Sunday, May 26, 2013

BELATED Serial Saturday: "A Writer's Tale", Pt. 9

I whirled around; Charlie stood behind me, just in the act of peeking into the storeroom!
            “What are you doing here?” I demanded of him.
            His Adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped. “I’m sorry if I startled you,” he apologized, though between the two of us, he was definitely the more conscience-stricken, “I just came in to see if I could get some food.”
            I hadn’t even realized till that moment that I had never seen Charlie with the other pirates for a meal. I tried to keep the horror from my face as I asked, “Charlie…do you eat on your own?”
            Charlie shrugged, “When I can get food—well,” he flushed bright red and hung his shaggy head, “my friend gets food for me.”
            I blinked quickly. The pieces fell together in my mind. I ducked inside the storeroom, coming out with a few rolls, some fruit, and a small pot with the lid tied on. I spread it all out on the table.
            “This friend of yours doesn’t happen to have four paws and a tail, now, does he?” I nudged the pot toward him.
            Charlie was very confused till he lifted the lid. His eyes lit up as the mangy monkey sprang from its prison and flung itself around the neck of its master.
            “Marquis!” Charlie greeted him warmly, “I wondered where you’d got to!”
            “I caught him sneaking food behind my back,” I said, free to laugh now at the monkey’s antics instead of being angry or scared. “If I had known he was on such a noble mission, I wouldn’t have prevented him.”
            Charlie caught my meaning and gave me a grateful smile. I winked and nodded.
            “I’ll always make sure I have food for you, Charlie,” I promised.

            Lucky enough, I was able to keep my promise. Whenever we would dock, Captain Gale would send me out with an escort, to purchase supplies, but all I had to do was say something like, “And she bought all she needed for far less coins than she carried, and in short order everything was loaded into the ship’s storeroom,” and the next minute, I would be standing in the galley looking at a full larder while Jerry took the remainder of the gold back to Captain Wendy. I made sure at each meal to set aside a portion for Charlie, and every meal, while I washed the dishes, Marquis would come swinging into the galley to pick it up.

            In this way, I grew accustomed to my new post as galley-maid. Everything seemed to go well for me. I could remain on the ship while Wendy and her pirate band plundered and pillaged, and she would return happy from a successful raid. Keeping her happy, too, was my imagination full of all sorts of delectable, rich dishes. Of course I could never leave the galley, but I soon became a general favorite around the ship; some of the pirates even began to regard me as a sort of good-luck charm, as they experienced good food and fortune beyond what they had gotten before. After a few days, my green dress from Phantom Gulch became excessively soiled and worn, so, with Charlie’s help, I traded it for a leather jerkin, trousers, and sturdy boots like the other pirates wore. I even tied my hair back in a kerchief. It was much easier to move in this outfit, and I felt like a real pirate!
            Only one pirate frowned on my association with Charlie: the first mate, Jerry. In spite of how well he had treated me in the beginning, he still barked orders to me and to Charlie, calling us “galley-maid” and “cabin-boy,” and he absolutely hated Marquis.
            “That blasted devil-screecher!” he would fume, with many more foul oaths, “I’ll wring its neck if I get my hands on it!” But he never did.

            One day I was just “dreaming up” a supper of fried chicken and steamed vegetables, when the lookout raised a cry.
            “Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!”
            I dared to stick my head out of the door at the top of the ladder. Every pirate stood leeward, with Captain Wendy out of her cabin, standing on the poop deck with a spyglass in her hand.
            “I see…” she called out, “Her Majesty’s colors! It’s the Phantom!
            The pirates answered her cry with venomous oaths. The Captain began rapping out orders.
            “All hands to the sails! Let’s get the wind at our backs, boys! There’s enough distance, they can’t cover it in time!”
            Jerry barked out orders to various pirates, and the ship turned out of the wind and began burrowing through the sea at a quick pace. Captain Wendy stood proudly at the door of her cabin, enjoying the breeze that swept over the ship, spurring it onward.
            “That’s my pretty!” she murmured, “That’s my lively girl!”
            “Captain!” the lookout hollered from the crow’s nest, “The Phantom’s spotted us! She’s giving chase, ma’am!”
            Captain Wendy didn’t budge. “Let her come!” She challenged brazenly. “She’ll never catch us! The Admiral’s tried too hard every time, and every time we’ve managed outdistance him!”
            “Who’s the Admiral?” I asked Charlie, who was curled up behind some barrels, out of sight of the Captain. Marquis tumbled about his lap, frequently diving into Charlie’s collar in spite of the young man’s attempts at keeping him out of there.
            “A seaman in Her Majesty’s service,” Charlie answered, “Captain Gale’s mortal enemy. He usually goes after the smaller pirate vessels, minor miscreants, which we can then sneak in and overhaul from the other side, and get away before he can get the Phantom away from the other ship.” He chuckled, probably remembering some of the trickier “overhauls.” His smile faded, and he glanced toward the stern pensively. “We’ve never come across him in the open sea like this, alone as he is,” he remarked. “It may not take him long to catch us; the Phantom is the best ship in the Royal Navy.”
           
            Sure enough, it wasn’t more than half an hour before the lookout cried, “Captain Gale, they’re gaining on us! The Phantom is signaling us to slow down, or they will shoot!”
            “If it’s a fight he wants,” Gale shrieked back brazenly, “It’s a fight he’ll get! All unnecessary hands get below decks! The rest of you swabs prepare the cannons!”
            “Aye-aye!” the pirates chorused, and I took the hint: I was an “unnecessary hand.” I dove down to the galley, while Jerry got his hands on Charlie’s collar.
            “Cabin-boy!” he barked, “Make yerself useful an’ get below with the cannons! Make sure the gunwales is fastened tight!”
“Aye-aye, sir!” I heard Charlie reply, then his quick, light step across the deck to the hold where the cannons waited. I cowered under the table in the galley, listening as the ship heeled and bucked, the cannons blasted, and the pirates shouted at one another. At some point I could hear the distinct sound of another ship coming very close alongside ours. Lucky for me, the cannons on the HMS Phantom were trained on the upper part of the ship; for some reason, I didn’t think the Admiral wanted to mar the ship, only to beat it into submission. Captain Wendy, on the other hand, couldn’t care less for the Phantom, and directed the cannons to blast it on the hull wherever they could score a hit.
            As the fight wore on, I heard a distinct change in the tone of the shouts coming from above. A pirate managed to stagger to the top of the ladder down into the galley before he collapsed onto the deck above and expired. His cutlass fell from his hand and clattered down the steps. Quickly, I leaped from my hiding place and grabbed it, never knowing when or if I would need to use it.
            I heard Captain Gale call, “All hands to the planks! Let’s bring this battle to the Admiral himself!” The pirates whooped and hollered, and I heard the sounds of their voices carry beyond the rail of the pirate ship. They were boarding the Phantom! Surely that meant the battle would be over soon! I stood up to perhaps be able to watch the battle from my hiding place in the galley. I froze as soon as I could and caught my breath.
            A red-coated soldier stood in the galley, scanning the shadows carefully in search of something! I ducked back behind the counter, hoping that he had not noticed me. I heard his careful, quiet step on the floor, and decided that confrontation might be a better plan than hiding and waiting. I gave a fierce (I thought) yell and stood, holding the cutlass in both hands over my head.
            The soldier stumbled back a few paces in fright. He recovered quickly, though, and brought his bayonet around to block my blow. I, of course, had no idea how exactly to fight with a sword, much less a blade as heavy and curved as the cutlass. What I lacked in skill, though, I made up for in sheer willpower. I hacked and lunged at that soldier, who had little recourse but to give way before my onslaught. He tried to get some blows in himself, throwing things at me and jabbing at me with his bayonet, but I simply whacked everything that came within two feet of me, and continued advancing on him. Further and further I drove him, wondering all the time what exactly I would do if I ended up killing him, when a large hand erupted from the shadows and cold-cocked the soldier in one blow.
            I gasped as Jerry himself strode into the light. He had saved my life, but all he did was sneer at me.
            “You’ll end up killing yerself with that thing, the way you’re using it,” he said, reaching for the cutlass, “Give it ‘ere.”
            His arms were longer than mine, so, shirk as I might, he got hold of it and I had to give it up.
            “What else am I going to use, then?” I asked.
            “Take this,” Jerry casually flipped a small dagger over his shoulder, and it buried a good half-inch into the table in front of me. “It’s about the only weapon you’ll ever be able to use!” he chuckled as he ran up the ladder and back into the fray.
            I followed him, intent on getting in on the action myself, and proving to him that I was no clumsy coward, when something dark and furry landed on my face. I screamed and swiped at it with the dagger, but a hand closed around mine, and a voice said, “Laura! It’s okay, it’s me!”
            I opened my eyes to see Charlie and Marquis (the thing that had grabbed my head). He completely ignored the melee going on across the decks as he looked at me very seriously.
            “Something is wrong,” he said.
            I scratched the kerchief on my head. “What is?” I asked him. He pushed me back down the ladder into the galley, where we could watch the fray without having to be a part of it.
            “Watch carefully,” he said, “you see those pirates?”

            I saw them, but the particular group he designated didn’t seem to be fighting the soldiers as much as they had in the beginning. I noticed the clothes didn’t quite seem to fit as they used to, either. Come to think of it—
            “Those aren’t pirates!” I cried.
            Charlie nodded, “I knew something was strange when it seemed like the Admiral wasn’t putting up as much of a fight; the soldiers are taking pirate clothes and smearing scum on their faces to masquerade as pirates, while the real pirates are all boarding the Phantom.”
            “They’re trading ships?” I cried. “What good will that do?”
            Charlie shook his head, “Well, for one thing, I’m sure Captain Wendy and her crew are thinking that they are cutting down the Admiral’s forces over on the decks of the Phantom; meanwhile, the Admiral’s men are all on this ship—there’s no telling what they’ll do with it, once they have it.”

            Charlie and I waited in the shadows. It wasn’t long before we found out just what the Admiral intended to do with the pirate ship. He boarded it himself, right under the pirates’ noses. He stood proudly at the helm and shot off his pistol to get everyone’s attention.
            “This ship is now the property of Her Majesty the Queen,” he yelled, “All supplies and—spoils are subsequently confiscated!”
            “Oy!” I heard Captain Wendy screech from the decks of the Phantom, “I’ve got your man ‘ere! What’ll you give to get ‘im back, eh?”
            The Admiral waved his hand, “Slit his throat for all I care! But know that when you do, I will in turn sever these ropes connecting our two ships, and leave you with my empty vessel, while I sail away in yours—which, judging by it’s low-hanging decks, is quite full.”
            I winced at the foul protests of the pirate crew. The Admiral and the militia still hadn’t noticed the two figures cowering just out of sight below decks.
            The Admiral fired off his pistol again, silencing everyone. “Surrender!” He barked, “Or we’re weighing anchor!”
            We didn’t hear any reply, but Wendy must have given the order to drop their weapons, because the next thing we heard was the Admiral dispensing orders to bind the whole crew and lock them in the brig of the Phantom. Some of the militia left the pirate ship, while the others set about moving the vast amounts of gold and treasure the pirates had amassed, which Captain Wendy had stored in the empty cabin adjacent to hers. The Admiral stood right next to the door to the galley as he gave orders to his captain.
            “I wanted this ship only as long as it held anything of value,” he said, “once the last of that gold is off, it holds nothing for me. Stow the gold in the hold, right next to the brig, just to tease the pirates, and once it’s done, sink this measly plague-hole.”
            “Aye-aye, sir.”
            Charlie and I looked at each other in alarm.
            “We’ve got to warn the others!” he hissed at me.
            An idea formed in my head. “You wait here,” I said, “I’ll take Marquis and sneak onto the Phantom. When I signal, come on over.”
            The monkey obliged and perched on my shoulder.
            “How are you going to get off?” Charlie asked, but I ignored him and crept carefully up the ladder and out of the galley.
            Only Marquis heard the words I whispered as I did so. “Silently, she made her way over the deck. No one noticed her. Presently, she arrived in the ship’s hold, where Captain Wendy and all her crew languished in irons.”
            I made it across the deck without being seen. Rather boldly, I stepped onto the gangplank and calmly walked across to the deck of the Phantom. Not one person so much as glanced in my direction. I was completely invisible.
            I crept into the hold. The crew indeed “languished,” having no hope of escape as they sat behind iron bars, thoroughly shackled. I saw the soldier posted to guard them greedily wolfing down a chicken leg.
            “He ate hungrily,” I murmured from the shadows, “but his bites came so swiftly that one part of the meat slipped too easily into his windpipe, and quite suddenly, the guard discovered that he could not breathe.” The man suddenly stopped and looked up, and I wondered if, instead of the scenario I had described, he had actually heard my voice, but suddenly he began pounding on his chest and opening his mouth wide in a futile attempt to dislodge the obstruction.
            “No amount of coughing or pounding could move it,” I murmured, “gurgling softly, the man slowly suffocated and sank noiselessly to the deck.” I looked on in satisfaction as the man did just that. Finally, I stepped forward into the open, knowing that there would be no fear of my discovery.
            “What—the galley-maid?” Captain Stormy burst out, unable to contain her surprise. She glanced at the guard in a heap on the deck. “He just…passed out,” she murmured.
            “I know,” I said. “I saw it.”
            I was already bent over his ponderous form when the captain recovered her composure enough to start behaving like her old self again.
            “The keys!” she hissed needlessly, for I was already in the act of slipping the ring off the man’s belt. I tossed them into the cage.
            “Unshackle yourselves,” I instructed, “but don’t open the cage just yet.” I could see a few of them glancing hungrily toward the crates piled high with the treasure that “belonged” to the pirates. “I will get you all weapons.”
            “Are you bloody mad?” Captain Gale insisted, “The whole deck is crawling with militia! How is a galley-maid supposed to know anything about fighting?”
            I frowned at her, “I’m sorry; here, give me those keys back and you can figure out how to get out of the cage and get past the militia all on your own!” Wendy clutched the keys close to her chest in case I was serious. I shrugged, “I have a plan. And I have reinforcements.”
            Wendy glanced around the cell. “What reinforcements? My whole crew is here!”
            I glanced toward the rafters, where Marquis had been amusing himself. He dropped down to join me, waving amiably at the prisoners.
            “That blooming monkey!” Jerry was heard to swear at the sight of him.
            “Yes, a monkey and a cabin-boy,” I answered. “The three of us are going to help you escape…” and as a bonus I added, “—with the gold.” That did the trick. I had their attention now. I raised a finger, “But you have to do as I say, and right now, that means waiting in this cell.”
            I climbed back up to the deck. “Silently, invisibly, she snuck through the shadows,” I murmured, “across the deck to the armory. The militia still milled about their business, waiting till the ship was ready to sink before they would finally cut ties.”
            To make the process take longer for the militia, I sent Marquis over to the pirate ship, each time carrying a bag of gold treasure, which he would deposit in various places around the ship. Each time the Admiral commissioned “one last check” before they brought on the gunpowder, a soldier would discover the fresh cache, and that warranted another search of the whole ship while the cache was being delivered. The whole time Her Majesty’s militia remained completely unaware that just over their heads another cache came onto the ship as the current discovery left.
            I got to the armory (which I had placed directly across from the brig, making it easy for myself), used a belt I borrowed from the unconscious guard to string many swords together, and grabbed several pistols. The pirates were impressed beyond anything when I showed up and gave them their weapons.
            “Almost ready,” I said, “Just one more thing.” I carefully opened a porthole at the side of the hold and whistled, signaling Charlie. He did not respond for several minutes, then I saw his stringy form climbing the rigging—right over the heads of the Admiral and the remaining crew returning to the Phantom!
            “The Admiral’s coming!” I cried. “Get ready!”
            The minute Charlie’s feet hit the deck, I yelled, “Now!”
            The pirates were ready. They swarmed out as one body, flooding over the deck and driving the militia back across the ropes and the gangplanks bridging the two ships. I saw the Admiral’s dinghy weaving back and forth. Charlie joined me, breathing hard and wearing a huge grin. I pointed to the dinghy.
            “He can’t decide which boat to go to:  his own, or the one his crew is on.”

            Charlie laughed at some secret he held. “That doesn’t matter,” he said, “Soon, he won’t have to decide.”
            “What do you mean?” I asked, but just then, Captain Wendy began barking out orders.
            “That’s the last of ‘em!” she said as the last soldier leaped over the railing and into the sea. Those who did not fancy swimming had made their “escape” onto the pirate ship. Wendy had won!
            “Cast off!” she roared, and the pirates pulled up the gangplanks and weighed anchor.
            Charlie was still watching the ship.
            The Admiral stood nobly in his dinghy, shaking his fist at the retreating ship.
            “I will follow you, Captain Gale!” he cried, “You haven’t seen the last—“

            Ka-BOOM!

            As he was speaking, a terrific explosion ripped through the pirate ship. Charlie laughed, and I had to join, seeing how pathetic the soldiers were, now that the ship was sinking and all they had left were the stock of lifeboats onboard.
            “A pity,” a voice spoke from behind us. Charlie and I turned guiltily to face Captain Wendy Gale herself. She continued, “I did so love that ship. She was a fast one, that.” She frowned at us. I could tell Charlie was beginning to regret his actions. Captain Gale stalked toward him till they were practically toe-to-toe. “I don’t think we could have escaped it, not in this tub!”
            Charlie’s shoulders sagged with relief as Captain Wendy threw back her head and laughed, tossing her arms over our shoulders from between us. “I couldn’t have thought of a better plan myself,” she said, “and to think that I had a cabin-boy after me own heart!” She reached around and pinched his cheek. “We’ll make a pirate out of you yet, boy!”
            I was about to add something, but Marquis caught my eye. He seemed to be carrying a mysterious object, one that looked surprisingly modern for a nineteenth-century ship such as this. I slipped away from Wendy and Charlie to follow the monkey. Marquis, whether he knew I was following him or not, moved quickly, as if he did not want to be seen. He opened a door and swung down into darkness. I followed. I carefully stepped down the ladder, but as the door slammed shut behind me, and the blackness enveloped me, I knew something was very wrong. Was it a trap?
            “Hello?” I called.
            My voice seemed to echo a long ways, much too long for a ship’s hold. Where was I?