Dark, thunderous clouds had finally abated, allowing us to take stock of the damage. The crewman scurried about,attending to the various blows the ship sustained from the vicious maelstrom. No one had time to say it, but we all thought it. How are we alive?
We had believed ourselves dead men. Even the veteran pirates aboard, once unshakable had made their peace. A sobering thought had echoed through our minds. It mattered not how seasoned or hardened one was in the art of sailing. One had to remind ourselves constantly that the sea had no master. Lest she remind you with her violent black waves thrashing against the hull of your puny vessel , her howling winds shredding through weak , mortal skin, the grip of the sea pushing you further and further into the abyss . “You are at my mercy “, she screams, “You are my slave, I obey no one!”
Our captain, bore an impassive face despite the harrowing ordeal. But, I knew that deep down he was just as perturbed as we were. However, the lives of his men depended on him; he couldn’t afford to lose his wits now.
He began taking a head count of the remaining able bodied men, ordering the surgeon to attend to the wounded. As the Quartermaster, I inspected the sails, riggings and the keel of our vessel, The Gold Dagger. Thankfully the mast was intact, so were most of the riggings .The lifeboats however were completely destroyed. Worse yet, the canvas of our sails had been ripped straight through. Immediately I instructed the men to repair them at once.
The sea had become absolutely still .The night skies reflection was so clear, it seemed our ship was floating among the stars, among duplicate moons. The tranquility was surpassing. One felt at ease with the elements, a total clash with the terror felt not moments ago. But, for some strange reason, I couldn’t relax. However, to not scare the crew, I kept those feelings to myself.
Relief spread among the entire crew on being told that all men survived .Any injuries sustained were minor, as were the injuries to the ship. With the exception of the sails, all of which were ripped to shreds. As we could not steer, we were incapacitated. It would take several hours to repair them. But, the weather was so calm, that it did not pose a great danger.
In celebration, the men began singing lively shanties at the top of their lungs. They sung of a valiant pirate king who ruled over a thousand ships. No one could master him, neither merchants nor armadas. He plundered obscene amounts of Spanish gold, hoarding every last doubloon on the farthest reaches of the sea. Urban lore held that it was buried to this day on an unknown island. Untold riches, just waiting to be claimed.
A few of my men believed the tale to be true. Greedy men relish the idea of mythic gold. But, I knew better. Wayfaring seamen were always prone to exaggeration. Common stories were embellished to the point of bearing no relation to original premise. The legend of the Pirate King and his hidden treasure was a legend. Nothing more.
But, I was thankful that sea shanties always roused the ship morale. Being mutinied upon was a common occurrence among our lot, captains and quartermasters better be wary if they wished to survive.
There were important things I wished to discuss with the captain. Finally, it seemed that I would have the chance. Approaching his quarters, the cabin boy was busy sweeping up broken glass. The intricate stained glass mural on the cabin doors had been entirely shattered. Such a pity, I always appreciated that small touch of color. Art was difficult to find on the open sea, and exceedingly more so among my rowdy pirate men.
The cabin boy, Wendellwas his name, lifted his head to give me a timid smile. We always had a silent understanding among the two of us. When he first came to us, the crew wanted to throw him overboard. The last thing we needed was another prisoner mouth to feed was the general consensus .Him being a young scrawny boy; the odds were already against him that he wouldn’t survive scurvy. While he was surrounded by fearsome pirates Wendell looked only at me. His eyes pleaded with me to spare his life, declaring that he would prove himself strong despite appearances to the contrary. Somehow he knew I would understand.
After all, I too had been brought aboard under similar circumstances.
I ordered him under my tutelage and to serve as the cabin boy for the Captain. Some crewman accused me of returning to my ‘original soft upbringing‘. Ten lashes across their open backs delivered personally by me dispelled any doubts of my current tenacity.
I knew a part of Wendell felt scared to be all alone. Through my actions I showed that he need never feel scared around me. I sang lullabies to him every night the first month he was brought aboard. It was so that he need not cry himself to sleep as I had.
Wendell as it turned out, was a sharp boy. I taught him different sailors’ knots, reading the stars, sailing with the wind. Most importantly, I told him not to be afraid of the sea. But never, forget that the sea was our master. Not we over it. Should he choose to forget that lesson, it would ask back our lives without mercy.
Wendell devoured my lessons; he will make an excellent sailor one day. I believe although technically our captive, he will move up the ranks. After all, I was a one once, and look where I have gotten.
I knocked loudly on the cabins door, this was urgent. Despite the calm weather, my unpleasant foreboding was becoming worse.
“I was expecting you Billy, come in.” said a gravelly voice. A tall, stocky man dressed in a stolen black naval officers uniform, motioned me to sit at his table. I heard the jingles of the silver clasps he wove into his long hair as he walked. His hair was a fiery auburn, wavy and long as that of a wild mane. It was easy to see why his enemies called him the Red Lion.
“Captain, I need to speak with you.” It was curt, but I couldn’t waste time.
“Glass of rum?”
“No, thank you. I don’t drink in times of combat.”
“Combat?" he began to chuckle. “Yes, I suppose that accurately describes our ordeal of that wretched storm. But, Billy it is over now. Have a drink to celebrate.”
I was obstinate, I wasn’t here to socialize.
“Very well, Billy. What did you want to talk about?”
“Captain, that storm should’ve killed us.” “We all felt it; the sea was going to drag us to our deaths.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t explain your concern.”
“I feel like….” I slightly hesitated.
“Oh come now, Billy spit it out. You were so adamant about it in the beginning.”
“I feel this is just the beginning .There is something far worse in store for us. The maelstrom was a small taste of our final punishment.”
“Punishment? For what?”
“For decades the English, Spanish, and the Dutch have been battling for supremacy of the seas. They’ve waged countless wars over these waters. They all scramble to claim pieces of land and sea. They enslave their fellow man, spill human blood wantonly. All this, for a few precious coins.”
His eyes narrowed, speaking of naval powers that hunt us is not a subject we enjoy.
“.. I believe that the sea, she, I mean it, has had enough.”
“Do you now?” he replied with a mocking tone.
I continued on, resolute. My years of pirate association taught me that showing fear can mean your end.
“Fellow seamen report that massive maelstroms have increased. In this year alone we’ve had more than those in two hundred years before us.”
“A freak of nature.” he sounded bored.
“Captain, that storm was terrifying. But not due to its size. It was terrifying because …..” I paused, trying to grasp the right word.
“..Because it was hateful.” the captain finished my sentence.
I was startled. “Exactly. The sea unleashed her hatred, rage and fury over us humans who believe foolishly that we own her.” I was annoyed, why didn’t he mention his feelings to me earlier ?
He read my expression immediately and explained.
“Aye, I felt her anger. But I couldn’t let the men know. They are a superstitious lot already. Knowing this would terrify them.”
“But we must be less careless. The next course we set, I am taking more precautions. I will need the sea charts. I am going to find the less volatile wave pattern. Also, we aren’t going to raid any ships for a while until the situation calms itself.”
The captain laughed. “Always have a plan don’t you Billy, darling? I already knew you’d want them, so I sorted the charts for you.”
He walked over to a large black armoire raided from a nobleman’s ship. I had always admired its smooth black lacquer and complex carvings As he turned the brass key to open the doors, I glanced around at the various trinkets we had stolen over the years. There were copper candelabras, silks from the Orient, Italian leathers, and glistening jeweled necklaces. Solid gold goblets, rare coral bracelets, African diamond earrings as big as chandelier drops were strewn across more lacquered tables. Exotic spices and pungent perfumes tickled my senses.
There were also countless jars of acid, along with many jewel encrusted skulls and skeletons. Captain always this peculiar hobby of collecting bones that he washed in acid. He then spent a great amount of his time affixing precious gems onto the bones surface. A small shudder went down my spine as I remember the other reason why he is called The Red Lion. Rumor had it that our Captain wasn’t above hunting ‘fresh samples’. The validity of this tale is still hotly disputed to this day.
The opulence of this tiny room was overwhelming. The Red Lion had a taste for luxury that rivaled that of the French Kings. He made no attempt to hide his shameless affinity for such.
I on the other hand, was surrounded by sparkly things for most of my early life, so they held no interest to me.
For my share of the loot, I preferred knowledge. I’d scramble to find novels, poems, short stories, sailors logs, even private journals among the ship we raided. It kept me abreast of what was happening on the mainland and nourished my mind when the days seemed especially long. Any new information related to the sea was invaluable. I credit it for saving our lives on many occasions. The crewman thought I was daft to preserve what they saw were worthless pieces of paper. But how much were gold and jewels worth when you’re out at sea and unable to purchase not even a drop of rum?
Captain handed me a several rolled charts, I took them with haste. I was just preparing to leave when he pointed to far end of his cabin. “Oh Billy, by the way I saved that for you from our last raid. I think it is just your size.” He had a devilish grin.
In excitement, I turned around, expecting a new sea log, or maybe even a cutlass. But my happy anticipation turned to horror.
He was pointing to a blue satin gown with fitted bodice waist trimmed with frills, ribbons and lace. I hadn’t even touched it, and I could feel the corset squeezing the every last breath out of my lungs.
Was he insane? Yes I had come from an upper class background, but what relation did I have to it now?! And why in the world would I want a dress?
I was not amused.
“Keep the dress Captain. As I remember frills have always looked better on you.” My lips were pulled in a tight scowl, and I stormed out.
“I think you would look beautiful in it, my dear Wilhelmina.” He was giggling like a schoolboy who had played a biggest prank the schoolyard had ever seen. A stark contrast to the bloodthirsty pirate persona he had cultivated.
I growled fiercely at him. “It’s been Billy for years, Captain!”
Had he no understanding of all the effort I had gone through to lose my namesake? I was fortunate enough to have survived the raid that made me a captive. Then came the scurvy, rickets, and near beatings to death by my fellow shipmates. The countless battles against every superpower navy known to man. Not to mention the near death experiences inflicted by the sea itself.
A gentleman’s daughter who had been bred to be elegant, polite and quiet among social circles had no chance of survival. That’s why I learned how to read the stars, how to hoist the sails, what creatures were safe to eat. I poured every drop of my blood, strength, and energy simply to survive. It took years before I gradually moved up the ranks to become Quartermaster. My soft hands and soft mind were hardened by the spare life of a sailor.
I earned my right to be ‘Billy’. But to some, a female pirate second to the captain was unheard of. At times I had to remind the crew that Billy, not Wilhelmina was their Quartermaster. And she was not to be trifled with.
Yet, despite the hardships I had bonded with the sea. I remember there was a time when we made port of the coast of the West Indies. I was a second mate then. Captain then said that I was free to leave if I wished. He assumed that a rich man’s daughter couldn’t last a month aboard his vessel. But instead, I became integrated into the crew so he felt I merited a chance at freedom . But I chose to stay. As difficult as it was being the only woman above a rogue ship, it would be even harder trying to survive among land dwellers.
I had no longer had my family, our title, or any wealth to speak of. I knew that a young woman all by herself would more vulnerable on land than if she was at sea. To top it off I would be starting from zero. At least my shipmates had already taught me a ‘trade’. Besides, I was in love with the sea.
The ocean had become my friend. She taught me that despite my sheltered upbringing, I would have to learn to be tough. I could not expect her to pamper me just because I was a victim of unfortunate circumstances. As a reward for being loyal, she gave me opportunities to witness the most beautiful waters few had ever seen. Though I am her close friend, I have a healthy respect for her. When she is temperamental, one cannot arrogantly assume you can take her. She can be gentle one moment, and then ruthless the next.
Dawn had passed and dusk was approaching, I should be sleeping. But first I always make my usual nightly inspection of the ship. The sails were still not repaired. I could feel my anxiety start to rise; we were floating along by the whims of the sea. The second those sails were repaired we’d have to correct our course .I thought about dropping anchor but the depths prevented it. Odd. Since when is deep water so calm?
As I continue, I hear a few loud snores from the crew below the deck. If anyone were to ask me the hardest thing a former high society daughter had to adjust to on a pirate ship, I would say it is the snoring. Not their lack of personal hygiene, or their constant drunken stupors, or even the puke inducing cuisine. No, is the snoring of your comrades that rings like a thousand foghorns.
Envious of their slumber, my body felt heavy and my eyes began to droop. But, I had to shake it off. It was my job scan the horizon for danger. Nothing. The sea was entirely flat.
As I began to walk back to my quarters, it is so quiet that I can hear every creak of the ships wood. I hear the sloshing of still water. We are safe, we are safe, I keep telling myself. Billy old girl, you’re worry too much. Go to bed, you won’t last long without rest.
Suddenly, I hear a crash. Immediately, I rush over in the sounds direction thinking maybe we are under attack. But I see nothing. The sea is just as still as it’s been all day. Wonderful. Now I am losing my mind. But that crashing noise continues. And it sounds much closer.
Leaning over the deck, I am desperately trying to find my where that noise is coming from. My unpleasant foreboding has become exasperated, as I am now running on adrenaline.
There is a strange object near the top of the water. It’s shiny. A cannonball? A mine? But why is it rising from the sea so quickly? I lean closer out of the railing, careful to wedge my boot against the edge so as not to fall. I stare straight into it, only then do I realize what it is. It’s an eye. An eye the size of the ships helm. It stares right at me, blinking a few times, trying to make sense of what I am. I am frozen in this position. I could stab it with my knife, but it would not hurt this enormous creature.
I twist my head ever so slightly to see large long tentacles red as blood edging their way up the west hull of The Gold Dagger. The tentacles are like snakes constricting around the wood, slowly tightening their grip. If only I was near a cannon! A million scenarios run through my brain at the speed of light.
Maybe it will get bored and leave us be. Maybe it will just break a few minor things and then that’s it. Maybe we can scare if off. I refuse to consider the more realistic option. That it will wrap its tentacles completely around the ship and then drag us into the darkness.
The wind is beginning to pick up. If our sails were repaired we could sail out to shallower waters. The creature would follow us, but we’d have a chance of escape. Suddenly it begins to make sense. The sea was not finished with tormenting us. The maelstrom was just the warning. She sliced through our ropes and sails to prevent escape. She destroyed the lifeboats, should we try to escape. Then she made the sea still as flat as a sheet. So that we would drift quickly into open waters, right above a cave of a fearsome creature.
The tentacles had encased every breadth of our ship. Its suckers were as big as the gunpowder kegs, each of which had latched itself firmly on the hull. The pressure it exerted stretched the wood so long screeches had filled the air .Our ship resembled a tiny eel caught in the arms of a predator jelly fish. Paralyzed, awaiting death.
The entire crew was awake now, but no one could speak. Our feet and our hearts had momentarily frozen in the moment.
I gave a small glance to the Captain. Whatever disagreements we had, we had been through hell and high-water together. I owed him my life, since he spared me from having to walk the plank. I bowed my head. Captain it’s been an honor.
It is morning now but the sky has turned black. A black funnel cloud is accompanied by lightning and thunder. The high winds have whipped up rain that slices through our skin as does a sharp cutlass.
Now I faced the beast. Its head had risen from the water to far above the tip of the ships mast. It glares angrily down at us. There is no doubt now that judgment is nigh. I tell the sea to remember that I have always respected her . Should she decide to spare me I shall be eternally grateful . Should she send me to the depths , I will accept my fate with no complaint. An eerie wave of calm descends upon me , I close my eyes .
Planting my feet firmly in place and standing erect I listen to the final sounds I will hear of this earth . The howling of the giant squid as it violently crushes our vessel . The sound of handcrafted wood being torn to pieces . The sound of cannons , barrels and supplies tossed about like marbles in a jar .
Let no one say that Quartermaster Billy of the Seas abandoned her crew . My eyes are still closed .. I am thrown into the air , momentarily weightless . Then I feel it , a sharp blast of bitingly cold water washes over my entire body . Submerged , I hold my breath ,waiting for her decision .
O my lovely sea , my life is in your hands . Survive or die , I have made my peace.
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