The winds buffeted the ship as it plied the narrow spaces between the chain of islets. The rigging whipped wildly forcing the crew to make adjustments to the sails just so they wouldn’t collide with the rocky specks of land. Just behind the helm, a tall imposing woman stood solidly while the deck gently tilted side to side. Arms crossed, she had a stern but shrewd look on her weathered face. She wore breeches like a man and a loose, flowing shirt that was cinched closed by a snug vest that pushed her chest up. The woman had a wild mane of reddish blonde hair that flowed in the breeze and eyes like sparkling emeralds.
“Adjust the heading by twenty degrees, north by northeast, Venik.” She barked the order and the hulking sailer manning the helm obeyed.
“Aye, Captain. North by northeast.
The woman, Capitain Mariah Hand, nodded her approval.
They had been skirting the archipelago for two days and she’d finally given way to the demands of her passengers to make better time. After all, there were appointments in the port of Rothchild that must be kept. Mariah decided the risks were worth the gain. Her passengers were the wealthy sort and the thought of full coffers was a pleasant one.
She glanced from Venik to the crew, either at work across the Fairweather’s deck or aloft in the rigging. Mariah had faith in them. They been through tougher spots in the past. She craned her neck up. The skies were dotted with wispy clouds and the winds were steady. It was a fine day. Not a storm cloud to be seen.
But, Mariah felt a familiar itch between her shoulder blades. It was a feeling—an intuition maybe—but something the seasoned captain had learned to pay heed to over the years. Mariah was on her guard.
“Keep your eyes open, Venik.”
The sailor knuckled his forehead, but gave her a searching look. “Think there’s trouble brewing, Captain?”
Vigilance might make all the difference, she thought. Mariah shrugged. “Just be wary, Venik. Got a feeling. Might be nothing at all. But still…”
“I follow,” said Venik.
The Fairweather sailed on through the islets for a better part of the day. Mariah’s earlier concerns started to seem just over-precaution. They reached the last of the islets in the archipelago, the largest of the lot in fact. Some were almost proper islands with small pebbly sand beaches, but not much else besides tall crags that rose from sea.
As the Fairweather neared one the larger islands, Mariah got a cold chill that prickled her skin. She stood up straighter. The ship’s course brought it up close to the landmass so that it’s jagged shadow fell across them. There was nothing noticably wrong. Nothing to explain her intuition’s cry.
Venik piloted the Fairweather around the island, slowly rounding its coastline. Mariah waited with baited breath. Her hands were clenched. The cold prickling was beginning to burn her skin.
The cry of the crewman aloft jerked her head upward. The woman, Elayna, jabbed eastward just as the ship came around and entered a small harbor. Another ship was sailing straight at them, twice again the size of the Fairweather. On its main mast a black banner flapped in the wind. It was emblazoned with a white X.
Venik gaped. “Pirates, Captain Hand. Bloody pirates!”
“Damn,” said Mariah. “I knew it!”
The pirate vessel was surging at full sail, aiming to intercept the Fairweather before it could alter course or flee. Mariah cursed. “They must have sighted us farther out and waited to ambush.”
“Do we flee?”
Mariah dropped her head. “It’s too late for that. They’ve got us. There’s no way we can outrun them at this point. Besides if we tried, they would blast us out of the water with those cannons.”
As the ship came closer, she could make out the figures moving about on deck. It was twice the size of the Fairweather. As she looked on, sounds of loud indignant voices rose from the deck below.
“What is the meaning of this? Pirates! I cannot believe it.”
Mariah gritted her teeth. The source of the commotion, her passenger—a rich merchant named Alric Chamberlin clambered up to the top deck and planted himself a few feet from Mariah. She caught the angry look Venik threw at the pompous merchant but Chamberlin didn’t seem to notice.
“Is it true Captain Hand. There are pirates about?”
Annoyed, Mariah jabbed her finger towards the other ship now coming alongside the Fairweather. “See for yourself Master Chamberlin!”
The fool gasped as his eyes widened. He seemed to notice the hulking pirate vessel for the first time. “Oh my good heavens. What do we do Captain? You do plan to repel, don’t you? My cargo cannot fall into the hands of such devils.”
Mariah started laughing. “Are you mad? Repel them? We barely have the men to fend them off let alone the weapons. No, Master Chamberlin. We surrender and pray that they just take our money and cargo and leave our skins intact.”
The color drained from Alric Chamberlin’s face. His voice was small and pinched. “I… I see.”
As the pirate ship settled next to Fairweather, one of the men aboard came to railing and leaned over. Mariah glared up at him and cursed again. She knew him. Her anger rose and she had to stop from grabbing the dagger she wore at her hip. Despite her rage, the man’s insufferable grin did not waver.
“Ah, I thought it was the Fairweather. How have you been Mariah?”
“Damn you, Roderick! Damn you to the depths. How dare you come at me this way?”
“It’s nice to see you too,” Roderick called back, hands up held up. “It’s not as though I did it on purpose my dear. We do have a business to run after all and, well, we cannot afford to let go of prize like a trade ship such as the Fairweather.”
Mariah snorted. “Business you say? You’re just a bunch of mangy pirates; common thieves and nothing more.”
Roderick pressed his hand against his chest just above his heart. “I’m hurt Mariah.”
“Do you think it wise to antagonize him, Captain?”
Mariah forgot Chamberlin was standing there. She closed her eyes to compose herself. She was letting her emotions get the best of her—her feelings for Roderick exposed like they were brand new.
“Mariah, my Captain bids me to come aboard and settle our business,” Roderick called down.
There were no other options. She slowly nodded. “Yes! Come aboard!”
Chamberlin reached out and grabbed Mariah’s arm. She frowned but then looked closer at the man. He was skaking and his eyes were wide with unmistakable fear. “Please, Captain Hand. You cannot let these pirates have what I’ve brought aboard. It is of inestimable value and, in truth, it may be dangerous if it should fall into wrong hands.”
“What are you talking about, Master Chamberlin. You brought no cargo aboard. Only passage for yourself and your niece, if I’m not mistaken. Surely, your fancy baubles can be replaced. You’re certainly not short on funds to purchase them. And the only danger I can see if you refuse to give these men what they want.”
Chamberline shook his head. “No, no. It is dangerous. She is dangerous! What I mean to say is—” His words were cut off by Roderick’s arrival. The man had climbed down a ladder to reach the Fairweather’s deck.
He smiled as he approached, sparing a moment’s attention for Alric Chamberlin who retreated from the top deck, pleading silently as he fled. Four more pirates accompanied Roderick to the Fairweather, each armed with swords and pistols, their grim expressions bearing assurances that they were more than willing to use them.
He stopped a few paces away, his gaze direct. “Mariah. If you could retrieve a copy of the manifest, and assure me that your crew and passengers will cooperate, this should be a simple matter and we’ll be on our way before you know it.” There was a slight catch in his voice as his eyes locked with hers. Mariah felt her throat tighten, but ground her teeth and hardened her face.
“If you insist. Venik. Go to my cabin and retrieve the manifest for our guests.”
Venik saluted. “Aye, Captain.”
Mariah watched him go then turned all of her anger on Roderick. “How dare you do this! After what happened… after what we had.” Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. “You betrayed me then… and you betray me again. I hope it’s worth it, Roderick.”
The man’s earlier bravado faded for a moment. “I… I… it’s more complicated than that and you know it. Mariah, this is what I must do to survive.”
“No, Roderick. It is what you choose to do. You could have stayed… with me.”
Roderick grinned, but spoke softer. “It’s a wonderful dream, Mariah.” His voice grew louder again. “But, this is the reality now. He beckoned the pirates. “Quickly. I want three of you to start gathering up the other valuables while we wait for the manifest. Don’t do any harm unless you’re forced.”
The men nodded and set off across the deck.
Venik soon returned, the rolled patchment that contained the ship’s manifest gripped in his hand. He came up next Mariah and handed her document. “Thank you, Venik.”
Venik nodded, giving Roderick dark frown before stepping back. Mariah unfurled the parchment and glanced over the neat columns of precise handwriting. The cargo was small but still costly. It would be a terrible loss. She would be lucky if her trade business recovered at all. She brushed angry tears from her cheeks and handed the manifest to Roderick.
“Damn you, Roderick.”
Just as he was about to reply, a shrill scream rose.
“What the devil…?”
Mariah came to the railing just as a figure burst from the door that led below decks. It was the other passenger, Chamberlin’s niece, Atalia. The dark-haired girl was followed by one of the pirates. She was clutching something protectively in her hands. Chamberlin himself appeared next, heaving for breath.
“Stop! Don’t try to take it from her! Please, stop!”
Roderick came up beside Mariah. “What’s happening? Didn’t I say no problems?”
Below them, Atalia screamed again as she reached the railing. She spun around and faced the pirate, who was advancing with his sword drawn. Chamberlin tried to squeeze past, but other man waved him back. As Mariah watched something happened.
Atalia looked up so her face caught the sunlight. Slowly she lifted her hands and the light caught the flicker of something shiny. The next moment, the deck of the Fairweather trembled.
Roderick and Mariah exchanged looks.
“What was that?”
Mariah looked again at the girl. Her face grew slack—and the wind begin to blow, and the skies filled with dark storm clouds that churned round and round.
“This isn’t good,” Mariah said.
“What do you mean,” asked Roderick.
She pointed to the clouds and to the winds that buffeted the sails.
The winds grew stronger and both ships were pounded by the now turbulent sea. The wave battered them and shoved them against each other with a sickening crunch. Mariah fought to keep her footing. Roderick was there to steady her, his fingers lingering a moment. Then he took a step back.
The winds wailed and frothing waters flooded the Fairweather’s deck. The sails flapped as lines snapped and the rigging groaned under the onslaught. The larger pirate ship fared far worse. The wind and waves seemed to be dragging its onto its side as a great whirlpool took shape around them both. The Fairweather was pulled in, but remained on the edge as the seas roiled. The helm was spinning freely and everyone was struggling not to get swept overboard. They were at the mercy of this unnatural storm.
After a time—how long Mariah did not know—she felt someone touch her. Over the keening roar of the storm she could barely make out what Roderick was saying. Mariah strained, trying to catch a glimpse of Atalia but the water stung her eyes terribly. For some minutes she just clung to the rail. Roderick was not far away straining hold on too. Up and down the ship pitched as it was hurled around the whirlpool in the midst of the tempest. All thoughts but one were ripped away: survive.
Debris was crashing down around her. She looked up just as a large piece of rigging came right at her. She had no time to react. It struck her hard, tossing her into the air as it swung out away from the ship. She screamed but her voice was lost in the storm. Seconds later, she flew free and hit the water. The impact stunned Mariah and she slipped beneath the waves. Her body rolled and plunged into the depths as the storm continued above her. She tried to claw her way to the surface but the current was too strong and she was weakening by the moment. Her heart was thundering with panic even as her lungs burned with need to breathe.
Suddenly she broke the surface, gasping for breathe while she tried to get her bearings. She could see nothing in the darkened seas. She tread water just trying to stay above the water, but she was soon struggling. Mariah realized it wouldn’t be long now before she slipped away.
A bolt of lightning lit up the sky above her, revealing a dark shape towering over her. It took Mariah a moment to realize it was a ship. The thunder rumbled above her and another flash showed her it was the Fairweather. She extended her arm.
“Help! I’m here!” Her throat was hoarse from salt water. She couldn’t tell if her voice carried. Her strength was failing, her head throbbing and mind buzzing.
It was Roderick’s voice, Mariah realized. The next moment, she slipped below the water again, and sank into the deep where the darkness and close closed in around her.
Mariah awoke with a start. Her blurry vision took a moment to resolve itself. She realized where she was: her cabin aboard the Fairweather. She looked down at herself. All seemed sound and intact. No broken bones. She was a mass of bruises and sore muscles but otherwise fine.
“Ah, you’re awake.”
Mariah blinked. There, sitting on a bench next to her bunk, was Roderick. His brown hair was partially covered with a hasty bandage but he brandished that infuriating smile of his.
“I’m glad. I was worried when I pulled you out of the water.”
“You… you saved me,” said Mariah slowly.
Roderick bowed his head, not meeting her gaze. He let out a long sigh.
“Yes.” He stood up and came to kneel beside her. His eyes were red and watery. “I was terrified, Mariah. The thought that I might lose you forever was unbearable.” He reached out and took her hand. She didn’t shove it away. Roderick was shaking his head. “I am so sorry. Sorry for everything. Sorry for the past and for the present too. I was such a fool to leave. I didn’t trust you, Mariah. I didn’t trust anyone. Please forgive me for that.”
The words were like a strike to the face. But, Mariah, really believed him. All of the pain of their parting, the betrayal, it came rushing back to her—and she was angry all over again. Yet fate had brought them back to one another. It was once more chance to set things right.
Mariah’s eyes flooded with tears. She reached out and clutched Roderick’s hand. “I… I… forgive you.”
Roderick smiled and slumped a little in relief. He looked at her again, his blue eyes flashing. “I’m so glad you do.”
Mariah’s attention shifted. “What about your ship?”
“It’s gone. The storm took her and all aboard.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Come,” said Mariah.
Venik stepped inside. “Captain?”
Mariah’s face split in a happy grin. “You made it through, Venik. Thank the gods.”
“Aye, Captain.” Venik knuckled his forehead.
Another thing occurred to Mariah. “What of Chamberlin and his niece?”
“They are resting in their cabin.”
Mariah let out a shaky breath. “The sooner we get those two off my ship, the better. How bad is the damage to the Fairweather?”
“Surprisingly enough, it’s minimal,” said Venik. “We need about a day to make repairs to the rigging and we’ll be ready to depart.”
“Good. Thank you, Venik.”
The crewman left and Mariah looked at Roderick. “Want to join my crew?”
Roderick smirked. “Yes, I think I might.”
Mariah nodded. “Good. Let’s talk about that… and maybe a few other things.”
“Aye, Captain,” said Roderick.
Mariah burst out laughing.
Produced by Eugenio Zorrilla.