(I really need to get back to writing. Really, really. Not that this is any good, but it was so much fun to write!)
“Ballista!” The shout echoes above and below deck, a dozen voices barking back and forth with ever-increasing urgency to get it done. Bleary-eyed pirates are tipped from their cots and hammocks, running before their feet touch the floor, belts cinched as they go. “Wozzit?” A few voices ask, weather-beaten faces scrunched with concern.“Sail’s on us,” was the short reply passed through the ranks, and all the reply the ranks needed for motivation. There’d been threat of sail for days; a persistent smudge on the horizon that didn’t bode well for the weather-weary crew keen to make safe port. Heavy with cargo stolen from every nook and cranny of the coast between the far north and the distant south, they were bloated and running deep.
Easy pickings for some.
The smudge of sail on the horizon to stern the night before revealed itself with the first rays of morning, and the Squall’s crew was in a frenzy. It was a familiar profile, and one no life-loving pirate wanted to see in their wake with the wind against them.
“It’s the Lady’s Choice,” Thedue’s oaken voice splits like stone. The Squall’s first mate was blacker than pitch, balder than a newborn’s backside, and studded with silver and gold from head to toe. Bare-foot and bare-chested, he was as stolid as the figurehead, and usually a source of steadfast courage to a jittery crew. His outlandish trousers and piercings, and an empty eye-socket coupled with a voice that made the very bilges rattle, he was a fearsome presence looming at the Captain’s side. With everyone else aboard lamenting the sight of their breath, he remains apparently unaffected by the cold sinking deep into the bones of his crewmates. Even his teeth were filed for maximum effect, rendering even his warmest smiles something horrific.
To hear his voice break as it did reduced the ship to silence.
The spyglass is passed to Klarra, whose deeply creased eyes squint sceptically at what she still hoped was just a mirage. Klarra was a fair and well-respected Captain, the longest serving the Squall had ever seen, but life was quickly catching up with her. She looked decades older than her years, the salt ground deep into her skin by the ceaseless winds, and burnt there by the unrelenting sun reflected from all the seas of the world. This was to be her last run, she’d mentioned in private conference with the boy she kept as servant. It was time to retire, enjoy the spoils, and settle down with a handsome Northman. Any handsome Northman would do.
She’d bedded quite a few.
But if that’s the Lady’s Choice in their wake, she might never know another.
“Ballista!” Klarra’s voice rolls like an avalanche over the deck, rattling her crew back to work. The less they thought about what was pursuing them in these icy waters, the more they’d get done. Barely hours from their destination, the rigging already trimmed to negotiate the precarious channels threading from the coast to the placid, inland lakes, the Lady’s Choice couldn’t have picked a better time or place.
And she was known for selecting the best times and places, and fattest targets to fill her own belly. No one knew for sure which of the noble houses sponsored her, but it was damned clear to everyone who’d ever faced her and survived: The Lady’s Choice was a mercenary vessel, so much worse than a stand-up pirate. Let the pirates pick and choose their targets, steal from the noble’s enemies so the nobles can then steal from them.
Times were changing, and pirates weren’t the scourge of the seas anymore. People who never set foot off land were.
“I’m gonna burn every noble house to the ground,” Klarra was growling under breath, her vow overheard only by those closest to her, Thedue and the kid carrying her cutlass and boots. Klarra had been shaken from her bed like everyone else, and hit the deck without her shoes.
“I’ve heard they have a mage,” the hulking savage murmurs, turning from the stormy vista to regard his captain.
“I’ve heard that too,” she responds in kind, the pair careful to keep their voices low though the commotion above and below deck made it unnecessary. Between them the boy with the boots maintained a vacant gaze into the distance, feigning ignorance as he always did. They knew very well the boy heard every word, and probably knew more secrets aboard this ship than the two of them together, but he was valued from his still tongue and open ears, and his foresight.
“Thanks Shortie,” Klarra snatched her boots out of his hands and quickly pulled them on her bare and cold feet. The damp deck was slick with frost, which was going to make a fight at sea that much more challenging. Her crew were slipping and sliding all over the place. Those charged with bringing aloft the dismantled ballista and erecting it before their enemy was within range, were losing their footing every third or fourth step without the necessary traction.
“Curse these winter fogs,” Thedue grumbled, taking the spyglass back to again regard the ship’s profile drawing near. Both Klarra and Shortie blink and stare, having never once heard the man complain of the cold. “We’re heavier in the water the farther north we get.”
Considering the wide and shallow-bottomed schooner was best as a tight turner in the shoals off equatorial coasts, it was a justified lament. The Squall wasn’t meant to carry loads in these chill waters.
“We’re like an elephant in a Pinani hut.” He passes the glass to Shortie and turns to survey the slow assembly of their only weapon against a tri-masted giant.
“What’s an ‘elephant’?” “What’s a ‘Pinani’?” Klarra and Shortie ask in unison.
“It means,” he scowls at the pair of them, “that we need a higher tide if we’re gonna take that course, at speed.” He jabs a finger at the white water torn up by the rocks they’d easily negotiated in the past. Though in the past they’d not had a vessel giving chase, nor quite so much cargo.
“But we’re still shallower than the Lady,” Shorty scoffed, as though it might make a difference to their situation. “Look at her plumage! She’s gotta be dragging to carry that kind of sail.”
“Well it ain’t slowin’ her down much, izzit?” Klarra clicks her tongue and dons her feathered cap, back and shoulders straightening as she prepares her ‘captains voice’ to continue yelling instructions at her crew. The sail needed furling, loose cargo needed lashing, and the deck needed clearing to make room for the only weapon in their arsenal they could use against the Lady’s Choice.
“Go chase up the bolts, boy.” Thedue balls a fist and lands it lightly on the boy’s crown, skewing and crushing his cap low over Shortie’s squinting eyes. “They forgot ‘em again.” The black giant’s gold and silver teeth glimmer in the dawning light, but there’s not a lot of humour in his grin. Panic did not a sensible crew make.
“Aye!” Shortie shouts and dashes for the stairs, somehow managing to avoid all the slips that challenge his crew mates across the deck. The lad was a nimble, light-footed thing, that hadn’t aged as much as a boy should at sea for so long. He was as short and skinny as the day he was plucked from the ocean like a half-drowned rat, still clutching at an oar which was all that remained of whatever boat that had taken him to sea. He didn’t have much to say for himself, and next to nothing to offer a band of brigands, but as soon as someone threatened to toss him back to the fishes, he’d proven himself faster with a knife than anyone had seen before.
Save for a few moments in the company of the giant, who seemed to understand the lad better than most, no one had since laid a finger on the boy without losing it. It turned out he was more than happy to trade his life into piracy, and his quick and nimble fingers had been as useful as any other pirate aboard the Squall. It wasn’t long before he fell into favour with the captain and her first mate, and he’d been in their shadow ever since.
But it was Thedue who’d sniffed out his secret, and kept it as closely as Shortie kept Thedue’s. Pointless secrets, valued only by themselves, but guarded regardless. They were neither of them a judge for the other.
With the boy gone again, the first mate returned to regarding the approaching vessel through the spyglass, searching for another advantage – on either side. It did not look good for the pirates this time.
Shortie finds Robbel below decks, his puffy face red and sweaty as he struggles to balance a stack of bolts across his arms and add another to his precarious pile. He puffs out his cheeks with hard exhales of exertion and concentration, only to drop half his load as Shortie careens around the corner. The lad had a habit of flying into a room on the swing of a hand around a doorframe.
Robbel was a simpleton, a grinning and child-like face belying his greying temples. He was, much like Shortie, evidence that the Squall’s pirates had hearts of molten gold. He couldn’t swing a sword or cutlass with any degree of accuracy, couldn’t climb the rigging with fingers too chubby to clench into fists around rope. He was almost blind in both eyes, but he knew north better than any compass. And he could catch and cook rat in lean times.
What he also couldn’t do, was carry an arm-load of bolts up the narrow stairwell, but he always forgot about that in a panic. The ballista’s bolts easily out-measure the doorway by a foot and a half. And being thicker than his arm it was a wonder he could carry even two at a time, but he still tried – oh how he tried! – to load and carry five. Every, single, time
“Hard starboard!” Comes a yell from up top, alerting everyone to a tight turn. Before either Shortie or Robbel could brace fists against the port wall, all the dropped bolts at Robbel’s feet start rolling over their toes.
“I gotcha,” the lad assures the frightened older man, catching him by his collar before he loses his footing. Rather than pick up the tumbling bolts through the turn, they ride it out like everyone else aboard, clinging to whatever was solid as the starboard bilges take a breath out of water.
“Ooooh yeah!” Shortie shouts, trying to instil some adventurous excitement into the simpleton who relied so heavily on those around him to adjust his moods. Though naturally happy with everyone and everything, it didn’t take much to frighten or upset him. No great surprise given the abuse he’d suffered most of his miserable life. His thick and slow features marked him for ridicule from birth, and if his mother kept him as long as a day after birthing him, Shortie would be amazed. Shirtless in the summer, everyone saw the burns.
But there wasn’t a man or woman aboard who didn’t have a similar scar to share, which was why there were Shorties and Robbels in the Squall’s crew.
Robbel giggles and imitates Shortie’s enthusiastic expression, and by the time the ship was back on a straight course, tacking up an unfamiliar coastline, the pair were back to picking up bolts. They were presenting a broad side to their enemy, and that was no good thing.
They were also sailing into unknown territory north of the northernmost point on their map. To date, to the best of Shortie’s not especially extensive knowledge, they’d never sailed beyond the mouth of this river. Aside from their ship really not being equipped for cold water sailing like this, it was a rocky coast line that made every approach an anxious exercise. They couldn’t get nearer to land than they were now for a few hundred miles south without scuttling themselves.
Klarra was pinning a lot of hope and a lot of lives on the Squall’s shallow belly, and the good sense of whatever captain directed the Lady’s Choice. Whoever they were, they had to know they had no chance in these waters.
“C’mon, Rob,” Shortie tucks a bolt under each of Robbel’s arms and points him at the stairwell with one tucked under his own. In his other hand he drags a sack of clinking metal too heavy to lift off the ground. It thumps and bumps after them as they clamour up the stairs in time to see the last of the ballista assembled. They both drop their load behind the contraption as Klarra inspects its assembly.
“Rob?” She calls after the man as he was about to flee to the safety and familiarity below deck again. “We need you to bolt the shafts, okay?” As patient as a grandmother with a beloved child, she points first at the heavy bolt shafts they’d carried up, then the sack of metal. Sure, they’d get more bolts up with the two of them working, but everyone knew how easily Robbel forgot what he was doing if he had too much to do. Best to set it to work on one thing and one thing only, and he’d excel.
“Aye captain,” his thin lips slur and his round cheeks turn pink with a giggling blush. He always giggled when Klarra called him by name.
“Shortie? We need more! Scram!” Threatening to backhand the boy with a balled fist… and missing.
Until that moment the crew was tense enough to snap at a wayward hiccup. With Rob’s blushing grin and Shortie’s fleeing antics, the moment just… passed. The bubble burst and there was laughter in the ranks again, purpose and direction and union, and laughter.
For the next half an hour, as the sun crept above the horizon somewhere behind heavy cloud cover, the Lady’s Choice dogs the Squall through a forest of jagged rocks, some breaking the surface, others scraping their keel; a sound and sensation that freezes a heart in its chest. Klarra stands, one foot on the back of their figurehead, a hand raised to signal Thedue at the wheel. Whenever a rock looms out of the dark water, she’d call for a turn, which the mate obliges, but everyone else – except for Shortie and Robbel – were fixed on the ship growing ever larger on their horizon. They were almost out of forward momentum, and Shortie was waiting for the call to oars, but it never came.
Between them, Shortie and Rob had assembled twenty bolts, their entire arsenal, and though it felt like a lot having carried them up the stairs one at a time, stacked up as they were, they sure didn’t look like much against the shadow of the ship bearing down on them.
“She’s shadowing us,” Thedue observes with a frown, noting that they’d approached only so far before turning to skirt the shallows and harass them at a distance. The same ploy Klarra hoped to use to lure them in they now used to drive them into danger.
The only thing they had going for them was the safety of their cargo, which the mercenaries wouldn’t want to lose after such a long and tiresome pursuit. Sinking the Squall was not their intent.
“Fine.” Klarra sighs, resigned to having to put up a fight afterall. Her breath is explosive, icing her eyebrows as she turns back for the helm and her first mate for a quick conference. As she went, she passed the equally icy faces of her anxious crew, their beards dusted with white and their teeth chattering. They all hug themselves and rub at their arms and shoulders, trying to aggravate warmth through their coats as the chill of silence sinks deeper into their bones.
No one had so much as glimpsed at the land at their backs. After so long at sea they were all of them looking forward to a warm fire and fresh meat, perhaps a hot body in soft furs. But even with the coast near enough to swim, not a single one of them could take their eyes off the other ship.
Shortie slinks from the back of the ballista crew to the captain’s elbow in time to overhear their scheming.
“…if that doesn’t work, we can always dump our cargo. Or at least some of it. Might make ‘em lose interest…”
A fair point, but everyone wanted a share of this fine load, and no one wanted to see their share get any smaller.
“I see… bowmen.” Thedue mentions. Not a surprise given the height of their deck, and their purpose at sea – kill the crews, salvage ship and cargo. A couple of good barrages and…
“How many?” Klarra interrupts her rambles.
“At least twenty…- four hands.”
Shortie could count just fine, but caught the barb.
“There’s no way we’re gonna punch through that hull with this thing,” the boy pipes up, declaring what everyone was already thinking. “And I don’t think we’ve got reach enough to…-“
“Shuttit, boy. Check everyone’s armed proper. Bow and cutlass, and check the quarrels are right an’ full.”
“But…-!” Shortie ducks another swat from his captain and scurries to follow orders, though not without another dubious glance at the length and height of the ship shadowing them. She was easily half again their size, and likely carrying half again their number of crew.
If the water wasn’t so cold, Shortie could vault over the side and swim for it, but even so close to shore, he might freeze and sink.
Battle broke out while Shortie was below collecting extra weapons from the ‘armoury’, which was just a series of barrels lashed together with various and sundry bladed weapons left to suffer in the elements. He heard a shout about boats and knew boarding crews were on their way. He also heard Thedue’s shout for ‘cover!’, then the tell-tale thwacking of a volley of arrows barking against the deck. Someone screamed, and kept on screaming, but no one was in much position to help them.
There was a surgeon aboard, not so much because he wanted to be, but he was living well enough as a captive with perks. He hadn’t tried to escape since long before Shortie joined the crew, but he made it clear whenever he could that he wasn’t ‘one of you filthy pirates’. With five quivers laden with arrows slung over his shoulder, Shortie glimpsed him sitting at his desk in the cabin set aside for his ‘comfort’, fingers buried in his hair as he covers his ears against the screaming.
He was needed for the aftermath, so seldom saw combat, but he heard every shriek and wail.
“Loose!” Thedue’s voice booms like a peal of thunder, and Shortie crested the stairs in time to see a giant bolt, sail free of the ballista and disappear from view. “Reload!” It was a familiar, rhythmic cadence, pendulating between ‘load’ and ‘loose’. There was a sense of calm in succumbing to that rhythm, broken by Klarra’s shrieks of ‘cover!’ whenever there was an incoming volley of arrows. Not that there was much cover to be found. Most dived for the nearest rail, or ducked behind the mast, but a few got caught. A few always got caught.
A foot here, a shoulder there, always at a damning downward angle, the weight of their trajectory bone breaking on impact.
Though not nearly as devastating to the ship as a ballista bolt.
The Lady’s Choice ran fully armed, with the best arms and fighters money could buy. Though little more than pirates themselves, they’d been moulded into an effective army. Where the Squall carried a few crossbows and shortbows, the Lady’s crew rained longbow quarrels in barbed and whistling clouds from the sky.
“Where’s their damned wizard?” Klarra was getting impatient as the odds stacked against her. Her crew were hardy, salty sea dogs, but they were also friends and companions in the most tightly-knit crew she’d ever had the fortune to captain. Their cries were not falling on a cold heart. She yanked a bolt out of her sleeve and tossed it on a growing pile of weapons they’d later use against their enemy, should they get their chance.
Waste not, want not.
“What are they waiting for?” The longboat slicing across the waves toward them was almost within range of the Squall’s shortbows, and soon enough the privateers would halt their hail of arrows to spare their crewmates. But before Klarra could give the order, their boarding party stopped dead in the water. The captain released a curse on a growl and ordered Thedue bring the ballista around. They’d barely barked the sides of the Lady and the longboat was a more dire threat, something they could send to the bottom with just one bolt.
Shortie, barely breathing through the commotion, had little to do but wait until someone finally climbed over the rail and picked a fight. Ranged weapons weren’t his preference, and all the shortbows were already spoken for. He was too small and not nearly strong enough to be a part of the ballista crew, so he stayed out of the way, safely tucked in the recess leading to the lower deck. Not that there was anywhere entirely safe from a volley, the way some arrows bounce and fly in crazy directions.
The lad felt it long before anyone else noticed, having the time to sense it, and the sense to expect it. With the longboat paused in transit, and after seven hailstorms of arrows, it was about time elements began to coalesce under the power of some magic user. Like the charge in the air before a thunderstorm, a smell that could only be described as burnt rain, something buzzed on the edge of Shortie’s awareness. Fine hair lifts along his forearms, twisting into the thick wrap of sleeves and bindings meant to keep them close to his skin, alerting him to something familiar, yet dreadful.
“Mage!” He squawked, and everyone ducked for cover as before. No one else saw it coming. Indeed, no one else dared look up from their hiding place, expecting the worst as they said prayers to their preferred deities. It rose up over the Lady’s Choice, swirling and expanding like a sudden sun exploding in the damp and frigid sky. It swallowed clouds and spun as it sped, fiery and screaming like molten earth belched from the gullet of a volcano.
Shortie leapt out of hiding, vaulted over a crewmate who’d hit the deck with his belly and wrapped his arms over his head. It was a fascination that brought him forward, a delight and curiosity to see the spinning orb of fire, and watch the smoky trail it blazed across the distance between the two ships. Before his marvelling gaze, the ball of fire dimmed and sputtered, was overcome by its own smoke and rapidly snuffed itself out. It fell in a rain of fine ash across the water yards from the Squall.
The heat it brought had painted downcast faces with a film of sweat, singeing hair and smouldering wood. Its sudden absence prompts a few startled exclamations as pirates look up from hiding to see that they were unscathed.
“Not much of a mage,” Shortie concludes in a voice so loud it probably crossed the water. “You missed!” He cups his hands around his mouth to amplify the taunt.
There is puzzled commotion in the longboat as they dust ash off their coats and out of their hair, bewildered by the event and suddenly concerned for their own safety. The pirates were bringing their ballista to bear, and they didn’t have a lot of room to manoeuvre amidst the rocks. It was all they could do to stay in spot without being dashed against them by wind or tide.
“Loose!” Thedue and Klarra yell in unison. The shaft flies free, hurled across the rail and the short distance. They had no chance, and some knew it when they dove overboard. When the bolt hit there was only one man left with the oars, concentrating so hard on keeping the vessel steady he didn’t see it coming until there was a hole bigger than his head sucking in his chest. He died a little faster than his friends, but no one was seen breaking the surface once they’d gone under. The water was too cold and they were heavily burdened by clothes worn to stay warm.
Hard as it was to believe, with the odds being what they were, the crew of the Squall gave a whooping cheer. They were far from a victory, but courage spread in the face of their enemy’s ineptitude. A mage who couldn’t hurl a fireball, and their only longboat sunk in a dozen pieces.
Perhaps they’d rethink their attack and leave them alone?
Shortie felt it again, but had to hit the deck hard this time as another volley of arrows descends from on-high. “Mage!” He wheezes after winding himself against the rail, earning him a few quizzical glances before heads duck low and vanish beneath wrapping arms.
What would it be this time?
As before, the air crackles and raises the fine hairs along Shortie’s arms. It was a curious sense, playing on his smell and taste and sensation the way a storm teases his companions’ senses, but it seemed Shortie was the only one who could so accurately predict a magical attack. He said it was his extra-young eyes and ears, usually with an impudent wink, and no one ever thought to question the boy about it. They’d somehow evaded magicians rather well since the boy came aboard, but they were usually in the wide open seas with plenty of ocean in which to hide.
Now, there wasn’t a whole lot of reassurance in Shortie’s warnings. What good were they when there was nothing they could do?
Again, the air coalesces, elements summoned by magical bidding, swirling and burning into another fiery sphere. Fire was one of the most frightening weapons to throw against a ship, so it wasn’t a great surprise to be facing it now, though it was strange to know the Lady’s Choice was prepared to risk ruining cargo.
Shortie suspected the wizard probably didn’t know how to cast anything else. They tended to follow pretty narrow paths of magic in his experience. The either found a couple of spells they were good at and stuck to them, or tried to learn everything and never mastered anything.
Fireball. Fireball. Fireball.
Not that his derisive smirking was much protection against the heat racing across the ocean, screaming like a banshee with her knickers in a bunch. Smoke blackens the sky and sweat blackens their faces, but the pirates could do nothing but stare at the molten rocks hurtling toward them. Three of them, racing each other to destroy the Squall first.
One by one, they bounce. The air above them explodes and the ship shudders beneath and all around them, but those who dared look up saw only a fiery rain of sparks drifting down to die on the wet deck. What ice had formed overnight was melting in the heat, extinguishing all traces of fire before it could catch. For a few seconds it was brighter than daylight across the deck of the Squall, sparking stars alighting here and there as they showered over puzzled pirates. A few had to pat out flames catching in their hair and clothes.
The screams continue, a bone-chilling chorus dashing back across the waves and hurtling straight for their source.
The pirates leap to their feet in astonishment, rubbing their eyes and gaping at the image of the Lady’s Choice as it bursts into flames, not once, but three times. The first ball of fire struck the hull with such force it burned a hole straight through to the far side. The pirates could see the ocean through the scorched porthole, and the bewildered faces of privateers peering back at them. The second fireball demolished their main mast, sails evaporating to smoke in the blink of an eye as the wooden pole pitched into the sea. The whole ship lists steeply to port, dragged down by the weight of the mast as crew scrambles to cut all the lines. Water floods the lower deck through the hole made by the first flaming ball, and it was then only a matter of time.
The Lady’s Choice was dead in the water, she just hadn’t sunk yet.
The last fireball finds its target centre the forecastle, screaming terror and disbelief. Arms flung wide as he tried, desperately, to think up a spell to counter his own, he’s engulfed by molten rock. Of all the screams that float across to the Squall, perhaps the death of a man melting in a sphere of fire was the worst. They watched him leap over the side and be snuffed out by the waves.
Silence shrouds the Squall. Even those suffering and likely to die themselves stare in awe and sickened amazement as the greatest foe pirates had ever seen on all the seas of the world descends into the deep. Five minutes ago they were doomed to this awful fate. Five minutes ago all the odds were stacked against them, and the best they could hope for was to give the privateers a bloody good fight before they go.
“What just happened?” Shortie didn’t recognise the voice, but it was a question on everyone’s mind.
“Like I said,” he scoffs again, “shoddy mage.”
Thedue swings a meaty fist at the boy’s head, but the boy, with his impudent grin, was long gone.