Charlestown, South Carolina 1705
Branna stumbled along behind her parents, Lochlann and Colleen Kelly. Her shoes were too small and pinched her feet as they made their way through the darkening, muggy evening, dodging the lamplighters on the downtown Charlestown, South Carolina, street. She breathed in the familiar heady scent of blooming crepe myrtles and freshly lit gas lamps on one side and the pungent seaport on the other.
Her belly fluttered with nerves, excitement, and unease while her left hand fidgeted with the heavy gold signet ring she always wore on her first finger. Her right hand pulled at the fabric of the ill-fitting, secondhand dress that once belonged to a young woman who filled it out much better than she could ever hope. It gaped in the bodice and had to be let out to accommodate her height, but still barely reached her ankles. It was once worn by the same young woman she was on her way to see, to profess her love for, and to say goodbye to—Julia Farrow.
Lost in thought, she didn’t realize they had arrived and she bumped into the back of her tall, broad-shouldered father when he paused to turn up the walk to the Farrow estate.
“Aye, lass, pull yerself together.” His eyes glinted with amusement despite the scolding. “That’s no way fer a young lady to behave.”
“Lady,” Branna scoffed in a very unladylike manner, her accent nearly imperceptible after their many years in the colonies. “You must be speaking of your other daughter.”
His eyes narrowed at his only child, looking her over from head to toe. Branna fought the urge to squirm beneath her father’s intense scrutiny. She knew what she looked like and why she stood out so much from the other young women her age.
She was tall for a young woman of sixteen, towering over her peers, but still a head shorter than her father’s outlandish six-foot-four frame. Despite inheriting her mother’s lithe build, she was strong, broad shouldered and narrow hipped. She had long fingers on large hands, roughened from being raised in a life of hard work and sailing, which were a constant source of embarrassment when in high-class company.
Instead of a fair, rosy complexion and sun-kissed locks, she was gifted with straight black hair pulled back from sharp features darkened by the sun. Her eyes were so dark-brown they appeared black.
“There’s only you, Branna, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Her father grasped her hands and raised them to kiss the knuckles of each, grinning with love and pride. “Now, let Mam fix yer dress.”
“Yes, Da.” She grinned back and turned around for her mother to adjust the pins she had added to help the dress better fit her shape, or as Branna thought, shapelessness. “Thank you, Mam.”
Colleen spun her daughter and looked up at her. “You look beautiful, my darling daughter, and don’t let anyone here tell you different, do you understand? You are every bit as worthy as them and quite a bit more so, if you ask me.”
“Yes, Mam, I know.” Branna lowered her eyes.
“It’s not enough just to know, my sweet.” Her mother tilted Branna’s head up with a finger under her chin. “You must believe it, too. Hold your head up and be strong, be caring…” She trailed off, holding her gaze.
“Be true.” She finished her mother’s constant and favorite encouragement. “I do believe, Mam.”
Her father feigned a sound of disgust at their sentiments and rolled his eyes, shining with emotion. “We’ve only a short time before a favorable tide so let’s get on with it.”
“You’ll not forget to collect the satchel from Mr. Farrow this time?” Her mother pinched the back of his arm.
“Ow, woman, cease yer nagging.” He jerked his arm away but couldn’t hide the adoring twinkle in his eye. “It was only one time.”
“One time that added a week to our voyage for having to return to port as we had no money and no contracts.” She teased with no real anger.
“Aye, love.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’ve not forgotten. Ye won’t let me.”
Branna laughed at her parents’ good-natured bickering, her smile faltering as they neared their destination.
They walked the stone path lined with oaks and dogwoods to the Farrows’ grand, three-story, brick double house. Branna, not knowing when she would lay eyes on it again, marveled at the sight of the columns across the piazza that overlooked the lush and impeccably manicured grounds and private gardens. She called to mind the many times throughout her young life she and Julia Farrow had run hand in hand and barefoot through the cool grass and lay together beneath the shade of the dogwoods in the muggy heat of the summer.
It was beneath one of those trees in the cooling air and dimming light that she experienced her first kiss—and the many that came after. The memory was so vivid she could feel the softness of Julia’s lips against hers, the sweetness of her breath against her cheek, and the press of their still-developing bodies against each other.
Branna had never experienced anything so terrifying and tantalizing as that kiss and wanted nothing more than to feel that way forever. Now she had to say goodbye, for how long she didn’t know.
Upon entering the house, her parents immediately split up in opposite directions to visit and make their goodbyes to their friends. Her father joined some of the other Farrow Company men and her mother went to their wives, including the heavily pregnant Amelia Farrow. “Despite being employees, Branna’s parents were well regarded among the Farrow’s elite business associates and her father was a highly sought-after ship’s captain.” Branna could not say the same and tensed as soon as she was left to fend for herself in the midst of the early summer party.
She glanced into the rooms to see distinguished, old white men in suits, twirling elaborate moustaches and sipping whiskey as they argued politics and trade while sophisticated women in summer frocks and hats fanned themselves while discussing whatever affluent women discussed.
Branna continued to the back of the house where she could hear lively music from a string quartet. She nervously fingered the battered, gold signet ring that bore the Kelly family crest. Her grandmother had passed it down to her before she was born. She stepped out onto the patio surrounded by groups of the young, unmarried elite in their best attire. They were all here to see and be seen, request dances, and lay the groundwork for possible courtships fueled by smart industry mergers, family legacy, and occasionally, genuine attraction and desire.
She recognized many of the faces, but since she had no social standing, she drew no attention, save for a smattering of derisive looks. She made one cursory glance across the crowd before her eyes settled on Julia Farrow and her heart jumped in her chest as it always did when their eyes locked. Julia, always insisting she believed they could sense each other even at a distance, was already staring at her with her trademark half-smile and sparkling eyes. Branna stilled, soaking in the sight of her—light blond hair piled atop her head, gray eyes and porcelain complexion. Though they were the same age, Branna thought she looked impossibly young with the splash of freckles across her nose from too many long days adventuring in the sun together.
Branna was reminded there was nothing childlike about Julia Farrow. Her gaze rested at Julia’s full lips and strong chin with a hint of a cleft before continuing down her graceful neck and her shapely figure—full breasts and hips filling out her new dress, testing the seamstress’s work. Branna’s return smile crept across her face then fell into a scowl when she was jostled hard from behind.
“Servants’ entrance is by the kitchen,” sneered Cecilia Ainsworth as she walked by with her nose in the air.
She led the band of “snotty daughters,” as Branna liked to call them, toward the dance floor—Daphne Blake, Agatha Eade, and the twins, Beryl and Violet Ivey. They were the young women of the wealthiest plantations, politicians, financiers, and merchants who judged and ridiculed anyone they deemed beneath them without restraint or censure.
Branna gritted her teeth, tamping down her anger as they each bumped her shoulder with varying degrees of force as they passed. She held Julia’s gaze, seeing her playful smile turning to a frown of concern and sympathy, which further stoked Branna’s ire. She was not to be pitied by anyone—especially Julia.
The last one who passed her, whose contact was a gentle hand on her arm, was Alice Farrow, Julia’s older sister by a year. She offered Branna an apologetic look, but nevertheless followed along with the crowd. Alice was soon to be engaged to Cecilia’s older brother, Arnold Ainsworth, thus establishing one of the most powerful family mergers in the South.
Branna met her gaze and forced a smile at the gesture. Alice had always been kind to her privately, but since she proudly wore the mantle of Farrow family status and expectations, she would never openly defy convention.
In contrast, Julia was a constant thorn in the side of her family, much to her mother’s amusement and father’s dismay. Branna loved her bold, outspoken ideas, fiery temper, and thirst for knowledge and adventure. If it weren’t for her family’s financial success and business prestige in the colonies, Julia would likely be as much a social pariah as Branna Kelly.
Branna exhaled a slow breath and could feel her shoulders sag as she watched the society girls tittering and casting her sidelong glances from across the patio. She made a half-turn to go back into the house and tell her father she was ready to leave when she felt a sharp tug on her arm. She was spun around to face the steely gray eyes of Julia Farrow.
“Not so fast.”
Branna stumbled when Julia tugged her across the patio and right through the middle of the gossiping girls, scattering them, lest they be run over.
“Don’t pay any attention to these venomous twats,” Julia commented loudly as they passed through. Her language elicited a range of reactions—amused to aghast—from the other guests as was always Julia’s intention.
Branna covered her laughter with her hand and flashed Alice a return look of apology. Alice just shrugged and rolled her eyes, quite accustomed to her little sister’s outbursts.
“These bloody slippers are torture,” Julia sighed, kicking off her shoes and flopping onto the grass beneath the shade of an old oak in a corner of the garden. They could still hear the music but were well hidden from the party.
Branna lowered herself carefully down next to her, mindful of mussing her dress. “My Da would skin me if he ever heard me using language like that.”
“My father would have to notice me first,” Julia said and reached for Branna’s hand, lacing their fingers together.
Nerves got the better of Branna now that they were so close and all the words she had practiced fled her mind. “How is your mother?” she finally blurted.
“Exhausted. The midwife says her age will make this pregnancy and delivery dangerous, but my mother is strong, and despite her previous difficulties with childbearing, my father insisted on trying for the rightful heir to his fortune.”
“Why not your sister? Or you?”
Julia laughed humorlessly and circled the back of Branna’s hand with her thumb. “Girls don’t inherit. And anyway, did you really want to spend our last night together speaking of my parents? How much time do you have?”
A shiver at Julia’s touch froze her tongue for a moment. “An hour at best.”
“Just enough time, I think.” Julia’s eyes shone with emotion. She reached into the folds of her dress and deep into one of the pockets she secretly sewed into all her clothes to hide her treasures. “I have something for you. Close your eyes.”
Branna eyed her suspiciously but complied. She never questioned when Julia Farrow asked something of her. She held out her hand and felt something irregularly shaped, cool, and hard pressed into her palm.
“You can look,” Julia said softly.
Branna opened her eyes. In her hand was an intricately carved, black-jade raven in flight on a leather cord. “Oh.” She sucked in a breath and turned it around in her hand, running her fingers over the smooth polished stone. “It’s beautiful.”
“I thought so, too.” Julia waited until Branna looked up and met her gaze. “Like you.” She took the necklace from Branna’s hand and brushed her long hair off her shoulders. She held her gaze as she tied the cord around her neck so the pendant rested in the hollow of her throat. “Branna, beauty with hair as dark as a raven.”
Branna’s heart pounded in her chest with the warm breath of Julia’s words against her lips. She leaned forward, a mere inch between them, her lips brushing against Julia’s.
The world tilted when Julia leaned into the kiss, parting her lips to allow Branna in and sliding her hands around the back of her neck to pull her close while their lips explored tenderly and then more urgently. Branna couldn’t help the soft moan of pleasure as she slid her hands up Julia’s sides to rest against her breasts. “Machree,” she whispered. The anglicized Gaelic term derived from mo chroi, meaning my heart, always made Julia shiver with pleasure. Not this time.
Julia inhaled sharply and pulled away, meeting Branna’s startled gaze. Her expression, for but a moment, was unmistakably one of longing and regret before she laughed it off with a shrug. “I am so envious of you, Bran.”
“Me?” Branna frowned, her heart pounding with uncertainty at Julia’s abrupt change in mood. “Why? I have to leave.”
“On an adventure,” Julia gushed, her eyes alight with excitement. “What I wouldn’t give for an experience like that.”
Branna’s heart stuttered at her beauty and vitality and the idea that leapt into her head. She pinned Julia with a look of pure hope and desire. “Then come with us—with me. Your father wouldn’t be sending mine on this route if he didn’t trust that it was safe, and they’re good friends…” She trailed off at Julia’s musical laughter. “What’s funny?”
“Can you imagine? You teaching me to sail and the two of us with our own ship, making a name for ourselves on the high seas?”
“Yes. I can imagine and I want nothing more.”
Julia’s smile faltered and her eyes darkened. “I’m afraid I’m destined for another course. You know that.”
“I do.” Branna stood, gesturing back toward the party. “To be married off to one of those dullards, drunkards, or braggarts for the price of a good business deal and a couple of male heirs.”
Julia stood, too. “What would you have me do, Bran? You know who I am and what I am worth.”
“I do know what you’re worth, Julia. Maybe the only one who does.” Branna closed the distance between them, reaching for Julia’s hands. “Tell them your heart belongs to another. For god’s sake, Julia, tell them what you want.”
Julia held her desperate gaze for a moment. “I already told them.”
“You did? When?” She frowned in confusion. “Then why—”
“I told my father when he was considering who he would send out on his newest ship, Rebellion, and who would be best to establish his interests in Port Royal that he should look no further than Captain Lochlann Kelly,” Julia stated flatly.
“What?” Branna jerked back, dropping her hands. “Why? You must have known I would have to go, too. Why would you—”
“Because you don’t belong here, Branna. You have more to do than work for my parents or your father. You should answer to no one. You are beautiful and smart and free and not beholden to family legacy. The rules are different where you’re going and you can make a difference there. Heads should turn when you enter a room—with reverence not with disdain—and everyone should know your name.”
“You don’t get to decide that for me.”
“Julia, how could you—”
“You must go, Branna. There’s nothing for you here.”
“You’re here.” Branna twisted the battered gold ring from her finger and held it out. “I have something for you, too.”
“Your family’s crest,” Julia breathed. She brushed her thumb over the design as it lay in Branna’s hand. “Tell me again.”
“The tower represents greatness and a place in society. The rings are fidelity and the rampant lions symbolize deathless courage, strength, and bravery.”
Julia smiled wistfully at the ring for another moment before looking up. “It’s so you, Bran. You must keep it.”
“I want you to have it. I want you to have it as a promise that I love you and I’ll be back and we can—”
“No. We can’t, Branna. Don’t be such a fool.”
Branna felt the hot sting of tears behind her eyes and the pain in her heart grew. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I don’t feel for you what you think. Our time together was just childish games. We’re not children any longer and there’s no room for you in my life. I will be married as per my family’s wishes and I will entertain this ridiculous infatuation you have with me no longer.” She snatched the ring from Branna’s hand and threw it over her shoulder. Time stood still as they both heard it plunk down somewhere in the yard.
Branna gasped. She could feel her heart breaking. The pain was so acute she could scarcely take a breath. “I don’t believe you. I know you’re lying.”
“You are beneath me.” Julia stood close enough to touch but she was unreachable, her gray eyes cold and her expression one of contempt. “Just go, Branna. Don’t look back.”
“Branna, it’s time to go, lass!”
Branna jumped at the sound of her father’s booming voice and fled back through the yard, stumbling toward the street, barely able to see through her tears.
* * *
The summer storms had kept her inside for days and Julia stood motionless as the fat drops coursed down the outside of the window. She would weep with the sky if she had any tears left, but her heart was broken and her soul empty at the pain she had caused Branna. Her hand clutched the signet ring as if her life depended on it. It had taken her days of crawling through the yard to find it.
Remembering the pain in Branna’s eyes and knowing she had caused it was more than Julia could stand, but it was all she could think about for the last several weeks. She had betrayed her best friend, the person who meant more to her than anything, and she didn’t know if she would ever get the chance to make it right.
“Darling, please, come and join us for tea,” her mother called from the doorway.
“No, thank you, Mama,” Julia replied woodenly.
“I know what you had to do was awful but you did the right thing and Branna will be better for it, you’ll see.” Her mother’s slippers were soft as she made her way across the floor.
“You should have seen her face, Mama.” Julia’s voice shook. “Better I pierced her chest with a blade than the cutting words I spoke.”
Her mother sighed softly behind her. “I know what you feel for her, darling, I do.”
“How could you, possibly?” Julia spun to face her.
“One day when you’re older I’ll tell you. I don’t condemn you your love, but even if your father had allowed it, what kind of life could you have had together? Hiding and pretending? Would you have just married and kept her with your husband’s house staff? As lady’s maid, perhaps? I can’t imagine Branna Kelly answering to anyone—even you. That’s no way to live, Julia, or to love. Not for you or her.”
“So, I’ll just marry for money and name? That will be more fulfilling?”
Amelia Farrow smiled sadly at her daughter. “I know it’s not the life you imagined for yourself and I know you are so much
more than our family name. I believe that, in time, you will find your place and you must believe it, too.”
Julia swallowed hard around her grief. “My place is with Branna.”
Julia’s mother turned to address the housekeeper. “Yes, June, what is it?”
“There was a man with a message about the Rebellion.” She shifted uneasily from foot to foot. “He’s left just now but Mr. Arthur asked for you to join him in his study.”
“I’ll be right there, June, thank you.”
“There could be word on how Branna’s doing,” Julia said excitedly as she raced off. “I know it’s soon but maybe she got my letter in Port Royal and sent a reply. I don’t care what father says anymore. I told her everything and explained what he made me do. She already knew I was lying. She’ll forgive me, I know she will.”
Julia stopped in the doorway of her father’s office and paled when she saw him hunched over a small, battered wooden chest. There were small items and papers scattered across his usually impeccable desk. His face was blotchy and his eyes swollen as if he had been crying. She had never seen her father cry. “Father?”
He looked up, his face a mask of pain. “The Rebellion was lost.”
Julia started in surprised confusion. “Lost? That’s impossible. Captain Kelly is an exceptional sailor and—”
“Lost at sea. Destroyed. Taken by pirates and set afire.” He gestured to the random trinkets and charred pages. “This is all that was recovered. There were no survivors.”
The room spun and Julia never felt the floor as it rushed to meet her.
The Caribbean Sea 1720
The ship rocked gently in the calm seas as the captain of the Banshee, Branna Kelly, known throughout the Caribbean Sea as the Raven for the pendant she wore, stood hunched over her broad wooden navigation table. She studied the charts, absently running a finger across the thin, white scar slashing down her cheek from the corner of her left eye to her ear.
They would have caught the Serpent’s Mistress by now if they hadn’t lost the wind. She ground her teeth and swore under her breath. She couldn’t lose him now. If the Serpent’s Mistress held course they could be on her by morning of the next day, and she’d be running her blade through Captain Cyrus Jagger’s heart by noon.
She threw her compass and pencil onto the table with a clatter and turned from the charts, which weren’t providing any new useful information. She already knew where they were and where they were going. She shoved open the shuttered aft doors, opening her quarters to the afternoon light and the warm breeze.
She scowled at the beauty of it—the smell of the salty air and gentle lap of the three-foot swells along the hull as her ship rolled along through the crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea. She sometimes wished the weather would darken to match her mood. So lost was she in her own thoughts she didn’t acknowledge the knock at her door.
She turned when the door flew open, ready to vent her rage at the crewman impertinent enough to enter without permission, but she held her tongue when Augustus Hawke stepped into her cabin.
Branna eyed her first mate. He was tall and rangy with shoulder-length, sandy hair tied at the nape of his neck, weathered skin and sharp features befitting the name Hawke. He had perpetually hooded eyes that gave him an air of carelessness which often lead to being underestimated, offering him the element of surprise when things got confrontational. He was always allowed in her cabin and the reason was never far from her thoughts.
She owed him everything after he saved her life fifteen years ago when the ship on which he was quartermaster discovered her, half-dead from the elements, clinging to a scrap of floating wreckage with one hand and a sword clutched in the white-knuckled grip of the other. Her tattered clothes held to her by the snug strap of the locked, oiled, canvas satchel her mother had belted across her body before she died. She was the only survivor of her parents’ raided merchant ship, all slaughtered at the hands of Cyrus Jagger.
Gus, ten years her senior, had been the first to reach her, secreting the satchel away when he realized its contents: fifty thousand pounds in South Carolina bank notes intended for negotiations between Farrow Company and new trading partners. He had taken responsibility for her after she had been orphaned, and she thought, at first, his motivation was only the contents of the satchel.
Many men would have simply robbed a young woman alone and injured as she was. Branna had been wary of his intentions for a long time. It was a year into their unusual companionship that Branna learned Gus once had a beloved younger sister. She was murdered by the hand of a man Gus despised, a man their parents had betrothed her to while Gus was at sea. Understanding loss, grief, and guilt as she did, she allowed Gus to work out his by aiding her—a benefit to them both.
He found a wealthy trader heading north to further his fortune in the colonies, one who was willing to purchase the South Carolina notes in Spanish gold at sixty percent of their face value. Gus protected Branna and taught her to fight so that she could protect herself. He mentored her for ten years in exchange for the financial security she could offer.
With no aspiration himself to captain a ship, she offered him a place as her first mate, her right hand, her friend and closest confidant and he accepted. Her ship, completed and christened five years ago, was a grand one and he took no small measure of pride in his contribution to that. The crew was highly trained, moderately educated, and with a few exceptions, loyal and honorable. Those who were not were turned out as soon as they were discovered. It was nearly impossible to hire a crew that weren’t some measure of thieves, swindlers, brawlers or mercenaries, but she took pains not to bring on the worst of the worst. They were all killers, but there were no murderers and no rapists—at least none that she knew of, and it would stay that way.
“Captain,” Gus said, apparently having grown impatient with her distance.
“A ship has been sighted,” he reported, shaking Branna out of her reverie. “Less than a league off.”
Branna stiffened. “The Serpent’s Mistress?”
“I don’t think so. Looks like a merchant galleon. Not one I’m familiar with.”
“Heading for port?” She tucked her rumpled shirt into her leather pants. She gathered her weapons, buckling the belt of throwing knives around her hips. She slipped the scabbard of her sword across her shoulders—a simple double-edged hunting sword with a brass D-guard and leather grip. Her father’s sword. The one her mother pressed into her hands during the attack and the one with which she had every intention of running through Cyrus Jagger. She intended to fight. She always intended to fight. Cyrus Jagger and the Serpent’s Mistress had eluded her for years, never leaving the area, always leaving his mark and staying one step ahead of her, challenging and taunting her.
“Not heading anywhere at the moment.” Gus held the door for her. “Either out of wind like we are or damaged. Hard to tell from this distance.”
Branna stalked from her cabin with Gus right behind her.
Ship’s bosun, Nat Hooper—the English name given him by his previous captain—was a bald, dark-skinned, giant of a man with a voice so heavily accented and deep at times he was unintelligible, gave them a nod as they emerged.
“Captain on deck,” he rumbled from the quarterdeck when Branna and Gus climbed the few steps to join him. The crew kept about their business but their movements became sharper, their faces more focused at the announcement.
Nat handed over the spyglass and pointed off the port bow. “Just below the horizon. We’re closing on her fast, even in this piss-for-wind. I think she might be adrift.”
Branna held the instrument to her eye as she sighted out the ship. It did look adrift, sails luffing and lines in disarray. They should have seen the Banshee by now and they weren’t under way and there was no movement on deck.
“Ready all port guns. I want them trained and ready to fire at my command. We’ll come along her starboard side. I want twelve armed men ready to board.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Gus and Nat moved off to see to her orders.
She turned to the wheel and jerked her head at Jack Massey, the quartermaster and ship’s surgeon, currently on duty at the helm. “I’ll take us in.” She took his place at the wheel and adjusted their course to make way toward the larger ship.
“Aye, aye, Captain.” The wiry and bespectacled young man jumped nimbly to the main deck.
The Banshee cut smoothly and slowly through the water, closing in on her target. Branna only had to make minor adjustments to their course as the wind remained low with only the sails of the main mast up of the three-masted bark.
She glanced up, squinting into the high sun to watch the crew across the yardarms furling the main sails as they approached. Her crew was so well trained she rarely had to give an order. Between Gus, her first mate, who handled her and all manner of ship’s operations, and Nat, the bosun in charge of equipment and crew, the Banshee had a reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the open waters. Her crew, while in port, stayed out of trouble and was welcome at all the ale houses, brothels, and trading posts in Nassau and Port Royal.
The Banshee made her first score on an unclaimed bounty of a small sunken trading ship. It took them weeks to salvage what they could from a rocky bottom around a vicious reef, a rescue the shipping company thought too costly to undertake compared to what they may be able to recover. Branna’s haul was considerable, for the small crew she kept along with her light and fast ship. With enough coin to grow her armory, they moved fast and hard against the ships trading and pillaging illegally in the shipping lanes. She had occasionally heard herself likened to the Robin Hood of English folklore except she didn’t steal from the rich but stole back from those who did.
The foolish captains who refused to cease their piracy in exchange for a pardon from the new Bahamian governor, who had successfully wrested control of the islands from pirate rule and restored British control, were swiftly and summarily dealt with by Captain Kelly and the Banshee. Captain Kelly served a purpose, and as such, the Crown turned a blind eye to her own exploits and left her alone as long as she didn’t go against the Crown’s interests in the area.
Appropriately papered merchant vessels had nothing to fear from the Banshee and her captain. The rest had come to steer clear of her. When provoked, Captain Kelly could be as ruthless as the most hardened of the men, more so at times if she felt she had to overcome the perception that captain of a ship was no place for a woman, or that because she was a woman she would be merciful.
The Articles of the Banshee were drafted carefully to ensure that everyone received their fair share of any bounty and all adhered to the rules of her ship and the sea. There was no room for leniency or special considerations lest she be considered soft and lose the respect of the men. She had earned her place and she was well respected and trusted—if not well liked. Though she knew she had the unwavering support of her most senior officers, Nat, Gus, and Jack, and most of the crew, she could never let down her guard as there was always someone thinking that they could do a better job. Despite the fact the ship was hers, there were those that thought they would look much better as captain of the Banshee. Mutiny was always only one mistake away.
The men threw the boarding hooks across the gunwales of the galleon, painted with the name Firelight, securing the ships together. Gus called for boarding and the men swarmed the deck of the larger ship, pistols drawn and swords at the ready. The only sounds were the shouts of her own men as they cleared the main deck. There was no one there—no one living, anyway.
The main deck was littered with bodies and the stench was powerful, though no one reacted. Blood, dark and long congealed, stained the deck and tattered sails.
Branna made her way down from the quarterdeck. She pulled herself onto the gunwale of the Banshee and stood, gripping a stay line, surveying her men and their sweep of the deck as they picked their way around the bodies. Her gaze flicked to Kitts, one of her young, new crewmen, who grimaced as he slid a severed arm out of his way with the toe of his boot. She caught Gus’s eye and called to him. “Go below. Sweep the holds.”
He motioned for Nat and Jack to follow and disappeared below. Branna waited impatiently for Gus to return and frowned as he staggered back out onto the main deck several minutes later and doubled over, gulping air and retching.
“What’s this, now?” she asked with a quirk of her mouth as she hopped over to the deck of the Firelight. Gus wasn’t easily rattled.
He wiped his face with the back of his hand and straightened. “You’re not going to thank me, but you need to come down to the hold.”
She pursed her mouth and studied him. He wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important. Gus was fiercely protective of her as was his job as first mate and her closest friend. “Show me.”
She paused at the foot of the ladder to let her eyes adjust to the gloom. It was hot and the air motionless and fetid. She swallowed heavily as he led her through the crew quarters, where the bodies were many—some dead in their hammocks. They descended again and weaved through the galley and gun deck. The final ladder led them down into the bowels of the hold.
The air grew thicker and the stench so vile Branna could almost see a greenish cast in the gloom. There was no mistaking the smell of rotting flesh and human waste. Her eyes watered and bile rose in her throat. She choked it back and pressed on through the narrow corridor that opened up into the forward hold.
Three bodies, in various states of rot, littered the floor. As the ship rocked gently, human juices dribbled trails and stained the floorboards.
“You wanted me to see this?” Branna choked, a hand covering her mouth and nose.
Gus swallowed heavily and jerked his head. “Over here.”
They picked their way to a corner of the hold. Branna peered into the gloom at what at first looked like a pile of rags. As she approached, the dark pile jerked farther back into the corner with an inhuman shriek and she heard the rattle of chains against the wood. “Jesus Christ! There’s someone alive down here.”
“We know. And she’s got teeth.” Nat said and showed her the crescent-shaped bite mark on his palm.
“It’s all right,” Branna said as she approached the woman, her voice raspy from the foul air. “I promise I’m not going to hurt you.”
The pile moved again and Branna caught a flash of pale skin from under filthy, matted, blond hair. “What’s your name?” Branna tried but was met with no response. “Where are you from?”
Jack joined them, an arm covering most of his face. “These crates are stamped with a company logo out of Charlestown, South Carolina. This is a Farrow Company ship.”
Branna stiffened as the familiar name prickled along her spine. “Haven’t heard that name in a long time.” She knew Farrow Company was running ships through the area, but so far they had all been small with little cargo of interest. They had gotten in and out fast and not drawn any attention to themselves. This was the first large ship in nearly fifteen years and apparently it met the same gruesome fate as the Rebellion before.
She looked back to the woman whose face was hidden in shadows and lank hair but whose raspy, frightened breathing was audible. There was a manacle around her bare ankle, chained to a bolt in the floor. “We can’t stay down here any longer. We need to get her and get out. Jack, find me something to strike these chains.”
Branna moved closer to the woman. She didn’t have time to be gentle or the inclination. “We’re going to get you out so don’t fight me. Do you understand?” She wondered to the woman’s state of mind. She’d probably been abused, starved, and watched these people, part of her crew no doubt, die and rot in front of her. No one would be surprised if she’d gone completely mad.
“Yes…” she rasped.
Branna’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Good.” Jack had returned with a heavy iron mallet and iron spike. “Hold out your leg and keep still.”
The woman did as she was told and Branna wedged the spike in the hinge of the manacle and brought the mallet down hard on the head of the spike. The clang of metal on metal rang out through the hold and the woman groaned, bending her head to her chest, but didn’t move.
Branna brought the mallet down half a dozen times before the iron around her ankle gave way and she could pry it from her leg. “Nat, Gus, help her to the deck.”
Branna blinked and shielded her eyes from the harsh sun while they readjusted. She gulped at the fresher air and grimaced at the smell of death that followed her like a cloud. Her clothes would be burned and she would wash her hair and scrub her skin raw as soon as she was able.
Gus and Nat emerged from below supporting the woman. She was weak and the sun, which she may not have seen for some time, blinded her. She cried out, hiding her face from the light.
“Take her below. Jack, get her cleaned up and check her out. Food if she’s able, water and clean clothes. Search her clothes and then burn them. I don’t want an infestation.”
“Me?” Jack looked between the women.
“You are the ship’s surgeon, are you not? I trust you’ll be the perfect gentlemen. Get Ollie to help you.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
“The rest of you,” Branna barked to the men, “do a thorough search. Recover all weapons. I want all bodies shrouded and brought up on deck. I want the ship’s logs and all charts to me as soon as they are recovered. If you can’t find the log check beneath the captain’s bunk for a false plank. If there are any food stores that are still good, transfer them over. They’ll be no good to anyone else.”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” they chorused.
“You going to scuttle her, Captain?” Gus asked.
“No.” Branna let her gaze travel the ship slowly. “This ship is new and well cared for. Someone will be looking for her and her crew. Not to mention the woman, whoever she is. You and Nat make sure the ship is seaworthy and assign a six-person crew to limp her back to port and anchor a way off. Keep two men aboard to keep watch while we’re in port. Any volunteer will be paid well, though don’t mention that part until after they’ve volunteered. We’ll not wait. Whoever that woman is, she needs to get to land.”
Julia S. (verified owner) –
I was absolutely HOOKED by this book. I appreciated the fast paced energy, cliff hanging chapters, and short descriptive language. I also appreciated the story line and how even tho it was set in the 1700s it wasn’t about taboo or being gay at all. It was the perfect escape to get me through a rough week at work. And I hope Carolyn Elizabeth writes more books like this!