Great families of yesterday we show,
And lords whose parents were the Lord knows who.
acy Bennett stepped from the dank shadows of Newgate Prison into the bright September morning. She blinked; then drew in a deep breath of fresh air and smiled saucily at the sullen warder. “I never thought t’ see the day London sewers smelled like rosewater,” she quipped.
“Right leg!” The sour-faced prison official pointed to a bloodstained block of oak beside the waiting ox cart.
Lacy placed her dirty, bare foot on the wood. Instantly, a trustee clamped a rusty leg iron and chain around her ankle. Pain shot up her leg as the heavy shackle bit deep into her flesh, but she forced her smile even wider. “Thank ye for the bauble,” she said. “I was hoping ye’d have one just my size.”
“I’ve somethin’ more I’d like t’ give ’ee,” the leering trustee replied as he ran a groping hand up her leg.
“No talking to the prisoners,” the warder barked. “Into the cart with ’ee, witch. And thank whatever fiend ye pray to that it’s Tyburn gallows and not the stake ye’re bound fer.” He ran a hairy finger down the list of names. “Next! James Black, pirate. Bring out the pirate.”
Lacy dodged the trustee’s sweaty grasp as she scrambled up into the back of the cart. Two prisoners had come before her from Waterman’s Hall, the women felons’ section: Alice Abbott, coin clipper, and Annie the Acorn, poisoner. They clung to the sides of the cart sobbing and crying for mercy.
“Hold there.” The warder cleared his throat loudly and glared at the trustee. “According to these records, the pirate James Black has made two escape attempts this month. Get the witch back here.” He indicated Lacy with a thrust of his unshaven chin. “Collar and chain them together.”
Lacy’s heart dropped to the pit of her stomach. Oh, shit! she thought, trying to keep the distress from showing on her face. I’d not planned on being yoked like an ox to some scruffy-arsed buccaneer. Ben and Alfred will be pissed.
The warder hawked up a gob of green mucus and spat on the block. “To Tyburn gallows Black is sentenced and to Tyburn he’ll go. I’ll lose no condemned felons on my watch.”
Lacy twisted around to stare as three burly guards wrestled a swearing prisoner through the gate. Despite the heavy manacles, the big pirate was trading blow for blow with his captors. A wild black beard nearly covered the captive’s face, but for an instant Lacy caught sight of fierce dark eyes beneath the matted hair.
Heart’s wounds! She gasped. Waterman’s Hall, where she had been held, had been bad enough, but she could smell the stench of Condemned Hold that emanated from his filthy body. Mother save ye, ye poor wretch, she thought with genuine compassion. ’Tis a better place ye go to than where ye’ve been, and that’s God’s truth. She shuddered as she remembered the rumors that circulated through Newgate about the conditions in the Hold. Black as hell, they said the pit was, with foul air and water a pig wouldn’t drink.
“Out wi’ ye!” The trustee yanked Lacy’s leg iron. “Ye heard the warder, slut. Out of the cart.”
She gritted her teeth and forced a grin as she started to climb back down to the ground. “I’ll remember ye in paradise, deary,” she murmured. He gave another sharp tug and she lost her balance.
She would have fallen facedown off the back of the cart if the pirate hadn’t suddenly lunged forward and grabbed her. In the split second before the guards clubbed him back and dragged her out of his muscular arms, her gaze met his, and a spark of kindred lightning leaped between them.
Lacy caught her breath and smiled up at him in astonishment. An unfamiliar tingling raced down her spine and raised the hair on the back of her neck. Her stomach turned over and she felt the same dizziness that often came just before one of her spells. Her body seemed numb, so much so that she hardly felt the trustee’s fist as he backhanded her. She went down in a tangle of iron chain and men’s legs, but her gaze stayed on the pirate as the guards beat him near to unconsciousness.
“God rot your bleedin’ bowels,” she swore as the warder drove his wooden staff into the small of the prisoner’s back. “I’ll save you a warm spot in hell.”
The warder grimaced with fear and threw up three fingers to fend off the evil eye. “Collar them,” he ordered, backing away from her. “And get them into the cart.” His rusty voice turned shrill. “We ain’t got all day” Almost as an afterthought, he rapped the oak baton hard enough against Lacy’s head that she saw stars.
Dazed, she made no resistance when rough hands dragged her to her knees and snapped an iron collar around her throat. Four feet of thick chain linked her to a similar collar being fastened around the pirate’s neck. She staggered as the trustee shoved her into the cart, and her forehead scraped against the inner wall.
Pain shot down her face and set her eye to throbbing. She caught hold of the rail and pulled herself up on her knees, unwilling to let the jailers see how much they’d hurt her. Damn them to a moldy grave! Damn them all! If she were the witch they’d named her, she’d curse every mother’s son of them with running pox.
A trickle of warm liquid ran down her cheek; sweat or blood, she couldn’t tell. She glanced at her partner and remembered his unexpected act of kindness. “Straighten your spine,” she whispered. “We’ll have a crowd lining the streets, and if ye look whipped, they’ll be on us like gulls on new-hatched turtles.” He groaned and she took his arm. “On your feet, freebooter! Have ye sand or milk in your craw?”
He coughed and spat blood.
“Damn ye for a yellow-backed clapperdud-geon! On your feet, I say!” She tucked her shoulder under his and shoved. He swore through cracked lips and forced himself up. He swayed but spread his legs and remained upright.
“Aye,” she whispered loudly. “There’s a stout mate. You’ll do, pirate, you’ll do.”
“Silence!” The warder slammed his staff on the side of the cart. “No touching!”
Two more prisoners climbed into the cart, both men. The deputy-keeper of Newgate stalked through the archway, hat askew, mounted his gray horse with some difficulty, and took his position ahead of the oxen. One of the women prisoners standing in front of Lacy began to keen softly, and the cart creaked as the oxen threw their weight against the yoke. The driver cracked a long whip over the horns of the massive beasts and guided them up Old Bailey and west onto Holborn Street. Two more carts full of condemned prisoners followed close behind.
Lacy glanced sideways at the corsair. His dark brown eyes were wide open and focused on the back of the deputy-keeper’s velvet cloak. Since he wasn’t looking at her, Lacy felt free to satisfy her curiosity.
It had been her experience that most seamen ran to runts, but this buccaneer was far from stunted. He topped her by a head, and she was tall for a woman. His broad shoulders strained the material of what had once been an expensive coat, and his muscular arms looked powerful enough to lift this cart. They’d not felt bad either—in the brief moment she’d had to gauge his strength.
The beating he’d taken would have been enough to kill a lesser man. She’d known he was hurt bad, but what she’d said to him was bare truth. Please the mob, and ride to gallows hill in glory. Earn their contempt, and rocks would be the least they could expect. At least one man had been ripped from the Tyburn cart and torn apart by the good citizens of London this year.
Given the choice, she’d rather have the onlookers offer her a mug of ale than throw hot oil in her face—that was certain. She gripped the rough lip of the cart side and breathed deep. This old section of London smelled of charred wood and too many unwashed humans packed inside narrow streets, but the scents were perfume compared to the bowels of Newgate Prison.
Three apprentices ran beside the cart and she grinned at them and waved. “Come take a ride,” she called. “Ye can have my place. The view’s great from here, I promise.”
“Tyburn fodder!” a pock-faced youth shouted.
“Gallows bait,” his companion cried.
The third boy ran forward and swung on the top rail of the cart. “Give us a kiss,” he dared. “Them lips is too sweet t’ be wasted in a grave.”
“Set me free and I’ll give ye somethin’ sweeter than a kiss,” Lacy flung back.
He leaned forward to kiss her, and a mounted guard rode close enough to give the apprentice a swift kick in the backside. The boy let out a yelp, to his friends’ delight, and jumped off barely avoiding being run down by the horse.
The pirate swore under his breath, and Lacy glanced back at him again.
“Damned if I thought to make a mummery for every jack to gape at,” he murmured.
His scarred hands knotted into tight fists and she noticed that for all the dirt, his fingernails were close cut. His hair was as dark as ebony and braided into an untidy queue that hung down his back. Despite the pirate’s size, his features were finely drawn, not coarse, his teeth even and white. “A gentleman,” she said out loud, then started as those hot black eyes bored into hers.
“What did you say?” he demanded.
His speech was as precise as any lord’s. She’d have noticed from the first, if her mind hadn’t been otherwise occupied by the fix she was in. She offered him a faint smile. “A gent,” she repeated. “Hanging here with common folk when most noble bloods have their heads sliced off all tidy like.”
“The end’s the same.”
“Nay,” she answered saucily. “I’ll not believe it, for none’s been there and back. For all I know, there’s one hell for us and a fancier one for the likes of you. No doubt the gentry has a breeze and runnin’ water beside their fiery pit. Not even Lucifer himself would let me sit beside ...”
A familiar face appeared in the crowd and Lacy’s heart skipped a beat. Toby! The wrecker’s cadaverous face was as mocking as any other that shouted taunts to the passing Newgate cart, but she’d have to be blind to miss that fish hook of a nose or those ears that clung to his head like barnacles on a ship’s bottom. Toby. If he was here, then Ben and Alfred had sent him to give her warning.
“... my betters,” Lacy finished lamely. She let her eyes flick back to Toby one last time as the cart lurched sideways. Her mind was racing. Alfred had promised they’d not let her swing.
“Daddy would gut us like fresh herring, did we fail ye,” her brother had said, the last time he’d visited her in Newgate. “Remember that, and don’t lose hope, no matter how close ye get to the noose!”
She braced her feet, then lost her balance and staggered against the pirate again as the left wheel dropped into a deep rut. She gasped. Hitting him was like smacking into a stone wall; broad as he was, the man was all sinew and muscle, without an ounce of fat on him. She felt her cheeks grow warm as indecent thoughts invaded her mind. Lordamighty! James Black might stink like a week-old fish, but if a woman had a mind to sin, he’d be a terrible temptation.
He glanced down at her and his fierce countenance softened with compassion. “All right?” he asked.
She nodded but didn’t answer. It’s yer lucky day, freebooter, she thought. Being chained to me is goin’ to save yer neck—at least for a while. Once her iron collar was off, the corsair would have to look after his own skin.
“I hope you’re mistaken about there being more than one hell,” James said. His voice was as deep and smooth as fresh cream. “If I’m to spend eternity on the banks of Lucifer’s fiery sea, I could find no prettier wench to sit beside me.”
He winked at her mischievously and she grinned back, hiding her concern. Could she trust him? Trusting strangers brings an early grave, her father always said. Time enough to let this salty rogue in on her plan for escape when she caught sight of her brothers ... or was there?
Lacy nibbled at her lower lip in consternation. She’d no way of knowing what Alfred had plotted or when she’d have to use her wits to break free. There’d be but one chance, and that was God’s own truth. She sighed, not knowing how much to trust the man beside her—or if she could trust him at all. Still ... a rat would leap at any crumb of cheese, no matter how small or dry. She waved at a hooting tanner and sidled against her companion suggestively.
The crowd caught her gesture and roared with approval. James grinned and matched insult for insult with the onlookers. “I know not what game you’re playing, but I like your moves,” he murmured to her.
They were passing through an area devastated by the Great Fire six years earlier. The buildings here were mostly new, and some were still under construction. Brick dust filtered down around the oxen and cart, and Lacy could hear the sounds of hammering and sawing. People clogged the thoroughfare; craftsmen, merchants, and customers, all doing a brisk business amid the din of barking dogs and shouting children. Just ahead of the deputy-keeper a stout butcher dumped offal into the open gutter. Blood splashed up to stain the deputy’s boots, and he cursed the butcher soundly.
Lacy couldn’t help laughing. Soldiers, prison officials, and condemned prisoners—none of the lot intimidated the gray-haired butcher. He shook a thick fist and countered the deputy-keeper’s profanity with threats and even fouler vilification.
A beer wagon blocked their path at the corner of Leather Lane, and the ox cart rolled to an abrupt stop while the soldiers argued with the carter.
Through an open gate, Lacy caught sight of a massive copper lard kettle suspended over a fire. A woman stirred the boiling contents with a long-handled dipper. A spotted cow skin, complete with head and glazed eyes, lay heaped by the gate. Lacy wrinkled her nose. The strong odor of the lard-making nearly—but not quite—masked the stench of the rotting cowhide.
“Tyburn trash!” a one-legged beggar cried.
“Aye, necks will stretch today,” a red-nosed drunk agreed. Almost as an afterthought, the drunk bent and picked up a broken cobblestone and threw it at the cart. “To the devil with the lot of ye,” he shouted.