By Sidney Williams
“Admiral of the Narrow Seas” is a serial published in four parts. The rest of the story can be found here.
My dearest brother, Jonathan,
Many ask why.
Why would a man of property, breeding and education give up respectability to take to sea as a pirate? Some have whispered I tired of the planter’s mundane life, others that I fled my wife’s shrewish nature and others still that my brain was warped by some tropical fever on Barbados. None of those reflects truth, nor could I reveal all in my letter to the governor pleading for clemency.
That missive called for eloquence and judicious revelation. Alas, he did not believe my privateer contention. Now, in the shadow of the gallows, to you, I will set down all that transpired so that you will know I was not just a scoundrel in search of excitement. While you may not choose to believe nor to tell others this truth, perhaps you will preserve it for generations of our family not yet born so that they will know what compelled me and know what they escaped. They, like you may dismiss it to insanity, but at least my statement will be preserved.
It began a June night. I sat in my study with my pipe. Cats curled at my feet as my eyes grew fuzzy from the rows of figures in my ledger, those tedious numbers that demanded my attention as much as they made me weary. I had missed a number of days on the bookkeeping and was carefully cataloging information from shipping inventories, attention to detail ever key to our slim margin of profitability.
The pounding at my door was a welcome interruption until I opened it and found Jorgen, my right hand, with a mask of dismay.
“It’s Samuel,” he said. “A wagon has struck him him.”
Samuel was a strong and powerful worker, and a fellow of grace and good nature. I dropped my quill and followed Jorgen to the slave huts.
“He hit his head and hasn’t waked,” he said.
Samuel lay stretched on a pallet, a cold cloth administered by Lesedi, one of the few female slaves on our property. Her golden-eyes filled with concern. She had become the caregiver for her fellow slaves, and her sharp intelligence equaled her beauty.
Stepping into the room was like stepping into a hut on the Dark Continent. A shrine that gave me a shudder had been hastily put together at the foot of his resting place, a blend of odd pieces, beads, bottles, candles smoldering in a semi-circle that almost seemed guarded by little wood figures in African dress.
Samuel gleamed with sweat in the dim light, but he stayed as still as stone.
“This is your fault, Master Saxon,” she said in her sing-song accent. “There can be no excuses. Your kind brought our people here. You had him work ‘till his spine was ready to snap. Never with enough food at night.”
I looked to Jorgen, who averted his eyes.
But it was me at which Lesedi pointed her accusing finger, her expression cold.
“We’ve always worked to make it better here than on the other…” I said
“We’ve tried to make the huts comfortable, to…abide by the practices everyone…”
“Tell yourself what you will, Master Saxon. You are a party to having us brought here, keeping us held in place. You are not a good man like you think, and the spirit know dat. If Ghede takes him before his soul is free, you will be sorry, Master Saxon Fairbourn.”
She spat my name.
Another might have had her dragged out, but I knew the pain she felt and knew she was needed to minister to Samuel even though I held little hope for him. I’d heard many legends on our plantation grounds, many fantastic tales spun under the plantation oak, the one someone had named Roblón, just enough to make me wonder if what she said might be true.
I started a turn before Jorgen put an arm around my shoulders and guided me from the hut.
“We need to see if the doctor will…”
“There’s nothing a doctor can do,” Jorgen said softly. “And you’ll do no more good here tonight.”
You know well I bought the ship a week later. Jorgen and a new young slave named Abelard, who had been showing wit and promise, went with me to Bridgetown where we found the schooner that had been used for cargo. I had little experience in choosing a craft but Jorgen judged it fast, easy to maneuver and possessing a gun deck.
We did not initially plan to be pirates. We simply mustered the best crew we could from the besotted dregs of the local pubs, all happy to take a place on board upon hearing my purse’s rattle. A vile and crude lot they were, a far cry from the people I associated with at Oxford.
Once supplies filled the hold, we brought Lesedi on board in the dark of night while the drunken lot slept. We sequestered her in a cabin with the comatose Samuel. I had every confidence she would fend well for herself if discovered, but it was a conflict I sought to avoid. She was to remain below decks with Jorgen or Abelard to bring her meals.
Before I could imagine, we were at sail, our sharp bow rechristened—if that is any kind of word for it. We were no longer a cargo schooner. We were on board the ship Cursed Sabre, prepared for a mission, but not as a brigand as you have heard.
But I am digressing in my haste. A day after Samuel’s injury, as I breakfasted on my balcony, Lesedi was suddenly standing at my table edge. I almost leapt from my chair because she seemed to have appeared from nowhere, her eyes focused on me with a fiery stare.
“He will die,” she said. “I have helped him into a resting trance, but he will certainly die.”
“Samuel? I’m sorry…”
“His body is hurt, but his soul is in peril. It is held by another. If he dies before it is freed, his destiny will be dark.”
“I don’t understand, a curse?”
“We are from the West of Africa. Samuel was a warrior, and he fought against the Aja until they captured him. He was to be beheaded as a sacrifice to their king, who they worshiped, but a rival suggested he brought more money being sold into the slave trade, to your kind, in their city of Abomey. Five year ago this happen, and before he was put in irons, his soul was taken by this rival chieftan.”
She raised a finger as a dagger. “If we cannot rescue that soul before his body dies, there will be a curse then on you and your house,” she said. “For generations.”
His soul had been taken by a practitioner of the religion now also brought from Africa, you will hear it called voudoun or perhaps you have even heard of Mami Wata. Lesedi convinced me what she said was true with a demonstration. More of the magic reflecting legends you will hear later, but know that is why we purchased our ship, why we were at sail when we encountered the Triumph’s Wind.
On a breezy morning and clear as the salt air with it’s sharp edge cut my nostrils, we saw the small silhouette on the eastern horizon. We thought little of it as it moved toward us, the sails slowly coming into view. There seemed no reason to deviate from our northward course, spirits from Lesedi’s magic having determined that direction.
“Mon, Dieu. It moves swiftly,” Abelard observed, training a small telescope.
Only later when it began to close did we realize the trouble at hand. The first cannon blast ripped out a piece of our starboard gunwale and took apart a crewman, a swarthy fellow named Killick. My blood chilled as pieces of him went flying and blood splashed the deck.
“We should take ‘em,” shouted Reynolds, a slightly older salt who’d been sober very little. He was cousin to the dispersed man and his voice filled with both anger and anguish.
I hesitated, almost frozen on the quarter deck where I stood with Jorgen.
Another blast sounded from the assaulting ship.
“We need to return fire,” Jorgen said.
“Why are they attacking?”
Another chunk of gunwale and a lifeboat evaporated into a cloud of splinters.
“Man the guns. Evasive measures.”
The orders had come not from my lips but Abelard’s. He had headed work crews in one of his placements, and it returned to him naturally. I saw the reaction in the men’s eyes in the moment of hesitation before they scrambled to obey because he had spoken what needed to be done, no matter who he was. He had broken our frozen state.
Even this sorry lot questioned what they had done after, joining the crew of an untried captain, and I questioned what we had stepped into, but what could I have done, Jonathan?
We were firing in moments, and the effects were quickly visible on Triumph’s Wind. One blast, a loud whooom on our deck, then another. Then wood splintered on their ship’s starboard side, and another ball ripped into her near the bow. Drunken or not the men on our gun deck could aim.
As I peered through the smoke that hung around us, Jorgen began barking orders, mobilizing our crew. I felt almost in a trance. Cutlasses rattled and soon, utilizing our ship’s swiftness, we were alongside Triumph.
“Look in the eyes,” Jorgen said, thrusting his spyglass into my hands.
At first I did not understand what he wanted me to see but then it became apparent. Their eyes were not the eyes of conscious men. They stared into nothingness, as much in comas as poor Samuel. They acted as if they were the marionettes of an invisible master. All of them entranced.
I left the railing. Though I knew the men thought I fled in fear I had no choice. I scurried across the deck and alow, hammering on Lesedi’s door.
“We are attacked,” I cried.
“The bokor we pursue has called on the spirits to protect him. They shield his back.”
“These men are bewitched?”
“By a powerful force.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
“They must be defeated.”
She threw on a cloak and pulled up its hood, and we went back to the upper deck. Our men had begun to board Triumph’s Wind. The clang and clash of steel mingled with the air’s grey haze. The bewitchment did nothing to affect the sailors’ fervor.
Jorgen and Abelard had already joined others of our crew on the opposing ship. I had to seek the help of an aging crewman who was spoiled with too much rum, but soon I was on the Triumph’s deck, and my militia training came in handy as I deflected attacks with my cutlass and pike.
I took a place beside Jorgen and Abelard then at their backs, parrying steel from the men with lost eyes. I winced as a blade sliced through my left sleeve, but I held onto my weapons and took down assailant after assailant.
Abelard showed prowess with a blade I had never expected. He told me later he’d wielded a foil for a previous master. On deck, his cutlass found its mark until it dripped crimson.
“We have taken what they offered. It’s time we took what they brought.” It was Reynolds, whose kinsman had been destroyed. It seemed pointless to stand athwart. I felt their contemptuous stares and knew any order short of claiming the Triumph’s stores would bring mutiny.
“Do as you will,” I said and motioned for Jorgen to return with me to our vessel as the men set about collecting linens, tobacco and other cargo. We had truly become pirates now.
“It is powerful magic,” Lesedi confirmed, sitting on the sagging bunk in her cabin beside the seemingly frozen form of Samuel.
“He had to be powerful to take Samuel’s soul didn’t he?”
“The control of men’s minds is usually achieved with a potion. This bokor is powerful indeed. His will drives spirits.”
“Spirits you said?”
“That word will do. They are minions of the loa. We must find him, before it is too late for Samuel.”
“That we must.”
“As for the ship, it and the souls aboard are lost, hopeless. You leave it adrift, it will come to no good. They will stand again despite your sword, and they may pursue.”
I left her mopping Samuel’s brow and went above to give Jorgen the order to put Triumph’s Wind to the torch.
Sidney Williams (@Sidney_Williams) is a creative writing instructor and the author of several paperback horror thrillers, graphic novels, and comic book mini-series. His latest novel, Dark Hours, is due soon from Crossroad Press. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Cemetery Dance, Under the Fang and Hot Blood: Deadly After Dark, and he has written young adult thrillers under the name Michael August. He can be found on the web at Sid is Alive.
Image Credit: “Stipula fountain pen” by Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg: Antonio Litterio Derivative work: InverseHypercube – Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.