The village looked deserted—as indeed it should be. Never had Celia seen such desolation, each dwelling reduced to individual piles of rubble. She had seen regions of egregious poverty in her travels, and this was so much greater it seemed to be some sort of evil mirage as she’d experienced in the desert between Casa Blanca and Marrakech.
“My God,” she whispered in horror as one man hesitantly crawled out from under a pile of rubble. “Is that his house?”
“Looks like it,” Bataar said. “A hole in the ground. A few boards and stones to cover it.”
The man, emaciated so that she could see his sternum and every rib he possessed, looked around at her mounted force in utter fear. She supposed she couldn’t blame him, what with thirty armed mercenaries and another twenty pirates behind her. He studied the three leaders of the group warily: an Arab male, a white female, and a Mongolian female.
Yet he gathered himself and looked at Celia. “You have pink hair.”
“You are Señora Capitán? Our condesa? The conde is dead, then?”
“Sí,” she answered shortly, not bothering to correct his assumption.
“He expected you,” Solomon muttered. “I wonder how many others are here.”
“You know my purpose?” she called.
“Sí, Condesa Capitán.”
“Will you resist?”
He shrugged helplessly. “Even if we desired to, we could not. We are starving and beset by illness.”
Celia nodded and continued to survey the surrounds, growing more and more shocked. It was nothing more than a patch of dirt in a slightly less desolate landscape, craggy hills covered with rough brush. There was little to recommend it. No wonder Rafael held it in such low esteem he had shrugged off the loss of his deeds to his brothers. It was worth nothing, and the few scraggly olive trees were in the midst of an orchard that had been left to rot long ago.
Celia took a deep breath. They were far from the coast and the Thunderstorm. Aboard it, she had food aplenty for these people and could certainly purchase more, but they would not be able to endure the trip back to partake. The towns between Málaga and this village were few and far between.
“Solomon,” she whispered. “I— I am—”
The Arab dismounted from his fine gelding and strode toward the man, who cowered, and demanded, “Show me your stores.”
But the man simply sighed.
“You have water?”
“Sí. Rio Guadalhorce, just over the rise.”
Celia nodded and turned to Bataar. “These people need to be fed before we do anything, else they won’t survive long enough to enjoy the victory. They may not survive long enough for us to fetch them food.”
“The last good-sized village is better than a day’s ride back through that terrain.”
Celia simply nodded, and with that, Bataar turned her mount and barked orders for a third of their force to follow her. They took a last look at the village and did not protest a whit at the prospect of traveling another day and a half after already one hard day’s ride nor being led by a female—she had already proven to deadly effect she was no more to be trifled with than Celia.
“Aye, Cap’n!” The shout echoed from far behind, against the walls of the pass through which Bataar and company had disappeared.
Celia slid off her own horse—devil take it, she loathed horses, but with soldiers to command, she would not be seen as weak by riding in a carriage—and approached the man, who, distracted by the sight of cartloads of supplies just now pulling through the pass, had forgotten his fear.
“What is your name?”
“When I am finished with the task my, ah … husband … set me, this land will belong to your king. Is that something you can tolerate?”
“Do we have a choice?”
“You could leave.”
“Sí, and we would if we could.”
Celia nodded. “You will eat well tonight, but I only have provisions for my men. I had not thought to stay but two or three days. My leftenant has gone for more and will return two days hence. At that time, you should be well fed and rested enough to make a journey to better lands if you wish.”
“We do wish, Condesa.”
“Then do you wish to leave after you’re a bit more fortified or after I have cleared your land of its serpents?”
His face hardened. “We will wait.”
“Good enough, then. Gather your people. I have only biscuits to provide you until my cook has prepared a proper meal. Pray do not eat too fast or too much, as it will make you ill.”
Celia started when he grabbed her hand and fell to his knees, kissing it over and over again, weeping. “Ah, señor … ”
“Good lady,” he sobbed. “Our salvation. The Blessed Mother has sent you to us.”
Nonplussed, she gently tried to retrieve her hand, but he hung on. “Señor, please. Rise. Please. Please do not do this.”
“Let him be,” Solomon murmured from behind her. “His prayers have been answered.”
“God help us all if I am the answer to someone’s prayer.”
“Somebody has to be.”
• • •
“Who are you to make camp on our land? Get out before I set my men on you!”
Celia sat up on her pallet and groggily pulled on her moccasins, tied her hair back with a leather thong, then strapped her sword to her hip, daggers around each thigh, and shoved a pistol in her breeches. She emerged from her tent and looked at the stars. Two o’clock in the morning. Carefully tended fires dotted the village, some with spits still roasting freshly slaughtered game, and women and children crept about in the dead of night as if eating were a crime here.
Then Celia remembered: It was.
The villagers had protested the fires, as they would draw the attention of the Covarrubias brother charged with overseeing the villagers’ compliance. But they were hungry enough to wager their lives that Celia and her force could protect them.
“A woman?!” the man roared when he saw her and that the captain of the guard deferred to her. It was disconcerting how he resembled Rafael. How did such a Teutonic family happen this far south into a Moorish stronghold? “I’ll not speak with a woman!”
“I am the condesa,” Celia said in the haughtiest Spanish she could muster. “And I am here to claim it.”
“You can’t,” he scoffed. “If Rafael is dead—” He crossed himself. “—I am then the new Conde and my wife the new Condesa.”
Calmly Celia pulled out her flintlock and pressed it to the man’s nose, and he gasped, his eyes wide. “Do you test me?”
“The— The lands are still mine!”
“Sí, I know you have the papers.” She smiled beatifically. “Begone, Covarrubias. I will call on you tomorrow at your villa and we will talk business then. I’m eager to meet my … family.”
He could hardly protest. He turned with a snarl and stalked toward his fine mount. Only then did Celia see that he had brought his own regiment. Four well-fed men—not nearly enough to counter Celia’s thirty. On his way to his horse, he passed by a woman at a cookfire and brought down a quirt on her back with vicious intent.
The new conde hit the ground before the woman could scream, a dagger buried in the back of his neck.
Celia looked up at the conde’s men and said, “Warn your people, then. Attempt to flee if you must keep your pride. But know this: I am here to destroy the Covarrubias family with the same mercy you have shown your people, and you will not be able to hide until I have finished off every last male heir.”
• • •
Celia rode up to the villa the next morning in the finest clothing she could manage to don in her meager accommodations, in the finest carriage they had managed to acquire and drive over miles and miles of rocky terrain.
Her hair was piled high and her face lightly but carefully made up. Her mantua was of expensive lace and her dress of even more expensive silk. Her bum and hip rolls made her skirts stand out by only two disgraceful feet, but she could not do what she intended in eight-foot panniers. By contrast, her underskirt was heavily embroidered, the heels of her pink pumps were studded in diamonds, and her décolletage was so low her nipples threatened to pop out at any moment. But most importantly, her scars were bared for all to see.
Rafael would approve.
No one met her at the door to either welcome her or stop her. Indeed, the magnificent home seemed as abandoned as the village had at first.
Because she had expected that, she had sent her soldiers out immediately after the wee-hours confrontation to scour the landscape and make certain the cowards did not go far.
She and Solomon strolled first through one lavishly furnished room to another until they came to what she remembered to be a receiving room. She seated herself on the biggest, most opulent chair in the room—the one Rafael’s mother claimed as hers alone—and crossed one knee over the other. She relaxed, fanning herself with a pink silk fan with ivory filigree ribs.
“Bring them to me.”
A full quarter hour passed until an old woman walked in proudly, encouraged by Solomon’s presence.
She raked Celia with a sneer, but said nothing. She couldn’t. Celia was clad far more grandly than she—and she had clearly attired herself for this meeting, her gray-streaked blonde hair piled on her head and her dress of black.
Celia cocked an eyebrow. “Mourning?”
Her chin came up. “My sons are dead, are they not? First Rafael and then Carlos. How do I know you did not kill Rafael?”
“Your gall, Señora, is extraordinary. Summon your men to me.”
“They are gone.”
Celia smiled slowly. “Are they? Then summon your women.”
“We are of no threat to you.”
“Do any of them bear the next heir to the earldom?”
Her eyes widened and nostrils flared. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would,” she said flatly.
“No,” she spat. “None do.”
So far as Celia knew, that was true. “There are still male children, no?”
Her mouth tightened. “You would kill a child for his birth?”
Celia spread her hands wide and said with feigned shock. “I’m a pirate. Of course I would. However, for the children’s sake, I will make it swift and painless. I’m quite sure you have enough poison in this house to kill an entire village.” Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t you.”
The woman gulped.
It was mid-morning before the entire clan was brought to Celia, who sat as a queen amongst supplicants, some of whom sobbed at her feet and begged for their husbands’ or their children’s or their own lives, some of whom stood silent, too proud to beg.
The men were bound and gagged, roped to the pedestals that bore the load of the roof.
Celia looked down at the parchment in her lap and bade her men, under the direction of Rafael’s stewards, who were only too eager to assist, to account for every family member on the list, paying particular attention to the heirs.
There were three male children, all under the age of five, who were far down the line, but heirs nonetheless.
“Take them and may their innocent blood seep into the soil to feed it,” Celia said, absently waving her closed fan to the two of her crew charged with their care.
The wails and keening started in earnest when the children were taken, screaming for their mamas, and Celia simply waited for it to subside.
It was a long wait.
Rafael’s mother, who had been shoved to the floor and bound to the leg of her own chair, the one Celia had claimed, was otherwise free to squirm and, unfortunately, speak. But if she spoke, her pride would break, thus, Celia did not require her to be gagged.
Celia looked around at the gathered and bade Rafael’s senior land steward—himself with the look of hunger, although not emaciation like the rest—to recite the crimes Rafael’s brothers, uncles, and cousins had committed against the villagers …
… and they were legion.
None of them were blameless, but none could claim they had acted under duress.
After the recitation—which took better than an hour—was finished, most of the women were again weeping and the men had simply lost their coloring but for a faint greenish cast.
Celia leaned down to the dowager countess, grabbed a handful of her hair, and jerked her head up and back until the two could almost touch noses. The old woman whimpered in pain.
“You realize, of course,” Celia murmured conversationally, “I have said nothing about your crimes against Rafael and his father before him. He was not concerned for himself. He was concerned for his people, so I have come to rescue them. However, what I do here today is to avenge Rafael and his father.”
The dowager looked away, her nose in the air—or as well as she could manage it.
Celia let her go with a jerk and straightened. “Ladies,” she said congenially while the steward drank from a bottle of Madeira to soothe his voice, “please turn and bid your husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, and sons bon voyage. For where they are going, it will be the last kind word they receive.”
Not a word was spoken before Celia looked to her soldiers and said, “Kill them all.”
And amidst the screams of the women, the blood of eleven men flowed from their necks onto the finely crafted marble floors.
“Now, Señora,” Celia said gently five minutes later as she inspected the drops of blood that had splattered onto her fine shoes. “Do you see what your sin has wrought?”
“I will not bear this sin,” she returned with stiff, but weary and resigned pride.
“I should not speak for God, but were I he, I would disagree.”
Celia held her hand out to the nearest soldier, who slapped the hilt of his bloody dagger into her palm. The women and girls were keening and cringing, afraid they would be next. Celia stood, her skirts flaring out behind her as she turned and squatted in front of the dowager to cut her ropes. Once free, the woman barely had time to rub one wrist before Celia snatched her chin in her hand and squeezed—hard—jerking her face up.
After a long moment of trading stares, Celia said, “I find myself with nothing to say to you,” and released her chin. Once again, she snatched a handful of the dowager’s hair and straightened to her full height, taking the dowager with her.
She screamed in pain, and the women’s cries rose in volume again.
Celia dragged her into the middle of the room, which task was made far easier by not only a marble floor, but one slicked with blood. Celia stood in a half inch of blood, her shoes and the hem of her gown soaking it up like lamp oil, but the dowager was lying in it, crying … and now begging.
“Ah, and here I thought you would not be so crass as to beg,” Celia cooed. “Your gown is ruined, Señora. I doubt your maids and laundresses will be able to clean it to your satisfaction.”
“Please let me live.”
“Oh, I cannot do that,” Celia replied with faux regret. “In truth, I am showing you mercy, for you will have no means of support once I am gone. You would starve to death.”
She was sobbing now, keening.
Celia looked at the steward and said, “That would be a cruel thing to do, would it not?”
The steward, though he had been eager to assist Celia’s forces to gain his and the villeins’ freedom, was ashen.
“Though I am tempted to do just that, I cannot risk it. Where there is life, there is hope. And I have never been one to leave an enemy alive to visit me another day wearing a cloak of vengeance.”
The dowager gasped and gurgled when Celia reared back, then sank the dagger into her stomach. Celia bent with a snarl, gave it a quarter turn, and sliced her belly from left to right.
The woman stared at Celia with wide eyes. She put her hand to her stomach, bringing it to her face, and stared at her blood-soaked fingers in horror.
“I will be taking your womenfolk with me,” Celia said matter-of-factly as she wiped the blade on her own fine gown. “You will die here alone but for the bodies of your menfolk, in this pool of blood and in great pain. If you have some small amount of luck, it will take mere minutes for you to die. If I have the luck, it will take you days. And thus we see,” she said airily as she turned and dragged her now-soaked skirts through the blood on her way to the door. Soldiers, with their expressions of awe, parted for her as if she were Moses. Solomon offered her his arm as her crew fell in behind her. “That the wages of sin is death.”
• • •
“Are you going to torch it?” Bataar asked quietly.
Celia, Solomon, and Bataar sat together on a rock in front of one of the many campfires, late in the night after the bloodletting. Her ruined gown was drying over a shrub, the blood-encrusted fabric and jewels a testament to the promise she had honored. She was clean now, after she and her men bathed in Rio Guadalhorce, which could most generously be called a trickle. They were now all eating from the stores Bataar had managed to purchase and transport in a little less than two days. There was music and dancing, though Celia had no reason to sing. Indeed, the entire village was celebrating.
“What need have I to do that?” she asked, gesturing into the darkness. “Does dust burn? It has never borne fruit and never will.” She paused. “But order the house burnt.”
It took mere moments for the order to be given and a small group set out for the home.
Celia turned to Solomon when the first hints of smoke curled through the dusk. “And now you know why an earl took a position as a lowly university professor. ’Twas the only way he could feed his people.”
“Yes,” he murmured. “I may have done the man wrong.”
She waved that off. “You were not wrong in your assessment, though.”
“Children to larboard,” Bataar muttered.
She looked to her left to see two of the three remaining Covarrubias heirs staring at her with wide eyes. They were under guard, but they didn’t seem to know that. The crewman charged with that duty dandled the middle boy on his knee and entertained him with his recorder flute while a wet nurse fed the infant.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said low. “If that makes me weak, so be it.”
Solomon clucked. “It is not weak to let a child live, but what are your plans for them?”
“Take them with me. The oldest is too young to remember for long. Do they stay with me until adulthood, I can make sure they never know and have no reason to return. Look at them. ’Twill be easy enough to pass them off as mine.”
“Judas will have something to say about that,” Bataar muttered.
Aye, he would, and none of it good.
“Give them to Muehl,” Solomon said. “He cannot work his lands without sons, and his woman is barren. As the rest of us, he has funds aplenty, but there is no glory in owning land one cannot tend, especially for a man like Muehl. Labor costs dearly, and he would have no one to leave it to anyhow.”
What if I asked you to become a farmer’s wife? And to sweeten the proposition, a farmer’s wife on the frontier, chopping down trees and breaking new sod, alone, surrounded by Indians. Hunting. Planting. Milking cows. Butchering pigs. Living off the land. You—well, both of us, I imagine—would have to learn how to cook.
“I cannot assure they will not return to claim this.”
“And what harm would it do if they did?” Solomon demanded low. “Let us suppose they come back to this in fifteen years. What would they do with it, even had they coin?”
She pursed her lips and looked back at the two older children, both of whom were now engaged with Muehl’s music. “Aye, I see your argument.” She continued to watch when Muehl arose and herded them to a small shelter he had fashioned. He pulled his own bedroll apart and rolled it in a configuration just the right size for two small boys, then tucked them in.
He went to the wet nurse and sat beside her. They spoke briefly before she called another woman over. In mere moments, the women were teaching Muehl how to feed the babe without benefit of a breast.
“Bataar, make him the offer,” she murmured. “If he accepts, take him back to Málaga with five men riding guard. You will know what type of woman to hire as a wet nurse.”
Celia and Solomon watched as Bataar sauntered over to him to present him with the proposal. When his face lit up with joy and he sent a jaunty salute to Celia, Solomon said, “It is a good decision. He will be very happy.”
“Then mayhap he can spread his cheer to the rest of us. I am weary, and our task is only half done. God willing, Charlie will welcome me with more charity than he has before.”
Solomon snorted. “One cannot blame the King of Spain for taking umbrage at being addressed as ‘Charlie.’”
Celia laughed and got to her feet. “I’m an American, Solomon. He adores Americans.”
“You may be the only American he does not.”
She snickered. “Ah, but he will fair cover my face in kisses when he learns I have come bearing land.”
“He will not question how you attained it?”