I peer along the length of the arrow’s shaft, the feathered fletching grazing my cheek, as I wait to see the whites of the pirate’s eyes. I have already chosen my target, a huge brute of a man waving a curved cutlass and baying for his ship to get close enough to our small stout Argosy trading vessel. Though I have unleashed thousands of arrows in battle, I have never shot from a swaying deck. I steady my feet. He must never board our ship.
“Blessed Lir. They be twice our crew in number,” a man wheezes next to me.
There are few fighters among this crew. Most are simple sailors, warm-hearted men, and I have become attached to them as we cross the sea to the land of Cassia.
“Hold steady,” I say. “They won’t be as many when we cross blades.”
“Archers!” cries the captain, her speckled snowy-gray hair similar in color to the sails billowing above us, and her sun-dried skin a testimony to a life spent at sea. “Let the Easterner shoot first. Wait for my order.” Leaning close to my ear, she whispers. “A true aim will buoy my crew’s fragile morale.”
I nod. I have selected a dozen targets. “Let them hold their fire until I empty my quiver.”
“You won’t have long, my friend.”
“I don’t need…”
My bowstring sings as I release my first arrow. I do not wait to see the man collapse. Already a second arrow is nocked and released, and my mind enters a realm of detached clarity.
The pirate captain barks as he sees me. “The black bastard! Take him do–oooow!”
His voice ends in an abrupt squeal as my arrow pierces his throat and our crew cheers. My quiver is empty and the enemy pared down by twelve. I am irritated. I had fourteen arrows.
“Now,” I murmur.
“Fire!” the captain roars and a wave of black arrows arches up between the ships.
After several volleys, there is a pregnant lull as the distance between the ships closes. Then the captain booms as she unsheathes a stout sword. “Prepare to be boarded. Follow The Six.”
The Six are huge men who serve as her loyal, permanent crew. They are all strong and bawdy, and completely devoted to her. I suspected at first that they were the reason why no drafted sailor questioned a woman being captain. But I was being disingenuous. She exudes respect, walking the deck with ease, commanding her crew with a stern, but fair hand. We had stimulating conversations in calmer times and have become friends.
The cabin boy hovers near me and I smell urine. His eyes are wide and his face drips with beady sweat. “It’ll be okay,” I say, the father in me rising, and I pass him my bow and quiver. “Stay below. You have no place in this fight.”
He glances at the captain. She nods, but the tilt of her head suggests she does not appreciate someone else giving orders on her ship. I apologize. Taking charge is a deeply ingrained habit. I have led armies and ruled a country under my emperor, my Sun-Above-The-Mountains. But that life is long behind me. I must focus on the fight at hand.
There won’t be room to swing a broadsword on this small, and soon to be, chaotic deck. I draw my curved dirk, Throatslitter, embracing the cold ivory hilt. I carry many weapons but this is my favorite and most used. In my other hand is my battle sickle, sharp and hissing with anticipation as I flick it.
I see The Six spread across the starboard side of the ship. They appear calm while the men around them sweat profusely. I study the pirate ship now looming before us, and plant my feet directly opposite where their crew is extending a gangplank. Our sailors move aside, most relieved to let me through.
The boats thud together and there is a cry from the other side. Someone has taken command, as half a dozen men throw grappling irons with ropes and swing across. A pirate scrambles along the gangplank, screaming an indistinguishable war cry. It stops abruptly as he blinks and stares up at me blocking his path to glory and plunder.
“Long way from home, yeh black devil,” he shouts, trying to sound defiant, but I detect a quiver in his voice. “Come all this way fer one final swim?”
I stare back, trying for impassive, and he blinks several times. Everyone watches as he swings his sword in a skewed arc, and I brush it aside with Throatslitter before detaching his neck with my battle sickle. His head rolls down and I hear it plop into the ocean. Blood fountains from his severed neck but, curiously, his body remains erect. I raise my right leg in a side swing kick and send it crashing down. As my foot returns to the narrow plank, I step forward … and the battle mist descends.
It is always this way. Once the fighting commences, my mind detaches. My movements are deeply ingrained from decades of relentless training and I need only focus on the techniques of my adversary.
I plow my way through a morass of fighting men, barely distinguishing friend from foe. But most of the pirates have boarded our ship and I return to fight aboard the Argosy. Then two members of The Six flank me and we become an organized wedge swelled by a grateful crew. The remaining pirates retreat to their ship and our men swarm across. I follow, but my battle fury has subsided and my interest is only to ensure the least amount of casualties on our side. Blood congeals on my clothes and skin. Not mine, I think, but cannot be sure.
I have seen the revenge meted upon the vanquished aggressors in countless battles. Men once cowering lash out at their routed attackers with extreme violence. Bones are broken, limbs slashed, and I turn from the carnage. Bodies are thrown overboard. Only the cook is spared and roughly dragged back to our Argosy. He had better not burn any food.
I lean against the railing near the pirate ship’s bow hearing the occasional clash of steel mingle with curses and pleas that gradually subside. The sun is high in the sky and, as I wipe my face on my sleeve, I sense danger. Turning, I see the contorted face of the first man I had shot, the one who brayed for blood. His huge figure looms over me. The broken shaft of my arrow still protrudes from his shoulder and there is blood around his lips. He holds the other half of the arrow, waving the splintered edge in my face.
“Want your fucking arrow back? So sorry I broke it.” When I do not reply, he sneers. “Thought one little needle would prick Big Rufus? Snapped it. Now I’m gonna snap your neck, you black devil.”
He begins to lunge, but stops when I do not raise my weapons.
“It’s over. You lost,” I say, keeping my voice flat. “There’s no one left fighting. Why die needlessly?”
He freezes. I suspect few are equal to him in physical stature and even fewer address him without fear.
“I’m not worried about dying. Pirating doesn’t offer itself as a long term profession.”
I frown at his use of vocabulary. “You’re an educated man. I can hear it. Why are you doing this?”
He stares at me and one eye twitches. “There comes a point, black man, when you kill enough men, take enough women, that–”
“Who were you before this? What happened to you?”
The twitching increases and his chest heaves. He is losing control. “I was once an ambitious officer in a huge fucking army, following orders that haunt me every night. I–”
“We’ve walked the same path,” I say, now standing to face him. “It doesn’t need to end like this. We–”
“It ends this way! It always does.” Spittle foams at the corners of his mouth. “You can’t escape what –” He is staring at my eyes, through them, like he has a window into my head. “You’re haunted too. How do you keep…going?”
I glance around noting nothing happening, no one moves to intervene. This is an absurd encounter. “I have people to live for. I still have a mission.”
“A woman?” He wipes spittle from his mouth with his torn sleeve. “She’s probably fucking some other bastard by now.”
“She’s dead. But we have sons and they are slaves. I must find and free them.”
He nods. “Yeah, makes sense.” Then there is a wave of relentless twitching and his shaggy head shudders. “Fuck ’em though. Fuck ’em all. You die now.”
“You don’t sound like you mean it. You want me to kill you.”
“I don’t fucking care either way. Look what I’ve become. It’s all that’s left.”
He raises a short-shafted axe and the sun catches it. I spin away and my battle sickle rises to block him. I would like to draw my sword to fight such a strong man, but it is long and I know that Throatslitter and the sickle are more effective in close quarters.
He advances and shows considerable agility for his size and the fact he is wounded, wielding the axe from hand to hand. When he sees I can repel him, he draws a second axe. I realize we have moved to the center of the ship and men from our crew make way, watching. It is surreal. No one grabs him or shoots him with an arrow. It feels like a final rite.
“Last chance,” I say. “It doesn’t have to end like–”
“FUCK YOU!” he screams. “Fuck you for not being devoured, for not giving in, for being strong enough to survive.”
His next swing, with his right hand, is erratic and instead of blocking him with my left, I shift inside and duck, letting the battle sickle in my right hand grab the axe allowing his own momentum to unbalance him. He staggers and I swing a round kick that sends him flying into the ropes that surround the edge of the ship. He doubles over and grunts. Then the tension from his weight on the ropes springs him back toward me. I crouch, the tip of my knife on the wooden deck, and then, with a cry, jump into the air. Throatslitter slashes up under his chin. Bright red blood spurts up to ignite in the harsh sunlight. He twists round and collapses back onto the rope.
I step forward and grab his matted hair, wrenching his head up to look at me. His nose is bloody and broken, and his eyes bulge.
“Fuck you,” he concedes, his voice a whisper, and I nod, accepting it as a sign of respect.
“Find peace,” I say as I crouch and link my left foot around both his legs. As I rise, I flick him over the side of the boat and watch his body hit the water and disappear.
The men cheer, but I have no enthusiasm for the victory. That man could one day be me. One day very soon.