Savanna

The wind rocked the cradle gently. The warm ocean breeze ruffled the baby's fine fiery red hair. She slept soundly while the pirate ship dropped anchor silently in the bay and the Jolly Roger flapped loosely on its mast. The baby lay cradled in the sun's warm embrace as the dingy touched lightly against the shore only feet away.

A grungy looking sailor with a bandana wrapped around his bald head, stepped from the rowboat into knee-deep water. He quietly sloshed ashore to the basinet. The baby slept soundly, her tiny chest rising and falling in time with the ocean waves.

Picking the cradle up with baby in it, the sailor returned to the small boat unseen. He passed the bundle to the waiting hands of another in the boat and then returned to the ship. When the baby's mother went down to the seaside shortly after to check on her little girl, the basinet was nowhere to be seen. The ship had since sailed from the harbor. Only the mournful sound of seabirds could be heard. With a scream, the mother ran along the beach in both directions. Seeing nothing, she turned back toward the house shouting her husband's name as she went. The baby was gone.

Hours passed aboard the ship before the little girl woke up. She looked innocently around at the strange surroundings. The people around her were not familiar to her. Her face slowly contorted, the way baby's do, just before they cry. She began to wail. A gruff man with a golden earring seized her roughly from the cradle and brought her up to his raspy face. He smelled of sea salt and pipe tobacco. His mouth formed a wide grin and revealed rows of white straight teeth.

Another sailor approached from the side. “Captn', whatcha be wantin with a bit of thing like that. I think she'd make better shark bait” commented the sailor.

Captn shifted the little girl to one arm and in one smooth action, backhanded the sailor across the room. The sailor came to a stop abruptly against the wall, slid to the floor and lay still. Captn looked sternly around the cabin while the others stared on silently. With a nod he dismissed the crew.

They left quickly. Two stopped briefly to hoist the downed sailor and they dragged him with them as they went. As soon as the door was closed behind them, the face of Captn suddenly transformed. His rough hands became gentle. His features softened and he touched the baby's face with the back of his index finger. His massive hand dwarfed the small child. Although moments before, the baby was screaming in terror, she instantly began to coo and smile. The captain strolled over to his desk and sat on his captain's chair. There he rocked and soothed the little girl until once again she slept soundly.

Some years swept by, along with ocean winds and currents.

The red headed girl, in borrowed clothes that were too big for her, dipped the mop into the pail and sloshed sudsy water across the deck, then strode a few steps away. She turned back and ran at the pool of water. When she reached the puddle she slapped the mop down into it and jumped on. She rode the wet mop across the deck screeching happily as she went. The sailors looked on laughing. A young cabin boy nicknamed Rat yelled across the deck. “Hey Savanna! That doesn't look so difficult. Anybody could do it.”

Savanna replied nothing. She deftly tossed the mop to Rat. He caught it and sat it aside briefly. Taking hold of the mop bucket, he emptied the entire contents onto the deck. Then, he ran past the main mast, up the stairs and towards the wheel. Rat turned back and yipped as he ran as fast as he could at the puddle with mop in hand. He brought the mop down into the water and leapt onto it. Rat's trip across the deck was short. His feet and the mop flew straight up into the air. Rat came down and landed hard on his back. His head slammed against the deck. The mop continued its flight through the air and was caught easily by Savanna.

When Rat didn't move, Savanna went to his side. She looked at him intently for only a second and then gave him a kick in the shin with her buckled boots. When he still didn't move, she dipped the mop into the puddle of water and slopped it across his face. He regained consciousness to the sound of whooping and hollering from the other pirates. Savanna made a monkey face at him and then scampered away.

Rat staggered to his feet rubbing his head gingerly and went back to coiling rope.

When Captn heard the ruckus he came boiling out of his cabin. By now he knew what caused most of the commotion aboard the ship and didn't stop to ask what was going on. He marched straight to Savanna. “What in the blazin' sea serpents do you think yer doin' Savanna. You got yer chore! Now get that bucket filled up with water and finish swabbin' the deck! I'll be having you slave for Cookie for the next fortnight if you keep this up.”

Savanna barely blinked. She smiled at Captn, gave a mocking salute, turned easily on her heel doing an about-face, grabbed the bucket with her free hand and was off with a wicked smile.

And so, this was life for Savanna as she sailed with Captn, raiding and plundering on the South Seas . Captn kept her out of harms way when there was harm to be had and Savanna grew wilder as the years passed. She learned to fight with sword and fist. She learned to spit and swear with the best of them. And when it came time to protecting herself, Savanna could lay them low. She was as fiery as her hair and she could take care of herself.

When she first arrived on the ship the other sailors looked upon her as a shrieking screaming pain, a liability and a curse. There were things that were said to be taboo. There were things that had no place aboard a ship and the crew felt sure that Savanna was one of them. Even so, when there was a christening of sorts, they helped name her. It was only a partial christening for they never gave her a last name.

As time passed, the crew eventually grew to love her. When she was old enough to pull her own weight and fight along side them, they grew to respect her.

Savanna blossomed into a beautiful young woman. During the years at sea she barely took a step upon the shore. The code she lived by was the one she learned from Captn. It was harsh and direct at times. It was the same code the Captn lorded his ship with. Though he loved her dearly, he treated Savanna as he treated each of the other crewmembers.

It was a fine life for the most part. But there were also times when it was a harsh life. Savanna learned early how the crew of the Serpent Queen made their living. She knew what it was to catch sight of a merchant ship. And she was familiar with the routine that had been established long before her arrival. Once, when she was just a pup, she had questioned Captn about it. His reaction was swift. There would be no pondering the morality of the life he led. When she picked herself up from the floor, she never asked about it again. There were no grudges to be held. This was the way of Captn. On board there was one word and the word belonged to him.

“Ship Ho!” yelled the watchman from the crow's nest. Like rats the crew scampered from below and Savanna made her way to the Captn's cabin. She looked starboard to see the merchant ship. The distance was closed quickly as captn wheeled the ship into position. The ship was first brought into striking distance and then the canons were fired. Savanna prayed that the merchant ship would surrender peaceably.

As if to answer her plea, the merchant ship lowered her sails. She would be taken without a fight. There would be no casualties this time. The Serpent Queen was brought along side and the crewmembers threw their grappling hooks, brought the two ships together and boarded. Captn's crew took what they pleased in human cargo and their valuables. They moved what they wished to the holds of the Serpent Queen with practiced ease and efficiency.

When the raid had concluded, a team crippled the merchant ship and left her adrift. The damage was usually not permanent. With a few hours work, the merchant ship would be repaired and she could sail on her way.

Sometimes a canon ball shot across the bow was not enough. The prey would turn away and run with full sail in the hopes of out running the pirate ship. Sometimes they were successful. Most of the time, Captn called to the gunners and they took direct aim at their prey. His gunners rarely missed. The crew would be ready once again with grappling hooks, this time their swords flashing. Back on the ship Savanna had a new job. Sailors sometimes came staggering back exhausted with blood dripping from their swords. Other times they would return being carried or supported by fellow crewmembers. They were placed in cots and it was Savanna's job to dress their wounds.

After a battle was fought and won, it would be months before Captn would order another strike. They would find a secluded bay near an uncharted island and take their repose. These times were memorable because they were usually pleasant and relaxing. Once the nursing was done, there was nothing to do but convalesce and enjoy the sun and play.

Savanna never gave much thought to the methods or the madness of it all. She grew in beauty and cleverness as the Captn grew in age. Never a loss did the Captn suffer and never did the crew go hungry. They owed their success to Captn and followed him blindly because of it.

Although the ship was named the Serpent Queen, the landlubbers called it something different. The stories grew of the most feared pirate ship that sailed upon the ocean. The pirates were fearless and they followed the fiery lass. And so, the ship became known as the Fiery Lass, for sometimes Savanna would climb aloft for a better vantage. The mariners of the merchant ships would often see her as she clung to the ropes of the main mast as the pirate crew plundered for treasure. The stories and the legends continued to grow.

For the crew, Savanna was a nurse, a mate, and a mascot. As the years passed her fame spread further and further inland. Her name became the stuff of fairytales.

So it happened that on one raid the Captn himself was dragged back aboard to a waiting cot where Savanna cared for him. He had taken a blade deep in his side and Savanna worked long to staunch the blood that flowed freely from the wound. The crew looked on hopefully at the Captn until Savanna shooed them away so she could work her magic.

The days passed and Captn slowly began to recuperate. During the weeks that followed his side slowly healed. Then one cold night, Savanna was wakened by a rasping cough coming from Captn's chamber. She listened as the night passed slowly by. The coughs increased in frequency and severity. As the days passed, the coughing continued to worsen.

Not long afterward, the Captn called Savanna to his Cabin. It was a windless day and the great ship lay becalmed. The sun was shining brightly and the ship's crew was about its business above. “Savanna” says Captn, “I'm dyin. I can feel it in my bones. The salty air tears at my lungs and my knees buckle when I stand. I fear I can no longer lead the men.”

“Savanna, you have been the daughter I have always dreamed of having. I am so proud of you. I want to give the Serpent Queen to you before I die.”

Savanna stood dumbfounded. “Yer not about to die”, Savanna said evenly, though her heart pounded.

“You've seen death before Savanna and it is a debt we all owe. It's time I settle up.”

Savanna could see the truth of it all. The man could hardly manage a whisper between the thin wheezes. She looked on sadly, “What do you want me to do Captn?”

“I want you to take the ship ashore. Yer to pay the crew and then dismiss them. But you keep onboard Raphael, Riley, Smores and the Climber. Raphael is a good man. He's grown a lot since you called him Rat. He'll make ye a fine first mate. The rest, you pay em off, git rid of them and yu git yerself a new crew. Rename the ship the Fiery Lass, as it should be. It's a good strong name and it strikes fear into those who hear it.”

So it was. The ship was brought to moor; the crew was paid out and Savanna scoured the town for the worst scum of the sea she could find. A few weeks later a largish burlap sack was thrown overboard. The Captn's body drifted ever downward until it settled softly at the bottom of the sea.

Savanna continued plundering the sea as Captn wished it. Though she and her new crew got off to a rougher start than the Captn had anticipated, they made good her reputation.

A good crew works like a team. It takes years to learn to work together and this crew was no exception. They stumbled from one scrape to the next until one day they nearly met their match. The ship did not surrender to the Fiery Lass. Instead it turned broadside and let loose its canons. Some of the projectiles found their marks. The Fiery Lass maneuvered into place and the pirates launched their attack. There were many casualties before the merchant ship surrendered with its decks covered in the blood of both civilian and pirate alike. The take was minimal and the crew's spirits were low. The crippled Fiery Lass limped its way to the nearest safe port that Savanna could find. Here repairs could be made and the crew could recover.

Unbeknownst to Savanna her fame was indeed spreading. By now she was the target of nearly every bounty hunter there was. Kingdoms all along the coast offered rewards for her capture. And so when Savanna sat at the bar that she had sometimes frequented and ordered a beer, she did not expect the club that came crashing down upon her.

She awoke in a dank and dark dungeon. Her head was throbbing and when she tried to stand, the world began to spin. She stumbled and sat down hard. Around her ankle was a huge steel shackle. The shackle was connected to a chain and the chain was connected to the cold stone wall. Around her were dozens of other prisoners, similarly chained within their own cells. They ranged from every type of lowlife. Some were old and some young. All of them were sickly and dirty. Light came through a tiny grate in the ceiling where guards tramped back and forth above, their armor rattling in time with their steps.

Savanna had been transported to a large coastal city. She was held captive below the fortified castle that overlooked the ocean. Outside, the town was buzzing with activity. The king had placed proclamations in every corner of the kingdom and visitors were flocking to the town in droves. They came from near and far and from every walk of life. They ran, they walked, they rode, and they hobbled. They all came to see the flogging of the Fiery Lass. The proclamation read:

“A public flogging, followed by a hanging, will be held in the town square at noon of the midmonth three months hence. The evil Savanna of the Serpent Queen and the Fiery Lass will dangle from the gallows for all to see.”

Each proclamation bore the king's official insignia.

The king's best carpenters stopped work on the castle in order to complete the work on the new gallows. Artisans of every type were employed. Ornate carvings decorated the structure. It was, in itself, a work of art and people traveled great distances to view it. With the help of the kingdom's most talented physicists, it was guaranteed to function perfectly. The trap door worked smoothly and the rope was just the right breadth and length to ensure a clean break of the neck and a quality spectacle. Performers filled the streets and the houses rocked with the sound of poets and their lutes. A party was brewing in the city like none that had ever taken place before.

The weeks rolled by. Savanna sat quietly in her cell. The guards had begun to take bribes so that commoners could view the celebrity for a farthing each. Now there was a constant clamor outside her cell and Savanna kept her back to it. She ignored the noise and the occasional thump as a something was tossed in at her as if she were an animal. So she was not looking when the young man dressed in gypsy clothes came in with the rabble. While the others jeered and tossed their rotten fruit, he looked on thoughtfully.

He left without speaking. A sword flashed beneath his cloak in the dim light from the grating above, but no one noticed except the spiders. And they were too busy spinning their webs.

Soon the day before the execution arrived. Though never a life did Savanna take, she waited calmly for the inevitable. The king and queen along with their entourage came to visit the captive.

“Show me your face!” ordered the king.

Savanna ignored him. The king looked to a guard on either side of him. The two guards stepped forward and bodily lifted Savanna to her feet. Still she defied the king by looking at the ground. One of the guards grabbed her hair with a gauntleted hand and pulled her head back. Her nostrils flared in anger as she glared at the king and queen.

The king stated soberly, “Tomorrow you shall be taken to the town square in the back of a wagon. The wagon will pass up and down every street so that everyone has a chance to see you before you are thrashed.

Once at the square you will be tied to a post and given a hundred lashes. From there you will be taken to the gallows. We will not put a black hood over your face. You will be broken and you will be hung. Do you have any words to say on your own behalf?”

The king was answered with silence.

With a wave of his hand, the king dismissed the guards. He turned abruptly and left the dungeon. The only sound was the occasional clanging of a chain and the hushed breathing of the astonished prisoners.

Savanna sat quietly in the straw and continued in her silence.

Later that afternoon a contingent of soldiers arrived at her cell. The keys rattled in the great lock and the door swung open on its rusty hinges. The two guards stepped aside and a prison guard stepped forward with two others. They each took a wrist and the first bent down to remove the shackles. They escorted Savanna up into the sunlight, across the courtyard and into a new cell. This one was relatively well furnished by comparison. She was bodily thrown in. The heavy door slammed shut behind her and the key turned in the lock.

Finally, the summer sun rose on the medieval town. The cocks crowed and the children scrambled through the street to find a good spot early. There were six roads that came into town. Where they met was a large cobbled space. In the center were the whipping post and the gallows. The rope dangled and swayed as the sun played on its yellow threads.

Savanna woke with the sound of the key turning in the lock. Once again, two soldiers entered first. They secured her safely. A small group of women entered carrying new clothes. It was clear that in this case, the king was concerned largely with presentation. The crowd would be pleased. Instead of the pants she was accustomed to wearing, they slid her into a queenly dress. Her hair that was usually a shock of red was teased into the latest fashion. She would be a stylish sacrifice if nothing else.

By midmorning the square was so full that it was difficult to walk. At eleven o'clock the trumpets rang out from the castle's turrets. The gates swung open and a donkey pulling a small wooden cart passed through with soldiers flanking it. On the cart two posts were secured. Savanna was placed between them with one arm tied to each.

As she passed through the streets the villagers pelted her with stones. From street to street the sky was dark with objects aimed at the captive. From a rooftop overlooking the square, a lone figure with a red sash watched silently.

The cart continued its course creaking as it went. Savanna continued in her stoic silence and the crowed jeered as one.

And so at noon , the cart entered the square. The floor of the wagon was littered with the debris that had been thrown throughout the procession. Savanna bled from her arms and face from where hundreds of stones had struck her. Yet still, she held her grim determined expression. The figure sat unobserved on the rooftop looking down.

The mob crowded around the cart. Now Savanna had to actively avoid the clawing fingers as they reached out to her. They wanted a touch, a small sample of clothing, or a piece of her skin. The guards could scarcely maintain the formation as they moved toward the whipping post. The horde was in a near uncontrollable furry.

Ignoring the crowd as best they could, the soldiers removed Savanna from the cart. They tied her two hands together and strapped them high above her head to the post. One, with the experience of an expert, grabbed the collar of her shirt at the nape of her neck and tore downward. The cloth ripped readily and left her back exposed from her shoulders to her waist. With that done he stepped back into his position of attention. Like a picture, they framed Savanna on either side. From somewhere behind her a man stepped forward brandishing a whip. As he came into view he snapped it loudly. The crowd hushed in anticipation. After a brief silence, the king nodded from his perch and the whip began to fly.

As the first lashes struck, Savanna arched her back in pain. Soon the skin on her back was covered with thick red welts. By the time twenty lashes had been laid, the blood was flowing freely down her torso. It soaked what was left of the dress she was wearing and began to seep to the ground at her feet. The crowd roared louder with every lash. And with every drop of blood that found its way to the ground, they rejoiced. Between the seventieth and eightieth lash, Savanna slipped silently into unconsciousness and the man on the rooftop look on with an expressionless face.

Finally the whip cracked across Savanna's back for the one hundredth time. Beads of sweat rolled from the brow of the man who wielded it. He stepped back and out of the way so that the next part of the ceremony could be carried out. Yet another man stepped forward. A cold bucket of water was produced and he slung it with full force into her face. Her body quivered, but Savanna remained unconscious. A second pail was employed and she was shocked back into the real world. With more respect than before, she was helped slowly to the steps of the gallows. They started up. Her spirit was unbroken. The mob was awed to silence as she managed the last of the steps unaided and stood facing the world with the rope dangling inches from her face. Still she gave them no satisfaction. She would hang and she would steal their pleasure with her bravery.

The king nodded a second time and a hooded man stepped forward. He placed the noose around the neck of Savanna. She stood with hands tied in front of her waiting for the order that would cause the trap door to be released. Suddenly, the figure on the roof stood. From his cloak he drew a crossbow. He brought it up in one smooth motion, aimed and released the bolt. Its path was true and it stuck the hangman cleanly.

Now the gypsy man stood in full view and the crowd moved as one to look at him. He threw open his cloak and his sword flashed in the afternoon sun. He gripped it with both hands and flung it in the direction of Savanna. It spiraled in its long arc glinting as it went. Savanna reached out as she saw it falling and caught it with practiced skill by the hilt. The sword flashed and the noose became a harmless necklace adorning her. She tossed the sword up lightly and caught the blade in two hands. She severed the rope that bound her wrists and turned in a flash.

A guard was just reaching the top of the stairs as Savanna turned and sent him reeling backwards grasping his wound. In a bound she reached the top rail of the gallows and leapt to the royal banner behind. From there she scampered to the roof while the guards looked on helplessly. The gypsy stranger met her on the rooftop. He threw his cloak over her shoulders and they disappeared from view. The noise of the crowd followed them as they leapt from roof to roof.

Suddenly they disappeared from view altogether. The crowd craned as one to try and see where they would emerge. A moment later, a beggar woman and man appeared at the back door of a nearby inn and they melted into the crowd.

The two of them moved as swiftly as they could away from the city. They talked to no one and avoided everyone they passed. After hours of traveling, the weary pair finally came to a small hovel overlooking the sea. They disappeared inside. The walls were made of stones stacked one on top of the other. The roof was thatched with straw. On the far side of the single room was the hearth. The gypsy helped Savanna to a small cot and laid her down. She looked up at her rescuer for the first time and then drifted into unconsciousness.

Through the days that followed the strange gypsy man nursed her gently. She remained unconscious while he removed old bandages and replaced them with new ones. The features of his face were young but careworn. If anyone could have been there to see it, they would have known instantly of his boundless love for her. Days passed and he remained at her side.

The next time that she awoke, it was dark outside. She lay on her stomach. The fire was crackling beside her and the figure of a man sat hunched, with his hands outstretched toward the warmth. “Thank you.” Savanna said weakly.

“Ah, you're awake” was the quiet reply. “I was beginning to wonder if I'd lost you after all.”

“Who is it that I owe my life to?” Savanna pressed.

The figure turned slowly toward Savanna but the hood of his cloak shadowed his face so that he was still unrecognizable to her. He slowly drew back the cloth that had hid him.

Though she recognized his face immediately, there was something new there that she had never seen before. It was the first time that she could see the honest love he beheld her with. Though she knew him once as a pirate, today she could see the natural gentleness behind his eyes. She also realized that he loved her. She smiled tenderly though her back stung terribly and said but one word.

“Raphael.”

He stood and came to her. He bent close to look into her eyes. “They were wrong to try and sacrifice you. When I came to see you in your cell, I knew then that I loved you. I didn't want to live without you. I decided then that we would live or die together.”

Savanna reached her arm out to him and placed her hand at the back of his neck. She drew him to her and kissed him gently.

Raphael leaned in closer and cupped her face in his hands. The kiss continued.

Shortly after, Savanna drifted off to sleep, this time with a contentedness that she had never felt before. Weeks later Raphael and Savanna snuck back to the ship and took what valuable treasures they could carry. They left the country never to return.

Maybe now they are gypsy performers that pass through villages to entertain children with sword tricks and such.

I would prefer to believe that they have settled down somewhere. And outside their cottage you will find that there is a basinet, rocking in the warm summer breeze with a little red haired baby cooing softly inside.

 
 
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