La Santa LeticiaHer wedding day dawned fair and clear, but Rayna was not comforted by the good luck foretold by such weather. Nothing good can come of this day, she thought, glaring at the rising sun as if it were to blame.
When she arrived downstairs, dressed in her best gown, her father approached her immediately, a self-satisfied grin on his face. “You’ve finally given up then, have you?” he scoffed.
Rayna glared at him, but did not respond. Taking a goblet from the high board, she gulped its contents and gestured to a servant to bring her more. She needed all the strength she could get to make it through this day, to say nothing of the night to come.
“Ah, so there’s my lovely wife!” The voice sent shivers down her spine. She forced herself not to pull away as Baron Victor Thomas, her betrothed husband, strode up to her and took her hands.
“Not yet,” she said under her breath. If he heard her, he chose to ignore the comment. He knows how I feel, she thought, so why is he marrying me? She knew the answer to that question, though she tried to forget it. Not only was she well-monied, but she was young, beautiful, and healthy enough to bear many sons.
“Fourteen is the perfect age to wed,” she had once heard him say to Lord Stanley, “you’ve indulged her by allowing her to remain a maiden so long.” The next day she had been informed of the betrothal. The wedding was to take place one week after her nineteenth birthday. Her bridegroom was fifty-six.
And now that day was here. Rayna moved in a daze as she was led on her father’s arm to the tiny manor chapel. The vicar had to prompt her for her responses and she mumbled them almost inaudibly. As they were pronounced man and wife, the church bells sounded in celebration. To Rayna, they sounded like a funeral knell.
Lord Stanley led the way into the Hall after the ceremony. The newlywed couple stood at the high board as the steward announced “The Right Honourable Baron and Baroness Thomas!” and the guests applauded and cheered. She tried to smile and must have accomplished it, as her father nodded approvingly.
The rest of the day passed in a frenzy of feasting, dancing, and revelry. Jousts were fought and games played in their honor. Rayna felt like a spectator in her own life as she chatted with guests, awarded prizes to the victors of the games, and danced. She amazed herself with her ability to behave as if nothing were wrong, when inside she wanted nothing more than to scream for help. No one noticed that the bride and bridegroom did not speak to each other, nor dance together, and that the bride’s smiles did not reach her eyes.
Night came all too soon and it was time for the bedding. She had been dreading this moment even more than the marriage ceremony itself. A dozen female guests surrounded her and all but dragged her to the solar. She submitted as they stripped her of her gown and chemise, making no attempt to cover her nudity. “Don’t worry,” one of them simpered, “it’ll be over quickly and it doesn’t hurt too much.” Rayna’s heart pounded as all of them laughed at the comment. She knew nothing of what was to come, only that it was going to hurt. Magda, her maid, had whispered to her that morning that she had placed a knife under the mattress to cut the pain. She glanced at the bed as the women led her to it and there indeed was a knife handle visible under the edge of the mattress.
“They’re coming,” squealed one of the women as the sounds of loud singing and laughter drifted in from the corridor. “Quickly, get her into bed.” Rayna was shoved unceremoniously into the bed and the coverlet tossed over her breasts just as the men burst into the room.
Victor staggered drunkenly to the bed and leered at her. She cringed at the lust in his eyes as he leered at her. His eyes dropped to her hands clutching the woolen coverlet under her chin and he frowned slightly. “Get up,” he demanded, “I want my friends to see that my bride is flawless!” Knowing she had no choice, she obeyed, sliding out of the bed and standing before him. He licked his lips appreciatively and yanked her forward, displaying her to the crowd. Her face burned with shame as the men laughed and made bawdy jokes about the bridegroom’s prowess. The women attempted to look scandalized, but tittered behind their hands.
“And now,” Victor shouted, pushing her back toward the bed, “out! I want to enjoy my bride in peace!” This prompted more laughter and the room emptied. Rayna was alone with her husband.
Without a word, he removed his clothes and climbed into the bed beside her. “Please don’t,” she whispered as he began groping her breasts.
He laughed. “Don’t?” he mocked her, “You’re my wife. I have the right to use you as I see fit. Scream if you like, no one will come.”
She did not scream, though she desperately longed to. She refused to give him the satisfaction. Instead, she bit her lip till it bled and prayed for death as he violated her body in ways she did not know were possible.
She didn’t let herself cry until he rolled off her and began snoring. She curled her body into a ball and moved as far away from him as she could. Her hand slipped off the edge of the bed and touched something hard protruding from it. The knife. She had forgotten it. She slid it out and held it in her hands, admiring the glint of the firelight on the blade. For a moment, she considered slashing her wrists with it or plunging it into her own heart. She knew, though, that if she did that, he would simply marry again. She wanted him to be punished for what he had done.
As the thought came to mind, Victor murmured in his sleep and rolled over onto his back. His throat was bare and exposed.
She felt surprisingly calm afterwards. She washed the blood from her hands and put on a traveling gown, then packed a satchel with another gown and her mother’s jewelry. She was shocked at how easily she managed to escape. All the revelers and guests were sleeping off the effects of the potent celebratory wine and no one noticed as she slipped out through the kitchen to the stables.
“We’re leaving, Epona,” she whispered to her mare as she saddled her, “We’re going to London. I’ll buy passage on a ship for the both of us and we’ll go to Spain or France, anywhere but here!”
“A woman and a horse? You must be joking.” The man sneered and turned away.
“Please, sir,” Rayna begged, “I can pay.”
“I don’t care if you can pay or not,” he spat, “women is bad luck on a ship as it is. I ain’t got room for a horse too. And I expect you’d be wantin’ me to feed it too.”
Rayna was silent. The man laughed and walked away from her.
“I’m sorry, Epona,” Rayna whispered in the horse’s ear as she accepted the sack of coins from the horse trader. It had been a week and she had not found a ship that would give them passage. She knew the only way she was going to get passage on a ship was with a lot of money and no horse.
She huddled in the cramped space, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. She was in the hold of a ship, that much she knew. Which ship and where it was heading, she didn’t know or care. She had been accosted by robbers not an hour after selling Epona and was penniless. Desperate, she had hidden in a box of food supplies being loaded onto a ship set to depart the next morning.
She was onboard less than an hour when she was found.
“What have we here?” The sailor leaned forward to have a closer look and she shrank back from him. His unwashed smell filled her nostrils and she gagged. “I think we’ll have to take you to the cap’n,” he chortled, taking her arm and yanking her toward the ladder leading out of the hold. The sailors stared in amazement as she was led to the captain’s cabin.
“Cap’n,” the man called, knocking, “we’ve got us a stowaway here.”
To her shock, Rayna heard a woman’s voice answer, “Bring him in.” The man opened the door and pushed Rayna in front of him into the cabin. A woman was seated at the desk, writing in the ledger. She continued writing for a moment while Rayna and the sailor waited silently. Finally she turned. At the sight of the stowaway she had assumed to be male, her eyebrows raised and she stood. “Thank you, Mr. Wilkins,” she said in a soft, surprisingly feminine voice, “you may go.” She spoke in English, but her voice held a hint of a Spanish lilt.
“Are you sure, Cap’n?” Wilkins said, eying Rayna, “she might have a weapon.”
The captain patted the sword strapped to her waist and said, “I appreciate your concern. Please send Mr. Jeffries to me. Tell him to wait outside till I call.” Wilkins nodded and left, closing the door behind him.
“Please, sit down,” the woman said, gesturing toward her chair. “I am Captain Romero. You are aboard La Santa Leticia. May I ask what you are doing on my ship?”
Rayna explained quickly why she was attempting to escape England. Captain Romero listened patiently, her only response a surprised look as Rayna confessed what she had done the night she escaped.
“Mr. Jeffries,” the captain called. The cabin door opened immediately and a man entered, so tall he had to duck his head under the low ceiling. Rayna gripped the arms of the chair in fear. Was she about to be arrested?
“Please place a hammock here in my cabin for our guest,” the captain said, “she will be traveling with us to Spain. Rayna breathed a sigh of relief and released her grip on the chair.
“There is a family in Spain which will take you in as a ladies’ maid,” the captain explained as Jeffries left in search of a hammock. “I have no cabin boy,” she continued, “I expect you to work for your passage. You will clean my cabin and help Cook with the food. Are you familiar with treating wounds and illnesses?”
“Of course,” Rayna assured her.
“Then you will do that as well. We must travel first to Belgium, then to Britagne before we go to Spain. The journey will take close to a month. Do you accept this offer?”
“I do,” said Rayna, smiling, “and thank you.”
Days were long and hard on board ship, but evenings were pleasant. Once the men had eaten, Rayna joined Captain Romero in her cabin. The two played chess and talked for an hour or two every night before retiring.
“How did you become captain?” Rayna asked one day.
“My father owned this ship before me. He had five daughters, no sons. I am the eldest. I inherited the ship when he died.” The captain looked sad for a moment, then shook her head and continued. “Most of this crew served under him. They have seen the trust my father placed in me. Jeffries was my father’s first mate and now he’s mine. He has known me since I was a child.”
“Aren’t you lonely?” Rayna asked curiously.
“I am too busy to think of it much,” the captain said, “but sometimes I wish for a companion. I have enjoyed your company.” She smiled warmly at Rayna.
Rayna smiled back. “But haven’t you ever wanted to marry and have a family?”
“Not really,” the captain sighed. “I have never wanted the life of a wife and mother. I prefer the freedom of the sea.”
Rayna understood exactly what she meant. She wished she had had the opportunity to seek the same sort of freedom for herself.
Rayna was sorry to see the coast of Spain in the distance. She had finally started to feel alive again in the company of her captain. She felt that she had a friend for the first time in her life.
“Thank you for allowing me to join you,” she said as she helped the captain take down the hammock. “I’ve really enjoyed the journey.”
“I enjoyed the journey as well,” the captain said, “It was very enjoyable having another woman around.” To Rayna’s surprise, Captain Romero hugged her, then held her by the shoulders, looking at her intensely. Impulsively, Rayna kissed her. For a moment, the captain kissed back, then pushed her away gently and said, “Come, I will take you to the family.”
The promised position was with a family living on the edge of town, in a stately manor home. The captain led Rayna in through a side entrance and directly to the solar. A woman sat by the window, weaving. She looked up as they entered.
“Mercedes, mi hija!” the woman rose and embraced the captain.
“Mama, this is Rayna,” she said, “She needs work and I was hoping you could take her as a ladies’ maid.”
“Of course not,” the woman said, outraged, “she will be my guest, not a servant!”
La Santa Leticia was set to depart three days later. The morning of the departure, Rayna woke to find Mercedes sitting on the edge of her bed.
“Buenos dias,” she said, smiling.
“Good morning,” said Rayna.
“I came to say goodbye,” Mercedes said.
Rayna sat up and threw her arms around her. “I wish you didn’t have to leave,” she said.
“I will miss your company on board ship,” Mercedes said.
“Take me with you,” Rayna said suddenly.
“What?” Mercedes said, confused.
“I want to go with you. Your family is wonderful, but I want adventure. I want freedom. I want you.” Unable to stop herself, she kissed Mercedes. Mercedes kissed back without reservation.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” Mercedes murmured in her ear.
“I am sure,” Rayna said.
Mercedes stood and pulled Rayna to her feet. “What are we waiting for?” she said, grinning. “Let’s go home.”