‘Twas our second day of rowing, and if a mutiny would have changed things, I am sure the men would have tried it. For miles, all a man could see through the clinging, sticky southern heat was endless calm sea; if only it had been so flat the night our mast had broken! If only, we repeated to each other with furtive glances at the sky, afraid the same malicious god would hear our muttering and send another terrifying squall.
The storm had taken the life of three crewmen even as it snapped our main mast like a fishbone. I heard one man say he thought the three were not dead, but simply hiding in the larders because when they heard the mast go they knew there would be a hell following. And hell it was: our water must be rationed, yet the ship also must be pushed, and so with a weak and ill-fashioned few sails and all the oars, we made our way through the draining tropical heat to Cavareau.
Cavareau frightened us all, for we knew the seas around to be a long-time haunt of pirates. Here, in the sweltering archipelagos just south of the Empire’s jurisdiction, the seawolves lurked in rum-soaked hordes, singing their brazen, wild songs and murdering one another over whores and gambling debts. Crews of cutthroats parked in sheltered coves to careen their ships, count treasure, and heal from battle wounds before heading north again to plague the trade routes of the three commercially booming countries that formed the Empire. Cavareau was built (rather haphazardly I must say) as an intended stopover for mercantile ships between the Chanahan where we had come from, and the Empire where we were headed-but the ragged coastline all around was well-suited to brigands and soon the colony was largely ignored by passing trade. Any captain with an honest bone in his body avoided the place like the plague.
It was the last place we wanted to be, for our ship was laden with goods and not a little gold, but where else? Would we row to the Port of Savak? Would we swim? As much as we hated Captain Rallivan’s orders, we all knew it to be the only way. We needed a new mast or we would never reach the Empire alive, and certainly not with our ship riding as low with fortune as it did now.
Our voyage had been more than profitable. The lands of Chanahan were peopled with strange, heathen culture. They were civilized, though in different ways than I had ever thought could be. Their women were sweet, their food refined (if you did not ask what it used to be, at that), and their economy rich. Our Briunne was so packed with spices, fabrics, curios, gold, silver, jewels, strange lumber, artworks, something called “coffee”, and other goods that the cargo exceeded the capacity of the storage below. In places above decks, we had lashed bushels and crates to the bases of the masts. A few of those had been lost when the main snapped in the storm, for she had broken quite close to the deck, but the Briunne still held quite a haul.
At one point, I begged Captain Rallivan to fly the black flag high and the red at half-mast. Everyone, especially pirates, would recognize it as the signal of rogues who wanted to be left alone. He shook his head, saying his ship would never fly the devil’s colors, not even to save our skins. What if a military craft happened upon us and fired? To fly those flags was more than the devil’s work, he scolded, it was treason. Most of the crew agreed with him, and I had more than one threat over the matter, and a bruise or two as insurance that I would see it their way. This was the worst sign yet, for despite my being the youngest first mate any of them had heard of, they had never yet questioned my authority. Captain Rallivan broke up the two fights with barely suppressed panic-the tension and aggression we were all experiencing was nearly uncontrollable. Afraid for the captain’s authority, I let it rest, repeatedly tossing nervous glances at the gaping space between the fore and mizzenmasts-I was certain that we had the look of a limping lamb, and if wolves were about, they would not hesitate.
The sun was two fingers past noon when Jarik called from his vantage that a ship was passing the other way far off to starboard. I was taking my turn rowing, unfortunately alongside one of the men who’d been so infuriated by my treasonous words as to hit me, and did not hear the announcement. The strange ship was flying no colors, but when they spotted us they flew up the same as ours, and though Captain Rallivan seemed relieved, he came down to let us know all the same. He was a good man, if a bit obstinate, and he treated the crew like sons-which is the best treatment I’ve ever had from a square captain, and I heard the same from most of the crew.
He had our cabin boy take my place rowing, which did nothing to please my neighbor, and I followed him above to prepare for what might turn into a struggle or even a slaughter. I, unlike Captain Rallivan, had absolutely no illusions about the other ship. Whether he wanted to hear it or not, I was certain that we were done for.
“Are you not the same man who asked me to fly a treasonous flag to ward off pirates? It’s very likely they decided to go your route, only not to such a blasphemous degree, and simply took down their true colors. They sail like Purinese, and it is a Purinese ship, far slower even than ours.”
“Which they easily could have taken in a bath of blood from Purinese merchants,” I grumbled. “They make their way toward us even now. Maybe the next ship they victimize after ours will see our flag flying and suppose it friendly, while our blood stains the deck and attracts flies in the sun.”
His shrewd blue eyes wrinkled as he turned to gaze at me with a kind of tired concern. “Jandy, you’ll never get anywhere wishing for the worst. We’ll be prepared either way, but see how they make no haste. They are scarcely traveling faster than we, rowing as we are! Likely they will help us to harbor and only expect a small fee. I’ve sailed a good deal longer than you have, and don’t be preaching to me on caution. I know pirates favor lower, sleeker ships, the better to evade the military. If that were a low sloop or even a smaller schooner, I’d be worried. But a two hundred ton frigate is more likely a mercantile ship.”
“At any rate,” I said, “I mean no disrespect, only caution, Captain, and as you see we have no recourse. If they do come close and we mark them as brigands, we’ll have to wait for them to come in anyway. ‘Tis a pity there is no way to hurl sabers through the air,” I added with a rueful smile. “If they attack, will we wait for them to board?”
“Aye,” he said thoughtfully, chewing on his weathered, cracked lips. “If we-no, when we come out the victor, if some of our men were still aboard, the rogues could pull away and they would be slaughtered. And in that event, they may come back yet again and us with less defense. If we stay aboard our own ship, we’ll be more familiar with our step as well. But God’s hands, Jandy, I hope it never comes to that. Stroke your heart for a merchant vessel as it looks.”
I obediently ran my hand over my chest, closing my eyes briefly and speaking a word of plea to Heaven.
“Captain, if they run the evil color at half-mast,” I started, but he interrupted me.
“Jandy, I will tell you here and now I am more afeared of the men of the Mercantile League than I am of a few drunken thieves. I will give no quarter, and I do not expect them to give it either-for often they do not keep their bargain anyway. We’ll wait for the red, and that’ll be the end of it.”
I swallowed and nodded, my heart racing. The seas between Purin and Drendavia, far north of where we sailed now (if sailed it could be called), were rough and rocky, peppered with great electrical storms and gargantuan monsters of the deep. A man was needed for the sole purpose of breaking ice from the rigging, and another few, the number depending on the length of the ship, to keep the slimy, open-mouthed predators from scuttling up the sides. It was in those troubled, roiling waters that I had sailed my last fifteen years, where few men would go and not even pirates wished to chance. With that experience, despite my youth, there had been little consideration before I was given first mate. And yet, in a full eighteen years of sailing, I had never been boarded by pirates.
The Purinese merchanter pulled in ever closer, and finally, when she came so that we could see the men working aboard, I sent below for our crew. All hands were armed as they stepped on deck, and in a defensive arc we braced ourselves along the starboard rails. Before she came anywhere near close enough to make us nervous, they sent a longboat peopled with four men to come and speak with us.
We let the few aboard, and as I was introduced, I took a good long look at their clothes and features for some clue of their intentions.
The captain was exceedingly well-dressed. His slim, medium-height was carefully accented by the brocade coat and ruffled silken shirt he wore. A fancy, gilt ceremonial scabbard probably held also a ceremonial sword, and two even fancier daggers were tucked in his jeweled belt. Velvet breeches ended at his knees in bundles of silken ribbons, impeccable hose stretched shining beneath it, and his slender ankles and calves were encased in tight, many-buckled green leather boots. In this weather, he must have been perspiring abominably; unless, of course, he stayed in his cabin and fanned himself, as I imagined he did. Long, silky hair was bound in another ribbon so that it dangled down his back in a dark cascade. His manner was reticent, and his voice soft and husky, and I found myself resisting the urge to snort derisively.
I had come across such men before; noble youths whose fathers sent them to sea to keep them from impregnating all their cousins. The ship belonged to him, and it was crewed no doubt with many of his good mates. The first mate was the actual captain, the man who sailed the ship, while this good-looking young fop pranced about enjoying the salt air and an occasional boff with one of the foremast men.
With this in mind, I turned to watch the first mate, the man who held my position yet probably did more work. He was quite predictably a much tougher character, with hoops in his ears and lip, and a great many tattoos nearly invisible against his swarthy, sunbaked skin. Heavily lidded black eyes peered out of a weather-beaten face, and he wore only the least of garments, barefoot with a well-worn cutlass in a plain scabbard hung at his right hip, marking him as left-handed.
The other two characters with them were just as rough, and I found myself floundering through my thoughts. On the one hand, most seamen were salty characters, weatherworn and marked in the body modifications popular among sailors. Many men were pierced or tattooed upon our own vessel. On the other, the tattoos of these men seemed to run to the morbid, and they looked impatient and aggressive. It would be difficult, I thought, for such an effeminate young nobleman to control men like these, and if they were pirates and he a captive, he was remarkably at ease for the circumstances. Likely, Captain Rallivan’s optimism had bloomed true this one day.
To fortify the opinion, I soon found myself corrected about their obedience, for they cordially and readily did whatever their captain asked. He inquired about our missing mast, and where we had been, and though Captain Rallivan kept his latter answer to a minimum, their eyes did not fail to rove across the bundles of cargo roped to the two remaining masts. Still, they said and did nothing untoward, and their “captain” invited ours over for supper, and to discuss what terms might be agreed upon for their aid. A ship the size of theirs could tow us, though with our weight it would be slow, and Cavareau was much out of their way, through dangerous waters.
Captain Rallivan, to my immense relief, declined. I had no concrete motives for denouncing our new company, but I was loath to let free all my suspicions. He thanked them, and bid them good evening, and asked if they would wait while he discussed the matter with a select few of the crew and me. They acquiesced and returned to their boat.
We spoke on the deck, and while Captain Rallivan had each man ask before he spoke, everyone was given a turn. No one liked the idea of the Captain leaving the ship, but everyone liked the idea of being towed rather than rowing. A few of the men were fairly twitching with excitement over the prospect. Someone suggested their captain sup on board the Briunne, but not only was our fare dwindling in variety and quality, I quickly pointed out that having the captain locked in his cabin with the young noble’s bodyguards was just as bad as having them on the other ship.
My overzealous caution met some rolled eyes, but Captain Rallivan agreed with me. We were still discussing the matter when someone, in a feverish voice, called out that there was a low, swift sloop swinging round from behind the merchanter, which must have come in using their ship as a block so we’d not see it until it was close. My stomach twisted as we all looked to their flag, and found that they now flew none.
“Blast it all,” Captain Rallivan roared. “A pirate in silken stockings? What else shall I see before I meet Death?”
The sloop swiftly slid in to our other side, and the men aboard looked no better than those who had accompanied the foppish captain. Lurid grins and waving blades flashed in the bright afternoon light, and I nearly forgot the stifling tropical heat in my abject fear. Our men milled about the deck, and while Rallivan ordered them into some semblance of a defense, it was clear that we would have trouble preventing both ships from boarding us.
What we thought was the merchanter Goldset II hiked an evil black flag, marked with a white skull and an hourglass, to half-mast. In the turmoil, I looked to either side and begged Captain Rallivan to take their offer. We had never been prepared to fend off two ships, and despite the financial losses, we knew we would never win.
He refused, stoutly ignoring my pleas, and those of other members of the crew. He thundered orders for a formation, and we all took to it but one or two, which I judge must have run into the hold in the confusion.
There were but twenty-five of us in total, and the pirates seemed to number half again as many. While we loathed the thought, it seemed possible that we could hold them off, if only we fought with all the fury of the storm that had stolen our mainsails.
The Goldset II pulled in closer, and now we could see the bejeweled Captain Yanoreth leaning out to speak. While his false name had made no impression, his true name did.
“Captain Green,” he hollered, “will give quarter if you now lay arms down!”
“Get stuffed,” called Captain Rallivan, his aged brow set with a determined scowl. Several of us gasped or muttered prayers, for here we certainly would meet Death, and in no pleasant way. I found myself unable even to react, I was staring with such intent at our enemy. He was nothing I had expected, and I had judged him so erroneously that my mind trembled with the weight of the truth.
Were the pirate to curse, or call such back, or even say nothing we could not have been more frightened, for the Dragon Pirate began to laugh. He threw off his heavy brocade coat, and the red flag went up to touch the sky. They drifted yet closer, and I shifted weight nervously from one foot to another.
In an instant, just as the merchanter was close enough to Briunne at starboard, they swung a wide boarding ramp over and onto us. At least one man did not move quickly enough, and I heard a cry as part of him was crushed under the heavy wooden planks. The rail was splintered, and though a few men pushed in vain, there was no budging it before a swarm of slashing, shrieking pirates stampeded onto our deck.
It was then that hell broke loose upon the world, for the demons on the sloop to port chose this moment to make their leap aboard, and we were pressed into a thin line before all of us broke ranks in a wild effort to preserve our individual lives. It was no time before there were no friends to be counted upon at our backs-and the cries of men and the sounds of clashing steel and wet, flayed flesh broke my concentration more than once.
I killed one pirate and wounded another before he found me. One moment I was dancing aside to avoid a scuffle between the quartermaster and a great hairy beast of a brigand, and the next I was staring with startling clarity at the intent and smirking features of the still finely-dressed Captain Green.
The man was a terror. It was said he always kept his word if the victim accepted quarter, but if they did not, he would slaughter the whole crew but one-one to carry the story. It never mattered who, for he chose not by rank, but by who was alive the longest. And ‘longest’ was subjective, for it usually was a very short amount of time before the ship was emptied of fighting men.
I cursed Captain Rallivan even as I realized he was dead, laying prone just beyond the finely-attired villain. If he had only listened to me, this velvet-clad evil would not be slowly stalking toward me, seemingly oblivious to the violent, bloody maelstrom that had engaged everyone else aboard.
“First Mate Jandy,” he called, his voice carrying the delight of one who sees an old acquaintance at a party.
I knew then that I would soon die, and I was filled with fury at my impotence. Here I would die for some other man’s gold, because yet another man had more spine that was good for him, because no one would take my advice, because God had sent us a storm, because I had left the northern seas. In my rage, I became braver than I ever thought possible, and though my knees shook, I believe it was at least partially my anger and not completely my fear.
“Captain Green,” I answered coldly, giving my sword a few practice swings. I was no match for him, I knew that already. I was fairly handy with a sword, but in the obstacle-studded and rocking arena that we now stood in, my muscular, stocky stature was of little use, and I would have done better to have a lithe, supple and swift figure like his.
The deck was already becoming slippery with blood, and as he leaped forward to engage me, I found my footing unsure. In a panic, I wobbled and stepped back, and this was to be the pattern of the fight from end to end. While I sometimes nearly knocked the sword from his hand with my heavy, desperate blows, I was clumsy and much slower, and his sweeping strokes nicked me over and over many times between my sporadic strikes.
My white shirt was soaked with blood, cloth and flesh rent equally with his even, delicate strokes. I could feel droplets of my life trickling over my stomach, mingling with my sweat, and soaking into the pantaloons I had cut the bottoms from to make the tropical heat more comfortable. More than once I hit the ground, and he would lunge in with the speed of a wolverine, his blade dragging across whatever skin was closest, but repeatedly I rolled or shied away just far enough to avoid serious harm. My legs especially were sliced to ribbons, for they were nearly always the most exposed part as I fell.
The noises of the fighting around us died away, and so occupied with preserving my life was I that I hardly noticed for long minutes. When the deck was nearly silent, and I could again hear my own panting and the squelch of my bare feet in puddles of coppery-smelling blood, I realized that all the pirates were watching. I was unnerved, but I told myself over and over that I was still alive, and that was more than I had expected at the outset.
The pirates cheered their captain on, and for sport some cheered me as well, though they were sarcastic and called me such names as “dragon bait." I tripped on the torn, lifeless corpse of a crewmate more than once, and near the end I tripped over Captain Rallivan’s prostrate form. Wavering, my balance off, I overcorrected and brought my face too near the elegantly weaving form of Captain Green.
He ran his sword at an angle over my forehead, tearing open a waterfall of blood. Though the sweat had been threatening to blind me for some time now, the blood did the job, and blinking desperately, I felt another blow on my hand, and dropped my sword in consequence. Crying out with pain, I held the wound with my other hand, falling to my knees. Numbly, I felt some regret but mostly relief, for the fight had worn on me and I was nearly dead of the fear if not the loss of blood.
Though I could not see my victorious opponent, I knew he would soon kill me by the cheering of his mates. I tilted my chin up defiantly, waiting long moments, too exhausted even to tremble at the thought of my fate. Finally, when I felt nothing, I used my sleeve to wipe my eyes and staunch the flow of the cut over my brow. Before I could look up, I felt warm steel on my throat, and I stiffened.
“You fought well,” he said softly. “And you are the last one alive.”
I dared not breathe even a sigh of relief, for the blade was even then cutting into my flesh.
He went on, quite as if we were speaking over civilized tea. “I admire your spirit and your strength; they quite make up for your lack of skill. The Dragon Pirate’s crew could likely use such a hand.”
I was silent.
“Would you like to think about it for awhile?” he asked smoothly.
“Yes,” I said after a moment, opening my eyes to look up at his condescending smile. “How long do I have?”
“Until we put you ashore,” he replied. “Torvenvock, patch him up, will you? The man’s leaking like a sieve.”
Their carpenter spent a few minutes taping my wounds shut, and in a few he even put some stitches, which hurt worse than getting the wounds had in the first place-for a needle is a good deal more painful than a sharp blade’s edge. When he had finished though, he offered me some water and I only then realized my thirst. I had half the skin down my gullet before he pulled it away.
The captain lounged in front of me. “Aye then,” he nodded, holding out a hand to shake with me. “You can call me Tiska.”
“Tiska?” I asked, lifting an eyebrow as the female name rolled off my tongue. I extended my hand up to meet his, and though I could not reach high enough because of the pain, he leaned down to grasp my fingers. His hand was smooth and delicate, and suddenly I understood. I gazed up in shock at the lithe, feline body of the captain. Her thin lips spread in a deep smile of amusement.
“Captain Green is Captain Katiska Green,” she said mischievously. “It’s the square jaw that does it, I tell you.”
I have a few further parts to this, but I haven't decided where I want to go. So I thought maybe one of you guys would like to attempt writing the next part. I'm not really wanting to get into another or full collaboration--most likely I'll finish the story on my own. But I thought maybe it would be fun if you write "the next part" as you see it, or, if someone else has replied, the next part after THEIRS. :) Because right now, it could go MANY directions, and I could use a little prompting.
P.S. There are a few intentional inaccuracies; this is meant to be a fantasy world that loosely mirrors our own (you may have noticed the absence of projectile weapons, and the strange country names, for example). However, if you DO notice something inaccurate, tell me about it please--if there's something I missed I may want to correct it. Thank you :)