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July 9, 1718
"The Jolly Roger! 'Tis the Jolly Roger, the death's-head, the skull and crossbones, bearing down upon us!"
Skye Kinsdale reached the helm in time to hear the lookout's panicked words. She came, teetering and floundering, just as a streak of lightning lit up the heavens, sizzling through the sky and the sea. It illuminated the ship that had been following the Silver Messenger like a ghostly echo through the night. Already the crew fought to trim the sails against the storms that plagued the Atlantic; now, new terror was offered as the phantom ship displayed her true colors, those of the bleached white bones against the black of eternal night, rouge's colors, a pirate's colors.
"Captain! She waves the Jolly Roger!" the lookout repeated.
"The skull and crossbones!" Skye said in dismay, now standing by Captain Holmby's side. The beleaguered lookout, high atop the crow's nest, stared down upon her. He was Davy O'Day of County Cork, recently hired onto the Silver Messenger, her father's ship.
Davey looked down upon Skye, and his fear for himself lessened as his heart took flight with the sight of her fiery gold hair, her fine, delicate, and intelligent features, and her eyes of fierce and compelling aquamarine. Her cape whipped around her feminine form, and the wind that tore upon it seemed to make tendrils of her beautiful hair dance upon the very air. In danger, in fear, in laughter, she seemed to shimmer and sizzle with vibrance and life, perhaps a very part of the storm and tempest.
He had adored her since she had first stepped foot aboard the ship, smiling and laughing, always a lady, and always with her keen interest about everything and everyone around her. He was in love with her, as much in love as a scrap of an Irish boy could be, and he vowed in those moments that he would die gladly to save her. Pirates! Mother of God!
Captain Holmby was impatiently staring up at him. Davey found his tongue again, wondering if the captain had comprehended his words.
"Sir! The Jolly Roger! The flag she waves is the Jolly Roger. 'Tis a pirate vessel! We're under attack!"
"I know that, boy! Mr. Gleason!" The captain called out to his first mate. "My glass, sir!"
Skye watched with a curious mixture of dread and excitement as the captain's first officer came forward and handed the spyglass to the captain. The weather was more than rough that morn, with the ship pitching and swaying upon the whitecaps that rode the Atlantic. The scent of a storm was strong upon the air, for the heavens were darkened by a curious gray and the day was cool, growing cold, and the wind was fierce and salt-laden.
It was a day to fear storms and the wrath of God, but no man sailed the seas these days without some fear of the bloody pirates laying waste to unwary vessels upon the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Indeed, there were great bounties being offered for the likes of Blackbeard and Anne Bonny, One-Eyed Jack and the Silver Hawk.
It was not the proper weather for a pirate attack. The rogues, Captain Holmby had assured her just last night, did not like to attack when they might receive more harassment from King Neptune than from any guns at sea. Nay, Captain Holmby had said, they would have safe sailing, even though the winds might blow and tempest rage, and their journey across the Atlantic would soon be at an end. She would be delivered to her father in Williamsburg, and soon enough, her lucky beau would be blessed with his glorious bride. The last had been accompanied by a wink, and since the captain had proven to be such a sweet and delightful old man, Skye had smiled sweetly in return.
Whether or not she would be a bride was another matter altogether. Her father had decreed that she would marry a man she had never set eyes upon, and though she knew the arrangement was customary and proper, she was not about to accept it. Perhaps the Camerons had built the finest plantation in all of Tidewater, Virginia, and perhaps Lord Cameron was a great gentleman, but Skye was determined that she would not be an object to be bartered and sold and possessed, no matter what. No, she'd never had any intention of arriving in Virginia to be a bride. She'd had every intention of escaping marriage someway.
This, however, had not been the way!
There would be a way, of course, a legitimate way. She was all that her father had, just as her father was all that she had. Since her mother had been killed when she was a child, she had clung to him, and he to her. She had always known his very mind and had been able to wheedle from him anything she wanted.
Until six months ago when he had come to her school in London to tell her that she was coming home. She had been so thrilled. Then he had told her that she was coming home to marry and she had been stunned. She had been careful at first, soft-spoken and respectful. Then she had wheedled, and then she had grown furious. He was being so stubborn. Some silly betrothal had been agreed upon before she could even walk, and since she was supposed to marry Lord Petroc Cameron, her father had no intention of seeing reason. She had talked and cried and stamped her feet, and none of it had done her a bit of good. Lord Theodore Kinsdale had hugged her fiercely and told her he'd be awaiting her at their home in Williamsburg when her term at Mrs. Poindexter's School for Refined Ladies was done, and that was that. She was eager to leave Mrs. Poindexter's, so she determined that she would continue her fight in the New World. She would get out of it!
Yes, because a pirate ship was coming straight at them.
Suddenly, from out of the bleak gray sky and sea came a startling flash of color, of fire, of gold and sizzling red against the day.
The pirate vessel was firing upon them.
"One-Eyed Jack!" the captain stormed. He raised his glass to point across the sea. "He means to ram and grapple us! Mr. Gleason! All hands on deck! Call the men to their battle stations!"
The missile did not strike the ship, but water blew nearby them, as if sent to the surface by a great whale, spewing forth foam.
"Is it One-Eyed Jack?" Skye asked, cold fear lacing her insides despite her best efforts at courage. She had heard tales about the man. He kept hostages only if the fancy struck him. He slew good men as he swatted flies. And women . . .
She did not dare think. Her fear would steal her will to reason, and to fight.
"Aye, 'tis One-Eyed Jack!" the captain said." See the flag, milady. Even his skull lacks the eyehole." He patted her hand absently. "Bring her about! Call the gunners to their stations, Mr. Gleason." Captain Holmby's blue eyes fell upon Skye. "Lady Kinsdale, I shall have you escorted to your quarters," he told her.
"Ah, nay, lady, you must stay in my cabin–less danger in case of fire–" He stopped speaking abruptly and swallowed hard with a certain guilt. "I did not mean–"
"I am not a child, Captain," Skye said. Nor would she sit meekly and be slain if the heathens came aboard. She knew how to fight well, and she would do so.
"Boy, come down!" the captain called to Davey, atop the crow's nest. "Take Lady Kinsdale to my cabin."
"Aye, aye, sir!" the lad replied, and quickly shimmied down.
"Don't be afraid, my lady! We will prevail."
"I am not afraid of the danger, Captain, but of the cabin–" Skye began, but she had lost his attention. He gave his orders to his first officer, who then boomed them out to the crew over the sound of the coming storm and the waves, and over the sounds of the fire that now began, cannon to vie with the thunder.
"Come, me dear lady!" Davey encouraged her, grasping her hand. He began to run over the hull. They dodged grim-faced sailors and the rigging and they came to the door of the captain's cabin. It was an elegant place, finely set with a huge oak desk, damask draperies, and a deep-set bunk surrounded by bookshelves hewn into the very body of the vessel. The elegant china tea service reserved for the captain's use still sat atop his desk. Presumably he had been at tea when the call had come that the weather worsened and an unidentified ship approached.
"May God be with you, lady!" Davey cried to her. "I will lock you in, milady, and–"
"No!" she protested in a sharp scream. Then she smiled apologetically. She would be all right as long as there was light, as long as the door was not locked. "Please, Davey, I would not be trapped. Do not lock me in.
"No, milady, if that is your wish."
"Thank you. Go on now, and God be with you!" she said quickly, for already he was pulling the door shut behind him. Skye picked up her skirts and ran behind him, placing her hands upon the door and leaning against it. She could hear the footsteps pounding over the deck; she could hear the captain's first officer raging out his orders. She screamed suddenly, thrown back with such vengeance that she fell hard against the desk. She heard the fine china rattle and fall. A ball, she surmised, had struck the ship somewhere.
She heard a man scream, scream with such pain and agony that she could feel his anguish deep inside. Then she felt a deep and terrible shuddering within the ship.
The pirate vessel was upon them. She could hear grappling hooks being tossed and thrown, catching and sinking into the wood of the hull like the giant fangs of some evil monster. Aye, a monster it was.
Rubbing her shoulder where she had struck the deck, she carefully rose. The skirt to her new gold-threaded gown had caught and torn upon the carved foot of the desk and she wrenched at it with all speed. Smoke was seeping into the cabin now. Smoke from the fires caused by the cannonballs, fires that surely blazed now within canvas sails. Men were screaming and shouting, and the clash of steel and the horrible scent of powder and flame were all about.
It was stifling; she could not breathe. She flew to the door and angled behind it, opened it enough that she could see.
Dread filled her heart, and swept through her blood, and congealed as ice in her soul.
The good captain lay dead before her very feet. Though officers and sailors still gave battle about the deck, it was painfully obvious that the pirates were the victors of this particular battle upon the sea.
Skye clutched her heart, then set her hands against her ears as the clash of steel continued. She closed her eyes, sick with anguish for the poor gallant captain, and for his men.
Then her eyes flew open once again. She heard the rise of female screams, and she realized that her young maids, fresh from the Irish countryside, had been discovered down in the hold. Bessie was screaming desperately; Tara was gulping out little squawking sounds.
And even as Skye watched, the two women were dragged to midships, beneath the mainsail. All around them tinder burned and the small fights continued. But there was no gallant knight to come to the girls' defense; all the officers and men were well occupied in their own skirmishes.
"No!" Skye whispered aloud, biting into her lower lip.
But there was no denial.
Despite the gray of the day and the thunder and the lightning and the awful smell of charred wood and charred flesh and the threat of rain, certain of the buccaneers were determined. Tara with her soft blue eyes and snow white skin was being tossed soundly upon the deck. With the pitch and sway and tempest of the ocean, she was thrown hard against the water bucket, and none of the riotous rogues seemed to notice her cry of pain. It was a party of four that attacked the girls, one a youth with a scraggly white-blond beard, one missing a tooth, a graybeard, and a nasty, evil dark-haired fellow with yellow, tobacco-stained teeth.
Skye closed her eyes and leaned back against the door. She could not let this happen.
Yet what could she do? The ship was alive with beasts, and the force of good was surely losing to evil.
And still, eventually, they would find her. Was it not better to go down fighting than to be cornered and caught like a fox?
She was not terrified of fighting for her life. She was only afraid of small dark places from which she could not escape.
She looked above the captain's desk, where a fine pair of Damascus swords were hung, one upon the other. The ship pitched dangerously, as if they would all be swept up by the storm, swallowed, and taken to the bottom of the sea.
She prayed briefly. She asked God to forgive her a multitude of sins, pride not the least of them.
Then she sprang forward, leaped upon the desk itself, and wrested a sword from its scabbard against the paneling.
She felt the steel in her hand. She slashed the sword carefully through the air, testing its weight. Then she swirled about, hurriedly leaving the safety of the cabin before she could lose her nerve and cower in terror in some dark corner.
Skye carried her blade in one hand, sweeping her skirts up behind her with the other. The horrible smells of battle were even worse on deck. So much charred flesh! Broken timber, broken limbs, and canvas that continued to burn. She swallowed hard, fighting an urge to faint at the sight of the still-staring–but sightless–captain. She steeled herself and stepped over the man. So far, she hadn't been noticed in the melee.
They would notice her soon enough.
She flew forward in a burst of courage and strength, flying toward the men who held down Tara and Bess.
"Leave them be!" she commanded, waving her sword toward the graybeard who tore at Tara's skirts.
He paused, staring at her. All of them paused, in surprise. The graybeard slowly smiled, licking his lips. "Well, lookee here, will you now! We've found the crme de la crme, eh, boys?" He started to laugh, rising, tossing down Tara's skirt and adjusting his breeches. "How-de-do, mee-lady. Old Samuel, here, and indeed, mum, I do intend to show you a good time."
"Shut your mouth and step aside, Samuel. And you!" she said sharply to the blond youth who was nearly upon poor Bess. "I suggest you return your protruding anatomy to your breeches, boy, lest I find myself tempted to lop it off!"
Samuel burst into a loud guffaw. The blond boy did not find the threat so amusing. He quickly stumbled to his feet, drawing the cord on his breeches tight.
"A feisty wench, this one!" Samuel called happily. "Toss me a sword; this bird I shall quickly best, and have."
"And share!" the boy said.
"Let's see how the lady does. I think perhaps that the prize might first be mine," a voice called out, and Skye quickly turned about.
She didn't need to be told that she had come face-to-face with the man known as One-Eyed Jack. A black patch covered his one eye. He smiled an evil leer and she saw yellowed, rotting teeth beneath the curve of his lip. He was a small, sinewy man with whiskers.
Her stomach heaved. The idea of fighting to the very death grained new appeal for her.
"Captain!" cried Old Samuel. "I killed the captain of this here ship–she's a prize, and mine! Give me a sword!"
"Take on the fight, Sam, and we will judge the lady," One-Eyed Jack agreed. He tossed a sword the man's way. He smiled at Skye, displaying his rotten teeth again. 'Twould be prettier, she thought, to bed a warthog.
She would die first, she vowed to herself.
Which was a growing possibility!
She quickly bemoaned the warning she had given the man–she should have slain him while he attacked Tara unarmed. He was a pirate, an animal, but she had not been able to slay an unarmed man. Now it seemed that she would pay for her morality–and stupidity.
"Sir!" she snapped out, tossing her skirts behind her, finding her position.
And it seemed that Old Samuel was soon as dismayed as she, for the fight went on. Skye knew that he had assumed her threats were idle; he could not know that before her father had shipped her off to Mrs. Poindexter's School for Refined Ladies, he had sent to France to hire her a world-renowned instructor when she had determined to learn the art of swordplay. Samuel had learned the art upon the sea. He was strong, but he knew no finesse.
She could best Samuel. She knew that she could.
But when that was done, there would still be another twenty to fifty pirates . . . perhaps more . . . to fight off.
"Methinks you are no lady!" Samuel called to her. A mean look crossed his face. He was not fighting for a prize anymore; he was fighting for his life, and he knew it. He tried to shatter her strength, slamming down upon her blade. She was too quick. She parried, and feinted, and eluded his anger. She leaped high upon a charred sail beam, and when he slammed downward, she ducked, and flew into a pirouette, and brought her blade slicing through his midsection.
Samuel died, staring at her in rage and disbelief until the fire left his eyes to be replaced by the cold glaze of death.
She swirled around. She realized suddenly that the ship had grown silent. There were no more small skirmishes being fought upon the deck. The officers who'd survived had swords cast against their throats. And they, like the pirates, stared at her.
One-Eyed Jack slowly clapped his hands together, eyeing her with a new respect. "Madame, in the end, it is me that you will meet."
There was little that she could do; nothing that she could say.
She raised her sword. Her eyes lit upon the lot of them, and she backed against the mast, looking to her left and to her right, awaiting the next opponent.
It was to be the youth. He rose and spat upon the deck. Someone tossed him a sword. He bowed mockingly.
Then he lunged forward.
He was an easy opponent, too easy. He hadn't the strength or barbaric skill of the older man. Soon Skye saw sweat beading his brow. They moved across the deck, and men gave way.
For a second, a mere second, Davey's anguished cry distracted her. He warned her that a second man had drawn a sword to come up behind her. A balding pirate with a red kerchief about his head popped Davey hard on the head with the butt of his pistol, and the boy sank silently to the deck.
She started instinctively for his side. The blond youth made a swipe toward her, slicing through her skirt. She swung about just in time to save her flesh from the tip of the blade.
"Go ahead, milady, skewer the young hearty!" the balding pirate encouraged. "They boy's not dead; 'e sleeps!"
"No more interference!" One-Eyed Jack called out. "If she's as feisty beneath the covers, I want her alive!"
This was a game to them, she realized, this fight, this murder, this death. And until they drowned in a pool of their own blood, they would play it.
Until she fell. Until she was at the mercy of the one-eyed creature who watched the savagery with such gusto, and waited.
"On guard, monsieur," she told the youth. "To the death."
"Or . . . other." The boy laughed.
Skye stepped forward. Then she fell forward, stumbling along with the others. Suddenly, out of the grayness of the day, came another monster.
The ship was rammed from portside. Pirates and officers alike teetered and grasped for balance and looked about in dismay.
No one had seen the ship that had come upon them out of the murk and tempest of the day. None had seen her ghostly shape or her haunting form as she came upon them, a wraith from the sea.
None had seen her. . . .
Until she rammed the injured ship.
And now, Skye's duel was interrupted, for new screams filled the air. Skye had hoped in an instant that it might be a rescue.
That hope was quickly dashed, like the deck beneath a cannon's fire, for it was not rescue that had come.
It was a second pirate ship.
Muskets flared; screams rose. The screech and thunder of grappling hooks was heard again, and from the rigging of the newcomer, men leaped down upon the decks, and battle was joined once more.
"'Tis the Silver Hawk!" someone called. "In the rigging! 'Tis the Hawk himself! Lay down your arms, and he'll do no murder!"
"Bah, you coward!" another man called out. "One-Eyed Jack is me captain, and I'll not grovel before the Hawk."
"There, there upon the ropes! See him, he comes!"
Skye forgot her own opponent. Her sword rested upon her torn skirts as she stared upward.
Indeed, he was coming. The Silver Hawk, as they called him.
He was clad in black from head to toe, his shirt seemed to be of black silk; his frockcoat, silver-threaded, was black brocade. His boots, thigh high, were black, as were his skintight breeches. A black hat with silver eagle plumes rested upon his head. A full set of neatly trimmed silver-and-black whiskers covered his chin. A black mustache curled stylishly upon his lip.
And for all of his elegance of dress, he moved upon the ropes with skill and speed and uncanny ease. In seconds, he was upon the deck, and before his boots struck wood, he was engaged in battle.
"Surrender, me hearties, and leave me the prize. Your choice, messieurs, to die!" he called, his deep voice a thunder that challenged the sky, that challenged the very tempest of the day.