They said in the Aegean Sea lay Virago, an isle fair. Near the Dodecanese Islands, they said the Viragos descended from the Amazons, wounded warrior women settling farther southwest, away from the beasts of Crimea. Yet most importantly to Captain Wolcott “Plank Walker” Spaulding, they said the Viragos were the Keepers of Treasure Lost. A bounty was said to be on Virago, including armor, shields, helmets and gauntlets from ages past, hammered from the purest Ionian gold. Tales were told of silver axes, heavy broadswords, and jeweled daggers from Mediterranean blacksmiths. They even said baskets of pearls, bushels of gemstones, and casks of coins lined the walls of Viragoian temples.
Spaulding, a notorious Barbary pirate, intended to have Virgao's treasure for himself and his crew.
“And how will we know when we find Virago?” asked Spaulding’s first mate, Pasha the Young.
“It will be as when I found you, Pasha,” said Spaulding affectionately. “A happy accident.” The young man smiled before departing to attend to his many duties.
Pasha was the only pirate on the ship Spaulding fully trusted. It was odd, as when Spaulding and his gang had raided Pasha’s North African village that Pasha had not been killed outright, his being so strong and capable. Pasha’s black eyes glittered with intelligence. Others from Pasha’s homeland were held for ransom or sold for slaves, but Spaulding felt Pasha would be personally useful to him. Pasha’s knowledge of their small, fast-moving vessel proved invaluable in their capture of trading ships. But now, the lore of the Viragos consumed Spaulding. He meant to have it, and if a few old women needed to die for it? So let it be.
Pasha smiled to himself as he made his way to the stern to oversee the hoisting of the mainsail. Watching the crew at work, barking the odd command, the young man marvelled at how easily men could be led if one knew what strings to pull.
He may have been Pasha the Young, but that did not make him Pasha the Naïve.
When he’d first come aboard many months ago, he’d done so as a slave, a captive. His Nubian village had been destroyed by Spaulding's men, and Pasha had only been spared because his lithe, youthful body and glistening bronze skin had caught Captain Spaulding’s eye. Pasha noticed Spaulding's unwanted attention at once and had set about patiently winning the grizzled old seaman’s affections with vague hints at future nocturnal encounters and the satisfying of secret passions the captain clearly harbored. A desperate longing he dare not reveal lest his crew turn on him.
The youth’s rise from slave to first mate had been rapid, helped along by the mysterious deaths of several crew members who had mumbled disconsolately about the rapidly developing stature of the newcomer in their midst. Pasha had seen them dispatched with short shrift, silencing the rest and speeding his rise to the position of the captain’s most trusted advisor.
Such things might have been unthinkable on land, but at sea, a captain was king of his ship and his word was law. Out on the waves, a dark-skinned slave could quickly become the man in charge of the same crew who so recently put his village to sword and flame - if the captain commanded it.
But, unlike his fellow pirates, Pasha was driven not by greed. He had no passion for plunder nor thirst for violence. The sole reason for his existence, the flame that burned low, deep in his dark breast, was for vengeance.
Few were aware of the strong ancestral bonds between the women of Virago and the inhabitants of the Nubian coast on the North African shores of the Mediterranean. If there was one place the pirates would do best to avoid, it was that cursed island. When the women of Viragos learned what Spaulding had done to Pasha’s village, their fury would know no bounds.
The bronze-skinned youth smiled at the prospect of his carefully laid plans being realized. Steering Spaulding towards the island and the legendary Treasure Lost had been easy. The hard part would come next.
Pasha greeted the first light of dawn alone above the deck. Even the night watchers snored loudly, somehow still upright at their posts. He watched the horizon, where the isle of Vigaro steadily materialized through the morning haze.
“My wait is over,” Pasha whispered in his native tongue. “Gods, I know you watch me. You know my path is righteous. Keep my hands steady and my heart ablaze through to the end.”
He turned from the horizon, intending to wake the night guards, but found himself face to face with Captain Spaulding.
“My captain! You startled me!” Pasha exclaimed.
Spaulding smiled, delighted with Pasha’s reaction. “My apologies, Pasha. You looked so peaceful there, praying. Only a brute would interrupt such a sight.”
Spaulding stepped forward, draping an arm over Pasha’s shoulder and turning him back towards the horizon.
“See that?” Spaulding asked, pointing towards Vigaro. “I dreamed of treasure last night. Perhaps I have what your people call second sight?”
“No, Captain! Such people are cursed!”
“Aren't we all, Pasha,” Spaulding responded, already planning his plunder. “Aren't we all.”
As the sky became lit by the dawn, Spaulding and his selected men rowed the dozen small skiffs to the Virago shore. Each held a weapon. Each was promised to keep whatever he could find. Each pirate’s eyes glittered with possibilities of the island’s wealth and women.
Spaulding’s frigate, which he had won from a scurvy-ridden sea captain in a game of Whist, was safely anchored just off shore. Pasha stayed back with his own men, allegedly awaiting for the crew's return, knowing full well they would never leave the shores of Virago.
Messages had been sent. Agreements had been made. The Viragos would have their sacrifices to the Gods for the season, their treasure safe from another profiteer.
“The Virago temple is over the mount,” Captain Wolcott “Plank Walker” Spaulding called out to his men, watching them drag the skiffs ashore, roping the boats together to protect them from the incoming tides. “We will surprise the ladies at prayer,” he leered, as the men gave a lurid cheer. They scrambled over the escarpment, where thoughts of plunder and worse consumed the pirates’ thoughts and desires.
There was no door to the temple. The archway of the temple all but welcomed them. As the pirates quietly approached, they heard female voices mouth euphonious chants in unison. The men’s pace and pulses quickened. From the entry, they could see the fantastical lore of the Keepers of Treasure Lost was entirely true. Baskets and casks and barrels overflowed with treasures from kings and kingdoms unnumbered.
“Ladies,” Spaulding said unsheathing his long sword, “we’ve come to unburden you.”
Pasha heard the cries of pirates from his vantage point in the Crow’s Nest. Even the relentless sounds of the ocean waves couldn’t drown out what it sounds like when a man is skinned alive, a favorite torture of the Viragos. The pirates vastly underestimated their would-be victims ferocity and the alacrity with which they could move, capture, and bind a man. From that point, it was easy for the Viragos to splay each pirate on sacrificial tables, one by one, expertly slashing skin at key points with surgical precision, then peeling away skin from muscles with one smooth movement, leaving nerves raw and exposed. With luck, the pirates would quickly die. If not, eventual infection and blood loss would shorten their days considerably.
The Virago quick work was akin to filleting a mullet. Pasha had heard the tales and now knew they were true as he had suspected.
As the last of the hideous screams echoed along the tides, Pasha felt the last agonizing voice he heard belonged to former Captain Wolcott “Plank Walker” Spaulding. He would have pondered that thought further, but the matter was concluded, the sea calling out for Captain Pasha and his crew to set sail.