Catherine Medina sat huddled in the room she shared with Elisa. Her back was against the cold stone wall, and her arms were wrapped around her knees. Elisa's soft singing to her "baby" barely sank through her withdrawn state. Nor did the shivers that ran small courses through her periodically. She had plunged her mind into the past, into parts of it that were bearable—open carriage rides in the warm sun, eating freshly cut fruit from a lovely porcelain bowl, reading Francis' letter, taking a hot bath with rose petals scattered on the surface of the water to give it a soft fragrance.
The reality from which she had retreated was the corner of the Mental Asylum where she had been placed along with a group of other "non-dangerous" mad folk. She had discovered rapidly that it wasn't true, they were dangerous some of them, the men especially who placed their hands on her and wanted to relieve their lust in her. She had been great sport at first, and had the guards not come in and beaten the others off her, she thought she might well have died right then. But those same two guards who came in at the sounds of a scuffle, had taken her to some other filthy stinking room and divested her of her clothing and her virginity in an act that Catherine could not bear to remember.
It had taken her several days before she would move from the cell she shared with Elisa, which was where they had dragged her after haphazardly getting her back into her dress. She missed all the meals, would not have had water had Elisa not brought her some, and prayed only that God would take her.
But no such thing happened. Hunger finally drove her from the cell, though she retreated at first when she saw who brought the food—her two attackers. By the time they had gone, there was barely a crust of bread left, and Catherine did not know if she cared or not. Perhaps if she starved to death, her misery would then end.
Living conditions were deplorable, the straw filthy with rat and mice feces. There was no way to wash up, no way to clean after oneself. The stench was overpowering. And it was cold. One thin, moth-eaten blanket could not keep out the chill or the stones from leaching heat from her slender form. Her nose ran all the time, and she shivered frequently.
When they came for her again after a few days when she was returning from having managed to claim a bowl of some thin, meatless stew. She screamed, and she fought them with her once-manicured nails, earning herself a beating with a heavy leather strap in addition to being ravaged. Catherine did not remember getting back to her cell, her mind fogged over as shock set in. Some of the buttons on her dress were gone, and it no longer kept out the cold in a line down her back. Elisa draped her with her blanket as she lay immobile for most of the day, her back aching and her lower body burning for a long time. Catherine thought she was dying. She had never been in so much pain or misery, and she wondered only faintly how she was going to survive.
Time passed, and she remained mostly withdrawn. She would eat if someone brought her food, drink if she was brought water. At night, she lay curled around herself, dreaming of her home, of a better life. During the day, she often went over in her mind what had happened to bring her to this dreadful place. She had been with her friend, Rosalinda Garcia, and had been feeling very emotional that day. Rosalinda wanted to know what was wrong, commenting that Catherine had been so quiet since coming back from Castle Medina. Other than talking about Francis Barnard, she had not told anyone the details of those two days. And since he had left for England almost immediately, she had tried to put it behind her. Poor Nicholas, she often thought. Driven mad—it was so terrible! He had been such a kind man. If only he had never married that terrible woman Elizabeth. She had not dared tell Francis what she thought of his sister, but she had not once liked her, had even felt the woman was somehow evil. Elizabeth had driven Nicholas mad, she had been his ruin. How could it be that a man like Francis Barnard, a nobleman with fierce familial loyalties, had a sister who was so completely selfish? In pettier moments, Catherine had thought it no wonder that Elizabeth had been 25 years old before they found someone who'd marry her. It hadn't taken much charming to win Nicholas' lonely heart, and the woman's beauty had done the rest.
It is not like me, she told herself, I have had many suitors. Only Francis ever interested me. But Elizabeth—no man had really wanted her.
Thinking about Elizabeth and how she had so broken Nicholas, had made the tears come, and Rosalinda had comforted her. The story then came out in garbled bits and pieces, and she'd been almost too upset to note how her friend had drawn slightly away.
That afternoon, her Aunt Olivia had asked her about it, claiming to have overheard what she told Rosalinda. Catherine decided she would have to tell her everything. A few days later a man came to the estate to talk to her. Catherine hadn't liked him the instant she set eyes upon him. He was large and brusk, as swarthy as a southern peasant, and he asked her a great many questions she would not have answered had Aunt Olivia not been standing there expectantly. She had been instructed to cooperate, and Catherine was unaccustomed to disobedience, though she had a feeling of dread the moment she had seen his carriage come up the drive.
It was less than a day later that a doctor came to see her. Catherine was suspicious by this time, but trusted that her aunt was only trying to help her even if Catherine did not feel she needed help. She had felt better after talking to her friend, and found anticipation of another letter from the handsome Englishman occupied her thoughts for a little while after the doctor left. She had grown sleepy then, had half awakened riding in a carriage, then fully awakened in the hell where she now found herself.
How could they have done this to me? she wondered over and over. Did they not know what it was like here? Do they hate me? Have they always hated me? Such questions should have brought tears, but there were none. Her shock was so great, and the physical abuse so devastating, she passed beyond tears into a numbness that was not peace or painless, but that limited her reactions.
Gone were her chances at life, for Catherine was quite certain no one would ever come for her. Francis would think she had lost interest and he would write her no more letters. She would have no children, no family. She would die here.
Soon then, she thought, Heavenly Father, make it soon, I beg you. But her prayers, intermittent and scattered throughout her thoughts, did not seem to have any effect. She grew gaunt, her dark hair lost its luster and became tangled, and what had once been a fine dress, was now torn, bloodied and soiled. She spent her days sitting alone, keeping to herself because it was too hard to face the others or to take a chance on being hurt again. Elisa, in a surprising turn, took care of her, brought her food, crooned to her, covered her shivering form with a blanket, and Catherine realized only dimly that Elisa was pretending she was Catherine's mother. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Only the peace of death, and that did not seem forthcoming.
Francis was almost as miserable as Catherine, though for different reasons. It was confirmed, much to his own dismay, that he truly was no seaman. He spent the first day at sea heaving over the railing, in a wretched state he had never previously understood. The short voyages he'd made in the past had been on quiet seas, and the gentle rocking motion had not truly disturbed his equilibrium. Even crossing the English Channel into France had not been this bad. He had been able to pass off his nausea then, and it went away as soon as he was on solid ground.
But not this time. Sailors moved around him, tried to talk him into getting out of the cold and going below, but he couldn't face the thought of that cabin. Enduring the rocking motion of the ship as it negotiated rough swells without being able to look up and see the horizon, was impossible. Yet, when night fell, Captain Snipes insisted he go below. Francis didn't think he slept at all. The moment he felt something on his stomach, he would jump up and avail himself of the bucket that had been provided for him. The smell of it was further nauseating to him, and if he didn't keep his eyes closed, the sight of the bucket sitting there made him all the more queasy. The various stenches coming from below only sickened him further. He wanted nothing more than to get off the ship.
He thought morning would have brought relief, but it didn't. The rise and fall of the deck and his stomach was like some terrible nightmare from which he could not escape. All that kept him from wishing for death was the thought of what would happen to Catherine if he did not get to Spain. There was no relief from the constant, unending motion.
He spent the second day in his cabin, weak and exhausted, sick of the up and down motion, the groaning sound of the wooden hull which he halfway wished would tear itself apart and deposit him into the ocean along with his misery. The cabin boy brought him a fresh bucket and took the old one, and he envied the youngster's casual step and strong stomach. He envied them all, and he prayed he would get over this. The boy was sent to give him water, and he kept it down all of two minutes. Francis had never felt so wretched. He tried to think of other things, of the continuation of his journey when he reached Spain, of seeing Catherine's lovely face, touching her hand, giving her the comfort she would, no doubt, need.
These thoughts entertained his mind for only brief periods. He slept fitfully, finding the only relief in slumber. He thought he was too weak to make it up on deck, but he forced himself to, swaying and grabbing for every hand-hold he could find. Icy wind snatched at his hair, and the creaking of the ship's timbers could be heard even over the wind in the sails and rigging. A fine salt spray bathed his face, but the fresh, cold air felt good for a few minutes, reviving him a little. At least until he felt the need to lean over the railing again. He was partially aware of a sailor watching over him, making sure that in one of the ship's violent drops he was not washed overboard.
Back inside his cabin, the cold air was stifling and thick with the smell of his illness. He collapsed onto the bunk, running his hands over his face, feeling the sticky salt on his skin. It didn't matter. He thought that he would not survive this trip, and he vowed never to board another ship again.
Something was different on the third day, and he realized when he woke, that the ship was more still than it had been. Francis sat up slowly, realizing he felt a little better. Weak and thirsty, but not inclined to use the bucket. He had no more gotten to his feet when there was a knock on the door.
"Yes?" Francis said, holding on to the bed railing.
"We're at port, sir," a voice said, and was then gone.
Land, he thought, oh, Blessed Virgin, we're at port. He splashed his face with water and staggered up on deck. There it was, not so very far away—land. God's own gift to mankind. A small town he saw, laid out along the water front and extending back some distance along an inlet.
At first, Francis barely noticed the cold wind blowing, but he quickly realized he would need his cloak. After sending a porter down for his cloak, he made his way to the gangplank, none too certain of his footing.
"Allow me, sir," one of the sailors said, and when Francis looked, he saw the first mate. "The footing is treacherous."
Francis was too unsteady and weak to even refuse the man's arm as he steadied him going down the steep plank with its crossways boards forming steps.
"You and others have had a difficult voyage so far, sir, and the captain believes there is another storm coming. We are staying in port tonight. If I may suggest lodging in town and eating a hearty meal."
Francis only nodded, appreciative of the first mate's kindness. When his feet touched the dock, which was supported by pilings driven into the ocean floor and was not one of those floating ones, he sighed with relief.
"Your name?" Francis asked him, shivering in the cold.
"Jack Welch, sir, First Mate aboard the Houghton. At your service. I shall send a porter for your things."
"I've sent one for my cloak— There he is." Francis let the servant drape it over his shoulders, then pulled it around him gratefully. "Do you know a place I might stay, Mister Welch?"
"Yes, I do. I'll take you there. It's not a far walk, but I can get a carriage if you need it."
"No. I am quite capable of walking on land." Francis almost smiled. "It will be a pleasure." He recalled that this town was Port-Louis, and they would be picking up some fine crafts from the locals here, including vintage wine.
The ground felt strange to him, so much more solid than he remembered. And if he stopped for a moment, which he did several times to rest, he thought he could still feel the ship moving around him.
He was exhausted and chilled by the time they reached an inn. It was inferior to his usual standards, but it was on land, and that was good enough for the moment. And it was better than a couple of the places he'd stayed on his way to Spain the first time.
At the first mate's suggestion he ordered a reasonable meal, starting with water, then wine. Both stayed down well, and he found it was not so difficult to eat as long as he did not let himself remember the ship's motion. But he could not eat it all, and retired as soon as his belongings arrived, assured that someone would come for him before it was time to leave in the morning.
Francis considered it carefully. Should I continue the journey on the ship? Surely, I can rent a carriage for the rest of the way. But no, that would add days to the trip, days that Catherine would be subjected to possibly unmentionable things in that Spanish asylum for the insane. I will have to bear it, he thought, for her. There is no other way, because the passes through the Pyrenees Mountains this time of year are blocked with snow.
And with that decided, he slept hard and without dreams.
Francis did not think he would travel by ship ever again. He had hoped after spending more than half a day on land, that it would be easier when he got back on the vessel. But it was not. The nausea returned several hours after they were back at sea. With grim determination, he managed to hold onto his breakfast until the ship was far enough out that the swells were large and violent again, and then enough of his food had moved down so that he did not lose it when he found himself heaving over the railing again.
One more stop, he thought, then we are going to San Sebastian where I will depart this cursed ship forever. Getting back to England with Catherine, which he planned tentatively to do, would have to be over land. He would not want her to see him this way, and she may well be as prone to it as he. He would ask. And then let her decide if she was able. If not, they would be going back through France, no matter how long it took.
The next French port was only a short stop, and Francis dragged himself out just to walk on land for an hour or two, even though he weak and sick. Did one ever get used to it? he wondered.
On the fifth day of the voyage, Francis was almost able to eat. He did not feel well, but he thought he had gone beyond his stomach's rebelliousness because he could hold down water now. And then they reached San Sebastian. Without a natural harbor, passengers seeking to leave the ship were ferried to land on small boats. Francis thought this more perilous than the rest of the voyage. Being weak and without reserves of energy was not how he would have chosen to start this part of his quest, but he had little choice in the matter.
He was heartened to find out that, once a person reached the stage where he could hold down water, seasickness was nearly conquered. He was told by Jack Welch that his next voyage would be easier even in rough seas, though it might take a day or two to adjust. Francis did not tell him that he was quite sure he'd taken his last sea voyage.
Departing the Houghton was a relief for which he thanked God. It took very little effort on his part to procure lodging for the night—the first mate had taken care of him again, for which Francis was determined to reward the man with his own ship once he was back in England.
The three hundred miles of mountainous terrain through which he would pass to get to Barcelona had him wondering if he should ride or rent a carriage. Riding would be easier from the standpoint of negotiating difficult roads. However, he knew that Catherine had made the journey in little over a week by carriage. How many days might he eliminate if he went by horseback?
What decided him finally was the knowledge that he would not be up to sustained speeds on a horse. Not after having had all of two meals during the past week. He chose the carriage, with additional horses again, though more as a caution than for haste this time. It was a much longer journey than from San Sebastian to Castle Medina. He wanted to make it as quickly as possible, and not have the horses collapse. A light carriage, he decided, would suffice, even in the cold. A winter passage through the mountains might be difficult. And locals could advise him. He thought he would not choose the driver he'd had the last time, however, after the man had refused to take him to the castle itself, and it had meant a twenty minute walk, carrying his belongings to the entrance—a slight he had not forgotten.
Although he had spent most of his time on ship resting, Francis found it difficult to do anything else when he got to the inn. It was late afternoon, already dark, and the dining room of the place was bustling with activity. But he was no stranger to travel, had been here before, and knew how to get what he needed. Within an hour, he had a driver, a guard and coach lined up for travel the next day. His money and his name, from having been there before, were enough to procure what he needed, even if they thought he was mad for making such a journey in winter. Francis did not care what they thought. He put his sea journey out of his mind and concentrated on what he would do when he reached Barcelona. There were ways to handle this kind of thing. He was going to go through proper channels. It was Catherine's best chance, perhaps her only one.