This story appears in the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition.
Two days after leaving Alonso with her octopuses and Soviet space monkeys, Meteor Mags borrowed Plutonian’s ship to take supplies to her new and unusual crew. She expected her mates would be making a home of the freighter Hyades and working hard to restore the laboratory on the freshly-named Svoboda 9 asteroid. Having worked with so many musicians in her long and reckless life, she really should have known better.
With Patches by her side, Mags took the elevator from the surface down to the lab. The door slid open to reveal to their ears a pounding, pulsating music. The entire cavern throbbed. Patches purred and rubbed her face on a rocky outcrop. Pressing her ears back, she dashed into the lab.
Following her cat, Mags strolled to the epicenter of the sonic earthquake. She discovered Alonso with his baritone guitar plugged in, jamming with the macaques. They had created a drum ensemble from anything that wasn’t nailed down, and quite a few things which were.
On her first visit to feed her colony of mutant krakens, Mags used explosives to demolish the doorway separating their cave from the lab. The resulting rubble now made an orderly semicircle around the gap in the wall.
The monkeys’ matriarch sat in a lotus position on the largest rock. Her left hand, moving back and forth with the beat, held a can filled with nuts and bolts to make a shaker.
At the base of her elevated perch stood Karpov, the leader of the males. With the focused ferocity Mags had come to expect from him, Karpov struck a wrench against an empty and overturned ten-gallon bucket. The percussive bass kicks unified the group, which Mags noted was no longer segregated by gender. The males and females, having kept mostly to themselves for years in their previous home, now sat casually side-by-side on stones and scavenged furniture from the Hyades.
Karpov had fashioned a colorful cloth into a doo rag, and he was not the only macaque to have suddenly and uncharacteristically dressed. Several of the females wore necklaces and bracelets made from odds and ends taken from the freighter: bottle caps with holes punched in them, rubber gasket rings, bolts and washers, and an array of shiny objects. At Alonso’s side, the tiniest of the male monkeys had strapped a welding mask to his face. Tendrils of smoke poured from the sides, and the odor of burning marijuana reached Mags.
Alonso waved his pick hand at her and returned to cranking out riff after monstrous riff. The din sounded like a Clouds Taste Satanic album, with Kodo as the drum section. Patches found a monkey without a drum and flopped at his feet for belly rubs.
Mags took one look at the crew riffing along in perfect unison, and immediately she knew the score. Her octopuses had focused their telepathic abilities to create a mental link between the musicians. Warning them had been pointless.
Her lips curled into a perverse smile. At the circle’s edge, she belted out a painful, high-pitched wail. If Kathleen Hanna had covered Slayer, it would have sounded like the brutal vocal treatment Mags subjected the asteroid to that day. She closed her eyes, clenched her fists, and screamed.
Hang my body on the pier
Hoist it up and shed a tear
Pyrate life is short but free
Now my heart returns to sea
Hang my body on the pier
Hang my body on the pier
Mags thrashed her scarlet curls in time with Alonso. Then she raised her head and sustained a note that grew higher and higher in pitch until, at some unspoken cue, the macaques brought their improvisation to a thundering close.
Alonso wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “That’s so heavy, tía.”
“Great-gramma sang it to me once, when I couldn’t sleep.”
“No wonder you couldn’t sleep,” said Alonso. “With her screaming at you like that?”
Mags lit a stolen cigarette. “I added the screaming. Would you like to hear how Great-gramma sang it?” Without waiting for an answer, she stepped up to Alonso in the center of the tribe. “Are you synched up with these little communists?”
“Yeah, they—did I do something wrong?”
The cherry of her cigarette burned like a laser sight over his face. “Did you?”
“The Svobodans, they—”
“Right, the monkeys. And me, I guess. And—just what do you call a herd of octopuses?”
“A flock, not a herd. Nobody’s playing cowboy with my calamari. They are as free as a flock of—” She waved her hand in the air. “I don’t know.”
“I know there’s a whole lot of them mother-flockers.”
“Two hundred and seven, I’d say. Lonso, do you think you’re playing an instrument right now?”
“Of course I am. Rockin’ out over here, tía.” He played a series of triplets as fast as he could, bent a high note out of shape, and scraped his pick on the strings down the entire length of the neck. “In case you didn’t notice.”
“I noticed. Have you stopped to think that you are the instrument? And the octopuses are playing you? You’re like a set of bagpipes or a drumstick to them.”
“You’re saying I’m a tool.”
“You are such a tool!”
Patches meowed in agreement.
“Now take it from the top, but more acoustic, and play it with this beat.” She clapped a rhythm for him. The matriarch’s shaker startled her. Without a word, the simian drum circle picked up on the beat and accompanied the smuggler. “That’s almost creepy.”
“Just go with it.” Alonso strummed a C minor. “We got your back.”
Over the instruments, Meteor Mags sang the song as her great-grandmother sang it to her more than ninety years before, on a bleak night filled with fear, on a train to nowhere across a landscape thick with enemies.
Mags always thought Great-gramma made it up. But the song was first sung more than three centuries before, on the coast of the American colonies.
1726. From Magdalena’s Memoirs.
When I was thirteen years old, my father said, “Remember what I told you, son.”
I did remember. Keep absolutely quiet. Simple instructions, but well-advised.
I will call him my father from here on in this memoir, for we lived as father and son for nearly a decade to the outside world. I knew my gender was a deception, and that our survival depended on this deception, and it troubled me not at all. The seas will be unkind to anyone suffering from an unfortunate compulsion to always tell the truth.
After all, honest men decorated the piers of the so-called New World. Their bodies hung in cages to attract the carrion birds and remind all who saw them, as their skin rotted in the sun and scavengers consumed their organs, that to be a pyrate was to sign your own execution order. But before serving as the government’s instruments of terror against hard-working people, many of the hanged men insisted on telling the truth.
On that day in Boston in my early adolescence, I heard much truth, and little of it came from the officiators of the murder, on account of pyracy and mutiny, of one William Fly. Against the wishes of the judges and Jesuits who had instructed him in the procedure of being executed by the state, he spoke truth that day.
I knew it was truth because my father and I had served with Fly. Was he quick to murder? Most assuredly. Did the captains he tossed into the sea deserve to die for what they had to done to my former shipmates? Undoubtedly. I would as soon again murder in the company of that man as I would draw my next breath, for I would know with certainty the actions were just and served the interests of the crew.
Fly was to speak that day of the moral necessity of avoiding the sins of a pyrate’s life; of escaping the trap which so justifiably claimed his life now; and the need to eschew taking wealth not rightfully yours to squander on stiff drink and loose women.
Instead, he told the crowd the reasons his former captain deserved to die. Father’s grip on my shoulder reminded me we knew these reasons all too well. The beatings. The starvation. The mutilations. Men speak of hell as if it waits for us after death. But I knew by that age that hell was a merchant ship, and its satanic scourge was a man called the captain.
As the hangman draped the rope around his neck, William Fly sang. The renegade sang before his spine snapped and his abandoned flesh hung in an iron cage for ravens to pluck its tearless eyes and voiceless lips. I shall not soon forget that song.
According to my father’s wishes, I kept silent until we entered what passed for a pub in the colonies of those days and claimed a table in a darkened corner. He fetched us two pints of ale from the bar. Other witnesses to the afternoon’s spectacle wandered in, and their noise formed a cocoon of privacy for our conversation.
“Maggie,” he said, abandoning the pretense I was his son, “that’s the fate awaits us now. If not on this shore, then the shore of someone who sees we’ve wronged them.”
I accepted the ale and drank it heartily, for it vexed me to see one of the few people I admired turned into a scrap of jerky for the gulls. Life with my adopted father had taught me many things, including that its otherwise appalling aspects became tolerable with generous rations of ale and spirits. “That’s if we’re not lucky enough to die at sea, first.”
Father swallowed his ale. I judged him. I did. He was prone to drunkenness, but I was usually too drunk to mind. Except when he struck me.
He had secured profitable employment for us on a year’s voyage, and we had lived in semi-retirement for a year on the spoils. Then the money ran out, and we signed aboard a privateer. Our departure was two days hence, and today’s hanging amounted to Father’s idea of schooling.
I judged him against other men I had known in our travels. He was rough-spoken, though I had helped him with his literacy. We had met a few scholars at sea, and I knew Father was not a man of their intellectual caliber. But he could work rigging and sails with a skill I had seen educated men die attempting to equal.
Perhaps with more education, Father would have been one of the pioneers who created the compass, or the steam engine, or calculus. But he had a taste for drink, and I recall he finished his first ale before the foam had entirely vanished from mine.
“Yer a cold one, Maggie. It’s kept ya alive. We’ll be privateers now. But a letter of marque makes us no less thieves. We take what is not ours, and make it ours.”
I offered my glass in salute, and all the old man clinked against it was froth. Instead of drinking, he softly sang in his gruff, grey-whiskered voice the words William Fly had sung that very day on the gallows.
Hang my body on the pier
From a chain and shed a tear
Pyrate life is short but free
Now my heart returns to sea
Hang my body on the pier
Hang my body on the pier
The sentiment rang true, and not a drop of my ale remained. “But I have different plans,” I told the besotted sailor who raised me. “And I’ll see a thousand frocks die before I see another one of my mates hang like a rooster in a cage.”
“Ha! What do ya plan, little Maggie? Start yer own colony, perhaps?”
“That,” I said, handing over my glass, “is exactly what I plan to do.”
By the time he returned with a second round, he had forgotten my assertion. It took six more years to make good on my promise. By that time, Father was a feeble man.
The sea is cruel to sailors, and it turns many into cruel men. I will not deny he was, at times, cruel with me. But a child at sea learns to expect a certain amount of cruelty as part of any normal day; and she herself becomes cruel.
When I had years to reflect on it, I would judge him again. I would find him, on the whole, the best thing that could have happened to me after my parents’ deaths.
I later felt remorse for treating him as roughly as I did.
1722: The American Colonies.
The girl knelt in the dirt outside the wreckage of a cabin. She slumped forward, and her tears fell to the ground. They did not quench the smoldering embers around her. Nor did they bring to life the silent corpses of the man and woman sprawled before her.
Her sobs would have broken the heart of a man more accustomed to genteel life, and they could move even a sailor as prone to butchery and mayhem as McTavish.
He came this way to scout what goods the nearby village might hold for his crew of brigands, mercenaries, and soldiers without wars to feed them. He suspected whoever killed the man and woman and sacked their isolated cabin was on a similar mission. What grim satisfaction they took in their murder, or what moved them to such cruelty, was not apparent to McTavish, though he had sailed with many who enjoyed savagery as a form of sport.
He peeled off his woolen overcoat. A dirty, blood-smeared nightgown gave the girl scant protection from the morning cold. Approaching cautiously, he draped the coat over her shoulders. She continued shaking, as if McTavish and his coat did not exist in her world of grief.
The cabin’s door, torn from its hinges, lay to one side, and axe blades had scored its obverse face. Inside, the sailor found broken cookware, torn clothing, trampled books, and the contents of a writing desk, all scattered across the floor between overturned tables and chairs. A chest of drawers stood empty. Its insides were strewn about the dwelling. “Sink and burn me.”
McTavish rifled through the mess of papers still on the desk. The script meant nothing to him. Certain seals and insignias he recognized, but he had hardly mastered script in his native tongue, much less these foreign scribblings.
He took a step back, then reconsidered. “Maybe the captain can make sense of ’em.” He rolled the papers like a tube and slipped them into a pocket inside his vest.
The crying stopped.
She stood in the open doorway, clutching his coat around her.
McTavish met her piercing gaze. He judged her to be nine or ten years old, and her red hair reminded him of the woman who raised him. “How are ya called, lass?”
She answered with the wordless stare of a trapped animal, part fear and part hate.
“Devil take ya, then.” He started for the doorway to make his exit, but she did not step aside. “Brave one, eh? Mark my words: I weren’t with the lot who did this to yer mum an’ dad.”
She slid the coat off and tossed it on the cottage floor before him. “Magdalena.”
He squatted to pick it up. “Ho there, Maggie. I regret we didn’t meet under brighter skies.” When he held the fabric, he shivered as if the devil had brushed him with an icy finger. With his eyes fixed on the girl, he drew himself to his full height.
She asked, “Are you a pyrate?”
“We make do as we can on the account.”
She turned away to join the corpses. They had grown stiff and cold to her touch. She stared at them mutely, and what counsel the solemn child kept remained hers alone.
“This country’s no place for ya on yer own. I’ll fetch ya to the village.”
“No,” she said. “To the sea.”
McTavish laughed with the quiet of a graveyard at night. “It’s no fair lot to sail with on me ship, lass. I’ll take ya to the village and ya can fend for yerself well enough there.”
“I can tie knots.” She walked past him back into the cabin and returned with a length of rope.
In her hands, it became a loop. She passed the rope’s end through the loop, around, and back through. Sailors called the result a bowline, and its uses aboard a ship were endless. The other end of the rope, she tied into a hitch that could serve as a block and tackle.
“Split me skull. Where’d ya learn the trade?”
She tossed the rope at his feet, like the coat. “To the sea.”
McTavish made a decision that would change his life. “To the sea, then. But you’ll never be taken aboard as a lass. You’ll have to do as a lad.”
“Aye. Let’s find ya clothes for a lad. Yer father’s, perhaps. If ya can stomach strippin’ yer old man.”
She could, and she did, though it moved her to a fresh wave of tears, now silent.
McTavish cut her hair with a pair of scissors she salvaged from the cabin. He was not the last person to see tears stream down her pale cheeks, but he was the last to hear her weep aloud.
1723. From Magdalena’s Memoirs.
Soon after joining Father’s crew, I learned a French settlement to the north had hung five mates of the men I sailed with. The ship Father took me aboard was a vessel sworn to vengeance, and in my grief its bitter path of destruction soothed me. I felt a rage which could only be calmed by the annihilation of people and property all along the colonial coast.
On our journey northward, I studied the face of each townsperson and sailor we encountered. But I never saw my parents’ murderers—not among the colonists, nor in the crews who joined us when captured and offered a chance to sail under the black flag.
It did not, at first, occur to me that we were no better than the marauders I wished to meet once more. But one can only hear the cries of human misery so many times. To inflict upon the world what was inflicted on one’s self brings only momentary satisfaction, and then bitter regret. I resolved that one day I would regret no longer.
With the violence came plunder, and we ate well until reaching the accursed city and its fortress. Our fortune was rare in a time when starvation, scurvy, whippings, drownings, and amputations defined a sailor’s life. The mutinous fugitives I sailed with that first year had survived such horrors, and knowing their mates had been hanged for pursuing liberation from their suffering provoked them into murderous rage.
In the siege of the northern settlement, we were joined by two frigates carrying the defectors from half a dozen merchant and naval voyages. Their booming cannons echoed ours during the melee. I spent much of it as a powder monkey, supplying the cannons. But when victory was assured, I joined the crew on deck to see what mayhem we had wrought.
The sun had set, and three French ships burned on the waters of the bay. Their blaze illuminated the besieged fort. Though a stone wall created a barrier between the bay and the buildings, it proved vulnerable to our cannons, and the wooden buildings beyond it groaned, shuddered, and collapsed in the aftermath.
Father’s scent reached me before his hand squeezed my shoulder. Sweat dampened his coarse, calico shirt. He worked as hard as any man I ever met, and the reward for his skill with a rope and a sail was a place on the main deck during battle—or high above the deck, if need be. At the time, I was only beginning to understand what one could accomplish with a crew of such men, willing to undertake a profession that could result in mutilation as easily as riches.
I slid my arm around his waist, and he held me.
“Just look at them run.” He gave me a squeeze. “I hear yer doing a fine job as a powder boy.”
A cannon took as many as twelve men and two powder boys to operate, but by then I could do the work of any two of them. “Look there.” I pointed.
Lifeboats now surrounded the floating inferno on the bay. No one on my ship nor our confederates’ offered to help the sailors in the lifeboats. Those men paddled away from the wooden coffins as their masts collapsed and their timbers filled the sky with black and rolling billows.
I considered the plight of the dispossessed sailors as their lives went up in flames. To serve aboard a ship was suffering. To have the ship taken away was suffering. What was the difference? Regardless of circumstance, all human life was suffering, and the only release was death.
It was not the last fort we sacked that year. That honor fell to a papist outpost on the southern coast. Its barracks proved no match for 24-pound iron shot, and its open plaza surrounded by four walls offered scant protection from the hell our frigate’s cannons rained down from the sky. We shelled the Spaniards into submission until the wind carried the smoke away from our cannons and stoked the fires spreading through the crumbling ruin.
My shipmates took much pleasure in firing smaller weapons at the only structure still standing: the bell tower. They gathered by the deck rails, placing bets on which marksman could strike the bell first. We were proud of our flintlock muskets and long rifles then. Though slow to load, a long rifle could be accurate at 250 meters. Sadly, no one I sailed with that day lived to see the next century’s advancements in firearms.
I found Father and joined him in cheering our mates to hit the church bell. But my heart was not as light as my shouting suggested. These papist fortifications sprang up where their empire’s so-called explorers, los conquistadores, had done all they could to exterminate the locals. Then the priests arrived to enslave the minds of any survivors and keep them compliant.
I heard no prayer nor holiness in the shimmering toll of that iron bell, only the cries of native women as their babies were cut from their wombs, and the screams of men with eyes torn out, tongues missing, and blood streaming from their severed limbs.
One after another, rounds of shot rang the bell. Each time, my fellow villains drank to their success. Rum fueled their desire for even louder revelry. They decided to aim a cannon at the bell. Surely that would ring it loudly enough to bring down the entire tower.
None of them considered whether it might also bring down the hand of an angry god to smite them. These men had already made a deal with death herself, painted her visage on their flag, and sworn allegiance to her code.
“To a merry life,” they toasted each other, bashing their mugs together and spilling rum across the deck, “and a short one!”
It was not a question or a wish. It was a certainty.
1729. From Magdalena’s Memoirs.
Father was typically kind to me, and I would be loath to paint him as abusive. But his personal demons held him firmly in their sway when he was drinking, which over the years became constant.
As to the source of his pain, I can only surmise he lost a lover before we met, for in one of his inebriated but lucid moments, he told me, “You remind me so much of her.” His eyes lingered on my face and hair, and then he passed out. He never mentioned it again, nor did he ever cut my hair after that.
Had I more experience in affairs of the heart at that age, I might have pitied Father more than myself. My bruises healed in days. His broken heart never did.
By the time I was fifteen, my red hair fell past my shoulders. My body became a young woman’s, and Father and I could not maintain the pretense of my maleness much longer. This development threatened my sailing career and endangered the friendly partnership the old man and I enjoyed for more than half a decade.
After the privateering expedition which would be our last, we took lodging in a tavern. Father celebrated our recent looting by binging on drink for three solid days. The final night, he returned to our room upstairs in a sorry state, hardly able to stand. He stumbled on the way to bed, and I rushed to his side.
He shouted, “Don’t touch me,” and lashed out blindly. I was no stranger to a brawl, but his sudden savagery caught me unprepared. His fist struck my face, and I stumbled backwards until I met the wall.
I did not think nor hesitate to spring on him. I took the sailor to the floor, immobilizing him by sliding my arms under his and locking my hands behind his head. I shoved his face into the floorboards. “Old man, if you lay another hand on me, you will lose it!”
He struggled like a fish flopping on deck, but I held him down. Should I have considered his years of kindness? Our travels and conquests together? Such are questions we ask later, after events escape our control. In the heat of conflict, we only seek to destroy all threats. I snarled in his ear. “You drunken bastard. I am walking out that door, and you will do nothing to stop me.”
His struggling turned to sobs, and he pleaded, “Don’t leave me, Maggie.”
But that’s exactly what I did.
1731. From Magdalena’s Memoirs.
Gambling in the colonies had not become so commonplace as in Europe, where royalty and the rising merchant class possessed excessive amounts of money to throw away on frivolities. The early colonists consisted of aspiring traders and trappers, criminals sent by forced transportation to labor in the New World, slaves brought from across the Atlantic, and a host of cultists whose religious fervor was unwelcome in the Old World. This motley crew of settlers struggled with daily existence, and only when the wealth of the unspoiled continent was more efficiently plundered did the games begin in earnest.
Chief among sports wagered on for leisure and excitement were contests of speed and strength between horses. Breeding the American mustang with European imports produced a sturdy, short-limbed horse preferred by farmers for its muscle, but also capable of tremendous bursts of speed over short distances. The colonists gambled on quarter-mile races between these steeds, and the breed became known as the Quarter Horse.
I learned the temperament and capabilities of these fine animals as I made my own life on land. I stole anything not nailed down, and quite a lot which was. A horse race made a convenient place to wager my plunder and increase it. The races often took place in the middle of a town’s main street, and they were not difficult to find.
But I played a second, more important game. The code of the sea forbade the presence of women on ships. Though the code was sometimes broken, the likelihood of being accepted on a crew was virtually nonexistent. If I wanted the sea, I needed my own ship, and to command my own crew—both of which required more money than I had.
So, I studied the races and made it my business to discover the identities and habits of the wealthiest spectators. For in the North, in New York, the quarter-mile races of the commoners gave way to the much longer Thoroughbred races on tracks built for the moneyed elite of the thriving port. Up the continent I travelled—watching, learning, and dreaming of vast sums of wealth.
1732: Long Island, New York.
Around the oval track at Hempstead Plain, a crowd seethed and hummed like a single beast. Townsfolk and the upper crust rubbed shoulders in a disorganized array of ladies and gentlemen on horseback, and families in horse-drawn carts. Children’s laughter and adults’ arguments blurred in a symphony of noise, arrhythmically punctuated by the horses’ whinnying and stomping. Though chaotic, the mood remained as light as the sun-filled afternoon breeze. It paid a visit now and then to sweep the air clean of the stink of animal sweat, manure, and greed.
Through the bustling mass of horse and humanity, a young woman made her way. Only a few locks of her fiery red hair escaped the cover of her cloak, an intricate and hooded silk brocade stolen from a tailor, and having recently belonged to the wife of a wealthy landowner in Charleston.
An especially loud congregation of suited men identified the gambling station, the hub of pari-mutuel betting. At the edge of this swarm of wagering rabble stood a man whose suit cost as much as some of the bettors’ plots of land. He sipped from a flute of champagne and enjoyed the frenzy with the remote curiosity of a naturalist recording the habits of songbirds.
Though he gambled, his wager that day was not a casual bet but the entry fee to run his horse in the sweepstakes. Should his stallion win the race—an outcome both he and the bookies found highly probable—he would walk away with all the entry fees.
Magdalena feigned a loss of balance from the jostling crowd and fell against him. She clutched his arm for support, and the champagne splashed out of the glass, over his gloves and onto his coat. “Forgive me, sir.”
He was unprepared for the beauty hidden in her cloak, and the retort he would have given a common wench for her clumsiness evaporated from his lips.
“Oh, my,” she said, without removing her hand from his arm. “Sir Archibald! I am truly sorry.”
His startle spread into a pleasant smile. “Do be careful in this crowd, Miss. It’s safer for a woman near the grandstand.”
“But I must be here to place my bet on Shining Star. What luck that I should meet his owner!”
Women did not often attend the gambling station, nor carry substantial sums of money at these public gatherings, and her contravention of these facts painted a dramatic portrait of her social standing for Archibald. “Shining Star is a magnificent animal, my dear, and he will not disappoint either of us today.” His hand rested on hers where she still held his arm. “Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“Magaidh Ruadh,” she lied, pronouncing the Gaelic as Maggie Reid, “and my only disappointment is in the odds. One can hardly make a profit betting on the favorite at Newmarket. But I was perhaps too adventurous with long odds last month in Virginia.”
“One can always find excellent sport in Virginia, though our tracks here are the equal or better of any.”
“And your horses, too. In South Carolina, the Jockey Club talks of nothing but following your example and importing the English Arabian. I have traveled a very long way to see yours in action, sir. And to see if such a fine steed had an equally fine master.”
She pressed her body to his, and the frank invitation written on her scarlet lips and in her glowing green eyes made an immediate and visceral impression on the gentleman. “Miss Maggie the Red, I will show you all the action you desire. Accompany me to the stable, and you can see firsthand the Arabian who will win today’s sweepstakes.”
“It would be my pleasure.” She accepted his offered hand. “Archie.”
Shining Star was every bit as majestic as Archibald boasted, and it came as little surprise when he broke from the pack on the backstretch. Magdalena and Archibald cheered him from the railing, and as the animal surged past them at the final post, the young woman could not help but thrill to his strength and power.
Over the riotous clamor of the crowd, his hooves pounded the dirt with the force of a thunderstorm at sea. When he blazed across the finish line in first place, a wave of excitement overtook the cold and calculating young woman. She threw her arms around Archibald, and though her seduction was a ruse, she felt a moment of passion in their shared conquest she would not soon forget. Then his lips were on hers, and his fate was sealed.
Archibald treated a circle of friends to dinner at a hotel, and afterwards the men smoked cigars and drank bourbon at their host’s expense. Magdalena stayed close to him, smoking and drinking with the enthusiasm of any of the men. Though an outsider to their boys’ club, she disarmed them with charmingly horrific tales of small-town Quarter Horse races in which men and steeds either met their doom or made their fortune—or both.
The revelry continued long into the night, but Archibald and Magdalena vanished from sight after only two hours. With lips and hands they explored each other in the gentleman’s carriage, while the driver and horses delivered them to one of the homes he kept on Long Island. Through an iron gate they rode into a courtyard where a fountain bubbled quietly at the crickets to keep them company.
The servants slept in their separate house, and the driver rode away to the stables to put away the horses and sleep himself, and only an elderly butler awaited the couple inside. Archibald took a candle from him and waved the old man back to his chair by the fire, where the logs crackled a lullaby and made the butler’s eyes heavy.
“Take a seat, Maggie.” Archibald patted the pillows on a chaise lounge. “I won’t be but a minute.”
She acquiesced, reclining with the nonchalance of a cat. “Don’t keep me waiting,” she said, and the fire snapped at her, casting daggers of light.
Archibald and his black leather satchel disappeared into the shadowy hallway. He carried his winnings to his library where he pulled a book from a shelf. He opened it to remove the iron key hidden in its carved-out pages.
The bag he set on the floor next to a wooden strongbox, a chest a meter wide, reinforced with an iron frame, and held shut by a padlock. Archibald set the heavy lock aside and lifted the lid. Inside sat a mountain of coins in a variety of colonial denominations, a dozen bars of silver and gold, and a black velvet bag. Though its drawstring held it shut, the bag contained Archibald’s second most famous and decidedly non-equestrian import to the colonies: diamonds. In all, the strongbox contained enough spoils to convince a captain to part with his ship, and to convince a crew to man one.
If the gentleman had thought of it like that, he might not have been caught unaware by the arm which clamped tight around his neck, its elbow at his windpipe, the forearm and upper arm pressing forcefully into the arteries on either side. Only the briefest cry escaped him. His hands instinctively flew to his throat to pry himself free, but she kicked his knees from behind. He tumbled to the ground, ensnared.
The pressure on his carotid artery stopped the blood flow to his brain quickly. It was a terribly efficient chokehold Magdalena held him in, much cleaner and quieter than the savage, four-minute struggle for oxygen an attempted suffocation led to. Yet it was not instantaneous, and the next quarter minute of his flailing and kicking gave Magdalena pause to consider how her legs would dance a similar jig beneath the hangman’s noose if she were ever caught.
Even a man hardened by a life at sea would have succumbed to the treacherous grip, so it brought a swift end to consciousness for the man with soft hands and more experience hob-knobbing at the Jockey Club than struggling for survival aboard a privateer. But the hold was not fatal, and Archibald would live to race his Shining Star another day. In later years, he read lurid reports of a brutal yet beautiful pirate queen, and her description so precisely matched that of Maggie Reid that he considered it a monumental stroke of fortune she had left him alive.
The old man by the fireplace hardly stirred when Magdalena let herself out, taking with her the satchel, now stuffed with all the loot it could hold, and a flintlock musket to deal with anyone who got in her way between the door and the stable.
1733–1739. From Magdalena’s Memoirs.
With the small fortune I liberated, I assembled a crew to accompany me on a voyage both lucrative and suicidal. Those who survived sailed away filthy rich, though such wealth proves temporary to a freebooter. Those who couldn’t sail away will be mourned by no one but their shipmates.
Over the next three years, my crew absorbed hundreds of new members from the ships we encountered. Those who wished to sail with us under the flag of no nation, we welcomed. Those who did not were free to go. We became more feared for our attractive proposition to sailors than for our cannons.
Though we saw battle many times and welcomed it, our typical conquest drew no blood. The average sailor of that day did not fear a pyrate and rarely raised arms against one. He welcomed the black flag as a rescue from intolerable conditions aboard the ships of merchants, navies, and slavers. And where we found such slaves, we bid them join us.
A number of publications in Europe and the colonies sensationalized what reports of my crew made it back to high society. Perhaps because I was a woman, the accounts grew increasingly lurid. They called me “Mad Dog Mags” in stories depicting me as conquering several oceans with my breasts bared and dripping with the blood of innocents.
Concerning the accounts of my “hundreds” of murders, I note the correct tally has four digits, not three. To the tales of my blood-spattered breasts, no blood upon them was ever innocent. And as for the stories of my “madness”, I found them useful, and added to their legend at every opportunity.
Never did I flog a captain to death without arranging for at least one member of his crew to witness it and tell others, and never did I kill a man without making sure my mates would tell a tale ten times worse to the next crew we impressed into our service.
Several of the men closest to me, loyal after two years’ service and presented with extra rations of rum, took it upon themselves to spread the most severe and horrifying rumors about me in every port and tavern they encountered, on both sides of the Atlantic.
In truth, I am not especially fond of torture, and I soon forbade it within my fleet. I believe that as humans we reach our highest dignity when we preserve the dignity of others. Threats and torture diminish that dignity.
If an enemy must die, so be it. But aside from acts of personal vengeance, an executioner should abstain from taking too much pleasure in her actions. Swiftness and finality were my guides, regardless of the rumors I encouraged.
By the dawn of our fourth year, we secured a chain of islands off the east coast of Africa with a fleet of the most dangerous ships to ever sail, ships we had stolen, modified, and staffed with an astounding group of sailors perfectly willing to kill in the service of their emancipation.
In our fifth year, merchant commerce steered completely clear of our rogue nation. But by then, we had resources to play a bigger game than attacking single ships or storming one fortification at a time.
In our sixth year, money flowed in, our home was secure, and we had all the business we desired. Nations courted us to provide escort to their shipments and add to their naval might in wartime, which was all the time.
I refused to help the slavers and imperialists of Europe or anywhere else. But my crews accepted generous tributes to leave certain fleets to their business. No one who wanted to survive interfered with us, and we smuggled by simply sailing where we pleased.
It was then I desired to visit my father.
1740: The South Seas.
At the sight of her in the entrance to his hut, McTavish pulled himself upright from his sprawl on the disheveled bed. Rays of afternoon sunlight penetrated the wooden slats that tried and failed to be solid walls. A score of empty bottles and mugs littered a bedside table and the floor around it. “My little Maggie. Just look at ya. I hear ya done quite well for yerself.”
She took in the squalor with an imperious gaze. People called her arrogant, though she perceived herself as confidently judgmental. When she looked at things, she considered both their worth and what it would take to destroy them.
Everything she surveyed was assessed as a potential threat or a potential conquest. When she found something that pleased her, her gaze was no less strong, but shone with approval. “We make do as we can on the account.”
“Will ya come in?”
She did, without a word, and stood by his bed. She held out her hand.
Taking it, he rose to his feet. The girl he took to sea eighteen years earlier now stood eye-to-eye with him. “Maggie.” He sought for words and could not find them, so he settled for throwing his arms around her.
The familiar stink of sweat and alcohol offered strange comfort, and she held her adopted father tightly. The feel of his large, rough hands on her back and the nearness of her oldest friend moved her to tears, and she did not let go.
The sun’s rays lowered their angle before he spoke again. “Forgive me.”
Magdalena relaxed her embrace so she could hold him by the shoulders and look into his eyes. “Your sins are many, but not so great you couldn’t offer your daughter a drink.”
“What happened to me manners?” From the bedside table, he took an unopened bottle, pulled the cork, and presented it to her. He opened one for himself.
“Cheers.” He enjoyed the sip, but he more enjoyed being addressed as Father. Magdalena took a seat on the bed, and he joined her. “Everyone knows your name now.”
She laughed and took a long pull from the bottle. “Not everyone. But they will.”
He offered another apology. “I’m a drunken bastard who dragged ya through seven kinds of hell.”
“Bastard you may be, and a drunk, no question. But you dragged me nowhere against my will. I demanded the sea, and to the sea you took me.”
“Did ya find them, Maggie?”
“My parents’ killers?” She sighed, and as breath left her body, her face revealed the toll the years had taken. Then ice filled her veins and restored the steel to her countenance. “I did. And it brought me no comfort. One died five years before I found his grave. Another was a hobbled man, out of his mind with drink, and worth less than the price of a bullet to end his miserable life.”
“Ya showed him mercy then.”
“Mercy?” She raised one eyebrow in a malicious arc. “I beat him with a hammer until he stopped screaming, and I threw him into the sea.”
“An’ that’s the end of it.”
“Indeed.” She offered her bottle in salute, and he clinked it with his. “And how have you been keeping yourself?” She knew, as little business in the sea was unknown to her, but she enjoyed hearing him tell the tale.
They exchanged stories of seafaring slaughter and mayhem until the sun had set and the constellations of the southern skies appeared above the ocean.
“Father,” she said, “will you sing to me?”
He wet his whistle with the last of the bottled beer. “Hang my body from the pier,” he sang, and she joined him. Their voices carried out of the hut and down the beach to where the surf crashed and gilded its crests with moonlight. Then there were stars, and whispers.
As she stepped to the doorway to leave, she faced him one last time. “To a merry life.”
“Aye,” the old man replied. “An’ a short one.”
1740. From Magdalena’s Memoirs.
I never saw Father again. Cholera claimed his life that year. By the time I heard of his illness and set sail, nothing remained for me but his grave.
The island where he spent his final hour had little acreage for dead bodies. Cemeteries only make sense on continents. But, assured of my gratitude, the locals found a suitably undisturbed and permanent plot for Father. They marked the site with a cross so I could find it, if two sticks knotted with twine can be called a cross.
I was tempted to make his resting place more elaborate. But on the whole, it suited him: simple, unadorned, and in the sun—forever, or at least as close as we may get on Earth. The unassuming mound made a far kinder resting place than an iron cage swinging above a pier, and the only birds to attend his death were the brightly colored tropical species singing and chattering in the forest. Serenading, not scavenging.
Still, I brought him something. Sunlight glinted on the brass frame of the compass in my hand. Into the brass I had engraved To find your way in this life and any other. Father and I may have been thieves, but I saw no sense attracting more by leaving shiny objects lying about. I dug a hole and buried the compass, too.
True to the pyrate’s code, Father lived a merry life—though not as merry as it should have been, and entirely too short for my taste. He lasted a long time for a sailor in an era that destroyed people early.
As the sun’s rays lengthened, cooled, and turned to peach and lavender and finally a brilliant red, I considered we would always be the slaves of history until we could afford the time to study it, to understand how we got here, to gain the perspective to chart a new course, and seize the power to impose that course upon the world. Before wishing a final fair winds and following seas to the man who raised me, I resolved to do everything in my power to add more years to my life.
But that is a tale for another day.
Meteor Mags clenched her fist. Her great-grandmother’s ring glowed on her finger. She sang the second verse, and a cold flame enveloped Alonso’s heart. It burned a brilliant white, the color of Mags’ boundless rage at anything which opposed her. A blue like Earth’s oceans seen from space defined its edges.
Beyond the edges stretched a black and heartless void where dreams ended and no one sang at all.
Hang our bodies by the waves
Iron cages for our graves
And this message we will send
Men of fortune to the end
Hang my body on the pier
Hang my body on the pier