"For broadside! Fire!"
Six cannon spoke at once, the thunder of their voices making the deck beneath Beth's boots shudder with violence. Six balls of hot iron smashed into the opposing vessel, gouging a painful wound in the ship's once-sleek side. An explosion from within the corsair ripped open the deck and hurled wood, debris and soldiers into the ocean.
Beth loved the sight with her heart. After six winter months of waiting, they would take their third ship from His Majesty's fleet this year. Although she could clearly see the flags of the British Merchant Marine flying from the corsair's mast, the information proved correct as the deck was swarmed with soldiers from His Majesty's army. The condition of the corsair's sails suggested that they had been at sea the entire voyage-- no stops, some nine weeks at least. That meant compared to her own men, the troops would be exhausted, underfed, and quite probably sea-addled. They had failed with their own defensive volley and only one cannonball had struck the Jacob's Ladder, and although that one had ruined her ship's bow it had not come close to sinking or disabling her.
The corsair, on the other hand, was now little more than a smoldering ruin. A lucky shot with the reserve cannon had succeeded in bringing down the rigging without completely unmasting her, and the last volley, a broadside at close range, had gutted her gun ports on the presenting side. Beth patted her wheelman on the shoulder. "Good job, Stede. Keep her beam-on."
"I know m' job, Captain!" he said with good cheer.
Beth grinned even as she wrapped one hand around a pistol and the other about her sword, her familiar friends.
The corsair seemed a good target for plunder. Although the vessel was probably low on supplies, Beth had word of both riches and ransom. On such vessels gentry traveled. Gentry had money. It lifted her heart higher to know that she had done well by her men again.
"Grapples!" she shouted. Although young to command, she reveled in the feel of it. Orders sailed past her teeth, unquestioned, unhesitating. Her men, twenty-seven in number, were probably outnumbered by the troops on the corsair, but numbers would not be the deciding factor here. They were all good men and they had chosen her to lead them. In the year since, she had not failed them, and she would not fail them now. They took to their hooks and lines and waited for the hand-to-hand battle. "I'm going down there, Stede. Do me well."
After the volleys of cannon fire, the explosion, and the exhausting length of their voyage the corsair was on the losing end of a battle and its crew knew it. The pirates had their sail and their rigging, while the corsair had a hole in its side bleeding smoke. Beth shouted, "Now!"
Eight strands of rope sailed across the distance between the two ships. Muscles strained on the ropes and eight hooks pulled the two ships into contact. Their wooden sides crackled with complaint. She and her men surged over the railing, guns and swords drawn to the ready. Even as her boots made contact with the merchanter's deck, the glint of sun on steel told her that this was not to be easy. Her men made no special effort to guard her more than any another. She found a man on the wheel deck taking aim with a gun. She shot him in the leg, knocking him down even as she charged the stairs. His gun fired as he fell, the ball sailing uselessly into the sky. "The wheel!" she shouted. Two of her men joined her at her side.
Another soldier jumped onto the wheeldeck, this one almost completely liveried in the colors of His Majesty. He had steel drawn and Beth took to him with relish, her sword batting his down even as he charged. She had missed a good fight in the past few months; the last haul had been in October.
The soldier, more lively than she expected, struck with a feint. Beth paid for it with a swipe across the leg, screaming aloud with the searing pain. He came in for the kill. She was faster with a throwing knife, and one found itself lodged in his belly. He slumped, unbelieving, as she finished him with her sword.
"Captain!" One of her men leaped to her rescue.
"It's all right, Bart. I've had worse." She lied about both, but she was the captain and it was her job to be brave.
"That's crap and ye know it," Bart replied. "Let's get ye back to the Ladder and have Seaburr look at you."
"That old..." she gasped at the pain. "That old barber's as likely to kill me as patch me up." She tottered as she tried to stand.
"Aye, but ye can at least give him a try," Bart said, supporting her with an arm under her shoulders. She got a good look at the battle as he helped her into a standing position. She was the worst of the wounded. The few left from the merchanter appeared to have given up. At least after they were ransomed they could tell their admirals that they hadn't gone down without a fight.
The cut wasn't deep, so while her men did the task of rearranging stores from the captured corsair to the Jacob's Ladder, she suffered Seaburr's pouring hot whiskey into the wound and sealing it over with a salted bandage. She screamed without shame at the pain of it all, but when it was over she thought she would survive and her leg would be none the worse. It would scar, of course, but that was to be expected.
"What have we got?" she asked her second in command. She had chosen Spike to be her second for two reasons-- first, he liked women, and second, he knew his letters. He also knew his job.
"We're rich, Captain! You were right to take her on. It's almost a treasure galleon! We got the bastard's payroll vessel!" Spike rubbed his hands with glee. "And a fine lady as well, a pretty ransom-- the lady Jessica Speer, wife of the Duke of Coke."
"Then you'd best keep hands off her, and her serving woman, clear?" she said. Spike nodded, not at all distressed. He wouldn't touch them. What they could bring in ransom could serve him a month in a good whorehouse, and Spike knew his numbers as well as his letters.
She looked over the poor bunch assembled on the deck of the corsair. A few were dressed as formally as could be tolerated in the beastly hot weather, but most were merely able-bodied men of land and sea, now struck down by the weariness of travel and the shame of defeat. "Which of you is the Captain?"
"I... I am. Thomas Hill, Her Majesty's Merchant Navy."
Beth regarded the soft, portly man without emotion. He wore the clothes of a sailor, but they fitted him poorly. There were few truly good sailors in the world, so she found no surprise to see someone like this at the wheel. She supposed that his one true skill was navigation. Such men were also hard to find, and he had the look. Still, he had once commanded better ships, as most merchanters had. She wondered what had happened to him. "Captain Hill, your people will be treated as well as possible in the circumstances. None of you will be harmed if all goes well. I am not my nickname. May I ask you, why are you so poorly manned and so light, if you're carrying the garrison payroll for Jamaica? Where is your escort?"
Hill took a moment, the sweat gathering on his upper lip. "We lost our escort in a storm. I do not know if it sank or just disappeared over the horizon. We were close to the Main and thought it better to risk a fast run into Jamaica than head all the way back to England. I thought that a small, light vessel might make it past any pirates. And there are so few ships available for escort these days, so many have been pressed into service to carry wood to rebuild London."
"London?" Beth asked, surprised to hear that anything had happened, and saddened to think that she might never see that wondrous city. "What happened?"
He wiped his brow with a handkerchief that had probably been white at one time. "A great fire last year. Burned down fully a third of the city. I suppose news would not have reached your ears all the way out here."
Beth smiled mirthlessly. "No, I suppose it would not." She looked out over the sea. The battle had begun well past high noon, she needed to rest her leg, and night would be coming soon. The high seas were as safe as anywhere in the Caribbean after dark. It would have to do. "Spike," she said, "I am going to care for some things. Finish stripping Captain Hill's vessel and then set it adrift. Maybe we will come back for the wood later."
Hill began to protest but soon realized that there was no advantage to it. Spike grinned. "Aye, Captain. Call on you around supper, then."
"That would be a good hour," Beth agreed.
Beth eyes opened before six bells of the second day watch rang. She decided she should see what was happening on her ship. The pain under her bandages was something she could live with as she rolled out of bed and tried to stand upon her wounded leg.
She found a simple cane helped her get about a good deal. The sun was low on the horizon when she emerged onto the deck of the Ladder. She loved the scent of the sea, the freshness of the air at this time of day. Her men were busy in the rigging, cleaning lines and caring for the deck. Already, she saw lines over the bow showing that the men had begun to patch the hole. She reminded herself to praise such readiness to work. A hole that big could swamp the Ladder in a storm. But no such storm threatened that evening, and if Beth had anything going for her it was her almost supernatural ability to predict the weather for the next day. That, alone, earned her a place of respect among the pirates. Well, all except for the Captain William Morrow himself, an enemy of sorts who accused her of being a weather witch. It was he who had named her "Bloody Beth" a few years ago, accusing her of sinking one of his boats and killing his men with a conjured storm, back when she'd been little more than a curiosity and not even a captain then. She wished she had such power.
"So, Spike," she said, startling her second as she hobbled up behind him, "are we rich?"
"Rich?" He smiled as if holding back on a secret. "We'll not be kings. But we will be comfortable. We can afford more stores. If we take out the captain and ship's take, we can give each man almost forty pounds."
Beth's eyes widened. "Forty pounds?" she gasped. "A man could live off forty pounds for years in the Caribbee'!"
"Aye," Spike sighed. "It's a bad day for a pirate when he gets that much money. He has no reason to keep plundering-- until he runs out o' shillings. Or he gets killed by bandits or drinks himself to death." Spike shook his head. "What'll we do, Captain?"
"We give it to them, Spike. And we give them the choice."
Spike nodded, his mass of blond hair flapping in the gentle breeze even as the sun finally set. Beth hadn't noticed until now the blood on his tunic. "You're hurt," she said, pointing at his shoulder.
"A scratch. Far less than your leg."
Beth sighed. It was that kind of night. Too much time in which one could think. "We had a noble lady on board?"
"Lady Jessica Speer, wife of the Duke of Coke. He owns--"
"I know what he owns, Spike," she snapped coldly. The Duke of Coke owned one of the largest sugar plantations on Jamaica. It was difficult not to know who he was. He was one of those men who came and went again and again, the sort who hated the heat and the mosquitoes of Jamaica, but not who did not trust the people he left behind enough to leave them alone for very long. To Beth, though, he was something else. There was a man God would not forgive easily. Nor she. "Bring her to my cabin, would you? I'd like to meet this lady."
Spike grinned. "We'll be there in a moment."
Beth returned to her tiny cabin and made a note in the log while Spike and another man wrestled the Lady Speer into her room. "You can close the door," she said to them without turning. When she was done, she closed the book, placed it in a drawer and latched the dresser lock before finally turning to look at her prisoner.
Lady Jessica Speer was slightly taller than Beth. She had been caught in little more than a collection of underthings: a satin kirtle with buttons that led from elbow to ankle, with additional ties up to her neck. Over that she wore a man's cloak that seemed to be just doing the job of keeping her warm as the evening chill set in. The Caribbean sea was like that; a hot Hell at noon and a colder Hell at midnight.
But to Beth, the look was overwhelming. Lady Speer's face was rounded with high cheekbones, arching eyebrows, and a thick mane of black hair that hung down over her shoulders. Beth's eyes looked downwards. Lady Speer's body, what could be discerned of it through her clothes, was rich with a quality Beth could not remember seeing in all her days. She had large breasts, and Beth's eyes left them reluctantly as they scanned back up to the woman's face. The eyes were angry, the face scared. Beth took a deep breath. "Sit, Lady Speer."
Lady Speer took the chair offered with a jerk and sat down.
Beth turned her own chair around and faced her across the table. "No doubt you wish to know what is about to happen to you," she began.
Lady Speer kept her silence.
Deciding that the silence might be broken with a little help from that familiar friend, alcohol, Beth reached into a small, latched cupboard and brought out two tin mugs and a bottle. "It's rum. We do drink it. It is made everywhere on the islands and is better drunk early than late." She poured for each of them and returned the bottle to its place. "Drink."
Lady Speer looked at Beth with accusation. Her eyes flickered back and forth between Beth's face and the mug of dark liquid waiting for her. She grabbed the mug and downed it all in one gulp, her face crossed with the kind of agony reserved for more medicinal mixtures. "Oh, God!" she gasped, then clasped her hands to her mouth, her eyes looking over the fingers with fright.
"You get used to it," Beth said as she sipped her own. The alcohol seeped down into her body and warmed her arms. The throbbing pain in her leg seemed to flare and then subside in the darkness. "Have no fear, my lady. We are going to see to it that you reach your destination unharmed. My men are not going to ravish you. They would not know where to begin. Indeed, I think most of them are afraid of you, as one should be afraid of an angel sent down from Heaven."
"I am not an angel," Lady Speer retorted.
Beth smiled. The rum was doing its business, loosening the other woman's tongue and giving her the courage to talk. Beth appreciated that, for she longed to hear more from this woman. More about England, a land in which she had been born, but of which she had no memories. And more from this woman whose mere presence captivated her in ways she could not begin to express in words. "No, but you are a woman. They have not seen your like in many a year. Do you know that there are far fewer whorehouses in Jamaica than on the mainland? Men who take to the wide sea are not interested in women. Indeed, they may not have known a woman since their mother, against whom they are usually sadly bitter. They sign onto the open sea because they wish to get away from ladies and the pressures to marry."
"You are... of the female persuasion," Lady Speer said, pointing out the obvious.
Beth laughed, ignoring the woman's attempted dig. "They have known me on this vessel since I was eight years old, Lady Speer. They do not think of me as a woman, they think of me as a part of this ship. And I do not ask of them the things your world asks of them and so they do not fear me."
Beth leaned back in her chair. "In any event, Lady Speer, you are to be ransomed. Your husband will pay a willing hundred pounds, I imagine, for you." She looked Lady Speer up and down again, wondering what was going on in her own heart. She had a sudden urge to tear the lady's clothing off and see for herself what lay underneath. She realized that she was thinking like her men, or rather, like a landed man. Was it curiosity, or... something else?
"That is not very much money," Lady Speer said. She seemed disappointed to learn that the going price on hear head wasn't higher.
"It is in the Caribbean. And we are not feeling greedy. We have what we came for off your ship."
Lady Speer's face twisted into an ugly snarl. "And you killed men for it. You're a monster. You are all monsters, but you most of all. A woman who defies her sex and acts with sword and gun, who leads a ship full of eunuchs, and who steals from the land that gave her birth."
Beth had heard all of these accusations enough that none of the enraged her any more. She took another sip of the warming rum and felt better; being treated as an enemy made the Lady Speer seem more distant and less interesting. That she could tolerate more easily. It saddened her that she would not make enough of a conversation with her ladyship for her to learn more of England, but she could learn in other ways. She said, "If you feel that way. Mais je ne suis pas un monstre."
Lady Speer reacted as if she had been slapped. "You speak French?"
"Oui," Beth responded. "And Latin. I was taken aboard this ship as a child, Lady Speer, and have no idea what it means to be anything but this. I am not defying my sex. I do not know what it means to be like you, with your perfect clothes and your manners. I only know the men with whom I share this ship." She leaned across the table and looked into the lady's eyes. "What do you know of pirates?"
Lady Speer looked flustered. It was clear to Beth that she had not anticipated being directly challenged. She leaned back in the chair and took more of the rum herself. It had the desired effect: her face flushed and her eyes seemed to water a little. "What is there to know? They're smelly, dirty, unlettered... men!"
"I'm only the first two," Beth said, "And just now, you are the first two as well. It has been a long day." A lock of hair had fallen over Lady Speer's face. Beth could not keep her eyes off it. That, and the alcohol haze through which both of them strayed, made the Lady look more fetching than Beth could have imagined. She shook her head. "And it will be a long week, at least, before you are ransomed."
Lady Speer's face fell. "A week?" Then she seemed to recover somewhat. "Well, then. I will have something to tell my husband. You are sure your men will not touch me?" There was something peculiar in the way she said "men," Beth thought. Something very odd indeed.
"Quite," Beth said. There was a look in Lady Speer's eyes, and it bothered her. Her heart was racing. She felt an uncomfortable moisture between her thighs. "I believe we have had enough. My men will escort you back to the hold where your handmaiden awaits."
After Spike had taken the Lady Speer away, Beth rolled into her bed and closed her eyes. The wound on her thigh throbbed without mercy, but the image before her imagination was what truly kept her awake. She could not banish the thought of the Lady Speer from her conscience.
She knew how a man might feel; she had long ago learned from the few men who kept the brothels in business, the ones who had come to the sea from paths other than the usual. Right now the man she kept for her purposes was an Irishman named Patrick, a farmer who had joined in the rebellion a few years back. He, and almost a thousand other men, had been shipped to the Caribbean to serve in a penal colony. Patrick had escaped and, although not a seaman, had found his way aboard the Ladder. When her previous lover, Johnny, had decided to join three others and make their way into Mexico to find a retiring land, she had taken to Patrick easily. And Patrick had taken to her just as readily, although always he carried a sense of sadness about himself. It was, he said, for his wife, who had been killed by the British.
Try as she might, she could not be rid of her imagination of the Lady Speer. She wanted to touch that purity of skin, that softness of flesh. Her imaginings included kisses, her lips to that of the fine Lady's mouth; her ears filled with the dreaming of what it might be like to hear the Lady whispering words of encouragement and love.
Beth's hands crept down under the drawstring of her brais and into the thicket of fur between her thighs. She had often watched her men stroke themselves and, although the activity fascinated her, it had held no attraction for her. They always looked like they were going to hurt their little organs as they acted with such violence. They performed the action with all the care of a man performing elimination and, indeed, for many of them that's what it appeared to be. They acted as if lust itself were a dirty thing that built up within them like urine, and that it had to be eliminated, with effort if necessary.
She still had some of the learning of her father, though, and understood that what they were doing was an act better performed in private, if at all. Unlike they, she did not feel some third element within her that needed elimination from time to time. At least, she had never felt that way before.
She tossed over in bed, feeling warmer than was right. Was she feverish? Maybe she had taken ill, her wound grown gangrenous. That might explain how the spirits tormented her with dreams, or maybe nightmares, of the Lady Speer's softness. But she was not yet asleep. Her fingers, as if possessed by an animation all their own, crept between her thighs and found her pudendum. She startled when she realized that they were seeking something that they would not find. She had no prick to seize and stroke, no organ of release to call her own. For all that she belonged on this ship and with these men, she was a woman born and could not perform some acts by herself.
She rose from her bed and tightened the string about her waist before heading up top. She came out into the main deck and saw three of her men wandering about, keeping watch. "Bart," she said, "Is there anything left to eat?"
The big man with the eternal grin looked back at her. "Aye. There's a pig stew waiting for you. Made with salt found in Hell, but it's still warm."
She thanked him and made her way into the galley. A tiny hole, it had just room enough for one small stove. On top was a pot, fixed down with iron latches, with just enough food in its bottom for two or three. She took enough to feed just herself, and a hunk of black, stale bread from the cupboard, and went back out on deck to eat. The bread took a lot of chewing but was worth it. For some reason tonight her belly felt bottomless and starving. She drank water straight from a rainbarrel.
"Evenin', Captain," said Patrick's soft brogue. "I saw ye were bandaged this afternoon. Not too badly hurt, I hope?"
"No, not too badly," she replied. "Not in body, anyway."
Patrick nodded. It never ceased to amaze Beth that no man on the crew resented her relationship with Patrick. Among her crew were more than a few sodomites who kept their pleasures with one another and the rest simply remained celibate by choice, free of any associations save with the bottle and their hands. Most pirates were like that, misfits for that reason especially, but other reasons included. The men of her ship were gentle enough souls when they were among one another, calling each 'brother'. Herself included.
She looked up into his scruff and handsome, face barely visible in the starlight. Memories of dreams raced into her imagination once more, fantasies of the Lady Speer unwelcomed by her natural self. She decided to attempt some magic of her own, the only kind she knew of, to banish the beastly figments. "Patrick, I need ye tonight."
Patrick seemed surprised. He was not inclined to refuse. He appreciated a good roll with a woman better than many on the crew, and know his nights with her gave him no special standing in the morning. "Need, Captain?"
She rose and stood close enough that she could smell the collected sweat upon his brow. "Yes. I need you, Patrick." She reached out one hand for his and he took it.
She led him back to her cabin, to her small, never-made cot. There, she stripped the clothes from his body and allowed him to do the same for her. He opened her shirt and gathered her modest breasts in his hands, stroking and kneading their skin until he was almost hurting her. She moaned with wanting him, with the force he applied to her. It made her feel alive. His hands dipped into the line of her trousers, pulling the drawstring open and dropping them to the floor. She stepped out of the pile of clothes that had gathered about her feet.
In the darkness of her cabin, illuminated by a single candle and the starlight of one small portal, she pressed her body up against his. She felt the Irish steel of his flesh, the hard muscles of his body against hers, and she wished that she could be as strong and as powerful as he. Her hands reached down to stroke the erect prick pressed against her belly. "The bed, Patrick."
"Aye, me Captain. You have inflamed me greatly." He followed her to the tiny cot. It creaked under the weight of them both even as she opened her legs and accepted his body between them. His prick sniffed at her willing sex like a dog, so she seized it in her hand and led it to its proper den. Patrick plunged into her body on one stroke. Her desire had turned her insides to liquid and she accepted him readily and lustily.
His thrusts were hard and demanding. Her soul exulted in this expression of animal affection that was so beyond what she might have learned from whatever pale, aristocratic jackass she might have married in another life. His arms, as strong as the beams that made up her ship, punched into the mattress on which they lay, and she wrapped her fingers around those muscular limbs and held on for dear life. His prick, his glorious manhood, plunged and emptied, plunged and emptied her. His body heaved into hers like a stormy sea against a battered ship, and like such a ship, Beth had no thought to anything but riding out the glorious rut. "Patrick, yes!"
He was in his own heaven, or wherever it was men went when they rutted. His body was a taut bulk of masculine line, his hips a broadside against her own. She was holding on for precious life even as he finished with a shout more like a cry for help than an exultation of lust.
Patrick lay down beside her on his back, crowding her in her own cot. "Thank you, m'Captain."
She leaned against him, curling her grateful body against his own, her thigh pressing against the damp curls of his pubes. "You're welcome, Patrick. I appreciate what you have done for me."
"And what you have for me. On a ship like this, the presence of a woman is a welcome reminder of what I may have left behind forever."
The smell of sex filled the space between them, but even that had not helped completely to wipe out the fancies that Beth had hoped Patrick might prove the medicine for. And Patrick seemed withdrawn even at this close range. "Patrick?"
"I thought of Nainsi, my wife, while we made that beast with two backs. I miss her."
"She was killed by the King's Men, yes?" The story had come in small drips through the year, but never had he told it to her whole.
"Aye, during the rebellion. Bastards shot her in the back. At least she died with her womanly honor intact; she had only ever known me in all her life. She was a beautiful woman, Beth, Nainsi was, with reddish, curly hair, the whitest skin the sun had e'er touched, and the full body that a woman who has borne children truly deserves."
Patrick rose abruptly. Beth's skin protested the sudden loss of his warm body even as her heart sank. She feared she had asked too much of him. "I'm... I'm sorry, Patrick, for reminding ye of her."
"Nae, that's not it," Patrick said. He kept his back to her as he pulled on his pants and tied the cord that kept them up. "I'll just be going back to me hammock." He paused at her minuscule desk, little more than an oversized stool, and placed his fingertips on the small rosewood chest that occupied one corner. "Captain, a pirate is a dead man. He dies the first time about seven or eight years when the farm is too small to be divvied up further and his mother throws him into the streets where he is lucky to find a band of thugs and rovers to call home. He dies a second time at nine or ten when he realizes that women have no place in his heart any more and natural inclination condemns him before God and his ministers. And he dies a third time, out here, when the cruelty of His Majesty's Navy drives him to rebellion and desertion and a price on his head."
Patrick turned to face her. "In such, I've only died once. But you, my lady, have not yet died at all. Maybe it's my just bein' a man speakin', but tossing yourself into that fight today was a damn stupid thing to do. But for a damned villain, you still live, and you can go back t' living. Do it. Before a cannon or a sword ends all your chances." Before she could make a reply, he left, leaving her with her confusion.
She felt saddened for Patrick and angry at herself for not knowing when to leave well enough alone. Worse, even as she lay in her cot and felt his seed seeping from her sex, she could not keep her mind from thinking about... women. About her unique status among pirates-- only the second woman to go to sea with a pirate crew and attain any notoriety worth mention. She didn't even know the other woman's name, but she could not stop dreaming about what her body must have contained, her clothing must have hidden. Beth curled up in the bed, thankful for Patrick's strength, but now sure that it would not be enough to banish her queer, curious desires.