SCYLLA AND THE PEPPER PIRATES
A Fun Fantasy Yarn
by Rayne Hall
I marched along the harbour, sniffing the dawn smells of seaweed, coal tar, and sailor's piss. At the Spice Traders Dock, I spotted my chosen vessel: the caravel Hippolyta, three-masted and sleek as a pickled herring. She was due to sail to the distant Pepper Islands where my beloved was languishing as a slave until I could rescue him from his chains.
I savoured the sight of seamen shifting barrels and stacking crates on the Hippolyta's deck, biceps bulging, linen shirts plastered to muscular chests. They spared me scarce glances, no doubt warned by their master not to slow their labours even for a nosy blonde.
At last, one of the sailors took notice. He had a weedy torso, gangly limbs, and an air of authority. “You there!” he barked. “What do you want?”
"Is this the Hippolyta, bound for the Pepper Islands, captained by Fidelius Foxhead?"
"The captain's on shore.” He went back to shoving a barrel painted with purple pigs and grunted over his shoulder, “Try the Dancing Mermaid or the Golden Shark. Now off with you.”
I strode across the gangplank, dumped my cloth-sack at his feet, and spoke through haughtily pursed lips. “Who is Foxhead's current mistress? Get her on deck."
Now I had his attention. His green eyes sparkled, and a tongue-tip flickered across his lips. “Will there be a fight?”
Leaning against a stack of crates, I twirled my long golden braid and tapped my foot.
“I'll get Mimibella at once. First Mate Hulbert at your service. ” He doffed his pointy cap and scurried down the hatch.
Moments later, a woman came flouncing out, hooped petticoats whipping, curves heaving like waves on a stormy sea.
"I'm the master's mistress,” Mimibella squealed. “Get off my ship."
I pulled off my crimson gloves and tossed them at her velvet-slippered feet. “I invoke the Ancient Law of the Sea. If you want to keep your captain, get ready to fight.”
I could already taste the honey sweetness of an easy victory: this puppet in frills and flounces was no fighter.
"Do something!" she demanded of the sailors who swarmed around our show like flies around a cow-pat. "You know me. I've sailed on the Hippolyta for eight months! Mr Hulbert, throw this bitch off! Boolibar, cast a spell on her!"
Hulbert dragged a coil of rope out of our way and rubbed his hands. The ship's wizard, a small black-skinned man whose chest gleamed with silver amulets, heaved himself onto a pork barrel to watch. The others glanced from my opponent to me, shuffled their bare feet and shrugged.
With leather boots, breeches and jerkin, I was more suitably dressed for the occasion than the floozy in her finery. While she fumed and stamped, I went into fighting stance, legs braced, knees bent, fists balled in front of my face.
Instead of trembling, she snapped her fingers. "Mr. Hulbert! Slice my laces!"
Lip-licking, he applied his dirk, and the corselet dropped to the planks. Her storm-wave breasts, no longer restricted by whale-boned brocade, bounced freely in her chemise. Another dozen sailors clustered around us, pretending to scrub the deck.
A quick fumble at her waist, the skirt clanked to the ground and Mimibella stood in her fetching frillies. Swiftly, she stepped out of her hoops and bent her legs into a fighter's crouch. "You daughter of a brain-dead bat want to take my captain?"
Before I could attack, her head rammed into my belly.
Gasping for air, I stumbled back. A right jab followed so fast I had no time to sidestep it. Her fists were steel hammers used to work. Maybe I should have chosen an easier target.
I got a good punch under her armpit that sent her howling. She responded by crashing a hammer fist on my head. A door slammed shut behind my eyes. All went dark. Then I saw sparkles.
The darkness cleared, and I remembered my purpose. I simply had to win my place on this ship, or my beloved would be lost.
I grasped her raven locks and yanked."Piss-soup dumpling!"
She retaliated by grabbing my plait. "Stinking mother of a mule!"
I got in several good punches. Droplets of blood oozed from my knuckles. Her chemise clung, wet with sweat. We punched and pulled, cursed and kicked. She had the better curses. I had the better kicks.
With a kick to her buttocks, I sent her slithering across the planks. I grabbed her by the chemise, pulled her up, clamped one arm around her neck. Then I ran, yanking her with me, and rammed her head into the stacked crates. Once, twice. Once more. I heard the wood crash and let her limp body drop.
Not long after, she roused herself, groaned and counted her bruises. Her black eyes shot me a hateful stare. “You bitch born from a rotten snake egg!” she cursed as she limped off the ship, not even trying to retrieve her belongings from the cabin. “Spawn of a thousand harpies! Barnacle-crusted flax-wench! Clapper-clawed harbour rat!”
I wasn't worried about Mimibella's fate. With a chest like hers, displayed in battle-soiled frothies, she'd soon find another captain, even if the ship wasn't as fine as the Hippolyta.
With as much grace as my battered bones permitted, I strode aft to make myself at home in the captain's cabin. My nostrils noted rose perfume and candle grease. The space was cramped, with barely enough room to stand between the two bunk beds and the sea-chests, and made to appear slightly larger by a dozen looking-glasses on the walls. I threw one of the chests open, rifled through frills and flounces, periwigs and perfumes, and found nothing of interest. I wiped my sweaty face and my bloodied hands on the dresses. Once on the open sea, I would toss those fripperies overboard.
Heavy boot steps thudded down the stairs.
"Who are you?" the man in the door-frame barked. "And what are you doing in my cabin?"
Obviously his crew hadn't dared to tell him.
I studied him: flame-haired, copper-bearded, with more freckles than a blanket had fleas, a broad chest in a blood-red doublet, and arms tattooed with mermaids and monsters. Nice, but not my type. His eyes pierced like a pair of sharpened dirks.
I stared right back. "I'm Scylla. Your new mistress."
I waved my hand as if flicking away a flea. "Two women fight over a sea captain, the winner owns him and gets a bunk in his cabin. You're mine."
"I was quite fond of Mimibella."
I shrugged one shoulder to show how much his previously held loyalties bothered me.
His gaze travelled over my leather-clad body, pausing at the creamy cleavage, and his lips pursed with appreciation. Reaching behind him, he pulled the door shut. He plunked himself on the second bunk and inflated his chest. "Tell me, Mistress Scylla, where I caught your attention.” His admiring glance turned from my bodice to the big looking-glass above his bunk. “What is it that makes you want me so much?”
"I've never clapped eyes on you before, Foxhead. I want your bunk, not your body."
His red brows pulled together. "Not my body?"
“I'm on a quest to the Pepper Islands,” I explained patiently. “The Hippolyta is the only vessel sailing there this year. By invoking the Ancient Law of the Sea, I had to fight only one woman, which was less work than battling a whole crew and hijacking a ship.”
A flush of angry blood coloured his face, and his chest deflated. "You deprive me of my lovely Mimibella, and move in as my mistress, just to get a free passage?"
"That's right, Foxhead. A passage to the Pepper Islands.”
“Goldie, you don't know you're in for,” he said. “Storms, slavers, shipwrecks and salt pork.”
“Not to forget the fearsome Pepper Pirates. I'm aware of all that, and to get to the Pepper Islands, I'll brave any dangers.” Since he was admiring himself again, I met his eyes via the looking-glass. “Sorry about Mimibella, but she had to go. There's only so much space in your cabin, and I really need the passage. I could have donned male garb and hired on as a ship's boy, but I don't fancy hard work. Besides, I wouldn't have made a convincing boy, would I?" I placed my hands under my breasts and pushed them up. Though not as big as Mimibella's, they were nicely sized.
He was still gazing at the mirror, but the gleam in his eyes became friendly again, and he pursed his lips. Then he crossed over to my bunk and draped an arm around me. "I'm sure we'll get on fine, you and I, Goldie. Once we're acquainted, you'll discover I have many attractions beside my ship. Now, alas, I have to go back on deck to make sure my men handle those crates of porcelain with care. But tonight, Goldie ..."
I glowered. "Don't call me Goldie. Scylla is an honourable name from ancient poetry and I expect you to use it."
The captain of the Hippolyta straightened his doublet, muttered something that didn't sound like ancient poetry, cast one more glance at his looking-glass, and retreated to the deck. Soon I heard him yell curses at his men.
To prevent boredom, I had Mr. Hulbert string up a hammock for me on the poop deck. As a fisherman's daughter, I was familiar with boats and could have found ways to make myself useful if I wished, but it was more pleasant to watch labouring men sweat.
The little black wizard donned his rose-pink turban. A dozen amulets and talismans bounced on his chest as he danced around the deck, chanting and waving for a favourable breeze.
I smiled at his efforts: wind wizardry was empty ritual. The few magicians who could direct winds commanded huge salaries on board the Queen's own ships. Yet merchant captains had to employ wizards, because superstitious sailors would not board a ship without one.
I wasn't surprised when I learnt that Boolibar was really the ship's cook. For a ship that had only space for a crew of eighteen, carrying a token wizard would have been a luxury.
At noon, we queued outside the galley where he ladled portions of the midday meal into wooden bowls. "Pork stew," he announced. "After my late great-grandmother's recipe."
One spoonful of the greasy gristle, and I realised my assumptions were wrong. Boolibar had to be a brilliant magician to justify his pay.
Soon the crew rushed around to the master's orders, unfurling and trimming the sails. As if in response to our little wizard's request, a southerly breeze rose and billowed our canvas. The water chuckled and the wind sang in the rigging, and the Hippolyta glided out of the harbour and forged through the placid seas at a steady pace.
Night approached, and with it Fidelius Foxhead.
"Goldie," he purred, sliding his hand around my shoulder.
"Don't Goldie me!" I snapped. "Let's be clear about this: I'm your mistress in title only. I want your bunk, not your body."
He glanced at the mirror. "How about the time-honoured tradition, Mistress Scylla-From-Ancient-Poetry?"
"Tradition gives the woman rights over the man. I choose not to exercise them." I balled and flexed my fingers. "You're not my type, Foxhead. I prefer pale, delicate men with silken locks and unblemished skin. Gentle, poetic souls."
“Poe-eh-tick?” he repeated. His frown and raising brows told me he had not heard that word before.
"Never mind. As long as you understand that I don't want you in my bunk. If that's not clear, I know where to kick you to provide clarity."
He leant forward. “What, Mistress Scylla, would stop me from unloading you at the next harbour?"
"Vanity, dear Foxhead. You've had two females fighting over you. Keep me in your cabin and your mouth shut, and I'll play along. Your erotic attractions will be the talk of the seven seas."
While Foxhead trimmed his beard and rubbed muscle oil into his chest, I dreamed of fair-skinned, silken-locked Pelisander. My poet had found life in the fishing village dull and gone to sea in search of inspiration. On his third voyage, he was captured and sold by pirates. Now he languished, chained and abused, in the terrible Pepper Island lead mines where he would die unless I found and rescued him.
A fair wind carried us to Meribay, the fabled city of green-coppered roofs and silvered domes, where the Hippolyta delivered sixty crates of broadcloth and porcelain, and took on a cargo of singing-wood and coconuts.
Foxhead dabbed rose oil behind his earlobes and posed in four different jerkins in front of the looking-glass before deciding to wear midnight-blue.
Playing my role as adoring mistress, I linked my arm through his as we sauntered into the town's best tavern. The place was so fine that it had real glass in the windows, brass goblets so polished they gleamed, and hardly any cockroaches.
People glanced our way. In their whispers, I caught the words 'captain', 'mistress' and 'duel'. Clearly, the news had flown faster than a cormorant. Foxhead patted his hair, posed his biceps, and ordered the most expensive items the kitchen could provide. The crisp-fried termites and jellyfish pie tasted yummy after fifty-one days of Boolibar's gristle and grease.
I fed Foxhead's mood with flattery. “You know so much, captain. Few seafarers have made five voyages to the Pepper Islands and avoided the pirates every single time. What are the Pepper Islands like? Have you per chance seen the lead mines?” Leaning forward, I whispered confidentially, “My beloved, the poet Pelisander, joined a voyage of exploration on a Queen's ship five years ago. They were captured by the Pepper Pirates. A sole survivor escaped and brought word. Ever since, I've practised fighting so I can free him. Pelisander is a tender soul and will suffer so much. Every night I dream of Pelisander, of his pale skin, his golden locks, his delicate figure, his gentle touch. Will you show me how to find the mines?”
“How do you know this Pelisander is in the lead mines?”
“That's where the slaves go, isn't it? The pirates attack ships because the lead mines need slaves. Most slaves live only six or seven years, so I must get to him soon.”
“Those pale delicate types last even less.” He crunched a termite between his teeth. “Anyway, after five years in the lead mines his skin is surely shrivelled green.”
I wanted to punch the unfeeling smugness from his face. For Pelisander's sake, I curbed the urge: I needed the passage to the Pepper Islands.
Foxhead raised his goblet, tilted it this way and that, studying the sparkling reflection of his handsome profile. “I propose a deal, Mistress Scylla. I'll take you to the Pepper Islands faster than you can dream, provided you earn your passage with honest work.”
Work? I didn't like the sound of that word, though I would do anything to speed up my reunion with Pelisander. “I suppose I can cook. Better than Boolibar, anyway, even if I have to use pork from barrels painted with purple pigs.”
"Cooking would be a waste of your talents, Mistress Scylla. I want you to do your duty as master's mistress." He steepled his fingers and assumed a dignified expression, no doubt refined by practice in front of the looking-glass. “I'm told you have a wicked pair of legs, and your kicks are something to behold.”
I relaxed. “Count on me, captain. It'll be my pleasure to defend and protect you. Woe the pirate or mutineer who dares lay a hand on you!”
"I need you to defeat another female. This is your chance to serve your queen and your country, making a name in seafaring history.” Smiling mysteriously, he ordered cardamom-spiced coffee. “When the time comes, I'll tell you more.”
After re-provisioning, we were all set for the long journey around Cap Dulgonol. Then Captain Foxhead surprised us by changing course. “South south-east!”
"South south-east, Sir? Did you say 'south south-east'?" Sweat-beads formed on First Mate Hulbert's brow. "That would take us through the Trykon Strait. I have misheard you, haven't I, Sir?"
"It's a gain of two thousand leagues, cutting more than two months from our journey." Foxhead flung his arms wide open. "The sooner we can offload the rest of our porcelain and the singing-wood, and trade it for Pepper Island spices, the sooner we'll be back home with a juicy profit. South south-east!"
I sat up in my hammock and dangled my legs, in favour of any short cut which took me faster to my beloved.
"With due respect, Sir." Mr. Hulbert mopped his brow. "Perhaps you are not aware that vessels have vanished without trace in the Trykon Strait, and scores of ships were wrecked when they attempted the passage, with almost no survivors?”
Foxhead flicked his fingers as if chasing away a fly. “Who cares about the losers? Three centuries ago, a ship made it through the strait unscathed, which proves it can be done." He spread a soot-stained parchment map on the counter and stabbed his dirk at the critical section. "The Queen has offered a reward of nine hundred gold doubloons for the captain who finds out how to take ships safely through the Trykon Strait. I promise a good share of that to my crew."
Lips pursed, mouths muttered. Although the crew disliked drowning, they liked doubloons.
Hulbert brightened. “The short cut means spending less time in pirate-infested waters.”
"Indeed." Foxhead said. "There's a secret for getting through the Trykon Strait unharmed, a trick the master of the ship three hundred years ago knew. I'll learn this secret from the Angelure."
A cold shudder crawled up my spine. The Angelure was a winged monster that preyed on humans, stripping the flesh from their bones.
"Sir!" the little wizard protested. "If you don't fear the Angelure, you should! She's nearly as big as a man, and that's just the torso. Her wings span as wide as the Hippolyta's deck. Each of her claws is twice as long as a man's finger, and her beak is sharper than a scimitar."
Foxhead stroked his copper-curling beard. "There are ways to defeat her."
"Baal preserve us! How?” The wizard clutched his amulets with both hands. “She fears water, that's true, because every drop burns like fire on her scales. Alas, splashing her with water helps nothing. It will only make her skittish. Even if I rouse a downpour, it will send her flying for the shelter of her cave until the rain is over. It won't make her talk." The words bubbled from his mouth. "You can't fight her the way you fight a mortal enemy, because once she catches even the briefest glance of your eyes, you're mesmerised."
The captain's jaw set with resolution. "You forget that some sailors have lived to tell the tale."
"Only because the Angelure had already feasted on their poor comrades." Boolibar twisted the amulets at the base of his neck. "The survivors begged her to take them, too, but she was already sated and disdained them. Although she's an ugly beast with fiery fangs, scales and claws, her eyes will bewitch you. You'll believe she's the Goddess Venus who opens her arms for you.... Crews have been known to abandon their ships to climb to her rock. She'll create for you the sweetest secrets of womanhood, lure you with the perfumes of the gardens of love. Even as she devours your guts, you'll moan for her further embrace!"
"I know what she's like," our captain said hoarsely. "I've seen her, for one moment only, fifteen years ago... Fortunately she was busy dining on another sailor then. Yet I cannot forget her eyes." His own eyes took on a dreamy look. "Those eyes told me I’d found an oasis in the desert... an island of plenty in the ocean of despair... I saw breasts as soft as cushions on which a man might rest his head. Red lips that might embrace a man's... Just one glance and I was drunk on the sweetest wine... a promise of everlasting delight in beauty's embrace."
This was remarkable language from a man who didn't know what 'poetic' meant. Hulbert, a sensible fellow, doused him with a bucket of seawater.
Foxhead woke from his trance, shook off the water and straightened. His eyes regained focus.
"If a single glance years ago can befuddle your brains like this, Sir," Hulbert said, "you'll never withstand her allure. You were joking, weren't you? No man can meet the Angelure and keep his sanity, let alone force a secret from her."
"A man can’t. A woman can." A little smile played around Foxhead's lips. "Scylla will fight the Angelure for us."
“I will – what?” I croaked.
"Listen, men!” the captain declared. “Instead of letting her lure us onto her rock, we’ll lure her onto our ship. Boolibar will cast an attraction spell to make her sweep off her rock and land on the Hippolyta."
"She’ll feast on our feeble flesh!" Boolibar wailed.
"All the crew will hide in the hold. I'll be the only man on deck - and you'll tie me to the mast, so I cannot follow her, however much I yearn to. If she wants a bite of my belly, she has to come to me. A bird of her size is made for flying, not walking. She'll be clumsy on board, and struggle to move. Then Scylla will catch her. It's easy."
"Umm," I said.
“I’m glad we’re all agreed. Now get back to work.”
I did not like it, but it was my duty to protect my master. Besides, it would help me get faster to Pelisander. For thirteen days, while we journeyed east along the Sapphire Coast, I practised the skills needed to capture the Angelure: net-tossing, barrel-slamming and diplomatic persuasion. Sitting on the lower mainmast yard, I threw a fishing net over a pork barrel until my shoulder muscles screamed. I got the best results when the barrel stood six feet from the mast, so that's where I hoped the Angelure would stand.
If Pelisander could see me now! The little Scylla he left five years ago had become a fearsome fighter, with strong arms and tons of courage. I looked forward to the surprised admiration in his eyes.
Although Boolibar's weather magic was minimal, his animal-attracting spells brought flying fish shooting through the air and sea turtles crowding around the hull. The animals were in a hurry to get into the cooking pot, and food never ran short on board the Hippolyta. Unfortunately, Boolibar continued to cook it.
The sea rippled like a rich blue silk gown studded with diamonds, gradually turning milky green as the Hippolyta drifted towards the cliffs where the Angelure waited for prey. Schools of silvery fish shimmered just below the surface, and chattering porpoises played. Cormorants bickered overhead.
While the crew cleared the space between the main and mizzen masts where we wanted the Angelure to land, Mr. Hulbert tied the captain to the mainmast. Foxhead demanded first a mirror, and then several alterations to his posture before he allowed Hulbert to tie the knots and Boolibar to place magic seals on them.
“Scylla, tell me honestly: how do I look?”
I stepped six feet away to where I needed the Angelure to stand, and assessed the bait critically: the shock of fire-red hair, the broad shoulders set off in a shirt of finest white linen, the arms lashed behind him and arm-thick ropes around his thighs. “Very appetising,” I praised loudly. “A sight to gladden any female's heart. No woman could resist. However, if I might make a suggestion for further increasing the appeal...”
He sucked in his stomach. “Yes?”
“Allow me.” I ripped his shirt from the collar down to bare his chest, took a step back and ran the tip of my tongue over my lips. "Delicious. If I were the Angelure, I couldn't wait to get a taste of this flesh."
“Are you sure she'll like me? Should I turn my head this way or that? My nose looks best in three-quarter profile, but maybe that makes my chin look fat?”
“Never mind your face. It's your body she wants. Let me check the bonds.” Hulbert's knots looked solid, but the sparkle of Boolibar’s magic around them was already wearing off.
A large barrel lay in readiness. It had once contained salt pork and still stank like a sty. Sailors had lined up a dozen buckets of water.
While the ship rocked gently in the shallow waters, I scrambled up the rigging and hid along the yardarm under the furled sail. Flower-sprouting cliffs, lush pine forests, and beaches with golden-brown shingle all basked in the afternoon sun.
Boolibar danced and chanted, whirling gemstone strings. His bare feet drummed a mesmerising rhythm on the deck. The atmosphere thickened and hummed. Sparks of magic flitted through the air. From time to time, he paused to take a breath and glanced nervously from under his oversized turban.
Time floated by, and all Boolibar's chanting roused was a sharp breeze. Had he gotten the spell wrong? The vessel rolled, the masts amplified the movement, and a green feeling filled my stomach. I remembered what I'd eaten an hour earlier - fried flying fish after Boolibar's grandmother's recipe - and felt even greener.
“Perhaps I should wear rose oil,” Foxhead called up to me. “She may appreciate a manly scent.”
“Quiet!” I shouted. If the Angelure was near, she must not suspect my presence in the rigging.
The blue waves turned into white-capped mountain ranges, rolling towards the shore where they deposited curls of black seaweed and heaps of foam. I held on to the yardarm and tried not to feel sick.
How long would I have to wait up here? What if the Angelure was immune to both Boolibar’s magic and Foxhead's flesh? I’d seen flying fish lured by Boolibar’s chanting, and the captain’s chest looked tempting enough to me. But the Angelure was neither a normal animal nor a real woman.
Hulbert's head poked out of the hatch. “If she doesn't come, can we go around Cape Dulgonol?”
I saw Foxhead tilt his head and open his mouth to yell something up to me, but all I heard was the roar of the wind.
The shadow of large wings fell darkly across the deck. Like a vulture, the Angelure circled above the Hippolyta, then descended, dark claws stretched.
Hulbert vanished below deck. Boolibar yelped, jumped down the ladder behind him and slammed the hatch shut.
The beast made a wide, sweeping turn, folded her wings and shot down, landing with a plonk. She was no taller than a small woman. The silvery-white scales on her legs and chest glistened in the sun, but that was the end of her elegance. Once grounded, she waddled clumsily, as Foxhead had predicted. When she folded up her warty wings, they enveloped her like an oversized leather cloak.
With awkward steps, she hopped closer, but halted ten feet from the main mast. Her beak was shaped like a scimitar over a broadsword - a sharp double weapon.
"Kreeee! What a beautiful man." Her voice reminded me of a herring-gull's screech.
"Ah, what a sweet voice!” Foxhead moaned. “What a song! All the secrets of the oceans lie in her words." His muscles bulged as he strained against his bonds. "Free me, Scylla. This beautiful creature would never harm me. She loves me."
I stayed put in my nest of sails, holding the net in throwing position, waiting for her to come close enough. She needed to be six feet from the mast, but had not even reached the hatch yet.
Foxhead strained forward towards the fanged figure. "Can't you see? Her milk white arms..."
I resisted pointing out that she had no arms.
On scaly feet with claws longer than a man's fingers, she hopped closer to her victim, yelling a triumphant “Keekereekeee”. Now she was on the hatch, close enough that I could smell her odour of honey, mushrooms and curdled blood. Five more steps and I could throw.
“Scylla, pleeeeeeease!” Foxhead begged.
“Kree?” The bird's yellow eyes followed his glance to my hiding place. “Kreeee!”.
I could not delay another moment. I swung my arm, threw the net. Half of it wrapped her head and one wing, the rest clunked onto the deck.
At once, I slid down the mast, grabbed the net's rope and pulled to cover the rest of her.
She fluttered in panicked frenzy. "Kreeeeeee," she screamed, clawing the net.
"Kree yourself." I pulled further. Almost done.
The hatch door tilted. Mr. Hulbert's hopeful face peered out. “Is it over yet?”
“Shut the hatch!” I yelled.
Too late. The Angelure slid further away from me, and I lost my grip on the rope.
I leaped in for close combat. Dodging the attacks from the knife-like beak, I slammed kicks against those scaly legs. I snatched up the rope, yanked the net across her, drew it tight.
Her flutters ceased. She focused on tearing and ripping with her beak.
I grabbed the purple-pig barrel and rolled it toward her. Now the problem was getting her into it.
The pupils in her yellow eyes narrowed to pinpoints, watching me approach. With her wings drawn close, she cowered, panting. I pulled the lines of the net, tightening it to squeeze her into a small enough bundle to fit into the barrel. A scaly foot shot out. Sharp talons ripped the leather, dug into my thighs. My flesh burned with pain.
I tilted the barrel towards her. "Duck your head and pull your wings closer - or I'll slam the barrel down on them, and I don't care if it crushes your wings. Bird bones are so fragile."
She hissed but obeyed.
Then I weighed down the barrel and called the crew up on deck. The men slammed the barrel's lid back on, hammered it in place and secured it with metal hoops and thick ropes.
She whimpered and wailed, squealed and squawked, then promised treasures.
"I wouldn't care about your buried treasures even if I believed in them," I said. "I want the secret of how to get safely through the Trykon Strait."
She whined and howled, clucked and cried. "Out! Let me out and I'll tell you."
"First the secret. Unless you talk, I'll fill this barrel with water."
"No! Not water, no!"
I poured half a flagon of seawater through small breathing hole in the lid. Her screams reassured me that the legend about water burning her scales was based on fact.
"I'll free you once we're through the Trykon Strait. Should you mislead us – should you direct us so the ship founders on the Wrecking Rocks - then this barrel will go down with the ship and you will slowly drown."
"I'll tell you, I'll tell you."
I listened. Master Foxhead, still tied to the mast, listened as well, though from the glazed look on his face, he was still hearing siren songs. I was in no hurry to free him. He deserved to stay tied up until he'd sobered.
“Listen, then, mortal woman.” The Angelure bobbed her beak up and down. "Most captains fear smashing against the cliffs that flank the strait at its most dangerous part, so they steer a course right in the centre. That's where the real danger waits: underwater reefs and rocks that rip the ship's belly open.
I considered. "Can we avoid the reefs? Float above them? The Hippolyta is a caravel, with a shallow draught."
"With a caravel, probably, if you pick the right time of the tide. A galleon wouldn't stand a chance."
Foxhead had been right: the Angelure knew the secret of the strait. She also knew a lot about navigation. "So we simply wait until the tide reaches the highest level," I said. It sounded an easy way to earn nine hundred gold doubloons.
"Consider the currents, though. They aren't just the ordinary moon-water tides, but treacherous streams racing through the strait at high speed." She made a wheezing sound. Maybe she was laughing at our dilemma. Or maybe she was crying because she foresaw her own watery end.
"When's the safe moment?"
"When you're three leagues into the strait, you will see a rock formation, twice the height of your mainmast, shaped like a skull. Wait until the water rises to the skull's upper teeth - then let the current drag you into the strait. The speed may carry you through. Steer as close to starboard as you dare, and make sure you clear the Wrecking Rocks before the current turns. You have to be quick, or your ship will get sucked back and crushed."
I nearly begged Foxhead to turn the Hippolyta around and take the old-fashioned route around Cap Dulgonol.
Boolibar untied the captain and invited me into his galley to treat the gash in my thigh. His broad grin revealed four unevenly spaced but sparkling teeth. "I'm the ship's barber-surgeon as well as the wizard-cook, and I'll put a magic salve on your wound. It's my late great-grandmother's recipe. Three ounces of fresh jelly-fish, a well-chewed rind of bacon..."
I fled to the captain's cabin where Foxhead cleaned and bandaged the wound for me. His big hands worked with delicious tenderness.
The Hippolyta glided into the strait where the waters grew dark and bitter as unsweetened coffee. Black-gleaming rocks towered on either side, stark, bare, and unrelieved by any vegetation.
A steady breeze and a tidal current carried us into the narrowing channel. One league passed, two... then the black skull stared at us, a gigantic face with a toothy grin. Foxhead ordered the last sails furled. The anchor chain rattled and screeched.
Mr. Hulbert and a couple of sailors launched our rowboat and explored the strait. When they returned, their faces were pale and beaded with sweat.
"Those rocks," Hulbert said when he climbed back on deck. "They're not just like dagger points, but like knife edges, long, narrow, and very sharp. Baal have mercy on any vessel they slice. The only area which is relatively free is starboard, hard by the cliff. But there are maelstroms. We nearly got caught up in one." He swallowed so hard that I could hear the gulp. "We could still go back, Sir."
Foxhead did not deign to reply. Hours passed as we waited for the water level to rise. The sun scorched the rocks, and their heat made the air shimmer.
At last - the waves slapped against the tooth-like protuberances of the skull. Anchor pulled, sails hoisted, the Hippolyta glided between the Wrecking Rocks. As the water rose and rushed through the rocks, our vessel picked up speed.
Deadly stone needles pierced the water's surface, and I knew of the blades that lurked below. With tense muscles and clenched jaw, I barely dared to breathe.
When the cliffs receded and the passage widened, we heaved huge sighs of relief. Soon we would be through the strait and out in the open sea, on our way to the Pepper Islands.
"More sails!" Mr. Hulbert yelled suddenly. "Unfurl the main sail! Unfurl all the sails, you lame-legged mongrels!"
Even as the sailors scrambled in the rigging, the Hippolyta slowed.
"Baal's balls!" Foxhead cursed. "The current is turning!"
Never on the whole voyage had I seen his face look so worried.
I raced to the galley and dragged the wizard on deck without allowing him time to douse his cooking fires. "Wind! Quick, Boolibar, we need all the wind you can get."
He stomped and chanted, he puffed and twirled. But our vessel stalled, as if held in place by magnetic force. For long moments, nothing moved. Then she seemed to glide forward through the water, but drifted towards the Wrecking Rocks. The current pulled us back, inch by inch at first, then foot by foot, and yard by yard.
The master and his first mate shouted commands. Men crawled in the rigging like lice. Yells and curses shot from all directions.
In desperation, the little wizard jumped up and down, incanting strange words. He whirled his gemstone necklaces, imploring all the spirits of the sea and the sky to send what wind they might spare. Magical energies swirled around him like a dense fiery cloud.
"Wind spirits, wind spirits, drive us on,” he pleaded. Men dropped to their knees, screaming the chant's chorus, while the current built up speed and pulled our vessel with it.
"Drop the anchor!" Mr. Hulbert yelled. "Pay out the full warp."
The anchor found no bottom. The ship raced straight into the danger zone.
At last, Boolibar's magic took hold. Winds howled down the rocky corridor. The spirits of air and water battled for dominance over our ship. Waves started to heave and roll, while storm whipped our canvas.
"Fire!" someone yelled. "Baal's Balls, the galley's on fire! Where's that fool Boolibar? He left the stove on!"
Oblivious to the dark smoke curling from the galley roof, the trance-dazed wizard whirled on.
I dashed to douse the fire, but wind-fanned flames forced me to flee, smoke-blind and coughing.
A gigantic jolt knocked me off-balance and sent me tumbling. A thunderbolt cracked underfoot. The anchor had grabbed at last.
Cargo shifted, barrels toppled. Timber splintered as the anchor ripped at the forecastle and bulwarks. Men cursed, the goat bleated, and the Angelure kreed for her life.
Still the gale-force gusts howled through the rock channel and slammed the sails. The ship charged downwind, over her anchors.
The anchor chain sliced through the deck like a scimitar through flesh. It only stopped by the pin rails around the masts, spinning the ship around.
"Nooooo!" - "Baal's Balls!" - "Heeelp!" - "Kreeeeheeeeeee!"
I clung to the nearest item I could get hold of, which happened to be Foxhead's leg. Finding it sturdy and stable, I held on.
The gusts tore off chunks of rigging. Some of it crashed on deck, some into the roaring, foaming waters, taking the trapped sailors to their deaths.
Once more, the mighty anchor chain ripped through the vessel, then it snapped. The ship went beam to the wind for a moment, heeling over. She righted, spun back downwind and raced down the channel.
Above, the remaining sails exploded in the screaming gale. Part of the deck tore free. Towering waves smashed into the stern. A wall of water crashed over the bow. The vessel cracked open like a nut.
Huge waves thundered down on us. I was tossed into the icy foam. As soon as I hit the water, I remembered that I had always meant to learn how to swim.
I clutched a plank to my chest. Every yell for help filled my mouth with water.
"Scylla?" Someone grabbed me by the corset and dragged me away from my precious hold. I struggled and splashed.
At last I grasped that Foxhead wanted me to climb on a piece of decking that floated among the debris. My hands reached out, but my arms had lost their strength, and my fingers slipped, catching splinters. He pushed my legs and shoved until I lay exhausted on the makeshift raft, and waves lapped over me.
Survivors clung to other parts of the ship's debris, drifting among beams, planks, barrels and singing wood. Sheets of canvas hung suspended just below the water’s surface, entangled with lines and rigging, waving in the swells like ghosts at a midnight haunting.
The wind continued to scream down the channel. It whipped the surface of the water against the current and drove us out of the narrow strait into the open sea. Many leagues from our destination, wide openness stared, unrelieved by any coast or island. Half of the world was grey water, the other half, grey sky. The hours floated away, and with them the remnants of my strength. My head drooped with pain and exhaustion, while salt water burnt and leached my skin.
Our situation was desperate: No ship, no drinking water, no land in sight. I nearly asked Foxhead how long humans could survive under these conditions, but decided I'd rather not know. Tempted as I was to simply surrender to despair, the smallest chance of saving Pelisander kept me alive.
The chunks of wood carrying the survivors drifted further and further apart. My swollen eyes beheld a huge drifting bale, and balanced on it, the ship's goat, bleating pitifully. Still further away I spotted Boolibar, face down on a plank like a stranded fish, arms and legs flapping. I hoped he was performing the horizontal version of a ship-attracting dance. After all, he had been good at attraction magic, even if he was useless at anything else.
Under Foxhead's command, those sailors who were still able to move gathered whatever debris they could salvage before it floated out of reach. By mid-afternoon, they had lashed enough beams and planks into a makeshift raft to carry us all, and were starting to rig a primitive mast.
Boolibar chanted for ships to come our way, but in his exhaustion he could not work up much magic. It barely flickered.
The sun sank towards the sea, dipping the sky and the water into a fiery red. Burning sparks danced on the water surface.
Night was about to engulf us when Fidelius Foxhead cried out. "A ship! There's a ship on the horizon!"
I heard the hopeful screams of survivors who still had the energy to yell. With great effort, I lifted my head off the plank and blinked my salt-encrusted eyes. There was a ship, and it was coming towards us.
"Thank you, Boolibar," I whispered.
As the vessel came closer, I could make out the silhouette of billowing square sails and a high forecastle against the glowing sky.
"A carrack!" Foxhead shouted. "Wave, wave!"
The ship surged towards us, knifing her bow through the darkening sea. At last, the flag on the mainmast came into view. I squinted to discern the colours in the dimming light. "A white pattern on a dark background," I called. "Which nation is that? It looks like two crossed bones under a skull.”
"Baal's balls," Foxhead cursed. "Pepper Pirates."
I squeezed my eyes shut and let my head drop back on the planks.
"Maybe they haven’t seen us yet," Mr. Hulbert the ever-hopeful said. "Our vessel is so much smaller than theirs."
“Shall I cast an aversion spell?” Boolibar offered. “Sometimes they work.”
“Paddle the raft back towards the strait,” Foxhead commanded.
Against the winds, and sapped from exhaustion, we didn't get far. The carrack came closer, a dark silhouette against the burning sky.
“Stop paddling,” Foxhead shouted. “Lie down. They want slaves, and if they think we're dead they may not bother.”
Soon we heard the blood-curdling yells from the carrack, then the creaking of ropes as a rowing boat was lowered, and the rhythmical splashing of oars.
“Tara's Tits!” a voice cursed. “They're already dead.”
“Search them,” another yelled, not five feet away from me. “We may find a doubloon or two. This one wears a fine belt.” Rough hands gripped my hip and shoulder and flipped me over. I tried to play dead, but the pirate whistled. “A woman. Nice one. Alive. Should fetch a fine price. The captain will be pleased.”
I kicked, I scratched, I bit. Around me, the crew of the Hippolyta also came to life and fought for their freedom. I rammed a knee into a pirate groin, and felled one of Foxhead's attackers with a roundhouse kick. To no avail. Still reeling from exhaustion and shock, we stood no chance. The cutlasses shone blood-red in the light of the sinking sun, and the pirates dragged us out of the water like gulls picking fish.
My captor clamped my arms on my back with an iron grip. “You lot had better comply!” he snarled. “It'll be easier for everyone. Climb on board on your own feet, and you'll get a drink of water. Resist, and we'll knock you out and carry you, and you won't get any water for a long time.”
At Foxhead's nod, I climbed into the row-boat, and the others followed. Only the little wizard Boolibar put up a further fight by pulling a pirate's plaited beard. His opponent clutched him by the necklaces until he choked and sagged.
Once on board the carrack, our captors did indeed give us the promised water, fresh cool liquid to revive our parched throats, but those were the only concessions. They forced us to stand in line, hands tied behind our backs, for inspection.
An ugly giant walked down our line, tapping the handle of a cat o'nine tails in his hand, his wooden leg clacking on the planks. Behind him stomped an even uglier man with grotesquely tattooed chest, shaven scalp and scarred face. On his shoulder squatted a black rat, its naked tail curled around his neck.
The wooden-legged giant prodded and poked us captives as if we were cattle. When he pried Foxhead's mouth open, I got ready to fight. Although I stood no chance, I would do my duty and defend my captain according to the Ancient Law of the Sea. My hands were tied, but by chambering my leg high I might land a kick into the ogre's crotch.
“Fine specimen, this one,” the ogre said, pinching Foxhead's biceps.
Foxhead pulled in his belly, straightened and grinned.
I relaxed my leg. There was no point defending a captain who was enjoying himself.
“Indeed, this slave is very nice,” the tattooed scarface said. “He should fetch a decent price. Healthy muscles and big ears, he'll last at least six years.”
My long-term goal snapped to the forefront of my mind. “Excuse me, captain, sir. I know you're a busy man and have made so many conquests in recent years you can't remember them all. But perhaps you recall a certain ship-”
The bald-headed man's gaze travelled from my head to my toes, up to my head again, and finally rested on my chest where the chemise clung wet to my bare skin. "What a find! Fate's been kind!"
The rat sat up, its long testicles dangling, its nose sniffing in my direction.
“I'm delighted to make the acquaintance, Sir.” Adopting fine manners, I curtseyed. The man smelled of oranges, garlic, and unwashed codpiece. I granted him an adoring flutter of my lashes. “Did you, per chance, capture one of the queen's exploration ships, a carrack by name of Gloriana, a little over five years ago?” When his brows shot up at the name, I felt confident that my quest was taking the right path. “Among your captives, was there a man named Pelisander? About your height, pale skin, blonde locks, a poet?”
His grin broadened, baring black teeth. He roared a laugh that made the rat's ears swivel. "Now if that isn't little Scyll -- from the house behind the hill! The Pepper Pirates' latest raid has brought me a sweet fishing maid!"
The once-pale skin bronzed and marred with tattoos, the once-handsome face disfigured with scars, the golden locks shaved off? My heart started a crazy dance. “Can it be you, Pelisander? How did you survive? How did you come to be here? I thought you were languishing in the lead mines!”
Laughter rumbled from his chest. "I escaped -- barely scraped. Nobody keeps Pelisander -- when he has a mind to wander."
I struggled to believe what he had become, but although his appearance and his profession had changed, the voice was the same. “I'm glad I've found you, and you're safe.”
While his henchmen locked the Hippolyta's crew into chains and tossed them down the hold, I clung to Pelisander's once-pale arms. "Why didn't you send word to call me to your side? I’d have followed you at once to the end of the earth!"
He bellowed to his men. "Get some wine and quench your thirst -- I'm the one who takes her first."
I gulped. "Takes her first? What do you mean?”
His grin sprawled still further and he licked his lips. "This wench, what pleasure to behold -- I shall take her quick and bold."
His once so chaste and gentle fingers ripped the front of my chemise. Had I ever loved this man? Had he ever loved me? The answers soured my stomach like Boolibar's cooking on a bad day, and would take some time to digest. First, however, I would defend my honour. I would prove that I, too, had changed, and teach this beast that the once meek Scylla had learnt to fight.
"You son of a stinking serpent! Take this."
I stamped on his boots. I kicked his shin. Then I pulled my right arm back and punched his face with full force. His nose broke with the sound of a celery stalk snapping. A couple of hooks with the same fist sent him sidewards. He raised his hands to his bleeding face. The rat scurried from one shoulder to the other, tail swishing in search of balance, then clawed into his bald scalp.
Now his men closed in on me. Strong hands twisted my arm on my back, and a blade scraped my throat.
"Kreee! Kreeeeeakreeeakreeeee!" The squeals from the sea sent the pirates' heads spinning. The rat's ears twitched.
In dim light of dusk, a cask was bobbing up and down on the waves. “Kreeeeee!”
"Bring that thing at once on board!" Pelisander commanded. “It may hold a treasure hoard.”
I saw my chance. "Don't set the goblin free! He's mine. Mine alone!” I protested. “He promised to reveal the buried treasure the moment I open the barrel. Don't you dare!"
Of course they lost not a moment hoisting the barrel on board.
My betrothed squeezed the barrel the way a nutcracker hugs a walnut. The wood cracked, water poured, and the air reeked of mushrooms, honey and pickled pork.
The Angelure tumbled out, blinked and untangled her wet wings from the netting. Her yellow eyes widened and scanned the bare-chested pirates, who drifted towards her like sharks towards bait, fighting one another for the caress of her non-existent arms.
Only the rat darted for safety.
The once-pale Pelisander knocked his rivals to the side. "I'm the one to -"
I stood well back as the Angelure hacked her scimitar beak into his abdomen.
"Oooh-ahrrgggg eeeh-shahhrrgggg." These were the poet Pelisander's last words.
She gnawed and munched, first his chest and belly, then the neck and head, leaving thighs and arms for last. She paused only for the occasional satisfied 'Krekre' until a pile of slender bones and daggers remained. Then she scanned the deck for further prey.
There was no shortage of pirates who, despite witnessing the carnage, were unable to pull away from her gorgeous golden eyes.
"Kreee. Kreeekreeekreee." She sounded well pleased.
I was glad the men from the Hippolyta were safely chained in the hold.
Hiding under a pile of canvas, I watched the beast’s abdomen extend, and wondered how much her stomach could hold. Sated, she no longer bothered to gobble up whole men. She only hacked their bellies and slurped their livers. Disembowelled and dying, the men still gargled their cries of desire.
When no livers were left, she wobbled to an uncluttered section of the main deck, flapped her wings fast, and surged into the night sky.
Crewed by the men from the Hippolyta, the carrack sliced through the dark sea. Fidelius Foxhead was the pirate ship's undisputed master, and I was the master's undisputed mistress. By the flickering light of lanterns, we found the hold crammed with the treasures every sailor dreams about: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper, sandalwood, silk and secret maps, enough to share out a generous reward to the Hippolyta's crew.
Even more welcome were the barrels of oranges and biscuits which would relieve us from Boolibar's cooking for a while.
In the morning, I had Mr. Hulbert string up a hammock for me, so I could watch as the men scrubbed the sticky blood off the decks and tossed leftover pirate limbs to the sharks.
Now we're on our way around Cape Dulgonol to collect the nine hundred gold doubloons from the Queen. Although I've lost my love for pale poets, I'm getting a taste for rose oil and freckles.