When I described the opening scene of Dunham (←buy it there), Swiss said, “Post it! Oh, God, POST IT!!!!” [EDITOR’S NOTE: I darn well did. – Swiss]
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 a carefully sharpened battle axe 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 axe 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. Many would die today, but 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 the men, 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—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, the sea below them blossoming vermilion as she stood silent, watching, waiting.
The rest of the prisoners stared 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 dragged 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.
“Paulo Papadakos, step forward!” The Greek had taken to the sea at ten, when his family had been run out of their ghetto and he had become simply an extra mouth to feed. “Third leftenant.”
“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 Croftwood, 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.”
“Orlando Telesca, step forward!” Another nobleman’s son, Venetian, heir to nothing owing to a profligate 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. Take the first watch under my command.”
With the energy of the very young, he ran to the mainmast ropes and climbed, swift as a monkey, to the highest platform, 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 whilst she picked out her own victims.
She saw where they stood, still alive. Neither Solomon nor Bridge would have had reason to kill them.
But she did.
And they knew it.
Lieutenant Smith caught her look and barked an order for five men to be tied to the masts of the ship. They ran, but her new crew was 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. Her crewman pried his eyelids open. 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 back passage. His screams were deafening. They would cease in a moment or two.
The man 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 sunset.
To the third mast were strapped the last two men upon whom she would visit her vengeance. 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.
The last man was the ship’s former 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.”
Bridge 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. Mount 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, I go to Philadelphia to 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.