There writing exercise I agreed to do for the creative writing group. I figured I could put it here and work on it in chunks. I have to use the following 4 words: Bereft, Luminous, Swashbuckler, Thirst
The shortest straw a sailor can pull is the night watch. On the open expanse that is the ocean, there is little to see during the day. At night, for as far as can actually be seen there is even less. They were too far south to worry for icebergs and not nearly far enough West to really worry about pirates, yet.
“Not that the pirates would be able to see us, either,” Malcolm muttered to himself. Malcolm, or “Dreggs” as the the crew called him typically got the worst jobs on board. Afterall, he picked up his nickname when he’d gotten the job of hauling animal droppings up to the deck and casting them over the side when they had been transporting some stolen exotic creatures. He was glad, at least, that the other two nicknames that had bounced around at that time had not stuck. On most journeys, the solitary night’s watch as a lonely affair. It was for the one sailor and the quiet sea.
On this voyage, Malcolm had company … almost. A passenger had booked passage with their captain. Booking passage on a pirate vessel was just about entirely unheard. If someone every became fool enough to try it, they were all too likely to end up pressed into service or sold off into slavery. Yet, this man had come up to their captain in the tavern one night, spoken with him quietly and left. The captain acted oddly the rest of that night. He sobered up completely, having certainly been more then three sheets to the wind. In Malcolm’s estimation, he was close to five or six that night. In fairness, Malcolm was pretty drunk that night, too.
The passenger had been given accomodations, the first mate’s quarters. In some sort of medieval tradition, the first mate took the quatermaster’s room, the quartermaster the cook’s, and the cook slept with the rest of the men. No one was thrilled with it, but the first man to complain ended up whipped in front of the crew, by the captain, himself. The entire situation was odd, but no one spoke a word about it after. Well, noone except the cook, but he only grumbled to his cat and even that had been within earshot of only Malcolm.
The passenger was a complete stranger to the men. He kept entirely to himself on the voyage and no one had mentioned seeing him before back in port. He kept to his room at nearly all times. Malcolm had spotted some wine casks and other foodstuffs stacked into the man’s quarters briefly before they disembarked. Of the entire crew, Malcolm was the only man who really saw the stranger. He would only come leave his room very late at night. He did so quietly, wearing a long cloak with his face hidden beneath its hood. He would come out on the deck and lean of the rails, staring up at the stars or out at the sea. Malcolm had made a few attempts to speak to him, but he never seemed hear him. Malcolm had moved towards him, but every time he did so, the man would turn and head back below deck before Malcolm made more than a second step. After the fourth time, Malcolm just resolved to leave him alone.
Malcolm would often be left to keep watch straight through the night. So often had someone failed to come on deck to relieve him, that he had stopped expecting it. As the sun would rise over the horizon, in the first orange rays of the light shooting out over the water, Malcolm’s vision would have degraded to exhausted bleariness. As such, it was lucky that he spotted the ship as far out as he did. Squinting, he could tell it flew colors, but he couldn’t determine which ones.
Seeing a nation’s flag atop the mast of another ship told you precious little. If they were truly flying the colors of their native port, then it hardly mattered which port it was. If they were pirates, using legal colors to hide their intent, then the colors were, of course, a lie. Malcolm never considered one lie to be better than another. Lies were always rooted out and on board this ship, any lie of importance would get you flogged.
It took several long moments for the realization that he had, in fact, spotted a ship to shift to the concern that the ship was turning towards them. He shook his head once, blinked his eyes several times, and lunged for the bell. Clanging it, he shouted, “Sail ho!”
The ships had closed together over much of the morning. Both vessels had kept a careful distance, as was customary for mercantile ships. Captain Ferrele kept his eye pressed to a spyglass the entirety of the time. Risking their anonymity was only worth it when the prize was large. The other ship was weighed down. It had more cannons than it should, but recent news of piracy had led to that necessity even on the most civilian of ships. Whether they could crew their full arsenal was the real question, but the answer for that always came too late to matter. Still, she hung low and her colors told him he was unlikely to find himself the prey of a pirate catcher for taking her, at least not any time soon.
“Bosun, bring us up along side,” he commanded, not taking the eyepiece from his line of vision. “Make ready the starboard guns.”
No one ever had enough men to man all their guns, except some particularly exceptional naval vessels. They were a site to behold, full of shock and awe and a great deal of wasted lead. Something was calling to him from this ship, he thirsted for its prize, more than any other prey he’d taken on before.
“Aye captain,” the bosun’s respone came, but it was much more of a question than an assent.
“Now!” Captain Ferrele exploded, caught himself and then steadied. “Do it now, bosun, she’s plump and primed for our picking.”
Malcolm was a fairly inexperienced fighter. He had no formal training and had been part of less than a dozen boarding parties since joining the crew. Many of his crew-mates were more skilled and bloodthirsty than he was. They fought in small mobs of men and Malcolm was often pushed to the middle, where it became more important not to accidentally stab or slash a compatriot than it was to land a strike on the other side. That one reassurance was not really enough to comfort him as the other ship moved closer. Then, suddenly, there was commotion near the mast of the other vessel. They struck their colors.
“Why are they surrendering? They don’t even know who we are,” Malcolm asked to know one in particular. Ferrele still had them flying false colors, which was a little strange, but he captain looked to be intent on the pursuit and it was possible that it had slipped his mind. No one in the crew was going to question Ferrele. Many of the men had been complaining of boredom that past few days, a quick surrender would disappoint them. Yet, that’s what this was starting to look like.
Just as quick as the colors had been struck, the crew on the other ship sent up a new flag. It wasn’t white.
“They’re flying the black!” someone shouted. This wasn’t a surrender.