Race for the Gold Lion

Gold Lion Square

Sandals in hand, Theolonia strolled along the beach and enjoyed the crash of the waves and the wind streaming her long dark brown hair out behind her.
Mission accomplished.

She tilted her head back and closed her eyes, savoring the peace and solitude, however short lived. The thrill of triumph bubbled up in her as she ambled along and she laughed out loud. Her contact had been even more helpful than she’d dared to hope.

Sand squished between her toes, cool on the overcast day. The tang of salt tickled her nose, gulls called overhead, and the rumble of crashing waves filled her ears.

The familiar clang of clashing swords interrupted her bliss.

Theolonia’s eyes flew open and she exploded into a sprint, dropping her sandals and unsheathing her own sword as she ran. Her short tunic whipped around her thighs as she raced around the rocks at the curve of the beach.

Ten minutes. She couldn’t trust her crew alone for ten minutes without them finding trouble?

She dashed toward the melee, trying to ascertain from a distance how serious it was. Were her women simply releasing their pent up energy—as if repairing the ship hadn’t been enough—or were they truly under attack?

Lots of yelling—mostly from the men Theolonia assumed comprised a single crew, as only one other new ship was in port at the moment—and flashing blades, but it looked more like sparring than deadly dueling. Nonetheless, she wanted her crew healthy now that the ship was back in one piece and their goal was within reach. Otherwise, they might not find the Golden Lion first.

Which would be a shame seeing as Theolonia had discovered who’d stolen it and therefore knew how to get it back.

She dove into the bedlam, grabbed the closest man and hauled him backwards out of the fray, her sword pressed tight across his throat. Wisely, he dropped his own broadsword.

“Enough!” she roared.

Her voice wasn’t all that high for a woman, thanks to her imposing stature, but it easily sliced through the even lower-pitched shouts from the men.

Everyone froze in place.

Theolonia couldn’t help it. She laughed at the ridiculous poses—without slacking her grip. The man in her arms felt strong and lean and nicely muscled where she held him against her. And he smelled nice, like musky soap or mild cologne.

He cleared his throat and put a gentle hand on her wrist, attempting to dislodge her weapon from pressing against his windpipe.

She shot him a sidelong glance and gave a tiny shake of her head. She wasn’t done with him yet. Then she did a double take, and a wry, appreciative smile replaced her stern look for the briefest moment. He looked her age—not yet past thirty summers—and she could swear she saw a twinkle in his brown eyes despite his serious expression. She couldn’t remember ever having seen a more handsome man.

She suspected he remained still as much in cooperation as from caution. She had no doubt he didn’t stand a chance against her in a fight, but of course he likely had the same thought about her.

“Back to the ship!” she ordered her crew. The women complied and the men didn’t try to stop them, although they made no move to go anywhere. She pressed her sword tighter, tilting his head back onto her shoulder. “Who’s your captain?”

“I am,” he said dryly.

She raised an eyebrow and held in a chuckle. “Care to take your crew and leave?”

“If you don’t mind.” Again he took her wrist to ease her blade away from his neck. This time she allowed him to, stepping warily back as he took several long strides forward and scooped up his weapon.

He glanced back over his shoulder and Theolonia thought again how beautiful he was, a bit wild looking with his black hair blowing, and the sparkle more obvious in his dark eyes. He saluted her with his sword, then swung it in the general direction of his men.

“Get moving!” he barked. They jumped, hustling faster up the beach toward the port. Pentala housed only a few thousand people. It also served as one of the few havens that didn’t turn pirates away—as long as they didn’t make trouble in the city or too close by.

Apparently he, like she, wanted continued access to the city.

Sheathing her sword, Theolonia quickened her step to catch up with her crew. She flung her arm around a woman twice as old and twice as broad as she was, and a good half a head shorter.

“Antigone, my friend,” Theolonia injected severity into her voice, “What was that?” Second in command of the Ferocity, Antigone was supposed to be in charge in Theolonia’s absence.

“Not our fault,” Antigone grumbled in her low gravelly voice. “We were on the beach minding our own business and practicing when they came along. We tried to send them on their way, but they refused to leave us alone. Started mocking and taunting. Called us little girls playing with swords. Some of the women took offense.”

Theolonia rolled her eyes and stifled a sigh. She could well imagine who. She knew which of her crew had the worst tempers. A pair of sisters, they’d challenged Theolonia a few times at first—and had ended up soundly thrashed. She kept them on the crew because their loyalty was equally fierce and their navigating and sailing skills exceeded their considerable talents with the sword and the bow.

“Uh huh,” Theolonia grunted noncommittally. She retrieved her sandals and climbed into the only remaining rowboat. She and Antigone boarded the Ferocity last.

Long and sleek, with fifteen oars per side and its white square sail tightly furled atop the single mast at the moment, Ferocity lived up to her name. The women who crewed her swore the legendary ship loved the sea as fiercely as they did.

The sisters, shamefaced and stoic, waited to face their captain’s judgment.

“Sorry, Captain,” they both said as she stood, arms folded, glowering at them.

“You two have night duty until further notice,” she told them. If the wind died, that meant rowing. Normally the crew took turns to ensure they all maintained their skill level, and to minimize the fatigue. Then the captain raised her voice, “Ready the ship! We leave with the tide.”

“You found it.” Antigone’s eyes gleamed with anticipation.

“And now the race is on,” Theolonia confirmed. “Because sooner or later, someone else will learn what I did.”

 

~ ~ ~

Ferocity’s majestic bow sliced through the white-capped swells of cerulean sea. The ship surged forward toward the breakwater ahead.

“Captain, look!” Their youngest crew member, barely more than a girl, yelled down from her perch atop the mast and pointed. A ship to their stern closed fast and aimed for the same narrow channel between the sand bars.

“Tighten the sail,” she said to Antigone. The first officer repeated her order and Theolonia felt the ship leap ahead. She went to the rail to see their competition. Slightly smaller and lighter, the other ship continued to gain on them. But Ferocity had a good headstart and her captain wasn’t about to give way.

“Do not miss our mark,” Theolonia yelled to the pilot at the stern.

The sea appeared to be deceptively clear. But Theolonia and her crew knew these waters. The intimate knowledge helped make them good pirates. It may look like open sea ahead, but until they were out of the shallows, they risked beaching the ship.

A figure came to the bow of the pursuing ship, observing her with equal intensity.

She recognized him, with his hair black as night and eyes twinkling like stars. The ships were close enough for her to see clearly, merely a ship’s length behind, and he—evidently recognizing her as well—gave a jaunty wave.

She grinned but didn’t return the gesture. Something about his good spirits gave her pause and she suddenly knew—without any reason yet also without any doubt—that he and his crew were after the same prize.

Turning her head just slightly, she called, “more speed.”

Again the ship accelerated beneath her feet and the wind whipped past even faster. The other ship kept pace but no longer closed the distance. Ferocity maintained her lead.

Theolonia had no intention of losing this or any contest.

“Nice looking man,” Antigone remarked, coming to her captain’s side. “Think he’s after
our lion?”

“Yes, I think so,” Theolonia gave her first officer a wolfish grin. “Too bad he doesn’t stand a chance.”

Thieves had stolen a famed golden lion from the king of Pentala and he’d offered a respectable reward to whoever got the precious figurine back. Theolonia intended to get that reward, and she didn’t care who she stole the lion from to get it. But far easier, she thought, to simply retrieve it from the original thieves. She had thought maybe they’d get this particular loot without any battles at sea, but evidently she’d overestimated their lead.

So now they needed to recover the lion and elude the handsome sea captain long enough to get back to Pentala and return the object to its rightful owner.

The pursuing ship put on a final burst of speed, but Ferocity still edged it into the channel, forcing the smaller ship to veer aside.

And onto the sand, bringing it to an abrupt halt.

The captain hung on to the rigging, swinging out and back again. One of the other men wasn’t so lucky and plunged headfirst into the water.

Now Theolonia waved to the stranded vessel as her ship sailed away.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The island likely had an authentic name, but Theolonia always called it the Pebble, as it amounted to little more than a piece of rock jutting out of the ocean. A clump of trees, likely no more than two or three dozen, clustered at the highest ground in the middle. The rocky, ragged shoreline discouraged visitors.

Understandably, the thieves considered it a good hiding place. No ship of any size could approach with being seen in plenty of time for the occupants to flee to the mainland just a mile or so away.

“Now what?” Antigone asked when they dropped anchor miles shy of their goal. The coastline jutted out into the sea and hid them from view of anyone on the isle.

“There’ll be no moon tonight, and heavy clouds. We’ll use the darkness as cover and sneak in.”

“Storm’s coming in as well,” Antigone noted, not sounding thrilled with the plan.

“We’ll beat the storm,” Theolonia said. “Once we have the lion, we can either ride out the storm in deeper waters, or make for Gale Cove if we have time.”

Like most of her crew, Theolonia didn’t like lurking in shadow. She preferred a straight-out fight any time. But she was also pragmatic and if there was an easy way to achieve a goal without fighting, she took it.

The blacksmith who’d gotten wind of the plot said three people, no more, stole the lion. Theolonia counted on their overconfidence to make her job easy.

Sure enough, they had no lookouts posted, and no one stood guard outside the tent they’d slung between two trees.

Sword in hand, Theolonia stood just inside the tent flap and regarded the sleeping trio. She could barely see them in the gloom. So many possibilities ran through her brain that her head spun. When the threesome didn’t stir, she put away her sword. In the end, she simply stepped further inside and silently dropped to her knees. Reaching out with both hands, she hefted the object between two of the slumbering thieves and backed out of the tent without a sound.

She paused to ensure she’d grabbed the right item. More silhouette than anything, a majestic lion of gold peered inscrutably back at her. The statue was posed in a sitting position, and a regal mane surrounded the serene leonine face.

The wind howled, easily covering any noise she might have made as she clambered down the rock to the waiting boat. Fighting the growing waves, it took them longer to reach Ferocity.

As soon as they’d climbed on board, the crew lit several lanterns so they’d not be falling all over each other. In quick succession they raised anchor and dropped the sail which gave a resounding snap as it unfurled and caught the wind.

“Gale Cove?” Antigone asked.

The tempest answered before Theolonia could.

The wind roared, competing with the deep rumble of the waves. Thunder shook the ship, and bolts of lightning blazed overhead, illuminating the roiling waters as if it were midday. A few raindrops splattered the deck and the women on it. Then the heavens opened and a deluge poured down from the black sky.

They slacked the sail and took up the oars instead to keep the ship from capsizing among the mountainous swells.

The squall blew itself out in an hour, leaving the crew soaked but jubilant to see stars appearing overhead.

Something thunked against the hull of the ship and the crew dashed to see what it was. A wooden mast—now, minus the rest of a ship, nothing but driftwood—floated in the water. The jagged edge looked like it had broken halfway down.

A man clung to the debris, only his head and shoulders above the choppy water. As they watched he slid, inch by inch, into the water until his head went under and his hands vanished with just a few ripples.

Theolonia vaulted the rail and flung herself into the water. Powerful strokes brought her to where he’d gone under. She took a deep breath and dove, groping in the utter blackness until her fingers brushed something.

Seizing him around the chest, Theolonia took just a moment to orient herself. She spotted a glimmer of light from the ship and kicked for the surface. Ferocity had drifted farther away, but Antigone and two other women were there in one of the small boats, one of them waving a lantern close to the water.

Theolonia handed the unconscious man up to them then pulled herself into the boat. The three women gaped at her, various expressions of incredulity on their faces. Then the man coughed and sputtered, and they held his head over the side so the gusher of water he spewed out of his lungs ended up back where it belonged.

Antigone’s thick brows arched high on her forehead. “Feeling invincible tonight, are you?”

“So far,” Theolonia retorted. She hadn’t ever pulled a handsome young captain out of the ocean before.

 

~ ~ ~

 

He didn’t wake up till late the next morning. Theolonia caught him as he staggered onto the deck, obviously not yet recovered from nearly drowning.

He quickly found his footing and pulled his arm out of her grasp. “You?”

She thought he sounded furious and surprised. “I’m Theolonia, captain of the Ferocity. What’s your name?”

“Theseus. Where’s my ship? How’d I get here?”

Theolonia held up her hands in a calming gesture. “We found only you. Well, and your ship’s mast. You were hanging on to it. I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened.” As an afterthought, she added, “There wasn’t any other wreckage. Your ship probably came though the storm.”

He fixed his gaze on hers as if trying to decide if she was being honest, or just kind. The dark eyes didn’t sparkle now. He looked exhausted and heartsick with anxiety.

Letting her comment pass, he asked, “Am I your prisoner?”

“Not at the moment. Although,” Theolonia hadn’t considered that. “If your ship does find us, you could be a very useful reason for them not to attack.”

He snorted.

He looked around, and she could see him assessing her ship and crew with an experienced seafarer’s eye. He glanced at the coast in the distance. “You’re heading back to Pentala.”

She nodded, one corner of her mouth quirking up.

“You found it.” His voice betrayed a glimmer of interest. “On Nesban.”

That was it, the correct name for the Pebble. “That’s right.” Her dry, wry smile became an all-out grin.

He snorted again and she chuckled. She didn’t expect congratulations.

But then his expression grew somber again as he scanned the horizon for any sign of his ship. Nothing. No one besides them on the water.

He kept his head high and shoulders squared, but Theolonia could see the pain in the rigidity of his stance and tightness around his mouth as he feared the worst.

“Want to see it?”

He regarded her a long moment as if debating whether or not she was taunting him with her victory. Whatever he decided, he said, “Yes, I would.”

With a jerk of her head, Theolonia signaled one of the crew, who went below to get their newly-acquired treasure. Although hollow, the foot-high figurine wasn’t easy to carry. The girl heaved a sigh of relief as she handed it off to him.

Burnished gold, the lion gleamed in the sunshine.

Not that Theolonia really expected their unwilling guest to attempt anything, but she nonetheless positioned herself between him and the closest rail. Antigone saw to it that the rest of the remained vigilant as well and had them surround him.

Theseus set it atop a barrel and knelt to study it. “Beautiful,” he said, stroking the glistening metal. He cast a sideways look at Theolonia.

“Congratulations.” He managed to sound both begrudging and sincere, watching it go as the girl lugged it back below deck.

His face clouded again and, unbidden, Theolonia felt an empathic stab of pain. She couldn’t even imagine the sense of loss if she thought that her own ship and her crew—her friends—were all suddenly gone.

“What will you do next? Once you’re back on your ship?” she asked as if it were a foregone conclusion that he’d be reunited with them. “And have a new mast.”

“Take on cargo to trade. We go between all the coastal cities. Sometimes up river too.”

“Will they make for Pentala, do you think? Or sail north instead?”

His shoulders sank a little. “Depends on where the storm pushed them. And on the condition of the ship.”

Theolonia hoped his ship had gone south, like they were. Then he’d have his answers by the end of the day.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Ferocity rounded the last outcropping of rock that jutted into the ocean and their destination came into view.

Pentala perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The walled city served as a citadel to the surrounding farmers and fishermen. Almost like a separate village huddling in Pentala’s shadow, the row of piers below also housed some shops. The citizens had rigged a series of pulleys to move cargo and people up and down the precipice.

Theolonia drifted to the front of the boat where Theseus already stood scanning the ships docked there. She heard his sharp intake of breath an instant before she caught sight of Courage herself.

“There she is!” He gave a laugh of joy and flung his arms around her. Startled, but not complaining, Theolonia returned the embrace. Closing her eyes, she relaxed against him and savored the strong arms around her. The hug turned into a caress, his hands moving tenderly at the base of her neck and the small of her back, pressing her even more tightly against him as his mouth found hers.

Suddenly his entire body tensed and he sprang backwards as if she’d burned him—or as if he’d just woken up and realized what he was doing. He cleared his throat and opened his mouth, but no words came out.

She covered the awkwardness with, “I’m glad your ship’s there.” Then she sensed Antigone hovering at her shoulder and turned to see a carefully neutral expression on her friend’s face.

“What?” Theolonia prodded.

“Perhaps your friend should wait here till you get back,” Antigone suggested. “Just so there’s no confusion over who recovered the lion.”

Theolonia considered that. Her people weren’t universally well received in the rest of the world—the very patriarchal world. If it came down to whom the king of Pentala preferred giving the reward to, he could easily choose Captain Theseus and his crew. And if the king tried to renege regardless, well Theolonia already had contingency plans in mind for that eventuality.

Theseus watched her closely. “I take it my status has just changed.”

The undertone of hurt in his voice was so subtle that Theolonia wasn’t sure if she imagined it or not.

She reached out and touched his cheek. “Will you wait for me for an hour if I ask?”

He caught her hand in his. “Are you asking?”

She refused to glance over at her first mate. “Yes, I’m asking.”

He kissed her palm. “What if I gave my word not to interfere, and went back to my ship instead?”

Theolonia thought long and hard about that. Without looking, she knew Antigone folded her arms and stood there glowering in blatant disbelief. Well, what was life without risk, right?

“All right. Go back to your ship.” She really hoped she didn’t regret trusting him.

“Really?”

“Yes.” Antigone took a step forward but Theolonia waved her back. The ship butted gently against the pier. The women secured the lines. Theseus had a clear path to the gangplank.

He looked longingly at his ship and took a few steps in that direction. Then he turned around. The sparkle returned to his eyes—a speculative one this time. “I’ll give you your hour.”

Her lips brushed his ever so softly. She wasn’t quite sure what future a pirate captain could have with a legitimate one.

But she couldn’t wait to find out.