Mediterranean Sea, September 1765
Malik felt the pirate's arm tighten around his chest even as the man's other arm wrapped around his neck, tightening across Malik's throat as the pirate forced his head back. He was totally immobilized and could hardly breathe, but he struggled to keep his eyes focused on the water beyond the opposite railing, praying.
Suddenly a large black man broke the water, a young slender man held close against his body. Malik's eyes closed for a second and he felt utter relief. He soon opened them again to confirm what he had seen, gaze straining at the distance between him and the small figures in the roiling sea.
Not wishing to draw the pirate's attention to his friends, Malik kept his reactions internal. Robert was so pale he looked half-dead, but Malik knew that when Aram had jumped into the water Robert had been very much alive, shouting in frustrated anger and thumping at his friend's body. Malik sagged a little in his captor's grip as he saw Robert coughing and retching, Aram holding him firmly above the waves. He was grateful that the pirates were too busy on board the captured ship to bother to look over the side into the sea.
Malik was aware that Robert hadn't wanted to leave him behind, but he had been trapped on the other side of the deck. Whatever else Aram was, he was completely loyal to Robert Charteris and Malik knew he would do everything in his power to keep Robert safe. For that, Malik would be eternally grateful.
Even though it meant abandoning him to the Barbary pirates.
Malik felt tears pricking his eyes but he wouldn't let the bastards believe he was afraid of them and he stubbornly forced the tears back. As useless as he knew it probably was, he renewed his struggles and only stopped when the pirate pressed his arm so brutally against Malik's throat again that his vision began to darken.
"Be still!" Malik heard the pirate's words as if from a distance. "I'd rather keep you alive, don't make me kill you," the man snarled at him and being no fool, Malik let his body go limp.
A deep voice boomed out, cutting across the noise on deck. "Sweep the dregs overboard, line up the rest."
It didn't take long for the pirates to dispose of the dead. Though Malik could not be certain, he thought they might have finished off a couple of badly injured sailors before throwing them into the sea with the rest of the dead. The ship had been damaged and even to Malik's inexperienced eye it was obvious it was sinking. The ships had been grappled together when the pirates had attacked. Now a wide plank dropped onto the deck of the English ship so the prisoners could be quickly herded across onto the Corsair ship.
Malik was dragged over to the centre of the main deck and shoved into line with the other survivors. The passengers were mixed up with the crew as they were gathered together. As far as he knew only Robert and Aram had escaped from among the passengers. However, he had seen the body of Mr. Holmes lying crumpled up near the steps to the upper deck where he had fallen. It had been chilling to see a sword slice into the man as he tried to keep his teenage son safe; but it had perhaps been more chilling to watch as the poor man's corpse was unceremoniously dumped into the sea along with the dead sailors, Corsair fallen along with the English dead.
Malik glanced over to where young Ernest Holmes now huddled, arms wrapped around himself, pale and shaking, gaze darting from one pirate to the next. Malik wished he could do something to comfort the boy but there were half a dozen men between Malik and Ernest. Most of them were sailors who were older than he was, let alone young Ernest, yet no one seemed to think about comforting the lad whose father had just been murdered in front of him. It seemed that only the few ladies on board were considered worthy of that kind thought. Perhaps it was his own recent abandonment, as necessary as it had been, but at that moment Malik admitted to himself that he wouldn't have refused a little comfort if it were offered. With that thought in mind, he edged backwards a step behind the man next to him and then moved slowly but steadily towards the lad.
He had almost reached the boy, his hand snaking out to touch Ernest's arm, when a sharp voice demanded, "And where do you think you're going?"
A large hand shot out and grabbed Malik by the shoulder and yanked him forward. He looked up into one of the ugliest faces he had ever seen; it was a pity that Malik had seen him before when he had forced Malik's head back with his arm across his throat. His had been the last face Malik saw before his sight dimmed. Not a nice sight, he mused, when it might have been his last.
"Captain, I think you might find this one of interest," the pirate said in a particularly snide voice.
A man approached, swathed almost completely in dark green robes edged with silver thread. His veil trailed across his shoulder so his face was visible and the scar cutting across his face from lower left jaw to just below his left eye lent his visage a cruel air. He was not as tall as Malik but he was of a heavier build. His eyes were dark, and Malik got the distinct impression the darkness was more than merely the colour of his pupils, it was a darkness of his soul.
Malik wondered at his own fanciful thoughts, thinking Robert would have laughed at him. Robert. God, did he even still live? Aram had taken a terrible risk leaping into the sea like that, but he had sworn never to allow himself to be taken for a slave again. The ex-slave had tasted freedom again during the last few years and had preferred to jump into the sea, trusting he could find a way to survive. He entrusted his life and that of his charge to the waters--probably hoping to find a piece of wreckage from their vessel to cling to--rather than risk being enslaved once more.
Slavery, that was to be Malik's future now. A fact he hadn't really faced until that moment.
Malik hissed sharply as the captain grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked him further forward, away from the other prisoners. The captain roughly spun Malik around, looking him up and down from every angle. Malik almost fell before the captain grabbed him again and he was turned to face him. Malik became acutely aware of the gleam in his captor's eyes and he was suddenly afraid for another reason entirely. The captain grinned and turned to the pirate who had captured Malik.
"Take him to my cabin, Ali. Secure him."
"Aye, Reis," the pirate acknowledged his captain, even as he took Malik's arm. "Jabbar," he called and another pirate approached, pulling a thin cord from his sash as he did so. The pirate tied Malik's wrists together and pulled him forward by the rope, forcing him to stumble along as quickly as he could. Jabbar followed on behind, giving Malik a push to hurry him along, and Malik was totally unnerved and confused by what was happening.
Malik was dragged below deck and chivvied along to the stern where the captain's cabin was located.
"Hurry boy, the captain needs us," the one called Ali snarled at him as if he could go any faster in the narrow space.
When they finally reached the narrow door, Ali kicked it open and shoved Malik inside ahead of him, still keeping a grip on the twist of rope binding his wrists together. The rope had already rubbed the skin and Malik was convinced that if they kept jerking him around by the cord, his wrists would soon be bleeding. It seemed odd that his thoughts still dwelt on such simple problems when his whole life was falling apart.
He was shocked as a pair of hands clamped onto his waist and Malik went rigid.
"Ready?" Jabbar asked his colleague and Ali just grunted assent.
Ready for what? Malik panicked as a lump settled in his stomach.
Ali released the rope to instead take hold of his forearms. Suddenly the hands tightened on Malik's waist and he was lifted off his feet. Ali raised his arms over his head. Malik couldn't help but follow his line of sight and for the first time he saw the large hook set into the ceiling of the cabin, just beside the door and only inches from the wall. His heart pounded in his chest with dread as Ali hooked the rope between his wrists over the hook. The two sailors stood back and grinned at each other before turning their unholy faces on Malik.
Jabbar stepped forward and placed his hand on the prisoner's chest and Malik couldn't help but suck in a breath and press his body back against the cabin wall behind him, automatically trying to escape the unwanted touch. Abruptly Jabbar took a handful of Malik's shirt, yanking him forward as he ripped it from Malik's body, slamming him into the wall behind as the material parted. Malik shuddered but it was more from distaste than from the violence. Jabbar grabbed the remaining scraps of his shirt, pulling them away to leave Malik half-naked and wholly vulnerable as the pirate leered at him.
"Enough, Jabbar!" Ali snapped. "Back on deck."
"Shame," Jabbar murmured as they left him alone.
The word echoed in his brain. Shame. The shame he would feel at what he expected would happen to him next? A shame he might not survive it? Shame the pirate could not have him? Oh God!
Shame that Malik had been taken away from the only person he'd ever loved besides his parents? The man he knew in his heart was the one he was meant to spend his life with. The man he knew now he would never see again. Oh, Robert. What a future they could have had together. They were not stupid; they knew very well how difficult their life was going to be. There was nowhere on this earth they could have openly lived together as a couple, but they had sworn to each other they would try to find a way. Never in a million years, though, had they had ever imagined this scenario.
Malik was all too aware that it would not be long before the captain came to him. He could hear the shouts and cries from above. He had lived in Tripoli all his life and he knew exactly what would happen to those poor souls on deck. The women would be separated and eventually end up in some man's harem, the rich men stood a chance of being ransomed, the poor ones faced only a life as slaves. The sailors would be given a choice: join the Barbary fleet and one day perhaps gain their freedom and a cut of the spoils, or be sold on the slave block. Not much of a choice it was true, but the majority of the sailors took the chance of possible freedom at sea to certain slavery on land.
He tried to stop the voice whispering inside his head that the kind of slavery at sea he faced was worse than the future any of the others had to look forward to. He couldn't hide the truth from himself no matter what he tried to do. Malik supposed he should be grateful that he wasn't a virgin. It would be rape no less, but at least he knew what to expect. He shuddered at the idea that Robert could have been strung up on this damned hook. Dear Lord, better it's me.
Malik was glad that Aram had disobeyed Robert's command. Aram protected Robert even against his charges wishes. Malik recalled overhearing the end of a conversation--no, it was more like an argument--between Aram and Robert, which in itself was unusual. They had been on the docks just before they were due to board their ship taking them home to Tripoli, and Robert had asked Malik to go and make sure their luggage got loaded properly. Malik had been a little surprised by the request; it was something he expected Aram would normally wish to take care of, but as Aram stood aside looking particularly stony even for the reticent man he was, Malik simply acquiesced. He assumed there was something going on between the two men and perhaps Robert wanted to correct whatever the problem was. Malik smiled as he walked away, sometimes it seemed remarkable to him just how much those two cared for each other because they sure knew how to confound each other.
It wasn't very long before he returned. The luggage had already been stowed safely aboard ship. As he weaved his way between the stacks of cargo lining the dock area he heard raised voices and immediately recognised Robert's tense voice and Aram's calm baritone.
"You must do as I say, Aram. If there is any trouble on our voyage home, you must protect Malik at all costs."
"My duty is to you, Robert. Your father charged me with your care and that has to be my priority."
"I know. But, Aram, if you truly care for me you will do as I ask, please. Malik means everything to me, I can't lose him."
"You are causing yourself undue concern. There is no reason to expect our vessel will be attacked."
"Maybe," Robert conceded, "but I need to know that if anything were to happen you would look after Malik. Please, Aram, for me?"
"You are a stubborn young man," Aram replied. "I will agree to do whatever I can."
Robert never knew that Malik had overheard the exchange. Malik made a noise as he approached the pair and Robert already spoke of other things by the time Malik reached them. Malik wondered if Robert had actually heard what Aram had said, or merely what he wanted to hear. In his careful response Aram had never actually agreed to look out for Malik at the cost of protecting Robert. Now, Malik was grateful that Aram had done his duty as he saw it. The idea of his excitable but still remarkably innocent young lover lashed to this hook and waiting for the rapacious captain to return was too awful to contemplate. Yet Malik couldn't help but contemplate it, for that was exactly what awaited him.
He couldn't bear to keep thinking about this. He desperately needed to silence the voices, but if he couldn't stop them, perhaps he could change what they said? Perhaps he could lose himself in memories he treasured, it might be the last chance he had to indulge himself. He might be insane--or dead--come the next sunrise, and he didn't know which was worse.
Malik let his mind drift back to the first time he had seen Robert Charteris.