The rain battered the glass windows ferociously. The wind was a ravening, shrieking beast, howling its relentless determination to shake the house to pieces. The clouds, blackly menacing, swirled and boiled ominously. Jagged lightning tore the sky, briefly illuminating the waving prairie grass.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Grace Connor wrapped her arms tightly around her knees and stared, wide-eyed, at the savage display of raw power. Her heart beat faster as thunder crashed on her ears, like some giant drum of war. She was safe inside, sitting on the window seat in her bedroom. Silent marvel etched itself on her freckled face. She smiled quietly to herself. This, she was thinking, would be the perfect night to be kidnapped by pirates. Yes… the perfect night…
The lightning flashed and thunder roared. The rippling grass looked exactly like storm-tossed ocean waves, and suddenly Grace was aboard the ship Nightshade, tied to the mast by her wrists. The pirate captain swaggered over, leering mockingly at the small girl, one of five survivors of the crew of Mary’s Blessing. Ahh, he surely was a barbaric sight! Tattooed all over his bare, muscular arms; two belts strapped across his broad chest, both of which were dripping with weaponry; a short, rough black beard; dark, fierce eyes pierced her soul from underneath heavy black eyebrows. He wore a pair of black boots and a dark red vest; tattered finery that only served to enhance the savagery of his appearance. The rain spattered onto his face, running down his dirty cheeks in rivulets.
“So! A pretty lass have we, gents?” he boomed. The crew, a pack of filthy brutes, snickered nastily. The captain toyed with a ruby-encrusted dagger and grinned wickedly at his captive. He leaned closer to Grace, bending down with his scarred hands on his knees.
Grace’s light brown hair was dripping and tangled, and it blew in her face and obscured her vision as she glared up at the malodorous corsair. The wind knifed through her sodden clothes and stung her bare feet, but she barely noticed the freezing storm raging all about her.
“You’re a privileged maid to have fallen in with fine company such as ourselves, lass,” continued the captain. “How’s about you show your appreciation by dancing a lovely jig for Captain Greyson, eh? What say you, pretty one?”
A grappling hook thumped onto the deck. The pirate captain swung around, but too late! Three men in smart blue coats leaped aboard followed by a fourth and a fifth. The Navy had arrived!
“Charge them, lads!” roared the first man. “No quarter!”
And suddenly all was chaos! The shrieking wind drowned out the shouts and war cries as more Navy officers poured onto the pirate ship. Gunshots rang out in the night and the clashing of swords as the forces of good and evil waged an epic battle. Lightning illuminated the scene, and Grace screamed as one of the pirate crew fell at her feet with a bullet in his head. His knife spun from its sheath and slid right into her waiting palms. She snatched at it and began sawing at her bonds. Soon she was freed! The battle raged all around her, but she kept her head and soon her four companions were loosed as well. The men pounced on any weapons that had fallen onto the deck in the confusion and leaped into the fray.
And as suddenly as it had begun, the fight was over. Thunder crashed in the sky, a triumphant drumbeat sounding the victory of the Navy. The soldiers shouted jubilantly, their chests heaving from exultation and exhaustion, the wind snatching at their coats and hair. They were heroes! Their captain took charge of the ship and turned it in the right direction and they were bound for home… homeward bound at last…
Grace pushed her light hair behind her ears and pulled her quilt closer around her shoulders. Her flannel pajama pants, white with pink polka dots, glowed slightly in the dimness of her bedroom, and she curled and uncurled her toes inside her fluffy bedtime socks. No, she thought, perhaps not pirates. She leaned against the walls. It felt good to put her warm cheeks against the cool surface. Rainwater ran in rivers through her back yard, all of them meeting in a dip in the middle. It swelled slowly, turning from a puddle to a pond. The droplets of rain danced on the surface, and lightning reflected blindingly white. She gazed out into the overwhelming blackness, her grey eyes half closed. It certainly was good weather for being on the run from slave traders….
Grace pounded through the thick mud, trying to dodge trees she could barely see and keep hold of the long knife she held tightly in her left hand. The screams of her pursuers were snatched by the howling wind and carried to different places so that she didn’t know whether they were behind her, in front of her, or beside her. Her heart battered her ribcage, partly from terror and partly from exhaustion, and she pushed her burning legs to take step after step into the driving rain. Lightning flashed shortly, illuminating the clearing she had stumbled into. Grace’s chest heaved as she searched frantically for a place to hide. Somewhere, anywhere she could curl up and not have to run any more.
There! A dead tree with a large hole at the base. It was sure to be hollow. Darkness engulfed her once again, and she thrust the knife into her belt and hurtled toward the tree. She went into a rolling dive, sliding in the slick mud that made up the forest floor. Her hands came in contact with some solidly wooden object, and she pulled herself into the cavity, curling up and wrapping her tattered cloak about her body. Her heart beat out a frightened tattoo on her ribcage as she tried to control her breathing. For a moment she felt a blessed security. Here inside this cramped space, it was at least dry and shielded from the relentless winds. Her breath came in short gasps and her teeth chattered uncontrollably. Her entire body, in fact, shivered with fear and cold. She pulled her knees to her chin and drew her cloak a little tighter to her. Warmth.
The two men came crashing into the clearing, breathing heavily. Their boots made enormous splashes in the puddles that dotted the forest floor. Grace bit her lip. She could see them from her hiding place, their questing eyes and snarling mouths illuminated by the guttering lanterns they carried.
The larger of the two men clenched his teeth furiously. “Where did she go? I saw her come this way, I know I did…”
The other man stamped his boots, both in frustration and the futile quest to get warm. Even their thick cloaks proved poor protection against the wind and rain. “She did come this way, the little jackal’s brat.” He swore violently as he felt the empty space on his belt. Grace clutched her knife tightly. “She took my best knife too, the treacherous little devil. When I catch up to her….”
“And we need to catch up to her,” said the bigger man, his voice all gravel and menace. “She’ll fetch a massive price on the block in Tripoli.”
“We’re splitting up,” snarled the smaller man. “You take that way. Three gunshots when you find her.”
The larger man crashed off noisily, his giant boots splashing water in every direction.
Grace shut her eyes tightly, her breath coming in shallow bursts. Her body stiffened tensely as the smaller man, muttering threats and curses, came closer and closer. He couldn’t know where she was. She hadn’t left a trail. She had been clumsy and frightened, of course, but the storm... Surely, surely, he didn’t know…
The man halted suddenly. The lantern’s flame danced over the clearing, casting dim yellow light onto every tree and bush. He stood erect and sniffed the air. The rain spattered into his face, but he closed his eyes and concentrated intently. Grace could not breathe. Her throat constricted in terror.
Please… please, no…
“Judas.” The man flung the word into the storm-tossed night, fighting the wind and rain to contact his companion. “Judas, come here!”
The larger man came dashing back. He skidded to a halt beside his comrade, breathing heavily. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” said the smaller man softly. “Something’s just not right. She’s here.”
Grace shut her eyes tightly, silent tears coursing down her face to mingle with the rainwater. The slave traders would find her. Any second they would find her.
Closer and closer their steps came.
She adjusted her grip on the knife. One of them, at least, would come to regret this night.
Grace shivered and opened her eyes. Actually, it wasn’t really good weather to be on the run from slave traders. She gazed into the night again. Her pajamas had never felt quite so warm. The rain had not slacked off; nor had the thunder and lightning. She yawned hugely, her grey eyes opening and closing lazily. Her window seat really was very comfortable… She yawned again and slid down to lie on her side. The storm was beautiful. So many stories… More and more adventures crowded into her mind, each more daring than the last. Her breathing slowed and her eyes closed gradually.
It would have so exciting to smuggle important documents into hostile territory….