“The Devil’s Fire” First Chapter

Katherine Lindsay pressed her legs against the bulwark and peered into the cold blue waters of the North Atlantic, hoping to locate her often heralded beauty within the rippling reflection that gazed back.

An emaciated figure, ghostly pale skin, and insipidly plain features were a tax on her self-esteem. Bodices did not accentuate her breasts as nicely as most of the women she knew. She credited flattering remarks to the striking mane of red hair that curled naturally about her head and spilled down to her waist, forging an illusion of beauty by cloaking the abnormalities. Her hair was a wicked burden of tangles that she fastened as best she could, but the wild tresses were as much a curse as they were a fiery splendor.

Her aggravation was heightened by the miserably cold and wet environment of the ship, a three-masted merchantman that her husband had lovingly christened, “Lady Katherine.” It was a cramped place, beset by the pungent aroma of perpetually dampened wood and the tangy flavor of salt, both of which mislaid their initially agreeable virtues after the first week at sea.

The journey had been inescapably dull. She kept mostly indoors by day and ventured outside in late afternoon to admire sunsets, whenever the sky was not obscured by storm clouds. She had grossly underestimated the need for reading material, and swiftly finished what few books she had brought with her. The stark contrast of life aboard a merchant ship frequently prompted her to dwell on the simple pleasures she had entertained each day in London.

She marveled at how effortlessly Lady Katherine’s young crewmen accepted their lives as sailors. They numbered seventeen and were aged twenty to twenty-five. They kept to themselves and spoke of her in hushed, gossip-ridden tones. She loathed the way they hungrily leered at her, as though they had never looked on a woman before. She likened them to animals in a zoo, indifferent to the basic chivalries of civilized society, motivated only by proclivity.

She missed tea parties with her friends and conversations that consisted of nothing more than extravagant jewelry and rich husbands. She was born to a middleclass family and had wisely married into wealth. She instantly took a perverse kind of delight in her new surroundings, and that included fitting in with the wives of her husband’s friends. She never really considered herself one of them, but she had convinced them beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was. Fickle though they were, after only a few days at sea, she longed desperately for their mindless banter.

Katherine was nineteen, and her attempts to produce a child with Thomas had been unsuccessful thus far. This proved a scandalous concern for their friends and relatives, but she remained happily optimistic. Thomas had three brothers. All of them were married, two of them with children. The mortality of the Lindsay family line was not at stake, therefore Katherine and Thomas were not under any immediate pressure to preserve it.

Thomas was a handsome man with nicely tanned skin and fine blonde hair, which Katherine believed to be thinning. Her friends were certain that his apparent balding would prove to be a hindrance on their relationship, but Katherine had not fallen in love with Thomas for his looks. She loved his nonchalant attitude towards life. He was not the type of man to angrily combat the problems that inevitably came his way; he simply worked around such nuisances, calmly and peacefully.

When he announced that he would sail his merchant ship to America, Katherine demanded in no uncertain terms that he take her with him. He endured a week’s perseverance, which began each day before breakfast and ended long after supper. She told him that she wanted to see more of him, having been too often deprived. While this was indeed true, it was also true that she longed for adventure, and there was nothing more adventurous than a voyage at sea.

After getting her way, she dared not grumble of the voyage’s monotony, as she was certain that Thomas would only remind her of her prior diligence. She knew it would be pointless to bellyache, and she did not want to prove just how womanly she could be. The anticipation of seeing America helped keep her complaints at bay.

Katherine’s journey ended two weeks earlier than expected, in the late days of September, in the year 1717. A week’s worth of densely clouded skies had finally given way to a clear day. She basked in the unusually warm weather, ignoring the wandering eyes of her husband’s puerile crew.

She wore a saffron mantua that was derived from expensive silk that hugged her shoulders and plunged to her cleavage. A splendid floral design was brocaded into the closefitting bodice. The skirt, which was an extension of the bodice, was parted at the front and looped to the sides by buttons and cords, revealing a flounced petticoat underneath. Thomas occasionally came to her side to offer a tender comfort, sliding his hands along the silk of her dress, as he liked to do, before promptly returning to his duties.

It was she who spotted the ship on the horizon, broad on the port bow. She underestimated the weight of her upper torso and pitched over the wall, feet lifting precariously into the air. She managed to right herself by flailing her legs until her toes touched the deck. When she righted herself, a sweeping wave of nausea blurred her vision.

She focused her gaze on two distant black dots on the horizon, squinting until the dots merged into one. The indistinct blemish gradually formed shapes she recognized: a hull and sails.

The sea was a desolate place, and she was giddy at the prospect of meeting new faces. Perhaps there was a woman onboard who would join her for dinner before their ships parted ways. That would certainly ease her boredom.

She alerted Thomas immediately. After a glimpse through his telescope, he maintained a curious silence. She didn’t like to bother him when he was contemplating, but impatience got the better of her.

“A merchant ship, you think?” she inquired placidly.

“Most probably, dear,” he replied. “I can’t see her colors with the sun behind her.”

“Colors?”

“Her flag,” he said, a little too sharply. “We’ll know what she is when we see her flag.”

She furrowed her brow at the briskness of his tone. She wanted to spin on her heels and retreat to the cabin, so he would regret speaking to her so curtly. She had to remind herself that her husband’s duties as captain far outweighed his matrimonial sentiments, at least for the duration of the voyage. Still, she made a mental note to scold him when next they were alone.

They watched the ship for an hour, until at last the sun began to set. When the vessel was near enough to discern the particulars, Thomas leaned close to Katherine and said, “She’s a brigantine.” The vessel had two masts, square-rigged fore and topsails, a fore-and-aft rigged spanker abaft her mainmast, a triangular main staysail between the foremast and mainmast, and a jib that stretched from foremast to bowsprit.

Katherine asked, “What does ‘brigantine’ mean?”

Thomas set his jaw and fell silent.

She squeezed his arm. “Thomas?”

“Brigand,” he said finally.

The sun ducked beyond the horizon and the sky turned a variety of colors, each darker than the last. Goosebumps riddled Katherine’s flesh as the air took on a sinister chill. The closer the brigantine came, the colder the air became.

A crewman’s breath prickled the hairs on the back of her neck, and she turned with a start. His face was a ghostly shade of white and his eyes were wide, unblinking saucers, staring at the brigantine. Several more had gathered round, appearing equally distressed.

She looked to Thomas, who was studying the ship through his telescope, and said, “What is it?”

He handed her the scope. “See the flag on that ship?”

She peered into the eyepiece and guided the scope until she found the mainmast, and then scaled it to the top, where a massive black flag thrashed in the wind. Broad at the center was the frightful image of a blood red heart, impaled by a white cutlass.

“Pirates,” Thomas concluded with a grimace.

“Do we run?” said a crewman, his voice trembling.

Thomas gave no reply. Katherine wasn’t sure her husband had even heard the man. Seeing him so uncharacteristically despondent left a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach.

A blast sounded from a chase gun on the forecastle deck of the brigantine. Water exploded in a billowing plume on the port beam.

Katherine backed into Thomas’s chest. She felt his hands cling to her waist, as if he feared losing her over the edge. He released her and returned to his crew, shouting orders that she didn’t understand. She was so fixated on the brigantine that she was only distantly aware of the crew’s frantic activities behind her.

Thomas ordered, “Hard to starboard!”

Katherine was thrust against the bulwark as the helmsman tilted the ship into a sharp evasion. The emptiness in her stomach gave way to a severe jolt of pain. A second report exploded from the chase gun, and she stared dumbly as a plume erupted directly in front of her, spraying her with seawater. She was blinking the saline sting out of her eyes when she heard her husband bellow:

“HEAVE TO!!”

This prompted frightened gasps from several crewmen.

“Do it!” Thomas shouted. “They outgun, outman, and outmaneuver us ten to one and more.”

Lady Katherine’s bow was aimed against the wind, with no small amount of fuss from the sails. Katherine braced herself as the ship was wrenched to a sudden halt.

The pirate brigantine approached at such a startling speed that, for an alarming instant, Katherine thought that its bowsprit would rake across the deck and split her in half. The brigantine tilted sharply and ran parallel to Lady Katherine. Each snap of the brigantine’s sails sounded with the fury of a thunderclap. Protruding from the bulwark were six cast-iron, four-pound cannons. Swivel guns were mounted on the quarterdeck and forecastle. Scattered across the decks were what Katherine wagered to be a hundred pirates.

Before she could absorb further details, Thomas seized her firmly by the arm and whisked her to their cabin. “It won’t last long,” he assured her, “but keep yourself concealed beneath the bed, you hear me?”

She nodded.

“I love you,” he said. He closed the door before she could echo his words.

 

It was six hours before she was discovered underneath the bed.

The night began with five rapid thudding sounds, followed by three loud clacking noises, and a violent tremor of feet pummeling the deck. She heard domineering shouts from the pirates and submissive responses from Thomas’s crew.

Several pirates spilled into the cabin, laughing and cursing. She glimpsed only their feet. Some wore boots, but most were barefoot. Through a hole in the heavy quilt that was draped over the bed she watched as they thieved most of her clothes and jewelry. They took whatever perked their interest and then left, their boisterous laughter fading into the roaring pandemonium that had enveloped the main deck.

After what she presumed to be two hours, she heard a loud scuttle and a subsequent shriek that was abruptly cut short. A riotous commotion lasted for nearly five minutes before it broke into uncontrollable fits of laughter. For the next hour she was left to ponder Thomas’s fate. Her mind played out a relentless torrent of ghastly possibilities, with Thomas meeting a grisly fate in every one of them.

And then, with a glorious flood of relief, she heard his voice. Her eyes burned. She squeezed them shut, refusing to allow any tears to burst free; there would be time enough for that later, when she held him in her arms again, and the present ordeal was nothing more than a memory.

Thomas was conversing with a man whose voice held a distinctive air of authority. As this man spoke, the pirates gradually calmed. Katherine found herself transfixed on the voice, even though it was far too muffled through the cabin walls for her to distinguish words. He possessed a tranquil tone that she rather liked, and she temporarily forgot her peril while listening to him.

Thomas and the man with the fair voice eventually ended their conversation, and the pirate uproar started anew. This went on at some length, and the cabin remained empty over the next few hours. Gradually, the clamor outside grew even louder, and the unmistakable sound of a shattering bottle prompted her to wonder if the pirates had discovered the cases of wine in the cargo hold.

The endless ruckus numbed her senses, and she found her eyelids growing heavy. The floor’s wooden planking seemed to stretch away from her. Her vision thinned to narrowing slits that soon receded into darkness.

The door was thrust open, and the ruckus outside flooded the cabin like a tidal wave. Katherine lifted her head before opening her eyes and smashed the crown of her skull against the underbelly of the bed. Her eyes shot open in accordance with the jolting pain.

A pair of buckled shoes marched deliberately for the bed. The man who wore them reached down and tore the quilt away, spoiling her hiding place. With the velocity of a striking snake, his hand shot under the bed to grasp Katherine’s hair, dragging her painfully from cover.

“This ship’s treasures never cease,” said the man with the voice that she had liked so much. But his pleasant enunciation was no match for the hunger in his eyes.

 

The death cry Katherine had heard earlier belonged to one of Thomas’s crew. He had been viciously taken apart by a cutlass, and it looked as though the desecration had continued long after he had perished. His head was connected to his neck by only a few threads of muscle, and his right leg and left arm had been hacked off completely.

The rest of the crew appeared exhausted but relatively uninjured, apart from one man whose right eye was badly bruised. Thomas had been placed in a direction that prevented her from seeing his face, and she assumed that his hands were bound.

The man that had discovered her seemed unwilling to part with her for the duration of the night. She tried not to contemplate his intentions. She was afraid to speak to him or ask any questions. She deduced that he was the captain. He was a clean-shaven, ruggedly handsome man with raven hair that fell on broad shoulders. He wore a long, gold-buttoned, navy-blue coat over a loose-fitting white shirt that was tucked into brown trousers. A red sash was wrapped around his waist, into which he had inserted an impressive flintlock pistol with gold highlights. Over the sash, a large black belt dipped toward his left side, weighted by a cutlass with a jeweled hilt.

In contrast, most of the pirates were dressed in as little as possible. Many of them did not wear shirts and had rolled their trousers up to their knees. They seemed to prefer walking barefoot. Some of them wore brightly colored bandanas. They each brandished a single cutlass, and anywhere from one flintlock pistol to three, fastened at the waist by silk sashes.

The majority of the pirates were white, but Katherine also counted several black men. The blacks seemed less boisterous and far more attuned to their duties than the whites. She couldn’t be sure of the ratio of whites to blacks, because the pirates would continuously descend below decks in rotations, and she would too easily lose track of them.

Lady Katherine had been hitched to the brigantine by grappling hooks, and the pirates had set planks across the two ships. This accounted for the thuds and clacks she had heard earlier that night, just before the pirates boarded the ship. Presently, they were rolling barrels of gunpowder across the planks onto their ship. Between every few barrel runs a pair of pirates would carry across crates, bales of silk, spare sails, anchor cables, and rigging. They were stripping the ship of anything of remote value or potential use.

 

The sun greeted a cloudless sky, but Katherine took no pleasure in it. She was famished beyond reason, wanting more than anything to embrace Thomas. She felt dreadful for all the times she had yelled at him over matters that now seemed trivial. She wondered how he dealt with so rebellious a wife, while other women unquestionably accepted the circumstances their husbands provided. Thomas treated her like a princess, better than any of her friends’ husbands had treated them. She did not deserve such a man.

The plundering lasted until midday; it took the pirates that long to transfer most of Lady Katherine’s cargo to their ship. Katherine’s knees grew so weak that she finally seated herself on the deck without bothering to ask the captain’s permission. He glanced impassively at her.

She started to wonder if this madness would ever end. She didn’t care about Lady Katherine’s lost cargo, so long as it meant the pirates would peacefully be on their way. Losing so much would certainly have repercussions on Thomas’s business, but that was the last thing on her mind. She told herself that everything would be all right. Thomas had forged an acquaintance with the captain earlier that night. As long as they did what was ordered, they would survive this ordeal with a remarkable story to tell.

However, the dead man, whose desecrated corpse had already started to putrefy in the sun, was impossible to ignore. What could he possibly have done to deserve such a fate? Had he tried to run? Where did he think he could have gone? He was stupid, she rationalized. He made a stupid mistake and died for it. These dreadful pirates put his corpse on display as an example of what will happen if we don’t cooperate.

As midday neared, ominous gray clouds gathered rapidly on all sides of the horizon.

The pirates rolled the final barrels of gunpowder across the planks. Most of the crew had ventured back to the brigantine, leaving only a small garrison on Lady Katherine. The captain left Katherine’s side and approached Thomas. Thomas tilted his head and greeted the man with an uneasy smile. The captain adopted a surly demeanor that seemed to catch Thomas off guard. “Is something amiss?” Thomas asked gently.

“You might have obliged our first cannon fire,” replied the captain. He rested his hand on the pommel of his cutlass and gestured to the black flag atop his brigantine. “I have a reputation to preserve, you understand.”

“But sir!” Thomas protested. “You promised you wouldn’t harm anyone else!”

The captain’s emotionless expression held. “I promised I wouldn’t harm any of the crew, beyond that unfortunate young man over there, and I will uphold that end of the bargain. However, I said nothing of sparing the ship’s captain.”

In the blink of an eye, the captain unsheathed his cutlass and plunged the blade into Thomas’s chest. Thomas choked blood and clutched the captain’s shoulder. The captain slapped his hand away and ripped the cutlass from his chest. The blade flashed crimson in the sunlight before it was swiftly returned to its sheath. Thomas managed a glance in Katherine’s direction before collapsing facedown onto the deck. His blood spread in a puddle beneath him, and he did not move again.

Katherine loosed a bloodcurdling wail that would have rattled a banshee. She sprung to her feet and lunged for Thomas, but was held back by the sweaty hands of two pirates. She fought to move forward, her legs going through the motions but advancing her no further, feet slipping on the wet deck. She shook her right arm free and slammed her elbow into one pirate’s nose, spurting blood from his nostrils. She spun, aiming a fist at the left pirate’s jaw, but it did not connect. The man ducked and caught her midsection. He lifted her up and carried her kicking and screaming to the captain, dropping her in front of him. She sprawled gracelessly onto the deck.

“Watch yourselves, mates,” chuckled the pirate with the bleeding nose. “This lass has spirit.”

The captain smiled charmingly down at her, as though he hadn’t murdered her husband only seconds prior. She scrambled onto her hands and knees and smashed into his legs, thinking she might knock him off his feet, but she might as well have tried to topple a statue. He gathered a handful of her hair and dragged her across the deck, toward the planks that connected the two ships. She kicked at his legs and punched at his waist as he hefted her onto a plank. When her mightiest struggles proved pathetically ineffective, she reached pleadingly to Lady Katherine’s crew. Two of them stared woefully at her; the rest did not even hazard a glance.

“Help me!” she shrieked. “Help me, you cowards!” At that, the two who had been watching her turned away. “You bloody cowards!” she shrieked, voice breaking.

She frantically searched for an escape. The train of her mantua snagged on a splinter, and the captain’s feet nearly flew out from under him. He gathered the skirt in his hand and tugged vigorously at it, until the train started to tear. As he wrestled with the dress, Katherine looked to the sea below the planks, wondering if she could dive into the water and escape between the two ships. Unfortunately, the pirates would probably shoot her before she could make her way to safety, and even if they missed, she didn’t fancy herself much of a swimmer.

By the time she fully understood the futility of her dilemma, the train ripped free of the splinter, and the captain hefted her off of the plank and deposited her unceremoniously onto the deck of the pirate brigantine. The pirates slid the planks back onto their deck, and the brigantine started to pull away from Lady Katherine. She scrambled to the bulwark, fumbling beneath the bustle of pirates, and pulled herself up for a final glimpse of her ship. She was contemplating leaping over the wall when the captain snatched her and dragged her kicking and screaming toward his cabin. He shoved her inside and slammed the door, leaving her alone.

The cabin was dimly lit by a couple of milky windows that faced aft. After her vision adapted to the darkness, she saw a small round table in the center of the room and a desk at the starboard end. A dresser and a cabinet hugged the aft wall beneath the windows. A king-sized bed filled most of the port end of the room. The cabin was cramped and the pathways between the furniture were narrow.

She went for the desk first, opening all of the drawers except the top one, which was locked. She tugged at the handle, figuring that something important must have been concealed within, but eventually gave up on it. She moved to the dresser, but found only undergarments and useless trinkets.

She heard a number of voices out on the main deck, but only when she heard the word “girl” did she stop to listen. Individual comments were too difficult to distinguish amid the angry rabble, until one man loudly made clear the general feelings of the crew: “Bad luck, the lot of them . . . worse yet on a ship. How’s this one any different?”

She shuddered as she considered the implications. Her worst fears were confirmed when a pirate with a gruff voice bellowed, “Let the sharks work through her troubles,” followed by a deafening roar of laughter and cheering. There were more comments still, most of them detailing gruesomely ingenious tortures.

Another man said, “Better to put her at a stove. Haven’t had a decent meal in ages.”

“At a stove, or on it,” added another. “Whichever tastes better!”

Thankfully, the captain bombastically proclaimed, “I’ll not give the woman to the sea till I have determined her worth!” And then he chuckled. “Nor would I wish her ravaged by stove or otherwise!”

There was no further discussion on the matter.

Katherine fell to the floor, overcome with feelings of dread. Her stomach gave to convulsions, and she gasped hoarsely for air that would not come. Warm streams of tears rolled down her cheeks and touched her lips. She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that while they were closed some miracle would spirit her back to London. Back to her friends. Back to her husband.

A plethora of memories assaulted her.

She saw Thomas, on the day they were introduced, as he lifted his arms to help her from a carriage. She stumbled purposefully into his arms, doing her best to make the misstep appear genuine. Their lips brushed, but they did not kiss. They remained in that position, his hands around her waist, her red mane enveloping his face like a veil. Their faces flushed nearly the same color as her hair, and they broke into a set of shy giggles.

She saw Thomas with his arm slung across a park bench, awaiting her approach with a fervent smile. He stood and took off his hat and embellished a bow, sending her into a spasm of bubbling laughter. They strolled through the park, coming to a small bridge that formed an arch over a tiny stream. It was here that they kissed for the first time.

She saw Thomas on his knees, presenting her with the most spectacular diamond ring she had ever seen. She knew it had cost him a fortune. She was fraught with words, struggling to explain to him how much he meant to her, and that no diamond could compare.

She saw Thomas on their wedding day, looking more debonair any man present. He held her cheeks and drew her to him until their lips pressed together. Everything seemed to melt away around them, and she wanted the moment to last an eternity.

If only it had.

She saw Thomas dead on the deck of Lady Katherine, facedown in a widening pool of his own blood. The blood spread until it filled the deck and cascaded over the sides. The ship hemorrhaged into the sea like an open wound, dyeing the water crimson.

Katherine opened her eyes.

Regrettably, she had not been spirited back to London. She remained trapped in a cabin belonging to her husband’s murderer. But she was no longer devastated or afraid. Instead her eyes were fixated on the first thing they saw.

The answer had been right in front of her all along.

On the wall above the captain’s desk was a painting of a brigantine at sea, and mounted underneath it were two polished cutlasses with intersecting blades.

  • Kevin

    Great read, love your descriptive style. When can I read the whole thing??

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    Killer first chapter! I want more!

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