In my novel My Lord Ax, third entry in the Lovers of Leonesse series, the hero and heroine don’t get along, not a bit. As explained in the blurb:
When the king of the Nords wishes to end the generations-old war with a marriage between his daughter and the Purdhan ruler’s son, VicomteFrançois faces a problem: His son is only seven years old. Then His Majesty comes up with a clever solution…
He betroths his illegitimate son and warlord, Ax, to the Nord King’s daughter, and peace is ensured…except for one minor detail…
Neither Ax nor Princess Astrid want to get married, especially to each other.
Axel thinks his bride is a spoiled, pampered, and inconsiderate little chit. Astrid considers Axel a rude, crude, uncouth barbarian. She’s determined their marriage will never be consummated and so far, her trusty dagger has kept the randy young warlord at bay.
So here we have two people, at odds before they marry, and even more so afterward. Any advances Ax makes, amorous or otherwise, Astrid spurns. The few times she begins to see him in a halfway friendly light, he goes and does something completely stupid to spoil it all and they’re again back to Square One.
So what does all this have to do with pirates? And well you might ask that. It’s like this…
There’s a shipwreck, so…enter the Raiders of the Seas…but they may be a disappointment.
They’re not handsome and rakish like Cap’n Jack—far from it—nor are they hired by the government to be privateers, as Jean Lafitte and Captain William Kidd were, neither are they comically vengeance-seeking like Captain Hook. They’re just plain mean and looking for victims.
Their clothing was odds and ends. Two were wearing nothing but
ragged braes, barefoot with no hosen. They were barechested
and sun-darkened, arm and faces mottled with blue
tattoos. Axel recognized those marks. It signified two
were Tezpari, one of the southern Venitani tribes, fierce and
savage warriors. Another two were from a different tribe,
bodies adorned with red symbols and gold rings piercing
ears and nostrils.
The fifth man was different altogether, and even Axel,
who thought he knew all the tribes, was startled. The man
was black-skinned, his body unmarked except for a number
of chains and beads encircling his neck and a single golden
hoop dangling from each earlobe. He seemed to sense Ax’s
surprise, for he smiled slightly, revealing teeth filed to
The sixth man, standing in front of them, was the only
one completely clothed, though his garments were shabby
and bore evidence of having been worn for a long period, as
did his boots. They were so dirty, their original color was
All were armed, daggers at their belts, swords in hands.
The pirates fly their very recognizable flag, the jolie rouge, which Axel recognizes and gives him a bit of a warning before they land. Most of us know this as the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull and crossbones, but it wasn’t always black. That flag has changed quite a bit before becoming the comic Halloween piece we know and love.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, privateers flew a version of the flag of the country under which they were hired, usually with some sigil indicating death, a skull or a skeleton, on it. Gradually, black flags began to be used, with each privateer embellishing it with his own personal insigne. One, tied to the gallows on which its crew was executed in 1723, had a “Portraiture of Death, with an Hour-Glass in one Hand, and a Dart in the other, striking into a Heart, and three Drops of Blood delineated as falling from it.” Edward Teach, known as the pirate Blackbeard, used a black flag with a skeleton holding a sword pointing at a red heart. Pirates also had their own individual design for the flag.
When the War of Spanish Succession ended in 1714, many privateers found themselves no longer needed and thus turned to piracy in order to continue plying the only trade they knew. When they changed from being “paid pirates” to freelancers, the flag, the most obvious indication of their status, changed along with them.
The first official notation of the skull-and-crossbones on a flag is found in a December 1687 entry in a French logbook, in which the captain states, “And we put down our white flag, and raised a red flag with a Skull head on it and two crossed bones (all in white and in the middle of the flag), and then we marched on.” By the time the red flag became recognizable as the sign of a pirate ship, the skull and long bones (femurs) were added to indicate those flying ship would give no quarter (no mercy) to any other it encountered. Captain Richard Hawkins, captured by pirates in 1724, noted that his captors flew a black flag with the figure of a skeleton stabbing an hourglass with a spear. He also brought to the public’s attention that if they flew the black flag, they wouldn’t kill, while the red flag indicated no mercy would be given. As stated, his captors flew a black flag so he lived to tell the tale.
As for the name itself? It’s believed the name Jolly Roger is a corruption of jolie rouge (French for pretty red) which was the color of the flag flown during a naval battle to indicate no mercy was to be given. Later, this was combined with the quarentine flag (black) and the symbol of death (skull and crossbones) as a distress signal, to lure other ships seeking to assist what they assumed to be a stricken one, into close enough range to be boarded. It’s been suggested that Jolly Roger is a play on the words Old Roger, which was a term for the devil, as in the poem about 15 men on a dead man’s chest. Since this was taken from a fictional sea chanty in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and later made into a poem, “Derelict” by Young E. Allison (1891), even though it features the words, “Drink, and the devil had done for the rest,” it’s a little late to be the source. Another theory is that since “roger” was an Elizabethan term for beggars and because Sea Beggars was an epithet used for Dutch privateers, that’s where the name came from. Another rare one is that a17th century Tamil pirate Ali Raja gave his name to the flag.
Take your pick. They’re all relatively feasible. I chose the first explanation.
The pirates Ax and Astrid face fly the Jolie Rouge, so the reader can imagine what fate awaited them when those men landed on the beach.
Whatever the origin and whichever flag was flown, the purpose was to frighten the victims into surrendering because it indicated they were outlaws. It was doubted if mercy would be given, in any case. Because pirates were hanged if captured, they would receive no mercy from the Crown, so a captive could expect none, from either the black flag or red.
They burst onto the beach, Axel shielding his eyes as
he looked across the water at the ship. The sun was so bright
reflecting off the waves that for a moment, he was dazzled,
seeing nothing but bright splinters of light. He blinked,
focused, and made out the colors of the flag flying from the
mainmast. Red, black. Oh no. Axel’s mouth tightened.
“Fetch me that spy-glass, would you, sweet?” He made
the request as quietly as possible. No need to frighten her
until he was certain of what he was seeing.
Obediently, she ran to the cave, returning with a small
telescope that had been Captain Luwes’, another item
retrieved from the sea. Axel took it, opened it full-length,
then put it to one eye, closing the other. Immediately, the
image of the ship rose up to meet him, and the flag. It was
red, as he’d thought the black spot in its center a skull.
“Le crane noir…oh Goddess…” Axel lowered the spy
glass. Behind him, Astrid was feeding green leaves to the
fire to make the smoke more noticeable. Without turning
around, he said, “Astrid. Stop. Douse the fire.”
“What?” Though she looked up, she didn’t stop what she
“Douse the fire,” he repeated. Dropping the spy glass, he
turned and pulled her away from it, taking the remaining
leaves from her hands and tossing them away. He began
kicking sand onto the blaze.
“What are you doing?” She reached out to stop him.
“Don’t, Ax, you’ll put it out. They’ll think they didn’t see
anything and leave.”
“Good.” He bent, using his hands to scoop sand, didn’t
stop until the fire was successfully smothered, and only a
faint wisp of smoke trailed upward. “We’ll at least be safe.
That’s a Venitani flag, Astrid.”
“I don’t understand.” She knew little of Venitania except
that it was a kingdom further south.
“The ship’s a pirate corsair and they fly the jolie rouge.
That means they don’t take prisoners.” He retrieved the spy
glass. This time when he looked, he saw a long boat being
lowered over the side. “Shit! Come on.” Pushing her toward
the trees, he went on, “Head for the other
side of the island where I put the raft I’m building.”
“What about you?” She looked back and he hoped she
wasn’t about to be stubborn. They didn’t have time for an
“I’ll follow in a few moments.” He didn’t wait to see if
she obeyed but dashed into the cave. His boots lay near the
trunk. He pulled them on, checking to make certain his
dagger was in place. Then, he retrieved his sword from the
trunk, strapping it around his waist. Picking up his spear,
Axel ran from the cave. As he followed his wife through the
trees, he marveled at how heavy the blade felt against his
thigh. Strange, how a man forgot the sensation, though he’d
worn a sword most of his adult life until this past year.
Broken shrubbery, dislodged leaves and pine needles told
him exactly which way Astrid had gone. A two-year-old
could’ve followed the trail she left as she ran and Axel was
certain the pirates wouldn’t have any trouble, either. Still, if
they could get to the raft before the corsairs made it ashore…
Ozean, please send your waves to slow that boat.
(Quotations above are taken from Wikipedia.com entries on “Pirates” and “Jolly Roger.”)
My Lord Ax will be available from Class Act Books after November 15: www.classactbooks.com
Giveaway: One commenter will receive a pdf copy of The Kings’ Swordswoman, Book 1 in the Lovers of Leonesse series.
Toni V. Sweeney was born some time between the War Between the States and the Gulf War. She has lived 30 years in the South, a score in the Middle West, and a decade on the Pacific Coast and now she’s trying for her second 30 on the Great Plains. Her first novel was published in 1989. An accomplished artist as well as writer, she has a degree in Fine Art and a diploma in Graphic Art and produces videos as well as writing. Toni maintains a website for herself and her pseudonym Icy Snow Blackstone, and has been associated with the South Coast Writer’s Association, the Pink Fuzzy Slipper Writers, several other writer’s loops, myspace, Facebook, and YouTube. She has currently had her 34nd book published.
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