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Had I known the repercussions of murdering the captain of a pirate ship, I may have taken the time necessary to rethink the act. However, as I stood over the bloody, lifeless body of Captain Christopher Barclay, as well as no less than seven of his crew, as usual it was too late to change my mind. Change my mind, indeed. As if I had a choice.
As if I’ve ever had a choice that didn’t involve a fight, or at the very least, defending myself against someone hell-bent on destroying me or my kin. I must always follow my instincts, regardless of the fallout of my actions. Had I not done so, I most certainly would not have lived to see the rest of this unspeakable day.
I pleaded with the Captain not to kill them all. If he’d have only been more of a man and less a murderous monster, perhaps this day may have ended for him as he lay down at last, safe and whole in his bunk. Alas, this was not to be. Instead, the surge of the battle within him overtook his senses, and he snatched me by the back of my neck.
“Miss Shepard, take your ladies below. And should these swabs be foolish enough to fight back, and God forbid we lose this fight, kill your cousins… and then yourself. Trust me, you’ll not wish to draw breath should that pack of dogs board us.”
“I’ll send them below, but I’ll not pass up the chance at last to show your own pack of dogs who I am.” What the hell was I thinking?
“It’s your pretty head. If the first sight of a sail dropped you to your knees, let’s hope you can stay on your feet when they bare their fangs and lunge at your throat.”
“I’ll live, Captain. And perhaps you haven’t noticed, but they’re not ladies anymore. Today shall prove that.” We’d spent weeks in rags, cleaning up after pirates, listening to their vile comments, and working as virtual slaves in order to secure our passage to Jamaica. I wondered constantly why we hadn’t been violated yet, but I held onto the hope that a pirate could in fact, keep his word.
Perhaps I’d had enough and was ready for a fight. Considering I had fallen to my knees when I heard the call of “Sail!” and had shaken like a leaf at the sight of these men scrambling about, loading guns and making preparations for a fight, one would have thought I’d have run and hidden with my cousins. But, no; as usual, I had something to prove.
“Such a shame to waste such charms. Look at you,” he said, taking me roughly by the jaw with his filthy paw, from which I jerked free instantly. “You’ve lost your youthful glow to the harsh wind and sun, and if you ever had a tender inch, you’ve buried it beneath the vines of bitterness you’ve wrapped yourself in. Tell me, Ivory, who did this to you? Who plucked the rose and left the thorns?”
“Those who would step over that gunnel will meet my blade before another unwanted and indecent hand breaches my striking distance. I’ll remove that hand and take his arm as well, and if that doesn’t stop him, his head.”
“Such a tragedy you are, and since I’ve my own tragic story to write, it’s time to give back to the world what she’s bestowed upon us, my dear. Ready the guns! Do not fire until I give the order! She’s no fucking good in a million pieces!” Barclay roared over our heads as he raced, broadsword in hand, to the stern and stood at her highest point. “Shepard, get your skinny ass up here! You want to be free?”
“I will be free!” I shouted at him. There was no turning back now.
“Bring her around! We’ll rake her from the bow and then take her from the starboard side!” He barked to the helmsman. I’d never heard this voice before. It wasn’t a voice. It was the roar of a mighty lion, and the mere sound of it vibrated through my skin.
As his call to arms passed through me, a deafening hum pierced my brain and I sheathed my sword and cupped the sides of my head, in an attempt to silence it. When I let go, the only sound I heard was my own heartbeat, which I imagined was well over one hundred beats per minute. In the background, strangled beneath the thumping drumbeats that felt as if they were about to split my chest, were the thunderous cries of the crew. The muffled screams and fearsome bellows of men in search of blood and fortune were barely audible behind the wall of my excruciating terror.
I glanced up and over the side, watching as the panicked crew of our prey scrambled wildly about, dodging the incoming gunfire, obviously unprepared in both arms and numbers for such an assault. Unable to believe what I was seeing, I lowered my hands for a moment and swallowed hard. I watched in horror as the first man at the rail of our prize lost the left side of his skull in a spatter of bone and bloodied skin. The gun flew from his hands, and his feet left the deck simultaneously, sending him bouncing backwards out of this life and unnaturally into the next, as nothing more than a heap of dead flesh.
I think I screamed and then felt a pop deep within my eardrums. All at once, the echoes of deadly battle at last bashed their way in. Gunfire and the thumps and clinks of grappling hooks dropping to the deck in preparation to make capture were sharp, and what I could clearly see and hear was matched sight for sound at last.
“Fire!” Barclay ordered. All five guns kicked back with a deafening boom, shaking the Demon Sea. I lost my footing from the jolt and coughed hard repeatedly as gunpowder and choking smoke filled the air. As we came about to the starboard side of what was obviously no more than a merchant ship, the smoke cleared in the windy spray, and Barclay called to hold fire. I looked across the water to find all those left standing shoulder to shoulder on their deck. Their arms were raised and their meager weapons lay at their feet. The damage done by what I knew to be chain shot—Barclay’s preferred method of maximum devastation—left blood, flesh, and splintered wood as far as my eyes could see.
“Take her lads; she’s all ours!” Barclay shouted as he sheathed his sword and snatched me by the back of my neck again. “Look, girl! Do you see those twenty or so swabs with their tails tucked in their asses? I’m about to give the order of no quarter. Do you know what that means?”
“No quarter?” I asked, shaking free of his grip and pushing him off as I backed away in horror. “Why? They surrendered, and yet you’d…”
“That’s right, lass. Kill them all,” he growled with a smile.
“That’s a coward’s maneuver, Barclay. Those aren’t pirates; they’re sailors trying to make a living.”
“We’re about to take their living. What will they have to live for, once it’s ours?” Barclay’s eyes shined, and at last I could see the monster he truly was. I pulled my sword and pointed it at him as I lowered my head and looked up into his cold, dead eyes. “Call them off. Take the loot and let the living go,” I commanded. Once again, I had no idea what I was thinking. This was none of my affair, and yet something in me couldn’t bear the thought of what he planned to do.
Barclay burst into laughter. “Hold your claws, little kitty, before I rip them out and feed you to the dogs!”
“We’ve been here before, remember? This time, I won’t stop when I pierce your yellow hide.”
“Oh, but you will,” Barclay said with a smooth purr. Then, a thick forearm clamped around my neck from behind and pulled me off my feet. I dropped my sword and dug my nails into my assailant’s hard flesh, and I kicked him again and again. The more I resisted, the more his grip tightened against my throat. The man twisted and turned, causing me to swing from the neck down like a clock’s pendulum. With a loud pop and a violent jerk, his arm pulled free, and I was sent flying hard against the boards, flat on my face and struggling for air.
A second later, I raised my head and opened my eyes to find my attacker lying next to me. A gaping wound had opened from the back of his head straight through to what was left of his face. I was gasping for breath and rubbing my neck, but I managed to push myself up on one knee. Once my vision cleared, my eyes focused on my cousin, Cassandra, staring blankly down at the dead man with a smoldering pistol dangling from her left hand.
“Good shot, Cass. Duck,” I shouted. I dove for my fallen sword, picked it up, and swung it at the sailor about to do mortal damage to Cassandra from behind. I leapt forward and opened the man’s throat with the tip of my blade and watched him fall.
“Get them,” I heard Barclay order as he barreled towards me, but most of the crew had already gone over to the merchant ship, and but a handful remained. He swung wildly at me with his broadsword and nearly caught the sleeve of my shirt with his backswing, but I spun away before he could reach me. I recovered and swiped hard at him and met his blade low. The blow shook me, and my arms trembled, but there was no time to consider any such discomfort, or death would stifle any tremble or quake for good. Barclay came up from under with his sword, swirling mine and tossing it off. He came at me again with a powerful fore swing, and our blades rang out against each other.
His strength and force far outweighed mine, but that didn’t stop me. I was stronger and more powerful than I’d ever been, and although I stumbled, I stood back and balanced myself before striking out again. I knew I could not win this battle within a battle by force. I’d need to rely on my agility and skill with a sword in order to take down this man twice my size.
My arms felt like lead as I continued to combat Barclay on the quarterdeck. I evaded his swings long enough to notice my cousins fighting their own battles as well, dropping dead pirates one after the other. As with every struggle in our lives, their ferocious spirits gave me the strength to continue. With a renewed wind, I again engaged Barclay. With every meeting of our blades, I screamed from the agonizing pain in my arms that felt as if every muscle from my fingers to my neck were tearing away from the bone.
The moaning boards and hard tilting of the Demon caught my attention long enough to see my cousin, Miranda, swinging an axe and cutting us away from the merchant ship. Over the howls and cries of battle, I heard the familiar shouts and screams of my cousins hard at work to set us free. Barclay heard them as well, and he turned away from me for a moment when he too, realized what was happening. That was the window that opened him up to me.
I let out a scream. I released the roar of my own lion. With every bit of my heart, I swung that sword and struck him, slicing through the sleeve of his coat, tearing through his flesh until I felt the blade hit bone at his elbow as I followed through. Then, the ferocity of what I’d done stole my breath when I watched as his severed arm fell to the deck—his hand still clutching his sword.
Covered in his own blood, Barclay staggered to the gunnel, grappling at his bloodied stump. He fell to his left, catching himself on the rail under his arm, and he gritted his teeth as he looked up at me and groaned, “I told you, didn’t I?”
“You’ve told me many things,” I panted. “None of which I find worth mentioning at the moment.”
“I told you…that you…were a pirate.” His face crumpled in pain, and he drew long deep breaths between his words.
I tossed my head at him and moved in until the tip of my sword was mere inches from his nose. I wanted to end him; not only for what he’d tried to do to me, but for all of the atrocities he wore on his twisted face since the first time I’d laid eyes on him. “What was that you said before about no quarter?”
“Look at me,” Barclay groaned as he bled out from his severed limb, and then he laughed. “I’m already dead.”
Possessed with the desire for more of his blood, I drew back my sword with calculated precision and pressed the point of my blade to his chest. His bloodshot eyes rolled down and stared at it for a moment, and he smiled, as if he knew what was coming. Through that peaceful grin, he let out a long sigh of relief, almost as if he welcomed the sharp tip into his body. Our eyes locked. The world had fallen completely still between us. The next thing I felt was his body weight pressed hard against me, until the brass buttons on his coat were pressed against my knuckles.
As his dying weight bore down on me and the wet heat of his blood flowed between us, I shoved him off of me and stumbled back. My eyes blew open as Barclay’s dead body fell away from me and the sword, soaked red, slid free of him and hung from my hand.
The gasps of my cousins revived me from my murderous trance, and the screams and violent splashing of men, either swimming for their lives or drowning, sent me again into action. My ever-at-alert cousin, Keara, asked, “Now what do we do? Do you honestly think that lot will follow us? They were all loyal to Barclay.” Then, she collapsed.
They all stared at me, waiting for me to speak. All I could think was what I’d heard; if anyone challenged the Captain and won, they had the right to claim the nomination to take his place. What did I know? I couldn’t just stand there and wait for the next thing to happen anymore. I had to take control. As I glanced around me at the half dozen or so dead sailors, remorse was overcome by pride in knowing we’d been able to, yet again, survive.
“We need a crew. Let’s go after that ship. Those merchant sailors will do, and the code says any man who wants to be Captain can, when they challenge the present Captain and win. I’d say I won, wouldn’t you?”
“You would be correct,” said the very thick voice of a native Jamaican man as he appeared seemingly out of nowhere with his hands in the air.
“Where the hell did you come from?” Keara asked, leaping to her bare feet and raising her sword at him.
“I have been here all along. I am no one, really; only a man who wishes to stay alive until we reach Jamaica.”
“Turn around,” I ordered, and I nodded to Cassandra to search the huge man for weapons, of which he had none.
“I can assure you I am unarmed. I will obey the code. I only want to live so that I may return to Kingston once we make land.”
“What do you think, Ivory?” Keara asked aside.
“Can you sail this ship?” I asked him.
“That I can do, yes, but I will need assistance.”
“If you help me with that lot, I’ll take you to Kingston,” I said, and I pointed my sword at the drifting ship.
“What about the crew?” Cassandra asked me, but her eyes remained fixed on the stranger, and his captivating pale green eyes.
“Any man left standing will go free, but the ship is greatly damaged, so they won’t be going anywhere until they can make repairs. Let’s bring this bitch about and go get what we came for,” I answered.
Once back aside the merchant ship, I told the Jamaican man to address the crew of the Demon Sea and offer to allow them to return to the ship. “Anyone still willing to sail aboard the Demon is welcome back, and any able-bodied man aboard that ship is welcome to join the crew,” he called out as the ships were again brought aside.
“Ye killed the Cap’n, did ye?” Barclay’s bosun, Rip Townsend, called out to me.
I nodded in response. “Self-defense.”
“I s’pose by order of the code, we have no choice but ta’ vote ye Cap’n. Doesn’t mean none of us like it, but we’ve only a few more days ‘til we make Port Royal. Once we’re on land, you ain’t me Cap’n no more.”
“We’ll be heading first to Kingston,” I stated, nodding at the Jamaican.
“Madame, if you would allow me to assist you,” he leaned in and whispered.
“Assist me?” Who in the hell did this dog think he was barking at?
“Madame, if I may please speak with you alone, I am sure that I can find a way to keep you and your ladies alive until we reach Kingston.”
“What do you mean, keep us alive?” I barked back.
“Ivory, perhaps you can give the gentleman a chance,” Cassandra whispered in my ear as she tapped me on the shoulder and drew my attention to the gathering mob of men behind us on the deck. Their faces bore the worn and ragged expressions of anger, mixed with the seawater and blood they’d dragged back aboard the Demon with them. My hands trembled as their ravenous eyes weighed and measured me, but I wasn’t immediately sure what they hungered. It was, however, instantly obvious that Barclay’s dead body meant only one thing to them—loss of future income. Somewhere between the oppressive midday sun and their encroaching footsteps, I found my frozen feet as well as my backbone, and my body turned towards them.
“Gentleman, please allow me to speak,” I shouted to them in the deepest tone of voice I could dig out from my belly. All the while, I clutched the grip of my cutlass to steady my hand. There was no time to think, and even though I knew Barclay had used me to end himself, they weren’t going to hear any of it.
“Killin’ the Cap’n didn’t win ye anythin’, lass. You ain’t a pirate, and ye never will be,” the boson growled. This was the same boson who, before he’d come back aboard, stated before the crew that according to the code I was Captain now. Of course, I knew nothing of the weight of the code or whether or not he was lying.
“Now let’s just hold on for a minute and assess the situation, shall we gents?” suggested an older gentleman whom I had known since we came aboard as Barclay’s quartermaster, Willy McCormack. Willy appeared to be at least in his mid-fifties. Either that, or his years of drinking and pirating had taken its toll.
“By all due process, lassie, as quartermaster of this here Demon Sea and according to the code, this here ship falls ta’ me for a vote. Even under circumstances such as these, and to appease the uneasy temperament of the remaining crew as well as these here new fellas, the rules are as they are, so there’s gonna be a vote. But first, we need to get ta’ the bottom of this here incident.”
“A vote?” I blurted out as I stepped toward the man and was handily held to an arm’s length by him.
“A vote is how it’s done, lass,” he leaned into me and growled with a knowing in his eyes that he wished to relay something to me once out from under prying eyes and ears. “Unless yer intention is ta’ end up in the drink… or worse.” He nodded.
I looked over the crew. In my mind, I began to count the numbers of those whom I’d saved from the merchant ship as opposed to the original sailors of the Demon. From what I could see the count was close. However, the doubts began to creep in that my few weeks aboard this vessel weren’t nearly enough to earn me a title—no matter who I killed or why. My only hope was that there were at least enough men on board who loathed Barclay and who’d be willing to tolerate the fact that I am a woman for three more days. Then, should they choose to abandon me in Kingston, so be it.
“Madame, may we please, please have a few words?” the soft-spoken Jamaican man asked again. Finally, something within me turned, and as much as it pained me to admit it, I almost listened to him.
“Yes, but first, I have something to say to these men.”
From there I dashed to the gunnel and climbed until I stood atop it, holding onto the lines as the ship lightly tilted in the calm water. Cass, Miranda, and Keara clung to each other and followed, standing at my feet. I looked down at them in the scorching heat and watched as the blades clutched in their hands trembled as if it were below freezing.
“You do not know me, nor do you know these women,” I stated.
“Aye, but I’d wait me turn,” one of the sailors shouted, and they all began to laugh.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, we have the merchant ship to relieve of her contents. She is yet seaworthy, and should you feel the Demon unsuitable, perhaps you will find your way elsewhere with her.” The large and imposing figure of the man who’d now introduced himself to me as Alphonse Green had stepped forward to speak. I realized then that perhaps I should allow him my ear if I wanted to keep us alive. Rape and death at the hands of these beasts was not an option, and any alliances I might be so fortunate to forge were welcome. It had at last occurred to me that, in their world, there was but one place for a woman—regardless of how many dead men she knew. Unfortunately for them, their opinion of women had no bearing on me. My back was to the sea, and I did not intend to die at the hands of any man today.
“No woman can run a ship! The only woman I’m takin’ orders from is one who’s tellin’ me where to poke her,” One of the original Demon crew who went by the name of Felix gave this rancid opinion, and once more they all laughed. Thankfully, Mister Green stepped forward in my defense.
“Listen, mates. For now, let us relieve the merchantman of her cargo and enjoy our victory. When all things are settled, we shall have our vote. Either way, we all win and fill our pockets. Aye?” I believed that he was attempting to draw their attention away from me.
“Aye!” the men roared in agreement. Mister Green turned to Willy and pulled him aside. For now, the rest appeared to concern themselves only with their quarry and turned away. But I wasn’t finished yet.
“Please gentlemen, hear me out.” The words had barely left my mouth when I was caught unawares, swiftly disarmed, pulled violently from my perch, and thrown across the shoulder of Mister Green. “Get your hands off me,” I screamed through the crew’s roars of laughter. I was promptly relieved of my weapons, as were my cousins, who were corralled and led behind me. I was roughly shoved into what appeared to be the Captain’s quarters and tied to a chair.
As I sat there, alone in that dank, filthy cabin, awaiting my fate, I realized that although I am long on fight and will, I have come up quite short on the knowledge that, even in this other worldly place, a woman is worth about as much as a dog. My only salvation came in knowing we were alive, and regardless of what happened next, there was one less devil in the world. I could at least be proud of the fact that I was responsible for sending his black soul back to hell.