A pirate's romance with a fresh twist on an old theme.
by Zrinka Jelic
Publisher Black Opal Books
Published in Romance
A pirate's romance with a fresh twist on an old theme.
A heavy curtain of foul odor emanated from unwashed bodies and hung inside the ship’s belly. Sweat glued Carmen’s shirtsleeves to her heated skin. Overwhelmed by an unbearable urge to hasten on deck and gulp the crisp night air, she sat up, causing her hammock to sway and the ropes to tighten and creak. A young girl in the bed next to her sang in a low voice. Recognizing the words of the ballad, Carmen glanced at the thin woman twirling a strand of her unkempt hair around her finger.
“Our children cry in hunger,
“Duke’s men ransack and plunder.
“The Strega’s hoists the colors high,
“When the cannons start to thunder.
“It’s the brave Captain Sirena, aye.
“May fear chill your bones, greedy lords,
“For all of you shall die.”
It was a dangerous song to sing anywhere else but onboard the Strega, yet after each raid ballads sprang up amongst the people. In the thirty years since the slaying of the noble couple, folks found new heroes. These rhymes merely replaced those that had foretold about the return of the good Marquis.
Carmen lay down and turned to her side. The musty smell of the planks intensified the reek.
The Strega was an old, three-masted lateen-rigged xebec. Her name meant the Witch. She thrived when her sails were full, and her bulk rolled on the swells of the open sea. Yet, for the past five days their ship remained hidden by the sunbleached cliffs of the islet, Jabuka, the most remote piece of barren rock in the Adriatic Sea. Its steep coast was difficult to approach and provided a perfect refuge for a pirate’s ship. In the open waters, the desolate volcanic spittle of land stood as a lone guardian and a beacon of hope. Carmen raked her fingers through her salt stiff curls. Minutes stretched like hours. Tonight the change of the watch couldn’t come soon enough. The oppressive heat wasn’t the cause of another sleepless night. It was the imminent death of their captain that robbed the crew of peace and rest. While a few pious women murmured prayers, most sobbed. Would God care to listen to these pirates’ humble requests? No. No amount of devout petitioning to God would save the old dame. Left with fatal wounds from the last battle, the captain must see the gates of the abyss standing wide open for her. Every time Carmen closed her eyes, the smoke and thundering canons, crossed swords, slashing metal, cries, and shouting replayed in her head. Though their last raid had resulted in a bountiful booty, the ambush had been reckless. The Grim Reaper had reduced the crew of the Strega by a goodly number. Crushed by grief, not one of the women had mentioned dividing the spoils of plunder.
A heavy hand grabbed Carmen’s shoulder. Eight years of hard life as a pirate had conditioned her to reach for the handle of her dagger tied to her thigh.
“It’s me.” At the sound of Marta’s raspy voice, Carmen pushed the knife back in its sheath.
“The Cap’n wants to see you.” The strands of Marta’s unkempt hair stood rigid as she jerked her head for Carmen to follow. “Now.”
Carmen scrambled out of her hammock and straightened. Her head almost touched the low planks of the ceiling. She pulled out her cutlass in its jeweled scabbard that was tucked through the netting of her hanging bed and secured the sword to her waist.
The ship bobbed on gentle swells. The soles of her worn, calf-leather boots clicked on the seasoned wood of the floorboards as Carmen followed the swaying hips of the burly quartermaster, who was clad in a tattered, brown frock.
Carmen’s mind worked fast. What could the dying captain want from her? She might be the second officer, but the affairs of the ship were usually kept from her. The dowager ruled with a tough hand. Even during her last moments, she wouldn’t go down without causing Carmen more grief. Zigzagging through the maze of swaying hammocks, the two women stepped onto the deck. Carmen inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with warm air. The cannons had cooled since their last firing and the ringing had ceased in her ears, but the sight of guns brought back the memory of the battle. The pungent smell of hot gunpowder filled her nostrils. She hurried on, catching up with Marta’s long strides, then climbed three steps to the gallery deck.
One simply didn’t become a pirate out of a burning desire for adventure. A mutual understanding existed among the crew—on board the Strega, all were equal. Hard work alone would gain a woman status and respect, not her lineage. Over the years Carmen’s scraped knees and calloused palms had hardened, but her work had paid off and by the summer of seventeen ninety-six, she had risen from an ordinary boardsswabber to her current position of second officer. Nevertheless, the old lady wouldn’t allow her to forget she had chosen the pirate’s life over rotting in the dungeons of Duke Ludovico Manin, the last Doge of the Most Serene Republic of Venice.
The last thing Carmen had expected was for their captain to order them into such a dangerous raid. Living as pirates meant risking death every time they went on a foray, but for the captain to rush into the pillage against her old adversary, Privateer Gaspar, without careful preparation, she must have been after something.
A realization struck Carmen at the top step of the gallery deck. The captain was always known as Sirena, the name she chose as a pirate. Not the name Jesus would call her when she met him. She should find out the captain’s Christian name before Marta opened the door.
Marta paused in front of the captain’s stateroom and turned to Carmen. “This is it, child.”
“Why did she summon me?” An uneasy feeling filled Carmen’s chest. This couldn’t be good. Stepping behind Marta, she glanced at the sliver of a crescent moon covered with a thin cloud. “Wait.” She grabbed Marta’s elbow before her weathered hand pushed on the nicked wooden door. “What is Sirena’s real name?”
Marta gave her a weary look, then the woman’s wrinkled face mellowed. “Child, no man or woman knows it.” She pushed the door open and ushered Carmen inside the small cabin.
The only source of light came from the flickering flame of the half melted wax candle on the corner stand.
“She’s here, Cap’n.”
The offensive smell of death surrounded Carmen. Covering her mouth and nose with her hand did little to block the rotten odor. The captain’s raspy breathing came from the hammock occupying the middle of the room. “Come closer.”
Carmen took a reluctant step forward, her stomach churning.
“Closer.” With her hand hung over the side, the captain wiggled her blood stained fingers.
Carmen swallowed hard and cast a wary glance to Marta, standing beside the dying woman’s bed.
“She has but minutes left.” Marta’s encouraging nod eased Carmen’s anxiety.
She approached the woman hanging to life by a thread. “I’m here, Captain.”
The old woman’s trembling fingers wrapped around her hand. “Carmen,” she panted, her face contorted in pain. “You’ve always been brave, loyal, and fair.”
Sirena coughed and blood dripped from her lips. Carmen had to concentrate on the candle. Seeing her captain struggle valiantly for her last few breaths made Carmen’s insides twist.
“Lousy qualities for a pirate, but—” Sirena’s harsh breaths broke up her words. “You proved yourself in many raids—never lost your head. I know you’ll do the right thing by these women—do me proud.” ‘
Do the right thing by these women’? Confused by the captain’s words, Carmen shook her head. She stared at the dying woman’s bandages and, from the dark stains seeping through them, Carmen counted a minimum of four wounds. “What do you want me to do, Captain?”
Sirena gave Carmen’s hand a faint squeeze as gurgling settled in her throat. “The Strega must have her Captain Sirena.”
Stunned, Carmen shook her head in disbelief. As did every other woman on the ship, she too dreamt of becoming captain. But there was a hierarchy and Marta was the next in line for the position. “Me? The captain?”
There were but a handful of the original crew still serving on board. Still, why would Sirena choose her? “Everyone thought Marta would—”
Sirena drew a long breath before speaking, the effort showing on her face. “Marta is a quartermaster. She will always be your faithful first officer, but you are the one I want to lead.” Carmen gaped at Marta in wonder, expecting to see animosity on the face of the second oldest crew member. Instead, the woman’s face crumpled in grief.
“The cap’n is proper in my eyes, child.” Apparently, the woman didn’t want the responsibility that came with the job of captain. “A ship needs a cap’n that can read and write and say those fancy words, and you’re the only one who can.”
Marta was right, a ship and the crew would benefit from an educated captain. Carmen turned her head back to Sirena. “You never liked me, Captain.”
A coughing fit brought foaming blood to Sirena’s mouth. She spat the crimson liquid in the cloth Marta quickly tucked under her chin. “Did I ever like anyone?” Short breaths broke her sarcastic tone and choked her words. “You were a weakling when you first came on board. If I was the toughest on you— it’s because—I was preparing you for this. Your knowledge of ships and this sea—had to meet my hard rule. I made you what you are today. Be grateful.”
Tears stung Carmen’s eyes. The captain words reminded her of the hardships she’d endured to abolish her high-society upbringing. She’d had to toughen up and change or she wouldn’t have survived a life at sea. Submitting to the captain’s brutal treatments for years, had damn well earned her the right to lead. A brave face replaced her frown. She straightened, not wanting to show her fading captain a moment of weakness. She’d do her proud.
“Carmen,” the captain said through the pain. “Captain Sirena—must carry on.” Her voice was muffled and weak, but her eyes gleamed. “Don’t let her name die.”
How many crew women would have waited until the captain took her last breath before taking on the name of the infamous Sirena? Carmen owed her that much courtesy. “Aye, Captain, but you are Sirena till the end.”
Sirena turned to Marta, a pained moan escaping her lips. “Leave us.”
Marta scurried out of the cabin.
“The first time I saw you,” Sirena continued, struggling to keep her eyes open, “I was reminded of my younger days. A long time ago I too loved a man.”
A sharp breath dried Carmen’s throat. She had learned not to show her sorrows, but somehow the captain had seen right through her hard façade.
Coughing forced the captain to throw her head against the pillow. With her shaky hand, she pulled out a small key from a golden chain around her neck. “Find a cache this will open.”
Carmen scanned the cabin’s stark interior. Blessed Mary, could this be the treasure-trove the ballads spoke of? “A treasure?”
The captain nodded and closed her eyes. In the dim light of the candle, the hollows of her cheeks appeared deeper.
Carmen’s fingers closed around the cast iron key no bigger than her thumb. “Where do I begin to search?”
“Read my journals.” The captain’s squeezed and tugged at Carmen’s hand. “Water.”
Carmen reached for the skin of water next to the bed and propped the captain’s head against her arm, tilting the bag. Liquid trickled down the old woman’s chin as she spat a mouthful of bloodied water. Carmen put the drink away and wiped the spittle with a rag.
“There’s something I treasured—all my life, but—I had to hide it from prying eyes.” Sirena licked her parched lips. Her wrinkled hand grabbed the fabric of Carmen’s chemise. “You must find the chest in a year’s time elsewise—”
Another fit of coughing overcame her. Carmen’s chest constricted. The captain’s hold was strong for someone whose life was draining out. “Elsewise what? What will happen?”
Coughing broke Sirena’s words. “Someone dear to me will be in peril. Call Marta back in.”
The captain held someone dear? How could that be? The tough old lady had never shown a morsel of emotion. Confused, Carmen went looking for Marta. She found the quartermaster standing a few feet away from the door. “She is asking for you.”
Marta darted to the captain’s bedside. Carmen closed the door and stepped to the other side of the hammock. “We may be many things but at the threshold of death, we are all still Christians.” The captain’s hand, crisscrossed with thick veins, reached for Carmen’s. “Let’s pray.”
Though Carmen hadn’t prayed in years, she laced her fingers with the captain’s frail ones and bowed her head. Marta folded her hands across her round abdomen and closed her eyes. “The Lord is my Shepherd,” she began. “I shall not be in want.”
The captain’s whisper was barely audible. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures.”
Carmen joined in to hide how much she struggled to keep her lips from quivering. Many of her comrades had fallen by her side, yet the captain being so close to death constricted her chest and brought tears she hadn’t shed in years. “He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”
The captain’s voice ceased and Carmen shot a glance at Marta without stopping the prayer. The captain’s hand slipped out of Carmen’s as Marta continued. “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Fresh tears slid down Carmen’s face. She tried to go on but words choked in her throat.
“...and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Crossing herself, Marta finished the twenty-third psalm. “She is gone, child,” she said after a long silence.
“Will you—” Carmen sobbed. “Will you announce it to the crew?”
“Of course, Cap’n. As it is my duty.” Marta lowered the lids of the deceased captain’s eyes. She then placed a silver coin on each eyelid as the dead Sirena’s toll for the trip across the bay. “After we give her body to the sea, we must set sails to meet with our contact.” It took Carmen a moment to realize Marta had addressed her as captain. She had taken over the ship, the crew, and the decisions. She was the new Captain Sirena.
Assembled on the deck, the crew of scrawny, proud women fixed their wide eyes on Marta and Carmen, standing at the top of the stairs of the gallery deck. The former captain’s body, sewn into weighted sailcloth, lay on the plank tethered over the side. Marta nodded to two women, who slowly loosened the ropes till the body of their beloved, but departed, leader stood erect over the calm sea.
“Unto God Almighty we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the deep—” Collective wails muffled Marta’s prayer while the body plunged into the sea.
A large lump formed in Carmen’s throat as Marta stepped forward to make the announcement. All of the crew assumed Marta would take over the captain’s post. How would they take this surprise? Exhaling deeply, Carmen tilted her chin toward the starry vault beneath which the Strega floated, anchored on still waters.
“Corsairs of Strega,” Marta continued, her loud voice settling the lament of the women. “Our beloved cap’n is now with her maker. Let the Lord have mercy on her soul. Amen.” When she crossed herself, each of the women on board followed suit. “We are all honored and privileged to have served under her command. With her dying breath, she named Carmen her successor.” Marta stepped aside, nudging Carmen to come forward. “Kneel,” she ordered.
Carmen got on her knees and scanned the faces in front of her. Their bewilderment showed they also needed time to absorb the change. Carmen Ventura, Carmen Ventura, she kept repeating her name. From this moment, she would be Carmen no more. With the new name assigned, she feared she’d forget her old one in this merciless world of living on the wrong side of the law. Most of the women had taken on different names to protect their families. And according to the ballads, Captain Sirena was a brave and forever young mermaid. She must not cease to exist.
Marta strapped the deceased captain’s sword around Carmen’s waist, placed the captain’s hat on her head, and draped the nubuck doublet on her shoulders. “Now, rise as Cap’n Sirena.” Then she turned to the crew. “Kneel before your Cap’n.”
A long moment of absolute silence followed while women exchanged confused looks. Sirena’s chest tightened. She should step up to the duty of captain and show no fear or mercy to those who disobeyed, but her own strength deserted her.
“Why her?” The holler came from the rear of the small crowd.
Carmen’s brows furrowed. Nods and shouts of agreement with their fellow shipmate stirred a cold pit in Carmen’s stomach.
“There are other women for the post.” The tall and burly girl at the front raised her hand. “Like you, Marta.”
Words abandoned Carmen. She had never thought she’d be chosen as Sirena, yet there she stood facing her crew who expected an explanation.
Marta barged in front of her. “Arrrrgh, that’s enough.” Her angry growl settled the uproar. “The late cap’n chose Carmen, not me. Or you.” She pointed to the woman in front then moved her finger to another. “Or you.”
Conditioned to obedience, the women lowered their heads. An excruciating silence fell over the crew.
“No explanation is due to you and none shall be given. Kneel, you rats,” Marta ordered again, her voice edged with anger.
One by one, the women slowly lowered to their knees, keeping their heads down. Carmen descended three steps to be leveled with the crew members. She must not forget just hours ago she had been one of them.
“Women of Strega,” she said then paused. Perplexed faces turned their eyes on her. “You have my solemn vow that the affairs of this ship will not change. The same codes will stand.” understood, yet she felt the need to re-announce the first and foremost rule on board. “But above all no boy or man is to be allowed among us. If any woman is found bringing a man on board and to sea in disguise she shall suffer death.”
Carmen breathed a sigh of relief with the crew’s approving shouts. She just had begun to earn the name of Sirena. “The first light is breaking on the horizon. We will set sail for the mainland to meet with our contact. The spoils of plunder are to be divided. Return to your duties.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” Without further questions the crew dispersed.
“Some resistance is to be expected.” Marta took the helm. “You have to earn their trust.”
Carmen sat on the steps, sighing heavily. It would take her some time to get used to the name of the Captain Sirena. She played with the key hung from the chain around her neck. The item that would unlock a mysterious chest she must find. Could she ask Marta for help? The late captain wouldn’t have ordered Marta out of the stateroom had she wanted her to know of this secret. No, Carmen would have to find the chest the detailed key slotted into. Whatever the old lady had seen in her to promote her to the rank of captain couldn’t have been a mistake. She had taken the post and made a solemn vow to continue the old captain’s legacy.
The whizz of ropes hoisting the triangular sails disturbed her from her short, tranquil moment. Marta oversaw the activities and barked the orders at the crew. Yesterday Carmen would have taken her comfortable post of ship’s mate. No, she was no longer Carmen. Now she was the legendary Sirena. She had to stop thinking of Carmen if she was to live up to the name.
She tucked the key inside her shirt and returned to her cabin. The stale stench of death still lingered in the air. Sirena plopped on the hammock causing the hanging bed to sway and ropes to creak. How had the old captain kept her quest for this chest hidden from the crew? If the box contained treasures of the faraway places, every member would deserve a piece. Perhaps there would be enough gold to spread among them all and put an end to this miserable existence. Was it too much to ask for a home? Nothing extravagant, a small house surrounded by a garden, with herbs she’d plant and a pier to tie her dinghy. A perfect place for her to grow old. Sirena smiled at the absurd thought. For a woman in her position, no such place existed, near or far. She sighed with longing. Would she never find a place to start over with the one she held dear?
Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.
Just enter your email address and password below to get started:
Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!
Zrinka Jelic lives in Ontario, Canada. A member of the Romance Writers of America and its chapter Fantasy Futuristic &Paranormal, as well as Savvy Authors, she writes contemporary fiction--which leans toward the paranormal--and adds a pinch of history. Her characters come from all walks of life, and although she prefers red, romance comes in many colors. Given Jelic's love for her native Croatia and the Adriatic Sea, her characters usually find themselves dealing with a fair amount of sunshine, but that's about the only break they get.