The small boat’s hull struck the side of the ship they had rowed alongside. A ladder rope tumbled over its edge.
“You first, ma’am,” said one of the sailors that had been waiting in the rowboat.
“I think not,” Virginia replied in a sharp tone, and the nearly-full moon illuminated her dubious expression well enough that they shrugged and headed up the ladder.
“Good try,” another man snickered.
Her skirts would already be a challenge on such a ladder, so Virginia grasped a handful of them and tucked them over and into her waistband, then headed up after the men. Her satchel slung over her shoulder held tinkering bottles of herbs and oils. The men aided her final steps over the ship’s railing where a stout, strong looking sailor with a full beard seemed to be in charge. She jerked the skirts back into submission.
“Know you much about poisons?” he asked bluntly. “We have no time to waste.”
“I know a bit. Show me to your captain promptly.” Virginia assumed that brazen confidence would do her more favors than meek polity among this crew, so she held her head high as he led her towards the forecastle and through a narrow hallway into the cabins. Amongst the crew, she could hear a few vulgar whispers about her physical traits, and was glad she’d kept her scarf tight over her hair as Goody Popham had so painfully reminded her was appropriate. The hallway led to what was clearly the captain’s quarters, and the man stopped outside its door.
“He was out of his mind for all last night, but now he’s near death. His heartbeat is almost gone.”
“What happened yesterday? Do you know he was poisoned or just suspect it?”
“I suspect it. He is a steady, calm captain. But this morn he went delirious, ranting nonsense and threatening the crew. And he vomited his lunch and hasn’t been able to keep anything down but the water we’re forcing him to drink now.” He opened the door to a surprisingly large cabin lined with windows along its back wall, and kept warm by what appeared to be a fire contained inside an iron box with legs and a chimney leading up through the ceiling. Instead of letting her in, he warily looked in first, then seemed to approve of something and allowed her to enter.
Virginia hid her surprise at the shelves lined with books; even this older, grizzled sailor’s English had seemed well educated. Perhaps she was as guilty of judging by appearances as the many who saw her and frowned. On the bed across the room, the covers moved and a man’s moan arose. She walked to him, hesitant, but anxious to help anyone in pain. Her escort walked alongside her and seemed cautious too.
“He’s the Captain Peter Easton. His name is well known in these parts, but I ask that you keep it to yourself.”
Virginia let out an involuntary gasp and looked to the older man.
“The pirate Peter Easton?”
The man, clearly his first mate, narrowed his eyes and bared clenched teeth. “We are privateers, with letters of marque and reprisal from King George.” His furious defense and the mention of a license from the King sent Virginia’s eyebrows up and her feet back. “Will you help or not?”
“I would withhold help from no one in need,” she told him solemnly. “Let me examine him more closely as I ask you more.”
Even prone, the man in the bed seemed large — tall, broad of shoulder and long of leg. He was shirtless, sweating, his eyes open but unseeing. She was surprised by his youthfully handsome face, an almost elegant masculinity like the few well-raised lords she had seen visit from England and Portugal when they lived in Conception Bay. Dark brown hair swept back from his sweat-sheened forehead and his grey eyes closed on another moan as he clutched his lean, sinewed chest. When they opened, she noticed how his pupils didn’t contract, even with the lamp near his bedside shining.
Virginia leaned over the captain, laying a hand to his forehead to check for fevers. His eyes snapped to hers and she froze, pinned by his unusual quicksilver irises and searching, frightened pupils.
“Who are you?” he rasped. “Name thyself.”
“Virginia. That is all you need know.”
In a move so fast she couldn’t evade, he reared from the bed, grabbing her by her throat and switching their positions so she was pinned beneath his looming form and choked by the pressure on her windpipe. The glint of a knife larger than her head became a mirror under her right eye, its edge touching her cheekbone.
“The face of an angel but the eyes of a witch. Have you sent her to kill me, Gillray?” the captain growled, wild. Though her body was still quaking with terror and her thoughts were swamped with sweet little Victoria, Virginia closed her eyes and summoned the calm inner sanctum she escaped to when her husband beat her.
“No, captain! She’s a healer! I brung her to help get the poison out of ya!” the older man shouted, pulling at the captain’s powerful shoulder.
Virginia opened her eyes and met Peter Easton’s. Silver barely edged out his enormous pupils.
“And the lamb walked into the lion’s den? Does he speak the truth?” he demanded of her. He spoke the King’s English, as cultured as a high lord.
“Yes,” she whispered, and two tears slid down her cheeks. One caught, sparkling, on the knife. He pulled away as if burned by her, standing with chest heaving, then all his strength seemed to evaporate and he sank onto the end of the bed, back caved and struggling to breathe. He began to fall toward the pillows where she huddled in fear, and she leapt off the bed.
“Please forgive me,” he said as he slid past her.
“Ma’am, I never meant to put you in harm’s way, the captain is a gentleman and would never harm a lady in his right mind. Are you hurt?”
Virginia’s one hand was on her unharmed cheek and the other on her bruised throat. Both trembled. She shook her head.
“Why do you think he was poisoned?”
“We were given a gift of biscuits by a savage chief in Labrador. But I think the man still holds a grudge against the captain, I don’t trust him. The captain ate the biscuits yesterday morning and no one else ate them. He alone is ill.”
Virginia looked to the man the captain had called Gillray. “An Indian? What tribe?”
Virginia’s gaze returned to her patient, her decision to help him now made. She approached him again, then nudged his strong shoulder. He didn’t react. She touched the pulse in his neck and found it dangerously slow.
“Peter Easton,” she said when he didn’t move. His gray eyes opened again, the pupils never dilating. “Foxglove poison. He’s been sick for most of today? We may be too late.” She sat back on the bed, her mind racing through what she’d been taught. She looked up at the first mate. “Your name, good sir?”
“Joseph Gillray. Ma’am. Is there a cure?”
“Mr. Gillray, I need you and your men to go fetch as many oysters as you can find and a pot full of seaweed set to boil in water like a soup. I have some dried seaweed, but I don’t know that it’s enough. I’ll start with that whilst you fetch the other.”
“It’s the foxglove. It’s an old poisoning tool of the Micmak Indians, but I happen to know their cure for it as well,” Virginia nodded as she began to rummage through her sack.
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but his life is in peril so I must demand honesty. How do you know it?”
Virginia looked up at Joseph and made her decision on instincts her mother had trained her to accept.
“I’m one-quarter Micmak.”
Eyes wide, he nodded and dashed for the door, then stopped before he closed it.
“Good lady, would you like me to supply a — a — chaperone so that you aren’t alone with him?” he asked with stutters and hesitancy, making her smirk as she realized his proper manners weren’t often called upon.
“I fear your chaperone more than he,” she said with a gesture of her head to his captain. “Go. Time is of the essence.” He disappeared, and she found her satchel of dried seaweed. She had brought a mortar and pestle, and worked faster as Peter Easton moaned again and clutched his chest. From witnessing the same poisoning death he was nearing, and from her mother’s tales, she knew he must feel like a ship sat atop his chest. His heart would continue to slow, he would lose the strength to breath, then he would slip away silently. A murder vile and bloodless, from a foe too cowardly to face him. Even the Micmak tribes feared and loathed it. She took heart in the fact that he still had the strength to breathe at all.
She made a gruel of powdered seaweed and water, then brought it to his bedside.
“Peter Easton. Wake and drink if you wish to live.”
His eyes opened again and he tried to focus on her face.
“Are you an angel?” he asked. His deep and troubled voice, his searching eyes, bruised her soul.
“No, but I am your deliverance. Drink,” she ordered. “The more you can eat and drink, the better your chance of survival.” She held the bowl to his mouth and supported his heavy neck as he followed her orders. Weak and slow, the gruel dripped down his cheek though he finished, and she hastily pulled loose her scarf to wipe his face. He watched her, and she flinched away when he reached up to touch her hair.
“An angel with witch’s eyes and the devil’s tresses.”
“Hush,” she snapped, the soft-spoken words cutting even as she knew enough of men to hear they weren’t judgments, but flattery. “Drink more.”
Peter Easton quit trying to focus on her and gave himself over to her ministrations, desperate for the cure she promised.