Enter the Reaper

Once Upon a Tide…

 

Hezekiah had to admit the boy had balls. He’d had his doubts three months ago, when he’d signed on to this crew. After all, how many fools would be willing to ship out with a nineteen-year-old captain and a fifteen-year-old first mate? If it hadn’t been for the fact that Billy Black had vouched for him, he never would have considered sailing under Vik Brandee.

He still remembered the night he’d walked into the Black Flag in Savannah, looking for a crew to sign on to. He wasn’t the only man off that damned unlucky ship to head to the tavern, but he still missed those who hadn’t made it. A few had been good friends.

He felt like an old man already, at the tender age of twenty-five, especially after that last voyage. Why had he signed on with that idiot, Kerns? How the man had gained a captaincy was beyond him.

Kerns couldn’t navigate, was a piss-poor pirate, and couldn’t hold his liquor. The bastard had almost gotten them caught by hunters. If it hadn’t been for the storm and shoals that had wrecked them, he would’ve led a mutiny and taken the ship. Just as well he hadn’t. Although the ship had looked seaworthy at first glance, it had proven rotten, leaky and ill-outfitted.

Still, when the crew finally realized they were going down and made for the boats, Hezekiah had taken great satisfaction in slitting his former captain’s throat. He’d vowed then to never serve under a man so unworthy of his respect again.

“Mr. Grimm.” The fat old pirate-turned-tavern-keeper acknowledged him. “Been a couple of seasons since I’ve seen ye in these parts. What brings you to the Black Flag?”

“Let’s just say I’m between boats.”

Billy squinted at him. “Word has it you were sailing with Rob Kerns. I find it hard to believe. The man’s an idiot.”

Hezekiah grimaced. “Yes, he was. But, it’s true. I last shipped under him.”

“Notice ye said was.”

“I left him with a second smile, bright and red, when we parted company.”

The old pirate smirked. “About time. Someone should have slit the bastard’s throat years ago. Reckon the ship wasn’t worth taking?”

Grimm shook his head. “No, he ran aground, and it started breaking up. Worm-eaten anyway.”

“Heh. Doesn’t surprise me. Why don’t you head on upstairs? Maggie should be unoccupied right now, provided that little bastard hasn’t sneaked up there hoping for a free one. Told ‘im if I caught him doing that again, I’d take it out of his wages.”

“Thank ye, Captain Black.” Hezekiah knew Margory was one of the Black Flag’s most talented girls.

“When ye come back down, come see me.” Billy tapped him with his pipe. “I’ve got a business proposition for you.”

Hezekiah thought his luck seemed to get better and better. He hadn’t been so sure, though, when he’d heard what the proposition was. “Are you daft, man? I just came off a ship with a captain that never should have been, and now you’re suggesting I sign on under a boy?”

“Don’t underestimate the bastard.” Billy cautioned. “He has real talent for our kind of work. Earned a berth here with me a few years ago and has learned more about our craft in that time than many do in a lifetime. Not just stories, either. I think the brat was born to piracy, but don’t let him know I said that. He’s got a big enough head, as it is.”

Grimm thought he understood what the old pirate was doing. “He’s gotten too dangerous for you to keep him around, hasn’t he?”

Billy Black shrugged. “Voracious wencher has cost me money. Tired of my whores being too worn out to service the paying customers. Figure if he’s out to sea, he can’t cause trouble here. Told him if he could secure a ship, I’d help him assemble a crew. Damned if the bugger didn’t show up two days later with a decent little sloop.”

“Impressive. Very well, I’ll give him a try. He’ll need experienced mates.”

“Aye, but don’t hope for first mate. That berth’s already filled.”

“Who?”

“Little alley-cat called Jim Rigger. Young Vik teamed up with the brat not long after he came to work for me.” He pointed out a teenager lurking near a table of drunken sailors. The lad picked a few pockets even as they watched.

“A child.” Grimm was less than impressed.

Billy chuckled at his reaction. “They’re cut from the same bolt, those two. Closer than brothers and thoroughly wicked. Jim is sneaky as a cat and more loyal than a dog, where Vik is concerned. I wouldn’t suggest trying to separate them. Don’t know about Jim, but I do believe Vik Brandee wouldn’t hesitate to cut yer heart out and hand it to you with a smile, if you did.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Looking back, he had no regrets about his decision. Brandee truly had a talent for finding and taking fat prizes. It had been the most profitable three months he’d experienced since he’d turned pirate.

He was also impressed by Brandee’s intelligence, ruthlessness, and skills. As far as he was concerned, the young captain had earned his loyalty and respect. He had even found that Rigger was tolerable as a first mate. Sometimes, it was easy to forget that the boy was ten years his junior.

It became apparent that a few of his shipmates didn’t share his views, however. He’d heard grumblings. It never ceased to amaze him at the stupidity a man’s pride could push him to. So he listened, he watched, then when he felt the time was right, he acted.

“Enter,” Brandee said in answer to the knock on his cabin door.

When Grimm entered the cabin, the boy seemed calm but alert when he saw who it was. He could almost swear the young captain had expected some sort of trouble from his crew, but he looked mildly surprised to see that the bastards had picked Grimm as the one to deliver it. “What is it, Mr. Grimm?”

“I came to warn you, Captain. Some of the lads have been talking mutiny.”

“I see. What about you, Mr. Grimm? Are you throwing your lot in with them?”

Grimm sized the lad up. By his reaction, he was willing to bet Brandee had known about the unrest for quite some time. “If you had asked me three months ago, I probably would have said yes. It did not sit well with me to have such a young captain.”

Viktor steepled his fingers and leaned forward, his green eyes intense. His voice was deceptively calm with a hint of curiosity. “What has happened to change your mind?”

“Old Billy Black knew what he was talking about, when he said you were born to this life. These three months have been the most profitable I have ever seen. I also admire the intelligence behind your way of using different tactics with each prize.”

“Why?”

“It’ll make you harder to predict, therefore harder for the hunters to catch. Most pirates have one or two attacks at the most, which makes it easy for the hunters to figure out where and when to lay a trap. You don’t follow any set pattern.”

“Personally, I would prefer to remain free,” he continued, “and I believe that staying on with you as Captain will improve the odds of staying free.”

Brandee smirked. “When you came in here, I half-expected you were the one they picked to take my place.” He stood and walked around the small desk to get a rum bottle, deliberately turning his back on the older man.

Grimm quickly took advantage of the situation. Cat-quick, he rushed up behind Brandee and had his blade at the young man’s throat before he could put the bottle down. “If I’d wanted to take this ship, you’d already be dead, Captain.”

“Then you’d have followed right behind him, Mr. Grimm,” Jim Rigger whispered in his ear. He held his own blade’s point just below Grimm’s ear. The boy had been silently lurking in the shadows behind the door the whole time.

Vik slipped easily out of the deadly position. Smiling, he picked up three glasses and said, “It’s a good thing for you that you didn’t come here to kill me then, isn’t it, Mr. Grimm? Have a drink. You can put your knife away, Jim.”

“Aye, Cap’n.” The boy and the man both sheathed their weapons.

“Now then, Mr. Grimm, since you’ve chosen to warn me, what do you know about the mutineers, and what suggestions would you make on handling them?”

“There is only a handful stirring the others up. Take them out, and the mutiny will die.”

Jim spoke up. “Isn’t the usual punishment for mutiny marooning?”

“It is,” Vik confirmed. “But, I don’t think that is what Mr. Grimm would suggest.”

Grimm shook his head. “I would kill them; make an example. You have been a very generous, successful Captain. It’s my opinion that they are ungrateful fools. That point won’t be lost on the rest of the lads.”

Viktor looked at him without expression for several minutes. Hezekiah never flinched, even though he could see the younger man wouldn’t hesitate to kill him.

“I like the way you think, Mr. Grimm. Assemble the crew on deck at first light. Be prepared to point out the ringleaders.”

“Aye, Captain. Thank you for the rum.”

*

 

“I hear some of you aren’t too happy to be sailing under my command.”

A cautious murmuring was the only answer Brandee got. He pressed on after making eye contact, first with Jim and Hezekiah, then with the five men Grimm had named as the mutineers. “I make no apologies for my age. During these three months we have taken several fat prizes. Shares have been generous. Casualties have been low. We haven’t been captured. What is the problem?”

There was more murmuring, mostly in agreement with the young Captain’s words. There was also agitation among the mutineers. They saw their hold on the crew evaporate in those few minutes.

Viktor and his mates had expected one of them to make a move at this point. Jim and Grimm had positioned themselves by the ones they felt to be most dangerous, but none of those men were the one who acted.

Grimm was closest, as a grizzled pirate pulled a dragoon out, cocked it and aimed at Brandee’s head. “Stop him!” he yelled, even as the man squeezed the trigger.

With no time to reach the would-be killer, he jumped in front of his Captain, taking the mini ball in the upper arm. As he fell, he wondered why the young man was reaching to scratch the back of his neck.

Mere seconds later, the assassin lay dead on the deck with Viktor’s dagger protruding from his eye.

*

Jim had watched with morbid fascination as the sailor, who was the closest thing they had to a surgeon, dug the fragments out of Hezekiah’s bicep. To his credit, the older man had no more than grunted and given an occasional hiss, as the man did his work. Luckily, the powder had been damp and a low charge. That meant the mini ball had stayed mostly intact and had lodged in the muscle. The bone wasn’t even fractured.

“There, that’s the last of it I think,” the surgeon said.

“Thank ye, Gordon. Heat that knife up red hot and sear the wound before you stitch me back up. It’ll help stop the bleeding,” Grimm directed.

To his satisfaction, the boy winced at the smell of burning skin and meat. Grimm grinned at the lad’s reaction.

“That’s going to leave a nasty scar.” Jim whistled as Gordon began stitching the puckered, charred wound shut.

“Not the first; won’t be the last.” Grimm shrugged. “If it’s too jagged, I can just cover it with a tattoo. At least I didn’t lose the arm.”

“You could have been killed. I knew I would kill or die for the Captain, but I never imagined anyone else would. Why?”

“Young though he is, Vik Brandee is the best Captain I’ve ever sailed under. He deserves my respect and loyalty. Don’t worry, Mr. Rigger, I’m not after your berth. Old Billy Black warned me against that, and I’ve seen how the two of you work together. But I’ll gladly sail as one of Brandee’s mates as long as he will have me.”

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