Niamh's heart was thundering in her chest, her blood pulsing ominously within her ears as she fought to remain silent. Her lungs felt as though they might simply explode; they were so raw from the cold night air. Sounds outside made her shrink even tighter to the wall. The crates in front of her would almost certainly block her from sight should they think to look inside the hold but she still tried to blend even more so into the shadows just in case. To be found would be just the beginning of an unimaginable nightmare. For Niamh was of royal blood and those pursuing her had their greedy eyes set upon her family's kingdom. The castle and the walled city surrounding it had already fallen against their attack, along with her parents and brothers, but to make their claim unquestionable, they needed a Queen whose child would be unarguably the heir to everything. They needed her.

She had fled the city, fighting against looking back at the flames that glowed ominously from the burning buildings around the castle that had been her home. Niamh had known she would be followed but she hadn't anticipated she would be followed so soon. She had ridden hard towards the docks, handing her horse and a few gold coins to a bemused looking youth in an attempt at creating a diversion but only half of those hunting her had followed him as he rode on out into the countryside beyond the small harbour village beyond the royal city. Niamh had scrambled aboard a ship moored closest to the quayside that appeared to have been left unattended for the night. It's mast and rigging creaked in the breezes of the night. The hatch to the hold was open and seemed the perfect place to hide and so she had jumped down inside, hiding behind some of the crates within it.

The voices outside drew closer but their owners did not seem to be boarding the vessel upon which she had sought refuge. Eventually they wandered off, deciding she must have hidden somewhere in the village itself. Letting out a long breath Niamh collapsed back against the rough wood behind her. Finally she let the tears of grief and terror fall from her eyes at what had happened in the last few hours. She decided to wait awhile before leaving the ship, having no desire to risk being seen by those searching the village for her. She closed her eyes, lifting up her knees and placing her arms across the top to cushion her brow upon them; trying to think of what she was going to do next. She could try and get to the neighbouring province but there had been rumours they were going to side with those who claimed her country for their own. There were other island provinces with their own nobles but loyal to her father, at least they were supposed to be. Plans and possible schemes moved through her mind with increasing slowness before drowsiness overtook her and Niamh fell asleep.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

She awoke with a start, her long curls the colour of mahogany draped across her face. At first she had no recollection of where she was or how she had gotten there, then swiftly, the awful events of the previous night came back to her. Groaning a little as she stretched and stood up she suddenly felt fresh worries grip at her heart. An unexpected sensation beneath her feet, the floor was rising and falling steadily.

The ship was moving.

Niamh rushed to the hatch to at least try and see the time of day or how far from land they were but found it was locked. Biting her lip, resting her hands loosely upon her hips, she cast her emerald eyes around the contents of the hold. She was a stowaway, a crime for which Captains could punish as they saw fit. She could only hope the Captain was one sympathetic to her country or at least to her cause. Or she may well have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Only time would tell.

The slim cracks in the boards above her head gave the only indication of time passing in the outside world. Thin shafts of light penetrated the gloom three times before the day she had been dreaded arrived. Niamh's heart leapt into her mouth as she heard the footsteps upon the boards above drawing ever closer. The crew of the ship had passed by the hatch to the cargo hold several times over what she believed had been three days, she had found a water butt in the corner and had been able to sate her thirst but the exact amount of time she had spent in the shadows was unknown to her.

Suddenly the hatch was opened, bright light pouring down into the hold and causing Niamh to screw her eyes tightly shut, trying to crouch down as low as she could within her hiding place behind some crates. Two thickly set men lowered themselves down the ladder into the hold, a vague but unmistakable scent of rum and smoke perfuming the air around them, making Niamh's nose wrinkle slightly in response. She held her breath as the men focused their energies on one particular chest, appearing to appraise it's contents. She had no clear plan of action, having thought of no clear way of escaping the hold but she was certain that to be discovered now would be far from a good thing.

The bright sunlight revealed the sheer size and fullness of the hold, Niamh wondered at what kind of ship would carry such and the sight of the men currently rifling through one of the chests didn't instill much hope within in her that she might be upon one of her father's ships. The light had also awoken the other stowaway's within the hold and one of them crept closer to Niamh as she watched the men with widened eyes. She felt the rat before she saw it but even so she could not prevent the loud gasp that left her lips, sending the two men rushing over to her hiding place, pistols and swords drawn, eyes narrowed.

"Well, well, well...what 'ave we 'ere?" A voice leered as the slightly taller of the two men's eyes swept briefly across her cowering form. Before she could say or do anything further, his arm shot out, large fingers curling around her upper arm and dragging her out from her hiding place. An almost gleeful smile upon his face as he yelled, "Stowaway! Stowaway!".

Niamh twisted and pulled, trying in vain to shake his hand free but his grip was like iron and soon enough she found herself upon the deck. Another man moving to secure her other arm and all but march her along. A salty breeze swept across her, lifting her mahogany curls from her face and revealing her delicate features to the men now staring upon her. Her dress was smudged and crumpled, it's former elegance obvious but she knew she looked far from the princess she was. She tightened her jaw and tried not to look as terrified as she felt, her heart racing within her chest, but even the strongest resolve in the world couldn't keep the fear from shining within her emerald eyes.

Within moments she found herself surrounded by men, an almost hungry stare raining down upon her from all directions.
"Found her in the hold, I did... Captain."
The man grinned toothily as a man moved before her, his bearing and appearance singling him out as Captain before he was named as such. Niamh watched his eyes as they roved across her form without any attempt at modesty.

The Captain had been drawn onto the main deck from his position at the ship's wheel by genuine curiosity. Stowaways were a rare occurrence. Whoever had chosen to hide upon his ship would have to be someone very smart, or very stupid, he had to admit.

When he saw the long hair and frilly petticoats, realizing their stowaway was a woman, he didn't think it was the former. No wonder the crew had been so eager to yell at the exploits of a stowaway. This one could be more fun than most to a lonesome man on the high seas.

Niamh glanced around at the grinning faces of the crew as the Captain moved closer, none of them looked particularly friendly. Her eyes moved back to the Captain just in time to see his hand shoot out towards her, he firmly gripped the back of her neck and used it to pull her against him. The Captain stood a good couple of feet taller than her. He had short black hair, even darker eyes, and stubble running across his chin. He had the build of a sailor, strong and healthy, underneath his clothing. Her hands rising uselessly, almost in defence, as he pressed her chest to his.

"If you have half a brain, you know what is at stake by doing what you did. My men would love to have a bit of fun with you. I imagine they could cook up more than a couple of ways for you to pay for a trip on our boat." The ball of tension that had been within her stomach since her flight from the castle pulsed with fresh terror. She didn't doubt his words, the prickly heat from the lecherous glances of the crew provided ample evidence of their desires.

"Tell me then, what are you doing on my ship?"
"I..." Niamh began, trying to keep her voice level. She had two choices, admit openly who she was and pray they would be sympathetic to her cause or simply attempt to appeal to their better natures, assuming they had better natures within them somewhere. She was all but certain she was onboard a ship of a more mercenary nature and couldn't be sure that her position as a royal wouldn't be used for a more pecuniary nature and cause her to be returned to those she had fled from. "Captain, I am sorry for boarding your ship without invitation or payment for my passage but my family was murdered and those responsible sought to condemn me to a worse fate..." Her cheeks flushed a little with anger and concern as a snigger or two reached her ears from some of the men about finding fates of their own for her.

"I intended only to hide upon your ship until they had passed but I had ridden for sometime and I, well, I fell asleep. When I awoke you had already set sail and I had no way out of the hold. Please, I know I have nothing with which to bargain my safety but see me safely to the next port and I swear I shall see you repaid," Niamh's voice was quiet but she was privately proud of how much she managed to keep the trembling from invading it as it was invading her body. She knew the Captain would feel it, given how close he was holding her but she could do little about that. Her identity was still unknown and she could only hope the Captain and his crew would take pity upon her story and allow her passage with them. It was a hope that began to fade as soon as the words left her lips and her eyes met those of the man holding her tightly against him.

"Family murdered?" The Captain gasped with fright, listening to the woman's poor heart wrenching story. "The devil's own men must have been chasing you. Oh, it is good that you found solitude within the holds of my ship. I would hate to see what would happen had those horrible, horrible, men taken rough fingers to such delicate skin."
Any relief that Niamh felt at his apparent concern for her safety vanished in a breath as his hand stroked along her skin. The back of his calloused hand touched along her neckline. It was too gentle, too smooth in motion. It sent a chill dancing down her spine as she found herself craning her head slightly to keep her eyes upon his face, eyes that widened as he produced a deadly looking blade from near his waist. The long blade glinted in the sunlight, sharp and eager to cut. It held a hunger all its own.

"You have nothing which to bargain? Oh, not true lass. Why, I believe you had a lot to bargain for a simple ride to the next port."

The knife went up to her face. She tensed, the instinct to pull away growing steadily stronger but the knowledge that do to so would result in a far worse fate than to remain where she was kept the urge to struggle in check. She swallowed audibly as he ran the blade across her cheek before moving it further down to the dress she wore. One tug ripped a part of it from her body, and the knife found hold easy enough. The Captain's actions were swift and accurate, her dress falling apart and landing with barely a sound upon the deck, leaving her in only the simple, thin, slip beneath which was now practically translucent in the harsh sunlight.

The crew men, had they been lustful before, now turned into a drooling pack of wild dogs. Seeing so much of a woman, and the promise to have her was beginning to cause a stir of frenzy inside of them.

He leaned in close to her, partly to feel the warmth of such a woman, but mostly to whisper his torture in her ear. Niamh shivered as he did so, the salty smell of the sea and sweat combined with rum invaded her nostrils, his breath warm against her neck as he spoke quietly.
"The less you fight them, the better chances you have to stay alive."

"No...no please..." She began uselessly as he threw her back. Her feet barely touched the deck as so many hands took hold of her. "You...you don't know what you're doing...!" She cried out and struggled as she was stroked and groped from every possible angle. Her body, until that moment touched by no one but herself and those that had bathed her during her infancy, was swamped by greedy, hungry fingers and palms. Pinching, kneading. Invading. Niamh tried to lash out, the Captain's advice being all but forgotten beneath the desire to defend herself.

She managed to elbow one man in the chest she thought but soon she was being carried down below. Her cries and struggles in vain. In amongst the seething mass of men around her she caught sight of the Captain's back as he walked away from the scene. She had little choice now, appealing to their apparently non-existent 'better nature' had failed. Now all she could do was attempt to appeal to his purse.

"Captain!" She yelled, her voice carrying above the appreciative groans and sighs of the men mauling her. "I swear I shall see you hanged for this!" She all but screamed, her words turning into a cry of discomfort as several hands simultaneously painfully groped her prone body. "I am Niamh, Crown Princess of Caria, rightful heir to the throne. You will order your men to release me, and you will order it this instant or I will see to it that every man upon this vessel serves time in the cells!"

There was a pause, even amongst the chaos around her Niamh sensed hesitation in those holding her aloft, their probing and pinching stopping for a moment or two. Several pairs of eyes, besides her own, turned curiously towards where the Captain had stopped walking. His back was still turned but he was clearly considering her claims. She knew her words were almost entirely empty. She was in no position to threaten anyone, even if the ship and its crew had been at sea for months, she had already admitted that her family were dead. She was the heir to a kingdom that neither she nor her family was in control of.

However, a princess was surely worth more to them unharmed. Niamh could only hope that her assumption would be true. There was a moment, as the silence on the deck drew out becoming more and more oppressive, when Niamh feared the only advantage she thought might have had had failed to have any effect. She closed her eyes and took a shaky breath, steeling herself against what she felt sure was to follow.