But there was no place to hide. The captain’s precious crates and barrels crammed tightly against each other. Untethered pieces crashed against the timbered hull, spilling their contents, and the tufts of creamy wool sifted grains of golden wheat. The oars crossed each other in intricate wood laces at either end. The ship lurched, and we tumbled against the ladder. The monks sank into their dark cowls, and all four of us knelt, huddled against each other, battling to stay upright. I clapped my hand over my mouth and swallowed the flood of bile. God, don’t let me humiliate myself. But why should this matter, since I was about to die?
A series of thuds reverberated through the deck, followed by muffled shouts. My stomach knotted.
Ansel’s firm voice called above the din. “They cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distress. We must beseech our Lord!” He began to chant the first of the penitential psalms.
John and Irvin joined him, and the three chanted in unison. I forced my hand from my mouth, swallowing then swallowing again. My tremulous voice joined theirs. I raised my head, straining to see. The terrifying shrieks sounded an unholy chorus. The deck above our heads thudded from some monstrous weight. A dreadful image of these men’s suffering came unbidden to my thoughts. My heart pounded from fear of our eventual fate.
“De profundis clamavi ad te domine, domine exuadi vocem meam…” Yes, Lord, I cry from the depths. Lord, hear Thou my voice.
The thuds continued, as did the horrific shrieks. They sounded like the souls of the damned, as they bewailed their suffering for all eternity.
Sudden silence. Normally a blessing of our Lord, this quiet could only portend our doom. I wondered if any of the crew still lived.
Now came more shouts, and the clattering of footsteps closer to the hatch. I opened my eyes and looked up. An inconstant glow, as if from many torches, wavered through this hole. It grew brighter. I swallowed, faltering at my petition. I could no longer pray. John urgently prodded me, but I could not heed him.
“Adéle, pray!” John groped for my head. His hand alighted squarely atop my hair, for I wore neither wimple nor veil. He pushed until my head again assumed the proper position for beseeching our Lord. The monks droned the psalms. Wood crashed. A swarm of bodies crowded the ladder in thundering steps.
“Sustinuit anima mea in verbo eius speravit anima mea in domino…” I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I put my hope.
Their stench preceded them. The rabble filled the hold, raising threatening torches. An onslaught of guttural cries assailed our ears, and vulgar cheers drowned out the monks’ prayerful murmuring. Our presence behind the ladder at first went unnoticed in light of the ship’s bounty.
I raised my eyes, glimpsing the invaders from behind. They wielded darkened swords. From heavy axes clung – bits of flesh? I quivered. Crates smashed, barrels upended. Rough fingers violated delicate wheat. Torches were lifted higher, their light illuminating the entire hold. It seemed our attackers savored their catch.
A sharp exclamation pierced the stifling air.
The guttural cheers and slapping of backs ceased. Pairs of eyes beneath furry brows turned our way. The invaders had noticed us. Their smoking torches now flamed in silence.