The Time : The Golden Age of Piracy - 1716.
The Place : The Pirate Round - from the South African Coast to the sun drenched Islands of the Caribbean.
Escaping the bullying of his elder half brother, from the age of fifteen Jesamiah Acorne has been a pirate with only two loves - his ship and his freedom. But his life is to change when he and his crewmates unsuccessfully attack a merchant ship off the coast of South Africa.
He is to meet Tiola Oldstagh, an insignificant girl, or so he assumes - until she rescues him from a vicious attack, and almost certain death, by pirate hunters. And then he discovers what she really
is; a healer, a midwife - and a white witch. Her name, an anagram of "all that is good."
Tiola and Jesamiah become lovers, but the wealthy Stefan van Overstratten, a Cape Town Dutchman, also wants Tiola as his wife and Jesamiah's jealous brother, Phillipe Mereno, is determined to seek revenge for resentments of the past, a stolen ship and the insult of being cuckolded in his own home.
When the call of the sea and an opportunity to commandeer a beautiful ship - the Sea Witch
- is put in Jesamiah's path he must make a choice between his life as a pirate or his love for Tiola. He wants both, but Mereno and van Overstratten want him dead.
In trouble, imprisoned in the darkness and stench that is the lowest part of his brother's ship, can Tiola with her gift of Craft, and the aid of his loyal crew, save him?
Using all her skills Tiola must conjure up a wind to rescue her lover, but first she must brave the darkness of the ocean depths and confront the supernatural being, Tethys, the Spirit of the Sea, an elemental who will stop at nothing to claim Jesamiah Acorne's soul and bones as a trophy.
In the depths, in the abyss of darkness at the very bottom of the oceans Tethys stirred. She was the soul of the sea, the spirit of the waves and was capable, as the mood took her, of benign complaisance or malicious rage.
She was without form or solidity yet she saw, heard, and became aware of everything within her jurisdiction. And she ruled her water realm with unchallenged power and a terrible omnipotence.
Mermaid was moving fast, the ship bowling along with her sails filled, the canvas billowing, cordage creaking and straining. She climbed over the next wave, her bow lifting to linger a moment before swooping down into another deluge of spray. Completing the seesaw movement her stern soared high as the roller trundled beneath her keel. The wind smelt of hot, dry and dusty land, of jungle and grass savannah. Of Africa.
The look out, clad in an old shirt and sailor's breeches was perched high in the crosstrees, one hundred and thirty feet above the deck. Excited, he pointed to the horizon. "Over there Jesamiah, that's where I saw 'er. I swear I saw a sail!"
With the ease of years of practice, Jesamiah Acorne stepped from the rigging on to the narrow platform that swayed with the lift and plunge of the ship. He hooked his arm through a t'gallant shroud and brought his telescope to his eye, scanned the ocean. Nothing. Nothing except a flat expanse of blue emptiness going on, unbroken, for twenty miles. And beyond that? Another twenty, and another. These were the waters of the Gulf of Guinea, the huge stretch of sea beneath the bulb of land where the trade wealth of West Africa was turned into fat profit: gold, ivory and slaves. The African coast, where merchants found their plentiful supply of human misery and where an entire ship's crew could be wiped out by fever within a week. Where pirates hunted in search of easy prey.
The crew of the Mermaid were not interested in slavers or the foetid coast. Their rough-voiced, ragged-faced Captain, Malachias Taylor, had more lucrative things in mind - the sighting of another ship, preferably a full-laden, poorly manned merchantman with a rich cargo worth plundering. "What can y'see?" he shouted from the deck, squinting upwards at his quartermaster, the relentless sun dazzling his eyes. His second-in-command, Jesamiah, like his father before him, was one of the best seamen Taylor knew.
"Nothing! If young Daniel here did see a sail he has better sight than I 'ave," Jesamiah called down, the frustration clear in his voice. All the same, he studied the sea again with the telescope.
Jesamiah Acorne. Quick to smile, formidable when angered. Tall, tanned, with strong arms and a seaman's tar-stained and callused hands. His black hair fell as an untidy chaos of natural curls to his shoulders, laced into it, lengths of blue ribbon which streamed about his face in the wind, the whipping ends stinging his cheeks. The ladies ashore thought them a wonderful prize when he occasionally offered one as a keepsake.
If there was a ship, Daniel would only have glimpsed her highest sails, the topgallants; the rest of her would still be hull down, unseen below the curve of the horizon. "I think you had too much rum last night, my lad," Jesamiah grinned. "Your eyes are playing tricks on you."
Young Daniel was adamant. "I saw her I say. I'll wager m'next wedge of baccy I did!"
"You know I cannot abide the stuff," Jesamiah chuckled good-natured as he stretched out his arm to ruffle the lad's mop of hair. He had turned his back on anything to do with tobacco - except stealing it - seven years ago when his elder brother had thrown him off their dead father's plantation, with the threat he would hang if ever he returned. But then, Phillipe Mereno was only a half brother and he had always been a cheat and a bully. One day, for the misery of his childhood, Jesamiah would find the opportunity to go back and finish beating the bastard to a pulp.
Out of habit he touched the gold charm dangling from his right earlobe: an acorn, to match the signet ring he had worn since early youth. Presents from his Spanish mother, God rest her soul. She had always thought the acorn, the fruit of the solid and dependable oak tree to be lucky. It had been the first word to come to mind when he had needed a new name in a hurry. Acorne, with an "e" to make the name unique, and his own. About to shut the telescope a flash caught his eye and Jesamiah whisked the bring-it-close upwards again. The sun reflecting on something?
"Wait. Damn it, Daniel - I've got her!" The sudden enthusiasm carried in an eager flurry as he shouted down to the deck, his words greeted by a hollered cheer from the rag-tag of men who made the Mermaid's crew.
Even the usually dour-faced Malachias Taylor managed a smile. "Probably a slaver," he muttered, "but we'll set all sail an' pay her a visit." His gap-toothed smile broadened into a grin. "She might be wantin' company, eh lads?"
Aye she might, but not the sort of company the Mermaid would be offering!
Mermaid had been heeling slightly, as they rounded the point protecting the natural harbour of Cape Town she steadied on an even keel and then rolled to starboard. With cordage and timber complaining, the wheel was put over.
"Tops'l sheets," Jesamiah shouted as the ship glided into her destined anchorage to the western edge of the Bay. "Tops'l clew lines. Helm-a-lee!" And Mermaid turned into the wind, her sails coming aback, her forward motion ceasing as she eased sedately to a halt.
The lime-whitened walls of buildings with their green shutters and tiled or thatched roofs, sprawled between the sea and the rugged, upward sweep of the flat-topped, aptly named Table Mountain. Flanking the dominant plateau was the smaller cone of Devil's Peak and the elongated Signal Hill, the lower extension of the Lion's Head, a mass of rock rearing two thousand feet high that did indeed resemble a crouching lion. Jesamiah found himself staring, awe-struck. The panorama was spectacular.
Driven by the relentless wind howling up from the ice-ridden lands of Antarctica, the Atlantic swept in to spume against tumbled rocks and run against the wide, sweeping curve of sand. Jesamiah had expected Cape Town to be as he imagined all of Africa; impenetrable jungle or empty desert shimmering in a haze of blistering heat. Yes, it was hot, for this was January the southern hemisphere summer, but apart from the bareness of the mountain tops, everything was flushed with a vibrant green.
The famous gardens of the Dutch East India Company, covering all of forty-five acres, were vivid against the backdrop of Table Mountain. The Dutch had planted them specifically; trees and bushes for fruit, and every kind of vegetable that would grow in this climate. The object, to create a trade post for the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the V.O.C., to provide a convenient place for Dutch ships to make repairs, for sailors to rest and stores to be replenished. The trade post had become a settlement, and the settlement had rapidly expanded into a town of more than one thousand permanent residents. Of the fluid population, there was no count. Probably three times as many again.
The crew, leaning over the rails or hanging from the shrouds were gossiping, excited. Jesamiah ignored the buzz of conversation; there was always this lift of expectation at coming into harbour. He felt the euphoria himself, going ashore was suddenly very appealing. They had been at sea a long time. Mermaid desperately needed careening, to be safely beached somewhere for the barnacles, weed and the worm boring into her wooden hull to be scraped clean. A ship that was not careened was a slow ship, and pirate craft by necessity of their trade needed to be fast. It would have to wait a while though, until they sailed on to Madagascar where pirates were welcome and an anchorage was safe. As for the entertainment? Jesamiah grinned, anticipating the delights on offer to a healthy young man who had been at sea for more weeks than he cared to tally.
"Let go!" he yelled, and the fluked anchor, twice the height of a man, splashed down into the water, its cable chuntering busily out through the hawse-hole. They were securely anchored and Jesamiah did not mind admitting he was relieved to be here in more or less one piece. Repairing the Mermaid after that tangle with the Christina Giselle had been a frustrating, time-consuming delay, but as it turned out, not too much of a nuisance. There had been no need to pretend distress to lure another vessel in, the damage to both ship and men had been real enough.
Fortunately, they had struck lucky with a second Spanish trader homeward bound from the East Indies, full laden and worth waiting for. Hoisting Spanish colours - with Jesamiah being half the breed and able to speak the language fluently, his black hair making him look every inch a Spaniard from Cadiz, they had shouted for aid, claiming they had been attacked by pirates. Had taken the unsuspecting victim without a single shot fired from cannon or pistol. That was the art of piracy, to successfully dupe or threaten; to give the impression of horrors that could be unleashed if there was no immediate surrender.
For their purpose in Cape Town they had painted out the Mermaid's name, and added subtle disguises; rigging different sails and fixing two more ornate lanterns, procured from the Spaniard, to either side of the single lamp on the stern taffrail. She was now the highly respectable Mary Anne, a British trader bound for India, anchoring in harbour to take on essential supplies.
Half an hour later, the ship tidied and made ready for when she was to next sail, and wearing his best, not too faded coat and favoured three-cornered hat, Jesamiah was sauntering along the jetty towards the pentagonal fortress protecting both town and harbour. A prerequisite of all trading harbours, especially those dominated by the Dutch, to verify a ship's papers. Failure to do so could result in being blasted out of the water by the several cannon aimed directly at the hull.
He followed the tree-lined canal that ran down from the gardens to flow into the sea beside the fort. A pleasant stroll, except for what leered behind him at the end of the jetty down on the muddy sand of the shore. The gallows. Empty and forlorn, malevolently waiting for a man, a pirate, to decorate the cross-beam.
Tipping his hat backwards slightly and puffing his cheeks, he halted at the fort's archway, a dark-shadowed mouth gaping black against the white of lime-washed walls. Above, an impressive bell tower; he peered at a brass plaque announcing the bell had been cast in Amsterdam in 1697. Beneath it, the coat of arms of the V.O.C. All of it intent on making a statement of invincible strength. In the bright sun on the far side of the tunnel stretching beneath the arch, Dutch soldiers were drilling, muskets aslant across their shoulders. There were dungeons inside this fort. Jesamiah took a fortifying breath, straightened his hat, smoothed his moustache and touched his earring. Best get the job done, present the papers to the harbourmaster. That they were false was immaterial, they looked authentic. The task had fallen to Jesamiah because Taylor had been here before, several times. On the last occasion, only by a stroke of good fortune had he avoided an intimate friendship with those gallows.
Garrison quarters, blacksmith, sailmaker, cooper's bothies. Kitchens, bakery, armoury - the usual cramped bustle of a full-strength fortress. Jesamiah found the harbourmaster's office tucked two doors along, with Erik Vorst seated behind a desk awash with a glut of papers and documents. A sullen, fat-bellied man with bad breath, and from the way he continuously belched, a martyr to chronic indigestion.
"Where is your captain then?" Vorst asked testily as he squinted at the illegible writing of the two documents Jesamiah handed him. "It is usual for the captain to present these, not his subordinate."
"As it is usual for the Mary Anne's captain to be drunk in his cot. He will not emerge for another four and twenty hours yet," Jesamiah answered smoothly, his deep, husky voice losing the clipped pirate accent he used when aboard with the men. Jesamiah was educated, able to read, write, tally numbers and knew the intricacies of navigation. It came in useful to be able to change his speech patterns as necessity demanded.
Vorst belched again and scratched beneath his armpit, releasing a pungent smell of body odour. Drunk? Ja, he had heard the same before. "Where are you bound?"
"Bombay, Calcutta. Might cruise on down to Sumatra or Java." Jesamiah lied as he perched one buttock on the corner of the desk, ignoring the ensuing frown of disapproval. "What I would prefer to do is go on to New Holland - Australia some are calling it now, are they not? Have a go at circumnavigation. Round the world, eh? What an adventure!" He narrowed his eyes and peered into an imaginary distance, enjoying the false embellishment of conversation.
He could think of nothing more dreadful than sailing all the way around the globe. Pitting ship and soul against those monstrous seas off Cape Horn? No thank you! Bravado might suit some, but he had all the excitement he needed in the existence he already had. He sighed, slapped his hands against his thighs, rubbed them along the worn canvas of his breeches. "The Mary Anne is not suitably equipped for such a journey, and our captain is not," he paused rubbed his moustache, his embarrassment apparently genuine. "I was going to say competent, but that sounds disloyal. Intrepid, perhaps?"
Failing to see the lie, shrugging, the harbourmaster rolled the ship's papers and handed them back to Jesamiah along with the document giving permission to be anchored. "Dank u. Hand this in at the gate as you leave, it'll ensure the guns are stood down. In my opinion for such a venture you either have to be barking mad or an utter bore. We have both lack-lustre qualities residing here in Cape Town at the moment. Captain Woodes Rogers put in two months ago." He vaguely gestured over his shoulder. "His ships are in harbour, you must have noticed them? Duke and Duchess. I wish to God he'd stay his mouth, return aboard and clear off back to England. If I hear one more account of how he captured the Acapulco Galleon or Nuestra Señora, I'll cut my throat," muttered quietly under his breath, "Or his."
Jesamiah frowned. He had noticed the ships, had taken a careful look at what was anchored as they sailed into harbour to ensure the Christina Giselle was not among them. It would not do to be recognised. "Rogers? Never heard of him."
"Nor do you want to. He seems to have made a profitable job of his privateering commission against Spain and is determined to ensure everyone knows about it. His holds are stuff-packed with Spanish bullion, so he claims. Don't believe a word of it myself."
Carefully, Jesamiah schooled his face to remain neutral, although it was difficult to keep the gleam of lust from his eyes. Two rich pickings right here in front of them? Best leave them alone, they would never get past the fort's battery, not while the Mermaid was worm-riddled and encrusted with barnacles. Now, if they had already careened? Ah well.
"Privateer eh?" He said with a shrug. "A British commission to legally plunder anything flying a Spanish ensign? I don't suppose the Spanish see it that way. They'd say he was nothing but a scamp of a pirate."
"We don't hold with pirates in these waters," Vorst answered huffily, affronted at the offensive word, pirate.
"Rightly so, but the distinction between privateering and pirating depends on which side the wind is blowing from, does it not?" Jesamiah smiled, friendly, at ease. "If I were Spanish for example, I could blast the shit out of Duke and Duchess and claim I had every right to do so."
"Except the heavy artillery of this fort would be blowing you to kingdom come before you could get more than one shot fired."
Conceding the point, Jesamiah grinned, adding, "Unless the Dutch government decide to change alliance and side with Spain." At the disapproving glare he thought it prudent to alter tack. "You said one is mad?"
"As one of your English March hares. Dampier. William Dampier. Had too much of the sun boiling his brains if you ask me. Obsessed with detailing every living thing he comes across, always scribbling in his note-book. I saw him flat on his belly down on the beach the other day, wig askew, studying a crab would you believe? I mean, for God's sake, the things are only fit for eating. What point in drawing the little sods?"
Jesamiah's eyes had lit up, glowing with excitement. "Dampier? Now him I have heard of." William Dampier here in Cape Town? The most famous, most successful buccaneer to torment the Spanish - a man who had drawn a very fine line between legitimate privateering and the hanging offence of piracy! He had first rounded Cape Horn and crossed the Pacific to the East Indies in 1680, had circumnavigated the World yet again since then - three occasions if this Woodes Rogers had indeed commanded another successful expedition. Jesamiah's copy of Dampier's book, so well read it was dog-eared and falling apart. To meet him? Ah, the questions he would ask! He had no intention of attempting such a venture, but that did not deter Jesamiah's enthralment of reading about it.
Talking of crabs, I would not recommend too many of the blighters. Give you belly ache." He gestured Jesamiah towards the door. "If you would excuse me, I need to sit on the comfort stool a while. If you are a follower of adventure try presenting yourself at the Golden Hind, one of our more respectable taverns. Rogers is billeted there, no doubt he will delight in boring the wax out of a fresh ear."
Sketching a half-hearted salute to the harbourmaster's disappearing back Jesamiah casually rummaged through the scatter of papers on the desk, found a few documents that might prove useful in the future and stuffed them into his coat's cavernous inner pocket, along with a bag of coin and an attractive pocket watch left lying there on the desk for anyone to pick up.
Outside, standing on the civilian side of the arch he considered what to do next. The brothel first or a tavern? He turned up the street, away from the range of buildings that served as slave quarters for inbound wretches. The wealth of South Africa as with the Caribbean islands of the West Indies and the tobacco and cotton colonies of the Americas, were being built by the captive labour of Irish and British convicts and African blacks. Only on a pirate ship were men treated as equal. The Sweet Trade, where a man could be free of the law and bigotry.
A neat, pretty town with streets set in an orderly grid pattern, the overall effect spoilt by the rough roads, wandering animals and the stink of an open sewage system. Warehouses, ship yards, chandlers and carpenters were arrayed along the sea-front. Behind them the more wealthy townhouses were double-storied, typical Dutch in design, all standing alongside taverns, lodgings and workshops. A scatter of churches, a few mosques. And brothels. There were always brothels.
The uphill ground swayed and dipped as he walked, a common problem for those who had been a while at sea, the movement of the ship staying with the body even on solid land. From experience Jesamiah knew to keep his eyes looking straight ahead and ignore the uncomfortable feeling that he was about to fall, but all the same, his gait rolled and he almost tripped up twice when misjudging the height of steps. He turned left and the street suddenly widened into a market square cluttered with stalls and bothies, a multitude of people, buyers, sellers, browsers, beggars and thieves.
Buying a coconut-shell bowl of minced lamb and rice he strolled along while eating, scooping the food with his fingers, enjoying the delicious mess it made. Wiping his hands every so often down the front of his coat he casually glanced at the trade stalls, wondered how Malachias was faring with selling some of the cargo wharf-side. That was his problem, Jesamiah had played his part. He stopped to inspect a few bedraggled parrots and wandered on. He was tempted to make his way to the Golden Hind, it would be wonderful to meet Dampier. Would such a move be sailing too close to the wind? If anyone could spot a pirate masquerading as a trader it would be Dampier. Jesamiah sighed, he would have enjoyed personally meeting the man. Best not.
Enthusiasm for these few precious hours ashore was draining away, his mood turning sour, the prospect of sport in bed with one of Cape Town's doxies losing its appeal. Perhaps a tot or two of rum would rekindle his interest?
Dismally, he inspected the several taverns on the uphill side of the square. Nothing seemed inspiring. He wove his way through the crowd, seemingly, every race, colour and creed from every continent; a babble of languages, a variety of costume and clothing. Was it any wonder Cape Town had earned for itself the title Tavern of the Seas?
He paused at a stall where a German was enquiring after the tobacco pipes for sale, picking each one up to closely inspect it with a squinting short-sightedness. Jesamiah slid in beside him, feigning interest in purchasing a pipe for himself, his eyes lingering on the fat money pouch the fool had carelessly put down on the table top. His fingers twitching towards it, Jesamiah grimaced. So tempting to quietly take it up, slip it into his pocket. he was not here to draw attention to himself. He withdrew his hand then abruptly changed his mind, swung back to lift the pouch, clasping his fingers neatly around it - just as the German remembered the thing.
Jesamiah's reaction was the quicker. "Your money, mein herr? It is not sensible to leave it where any common cut-purse could so easily steal it." With a smile, he took up the astonished man's hand and put the pouch securely into his palm. Touching his hat in genial salute, Jesamiah strolled on, puffing his cheeks. That had been close! The penalty for stealing was no different than piracy. Hanging.
"Sea Witch" by Helen Hollick
"In the sexiest pirate contest Jesamiah Acorne gives Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow a run for his money."
gives us everything we want in a grand pirate adventure - swashbuckling action, great villains, lovely women in distress, sea fights and adventures on land, all grounded in solid research that gives the book a real feel of authenticity. This is a terrific read for lovers of pirate tales, lovers of historical fiction, and lovers of great adventure stories."
James L. Nelson
"A wonderful swash-buckler of a novel. Fans of Pirates of the Caribbean
will love this to pieces of eight! A fabulous splash of piratical adventure on the high seas. Prepare to be abducted by a devil-may-care pirate and enchanted by a white witch. Mayhem and magic, splendour and squalor, beautiful ships, dangerous pirates and wild women, Helen Hollick has written a fabulous historical adventure that will have you reading into the small hours!"
"Helen Hollick has it all! She tells a great story, gets her history right and writes consistently readable books!"