A lover long gone, an itch that has plagued her for months and an ache in her side that makes her retch – it has not been the best of times.
When the siege began two years ago, the khan’s forces had been no match for Caffa’s fortress with its double line of fortifications. Once the pestilence had gorged its fill along China’s trade routes, it fell on the Golden Horde and dulled its lustre. The scrape of swords sharpened in daily devotion dwindled to a sigh. Certainties, like cheap cloth, started to unravel as the Great Mortality stuffed its maw with Jani Beg’s last act of war. Plague-infected corpses from his own army were catapulted into the town. When they landed, it was already too late.
She shudders; successive waves of pain mean her time is near. Caffa is no place to raise a family. When they abandon the siege – and it will be soon – she will steal aboard the most promising vessel and see where the winds take her.
Guards stalk the harbour’s pre-dawn dark, untroubled by the heat, despite their fur-lined coats. Crouching in the shadow of the citadel, she rubs her back against its limestone wall before scrambling to hide below the wooden pier.
The sibilance of whispered conversation pierces the putrid air. Three sailors surround their corpulent master who waddles with sweating haste. The jabbing pain in her side now keeps time with her pounding heart. Not yet – wait just a little longer! Keeping to the shadows, she wends an elliptical path, darting ahead when she is sure of the ship they will board.
An urgent whisper punctuates the silence, ‘What was that?’
‘Nothing, a rat perhaps. The harbour cats will soon take care of it. Keep going; we must make sure we catch the morning tide,’ the merchant hisses.
Once aboard, he calculates the market value of the goods they will deliver to his Genoese clients. ‘Will those blood-suckers ever pay the full cost?’ he sighs and heads for his cabin.
Below deck, breathing in the spice-thick air, the silent stowaway conceals herself under an array of fine cloth and furs. As her skin prickles and her birth pangs increase, she makes ready to introduce her own precious cargo to the world. Sleek with sweat, her body convulses from the tip of her black nose to her hairless tail. The ship creaks and groans as it greets the dawn and lunges westwards.
What glorious adventures she and her children will have as they travel from port to port. Hope gleams in her eyes.
Clare Morris is a writer, poet and editor for The Blue Nib. She often collaborates with artist Nigel Bird. Clare is currently working on her first novel.