Read an Excerpt
'What is happening to us? Where are they taking us now?'
Lady Harriet Sefton-Jones looked at the young woman who clutched her arm so desperately, feeling a deep shaft of sympathy. Corsairs had captured their ship some weeks earlier and they had been kept in the hold for days, shivering and terrified. When the ship docked they were taken to a house somewhere in the busy port of Algiers. The men captured with them that terrible night were shackled with chains about their ankles, but at least she and her cousin, Marguerite, had been spared that fate. Once at the house she and her cousin had been cared for by an old woman, taken to bathe and given the apparel they were wearing now. The clothes were clean, but felt strange; they consisted of long narrow pantaloons that clung to the ankle and dark tunics that covered them from head to toe.
'I am not sure, dearest,' Harriet said in a low voice.
They had been forbidden to talk by the man who accompanied them. 'I think the corsair captain sold us to Ali Bin Ahmed, at least that is what I gathered from Miriam—but I do not know where we are going now.'
'I couldn't understand a word she said,' Marguerite said tearfully. 'If only we had stayed with the ship, Harriet. Father and Captain Richardson put us into the rowing boat with others in the hope of saving us, but…' A shiver took her and she could not continue. 'Do you think they were killed?'
Harriet did not answer immediately. Her uncle, Sir Harold Henley, and the brave young captain had last been seen fighting the horde of pirates who had boarded the ship during the night. The vessel had been becalmed for lack of wind and the lookout must have neglected his duty for they had been woken by Marguerite's father and told they were being boarded by pirates. He had hurried the ladies from their cabin and sent them up on deck, where they were put into the boats with other passengers and crew. They had hoped to reach the shore while the corsairs were fighting for the ship, but the fierce pirates had come after the boat, perhaps because of the women.
Marguerite was beautiful and would be prized in the slave markets, which was in all probability where they were headed now. Harriet was older than her cousin, attractive in her own way with dark hair and soft eyes. She had studied languages with her father before his death just over a year previously and could speak French and Spanish fluently. She could also read in Arabic and Greek, and it was because she could recognise a smattering of various other languages that she had managed to communicate with the elderly woman who'd helped hold them captive, Miriam.
As yet Harriet had not told her cousin what she feared, because she had hoped she might be allowed to ransom both Marguerite and herself. She had tried to tell Miriam that she was willing to pay, but the woman just shook her head. Although she was apprehensive herself, Harriet had no intention of giving up. Sooner or later she was bound to come in contact with someone who would listen to her and not pretend they did not understand, as the corsair captain had when she pleaded with him and received a blow for her pains. The bruise on her cheek still hurt her, but it had not daunted her spirit.
She reached for her cousin's hand. 'Whatever happens, we must not be separated,' she said. 'Just do as I do and hold on to me even if they threaten us.'
'Oh, Harriet…' Marguerite's eyes filled with tears. 'If you had not accompanied Father and me to Spain, I should have been alone and I just could not bear it.'
'I will not let them part us,' Harriet vowed, holding tightly to the younger woman. 'I promise that as long as I live I will do my best to protect you.'
'I am so afraid…'
Harriet comforted her as best she could, knowing that amongst people who seemed ruthless and capable of any violence anything could happen. She saw the high metal fencing that surrounded the building to which they were being taken, her worst fears confirmed.
They were about to be sold in the slave market, as if they were beasts or chattels—and anyone could buy them.
Kasim wandered round the busy marketplace. It teamed with people of many nationalities; voices, harsh and shrill, assaulted his ears with perhaps a dozen different languages and dialects. He had visited the market every day for nearly two months looking for the special woman that the Caliph had requested him to find, but as yet he had seen none that would please his exacting master. There were many beautiful women to be found in the auctions that were held most days, but only one had been English in the past few weeks. She was already bearing a child and was neither as beautiful nor as clever as the Caliph required.
'Will your highness attend the auction of Ali bin Ahmed this day, honourable lord?'
Kasim looked down into the impish face of the young slave boy, who was tugging at his sleeve. The lad was thin, dressed in filthy rags and smelled none too sweet, yet his heart was touched by something in the boy's eyes. His life as Ali bin Ahmed's whipping boy could not be easy.
'Did your master send you to me, Yuri?'
'Yes, gracious lord, master of the Caliph's household and exalted one. Ali bin Ahmed told me he has heard that you are looking for a special woman.'
'There is no need to call me by such titles,' Kasim said with a wry twist of his lips. There was something about the lad that touched a chord in his memory, but he could not place it. No doubt it would come to him in time. 'I am merely Kasim, servant to the Caliph. Tell me, does your master have a special woman in his compound?'
'There is a woman of great beauty but she weeps all the time and clings to the other woman who I've named the hellcat,' Yuri told him with a grimace. 'I do not think they would interest you, lord.'
Kasim hid his smile for the lad amused him. His spirit and courage was remarkable and his eyes told of a wicked humour. 'Tell me what is this woman like— the one of great beauty?'
'She has hair like sunbeams, fine and silky, and it falls to the small of her back. Her eyes are blue as a summer sky and her mouth is pink and soft… but she clings to the hellcat and will not be parted from her. Even though my master threatened them with the whip, the hellcat would not let go of her. She faced him down and he grunted and left them together.'
'Indeed?' Now the smile tugged at the corner's of Kasim's mouth. 'I am surprised that Ali has not had them separated before this.'
'The hellcat told Ali that his privates would dry up and fall off if he dared to separate them and she said it in our own tongue, though she and the beautiful one are both from the land called England. My master is scared of her, lord. I think he believes that she has put a curse on him.'
'Is she a witch then?' Kasim was intrigued. What kind of an English woman could curse the slave master in his own language? Certainly none that he had ever known in another life—a life he had no wish to remember. 'You may tell your master that I shall attend his auction this afternoon.'
'Yes, honourable lord…' Yuri was about to run off when Kasim caught his arm. The lad looked up at him inquiringly, but made no attempt to pull away.
'How old are you, boy? Ten… eleven?'
'I do not know, my lord. No one has ever told me.'
'Where did you come from?'
Yuri looked puzzled. 'I was always here, lord. My mother was the slave of a merchant who purchased her from the corsairs. When she was sold to a new master, she tried to escape and no one saw her again. My master's wife took me in and cared for me and I grew up in his household. That is all I know for no one speaks of her.' A slightly wistful expression came to his eyes, as if he wished he might have known his mother.
'Are you happy in Ali's service?'
'My master does not beat me unless he is angry. If I see that things do not go well, I hide until he is in a better temper.'
Kasim nodded. The boy's life was no worse than a thousand others in this place; however, over the last few weeks he had developed a soft spot for the young lad and he would mention the possibility of buying him when he visited the auction later. The boy could serve him until he was older and then choose his own destiny. He would not be the first slave Kasim had set free.
His thoughts turned to the women the slave master had in his compound. If the blonde woman was truly English and as beautiful as Yuri claimed, his search might be at an end, though the other woman must somehow be persuaded to part with her friend…
'What will become of us?' Marguerite asked, as they were herded into a pen with other prisoners. 'Will they ransom us, as you asked?'
Harriet reached for her hand. Marguerite had lived in a permanent state of terror since the day they were captured. The first few hours had truly been terrifying, but since then they had not been harshly treated and Harriet believed that if they behaved sensibly they would not be harmed. She suspected they were too valuable, though once they were sold it might be different. However, she refused to give into fear. She had tried to speak to the slave master when they arrived at the market, but though she sensed that he understood her, he merely shook his head and refused to answer her questions. Harriet had tried in vain to get news of her uncle and maid, who had become separated from them, also her uncle's servant and Captain Richardson. She had told Ali bin Ahmed that her family would ransom them for money, but he glared at her and made a negative sound.
She spoke to one of the other prisoners in the compound. The woman told Harriet that she was French, taken captive some days earlier from another ship. There had been no sign of Marguerite's father, Captain Richardson or Harriet's maid. She could only hope that the others were still alive and safe.
'I shall be worth little for I shall be sold as a body slave,' the woman, who was called Francine, told Harriet. 'But your friend will be bought by a rich man for his harem, and you may be, too, for you are both young and unmarried.'
'Surely they will allow us to be ransomed?' Harriet said, her heart sinking. 'My brother is wealthy and he will pay for our release.'
'Sometimes a ransom may be arranged,' Francine agreed. 'Some slave masters are wary of such an agreement. It is far easier to sell captives in the slave market than to trade with the foreign devils, as they call us.'
'Perhaps the buyer will listen,' Harriet said, but saw only pity in the older woman's eyes. 'Surely there must be someone who can help us?'
'If your brother uses his influence with the French ambassador, it might be possible to trace and rescue you, but by that time… it may be best if you are never found. If you still live, you will be a shame upon your family's name, but you may choose to end your life before—' The woman broke off, clearly too distressed to continue. She did not need to: Harriet was well aware of her meaning. Both she and Marguerite might be taken to a harem and used to pleasure whoever bought them.
Marguerite had asked her what the Frenchwoman had said to her, but Harriet shook her head. She had allowed Marguerite to believe they would be ransomed, but since they had been transferred to the compound behind the slave market it was difficult to keep her cousin's spirits up.
'I do not know what will happen,' she told Marguerite now. 'We must stay together for as long as possible. If we refuse to be parted, they may have to sell us together; while we are together there is hope for us both.'
'Oh, Harriet,' Marguerite sobbed and clung to her. 'If you had not come with me I should have been lost for ever. I would have died in the sea rather than let these beasts take me.'
'You must not give way to despair, my love,' Harriet said. 'If I can find a way to have us both ransomed, I shall. I have a fortune and I will use it to see us both safely home again.'
'What of Papa and… Captain Richardson?' Marguerite asked. 'Do you think they were killed on the ship? I have wondered if it would have been better to have stayed with them. If he is dead…' She choked back her grief. 'I would truly rather be dead than live as the concubine of one of those terrible men.' She shuddered. 'They frighten me, Harriet. I do not like their voices or their smell…'
'The corsairs are brutes and there is an unpleasant smell about them, but I believe it will be very different in the har… household of a wealthy man. I understand that the Turks and Saracens can be highly educated men and that they like to bathe frequently. They are more likely to smell of perfume than sweat.'
'Harriet!' Marguerite stared at her in horror. 'How can you say they are intelligent when they treat women as slaves? It is wicked and inhuman! I would rather die than be forced to… I should die of shame.'
'Yes, I know that we should be ruined as far as the chance of a good marriage is concerned, but there are other pleasures in life. Besides, if a man of honour buys us, he may allow us to be ransomed in time.'
Marguerite gave her an accusing look. 'You are saying that just to comfort me. You know it won't happen, don't you?'
Harriet cast down her gaze. She had begun to think that the hope of being ransomed was fading fast, but, seeing the fear and distress in her cousin's eyes, knew she must not give up.
'I can only promise to try, Marguerite. As yet I have found no one who will listen—'
Harriet broke off as she saw that something was happening. The slave master was choosing men and women and they were being taken from the compound. She grabbed hold of Marguerite, her heart beating wildly.