Friday 31 May 2013

One Fateful Day

A short story by Adina West

Perhaps this was the moment my mother feared would come to pass when she wept against my shoulder the day I boarded ship and we set sail from Bristol. Perhaps she could see the danger in such youth as mine, and in a face that was as innocent as it was fair.
The crew I joined were kind, and accepted me without question. Our captain was a godly man, and I can say with certainty that no man on board that vessel ever made a move or gave a glance in my direction that was in any way untoward.  But my time of grace couldn’t last.
The fateful day things changed, I faced a truth about myself. I realised that I was not merely younger and softer than the men I had worked alongside these past months, but less brave too. I knew myself for the greatest coward that ever breathed, as the last burst of cannon fire rocked our ship, and the clatter of grappling hooks filled the awful silence, for I hid behind a coil of hemp rope and an empty barrel amidship. I did nothing but watch in frozen terror as men came swarming over the side and our bosun’s hoarse cry of warning was cut short by a vicious sabre thrust.
Almost immediately, I was discovered. Wedged in my rough woven prison, with hard board digging into my tailbone and spine, there was no possibility of escape. All around was the ring and hiss of metal blades as they slid and danced in battle; the shouts and screams and rattling final breaths of my fellow crewmen as they fell, one by one. But they seemed to fade away as I looked up at the weathered face above me. My heart stuttered, and my blood chilled. There was no hope to be had here, no kindness in the dark eyes that held mine. This was no man of mercy, no saviour or benefactor. Leading a crew of renegades and murderers like his called for a hardness, a calculating coldness that I’d never in my sheltered life met with before, and this man looked to be hard to his pirate core.
I shivered, and for the barest fragment of a moment there was something…something that softened those firm lips and brought an assessing gleam to dark eyes. And then nothing. Coldness again.
My attention was torn toward the staggering gait of Mr Blunt, our Mate, passing my hiding place as he stumbled aft bearing nothing but a shipwright’s axe with which to defend himself. Blood streamed from a head wound, and he collapsed to his knees only feet away.
My eyes returned to the pirate captain looking silently down at me. He paid no attention to the wounded man; took no notice as one of his own men ran past, and dispatched our ship’s Mate with a savage-looking cutlass and a blood-curdling cry.
The attacker turned, breathless and exultant in victory, and took in my cowering form and the man standing over me in a single glance. A flicker of emotion crossed his face. Was it understanding? Pity? “Cap’n,” he said with a respectful nod, and strode off to rejoin the battle.
The pirate captain had a sword in the scabbard at his hip, though he showed no sign of drawing it. Still, I could not help glancing in that direction. Why did he merely stand there, blocking my escape? Why did I still live?
“Do you…do you mean to kill me, too?” My voice was a whisper, a breathless shadow, my body as stiff and unmoving as the wood at my back. My eyes darted to his face once more. The signs of a hard life were marked on its planes and contours, but he was handsome too, with that faint smile curling his lips. His must have been a life filled with barbarism and cruelty, for a man did not last long in a buccaneer’s world without such traits. But at this moment, as he saw the fear etched into my still features, his gaze gentled. There was a strange light in his eyes, and I wondered if he was capable of kindness.
“I have another use for you,” was all he said.
The battle was soon won. The outcome, in truth, had never been in doubt. The clanging of swords and screams of anguish faded, to be replaced with a sickly silence. And then began the calls to and fro, as the pirate crew moved the bodies of the dead aside to clear a path to the hold, and began to remove everything of value in our cargo. Once emptied, our ship, my home for more than five months, was readied for scuttling. My belongings may have been meagre, but they were all I had. Soon, they would be at the bottom of the ocean, together with the bodies of many a man I had called friend.
The pirate crew skirted around our silent tableau as they worked, with a glance or a nod for their captain. And my terror steadily grew. Men I had laughed with, men who had treated me with kindness lay where they’d fallen, or were pushed against the railings, limbs askew. But I had been spared. My pretty face, my soft skin and my youth, had saved me. But for what fate?
Those dark eyes still played across my face in seeming fascination, as if this pirate king had not expected to find one such as I on board ship, and was wondering at his good fortune. I have no doubt he read in my eyes both my weakness and my fear, for he reached out to me with a hand that was long-fingered and strangely elegant. He smoothed his thumb across my chin, nudged my cheek with his knuckles.
“Fear will only make it worse,” he said softly.
“Cap’n?” came the call at last, and he turned away, to where a swarthy man with arms as thick as my thighs stood waiting by the foremast. “We’re ready to sink ‘er.”
He nodded once, a silent acknowledgement, and then swung back to me. He held out his hand, but I, mistrustful, would not reach out to him. He then reached for me, plucking me from my place of failed concealment with hands that I could have no doubt knew how to wield a sword, how to strangle a man in combat. Hands that on me, were firm and strong, but surprisingly gentle.
“Come,” he said. “There’s nothing here for you now, boy.”

All rights reserved. Please do not copy or republish in any way without the express permission of the author.

About the author
Adina West is the Sydney-based author of the Dark Child digital serial and Dark Child Omnibus. You can find her lurking online at the following places.

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