July 4, 1776
Bare and bloody from forehead to waist, she held the tip of her sword tight to the neck of the man who lay on the quarterdeck between her feet, his sword-hand fingers ground under her heavy boot heel. Her long, blood-soaked braid whipped and snapped in the wind.
“This ship is mine now, Skirrow,” she snarled. “You have three choices. Adrift, keeled, or death by my hand.”
He would have swallowed, but her sword prevented that. “Adrift,” he whispered as best he could.
The blade of the carefully sharpened battle ax glinted and whistled as she arced it overhead and brought it down through his neck, cleanly separating his head from his shoulders.
Heedless of the blood spurting from their vessels, she dropped the ax and snatched her former captain’s head off the deck.
She whirled to see the crew—her crew now—watching with varying degrees of calculation and terror.
“I AM CAPTAIN FURY!” she roared, thrusting Skirrow’s bloody head, still with its terrified expression, skyward. “I am your captain now, by right of my victory. Any who challenge me will also be sent straight to hell.”
She dropped Skirrow’s head upon his body, then rammed her sword into the deck so hard that it sank two inches into the wood and quivered. Most of the crew gasped and stepped back.
“Dooley Smith, step forward!” she shouted.
A man of indeterminate age with a shock of carrot-colored hair stepped forward proudly and saluted. “Sir!”
She plucked a jangle of keys from the body’s belt and fired them at him. Without a blink, he caught them. “Dooley Smith. Leftenant. Second in command. Take who you trust and go free the prisoners. Bring them to me.”
A quarter hour passed in which she stood on the quarterdeck, hands on hips, unashamed of her bare breasts, surveying her holdings and crew. She knew who would die today, and most of those not by her hand.
Only fifteen men knew what this day would bring, and fourteen of them stood spread out, heavily armed, their backs to her, holding weapons to discourage any who might forcibly object.
A gaggle of Moors, Africans, Arabs, Jews, and Caucasians in equal numbers straggled up on deck, gaunt, nearly lifeless and, for the first time on this voyage, not bound by chains. Two men stood out: An Arab and a runaway Negro slave. Both stood proud, their backs strong for all their emaciation, and their bearing dignified.
“Solomon Ibrahim and Cambridge Bull, step forward!”
The two who knew they had the most to gain by this mutiny stepped forward with purpose. She pulled two leather-sheathed daggers out of her waistband and sent them zinging toward each, who caught them handily.
“Seek out your enemies and do what you will,” she murmured, and studied the faces of the crew, a full quarter of which turned to shock and fear.
The Arab gave no expression to betray his feelings, but he turned on the balls of his feet and, with one graceful arc, slit the throat of the man behind him, cleanly, without fanfare—then plowed through the assembled crew.
The Negro’s expression had turned murderous and he too pursued those who had made his life worse than a living hell down in the deep, dark holds below the cargo.
She watched as men dove overboard to escape the wrath of the two who suddenly possessed the strength of madmen. Throats were slashed and bodies dumped overboard, the sea below them blossoming vermilion as she stood silent, watching, waiting.
The rest of the prisoners watched agog, their vengeance wrought by proxy, their expressions slowly betraying hope.
The two men ran for hatches and disappeared into the bowels of the ship from whence screams erupted only to be abruptly silenced. Bodies flopped in their mates’ arms as they were drug from belowdecks into the sunshine and tossed overboard.
The sun marked three quarters of an hour before the reapers reappeared before her, as bloody as she, sheathing the daggers in their waistbands.
“Solomon al Ibrahim,” she intoned. “I have no sailor’s rank for you, but you will be my equal on this ship, should you choose to sail with me. Anon, we shall together address your grievance with the sultan.”
His expression still blank, he bowed his head in respect, then raised it to look her in the eye. She nodded once.
“Cambridge Bull. Second leftenant. Third in command.” He too bowed his respect.
“Paulos Papadakos, step forward!” The Greek Jew had taken to the sea when his family had been run out of their ghetto and, at the age of ten, had become simply an extra mouth to feed. “Quartermaster.”
“Bataar Khan, step forward!” A smallish Mongol looked up at her from under lowered brows. “Bo’sun. And do away with that farce of hair affixed to your chin. You are no more male than I.” The woman grinned and spun a Turkish sword over the top of her hand before touching the dull edge of the blade to her forehead.
“Enrico Espejo, step forward!” Barely out of the schoolroom, this Spaniard had proven his worth many times, and no less so today. “Master gunner.”
“Adrian Kentwood, step forward!” An English nobleman’s fifth son, who had no hope of anything in his homeland and had gone to sea seeking a fortune that had never materialized. “Carpenter.”
“Lucio Telesca, step forward!” Another nobleman’s son, Venetian, heir to nothing owing to a wastrel father. “Surgeon.”
The afternoon bore on thusly as she named her crew and positions, the last a small boy who had been used as a toy for the man she had just slain. No one knew his name or his age, not even he. He had always been called Boy.
“Boy!” Her voice rang out, still true, though she could feel her throat sting. “Step forward!” He did, trembling. She placed him at no more than nine or ten years old. “Can you speak, child?”
“Yes, Sir,” he replied, immediate but timid.
“You shall henceforth be known as Christopher. Climb the rigging to the nest and take the first watch under my command.”
With the energy of the very young, he ran to the ropes and climbed, swift as a monkey, to the crow’s nest, where awaited a glass and cone. She looked up at him and he looked down at her, then he saluted. She nodded once, then stood silent, picking out her own victims.
She saw where they stood, still alive. Neither Solomon nor Cam would have had reason to kill them.
But she did.
And they knew it.
Lieutenant Smith barked an order for five men to be tied to the masts of the ship, and they ran, but the rest of her named crew were quick to capture them and follow those orders.
She clipped down the stairs to the main deck. She approached the first. “Look at me. Open your eyes.”
He refused, mute, miserable, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Confess your sin.”
But he wouldn’t. He knew what he had done, and what she would do to him. With the point of her dagger, she pried his eyes out one by laborious one while he screamed in pain and blood poured out of the sockets. If he did not die, she would put him ashore.
She went to the next mast to which were bound two men. “Turn this one facing wood and get me a harpoon.” Her order was carried out and someone had slapped the long spike in her hand. “Spread him open.” With one upward thrust, she drove the spear into his rectum. His screams were deafening. They would cease in a moment or two.
The one next to him was already blubbering and begging for mercy, as he knew what was in store for him. She cut his breeches open with her dagger. With one hand, she grasped his cock and balls, yanked them toward her, stretching them as far as they would go, and sliced them both clean from his body. He passed out. Blood drained from his groin all over ‘her hands and she wiped her palm dry on her arse. He would be dead by morning.
The next mast, strapped to it the last two men she would visit her vengeance upon. Smitty had ordered the instrument prepared as soon as she’d begun her rampage and brought the red-hot iron tongs to her immediately. “Open his mouth.”
Two of her newly minted officers muscled his jaw open—twisting it so that it cracked at the hinges. Smitty clamped the tongs to his tongue and dragged it out of his mouth. She cut it out with short, ragged strokes. He, too, passed out. He could beg on a street corner somewhere with the blind man.
And the last, ship’s newly replaced surgeon. She stared at him, and he stared back, his head high. He had participated in the event that had led her to take this ship, but not in the same manner as the others.
“You killed him, the grog you gave him.”
“I did,” he said without hesitation. “Swift and painless.”
She took a breath. “Thank you.”
He inclined his head.
“Leftenant Bull! Take him. Lock him in my cabin. I should decide what to do with him later.”
Cam stepped forward and saluted. “Which cabin, Sir?”
“Oh, aye. I have a new cabin now. My old one, then. Have a boy move my things first.”
That done, she turned and bound back up to the quarterdeck. “Solomon. I would give you the option of mounting Skirrow’s head on the bowsprit as a warning to anyone else who thinks to take me or mine.”
The Arab’s mouth turned up in a diabolical smile. She and the rest of the crew watched silently as he impaled the head on a claymore, then grabbed a measure of rope before heading to the bowsprit to lash it tight.
Turning to address her men, she said, “We put into port in Casa Blanca soon for drydock. That will take some weeks. Those of you who do not wish to sail under a woman’s command will find your own way back to your homelands. After that, to Philadelphia, where I will apply for a letter of marque. War has begun, and where there is war, there is money to be made.
“Those of you who’ve been bound who would be my crew are welcome to stay as long as you work. Otherwise, you’ll tell the leftenant where you wish to debark and I shall take you there. Any who have wives or sweethearts who would be willing to work for me are welcome to bring them aboard as we pass your home ports.
“The rest of you who wish to stay as my crew, freely and of your own will sailing under the command of a woman, will be well rewarded. This ship will henceforth go by the name Thunderstorm. We weigh anchor at dawn. Monsieur Senzeille, two extra rations of rum for each man and other than a skeleton watch of two hours each, you may have the rest of the evening to yourselves.”
The crew erupted in cheers.
It was a good day’s work, but she could find no joy in it.
She looked to the sun, low on the horizon, and kissed the tips of her fingers. “Adieu, mon cœur,” she whispered and went below to find a dark place to sob out her grief and heartache before her new crew saw her tears.
It was not meet for a commander to weep.
• • •
July 4, 1776
England’s traitor awaited the court’s verdict sitting in a puddle of his own filth on freezing stone, even in summer, barely able to move for cold and pain:
his back against the equally freezing stone wall,
his knees up and his arms propped across them,
his head hung low,
his ankles with bracelets of iron, a short length of chain betwixt them to hobble him; a matching set gracing his wrists—the two chains connected by a third to keep him secure from escape,
his waist-length hair matted, filthy, crawling with lice and maggots,
his beard, thick and coarse, itching and crawling with the same vermin as his hair,
his body emaciated and weak, his stomach aching from hunger.
He had been sitting thusly for two years here whilst his trial lumbered toward the inevitable conclusion of his execution.
To keep his mind sharp, he created word puzzles and riddles. He made lists of the books in the library at home and which ones he had read. He named the names of every tenant, villager, and boarder on his estate.
To make himself laugh, he recited long passages from Pope’s Dunciad and then, following that, the works that had inspired such brilliant insults. He stood in the middle of his cell and delivered monologues from Shakespeare and Marlowe, twisting them beyond recognition into bad puns that made him cackle at his own jokes.
To keep his sanity, he recalled his boyhood, spent running hither and yon with his older siblings, racing their horses through the woods, hunting small animals with primitive snares and weapons, playing games with the village children, sneaking down the cliffs to the sea caves to hunt pirate treasure.
To keep hope alive, he flew far away from this place, to the Ohio River valley he had found and made his home for a fortnight, land he had coveted so much he had paced it off as if to verify a purchase. Upon reflection, he should have known it could never have been his, but in this time and place, as it had for the last two years, it was.
He split logs for the fences that corralled his bleating, stinking sheep. He walked behind yoked oxen guiding a plow, his feet bare in the cool, damp, rich black dirt that had never before met steel. He dug precise holes into which he carefully set saplings for apples and pears, then carried water and mulch with which to nurture them. He mucked his horses’ stalls and milked his cows, and when he emerged from his stables, he looked over acres and acres of grain, pastureland, and meadows to the horizon—all his, as far as he could see.
He turned and saw his home, his beautiful home, the one he had built with his own hands, along with equally beautiful furnishings inside. Here, a rocking chair he had labored over. There, a well-designed roof hip he was particularly proud of.
A simply dressed woman waved to him from the porch, called his name, and returned the smile that grew upon his face. He could not see her very well, though, for he was rather far away. He could, however, hear his children squawking at one another over this favored toy or that—one he had made.
Come to supper, my love! The sun will set again yet tomorrow.
“A moment, my love,” he whispered, and gazed again over his land—his!—and marveling at its vastness.
The day guards thought him mad, for all that he spoke to himself, asking and answering his own questions, reciting the same lists and soliloquies over and over again, conversing with his nonexistent wife and children, scratching out crop plans on the stone with the jagged edges of the links that tethered him.
The night guards had nothing better to do than listen to his plans—and scoff.
Jerked out of his reverie, he smirked at the screech that came through the narrow bars far above his head. He wiped his mouth with his filthy hand, chuckling. How many times had he heard that?
Traitor. He heard it shouted outside the prison walls for hours at a time, the populace clamoring for him to dance from a gibbet.
Traitor. He heard it shouted outside the courtroom where his trial took place, where he stood stooped because of his shackles. His appearance condemned him even to those who could not quite be convinced by any other means that he was guilty of high treason.
Traitor. The word splashed all over the gazettes, or so he heard. Almost no one would speak of it to him, even when he begged for the truth. Only his mother understood his need for the truth—and gave it to him.
Truth: There was a word whose concept he had long forgotten, if it had ever existed in the first place.
Honor: He had been betrayed by the Crown itself, its political interests in his death paramount to any claim of honor.
Nobility: His home, the place he had left fifteen years ago, the one to which he had wanted to return for so many years— He would never see it again.
Reputation: Shredded beyond repair, his family name forever black, his siblings left to bear society’s disdain and contempt. His unmarried sisters, still in the schoolroom, would find it difficult to make a decent match. His brothers would find the task equally burdensome, which, if they did not, would be the death knell of their family.
It would not be long now until he was shuffled off this mortal coil, if the rising clamor outside was any barometer.
I did not bear weak men, Son. Keep faith. Your brother will get you out of this Godforsaken place, and if he doesn’t, I will.
Ah, but his mother had always sailed into the wind, making little headway, but determined to defeat Fate, refusing to lose or to fail no matter how difficult the task. He himself had inherited a good measure of that foolishness, he knew, and perhaps his father truly had the right of it: allow Fate to deal the cards, then play the hand given without complaint. It certainly must be easier.
That bloody Hanoverian jackanape has taken too much of us, of you, and I will cheat him of his goal if ’tis the last thing I do.
Mother, you would make me a fugitive? I will never see you again.
I would rather never see you again, knowing you are alive and well, than watch my wonderful, courageous boy sacrificed on the altar of politics. You will not die before I do. I’ll not allow it!
“‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more,’” he whispered, then shook his head furiously. “Lord, Mother would have my arse, thinking thataway.”
He might allow as how his father’s philosophy was easier on the soul, but he was indeed his mother’s son. Visions of a life on the American frontier persisted, which meant he would go to his death mired in hope.
Yet for all his misery, he had endured far, far worse, things his mother knew nothing of—things he didn’t want his mother to know. It was bad enough that the men he most loved and admired knew.
Two years alone in these unaccommodating accommodations was far more preferable to the fortnight of hell he had endured in the hold of a Royal Navy frigate that marked the beginning of his career—the one he had never wanted.
Here, he was left alone but for a guard’s occasional half-hearted taunt.
Here, he was given at least a bit of gruel and water.
Here, he was not stripped, not bound in stocks, not flogged, not—
Here, he could sleep as deeply as he wished without fear.
The nightmares were rare and negligible. They did not shake him out of slumber, nor disturb him when awake. He knew where he was: Newgate. He knew his cellmates: No one. He knew that the bars that kept him in kept everyone else out.
Here he could escape across an ocean and hundreds of miles inland to a land of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey, far away from this meaningless existence.
And here, he had regular visits from people who loved him, who gave him what little comfort they could afford, who had dedicated themselves to winning his acquittal—whether he was innocent or not.
The noise outside was swelling. Pebbles and larger stones were tossed into his cell, their plinking against the walls faster and faster. A collective bellow gathered and rose to a roar.
It was a chant growing in volume and vitriol.
He would be drawn and quartered by sundown on the morrow. Unless his mother had one of her seemingly endless supply of wily feints at the ready, he would never have to worry about anything ever again.
He found that a . . . relief. Father was definitely more correct in this, he finally decided and hang what Mother would think. At some point, it was easier to accept it than to continue fighting against the inevitable. After all, even the best captains and generals had to retreat now and again. There was no dishonor in losing a battle to win a war, and no war could have two victors.
Thus, he proceeded to stretch his wings and make for Ohio as he had done so often, to sink into the soft dirt and sweet grasses on the bank of the Ohio River to await the executioner’s summoning. Then it occurred to him that though he could not have that in life, he could have it in death: He would ask his family to bury him there. His mother would push back the cliffs of the estate to see this request honored. Aye, that was precisely what he would do.
He smiled and closed his eyes, letting his head fall back against the stone wall.
Clanging at the iron doors of the gaol two floors up only surprised him in that it was so soon after the verdict was rendered. The voices of his advocates barely pricked his resignation to Fate.
The haste with which his cell door opened and men rushed in did spur him to lift his head. The sudden light from the guard’s torch blinded him and he raised an arm to shield his eyes.
“My son!” He grunted in pain when his father cast himself to his knees and fell upon him, weeping. “My son, forgive me, I pray!”
There was nothing he could say except, “’Tis of no matter, Father.” Except it was, insofar as he was an obedient and dutiful son, and his tribulations were the direct result of that obedience. “But, please, I must ask you to bury me—”
“Leftenant,” snapped his commander as he sank to his haunches beside him and began to fuss with his manacles.
Lieutenant? He had not been this man’s lieutenant for nigh fifteen years, but the sharp address certainly made him pay attention. What had he done—high treason notwithstanding—to be reprimanded so by an ally?
“No one will be burying you in the immediate future. You’ve been acquitted.”
He sat confused, but that was certainly of no matter, either, since he would die on the morrow and now felt an urgent need to get his request made before that happened. He flinched when the frigid air touched his wrist where the manacle had worn scars into his flesh.
“Acquitted?” he croaked. Surely he had misheard . . . ?
“Father, come.” His older brother’s voice. “Get up. You may weep over him in the coach. Nephew, help me.”
“Grandfather.” Ah, and there was his nephew, his solicitor. Shadows moved as the younger man bent over the older one and urged him away from his supplication.
He felt his commander’s hands upon him and watched in wonder as the key he held went into the hole, turned, released the mechanism that bound his other wrist. The manacle fell off, clattering upon the stone floor. He flinched from the sharp sound.
A fourth man stooped over him. “Mother will take you home as soon as you can walk farther than ten feet. You will be at home in time for Christmas!”
“What?” he whispered as he looked at his younger brother, the barrister who had argued his case.
“Do you not understand?” He pulled away when his brother’s nose nearly touched his while he stared directly into his eyes and spoke. “You. Have. Been. Acquitted.”
He blinked. And again.
“Mother?” he whispered. Did he dare hope this was not an hallucination? “Acquitted? Home? Christmas? Truly?”
“Aye,” grunted his commander, who was currently struggling with the lock on a rusty ankle cuff. “Your brother did a fine job and your father’s influence is not to be discounted, either. Your mother—well, I should not want to cross her in a dark alley, to be sure. You’re a free man.”
Nay. Not so long as he could remember the king’s betrayals against him and his family, not so long as he seethed with the rage that had been building for the last two years.
The first betrayal was simply part of his family’s history.
The second he had been able to put behind him to fulfill his duties with extraordinary valor.
This, the third . . .
He was finished bearing the Crown’s sins against him without seeking redress.
That which the Americans sought also.
But they were little more than beasts, the colonials, with their primitive weapons, little training, sparse leadership, and no navy.
He was not.
He nearly collapsed when these men, his family, the people who loved him, attempted to pull him off the ground. His legs buckled. Even his arms, so long in one position, refused to hook around their shoulders with enough strength to hold himself.
“Bloody hell,” his father hissed before sweeping him up in his arms and cradling him as he had done when he was but a wee lad.
Suddenly, it was a more intoxicating idea than Ohio.
Aye, he would seek justice for the crimes committed against him and his family, and he would do it in the manner the Crown had trained him. Could there be anything sweeter?
His father carried him out of his cell, out of Newgate, whilst the crowds who screamed for his execution were held at bay by Bailey guards. Soon enough, he found himself ensconced in a comfortable coach, his father tucking warm blankets around him.
“My son,” he whispered as he worked, his eyes glittering, a smile—that smile, the one he loved so much to see—growing. “You are a free man.”
He barked a rough, bitter laugh and said, “Your optimism is always the gentlest of salves, Father, if only for a small amount of time, but look.” He gestured weakly out the window toward the bloodthirsty crowd. “Does that look like freedom? Nay. I shall never be free,” he muttered. “I am a traitor. I will always be a traitor.”
• • •
If you liked this, please consider
liking my Facebook page
friending me on Facebook
following me on Twitter