, and carted off - over a thousand of them. Those too old or infirm to sell the pirates herded into the church. Then they set it on fire.
Thurio shivered remembering the screams. That was the day he took up the sword. Never again would he feel helpless to defend the people he cared about. That was the day he set upon the road that made him a famous maestro of the sword.
Mary returned, breaking his reverie.
"The doctor will be here soon," she said.
He rose, taking the water pitcher and goblet from her. Together they propped Mother up so she could take a drink. She lay back, sighing, and fingering a rosary.
Mary and Thurio sat side by side on the edge of the cot. Mary leaned into him, resting her forehead against his neck. He wrapped an arm around her. She felt warm and soft against him. Mary took his free hand and laid it on the bulk of her belly. He looked at her sharply as he felt the writhe and thump under his hand.
"Good gracious, he's trying to kick his way out," said Thurio.
Mary smiled. "She. I hope it's a girl. There are enough men about the house already."
Thurio chuckled. "With kicks like these? It must be a boy, and a sturdy one at that." He kissed her on the forehead as she laughed with him.
"What shall we call him?" she said, snuggling into his side.
"Well," said Thurio, "considering how hard he's fighting to get free, free should be his name, Francesco."
"A good name," said Mother softly.
"And to think --"
A loud rumbling overhead interrupted Mary.
Thurio's body tensed and he felt Mary do the same. They're rolling out the cannons. He rose quickly. "I'll see what they're after."
When Thurio climbed inelegantly onto the rolling deck he squinted into the bright sun. The wind filled the cream-colored sails and thrummed through the rigging. The coast slid past a half mile off their larboard side. They were nearing the point just past San Marco, where a flock of gulls circled overhead. Two-dozen reeling townsfolk stared anxiously starboard, getting in the way of the crewmen working the sails. The landsmen looked to be merchants and their families, friends and business associates of the captain. A quick glance summed up their usefulness in a fight - next to none.
Thurio spotted Captain Sabatini at the starboard rail with a spyglass to his eye and headed toward him. Thurio leaned against the rail for balance, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun, the other rubbing the hilt of the sword at his side. A ship crested the horizon two or three miles behind them, headed directly for them. Even without the spyglass Thurio could make out the black flag.
"Pirates," said Thurio.
Captain Sabatini closed his spyglass with a snap and turned to the Thurio. The captain was swarthy, with a jaw too big for his face and eyebrows that bunched into a line. His clothes were disheveled, as if he'd been caught napping by news of the corsairs.
"The pirate fleet's advance scout most likely," said the captain. "She's fast, that's for sure. Faster than us by a long shot."
Thurio turned to gaze ahead. Five distant ships were fleeing, as they were, south along the coast. A few fishing villages dotted the shore, but none had fortifications or defensible positions that he knew of. It looked to be a fight, and while a part of him craved vengeance for his father and brother, a larger part feared for his loved ones in the cabin below. He gripped his sword hilt tighter.
"I'm glad we have your sword on our side," said the captain.
"I'm only sorry that waiting for me put you in a position to need my sword," said the maestro. "You're a good friend."
The captain waved away his words. "I didn't do it for you, old friend, but for that pretty little wife of yours. With her being in a delicate condition and all, I hated to think what those beasts might do to her."
A shiver twanged up Thurio's spine and the captain put a hand on his shoulder. "It'll be two, perhaps three hours before they catch us. Go. Be with your family."
When Thurio returned to the cabin, Mother was asleep and snoring lightly. Mary sat on the bed at Mother's head, her back against the ship's timbers and her arms draped over her belly. Lantern light turned her skin to gold and her hair copper. She reached out to him and Thurio took her hand, perching on the cot in front of her.
"The doctor gave her a sleep draught," said Mary, tilting her head toward Mother.
"And how is Francesco?" said Thurio, putting a hand on her stomach. "Has he settled down?"
She nodded, circling her palms on the sides of her tummy. "The ship is rocking him to sleep. What did you find out?"
Thurio ran a hand through his jet black hair. "There's a corsair chasing us."
"One is plenty," he said.
"Yes, but better than two, or ten. And they want us alive. They don't want to kill their merchandise."
Thurio's love for her welled up, filling his chest to bursting. She was the only woman he knew who wouldn't be reduced to a quaking mass by news of a battle. Only she could find the bright side of a pirate attack.
He followed her train of thought. "So they won't use grapeshot to wipe us out," he said. "They'll disable the ship and board. It will be close fighting."
She nodded. "And there is no one in the world better at hand-to-hand combat than you, my love."
He ran his hand down her cheek and rested it against her warm neck. "Still, if they disable the ship, we'll be drifting, helpless. The rest of the fleet could seize us. And we'll likely be outnumbered three or four to one."
"What if they thought we were surrendering?" said Mary.
A ruse, thought Thurio. The idea rankled. It was dishonorable, but then, pirates were the epitome of dishonor, and it might be their best hope.
"They'd have no cause to disable the ship," he said. "They would want to take it as a prize."
"Once they came in close…"
"We could scour their decks with grapeshot," he finished.
Grapeshot, a canvas bag of tightly-packed musket balls shot from a cannon, was devastatingly effective against a mass of men. The shot fanned out clearing swaths at a time.
Mary nodded, "We might reduce their numbers by half and double our odds."
His spirits spiked and he leaned forward kissing her on the lips. "I knew I married a Scotsman's daughter for a reason. You are brilliant, my little Paprika."
She grinned at him. "Of course I am. I married you."
Three hours later, when the corsairs pulled close enough to send a cannonball whizzing past their bow, the captain called, "Heave to!"
The helmsman put the wheel over and the sails fluttered, then fell slack. The ship slowed, wallowing on the waves. At a word from the captain a white flag jerked up the mast and flashed against the blue sky.
But behind closed gun ports, the gun crews crouched beside their cannons - cannons primed and loaded with grapeshot. Thurio and a handful of townsmen knelt with muskets ready behind the two longboats that were inverted and stacked between the masts.
Thurio steadied his nerves. He'd been in battles before, too many, but never one where the ground swayed beneath him or where he had so much to lose if he failed. He forced the thought of Mary and Mother out of his mind. He concentrated on the sway of the deck, judging how it would affect his aim and footing. The pirates had a clear advantage over a landsman, but he had the best sword arm in Europe, and he had motivation. The only way the pirates would get to his wife and child was over his corpse.
He waited for the signal, fighting the urge to peek at the closing ship.
"Open fire!" bellowed the captain.
The starboard gun ports thunked open as Thurio rose. The corsair ship had drawn even with them fifty yards off. Her sails were taut and foam churned from her bow. At least a hundred corsairs crowded the rail. Their brightly-colored coats and turbans would have been festive under different circumstances. They waved curved scimitars and muskets, yelling for blood.
Thurio propped the musket he'd been handed on the longboat in front of him and took aim, waiting for the rise of the next wave. As he pulled the trigger the six starboard cannons erupted. Smoke smothered the deck and Thurio ducked down to reload his musket. Screams drifted across the water.
"Bring us to the wind!" yelled the captain. The ship turned, sails swelling. She began to move.
Thurio rose to fire again, but could see nothing through the smoke. He couldn't even tell where the corsair was. Then red flashed through the smoke and pirate cannons roared. He aimed and fired.
The Anglia jerked and creaked as a barrage of chainshot - two cannonballs with a chain between - ripped through the rigging, some hitting masts and yardarms. Splinters of wood, severed ropes and scraps of sail showered the deck. Musket balls from the corsair ship thudded into the wooden boats in front of Thurio. Three crewmen cried out and fell to the deck.
Through thinning smoke Thurio saw that the faster corsair had passed in front of the Anglia and tacked. She was heading toward them on their larboard side. Thurio climbed over the longboats to keep them between him and the pirates. He reloaded and awaited their approach. The first barrage of grapeshot had been effective. It looked as though at least a quarter of the pirates had fallen. But there were only thirty crewmen aboard the Anglia. The odds were still worse than two to one.
"Hard to starboard!" the captain shouted. "Larboard guns! Give her another broadside!"
The cannons thundered and billowed smoke.
Musket balls peppered the Anglia, one ricocheting off the longboat inches from Thurio's face. He flinched away, and then saw her.
Mary knelt over the spasming body of a crewman tying a tourniquet around his ravaged leg. She waved to another crewman yelling, "Take him to the doctor!"
As the corsair came abreast ten yards off, Thurio bolted for Mary. He threw himself to the deck next to her, bringing her down with him and shielding her with his body. The corsair's cannons bellowed. The longboats and ship's rail exploded in splinters that rained down on them. One of the Anglia's cannons flew backwards, crushing men beneath it. Grappling hooks snaked out from the pirate ship.
"We must get you below," yelled Thurio.
"Please, Thurio, I can help."
He shook his head. "Not today, my love."
He helped her rise and wrapped an arm around her, hurrying for the companionway stairs. Once they descended to the landing she turned to him. "At least let me assist the doctor. I'll stay below deck."
The ship shuddered. A section of wooden hull and the companionway stairs beside them disintegrated into splinters as a cannonball flew through the ship.
Pain seared along Thurio's right side as he staggered. Mary had been knocked to the deck. She sat up as Thurio knelt beside her. Small spots of blood appeared on her clothing where slivers of oak had hit her.
"Are you hurt badly?" said Thurio, scanning her wounds.
"I…" She reached up toward her neck.
Then he saw it. Thurio's breath stopped. The world spiraled and warped around him. A five-inch, ragged oaken splinter protruded from the side of Mary's throat.
"Oh God," he whispered.
Mary's fingers found the intruder, and before Thurio could think or move to stop her, she pulled it free.
Blood was everywhere by the time Thurio set Mary down on the cot next to Mother. Mother held the wound as Thurio sprinted to find the doctor. He ran blindly, yelling and searching in a surreal daze in which seconds lasted a lifetime and minutes flew by too fast. Finally, he found the doctor and returned with him in tow.
Thurio knelt at Mary's head as the doctor examined her wound. Her breathing was shallow but she was awake. Her green eyes locked on Thurio's.
"The baby," she whispered.
She put a weak hand to her stomach and Thurio could see her belly moving through the fabric of her dress.
"Doctor, please," said Thurio, his voice like glass in his throat. "Do something."
"The damage is too great," said the doctor. "I'm sorry. I can't stop the bleeding."
Thurio clutched the man's bicep and squeezed, willing him to save her. "You must! You have to."
The doctor grabbed at Thurio's wrist. It was clear he was hurting the man, but he didn't care.
"We must take the baby now if it is to survive."
"Take? Oh, God, no." He trembled, letting go of the doctor's arm.
"I'm sorry, Maestro, but your wife will be dead in five minutes and your child will die three minutes later. We cannot save your wife, but your child needn't die."
"Thurio," whispered Mary.
He knelt beside her and took her hand. It felt cold so he tried to knead the warmth back into it.
"Save Francesco," she said. Her eyelids fluttered closed, then opened again.
Thurio held her cold hand to his tearstained cheek. "I can't."
"Yes, you can, son," said Mother putting a hand on his back. "You must."
Mary sighed and closed her eyes.
Thurio stood. Mary was still, but the writhing in her belly grew more intense. Francesco was fighting for life. The doctor stood ready with a scalpel in hand to free him. Thurio nodded once. The doctor went to work. Thurio turned toward the cabin door, drawing his sword.
When Thurio climbed the shattered stairs and arrived on deck it was awash with fighting men. Fury like he had never known propelled him forward. It filled him so completely that he felt himself on fire, a god of flame. His sword was Wrath, it sang and hissed against other blades and whispered as it found its targets.
On and on he went for what seemed like forever, slashing and stabbing, watching bodies drop. Eventually, there were no bastards left to slay.
He stood, sides heaving, blood dripping onto the deck. His rage melted, slipping away like a dream upon awakening. In its place flooded despair and pain. My brave girl. Mary.
He heard a baby's wail, high and plaintive. Though his mind felt disconnected, his body moved toward the sound, down the ruined stairs to the closed cabin door. He couldn't go in. He leaned his head against the door frame as shudders wracked his body.
The door opened. Mother stood with a red-pink squalling child wrapped in a cloth in her arms.
With a stuttering breath he took the child, staring at the tiny perfect fingers and the little mewling mouth. He swallowed hard. "Is he going to be all right?"
Mother wiped at her eyes. "Francesca is just fine."
He looked up at her. "A girl?"
Thurio leaned back against the doorframe and stared up at the beams, letting the tears flow. "My brave little girl," he said.
Francesca DiCesare is the title character in the as-yet-unpublished novel LADY BLADE which begins when Francesca is eighteen. Lady Blade was a finalist in the San Francisco Writer's Conference Contest. Watch for more stories coming soon about her and her family.
If you enjoy reading about Francesca go to http://ladybladeblog.wordpress.com, https://www.facebook.com/LadyBladeNovel or http://www.ladyblade.com/. I am currently looking for an agent and publisher, but if I get enough followers I'll self-publish. Let's make it happen!
C. J. Thrush