Page 16 Blog KenGreen
THE SEA WITCH
By Ken Green
“Help you?” Sophia laughed, “Why on Earth would I help you?”
Below decks, by the light of his lantern, Captain Lambeth regarded the woman in the cage. Although he knew she was a demon, he could not see her as anything other than a woman. Not a hag, nor a crone, but a moderately attractive, middle-aged woman. Is she beguiling me with her magic? Surely not. She is surrounded by iron, and iron is sovereign from magic. Everybody knows that.
“If the French sink us, you will sink with the rest of us,” he said. The Aurora, a supply ship and Lambeth’s command, had been playing hide-and-seek with a French man of war all afternoon. It had taken every ounce of Lambeth’s sailing skill to stay out range of the French ship’s guns. A de facto truce had been imposed by the setting of the sun. Lambet had hoped to slip away under cover of night, but that hope had died with the wind. The Aurora was becalmed. In a few scant hours, the sun would rise, the French would find her, and guns would roar, reducing her to matchsticks. Unless this damned witch could help.
“Why would I care about that?” she asked, “If this ship survives it will take me to Plymouth, where I will be tried and hanged. Do you think hanging is a better death than drowning? Either way, I’m just as dead. If you want my help, make me a better offer.”
“I can offer you freedom,” Lambeth offered.
Sophia folded her arms.
“You don’t have the authority to pardon me,” she said.
“No,” he said, “But can give you a whaleboat, food, and water…”
The witch laughed.
“You’re going to dump me in the middle of the ocean…”
“…the English Channel…” Lambet corrected.
“You’re going to dump me in the middle of the English Channel, in a rowboat? No thanks, I’d rather take my chances with the French. Who knows? Perhaps they’ll board this ship and take it as a prize. I could sell my services to them.”
“The French are Catholics. They burn witches, I believe.”
“Oh,” she said, “Yes, I imagine they would. In any case, better the devil you know than some snail-eating papist. Very well, let’s make a pact. Get in here.”
“Get…” Lambeth stammered, looking at the cage, “…in there? With you?” Once he was in the cage, with no iron between them, he had no protection from any magic she might cast.
“Yes,” she said, smiling, “You’re are asking me to trust you with my life. I am demanding you do the same. Open that door, and come into this cell. Or stand there, cowering behind that damned iron, and we’ll both die come the dawn.”
Lambeth stood, torn by indecision. The witch was his only chance, but at what cost?
“Captain, this grows tiresome,” the witch taunted, “Will you not risk your soul to save your men?”
Lambet thrust the key into the lock and turned it.
“Damn you, you witch,” he cursed.
“Redundant and redundant,” she chided, “Stop being a child and get in here, before I change my mind.”
He swung the cell door open and entered.
“There’s my brave boy,” she cooed, stepping toward him, “You’re quite a handsome man, Captain Lambeth…”
“Stay back,” he said, “Stay back, or I’ll…”
“You’ll do what?” Quick as a wink, she had one hand on his shoulder, and one on his chest. He gasped as her icy grip held him in agonized paralysis. He could only watch as her hand moved over his heart, then pressed, harder and harder.
“Witch,” he hissed, through clenched teeth, “I knew you’d betray me.”
“You’re wrong, my captain,” she whispered, her voice strangely sweet, “I am not killing you, I merely seek assurance.” She looked at his face, and her eyes were filled with kindness, “And I’m truly sorry, but this is going to hurt.” She pushed harder, and his flesh parted. Her hand was in his chest! Her ice-cold grip encased his heart. He threw his head back, but could not scream, though the agony was beyond measure. After an eternity of torment, she relented. Her hand left his chest, the pain ended, leaving only a cold feeling.
“What have you done?” he gasped, looking at his chest. He had expected to see a gaping wound, but there was none. Even the shirt he wore was undamaged.
“A binding spell, my love. Our souls are now entwined. Our hearts are one. Neither of us can suffer a hurt without the other suffering also. It’s the only way to be sure. Neither of us can betray the other.”
“Why do you speak to me in lover’s words?” he asked, confused. The ache in his chest seemed to change, from ragged cold to a sweet warmth.
“Because I love you, my sweet captain, my brave champion. And if you take a moment to sort out your feelings, you’ll know that you now love me.”
“I do not,” he said, but even as the words escaped his lips, he knew they were a lie. He looked at the woman in wonder. Minutes before, he was ready to put a musket ball in her head if needed. But, under the effects of the spell, he could no more hurt her than he could cut off his own arm. He looked at her. In the flickering light, she glowed. He wanted to protect her, keep her safe, but most of all, he wanted to touch her.
“For how long?” he asked, “How long will this…binding last?” he asked.
“Love is eternal,” she said with a smile.
Hearing the words, he knew they were true. He knew he was damned. This whore, this slave of Satan, had taken his soul. He knew he should hate her for that, but knowing changed nothing. He wanted nothing but to hold her, to be in her arms…
“There will be time for that later, my love,” she said, her voice so soft and melodious, “After we escape the French.”
“How will we escape them?” Lambeth asked.
“You could start by letting me out of this cage, she said, smiling.
“Of course,” he said, and turned to lead the way. They stepped out of the cage. The cargo hold echoed with their footsteps. Pale moonlight streamed through the hatchway above. He led her to the ladder and extinguished the lantern.
Sophia glanced up the ladder.
“I’ll let you go first,” she said, “I’d like to keep my head.”
Lambeth ascended. On the darkened deck were Bosun Scully and First Mate Haveluck, both with swords drawn.
“How’d it go, Cap’n?” Scully asked, “Did she say she’d help?”
“She did,” Lambeth said, and stepped aside. Sophia emerged from the hatch.
Scully and Haveluck retreated a step. Haveluck crossed himself.
“You let her out, sir?” Scully creaked.
“He had to,” Sophia said, “I couldn’t do anything in that iron box, could I? Relax, boys we’re all friends now.”
The fresh sea air seemed to invigorate Sophia. She took a deep breath, ran her fingers through her hair, and smiled lustily.
“Now tell me about this wicked French ship that troubles you so,” she said, as she walked to the railing, her hips swaying in rhythm with the sea.
“She’s a sixty-gun frigate, with a first-rate crew…” Lambeth said.
“I see her,” Sophia said, her voice now cold, “Do you see that tiny dot of light in the distance?” she pointed, “They have their lanterns lit, the arrogant bastards. Have they no fear?”
“Why should they fear us?” Lambeth asked, “They have sixty guns, I don’t have any. They have a hundred men, I have but twenty. So work your magic, and get us out of here. Let us escape before the dawn.”
“No,” Sophia said, “These men mock my captain. They must be taught a lesson. We will take that ship, and put them in irons.”
“Are you mad?” Lambeth asked, “Did you not hear what I said? We cannot fight them, the odds are too great…”
“You shame me, Lover,” Sophia scolded, “How dare you show cowardice in front of your men?”
“Lover?” Haveluck asked, “What is she talking about, Captain?”
“I’ll explain later,” Lambeth said, “Sophia can’t you just…summon a wind to take us away?”
“Summon a wind?” Sophia laughed, “Is that how you think magic works? Do you think I can just wiggle my fingers and whistle up a wind? Do you have any idea how big the sky truly is? Do you think Aeolus owes me any favors?”
“I don’t know, I just thought…”
“You thought nothing. You are a man. Wait,” she sniffed the air, “The French have more than guns and men. They have a wizard,” she laughed, “That is why we’re becalmed. The fool sought to speed their journey, and offended the Anemoi. Such is the arrogance of men.”
“Could you…summon a whale to tow us away?” Scully asked.
“No, you spineless little man, And I wouldn’t if I could. That ship is the enemy and its captain has insulted my lover’s honor. We will not run this night. We will take that ship, you will sail it to Plymouth, and the prize court will fill your pockets with bounty.”
“She’s right, Cap’n,” Scully said, “The reward would be substantial.”
“But we’ll never collect it,” Lambeth said, “The odds are five to our one. It’s impossible!”
“With love, nothing is impossible,” Sophia said, “Gather your men, we’ll make a plan.”
The men were gathered and stood in a circle, Sophia and Lambeth at its center. Sophia demanded a barrel of pitch, and sailors lifted one to the deck. She had them strip to the waist, and painted sigils on their faces, arms and chests.
“This night,” she told them, “You walk in two worlds, half in this one, half in the next. The symbols you wear will confuse your enemy and put fear in his heart. Musket balls will not find your flesh. Blades will not cut your skin, as long as you remain brave. This night you are not sailors. You are assassins, you are beasts, cold and cunning, with hearts of ice. Move quickly, in silence, and show no mercy. Your enemy will fall like wheat before the scythe.”
“But what about their wizard?” Lambeth asked.
“Leave the wizard to me, my lover,” Sophia said, kissing him, “You have your war, I have mine.”
The men lowered the whaleboats and rowed with muffled sails toward the frigate. Sophia stood, spread her arms and spoke low in a blasphemous tongue. A fog arose to conceal their approach. She continued her chanting. The men seemed to change. The sigils on their skin seemed to move. Their teeth grew longer, their arms more corded. They chuckled and growled, and bit at the air, anticipating the taste of blood.
Reaching the frigate, they threw themselves upon it, climbing its hull with the sure grace of monkeys. As they vaulted over the railing, a French sentry cried out an alarm. The men echoed his cry, mocking him, as they fell upon him with fists, daggers, and teeth. Other Frenchmen ran to his aid, but were met by Lambeth’s men, now more beast than human, who ran the decks like foxes in a henhouse. Sophia chuckled as she watched two Frenchmen scramble up the rigging, hoping to find safety above. She raised a hand, and chanted. The only words Lambeth could make out were “…ropes become vipers…”. They screamed and fell to the deck, where they lie broken.
More Frenchmen boiled up from the hold. The British remembered they had swords, and used them with savage glee. Soon, the deck was awash with blood and littered with limbs. The French routed, and holed up in the aftcastle.
“The ship is yours, my glorious captain!” Sophia called out, beautiful and terrifying in the yellow lantern light, “The French request to surrender! Hear how they beg!”
Victory did nothing to calm Lambeth’s men. Robbed of an enemy, they growled and snapped at one another. It seemed another brawl would begin.
“The French can wait,” Lambeth said, “What about my crew?”
Sophia sang to them, a strange lullaby. From God knows where, she produced a rag and a jug of turpentine. She went to each man and, smiling sweetly, wiped the sigils from their faces and blessed them with a kiss. In turn, each man came back to his senses, gazing in horror at what he had done. A few wept. Fewer seemed proud.
Lambeth accepted the French’s surrender. He detailed men to escort the prisoners to the brig.
“Wait,” Sophia said, “Give me the wizard.”
The French seemed all too eager to hand over their ally, for all the good he’d done them. He put up a token struggle, but soon they forced him to his knees.
“Mr. Scully,” Sophia said, “Do be a lamb, and strike this man’s head off for me.”
“Sophia!” Lambeth objected, “The articles of war clearly state…”
“You are fighting your war, and I am fighting mine,” Sophia said, “Please, Mr. Scully.”
It took three tries, but the deed was done. As the head fell to the deck, the sails rustled. A fresh, chilling breeze stirred them. Sophia bent to claim her trophy, stood and held it away from herself, as it was still dripping.
“You have your prize, and I have mine, Aeolus is appeased, the wind has returned,” she said, her smile radiant, as she strode to the frigate’s railing, “And now, I fear it’s time for us to part, my captain.”
Lambeth rushed to her.
“Part?” he asked, in a panic, “What are you saying? Where would you go?”
“To the place I always go,” she said, her smile wistful, “Anywhere I want,” She turned to face the water, “Poseidon, I offer this as my fare.” She dropped the severed head into the water. The water boiled, and from it emerged a strange chariot, drawn by a very large fish.
“I thought you said you couldn’t do that,” Scully said.
“Lovers lie, Mr. Scully,” she said, as she straddled the railing.
“No, Sophia, do not leave me,” Lambeth begged, “I cannot live without you.”
“How did you think this would end?” she asked, “Did you think to marry me, and build a cottage on the beach? Then put babies in my belly for me to raise while you sail off to adventure? No, thank you, my captain. I am a witch. I dance in sacred groves and howl at the moon. I am no man’s wife, not even yours.”
“But, I love you,” Lambeth pleaded.
“Yes, and I love you, and always will” she said, tears in her eyes, “But this is the way it must be. You walk in your world, I walk in mine. It can be no other way.”
With the grace of a dancer, she swung off the rail and stepped onto her strange sea-chariot.
“Fare well, my love, and know that part of me will be with you always.” The fish twitched his tail, and the chariot sped away.
Scully raised his flintlock and took aim.
“No,” Lambeth said, “Let her go. She kept her bargain, and more. Let her go.”