Gavin pulled the spyglass away from his blue eyes and gasped. They were coming. He put the foot-long, metal glass back to his eye and stared off the port bow, feeling his knees slowly build up to a knocking motion. A flag fluttered off the approaching ship: a black flag with a clear skull and crossbones stitched into the middle. His gaze followed the deck. Not a soul was on board; the ship appeared to be floating aimlessly. He had to tell the Captain.
Quickly, he scurried down the ropes and made his way to the deck of the Epic. Sailors rustled about on board, performing various cleaning tasks throughout. Jonathan, the first mate, stood on the upper deck, arms folded across his chest. The ruffles on the top of his white shirt fluttered in the breeze.
Gavin hurried up the wood steps and saluted.
“Aye, cabin boy. Speak your peace. What is it?”
He swallowed, the tall man loomed over him, his eyes hard and piercing. “Um... Sir, there's a ship to the port side. They fly a skull.”
Jonathan grabbed the spyglass from Gavin's hands and put it to his own eye. “Curse the skies!”
“But no, sir, there's not a soul aboard.”
Jonathan gave it another look and nodded. “Helm, steer a course for that ship on the west side.”
“Aye,” the helmsman muttered, turning the wheel and changing the ship's course.
Gavin glanced up at the first mate, wondering what exactly was going through his mind. What if there was someone onboard the ship, and what if they decided to board the Epic? What if they were taken captive by a band of pirates? As a young boy he had always run right outside his door and to the metal cages running alongside the house. He would take up a wooden stick to the chickens, calling them foul pirates and fighting them off, sending them clucking and cackling into the air. He had wondered what it might be like to actually see a real pirate, and now that the idea stood off port side about a league away, his gut wrenched inward on itself. He fingered the small cross he wore on a chain about his neck and wondered what his mother had meant when she had watched him leave home on his first voyage: “Always 'member, He is with you, wherever you might be.”
“What is it, boy?” Jonathan glared down at him, slowly releasing his arms from his chest. He threw the spyglass at Gavin. “Get back in the crow's nest and watch that ship. If anythin's a foul, I want to be the first to know. Scat!”
Gavin fumbled with the spyglass and latched it back onto the loop in his belt he had made a few days ago. When he had been assigned cabin boy aboard the Epic, he had no idea he would be called upon to be in the crow's nest acting as look-out for the ship. Apparently the former man had fallen out some time ago, and so the first mate had given the job to the most expendable member of the crew: Gavin.
He climbed the ropes and found his way back to the round platform high above deck. He put the spyglass back to his eye and watched the ship come closer and closer – still without any sign of movement.
They reached the pirate ship within thirty minutes, or a little more – Gavin couldn't be absolutely sure. They pulled up alongside the ship, not one person on deck breathing a word. Gavin could hear the near dead breeze and seagulls cawing overhead.
Jonathan started pointing and shouting the names of those who would be going aboard the opposing vessel. After he had picked eight good men, he pointed up at the crow's nest. “And you, cabin boy. Get down here!”
“Am I going too?” He shouted as he swung his legs onto the rope ladder leading down to the deck. His heart starting thumping a little harder; sweat just beginning to form on his palms.
“Aye.” Jonathan kept a stern look on his face as he waited for Gavin to make his way down. Once on deck, Gavin ran over, nearly slipping on a wet spot still on the deck from the cleaning that afternoon.
A plank was lowered to connect both ships, and one by one, the boarding crew crossed over to the other side. Some of the men ahead of him pulled out long, thin swords from their sides. Gavin reached down and put a hand on the dagger his father had handed to him before he came on board. “Only use it if you have no other options,” his father had instructed.
Their footsteps echoed dully on the deck of the pirate ship. One of the men blessed himself, crossing his hand across his shoulders and down across his face, while whispering a silent prayer. The man held out his sword, listening, waiting for whatever might come next. Gavin whispered his own prayer, remembering his mother's words, and echoing them: “He is always with you.”
The lead, a man named Henry, stepped toward the upper deck. “If there's nobody 'ere, then I wants to take a bit of peekin' about. I wouldn't be a might surprised to find somethin' of value in the Captain's quarters.”
They moved to the upper deck, trying to move as silently as possible. Gavin followed at the end of the group, running a hand along the curved railway that lined both sides of the wooden steps. The Captain's door stood firmly shut, and Henry slowly reached out a hand to open it. The door creaked outward, and the dark room flooded with light from outside.
Gavin moved in behind them as they began to poke around. While the other men looked into some trunks on the sides of an ornately fashioned bed, Gavin inched toward the desk. On top was a long dagger stuck through a bloodied paper with scribblings across the top. Father had taught him to read when he could finally start heading to the market to buy food and chicken feed. He didn't touch the dagger or the note, but leaned over them, reading, “He's comin' after all of us. I don't know what he's planning to do, but people are slowly disappearin'. Fallin' overboard, or coming to an unfortunate end. I mean not to be taken – I mean to live. I just pray he doesn't hurt that lovely girl he's brought on board. That thief – he'll have it...”
The note trailed off in three little spatters of darkened blood. Gavin felt a slight chill run across his shoulders. Was someone still on board? Who had written the note? Was there still a passenger on board?
Gavin checked to see that the other men were still busy with the trunks – one of them was banging it with the butt end of his sword, trying to break the lock on the farthest one from the door – and quietly he slipped out of the Captain's room.
He spotted the ladder leading into the belly of the ship quickly enough, and moved silently toward it, ducking just out of sight of any who might be watching from the Epic. Who knew what Jonathan would do to him if he found he had deviated from the group? But Gavin kept thinking about the note and the possibility of someone in trouble – it almost made his heart soar a little bit to think that he might be considered something of a hero.
Swinging both legs over the side of the hole leading into the holds, Gavin made his way down the wooden ladder and into a dim hallway beneath the main deck. A single lantern swung right by his head. He grabbed it and found a striking stone right inside the first compartment. He struck the stone against another small stone inset into the lantern and after four tries, managed to get a spark to light the wick. The lantern burned, lighting the hallway ahead.
He pulled out his dagger and edged along the hallway, holding the lantern high enough to see up ahead. Iron bars ran along one part of the hallway, and lifting the light up, he could see chains fastened to the wall inside, and then bones slung limply through the metal stocks. He shivered, moving on.
And then he stopped.
Something moved in the hall just ahead of him. A slight rustling moving along in the darkness. He tightened his fingers around the hilt of the dagger, ready to use it should he have to. He waited, inching slightly forward, listening.
And then the voice. “Is someone there?”
A girl's voice. “Please! Please come help me! I'm-” The voice cut off into a muffled gag.
Gavin raced forward blindly, holding the light up so he could see, charging with a yell. He rounded one more corner and then saw a grizzled man with a long shaggy beard hanging over his stout belly. He wore a black, three-cornered hat, and squinted both eyes at Gavin. He held his arm around the neck of a young girl, probably about fourteen, long blonde hair resting on her shoulders.
“Boy! Don't be takin' another step forward, or I'lls be slittin' the throat of this 'ere pretty one.” His voice growled, rumbling and churning with anger. “And I don't think ye be wantin' that, now do ye?”
Gavin swallowed, offering up another prayer. This time he felt like he really needed someone to be with him. He tried to stand as tall as possible, and lowered his voice just a bit. “Let go of-” his voice cracked, “her!”
The man roared with laughter, tightening his hold on the girl. “I don't think so,”
“What- What do you want with her?” Gavin held up the dagger, ready to fight this man if he had to.
“That be none of your concern, lad. What I need ye to do now is to turn your tail right around and tell all your friends up top that they need to be leavin' as soon as possible.” The man drew up his own long dagger from his side and held it against the girl's throat. “I don't want to be usin' this, now do I?”
Gavin's breath ran ragged – he had to think – what could he do? He had to get this man away from her. He didn't know if he could fight him – the man far outweighed him, and probably had years of experience with a blade in his hand. And hadn't his father said to use the dagger only as a last option? But what other options did he have now?
He still held the burning lantern in one hand. It took him only a split moment to decide what he had to do. With a hard shove, he threw the lantern right at the man's feet, watching it break open and the flame burst onto the boards lining the floor. The man shouted, stepping back and loosening his hold on the girl, who quickly kicked her leg against his shin, and jumped forward over the growing fire.
“Quick!” Gavin shouted, grabbing her hand and leading her in a frantic race back up the hallway. The fire erupted along the boards, following them, licking at their feet as they climbed the ladder that led to the deck. They came out of the holds, flames bursting up behind them. Gavin could feel the heat underneath him as he ran toward the plank connecting the ships. “Get across! Go!”
The girl nodded and hurried her way along the plank to the amazed looks of the men on the other side. Gavin ran toward the Captain's quarters. He had to get the other men and get them back onto the boat – they couldn't let the flames leak over onto the Epic.
“Fire! There's a fire in the holds!” He shouted in the doorway to the cabin.
Henry glanced up, sniffing the air and holding up a hand to the other men. “Smoke! Quickly! Grab as much as you can and hurry back!” They scooped up a few items into their arms, items glistening with a golden color as they came into the sunlight.
Gavin found himself pushed to the deck as the other men hurried to save their own lives. The fire had spread, and now engulfed the port side of the ship with orange flames. Black smoke plumed upward, casting a strange shadow over the deck. Gavin coughed, trying to get back to his feet in the dark haze. As he finally found his footing again and righted himself to a standing position, a blackened form emerged from the nearby smoke: the man from the hold.
“Where do ye think ye be runnin' off to now?” he growled.
Gavin stood his ground. “I have to go back to my ship!”
The man took a step closer, fingering his blade in one soot-covered hand. “Well I don't think that'll be necessary, me boy.”
“But I think it will.” Jonathan came out of the smoke and shoved a hard fist into the man's gut. With a cry, he toppled over, and in the moment of the man's disorientation, Gavin leaped up onto the plank with Jonathan right behind. They hurried across and pulled the plank down to their deck.
“Full about!” Jonathan shouted, letting out a light cough. He lowered his voice and said by Gavin's ear, “Well done, lad. Well done.”
Gavin smiled, and turned to see the young girl he had rescued drinking from a mug and resting on a barrel nearby. He hurried over and gave her a slight bow.
“Thank you, sir.” She took another sip from the mug and nodded at him.
“Who was that man?” Gavin asked, pulling up another barrel.
“Mendoza. He killed the rest of the shipmates. I think he wanted some sort of treasure the Captain had found.”
“Oh.” Gavin looked to the deck and then back up at this pretty girl sitting next to him. “And where did they find you?”
“Mendoza kidnapped me from my home off of Portsmith.”
Gavin was about to give her his name, but heard another shout interrupt him. “Cabin boy! Get back in that crow's nest!”
He swiveled his head around in the direction of a glaring Jonathan and saluted.
(c) 2006 by Shaun Stevenson.
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