The merchant ship Chrysalis sat low on the ocean wave, her cargo hold packed with the fruits of a generous Mythrian harvest. Thaddus Lean, her owner and captain, did not usually trade for grain; it was perishable and usually yielded little profit. But the Winds had conspired this Cycle and created a once in a lifetime opportunity he couldn’t pass up. While the farmer folk in Mythria complained of low prices because of the bounty, the hapless folks of Gebrel suffered from their third year of drought, their fields barren. The mountainous nation had wealthy gold reserves, but what use is gold when there is nothing to eat? With a pound of grain trading for the equivalent of a pound of gold, Thaddus Lean was about to become the richest merchant between the Spires.
He was about to let loose a laugh when the melodious whistling caught his ear. A chill crept from his cheek to his spine. For a moment he considered ignoring the tune; it was probably a bird in the distance, a stray graywill pushed too far from shore by callous winds. But then he heard the captivating voice, the soft sweet words drifting over the gentle sea like a lover’s call.
‘Gray waves swell on a churning sea,
Firelight dancing like a joyful sprite,
Ship burn bright for all to see,
Sailors souls rise to the night.’
Thaddus’s joy shriveled like a flower in winter’s grip.
“Siren,” he whispered.
“Siren!” a sailor shouted from the crow’s nest.
The merchant ship exploded into activity without one word from Thaddus. Any sailor worth his money belt knew what the the song meant, even if he did not understand the language. Musketeers climbed the sail ropes then took their perches. Cannon ports were opened and the guns rolled into position. They were a merchant ship, which meant they would be outgunned. But they had to be prepared. Thaddus Lean clambered from his bed the hurried to the cedar trunk at the foot of his bunk. He fumbled with his keys as he attempted to open the lock with trembling hands.
“Steady man,” he whispered to himself. “Steady.”
He opened the lock, lifted the lid then pulled out his leather armor. Donning it quickly, he then shuffled to his weapons cabinet. He strapped on his cutlass then took out and loaded his blunderbuss. Thaddus Lean was not going to lose his fortune without a fight.
The ship waited in silent tension as Siren’s schooner approached. It was a small ship, but bristled with cannon and men. The masts bristled with musketeers and the deck seethed with armed men. As she sailed closer Thaddus saw her, sitting like a princess out on an evening jaunt, her beautiful brown face tilted toward the sky as she sang. Despite the desperate situation he found himself entranced, listening to her voice as she sang of love and loss.
The spell was broken by the call of his name.
Thaddus blinked. Siren no longer looked into the sky. Her eyes were locked on him.
“I’m sure you think we have come to steal your cargo,” she shouted. “But that is not so. We have come to buy it.”
Thaddus’s first mate, KelanGould, appeared at his side. The tall, bronze man was also the senior guildsman and had a personal stake in the cargo.
“Don’t listen to the wench!” he said. “She’s here to steal our cargo and end us!”
Thaddus looked at the man as if he was a giraffe.
“And what to you expect me to do, fight after she has offered us parlay?” he said.
“Of course!”Kelan replied.
“Let’s hear your offer,” Thaddus said. The ships were now close enough for Thaddus to see her smile.
“Twenty gold crowns!” she shouted.
It was far less than Thaddus would receive if he delivered the cargo, but much more than he would have received under normal circumstances. Add his life into the deal and it was well worth it.
“We refuse!” Kelan shouted. “I am Kelan Gould of the shipper’s Guild. Twenty gold crowns is an insult. We can get three times as much in Gebrel!’
Siren’s smile faded. “Thaddus, does this fool speak for you?”
“No,” Thaddus said quickly.
“KelanGould, apparently you have mistaken this as a negotiation,” Siren said. “It’s not. Brak!”
A musket barked and Kellen jerked then fell to the deck, a musket ball in his forehead. Thaddus looked up to see a burly bare-chested man in Siren’s crow’s nest lowering his musket to reload.
The ships were close enough for boarding. Siren and a dozen pirates swung over on ropes. Siren sauntered to Thaddus then pulled a leather pouch from her waist belt.
“Half your payment,” she said. “You’ll get the remainder when we reach port.”
“Which port?” Thaddus asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” she answered. “My men will take the helm. Go to your cabin and rest Thaddus. We’ll handle it from here.”
Siren was walking away when Thaddus called out.
“Why pay me?” he asked. “You could have taken it.”
Siren turned then smiled. “Fighting would have damaged the cargo. I need it intact.”
Thaddus watched her swing back to her ship, a song on her voice. He looked at Kelan’s body on the deck and realized how it could have been him lying there instead.
“I’ll be in my cabin,” Thaddus said. He would take Siren’s advice. He had a bottle of rum that needed his attention.
* * *
Black sails crested the horizon, hidden from the shoreline watchtowers by dense fog. Though the harbor guards could not see the approaching vessel, the captain of the sleek schooner knew well the shore she approached. It had once been her home, if a plantation could be considered such a thing.
She turned to the tall, burly man standing beside her, his umber bare chest a collection of scars.
"Let's get to the boats," she said.
Together they marched to the bulwark and joined the others. These were the elite of her crew, men and women who had proven themselves time and time again in battle.
"We won't have much time," she said. "So stay focused. They won't know we're coming so do the best you can to get them out. And remember, we only have so much room. Bring back only those you need."
Everyone nodded. She looked about the deck before spotting Malik.
"Malik!" she shouted.
The lithe man hurried to her side.
"Are the cannons ready?"
"Yes, Siren," he said.
She raised her arm as he did, the two of them setting the wrist clocks attached to their leather gloves.
"Begin the bombardment in ten minutes," she said. "We should be to shore by then."
"Yes Siren," he said.
They touched foreheads and shared a smiled. Malik was her oldest and dearest friend. There was no one she trusted more.
"Bring them back, Akini," he said, using her little name.
"I will, Ajamu," she said.
They touched each other's cheek then broke away to their duties. When she faced her landing crew her smile was gone. She climbed over the bulwark then sat in the first boat hanging over the side. The others boarded and the boats were lowered into the choppy sea. Conditions were bad for a boat landing but perfect for her plan. They rowed to shore with eight boats; three fill with the landing party, three empty and two filled with supplies.
Ajamu's timing was perfect. The cannons roars as the boats ran aground. Siren leaped over the side with the others, drawing her sword and pistol.
"Get the rifles and follow me," she ordered.
In moments they ran across the misty field, her memory unflagging. The cane appeared abruptly and old memories of pain and drudgery hit her like a physical blow. She remembered her thin arms clutching the cane stalks, the leaves cutting her skin like razors. The brutal work from sun up till sun down, then trying to stay awake as mama soothed her wounds with butter and kisses. The horror of a dead worker among the stalks, another soul worked to oblivion. She stumbled but her burly friend caught her.
"Are you alright, Siren?" he asked.
"I am, Brak," she replied. She pulled away from his grasp, angry at her weakness.
They met the first overseer halfway through the fields. He turned suddenly, his eyes wide when he recognized what was happening. Siren drove her sword through his throat before he had the chance to shout. The second overseer stood by the slave houses, too close to kill silently.
"Brak," she shouted.
Brak raised his musket then fired. The man's head jerked then he crumpled to the ground. Moments later the alarm drum rumbled.
Siren and the others quickened there pace. The other overseers appeared with muskets, swords and maces. They were no match for Siren and her sailors. Siren shot her pistols empty then used them as clubs in concert with her sword as she cut through the inept guards.
"Find you loved ones!" she shouted. "Our time is short."
She ran directly to the hut where her family lived. She burst inside and was greeted by their fearful faces, faces that transformed to joy when they recognized her.
"Akini!" they shouted.
Her mother was the last to come to her.
"You said you would come back," she said.
"And I have. Now come. We must hurry."
She met the others running back to the boats with their families, passing those who did not have anyone to rescue them. A group of her sailors stood in the middle of the village with the wrapped bundles. Siren went to them, her family in tow.
"Listen to me!" she shouted. "I wish I could take you all with me but I can't. But I will not leave you here defenseless."
The men opened the bundles. There were muskets, pistols, swords and knives.
"You can die in the fields, or you can risk your life now for freedom. Those who wish to risk it should head due west. There is a city on the coast that will take you in. Your life there won't be easy, but it will better than this. May the Goddess guide you!"
The workers surged at the weapons as Siren and the others fled to the boats. Siren and her men kept watch as the others clambered into the boats; Siren and her cohorts boarded the last boats then set off. The sound of the militia came to their ears as they disappeared in the fog.
"There will be a nice reception waiting for them," Brak said with a smile.
"Nice indeed," Siren replied.
She reunited with her family on deck. Her brothers and sisters gathered around her, hugging her waist and legs.
"What are you orders, Siren?" Brak said.
Her family froze, their eyes filled with wonder.
"You're Siren?" her brother said.
"To you I'll always be Akini," she answered.
She looked at her mother, who smiled proudly.
"Just like your father," she said.
"And just like you," Siren replied.
Her mother joined the familial embrace as the ship faded into the misty seas.